Archive for September, 2010

Death and the Maiden, by Edward Doughtie

September 26, 2010

Chapter 24.

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.”
“Ok, guv’nah.”
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.”
“Good luck.”
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?”
“No.”
Margo said, “You have our phone numbers and email addresses. Please let us know how things turn out. And that you’re all right.”
“I will.”
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?”
“Almost.”
“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 . . .”

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Death and the Maiden, by Edward Doughtie

September 19, 2010

Chapter 23.

Branch found it hard to keep his mind on the concert. The Camden Quartet, professionals all, played superbly, with feeling as well as accuracy. It was instructive to see how the quartet embodied in their own playing the principles they stressed in their coaching. But his mind kept drifting toward Esme. He was sure she would be caught, and her flight would work against her. But she had shrewdly planted another motive for leaving in her note to him. He could imagine a smart lawyer getting her off. They needed more evidence.
The reception after the concert was not as jolly as it might have been if there had been no murder. However, the presence of outside guests who had not been close to the event enlivened the party. Several of the guests were clearly long-time fans of the quartet who had traveled from Portland or Augusta to hear them. There was wine and nibbles, and Branch took the opportunity to chat with members of the Music Party that he didn’t know well. But despite the noise and laughter, it was clear that the murder and its aftermath cast a disturbing fog over the spirits of the musicians.
And although the intended arrest of Esme had not been announced, the presence of the sheriff and her disappearance had led many to conclude that she was a suspect. The men shook their heads with regret and disbelief, while some of the women looked wise and said they thought so all along.
Branch went to his room after the party knowing that there would be no visit from Esme, and had mixed feelings about it. She wouldn’t be able to stab him in his sleep, but she wouldn’t be there to realize his erotic fantasies either. He undressed, got in the bed, and tried to read, but recent scenes kept coming between him and the page. He had given up and turned out the light, hoping to sleep, when his cell phone chimed.
“Hello?”
“Miss me?” The voice was velvety, unmistakable.
“God, yes! Where are you?”
“Better not tell you now.”
“Why did you leave?”
“I left you a note. Didn’t you see it?”
“Yes. But Daphne and Margo said you didn’t say anything to them.”
“Still, I could feel their hostility, and I didn’t want to be around it any more.”
“Is that all? The Party is going to be over soon. Couldn’t you wait?”
There was a long pause. Then she said, “I think the sheriff was about to arrest me for something I didn’t do.”
“If you didn’t do it, you shouldn’t run away. That makes you look guilty.”
“Do you think I’m guilty?”
“No—I can’t. I—I don’t know what to believe.” He hoped that sounded appropriately weak and besotted.
“Darling Aldo, you mean you didn’t give my green robe to the sheriff to be tested for evidence?”
“No. I took it to the cleaner’s. If the sheriff got it, he got it from them.”
“If you say so.” She sounded skeptical. “And you never found out who Harriet’s heir was?”
“No. People made guesses, but I never really learned who it is.”
“And did they guess the heir was my husband? That might sound like a motive.”
“One thought that it was Howard Bracken. That’s not your husband.”
“No. People sometimes confuse them.”
Branch took a deep breath and plunged on. Would he be convincing? “When I got back to my room tonight and realized you wouldn’t be coming, I was desperate. I’ve got to be with you again. If you’re in trouble, I’ll help you. What can I do?”
“I’ll think about it and call you again.” She paused, and went on in a lower voice, almost a liquid whisper. “What do you miss most about me? My lips? My lips on your prick? My breasts? My cunt, my warm juicy cunt?”
“Yes, yes! All of you.”
“I miss you too,” she breathed, and hung up.
Branch realized that he had not been truly acting all the time, for he was panting and erect. I’ve got to be careful with this woman, he thought; she’s dangerous, and I’m more vulnerable than I’d like to be. Could I convince her that I’m as stupid as she wants me to be, and that I’m more in her power than I am? What set her off? Did she really guess that I was lying about the robe? Another thought crept into his awareness, though he doubted it as soon as it emerged. Did he have any power over her?

