Masks: Part 11

Toni led him to a long, low, two-drawer file cabinet that took up the entire wall behind the desk, and opened the top drawer. There were thousands of slips. Thousands. Blair shook his head.

"No. This is ridiculous. There's got to be a better way." His brain finally kicked into gear. "The slips are numbered, right?"

"Yes, but--"

"I know, you file them in alphabetical order. What number are you on now?"

"285037."

"And about how many pieces do you sell in a month?"

"It varies. It might be only one or two. It might be dozens."

"Last month. How many last month?"

"I'm not sure. Only five or six, I think. We were closed for a week, after--"

"After the murder. Okay. Arthur Hatch was killed two months ago. The masks were all sold before he died. When did they come in?"

"About a month before."

"How many were there?"

"Twenty-four."

"Okay. So we look for--say--the last fifty numbers, maybe the last hundred just to be safe. That way, we can just flip through without having to read them all. I'll start at this end of the drawer, you start at that end, and we'll meet in the middle."

Blair knelt on the floor and pushed the first file folder open. Toni pulled the last three out of the drawer and dumped them on the desk, then sat down to look through them. It was tedious, mindless, boring--like the worst research a hapless TA could be assigned--but Blair was determined to do it, to keep his mind focused on those numbers. If he missed one, he'd have to do it all again, and he was not doing this twice. Not even for Jim.

In the middle of the "C" file, he found one. He stared at the piece of paper in his hand, scarcely able to believe it: Roberta Chilson; Phoenix, Arizona; mask--Mombatu.

"I've got one," he said softly. It hit him then, and he all but shouted. "I've got one! This is gonna work! This is great! This is so great!"

He was on his feet now, so was Toni, her smile nearly as broad as his own. He waved the packing slip over his head, and threw his arms around her. After a minute, he realized what he was doing and let her go, backing off. His face flamed.

"Sorry. I--um.... Sorry."

Toni smiled at him. "Don't be. Shall we keep looking?"

"Oh. Yeah." He smiled, held up the slip. "Twenty-three to go."

Toni sat down, and Blair went back to his file. Idiot! What the hell was the matter with him, grabbing her like that? He was lucky she hadn't hit him, or screamed or something. She hadn't seemed to mind, though. Maybe.... No, she was just being nice, that was all. Making allowances for the "boy-genius" geek moron headcase. He was so stupid!

A packing slip dangled in front of his face. Blair grabbed hold of it, looking up to meet Toni's eyes. "You found one?"

She raised her eyebrows, and grinned.

"Yes!"

Blair took it from her, and put it with the other one. Three hours later, they had them all, twenty-four packing slips, each with the name and address of the buyer of a Mombatu mask, including one in the name of Olive Palmer. They'd done it! They'd found them. He had to call Jim. He dashed out of the back room to get the phone, but Crowley was using it and not only didn't hand it over, but didn't sound like he was going to be off any time soon, no matter how long Blair stood there or how desperate he looked. His eyes strayed to the staircase, and his body followed, carrying him up the stairs at a run. Geoffrey Hatch had a phone. Maybe...

"Mr. Sandburg." Hatch had been sitting behind his desk, but he stood up when Blair appeared, his brow creasing. "Is something wrong?"

"No. No, everything's great. I found what we've been looking for. I just need to call my partner, if that's okay."

"By all means."

"Thanks." Blair picked up the phone, and punched in the number of the loft.

"You were able to reconstruct the list of buyers?" Hatch asked.

"Not exactly." No answer. Blair dialed Jim's number at the station. "We found the packing slips."

"Ellison's line, this is Ballard."

Shit. "Ballard, this is Blair Sandburg. Is Jim around?"

Ballard instantly adopted a sickly-sweet tone. "Sorry. He's out with the Captain."

"Where?"

"Jealous, sweetheart?"

"Just tell me where he is, Ballard."

"Arresting some bad guys."

"Fine, I'll call his cell phone."

"I wouldn't do that."

"Why not?" Blair demanded. He was really sick of this guy.

"Emergency calls only. Captain's orders. Is this an emergency, Sandburg?"

"No."

"Oh, too bad. You want me to tell your boyfriend you called?"

Blair slammed the phone down, startling Hatch, who raised his eyebrows.

"Problem, Mr. Sandburg?"

Great. Real mature, Sandburg. While you're at it, why don't you throw the man's phone across the room? "Sorry. I can't reach him right now."

"I see. Will you be much longer? The gallery's closed for the night."

"Uh--no, I'm just about done. I just need to make some copies of the packing slips."

"Fine."

Blair went back downstairs, to find Toni already at the copier. Crowley was off the phone, and stood just inside the back room, shrugging into a raincoat. Blair tried to feel sorry for him--after all, Crowley had lost a loved one--but he couldn't.

"Thanks for all your help, Rupert," he said as he walked by.

"Does this mean you won't be back?" Crowley asked, sounding more cheerful than Blair had ever heard him.

