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Dead Sleep

Dead Sleep

Dead Sleep 5


  “It’s not illegal, is it? Yes, I’m going to make a lot more money on this painting than I thought. Maybe double the bid.”

  “What’s your commission?” I ask, stepping out of range of the hammer and sliding my hand into my pocket.

  “That’s my business.”

  “What’s a standard commission?”

  “Fifty percent.”

  “So this one painting could land you a million dollars.”

  “You’re quick at math. You should work for me.”

  The crate is nearly sealed. When he’s finished, he’ll tell me to leave, then get on the phone and start promoting his newly appreciated asset.

  “Why are you selling these paintings in Asia rather than America? Were you trying to delay the connection to the missing women?”

  He laughs again. “It just happened that way. A Frenchman from the Cayman Islands bought the first five, but I found out he’d spent most of his life in Vietnam. Then a Japanese collector stepped in. A Malaysian. Also a Chinese. There’s something in these images that appeals to the Eastern sensibility.”

  “And it’s not very subtle, is it? Dead naked white women?”

  Wingate turns to me long enough to wrinkle his lips. “That’s crude, and it’s an oversimplification.

  “Where is the painting in the crate going?”

  “An auction house in Tokyo.”

  “Why go to that trouble, Christopher? Why not auction them here in New York? At Sotheby’s or wherever?”

  Pure smugness now. “It’s like Brian Epstein with the Beatles. You’re number one in England, but at some point you have to take them to America. Maybe the time has come.”

  Wingate’s arrogance finally triggers something deep within me, a well of outrage I try to keep capped, but which sometimes explodes despite my best efforts or interests.

  “I was lying about the FBI,” I say in a cold voice. “I haven’t told them about the paintings yet. I wanted to talk to you first. But since you’re being such a prick, and you haven’t told me anything helpful, I am going to tell them. Do you know what will happen then? This canvas you’re drooling over will become evidence in a serial murder case, and it’ll be confiscated. And you won’t make jackshit off it, because it won’t be sellable. Not for a very long time, Christopher. It’s like assets being stuck in probate, only worse.”

  Wingate straightens up with the hammer and turns to face me. He still has a couple of nails in his mouth; I’d like to shove them down his throat.

  “What do you want to know?” he asks.

  “I want a name. I want to know who paints these pictures.”

  He hefts the hammer and drops its head into the palm of his other hand with a slap. “If you haven’t told the FBI yet, you’re not in a very good position to make that kind of demand.”

  “One phone call.”

  Now he smiles. “A phone call requires access to a phone. Do you think you can get to that one?”

  He points the hammer at a cordless phone on the counter behind him. I could probably Mace him and get to it, but that’s not really the point. The point is that he’s willing to hurt me—maybe to kill me—to protect his little art monopoly. Which means he probably knows a lot more than he’s saying about the origin of the Sleeping Women.

  “Well?” he says, almost playfully.

  I back toward the iron staircase, finding the spray nozzle with my finger as I go.

  “Where are you going, Jordan?” He takes three quick steps toward me, the hammer held waist high. As he does, a new scenario hits me with chilling force. What if the painter isn’t the killer at all? What if Wingate mas terminded the whole thing to earn millions in commissions? What if he kills the women and merely commissions the paintings from some starving artist? His dark eyes flash as he moves forward, and the violence in them unnerves me.

  In one movement I whip out the Mace can and blast his face from six feet, the powerful stream filling his eyes, nose, and mouth with enough chemical irritant to set his mucous membranes on fire. He screams like a child, drops the hammer, and starts clawing his eyes. I almost want to steer him to the sink, so pitiful are his cries, but I’m not that crazy. As I whirl toward the stairs, my heart beating wildly, a giant hand swats me back into the room and a fusillade of distant cannon hammers my eardrums.

  When I open my eyes, I see gray smoke and a screaming man. Wingate is shrieking so loudly that I can’t think. You don’t hear men scream like that except in war zones, when they’re lying on the ground holding their guts or genitals in a bowl some medic gave them. Now Wingate is running around the room like a blind rat in a sinking ship; he might just go out a window. I scrabble to my knees and crawl toward the staircase, but the smoke only gets thicker. The lower floors of the gallery are on fire.

