By Edward Doughtie
Chapter 5. (Previous chapters are in archives.)
Branch lived in a small house in the Houston Heights section, an optimistically named area that was only a few feet higher above sea level than the rest of the city. Branch often heard, and sometimes said himself, that the only heights in Houston were freeway overpasses. But the Heights was an older residential section not far from downtown, and though gentrification was proceeding steadily, it had been possible, after his divorce, to find a house in fair shape that he could afford. He had installed central air, sheetrocked over the shiplap and wallpaper, and shored up the piers on one side that the shrinking gumbo soil had allowed to sink. He furnished it mostly from garage sales and Ikea, though he had a nice wool copy of an oriental rug and several colorful prints from student art sales.
As soon as he entered, he put down his viola, grabbed a remote and turned on the public radio station, which was now playing jazz, and the TV with the sound off. He hated a totally silent house. He preferred music to TV, but a news item might pop up that could be useful, so he glanced at it from time to time. Electronic company was better than none. He cranked up the air conditioning, which he kept on during the day just high enough to discourage mildew.
Branch sank with a grunt into a threadbare but comfortable easy chair to look through his mail. A few bills, a New Yorker, some ads. He closed his eyes, leaned back and listened to a smoky Stan Getz solo. He flipped through the New Yorker, now and then staring at the page and grimacing when memory of his interview with Allegra assaulted him. He tossed the magazine aside when the late local news came on. He yawned through a few routine stories–estranged husband kills wife and boyfriend, like sixty per cent of his caseload–and the weather–no relief from the heat–then watched Leno’s monologue, which made him smile three times. Then he turned in.
To fight the silence in his bedroom, he had a white noise machine. Before he got central air, the humming window unit did the job. But he needed the comforting purr that muffled the sounds of traffic and barking dogs, sounds of life that he needed some distance from. He squirmed into his most comfortable position and summoned up the image of Celia Hargrove. She was pretty, wore no wedding ring, might be a little interested, unless he really flattered himself. But though he felt some curiosity, he felt no urgent attraction, no drive, no call of the chase. He yawned and stretched. He had tried to divert his mind from dwelling on his disastrous meeting with Allegra, but his regret and shame came flooding back. That was over, all over, and he’d better get used to it. He forced himself to concentrate on Celia. She lived in Dallas, and apparently worked all over the region. Was that too far for a relationship? She had a mouth that looked kissable; she had an appetite, yet kept her figure. He speculated about Celia’s figure until the image became more fluid and she sat down at a grand piano and began playing Brahms.
Branch and Chat Jackson sat at their neighboring desks, brooding over papers and photos. Branch had related the results of his previous interviews to Chat. Finally Chat pulled the papers on his desk into a ragged pile. “I’m getting crosseyed looking at this stuff. I can’t find a thread to pull. I hate to be left with interviewing people who won’t know anything. All those people at the party–you know they won’t give me the time of day. Oh, most of them will be polite.” He spoke in falsetto: “‘Oh, isn’t it nice they let that black detective work this case’. Shit.”
Branch took this opening. “I think we should do the rest of these together. I know some of those folks on the board, or at least some know I’m a musician. So I don’t mind doing the talking. But I want you around to watch them. I’ve seen you spot a lie in the most stone-faced perp you could imagine.” Branch was telling the truth, but it was more difficult to compliment Chat than to criticize him.
Chat gave Branch a suspicious glance and a shrug. “Ok, you set them up and I’ll tag along. ’Course I think most rich white folks lie all the time, so I may not be much help.” He stood and stretched.
“Let’s go talk to the hostess, Mrs. Mattingly.” Chat looked resigned. “I’ll call Celia—her presence should improve your mood.” He phoned. “Will you be able to come along to an interview in a half hour? I’d be interested in what you think of this lady.”
“Sure,” Celia said. “Who is it?”
“Eileen Mattingly, the hostess of the post-concert party. We have an appointment at eleven. We’ll pick you up.”
“I’ll be ready.”
Celia was standing in the lobby watching the drive. Chat jumped out and gallantly opened the back door for her. They exchanged introductions. She was in her lightweight dark blue business suit, white blouse and pearls.
