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

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.

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