Against the grain, p.10
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       Against The Grain, p.10
 

         Part #5 of THIRDS series by Charlie Cochet  
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  Sloane nodded. “Yeah, why?”

  “Was he the one who prescribed your meds?”

  “Yeah, Thelxinomine. I’ve still got another few weeks left. What’s going on?”

  Ash walked over to Sloane’s side. “Where the bottle?”

  “In my desk.” Sloane opened his drawer and frowned. He tried the other drawers. “At least it was in my desk.” He looked up at Dex in question. “Have you seen my meds?”

  “Not since this morning when you took your last dose, but I saw you put them back in the top right hand drawer.”

  Cael turned to Sloane. “Were you and Dex out of your office recently?”

  Sloane nodded. “Sparks called us into her office about twenty minutes ago. She wanted to know how I was doing and if Dex was up for some extra training.”

  “How long did the meeting take?” Cael asked.

  Dex shrugged. “Maybe ten minutes at most.”

  “Guys? What’s going on?”

  “We’ll let you know as soon as we get some answers. Until then, don’t let anyone know your prescription has gone missing.”

  Cael entered his badge number into the security panel, and the office went back to normal. He left with Rosa and Ash in tow. As they left the bullpen and headed for Sparks’s office, Ash took hold of Cael’s arm and pulled him to one side.

  “Before you go in there, connect to my com and leave your line open.”

  Cael stared at him, his voice low when he spoke in case anyone was close by. “You want to listen in. Why?”

  “Trust me. I’ll explain later.”

  “Okay.” He had no idea why Ash was asking him, but there had to be a good reason for it. He tapped his earpiece and connected to Ash, then pressed the button in farther until it clicked, putting it on covert mode with no green light to give him away. Ash would be able to hear whatever Cael heard. They walked into Sparks’s office.

  “Close the door behind you,” Sparks said from behind her desk in her usual no-nonsense tone.

  Cael obliged, pressing his hand to the security panel. The door closed, and he joined his partner, taking a seat in the empty chair.

  “Why the detour?” Sparks asked.

  Shit. How the hell did she know? “Sorry. Dex had asked me to pick up some ibuprofen from the hospital while I was there. For Sloane.”

  “It could have waited.”

  Cael cleared his throat and tried his best not to fidget under her penetrating stare. “My apologies.”

  “I apologize as well.”

  Wait, what now? Cael was flabbergasted. Since when did their lieutenant apologize for anything? Before he could ask, she elaborated.

  “You and Agent Santiago weren’t supposed to have been called out to NY Presbyterian Hospital. Dispatch was misinformed. They were under the impression you were taking calls. They were meant to have put the call through to another Recon team. That’s why Dr. Colbourn and Dr. Bishop weren’t on scene when you arrived. The CSIs had already been there and processed the body.”

  “You mean Dr. Ward.”

  “I’m afraid that information is classified.”

  Cael frowned. “It’s not classified if we’ve already seen it. We saw the body. It was Dr. Ward.” And since when was a regular homicide classified? The information was most likely already public knowledge.

  “You must be confused, Agent Maddock. The wolf Therian brought in was a Dr. Fredrickson. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some important matters to attend to. You may return to your duties.”

  What the hell? “With all due respect, Lieutenant, what’s going on? The body we saw belonged to Dr. Ward, but then the nurse at the station—which wasn’t the first nurse we spoke to—told us the guy didn’t exist. The information on Agent Keeler and Agent Brodie’s files had been altered, and then the bottle—”

  “Lieutenant,” Ash interrupted. “Damn. I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were in a meeting.”

  Sparks didn’t look pleased by the disturbance. “The status on the door hasn’t glitched again, has it, Agent Keeler? It does say ‘engaged’ in English and not Japanese.”

  Ash cringed. “Sorry. I wasn’t paying attention. Have a lot on my mind.”

