Archive for January, 2010

Four-Part Dissonance, by Edward Doughtie. Chapter 15. (For previous chapters, scroll down or go to archives.)

January 30, 2010

Chapter 15.

Branch faced the large man with the guns—his gun, dammit—and cursed his own inattention. He had been so focused on the distant building, with his normal senses blocked by goggles and headphones, that he hadn’t been aware of the other’s approach. Branch knew that his chagrin must show, even in the dark; he hoped his fear was less visible.
“Le’s go, Charlie,” the man said, twitching his revolver to his left. They walked back to the gate near the lake; the man tucked Branch’s gun in his belt, pressed a button until there was a buzz and the gate opened. He pushed Branch inside and pulled the gate closed behind them, never taking his eyes off Branch. They took a path toward the buildings. Branch could hear the man behind him humming a tune in a deep, resonant voice. What was it? A hymn, “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” He wondered if the man’s revolver was the .22 that killed the Kyoto Quartet. Would one of those slugs be tearing around in his brain soon?
“I’m a police officer,” Branch said, hoping that might change the situation.
“I don’t give a shit if you’re Jesus Christ.”
They reached the main house, an old two-story frame farmhouse, and entered the room Branch had been observing, a kitchen-cum-dining room with peeling wallpaper. Bledsoe recognized him immediately. The other man was slight, probably sixty, with thinning hair, a small moustache, and rimless glasses, wearing a short-sleeve white shirt with a polka-dot bow tie. He looked like a small-town druggist. He sat at the dining room table before a pile of papers. In the light he could see that his captor was the man at the gas station: he still wore camouflage pants, olive t-shirt, and orange cap. He was clearly dangerous, but these other two?
“Got you a snoop.”
“That’s the Houston cop I told you about,” Bledsoe said.
The slight man nodded at the large man. “Good work, Boomer.”
“When we gonna dust these pissants, Doc?” Boomer asked.
“Don’t be impatient, Boomer.” He turned his attention to Branch. “Detective Branch, is it? I wish you had kept your nose out of our business. I don’t like unnecessary violence.” He looked significantly at Boomer as he spoke.
“My job requires me to investigate crimes. Mr. Mattingly’s disappearance led me here. Is he here?”
The man called Doc looked at Bledsoe and smiled. “Boomer,” he said, “empty his pockets.” Boomer took Branch’s cell phone, extra ammo clip, wallet, shield, notebook, keys, Swiss army knife, and change, and threw them on the table. Doc flipped through the wallet and notebook. Then he turned to Branch. “Who knows you’re here?”
“My partner in Houston, Lieutenant Stover of the Dallas police, Sheriff Bailey of Kaufman County, and whoever they’ve told.” Branch noted that Bledsoe looked nervous. “It would help you if you let me and Mattingly go. Right now I don’t have anything against you—as long as Mattingly’s all right.” Branch could think of several charges he could bring, but he kept them to himself.
“Why don’t you see for yourself?” Doc nodded to Boomer, who poked Branch in the ribs with his gun.
“This way, Charlie.” They left the house and entered the side door of what appeared to be a garage. At the top of a narrow flight of stairs, Boomer unlocked a door and motioned Branch inside. He flicked on a light, and a man sat up on an old canvas army cot, frowning and rubbing his eyes. “Got you a roomie, Clint.” Boomer gave a short barking chuckle. “Guess yawl’ll have to flip for the bed.” He locked the door behind him.
Branch looked at the man on the cot, who was blinking at him. “Mr. Mattingly, I presume?”
“Who’re you?” He was in his fifties, with full iron-gray hair, solid, but not fat, an aging quarterback. He had several days’ growth of beard, a wrinkled white shirt with rolled-up sleeves and gray suit pants.
Branch introduced himself. “I came looking for you and got caught.”
“So you can’t get me out of here.”
“Not yet, I’m afraid. So I take it you’re not here of your own free will.”
He snorted. “Hell no.”
“Want to tell me about it?” Branch glanced back and forth from Mattingly to the surroundings, which he could see by taking three steps in any direction. The two windows were open to let in the humid air and the bugs, but there were bars on the outside that wouldn’t budge. The cot was the only furniture. A small bathroom in one corner had a doorway but no door, a toilet and sink, with a plastic cup on the sink and a dirty towel hanging on a nail. Four cardboard boxes were in another corner, full of pamphlets and books, copies of which he remembered finding in Mattingly’s home office. Nothing presented itself as a likely weapon or escape tool.
Mattingly rubbed his eyes, looked at Branch with a frown, and looked down at his socks. Finally he cleared his throat and said, “What the hell. I got off the plane in Dallas expecting to meet some business contacts. I thought these guys were them, and rode off with them. They pulled guns on me and brought me here. I guess they want ransom or something. They haven’t told me much.”
Branch didn’t buy that, but he didn’t want to challenge him directly. He needed to gain his confidence somehow, or pin him down. Before he could say anything, Mattingly spoke again.
“How’d you find me?”
How to answer? “I got Bledsoe’s description from the bartender at your hotel. I tracked him down and followed him here.”
Mattingly’s expression had showed no emotion other than irritation—a practiced poker face, Branch thought. But now he looked suddenly alert. “Which bartender?”
“Lady named Teresa.” Branch saw Mattingly’s worried frown appear and suddenly be suppressed. Maybe this was his opening. “They know of your interest in her.”
“Shit.”
“Think they might kidnap her too?”
Mattingly shook his head and remained silent.
“Suppose they did. Why do you think they would?” Branch watched him closely. Did the lines around his eyes tighten? “Do you think they’d try to put pressure on you?”
Mattingly remained silent, stone-faced. He stretched out on the cot and closed his eyes, folding his hands over his belly.
Branch watched him for a while, considering what to say. He got up and circled the room once more. He stopped at the boxes, picked one up, dumped it on the floor, and spread the papers and pamphlets out to make a bed. It wouldn’t be soft, but he could arrange them to give his back and head a little support. He stretched out and sighed.
Mattingly spoke. “How about turning off the light.” It was not so much a request as a command.
Branch turned so that he could see Mattingly’s profile. “Your wife called us to report you missing. She’s worried about you.” He paused. Mattingly didn’t react. “I wanted to talk to you myself, before she called. I wanted to know about that sake you gave the Kyoto Quartet.” No response. “I found out that there was a nausea-producing opiate in the stomachs of the quartet. Nobody else got sick.” No response. Branch waited. Mattingly turned on his side, facing away from Branch. “You remember the article about you in the Texas Examiner? Said you were involved with some right-wing groups.” Mattingly snorted. “The guy who wrote the article died. Of mushroom poison.” Mattingly shifted his position slightly, but said nothing.
Branch yawned. It had been a long day. He didn’t know if he could sleep or not. He knew that he might be killed at any moment, and that Boomer was capable of doing it. Bledsoe was probably fearful, but that could make him dangerous. Doc seemed cooler and more thoughtful. He was probably thinking of a way to kill him and make it seem an accident. Maybe Chat would talk to Stover, or Celia. Maybe the cavalry would arrive in time. Or not.
Branch got up and turned off the light. He heard the cot creak as Mattingly shifted. Branch broke the silence. “You know, your wife was so worried that she let us search your home office. And your computer. I’m pretty sure you knew that you were meeting someone from the Lads of Liberty or the Aryan Christian Mission. I think you were involved in what happened to the Kyoto Quartet. I think, if you get out of here alive, you’ll be up for accessory to murder.” He paused. Mattingly was silent. “Sleep well.”
Branch lay quietly, listening. He could hear Mattingly breathe, and could tell he was not asleep. The features of the darkened room paraded through his mind, each one probed for a weapon or means of escape. A tune accompanied each item as it appeared before him, the towel, the cup, the boxes of books and papers. Chopin’s “Funeral March.” That wouldn’t do. Try the promenade from Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Better. The “Funeral March” returned unbidden. Get another tune in your head, one with better associations. Brahms, the scherzo from the third piano quartet. Too nervous. Besides, it recalled Allegra. One night they had played that quartet with the violinist and cellist of Allegra’s trio. Branch remembered they played the last movement faster and faster. They were eager for the evening to end so they could go to bed. But the violinist and cellist lingered and lingered. When they finally got to bed the sex was so good that afterward Branch laughed and said they should have that group more often. Then he proposed. Allegra had thanked him, but put him off. Things went downhill after that.
