Against the grain, p.11
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       Against The Grain, p.11
 

         Part #5 of THIRDS series by Charlie Cochet  
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  keeping them while at work.”

  “Okay.” Calvin frowned thoughtfully. “We can rule out freak coincidence. You both had the same doctor, who wound up dead. You were prescribed the same meds, which were at the crime scene and now have mysteriously disappeared. No doc, no evidence, no pills. This is all very fascinating and weird, but I don’t understand what your investigation has to do with the rest of us.”

  “Because it was never our investigation,” Rosa said. “Sparks told us the case had already been assigned to another team. That dispatch had made a mistake by giving us the call. When Cael brought up Dr. Ward, Sparks said he was mistaken. That the body brought in was a Dr. Fredrickson, which happened to be the name on file at the hospital as the attending doctor for Sloane and Ash, which we all know is not true. After that, we were dismissed.”

  Ash met Dex’s gaze and gave him a nod. If Calvin was confused now, wait until he heard the rest of it.

  “After Sloane lost control of his shift the second time, Ash and I went to see Dr. Shultzon. We had no idea what could be causing it, so we figured we’d ask the one guy who knew more about Therians than anyone. Unfortunately, he didn’t have any answers for us, just left us with more questions. He believes the THIRDS is still carrying on with the development of the control drug from the research facility. The one Isaac used on me. One that could be used to control Therians.”

  Dex paused, and Ash understood his hesitation. Shit, he didn’t want to break the news either.

  “He also believes a high-ranking THIRDS officer is involved, most likely using specialist agents. He told us someone isn’t who they say they are, and we should be mindful of the orders we’re given.”

  Everyone went quiet as they thought about that. There was only one officer who gave them orders who could be involved. No one believed Maddock would have anything to do with this mess. The man would sooner hand in his badge than be involved with a Therian mind-control drug, and Sloane wasn’t even a consideration.

  Letty jumped to her feet. “Mierda. Are you suggesting Sparks is involved?”

  “How well do you guys know her?” Dex asked.

  Cael shrugged. “As well as anyone in our unit. She’s really reserved. But that doesn’t mean she’s involved in some control-drug conspiracy.”

  “I hate to say it,” Ash pitched in, and he really did hate saying it, but someone had to, “but when you think about it, she’s the only logical choice. She was mighty pissed off when she showed up at the research facility after we took Isaac down. What if she knew what was going on, and she was pissed off for another reason? Ward was somehow involved, and he got killed for it. Then Sparks covers it up.”

  “If Ward was involved, which is likely considering what’s happened, and he prescribed your meds, which disappeared. Do you think the meds are what’s been messing with your feral half?” Calvin asked.

  Letty looked startled. “Do you think he gave you the drug, passing it off as meds?”

  Sloane shook his head. “The drug’s supposed to control Therians. There was no control when I shifted. If it was the drug, it’s a complete failure. I can’t explain why our meds disappeared or what purpose they served, outside of what we were led to believe. Either way, it leaves us with a hell of a lot of unanswered questions.”

  He let out a sigh, and Ash knew his best friend was feeling guilty for his thoughts about Sparks. Ash felt the same. Maybe they didn’t know her all that well despite having worked under her for so long, but she always had their backs, always supported them, gave them more leeway than any officer had to. She was a damned good lieutenant. If they assigned guilt to someone simply based on their abrasive nature, Ash would be responsible for everything wrong with the world.

  “I don’t know if Sparks is involved, but her recent behavior raises a lot of questions,” Sloane admitted. “Any time I’ve asked about the First Gen Research Facility, she’s shot me down. And don’t forget Austen showed up with the very same drug when you were moving in on Bautista. Austen reports directly to Sparks. Shultzon said whoever was working on this was using specialist agents.”

  “You think Austen’s in on this too?” Letty asked worriedly.

  “God knows I don’t want to believe it, but all this has left me unsure of anything. I know the evidence right now is against him, but I believe in him. I don’t think he’s capable of doing anything like this, and if he is involved, I can’t imagine he’d do so willingly. I admit there’s a huge amount I don’t know about what his job entails, but I trust him to do what’s right.”

  “So what do we do now?” Calvin asked.

  Everyone turned their attention to Sloane.

  “It’ll be interesting to see if I have any episodes now that I’m off the meds. As for the rest, keep your eyes and ears open. I want to hear about anything you might come across that’s strange. There isn’t a whole lot we can do until we’re back in the field. I’m going to try and get a hold of Austen, see if he can shed any light on all this.”

  Ash frowned. “You really think he’ll tell you? What if he’s involved?”

  “Austen and I go way back. If there’s something he wants me to know, he’ll find a way of telling me without actually telling me. Until then, watch your backs.”

