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Dead Sleep

Dead Sleep

Dead Sleep 24


  Lenz is probably furious at being mocked, but he soldiers on. “Is Roger Wheaton gay?”

  Smith barks a little laugh that’s hard to read. “Did you ask Roger that?”

  “No. I wasn’t sure, and I didn’t want to offend him.”

  “I’m offended for him. Not because of anything to do with being gay, but because of the invasion of his privacy.”

  “When people are dying, private matters often must become public. If you won’t answer the question, I will have to ask Wheaton. Is that what you want me to do?”

  “No.”

  “Very well.”

  After a thoughtful pause, Smith says, “I wouldn’t say Roger is gay.”

  “What would you say?”

  “He’s a complex man. I’ve only known him personally for two years, and all that time he’s been seriously ill.

  I think his illness has caused him to concentrate on non-sexual areas of his life.”

  “Have you ever seen him out with a woman?” Lenz asks. “Or with a woman at his home?”

  “Roger doesn’t ‘go out.’ He’s either home or at the university. And yes, he has female guests.”

  “Overnight?”

  “I don’t think so.”

  “Does he have particular male friends?”

  “I flatter myself that I’m his friend.”

  “Have you been his lover?”

  “No.”

  “Would you like to be?” asks Kaiser.

  “Yes, I would.”

  “Listen to this guy,” says Baxter. “Cool as they come.”

  “Would you have any problem giving us your whereabouts on a particular set of dates?” asks Kaiser.

  “I wouldn’t think so. But let me be frank about something, gentlemen. I’ll cooperate with this investigation up to a point. But if the police upset my life to an inordinate degree, without direct evidence against me, I’ll institute legal action against both the police and the FBI. I have the resources to vigorously pursue such an action, and with the recent history of the NOPD in this town, I’d say my chances were good. So be forewarned.”

  There’s a silence I can only interpret as shock. I doubt that representatives of the FBI are accustomed to being talked to in this way by serial-murder suspects.

  “Psychology happens to be a particular interest of mine, Doctor,” Smith goes on. “I happen to know that the incidence of homosexual serial killers is zero. So I think you’d have some difficulty persuading a jury that I’m a good candidate for harassment in this case.”

  “We don’t necessarily believe the painter is the killer in this case,” Lenz says. “But we’re not focusing on you as a suspect. You’re simply one of four people with access to particular brush hairs taken from Sleeping Women canvases.”

  “Tell me about these hairs.”

  Kaiser quickly summarizes the link between the factory in Manchuria, the New York importer, and Wheaton’s special orders. When he finishes, Smith says, “So many questions behind your eyes, Agent Kaiser. Like little worms turning. You want to know everything. How exactly does it work? Does Frank really take it up the bum? Is he promiscuous? You have images of the old bathhouse scene in your mind? I was there for it, all right, the tail end of it. I was only seventeen. I sucked till the muscles in my face cramped. Does that make me a killer?”

  “Listen to this guy,” says Baxter.

  “Why do you live in the French Quarter rather than close to Tulane?” asks Kaiser.

  “The lower Quarter is a haven for gays. Didn’t you know? There may be more of us here than there are of you. You should come back on Gay Pride Day and see me with my entourage. I’m quite a celebrity down here.”

  “Tell us about your fellow students,” says Lenz. “What do you think of Leon Gaines?”

  “Pond scum. Roger gave him a matched pair of abstracts as a gift, small but very fine. Leon sold one of them two weeks later—for heroin, I’m sure. I didn’t have the heart to tell Roger.”

  “And Gaines’s work?”

  “His work?” Another laugh. “The violence has a certain authenticity. But I think of Leon as a graffiti artist. A boy painting dirty words and symbols on a wall. He wants desperately to shock, but he has no real insight, so the ultimate effect is flat.”

  “What about Thalia Laveau?”

  “Thalia’s a lovely creature. Lovely and sad.”

  “Why sad?”

  “Have you talked to her yet?”

  “No.”

  “She suffered terribly as a child, I think. She carries a great deal of pain around.”

  “What about her paintings?”