So what about Celia? Branch thought that she might make him forget Allegra. But she seemed oddly remote at the dump. Was it something he had said or done, or was holding the burned bow a fresh reminder of the death of the quartet? She seemed upset at his shattered window. Maybe she didn’t want to be involved with someone who could get killed any old regular working day. She had been widowed once, and it wasn’t pleasant. I’m a trained detective, Branch thought, I should have come up with that sooner. She may have been wiser than she knew. A tune crept into his mind, Brahms’ “Lullaby.” He drifted. Celia seemed to be at the piano. He was playing his viola, but his A-string broke.
The cot creaked as Mattingly turned and sighed. The cot. Maybe they could make clubs out of the wooden frame. He could hide behind the door and clobber Boomer when he opened it. Then what?
“I didn’t know.”
Branch started. “What?”
Mattingly cleared his throat. “I didn’t know they would kill the quartet.”
“Who?”
“Boomer. And Bledsoe.”
Branch was fully awake. A faint light came through the windows, enabling him to see Mattingly’s face, dimly. “Did you know the sake was drugged?”
“Yeah, but it was supposed to be harmless.”
“Maybe you’d better back up and start over. How’d you get involved with these guys in the first place?”
“Well.” A long pause. “I’d been disgusted with the government for a long time. Whoever you voted for seemed to screw up. I couldn’t do this, couldn’t do that. OSHA. Couldn’t sell drills to the wrong Arabs. Taxes out the wazoo, handouts to bums and foreigners. I was just trying to run a business, make a buck, keep my people working. I started looking around on the internet to see what could be done. Found some people who seemed sensible. Got some of their books and publications, read a lot.” He snorted in disgust. “The Soviets collapsed, huh? Just playing possum, if you ask me. The Koreans aren’t. All those Japs and slopes and towel-heads are commies. And there are plenty of creeps here, even in our government, ready to help them. I gave the Lads and Aryans some money. Thought they had some good ideas. By the way, I had nothing to do with that pinko reporter, though he got what he deserved.”
He sighed heavily. Branch could see him shake his head. “But you can’t trust anybody. Take these guys. Told me that some North Koreans were smuggling some weapons plans to their agents here. Couldn’t tell the FBI or CIA, since they were riddled with spies. Needed some money to bribe some informants so they could intercept these plans and give them to some real patriots, some real Americans, if they could find any.”
He paused and shifted on the cot. He slapped his neck. “Damn mosquitoes. You’d think they’d have screens on the windows.”
Branch recalled his only desperate attempt at a plan. “Since you’re awake, I’m going to turn on the light. I want to take a look at that cot.”
He turned on the light, and they both blinked and frowned until their eyes adjusted. Mattingly got up and they both stared at the cot. “What did you have in mind?’ Mattingly asked.
“I wanted to see if we could get a club out of it and bash Boomer when he comes back.”
“I doubt it. I tried. Look.” The cot could be folded, but the wooden pieces were tightly bolted together. The bolts wouldn’t budge without a wrench.
“Let’s try to wiggle them loose.” They picked up the cot and struggled with its clumsy folds. They finally grasped a set of legs each, and began a rhythmic back-and-forth twisting. “Why don’t you go on with your story? If you were their patron, why’d they lock you up?”
“I still don’t understand. I guess I pissed them off when I heard that the Japs got killed. I raised hell. I don’t much like Asians, but those guys didn’t seem like smugglers. They probably didn’t know what they were carrying. “
“I agree.”
“Anyway, I called Doc and gave him hell about it. They’d just been in my house, for God’s sake. So crude. That Boomer, he’s crazy, kill anybody. Fried his brains over in Iraq, the first time. Then they got back in touch, all buddy-buddy. Wanted me to come up and consult with them about who we could trust with the plans. Then I got to Dallas and they haul me up here and lock me up, insisting I have the fourth part, whatever the hell that is, and am holding out on them. I told them I didn’t know what the fuck they were talking about. I thought killing the Japs was stupid, but since they did, they should have found whatever they were smuggling. But they said I must have part of it since they couldn’t find it.”
“That doesn’t make much sense. They had the men and the instruments and their cases. Maybe they thought you found something while they were at your house.”
“Maybe so. But I didn’t. They also want more money, but I’m not giving any more to these screwups.”
They were both panting now, but the legs of the cot seemed to be loosening. Branch was thinking of the Korean plans found in the cello endpin. They didn’t seem so crucial; if anything, whatever made it a formidable weapon should have been in the other three parts.
“So what do you think they were going to do with these plans?”
“They don’t tell me much now, but I gather they want to make a bunch of Korean rocket bombs and blow up some stuff. Like that Oklahoma City guy.”
“That ok with you?”
“Naw. Too many innocent people got killed. Blow up some buildings, maybe a few bureaucrats, but not kids.”
“You have standards, then.” Branch couldn’t keep the sarcasm out of his voice.
“You’re damn right.”
They worked silently on the cot. Finally one set of legs broke loose from the bolts. Each took a leg and swung it around.
“What time is it?” Mattingly asked.
Branch looked at his Timex. “Four twenty. Sun’s up around six. When do they come by in the morning?”
“They’ve been bringing me breakfast about an hour after sunup.” He made a face. “Pop Tarts. No coffee, just the water from the tap.”
Branch realized he was thirsty, and ran water in the cup and drank. He refilled the cup and handed it to Mattingly. “How many people hang out here?”
“I’ve only seen the three.”
“No women?”
“No.”
“You think the Aryan Christian Mission and the Lads of Liberty have a large membership?”
“I don’t know. I’ve only dealt with these three.” He slapped his hand with the cot leg. “How do you see us working this? We knock Boomer out, then what?”
“We run for the gate by the lake. There’s no barbed wire over the gate. We climb over it and run for my car across the road. Then I call for the police to raid the place while we get the hell away from there.”
Mattingly nodded and looked toward the blank window, still slapping his palm with the cot leg. Branch thought that he’d better keep an eye on his ally. After all, Branch was also a threat to his freedom.
Branch ran over possible scenarios in his head. Boomer opens the door. What does he see? “Let’s move the rest of the cot so Boomer won’t see that we’ve taken it apart.” Mattingly dragged it to the corner that would be hidden by the open door. “Maybe one of us is behind the door when it opens, but the other is in view. Standing by the bathroom, so he can have the club hidden but in reach.”
“Like this?” Mattingly leaned his club inside the bathroom doorway.
“Yeah.”
“Who does what?”
Branch considered. “You get behind the door. If you miss or don’t knock him out, I’ll be the one he aims at. I’ve been pretty good at dodging bullets so far.”
“Ok by me. I’ll knock the son of a bitch out if I can.”
Branch looked at his watch. “Now we wait, I guess.”
They didn’t have to wait long. They jumped to their places when they heard footsteps on the stairs.
“They’re early,” Mattingly mouthed silently.
Branch had just realized that more than one person was on the stairs when the door opened and came to rest on Mattingly standing behind it. Boomer grinned at Branch, pointing his gun at him but not entering.
“Go ahead and take a swing, Clint,” Boomer said. “I’d love to have an excuse to waste both of you motherfuckers.”
Branch saw that Doc was behind Boomer, and he could hear that someone else was further down the stairs.
Doc was smiling. “Gentlemen,” he said, “please drop those clubs. Mr. Mattingly, come out where we can see you.”
Mattingly came out and tossed his club at Boomer’s feet.
“Detective, please throw yours down as well.” Branch picked up his club and threw it by the other. “Good. Now please retire to a neutral corner.” He pointed, and Branch and Mattingly moved to the corner as Boomer and Doc came into the room. Doc smiled again. “It was very nice of you to provide us with your toys, detective. We could hear most of what you said, so your little plan was no surprise. We do have a surprise for Mr. Mattingly, however. Walter, bring your guest in.”
Bledsoe came to the doorway and entered, pulling Teresa in with him. She was in her barmaid’s uniform, her makeup streaked with tears. “Clint, I’m so sorry,” she said.

