Masks: Part 23

Blair threw the calipers down and flung himself away from the table to the windows. He didn't focus on anything outside; he just couldn't stand to look at the masks anymore. He felt Jim's eyes, and Simon's, on him, saw their reflections in the glass, Simon with his "What is the kid's problem?" look, Jim's brow creased in what seemed to be ever-present concern.

"What's up, Partner?" Jim asked.

"This is a waste of time," Blair answered. "I'm not finding anything."

Thinking he couldn't see, Jim and Simon exchanged glances.

"You found out they were real, didn't you?" Simon offered.

"Yeah, but so what?" Blair turned back to the table, waving a hand at the masks, tools, and notes that covered its surface. "Three people died because of these, and what do I know about them? They're real. This one's one hundred years old, that one's three hundred. There's one for healing, one for fierceness in battle, three representing gods. Collectively, they're worth a lot of money. Individually, there's nothing worth killing people over. Nothing!"

"Sandburg, maybe you should take a break."

"That won't help." Blair pulled his hair back, pacing. "Someone's trying to steal them all back. But why? So he can keep them for himself? If that's true, why didn't he just steal the whole shipment before they were sold? It can't be Mombatu tribesmen trying to get them back: the mugger's American. So why? What is it about these masks that makes people kill for them? I can't figure it out, Simon. I just don't get it. I'm not doing any good here."

"That's not true," Simon said. "Everything you find out is more than we knew before."

"But it isn't any use." Blair sighed. "Maybe they already have the mask they want."

"No way, Chief," Jim said. "If they did, they wouldn't have been so hot to get their hands on Wainwright's mask. And they wouldn't have tried to scare you off the case. We just have to keep looking."

"For what?"

"You're the expert, Darwin. Anything different, anything wrong. Anything unique to one of the masks."

"They're all unique, Jim. Though of course, there are similarities of style, and materials." Blair slumped back into the chair he had vacated. "I don't know. Maybe if I do a comparison, check the details of each mask against all the others."

Jim nodded. "Sounds like a plan, Chief."

"Maybe. But I need to have all the masks together. And Ms. Palmer won't let hers out of her house."

Simon frowned. "Am I reading you right, Sandburg? You want to pack these up and take them to the Palmer place?"

"They'll be safe, Captain. Jim will be with me."

"I don't like it."

"But, Simon, unless I test every available sample, the comparison won't be valid. There won't be any point in doing it."

"He's right, sir," Jim chimed in. "I can bring the files from Rainier along and keep busy while Blair's conducting his tests."

Simon scowled. "All right. As long as the masks remain in your sight at all times."

"Yes, sir."

"Great." Blair opened the office door. "Thanks, Simon."

"Hold on a minute there, Chief," Jim called after him. "Aren't you forgetting something?"

"Huh?" Blair looked back, to see Jim gesturing at the mess on Simon's table. "Oh. No, man, I'm just going to call Ms. Palmer and tell her we're coming."

Blair headed for Jim's desk, hearing Simon's phone ring behind him, and the Captain's barked, "Banks." He picked up Jim's phone and punched in the number of the Palmer estate. The butler answered on the third ring.

"Hey, Wilkins, it's Blair Sandburg. Can I speak to Ms. Palmer, please?"

"I'm sorry, Mr. Sandburg, Miss Palmer is unavailable at the moment. May I help you?"

"Yeah. Jim--Detective Ellison and I have to come back and look at the mask again. And I need to bring all the other masks to do a comparison, if that's okay."

"I'm quite certain it will be, sir."

"Great. I just wanted to make sure security knows to let us in."

"You will encounter no difficulty, Mr. Sandburg. Miss Palmer has added you to the list of those visitors who are to be admitted at all times."

"She has? Wow. Um, thanks, Wilkins. See you later."

"I look forward to it, sir."

Blair hung up the phone and returned to Simon's office. "Hey, Jim, guess--" Uh-oh. Jim and the Captain were both on their feet, wearing identical cop no-expressions. "What's going on?"

"Sorry, Chief," Jim said. "We got a break in the Anderson case. Gotta go."

"Oh. Well, no problem, man, we can compare the masks tomorrow."