“You’ll see a more affluent part of town today. No pawnshops.”
They drove west on Memorial Drive along Buffalo Bayou, then through the park, past the crime scene. The house lots became large manicured greens shaded with live oaks surrounding houses that were sometimes tasteful, often only pretentious, but all big. The Mattingly house was on a wooded street off Voss, and was long and low, white stucco with a red tile roof in the Spanish style. Spanish moss hung from the branches of a large live oak the drive circled around. A uniformed Latina maid ushered them into a conservatory filled with large ficus plants and padded rattan furniture. They accepted the offer of coffee, and stood when Eileen Mattingly entered shortly after. She was an elegantly slim woman in her fifties in a plain but well-cut yellow shirtdress; her makeup was so subtle as to be invisible. Branch was pleased to note that she had allowed her hair to turn gray, and that she showed no signs of a facelift or botox. Her face expressed the concern appropriate for the situation. Branch introduced himself and his colleagues, and all sat.
“I can’t tell you how much this has upset us,” Mrs. Mattingly began. “The members of the quartet were such wonderful people, as well as fine musicians. I feel so for their families. I hope I can be of some help in your investigation, but I’ve racked my brain to come up with something out of the ordinary.”
“I know it’s difficult,” Branch said. “Why don’t you just tell us about the evening, and we’ll come in with questions if anything occurs to us.”
“All right. Where should I start? After the concert?”
“How about before? What preparations did you make?”
“Well, Louisa gave the house a good cleaning.” She and Celia exchanged brief smiles. “I had ordered the food from a fine catering company we have used many times. I know their staff, the servers and bartender, and don’t doubt their reliability. We’ve entertained some important people here, and never had a problem with security or anything like that.”
“I understand,” Branch said. “Did you attend the concert?”
“Oh yes. It was marvelous. But I didn’t stay for the encore, because I had to get home and be sure everything was ready.”
“They did the finale of the third Rasumovsky quartet,” Branch said, “very fast.”
Mrs. Mattingly looked sharply at Branch. “Yes, I heard they did Beethoven.”
“Did your husband go to the concert?”
Mrs. Mattingly’s glance shifted briefly to the left. “No. He rarely goes. He loves music, and listens to recordings all the time, but he gets restless at live concerts.”
“So he was familiar with the Kyoto Quartet?”
“Yes, from their CDs.”
Mrs. Mattingly reflected a moment. “Well, after the concert, the members of the board began arriving. Everyone was excited by the music. The musicians usually come late because their fans visit them backstage. I guess it was nearly ten thirty when they arrived, along with the Japanese consul and his wife, and another couple. I think they work at U of H; the wife is a cousin of one of the players.”
“Mr. Sato, the cellist.”
“Yes. I’m not sure I remember their names properly. Ko something.”
“Yes. They seemed very nice, but I didn’t get to talk to them much. They were very busy with the cellist, and I was busy with seeing that the dinner for the quartet was getting ready. We like to give the musicians a good sit-down meal. They usually don’t eat before they play, and they appreciate a good dinner.”
Up to this point, Chat had been quietly observing Mrs. Mattingly, sometimes letting his eyes wander around the room, and sipping his coffee from the translucent china cup. Now he asked, “What did they have to eat?”
“We like to give foreign guests something local,” she said with a smile. “We had red snapper stuffed with shrimp, dirty rice, a salad, oh, and first a cup of crab gumbo. Biscuits. Pecan pie and ice cream for dessert.”
“Sounds good,” Chat said. “How about the other guests?”
“Well, I don’t think anyone went away hungry. We had shrimp and cocktail sauce, crudités, different cheeses and crackers, little pecan tarts, and petits fours. Wine and coffee.”
“Did the quartet drink?” Branch asked.
“A little. They mainly wanted water. They had a little white wine with dinner, but I don’t think anyone drank a whole glass.” A smile flashed across her face, with another quick glance to the left. “But my husband was very thoughtful. He had sought out some special sake, that rice brew. They seemed to enjoy that.”
“Do you like it?” Branch asked.
