Death and the Maiden, by Edward Doughtie

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.

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