Of course, the whole team had taken on the additional risks of being in one place simultaneously, making themselves easier targets, and shown up in Seagrove, Florida to watch Mark and Lisa marry. Tim, second-in-command, innately classy and sophisticated, came with his wife, Mandy. Joe, cool from the cradle, a woman magnet, and the undisputed king of contacts came with Beth, the one woman who kept him in knots and seemed immune to his charm. Sooner or later, Nick predicted, they’d also marry. Sam, the Civil War reenactment and NASCAR enthusiast, and the best background expert with the most highly honed intuition Nick had ever seen in a single operative or security consultant, came alone. And Nick, always alone, was the techie who could make computers sing soprano in any known language where a speaker had something to say worth hearing. Together with Mark, they were the entire former Shadow Watchers team and the current security consultant associates at PSC. They were also friends.
At least, as friendly as Nick allowed. He did share more with them than with anyone on Earth. He’d die for any of them, but he also kept his bare-bone secrets tucked in his personal closet where bare-bone secrets belong.
Regardless, the whole group had waited a long time for this ceremony.
“They look happy, don’t they, bro?” Joe said from his seat in the pew beside Nick.
At the altar, Mark and Lisa turned to face their guests. Their blinding smiles beamed joy. “They do today,” Nick said.
“Come on, Nick.” Sam sighed. The absence of his usual ball cap or do-rag had his long hair unfettered. With the shake of his head, his red curls rioted. “Can’t you ever just be happy for someone happy?”
Tim and Mandy sat in the pew in front of Nick, Joe, and Sam. Both swiveled their heads to look back and whisper a potent, “Sh.” Tim’s warning came with a scowl.
What was their problem? Nick shrugged and stood with the other guests then watched Mark and Lisa move down the aisle to exit the church. They were happy today, and Nick was glad for it. But he wasn’t fool enough to think they’d always be happy. Real life didn’t work that way. He didn’t make the rule, he just observed it. Real life never worked that way.
The phone at his hip softly sounded. Recognizing the designated ringtone, his gaze collided with Joe and Sam’s. Tim turned and motioned with a head nod for Nick to get someplace private.
The whole Shadow Watcher team used the same ringtones and knew Omega One was calling.
Omega One was a member of an active-duty task force that didn’t exist on paper. It was buried in the bowels of the Office of Personnel Management where it would remain for the duration of its members’ commitment to government service, just as the Shadow Watchers once had been. It was during a mission in the Middle East, after the death of Omega One’s partner, Jane, that the whole Shadow Watcher team had resigned and departed the military. While Jane had been Omega One’s partner, she’d also been Mark Taylor’s sister of the heart. That she’d been killed while with them as a subject-matter expert hit the whole team like a ton of bricks. They’d let her and Mark down, and every one of them felt responsible for her death. They couldn’t have prevented it but, even today, they still felt responsible for not protecting Mark’s little sister.
Within two months of leaving the military, the Shadow Watchers had their private security consulting firm, known simply as PSC, up and running. Within four months, they had landed a created-for-them slot on Omega One’s anti-terrorism task force unit’s payroll. Officially, the team at PSC was classified as subject-matter experts. Consultants. Unofficially, they did what the officials couldn’t do politically or legally to accomplish critical essential missions. Their only direct contact? Omega One.
The more things changed, the more they stayed the same.
The church began to empty.
Nick walked down the aisle and out of the nave, through the vestibule, then outside. Squinting against the glaring sun, he continued halfway around the corner of the building. Seeing no one else within earshot, he stopped and then answered the phone. “This is Nick.”
“Hey. Wedding over?”
Nick checked his voice recognition app and saw the verification link. Omega One. Secure and good to go, he answered. “Just.” He watched the grounds with his back to the building; first left, then right, then above.
“Give the groom our congratulations.”
“Will do,” Nick said, stuffing a hand in the pocket of his slacks. “What’s up?”
“I need a favor.”
That was code for I’ve got an assignment for you. “If I can, I will.”
“Great, because it’s on its way to you now.”
“I’m not at my comput—“
“It’s not an email, it’s a package,” Omega One said. “I need for you to accept delivery and hold onto it for me.”
