The next morning, Branch called the sheriff and told him of part—only part–of his conversation with Esme.
“So she’s going to call you and tell you where she is?”
“Sounds like it. Do you have a wire I could wear in case I meet with her and get her to talk?”
“I’ll send a deputy over to Rockland right now to get one.”
“If she wants me to drive somewhere, can you follow me without being noticed?”
“I think so. I can take my truck and wear plain clothes.”
“Ok. I’m going to get some breakfast, pack, and play some music. Call me when you get the wire.”
The master class began with Myron and Asa’s quartet playing the first movement of the first Brahms. Branch’s trio was next. They played the first movement of the C minor string trio of Beethoven. Branch tried to keep his focus, but missed an entrance. Margo gave him a surprised glance. But they got through, and got generally good comments. After they finished, and while the next group set up and tuned, Branch impatiently called the sheriff.
“Any news on that wire?”
“He’s just coming in. Hang on. Ben! You got it? Eh? Good.” Then to Branch: “Yep, it’s here. Come on down.”
Branch hurriedly packed up his viola and drove to the sheriff’s office. Ben, the deputy, and Sheriff Bacon helped Branch put on the wire. He shed his jacket and shirt. They taped the tiny microphone to his wrist, to be hidden by his sleeve; a wire ran from the microphone to a small, flat digital recorder taped to the small of his back. “All this tape is going to smart when I have to pull it off,” Branch said, trying to lighten the mood.
“Price of justice,” Bacon said. “Do you want it voice activated?”
“How much recording time does this have?”
“Two hours, I think.”
“Is there a manual switch?”
“Yeah. By the mike. See?”
“Ok. I’d better use the manual.” Branch could see that he could switch the recording on with an unobtrusive squeeze, as if scratching his wrist. He put his shirt and jacket back on and straightened up. “I have no idea what’s going to happen,” he said to the sheriff. “If she calls and insists on staying on the phone, I won’t be able to call you. So if I need you to follow me, I’ll drive by here and flash my lights.”
“Ok. I’ll be ready.”
“Guess I’ll go back to the inn and check out and wait for the call.”
Branch drove to the inn and packed, squirming at the alien presence of the wire. He hoped he’d get used to it. After loading his car he returned to the lobby. Sharon and Sheila’s quartet was just finishing a Haydn movement for the master class. He listened and applauded. Then he found Jill and checked out. “I may be back before I go back to Houston,” he said. “When do you close for the season?”
“First of the month. But we’ll be here cleaning up. We’ll be glad to have you any time we’re here.”
“Thanks. Sorry we couldn’t settle all this business sooner.”
“It would have been worse if you hadn’t been here. Daphne might be in jail now.”
Branch checked for the hundredth time to be sure his phone was on, then returned to the lobby, where some were already making their goodbyes. He stayed on for lunch, and sat with Margo and Daphne.
“We hate to leave with everything hanging,” Margo said. “I don’t like suspense.”
“I’d like to see you catch Esme,” Daphne said. “But the suspense for me is over, thank goodness.” Daphne looked sharply at Branch. “Don’t take this wrong, Aldo, but you won’t get soft and let her get away, will you?”
Margo said, “You have our phone numbers and email addresses. Please let us know how things turn out. And that you’re all right.”
Lunch was over. People stood, hugged, shook hands, and trickled out. Myron, Asa, Sharon, Sheila, and others stopped by their table and made their farewells. Daphne looked at her watch. “Well, I’d better go load the car.” She stood, then grabbed Branch’s hand and pulled him up. “Gimme a hug, you big flatfoot.” She gave him a muscular squeeze. “Thanks again for getting me off the hook.”
“You’re welcome.” Daphne left, leaving Margo and Branch alone in the dining room.
Branch covered Margo’s hand with his. “I wish a lot of things about these weeks had been different.”
“Me too.” She smiled and held Branch’s hand. “I can’t blame you for Esme. She is a—a force of nature, damn her. And you’re only a guy.”
“Whose brain isn’t always where it should be.”
They continued to hold hands and look at each other silently for a while. Branch asked, “Do you ever get to Houston?”
“I haven’t so far. Do you ever get to Boston?”
“I hope to again. Are you coming to the Music Party next year?”
“I’ve been coming for years. How about you?”
“I’m going to try if the Houston criminals will let me.”
“Maybe next year’s Music Party will be crime free.” She released his hand and stood. “Guess I’d better go.”
Branch stood and embraced her. She felt good—she was small, but a good fit. He didn’t want to let her go. She turned her face up and gave him a quick kiss on the lips, pulled away and ran out. Branch watched her go. We haven’t even had an affair, Branch thought, and yet there’s that old taste of loss. Women and pain—they seem to go together. But as the old poets wrote, it’s a sweet pain, and he was addicted. He’d have to find some criminology conference in Boston. And insist on coming to the Music Party next year.
