Archive for March, 2010

Death and the Maiden, by Edward Doughtie

March 28, 2010

Death and the Maiden
By
Edward Doughtie

Chapter 1.

“You need a vacation.”
Sergeant Aldo Branch of the Houston Police agreed, but he was surprised to hear the words from his boss, Lieutenant Narciso Sandoval. Branch had just finished a long report about his latest case, the murder of an entire string quartet and the theft of four priceless Stradivarius instruments by right-wing extremists, who also kidnapped a billionaire oilman, Clint Mattingly. Branch had glossed over his own capture by the murderers and his harrowing ride with the scariest of the bunch, an enormous thug called Boomer, a vet afflicted with Gulf War syndrome. He also didn’t go into the failure of the promising relationship with Celia, a young widow who decided not to invest in a man whose occupation often put him in harm’s way.
Sandoval was “Sandy” to Branch, but “Narc” to many of the younger cops. The latter name was not used to Sandoval’s face, of course, and it did not refer to involvement in drug enforcement, but to the rumor that the lieutenant was a narcoleptic. This perception arose from Sandoval’s habit of listening to reports leaning back in his chair with his eyes closed and responding with grunts that might be interpreted as snores. Sandoval did not open his eyes when he made his recommendation to Branch. But even with closed eyes, Sandoval must have noted that Branch was exhausted.
“Ok,” Branch said, “I won’t object. When could I go? Next month?”
“Tomorrow.”
“This coming Monday?” It was Thursday. “What about the paperwork?”
“Tomorrow. Chat will do the paperwork.” Chatahoochee Jackson was Branch’s partner, a younger African-American computer whiz.
“He’ll love that. Are you trying to get rid of me?”
Sandoval opened one eye. “Yep. Not that we don’t all love you. But I think you ought to be gone until the questions about Mattingly die down.”
“You don’t think I could handle them?”
“Sure you could. But do you want to?”
“Well, no, now that you ask.”
“And we can fudge a little. We can say that the chief investigator is away. And the Chronicle boys will be on to something else when you get back.”
“When will that be?”
“Oh, two weeks. Three, maybe. Get out of town.”
“An undisclosed location?”
“Well, you can tell Chat if you like.” Sandoval closed his eye and sniffed. “So scram.”
Branch left the Travis Street homicide headquarters, gasping as the suffocating late August air blanketed him. He carried the light jacket he wore, along with a tie, at the beginning of each day. The jacket would be gone before noon, and the tie by two. Khakis, short-sleeved shirt, and crepe-soled shoes completed his usual attire. Branch had begun to admit to being middle-aged at forty-four. His dark hair was turning gray over his ears, and his moustache was grizzled; his trouser size had not changed, but he felt his middle getting softer. More exercise—maybe when it got cooler. He got in his car and turned the air conditioning up to the desperation level. As he drove home, he thought about where he might go. Somewhere cool.
He kept the air conditioner in his house on during the day to prevent mold and mildew, but it was still uncomfortably warm when he got there. He goosed the thermostat and heard the compressor kick in. Picking up the mail, he got a cold Lone Star from the fridge and plopped into a worn but comfortable easy chair. He turned on the TV, muted the sound, and tuned the radio to the classical station. Ah. Cold beer and Mozart. If anything interesting appeared on the TV news, he could mute the radio and listen to the TV. He seldom did.
Branch lived alone in the dishonestly named section of Houston called the Heights. The freeway overpasses were further above sea level than his neighborhood. He had bought in before the latest wave of gentrification had reached the area. Though he had made some small improvements, he was well aware that whoever bought his rapidly appreciating lot would raze his two-bedroom bungalow.
