Monster Behind The Masks

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Chapter 6


Even though Pierre and I have been reunited for five years, sex is like a new relationship. Fresh. Exciting. Exhilarating. Not a fiery passion, but an intense calm. As if we never want to let each other go again. It was the perfect antidote.

Our thirty-two-year marriage had come unglued with grief, buried in Pierre’s flashes of lengthy anger. I guess we’re trying to make up for the nearly six years apart, experiencing separation anxiety. The shared grief of losing our daughters blended into the deepest emotional closeness possible, molding us together with an even stronger bond

Pierre’s grip echoed his angst. In the throes of lovemaking, he whispered Anna, mon amour ma chérie, je t’aime, tickling my ear with his soft breath and sensual words.

We lay beside each other, sated with love and laughter, soaking up the post-sex ambiance. Pierre wrapped his arms around me, warm and glossed in sweat. His eyes fell on me, full of amazement. “Just look at you—glowing with youthful beauty, after all these years. How is it I’ve aged while you’re still the young gorgeous gal I married in ’93?” He asked, full of pride.

People flatter me. They state I have the same creamy ivory unlined skin, chestnut-blond highlights, big almond eyes and willowy body I was blessed with in my twenties. Yet, all I see is a woman in her late fifties, her yogatastic past given way to a champion limper. A case of body dysmorphia?

“A good hairdresser and regular facials, perhaps?” I answered with an air of humor on my way to the bathroom, somewhat embarrassed at the compliment. Glancing at myself in the mirror, I had to admit—the afterglow of lovemaking had turned my face the pinkish blush of a school girl with a major all-consuming crush.

“This goes beyond any beauty salon, Anna.” He called from the bed. “You experienced the same tsunami of grief I did with the death of our girls. Yet it nearly killed me while you grew stronger. You plunged ahead, opened your art gallery—”

“It nearly killed me as well. I just knew to seek professional help while you withered away with bitterness…”

I peered outside the bathroom door, unsure if my interrupting words had been too blunt and bashed him with depression. I stopped short at the look on Pierre’s face. I drank in the handsome man I married. Still so handsome, yet he sagged with sorrow.

Pierre’s hair, once a thick sandy blonde—was ravaged with gray, as if he wore a furry ashen hat. His face was lined with pain. It wasn’t always this way. Before the death of our twelve-year-old daughter Bianca while riding her skateboard, then the suicide of our oldest daughter Cassidy, things had been fine.

But such tragedies had taken a toll on both of us. Only apparently, my turmoil wasn’t evident through a haggard face, but an inner pain. Before the spiraling chaos tearing our marriage into pieces—Pierre was a vibrant spirit with a youthful spring in his step. That spirit had since been fractured, and the youthful energy dented.

However damaged, he was still the man I loved.

Our eyes locked. At least one thing never changed. His striking jade green eyes glistened like a sexy wolf’s, sending electric shocks down my spine and in-between my legs. They held endless depths of struggle deep inside, but on the surface, their shimmer hadn’t faded. It was akin to staring out at the ocean, stars dancing on its waves.

I rushed over and cradled him in my arms, reminding him we still had our sweet grandson Jared. Things could be worse. We held each other close remaining quiet for a while, then we both got dressed.

Not wishing to bring up the subject but knowing I had to, I reminded him of a visitor we were expecting. “Pierre, don’t forget that . . . FBI man is coming to visit in a couple hours.” I pulled away and watched confusion weave into his features.

“I don’t understand why the FBI is getting involved in a local crime. I didn’t think FBI gets involved in this stuff.” A deep line burrowed between his brows.

“Coral said FBI is getting involved because it involves an art theft. The FBI has an Art Theft Crime Division and handles galleries under security attack.” The thought of an FBI agent coming to our home, with the agency itself having a shady history like the CIA, had my stomach in knots continuing to tighten.

The doorbell rang too soon. My throat dried instantly and a fresh lease of nerves writhed in my stomach. Pierre looked at me, stern as can be. “Remember Anna, the FBI has no power to make you answer questions or anything.” He breathed shakily, not as easily able to manipulate his vocals as he could his stiff unreadable face. “You have a right to silence and privacy—”

“Why the big concern?” I shrugged. “It’s not like we’re suspects. Coral said it’s because the murder at my art gallery is connected to the murder of that prison guard. And both involve my stolen art.” I approached the front door, suppressing sparks of anxiety.

