Hell & high water, p.23
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       Hell & High Water, p.23
 

         Part #1 of THIRDS series by Charlie Cochet
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  side that appeared to lead out into a narrow hallway with nothing but a set of stairs. Sloane opened one of the doors, and Dex stepped into an expansive workshop, the shrill noise of machinery resonating throughout. It resembled something out of a horror movie with walls containing all types of metals hooks, clamps, chains, hammers in all sizes and shapes and several other blacksmithing tools.

  Heavy, thick chains and pulleys, which Dex imagined were used to hold up the heavier pieces Pearce worked on, hung from the ceiling in various spots around the workshop. There was a table with a sander, a vise, and some polishing tools. Lined up against the rusting paneled walls were several gas tanks, and on the left side of the space was a huge furnace that nearly stretched to the ceiling. It looked as if it belonged in the dark ages. It also looked as if it hadn’t been used in a long time. Not far from it was a medium-sized coal forge that was in use, and around it were stacks of several different craft metals in a variety of shapes and sizes. The pounding of a hammer against metal rang through his ears, and he headed toward the sound. It was damn hot, the air around them stifling, but the closer they got to huge open windows at the far end, the slightly cooler it became.

  Pearce, sweat dripping down his face, and goggles over his eyes, was hammering away at a piece of steel over an anvil. He was dressed in a pair of greasy, dirty overalls rolled down to his waist, heavy work boots, a short-sleeved T-shirt Dex assumed had once been white, and heavy gloves. Dex had to admit, when Pearce said he did metal work, he’d been thinking more along the lines of small items, such as the pendant he’d made for himself, not blacksmithing. Dex waited for Pearce to pause before calling over to him.

  “Pearce!”

  Pearce looked up, surprised to see him. “Dex, hey!” His smile was wide until he saw the rest of the team, and when his gaze landed on Sloane, his expression hardened. The animosity in Pearce’s face was unmistakable. “What’s he doing here?”

  “I’m sorry, Pearce. We’re here on official THIRDS business. We need to ask you a few questions.”

  “I’ll talk to you. Your team can take a seat.” Pearce pointed toward a beat up old couch against the wall under the windows and next to a fridge from the Cold War days. The rest of the team started heading that way, when Pearce continued. “Not your partner, though. He can wait outside.”

  “Pearce, Agent Brodie is—”

  Pearce held a hand up and shook his head. “I’m not talking with him in the room.”

  Dex rubbed a hand over his jaw before walking to Sloane, pulling him to one side and speaking quietly. “How do you want to handle this?”

  “You’re asking me?” Sloane looked surprised.

  “You’re my partner, so I’m asking you. How do you want to handle this? I could lean on him.”

  Sloane thought it over. “No. I’ll wait outside. This is too important.”

  “Okay.” Dex watched Sloane square his shoulders and walk out of the workshop. When the thud of the heavy metal doors reverberated through the room, Dex joined Pearce, who motioned him over to a small table with a couple of mismatched chairs. Dex sat down across from him, letting him start the conversation.

  “I’m sorry. I know I’ve upset you by excluding your partner, but seeing him brings back a lot of unpleasant memories.”

  I’ll bet it does. “Of course,” Dex replied, sounding sincere. “I understand. We’ve had a breakthrough in the case. Are you familiar with a bar called The Styx? It’s over in the Meatpacking District.”

  “Yes. I go there a lot.” Pearce nodded somberly. “It’s where Gabe was killed. Well, behind it anyway. I know it probably seems a little morbid, going back there, but it was his favorite.” A sad smile came onto his face. “I guess I’m not ready to let it go yet.”

  “So were you there recently?”

  Pearce nodded, removing his gloves and placing them on the table. “Three days ago. I stopped by for a drink after work.”

  “I’d like to show you surveillance video from that night.” Dex removed his tablet from his padded front vest pocket and placed it on the table between them, bringing up the footage. “That’s you, correct?”

  “Yes.”

  “Twenty minutes in, a man in a dark hoodie enters the establishment, takes one look at you and runs off. You run after him. Can you tell me what happened?”

