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Dead Sleep

Dead Sleep

Dead Sleep 18


  “I get it. Let’s have the details.”

  Baxter shuffles a stack of papers. “I’m going to give you a quick sketch of each,” says Baxter. “This is for John’s benefit, too.”

  SAC Bowles gets up and kills the lights, and a large screen hanging from the ceiling at the end of the room comes alive with white light.

  “I want you to see all four first,” Baxter says. “See if any look familiar. Then we’ll break them down. These images are being relayed from our Emergency Operations Center, which is also on this floor.” Baxter leans forward and addresses the speakerphone on the desk. “Give us the composite, Tom.”

  Four photos appear simultaneously on the screen. None looks familiar, or even like what I expected, but why would they? My mental picture of artists comes from books and films, mostly images from other centuries. When I hear the word “students,” I think of people in their twenties. The oldest here—Roger Wheaton, I presume—is wearing bifocal glasses and reminds me of Max von Sydow, the actor. Severe and Scandinavian-looking, with shoulder-length gray hair. Beside his photo is a fortyish guy who looks like an ex-convict: hollow-eyed, unshaven, tough. Then I realize he’s actually wearing prison garb.

  “Is that guy a convict?”

  “He’s done two stretches in Sing Sing,” says Baxter. “We’ll get to that. We’ve got a real grab bag of weirdos, here, I kid you not.”

  “Is that a scientific description?” asks Kaiser.

  Bowles belly-laughs.

  “These faces ring any bells?” asks Baxter, cutting his eyes at me.

  “Not so far.”

  The other man in the composite is stunningly handsome, and my sixth sense tells me he’s gay. I generally make this judgment based on physical appearance, speech, and behavior. All I have here is a photograph, but I’ve spent most of my life studying photographs, and this guy I feel certain about. The woman is also attractive, with long black hair, light skin, and black eyes. But despite her skin tone, something about her features suggests African blood.

  “The older man is Roger Wheaton,” says Baxter. “The convict is Leon Isaac Gaines, age forty-two. Raised in Queens, New York. The third man is Frank Smith. He’s thirty-five, and also a New York native. The woman is Thalia Laveau, thirty-nine, a native of Terrebonne Parish here in Louisiana.”

  Now I’ve got it. Thalia Laveau is a Sabine, a racial group the FBI has probably never even heard of.

  “All four suspects lived in New York for a time,” says Baxter, “so all could have ties to whoever killed Wingate.” He leans toward the speakerphone. “Put up Wheaton alone.”

  The composite vanishes, replaced by a candid shot of Roger Wheaton. The artist has deep-set eyes behind his bifocals, and a long, strong face. He looks more like a craftsman than a painter, a genius with metal or wood.

  “Before we do his bio,” says Baxter, “let’s deal with why Wheaton came to New Orleans. Three years ago, this reclusive artist of international reputation was diagnosed with scleroderma, a potentially fatal disease.” Baxter turns to Dr. Lenz. “Arthur?”

  Lenz sniffs and inclines his head toward me as he speaks. “Scleroderma is commonly thought of as a woman’s disease, but it does affect men, and usually with more severity. The external symptoms, such as hardening of the facial skin, et cetera, are not always obvious or even present in men, but the internal damage is accelerated. Scleroderma is vascular in nature, and causes scarring and eventual failure of the internal organs, including the lungs. One particularly important symptom in Wheaton’s case is called Raynaud’s phenomenon. This is a spasm and constriction of the blood vessels of the extremities—usually the fingers, but sometimes the nose or the penis—which is caused by contact with cold temperature, usually air or water. These attacks completely cut off circulation to the digits, sometimes for long enough to cause irreversible tissue damage. Amputations aren’t uncommon. Sufferers frequently wear gloves for most of the day.”

  “Wheaton moved south to avoid this?” I ask.

