Masks: Part 24

Jim wolfed down the last of his taco and unwrapped the burrito, scanning the page before him. Nothing. He wiped the grease from his fingers on the napkin and turned the page, kept turning pages while he ate, looking for a photo to trigger his memory. He'd looked through so many folders that his vision was starting to blur, and he had a persistent headache. But he wouldn't stop. It was war now, between him and the Rainier Registrar's Office. He was going to find Blair's mugger if it killed him.

Jim looked at his watch, then checked Simon's desk clock to verify. 9:45. Simon glanced up from the report he was reviewing on the Anderson arrest.

"Relax, Jim. He's not due to call for fifteen minutes."

"I know, sir."

"And don't forget, this is Sandburg. The kid's probably so absorbed in those masks, he doesn't know what day it is, never mind what time."

"Probably."

Jim forced his gaze from the clock back to the folders. Blair would claim he was being over-protective. Maybe he was. But after what happened with that bastard Ponytail, he was entitled to be a little over-protective, wasn't he?

Jim rubbed his aching temples. "Simon, you got any aspirin?"

"You have to ask?"

Simon reached into a drawer and tossed him the bottle. He took two, washing them down with coffee, and opened the next folder. The kid he'd seen on the stairs stared back at him from the ID photo.

"I got him, Simon." Jim crossed the room and slapped the file down on the Captain's desk. "This is the guy who tossed Blair's office and threatened to kill him."

"Jim, just because you saw this kid on the stairs doesn't mean he's the one."

"It's him, Simon," Jim insisted. "Fingerprints and a hair sample will confirm it, but I'm sure."

"All right. Bring him in for questioning. In the morning."

"Yes, sir." Jim picked up the Captain's phone. "I'm gonna call Sandburg and let him know."

"And check up on him," Simon murmured.

Jim pretended he hadn't heard. If he argued the point, he'd lose. He dialed Olive Palmer's number, and Wilkins answered.

"Yeah, this is Jim Ellison. Let me speak to Blair, please."

"I'm sorry, Detective Ellison, Mr. Sandburg left some time ago."

"What? Where'd he go?"

"I couldn't say, Detective. Officer Crow is still here. Would you like to speak to her?"

"Put her on." A minute later, Crow picked up the phone. Jim didn't give her a chance to speak. "Crow, where's Sandburg?"

"Blair found something on one of the masks. He and Steve went to Rainier to test it out at the Geology Lab."

His headache was suddenly worse. "When?"

"About thirty minutes ago."

"Thanks." Jim hung up the phone. "Why can't he ever do what he's told?"

"What's the kid done now?" Simon asked.

"Blair and Connelly went to Rainier to do some kind of test on one of the masks." Jim grabbed his jacket from the back of a chair and shrugged it on. "I'm gonna go out there and relieve Connelly so he and Crow can get the masks back into lockup."

"Uh-huh." Simon fixed him with a knowing eye. "Don't kill the kid, Jim. If Sandburg really has found something, we might need him to testify later."

"I won't kill him." Maybe. "I'll just let him know what I think of this little stunt."

"Look, Jim, I know you find this hard to believe--God knows I do--but Blair's a grown man, capable of making his own decisions."

"He's a protected witness, Simon. He's not supposed to go sneaking off by himself."

"He's not by himself. Connelly's with him."

"He should have called to tell me what he was doing."

"Sure he should. But he didn't. And you don't have a clue why, do you?"

"No," he said stiffly. "I don't." And he wasn't about to play twenty questions. He put on his stone face, but Simon had seen it too many times, and it had never intimidated the Captain.

"Come on, Jim, think about it. You and Sandburg have been looking for a break in this case for months. Now the kid thinks he's found it, but he wants to make sure before he tells you. He wants to present it to you on a silver platter."

Jim was stunned out of his anger. My God, Simon was right. "How do you know so much about him?"

"I don't," the Captain answered. "I know rookies. Now go get your partner, Detective. And if he has found anything, let me know."

"Yes, sir." Jim got halfway out the door, and looked back. "Simon, when he calls in, tell him I'm on my way, would you?"

"I'll tell him."





Blair unlocked the door of the Geology Lab, pushed it open, and flipped on the overhead lights. Connelly moved past him and set the box containing the mask down on the nearest table.

"Thanks, man."

