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

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.”

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