Those were happy days. The best days of his life, in many ways.
And yet, Jeff reflected, he was happy now too. After losing Tracy for ten long years—after they married, Tracy suspected Jeff of having an affair, wrongly as it turned out, and disappeared off the face of the earth—they were now back in contact. Tracy had saved Jeff’s life a few years back, when a deranged former FBI agent named Daniel Cooper had tried to kill him. It was in the aftermath of that ordeal that Jeff learned he had a son, Nicholas. Unbeknownst to Jeff, Tracy had been pregnant when she took off and had raised the boy alone in Colorado, with the help of her ranch manager, a decent, sweet man named Blake Carter.
Jeff had seen at once that Blake was effectively already a father to Nick, and a damn good one. He’d loved the boy enough not to try to change that. Tracy had introduced Jeff as an old friend, and in the intervening years Jeff had become a sort of unofficial godfather to his own son.
Perhaps it was a strange arrangement. But it worked. Jeff adored Nick, but his life was way too crazy to provide a stable environment for a child, or teenager as Nick was now. This way they could be friends, and hang out and send each other stupid videos on Vine that Nick’s mother wouldn’t approve of. Jeff did want to visit the boy more. But he hoped, with time, Tracy would come around on that point.
As for Tracy, the love between the two of them was still there, still as strong as ever. But she too had made a new life for herself, a peaceful, calm, contented life. For Jeff, the adrenaline rush of pulling off the perfect con remained irresistible. It was as much a part of him as his legs or his arms or his brain. Even so, he would have given it up for Tracy, as he did once before when they married. But as Tracy had said, “If you gave it up, Jeff, you wouldn’t be you. And it’s you I love.”
So Jeff had returned to London and his old life. But this time it was different. Better.
Now he knew that Tracy was alive. And not just alive but safe and happy. Even more wonderful, he had a son, a fabulous son. Nick became the purpose of everything now. Every job Jeff took, every penny he made, was for his boy.
He gave up drinking, only gambled occasionally and started turning down any jobs he perceived as too high risk. It wasn’t just him anymore. Jeff could no longer afford to be so reckless.
On the other hand, he thought, resting a hand on Lianna’s buttermilk thigh and feeling himself growing harder by the second, a man must have some pleasures in life.
Jeff would never marry again. He would never love again, not after Tracy. But asking Jeff Stevens to forsake women would be like asking a whale to live without water, or commanding a sunflower to grow in the dark.
Leaning forward, he was about to ask for the bill and bundle the lovely Lianna into a cab when a tall, thin, older man stepped angrily between them.
“Who the hell are you?” the man asked, glaring at Jeff. “And what are you doing pawing my fiancée?”
Jeff raised an eyebrow at Lianna, who flashed him back an apologetic half smile.
“Jeff Stevens.” He offered Angry Man his hand but was met by another withering glower. “She never mentioned she was . . . that you were, er . . . congratulations. When’s the big day, Mr. . . . ?”
Jeff swallowed hard. Dean Klinnsman was probably the biggest property developer in London after the Candy brothers, and he allegedly ran a sizable organized crime operation. He had a small army of Poles, building contractors by day, whom he used after hours as enforcers paying the kind of visit to Klinnsman’s enemies and business rivals that Jeff Stevens definitely did not want to receive.
“A pleasure to meet you Mr. Klinnsman. I’ll be on my way.”
“You do that.”
Dropping a wad of fifties on the bar, Jeff practically ran for the door.
“What was his name?” Dean Klinnsman growled at his young fiancée, once Jeff had gone.
“Madely,” the girl answered without blinking. “Max Madely. He’s here on vacation. Isn’t that right, James?”
She looked at the barman, who went white with fear.
“I believe so, Madam.”
“He lives in Miami,” the girl went on. “I think he makes, like, coffee machines. Or something.”
“Hmmm,” Dean Klinnsman grunted. “I don’t want you talking to him again. Ever.”
“Oh, Deano!” Lianna coiled herself around the famous developer like an oversexed snake. “You’re so jealous. He was only being friendly. Anyway, you needn’t worry. He flies back to the States tomorrow.”
JEFF’S CAB RIDE HOME took longer than it should have, thanks to the driver’s taking some stupid detour around the park. As they crawled past the grand, stucco-fronted houses of Belgravia, Jeff found himself tuning in to the talk show debate on the driver’s radio.
Two men, both politicians, were arguing heatedly about Group 99 and the ongoing but so far fruitless search for both Captain Daley’s killer and the American hostage, Hunter Drexel.
“It’s the Americans we should be blaming for this,” one of the men was insisting. “I mean, if you’re going to throw your weight around, trample international law and go guns-blazing into someone else’s country, the least you can do is A: make sure your hostage is actually there and B: shoot the right bloke when you arrive. Instead, we now have Daley’s killer on the loose, Hunter Drexel still being held somewhere, and a bunch of murdered teenagers lying in a Bratislavan morgue.”
“They weren’t ‘murdered,’ ” his opponent shot back, apoplectic with rage. “They were military combatants, killed in action. Justified action I’d say, after what they did to Bob Daley. They were terrorists.”
“They were kids! The fella who shot Bob Daley was a terrorist. But he’s not the one with a bullet in his skull, is he?”
“They’re all part of the same group,” yelled his opponent. “They’re all responsible.”
“Oh really? So are all Muslims responsible for ISIL?”
“What? Of course not! The two situations are not even remotely similar.”
“ ’Ere we are, mate.”
To Jeff’s relief, he saw that the cabbie had finally reached his flat on Cheyne Walk. Tipping the man more than he deserved, Jeff stepped out into the cool night air. The breeze coming off the river, combined with the softly twinkling lights of Albert Bridge, soothed his nerves.
Like many people in England, Jeff was gripped by the twists and turns of the Group 99 affair. On the one hand he found the lazy, anti-Americanism expressed by the first politician on the radio show to be both insulting and wrongheaded. Jeff had lived in England long enough to know that if it had been the SAS going in to rescue a British hostage, they’d have been hailed as heroes and Bratislavan territorial integrity be damned.
Then again, the SAS might not have made such a total balls up of the whole thing.
On the other hand, there was a part of him that agreed with the first politician, when he characterized the men shot dead at the Bratislava camp as “kids.” Up until Daley’s slaying, Group 99 had never been violent, and were rarely if ever referred to as terrorists. Was everyone who had ever joined the organization now to be tarred with the same brush as the monster who shot Daley?
Jeff Stevens knew he made an unlikely apologist for the Group 99ers. Back when it was trendy to admire them, Jeff had always found their politics crass and their so-called mission wildly insincere. These young men from Europe’s broken states might justify their actions under the banner of social justice. But from what Jeff could see, what really drove them was envy. Envy and anger and a growing sense of impotence, fueled by leftwing firebrands like Greece’s Elias Calles or Spain’s Lucas Colomar. Maybe Jeff was getting old. But in his day, the idea was to earn one’s wealth and then enjoy the hell out of it. True, Jeff had broken plenty of laws in his day. Technically, he supposed, he could be described as a thief. But he only ever stole from genuinely unpleasant people. And he did so at great personal risk to himself, boldly and daringly; not by sneaking into the back end of somebody’s computer system. To Jeff Stevens’s way of thinking, hackers were just a bunch of whining cowards who happened to be good at math. And as for targeting the fracking industry? Really! If there was one thing guaranteed to put Jeff’s back up it was a sanctimonious eco-bore. If Nicholas ever turned into one of those entitled, embittered little nerds, Jeff would die of shame. Not that that was likely to happen.