Four-Part Dissonance, by Edward Doughtie, Chapter 9 (For previous chapters, scroll down or go to archives.)

Chapter 9.

Branch put in a call to the coroner in Austin to see if he could get more information on the death of Steve Quincy.  The assistant there said he would look up the records and fax them to Branch.
“Now you ready to hang a warrant on Mattingly?”  Chat looked eager.
“Not yet.  We need more information.”
“We got him feeding the victims the stuff that made them stop and puke, right?  Conspiracy, at least.”
“Maybe.  Probably.  But someone else at the party might have spiked something that only the quartet had.  We just need to squeeze more air out of this case.”
“So, what next?”
“I think I’ll call the Texas Examiner and see if there was any complaint about Quincy’s article on Mattingly.  And if anyone there has any suspicions about his death.  You could call Polly’s shop and be sure they put the word out that we’ve got the instruments, but still need to find the cases and bows.   See if they’ve faxed notices to other departments—they might have taken the cases out of town.  Like Dallas.”
“Dallas, eh?”  Chat grinned.
“And Austin, San Antonio, Galveston, Denton, Lubbock—“
“Ok, ok.”
“Beaumont, Victoria, Corpus—“
“OK!”
Branch got the managing editor of the Texas Examiner on the line.  He was wary at first, but Branch managed to overcome his reluctance.  “We just want to know if you felt there was anything suspicious about Quincy’s death.”
“You bet we did.  But we couldn’t get the local cops to take us seriously.  We have the reputation of being paranoid, seeing right-wing plots everywhere.”
“I’m taking you seriously,” Branch said.  “What made you think it wasn’t just food poisoning?”
“Going back to his article about Mattingly.  We got a good bit of anonymous hate mail and phone calls.  You know, go back to Russia, you dirty Jew commie, that sort of thing.  We get a lot of that anyway.  But some of the letters were more literate than usual, and threatened Steve unless he apologized and retracted.”
“Anonymous still?”
“Right.  They even set a deadline.  Steve died a week after the deadline passed.”
“You still have the letters?”
“Yeah.  You want copies?”
“Could you keep copies and send the originals?  We might need to test the paper or ink or something.”
“I guess so.”
“How do you think he might have been poisoned?”
“I’m not sure.  We ate together all the time, at the same two or three places near the office, and nobody else got sick.  Of course Steve ate elsewhere when he was on the road doing a story, but he was in town all that week.”
“I assume you’re talking about lunch.  What about breakfast or dinner?”
“Breakfast was always office coffee, maybe a donut or bagel if someone else brought it.  Dinner?  Hmm.  He often had takeout in the office—pizza, Chinese, sushi.  I don’t remember everything he ate that week, but I do remember everybody thinking about what we ate when Steve got sick, wondering if we got it too.  The only person who got sick was Maggie, our layout person.  But she got well quickly, and we all just thought she was hysterical, that Steve’s sickness made her sick.”
“Did she eat anything Quincy ate?”
“I don’t think so.  We asked her, but she was never sure.”
“So you don’t know what Quincy had been eating when he got sick?”
“No.  We couldn’t agree.  There was a Styrofoam container in his trashcan, but both the Chinese place and the sushi place used them, and nobody remembered exactly what he had.”
“You save the containers?”
“No.  I guess we should have.”  He paused.  “But what makes me suspicious is that nobody else in town that we know of got sick, much less died.”
“But you can’t prove anything.”
“I guess not.”
“Well, let me know if you or anyone else thinks of anything.”
The fax from the Austin coroner started coming in.  He had declared food poisoning as a cause of death because he found a large amount of a toxin from mushrooms in Quincy’s stomach.  Branch got on the phone and insisted on speaking to the coroner.
“Did you find any undigested mushrooms in his stomach?”
“Yes.  His last meal had apparently been some kind of Chinese food.  There were traces of rice, fish, shoots, and mushrooms.”
“Are you sure that these mushrooms were toxic?”
“No.  We got a prof from the university to try to identify identify them.  But he couldn’t tell from the remains.”
“But you found mushroom toxin?”
“Yes.”
Branch frowned.   “Could someone have introduced the toxin in a dish with ordinary mushrooms?”
“I guess it’s possible.  But we found mushrooms, we found toxin.  So our best guess was accidental poisoning.”
“Did you or the health department trace the meal?  If the restaurant was, say, trying to save money serving wild mushrooms and picked poisonous ones, wouldn’t that be a problem for other diners?”
“We did try to trace the food.  A team went to the restaurants the victim frequented, but could find no trace of wild mushrooms, nor could they get anyone to admit gathering or serving wild mushrooms.”
“Nobody suspected deliberate poisoning?”
“Well, some of the people at the magazine did.  But the police weren’t interested.  I had no reason to believe it was other than accidental.”
“Do you still have the samples?”
“I’ll look.”
“Please do.  And please let me know if you find anything you may have missed.”  Branch could tell that the coroner was getting defensive.  He had challenged his thoroughness, his expertise.   He just hoped that his sense of duty would overcome his dislike of being wrong.
He cradled the phone and looked up into the conspiratorial smile of Bart McIlhenny.  “Got my bow.  Let’s see if that Italian box is any good.”
Branch hesitated.  He shouldn’t let a civilian fool with evidence, but he had agreed.  He would be present—what would be the harm?
“Ok.  Now we’ll see if it’s just you or your cello that stinks.”
