Hell & high water, p.26
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       Hell & High Water, p.26
 

         Part #1 of THIRDS series by Charlie Cochet
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  concerned and Dex wouldn’t be surprised if Pearce had known. Civilian safety came first. He could hear orders being shouted as fellow agents secured the area, clearing it and assessing the risks. Tony rambled something about a pack bot but screw that. Dex couldn’t wait for that. He had to get Sloane out. He ran back into the workshop, coughing when black smoke wafted through the doors. Shit, the place was on fire. There was no doubt in his mind Pearce had made a contingency plan. Snatching up one of the bolt cutters, Dex cut the chains binding Sloane’s wrists and carefully unfastened the one around his neck. He pulled the tape off Sloane’s mouth then moved to remove the tape from around his ankles. His partner was silent, and when Dex moved away, Sloane crumbled to the floor.

  “Sloane, buddy, look at me. I need you to get on your feet. We need to get out of here.”

  “He killed Gabe.” Sloane’s voice was so low, Dex had barely heard him.

  “I know, I’m so sorry, but this place is filled with all kinds of flammable shit, and it’s on fire. We need to get out of here.” He grabbed Sloane’s face and met his gaze, his voice rough. “Please, Sloane. I’m not ready to let you join him.”

  Sloane blinked, a tear running down his cheek. He nodded, and with Dex’s help, got to his feet. They quickly made their way out of the building, Dex’s arm wrapped around Sloane’s waist, but even with his ankle fighting him every step of the way, Dex refused to stop, not until they’d put a hell of a lot of distance between them and anything that could blow them up. There might not have been explosives planted in the workshop but there were enough flammable chemicals and gases to do the job. He could see Ash coming up fast, an ambulance not far behind. Behind them, the smaller explosions continued, and Sloane flinched. Ash got to them first, throwing a thermal blanket around Sloane and wrapping an arm around him.

  “It’s okay. We got you,” Ash said, as the EMTs dashed over, getting Sloane onto a gurney. As soon as he sat down on it, he gave into his exhaustion. Ash took hold of Dex’s arm. Fire trucks sped past, heading for the workshop and the storage lot.

  “Daley, you need to get yourself checked out.”

  “I’m riding with him.” Dex tried to jerk his arm out of Ash’s iron grip.

  “He’ll be fine. For fuck’s sake, Dex, you’re hurt. Not to mention you fell out of a fucking window!”

  Dex rounded on Ash. “He’s my partner. I’m going with him. So help me, if you don’t let go of my arm, Ash, I will—”

  “Ash, let him go,” Tony ordered quietly. “They’ll take care of him on the way to the hospital.”

  With a terse smile toward his dad, Dex climbed into the back of the ambulance. The doors shut, and they took off. Dex took hold of Sloane’s hand as the team got to work cleaning his wounds and giving him oxygen. One of the medics tried to fuss with Dex’s ankle, but Dex sent him away. He leaned over Sloane, reminding himself they weren’t alone.

  “It’s going to be okay,” Dex promised, his hand resting on Sloane’s brow. Amber eyes stared at the roof, silent tears rolling down the sides of his face. “You can’t blame yourself.”

  Sloane shut his eyes tight in response, and Dex knew it was what his partner was doing. His grip tightened on Sloane’s hand, and he leaned in to talk quietly to him.

  “Pearce was unstable. If it hadn’t been you, it would have been someone else. You know that. Gabe loved you. He was willing to fight for what you had, but he had no idea what was happening to his brother. Pearce got what he deserved.” There was no way the guy had survived the explosion. He’d run right into it. It was finally over. “It’s time for you and Gabe to have peace.” He brushed Sloane’s hair away from his brow, watching as Sloane opened his eyes before shaking his head and closing his eyes again. He pulled his hand out of Dex’s, laying it on his stomach.

  “Okay.” Dex swallowed hard and sat back, closing his eyes, his heart sinking. Whatever had been between them, whatever chance they might have had, it was falling by the wayside. As much as it hurt, Dex understood. All that pain Sloane had felt when Gabe died was most likely coming back, along with the guilt, the nightmares, and the grief. Pearce had killed his brother and instead of living with his guilt, he’d transferred all his anger, bitterness, and blame onto Sloane.