  “Apparently, though that kind of move isn’t advised by physicians. It’s pointless, in a way. There’s more air-conditioning in the South, and even opening a refrigerator can bring on an attack. But the university has taken great pains to accommodate Wheaton’s special needs. The artist Paul Klee suffered from scleroderma later in life. It greatly affected his work. His paintings became very dark in content, and the damage to his fingers forced him to change his painting style completely. He—”

  Baxter has raised his hand. “We need to stay macro here, Arthur. There’s a lot to cover.”

  Lenz likes to hear himself talk, and does not take kindly to interruptions. But Daniel Baxter doesn’t hesitate to cut him off.

  “Roger Wheaton,” Baxter says in the tone of a man reading from a cue card. “Born 1943, in rural Vermont. Youngest of three brothers. His brothers joined the service upon graduating high school—one army, one navy. Wheaton had no formal training as a child, but in interviews—of which he’s done damned few—he says his mother was a great lover of classical art. She bought him supplies and encouraged him to imitate the old masters, copying color plates from a book she bought him. He showed phenomenal talent, and at seventeen he left home for New York. We don’t have a lot of information on this period of his life, but in interviews he’s said he supported himself doing odd jobs and painting portraits on the street. He was unsuccessful as an artist, and in 1966 he joined the Marine Corps. He did two tours in Vietnam, earning a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. . . .”

  I glance at Kaiser, who steps on my foot beneath the table.

  “Wheaton also instituted a disciplinary action against two members of his platoon for raping a twelve-year-old Vietnamese girl. He pushed it to a court-martial, and the men did time in Leavenworth. Any thoughts, John?”

  Kaiser nods in the half-dark. “That would have made Wheaton about as popular as trench foot in his platoon. It tells us something about him, but what, I’m not sure. Either what he saw was really bad, and he felt morally compelled to push it, or the guy has some kind of hero compulsion.”

  This remark rankles me. “What rape wouldn’t be really bad to see?” I ask, trying to keep my voice under control. “Why couldn’t Wheaton simply have been doing the right thing by pushing it?”

  Baxter answers for Kaiser. “I served in Vietnam myself, Ms. Glass. Most soldiers coming upon the situation I’ve described would have been offended and outraged, but they would have looked the other way. A few would have participated. But very few would have bucked the chain of command and forced disciplinary action. It’s not pretty in hindsight, but at that time, no one was inclined to discipline our own troops for anything short of a massacre. Wheaton transferred out of his unit after that, and it’s not hard to guess why. Still, he had a spotless record, with several commendations from his commanders.”

  “We should track down the names of men he served with,” says Kaiser. “Not just his officers.”

  “We’re on it,” Baxter replies. “You should also note that Wheaton lost one brother in Vietnam. Killed in a Saigon bar by a terrorist bomb. The other died in 1974, from a stroke.”

  Baxter shuffles some papers. “After Vietnam, Wheaton returned to New York, enrolled in the art program at NYU, and slowly made a name for himself painting portraits. He supported himself this way for years, while he worked on his private obsession, which is landscapes. For the past twenty years, he’s painted the same subject over and over again. It’s a forest clearing, and every painting in the series is called The Clearing. He began in a very realistic style, but over the years he’s gone more abstract. The paintings are still called The Clearing, but they’re not recognizable as such. The early, more realistic ones showed a Vermont-style forest clearing, but also jungle foliage typical of Vietnam—and sometimes the two mixed—so there’s no telling about the real origin of the image, or its significance. When asked about it in interviews, Wheaton says the paintings speak for themselves.”

  “A progression from rea
listic to abstract,” says Kaiser. “The exact opposite of the Sleeping Women.”

  “Wheaton’s progression is much more marked,” says Lenz. “His style is so defined now that it’s spawned a genre or school in the worldwide art community. They call it ‘Dark Impressionism.’ Not because the paintings themselves are necessarily dark—though most of his recent work is—but because of their content. He uses Impressionist techniques, but the original Impressionists tended to paint what you might call happy subjects. Pastoral, tranquil themes. Think of Manet, Renoir, Monet, Pissarro. Wheaton’s work is very different.”

