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Dead Sleep 41
“So you channeled your desires into the Clearing paintings. Didn’t you? That’s why they became more abstract.”
“Yes. And the more I put into them, the more famous Roger got. I wanted the world to see my work—purely—not through the distorted mirror of Roger’s abstracts.”
“Is that why you started killing again, fifteen years later?”
“No.” He gives me a simple, clear gaze. “I was dying. I had to do what good I could, while I could.”
“Hoffman was out of prison by then? He helped you?”
“Six months after my diagnosis, he was released to make room for new inmates. I’d already moved to New Orleans. I had a juvenile fantasy of finding my biological father. Or his grave. Something tangible. But I never did. But yes, Conrad helped me begin my work again.”
“Why did you sell the paintings? Why take the risk? You already had money. Fame. Respect.”
“Roger had those things.” Wheaton’s brush pecks the palette, then flies to the canvas. “In his bourgeois way. But when collectors saw my Sleeping Women, they recognized an entirely different level of truth.”
“Like Marcel de Becque?”
“He was one.”
“Do you know him well?”
“I know he buys my work. Nothing more.” Strangely, I believe him. So what explains the connections among de Becque, Wingate, and Hoffman? Were they all exploiting this tortured artist and his twisted vision?
“What do you intend to do now?”
“I’m going away. To live as myself. Openly. Money’s not a problem, and Conrad established new identities for us long ago. Just in case.”
“Will you paint?”
“If I feel the need. After this one, I don’t suspect I will.”
“What do you plan to do with me?”
“I’m going to give you what you most want. I’m going to reunite you with your sister.”
My eyes close. “Where is my sister?”
“Driving distance? Walking distance?”
Wheaton sniffs. “Closer than that.”
John’s voice sounds in my head, an echo of the first day I met him. Lakeshore Drive. The water table has fallen considerably in recent years. He could be burying them under a house, and they would stay buried. And dry. Toss in a little lime every now and then, they wouldn’t even stink.
“Is she buried here? Under this house?”
There’s not even a hitch in Wheaton’s brush stroke as he nods. It’s almost more than I can bear.
“The other women too?”
“Yes. Your sister was a bit different from the rest. She tried to escape. I’m not sure how she managed it, but she made it out to the garden. Conrad caught her, but she fought, and he had to end it there. He buried her immediately. I finished painting her using only a photograph.”
For the first time in many hours, anger boils to the surface. Reaching out to the tap, I turn it as I have twice before—only this time I open the cold valve. Wheaton doesn’t seem to notice.
As I fight the tortured images called into being by his words, he puts down his brush, massages his hands again, then lifts a watch from the table behind him and looks at it. With a soft grunt, he turns and walks into the main house. There’s a soft clatter followed by the low murmur of a voice. He’s making a phone call.
I roll over, get to my knees, lean out, and drag the Igloo cooler up to the tub. Praying the running water will cover the noise, I take several panting breaths, then lift the cooler to the edge of the tub and dump the contents inside.
The icy shock sucks the breath right out of my lungs. Even my thoughts seem to stutter, so cold is the water, but I haven’t time to waste. Three bottles of Michelob have fallen into the tub. I put them back into the empty cooler, then slide it back to its place. A droning voice floats through the doorway to my left. I hear the word “ticket” several times. Possibly the word “departure.”
God, it’s cold. I won’t be able to stand much of this. My sluggish brain has already forgotten something critical. My insulin defense. Reaching down between the tub and mirror, I bring up a pack of Pop-Tarts and tear open the foil with stiff fingers. I break the hard pastries into pieces, shove them into my mouth, and chew them just enough to get them down my throat.
Wheaton is still talking. I rip open another foil pack and gobble two more Pop-Tarts.
“Come to me,” I say softly, trying to keep my teeth from chattering. “Said the spider to the fly.”
