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Secrets are every where

Generation 18

Generation 18, October 2014
The Spook Squad #2
by Keri Arthur

Dell
Featuring: Sam Ryan; Gabriel Stern
232 pages
ISBN: 0440246598
EAN: 9780440246596
Kindle: B00JI58T9C
Trade Size / e-Book (reprint)
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"Keri Arthur is a master of the urban fantasy novel!"

Fresh Fiction Review

Generation 18
Keri Arthur

Reviewed by Debbie Wiley
Posted September 24, 2014

Fantasy Urban | Thriller Psychological | Mystery Paranormal

Samantha Ryan expected her days as an agent with the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) to be a bit more exciting than her previous years as a state police officer. Unfortunately, Gabriel Stern is proving to be a very reluctant partner, saddling Sam with the most tedious and boring tasks. All of this is about to change, however, when two seemingly unrelated cases appear connected and they lead Gabriel and Sam straight into the military secrets of Hopeworth... and Sam's mysterious past. Will Sam and Gabriel learn to work together in time to save lives, perhaps even their own lives?

GENERATION 18 is the second book in The Spook Squad series and picks up shortly after the first book ends. There are some ongoing story threads that are further developed in GENERATION 18, making it a book best appreciated in the context of the series as a whole. Besides, why on earth would you want to miss out on reading a single Keri Arthur book?

GENERATION 18 lets us delve more into Sam's budding powers as well as her own personal history. I love watching Sam become more comfortable in her own identity as she's had a lot of harsh surprises. Meanwhile, Hopeworth Military Base has held onto quite a few secrets over the years and now the ramifications of their projects are creating problems for the SIU. The plethora of supernatural creatures and powers is enough to make any lover of urban fantasy happy.

Keri Arthur never ceases to amaze me at her world building. I read and loved The Spook Squad series in its first incarnation and am still amazed rereading it today just how beautifully complex her worlds are. Keri Arthur draws the reader into her stories immediately as we want to know the answers right along with Sam and Gabriel. We see glimpses of the various factions, including the SIU, state police, Federation, and Sethanon, as Keri Arthur throws us tantalizing teasers to keep us rapidly flipping the pages... only to leave us wanting even more as GENERATION 18 concludes. Keri Arthur is a master of the urban fantasy novel and I can't recommend this series highly enough!

Learn more about Generation 18

SUMMARY

A serial killer strikes every twelve hours. A vampire takes lives at random. At first glance, these tragic incidents seem unrelated. But Special Investigations Unit agents Sam Ryan and Gabriel Stern trace them both back to a military base known as Hopeworth. Is the murder spree part of a cover-up? And are the vampire killings less by chance and more methodical?

The investigation takes an eerie, personal turn when Sam discovers a connection between herself and the victims—and a clue to her own mysterious origins. With the violence escalating and the danger drawing closer to home, the stakes are raised and the mission changes from seeking justice to ensuring Sam and Gabriel’s own survival. And the one person who seems to hold all the answers—about Hopeworth, about Sam’s past—is a mystery man she isn’t sure she can trust. They share a psychic link through her dreams, and he once saved her life, but he may just be the greatest enemy humankind has ever known.

Excerpt

Being a spook wasn’t what Samantha Ryan had expected. Long nights, sleepless days, yes. She’d faced that, and worse, during her ten years as a State Police Officer. In that time, the agents of the Special Investigations Unit had breezed in and out of situations, always on edge, always on the move. Always looking like they loved what they were doing. So the sheer and utter boredom that filled ninety percent of a spook’s job had come as something of a shock.

She sighed and shifted slightly, trying to find a comfortable position on the icy metal step. Watch the back door, Gabriel had said. Make sure the vamps don’t hit the blood bank from the alley. This, despite the fact that in the five previous robberies, the vampires had always gone in through the front door.

Why the hell would they change a successful routine now?

They wouldn’t. He knew that. She knew that.