  “De Becque said the Sleeping Women artist uses Impressionist techniques,” I tell Lenz. “In the way he lays down color, anyway.”

  “That’s true,” says Lenz. “But he abandoned the pure style very quickly. Many beginning artists emulate the Impressionists, just as young composers imitate the popular composers of the past. But Impressionism in the pure sense is passé. Wheaton succeeds because he’s brought something new to the style. As for him painting the Sleeping Women, though, two connoisseurs have already told us that the Sleeping Women share no similarities whatever with the paintings of Roger Wheaton.”

  “Could one man paint two radically different styles and an expert not be able to tell he did both?” asks Baxter.

  “If he did it to prove a point, probably.”

  “What about to avoid detection?” says Baxter.

  “Probably. But over the course of a body of work, certain idiosyncrasies reveal themselves. We’ve got hold of several portraits Wheaton painted years ago, to compare his execution of skin, eyes, hair, et cetera with that of the Sleeping Women artist. It’s all very technical, but the final answer is no. He couldn’t hide himself that way. Of course, we’ll analyze the paints, canvases, and all other materials to be sure.”

  “Have you found these Kolinsky sable brush hairs in Wheaton’s paintings?”

  “Yes. We’ve also found them in the paintings of Smith, Gaines, and Laveau.”

  “Dating how far back?”

  “Two years. When they came to Tulane.”

  “Wheaton just started using these special brushes?”

  “Apparently so. We’ll have to ask him why. Let’s move on. I could talk for an hour about Wheaton alone, but we have a much more viable suspect in this bunch.” Baxter says to the speakerphone, “Put up Gaines, Tom.”

  The photo of Wheaton is replaced by a mug shot of the convict. This guy I would walk across a busy interstate to avoid. Crazed eyes, pasty skin, tangled black hair, a stubbled face, and a broken nose. The only paintbrush I can see him holding would be six inches wide.

  “Leon Isaac Gaines,” says Baxter. “If I had to lay odds right now, this is our man in New Orleans. His father and mother were both drunks. The father did a stretch in Sing Sing for carnal knowledge of a juvenile, paving the way for junior, I guess.”

  “Male or female juvenile?” asks Kaiser.

  “Female.”

  “Age?”

  “Fourteen. Leon was arrested repeatedly as a juvenile. Burglary, assault, peeping, you name it. He did juvy time for starting fires, and was in and out of reformatories until he was twenty.”

  Kaiser grunts, and I know why. Childhood arson is one leg of the “homicidal triangle” of indicators for serial killers as children. Bed-wetting, arson, and cruelty to animals: I remember them all from my reading last year.

  “He rings the chimes on animals, too,” says Baxter. “When he was twelve, he buried a neighbor’s cat up to its neck in a sandpile and rolled over it with a lawn mower.”

  “Enuresis?” asks Kaiser.

  “No record of it. Both parents are deceased, but they weren’t the kind to have sought medical care for that. Still, we’re trying to track down physicians working in the area at the time.” More shuffling paper in the semi-dark. “Gaines is a two-time loser, once for aggravated battery, once for attempted rape.”

  “Jesus,” mutters Bowles.

  “No gang affiliations while incarcerated, but he was part of a bad riot at Sing Sing. We’re tracking down his cellmates and sending agents to interview them. Gaines never picked up a paintbrush in his life until his first term in Sing Sing—1975. He showed so much promise that the warden showed his stuff to some New York dealers. They apparently kept an eye on him, because during his second hitch, they made some sales for him. He attracted the attention of the New York art community, much as Jack Henry Abbott attracted the attention of Norman Mailer and those other chumps with his ‘Belly of the Beast’ nonsense.”

  “Is that when Wheaton first heard about Gaines?” asks Kaiser.

  “Wheaton isn’t mentioned by anyone at that time in connection with Gaines. Wheaton’s always been a recluse, associates with no other artists. Since his diagnosis, he’s broken off all contact with everyone but his dealer and his students. Local patrons of the arts in New Orleans have invited him for parties, dinner, like that, but he always declines. The president isn’t happy about that.”

