By Marshall Karp
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Some people are harder to kill than others. The Ghost was thinking about this as he huddled in the deep, dark shadows of Grand Central Terminal. A man named Walter Zelvas would have to die tonight. But it wouldn't be easy. Nobody hired the Ghost for the easy jobs.
It was almost 11 p.m, and even though the evening rush was long over, there was still a steady stream of weary travelers.
The Ghost was wearing an efficient killing disguise. His face was lost under a tangle of matted silver-and-white hair and shaggy beard, and his arsenal was hidden under a wine-stained gray poncho. To anyone who even bothered to take notice, he was just another heap of homeless humanity seeking refuge on a quiet bench near Track 109.
He eyed his target. Walter Zelvas. A great hulk of a man with the nerves and reflexes of a snake and a soul to match. Zelvas was a contract killer himself, but unlike the Ghost, Zelvas took pleasure in watching his victims suffer before they died. For years, the ruthless Russian had been an enforcer for the Diamond Syndicate, but apparently he had outlived his usefulness to his employer, and the Ghost had been hired to terminate him.
If he doesn't kill me first, the Ghost thought. With Zelvas it was definitely a matter of kill or be killed. And this would surely be a duel to the death between them.
So the Ghost watched his opponent closely. The screen on the departures monitor refreshed and Zelvas cursed under his breath. His train was delayed another thirty minutes.
He drained his second cup of Starbucks cappuccino, stood up, and crumpling his empty cup, deposited it in the trash.
No littering, the Ghost thought. That might attract attention, and the last thing Zelvas wanted was attention.
That's why he was leaving town by train. Train stations aren't like airports. There's no baggage check, no metal detector, no security.
Zelvas looked toward the men's room.
All that coffee will be the death of you, the Ghost thought as Zelvas walked across the marble floor to the bathroom.
A half-comatose porter, mop in hand, was sloshing water on the terminal floor like a zombie tarring a roof. He didn't see Zelvas coming.
A puddle of brown water came within inches of the big man's right foot. Zelvas stopped. "You slop any of that scum on my shoes and you'll be shitting teeth," he said.
The porter froze. "Sorry. Sorry, sir. Sorry."
The Ghost watched it all. Another time, another place, and Zelvas might have drowned the man in his own mop water. But tonight he was on his best behavior.
Zelvas continued toward the bathroom.
The Ghost had watched the traffic in and out of the men's room for the past half hour. It was currently empty. Moment of truth, the Ghost told himself.
Zelvas got to the doorway, stopped, and turned around sharply.
He made me, the Ghost thought at first.
Zelvas looked straight at him. Then left, then right.
He's a pro. He's just watching his back.
Satisfied he wasn't being followed, Zelvas entered the men's room.
The Ghost stood up and surveyed the terminal. The only uniformed cop in the area was busy giving directions to a young couple fifty feet away.
The men's room had no door—just an L-shaped opening that allowed the Ghost to enter and still remain out of sight.
From his vantage point he could see the mirrored wall over the sinks. And there was Zelvas, standing in front of a urinal, his back to the mirror.
The Ghost silently reached under his poncho and removed his equally silent Glock from its holster.
The Ghost had a mantra. Three words he said to himself just before every kill. He waited until he heard Zelvas breathe that first sigh of relief as he began to empty his bladder.
I am invincible, the Ghost said in silence.
Then, in a single fluid motion, he entered the bathroom, silently slid up behind Zelvas, aimed the Glock at the base of his skull, and squeezed the trigger.
Some people are harder to kill than others.
Walter Zelvas never stepped up to a urinal unless the top flush pipe was made of polished chrome.
It's not a perfect mirror, but it's enough. Even distorted, everything he needed to see was visible.
Man. Hand. Gun.
Zelvas whirled on the ball of his right foot and dealt a swift knife-hand strike to the Ghost's wrist just as he pulled the trigger.
The bullet went wide, shattering the mirror behind him.
Zelvas followed up by driving a cinder-block fist into the Ghost's midsection, sending him crashing through a stall door.
The Glock went skittering across the tile floor.
The Ghost looked up at the enraged colossus who was now reaching for his own gun.
Damn, the Ghost thought. The bastard is still pissing. Glad I wore the poncho.
He rolled under the next stall as Zelvas's first bullet drilled a hole through the stained tile where his head had just been.
Zelvas darted to the second stall to get off another shot. Still on his back, the Ghost kicked the stall door with both feet.
It flew off its hinges and hit Zelvas square on, sending him crashing into the sinks.
But he held on to his gun.
The Ghost lunged and slammed Zelvas's gun hand down onto the hard porcelain sink. He was hoping to hear the sound of bone snapping, but all he heard was glass breaking as the mirror behind Zelvas fell to the floor in huge fractured pieces.
