Hell & high water, p.10
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       Hell & High Water, p.10
 

         Part #1 of THIRDS series by Charlie Cochet
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  wingback chairs with silver stripes that were angled toward it. He hated being in a room with that much white.

  Sloane positioned himself next to Rosa in front of Ms. Thalia’s desk. The woman made a great big show of sitting down, straightening objects, closing her personal diary, and adjusting the angle of her tablet before finally clasping her hands together and smiling up at him.

  “What can I do for you, Agent Brodie?” She swept her gaze over him in approval, the look in her eyes turning sinful. And they called him a predator.

  “Ms. Thalia, you were recently hired to cater a brunch held by the Ortiz family for HumaniTherians United. Is that correct?”

  “Yes. Why?”

  “Ortiz was found dead earlier today.” He watched her intently as his words sank in. The smile fell off her now pale face, her delicate hand going to her pink lips as she let out a gasp.

  “Oh my God. I spoke with him this morning. How… what happened?”

  To her credit, she looked genuinely stricken. “We’re going to need a list of Therian employees who worked the charity event.”

  “Yes, of course, but you don’t believe one of them had anything to do with it, do you?” She tapped away at her tablet, the slim document printer beside it churning to life and spitting out several sheets. As soon as it was done, she handed them to Sloane.

  “Right now, we’re following all possible leads,” Rosa stated, taking the documents from him after he gave it a cursory glance.

  “Thank you. Now I’m going to need the list of all your Unregistered employees.”

  Ms. Thalia’s gray eyes went wide, and she shot to her feet. “Now see here. I don’t—”

  “Enough.” Sloane brought her protest to an abrupt halt. “I have three Unregistered Therians detained in your pantry. I caught them unloading your company van. Now, you can cooperate and get me that list, or I will arrest you for the hiring of Unregistered Therians, shut you down, confiscate everything, and find the list myself.”

  With an anxious nod, she quickly went about printing another list. This one was much shorter. Removing a pen from his front breast pocket, Sloane scratched out the three names he recognized from the TIK analysis. That left seven. “Is there anyone on this list who was scheduled to work at the brunch?”

  Ms. Thalia resumed her seat. “Yes. I don’t normally send Unregistered employees offsite unless they’re making deliveries, but one of my bartenders called in sick at the last minute, and Lloyd had bartending experience, so I sent him. I told Mrs. Ortiz he was in the process of registering.”

  “Full name?”

  “Lloyd Everton.”

  Cael tapped the information into his tablet. “We’re going to need everything you have on file for him.”

  Ms. Thalia clasped her hands tightly in front of her. “I’m afraid that’s all I have. He came recommended by one of my vendors. They wanted to keep him on but had to make cutbacks. Look, these guys are grateful to get any work they can. They don’t make demands and neither do I. It’s all cash under the table. Lloyd’s been working for me for months. He would never hurt anyone.”

  Unlike a lot of other employers Sloane came across, Ms. Thalia hadn’t jumped at the chance to hurl blame upon her Unregistered Therian employees. Still, that didn’t mean she didn’t take advantage of them. Sloane had to consider all possibilities. “Well someone isn’t hurt, Ms. Thalia, they’re dead, and so are two other victims. We need to find Mr. Everton and bring him in for questioning. He’s the only one unaccounted for.”

  “I’m sorry.” She rushed around her desk and put her hands on his arm. “I swear, if I had any more information, I would give it to you, but that’s all I have.”

  It was amazing how quickly the haughtiness disappeared when faced with the possibility of prison time. Sloane pretended to give the matter some thought. “Okay, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to leave you with a warning. Either get your employees to register, or call them in. No more hiring illegal help. Got it?”

  “Yes.” She nodded vigorously before releasing his arm. “I’ll do that.”

  Reaching into his front breast pocket, he pulled out one of his contact cards and handed it to her. “If you hear from or see Mr. Everton, you call me immediately.”

  “Of course. Thank you, Agent Brodie.” She motioned toward the door and they headed out, stopping in the reception area. Ms. Thalia caught his arm again and went on about how sorry she was about her tone, how she would do everything within her power to help, and whether there was anything she could do to make it up to him. The last part had been a loaded question, and Sloane passed her on to Rosa with a pleasant smile. Leaving Cael and Rosa to get Ms. Thalia’s contact details, Sloane turned to find himself short one partner. He strode out into the lobby filled with several white loveseats, dark coffee tables with elaborate centerpieces, and more framed photos of classy events lining the walls. No smartass agents in sight.

  Sloane cursed under his breath. He could easily call Dex on his communicator, but he didn’t want anyone else overhearing how he’d let his partner give him the slip already. He couldn’t wait for this day to be over.

