Archive for October, 2009

October 30, 2009

Four-Part Dissonance
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.”
“Please continue.”
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.”
“Just coffee.”
“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.”
“Only three?”
“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.
“Mine too.”
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.”
“Oh, right.”
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.”


Four-Part Dissonance by Edward Doughtie

October 22, 2009

Previous chapters under archives.
Chapter 4.

When Branch reached his desk the next morning, he found a woman waiting, briefcase on her lap.
“Sergeant Branch?  I’m Celia Hargrove, representing Lloyd’s for the Coleman Foundation.”
They shook hands.  She was, Branch guessed, in her mid-thirties; she wore a tailored gray suit and neck-length brown hair, and gave a general impression of neatness without fussiness: her makeup was invisible.  She had a delicately protruding lower lip and large brown eyes.   Branch shed his jacket and invited her to do the same.  She was wearing a white blouse with pearls.  Her freshness and elegant air made Branch suddenly aware of the litter, clutter, and the smell of stale coffee that surrounded them.
“We’ve made copies of the photos and distributed them locally,” he said.  “People from the Special Thefts division are working on the case.  I’ll call the lead investigator so you can meet her.  Because of the murders we have to work closely together.  I don’t suppose you’ve heard anything from customs or Interpol yet.”
“No.”  She reached in her case and gave Branch a sheet.  “These are some individuals with various agencies that you could talk to if you need to.”
“Good.  Now I know the instruments are valuable.  But maybe you could tell me exactly what they were insured for.”
“Sure.”  She handed him another sheet.  Branch whistled softly; each instrument was valued at only a little under two million dollars.  She continued.  “Now if you could let me see whatever you have–crime scene photos, ME reports–”
“I don’t have them yet, but I’ll see that you get them when I do.”  Branch glanced over the messages on his desk.  “Excuse me a moment.”  A note from Chat said that he wanted to check out some “unofficial” pawnshops that he knew about.  Some phone messages.  He looked back at Celia Hargrove.  “How would you like to work this?  You want to hang around with us, or do you have an independent line to explore?”
“Maybe some of both,” she said with a slight smile.  “Are you free to show me the crime scene, since the photos aren’t ready?”
“Sure.  Just let me make two calls first.  Could I get you a cold drink?”
“No, thanks.  Go ahead with your calls.  I’ll just make a stop before we go.”  She got up and walked toward the restroom.  Branch watched her movement before turning to the slips and the phone.  He thought with a flicker of pleasure that Chat was occupied elsewhere.
He called Polly’s cell.  “The insurance detective is here.  We’re going to check out the crime scene.”
“Ok.  I need to meet him.”
“Her, actually.  I’ll give you a call.  Maybe we can meet at our next stop.  I went by Jerome Morris’s place and rattled his cage.  And Chat is off looking at some places he knows.”
“Good.  We’ve been making the rounds, but no luck so far.”

“Why do you suppose they stopped here?” Celia Hargrove asked, as they stood under one of the live oaks in the park.  She dabbed at her forehead with a handkerchief.  The tape was still strung around the trees, but the bodies and the quartet’s rental car had been moved.
“Good question.  I don’t know why they stopped.  We know they had been to a post-concert reception at the home of one of the board members, and the park is on the way back to their hotel.  The killers must have followed them and attacked them when they stopped.”
“Have you talked to the people at the party?”
“A few.  That’s something we could continue today.”  Branch thought of Joe Haggarty, Allegra’s fiancé.  “In fact, we might call on one right now.  He’s a collector, and may know of some leads.” Branch called Polly and arranged for her to meet them at Joe’s office.
Branch and Celia Hargrove met Polly in the lobby of the tall glass tower on Travis.  Polly and Celia shook hands and made cordial small talk while they waited for the elevator.  The three faced the receptionist at Haggarty and Co., a middle-aged woman with lacquered hair from the seventies.  The lobby was modest but solid, with confidence-inducing heavy wood furniture, subdued beige walls, and hunting prints.  Branch handed the woman his card; she frowned.  “Just a friendly call,” he assured her with a smile.
After a short wait, Joe Haggarty opened his door and waved them in.  “Aldo.  Good to see you again.”  They shook hands.
“This is Ms. Hargrove from Lloyd’s.  And Sergeant Pauline Good from our Special Thefts division.  I expect you can guess how you might help us.”
Joe shook Celia Hargrove’s hand and let his eyes fall from her face for only a split second.  He greeted Polly with a nod and quick handshake.  “The Kyoto, right?  A real tragedy.”
“Yes.  You were at the post-concert party, weren’t you?” Branch asked.  Joe nodded.  “We’d like to talk about that and also let you educate us about collectors.”
“I’ll be glad to help any way I can.  Of course if I thought I knew anything useful, I would have called you immediately.”
“Sure.  By the way, how’s Allegra?”
“Fine.  I keep after her to have another music party, but something always comes up.”  He smiled in the way that Branch thought smug.
“I understand.  Give her my regards.”
Branch glanced around at Joe’s office, with its ordinary blond wood furniture and dark blue carpet.  More interesting were the shelves crowded with artifacts from around the world, mostly from Asia—Chinese vases, sandalwood boxes, Indian brasses, and a Japanese koto.  A large laminated world map, Mercator projection, hung on another wall, with time zones marked in red.  Joe’s desk held a computer, a phone with a headset, a small round object, and a few papers; a large window behind the desk looked out on a glass high-rise.      Branch asked if there were any at the party not on the presenters’ board.
“Only the Japanese consul and his wife, and another Japanese couple that knew one of the players.” Joe picked up the round object from his desk and rolled it around in his fingers.
“Do you remember anyone who left right before or after the quartet?”
“I left about ten-forty.  The quartet and most of the board were still there.  So I can’t be much help there.”
“Can you remember who arrived late?”
“I didn’t notice.”
“Remember anyone leaving before you did?”
“No.  Sorry.”
“Can you think of anything unusual at all about the party, or the behavior of anyone there?”
Joe put down the object, which Branch could now see was a Japanese netsuke, a carved pumpkin with rats crawling over it.  Joe looked up and touched his fingertips together.  “Nothing comes to me.”
Not a memorable evening for Joe, Branch thought.
“You ever do any business with Mattingly?”
Joe hesitated a moment.  “I don’t do oilfield stuff.”
Branch noted the evasion.  “Ever do any kind of importing or exporting for him?”
“Is this really relevant?” Joe showed irritation, grabbing the netsuke.
“It might be.  Don’t worry, I won’t reveal any trade secrets.”
Joe blew through his nose and leaned forward.  “I just gave him some names of people I knew.  People that might help get some purely personal collectables.”
“Get them from where?”
“Japan.  Korea.  Hong Kong.  Probably presents for Eileen—I didn’t ask.”
Branch filed away Joe’s discomfort and changed the subject.  He could ask for these names later if he needed to.
“You don’t just deal in collectables, do you?”  Branch waved at the shelves.
“No, but they come my way since I travel a lot.  And people give me things.”
“What’s the main focus of your business?”
Joe waved his hands.  “It varies.  I keep an eye out and deal in whatever looks good.  I import toys and housewares from China.  I export produce to Japan.  One week I import electronics, another week I export them.  Nothing I have to get a special license for, like computers or software.”
Branch nodded.  “Back to the party.  Did you talk to any of the members of the quartet?”
“A little small talk as we were introduced.  Nothing much.”
“Any impressions about their state of mind?  Any one of them show any sign of worry or distraction?”
“Not that I could tell.  It was a good concert, and they seemed pretty happy.”
“Anyone on the board seem worried, nervous, distracted?”
“Not that I noticed.”
Branch leaned back and asked with a smile, “Did you get a good look at those Strads?” Get him talking about what really interests him.  Polly leaned forward and adjusted her glasses.
“Yes.  Beautiful instruments, well preserved.”  Joe relaxed slightly.  “It gave me a kind of reference point, a standard, for my collecting.”
Branch looked at Celia Hargrove, who asked, “They let you handle the instruments?”
“Yes, but they were very careful.  They hovered over us, ready to catch them.” He smiled.
“Did you look at them all?” she asked.
“Just the violins and the viola.  I’m not so much interested in cellos.”
Branch asked,  “So how’s the collection going?”
“Slow.  I found a couple of fiddles since that one I showed you.  You know how much Gelb said it was worth?”  He extended his hands, palms up.
“More than five grand?”
“Yep.”  The smug smile.  “He fixed it up properly and said sixty thousand, papers or not.”
“Good for you.  Anyone playing it?”
“Yes.  I took your advice and loaned it to a fine young player at Rice.  She’s playing the Bruch on it next month.”
“That’s good.  I’ll try to make the concert.  Now let me ask about your experience in the world of collecting.  Have you met many other violin collectors?”
“A few, but none I thought might murder for a Strad quartet.”
Branch matched Joe’s grim smile.  “I didn’t think you would.  Did you ever hear any gossip about some particularly avid collector, anyone throwing lots of money around?”
“Not really.  Prices of name fiddles are getting so high, it’s hard to say if someone is going overboard.”  He shifted and looked toward the window.  “I was at an auction at Christie’s in New York last month.  There was a nice Rocca up, and an agent for an anonymous bidder went pretty high.  Higher than I would go.  I don’t know who it was.”  He smiled and opened his hands.  “Of course you hear rumors about some nut buying fiddles and locking them up–it used to be Japanese, but now with all their problems, the stories are that the Japanese are selling them to Russian mafia.  I don’t believe any of them.”
“Any suggestions about where we should go from here?”  Polly asked.
Joe looked thoughtful.  “I’ll give you the names of a few individuals I’ve dealt with.  They are a lot more plugged in than I am, and might think of something that would help.”
“Any of them local?” Polly asked.
“A few.  Just a minute.” He punched a few buttons on his computer and the printer emitted a sheet that he handed to Branch, who showed it to Polly and Celia.  “If I think of anything, I’ll let you know.”
“Thanks.  We appreciate your help.”  Celia stood and smiled.
Polly stood silently.  Branch thanked him, they shook hands, and left.
Branch noted a small half-smile came and went on Celia’s lips as they rode the elevator down.  She said, “You don’t like him very much, do you?”
Polly looked at her and smiled.  Branch raised his eyebrows.  “Was it that obvious?”
“Not really.  I doubt if he noticed.  You don’t really think he was behind the caper, do you?”
“The caper.  No, I don’t.  I guess I hoped he might be.”
“What did he do to you?”
Branch sighed and smiled.  “Married an old girlfriend.”
“And she wouldn’t marry you?”
“You got it.  You must be a good detective.” Branch saw Polly grinning.