She rubbed her eyes wearily. She could hardly argue, though, as he was her senior and in charge of the investigation. And with intel stating that this blood bank would be the next one hit, she couldn’t argue with orders that were little more than covering all the bases.

What the intel wasn’t saying was whether it was actually vampires doing these robberies. Hell, with recent estimates saying that at least thirty percent of newly- turned vampires were unable to control their blood desire, human blood had become a hot commodity on the streets. Combine that with the recent spate of deaths through infected blood products in all the major hospitals—leading to the situation where private blood banks were inundated with people wanting to stockpile their own blood—and you had the perfect opportunity for those wanting to make a quick buck on the streets.

So here she sat, in the cold night, on a cold step, waiting for robbers who weren’t likely to come by the back entrance, while her goddamn partner watched the front door from the warmth of the car.

Bitter? Her? Oh yeah.

He was certainly making good on his statement that he would never work with a partner. Whenever possible, he left her in her box of an office doing paperwork, or he sent her on inane errands. This was her first "real" duty in the three months since her transfer, and she suspected she was here only because Byrne had given him a direct order to take her.

The wind picked up, running chill fingers through her hair. She shivered and flicked up the collar on her coat. Overhead, the starlit sky was beginning to cloud over. The rain they’d been predicting for days was finally on the way. She could smell the moisture in the breeze. Could feel the tingle of electricity running through the night air, charging her body with an odd sense of power.

Why she could feel these things was another point of concern, though it was one she kept to herself. There were only two people she trusted enough to sit down and talk to, anyway. Finley was still on leave, recovering from the injuries he’d received in the bomb blast three months ago, and her goddamn partner was harder to nail down than a snowflake in a storm.

And it wasn’t just on a professional level that he was keeping his distance, but a personal one, as well. Given how well they’d gotten on during their investigations of her former partner’s disappearance, she’d thought that they could at least be friends. Obviously, she’d been very wrong.

God, how bad was it when he wouldn’t even go for a cup of coffee with her?

"Sam, you there?"

His warm voice whispered into her ear, so close she could almost feel the caress of his breath across her cheek. Except that he was tucked nice and warm in the car half a block away.

She was tempted, very tempted, to ignore him. But she’d spent ten long years as a cop doing the right thing, following all the rules—like keeping in constant contact when on watch duty. Even when her partner was being a bastard and deserved to suffer, it was a habit hard to break.

"What?" Her tone left no doubt of her mood. He’d left her sitting here so long her butt was almost frozen to the step. If he expected civility, he needed a brain transplant.

"Just checking you’re still awake."

Yeah, right. Like she was the one sitting in the nice warm car. "The cold’s doing a fine job of that, thank you very much."

He paused. "Do you want to swap for a while?"

She raised her eyebrows. Just for an instant, the compassion in his voice reminded her of the man she’d known before she’d become his partner. "You got coffee on board?"

"Freshly brewed."

And he hadn’t offered her any until now. It was lucky he’d only equipped the two of them with stun rifles, because she was tempted, very tempted, to march right over there and shoot him. "Sure you can spare a cup?" she said tightly. "I mean, you older types need some sort of stimulant to keep you awake at this hour of the night, don’t you?"

"Do I take that as a yes or a no?" His warm tones held an undertone of annoyance.

But she was way past caring at this particular moment. "That depends."

"On what?"

"On whether you intend to freeze me out, figuratively or literally."

He made no immediate reply. She waited, wondering what he’d do now that she’d finally called him out. Down the Main Street end of the alley, she heard a soft thump, as if someone had jumped off a rooftop. A dog yelped somewhere to the left of that thump, a short sharp sound that spoke of fear. She frowned and stared into the darkness. The electricity filling the night stirred, running over her skin, standing the small hairs at the back of her neck on end. Heat followed quickly. Then her senses exploded outwards, and she was tasting the secrets of the night.

A kite creature walked towards her.

