Rack & ruin, p.11
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       Rack & Ruin, p.11
 

         Part #3 of THIRDS series by Charlie Cochet  
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  you.” The little bird chirped and Dex sighed. “I won’t shoot you, but I will definitely get pissed.” Well wasn’t this just awesome. He heard an indignant scoff and tilted his head back.

  “Good evening, Mrs. Bauman.”

  The tiny old lady and her equally tiny dog huffed as they went on their way. The poor woman must think he was on something, though she didn’t so much as blink at the rifle lying across his chest. It seemed every time she saw him he was either standing half-naked on his front steps or lying on the sidewalk, contemplating his life and the utter clusterfuck it was. He sat up and tapped his phone.

  “Hey, it’s me.”

  “Dex? Where the hell are you? Are you okay? We lost your signal.”

  “Yeah, I’m uh, I’m home.” He felt like an idiot, but just the sound of Sloane’s voice helped soothe him.

  There was a long pause. “What do you mean you’re home?”

  “I’m home. My house.”

  Another pause. “I’ll be there in fifteen minutes. Do I need to call for backup? Medics?”

  “No.”

  “Okay, then. Hang tight.”

  Hanging up, Dex headed inside to wait for Sloane. He locked the door, and when he went to sit on his couch, he realized he was still in his uniform and had all his equipment. He removed his rifle from its clip and laid it on the coffee table, followed by his thigh rig. Piece by piece he removed his equipment, the process calming his nerves.

  There was a pounding on the door, and Dex gave a start. “Who’s there?” What was he expecting? Like the Coalition was going to knock on his door and answer.

  “It’s Sloane. Open up.”

  Dex had been expecting to be chewed out when Sloane came barging through the front door. Instead, his partner closed the door and threw his arms around Dex, squeezing him tight before changing gears. He pulled back and inspected Dex, caressing the bruise on Dex’s cheek. “Jesus, Dex. What the hell happened to you? You scared the shit out of me.”

  As much as Dex wanted to give in to Sloane’s embrace, he had to get it out. “I got knocked out, ended up… somewhere. I was blindfolded, bound, and gagged.”

  “You really need to stop getting yourself kidnapped.” The words were soft spoken, even if Sloane meant it as a tease.

  Dex gave a sniff. “You started it.”

  “It happened once. You’re going on three now.”

  “Okay, we can debate my amazing luck later. I need to talk to you.” He took Sloane’s hand and led him over to the couch where they sat.

  “What is it?”

  “First, did you manage to catch up to any of the Coalition members?”

  “No. We went after them when they split up but lost them after they ran into the Con Ed Plant. They must have had a getaway plan. I’m surprised they were still there when we showed up. What happened to you?”

  Dex held fast onto Sloane’s hand, grateful his partner didn’t pull away or question it. “I saw an opportunity to go after one of the Coalition members, and I chased him into the plant. At first, I wondered why the hell he was running when he could have been shooting at me. Then I tackled him, managed to unmask him, and saw why.”

  Sloane stared at him. “You saw his face?”

  “Yeah. He’s one of ours all right.”

  “Shit. You found the mole? We have to tell Lieutenant Sparks.” Sloane grabbed for his phone, and Dex stopped him, his gaze never leaving his partner’s. “What aren’t you telling me?”

  It took Dex a moment to find his spine. He so didn’t want to do this, but Sloane deserved to know. Whatever happened after that was anyone’s guess. “It’s Ash.”

  Sloane frowned, looking puzzled. “What about Ash?”

  “The mole is Ash.”

  “That’s impossible. Ash would never—” Sloane shook his head, his expression unfaltering. “No.”

  “Sloane, I saw him. Before I could say anything, I got knocked out. When I woke up, I heard him arguing with some guy. I think it was the main guy’s second-in-command. A true asshole.” Dex relayed everything he’d heard, and when he finished, he watched his partner closely. After a good few minutes where Sloane didn’t say a word, didn’t so much as blink, he finally spoke. His tone was hushed, and he sounded less certain.

