Archive for August, 2010

Death and the Maiden, by Edward Doughtie

August 29, 2010

Chapter 20.

Branch lay in bed waiting for Esme. He wished he were a better liar. He hoped the little friend between his legs wouldn’t betray him, for at the moment he had no desire. He knew that could change when her warm bare body lay beside him, but his heart and mind were not in what lay ahead. He was at heart a romantic: even in lovemaking that was as purely physical as their affair had been, he felt that some kind of love was involved. What was it the churchmen said? Hate the sin but not the sinner.
But he was now convinced that Esme had committed a brutal premeditated murder and had sought to frame an innocent person she should have considered a friend. And if Esme considered him a threat, and she had the means to dispose of him, she would. This thought added an element of fear to the sea of feelings he swam in. He would have to act the innocent, like the male praying mantis waiting for the consummation—but hoping to avoid the Liebestod.
The door opened and Esme, in her red robe, slithered in, smiling with half-lidded eyes. “Brought you another surprise,” she said with a sly grin. She whirled around, dropping the robe to reveal a lingerie outfit that Branch had seen only in Hollywood catalogs. It was black, and pushed up and exaggerated her breasts and nipped her waist; her nipples and pubis were covered only in see-through lace. She spun around and lifted her arms while swaying her hips. Then she hopped onto the bed and put her foot triumphantly on Branch’s chest.
“Very nice,” Branch said. “But you don’t need that. I prefer your birthday suit.”
She pouted. “I just wanted to keep your—“ she paused—“interest up.”
“Everything is up that should be,” Branch said, feeling it true.
“Oh, all right,” she sighed, and began a slow striptease. When she had shed the outfit and lay beside him, she suggested movements that were more adventurous and active than her early passiveness. They prolonged this foreplay until their orgasms were explosive. There was no doubt that this time Esme had experienced a real climax.
They lay panting in each other’s arms. “Wow,” Branch said, and meant it. Would she bite his head off now? He almost wouldn’t care.
“God, I’m going to miss you,” she breathed. “Just when we’re finding our groove.”
“I can’t let you go for good,” Branch began lying. “Can’t we meet somehow after the Music Party is over?”
“Maybe. Do you ever get to New York?”
“I could arrange to. I don’t suppose you ever get to Houston?”
She smiled at him indulgently. “I don’t ever expect to get to anywhere in Texas.”
“I could find a conference to come to in New York. You could come to a concert or something. We could hole up in a hotel and live on love and room service.” He almost meant it.
“Sounds good.” She turned on her side, facing him, and caressed his thigh. “When?”
“Whenever the Houston criminals give me a break. Since I’m working so hard on this vacation, they should give me another.”
She squeezed his thigh. “When did the cleaners say my robe would be ready?”
“A few days. I’ll pick it up.”
She tugged gently on his pubic hair. “Do you believe that Daphne is innocent?”
“Until proved guilty. That is, unless I find good evidence for thinking otherwise. And I’m looking at all the evidence.”
“The blood on the endpin wasn’t enough?”
“Not if the cello was there for anybody to use.”
“So you believe Margo?”
“Don’t you? You said you just didn’t remember what Daphne did with it.”
She propped up on her elbow. “Even if Daphne left it, couldn’t she have come down later and used the endpin?”
Branch appeared to consider. “Sure. But what’s her motive?”
She shrugged. “Anger. Jealousy.”
“Jealous of who?”
“Do you think Margo is straight?”
“I think so.”
“How do you know?”
“Daphne told me, when she told me that she herself was gay.”
She raised an eyebrow as if to say, consider the source. Branch tried to look unsure. “They do spend a lot of time together.”
“Do you know anything about Margo’s finances? Maybe she was trying to get close to Harriet to dig some gold.”
“And Daphne didn’t like it,” Branch said. “But what about Sharon? She and Harriet had been together a good while.”
“Maybe Harriet was craving a little variety. I could understand that.” She gave his penis a flip, as if chucking it under its chin. It stirred. “Oh, look! It’s alive!” She took on a Peter Lorre accent. “Mahhster! It’s aliiive!”
“But will it stay alive?” Branch asked.
“I’ll give it mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.”

