Masks of Morality

By T.L. Mumley All Rights Reserved ©

Other / Mystery

Chapter 22

Anna knew something was wrong the second she stepped into her gallery. It was eerily quiet. Where was the music her overnight security guard typically played while manning the fort? Usually she walked into Black Eyed Peas or some kind of hip hop.

As she moved further into the lobby, something else startled her. A metallic scent. Was that…blood?

Then she saw him. His eyes were staring up at her, right through her. A pool of blood seeping from his head. Johnny, her security guard!

Anna panicked. She dropped her purse and ran to the ladies room. She rushed into the first stall and closed and locked the door. She pulled her cell phone out of her vest pocket and tried to dial 911. She couldn’t make her fingers work. She kept on hitting the wrong numbers over and over.

Come on. Come on! She scolded herself as her panic grew.

Then she heard a sound outside the ladies room door. Oh my God, the murderer is after me! He can come in here any minute! She remembered the purse she had dropped. If the murderer didn’t find her in here, he could find her at her home, since she had left her license within reach.

She held her breath and made herself as still as she possibly could. Her heart was pounding so loudly she was afraid the killer would hear it and track her into the bathroom.

Then she heard the sound again. She heard someone calling her name. Johnny! He’s alive!

She ran back out to the lobby. How could she have been such a coward to leave him? But he had looked dead, eyes open, still, and staring.

She bent down to him. He was still alive and moaning softly. So much blood! There was a huge pool all around his head now, flowing towards the front door. She could see the head wound. Part of his skull was crushed.

He was trying to tell her something. Barely audible. She knelt beside him and put her ear near his mouth to try to make out his words. “The...they came and took…the Delacroix…”

Then he fainted. Or died? Trembling, Anna tried to feel for his pulse. But it seemed her own pulse was beating so hard she could not tell her own from his.

Oh my God, what am I doing? Anna grabbed her phone. This time her fingers worked. She pressed 911. She felt for Johnny’s pulse again. He’s still alive!

Barely.

Both the ambulance and police came within ten minutes. While the paramedics lifted Johnny onto a stretcher the police asked Anna a barrage of questions. She knew typically they would never talk to her during a crime scene investigation … but they knew her. From her daughter's tragedy.

“Mrs. Beauvais, do you know of any enemies Mr. Santos may have had?”

“No, God, he would not have hurt a fly!”

“Did he speak to you at all before becoming unconscious?

“Yes, He had mentioned ’they’ came and took my prize painting!”

Police and crime scene investigators began taping off the area. The blood would not be cleaned up until all evidence had been fully collected.

“Excuse me, Mrs. Beauvais, did Mr. Santos say anything about what our boys looked like? Any description?”

Anna sensed something odd. An aroma, mixed with the scent of blood…a very subtle, but definitive scent. Perfume. Caron’s Poivre. She had worn it when she and Pierre had been feeling rich. Back when her business was booming.

She turned to the policeman. “What makes you so sure it was men? I’m getting a strong indication here it just might not be.”

“Why do you say that?” Sergeant Coral asked.

“Well, I just get this feeling. I’m sure it wasn’t two guys in here. I smell perfume.” Although the French perfume scent lingering can be worn by men as well, she thought. Like an expensive version of CK One.

“Mrs. Beauvais, we can’t use that as evidence. Women’s intuition or not, we need something more concrete. You said Mr. Santos mentioned ‘they,’ so we know more than one person was involved, and we can safely assume he saw them. We can only hope he is well enough to speak to us.”

One of the CSI agents pointed to something shiny on the floor. “Did you lose this, Ma’am?” he asked.

Anna walked over and looked at a lipstick case on the floor. Gold plated, covered with what looked like diamonds.

“No, that’s not mine” She bent down to pick it up.

“No, don’t touch it!” he shouted. “It’s evidence. We need to drop it into this bag.”

He reached with black nitrile gloves and picked up the lipstick, while Anna got a good look at it. Guerlain. Wow, she thought. Expensive perfume, expensive lipstick. What is going on here?

After they rushed Johnny to the hospital and the cops left her studio, Anna drove back to her home in a daze. She felt stressed out, so she ran a bath, lit candles poured herself a glass of Bourgogne Rouge, and sank into the lavender-scented, hot bubbles. She could feel the tension seep out of her neck and back instantly.

After her bath, she slipped into bed and fell into a fitful sleep.

