Death and the Maiden, by Edward Doughtie

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Chapter 27.


Jill was happy to give Branch a room at the inn.  “The kitchen is closed, but I’ll be glad to have you take pot luck with us.”

“Thanks,” Branch said.  “I don’t want to put you to any trouble, but I recall that the restaurant in town is closed tonight and tomorrow night.  So I’ll be happy to eat any leftovers you might have from the Music Party.”

“Good.  We’ll enjoy your company.”  Branch was given his old room.  On the one hand, it was familiar and comfortable; on the other, it brought back vivid memories of Esme, memories that were decidedly mixed.

He managed to turn his thoughts to Margo, and meditated on her decency, her loyalty to her friend, her neat good looks, her excellent musicianship.  This was relaxing—he slid into sleep, and when he woke, showered, and shaved, he found Jill already busy in the kitchen.  “Coffee’s in the pot, bagels, bread, butter, jam, are all in the fridge.  Can you manage to put something together by yourself?  I’m up to my elbows cleaning this freezer.”

“No problem.”  Branch toasted a bagel and had two mugs of coffee.  He saw a bowl of freshly harvested local apples and begged one.  Then he washed his dish and mug, thanked Jill, and set off for the sheriff’s.

Sheriff Bacon welcomed Branch with a hearty cry of “Guv’nah!  Glad you made it back.”

“I’m glad to see that you made it back, sheriff.  I could see Esme picking the lock on her cuffs and wrecking your truck.  She’s a scary woman.”

“She was pretty quiet on the way back.  Anything she said could be used against her, and all that.  Speaking of which, where’s your wire?”

“Right here.  I remembered to take it off before I showered.  I’m too hairy—it smarted when I jerked that tape off.”

He handed the recorder and the coiled wire to the sheriff, who took it to a small player.  “Mind if I listen?”

“Be my guest.  By the way, is she here?”

“Nope.  Rockland is more secure.  Left her up there.”

“Good.  She’s pretty shrewd.  I’m sure she suspected I was wearing a wire, so she was pretty careful about what she said.  And if you only had the wire as evidence, you’d think I assaulted her instead of the reverse.  I don’t think I got much that will be useful at trial.  She admitted nothing except that she was aware that she was a suspect.”

“Too bad.  How about on the trip up, when she had you on the phone all the time?  Any of that of use?”

Branch was almost ashamed to confess.  “No.  It was all X-rated.  I didn’t record any of it; nothing she said had to do with the murder.  I guess she wanted me to be such a slobbering horn-dog that she could manipulate me.  I played that role until I met with her.  When I told her what we had, and that I had been stringing her along, she tried to kill me.  Directed my attention elsewhere while she picked up a rock and tried to knock me off the cliff.  She may have been planning that all along—it was a good setup in an isolated place.  And if she had brained me and I’d fallen over the cliff, it would look like an accident.”  Branch chuckled.  “One bit was funny as well as shrewd.  On the recording, when I say she pulled a gun on me, and she said ‘What gun?’ she was actually about to shoot me with a water pistol.  That was a very disarming tactic, made me drop my guard.  I’ll make a running commentary on what was happening when you listen to it, if you like.”

“Sounds like a good idea.”

“First, let me ask something.  What about her husband?  Has he been arrested?”

“Not exactly.  He’s under bond right now as a material witness, the guys in Connecticut tell me.  Apparently she didn’t contact him after she left the inn, or at least we have no evidence that she did, and he claims ignorance and innocence of everything.”

“Maybe she was loyal to him, in her fashion,” Branch mused.  “Of course, her comfortable life was linked to his financial well-being.”

They listened to the recording, stopping it at intervals while Branch recorded his comments.  “Right here, all that noise?  That’s where she tried to hit me with the rock.  We wrestled a good bit.”  Afterwards, they discussed his testimony.  He’d meet with the grand jury on Tuesday.  He’d make a full statement, and come back for the trial.

“Stay for lunch?” the sheriff asked.  “The missus made a big pot of chowdah.”

“Believe I will, and thank you.”

They retired to the kitchen, where Mrs. Bacon served up big bowls of chowder with slices of cornbread and cold cider.  “Ellis told me he was glad you were here when that lady got killed,” Mrs. Bacon told Branch.

“Hate to admit it, but I appreciate the help,” the sheriff said.

“I may have hindered things,” Branch said.  “You might have solved it sooner without me, since you were married to a good woman instead of fooling around with the murderer.”

The Bacons smiled at each other.  The sheriff said, “Would you have found out the right one if you hadn’t been—uh, fooling around with her?”

