Rack & ruin, p.7
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       Rack & Ruin, p.7
 

         Part #3 of THIRDS series by Charlie Cochet  
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  “I swear I didn’t see him until it was too late,” Dex said, coming around to inspect Sloane’s head. “Damn.”

  “I can’t believe he did that.” Sloane was dumbstruck. “After all these years of threatening to do it, he actually did it.” It was true. He had no one to blame but himself. Maddock had warned him repeatedly. Sloane wore his hair far longer than THIRDS policy allowed and always waited until the last possible moment to get it cut.

  Dex sat on the edge of Sloane’s desk. “I’m sorry, man. That was harsh. What can I do?”

  “Can you put the room in privacy mode?”

  “Sure.” Dex walked over to the panel and typed in his badge number and security clearance. The walls went white, and the room was secure. Then Sloane let it rip, cursing up a storm. He let loose with everything he had, using swear words he hadn’t even been aware he knew. When he was done, his face was hot, and he felt out of breath.

  “Your dad’s evil,” Sloane murmured pathetically. Dex sat on the edge of Sloane’s desk and slid over. He stopped in front of him and held his arms out. With a pout, Sloane wheeled his chair forward so he could rest his head on Dex’s lap.

  “There, there.” Dex petted Sloane’s head, soothing him. “That was quite the outburst. Didn’t know you had it in you. I’m not even sure I know what the last two were.”

  “German, I think. I heard Sasha over in Recon go off once when his hard drive got wiped by some rogue virus. I don’t know what it means, but it sounded… appropriate for this moment.” He lifted his head and propped his chin on Dex’s leg. “I have to get it cut, don’t I?”

  Dex winced as he ran his fingers through the butchered side of Sloane’s head. “Yeah. There’s really no way to pull this off as trendy.”

  “Thanks.” Sloane stood and gave Dex a kiss. “Tell the evil overlord I left early. I’m going to go see Marcus to get this fixed and then head over to Shultzon’s. I’ll call you later. If anything comes up, ring me.”

  “Okay. Good luck on both accounts.”

  Sloane gave Dex a wink before walking out of the office. On the way to the elevator, he tried to think only about his haircut and not the appointment that would follow. There was no reason to feel nervous. Shultzon had been a huge part of his life once upon a time, but that had changed a long time ago. He could do this. He had to. It was the only way to restore some kind of normality after the disorder his life had been thrown into since revisiting the research facility. At least now he could take comfort the nightmares were only in his head.

  Chapter 5

  SLOANE WAS forced to see his stylist thanks to the horror inflicted upon his flowing locks by his sergeant. When the man had seen Sloane’s butchered hair, he’d all but shouted bloody murder before praying to some saint in Spanish. At least Marcus had been sympathetic and mourned the loss along with him. A few snips and a quick blow-dry later, and Sloane felt better. He could still run his fingers through his hair, though only on top. The sides of his head were cut short, making the little silver hairs reflect the light like tiny solar panels. At least that’s what it felt like. Marcus had offered to shave his growing beard, but Sloane decided he’d leave it to bug Maddock. At least this time, if his sergeant came at him with a razor, Sloane would see it coming. The man was sneaky, even for a Human. He’d most likely honed his stalking skills over the years through the raising of two mischievous boys.

  The locks clicked on the other side of the door, and Sloane braced himself. For fuck’s sake, he wasn’t a kid anymore. Despite being out of uniform, the badge clipped to his belt and the sidearm tucked into the shoulder holster under his jacket reminded him of who, and what, he was now. When the door opened and he was faced with the man who was both his savior and personal bogeyman, remaining unfazed became more difficult than he’d expected.

  “Sloane.” Dr. Shultzon greeted him with a broad, warm smile and a hug. “It’s so good to see you.”

  Sloane gave him a curt nod. “Sir.”

  “Please, come in.” Shultzon stepped aside so Sloane could enter. It felt odd being back here on a personal visit. As Shultzon locked up behind him, Sloane took a quick look around the elegant surroundings, remembering how different it had looked a few months ago when Isaac and his men had ransacked the place before they’d kidnapped the doctor. Now it was immaculate, looking almost comfortable and peaceful. Shultzon motioned for Sloane to enter the living room, and as he did, Sloane took stock of the room, how the bookshelves along the walls were once again filled with books, the lamps were upright, the cream-colored couches and armchairs sat pristinely with their cushions in place, and the wood floors gleamed.

