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Dead Sleep

Dead Sleep

Dead Sleep 23


  “Who’s this?” asks Gaines.

  There’s a strange caesura as Kaiser and Lenz judge his reaction to me. I force myself not to look at him by busying myself with my camera. Past the camera I see a brown sofa pitted with cigarette burns and a threadbare carpet stained with drops of oil paint. The walls are bare but for an airbrushed Elvis on one wall and a small but elegant abstract over the sofa. A large easel stands in the corner nearest me, a dirty cloth thrown over it.

  “She’s our photographer,” says Kaiser. He points at the easel. “Is that painting yours?”

  “Yeah,” Gaines replies, and from the sound of his voice I can tell he’s still looking at me.

  I give him my face, searching his eyes for signs of recognition. They’re dark coals set in yellow sclera, and they look permanently wide, like a hyperthyroid patient’s, the effect exaggerated by dark half-moons beneath them. A limp black perm hangs over his forehead, and three days’ growth of beard stubbles his face. In person, his skin has the sickly white pallor of a snake’s belly. It’s not hard to imagine him rolling a lawn mower over a live cat.

  “Take the sheet off the painting so she can shoot it,” Kaiser orders.

  “Maybe I don’t want it shot till it’s finished.”

  “Maybe somebody somewhere gives a shit what you want.” Kaiser walks over to the easel and yanks off the sheet.

  Because I expected so little, Gaines’s painting is star tlingly powerful. A lank-haired blond woman with a hard face sits at a kitchen table in the harsh light of a bare bulb. She’s surrounded by dirty cereal bowls and fast-food bags, and her shirt is open to the waist, revealing small sagging breasts. Her hollow eyes look out from the canvas with the sullen resignation of an animal that has helped build its own cage. It’s hard to imagine such truthful art coming from the creature standing across the room, but talent isn’t handed out on a merit system.

  I set the flash on the Mamiya and start shooting, doing my best to ignore Gaines, whose eyes I feel like greasy fingers on my skin. After ten shots, I turn to the small abstract on the other wall. It’s different from Gaines’s work, but it looks like an original. Some female art student probably gave it to him after he slept with her.

  “Who painted that?” I ask, shooting a snap of the small canvas.

  “Roger,” Gaines replies.

  “Roger Wheaton?” asks Lenz.

  “Yeah.” Gaines moves closer to me. “I can tell you like my picture. You ought to come back later and let me paint you.”

  I would laugh were the situation not so grave.

  “Shut up, you cheating bastard!”

  I whirl to find the blond woman from the painting charging into the room. Wild eyes flash in her pale face, and a livid red mark the size of a fist covers one cheek from eye to mouth, the center of it already turning dark.

  “Get back in there!” Gaines yells, his right hand balled into a fist.

  Kaiser interposes himself between Gaines and the girl, who’s wearing only a thin nightgown. “Has this man assaulted you, miss?”

  “He fucked me over, is what he done! He’s a goddamn liar! He said I was gonna be a model!”

  “Have you modeled for him without clothes?”

  “Hell, yes! He hardly lets me put anything on. But he don’t want to paint, he just wants to fuck. That and get stoned, all day every day. And once he gets stoned, he can’t even do that!”

  “Get out, goddamn it!” Gaines screams, raising his fist.

  The girl looks at me with a defiant rage. “Don’t let them crazy eyes get you, honey, he’s a loser.”

  “Like you’d know?” Gaines yells. “This lady’s got class.”

  The woman laughs. “Yeah? That means she don’t lay down with trash like you.”

  Gaines lunges at her, but Kaiser does something with his foot and suddenly Gaines is on the floor, clutching his knee with both hands. The girl laughs hysterically and points at Gaines.

  “I think you’d better come with us,” Kaiser tells her.

  “I got nowhere to go he can’t find me.”

  “We can arrange a shelter. A protected place.”

  “For real?”

  “You try it, slut,” Gaines groans.

  Kaiser looks over at Lenz. “You have any questions?”

  The psychiatrist shakes his head.

  “Maybe I will go with you,” the girl says to Kaiser.