Four-Part Dissonance, by Edward Doughtie, Chapter 14 (for previous chapters, scroll down or go to archives).

January 26, 2010

Chapter 14.

Branch got the location of the dump and exited the freeway. He stopped in a strip mall lot and called Celia. “How would you feel about driving down to Wilmer?”
“Wow. Can’t you find anything to do in town?”
“Stover thinks they might have found the cases. They’ve been burned, but you might be able to ID something in the residue.” Branch smiled to himself. “Besides, you can check me for missing body parts.”
“What did the sheriff say?”
Branch told her.
“Did you ever get any lunch?”
“I hadn’t even thought. Good lord, it’s two o’clock. I’ll pick up a sandwich on the way to the dump.” He was suddenly hungry and very, very thirsty.
“Don’t bother. I’ll bring you something.”
“When do you have to pick up Colin?”
“Don’t worry. I’ll call a friend who’ll pick him up and give him supper if we’re late.”
Branch arrived at the dump and begged a bottle of water from the young patrolman behind the yellow tape. The water was warm, but he drank it greedily. The dump was in a field down another dirt road. According to the young uniform, the dump had started years ago with a few bags of garbage and a couple of tires. But like magnets, the first loads of refuse seemed to attract more, and no matter how much the poor black and Latino residents of the road complained, the dump had grown. Now piles of smoldering rubbish covered nearly an acre.
Branch found himself looking at a pile of ashes and the melted remains of the fiberglass cello case. Some metal locks and zippers emerged from the ashes, and some other bits that Branch recognized as the threaded spindle used to tighten bow hair. The frog and part of the stick of one bow was scorched, but not burnt. He picked it up and dusted off the ash. He knew that one of the players used a Pecatte bow; maybe Celia could tell.
He mooched around the site, reluctant to disturb it any further, and made small talk with the uniform until he saw Celia’s Civic come bumping down the road. She got out frowning, looked him quickly up and down, and gave him a quick hug. Branch wished it were longer.
“I guess you’re all there,” she said.
“I’m fine. Thanks for coming.” She handed him a square plastic container and a thermos. “Thanks,” he said. “You’ve been feeding me ever since I got here. When can I return the favor?”
“I don’t know.” She saw the blown-out window of Branch’s car and walked over to it, gazing into the hole open-mouthed. She shook her head. “Eat your lunch and let me look at this stuff.” She seemed distant, distracted. She wandered over to the pile of ashes and twisted fiberglass. “Oh, hell. That cello case looks familiar.”
Branch handed her the stump of the bow. She peered at the part of the stick above the frog. “Looks like Yamada’s Pecatte. More waste, so unnecessary. At least a quarter million worth of great bows gone.”
Branch tore open the container and bit into the sandwich he found. “Yum, tuna salad. You make it?” She nodded, still looking at the bow fragment. “Delicious. Thank you.”
“I guess I’d better collect the remains and take them to the office. The quartet had nine bows altogether, counting spares. I’d like to be able to account for them all.”
“I’ll ask Stover to have his lab people bring a sifter out,” Branch said, his words muffled by his sandwich. He opened the thermos and took a sip of coffee. “Ah. Your great coffee. I was running on empty.” He looked carefully at her frowning face, still directed at the ashes. “Could I ask one more favor?”
She looked up, wearily or warily—Branch couldn’t tell.
“Could you go with me to speak to Mattingly’s girlfriend? You’ve connected with her already. She might tell us more if you were there.”
She looked at her watch. “Ok. I don’t want to leave Colin at my friend’s past his bedtime. Can we go now?”
“Sure.” He called Stover and arranged for recovering the bow remains, then left a message for Polly in Houston. He also reported the shooting to Sandoval, who was audibly upset. Branch smiled as he considered that Sandy probably opened his eyes at the news. Sandoval also wanted to call in the Rangers, but Branch persuaded him to keep the state police out for the time being.
Branch followed Celia down the road and through Dallas to Teresa Lopez’s apartment. He reflected on Celia’s attitude. She seemed concerned about him, but after her hug, she seemed remote. Probably thinking about the bows and the insurance, he thought, the paperwork ahead of her.
Of course they woke Teresa up. She opened the door a crack, with the chain on. Branch could see a short flowered Japanese robe and tousled blond hair. Her look of sleepy irritation softened when she recognized Celia.
“I’m sorry we got you up,” Celia said.
“It’s ok. I’d have to get up in another half hour anyway.” She looked questioningly at Branch.
“This is Detective Branch,” Celia said. “He’s a friend. He’s trying to find Mr. Mattingly.”
“Come on in.” Teresa closed the door, undid the chain, and let them into a neat, sparse efficiency apartment, sliding a screen across the area containing her unmade bed. She was a short woman, maybe late thirties or well-kept forties. Her hips under her robe were a bit on the wide side, Branch thought, and her hair color must have come from a bottle. But as she grew more alert as they talked, Branch could see in her wide brown eyes and generous mouth a promise of warmth and sensuality that Mattingly must have found missing in his marriage. She talked as she made coffee.
“I didn’t know he was rich. He seemed like just another lonely businessman. I knew he was married. He made a point of telling me that early on. We just talked a lot. Or at least I talked a lot. He’d be down in the bar when it was quiet, nursing a single gin and tonic, and he somehow got me talking. He didn’t say much, but he was a good listener. Sometimes I got the feeling he wanted to tell me something, but couldn’t or wouldn’t. Since he’d already told me he was married, I didn’t worry too much about it until he went missing.” She poured three mugs of coffee. They sat at her small table.
“Tell me more about the guy who came in asking for Mr. Mattingly,” Branch said during a pause.
“He had all this white hair and this little smirk, like he knew something funny about you but was too nice to tell, and he talked the same way, like he was doing you a favor. I wanted to throw something at him before he left.”
“Was he a little heavy around the middle?”
“Yeah. I think the hair was a rug.”
“Can you remember what he said?”
“Well, like I told Celia, he said he was supposed to meet Clint—Mr. Mattingly—but didn’t know what he looked like. I asked what he wanted with him, and he said it was just about business. I didn’t describe Mr. Mattingly very much, just a little, since I didn’t know whether the guy was legit.”
“Did he give his name?”
“Yeah, but I forgot. I think it started with a B.”
“Bledsoe?”
Teresa brightened. “Yeah. I remember now—he made me think of a bedsore.” They laughed, but Teresa stopped and looked worried. “So do you think he’s all right?”
“I hope so,” Branch said. “I think he may be with this Bledsoe and some others out in the country. They haven’t asked for ransom, so I don’t know what they want with him. And I can’t ask the police to raid the place until I have a reason to believe he’s there instead of just a hunch.”
Celia had been quiet, thoughtful. “Can you think of anything he might have said or done or asked about that might help in any way?”
Teresa stared into her coffee. “Not really. The only time he mentioned his business, he said he worked with oilfield equipment. He did say he didn’t like doing business with Asians. Said they beat around the bush too much.”
“Did he say anything else about Asians? Do you think he was prejudiced?”
“No, only that he didn’t like doing business with them.”
They were quiet. Teresa looked at her watch.
“We’ll let you go,” Celia said. “Just one thing. Did Mr. Mattingly visit you here at your place?”
She looked away, a bit embarrassed, Branch thought. “Only the first time. He had been hanging around the bar, listening to me and looking miserable. I had been telling him all about my divorce, poor man. He would ask questions, but the only thing he said was that divorce was not an option for him. After a while I felt so sorry for him that I took him home. After that, we met in his hotel room.”
Branch slid his chair back. “Thank you for talking to us. And please let us know if you can think of anything else that might help.” He handed her his card and stood. Teresa and Celia got up and moved toward the door. Branch gripped the back of his chair. “I don’t want to scare you,” he said, “but please be careful until we get this sorted out. Keep your door locked, don’t let any strangers in, and maybe get a co-worker to take you to your car after work.”
Teresa’s eyes widened and she put her hand on her chest.
Branch said, “Bledsoe must know you and Mattingly are at least friendly. They may think to use you to put pressure on him.” He got Stover’s card and wrote his name and numbers on the back of another of his own cards. “This is a friend of mine with the Dallas police. Call him if you need help. And call us too.” Teresa nodded, and clutched the cards.
Celia touched Teresa on the shoulder. “Thanks again. And be careful.” They could hear Teresa put the chain on the door after it closed behind them.
They approached their cars. Branch asked Celia, “Now can I take you to dinner?”
“No, thank you. I need to get back and get Colin before his bedtime.” She hesitated. “I’m sorry, but I’d better not invite you. I just have a few scrappy leftovers, and I’ve got some work to do.”
“I understand. Will I see you tomorrow?”
“I don’t know. Work, you know. . . .” She trailed off. Then she looked at him. “What are you going to do next?”
Branch hesitated. He knew what he was going to do, what he would have to do, but he was reluctant to tell her. He looked at his watch. “I’m not sure. Go back to the motel, eat, and think. Maybe I’ll come up with something.”
“Well,” she hesitated, and looked at him uncertainly. “Bye.”
“Bye. Hi to Colin.”
She got in her car and drove off. Branch looked ruefully at his shattered window. What made Celia cool off? He recalled her insistence that their first dinner was not a date. Then she seemed more and more interested, culminating in the night in her hotel room. When he visited her and Colin, he was sure that she was comfortable with their more intimate relationship; and though he was disappointed not to have another night with her, he understood and respected her concern for her son. And now? Was she angry that he tried to keep her away from potential danger? When they met at the dump, her hug felt genuine and spontaneous, if brief.
His watch said almost six. He drove slowly until he found a hardware store, where he bought a sheet of thick plastic and a roll of duct tape. He taped the plastic over the rear window and hoped that would keep in more of the cool air. Then he opened the trunk and was relieved to see that he had in fact brought his night vision goggles and remote listening device, a kind of directional amplifier, equipment that he had bought with his own money. His cellist friend Bart McIlhenny, the engineer, had helped him pick them out. Branch believed in a constitutional right to privacy, and until now he had never used these devices. But he knew that he might someday need something more than a hunch or suspicion to have probable cause, and this seemed to be the time.
He stopped at a plausible looking barbecue joint, had a beef sandwich and a beer. The beer was cold and did him good, but the sandwich couldn’t compare to his Kirby Drive favorite in Houston. At the motel, he took a shower and changed to lightweight but dark pants and t-shirt. He looked through the curtains—still light. He made a cup of coffee in the machine the motel provided, then called Chat’s cell phone.
“We found the cases.”
“Yeah, Polly got your message. Did that help? Any details?”
“Not really.” Branch explained that the cases and bows were burnt. “Oh, I got shot at.”
“No shit. They miss you?”
“Yeah. Broke my rear window, though.”
“Damn. You got my hopes up. Get you out of the way, I might get a promotion.”
Branch told about following Bledsoe to the fenced compound, the man in the SUV, the visit to Sheriff Bailey, the visit with Teresa. “So what have you been doing?”
“Digging around in the man’s computer. More right-wing shit, some business stuff—oil field crap. Found some business with Haggarty.”
“Oh? What?”
“Sounded like he wanted some Korean art or antique stuff for his wife, wanted Haggarty to advise him.”
“Anything else about Asians?”
“Think I remember something about a South Korean supplier. Nothing about Japanese.”
“Check that out again, see what it’s about, ok?”
“Will do. What next for you?”
“Well, I’ve got my ears and my night eyes. Thought I’d go out and see if Mattingly is behind Bledsoe’s fence.”
“Hmm. Might get that promotion after all, you get nailed by some cracker with an AK-47.”
“Thanks for the good thought.”
“So, how is the lovely Miss Celia?”
“Helpful.”
“How helpful?” Branch heard his leer. “She relieve your tensions?”
“She helped with Mattingly’s girlfriend, like I said. She fed me. I got to talk to her little boy. Bright little kid.”
“Ahh, the call of domesticity.”
“Well, I think I’ve had about as much of you as I can stand for one night.”
“Me too. But listen. You watch your flabby white ass out there in those redneck woods.”
“Just in case you don’t hear from me, this place is off the road to Phalba, on the left, with three mailboxes. The name on one is Ladislaw.”
“That rings a bell.”
“Celia knows where it is.”
Branch hung up and looked out the window. Twilight. It would be full dark by the time he reached the dirt road.
He parked in a shallow turnoff between Earl Jeter’s trailer and the Coleman’s house, slathered mosquito repellent over his skin, and checked the Glock and its extra ammunition clip for the tenth time. He shouldered the bag containing his equipment and set out. The moon provided him with enough light to cross the road and go a few yards down toward the fence. Then the trees shut out the moon. He opened his bag, put on the night vision goggles and turned them on. He waited until his eyes adjusted to the strange colors; then he left the road and moved parallel to it, keeping behind a screen of trees and brush.
When he reached the fence, he stopped and looked for any hint of light. Nothing. Any building must be deeper inside. He chose to turn to the right and followed the fence, trying to keep it in sight without getting too close. They might have some booby trap or motion detector. He struggled through the brush, snagging on blackberry vines, and sweating. He stopped every ten yards or so to look beyond the fence for some spot of light.
A tune from a Mozart quartet began running through his head. He welcomed it, and tried to play the whole quartet in his mind. He thought grimly that he’d much rather be playing that quartet with his friends, with the prospect of a beer and cheese and crackers afterwards, than getting scratched to death in the woods. Was that sweat or blood?
The fence came to a corner, and Branch followed it around. A glimmer of something ahead caught his attention. It was not a building, for the light was spread out, broad and diffuse. Eventually he could see that the light came from moonlight on a pond or lake. The fence came within a few yards of the shore, where there was a dock. He could see another gate in the fence. It was locked, but there was no barbed wire on top of the gate. He would remember that. He looked around to orient himself as much as he could. The moon was now moving toward the horizon. It would get a lot darker in a couple of hours.
He continued along the fence until, at last, he saw a light. Getting as close as he could, he pulled out the binoculars that went with the goggles. He saw a building—no, two, three buildings. That one had a lighted window; figures moved across the window. Ah—there was Bledsoe, waving his arms, talking to someone. Branch took the amplifier out of his bag and put on the headphones; he turned on the power and pointed the directional microphone toward the window. He was almost out of range, but he could hear snatches of speech whenever Bledsoe or the other person was facing the window.
“I still haven’t heard . . . you can’t just . . . followed me here.” That was Bledsoe, sounding agitated.
The other person spoke. “We can’t . . . distract us. You know . . . Mattingly.” Mattingly! Branch increased the volume and concentrated on getting the microphone pointed to pick up as much as possible.
Bledsoe spoke. “I don’t think Mattingly . . . what about that woman, the bartender?” Branch thought he was right to tell Teresa to be careful. He hoped she’d be careful enough.
The other voice came on more strongly. He could see Bledsoe’s back toward the window. The other man had stood, facing the window. “We’ve got the three. The fourth must have been in the cello. We scoured every inch of the case.”
Bledsoe: “But Mattingly . . . I don’t think . . .”
Something jerked at Branch’s hip. Where his gun was. He spun around and nearly bumped into a huge man who was holding his Glock in one hand and a long-barreled revolver in the other. He had been listening so hard to the sounds sixty yards away that he had heard nothing next to him. He jerked off the headphones and heard the big man say, “Looks like you jes’ got yore tit in the wringer, Charlie.”

