Hidden Gem: Book One
Misaki “Aki” Itou is a psi—a person with mutated DNA granting him psychic abilities. He’s also a contracted companion—a whore. It may not be the perfect profession, but having a roof over his head, food to eat, and not being subjected to torture is a dream come true. He is the top companion at the Hidden Gem, and it makes him enough money to buy the prettiest, most sparkly shoes he can find.
Shane McNaughton is an Irishman who survived the Third World War and works as a cop. Head of Missing Persons, he’s good at finding people, but after the plague of the Third mutated his DNA, he has a hard time letting anyone see the monster inside. He’s been paying for Aki’s services for two years, both the psi and the sexual kind, but he wants more from the companion.
Shane needs Aki’s ability to see into another person’s past to track down a serial killer murdering the children of rich and powerful men, but the more they work together, the clearer it becomes that they are linked through a darker past than either of them realizes.
2015 Rainbow Awards Best LGBT Cover Runner-Up
MISAKI SUCKED in a deep, cold breath, wondering when he’d finally die. How long had it been since he’d last eaten? A week, maybe more? He couldn’t remember the taste of food. Even the gruel they got in the concentration camp had been better than nothing. The cold frost of winter covered the streets and made him shiver. Layers of dirty clothes stolen from the trash and other homeless didn’t help. Somehow the wind blew right through him.
He huddled in a doorway in the heart of the City M slums. There had been talk of police enforcement sweeping through, jailing those like him, throwing others out of town. He could hope for jail. It had a roof, heat, and inmates got food. If he hadn’t just escaped the containment camps of the south, he’d have thought anything would be better than this endless cold and gnawing hunger. But really he’d had it much worse.
People wandered by him. Some even paused to stare. Did he look so awful? “Spare some food?” he whispered, not too proud to beg, but knowing well enough not to meet their eyes. A shadow loomed over him, then another joined the first. He should have been afraid, but they could do nothing that hadn’t already been done. Any violence against him now would likely kill him, and he had longed for death for years.
“He’s a child,” one voice said.
“Small, but I bet he’s legal or will be soon. Good bone structure. Could be pretty with some meat on him,” another replied.
“I have people begging to work for me. What do I need of a street urchin starved near to death?”
“A hidden gem. Give me six weeks with him, and he’ll be one of your biggest earners. I did promise when I bought out my contract that I’d find you a comparable replacement.”
“How can you see this as your replacement, Paris? He’s a psi. People will run the second they glimpse those eerie eyes.”
Their banter bounced back and forth like Misaki couldn’t hear them. He squinted to try to make out the figures without blatantly staring at them. One was younger, handsome, dressed up like some sort of dandy or a prince from a storybook. The other stood tall and firm like a soldier. Misaki cringed away from the older man, too many memories of beatings, experiments, and pain.
“You had a brother who was psi, did you not? You once told me he went missing at a young age. How would you feel if the world treated him like this? Left him out here to die like a rat? I plan to put an end to this homelessness in my new job. No matter how the other senators fight me, I will use my own money if I have to. No child should end up like this.” The younger man was speaking. He knelt down, reaching his hand out. “What if I offer you food, shelter, and safety, little one? Would you come with us?”
False promises. Misaki’d had a lot of those. “What do you want me to do?” he whispered, not daring to hope. No more experiments—please, if there was any sort of god or goddess of life and death, there would be no more. He’d go with them anyway, if only to hasten death. Surely it would take him sooner rather than later. He had already endured so much. The pretty man before him could be an angel from the darkest bowels of hell, and Misaki would still go with him. Maybe he could be warm for a few minutes. Or even have the endless ache in his stomach eased by a bit of broth. He could only dream of having someone to hold him again like Hyeon had. Hope was by far the cruelest of emotions.
“My friend here offers contracts for favors. You’ll have food, shelter, security, all the clothes and pretty things you could ever hope for, and all you have to do is work for him. Ease the troubles of others, provide pleasure, and be all they hope to ever attain, even if it’s only for a half an hour.”
“You want me to be a prostitute?” Misaki couldn’t see anyone wanting the battered shell he was, starved, emaciated, ugly. Who would pay for that? And then there was his curse. “I can’t touch people. I see things….”
The older man sighed. “Useless, Paris. If you want a charity case, so be it. But I don’t know how I can use him.”
“Six weeks, Bart. What is your name, child?” the younger man, Paris, asked.
“Misaki. Misaki Itou.” Please take me with you. Or kill me. Anything but leave me in this misery for one more day.
“A shining star indeed. Six weeks, Bart, and you’ll be unable to hide the brightness of this little gem.”
