Masks: Part 18

"How do you feel, Blair?"

"Good."

"Are you comfortable?"

"Uh-huh."

A tape recorder hummed in the background. Dr. Hawthorne's voice was pitched low, the tone soothing. Across from her, Blair sat in the armchair he'd used last night, eyes closed, hands resting loosely in his lap. In that state, he looked so young and small that Jim's protective instinct kicked into overdrive; he had to force himself to sit still, when what he wanted was to place himself between Blair and the world. Nothing was going to hurt Blair here. The kid was fine. Dr. Hawthorne continued.

"Blair, I want you to go back to Wednesday. You're at the Hatch Gallery, looking through the packing slips for the names of the people who bought the Mombatu masks. Are you there?"

"Uh-huh."

"Good. Now, we're going to compress time a bit."

"Cool," Blair interrupted.

Dr. Hawthorne smiled. "Yes, it is pretty cool. We're going to skip over the time you spent looking, and go straight to when you found the first slip, okay?"

"Okay."

"All right, Blair, you've found the first packing slip. You're holding it in your hand."

A smile lit Blair's face. "I've got one. I've got one! This is gonna work! This is great! This is so great!"

Jim smiled to see his partner so elated. He'd had no idea this was so important to Blair. No wonder he'd been so upset when the slips were stolen from him.

"That's wonderful, Blair," Dr. Hawthorne said. "Now, I want you to look at the slip, and tell me what it says."

Blair's eyes opened. In the dimmed office light, his pupils were dilated, turning his eyes ocean-dark. He looked at the slip he believed to be in his hand, and read, "Roberta Chilson, 525 Crossview Rd, Phoenix, Arizona."

Yes! It was working. Dr. Hawthorne glanced at Jim, and turned back to Blair. "That's very good, Blair. Thank you. Now, we're compressing time again. You've found the second slip."

"Not me," Blair said. "Toni found it."

"All right. Can you see it?"

"Yes. She gave it to me."

"Will you read it, please?"

Blair complied, rattling off the name and address just as though the packing slip really was in front of him. In this way, Dr. Hawthorne took him through the rest of the search, asking Blair to read each slip as it was found, until they had all twenty-four names and an address for each.

"Excellent, Blair," Dr. Hawthorne said finally. "You've done a wonderful job, you've found all the packing slips."

"I've gotta call Jim," Blair said.

"Jim already knows. He's very proud of you."

"He is?"

Dr. Hawthorne looked to Jim, and nodded.

"I sure am, Partner," Jim said. "You did a great job."

Blair beamed. "Thanks, Jim."

"All right, Blair, we're finished," Dr. Hawthorne said. "I'm going to count to three. When I'm done, you'll be back in the present, relaxed and alert, and you'll remember everything. Do you understand?"

"Yes."

"Good. One, you're leaving Wednesday, now it's Thursday. Two, now it's Friday, at 3:30 P.M. You feel relaxed and alert. Three."

Blair blinked, looked around, and ran a hand through his hair. A slow smile spread across his face. "I remembered."

"Yep." Jim grinned. "You were right, Partner."

"Cool! I wasn't sure it would work. Thanks, Dr. Hawthorne."

"You're very welcome." Dr. Hawthorne popped the tape out of the machine and handed it to Blair. "In case it starts to fade."

"Appreciate it, Doc." Jim stood up. "You ready to go, Partner?"

"Sure, Jim."

Favoring Dr. Hawthorne with another smile, Blair moved to join Jim. Dr. Hawthorne watched them out, and called after them.

"Don't forget to do your homework."





Blair hung up the phone and gulped cold coffee, grimacing at the taste. That was the seventh call he'd made to a mask buyer, and the fourth message he'd had to leave. Only two had been home, and one guy didn't even have an answering machine. Where were all these people? At least the two he'd talked to had agreed to hand their masks over to the local police, to be shipped to Cascade for Blair to study. Jim was calling all the police in the buyers' cities, to explain the situation and ask for some interstate cooperation. He was on the phone with the Phoenix police now. Blair got up to get fresh coffee, but stopped when he heard Jim's exclamation.