"Sam—"

She jumped and quickly pressed the earphone, cutting him off. He’d once told her the kites hunted by sound and movement. She wasn’t about to chance the creature hearing his voice, no matter how unlikely that might be.

The kite came into view. It almost looked like a large white sheet, except that it had feet and talon-like hands. The creature hesitated as it neared the steps, sniffing the night like a dog. It turned milky white eyes in her direction. She controlled the urge to reach for the stun rifle and remained still.

After a moment, it lumbered past, moving to the other end of the alley. Avoiding the yellow wash of the street light, it slunk round the corner and disappeared. She rose and picked up her rifle before switching the earpiece back on.

"A kite just made an appearance in the alley. I’m about to follow."

"Negative. You’re not equipped—"

She snorted softly. "Neither are you, partner. You continue to keep watch on the blood bank, and I’ll see what the creature is up to."

"Stun guns won’t—"

"Gabriel, remember imperative one?" The SIU had only become aware of the Kites two months ago, but since then, the creatures had reached the top of the SIU’s extermination list. With an edge in her voice that imitated his own, she continued, "Find and stop all kites, regardless of the cost."

"That doesn’t mean you have to do a suicide run after them when you’re not properly equipped to deal with them."

"Please credit me with a little bit of brain power. I’m merely going to see what the thing is up to. Besides, they just may be using the creature to pull us away from the blood bank."

"I don’t particularly care about the damn blood bank."

Meaning he cared more about her? Given his recent behavior, she found it a little hard to believe. She stopped at the end of the alley and carefully peered around the corner. The kite lumbered across the road.

"But Byrne does. If the vamps follow the pattern, this one will be hit sometime tonight."

The kite disappeared round the corner of the opposite street. She ran across the road and then edged forward, keeping to the shadows of the three-story apartment building.

"I’m calling for backup," he said, voice terse.

"Fine." It only made sense to do so. "I’ll keep in contact."

"You’d better," he growled.

She grinned. She might well pay for it later, but damn, it felt good to annoy him.

She reached the corner. The kite was nowhere to be seen. Wondering how the creature could have moved so fast, she frowned and glanced up—and found it. The loose skin around its arms flapped lightly as it climbed crab-like up the wall.

The wind tugged at her hair, throwing it across her eyes. She brushed it back and listened to the sounds beneath the soft cry of the wind. Two men were talking, their voices harsh and grating. A radio near the top of the building played classics. Between the two, the squeak of a bed and a whispered good night. Sounds she wouldn’t normally have heard except for the odd sense of power flowing through the night and into her soul.

The creature seemed to be headed for the apartment in which the radio played. She watched it as long as she dared. When it stopped and pressed a taloned hand against a window, she turned and ran for the apartment building’s front door.

"Gabriel, the kite’s about to break into a top floor apartment on the corner of Gibb and Macelan Streets."

"Help’s on the way. Stay where you are."

The words had barely whispered into her ear when she heard the sound of glass shattering. A heartbeat later the screaming began. Sickening visions swam through her mind— bloodied images of the street bum she’d found three months ago, his body a mass of raw and weeping muscle stripped of skin.

She swallowed heavily and pounded up the stairs. "Negative. It’s attacking. I’m in pursuit."

"Damn it, you’re not equipped to deal—"

"Just get backup here quickly." She pressed the earphone, cutting him off again. She didn’t need to hear what she could and couldn’t do. Not when a man’s life was at stake.

Two flights…three. She leapt over the banister and up the remaining stairs. People milled in their doorways, their eyes wide and fearful. Not one of them appeared willing to investigate what was happening to their neighbor. City living, she thought, sucked. But then, would neighbors in suburban areas be any more willing to risk investigating screams as fierce as the ones currently shattering the silence? She suspected not.

She slithered to a stop outside the apartment door and glanced back at the pajama-clad crowd. "SIU, folks. Go back inside and lock your doors."

The crowd melted away. With her laser held at the ready, she stepped back and kicked the door. Wood shuddered, splintering. She booted it a second time. The door flung open, crashing back on its hinges.