  “Nice haircut. Sergeant Maddock’s doing?” Shultzon asked, his smile making creases at the corners of his eyes. He took a seat in one of the armchairs and motioned for Sloane to sit on the couch across from him.

  “How’d you know?” Sloane sat slightly forward, his arms on his legs, fingers laced, and his eyes everywhere but on the man before him. Maybe coming here was a mistake. He hadn’t talked to Shultzon in years, and now here he was opening the floodgates to God only knew what.

  “Sloane, we’re only going to talk. You don’t need to look so uncomfortable. Sit back, relax. And the answer to your question is that I make it my business to know.”

  Sloane sat back and studied Shultzon. “About agents’ haircuts?” The man hadn’t changed at all since Sloane had hugged him good-bye his last day at the facility, right before he’d been blindfolded and deposited on the THIRDS’s doorstep like a baby left on the steps of a church. Shultzon’s hair had a lot more white than it once had, but other than that, he hadn’t changed overly much. He was still tall, kind looking with sharp gray eyes that missed nothing, and a soothing voice that could turn commanding and fierce at the drop of a hat. There was one difference Sloane found comforting. Shultzon no longer had power over him.

  “I make it my business to know what goes on at the THIRDS. I may be retired, but I’m still valued there and often consulted. Thank you for coming to see me. I hoped you would.”

  “Did you?”

  Shultzon nodded. “I’ve followed your progress. I was so proud of you when you made Team Leader. Despite what you may believe, I care about you. You were like the son I never had.”

  “Son?” Sloane sat up with a hiss. He’d told himself he wouldn’t get angry, but he should have known better. Shultzon may have saved his life, but that didn’t mean Sloane could forget the price he’d paid. “I still have nightmares. I haven’t been able to stop dreaming about that goddamn place since returning there.”

  The smile slipped off Shultzon’s face, his expression turning remorseful. “I’m sorry. I understand your resentment.”

  “Do you? I trusted you. And you….” Sloane pressed his lips together, willing himself to calm down. “You tortured me. You tortured Ash. All of us. I endured physical and psychological agony nearly every day.” He wanted to blame his lost childhood on Shultzon, but that wouldn’t be fair. The man hadn’t stolen Sloane’s childhood. Being a Therian, what happened to him, losing his mother…. He never stood a chance at a normal life after that. He felt his anger wavering.

  Shultzon leaned forward, his hands clasped in front of him. “Sloane, I know you think of it as torture, but it was necessary to run those tests in order to understand you. To understand your limits. I protected you and Ash.”

  Shultzon’s sincerity and regretful tone irritated Sloane. “We could have died.”

  “I would never have let that happen to either of you.”

  “What about the others? Are you telling me no one died strapped to one of those goddamn chairs?” Sloane jumped to his feet and paced. It was the only way he’d maintain his grip. The memories flooded back and slammed into him from every direction. The needles, the drugs, the shocks going through his body. When the world looked at him, they saw nothing but an animal. That’s what they’d called him at the asylum. Then the Therian First Gen research facility had made him feel like one. He loo
ked down at his hands. “I was just a boy.”

  “Sloane, it’s because of you that we have Postshift Trauma Care. Therians were dying hours after they shifted back to their Human form, and no one understood why. Most were perfectly healthy. Because of you, we learned how vastly different the Therian metabolic rate was to that of a Human’s. And all you did was say two little words. Do you remember what you said to me?”

  Sloane nodded. How could he forget? He’d shifted back to his Human form, and he felt as though he were dying, wasting away to nothingness. It had all been so terrifying. His body had felt brittle, and he feared it would shatter if he so much as breathed. Then he’d looked up at Shultzon and quietly he had said, “I’m hungry.”

  “That’s right. Those two words saved countless lives, Sloane. I asked you what you wanted, and you asked for meat. Four double quarter pounders later, and you were good as new. As soon as we made that discovery, the rest fell into place. Think about it.”

