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Beneath This Mask
Gael Peterson has spent years hiding behind the enhanced abilities he wears like a mask, even though he is an important, confident member of the FBI’s exclusive H.E.R.O. team. The hurt and betrayal of his mom’s abandonment and his father’s fists are secrets buried deep beneath the ugly scars on his face, and he doesn’t trust Jake, his new regular human partner, with any of them. In a world where those with special abilities like Gael’s are regarded as freaks and monsters, it won’t be easy for him to rely on Jake to have his back, especially when the abilities of a vulnerable, enhanced, nonspeaking child make that child a murder suspect.
Tempers rise and loyalties are challenged, and when the serial killer targeting the enhanced finally sets his sights on Gael, not only will Gael have to trust Jake with his secrets, he might have to trust him to save his life.
“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.
Victoria Sue fell in love with love stories as a child when she would hide away with her mom’s library books and dream of the dashing hero coming to rescue her from math homework. She never mastered math but managed to dream up quite a few heroes. Loves reading and writing about gorgeous boys loving each other the best—especially with a paranormal twist—but always with a happy ending. Is an English northern lass currently serving twenty to life in Florida—unfortunately, she spends more time chained to her computer than on a beach.
Loves to hear from her readers and can be found most days lurking on Facebook where she doesn’t need factor 1000 sun-cream to hide her freckles.
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