  “It has to be a mistake.”

  “I saw and heard him,” Dex replied gently.

  “Look, I understand how you feel about him, but this is serious—”

  “You think I’d make something like this up?” Dex couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

  “No, I’m not saying that.”

  “But you are. Or that I’m delusional, or mistaken, or whatever equals to you not believing me.” How could Sloane dismiss him so quickly? Dex had just been kidnapped, threatened, and had the biggest fucking shock of his career, and Sloane didn’t believe him?

  “It’s not that I don’t believe you.” Sloane sat back with a heavy sigh, and Dex felt the anger melt away. He hated seeing his partner looking so… heartbroken.

  “Then what is it?”

  “Ash is the only family I’ve had since I was a kid. We’ve stuck by each other through everything. Through the First Gen Recruitment Program, college, the THIRDS. After Dr. Shultzon patched me up, I was so scared. Thinking back, I know Ash was too. He just never showed it. He did it to take care of me. He’s the only reason I hung in there. He’s my best friend. I can’t….” Sloane closed his eyes, his brow creased with worry. Dex felt like a complete asshole.

  How could he have been so callous? Ash had been Sloane’s whole world at one point. His only reason to get through the pain and fear of another day at the facility. A place where two young boys had been tested, studied, poked, and prodded. All for the “greater good” of their species. Dex remembered how terrified he’d been after he’d lost his parents. He might have been younger than Sloane, but he’d been much luckier. He’d ended up in a loving family with a great dad and awesome little brother. Dex leaned over and put his hand to Sloane’s cheek, hating the pain he saw on his lover’s face. Sloane had already had enough pain in his life.

  “I know what I saw. But we should give him the benefit of the doubt. Let’s not jump the gun. We should find out what the hell’s going on before taking this to the lieutenant.”

  Sloane opened his eyes and sat forward. “No. It’s my job to report it in. I’ve been on your ass from the start about not letting your emotions cloud your judgment, and it’s exactly what I’m doing now. I won’t be one of those do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do Team Leaders.”

  “This is different. If it had been Cael, I would have asked you for the same chance.” His partner looked uncertain, so Dex leaned in to give him a kiss. “We’re not holding back information, just looking for more evidence. Like we’d do with any other case. Except instead of handing the reins over to Recon, we sort it out ourselves. Okay?”

  Sloane appeared to think about it for a moment. “Okay.” He let his head rest against Dex’s with a soft sigh. “Thank you, Dex. If we get any shit for this, I’m taking responsibility.”

  “What? No—” Sloane’s lips cut off Dex’s protest, and at that point, Dex didn’t care. He opened himself willingly, allowing Sloane to pull him close and deepen the kiss. Whatever Sloane needed, Dex was happy to give. Sloane unclipped his rifle and dropped it onto the carpet beside the couch before leaning into Dex and crushing him down against the couch cushions. His lover’s kisses grew ardent and desperate. If this was what Sloane needed right now, Dex would do everything he could. He gripped Sloane’s tac vest and pulled him down against him, craving the feel of Sloane’s weight on him. They were both hard, their erections rubbing against each other.

  Dex groaned and reached down to unzip Sloane. He pulled his partner’s dick out of his pants and pushed Sloane onto his back so Dex could get between his knees. He swallowed Sloane’s cock, his hand squeezing the base as he came back up. He sucked Sloane off, licking and nipping, pressing his tongue to the slit. Sloane moaned and writhed, hi
s hand clutching the couch in a fierce grip. Dex doubled his efforts, determined to make Sloane lose himself even if it was just for a little while. Not long after, he heard Sloane gasp, felt his body stiffen before releasing himself inside Dex’s mouth. Dex swallowed around Sloane’s cock, drawing out his lover’s orgasm. Once Sloane had gone tender, Dex pulled off him. He lay half-on, half-off Sloane, his arm around Sloane’s chest. Sloane reached down to cup Dex, but Dex moved Sloane’s hand up to wrap around his waist.

