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Dead Sleep 26
“Were you sexually abused?”
“Not like that. Not by family. But . . .” I’m suddenly hyperconscious of Baxter and Lenz and Kaiser in the surveillance van, monitoring every word. I feel like a traitor, both to Thalia and to myself, and I want to yank off the transmitter I’m wearing. But if I did, Thalia couldn’t possibly understand.
“Take your time,” she says. “Would you like some tea?”
“I was raped,” I say softly, not quite believing the words as they fall from my mouth. “It was a long time ago.”
“Time doesn’t mean anything when it’s that.”
“Was it a friend?”
“No. I was in Honduras, during the war in El Salvador. I was just starting out, really. I’d been photographing this refugee camp with a couple of print reporters, and we got separated. They left without me, and I had to walk back to the town. This car came along and stopped for me. There were government soldiers in the car. Four of them, one an officer. They were polite and smiling. They said they’d take me into town. I was always really careful, but it was a long way back to town. I took the ride. A mile down the road, they turned off and drove me into the jungle. So far that no one could hear me screaming. I know, because I lost my voice that night.”
“It’s all right,” Thalia murmurs. “I’m here with you.”
“I know. But it’s not all right. It’s never gotten all right. I’m more ashamed of that than anything I’ve ever done.”
“You didn’t do anything, Jordan. What did you do? You accepted a ride from men who said they’d help you.”
Tears of anger and self-disgust sting my eyes. “I’m not talking about the rape. I’m talking about after. Before they started, they tied my hands behind my back. There was no way to fight, and it went on for hours. At some point during the night I passed out. At dawn I woke up with my arms numb but my hands free. I followed the tire tracks out to the road, then limped into town bleeding and crying. I didn’t tell a soul what they’d done. I thought I was so tough, but I didn’t have the nerve even to go to a hospital. I thought if the people I worked for found out what had happened, they’d pull me out of there before I knew what hit me. Not to protect me, but because they’d think I couldn’t handle myself. You know? I hate myself for that fear. I’ve been haunted ever since by the women who might have been raped after me because I didn’t report those men.”
Thalia slowly shakes her head. “There were probably women before you and women after. But it’s over now. You’ve punished yourself enough. Those soldiers are dead. If they’re not physically dead, their souls are. What matters is how you are now. That’s the only thing you can change.”
“I know that.”
“Your head knows it, but not your heart. That’s where you have to know it, Jordan.”
“I know. I try.”
“You’re afraid for your sister, aren’t you? Afraid she’ll have to go through something like that.”
“Okay, but look what you’re doing. You’re doing everything humanly possible to find her. More than any other relative of these women, I’ll bet.”
“I have to know, Thalia.”
“You will, honey. You’ll know.” She lifts the enormous cat and sets it on the floor, then walks over and pulls me to my feet. “Come in the kitchen. I’m going to make you some green tea.”
“I’m sorry I did this. You’re the first person I ever told that to, and I don’t know why I did. I don’t even know you.”
Thalia Laveau places both her hands on my shoulders and looks deep into my eyes. “You know what?”
“You just found a friend at forty.”
A strange feeling akin to religious absolution rolls through my chest.
“Now, come on in this kitchen, girl.”
THIRTY MINUTES LATER, I walk down the rickety stairs and hear John Kaiser whispering to me from the corner of the house.
“This way, Jordan.”
I don’t want to see him, but there’s no avoiding it. When I go around the corner, he falls into step beside me.
“I’m sorry we heard that,” he says. “I’m sorry it happened to you.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.” I must be walking very fast, because even with his long stride, Kaiser is having trouble staying beside me.
“I’m sorry about the way I talked about the rape Roger Wheaton stopped in Vietnam,” he says.
The van comes into sight, rolling slowly toward us along the street.
“What do you want, Jordan? Just tell me.”
“I want to go to my hotel and take a shower.”
“You’re on your way.”
“And I don’t want to ride in the van.”