"What was that? Are you sure? Sorry, of course you're sure. When?" He listened for a while, scribbling notes on a pad. "Yeah, got it. Thanks. I'll be in touch if anything turns up at this end."

Jim hung up, gazing into the distance. Blair put his mug back on the desk. "What's up, Jim?"

"Chilson's mask was stolen two days after Arthur Hatch was murdered."

"What? Is she all right?"

Jim nodded. "She wasn't home."

Blair sank into his chair. "Man, we've gotta get hold of these people. Any one of them could be next."

"Chances are good that other masks have been stolen already, Partner."

"Oh, man. I hope no one else has been hurt."

"Damn." Jim spread one hand across his eyes, rubbing at his temples. "I wish we'd had these names sooner."

"I'm sorry, Jim."

Jim's hand slammed down on the desk. Blair jumped at the sound, looked up to meet neon-blue eyes filled with exasperation, quickly quelled by the famous Ellison self-control. Blair wanted to shrink into his chair, or better yet run, but that was never the way to go with Jim. It was okay to be afraid, but cowardice was not something Jim could understand. Blair stayed where he was, and waited.

"Blair," Jim said at last. "When are you going to stop taking the blame for things that aren't your fault?"

"It is my fault, Jim."

"No, it's not. Blair, listen. Just listen. Don't try to analyze what I say, or find some hidden meaning in it, because there isn't any. When I said I wish we'd had the names sooner, I meant exactly that. I wasn't accusing you, or blaming you. Hell, Partner, if it wasn't for you, we wouldn't have the names at all. You're the one these guys are scared of, not me. They know that without you, we wouldn't have squat. That's why they want you off the case.

"But they're wrong."

"They're not wrong. You found the names, you know about the masks, you've had contact with one of the murderers. You and that convoluted brain of yours are our best chance of solving this case. But I need you to be able to concentrate. You can't waste your time trying to figure out ways to blame yourself for everything that goes wrong, or beating yourself up for every mistake you think you've made. It's bad for your self-esteem." A spark of humor lit Jim's eyes. "And my temper."

Man, where had all that come from? Had Jim been talking to Dr. Hawthorne while he was hypnotized? Blair sighed. "I know you're right, Jim, I do. I just--" He shrugged. "I'll try to turn off the guilt switch. But I can't guarantee anything."

"Just try, Partner, that's all I'm asking." Jim picked up the phone and handed it to Blair. "Better keep calling. Simon wants all these people contacted before we get out of here tonight."

Blair groaned. They could be here all night! He didn't have time for this. He still had more than half of the midterms to grade and that paper to write on Wainwright's mask. He could explain it to Jim and beg off of phone duty, but that would put twice the load on Jim's shoulders, and that wasn't fair. He was supposed to be Jim's partner. Partners didn't make excuses, they just did the work. No matter how long it took.

Blair punched in the next number on the list. The phone was answered on the second ring by a man with a deep, cultured voice.

"Palmer residence."

"Hi, this is Blair Sandburg, I'd like to speak to Ms. Palmer, please."

"I'm sorry, Mr. Sandburg, Miss Palmer is away for the weekend. May I take a message?"

Damn. "This is really important. Do you know where I could reach her?"

"I'm not at liberty to say, sir."

Blair took a moment to stare at the phone. This guy was right out of the movies. "Um, look, I'm a consultant to the police department. My partner and I are working on a case that could involve a mask Ms. Palmer purchased from the Hatch Gallery. It's not safe to have it in the house."

"Is there something dangerous about the mask, Mr. Sandburg?"

"No, not the mask; the people who are after it. You should turn it over to the police right away."

"I'm afraid I can't make that decision, sir. Miss Palmer will have to be informed."

"Then give me a number where I can reach her, and I'll talk to her."

Silence for a moment. Then, "Very well, sir."

Blair got the number, thanked the man, and hung up, shaking his head. Jim put his hand over the mouthpiece of his phone.

"Somebody give you a hard time, Partner?"

"I think it was the butler."

A smile twitched at the corners of Jim's mouth. "You mean, the butler did it?"

