Four-Part Dissonance, Chapter 16. (For previous chapters, scroll down or go to archives.)

Chapter 16.

“Take the lady back to the house,” Doc said to Bledsoe, who led her back down the stairs. “Don’t worry, Mattingly.” Doc gave a crooked smile. “We’ll see that she is safe and comfortable. Boomer will leave her alone, won’t you Boomer?”
Boomer grinned and shrugged.
“I’ve told you I don’t have what you want,” Mattingly said. “I’d tell you if I did. Teresa doesn’t know anything.”
“Maybe not. But maybe her presence here will refresh your memory.”
Mattingly clenched his fists and raised his voice. “Goddamit, I don’t have it. I never had it. I never saw it.”
Doc and Mattingly stared at each other. Boomer rubbed his eyes and grunted. Branch thought it was his move. He spoke. “I have it.”
Doc and Boomer turned widened eyes toward Branch, who said, “At least I know where it is. That is, if you’re referring to a piece of microfilm in Korean with plans for some kind of rocket launcher.”
“Where is it, then?” Doc almost whispered.
“Why don’t you let Ms. Lopez go? Then we can talk.”
Doc turned up one corner of his mouth. “I don’t think you understand your situation. You are in no position to bargain.”
“Time is on my side,” Branch said. “In a matter of hours cops will be here with warrants and firepower. You can kill us and get away before then, but you still won’t know where the film is.”
“Maybe the pretty lady from the insurance company could tell us. Or her son.” His smile widened. “Yes, we know about them. We could dispose of you, get out of here, and pick them up on our way.”
Branch spoke as calmly as he could, despite the stab of fear he felt for Celia. “She doesn’t know what it is or where it is. Besides, I don’t think it’s worth more murders. You could blame the quartet on Boomer here–”
“Hey!” from Boomer.
“—and get off lightly. But four or five more bodies would start to look bad. And from what I saw of the film, I don’t think you would have much. Have you translated the parts you have?”
Doc said nothing, but his eyes shifted to the left. Boomer frowned and tossed his gun from hand to hand.
“Well, we translated ours. All our part showed was something like a bazooka from the Korean War era.”
Doc narrowed his eyes and half smiled. “You wouldn’t make a very good poker player.”
“That’s your trouble. You don’t recognize truth when you see it. You’re acting on some paranoid fantasy about the government, or blacks, or Jews, and reject any facts that conflict with your ideas.”
“I don’t have time to argue politics with you.”
“Good. But did you ever think that your ideas might make you vulnerable to a scam?”
“What do you mean?”
“How much did you pay for that film?”
Mattingly spoke up. “They scammed me. I put up half a million bucks for this deal. To help the country, not these creeps.”
Branch whistled. “And how much did you pay your Koreans or whoever got you the film?”
Doc was again silent. His thin lips got thinner under his little moustache.
Branch tried another angle. “What’s the membership of your great organization? Or organizations? I’ve only seen you three.”
Boomer smirked. “Don’t worry about us. We’ll have plenty after we—”
“Shut up, Boomer,” Doc interrupted with a jerk of his head.
Branch turned to Boomer. “He doesn’t give you much respect, does he?”
Doc waved Boomer back. “Listen here, Branch. We will do what we need to do. You have ten minutes to decide to let us know where the film is. If you refuse, I’ll let Boomer have his fun. Then we’ll pick up your girlfriend and her kid. Ten minutes.”
Doc strode out the door. Boomer scowled after him, then shook his gun at Branch and Mattingly and followed.
Mattingly slumped against the wall. “Now what?”
“I’m not sure. I’ll tell them where the film is, but it won’t do them any good, since it’s in the evidence room in Houston.” Branch rattled the locked door. Maybe they’ll see it’s hopeless and let them go. Or they’ll be furious and kill them all. Or they won’t believe him, and start killing. Or Chat will send help—and they will get killed anyway. Or they’ll get Celia and Colin. Shit.
Branch paced, looked out the windows, and tested the bars for the nth time. He picked up one of the cot legs and tried to lever the bars loose, but to no avail.
He sometimes envied jazz fiddlers their freedom, their instant creativity. Improvisation now seemed forced on him, though he was used to playing from notes. He’d tell them where the film was and try to play it from there. He hoped he wouldn’t stink up the joint.
He looked at Mattingly, who had slid down to a sitting position, his back to the wall. “Got any ideas?”
