Masks: Part 4

Blair breezed into the squadroom behind Jim, smiling, greeting everyone he knew, trying his damnedest to give the impression that he was someone just back from a month's vacation and not a headcase back from something they didn't want to know about. He'd thought about it after he went back to bed last night--he hadn't slept again--and he knew he'd blown it Monday, approaching his return to the station like it was some kind of trial, a test to see if he could keep working with Jim. He'd worried too much, that was all. Expected too much, maybe. Sure, Ballard was an asshole, but most of the cops probably didn't care about him one way or the other, and those who did were mostly sympathetic, like Taggert, or Rhonda, or even Steve Connelly. If they hadn't spoken, it was because they were waiting for clues from him to tell them how to act, and his clues had all been of the "leave me alone" variety, guaranteed to keep everyone away. What he should have done was what he was going to do now: act normally, as if nothing had ever happened. Get them to relax, and everything would be fine. He could handle this. Hell, he was good at this.

It worked. He could see people relaxing as he went by. They were probably relieved that they didn't have to tiptoe around him, or treat him like some kind of invalid. He even managed to get by Martin Ballard's desk without giving in to the urge to deck him.

"Nice performance," Jim muttered when they reached his desk.

"Huh?"

"Come on, Sandburg, you're faking it."

Blair widened his eyes. "Faking what, Jim?"

Jim shook his head. "Have it your way, Partner." He grabbed a bunch of files from his desk. "I've gotta update Simon on this stuff. Shouldn't be more than twenty minutes. You going to be okay out here?"

"Sure, Jim."

Jim knocked on Simon's door and went in, leaving Blair on his own. He was fine. He didn't need Jim to baby-sit him. He wasn't going to have a breakdown just because Jim wasn't at his side every minute. He'd just sit here and work on his lesson-plan. But first, coffee. And maybe a bagel, if there were any good ones left. He couldn't expect Rhonda to save him the pumpernickel every day.

She had, though. Blair grinned his thanks, and took the bagel back to his desk with his coffee. He ate and worked undisturbed for about fifteen minutes, long enough to begin relaxing himself. He could do this. This wasn't a problem at all. Why had he been so nervous Monday?

"Feeling better, Hairboy?"

Ballard. Dammit, not now, things had been going so well. He looked up, meeting Ballard's eyes. "What are you talking about?"

Ballard grinned. "You looked kind of green when you ran out of here Monday. I thought maybe you were sick."

"I'm fine," Blair bit off. "Thanks for asking."

He returned his gaze to his notebook, but Ballard didn't take the hint. The paunchy detective parked his butt on the corner of the desk. "I hear you spent some time in a monastery."

"That's right."

"So, tell me something, Sandburg." Ballard leaned closer, leering. "Is it true what they say about those places?"

"Is what true?"

"You know. No women, but they still have--urges. So they take care of each other, right?"

Blair's grip on his pen tightened. If he slugged Ballard, Jim would get in trouble. If he slugged Ballard, Jim would get in trouble. If he slugged--"No, that's not true," he said, his voice as calm as he could make it. "But you know what? I read somewhere that guys who obsess over homosexual activity are really suppressing their own latent homosexuality. So, tell me, Ballard, is that true?"

Ballard stood, his face going purple. "Are you calling me a faggot?"

"Not me, man." Blair smiled. "I don't use that word. It's against departmental policy, isn't it? I mean, don't you guys get reprimanded or suspended or something for that? Or is this some kind of microcultural thing? You know, where only those within the particular group are allowed to use derogatory terms about that group? This stuff fascinates me. Did you know, there's a tribe in the Amazon where it's a deadly insult to give someone a compliment? Y'see, they believe that to do so invites the wrath of the gods upon the recipient. So what they do is, they say the worst things imaginable to each other when what they really mean is something nice. For example, if I were to call you, oh, a complete asshole with your mind in the Dark Ages, to them, that would mean you were a really great, forward-thinking guy. Funny how these things develop, huh, Marty? Well, it's been great chatting with you, man, but I've gotta get back to work. Maybe we can talk more later."

Blair fixed his eyes on his notebook, scribbling some nonsense. Ballard stood there for a few seconds, then turned and went back to his desk. Suppressed laughter came from the coffee cart, where Taggert was checking out the Danish while he waited to see Simon; Blair grinned, but didn't dare look at the big man or he'd laugh out loud and Ballard would know he'd been had. Not that he was afraid of Ballard, but the man was armed, and who knew what a jerk like that would do if he got mad enough?

Jim came out of Simon's office and dumped the files back on his desk. "Let's go, Partner."