  “What does Gaines paint?” asks Kaiser.

  “He started with prison scenes. Now he paints nothing but his girlfriend. Whatever girlfriend he has at the time. As far as we can tell, he’s regularly abused every woman he’s ever been with. He paints that, as well, by the way. Reviews of his stuff call it ‘violent,’ and that’s a quote.”

  “How many applicants did Wheaton have to choose from when he picked this guy?”

  “More than six hundred.”

  “Jesus. Why did he pick Gaines?”

  “You can ask him that tomorrow.”

  Kaiser tenses beside me. “I’m doing the interview?”

  “We’ll get to that after we cover these bios,” Baxter says quickly.

  The rivalry between Kaiser and Lenz will surely come to a head over this.

  “So Gaines is essentially painting a series, as well?” I ask. “The same subject again and again? Just like Wheaton and the UNSUB?”

  “The others are too, in their ways,” says Lenz. “Wheaton apparently used this as a criterion in his selection. He’s on record as saying that only deep study of a particular subject can produce new understanding, deeper levels of truth.”

  “That and fifty cents’ll buy you a cup of coffee,” cracks Bowles.

  “I’m inclined to agree,” says Baxter. “But they pay Wheaton very big bucks.”

  “How much?” asks Kaiser.

  “His last painting went for four hundred thousand dollars.”

  “That’s not even close to the Sleeping Women prices.”

  “True. But Wheaton’s a lot more prolific than our UNSUB. You should note that NOPD has been called to Leon Gaines’s duplex several times by neighbors, but the girlfriend has yet to swear out a complaint. Gaines is usually drunk when they get there.”

  “I think we’ve got the picture on Gaines,” says Kaiser.

  “Not quite. He owns a Dodge utility van with tinted windows all around.”

  The room goes silent.

  “Anybody else have that kind of transport?” asks Kaiser in a soft voice.

  “No,” says Lenz.

  “We’ve got to get inside that van. If we find biological trace, we can compare it to samples from our victims’ DNA bank.”

  “Where did you get DNA from the victims?” I ask. “You have no bodies.”

  “For four victims, we have locks of hair saved from childhood,” says Kaiser. “Two victims were breast cancer survivors, and have bone marrow stem cells stocked at hospitals for future transplant. Two victims have eggs stored at fertility clinics. And two stocked umbilical cord blood when their youngest children were delivered. That’s not a direct match to the mother, but it could be helpful.”

  “I’m impressed.”

  “John put that together,” Baxter says proudly. “All grist to the mill.”

  “As an identical twin,” says Kaiser, “you could add to the bank for your sister. I meant to ask you before.”

  “Anytime.”

  “As
soon you conclude Gaines’s interview tomorrow,” says Baxter, “NOPD will confiscate the van.”

  “What’s the deal with the utility van? Good way to move a body?”

  Kaiser turns to me, his face a shadow with glinting eyes. “Rapists and serial killers favor this type of vehicle by a huge margin. It’s the most important part of their equipment, a means to quickly get the victim out of sight, even in a public place. Later, it often becomes the scene of the final crime.”

  I try in vain to shut out images of Jane being raped and cut up inside a dark and stinking van.

  “My money’s on Leon Gaines,” says Baxter. “But we need to cover everybody. Let’s have Frank Smith, Tom.”

  Gaines’s face is replaced by the almost angelic visage I saw earlier in the composite.

  “This one’s a riddle,” says Baxter. “Frank Smith was born into a wealthy family in Westchester County in 1965. He focused on art from an early age, and took an MFA degree from Columbia. Smith is openly gay, and he’s painted homosexual themes—usually nude men—from his college days.”

  “Not nude sleeping men?” asks Kaiser.

  “If only,” says Baxter. “By all reports, Smith is enormously talented, and paints in the style of the old masters. His paintings look like Rembrandt to me. Really unbelievable.”