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

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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“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.
“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.


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