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Dead Sleep

Dead Sleep

Dead Sleep 22


  “Yes, sir,” I say loudly, trying to snap them out of it.

  Wheaton turns back to me. “What are you here to photograph?”

  “Your work.”

  “Well, fire away. As long as your pictures will be held by the FBI, that is. I don’t want any reporters seeing this painting until I’ve completed it.”

  “Absolutely,” Kaiser says finally. “They’ll be held in the strictest confidence.”

  Kaiser glances at me, and I see instantly that he too shares my judgment of Wheaton. The big Vermonter has no idea who I am. After this initial moment of confusion, I realize how hot it is in the studio. Kaiser has removed his coat, revealing a pointillist abstract of sweat on his shirtfront, but Lenz still has his jacket on, probably to hide a suspicious bulge or trailing wires. With the Mamiya I used at de Becque’s, I take a few flash shots of various panels of the painting, but it’s all a sham. Many of Wheaton’s paintings will be confiscated as soon as this interview ends, which in the true sense it already has. I feel guilty being part of this charade, knowing how the subsequent acts will affect and confuse the artist, who appears willing to do all he can to help us.

  As I work, Wheaton drags a ladder to the unfinished panel, laboriously climbs it, then begins painting with small strokes about seven feet up. A few times in my career, I’ve sensed I was in the presence of true greatness. I have that feeling now. I have a powerful desire to shoot Wheaton, to document the artist at work. After a moment’s hesitation, I take a few shots of him, and he doesn’t seem to mind. There’s spare film in my fanny pack, and in less than a minute I’m reloading, so caught up am I in the essential act of my profession. Wheaton has a gift that many great men possess: the ability to carry on with what he’s doing as if no camera were there. Even as I shoot, I know these pictures will be remarkable, and some corner of my brain hopes the FBI won’t insist that the negatives remain their property.

  Lenz and Kaiser have moved across the room to confer quietly, and I sense that they’re ready to move on to Leon Gaines. Sure enough, Kaiser catches my eye and nods at me to wrap it up. There’s more film in the van, so I finish out the roll before I walk up to the ladder and offer Wheaton my hand. I don’t usually shake hands, but in this case I feel I should make some gesture of thanks for his generosity. Leaving his brush and palette atop the ladder, Wheaton climbs down and gives my hand a gentle shake. Even through the cotton gloves I can tell his hand is soft as a woman’s. His disease must keep him from any sort of manual work other than painting.

  “Thanks for making that easy for me,” I say.

  The artist smiles shyly. “It’s very easy to tolerate the attentions of a pretty girl.”

  “Thank you.”

  He looks up, his eyes narrowed behind the bifocals. “Have you always worked for the FBI?”

  “No. I was a photojournalist before.” This is not exactly a lie.

  He studies me a bit longer, then smiles again. “Please stop by and tell me about it sometime. Photography interests me. I rarely have visitors anymore, mostly due to self-imposed restrictions, I’m afraid.”

  “I’ll try to do that.”

  “Mr. Wheaton,” says Kaiser, “I want you to know how much we appreciate your help. The New Orleans police will probably want to talk to you as well. My advice is to cooperate as fully as you can, despite whatever inconvenience they cause. That will end the ordeal sooner than anything else.”

  Wheaton sighs as though he has some inkling of what is to come.

  Dr. Lenz says, “We must also ask you to refrain from contacting your graduate students about this, or speaking of it in the next few days. I’m sure you understand.”

  The artist looks as if he understands all too well.

  “Good day, gentlemen,” he says, and then he turns to me. “Good day, my dear.”

  Kaiser turns to go, but Lenz hangs back. “There’s one question I forgot to ask. Is the clearing a real place? Somewhere near your childhood home in Vermont, perhaps? Or is it a place in Vietnam?”

  Wheaton hesitates, as though deciding whether to answer at all. At length, he says, “I’ve known several places like this in my life. They seemed a sort of nexus to me. A place where the power of nature is focused. The forest or jungle is there but held in abeyance, so that you can see sun and sky. There’s water, but not an overpowering amount of it. And then there’s the earth.”

  “You make it sound peaceful,” says Lenz. “But your paintings aren’t peaceful.”