The kite was in the middle of the living room, its sheetlike form covering all but the stranger’s slippers. His screams suddenly choked off, and all she heard was an odd sucking sort of noise. Blood seeped past the flaccid, winglike sections of the creature’s arms, forming pools that seemed to glisten black in the darkness.

She raised the stun laser and fired at the creature. The blue-white light bit through the darkness, flaring against the kite’s leather-like skin. If it had any effect, she certainly couldn’t see it.

She switched her aim to the creature’s odd shaped head and fired again. The kite snarled and looked up. It had no mouth, she saw suddenly. Or rather, its whole body was a mouth. It was sucking the stranger’s flesh and blood in through pores on its skin.

She shuddered and fired again, this time at its eyes. The creature snarled a second time, the sound high pitched, almost bat-like. It shook its head and jerked upright. Bloodied strips of half consumed flesh slid down its body and puddled at its feet. Her stomach churned, but she held her ground and kept on firing the stun gun at the creature’s eyes. It obviously wasn’t stunning it, but it was doing something, because the kite’s movements were becoming increasingly agitated.

It screamed again, then turned and stumbled for the window. She edged into the apartment. The kite smacked into the wall, then flung out an arm, feeling for the window frame. It was almost as if it had lost all sonar capabilities. Maybe there was something in the blue-white beam that addled its keen senses.

It grasped the window frame, felt for the other side to position itself, and then dived through the shattered glass. She ran over to the window and leaned out. The kite was floating back to the street, its arms out wide, loose skin stretched taut to catch the light breeze. She pressed the earphone again.

"Gabriel, the kite is now in Macelan Street, heading west."

"Do not go after it. I repeat, do not go after it. Stay in the apartment."

Her smile was grim. If the tone of his voice was anything to go by, he was madder than hell. He had a right to be, she supposed, but what else could she have done? Let the kite devour the stranger?

Not that her intervention had saved him. She turned away from the window and dug out her viaphone, the latest in gadgets from the SIU labs. It was similar to the wristcom the State Police used, only it had a cell phone and camera attached as well. And all in one palm-sized package. She hit the record button and panned the camera from the doorway she’d kicked open to the window and then down to the body.

"The kite smashed through the living room window and attacked victim at 3.15 a.m. SIU Officer Ryan intervened and drove kite back through window." She hesitated, walking across to squat beside the body. "Victim is male, probably mid-sixties."

She panned the camera down the length of his body and captured the bloody detail of the murder. What remained of his flesh hung in strips, almost indistinguishable from the remnants of his red and white striped pajamas. His eyes were wide, mouth locked into a scream—a look of astonished horror that was now permanently etched into his features.

Why this man? Why not the two men talking in the flat below? Or the woman who’d only just joined her partner in bed? She glanced up and studied the room.

The kite had come straight to this apartment—had obviously wanted this man, and no other. What they had to find out now was why.

She rose and walked across to the shelving unit. After sitting the camera on the shelf, she dug a set of gloves out of her pocket and put them on. Then she turned off the radio, picked up the camera and panned it across the photos lining the shelf.

Each photo contained the same four men, either fishing, drinking, or standing around a barbecue. All of them looked to be at least fifty or sixty. She glanced at the body. The only hair the victim had was scraggly wisps of white near either ear. He wasn’t in any of these photos, then. Maybe he’d been taking them.

She picked up one framed photograph and then turned at the sound of footsteps. Gabriel entered, his gaze sweeping the room until he found her.

"I could put you on report for your behavior here tonight," he said, stopping just inside the doorway.

Though his face was impassive, his hazel eyes were stormy with anger and, surprisingly, a touch of fear. She fingered the viaphone’s off button, then shrugged and left it on record. Procedures stated any and all activity at a crime scene had to be recorded. If that had to include her being told off, then so be it.

"Do it. Maybe then you’ll get your wish and be rid of me." She hesitated. What was the point of arguing about it here? There were far more important matters to be worried about—like why the kite attacked this man. "Do you know who our victim is?"

