Death and the Maiden, by Edward Doughtie

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.”

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