by Edward Doughtie
The dead were four young Asian men, all wearing similar dark suits. The bodies lay in the humid Houston park near a rental car, its doors open, the key in the ignition, and the warning buzzer playing counterpoint to the chanting cicadas. The crime scene investigators had taken photographs and cleared the immediate area, and were now scouring the nearby dusty ground and patches of tough, dry grass.
Sergeant Aldo Branch, Houston homicide, usually stone-faced at a crime scene, allowed some of the distress he was feeling to show. The medical examiner had made his preliminary examination and reached the obvious conclusion that death in each instance was caused by a gunshot to the head. Branch watched as he checked the temperature of the bodies and the progress of rigor. The ME, a humorless, paunchy man with a gray crewcut and a name Branch never remembered how to pronounce, stood and stretched his back. “I’ll be more precise after I check them out back at the morgue,” he said. “Right now I’d say they died around midnight.”
Branch motioned to his younger colleague, Chat Jackson, and they walked carefully along a cleared path to one of the bodies. Branch slipped on a pair of latex gloves. “Look here,” he said as he gently turned the head of one of the men. “No exit wound.” He was grateful for the gloves, for the touch of dead flesh made him shiver—he never got used to it.
“Yeah, real nasty. Probably a twenty-two. Gets in but not out, runs around inside the skull. Makes scrambled brains.” Chat, short for Chatahoochee, was from Georgia, slim, thirty, and walnut-colored. He made a wry face. “Looks like one of them tried to put up a fight.” He pointed to a bruise and smudged and torn clothing on one victim. “Probably more than one perp to take on four.”
Chat peered into the car and pointed to blood on the seats and windows opposite the driver. “Shot them in the car, then dragged them out. Yeah. They pull up, open the doors, bam bam bam, no questions. The only one with any fight in him was this one behind the driver.”
“What about this?” Branch pointed to a patch of irritated skin on the left jaw of the man. Branch shed his light gray seersucker jacket in the Houston heat, which was already making itself felt at seven in the morning.
“Another bruise from the fight?” Chat looked at the mark and shook his head. He was more nattily dressed than Branch: he wore a tan tropical-weight suit, light blue shirt, and a red tie with small blue dots. He never seemed to sweat.
“Probably not a fight. Not really a bruise–more of a chronic irritation.” Branch moved slowly to another body, careful not to mash possible evidence into the ground. He pointed to a similar mark on a second victim, then a third. Branch suddenly realized the source of the growing irritation he was feeling. “Turn off that damned car,” he said to the uniformed cop stringing yellow tape around the area. Cicadas still buzzed from the live oak trees in the surrounding park.
“I don’t know what it is, but this one doesn’t have it,” Chat said referring to a heavier-set victim.
“Anything else different about this one?”
Chat frowned. “He’s fatter.”
“Look at their fingers,” Branch said, touching the heavier man’s left hand. “Feel the fingertips. Feel those calluses?”
Chat examined the hand and nodded. He felt the fingers of the other three, stepping carefully in Branch’s footprints. “All of them have those calluses, but only on their left hands.” He looked up at Branch, who sighed.
“This one’s a little different,” he said holding the man’s hand almost tenderly. “Feel the outer edge of the thumb.”
“Another callus. OK, why is this one different?”
“This is a cellist. The others play violin, though one plays the viola–that taller one. They must be a string quartet.”
Chat snorted. “There you go, showing off your cultural advantage. That’s why the SATs are unfair. Besides, you play that stuff yourself. Coming on with all that Sherlock Holmes shit.”
“You’re right, it’s not fair.” Branch smiled bleakly. “This is the Kyoto string quartet. I went to their concert last night.”
“It’s especially sad, because they were really good. They were playing on a set of matched Strads from the Coleman Collection.”
“At least I know a Strad is a damned expensive fiddle.”
“And where are they?” Branch asked the cop standing by the quartet’s car. “Anything in the trunk?”
“No sir. No luggage, no nothing.”
“Too bad they had to get killed over them,” Jackson said. “Maybe they’d still be alive if they were using cheaper fiddles.”
“Maybe. But maybe the perps’ll be easier to catch.”
“Why? Because these fiddles’ll be harder to fence?”
“Right. Big-time violins are like art. Anybody who knows enough to pay what they’re worth would know they’re hot. The dealers know these fiddles like you know rap stars. So they’ll either make a big trail going to instrument dealers, or they’ll drop them for a few hundred bucks at a pawnshop. The only thing that worries me is that this may be a private contract for some collector who’ll stash them in a vault somewhere, Switzerland or Japan, someone who just wants to possess them. They won’t get played, and they’ll lose some of their quality. String instruments need to be played, and these need to be heard.”