  “Some are,” says Wheaton. “Others not. Nature isn’t a kindly force. She has many faces, and none cares a thing for us or our needs.”

  “True enough,” Lenz says. “Oh, one thing more, if you don’t mind.”

  I want to slap him for his stupid Columbo tactics.

  “Leon Gaines paints women exclusively. Sometimes nude, sometimes not. Frank Smith paints nude men. Have you ever known him to paint nude women?”

  Wheaton shakes his head. “Frank adores women, but only with their clothes on.”

  Kaiser looks ready to drag the psychiatrist out of the room. At last Lenz offers Wheaton his hand, but the artist merely inclines his head in acknowledgment and goes back to his ladder, causing me to smile.

  We are nearly to the door when Wheaton calls: “Thalia Laveau paints women. Is that important?”

  Kaiser and Lenz are back to him in seconds. “What do you mean?” asks Kaiser. “Women working in their homes? Like that?”

  “No. Her documentary paintings actually surprised me. Because the audition paintings she submitted were nude studies.”

  “Of women?” Lenz almost whispers.

  “Exclusively.”

  Lenz looks at Kaiser, who asks, “Do you have any of those paintings?”

  “No. But I’m sure she does. Are you going to talk to her?”

  Kaiser and Lenz are staring at each other like hunters who have walked into a thicket after a lion and found a unicorn.

  14

  “COME ON!” Baxter shouts from the open door of the surveillance van. “Get in!”

  Kaiser and Lenz are lost in thoughts of Thalia Laveau and her nudes, but something in Baxter’s voice brings them out of it. We scrunch into the cramped van and squat in the heat, our faces inches apart.

  “Ten minutes ago,” says Baxter, “a finance company repossessed Leon Gaines’s van.”

  “Damn it,” snaps Kaiser. “Murphy’s Law.”

  “The repo guy had apparently tried to get it before, and Gaines ran him off. Today he just walked up to the house, popped the lock, and drove off before the NOPD surveillance team could do anything.”

  “Where’s the van now?”

  “Jefferson Parish deputies stopped it on Veterans Highway. They’re going to take it to their impound lot and seal it for our evidence team.”

  “Does Gaines know the van is gone?” Lenz asks.

  “Oh, yeah. He’s fighting with his girlfriend right now. They can hear him yelling out in the street, and parabol ics have picked up the sound of slaps and blows.”

  Lenz shakes his head. “Do we know if he has a gun in there?”

  “This is Louisiana,” says Kaiser. “Assume he does. What do we know about the girlfriend?”

  “Name’s Linda Knapp,” Baxter replies. “She’s twenty-nine, a barmaid. He’s been with her on and off for a little over a year. So. Do we talk to him now or do we wait?”

  “Now,” says Kaiser. “While he’s pissed. Go in hard, settle him down, then bring Jordan in.”

  Baxter turns to me, and when he speaks I smell coffee on his breath. “This isn’t like talking to Roger Wheaton. Gaines is a violent felon.”

  “I signed your release this morning. Kaiser’s armed, and there’ll be cops outside. I’m ready.”

  Baxter hesitates a moment longer, then slaps the panel separating us from the van’s driver. The motor roars, and we lurch backward, then forward. As we roll off of the campus, Kaiser catches my eye and gives me a nod of gratitude.

  LEON GAINES
LIVES in a shotgun house on Freret Street, beyond the terminus of St. Charles and Carrollton, very near the river. It’s a mostly black neighborhood behind an old shopping center, where people mind their own business and a prison record carries no stigma. Old people sit on screened porches, some drinking from paper bags, others rocking slowly and watching the cars go past. Kids too young for school play in tiny yards or the street, and knots of school-age kids stand on the corners. Our driver circles the block once for us to get a look, then stops a couple of driveways up from Gaines’s place.

  Baxter opens the door. “Remember what’s at stake, John. This is our only clean shot at him.”

  Kaiser nods, then gets out and starts up the cracked sidewalk, Dr. Lenz working hard to keep pace with him. After a few seconds, Kaiser’s voice comes from the speakers.

  “Don’t react to anything I do. Act like you expect it, even if you’re shocked.”

  “What are you going to do?” Lenz asks.