  Chapter 6

  DAMN IT. His partner couldn’t have gotten far. How Dex had managed to slip away without Sloane noticing was something he was still trying to figure out. Maybe he wasn’t giving the guy enough credit. He’d have to be extra vigilant around the rookie from now on.

  A petite woman appeared before Sloane. “Agent?”

  “Yes, ma’am?” He expected her to start asking all kinds of questions regarding their presence and what was going on. Instead, she gave him a knowing smile and pointed to a set of doors tucked into the corner of the room.

  “I believe you’ll find what you’re looking for in the kitchen.”

  Teeth gritted, Sloane gave her a nod in thanks before taking off in search of Dex, telling himself that shooting his partner would most likely be frowned upon. Maybe he could get away with a small flesh wound? Accidents in the workplace were, after all, very common occurrences. He stepped through the swinging doors into a huge kitchen filled with wall-to-wall stainless steel appliances, storage units, and fridges. Down the center of the room was a row of wide stainless steel tables and toward the end, Sloane spotted what he was looking for.

  What the hell? Sloane gave a slow, disbelieving shake of his head at the sight before him. In the middle of the kitchen, a pretty, young Therian stood on his toes popping something into Dex’s open mouth.

  “Mmm,” Dex hummed as he chewed, his eyes closed and the look of sheer pleasure on his face unsettling. After swallowing, Dex opened his eyes, his tongue poking out to lick at his bottom lip. “Now that was really good. What was in that one?”

  The young Therian chef batted his lashes and leaned in to wipe something nonexistent from the corner of Dex’s mouth, his big brown eyes all but devouring the agent. “Hazelnut praline with dark chocolate.”

  Dex beamed at him. “That was good. I really liked that one. It was even better than the strawberry and white chocolate thingy with the little chocolate shavings.”

  The young Therian placed his hands on the stainless steel table behind him and arched his back, his eyes on Dex’s lips. “Tell me, Agent Daley. Do you like café con leche?”

  Dex’s face lit up. “I love café con leche.”

  “Agent Daley,” Sloane barked, causing the two to jump.

  “Crap.” Dex cleared his throat and gave the young chef an apologetic smile. “Sorry, Jordan, duty calls. Thanks so much for the free samples.”

  “Any time, Agent Daley.” The Therian was practically purring.

  Sloane waited, his jaw clenched as Dex hurried over. As soon as they were outside the kitchen, Sloane turned to Dex in disbelief. “We’re in the middle of a case, and you’re flirting?”

  “I wasn’t flirting, I was eating. I’m starving. Which is your fault.”

  “My fault?” Clearly he’d had a momentary lapse of judgment by thinking the two of th
em could get along. The urge to punch the guy was steadily rising. “How is this my fault?”

  “You gave my Cheesy Doodles away!”

  “Jesus Christ, again with that?” Sloane tried to summon patience, but instead he kept seeing Dex’s stupid tongue poking out to lick his bottom lip. He pushed that thought away, grabbed Dex’s arm and hauled him toward the exit. “That back there had nothing to do with food, unless we count you being a part of the menu. The guy was two seconds away from pouncing on you.”

  “What? No way. We were talking about chocolate and café con leche.”

  Sloane stopped in his tracks. “You’re not serious are you? You can’t be that oblivious.”

  “To what?” Dex’s wide eyes told Sloane he most probably was. How could a guy like Dex be so clueless? The way Hudson kept trying to have eye sex with him, the Therian in the kitchen undressing him with his eyes? Hell, Sloane had even caught Letty eyeing Dex’s ass on more than one occasion. Yet Dex never seemed to notice.

  “To the fact that he wasn’t talking about drinks, you idiot. He wanted you to be the leche in his café.”

  Dex frowned when it dawned on him. “Ohhh. I misread that.”

  “I don’t….” Sloane shook his head. He didn’t even have words. “Get in the damn truck before I shoot you.” He pushed Dex from behind, guiding him into the lobby, grunting every time Dex paused to talk at him over his shoulder.

  “You know, you should try yoga. Find a way to channel all that aggression.”

  Sloane gave him another push. “I have found a way. It’s called shoving my foot up your ass.”

  “That doesn’t sound very relaxing.”

  Push. “I’m sure I’ll feel plenty relaxed afterward.”

  “You got a problem.” Dex grimaced at him, and Sloane gave another push to get him moving again.

  “Yeah and I’m looking right at it.” This situation was a heart attack waiting to happen. He just knew it. The stress of the job, now this. Yep, he was going to keel over. He could see the writing on his tombstone now: Sloane Brodie departed this world at age 37 due to massive coronary trauma as a result of idiot partner Dexter J. Daley.

  “Ouch, man. That’s harsh.”

  Sloane had just about reached the front door when Calvin’s voice came over his earpiece.

  “Sloane, we got a problem.”

