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.


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