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Dead Sleep 34
With a sudden tingle, a film of sweat covers my skin from my scalp to my toes. The tension builds steadily within me, and my thighs go taut and quiver with strain. As I hold myself still against his insistent kisses, his hands slide up my ribs and cover my breasts, and I feel him urging me toward completion, one flick no different from the last, the next a trigger that catapults me into another dimension, where every nerve ending sings with heat and every muscle trembles without command. For an instant all goes white; then the whiteness bends into waves that dissipate into soft color and the physical fallout of shivering and panting that let him know he has done well. He lifts his head and lightly kisses my belly, and I slide down his chest and hug him tightly.
“Mmm. I think I could actually sleep now.”
“Hmm.” The sound of consternation.
I reach back and tickle his stomach, then slide my hand farther down. “Feels like somebody needs some special attention before anyone goes to sleep.”
He tries to look nonchalant, but he’s not fooling anybody.
I reach back and undo his belt and trousers, then try to fit the condom on him with one hand. “This is like you learning to unhook a bra when you were a teenager, right?”
He laughs. “You’re doing pretty well.”
“There. Everything okay?”
He pulls my face down and kisses me again, gently despite his need. I playfully bite his bottom lip, waiting to see how desperate he is, but he just keeps kissing me. Before long I realize what he already seems to know: I want him inside me as badly as he wants to be there.
“You win,” I tell him, sliding backward.
“Are you okay?” he asks.
“I will be in a minute. Go slow.”
“I’m counting.” His eyes twinkle. “Not easy to be still now.”
He lays his hands on my thighs and slowly presses up into me, taking my breath away. Then he begins to move, sliding me forward and back with maddening regularity. The mere presence of him there is enough to scramble my thoughts. It’s been almost a year since I made love with a man, and I feel as though I’m recovering from a sort of physical amnesia. To be so full and still need to be filled, to feel utterly vulnerable and yet pri mally complete, all of it comes back in the grip of his strong hands and the slow ebb and flow of him in my softest place.
I can tell he’s happy, but I also sense that he’s holding back. That at the core he sees me as fragile.
“I’m not a china vase, John.”
“I know that.”
“You’re thinking about what I told Thalia.”
He slows his movement, then stops. “You can’t pretend that’s not part of you. That you’re completely over it.”
“I’m not over it. But I am above it. Is it you that has a problem with it?”
“Absolutely not. I’m just worried about you. I want to take care of you.”
“Then do that.” I start to move against him, but he still looks uncertain. There’s only one way to get past this awkwardness, and that’s to rip him out of his preconceptions. It’s a risk, but one I feel I have to take.
“Did Lenz tell you about my affair with my teacher?” I ask, watching his eyes as I move.
“No. But I saw something in his notes.”
“Lenz showed you his notes?”
“They were on the table in the conference room.” He looks troubled now. “I took a quick look.”
“Only natural, right?”
“I’m an investigator. Nosy by nature.”
“What did you think about what you read?”
“I don’t judge anybody, as long as they don’t hurt someone else.”
“Good. Because I was really in love with him.”
“I’m sorry about what happened.”
I arch my back, and John closes his eyes and groans deep in his throat. “You know one thing I really liked in that relationship?”
“When I went to school after being with him the night before, or that morning, nobody knew. But I knew. I could still feel him. I felt marked, you know? I belonged to him.”
“That doesn’t sound like you. Wanting to belong to somebody. Anybody.”
“Shows how much you know. I’m as independent as they come, right?” I settle my weight and begin moving in slow circles. “But you know what?”
“What?” he asks hoarsely.
“After we’ve been together long enough for the CDC or whoever to clear us, you know what I want?”
“I want you to fill me up. I want you to mark your territory every day, so I can always feel you.”
Tightening my muscles, I plant my palms on his chest and push. He moans with ineffable pleasure, and his eyes go wide, searching mine, trying to discover all that I am in a span of seconds. Foolish man. My neuroses alone would take years to plumb. He bites his lip against the pain of his leg and grasps my wrists in his hands.
“Now you see me,” I whisper. “And I see you. I know what you want . . . how you want it. I’m all grown up, John. You can do what you want. Anything.”
At last he snaps out of himself, out of the man who sees me as someone to be protected and into the one who wants me beyond restraint. His hands fly to my hips, pulling me down as he flails into me, not caring anymore about my feelings or his leg, nothing but getting as deep into me as physical limits will allow, making me his alone. The bed, which only squeaked before, hammers the wall. The lamp on the end table crashes to the floor. None of it matters. I grip the headboard with all my strength and hold him against the mattress until he screams and goes into spasms you’d think would kill a man but which in fact bring him gasping and sweating back to life. When he collapses onto the pillow, I fall beside him.
“Jesus,” he says breathlessly.
“How do you feel?”
“The same way you feel about me. You think all the boys get this treatment?”
“I didn’t know.”
“Well, now you do.”
He smiles with contentment. “I love you, Jordan.”
“Take it easy. You’re in shock.”
“I think you’re right. I haven’t been—I mean, I haven’t felt like that since . . .”