“I don’t really know, for I’ve never tried it.”
“Really? You didn’t try some of your husband’s?”
“No. It was hard for him to find this special kind, and he had only enough for the quartet.”
“Did all the members of the quartet drink some?”
“I think so.”
“Does your husband ordinarily attend your parties or board meetings?”
“No. Once in a while he might look in at the musicians, but he never stays long. He’s very busy. And I should say he’s a very private person.” Branch noticed Celia and Chat exchange a quick glance.
“Just a few more questions,” Branch said. “Did the different members of the quartet all seem to be equally in a good mood? Did they all take part in the conversation, or did any seem different?”
“I’m not sure I understand your question. I was in and out, and didn’t get to follow all the conversations. They were all pleasant. They all smiled a lot.” She paused and frowned. “I suppose Mr. Ogi, the first violinist, talked more. He seemed to be more comfortable with English.”
“Did any one of them seem quieter than the others, or look worried?”
“I really couldn’t say.”
Branch rubbed his chin. “Was any one of your usual guests noticeably late, or absent?”
“Dr. Stoddard is usually late; I don’t remember whether he made it at all.” She rubbed the rings on her left hand. “It might be easier if you asked whether a particular person was there.”
He asked about various other board members, including Dr. Stoddard’s wife, Merilee, and Fowler Parr, the construction heir, and his third wife. He noticed Mrs. Mattingly’s tone took on a subtle restraint at the mention of the current Mrs. Parr, neé Babette DuFour.
“Do you remember if the Parrs left before or after the quartet?”
“I think they left about the same time.”
“Do you remember the time?”
“Yes. I had just set the timer for heating some more pecan tarts. The quartet left at exactly eleven thirty-five, and the Parrs about five minutes later.”
Branch considered that the Parrs would have been going in the same direction as the quartet, through the park. He would have to ask them if they saw the quartet stop.
He asked about several other guests, and was running out of questions, when Celia asked, “Mrs. Mattingly, could you tell us a bit about your husband’s business?”
Their hostess looked surprised and also a little disapproving. “I know that he deals in oil field equipment, and that he is very successful. But if you mean do I know what he does personally, I must admit that I don’t. He goes to the office every day, and sometimes works in his office here, mostly on the phone. I don’t understand the oilfield jargon, so I don’t pay much attention. I have my own interests.” She twined her fingers together.
“I understand,” Celia said. “Thank you.”
After a few more desultory questions and polite gestures, the detectives took their leave. In the car, the group was silent for a while. Then Branch said, “Well?’
Celia and Chat answered almost simultaneously. “She’s worried,” Chat said.
“She’s concerned about her husband,” Celia said.
“About the murders?” Branch asked.
“Probably,” Chat said.
“Maybe,” Celia said. “I don’t think she knows anything for sure, but maybe she knows him well enough to worry that he might have had something to do with it.”
“Anyway,” Chat said, “she’s not telling. She probably doesn’t want to know, or even think it.”
Celia needed to spend the afternoon on the phone, so Branch dropped her at her hotel, promising to return for their dinner at seven. He and Chat headed back to headquarters. On the way, he called Polly, summarized their interview, and asked about her progress in finding the instruments.
She chuckled and then sighed. “I’ve come up with a goose egg. The usual suspects are clean on this hit.”
Chat held up a finger and said quietly, “I’ve still got some places to check. Places us law enforcement types don’t usually see, you know what I’m saying?”
Branch nodded, and continued to Polly. “Celia and I are meeting for dinner to compare notes. She’s feeding me on her expense account. Can you join us?”
“Tempting. But my husband has to put up with enough of my weird hours already. Just let me know if you come up with anything I could use.”
“Will do.” Branch was relieved.
“Aldo,” Polly said with a smile in her voice, “I also know three’s a crowd.”
Celia wore a dress rather than a suit, a high-collared, half-sleeved beige linen. Branch thought she still looked business-like, though it fit her figure well enough. They found a table in the hotel restaurant, ordered drinks, and scanned the menus. Aldo decided on the salmon, looked up at Celia who was still frowning over the choices. She was attractive–a few fine lines around the corners of the eyes, a few freckles across the nose peeking out from under light makeup. Graceful hands, nails not too long. No signs of excessive self-absorption. Then the drinks arrived, they gave their orders, and faced each other with tentative smiles.
