Archive for November, 2009

Four-Part Dissonance by Edward Doughtie Chapter 8

November 30, 2009

Chapter 8.

“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.”
“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.
“Penry here.”
“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.”
“We’ll try.”
“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.”
“Mmm.”
“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.”
“Please do.”
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.”

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Four-Part Dissonance chapter 7

November 22, 2009

Chapter 7.

The Houston heat at noon was especially fierce. Branch, Celia, and Chat sat in Branch’s car in the downtown parking garage. Branch was reluctant to leave the air-conditioned car and walk the three blocks to the Mexican restaurant he had been touting. They were meeting Polly there.
“We going to eat, or just stay cool?” asked Chat.
“The car is just now getting bearable,” Celia said.
“I know,” Branch said, “we’ll take the tunnel. There’s an entrance in this building, and an exit near the restaurant.”
“Man’s always thinking,” Chat said in Celia’s direction. “More tour of Houston, too.”
“Right. There’s a little world down there.”
They entered the building attached to the garage and rode the elevator down to the underground. It was delightfully cool, with shops and restaurants on either side of the passage. Chattering office workers on their lunch break window-shopped or crowded into the restaurants. The tunnel zigged and zagged, sometimes branching out with signs directing walkers to one building or another.
The three turned a corner and Branch heard a violin above the noise. He looked at Celia, who was also alert.
Branch slapped his forehead. “Buford the Busker,” he said. “Why didn’t I think of him sooner?”
Chat said, “I thought of him maybe two seconds before you did. Let’s check him out.”
Buford was a young man from East Texas’s Big Thicket who hoped to make it in country music but who ended up playing for change in the underground and committing occasional petty thievery, which made him nervous around Branch. Branch would sometimes teasingly harass him, usually telling him he played out of tune, or that he ought to vary his repertoire for the sophisticated city crowd. “That tune don’t go like that,” he would say; “it goes like this,” and he would whistle some Bach or Mozart.
“Wait,” Branch said. “Here.” He pulled out his wallet and gave Celia a five-dollar bill. “If he spots us he’s liable to slip away. He’s like a greased weasel. You put this in his case and look interested in his playing while Chat slips by in the crowd to block him on the other side. I’ll sneak up from this side.” The others nodded.
“If he’s got the Strad, be careful,” Celia said.
“He does sound better than usual,” Branch said. Buford the Busker, Branch noted, was trying to play a version of Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” evidently by ear.
Celia sashayed up to the fiddler, a thin young man with long greasy brown hair, a wispy moustache, stiff new jeans, sandals, and a Grateful Dead t-shirt. She waved the bill and smiled, and Buford smiled back at the money and the attractive woman. Celia nodded and dropped the money in the case. Branch was now close enough to see the rich golden brown of the violin and nodded at Celia. He put a firm hand on Buford’s arm, and at the same moment Celia, still smiling, grabbed the other arm, speaking reassuringly, as if saying “good dog.”
“Careful, please,” she said, “we don’t want you or the violin to get hurt.” Chat moved in ready to back them up.
“Easy does it, Buford,” Branch said.
Buford relaxed and let Celia take the violin, the Joachim Strad. “Aw, maaan,” he said. “Branch the buster. Look, I found this fiddle. I didn’t boost nothing.”
“We know.” Branch handed Buford’s skinny arm to Chat, scooped the money from the violin case, and gave it to Buford. “You got nothing to worry about as long as you tell us straight what you know about it.” He carefully laid the violin in the case and loosened the hairs on the bow. “You need a rehair job. If you’re a good boy I might spring for one at Phil’s.” He put the bow in the case, closed it, and hugged it protectively. “We were just going to have some tacos al carbon at Nina’s. Why don’t you join us? My treat.”
Chat still had a tight grip on Buford’s arm. “Thanks for the invite,” Buford said. “I got nothing to hide.”
“You could have been a good citizen and reported your find,” Branch said.
“Hell, they were in a dumpster. Fair game. Somebody didn’t want them.”
“I’m hungry,” Branch said. “Let’s talk over those tacos.”

