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Dead Sleep

Dead Sleep

Dead Sleep 37


  “I’m just going to walk a bit, clear my head.”

  Dr. Lenz appears and taps Baxter’s arm. “Gaines told me that if we don’t land one of our helicopters on the roof of the art center in five minutes, he’ll kill that girl and drop her out the window. He says he’s got another one up there.”

  John looks at Wheaton. “You said there were two girls, didn’t you?”

  Wheaton nods, then wobbles on his feet.

  “I’ve got him,” I tell John. “Please just remember that Gaines may be the only one who knows what we need to know.”

  John squeezes my arm, then leans down to me and says: “Stay in plain sight.”

  As I lead Wheaton away, John addresses a group of black-clad men who remember their SWAT teammate Wendy Travis much too fondly to be objective in this situation.

  “We may be looking at explosive entry,” he says. “I want every one of you to . . .”

  I turn and catch up to Wheaton, who is walking aimlessly along the grass, parallel to the lane that runs in front of the Woldenberg Center.

  “Leon really left that girl for dead?” he asks.

  “I thought she was dead till I felt her pulse.”

  He stops and looks back toward the art studio wing. “They’re not going to listen to us. They’re going to kill him.”

  “They’re not as gung ho as you think.”

  “Maybe not Kaiser. That’s why I called him. But the rest . . . I saw it in Vietnam. You put enough guns and soldiers into a situation like this, somebody’s going to fire.”

  “I hope not. But we said our piece. Let’s find somewhere for you to sit down.”

  The sound of a bullhorn reverberates across the quad, and Dr. Lenz begins addressing Gaines through the window glass.

  “I guess he quit answering the phone,” I murmur.

  “I don’t want to see this,” Wheaton says. “I’m going to go home.”

  “You’re in no shape to drive. I’ll get a cop to drive you.”

  “I’m really fine. But my keys are in the gallery with my bag, and I don’t think that cop is going to let me get them.”

  He points to the low section of the building, where an FBI agent stands beneath the entrance arch. Wheaton’s keys are far from Leon Gaines. This is the backwater of the hostage scene.

  “I’ll talk to him. You stay here.”

  “Thank you. They’re on the floor in the center of the room. Right by my bag.”

  I trot across the grass and wave to the agent as I come under the arch. “I need to get some keys for one of the hostages. They’re just inside the gallery.”

  “Nobody goes in,” he says.

  “You’ve got a radio. Call John Kaiser.”

  The agent lifts his walkie-talkie and makes the call.

  “Where’s Wheaton, Jordan?” asks John from his position forty yards away.

  With exaggerated movements, I point out into the quad, where Wheaton has sat down on the grass.

  “Go in with her,” John tells the agent. “But don’t let Wheaton go home yet. Bring him back to the command post. I’m sending an agent with him. We don’t know where Frank Smith is, and I don’t want anyone else kidnapped. No more surprises.”

  “Copy,” says the agent. His face softens as he opens the door and holds it for me. “I’m Agent Aldridge, by the way.”

  I walk into the gallery, my eyes drawn to the Tiffany stained-glass windows I saw the first time we were here.

  “Through here,” I tell Aldridge, leading him through the makeshift plywood door that seals the gallery against nosy visitors. The access panel in the canvas circle is still open. I start to go through, but Aldridge pushes ahead of me.

  “Wow,” he says softly.

  The electric lights are off in the gallery, but a flood of illumination pours through the skylights, bathing Wheaton’s masterpiece in a bluish glow. As in my dream of last night, the forest clearing seems alive, its branches and roots seeming to grow as I watch them.

  “This thing is massive,” Aldridge marvels.

  “There’s the bag,” I tell him, pointing to a leather tote lying in the middle of a huge drop cloth.

  “Oh, shit,” says the agent, looking at his shoes. “Look at this.”

  The drop cloth around his shoes is stained with wet paint.

  “Is that oil paint?” he asks.

  “I think it is.”

  “Shit. It’ll take—”

  A shattering gunshot echoes through the building, the echo fading over a span of seconds. Before it dies, Aldridge is moving toward me with his gun drawn.