“I’ll get a car here. I’ll wait with you, then drop you. Okay?”
I don’t look at him. I feel a powerful, irrational anger toward him, and at the knowledge that he desires me. He wants to hold me now, to comfort me, but he can’t. Only a woman I foolishly believed could have been involved with my sister’s disappearance could comfort me, and she has already done what she could.
The surveillance van stops, and its rear door opens. Kaiser trots over behind the door, then jogs back to me.
“A surveillance car is on the way. In one minute, you’ll be on your way to your hotel. Okay?”
I fix him with a level gaze. “Thalia didn’t know me. She’d never seen me before in her life. Which means she’s never seen Jane. You got that, right?”
IN THE SHOWER in my hotel room, my composure finally blows apart, spinning images through my head without coherence: Wingate trying to save his painting, flames licking at his feet; soldiers tying my hands and pressing my face into the jungle floor; my brother-in-law kissing my neck, trying to bed the ghost of his wife; de Becque watching me with a glint in his eye as he doles out bits of information about my father . . .
I turn the water as hot as I can stand it, my eyes closed against the spray even as I see the four strange souls I encountered today: a dying man, a violent man, a feminine man, and a wounded woman. Yesterday I had some hope of resolution. I was fooled by the confidence of men in their systems and their evidence, by the illusion of progress, by the belief that time must inevitably yield some answer. But deep down I know that time, like fate, operates under no imperative. What are those men saying now, after the failure of their grand plan? Baxter. Lenz. Kaiser. They paraded me past their suspects and saw not one flicker of panic. Not even a flinch at my face—
A telephone is ringing. At first I think it’s in my head, because it’s impossibly loud. Then I pull back the shower curtain and see a phone mounted on the wall, low by the commode. I press my right palm into the white towel on the rack, then pick up the receiver.
“Kaiser.” He sounds uncomfortable.
“Oh. What is it?”
“I’m still downstairs.”
“We’re about to have a meeting. Before the official task force meeting. Baxter, Lenz, Bowles, and me. I know you’re upset, but I thought you might be more angry if you missed it.”
“I’m in the shower. It’s basically going to be a wake, right?”
“I don’t think so. I just spoke to Baxter on my cell. He says he has a couple of new things.”
“I won’t know till I get to the office.”
As badly as I want to crack open the minibar and flop onto my bed wrapped in towels, I know he’s right. I’ll feel worse if I don’t go.
“Give me five minutes.”
Kaiser hangs up, undoubtedly thinking that no woman he ever knew could go from naked in the shower to ready in five minutes.
He’s about to get a lesson.
THIS TIME WE meet where we did the first time
: SAC Bowles’s office. Kaiser leads the way with a perfunctory knock, and though I hear voices, the office appears empty. Through the long window to my right, Lake Pontchartrain looks gray against the afternoon sky, dotted with a few lonely sails.
Walking farther in, I see Baxter, Lenz, and SAC Bowles waiting in the private seating area in the deep leg of the L. Bill Granger, the violent-crimes supervisor, shakes Kaiser’s hand on his way out and gives me an embarrassed nod. Clearly, he was in the loop that heard the transmission from Thalia Laveau’s apartment. Wonderful.
Kaiser and I sit side by side on a sofa, facing Baxter and Lenz. SAC Bowles has a chair to himself on my right. No one looks happy, but neither do they look as dejected as I would have expected. They do look surprised to see me.
“You did a first-rate job today, Jordan,” Baxter says in a chamber-of-commerce voice.
“Too bad I didn’t shake anybody up.”
He looks at Kaiser. “We’ve got forty minutes before the joint task force meets, and I want to go in there solid. As of now, we have two agents on separate planes escorting all the evidence the NOPD gathered today to the lab in Washington. Everything from paintings to DNA samples. The Director himself put an expedite on it, which means a twelve-hour turnaround on some tests, twenty-four to forty-eight on others. Three days on the DNA if we’re insanely lucky.”