When they entered the restaurant, they spotted Polly in a booth. Her eyes fastened on the case Branch was carrying. “Is that it?”
“Yes. Our friend Buford had it.”
Polly gave Buford a school-principal look; Buford hung his head. “I know Buford well.”
“I found it, Miz Good. Like I told him.” Buford nodded toward Branch.
“I think I believe him this time,” Branch said. “That’s why I thought we could treat him to a taco.”
They sat and dipped tortilla chips in salsa while they waited for their tacos. Branch, Polly, and Celia had non-alcoholic beers, Chat a Dr. Pepper, and Buford slurped a large draft beer. “Like I said,” Buford began, wiping the foam from his moustache, “I found them fiddles in a dumpster. I kept this one, cause I knew it was better than mine. I need good tools for my profession. Then I hocked my old one and the others.”
“Why didn’t you take them to someone who would give you something close to what they would be worth?” Celia asked.
“I thought they were good. Didn’t know they were damn Strads, though. I just needed some quick cash without a lot of questions. Old Phil would have called Buster Branch here before I got in his door. Besides, Hector’s place was close. I don’t have no car.”
“So the dumpster was close to Hector’s? Just where was it?” Chat asked.
“Corner of Fay and OST.”
“OST?” Celia asked.
“Old Spanish Trail,” Chat said. “Long old street.”
“No cases?” Polly asked.
“I didn’t see none, and I looked. Wasn’t much else in the dumpster.”
“You didn’t see whoever might have put them there, I suppose,” Polly said.
“Nope. I just check out dumpsters a lot. Find a lot of stuff people don’t want, but still good for something.” He smiled wistfully. “Probably won’t find another good fiddle in one, though.”
The tacos came and they ate, Buford with evident hunger. He cleaned his plate and returned to the chips and salsa. He looked at Celia and nudged Branch, grinning. He must be feeling better, Branch thought.
“When did y’all start hiring classy ladies to be cops?”
“She’s too classy for you, Buford.”
“I’m an insurance investigator,” Celia said. “That fiddle you had is insured for a lot of money.”
“Y’all offering a ree-ward?”
“You really getting out of hand, Buford,” Chat said. “You lucky you don’t get your a–, er, behind in jail. Ree-ward. Humph.”
“Yeah, dealing in stolen goods,” Branch said.
“Aww, maaan.” Buford turned to his chips and salsa, chastened. Then he looked up anxiously. “Hey. What about my old fiddle? I need that, man. I got to make a living. And you got my case too.”
“Come by the station tomorrow,” Branch said. “You can have your case and I’ll see about getting your fiddle.”
Celia took out her cell phone. “Please excuse me, but I need to let my office know that the Joachim is safe.” She told the people on the other end of the recovery, and reminded them that the instruments had to be retained as evidence for a while. She listened, then turned to Branch. “How long?”
Branch shrugged. “I don’t know. You could petition the court for a release.”
Celia conveyed the message and listened for a time, saying only “Yes,” “Ok,” and “I understand.” She closed up the phone and smiled at Branch and Chat. “Well, citizens, my work here is done. I’ll be returning to Metropolis.”
“Well, our work ain’t done,” Chat said. “We still got to catch some bad guys.”
“And I still need to find the bows,” Polly said.
“Wish I could help,” Buford said.
Branch said nothing, but finished his beer. There goes Celia, he thought. I don’t work fast enough. At least I didn’t set myself up for bigger disappointment.
Celia turned on her phone and called the airline. “Nothing tonight? Well, tomorrow morning will have to do.”
They left Buford with the chips and salsa. Polly offered to go to the station to deposit the violin in the evidence room. Celia stayed with Branch and Chat. In the car, Celia sat in the front passenger seat. She spoke of how good it would be to see her son. “Not that you guys haven’t been good to work with. And Houston’s an interesting place.”