“Anna stop, let me get it.” Pierre jumped up and strode with intent to the door. He opened it, and there, at my doorstep, stood a young man looking fresh out of college in a job interview. At least 6 feet tall with jet-black hair, dark heavily-rimmed sunglasses, a charcoal power suit, crisp white shirt and no tie. He was armed and toting a large briefcase.

The man held out his hand with the tiniest tilt of his lips as if a fully formed smile would crack his face. “Hello Mr. and Mrs. Beauvais, I’m FBI Special Agent, Timothy Blake. I am assisting Sergeant Coral—”

My lips trembled. “Yes, yes, he said to be expecting you, Agent . . . ah, Special Agent Blake. Come in please.” I shuffled to the side gathering myself, while Pierre shook his hand. Pierre mirrored the agent’s emotionless face, on edge but not wanting to give anything away.

“We can talk in my living room, come this way.”

Simple snacks lay on my glass coffee table, in preparation for his arrival. A tiny teapot, water, crackers, and cheese. “Please help yourself.” I gestured toward the refreshments, assorted neatly.

The agent helped himself to a cup of tea but did not partake in any food. “Thank you kindly. I’d like to talk about the murder at the prison.” He took a load off. “And the connection to the murder at your art gallery.” He didn’t waste any time, cutting straight to the point. His tone was all business, much like his attire.

I chewed with the decision whether or not I should say we preferred not to answer questions without a lawyer present. Would that rattle the cage? It certainly wouldn’t put us off to a good start. He sensed our hesitation, adding. “Neither of you is being questioned.” He informed, as if capable of reading our minds and uncovering our concerns. “This is just a formality. There’s been a twist in the case—” He snuck off his glasses and tucked them in his jacket pocket. His eyes were more readable than his still features, only just.

“A twist?” Pierre burst out. His hand stopped short of his mouth before he took a sip of tea.

“Yes. Well, let’s start with this.” Timothy unzipped his briefcase, and out came my painting.

“My Picasso painting! How did you get it?” The FBI Agent held my “La Paloma” The Dove, to the side, then turned it around, revealing the handwriting on the back. I had a suspicion of how he got my painting. My asking was more out of unease, to fill the tense space between us. I wanted the air brimming with words, drowning any awkward tension.

“Sergeant Coral handed it over as evidence. It’s your painting, Mrs. Beauvais?” He asked. His words leaned into the question, but his face was stolen and emotionless. It was almost impossible to read him. Usually one can read a person’s eyes, but he was expertly controlled, not giving anything away. He didn’t blink unnecessarily; his gaze didn’t dart madly. Every movement was controlled and thought-out.

“Yes,” I answered, wetting my parched throat.

“Okay. The writing on the back has been positively identified through forensic handwriting analysis. It matches that of Ava Ramirez.” He hesitated with his following words, before pointing at the Picasso quote written by Ava.

I read it again: “I stand for life against death; I stand for peace against war.”

The FBI agent cleared his throat, his lips pouting just a touch, “So Ms. Ramirez was an anti-war activist.”

“It appears she had an ounce of conscience, while she bashed in my security guard’s head.” I blurted out rather flippant, the words flowing of their own accord.

At this, the agent jerked to attention, straightening his back like a soldier in the presence of his superior. I half expected him to salute. Oh no, I’ve irritated a military mouthpiece. Pierre sat his hand on my knee. He gave me a squeeze, as if twisting a faucet off, only not stemming the flow of water, but hindering the stream of my potentially offensive words.

But damn if I need to stay quiet, knowing what happened to my Dad in Vietnam. Already my heart thudded with greater purpose. I wanted to ask when I get my Picasso painting back, but the agent stole the spotlight.

“A couple of questions—what do either of you know of these young women wanting to seek political or social change?” Timothy now looked overly stiff with tightly drawn features, as if to intimidate us. I wondered if he was more concerned about collecting “political intelligence” on innocent people rather than solve murder cases. But Pierre’s silent warning worked.

