Death and the Maiden, by Edward Doughtie

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.

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