“We found your fiddles too soon,” Branch said. “I had a tip on a fiddler at a club I was hoping to look into tonight. Thought you could teach me to dance.”
“I’ll take a rain check. I might have to come back.”
“If we catch anybody, you may have to testify at the trial. But we’re a long way from making a case,” Branch said. “If any of the people at the party drugged the quartet we’ll have a hard time proving it. Especially if it was Mattingly. And I don’t know why nobody at the crime scene found any traces of vomit.” He drummed the steering wheel. “It’s got to be the quartet Babette Parr saw.”
Something in his tone made the others fall silent. Then Branch asked Celia, “You want to come to the station and see the medical reports? Have some dinner later?”
“Thanks, but I’d better get back to the hotel and tidy up some papers and stuff.”
“Could I run you to the airport in the morning?”
“Thanks, but the company will pay for a cab. You need time for the case.”
“Guess you’re right.” Branch was silent until they reached the hotel. “This is it, then?”
“Must be.” Celia opened the door, paused and smiled at them both. “You guys are good. I’m sure you’ll catch the baddies. Thanks for everything.”
“Thank you,” Branch said.
“Take care,” Chat said as he moved to the front seat.
She waved and they drove off. Branch sunk into a silent melancholy. Chat looked at him and smiled indulgently. Branch refrained from punching him.
Back at the station, Branch reviewed the medical reports. There was nothing about blood tests or stomach contents or vomitus in the mouths of the victims. He called the examiner’s lab.
“Oh, you want reports on stomach contents?” the assistant examiner said. “I thought you just wanted cause of death, which was pretty clear. Anyway, we were jammed up, as we always are.”
“Well, I really wanted everything. I always want everything.”
“I’ll look it up and get back to you.”
“When?”
“Tomorrow.”
“Early, right?”
“First thing.”
Branch called Eileen Mattingly. “Just a quick question, Mrs. Mattingly. Did anyone at your house or on the caterer’s staff have any nausea or indigestion that evening?”
“Why no.” She sounded shocked. “No one has ever gotten sick on our caterer’s food. I suppose someone could have overeaten and had indigestion, but I can’t imagine anything wrong with the food. Did someone complain?”
“No, ma’am, just checking on why the quartet might have stopped in the park.” Branch thanked her and tried to mollify her indignation. He hung up and looked at Chat.
“Still could have been the sake.” He sighed.
Branch called Mikey at the landfill. Nothing to report but stink and heat. Branch stood and paced. “Why can’t we move anything?” He spent the next two hours shuffling through notes and interview reports. Finally he threw the papers down and turned to Chat. “I hate waiting for the damn lab.”
Chat shook his head. “I’m sorry about you, boss, but I have a dinner date. We done today?”
“Yeah. Get the hell out of here.” Branch frowned at Chat’s departing back. He needed some music. He needed some order, some control, some serenity. Anticipating another dinner with Celia and another evening of violin spotting at country music clubs, he had asked Frank Billings to sub for him in his quartet, which would be meeting tomorrow night. But now he could join them and play quintets. If he could wait. Mozart has some wonderful quintets with two violas; also Brahms, Dvorak, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, even Bruckner. Just what he needed. He just hoped his sour mood wouldn’t affect his notes.
Just as he was about to give up and go home, the phone rang. “I changed my mind,” Celia said. “If you’re still available for dinner, I’d like you to join me here.” Her voice sounded tight, tentative–the exuberance she showed after finding the last violin was gone. What was it?
“I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”