  “Is there a fire escape?” I shout, but he doesn’t hear me. He’s still trying to claw his eyes out.

  To my left I see a faint blue glow, a streetlight. That means a window. I crawl quickly to it and raise my head above the sill, hoping for a fire escape. I find a thirty-foot drop instead. Crabbing back toward the stairs, I stop halfway and wait for Wingate to rush by. A couple of seconds later he does, and I tackle him.

  “SHUT UP!” I shout. “IF YOU DON’T SHUT UP, YOU’RE GOING TO DIE!”

  “My eyes!” he wails. “I’m blind!”

  “YOU’RE NOT BLIND! I MACED YOU! STAY HERE!”

  Standing erect in the thickening smoke, I rush to the sink and fill a coffee decanter with water. Then I stagger back to him and flush out his eyes. He screams some more, but the water seems to do him some good.

  “More,” he coughs.

  “No time. We have to get out. Where’s the fire escape?”

  “Bed . . . bedroom.”

  “Where is it?”

  “Ba—back wall . . . door.”

  “Get up!”

  He doesn’t move until I yank his arm hard enough to tear a ligament. Then he rolls over and starts crawling beside me. As we move, a roar like the voice of some satanic creature bellows from the staircase. The fire’s voice. I’ve heard it in lots of places, and the sound turns my insides to jelly. There’s a reason human beings will jump ten floors onto concrete to escape being burned alive. That roar is part of it.

  I go through the bedroom door first. The smoke here is not as bad. There’s only one window. As I crawl toward it, Wingate grabs my ankle.

  “Wait!” he rasps. “The painting!”

  “Screw the painting!”

  “I can’t leave it! My sprinklers aren’t working!”

  The pressure of his hand on my ankle is gone. When I turn back, I see no sign of him. The fool is willing to die for money. I’ve seen people die for worse reasons, but not many. I stand in the door and try to see through the smoke, but it’s useless.

  “Forget the goddamn painting!” I shout into the gray wall.

  “Help me!” he calls back. “I can’t move the crate alone!”

  “Leave it!”

  No reply. After a few seconds, I hear something whacking the crate. Probably the hammer. Then a creaking sound like tearing wood.

  “It’s stuck!” he yells. Then a series of racking coughs cuts through the roar of the advancing fire. “I need a knife! I can cut the canvas loose!”

  I don’t much care if Wingate wants to commit suicide, but it suddenly strikes me that the painting in that frame is worth more than money. Women’s lives may depend on it. Dropping to my knees, I take a deep breath and crawl toward the coughing.

  My head soon bumps something soft. It’s Wingate, gagging as he tries to draw oxygen from the smoke. The flames have reached the top of the stairs, and in their orange glow I see the painting, half out of the crate but stuck against the side panel Wingate only partially removed. Unzipping my fanny pack, I take out my Canon, pop off three shots, then zip it back up and grab Wingate’s shoulder.

  “YOU’RE GOING TO DIE IF YOU DON’T MOVE!”

  His face is gray, his eyes nearly swollen shu
t. I grab his legs and try to drag him to the bedroom, but the exertion makes me dizzy, and for an instant my eyes go black. I’m near to fainting, and fainting here would mean death. Dropping his feet, I rush to the window, flip the catch, and shove it upward.

  The outside air hits my face like a bucketful of cold water, filling my lungs with rich oxygen and clearing my head. I have a momentary fantasy of going back for Wingate, but survival instinct overrides that impulse. Below me is the iron framework of a fire escape. It’s the classic New York model; one floor down, a latched ladder awaits only my weight to send it to the pavement below. But when I crawl down to the platform and pull the latch, the ladder stays where it is. A wave of smoke billows from the window behind me. I pull down on a rung with all my strength, but nothing moves.

  I lived in New York long enough to know how to work one of these things, and this one isn’t functioning. It’s fifteen feet to the cracked cement of the alley below, my best target a space between some garbage cans and a steam grate. A distant siren echoes up the chasm, but I don’t think the fire department will start their rescue work in this alley. I’ve got to get down, and there’s only one way to do it.

