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.