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Dead Sleep

Dead Sleep

Dead Sleep 2


  Hesitating before the arched entrance, I wondered what had brought them there. The rest of the museum was virtually deserted. Were the paintings in this room that much better than the rest? Was there a social function going on? It didn’t appear so. The visitors stood silent and apart from one another, studying the paintings with eerie intensity. Posted above the arch was a Lucite plaque with both Chinese pictographs and English letters. It read:

  NUDE WOMEN IN REPOSE

  Artist Unknown

  When I looked back into the room, I realized it wasn’t filled with “people”—it was filled with men. Why men only? I’d stayed a week in Hong Kong on my last visit, and I hadn’t noticed a shortage of nudity, if that was what they were looking for. Every man in the room was Chinese, and every one wore a business suit. I had the impression that each had been compelled to jump up from his desk at work, run down to his car, and race over to the museum to look at these paintings. Reaching down to the Walkman on the waistband of my jeans, I fast-forwarded until I came to a description of the room before me.

  “Nude Women in Repose,” announced the voice in my headset. “This provocative exhibit contains seven canvases by the unknown artist responsible for the group of paintings known popularly as the ‘Sleeping Women’ series. The Sleeping Women are a mystery in the world of modern art. Nineteen paintings are known to exist, all oil on canvas, the first coming onto the market in 1999. Over the course of the nineteen paintings, a progression from vague Impressionism to startling Realism occurs, with the most recent works almost photographic in their accuracy. Though all the paintings were originally believed to depict sleeping women in the nude, this theory is now in question. The early paintings are so abstract that the question cannot be settled with certainty, but it is the later canvases that have created a sensation among Asian collectors, who believe the paintings depict women not in sleep but in death. For this reason, the curator has titled the exhibit ‘Nude Women in Repose’ rather than ‘Sleeping Women.’ The four paintings that have come onto the market in the past six months have commanded record prices. The last offering, titled simply Number Nineteen, sold to Japanese businessman Hodai Takagi for one point two million pounds sterling. The Museum is deeply indebted to Mr. Takagi for lending three canvases to the current exhibit. As for the artist, his identity remains unknown. His work is available exclusively through Christopher Wingate, LLC, of New York City, USA.”

  I felt a surprising amount of anxiety standing on the threshold of that roomful of men, silent Asians posed like statues before images I could not yet see. Nude women sleeping, possibly dead. I’ve seen more dead women than most coroners, many of them naked, their clothes blasted away by artillery shells, burned off by fire, or torn away by soldiers. I’ve shot hundreds of pictures of their corpses, methodically creating my own images of death. Yet the idea of the paintings in the next room disturbed me. I had created my death images to expose atrocities, to try to stop senseless slaughter. The artist behind the paintings in the next room, I sensed, had some other agenda.

  I took a deep breath and went in.

  My arrival caused a ripple among the men, like a new species of fish swimming into a school. A woman—especially a roundeye woman—clearly made them uncomfortable, as though they were ashamed of their presence in this room. I met their fugitive glances with a level gaze and walked up to the painting with the fewest men in front of it.

  After the soothing Chinese watercolors, it was a shock. The painting was quintessentially Western, a portrait of a nude woman in a bathtub. A roundeye woman like me, but ten years younger. Maybe thirty. Her pose—one arm hanging languidly over the edge of the tub—reminded me of the Death of Marat, which I knew only from the Masterpiece board game I’d played as a child. But the view was from a higher angle, so that her breasts and pubis were visible. Her eyes were closed, and though they communicated an undeniable peace, I couldn’t tell whether it was the peace of sleep or of death. The skin color was not quite natural, more like marble, giving me the chilling feeling that if I could reach into the painting and turn her over, I would find her back purple with pooled blood.

  Sensing the men close behind me edging closer, I moved to the next painting. In it, the female subject lay on a bed of brown straw spread on planks, as though on a threshing floor. Her eyes were open and had the dull sheen I had seen in too many makeshift morgues and hastily dug graves. There was no question about this one; she was supposed to look dead. That didn’t mean she was dead, but whoever had painted her knew what death looked like.