Blair went through the lab opening drawers, pulling out the tools he needed and the strongest magnifier they had. He dumped them all on the table, slid onto a stool, and sat for a moment with eyes closed, trying to calm himself. The ride from the Palmer estate had taken forever. Connelly had insisted on obeying all the traffic laws, and had categorically refused to run the siren despite Blair's repeated requests. God, the guy was more of a stickler for rules than Jim, if that was possible. When they finally got here, they'd had to stop at the security office so Blair could wangle the keys to the Geology Building from the guards. He'd had a bad moment when the guard at the desk didn't recognize him. Fortunately, one of the other guards had reported in while they were arguing, and vouched for him. And now, at last, they were here. Now, he could find out if he was right.

Shifting the packing material aside, Blair lifted the mask out of the box and gently laid it down in front of him. He dug into his pocket, pulled out the stone he'd popped out by mistake, and held it in his palm, gazing at it. It looked like nothing, just an irregular, whitish pebble, in no way remarkable. Unless you knew what to look for. And Blair knew.

"How long is this going to take?" Connelly asked.

Blair shrugged, glancing at the ramrod straight ex-marine, who was dividing his attention between his charge and the door. "Shouldn't be too long. An hour, maybe? Why don't you sit down?"

Blair began his examination of the loose stone. At first, Connelly stood motionless, the ever-vigilant bodyguard, but after a while, he pulled out a stool and sat down. The man looked uncomfortable, and Blair wondered if it was the stool or the situation making him that way. Maybe he shouldn't have dragged Connelly out here without checking in with Jim or Simon first. He didn't want to get the poor guy in trouble. Of course, Connelly had radioed Dispatch with their location, so someone knew where they were. And he had to call Jim soon anyway. Before he did, he wanted to be sure. He wanted to be able to tell Jim he'd solved it, that he knew why the bad guys were after the masks, and why someone would consider them worth killing for. He wanted to show Jim that he could pull his weight again. But he had to be certain.

He saw Connelly move half a second before he heard the voice.

"Mr. Sandburg? Mr.--Whoa. Hey, man, chill, okay?"

Blair shot to his feet, twisting so quickly that he kicked the stool over and it crashed to the floor. Connelly faced the door, gun drawn. In the doorway, hands raised in the classic "put 'em up" pose, was Joshua Stanhope from his Anthro class. Wide green eyes shifted from Connelly to Blair.

"Mr. Sandburg?"

"It's okay, Josh," Blair assured him, trying to convince his heart of the same thing. "Connelly, Josh is one of my students. Give me a break and don't shoot him, okay? You have no idea of the paperwork I'd have to fill out."

"Yeah." Connelly grinned and holstered the gun. "Me, too. Sorry, kid."

"No problem." Joshua lowered his hands and walked toward Blair. He was taller than Connelly, though not as muscular, and he couldn't be more than a year or two younger than the cop, or Blair himself. "Geez, Mr. Sandburg, you've got a cop guarding you? What'd you do?"

Blair laughed. "It's a long story. What are you doing here, Josh? You're not taking geology, are you?"

"No. I want to talk to you. I went to your office, but you weren't there. Security said you were over here."

"Josh, this really isn't a good time."

Joshua shoved a lock of blond hair behind one ear. "Yeah? Well, I need to talk to you about my test."

"Look, Josh--"

"You flunked me."

Blair sighed inwardly. Time to be the tough teacher. "I gave you the grade you earned. Come by my office tomorrow, and--"

"You gave me a fucking F!"

"I'm not going to discuss this with you now, Joshua."

Blair turned away. Joshua grabbed his shirt, jerking him back around. "The fuck you're not!"

"Let go!"

Blair lost it. He fought to get away, no longer seeing Joshua, no longer seeing anything but his memories. Ponytail grabbed him and he struggled, shouting, tearing his shirt when the man tried to hold him. He punched and kicked, and Ponytail swore, throwing him up against a table. Someone tried to help, someone--Connelly. Connelly gripped Ponytail's arm, tried to pull him off, but Ponytail reached past Blair to pick up a microscope, whirled, and smashed the base of the instrument into Connelly's head. Connelly went down, already unconscious, blood streaming over his face. The bloody microscope shattered on the floor. Blair stared at the pieces, and the blood, looked up into Ponytail's smiling face. No. No, dammit, not Ponytail. Joshua. It was Joshua.

Oh my God, was Connelly dead? No, if he was dead, he wouldn't be bleeding. Would he? Blair tore his gaze from Connelly, staring at Joshua in horror. He couldn't breathe.

"You. You're the mugger. You broke into my office."

Joshua's voice deepened, became one he had heard before, one he had heard in nightmares. "You got it, genius." He smiled. "Aren't you gonna ask why?"

"He knows why."

Geoffrey Hatch entered the lab, carrying a gun. He approached Blair and Joshua, his demeanor as calm and businesslike as it had been at the gallery. He reached out, touched the muzzle of the gun to Blair's Adam's apple, and slowly slid it up his throat, forcing his chin up until he met Hatch's eyes.