Most of the mail went into the wastebasket by his chair—ads, appeals for donations to questionable charities, catalogs for farting toilet paper dispensers or upscale gardening gear. He lingered over a notice of an upcoming chamber music concert at Rice, one of the local universities. Branch was himself an enthusiastic amateur player on the viola, addicted to string quartets. He played regularly with a group of fellow amateurs, good players, good enough to make real music of Brahms and Beethoven and Shostakovich.
The concert notice triggered a memory. He went to his desk and shuffled through a pile of mail that had not yet gone into the basket. He pulled out an invitation for an adult chamber music camp. He had kept it as a sort of dream token, a fantasy of something he might do if he ever got a vacation. Now he had one. This camp was in Arizona. It would be dryer, but still hot. He didn’t much like the western landscape. He flipped the flyer into the trash and booted up his computer. There were plenty of chamber music camps. One in Maine caught his eye. It was coached by the Camden Quartet, a group he had heard perform in the local concert series and on recordings. They played well, and seemed to enjoy playing together. Two men and two women, young, but not kids. They might be fun to get to know.
Branch went to the Puffin Bay Music Party website. The deadline for applying had passed, and the first session began next week. He decided to apply anyway and see what happened. He could make pretty good representation of himself as a player; maybe they would let him play second viola in a quintet. He filled out the on-line application and submitted it, and then browsed through the website. The Party was held in a seaside inn just as the regular tourist season ended. Photos showed a rambling white clapboard building with a long porch. The rooms had a cozy New England look that was a bit too deliberate: patchwork quilts on four-poster beds, embroidered samplers and seascapes on the walls, lace curtains. Pictures of past participants looked as if they were having fun, sawing away. Lots of people with gray hair, but a couple of attractive women, maybe in their late thirties or early forties.
Branch paused over the pictures of the women and sighed. He had had real hopes that his relationship with Celia might have gone somewhere. But like his wife, who had left five years ago, she didn’t like the prospect of not knowing whether her man would come home that night or end up in the hospital or the morgue. And then there was Allegra, the pianist he had had an intense two-year affair with after his wife had gone. As it turned out, she just liked variety. Before she married someone else, a year after gently dumping Branch, she had a piano quintet party. The string players at her party soon became Branch’s regular quartet. After they had been playing for some months, they discovered that they had all, successively, been Allegra’s lovers. Allegra had since divorced her husband and moved to California. The abandoned husband had then become an honorary member of the Allegra Quartet; he didn’t play, but he liked to listen, and he brought good wine.
Branch had strong domestic instincts. He would like to be a faithful husband, maybe a father. He had enjoyed his brief acquaintance with Celia’s bright, appealing six-year-old son, and had entertained fantasies of playing catch and building a treehouse. But these serious relationships had always ended in pain and longing. At the camp he would be friendly but keep his distance. No flirting. But what if some attractive woman offered a light summer affair, a little sex but no attachment? Well. Maybe. It would be ungentlemanly to refuse. No, that was a fantasy—stick to music. But would he be capable of an affair without entanglement? He had never tried. Could he do it without being a jerk? He shook his head—it was a test he was unlikely to face.

