Hell & high water, p.22
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       Hell & High Water, p.22
 

         Part #1 of THIRDS series by Charlie Cochet
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  digging into Sloane’s ass and his free hand palming his own cock. “Fuck. That’s it, Dex. Oh God, like that.” Sloane’s other hand found its way into Dex’s hair, but he didn’t mind the pull. Seeing the look of pleasure on Sloane’s face made the discomfort worth it. Sloane started pumping into Dex’s mouth in earnest until he lost his rhythm, one hand behind Dex’s head, holding it as he fucked his mouth. “Dex….”

  Dex hummed, and Sloane let out a strangled cry as he shot his load. Dex swallowed around his partner’s cock, doing his best to take all of it, and another shudder went through Sloane. He doubled over, his arms wrapped around Dex’s head as he emptied down Dex’s throat. A few heartbeats later, Dex came hard. Sloane slowly pulled out of Dex’s mouth, leaning back against the tiny brown and white shower titles. Dex stood, ignoring the pain in his knees and back. He kissed Sloane, loving the low groan Sloane released at tasting himself on Dex’s lips. They kissed until the water started cooling, and then Dex pulled Sloane under it, lathering him up and washing him, relishing in the feel of Sloane’s firm body. They finished up and dried each other off before getting dressed. In companionable silence, they headed downstairs where Sloane popped the tasty breakfast bagel he’d made for Dex in the toaster-oven to warm up before making Dex a great cup of coffee.

  They took Sloane’s sleek, black, Chevy Impala to work since Sloane had driven him home from the hospital in it. For some reason, Dex had expected Sloane to drive an SUV or something similar, but seeing him sitting comfortably behind the wheel surrounded by the classy jet black interior, Dex decided it was a good look for him. It fit with Sloane’s smooth looks and mysterious appeal. They didn’t discuss what had happened that morning or the night before, and as Dex suspected, when Sloane recognized Dex wasn’t going to bring it up, he relaxed. There was no need for the “we need to keep this quiet” conversation. Dex was fully aware what was at stake, and he had no intention of screwing everything up. He might have a big mouth but not when it came to what mattered.

  Once at HQ, they changed into their uniforms and headed up to Unit Alpha. Dex had even caught Sloane smiling on more than one occasion. Knowing he had been the one to put that smile on his face had Dex grinning like a dope. When they reached the Defense Department, Dex was surprised by all the warm greetings he received. Everyone was genuinely happy to see him, a nice change from how he’d been greeted at the Sixth precinct after his ex-partner’s arrest. Sloane patted Dex’s back.

  “Welcome home, Dex.”

  Coming from Sloane, Dex couldn’t have soared any higher. Seconds after booting up their desks, Destructive Delta was ordered to meet in briefing room “A.” His team—with the exception of Ash—all greeted him with hugs or pats on the backs. It was amazing how quickly he was growing attached to these guys. He took a seat at the table between Sloane and Rosa, grinning at Ash who sat across from them beside Cael, with his usual grumpy frown on his face. Well, it was time to get to work. While Hudson and Nina were talking to Tony at the front of the room, Dex opened his backpack, stuck his hand inside and pulled out his new puppet pal.

  Ash’s eyes went huge. “What the fuck is that?”

  Dex grinned. “Sloane got it for me at the hospital gift shop on our way out.” It was a hand puppet of a lion with a big brown nose and a fluffy brown mane sticking up every which way. Dex lowered his voice, growling as his fingers moved the puppet’s little paws. “Hi, I’m Ash. My hobbies include shooting things, shooting things, and uh, shooting things. Oh and I like fish.”

  Everyone around the table burst into laughter except for Ash who turned his stunned gaze on Sloane. “Are you serious?”

  Sloane shrugged. “It was the only way I could distract him long enough to get him to the car. Besides, he was hurt and he liked it. I couldn’t say no.”

  “Yes you could have,” Ash ground out through his teeth. “That’s just wrong.”

  “No, that’s wrong,” Rosa said, pointing at Dex who was sliding his fist in and out of the puppet, making moaning noises.

  “Ooh, yeah, you like that don’t you.”

  “Son of a bitch!” Ash lunged for the puppet and Dex gasped, holding his puppet Ash against his chest.

