Death and the Maiden, by Edward Doughtie

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.

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