  Sloane didn’t know if that was true. He didn’t know how much to believe. Shultzon had been good to him when he wasn’t running tests, but he’d been the head doctor at the facility. How much of what he’d been told had been the truth, and how much had been to get Sloane to cooperate? The only thing that kept the Therian children from escaping had been fear. In their Therian forms, they were physically stronger. Fear of the outside world—of being alone—kept Sloane from trying to escape. Every child in that facility had been discarded. Treated like rabid animals.

  Behind him Shultzon was going on about everything Sloane had supposedly done to help his fellow Therians, but it was hard to hear past the screaming in his head. He flexed his fingers, forming fists as he tried to shut out the memories of his own screams. The cries of agony became louder, and he felt the Felid inside him stir. His heartbeat sped up, his pulse soared, and he balanced precariously before the abyss. If he didn’t regain control….

  “Dex.”

  Sloane’s eyes snapped open, his vision sharp. When he turned, Shultzon was smiling warmly at him. “What did you say?”

  Shultzon hadn’t moved from his position, looking calm and collected as always. “I was asking how your partner Dex is.”

  For a moment, Sloane stood staring dumbly at the man. His brows drew together, and he frowned. Why was Shultzon asking about Dex? “Dex is fine.”

  “He seems to be doing very well. I thought he might have trouble making the leap from homicide detective to Defense Agent.”

  Sloane walked to the couch and sat down. “He’s done great, considering he was thrown into the HumaniTherian murder case his first week on the job.” Why were they talking about Dex all of a sudden?

  “How’s he handling being unable to carry out his own investigations?”

  “It frustrates him,” Sloane admitted, chuckling when an image of Dex looking stumped came into his mind. Not being able to chase down every lead they received frustrated the hell out of his ex-detective partner. So while Recon did the investigating, Sloane had started distracting Dex with training sessions and puzzle games during their down time. His partner would get absorbed in them, and then when they were called out, Dex was raring to go. “We’ve found a way around it.”

  “Would you like some coffee?”

  “Sure.” Sloane sat back, thinking about Dex and all his crazy little quirks while Shultzon disappeared into the kitchen to make coffee. Although Dex was technically still a rookie, he’d come a hell of a long way. He was a quick learner. During training sessions, he’d watch Sloane sparring with Ash and Hobbs and quickly pick up the moves. What Dex lacked in strength compared to his Therian teammates, he made up for in cunning. He was also good at catching his opponents off guard. Shultzon returned with a tray and handed Sloane a cup of coffee. Sloane added a little milk and sugar to it, which was all Dex’s doing. He used to be content to take his coffee black. As he sipped his coffee, he could feel himself relaxing.

  “I’ve been meaning to ask. How long have you and Dex been together?”

  Sloane nearly choked on his coffee. So much for feeling relaxed. He wiped at his mouth and met Shultzon’s gaze. “Excuse me?”

  “Dex. You two are together, aren’t you?”

  Sloane observed Shultzon as he tranquilly stirred his coffee. “He’s my work partner.”

  “Ah, I see.” Shultzon nodded and took a sip, as if those three little words explained everything. It was obvious he didn’t believe Sloane.

  “What?”

  “You were always very good at hiding the truth, even if it was from yourself. But you could never hide from me.” Shultzon nodded to where Sloane had stood minutes ago. “You were seconds away from going feral but you didn’t.”

  “I don’t lose control that easily.” Maybe that had been true once upon a time when he was younger and had trouble controlling his emotions but not now. Sloane didn’t go feral unless he wanted to.

  “I was losing you. I could tell. Nothing I said was getting through. Until I said his name.”

  Sloane vaguely remembered Shultzon talking, but for the life of him couldn’t recall what about. He did recall Dex’s name. Was it possible he had been going feral and not known it? Shit, that wasn’t good.

  “That and the fact Isaac chose Dex to use against you tells me the young man means a great deal to you. I’m sorry I put him in such a difficult position. I hope he forgives me.”

  “He’s pretty pissed he can’t remember, but he’s not angry with you.”

  “Then you haven’t told him everything, or he would be.”

  That much was true. “He knows enough. There’s no point in worrying him with the gory details.” Sloane had spent enough time around Dex to know how personally he took the pain of those he cared about. Knowing the details of what Sloane had suffered would only bring his partner heartache. Was it selfish of Sloane to want to always see Dex happy? His partner didn’t seem right without a smile.