  Pearce’s jaw muscles clenched, his fingers curling into a fist on the table. Whatever it was, the guy wasn’t happy about it. “I didn’t know who the guy was at the time. When he bolted, I knew something was up, so I went after him. I don’t know if he made me as a cop—I’m a regular at the bar, and most of the other regulars and the staff know I work for the HPF. Anyway, innocent guys don’t run, right? I chased him all the way to Gansvoort where I lost him in the construction area. My guess is he shifted somewhere.”

  “He was a Therian?”

  “Yeah, I managed to get a look at his classification. He was a jaguar Therian.”

  Shit. Could Isaac have found their guy without knowing it? If the Therian had been there before, it was possible he could have transferred the sand onto Ortiz. “What happened next?”

  “You know us cops,” Isaac said with a grin. “I couldn’t let it go, so I started doing some digging around.” The grin faded from his face, and his expression went hard once again. “I found out the guy was a cousin of the Therian informant who killed Gabe.”

  Dex’s eyes widened. Shit. Everything kept coming back to Gabe. It was all connected; it had to be. The case would make a lot more sense. Though there were still so many pieces of the puzzle missing.

  “I don’t know if he ran because he thought I somehow knew who he was and figured I’d be out for his blood or if there was something else behind his behavior, but he was spooked.”

  “Have you heard from or seen him since?”

  “No. He’s gone underground.”

  “Do you have a name?”

  “Tory Murphy.” Pearce put his hand on Dex’s, giving it a squeeze. “If there’s anything I can do to help, you let me know. Please.”

  Oookay. Dex gave Pearce a reassuring smile. “I will. I appreciate you taking the time to talk to us.” Dex went to get up, when Pearce caught his arm.

  “Could I speak with you a moment? It’s not related to your case.”

  Dex searched Pearce’s face, but the guy was a hard read. With a nod, he tapped his earpiece. “Rosa, Cael, I have all the information I need. It’s online. We’ll meet you back at HQ and fill you in. Sloane, I’ll be out in a minute.”

  Sloane’s gruff voice came over his earpiece. “Copy that.”

  Pearce waited for Rosa and Cael to leave the workshop before turning his attention back to Dex. What did Pearce have to say about Sloane now? He could understand Pearce’s anguish. Having a younger brother of his own, he couldn’t even think about something happening to him, despite knowing the risks involved in their line of work, but blaming the organization he worked for or the team members who worked alongside him was not only an unhealthy route to take, but an unbecoming one.

  “You and your partner have gotten close.”

  Dex shrugged. “We got off to a rough start, but we’re getting along better these days. I wouldn’t say we’re close.”

  Pearce gave a nod, his lips pursed together. What was the guy not telling him? He couldn’t know about him and Sloane, and neither of them had given the slightest indication they were more than work partners, especially since Dex didn’t even know what was going on between them.

  “This all must be very hard for him.”

  “It’s difficult for the whole team.” Dex sat back, waiting. Pearce was working his way up to something; Dex could feel it in his gut. He just didn’t know what it was.

  “Yes, but more for him. He really loved Gabe. I know I was an asshole to him, and I regret a lot of the things I said and did. I realize now how stupid I was. Brodie was good to my brother, made him happy. Those two….” Pearce smiled. “They probably would have been married by
now. I can’t imagine being that in love with someone. Can you?”

  Dex gave a noncommittal hum, his gaze wandering around the workshop and finally landing back on the table in front of him where he pushed his gloved finger into a tiny mound of silver dust. Isaac caught his wrist.

  “You don’t want to do that. Sorry, I should’ve cleaned it up. That shit will get everywhere. Gets in your lungs if you’re not careful.” He got up and walked off to a small stainless steel cabinet. He came back with a small dustpan, brush, and box of antibacterial wipes. He cleared the tiny dust pile away.

  Dex grimaced. “Sorry.”

  “It’s okay.” Pearce popped open a box of wipes, plucked one out before he took Dex’s gloved hand. He wiped Dex’s finger and chucked the towelette in the trash bin behind him. “There we go.”

  “Thanks.”