Back at headquarters on Friday morning, Branch checked his email on his office computer. As he had hoped, his application for the Music Party had been accepted, pending a credit card number for the fees. He entered the number and promised to arrive Monday morning, ready to play quintets.
Chat Jackson, his partner, perched on the edge of Branch’s cluttered metal desk and sipped his first Dr. Pepper of the day. He frowned at the piles of papers. “So you just going to leave all this crap for me to clean up while you go fiddle?”
Branch shrugged. “Just following orders. Get out of town, Sandy said. Thought I’d go someplace cool.”
“Sheee-it! Maybe there’ll be enough to have some left over for you to have when you drag your lazy white butt back to town. I’ll try to save you some.” Jackson was thirty; despite the heat, he dressed like a banker: pinstripes in winter, seersucker in summer.
“Thanks. I’m sure you’ll manage.”
“Up there playing that squeaky old stuff you call music.”
“I probably can avoid hip-hop for two whole weeks.”
Branch and Jackson clashed mainly over music. Branch liked jazz as well as classical, and folk, bluegrass, blues, and even some country. But Jackson liked only hip-hop, so there was no music in their car. Their teasing and squabbling covered a fine working relationship; Branch trusted Jackson totally, not only to cover his back, but to pick up nuances in tone and expression in suspects and witnesses that Branch, despite his ear for music, often missed. Chat could spot a liar through a brick wall, and could squeeze more information out of a computer than anyone Branch knew.
Branch unsnapped his Glock nine milimeter and handed it to Jackson. “I could probably check this through in my bags, but I don’t want the hassle. I don’t expect to run into a fiddler who plays so bad I’d want to shoot him.”
Jackson looked at the gun and then at Branch. “You just asking for ol’ Murphy to teach you a lesson, you know.”
“Maybe so. Just lock it up for me, ok?”
Jackson took the gun, shaking his head. “I done told you, now.” Then he raised an eyebrow. “You hunting any poon up there?”
Branch feigned indignation. “Chat! How could you? I’m going for art, beauty, spiritual uplift.”
“Think you got any uplift left, old man?”
“Enough of that. We’ve got a little work to do before I leave.” Branch worked half-heartedly the rest of the morning while brooding on Chat’s warning and question. No, he wouldn’t need to shoot anybody, and any other hunting would be just fantasy. At noon, he pulled his jacket from the back of his chair and slung it over his shoulder. He grinned at the scowling Jackson as he headed for the door. “See you in a few weeks.”