  “Whatever feels right. And don’t let me forget to ask if he knows Marcel de Becque. We forgot to ask Wheaton.”

  “You’re right,” huffs Lenz.

  Beside me, Baxter says, “You missed most of the meeting this morning. We confirmed that there was bad blood between de Becque and Christopher Wingate. Most of the art community knew about it. When Wingate sold those paintings he’d promised de Becque, de Becque retaliated by spiking some big investment deal Wingate was involved in. We don’t have the details yet.”

  “I can hear Gaines yelling from here,” says Lenz, sounding nervous.

  “Here we go,” says Kaiser.

  Their shoes bang on plank steps; then a screen door slaps against its frame and a hard knocking echoes through the van.

  “Leon Gaines!” shouts Kaiser. “Open up! FBI!”

  There’s a pause, then a muffled shout of challenge.

  Baxter says, “This is going to be tricky.”

  The unmistakable sound of a door being jerked open comes from the speakers. Then a New York accent laced with alcohol booms, “Who the fuck are you? Pencil-dicks from the finance company? If you are, I got something for you.”

  “I’m Special Agent John Kaiser, FBI. And I’ve got something for you, Leon. A search warrant. Step back from the door.”

  “FBI?” A puzzled silence. “Search warrant? For what?”

  “Step back from the door, Leon.”

  “What is this, man? This is my house.”

  A faint female voice says something unintelligible.

  “Get back in the bedroom!” Gaines yells.

  “I told you twice to clear the door,” says Kaiser. “Do it now or I move you out.”

  “Hey, no problem. But I need to see that warrant first.”

  A scuffling noise is drowned by a grunt of shock by Lenz, and vocal complaint by Gaines.

  “What did Kaiser do?” I ask, gripping a metal rack rail.

  “Moved him out of the door,” says Baxter. “Like he said he would. With a con, you have to establish dominance quickly.”

  “We’ve got two choices here, Leon,” Kaiser says in a voice I hardly recognize. “We can talk to you, or we can search this dump. Right now I want to talk. If I like what I hear, we might not have to search. If I don’t like what I hear, we’ll have to search, and we might conceivably stumble across some drugs. Or a gun. Either beef would put you right into Angola—”

  “What do you want to talk about?”

  “Art.”

  “Art who?”

  “Art, Leon. Your paintings.”

  “Oh.”

  “Eleven women have disappeared from New Orleans over the past year and a half. You know about that?”

  “Yeah. So?”

  “What do you know about it?”

  “What I see on TV.”

  “We found a series of paintings that show these missing women. In the paintings, the women are nude and posed like they’re asleep or dead. Eyes closed, skin pale, like that.”

  “So?”

  “The last sold for over a million bucks.”

  “Do I look like I just made a million bucks to you?”

  “Your paintings reveal a predilection for violence,” says Lenz.

  “Who the hell are you?”

  “This is Doctor Lenz, Leon,” says Kaiser. “You speak to him with respect, or you’ll be funding the Vaseline concession at Angola. That’s the only real self-help program that means anything there.”

  Gaines says nothing.

  “The artist painting these pictures doesn’t sign his work. But we’ve found some rare sable brush hairs in the paint on some of them. Sound familiar?”

  There’s a pause as Gaines works it out. “It’s those expensive brushes Wheaton got us. Right?”

  “Right.”

  “You tracked brush hairs from Hong Kong to Tulane?”

  “That’s what we do, Leon. We can track pubic hairs from an Algiers whorehouse to your ass if we need to. I want some answers. You waste five seconds of my time, you’re on your way up Highway Sixty-one.”

  Gaines says nothing.

  “Where were you three nights ago, after the opening at the museum?”

  “Right here.”

  “Can anybody verify that?”

  “Linda!” Gaines yells, clipping the mike Lenz is wearing.

  There’s a pause; then Kaiser says, “Ms. Knapp?”

  “Who’s asking?” says a scratchy female voice.

  “I’m with the FBI. Could you tell us—”

  “Tell these guys we were here after the NOMA thing,” Gaines cuts in. “They don’t believe me.”

  “Shit,” mutters Baxter.

  “That’s right,” the woman says. “We came straight home. I was bored. Everybody thinks they’re hot shit at those art things. We were here all night.”