Four-Part Dissonance, chapter 6

November 15, 2009

Chapter 6.

Celia covered a yawn as Branch pulled up in front of her hotel. Branch asked, “How about coming along on some interviews tomorrow with me and Chat?”

“How early?”

“Come to the station when you’re ready. Get your beauty sleep. I’ll go get some instrument cases around nine and be back by ten.”

She gave a sleepy smile that Branch found sexy. “Ok. Night.” She opened the car door.

“A few more clubs tomorrow night?”

“Sure. Maybe I’ll be able to keep up better.”

Branch smiled and watched her enter the hotel. He sighed as he drove off. Could he get somewhere with Celia? If he wanted to bad enough? He was attracted but not compelled. Was it his age? Or was he still carrying a torch for Allegra? If he was lucky enough to find enough evidence to put Joe in jail as an accessory to murder, would Allegra wait, the loyal wife, or would she move on? Her history suggested that she would gracefully, tactfully, blamelessly, move on. But not back to him. He knew that in his head—he just needed to convince his feelings. He really needed to focus on the task at hand.

He forced his mind back to the murders and mused on questions and possible answers as he drove. Maybe the perps or whoever hired them was interested in the Joachim violin and not the cases or whatever might have been in them. But the other instruments were almost equally valuable. And why separate them from their cases? If they were dumped so that some bum could find them and try to sell them at a low-rent hock shop, it made more sense to follow his current hypothesis and look for the violin in the hands of some semi-innocent fiddler who pawned his own cheap instrument and kept the Strad.

He glanced at his watch. Maybe one more club before turning in. Too bad Celia faded; maybe they could dance again tomorrow night. What’s the harm, he thought. I’m old, but like I told Chat, I ain’t dead yet.

He passed his own street in the Heights, and drove a few more blocks to where a large old house had been converted to a bar with a band and small dance floor. It was a two-story frame building with a string of additions clinging to its back and sides. Enough paint had flaked off to give it an almost fashionable rusticity. A small flashing neon sign read “Mickey’s.” Mickey Gilley had closed his place, so this bar must be trying to trap unwary tourists by association. As he expected, it was loud and smoky inside, though not crowded. The band was small, over-amplified, and not very good. They had a fiddler, but Branch could tell at a glance that he wasn’t playing a Strad. The fiddler also had short hair on a square head and looked almost respectable in jeans, boots, and green rodeo shirt. He moved closer to the band and realized that the fiddler was another cop, Wayne Crews from the old Riesner street shop in theft and burglary. He bought a non-alcoholic beer, moved out of the line of fire of the speakers, and waited until the band took a break. When the fiddler stepped off the low stage, Branch intercepted him.

“Sir, you’re under arrest. You have the right to remain silent. In fact I wish you would.”

The fiddler’s surprise changed to amusement. “Aldo. What brings you to a low joint like this? I thought you were a classical guy.”

“You’ve been hiding your talent under a bushel, Wayne. I didn’t know you played at all.”

“Just a little moonlighting with an old hobby. Nobody’s asked me to play Jones Hall yet.”

“Me either. Buy you a beer?”

“Sure. You working?”

“Fraid so. I’m looking for a stolen Strad, which your fiddle obviously isn’t.”

“Those Japanese murders?”

“Yep.” They ordered beers, Branch staying non-alcoholic, and sat at a corner booth. Branch explained his quest and his theory. “So Wayne. If you know of some fiddler who might have had the poor sense to keep a hot violin, let me know.”

“How long do you have? Most of the fiddlers I run into are at least that dumb, but they wouldn’t think a violin was any good unless it had a pickup for an amplifier.” He frowned a moment, then said, “There’s a new guy out at the Lariat Club. I don’t know him, but I’ve heard he’s a wild man. He’s a good enough fiddler to know a good instrument if it came his way.”

“Thanks. I’ll check him out. Keep me in mind if you think of anything else.”

Branch left before the next set began. He slept hard that night. The next morning Branch went into the evidence room to check on the Strads. He signed in, opened a large locker, very carefully unwrapped the viola from the old quilt, and held it up under the light. He plucked the strings and carefully brought them into tune. He should have brought a bow. Maybe they will have left the bows in the cases, if they ever turn up. Since violas can vary in size, he measured the viola with a tape, then wrapped it up in the quilt. He brought out the cello, caressing the ancient wood lovingly, gingerly tuning the strings and straightening the bridge. The violin was in the cheap case from the pawnshop; he gave it the same tender treatment. He saw them safely stowed in their locker and drove to a violin shop to get cases. The shop was in a bungalow from the thirties in one of the older neighborhoods. The windows and door had stout burglar bars and a customer had to be buzzed in. The owner, a lean older man in a canvas apron and thick glasses, gave Branch a look of concerned recognition. “Any news, Sergeant?”

“Some, Phil. We got three of the instruments, but the Joachim violin is still missing. And no news on the murderers. Anybody try to peddle a Strad around here lately?”

