Masks: Part 14

Jim sat down at his desk and unwrapped the double jumbo cheeseburger Taggert had brought back for him. Four hours of interrogating Rupert Crowley, with or without his lawyer, was more than anyone should have to deal with. Ah. Perfect. Grease ran off the burger, sliding over his hands. He opened his mouth to take a bite, and the phone rang. He wiped one hand clean and picked it up.

"Ellison."

"Hi, Jim."

"Hey, Partner." What, did the kid have some kind of remote cholesterol detector? "How'd your class go?"

"Fine. What happened at the gallery?"

"We arrested Rupert Crowley."

"For the murder?"

"Not yet. We don't have the evidence. But we've got him for breaking into the Hatch Gallery, and for robbing you last night."

"We do?"

"Yep. Your backpack was in the trunk of his BMW. All your stuff was still in it."

"The slips?"

"No. They were gone."

Blair's voice fell with his hopes. "Oh. What about the copies?"

"Gone, too. Sorry, Partner. You did all that work for nothing."

"No, Jim. It's my fault."

"Don't start, Sandburg."

"Did you search his apartment yet, Jim?"

"Yeah. We found the paintings stolen from the gallery, and the keys to the file cabinet."

"He was pretty stupid, huh?"

"Most of 'em are, Partner."

"I guess." Blair was silent for a moment. "Why'd he do it, Jim?"

"Jealousy. Arthur Hatch dumped him for someone else."

"Oh." There was a problem with that theory. Jim waited, to see how long it would take Blair to figure it out. While he waited, he took a bite of the cheeseburger. He was still chewing when Blair said, "Jim. What about the masks?"

Bingo. Eight seconds. "What about them?"

"Well, if Crowley killed Arthur Hatch because he got dumped, then where do the masks fit in?"

"You think they should?"

"Come on, Jim, they have to. Why else would he steal the packing slips? If the masks had nothing to do with Arthur Hatch's murder, then Crowley wouldn't care who found out what happened to them. He wouldn't have had any reason to steal the slips or break into the gallery."

"Unless he was trying to throw us off. Make us think Hatch was killed because of the masks."

"Do you think that's it?"

"It could be. You said there's nothing about Wainwright's mask that would make it worth killing for."

"Yeah, but Jim, there are twenty-three other masks out there. Maybe one of them is worth killing for."

"Maybe. Do me a favor, Partner. Try to remember as many of the names from the packing slips as you can, and write them down."

"Okay, man. Um, you should ask Toni, too."

"Ms. LeClaire's already working on it."

"What?" Outrage filled the younger man's voice. "Jim, you figured all this out already, didn't you?"

"It occurred to me."

"Then why'd you let me go through it all again?"

Jim grinned. "Just testing, Professor."

"Jim!"

He laughed. "Don't worry, you passed. See you later, Partner."

Jim hung up the phone, and ate his cheeseburger. It was cold, but the call had been worth it. He'd make a cop out of the kid yet. Hell, Blair was already a cop in everything but name and paycheck. And respect. Okay, so he was young. And he didn't look like a cop. Or act like one. And they couldn't explain exactly what it was that made him so invaluable without telling everyone about the Sentinel thing, which Jim was not prepared to do. None of that mattered. Blair was his partner, and should be accepted as that. Period.

Jim wiped his hands and opened the top drawer of his desk. He'd stopped by Records earlier and asked Sandy for a copy of the calls that had come in to his phone yesterday. She'd obliged cheerfully, not quite hiding her disappointment that Blair wasn't with him. Jim popped the tape into the player, set the volume so low that no one else could hear, and turned it on. He fast-forwarded to Blair's call, received at 9:03 P.M., and listened to the conversation between his partner and Martin Ballard. Then he played it again. And again.

"Ellison!"

"Huh?" Jim started, looked up to meet Joel Taggert's eyes.

"What's up with you, man? You all right?"

"Yeah. Sorry, Joel, I was just--concentrating." Jim shut the tape player off. "What can I do for you?"

"Have you got the Anderson file?"

"Yeah, it's--" Martin Ballard walked past the door, heading down the hall to the men's room. Jim heard the door close. He stood, grabbed a file from his desk, and thrust it into Taggert's hands. "Excuse me, Joel."

Ballard was washing his hands when Jim entered the men's room. The stalls were empty; there was no one else in the room. Good. Ballard looked up. Jim kept his voice quiet and even.

"We need to have a talk, Ballard."

"What's the matter, Ellison?" Ballard grinned. "Not getting any at home?"

Jim grabbed Ballard's shirt and shoved him up against the wall, holding him there with an arm across his throat. "Listen very carefully, Marty. When my partner calls, you don't lie to him. You don't tell him he can't reach me. You put him through. Do you understand that?"

Ballard tugged on Jim's arm, trying to pull it away from his throat. His eyes were bulging, his heart pounding, and he was starting to sweat. "I don't know what you're talking about, Ellison."

"You know exactly what I'm talking about, Marty. Sandburg called here last night, looking for me. You told him I was only taking emergency calls."

"Did he tell you that?"

"You calling my partner a liar now, Marty?"

Anyone else would have known better. Not Ballard. "Yeah, I'm calling him a liar. And I'll bet he lied about other things, too."

Jim went still, easing the pressure on Ballard's throat. "What other things, Marty?"

Deceived by the lightness of his tone, Ballard got brave. And even more stupid. "You know, Ellison. He put out for another guy, then got scared you'd find out. So he cried rape. Chicks do it all the time. You think your little piece of ass is any different?"

Jim yanked Ballard away from the wall, slammed him back again. He wanted to kill him. He wanted to rip the disgusting bastard's throat out. He could do it. They'd taught him a lot in covert ops. Ballard was pale, sweat running down his face, but he tried to tough it out.

"Let go, Ellison. I'll bring charges."

"No you won't, Marty. Because if you do, I'll play the tape of your conversation with Sandburg for the Captain." Ballard turned gray, and Jim smiled. "You forgot incoming calls are taped, didn't you, you stupid shit? It's all there, 'sweetheart', every word of it."

"So?"

"So? Sandburg was calling to tell me he'd found evidence vital to a murder case we're working on. Because of you, he didn't get through. Because of you, he was robbed at gunpoint, and the evidence was stolen. Because of you, my partner could have been killed. What do you think the Captain would do if he heard that, huh, Marty? You do exactly what I tell you, or the tape goes straight to Banks."

"What--what do you want?"

"I want you to treat my partner with the respect he's earned. That means no more insults, no more innuendos, no more lies. You don't talk to him unless you have to for police business, and when you do, you're polite. You don't talk about him at all, to anyone, unless it's to say what a wonderful job he's doing and how much you wish you could be half the cop that he is. And if he ever calls me again, and you answer the phone, you put him through to me no matter where I am or what I'm doing, and you do it immediately. Now, you'd better understand all this, Marty. Because if I even hear a rumor that you're not showing my partner the proper respect--and you'd be amazed how good my hearing is, Marty--if I hear even a rumor, I will give that tape to Captain Banks. But before I do, I will pound your sorry ass into the ground. Is that clear, Marty?"

Ballard's eyes were practically popping out of his head. "Yeah."

"Good." Jim released Ballard, and stepped back. "Now get out of here."

Ballard fled the men's room. Jim turned to the sink and washed his hands clean.

 

End Part 14

Part 15