Authors: Lisa Marie Rice
It was folly, it was insanity, but he couldn’t have stayed away had a gun been pointed at his head.
And now one was.
He was going to pay the extreme price for his folly.
At the sound of a round being chambered, he reacted instinctively. He had superb hearing and was able to triangulate the position. About a yard behind him and slightly to his right.
Time went into slow motion, though his body moved faster than thought, instinctively, violently. He still had fractions of a second before the trigger could be pulled, enough time to remove himself from any possible trajectory.
Drake was a ground fighter. He dropped instantly to the cold, oil-stained concrete. Whoever the man was, Drake knew he was concentrated exclusively on the shot, therefore his balance would be top-heavy. All the attention in his body would be concentrated in his eyes and hands. He probably wasn’t even feeling his feet.
Drake had trained himself to be aware of all parts of his body in combat, but he knew that ability was rare. He dropped, shot out his leg; his heel hooked the shooter’s foot and brought the man down with a foot lock.
He’d learned SAMBO from one of the Russian masters. Once he got an opponent on the ground, the man was his.
The man toppled and fell. He was as tall as Drake had instinctively calculated from the source of the sound, but the shooter was heavier than Drake had imagined. He fell badly, right on Drake’s left knee. A blast of pain shot through his knee, red-hot, almost unbearable. For a second, he wondered if it was broken, then dismissed the thought. If it was, there wasn’t anything he could do about it.
But he didn’t think so. He knew the feeling of deep injury and this wasn’t it. It was just pain. Pain could be ignored.
Drake had the man in a half guard, elbow against his neck, but he couldn’t block the man’s lower body with his wounded leg. Through the thick down jacket, Drake could feel that his opponent was large, bulked up with solid muscles. Unusual for a shooter, and his damned bad luck.
But though Drake was less bulky, he was strong and fit. His hands were very strong from a lifetime of judo. Grunting, sweating, he walked his right hand down to where the shooter was holding his gun, trying to wrench it around.
The shooter was strong. But Drake was stronger.
He dug his thumb into the tendons of the shooter’s inside wrist, feeling muscle then bone beneath his fingers. He tightened his grip as the man got off a shot. Luckily, he was holding the gun away from himself and it pinged silently off the brick wall, shards of brick spattering against the plate-glass window, then raining down on them.
Drake dug his thumb in deeper, felt the man grunt in pain. One more second and the man’s grip loosened, dropping the gun to the concrete with a clatter. Drake broke the man’s wrist and picked the gun up. A SIG P229.
A side door opened, an elongated rectangle of light falling onto the filthy alleyway.
Two people stood in the doorway, two other men behind them.
A pale, beautiful woman with the muzzle of a Beretta 84 dug so hard into her temple a rivulet of blood ran down the side of her face. The man holding the gun to her head was a tall, long-haired Latino with bad skin and cold, cruel eyes, wearing a long leather coat. Behind him stood two other Latino-looking men, smaller but no less vicious. Gangbangers.
And all bets were off. Because the woman with blood streaming down her face was Grace Larsen.
“Drop the gun. Now.” The tall Latino’s voice was cold, slightly hoarse.
Drake hesitated. He was armed beyond the SIG. He had a Glock 19 in a shoulder rig and a Tomcat in his waistband, but giving the SIG up went against every instinct he had. If he was to get Grace Larsen out of this situation alive, he needed every advantage he could get.
“Throw it,” the man growled. He tightened his arm around Grace’s beautiful neck. Her nostrils were white and pinched, her lips turning blue. He was cutting off her oxygen.
Drake could blow his arm off. It wouldn’t be the first time. But he couldn’t guarantee that the man wouldn’t move at the last second, that he wouldn’t hit Grace instead.
Drake opened his hand and let the SIG tumble to the ground.
Feinstein Art Gallery
“Your secret admirer is going to love this,” Harold Feinstein said to Grace, holding up a pastel. She’d worked on it for an entire day, not eating, not drinking, stopping only to go to the bathroom, working feverishly to catch every stingy ray of winter sun that drifted down through her skylight.
She’d seen the image when she’d woken up and gone to the window to raise the blinds. A seagull, escaped from the ocean to the concrete of Manhattan, feathers a pristine white in the smoky city air, great wings outstretched, riding a thermal up the side of the nineteenth-century brick building across the street.
The building across the street from her apartment was worn, old, used up. It was slated for demolition soon and looked it—boarded-up windows, broken front door, the shell of a building no one lived in and no one loved anymore. A dying artifact.
In contrast, the bird had epitomized newness, freedom, lightness—the ability to simply pick up and leave troubles on the ground. She’d watched, entranced, for a few minutes as the bird reveled in its flight, wheeling in the sky above the street, lightness and grace. Utterly inhuman yet symbolizing the best of the human spirit.
How hard she’d worked to capture that magic moment of utter freedom.
Harold lay the pastel reverently on the big glass table in the center of the gallery, next to the watercolors she’d brought, lining her work up like brightly colored soldiers. It was a ritual they’d been following for well over a year now, ever since she’d walked into his gallery with a portfolio under her arm and 150 dollars left in the bank.