He managed to fall asleep, but he was restless, and his dreams were twisted and anxious. When he awoke the next morning, he realized that the Music Party would close the next day, Saturday. He didn’t think he could go back to Houston with the case so unresolved. Music sessions would be scheduled today. He didn’t know if he should try to play.
He showered, shaved, and dressed, and went in search of coffee, careful to keep his cell phone turned on. If she called again, he would have to find some way of learning where she was, or convince her to meet him somewhere. The sky was clearing—it should be a fine day. The breakfast crowd was thin—perhaps the party went on longer for some than for others. He sat at the table with Sharon and Daphne. Sharon smiled at Branch and said, “Daphne has been letting me vent about Harriet. I appreciate it very much.” She reached out and patted Daphne’s hand. “I’ve been desperate to talk out my grief with someone who might understand, and she’s being very good about it.”
Daphne smiled and said, “I should have been there for you sooner, but I’ve been wrapped up in my own anxieties. I never knew how heavy they were until they let up.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” Branch said.
Daphne said, “I’ve been on the phone a lot with my partner in Boston. Harriet’s death made me aware of how fragile all our relationships are.”
Indeed, Branch thought. “Death is not the only thing that can end one. I guess the rumors have made it clear that Esme and I had been having an affair. That put me in a bad position when I began to suspect her. But I want everybody to know that I dropped no hints, gave her no warning about my suspicion or her arrest.”
“I understand,” Daphne said. “The sheriff said that you collected the evidence that led to his attempt to arrest her.”
“Right. But the thing is now, I’ve got to convince Esme that I’m on her side if I’m to find her and get close enough to arrest her. Remember that if she should happen to call any of you. Tell her that I still defend her.”
Daphne smiled wryly. “The Music Party acting company, huh?”
After breakfast, Branch went to his room and called the sheriff. “Any news?”
“We found out she took a lot of cash from several ATMs between here and Portland. But the trail still stops at the Portland bus terminal. So if she’s not using a credit card or ATM we’ll have a hard time tracking her.”
“Portland is south of here. Do you think she’ll continue south, say to New York? She may have friends there.”
“Possible. Or it may be a feint.”
“Have the Connecticut cops talked to her husband?”
“They’re keeping an eye on him and put on a phone tap.”
“How about Harriet’s estate? Can anybody get the people in Rhode Island to slow the transfer of the estate to Pilkington?”
“Put a little pressure on him, eh?”
“Yeah. He’s in a dangerous position. Even if he didn’t know about Esme’s act, he could be charged as an accessory.”
“We should know if she tries to contact him.”
Branch hesitated, then said, “She called me last night.”
“What?”
“She called me last night. Of course she wouldn’t tell me where she was. She blocked my caller ID. She suspects that I nearly had her arrested, but I pretended to be more stupid than I think I am. Told her that if anybody got her robe from the cleaners, it was you, not me. Told her I didn’t know who Harriet’s heir was. I don’t know whether she believed me. She may think I still have a thing for her. I told her I would help her.”
“Think she might call again?”
“I hope so. I told her I was desperate for a meeting.”
“Play it cool and see if you can find out where she is. Wish we could tap your phone.”
“Can’t you?”
“She called your cell, right?”
“Yes.”
“We don’t have the equipment here.”
“I hate just having to wait around for her to call. I guess plenty of women have said that about men.”
“Well, keep in touch.”
“You too.” Branch sighed as he disconnected. Might as well play some music. He picked up his viola and headed to the lobby, where Gerald was announcing assignments.
“Aldo. Good. We had scheduled you in the piano quartet, but with Esme leaving—well, how about string trios with Daphne and Margo?”
“Fine.”
“Last session is this afternoon, and master class tomorrow morning. Then that’s it until next year.”
They worked on one of the Beethoven string trios and agreed to present it at the master class. The trio was more demanding on the individual players than some quartets, because everyone played almost all the time to fill out the sonority. But it was satisfying work, and kept Branch’s mind from spinning around in the same circles.
Dinner passed quietly. Afterward Branch sat in on a reading of the Mendelssohn Octet, a traditional last-night activity. He had not had many opportunities to play that work, which he found to be challenging fun.
Then he retired to his room. Would she call? Again he tried to read, and again failed. Finally the phone chimed.
“Esme?”
“Who else?” She took on a teasing, almost mocking tone. “Poor boy, were you waiting on the bad girl to call you? Still miss me?”
“More than ever. Are you ok?”
“Fine. Enjoying my freedom.”
“When can I see you?”
“Sooner than you might think.”
“Really? Where are you?”
“I’ll let you know in good time. You really want to see me?”
“Very much.”
“You really want to help me?”
“If I can.”
“Tomorrow’s the last day, right? Everybody goes home after lunch.”
“Yes.”
“I’ll call you then. Be ready to go.” Then she began recounting, in vivid detail, every move of their last sexual encounter. Branch did not have to feign excitement. “See you soon,” she said, and hung up.