“Well, I won’t miss them.”
“Your loss.” Branch smiled at this trace of their ongoing dispute over music, the main thing that kept them from being more compatible partners. Branch was a good amateur violist and preferred classical music. They had given up on playing any music at all on their car radio. Chat only liked hip-hop, which Branch couldn’t stand; Branch thought himself more open, since he liked jazz as well as classical, and even blues, classic rock, and some country. But Chat only had scorn for “elitist, dead white male shit,” “down home groaning,” “old hippie noise,” or “cracker whining.” Dixieland was “grinning Tom crap,” and bebop “wormy,” a term Branch still puzzled over.
Branch knew there was an undercurrent of racial tension behind this conflict, and tried to compensate in other ways, for he valued Chat’s quickness, his sharp eyes, amazing memory, and acute street sense. But he couldn’t resist an occasional tease.
The park around them was a large one, Branch noted as he walked carefully around the quartet’s car. There was an arboretum, a golf course, areas for picnics, baseball, football and soccer, and a winding jogging trail that led by where they were parked, one of several dirt pull-offs along the road that ran from the Loop, I-610, along Buffalo Bayou, to downtown. No dents or scratches on the car, no smears of another car’s paint.
One of the crime scene crew was making casts of the tire tracks of the quartet’s car and another faint set behind it. Three of the crew were still on hands and knees scanning the ground for other evidence. Branch watched them and the uniforms waving on gawking joggers.
An investigator approached Branch. “No shell casings so far—probably used revolvers. Found one footprint in a damp spot that doesn’t seem to match the victims’. Otherwise, looks pretty clean.”
“Thanks. Anything unusual about the tire or footprint?”
“The tire looks like a standard R-14, probably Royal. There are some wear marks that may help. We’ll get more specific later. The footprint looks like a hunting boot, so probably not a jogger. Looks like a size fourteen and pretty deep. Big guy.”
Branch sat in his car and got on his cell phone. It would be less likely to be overheard than his radio. “Lieutenant? Branch. The dead guys in the park are members of the Kyoto String Quartet from Japan. Looks like an execution, gunshots to the head, probably twenty-twos. Their Stradivarius instruments are gone. Yeah. This is pretty big, so you might want the Chief to talk to the Japanese consul.” As long as I don’t have to talk to the Chief, Branch thought. He liked his lieutenant, but thought the Chief too political.
“We’d better call in Special Thefts to put out a notice to music dealers, pawnshops, and that fancy auction house, to watch out for two antique Italian violins, one viola—yeah, that’s what I play–and one cello. I’ll get pictures of them as soon as I can. We’ll need prints from them if they turn up. Crime scene and the ME are here. The ME puts death around midnight. I’ll talk to some of the people at the party they went to after the concert last night. Yeah, I went—not to the party, though. Ok, I’ll keep you posted.”
He reviewed what he had seen so far: deaths from gunshots, quick and efficient; minimal evidence of a struggle; no signs that the car was forced off the road. The crime scene boys would check for fingerprints and eliminate the musicians—and if necessary, rental car personnel and anyone else who might have touched the car doors and trunk handle. One of the possible perps was big. One small detail he didn’t mention to Chat, because he wasn’t sure of its significance, if any: small flecks of light green on the white shirt cuffs of the man behind the driver. Probably nothing, but he’d file it away.
Branch checked his watch and considered his next step. Seven thirty. The sun was pushing through the branches of the trees and the morning was heating up. He started his car and turned up the air conditioning. It was too early, but he called the Coleman Collection and left a message with the bad news and a request for a set of color photos of the instruments.
He needed to talk to someone who had seen the victims before the murder, someone he could trust. Frank Billings was a history professor at Rice, a fellow violist Branch played two-viola quintets with occasionally, and a member of the presenters’ board. He had probably attended the party for the performers. Branch called his home.
“Frank, Aldo. You up?”
“Yeah, I’ve got a nine o’clock class. What’s on your mind?”
“Can I meet you at Rice before your class?”
“Sure. What’s up?”
“First, did you go to the party after the concert?”
“Yeah. Didn’t see anything illegal there, though.”
“The Kyotos were murdered last night.”
“Good God! All four?”
“Horrible! What happened?”
“I’ll tell you what we know when I see you.”
“I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
Branch left Chat Jackson at the scene, drove through the park, and took a right on Kirby. He stopped for a container of coffee and was tempted by the donuts, but reflected that his size thirty-four pants were getting tight, and that he should resist the cop stereotype. He entered the campus, an oak-shaded oasis near the medical center complex. After negotiating the irritating parking system he walked to the red brick Mediterranean-style building that housed the history department. He found Billings’ office, sat in a creaky chair in the hall and finished his coffee.