  Pearce gave him a wink and patted him on the vest. “Uniform looks good on you by the way.”

  Dex shifted uncomfortably. “Um, thank you. Still getting used to it. Weighs a fuckton.”

  “You going shy on me, Daley?”

  “Me? Shy? Pfft.” Dex waved a hand in dismissal. Pearce moved his chair closer to Dex as he sat and leaned in. Looked like they were finally getting somewhere.

  “Okay. Listen, I know Sloane thinks I hate him, but I don’t. Yes, at the time, I didn’t agree with his relationship with my brother, and I said a lot of terrible things, but after Gabe died, I knew I had to put it behind me. The guilt ate at me for a long time. I don’t want Sloane around because he reminds me of how happy my brother was. Gabe was a different person around Sloane.” Pearce stopped, his head cocking to one side. “Am I making you uncomfortable talking about them?”

  Dex frowned. “Why would I be uncomfortable?”

  “Come on, Dex. You care about him, and I don’t blame you. There’s clearly something about him that attracts all these nice guys. But Sloane is still in love with Gabe. I’d hate to see you get hurt. Have you considered the possibility that he might be looking at you as a replacement for Gabe?”

  Dex met Pearce’s gaze dead on. “My relationship with Agent Brodie is strictly professional. There’s affection there, I won’t lie. He’s a good guy and I enjoy working with him. He’s a good partner, but you’re wrong if you think I’m a replacement for your brother.” He recalled Sloane’s words to Ash in the hospital when he’d woken up, how Dex was nothing like Gabe. Sloane had even accused him of it, and although he’d apologized, and insisted he hadn’t meant it, there was still a part of him that wondered if it was true. Maybe Sloane wasn’t aware of it. Regardless, it was none of Pearce’s business, and Dex wasn’t about to show his hand to anyone, much less Pearce who was studying him like a hawk.

  “Is that what you wanted to talk to me about? I appreciate your concern, I do, but it’s not necessary. There’s nothing between Sloane and me. What he had with your brother was clearly very special. I hope you both find the strength to heal and move on.”

  Something flashed in Pearce’s eyes, and Dex gave him a sympathetic smile. He reached over and patted Pearce’s hand. “If you need someone to talk to, you call. I’m always ready to listen.”

  Pearce’s expression softened and he nodded. Dex thanked Pearce once again and headed for the exit, Pearce’s stare boring into the back of him as he walked. As he headed for the parked Suburban, Dex’s earpiece beeped. He tapped it to answer the call.

  “Daley, here.”

  “Hey, it’s Calvin. I got Intel to run Gabe’s name through Themis and cross-reference it with our victims like you asked.”

  Dex was surprised. He hadn’t expected the results so quickly. Looked like his dad had gotten tired of waiting and busted a few balls. “And?”

  “The first two victims have connections to Gabe.”

  “What?”

  “When we ran Isaac through Themis, we got nothing but Maddock’s initial entry, and then the video from The Styx. When we ran Gabe, we hit the mother lode. Victim number one: Bennett? He went to the same college as Gabe. They took several HumaniTherian courses together throughout the four years. Victim number two, Chambers, ran the Brooklyn Therian Youth Center. It was Gabe’s first job after college.”

  Shit. “What about Ortiz?”

  “No hits there.”

  “Thanks.” Dex hurried toward the car and quickly climbed into the passenger side.

  Sloane gave him a questioning look, and Dex filled him in. He sat silently as Sloane soaked up the new information. He’d been expecting Sloane to get pissed off at him for putting in the request without telling him about it, but he’d wanted to be sure his hunch had merit before bringing it up with Sloane. Instead of getting annoyed, Sloane gave him a nod.

  “Good work.”

  “Thanks.” Dex buckled up. “Did you get the notes from my interview with him?”

  “Yep. So what are we thinking?”