The rest of the morning Celia and Polly spent going over the lists Joe had given them, making phone calls.  Branch called Merilee Stoddard, wife of Dr. Ben Stoddard, and set up an interview.  He didn’t expect to catch the busy doctor at home, but Frank Billings had said that his wife talked to the quartet a lot at the party, something the others had not done.
Branch identified himself to the housekeeper who answered, and eventually got Merilee Stoddard on the phone.  She had just heard the news about the quartet.
“It’s just so awful,” she said, her accent more Louisiana than Texas.   Branch recalled that she must have spent a good bit of her youth in Lake Charles while her father was getting into the oil business.  “I just can’t imagine who would do such a thing.  I’ll do anything to help catch the killer.”
“Just run over in your mind anything about the party, anything about your conversations with the musicians.”
“Of course, please come.”  Then she hesitated.  “Oh, I know it seems awful of me to ask, but will this take long?  I have a lot to get ready for an engagement this evening.”
“Not very long.”
“Can you come about ten-thirty?”
“I’ll be there.”
The Stoddards lived in the Memorial section, as posh in parts as River Oaks, but newer.  Their house was imitation Tudor, white stucco with half-timbering.  Branch parked in the circular drive, and was met at the door by Mrs. Stoddard herself.  She shook his hand effusively and led him into a parlor filled with uncomfortable eighteenth-century antiques.  His chair was padded, but it struck his back at an awkward angle.  Maybe she hoped the seating arrangement would insure a brief interview.  Merilee Banks Stoddard was trim, fiftyish, with perhaps more eye makeup than Branch thought she needed, and with lipstick that was on the bright side.  She was animated and fluent, and used her hands a lot.  Her hair and clothes announced money in ways that Branch recognized but found hard to specify.
He asked many of the same questions he had asked Billings and Joe Haggarty, and got similar answers.  He then focused on her talks with the members of the quartet.
“They were all so nice, so polite.  Mr. Ogi, the first violinist, spoke very good English.  He told me about their tour, things they had seen in Korea and in San Francisco.  Mr. Yamada also spoke very well.  I asked them about making recordings, about playing on those marvelous Strads—that’s another tragedy, losing those.  Mr. Sato, the cellist, was busy talking to his cousin and her husband, so I didn’t have much time with him except during dinner.”
“You sat with them at dinner?”
She smiled a little shamefacedly.  “Oh, my husband says I’m incorrigible.  I just push my way in when I’m enjoying a conversation.  Yes, a few people on the board always try to keep the musicians company while they eat.  I do remember Mr. Sato being very excited about seeing his cousin.  I guess they were close as children, but hadn’t seen each other in a long time.  Oh, speaking of children, Mr. Ogi and Mr. Yamada showed me pictures of their children.  So cute.  So sad for them.”
Branch murmured sympathetically.  “How about the violist, Mr. Watanabe?  I’m especially interested in him, since I play viola myself.”
“Oh, really?  Oh, now I think I remember Frank Billings saying something about playing with a policeman.  Was that you?”
“Well, that’s so interesting.  Oh, anyway, Mr. Watanabe.  He didn’t say much.  I think he was not at ease with English.  He seemed very agreeable.”
“His quietness didn’t seem to be from worry, or anger, or anything like that?”
“I didn’t think so at the time.” She frowned.  “I did notice him at one time browsing the bookshelves by himself.  He didn’t take out any of the books, just looked at the titles.”
“Everyone else in good spirits?  No sharp remarks, signs of jealousy, conflict, unhappiness of any sort?”
“Not that I could tell.” She smiled.  “The dinner was very jolly.  Even Clint—Mr. Mattingly–stopped to speak to them.”
“Tell me about that.”
She sat up and opened her eyes wider.  “Yes.  That was so nice of him.  He welcomed them, and had this special sake—you know, rice wine–he got just for them.  He said something about where it was from, and they all said ‘Ahh, very good.’  They seemed to enjoy it.”
“What else did he say?”
“Well, not much more than welcome to Houston and his home.  Poor man—as rich and powerful as he is, he seemed ill at ease in a social setting.”
“How did that show?”
“He just seemed—stiff.  His voice was hoarse, like he didn’t use it much.”
“This sake–anybody else taste it?”
“No, he only had enough for the quartet.  It was a small bottle.”
“Were you surprised to see Mr. Mattingly at the party?”
“Very much.  I’ve only met him a few times, and I’ve never heard him speak.  As often as the board has met there or had parties, I think this is the first time he’s made an appearance.  But Eileen—Mrs. Mattingly—had said she had been trying to get him out more.”
“Did you see the Strads up close?”
“No, by then I had torn myself away to help Eileen and Allegra—Mrs. Haggarty—in the kitchen.  They had staff, but this was a busy period.”
Branch was surprised again.  “Allegra was at the party?”
“Why yes, she was with Mr. Haggarty.  Do you know her?”
“Yes.  We used to play music together.”  Branch was surprised that he was surprised.  Why didn’t he assume that she would be there with Joe Haggarty?  He supposed he hadn’t wanted to think of her with him.  Mrs. Haggarty.  He would have to interview her.  He wanted to but didn’t want to.
As Branch drove back toward headquarters, he stewed over interviewing Allegra.  Should he have Celia along?  Or Polly?  As a rule, a male officer should have a female present when interviewing a woman; the female officer should ordinarily conduct the interview.  He should have had a female officer with him when he interviewed Merilee Stoddard.  Well, Celia wasn’t a real cop.  Though was that the main reason he hesitated?  How about Polly?  She was a sharp female cop, and would do a good job.  But given their history, Allegra might say more if it were just the two of them.  But could he probe hard enough?  He smiled when he realized what he had thought, and what Chat would have said if he had heard him.  Probe hard, huh?  Did he want to interview Allegra about the party and murders, or about their affair and its end?  Could he keep his focus under Allegra’s intense gaze?
He didn’t often have feelings of self-doubt or inadequacy, but this case was turning into something well beyond his experience.  Given his emotional investment in the deaths of four fellow musicians he admired, he felt he must see it through, but there were too many corners he couldn’t see around.  He called Allegra on his cell; she invited him to come right away.
Branch drove by Allegra’s old house in the West University section on the way to interview her at Joe’s.  The “for sale” sign was still out front.  He could see that the house might be a problem to sell, first because it was small, but also because it was so neat and in such good shape that a buyer might be reluctant to raze it and build one of the big two-story boxes that were replacing most of the older houses in the neighborhood.  It seemed blind and lifeless now.  Branch couldn’t help flashing on scenes of music making and lovemaking in its once warm and welcoming rooms.  Allegra and Joe now lived a few blocks away in one of the new boxes, a perfectly cubical brick veneer two-story that took up all the space on the lot that the local code allowed.  It differed from its neighbors only in details of trim and plantings.  Joe’s had a couple of dormers in the roof, and a quarter-sphere stoop over the front door.  Some thirsty-looking azaleas flanked the door, and a neighbor’s live oak shaded part of the yard.
Branch parked and sat in the car for a moment, adjusting the sunscreen behind the windshield, holding it in place with the visors.  He was tugged in several different directions.  He was pleased at the prospect of seeing Allegra alone again, but concerned that it might be unwise, that their history might blind him to something said, unsaid, or evaded.  In the darkest corner of his mind, he hoped to find something he could use against Joe, who didn’t deserve her.  Nevertheless, she had chosen Joe, and he had seen no indication that she was unhappy with him.  Should he make her unhappy by going after Joe?  Would that make Branch any better than the ex-husbands and ex-boyfriends whom he arrested every week for assaulting or murdering their former wives and girlfriends?
He sighed, got out of the car, felt the familiar breath of the hot humid air, and made his way to the door.  Allegra answered his ring, her smile creasing her cheek, and her “Hello, Aldo” penetrating like a rich string chord into his memories.  She led him into the living room, where he noticed some of her things—a rug, some paintings—but which also bore evidence of Joe’s Asian imports—a Chinese screen, a shelf of ceramics and ivory carvings, a large brass planter with a lush avocado.
“How about a drink?” she asked.  “Lemonade, a soda?”
“Lemonade would be good, thanks.”  Branch watched her walk toward the kitchen, her lightweight gray skirt moving with a familiar swing that made him squeeze his eyes shut.  She wore a white sleeveless linen top, her arms still round and firm.  The room was cool, but he shed his jacket.  He knew that she wouldn’t be surprised by the Glock 9 millimeter behind his right hip.
She returned with a tray, two glasses with ice, and a sweating pitcher.  The lemonade was cold and not too sweet.  “I know this case must have affected you strongly,” she said, settling in the sofa across from him.  “I don’t know if I can tell you much more about the party than Joe did.”
“Well, sometimes a different perspective turns up something unexpected.  What do remember about the evening?”
She took a sip of lemonade.  “It was mostly like other after-concert parties.  We got to the Mattingly’s before the quartet did.  I helped Elaine and the caterers set out food and other stuff.  People drifted in and started eating and drinking and schmoozing.  The quartet and the consul and the other Japanese couple all came about the same time.  After people had a chance to speak to the quartet, Elaine herded them in for their supper.  Everybody seemed to have a good time.”
“Mrs. Mattingly having fun?”
“Sure.  She loves these parties, and having board meetings at her place.”
“So she wasn’t harried or nervous with all these people around?”
Allegra took another sip of lemonade and looked thoughtful.  “No, I’d call it engaged, or alert, or something.  She wanted it to go well, so she was always checking on the food and drink and the staff.”
Branch asked about who was there, when they arrived, when they left, whether anyone seemed nervous or anxious or unusually quiet or talkative, and got answers that matched his other interviews.  Joe left early, but Allegra stayed on to help.  She thought the quartet left about eleven-thirty.
“Anything at all seem to you out of the ordinary?”
“I guess there was more interest in their instruments than with other groups.  Not many of us had seen a Strad up close, and they were generous about showing them.”
“I know Joe was interested.”
“Oh, yes.”  She smiled.  “He’s always wishing he had got into collecting instruments sooner; he says that not many good ones come on the market any more.”
“It’s good that he’s sharing his collection with some players.”
“Yes.  That was a good suggestion you made.”
“I think it was Seth.”  They paused, sipped lemonade.  Branch congratulated himself for his tact so far.  He’d better get back to the party—he could see delicate topics ahead if continued with Joe or his own quartet.  “I heard Clint made an appearance.”
She looked up, seeming almost relieved.  “Yes, he did.  I guess that was unusual.  It was the first time I’d even seen him.  He came in just before we gave the quartet their dessert with this little bottle of sake and these little china cups.  He made a short speech.  It sounded like he’d written it down and memorized it.”
“Can you paraphrase it?”
“He welcomed them to Houston, and to his home, and wanted to give them something from their home that he hoped they’d enjoy.  Then he read from the bottle where it was from.  Something like that.”
“Did they enjoy it?”
“They were very polite, and appeared to enjoy it.  They sort of tossed it back and smacked and said ‘Ahh’.”
Branch swallowed some lemonade and said “Ahh.”  They both smiled.  Branch tried to think of more questions, but something about her smile distracted him.  Finally he said, “I passed your old house just now.  Any buyers?”
“Not yet.  The market’s slow right now, with the flood and the Enron collapse.”
“Mm-hm.”  Why wouldn’t she ask about his life?  “You get to play much?”
“Now and then I play trios with Naomi Fein and Sarah Budd.  You know them?”
“I’ve heard of Sarah, I think.  A cellist?”
“Yes.”  Silence.
Before he quite realized what he was doing, Branch leaned forward and whispered earnestly, “Why, Allegra?  Why Joe?”
She looked down.  “It’s complicated.”  She looked up into Branch’s pained expression.  “Do you have any more questions about the party?”
“Why not me?”
She straightened.  “I’m not comfortable with this.  I think I’ve told you all I know.”
“All right, then.”  Branch plunged on.  “Joe would really like a Strad, wouldn’t he? Or three, or four?”
“Yes, but—“ She stopped and frowned.  “I think it’s time for you to go, Aldo.”  She stood and looked Branch in the eye.  “Joe’s a good man.  He’s what I need.”  She put some steel in her voice.  “Don’t you dare make trouble for him.”
Branch stood, grabbing his jacket.  “I won’t, as long as he hasn’t made it for himself.”
“Goodbye, Aldo.”
He left.  The hot air slapped him on the sidewalk.  His car was an oven.  He snatched the sunscreen away from the windshield and lowered the windows to let some of the superheated air escape as he pulled away down the street.  At the corner he stopped and beat the steering wheel with his fist.  You jerk, you asshole.  You idiot.
Back at headquarters Branch found Celia sitting by his desk shuffling papers.  She smiled as he approached.  Her presence, her smile he found partly a relief after his encounter with Allegra, and partly a complicated source of melancholy.  She said, “Polly was called away, so I guess you’re stuck with me.”
“Fine with me.”  He checked his watch.  “Do you like barbecue?”
“Love it.”
“I know a place.”