Branch wandered out on the porch of the inn. It was still cool now in the middle of the day, and his jacket felt good. Clouds had moved in, so the bay was more gray than blue, and the sky was leaden. Rain was predicted for later. No lobster boats were at work, and the little Sunfish had been dismasted and stored in the boathouse. He should have taken one out earlier. He checked his phone again. It was on and charged. His Glock nine was back in Houston. Should he borrow one from the sheriff? No. That may be a foolish decision, he thought, but he’d take his chances.
Although he had been expecting it, when his phone chimed, he jumped.
“Hi Aldo,” the velvety voice said. “Want to come see me?”
“Yes, yes. Where are you?”
“That’s a surprise. Just get in your car and go north on highway one.”
North? So the drive to Portland was a feint. Unless she’s going to lead him on a wild goose chase. But he couldn’t take a chance. “Ok, I’m going to the car.”
“Good. Keep your phone on, and I’ll entertain you while you drive. You remember that peppermint condom? It was yummy. Did it make you tingle?”
Esme kept up the erotic talk as Branch drove by the sheriff’s office and blinked his lights. He waited until the sheriff came out, waved, and started his truck. They went up the local road until it connected with US 1. Esme went on, mixing detailed remembrances of their encounters with vivid descriptions of what they might do when they met.
“Esme,” he said, “Give me a break. You’ll make me have a wreck.”
She laughed. “Is your thing blocking your steering wheel?”
“Good. Stay on one, and let me know when you get to Bucksport. Now how would you like it if I …” and she was off on another erotic fantasy.
Branch had to admire her memory and inventiveness. There was some repetition in her monologue, but it was still amazing. He considered that he might be in for a long, tense drive, and was reminded of the drive from Dallas to Houston in company with Boomer, the Gulf War syndrome-crazed thug who was holding a gun on him. He missed having some music for the drive, but he had to admit that driving with a beautiful woman talking dirty was better than an enormous, irritable, smelly murderer.
Route one was slow, threading through one coastal town and community after another. Sometimes there would be a spectacular ocean view, and sometimes just a run of tourist traps. He passed through Camden, home of the coaches’ quartet, but bypassed Belfast.
Esme paused for breath, and Branch broke in. “Can I turn you off for a while? I don’t have a headset, and my arm is getting tired.”
“No. If you disconnect, I won’t call back and you’ll never see me again.”
“What if I drive out of a service area and you break up?”
“I can tell when that happens. I might call you back if I lose you that way. Now where was I? Oh, don’t you like it when I’m nice and wet and you slide in slooooly . . .”
Branch said, “Here we are at Bucksport.” A large bridge over the Penobscot loomed ahead.
“Ok, cross the bridge and stay on one. Let me know before you get to Ellsworth. I’ve got a box of very strong Altoids. When you get here I’ll suck on those before I suck on you. That’ll tingle . . .”
“You’re breaking up.”
“Yeah, I hear it. I’ll call back.”
Branch wondered if he should chance a call to the sheriff, but Esme called back almost immediately, and the connection was clear. “Back to those Altoids. You could try them too. Ooo, that would be different …”
Branch checked the mirror from time to time to see if the sheriff’s truck was still there. When he looked back this time, he saw the sheriff signaling for him to pull into an approaching gas station. He signaled assent, and interrupted Esme. “I’ve got to get gas and pee, and I’ve also got to hook my phone to the charger.”
“Ok, but don’t hang up! Take the phone with you. You can plug in the charger when you’re done. I’ve always been curious about the mens’ room. Can you pee with a hard on?”
“I’ve got to. Here we are.”
Branch got out and held his finger on his lips when the sheriff approached. He pointed to the phone. “Ok, I’m going to start the gas pump now.” He plugged in his credit card and started the pump. The sheriff made questioning shrugs. Branch made writing motions, and beckoned the sheriff to follow him into the men’s room. “I’m going to put the phone down while I unzip,” he told Esme. “I’m managing to pee, you might be interested to know.” The sheriff handed him a notebook and pencil. He wrote, “She won’t let me hang up, and she won’t tell me where she is. I just follow directions.” The sheriff nodded, relieved himself, and went back to his truck. Branch returned to his car. “I’m going to put this down while I plug in the charger.” He found the adapter and fitted it into the lighter outlet. “Now I’m back. What do I do when I get to Ellsworth?”
“Are you there yet?”
“It’s about ten miles.”
“I’ll tell you when you get closer. Sometime I want to tie your hands to the bedpost, and then . . .”