“Well, they were upset school budget cuts were so drastic and how expensive college tuition is. Supposedly, that’s why they robbed my art gallery. For tuition fees.” I didn’t know what to say beyond that. I didn’t want to test him. I certainly didn’t want to irritate him. Be polite and cordial. Remember, you haven’t done anything wrong. As he said, this is just a formality.

Timothy scribbled into his pad, filling the air with a scratchy ruckus. “What do you know regarding the symbolic messages left in blood on either dove?” He asked, eyes bouncing from his pad to me, seemingly trying to get all the information on paper. Knowing how efficiently they are trained in reading responses and facial expressions made me nervous. I ought to weigh my words from now on and simmer any emotion capable of contorting my face.

I wanted to say that the girls were allegedly trying to uncover a secret society behind America’s forever wars. A shadow government operation. Yet, I’d be sitting on the lap of a potential perpetrator—feeding him his own bullshit. So, I just repeated. “According to the forensics team, bloody teardrops were left under the dove’s eyes, which symbolize being blinded by an elusive enemy. Three blood drops were left on the breasts to symbolize a removal of our society’s heart.” I explained in a dull monotone, measuring not just my words, but my overall responses.

His pen wiggled some more as ink swirled along the pad. From what I could make out from a sly glance, he had doctor handwriting. Even if I had the balls to read his notes, it would likely be fruitless, especially upside-down. Then again, how do I know his notes aren’t written to merely keep up appearances? Maybe he’ll toss the notes as soon as he leaves? No, that’s too far, surely? His eyes squeezed almost shut, then opened and shot straight at us.

“There’s no doubt these girls robbed your gallery and killed the doves. But we have unseen evidence not looked at by local law enforcement. A low-resolution video that shows a male visitor to your art gallery the night of the murder in Sausalito. We zoomed in, and it’s no doubt Diego Ramirez.” He paused, as if for dramatic effect. “A CIA agent that has gone rogue—”

“Ava Ramirez’s father!” I blurted, losing control of my previously controlled demeanor. Words sped from my mouth without thought, soaked in emotion. “Oh my God, he visited my gallery that night? What does this mean? Do you think he murdered my security guard, not the girls?” I questioned, shock wedged into my sentences. My hope of remaining calm and collected had dissipated.

The agent stuffed his hands into his pockets. “I shouldn’t be telling you any of this—” he leaned in ominously. “But we have surveillance footage of Mr. Ramirez also at the prison at the time of the second murder.” He stood, slotting my painting back into his briefcase, throwing an idle glance at his watch. Guess I wasn’t getting my painting back yet. “Look, I can’t say more, but the two young women may have been framed and blamed—” he snapped the briefcase shut, looping his fingers through the handle.

“By her own father? That doesn’t add up—the DNA, fingerprints, their confessions. . .”

Timothy withheld his answer, debating his response. Instead, he chose to derail the conversation with a farewell. “I’ve got to get going. Thank you for your time and hospitality,” He said, avoiding eye contact as if losing a handle on his eyes. As if secrets and answers would tumble out should his sight catch ours.

He paced towards the door, then hesitated, his hand hovering before the handle. He turned, still not letting his sight meet with ours. His gaze skimmed the floor and rooted to his shiny shoes. “Mr. Ramirez is capable of covering up anything, and silencing anyone. He’s an expert at espionage. And he’s gone off the wall since working intelligence operations in Afghanistan.” His words were clear but peppered with fear.

And with that revelation, he walked out the door. He sat in his car and sped away in a mist of gasoline, leaving us with agape mouths and heavy frowns.

Pierre had to drive into the City to stop by his work. He is crazy busy, after being promoted to Director of Sculpture at The Academy of Art University while still teaching sculpture classes. He barely had time to breathe.

My workload was equally as hectic, with twenty-four kids coming for a watercolor workshop tomorrow. My ten-year-old students can be discerning, visualizing their paintings not only framed but gallery-wrapped.

Being highly skilled at crafting frames, I had made a grand plan to do all the matting and framing for my student’s oil on canvas projects myself. I wanted to surprise them with their finished product, as a reward for their amazing efforts.

This would be excellent for driving my material costs down, but what was I thinking? My motivation was squashed after that FBI Agent invaded my private space and stuffed it with disturbing revelations and buckets of dismay. I found it hard to swat away the encounter from my mind, repeatedly buzzing in and around my consciousness and subconsciousness.