“This is good,” Celia said as she caught the barbecue sauce running down her hand before it reached her sleeve.
“Messy but good,” Branch said.  “How do they do barbecue where you’re from?”
She smiled and said, “It’s mostly pork, with a thin, peppery sauce.  I’m from North Carolina.”
“You must not be eating enough of it, because you sound like New York–Central Park West.”
“Oh, thank you.  When I slip and say aboot the hoose, I try to blame a fictional Scottish nanny.  Yeah, I’ve had to disguise my peasant background and low tastes to do this job.”
“But we’re all honest here, right?” Branch smiled and wiped his moustache.
They ate seriously for a while.  “You seem to know something about violins,” she said.
“Not really.  But I play viola—an amateur.  Mostly string quartets.”
“I like chamber music.”
“You play?” Branch’s interest spiked at the possibility that she might be a musician.
“No, but I had a good friend who played violin and taught me a lot about music.”    “That’s good.  But I must say it’s more fun to play, to be in the middle of it, even if you can’t play all the notes.”
“I envied my friend for that.  I envy you.”
Branch’s cell phone rang.  He listened, grunted, and said “Good.  I’ll be right there.”  To Celia he said, “A pawn shop reported a Strad violin.  Polly’s on the other side of town.  Let’s check it out.”
“One more bite.”
The pawnshop was in a strip mall near Hobby airport.  A used car lot sprawled across the street, an equipment rental yard next door.  The shop was full of the usual contents: guitars, a saxophone, a beat-up drum set, cases full of cheap watches and jewelry, ugly knicknacks, boomboxes, a portrait of Elvis on black velvet.  The pawnbroker was a skinny, nervous, eager Bangladeshi.  “I rang you up as soon as this came in.  I even offered more on the loan so that he would be sure to leave it.”  He wiped his hands and gingerly handed Branch a violin.
Branch shook his head at the garish red and yellow varnish before he even touched the violin.  He glanced at the label and smiled thinly.  “The label says Stradivarius, all right.  But it also says ‘Made in China’.  I don’t think old Tony had a Peking franchise.”
The pawnbroker’s face fell.  “Oh, bloody hell.  I loaned him a hundred bucks.”
“That’s an honest price, then, for that’s just about what this is worth.”  He handed the violin to Celia, who looked it over carefully and gave it to the pawnbroker.  “Thousands of cheap fiddles have Strad labels,” Branch said.  “It’s a way of saying that the pattern, or the pattern of the pattern, was copied from a Strad.”
As they returned to Branch’s car, he said, “We’ll probably have a few more wild goose chases like that.”
“Well, I’m getting to see some of Houston,” Celia said.
“You get to see the armpits.  No pawnshops in River Oaks.”
Speaking of armpits, Branch thought, the wind was blowing from the refineries.  At least it was rarer now to get what Branch called the wet dog smell, which he once determined to be the pleasant smell of coffee roasting spoiled by a paper mill.
Back at the station, Branch found a message to call the Chief’s office, and a large folder from the medical examiner.  He weighed the phone message in his hand, then put it back on the desk.  He didn’t have much to report—he’d rather wait until he did.  He’d procrastinate just a little.  Any time dealing with the Chief was wasted, he felt.  He opened the folder and glanced at the photos.  “Sure you want to look at these?”
“I’d like to try,” Celia said.  Branch heard anxiety in her voice even as he saw determination in her face.  Branch sat; she stood looking over his shoulder.  Branch got a whiff of some very nice soap or some subtle perfume.  He enjoyed the contrast it offered to the photos.  Allegra also had a faint scent that was hers alone.
The first photo from the crime scene showed one of the dead lying on his back with his arms stretched out; no wound was visible.  “Hiro Ogi,” Branch read.  “Violinist.  Died from a gunshot to the head.”  He turned to the autopsy photo of the other side of his head, where a small neat hole appeared.  “Near contact wound with powder tattooing.  Bullet found inside the skull, .22 caliber.  Contusions on upper arms, chin.”  He shuffled the photos and papers, speaking softly.  “Kikuei Yamada, violin–.22 to the head.  Naoki Watanabe, viola–.22 to the head.  Masakuni Sato, cello–.22 to the head.”  He lingered over the last photo; the man was on his side, his knees drawn up, his mouth frozen in an astonished O.  Celia sat down and looked toward the window.  Branch thought she looked pale, and these pictures were not at all gory.  He was glad he didn’t have to show her photos from a knifing.  She bit her lower lip.
Branch continued, partly to himself.  “Looks like a pro job.  If this were a few years ago, I’d think it was the Westies, a New York gang that did a lot of hits with .22s.  But plenty of others have learned from them since.” He glanced at some other papers.  “Crime scene has some prints that don’t match the victims’.  It’ll take some time to run them through, looking for matches.  It’ll probably be a dead end.  No weapon found yet, and no ballistic matches to other guns we know about, but that’s no surprise.  We have piddling few ballistic records on file, and there are thousands of guns out there.”  He leaned back in his chair and rubbed his eyes.
Celia stood, looking pale.  “Would you or one of your men have time to take me to my hotel?” She hesitated, then shook her head and made a canceling wave.  “I’ll just call a cab.”
“No, I’ll take you.  Not much I can do right now.  Just let me make this call.”  He looked closely at her.  “Are you all right?”
“Yeah.  I will be.”
Branch punched the Chief’s number.  Celia sat, then stood again and headed to the restroom.
“Branch,” the Chief whined, “I’m getting a lot of heat from the commissioner and the council.  The press will tune up soon if they don’t have something.”
“I’m sorry, Chief, but we’re doing the best we can with what we have, which is no witnesses so far, no ballistics, and no trace of the instruments.  The insurance detective is here and will help, and we’re working with Sergeant Good of Special Thefts.  We’re interviewing the people at the party after the concert, but there are a lot of them, all busy, respectable citizens.  You want me to say I suspect the chairwoman of the museum association?”
“Of course not,” the Chief said, his voice rising in alarm.  “Be tactful.  But keep digging.”
Celia returned.  “Are you sure you have time?”
“Sure.  Let’s go.”
They were quiet during the ride.  When they reached the hotel, Branch asked, “What would you like to do tomorrow?”
Celia looked at him thoughtfully.  “I’ll hang out here, make some phone calls, do some digging around on my own.  I’ll talk to some more of those people Mr. Haggarty gave us. Could I have your cell number?”
“Sure.” He handed her a card.  “Office, cell, email.  And I’ll call you if we come up with anything.”
She opened the car door, then hesitated.  “Thanks for the ride.”  She looked down and smiled slightly.  “Sorry about my reaction to the photos.  I guess I was so preoccupied with the instruments, I had forgotten that these men may have lost their lives over them.  I guess the pictures made me realize that they were real people.”
“I understand.”
She made to get out of the car, but stopped again.  “Ah–do you have dinner plans tomorrow?”
“No.  Want some more barbecue?”
“Tempting.  But why don’t we meet here and compare notes?  I’ve got an expense account.”
“Good idea.”
Her scent lingered faintly in the car.  As he drove, Branch allowed himself a brief fantasy of a cosy dinner, intimate conversation, a tentative touch, a significant look, a trip to her hotel room . . . .  He checked himself, and found that he was conflating images of Celia and Allegra.  He sternly reminded himself that Celia was too young for him, even though he thought he picked up a faint signal of interest.  But if he hadn’t had Allegra looming in his memory, would he be more interested himself?  Allegra filled his thoughts, and he winced at the thought of their last meeting.  He tried to divert them to the Allegra Quartet.  The diversion didn’t go far enough.

