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

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.”
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?”
“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.”


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