  “They’re charming. A sort of tribute to the nobility of the lower classes—a myth to which I don’t happen to subscribe, but one she somehow manages to bring to life on canvas.”

  “Have you seen any of her nude work?”

  “I didn’t know she did any.”

  “What do you think of her skill as an artist?”

  “Thalia has a gift. She works very fast, probably because she sees to the heart of things so quickly. She’ll do well, if she sticks with it.”

  “Why wouldn’t she?”

  “As I said . . . she has a certain fragility. Fragility at the center of toughness. Like a nautilus hidden within a shell.”

  “What about Roger Wheaton’s work?” asks Kaiser.

  “Roger’s a genius.” Smith’s tone is matter-of-fact, as though he’d said, “The sky is blue.” “One of a handful I’ve met in my life.”

  “Why is he a genius?” asks Kaiser.

  “Have you seen his work?”

  “Some of it.”

  “You don’t think he’s a genius?”

  “I’m not qualified to make that judgment.”

  “Well, I am. Roger isn’t like the rest of us. He paints from within. Utterly and completely. I try to do it, and I like to think I occasionally succeed. But the external is an important part of the process for me. I plan, I use models, rigorous technique. I strive to capture beauty, to freeze and yet animate it. Roger doesn’t use models or photographs or anything else. When he paints, the divine simply flows out through his brush. Every time I look at his canvases, I see something different. Particularly the abstract ones.”

  “Do you know anything about the clearing he supposedly paints? Is it a real place?”

  “I assume it is, or was, but I really have no idea. I don’t think it matters. It’s just a point of departure for him, the way a cliff might be the point of departure for an eagle.”

  “It may well matter in relation to these crimes,” says Lenz.

  “Are you really looking at Roger as a suspect? That’s ludicrous. He’s the gentlest man I know. Also the most ethical.”

  “Did you know he killed several men in Vietnam?” asks Kaiser.

  “I know he was in the war. He doesn’t talk about it. But surely you don’t consider killing in combat to be murder?”

  “No. But a man who’s killed once can kill again. Perhaps more easily than some others.”

  “Perhaps. Have you ever killed anyone, Agent Kaiser?”

  “Yes.”

  “In war?”

  “Yes.”

  “As a civilian? In the line of duty?”

  “Yes.”

  “I’ll bet you have. There’s violence in you. I can see it. I’d like to paint you sometime.”

  “I’m not available.”

  “You’ve seen some terrible things, haven’t you?”

  “It’s a tough world, Frank.”

  “Isn’t it? Dr. Lenz has seen things, too, but they don’t affect him the same way. Evil and brutality offend you. You have a strong moral streak. A compulsion to judge.”

  “This is a waste of time,” Kaiser says testily. “Our photographer should be here any minute.”

  Baxter takes hold of my elbow. “Move. Go, go, go.”

  Outside the van, I look both ways, then cross Esplanade, my eyes on Frank Smith’s cottage. It presents a simple face to the stree
t: four windows, three dormers, and a gabled roof, with a door where the porte cochere would have been a century ago. My knock is answered by a beautiful Hispanic boy of about nineteen. Juan, I presume.

  “Jes?” he says.

  “I’m from the FBI. I’m here to take some pictures.”

  “Sí. Follow me.”

  As he leads me through the entrance hall, I realize that Smith’s Creole cottage has been transformed from a humble nineteenth-century abode into a showplace for antiques and art. To my right is a luxurious dining room with a Regency table, Empire chandeliers, and a huge mirror over a French commode. On the wall above a hunt board hangs a life-size portrait of a nude man reclining on a chaise. He looks vaguely familiar: large-boned but not well-muscled, yet his face has a remarkable nobility. The picture is languidly erotic, with full frontal nudity, and looks as though it could have been painted in the 1500s.

  “Señora?” Juan says. “Please?”

  A few steps and a left turn take us to the salon, where the others sit drinking coffee. This room, too, is stunning, with Oriental wood screens and an Aubusson rug the size of a wading pool. Frank Smith looks up as I reach the door, and though I intended to keep my eyes on my camera, I find myself looking square into Smith’s face. The young painter has sea-green eyes, an aquamarine shade I’ve only seen in the eyes of women. They’re set in a deeply tanned face, above a Roman nose and sensual mouth. Both his face and body have a remarkable symmetry, and he looks lean and muscular under his white linen clothes. Suddenly recalling my purpose for being here, I blink and turn to Kaiser.