“Three days?” says Kaiser. “I’d have been shocked at three weeks.”
“Couple of the victims’ families have a lot of stroke. And thank God for it.” Baxter glances at me as though wondering whether to reassure me that the FBI works every case with equal fervor, but he doesn’t. Everyone in this room knows that if the eleven missing women were crack whores, the evidence on those planes could languish in the lab for weeks.
“Before we decide where we’re going,” he says, “let’s take stock of where we are. Today’s interviews didn’t produce the result we’d hoped for. Why not?”
“Two possibilities,” says Lenz. “One, none of the four suspects is the UNSUB/painter. This theory is unanimously supported by our art experts, who say the Sleeping Women weren’t painted by any of the suspects. Two, one of the suspects did recognize Jordan, but fooled us by keeping his cool when she came in.”
“Or her cool,” Baxter reminds him.
“Nobody fooled us,” says Kaiser. “Except maybe Frank Smith. He was startled by Jordan’s face, but he explained it by saying he’d seen her at a party some time ago, a virtually uncheckable explanation.”
Baxter looks at Lenz. “What did you think about Smith?”
“Brilliant, gifted, sure of himself. Of the four, he’s the most capable of putting this thing together.”
“What about the first possibility? None of the four is our UNSUB?”
“The brush hairs brought us to these four,” says Kaiser. “I trust physical evidence more than I trust art experts.”
“The evidence brought us to those four and the fifty undergraduates who could get access to the special brushes,” Lenz points out. “How are we coming with them?”
“No student has been questioned directly,” Baxter replies. “Because of their age, and because so few could be talented enough to have painted the Sleeping Women, they’re a low-percentage shot. Also, the minute we start interrogating Tulane undergrads, the media’s going to blow this case wide open. We’ve been lucky so far.”
“Very lucky,” I say quietly. “I wonder why.”
“The New Orleans media’s not that aggressive,” says Bowles. “I don’t know why. They could push a lot harder than they do.”
“But once they get hold of it,” says Kaiser, “it’ll be a feeding frenzy. And with Roger Wheaton involved—not to mention rich, pissed-off parents and their lawyers—you’ll get national press.”
“Don’t forget Jordan,” says Bowles, with a nod in my direction. “She adds a little marquee value.”
“Forget the media for now,” says Baxter. “NOPD says none of the suspects seemed anxious about providing a DNA sample. If one of them had snatched the Dori gnac’s woman, he wouldn’t have been cool about doing that.”
“If the painter just paints,” says Lenz, “and someone else does the snatches, the painter would have nothing to fear from a DNA test.”
“Even if the UNSUB only does the painting,” says Kaiser, “he should have been stunned by Jordan’s face.”
Kaiser looks at Baxter. “What’s the new development you mentioned on the phone?”
I would have led with this question, but I guess these guys have their own rhythm.
“Even though the timing of Wingate’s murder and the Dorignac’s snatch were only two hours apart,” says Baxter, “I’ve had a half-dozen agents working around the clock, checking flight manifests and interviewing passengers who traveled between New York and New Orleans in surrounding hours. It finally paid off.”
“What do you have?”
“One hour after Wingate died, a lone man paid cash for a flight from JFK to Atlanta, then cash again for a flight to Baton Rouge on a different airline.”
“Who was he?” I ask.
Dr. Lenz crosses his legs and answers in a pedantic voice. “A false name, of course. It could be that the UNSUB who killed Wingate was already in New York when you upset the applecart in Hong Kong. He silenced Wingate, then flew straight—or almost straight—to New Orleans to warn his partner. If you study the timing, it could be that he arrived only six hours after the Dorignac’s woman was taken. The plan may have been to paint her, but the New York UNSUB made the prudent decision. Do her and dump her.”
Baxter gives the psychiatrist a sharp look. “That’s possible. But no matter who the New York UNSUB is, or what he did after the Dorignac’s victim was kidnapped, someone already in New Orleans had to kidnap her. Probably the painter.”