Phil smiled and said, “Every week. But no real ones. How did you find the others? And are they ok?”

“They seem to be ok. They were in a pawnshop, without bows or cases. I think the information on the bows was with the material from the Coleman Collection, wasn’t it?”

“Oh, yeah. I’d know those bows if they came my way. No cases?”

“Right—that’s one of the reasons I’m here. You got some cheap ones the department can afford?”

“Sure.” He paused. “Tell you what. I’ll loan you the cases until the others turn up. I can sell them easy—just say these cases once held the Coleman Strads.”

“That would be great, Phil.”

“I should have the viola measurements in one of these books,” he said as he scanned the shelf behind his counter.

“I thought to measure it this morning. It’s sixteen and a quarter.”

“Good. I’ll be right back.” He went into a back room that was piled with cases. Branch breathed in the smell of the shop that always gave him pleasure, a mix of rosin, polish, glue, varnish, and solvents. Wires along the walls were hung with violins and violas, some new, some old, an array of rich browns, deep golds, reds and ambers. Branch loved the shapes and colors of stringed instruments.

Phil hauled out a gray fiberglass cello case, then oblong violin and viola cases covered in black fabric. “These ok?”

“Fine. Many thanks. Better let me give you a receipt or something, or some bureaucrat won’t let you get them back.” Branch signed some papers, and Phil helped Branch put the cases in his car. Branch drove back to the station, where he put the instruments in the cases and returned to his desk.

Around ten he was shuffling papers and messages when Chat came in and perched on the corner of his desk. “Any time you get tired of clubbing with boo-ya bizzos, you can come dumpster diving with me.”

“So I guess you haven’t had much luck.”

“Naw. Guess I’ll go out to the landfill and help the guys out there to keep an eye out for the cases. They’re all shaped like fiddles, right?”

“Actually, no. The cello case is a hard fiberglass deal that has a cello shape, but the others use oblong cases. The ones shaped like fiddles are only used for tommy guns.”

“Ha ha,” Chat said without laughing.

“Get Mikey and Sean to go to the landfill to help Polly and her boys. If you’d like a bit of a change, why don’t you come with me and Celia on an interview? I’d like to hear what your antenna tells you about this person. Rich guy, Fowler Parr.”

“Let’s see,” Chat said, holding out his hands as if weighing his choices. “Search the smelly landfill or visit a big, cool office. Physical stink or moral stink.”

Branch looked at his watch. “After ten. Celia should have her nap out by now.” He picked up the phone and dialed the hotel. Chat wandered casually to his own desk. “Are you up?”

“Barely.” Celia’s voice was still sexily sleepy. “Are you at work?”

“Justice never sleeps. Will you be able to come along to that interview in a half hour? I’d be interested in what you think of this guy.”

“Who?”

“Fowler Parr. Big construction guy, on his third marriage.” “Sounds interesting. I’ll try to wake up and be ready.”

Branch handed Celia a container of coffee when he and Chat picked her up. She accepted gratefully. Branch thought she looked pretty fresh even after their late night. They drove out the Southwest Freeway, turned briefly onto the Loop, and headed for the Galleria complex. They parked in the garage and strolled through the shopping mall, lingering briefly on the balcony overlooking the ice rink. A few skilled skaters were doing twirls and leaps in the center, while giggling kids inched and slipped along the perimeter. They found the elevator in the adjacent office building and rode to the floor occupied by Parr Enterprises. Branch recalled that the company used to be called simply Parr Construction, and had modest offices in a lower rent section downtown. But he noted with satisfaction that the soft music drifting into the reception area was a Mozart quartet. He generally disliked others imposing their musical tastes on captive audiences in elevators, offices, restaurants, and even street corners. Unless their tastes matched his. But even then, this music was used more as a kind of air freshener, not loud enough to hear as music. But it fit with the reassuringly solid dark wood paneling and desks, maroon fabric and heavy-framed art on the walls, and well-groomed receptionist. Could be all veneer, Branch thought.