  When he nods, she runs into the back of the house, and after a crash and some scuffling sounds, returns with a purse and a grocery bag filled with clothes.

  “You can forget what I said before,” she says. “I don’t know where he was three nights ago. He was supposed to come back after the NOMA opening, but he never did.”

  Gaines stares up from the floor with murder in his eyes.

  “Well, Leon,” says Kaiser. “I think you’ve got a problem. The NOPD will be in touch.”

  “Just a second,” says the girl. She reaches down beside the sofa and comes up with half a glass of what looks like flat beer. She gives Gaines a vicious look, then splats the beer against the painting on the easel. “You got all you’re gettin’ out of me, scumbag.”

  Gaines roars in fury, and she darts through the front door. Lenz follows her, and I’m close on his heels, surprised by how badly I want out of this self-created hell.

  “Hey, picture lady,” Gaines calls after me. “You know where to find me when you get an itch.”

  I turn back in time to see Kaiser crouch beside Gaines, blocking my line of sight. At first I think he’s whispering something, but then Gaines screams like a woman, and the girl starts laughing on the porch. Lenz sticks his head back through the door and stares transfixed as Kaiser stands, face placid, and walks toward us.

  “What the hell was that?” Lenz asks.

  “I don’t have the patience I used to,” Kaiser mutters.

  Once on the sidewalk, Kaiser signals to someone I can’t see. A man in plainclothes and a shoulder holster jogs up the street, confers with Kaiser, then leads Gaines’s girlfriend away. The three of us gather by the opened rear door of the van, and Baxter looks expectantly at his two emissaries.

  “What do you think?”

  “It’s not Gaines,” says Lenz.

  Baxter looks at Kaiser. “John?”

  “I don’t know.”

  Lenz snorts. “We’ve already wasted too much time. Let’s go see Frank Smith.”

  “He sure reacted to me,” I say softly.

  “Like a hound to a bitch,” says Lenz. “That’s all that was. You didn’t spook him a bit. He’d never seen you before.”

  Baxter is watching me. “What did you think about him?”

  “I know he seems too obvious. But there was something in him that scared me. Like all that attitude was covering up something else, something that repelled me on a whole other level. Does that make sense?”

  “Yes,” says Kaiser. “I felt it too.”

  “The quality of his painting surprised me. He really sees into the women he paints.”

  Baxter says, “He had a painting by Roger Wheaton on his wall?”

  “He did,” Kaiser replies. “I’m surprised he hasn’t sold it for dope already.”

  “We’d better check with Wheaton to make sure he didn’t steal it,” adds Lenz.

  “Drop all that,” says Baxter. “NOPD’s ready to go in now and tear the place apart. Is that what we want?”

  “They’re bound to find drugs or weapons,” says Kaiser. “We could put him in Angola and see if the kidnappings stop.”

  “Do you really expect more kidnappings?” I ask. “Now that we’re this close?”

  “We don’t know how close we are,” says Lenz. “Our interest might cause a more conventional serial offender to slow down, but whoever’s behind this has no reason to. For all we know, the painter is a replaceable element in the equation. If they want another woman, they’ll take one. They might even do it just to show they can.”

  No one questions Lenz’s use of the
plural pronoun.

  “Don’t arrest Gaines,” Kaiser says. “If he’s involved, we’ll learn more by trailing him than jailing him.”

  Baxter looks at Lenz, who nods.

  Baxter presses a button on the console and speaks into his headset mike. “Ed? Roust Gaines, but if you can keep from arresting him, we’d like you to leave him in place. . . . Same search, everything, just leave him home. . . . Thanks. I’ll see you at the four o’clock meeting.”

  Baxter takes off the headset and looks at me. “Ready for Frank Smith?”

  “He’s got to be an improvement over Gaines.”

  “Cleaner, anyway,” says Kaiser.

  Baxter knocks on the front panel, and the van screeches onto Freret Street, headed for the more agreeable ambience of the French Quarter.

  15

  “ROGER WHEATON CALLED Smith and warned him we’re coming,” Baxter says, pulling off his headset. “Wiretap just picked it up.”