When Wheaton reappears, I suddenly realize how strange he looks in his white linen cloth. After two days of painting, I’ve gotten used to it. But after hearing him talk on the phone like a normal person, it’s a shock. He looks like a man who believes he’s Jesus. A sixty-year-old Jesus. He stands before the easel, examining the canvas with a critical eye.
The ice water feels like it’s draining the life out of me, and the pain is greater than I anticipated. The line between ice and fire quickly vanishes.
“Is the painting done?” I ask.
“What?” Wheaton says in a distant voice. “Oh. Almost. I—”
The ringing telephone cuts him off. He looks confused. It rings again, faint but insistent. With a quick glance at me, he goes back into the house.
I have an almost irresistible compulsion to leap out of the tub. Turn on the hot water, says a voice in my head. A little won’t hurt—
This time the footsteps return at a run. Wheaton rushes into the room, his face blotched red again, only this time there’s a gun in his hand. A Smith & Wesson featherweight .38. The gun John gave me.
“What’s the matter? What happened?”
“They hung up.” His voice is a ragged whisper.
“That happens all the time.”
“Not here. And it wasn’t dead when I got there. They listened for a few seconds before they hung up.”
I try to keep my eyes flat as hope blossoms in my chest, “It was probably a kid. Or some pervert.”
Wheaton shakes his head. The animal awareness shining in his eyes is a fearsome thing to see: survival instinct honed to a gleaming edge.
“Why are you making explanations?” he asks. “Why do you care?”
“I don’t. I just—”
“Shut up!” He turns and looks at his unfinished painting, then back at me. “I have to go.”
“Go where? Why?”
“Sometimes I know things. And I never second-guess that feeling. This place isn’t safe anymore.”
I feel a sudden urge to leap out of the freezing tub, but before I can act, Wheaton says, “I know you can move.”
My heart stutters.
“Don’t pretend you can’t. I ran out of muscle relaxant. I have to get ready to leave. I’m going to walk over there and put some more Valium into your IV. Enough to knock you out for a while, but not enough to kill you.”
His face looks sincere, but I know who I’m talking to. “You’re lying. You already said you’re going to kill me.”
“Jordan. I could shoot you right now if I wanted to kill you.”
“Maybe we’re too close to other houses. Or maybe you can’t stand to kill that way. Using insulin gives you the illusion of euthanasia.”
A strange smile touches his lips and eyes. “I shot a lot of people in Vietnam. That’s not a problem.”
He crouches four feet from the tub and looks me in the eye. “Why doesn’t Valium work on you, Jordan? Do you have a little habit? Is that it?”
“Maybe a little one.”
He laughs appreciatively. “You’re a sly one, aren’t you? A survivor, like me.”
He stands and goes into the other room, then returns with a syringe. “Stay right where you are. If you try anything, I’ll have no choice but to shoot you. Same thing if you pull out the IV.”
Wheaton walks out of my field of vision, and though I can’t see him, I know what he’s doing: leaning in from as far away as possible
and injecting the contents of the syringe into my IV bag. Could he be telling the truth about the Valium? Would he really let me live? He hasn’t let anyone else. They’re all buried somewhere under this house.
My wrist should start burning, but it doesn’t. Wheaton reappears on my left side and crouches again, three feet away. He doesn’t say anything. He just watches.
“You’re shivering,” he says at length. “How do you feel?”
“There’s nothing to fear. Don’t fight it.”
“It’s not Valium.” A wave of nausea rolls through me. “Is it?”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because my wrist isn’t burning.”
He sighs, then smiles with something like compassion. “You’re right. Trust a junkie to know her drugs. It’s insulin. Soon you won’t have a care in the world. No pain at all.”
Four feet opposite me, Thalia Laveau looks exactly like what she is: a living corpse. I cannot end my life like that. I only pray that Conrad Hoffman didn’t rape her before she went into a coma.
“Sleepy yet?” asks Wheaton, cradling the gun in his left hand.
The sugar that the Pop-Tarts flushed into my blood will give only limited immunity to the insulin, depending on the dose he gave me. If he comes no closer than he is now, I’ll pass out before I can do anything to save myself. Unless I pull out the IV. And then he’ll shoot me.