Four-part Dissonance, by Edward Doughtie. Chapter 13 (For previous chapters scroll down or go to archives.)

January 17, 2010

Chapter 13

“Don’t hang up,” Branch shouted into his cell phone. He turned and got back in his car. “Which way are you heading?”
“He’s heading south on Marsh, probably towards 635,” Celia said.
“Tell me when he turns.”
“Are you sure you want me to drive and talk at the same time?” Branch could hear the smile in her voice. “Isn’t that dangerous?”
“Yes, it is. We don’t have to chat, but stay connected and tell me when he changes direction.” Branch wrestled his city map open and searched for the location. He started the car, but didn’t move. “He in that blue Ford pickup?”
“Yep.”
Branch fidgeted. There was no reason for him to move until he knew which way they were going. He clipped the phone to his shirt pocket so he’d be sure to hear it, and turned on the radio. Ravel’s “Bolero.” He’d heard that too many times. He shuffled through his tapes. Should he go back to the “Goldberg Variations,” or a nervous Vivaldi to match his mood, or something serene to calm him down? He tried Mozart’s “Hunt” quartet, something positive, cheerful.
“What’s that?” Celia asked.
Branch smiled. “Mozart.”
After a few minutes, Celia said, “He’s getting on 635, heading east.”
“Ok, watch out for the intersection with 75.” Branch looked at the map and tried to calculate when they would reach the intersection. He was excited at the thought that at last he would get a break that would lead him to Mattingly and maybe to the killers. But he also thought that he should have been more persuasive in discouraging Celia’s involvement. She was stubborn. He recalled her defiant smile and smiled in admiration. Some woman.
“Now he’s going south on 75.” Celia sounded almost calm.
“Good. Stick with him, but be careful.” Branch put the car in gear and drove north to the Northeast Highway, turned east, and soon joined route 75. “I’m on 75 now. Where are you?”
“We just crossed I-30.”
“You’re ahead of me. Keep in touch.”
Branch drove faster, searching the traffic ahead, but didn’t see Celia’s Civic or the blue pickup. They approached the center of town; the traffic slowed and thickened. Branch noted that the Mozart quartet was now into the lively finale. He turned it off.
“Hey, you still there?” Celia called.
“Yeah.”
“I didn’t hear your music.”
“It was getting on my nerves. Didn’t match the traffic, which is damn slow.” Other cars dodged in and out of the clogged lanes, preventing Branch from doing the same. He swore at a big Caddy with tinted windows that cut him off.
“Looks like he’s going on 175,” Celia said.
“Thanks. How are you for gas?”
“I’m fine. You?”
“Ok for now.” Branch’s tank was on the quarter mark. Why hadn’t he filled up earlier? They rolled along southeast on 175. The traffic thinned and Branch speeded up. “How fast are you going?”
“Steady seventy,” Celia said. “We’re approaching the intersection with I-20.”
“I’m catching up.”
They crossed I-20 and continued past Kaufman. At the Cedar Creek Reservoir, the road merged into two lanes. Branch at last caught sight of Celia’s Civic and the blue pickup. They turned north on an even smaller road toward Phalba. Wooded areas became more frequent between trailer parks, bait shops, and used car graveyards. Branch saw the pickup signaling a left turn onto a dirt road. “Don’t turn,” he called to Celia. “Go on past and pull over in about half a mile.”
“Ok.” She sounded disappointed.
Branch took note of the dirt road the pickup had taken. It was not marked in any way, except for a group of three mailboxes at the mouth. The woods thickened around it as it wound into the shadows. Celia had parked on a wide part of the shoulder ahead. He pulled up behind her and put on his flashers. When he got out, the hot, dry air slapped his face. He slipped into Celia’s passenger seat. She kept the motor and air conditioning running. She looked cool, alert.
“You done good,” he said to her knowing smile. “Now go home.”
She frowned. “What about you?”
“Don’t worry about me. I think I’ll go on down there and ask for Bledsoe, see what I get.”
“Won’t that be dangerous?”
“Not particularly. I’ll flash my badge, be friendly and non-threatening.”
“Won’t you spook Bledsoe?”
“Probably. But I can tell him I was just coming to see him when he left home and I couldn’t catch up with him. Not without breaking the law.” He smiled.
“Pretty thin.” She shook her head. “Why not call in some Dallas backup?”
“If we come down in force without a warrant, we’re likely to get less than if I make a friendly call. Bledsoe just may be visiting some elderly member of his flock.”
“How about if I wait out on the main road?”
“I’d rather you didn’t. If they follow me, I don’t want them to connect you with me. You’ve got to think about Colin.”
“No fair.” She looked away and rubbed the steering wheel.
Branch saw that he had made a point. “So go on home. I’ll call as soon as I know something.” He opened the car door. Celia reached out and touched his arm.
“Be careful.”
Branch heard and saw real concern. He wanted to kiss her, but nodded and shut the door. She turned around and started back down the road. Branch followed her until he came to the turnoff. He stopped and watched until she drove out of sight. Then he looked at the mailboxes at the entrance to the road and noted the names: one was Coleman, one was Jeter, and the third was Ladislaw. Ladislaw from Liberty, who left the message with Mattingly’s secretary? Some of the owners of these boxes might live on the wider dirt road across from this one. Ladislaw might be an innocent Polish-American. He eased his car down the rutted dirt road.
The trees and brush were thick on either side of the road, which was just wide enough for one car. Now and then a branch scratched on his window. Although the trees produced considerable shade, Branch knew it would still be stiflingly hot outside. The road showed signs of frequent use, rough though it was. It curved slightly to the left, then to the right. Finally it widened into a turnaround in front of a high chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. The fence vanished into the woods on the left and right of a heavy gate. It was padlocked, but an intercom in a metal box was bolted into the fence and protected with hardware cloth. There was a hole just big enough to allow him to press the call button.
He waited ten seconds, thirty, forty. The intercom crackled. “Whut chou want?”
“I’m a police officer, Sergeant Aldo Branch. I just have a few questions.”
“Questions ‘bout whut?”
“I’d like to talk to the Reverend Bledsoe.”
“Don’t know him.”
“I think he’s in there.”
“No. Cain’t he’p you. Goodbye.”
“Look, I really need to speak to him. It won’t take long. I’m by myself.”
There was no reply. Branch leaned on the call button, waited a full minute, and leaned on it again. Finally the intercom made the soft roaring sound that indicated someone about to speak. Then it was silent. Branch pressed and held the call button. A different voice came on, a man, higher and without the country accent.
“Leave us alone, or come back with a warrant. We have nothing to say to you.”
Branch could get no more out of them. He got back in his car and aimed the air conditioning vent on his face. So there were at least two men there, and neither sounded like Bledsoe. He turned the car and left.
He crossed the paved road and drove slowly up the wider dirt road, stopping at the first house, or rather the first trailer, a double-wide, with several decaying cars and trucks littering the yard. A man in greasy brown coveralls wiggled out from under a rusty red pickup and approached Branch with a skeptical look on his sun-leathered face. Branch flashed his shield. “Mr. Coleman?”
“Naw. Jeter.”
“Just a quick question, sir. Do you know anything about the people behind that chain-link fence on the road across the way?”
He shook his head. “Don’t know nothing about ’em. Never been over there. I guess they mind their own business. I just tend to mine.”
Branch thanked him and continued down the road to a house at the end. It was a modest ranch house, much in need of paint. One aging Ford station wagon was in the drive, along with two tricycles, a flattened basketball, and several broken pieces of colored plastic that were once toys. A chubby young woman in shorts and tank top answered the door, brushing hair out of her eyes; the ends of her hair were damp with sweat. A television blared in the room behind her, accompanied by a crying child and a noisy argument between two other children.
“Mrs. Coleman?”
“Yes?” She turned and called into the house, “Y’all be quiet!” The noise abated for a second, then resumed.
“I’m Sergeant Branch,” he said, showing his shield. “Sorry to bother you. Just one quick question. Do you know anything about the people behind that fence at the other end of the road?”
“Not much. My husband says he went down there last month, but didn’t see anybody. He called them—they’ve got some kind of phone at the gate, you know? Said he was a neighbor, wanted to make a friendly visit. My husband’s real friendly, you know? But they just told him to go away. Are they in trouble?”
“Not that I know of. We’ve just had some questions.”
“Well, they’re not real neighborly, you know?”
“Is Mr. Jeter neighborly?”
“Oh, Earl? He’s all right. It just takes time to get to know him. He helped fix my husband’s car.”
“Well, thank you for your time.” So the mailbox for Ladislaw is for whoever is behind the fence.
Back on the road, Branch kept an eye on his rear view mirror. Nothing. Then he checked his fuel gauge. Almost on fumes. A grungy store with two gas pumps appeared on his right, and he pulled in. The storefront was peeling gray paint and dirty glass through which a Lone Star neon sign flickered. The pumps were not self-service, but Branch got out and uncapped the tank before a skinny kid in greasy jeans and a t-shirt picturing Jesus on a motorcycle emerged from the creaky screen door.
“Reg’lar?” he asked.
“Please.”
He cranked the pump and inserted the hose. “Check your oil?”
“No thanks.” Branch looked at the kid’s acne-spotted face, dirty blond ponytail, and blank expression. What is his future? Shade-tree mechanic or convenience store robber?
Just then a large SUV roared in and crunched the gravel just behind Branch’s car, and a huge man got out. He wore camouflage pants, an olive drab t-shirt squeezing enormous biceps, and an orange baseball cap. Big hiking boots. He must have been six feet four, nearly three hundred pounds. He didn’t look at Branch, but strode to the drink machine and got a large grape soda. He studiedly looked into the distance as he drank. Branch noted that the license plate on the SUV was obscured by mud, but it was a Texas plate beginning with L. Branch paid for his gas and started off. In the rear view mirror he saw the SUV enter the road and follow, keeping about two hundred yards behind. When the road returned to four lanes, the SUV picked up speed, passed Branch, and turned onto a two-lane road about a quarter of a mile ahead. Branch relaxed a bit.
He picked up his cell phone and punched in Celia’s number with his thumb. “You home yet?”
“Not quite. Where are you? Are you ok?”
“Yeah. They wouldn’t let me in. At the end of that road is a fence with a gate and intercom. I asked for Bledsoe and they claimed they didn’t know him.”
“Nowhere else he could have gone?”
“Nope.”
Branch passed under a bridge over the four lane. Suddenly his rear window shattered with a lot of noise. He dropped the phone and got the car under control. By the time he looked in the rear view mirror, he could see nothing on the bridge. His heart was pounding. The car seemed all right, but the air blowing around where the rear window had been made a disconcerting sound. He picked up the phone.
“What the hell was that?” Celia asked. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah, but something knocked my rear window out just after I went under a bridge.” He tried hard to keep his voice steady.
“Somebody shoot at you?”
“Maybe. I’ll stop and take a look.” The bridge was now out of sight. He drove onto the shoulder and stopped. His hands shook as he opened the door and looked in the back. The safety glass in the window had broken into hundreds of bits that lay scattered over the back seat. And in the floor just behind the driver’s seat was an oval hole through the carpet and metal. Branch calculated the angle. Someone had indeed shot at him from the bridge. Judging from the hole, it was probably a pretty high-powered rifle. It would have been hard to hit him, a moving target, but this had been close. He couldn’t help associating the shot with his attempt to follow Bledsoe, and with the big man in the SUV. He felt a surge of anger, though the man might just have been an innocent hunter. He recalled the bodies of the Kyoto Quartet. These people were dangerous. But what happened also told him that he was probably on the right track. “Yep,” he said to Celia. “Looks like I took a shot. Guess the boys down the road are trying to scare me off.”
“Jesus. Be scared. Get moving, get out of there.”
“I’m ok. Don’t worry. I think I’ll call my friend Stover and find out what county I’m in and visit the sheriff.”
“All right. But call me now and then, let me know you’re still alive. And come by my place when you get back to town. I want to inspect you for damage.”
Branch was pleased with her concern, and found that his heart was now slowing down and his hands steady. He found Stover’s card and punched his number before driving on. When Branch explained what had happened, Stover said, “You’re in Kaufman County, and the seat, strangely enough, is Kaufman. The sheriff there is a pretty good old boy named Bailey. But shooting at an officer is a state matter. I can get the Rangers there in a few minutes.”
“No, please. Let’s keep the crowd down for a while. I’ll talk to Bailey. Can you recommend an auto glass place back in Dallas?”
“Talk to me after you’ve seen Bailey.”

