“Why do I get the feeling I'm about to have a really bad day?”
“Dunno. Did you look in the mirror when you woke up again?” Inez queried with earnest concern, even going so far as to blink the lashes of her bold blue eyes a couple of times in affected worry.
Kellen crabbily reached out and smacked her in the back of her head, Inez's helmet protecting her from all but the impetus and the sound of the strike.
“Hey!” she complained, grinning good-naturedly as she whacked him right back, a little harder than he had done.
“If you two are done?” came the dry query over their headsets.
“Sorry, Leader,” Kellen apologized for them both as he exchanged knowing humor with Inez using eyes alone. Inez made a low hand signal near her hips that indicated what she felt their Field Leader needed in order to snap him out of his present bad mood. Kellen had to cover the thin microphone near the corner of his lips to keep his laughter from bursting out over the open channel.
“Inez, you are going to have a real hard time hitting your targets if I snap that smart-assed hand off at the wrist.”
There was an instantaneous end to all horsing around when the boss made threats in
tone of voice. They both sobered up quickly as Inez gave him a contrite, “I read you, Leader.” She covered her mic as well and whispered, “I swear that man has X-ray vision.”
Kellen raised his brows and nodded in sympathy.
“Alpha Team, prepare.”
Kellen and Inez became instantly serious, each disconnecting their sidearms from their holsters, nimbly checking their ammunition status both by digital readouts and by examining their chambers and clips. They holstered with precise movements so closely synchronized, it looked like the sequence had been practiced a thousand times.
It had been practiced well beyond that.
Both took a single-knee stance, side by side, each reaching to smack the front of a fist against the other's, a ready signal of team connectivity. Then they simply crouched and waited.
Liam Nash watched them, feet braced hard apart and arms folded over his broad chest as he kept his face completely unreadable. He didn't want any of the other occupants of the observation booth getting the slightest impression of restlessness from him, so he kept very still, his breathing steady. It wasn't that he was anxious. He knew his teams. He knew each one was going to perform up to expectation and beyond.
What he didn't care for was going through this horse and pony show in the first place. The only thing this ridiculous display proved, he thought with disgust, was that his crew could hit targets while on the move. The local police training grounds were romper rooms compared to the facilities he trained his people in.
However, under no circumstances would he allow civilians into the NHK complex. He sure as hell wasn't about to let them see the specifics of how they trained. Fortunately, the reputable name Nash, Harper and Klein alone was usually proof enough of capability, and stunts like this weren't required. Unfortunately, Carter Spencer, the jackass intent on hiring them, had an enormous bug up his ass and had insisted on an exhibition.
Liam understood why Inez and Kellen were screwing around. He couldn't blame them, really. It was one thing for them to execute observed maneuvers to try to meet
knowledgeable standards, or even those of a guest from one of the specialized forces communities, but to perform like tots in a kindergarten play for the clueless approval of a certified asshole? It was degrading for soldiers of their renown and skill to be put through their paces for an ignorant civilian.
Spencer had been sent by one Devon Candler to evaluate and gather an opinion on their outfit. To be fair to Candler, Liam could respect sending out a forerunner to gather a report before wasting valuable time interviewing potential fly-by-night operations. Also, if Candler was in a situation where NHK's services were needed, it was probably safer all around to send out someone else.
On the other hand, Candler shouldn't have sent out a moron like Spencer who, in this instance, had decided to get into a dick-swinging contest with Nash. Liam's normal instincts would have included a lot less tolerance and a lot more anger toward such idiocy. However, Micah Harper, the business-minded partner of their triad, had made him promise not to do anything to purposely lose NHK's chance at this valuable client. Since Micah wasn't there to court their prospective client's representative with his usual charm and endless patience, Liam was forced to take on a diplomatic role while Carter Spencer lorded it over those he knew were twenty times the man he would ever be.
And that was just Inez, Victoria, and Marnie, Liam thought with a grin.
He kept his eyes on the field below, not needing to look to his right to see Spencer. The other man's smug face was reflected quite clearly in the observation booth glass. He was currently making low-voiced disparagements to his two flunkies, pathetically puffing himself up as superior even though he stood eight inches and at least 100 pounds shy of the man next to him, who could squash him like the little insect he was.
Liam took in a slow breath, cooling his temper as he forced himself to devote 100 percent of his focus to Alpha Team.
“Ready,” came the sharp reply over the cutting-edge headsets. Liam raised his stopwatch, not willing to depend on the field clock's accuracy. He nodded to the control chief.
“Alpha, execute,” he commanded sharply.
“Is this a team with a female?” Spencer asked, sliding his hands into the pockets of a suit that had to have cost an arm and a leg. Still might cost him an arm and a leg if he kept mouthing off, Liam thought with a feral internal smile. “I see no wisdom in using a sex proven to be physically inferior in strength, size, and speed, equal opportunity be damned. You shouldn't kowtow to the feminists or any other affirmative action group because you fear legal reprisal, Nash. Your reputation might suffer.”
Liam just stood quietly and watched Inez Flores and Kellen Gordon enter the field. Inez took point as usual, her movements like lightning even in heavy armor. Once the first round was fired, the rest, as they say, was history. They tore the hell out of the course in record time.
“Jesus,” the chief exclaimed, tapping his chronometer as if something had to be wrong with it. “They beat the SWAT record.”
Liam already knew that. He had made it his business to know what that record was. He didn't say anything; he just let a small curl touch his lips in one corner and said, “Beta, you're up. Alpha, stand down.”
Inez whipped off her helmet, the sunlight briefly gleaming off the laser-etched hologram of her little boy on the protective gear's forehead. She claimed he was her guardian angel and the sole reason why she'd never been seriously injured in the line of duty. Her partner watched her shake out a ream of ebony hair, grinning as he thought it more likely had to do with the fact that Inez was the fastest moving thing on two legs. Kellen took off his own helmet, tucking it under his arm as he started to unsnap the locks on his body armor.