  “You’re protecting him.” Shultzon nodded his understanding. He placed his coffee on the table and sat back to study Sloane. “After everything we’ve been through, do you really believe I’m going to tell Lieutenant Sparks about your boyfriend?”

  Sloane scowled but didn’t answer. Let Shultzon think what he wanted. Sloane wasn’t about to give up his relationship.

  “Either way, I’m glad you’re happy again. You deserve to be happy.”

  Happy. That was something Sloane hadn’t thought he’d ever feel again after Gabe. It was true that Dex did make him happy, even if at times Sloane felt their relationship was moving a little too fast. Of course, he wasn’t about to discuss it with Shultzon. “Lieutenant Sparks said the facility’s been closed for good. Is that true?”

  “What’s your gut telling you?”

  Sloane cursed under his breath. He’d come to trust his instincts and listen to his gut. The THIRDS was hiding something regarding the facility. They might not be using the same building, but that didn’t mean they’d stopped doing whatever the hell they’d been doing.

  “We both know how these things work, Sloane.”

  “And the drug? You saw what it did to Dex. He would have killed you and then—” Sloane cut himself off, unable to even say the words. He closed his eyes in an attempt to get the image out of his mind, but that only made it worse. It hit him like a Mack truck just then. He’d told Dex he would do everything he could to preserve civilian life, even if it meant losing Dex. Now he wasn’t so sure about that, and it scared the hell out of him. He’d never felt this nervous about his relationship with Gabe. Being with Dex was certainly an adventure. Except sometimes he felt as if it were an adventure he was ill-equipped for.

  “Sloane, look at me.”

  Sloane wanted to refuse on principle, but some part of him still felt like that scared little kid when Shultzon spoke to him. He did as asked.

  “Right now, there is no need for concern. Should that change, you’ll be the first to know.”

  “Why would you tell me?” Shultzon had no reason to ca
re about Sloane or what happened in his life now. Had he really come to care about Sloane, or was it something else? Could he really trust the man? As if reading his thoughts, Shultzon nodded.

  “I trust you. The moment I laid eyes on you, I saw all the potential you possessed. You started out a frightened child and turned into an extraordinary young man. You’re an exceptional Team Leader, and I have no doubt that you’ll continue to achieve great things. You’re stronger than you think, Sloane. You always have been.”

  Sloane stood, feeling awkward at Shultzon’s kind words. He remembered how much the man’s praise had meant to him once. How he’d put himself through so much just to have Shultzon smile at him and tell him how good he was.

  “I should go.”

  Shultzon extended a hand, the look in his eyes genuine. His tone was sincere when he spoke. “Please say you’ll visit again. Maybe you can even bring Dex along. I’d love to meet him.”

  “I’ll tell him.” Sloane took Shultzon’s hand and thanked him for the coffee and the chat. He left the house and stood for a moment out on the sidewalk. It was so peaceful. He barely even heard the traffic. The evening was breezy. Sloane walked to his car, glad he’d listened to Dex about coming here. He’d been incredibly uncertain at first, almost sure he’d be making a mistake, but he’d trusted Dex. The thought of his partner made him smile. He climbed in behind the wheel thinking about how understanding Dex had been since the very beginning and how every time Sloane felt unsure about anything, his partner was there to help him figure things out. For all of Dex’s joking around, the guy was incredibly astute.

  As he drove toward Dex’s house, he decided he’d take a little detour. He wanted to get something for Dex. He drove around for a while trying to figure out what, exactly. Whatever little token he got, he knew his partner would love it. Dex was definitely one of those it’s-the-thought-that-counts kind of guys. He was also easy to please. But Sloane didn’t want to get him just anything. He wanted to get something that would make Dex smile that brilliant smile of his. The one that reached his sparkling blue eyes. He thought about what Dex went crazy over, even if it was silly or something that drove Sloane crazy. A thought popped into his head, and he smiled at himself. His partner was in for a treat.

