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Actions & Adventure
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Thrillers & Crime
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Mystery & Detective
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Dead Sleep 36
“You don’t want to try to follow him on other views?” asks the tech.
“Just the exits.”
Two sets of automated glass doors appear on the screens, plus the large service exit at the rear.
“Run it normal speed.”
We watch people stroll in and out of the store: male and female, young and old, black and white. Some customers stop beside the greeter and have a sticker affixed to a product they’ve come to return.
“Stop the tape!” says John.
“What is it?” asks the tech, stopping the tape.
John touches his fingertip to the figure of a brunette woman exiting through the automatic doors. “Look how tall she is compared to this other woman.” His finger slides onto a blonde frozen in the entrance door; she looks almost a foot shorter than the brunette. Then his finger slides back. “I think this is Gaines.”
Baxter crouches before the screen and squints. “Damn it. You’re right. He shaved, put on a wig and coat, picked up a handbag, and walked right past our people.”
“Probably brought a battery-powered shaver with him,” says Lenz.
Baxter straightens up and turns to the security chief. “Let everybody go.”
The man nods and hurries away to quell the incipient rebellion.
“He’s been gone fifteen minutes, minimum,” says John. “He could be anywhere.”
“We’re less than a mile from the international airport,” Baxter thinks aloud. He lifts the radio to his mouth. “Liebe, your whole detail is going to the airport. Come back here first.”
Baxter touches Gaines’s image on the screen and looks at the tech. “Can you give me a print of this ‘woman’?”
“Print twenty. And twenty of him the way he looked in the hardware aisle. An Agent Liebe will be back here to get them.” Baxter looks at John. “Back to the office?”
John walks over to the gray wall, then back, as though pacing will give him some insight into the situation. “We should leave somebody in the parking lot. In about a minute, a customer is going to start yelling that his car was stolen while he was trapped in here. Once we know the make, we can put everything we have in the air.”
A muted ring sounds in the room. John pulls his cell phone from his jacket. “Kaiser here. . . . Just now? . . . Put him through.” He looks at Baxter. “Roger Wheaton just called the office and asked them to page me. He said it was an emergency.”
“Wheaton?” says Lenz.
“Hello?” John covers his open ear and turns away from us to concentrate. “Yes, sir, John Kaiser. . . . Can you get out of the building? . . . I understand. Can you get them out? . . . Listen to me, Mr. Wheaton. If you can’t get them out, get yourself out. They’re not your responsibility. . . . We’re on the way. Get to safety and wait for us to arrive.”
John whirls to face us. “Gaines just sandbagged Roger Wheaton in his office at the Woldenberg Art Center. Gaines claimed he’s being framed by the FBI and that he needs money to get out of the country.”
“Is he armed?” asks Baxter.
John nods. “Wheaton told Gaines he would drive him to the bank and get him money, but that his wallet and keys were down in the gallery where he was painting. Gaines told Wheaton if he wasn’t back in two minutes, he’d take students hostage and start killing them. There are fifty to seventy students spread through the building, and they have no idea what’s happening. Wheaton ran down to another office and called us.”
“Why not the police?” asks Lenz. “And why ask for you?”
“He said he didn’t want Gaines shot out of hand. He’s actually worried about that son of a bitch.”
“I don’t want him shot either,” I say sharply. “He may be the only person in the world who knows where the women are.”
Baxter takes out his cell phone and hits a speed-dial button. “This is Baxter. Give me SAC Bowles, right now.” He looks at John. “We need a chopper out here—Patrick? Leon Gaines is at the art center at Tulane, and he probably has hostages. We need SWAT out there ASAP. . . . How many choppers do you have in the air? . . . Send them both to the Kenner Wal-Mart parking lot. And you’d better alert the task force. Be sure they know who’s running the scene at Tulane. . . . I’ll keep you posted.” Baxter waves away a sheaf of photo prints the tech holds up to him and looks at John. “We’ll have two choppers outside in three minutes. Let’s move.”