Branch heard heavy feet pounding up the stairs, and Billings, a lanky man in his forties with brown hair falling in his face, appeared. Breathing heavily, Billings ushered Branch into the book-crammed office. He swept some papers off a chair and put them on a precarious pile on his desk.
“So. What happened?”
“A jogger found them and their car in Memorial Park. Someone shot them and stole the Strads.”
“Bastards! All that talent, just gone.” He shook his head and grimaced. “Got any suspects?”
“Not yet. I’m so desperate I have to come ask a violist.” Branch managed a half smile.
Billings didn’t return the smile. “Come on—one of our own has been killed. So how can I help?”
“Just a few questions, as they say. Did you notice anything at all unusual at the concert or the reception?”
“I’m trying to think. “ He ruffled his hair. “Can’t come up with anything.” “Did you leave the party before the quartet?”
“No. I got into a discussion about Shostakovich with Nora Small, and Eileen practically had to throw us out. We were the last to leave.” Nora Small was a physician and excellent amateur violinist; Eileen was Mrs. Mattingly, the hostess, wife of Clint Mattingly, whose company was reputed to provide every third piece of oilfield equipment around the world. Mattingly was as reclusive as his wife was social.
“When did the quartet leave?”
“I’m not sure. I’d guess that they ate around ten-thirty, and they must have stayed till after eleven.”
“Anybody there you didn’t know?”
“The Japanese consul, his wife, and a couple I heard was related to the cellist. I didn’t get to talk to them much–just a few pleasantries. Everybody else was the regular bunch.”
“Did you notice who left around the time the quartet left?”
“I think the consul’s party left just before the quartet. I remember noticing a sudden absence of Japanese. Other people probably trickled out after that. As I said, I was busy talking to Nora.”
“Yes. It was a great concert, and everyone was pumped.”
“Did you get a look at the famous Strads?”
“Yes. The guys were very generous. I even got to play a few notes on the viola. “ He looked at Branch with a faint smile. Branch felt a whiff of envy. “I couldn’t tell a lot with it right under my ear, but the people a few yards away said it sounded great.”
“I guess everybody wanted a good look.”
“Anybody that played did, which was about a third of the group. And Joe Haggarty. I hear he’s started collecting.” Joseph M. Haggarty had a prosperous import-export business.
“Yeah. Did he say or do anything you remember?” Branch was interested in Haggarty, for various reasons.
“Not really. He just looked at the violins closely and asked about their current value.”
“Did he look especially–ah, covetous?”
“I couldn’t say. You suspect him?” He looked surprised, curious.
Branch put on his best Inspector Clouseau accent: “I suspect everyone.” He paused and reflected, then spoke more seriously. He didn’t want Frank to start any rumors. “I really don’t suspect anybody yet. Just groping around, trying to get a sense of what they were doing before the murder. Anyone on the board not there?”
“Well, I knew that Bill Hinson had the flu, so he and Jo were absent. Can’t think of any others. Better ask Eileen.”
“Anybody arrive after the quartet left?”
“Hmm. Ben Stoddard is always late, if he comes at all. Merilee was already there, and I think Dr. Ben might have come in after the quartet left, but I’m not sure. You’d have to ask them. There may have been someone else, but I can’t think who.” Dr. Ben Stoddard was a well-known surgeon; his wife, Merilee, was the daughter of old Homer Banks, a rancher turned oilman, famous for suing people over property lines and oil leases.
“Mattinglys lay out a big spread?”
“They always do. They fed everybody well–more shrimp than you can imagine. But they always give the musicians a real dinner.”
“Anybody spend a lot of time with the quartet?”
“Merilee, of course, but she always tries to monopolize the performers. She makes herself one of the few to sit with the group while they eat.”
“Who else was with the quartet at dinner?”
“I didn’t notice. I was already deep into Shostakovich with Nora when they went in to dinner.”
“Did everybody talk to the quartet?”
“No. Those who like to chat did, and the few who don’t stuck with their buddies. People like Kyle Masterson and Shelby Falk.”
Branch sat quietly, thinking. Billings waited, pulling his earlobe. “I wonder why they stopped in the park,” Branch said at last. “I didn’t see any signs that they were forced off the road.”
“Maybe one had to take a leak real bad.”
“Could be. You didn’t happen to notice any of them using the john, did you?”
“No. I’m not even sure where it is in that house.”
“Anything else you can think of?”
Billings gazed out of his window, then shook his head. “Guess not. I’ll call if I think of anything.”
