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? And 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: Oh! 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 (Bossman or the 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: Hallelujah 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 Legs! 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.”
“You sure you’ve tried them all?” The desk clerk looked even more stalwart, unwilling to give him any leeway.
“Well,” Jackson said, “all except the bride. I guess it’s worth a try.”
IT WAS PERFECT TIMING. As Susannah lay sprawled in the aisle, the crowd gasped, then laughed, then ran to untangle her from a web of veil, tulle, beading, and heels. Susannah groaned and tried to right herself. The violinist had stopped playing, Chas had rushed down the aisle, and the Boss was trying hard not to laugh. And just at that moment Susannah’s cleavage began to ring with the chorus from “Jack & Diane,” which she had handpicked for Jackson.
Collecting herself and sitting up, Susannah said, “Thank goodness it was mine that went off.” She answered the phone with “I would thank you for ruining my wedding, but I think I’ve already done that.” She listened for a moment, then turned to the crowd. “Can someone get me a different pair of shoes? And can someone else go downstairs and let Jackson in?”
JACKSON WAS SO anxious that he had his hands in his pockets and was pacing back and forth when Lisa Bee came down to pick him up. Even so, he couldn’t help noticing how good she looked, rocking her pink outfit and heels. She literally took his breath away. When would he have the chance to tell her how he felt? Sadly, now was not the time to turn on the charm; he had to get the intel to the Boss ASAP. But he did smile, gulp, and say, “Wow, Bee. You sure know how to clean up.”
She smiled that cute little grin of hers at him. “Well, I can’t say the same about you, Jackie. Glad you made it, but you look like you’ve been to hell and back. What’s the deal?”
“No time to explain. I gotta talk to the Boss.”
Lisa Bee began to pout. “No one ever tells me anything.”
“Can it, Li’l Bee. It’s a fuck of a situation. Show me the way.”
“All right, Jackie, but you better make it up to me later on.”
“Oh, Bee, if I only had that chance.”
She laughed heartily and looked at him with a twinkle in her eye. “I love that I can always get you to sass me.”
He wished she knew there was more truth to his words than she thought. “Oh it ain’t sass, Bee. You know I’m not a sass man.”
Now she let out a girly giggle and winked. “Oooh, Jackie, that’s not what I heard!”
He laughed in kind. It was that combination of sweet and saucy that drove him crazy. She could always get him to laugh, even in the worst of circumstances; it was one of the many things that he adored about her. Unfortunately, his mission was of the utmost urgency, so he said, “Sorry to cut this short, but we gotta get upstairs STAT.”
She bit her lip and grabbed him by the arm. As they rode up in the elevator, he vowed to make it up to her later on.
By the time they got there, the room was in chaos. The guests were buzzing about, and all of FTP was clustered around Susannah, who sat on the floor with a grimace on her face, pulling a pair of boots on, and refusing to stand till she was comfortable. Is she wearing UGG boots with that awesome wedding dress? Chas was sitting by her side, saying, “It’s my fault, Legs, okay? Totally my fault. I know you did it for me.”
Jackson saw the Boss walking over on the double. He and Lisa Bee waited apart from the crowd, on the other side of the room from the seating area. “Bit of a rough morning, Jackson,” the Boss said, clearly trying to gain some semblance of control, “but it’s time we get this show on the road.”
“Yeah,” Jackson said, “looks like one helluva mess. Who allowed Legs to walk down the aisle in heels? You know she hates them.”
“Yes,” the Boss replied, “but her future husband doesn’t. Or, rather, didn’t. Till now. I think he has a foot fetish. Or, at the very least, a leg fetish.”
“Well, damn!” Lisa Bee piped in. “The things you find out just in the nick of time.”
“I’ve got a bunch of fetishes,” Jackson slipped in, grinning. “First on the list is girls with a Southern tongue. The accent’s not bad, either.”
“Now, Jackson,” Lisa Bee replied, a stern look on her face. “How many times do I have to tell you that New Orleans is not the South? It’s more like north Haiti.”
“Well, you can take the girl out of N’Awlins, but—”
“And we don’t call it N’Awlins; that’s just Hollywood bullshit.”
“Dammit, Bee, I just think you’re a hot piece and I don’t give a shit where you come from.”
The Boss held up a hand. “Okay, Jackson, hold your horses, we got a wedding to restart.”
Jackson turned back to him, his grin instantly gone, sharp and at the ready. “That’s the problem, Bossman. I gotta stop this wedding. Now. There’s something Legs needs to know before she ties the knot.”
