Masks: Part 21

At precisely twelve o'clock, Jim and Blair presented themselves at the gate to Olive Palmer's estate. Aside from certain select individuals, whose names the guard was not inclined to produce, only persons listed on a daily guest roster were allowed to pass the gates. The property was surrounded by a seven-foot brick wall topped with electrified wire. Guards with German Shepherds patrolled the grounds after dark. And the entire house was wired with an alarm system connected to a company that promised--and delivered--notification of the police within five seconds of an alarm. The only place Ms. Palmer's mask could possibly be safer was inside the Cascade PD evidence lockup. And Blair wasn't even sure of that.

Class had gone better than expected this morning. Jim had walked him to the door of the lecture hall and picked him up in the same place when the class was over, which was sort of embarrassing, but he hadn't really minded. The students hadn't whined too much about their midterm grades, and his lecture actually seemed to have cleared things up for most of them. There were exceptions, like Joshua, who'd spent the class reading the comments in his bluebook over and over, until he finally stormed out of the lecture hall. One of the comments had been an offer of extra help, but it didn't look like Joshua was going to take him up on it. Too bad. Without it, Joshua was almost certain to flunk the course. Blair hated to flunk people.

Two hours of poring over student ID files had brought Jim no closer to learning the name of the blond mugger. He'd complained all the way from the U to Olive Palmer's house about the time they were losing to keep this lunch appointment. Blair had done his best to ignore the older man, but he was starting to rethink last night's assertion that Jim was the most patient man he knew. They had to eat, and they had to get a look at the mask. He didn't seen the problem in combining the two with a chance to talk to Olive Palmer. In fact, despite a certain amount of nervousness, he was looking forward to it. His anthropologist's instinct said that the formidable Ms. Palmer could tell some fascinating stories about her younger days.

The driveway was a quarter-mile long, lined with old beech trees, their leaves stripped by the onset of winter. Jim parked the truck in the circle at the end of the driveway and got out, going straight to the front door. Blair took a moment to look at the house before hurrying to catch up with his partner. It was huge, three stories, made of brick and stone, with white window frames and black shutters. A brick carriageway shaded the front door, illuminated by a wrought iron lamp depending from a chain with links as long as Blair's hand. They climbed the steps to a door set with stained glass, and Jim rang the doorbell.

The door was opened immediately by a man who was three inches taller than Jim and at least twenty years older. Every gray hair was in place, his butler's uniform was spotless, and before he opened his mouth, Blair knew this was the man he'd spoken to on the phone.

"Mr. Sandburg, Detective Ellison, please come in. Miss Palmer is expecting you. If you will follow me, I shall conduct you to the Conservatory."

The butler led them through an entrance hall floored in gray marble, past a staircase with a polished balustrade that had to be mahogany. An enormous flower arrangement sat on a marble-topped table in front of a mirror with a crystal frame. Jim barely glanced at it, but Blair gaped unabashedly. He hadn't seen anything like this since he was a kid. Not in the States, anyway. Jim grinned at him and shook his head. Blair was tempted to make a crack about Jim being too cool to be impressed by wealth, but he restrained himself. Now probably wasn't a good time. He knew Jim was hating this. Especially because, at Simon's insistence, Jim was wearing a slate-blue suit, white shirt, and blue-striped tie. Blair looked down at himself. He'd been glad Simon couldn't dictate what he wore. But now he wondered if his gray slacks, blue silk shirt, and hand-woven, Peruvian patchwork vest would seem disrespectful. Maybe he should've worn a tie. Not that he owned one, but he could've borrowed one of Jim's.

The Conservatory proved to be a long room walled on three sides by floor to ceiling windows. Sunlight filled the room, and warmed it, despite the late autumn chill. A marble fountain played at one end of the room, the basin surrounded by plants. More plants were clustered in various places around the room, some potted in Chinese jars that Blair knew to be two hundred years old. Statues were scattered here and there, antiquities half-hidden by fronds. From the windows, the grounds could be seen: gardens on one side, clipped lawn on the other, the grass extending in a vast sweep of green to a line of trees in the distance. A square table dominated the center of the room, small, set with three places. The china was Spode, the crystal Waterford, the silver sterling, not plate. A footed silver bowl held a low, spreading arrangement of roses, anemones, and ivy.

Seated in a wingback chair, Olive Palmer watched them come in. She wore a simple dress of purple silk the exact shade of the anemones in the centerpiece. Next to the rich color, her white hair practically glowed. The butler announced them, withdrew immediately, and Ms. Palmer rose to receive them.

"Mr. Sandburg." Ms. Palmer shook his hand with a firm grip. She didn't quite smile, but her gray eyes flashed as they had at the gallery. "Detective Ellison, thank you for acceding to my wishes in regards to the mask. I trust you were favorably impressed with my security measures."

"Yes, ma'am," Jim admitted. "I was."

Ms. Palmer waved a hand toward the table. "Please, be seated. I won't keep you long, Detective Ellison. I know you're a busy man."

"Generally, I am, Ms. Palmer," Jim said. "But today, I'm just following Blair around."

"Do you do that often, Detective?"

"No, ma'am," Blair interjected. "Usually, it's the other way around."

"And what occasioned the reversal?"

"Blair's life was threatened," Jim said shortly.

"Because of the masks?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"I see. All the more reason for you to find these murderous thieves."

"Yes, ma'am."

The butler reappeared to serve the first course: a creamy asparagus soup. Ms. Palmer offered wine, but both men declined in favor of water. Jim was on duty, and Blair needed a clear head to do a proper examination of the mask.

"I spoke to Elsie Cranmore about you," Ms. Palmer said to Blair.

Blair's spoon stopped halfway to his mouth. "You did?"

"Yes. I told her she's a fool if she doesn't hang on to you once you've earned your doctorate."

