Authors: Gabra Zackman
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This is for all the single ladies
may you find the ones who wait
right around the corner
or better yet . . .
may they find you
Thanks to my agent, Joelle Delbourgo, who continues to teach me how to get in the game.
To my wonderful editors, Abby Zidle and Marla Daniels: thank you so much for helping guide me, for generously teaching me the ropes, and for patiently waiting for me to catch up. And to everyone at Pocket Star—thank you for such beautiful work . . . you are my personal Bod Squad.
As always to the great writer Abby Sher for making me write and for the great elocutionist Anna Stone for making me write right
—my hat is off to you both!
A general shout-out of love and thanks to the following for inspiration, laughter, and encouragement—part of this list is people I left out of the thank-yous for book one, which is, frankly, a great reason to write a series: Anna Stone, Abby Sher, Julia Motyka, Allyson Johnson, Sara Moss, Wendy Stetson, Jeremy Johnson, Jessica Lissy, Michael Barakiva, Chris Kipiniak, Marisa Lerer, Rachel Fowler, Steve Greer, Harris Shultz, John Fredricksen, Lorraine Lein, and Greg Ruvolo.
To all the regional and local theaters that have given me a way to tell amazing stories in exceptional places. You have granted my heart a place to dance.
To Kyra Davis, Maria V. Snyder, C. E. Murphy, and William Dietz for allowing me to narrate your brilliant books over and over and over again, and for inspiring me, through your great stories, to write my own.
Lastly, to my parents, my brother, Odin, his wife, Mara, and their son, Noah Vinny: thank you for supporting me no matter what I do, and for encouraging what started in your dinette as “The Man From Star” to become a whole career of storytelling.
lastly, to the people at Audible, at Rohan Audio, at Simon & Schuster Audio, and at Hachette—the work you have given me continues to be my foundation. And for my fellow narrators and engineers—how I love you like a second family! I wrote this series FOR YOU!
JACKSON LOOKED DOWN
at the text message from his best friend, Mahmoud, and shuddered. There was only one word on the screen.
A code 5. From Mahmoud? How was this possible?
And why now?
Jackson had grown up in Morocco, the son of an American diplomat. He was of Moroccan descent on his father’s side and Dutch German on his mother’s side. The combination gave him beautiful dark olive skin, thick brown curly hair, and deep hazel eyes. He was in high school when his father was transferred back to the States, and they settled in Baltimore. It had been a rough transition for Jackson for a number of reasons, not the least of which was being away from Mahmoud, who had become like a brother to him.
Only minutes before Jackson received the text, the FTP investigative team had uncovered and destroyed the head of one of the most notorious crime rings in the history of white-collar investigations. The team was standing in the cheaply designed indoor Italian garden of Heavenly Balls: A Meatball Emporium, on the Lower East Side of New York City, and slapping one another on the back. The picnic tables lay akimbo, the plastic vines were astray, and the floor was littered with frozen meatballs, pizza, and the still warm carcass of their target’s lead bodyguard. The police were on their way, and the Boss was talking to Fritz, their contact at the FBI. Chas Palmer was by the Boss’s side, having just revealed that he, too, had made contact with Fritz and was working undercover for a different branch of the FBI as a white-collar criminal mastermind. Susannah “Legs” Carter, brilliant undercover operative and MVP of the investigation, was standing by Chas, looking up at him as if he hung the moon.
Gabriella Marconi had just murdered the Mob boss (her cousin Bruni, aka
) and was on the phone with her CIA contact, Robert Smith, while Eastern European assassin Tyka and FTP computer technician/office manager Lisa Bee were discussing the finer points of Madonna’s career. Expert hacker AJ “Fingers” Jones, operating out of her secret apartment up in Harlem, was still piping jazz through the restaurant’s speaker system. They were now being treated to a rough old recording of Josephine Baker singing “Blue Skies.”
Jackson had just been making his way over to talk to Lisa Bee.
Talk about blue skies!
Damn, this woman was driving him crazy, and maybe now that the mission was over, he could take their friendship to the next level. She was their computer tech/office chick/organizer extraordinaire, she was just under five feet zero inches of curvy Southern spark plug, and she was the coolest babe he’d ever met. Now that they’d closed this case, Jackson was ready to open up his own and lay his cards on the table. She looked over at him and quirked her lips in a way that always put a dance in his step.
But he couldn’t go to her because of Mahmoud’s code 5.
What the hell was going on?