  Crawling over the railing, I lower myself until I’m hanging by my hands from the edge of the platform. I’m five-feet-eight, which shortens the drop to about ten feet. No great shakes for a paratrooper, but I don’t happen to be one. I did drop from a helicopter once in North Carolina, photographing an Army training mission. It felt like fifty feet, though it was supposedly twelve.

  What the hell. A broken ankle is nothing compared with Wingate’s fate. I open my hands and drop through the dark. My heels strike a glancing blow on the pavement and fly out from under me, leaving my right buttock and wrist to absorb the main force of the impact. I yell in pain, but the exhilaration of escape is a powerful anesthetic. Rolling to my left, I get to my feet and look back up at the platform. The window I crawled through moments ago is spouting fire.

  Jesus.

  My next instinct is to look down the alley, and what I see there sends a cold ripple along my flesh. There’s a man standing at the far end, watching me. I see him only in silhouette, because all the light is behind him. He looks big, though. Big enough to really mess me up. As I stare, he moves toward me, first uncertainly, then with a determined gait. He does not look like a fireman. My hand goes to my pocket, but the Mace is not there. I lost it upstairs. All I have is a camera, which is less than useless in this situation. I whirl and run toward the other end of the alley, toward the banshee wail of sirens.

  4

  CAREENING OUT OF the mouth of the alley, I come face-to-face with a spectacle I covered dozens of times early in my career. The classic fire scene: engines with red lights flashing and hoses spraying; squad cars and EMS vehicles arriving; cops yelling; a crowd of spectators, the eternal crowd, spilling out of the bar and the video store, gaping, drinking, and shouting into cell phones. Most of them poured out of the bar after hearing “an explosion,” and the smell of liquor spices the air. The police are trying to herd them back behind a taped perimeter, to protect them from falling brick and flying glass, but they’re slow to move. I walk right past the biggest cop and point my camera at the fire.

  “Hey!” he yells. “Get back behind this tape!”

  “The Post,” I tell him, holding up my camera.

  “Let me see your card.”

  “I don’t have it. I was having a drink in the bar with some friends. That’s why all I have is this crappy point-and-shoot. Give me a break, man, I’m the first one here. I can scoop everybody.”

  As the cop deliberates, I turn back to the mouth of the alley, forty meters away, but no one comes running out of it. The corner wall blurs for a moment, though, the vertical line of brick seeming to wrinkle in the dark. Was that him? Is he trying to figure a way to get to me even now? A deep crack rumbles from the bowels of Wingate’s building, and masonry cascades into the street. The crowd gives its obligatory gasp.

  “Come on, man! I’m missing the show!”

  The cop jerks his head toward the building, and I’m past him in a flash, moving along the perimeter of the crowd, shooting as I go. No one seems to notice that I’m shooting the crowd and not the fire. Every now and then I point the camera up at the burning building, but I don’t waste any exposures on it.

  The expressions on the faces are all the same: primitive fascination bordering on glee. A couple of female faces show empathy, a sense that this destruction is a tragedy, but with no shrieking mothers with infants leaping from windows, no teenagers trying to climb down burning bedsheets, the mood is more like a party.

  If the guy in the alley didn’t set this fire, the person who did is probably in this crowd. Arsonists love to watch their fires burn, they almost have to do it. But what are the odds that this blaze was set by a firebug? Twenty-four hours after I discover a link between the Sleeping Women and the New Orleans victims, the only human connection to the artist is burned alive? The timing is too perfect. This fire was set to silence Christopher Wingate. And the man who did it could be standing within yards of me right now. I may already have his face on film.

  From the reading I did after Jane was taken, I learned that serial killers often return to the scenes of their crimes, to revel in their success, to relive their dreadful acts, even to masturbate where they listened to their victims’ pleas. Killing Wingate would be nothing like killing the women in the paintings; it would be a utilitarian crime, an act of survival. But the murderer might well wait to be sure he accomplished his goal. And who knows what twisted history the two men might have shared? What did Wingate say to me? You wouldn’t believe some of the things I’ve seen.

