Death and the Maiden, by Edward Doughtie

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.

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