Omega One couldn’t accept delivery. That meant this matter was CIA-related. It couldn’t act on U.S. soil so Omega One was subcontracting the Shadow Watchers to handle the package. “When will it arrive?”
“Where you’ll be in half an hour.”
Obscure. Oh, yeah. Definitely CIA-related. “No problem,” Nick said, expecting it’d be anything but. “How long will I be holding it?”
Great. An indefinite assignment babysitting. Be still my heart. “Got it.”
“You personally, Nick. Eyes on at all times.”
His worry meter fired up and he dropped the silent sarcasm. “All right.” Omega One rarely told any of the Shadow Watchers how to do their jobs, and he’d always been just as happy with any of them as with any one of them specifically. That he’d singled out Nick likely meant not only would evasion be necessary but high-tech evasion with deep search and scanning capabilities. “I understand.” Unfortunately, he did. “Is the package being retained agreeable to all parties?”
Great. The package had no idea who had him or her, or why—yet. He should ask the reason but he didn’t want to know. Briefed, he could be put on the spot to explain. Without being briefed, he honestly had no knowledge. That, however, left one question he had to ask for mission security. “Will someone be seeking it?”
“That’s a distinct possibility.”
“Anyone I know?”
“Oh, yeah. The usual suspects.”
NINA. The team’s arch-enemy, Nihilists in Anarchy. Nick’s skin crawled. He knew that tone, and Omega One knew Nick would know it. “Do we know why?”
“That’s a little murky at the moment. We have conflicting reports.”
Nick stared down at the freshly mowed grass. Just how much trouble was barreling his way on this? “Chatter?”
“Extensive and discreet,” Omega One said. “The Marked Star.”
NINA had tagged the package the Marked Star. Why?
Footfalls sounded and Nick looked up to see Joe and Sam approaching him. One glance at his face and their expressions tensed. He held up a wait-a-second finger to delay questions.
“Update—“ Nick started.
“As soon as I have verified information, I’ll be in touch.”
“Got it.” Now keyed up and tense, Nick disconnected the call and looked at his partners.
“What’s up?” Sam asked, loosening the tie he hated but wore today to please Lisa. The Alabama redneck was far more at home and comfortable in sawed-off sleeved shirts, jeans, and flip-flops.
Nick visually scanned the perimeter, the roof, and then dropped his voice. “Inbound package. Half an hour, at the reception.”
“Wedding present?” Joe asked, clearly wishing.
Nick resisted the urge to roll his eyes back in his head. “Human. A NINA target.”
“Oh, man.” Sam groused and stared at the brick wall. “Can’t those jerks give us at least a little break?”
“It’s not their nature,” Joe said. “Scorpions sting because that’s what scorpions do, bro.” He looked back to Nick. “So why isn’t One taking delivery himself?”
“He couldn’t.” Nick sent Joe a loaded look.
“CIA.” Joe worried his lip with his thumb. “So what are we supposed to do with it?”
“Hold it indefinitely,” Nick said. “Not us, me. Eyes on all the time.”
“This is bad, buddy. Really bad.” Sam reached for his missing ball cap to tug its brim down over his eyes. He unconsciously slid into that tell whenever he wanted to shield his reaction to something. Nick had tried to break him of the habit but hadn’t had any more luck with the tell than everyone’d had with breaking Sam from cursing.
“Is One trying to prevent an interdiction, or what?” Sam asked.
“That’d be my guess.” Joe slid his sunglasses onto his nose and watched the empty street.
“It was mine, too.” Nick motioned for them to walk toward the parking lot. “But we’re speculating. He didn’t disclose his motives.”
“Does the package know?”
“I’m not sure. One was vague, but I don’t think so.” Nick looked from Joe to Sam and frowned. “Extensive chatter. Conflicting reports.”
“Early on in the operation, then.” Joe unwrapped a slice of chewing gum and popped it into his mouth. It’d been a couple years now, but he seemed as addicted to gum chewing as he had been to the cigarettes that had him chewing gum to quit. How did he make even chewing gum look cool?
Sam sniffed. “Early on or an op that went south coming out of the gate.”
“What else do you know?” Looking at Nick, Joe stepped from the grass to the concrete sidewalk.
“They’ve dubbed the package the Marked Star.”
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