An exhausted Branch lay on the verge of sleep after Esme left. But his mind wouldn’t let him slip over the edge. She’s wicked good, he thought, using the Maine expression. She almost succeeded in raising doubts. He reviewed his evidence and found it convincing. He had seen nothing in the relationship of Harriet and Margo except strained tolerance on Margo’s part and indifference on Harriet’s. Maybe she suspects I know more than I let on, he thought. She’s trying to lead me by the penis, expecting my heart and mind to follow.
He drifted off. Someone was in the room. Someone was kneeling by his bed. Fear woke him to full alertness. He rolled over and threw himself on the intruder, pinning him—or her, as he quickly realized, tangling them both in the sheets on the floor.
“So you like it rough?” she said with a low laugh.
He reached up and switched on the light. It was Esme, her red robe askew, her naked body gleaming underneath.
“You startled me,” he said. “Looking for something?”
She squinted at him; she was holding a small penlight. “Yes, sorry. I thought I might have lost an earring earlier. I didn’t want to wake you.”
“Did you find it?” His heart thumped.
“Not yet. It may have fallen in my room. Go back to sleep. Unless you want some more.” She smiled, her eyes narrowing. “That little tussle turned me on.”
“The heart is willing but the flesh is weak,” he said, dropping back on the bed. “I’ll look for it in the morning.”
She pouted and sighed, but kissed him, turned off the light, and left. The adrenalin kept him awake. What else might she have been looking for? After a while he turned on the light and crawled around the bed, feeling the carpet. No earring. He looked around his locked suitcase. Except that it was no longer locked.
The plastic bags with the hair and fabric samples were there, as well as Esme’s sticky notes. Nothing seemed to be missing. He was glad he left Elsie’s picture with the sheriff. Maybe Esme was curious about just what he had. If she asked about the picture, he could say that it was being framed. Better to frame a picture than a person. He returned to bed and eventually slept.
In the morning, Branch showered, shaved, and dressed, putting his jacket on over his sweater. It was a few minutes before breakfast, long enough for a short walk. It was cool, the bay and the inlet were foggy—the tips of the masts of the little Sunfish were hidden–and the grass of the lawn was wet with dew. Daphne was out doing her tai chi.
“Good foggy morning to you,” he said.
“Hi Aldo.” She kept on with her slow, smooth movements. “Anybody come up with anything new last night?”
He thought for a moment about Esme’s sexual innovations. He didn’t tell her about Sheila’s memories, but told her about Myron and Asa, which made her smile. “Did anyone say anything to you?”
“Several old friends assured me of their support, but nobody had any new evidence.”
Branch tried for a moment to imitate Daphne’s movements. “This is harder than it looks,” he said.
“Uh huh. The Chinese say you have to learn it from your grandfather when you learn to walk.”
“Is Margo really straight?”
She looked at Branch in surprise. “I told you she was, didn’t I?” She made an exasperated sniff. “Do you think gay people can’t have straight friends? We’re not all about sex. Margo and I have been playing music together for a long time.” She gave Branch a shrewd look. “Getting tired of the glamorous Esme?”
“No, well—“ Branch trailed off.
“It’s a little late in the Party to change. Margo just had a guy dump her this spring, and was just coming out of it. She thought you might be nice. I guess you may be. I guess any guy might be susceptible to a sexpot like Esme. Too bad, because Margo is a class act.”
Branch had to agree. But he only said, “I wish Margo well. And you too. See you later.”
Esme wasn’t at breakfast. Branch sat with Myron, Asa, and Carl, seeking comfort among uncomplicated men, and swapped viola jokes. “My favorite,” Branch said, “is the one about the orchestra that’s on tour and the conductor gets sick. They’re so desperate that they ask if anybody in the orchestra could conduct. The last chair violist speaks up. He could conduct. So they give him a shot, and he’s pretty good. He conducts the concert and gets good reviews. He keeps conducting and starts getting standing ovations. But then the regular conductor recovers and the violist has to go back to the last stand. He sits down, and his stand partner looks at him and says, ‘Where the hell have you been the last three weeks?’” This gets a chuckle.
Branch feels a hand on his shoulder. It’s Margo, looking serious. “Hate to be a spoilsport, but could I talk to you?”
“Sure. Excuse me gentlemen.”

Death and the Maiden, by Edward Doughtie

August 22, 2010

Chapter 19.