“I did a lot of phoning today,” Celia began. “But didn’t turn up much.”
“Let’s put off the business for a while and enjoy our dinner,” Branch said. “How did you get into this line of work?”
“Are we going to swap life stories?”
“Not if you don’t want to.”
She leaned forward, hesitated, then spoke with an expression Branch understood to be friendly but serious. “Look, you seem to be a nice man. I think we’ll work well together. But I don’t want to think of this dinner as some kind of date–and I don’t want you to either.”
Branch flushed, then held up both palms toward her. “Are you married?” She shook her head and started to speak, but Branch went on. “I’ve been divorced a long time. I’m sorry if my manner led you to believe I was working up to a pass. I guess I’ve gotten in the habit of behaving in a certain way toward attractive women. I just want to be friendly. No harassment. And I’ll be grateful if you’ll tell me if you ever feel uncomfortable.”
She relaxed. “Thanks. I feel more comfortable already.”
Branch wondered if she was responding to his manner or defending herself from feelings she didn’t want. He chided himself for flattering himself, but he felt he was not wrong in sensing some interested vibes. “So, do you want to tell me about your phone calls?”
“First, I’ll answer your other question if you really want to hear it.”
“I do, if you want to tell me.”
“Ok, you asked for it. My father had been a cop in Charlotte. He got tired of the racism in the department, quit, and set up as a private investigator. When I was fourteen, he took me on a stakeout. We parked on a hill overlooking this cigarette warehouse. He gave me some binoculars and a counter and told me to click every time anybody carried anything out. While I watched, he told me stories.”
“Stories from the veterans—powerful attractions.”
“You bet. I liked it. He wouldn’t take me on divorce cases, but he liked to take me and a telephoto camera on insurance fraud cases. I’d take pictures of whiplash victims playing basketball, that sort of thing. I continued to work with my father while I was in college, where I got turned on by art history. So what do you do with that degree? My father got me a job with an insurance company.”
“I guess there’s some racism in a lot of departments. So you know about cops and families. So you can guess why my wife left.”
“I can guess at your explanation, but I’d have to hear your wife’s side.”
“Point taken.” She knows the wife has a side; good for her. “So you’ve been an insurance investigator since college?”
“Not exactly. I helped a man find a stolen painting. He was pretty well off. A widower, older than me, but very nice.” Branch registered “older but nice” and filed it away. “Anyway, one thing led to another, and we got married. We had a little boy. Then he died–my husband. His relatives fought every provision he made for me and the child, and the only thing we got was his life insurance, which was not large, strangely.”
“I’ve noticed that rich guys think they can invest better than insurance companies. And they often have nasty relatives.”
“Maybe. Anyway, I went back to work. When I travel, my son stays with my brother, who lives in Dallas.”
“We didn’t have any kids. Sometimes I regret that, sometimes I don’t.”
“I can’t imagine my life without Colin. I hate being away from him. He’s six, in first grade, just a sponge for information.” Her eyes grew brighter.
“Make a good detective.” Branch found her expression when she spoke of her son to be appealing. She showed that she loved someone.
“Ok, your turn.”
Branch told her how he went from music to the police. Except for one thing, that “personal event.” He had never told Allegra about that. Could he ever tell Celia?
Their food arrived; they ate, making sporadic small talk. Over coffee, Branch began telling her of the day’s interviews.
“Do you suspect someone at the party?” she asked.
“Not yet. But they were the last to see the quartet alive, except for the killers.”
Celia had called the names Joe Haggarty had provided. She had learned more names of violin collectors, and heard some stories of deals and swindles, but nothing seemed immediately relevant. “I got the quartet’s itinerary. I don’t know if that’s of interest. Houston was the third stop on their tour. From Tokyo they went to Seoul, then San Francisco, then Houston. They were supposed to go on to Chicago and New York.
“Seoul, South Korea?”