  We’re parked across the street from a beautiful Creole cottage on the downriver side of Esplanade, the eastern border of the French Quarter. For the past two years it’s been the home of Frank Smith.

  “Why wouldn’t Wheaton warn him?” asks Kaiser.

  “We asked him not to,” says Lenz.

  “And now they’re tearing his house apart and informing him he’s going to have to supply skin and blood for DNA testing to compare to the skin we took from under the Dorignac’s victim’s fingernails.”

  “The call actually makes Wheaton look less suspicious,” Kaiser says. “He’s not stupid. He knows he’s a suspect, which probably means a wiretap, but he made the warning call anyway. That’s what somebody does when they’re innocent and pissed off.”

  “Unless they do it to look innocent,” says Lenz.

  “Why didn’t he warn Gaines?” I ask.

  “Maybe he doesn’t like Gaines,” Kaiser says with a laugh. “That’s not hard to imagine.”

  “Did he warn Thalia Laveau?” asks Lenz.

  “Not yet,” Baxter replies. “Only Smith.”

  “‘I’m very fond of Frank,’” says Kaiser. “Those were Wheaton’s words in the interview.”

  “I wonder if there could be a homosexual link,” Lenz says.

  “Wheaton has never married,” says Baxter. “Why didn’t you ask him if he’s gay? He’s never married.”

  “He may be in the closet,” says Lenz. “I didn’t want to burn my bridges with him entirely. We can find that out elsewhere.”

  Kaiser moves to the rear door. “Frank Smith is openly gay. Maybe he’ll tell us.” He looks at me. “See you in a few minutes.”

  He and Lenz leave the van and slam the door.

  Baxter presses his face to the van’s tinted porthole window. “The house doesn’t look as fancy as I pictured it.”

  “You’re looking at the back,” I tell him. “Most of these houses face inward. Some onto courtyards, others onto fantastic gardens of tropical plants.”

  “John told me about your natural light theory. This house does have a courtyard. Smith’s the only suspect who has one. Wheaton has an outdoor garden, but no walls. Hey, look at this.”

  I put my cheek to his, and my eyes to the darkened porthole.

  Frank Smith stands waiting for Kaiser and Lenz on his porch. He’s sleek and handsome, his dark tan set off by white tropical clothing, linen or silk. He has large vivid eyes and an ironic smile on his lips.

  “Look at this guy,” says Kaiser over the monitor speaker. “A smart-ass, I can tell already.”

  “I’ll be primary,” Lenz says.

  Through the speakers, Frank Smith’s voice has the festive tone of a man greeting party guests. “Hello! Are you the gentlemen from the FBI? When do the storm troopers arrive?”

  “Jesus,” mutters Kaiser. “There aren’t any storm troopers, Mr. Smith. Because of certain evidence, you’ve become a suspect in some very serious crimes. There’s no way to sugarcoat that. We’re here to ask you some questions.”

  “You’re not here for a blood sample? Urine perhaps?”

  “No. We’re here to talk.”

  “Well, I don’t have an alibi for the night the woman was taken from Dorignac’s. I was here, alone, listening to music.” Through the window, I see Smith hold out his hands as if for handcuffs. “Let’s get it over with.”

  “We’re just here to talk,” Kaiser insists.

  “Foreplay for the police?” Smith asks in a taunting voice.

  “We don’t control the police in this town.”

  “I thought after all the corruption scandals here, you did.”

  Beside me, Baxter says, “He’s pretty well-informed for a recent transplant.”

  Not many years ago, police corruption and the city’s homicide rate were at an all-time high. Two police officers actually committed murder in the execution of a robbery, and the chaos that followed almost resulted in the Justice Department federalizing the New Orleans police force.

  “We can talk here, in a civil manner,” says Kaiser, “or the police can haul you downtown.”

  Smith laughs. “My God, it’s Humphrey Bogart in elevator shoes. Why don’t we go into the salon? I’ll have coffee brought in.”

  Footsteps and a closing door echo in the van, then more footsteps.