The Boss looked him up and down, and Jackson could see him finally taking in the rumpled, dirt-strewn attire. “You look like you’ve had a rough time of it. What’s going on?”
“It’s a code five, Boss. I couldn’t discuss it over the phone, so I got here as soon as I could.”
Jackson could feel the energy shift as the Boss and Lisa Bee tried to steady themselves. The Boss narrowed his eyes. “We’re talking a Casablanca for real? Or is this just a high-level version of The Birds?”
Jackson took a deep breath. “Stop the wedding, Bossman. I wanted to send you a text from the airport, but I’d figured they’d be done by the time I got here, and I didn’t want to ruin it if I didn’t have to, you know? Now that I’m here, I realize we have to move ahead, and fast. We need all the members of FTP—scratch that, we need the whole goddamn Bod Squad on this. We need to be in with both feet, every last one of us. And Legs needs to be the first to know.”
For a moment, the Boss looked like he had lost his customary cool. Taking a deep breath, he ran his hands through his thick dark hair and rolled his eyes, exhaling slowly, trying to ground himself. Then he picked up his cell phone, used the attachment from Scrubs that turned it into a megaphone, and said, “Sorry, folks. Wedding’s over. We will reschedule soon with different shoes and a whole new theme. Susannah, meet the rest of FTP upstairs in the Mahogany Room. Everyone else, enjoy the party—it’s a great band, and there are some fun-filled chocolates from my friend Doc Scrubs.” With that, the Boss strode down the aisle, grabbed AJ by the arm, and mumbled, “Fingers, how quickly can you set up a control center?”
Without missing a beat, AJ batted her eyelids and said, “If you’re testing me, Bossman, you’re gonna have to do better than that.”
FIVE MINUTES LATER, all the members of FTP were in the Mahogany Room. AJ was plugging in the last monitor she’d pulled out of her go bag, always at the ready to set up mission control. She never went anywhere without two computers, a satellite dish, an external hard drive, and an assortment of hidden surveillance gear, including “nanny-cams” and in-ear listening devices. And she never forgot her iPad Mini with her favorite jazz tunes, which connected easily to a portable high-end Bluetooth speaker. She was comfortable doing anything as long as jazz was blasting nearby. She had tried using earphones several times but found that she liked to be able to listen to things going on around her. So the jazz was on, and the computers were hooked up. She was ready to do whatever was needed. And when she was in vintage Balenciaga, she knew she’d do it right.
Tyka had given Chas a lighter that could be used as a GPS-enabled tracking device. Since it had been a helpful tool when they’d taken down the crime ring six months earlier, the Boss had asked Tyka to design something similar for the Bod Squad to use in case of an emergency. Tyka came up with several ideas; due to airline regulations, they’d settled on a key chain with the letters BS in gold. The Boss had liked the double meaning. Doc Scrubs had manufactured the idea, then Tyka had implanted each key chain with the owner’s fingerprint and a retinal scan. When the Boss put his thumb on the B, a small retinal scanner was ejected from the S, equipped with a voice recorder that could broadcast up to thirty seconds of any message. Calling all the members of the Bod Squad, he sent the message:
Bod Squad Code 5 alert. Get here ASAP. Coordinates: LAT 40.755361 LONG -73.980975.
Within minutes, Tyka had texted an ETA of an hour. Gabriella hadn’t responded, but she was back in Italy, trying to suss out the new allegiances within her cousin’s crime ring. She knew that Bruni’s death would leave several people vying for power, and she wanted to swoop in and claim the throne. If Gabriella managed to keep her cover and become a mob boss, there would be a whole new world open to the Boss and the FBI. They’d be granted a kind of access heretofore unknown.
Susannah pulled her train to the side and plopped down on a green velvet wingback chair. Crossing one ankle over the other, she said, “Jackson, what the hell is going on? I mean, this is one hell of an interruption.”
“Sorry, honey,” Jackson replied, “I wouldn’t have done it if it weren’t important. And I know you well enough to know you needed to hear this before we go any further.”
Chas stood beside Susannah, a hand on her shoulder, his forehead deeply furrowed. “This isn’t about me, is it, Jackson? I’ve told you everything about my past. And you could’ve waited for Bossman to ask if there were any objections.”
Jackson smiled. “No, buddy, you’re clean. We’re psyched to know you’ll be taking care of our girl for life. And she’s gonna need you now more than ever.”
“Well, get to it, Jackie,” Susannah said. “I’m really worried.”
“Legs, honey,” Jackson said gently, “it’s about your father. He’s alive. He’s somewhere in Africa. And if we don’t find him soon, he’ll be dead. For real this time.”