“What was the ‘small gift’?” Investigator Ben Morgan asked his boss as he and his partner read through the case file. He sometimes missed the simplicity of his life before joining Special Investigations. Back then, he could assume anyone who talked to voices in their head needed a psych eval. Once the world found out superpowers were real, it changed everything in law enforcement. If an individual could transform into an animal or bend metal with their bare hands, then anything could be possible.
“A blue silk evening dress, hand-sewn and fitted to the target.” Director Henry Delacroix closed the door. As he returned to his desk, he rolled up the sleeves of white dress shirt to reveal forearms covered in wiry black hair. “The unsub left it backstage in Miss Ballard’s dressing room at their concert in Tucson, along with the handwritten note.”
“How very brash.” Investigator Ray Corwin shook his head in mock dismay. “He’s in complete violation of stalker etiquette. A gift like that should be saved for after the second restraining order.”
Ben hid a smile, keeping his gaze focused on the old-fashioned rows of file cabinets lining the walls of Delacroix’s office. His partner might be new to Special Investigations, but he did not lack confidence to share his opinions. There were lots of rumors about the man ruffling high-ranking feathers back in the FBI. Something we have in common. He had learned to respect Ray’s keen insight.
Delacroix’s mouth twitched, the tiny smile appearing and disappearing almost too quickly to register.
Ben checked the file again, reading the first two letters. Both were short, only a few sentences. They seemed like ordinary fan mail. “How were these two sent?”
“Social media accounts. Each set up right before the messages were sent and shut down immediately after the reply. No way to trace them.” Delacroix tapped the folder resting on his battered metal desk. “The FBI thinks it might be the Director.”
Shit. He remembered the serial killer’s name from his own days at the Bureau. Eight women stalked and killed in the last ten years. Ben hated using lurid names, preferring the generic term unsub, an abbreviation for unknown subject. This unsub sent his target letters and gifts before kidnapping and killing them. He then posed their bodies in elaborate settings and costumes. Even Ray stilled at the dropped name. The Director held the honor of being one of the most terrifying serial killers currently operating in the United States.
“There’s a concern the unsub may be an occulata hominum.” Delacroix rattled off the Latin term smoothly. He came down hard on any Investigator who used the slang insult loocy to describe those with supernatural powers. “We’ve been asked to consult and determine how the unsub has been able to evade capture despite some very slick operations. This is our chance to show why Special Investigations should be allowed to continue our work.”
At its creation three years ago, the Bureau of Special Investigations had attracted a large number of bigots and bullies. They used the badge to boost their own egos and stoke their own hatred. The agency was still trying to purge the bad apples from their ranks while also struggling to cope with every hint of paranormal activity and every weirdo with delusions of comic-book grandeur.
Ben had joined Special Investigations immediately after the Jackson Square incident, determined to make certain these newly revealed powers didn’t allow their users to escape the law. He’d heard rumors that Delacroix had been one of the FBI’s Little Green Men and Tinfoil Hat file chasers. People dismissed Delacroix as a conspiracy nut, but they were absolutely wrong. His boss treated every investigation with meticulous care and an unwavering focus on the evidence. Ben followed the same track. “What about the target?”
Delacroix handed them a glossy magazine to add to the file. “Katherine Ballard.”
A pretty, scantily-clad blonde stared regally from the cover. Ben didn’t recognize her, despite the name AGGI helpfully spelled out in big letters along with a promise to share her trade secrets for staying fit and keeping grounded.
If this is the same unsub, a one name pop star isn’t his typical target. A picture inside the magazine caught his attention. The same blond woman from the cover, laughing with her arms around a young woman with dark red hair caught up in a practical ponytail that did nothing to hide her heart-shaped face or big eyes. She caught Ben’s eye more than the practiced glamor of the blonde. The redhead wasn’t looking at the camera, but her brilliant smile shone through the lens. Ben frowned. “The caption says they’re sisters.”