The following morning, Anna was sitting at the kitchen table with Pierre, nursing a cup of coffee, when the phone rang. It was Sergeant Coral.

“We have a positive identification,” he said. “It was two young women, age eighteen and nineteen. Both from Belvedere, both seniors in High School. From what I hear, they both excelled in school and sports, which may seem odd…”

Anna was wide awake and alarmed. Not merely because of what she is hearing, but that he would jeopardize the investigation by telling her all this. Is he telling her things he shouldn’t due to trust built up during her own daughter’s tragic investigation?

Girls, not much older than her oldest was at the time of…she chased the thought away but was stunned and emotionally distraught by this information.

There was a prolonged silence on the other end of the phone.

Finally, Sergeant Coral said “I’ve been in this line of business for over thirty-five years, Mrs. Beauvais. I can assure you that I’ve seen it all. Nothing surprises me anymore. Anyhow, both their fingerprints and DNA have been found on the security desk, the weapon, and the lipstick case. It appears both the girls lifted the weapon used to bludgeon your security guard—”

“The weapon used, they lifted it…what are you talking about?” asked Anna, confused.

“It appears they bludgeoned Mr. Santos with another of your masterpieces. A very fine bronze statue. I am not an art expert, but what appears to be an expensively done sculpture of a woman was found in one of the girls’ cars. They had carried it out, likely knowing it would be encrusted with his blood, but perhaps also for its value.”

Anna slumped into her chair, stunned.

“Oh my God,” she whispered. “How did I not notice it was missing? My, my…”

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Beauvais, I can barely hear you. Can you please speak up?”

“Oh, sorry,” Anna said, louder this time. “Yes…that piece is very precious to me! My Jean-Jacques Pradier, an original nineteenth-century Barbedienne casting. Yes, it’s a very fine bronze, which was on a cherry wood piece of furniture as you walk into my gallery. How could I have not seen it was missing?”

She had not had the piece appraised in a while because she meant never to sell it. The last time it had been valued at ten thousand dollars. Not nearly the half million her missing painting was worth. But to her, it was worth the world. It was her first gift from Pierre, as a token of honor for earning her art degree in Paris. Pierre had splurged big time for it…for her. Anna’s heart sank.

But then she realized, the piece had been recovered. It was found in the girl’s car. She breathed a sigh of relief. Until what she heard next.

“It appears your painting was not the only property destroyed, Mrs. Beauvais. The bronze sculpture was apparently scrubbed clean, with what smells like bleach. Again, I am no art expert, but it looks tarnished compared to bronze art pieces I’ve seen. I’m sure the girls did this knowing we could get DNA samples from it.”

“Did you just say my painting was destroyed too?”

“Yes. It was. Sorry. I jumped ahead. Let me back up. Both girls are in police custody, both already admitted to breaking and entering, assaulting Mr. Santos, and stealing your property. Both pieces of art were picked up this morning…the bronze sculpture from one of the cars, the painting from one of their homes in Tiburon. The girls were hoping to sell your painting at their school fundraising auction... I know this sounds far-fetched but…”

“Wait a minute here,” Anna interrupted. “Are you trying to tell me these girls bludgeoned my security guard and stole my art pieces to raise money for their school? I mean, no matter how bad the school budget cuts are, you don’t believe that far-fetched story, do you?”

Anna remembered Johnny. She always vowed never to be so shallow as to put her livelihood ahead of any life itself, and here she was doing just that.

“Sergeant Coral, how … how is Johnny Santos doing? What have you heard so far?” she continued.

“I’m so sorry Mrs. Beauvais, but it doesn’t sound promising. I’m afraid Mr. Santos took quite the blow to his head. He’s still in surgery and will be for most of the day. Part of his skull was smashed and there was a significant amount of damaged brain tissue. His spinal cord may also have been injured and he suffered a loss of cerebrospinal fluid and blood. Even if he makes it through this, he may have permanent brain damage. He also has a significant brain bleed, which they are trying to repair.”

Anna couldn’t speak, her heart heavy. But damn, she lost her parents as a kid, her girls before they finished puberty, her marriage---and now her business is being destroyed. She had to ask the question. “You said my bronze was not the only property destroyed…what happened to my Delacroix?

There was a prolonged silence.

Then “How much was that painting worth? I’m hoping not too much, as I don’t think it can be restored.”