Two years later
THE WEIGHT suffocated him. It should have been hot, but it was just cold and rank, heavy on his chest. Then there was the smell, almost sweet but not. Rot. He shoved at them, pushing one away only to have another collapse on top of him. He’d suck in a quick breath, then struggled to find the next. He clawed his way through the flesh, crawling over the broken, the dead, and the decayed until he finally saw the sky.
Black as night, covered with soot—even in the middle of the day—the air was toxic. His heart hammered in his chest. Across the expansive pit of lifeless bodies, he could vaguely see creatures sitting around the edge, gnawing on the remains. The sound came to him first, that awful wet chewing, and then his eyes made out the edges of the thing, almost humanlike, hunched through the shoulders, long arms, clawed hands, and legs bent oddly backward. Shane recognized that one as the last of the soldier’s humanity fell away while he chewed on the newly dead.
They’d once been brothers-in-arms. Most had fallen to the man-made plague that either killed or mutated. The rest were probably just kindling added to this endless pit of death. Like him, that one had survived. Shane couldn’t remember the man’s name, just the face. It almost seemed like a lifetime ago they’d shared a time in the barracks before the war. Memories seemed to be of a different life and quickly fading.
Shane dragged himself on top of the corpses, panting and trying to breathe through a new smattering of pain that ripped across his body. Muscles clenching, rippling, shifting, caused an endless ache that he couldn’t remember the source of. His back flexed, skin tearing from wounds he didn’t know he had. He let out a pain-filled moan. The creature looked up, startled by the noise, eyes narrowing. A growl tore from its throat, followed seconds later by a horrible howl.
Shane jerked at the sound, falling backward into the pit, which seemed to drop out from beneath him. Darkness closed over his head. He let out a strangled cry as he hit something hard, rolled, and landed. He laid there a moment or two, brain slowly working, until finally he opened his eyes and stared at the dusty underside of his king-size bed.
His phone sat on the nightstand, chirping a shrill noise that made him groan. He dry-washed his face and yanked himself up off the floor. Always the same dream. He’d have thought that forty years would have faded the memory a bit.
“McNaughton here,” he answered the phone.
“Need you down on the strip. Congressman Biniski’s kid is missing. It’s not looking good. Might be linked to the serial case.” It was Detective Jackson Taylor, Shane’s new and very wet-behind-the-ears partner. Just ’cause the kid was an A-M didn’t mean he knew shit about finding killers. How the man got a job with the ISS in homicide was beyond him.
Animal-Mutation, or A-M for short, was a genetic mutation of a plague beginning during the Third World War. The only ones who survived the plague after being exposed were the ones who now turned into A-Ms. The mutation ran through dormant and nondormant cycles. Some had years pass without a single change; others changed so often they couldn’t function as people. Scientific research claimed there was no way to control it. Medication didn’t help, since it wasn’t really an illness, rather an adaption to combat an illness. Being an A-M was mutation, like a two-headed fish or glowing sheep. Shane changed into a monster and craved blood, raw meat, and violence. Yeah, he figured he got the short end of the genetic stick. But he had a hell of a lot more control than most A-Ms he’d met. The one benefit was that most A-Ms had incredible healing and renewal abilities, and since A-Ms like Shane stopped aging, many considered it a fountain of youth so long as you didn’t get yourself killed when the body shifted. There was nothing natural about that breaking and rebuilding of bones and muscle. Pain didn’t even begin to scratch the surface of it. Even after more than forty years, Shane still dreaded each and every change.
“Give me twenty,” Shane told him and hung up to stuff his legs into a pair of jeans. His face felt like heavy sandpaper, but his cycle was coming, which meant his hair grew faster than he could cut it. Unlike the newbies, his was predictable. He had a few days—a week at most—before he’d have to change or the mutation would force him to. His change was like the resetting of a pocket watch. Turn the dial and he’d eventually have to turn it again to keep it moving. He sighed, ran his hands through his thick dark hair, and headed for the bedroom door. His shoes had to be around there somewhere as well as his badge. Sometimes life was just a clusterfuck. Hell, most times. Maybe he shouldn’t have had that last drink.
Drinking alone never chased the memories away for long. He should have gone to the Gem. A few hours with Aki pouring him expensive alcohol and then a quick trip upstairs would have done his mood wonders. But he tried to avoid the kid when his cycle neared because it was just too hard to contain the violence. One slip and he had scared the whore half to death. If the kid wasn’t so damn tiny, breakable, and cursed, maybe Shane wouldn’t have to hold back. He sighed and shook off the thought, heading out into the night.