  “It’s okay,” Dex said softly. “Just lie here with me.”

  Sloane nuzzled Dex’s temple, a small huff ruffling Dex’s hair and making him smile. He closed his eyes and shortly after felt the steady rise and fall of Sloane’s chest. Dex told himself it was too soon. Too soon to be feeling like this. He pushed those thoughts aside, feeling his pulse beat wildly. Eyes closed, he concentrated on Sloane’s breathing, telling himself everything would turn out fine. They’d find out what was going on with Ash, and everything would go back to normal.

  Chapter 8

  DEX WAS on his third cup of coffee, and it wasn’t even 10 a.m. He had training in a few hours and somehow had to find the energy for it. He’d barely slept last night. How could he knowing what he knew? He couldn’t stop worrying about Sloane, Cael, and this whole business with Ash. Had he made the right decision? Regardless, he couldn’t turn Ash in. He had to find out more. Ash might be a jerk, but could he really be working with the Coalition after serving the THIRDS as long as Sloane? Did he think he could get away with it? Was it worth risking his career and friends over? Even if Ash truly believed that what he was doing was for the greater good, how could he allow innocent people to get hurt in the process? Of course, not everyone who they believed to be innocent was.

  That morning the intel on Alberto Cristo came in. Cristo hadn’t been at the wrong place at the wrong time as they’d originally believed, and the theory a ricochet had killed him was looking very unlikely. Cristo had been a member of the Order. The algorithms Themis had run on him pulled up surveillance video of Cristo among fellow members of the Order at rallies and protests held by the Order, one in particular resulting in aggravated assault against a Therian citizen. There was a warrant out on Cristo, but the guy had disappeared. It looked like the Coalition had found him. There was no doubt in Dex’s mind that Cristo had been in exactly the right place at the right time, and how convenient that no witnesses had come forward to explain how Cristo had ended up with a bullet in the head.

  Sloane’s voice snapped Dex out of his thoughts, and he watched his partner tapping away at his desk’s interface. He scrolled through panels, bringing up glowing blue windows and high-level access screens. He swiped his hand across his desk, and everything slid over to Dex’s. Man, he loved THIRDS technology.

  “It’s all set up. Anything Ash accesses on Themis will send me an encrypted alert. Once I access the file I can delete my log-in activity, so if he goes back, he won’t know I’m on to him.”

  “Great. So can we do a scan to see if he’s accessed anything so far?” Dex looked through the open windows of Ash’s activity on Themis. There was a log file of all his reports, web searches, incoming and outgoing phone calls, texts, connections on his earpiece, offsite connections to Themis, even what snacks he purchased from the vending machines, which were also connected to Themis. Dex wasn’t sure how he felt about the government monitoring his snack preferences. “That sneaky bastard!”

  “What is it?” Sloane stood and ran over to Dex’s side. “Did I miss something?”

  “He gives me shit for eating gummy bears, and he buys a pack nearly every day.”

  Sloane stared at him. “Seriously? Do you ever not think about food?”

  “Of course I do,” Dex replied with a smirk. “When I’m thinking about sex. Though sometimes I like to think of both at the same time.” He wriggled his eyebrows, but his partner remained unimpressed.

  “Am I going to have to give you a time-out?”

  Dex pouted. “No.”

  “Besides, you’re wrong about the gummy bears.”

  “But they’re right here on the list.”

  “Who else do you know who loves gummy bears as much as you do?”

  Dex thought about it. “No one loves gummy bears as much as I do. I’m not ashamed to say I used to steal them from Cael when we—Oh.” Now Dex felt even worse. “He buys them for Cael.” Why did the guy have to be so damned nice to Cael? It would have made this so much easier if Ash treated his brother the way he treated everyone else. Instead he bought Cael his favorite snack.

  Sloane nodded and resumed his seat. He studied the screen, his expression turning somber. “Looks like the last time he bought gummy bears was six weeks ago.”