  “Don’t you dare lay a finger on him! We’re in love. Nothing you can say or do will change what we have between us.” He petted puppet Ash’s mane, speaking quietly. “It’s okay. I’m here now. He can’t hurt you.” He placed a kiss to its nose.

  “You have problems,” Ash said, jutting a finger at Dex.

  Rosa laughed and hugged Dex. “I missed you.”

  “Okay, listen up.” Tony stood at the podium. “The lab results for Ortiz have come in, and Hudson’s going to fill you in on what they’ve found. It took slightly longer than anticipated because there was some research to be done first in order to confirm what the examiners suspected.”

  Hudson took the podium, tapping the display and bringing up an image of some tropical beach with black sand. “This is Punalu’u Beach in Hawaii. As you can see, it consists of black sand, traces of which were found on Ortiz, who we can confirm has never been to Punalu’u Beach in his lifetime, much less around the time of his murder, nor had his wife or any of their brunch guests. However, we submitted the sample to Themis, and we immediately got a hit. There is one establishment that imports this exact sand from Punalu’u.” Hudson cleared his throat and stepped to one side, his expression troubled. Something was going on.

  “Well?” Ash asked. “You guys gonna fill us in or are we supposed to guess?”

  Tony resumed his place behind the podium, and Dex braced himself. He knew that look. Whatever his dad was about to say, wouldn’t be good.

  “We’ve confirmed the sand found on Ortiz is from The Styx.”

  An unwelcome tension stretched over the room like a heavy fog. Whatever it was, it was serious. Dex held up a hand. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what that means.” No one answered, and Dex couldn’t understand why, until Sloane met Dex’s gaze, his heart squeezing at the sorrow in his partner’s eyes.

  “That’s where Gabe was killed. In the small alley behind it.”

  Dex closed his eyes, cursing softly under his breath. It seemed no matter where they were, what they were doing, the ghost of Gabe Pearce followed them. It wasn’t that he wanted Sloane to forget Gabe. He could never be that selfish. The more time he spent with Sloane, the more difficult it was to see the guy’s heart breaking over and over. Every time Dex thought Sloane might be reaching a point where he could start healing, something in this case popped up to drag his partner back down. Sloane needed to put Gabe to rest, but it was clear that wasn’t going to happen until they got to the bottom of whatever was happening. For Sloane’s peace of mind—and his own—Dex needed to see this through to the end.

  Tony finally spoke up, his voice rougher than usual. “There’s more. I’ve asked Hudson and Nina to reopen Agent Pearce’s case. They’ll be going back over the reports and running everything through Themis.”

  “You think the cases may be connected?” Dex asked when Sloane rose from his seat.

  “Gabe wasn’t a HumaniTherian activist. Plus, it was an open and shut case.”

  “I know,” Tony replied quietly.

  “Then why dredge it all up again? They have nothing to do with each other.”

  “We don’t know that. I have to consider all possibilities. Gabe was killed at The Styx. Our last victim had traces of the very same sand imported by that bar, yet Ortiz had never set foot in there. If there’s anything in Gabe’s file that might have been overlooked at the time, we need to know about it. There are too many factors not adding up in this, and we’re running out of time. I’m sorry, team. Cael, Rosa, get down to The Styx and speak with the owner. Ash, you and Letty go in as backup.”

  Sloane shook his head, his gaze intense. “No. Dex and I will go in as backup like we always do.”

  Tony let out a heavy sigh. “Sloane—”

  “If this is connected to Gabe’s death, then I want to k
now. You can’t bench me on this. Not this time.”

  “You’re too close.”

  “We’re all too close. I can remain objective this time, and Dex will be there to make sure of it. If at any point, he thinks I need to be pulled from the case, I’ll concede, willingly.”

  Everyone stared at Sloane, but naturally, Ash was the first to speak up. “You’re going to leave the decision to Dex?”

  “Yes. My ability to perform without compromising my team and my partner is priority. I trust his decision.” Sloane turned his gaze to Tony. “Well?”

  Tony took a moment to think it over. “Okay. Dex, if at any point you feel your partner is putting the investigation in jeopardy, you have him pulled. Understood?”