  All Dex could do now was be a good partner. He’d help Sloane through this however he could, tucking away the ache inside him. It had been good while it lasted, and maybe it was for the better. Hiding a relationship from his teammates was one thing, but from his family was another matter. As he drifted off to the sound of sirens, an image of Gabe came into his mind, the one he’d held in Pearce’s house. With a silent “thank you,” he gave into his exhaustion.

  TWO DAYS before Christmas, Dex was lounging in front of his TV, flipping through the channels, watching nothing in particular. After the incident with Pearce, he’d been given Christmas leave early. He should have been bouncing off the walls. He loved holidays, especially Christmas. And although he was looking forward to spending it with his family, he still couldn’t get over the hurt he felt at Sloane’s refusal to see him.

  Sloane had been given Christmas leave early as well, to recuperate, both physically and emotionally. It had hit everyone pretty rough, knowing Gabe had died at the hands of his brother, everyone believing if maybe they had just done something different, Gabe might still be alive.

  Dex had tried to see Sloane at the hospital, but Ash had stopped him from going in. Normally, they would have threatened each other until Ash got so frustrated he’d let Dex have his way, but this time it was different. Ash had actually looked upset when he somberly pleaded with Dex, telling him Sloane asked him not to let Dex in. It had cut deep, but Dex simply nodded and left. For the rest of the week, he’d tried calling Sloane and even texted him. Nothing.

  The doorbell rang and with a groan, Dex got to his feet and shuffled to the front door. It was probably Cael again. His brother had been worried about him, and despite Dex reassuring him a hundred times that he was fine and needed some time on his own, his brother would show up with pizza or burgers, trying to get him out of his funk. He opened the door, his greeting dying on his lips.

  “Hey.”

  Dex blinked a few times, wondering if he was seeing what he thought he was seeing or if he was hallucinating. Sloane stood on his doorstep, wrapped up in a black winter coat, a black and pale blue striped scarf around his neck and a matching wool cap on his head. His cheeks and nose were rosy from the cold, and in his hand, he was holding a huge present wrapped in light blue paper with white snowflakes and a big silver bow on top. There was a large red gift bag hanging from his wrist. All Dex could get out was a pathetic, “Hi.”

  “Can I come in?”

  “Yeah, sure. Sorry.” Dex stepped aside and let Sloane in, closing the door behind him. He was surprised when Sloane handed him the box and then dropped the gift bag on top.

  “Merry Christmas.”

  “You… got me Christmas presents?”

  “Sort of. It’s part Christmas present, part bribe.” Sloane removed his hat, scarf, and coat, hanging them on the hooks by the door. Then he removed his boots. He paused halfway. “Is it okay? I mean, I don’t want to presume you want me to stay.”

  “It’s fine.” Dex looked down at the presents in his hands. “A bribe for what?”

  Sloane ushered Dex into the living room and over to the couch. He took the box from Dex and put it on the floor, then took Dex’s hands and pulled him down to sit beside him. His brow was creased with worry. “In the hopes you’ll forgive me. I know I hurt you, not letting you come see me and not answering your many, many attempts to get in touch with me. I needed time to think.”

  “About what?” Dex’s pulse shot up, his heart all but ready to burst through his chest. Bribery was a good thing, right? Surely Sloane wouldn’t come all the way to his house with a gift the size of Cael just to give him bad news, right?

  “Everything. The case. Us.”

  Dex’s heart flipped. “Is there an ‘us
?”

  “You were right, what you said in the ambulance about it being time for me and Gabe to have peace. It’s time I put Gabe to rest, for me to move on.” Sloane licked his bottom lip, his gaze on their hands. “I know what I’m asking of you isn’t fair, and I don’t expect you to wait for me, but yeah, I’d like for there to be an ‘us.’ Maybe, if you’re willing to take things as they come, see where they lead, you can help me. I know it’s asking a lot, but I like you Dex. I like who I am with you.” He looked up at Dex then, a small smile crossed his face. “I’ve felt things I didn’t think I would ever feel again.”

  “What about the team? My family?” Dex already knew what his answer was, but he had to ask.

  “Whatever happens between us has to stay between us or one of us will be transferred to another team. You know that.”

