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Authors: Lisa Marie Rice

Tags: #Contemporary

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BOOK: Dangerous Passion
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Alleyway outside the Feinstein Art Gallery

Manhattan
November 17

Feelings kill faster than bullets,
that old Russian army saying, raced through Viktor “Drake” Drakovich’s mind when he heard the noise behind him. It was barely audible. The faint sound of metal against leather, fabric against fabric and the softest whisper of a metallic click.

The sound of a gun being pulled from its holster, the safety being switched off. He’d heard a variation of this sound thousands and thousands of times over the years.

He’d known for a year now that this moment would come. It was only a question of when, not if. He’d been barreling toward it, against every instinct in his body, completely out of control, for a full year.

From his boyhood living wild on the streets of Odessa, he’d survived the most brutal conditions possible, over and over again, by being cautious, by never exposing himself unnecessarily, by being security conscious, always.

What he’d been doing for the past year was the equivalent of suicide.

It didn’t feel that way, though.

It felt like…like life itself.

He could remember to the second when his life changed. Utterly, completely, instantly.

He’d been in his limousine, separated from Mischa, his driver, by the soundproof partition. In the car he never talked, and used the time to catch up on paperwork. It had been years since he’d driven anywhere for pleasure. Cars were to get from A to B, when he couldn’t fly.

The windows were heavily smoked. For security, of course. But also because it had been a long time since the outside world had interested him enough to glance out the windows at the passing scenery.

The heavy armor-plated Mercedes S600 was stopped in traffic. The overhead stoplight continued cycling through the colors, green-yellow-red, green-yellow-red, over and over again, but traffic was at a standstill. Something had happened up ahead. The blare of impatient horns filtered through the armored walls and bulletproof glass of his car, sounding as if coming from far away, like the buzzing of crazed insects in the distance.

A motorcycle eased past the cars like an eel in water. One driver was so enraged at the sight of the motorcyclist making headway, he leaned angrily on his horn, rolled down the window and stuck his middle finger up in the air. He shouted something out, red faced, spittle flying.

Drake closed his eyes in disgust. Even in America, where there was order and plenty and peace—even here there was aggression and envy. Humans never learned. They were like violent children, petulant and greedy and out of control.

It was an old feeling, dating from his childhood, as familiar to him as the feel of his hands and feet. Humans were flawed and rapacious and violent. You used that, profited from it and stayed as much out of their way as possible. It was the closest thing to a creed he had and it had served him well all his life.

Oddly enough, though, lately this kind of thinking had made him…impatient. Annoyed. Wanting to step away from it all. Go…somewhere else. Do something else.
Be
someone else.

If there were another world, he’d emigrate to it. But there was only this world, filled with greedy and violent people.

Whenever he found himself in this mood, which was more and more often lately, he tried to shake himself out of it. Moods were an excellent way to get killed.

Strangely out of sorts, he looked again at the spreadsheets on his lap. They tracked a 10-million-dollar contract to supply weapons to a Tajikistani warlord, the first of what Drake hoped would be several deals with the self-styled “general.” There was newfound oil in the general’s fiefdom, a goddamned lake of it right underneath the barren, hard-packed earth, and the general was in the mood to buy whatever was necessary to hold on to the power and the oil. When this deal went through smoothly, as it certainly would, Drake knew there would be many more down the line.

Years ago, if nothing else, the thought would have given him satisfaction. Now, he felt nothing at all. It was a business deal. He would put in the work; it would net him more money. Nothing he hadn’t done thousands and thousands of times before.

He stared at the printouts until they blurred, trying to drum up interest in the deal. It wasn’t there, which was alarming. What was even more alarming was the dull void in his chest as he reflected on his indifference. Not being able to care about not being able to care was frightening. Would have been frightening, if he could work up the energy to be frightened.

Restless, he glanced to his right. This section of Lexington was full of bookshops and art galleries, the shop windows more pleasing, less crass than the boutiques with their stupid, outlandish clothes a block uptown.

And that was when he saw them.

