“We can eat here on my expense account,” Celia said, when she met Branch in the hotel lobby.
“Anyplace you like,” Branch said.
“Let’s just stay here.” Celia was wearing a much less businesslike outfit, a little black dress with pearls, revealing creamy shoulders.
She seemed preoccupied at first, obviously working at controlling her voice. But she gradually relaxed after a second glass of wine, and flushed when she laughed at Branch’s police stories. She talked more about herself and her son, Colin, a precocious reader, and very inquisitive. She grew quieter as the dinner drew to an end, and sipped her coffee thoughtfully. Yet why did those blushes come and go? Branch wondered. He found her more and more attractive, and felt a palpable warmth between them. The check came, and they had a brief squabble about who should pay, but Branch yielded to the logic of the expense account. When Branch made as if to rise, Celia looked at him with wide eyes.
“Come up to my room for a while?”
“Sure.” Branch moved carefully, not wanting to pop the bubble that swelled in his imagination. They waited in silence for the elevator. When the door closed on them, Celia hesitantly put her arms on his shoulders. Branch took the invitation and kissed her. She stepped into the kiss and pressed against him warmly. When they came to her room, Branch could see that her hand guiding the key shook slightly. Inside the room, they kissed again.
“I don’t make a habit of this,” she whispered, holding the lapel of his jacket and looking at his chest. “I haven’t been with a man since my husband died. And with my boy at home—and you seem like someone I can trust—it’s been so long. . . .”
“It’s been a long time for me too.” Allegra flitted through his mind—very briefly.
“I’ll be right back.” She went into the bathroom and closed the door. Branch took off his jacket and tie, but hesitated to go further. He didn’t think he misread the situation, but he didn’t want to rush, to put her off. He needn’t have worried, for she came out of the bathroom naked, and gave him a toothpaste-flavored kiss. She was even more beautiful than he had imagined.
As she unbuttoned his shirt, Branch said, “I was not so optimistic that I brought any protection.”
“Don’t worry,” she said, “I’m ok.”
In bed, Branch touched her full breast, and she breathed in sharply. He tried to move slowly, but she was even more eager than he was. She came quickly, her whole body seized in a series of convulsive waves, each one punctuated by a guttural “Ah!” She held him tightly, even when he had shrunken inside her and slipped out. When she finally caught her breath, she murmured, “Thank you.”
They relaxed but still clung to each other, and slid into sleep. Later, Branch woke and watched her sleeping form until urgency drove him to the bathroom. When he came out, she was awake and held out her arms for him. The made love again, slowly, and the building intensity once more brought her to climax in multiple spasms.
When Branch woke, she was not in the bed, but he heard the shower running. He joined her in the shower, and soon, still damp, they were in bed again.
Once more Celia said “Thank you.”
Branch leaned on his elbow and grasped her chin, making her look at him. “I’m the one who is grateful. You could have any man you wanted. I’m just an old cop with few illusions and fewer expectations. You can’t imagine what a gift you are.”
They dressed reluctantly, Celia packed quickly, and Branch drove her to the airport. Before letting her out, Branch said, “I hope you’ll be back soon. I couldn’t bear it if I couldn’t see you again. And again.”
Celia just smiled, kissed him lightly, and said “Thank you” again.
Branch watched her enter the airport, and suppressed an impulse to jump out of the car, chase her down, grab her, kiss her, and drag her back to his house. He didn’t think he’d be plagued by memories of Allegra much more.
Branch went through the next morning in a distracted haze. Mikey and Sean reported on their interviews and explorations at the dump. Polly called and said that she would join them. “That’s above and beyond the call of duty,” Branch told her. “It’s hot and stinky out there.”
“The boys need moral support, I’ve run out of other possibilities, and I don’t have any other cases right now.”
“Bless you and good luck.”
The rest of the day Branch and Chat pushed papers around, trolled the computer, made calls, and tried to come up with ideas. The instruments had been recovered, so what was the motive? Something hidden in the cases? But what? The lab added to their frustration. Despite their promises and Branch’s urgings, the lab had not completed their tests.
When he arrived at Seth’s house that night, fellow violist Frank Billings pumped his fist and cried “Viola power!”