For an instant, it looked as if he might say something more. Then he shoved his hands in his pockets and walked across to the body. "Male, in his mid-sixties, obviously." He glanced around the apartment. "And fairly well off. Those paintings are by Kyle Parker."

She glanced across to the stylized landscapes. To her admittedly untrained eye, a three-year-old could have done a better job. And yet Parker’s paintings sold for millions.

"If he could afford those, you’d have thought he’d have installed better security."

"Security doesn’t usually stop the kites."

"No, only decapitation or the sun can do that." She frowned down at the body. According to the SIU labs, the kites were some sort of offshoot from the vampire family tree. The SIU researchers were desperate to get their hands on a live specimen to do some tests, but as yet, no one had figured out a way to capture one and stay alive. "This wasn’t a random attack. The kite came straight to this apartment."

"Maybe the victim was the only one moving around."

She shook her head. "There was movement in several apartments. The creature ignored them all and came straight here."

He frowned. "There’s been no evidence that the kites can be programmed to kill certain individuals."

"But there’s been no evidence that they can’t, either."

"True." He studied her for a moment, hazel eyes intense. "How did you drive the creature away? Stun rifles don’t work on kites."

"No, but they definitely don’t like it when you fire at their head. It seemed to lose its sense of place."

He raised his eyebrows in surprise, but any comment he was about to make was cut off as a viaphone beeped. His, not hers.

He reached into his pocket and dragged it out. "Stern," he said, a hint of impatience in his voice.

Given the tightening of his already annoyed expression, the news obviously wasn’t good.

"What?" she said, the minute he’d hung up.

"Looks like our serial killer has struck again. Byrne wants me to investigate."

Me, not we, she noted, and wondered if, in fact, Stephan had said that, or if Gabriel was locking her out again. "Where this time?"

"Elwood."

She raised her eyebrows. If it was the same killer, then he was certainly showing no preference for a particular area. So far, he’d killed in Toorak, Broadmeadows, and now Elwood. And it was more than just miles that separated the three suburbs—each one held a different step on the social ladder.

"What about the blood bank watch?"

"Briggs and Francis have taken over."

Lucky them. Though she’d seen the two working together before, and she had no doubt that Briggs would be considerate enough to offer her partner a hot coffee long before his butt froze to the step. "So let’s go investigate."

His gaze narrowed, as if he’d sensed the hint of sarcasm underlying her words. "You disobeyed orders and came after the kite. Now you’re stuck with the case, I’m afraid."

And if the kite hadn’t attacked, he would have found some other reason to keep her away from the murder investigation. Had it been anyone else, she would have sworn it stemmed from distrust—both of her and her ability to cope with the job. With Gabriel, it was something deeper. And if it was distrust, then it was more distrust of himself.

Not that that thought made any sense at all.

"Well, at least its better than filling in endless rounds of paperwork."

His brief smile held a grim edge. "You’ve been with the SIU for just on three months. You’ve yet to go through full training. Do not expect to be treated as anything more than a trainee."

She snorted softly. "Don’t worry. Any expectations I might have had have long since died."

Anger flared briefly in his eyes. Then he glanced at the cell unit in her hand, and his face became impassive once more. "Keep in contact. I’ll see you back at the office."

He turned and walked away, his movements sharp and somehow aggravated.

She stared at the door for several minutes after he’d disappeared, and then she turned and walked across to the bedroom to see what she could find.

***

Gabriel showed his ID to the black-clad police officer keeping watch and then ducked under the yellow crime scene tapes. The rotating red and blue lights of the nearby police vehicles washed across the night, splashing the otherwise somber, glass-walled building with color.

Like so many other buildings built in the area recently, this one had no real character. Its only purpose in life was to provide a decent view for those wealthy enough to afford an apartment so close to the city and the beach. He glanced up—ten floors in all. Surely, this time, they’d find a witness.

