Death and the Maiden, by Edward Doughtie

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.”

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