Against the grain, p.7
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       Against The Grain, p.7
 

         Part #5 of THIRDS series by Charlie Cochet  
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  “Shultzon said someone wasn’t who they said they were and that we should be wary of the orders we’re given.”

  Ash thought about that. “We’re only given orders by Sloane, your dad, and Sparks. For something like this, it would have to be at least an officer. Someone with high-level security clearance.”

  “Well, Sloane’s not involved in any of that shit, and neither is my dad.”

  “So what are you saying? That Sparks is somehow involved in this? That’s insane.”

  “I don’t know. To be honest, I don’t know what to think. We went to see Shultzon in the hopes he’d shed some light on the subject of Sloane’s shifting, and he drops this fucking bomb on us. What are we supposed to do now? Investigate? Ignore it? We’re not even on active duty. Seriously, man. We’re not even fucking working, and this shit falls in our laps. What the fuck?”

  “Hey. Relax. Which reminds me. What the hell happened back there? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you so pissed.”

  Ash discreetly watched Dex as they drove from Shultzon’s upscale neighborhood toward Dex’s brownstone. At this time of morning, traffic wasn’t too bad. They still had about an hour before Sloane would be home from his therapy session. His best friend had bitched and moaned that he didn’t need the sessions anymore, but Dex had convinced him to go to the remaining appointment while he and Ash went to visit Shultzon.

  “How can you guys be so calm around that dude after everything he did to you?”

  Ash shrugged. “What can we do? It happened. Yeah, it’s fucked-up, but all we can do is move forward. Sloane and I got off lucky.”

  “Lucky?”

  “Yeah. I would consider having a career at the THIRDS, a somewhat normal life, friends, a family—even if they are a pain in the ass—all things to be grateful for. Sloane and I had each other to get us through the rough times. We got out of there with our sanity because of it. Some of the others weren’t so lucky.”

  “You know what happened to them, don’t you?”

  Ash nodded. “Sloane and I did a run through Themis back when Sloane was promoted to Team Leader. It kept haunting us, so we had to check, even if we knew it was a bad idea. Remember, the First Gen Research Facility spawned the THIRDS First Gen Recruitment Program, so a number of them got recruited young, sent to college, and hired by the THIRDS, same as me and Sloane. They were spread out through the country, a few sent abroad. Some of them….” Ash shook his head. “They weren’t so lucky. There were several suicides. Some ended up hospitalized, some sent to prison, and a few others just fell off the grid.”

  “Yeah, but—”

  “Look, I know if you could, you would make every one of those bastards pay, but all you’ll end up doing is hurting Sloane. He’s come a hell of a long way since you met him, and I’m man enough to admit you played a major role in that. Don’t undo all the good you’ve done by trying to change something that can’t be changed.”

  To Ash’s surprise, Dex nodded. “You’re right. The last thing I want to do is cause Sloane pain. He’s been through enough.”

  They’d driven to Shultzon’s in Dex’s Challenger. It was as loud and ostentatious as its owner. Trust Dex to buy an orange car. Some big-hair-band song came on the radio, and Ash rolled his eyes. How did Sloane listen to this shit? Thank God Cael had better taste in music. There was a lot of cheerful pop, but Ash didn’t mind. The music reminded him of Cael, and he loved the way it put a smile on the cheetah Therian’s sweet face. He wondered what Cael was doing right now. Most likely ruing the day he’d fallen in love with Ash Keeler. Or baking. That’s what Ash would be doing.

  Dex pulled into a parking spot not far from his front door. He turned off the engine, and Ash sat there, frowning.

  “You okay?”

  “I dunno. I can’t shake this feeling. Like we’re being watched.”

  Ash observed as Dex subtly scanned the street on his left, behind them, and then pretended to fix his rearview mirror. Ash checked the passenger side mirror, focusing on the cars parked down the street. The trees and garden shrubs were bare, improving visibility. He got out of the car and closed the door behind him, waiting for Dex. Discreetly, he assessed their surroundings, making note of any place someone could be hiding or watching them. It was quiet, not a soul in sight.