Shane drove through the dark, empty streets of downtown, passed the strip of brightly lit brothels, and pulled into the shopping district. Police lights flashed for blocks. He parked around the corner and headed toward the scene, badge in hand, but recognized Taylor’s towhead near the edge of the police barricade. Everyone always descended on a crime scene like this, even though only a handful of techs would actually sweep the area. Most of the gawkers were cops, and Shane wondered sometimes why he never had the desire to just jump into someone else’s scene. Maybe it was because he’d already seen enough death to last a lifetime.
“What makes them think this is the serial?” Shane asked before the other detective could even greet him.
“Girl’s purse was found with a ransom note stuck in it. Just like the others.”
The ransom made sense since she was the daughter of a rich politician. “Signs of an A-M?” All the cases had scratches found in the vicinity—a calling card per se for the killer. In fact, the beat cops had missed them on the first seven cases. It wasn’t until Shane had been dragged in from his normal Missing Persons caseload and was searching through pictures from the abduction scenes that he noticed them. So the ISS had been called, and he’d been paired with Taylor, a kid with probably less than a year’s control on his A-M abilities. Did they teach A-Ms control nowadays?
“I’ve got the techs searching for scratches,” Taylor told him. “Would help if we knew what this guy really wants. We know it’s not money.”
Shane glared at the bright glass windows and marble walls of the Just Shoes store. Aki loved the place. The glittering blue heels in the window were exactly the kid’s style. He’d bought the companion more than a handful of shoes and pretty hair clips from the high-end store to repay him for helping solve a case. Aki likely never thought of it that way, since Shane didn’t share clues or the results with the psi, but more than once his help had cracked a case wide open. And when all else failed, the kid had an amazing way of relaxing Shane, almost recharging him with a single visit. The sex probably helped, limited as it was, but something about the small blond’s smile could keep Shane going for days.
He wondered if maybe he should think outside the box for a clue on this one. Bringing cases of the dead to Aki was something he’d always avoided. In fact, he only got pulled to homicide when things really got bad or when the caseload in Missing Persons was low, which was almost never. But when the dead piled up, politicians got cranky, and Senator Biniski was known for being one of the most vocal, advocating behind closed doors that A-Ms should be electronically tagged for constant surveillance or herded into facilities for testing and safety. Not really all that different from the containment camps in the South. But the populace at large didn’t know A-Ms existed and the powers-that-be liked it that way. The senator had taken a personal interest in Shane, made his disapproval known and warned him what would happen if his condition was leaked to the press. The government paid a lot of money to make the world believe that everyone who got the plague died of it. But the truth was much more unsettling.
“I can ask the ISS to send trackers out,” Taylor volunteered. He meant the animal kind.
“Little late now. Too many people all over the scene.”
“Maybe there’s something we’re missing. Some other way to find this A-M without alerting the media.”
Shane’s phone rang. He knew who it was without looking. Biniski had been all over him the past two weeks for this case, screaming about missing kids, dead kids now, and how he’d have Shane’s job. Ever since the first claw marks had shown up, making an A-M the possible scapegoat. And Shane was willing to concede the point. The beat cops had fucked up. He’d been called in late in the game. No man slaughtered the way this killer did and got away each time without a lot of practice. But damned if Shane could figure out which direction to look. He was good at finding people, that was his job, but this one wasn’t leaving anything but a trail of bodies.
The phone chirped a voice mail, then rang again. He turned it off and nodded to Taylor. News vans were beginning to show. The last thing they needed was widespread panic. Whomever they were up against was a pro; there were no clues outside of the few nibbles they’d left on purpose. Maybe it was time to use something more than good old-fashioned detective work. And Shane knew just the psi to ask.
“Got marks!” someone called from around the edge of the building.
Shane pushed his way through the crowd of cops and glared at the deep gouges that marred the side of the concrete wall leading to the alley. He held up his hand and frowned, reminded that whatever A-M was involved was damn near his size if the breadth of the scratches were any indication. What need did any A-M have for a spoiled little rich girl? And what about control? The methodical way the victims had been taken, then killed said madman, but not an out-of-control one. The mutilations were almost surgical in their precision. A-Ms didn’t usually have that kind of focus. The beast took over. Animals were simple things. They wanted food and safety. They’d kill for it, but not the way a human would.
“Looks like the real thing.” Taylor pointed one of the photographers to the marks. “I want pictures of every angle. Document the height, depth, and width. And search the ground. Maybe we’ll get lucky and this son of a bitch has broken a nail or something.”
Luck. Ha. Shane lived too long to believe much in luck, but he did know many ways of creating or manipulating what came his way. It was time to call for backup. He wondered if the sparkling jewel of the Hidden Gem would be available this evening.
This fast-paced story kept me spellbound as the characters came alive as their story unfolded.
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