The next morning Esme delivered her green robe to Branch, in a discreet opaque plastic shopping bag. She handed it over a bit reluctantly, Branch thought, but he was studiedly casual, and assured her it was no trouble. “I need to look at some stuff at the sheriff’s,” he said. “Probably nothing significant, but if it helps at all in fingering this outsider, it’ll be worth it. I also want to get all the local papers and check the crime reports.”
“Will you be back for the morning session?”
“Yes, but I’ll probably be late. We’re supposed to be a piano quartet this morning. Just play trios till I get back.”
Branch ate a quick breakfast, made a brief stop at his room, and set out for the village. The sheriff and his wife were still eating when Branch arrived. He accepted a cup of coffee and made small talk until they were finished.
“Isn’t this a late start for you, sheriff?”
He laughed. “Nope. I’ve been right out straight since six. Got a call about a log truck that lost its load. Been directing traffic till I could roust out one of my lazy deputies just a while back. Now here you come. What’cha got?”
Branch jerked his head toward the office. The sheriff nodded, and said, “’Scuse us, Betty. Let’s go in here.” His wife looked up and smiled as they left the kitchen.
“Ok,” Branch said, “let’s see that black light.”
“Got it right here.” The sheriff opened a drawer and pulled it out, and Branch extracted the green robe from the bag and spread it out. The light picked out three, then four spots on the front of the robe near the lower hem. The sheriff looked at Branch. “Blood?”
“I think so.” He grimaced. “There may be other stuff too.” He passed the light over the inside of the robe, higher up. Several larger spots glowed. “I was afraid of that.”
The sheriff looked puzzled. “What’s that?”
“I have to make an awkward confession. I think these spots up here are—me.”
The sheriff frowned and jerked his chin in.
“This robe belongs to a lady at the inn who has—I guess the plainer the better—has been spending some time in bed with me. But recently I’ve come to suspect her of being our killer.”
Bacon’s mouth dropped open. “Jeezum Crow!”
“Puts me in an awkward spot. I don’t have much that would hold up in court yet, but this may help. I told the lady—her name, by the way, is Esme Pilkington—I told her I’d take her robe to the cleaners. But you need to send it to the lab and test the blood for a match to Ms. Downey’s. I’m guessing that when she stabbed Ms. Downey a few drops of blood from the spatter got on this robe.”
Branch told the sheriff the other matters that led to his suspicion: the identity of her husband, his motive, the sound of the string that Sheila heard, the notes Branch found that Esme claimed.
“There’s one other item,” Branch said, and pulled Elsie’s drawing from the bag. The sheriff looked at it and frowned. “That’s a kid’s picture.”
“Yes. A bright kid who has a habit of waking up in the middle of the night and walking around the inn. You see the person with the long hair and green robe?”
“Ayuh. But you couldn’t make a positive ID from that picture. What’s that thing she’s carrying?” He pointed to a brown, lumpy object the green-robed figure seemed to be carrying.
“I think it’s Daphne’s cello. I think we have a witness who saw Esme in her green robe, which I think will have Harriet Downey’s blood on it, carrying the cello she would use to kill her with.”
Sheriff Bacon stared at the picture, shaking his head. “I’ll be damned. This looks a lot better than the case we got against Daphne. But it’ll be hard.” (He said “hahd.”)
“Yeah, I know. Some things can have an innocent explanation, like the one Esme gave me for the notes. And making a kid a key witness—I’d hate to put her in that position.”
“But damn it all, Branch, they hang together–you’ve convinced me. What other evidence could we get?”
“I don’t know.” He picked up Elsie’s picture. “I could get some hair and fabric samples that might show that Esme was in Harriet’s room. But she may have been in the room before the murder, and that could be explained innocently too.”
“Don’t suppose you could wear a wire, get her to confess.”
“Not likely. At least I don’t see a possibility right now.” Branch nodded toward the robe. “At least we have this. If the blood can be identified as Harriet’s, that might be enough for a grand jury to bring an indictment.”
“But maybe not enough to keep a smart New York lawyer from getting her off.”
“True.” Branch had an image of the beautiful Esme wilting piteously on the stand, and the men on the jury looking on sympathetically. He also had a growing awareness of Esme’s strength, intelligence, and ruthlessness. “Until we think of something, or until something else comes up, we should try not to spook her, make her think we suspect her. How about we pretend to be following up some outsider theory? Maybe Randy?”
“Maybe, if we can do it without upsetting Randy. Don’t want to push that boy unnecessarily.”
“One other thing,” Branch said. “Daphne is going to talk about being under suspicion to the guests at the inn. I’ll speak in support of her, and ask people to come forward with anything that might help. Maybe we’ll scare up something we haven’t even thought of.”