Paintings. A wall of them, together with a few watercolors and ink drawings. All heartbreakingly beautiful, all clearly by the same fine hand. A hand even he recognized was extraordinary.

Though the car windows were smoked, the gallery was well lit and each work of art had its own wall-mounted spotlight, so Drake got a good look at them all, stalled there in a mid-Manhattan traffic jam. And anyway, his eyesight was sniper grade.

He did something he’d never done before. He buzzed down his window. The driver’s mouth fell open. Drake flicked his gaze to the rearview mirror. The driver’s mouth snapped shut and his face assumed an impassive expression.

The car instantly filled with the smell of exhaust fumes and the loud cacophony of a Manhattan traffic jam.

Drake ignored it completely. The important thing was he had a better view of the paintings now.

The first painting he saw took his breath away. A simple image—a woman alone at sunset on a long, empty beach. The rendering of the sea, the colors of the sunset, the grainy beach—all those details were technically perfect. But what came off the surface of the painting like steam off an iron was the loneliness of the woman. It could have been the portrait of the last human on earth.

The Mercedes lurched forward a foot then stopped. He barely noticed.

The paintings were like little miracles on a wall. A glowing still life of wildflowers in a can and an open paperback on a table, as if someone had just come in from the garden. A pensive man reflecting himself in a shop window. Delicate female hands holding a book. The artwork was realistic, delicate, stunning. It pulled you in to the world of the picture and didn’t let you go.

Drake had no way to judge the artwork in technical terms; all he knew was that each work was brilliant, perfect, and called to him in some way he’d never felt before.

The car rolled forward ten feet, bringing another section of the wall into view.

The last painting on the wall jolted him.

It was the left profile of a man rendered in earth tones. The man’s face was hard, strong-jawed, unsmiling. His dark hair was cut so short the skull beneath was visible, which was exactly as Drake wore it in the field, particularly in Afghanistan. Far from even the faintest hope of running water, he shaved his head and his body hair, the only way to avoid lice. The face of the man didn’t exactly look like him, but the portrait had the look of him—features harsh, grim, unyielding.

Running from the forehead over the high cheekbone and down to the jaw, brushing perilously close to the left eye, was a ragged white scar, like a lightning bolt etched in flesh.

Reflexively, Drake lifted a hand to his face, remembering.

He’d been a street rat on the streets of Odessa, sleeping in a doorway in the dead of winter. Some warmth seeped through the cracks in the door, allowing him to sleep without fear of freezing to death in the subzero temperatures.

Emaciated, dressed in rags, he was perfect prey for the sailors just ashore from months working brutal shifts at sea, reeling drunk through the streets. Sailors who hadn’t had sex in months and didn’t much care who they fucked—boy or girl—as long as whoever it was held still long enough. Most of the sailors didn’t even care whether who they fucked stayed still because they were tied down or dead.

Drake came awake in a rush as the fetid breath of two Russian sailors washed over his face. One of the sailors held a knife to Drake’s throat while the other dropped his pants, already hauling out a long, thin, beet-red cock.

Drake was a born street fighter and fought best when he was close to the ground. He was born with the ability and had honed it by observation and practice. He scissored his legs, bringing the man with the knife toppling to the ground, then hurled himself at the knees of the second man, hobbled by his pants. The man fell heavily to the ground, his head hitting the broken pavement with a sickening crack.

Drake turned to the first man, who’d scrambled to his feet and was holding the knife in front of him like an expert, edge down. The chances of surviving a knife fight barehanded were ludicrously low. Drake knew he had to even the odds fast, do something unexpected.

He flung himself forward, into the knife. The blade sliced the side of his face open, but the surprise move loosened the sailor’s grip. Drake wrenched the knife out of his hand and jabbed it into the man’s eye, to the hilt.

The sailor dropped like a stone.

Drake stood over him, panting, his blood dripping over the man’s face, then pulled the knife out of his attacker’s skull and wiped it down on the man’s tattered jacket.