  “Yes, sir.” Dex prayed Sloane didn’t give him a reason to.

  “All right, then. If you run into any problems, you call for backup. Get going.”

  The team dispersed, and Dex followed Sloane out of the briefing room. They were silent all the way to the elevator and down to the armory where they loaded only their basic equipment. This wasn’t an emergency, so they’d make do with their backup weapon and the secured rifles in the back of the black unmarked Suburban they’d be driving instead of the BearCat. Sloane needed some time to think, and Dex would make sure to give him however long he needed. When his partner was ready to talk, he’d talk.

  Once inside the garage, Cael and Rosa stopped long enough to murmur they’d meet at The Styx, and Dex gave a “thumbs up” to signal his acknowledgment. It’s as if the whole team was walking on eggshells. Since he was the rookie, Dex climbed into the passenger seat of the decked out Suburban and buckled up. They exited the garage and drove down to East Thirty-Seventh Street where they made a right before making a left onto Second Avenue.

  “You’re quiet.” Sloane tapped his fingers against the steering wheel as they stopped at a red light.

  “Just giving you some space.” Dex focused on the bare trees surrounding the Vincent F. Albano Jr. Playground. Winter was settling nicely, and the team had started wearing their thermal knit underclothes. He was not looking forward to frolicking through snowstorms with his gear.

  “You don’t need to do that, I’m fine. But thank you.”

  Dex was surprised, but didn’t express it. If Sloane didn’t want to make a big deal out of it, neither would he. “So where is this place?” The light turned green and they continued down Second Avenue.

  “Meatpacking District. It’s a bar and a restaurant. Gabe loved it because it has this great rustic look. High ceilings, exposed brick, iron work. Good food, friendly people. The garden turns into a cocktail lounge in the evenings and it has this cool retractable roof.”

  “Sounds nice.” Dex smiled despite feeling as if his insides were twisting. With traffic, it took them roughly twenty minutes to get to The Styx. They parked the Suburban a few feet away from the place, and Dex turned in his seat to look at Sloane. “It’s cool if you want to stay in the car.”

  “I’m fine. Let’s get this over with.”

  The Styx was situated a block from the High Line—a mile long public park filled with plants, viewing platforms, restaurants, and gathering areas for exhibitions, all of it hovering over the Meatpacking District on an elevated rail. The Styx building itself was charmingly rough like so many others in a city offering variety and deliciously urban décor, situated on a street lined with exclusive clubs, trendy restaurants, and pricy boutiques. One side of the brick façade was crawling with that expensive, artificial ivy intertwined with wisteria used often by businesses occupying old buildings, and to each side of the central scuffed wooden doors were two sets of large, rectangular wooden pots filled with plants and painted green to match the entrance and exit doors. Next door was a large nightclub, which at this time of day was blissfully serene.

  As they walked inside, Dex could see why Gabe had liked the place so much. It had a cozy feel to it. Trendy, yet not ostentatious. Inside it was all rustic beams and brick walls containing more wisteria, especially around the medium-sized marble-top bar. It was lined with black, high-back stools, and on the glass shelving unit behind the bar, a host of alcoholic spirits were on display.

  To the left of the bar, Dex could see the garden Sloane had mentioned, the walls crawling with dense ivy and the floor scattered with small potted plants and trees. About a dozen white-clothed tables were spread across the tiled floor. Dex imagined the place got pretty packed in the evenings with folks grabbing a bite to eat before heading to the club next door. His gaze dropped to the glittering stone floor and there were traces of black sand everywhere. He’d be amazed if someone left here without getting the stuff on them. In the dining area, he found the surfaces decorated with spikes of striking purplish-blue flowers in black Greek-style vases. Strolling to one, he found each vase had black sand in it.

  “Beautiful aren’t they?” Dex looked up at Rosa who tenderly touched one of the flower’s petals. “They’re Hyacinths. There’s a Greek myth that goes with it. A tragic love story.”

  Dex grimaced. “Weren’t they all tragic love stories?”

  Rosa chuckled just as Cael called them over. They followed a waiter into the back end, past the kitchen and into a medium-sized office where a slender man in his midfifties sporting jeans, a faded T-shirt, and trendy jacket, came around the desk to greet them.