He blinks and looks at the ceiling. “I was going to say Vietnam.”
The mild euphoria I felt before slips away. “You slept with Vietnamese women over there?”
“They were beautiful?”
“Different from other women?”
“How do you mean? In bed?”
“Yes . . . but not just that. I don’t know. Like de Becque said. Like that Li, that woman we met on Cayman. Did they make you fall in love with them?”
He’s looking in my direction, but his mind is focused thousands of miles away. “I saw it happen a lot. People over here think it’s because Vietnamese women were more submissive than American women, but that’s not it. They just—I’m not talking about the city girls, now, the bar girls, but regular Vietnamese women—they had a naturalness about them. They were very demure, yet open about certain things. It’s seductive without trying to be. I knew a guy who deserted to be with one.”
“And I just made you feel like they made you feel?”
“Not the same. Only the intensity.” He touches my cheek. “You’re thinking about your father, aren’t you?”
“That he may have left you on purpose?”
I nod, unable to voice my fear.
“I’m not like your father, Jordan.”
“I know. You’re like the men he took pictures of.”
“What do you mean?”
John’s ceiling has a water stain. The house isn’t perfect after all. “They were more real than he was. He seemed to make them real, to bring t
hem into existence with his camera. And in a way he did. The way I do. We make certain things real to the rest of the world. But the rest of the world doesn’t really matter. My father’s photos didn’t make soldiers eternal, the way someone wrote they did. What those soldiers did made them eternal. And whatever they did, I think, is still happening somewhere. All of it. All things, all the time. I probably sound nuts. That’s what comes from living on the West Coast, right?”
“You don’t sound nuts. The things I saw and did in Vietnam have never stopped for me. You know why I don’t have post-traumatic stress disorder? Because there’s nothing post about it. It’s just something I live with. Sometimes nearer, sometimes farther away.”
“Tell me something, John. The truth. Do you think my father is involved in this thing?”
“No.” His eyes are steady and guileless.
“But you did before.”
“I wondered, that’s all. I still don’t know what’s happening. But if your father’s involved, the only way I can see it is if he’s in with de Becque somehow.”
“But you don’t think so.”
“What do you base that on?”
I lay my hand on his flat stomach. “You don’t have much of one.”
“I’m glad you can still laugh.”
“It’s the same old choice. Laugh or cry.” I rub my hand slowly over his abdomen. “Why don’t you sleep for a while?”
He shakes his head. “I can’t. Not with Thalia still out there. I can never sleep when things are breaking.”
“You want me to make coffee or something?”
“Coffee would be good.”
“What about food? You have anything in the fridge?”
“Can you cook?”
I laugh. “Mostly foreign dishes designed for camp-fires. But I don’t think there’s a Mississippi girl on the planet who can’t do the basics.”
“There are some chicken breasts in the freezer.”
“Rice in the cabinets? Onions?”
“Jambalaya, then.” I kiss him on the chin and climb out of the bed.
“Would you mind bringing those Argus photos in here?”
“I think they can wait, but I’ll bring them.”
I retrieve the thick manila envelope from the coffee table and toss it onto the bed. “How many of those have you looked at already?”
“I don’t know. Until they adjusted the sensitivity of the program, I was looking at twenty different versions of the same face before it became recognizable as another one.”
“Pace yourself. Jambalaya and biscuits, coming up.”
I walk back to the kitchen and orient myself, but I’ve gotten no further than running water over the chicken breasts when John’s voice echoes up the hallway. Something in the sound makes me freeze with my hand on the sink tap. I run for the bedroom, in my mind seeing him turning blue from a blood clot broken free by our strenuous lovemaking.
“I know this woman,” he says, shaking a piece of paper at me as I come through the door.
“From where?” I ask, taking the picture from him. It’s a facial shot of a young blond woman, maybe eighteen. She’s like a template of an adult; her face has yet to develop the definition of personality. “Is she one of the missing persons you’ve been studying?”
“No. I saw her years ago. In Quantico.”
“You mean you knew her? Personally?”
He shakes his head impatiently. “No. Every year we have city and state cops coming through Quantico. Our National Academy program. Most of them have a case that’s dogged them for years, one they couldn’t solve or get out of their minds. Sometimes it’s a single murder. Usually it’s two or three they think might be connected. A police detective showed me this woman at Quantico.”
“A New Orleans detective?”
“That’s the thing. I think he was from New York. This is a really old case.”
My head is buzzing with a strange excitement. “How old?”
“Ten years? Remember at the Camellia Grill, when I told you I was working on something? I said if it panned out, I’d tell you? Well, maybe it has.”
“How do you mean? What are you talking about?”
“The youngest of our four suspects is Frank Smith, who’s thirty-five. Serial offenders don’t just wake up one day and start killing people in middle age. Baxter’s unit was checking all four suspects’ past residences for similar unsolved crimes. Vermont, where Wheaton’s from. Terrebonne Parish, where Laveau grew up. Those were easy. That left New York, for Smith and Gaines. Not to mention the possible accomplice. In fact, all four suspects have ties to New York. But when you’re talking about missing persons—which is what this case is, because of the lack of corpses—you’re talking about thousands of victims in New York, even if you only go back a few years. The VICAP computer is supposed to make those kinds of connections, but police compliance isn’t always great, and it’s worse the further back you go. But I thought, What if there were unsolved homicides in New York that had only one or two similarities to this case?”