“I’ll tell the lab to work as fast as they can.”
“Oh. Please keep the kid’s picture in a safe place.”

That night as dinner came to an end, Gerald stood to make announcements. He made a few routine comments about the schedule, then said, “Daphne and Aldo have something they’d like to discuss with the group.” Daphne glanced nervously at Branch, and then walked to the front of the room. Branch followed.
“Some of you may have heard that I am a suspect in Harriet’s murder,” Daphne began. Her voice trembled, but grew stronger as she went on. “First, I didn’t do it. I know that you all know that I didn’t like Harriet, and I said some angry things about her before she was killed. Even worse, whoever did it used the endpin of my cello to stab her.” This brought a few gasps from the audience. “Yes, they tested the blood, and it was my endpin. But as Margo will tell you, I left my cello in the music room that night. Anybody could have taken the endpin, or the whole cello even. But Aldo and the sheriff have not been able to find out who that person may have been, so I’m in trouble until they do.” She held out her hand and looked around at the faces in the room. “A lot of you know me from many years here at the Music Party. And I think you know deep down that I couldn’t hurt anybody. I might talk rough or chew somebody out when I get angry, but I’ve never hit anyone, much less killed anyone. My friends and colleagues in Boston would agree, if you want to check them out.
“The reason I’m telling you all this, is I don’t want the rumors to make things worse than they are. And I also need your help. Please rack your brains and tell me or Aldo about anything that might clear me and point toward the real killer. I guess that’s all I have to say.”
Branch took his cue and spoke to the group. “I’ve been a homicide detective in Houston, Texas, for a number of years now. I believe in evidence. I wouldn’t want anybody convicted of a crime without really good evidence. But I also have learned a lot about people from experience. My experience and instinct tells me that Daphne didn’t kill Harriet. There’s also negative evidence: she had no motive. I was present and heard her angry words about Harriet. I didn’t take them seriously. This was a deliberate crime, not a crime of passion. But to a grand jury of strangers, Daphne’s innocence might not be immediately apparent. That’s why we need evidence in Daphne’s favor, evidence that points to whoever really killed Harriet. So please, anything that occurred that night that was odd, anything you may have dismissed earlier, we’d like to hear about it. It might give us a thread to pull on and let us unravel this mess.” Branch looked around. “Any questions for either of us?” No one spoke. “If not, I’ll hang around for while in case any of you want to ask me something or tell me something. Thank you.”
Daphne touched Branch’s arm and murmured, “Thank you.”
Branch sat down in one of the bay windows and waited. Sheila came and sat across from him. “I know I’ve told my story more times than I care to count,” she said. “But I thought of one detail I might have overlooked.”
Branch leaned forward. “Just what we want. Tell me.”
“When I said I heard voices, and didn’t think it unusual, it may have been because I had previously heard women’s voices. I think I heard only women’s voices that night. Can a man sound like a woman if he whispers?”
Branch was puzzled. “I guess so, depending on the man. How about this?” Branch whispered.
She frowned. “I think I would peg you as a man.”
“Could Harriet have been doing all the talking?” Branch was pleased by this testimony, but at the moment he had to keep open the possibility that a man could have been the killer.
“I think I heard two distinct voices. But I suppose it’s possible.”
“Keep thinking about what you heard. Did you hear any words at all?”
“Nothing I could put together to make sense.”
“How about individual words?”
Sheila considered. “I’m sure I heard ‘what,’ and ‘no.’ I thought I heard something about Montana.”
“Montana? The state?”
“That’s what it sounded like.”
“Oh. Maybe it was ‘Montagnana.’ Harriet had a Montagnana viola.”
Sheila nodded. “Maybe that’s what it was.”
A pause. “Anything else?” Branch asked.
“Not now.”
“Well, thanks for coming back. Let me know if anything else occurs to you.”
Sheila left, but Asa and Myron approached. Asa held out his hands as if waiting to be handcuffed, eyes closed as if resigned to prison. Myron said, “I heard this dirty old man threaten Harriet.”
“That’s right,” Asa said. “I confess. I told her if she was late coming in again, I’d strangle her.”
Branch couldn’t help smiling, but said, “This is a serious matter, gentlemen.”
“We know,” Myron said. “That’s our point. Just about everybody who ever played with Harriet had murderous thoughts. We’ll all testify to that. That should put Daphne’s words in context.”
“Good idea. That might help. But it would really help if you saw somebody lift Daphne’s endpin.”
Branch waited another ten minutes. Nobody else came.