Branch hauled the cello from the storage area to a more spacious examining area, where there was a long table and several metal folding chairs, and took it out of the case.  Bart took his bow from a bow case and gingerly took the cello.  He sat and reached down to lower the endpin, the pointed metal rod that rested on the floor and supported the cello.  It was pushed up into the body of the cello when it was not being played.  When he loosened the thumbscrew that held the pin, it slipped completely out of the cello and onto the floor.  Bart picked it up and started to insert it back into the cello.  He stopped and looked at the blunt end of the pin.
“Hmp,” he said.  “Never saw this before.  Look.  There’s a kind of screwed-on extension to the endpin.  Wasn’t it long enough for someone?  Sato wasn’t that tall.”
“Let me see,” Branch said, holding out his hand.  There was a barely visible line about three inches from the end of the pin.  He twisted it and unscrewed a tube threaded onto the pin.  There was something in the tube.
“Whatcha got?” Bart asked.
Branch took a pencil from his pocket and carefully fished out a tightly rolled bit of what appeared to be film.  Holding it by the edges, he unrolled it and held it up to the harsh fluorescent ceiling light.  “Looks like microfilm.  Sorry, Bart.  Better put up the cello and let me check this out.”
Bart frowned, but didn’t protest.  Branch let the film spring back in a roll and wrapped it in his handkerchief.  This could be a break, maybe a big one, Branch thought.  Would he have to call in the feds?  He felt sweat break out on his palms.  Bart reassembled the endpin and put the cello back in its case.  Branch locked it in the evidence room and bounded up the stairs, Bart following.  Branch pulled a magnifying glass from a drawer and peered at the film.  “Can’t tell much,” he said, mostly to himself.  “I’ll have to use a reader, but I’ll need to splice on some leader.  Better get some prints first.”
Bart spoke.  “Mind if I hang around?  I’m curious.”
Branch looked up.  “Sorry.  I almost forgot you were here.  Sure, and thanks for noticing the attachment.  This may turn out to be big.  Let’s go to the lab.”
They hurried down a long corridor and through a door with frosted glass.  Inside they were greeted by a cocktail of chemical smells and a stout woman in a white coat, a puffy gauze cap, and glasses with red frames that were pointed on the ends.  “Mavis,” Branch said, “how about a quick print check?  I’ve just touched the edges.”  He showed her the film.
Mavis frowned at the film and then at Bart.  “He a civilian?”
“Yes, but he helped me find this.  It’s ok.”
“I can’t do a search now.  I’m up to here.”  She held her hand under her substantial nose.
“I mainly want you to lift the prints if there are any.  I’ve got to read this film.  Pronto.”  He held out the film; she reluctantly took it.
Branch and Bart watched silently as she put on cotton gloves, unrolled the film on a fresh paper towel, and weighed down the curling ends.  She carefully dusted one side, brushed off the residue, and looked at it under a lighted magnifier.  She grunted, turned the film over, and repeated the procedure.  “Nothing,” she said.
“Any partials from the edge?”
“Just yours, probably, and they were too smudged to do anything with.”
“Ok, thanks, Mavis.”  They hurried out.  “Records,” Branch said over his shoulder to Bart.  They entered another room full of filing cabinets.  Two microfilm readers were in a corner.  A young woman officer was at a nearby desk.  “Bonnie,” Branch said, “got some leader and the splicer?”
“Sure.”  She smiled and reached in a drawer.  “Let me.”
“Thanks.”  They watched Bonnie deftly splice strips of leader to both ends of the film and thread one end to a reel.  Branch took it to a reader, and after some hasty fumbling, stared at a screen full of cryptic symbols.  “What the hell is this?”
Bart looked over his shoulder.  “It’s Korean.”
“Korean?  Can you read it?”
“Not really.  I did some work near Koreatown in L.A. and recognized it.  It’s alphabetical, you know.”
“No kidding?  Looks sort of Chinese, but different.  Let’s scroll down and see if there’s anything we can make sense of.”  He slowly turned the crank of the reader and pages of the strange letters flowed by.  A diagram appeared and Branch stopped.  “What’s this?”
Bart leaned in.  “Looks like a bazooka round.”
“What else?”  Branch turned the crank.  “Now we’ve got some numbers.”
Bart frowned at the numbers.  “Don’t make much sense to me.”
“I wonder if this is all there is,” Branch said, pulling on his moustache.
“Know any Koreans?” Bart asked.
“No, but I’ll check with Peter.  There’s probably someone at the university who does.”
“I don’t guess you have time to let me play that cello now,” Bart said.
“Sorry.  I’d better get on this.”  Branch started making paper copies of the film.  “But I’m really glad you spotted that endpin.  Maybe there’ll be a lull in a few days.  We always seem to be waiting on one thing or another.”
“I understand.  Think you can make it to Peter’s tomorrow night?”
“I sure hope so.  Want to tackle the Debussy?”
“Sure.”
Bart left; Branch locked the film in the evidence room and took the copies back to his desk.  Chat was at the fax machine.  He explained his discovery.  “You don’t read Korean, do you?” Branch asked.
“Not hardly.”  Chat looked at the prints from the film and shook his head.  He pointed to one of the drawings and said, “That looks like a rocket or something nasty.”
Branch looked at his message slips.  Nothing from the Austin medical examiner.  He called Peter Held.  “Peter.  Aldo here.  Know any Koreans?”
“As a matter of fact, there’s a physics grad student here.  Sammy Oh.”
“Think he can meet with us in a few minutes?”
“I’ll ask him.  He’s right here.”
Branch held up crossed fingers to Chat, who held up a thumb.  Peter came back on the line.  “Come on over.”
“Be there in fifteen minutes.”

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