His brother walked down the steps as Gabriel approached. Stephan was a multishifter capable of taking the form of any human male he touched, but the shape he mostly wore these days was that of Jonathon Byrne, the head of the SIU. Gabriel raised his eyebrows in surprise. It was unusual for the head of SIU to become involved in routine investigations such as this. Something had to be up.

Byrne stopped in front of him, blue eyes narrowed. "Where’s Ryan?"

Gabriel shrugged, even though he knew his nonchalance would only irritate his brother more. Right now, he didn’t really care. "Handling the kite murder."

Stephan shot an aggravated look at the two police officers standing nearby. Gabriel smiled grimly. Their presence restrained Stephan from saying too much. It was a well- known fact that Byrne had very little to do with his six assistant directors. Being too familiar now might just blow Stephan’s new identity out of the water.

"Damn it, Stern, you’re supposed to be partners."

"I don’t want or need a partner." And his brother, more than anyone, should have understood why.

"Andrea was a long time ago," Stephan said softly, an edge of compassion in his voice.

"Mike wasn’t." He tried to control the almost instinctive rush of anger, but the desire to hit someone, anyone, was so fierce his fists clenched. "Death comes in threes, Byrne. I’m due one more."

And come hell or high water, that death was not going to be Sam.

Stephan studied him for a long moment, then shook his head and headed back to the apartment building. Gabriel fell into step beside him. The matter of a partner might have been dropped, but it was definitely not forgotten. But this was one battle of wills his brother was not going to win.

"Why are you here?" he asked, as they entered the building.

"It’s a personal favor for Frank Maxwell."

Maxwell was the Federal Minister for Education, and one of the few friends the real Byrne had actually had. As such, he’d posed a very real threat to Stephan securing his new identity. Luckily, the two men had seen little of each other in the last year. Any differences Maxwell might see in Byrne now he’d surely put down to time. "Why?"

"It’s his son who’s been murdered."

Gabriel glanced at his brother in surprise. "A male? You sure it’s the same killer, not a copycat?"

Stephan’s smile was grim. "You’ll see when we get there."

Which could only mean the clinical brutality of the previous attacks was evident here also. He eyed the police officer guarding the express elevator and frowned. The same young officer had been guarding the doorway after Jack had bombed Sam’s apartment. Odd that he was here now, too.

"Is Marsden on scene?" he asked softly.

Stephan met his gaze and gave a minute shake his head. The young officer stepped aside as they approached the elevator. Gabriel glanced at his nametag. Sanders.

"Tenth floor, sir?"

Gabriel nodded, noting Sander’s eyes were a deep, unfathomable green, and somehow seemed older than his years. It was almost as if the soul behind the eyes had seen more than one lifetime.

The officer pressed the button, then stepped clear as the elevator doors slid shut. Stephan raised an eyebrow at Gabriel. "Why the question about Marsden? He’s a beat cop, not homicide."

He shrugged. "That kid was working with Marsden when Sam’s apartment was bombed."

"He might have been transferred."

"Maybe." Maybe he was just getting suspicious in his old age. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to check why the kid was here, when he had the time. "How old was Maxwell’s son?"

"Twenty-five, same as the others."

The lift came to a stop, and the doors opened. The hallway beyond was pale blue, offset by gold carpet. Four doors led off the hall, and a police officer stood guard at the far end. Gabriel glanced up at the ceiling. Monitors were stationed at regular intervals, tracking them silently.

"You requested the security tapes?"

Stephan nodded. "Copies have already been sent back to your office."

"Good." He stepped into the apartment. The place was huge, and the wall to ceiling glass flanking two sides of the apartment only added to the feeling of space. What few inner walls the apartment had were pale blue, but the carpet and the furniture were white. A spherical-shaped crimecorder hovered in the middle of the room, red light flashing to indicate it was recording.

"He obviously didn’t have any youngsters visiting, not with all this white furniture," he commented. "What’s the victim’s name?"