Death and the Maiden, by Edward Doughtie

August 15, 2010

Chapter 18.

When Branch woke Tuesday morning, Esme had gone. It was nearly lunchtime. He had fallen asleep immediately after making love to Esme, and slept hard. He was still sleepy, but he dragged himself to the shower, shaved, and dressed. He could tell it was cooler, even in the middle of the day, as September advanced, so he put on a long-sleeved shirt and sweater. Out of his window he saw gray mist hovering over the bay.
In the deserted lobby, he found coffee, and took it to one of the bay windows. The lunch crowd would be gathering in ten or fifteen minutes. He had to get his story straight. He couldn’t find out the name of Harriet’s heir. He had some ideas about a possible outside connection. He couldn’t talk about it, but he was assured that Daphne was innocent. He would have to resist questions from everyone, especially Esme.
He couldn’t resist Esme last night, despite his fatigue. But he didn’t have to lie much then. He would have to lie a lot now, and for a good while. And he would also have to find evidence. Maybe he could get fingerprints or hair samples that would match. But those could have innocent sources—Esme had probably handled Daphne’s cello or entered Harriet’s room before the murder. Could he get her to confess while he was wearing a wire? Probably not, especially if he was naked.
Esme found him in the bay window, and smiling, openly kissed him. “Get your nap out?”
“I guess. It was a long day and a long drive.” He stifled a yawn.
“Did you solve the mystery?”
“Not yet. I rattled a lot of cages, but it was pretty much a wild goose chase. I never found out the name of Harriet’s heir. I have a very sketchy lead on a possible outsider with a motive, but it’s too vague to discuss. How are things around here? Did I miss anything?”
Esme sat in a chair next to Branch’s and leaned toward him. “We had some good music, but we missed you. Poor Daphne has been on edge, as you might imagine. She had a long phone conversation with her partner in Boston, and I think that upset her.”
“Sorry. I still don’t think she did it, but unless I can connect the heir or this outsider to the murder, she may go to trial.”
“That would be awful.”
“How are things with you?” He reached out and touched her hand. “Are you still worried about your husband?”
“Things are much better. Howard tends to exaggerate when he does tell me anything. I like it better when he leaves me in blissful ignorance.”
Branch paused and looked away out the window, then back at Esme. If I’m going to do a lot of lying, I’d better get in practice, he thought. Maybe I can act innocent and get an interesting answer.
“What would you do if, God forbid, your husband did get in money trouble and had to—to retrench? You know, sell the house, live more frugally?”
Esme looked at him coolly. “It’s not going to happen,” she said flatly.
“Could you go back to work? Maybe nursing, or teaching piano?”
“No,” she said more emphatically, “never. I’d die.”
Branch smiled. “Now who’s exaggerating? People often find they can do what they have to do.”
She shook her head. “I don’t have the patience to be a teacher. Suppose I had to teach people like Harriet? No.” She paused and looked down. “But you’re right. People do what they have to do.” She spoke with resignation. Then she looked up brightly. “We played the Archduke trio last night. It went very well, despite Daphne’s mood.”
Branch followed the obvious change in subject. “Piano trios. I guess I should get a violin and work on it. There’s a whole literature I haven’t played. But I’d be scared of all those high notes.’
“Oh you could learn.”
“Looks like lunch is ready. I need something besides coffee.”
They got in the lunch line, and Branch fielded questions about the case, careful to be vague and non-committal, but supportive of Daphne. They sat at a table with Daphne and Margo, who clearly expected more information. They pressed him hard.
“You went all that way and didn’t find out anything?” Margo asked, boring in with her penetrating gaze.
“I found out some negative things, such as who was not Harriet’s heir.”
“But wouldn’t that point toward who is?”
“That’s what I thought. But there are relatives I don’t know how to contact. The relatives I did talk to don’t know how to get them either. But I’m working on it.”
Daphne, looking miserable, said, “I appreciate your effort, Aldo, but I sure could use some positive results. I might be in trouble with my job if I have to hang around here after the Music Party is over.”
Just as Branch was about to improvise a speech of apology and reassurance, little Elsie came up to the table with a bundle of paper.
“Hi. Here are all my pictures.”
“Oh, good. I want to see them. Wow, there are a lot of them.”
“I draw real fast,” Elsie said with a smug smile.
“Just look at these,” Branch said, passing the colorful drawings around the table. Esme and Daphne were impatient but not impolite, glancing at the pictures and passing them on.
Margo was warm in her praise. “These are beautiful, Elsie. Such nice colors!”
Branch was suddenly arrested by one picture. He clasped it to his chest. “Elsie, I really love this one. Would you sell it to me?”
Elsie looked at him sharply. “How much?”
“How about a dollar?”
“Ok. I can draw lots more. Do you want to buy any more?”
“Maybe. I’ll always like to see your pictures.” He took out his wallet and gave Elsie a dollar.
Margo said, “Let’s see it, Aldo.”