“I think so.  And so would you.”

Branch killed time until his meeting with the grand jury on Tuesday.  He walked around the bay, read, practiced his viola, even helped Jill with some small carpentry jobs around the inn, as he said, to help pay for his meals.  He called Chat a few times, partly to find out what was going on in Houston, partly to tease him with his leisure.  After checking with the sheriff and DA and confirming his obligations and plane reservation, he called Margo and made a date with her on Wednesday.  They talked on the phone so long that his cell phone battery ran out.  He learned that she taught music therapy at the medical school, played gigs around Boston, and that she had had a painful breakup with a long-term relationship in the spring, but that she was “definitely over it now.”  He found that hopeful.

He walked into the village several times, and had a hearty breakfast and lunch at the Anchorage restaurant on Tuesday before his testimony with the grand jury.  The members of the jury had questions about his affair with Esme and about her attempt to kill him.  One member, an older woman, wondered if her attack was out of jealousy or out of frustration at Branch’s lack of commitment.  The DA reminded her of the other evidence—the husband’s inheritance, the bloodstains, Elsie’s picture.  After some concern about having to call Elsie as a witness, they finally voted to indict.  The DA, a young man who seemed very bright, but probably short on experience, told Branch he thought they had a sixty- to seventy-percent chance of a conviction.  He would be notified when the judge set a trial date.

Wednesday morning Branch packed up, made his farewells to the sheriff and Jill, and set out for Boston and Cambridge.  Margo had to work until four, so Branch had some time to wander around Harvard Square and look into the Fogg and Busch-Reisinger museums, and to have lunch at Casablanca, the restaurant in the basement of the Brattle Theater, once famous for its Bogart film festivals.

At four o’clock, Branch consulted Margo’s directions and found the house off Mass Ave. where Margo had the second floor.  It was an old three-story clapboard Victorian with peeling white paint, like many of its neighbors.  But there were trees on the narrow street, and it seemed pleasant.  Parking was a problem, but Branch eventually found a spot.  He took his viola with him.  Margo didn’t answer, so Branch waited on the porch until he saw her drive up in her green Civic hybrid.  She parked in back, and soon let him in the front door with a hug and a kiss.  She looked great, Branch thought, and told her so.  She was in her workday pantsuit, a blue number that fit her trim figure nicely.  Her short brown hair shone, as did her wide brown eyes.

“You didn’t leave your viola in the car.  Good idea,” she said.  “Come on up.”

Her apartment was spacious but cozy, with lots of books, prints on the walls, oriental rugs in warm colors, and clean but comfortable-looking furniture.  “Have a seat,” she said, “I’ve got to do a little cooking.  How about a glass of wine?  Or would you rather have some Scotch?”

“Wine is fine.  Whatever you have open.”

She brought him a glass of red and started making clattering noises in the kitchen.  She emerged in a fairly short time with a glass of wine, and sat opposite him.  “I’m glad you survived the Esme attack.  And I don’t mean just her attempt to brain you.”  She smiled.

“Me too.  I’m cured.”

They looked at each other over their wine in silence for a beat.  “I’ve got an idea,” she said.  “While the oven is doing the work, let’s play a little music.  You know those Mozart duets?”

“Yes, but I haven’t had many chances to play them.”

“Well, let’s give them a try.”  She got out the music and set up two stands while Branch unpacked his viola.  She got her violin and they tuned.  They started the first duet, the one in G.  Branch struggled to keep up at first, but soon fell into the groove.  By the time they got to the cheerful rondo, Branch felt that they had really meshed, and had entered the flow state that musicians sometimes achieve, and which is one of the great rewards of playing.

They finished with smiles and laughs of pleasure.  Branch said, “I’ll have to say the obvious: we make beautiful music together.”

Margo went to the kitchen and checked the timer on the oven.  She came back and said, “We’ve got time for the next one.”  They started the one in B-flat, with the adagio introduction.  It too flowed, and after the last variation in the finale, the oven timer buzzed.

Branch helped set the table while Margo tossed a salad.  The lasagna that emerged from the oven filled the room with a delicious fragrance.  They sat and clinked glasses.  “Here’s to the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” Branch said, quoting Bogart.

“Do you have a place to stay tonight?” Margo asked.

“Guess I could go to that B&B near Central Square.  I stayed there before.”

She smiled and, Branch thought, blushed a little.  “Why don’t you just stay here?”





One Response to “Death and the Maiden, by Edward Doughtie”

  1. Elle Says:

    Will there be another Branch book? Great character. Now I really must play my violin. Sorry, my viola was too big for me, am looking for a smaller one.

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