"Don't you, Mr. Sandburg?"

Breathe, Sandburg, breathe. Hatch wants to have a chat, fine. Tell him what you think. Tell him anything, just keep him talking. The longer he's talking, the longer you've got to live.

"Diamonds," Blair said. "The stones in this mask are uncut diamonds."

"Precisely."

Hatch smiled at him like a teacher with an exceptionally bright student. Keeping the gun trained on Blair, he removed a cloth sack from his pocket and tossed it to Joshua. Joshua dumped the sack's contents onto the table: stones, yellowish-white. Working rapidly, he pried the diamonds from the mask, placed them in the sack, and filled the resulting holes with the new stones.

Blair looked past Hatch to Connelly, still unconscious, still bleeding. "Let me help him."

"No."

"Come on, man, he could die. At least let me stop the bleeding."

"Sorry. First aid for Officer Connelly doesn't fit in with the plan. It's nothing personal."

"Yeah, right, nothing's personal for you, is it? You killed your own brother."

"Not by choice," Hatch answered. "I was away on business when the shipment of masks arrived in Cascade. By the time I returned, Arthur had sold them all. My business partners--"

"Our partners," Joshua interrupted.

"Of course. Our partners--were seriously displeased. Something had to be done to mollify them."

"So you betrayed Arthur after all, huh, Lancelot?"

Hatch just shrugged, unaffected by the barb. Blair's eyes slid to Joshua, and he did his best to sneer. "That would make you Guinevere, right, Josh?"

Joshua's head jerked up, his eyes murderous. He snatched up a scalpel-sharp probe and advanced on Blair. "I'll cut your throat right here, genius!"

"Joshua!" Hatch barked. "We don't have time for this."

"He's calling me a faggot!"

"He's trying to stall for time, you idiot! Get back to work."

Joshua subsided, and went back to replacing the stones, darting a venomous glance in Hatch's direction. That was a happy little partnership. Blair waited about thirty seconds, then addressed himself to Hatch once more.

"You mean, Joshua wasn't your brother's toy-boy?"

"Joshua," Hatch warned. Blair didn't dare look at the student. Hatch shook his head. "I'd be careful, Mr. Sandburg. Joshua has a vicious temper, and he's really not happy about that F. To answer your question, yes, he did keep Arthur occupied for me. Arthur always did like blonds. It wasn't hard to lure him away from Rupert. And he was only too happy to branch out into African art on the advice of his new lover, the anthropology student."

"Joshua slept with him for money?"

"We all make sacrifices to achieve our goals."

"What was your sacrifice?"

"My brother."

"Yeah? How did Arthur feel about that?"

Hatch smiled. "I don't know. When you see him, why don't you ask?"

Oh, God. If he'd had any doubt before that these two intended to kill him, it was gone now. "Ellison's on his way here," he lied.

"I doubt that," Hatch said. "In any case, we won't be here much longer. Will we, Joshua?"

"Just about done," Joshua replied.

"You won't get away with this." I can't believe I said that. "Ellison knows about the diamonds."

"What diamonds?" Hatch said. "There are no diamonds in that mask. All Detective Ellison will know is that his young partner was killed by a disgruntled student. And that you were, unfortunately, wrong about the stones."

"So you get away with it, and Joshua takes the fall?"

"No way." Joshua pulled the drawstring shut on the sack and moved around the table to stand beside Blair. "I'll be out of the country."

"No, you won't. Ellison saw you on the stairs, Josh. You'll never get out of the country." Blair smiled. "You're screwed, man. Three murders or one, it's the death penalty for sure."

"Shut up." Joshua scowled and looked to Hatch. "Geoffrey."

"That won't happen, Joshua," Hatch said. "He's bluffing."

"No, I'm not," Blair said. "You're going down, Josh. Lancelot goes free with the diamonds, and you fry. Or do they still hang murderers? That would be poetic justice after what you did to Arthur, huh, Josh?"

"Shut up!"

Joshua backhanded him savagely. Blair stumbled back, tripped over Connelly's outstretched legs, and fell on top of the unconscious cop. Joshua turned back to Hatch.

"Is he right? You planning on letting me die in prison?"

"Of course not," Hatch snapped. "Don't be stupid, Joshua, he's trying to divide us."

"I'm not stupid!" Joshua shouted. "But maybe you think I am."

Blair wiped blood from his mouth. Neither man was looking at him. This might be his only chance. He rolled over, intending to get to his feet and run for it. His hand brushed leather: Connelly's gunbelt. Oh, God. Throwing a quick glance at the arguing men--they were still ignoring him--Blair slid Connelly's gun from its holster and stood up, hiding the gun with his body. He eased the safety off, and turned, cocking the hammer, raised the gun and pointed it at Geoffrey Hatch.