  “Anything?” Dex asked.

  “Nothing. Maybe I’m just being paranoid,” Ash muttered.

  “Which probably means you’re not. Let’s get inside. We need to tell Sloane about what we learned.”

  Dex headed for the front steps, and Ash followed.

  “You sure you want to tell him?”

  “Yeah.” Dex unlocked the front door and turned to him with a smile. “No more secrets. That’s our new motto.”

  “Sounds like you two are finally getting it. Took you long enough.” He followed Dex inside and closed the door behind him. He hung up his coat and scarf. “I really hope Shultzon is wrong about this.” He joined Dex in the living room and took a seat. “I remember the good old days when we issued high-risk warrants, knocked down barricades, and kept watch at Therian peace marches. Now everyone’s trying to fucking blow us up.”

  “I’ve been thinking about something Shultzon said. How whoever’s working on this off the books is using specialist agents. Remember the scopolamine Austen had?”

  Ash nodded. “Actually, it crossed my mind earlier. When you asked him if the THIRDS gave it to him, he looked pissed and avoided answering.”

  “Do you think Austen’s involved?” Dex asked worriedly.

  “I hope not. I’d like to think he’s smarter than that.”

  “Smarts have nothing to do with it. We don’t even know what the hell Austen’s job entails besides spying on us. I know Sloane trusts him, and the two go way back, but Austen’s not a kid anymore. What if he’s not the same guy he once was?”

  Ash let his head fall back against the couch’s backrest with a sigh. He sure fucking hoped Austen wasn’t involved in this shit. Dex had a point. Austen wasn’t a little kid anymore. He’d been with the THIRDS since Sloane found him. Who the hell knew what he’d learned and done in that time since joining? Austen was skilled. He had to be in order to cut it as a Squadron Specialist Agent. Those agents were fucking shadows. Deadly shadows. Ash could hazard a guess what kind of black-ops shit they were involved in. One thing was certain, if it turned out Austen was involved, it would break Sloane’s heart.

  HOW THE fuck did he get himself into these messes? This was all going to end so damn badly. He just knew it.

  Austen heard the faint click of the lock and cautiously lowered the handle. The hallway of the office building was shrouded in darkness. Not a problem for a Therian. He listened intently. Nothing. Slipping inside the east wing, he kept close to the wall. He pressed himself against the hard surface and silently stalked toward the closest empty room. Operating quickly, he worked the lock and hurried inside, then closed the door quietly behind him. With his lock-pick set secure in the pocket of his black tac pants, he hopped onto the metal table, snatched his collapsible steel baton from his belt, and snapped his wrist. It extended and locked into place. Standing on his toes, he reached up and used the end of the baton to release the vent cover. Thank goodness for old buildings.

  There wasn’t much time. He returned the now collapsed baton to his utility belt, jumped, and grabbed hold of the edges. He swung his legs and used the wall in front of him to push himself up into the vent. It was a bitch due to his height, and he struggled, but he made it in without any noise. Once inside he closed the latch and crawled three feet until he was above the room he needed. Holding his breath, he lightly tapped the side of the vent once. Seconds later there was one faint knock. Receiving the signal, he unlatched the cover and peeked through. His contact was alone in the room. Austen slipped through the opening and dropped down onto the floor, landing without a sound.

  “I don’t have long,” his contact whispered, handing Austen the credit-card-sized case. “We’re going to hav
e to move sooner than anticipated.”

  “Shit.”

  “Word is some THIRDS agents have been asking questions about the drug. If they start snooping around, ten years of hard work goes down the pan, and we have nothing. Tell the boss we need to move on this.”

  “We’ve kept it from the THIRDS this long, so don’t worry about them. We’ll take care of it. I’ll get this back to the boss. You just get ready to move.” Austen headed back toward the vent he’d come from. As soon as their contact had slipped out, Austen did the same, returning the way he’d come in through the office building and its piss-poor security. Then again, too much security would end up drawing unwanted attention. In the cover of darkness, no one saw him or suspected he was even there, same as his previous visits. Damn it. It was too soon to move. Everything had been planned out to the smallest detail, and now they’d have to deviate from that plan. His boss hated deviating from the plan.