“Technically, they’re stepsisters,” Ray said. “Aggi’s mother married Katie’s father when they were both young. They call each other sisters. Referring to them as stepsisters really pisses them off.”
Delacroix and Ben both stared at him in surprise.
Ray clucked his tongue to express disbelief. “Aggi has been the hottest musical act in town for the last five years. How have the two of you missed her?”
“Katherine is Aggi’s manager and business partner,” Delacroix explained.
“And she writes songs for a lot of top-forty artists, including Aggi.” Ray turned his focus back to the magazine photo. “It’s hard not to sympathize with the Director. Aggi is wearing her own brand of workout gear, while Katie chooses an oversized T-shirt and leggings? The girl practically cries out for a proper stylist.”
His partner’s comment hit Ben like a spark hitting an unexpected pocket of gasoline fumes, threatening an unprofessional eruption. Luckily his boss wasn’t about to let the commentary stand.
Delacroix glared at his latest recruit. “Keep your opinions on her personal choices to yourself.”
Ben sucked in a deep breath. It wasn’t like him to be so unsettled this early in a case. He’d been up late finishing a report for Denver PD about an arsonist with suspected paranormal abilities. Maybe I need more sleep.
“The FBI suspects the unsub could be an occulata,” Delacroix continued. “He’s not a criminal mastermind. He leaves trace evidence and DNA. But no one has been able to get close to him.”
“Any clues on what powers this guy might have?” Ben realized he was running a fascinated finger along the edge of the next picture featuring the unsub’s target. Even in a simple T-shirt and leggings, she carried herself with an air of competence and confidence. A woman who probably bulldozed through most obstacles. She’d ignored the first two messages, but alerted the authorities immediately when the sender crossed a boundary. She wasn’t easily frightened or intimidated. Making her even more vulnerable to someone like this unsub. The realization hit him like a stab to the gut. They had less than a week to find and stop the unsub before the body count went up another notch.
“No idea on powers. Which is why I’m putting the two of you on the case.” Delacroix’s dark eyes fixed on him. “Ben, you know the most about the different types of powers. Ray, you have a talent for getting information no one else can. Together, two of you are the best I have at getting to the right conclusions on the slimmest data, aside from Investigator Adler.”
“And she won’t leave with a class in progress,” Ben finished.
“Her loss is our celebrity gain. When do we leave?” Ray asked brightly.
“Your plane leaves in two hours. Good luck, gentlemen.”
Ben stood up at Delcroix’s dismissal. The familiar surge of anticipation loosened his muscles and sharpened his mind. This assignment held more of a challenge than going around to local precincts to deliver be-tolerant-but-careful lectures about what could be lurking on their streets. The prospect of a real hunt against an adversary who’d already made a fool of top-level law enforcement promised a satisfying challenge.
They left Delacroix’s office and jogged down two flights of stairs. Ray hesitated at the bottom landing. “I suppose there’s hardly time to stop at home and pick up my albums for Aggi to sign.”
“Just tell me your go-bag is ready this time.” Ben walked rapidly through the utilitarian lobby and shoved open the glass doors, eager to begin the case. They’d need at least an hour to reach the airport, and while federal officers might get to speed through security, no one would be holding the plane for them.
“One trip being forced to wear off-the-rack was deterrent enough.” Ray gave an elaborate shudder as they crossed the parking lot. “My luggage is waiting in the car.”
Ben couldn’t decide if his partner actually had money, or only liked to pretend he did. Distinguishing between the high-end designers and Walmart wasn’t one of his skills. His own go-bag held two changes of clothing, an extra sweater, decent hiking boots and his assigned weapons. Everything fit in a moderately sized gym bag with room to spare.
“Come on, partner, aren’t you the least bit excited?” Ray’s smile held more than a hint of mischief as he lifted two large suitcases out of the trunk of his sleek black luxury car. “We’re going behind the scenes into the glamorous world of rock and roll. Or at least pop and party. It could be a chance to break out of your enforced hermitage and meet some pretty young thing. I’ve heard the dancers with Aggi’s tour are impressively athletic.”