He remembered one evening a few months after his quartet had become a regular, settled group, meeting almost every Monday.  They were having beer and pretzels at Seth’s, the doctor’s, house after an evening of Haydn, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn.  Branch enjoyed meeting at Seth’s place.  It was another divorced man’s digs, but the house was a bit larger than his own, and Seth could afford nicer furniture and a weekly cleaning service.  He had a real oriental rug, a nice baby grand, pleasant oil landscapes painted by his sister, and craft-brewed beer.  He also indulged in a single man’s appetite for electronics: big TV, TiVo, stereo, and recording equipment.  Seth even cut a CD of one of the Mozart quartets they had worked up to a respectable polish.
Branch told the others that he had called Allegra to see if she could play with them again.  She had tactfully refused.
“Give it up, Aldo,” Bart McIlhenny growled.  “You’ve called her a dozen times since the party, and she’s always turned us down.”
“We cops tend to be persistent.”
“Peter called her too,” Seth said.
“And struck out,” Peter said, ducking his head.
Bart looked at them all with pain in his eyes.  “I don’t want to play with her any more, anyway.”
“Why not?” Branch asked.  “She plays like an angel.”
“That’s not it.  I just don’t want to be around her any more.  I’m married–second time, and I want to make it work.”  Bart swirled his mug.  “Allegra–she–she disturbs me.”
The group was struck silent, each glancing from one to the other.  Peter whispered “M–me too.”
A hint of an idea began to itch at Branch’s mind.  “We all knew Allegra, right?”
“Some better than others,” Seth said.
Bart snorted.  “I’ll say.”
“Can you tell us about you and Allegra, Bart?  I think you want to.”  Branch felt himself falling into the good cop role.
“Gentlemen don’t kiss and tell.”
“I’ll tell if you will,” Branch said, and paused.  “Allegra and I were lovers for two years.”
They all stared at Branch.  Then Bart said, “I ruined my first marriage over Allegra.  We were together nearly three years.  That was a while ago.”
“She just broke up with me about six months ago,” Peter said.  “I think about her all the time.” Physics was no comfort for the lovelorn, Branch thought.  He would have thought that meditating on quarks and relativity would give Peter some relief.
Seth sighed and gave an ironic smile.  “Well, that puts me after Bart and before Aldo.”
Bart stared at Seth.  “She dumped me for you?”
Seth began laughing.  Branch, his suspicion confirmed, smiled and began laughing too.  He had a pang of jealousy, but the feeling of solidarity among fellow victims, now friends, washed it away.  Soon they were howling, all but Peter, their eyes flowing.  They laughed until the pain in their sides began mask the pain in their memories.
“My God,” Bart gasped.  “You can’t beat her.”
“I can see her, making a list,” Seth said.  “One cellist, check.  Next I have to have a couple of fiddles.  Never mind that one is married.  Oh, and a violist.”
Bart grinned and jerked his thumb at Branch.  “Viola’s always an afterthought.”
Branch thought that he came before the second violinist, but he didn’t say so, for he knew that Peter, though he was now laughing with them, still hurt.  “I am amazed at how sweetly she manipulated us,” he said.  “Here she’s getting married after all this time, calls us together to meet the man and finish us off, but she does it with music.”
Peter, immediately serious, said, “She gives us this quartet.  Compensation.”
“You guys are nice, but you’re no substitute for Allegra,” Seth said.  “At least we can laugh and not start fighting each other.”
“Yeah, I might hurt my fingering hand,” Bart said, waving his huge fist under Seth’s nose.
“And I can’t stay angry at her, either,” Peter said.
“I guess she gave us a fair trial,” Branch said.  “We just didn’t make the cut.”
“What’s Joe’s secret?” Bart asked.  “He doesn’t even play.”
“Maybe that’s it,” Seth said.  “Maybe she couldn’t stand the future with some amateur sawing away in the house.”
“Money,” Branch said, then regretted the word.
Bart sighed and nodded.  “Must be.”
“I don’t like to think that of Allegra,” Peter said.
“I’m sure that can’t be all,” Branch said.  “He must be a good guy.”
Bart frowned.  “Maybe.  But I can’t stand his shit-eating grin.  He’s sitting in the catbird’s seat with all the marbles.  He can collect instruments he can’t even play that we could never afford.”  Branch raised his hand.  “No, let me have my jealous snit,” Bart said.
“Snit away, but watch the mixed clichés.”
“Well,” Peter said, looking down, “let’s hope he’s ok.  For Allegra’s sake.”
Branch thought of gentle Peter’s words, and wished he could concur.  But his gut agreed with Bart.  He wouldn’t wish Allegra married to a murderer, and he really couldn’t bring himself to believe that Joe was capable of cold-blooded killing.  But Branch had learned that some people would do almost anything for enough money.  Or for love, or hate.

October 15, 2009

Four-Part Dissonance by Edward Doughtie
Previous chapters are under “archives.”
Chapter 3.

Branch’s group called themselves the Allegra quartet because of the unusual circumstance of their coming together.  The name did not come from the musical tempo marking, allegro–cheerful, fast–but because of a woman named Allegra.
Branch could not help thinking of Allegra as he drove home after the quartet session.  He thought of her often, but especially after playing music.  It was, as he remembered the old poet Petrarch’s saying of love, a sweet pain.  She was the most fascinating woman he had ever known, and had spoiled him for other women.  They had been lovers for a little over two years.
Branch had been divorced for a year when they met; his wife, like the wives of many other policemen, had given up on him because of the irregular hours and the priority he had given his job.  Although he had tried to save his marriage–he went to counseling, tried to regularize his hours, took a boring desk job–he had felt relief mixed with sadness when she signed the papers and moved to California.  Although he had wanted children, he was glad then that they had none.  He became absorbed in his work, and palliated his loneliness with music.
Branch had met Allegra at a concert, where they discovered that they were both enthusiastic amateur players.  The concert consisted of a group of mixed chamber pieces, including the Mozart trio for clarinet, viola, and piano.  Sam, a clarinet player in the civic orchestra Branch played in at the time, introduced them.  Branch had played the Mozart piece with him and his wife.
“Aldo,” Sam had said at intermission, “come meet Allegra.  Allegra, this is my friend the musical policeman.  He plays chamber music.”
“Mostly on the stereo,” Branch said, and shook her hand.  She could have been thirty, though Branch found out later that she was almost exactly his age at the time, forty.  She smiled up at him with a wide, open face, large gray eyes, a crease in one cheek, and a firm grip.  Her hair was short and coppery brown.  She was slim, but not skinny—Branch couldn’t help thinking of his viola, which had curves in the right places.
“Just the facts, Ma’am,” his clarinetist friend said.  “He’s a violist; we just played that Mozart trio last week, and we’ve played the Schumann piece for the same combination.”
“Well, you can’t do that if you just play the stereo,” Allegra said.  “I’ve played those myself.”
“Oh?  Which part?”
“Piano.  The violist wasn’t very good, though.”
“Aldo is.  He actually plays in tune.”  Branch gave his clarinetist a grateful look.
“We’ll have to play sometime,” she said.  “Ever play piano quartets?”
“Some–the two Mozarts and the Brahms in C minor.”
“There are several other good ones.  Give me your number.”
Branch gave her one of his cop cards.
“You really are a cop, then,” she said.  “I thought Sam just meant you were one of the wrong-note police.  How did you come to combine music and crime fighting?”
“It’s a long story.”
“I’d like to hear it.  We really will have to get together.”
That night and in the days that followed, Branch found himself thinking about Allegra’s long-fingered hand, her rich alto voice with its southern-tinged vowels, and the wide eyes that seemed to invite one into their depths.
She called the next week and invited him to play piano quartets.  He found her small but elegant house in the West University section.  She had a well-tuned baby grand, watercolor landscapes in loose strokes and deep colors, and lots of books; Branch saw no signs of other inhabitants.  He had met the cellist once before, a woman in her sixties who played semi-professionally.  The violinist he didn’t know, but he turned out to be on the faculty at the small Catholic college, St. Thomas.  They played two of the three Brahms piano quartets, including the C minor that he had played before.  The other one, in A, had Branch struggling to keep up, but he managed not to embarrass himself.  The other players were very good.  Allegra was sensitive player, knew how to keep time and not drown out her colleagues.  After they played, they had wine, nuts, crackers and cheese.  Aldo tried to keep the conversation general, but Allegra insisted that he explain how he combined music and police work.
“I wasn’t good enough to play professionally,” he began.  “But I loved music, so I started grad school in musicology.  I liked research, but school started to pall.  I just didn’t think a lot of what I had to do was very useful, or really kept me in touch with what I liked about music.”
“But how did you go into law enforcement?”  Allegra had been paying such close attention as to be unsettling.  Branch had anticipated this question, and was uneasy about answering it, especially under Allegra’s intense gaze.  He came to think of her focus on whomever she was talking to as a large part of her magic—it was as if no one were present but she and you.
“Well, I had always been a great reader of detective fiction.  I guess I daydreamed about that role.  But it was mainly a personal–ah, event that made me get serious about it.  My liking for research found a little more justification, too.  Tracking credit card trails could be as tedious as scoring minor Netherlandish motets, but the end might be more immediately useful.”
“What was that personal event, if you don’t mind my asking?” This from the cellist.
“I think he would have told us if he didn’t mind,” Allegra said with a smile, and quickly asked, “Has your musical training ever helped you solve a case?”
Branch was grateful for the diversion.  “Only once so far.  That was before I got into homicide.  We knew there was some sort of drug connection in a jazz combo that played in one of the hotels.  I watched them several nights, saw two of them get pretty high as the night went on, but I couldn’t spot the drugs.  Then I noticed that the sax player always brought along a flute but he never played it.  Had his stash in the flute.”
As they were leaving, Allegra thanked him for coming and complimented his playing.  “We’ll have to play some sonatas sometime.”
“I’d like that,” Branch said, though he was then frightened by the prospect.  Although he played in an orchestra and in chamber groups, he had not played any solo pieces since college.  He’d have to think about what he could do.  He also felt excited, and even a little frightened, by the prospect of being alone with her.

They played the three Bach sonatas transcribed from the viola da gamba, plus a few other Baroque pieces.  They tried two of the Beethoven cello sonatas arranged for viola.  Playing with Allegra grew into a kind of foreplay.  When they exchanged a motif gracefully, she rewarded him with a quick glance and a lingering smile.  When he allowed his viola to soar on a climactic passage, she leaned toward him as if to add her support, or somehow share the rising feeling.  But it was not until Branch worked hard and got up the first Brahms sonata that Allegra rewarded his efforts by taking him to bed.  He was inspired to learn the other Brahms sonata as well.  They were difficult, for Brahms had the clarinet in mind when he wrote them, and they were full of awkward leaps and arpeggios.  The Brahms sonatas marked the high point of their relationship.
Branch sometimes thought their affair came to an end because of the paucity of music for the viola, at least music that was both interesting and accessible to amateurs.  But Allegra had been very tactful and subtle when she decided to ease Branch out of her bed.  It probably helped that they never exactly lived together.  She kept her house and moved back and forth to Branch’s house on an unpredictable schedule.  Finally she stopped going to Branch’s place and made it harder for him to stay at hers, but so gently and thoughtfully and with such plausible excuses—she often invoked her job in real estate sales–that it was some time before Branch realized that he had been dumped.  She would greet him cordially when they met at concerts, ask with genuine interest about his health and work, but was never available for music or anything more intimate.
Branch accepted the situation stoically, but could not get Allegra out of his mind.  No other woman he met had her ability to engage his entire attention.  Her voice played in his brain like a melody that gets started and wouldn’t stop.  If he heard anything on the radio that they had played together, she would fill his consciousness in a vivid rush.  When the memory involved a vision of her naked body, or the feel of her warm skin, he would grind his teeth and wonder what he did wrong.