  Making sure no one had seen him, Austen hailed a cab and gave the driver directions. He switched taxis three times before he ended up at his appointed destination. He sat on the bench and pulled out his smartphone. After he tapped in his security code, he turned the phone on its side and scanned the case. Small blue letters scrolled across the screen at unreadable speeds until it stopped. The words “Scan Complete” flashed green. No tracers. Good. He tucked the case into the hidden pocket inside his winter coat and sent out a text.

  Plain bagel.

  Austen waited for his boss to show up. Why did he always have to be the bearer of bad news? A black Suburban with pitch-black windows pulled up to the curb. This was it. He tugged his wool hat low over his eyes and climbed into the front passenger seat.

  “We’ve got a problem,” Austen said, removing the case from the hidden pocket inside his winter coat. The car took off, and Austen pressed the case to the console’s digital screen. It scanned the device and beeped once. Clean. He already knew it was, but his boss was very particular. “Apparently THIRDS agents have been asking questions.”

  As expected, his boss was pissed, judging by her white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel.

  “Find out who it is and do what you need to do to put an end to it.”

  “Come on. I think we both know who it is.”

  “Damn it. Those boys just don’t know when to quit.”

  Austen smiled. “That’s why you like them so much.”

  Sparks pulled into an empty parking spot down a quiet street and put the car in park. She turned to look at him, her blue eyes cold as ice. “We’ve worked too damn long and too damn hard to let this fall apart now. I want you to keep an eye on them. Make sure they don’t cause us any problems. They’re back on duty Monday morning. I’ll keep them busy. No more close calls. We get this done. Anything else?”

  “Yeah.” Here we go. “Our man thinks we’re going to have to move on this.”

  “Goddamn it, Austen.”

  Sparks slammed her hand on the steering wheel, catching him by surprise. She was never anything but calm and collected. Then again, if he’d been working this job as long as she had, he’d be pretty pissed to find out things might be heading south at the eleventh hour.

  “This is unacceptable.”

  Austen narrowed his eyes at her. “Hey, you’re not the only one living a double life here. You get to sit in a cushy office playing lieutenant while I’m out here risking my neck, getting chased by homicidal maniacs, and running interference with your boy toys.”

  Sparks arched an eyebrow at him. “My interest in Destructive Delta is purely business, whereas your interest in a certain Agent Zachary is not.”

  What the hell?

  “Oh, Austen.” Sparks let out a husky laugh. “Did you really think I wouldn’t find out you’ve been keeping tabs on him? Are you getting sentimental on me? Is it because he took care of you after your injury? He’s very nurturing. Though I have to admit, I’m a little surprised. Zachary’s a bear Therian. You don’t normally go for such large Therians. But you know what?” She put her hands up. “It’s none of my business. I’m glad to see you’re finally moving on from Sloane.”

  Austen congratulated himself on not telling her to fuck off. She always had to have the last word. “Stay away from Zach,” he warned. “He’s a good guy.” There was no point in trying to deny his recent activity where Zach was concerned. The truth was, he didn’t know why he was keeping an eye on Zach, but now that Sparks knew Zach meant something—despite him not knowing what that something was—she would use him against Austen if she had to.

  “Then do your job. If I’m overworking you, just say so. I can arrange some permanent vacation time.”

  “Please,” Austen laughed. “You can’t bullshit a bullshitter. You need me. And if this shit blows up in our faces, you’re not the only one in deep shit. Zach risked his safety to keep me safe. I don’t take that kind of thing lightly.” His expression darkened as he leaned toward her. “If someone goes near him, I will take them out. You know me better than anyone. I don’t fuck around.” He just liked to pretend he did.

  Sparks smiled, but it didn’t reach her steel-blue eyes. “Looks like I’ve taught you well.”