"Harry. And there’re no kids, no wife, and as far as Frank knew, no girlfriend."

He raised an eyebrow. "What about a boyfriend?"

"A possibility. Frank was rather brusque when I asked if there was any particular woman his son might have been seeing."

The body lay on one of the white sofas. He walked to it. As long as you didn’t look below the waist, it would be easy to think Harry had merely died in his sleep. His arms were crossed, his face peaceful. There was no terror, no hint that he’d known he was about to die so brutally.

"Cause of death?" he asked, despite the fact it was obvious. No man could loose his penis and scrotum, and survive the resulting shock and blood loss unless he had medical help real fast.

"Same as the others—blood loss. There’s an ashtray full of cigarette butts on the dining table, too."

"Same brand as before?" He squatted to inspect the gaping wound. The blood staining the leather no longer smelled fresh, and the wound itself was beginning to blacken.

"Yes. We’ve scanned for prints, but he was wearing gloves again. All we got was a latex smudge."

"There’s one difference, at least. There’s no real effort to be precise in his knife work here. He’s basically just hacked it all away."

Stephan snorted softly. "Hell of a lot easier to part a man from his penis than it is a woman from her womb."

"True. But all three victims were obviously unconscious before the murderer operated, so why the care with the women and not young Harry here? There are several deep nicks on his right inner thigh."

"Maybe our murderer gets perverted pleasure from gutting women and wants it to last longer."

He frowned. Something in that statement didn’t sit right. The murderer had been meticulous in every detail so far— why would he change anything just because this victim was a male? The fact that the murderer had sat back and watched the blood pour from their bodies suggested it was the death, rather than the cutting, that he enjoyed more.

He rose and then hesitated. On the back of the sofa, near Harry’s right hip, a hair glinted softly in the light. It wasn’t one of Harry’s. His hair was red, the same as the other two victims. This was blond and long, with dark roots.

Gabriel dug a glove out of his pocket and carefully picked up the hair. "Got a bag?" he asked.

Stephan dug one from the crime kit sitting on the table. "Maybe he did have a girlfriend."

"Could still be male. Long hair is fashionable in the rave scene at the moment. I’ll run a check on Harry’s acquaintances and see what I can find."

Gabriel secured the bag in the crime kit and turned back to the sofa. He had an itchy feeling that there was something else to be found. In the previous two murders, the killer had been careful not to leave anything behind. No hair, no prints, nothing that might give him away.

This time he’d been less than precise with his cutting. Maybe, just maybe, he’d been less than precise with his clean up. He studied the position of the body for a long moment, and then walked around to the back of the sofa. Blood had stained through, contrasting starkly against the white, embroidered material. Oddly enough, the thick carpet showed signs of a recent vacuuming.

He frowned and studied the crisscrossed suction patterns across the carpet. Only the small section between the sofa and what looked to be the bathroom had been touched. Near the bathroom door, a faint footprint marred the lush white lawn.

"How many people have been in the apartment since the body was discovered?" he asked, squatting near the print.

"The usual—the two state officers who attended the original call, the building super who let them in, and us. Forensics is still on the way. Why? What have you found?"

"A print." He glanced up at the crimecorder. "Record image and location of print."

The black sphere responded immediately, zipping across the room to hover inches from his head. "Image recorded," a metallic voice stated.

"Resume original position." He knelt to study the print. As he did, he noticed a slight stain near the door. Liquid of some sort had been spilled near the doorframe. He touched it lightly—the carpet was dry and stiff, almost as if had been glued together. He sniffed his fingers. The faint but unpleasant mix of urine and rotten eggs had him screwing up his nose in distaste.

"Jadrone," he muttered, coughing to ease the sudden stinging in the back of his throat.

"What the hell is Harry doing with something like Jadrone? Frank’s family is human, not shifter."

"Which means maybe our killer is shifter." It would certainly explain why no one had noticed any strangers hanging about in the two previous murders, particularly if their killer was a multishifter.