Bart McIlhenny smiled with mock malice and said, “So, did you harass her out of town?” Seth, the host, went to his bookshelves and pulled out a stack of quintet music. He had an extensive library of chamber music, neatly organized in magazine boxes.
Branch unpacked his viola. “I didn’t run her off. The insurance lady’s job was done so she went home. Our excellent police work found the missing Strad in the hands of Buford the Busker.”
“No shit,” Seth said. “How did he get it?”
“Who’s this Buford?” Peter Held asked.
“Buford’s a redneck fiddler who plays in the tunnels. Claims he found the instruments in a dumpster. He hocked three and kept the Joachim violin for himself.”
“Good taste,” Frank said.
“It didn’t improve his playing much.”
“Any news on the murders?” Peter asked.
“Not much. We’re getting some ideas, but nothing firm. Still haven’t found the cases. We think maybe something was hidden in the cases the bad guys wanted. No idea what.”
“You think the quartet was smuggling?” Peter was incredulous.
“Not necessarily. Somebody else could have hidden whatever it was without the quartet knowing—at least I hope so. They had to leave the instruments with some repair shops to be checked. Someone in a shop could have put the—the McGuffin in the cases. Must be small—microchip or something.”
“What’s a McGuffin,” Peter asked.
Bart smiled. “You need to see more movies. It’s like the Maltese Falcon, something a bad guy wants.”
“Microchips of what?” Bart asked.
Branch just shrugged. “No idea.”
“Let’s play,” Seth said, impatiently plucking his strings. “Start with Mozart?”
“Sure,” Branch said. He turned to Frank. “Want to play first on the C major?”
“I haven’t done that in a while,” Frank said. “You’d better play first.”
They played, warming up on the first movement and the minuet. Then Branch braced himself for the beautiful but challenging slow movement, in which the first violin and first viola exchange melodies and elaborations. For the time being, he was happily absorbed. But in the last movement, a thought that had been slowly rising to his consciousness took shape and caused him to miss an entrance. They had to stop and play the passage over.
When they finished, Branch said, “Sorry. Mind if I take a minute to make some calls? Something occurred to me. Play a quartet for a while.”
Branch went into Seth’s kitchen and closed the door. He called the station and asked for anyone in the crime scene squad. He had remembered Chat saying that the quartet might have stopped once before they were killed.
“Branch. Do you have anything on the musicians killed in Memorial Park? Specifically, anything about vomit on the scene?”
“Vomit? We would have found it and taken samples. Let me check.” Branch could hear computer keys clicking on the phone, and a Haydn quartet from the next room. He looked around the gleaming, uncluttered kitchen and saw a plate of cheeses covered with a glass dome on the counter, warming up for the after-music snack. Jarlsberg? Munster?
“I don’t see anything about vomit.”
“I have a witness saying she saw them throwing up. They were probably on another turnoff. Can you send a team out to the park with the tire casts, see if you can find where they turned off, and find some vomit?”
“Ugh. How long has it been, five days? There may have been a dozen cars over that area, and bugs’ve probably got the vomit by now.”
“Yeah, but please go check, will you? I got four murders, and I got squat.”
Penry sighed. “I’ll try.”
“Wait a minute. Maybe I can help narrow down the search. I’ll call your cell while you’re on the way.”
“Ok.” He gave the cell number.
Branch hung up and called directory assistance. After some hassle, he got Fowler Parr’s unlisted home number. The rings went on and on. He waited, glancing at his watch. Nine P.M.
Finally, a gruff “Parr.”
“Mr. Parr, this is Detective Branch. Sorry to bother you at home. I have a very short question for your wife. It’s urgent.”
“Can we expect many more of these calls? You’re interrupting some rare, uh, family time.”
“I hope not. This shouldn’t take long.”
“Well, all right. Hang on.”
“Hello?” Mrs. Parr sounded slightly out of breath.
“Sorry to bother you, Mrs. Parr, but I urgently need to know which side of the road you saw the car and the men throwing up.”
“Oh. It was from my side of the car. So it must have been the right side. If you were going toward town. As we were.”
“Thank you. That’s all I need to know.”
Branch called Penry. “Look on the turnoffs on the south side of the road. Be sure and get samples of anything that looks like vomit. There might have been something the bugs wouldn’t eat.”