Death and the Maiden, by Edward Doughtie

September 9, 2010

Chapter 22.

The day proceeded normally. Daphne and Margo acted no differently toward him or Esme than before, as far as he could tell. And Esme seemed unaware of any change in attitude toward her. She played with her usual skill and concentration, which Branch had to admire. What a waste that such talent and beauty was inhabited by such a selfish and deadly spirit.
They had a companionable lunch, conversing about music. Branch’s cell phone chimed, and he excused himself, walking out onto the sunny porch. It was Sheriff Bacon.
“It’s hers,” he said.
“They’re sure?”
“Ninety-nine and nine-tenths sure, they tell me. Good enough for court.”
“Do you think we have enough for an arrest?”
“Do you?”
Branch hesitated. “I wish we had enough so we wouldn’t have to use Elsie as a witness. Lawyers have no mercy on kids.”
“Yeah. Let me put it all before the DA and see what he thinks.”
“Good idea. Let me know.”
The lunch crowd had dispersed, but Esme met Branch in the lobby. “Let’s take a little walk,” she said.
“Fine. It’s nearly half an hour before the afternoon session.” They strolled down toward the inlet. She took his arm and glanced at him with what he thought was a sad smile. “Everything ok?” he asked.
“Yes,” she sighed. “I’m just thinking about how much I’ll miss you. Our nights have been getting so good.” She squeezed his arm.
“Do you have a surprise for me tonight?”
She looked up with a grin and eyes half closed. “Maybe. If you’re a good boy.”
“Don’t you want me to be a bad boy?”
“What do they say up here? Wicked good.”
They walked in silence for a while. They turned and headed back toward the inn. “Oh,” she said, “I’m going into the village for a few things before dinner. Give me the ticket for my robe and I’ll pick it up.”
“I doubt that it’ll be ready. Maine time is not New York time.”
“Since I’ll be there anyway, I’ll just check.”
“Ok.” Branch reached for his wallet and hoped his act would work. He dug through it, looking at ATM receipts and various other residue. “Damn. I must have lost the ticket. But they’ll recognize me. I’ll pick it up.”
“Oh, ok.”
“I’m in a string quartet this afternoon. What are you doing?”
“Piano trios with Daphne and Margo. I guess we’ll work on the Archduke some more. I think I’ll go by my room for a minute before we start.”
Branch got his viola and joined the quartet of Asa, Myron, and Sharon. They worked on Beethoven’s opus 74, called the “Harp” because of the pizzicato passages in the first movement. That movement had a notoriously difficult passage for the first violin. Myron stopped as they were getting into it.
“The notorious page 39,” he said. “I can do it, but I got off on the wrong foot. Let’s start again at letter M.”
Alan, the first violinist of the Camden Quartet, entered unobtrusively as they began. This time Myron played the passage respectably. When they finished, Alan said, “Good job Myron. But later, when the second and viola start playing arco at letter O, the interest shifts to those parts, so you can hold back the volume a bit and let them come out. And by Q, everybody is fortissimo. It’s a very exciting passage. Why don’t you try it again?” They did, and Branch caught the infectious exhilaration of the others. Time passed rapidly. As they were packing their instruments, Alan reminded them of the concert that night. The Camden Quartet would perform for the Music Party and local guests. “Can you guys help rearrange the dining room after dinner?” he asked.
Asa grimaced in mock agony. “With my back? Make these youngsters do it.”
After the session, Branch returned to his room to leave his viola before his pre-dinner walk. While he was still in the room, his cell chimed. It was Sheriff Bacon.
“Went over everything with the DA. He thinks with the DNA report and the other stuff, we can move.”
“When are you coming out?”
“Now. I’ll bring a deputy and my wife. You know, have a woman along.”
“Good idea. I’m going to hang back. She’ll know I’m the Judas soon enough, but I don’t want to give her the Judas kiss.” Branch was struck with sadness, now that the moment had arrived. He also regretted, to the chagrin of his better side, that sex with Esme was now at an end. But he also had a pang that he recognized as similar to the loss he felt when his wife and Allegra left, and when Celia called an end to their brief but promising relationship. Branch realized that for him, sex implied love to some degree. He was not cut out for light summer affairs.