Though Gabriel doubted if the killer would actually be taking the stuff himself. Jadrone was designed to ease the inevitable bone and muscle problems that afflicted most shifters late in life, but it also had an unpleasant side effect. After several months of continual use, the ability to tell truth from fantasy blurred. Life became one big dream for the user. Their killer was too practical, too careful, to be on some Jadrone-inspired trip.

So why in hell was there Jadrone on the floor?

"The government took Jadrone off general prescription a year ago," Stephan said. "It shouldn’t be too hard to track through records and find out who’s still taking it."

He smiled grimly. It might not be too hard, but it was a task he had no intention of doing. Sam could. It would keep her out of his way a bit longer. Her anger and frustration had been all too evident in her smoke-shrouded blue eyes tonight. A few more pushes, a few more inane tasks, and she’d be asking for a transfer. All he had to do then was convince Stephan it was for the best.

He rose and continued on into the bathroom. The stark whiteness was practically blinding—it had to be hell on the eyes when the sun hit it. A slight breeze stirred the hairs at the back of his neck. He glanced at the ceiling to make sure it wasn’t the air conditioning and then turned. A hole had been cut into the thick glass wall.

"Crimecorder, record bathroom evidence," he stated. As had been the case in the two previous murders, this hole was barely big enough to fit his fist through. And the edges were razor sharp, indicating laser cutting.

"Any thoughts on these holes?" Stephan asked from the doorway.

Gabriel shrugged and stepped out of the crimecorder’s way. "Escape route, maybe."

"If the killer’s using Jadrone, he can’t be a shapechanger."

"No." Jadrone was as deadly to shapechangers as it was helpful to shapeshifters. No one knew why, though Karl, a good friend of Gabriel’s and one of Australia’s top herbal scientists, thought it might have something to do with body chemistry. "Nothing’s making much sense in this case."

"Well, it had better. If the killer keeps to his current schedule, you have precisely twelve hours before he strikes again."

Twelve hours to find someone as illusive as a ghost. What could be simpler? "It would be a damn sight easier if we could find some sort of pattern. Other than being the same age and having red hair, the victims have nothing in common."

"The answers are there. All you have to do is find them." Stephan hesitated and then smiled grimly. "And I want Agent Ryan brought in on this case."

Gabriel stared at his brother, wondering why he was so determined to see him and Sam as a team. "No."

"That’s a direct order, Stern."

And it was one he had no intention of ever obeying—if only because Sam had red-gold hair, the same as the three victims. She might not be twenty-five, but he wasn’t about to chance her safety. Not with his track record.

"Are you listening, Stern?"

"I’m all ears, sir."

Anger flared briefly in Stephan’s blue eyes. "Good. Report to me hourly."

He turned and walked away. Gabriel stared after him for a long moment, and then he glanced up at the crimecorder. "Position of autopsy team?"

"Entering building now."

"Good. Resume original monitoring position." Gabriel followed the crimecorder back out to the living room. The clue was here somewhere. He could feel its presence, like an itch he couldn’t quite scratch. He stared blankly at the corpse for a long moment and then turned.

Why had the killer vacuumed? Why just the section behind the sofa?

Frowning, he crouched down, studying the vacuum marks intently. Something had to have been spilled or dropped here—why else vacuum? He shifted slightly, and caught sight of something glittering deep in the white pile. He carefully plucked it out—a shard of glass. He ran his fingers through the carpet. A plate size section near his feet felt damp. He sniffed his fingers again. Ginger and lemon, mixed with something spicy he couldn’t define. Its touch burned across his skin.

He knew the scent. Heat, the latest rage in female perfumes and one designed solely for female use. The manufacturers claimed it made the wearer irresistible to the male gender—a claim that had proven so true the government was considering putting the perfume on the dangerous drugs list. Oddly enough, when used by a male, Heat lived up to its name in an entirely different way, burning where it touched.

Harry had no wife, no girlfriend. No reason to buy Heat.

The killer was female, not male.


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