  “That was outside!” I tell him. “A rifle. Give me your radio!”

  He passes me his walkie-talkie with his free hand.

  “This is Jordan Glass calling John Kaiser. John! It’s Jordan!”

  There’s a crackle of static, then John’s voice jitters from the radio as though he’s talking while running up stairs.

  “They had to shoot him, Jordan. We don’t know if he’s dead. We’re going up now. He can’t get to where you are. Stay put for five minutes, then have the agent escort you to the CP.”

  “Okay. Be careful!”

  John doesn’t speak again.

  “If Jimmy Reese took the shot,” says Aldridge, “the tango’s dead.” The FBI man lifts one shoe and studies the bright blue paint on its sole. “I wonder what happened. The guy probably panicked and got wild with his gun.”

  I cannot reply. The knowledge that died with Gaines took part of me with it. Everything I hoped to learn has vanished with the impact of a sniper’s bullet. My legs feel shaky, as though they might buckle. I fall to my knees and breathe as deeply as I can.

  “Are you okay?”

  “Just give me a minute.”

  “Sure. Hey!” Aldridge shouts, pointing his pistol at the opening in the painting.

  Roger Wheaton stands just inside the canvas circle, his face a mask of anguish.

  “They killed him,” he says. “I heard Leon yell through the window, and I walked to where I could see. A sniper shot him in the head.”

  “Take it easy,” I tell Aldridge. “It’s his keys we came to get.”

  The FBI agent lowers his gun.

  “John said Gaines might still be alive,” I say without much conviction.

  Wheaton shakes his head, reaches out with his blood-stained white glove, and touches the trunk of a tree on the canvas.

  “Hey!” calls Agent Aldridge. “The guy who painted this might not like you touching it. It’s still wet.”

  Wheaton smiles sadly. “I don’t think he minds.”

  “He’s the guy who painted it,” I tell Aldridge.

  “Oh. Hey, I like it.”

  “Thank you.”

  “But what’s with the gloves?”

  “They protect my hands.”

  “I thought the painting was done,” I tell Wheaton, putting my palms flat on the floor to push myself to my feet.

  “There are always last-minute additions. It’s finished now.”

  My palms are wet. Turning them over, I see red and yellow paint on my skin, bright primary shades like the blue on Aldridge’s feet. This much paint couldn’t be the result of spills. Wheaton must have been painting on the floor. That’s why the drop cloth is here. He wasn’t satisfied with enveloping the viewer in a great wooded circle. He had to paint the forest floor too.

  “Have I ruined anything?” I ask, holding up my palms so he can see them. “Are you going to do the ceiling, too?

  Wheaton’s face darkens as he realizes I’ve smeared the paint.

  “Stand up and tiptoe to the edge,” he says.

  “I got some on my shoes,” says Aldridge. “You shouldn’t have sent us after the keys with it wet.”

  “Stay where you are,” says Wheaton. “Both of you.”

  The artist tiptoes across the drop cloth in a complicated path, like a military engineer walking through a minefield he just laid. As he passes Aldridge, Wheaton takes the agent’s hand and leads hi
m toward me. When he reaches me, he escorts us both to the edge of the floor, then smiles at me.

  “You’ve discovered my surprise. I thought it would be dry by now.”

  “May I look?”

  “I suppose so.”

  Aldridge’s walkie-talkie crackles loudly, and then John’s voice sounds in the room. “Daniel? It was a CK. The hostage is unhurt and on her way down.”

  “Copy that,” Baxter replies.

  “What’s a CK?” I ask.

  “Clean kill,” says Aldridge.

  “I told you it was a head shot,” says Wheaton, lifting the edge of the drop cloth. “Jordan, would you go down there and lift the other side? We’ll walk it across. If you still want to see it.”

  In a haze of incipient depression, I walk down the edge of the cloth and lift the coarse material in my hands.

  “Now, walk,” says Wheaton. “Slowly and carefully.”

  As I walk forward, the cloth comes away from the floor like Saran wrap stuck to a birthday cake.

  “Oh, man, that’s ruined,” say Aldridge. “You put that cloth down too early.”

