“Good God. Are you sure?”
“You still have the footage?”
“Oh yeah. I have it. I have copies of it too. All in very safe places.”
The two men stood in silence for a while. Rushing travelers surged and jostled around them, like water in a stream gushing past two large rocks. At last Frank spoke.
“Don’t tell her yet.”
Jeff looked shocked. “What do you mean? I have to tell her. She has a right to know.”
“And she will know. Just not right now.”
Jeff opened his mouth to protest but Frank cut him off.
“Think about it. You don’t know how news like that might affect her. She’s only just emerged from a coma, Jeff.”
Jeff hesitated. He hadn’t thought about it that way.
“She’s safe right now. Crewe’s taking care of her.”
That’s what I’m afraid of.
“Let her rest. And while she’s out of action . . .” Reaching into his jacket pocket he pulled out a brown manila envelope, smiling broadly, and handed it to Jeff. “You can go to Belgium and bring back Hunter Drexel.”
Frank was clearly delighted that Tracy had been sidelined. The Americans were out of the running.
Jeff stared at the envelope. “What’s this?”
“Your ticket to Bruges. Drexel’s expected at a poker game there this Saturday. Playing under the name Harry Graham.”
Harry Graham . . . why does that ring a bell?
“It’s a stunning city,” said Frank.
Jeff and Tracy had pulled off a wonderful job in Bruges once, conning a vile wife beater out of one of the finest collections of Dutch miniatures in Northern Europe.
“Your train leaves in an hour,” Frank said brusquely. “I’ll ride to Gare du Nord with you and brief you on the way.”
LUC CHARLES’S SATURDAY NIGHT poker games were legendary among the Bruges fine art community. At Charles’s idyllic fifteenth-century converted monastery overlooking the Spinolerai Canal, the game was always seven card stud. Despite the fact Charles himself invariably came out on top—the self-made collector and owner of the most valuable collection of Dutch impressionists still in private hands was not a man who liked to lose—invitations to Luc Charles’s poker night were much prized. To be offered a seat at Luc Charles’s infamous baize-topped card table, rumored to have once belonged to Queen Marie Antoinette of France, and to sit beneath the Vermeers and the Rembrandts and the Hedas was to have reached the very pinnacle of Belgian society. Charles’s money might be new—Luc’s father was a baker from a Brussels suburb—but his home and art collection were old and grand enough to make even the snobbiest aristocrat’s eyes water with envy, and their pupils dilate with longing. Fortunes were made and lost at Luc Charles’s poker table, and the host was always happy to accept a painting in lieu of cash. At his own valuation, of course.
Tonight’s players were a mixture of regulars and newcomers. Pierre Gassin, senior partner at Gassin Courreges, the most prestigious law firm in Brussels, was a familiar face, as was Dominique Crecy, the great modernist collector. Johnny Cray, an American trust fund baby on a tour of a place he pronounced “Yurrup,” was a newbie. So was his friend, Harry Graham.
Graham was older, very thin, with badly dyed hair and a withdrawn, slightly moody manner.
“He looks ill,” Luc Charles told Johnny Cray, pulling the young man aside. “His skin’s positively yellow. Does he have blood poisoning?”
“No idea,” said Johnny. “I only met him a week ago, at a small game in the country. He begged me to bring him tonight. I hope that’s OK?”
Luc Charles grinned wolfishly. “It is if he loses.”
“Oh, he will.” Johnny’s smile grew so wide it looked as if it were going to eat the rest of his face. “I’ve never seen a more reckless player.”
“Like he’s possessed. It’s bizarre. With an average hand, he plays brilliant, thoughtful poker. But as soon as he thinks he’s holding a winner? Boom!” Johnny made an explosion gesture with his fingers. “He loses it. I took fifteen thousand euros off him last week and that was at a tiny game. I heard he lost big at Deauville.”
“How big?” Luc Charles’s mouth started to water.
“In one night?”
“Fuck one night. On one hand,” said Johnny.