Instinctively, the Ghost snatched an eight-inch shard of broken mirror as it fell. Zelvas head-butted him full force, and as their skulls collided, the Ghost jammed the razor-sharp glass into Zelvas's bovine neck.
Zelvas let out a violent scream, pushed the Ghost off him, and then made one fatal mistake. He yanked the jagged mirror from his neck.
Blood sprayed like a renegade fire hose. Now I'm really glad I wore the poncho, the Ghost thought.
Zelvas ran screaming from the bloody bathroom, one hand pressed to his spurting neck and the other firing wildly behind him. The Ghost dived to the floor under a hail of ricocheting bullets and raining plaster dust. A few deft rolls and he managed to retrieve his Glock.
Jumping to his feet, the Ghost sprinted to the doorway and saw Zelvas running across the terminal, a steady stream of arterial blood pumping out of him. He would bleed out in a minute, but the Ghost didn't have time to stick around and confirm the kill. He raised the Glock, aimed, and then…
"Police. Drop it."
The Ghost turned. A uniformed cop, overweight, out of shape, and fumbling to get his own gun, was running toward him. One squeeze of the trigger and the cop would be dead.
There's a cleaner way to handle this, the Ghost thought. The guy with the mop and every passenger within hearing distance of the gunshots had taken off. The bucket of soapy mop water was still there.
The Ghost put his foot on the bucket and, pushing it, sent it rolling across the terminal floor right at the oncoming cop.
The fat cop went flying ass over tin badge and slid across the slimy wet marble floor.
But this is New York—one cop meant dozens, and by now a platoon of cops was heading his way.
I don't kill cops, the Ghost thought, and I'm out of buckets. He reached under his poncho and pulled out two smoke grenades. He yanked the pins and screamed, "Bomb!"
The grenade fuses burst with a terrifying bang, and the sound waves bounced off the terminal's marble surfaces like so many acoustic billiard balls. Within seconds, the entire area for a hundred feet was covered with a thick red cloud that had billowed up from the grenade casings.
The chaos that had erupted with the first gunshot kicked into high gear as people who had dived for cover from the bullets now lurched blindly through the bloodred smoke in search of a way out.
Half a dozen cops stumbled through the haze to where they had last seen the bomb thrower.
But the Ghost was gone.
Disappeared into thin air.
I swear this is true. My name is Matthew Bannon, and I'm a Fine Arts major at Parsons in New York City.
The first thing you resign yourself to when you decide you want to dedicate your life to being a painter is that you're never going to get rich.
It goes with the territory. Vincent van Gogh died without a nickel, and that guy could paint rings around me. So I figured I'd spend the rest of my life as a starving artist in a paint-spattered loft in SoHo—poor but happy.
But that fantasy took a total nosedive when I found millions of dollars' worth of diamonds inside a locker in Grand Central Terminal one night.
That's right. Found.
I know, I know. It's hard to believe. I didn't believe it, either. I felt like a guy must feel when he wins the Mega Millions lottery. Only I didn't buy a lottery ticket.
I just reached inside locker #925, and there it was.
A leather bag filled with millions and millions of dollars' worth of diamonds.
One minute I was planning a life of poverty; the next minute I was holding a small fortune in my hand.
Growing up in Hotchkiss, Colorado, I saw my share of rich people. None of them lived there. They would just be driving the scenic route on their way to Vail or Telluride and they'd stop for gas or something to eat at the North Fork Valley Restaurant.
Hotchkiss is about half the size of Central Park, with fewer people than you'd find in some New York City apartment buildings. But it's in the middle of God's country. It's everything John Denver sings about in "Rocky Mountain High."
It's where I learned to hunt, fish, ski, fly a plane, and do a whole lot of other macho stuff that my father taught me. He was a Marine. So were his father and his father before him.
My artistic side comes from my mom. She taught me to paint.
My father wanted me to carry on the family's military tradition. My mother said one uncultured jarhead in the family was enough.
So we compromised. I spent four years in the corps, with three active deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Then I saved up enough money to move to New York. Now at the age of thirty, I was in one of the best art programs in the country.
And suddenly my days of worrying about money were over.
I was rich. Or at least I could be rich if I decided to keep the diamonds. And why not? The guy who owned them wouldn't come looking for them.
As far as I figured, that guy was dead.
You might think that finding a bag full of diamonds would be the best thing that happened in my life.
But you'd be wrong.
The best thing was finding Katherine Sanborne.
We met at the Whitney Museum.
The Whitney is one of my favorite places in New York, and I was staring at one of my favorite paintings, Armistice Night, by George Luks.
And then I saw her. Midtwenties, a heart-stoppingly beautiful face framed with auburn hair that fell to her shoulders in soft curls. She was escorting a group of high-school kids. As they came up beside me, she said, "George Luks was an American Realist."