“Yes. The Japanese government sponsored it, part of a long series of friendly gestures without apologies. Anyway, the quartet has–had–a big following in South Korea.”
“Any reports of problems or anything unusual in Seoul or San Francisco?”
“Not that I heard. They took the instruments to a shop in Seoul for a checkup and special packing for the Pacific flight.”
“Is that usual?”
“It is for the Coleman’s instruments. They have a list of shops around the world where the musicians are supposed to take the instruments for checks whenever they are in the area.”
“Maybe we should send some questions to whoever might have information about the stops in Seoul and Frisco. I’ll call their agent.”
“I already did.” Celia smiled, the good student. “Everything was fine. Everybody loved them, the quartet was happy, the instruments were fine.”
Branch’s cell phone vibrated. “Excuse me. Better take this.”
Chat Jackson said, “Hope I’m not interrupting anything hot.”
“I think I may have found three of those fiddles. You want to come see?”
“They don’t say made in China?”
“Nope. They look just like the pictures.”
“Yep. The big one, the middle-sized one, and one of the little ones.”
“Where are you?” Chat gave an address. “We’ll be there.” To Celia, he said, “Let’s go.” She was already on her feet, purse in hand.
The shop was in a very dark neighborhood near the ship channel, in the front room of an old clapboard house. The goods were of a much lower order than the previous shop: it was more like an ongoing garage sale than a pawnshop, with its used clothing, obsolete TVs and radios, blenders, tattered paperbacks in English and Spanish. The owner was a heavy, sullen Hispanic man who chewed a matchstick and said as little as possible. He said a long-haired Anglo brought them in. “He brought this one in too. Piece of chit.” He showed them a battered, rosin-crusted German violin carried by Sears in the fifties.
Celia and Branch were going over the other three instruments carefully. “Got to be them,” Branch said, holding the Berlioz viola reverently.
“No question. The cello’s got a new gouge,” Celia said. “Shouldn’t affect the sound.” She looked at the violin and said, “So the Joachim violin is still missing.”
Chat said, “Three out of four ain’t bad.”
Celia turned to Chat. “You’re right. I owe you a lot of thanks.”
“Just doing my job.”
Branch asked the shop owner. “No cases?”
“This Anglo guy, he just hauled them in? No bows?”
“Had um in a supermarket cart. No bows.”
“Describe the man a little more for us, please.”
“Like I say. Anglo, long black hair, leetle mustache, jeans with holes, t-shirt with some rock band name on it. Dead something. Not old–maybe thirty. Never seen him before.”
“How much you give him?”
“Hundred each for those three. Twenty for that one.”
“He want more?”
“Sure. Everybody want more. He say they worth tousands dollars. I tell him, jou want more, take um to a fancy violin shop. He don’ like that idea, take my money and go.”
Branch probed further, but got little. He arranged for the shop owner to be paid the amount of his loan when he came to the station to look at mug books, signed a receipt, and bought the only other violin in the shop–another cheap “Strad”– so they could use the case. He also bought a couple of old bedspreads to pad the viola and cello in his car. “Tomorrow I’ll drop by a violin shop I know and pick up some more cases.”
“Good idea,” Celia said. “Coleman will pick up the tab.”
“We’ll have to lock these up in the evidence room for a while.”
“I was afraid of that,” Celia said.
“I’ll help explain to the Coleman people, and I’ll personally check on the instruments.” And maybe play on them a little, Branch thought. “And now I’d better call Polly.” He was able to get her on his cell phone, and described their find.
“I hate to be beat out by a couple of homicide dicks,” she said, “but there’s still one left, right?”
“Yeah. And Chat gets the credit for finding them. He seems to know of places that are even below your radar.”
“And Celia confirmed them?”
“Yep. The cases and bows are still missing, so you’re not done yet.”
“Ok. Maybe we’ll check the landfill for the cases. Keep in touch.”
“Want an APB on the hairy Anglo?” Chat asked.
“Yeah. You know, I’ll bet he’s a fiddler. He left his old box and kept one of the Strads.”
“Of course,” Celia said. “So he may be playing it somewhere.”