"You're not going along on this one, Sandburg," Simon said. "I want you at the Palmer estate. I'll send a team of uniforms with you."

"Oh." Great response, Sandburg. Try for something a little more articulate. "Okay. Who?"

"Connelly and Crow."

Jim stopped what he was doing. "No, sir. Not Connelly. Not after what happened last time."

"Jim." Blair waited until Jim looked at him. "That wasn't Connelly's fault, and you know it. He feels really bad about it. This will give him a chance to redeem himself in his own eyes."

Jim's jaw muscle twitched. "No. Assign another team, Simon."

"Jim, Connelly's a good cop," Simon said. "And Tabitha Crow's one of the smartest on the force. The kid will be fine."

Jim shook his head. "You're the captain, sir."

"I'm glad you realize that," Simon quipped. "I wonder, sometimes."

Simon moved past Blair, out of the office. Jim did the same, then whirled and stuck an admonishing finger in Blair's face. "You call in every hour on the hour, Chief."

"Is that an order, sir?"

"Yes," Jim growled. Sighing audibly, he turned away and moved through the bullpen with Simon. Blair heard his next words clearly, as he was meant to. "All the partners I could have had, and I get stuck with a wiseass."

"Yeah." Simon chuckled. "Payback's a bitch, ain't it?"





Blair bustled into the Palmer house with Connelly and Crow in tow, each carrying a box of masks. The butler held the door open for them, a bemused expression on his square-jawed face.

"Welcome back, Mr. Sandburg."

"Hi, Wilkins. Is Ms. Palmer home?"

"She's waiting for you in the Conservatory, sir."

"Thanks." Glancing back at the uniforms. "This way."

Blair led them through the house. He'd spent the drive over telling them about it, and about its owner. Steve hadn't seemed particularly interested, but Tabitha had asked a lot of questions about the history of the house and Ms. Palmer's possessions, sending Blair into full-out teacher mode. He'd always gotten along well with Tabitha, and with her daughter, an adorable two year old who insisted on calling him "Bear".

Ms. Palmer herself opened the doors of the Conservatory to them, ushering them inside. "Hello, Blair."

"Hi. Thanks for letting me come back."

"I want to do what I can to help catch these murderers," she said. "I believe Wilkins told you that you're welcome here any time."

"Yeah, he did." Blair felt himself blushing, and wished he could stop doing that around her. "Thanks. I'm honored. Really."

"You should be," Ms. Palmer replied, the spark back in her gray eyes. "I understood that Detective Ellison was coming with you?"

Blair provided explanations and introductions, advancing into the room. The small, square table they'd had lunch at yesterday was gone, replaced by a table long enough to accommodate all the masks and Blair's tools. Ms. Palmer's green mask sat in the table's center, and several powerful lamps had been set at intervals along its length.

"I thought you might prefer to work in here," Ms. Palmer said. "There's more room, and the light is better."

"Thank you."

With Steve's and Tabitha's help, Blair set up. The uniforms laid out his tools and unpacked the masks, but Blair insisted on lifting each mask from its box himself. Some of them were too fragile to withstand any but the most careful handling, and if anything happened to them, he wanted it to be his responsibility alone. Ms. Palmer stayed long enough to look at all the other masks, then left him to his work. Apologizing in advance for the dull duty they'd drawn, Blair began a meticulous comparison of the masks' every detail.

Less than an hour later, the Conservatory doors opened, and Wilkins entered, followed by two men pushing an enormous marker board on wheels. Wilkins carried a bag filled with a rainbow of markers and two erasers, which he handed to a befuddled Blair.

"Where'd this come from?"

"Miss Palmer ordered it, sir. She thought it might prove useful."

"Uh, yeah. Yes, it will. Thank her for me, will you, Wilkins?"

"Of course, sir."

Wilkins herded the delivery men out again. Blair immediately drew a huge chart listing all the various properties and materials he was testing, then began to write in the results he'd obtained for the first mask. He continued until a bored Tabitha took the job from him, freeing him to return to the testing. Thereafter, Steve and Tabitha traded off, one writing down the information Blair called out while the other kept official watch. Connelly was also designated timekeeper, to let Blair know when to check in with Jim. If he forgot, Jim would come charging down here, sure there was something wrong, and then kill him when there wasn't.