  Sparks seemed to consider that before giving him a smile. “Understandable. What did you need, Agent Keeler?”

  “Am I cleared for authorization on advanced CQC training for Agents Daley and Maddock?”

  “Your request has been accepted. I’d like an eighteen-week training schedule submitted to me by the end of the week, detailing what you hope to accomplish and the expected results.”

  “Yes, ma’am.”

  Sparks gave him a nod and turned her attention back to Cael and Rosa.

  “You’re dismissed, Agents.”

  “But—”

  “There’s nothing further to discuss. Get back to your training. In light of recent events, we need Destructive Delta to be in top form. I’m expecting to see results, Agent Maddock.”

  “Yes, ma’am.” There was something about the way she said it that had Cael wondering if she was hinting at knowing more than they believed she knew. With Sparks, there was no way to tell. The female Therian was impossible to read. But if she knew about the unsanctioned mission, why hadn’t they heard anything about it? Surely they would have heard something from Seb, who’d been permanently assigned the position of Team Leader for Theta Destructive.

  They silently left and headed back to the bullpen. Cael tapped his earpiece and shut it off before leaning into Ash. “What’s going on? Why didn’t you want me to tell her about the drug?”

  “Tell your brother to put in a call to Bradley and ask if we could borrow the second floor of Dekatria before it opens. We’re having a team meeting. I want everyone there. This is off the books, so no one says a word. You inform Dex and Sloane. I’ll inform the others. Something fucked-up is going on around here, and it’s time we get to the bottom of it.”

  “THANKS FOR letting us use your bar.”

  Ash would never have thought they’d be using Dekatria as a base of operation, but the place was secure enough for them to have a meeting without having to worry someone was listening. Ash was comfortable here, which was saying something. He was always alert and on edge when hanging around someplace new, but he’d quickly acclimated himself to Dekatria. The retro décor didn’t even bug him anymore.

  “No problem. If you need anything, let me know.” Bradley leaned over Ash to pass Cael a soda, his tattooed arm in front of them.

  Bradley gave them a cheerful salute and headed toward the door. Ash excused himself to use the bathroom. On the stairs, he caught up to Bradley and took hold of his left arm. Puzzled, Bradley’s smile dimmed. Recognition came into his eyes as Ash tightened his grip and turned his arm.

  “Tell me this isn’t a problem anymore and it’s the last time I’ll be bringing it up. I won’t let you endanger my team.”

  Bradley’s amber eyes glowed with a familiar fire, his reply grave. “It’s not a problem anymore.”

  Ash nodded. “Does Lou know?”

  The anger in Bradley’s eyes dimmed. “No. It’s in the past.”

  “The past has a way of catching up with us. Believe me.” Ash released his arm. “Tell him. If he really cares, he’ll stick around. But he has a right to know.”

  Bradley nodded. “Thanks.”

  Ash turned and headed back upstairs, hoping Bradley was right. It made sense now, why the guy was happy to have them in his bar all the time. Who wouldn’t want half an army to back them up if an old gang came around to give them trouble? Ash had seen the gang tattoo woven into a new design. Someone had done a great job of covering it up with a tattoo sleeve of new art, but Ash had seen it. The symbol wasn’t the only thing he’d noticed. Several of Bradley’s tattoos hid a variety of scars. Whatever Bradley had been mixed up in, it had been bad. Poor Lou. The guy was crazy about Bradley. He hoped things worked out for those two. They made a sweet couple. Speaking of sweet….

  Ash slid into t
he booth beside Cael as they waited for Calvin to arrive. Glancing at his team, he saw Rosa was chatting with Letty, while Dex and Sloane were being all close and stupidly cute together. Ash took the opportunity to bump Cael playfully. He leaned in to talk quietly.

  “So exactly how much groveling do I have to do to make up for what happened during training?”