  “Can anyone else confirm that?” asks Kaiser.

  “No,” says Gaines. “We were having some quality time, you know?”

  “Right,” Kaiser says wearily.

  “That’s all,” Gaines says, dismissing his girlfriend as he would a waitress.

  “She your steady alibi, Leon?” asks Kaiser.

  “Don’t know what you’re talking about.”

  “Tell me about Roger Wheaton.”

  “What about him?”

  “Why did you want into his program?”

  “Roger’s the man.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “He does his thing and doesn’t give two shits what anybody thinks about it. And because he’s done that his whole life, he’s now a rich and famous man.”

  “You want to be rich and famous too, Leon?”

  “Whatever.”

  “Do you like Wheaton?”

  “What’s to like or not like? The guy paints, that’s it.”

  “Do you respect him?”

  “The guy’s dying, but he keeps working and he doesn’t bitch. I respect that. You see the piece he’s doing now? The room thing?”

  “Yes.”

  “It’s tearing him up, doing that. He’s got all kinds of joint problems. His tendons or something.”

  “Enthesopathies,” Lenz says.

  “Whatever. He has to climb that ladder and sit there for hours, holding his neck in one position. It’s worse than the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo had scaffolding, so he could lay on his back, you know? And Wheaton’s hands . . . Sometimes his fingers turn blue, man. Blue. First white, then blue, sometimes even kind of black. There’s no blood going to them, and he can’t paint or anything else. It’s agony. But he just sits down and waits until it stops, then goes right back to work.”

  “You clearly respect him,” says Lenz. “And I suspect you don’t give respect easily.”

  “You got that right. I think Roger saw a lot of shit in the war. He’s got wisdom, and he knows how to pass it on. By example.”

  “What about Frank Smith?” asks Lenz.

  Gaines makes a spitting sound.

  “You don’t like Smith?”

&
nbsp; “Frankie’s a silver-spoon butt pirate from Westchester. He walks like he has a dildo stuck up his butt, and he preaches every time he opens his mouth.”

  “What about his paintings?”

  Gaines laughs in derision. “The nude fag series? Very tasty. You seen any of them? He cops the old masters so the stuff looks less like porn, then pawns it off on ignorant queens from New York. It’s a sweet scam, I’ll give him that. I’d try it myself, but I have this aversion to anal penetration. You know? But hey, maybe that’s just me.”

  “What about Thalia Laveau?” asks Lenz.

  Another pause, as though Gaines is debating whether to answer. “She’s a tasty piece, if you like dark meat. Which, on occasion, I do. She doesn’t look black, but she’s got the blood, all right. Darker the berry, sweeter the juice, right?”

  “What about her paintings?” asks Kaiser.

  “She paints the poor and downtrodden. Who wants to buy that? A few guilty liberals from New England. She ought to go back to stripping.”

  “She told you she stripped for money?” asks Lenz.

  “A Newcomb art history chick told me. She and Thalia munch carpets together on occasion. Don’t tell me you guys didn’t know.”

  “Do you know a man named Marcel de Becque?” asks Lenz.

  “Never heard of him.”

  “We’re going to want to take some pictures,” Kaiser says in a detached voice. “Our photographer was supposed to be here already, but I’m sure we can find something to talk about in the meantime.”

  Baxter slaps my kneee. “Go. And if it gets rough, hit the floor.”

  He opens the door, and I’m on the concrete, moving up the line of shotgun houses to the sound of R. Kelly coming from a boom box. I nod to the porch-sitters who’ll assume from my clothes and the camera around my neck that I’m what I used to be, a newspaper photographer sent down here for pictures of a corpse or drug activity.

  The green paint is peeling from the walls of Gaines’s house, and the screen on the door is a rusted patchwork of orange and black. I feel a moment’s trepidation as I reach for the handle, but the knowledge that Kaiser has a gun settles me enough to knock and go through the door.

  The first thing that hits me is the smell. The scents of paint and oil that made Wheaton’s studio so pleasant are here smothered by the stink of mildew, stale beer, rotting food, tobacco, and marijuana. Kaiser, Lenz, and Gaines practically fill the front room, which is long and narrow and throws me back to the countless shotgun houses I visited when I worked for the Times-Picayune.