  “When he started acting like even more of a douche. What am I going to tell Cael? I feel shitty for having lied to him about last night.” After Sloane and Dex had cleaned themselves up, they’d headed back to HQ where Dex had lied to his dad during his debriefing. He’d explained how he’d gotten lost in the Con Ed Plant chasing after a Coalition member and ended up knocked out. When he woke, he was dazed, couldn’t find his team, and somehow made it home. His communicator’s signal was likely scrambled while he was in the plant surrounded by dozens of buzzing high-voltage units.

  “Hopefully we’ll get to the bottom of this, and you can tell him the truth. Speaking of, I need Cael to forward me his reports on Cristo and set up some additional algorithms. Now that we know he was with the Order, I want to know why he ended up executed and why the Coalition would want him dead.”

  “I’m going to swing by his office, see how he is,” Dex said, getting up from his chair. “I’ll ask him to send the info over.” Just as he said the words, Cael ran past their open door calling for Ash. Dex went to the door to peek out into the half-empty bullpen. Ash stopped and turned to Cael. The hairs on Dex’s neck stood on end, and he walked out of the office with Sloane on his heels.

  “There you are. I’ve been looking everywhere for you,” Cael said cheerfully.

  “What do you want?” Ash snarled, causing Cael to flinch. His smile fell off his face, and he took a small step back.

  “Sorry. I thought you might want to get a drink after work.”

  “I’m busy.”

  “Oh. What about tomorrow?”

  “I’m busy tomorrow and the next night and the night after that. Find some kids your own age to play with.” Ash started to walk off when Cael grabbed his arm. Dex didn’t like where this was headed.

  “What the hell? What’s going on? Why are you being such a jerk?”

  “Because if you haven’t heard, I’m an asshole. You should have listened to your brother. I don’t want to fucking hang out with you, Cael. I’ve got adult shit to deal with that doesn’t include video games, pizza, and learning to shave.”

  “Something’s wrong. You know you can talk to me,” Cael pleaded. “I’ve been worried about you.”

  Ash jerked his arm out of Cael’s hold. “I don’t need you worrying about me. I’m a big boy. Worry about yourself. You’ve been slack lately. Your head up in the clouds.”

  “Because I’ve been worried about you, you jackass!”

  “I can handle myself fine. I’m doing my fucking job just like you should be doing yours. You’re going to get someone killed.” Ash poked Cael in the shoulder, and Dex took a step closer. What the fuck was Ash’s problem? And why was he taking it out on Cael?

  “I know what I’m doing,” Cael snapped.

  “No you don’t. It’s our asses on the line while you stay in the truck playing with your computers.” Ash let out a frustrated sigh and threw a hand up. “Fucking useless.”

  “What?” Cael’s eyes grew glassy.

  Dex had seen enough. He pushed himself in front of Cael and faced Ash. “What the fuck is your problem, man?”

  “You and your pain-in-the-ass kid brother. I’m tired of dealing with your shit. This is a tactical team, not a fraternity. All the shit that’s going on ou
t there has reminded me of why I’m here. And it’s not to babysit the Wonder Twins. The simple fact is I got bored of both your shit.” Ash made the mistake of getting up in Dex’s face.

  Dex landed a hit square across Ash’s jaw. The large Therian reeled back, caught off guard by Dex’s punch. With a fierce growl, Ash threw a hook that Dex ducked under. He pulled back a fist only to have Cael latch onto his arm and yank him back.

  “Dex, stop!” Cael ran in front of Dex, but it was Ash Cael was protecting.

  Dex gaped at his brother, both hurt and fuming. “Are you fucking kidding me? After all the shit he just said, you’re defending him?”

  “Please.” Cael put his hands together, and Dex was stunned. Ash stormed off, and Dex spun around to head back to his office. He was seething and cursing under his breath. All that shit Ash had said to his brother and not only had Cael taken it, he’d defended the asshole? He thought his brother was better than that.