  As I turn back from the burning building, a furtive movement registers in my peripheral vision. Wide eyes dropping below the back edge of the crowd, off to my right. People are standing five deep at the tape now, and I can’t see the eyes anymore. But as I watch, a sock cap begins to move along the back of the crowd, coming in my direction. Throwing up my camera arm, I pop off a shot over the heads of the crowd. The head disappears, then reappears still closer. I squeeze the shutter release again, but it won’t depress, and then I feel the vibration of the rewind motor in my hand; the crowd noise prevented my hearing it.

  I’m out of film.

  The sock cap moves forward now, pushing slowly toward me through the crowd. I’m tempted to wait for a good look at his face, but what if he’s carrying a gun? Close enough to see is close enough to shoot, and I don’t want to die here. “Jordan Glass, Noted War Photographer, Shot Dead on Fifteenth Street in Chelsea.” That headline has the ironic ring of truth, and I’m not waiting for it to be borne out by events. Glancing around, I rush up to the fire captain, who’s standing by the one of the engines, talking to a cop.

  “Captain!”

  He gives me an annoyed look.

  “Jane Adams, from the Post. I was shooting the crowd back there, and I passed a guy who smelled like gasoline. When I said something about it, he started following me through the crowd. He was wearing a sock cap.”

  The fireman’s eyes go wide. “Where?”

  I turn and point back to the spot I left moments ago. There, for an instant, I see a pale bearded face and blazing eyes beneath the sock cap. It vanishes so quickly, I wonder if it was there at all.

  “There! Did you see him?”

  The fire captain races toward the tape, followed by the cop who was standing beside him.

  “What was that?” asks another cop who suddenly appears at my side.

  “I smelled gas on a guy over there. They went to check it out.”

  “No shit? Good work. You with the Times?”

  “The Post. I just hope they get him.” And what do I tell them if they do?

  “Yeah. This is one fucked-up crime scene. He could be the guy, though.”

  The cop is young and Italian, with a five-o’clock shadow that looks more like midnight. “What do you mean?”

  “They just
found a guy in a car across the street. Dead as a hammer.”

  “What?” I whirl and try to see, but the crowd obscures my view. “How did he die?”

  “Somebody cut his throat. You believe that? Wearing a suit and tie. Looks like he hasn’t been dead an hour. Something strange going on here.”

  “Who was he?”

  “No wallet. Like a slaughterhouse in that car.”

  The fire captain is already pushing back toward us, the cop in tow.

  “See anything?” the Italian cop calls to them.

  The other cop shakes his head. “Crowd’s too big. Guy could be two feet away, we wouldn’t know except by the smell.”

  “I’ll make a pass,” says the Italian, tipping his cap to me as he walks toward the tape.

  The guy could be two feet away. And there isn’t any gasoline smell. He could kill me before I know he’s there. It’s time to go. But how? My cab is long gone, and walking isn’t an option. Neither is the subway.

  As I ponder my options, a yellow taxi pulls to the end of the block and disgorges a kid with two cameras hanging from his neck. The official press. Knowing he’ll ask for a receipt, I start running, and I’m at full sprint before he has it in his hand.

  “Taxi!” I yell. “Don’t let him go!”

  For some reason—maybe because he’s seen my camera—the photographer holds the cab.

  “Thanks!” I tell him, jumping into the backseat.

  “Hey, are you with a paper?”

  “No.” I thump the plastic partition. “JFK! Move it!”

  “Wait. Don’t I know you?”

  “Go!” I shout at the back of the cabbie’s head.

  “Hey, aren’t you—”

  With a screech of rubber, the cab is rolling toward the Queens-Midtown Tunnel.

  MY FLIGHT LANDS at Reagan National at 10:15 P.M., and when I deplane, there’s a man in a suit waiting for me at the gate. He’s holding a white cardboard sign that says J. GLASS, but he doesn’t look like a limo driver. He looks like a buffed-up accountant.

  “I’m Jordan Glass.”

  “Special Agent Sims,” he says with a frown. “You’re late. Follow me,”