Four-Part Dissonance chapter 7

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.”

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