  “Hey, what can I do for you agents? Please tell me it’s not another murder involving my place. Frankly, I’m still recovering from the last.”

  Dex watched Sloane’s lips press in a thin line, but his partner remained silent. Cael removed his tablet from his padded vest pocket, tapping away. “I’m sorry to say this, Mr. Danak, but our lab has confirmed the traces of black sand found on our last victim came from your establishment.” He showed Mr. Danak the tablet with an image of Ortiz.

  “I remember. Your agents asked if he’d ever been here. I’m afraid the answer hasn’t changed. I never saw him, neither has the staff, and we would’ve remembered. Surely there must be another way the sand got onto Mr. Ortiz.”

  “That’s what we’re here to find out. I phoned earlier and you stated you keep up to a year’s worth of security footage?”

  “That’s correct.” Mr. Danak motioned to the small room off to the right of his office. “Equipment’s in there. Help yourself.”

  “Is it digital?” Cael asked.

  “Yes.”

  With a nod of thanks, Cael headed for the room, the rest of the team following. They stood at the door as Cael hooked his tablet up to the fancy desktop. After a few taps to his tablet, Cael typed away on the desktop’s keyboard, accessing its server and the stored video files. “The Styx only has a few cameras inside and one toward the front entrance. Nothing out the back since patrons aren’t supposed to exit that way. I’m going to run the last three months through Themis. Shouldn’t take more than a few minutes.”

  Themis played the video at high speed, tiny white squares popping up over every face it came across, while a narrow screen on the right side scrolled information, names, details, dates, times, addresses, anything related to the individuals who popped up on the screen. The screen stilled on an image, the white rectangle flashing over a man’s face.

  “We’ve got something.”

  Dex leaned in, recognizing the guy. “Wait a second. That’s….”

  “Isaac Pearce,” Sloane pitched in from over Dex’s shoulder.

  Cael nodded. “Well, Tony did tell us to keep his information in Themis just in case. It’s bound to come across him again, especially since he’s connected to Gabe, and Gabe’s name has been reactivated in the system.”

  “Yeah, but what’s he doing here?” Dex watched Cael play the video. Pearce sat at the bar, nursing a beer.

  “Maybe he came here for the same reason I avoided it. It was Gabe’s favorite place.”

  As they watched the video, someone in a hoodie and cap appeared in the doorway on the left. When he saw Pearce, and Pearce clocked onto him, the guy bolted. P
earce took off after him, nearly knocking over a couple as they entered the bar. “What was that? Play it back,” Dex said, watching carefully.

  “Who is that?” Sloane asked.

  Cael shook his head, swiping his finger across the screen. “I don’t know. His face was away from the camera. The second camera was pointing toward the garden at the time and the third at the back of the indoor dining area, so Themis can’t put together a 3D map. Whoever he is, looks like he’s scared of Isaac.”

  “When was this?” Dex asked.

  “Three days ago.”

  Rosa turned to Sloane, her expression sympathetic. “I’m sorry, but we need to talk to Isaac.”

  “Then we go.” Sloane left the office, and after a worried glance exchanged between Cael and Rosa, they followed Sloane out. Dex trailed behind, using the opportunity to call Calvin.

  “Hey, Dex. What’s up?”

  “Do me a favor. Can you get Intel to cross-reference Gabe Pearce’s name with the victims. This is all too much of a coincidence for my liking. This is priority.”

  “Sure thing. I’ll let you know if they get anything.”

  “Great. Thanks.” Dex tapped his earpiece again. “Dispatch, can you connect me to the HPF’s Sixth precinct? Thanks.” He thanked the bar owner on the way out, promised he’d be back in an unofficial capacity soon and headed for the Suburban. He climbed into the passenger seat, Sloane looking at him questioningly. He held a finger up and pointed to his ear. “Hey, Anna Banana, Dex here. Just wanted to know if Detective Pearce is in.” The dispatcher’s cheerful voice came over the line.

  “Hi, Detec—I mean Agent Daley. I’m afraid today’s his day off.”

  “Thank you, Anna. Take care.”

  “You too.”

  Dex tapped his earpiece and turned to Sloane. “Pearce is off today.”

