“WELL, WELL. Look what we have here.”
Gael didn’t so much as raise an eyebrow to acknowledge the mocking tone. He didn’t need to look. He knew who it was.
Shit. So much for him trying to face his fears.
“Are they even allowed in here?” a second voice said.
“Better let Bernie know. I mean, he’s gonna want to know he’s got an infestation problem in his bar,” the third voice crowed.
“Oh, I think we can take care of his rodent problem.”
Gael did look up then, straight into the murky green eyes of Sergeant Mac Carmichael, ENu team leader and general all-around douchebag. Gael yawned deliberately, as much to calm his racing heart as for effect. He took the last swallow of his beer, almost giddy with relief that he didn’t have to choke down a full glass. An empty glass was an excuse to leave, right? No one was chasing him out.
“Just let me know when you take care of your personality problem as well,” Gael drawled and stood to leave.
Carmichael’s hands fisted, but Gael had at least a very satisfying three inches on every one of the guys standing in front of him. He took a step toward Carter, and the man stepped backward. Gael dwarfed a lot of regular guys, and the five feet eleven inches of Mac’s teammate didn’t even merit a thought. In fact, if Gael had found the situation at all amusing, he would have laughed. But as it was, he was struggling to keep his beer still in his stomach and to make sure none of them knew that.
“Hey, Mac,” one of the two guys entering the bar called. Carmichael glanced at them and then back to Gael.
“We still need to have a little talk about your new partner. No one interferes with my team,” he added threateningly, then turned sharply to greet his friends.
Gael threw a twenty on the table and walked out. Slow. Unhurried. Like he had all the time in the world. Not like he wanted to run. His new partner? Carmichael could have Jake Riley back anytime he said the word.
Gael cleared the door at the same time as a mob of drunken twentysomethings fell out of the bar entrance opposite him, and Gael—heart about to pound out of his chest—ducked his head and slipped into an alley.
It was dark. No way they could see his face, his scar. Making all six feet four inches of him invisible was downright near impossible, but he would try.
They all stumbled past, and Gael had a second to wonder what the hell he had been thinking, coming out in the first place, when every hair on the back of his neck rose, and one hand went for his gun as he turned sharply.
Gael stared at the man—boy?—standing stupidly with his hands raised in a surrender gesture.
“Settle down there, hotshot,” the man said, grinning. He lowered his hands slowly without being asked, seeming completely unfazed by Gael’s hand on his Glock, by his scar, or by his mark. Gael relaxed his arms and gazed at the pint-sized guy. He wasn’t a child, Gael realized now that he could see him properly, but he had to be a good five years younger than Gael’s own twenty-eight. Gael’s eyes roamed over the spiky blue hair and laughing blue-gray eyes. He had more freckles on his nose than Vance’s niece had on her entire face. The fact that the guy barely had any clothes on made Gael wonder if he was going clubbing, though it wasn’t even eight o’clock.
The guy took a step closer, and Gael resisted backing up. He had to be, what, five feet four, if that? And there was definitely nowhere to hide a weapon in those tiny black shorts—so tight he would be lucky to be able to bend down—or the ripped neon green T-shirt that strategically displayed both nipple piercings.
Everything in Gael wanted to suddenly scream no until he saw the man was looking at him with concern, worry, and something else Gael wasn’t sure about. He took another breath, forcing air into his lungs. He hadn’t had a reaction like that in a long time, but then, it was the first time he had gone drinking in a public place on his own in what seemed ages. Make that never.
“Maybe we can get a drink?” the guy interrupted Gael’s thoughts with a purr, and a bright purple painted nail lightly scored Gael’s chest.
Gael finally processed the other look on the guy’s face, and his mouth fell open slightly. “Wait, what? You’re propositioning me?” The question came out on a squeak, and the guy smiled wide and then arched an eyebrow that definitely had been plucked and tweezed at some point. Gael was dumbstruck. The mark of the enhanced was usually enough to send regular humans running for the hills, but couple that with the ugly way the left side of his face puckered and twisted from the burn injury, and most people didn’t hang around for a second glance. And this guy… was smiling?