Sheriff Bailey was indeed a pretty good old boy, Branch thought. Unlike the stereotype of rural sheriff, Bailey was a lean and fit fifty-year-old with a lot of military crispness in his short gray hair and pressed uniform. He listened sympathetically to Branch’s story, examined the bullet hole, and had a female deputy, a rangy thirty-something with a narrow face, take notes as they spoke. Branch had to work hard to discourage the sheriff from calling in the Rangers. When they finished, the deputy stuck her pencil in her high-piled hair and went off to type the notes. The two men then sat in Bailey’s office with cups of coffee.
“I’ll see that we do the best we can,” Bailey said. “I think you’re right to be suspicious of the guy in the SUV, but there’s nothing we have to connect him with the shot. We’ll find the bullet and dig it out of the road, and look for the casing on the bridge. I doubt if we’ll get the casing. And I don’t have a lot of hope for getting at those guys behind the fence. That’s in the next county, and I’ve had trouble getting much help from my colleague there. You’d have to get a state warrant, and I doubt if you could get one yet.”
“Do you know anything about the place with the fence?”
“I’ve heard rumors that it’s everything from a hippie commune to drug dealers to Moonies. But nothing hard. I’ll be listening more carefully now.”
Branch returned to his car and started back to Dallas. The shattered window not only made noise, it cut down the effectiveness of the air conditioning, and Branch was soon sweating and swearing. As he crossed I-20, he phoned Stover. “How about that glass place?”
“Hold that for a moment,” Stover said. “Go back and go south on I-45 a ways. There’s an unofficial dump that has something you might be interested in.”
“What’s that?”
“Might be what’s left of those fiddle cases you asked about.”
“What’s left?”
“Yeah, they’ve been burned.”

Four-Part Dissonance, by Edward Doughtie. Chapter 12. (For previous chapters, scroll down or go to the archives.)

January 12, 2010

Chapter 12.

