Hell & high water, p.8
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       Hell & High Water, p.8
 

         Part #1 of THIRDS series by Charlie Cochet
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  mind that his teammates would most likely shift inside the truck and seeing as how they had to get naked to do it, it made sense there would be some designated space for them to do it in.

  Everyone took a seat on the bench and strapped in. There was a singular space across from them, tucked next to the cages where Tony strapped himself in to face them. The rumble of the BearCat roaring to life sent a small shiver up Dex’s spine. This was it. The truck drove through the garage and out into the street, the sun filtering in through the ballistic windows. They hit a pothole and Dex closed his eyes at the unexpected jolt. He had to relax. It’s going to take a little getting used to, that’s all, so chill.

  Ash gave a snort from the end of the bench. “What’s the matter, Rookie? I thought you’d be used to having something big and hard under your ass.”

  Dex leaned forward to grin at the burly agent. “That an invitation, Ash?”

  “Fuck you.”

  The guy was too easy. “Not without dinner and a movie first, big boy.” Ash’s growl made Dex chuckle. The rough-around-the-edges agent was used to getting his own way, and if someone challenged him, Ash would simply throw his weight around or use aggressive tactics to make his opponent back down. There was no way in hell Dex was going to back down.

  “I’m going to kick the shit out of you if you don’t shut the fuck up.”

  “One night with me, baby, and I promise you, I’ll get you onto beef,” Dex said, echoing Ash’s words.

  Rosa let out a snort before she started laughing. “Oh shit.”

  “What the hell, Ro?” Ash scowled at her, but Rosa simply laughed it off.

  “What? You can dish it but you can’t take it, cabrón?”

  The rest of the team, with the exception of Sloane, joined in the laughter. “You know what, screw you all.” Ash sat back with a miserable pout.

  “Ooh, kinky.” Dex wriggled his eyebrows.

  “That’s enough.” Sloane put his hand to Dex’s chest and pushed him firmly back against the truck’s wall. “You’re supposed to be paying attention.”

  “To what, the inside of the truck? I wasn’t the one who started it,” Dex replied, frustrated he was the one getting told off and knowing Ash was enjoying every second of it.

  “Are you questioning me? Because I’m pretty sure I made myself clear on how this worked.”

  “Yes, but—”

  “Stop. Talking,” Sloane demanded harshly. “Your job is to listen and learn, not provide comic relief.”

  Dex sat back with jaw clamped shut. Mostly because he didn’t even know where to start with everything that pissed him off right now. He glanced over at Tony whose lips were pressed in a thin line. Great, so not only was Sloane making him look like an asshole in front of his team, but in front of his father too. The truck headed toward its destination and Dex kept his gaze forward, ignoring the fact that the rest of the team carried on as if nothing had happened. Apparently talking and ribbing was allowed as long as it wasn’t coming from him. Okay, if that’s the way his partner wanted to play it, Dex could play.

  When the truck came to a halt, Tony was the first to unfasten his harness. He stood and addressed the rest of them, including Calvin and Hobbs who came through the large metal door protecting the front cabin.

  “Hudson and Nina are already inside examining the body. Cael, Rosa, you know what to do. Sloane, you and Dex keep them company while they do it. Ash, Letty, and I will scout the perimeter. Calvin, you and Hobbs stay in the BearCat and keep your eyes peeled.”

  Dex unfastened his belt and stood, almost running into Sloane who loomed over him. The rest of the team hopped to it, with Calvin and Hobbs taking a seat on the bench, pretending Sloane and Dex weren’t there.

  “What?” Dex finally asked, bracing himself. Sloane looked pissed, though Dex had no idea what he could possibly have done now other than exist.

  “You stay close, keep your mouth shut unless it’s relevant to the case and try not to make an ass out of the both of us. I don’t care who your daddy is. You fuck up, you ignore direct orders, and I will charge you with insubordination. Understood?”

  Dex worried his bottom lip, his insides twisting, and his head screaming for him not to take this bullshit. Instead, he looked Sloane right in the eye and gave him a curt nod. “Perfectly.”

  As suspected, Dex’s compliance and lack of insolence only proved to aggravate Sloane further. The guy had been expecting a fight, hoping for a fight, maybe so he could do exactly what he said he would. With his threat backfiring, Sloane thundered out of the BearCat, and Dex let out a deep breath.

  “Give him time.”

  Dex turned to Calvin, a look of concern etched across his boyish face. Beside him, Hobbs sat quietly, his expression guarded.