He was surprised, therefore, when she called him a year ago.  “I’m having a music party next weekend, and you must come.  What night is best for you?”
“Either is fine with me.  A party sounds like more than sonatas.”
She laughed.  “A quintet, actually.  We’ll play the Brahms piano quintet.”
“Great.  Do I know the others?”
“I don’t think so, though you may have seen them around.  I think I introduced you to the cellist at the Emerson concert.”  Branch had a vague memory of a balding man with a wry smile, though he had been focused, as usual, on Allegra.  “You’ll have an audience, my fiancé.  He doesn’t play, but he’s a good listener.”
“Oh.”  He drove the despair out of his voice and said with forced jollity, “I’ll look forward to meeting him.  But I’ll really look forward to playing with you again.  It’s been too long.”
The music party at Allegra’s had been both pleasant and painful for Branch.  The music went well.  Allegra put the first violin part on the stand in front of the lean, sharp-faced man called Seth.  He turned to the other violinist, Peter, and offered him the part.  Peter, slumped in his chair, shook his head and stammered, “I’m much happier on second.”  The cellist wrapped his burly arms around his instrument and tuned to the piano A; the rest tuned and looked at Allegra expectantly.  They began the Brahms quintet.  The other players were good, and Branch soon entered a kind of flow state, in which the notes fell naturally; he was taken out of himself, and played better than he thought he could.
That part was pleasant.  The pain came from watching Allegra and her fiancé, a short, compact, gray-haired man at least ten years older than Branch.  He had a prominent chin and deep eye sockets that made his eyes look small and hidden.  He turned pages for her.  She signaled him to turn by a nod and a little smile, after which he would look at her, it seemed to Branch, as if she were a recent and prized acquisition.
After the quintet, the strings played a Mozart quartet while Allegra made food.  Joe, the fiancé, helped in the kitchen, and now and then stood in the doorway, listening and looking at the players complacently.
When they finished, the first violinist spoke excitedly.  “Wow, we really found a groove!  Could we meet some more?  Even if Allegra couldn’t play, we could do quartets.”
The others agreed with enthusiasm.  They exchanged numbers, pulled out calendars.
“Allegra,” Branch called.  “Can you play on the third?  It’s a Wednesday.”
Allegra came to the door, wiping her hands on a towel.  “I’m afraid not.  Why don’t you guys play quartets?”
“We will, but we’ll miss you.”
The cellist’s florid face was briefly shadowed.  “You said it,” he muttered, as if to himself.
Allegra had prepared a real meal, not just an after-music snack.  Joe poured an excellent wine that Branch could tell was out of his league.  The conversation, guided by Allegra, established that Branch was a policeman; Bart, the cellist, was an engineer, recently married for the second time; Peter taught physics at the university, and was not married; Seth taught at the medical school and was divorced, with a young daughter.  Most of the group’s curiosity was focused on Joe.  Joseph M. Haggarty was a businessman, CEO of a successful import-export company, widowed.
“I never had time to learn an instrument or get any formal music,” he said.  “But I’ve always loved listening, especially to classical music.  Now Allegra is educating me about chamber music.”
Seth said, “Allegra’s taught all of us a lot.”
“Joe’s also a collector,” Allegra said.  “He has a lot of wonderful art.”
Joe smiled.  “Keeps me out of trouble.  I’ve started collecting instruments too–they’re such beautiful objects.  Maybe you guys could be consultants, tell me if they’re any good.”
Branch frowned.  “Would you let them be played?  Good fiddles deteriorate if they’re just locked up.”
“Yeah,” Seth joined in, “please don’t collect violins.  The prices are already so high that musicians can’t afford good ones, and collectors just drive them higher.”
Allegra shook her finger.  “Now, now.  There are companies and collectors that loan good instruments out to promising players.  The Smithsonian instruments get played a lot.”
“There’s a hot young fiddler who has a Guarneri owned by a syndicate,” Bart said.  “Like a racehorse.”
“That’s something to consider,” Joe said.  He stood.  “I’ve got a violin with me I’d like to show you, see what you think.”  He went into another room and brought back an oblong case, which he opened, and took out a violin.  Seth reached out and took it, handling it more gently, Branch thought, than Joe.  It was clearly old, a rich reddish brown, with several dents in the edges and old scratches on the back and top.  Seth peered through the f-hole, tilting the violin to catch the light.
“No label,” he said.  He plunked the strings, and twisted the pegs to bring it into tune.  Picking up a bow, he played a scale across all four strings.  Then he played a bit of a Brahms sonata on the G-string, then other fragments on the other strings.  Branch thought it sounded thin and strangled.  Seth frowned, looked into an f-hole, and sighted down the strings from the scroll.  “Well,” he said, “it’s old, but it’s not sounding very good just now.  It’s probably Italian, which could be good, but it needs a new bridge, new strings, and an adjustment of the soundpost.  There might be an opening that needs gluing as well.”  He handed it back to Joe, who looked disappointed.  “Do you have any papers for it?”
“Well, no.  But the guy who sold it to me assured me that it was eighteenth-century Italian.”
“Did he claim it was a Strad?” Seth asked.
“No, but he said it could be.”
Seth and the others smiled.  “There are very few Strads and good Italian instruments unaccounted for.  This one might turn out to be a nice fiddle with some work and playing in, but without papers or a provenance, it won’t fetch the big bucks.”
“What do you call big bucks?”  Joe asked.
“High six figures,” Seth said.
“What if this one can be made to sound really good?”
“That’s the irony.  Even if it turned out to sound as good as a Strad, without papers you probably couldn’t get more than forty or fifty thousand.”
Branch thought, is anyone going to ask how much he paid, or are we all too tactful?
Joe looked around with the expression that Branch increasingly disliked, a self-satisfied smile, his eyes almost hidden by his lifted cheeks.  “I got it for five grand.”
Seth said, “Well, you may be lucky.  Take it over to Gelb’s and see what he can do with it.”
This produced a discussion about which of the local violin shops would do the best job, or whether Joe should take the violin to New York or Philadelphia.  The evening then came to an end, the string players reminding each other of their quartet date at Seth’s house.
Branch spoke to Allegra at the door.  “Sorry you won’t be able to join us.  Think you might have time later?”
Allegra smiled and glanced at Joe.  “I don’t know–we’ve been pretty busy.”
Joe put an arm over Allegra’s shoulder.  He was about half an inch shorter than she.  “We’ve got some trips planned.  Maybe when we get back.  You guys sounded very good.  It would be a shame not to play again.”
It was a shame, Branch thought, for they hadn’t played with Allegra again.  But the quartet soon became the most important musical outlet for the four men.  Branch quit the community orchestra.  He had become bored with playing the old warhorses that made up most of their repertoire, and he felt that sitting right in front of the brass section was beginning to affect his hearing.  He began practicing chamber music regularly, and looking forward to Monday nights.  Mondays were fairly low on crime, so he rarely had to cancel.

Chapter 3

October 15, 2009

Four-Part Dissonance, Chapter2

October 8, 2009

Chapter 2.

Branch and Chat had adjoining desks in a large, noisy squad room, cluttered with utilitarian furniture, gray filing cabinets, and a messy coffee bar. They pulled up an extra chair for Polly Good. Polly was plump and matronly, but wore her lightweight beige suit with grace, and her graying hair in a bun. Her eyes glinted with humor and intelligence behind rimless bifocals. Branch spoke. “The Coleman Collection’s insurance agent is on the way from the company’s Dallas office. They faxed us these pictures of the Strads. They’re not as clear as glossies, but you may get some information from them.” Branch pointed to one of the photos. “The labels are visible through these holes, the f-holes.”
Chat grinned.
“Not f-word holes, you adolescent. They look like old fs. Look–they’re all from 1735, only two years before he died.” That accounted for their mature craftsmanship and consistent sound, Branch thought. “Antonius Stradivarius Cremonensis Faciebat Anno 1735,” the labels read, followed by round stamp with a cross and “AS.”
“What’s that smaller one that says something 91?” Polly asked.
“That’s Stradivarius’ age when he made them. He lived to be 93, working all the time.”
Chat snorted. “Hmp. Why didn’t he retire? If they’re so good he must have made a bundle.”
“He loved his work.”
While Polly studied the photos, Branch got on the phone and made an appointment with the Japanese consul for an interview that afternoon. He went down the hall and caught Mikey O’Banion, a skinny red-haired twenty-five-year-old, and asked him to get his partner Sean and set up interviews with the concert party attendees that he had written on a list.
“Be nice,” he said. “I doubt if any of these folks will qualify as suspects, but you never can tell. Anything unusual, any notable behavior, any tension with the musicians, whatever. Try to get some sense of time, who arrived at the party and when, when they left. Try to pin down the time the victims left. OK?”
Mikey straightened up and gave a Boy Scout three-fingered salute. Branch responded with his middle finger.
“Here’s the list of places I called yesterday about the fiddles,” Polly said. “You want us to show the pictures around?”
“Let’s divide them up. There are a few places I want to visit to give the dealers a few lessons about recognizing antique fiddles.”
The three went to a copy shop and made prints to be distributed to likely points of sale. Branch lingered over the photos of the Berlioz viola, the one Paganini owned when he asked Berlioz to write a concerto for him. The result was Harold in Italy, which Paganini supposedly didn’t like.
Polly took one set of photos and went to meet her partner in Special Thefts. Branch and Chat took another set to a store that Branch suspected housed a high-class fence. They had never been able to make anything stick on Jerome Morris, but the word on the street was that he could find a discreet client for art and antiques that no one else would touch. Stradivarius violins, Branch thought, would be just his cup of tea.
Morris was in fact having a cup of tea when Branch and Chat entered the store, a small but elegant shop on the edge of the upscale River Oaks section. Paintings, limited edition prints, furniture, oriental rugs, and smaller objects were tastefully displayed. Branch looked for musical instruments, but saw none. Morris put down his cup and saucer, delicate bone china, and rose to greet Branch.
“Sergeant. What can I do for you? Can I interest you in a Victorian deerstalker cap? Or a meerschaum pipe?” He was a stout, jowly man with slick black hair and half-glasses on a chain around his neck. He wore striped suspenders over a white shirt and a string tie. His voice had a whiny lilt that grated on Branch’s nerves.
“No thanks, Morris. Save those for Sherlock. Have you heard about the Kyoto Quartet?”
“They were performing the other night, weren’t they? Afraid I couldn’t make the concert.”
“Their Strads were stolen.”
“Really?” His eyes brightened.
“I wanted to leave some photos with you, in case someone was foolish enough to try to sell them to you.”
“I don’t usually handle instruments.”
“But I’m sure you know someone who does.” He put the copies on the counter. “Even though we’d like to find these, my main concern is that the members of the quartet were murdered.” Branch was pleased to see several expressions scurry across Morris’ face, first surprise, then disappointment, then fear. “So I’m sure you’ll let me know if you get wind of the slightest rumor where these might be.”
“Of course, Sergeant.”
Chat had been examining a shelf of bric-a-brac. He held up a small blue urn with white figures on it. “Hey Jerome. How much you asking for this?”
“That’s real early Wedgewood, Officer. I think that piece is four-fifty.”
“Four-fifty? That ain’t bad.” To Branch he said, “Lady I know would like this.” And to Morris: “You got change for a ten?”
“Four hundred and fifty dollars, Officer.”
“Shee—“ Chat put the urn back. “Just something else to dust, right?”
Branch and Chat visited a few other stores and pawnshops, and stopped for lunch at the barbecue barn on Kirby. Mesquite logs were stacked outside, and the fragrant smoke flavored with beef fat made Branch’s mouth water. The owner, a man with a long black beard, pulled up on his motorcycle and greeted Branch as they entered. Moving through the line of lunchers, they examined the old cowboy photos, saddles, firearms, and bags made from bull scrotums hanging on the wall. Chat had a Dr. Pepper with his sandwich; Branch had a non-alcoholic beer.
Chat bit into his sandwich. “Mmm! Got to give this white man credit.”
“We can learn from you all now and then.”
Chat chewed thoughtfully. “Think those pictures’ll do any good? Only old Jerome paid much attention to them.”
“You never can tell. The Coleman people have told Interpol and customs around the world. They also alerted the Art Squad at Scotland Yard and the Art and Jewelry Theft Bureau at the NYPD. But they may turn up in some Montrose junk shop.”
Branch and Chat eyed a trio of young women office workers chatting in the cafeteria-style line. Two wore very short skirts. “You done quit dating, but you still looking,” Chat said with a grin.
“I ain’t dead yet.” Branch looked, but the giggling young women with too much makeup only heightened the contrast with another woman who immediately came to his mind. He sighed and ate.
The momentary satisfaction the barbecue gave Branch died when he and Chat arrived at the station to find two TV crews and a dozen journalists waiting for news. The local press was there, but the group in front of him now looked national, even international–one crew was Asian, most likely Japanese. As soon as Lieutenant Sandoval appeared, they closed in, asking different questions simultaneously, thrusting microphones in his face. Sandoval managed to quiet them long enough to make some general assurances of diligence, then turned the questions over to Branch as the head of the investigation.
Branch was grateful for Sandoval’s trust, but was unprepared for the intensity of the questioning. He first acknowledged the Japanese crew. After the man with the mike asked him, in very good English, what he could say about the case, Branch tried to make a general statement that would satisfy them all. They were working very hard to trace the instruments, hoping they would lead to the killer or killers. No, they had no suspects yet. Theft of the instruments was a possible motive, but there might be other reasons. He asked the press to report that if anyone who saw anything suspicious on Memorial Drive between eleven and one last night to please come forward. Then, focusing on the Japanese, Branch stated that he was a musician himself and an admirer of the Kyoto Quartet. He offered his sincere personal regrets to the families and to the Japanese people, and assured them of his efforts in seeing that justice was done. He turned to go, but had to answer a number of further questions, many only variations of ones he had just answered.
When he finally got away, he found Chat at his computer. “Let’s go. Time to talk to the Japanese consul.”
“Aw, man.” He sighed. “If you insist.”