“Not now. I want to get it framed just right. Then I’ll have an unveiling. Be right back.” He rose, clutching the picture, and strode off to his room. He locked it in his suitcase with the bags of hair and fabric. Returning to the table, he and Margo talked about how talented Elsie was for a five-year-old. Esme and Daphne found another subject.
After lunch, Branch pulled Daphne aside. “Just a word. I’m wondering if now might not be a good time to go public with your accusation, and enlist the Music Party people in the investigation, as Margo suggested.”
Daphne considered a moment. “Well, I expect the rumor has gotten around pretty far by now. I’ve gotten some fishy looks from some of the folks. Maybe if we laid it out on the table, somebody might have seen something that would help.”
“That’s my thought. I think it’s time for new measures. Especially since it was confirmed that the blood on your endpin was Harriet’s.”
“Shit. I was hoping it was from the time I cut my toe.”
“I wish. But the sheriff gave me the DNA results Monday. I think someone wanted to frame you.”
“So how should we do this? I stand up at dinner and make an announcement?”
“Well, yes. I’d introduce you and give it some context and follow up with an appeal for people to come forward with anything that might help.”
“Ok. Hope it works.” She stopped and looked Branch in the eye. “Are you really on my side, Aldo?”
“I really am. You’ll have to trust me.”
“Ok. I think I do.”
They split up for the afternoon music session. Gerald saw Branch and asked, “You going to be with us now? Any more trips?”
“I hope I’m through traveling for a while.”
“Any progress?”
“Not much worth reporting. Listen, I know that a rumor has been going around that Daphne is a suspect. We’d like to address that at dinner tonight.”
“Good. I’ll include you in the announcements.” He glanced at his schedule. “I’ve got you in a quartet with Myron, Eric, and Sheila, in the boathouse. Ok?”
“Fine.”
Branch got his viola and locked his room door, something he had neglected to do recently. In the boathouse he found the others discussing what to play.
Myron, his hair even wilder this morning, said, “I brought the Debussy, the Smetana, the late Beethovens, and the Bartok first.”
“You’re determined to make us work hard this afternoon,” Sheila said. “What’s wrong with Haydn?”
“Nothing. I was just in the mood for one of these.”
“Have you played all the Haydn?” Sheila asked.
“Actually, yes. My quartet at home played a different one every Sunday afternoon, starting with opus one. It took us nearly two years to get through them all.”
Branch made a face. “Opus one is pretty boring. The viola doubles the cello too much of the time.”
“It took him a while to find his groove,” Eric said.
“But almost every one has at least one interesting movement,” Sheila insisted.
“True,” Branch conceded. “So let’s start with a Haydn. Then we can do one of Myron’s bow-busters.”
They played Haydn’s opus 33, number 2, which had a nice viola part in the slow movement and a joke at the end of the finale. After the cheerful movement seems to end, it ends again. “This never fails to make me smile,” Myron said.
They played the Smetana next. Branch loved parts of this quartet, and struggled with other parts. It began with a passionate cry from the viola. Smetana had called the work “From My Life,” and this cry was understood to be his mother crying out at his birth. The finale has a high piercing note in the violin that represented the onset of tinnitus that led to Smetana’s deafness. Branch was tired when they finished.
As Branch was stretching his legs in his pre-dinner walk, Esme caught up with him. “You locked your door,” she said. “I wanted to leave you a little surprise.”
“Sorry. I had got out of the habit up here in law and order land. But I’m going back to risky urban life in Houston soon, and thought I’d better get back in the habit.” Branch wondered if Esme had any other reason for going into his room. Could she be curious about Elsie’s picture?
“It’s not so safe up here if one of us can be murdered. I lock up all the time now.” She grasped his arm. “Hope you won’t be too sleepy tonight. I’m just letting myself realize how little time we have left.”
“Right. Carpe diem.”
“What?”
“Seize the day. Or night in our case. Lente currite noctis equi. Or something like that.”
“More Latin? What’s that?”
“’Run slowly, you horses of the night.’ It’s what a lover says when he wants the night to last longer.”
“Showoff.” She squeezed his arm and kissed his cheek.
“You’re in a good mood. What’s this surprise you wanted to leave in my room?”
“I’ll have to bring it tonight.”
That night, Esme found Branch’s door unlocked and slipped in. “I have two surprises, “ she said. “I’m wearing my other robe.” She twirled around, opening her dark red robe as she did so, revealing her naked body, a sight that always stirred Branch.
“Beautiful. What’s the other surprise?”
“Glow-in-the-dark peppermint-flavored condom. Shall we try it?” They did, to Branch’s satisfaction on one level and guilt on another.
Afterward, Branch asked Esme, “Where’s your green robe? I like that one.”
“I’ve got to take it to the cleaners. You dribbled on it, you pig.” She punched him playfully.
As casually as he could, given the idea blooming in his brain, he said, “Since I’m responsible, I’ll take it to the cleaner’s. I’ve got to run into the village anyway.”
“I can let the inn take care of it. No need for you to bother.”
“No bother at all.” Except that he would not take it to the cleaner’s, but to the sheriff’s office and his black light.