Blair groaned, and rolled his eyes. "Just call the cops, Jim. I'll handle the jokes."

Jim went back to his call, and Blair tried the number the butler had given him. He had to talk his way past five different people before Olive Palmer finally got on the line. He explained the situation to her, and waited for her pronouncement.

"I will not turn the mask over to the police," she said. "My security is more than sufficient. However, once I have returned to Cascade, Mr. Sandburg, you and Detective Ellison are welcome to examine the mask, provided that it does not leave the house."

"When will you be back?"

"Tuesday. I shall expect you for lunch at noon, Mr. Sandburg. Don't be late. I abhor tardiness."

"Yes, ma'am," Blair said hurriedly. "Twelve o'clock on Tuesday. We'll be there."

Blair hung up the phone. Jim had ended his call seconds earlier. He fixed Blair with a baleful eye.

"We'll be where?"

Blair glanced around the bullpen. No help there. "Um, Olive Palmer's. For lunch."

"What?"

"Sorry, man, it's the only way she'll let us look at her mask."

Jim shook his head and went back to the phone. "Keep calling, Sandburg. And don't make us any more lunch dates."

He called. He called for hours, trying to reach an actual person at each of the mask buyers' numbers, not daring to just leave a message. Finally, just after midnight, Blair reached the last name on his list. He explained the situation once more, hoping he didn't sound like a recording after so many repetitions, and obtained the woman's promise to turn the mask over to her local police.

Blair dropped the phone into its cradle and slumped down in his chair, closing his eyes. Done. They were done. They'd called them all, talked to them all, or to someone in their families. Jim had been right. Out of the total of twenty-four masks, thirteen had been stolen from the buyers. Only two more people had been hurt during the robberies, and none had been killed. Thank God.

Jim shoved a bunch of folders into one of his desk drawers. "Let's pack it up, Partner. Time to go home."

And thank God for that, too. He hadn't graded a single test today. He either had to do some when they got home, or get all fifty or so remaining done over the weekend. Damn. Blair stuffed things into his backpack, looking around for the box of tests. He found it shoved into a corner and started to pick it up, but Jim beat him to it, and nodded at the door.

"Lead the way, Partner. I'm right behind you."

Blair did as he was told, preceding Jim to the elevator. He pressed the button for the garage level, and rubbed one hand over his face.

"Jim, I've been thinking."

"What about?"

"The guy--the mugger. Who is he?"

Jim shrugged. "The fingerprints may tell us."

"What if they don't?"

"Then we figure it out."

"Do you have any ideas?"

"Right now, I'm thinking maybe the boyfriend."

"Whose boyfriend?"

"Arthur Hatch."

"You think his lover killed him?"

"It's a possibility, Sandburg. Not a certainty. Whoever this guy is, he's not working alone. He's not smart enough."

"So, Rupert, Toni, and Geoffrey Hatch are still suspects?"

"Yeah."

He didn't want to think about it. But his brain wouldn't stop trying to make connections, no matter how much he wanted it to shut down and contemplate only sleep. He could tell himself it was his anthropology training, or working with Jim, but he'd be lying to himself. It was just the way his mind worked.

Halfway home, he ventured, "Jim?"

"Yeah?"

"Rupert told you about the boyfriend, right?"

"Right."

"So, maybe he could tell you more about him. What he looks like, maybe even his name."

"Maybe. But his lawyer won't bring him in until Monday."

"You already called her, huh?"

Jim nodded, jaw-muscle jumping. "She had plans for a long weekend. Wouldn't want to interrupt them for anything as insignificant as a murder investigation."

"Right." Blair echoed his partner's disgust. Until his brain made one more connection. "Hey, great. That means we get the weekend off, too."

"Unless something else comes up. You have plans?"

"No. But the U has plans to boot me out if I don't get my work done on time."

"Just don't overdo it, Partner."

"Jim, when have you ever known me to overdo anything?" Blair demanded.

Jim actually turned his head to stare at him. Blair flushed, and sank down in his seat.

"Okay, man, okay," he muttered. "Just forget I asked and get your eyes back on the road."

 

End Part 18

Part 19