Branch and Chat were ushered into a pleasant room decorated with lacquer ware, woodblock prints, and painted scrolls. The consul and his wife entered, smiled, bowed, and shook hands. Both hesitated a fraction of a second over Chat’s outstretched hand, and Branch noticed that Chat noticed. They were invited to sit on the Western style sofas, and offered tea or coffee.
Branch first repeated his sympathy and admiration for the quartet, mentioning his own interest in their music. He owned several of their recordings. Then he got down to business, probably much too quickly for the Japanese, however much they had learned about Americans. “Can you recall anything about the concert or the reception afterward that was in any way unusual, or that might help us find out who might have committed these murders?”
The consul, a neatly groomed, well-dressed man in his fifties, taller than the typical Japanese of his generation, spoke with slightly accented but very precise English. “I have been asking myself that question many times since that evening. I fear I must say no. It was a beautiful concert, well received.”
“I remember. They gave their usual impressive performance.”
“Yes. The players were very happy afterward. The reception at the Mattingly’s home was very warm, everyone in good spirits. The food and drink was–lavish.” The consul’s wife did not speak, but smiled and nodded in support of her husband. “Mr. Mattingly even treated the musicians to some special sake.”
The reclusive Clint Mattingly being hospitable and culturally sensitive? Branch thought he’d return to that topic.
“How well did you know the members of the quartet?”
“By reputation, quite well. They are important cultural ambassadors for our country. I know that their teachers were highly regarded, and that they earn almost uniformly positive reviews wherever they play. My wife and I have talked to them every time they have played in Houston. This was the fourth time, I think?” His wife nodded. “But I must say we do not know the individuals well.”
“Have you heard or read anything that might suggest any one of them was unhappy in any way, or had any personal or financial problems? Any gossip, in short?”
Both shook their heads. “They are not rock stars,” the consul said with a faint smile. “All are married, three have—had–children. I think Mr. Watanabe, the violist, had no children. I have heard nothing to suggest they were not happy with their lives and careers.”
“No rivalry within the quartet? Pressures from touring, being away from home?”
“I am sure they must miss—must have missed–their families and home, and I understand that all artists disagree from time to time, but I have never heard any of them express such feelings.”
“Have you been aware of any anti-Japanese sentiment on the part of anyone in Houston? Klan types, people obsessed with Pearl Harbor?”
The consul nodded and looked grim. “I am aware of such people, and I know they do not like some other people”—he glanced quickly at Chat—“but we Japanese are a small community, and only now and then hear slurs or rude words.”
“I regret that any of my fellow Houstonians feel that way,” Branch said. He remembered the consul’s hesitation in shaking Chat’s hand. After a pause, Branch continued. “You said that Mr. Mattingly offered the quartet some special sake. Did you try it?”
The consul frowned. “No. I don’t think he had enough to offer it to all. It was the very best imported sake, in a small bottle.” It was clear to Branch that the consul regarded the limited offering as a faux pas, but would say no more about it.
“Had you met Mr. Mattingly before?”
“No. I understand that he does not socialize much. We were not actually introduced to him. He came in during the dinner for the musicians, made a brief speech of welcome, poured the sake, and left.” The consul paused long enough for Branch to register his sense of slight, and continued. “Most of the guests were members of the board, and these, you must know, are all well-known citizens, all with impeccable reputations. The only other guests were Dr. and Mrs. Kobayashi; Mrs. Kobayashi is first cousin to Mr. Sato, the cellist. The Kobayashis are well-respected in the Japanese community here; both are researchers at the University of Houston.”
“Did you leave the reception before the quartet did?”
“Yes. I had a meeting early the next morning.”
“Do remember the time?”
He looked at his wife. “I think eleven-twenty?” She nodded.
“And the members of the quartet all seemed well and in good spirits before you left?”
“As far as I could tell.” The consul’s wife at this point touched his arm and murmured something in Japanese. He responded with a brusque “Hai.” Then he said, “My wife reminded me that Mr. Watanabe—I said he plays—played–the viola? Yes. He seemed a bit quiet; but that seems to be his usual manner.”
“How is his English?”
“I think he understood the language well enough, but may have been shy about conversing.”
“Did he express any worry to you or anyone else that you know of?” Branch was beginning to wonder why Watanabe’s manner was so consistently noted. Was it just contrast with his more outgoing colleagues?
Branch tried another topic. He sometimes found an abrupt change of subject brought a less guarded response. “If you don’t mind my asking, I have a question that I could dig out of the public records. Are you aware of much business that Mr. Haggarty or Mr. Mattingly does in Japan?”
The consul drew back and frowned slightly. “I don’t usually talk about such things. Many businessmen in Houston have dealings with Japanese companies. Mr. Haggarty and Mr. Mattingly, as well as several other respected figures here, have good business relations with Japanese companies.”
With that very diplomatic answer, Branch stood. “Thank you. We won’t take any more of your time. You have my card; please feel free to call any time if anything occurs to you that might help. And please, nothing is too trivial. Things that might seem unimportant at the time may turn out to be crucial.” Branch glanced toward the consul’s wife, who gave a slight nod. “Thank you very much for your help.”
“Thank you for your concern, Sergeant Branch. Please let us know of your progress. The family members are of course anxious.”
Bows, handshakes, and Branch and Chat were out by their car. “Well, I guess they’re trying,” Chat said. “But I’ve heard Japs are racist. I wonder if they washed their hands after we left.”
“Japan is a very homogeneous society. I’ve heard they think us whites stink.”
“Well, you do, when you have onions on your burger.”
Branch stood with his hand on the car door. “What do you think? Clint shows up and gives them sake.”
“From what I hear, more people must have seen Mattingly that night than anybody has in years. A low, low profile dude.”
“So. Let’s go visit the Kobayashis. They’re probably more Americanized.”
“You really want me along? I have some places I want to check out.”
“Polly and her boys are working the theft, you know.”
“They don’t know everything.”
“True. You can skip this one if you want.”
“Ok. One Japanese couple is enough for one day.”
Branch took Chat back to his car, and then called the Kobayashis to ask to talk to them that afternoon. They agreed to meet in Mrs. Kobayashi’s office at the university. She was in computer science, he was in biology. “My office is fairly empty,” she explained, “while my husband’s is in his lab, which is crowded and smelly.” The Kobayashis were an attractive couple in their thirties, almost without accents. The man wore jeans, a “UH” t-shirt, and running shoes. She wore a plain t-shirt, denim skirt and sandals. Both had doctorates, but preferred to use first names.
“How about ‘Mr.’ and ‘Mrs.’?” Branch asked.
“Just Sue, please.” Mrs. Kobayashi said.
Her husband said, “And I’m Kat, for Katsutoshi.”
They told a similar story of the party. “Did you get any of the host’s special sake?”
“Oh no,” Kat said. “We didn’t expect to. I think the consul expected some, but Mr. Mattingly offered it only to the quartet. It was very expensive sake. He may not have had enough for all.”
“Yes. It was clearly special,” Sue added. “It was from the very best Japanese brewer.”
“Tell me about your cousin, Mr. Sato.”
“My cousin,” Sue said, pausing to nod and sigh. “He was a good man, and of course very talented. We were close as children, but I had not seen him in a long time. We were getting to know each other better on this visit, and had a chance to talk about old times. He showed me a picture of his son, who looked just like he did as a boy. But then–you know.” She stopped and reached for a tissue, with which she hid her eyes. Her husband patted her arm.
“It’s been hard on my wife,” he said, “to lose him in such a horrible way after renewing their relationship.”
“I understand. I’m very sorry,” Branch said. After a moment, he went on. “I hate to continue with anything that might be painful, but I must ask a few more questions.”
“Certainly,” Kat said.
“Did Mr. Sato say anything about their travels, their concern about these valuable instruments, relations between members of the quartet, or anything threatening any member of the quartet mentioned? Was any one of them afraid of anything?”
Sue wiped her eyes and shook her head. “They were all good friends,” she said. “They argued about the music, but I think all musical groups do that. Even though my cousin was very modest, he couldn’t help speaking of their success and hope for the future. Of course they were concerned about the instruments. But the Coleman Foundation had made arrangements to insure their safety that were very strict. Masakuni—Mr. Sato–even complained a little about having to have them inspected at almost every stop. But he said nothing about any threats or anything to be afraid of.”
“Did Mr. Watanabe seem unusually quiet or preoccupied?”
The Kobayashis looked at each other with questioning frowns. Finally Kat said, “We didn’t talk to him much, since we were mainly concerned with catching up with Masakuni. He did seem to keep to himself at the party. At least I noticed him alone looking at the bookshelves.”
“He may have been self-conscious about his English,” Sue said.
Branch was tired. He gave his usual speech about calling if they thought of anything, and took his leave.
He sat in his car and got on the phone. The ME’s office seemed to be closed for the day, but he left a message that he’d like a careful analysis of the stomach contents of the victims. Polly had no news. He checked a few pawnshops in the University of Houston neighborhood, with no luck. Finally he called Chat, who also had no news, but who said, “Are you up for soul food? There’s a great place not far from where I’m at.”
“As long as I don’t have to eat chitlins.”
Chat’s place was full of cheerful black people who knew they were eating well, and were loud in acknowledging it. The large man ahead of them in the cafeteria line chanted to the servers, “Sweet Jesus, look at that chicken. Mmm-hm. Sugar, gimme some a those wings. Lord have mercy, got to have those sweet potatoes.”
Over turnip greens, blackeye peas, and cornbread, Branch reflected aloud. “I’m bothered by a couple of things. What’s with the moody violist?”
“Ain’t you classical guys always moody?”
“And why did they stop in the park?”
“Maybe they thought it was romantic.”
“What are you suggesting?” Chat grinned and shrugged, and Branch shook his head in only partly mock despair. “To get serious, I’m bothered that the reclusive Mr. Mattingly showed up just long enough to give the quartet a drink of sake. I put in a call to the ME, to see if there was anything in it. Tomorrow we’ll hit the members who are the big donors, folks who might know where the money is moving around town.”
“Can’t I keep looking where the money might really be? I might even be able to find those fiddles. I bet they won’t be in a locker at the Petroleum Club.”
“Oh, ok. I’m calling it a day. I’m feeling moody, so I’m going to play some romantic classical music with my friends.”