Gael narrowed his eyes. He must be high, drunk, and blind. Talon had been propositioned before, but not Gael. One evening when they’d both had way too much of the Dutch vodka Talon liked, he had told Gael how he used to regularly hook up. That some guys got off on the danger. Enhanced could and sometimes did lose control, and Gael supposed if that was what one was going for, a mind-blowing orgasm would help hurry things along. The funny thing was that Talon was the most tightly controlled individual Gael had ever met, and of all of them, the least likely to lose it.
“We could go somewhere quiet?”
Gael did take a step back then—not because he was frightened, but because he honestly had absolutely no idea how to respond. “You wanna be careful,” Gael cautioned, and the young man smiled.
“Why, you gonna go all Superman on me?”
Gael nearly groaned. The Superman teasing because of Finn was out of control. Gael had hoped in the five months since the unit had been “outed” in the papers, things would have died down, but the press were worse than ever.
“No,” Gael said dryly and lifted his T-shirt, clearly showing his gun this time. “Because solicitation is going to get you locked up.”
The guy tilted his head in consideration but still didn’t look intimidated. “You got a badge to go with that Glock, big guy?”
Gael’s eyes narrowed suspiciously, but just as he was about to ask the wannabe rent boy how he knew what Gael’s weapon was, his phone rang with the team’s alert notification. Sighing, he pulled his cell out of his pocket at the same time as the man took a step back, blew Gael a cheeky kiss, and pivoted to walk quickly around the corner. Gael’s phone rang again, vibrating angrily in his hand, and he glanced at the screen. It was Talon.
“WE’RE TRYING to keep it out of the press, but as of today, not only do we have a serial murderer on our hands, but so far the only common thread, apart from the photographs found with the bodies, is that every victim was enhanced.”
Great, Gael thought. Another psycho out to get them. He looked around the field office conference room. All of the team had been called in to listen to Agent Carl Simpson, from the Behavioral Analysis Unit, who had flown in to talk to them but was leaving in a couple of hours. Agent Gregory—their boss—was here, and a detective who was running the murder investigation. Alik Cortes.
“I can narrow your suspect pool,” Sawyer piped up. “Every fucker with an ENu badge, for starters.”
The room went quiet. Gael didn’t dare look at the guy sitting beside him—Jake Riley, his new partner and a recent recruit actually from the ENu—who had stiffened at Sawyer’s outburst. Not that Gael blamed Sawyer. Sawyer was the one sporting the black eye that day, courtesy of Gerry Atkinson, Carmichael’s right-hand man and the particular ENu fucker Sawyer meant.
The enhanced had joined the ranks of minority groups that some cops automatically stopped and frisked. Atkinson had known who Sawyer was but had taken great delight in insisting he was searched. Sawyer had objected, and there had been a “scuffle,” as Atkinson had reported it. Sawyer had actually been pinned down by two of them while Atkinson threw a punch. It was wrong, but Sawyer had been late and was subsequently speeding. Talon was furious with Sawyer for letting them wind him up, and then he had put in a complaint against the cops.
“Let me know when you have any actual evidence to back that up, and I’ll get right on it,” Agent Simpson drawled, and Sawyer shut up.
“So, we have a new victim?” Talon asked.
Gael’s eyes rose at the obvious attempt to smooth things over, and the businesslike manner in which Talon brought everyone’s focus back to the murders. He was right. Now was not the time for complaining at injustices. People were dead, and whether they had a scar on their face or not, they still deserved all the teams’ attention. He glanced at Finn’s wide-eyed stare and saw Talon’s hand surrepticiously slide under the table. Comfort. He was ashamed to realize he was jealous. Not that he was interested in Finn. Gael swiped a hand over his tired eyes and focused on the detective.
“Yes,” Detective Alik Cortes said, the regret clear in his tone. “Adero Huras, twenty-five. Only family is a younger brother. He worked for a huge lawn-care company his brother owns that has major community contracts all over the Bayshore area. Shared an apartment with his brother and his brother’s girlfriend, north of Florida Avenue. Cops have already been there, and the techs have processed the scene.”
“What was his ability?” Talon asked.
