Masks: Part 10

Bluebook spread across the steering wheel, Blair sat in the Corvair across the street from the Hatch Gallery, waiting for it to open. If he were with Jim, they could have just waltzed in any time, but by himself, he didn't think it was a good idea to try demanding entrance. He wasn't a cop, Hatch was under no obligation to let him in or to let him fool around with the gallery's computer. Of course, if he didn't, he'd have to deal with Jim, but Blair didn't want to push it. It was so much easier to get things from people if you stayed on friendly terms with them. He wasn't exactly the type to play the hardnose anyway. Now, if he were eight inches taller, more muscular, tougher looking--Hell, if he were Jim--then he could get away with it. But he wasn't any of those things, so he'd stick to the method that worked for him.

"Nice try, Diana," he muttered. Uncapping the red pen with his teeth, he wrote, "2 1/2 pages, and you haven't said anything" below her answer to the final question. He shook his head, and grinned. She hadn't said anything, but she hadn't said it really well. He scribbled beneath it, "50% for style. Don't do it again." That would give her a 75. She should be doing better, but she spent a lot of time daydreaming in class.

Blair tossed the book into the "done" pile--that made three, only sixty-four to go--and picked up the next one. It was a good thing he hadn't bothered to take the box of tests out of the car last night. He hadn't expected the gallery to open so late; without the tests, he would have had nothing to do but think. And thinking was something he didn't want to do right now. Thinking brought back yesterday, and a roomful of students staring at their teacher who'd been "sick" and had just flipped out in front of them. He had to face them all again tomorrow. He had to, because his only alternative was to tell Dr. Cranmore, the head of the Anthropology Department, that he couldn't teach anymore, and he was not going to do that. Ponytail was not going to make him quit.

And thinking about it was not going to get the tests graded. Blair sighed, and opened the book, holding it across the steering wheel. He'd intended to get up with Jim and get started on these this morning, but Jim had evidently thought he needed sleep, because he'd turned Blair's alarm off and left without waking him. Blair hadn't woken up until eleven o'clock. Right now, he was torn between being mad at Jim's presumption and grateful for the extra sleep.

Something rapped on the window. Blair jumped, and his hands pressed on the steering wheel, setting the horn off. Toni LeClaire stood outside the car, sheltered under a scarlet umbrella. Her suit today was purple, beneath it a print blouse in purple, red, and black. She smiled, and Blair rolled down the window.

"Are you waiting for me, Mr. Sandburg?"

"Hi. Uh--no, actually, I'm waiting for the gallery to open."

"Then you're not here to take me to lunch? Too bad. Well, enjoy your wait, Mr. Sandburg."

Toni started across the street. Blair hastily rolled up the window and all but dove out of the car, hurrying to catch up with her.


She reached the sidewalk, and paused, waiting for him, but didn't turn around. Blair walked around to stand in front of her. Rain misted his eyes, making her shimmer like a being from another world.

"Toni, I would love to take you to lunch. I really would."


"But I--um--I've only got ten bucks. So unless you want fast food...."

She laughed, and moved past him to the gallery door. "Don't worry, Mr. Sandburg. I've already had lunch."

"Blair," he said. "Call me Blair. Please."

Toni took a set of keys from her purse, and unlocked the door. She pulled it open, and looked back at Blair. "Are you coming, Blair Please?"


Blair followed her inside. She locked the door again, shook the water off her umbrella, and handed it to him. "Put this out back for me? I'll tell Geoffrey you're here."

"Maybe I should ask him first?"

Toni waved a hand. "He won't mind. Go play."

Blair shrugged. "Okay."

Umbrella in hand, he headed for the back room, pushed open the door, and stopped. Rupert Crowley looked up from the desk. Today's wardrobe choice was brown with faint hints of gold, right down to the smoky topaz stud in his ear. Rupert killed the pc and stood up, the better to intimidate with his three whole inches of height over Blair.

"Well, if it isn't the boy-genius, back again. Where's your partner, the real cop?"

"He's out doing real cop things," Blair replied, his tone deliberately cheerful. "I'm going to take another look at the computer."

He turned away from Rupert to hang Toni's umbrella and his jacket on the coat rack next to the door, taking his time, hoping Crowley couldn't see that his hands were shaking. Ponytail's voice echoed through his head, smug and sure: "Blair Sandburg, boy-anthropologist."

He didn't see Crowley move. Rupert's voice spoke close to his ear--too close--and he whirled, his arm colliding with the coat rack. It started to fall, and he lunged to catch it and set it upright again. Crowley watched his performance, and smiled.

"Sorry. Didn't mean to startle you."