  Chapter 7

  CHRISTMAS EVE was turning out better than Cael had hoped. It might have to do with the fact he’d gone into it with little expectations other than to have a good time with his friends and family. He’d treat this Christmas like the last one. No pressure, just fun. He’d barely stopped smiling since Ash and Sloane had arrived at the house earlier in the day. They all hung out, drinking eggnog, munching on snacks, and having a great time. In the evening, Cael finished preparing a light dinner while Ash set the table. Sloane distracted Dex to keep him from eating the food before Cael served it. This had involved allowing Dex to tune the kitchen radio in to Retro Radio. There was air guitar and Ash threatening Dex with grievous bodily harm if he thrust his hips in his direction one more time. Tony watched his favorite Christmas movies in the living room, leaving them to their “shenanigans.”

  Ash had been hesitant around Cael at first, but he loosened up later in the evening. He’d even kissed Cael’s cheek in front of Tony. Cael didn’t make a big deal out of it but took it more as a wonderfully pleasant surprise. Every little gesture from Ash was a sweet revelation. Cael and Dex were finishing the dishes when he heard it. He wiped his hands on a hand towel and turned to his brother.

  “What was that?”

  “What? I didn’t hear anything,” Dex said, drying his hands.

  Cael was positive he’d heard something. “I heard a distinct ‘aw.’”

  “You did?” Dex listened intently when laughter erupted from the living room. Dex’s eyes widened the same moment as Cael’s. “He wouldn’t.”

  “This is Dad we’re talking about.”

  “Oh my God, he totally would!”

  Dex bolted from the kitchen with Cael on his heels. They ran into the living room, Dex coming to an abrupt halt and nearly forcing Cael to slam into him. Cael peered around his brother with dread. Their dad sat on the large couch flanked by Sloane and Ash, a photo album in his lap.

  “And this Halloween they decided they wanted to dress up like Ghostbusters. It was also the year a certain someone decided he was going to take green Jell-O with him while he trick-or-treated. Little did I know it was so he could throw it at the other kids and declare them ‘slimed.’”

  Everyone’s eyes moved to Dex.

  “What? Who says it was me? It could have been Cael.”

  Ash let out a snort. “Yeah, no one believes that. Dweebus.”

  With a sniff, Dex folded his arms over his chest. “I was going for authenticity.”

  “Right. Good to know you’ve been weird all your life.”

  Cael’s eyes dropped to the next album in the lineup. He gasped and swiftly clamped a hand over his mouth. Ash smiled wickedly.

  “What?”

  Cael s
hook his head. “Nothing.”

  Ash narrowed his eyes, and Cael made the mistake of glancing down at the baby blue album on the coffee table. Ash followed his gaze, and Cael made a dive for it, snatching up the album before Ash could get his hands on it. Cael dashed behind the couch where his dad and Sloane were sitting. Thanks for not helping, Dex. Dex took a seat on Sloane’s lap, pointing out pictures of himself and his dimples. Ash stood across the coffee table, clearly plotting his next course of action.

  “What’s in the album?” Ash asked, getting that predatory look in his amber eyes.

  Cael held it close to his chest. “Coupon clippings!”

  “I don’t think so.”

  “They’re his baby pictures,” Dex offered cheerfully.

  Cael gasped. “Traitor!”

  His brother gave a lazy shrug as he turned another page in the photo album. “You told Sloane about me and the vacuum cleaner hose, so now we’re even.”

  “We are so not even,” Cael scoffed. “I told him that because you called me Chirpy in front of him!”

  Their dad let out a bark of laughter. “Oh shit.” He looked at Sloane. “Cael told you about the vacuum cleaner?”

  “Yep.” Sloane grinned broadly, squirming when Dex poked him in the belly. “Hey, it’s not my fault. I was living in blissful ignorance before then.”

  Tony reached over and patted Sloane’s knee. “You don’t know the half of it. During his teenage years, you could bounce a quarter off his socks when laundry time came around.”

  Everyone burst into laughter, except for Dex, who appeared unimpressed. “Masturbation and food consumption were the core foundations of my teenage years. It’s perfectly healthy.”

  “I didn’t need to know that,” Ash muttered, taking a step closer to Cael as if Cael wouldn’t notice.

  Sloane wriggled his brows at Dex. “Guess some things never change.”

  “I really didn’t need to know that,” Ash ground out, glaring at Sloane, who brushed him off with a laugh. Ash moved to his right, and Cael did the same, his eyes narrowed at Ash.

  “There’s no way you’re getting your hands on this album, Keeler.”

  “We’ll see about that.”

  Ash slowly crept toward him, and Cael slowly backed away. Ash paused with a frown.

  “Did you leave the milk out?”