  Again I heard men behind me. Shuffling feet, hissing silk, irregular respiration. Were they trying to gauge my reaction to this Occidental woman in the most vulnerable state a woman can be in? Although if she was dead, she was technically invulnerable. Yet this gawking at her corpse by strangers seemed somehow a final insult, an ultimate humiliation. We cover corpses for the same reason we go behind walls to carry out our bodily functions; some human states cry out for privacy, and being dead is one of them. Respect above all is called for, not for the body, but for the person who recently departed it.

  Someone paid two million dollars for a painting like this one. Maybe even for this one. A man paid that, of course. A woman would have bought this painting only to destroy it. Ninety-nine out of a hundred women, anyway. I closed my eyes and said a prayer for the woman in the picture, on the chance that she was real. Then I moved on.

  The next painting hung beyond a small bench set against the wall. It was smaller than the others, perhaps two feet by three, with the long axis vertical. Two men stood before it, but they weren’t looking at the canvas. They gaped like clubbed mackerel as I approached, and I imagined that if I pulled down their starched white collars, I would find gills. No taller than I, they backed quickly out of my way and cleared the space before the painting. As I turned toward it, a premonitory wave of heat flashed across my neck and shoulders, and I felt the dry itch of the past rubbing against the present.

  This woman was naked as well. She sat in a window seat, her head and one shoulder leaned against the casement, her skin lighted by the violet glow of dawn or dusk. Her eyes were half open, but they looked more like the glass eyes of a doll than those of a living woman. Her body was thin and muscular, her hands lay in her lap, and her Victorian-style hair fell upon her shoulders like a dark veil. Though she had been sitting face-on to me from the moment I looked at the canvas, I suddenly had the terrifying sensation that she had turned to me and spoken aloud. The taste of old metal filled my mouth, and my heart ballooned in my chest. This was not a painting but a mirror. The face looking back at me from the wall was my own. The body, too, mine: my feet, hips, breasts, my shoulders and neck. But the eyes were what held me, the dead eyes—held me and then dropped me through the floor into a nightmare I had traveled ten thousand miles to escape. A harsh burst of Chinese echoed through the room, but it was gibberish to me. My throat spasmed shut, and I could not scream or even breathe.

  2

  THIRTEEN MONTHS AGO, on a hot summer morning, my twin sister Jane stepped out of her town house on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans to run her daily three-mile round of the Garden District. Her two young children waited inside with the maid, first contentedly, then anxiously as their mother’s usual absence stretched beyond any they remembered. Jane’s husband Marc was working in blissful ignorance at his downtown law firm. After ninety minutes, the maid called him.

  Knowing you could walk one block out of the Garden District and be in a free-fire zone, Marc Lacour immediately left work and drove the streets of their neighborhood in search of his wife. He cut the Garden District into one-block grids from Jackson Avenue to Louisiana and methodically drove them a dozen times. Then he walked them. He left the Garden District and questioned every porch-sitter, shade-tree mechanic, can-kicker, crack dealer, and homeless person he could find on the adjoining streets. No one had heard or seen anything of Jane. A prominent attorney, Marc immediately called the police and used his influence to mount a
massive search. The police found nothing.

  I was in Sarajevo when Jane disappeared, shooting a series on the aftermath of the war. It took me seventy-two hours to get to New Orleans. By that time, the FBI had entered the picture and subsumed my sister’s disappearance into a much larger case, designated NOKIDS in FBI-speak, for New Orleans Kidnappings. It turned out that Jane was fifth in a rapidly growing group of missing women, all from the New Orleans area. Not one corpse had been found, so all the women were classified as victims of what the FBI called a “serial kidnapper.” This was the worst sort of euphemism. Not one relative had received a ransom note, and in the eyes of every cop I spoke to, I saw the grim unspoken truth: every one of those women was presumed dead. With no crime-scene evidence, witnesses, or corpses to work with, even the Bureau’s vaunted Investigative Support Unit was stumped by the cold trail. Though women continued to disappear and still do, neither the Bureau nor the New Orleans police have come close to discovering the fate of my sister or any of the others.