He decided to take a longer walk than usual. He wanted to miss the arrest, and if he missed dinner, so what—he didn’t imagine that he’d be hungry. He strode rapidly toward the grove of trees, and followed them along the curve of the bay. A rocky peninsular extended out into the bay. He climbed over the rocks until he was at the furthest point. The tide was coming in. He sat and watched the waves splash against the rocks. Gulls wheeled and squawked overhead. A lobster boat further out in the bay went from buoy to buoy, stopping to empty and re-bait the traps.
Why couldn’t he enjoy this scene without regrets? Perhaps if he had chosen Margo instead of letting Esme choose him, his time here might have ended with more positive hints for the future. He liked Margo, and thought that there was the possibility of mutual attachment there. Or there might have been. If he came back to the Music Party next year, Margo might not be there, or she might have entered another relationship. And his affair with Esme must surely have colored Margo’s opinion of him, and not for the better. He picked up a loose rock and threw it into the surf.
Branch wandered back to the rim of the bay and was considering returning, when his cell rang.
“Where is she?” the sheriff asked.
“What do you mean?”
“She ain’t here. Her room is empty and her car is gone. Did you tip her off?”
“No! Not consciously, anyway. Maybe she smelled something.”
“Where do you think she could’ve gone?”
“Back to her husband in Connecticut? Other than that, I have no idea. I’m on my way back. Maybe she left me a note.”
“I’ll call down to Danbury and tell them we have a warrant and for them to watch for her.”
“How about having the state police look for her car?”
“Done that.”
“I’ll be there in a few minutes.” He signed off and strode back toward the inn. When he got there he found Bacon sitting in the lobby with Margo, Daphne, and Jill. He could tell that Margo and Daphne were experiencing mixed feelings. Daphne must be relieved to have her suspicion lifted. And both must be glad that Esme had simply left. But would she get away somehow? Jill just looked unhappy.
Jill looked up when Branch entered. “I saw her leave about half an hour after the afternoon session.”
Margo said, “She seemed fine during the session, except for one thing. She missed an entrance, something she never did before.” She turned to Branch. “So you did have some evidence.”
“Yes. I’ll tell you about it later. Right now I’m going to see if she left me a note.” He went to his room and opened the door. A piece of paper had been slipped under the door. He read it over and took it back to the lobby.
He waved the note at the group. “Here’s what it says. ‘Aldo, I’m sorry to bug out like this, but I was getting such hostile vibes from Daphne and Margo this afternoon, that I’m taking off for home. Talk to you later. Love, E.’”
“We were trying our best not to send hostile vibes,” Margo said.
Branch explained to the sheriff about Esme asking for the cleaning ticket. “I think she may have picked up on my lie about the robe.”
The sheriff looked over the note. He made several calls, while Branch talked with Margo, Daphne, and Jill. He told them about the bloodstained robe, Elsie’s picture, and the relationship of Esme’s husband to Harriet.
Jill looked at her watch. “I’ve got to see how dinner is coming. Sheriff, please join us.”
“Don’t mind if I do. Thanks, Jill.”
Branch said, “Before that, let’s check her room. See if she left any hints about where she’s going. Or any other evidence.”
“Right with you,” the sheriff said.
The room was empty, though bedclothes and towels were tossed about in a mess. Branch and the sheriff combed through every inch; Branch collected a few hair samples for comparison. Remembering his discoveries in Harriet’s room, he pulled out the dresser drawers and felt along the floor underneath. He was excited to find a scrap of paper, and when he pulled it out, he saw that it was a yellow sticky note with Esme’s writing. But all it said was, “Hi Aldo.”
The sheriff read it and snorted. “Some tease.” They returned to the dining room.
Dinner was lobster and trimmings. Branch would have enjoyed it under ordinary circumstances, but his mind was too full to savor the food.
As dinner was ending, the sheriff’s phone rang. “Uh huh,” he said. “Well, impound it. Wish we had a picture to show around. Well, do your best.” When he hung up, he turned to the group. “That was the state police. They found her car in the Portland bus station. They have no idea where she’s going. Anybody have a picture of her?”
“Only last year’s group picture,” Jill said. They looked at Branch.
“I don’t have one. Wish I did.”
There was nothing left to do but clear the dining room, fold the tables, and arrange the chairs for the concert. The first item on the program was Schubert’s D-minor quartet. The second movement was a set of variations on part of one of Schubert’s songs; because of this, the quartet was called “Death and the Maiden.”