“No. If I had any, they would hear them, thanks to your gadget.” He sighed. “Wish I’d never gotten mixed up with these bastards.”
Branch considered several sarcastic comments, but refrained. “I’ll tell them where the film is and see what happens.” He spoke loudly in the direction of the other building: “Okay, Doc, I’ll tell you. Come on back.”
In a minute, he heard Boomer’s heavy tread on the stairs, followed by steps he assumed were Doc’s.
The door opened, and Boomer was there with his gun at the ready. Branch and Mattingly moved so they could be seen; Boomer nodded to Doc, and both stepped in.
Branch said, “The film is locked in the evidence room of police headquarters in Houston.”
Doc frowned. After a moment, he said, “Assuming you are telling the truth, what would happen if you called them and told them to send it here?”
“They wouldn’t do it. Someone they know has to sign for it in person.”
“Then call another cop you know and have him get it.”
“It still couldn’t leave the building. I’d have to explain too much.” Branch watched the growing frustration register on Doc’s face. A riff from Stephan Grappelli’s violin popped into his head. Improvise. But wait. Let them come up with something and play on that.
Doc said, “You could get it.”
“Yes.”
“You could smuggle it out.”
“Under the circumstances, I could try.”
“You could do it.”
Branch nodded. Maybe they’re desperate enough.
Doc turned to Boomer. “Lock up. I’m going to talk to Walter.” They left.
Mattingly asked, “What’s going on?”
“I think they’re trying to think of a way to send me to get the film. That may give us a break. Keep your fingers crossed.” Branch put his finger on his lips. Mattingly slumped back down and stared at his feet. Branch paced, imagining various possibilities. Whatever they did, Mattingly and Teresa would still be hostages and in danger. Maybe Celia and Colin as well. Whatever chance Branch was offered would have to be taken with care.
After half an hour, Boomer and Doc returned. Branch could see that both were worried. Doc spoke, wagging his finger at Branch like an exasperated parent. “Here’s what’s going to happen. And if you screw up in any way, Mattingly and the woman get it. Boomer is going to Houston with you in your car. He will be with you every minute, and if anything goes wrong, he’ll kill you, and we’ll kill the hostages. He’ll have your cell phone and report to us.”
“How will I get him into the evidence room? I assume you wouldn’t want us separated.”
Doc grimaced. “I don’t like any of this, but we’ve gone this far, and we’ve got to see it through.” He frowned and looked away. Boomer passed his gun from hand to hand. Finally, Doc said, “Tell them he’s a witness and you need him to identify some evidence.”
“It will take hours to get there and back,” Branch said. “What if my colleagues come here looking for me while we’re on the road?”
“God damn it!” Doc clenched his small fist and hit the wall behind him. “I can’t think of everything.” His eyes roamed the room. “You’ll have to call them off.” He hesitated, and said, “Call your partner on your cell phone. Say you’re coming back to Houston, and that everything’s ok, but your cell battery is weak and you can’t talk.” He let his arm fall. “You could tell them you’re bringing a witness. Prepare them for Boomer.”
“All right.”
“Wait. You don’t really use your cell. Come into the house. You’ll call from one phone and I’ll listen on the extension. So no code or funny business.” Doc tugged at his collar, but didn’t touch the bow tie. Branch noted that the danger to Boomer in the cop shop, surrounded by cops with guns, had not been mentioned. If he killed Branch there, he’d be dead himself. Doc was having to manipulate Boomer as well as Branch.
They ushered Branch out the door and locked Mattingly in. In the house, Doc pointed to a phone on the kitchen wall, while he picked up a portable from the next room. Doc stood in the doorway watching as Branch punched in numbers. Boomer grimly held his long-barreled .22 trained on Branch. While the phone rang, Branch stared at the peeling wallpaper, a procession of fading but cheerful pansies.
“Police, Jackson speaking.”
“Chat, Aldo. Cell battery’s going, so I can’t talk. Everything’s ok. I’m coming back to Houston and bringing a witness to look at some evidence.”
“Wait, where are you? You find Mattingly?”
“Yeah, everything’s cool. Be cool. Got to go.”
“Hang on, you’re still coming in ok. What about–”
Doc signaled him to hang up, and Branch put down the phone. “That better work,” he said. “If they come after us, we’ll still have Mattingly and his lady. I don’t like guns the way Boomer does, but I can use one, and so can Walter. So you and Boomer get going.”