  “Let’s try his workshop. There’s no phone there, and I’d rather not give his cell phone a ring.”

  “Tunnel or bridge?” Dex asked, not that it would make a huge difference traffic wise. They were looking at half hour minimum even at this time of day to get from here to Brooklyn.

  “Tunnel.” He tapped his earpiece. “Rosa, Cael, when we get there, I want Dex to go in and do the talking.”

  Dex stared at him. “What?”

  Sloane tapped his earpiece and addressed Dex. “It’ll soften the blow of seeing me there. He’s also not fond of the team, but he trusts you. He’ll talk to you. We’re not dealing with some street punk. We’re dealing with a cop who knows the law inside and out. He doesn’t like the sound of something, he’ll tell us to go fuck ourselves.”

  “What happened between you two? It’s cool if you don’t want to talk about it, I—”

  Sloane let out a heavy sigh, his frown deepening. “It’s fine. He never liked me. Not because I was his brother’s boyfriend. He never had a problem with Gabe being gay. He had a problem with me because I’m a Therian. You know, one of those, I don’t have a problem with Therians as long as they don’t date my brother, sort of deals.”

  “Ah, I see.”

  “Gabe and Isaac used to fight constantly over our relationship, and it hurt to see Gabe so unhappy. I tried to break things off once because I knew how much he loved his brother, and I didn’t want to come between them. Isaac was the only family he had. But Gabe was furious, said he wasn’t going to give up on us, on someone who made him happy because his brother was too stubborn to see how much I meant to him.”

  They drove into the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel, and Sloane took a deep breath before releasing it slowly. “Gabe laid it all out for Isaac. Said he wasn’t going to choose, that he loved us both, and he wasn’t going to leave me. The only reason Isaac didn’t out us was because it would have hurt his brother’s career. Being with Gabe…. For the first time in my life, I was happy. When he died, Isaac took everything. And I’m not talking about Gabe’s money. I didn’t give a rat’s ass about that. The guy showed up at my apartment with a van and some paperwork he got from God knows where. He took everything that belonged to Gabe. It was his way of punishing me. On top of that, he cleaned out Gabe’s place.”

  “What the hell?” Dex couldn’t believe it. Isaac came off as such a sweet guy. A little twitchy at times, but he didn’t seem like the kind to pull such a dick move. It must have torn Sloane apart.

  “Gabe was my boyfriend, not my husband. I had no say in the matter. It was… like Isaac was trying to wipe away any trace that we’d ever been together. Isaac told me the only reason he wasn’t outing me then was because he didn’t want his brother’s name tainted. If it wasn’t for Gabe being given a THIRDS funeral, I know Isaac would have made sure I stayed away.”

  “Jesus. I had no idea. What’s going to happen when he sees you?” No wonder Isaac kept trying to warn him about Sloane. The guy was holding onto one hell of a grudge against his partner—one he couldn’t seem to let go.

  “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but with you there, he’s going to hold back. He’s not stupid.”

  As they exited the tunnel, Dex tried to convince himself everything would be okay. All he had to do was chat to Pearce, ask him a few questions and do what he’d done countless times while on homicide. To get the most information out of Pearce, Dex would have to make sure to stay on the guy’s good side. “This is fucked up.”

  “I know.” Sloane reached over to pat his leg. He left his hand there longer than necessary, and it helped calm Dex. “For what it’s worth, I’m glad you’ll be there to back me up.”

  Dex looked over at his partner, his heart swelling in his chest. “Likewise.”

  Chapter 12

  THEY STOOD outside the dirty, steel and glass double doors of a red and green four-story brick building situated across from a shipping warehouse. On one side of the building was the Cabinet Depot and on the other under the Metro line was a large self-storage lot with several aluminum units in various sizes, and next to that, a section selling wholesale kitchen countertops and garden supplies. Isaac’s building had four windows on the fourth floor only, no fire escape, and a couple of the storage units underneath. There was a hell of a lot of mess and construction going on around the enormous black steel girders, too many places for someone to make a quick getaway. After a quick risk assessment of the surroundings, Dex went in with Cael, Rosa, and Sloane on his heels.

  Inside, the large interior double doors were open. There was a grimy foyer with another set of doors ahead of them and an open single door on the right-hand
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