Harold touched the edge of the paper with his index finger, then moved on to touch a watercolor of a drake in last week’s snow in Central Park.
“He’s going to love these,” Harold murmured. “And I’m going to love selling them to him.” His eyes gleamed behind his thick glasses. “I’m raising your prices again. He’s not going to complain. Not when he sees this.”
Grace tried not to smile. “Harold, you don’t know it’s a he and neither do I. The man who buys my work on this other person’s behalf is a lawyer, for heaven’s sake. His client could be anyone. Man, woman. Could be a
for all we know.”
What did she care? Whoever the lawyer’s client was, s/he was buying Grace’s entire output and didn’t so much as blink when Harold kept upping her prices. After years of struggling, trying to make it as an artist, she was finally supporting herself and more—socking money away. Real money, to her astonishment. After a lifetime of living like a student, she got a huge thrill every time she checked her bank statements.
Whoever was buying up her work had turned her life around. She didn’t even really mind that whoever was scooping up her work wasn’t showing it anywhere. Harold had told her that anyone who spent that much money and who had that amount of work of a single artist was usually planning a major show and in any case would want to publicize the collection, for investment purposes. But her unknown client was keeping her work tightly under wraps. Abroad, apparently.
Grace didn’t care. She wasn’t in the business to become famous. She was an artist because she couldn’t be anything else, not and remain sane. She had a lousy record of being fired from temp jobs, waitressing, teaching, trying to entice women she didn’t care about to buy things she found absurd and useless in her very very brief stint as a shop assistant at Macy’s.
“Ah. Him again.” Harold stopped and picked up a portrait. A small full frontal portrait in oil of a strong-featured man with dark eyes and short dark hair. Unsmiling and powerful, with a jagged white scar along the side of his face. “Different but the same.” Harold’s eyes were shrewd as he slanted a glance at her. “Nightmares back?”
Grace looked away, ashamed that once, when she’d been exhausted because she hadn’t slept, she’d confessed to Harold that she had nightmares, often.
Not nightmares, not really, not always. Just…very vivid dreams—full of color and sound. Often steeped in danger and heartache. So utterly unlike the calm progression of her days, her nights were etched in blood and turmoil.
She often dreamed of a man. The same man, every time, though each time his features were different. She never clearly saw his face anyway, just rough glimpses, as if through a thick fog.
A strong jawline, narrow nose, hooded eyes. By day, when she tried to capture the man on paper, his features would melt. Each portrait she did of him was different. The only things common to all the men were harsh features, dark eyes, short dark hair and a white scar like a lightning bolt on the left side of his face.
She saw him often from behind, walking away. And every time he walked away, there was a keen sense of aching loss in the air. She could never run after him, though she wanted to. She was always somehow mired in the horrible paralysis of the dream world.
The nightmares were due to stress, she knew that. She’d read every book there was on the subject because going to an analyst was out of the question. She didn’t have the time or even, really, the inclination.
What was a shrink going to tell her she didn’t already know? That she came from a highly dysfunctional family? Check, no secrets there. That her father’s abandonment when she was nine years old and her mother’s decline and indifference to her had colored her early years? That she immersed herself in her art because she didn’t function well in the world? What else was new?
No, analysis would be a huge waste of her time and money. Grace thought she had a pretty good handle on herself. On what she could do and couldn’t do.
Oh God, she’d done it again. Zoned out while someone was talking. And that someone was Harold, no less. He cared for her, it was true. He was estranged from his only son, and treated her like a beloved child. They’d grown to be great friends. In fact, Grace probably talked more to Harold in the couple of hours a month she spent in his gallery than she did with any other human being.
But Grace was also very
aware of the fact that every cent she earned came through him. Not listening while he spoke to her was incredibly rude and—worse—stupid.
“Sorry, Harold. I didn’t quite—”
He gave his characteristic bark of laughter, placing a light hand on her shoulder. “Don’t worry, my dear. Wherever it is you go when you do that, it must be a much more interesting place than my blathering on about the matting and framing.”
Grace smiled, ashamed. The matting and framing in question was of
work. Harold worked really hard to make sure each painting, watercolor and drawing was presented in the best possible way.
Though it was also true that her mysterious buyer was snapping up everything she produced, no matter the matting, no matter the framing.
“Come,” he said gently. “Let me make you a cup of tea.” Harold’s remedy for just about everything.
“Okay, I—” Grace turned at the sound of the bell over the door. Customers. She drifted away. Customers meant sales for Harold. They could have their tea afterward.
Only…they didn’t look like possible buyers of art. As a matter of fact, they looked dangerous.
Grace moved back to Harold’s side.
Grace lived alone in New York and she knew the look of dangerous men, enough so that she’d never been in trouble because she knew enough to avoid the dangerous places they congregated. The Feinstein Art Gallery was the last place on earth she’d think of in terms of trouble.
But trouble was walking through the door, right now.
Three men, one tall, broad, with bad skin, dressed in a long black leather coat, the other two short and wiry, one dressed in an expensive fleece track suit, the other in jeans and a bomber jacket. They came into the gallery in single file, footsteps echoing on the hardwood floor, then fanned out, as if covering territory. They didn’t look alike but they shared a look of cold menace, staring at her and Harold like sharks eyeing minnows.