  Dex gave it some thought. “I don’t get it. Let’s say Murphy’s out for some payback for his cousin. He finds two HumaniTherians connected to Gabe. He’s been to The Styx on more than one occasion. Only this time, he transfers some of the sand onto Ortiz when he kills him. He visits his favorite bar again, but this time he runs into Gabe’s brother, recognizes him and makes a run for it. Aside from the fact we don’t know why he would kill the first two victims, at least we know they’re connected to Gabe, but what about Ortiz?” Dex pulled out his tablet and brought up Tory Murphy’s police record. “This guy’s an informant, or was. How does he murder three Humans without leaving any evidence behind, without being spotted, without a trace he’d been in the vicinity? And if Murphy wanted revenge, why not someone closer to Gabe? Why not the team? Why not you? According to Themis, Gabe hadn’t spoken to Bennett or Chambers in years.”

  “Goddamn it!” Sloane slammed his hand on the steering wheel. “None of this makes any fucking sense. We need to find Murphy. He saw Isaac and bolted, and we need to know why. Right now all we got is theories.”

  The communication system in the car beeped, and Sloane hit the speaker button. “Agent Brodie speaking.”

  “It’s Maddock. We’ve put an APB out for Tory Murphy. We can confirm he’s a jaguar Therian, which puts him in the right classification. He’s got motive and means. We need to bring him in. Themis is getting us a list of known locations for him as well as cross-referencing him with our victims. Also, Hudson confirms there was black sand found on Gabe at the time of his death, but that doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know—that he’d been inside The Styx before ending up outside in the alley. Head back to HQ. We’re sending out all of Unit Alpha’s Recon and part of the Defense Department to find this guy. Unit Beta’s going to take our lower risk cases off our hands until this thing is solved.”

  “Yes sir.” Sloane sat back and started the engine, and Dex couldn’t help but notice how worn out his partner looked. He reached over and put a hand on Sloane’s arm.

  “Hey, we’re going to get to the bottom of this.”

  Sloane gave him a weary smile. “Thanks.”

  They headed back to HQ with Dex mulling over his predicament. He was eager to get this case solved. Having other agents do the legwork for him was something he wasn’t accustomed to. It would take time. He knew as much. Still, he wished he could do more. He’d been tempted on more than one occasion to go off on his own, but he quickly stamped down the urge. This wasn’t the HPF. He was part of a team now. They all had their part to play and any agent that failed to do his part would let down the rest of his team. Dex didn’t want to let his team down. What’s more, he didn’t want to let Sloane down.

  They spent the rest of the day divvying up the city among their unit’s agents and transferring their low-risk cases to Unit Beta. At a unit briefing held in a small auditorium on the tenth floor, Dex got to see Lieutenant Sonya Sparks for the first time. Dex had been so busy getting used to his new position, he hadn’t given any thought to the lieutenant who had hired him. Until now, she’d been in Washington, fighting to
get their unit the priority and clearance levels needed to get this case solved. It was the toughest one the THIRDS had faced in a long time. The big wigs wanted it solved ASAP, but like any other government organization, they balked when the words “additional funding” made an appearance.

  Lieutenant Sparks resembled a classic Hollywood pinup. In her refined white pantsuit, her curves were impressive. She was tall and intimidating, with bright red locks, big green eyes, and scarlet red lips. She had perfectly manicured nails painted in a similar shade to her lipstick and according to Tony, half the Defense Department in DC was scared shitless of her. The interesting thing was, she never raised her voice, and she smiled. Her eyes marked her as being Therian, her classification a cougar. Any agent who was stupid enough to make a joke about it would end up wishing he’d never been born. Dex liked her already.

  The briefing ran for hours. There were several occasions when some of the Intel guys were yammering on about algorithms, forcing Sloane to nudge Dex awake. Cael on the other hand seemed enthralled. Nerd. By the end, Dex couldn’t wait to get out of there. In the showers while the rest of their team was washing away, Dex sneaked a few glances at Sloane. His partner had been pensive since their return from Pearce’s workshop. Dex lingered, washing up slowly while the rest of the team finished up and headed out into the locker room to dress, leaving Dex and Sloane. He leaned over the thick frosted glass partition.

  “You okay?” The longer this case remained unsolved, the more Sloane seemed to retreat into himself.

  Sloane blinked and looked up at him. “What?”