“I . . . I am,” I say in a slurred voice. “Am. Sleepy.”
“That’s right,” he half-whispers, glancing past me, through the glass wall of the conservatory. He looks as if he expects to see armed men crossing his garden at any moment.
The bathwater doesn’t feel as cold as it did before, and for a second I’m thankful. Then I understand: the insulin is affecting my perception. Near panic, I shake myself, then kick my legs up out of the tub, which sends me sliding down into the water. My behind skids between Thalia’s thighs, and my head slips beneath the surface.
It takes a supreme act of will to hold my head under the water, but this is the only path to survival. I make a show of fighting to get my head above the water.
A shadow appears above the tub, then coalesces into a definable shape. A head. Shoulders. Wheaton is looking down into the tub. What does he see? A replay of the first woman he ever killed? The waif? With a macabre sense of dislocation, I watch my last moments on earth through his eyes. He wants to pull my head clear of the water; I can feel it. To give me a more humane death.
Starved for oxygen and stunned by the cold, my lungs burn to reach the surface. I can’t wait for Wheaton to reach in. With a scream of desperation I explode out of the water, hands extended like claws. His eyes bulge in terror, and he tries to wheel backward, but I have him by the wrists. He roars and tries to fight, but his feet haven’t enough purchase on the wet floor to allow him to use his weight against me. With all my weight, I jerk both his hands down into the icy tub.
His eyes go wide with the incomprehension of a child being tortured for reasons it cannot guess, and his feet go out from under him.
Still I hold on.
New faces come alive in his eyes: the abused boy who could read his father’s lustful thoughts; the soldier who heard the enemy’s bare feet from fifty meters. As I struggle to keep his hands pinned, one of his wrists jerks in my hand, and a muted explosion hammers my ears. Blood swirls through the bathtub. His wrist jerks again, and my ears ring like cymbals.
He’s firing the gun under the water.
I don’t feel hurt, but sometimes you don’t know. Amplified by the tub, the blast alone stuns me, but I don’t let go. Bright red blood sprays through the ice water as though from a hose.
Thalia. A hole in her thigh is spurting blood with every beat of her heart. She’s still alive enough to die badly. Screaming in rage, I cling to Wheaton’s wrists as the gun kicks my freezing hand across the bottom of the tub.
When silence returns, it shocks us both. Wheaton’s face is bone white, and his arms have stopped struggling. The icy water has done its work. Before I know what I’m doing, I’ve let go of his wrists and scrambled out of the tub. The IV stand crashes to the floor beside me, and the catheter pops out of my wrist, sending a warm rush of blood down my hand.
Wheaton straightens slowly, and for a moment I think he’s been shot. But he’s not holding himself anywhere; he’s struggling to remove the soaked gloves from his shaking hands. He looks like a burn victim trying to remove melted clothing. One glove drops to the wet floor, then the other, and then he’s holding his hands up before him, fingers splayed and quivering. The fingers are blue. Not a pleasant blue, but the morbid blue-black that signals tissue death. As I stare, Wheaton’s mouth forms an O and he roars in agony.
The scream snaps my trance. Backpedaling away from the tub, I turn toward the door of the main house. It seems a short distance away, but when I try to run, my legs go watery. I have to stop, bend, and grip my knees to stay on my feet. Panic balloons in my chest, cutting off my air. Is that the insulin too?
I need sugar. Rather than try to reach my stash by the mirror, I fall backward onto my rump and throw my hand toward the grocery bag. Wheaton plods toward me, his eyes blazing, but he doesn’t look like much of a threat. It’s like being attacked by a man without hands. Scrabbling in the grocery bag, I rip open a Twinkie and stuff it into my mouth, swallowing the spongy cake almost without chewing.
Wheaton suddenly veers away, back toward the tub. He’s looking down into it like a monk ordered to retrieve some relic from a kettle of fire. The gun. He’s trying to summon the courage to plunge his dying hands back into the ice.