  “What is it?”

  “Press is outside.”

  “Shit.” Sloane crept up to the large glass front, grateful for the wall-to-ceiling venetian blinds. Careful not to jostle the thin wooden slats, he peeked outside. Damn it, there were at least three news vans that he could see. He pulled back and tapped his earpiece. “What about Cael and Rosa?”

  Rosa’s concerned voice came over his earpiece. “We’re in the truck. We didn’t see you guys so figured you’d already headed out.”

  Sloane cast Dex an accusing glare. “We got momentarily held up. Dex had to take a shit.”

  Dex’s jaw dropped. He made to touch his earpiece when Sloane caught his wrist and twisted his arm behind him, making him double over.

  “Ow, ow, ow,” Dex moaned, glaring up at him.

  “Thank you for the disturbing visual,” Rosa grunted. “What now?”

  “We’re going out the back. Have the BearCat ready to go as soon as we get there.” He released Dex’s arm, pulled him up and grinned at the sour expression on Dex’s face.

  “That was not cool, man.”

  “Maybe next time you’ll think twice about wandering off. Now let’s go.”

  They rushed through the lobby and reception area to the double doors on the right. Behind him, Dex mimicked him, lowering his voice as he repeated Sloane’s words, adding an unintelligible rambling of grunts and growls at the end.

  “There’s something seriously wrong with you.” Sloane followed the hallway he’d come in through earlier to the pantry and out into the hall leading to the loading dock.

  “Must be the company I’ve been keeping,” Dex quipped. Sloane turned and grabbed Dex by the shoulders.

  “Okay, shut up for a minute. Let’s pretend you’re a normal agent for a sec, and that you weren’t sent to drive me out of my freaking mind. Can you do that?”

  Dex pursed his lips. “I’ll have to reach really deep for that one, but I think I can manage.”

  “Good. Soon as we get out there, make a beeline for the truck, and try not to shoot anyone.”

  “No promises,” Dex muttered.

  Sloane unclipped his helmet from where it hung at the back of his vest, and put it on before lowering his visor. He motioned for Dex to do the same. It wouldn’t deter the press, but at least their helmets would keep the cameras out of their faces and offer a little more anonymity. He grabbed the heavy metal door and pulled. With a quick glimpse to make sure the coast was clear, they hurried through and jumped down the concrete platform, making a dash for the sidewalk.

  “There!”

  One of the journalists saw them and the rest descended, shrouding them like a thick fog. Sloane held onto Dex’s vest so as not to lose him. The BearCat was only a few feet away. Questions flew at them from every direction, and Sloane tried his hardest not to put anyone’s lights out as they carefully pushed their way through the crowd.

  “Agent Brodie, when is the THIRDS going to catch this murderer?”

  As soon as you get the hell out of our way. “We’re following up on all possible leads. Excuse us, please.”

  “How do the THIRDS justify sending killers to catch a killer?”

  The question had Sloane gritting his teeth, but it wasn’t anything he hadn’t heard a hundred times over. As if Therians were the only ones capable of killing. Homicides had existed long before his kind. Dex made to stop when Sloane gave his vest a tug, keeping him walking. He leaned over so his partner could hear over the buzz of reporters and equipment. “Don’t stop.” The last thing they needed was to give the vultures any more ammunition, and after everything Dex had been through during the trial of his partner, Sloane had no idea how the guy would react to any of the callous questions thrown at them. When one of the reporters shoved a recording device under Sloane’s visor from somewhere over his shoulder, Dex became the least of his worries.

  “Agent Brodie, you don’t seem to have much luck when it comes to partners. What do you think are the chances of this one ending up like Agent Pearce?”

  Sloane came to an abrupt halt, the reporters around him stumbling and running into each other so as not to bump into him. He turned, his fists curled at his sides. With a growl, he took a step forward, ready to plant one into the son of a bitch when Dex materialized before him.

  “Hey, partner.” Dex maneuvered him into the nearest open shop doorway, closing it on the swarming reporters and locking it. To Sloane’s surprise, Dex lifted both their visors before gently taking hold of Sloane’s face and pulling him close. He was ready to snap at Dex, but having those pale blue eyes staring intently into his own stopped him cold. He didn’t know why, but he found himself unable to look away. More disturbing was the knowledge a part of him didn’t want to. He stood, focusing on the pools of crystal blue. When Dex spoke, his voice was soothing.

  “Come on. Focus. Focus on me. Not them. Me.”

  Sloane gritted his teeth, his anger fluctuating. He wanted to stay outraged, but the more he looked into Dex’s eyes, the harder he found it.

  “Look at me. Breathe. That’s it. Just breathe. They don’t know you.”

  “You don’t know me either,” Sloane replied roughly.