HURTLING OVER NEW ORLEANS at a hundred knots, you can see why people call it the Crescent City. The older sections sit in a great bend in the Mississippi River, the main streets either fanning into the bend or running with it. Today the river flows the color of slate, thanks to a gray overcast, but a broad shaft of sunlight to the south shows a patch of familiar reddish brown.
John and Baxter ride the lead chopper, Dr. Lenz and I the one behind. Below us, Audubon Park stretches north from the river to St. Charles Avenue; north of St. Charles begins the rectangular garden that is Tulane University. As the lead chopper swings over a golf course and drops toward Tulane, an overwhelming sense of déjà vu brings sweat to my face and hands. I’ve descended into many cities this way, clinging to a spar with my cameras around my neck: Sarajevo, Maputo, Karachi, Bagh dad, San Salvador, Managua, Panama City. The list is endless, but the city below me now is the one in which I began my career, and it strikes me that the symmetry of my ending it here might be quite a temptation for the fates. If so, I accept the risk. The placid green island below harbors a desperate situation, but in the resolution of it lies the answer to the mystery that has haunted me for more than a year.
The cockpit radio spits and crackles as a deskbound FBI agent with a university map guides the pilots toward their LZ. The helicopter drops fast enough to make my stomach roil, and I wonder if John and Baxter are flashing back to Vietnam as we auger in. Parked at the center of one grassy quadrangle are two police cars with their lights flashing, while beside them an olive-drab Huey helicopter sits like a harbinger of battle, its main rotor slowly turning. I saw several Hueys on the National Guard base contiguous to the FBI field office lot; the FBI SWAT team has probably deployed from that chopper.
As I search the quad for armed men, we dip forward and bore in, at the last second flaring and coming to rest thirty yards from the lead chopper. John jumps out of his cockpit and runs toward us, while Baxter moves toward the waiting NOPD cops.
“It’s not good!” John yells as I get out and run in a crouch beneath our rotor. “Gaines has a male hostage in a third-floor office. He’s come to the window to show he has a gun to the guy’s head. SWAT has set up a command post under the trees in front of the building.”
Baxter runs over from the squad car. “Let’s get over there, John!”
“Who’s the negotiator?” Dr. Lenz asks, appearing suddenly.
“Ed Davis,” John replies. “He’s good.”
“This isn’t a normal situation,” Lenz says, directing his words to Baxter. “This isn’t a distraught husband or a suicidal cop. This is a probable serial murderer. You know—”
“I know what you want, Arthur,” Baxter says brusquely. “We’ll discuss it with the SWAT commander.”
“Talk to Bowles,” says Lenz. “It’s his call.”
Baxter starts running toward a large building on the north edge of the quad that I now recognize as the Woldenberg Art Center. John and I follow, with Lenz puffing after us. I should have recognized the building from the air, with its three massive skylights over the gallery where Roger Wheaton’s room-sized painting awaits its first public showing. From this angle, the building appears as two three-story brick boxes separated by a one-story section fronted with arches. If I remember correctly, the classic boxes house classrooms, studios, and offices, while the long section houses the art gallery. Gaines must be inside one of the two end sections.
The closer we get to the building, the harder it is to see. Massive spreading oaks line the road in front of it, obscuring most of the w
indows. Beneath one of the oaks, a knot of men in black body armor with “FBI” stenciled in yellow crouch around what looks like a map. John reaches them first, and immediately begins talking to one of the men on the ground. Baxter takes out his cell phone and dials a number, and Dr. Lenz hovers beside him. I edge in to listen to the SWAT leader briefing John. He’s a tall man in his thirties with a black mus tache, and a patch on his flak vest reads “Burnette.”
“Gaines is still on the third floor,” says Burnette. “He’s keeping his gun to the hostage’s head when we can see him, but most of the time, our view is obscured by venetian blinds. There’s no high ground for snipers, so we’re going to put a man up in the Huey and have the pilot hold a hover. That’s not a good solution, but until we get some scaffolding out here, it’s the only way to get a bead on that office. We also have two men on the roof with rappelling gear. They can drop and crash the window, but that’s not my call. We’ve rescued about forty students and faculty so far, but there may be twenty or so still on the floor with Gaines, some in small private studios. He’s barricaded the main access door. Those kids could be completely ignorant of the danger or completely under Gaines’s control.”