Branch drove back to headquarters and reported to his lieutenant, Narciso Sandoval. Some of the younger uniforms called him Narc behind his back, though he had never worked in narcotics; they thought he was narcoleptic because of the way he behaved in meetings. He allowed older colleagues to call him Sandy. Branch liked him, since he allowed Branch a lot of leeway in his investigations and had a good sense of priorities. As Branch summarized the situation, Sandoval leaned back in his chair, his grey hair falling over the backrest, his eyes closed, hands folded over his substantial belly. Branch knew he was awake, since he usually listened to reports this way, and he grunted from time to time.
Finally he sat up, opened his eyes, and spoke. “I’ll let you have Mikey and Sean to help with interviews and routine digging, but you and Chat will have to do the heavy lifting. We’re up to our ass in alligators with that business at the ship channel.” Some Colombian sailors had gotten in a brawl in which two were killed. There were many complications, including drugs, politics, and language–one of the sailors spoke more Indian dialect than Spanish. There were turf skirmishes with the DEA and customs. “We both know your case is high profile. Special Thefts will work on the instruments—you try to play nicely with them, and I’ll try to keep the Chief off your butt. I know you have a personal interest in this. That can be good, but it can also be a problem. Just keep me updated.”
“Will do. Thanks, Sandy.”
Back at his desk, Branch took out a yellow pad and the program from the Kyoto Quartet concert. The program listed the members of the presenters’ board, as well as contributors. The donors were grouped according to how much money they had given the organization, Arion Concerts. Most members of the board were also contributors. Branch made a list of the board members who were in the top category and a few others who interested him. Joseph M. Haggarty was there, plus several other individuals and couples. He would allow Mikey and Sean, the two younger detectives assigned to him, to interview most of the other board members, but he wanted to speak to these few himself.
Branch made notes of what he knew about each. Two were wealthy oil company widows who also were big patrons of the opera, the symphony, and the museum. One couple was the heart surgeon and his rich wife, Dr. Ben Stoddard and Merilee, nee Banks. The hostess, Eileen Mattingly, and her husband, Clint, were high on his list. The last was Fowler Parr, the younger heir of the construction company that was not only in on most Houston projects, but had hundreds of military contracts for work in this country and overseas.
Branch turned on his computer and began running the names through to see what else might crop up. He didn’t expect to find rap sheets on any of them, but maybe lawsuits, news stories, or public records would turn up something of use. The widows produced nothing but charity balls and ribbon cuttings. There was a lot of that for Merilee Banks Stoddard. There was a fair amount of legal stuff on her father, old Homer Banks, the litigious oilman. Several stories were about Dr. Stoddard, mostly about successful operations on the rich and famous, plus the occasional foreign politician or businessman. Eileen Mattingly was occasionally mentioned as hosting some charitable event, and was also a supporter of the symphony and museum. Besides speculating on how rich Clint Mattingly was, most commentary on him was about his invisibility. He was never mentioned personally in lawsuits or business deals, though his company and his surrogates were. Branch found a reference to one piece in a small-circulation muckraking magazine, the Texas Investigator, which had tried to connect Mattingly to some unsavory right-wing organizations, but the reference implied that the evidence was circumstantial, and no one else mentioned the allegation. Branch made a note to follow up that item.
Fowler Parr, the construction heir, was spending a lot of his inheritance on houses, cars, and wives–three of the last so far, and he was only forty. But he seemed to be interested in making money as well as spending it, and the business writers seemed to think he was being pretty shrewd about it. Branch decided to skip the widows and interview the three couples, Joe Haggarty, the Japanese consul, and their Japanese friends. His talk with Billings would provide a baseline from which to work.
The phone rang. It was the curator of the Coleman Collection, and he was understandably upset. “We’ll get our insurance company on it. I hope you’ll be cooperative with their investigator.”
Branch was mildly offended. “Of course. I’m a player myself, and I don’t want the Berlioz viola and those other wonderful instruments to be lost to the world. But as much as I appreciate those instruments, I have to give priority to four murders.”
“How about those photos?”
“We’ll fax you a set right now and express the glossies. Will that do?”
Branch thanked the caller and punched a number for Special Thefts. “Hi, this is Branch in Homicide. Who’s working the thefts of the instruments from that Kyoto Quartet murder?” He crossed his fingers. “Pauline?” He smiled, relieved. “She there?” As he waited he turned
Branch to a fresh sheet of paper and wrote “Pauline Good.” There were a few arrogant hotshots in Special Thefts he hated to deal with, but Pauline Good was a laid-back woman in her late fifties, smart, and fun to work with. He sat up. “Polly? Aldo. Hear you caught the Strad thefts. Yeah, I’m on the murder. Sure, I know a little about them. Oh, I’ve already ordered photos from the Coleman Collection. Of course I’ll share. They’re sending an insurance dick. Sure, I’ll let you know. I’ll want to work some of the shops when I get the photos, but I’ll keep you informed. You too. Bye.”