Death and the Maiden, by Edward Doughtie

August 8, 2010

Chapter 17.

Branch’s mind raced. There was the connection. If Howard Bracken-Pilkington were having money problems, there would be the motive. And what did Esme know? Should he go on to Danbury and see what he could find out in Howard’s home town? Confront Howard? No. Best not to alert him, make him careful or get a lawyer. Talk to Chat, find out more about his business. Go back to Puffin Bay and talk to Esme. But carefully. Talk to Danbury police about hit men.
He started the car and headed toward I-95 and the north. If Howard were guilty, Esme would be in a pickle. What would there be for her high maintenance? If the crime voided the will, who would then inherit after Howard? If Howard was so desperate for money that he killed Harriet, the implication is that there would be little if any left for Esme. What should his own attitude toward Esme be? Despite her affairs, she might feel obliged to pass on to Howard anything Branch told her. Difficult as it might seem, he would have to act as if Esme had no connection to the crime. He would have to be intimate and secret at the same time. He hoped he could pull it off.
He made it around Providence before hunger and fatigue made him stop. He had a sandwich and two mugs of coffee at a Friendly’s; either the caffeine or his bladder should keep him awake. He’d be glad to get back to the food at the inn. While he was stopped, he called Chat. It was an hour earlier in Houston; maybe he could get Chat before he went off duty.
“Jackson.”
“Chat, it’s Aldo. Got a break. The heir to my victim is the husband of one of the music people. It’s the businessman, Howard Pilkington, also known as George Howard Bracken.”
“An alias, eh? Gets thicker all the time.”
“You find out any more about him?”
“Oh, yeah. I should have an MBA by the time this is over. Just learning the jargon to try to understand what this dude has been up to has been a job of work.”
“Tell me some.”
“More of what I already told you. He’s made a lot of money, but he’s also lost a lot. Up and down like a yoyo. He ought to get help from Gamblers Anonymous. He speculates in foreign currency, invests in hedge funds, does short sales with stocks. Keeps being accused of insider trading. Has to pay a fine now and then for breaking some rule, but nothing serious enough to get him disbarred, or whatever, from what he does. No indictments or convictions.”
“How about recently?”
“The word is that he’s dumped a lot of stock, and shown other signs of being in trouble. Maybe borrowed from a shark and doesn’t want his legs broken.”
“Aha. Any evidence that the sharks are after him? If he’s into them big, maybe he used their connections to hit poor Harriet.”
“Nothing so far. I’ll work on that angle.”
“But it’s pretty clear that he needs money?”
“Oh yeah,” Chat said. “Lots of signs here and there.”
“Ok, I’m headed back to Puffin Bay. Keep in touch.”
Branch made a last pit stop and got back on the road. He’d be in too late for Esme’s visit, but that was just as well. He’d have to work on his attitude. He could be deceptive for a while, say, when questioning a suspect, playing the good or bad cop, but it was not natural to him. He didn’t look forward to an extended bout of deception, or at least reticence, with Esme.
He kept himself awake on the road by searching for good music on the radio and by rehearsing how he would manage the rest of the week. Tomorrow was Tuesday; the Music Party would end Saturday, and the group would disperse. Esme would return to her husband, and Branch would return to Houston and his job, a prospect that at the moment seemed like another, more real vacation. It would be almost a relief to deal with garden-variety barroom homicides. In the meantime, he would have to remain the ardent lover while seeking evidence to jail his lover’s husband. By rights, he should recuse himself—there was too much apparent conflict of interest.
But what then? If Howard was guilty and Branch could find the evidence to convict him, what should he do about Esme? Leaving her to fend for herself seemed callous, but dragging her down to Houston to his little house was—improbable. She would probably, at some level, resent Branch for destroying the source of her comfortable life. Moreover, Branch came to realize more and more, that he didn’t want her in his Houston life. Even under the best circumstances, with good sex and good music, she would still be the same self-centered and materialistic Esme. While he was devising a trap to catch a killer, Branch realized that he might be falling into one himself.
Branch found some Bach fugues on the radio. There was complexity, but it was ordered; it made sense. He returned to the facts of the case. Could they be separated into interweaving strands that could be brought to a logical conclusion? He had trouble seeing Howard, whom he imagined as a personally fastidious financial type, with Italian suits and wing-tip shoes, sneaking into the inn at night, finding a cello, removing the endpin, showing up at Harriet’s door, and stabbing her. Wait. What about that sound of a string that Sheila reported? Maybe he didn’t remove the endpin, but kept it in the cello. The weight of the cello would have increased the force of the blow. Again it would have seemed improbable for Howard to risk being seen hauling a cello around the halls in the middle of the night.
Suppose Howard was in debt to gangland loan sharks, and they agreed to help him to his inheritance by taking out Harriet. Why would a Mafioso hit man use a cello instead of a pistol with a silencer? Why would anybody?
The result of using the cello endpin was to throw suspicion on the owner of the cello, Daphne. Could that have been Howard’s plan? Possibly. A hit man’s? Doubtful. Maybe Bacon is right: maybe Daphne is guilty and we have just not discovered her motive. But Branch’s instincts rebelled at that conclusion.
He realized, at that moment, that he had also been resisting another possibility, but one that might make the tangled fugue of facts resolve to a cadence. Maybe the killer was Esme herself.
Esme’s material fortunes were bound up with Howard’s. And however unfaithful she was to Howard in some ways, perhaps she was true to him in her fashion. She would have known the cello had been left unsecured. She could have more plausibly made Harriet open her door than some man, even a cousin. And however languid she seemed, Esme had strength to pound out fortissimos on a grand piano, strength that would be enhanced by the weight and inertia of a cello. Other details seemed to fall into place. Esme had had some nurse’s training, so she might have a better idea than some about where to stab for the heart. It was Esme who wrote the notes Branch discovered. Perhaps they referred to pleas that Harriet loan Howard the money he needed, pleas that Harriet must have refused. Maybe Esme set Daphne up by bringing Daphne and Harriet together in an ensemble, knowing that Harriet would try Daphne’s patience. Branch remembered Esme talking to Gerald before the session that ended in Daphne’s intemperate words. Branch recalled that Esme made several references to Harriet’s and Daphne’s sexual orientation, keeping alive that possible, if vague, motive.
However much Branch resisted, the facts fit too well. As this idea sunk in, Branch realized that his original problem, dealing with Esme when Howard was a suspect, was now compounded. He had no real evidence that he could present in court that would convict either Howard or Esme. Could he continue to gather evidence against Esme while making love to her?
It was very late when Branch, drunk with fatigue, staggered into the inn. He had to go through the lobby, and when he passed one of the bay windows, he saw that a lamp was on, and Elsie, in her nightgown, was sitting at the table with her paper and crayons, drawing. “Elsie,” he said, “what are you doing up this time of night?”
She looked up with alert blue eyes and said matter-of-factly, “Drawing.”
“Couldn’t you sleep?”
“Sleeping is boring. I’d rather draw.”
“Why don’t you go back to bed now. Tomorrow at lunch you can show me all your drawings.”
“All right.”
“I’m very sleepy now, so I’m going to bed.”
“’Night.”
Branch found his room and entered. He saw Esme asleep in his bed. She sat up when she heard him come in. She was naked.
“Sorry I’m so late,” he said.
“Better late than never.” She lay back down, uncovered, her sleepy smile, her catlike stretches sending out a primitive message. Branch stripped and was soon enveloped in her warmth.

Death and the Maiden, by Edward Doughtie

August 1, 2010

Chapter 16.