Four-Part Dissonance, by Edward Doughtie. Chapter 20–Conclusion. For previous chapters, go to archives.

March 14, 2010

Chapter 20

Branch sighed with fatigue as he settled in the driver’s seat of his car and picked up his cell phone. All around him was a bustle of policemen, cars with lights still flashing, and yellow crime scene tape. In a nearby car he could see a dejected Bledsoe, his wig askew, looking at whatever was on the floor of the car. He had so far refused to talk, but Branch thought he would open up later, when the reality of his situation sank in. Teresa sat in the back of another car, her face in her hands. She and Branch had just identified the bodies of Doc and Mattingly. It had not taken long for the police to fish them up from the lake, since Branch had a pretty good idea where they went down. The two men were tangled together, Mattingly’s cuffed hands still around Doc’s neck. Doc had lost his glasses, but his bow tie was intact. Mattingly had been cuffed to an armrest; he had pulled it loose, something that must have taken considerable strength, and thrown his linked hands over Doc’s head and around his neck. In the struggle, they had fallen out of the duck.
Branch’s cell had finally run out of juice. He fished out an adapter and plugged it into the lighter socket. “Chat.”
“Yo, you ok?”
“Yeah. We got the big guy and Bledsoe, but Doc and Mattingly drowned.”
“Mattingly drowned? Uh-oh. Well, his lawyers will be out of a lot of work. Which one is Doc?”
“Sorry, I forgot you haven’t met all the characters.” Branch explained and gave a brief narrative of events.
“A what?” Chat asked when Branch came to the duck. He explained. “Where’d that mother get that thing?”
“Good question. I think he was a haunter of army surplus auctions. We found a lot of old guns and ammo in the shed where they kept the duck. Speaking of surplus, I found the three other pieces of film. I asked Bledsoe where they were. He didn’t say, but his eyes flipped toward them, and I found them in a cereal box. You know how that goes.”
“Yeah, they’ll do it every time.”
“I’ll sneak them home so we can make printouts. Then we’ll have to give them to the FBI, and we won’t hear from them again. But I’ve got to know if they added up to anything. My friend’s Korean grad student should be able to tell us. Now I’ve got to make another call. See you in a day or two.”
“Give her my love. Good luck.”
Branch called Celia. As the phone rang, his exhaustion deepened. His wet shoes and pants cuffs were clammily uncomfortable. A thought of her cozy house, a hot meal, a shower, a sympathetic ear teased his imagination.
“Hello.”
“Hi, it’s Aldo.”
“Are you ok?”
“Yeah, just tired. We got two of them, Teresa’s ok, but Mattingly and the one called Doc drowned.”
“Gosh. You sure you’re ok?”
“Yeah. Could I come over and tell you about it?”
There was silence. Then she said, “Ok. I’ll go home and meet you there.”
“I could use some of your good coffee.”
“I’ll make some.”
Branch put down the cell and rubbed his eyes. He got out and waved to Macdonald. “I’m beat. I’m going back to the motel and see if they still have my luggage. You’ll see that Miss Lopez gets home ok?”
“Sure. Call the Dallas shop tomorrow when you feel like it.”
Branch threaded his way through the police cars and left the compound. He drove, struggling to stay awake, but stimulated by the thought that he would soon see Celia, clear up any misunderstanding, and ease her fears about a relationship with a cop. The warmth of her home and her presence would revive him, soothe him.
She met him at the door with a hug—too short, again—and a concerned perusal of his face. “You look beat. Come to the kitchen—the coffee’s ready.”
“Just what I need. Colin asleep?”
“He’s at my brother’s.”
Branch smelled coffee as he approached the kitchen, and he associated its fragrance with hope for another night of love. Celia poured the coffee and they sat at the table. There was also an apple pie, which Branch ate with relish and many grateful compliments.
“So tell me all.”
Branch told her. She made sympathetic noises, gasped at his account of the ride with Boomer, and expressed concern for Teresa.
“It might help if you met Teresa and gave her someone to talk to.”
“I’ll try to do that when she gets home.”
They paused. Branch looked at her closely; she stared at the table and fiddled with her spoon.
“Celia. Colin’s not here. Could I stay?”
“Aldo, I’m sorry–”
“Please. I want you in my life. Not just for tonight.”
“I’m so very sorry. I do care about you, but–I just don’t think it would work.”
“I think I understand. You lost a husband, and you don’t want to get close to anybody who might get killed on the job.”
“You’re right.” Her voice pushed though a sob. “But it’s for Colin as well. If I get serious about anyone, it would have to be someone who could be a dad for him. He needs a dad that has a better chance of being around–”
“Than a cop.”
“I’m afraid so.” The tears were falling on the table now, but she wouldn’t look up.
“I wish you would change your mind. I could change my life.”
“No, I don’t think you could. Or should.”
Branch suspected she was right. His hopes dissipated like the warmth from his cup. He sighed. “It was a gift being with you, and I’ll always be grateful for that.”
“Me too. I won’t forget.”
“Me either.”
A pause. “I guess I’d better go. Take care of yourself.”
“You too.” She wiped her eyes, but wouldn’t look up.
The weariness descended on him with redoubled force, but he thought he could stay awake long enough to get to the motel. Then would he be able to sleep? Celia’s voice echoed in his memory, and the image of her home, her face, her body, and the realization of what he had lost saddened him deeply. His wife had begun to fade from his memory except for some general impressions and some vivid scenes, both pleasant and unpleasant. Celia had begun to heal the more recent and poignant loss of Allegra. Now Celia receded from possibility and would no doubt diminish in his memory, though at the moment he vowed to hold onto whatever he had.
He pushed a tape into the player and turned up the volume. Mozart’s G-minor quintet, the slow movement. Sad but maybe hopeful. One of the themes would leap up, then descend gradually. Branch thought of someone waiting in the airport, leaping up when he thought he saw the loved one emerging from the doorway, and sitting back down slowly when he saw that it was not she. But again he jumped up in hope. The music wound on, laying a balm on Branch’s nerves. The pulsing cello pizzicatos, heartbeats, announced the slow introduction to the finale, even sadder than the previous movement. The faster finale moved to a major key, and was more hopeful, but there was that same leaping up and gradual descent. It was wistful, hope that remembered the sadness, hope disciplined by experience.

Four-Part Dissonance, Chapter 19, by Edward Doughtie. For previous chapters, go to archives.