"No, you'll see me again. I'm pretty sure Detective Ellison will want to talk to you."

"Why?"

Blair shrugged. "Oh, just in case there's anything you forgot to tell him last time." He smiled. "You might want to think about it."

Rupert scowled, and walked out. Blair started to put files back into the cabinet. Toni finished at the copier and returned to the desk. Blair gave her a smile.

"Thanks. I really appreciate the help."

"You're welcome. What did Detective Ellison say?"

"Nothing yet. I couldn't reach him, he's working on another case."

"That's too bad. You should go out and celebrate."

"It's a little early for that. We still don't have the murderer. Besides, I should have had these weeks ago. I should have thought to look somewhere besides the computer. If I had, maybe Thomas Wainwright would be alive now."

Toni snatched the files out of his arms and dropped them into the drawer. "Blair Sandburg, that makes no sense at all."

Blair looked up. Toni stood very close to him. In her heels, she was exactly his height. Her chocolate eyes gazed straight into his. She smelled faintly of spices: cinnamon, like her skin, and others he couldn't name. "Huh?"

"How could having the names of the other buyers possibly have kept Mr. Wainwright from being killed?"

He couldn't think. "I don't know. Maybe--maybe we could have found the killer."

"And maybe not. Maybe having the names won't help at all. It's ridiculous to blame yourself for that man's death, and I won't permit it."

"You won't?"

"I won't." Toni sighed. "Maybe you'll be more sensible when you've had dinner."

"Dinner?"

"With me."

"But--I still only have ten dollars."

"And I have a very large commission, thanks entirely to you. Help me spend a little of it. There's a Cajun restaurant just down the street. It's not authentic, of course, but it's as close as you Northerners can come."

Bad idea. "I--" Bad idea. Jim would kill him. She was a suspect. She was beautiful. She was standing only inches away from him. And she wanted to take him to dinner. "I love Cajun food."

They finished cleaning up, and Blair stuffed the packing slips into his backpack. He picked up the copies, glancing around the room. He didn't want to take them with him: he wasn't sure he should be carrying evidence around, and something told him it wasn't a good idea to have the originals and the copies in the same place. Hmmm. Well, why not?

Blair went to the file cabinet, pulled the top drawer open, and dropped the copies into the "E" file. "E" for evidence. He shut the drawer, pushed the lock in, and took the keys, tossing them into his pack. Jim could bring them back when he came to talk to Crowley again. He turned away from the cabinet, and glimpsed something dark from the corner of his eye. Something in the doorway. Blair moved quickly to the door. Geoffrey Hatch and Crowley stood in the gallery, talking, each man wearing a dark raincoat.

"Blair?" Toni came up behind him. "Is something wrong?"

Wrong? What could be wrong? He was such a wreck that he was seeing things, he'd probably have a flashback during dinner, and his partner was going to kill him for going out with a suspect. Aside from that, everything was fine. Blair shook his head. "Just an overactive imagination. You ready?"

They all left together. Crowley and Hatch went around back to their cars, but Blair and Toni walked to the restaurant, sharing the scarlet umbrella. The restaurant was in a cellar; they descended the steps to a room that was small enough to be intimate, with tables covered in creamy linen, fresh flowers, and candles in crystal lamps. In faded jeans and a sweater, Blair was definitely underdressed, but the maitre d' took no notice. He also greeted Toni by name, which probably accounted for it. On his own, Blair was sure he'd have been thrown out. In this place, ten dollars wouldn't buy him an appetizer. He suddenly felt guilty.

"Maybe we should go someplace else," he offered.

Toni smiled and patted his hand. "It's a very big commission. And this is my favorite restaurant."

"Okay."

What was he doing here? He must be out of his mind. Toni was intelligent, beautiful, and used to money. He was a headcase, living on grants and the pittance the University paid him. He was completely wrong for her. For her? Face it, Sandburg, you're wrong for any woman. You're not even a man, you're a--a victim. You should leave, right now, and never go near Toni again. But she kept her hand on his. And he stayed where he was.

They ordered: crawfish stew to start with, then gout en court bouillon for her and crab etouffee for him. She called for wines he'd never heard of, that sounded, and tasted, expensive. And they talked. He was awkward at first, knowing he didn't belong there, didn't belong with her, but Toni drew him out, telling him of her childhood, and her studies at Tulane, interspersing her stories with questions about him. He started with monosyllabic answers, but before dessert arrived, he was telling stories about the places he'd been, and the tribes he'd studied, and she was drinking in every word, and he felt more at ease than he had in a long time.

They walked back to the gallery, talking, and Blair escorted Toni to her car, parked behind the building. It was a Jaguar, new, shining silver in the lights. Blair stopped talking, and stared.

"Wow."

Toni smiled. "Aren't divorce settlements wonderful?"

"I guess they must be."

She opened the door, and turned back to Blair. "Come to my apartment? I'll give you some real Cajun coffee."

