The Perfect Year
your security staff fits, you know."
The low, amused tones of the woman behind him startled Jefferson Smith out of his near-trancelike contemplation of the cityscape before him. Turning quickly, he relaxed at the sight of Mari Keita, Secretary General of the UN, smiling at him and offering him a glass of champagne. With an answering half-smile, Jeff accepted the flute and moved over a little to allow her to join him on the balcony.
"Yeah, well, they've gone over the security perimeter for this party with the proverbial fine-toothed comb, and I seriously doubt that even the most skillful assassin could get a shot aimed up here. Del Oro Tower is at least fifteen stories higher than any other building in the area, and since there are no definite threats on my life at the moment, I'm going to trust my staff."
The dark-haired woman leaned against the balcony railing without regard for the wrinkles it produced in her light blue cocktail dress. "It's nice to see you actually taking the possibility seriously at last," she replied, sipping her champagne.
Jeff rolled his eyes. "Don't start, Mari. You're as bad as Max."
"Max has a point, I think. Your safety is very important to N-Tek."
"All right, all right." Smith raised his hands in mock surrender. "It's New Year's Eve, not the time to have this discussion."
Mari smiled. "Indeed. And thank you for inviting me to the N-Tek Ball... it's nice to have a function to attend that ISN'T a veiled diplomatic mixer."
"What are friends for?"
For a second, the Secretary was silent, staring at the lights of Del Oro below. "Two-thousand-one, Jeff. The beginning of a new century, a new millenium. And yet sometimes it seems as if we're no farther along than when we started."
He sighed. "Believe me, Mari, I feel that way more often than not... And it's been more than twenty-five years."
"Twenty-seven, if you're counting from when we first met." She laughed, tossing dark hair back over one shoulder. "Do you remember that?"
"How could I forget? I was nineteen years old and scared stiff, wondering why in the world Marco Nathanson had hired me to drive him around Del Oro Bay. And then he brought YOU out, just an intern from the UN, and said he wanted to give you a "young person's" tour of the city." Jeff sipped reflectively at his champagne.
"Of course, now I realize he was sizing me up, trying to figure out if I'd make a good agent... he must have been waiting for Jim and me to graduate from the day we first ran into him."
"Well," Mari told him, amusement in her voice. "I think there may have been a bit more to it than that... the man WAS an inveterate matchmaker."
Jeff blinked. "Match- oh boy." Then he laughed. "Yeah, I wouldn't have put it past him, actually. For a man who spent most of his time dealing with the uglier side of reality, he was an incurable romantic."
Mari shook her head. "Twenty-five years. Two green agents and a young diplomat... and look where we are today, with the weight of the world on our shoulders. It's a pity Jim isn't here... he'd be very proud of you. Especially how you've done with Josh."
"Would he?" Jeff returned. "I'm not sure... sometimes it's like I barely know Josh anymore..."
"It's called growing up, Jeff. It happens to all children someday. Although," she gave him a keen look over her glass, "I'd imagine that having him as an agent is a bit more difficult."
It was as though lightning had shot out of the clear sky. Jeff stiffened as if galvanized, then very slowly turned to fix his longtime friend with an intense, dark gaze. "Agent?" he managed finally. "I don't know what you're talking about, Mari."
She dismissed that with a wave of her hand. "Please, Jeff, I'm not blind. And I've known you long enough that I can read you like a book. Max Steel, your wonder agent, is in fact Josh McGrath, your son."
Jeff deflated. "How? How did you know?"
"Little things... I've seen a great deal of him in the last two years, since you always appoint him to my security detail. I've seen the way he sticks to you, far closer than is common even for bodyguards. And having seen Josh again recently, I can tell that the height, weight, and approximate bone structure are correct. And then there's the way he looks at you when you're not watching... like a man afraid he will lose the only thing remaining that makes his world make sense. It's much the same way Josh used to watch you when you first took him in.
"Besides, I've seen you with him. As hard as you try to be impartial, the worry you feel is obvious, at least to me. At first I assumed, like most others, that it was simply because he and Josh were of an age. And then there's the last thing, and perhaps I realized it only tonight. With his hair so dark, he looks very much like Jim."
Eyes closed, Jeff nodded tightly. "Yes, he does," he agreed softly. "Too much so, sometimes. The way he stands, something he'll say... It's like seeing a ghost, Mari. And it always surprises me, after all this time, how much it hurts."
His eyes drifted open and he almost automatically scanned the ballroom for Max. As he had suspected, he found the younger man standing beside one of the potted plants, arms folded lazily across his chest as he leaned against the wall. A casual observer might have assumed he was simply bored with the party, but Jeff knew better. Those sharp blue eyes were never still, roaming over the crowd, constantly alert for any threat. In his perfectly tailored tuxedo, Max looked like nothing so much as a sleek and very predatory panther.
Jeff cursed. "I brought him to the party tonight so he wouldn't sit around moping," he explained. "I wanted him to have fun, not to work security detail. It's been a hell of a year for him, even if I don't know the whole story. January, it started when he found, on a mission, the wreck of the ship his mother died on." His laugh was almost bitter. "Only Max.
"Then something went wrong on Team Steel... but I don't know what. Luckily they worked the tension out for themselves... Then Laura, Josh's girlfriend, broke up with him. He's been having problems in school... problems with his friends... and then there was Mairot."
Mari winced. Jeff had called her after that one, in the middle of the night, needing SOME sympathetic ear to spill his problems to. As a result, she knew the whole story, from Mairot's defection to the fact that Max had been very nearly vivisected, saved only by Chuck Marshak's timely intervention.
"Rachel got promoted, and I think that hurt him, too," Jeff continued. "I haven't heard the two of them exchange one word that wasn't completely about business ever since. And there are things he's not telling me... I know that. Whatever's wrong with his life, I can't fix it. And that's worse than anything else."
"Unfortunately, it's part of parenthood," Mari reminded him. "It's what happens when your children grow up."
Jeff sighed, finishing the last of his champagne. "I suppose you're right. But I don't have to like it." He offered her his arm.
"Come on, let's go back in. It's almost midnight, after all, and I think we've made the security staff anxious enough for one year."
Laughing, she accepted, and let him steer her back into the ballroom, with all its noise, and color, and hope. And outside, the lights of the celebrating city outshone the stars.