“Well, it’s not one of the most valuable paintings in the world, but to me, with my small business, it was quite the investment. I paid a little over half a million for it about eleven years ago. I was hoping to sell it for more now. I loved it, so it was hard for me to let go of it even if a potential customer offered more than I expected.”

“Wow. That’s a lot of money. I’m so sorry to have to tell you this, but you would not even recognize the painting. It’s been torn to shreds by two angry young ladies.”

“But why would they damage the painting, if they wanted to make money from it?” Anna asked. “I don’t understand!”

“It finally dawned on them they couldn’t sell it at their school auction. It might be listed on the art loss registry and would easily be traced back to them. Apparently one of them became very agitated at all they had gone through to get the money for the school and went on a rampage, destroying the painting. She was screaming at us during questioning that the reason she wasn’t accepted into Stanford was budget cuts for the district every year. How skills she needed to be competitive were cut.”

Anna felt sick.

These girls had robbed her, may have killed an innocent man, and ruined her property…all for their future? Could this be their motive? It all sounded so implausible.

Sergeant Coral was still speaking “Then the other girl was shouting about how ‘fucking expensive’ college tuition is now and how even her successful, highly educated parents can’t afford it with the cost skyrocketing.” Why was he telling her all this?

“It wasn’t money that stopped either of them getting into Stanford if they were stupid enough to think for a second they could sell stolen art at a school auction! They would have had to move those items on the black market!” Anna replied. “Sergeant Coral, I…I need to come see the art pieces, maybe I can salvage them with the help of an art restorer.”

She was now seeing that the art insurance she invested in may pay off. But it won’t bring the art masterpieces back. Just as it could not bring her girls back.

“Sure, come down to the station. We have to hold them as evidence until this case is formally closed,” Sergeant Coral said. “The girls will have to stand trial. You can’t touch anything, just look, and you’ll need to be accompanied by an officer.”

It was a few days before she could get to the police station, and was ushered into a back room. There she first saw her bronze. She could tell right away that whatever these girls had tried to clean it with had destroyed it, dissolving valuable patina. The natural green was reduced to a tarnished metal surface.

She looked up at the officer. “The Delacroix?” she asked.

He nodded and led her through another door to a smaller room. The painting was bad. Really bad. But not as horrible as she had imagined after hearing Sergeant Coral’s description. It had two large rips and a few stab holes.

Anna thanked the officer and made her way out of the station towards her car. While she was walking, she dialed the number of the best art restorer she knew. She got voice mail and left a message asking him to return her call at the earliest possible moment.

Sergeant Coral called her name from across the parking lot. She walked back to the police station, where he met her on the steps.

“Anna…is it okay if I call you Anna?”

“Of course. I’d rather lose the formality. May I call you Jason?” she replied, smiling.

“Please do. There is something else I need to share with you…something weird.”

“Okay”, she said. “Let me have it. I’ve been through every weirdness that weirdness has to offer. How much weirder can it get?”

“Well, a really creepy strange,” Coral replied. “Something was found behind your art gallery, between the dumpster and the back door. A dead dove. The odd thing…well, there was more than one odd thing…but why was it left in the back of your art gallery, for one thing? It was so obviously left there for someone to see, as some sort of message.”

“Really?” Anna asked incredulously. “I mean, what makes you say ‘obvious’? Couldn’t the dove have gotten loose from a cage in a nearby house, and then a cat or a hawk got it?”

“Well, normally we would think so…but here’s where the really strange part comes in. This dove had some things painted on it. In blood. Bloody teardrops under its eyes and three blood drops on its breast. Our forensics team felt they were symbolic of something. So we made some calls.”

“Jason…you’re freaking me out. An emblematic bloody dove was left behind my art gallery? With symbolic messages? And what are those symbolic messages? What is this, The Da Vinci Code?”

Jason explained “In religious, military and pacifist groups, the white dove has historically symbolized love, peace or as messengers. The forensics team believes the bloody tear drops could symbolize being blinded so one cannot see an ’enemy’. The three blood drops on the dove’s breast could symbolize removal of the heart. Now here comes the most unusual part. We wondered if the bird had anything to do with the attack on your security guard and the robbery. It seemed too much of a coincidence not to be. So we talked with the girls’ parents.”

Anna braced herself.

“As it turns out, the white dove was one of the girls’ pets.