“If he is, he’s probably not the killer or one of the killers. But I sure want to know how he got them.”
“And what happened to the cases,” Chat said.
“The bows are also insured,” Celia said. “They’re pretty expensive too.”
Branch said, “From the description of the pawnbroker of a long-haired Anglo in scruffy clothes who pawned a beat-up fiddle, he’s probably not in the Houston Symphony.
Well, gang, are we up for a little clubbing? A little country or bluegrass, maybe Cajun? See if any of the fiddlers sound better than they should?”
“I’d rather look for the cases,” Chat said. “I can’t stand that redneck stuff.”
“Suit yourself. Celia?”
“I’ll tag along. I think I’d know the Joachim even through club smoke.”
Chat began a tour of local dumpsters and Branch and Celia took the instruments to be secured. Then they began hitting clubs. Gilley’s, the big dance hall featured in “Urban Cowboy,” was no longer in business, but there were at least a dozen clubs and bars that might have a fiddler.
“We ought to get our jeans and boots,” Branch said. “I know I look like a cop.”
“My travel kit didn’t include disguises.”
It didn’t take them long to check out two clubs. At the third, a good, tight bluegrass group caught Branch’s attention, and he lingered longer than was necessary to get a look at the fiddler’s instrument. Suddenly Celia turned to him, smiled, and said, “Let’s dance.”
Branch hesitated. “I should warn you that I’m lousy. I seem to have rhythm only from the waist up.”
“I’ll take my chances.”
They swung out on the floor, and Branch did his best to keep up and not crush her toes. He was beginning to get into the beat, mesmerized by Celia’s graceful moves, when the song ended. He shook his head ruefully. “I warned you.”
“You were getting there,” she said, smiling and flushed. Branch saw a new, warmer woman in that smile.
The band struck up a country waltz, a close dance. They came together easily, Branch enjoying the touch of her head on his shoulder, the feel of her back. “This is more my thing,” he said.
After that dance, Branch reluctantly suggested they get back on the job.
Between clubs, they speculated on what the thieves wanted. “We need a whole new set of motives,” Branch said. “They didn’t seem to want the instruments, but were willing to kill for what they did want. They threw away the instruments and kept the cases–at least they separated them. So either they were really stupid, violent crackheads who got scared when they came down, or there’s something bigger going on.”
“How about this,” Celia said. “They were smuggling something in the cases.”
“A good hypothesis. Or somebody was smuggling something in the cases. The quartet may have been unaware of it.”
“True. Maybe someone in one of the shops that inspected the instruments.”
“Right. In Japan or Korea.”
“Or San Francisco.”
They processed these possibilities as Branch nosed into the parking lot of a south Houston honkytonk. The building was deliberately rough, long and low, with unpainted shingle walls; the amplified music shook their diaphragms as they crossed the lot. Branch held his ears as he opened the door and glanced toward the bandstand.
“They don’t even have a fiddle,” Celia shouted over the noise of a banjo, electric bass, two guitars, a mandolin, and drums.
“Wait a bit. See if the mandolin player doubles.”
They endured the decibels until the group took a break. The mandolin player was a long-haired Anglo with a little moustache. Branch went up to him.
“Nice picking. You play fiddle too?”
“Naw,” he replied. “Never got the hang of it.” He looked at Branch suspiciously, then at Celia.
“Mind if I have a look at your chin,” Branch said.
“What for? Fuck off, man, I’ve only got ten minutes break.”
Branch flashed his badge. “Please don’t obstruct a police investigation. Won’t take a minute, then I’ll leave you alone.”
“What the hell. Go ahead.”
Branch touched the left side of the man’s jaw, feeling for the fiddler’s lump, but felt nothing but stubble.
“Sorry to bother you.”
They left. Celia got in the car and checked her watch. Branch looked at his—nearly two AM. “How many more?” she asked.
“I can think of about five, but there may be more.”
Celia said, “Can we continue this tomorrow night? I’m beat.”
“Sure. I’ll be thinking about what somebody might be smuggling that would be small enough to hide in a fiddle case and that would be worth four lives. That may help my interviews tomorrow.”