I rake my fingernails down my left forearm, drawing blood. The pain momentarily sharpens my senses, and in that window of clarity I force myself to my feet.
Wheaton bends over the tub and plunges one arm in up to the elbow. Then he pops erect like a jack-in-the-box, his gun arm trembling, and whirls to face me.
The pistol is rising when I charge him, arms outstretched. The gun bellows as my hands strike center mass, driving him backward over the tub and into the mirror propped against the wall. The mirror snaps five feet from the floor, and the top half crashes over us, bursting into lethal shards as big as china plates.
Wheaton falls across the tub, stunned but still conscious, straining to hold himself above the icy water. As I struggle to get off him, his eyes flash with life and he jams the gun barrel into my throat.
“Don’t,” I plead, hating myself for begging. “Please.”
He smiles with odd regret, then pulls the trigger.
There’s a hollow click.
Wild-eyed, he jerks back the gun to bludgeon me, but his flexing shoulder slips off the rim of the tub and sends him down into the water. He doesn’t even scream. He sucks in a massive gulp of air, and one dark hand flies to his chest as though to massage his heart. Before pity can gain a foothold in mine, I put both hands on his head and shove it beneath the icy surface.
He struggles, but his strength has left him. I want to hold him down, if only to end his torture, but I can’t afford to. The sugar in my blood could be metabolized by insulin before I get ten paces from the tub. If it is, I’ll leave this place feetfirst with a tag around my toe.
I raise myself from the tub and stagger to the door behind the easel. The door leads to an oblong room containing a television, a sofa, and a telephone table. Stumbling through it, I find myself in a wide hall that runs forty feet to a great wooden door, much like the one in Jane’s house on St. Charles Avenue. I start toward the door, focusing on my balance, but two-thirds of the way there my legs give way and I fall headlong into a white baseboard.
There’s a strange fog loose in my head. I want to lie on the soft wood and let it enfold me. But from the midst of the fog rises an image so indelible that my heart begins pounding under the force of it: shallow graves, eleven in a line, low mounds of dirt moldering in the dark beneath
a house. This house. Beneath my feet wait the remains of eleven women whose husbands and parents and children pray each night to know their fates. My sister waits with them. And there is no question whom she’s waiting for. My duty is not yet done.
Struggling to my knees, I crawl the last few yards to the door, then reach up with my right hand and turn the knob.
It doesn’t move.
A few still-active brain cells paint the image of a window behind my closed eyes, but I’ve no hope of reaching one. I can go no farther.
“Please,” I hear myself sob, and again the indignity of begging embarrasses me. “Open.”
The door remains closed. A pathetic end for a decently lived life. Naked. Alone. Lost in a white fog that blows with insidious silence, deadening the sound of my sobs, then the rasp of my breathing. Soon all will be whiteness.
As my ears chase the last hissing echo of my respiration, an inhuman screech splits my fading consciousness like an ax. There’s a pounding of drums, then a shattering cacophony like the mirror breaking in the conservatory. Black insectile figures swarm over me, their metallic voices ringing against my eardrums. One is trying to ask me something, his goggle eyes wide and earnest, but I can’t understand him.
A scream of utter desolation cleaves the air, stretching toward infinity. It punches through my heart like a bullet of pure misery, fusing with the grief that has festered there so long. My hands fly up to cover my ears, but the scream smashes into a black wall, leaving only a ringing vibration in the air. The goggle eyes above me go wide, then vanish, and a human face appears in their place.
John Kaiser’s face.
He thinks I’m dead. I see it in his eyes. The fog has almost swallowed me. I have to tell him I’m alive. If I don’t, he might bury me. Deep in my mind, a spark winks to life. A lone pinpoint of white in a black sky. And from that star comes a voice. Not my father’s voice. A woman’s voice.
My sister’s voice.
Speak, Jordan! Say something, damn you!