  “Un-fucking-believable.” He stormed into his office with Cael and Sloane quickly following. The walls around them going white, telling Dex they were in privacy mode—obviously Sloane’s doing. His partner was probably expecting Dex to blow at any moment, and Dex could feel it bubbling up. He couldn’t keep himself from pacing the room. He was so goddamn fucked off. Ash’s words regarding Cael listening to him over Dex rang in his ear and there was nothing he wanted more than to find the guy and land another punch. How could his brother be so blind?

  “Dex, please don’t be mad at me.” Cael took hold of Dex’s arm to stop him from pacing, but all he could see was Cael getting hurt. Having his heart broken, or worse, having the Coalition come after him. All because of that asshole.

  “How is it the people I love the most are the ones listening to me the least? First Sloane. Now you? Next thing you know, dad’s going to be—”

  “Stop.”

  Dex stilled. His eyes on Sloane. Now what?

  “What did you just say?”

  Had Sloane not heard him? Dex opened his mouth ready to repeat himself when he realized what he’d said, and by the look on Sloane’s face, what he’d done. Fuck. Oh fuck. What had he done? He’d fucked up. That’s what he’d done. Big time. Maybe he could play it off. “I was just—”

  “Did you say—you love me?” Sloane took a step back, and Dex held his hands up, praying his partner didn’t do what he looked like he was about to do. Then he remembered his brother was in the room. Double shit.

  Sloane seemed to sense his thoughts. “Cael knows about us.”

  “What? When the fuck did that happen?” What in the ever-living fuck of fucks is going on around here?

  Cael glared at him. “Thanks, bro.”

  Dex didn’t have time to answer his brother because something in his gut told him he had to do something fast. Sloane was about to bolt. Dex could see it in his eyes.

  “You didn’t answer my question,” Sloane demanded softly. “And don’t try to play it off. I know you too well by now.”

  What was he supposed to do? Lie? He could lie. No, he was a shitty liar. But he could…. Fuck it. “Yes. I love you.”

  “When?” Sloane asked, his voice growing more distant.

  When? “I don’t know? It’s not like I marked it on my calendar.”

  “Don’t.” It was a subtle but grave warning. Dex wasn’t trying to be a smartass. It’s just what his brain went to when he was on the verge of freaking out about something. And if there was ever a time to freak out about something, this was it.

  “I know it’s too soon, which is why I wasn’t going to say anything, but with everything going on, it just slipped.”

  “So you were going to keep it from me?”

  Dex felt himself deflate and he shrugged. “What’s the right answer here, Sloane?” There was none. They both knew it. He took a step toward Sloane, his heart breaking when Sloane pulled back.

  “I need some air,” Sloane said, backing up until he hit the security panel. He turned and entered his security code. Dex could feel it all crumbling around him, and he felt sick to his stomach. Even then, he stayed where he was, refusing to force Sloane.

  “Can we please talk about this?”

  “Not right now. I need some space.” The door had barely finished opening before Sloane squeezed through and was off, taking Dex’s heart with him. He didn’t know how long he stood there staring at the open door. Outside the office agents went about their business. The sound of chatting, doors closing, and speakers relaying information blurred and faded. Numbly, Dex dropped down into his chair, doing his best to calm the encroaching fear. Instead, he turned his attention to his brother. “How long have you known?”

  “Since I was in the hospital after the Therian Youth Center bombing.”

  “How could you not tell me? How could either of you not tell me?” Had they even planned on telling him? All this time, he’d been pretending in front of his brother, feeling absolutely shitty about hiding his relationship from him, and the little turd had known the whole time?

  Cael crossed his arms over his chest. “Really? You’re going to be pissed with me for knowing?”

  “It’s not that I didn’t want to tell you. I did. I felt shitty not being able to.”

  “It’s fine. I understand. I wish you could do the same for me.” Cael approached Dex and knelt beside his chair, his silvery eyes pleading. “You know
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