  I should clarify something. Not once since my father vanished in Cambodia have I sensed that he was truly dead, gone from this world. Not even with the last frame of film he shot showing an executioner’s pistol pointed at his face. Miracles happen, especially in war. For this reason I’ve spent thousands of dollars over the past twenty years trying to find him, piggybacking my money with that of the relatives of Vietnam-era MIAs, giving what would have been my retirement money to scam artists and outright thieves, all in the slender hope that one lead among the hundreds will turn out to be legitimate. On some level, my decision to take the advance for my book was probably a way to be paid to hunt for my father in person, to tramp across Asia with an eye to my camera and an ear to the ground.

  With Jane it’s different. By the time my agency tracked me down on a CNN satellite phone in Sarajevo, something had already changed irrevocably within me. As I crossed a street once infested with snipers, a nimbus of dread welled up in my chest—not the familiar dread of a bullet with my name on it, but something much deeper. Whatever energy animates my soul simply stopped flowing as I ran, and the street vanished. I kept running blindly into the dark tunnel before me, as though it were nine years before, during the worst of it, when the snipers shot anything that moved. A CNN cameraman yanked me behind a wall, thinking I’d seen the impact of a silenced bullet on the concrete. I hadn’t, but a moment later, when the street returned, I felt as though a bullet had punched through me, taking with it something no doctor could ever put back or put right.

  Quantum physics describes “twinned particles,” photons of energy that, even though separated by miles, behave identically when confronted with a choice of paths. It is now thought that some unseen connection binds them, defying known physical laws, acting instantaneously without reference to the speed of light or any other limit. Jane and I were joined in this way. And from the moment that dark current of dread pulsed through my heart, I felt that my twin was dead. Twelve hours later, I got the call.

  Thirteen months after that—two hours ago—I walked into the museum in Hong Kong and saw her painted image, naked in death. I’m not sure what happened immediately after. The earth did not stop turning. The cesium atoms in the atomic clock at Boulder did not stop vibrating. But time in the subjective sense—the time that is me—simply ceased. I became a hole in the world.

  The next thing I remember is sitting in this first-class seat on a Cathay Pacific 747 bound for New York, a Pacific Rim sunset flaring in my window as the four great engines thrum, their vibration causing a steady ripple in the scotch on the tray before me. That was two whiskeys ago, and I still have another nineteen hours in the air. My eyes are dry and grainy, stinging. I am cried out. My mind gropes backward toward the museum, but there is something in the way. A shadow. I know better than to try to force the memory. I was shot once in Africa, and from the moment the bullet ripped through my shoulder till the moment I came to my senses in the Colonial Hotel and found myself being patched up by an Australian reporter whose father was a doctor, everything was blank. The missing events—a hectic jeep ride down an embattled road, the bribing of a checkpoint guard (in which I participated)—only returned to me later. They had not disappeared, but merely fallen out of sequence.

  So it was at the museum. But here, in the familiar environment of the plane, in the warm wake of my third scotch, things begin to return. Brief flashing images at first, then jerky sequences, like bad streaming video. I’m standing before the painting of a naked woman whose face is mine to the last detail, and my feet are rooted to the floor with the permanence of nightmares. The men crowding me from behind believe I’m the woman who modeled for the painting on the wall. They chatter incessantly and race around like ants after kerosene has been poured on their hill. They are puzzled that I am alive, angry that their fantasy of “Sleeping Women” seems to be a hoax. But I know things they don’t. I see my sister stepping out onto St. Charles Avenue, the humidity condensing on her skin even before she begins to run. Three miles is her goal, but somewhere in the junglelike Garden District, she puts a foot wrong and falls into the hole my father fell into in 1972.