“Like . . . ?”
“Women taken from grocery stores, jogging paths, et cetera, snatched off the street without a trace, no witnesses, nothing. A professional feel to them, yet no obvious similarities between the victims.”
“Did you check it out?”
“I called some New York cops I knew from the Academy program and asked them to poke around their old files. It was asking a lot, but I had to do it.”
“Did you talk to the cop who showed you this woman?”
“No, that guy’s retired now. And nobody’s gotten back to me yet. But this woman . . .”
“You still remember her?”
“I told you before, I’ve got a knack for faces. This girl was pretty and young, and she stuck in my mind. That detective’s, too. She was his informant, now that I think about it. Will you bring me the cordless phone?”
I get him the phone, and he rings the field office, asking for Baxter.
“It’s John,” he says. “I think we caught a break. . . . A big one. We need New York to liaise with NYPD in a big hurry. . . .”
I sit on the edge of the bed and look at the Argus-generated portrait again. It’s a strangely nonhuman image, yet lifelike enough to pull a ten-year-old memory from John’s brain. I say a silent thank-you to the photographer who confided the existence of Argus to me.
“Jordan?” says John, hanging up the phone. “Do you know what this means?”
“It means my sister wasn’t victim number five. Whoever is behind this started taking women more than a decade ago. In New York.”
He squeezes my arm. “We’re close now. Really close.”
I’M LYING IN John’s tub, soaking in hot water up to my neck, a pleasure I managed by jamming plastic wrap into the slits in the side of the circular metal thing that operates the drain. The glass bricks above me have slowly turned from black to blue with the coming dawn, and while I don’t feel rested, I do feel less frazzled than I did yesterday.
Last night passed in a flurry of confusion, elation mingled with depression, like sugar highs punctuated by exhaustion. Prompted by John’s recognition of the Argus photo, Daniel Baxter rousted the midnight homicide shifts at the NYPD. Using Argus-enhanced photos of the abstract Sleeping Women paintings, New York detectives managed to identify six of the eight unidentified victims in the NOKIDS case.
Once the women were identified, the story came together by itself. Between 1979 and 1984, a serial kidnap-murderer was operating in the New York City area without anyone connecting more than three of his crimes. His victims were prostitutes and hitchhikers—neither category high on the NYPD’s list of priorities. The significance of this discovery was simple and devastating: the painter of the Sleeping Women had not begun his work two years ago in New Orleans, but more than twenty years ago in New York.
The ramifications were more
complex. First, our youngest suspect, Frank Smith, had been only fifteen years old at the time. This alone did not exonerate him, but it shifted the focus of the investigation away from him. Second, not one Sleeping Woman had been sold at the time of the New York murders. Third, why would a serial killer murder eight women and then suddenly stop? In John’s experience, only prison or death stopped serial murderers from pursuing their work. But most puzzling was why, having stopped, the murderer would resume his work fifteen years later. Had he been locked up for a decade and a half, only to emerge as hungry for victims as before?
John drank nonstop cups of coffee to fight the sedative effects of his painkillers, and sat on the sofa working out theory after theory in an attempt to fit the new parameters of the case. Too exhausted to be any use to him, I went into the bathroom, took three Xanax, and got into bed.
Sleep came quickly, but that was no blessing. With sleep came dreams. All the fantastic input of the past seven days had been brewing in my subconscious, and it finally burst free with a vengeance. Most of the images I can’t remember, but one remains clear: I’m standing at the center of Roger Wheaton’s room-sized masterpiece, a circular canvas that’s no canvas at all, but a universe of forest and earth and stream and sky. Peering out at me from the twisted tree roots are shadowy grinning faces: Leon Gaines, his eyes blazing with lust; the murderous UNSUB on the levee; and capering through the trees like a beautiful demon, Frank Smith, naked, chasing Thalia Laveau, who struggles to keep a white robe from falling as she runs. The scene whirls around me like a Hierony mus Bosch nightmare while I stand transfixed, the floor under my feet flowing like a stream, and reflected in the stream, the face of my father.
That dream soon flowed into another, but I can’t remember it. Sometime during the night, John began kissing me. Only half asleep, I started awake, but when I recognized his face, my heartbeat slowed and my fear abated. I made sure he was wearing something, then pulled him over and let him move slowly inside me until he shuddered and collapsed. I was asleep before he rolled off me, caught again in a spiraling descent into flashing darkness.
The phone rang ceaselessly for most of the night, and even in my sedated state, I stirred at every ring, fearing dreadful news. It finally stopped around four, and John fell into a deep sleep. Now, with the coming of dawn, it begins again. I’d like to let John rest, but I’m not getting out of this delicious water to talk to some homicide cop from Queens.