Fowler Parr was slim and tanned, with gray at the edge of his short, tightly curled hair, handsome except for eyes set so close as to seem almost crossed. He was in his shirtsleeves with his tie loosened. He waved them into his office, shook hands all around, and sat with them around a coffee table. He’s trying to be polite and acknowledge the seriousness of four murders, Branch thought, but he’s restless and in a hurry.

“I’m sure you’ve talked to other people who were at the concert and the party. I doubt if I’ll have much to add, but fire away.”

Branch asked several questions he had asked the others and got similar answers. Parr hadn’t noticed anything unusual about the manner of any of the individual musicians; he was surprised to see Clint Mattingly appear; he and his wife left the party after the quartet, between eleven thirty and midnight. “You must have come in pretty much the same direction as the quartet. Did you notice that they had stopped in the park?”

“I may have seen a car stopped in the park, but there’s almost always some jogger or lovebird parked along that road. I certainly didn’t recognize the quartet or their car.”

Branch asked a few more routine questions and got the expected answers. Celia and Chat sat quietly. Parr glanced at his watch. Branch looked around as if he were over with his official work, but was admiring the office, its rich oriental rug, no doubt genuine, the eighteenth-century Japanese prints, the crystal on the bar. He gestured toward the prints. “Do much business in Japan?”

“We have a few projects there.”

“South Korea?”

“There too. Some military work.”

“Back when we were going to provide a few goodies to the North, you had a line on a few contracts there, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, but they never got off the ground.” He smiled and glanced at his watch again. “I’ve told people that if we’d been able to do those plants in the North, Kim wouldn’t be such a headache now.”

“Probably true. Do you have any contacts in the North that you can still talk to?”

Parr looked momentarily ill at ease. “I did. One guy. But I haven’t talked to him in a long time. I don’t want to put him in jeopardy by seeming to have ties to an evil old American capitalist.”

“Wise course.” Branch glanced at Celia and Chat, and rose. “We’ve taken enough of your time. Let us know if you think of anything.”

“Absolutely.”

At that moment the door opened, and a vivid young woman appeared. “Hi, honey,” she said. “Ginger said you would be done now.”

“Yes, good timing. The detectives were just about to leave.” He turned to Branch’s group. “This is my wife, Babette.”

“Hi.” She gave a little wave and smiled, unnaturally white teeth blazing through bright red lipstick that matched her well-filled blouse and set off her pale blonde hair. She wore a short black skirt and high heels. Branch and the others nodded acknowledgment.

“Mrs. Parr,” Branch said, “we were talking about the night the Japanese musicians were murdered.”

“Oh, that was so awful.” “If you and Mr. Parr don’t mind, I have just one question I’d like to ask you.”

Her eyes widened. “Sure.” Parr said nothing.

“On your way home from the party, did you see anything unusual in the park?”

“Well, I don’t know how unusual it was, but I did mention to Fowler that I saw a couple of guys standing beside a car throwing up.”

“I don’t remember you telling me that,” Parr said, frowning.

She waved her hand at Parr. “Oh, you never listen. I think you were concentrating on the radio.”

“Can you remember anything else about them or the car?” Branch asked.

“The car was just a car. Not an SUV or van or anything. And the guys had on dark suits. I remember hoping they didn’t get it on their clothes.”

“I’m sorry, but we really have to go now,” Parr said, slipping into his jacket.

“We’re done,” Branch said. “Thank you both.”

“Throwing up?” Branch said in the elevator.

“Special sake,” Chat said. “Never liked that stuff.”

“This is making it hard to leave,” Celia said. “You guys have got to keep me posted on all this. Do you think that Mattingly gave them something on purpose?”

“Could be,” Branch said. “If it was the quartet who had stopped, and if there wasn’t something else that made them sick.”

Chat said, “They had their separate meal. We need to find out if anyone else ate any of that food, or if we can narrow it to the sake.”

“Why didn’t we or the crime scene guys notice any vomit? Let’s go look at those reports again.”

“Maybe they stopped at one spot for two of them to hurl, then stopped at another place for the others,” Chat said.

“And the killers got them before they lost it,” Celia said, stepping on Chat’s line. “Now we’re getting somewhere. This is exciting.”