"And I'm a Puerto Rican romantic," one kid said.
Big laugh from his teen cohorts.
Another kid jumped right in. "And I'm a Jewish pessimist," he said.
Within seconds, half a dozen kids were vying to see who could get the biggest laugh. Katherine just grinned and didn't try to stop them.
But I did. "None of you is as funny as George Luks," I said, pointing at the painting on the wall.
"You think this picture is funny?" the Puerto Rican romantic said.
"No, I don't," I said. "But the guy who painted it, George Luks, was a stand-up comedian and a comic strip illustrator. Then he teamed up with seven other artists and they became known as the Ashcan School."
"Cool," the kid said.
"He was pretty cool," I said. "Until one night he got the crap kicked out of him in a barroom brawl and was found dead a few hours later. Now, if you paid attention to your teacher, you could learn a lot of cool stuff like that."
I walked away.
A half hour later Katherine found me gawking at Edward Hopper's Early Sunday Morning.
"Where's your class?" I said.
"I'm not their teacher," she said. "I just do volunteer work at the museum every Wednesday. The kids liked you. They were sorry you left."
"I'm sure you handled them just fine," I said.
"I did. But I was sorry you left, too. How do you know so much about art?"
I shrugged. "I just do. It's not a very exciting story."
"I love to hear what other people think about art," she said. "If I bought you a cup of tea and a pumpkin muffin at Sarabeth's Kitchen, would you tell me some of the least boring parts?" She smiled and her soft gray eyes were full of mischief and joy and promise.
"I couldn't do that," I said.
Her smile faded and her eyes looked at me, more than a little surprised.
"But I could buy you a cup of tea and a pumpkin muffin at Sarabeth's Kitchen," I said. "Would that work?"
The smile flashed back on. "Deal," she said, extending her hand. "I'm Katherine Sanborne."
"Matthew Bannon," I said. Her hand was warm and soft and about half the size of mine. I held it for only a second, but it was long enough for me to get that jolt that goes through your body when you touch someone who has touched your heart.
We had tea.
I told her about my dream to be a painter.
"Maybe I can help," she said. "I teach art. I'd love to see your work. Maybe you can bring some samples to my office tomorrow after my class."
"I thought you said those kids in the museum weren't your class."
"They're not. I don't teach high school."
"Oh, okay. That makes sense," I said. "You're pretty young. You probably wouldn't want to put up with a bunch of hormonal teenage boys all day. What grade do you teach?"
She smiled. "It's not a grade," she said. "It's a master's program. I'm a professor of Fine Arts at Parsons."
It was now official: Katherine Sanborne was beautiful and brilliant.
I was totally out of my league.
I spent half that night trying to figure out which of my paintings I should show her. Was this one too predictable? Was that one too boring? Or worse, completely pedestrian? I was seeing my work in a whole new light. Not just was it any good, but was it good enough for Katherine?
The next day I was in Professor Sanborne's office with fourteen photos of what I hoped was the best work I had done thus far. I doubt I'd ever felt more vulnerable and exposed in my life.
"No wonder you knew so much about the Realists," she said after she looked at them. "Your work reminds me of Edward Hopper. In his early days."
"I suppose you mean back when he was finger-painting in kindergarten?"
She laughed, and I decided it was gentle humor, kind humor, rather than the savage variety some professors strive to perfect.
"Not that early," she said. "As you know, I'm sure, Hopper is legendary for his ability to capture reality. But his early works are so impersonal. That's where you are now. In my opinion, anyway. Over time, Hopper's paintings began to take on emotions—loneliness, despair, gloom. Nighthawks is probably his best work—my favorite—and he didn't paint that till he was sixty."
"I hope it doesn't take me that long," I said, "to do something half as good."
"It won't," she said. "Not if you study at the right school."
"Like where?" I asked. "Any suggestion you have would be so helpful. Honest."
"Like here," she said.
I shook my head a couple of times. "I don't think I have the talent to be accepted at Parsons."
"I'll bet you do," she said. "Loser buys the winner…I don't know—dinner at Peter Luger. I love Luger's."
Six months later, Professor Katherine Sanborne and I were having the porterhouse medium rare at Peter Luger in Brooklyn.
I paid for dinner.
We started seeing each other regularly after our celebratory dinner, and six months after that, I was in her Group Critique class at Parsons. We did a pretty good job of keeping our relationship a secret from the other students, I thought.
The best part of Group Critique was being able to be near her three times a week. The worst part was enduring the critiques by my so-called peers.
The morning before I found the diamonds, my latest painting was being thoroughly trashed by Leonard Karns. Karns was short, round, pretentious, and bitterly, unnecessarily nasty. He waddled over to my canvas and explained to the rest of the group why it sucked and, by proxy, why I sucked.