Mahmoud had been his rock and his anchor. In Tangier they had been inseparable, and in addition to the typical scrapes they got into as boys, they also saw their fair share of war, terrorism, and deception. In the entire time they had known each other, Mahmoud had sent a code 5 only once, and that was when his whole family was in danger of being killed. At the time, their code 5 was the infinity symbol written in blood on a specific wall in the Casbah, near where the El Morocco club now stood. Today they communicated through cell phones using the Boss’s codes, all based on classic films. If Mahmoud had texted “The Birds” (a code 4, which indicated being in a tough spot) or “Gone with the Wind” (a code 2, which indicated the absence of information), Jackson could have handled it.
But “Casablanca,” a code 5? Damn.
Jackson wiped the sweat from his brow and looked at his watch. Then he looked up at Lisa Bee with regret and gave her a halfhearted wink. He needed to save his heart’s mission for another day. He’d give Mahmoud a call. Then he’d be on the next flight to Morocco.
IT WAS A BEAUTIFUL
sunny day, and Susannah Carter was one pissed-off bride. They had to have the wedding inside? And in New York City?
in a snooty place like the Harvard Club, no less? Susannah would have preferred to be in her mother’s backyard in Virginia under the cherry trees, or standing beneath a tent on Chas’s exquisite and romantic ranch in Savannah. Being with Chas had opened her up to the simple and girlish side of herself she had all but forgotten existed. The backyard ceremony or the ranch wedding would’ve taken her back to the freedom and joy of her youth. Or, she mused, she would have loved something fun and saucy, like a swingin’ dance party. But Chas had insisted on the Harvard Club. Apparently, it was something his father would have wanted. And since his father had been killed by the very mobsters they recently exposed, Susannah couldn’t argue. In addition, it was fall. New York was lovely in the fall.
But who gets married indoors? Boring. And in October?
Not her first choice. Again, Chas had insisted. He’d wanted to tie the knot as soon as they could, and this was the only date the Harvard Club had available for the entire next year. Susannah scoffed. She would have preferred a disco club to the Harvard Club. Frankly, she would have preferred a club sandwich.
She had also decided, foolishly, on six-inch white satin open-toed Badgley Mischkas. She smiled fleetingly. Chas had a thing for the way heels made her legs look twice as long. She knew that she looked stunning with her five-foot-nine-inch frame poured into a gorgeous backless beaded Pnina Tornai wedding dress with a long train, the gown hugging her ample and sensuous curves, but:
I had to choose these pain-in-the-ass gorgeous heels?
She knew she was going to trip down the aisle, and she couldn’t quite figure out how to stop it from happening. She adjusted the dress, making sure the rose and white lace corset perfectly showcased her full breasts and tiny waist.
This is going to make Chas’s jaw hit the ground.
Susannah had also agreed, after relentless begging from her mother, to wear her grandmother’s veil. It was a little bit like being encased in mosquito netting, but she wanted to do something nice for her mother, who was so proud and couldn’t stop crying. Part of it was the wedding, yes, but another part was not having Susannah’s father around to share in the big day. Though he’d passed away when she was a teenager, he was still so very present for them both. Susannah thought if she wore the veil, it might make her mom feel better, but she only cried harder. At least the veil was translucent, Susannah thought, so she could see through it. She was so uncomfortable that she began to move from foot to foot and, eventually, without realizing it, began to jump up and down.
Lisa Bee, wearing sky-high heels herself and only coming up to Susannah’s shoulders, put her hand on Susannah’s arm. “Calm down, Legs, honey,” she said in her slight N’awlins twang, an odd accent with a ton of music to it. “Wouldn’t want you to shoot Chas instead of tying the knot.”
Susannah let out a breath. “Well,” she said, “you know I never go anywhere without my .380. I guess if I trip in the right direction, I can just shoot these heels off my feet.”
“Well, shit, sister!” AJ, Susannah’s best childhood friend, exclaimed from behind them. “I heard about shotgun weddings, but I thought that meant something entirely different!”