Death and the Maiden, by Edward Doughtie

September 5, 2010

Chapter 21.

Margo and Branch sat across from a table in the furthest bay window. Margo was direct. “I’m sure you’re aware that time is running out. I heard that the local grand jury is going to consider an indictment of Daphne soon. Do we have any hope of finding another suspect?”
“Yes. I can’t talk about that yet, but I’ll speak to the sheriff and see if he can’t delay bringing Daphne up for a while longer.”
“Should she start paying a lawyer? She’s not rich, and she’s been waiting, hoping that something will happen so she wouldn’t have to.”
“She can hold off a little while longer.”
“How long?”
“Wait until I find out when the grand jury takes it up. Does she have a lawyer?”
“There’s a guy we play music with in Boston who might help us find one if he can’t take the case himself.”
“She might talk to him in preparation, if she can do so without starting his meter.”
Margo looked out the window and drummed a scale on the table with the fingers of her left hand. “I feel so useless. I wish there were something I could do.”
Branch hesitated, then said, “Here’s something. Someone made a suggestion to me. I seriously doubt it, but I think you should know it has come up. Let me know what you think. Please don’t scream when you hear it.”
“You have my attention,” she said, her eyes widening.
“This person wonders if you and Daphne are a couple, and if Harriet’s riches may have made her—attractive to you.” Margo’s mouth opened and her fists clenched. Branch held up his hand. “This would give Daphne the motive of jealousy as well as anger.”
“Preposterous!”
“As I said, I doubt it. But I have to consider it.”
“First, Daphne is a dear old friend. I do love her, but we’re not lovers. I just don’t swing that way. And trying for intimacy with Harriet would never occur to me. I’ve tried to be understanding about Harriet, but her presence at the Music Party has always been a sour note for me.”
Branch nodded. Margo punctuated her statements with fists on the table. Then her eyes narrowed.
“It was Esme, wasn’t it! That bitch!”
Branch wasn’t prepared for the accuracy of Margo’s intuition. But he saw a way to take advantage of it. “I’m not saying who. But have you been holding back anything about Esme because you thought I would discount it, given our relationship? If so, out with it now.”
“You be honest with me and I’ll be honest with you. Are you sure Esme doesn’t have you by the balls?”
“Honesty. Ok, but I’ll have to trust you, and you’ll have to keep quiet, even to Daphne. She did have me by a pretty dear organ, but not now. Yet I have to act as if she still does.”
“And I think I know why. You suspect her!”
Branch was again taken by surprise. “I can’t keep up with you.”
Margo smiled. “Well, I’ve suspected her myself. But I don’t have any evidence besides my dislike and distrust of her.”
“But there’s something you haven’t told me.”
“Ok, here goes.” She leaned forward, dropping her voice. “These bay windows have a tricky acoustic. I should have told you about them earlier. If you’re in the right position out there in the room, you can hear whispers from in here.”
Branch glanced out into the room. No one was near.
“Don’t worry, nobody has heard us. I’ve been watching. But I heard Esme and Harriet. Esme was begging Harriet to loan her husband some money.”
“That’s important. Any specifics?”
“Not really, other than that Harriet was saying no. I didn’t risk hanging around to hear more. I did gather from the way Esme talked that she felt her husband had some claim on Harriet.”
“That’s interesting.” Yes, Branch thought, they’re cousins, and he is Harriet’s heir.
Margo snorted and beat on the table again. “Interesting! You’re holding back.”
“I’m sorry, but I just can’t tell you everything right now. I will when I can.”
“But you do suspect Esme? More than Daphne?”
Branch hesitated, but looked deep into Margo’s wide brown eyes, and said, “Yes.”
“Don’t you have enough now to arrest her?”
“Not quite, not yet. We want to make it stick.” Branch worried that he had said too much. “I shouldn’t have burdened you with all this information. Can you still act normally around Esme?”
“I think so. She knows I’m worried about Daphne, so if I act odd, she may attribute it to that.”
Branch said, “Keep your eyes and ears open. Let me know if you think of any way to get more evidence.” He reached out and touched Margo’s hand. “And don’t think too badly of me for continuing to play the role I’m in. I don’t like deception.”
Margo briefly grasped his hand. “I suppose we might be further away from the truth if you hadn’t been in this role.”