Branch’s amateur string quartet was shocked when he told them what had happened and answered most of their questions with “We don’t know.” He rosined his bow, set up his music stand, and sat ready to play. “I think the best thing we could do for their memory right now,” he said, “is to play a good quartet and not screw up.”
“You’ve had all day to get your mind around this,” the first violinist, Seth Levin, said. “We need to take it in.” Levin was forty-four, an internist and professor at the medical school. Branch thought of the description of him that he had heard: wry, wiry, and wired. Intense and intelligent, Levin was an expert in several areas of medicine, from infectious diseases to toxicology. “I take the term ‘internist’ seriously,” Branch had heard him say on many occasions. His sharp black eyes were now fixed on Branch, looking for more.
“Right,” the cellist, Bart McIlhenny, agreed. He was stocky, fifty-five, balding, and usually the jolly jokester in the group. He had an endless store of viola jokes he aimed at Branch. But now he was grim.
The other violinist had stood in stunned silence. Peter Held was a physicist, at thirty-four the youngest of the group. They were playing in his Spartan bachelor house near the university, sitting under the ceiling light in his empty dining room on wooden folding chairs. There was no carpet; they liked the way their instruments resonated on the bare wood. Peter was blond, tall, stooped, and usually shy. He came out of his trance and sat. “Let’s play. Let’s play the Cavatina from Beethoven’s opus 130. I’m feeling beklemmt.”
“Good choice,” Branch said, and the others nodded. They readied their instruments while Branch passed out the music. They tuned, and began the songful first part of the movement, the second violin echoing the first. Then came the startling section Beethoven marked beklemmt–anguished, oppressed–in which the first violin sobbed painfully. But the feeling was controlled by the return of the opening song.
“From the Allegra Quartet to the memory of the Kyoto,” Levin said. McIlhenny stuck a finger under his glasses and wiped an eye.
“Let’s play the rest,” Levin said. “From the top.”

Four-Part Dissonance

October 5, 2009

Four-Part Dissonance
by Edward Doughtie

Chapter 1

The dead were four young Asian men, all wearing similar dark suits.  The bodies lay in the humid Houston park near a rental car, its doors open, the key in the ignition, and the warning buzzer playing counterpoint to the chanting cicadas. The crime scene investigators had taken photographs and cleared the immediate area, and were now scouring the nearby dusty ground and patches of tough, dry grass.
Sergeant Aldo Branch, Houston homicide, usually stone-faced at a crime scene, allowed some of the distress he was feeling to show.    The medical examiner had made his preliminary examination and reached the obvious conclusion that death in each instance was caused by a gunshot to the head.  Branch watched as he checked the temperature of the bodies and the progress of rigor.  The ME, a humorless, paunchy man with a gray crewcut and a name Branch never remembered how to pronounce, stood and stretched his back.  “I’ll be more precise after I check them out back at the morgue,” he said.  “Right now I’d say they died around midnight.”
Branch motioned to his younger colleague, Chat Jackson, and they walked carefully along a cleared path to one of the bodies.  Branch slipped on a pair of latex gloves.  “Look here,” he said as he gently turned the head of one of the men.  “No exit wound.” He was grateful for the gloves, for the touch of dead flesh made him shiver—he never got used to it.
“Yeah, real nasty.  Probably a twenty-two.  Gets in but not out, runs around inside the skull.  Makes scrambled brains.”  Chat, short for Chatahoochee, was from Georgia, slim, thirty, and walnut-colored.  He made a wry face.  “Looks like one of them tried to put up a fight.”  He pointed to a bruise and smudged and torn clothing on one victim.  “Probably more than one perp to take on four.”
Chat peered into the car and pointed to blood on the seats and windows opposite the driver.   “Shot them in the car, then dragged them out.  Yeah.  They pull up, open the doors, bam bam bam, no questions.  The only one with any fight in him was this one behind the driver.”
“What about this?”  Branch pointed to a patch of irritated skin on the left jaw of the man.  Branch shed his light gray seersucker jacket in the Houston heat, which was already making itself felt at seven in the morning.
“Another bruise from the fight?”  Chat looked at the mark and shook his head.   He was more nattily dressed than Branch: he wore a tan tropical-weight suit, light blue shirt, and a red tie with small blue dots.  He never seemed to sweat.
“Probably not a fight.  Not really a bruise–more of a chronic irritation.”  Branch moved slowly to another body, careful not to mash possible evidence into the ground.  He pointed to a similar mark on a second victim, then a third.  Branch suddenly realized the source of the growing irritation he was feeling.  “Turn off that damned car,” he said to the uniformed cop stringing yellow tape around the area.  Cicadas still buzzed from the live oak trees in the surrounding park.
“I don’t know what it is, but this one doesn’t have it,” Chat said referring to a heavier-set victim.
“Anything else different about this one?”
Chat frowned.  “He’s fatter.”
“Look at their fingers,” Branch said, touching the heavier man’s left hand.  “Feel the fingertips.  Feel those calluses?”
Chat examined the hand and nodded.  He felt the fingers of the other three, stepping carefully in Branch’s footprints.  “All of them have those calluses, but only on their left hands.”  He looked up at Branch, who sighed.
“This one’s a little different,” he said holding the man’s hand almost tenderly.  “Feel the outer edge of the thumb.”
“Another callus.  OK, why is this one different?”
“This is a cellist.  The others play violin, though one plays the viola–that taller one.  They must be a string quartet.”
Chat snorted.  “There you go, showing off your cultural advantage.  That’s why the SATs are unfair.  Besides, you play that stuff yourself.  Coming on with all that Sherlock Holmes shit.”
“You’re right, it’s not fair.”  Branch smiled bleakly.  “This is the Kyoto string quartet.  I went to their concert last night.”
“It’s especially sad, because they were really good.  They were playing on a set of matched Strads from the Coleman Collection.”
“At least I know a Strad is a damned expensive fiddle.”
“And where are they?”  Branch asked the cop standing by the quartet’s car.  “Anything in the trunk?”
“No sir.  No luggage, no nothing.”
“Too bad they had to get killed over them,” Jackson said.  “Maybe they’d still be alive if they were using cheaper fiddles.”
“Maybe.  But maybe the perps’ll be easier to catch.”
“Why?  Because these fiddles’ll be harder to fence?”
“Right.  Big-time violins are like art.  Anybody who knows enough to pay what they’re worth would know they’re hot.  The dealers know these fiddles like you know rap stars.  So they’ll either make a big trail going to instrument dealers, or they’ll drop them for a few hundred bucks at a pawnshop.  The only thing that worries me is that this may be a private contract for some collector who’ll stash them in a vault somewhere, Switzerland or Japan, someone who just wants to possess them.  They won’t get played, and they’ll lose some of their quality.  String instruments need to be played, and these need to be heard.”
“Well, I won’t miss them.”
“Your loss.”  Branch smiled at this trace of their ongoing dispute over music, the main thing that kept them from being more compatible partners.  Branch was a good amateur violist and preferred classical music.  They had given up on playing any music at all on their car radio.  Chat only liked hip-hop, which Branch couldn’t stand; Branch thought himself more open, since he liked jazz as well as classical, and even blues, classic rock, and some country.  But Chat only had scorn for “elitist, dead white male shit,” “down home groaning,” “old hippie noise,” or  “cracker whining.”  Dixieland was “grinning Tom crap,” and bebop “wormy,” a term Branch still puzzled over.
Branch knew there was an undercurrent of racial tension behind this conflict, and tried to compensate in other ways, for he valued Chat’s quickness, his sharp eyes, amazing memory, and acute street sense.  But he couldn’t resist an occasional tease.
The park around them was a large one, Branch noted as he walked carefully around the quartet’s car.  There was an arboretum, a golf course, areas for picnics, baseball, football and soccer, and a winding jogging trail that led by where they were parked, one of several dirt pull-offs along the road that ran from the Loop, I-610, along Buffalo Bayou, to downtown.   No dents or scratches on the car, no smears of another car’s paint.
One of the crime scene crew was making casts of the tire tracks of the quartet’s car and another faint set behind it.  Three of the crew were still on hands and knees scanning the ground for other evidence.  Branch watched them and the uniforms waving on gawking joggers.
An investigator approached Branch.  “No shell casings so far—probably used revolvers.  Found one footprint in a damp spot that doesn’t seem to match the victims’.  Otherwise, looks pretty clean.”
“Thanks.  Anything unusual about the tire or footprint?”
“The tire looks like a standard R-14, probably Royal.  There are some wear marks that may help.  We’ll get more specific later.  The footprint looks like a hunting boot, so probably not a jogger.  Looks like a size fourteen and pretty deep.  Big guy.”
Branch sat in his car and got on his cell phone.   It would be less likely to be overheard than his radio.  “Lieutenant?   Branch.  The dead guys in the park are members of the Kyoto String Quartet from Japan.  Looks like an execution, gunshots to the head, probably twenty-twos.  Their Stradivarius instruments are gone.  Yeah.  This is pretty big, so you might want the Chief to talk to the Japanese consul.” As long as I don’t have to talk to the Chief, Branch thought.  He liked his lieutenant, but thought the Chief too political.
“We’d better call in Special Thefts to put out a notice to music dealers, pawnshops, and that fancy auction house, to watch out for two antique Italian violins, one viola—yeah, that’s what I play–and one cello.  I’ll get pictures of them as soon as I can.  We’ll need prints from them if they turn up.  Crime scene and the ME are here.  The ME puts death around midnight.  I’ll talk to some of the people at the party they went to after the concert last night.  Yeah, I went—not to the party, though.  Ok, I’ll keep you posted.”
He reviewed what he had seen so far: deaths from gunshots, quick and efficient; minimal evidence of a struggle; no signs that the car was forced off the road.  The crime scene boys would check for fingerprints and eliminate the musicians—and if necessary, rental car personnel and anyone else who might have touched the car doors and trunk handle.  One of the possible perps was big.  One small detail he didn’t mention to Chat, because he wasn’t sure of its significance, if any: small flecks of light green on the white shirt cuffs of the man behind the driver.  Probably nothing, but he’d file it away.
Branch checked his watch and considered his next step.  Seven thirty.  The sun was pushing through the branches of the trees and the morning was heating up.  He started his car and turned up the air conditioning.  It was too early, but he called the Coleman Collection and left a message with the bad news and a request for a set of color photos of the instruments.
He needed to talk to someone who had seen the victims before the murder, someone he could trust.  Frank Billings was a history professor at Rice, a fellow violist Branch played two-viola quintets with occasionally, and a member of the presenters’ board.  He had probably attended the party for the performers.  Branch called his home.
“Frank, Aldo.  You up?”
“Yeah, I’ve got a nine o’clock class.  What’s on your mind?”
“Can I meet you at Rice before your class?”
“Sure.  What’s up?”
“First, did you go to the party after the concert?”
“Yeah.  Didn’t see anything illegal there, though.”
“The Kyotos were murdered last night.”
“Good God!  All four?”
“Horrible!  What happened?”
“I’ll tell you what we know when I see you.”
“I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
Branch left Chat Jackson at the scene, drove through the park, and took a right on Kirby.  He stopped for a container of coffee and was tempted by the donuts, but reflected that his size thirty-four pants were getting tight, and that he should resist the cop stereotype.  He entered the campus, an oak-shaded oasis near the medical center complex.  After negotiating the irritating parking system he walked to the red brick Mediterranean-style building that housed the history department.  He found Billings’ office, sat in a creaky chair in the hall and finished his coffee.
Branch heard heavy feet pounding up the stairs, and Billings, a lanky man in his forties with brown hair falling in his face, appeared.  Breathing heavily, Billings ushered Branch into the book-crammed office.  He swept some papers off a chair and put them on a precarious pile on his desk.
“So.  What happened?”
“A jogger found them and their car in Memorial Park.  Someone shot them and stole the Strads.”
“Bastards!  All that talent, just gone.” He shook his head and grimaced.  “Got any suspects?”
“Not yet.  I’m so desperate I have to come ask a violist.” Branch managed a half smile.
Billings didn’t return the smile.  “Come on—one of our own has been killed.  So how can I help?”
“Just a few questions, as they say.  Did you notice anything at all unusual at the concert or the reception?”
“I’m trying to think. “  He ruffled his hair.   “Can’t come up with anything.”    “Did you leave the party before the quartet?”
“No.  I got into a discussion about Shostakovich with Nora Small, and Eileen practically had to throw us out.  We were the last to leave.” Nora Small was a physician and excellent amateur violinist; Eileen was Mrs. Mattingly, the hostess, wife of Clint Mattingly, whose company was reputed to provide every third piece of oilfield equipment around the world.  Mattingly was as reclusive as his wife was social.
“When did the quartet leave?”
“I’m not sure.  I’d guess that they ate around ten-thirty, and they must have stayed till after eleven.”
“Anybody there you didn’t know?”
“The Japanese consul, his wife, and a couple I heard was related to the cellist.  I didn’t get to talk to them much–just a few pleasantries.  Everybody else was the regular bunch.”
“Did you notice who left around the time the quartet left?”
“I think the consul’s party left just before the quartet.  I remember noticing a sudden absence of Japanese.  Other people probably trickled out after that.  As I said, I was busy talking to Nora.”
“Everybody happy?”
“Yes.  It was a great concert, and everyone was pumped.”
“Did you get a look at the famous Strads?”
“Yes.  The guys were very generous.  I even got to play a few notes on the viola. “  He looked at Branch with a faint smile.  Branch felt a whiff of envy.  “I couldn’t tell a lot with it right under my ear, but the people a few yards away said it sounded great.”
“I guess everybody wanted a good look.”
“Anybody that played did, which was about a third of the group.  And Joe Haggarty.  I hear he’s started collecting.” Joseph M. Haggarty had a prosperous import-export business.
“Yeah.  Did he say or do anything you remember?” Branch was interested in Haggarty, for various reasons.
“Not really.  He just looked at the violins closely and asked about their current value.”
“Did he look especially–ah, covetous?”
“I couldn’t say.  You suspect him?” He looked surprised, curious.
Branch put on his best Inspector Clouseau accent:  “I suspect everyone.” He paused and reflected, then spoke more seriously.  He didn’t want Frank to start any rumors. “I really don’t suspect anybody yet.  Just groping around, trying to get a sense of what they were doing before the murder.  Anyone on the board not there?”
“Well, I knew that Bill Hinson had the flu, so he and Jo were absent.  Can’t think of any others.  Better ask Eileen.”
“Anybody arrive after the quartet left?”
“Hmm.  Ben Stoddard is always late, if he comes at all.  Merilee was already there, and I think Dr. Ben might have come in after the quartet left, but I’m not sure.  You’d have to ask them.  There may have been someone else, but I can’t think who.”  Dr. Ben Stoddard was a well-known surgeon; his wife, Merilee, was the daughter of old Homer Banks, a rancher turned oilman, famous for suing people over property lines and oil leases.
“Mattinglys lay out a big spread?”
“They always do.  They fed everybody well–more shrimp than you can imagine.  But they always give the musicians a real dinner.”
“Anybody spend a lot of time with the quartet?”
“Merilee, of course, but she always tries to monopolize the performers.  She makes herself one of the few to sit with the group while they eat.”
“Who else was with the quartet at dinner?”
“I didn’t notice.  I was already deep into Shostakovich with Nora when they went in to dinner.”
“Did everybody talk to the quartet?”
“No.  Those who like to chat did, and the few who don’t stuck with their buddies.  People like Kyle Masterson and Shelby Falk.”
Branch sat quietly, thinking.  Billings waited, pulling his earlobe.  “I wonder why they stopped in the park,” Branch said at last.  “I didn’t see any signs that they were forced off the road.”
“Maybe one had to take a leak real bad.”
“Could be.  You didn’t happen to notice any of them using the john, did you?”
“No.  I’m not even sure where it is in that house.”
“Anything else you can think of?”
Billings gazed out of his window, then shook his head.  “Guess not.  I’ll call if I think of anything.”