William John Bracken was not at home. Branch had driven to his house and was told by his wife that he was at work. Mrs. Bracken was around fifty, and was still in her robe at three-fifteen in the afternoon. She had puffy eyes and uncombed gray hair; one hand held a cigarette. She didn’t have the breath of a Scotch or bourbon drinker; Branch guessed vodka. She did not volunteer information, but answered direct questions. Her husband was a lawyer; he had an office downtown; she gave the address, and closed the door before Branch could thank her. Probably William John would rather be at his office.
This office was in a smaller, less elegant building than that of Lockhart and Leonard. The directory listed only William J. Bracken, Attorney. Branch found the number and knocked on the frosted glass door. Bracken answered. He was in his fifties, grayer than Branch and heavier around the middle, but they both had moustaches and hair of similar length, so he could see how old Amy could have confused them. Bracken stood in the door and listened to Branch’s story without much expression. Finally he said, “You’d better come in.”
Bracken, in white shirt and tie, but with his jacket draped over his chair back, sat and motioned to the client’s chair across from his desk. The desk was a mess of papers and files, with a thick law book lying open face down on one pile.
‘You want to know who inherits Harriet’s estate,” he said. “Well, it’s not me. Wish it were.”
“Your cousin Amy thinks it’s not a Downey.”
He laughed, or rather snorted. “Poor old Amy. I must be the only one who ever visits her. You know she’s out of it.”
“I know she has Alzheimer’s. She thought I was you—she called me Billy.”
He snorted again.
“I know her memory is not reliable,” Branch said. “But sometimes older memories that are significant will turn out in these patients to be true.”
“That may be. But I can’t confirm it.”
“How do you know you’re not the heir?”
“Mason Lockhart told me, the gloomy old bastard.”
Branch saw a glimmer of hope. “Do you think he told the individuals who were not the heir?”
“He told me. I don’t know how many of the others he told.”
“Maybe if he told all those who were not, I could find out who was by elimination.”
“Maybe. But some might be hard to reach. I have no idea where my cousin Ellen is. And I’m not sure about Mary Rose.”
“Not a close-knit family.”
Another snort. “Some too close.”
“Who’s too close?”
Bracken sighed. “Tommy.”
“Thomas Edward?”
“Yeah.” He rubbed his forehead, swiveled around and looked out the side window at the building next door. “You’re discreet, I hope. What the hell. With any luck I won’t run into you again. You met my wife?”
“She gave me your office address.”
“Was she still in her robe?”
“Uh, yes.”
“Well, you get the picture. My cousin Tommy is my wife’s drinking buddy. Used to be more, but I expect with all the booze, he can’t get it up any more.”
“Sorry.”
“Yeah, me too. Tommy was more like a brother to me than a cousin. I should have fled that scene long ago. But I didn’t. I felt I ought to try to keep them alive.” He faced Branch and shrugged. “What ya gonna do?”
They were silent a moment. “I have to ask,” Branch said. “Do you think Tommy is the heir?”
“No. He told me Lockhart told him. So you can check him off.”
“Do you have any guess who it might be? Or could you guess what other cousin might know?”
“I don’t know who might know. If I had to guess, I’d say Howard.”
Branch was instantly alert. Howard was Esme’s husband. No, his last name was Pilkington. “You mean George Howard?”
“Yeah. You know how it is. The ones who don’t need get.”
“So you don’t think he had motive to see Harriet dead.”
“Not from what I hear. I hear he’s rolling.”
“Tell me about him.”
“I haven’t laid eyes on him since we were about twelve. Now and then I see his name in the Times for some business deal or other. So he must be doing well.”
“Why do you guess he’s the heir?”
He rubbed his chin. “I recall around the time of the lawsuit against poor old Harriet, that Howard’s father was making deals with the other relatives. My father got a house—the one I live in now, in fact. That’s why I remember it. Now I assume my uncle was buying out other possible heirs in favor of Howard.”
“Sounds plausible. If I wanted to talk to any of the other cousins, who would you recommend?”
“I’d try Mary Margaret. Mrs. Spielmann, in Weekapaug. She may not have positive information, but she’s smart, and would have interesting thoughts about it all.”
“I’ve already talked to her. But I may again.”
“Good. About the others—Jane and Fran—I just don’t know. They live a long way away. We send Christmas cards, but that’s about all the contact I’ve had with them for years.”
Branch rose. “Thank you for your time. I think what you’ve told me might turn out to be very helpful.”
“I hope so. Harriet was a pill, but nobody should get away with killing her.”
Branch returned to his car. Four-thirty. It would be a long slog back to Puffin Bay. At least the rain had stopped. He looked at the faxes. George Howard Bracken lived in Danbury, Connecticut. Esme’s home town. If only his name were Pilkington, we’d have a connection. Esme’s Howard might be in money trouble—one of his financial flyers may have crashed. He could have come up to the inn, found an unguarded cello, stabbed Harriet with the endpin, and sat back waiting for the money to arrive.
Branch’s phone chimed. It was Mary Margaret Spielmann.
“I’ve thought about your problem, made a few calls, and checked some things. I’m pretty sure that my guess was right, so I don’t mind telling you now that my candidate for the heir is my cousin Howard.”
“George Howard Bracken.”
“Right.”
“He lives in Danbury, Connecticut.”
“That’s him. Now he may be innocent, right?”
“True. We’d have to place him at the scene, or link him to another person who did the deed, a hit man, say.”
“I doubt if Howard would dirty his hands with such a job.”
“This is a big help. And your guess is confirmed by your cousin William.”
“Good. Poor William. Did you meet his wife?”
“Yes.”
“Well.” They paused.
Branch spoke. “Thanks again. Please call if you think of anything else.”
“Oh. One more thing. You might have been confused by something. Howard’s parents divorced when he was young, and his mother remarried. The family always thinks of Howard as a Bracken. But when he was a teenager, he started using his stepfather’s name.”
“And what was that?”
“Pilkington. So you may hear of him as Howard Pilkington.”