March 7, 2010

Chapter 19

As Branch approached the road leading to the compound, he noted with approval that the police cars were parked as if it were an ordinary speed trap, one on each side of the main road, but not blocking either side road. Branch parked and approached one of the cars, his shield out. The trooper in the driver’s seat got out, shook his hand and introduced himself as Scott Truscott, a name Branch thought not very euphonious. Truscott opened the back door of the car and Branch slipped in. Truscott’s partner leaned back and shook his hand.
“I’m Benny Macdonald. I talked to you a while ago.” He was a beefy thirty-something. His partner was maybe forty; when he adjusted his Smoky Bear hat, Branch saw a fast receding hairline.
“Right. How do things stand?”
“No movement that we’ve noticed. The hostage negotiators got hung up, but they’re on the way.”
Branch explained how he had been imitating Boomer, hoping to keep Doc and Bledsoe at home and the hostages alive. “I have an idea. They’re expecting Boomer to arrive at any moment with the film. They’re not expecting anyone else, so it’s likely that they’re not in the same room with the hostages.” He hesitated a moment, thinking about the relative risks. “How about this? Two of you guys could get down in the back seat of my car. I keep playing Boomer until we get through the gate. Then we move fast and keep them away from the hostages.” He explained the setup: Mattingly was in the room over the garage, but Teresa was probably in the house, or maybe in the third building Branch had seen but not entered.
Truscott frowned. “Pretty risky. I’m inclined to wait for the negotiators.”
“Ordinarily I would too. But these guys are fanatics. I don’t think they would be easily persuaded. And we would lose the element of surprise. That might put the hostages at greater risk if they decided to leave, using the hostages as shields.”
Truscott looked at Macdonald. “What do you think?”
Branch spoke before Macdonald could answer. “Time is a problem. If they have to wait much longer for Boomer they might get suspicious and do something, either try to leave or at least get close to the hostages.”
Macdonald looked steadily at Branch for a moment. Sharp black eyes, Branch noted. He spoke to Truscott while still looking at Branch. “Stover said some good things about this guy. I think we should give it a shot. I could ask Wharton or James if you’d rather not go in.”
Truscott shook his head. “What are you saying? Of course I’ll go if we decide that’s the thing to do.”
“No offense, I just meant—”
“I understand.” He turned to Branch. “Let me tell the others and then we’ll go.”
Truscott got out and crossed the road to the other squad car. Macdonald asked if Branch had a gun.
“They got mine, but I borrowed a little .38.”
“There’s a shotgun in the trunk.”
“Good. I’ll take that. Just the sight of it might intimidate them.”
They both got out as Truscott returned. Branch put the shotgun on the passenger side of his car, the troopers got in the back, and they proceeded slowly down the road. When they reached the gate, Branch called the house. Bledsoe answered.
“Twenty-three. Buzz me in?”
“Ok. Anybody follow you?”
“Naw.”
The lock buzzed and the gate swung open. The troopers crouched down and Branch pulled the car in, stopping between the house and the garage. “I’ll take the house,” he whispered, “You get Mattingly out of the garage. The stairs are around that corner.”
Branch rushed up the steps, crossed the porch, and opened the door, shotgun at the ready. He stepped into the kitchen-dining room and faced Bledsoe, a cup halfway to his mouth. Bledsoe’s eyes widened, and he set the cup down with a clump. He made several swallowing motions and slowly raised his empty hands.
“Where’s Doc?”
Bledsoe motioned outside, his mouth working, but making no sound. He reached up and patted his wig with a shaking hand. Damn. Branch had hoped to find them together. He now hoped Doc was not with Mattingly.
“Where’s Teresa?”
He waved one hand upwards and finally managed to croak “Upstairs.”
“Get the key and let her out. Now! Move!”
“All right.” He steadied his hands on the table and rose with some effort. He took a key from a hook by the door and indicated the way he would go. “Please don’t shoot that thing.”
“Just don’t make me.” As they went up the stairs, Branch wondered how the troopers were doing. At that moment, he heard a shot. He hoped it was a trooper shooting at Doc, rather than the reverse. “Hurry up!” Bledsoe had stopped at the sound of the shot. Branch prodded him into motion with the shotgun; he trotted up the stairs and stopped by a door. His hand shook as he fitted the key into a padlock.