Detective Cortes grimaced. “I’ll repeat what I was told, but to be honest, I’m not completely sure I understand it. Apparently his one love in life was swimming. Like, every day.” Cortes looked uncomfortable, and Agent Simpson took up the story.
“When Adero was younger, he won a few swimming competitions. He was approached by a trainer, and there was even talk of possible Olympics. Then he transformed.”
And his dreams died, thought Gael. No one said it, but the room was heavy with the unspoken words.
“Anyway, the swimming continued after, but with quite a significant twist. His brother, Mateo Huras, told us that Adero had to go and swim every day or it made him sick—shortness of breath, weakness—and this had gone on since the day he got the mark. But it was what Mateo told us when pressed that was remarkable. Adero seems to have been able to hold his breath for a ridiculous amount of time in the water. He told us he timed him at nearly forty minutes.”
“Did he drown, then?” Sawyer asked, confused.
“He was found in bed. No obvious cause of death, no signs of struggle.”
“Secondary drowning, then,” Finn piped up.
“What’s that?” Gael asked before anyone else could.
“It’s a small amount of water getting into the lungs that causes swelling sometimes hours after the victim—usually a child—gets out of the water,” Finn replied immediately, and Gael saw the indulgent smile Talon sent him. “It causes swelling, which prevents oxygen from getting to the brain. It’s rare but often missed because you don’t expect someone to drown hours after they get out of the water.”
“Which the postmortem will tell us later today,” Detective Cortes added.
“And the link is?” Gregory asked. He had been silent up to now.
Agent Simpson opened a file and passed everyone a photo of a young man. Pale blue eyes, elfin, delicate features, and shockingly white hair. “We found another photograph. This—”
“Must be the Tampa Bay victim.”
Gael started as the deep voice seemed to rumble from Jake. He took a short breath in and risked a look at his partner. Jake’s jet-black hair was cut short, cropped almost military-style, and his steely-gray eyes were fixed on Simpson, waiting for a confirmation of his guess. At least the black eye he’d been sporting a couple of weeks ago had gone. He’d probably pissed someone else off. All the ENu were cocky bastards, and Gael had no reason to believe Jake wasn’t exactly the same.
“Possibly,” Agent Simpson agreed. “It would fit, except it’s a bit of a leap at the moment because we still have no identification. No reported missing persons, but we would like your team to take the photograph to Adero’s brother and see if he recognizes it.”
The Tampa Bay case had been ongoing for some weeks, stalled because they still hadn’t identified the victim. They’d asked—but were still waiting—for facial reconstruction. Gael knew Talon had provided Jake with all their case files when he started so he could try and catch up quickly. Their unit would never be asked to investigate a murder—none of them had either the skills or the experience to do so. But the victims all being enhanced made them “consultants,” for want of a better word, to the detectives investigating.
“He didn’t see it already?” Jake frowned and looked at the sheet of paper they had been given. “It says he called 911.”
“It was under Adero’s body,” Agent Simpson said solemnly. “We are waiting for the postmortem, but unless Adero was the actual perpetrator of the first two murders, which is obviously a consideration, the photograph is very suspicious. It looked staged.” Simpson looked at Talon. “Agent Valdez, what we need your team to do is investigate Adero’s ability and speak to friends and his brother. They are very distrustful because Adero was bullied as a child, and we hope you might have better luck.”
Because we share a scar with the victim, Gael thought, which was why they were all sitting here listening to the BAU guy. To be fair, Agent Simpson had been courteous and accommodating. He seemed genuinely interested in their team and had asked a ton of questions of him and Talon before the briefing. Simpson had seemed genuinely apologetic that his knowledge of the enhanced was limited, and with certain exceptions, they had brought him up to speed as quickly as possible.
“The details we have are brief,” Simpson went on. “His only ability that we are aware of is being able to hold his breath.”
“But that’s not necessarily an ability,” Finn said. “There was a regular human from Spain last year who held his breath for twenty-four minutes.”
“I don’t doubt it,” Agent Simpson replied, “but where this is unusual is that Adero could only hold his breath for that length of time while he was underwater. Out of the water, he could manage maybe thirty, forty seconds like the rest of us.”