Anna was shocked. Did the girl kill her own pet? If hearing two girls crushed her guards’ skull was not enough of an infringement upon her bleeding heart after losing her own two girls, now the full horror of the situation really hit her.

Mercilessly, the police sergeant droned on. “We pulled the criminal psychologist into the investigation. This aspect is still being evaluated…but the psychologist’s preliminary hit is that there is some societal message the girls were trying to convey. Something about violence, blind vengeance, lack of a social heart in our society, and robbing social services…in this case their education and by extension their futures.”

Anna reflected on how these girls justified their action, mirroring what they’re being imposed upon within society at large, by a global autocracy that wages war on small countries for profit and pretends to be “protecting freedoms at home.”

It all came full circle. Peace in pieces.

She felt a shudder deep inside her. “The mass shootings in schools and communities….I’ve read youth involved often blame society, take it out on local community. Tragic.”

“Times of turmoil can develop troubled youth,” responded the officer. Inside, he prayed for his own kids.

Then Anna shook Jason’s hand and thanked him, started making her way back to the car. What the cop said next jolted her in place. “I know I’ve told you too much already, but really Anna. We go way back with Bianca’s trial. I trust you like no other civilian. I know what I say stays within these walls. The blood painted on the dove? It’s Johnny’s blood. Tests were run. Oh, and one of the girl’s Dad is a former Google Executive, now working within shadow government operations. He may be questioned as well.”

How eerie. She couldn’t wait to get home. Take another bath. She and Caryssa, with their calming baths. But first, one more call. And definitely one more stop.

She called the hospital to check on Johnny. The receptionist was shuffling papers, half speaking into her phone “Mr. Santos is still in a coma. We are allowing visitors now because even in a near vegetative state some patients respond to loved ones---but the family only.” Anna paid no attention to that. She had to go see him. On the way, she berated herself for having Johnny work the graveyard shift…when such robberies tend to happen.

Johnny’s room was a cacophony of beeping noises and blinking lights. Then she looked at him. He appeared to be asleep. A tube was clamped to his mouth to keep him breathing. A hard plastic collar was around his neck, a blood-soaked gauze turban around his head. Wires snaked from both his arms, chest, and skull.

Images of Bianca flashed before her…Bianca, her youngest who always wore a helmet, did not even make it to this state. But it was not a head injury that took her. Her spine and limbs were fractured, with fatal internal damage. Anna tried not to think of it all, as it always made her feel so depressed. But looking at Johnny, it was hard not to.

Stepping close to his side, she took one of his hands. She pulled the visitor chair closer and sat. She did not know if he would hear her, but she spoke softly to him.

“Johnny…it's Anna. I’m here with you. I love you. Stay strong…think good thoughts. You’ll pull through this.” Guilt engulfed her, thinking of how she had called him last minute to guard her art gallery. Because she saw signs of an attempted break in earlier that day…

And will he pull through this? Looking at him, one would think not. It will take nothing short of a miracle.

The nurse came in. “Excuse me, are you family?” a tad sternly.

Anna had told a little white lie at the reception desk, claiming she was Johnny’s sister. This time she told the truth. “No, just a good friend. I will leave now. Thank you for letting me see him.”

Before she left she spoke to him again. “I’ll be back Johnny. Hang in there. We’re praying for you.”

She walked out of the room in despair, feeling in her heart that this just might be the last time she sees her employee of ten years—alive.

***

Two weeks later, Johnny died. He had never resurfaced from the coma.

Eight months after that awful tragedy at her art gallery, Anna was amazed. Though never the type to be self-congratulatory, it was herself she was amazed at.

The whole ordeal should leave her nerves frayed. But now, the emotions dulled. She had learned to be strong after all her losses, to find a calm wave and ride it. Her self-healing powers had grown exponentially.

She decided to walk away from her business. She loved her work and was proud of what she built. It had, in a sense, become her life. But as time passed and she healed, she realized that more than ever she wanted to focus now on—life itself.

It was as if the Universe was saying “Enough, Anna. Come home to yourself now.” And slowly she came home.

She spent lots of time with her sweet grandson Jared, sold Exotic Exposure and started working part time again teaching children the love of art from her home studio. Back to where she had been before those life-changing tragedies. But this time, she won’t shut the door on a child. Ever.

And there’s at least one set of parent’s whose child she never shut the door on. The Garth’s son. For this action, she felt she had redeemed her mother’s soul.

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