“Better give me back my wallet, keys, and shield,” Branch said. “You don’t want me to get pulled for speeding and driving without a license.”
He considered a moment. “Very well.” He opened a drawer and returned Branch’s things, first removing the cash from his wallet, two twenties and a ten. Petty, Branch thought. He picked up Branch’s cell phone, punched a few buttons, and handed it to Boomer. Doc said, “Go. And be careful. Remember what I told you.” Boomer pointed Branch to the door with his gun.
The sun had come up, but the air still had a touch of coolness; as they walked down the road to his car, Branch breathed in the scent of the pines. Boomer said, “I’m real fast. So even if you don’t see my gun, remember that I can get it before you can do anything.” He snorted. “I’d rather just off you all right now and not drive to Houston. I don’t like Houston.”
“How come?”
“Too much traffic. Not enough trees.”
“More trees than Dallas.”
“Don’t like Dallas either. Now shut up.”
They reached the car and got in. Boomer’s sweaty odor filled the car. Could that be the same t-shirt he was wearing last night and days before? Branch cranked up the air conditioning. Boomer put his gun between his knees and punched a number on the cell phone. As they drove off, he muttered “We’re gone,” and a few words Branch couldn’t hear. Boomer checked his watch. Doc must have him make progress reports, Branch thought.
The plastic taped over the hole that was the rear window flapped noisily.
“What happened to your window?” Boomer asked.
“Somebody shot it out.”
“Tough shit.”
Branch glanced at Boomer and saw the flicker of a smile.
Branch stayed within the speed limit. If they got stopped, Boomer was likely to kill him and the poor cop who pulled them over. Boomer started playing with the radio. He found a country station that he listened to for a while, but changed it during a string of commercials. Branch would have preferred Mozart, but he didn’t mind country, and he silently agreed with Boomer about the commercials. Boomer stuck with another station, country gospel, until a preacher came on. “Shit!” He turned the radio off. He closed his eyes, frowning, and began rubbing his temples.
“You ok?” Branch asked.
“Fuckin’ headache.”
“Aspirin in the glove box.”
Boomer opened the box, rummaged around, pulled out a bottle of aspirin, and shook out four tablets. “Shit. Didn’t bring no water.” He looked around, then tossed the aspirin into his mouth and chewed, grimacing and cursing. So Boomer had headaches. Maybe he now had a theme for improvising on.
“Heard you were in Iraq, first time,” Branch said.
“Yeah.”
“Headaches start then?”
“Yeah. Got that Gulf War shit. Damn VA docs don’t believe it. If they’d been there, they’d fuckin’ believe it.”
“You army?”
“Marines.”
“Me too,” Branch lied. “Semper fi.”
Boomer looked at Branch more closely. “They let a pussy like you in?”
Don’t ask me too many questions, Branch thought. “Lots of guys got that Gulf War syndrome. Drove a buddy of mine crazy.”
“One of mine can’t talk right no more.” He looked at Branch again. “You got it?”
“Naw, I was lucky. They kept me in Kuwait.”
“Pussy. At least I got to shoot some of those ragheads.”
At Athens they turned onto 31, the road that led to Corsicana, where they made the fruitcakes, and to the interstate.
“Let me give you a little legal advice.” Branch paused. “Naw, forget it.”
“What?”
Make him ask, Branch thought. “No, you’ll just get pissed off.”
“No more than I am already. Speak up.”
“Well, if you ever get caught, and Doc tries to lay those murders on you, you could tell them about your Gulf War syndrome. Bad headaches make you impulsive. Not responsible for your actions. You might get a Desert Storm vet on your jury.”
Boomer didn’t answer, but he squinted into the distance. Branch let that possibility sink in. Boomer, he noticed, didn’t spout any bravado about not being taken alive. After a while, Branch asked: “Doc help you with those headaches?”
Boomer snorted. “Hell no. He gave me some shit he made out of weeds and mushrooms. Didn’t do squat. He ain’t a real doc. Used to run a drug store, got in trouble for selling that oxy shit. He keeps trying to make drugs out of leaves and shit.”
“Doesn’t sound like you think very highly of him.”
Boomer shrugged. “He’s a tough little pisser.” After a moment he grinned. “He knew enough to take care of that pissant reporter.”
“The Texas Examiner guy?”
Boomer shrugged. “Some guy–he wrote an article that really pissed him off. Slipped him some badass mushroom shit.”
“How’d he do that?”
He shook his head. “You don’t wanna know.” But I do, Branch thought.