Just after the seven o'clock call, Wilkins rolled dinner in on a cart: sandwiches, coffee, and the rest of the fudge cake they'd had yesterday. Wilkins set a plate at Blair's elbow. Blair thanked him absently, and picked up one half of the sandwich, taking a bite without looking to see what it was. He started to chew, and stopped. Put the sandwich down, and pried up the top piece of bread. Tongue, hummus, horseradish, and sprouts. On pumpernickel. Blair chewed and swallowed hastily, shifting his stare to Wilkins.

"This is my favorite sandwich. How did you...? Never mind, I don't want to know."

Wilkins allowed himself a small smile. "Yes, sir. Will there be anything else, Mr. Sandburg?"

"Uh, no. Thanks, Wilkins."

By nine, he was examining the eighth mask, a representation of a warrior, 19th century, carved of dark wood, painted in red with slashes of yellow. Like many of the others, this mask was set with rough stones in a line bisecting the face and surrounding the eye holes. Unlike the others, all the stones were the same color, a pale, yellowish-white. Blair probed at one of the settings, looking for telltale signs of glue or some other modern means of keeping the stone in place.

The stone popped out, skittering across the table. Swearing, Blair grabbed for it, but the stone eluded his grasp and came to rest against the base of a lamp. Well, there was no glue. Now he just had to hope he could fit the stone back into its hole without causing any damage.

Light shone directly on the stone. Blair picked it up, and forgot to breathe. No. No, it couldn't be. No way. He leaned closer, studying the stone between his fingers. Not possible, Sandburg. You're dreaming. But...

"I think I found it."

"What?" Connelly and Crow chorused.

"I think I've found it." He stood, closing his fist over the stone. "But I can't tell for sure. I've gotta get to the U. There's a lab in the Geology Department I can use."

Steve glanced at Tabitha. "I don't know, Sandburg."

"You can come with me. I only need to bring one mask. Tabitha can stay with the others." Blair picked up the mask and laid it carefully in one of the boxes, then tucked the box under his arm. "Come on."

He wasn't going to give them time to argue. He had to know if he was right. Blair almost went straight out the front door, but decided he should let either Ms. Palmer or Wilkins know what was going on. After all the trouble she'd gone to for him, he couldn't just take off. Connelly trailing behind, he went from room to room until he heard voices and headed for them. He rushed into the room, focused on Ms. Palmer, and approached her.

"Hi. Sorry to interrupt, I--"

"Mr. Sandburg," said a familiar, cultured voice. "I had no idea you were an acquaintance of Miss Palmer's."

Blair turned. Geoffrey Hatch and Toni LeClaire were seated on the other side of a coffee table. As always, the man was impeccably dressed, in a navy suit and red tie, his hair carefully combed. Toni wore another suit, this one a deep, rose-red. She was still incredibly beautiful. He couldn't take his eyes off her.

"Uh--hi."

"Blair, how are you?" Toni asked.

"Fine. Great. You?"

"What progress has been made in the apprehension of my brother's murderer?" Hatch demanded.

The harsh tone jolted Blair back to reality. "I'm sorry, I can't talk about that."

"Arthur was killed nearly three months ago!"

"I know. I'm sorry, Mr. Hatch, you really need to talk to Detective Ellison. I'm just an observer." Blair turned back to Ms. Palmer. "Can I talk to you for a minute?"

"Certainly. Excuse us, please."

Ms. Palmer followed him out of the room. "You seem excited, Blair. Have you found something?"

"I think so. Officer Connelly and I are going to Rainier to check it out. If it's okay with you, Officer Crow's going to stay here with the masks. We'll be back later."

"Of course. On one condition."

"What?"

"If you determine that you have found the answer, I want to know what it is. I'm dying of curiosity."

Blair grinned. "After Jim, you'll be the first one I call." On impulse, he leaned over and kissed Ms. Palmer on the cheek. "Thanks."

Blair dashed off, laughing when Ms. Palmer called after him.

"Impudent child."

 

End Part 23

Part 24