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

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.”

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