  “I’m sorry I’m late. What do you want me to shoot?”

  “Anything by Mr. Smith here.”

  Frank Smith hasn’t taken his eyes off me, and I’m eerily certain that he has seen me before. Me or my sister. That possibility closes my throat and brings sweat to my face.

  “The nude in the dining room is mine,” Smith says.

  I nod and manage to speak one sentence. “I won’t be a minute.”

  “I beg your pardon,” he says. “Have we met?”

  I clear my throat and look at Kaiser, half hoping he’ll draw his gun. “I don’t think so.”

  “In San Francisco, perhaps? Have you been there?”

  I live there when I’m not working. . . . “Yes, but not for—”

  “My God, you’re Jordan Glass.”

  Kaiser, Lenz, and I stare at one another like fools.

  “You are,” Smith says. “I might not have recognized you, but with the camera, something just clicked. My God, what are you doing here? Don’t tell me you’ve joined the FBI?”

  “No.”

  “Well, what in the world are you doing here?”

  The truth has a voice of its own. “My sister was one of the victims.”

  Smith’s mouth drops open. “Oh, no. Oh, I see.” He gets to his feet and looks as though he wants to hug me, as though the tragedy had just happened. “Actually, that’s not true. I don’t see at all.”

  Kaiser is glaring at me like I shouldn’t have given away the game, but once Smith recognized me, there was really no point in continuing.

  “We were identical twins,” I explain.

  The artist’s eyes narrow as he tries to understand; it doesn’t take him long.

  “You’re a stalking horse! They’re using you to try to panic the killer into revealing himself.”

  I say nothing.

  Smith shakes his head in amazement. “Well, I’m happy to meet you, despite the circumstances. I love your work. I have for years.”

  “Thank you.”

  “How did you recognize her?” asks Lenz.

  Smith directs his answer to me. “Someone pointed you out to me at a party in San Francisco. I stood within three feet of you for twenty minutes, talking to someone else. I wanted to meet you, but I didn’t want to intrude.”

  As I look back at Smith, the portrait in his dining room clicks in my mind. “Is the man in the dining room painting Oscar Wilde?”

  His eyes light with pleasure. “Yes. I used the photo on the cover of the Ellmann biography for his face, and various other photos to get an idea of the rest of his body. Wilde is a hero of mine.”

  “I love the cottage,” I tell him, laying a hand on his arm to gauge his reaction. He clearly enjoys it. “Do you have a garden?”

  Smith beams. “Of course. Follow me.”

  Without paying the slightest bit of attention to Kaiser or Lenz, he escorts me to the front door, which leads to a walled garden filled with citrus plants, roses, and a gnarled wisteria that’s probably as old as the house. One wall of the garden is formed by an old servants’ quarters, which appears to have been converted into a wing of the cottage. Rushing water from a three-tiered fountain fills the courtyard with sound, but what holds me rapt is the light—glorious sunlight falling softly through the foliage with the perfect clarity I remember from Marcel de Becque’s Sleeping Women.

  “It’s lovely,” I say softly, wondering if my sister ever lay unconscious or dead on the paving bricks before me.

  “You have a standing invitation. I’d love to entertain you. Please call anytime.”

  My second invitation today. “I just might do that.”

  Footsteps sound on the porch behind us. Kaiser says, “Mr. Smith, we’d like you to keep Ms. Glass’s presence in New Orleans to yourself.”

  “Spoilsport,” Smith retorts, cutting his eyes at me. “They’re no fun at all, are they?”

  “And please do not contact Thalia Laveau about this visit.”

  Anger flares in Smith’s eyes. “Stop giving me orders in my own house.”

  In the awkward silence that follows, I suddenly want out of this place, away from this man who could have been the last person my sister ever saw.

  “We really must go,” Lenz says.

  “No rest for the wicked,” Smith quips, his humor inexplicably back in gear. Taking my arm, he leads me back through the house to the porch facing Esplanade Avenue.