“You look absorbed in your work.” Pierre stood at my studio doorway, carrying his art portfolio case. The words “Burning Man” among other iconic projects he has been involved in, showcased on the front cover.

“You haven’t left yet? I thought you were gone?” Upon the sight of him armed and ready to leave, I couldn’t help but miss having an office to go to. Not to mention, missing owning my art gallery. The simplest things can pluck at my nostalgia, however recent or not.

“I got almost to the 101, then realized I needed this.” He finished the sentence by lifting his art case, implying that slippery devil was the reason for his return.

Shaking my head with a mighty sigh, I rose into a stretch, relieving tight and cranky muscles. A couple of my bones even popped. “I’m really not into my work, and need to go for a run to shake off the FBI episode,” I moaned.

“Good idea, I’ll be back in a few hours.” He planted a kiss on my forehead, then left. His lips provided a brief distraction as that simple kiss caused butterflies to flutter in my stomach. Yet, in no time, it was gone. I was consumed with work and fighting off thoughts involving the FBI visitor. I felt heavier with every second. Try as I might repel it, the FBI visit sunk deeper into my consciousness.

With a dusty chunk of chalk, I wrote on the whiteboard. “Today’s first assignment: Make your own frame!” So what if frame making was not on the original syllabus? This is a highly self-motivated group. My guess, they will gladly accept the additional challenge. I know them well enough. Plus, it’ll teach them to be industrious.

I gathered all the materials and organized them in a central spot for the kids to choose the tools to craft their individual masterpieces. While sorting the pre-cut frames and mat sets, I decided to up the ante on the assignment. I added to the whiteboard message:

“A contest for the top three designs based on:

Frame-to-painting proportion.

Best combination of mat to frame.

Most unique design. Layering: Glazing.”

Perhaps this will ward off those parents protesting their perfect kid needs “more challenge” in the classroom. Little Billy in the corner has a tiger mom constantly assuring me he is the next Van Gogh. His abstract watercolor drying on the easel at his station was impressive. I couldn’t deny the boy had talent. A beautiful work of art. But little Billy is a nuisance, frequently disrupting the class. I find myself wondering if he will be cutting off his own ear. Or will someone do it for him? Or will he choose another body part? With any luck, his tongue! Let’s see how disruptive he can be without a wagging tongue.

Already squeezed into my yoga pants and padded running shoes, I was almost ready for a run. All I needed was water. So, I grabbed a bottle and off I went, seeking peace in the great outdoors. Leaning against a eucalyptus tree to stretch my calves, I glanced at the San Francisco Bay and Angel Island. I felt better already. There was little that sight couldn’t cure, or at the least, soothe. You could swim in the backdrop and scenery, shedding your worries and problems.

Twenty minutes later I was at the bottom of the hill, turning towards the Bay Model. I eased up when I passed Julie’s apartment building. Her parakeet, Feisty, chirped through an open window. I decided to stop in. She would be working from home after all.

After lightly rapping my knuckles on the door, shuffles came from her home. The door inched open, eventually revealing her gaunt face. I stared into sunken eyelids bordered with dark circles. “Are your allergies bothering you, Jules?” Although deep down, I knew allergies wasn’t her plight. Her eyes held sorrow, panic, and a weakened spirit. The pallor to her face was significantly paler as if color had been drained from her visage.

“Anna, I have not slept all week, worried sick about my brother Jackson.” Her voice was croaky, no doubt raw from multiple torrents of tears and the relentless grip of anxiety. “He was in jail for over a month for taking photos at the Times Square subway station.” Julie retrieved a tissue, blowing fiercely into it. No doubt about it, she’d been crying.

“He…was in jail. So, he’s out now?” I tried steering the conversation onto a more positive track.

“Yes, he is home. After we realized the one-million bail was too much to afford even as a team, we secured a bail bond. It’s like a loan. So he’s home, but it’s been hell for him. Still is…” Subtle sobs squeezed her words.