  “I know enough. I also know the job. It’s easy for them to talk shit when they’re not the ones out there, putting their lives on the line, making the tough decisions. They don’t see the faces when they close their eyes. They don’t have to live with the guilt. All they want is to see you as some dangerous animal, to watch you fail and prove them right. Don’t give them the satisfaction. You’re better than those assholes and you know it.”

  Dex was right. Sloane was playing i
nto their hands. It was a cheap shot, using his dead partner to stir a reaction out of him, but it wasn’t the first time they’d stooped that low over the last year. He breathed in deeply and released it slowly. Maddock’s voice came in over their earpieces.

  “Where are you two?”

  Dex looked around them. “We’re in a café. Vultures got too close. They’re swarming outside. We’re going to need a distraction.”

  “How long?” Maddock asked.

  Dex craned his neck, and Sloane turned, not surprised to see the large glass display filled with all kinds of baked goods. When he turned back to Dex, his partner was looking up at him with big puppy eyes. No. Absolutely not. He was not going to….

  “Okay, fine,” Sloane muttered. “But hurry up.”

  Dex tapped his earpiece. “Ten minutes, Sarge.”

  “Fine.”

  With an excited bounce, Dex rushed to the counter, and Sloane stared after him. He’d never met anyone who got as excited about food as Dex. From the grin he had on his face, you’d think the guy had hit the lottery or something. Lucky for them, there were only a couple of customers inside, one wearing headphones and so engrossed in whatever was on his tablet that he hadn’t even noticed them come in, and a tiny wisp of a girl who smiled at him, turned in her seat, held up her phone and snapped a picture of Dex bending over to point at something behind the display. When she turned around, Sloane arched an eyebrow at her.

  She gave him a shrug. “Your boy’s got a fine ass.”

  Seriously? She tapped away at her phone and Sloane wondered if he should tell his partner his ass was about to get its fifteen minutes. Nah. It was a pretty fine ass.

  Dex turned to Sloane, a look of sheer joy on his face. “You want anything?”

  Why the hell not. “A bear claw.”

  “Nice choice, partner.” Dex turned back to the counter and put in his order with the startled looking barista. From the sounds of it, Dex was ordering for the whole team.

  “Don’t get anything with nuts for Ash. He’s allergic,” Sloane called out.

  Dex gave a snort. “Of course he is.”

  With two plastic bags full of cakes and drinks, Dex walked up to Sloane and motioned toward the door. “Looks like Sarge has cleared the way. Ready to make a break for it?”

  “Yeah.” Dex made for the door when Sloane took hold of his arm. “Listen, about earlier….”

  Dex tilted his head to one side, his expression softening. “Don’t mention it. You need me, just… you know. Now let’s get going.”

  Sloane opened the door for him and, with a quick glance to see the flock of reporters down at the end of the block surrounding Maddock, they made a run for the BearCat sitting idle in the street. The back doors opened, and Sloane helped Dex up before climbing in after him.

  “You guys okay?” Cael asked before sniffing the air, his eyes going huge. “Oh my God, did you get food?”

  Dex held the bags up. “Bear claw is Sloane’s and the cinnamon bun is mine. Anyone touches it and I swear I will bust your shit up.” He started handing out little white paper bags along with drinks.

  “Oh my God, this is sooo good,” Rosa moaned. “Dex, if you didn’t have a penis, I would totally sex you up right now.”

  Dex gave her a wink. “And if you had a penis, I would totally let you.”

  Sloane couldn’t help but chuckle. “Idiot.”

  “What?” Dex warbled through a mouthful of cinnamon bun.

  “What the hell is going on in here? Sounds like a goddamn orgy.”

  Everyone froze, cakes and breads half-stuffed into mouths. Dex swallowed what he’d been chewing before holding a hand up. “My fault, Sarge. We were in the café, I was starving, so I thought why not have a quick bite on the way to wherever we’re going next?”

  “So you got sugar.”

  “And carbs,” Dex added. He rummaged in the bag and held up a white paper bag, waving it at Maddock. “Chocolate croissant.”

  Maddock marched over, and snatched the croissant from him. “You think that’s going to cut it, Agent Daley?” Dex held up a Diet Pepsi, which Maddock promptly swiped as well. “Thought so.” He went to his seat and got busy eating his croissant. “Calvin, Hobbs, finish up your damn donuts so we can get moving. We’re heading back to HQ.”

  Calvin murmured an acknowledgment around a mouthful of donut, and Hobbs merely continued eating. As Sloane quietly ate his bear claw, he observed his team all smiling and laughing. Each of them had learned to cope with Gabe’s death in their own way. It had been only recently that his team had regained some of its lightheartedness, something needed to keep them sane on the job. There had been a lot of anger, anger that had manifested itself in different ways. Sloane
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