  Now she stares back at me with vacant eyes, from a canvas as deep as a window into hell. Having accepted her death in my bones, having mourned and buried her in my mind, this unexpected resurrection triggers a storm of emotions. But somewhere in the chemical chaos of my brain, in the storm’s dark eye, my rational mind continues to work. Whoever painted this picture has knowledge of my sister beyond the moment she vanished from the Garden District. He knows what no one else could: the story of Jane’s last hours, or minutes, or seconds. He heard her last words. He—He . . . ? Why do I assume the painter is a man?

  Because he almost certainly is. I have no patience with the Naomi Wolfs of the world, but there’s no denying statistical fact. It is men who commit these obscene crimes: rape; stranger murder; and the pièce de résistance, serial murder. It’s an exclusively male pathology: the hunting, the planning, the obsessively tended rage working itself out in complex rituals of violence. A man hovers like a specter behind these strange paintings, and he has knowledge that I need. He alone in the world can give me what has eluded me for the past year. Peace.

  As I stare into my sister’s painted eyes, a wild hope is born in my chest. Jane looks dead in the picture. And the audio tour announcer suggested that all the women in this series are. But there must be some chance, despite my premonition in Sarajevo, that she was merely unconscious while this work was done. Drugged maybe, or playing possum, as my mother called it when we were kids. How long would it take to paint something like this? A few hours? A day? A week?

  A particularly loud burst of Chinese snaps the spell of the picture, waking me to the tears growing cold on my cheeks, the hand grasping my shoulder. That hand belongs to one of the bastards who came here today to ogle dead women. I have a wild urge to reach up and snatch the canvas from the wall, to cover my sister’s nakedness from these prying eyes. But if I pull down a painting worth millions of dollars, I will find myself in the custody of the Chinese police—a disagreeable circumstance at best.

  I run instead.

  I run like hell, and I don’t stop until I reach a dark room filled with documents under glass. It’s ancient Chinese poetry, hand-painted on paper as fragile as moths’ wings. The only light comes from the display cases, and they fluoresce only when I come near. My hands are shaking in the dark, and when I hug myself, I realize the rest of me is shaking too. In the blackness I see my mother, slowly drinking herself to death in Oxford, Mississippi. I see Jane’s husband and children in New Orleans, trying their best to live without her and not doing terribly well at it. I see the FBI agents I met thirteen months ago, sober men with good intentions but no idea how to help.

  I shot hundreds of crime-scene photos when I was starting my career, but I never quite realized how important a dead body is to a murder investigation. The corpse is ground zero. Without one, investigators face a wall as blank a
s unexposed film. The painting back in the exhibition room is not Jane’s corpse, but it may be the closest thing anyone will ever find to it. It’s a starting point. With this realization comes another: there are other paintings like Jane’s. According to the audio tour, nineteen. Nineteen naked women posed in images of sleep or death. As far as I know, only eleven women have disappeared from New Orleans. Who are the other eight? Or are there only eleven, with some appearing in more than one painting? And what in God’s name are they doing in Hong Kong, halfway around the world?

  Stop! snaps a voice in my head. My father’s voice. Forget your questions! What should you do NOW?

  The audio tour said the paintings are sold through a U.S. dealer named Christopher something in New York. Windham? Winwood? Wingate. To be sure, I pull the Walkman off my belt and jam it into my crowded fanny pack. The movement triggers a display case light, and my eyes ache from the quick pupillary contraction. As I slide back into the shadows, the obvious comes clear: if Christopher Wingate is based in New York, that’s where the answers are. Not in this museum. In the curator’s office I will find only suspicious curiosity. I don’t need police for this, especially communist Chinese police. I need the FBI. Specifically, the Investigative Support Unit. But they’re ten thousand miles away. What would the boy ge niuses of Behavioral Science want from this place? The paintings, obviously. I can’t take those with me. But the next-best thing is not impossible. In my fanny pack is a small, inexpensive point-and-shoot camera. It’s the photojournalist’s equivalent of a cop’s throwdown gun, the tool you simply can’t be without. The one day you’re sure you won’t need a camera, a world-class tragedy will explode right in front of you.