  “Are you okay?” Dex put his hand to Sloane’s arm. This case was taking its toll on everyone, especially his partner, whose shaky smile pulled at Dex’s heart.

  “No, but what can we do but move forward, right?”

  “Listen, why don’t you come over to my place tonight? We’ll chill, have a couple of cold ones and watch dumb people doing dumb things on TV. How about it?”

  Sloane turned off his shower and nodded. “Okay. But I need to go home first, grab a few things. Haven’t had a chance to do laundry yet.”

  “Sounds good.”

  They stepped out of the showers, towels wrapped around them, when Dex felt Sloane’s hand on his ass. He leaned in to whisper in Dex’s ear from behind.

  “Maybe we’ll find an even better way to relax.”

  Dex felt his face go up in flames. He turned his head, his lips inches away from Sloane’s. “I’m sure we could come up with something.” If Sloane’s quiet words hadn’t been enough to get Dex squirming in his towel, Sloane’s quick kiss to his lips sealed the deal. Oh God, he was about to get a hard-on at work, and the bastard that was the cause of it was loving every moment of it.

  Think unsexy thoughts. Think unsexy thoughts.

  Ash’s growl echoed through the showers. “What are you two gay boys doing in there?”

  Aaand done.

  Sloane rolled his eyes as he headed toward the locker room with Dex. When they got outside, Dex smiled pleasantly at Ash. “We were talking about opening a strip club together. We’re going to call it Destructive Divas. You can’t be in it, on account of your allergy to nuts, but we’re willing to take you on as our mascot. How do you feel about leather chaps?”

  Ash snarled at him.

  “No? Latex?”

  “Fuck you, Daley.” Ash slammed his locker shut and stormed off. With a satisfied grin, Dex turned to Sloane who was chuckling as he got dressed.

  “I think he’s coming around.”

  “Coming around to give you a beating,” Sloane replied, slipping into his coat and zipping up. “I’ll see you later.” He gave Dex a pat on the back and with Dex facing the rest of the team, his teammates couldn’t see the way Sloane’s fingers grazed down Dex’s spine, falling away only when they reached his lower back. Dex clenched his teeth, watching Sloane stroll out of the locker room. Cocky bastard. Dex was going to have to make him suffer tonight.

  “I’m glad you two are getting along.”

  Dex smiled at his brother as he got dressed. “Yeah. I was worried at first, but we worked it out.”

  “You mean you wore him down,” Cael teased.

  Dex couldn’t help but laugh. “That too.”

  “What are you up to tonight?”

  Hopefully, lots of sweaty, grunting, sexy man sex. “I invited Sloane over for a couple of beers, see if I can’t get his mind off this case for a while. It’s really doing a number on him.”

  Cael’s smile faded, a heavy sigh escaping him as he leaned into the locker. “Yeah, it sucks.”

  “You okay?” Dex closed his locker and studied his brother. There were dark circles under his eyes, and his face was paler than usual. As much as he wanted sexy time with Sloane, if his brother needed him, he’d be there. “You want to come? You look like you could use a little distraction.”

  “Nah, I’m fine, just haven’t had much sleep trying to find something to go on. Thanks for the invite, but I’m going to catch a movie with Ash.”

  “Ash? I didn’t know you guys hung out.” Not that he had anything against it, but it was weird. Ash was so unlike Cael in every way, and Cael had an aversion to douchebags yet he didn’t seem to have a problem with Ash.

  Cael shrugged. “Yeah, since I first joined. He’s cool.”

  That made Dex snort. “You and I have very different definitions of what cool is.”

  “No, really, he is. I know he comes off as a jerk sometimes—don’t make that face at me—but that’s just what he’s like at work. I mean, he’s got to be tough. He’s a First Gen Alpha. A lot of agents look up to him, have expectations, but he’s always been nice to me.”

  Ash was capable of making friends. Who knew?

  “Okay, you crazy kids have fun. Call me if you need me.” He gave Cael’s cheek a pat and walked off, pretending he wasn’t at all excited about Sloane coming over tonight. Man, he was in trouble if he was excited this early in the game.

 
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