  Had he? Cael gasped. He was pretty sure he’d put it away after serving up the pie and—Two strong hands took hold of his waist and hoisted him up. Cael yelped and flailed, but he kept a firm grip on the album as Ash tossed him over his shoulder, holding him down by his legs.

  “No fair! Put me down!” The big sneak, distracting him like that. Spoiled milk was a very serious offense. Milk was needed for the enjoyment of cookies, and baking, and… more cookies. “Damn it, Ash!”

  “Give me the album.”

  Ash walked around to the love seat and dropped him onto it.

  “I’m giving you one more chance. Hand over the package, Agent Maddock, or face the consequences.”

  “Never! You can’t break me.” He wrapped his arms tightly around the album, rolling onto his side and away from Ash. There was nothing Ash could do to make him give up his baby album, filled with pictures of him and his bare bottom sticking up in the air. Or the one his dad took of him potty training, or dear God, the pictures of him running around the house naked during his “clothes are stupid” phase.

  “All right. You’ve left me no choice.”

  Ash lifted Cael’s legs and sat down, pulling him onto his lap as he launched a tickle assault. Cael squealed. Oh no! He was horribly ticklish.

  “Stop!” Cael cried, holding steadfast on to his album. He squirmed and laughed, tried curling on his side, then his back, but nothing eased the cruelty of Ash’s assault. He tickled Cael under his arms, on his sides, his neck, his belly, and his feet. It was ruthless! Cael had tears in his eyes, and his mouth hurt from laughing. Just when he thought he couldn’t take any more, the assault stopped. Cael flopped onto his back, sprawled across Ash’s lap as he tried to catch his breath. He maintained a firm grip on his baby pictures. And then Ash kissed him.

  Ash was kissing him in front of his family and Sloane. Rather than allowing his shock to take over, Cael let himself get swept away by the taste of Ash’s soft lips against his own. He returned the kiss, melting against Ash. A soft sigh escaped him, and the album was slipped from his fingers.

  “Thank you,” Ash murmured, brushing his lips over Cael’s before planting a quick kiss and pulling back.

  Cael glared at him. “You have no shame.”

  Ash let out a husky laugh. “And you’re just figuring that out?”

  Cael sat up, falling into the gap between Ash’s legs when he spread them. He might as well take it like an agent. Ash opened the album and “aw”d. The first page had a sixth-month-old Cael looking up at the camera with huge gray eyes and a confused expression. Not exactly unusual for babies that age. He was also naked, with his bottom in the air and part of him covered by a fluffy cheetah-print blanket.

  “I think I might die of how adorable this is,” Ash said. “This sort of cute should be illegal.” He grinned at Cael and kissed the tip of his nose. “You should be illegal.”

  “Shut it,” Cael griped.

  He had no choice but to sit there—on Ash’s lap—while Ash looked at his baby pictures. At least he was enjoying one of those things. He ignored the chuckles from his family. Ash continued to look through Cael’s album, making silly cute noises and pointing out pictures. There were hundreds of photos of Cael in his Human baby form and then later when he was a little older and his first shift happened, in his cheetah Therian form with his cheetah fuzz sticking up all over. There were pictures of him chirping, of him with bows in his fur thanks to his jerkface big brother, and of him hiding in a bucket while he played hide-and-seek with Dex.

  Usually a Therian’s first shift happened during puberty, but there were always exceptions, and some shifted sooner. Cael had been an early shifter, so he’d still had his cheetah fuzz. Luckily he didn’t have it for too long.

  Cael perked up, and a sly smile came onto his face. Why should he suffer alone in this baby picture hell? “Sloane,” Cael called out sweetly.

  Sloane looked up. “Hm?”

  “That yellow and baby blue album with the little lion on it is Dex’s baby album.”

  Dex gasped. He made a dive for it, but in true Dex fashion, he lost his balance and hit the carpet instead. With a smile, Sloane plucked the album from the table. “Thanks, Cael.”

  With a groan, Dex sat up. He kicked at Sloane’s foot.

  “Ow. Why are you assaulting me?”

  “You could have saved me, you big dork. Instead you went for the album?”

  Sloane blinked at him. “But if I grabbed you, then I wouldn’t have the album.”

  Dex prodded their dad’s leg. “And what’s your excuse?”

  Their dad didn’t even bother looking up from the album in his hand. “It’s not my job to kiss your ouchies anymore.” He jabbed a thumb in Sloane’s direction. “That’s his job now.”

  “So you let me fall?” Dex whined.

  “If I caught you every single time you fell, you’d never learn how to get yourself up.”

  Dex gaped at their dad while Cael snickered.

  “Ha! You just got schooled by Dad.”

  “Be quiet, Chirpy.”

  “Stop calling me that!”