I wished I had just continued my run, with my own stress surfacing again, this time with a vengeance. “So…you guys borrowed a million dollars to bail out your innocent brother—”

Julie cut in “No, the bond agent comes up with the full posted bail amount. But Jackson had to come up with $150-thousand for the premium bond fee. He does well financially, but really this is a lot for anyone with two kids. So his friend Steve and I helped out. I drained my bank account.” Her hand armed with the soiled tissue trembled as turmoil strangled her words.

“At least nobody can say we live a boring life, Jules,” I smiled a little, attempting to calm her.

“Well, this is the type of excitement I could do without.” She patted her eyes with the crinkled, sodden tissue. “Oh, and he had to fork over collateral to assure he doesn’t skip on the upcoming court dates to prove he is not a ‘terrorist.’ This meant his property. The bail bond company can sell his house from under his feet if he ‘fails’ to come to one court date.”

“Basically, everyone in our nation is a terror ‘threat’ according to our feds. Even Grandma.” I wanted to laugh, but this was no laughing situation. This was deadly serious. “The real perpetrators walk the halls of the White House, wearing two-thousand-dollar suits.”

To this, Feisty chirped. “Bird of Terror. Pretty Bird.”

I glanced at Julie’s feathered friend. She is way too attached to this animal. Gotta get her a man. “That bird knows too much. Says too much.” I murmured as if concerned the bird could hear and - most importantly – understand.

“Yup. Feisty will get himself into trouble one day.” Julie wandered to the cage and spoke softly to him. “You are way too smart for your own good, Feisty,” She punctuated the sentence with a firm index finger pointed at the feathery animal.

I wanted to get back to my run; feel the sun and feast on those much-needed endorphins. The last thing I needed was to dive into more stress. Anymore cracks and I’d crumble. “Well, I am happy to hear Jackson is out of jail at least, so sorry for all the family stress. We had our own rather unsettling visit from an FBI Agent today.” I announced, deciding that maybe a good vent would help me and distract her.

“What? A freaking FBI Agent came to your home? Now that’s creepy!” Feisty took flight in the confinement of his cage, wings flapping wildly, nearly knocking his home off the table. The unsettled bird didn’t help with my festering angst.

“He seemed to indicate the two girls sentenced to prison for killing my security guard Johnny, may actually not be the perps—”

“I knew it! I knew something was not right!” Julie’s eyebrows lifted, her mouth open, revealing her molars. “Something was strange about two girls from the outskirts of Tiburon knocking off two big men.”

“The FBI Agent mentioned he was saying too much, but that didn’t stop him from implying that Ava Ramirez’s Dad, the CIA Agent, may be the murderer of both the security and prison guards.” My happy runner’s high had worn off, having been overtaken by dread. I looked forward to trekking up the hill to blow off steam.

“Why is it that law enforcement tells you so much, Anna? You’d think they’d know better—”

“Oh come on Jules, we have cops and CIA getting away with the murder of innocents on our streets and abroad, and you think they really care about any simple code of communications ethics.” I surprised myself with the vehemence of my words.

“Well, we have plenty of good cops left, don’t demonize them all.” Julie hesitated, then placed her hand on my shoulder. “But the cops arresting my brother sure are crooked.” She hesitated again, before saying. “Come to think of it, how did we get from two young women killing your art gallery guy to a CIA Agent? One of the girl’s fathers, no less!”

The FBI Agents chilling words haunted me, ringing in my mind, drumming on my heart. “He’s CIA Jules…I know we’ve been conditioned to believe the agency protects our ‘national security’ by spying on bad guys—”

“You mean James Bond was Hollywood hoopla. Oh no, my girlhood crush destroyed.” Julie smiled through hollow eyes, the attempt at a joke falling flat and empty.

“007 was a womanizing killer. James Bond aside, American spies—the CIA is running USA’s wars, buddied up with the private banking cartel. Espionage is called the ‘cloak and dagger’ business for good reason.” I reminded her.

“I always thought they subvert our enemies.” Julie picked up a celery stick for Feisty, who squawked. “CIA, bad guys.”

“Wow, that bird…” Had a human blared such statements, they’d no doubt have been killed and had it made to look like a suicide. I said nothing about that disturbing vision. She had enough on her plate. “That was once their function, yet its main job today is killing. Mostly fictional foreign ‘enemies’ for our presidents.”

“Well, if that’s the case,” Julie said, “today’s CIA has no cloak. It’s all dagger.”

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