“Have you even heard of the term sexual harassment?” Ben gritted his teeth as his partner transferred the bags to the trunk of Ben’s battered sedan.
“Have I ever been less than professional in person?” Ray slid into the passenger seat, completely unruffled by his partner’s irritation.
Ben pulled the car into traffic. “Don’t I count as a person?”
“In the eyes of the law.” Ray grinned. “Trust me, I have a lot of experience in navigating boundaries. I would never push.”
He’s right. While his partner’s behavior sounded outrageous, he did seem to have a knack for setting people at ease. Peter could do that, too. His mind shied away from the memory.
“I’m a shameless flirt. It’s how I navigate the world and this job. I’m playing to my strengths,” Ray continued. “For you, the whole prematurely grumpy, crusty cynic thing works even if you aren’t much over thirty. The day-old stubble and shadows under your eyes are a method actor’s dream.”
Ben’s hands tightened around the leather-clad steering wheel. “This conversation has officially reached the uncomfortable and awkward silence stage.”
“It wouldn’t destroy your reputation to loosen up the teensiest bit. But I’m not about to judge.” Ray waved his hand in cheerful dismissal. “Your grumpiness won’t affect my ability to enjoy all of the beautiful men and women that are sure to be hanging around Aggi.”
“We’re there for the sister. Katherine.” Even as he spoke, Ben regretted snapping at his partner. Something about this case had triggered an aggressive protective instinct. He ignored the vivid image of the target’s face lingering in the back of his mind.
“Actually, we’re there as consultants,” Ray corrected. “To be wise and experienced teachers to the ignorant, not action heroes. Which is a shame, because I would look stunning walking away from an explosion in slow motion.”
Ben cracked a grin. “Are you ever serious?”
“I don’t expect you to break character on my account. You go on perfecting your bad cop, and I’ll enjoy performing all the other emotional roles.” Ray closed his eyes, effectively ending the conversation.
A small smile still clung stubbornly to Ben’s lips despite his best efforts to remain stern.
When he’d first met Ray Morgan, Ben had accepted the flippant surface for the truth. During their first assignment, he’d expected Ray to storm off in a huff when protesters identified them as Special Investigations, and began pelting them with garbage and insults. Ben had been prepared to restrain his partner, but to his surprise, Ray had simply wiped away the smelly remnants, apologized to the protesters on behalf of the agency, and left the scene. When Ben caught up to him, Ray explained his reasoning.
“They’re absolutely right. Special Investigations has done some horrible things. We’ve taken people out of their homes. We held them in that terrible camp up North without any chance of release. And we did it all because we were scared of people who were different.”
Ben hesitated. “Given how you feel, I’m surprised you joined the agency.”
“There’s still an important job to be done. The public needs a sense of safety, or else you’re likely to have riots and lynch mobs. If good people refuse to join Special Investigations because of its past, then it’s going to be filled with the wrong type of people to do the job.”
All in all, flamboyance and irreverence were a small price to pay for the reassurance of knowing he could trust his partner to make the right choice in a tough situation.
Ben grudgingly apologized. “I’ll do my best not to be a buzz-kill.”
“I’ll keep my stash of gold stars handy,” Ray replied, his eyes still closed, and his voice dry with sardonic amusement. “You’re not going to ruin my cheer today, no matter how much doom and gloom you insist on packing. We’re going to catch a serial killer who has eluded justice for a decade, hang out with music royalty, and enjoy some West Coast sun. You’ll see, it will all work out splendidly.”
Ben wished it could be so easy. Good guys win, bad guys lose, everyone goes home happy. But he’d already learned the hard-taught lesson of reality, nothing was guaranteed. Sometimes bad guys won, and good guys didn’t get to go home at all.
Your one stop spot for delicious food and books you’ll devour!