Sure you didn't. Asshole. "No problem. What did you ask me?"

"If you've found out anything. About the murder."

"Sorry," Blair said shortly. "Can't talk about it."

Crowley's smile widened. "You mean Ellison hasn't told you."

"Oh, he tells me everything." Blair smiled, whispering, "But we're not supposed to tell the suspects."

Rupert's smile vanished. "I'm a suspect?"

"Sure." Blair widened his eyes. "You didn't know? Boy, nobody tells you anything around here, do they, Rupert?"

Rupert moved closer, his washed-out eyes narrowing. "Why am I a suspect?"

"You'll have to ask Detective Ellison. He's a real cop, he's better at explaining these things."

Blair tried to move past him. Crowley grabbed his arm. He started to say something, but Blair didn't hear the words. "Get away!" was all he heard and thought; "Get away!" was all that mattered. He fought blindly, shouting, and came to himself to find Crowley backed into the door, and his own legs against the desk, a good ten feet away.

"Don't you ever touch me again, man!" His fists were clenched; he wondered if he'd hit Crowley; he couldn't remember. He opened his hands, raked the hair back from his face. "You want to know anything, you ask Ellison. I've got work to do."

Rupert left the room without a word. When he was gone, Blair closed the door, sat down, and turned on the computer. He was trembling, his breath coming in hard gasps. He felt sick, and stupid. God, he was so stupid! He'd probably scared the shit out of Crowley, convinced him he was some kind of maniac. If he'd hit the guy, Jim would kill him. No, he couldn't have hit him. If he had, Crowley would be yelling "assault and battery" at the top of his lungs. There was nothing Rupert would like better than to get the "boy-genius" in trouble with his partner, Blair knew that, but he didn't know why. What did Crowley have against him? The dislike was mutual, but Crowley had started it. Could Rupert be the killer? No, not by himself. Arthur Hatch had been 6'4". There was no way one man could have hanged him like that. Unless he was unconscious, but even then, Blair didn't think Rupert was strong enough to manhandle someone so much bigger than himself. He couldn't do it, and he was pretty sure he was in better shape than Rupert.

Rupert had been surprised that he was considered a suspect. That seemed kind of dumb, considering. To Blair, it was obvious that everyone at the gallery would be a suspect, but maybe it was just because he'd been working with Jim for so long. Or maybe Rupert's surprise was faked, to make him look innocent. Should he tell Jim that Rupert had tried to intimidate him? Probably. Whether he would, was another question.

Wow. The shakes were gone. And he was breathing fine. Maybe police work was good for him. He'd have to try that one on Jim, see if he swallowed it. But for now, he'd better look for that list.

Four hours later, he was no closer to finding a list of who had bought the Mombatu masks than he'd been when he started. Nothing he could find, no cross-reference, no file, no directory, offered any clue as to what had become of the masks. If there had ever been a list, someone had purged it. Someone who knew more than he did about computers. Blair put his head in his hands. What was he going to tell Jim? "Sorry, man, I know you were counting on me, but I just wasn't good enough?" He couldn't do that. He couldn't fail Jim, not now.

The door opened. Blair looked up, expecting Geoffrey Hatch, or worse, Crowley. But it was Toni, carrying two steaming mugs of--

"Coffee, Mr. Sandburg?"

"Thanks. That would be great."

Toni handed him one of the mugs and came around to stand beside his chair. "I heard the shouting earlier. Was Rupert being horrible to you?"

"It wasn't him. Well, it was, but--I've been kind of--touchy, lately. He pushed the wrong button."

She gazed skyward. "I apologize for him. He's not usually quite so rude. He's been very upset about Arthur's death."

"More than you?"

Toni smiled. "That's a Detective Ellison question."

"Sorry." Blair smiled sheepishly. "Guess I've been hanging around him too long."

"No, it's a good question. Rupert is more upset than I am. Of course, he would be."


Toni looked puzzled. "Well, they were lovers."


"Rupert didn't tell you?" Toni bit her lip. "I shouldn't have said anything."

"No, Toni, this is important. Rupert should have told Jim." Why hadn't he?

"Well, they were very discreet. Maybe Arthur didn't want anyone to know."

"How do you know about it?"

"I saw them together once, when they thought they were alone. They didn't see me, fortunately. I'd have died of embarrassment, intruding on a private moment like that."

"So you never asked Rupert about it?"

"I couldn't possibly. It wasn't my business."

"You know, I'll have to tell Jim about this."

"I know." Toni sighed, and drank some coffee. She nodded at the pc. "Any luck?"

"No." Blair sipped his own coffee. "And I've run out of places to look."

"You're giving up?"

He shook his head. "I can't. Jim's depending on me."