AJ proudly modeled her 1950s Christian Dior heels, which perfectly matched her brown and gold vintage Balenciaga. Susannah had asked her mother, Lisa Bee, and AJ to dress in fall colors, but beyond that, she’d left the fashion to them. She hadn’t anticipated that Lisa Bee would turn up in a rose pink minidress with matching patent leather pumps, replete with appliqué roses on top. And a pink gun holster to boot—Susannah could just see the bottom of the revolver on Lisa Bee’s thigh. Somehow Lisa Bee managed to make it charming, elegant, and fun, while fitting the color pink perfectly into a fall color palette. She’d even managed to find pink bullets, which she said Susannah could keep as a wedding souvenir. Susannah loved how well she and Lisa Bee balanced each other out. They had just enough that was different and just enough that was similar to make a beautiful friendship. Susannah also had a new holster on, from Doc Scrubs’s Romantic Revenge line, and it looked like a wedding garter. The small revolver tucked inside it looked like a flask and was inscribed with the phrase
Till death do us part
Bossman’s childhood friend down in Baltimore, Doc Scrubs was the provider of FTP’s spy paraphernalia as well as a sought-after surgeon at Johns Hopkins. Even though Doc Scrubs couldn’t make it to the wedding, Susannah felt like she knew him, as she had been on the receiving end of his gadgetry for years. She looked forward to the moment when they could finally meet, as he was one of the invisible partners of FTP.
FTP, Financial Trust and Protection
(or, as the Boss liked to say, “Films Take Priority” or “Fuck the Police”), operated out of Capitol Hill. It was run by John Collins Boss (
, to his team) and was comprised of Susannah, Jackson, and Lisa Bee. The Boss had recently enlarged his coterie to include their newest colleagues: Chas, Tyka, AJ, and Gabriella Marconi. Well, it almost included Gabriella. She was stubborn and used to running her own operation. Since the Boss loved strong women, he’d made Gabriella an honorary member, and in return, she’d agreed to help out in any way she could. She certainly fit in with this group: She was talented, fierce, and an excellent spy. Her wicked wit was an added bonus. Since the whole crew was easy on the eyes, Jackson had nicknamed them the Bod Squad, and it had stuck.
Susannah sighed and gazed around the room. They were in the antechamber at the front of the room, able to look out but concealed from the guests. This was her big day, the one she had wanted since she was a girl. It was really all perfect. Except for being at the Harvard Club. And the heels. And the veil.
But that was hardly the point. The point was Chas. And he was everything she had ever dreamed of. In a moment of despair and anxiety about two years before she’d met Chas, she had written vows to the husband she had not yet come across. She was quite drunk—it was shortly after yet another man had screwed her over, another man only interested in sex, another man who had run away when things got a little too real—and she was using her last piece of Wonder Woman stationery, scribbling in sloppy circles. She wrote:
I’ve waited all my life for you. I have lived a life of risk and loneliness, hoping that you existed. I have held out for you, believing beyond all possibility that there was a man who was my equal in strength, in soul, in heart.
I have had faith when there was none. I have listened deeply to my inner voice, and it has whispered to me that when I met you, you would be more astonishing than any man I could ever possibly have imagined. You are the other half of me. You are the vessel that can hold all I am and more. You are the deepest and truest love of my life, and I will love you forever to the moon and back. And you are, indeed, more astonishing than any man I have ever known. I will not say these vows until I’ve found you, and I will not marry you until I feel all of this.
She had found Chas. She felt all of it with him, that he was the man for her, her partner, her soul mate. “So fuck the heels,” she said quietly to herself. “I’ll dance all night in these things just to begin my life next to that amazing man.”
They were almost ready. Everything was in place, but Susannah was waiting for the music cue:
by Jeff Buckley. The Boss was officiating, and Jackson was supposed to be walking her down the aisle, but he was dealing with some family issues in Morocco. Susannah was upset that he wasn’t by her side—Jackson was like her big brother, and it didn’t feel quite right to get married without him. Knowing it was a big deal to him to miss this moment in her life, she figured his family issues must be of the utmost importance, and hoped that everything was okay.
LISA BEE STOOD
behind Susannah, looking out at the beautiful room, every inch of her short, curvy frame buzzing with anticipation. She loved weddings more than anything in the world—more than her favorite street in New Orleans, more than her daddy’s veranda crawfish boils, more than solving crimes with a cool team of agents. She had loved weddings since she was a little girl, not in a bridal-magazine kind of way but in a romantic lifelong partnership kind of way. She wondered if she’d ever come to the place where she’d make the vows she’d dreamed of, or if she’d be
always a bridesmaid and never a bride
. Already she had more bridesmaid dresses than anyone she knew.
She looked at Susannah and smiled. This was her friend’s big day, and she was psyched to be here with the whole gang to celebrate. Lord knew if there were anyone who’d had more sucky boyfriends than Lisa Bee, it was her friend
! So Susannah had earned it. And this wedding was perfect! Perfect man, perfect match, perfect venue. It was going to be a day to remember.
If only Jackie were here!