“Call me if you find anything.” He gave Seth’s number.
Branch returned to the group and sat while they finished the Haydn movement. When they were done, Branch addressed Seth. “If you wanted to make someone nauseated, especially in a certain length of time, what would you give them?”
Seth frowned. “Ipecac works pretty fast. Or maybe apomorphine. It’s injected to help with Parkinson’s symptoms, but if enough is swallowed it can produce nausea, and sometimes hallucinations.”
“How could you time any of these? Suppose someone gave the Kyoto something at the party that would make them stop in the park to throw up?”
“Wow. You’re proposing a bunch of high-class suspects,” Bart said. Branch exchanged a look with Frank, who gave his head an almost imperceptible shake and kept quiet.
Seth said, “Timing—well, that would depend a little on what’s in the stomach and how big the person is. Most people would feel nausea in less than an hour.”
“Wouldn’t you notice if you swallowed something like that?”
“Not necessarily. You’d notice ipecac—tastes awful. Apomorphine is a clear liquid and has little taste. It does make a green stain if it is spilled.”
A green stain. That rang a bell in Branch’s memory. Flecks of green on a shirt cuff.
Bart grunted. “I don’t see why they went to this trouble. In the movies I’ve seen, the crooks just use their car to force the victims off the road, then shoot them.”
“Good point,” Branch said. “I’ve thought about that, and there are a few possibilities. The person who fed them the stuff that made them sick may not have wanted them killed, just stopped. Or he didn’t want the possibility of a wreck destroying the instruments or whatever was in the cases. And if the cars bumped, we’d have paint samples and scrapes to help find the perps’ car.”
Peter quietly spoke up. “And some people just like to do things the hard way. If they can use something complicated to show how clever they are, they will. I’ve seen physics experiments that put Rube Goldberg to shame.”
Branch nodded and stretched. “Let’s get back to music. Help me listen for the phone, though. How about a Brahms?”
“How about the Dvorak?” Frank asked. “I’ve been working on that one.”
As they played through the Dvorak quintet, Branch had to concentrate on the music, and his mood improved. The group struggled a bit when they got to the variation in seven flats in the third movement, but they rallied in the spirited finale. They were into mugs of Sam Adams and cheese and crackers when Penry called. Branch had been continuing to feel better when the phone ringing reminded him of the murders and all that followed.
“Believe it or not, we may have found something,” Penry said. “It was in the second turnoff on the south side. Couldn’t find the tire tracks, but we did find two spots that looked like vomit. We’ll need to test more, but it looks like something.”
“Bingo!” Branch said. “Take the samples to the ME and see if they match stomach contents.”
“Ok. They won’t be there until morning.”
Branch returned to the quintet smiling. Bart looked up and said, “While you’re in a good mood, I’ll have to ask if I can come look at that Strad cello.”
“Sure, come by tomorrow morning. I’ll be in early. Bring a bow if you want to play it.”
On his way home, Branch’s smile faded. Mattingly would be tough to convict. He had money enough for a team of the best lawyers in the country. Branch felt his stomach growling. If he couldn’t build an airtight case, he could imagine Mattingly and his business associates putting enough pressure on the Chief to have Branch back on patrol in the Third Ward.
He guided his thoughts to more pleasant memories of Celia. He relived their encounter over and over, and had trouble getting to sleep. He later realized that he had not thought of Allegra until that moment.
Branch was at the medical examiner’s door as the first technician unlocked it. The technician had a plastic tray of samples Penry had left on his desk the night before.
“What have you got on stomach contents for the park murders? Any vomit in the mouth?”
“Wait till I turn on the damn light.” The technician was a younger man of thirty or so, but stooped and pale, with thin blond hair. He went to a desk and turned on a computer. “Damn. Not entered yet.” He shuffled through a stack of papers. “Here’s some notes. Hmm. Looks like they found some vomit residue in the mouths of two of the victims. The blood shows a little alcohol and traces of an opiate.” He looked up. “Think they were poisoned?”
“Drugged. How about apomorphine?”
“That would be consistent with opiate in the blood. Doc Simpson should be along in a bit and give you the official word.”
“Call me at my desk the minute you know.”
“I’ve got to make some coffee before I do anything else.”
“All right, but I’ll be waiting.”