A few moments of silence pass as this sinks in.
“You have a description of the New York UNSUB?” asks Kaiser.
“Very general. Mid-thirties to mid-forties, muscular, hard-looking face. Casual dress clothes. He’s probably the guy who flipped Jordan the bird after the fire.”
“Sock cap?” I ask, half jokingly.
“There’s something else,” says Baxter. “Linda Knapp—Gaines’s girlfriend, the one who trashed his painting and left with you guys—turned back up at Gaines’s place thirty minutes ago. NOPD wouldn’t let her near Gaines, but she told them that whatever nights they needed alibis for, he was home with her, getting drunk or screwing her silly.”
I recall how angry and desperate to get away from Gaines the woman had looked. Now she’s back with him, protecting him from the police. This is a common mystery I’ve never understood and am not sure I want to.
“Has Knapp been with Gaines for the past eighteen months?”
“No,” says Baxter. “Gaines named another girlfriend as his alibi for the murders that predate his relationship with Knapp. We’re trying to locate her now. As far as the others’ alibis, here’s where we are. Based on credit-card activity, Roger Wheaton and Frank Smith were both in town for every murder. Leon Gaines and Thalia Laveau don’t even have credit cards. Initial questioning by NOPD hasn’t turned up any rock-solid alibis. It’s not surprising, really. Almost all the kidnappings happened during the week, between ten P.M. and six A.M.”
“What about Smith?” asks Lenz. “Surely he has some sleepover lovers who could alibi him for at least one murder?”
“None he named today,” Baxter replies. “Maybe he’s protecting somebody.”
“Someone in the closet,” says SAC Bowles.
“What about Juan?” I ask. “The butler or whatever he was?”
“We didn’t know about him till today,” says Baxter. “NOPD’s talking to him now. He tried to slip out, but they got him. Looks like an illegal. Salvadoran.”
Now I realize why he looked familiar. I spent a good bit of time in El Salvador, seeing faces much like his.
“What else do we have?” asks Kai
ser. “What about soldiers Wheaton served with? Convicts Gaines shared cells with?”
“I’ve got two lists,” says Baxter. “I thought you might want to talk to the Vietnam vets.”
As the men work out these details, a strange epiphany occurs at the dark center of my mind. The paradox of expert opinion versus physical evidence has been slowly working itself out there. “I’ve thought of a third possibility,” I say quietly.
Kaiser waves his hand to silence the others, and they turn to me.
“What is it?” he asks.
“What if one of the four suspects we saw today is doing the murders, but doesn’t know he’s doing them?”
No one responds. Baxter and Kaiser look stunned by the suggestion, but Dr. Lenz is sanguine.
“How did you come up with that?” asks the psychiatrist.
“The old Sherlock Holmes theory. After you exclude all impossibilities, whatever you have left is the solution, however improbable it may seem.”
“We haven’t excluded the other possibilities,” says Baxter. “Not by any means.”
“We’re not getting anywhere with them, either.” Kaiser looks thoughtfully at Lenz. “What about that?”
The psychiatrist makes a noncommittal gesture with his hands, as though considering the idea for the first time. “You’re talking about MPD. Multiple-personality disorder. It’s extremely rare. Much rarer than films or novels would have the public believe.”
“In all my time at Quantico, I never saw a proved case,” Kaiser says.
“When it does happen,” says Bowles, “what causes it?”
“Severe sexual or physical abuse during childhood,” says Lenz. “Exclusively.”
“What do we know about the childhoods of the three men?” I ask, recalling Thalia’s confession of sexual abuse. “We know Laveau had that kind of problem.”
“Not much,” says Baxter. “Wheaton’s childhood is pretty obscure. All we really have is the standard bio that appears in articles. Certainly nothing about abuse. We do know his mother left the home when he was thirteen or fourteen, which could be a sign of some kind of abuse, but we don’t have details. And if the children were being abused, why not take the children with her?”