"You told Dr. Cranmore that? But--you don't even know me."

"I know enough. I make it a point to learn as much as I can about people who interest me."

"But I'm just an anthropologist," Blair protested.

Ms. Palmer fixed him with a clear eye. "Young man, I seriously doubt that you are ever 'just' anything."

Blair felt himself blushing. "Jim, help me out here."

"Sorry, Chief." Jim grinned broadly. "She gets no argument from me."

Desperate to change the subject, Blair asked Ms. Palmer about her life. She proved to be every bit as interesting as he had suspected. She'd traveled all over the world, met people like Einstein, Albert Schweitzer, Freud, Margaret Mead, and Gandhi. They talked through the soup, the main course of lobster tails and artichoke hearts, and the dessert: triple-layer fudge cake topped with the darkest shaved chocolate and chocolate-covered cherries. Blair was in heaven. He could have stayed there talking to Ms. Palmer and eating for hours, days, maybe even weeks.

Jim hardly said a word throughout the meal. But he didn't look bored, which was good, and Ms. Palmer didn't press him to talk, which was better. Prodding only made Jim more tight-lipped than usual. He talked when he had something to say, which he did as soon as the coffee was served.

"Ms. Palmer, how well did you know Arthur Hatch?"

"Not well at all," she replied. "I knew him socially and in his capacity of gallery-owner, but we were not friends."

"You knew him socially. You mean, you attended the same functions?"

"Yes."

"Did you ever see him bring another man to one of these functions?"

"No. He always attended alone, or with a woman friend. I always found it odd that he should be so careful to hide what we all knew anyway. After all, such things are more expected in the art world. Wouldn't you say so, Mr. Sandburg?"

"Call me Blair, please," Blair said, smiling. "If you mean that the public expects more people in the arts to be gay, I'd agree. But expecting isn't accepting. Mr. Hatch's orientation might have been accepted in the art world itself, but he spent a lot of his time dealing with people who aren't a part of that. When it comes down to it, he was really just a salesman. I'd say that public opinion meant a lot to him."

Ms. Palmer regarded him over her coffee cup. "Well-reasoned, young man."

Blair blushed again. "Thank you."

Jim grinned at him across the table, and he knew he'd hear about this later. Ms. Palmer poured more coffee for them all, and turned her attention to Jim.

"Have you any more questions for me, Detective?"

"Yes, ma'am. How much do you know about the masks?"

"Nothing at all."

"Then what prompted you to buy one?"

"I have been a patron of the Hatch Gallery since its opening. Arthur kept me informed of new acquisitions, particularly those he thought would interest me. Or I should say, those he thought he could persuade me to buy. He told me about the shipment of masks before they arrived in this country. He was very excited about them. He said he was taking the gallery in a new direction."

"So he knew a lot about them?"

"I didn't receive that impression, no." Ms. Palmer sipped her coffee. "He said he had the advice of an expert from the University."

"Rainier?" Blair asked, startled.

Ms. Palmer nodded. "I don't believe he mentioned a name, but he did refer to this expert as 'he'."

Jim looked to Blair. "Any guesses, Chief?"

"I'd say Dr. Stoddard, but he's still in Borneo." Blair shook his head. "He wouldn't have done it anyway. No reputable anthropologist would advise anyone to purchase artifacts sight unseen."

"So we're looking for a disreputable anthropologist." Jim grinned at him. "Why don't I just read you your rights now, Chief?"

Blair bestowed a benevolent smile upon his older partner. "That sense of humor's coming right along, huh, Jim? Keep trying, you've almost got it."

"If you boys are quite finished," Ms. Palmer said dryly. "Perhaps you'd like to see the mask now?"

To Blair's amazement, Jim blushed. His own face went hot, and they answered in unison.

"Yes, ma'am."

Ms. Palmer led them through a series of opulent rooms filled with antique furniture and works of art that had Blair gawking. They came to the library, and Ms. Palmer stopped. The walls were covered in dark green silk, the windows curtained with matching fabric. Bookshelves stretched from floor to twenty-foot ceiling, the top shelves reached by a rolling staircase carved of mahogany. Comfortable chairs and small tables were scattered throughout the room. A Persian rug covered the floor. Statues nestled in niches: Greek, Roman, Asian and African. An 18th century desk faced one wall. Hung above it was the Mombatu mask Ms. Palmer had purchased from Arthur Hatch.

Blair moved closer, studying the mask. Like Wainwright's, it was studded with irregularly-shaped stones in a line from forehead to chin. It was smaller, the wood stained green, the eyes, cheeks, and mouth outlined in yellow. A stiff brush of animal hair encircled the edge of the mask. Blair lifted his hand toward it, but couldn't reach.

"Let me get that for you, Chief."

While Jim lifted the mask from its place, Blair surveyed the rest of the room. The far wall was dominated by a huge fireplace. In the place of honor above the mantel was--

"The Lopez!"

Blair approached the fireplace, staring at the painting. He turned back to Ms. Palmer. "It was stolen. They found it in--in Rupert Crowley's apartment. It's supposed to be in the evidence lockup." Blair looked to Jim. "Isn't it?"

"It was," Ms. Palmer declared coolly. "I convinced the Commissioner that the painting would be safer here."

"How?"

"His mother and I were very good friends."

"Oh."

Jim just shrugged. Blair had the feeling that nothing they found here would surprise him. He was beginning to believe that himself.

"Calm down, Blair, the painting is perfectly safe." Patting his arm, Ms. Palmer drew Blair away from the fireplace, back to the mask. She heaved a sigh, addressing herself to Jim. "Young men are so excitable." Lights sparked in her eyes, and a smile curved her lips. "It's one of the things I like best about them."

 

End Part 21

Part 22