  Cael looked thoughtful as he sipped his soda, his plump lips especially pouty and wet as he sucked on his straw. If Ash didn’t know any better, he’d say Cael was doing it on purpose. Was Cael giving him the silent treatment? No, Cael wouldn’t do that. He knew how much Ash hated those sorts of games. Cael was either thinking up ways for Ash to make it up to him, or he was plotting his demise. Both were somewhat worrisome, though not exactly surprising.

  “I know I was an asshole,” he said, his fingers finding the hem of Cael’s T-shirt. He slipped them under the gray cotton and held back a smile at the way Cael’s cheeks turned pink. “And you’re the last person on this earth I would ever want to be an asshole to. But your safety and well-being mean more to me than what you might think of me for my methods. You are what matters most to me, and if I have to piss you off every day to make sure you stay safe, then so be it. Whatever happens during our training, I promise to apologize after every session. To remind you that what you see in there is me doing what I have to do to protect you. So I’m sorry for being an asshole. As a peace offering, I’d like to make you dinner. We can watch a movie, hang out, play video games. Whatever you want. Just like we used to. What do you say?”

  Cael looked up at him, his big gray eyes and loving expression stealing Ash’s breath away.

  “Really?”

  “Really. Do you forgive me?”

  “Only if you forgive me for punching your boys.” He cringed. “I’m so sorry.” Cael put his hand to Ash’s bicep, his expression worried. “Are you okay? I didn’t hurt you too bad, did I?”

  “You punched me in the nuts.”

  Cael burst into laughter, then slapped a hand over his mouth. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled. “I didn’t mean to laugh.” He laughed again, a sweet chuckle that warmed Ash’s heart. “I am so sorry.”

  “No you’re not.” Ash pretended to be put off. He laid his arm behind Cael’s head on the seat’s backrest and poked him in his side, making him squirm.

  “Sorry I’m late.”

  They all turned their attention to Calvin, who looked like he could use some sleep. Something was going on with his teammate. Ash had stopped by Calvin and Hobbs’s office after his training with Cael, but neither had been in. He hadn’t seen Hobbs all day, which was unusual.

  “Where’s Hobbs?” Ash asked. He’d specifically told everyone they had to be there.

  “He couldn’t make it. I can’t stay long. He’s on his own at home.”

  Everything fell into place. Jesus, why hadn’t Calvin told him Hobbs was having a rough time with his anxiety? It wasn’t as if the team didn’t know Hobbs. They all understood and supported the guy, had been doing it for years. They knew when to encourage him and when to back off. If Hobbs was home, it meant he couldn’t leave the apartment. This was usually one of those times when Calvin would stay home with his partner. He always did.

  “It’s been a while,” Cael said, worried for his friends.

  Calvin sighed and slipped into the booth across from Ash and Cael. There were bags under his eyes, and he looked exhausted. “Sorry I haven’t told you guys. It’s been a rough couple of weeks. He hasn’t had it this bad in a while. Thanksgiving was a fucking disaster.”

  “I thought you and your mom spent every Thanksgiving with Hobbs and his family?” Cael said.

  “We do, and we did again. Man, I wish we hadn’t. That morning, when Ethan woke up, I knew it was bad. It took me three hours to get him out of bed. I helped him pick out his clothes, and then his mom called, and he didn’t even want to talk to her. She understood. His parents are really supportive and understanding, always have been. They’ve done everything they could for him and his condition since he was a kid, and the meds were really helping. He still has rough days, but they haven’t been nearly as bad as this.” Calvin looked like he was on the verge of tears. Dex must have noticed, because he sat down beside Calvin and put his arm around him.

  “What happened, Cal?”

  “Ethan calmed down. I made him some tea, and he seemed okay. I told him if he didn’t want to go to his mom’s it was no big deal. We could stay in and chill. His mom even offered to drop us off some Thanksgiving dinner. Ethan said it was fine. I know he just didn’t want to disappoint his mom. So we went. My mom was already there, because she always heads off early to help with the cooking.