Luc Charles walked back to where Harry Graham was admiring one of his portraits.
“Are you an art lover, Mr. Graham?”
The American shrugged. “I know what I like.”
“A wonderful starting point,” Luc smiled. Looking more closely at Harry, he asked, “We haven’t met before, have we? I feel as if I know you from somewhere.”
Unfortunately for Luc Charles, he’d been meeting a lot of Americans lately. Group 99, the tiresomely publicity-hungry rich-haters-cum-terrorists had been making a concerted effort to target the fine-art world, introducing a number of extremely high-quality fakes to the market in recent months. Even the top auction houses had been duped, including the mighty Christie’s, who had sold what they believed to be an Isaac Israels painting for $7.2 million only to have Group 99 release a YouTube video revealing its true provenance. Heads had rolled, but the net result was that market confidence had been hit hard and insurers were particularly jumpy. Luc’s insurers were owned by the American giant UIG (United Insurance Group). In the last month alone, Luc had received three “courtesy” visits from UIG execs. It wouldn’t surprise him to have another show up at one of his poker games, hoping for some sort of inside track. And Harry Graham did look familiar.
“I don’t think so.” Graham turned away, glancing at his watch impatiently. “Shall we get started?”
Luc Charles led the way to the card table. He was probably imagining things. The good news was that Johnny Cray’s “reckless” friend was getting jumpy already.
That boded well for the night ahead.
FROM HIS HOTEL BEDROOM directly across the canal, Jeff Stevens had an almost perfect view through the sash windows of Luc Charles’s drawing room.
With the aid of his trusty Meade ACF LX90 telescope, Jeff could see not only the players at Charles’s table, but the hands of the ones with their backs to him. Poor old Dom Crecy was unlikely to leave the Charles residence tonight richer than he arrived, clinging on to his pair of kings like a drowning man clutching a branch in a tsunami. Jeff couldn’t see Hunter Drexel’s cards, but he had an excellent view of his face. Harry Graham, rather to Jeff’s surprise, had chosen a seat directly opposite the window, which had been opened to let in the night air. It was the first time Jeff had seen Hunter’s features in person, in the flesh as it were, and he found himself fascinated, trying to glean any information from his expressions, the look in his eyes.
Who are you? he found himself asking.
What are you thinking, right at this moment?
What do you want?
But like all good poker players, Hunter’s face gave away nothing. Was he a terrorist or a victim? A good guy or a traitor? Was he really just playing cards to live, so he had enough cash to eat and hide and finish his story on fracking—or whatever it really was? Jeff had his doubts. If Hunter’s plan was survival, he wouldn’t be chasing down big stakes games like Luc Charles’s seven card stud, or Pascal Cauchin’s legendary Montmartre poker evenings.
No. There’s some other reason he’s doing this. Playing with billionaires. Risking exposure. No one needs to win millions of dollars just to survive.
Whatever Hunter’s plan, he looked as if he were struggling tonight. And not just at cards. His face was almost unrecognizable from the pictures Jeff had seen from before his Group 99 abduction. Hunter looked thin and ill and exhausted and old.
Jeff kept watching.
BACK AT THE MODEST bungalow they had rented on the outskirts of the city, Sally Faiers glanced anxiously at the clock.
She wanted Hunter home.
She had a bad feeling about tonight.
It didn’t help that, even after everything she’d done for him, all the risks she’d taken, Hunter told her nothing. Like who Hélène was and why she’d left in such a hurry. Or why he had to go to this poker game tonight. Or what he planned to do with the money, assuming he won.
“I will win,” he told her, through chattering teeth. It was a flash of the old Hunter, the cocky charmer she remembered. But a rare one. And he didn’t look like a winner anymore. He looked like a desperate man, in need of a real doctor.
After two weeks together, Sally still didn’t even know what Hunter’s mysterious article was about, or where and when he was going to publish it.
“Soon,” was all he’d tell her. “The less you know, the safer you are, Sal.”