“You mean, he could breathe under water?” Gael asked.
“No,” Detective Cortes said. “Adero’s family insists he always told them he held his breath.”
“Can we see the Tampa Bay crime scene?” Jake asked in a clipped voice.
It had been six weeks since their partnership had been announced, and so far Gael had managed to avoid Jake, but only because Gregory and Talon had been concentrating on bringing the team’s training up to spec. Gael had gone on a ten-day hostage rescue and negotiation course just after Jake had joined them, and after that, Jake had disappeared for a five-day weapons training update that Gael hadn’t cared enough about to ask for specifics; and then, as if he wasn’t interested in the team, Jake had taken “personal time” for two days, which suited Gael just fine. As far as he was concerned, Jake Riley could take personal time away from him for the rest of his life. He had no idea what Gregory had been thinking, partnering them. Maybe somehow Gael had done something to piss Gregory off.
“Of course,” Agent Simpson agreed immediately. “But the site has been released, as we have had pressure from the developers. Having said that, we are very much aware that we need your team’s help on this and don’t expect you to go in blind.”
“Press?” Gregory asked.
“Certainly not until we have the results of the PM. While damning, we don’t even have confirmation that Adero was a victim. The postmortem results won’t be in until tomorrow, but I’m in court in the morning to give evidence on another case. So while Cortes will be running the investigation, I wanted the chance to meet your team, and I’m grateful you all gave up your evenings on short notice. We’d also like to try to identify the photograph ourselves before giving it to the press.”
Talon stood and shook Simpson’s hand. Gregory left shortly after with him, and the rest of the team stood to leave.
“What’s the plan, Talon?” Vance asked, picking up the photograph of the young man.
“You and Sawyer have your medicals first thing tomorrow. Gael, you and Jake go look at both crime scenes and then see about interviewing witnesses.”
Gael sighed silently. Talon had been trying to get them to work together for the last two weeks, and while Gael understood he had to have a partner—hell, he had been the one to push Talon to give Finn a chance—he simply couldn’t work with Jake. He needed to talk to Talon.
“Finn and I are going to see if we can attend the postmortem tomorrow,” Talon continued. “Eli? How did the weekend go?”
Gael looked up as Eli chuckled—a rare occurrence. Eli was the smallest and quietest of the team. His abusive childhood had made him very distrustful of other people, but their last case had involved finding a young enhanced child in need of specialized care. Bo’s ability could be deadly. He burned anything he touched, and in a desperate attempt to save him, Eli had taken the chance that their abilities might be similar and found he could safely touch him. Eli had taken him to the hospital and stayed with him for nearly six weeks while a company had designed and fitted him with a special suit.
“Great. His spidey suit worked well.”
Gael smiled. The team had teased Bo because the suit fit him like a second skin and made him look like Spider-Man.
“He’s back in the hospital for more tests on his eyesight this week, and then they’re hoping he can go to the Landring’s permanently.”
“Okay,” Talon said. “Are you going back to Jacksonville, then?” Eli had been given permission to stay with Bo as much as he was needed until his new foster family could cope.
Eli nodded. “But I’ll be back on Monday. Molly Landring’s going to come with me on all the appointments this week. She’s been fitted with special gloves so she can help Bo get in and out of his suit, and to be honest, he’s real happy with her.”
Gael scrubbed a hand over his tired eyes and walked to the door.
“Gael?” Talon said. “I need five minutes before you go.”
Gael shrugged and sat back down as the rest of the team filed out. He was exhausted, but it would be good to talk to Talon before this went any further. He felt Jake’s eyes on him as he walked past but resisted the urge to look up. Finn shut the door behind him, and Gael focused on Talon.
“What’s up? I told you my latest tests were clear.”
Talon raised an eyebrow. “I don’t want to discuss your medical, Gael.” He sighed. “How are you and Jake getting on?”
Gael sagged in his seat. “I actually wanted to talk with you about that.”
“What do you know about him?” Talon countered, and suddenly Gael was irritated.
“I’d know a lot more if I could see his file.”