  Dex nodded. How the hell could he keep something like this from his dad? Worse, from Cael? It would break his brother’s heart if he found out Dex had kept secrets from him. He felt Sloane give his hands a squeeze, and he returned his gaze to Sloane’s hopeful one. Sloane needed him. “We’ll just have to make sure no one finds out.”

  With a big smile, Sloane took hold of Dex’s face and brought him in for a passionate kiss. Dex surrendered completely, melting against Sloane, relishing in the softness of his lips, the warmth of his mouth and the taste of him. He refused to acknowledge how much he’d missed this. It would be stupid to fall for Sloane or even think about getting on that path.

  Sloane wasn’t making any promises, wasn’t offering him a relationship, just a possibility to see what could be. If Dex wasn’t careful, he could end up falling hard, and that would be bad for both of them. For now, he’d return Sloane’s hungry kisses, getting what he could. He climbed onto Sloane’s lap, moaning at the feel of those large hands on his ass. When they came up for air, Dex pulled back, his breath coming out shaky. His gaze shifted down.

  “What in the name of Frosty’s snow-covered balls are you wearing?”

  Sloane followed Dex’s gaze, looking down at himself. “It’s a sweater.”

  “It’s got reindeer on it. And snowflakes.”

  “Yeah, but it’s vintage Ralph Lauren, and that makes it sophisticated.” Sloane wriggled his eyebrows, and Dex let out a snort.

  “If you say so.”

  “Since Maddock invited me and Ash over for Christmas dinner with you guys, and I’ll be wearing mine, I thought I’d get you one.” Sloane plucked the large red gift bag up from the floor and held it out to Dex.

  “You expect me to wear a sweater with reindeer on it?” He arched an eyebrow at Sloane and took the bag from him. “We’re getting off to a rocky start already.”

  Sloane laughed. “Just check it out.”

  Dex rolled off Sloane’s lap and reached into the bag. He pulled out a red and black knit sweater. Oh God, here we go. He held it up, his eyes going wide. “What the—”

  “You like it?” Sloane asked hesitantly.

  “This is fucking awesome!” Dex jumped from the couch, holding his sweater up. It was red with a black collar and sleeve cuffs. It had various patterns of snowflakes and baubles repeated horizontally in black and white, but the coolest part was the two old school robots in the center. One of them had a Santa hat on and the other a striped scarf, and they were facing forward looking like they were about to high-five.

  “I thought you might like it.” Sloane sat back, beaming up at him.

  “How’d you know?” Dex pulled off his sweatshirt and pulled on his new sweater. It fit perfectly. This was the coolest, ugliest sweater he’d seen in a long time.

  Sloane scratched the stubble on his chin. “Just a lucky guess.” He pointed toward the huge box. “You can open that if you like.”

  Dex was so excited he thought he might hurt something. He got down on his knees and tore through the fancy wrapping paper like a cat wigging out on catnip. Once the gift was revealed, he let out a huge, drawn out gasp, his voice coming out high-pitched. “Duuude!” He wiped an imaginary tear from his eye. “You bought me guns.”

  Sloane smiled broadly. “It’s a laser tag set.”

  “I am so going to kick your ass at this,” Dex said, jumping to his feet. He ran to his tree and came back with a medium-sized box. He handed it to Sloane, a big dopey grin on his face.

  “Are these,”—Sloane peered at the wrapping paper—“stripper Santas?”

  Dex wriggled his brows. “In thongs. Pole dancing.”

  “Sometimes I worry about you.” Sloane shook his head, before tearing through the paper. He opened the unmarked white box and took out a bust. He held it up in front of him, his brows drawn together in concentration. “You got me a…. What is it?”

  “It’s a Death Trooper!”

  “A what?”

  “A Storm Trooper zombie.” Dex pointed out the intricately painted decay. “Hence, Death Trooper.” Sloane stared at the bust with wide eyes, and Dex held back a smile. “Come on, you can be honest with me. I won’t judge you.”

  “What the hell are you talking about?”

  Dex dropped down onto the couch facing Sloane. “Please, you’re totally a closet geek! You think I didn’t notice the bowl you put your keys in by the door is the bottom half of the Death Star? The bookends holding up your Star Wars movie collection is the Mos Eisley Cantina scene! Han totally shot first, by the way, and if you state otherwise, we’re over.”