"And that means a lot to you, doesn't it?"


Toni put a hand on his shoulder. "You'll find it, then."

He looked at her, and wished that she would stay there forever. "You think so?"

"Oh, yes." Toni took her hand away, and Blair's shoulder felt cold. "Were you able to reach Mr. Wainwright?"

Blair nodded. "He sent us his mask. And now he's dead."

He almost clapped a hand over his mouth. What was he doing? He shouldn't have told her that. Not that it was a secret, exactly. Anyone who read a Boston paper would know. But she was a suspect, and Jim probably wanted Wainwright's death kept quiet. God, Jim was going to kill him. Why couldn't he keep his big mouth shut? Toni was staring at him, her cinnamon-colored skin gone dull.

"Dead? My God, Blair, what happened?"

"His house was broken into. Whoever broke in, killed him."

"Do you think it had something to do with the mask?"

"We don't know for sure. Jim thinks so. That's why he wants this list." Blair took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. "God, I shouldn't be telling you this."

"Blair, I swear to you, I had nothing to do with this. You don't have to tell me anything else. But I want to do what I can to help."

Blair looked into her dark eyes. "I believe you. I do. And I'd be grateful for any help you can give me. So would Jim." But he's still gonna kill me.

Toni glanced at the door. "I should go back out on the floor." She made a face. "Makes it sound like a car dealership, doesn't it?"

She slid off the desk and moved to the door, the ringlets that tumbled down her back swaying with her movement. Toni opened the door, and turned toward Blair.

"Maybe you should look at the problem from another direction."

Toni shut the door. Blair stared at it, then at the computer screen. Yeah. Great. What direction? What was left? He'd tried everything he knew about computers, and he not only couldn't find a list of buyers, he couldn't tell if there had ever been one. For all he knew, he was wasting his time looking for something that had never existed in the first place. A wry grin spread across his face. Kind of like looking for a Sentinel before he'd found Jim.

All right, what information did he have? The masks were Mombatu. How many were there? He didn't know, he hadn't counted when Jim showed him the pictures. Jim would know, though. They'd been shipped from Kenya to Arthur Hatch. Who had shipped them? He didn't know that, either, but there must be a record of it somewhere, so Jim probably knew that, too. Arthur Hatch had sold them all, and they had no idea who he had sold them to. Except for the one Toni had sold, to Thomas Wainwright. Who was now dead. Jim thought Wainwright's death was connected to the mask. If there was a list, and the killers had it, that would explain how they had found Wainwright. But what if there was no list? If there was no list, then the only people who knew about Wainwright, aside from cops and Blair himself, were Toni and anyone Toni might have told. Which probably meant Rupert Crowley and Geoffrey Hatch. Which meant that they really were suspects. Real suspects, not just a formality because they worked there suspects. And he'd just told her that Wainwright was dead. But that didn't matter, did it? If she was one of the killers, she already knew; if she wasn't, there was no harm done.

Toni wasn't a murderer. He knew she wasn't. Jim would scoff at him, tell him he was thinking with the wrong part of his anatomy, but he knew, he felt it. Jim could have gut feelings, why couldn't he? Jim would say because he wasn't a cop, he didn't have the training, the experience. But he was an anthropologist, and a teacher. He'd had to go with his gut feelings lots of times, in the field. And with students. Why shouldn't that apply here? He was right about Toni, he knew he was. The fact that she was incredibly beautiful, sexy, and intelligent had nothing to do with it. It wasn't as though he thought he had a chance with her, because he didn't. He couldn't. She'd never--not with him. He just trusted her, that was all.

Toni came back in, carrying a portable phone. "Telephone, Mr. Sandburg. It's Detective Ellison."

"Oh. Um--thanks." Blair rose to take the phone from her. Toni smiled, and left him alone to talk. "Hi, Jim."

"How's it going, Partner?"

"Not so good. I found something out, though."

"What's that?"

"Rupert Crowley and Arthur Hatch were--um--a couple."

"Crowley told you that?"

"No. Toni."

"Hmmm. Ms. LeClaire's a font of information, isn't she?"

"Hey, come on, Jim, we were just talking. She wants to help."

"I'm sure she does, Sandburg. Remember what I told you."

"Yeah, yeah, keep it professional. I know, man."

He could hear Jim's grin. "So, no luck with the computer, huh?"

"None. I'm trying to come at it from a different direction."

"And what direction would that be, Professor?"

"Any direction I can find, Jim. I'm not giving up."

"So you're gonna be hanging around there for a while?"


"Okay, Partner. Let me know when you're ready to pack it in and I'll pick you up."