  “Please, sit,” Smith says.

  There’s a groan of springs compressing under Dr. Lenz’s weight.

  “Juan? Three coffees, please.”

  “Sí.”

  “The guy has a servant,” says Baxter. “Shit. My student days were a little different.”

  “Mr. Smith,” Lenz begins, “I’m Arthur Lenz, a forensic psychiatrist. This is Special Agent John Kaiser. He’s a psychological profiler for the Bureau.”

  “Two Von Helsings in my salon. Should I be flattered or insulted?”

  “What’s he talking about?” asks Baxter.

  “Von Helsing was the professor who hunted Drac ula,” I tell him.

  “This is going to be fun, I can tell.”

  “Put the tray there, Juan. Thank you.” There’s a pause, then Smith half-whispers, “I’m still training him. He has a long way to go, but he’s worth it. How do you take your coffee, Doctor?”

  “Black, please.”

  “Same for me,” says Kaiser.

  There’s a tinkle of china, more groaning of springs.

  “I’m not sure where to begin,” Lenz says. “We—”

  “Let me save you both some time,” Smith interrupts. “You’re here because of the women who’ve been vanishing. You’ve discovered that the series of paintings known as The Sleeping Women depicts these women. Some bit of evidence has led you to Roger Wheaton’s program at Tulane. You’re now questioning Wheaton and the rest of us before turning the police loose on us and ripping our lives apart. Roger is very upset, and that upsets me. I’d very much like to hear the details of this supposed evidence.”

  “You sound as if you were already aware of the Sleeping Women,” says Kaiser.

  “I was.”

  “How did you learn about them?”

  “From a friend in Asia.”

  “You have a lot of Asian friends?”

  “I have friends all over the world. Friends, colleagues, clients, lovers. About three months ago I heard that paintings from a new series were topping a million in private sales. Then I heard some were to be exhibited in Hong Kong. I’ve been thinking of going to view them.”

  “You were aware of the subject matter?” asks Lenz.

  “Nude women sleeping was what I understood in the beginning. I only recently heard the rumors about the death theory.”

  “How did you feel about the prospect that women might be dying to produce those paintings?”

  A long pause. “I haven’t seen the paintings, so that’s difficult to answer.”

  Lenz sips from his coffee cup; we can hear it over the mike. “Do you mean the quality of the paintings would determine your view of the morality of women dying to produce them?”
<
br />  “To paraphrase Wilde, Doctor, there’s no such thing as a moral or immoral painting. A painting is either well-done or badly done. If the paintings are beautiful, if they are indeed great art, then they justify their own existence. Any other circumstances involved in their creation are irrelevant.”

  “That sounds familiar,” says Kaiser.

  “How so?” asks Smith.

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

  “No.”

  “He’s a French expatriate who lives in the Cayman Islands.”

  “I don’t know him. But there’s a certain irony in the name.”

  “What’s that?” asks Lenz.

  “Emile de Becque was the French expatriate in South Pacific.”

  “Son of a bitch,” hisses Baxter.

  I can feel Lenz’s embarrassment through the ether. “You’re right,” he says. “I’d forgotten.”

  “Perhaps this man took the surname as an alias?”

  “De Becque’s father went to Southeast Asia in the 1930s,” says Lenz. “Maybe Michener heard the name and gave it to one of his island characters.”

  “I’ll tell you someone I did know,” says Smith. “This should get you hot and bothered. Christopher Wingate.”

  This time the silence is longer. “Why would you bring up Christopher Wingate?” asks Lenz.

  “Let’s not play games, Doctor. I heard about Wingate’s death. I knew he was the dealer for the Sleeping Women. I thought nothing of it at the time. But now that the paintings are connected with possible murders, I see his death in a different light.”

  “How did you know Wingate?” asks Kaiser.

  “A mutual friend introduced us at a party in New York. I was considering switching from my present dealer to him.”

  “Why?”

  “Because he was, in a word, hot.”

  “I’m going to ask you a sensitive question,” says Lenz. “Please don’t take offense. This is very important.”

  “I’m on pins and needles.”