“Tsk. You were low on the last two, champ,” he taunted her.
She flipped him off, making Kellen laugh, and then she reached to help him with the rear shoulder catches of his chest plate. He could do it himself, but it was easier to let his partner do it.
“Better too low than too high,” she said cheekily. “Which I will deny saying if you repeat it to Liam. You know Nash has no sense of humor when it comes to performance.”
“Nez . . . I've worked under the man for ten years. You think I don't know that by now? Turn.” Inez turned so he could hit her clasps. “And by the look of him, I'd say he could boil water in his bare hands at the moment.”
Inez followed Kellen's gaze up to the observation booth. “Yeah, well, we haven't had to show off our skills to a potential client in a long time. Liam's rightly insulted. What does a civilian know about what we're doing down here? I mean, he has no military background. Not so much as a merit badge from the Boy Scouts. What does that
think he's looking at?”
“He's looking at Nash to see if he can push his buttons. That either makes him really smart or really stupid.” Kellen and Inez shrugged out of their armor in tandem, the same way they did just about everything else.
“I'm going to vote really smart,” Inez speculated as they shouldered their torso armor and walked toward the three Hummers parked imposingly along the Academy drive. “From what little I've heard, Devon Candler doesn't strike me as the sort to hire idiots. Especially not for a personal secretary. I bet Spencer has direct orders to yank the boss's chain. Like you said, to see what riles him and how quick he is to lose his temper.”
“Nash would rather wear nothing but women's lingerie in Times Square than let anyone purposely make him lose it,” Kellen noted. “Spencer's in for a huge disappointment. C'mon. Let's ditch this stuff and see if we get back in time for Charlie team to go through. I have a bet with Victoria that we'd kick their asses time-wise.”
“Easy money,” Inez laughed, shaking back her midnight hair so she could kiss the picture on her helmet.
Liam finished dismissing Delta squad and stripped off his headset. He angled a cold, calculated look at Spencer, who was trying to find something disparaging to say. Liam was on to the game by now, so he waited patiently for the useless B. S. to come. He turned his back to the field and leaned against the console, crossing his combat-booted ankles.
“That's four squads, Spencer. The next four I bring out here will be more of the same,” he said evenly, “but I would prefer if I didn't have to shame the local SWAT with four more record-breaking times. They'd start begging me to train their men; there'd be embarrassing groveling, and I might even be in danger of having my ass kissed. I'd rather spare myself the inconvenience.”
The control chief snorted out a loud laugh and nodded his head as if that was exactly what would happen. Since the location had been arranged entirely by Spencer, Liam couldn't be accused of buying that reaction. It pleased and amused him.
“Well,” Spencer said, stopping to clear his throat loudly, his hands fishing in and out of his pockets twice. In Liam's opinion, nothing looked more pathetic than a man who didn't know where to put his hands. “Thank you for your time, Mr. Nash. I will discuss my observations with my employer. You will be notifiedâ”
“Not so fast,” Liam barked, making the secretary freeze, including his agitated hands. “I want to meet Devon Candler. No decision can possibly be made when there has never been a meeting between the principal parties. Your job was to see if we were legit, and now you know we are. This is clearly a matter of life and death here, so let's cut through the bullshit and get this done.”
“I think you should allow me to decide when and if it will be time for you to meet my employer,” Spencer said, almost as though he were lecturing a teenager in need of guidance. “Candler International has a certain way of doing things, Mr. Nash, and if you find that so difficult to adhere to just during the preliminaries . . .” He trailed off meaningfully.
“Then perhaps we aren't suited to each other,” Liam finished for him, matching his contemplative tone. “You know, you may actually have something there.” He stood up straight, making certain his imposing 6'5” frame towered over the other man. “Nash, Harper, and Klein stands on its reputation, yet I have accommodated you today with patience and alacrity. Your employer came to us because there was a need, and we're the best when it comes to satisfying that need. When you can respect what you've seen here today, and what everyone else in this line of work already knows, then we'll be able to talk business. Until then, I have other clients and a training schedule to maintain.”
Liam leaned toward the glass, knowing someone had an eyes-on at all times, and whipped his hand around in a fast signal for them to wrap it up.
“Mr. Nash, this process is hardly over,” Spencer scoffed.
“Um,” Liam made as if he were contemplating that, “actually, Spencer, it's as over as over gets.” Liam turned to the other men in the room. “Chief, Casey, Ryan, thanks for your assistance.”
Liam reached to shake hands with the three techs who had helped measure the field performances. He maintained good relationships with a lot of personnel in law enforcement all over the world, but in his hometown it was 100 percent first-name basis. It was crucial to cultivate associations so that the NHK compound didn't clash with the local cops. Besides that, a lot of the SWAT and ESU team members for metro, county, and state came to NHK for consultations on everything from high-tech weaponry to the newly patented body armor he and Veronica Klein had developed. It was now the only thing on the market able to withstand piercing ammunition
the vicious attacks of the Morphates. It was also three times lighter than the hard-shell armor his troops were currently wearing to train in.
“Here's how I see this, Spencer,” he said negligently. “Someone is gunning for your boss. I've got the equipment and the trained personnel you need to keep Candler alive. You don't hire me, your boss dies . . . and you,” Liam tsked hard, “are out of a job. But until you hire NHK, it's not my problem, so . . . good luck.”
Liam swung his gear bag up onto his shoulder, sliding on a pair of sunglasses, but not before he turned his back on Spencer and winked at the three cops running the control room. He walked out amidst their amused chortles.
He made it all the way to the line of Hummers in the drive before Spencer came huffing up in his wake.