Branch waited for more, but nothing came. They passed through Corsicana and swung onto the interstate. The plastic over the window made more noise as they picked up speed. Make conversation. “How’d you get hooked up with Doc?”
Boomer looked at him and frowned. He glanced at his watch, and punched his cell phone. Branch saw that he only touched one button. Doc must have made it easy for him by putting his number on speed dial. Boomer turned away and put his hand over his mouth as he spoke, but Branch heard him mutter a number, twenty something, before giving his report.
Boomer took off the orange cap and scratched his head. His buzz-cut hair was graying at the ends. “Met Doc through Walter. Heard about Walter’s church, thought he might heal my headaches. He didn’t manage that, but he offered me a better job than the piece of shit I had.”
“What was that?”
“Security. Night job. Walk around a warehouse punching a clock. Had a gun, wimpy little .38, but never got it out of the holster.”
“Boring, huh.”
Boomer nodded. They were silent for a while. The landscape rolled by—farmland, a few clumps of trees, a cluster of houses and filling stations, a strip of dusty stores. The heat made waves in the air above the road ahead.
Branch thought about the big man, returning from the excitement of a war, hardened to killing, but his physicality compromised, stuck in a boring routine, filled with dangerous anger. He almost felt sorry for him.
Finally Branch asked, “Do you buy the stuff Doc writes?”
“Never read it.”
“He thinks whites ought to kick blacks, Mexicans, Asians, and Jews out of the country.”
Boomer grunted.
“That’s a lot of people. Be hard to do.” Boomer, rubbing his temples, didn’t respond. Branch asked, “You have any black guys with you in Iraq?”
“Yeah. Sergeant was. Tough bastard. But he kept most of us alive. Fuckin’ lieutenant was gung-ho, wanted to send us through a minefield. Sarge talked him out of it.”
“Lieutenant black?”
“Naw, he was white.”
“Doc ever talk about politics?”
Boomer snorted. “All the time. Him and Walter, politics and the Bible.”
“Any of it make sense to you?”
Boomer looked at Branch and scowled. “I got a job. I don’t have to understand all the Bible stuff Walter goes on about. Some of the politics makes sense. I know the government is full of crooks. Somebody cut a deal so we didn’t go on to Baghdad and get Saddam while we had him by the balls. Now we have to go back and do it again. More poor fuckers have to go over there and get this Gulf War shit. Doc thinks it’s the Jews. May be.” He squinted. “Now what I think is this. We saw the ragheads hauling all kinds of stuff out of Kuwait, just stealing the shit out of the place. I think Saddam stole something from Kuwait that he could blackmail the politicos with. You know, if you don’t stop, I’ll show pictures of senators fucking camels, or whatever.”
Branch let that rest for a while. He said, “You don’t mind killing people.”
“Nah. I’d kill you right now if I had to.”
“But not if you don’t have to.”
“Naw, you’d make a mess.” He almost smiled. Then he grimaced and rubbed his eyes.
They were approaching a town—Fairfield. Boomer said, “I’m hungry. Get off at this exit and stop at Mickey D’s.” He punched the cell phone and mumbled into it as Branch slowed for the exit.

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One Response to “Four-Part Dissonance, Chapter 16. (For previous chapters, scroll down or go to archives.)”

  1. Alison Says:

    Ed Doughtie has a blog?! How did I not know this? Write on, Dad!

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