Jim wouldn't just kill him, he'd skin him alive. "I shouldn't. My--"

Toni kissed him, lightly, her lips tasting of coffee and chocolate. He returned the kiss, and another, his mind exploding with the impossibility. Lips parted, and her tongue brushed his lower lip, then darted inside his mouth. Ponytail's lips ground against his, his tongue thrusting into Blair's throat.

"No!"

Blair pushed her away, into the car. Toni stared at him, fear in her brown eyes, fear of him.

"Oh, God." He couldn't look at her, couldn't meet her gaze. "Oh, God, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I didn't mean--I--"

He turned away from her, pushing his hair back. He should go, just get out of here before he scared her any more. But he didn't want to leave her thinking he was some kind of monster. God! He was a monster. Only a monster would do something like that, react violently. Tears filled his eyes, and he looked to the sky, determined not to let them fall. Great, Sandburg. First push her, then cry in front of her. Now swear you'll never do it again, just like all the other abusers.

"Blair?" Her soft voice, shaking only a little. "What's wrong?"

He shook his head. "You'd better get out of here."

"Not until you tell me."

He looked at her then, unable to believe what he'd heard. "Are you nuts? You don't--you don't know what I'll do."

"I know that you were more frightened than I was, just then. Why, Blair? What's the matter?"

"I can't--do this."

"Why? Are you gay?"

He almost laughed. "No. I am not gay."

Hardness crept into her tone. "Because I'm black?"

"No! God, no, that's not--you're incredible. I can't believe you'd even go out with me."

"Then why?"

"I--" God, he wanted to tell her. He wanted to tell her so badly. But what would she do? What if she was revolted by the truth, revolted by him? He couldn't stand to see it on her face, hear the disgust in her voice. "I just--can't. Not now. I'm sorry. I wish--I wish I could."

"So do I."

Toni got into her car, and shut the door. In the tinted windows, he saw his own reflection, blackness all around him. The car started, and the window whispered down. Toni looked out at him.

"Good night."

The words were out of his mouth before he could think. "Can I call you?"

"When you can tell me why."

The window went back up, and she drove away. Blair walked out of the parking lot, across the street to the Corvair. He dug the keys out of his pack, and slung it across one shoulder. With his luck, the damn thing wouldn't start. He couldn't believe it. First, he risked Jim's wrath by going out with a suspect, then he freaked out when she kissed him! Toni would never go near him again, not if she was smart. And he would never be able to tell her. He put the key in the lock.

Something heavy rammed into his back, slamming him up against the car. He tried to turn, to get a look at his assailant, but a hand tangled in his hair and forced his head down. Cold metal touched the back of his neck, and Blair heard the click of a hammer cocking. He closed his eyes, heart drumming in his chest, and waited to die.

"Don't move," a man's voice ordered. "Don't turn around."

The hand let go of his hair, but the gun stayed. The pack was jerked roughly from his shoulder. Blair opened his eyes, struggling to find the breath to speak.

"There's nothing in there you want, man," he said. "Just papers."

"Shut up."

The hand started patting him down, searching his pockets. Blair tried not to feel it, not to be aware of the man's touch, not to panic.

"Look, man, I've only got ten bucks. It's--"

"Shut up!"

The gun dug into his neck. The hand found the ten, and pulled it out of his jeans.

"I want you to count to fifty, real slow. If you turn around before then, you're dead. You got that, genius?"

"Yeah."

The gun left his neck. Blair heard running footsteps, and forced himself to look. There was no one on the sidewalk, or the street. He must have ducked into an alley, or down a side street.

Shit, shit, shit! Blair's fist pounded the hood of his car. The bastard had stolen the packing slips. Jim was going to kill him. Jim was absolutely going to kill him. If he hadn't gone out with Toni, this would never have happened. But no, a pretty woman smiled at him, and he threw everything Jim had taught him away and followed her like some brainless adolescent. "Keep it professional," Jim had said. "She's a suspect." And he had assured Jim that he would. But he hadn't. He'd done just what he wanted, and now he'd lost the only evidence they'd been able to find! God, he was so stupid! How was he going to tell Jim? Sure, there were copies, safely locked up in the gallery, but how could he tell him he'd lost the originals to a mugger? Jim would be furious. Jim would never trust him again. Jim was going to kill him.

The car keys had fallen out of the lock. Blair bent down to retrieve them, and started to shake. Oh, God, he'd--That guy could've killed him--could've done anything--and Blair wouldn't have been able to stop him. He'd've just--taken it, like he had with Ponytail, just lain there helpless, too weak to defend himself, while a bigger, stronger man did whatever he wanted. Oh shit. Oh shit, not again--

Blair slid to his knees and vomited on the sidewalk, trying to pull his hair out of the way and keep from collapsing at the same time. When it finally stopped, he fumbled the key into the lock, opened the car door, and crawled onto the seat, pulling himself up. It took four tries to get the key into the ignition, but the Corvair started right away. He sat for a long time, staring at the steering wheel, before he could breathe normally again and the shaking subsided enough to let him drive.

 

End Part 11

Part 12