  “Maybe too well,” Austen said, lowering his cap once again. He opened the car door and got out. “I’ll be awaiting your instructions.” With that he closed the door, shoved his hands into his coat pockets, and walked away. His phone buzzed, and he removed it from his pocket. A text from Sparks.

  Don’t get too close.

  Austen sighed and shoved his phone back into his pocket. Story of my life. Either way he had no intention of getting close to Zach. He was simply showing his gratitude, even if Zach had no idea he was even around. Friendships were a luxury he couldn’t afford. Relationships were out of the question. Zach intrigued him, but that was all it was. A passing curiosity. Austen stopped in his tracks when he realized he didn’t know where he was. He’d walked half a block from where Sparks had parked. He turned to the house in front of him, and his gut twisted.

  Zach’s house.

  Son of a bitch. Sparks had brought him to Zach’s neighborhood. Austen walked off at a brisk pace. He had to get out of here before someone saw him. Half the damn block was occupied by Zach’s ginormous family. Austen couldn’t fathom having six brothers and three sisters, much less all the nieces, nephews, cousins, aunts, uncles, in-laws, and grandparents that made up the colossal Zachary clan, a good portion of which occupied this block. Austen had always been on his own. The thought of having all those family members in his hair terrified the ever-living fuck out of him. Why was he even checking up on Zach? The guy was seven feet tall and weighed over three hundred pounds with six equally ginormous siblings.

  Granted, none of them possessed the skills he did, or the connections. Maybe it was best he keep an eye on Zach. From a distance, of course.

  Chapter 5

  NOW THIS was more like it.

  Ash delivered a right hook to the black leather bag in front of him. His brow was beaded with sweat, his T-shirt clinging to him as he pummeled the swinging punching bag. Man, it felt good. It had been too long since he’d hit something. Back at the grain terminal when he’d been up against some of Hogan’s goons in their Therian form, he’d been forced to use his wits to outsmart them, since his body still had healing to do. Some Humans truly believed if a Therian was shot, they’d bounce back up. Fuckwits. Therians might be stronger and heal quicker than Humans, but they weren’t indestructible.

  For weeks he’d been told to take it easy, rest, don’t overexert himself, like he was made of fucking glass or something. On Friday, everyone on his team had been called in for a physical. They’d all been cleared for duty, with only Sloane being sentenced to desk duty for a couple of weeks just in case. His best friend had been pissed, but Ash was secretly glad for it. Sloane had been impaled by a piece of jagged metal and almost died. Ash didn’t want him out in the field before he was ready.

  Their return had been met with cheers. Ash had never expect
ed it. The whole of Unit Alpha was there to greet them when they stepped foot on the floor. HR had even arranged a party with “Welcome Back” banners, balloons, and cake. Everyone was happy to see them. They’d even been happy to see Ash, which was probably the biggest shocker of all. Sparks had given them all a speech, thanked them for their bravery and service, and then after the party, called them in individually for an assessment.

  Despite being on active duty and having been cleared by the THIRDS physicians, Sparks had Destructive Delta’s Defense agents benched. They were to resume their training regimen for another two weeks before they’d be assigned a case. That was fine with Ash. He’d had enough of resting. He bounced on his toes, pulled his elbows in at his sides, and delivered a roundhouse kick to the bag. His body was raring to go. After a good stretch, he’d started with basic punches and now kicks. He still had a good hour left to practice some routines before it was time to hit the pool, then the shooting range. Maybe tomorrow he’d get in the ring with someone who could give him a good workout. He’d just delivered a side kick when he caught a whiff of something fruity.

  “No,” he growled.

  “You don’t even know what I’m going to ask.” Dex stepped up beside the bag, his hands on his hips.

  “Doesn’t matter. It’s coming out of your mouth, so no.” Left hook, right elbow, left knee.

  “Even if it’s about Cael?”

  Ash stopped and turned to Dex. “You really think that’s going to work every time?”

  Dex blinked at him. “Yes. I really do.”