"Put the gun down, man."

His voice shook, but he managed to keep his hands steady, using both to hold the gun, the way he'd seen Jim do it countless times, the way he'd done it in the attic, with Ponytail. The argument ceased. Joshua gaped at him, but Hatch's expression didn't change. The older man turned to face him, cold eyes locking onto his.

"No."

Hatch's gun hand moved slightly, and Blair knew. He couldn't think. His finger squeezed the trigger, and Connelly's gun went off a bare second before Hatch's. The recoil sent him staggering, but he didn't fall. He wasn't hit; he didn't know where Hatch's bullet had gone. Hatch lay on the floor, bleeding. The gun had fallen from his hand and lay within six feet of where Joshua stood. Joshua looked from Hatch, to the gun, to Blair. He started to edge away from the table.

"Don't do it, Josh," Blair said, hoping it didn't sound too much like a plea. "I'm not good with this thing. I can't shoot you in the hand or the leg like Jim could, I just have to aim for the biggest target. I don't want to kill you." He remembered his office, and smiled slightly. "That wouldn't be good for either of us."

Joshua stopped where he was. Thank God. Now what did he do? They couldn't stay here like this all night. He needed to get help, but that meant herding Joshua out of the building, and he didn't think he could do that. He knew the bigger man would try something, and he really didn't want to kill Joshua, murderer or not. Bad enough he'd shot a man for the second time in his life, without shooting one of his students, too.

Joshua smiled. "You're shaking, genius."

"I just shot a man, Joshua. Maybe it doesn't bother you, but it does me."

"Too bad." Joshua took a step toward him, both hands raised, one holding the bag of diamonds. "I did that faggot, Crowley. Blew his brains out for him. All that blood. It was beautiful."

"Stay there, Josh." Blair cocked the hammer. "You can't be that crazy."

Green eyes bored into his. "I could be."

The hall went dark, every light shut off at once. Startled, Blair turned his head automatically. A mistake, and he knew it instantly, but it was too late. Joshua swung the sack of diamonds, knocking the gun from Blair's hands. The gun flew across the room, and Joshua dove after it. Blair knew he'd never reach it before Joshua, or be able to wrest it from him. He fled the lab, slapping the lights off as he passed, and pelted down the dark corridor.

Footsteps pounded behind him. He turned his head, saw a shadowy figure less than twenty feet behind him, and tried to run faster. He knew the corridor branched off, but he couldn't see where, so he ran in a straight line and hoped Joshua couldn't see well enough to shoot. A red EXIT sign glowed ahead, seeming impossibly far away. The footsteps drew closer, but he couldn't run any faster.

"Sandburg, get down!"

"Jim!"

Fingers tangled in his hair, yanked him off his feet, back against a hard body. Cold metal touched his neck. Blair's mind screamed "Get away!", but his body froze, knowing that touch, knowing it would die if it continued to fight. Joshua called out.

"I've got him, Ellison! You don't want me to blow his head off, you better let me out of here."

Jim's voice came out of the darkness. "I don't think so, Stanhope. Let him go. Now."

"No way. The genius comes with me, or he dies here. It's up to you."

"Give it up, kid," Jim said. "I'm not letting you out of here. I've got a clear shot."

Joshua snorted. "You can't even see me."

"Yes he can, man," Blair said. "He's got really good night vision."

"Yeah? Then I guess he can watch you die." Blair heard the click of the hammer next to his ear. "You never should have given me that F, genius."

The gun's roar deafened him. Joshua jerked back, and Blair launched himself forward, wrenching free of the fingers tangled in his hair. The gun clattered to the floor.

A massive hand closed around his arm. Blair cried out and fought to get away, striking out at an assailant he couldn't see. A voice shouted at him, but he couldn't understand the words, he couldn't listen, he had to get away! A second hand gripped him, holding him, pulled him toward a window, where weak light patched the wall. The light fell on his assailant's face, turning it white, and Blair strained to see the man's features. Jim. It was Jim, his eyes drained of color by the dim light.

Blair stopped struggling. "Jim?"

"It's me, Blair," Jim said. "It's okay. It's over. You're all right."

"Oh, God. Oh, God. He was--It was--"

"I know."

Jim gathered him in, holding him, and a part of him shrieked in terror at the touch, but Blair forced it down, shut it away with the darkness. He threw his arms around Jim's solid, unshakable body, and wouldn't let go.

 

End Part 24

Part 25