Four-Part Dissonance, Chapter2

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?
“No.”
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.”

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