Branch cruised north on I-45. He had Glenn Gould’s first recording of the Bach Goldberg Variations on the tape player. The air conditioning was working well, and traffic was moderate. He realized that he was almost enjoying himself, having an enforced period of solitude and good music. His thoughts jumped from Bach to Mattingly to Celia to Allegra, then back to Celia. He would surely call. The Bach helped drown out the yearning romantic melodies in his memory that evoked Allegra. Although they still echoed, he was beginning to know, in his heart and bones as well as his mind, that Allegra was gone for good.
His mind turned to Celia and rested there. She married an older man, so she liked older men. He recalled her first appearance at the station, her freshness heightened by the contrasting grubbiness of the office. He recalled her full lower lip touched with barbecue sauce. Her initial businesslike manner relaxed before she left, and their night in her hotel room was a revelation. She was affectionate as well as passionate. There might be a future there. He beat time on the steering wheel as Gould spun off a rapid variation. He had to see her.
The Dallas skyline eventually rose from the plain, and soon Branch was making his way to the Dallas police headquarters. Dallas had trees, but in Branch’s mind, it was always a bare and sterile place, at least compared to the lusher areas of Houston. It was just as hot, but a bit drier. The new Jack Evans Headquarters building was a large red brick building joined to a concrete and glass section. He parked, entered the lobby, thinking it looked more like an airline terminal than the frayed offices on Houston’s Reisner Street. He was glad that the homicide division had moved to the old Houston Natural Gas building on Travis. He flashed his shield at the desk officer, and found the shiny new office of Lieutenant Harry “Smoky” Stover. Stover had never smoked, but an older cop had named him after an ancient comic strip fireman called Smoky Stover. This was years ago when they were both in the academy in Houston. Stover was tall and lean, with thinning and graying red hair and innumerable freckles and splotches on every visible bit of skin. As they shook hands, the word “melanoma” flitted through Branch’s mind. They sat, and Branch refused coffee.
“A clean cop shop,” Branch teased. “How can you get any work done?”
“We just buckle down and make do. Do you still train roaches in the Houston shop?”
“We’re entering one in the Kentucky Derby this year.”
“So, what makes you think your murders and Mattingly’s disappearing act are connected?” Stover asked.
“They may not be. But I was just about to ask Mattingly about the sake he fed them that might have made them stop their car and get killed. Then I find out he’s connected to these wingnuts, the Lads of Liberty and the Aryan Christians. Maybe they’ve added Japanese to their hate list.”
“He spike the sake?”
“Possibly. A writer for the Texas Examiner died of food poisoning after writing a disapproving article about him.” Stover raised his eyebrows and snorted. Branch continued. “So what do you know about the Lads of Liberty?”
“Not much. We find the name on some flyers full of racist garbage now and then, but they’re anonymous. They haven’t claimed any crimes yet, so we haven’t looked for them too hard. We think they overlap with this other group, the Aryan Christian Mission, but we can’t be sure. We have only one name we can give you.”
“Better than nothing.”
“Maybe. He claims to be a legit preacher, though he doesn’t seem to have a church, and he sometimes seems to be a spokesman for the Aryans. You know, they’ll write some wild letter to the editor, and then this guy will write and try to sound reasonable but end up agreeing with them. Guy named Bledsoe.”
“I guess I’d better talk to him.” Stover punched some keys on his computer and turned the monitor so branch could read and write down his name and address. Branch leaned back and scratched his chin. “Any sign of some sort of camp or compound in the area? You know how some of these guys like to play army.”
“It’s possible, but we don’t know. Heard some rumors, but some of the rural sheriffs around here are pretty dismissive of city cops and their worries. They may think some good ol’ boys have a huntin’ club out in the woods, but if they don’t see laws broken, they don’t bother. They never want to be accused of pushing against the Second Amendment.”
“And you don’t push either.” Branch smiled faintly.
Stover also smiled, even more faintly. “Not in Dallas. Unless there’s a crime.”
Stover wrote his cell and home numbers on a card. “Call me if you find anything we should be interested in. Or if you get in trouble.”
“Think I might?”
“Well, some of these gun nuts think we’re the enemy.”
In his car, Branch checked Bledsoe’s address in the Dallas street map. Then he smiled and turned to another page in his notebook and found Celia’s address. He opened his cell phone and punched a number. Celia’s voice came on her answering machine. “Hi, this is Aldo. I’m in town, and I’d like to take you out to dinner tonight.” He added quickly, “Your son too.” He gave his cell number.
Bledsoe lived in Carrollton, north of the city, a fifties suburb of three-bedroom brick ranches, now selling for more than they were worth. Many of the streets wound in loops to avoid the unfashionable look of a grid. There were trees, but they were nothing like the tall live oaks of the older Houston neighborhoods. Bledsoe’s house was on Via Avenida Street, which amused Branch—“street avenue street,” he translated. The house was smaller than its neighbors, and the lawn was not as neatly mowed.
Branch rang the bell, waited several minutes, and rang again. If he were inside, Branch had to let him know he wasn’t going away. He rang again, holding down the button. He heard steps and saw the peephole darken. The door opened on a chain, and Walter Bledsoe looked out suspiciously. Branch could see a man in his fifties with a thin moustache and full, swept-back silver hair.
“Yes?”
“Mr. Bledsoe?”
“Who are you?”
Branch held his shield up for Bledsoe’s inspection. “ Sergeant Branch, Houston Police. Just a few questions. May I come in?”
“Houston? I’ve never been to Houston.”
“I’ll explain. A Houston citizen has disappeared in the Dallas area. We hope that one of your contacts might help.”
Bledsoe stared at Branch for a moment, then silently undid the chain and opened the door. As Branch entered, Bledsoe said, “I can’t imagine how I could possibly help, but I’ll listen to your questions.” Branch saw that he was hiding a modest belly under a safari shirt, with gray polyester pants and sandals. The living room was furniture rental standard, beige sofa and chair, glass-topped coffee table, gray carpet, print of Dürer’s praying hands on the wall. Muted TV in the corner, tuned to Fox. They sat. Bledsoe looked at Branch, his face softened into a practiced pious benevolence. Branch realized that the hair was a wig.
“As I said, this Houston citizen seems to have vanished day before yesterday. He didn’t follow his usual pattern as a frequent business visitor to Dallas. His wife worries that he may have been kidnapped.”
Bledsoe put his hands together as if he were going to pray, then interlaced his fingers. “I’m sorry to hear it, but I still don’t see how I come in.”
“Well, it appears that your name has come up in connection with a group called the Aryan Christian Mission, and it appears that the missing man had been in contact with this group and one called the Lads of Liberty. Can you tell me what your relationship is to either of these groups?”
“Easily. I have no relationship. I know of the first, since they frequently write letters to the editors of the local papers, and I sometimes find some of their points sympathetic and say so in my own letters. But I have no knowledge of the group or its members. I know nothing of the—what did you call them? The Lads of Liberty?”
“Yes.”
“That’s it, then. I’m sorry not to be more helpful.”
“So you know no one who might be a member of either group.”
“That’s right.” He paused and narrowed his eyes. “I suppose these people are entitled to freedom of association.”
“Of course. But we have to go where our leads take us for information if there has been a crime, or in this case a possible crime. The missing person may be able to help us with another crime.”
“I see. Well, as I said, I’m sorry I can’t help.” He rose.
Branch stayed seated. “Just a couple of other questions. I understand that you are a minister. May I ask what denomination?”
“We call ourselves the Church of the Newer Gospel.”
“And where is your church?”
Bledsoe smiled, smugly, Branch thought. “We do not confine ourselves to bricks and mortar. We make use of modern technology.”
“TV?”
“No. I communicate with my flock mainly via e-mail.”
“Ah. Don’t you ever get together in person?”
“Rarely. We have a picnic in one of the city parks in May.” He looked at his watch. “Now if you are satisfied, sir, I must ask you to excuse me.”
Branch rose. “All right. Thank you for your time.” He held out a card. “If anything occurs to you, please call me on my cell phone.”
Branch drove off, then parked around the corner where he could see Bledsoe’s driveway in his rear view mirror. He called Chat on his cell phone. “Found anything else on Mattingly’s computer?”
“Not much. Got a date yet?”
“If you can get your mind on work for a little, see what you can find out about a supposed preacher named Walter Bledsoe. If you find a picture, fax it to Stover in Dallas.”
“Yassuh, boss.”
“After that you can hoe the south forty.”
Chat replied in an exaggerated white voice, “I don’t think so.”
“Call me on the cell as soon as you find anything. Please.”
“Ok, if you’re sure I won’t interrupt anything.”
“Is your sex life so barren that you have to get your kicks vicariously?” He smiled and ended the call. His cell phone rang almost immediately. It was Celia.
“Aldo, how are you?” She sounded pleased to hear him.
“Not bad, except for missing you. You?”
“Fine. What news?”
“Not much, but I’d enjoy telling you over dinner.”
“Let me feed you at my place. Colin isn’t much for eating out with grownups, and I’d like you to meet him.”
“That would be great. I’d be glad to pick up a pizza or some Chinese.”
“No thanks, I’ve got plenty here.”
“Well, ok. What time?”
“Around six?”
“Fine. I have your address.”
Just then Branch saw a blue pickup back out of Bledsoe’s driveway. “Wup. I may be a little late. I’ve got to follow a truck. I’ll keep in touch.” He started his car.
“Please. Don’t worry if you’re late or can’t make it. It’s chili, and it’ll keep. But like my Daddy used to say, we’ll wait on you like one hog on another. Colin eats at six-fifteen.”
“Sorry. I’ll try to make it.” Branch thought she didn’t sound disappointed enough.
He followed the blue pickup to the lot of a big Kroger’s and saw Bledsoe go into the store. Half an hour later, Bledsoe came out with two plastic bags of groceries, got in the pickup, and drove home. Branch drove around the corner and watched until five-fifty. Bledsoe made no further moves, so Branch decided to take a chance on his staying put. He arrived at Celia’s at ten after six.