  “Fuck off.” Ash turned back to the bag, then sighed. Who the fuck was he kidding? “What about Cael?”

  “I need you to train him.”

  Ash jabbed the bag with his right. “He’s already trained.”

  “Yeah, but he was put through Recon’s training. Anything beyond that is because Sloane’s insisted on it. Even then it’s not the same training you, Sloane, and Hobbs go through.”

  “Yeah, because we’re Therian Defense agents.” They were the muscle behind Defense. It was their job to take the brunt of the physical danger for their partners. Their Human partners did what they could to neutralize a threat, but as past experiences had proved, that’s easier said than done. It was a Therian Defense agent’s job to go up against feral Therians and keep their partners from getting mauled.

  “Hogan proved assholes like him don’t give a shit what kind of agent you are.”

  Ash straightened and turned back to Dex. “So this is because of what happened with Hogan?”

  Dex’s pale blue eyes flashed with anger. “You bet your ass. Hogan kidnapped Cael. What if we hadn’t gotten there in time?” he spat out, and Ash understood Dex’s frustration, not to mention fear. They’d had one hell of a close call.

  “Hey, relax. He’s okay now.” It seemed like he’d been saying that to Dex a lot lately, which was disturbing. Dex was always annoyingly cheerful.

  “And the next time? Please, just do this. Not for me but for him.”

  Ash thought it over. He wouldn’t admit it, but Dex was right. Cael wasn’t trained the way Defense was. The Recon department had a training program for its agents. They weren’t trained to take down lethal Therians because that wasn’t their job. Although Rosa and Cael tended to accompany Destructive Delta’s Defense agents more often than not, they did so in a medical and technical capacity. Their main objective was investigating and collecting intel. Maybe it was time for Recon’s training program to evolve. The world had become a far more dangerous place than it had been when Ash first joined.

  “Okay, but what am I supposed to tell him? You know he’ll just walk away if he thinks it’s because he’s weak, which he isn’t.” He could see Cael’s reaction now. It was not going to be pretty. Maybe still adorable, because even pissed off Cael looked endearing to him, but Cael would still get mad as hell.

  “First of all, don’t tell him it was my idea, because then he’ll get defensive for sure. If it’s coming from you, he’ll listen. You care about him, right?”

  Ash gave him an uninspired look. “That’s a stupid question.”

  “Right. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but tell him. That’s all the reason he’ll need.”

  “And you’re okay with that?”

  Ash studied Dex. Was it just him, or was Dex coming to him for help on a regular basis? A few months ago, Ash was pretty sure Dex wouldn’t have been caught dead asking Ash for help. If he did, it was usually begrudgingly and because he had no choice. And he’d make sure to let Ash know it. Now he didn’t seem to think twice about it.

  “You’re okay with me and Sloane?”

  “Only because for some reason beyond my understanding you make him happy,” Ash muttered, removing the wraps from his right hand.

  Dex grinned broadly.

  “Yeah, all right. I get it. Now fuck off back to your boyfriend. He’s already called me twice today asking where you are. Tell him I’m not your goddamn chaperone.”

  “You can tell me that yourself.” Sloane approached them with a wide smile. There had been a time when Ash thought he’d never see his best friend smile again. Now he was doing it all the time. Ash shook his head in shame at Sloane.

  “Seriously, man? You can’t be five minutes without being on your boy’s ass?”

  “What can I say? It’s a mighty fine ass.” Sloane winked at Dex, whose cheeks went pink.

  Ash let out a sound of disgust before turning back to his punching bag and waving them away. “You two make me sick. Fuck off, both of you. I got shit to do.”

  The two of them laughed as they walked off, and Ash discreetly watched them go. He held back a smile at the playful way Sloane shoved Dex away from him, laughing at something his partner said. They were good together, those two. Without Dex, Sloane would be far too serious. Like Ash, Sloane was always in danger of losing himself to his dark thoughts. They needed to keep themselves busy, distracted or their heads would go to places no sane person would want to
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