He took both men’s knives. One was a
nozh razvedchika,
a scout’s knife. The other was a Finnish Pukka, rare in those parts and very valuable. He bartered both along the Odessa waterfront for two guns, a Skorpion and an AK–47—including clips and shooting lessons—sold cheaply because they were stolen.

He was on his way.

Later, as soon as he could afford it, he had plastic surgery on the long, jagged white scar on the left side of his face. He was known for being able to blend into almost any environment, for turning himself invisible, but a very visible scar was like a flag, something no one forgot. It had to go.

The surgeon was good, one of the best. There was nothing visible left of his scar. Besides himself, only the surgeon could remember the shape of the long-gone scar. But there it was, in a painting in a gallery in Manhattan, half a world away and two decades later. However crazy it sounded, the scar in the painting was the same scar the surgeon had eliminated, all those years ago.

Traffic suddenly cleared and the Mercedes rolled smoothly forward. Drake punched the button in the center console that allowed him to communicate with the driver.

“Sir?” Mischa sounded startled over the intercom. Drake rarely spoke while they were traveling.

“Turn right at the next intersection and let me off after two blocks.”

“Sir?”
This time the driver’s voice sounded confused. Drake never left the car en route. He got into one of his many vehicles in his building’s garage and got out at his destination. The driver caught himself. Drake never had to repeat himself with his men. “Yessir,” the driver replied.

Once out of the limousine, Drake continued walking in the direction of the car until it disappeared into the traffic, then ducked into a nearby department store. Ten minutes later, satisfied that he wasn’t being followed, he doubled back to the art gallery, having ditched his eight-hundred-dollar Boss jacket, Brioni pants, Armani cashmere sweater and scarf and having bought a cheap parka, long-sleeved cotton tee, jeans, watch cap and sunglasses. He was as certain as he could be that no one was tailing him and that he was unrecognizable.

The art gallery was warm after the chill of the street. Drake stopped just inside the door, taking in the scent of tea brewing and that mixture of expensive perfumes and men’s cologne typical of Manhattan haunts, mixed with the more down-to-earth smells of resin and solvents.

At the sound of the bell over the door, a man came out from a back room, smiling, holding a porcelain mug. Steam rose in white fingers from the mug.

“Hello and welcome.” The man transferred the mug from his right hand to his left and offered his hand. “My name is Harold Feinstein. Welcome to the Feinstein Gallery.”

The smile seemed genuine, not a salesman’s smile. Drake had seen too many of those from people who knew who he was and knew what resources he could command. Everything that could possibly be sold—including humans—had been offered to him, with a smile.

But the man holding his hand out couldn’t know who he was, and wasn’t presuming he was rich. Not dressed the way he was.

Drake took the proffered hand gingerly, not remembering the last time he’d clasped another man’s hand. He touched other people rarely, not even during sex. Usually, he employed his hands to keep his torso up and away from the woman.

Harold Feinstein’s hand was soft, well-manicured, but the grip was surprisingly strong.

“Have a look around,” he urged. “No need to buy. Art enriches us all, whether we own it or not.”

Without seeming to study him, Feinstein had taken in the cheap clothes and pegged him as a window-shopper, but wasn’t bothered by it. Unusual in a man of commerce.

Drake’s eyes traversed the wall and Harold Feinstein turned amiably.

“Take my latest discovery,” he said, waving his free hand. “Grace Larsen. Remarkable eye for detail, amazing technical expertise, perfect brush strokes. Command of chiaroscuro in the etchings. Quite remarkable.”

The artist was a
woman
? Drake focused on the paintings. Man, woman, whoever the artist was, the work was extraordinary. And now that he was here, he could see that a side wall, invisible from the street, was covered with etchings and watercolors.

He stopped in front of an oil, a portrait of an old woman. She was stooped, graying, hair pulled back in a bun, face weatherbeaten from the sun, large hands gnarled from physical labor, dressed in a cheap cotton print dress. She looked as if she were just about to step down from the painting, drop to her knees and start scrubbing the floor.

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