Death and the Maiden, by Edward Doughtie

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.

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