“Have you established contact with Gaines?” John asks.
“A secretary just gave Ed the number of the office. He‘s talking now.”
As Burnette points across the lane, a man dressed in civilian clothes pockets a cell phone and runs toward us.
“He wants one of our helicopters to take him to the airport,” says the negotiator. “He wants a plane waiting there to take him to Mexico. I tried opening a dialogue, but he hung up. The guy sounds like a hard case. Streetwise, prison-tempered. This could take a while.”
Baxter steps up to Burnette and says, “SAC Bowles just designated Doctor Lenz the hostage negotiator for this event. He also put me in tactical command on the ground. I’ve got no problem if you want to verify that.”
The SWAT leader shakes his head. “It’s fine with me. You’re from Quantico, right?”
Ed the negotiator looks like he wants to argue, but suddenly someone yells, “There he is!”
Three floors above us, wedged in front of some venetian blinds, stands Roger Wheaton. His long face is pressed flat against the windowpane, and there’s a large pistol pressed against his ear.
“Goddamn it,” John mutters. “I told him to get out.”
“He’s trying to be a hero,” says Lenz. “Just like he did in Vietnam.”
“Dial that office and give me your phone,” Lenz tells the negotiator. Then he looks at Burnette. “Tell your snipers to stand down.”
“Do it,” says Baxter.
As the former negotiator makes his call, SWAT leader Burnette says, “Mr. Baxter, my sniper can shoot that pistol out of Gaines’s hand. He can do it from here. I’ve seen him do it twice under pressure.”
Baxter shakes his head. “That’s not an option yet. We don’t know how many weapons Gaines has up there.”
“Yes, hello?” says Lenz. “Leon? . . . This is Dr. Arthur Lenz. . . . I was at your house the other day. . . . Yes. I’m here because I know you need to talk to someone who’s not bound by the normal rules. . . . That’s right. Some cases fall outside the lines, and this is one of them.”
When I look back up at the window, Wheaton is gone.
Lenz lowers his voice. “A helicopter isn’t out of the question, Leon. But everything has a price. You know that. That’s the way the world works. . . . You may seem to hold all the cards. But you’re assuming you know what our priorities are. There are twelve families who care a lot more about you getting a lethal injection than they do about a dying artist whose life you might shorten by a few months.”
Ed the negotiator looks like he wants to snatch his phone from Lenz’s grasp, but Baxter holds up a restraining hand.
“Leon,” Lenz says irritably. “Listen to me. You—”
A dull pop slowly registers in my brain.
“Gunshot!” yells a SWAT agent.
Burnette’s radio crackles. “Rooftop. We heard a gunshot. Please advise, over.”
“Do nothing,” says Baxter.
“Hold position,” says Burnette. “But stay ready.”
“Put a sniper up in the Huey,” orders Baxter. “Get a thermal imaging scope up there with him. We need to see through those blinds.”
As Burnette runs to the next oak tree, a woman screams from the direction of the art center. Then the front door of the studio wing crashes open and a dozen students pour through it like people running from a fire. Behind them, running with an awkward lope, is a tall man wearing white gloves.
“It’s Wheaton!” I yell, starting toward him.
As SWAT agents race forward to help the students, John hobbles past me and takes Wheaton by the arm. The artist’s mouth and nose are covered with blood.
“Are you all right?” John asks. “Were you hit?”
“No,” Wheaton coughs. “We struggled, and Leon hit me with the gun. He could have shot me, but he didn’t. I didn’t think he would. That’s why I tried it.”
“We heard a gunshot,” John says in a taut voice. “Was anyone hit?”
“His gun went off during our struggle, but he didn’t shoot anybody.”
“Is he alone up there now?”
Wheaton shakes his head. “He had two female students barricaded in an adjacent office. There’s a sofa against the door. I knew I couldn’t save them, but I thought I might be able to clear some of the grad students’ studios on my way out.” Wheaton suddenly recognizes me. “Oh—hello.”