  “We all sat around the table, and everything was fine. Ethan was quiet, but he was smiling, so he was doing okay. Then the doorbell rings. Rafe had fucking invited a friend without letting us know ahead of time, some guy Ethan had never met. He panicked, got up so quick he knocked over a bottle of red wine by accident, and that fucking prick Rafe yelled at him.” Calvin blinked back his tears. “His brother is fucking hyperventilating in front of him, and he’s yelling at him, telling him not to be such a child, that he does it to get attention.”

  “Hey, it’s okay, pal.” Dex rubbed his hand over Calvin’s back.

  Calvin balled his hands into fists on the table, a tear rolling down his cheek. “Rafe is yelling at Ethan, and then that stupid son of a bitch friend of his starts laughing and calls Ethan a spaz. I fucking lost my shit. Tackled him and punched him in the face. Seb pulls me off him, and I would have gone right back to beating the shit out of him if I hadn’t seen my mom hugging Ethan. He was sitting on the floor covering his ears and struggling to breathe. Seb helped me get him to his old bedroom. We got him into bed, and Seb left me alone with him. I don’t know how long it took, but I stayed up with him, soothing him until he fell asleep.” He drew in a shaky breath and let it out slowly before wiping his eyes. “Sorry, I just, I haven’t been sleeping well.”

  “Why didn’t you call us?” Dex asked. “You know we would have done whatever we could to help.”

  “I know, but sometimes he just can’t see anyone. It’s not because he doesn’t want to. He can’t. Having someone besides me or Seb there with him could make it worse.” He gave Dex a wobbly smile. “But next time, I’ll ask him if he’s okay with one of you guys coming over. He might like it.”

  “Has he gone to his doctor to see what’s going on with his meds? They seemed to be helping him just fine,” Ash said. He didn’t like all these different Therian meds floating around, and after years of working, why were Hobbs’s meds failing him now?

  Calvin shook his head. “We’re working our way up to an appointment. I don’t get it. They were really helping him until recently. He had a refill of his prescription a couple of weeks ago, but there were no changes to his dose, so I have no idea what’s going on.”

  “Let us know if you or he needs anything,” Cael said gently.

  “Thanks. So what’s this meeting about? And why are we having it at Dekatria?”

  Ash turned to Sloane, who sat in one of the retro armchairs. “I think we need to tell them.”

  Sloane looked uncertain, but he gave Ash the okay.

  “Tell us what?” Calvin looked from Ash to Sloane and back. “What’s going on?”

  “We hadn’t said anything yet because we didn’t want to worry you guys until we knew more, but Sloane’s lost control over his Therian half twice since he was released from the hospital after the explosion.”

  Rosa gasped and turned to Sloane. “Oh my God, Sloane. What happened?”

  “The first time was after I was released from the hospital while Dex was out tracking down Hogan. I attempted to shift, but with the extent of my injuries, it did more harm than good. Dex and I got into an argument the next morning, and I lost it. I shifted. The most terrifying part was my fuzzy memory afterward. I couldn’t remember being there. I woke up, and there I was in my Therian form standing over Dex
, his pajama pants torn.”

  “He pushed me down the stairs,” Ash added.

  Sloane threw a hand up. “Again with that? How many times do I have to say I’m sorry? Because I’m beginning to not be.”

  Ash shrugged. “Just saying, if you’d been present, you wouldn’t have done it.”

  “No, just tempted,” Sloane grumbled. “Anyway, it happened again before Thanksgiving. Luckily this time Dex was ready, and he tranqed me. I couldn’t remember anything after I woke up.”

  Now it was Ash’s turn. This was going to be pleasant. “I had a similar feeling in Central Park. When we caught up to Collins. Except I didn’t shift. I felt this blinding rage.” He held a hand up. “And before you say anything, yes, I’m normally pissed off, but I’ve never had trouble controlling it. After what happened with Collins, it made me wonder if what’s happening to Sloane will also happen to me.”