  DEX TAPPED his foot along to the electric guitar and beating drums while Asia sang about the heat of the moment and teenage ambitions. Only moments ago, Dex had been on a video chat with his little brother, and now he was attempting to make sense of the Coalition case file in front of him. Although he didn’t have the clearance to access Themis offsite, he could access his desk’s interface and its files. Sloane had sent him a text while at Shultzon’s to let Dex know he wouldn’t be getting home in time for dinner so to go ahead and order the pizza he knew Dex wanted. He also reminded Dex he’d be working it off during their next training. Silly Sloane. Like that would deter Dex from gorging out on New York’s finest slices loaded with extra cheesy goodness and a crunchy crust. He patted his full belly and let out a contented sigh. Next training session would suck, but it had been so worth it.

  He propped his sock-covered feet on the coffee table in front of him and scrolled through his tablet. According to Cael, Themis had raised no flags on any unauthorized access. Although algorithms had been set up in the hopes of catching any agents attempting to access information they had no business accessing, it was proving almost impossible. Thousands of agents accessed Themis from HQ alone. Recon agents had more access to classified information than Defense. They could also make amendments and deletions that Defense couldn’t do. Hence why Dex and the rest of his team’s Defense agents were always bugging Cael or Rosa when files needed altering. Intel agents had access to high-level clearance information that even Recon didn’t have access to. What Dex couldn’t understand was why Sparks seemed so chill.

  The THIRDS had a mole in their organization. One that was feeding intel to a vigilante group, and other than Unit Alpha looking into it, there had been no briefings regarding it, no visits from the higher ups, no assemblies or discussions. As if every day was like any other. That sent Dex’s curiosity into high alert. What was going on behind the scenes? What were they not being told? It was the THIRDS damned “need to know” policy that frustrated the hell out of him.

  Information trickled down, and Dex wasn’t the type to sit around waiting to accept what morsels he was given. As much as he loved his brother, whenever he heard the words “Recon’s working on it,” Dex wanted to smack someone over the head. Recon could work on it all they wanted. That wasn’t going to stop Dex from trying to work things out on his end. Which was why he was sitting on his couch with his tablet and a digital map of New York City. There were scores of color-coded dots and pins scattered about, each one pertaining to an unconfirmed or confirmed Coalition sighting as well as Coalition activities.

  From what he could see, there was definitely more activity in Brooklyn and Queens than there was in Manhattan. That wasn’t surprising, considering Isaac had been operating from his base somewhere in Brooklyn. Austen was working on getting them the location since THIRDS priority had shifted from the Order to the Coalition. They’d also received intel stating most of Isaac’s followers who’d been stationed with him had jumped ship after his death.

  Dex stared at the dots on the map until his eyes hurt. There was absolutely no pattern in the locations. So far, the Coalition had sent over half a dozen members of the Order to the hospital with injuries ranging from bruises to broken bones. How long before they had another corpse on their hands? When the Ikelos Coalition hit the headlines, the Order decided they needed to be armed and ready. Now whenever the two sides clashed, there was gunfire with no consideration for innocent bystanders. Dex turned off his tablet and put it on the coffee table. He sure hoped Austen was as good as everyone said he was, because they needed some kind of lead soon.

  There was a knock on the door, and Dex let out a yawn before shuffling over. It was almost 9 p.m. He’d had dinner, showered, changed, and was ready to veg on the couch.

  Dex couldn’t help his dopey grin at seeing Sloane. “Hey—” He was cut off when Sloane stepped inside, kicked the door closed behind him, and then grabbed Dex in a fierce hug. Dex didn’t question it. He slipped his arms around his partner and held him, smiling when Sloane nuzzled his face against Dex’s neck. Sloane pulled back, and he was smiling.

  “Thank you.”

  “For what?” His partner certainly seemed to be in a good mood, considering he’d had his hair chopped off, though the sexy new cut he was sporting sent tingles through Dex just the same. He’d also gone to meet with a man who wasn’t exactly on his Christmas card list.

  “Just because.” Sloane kissed Dex, and when he pulled back, Dex’s heart did a flip at Sloane’s shy smile. He handed Dex a small white paper bag. “I bought you something. I know I’m going to be paying for it later, but I just wanted to get you something to say thank you.”

  Dex took the bag. He could barely contain his smile. “You bought me something?” If only Sloane knew how much his tiny gestures meant to him. Man, he was turning into such a sap.

  “I know I could have gotten you flowers or I don’t know.” Sloane shrugged looking embarrassed. “Truth is, I’m not exactly sure what makes an appropriate
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