Something cold and nasty had just entered Harold’s bright and civilized gallery.
In here, both she and Harold could forget for a moment what was out there, cocooned in art and hot tea.
But now the outside world was in here, lined up in front of them like gunslingers awaiting the signal to shoot. There was a moment of utter and complete silence as the three men stared at them, menace coming off them in almost visible waves. Fear made her senses diamond bright. Her heart kicked up its beat, sounding loud in her ears, like a drumbeat.
Grace moved closer to Harold in an instinctive attempt to protect him, though there was nothing she could do against three tough-looking men. But Harold was so vulnerable, so fragile. He was elderly and had a heart condition. Her shoulder touched his and she could feel that he was trembling.
At least she was young and strong. And had a can of Mace in her purse. She clutched the strap of her purse, surreptitiously fingering the clasp. She kept the Mace handy, in a side pocket. No sense in having a weapon if you had to dig down to the bottom of a purse to find it.
With a strong indrawn breath, Harold drew himself up and looked the men in the face. “May I help you gentlemen?” he said. She was so proud of him for his firm voice.
It happened so fast, she had no time to react.
Subconsciously, she was waiting for them to respond. Centuries of civilization had drummed it into her DNA that a query requires a response. Whatever bad thing the men might be bringing into the gallery, it would be after answering a question posed to them.
What happened next had nothing to do with civilization. It came straight out of the caves. Not a word was spoken. Shockingly, Leather Coat stepped forward, punched Harold in the face, then stepped to the side, hooking a big, beefy arm around her neck in one smooth motion.
Harold fell to the floor like a puppet whose strings had been cut. Blood lined his mouth and his nose spattered blood with each heaving breath.
With a cry, Grace lunged toward him, but was brutally restrained by the huge arm around her neck, holding her so tightly he was cutting off her air. She brought her hands up to claw at his sleeve but could find no purchase against the sleek leather and the hard, ropy forearm muscles underneath.
The man shifted, lifting her until her toes could barely reach the ground, tightening his arm until she saw stars dancing in front of her eyes. Inside she was screaming, scrabbling madly to get to Harold, but she was held as contemptuously as a doll off the ground, and only a high-pitched mewling sound escaped her lips.
An icy metallic ring dug into her temple. She shifted her eyes to the right to understand what it was.
A gun. A huge, black, terrifying gun, held against her head.
“Stop,” the man said simply. His voice was deep, guttural, inhuman, the tone one of utter command. There was nothing Grace could do. In another thirty seconds, she’d be unconscious anyway from lack of oxygen.
Resistance was not only useless, but any hope she had of helping Harold required her to be conscious and upright.
She stilled instantly.
“Good,” the man grunted, rewarding her by letting up a little on the pressure against her throat. Her feet hit the floor at the same moment her throat spasmed, wheezing as air burned its way back into her lungs. If she’d been free, she would have bent forward in an effort to breathe better, but the man maintained his hold around her neck, letting her know exactly who was boss.
The rim of the gun tightened against her temple until the skin broke. A trickle of warm blood dripped down the side of her face.
With every choked breath, she breathed in a nauseous combination of rank sweat overlaid by an expensive men’s cologne. The combination was so horrible she was almost sorry she could breathe again.
Outside the window, a businessman hurried by, coat whipping in the wind. A few heavy drops fell to the sidewalk and he put a burgundy leather briefcase over his head to shield himself from the rain that was beginning to pelt down.
He could have been on the moon for all the help he was.
Fleece Track Suit checked his watch, then looked at Leather Coat. “It’s time.”
The man simply lifted her off her feet again and, as compact and disciplined as a phalanx, the three men—Leather Coat holding her as if she were a doll being carried to another part of the playground—walked together quickly to a side door, the one that Grace knew gave onto an alleyway flanking the gallery. She’d once helped Harold dump cartons in the alleyway, a dank, dark cul de sac, the feral urban counterpoint to the airy grace and light of the gallery.
There was one small window set in the gallery’s north wall, overlooking the alley. She looked through it and gasped. There were two men there, one aiming a big black gun at the back of the other. The man holding the gun was tall, heavy, with long reddish-brown hair, his victim shorter, broader, with close-cropped dark hair.
The long-haired man with the gun tightened his grip on the trigger. Grace was horrified to think that she was about to witness a cold-blooded murder. If she could have, she’d have screamed a warning to the victim, but she barely had enough air to breathe. And even if she could scream, not much sound bled out through Harold’s thick windows.
Instinctively, though, she fought against the man holding her, trying to get some kind of sound out. Maybe if she kicked the wall…
The dark-haired victim suddenly dropped from sight and Grace stilled, stunned. He was there and then…he wasn’t. He’d just disappeared.
The goon holding her moved forward, together with the other two thugs, to the small window. There was a clear view of the alleyway and she could see that the man hadn’t disappeared. He had simply dropped to the ground like a stone. Grace would have thought that he’d been shot, but it looked like he was…