“It’s almost time for the morning session. I’ve got to make a phone call. Play a trio until I get there.”
“Oh God. We’ve got to play with Esme.”
“Be cool.”
Branch returned to his room and called the sheriff. “Can you hold off the grand jury a while longer?”
“I think so. The DA wants to make the best case he can, and I don’t mind telling him we’re working on a better one.”
“But don’t let him dismiss it yet, either—that might spook the better suspect.”
“I agree.”
“No word from the lab yet, I suppose.”
“Nope. I put all kinds of red flags on it, so I hope to hear sooner than usual.”
“I hope they don’t waste a lot of time on my semen.”
The sheriff grunted. “I told them we only wanted the blood. You still ah—seeing the lady?”
“Yeah. I should get an Academy Award.”
“I guess you’re getting something.”
“You will call my cell the minute you get the report, right?”
“Sure.”
Branch next called Chat. “Did I wake you?”
Chat yawned. “Naw. I had to get up to answer the motherfuckin’ phone.”
“Got anything new for me?”
“Maybe. The lady’s husband is really hurting for money.”
“We knew that.”
“There’s just more evidence of it. He’s taken a second mortgage out and selling some antiques. Here’s something else. His wife, the lady you’ve been playing with. Music, that is. Know much about her history?”
“She had nurse’s training.”
“Right. And she was a murder suspect.”
“What?”
“Yeah. About twelve years ago. She was working as a nurse for this rich old lady. When the lady died, the family was suspicious because the lady had hand-written into her will that the nurse should get ten grand. She was rich, and to her that wasn’t much. But the family raised a stink, had an autopsy, filed charges. The DA couldn’t get enough evidence to indict, but the family remained suspicious. That was back in Dallas.”
“Dallas. That’s interesting. She said she never expected to go to Texas.”
“Must have liked that rear view mirror sight.”
“Do these reports say anything about how she was supposed to have killed the old lady?”
“They couldn’t pin it down. The family claimed it was poison. The official verdict was choking on vomit.”
“Which could have been caused by something.”
“So watch your coffee.”
“Thanks, Chat. Call my cell if anything else pops up.”
“Ok. But I don’t think anything’s gonna pop up unless I pop it.”
Branch got his viola and headed off to play piano quartets. He hoped the atmosphere wouldn’t be so tense that Esme would notice.
On his way to the lobby where the good piano was, he encountered Elsie. She had more drawings.
“Want to see some more pictures? They’re still only a dollar.”
“Well, let’s see. I’d better get some before the price goes up.” He looked though them. They were more of her colorful but innocent drawings of sailboats, stick people in stylized landscapes, flowers and birds and butterflies. He saw no more pictures of Esme or anyone else he recognized. But he asked her, “Elsie, these are very good. Are any of these pictures of the people here?”
“Well, this is my mom,” she said, pointing to a female figure with a blue dress and a big smile.
“You remember the picture I bought the other day, of the lady in the green dress holding a cello? Is that someone here?”
“Yes. That’s the lady who plays the piano. I don’t remember her name.”
“Did you see her carrying a cello one night when you couldn’t sleep?”
She nodded. “Uh huh.”
“Do you think she saw you?”
“No. I hid when I saw her. She yelled at me one night when I was up, so I didn’t want her to see me. I don’t like her.”
“Good thinking. Probably be a good idea not to tell her, even if she asks. Has she asked you about that picture?”
“No. So, do you want any pictures?”
“Yes. I’ll take these.”
“One, two, three. Three dollars, please.”
Branch paid and took them with him to the music session. They finished the movement of the trio they had been playing. He passed the pictures around to the group. “Look at these colors. So fresh, happy. Art loses something when kids grow up.”
Esme looked at them carefully. “When can we see the one you bought the other day?”
“When I get it framed.”
“What was so striking about it?”
“Oh, it was like these, only it seemed even more colorful and joyful. It just struck something in me.”
“So what shall we play?” Margo asked. She shuffled through the pile of music on the piano.
“How about that first Dvorak?” Branch suggested.
They had got through the first movement when Alicia came in to coach them. “This group has made a lot of progress,” she said. “Too bad you have to break up this weekend.”
“Maybe we can have a reunion next year,” Branch said.