Four-Part Dissonance, chapter 6

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.”

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