  Cael poked Ash on his side, his expression worried. “Wait, what happened with Collins? Seb’s report stated Collins swiped one of his agent’s guns, took aim at another agent, and was neutralized.”

  “That’s not entirely what happened.”

  “What?” Cael stared at Ash before his expression turned hurt. He looked around the room. “You all know, don’t you? Why am I the only one who doesn’t know?”

  Ash turned to Cael and took a deep breath. “When I saw the picture Hogan sent of you bloodied and bruised on Collins’s phone, I felt this intense white rage going through me. Something I’d never felt before. I wanted to kill Collins. The guy refused to tell us where Hogan had taken you. We had to find another way. Something happened, everything I felt intensified ten times over, and….” God, what would Cael think of him? Ash hadn’t wanted him to find out about what he’d done, what he’d been pushed to do. Would Cael think it was part of his nature? That he was more animal than Human? As ruthless and heartless as some believed he was?

  “Ash?”

  “I let Collins take my gun. When he aimed at Dex, I killed him. I snapped his neck.”

  Cael’s stunned, wide-eyed expression scared the shit out of Ash, and he took Cael’s hand in his. “I told everyone I’d do whatever it took to find you. That I’d go through however many of Hogan’s goons it took to get you back alive, and I would. I just never believed myself capable of killing like that. I’ve neutralized threats before, we all know I have, but this was different. I forced his hand. I knew what he wanted to do, and I gave him the means to do it so I could take him out.”

  “I….”

  Cael swallowed hard, and everyone allowed him a moment to process what he’d learned. Ash expected Cael to push him away, to tell him what he’d done was wrong and that he needed time. Instead, Cael nodded.

  “I understand. We can talk about it later if you like, okay?”

  He smiled warmly, and Ash let out the breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.

  Relief washed through Ash, and he returned Cael’s smile. “Okay. How about you tell them about the Case of the Disappearing Doctor?”

  “Right. Rosa and I were called in to investigate the murder of Dr. Ward.”

  “Wait.” Dex held a hand up. “Dr. Ward is dead? Why didn’t you mention this earlier?”

  “Shit.”

  Sloane ran a hand over his face, and Ash knew his best friend was piecing it all together. It didn’t take much considering the information they had. There was no mistaking it was all connected.

  “Why’s that name familiar?” Calvin asked, looking pensive.

  “He was Sloane’s doctor,” Cael replied before turning his attention to his brother. “Sorry, we got wrapped up with the whole disappearing meds, bodies, and everything that came after.”

  “He was also my doctor,” Ash added.

  Letty looked from Sloane to Ash. “So you’re both experiencing similar problems and both happen to have had the same doctor?”

  Ash nodded. “Who also prescribed us the same doses of Thelxinomine, a Therian antibiotic meant to help our immune system and fight off infection from our injuries.”

  Something seemed to dawn on Calvin. “Wait a second. How is Dr. Ward missing if he’s dead?”

  This was getting fun. His team had no idea what the hell to make of all this. He could see it in their faces. Cael chimed in with an answer.

  “Rosa and I showed up at the crime scene like usual. I found a bottle of Thelxinomine under Dr. Ward’s desk. The name of the medication seemed familiar, so I asked Rosa to check it out on Themis, except nothing came up, which we all know never happens. So I asked a Human male nurse for more information. The guy left and never came back. When we went to find out what was taking so long, we were introduced to a Therian female nurse with the same name. Apparently the only nurse working there with that name. When we returned to the crime scene, the body was gone. The scene had been swept. The whole office was empty.”

  Rosa let out an indelicate snort. “It gets better. Hudson, Nina, and the CSIs should have been there before us, but they weren’t. We were told they’d been detained. When Cael spoke to Hudson, he said they were never called out to begin with. Then Ash and Sloane’s meds vanished from their desks, where they’d been
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