Celia lived in a smaller, older house in Richardson. The trim needed some paint, but it looked neat and well cared for. She greeted him with a smile and a kiss, wearing an apron over jeans and a denim shirt. Colin appeared, looked at him solemnly and shook his hand. He was thin, with large brown eyes and reddish blond hair cut long, like the early Beatles.
“How about a beer?” Celia offered, guiding Branch into the living room. It had the homely clutter of a room actually used for living. An overflowing box of toys was in one corner, and the coffee table in front of the dark green sofa was covered with books, mostly children’s picture books. A large shelf stuffed with more books occupied one wall; museum prints of French impressionists hung on two others. Two easy chairs with a good floor lamp between them faced a small TV-VCR set.
“I’ve got to see to my cornbread,” Celia said as she handed Branch a cold can of Shiner Bock and went into the kitchen. Branch sat on the sofa and took a sip. Colin hopped up on the other end of the sofa and picked up a book.
“What are you reading?” Branch asked.
“It’s about the solar system,” Colin said, holding up the book. “Do you know how many planets there are?”
“How many?”
“Nine. Many very early mornings John skated upon Ned’s pond.”
“What?”
Colin seemed to enjoy his superior knowledge. “That’s how you can remember them. Many for Mercury, very for Venus, early for Earth, mornings for Mars, John for Jupiter, skated for Saturn, upon for Uranus, Ned’s for Neptune, and pond for Pluto.”
“That’s good.” Branch was impressed.
“You know which are gas giants?”
“Which?”
“Jupiter and Saturn.”
“How about Uranus and Neptune?” Branch thought, I know a little.
“They used to be gas giants, but now astronomers call them ice giants. Do you have a badge?”
“Yes. Want to see it?” Colin nodded. Branch, glad to change the subject from astronomy, pulled out the leather wallet that had his badge and photo ID. Colin examined it closely.
“Do you have a gun?”
“Yes.” Branch lifted his jacket to show the gun holstered behind his right hip.
“I don’t like guns,” Colin said, “not real ones anyway.”
“I don’t either. But I need it for my job.”
Celia called from the doorway. “All right men, time to eat.”
The chili was hot, both with peppers and temperature, which pleased Branch. Colin had a hamburger patty. They all had cornbread and a salad with avocados. Colin ate slowly, and between bites, he asked Branch more questions, some testing Branch’s knowledge of astronomy, mummies, and firefighters, and some adding to his own information. Had he ever had to shoot a bad guy? Not yet. Did his car have a siren? Yes. Celia watched with silent approval.
Branch insisted on washing dishes while Celia put Colin to bed. He could hear Celia singing “Fox went out on a chilly night,” and “There’s a hole in the bottom of the sea.” Her voice was low and sweet, the songs polished by much ritual repetition. Branch felt an inner warmth that he attributed to both the chili and the domestic scene. Would his wife have stuck it out if they had had a kid? If they had, maybe Branch would have tried harder to make it work.
Celia and Branch sat cozily on the sofa and after a few warm kisses, Branch brought her up to date on the case. When she heard about Bledsoe, she said, “Remember, I’m good at surveillance. Colin goes to school tomorrow, and I’m off for the day. Let me keep an eye on Bledsoe while you look into what I dug up about Mattingly.”
“You have something on Mattingly?”
Celia smiled. “Don’t look so surprised. I made some of those discreet inquiries I told you about. He’s been having an affair with the lady bartender at his hotel.”
“Wow. Who is she?”
“Name’s Teresa Lopez.”
“How did you do it?”
“I asked around at the hotels I thought he might use.”
“I could have saved you the trouble. Highland Hilton.”
“It wasn’t too bad. The Highland was third on my list. Anyway, I asked for him at the desk, saying I had a business meeting. When I got to the Highland, the clerk said they had expected him the day before but he hadn’t arrived yet. So then I started asking questions of the staff. I’m pretty good at that, too.”
“I’ll bet.”
“The daytime bartender told me that he was sleepy from having to pull a double shift because the night bartender always got him to sub for her when this guy from Houston was in town. I worked on that until I was pretty sure he meant Mattingly. Then yesterday after work, a girlfriend from the office and I went by when Teresa was on. When she was working near us, I told my friend that I was supposed to meet Clint Mattingly, and I could tell from her look that she knew him. I then got to talking with Teresa. She was cagey, but so curious about what I was supposed to be doing with him that it was pretty clear what her interest was.”
“I’m impressed. Don’t you want to come work for HPD?”
Celia smiled. “Not yet.”
“So your sense was that she was curious, worried, maybe a bit jealous, and not guilty of setting him up for kidnappers?”
“I’m vain enough to think she was mainly jealous.” They both smiled. “But I assured her I was just there on business and had never met the man. She opened up some then. And yes, she was a little worried and a little angry.”
“Did she say anything about the Aryan Christian Mission or the Lads of Liberty?”
“No. But she did mention that a guy came in the week before and asked if she knew him, saying that he was supposed to meet him but didn’t know what he looked like.”
“What did he look like—the guy?”
“She thought he sounded more like a preacher than a businessman. And she said he looked like he was wearing a rug.”
“Sounds like Bledsoe.”
“So can I help tail him?”
Branch hesitated. Somebody had killed at least four people so far. “I can’t approve. Although you’re an investigator, you’re not police, and this is a police matter. I’m out of my jurisdiction anyway. Even more, I don’t want to see you take a risk. These guys are dangerous.”
Celia did not look happy. “He won’t know I’m around.”
“That doesn’t matter. You’ve already done a lot. Finding out about Mattingly’s love life is a big help.”
“But you don’t want me to play with the boys.”
“Not that I think you wouldn’t do a good job. It’s just dangerous, and you could get me in a lot of trouble.”
“Think practical. He’s seen you, and if he sees you hanging around, he won’t do anything. He doesn’t know me.”
“That’s true, but I still can’t approve. And I don’t think he’ll spot me. I’ve done some surveillance myself, you know.” Celia smiled to herself, but said nothing.
Branch felt unsure of his next step. “Thanks again for the great dinner.”
“I can do better than chili. You just got pot luck.”
“It was better than I deserve.” He took her hand and looked closely into her eyes. “Colin asleep?”
She looked down. “Probably. But he’s a light sleeper. And—I haven’t had any overnight guests before. I wish—”
“I wish too. I’ve been thinking about you a lot since you left Houston.”
“Me too. I wish we could. But we’d better not.”
“I understand. But you really are important to me. Could you sometimes, maybe, arrange a sleepover for Colin? So we could have some time together?”
“I’ll see. I’d like that too.”
“So I guess I’d better go.”
“I guess. Sorry.”
He rose. She did too.
“It’s good to see you again. See you tomorrow?” she asked.
“I hope so. Depends on how things go. I’ll call, and if I can, I’d like to take you both out for dinner. Does Colin like Mexican?”
“He prefers pizza.”
“Italian, then.”
“Good night.” She hesitated a moment and then stepped forward and kissed him. He held her close, soaking up her warmth.
Branch left, feeling distinctly disappointed. But what did he expect? A young widow with a kid in the house. Probably has a good reputation with her nosy neighbors. Branch was at his post at six. He had spent a restless night in a motel after searching an hour for one with a vacancy. The complimentary breakfast was donuts, weak coffee, and watery orange juice. His car was not yet too hot to sit in without the air conditioning. He yawned and leafed through the Dallas Morning News. Bledsoe’s copy still lay on his lawn. Around seven Bledsoe, wig and all, came out for the paper and returned to the house. So at least he’s home.
At nine-fifteen a Honda Civic pulled up behind him, and Celia slipped into his passenger seat. She was neat and cool in shorts and t-shirt, and smelled fresh when they kissed. She had a travel mug of coffee and offered it to him.
“How did you find me?” He was both pleased and annoyed.
“Bledsoe’s in the phone book.”
Branch took a slug of coffee. “God, that’s good. Why can’t everybody make good coffee?” He held it out to Celia.
“It’s for you,” she said. “If I drink it he may get away while I go on a potty break.”
“Why don’t you go to work or go home? Then you won’t have to worry.”
“I have a big bladder. I told you I’m off work today. Have you seen him?”
“Yeah, he’s home. He came out for his paper. “
“Why don’t you go talk to Teresa Lopez?”
“You won’t go home?”
“No. You going to arrest me for obstructing an officer?”
Branch sighed. “I ought to. “ He had an unprofessional thought. “Why don’t we both go back to your place? Colin’s in school?”
“I’m not going to divert you from your duty.” She smiled and squeezed his hand. “Though I confess that had occurred to me too.”
“I just wish—“ Branch began.
“Me too. But not now.”
“Well, I guess I’ll go rouse Teresa Lopez from her rest. You have a phone and my number?”
“Of course. Also my binocs and camera with telephoto.”
“You amaze me. You’re better prepared than I am. But I’d better give you some more numbers.” He handed her a paper. “This is my friend with the Dallas PD. This is Chat’s. Before I go, I’ll check in with Chat and give him your number.”
“Go ahead and give him my regards.”
Branch hesitated, then called Chat. “Guess who’s helping with surveillance.”
“Celia! Branch, you stud muffin. You Mack the Knife.”
“Restrain yourself. She’s going to keep an eye on Bledsoe while I talk to a barmaid who knew Mattingly. Here’s her cell number.” He gave it. “Anything on Bledsoe?”
“Walter Bledsoe, alias Walter Beasley, alias Bob Walters. Indicted for fraud in Florida in ninety-two, not guilty—witness wouldn’t testify. Convicted for fraud in ninety-three, did three years in Atlanta. Nothing recent. File and picture on the way to Stover.”
“I hate to admit it, but you done good.”
“How come Stover didn’t have this stuff? Guess his people not as good as me.”
“Must be. Celia sends her regards.”
“Give her a big wet smooch from me.”
“I wish.”
Branch hung up. “Chat sends his best. Now, I’d better go. Remember, don’t take any chances. Get a picture if you can, but don’t get caught.”
“Yes, boss.”
Branch smiled. “I’ve been getting a lot of sarcastic obedience lately.”
He dropped by the Dallas headquarters to see Bledsoe’s picture and file. Stover shook his head over the grainy picture of a younger but balding Bledsoe. “I don’t know why our guys didn’t turn up this file.”
“I need a copy of the mug. And I need an address for Teresa Lopez, a bartender at the Highland. She knows Mattingly.”
Stover punched his computer. “We’ve got nothing on her.”
“How about the phone book?”
“We’ve only got a couple thousand Lopezes, plus a few hundred Teresas or Ts.”
“Guess I’ll ask at the hotel.”
Branch showed his shield at the hotel and got Teresa’s address, an apartment near Love Field. He had parked and was about to enter the motel-like complex when his phone rang.
Celia said, “Bledsoe’s moving. I’m on him.”