“I’m glad you’re all right,” I tell him.
“We’ll get you an ambulance,” says John, leading the artist back toward the command post. “But we need to know everything you can tell us.”
“That’s Sarah! Oh, my God!”
The sound of screaming college girls is more piercing than a siren. Looking up at the window, I see a petite brunette pressed to the pane, the gun barrel huge beside her head.
“Get those students out of here!” Baxter yells to the SWAT agents.
John sits Wheaton down beneath an oak tree, and an agent wearing rubber gloves begins wiping blood from the artist’s face. Baxter, the SWAT leader, and I cluster around them.
“Did you see any other weapons besides the pistol?” John asks.
Wheaton takes the gauze pad from the agent and wipes the blood from his own lips. “No. But he has a bag with him.”
“A bag.” John looks back at me. “I didn’t see a bag in his cart at the Wal-Mart.”
“Under the magazine, maybe?”
A heavy beating sound ricochets off the face of the art center. The Huey on the quad is climbing into a hover fifty yards from the window behind which Gaines holds his hostage. Instant execution will soon be an option.
John raises his voice above the rotor noise. “Has Gaines said anything to you to indicate he’s guilty of the abductions?”
“No.” Wheaton’s long gray hair flies as he shakes his head.
“Has he mentioned Thalia Laveau?”
“He claims he knows nothing about her. He says you’re framing him. He said, ‘Those assholes need a patsy, and I’m it.’ He wanted cash. He has a painting I gave him as a gift, but he wants to get the most he can for that.”
“Did he know you called the FBI?”
“Probably.” Wheaton’s gloved hands are shaking, but I sense that he’s more frustrated than afraid. “But I had to go back up there. If I tried to get everyone out, he’d have heard me, and he might have panicked and done something crazy. Leon acts like he’s in control, but deep down he’s very unstable. The safest thing was to offer myself as a hostage.”
“That took guts,” John says, but the artist just shakes his head.
“Leon doesn’t want to shoot anybody, Agent Kaiser. He’s scared to death. If you give him a way out of this, he’ll take it.”
John looks skeptical. “Mr. Wheaton, som
etime last night or this morning, Leon beat his girlfriend into a coma. Then he gagged her and left her for dead.”
A look of sadness comes over the artist’s face. “Good God. I met that girl.” The sadness is quickly replaced by a look of concern. “That’s still no reason to shoot him. He’s backed into a corner. Offer him a way out, then arrest him later.”
“I don’t know about that,” I say. “But Gaines may be the only person in the world who knows where Thalia Laveau is, or my sister and the rest of them.”
John looks over his shoulder at Lenz, who is angrily punching numbers into the commandeered cell phone. “Any luck?”
“He’s not answering.”
A look of puzzlement crosses John’s face; then he pulls his cell phone from his jacket. He must have felt rather than heard it ringing.
“Hello?” he yells, cupping his free hand around the earpiece. “Thanks. I’ll call you when we know more.”
He puts the phone back in his pocket and turns to Baxter. “Linda Knapp regained consciousness at the hospital. She said she threatened to tell the truth about Gaines’s alibis, and he went crazy. She has no idea where he went on any of the snatch nights.”
“Could someone help me stand up, please?” Wheaton asks. “I may have to be sick.”
Baxter pulls the artist to his feet. True to his word, Wheaton doubles over and vomits on the grass.
“I’m sorry,” he apologizes, wiping his mouth on his sleeve.
“There’s an ambulance on the way,” says Baxter.
“I’m fine,” says Wheaton. “Really. But I don’t think I want to see what’s going to happen next.”
John grimaces and pulls out his cell phone again.
“What is it? . . . What? . . . Put out a citywide APB. Hell, statewide. And keep me posted.”
“What is it?” asks Baxter.
“Surveillance just lost Frank Smith.”
“He went into the antiques show down at the convention center and disappeared.”
“Shit! What’s going on, John?”
“I don’t know. But we better get on top of it fast.” He looks at Wheaton. “We’ll have someone drive you home.”