"No, that's okay, Jim, I've got my...." Pack it in. Pack it. "Jim, I've gotta go. I just had an idea. I'll call you if it pans out, okay? Bye."

He was already out of the chair. Blair thumbed the phone off and shot out of the office, searching the gallery for Toni. There! He rushed up behind her and touched her sleeve.

"Toni, the other day, you said something about--"

"Young man." An imperious voice cut through his words. "Miss LeClaire is helping me."

The woman had to be eighty years old, but she was taller than Blair, and gripped a silver-headed cane with a firmness that said she'd used it before and wasn't afraid to use it again, especially on short, rude, long-haired men. He hadn't even seen her. Toni turned toward him, looking flustered. Oh, shit, he'd probably just cost her a sale.

"I'm really sorry, ma'am. I shouldn't have interrupted. I--" Blair's eyebrows shot up. He gestured at the painting on the wall in front of them. "Is this what you're buying?"

The old lady wasn't mollified. "Thinking of buying, young man. And quite prepared to change my mind, at the moment."

"Change your mind? But, ma'am, that's a Lopez!"

"I am aware of that."

"But did you know that this is from her ongoing 'Mind/Jungle' series, in which she explores the connection between the darkness in herself and in the deepest, oldest part of the rainforest?"

"And how do you know that?" the woman sniffed.

"She told me."

"The artist told you? Personally?"

"Yeah, I met her a few years ago, when I was on an anthropological expedition. Well, actually, I was sort of on vacation from it when I met her. Y'see--"

"And she explained this to you?"

"Uh-huh. She's really a fascinating person. Y'know, the critics say this is her best work to date, and I think they're right." He shook his head. "God, I'd love to own a Lopez."

"Then why don't you?" the woman demanded.

"Who, me?" Blair smiled. "I'm just a grad student. I couldn't afford to buy one of her brushes."

"So, you think this is a good investment?"

"I wouldn't know about that, ma'am. I just know it's a beautiful painting."

"Yes. It is." She turned to Toni. "Very well, Miss LeClaire, I'll take it. Have it sent to my home. Better yet, have this young man deliver it."

Toni flashed him a smile. "I'm sorry, Miss Palmer, but Mr. Sandburg doesn't work here."

"Sandburg." The old woman turned her formidable gaze back to him. "Blair Sandburg?"

"Uh--yes, ma'am." Blair gave her a puzzled smile. "How did you know?"

"Elsie Cranmore and I have been friends for a very long time. She has mentioned your name on several occasions. The next time I see her, I can tell her that I understand."

Dr. Cranmore had talked about him? "Understand?"

"What she means, of course. Perfectly." She pointed her cane at him. "I shall have you for dinner, Blair Sandburg."


She barked a laugh. "Don't look so alarmed, Mr. Sandburg. You'll be a guest, not the main course. I don't eat young men." A spark flashed in her eyes. "Anymore."

Blair laughed weakly, and watched her out. Rupert jumped to open the door for her, but she strode by without acknowledging him and settled herself into the back of an old Rolls Royce. The car drove away, and Blair turned to a smiling Toni.

"Who was that?"

"That," she said, "Was Olive Palmer."

"The richest woman in Washington?"

"The richest person in Washington," Toni corrected. She squeezed Blair's arm. "And you have just made me an enormous commission, Mr. Sandburg. Now, what did you want to say to me?"

He had to think a minute. "Oh, right. When I was here before, you said something about packing slips. Do you keep copies of all of them?"

"Yes. In the back room."

"Then you'd have copies of the packing slips for the masks, right?"


"Can I see them?"

"Of course. But--"


"They're filed in alphabetical order, by the customer's last name."

"You're kidding." Blair's shoulders slumped. It would take days to look through them all. How was he going to do that and still get the midterms graded? He had to do it. He had to find out where the masks had gone, no matter how long it took. Jim was counting on him. But so were his students. And he had that paper to write. Dammit!

"Don't look so dejected." Toni put her arm through his and started to walk him to the back room. "I'll help you look."

"Thanks, but don't you have to work?"

"Don't worry. I could work for a month and not make what you just made for me." She raised her voice slightly. "Rupert will be happy to handle the customers, won't you, Rupert?"

"Of course." Rupert smiled. "You and the boy-genius have fun."

He should say no. What if she tampered with the evidence, or hid something from him? But, God, he needed the help. And what could she do with him right there? She could pass over the slips he needed and pretend they weren't there, that's what. But she wouldn't do that. Would she? Oh, hell. He could always go through the stuff she'd looked through later. It wouldn't be any more work than he'd have to do without her. And if she did really help, it would save time. Right? Right.


End Part 10

Part 11