  “Remember,” he says. “You’re always welcome.”

  I nod but do not speak, and without a word to Kaiser or Lenz, Smith turns and goes back into his cottage, leaving us on the small porch.

  “So much for the element of surprise,” Kaiser says as we cross through traffic to the van. “How about that picture of Oscar Wilde?”

  “Beautifully done,” says Lenz, who appears preoccupied by something.

  “Smith reminds me of Dorian Gray,” I think aloud. “A beautiful amoral man who will never age.”

  “Why amoral?” asks Kaiser. “Not because he’s gay.”

  “No. It’s something I sense about him. He’s like de Becque, yet different somehow. What do you think, Doctor?”

  Lenz has a strange smile on his face. “You know what no one remembers about Dorian Gray?”

  “What?”

  “He murdered a man, then bribed a chemist to come to his house and destroy the body. The chemist used special compounds to burn the corpse until there was nothing left.”

  “You’re kidding,” says Kaiser.

  “No. Wilde was ahead of his time in many ways. Dorian Gray’s theory of murder was no corpse, no evidence, no crime.”

  16

  THALIA LAVEAU LIVES on the second floor of a three-story Victorian rooming house near Tulane University. Nine other women and two men live in the house, which is a nightmare for the NOPD surveillance team. Seven doors, twenty-one ground-level windows, and two fire escapes. Parked on the student-dominated block, we hunch inside the FBI surveillance van like J. Edgar Hoover-era G-men spying on “outside agitators.”

  “The plan is for John to take the lead on Laveau,” Baxter says, looking at Dr. Lenz. “Does anybody want to change that before you go in?”

  Kaiser and Lenz glance at each other, but neither speaks.

  “I do,” I tell them.

  All three men look at me in confusion.

  “What do you mean?” asks Baxter.

  “I want to go in alon
e.”

  “What?” they cry in unison.

  “This is a woman, guys. Maybe a gay woman. I’ll get twice as much out of her as you could.”

  “The point isn’t to get something out of her,” Baxter reminds me. “It’s to find out whether she’s seen you before, and therefore your sister. And since no one else seemed to recognize you—except Smith, who didn’t try to hide it—this interview may be critical.”

  I look him dead in the eye. “Do you really believe a woman is behind all these disappearances? Or even involved?”

  “Let her do it,” says Dr. Lenz, surprising me. “The odds that Laveau is involved are low, and her nude paintings will probably tell us more than she will. But if Jordan can gain her trust, we might learn something valuable about one of the men.”

  “You saw how Smith responded to me,” I press Baxter. “I think he would have opened up to me if I’d been alone. Wheaton, too.”

  “Smith was responding to your fame,” says Kaiser, who looks uncomfortable with the idea. “Not your gender.”

  “If you went in alone, what would you say?” asks Baxter.

  “I won’t know that until I get there. That’s the way I work.”

  The ISU chief looks tempted but worried. “Jesus, the liability—”

  “What liability? I’m a private citizen walking up to someone’s door. If she invites me in, so what?”

  “What if she sees you and freaks?” asks Kaiser. “Attacks you? If she’s involved, that’s a real possibility.”

  “I wouldn’t turn down a gun if you offered me one.”

  Baxter shakes his head. “We can’t give you a gun.”

  “How about some Mace?”

  “We don’t have any.”

  “This is a bad idea,” says Kaiser.

  “It’s better than sending you and Lenz in there,” I insist. “Look, I’ll know whether she’s seen me before as soon as she answers the door. Then I’ll tell her you guys are outside. I’ll tell the truth. I’m the sister of one of the victims, trying to find some answers, and the FBI is kindly providing some protection for me.”

  “Let her go,” Lenz says. “We need to know what Laveau knows. This is the best way to find that out.” He looks at Kaiser. “You disagree?”

  Kaiser looks like he’d like to argue, but he doesn’t. “Put the wire on her, and I’ll stand just outside the house with a receiver.” He watches me, his hazel eyes intense. “If you sense it going bad in any way, yell for help. And I mean yell. No codes that can be misunderstood.”