"So it's a bunch of nobodies in line at an unemployment office," he said. "But do we really care about any of them? I could take the same picture with my cell phone camera. It's like the German playwright Bertolt Brecht said, 'Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.'"
"And you don't think Mr. Bannon has shaped this piece?" Katherine said.
"No," Karns said. "But I think he should take a hammer to it."
If he was hoping for a laugh from the rest of the class, he didn't get it. Most of my fellow students sat in silence and winced. It was the last day of the semester, and by now Karns had managed to systematically piss off every one of them with his condescending elitist bullshit.
He would have pontificated longer, but Katherine cut him off. When class ended, she gave us back our term papers. The assignment had been to write a five-thousand-word critique of public art in New York City. It counted as a third of our grade, so I'd spent a lot of time on it. I'd hoped for an A.
But I didn't get it. There was a yellow sticky on the front page. It said, C+. Matthew, see me after class.
I sat in a depressed funk while everyone else filed out of the room. Katherine Sanborne finally came around her desk and walked toward me.
"C-plus?" I said. "I thought the paper was a little better than that."
"If you're willing to put in the time, I can give you a chance to improve your grade," she said.
"What do I have to do? I'm not afraid of hard work."
And then Katherine's mischievous gray eyes lit up, and she clicked the lock on the classroom door.
"Take off your pants," she said.
I'd been had.
She stepped out of her skirt. Very graceful. Nice to watch. "If those pants don't come off in five seconds, Mr. Bannon, I'm going to have to give you an incomplete," she said. "By the way, that paper of yours was damn good, but I've come to expect even more from you."
The classroom had a chaise longue that was used for the figure-painting courses, and within seconds Katherine pulled me to it and began caressing, kissing, exploring. Then I was inside her. This was some kind of teacher-student counseling session.
Finally, Katherine put her lips to my ear, taunting me with kisses and little flicks of her tongue.
"Matthew," she whispered.
Okay, let me get back to my story about the unexpected treasure trove that I found in locker #925. It was a night I'll never forget, of course. And for the other people in Grand Central Terminal, it was probably their worst nightmare.
I wasn't in New York City on September 11, 2001, but I've lived here long enough to understand the citywide paranoia. It could happen again.
New York is, was, and always will be Ground Zero. Code orange is as lax as we get here. I've seen tanks parked on Wall Street, bomb-sniffing dogs in public buildings, and convoys of cop cars barreling into neighborhoods as part of the NYPD's daily anti-terrorism drills.
So, when the post–rush hour lull at Grand Central is shattered by gunshots and followed by two loud explosions, only one thing comes to mind.
In an instant, the collective paranoia was justified. Mass panic ensued.
The screams echoed off the walls of the marble cavern. The first thing I saw was that nobody ducked for cover. Everybody ran—with visions of the crumbling towers replaying in their heads, I'm sure.
And then I couldn't see a thing. Red smoke filled the building.
I've spent a lot of time in war zones, but this was not my responsibility. I wasn't a first responder.
I ran like the rest of them.
And then I saw it in the smoky haze.
A trail of blood.
Instinctively I followed it. And then I saw him.
He was a big bear of a man, slumped against a bank of lockers in a pool of his own blood—from a gaping wound in his neck.
In all the madness, nobody was paying any attention to him. I knelt at his side.
My knee hit something hard. A gun.
"Get doctor. Stop blood." He gurgled out the words in a thick Russian accent.
But there was no time for a doctor. No time for anything.
Before I could say a word, his eyes rolled back in his head and he exhaled a strained breath. He was dead.
His dark blue suit and the floor around him glistened with blood. It coated the door of the bottom locker closest to him. As I looked up, I saw a wide swath of red where he had leaned against the upper locker and slid to the ground.
Locker #925 was covered in bloody handprints.
And it was open.
I could think of only one reason that a reasonably sane man who was hemorrhaging blood would open a train station locker instead of wildly seeking help. Whatever was inside that locker had to be too valuable to leave behind.
I looked down at the dead Russian. Was it worth it, Comrade?
But then, who was I to judge this poor man for choosing locker #925 over calling 911? If I had half a brain, I'd be running out of Grand Central with all my fellow bomb-scared travelers.
But I wanted to know what was inside that locker. No—I had to know.
I stood up. By now the red smoke was starting to dissipate and I could take in the pandemonium.
People were stampeding toward the exits, fighting and clawing their way out of the station. Some cops were trying to keep them from getting trampled in the doorways.
Other cops were trying to evacuate the people who refused to leave.
A woman with three suitcases was holding her ground in the middle of the station, insisting that she wasn't going anywhere without her bags.
- On Sale
- Feb 20, 2012
- Page Count
- 400 pages
- Grand Central Publishing