Blair closed his notebook and stuffed it into his backpack. He stopped beside Taggert on the way out. The big man was still laughing. "Joel, man, you gotta get hold of yourself. You're gonna bust something."

Taggert just shook his head and waved Blair away. Jim was waiting for him outside the squadroom. "What was that all about?"

"Oh, nothing." Blair grinned. "Taggert just likes my jokes."

"God knows why," Jim deadpanned.

"He's obviously a man of taste."

"Yeah. Bad taste."

Blair just let it go. He couldn't win, not with Jim. He didn't even want to try, he was feeling too good. He'd done it. He'd gotten in and out of the station without any trouble. He'd even handled that jerk Ballard, and come out on top. Not that Ballard knew it. Too bad, but it would be safer for him if Ballard never found out. He didn't trust that guy not to go postal.

Blair swung up into the truck, buckled in, and began to shake. What the hell--? His heart raced; he started to hyperventilate. He tried to stick his hands in his pockets, so Jim wouldn't see, but it was too late.

"Sandburg, what's the matter?"

Blair just shook his head. He couldn't get the breath to speak.

Jim started the truck. "I'm going to get you to the hospital."

"No!" Blair tried desperately to calm himself. "No--Jim--I'm okay. It's just--just a--delayed reaction."

"To what?"

"I--I dunno. Stress, I--guess."

"We're still going to the hospital."

"No, man. Really. I'm--okay. I just--need to relax. Trust me--Jim."

Jim rubbed a hand over his jaw. "Okay, Partner. But if this gets any worse--"

"It won't."

"If it gets any worse, we're going to the hospital. And no arguments."

"O--okay."

Closing his eyes, Blair leaned back against the seat and focused on breathing. In. Out. In. Slowly. Slowly. No problem. He could do this. He was fine. Nothing a couple of years in a sanitarium wouldn't cure. If he wasn't careful, that's where he'd end up. No, don't think about that. That train of thought didn't help at all.

"Easy," Jim soothed. "Take it easy, Partner. Just breathe. That's good."

That's what he needed. A coach, just like in Lamaze class. He'd gone to one of those, once. He'd have to tell Jim about it sometime. It would freak him out, wondering if he'd gone because he was the father. Then he wouldn't tell him. Let him wonder.

"Something funny, Sandburg?"

Blair's grin widened. Let him wonder. He'd stopped shaking. He took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and opened his eyes. Jim had turned to face him, one hand on the seatback, the other on the dash, gripping so hard that his knuckles were white.

"Relax, man," Blair said. "I'm okay."

Jim eyed him suspiciously. "You sure?"

"Yeah. It was just an anxiety attack. I've had 'em before."

"Not with me, you haven't."

"No. It was before I met you."

"When?"

He shrugged. "Most of my life. It's no big deal, it's just a stress thing."

Jim turned away, put his hand on the steering wheel. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have made you come in with me."

"You didn't make me, Jim. I chose to go in. And I'm glad I did." Without thinking, Blair lightly punched Jim's arm. "Come on, man, let's get to that gallery."

Only when Jim stared did Blair realize what he had done. That was the first time he had touched Jim since--since it happened. Blair looked away quickly, praying that Jim wouldn't say anything, that he'd just accept it and let it go. God, he was so embarrassed, and he knew he shouldn't be, and that just made it worse.

Jim put the truck in gear and drove out of the garage. He didn't say a word, but a tiny smile curved the corners of his mouth.

They rode in silence for a while. But silence wasn't something Blair was good at.

"So, Jim, fill me in. What do we know about the gallery owner?"

"His name was Arthur Hatch. He was fifty-two, unmarried, no kids. He opened the gallery in--"

"1987," Blair supplied.

Jim eyed him. "You been holding out on me, Sandburg?"

"Come on, man, you're talking about the Hatch Gallery. It's the biggest art gallery in Cascade. Everybody knows--" He caught Jim's look. "Well, a lot of people know about it. Why didn't you tell me the victim was Arthur Hatch?"

"You didn't ask. What else do you know about this guy?"

"Nothing, really. I mean, he's supposed to have lots of money--you know, always had enough to get the really important artists. He sponsored new artists, too. I heard that he made Judith Carnover's career." Realizing that Jim had no idea what he was talking about, Blair toned it down. "I never knew that he dealt in African art, though."

"Maybe it's the next big thing."

"Yeah, maybe. Jim, you said Hatch had no heirs. Now that he's gone, who gets the gallery?"

"He had one heir, a brother: Lancelot, if you can believe it. They were partners in the gallery. Now Lancelot owns the whole shebang."

"The whole what?"

"The whole--" Jim gave him a dirty look.