Chat was at his desk, fiddling with the computer. Branch brought him up to date.
“Rich white man. Think we’ll have enough for a search warrant if the stuff matches?”
“I’m not sure. We don’t want to tip him off and have a bunch of expensive lawyers tying things up. We still don’t have a motive, or the cases, or any clues about the trigger men.”
“You know it was a pro hit. Twenty-two to the head.”
“Sure. And if there’s anybody else involved, we don’t want to stir them up yet.”
Chat looked glum. “Want me out at the dump?”
“No, let’s let Polly and her crew take care of that. We need to do some digging on Clint Mattingly.”
“Ok with me.”
“I remember there was an article about Mattingly in the Texas Examiner that suggested he had some far-right interests. See if you can find that. I’ll go talk to Sandy.”
Lieutenant Sandoval listened to Branch’s report in his usual manner, but he opened his eyes when it became clear that Branch was focusing on Clint Mattingly.
“He poured them this special sake. Nobody else had any. Nobody else got sick. The ME found an opiate in the blood.”
Sandoval sat up and faced Branch. “Keep digging, but don’t do anything to spook him. We’ve got to get him triangulated six ways to Sunday if we’re gong to make this stick.”
When Branch emerged from Sandoval’s office, Chat beckoned him to his computer. “Look at this. Guy named Steve Quincy thinks Mattingly is financing some real wild men, white supremacist militia types.”
Branch pulled his chair over to Chat’s computer, and they read the article. It had come out two years before, and built a case for Mattingly’s involvement with the Aryan Christian Covenant and the Defenders of Liberty, a tax resistance group. Both shared a camp in Wyoming that was heavily guarded by middle-aged men in camouflage with assault rifles. Rumors had it that they did military training, that they had shops converting semiautomatic weapons to full automatic, that they had bomb-making seminars. Unlike some such groups, they had no website or other public propaganda organs. The Quincy article linked Mattingly by several tenuous strands that were individually flimsy, but were plausible when taken together. But no mainstream media had taken up the story or pushed the investigation further.
“Well, that’s interesting, but not much to build a case on,” Branch said, rubbing his neck and stretching. “But look at some subsequent issues and see if it generated any follow-ups or interesting letters.”
Branch went to his desk and called Polly’s cell number. When she answered, Branch asked, “Finding anything?”
“Finding a whole lot of smelly crap. You wouldn’t believe what people throw away.”
“At least you have a tox suit.”
“Ever had one of those on in this heat?”
“Yeah. But try stripping to your shorts before you put it on. And drink lots of water.”
“What shorts? Here’s something to make you lose your appetite. This old lady has nothing on under this tox suit.”
“You’re making me wild with desire.”
“Save it for Celia. I think she likes you.”
“I hope she does. I like her.” He hung up and started to try the ME, but his phone rang. It was Celia Hargrove.
“Sergeant Branch. How are you?”
“Ms. Hargrove. How are you?” Branch leaned back and smiled. Chat glanced back and raised an eyebrow.
“I can’t help but be curious about what’s going on. Any news?”
“Some, but still lots of mystery.” He filled her in briefly. “When might you be coming back here?”
“If you ever let the instruments go, I may get to escort them home.”
“You can’t think of any excuse to come back sooner?”
“Not unless you put me on your payroll.”
“I wish.” Then almost inaudibly: “You couldn’t believe how much I miss you.”
“How’s your boy?”
“Fine. But I hate to leave him for work.”
“Does he like cop stuff? I could send him a badge.”
“I think he’d like that. Say, how’d you like me to make some discreet inquiries about your suspect up here?”
“We can use all the help we can get.” Just then Chat waved him over with some urgency. “Gotta go. I’ll call you and let you know our progress, if that’s all right.”
Branch reluctantly hung up. He missed her even more than he thought he would. Chat pointed to his computer screen. “That guy’s name was Steve Quincy, right? Look here.”
The Examiner from six months later had run an editorial lamenting the loss of one of their best investigative reporters, Steve Quincy. He had died of acute food poisoning.
The phone rang. “Branch? Simpson here. Just confirming what you were told earlier. Those samples Penry brought in were pretty degraded, but we found some matches with the vomit residue in their mouths. And that opiate? Apomorphine would be the most likely.”