  “Thank you for stating the obvious,” says Wheaton.

  Halfway across the room, I stop, my eyes transfixed by the images on the floor. They look nothing like the painting on the canvas circle that surrounds us. They’re bright, childlike human figures painted directly onto the hardwood. Wide curves of red, yellow, and blue, with mixed tones where the primary lines cross.

  “That looks like finger painting,” I say softly.

  “It is. Think of what the critics will say!” Wheaton exults. “I can’t wait to see their faces.”

  But I’m not thinking of the critics. I’m thinking that beside every figure is a large X, that all the figures have long hair, and that their mouths are open in huge wailing O’s. I open my mouth to speak, but nothing comes out.

  “That’s freaky,” says Aldridge. “You’re the guy who painted this”—he points at a beautiful tree beside his shoulder, then back at the floor—“and you painted that?”

  Wheaton touches Aldridge on the arm, and something crackles and flashes blue. The FBI agent falls to the floor, jerking like a man having an epileptic fit.

  Then Wheaton turns to me, and the avuncular face is gone. A new intelligence stares out through his eyes: vulpine, knowing, cold, fearless.

  “I’m not the man who painted that,” he says, pointing at the Clearing. “The man who did is almost dead.”

  With the slowness of nightmares, I scrabble at the right cuff of my jeans, reaching for the pistol John gave me, but Wheaton jerks his end of the drop cloth and my right foot flies out from under me, spilling me onto the floor.

  As my hand closes on the butt of the .38, a vicious wasp stings my neck, and my arms begin jerking spasti cally. The room blurs, fades, then returns. I feel myself rising toward the skylight, and I wonder if I’m dying until I begin moving laterally and realize Wheaton is carrying me.

  He walks to the border of the canvas circle, away from the open panel, and I wonder if he thinks he can simply step into his own painting. But inches from the meticulously painted forest, he bends and sets me on the floor, then takes a knife from his pocket. With one great slash he lays open the canvas from top to bottom, then lifts me again and carries me through the crack like a ghost walking through a wall.

  25

  CONSCIOUSNESS RETURNS before vision. I know I’m alive, because I’m cold, dreadfully cold and wet. Shivering. I try to touch my face, but my arms won’t move properly. My legs either. With great effort I shift my hips, and pain shoots up my legs. The agony of circulation returning. I focus all my energy on opening my eyes, but they don’t open. My sense of smell is working, though. Urine, pungent and ammoniac, floats all around me. Terror squirms in my chest like a rat trying to fight its way out of a bag.

  Stop, says a voice in my mind, and I cling desperately to its echo. My father’s voice. Don’t panic, he says.

  But I’m so afraid—

  You’re alive. Where there’s life, there’s hope.

  Stay with me, Daddy.

  Think of happy things, he says. The light will come soon.

  My mind is a fog of confusion, but through the mist I see patches of light. I see a little girl, sitting at a desk in a room filled with desks. Beside her sits another girl, identical to her to the last detail. One of the little girls is me. I feel more like a boy than a girl. My favorite book is The Mysterious Island. I order my books from a flimsy catalog the teacher hands out to every student in the class. Emil and the Detectives. White Fang. Like that. Money is tight for us, but when it comes to books my mother is a spend-thrift; I can order as many as I like. I sit here day after day, waiting for my books to arrive. My books. It takes a month or more, but when they finally do, when the teacher opens the big box and passes out the orders to the kids, checking the books against a form taken from her desk, I glow with happiness. I’ve never had the newest dress, or the prettiest, but I always have the tallest stack of books. Little paperbacks that smell of wet ink. I lay my cheek against their cool covers, anticipating the stories inside, knowing all the other girls wonder what I could possibly want with those books.

  That’s how I discovered The Mysterious Island. It’s about four men who try to escape from a Civil War prison camp in a hot-air balloon. A storm blows them out to sea, and they crash near an uninhabited island. Their task is survival, and they succeed mightily. One prisoner finds a kernel of corn in his pocket, and from this comes their first crop. A former engineer brings irrigation to their fields. The story is a fable of self-reliance, which makes it perfect for me. I have my mother and my twin sister, but my father is gone. Not dead, but away. Shooting pictures for the magazines.