Branch drove back to headquarters and reported to his lieutenant, Narciso Sandoval.  Some of the younger uniforms called him Narc behind his back, though he had never worked in narcotics; they thought he was narcoleptic because of the way he behaved in meetings.  He allowed older colleagues to call him Sandy.  Branch liked him, since he allowed Branch a lot of leeway in his investigations and had a good sense of priorities.  As Branch summarized the situation, Sandoval leaned back in his chair, his grey hair falling over the backrest, his eyes closed, hands folded over his substantial belly.  Branch knew he was awake, since he usually listened to reports this way, and he grunted from time to time.
Finally he sat up, opened his eyes, and spoke.  “I’ll let you have Mikey and Sean to help with interviews and routine digging, but you and Chat will have to do the heavy lifting.  We’re up to our ass in alligators with that business at the ship channel.”  Some Colombian sailors had gotten in a brawl in which two were killed.  There were many complications, including drugs, politics, and language–one of the sailors spoke more Indian dialect than Spanish.  There were turf skirmishes with the DEA and customs.  “We both know your case is high profile.  Special Thefts will work on the instruments—you try to play nicely with them, and I’ll try to keep the Chief off your butt.  I know you have a personal interest in this.  That can be good, but it can also be a problem.  Just keep me updated.”
“Will do.  Thanks, Sandy.”

Back at his desk, Branch took out a yellow pad and the program from the Kyoto Quartet concert.  The program listed the members of the presenters’ board, as well as contributors.  The donors were grouped according to how much money they had given the organization, Arion Concerts.  Most members of the board were also contributors.  Branch made a list of the board members who were in the top category and a few others who interested him.  Joseph M. Haggarty was there, plus several other individuals and couples.  He would allow Mikey and Sean, the two younger detectives assigned to him, to interview most of the other board members, but he wanted to speak to these few himself.
Branch made notes of what he knew about each.  Two were wealthy oil company widows who also were big patrons of the opera, the symphony, and the museum.  One couple was the heart surgeon and his rich wife, Dr. Ben Stoddard and Merilee, nee Banks.  The hostess, Eileen Mattingly, and her husband, Clint, were high on his list.  The last was Fowler Parr, the younger heir of the construction company that was not only in on most Houston projects, but had hundreds of military contracts for work in this country and overseas.
Branch turned on his computer and began running the names through to see what else might crop up.  He didn’t expect to find rap sheets on any of them, but maybe lawsuits, news stories, or public records would turn up something of use.  The widows produced nothing but charity balls and ribbon cuttings.  There was a lot of that for Merilee Banks Stoddard.  There was a fair amount of legal stuff on her father, old Homer Banks, the litigious oilman.  Several stories were about Dr. Stoddard, mostly about successful operations on the rich and famous, plus the occasional foreign politician or businessman.      Eileen Mattingly was occasionally mentioned as hosting some charitable event, and was also a supporter of the symphony and museum.  Besides speculating on how rich Clint Mattingly was, most commentary on him was about his invisibility.  He was never mentioned personally in lawsuits or business deals, though his company and his surrogates were.  Branch found a reference to one piece in a small-circulation muckraking magazine, the Texas Investigator, which had tried to connect Mattingly to some unsavory right-wing organizations, but the reference implied that the evidence was circumstantial, and no one else mentioned the allegation.  Branch made a note to follow up that item.
Fowler Parr, the construction heir, was spending a lot of his inheritance on houses, cars, and wives–three of the last so far, and he was only forty.  But he seemed to be interested in making money as well as spending it, and the business writers seemed to think he was being pretty shrewd about it.  Branch decided to skip the widows and interview the three couples, Joe Haggarty, the Japanese consul, and their Japanese friends.  His talk with Billings would provide a baseline from which to work.
The phone rang.  It was the curator of the Coleman Collection, and he was understandably upset.  “We’ll get our insurance company on it.  I hope you’ll be cooperative with their investigator.”
Branch was mildly offended.  “Of course.  I’m a player myself, and I don’t want the Berlioz viola and those other wonderful instruments to be lost to the world.  But as much as I appreciate those instruments, I have to give priority to four murders.”
“I understand.”
“How about those photos?”
“We’ll fax you a set right now and express the glossies.  Will that do?”
Branch thanked the caller and punched a number for Special Thefts.  “Hi, this is Branch in Homicide.  Who’s working the thefts of the instruments from that Kyoto Quartet murder?”  He crossed his fingers.  “Pauline?”  He smiled, relieved.  “She there?”  As he waited he turned
Branch to a fresh sheet of paper and wrote “Pauline Good.” There were a few arrogant hotshots in Special Thefts he hated to deal with, but Pauline Good was a laid-back woman in her late fifties, smart, and fun to work with.  He sat up.  “Polly?  Aldo.  Hear you caught the Strad thefts.  Yeah, I’m on the murder.  Sure, I know a little about them.  Oh, I’ve already ordered photos from the Coleman Collection.  Of course I’ll share.  They’re sending an insurance dick.  Sure, I’ll let you know.  I’ll want to work some of the shops when I get the photos, but I’ll keep you informed.  You too.  Bye.”

What’s Up

October 5, 2009

I’m new at this, but here goes.

I’m an amateur violist and aspiring writer of fiction.  I’ve had several short stories published, but have had no luck finding a publisher for a mystery novel I’ve written.  I thought I’d share it with readers anyway through this blog.  My plan is to publish a chapter a week on the blog.  The title is “Four-Part Dissonance.”  My protagonist is Aldo Branch, a homicide detective and amateur violist who loves playing string quartets with a group of other amateurs who are professionals in other fields–fields that sometimes help Branch in his investigations.  His current case involves the murder of the Kyoto String Quartet and the theft of their Stradivarius instruments.  So watch for the next post.