He was one of her dearest friends and the best person to go out with. Life was better when he was around . . . more fun, more open, more of an adventure. Secretly, she suspected that he was seeing someone in Morocco—
or, knowing him, several someones
. It was the only reason she could imagine him taking so many international trips.
Biting her lower lip and adjusting her dress, she looked around the room. It was a small wedding, but who knew? Maybe she’d meet the man of her dreams. For a romantic like her, her knight in shining armor was always right around the corner. Or so she hoped.
SUSANNAH TOOK A
deep breath and looked around. She had to admit, it really was beautiful—very similar to the feel of Chas’s townhouse. The colors and decorations for the wedding were based on their favorite era, the early 1900s, which fit in perfectly with the Harvard Club’s old-school decor. The centerpieces held loosely arranged dusky roses in vintage etched-glass vases. Candles burned everywhere, surrounded by colorful glass beads. Candelabras with rose and teal candles softly illuminated the room. Filmy rose gauze hung down over the walls, creating the feel of an old-fashioned sitting room. The fabric was tied with ribbon and had tassels hung with old skeleton keys. There were skeleton keys everywhere—on the place cards, on the centerpieces, securing the gift bags—and on all the programs and gift bags was a quote, one that Susannah had loved her whole life:
Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls.
It was time. The music changed, and she grabbed hold of her mother’s arm and took a deep breath, thinking about the wedding rings she and Chas would exchange shortly. Though she felt the absence of her father deeply, she and Chas had decided to honor him by melting down her parents’ rings and making their own, with her mother’s very teary blessing. Within each ring was an inscription: Chas’s motto, which was tattooed on his arm:
Tada Gan Iarracht
. Nothing without effort.
And it was followed by a simple design that fused their initials, C and S, into one. The outside of the rings had been etched with a tree, much like the family-tree heirloom that Chas had inherited, which had turned out to be the literal and figurative key to their last case. Susannah knew that wrapped around her finger for the rest of her life would be the symbols that fueled the heart and soul of the man she loved.
Susannah’s heels clicked upon the dark wood, and she basked in the soft glow of candlelight that fell upon the smiling faces of the collected crowd. That was one good thing about an expensive pair of designer shoes: You could never get such a beautiful click out of the knockoffs. As she stood ready to walk down the aisle, she locked eyes with Chas and immediately began to tear up. He was unbelievably attractive—just one look took her breath away. She could feel his gaze all over her, through the veil, through the dress, and her heart began to swell with love for him. This was what she had waited for her whole life. This was real. This was true. This was right. Smiling, she took a deep breath. And as she put her foot forward toward her new life, her heel caught in the train of her dress, and like a confused giraffe, she sprawled into the aisle.
JACKSON WAS TRYING
desperately to get into the Harvard Club. “I’m sorry, sir,” said the distinguished older man at the desk, “but if you don’t have ID, you can’t get in.”
Jackson had just returned from Morocco, where he’d traveled under a different identity. They had him down for the wedding as Jackson Jackson, the name he gave to the general public. The members of FTP knew his real name, but they were all wise enough not to use it. His real name was Oreida Jackson, because he’d been conceived in the back of an Ore-Ida truck, and his parents thought it was funny. He never did. Instead, he legally changed his name to Jackson Jackson and was known among friends as Jackie. The only time Oreida was uttered was when he had to give himself a talking-to. It reminded him of the way his mother used to talk him down when things got rough.
Jackson was flipping through his wallet, but all he had was a Moroccan driver’s license with his picture and the name Khalid Aziz on it. The desk clerk saw it and said, “Well, that’s a perfectly good ID, sir. How about that one?”
“Oh,” Jackson said, quickly repocketing his wallet and slipping easily into a cover story. “That’s my friend’s ID—he dropped it and I have to return it to him. He’s at the wedding upstairs, if you’d let me up—”
The clerk wasn’t budging, and he looked increasingly uncomfortable. “Er—can’t you get in touch with one of your friends to come down and get you?”
Jackson was frustrated and exhausted. But taking control of the situation by whipping out his Beretta M9 would be a bit too much. He had to play it cool so that he could get to Susannah and the Boss as soon as possible. He was hoping desperately that he wouldn’t have to interrupt the wedding, that the information could wait. But with each passing moment, he realized there was no time to lose. Jackson had been traveling for about seventeen hours, and part of that involved a two-hour camel ride. He didn’t look like he was about to go to a wedding, and certainly not one at the Harvard Club. He rubbed his hands over his eyes, then blinked rapidly several times. “I just got into town. They’re expecting me. And it’s a wedding, so they’ve all turned their phones off.”