  There is a map in The Mysterious Island. A hand-drawn topographic sort of thing, showing the island as it would appear from the air. The beach. The cove. The volcano with its hidden caves. A forest of palms, streams running through it. I could almost see the men down there, doing their best to get by, using their common sense, their natural gifts. I began to draw maps of my own. In the margins of my textbooks, on the backs of the mimeographed drawings they handed out at Thanks-giving: the Pilgrim or the Indian, which we colored with crayons only after hungrily sniffing the solvent on the purple mimeograph paper, still wet from the machine. When we finished coloring, the teacher would collect the pictures and tape them above the chalkboard in a long line. Mine never got the star for being the best. There was always someone who stayed completely within the lines, or had some fancy shading, or outlined their picture in heavy black crayon that they scraped flat with their fingernail. But I knew—even if the teacher didn’t notice—that on the back of my Pilgrim was a whole world, an island drawn with the finest detail a big red Eagle pencil could produce, a world I’d spent the last thirty minutes living in before hastily coloring in the lonely-looking Puritan with my Crayolas.

  Without warning, my eyelids begin fluttering and my hands clench into fists. Something’s happening to my muscles. A voice tells me to keep my eyes closed until I know more about my situation, but the hunger for light is too strong.

  Vision returns as swirling clouds, wisps of white on gray. Slowly, the clouds part to reveal the face of Thalia Laveau. The beautiful Sabine artist is sitting across from me, immersed to her breasts in a pool of yellowish water. Her head lolls against a rim of white enamel. Her eyes are closed, her skin pale to the point of blueness, and she is naked. I am naked too. Between us just an old-fashioned faucet. We’re in a bathtub.

  I try to turn my head, but my neck muscles refuse to obey my brain. I must be content with what I can see from this position. The wall opposite me is made of glass. The roof above is also glass, long shining triangles of it, fanning out from a brace bolted to a redbrick wall above and to my left. Through the glass I see the sky, fading down to dusk. To my left, above the narrow ends of the fanning panes, the sky is blue; to my right, violet. I am facing north.

  Moving only my eye
s, I follow the glass down to within four feet of the ground, where it meets a brick wall. I’m in a conservatory of some type. A conservatory with a bathtub in it. Beyond the glass wall stand trees and tropical plants, beyond these a high brick wall. I’m almost convinced I’m dreaming when I hear the pad of feet.

  “Welcome back,” says a male voice. “Add some hot water if you’re cold.”

  The voice sounds familiar, but I can’t quite place it. It has the refinement of Frank Smith’s voice, but it’s pitched lower. With superhuman effort I turn my head to the left and find a scene so bizarre I am rendered speechless.

  Roger Wheaton stands partly behind an artist’s easel, a paintbrush in his white-gloved hand, working feverishly on a large canvas that I cannot see. He is naked but for a white cloth tied around his waist and between his legs, like those that Renaissance artists used to cover the genitals of Jesus in crucifixion paintings. Wheaton’s body is surprisingly well muscled, but his torso is lined with bruises and hemorrhages, the kind I saw in Africa on pneumonia patients coughing themselves to death.

  My first attempt to speak is only a rasp. But then saliva comes, and I get the words out. “Where am I?”

  In one sense this is a rhetorical question. I’m in the place eleven other women occupied before me—twelve, including Thalia. I’m in the killing house. I am one of the Sleeping Women.

  “You can’t move, can you?”

  When I don’t answer, Wheaton walks over and turns the tap marked “H.” At first I shiver more, but then blessed heat begins to roll against my hip and stomach. He walks back to the painting, leaving me to push myself away from the steaming rush of water.

  “Where am I?” I repeat.

  “Where do you think you are?” Wheaton’s gaze moves from the canvas to me, then back again.

  “The killing house,” I reply, using John Kaiser’s term.

  He seems not to hear.

  “Is Thalia dead?”

  “Not clinically.”

  I fight to keep my fear in check. “What does that mean? Is she sedated?”

  “Permanently.”

  “What?”

  “Look at her.”