Four-Part Dissonance, by Edward Doughtie. Chapter 11. (Scroll down or go to archives for previous chapters.)

January 4, 2010

Chapter 11.

Eileen Mattingly ushered Branch and Chat into the conservatory. She began speaking as soon as they were seated on the rattan chairs. Branch noted that she was so focused on the situation that she neglected to offer them any refreshment.
“My husband sometimes makes last-minute business trips. He keeps a packed bag at his office so he doesn’t have to come home first. He called me two days ago and said he had to go to Dallas in a hurry, and didn’t know when he’d be back. But he said he’d call from Dallas. He hasn’t.”
“And he usually calls?” Branch asked.
“Always. So yesterday I called the hotel where he always stays. He hadn’t checked in. And I called the car service he always uses. They hadn’t heard from him at all. So I talked to Maggie Mason, his secretary. She’s been with him for years, utterly reliable. She usually calls the hotel and car service for him while he’s on the way to the airport. She hadn’t heard anything from him either. And he told her as he was leaving that the people he needed to see would meet him and he wouldn’t need the car.”
“How about the hotel?”
“He asked her to call for his usual room.”
“Which hotel?”
“Highland Hilton.”
Branch made a note. “Did Ms. Mason or anyone at the office know the purpose of his trip?”
“I asked, of course. All Maggie could remember was that he said he had to go talk to some men in Dallas. But unless he needs to take some papers or contracts along, the office people rarely know what his trips are for. Unless the trip generates work for them.”
“He keeps a lot to himself.”
“Yes.”
Branch heard a note of resignation in her answer. She is clearly worried about him, he thought, but she’s used to being out of touch with much of what he does. “Could he have got so absorbed in his business that he forgot to call? Or could he have stayed at another hotel, closer to wherever his business talks were going on?”
She frowned and shook her head. “It would be so out of character. He would have called his regular hotel and cancelled. He would have called me by now.”
Branch hesitated. “Please don’t be offended by this question. But I have to ask. Have you ever suspected him of—infidelity?”
“No. We’ve had our problems, but that has never been one of them.” She was firm and unhesitating. Branch wouldn’t go there.
Chat had been his usual quiet, observant self. He spoke, gently. “Mrs. Mattingly, if there had been a ransom demand you would have said so by now. What makes you think he’s been kidnapped?”
She twisted her fingers in her lap. “I don’t know a lot about his business. As Sergeant Branch said, he keeps a lot to himself. But I’ve noticed that he’s been in touch with some–strange people.”
“How strange?” Chat asked. “I mean, strange in what way?”
“It’s hard to say. They seem more in politics than business. But they’re very secretive. They will call my husband here or at the office, but will never leave a name or number or message. Whenever my husband gets a call at home, he will usually say whatever he has to say on whatever phone is handy, whether I’m around or not. But lately he’s taken to going into his study and shutting the door when one of them calls. I say one of ‘them.’ I guess I call anyone he’s secretive about one of ‘them.’”
“Anything else?” Chat asked.
She fluttered her hands. “I’m sorry to be so vague. I just have these uneasy feelings.” She looked away and compressed her lips. “I don’t want to sound paranoid. But my husband seemed to be reading some strange books around the same time he started hearing from these strange people.”
“Books?”
“And magazines. Political stuff that I never heard of. Of course I’m not very interested in politics.”
Branch spoke up. “Mrs. Mattingly, when we spoke on the phone, I mentioned that we might want to look for evidence that may help us find your husband. Would you be willing to let us look around in his study?”
“Of course.” She rose. “This way, please.”
The study was a spacious book-lined room; under the single window stood a heavy walnut desk covered with papers and a computer. A leather-covered chair and sofa occupied the center of the room, and a large table with a few books stacked on it was against a wall. Chat immediately went to the desk, booted up the computer and began clicking keys. Branch stood by the sofa, slowly turning around. He stopped when he noticed a suitcase in one corner, a fabric case with rollers, a carryon. Mrs. Mattingly stood in the doorway. Branch pointed to the bag in the corner.
“He kept a packed bag here too?”
“Yes. He always wanted to be ready for a trip.” She leaned on the doorframe. “If you don’t mind, I’ll leave you alone in here and go lie down. I haven’t slept much lately.”
“Please, go ahead. If we feel we need to take anything, we’ll leave a receipt.” She left, walking as if the surrounding air were resisting her.
“Awriight!” Chat waved from the computer. Branch came and looked over his shoulder. “Ok, you know how your computer keeps a history of the websites you visit?”
“If you say so.”
“Well, look at what old Clint has been visiting. Looks like that Texas Examiner guy was right.” The screen showed the websites for the National Alliance, the Republic of Texas, the Freemen, Christian Identity, the World Church of the Creator. “All these are far right, racist, anti-Semitic, or some weird combination.”
“Good. Keep digging.”
“Here are a couple I never heard of. This Freemen guy mentions The Lads of Liberty and the Aryan Christian Mission.”
Branch looked away, trying to remember. “Sounds a bit like those Wyoming groups the Examiner article mentioned. What were they? Defenders of Liberty—“
“Yeah. And the Aryan Christian Covenant.”
Branch picked up the suitcase and set it on the table. Inside he found a suit, white shirt, socks, underwear, handkerchiefs, and shaving kit. The kit contained the expected razor, toothbrush, shampoo, and deodorant. There was also a vial of pills. He shook them out into his palm, recognizing aspirin, Tylenol, Maalox. He walked to the desk and held out his hand to Chat.
“Recognize any of these?”
Chat pointed. “That’s an upper. That’s a downer. That’s Prozac. Valium. Don’t know that one.” He glanced toward the door, and with a faint smile said, “That one’s Viagra.”
“Be prepared,” Branch said.
He returned to the kit. A zippered side pocket held three condoms. He put the kit on the table and lifted the clothes out of the bag. A book, a worn paperback, called The Turner Diaries. The title rang a faint bell, one with sinister associations he couldn’t quite account for. Later, he thought. He felt along the sides of the bag. A barely detectable bulge made him pause. He found a corner of the lining and tugged; taped to the lining were five gold coins, krugerrands. He replaced the clothes and closed the bag.
“Let’s look at his reading material,” Branch said. He picked up a stack of magazines. More far right paranoia, some in slick covers, some in smudgy photocopies. Now Branch remembered the Turner Diaries. It was an apocalyptic novel about a race war, very right wing, the Oklahoma City bomber’s favorite reading. Mattingly was clearly involved with some unsavory stuff. And whether it led him to do anything illegal or not, it showed that he was, among other things, very gullible.
Chat spoke again from the computer. “Look at this email.” Branch looked over Chat’s shoulder.
“Came in the day he left.”
“Mattingly,” it read, “The LoL will be in touch. ACM.”
“I don’t think that means ‘laugh out loud,’” Chat said.
Branch scratched his chin. “How about ‘Lads of Liberty’ and ‘Aryan Christian Mission’?”
“Could be.” Chat grinned.
“What’s the return address?”
“There’s a name here that we could check out. But if they’ve piggybacked on someone else, it would be hard to trace. Virus spreaders do that all the time.”
Branch pulled a phone card from his wallet and perched on a corner of the desk. He picked up the phone and punched numbers. “My name is Branch, Houston Police. Is Lieutenant Stover available? Thanks.” Chat leaned back and looked at Branch, who held out the phone so Chat could hear the hold music—synthesizer Bach. They grinned at each other. Branch focused on the phone. “Hi, Smoky. Listen, I’ve got a possible big-time kidnapping that may have happened on your beat. Clint Mattingly. Yeah. No, no ransom yet. I like these wingnuts, the Lads of Liberty and the Aryan Christian Mission. Do you have anything on them? Signs of them around Dallas? Umm-hmm. I’d like to come up if I may. This may be connected with the murders of that Japanese string quartet that I’m working on.”
Branch told Stover what he knew of Mattingly’s habits and his wife’s reason for worry. He glanced at Chat, who mouthed the word “cases” and made fiddling motions. He nodded, and spoke into the phone. “Any sign of those fiddle cases we called about the other day?” Branch looked at Chat and shook his head. “Ok, I’ll check in with you tomorrow. I’ll probably drive up early in the morning. You have my cell number.”
Branch turned to Chat. “You up for a drive to Dallas?”
“How about I stay here, take this computer back and see what I can find in the deleted files?” He gave a half smile. “I might cramp your style.”
“What does that mean?”
“Don’t tell me you’re not going to look up the lovely Mizz Hargrove?”
“I might give her a friendly call,” Branch said, deadpan. “But I think I’ll make another call now.” He picked up Mattingly’s phone and looked at the speed dial, then punched a button.
An excited voice answered. “Mr. Mattingly?”
“Ms. Mason?”
“Who is this?”
“This is Detective Branch, Houston Police. I’m using Mr. Mattingly’s phone in his home office.”
“Oh. This is his private line. I thought you might be a—a kidnapper.”
“I understand. Ms. Mason, could you tell me who might have called Mr. Mattingly before he left for Dallas?”
“Sure. I’ve looked at the log, and the only call he got from someone I didn’t recognize was someone who said he was from Liberty, a Mr. Ladislaw.”
“Liberty, Texas?”
“That’s what I assumed. He didn’t give a phone number, and the caller ID was blocked.”
Branch gave her his numbers and urged her to call if she heard anything or thought of anything. He turned to Chat. “Ladislaw from Liberty. Didn’t know there was a Polish community there. How about one of the Lads of Liberty?”
“Bingo. Veddy clever,” Chat tried his English detective accent.
“Now before we leave, let’s look through these magazines, see if there are any items marked, ads, poison recipes, whatever.”
“I’ve checked the books for mushroom stuff and pharmacology. Nothing.”
“Good.” They sat and thumbed through the stacks of magazines and newsletters. Branch was not exactly surprised at the malice and ignorance they displayed, but he was saddened by it. Chat frequently shook his head and hissed “Sheee!”
Mrs. Mattingly came to the door and leaned on the frame, her face sagging. “Excuse me, but are you finding anything?”
Branch stood. “Nothing conclusive. But there may be something in the deleted files in the computer. With your permission I’d like to take it back to headquarters and see what we can recover.”
“Certainly.”
“And I’d like to take the suitcase and some of these papers. I’ll give you a receipt.”
“All right.”
“I’m going try to go to Dallas tomorrow. I’ve spoken to a detective in the Dallas department, who will help us. I’ll keep my cell phone on in case you need me. And Sergeant Jackson will stay here in Houston and be on call.”
“Good. Thank you.”
They packed up the computer, the suitcase, and some of the magazines and papers. Back at the station, Branch checked in with Sandoval and got his approval for the Dallas trip. Chat plugged in Mattingly’s computer and went to work on deleted files and emails.