When Finn had started a few months ago, all the team had seen his file, but only Talon and Gregory knew what was in Jake’s.
“You know the decision was made to keep personnel files private to superiors only. Like the rest of the bureau,” Talon replied evenly.
Gael nodded. He knew, and he had agreed. But the team was built on trust, and he simply didn’t trust Jake.
“So I’m asking, in six weeks what have you found out?”
Gael looked uncomfortable.
“Gael, buddy. What’s his favorite color? Drink? Food?”
“I’m working with him, not living with him,” Gael snapped, feeling every throb behind his temples. “And don’t give me that. We don’t all get fringe benefits from having a partner, you know.” Talon’s smile vanished, and Gael knew he’d gone too far. He put his hand on Talon’s arm. “I’m sorry. That was a dick thing to say. I’m just tired.”
Talon regarded him steadily. “You’re not sleeping.”
Gael shrugged. He hadn’t told Talon about the latest episode in his fucked-up family saga yet.
Talon blew a deep breath out. “Gael, you have to let go of him being ex-ENu.”
Gael swallowed. “I know,” he said quietly.
They’d first met Jake a few weeks ago when he was in the Human Enhanced Unit, a special SWAT-type human police force that had the power to sedate and forcibly detain any enhanced considered a threat. All the team disliked them, but Gael had his own personal reasons for hating them even more.
“Jake is decent. He stuck up for us with his team when he didn’t have to, and Gregory likes him. We all fought against this, but you know the only way they are going to let this unit exist is if we all get regular human partners. We’ve wanted this for years, Gael. I don’t need to tell you all this.” Talon grinned. “They’ve got Vance’s partner picked out, but he’s on assignment, so he won’t be free for a while yet.”
Gael looked at the evil grin on Talon’s face. He knew something.
“You look like shit,” Talon said.
Gael didn’t respond to that. Talon knew the usual demons that kept him awake. He just hadn’t shared the latest one. “Talon, you know why partnering me and Jake together is a bad idea.” He squinted at his best friend. “Vance likes him. Why can’t he have him?”
“Because someone else is earmarked for Vance,” Talon repeated, like Gael was slow.
“But he’s not here, you said. I don’t see why Vance and Jake can’t team up now.”
“Gael, people are starting to notice. You’ve gone from the most reasonable guy on the team to the most closed off. You’re my voice of reason, buddy. Always. I’ve heard more from Eli in the last week than you.”
Gael swallowed. “You know why.”
“Do I?” Talon shot back. “I know something’s going on with you—something you’re not telling me. What was the course like?”
Gael tightened his jaw with the effort of holding back the sarcasm. It had been shit. “It was like high school,” he admitted.
Talon was silent a minute. “Let me guess: you were supposed to pair up?”
Unreasonable anger surged through Gael. It was pathetic. Like the last kid in the line who’s never picked for the team.
“I’m guessing they were surprised?”
Gael had been the first in their unit to get a course. No, that wasn’t strictly true, because Finn had taken them, but Finn didn’t have a scar. He was more a celebrity than something to be feared. “I had one douchebag who actually asked the instructor if I was safe with a gun.”
“Well, that’s completely understandable,” Talon deadpanned.
And then suddenly Gael was laughing. He was adequate with a weapon, but that was it. Finn was a ton more accurate than he was.
Gael sobered quickly. The explanation of why he had been in a funk was on the tip of his tongue, but talking about it made it real, and he wasn’t ready to go there yet.
“I know there’s something else,” Talon pressed, but Gael sighed and avoided Talon’s gaze. “Fair enough, but if things are difficult, that’s just the sort of time you need a partner.” Gael’s nostrils flared and he barely managed to keep his mouth closed.
Talon walked to the door, signaling their talk was over. “I’m going to let you sort this on your own for now, but team evaluations are approaching, and we need this settled before I get the head-shrinkers in here.” He paused. “If you really don’t think this is gonna work, there might be someone else.” Gael looked up hopefully, and Talon stilled with his hand on the door handle. “Let me see what I can sort out, but I want you to go with him to Port Tampa tomorrow.”
Gael forced a smile, but he knew Talon wasn’t buying it either.