Teresa turned from the window as the door opened and relief lit up her face when she saw Branch. “Quick,” he said. She slipped past him out the door. “You stay.” He pushed Bledsoe into the room, knocking his wig askew.
“I heard a shot,” Teresa said as Branch snapped the padlock shut and pocketed the key.
“Yeah, let’s see what’s going on. Stay behind me and be ready to hit the floor.”
They went down the stairs more cautiously than Branch had ascended them. Teresa spoke softly, “Boy, am I glad to see you. Is Clint ok?”
“Don’t know yet.” Branch hugged the wall until he reached a window. He took a quick look out. Nothing. He moved to another window with a better view of the garage.
“Shit!” He saw Doc, walking backwards, holding Mattingly by the back of his shirt, making him face the garage, his other hand digging a gun into Mattingly’s back. Doc was looking toward the garage, but moving toward the third building, a one-story frame structure with a door facing the house. No windows were visible. Doc opened the door, pulled Mattingly in behind him, and slammed it shut. Branch let out his breath with a rush when he saw Macdonald and Truscott dash from the garage to the building, apparently unharmed.
“Doc has Clint,” Branch told Teresa, who put her hand to her mouth. “Do you know what’s in that building?”
“No. Oh, God. Is Clint hurt? Could you tell?”
“He seemed all right. Look, you take this—” he reached down and pulled out the .38—“here’s the safety. If Bledsoe gets out or Doc comes this way, just shoot the bastards. I’m going to see if I can help out there.”
Teresa looked at the gun in her hand as if it were a toad; but she flipped the safety and nodded. “Be careful.”
“Ok. Maybe lock yourself in the bathroom.”
Branch went to the door. He could see Truscott covering the door to the building. Macdonald must have worked his way around one of the sides. Branch ran up to Truscott.
“Mac’s gone to the right. I hear noises in there but we’d better wait until we know more about the setup here.”
“Right. You stay here and I’ll go left.”
Branch glanced around the corner of the building. A blank wall, no window. As he was about to move to the next corner, he heard a creaking and then the roar of an engine. He dashed forward in time to see something that wouldn’t compute. Some strange vehicle was headed down the hill toward the gate by the lake. It looked like a boat with wheels.
“A duck!” Branch now identified the vehicle as an amphibious craft. They had some in Boston, he remembered. You could tour the city and the harbor in one. Branch ran after it, calling to Macdonald to follow. He could see Doc’s bald head behind the windscreen, but not Mattingly. The duck sped down the slope, pausing briefly as the gate opened, and plunged into the lake. Branch stood panting on the shore watching the duck, moving more slowly in the water, slip away.
Macdonald came pounding up. “What the flying fuck!”
“Is there a road over there?”
“Yeah.” He turned on his radio and called the other car, telling them to try to get over and intercept. “It’s a damn boat with wheels! Yes, goddamn it.”
Truscott arrived. Branch said, “Go back and check out the shed this thing was in. Maybe he left Mattingly there.” Not likely, Branch thought, though one could hope. Branch wilted, feeling hopeless as the duck drew further away. The rodents had a back door after all. Well, he thought, at least we have Bledsoe and Boomer, and Teresa is safe. He thought of Mrs. Mattingly and the story he might have to tell her, and grimaced.
The duck was now about halfway across the lake, heading toward an opening Branch could barely make out in the trees on the opposite shore where the other road must be.
Suddenly the duck seemed to lurch and swerve. It straightened out, but rocked from side to side, then swerved again. Something fell over the far side with a large splash. The duck righted itself and continued, though it was now headed toward the shore a few hundred yards from where they stood. No one was visible.
“Come on!” Branch yelled and started running toward the spot where the duck would come ashore. He tripped over clumps of driftwood, and splashed through shallows when the muddy beach shrank under an overhanging bank. Macdonald labored behind him. Ahead, the duck rose from the water as it ran up a sandbar and came to a stop entangled in brush.
Branch, breathing heavily and with a stitch in his side, reached the duck and looked in. There was no one inside.