Blair laughed. "Shebang!" Jim didn't join in. It took Blair a minute to get control. "Hey, Jim, man, what if we're wrong about this? What if Hatch wasn't killed because of the masks at all? What if his brother did it, to get the gallery for himself?"

"That's a good theory," Jim conceded. "He's a definite suspect. But my gut says it's the masks. I just wish I knew why."

"You'll figure it out."

"Not unless you get me some information on those masks."

"Oh, right. Okay. No pressure. Thanks a lot, Jim."

"Sandburg, if you can't handle it--"

"I can handle it."

Jim parked the truck in front of the gallery, between a Mercedes and a Jaguar. Blair grinned as he followed Jim inside. The 4X4 would do a lot for the gallery's reputation. Hatch would probably rather they parked it out back, with the delivery trucks. He'd love for someone to ask Jim to do that, just to see his partner's reaction.

"May I help you?"

A man in a suit that cost more than Blair made in a month--in two months--approached them, the utter unlikelihood of his being able to do more for them than show them the exit made absolutely plain by his tone. He was as colorless as his suit: hair, eyes and skin all of a dull, faded beige. The gold stud in his ear was the only thing about him that wouldn't fade instantly into the background. He might as well have had, "I am nowhere near as important as I think I am" etched into his forehead.

Jim flashed his badge. "Detective Ellison, Cascade PD. This is my partner, Blair Sandburg. We'd like to see your boss."

Mr. Beige looked down his nose at him, not easy considering Jim had about five inches on him. "You're not the same policeman who was here before."

"No," Jim replied affably. "I'm a different one. Now go get your boss for me, okay, Slim?"

"I'll see if Mr. Hatch is available."

"You do that."

Mr. Beige hurried off and dashed up a spiral staircase in the center of the gallery. Jim watched him all the way, but Blair took a minute to glance around the gallery and admire the work hung there. Not all of it was to his taste, but every piece was considered the current best of whatever style it represented. There were three other people in the gallery: a white-haired man of about sixty in a blue suit, who was inspecting some abstract paintings; a flamboyantly-dressed woman with a flame-red pageboy and lots of scarves; and another woman whose back was to Blair. All he could see were black ringlets cascading down the back of a coral-colored suit with a fashionably short skirt beneath a long, fitted jacket. The redhead was talking to her, but Blair couldn't hear what she said. Jim could, he was sure, if his partner was listening.

Blair's attention was caught by two masks hanging in an alcove, facing each other across the stylized statue of a rhino. Mr. Beige still hadn't come back, so Blair stepped away from Jim to get a closer look. The masks were Onkantu, about seventy years old. There was an empty hook on the rear wall of the alcove. That must be where the mask that had been found on Arthur Hatch's body had come from. Blair suppressed a shudder.

"You like African art?"

The voice was soft, musical, and low. Blair turned toward it, and saw the face that went with the black ringlets: large eyes, so dark a brown they could drink you in and you'd never come out; high, delicate cheekbones, full lips, skin the color of cinnamon. Blair smiled in delight just to look at her.

"Hi." Belatedly, his brain kicked in. "Um, yeah. I study it. Well, it's part of my studies, actually. I'm an anthropologist. How about you?"

"I'm not an anthropologist."

"That's not what I--"

She smiled, and he shut up. Stupid, Blair. She was joking.

"It's not my field of expertise," she said. "But now that we're showing some African pieces, I've started to learn about them. I'm still new at it, though."

"What is your field?"

"Contemporary American, with an emphasis on the southern United States, particularly Louisiana. I'm from New Orleans, so I just fell into it naturally." She held out her hand. "Antoinette LeClaire. Everyone calls me Toni."

"Blair Sandburg."

Her hand was soft, just like he'd known it would be. He held onto it for a second longer than he should, but she didn't seem anxious to pull away. She smiled.

"I have a cousin named Blair. But you're not from the south, are you?"

"How'd you guess?" Blair grinned. "Actually, I'm from Connecticut. But don't tell anybody, okay? I'm trying to keep it quiet."

"I'll tell everyone I know that you're from New Orleans, and you just never did learn to speak properly, poor boy."

Blair's smile widened. "Thanks."

A familiar voice intruded. "Sandburg."

"Yeah, Jim?"

"Work. Remember?"

"Huh?" Blair looked around, remembered where he was, who he was. Mr. Beige had come back. He and Jim were standing there, obviously waiting for him. "Oh. Yeah." He turned back to Toni. "Sorry. Gotta--um...."

She just smiled. Jim and Mr. Beige had already started for the stairs. Blair hurried to catch up, feeling Toni's eyes on him as he walked. Not a bad thing. Not a bad thing at all. God, she was beautiful. And she seemed to like him. Maybe.... Oh, who was he kidding? She worked here. That made her at least a witness, probably a suspect. She was off-limits. Jim would kill him if he messed up this case. Even if she wasn't involved, he could never ask her out. She deserved better than him.