  Sloane arched an eyebrow at him and with a sigh, Dex stood and wrapped his arms around Sloane’s head, petting him. “Hush now. I’ll help you come out. It’ll be okay. I know it seems scary, and not everyone will accept you, but I will. Come out and spread your wings like a little red, angry bird.”

  “Angry birds don’t spread their wings,” Sloane muttered.

  Dex continued to pet his head, speaking softly. “You’re only strengthening my case.”

  “You’re such an ass.” Sloane laughed, pushing Dex away. He held up the bust again, his bottom lip between his teeth. A slow smile crept onto his face, and he shifted his gaze to Dex. “This is pretty fucking amazing.”

  “Ha! I knew it!” Dex punched the air a few times while Sloane laughed at him. He’d taken a chance, but he’d seen enough of Sloane’s apartment to recognize the signs. Under all the sleek sophistication lay a complete movie geek. Oh the arguments that awaited them. The loud thundering theme of an emergency broadcast cut through Dex’s happy dance, and he turned to the TV screen.

  “We interrupt your scheduled programming for this breaking news update. A disturbing video has gone viral, and officials are stumped as to where it’s originating. If you have small children in the room, you’ll want to send them out with a loved one.”

  A figure shrouded completely in black stood against an aging stone wall, his voice using some form of enhancer when he spoke.

  “Good evening, New York City. While you sit in your homes, sipping your eggnog, unwrapping a gadget that will be obsolete in three months while rolling your eyes at yet another commercial to replace the word “Christmas” with “Holiday” so as not to offend the hippies, a disease is spreading through our beloved city, a disease that can no longer be ignored. They believe themselves to be the next step in Human evolution, but they’re not Human. They’re animals. And what do you do with an animal that is putrid and infested with disease? You put it out of its misery. Fear not, The Order of Adrasteia is here to help you.”

  “What the fuck is this?” Sloane got to his feet, coming to stand beside Dex.

  A sick twisting feeling gripped Dex as a symbol with the head of a Grecian goddess flashed on the screen. He’d seen that somewhere before. When it faded, Dex stared at the THIRDS agent gagged and bound, kneeling on the floor next to the cloaked figure’s feet. “Who is that?” Dex asked Sloane, who shook his head, his expression as confused and stunned as Dex’s.

  Their cell phones rang, and Dex gave a start. They each answered, hearing Tony’s voice coming over loud and clear from both phones.

&
nbsp; “You two in the same room?”

  “Yeah, Sloane came over to give me my Christmas present and catch up.”

  “Okay, Dex, hang up. Sloane, put me on speaker.” They did as instructed.

  Sloane was the first to ask. “What’s going on, Sarge? What is this?”

  “We don’t know. What we do know, is it’s legit. That’s Agent Greg Morrelli. He was reported missing last night. He went home after work and disappeared. Intel has been trying to track the source of the video, but having a hell of a time pinpointing the location. It’s a nightmare. We’ve got teams all over the city trying to find Morrelli, but it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.”

  The voice spoke up once more, and everything went quiet. “In order to cure our city of its disease, we must dispose of its carriers, starting with the organization that promotes the sickness. We will unleash Hell upon these sinners, starting with the THIRDS.” From his cloak, the figure removed a gun, aimed it at the pleading agent’s head and fired.

  “Oh my God.” Dex’s body stiffened in shock. Had they just witnessed an execution? “How….” He shook his head, unable to believe it. A heavy silence fell over everything, as the figure faced forward. When he spoke, it felt as if he was addressing Dex.

  “You had your chance. Now watch your world crumble around you. No Therian will be safe in this city, and your precious heroes will be too busy fighting for their lives to protect you. We are the embodiment of righteous anger, the antipathy roused by those who are sins against nature. We are all around you. Your neighbors, your children’s teachers, your doctors. We are inescapable.” He aimed the gun toward the screen. “And we will set the world to rights.” A shot rang out, and the screen went black.

  “… and we will set the world to rights.”

  Dex turned to Sloane, his partner’s startled expression confirming they were thinking the same thing. Sloane took hold of Dex’s arm and pulled him into his embrace, his voice almost a whisper.

  “He’s alive, isn’t he?”

  Dex nodded, his arms wrapping around Sloane, and his face buried against his chest. Isaac Pearce was alive, and he’d issued a declaration of war against them.

 
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