  Cael jumped to his feet, grabbed one of the couch’s throw pillows, and launched it at Dex, who was getting to his feet. His brother swatted it away, and it smacked Ash in the face. There was a collective gasp from everyone.

  Ash looked down at the pillow in his lap, then up at Dex.

  “Hit the deck!” Dex leaped over the coffee table, rolled, and disappeared behind the armchair. Cael slowly backed away as Ash stood, gently put the album on the table, and took hold of the pillow he’d been smacked with. Cael dove behind the love seat. His brother was a de
ad man.

  “Don’t break my pillow,” Tony muttered, unfazed by whatever was about to transpire. Cael crawled to the edge of the love seat and peeked out. His dad continued flipping through the pages of the photo album in his lap.

  “Sloane, save me!” Dex used the furniture for cover as Ash stalked him. At least Dex had one advantage over Ash. Having grown up in this house, Dex was familiar with every nook and cranny.

  “Sloane? There’s no Sloane here,” Sloane replied. “Apparently just a big dork.”

  Dex popped his head up from behind an armchair. “Have you no sympathy for my impending demise?”

  Sloane opened Dex’s baby album and chuckled. “Aw, look at you! You look like a little burrito.”

  Dex looked uninspired. “It’s called swaddling.”

  Cael watched as Ash got ready to pounce. His brother had to know he was there.

  “Whatever it’s called,” Sloane said, “it makes you look like a burrito. An adorable baby burrito.” He turned the page. “Oh, now this is precious. Dexter Justice Daley in sheriff footie pajamas.”

  Ash froze, pillow raised high above his head. “Hold the phone.” He arched an eyebrow at Sloane. “What did you say?”

  Tony closed the album in his lap. “Look at the time. I think I’ll head up to bed.” He placed the album on the table and stood. “You break it, you buy it.”

  With that Tony headed upstairs. Cael slowly crawled over the armrest of the love seat, grabbed a throw pillow, and sat with knees drawn up to watch the chaos. Man, he wished he had some popcorn.

  “What?” Sloane asked. He looked down at the album when it seemed to dawn on him. “Oh shit.”

  Ash turned to Dex, a wide grin spreading at the horrified expression on his face. “Your middle name is Justice?”

  Dex shook his head at Sloane. “Why would you do this to me? I thought you loved me.”

  “I’m sorry,” Sloane squawked. “It slipped out!”

  Ash erupted into full-blown laughter. “That’s the funniest shit I’ve ever heard!” He doubled over, laughing so hard he was soon in tears.

  “It’s not that funny,” Dex grumbled, dropping down onto the couch beside Sloane, who drew him into his embrace and attempted to soothe Dex’s epic pouting.

  Cael shook his head. He was related to crazy people. Ash was on his knees and holding on to his side as he laughed. Apparently he was also in love with a crazy person. Sloane kissed Dex’s cheek, then his jaw, and whispered something in his ear. Dex appeared to consider whatever it was Sloane had said to him. The lewd smile he gave Sloane had Cael cringing. Ugh, they were going to have sex.

  “Good night,” Dex declared. He stood and pulled Sloane with him. “Ash, you’re a douchebag.” With that he marched off, Sloane in tow. Cael waited as Ash continued to laugh. He couldn’t even reply to Dex’s insult.

  Maybe Cael should change into his pajamas while the fiercest Therian Defense agent he knew rolled around on the floor laughing like a five-year-old.

  “Is this going to take long, because I might go upstairs and change.”

  Ash wiped his eyes, his laughter easing up. “Man, I have enough material for at least a year. This is fucking brilliant. Best. Christmas. Ever.”

  “It doesn’t take much, does it?” Cael asked, amused by how happy Ash looked. Like a little kid who’d been given a big red fire engine for Christmas.

  “To annoy the living daylights out of your brother? No, it doesn’t. This is payback for every time he’s called me Simba, for that fucking puppet, for every smartass remark.” He rubbed his hands together gleefully. “I am going to have a fucking ball with this.”

  Cael chuckled and got up. “I’m going to go change.” A thought occurred to him. “I haven’t shown you my room, have I?” Ash had seen his apartment bedroom plenty of times when he crashed at Cael’s, but Cael had never taken him up to his old bedroom.

  Ash shook his head and got up off the floor. “Can I see it?”

  “Sure.”

  Cael beamed at him. He motioned toward the stairs, and Ash accompanied him. Upstairs there were several doors. He pointed to the door at the far end of the hall, away from the others.

  “That’s Dad’s room. The room closest to his is mine, across the hall’s the bathroom, and the first room here is Dex’s.”

  There was faint moaning coming from Dex’s room.

  “You’ve got to be shitting me,” Ash grumbled, grabbing Cael’s wrist and hurrying toward Cael’s bedroom. He walked in and closed the door behind them.
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