Mr. Beige showed them into an office at the top of the stairs, and left. Hatch wasn't there. The room was dominated by a huge desk topped by a curving sweep of black glass. The chair behind it was black leather. Paintings hung on the white walls. Blair recognized a Carnover, a Daneir, a Lopez; the rest he wasn't sure of. A gold nameplate on the desk said "Geoffrey Hatch" in black letters. Blair picked it up.

"Geoffrey? I thought his name was Lancelot."

"It is," said a new voice. Blair hastily put the nameplate down. A man strode into the office through a door to their left. He was tall, with graying brown hair carefully blown dry. He wore a charcoal gray Armani suit, pale gray shirt, and a pearl-gray silk tie. Blair briefly wondered if a monochromatic wardrobe was a requirement in this place. The man shook his hand, then Jim's, still talking. "My mother had a romantic bent, unfortunately. Equally unfortunately, she named us. Arthur was the eldest, the King. So when I came along ten years later, I had to be Lancelot, the loyal knight."

"But Lancelot betrayed Arthur," Blair said.

"Over a woman," Hatch qualified. "I swear, I never once stole a girlfriend from my brother. They were always too old for me." Even white teeth bared in a smile. "I prefer my middle name."

"After Chaucer?"

"Of course. But at least it's not instantly recognizable. Sit down, gentlemen, please." Hatch took his own invitation and sat in the leather chair. "What brings you here, Detective Ellison? Have you found my brother's killer?"

"No, sir, not yet. If you don't mind, I have a few questions."

"Go ahead."

"Did your brother have any enemies?"

Hatch frowned. "Another detective already asked me this."

"I know, sir."

"No. No enemies. Competitors, yes, but this is an art gallery. Art dealers don't kill each other."

"Was he engaged in any illegal activities that you know of?"

"Of course not," Hatch snapped, his face going red with anger. "My brother was highly respected."

Jim's jaw muscle jumped. "Someone killed him, Mr. Hatch. It wasn't a robbery; his wallet was found on him, and none of the artwork was missing. There was no sign of forced entry. Your brother let his killer in after hours, which means it was someone he knew, either a business associate or a personal acquaintance."

"Do you have any suspects?" Hatch demanded.

"Several."

"And I'm one of them."

"Well, sir, the way it stands now, you had the most to gain from your brother's death. So, yes, you are a suspect."

"I did not kill my brother."

"Then we'd appreciate any help you can give us in finding out who did."

Hatch scowled. "What do you need, Detective?"

"What do you know about Mombatu masks?"

"Nothing. Arthur made the purchase on his own, I had nothing to do with the arrangements."

A tiny line appeared between Jim's brows. "Was that normal? You were partners, didn't your brother consult you about purchases?"

"Not always. We allowed each other a certain amount of discretion."

"Were the masks on display here?"

"For a short time. They sold very quickly. I believe Arthur had buyers for most of them before the shipment arrived."

"Have you been able to put together a list of the buyers?"

"Not yet. My brother was buried yesterday, Detective. The gallery's been closed until today."

"Did you get a close look at any of the masks?"

"Not really. I'm not usually on the floor. Toni and Rupert handle the walk-ins. And I didn't have much interest in them." Hatch grimaced. "Thought they were pretty ugly, actually. Why? Do you think there was something wrong with them?"

"That's what we'd like to determine. My partner, here, is an expert on Mombatu artifacts. We'd like him to talk to your staff. We'd also appreciate it if you'd let him get a look at your computer. He may be able to help you restore the list of buyers."

Hatch raised his eyebrows. "A policeman who's an expert on computers and Mombatu artifacts?"

Jim smiled tightly. "He's a man of many talents." He turned to Blair. "Why don't you get started, Partner? I've got a few more questions for Mr. Hatch."

A man of many talents. Wow. He'd had no idea Jim thought that about him. Or was he just trying to aggravate Hatch? Blair got up from his chair. "Sure."

Jim beckoned to him, and he leaned down. Jim spoke softly, into his ear. "Talk to them separately. Start with Rupert. And when you get to the girl, keep it professional."

"No problem, Jim."

Blair left the office and started down the stairs. He could see Toni at the front of the gallery, talking to the woman with the scarves. Toni glanced his way, and smiled. Blair gripped the railing hard, and knew he was in trouble. Keep it professional. Oh yeah, no problem. No problem at all. As long as he didn't have to look at her, talk to her, or come within twenty feet of her. No problem at all.

 

End Part 4

Part 5