Four-Part Dissonance by Edward Doughtie

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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?”
“Yes.”
“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.
“Right.”
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.


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