  “Time for what? For him to find an excuse to push me out, like he did with all the others?” Dex could feel his anger growing. It wasn’t as if he’d been expecting a ticker-tape parade, but a little effort on Sloane’s part wouldn’t have gone amiss. “How long should I keep my mouth shut, worried I’m going to get disciplined for fucking breathing? As much as I feel for him, it’s not my fault he refuses to go to therapy and cry out his feelings. What happened to Gabe was tragic, and I would happily give up my post if it meant you got him back. But Gabe is gone, and I shouldn’t have to pay for that.”

  Calvin and Hobbs both straightened, their eyes going wide at something behind Dex. A sense of impending doom washed over him. Shit. He must have broken a house of mirrors in his former life to justify having this much bad luck. Closing his eyes, Dex shook his head. Well, this was going to be fun. He braced himself and turned, expecting the end of his very short career at the THIRDS. Instead, he was met with a crushed expression, and it hit Dex like a punch to the gut. Dex stood motionless, watching Sloane struggle with something within himself before he inhaled deeply. As if waking up from a trance, Sloane shifted his gaze to Dex, his voice quiet when he spoke.

  “Let’s go. Cael and Rosa are waiting.” With that, he disappeared around the truck.

  What just happened? Something he’d said must have struck a chord with Sloane, and a part of Dex felt guilty for his words. Maybe he needed to cut the guy some slack and not expect miracles so soon into their partnership. Dex jumped down, rifle in hand, and with renewed determination, jogged to catch up to Sloane who was waiting silently for him in front of the French Gothic style mansion. They were on a street lined with pretty trees, spotless sidewalks, multimillion dollar homes, and luxurious apartments just around the corner from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

  The Ortiz mansion was impressive, from its limestone façade to its intricate iron gates protecting the heavy wooden front doors, but more impressive than the multimillion dollar mansion was Sloane opening one side of the iron gates for him.

  With a nod of thanks, Dex stepped inside, telling himself he was going to try harder. Patience wasn’t one of his virtues, but he was going to have to learn. It was time for a different approach. One he hoped would lead to them getting along better and hopefully not to Dex being used as a scratching post.

  Chapter 5

  SLOANE DISLIKED Dex. Really disliked him.

  The rookie’s words were still ringing in his ears as they made their way through the grand foyer of the mansion. As much as he hated to admit it, Dex was right. Another reason to dislike him. The list was growing by the minute. Despite what Dex believed, Sloane had seen a therapist, a THIRDS-appointed one, the same one the rest of his team had been forced to see after the incident. It had been a slippery slope, but Sloane managed to say all the right things to get himself cleared for duty. Afterward, he did his best to prolong facing the painful truth—that Gabe was gone.

  His chest ached and the back of his eyes stung, but he quickly pulled himself together. For a long time, he’d managed to avoid the harsh reality. It had been easy while Gabe’s position remained open. Every time a new partner was assigned, reality threatened to chip away at the tremulous delusion he had creat
ed for himself. Of course Gabe was gone. He’d simply put off accepting it for as long as he could, until the thought no longer threatened to cripple him. He’d been terrified about facing his grief, of what it would do to him if he allowed himself to give into it. Only Ash knew his fears, what it could mean for Sloane. When Sloane had finally given in, it had been frightening, but he’d pulled through. By no means had he completely healed, but at least it no longer felt like an open festering wound.

  Beside him, his new partner was pensive, and Sloane felt a pang of guilt. Dex had been right about Sloane placing blame on him, punishing him for being placed in Gabe’s position. Under different circumstances, it would have been one hell of a promotion for the ex-HPF officer.

  Sloane told himself he would have to make more of an effort to make this partnership work, no matter how much he disliked it. The sooner he accepted things could no longer be as they once were, the better it would be for all of them. The two of them would be spending a lot of time together. Did he really want to spend that time arguing with the guy? Their job was difficult enough as it was without him making it more difficult.

  They made their way through the opulent home decorated in hues of blues, reds, and gold, everything designed in a neo-French Renaissance style, from the walls adorned with large oil paintings in antique gold frames to the molded and sculpted staircase. Beneath their boots, the extravagant carpet swallowed their footsteps, and the silk curtains hanging from the expansive archways brushed against the rough cotton fabric of their uniforms. In each room, a crystal chandelier glittered above their heads. No one looked more out of place than they did.

  The home was crawling with their squad’s Recon agents, all twenty by the looks of it. The agents were busy taking statements from the guests, some of whom were in tears, while others looked affronted that they were even being questioned. Considering how many rooms the place had, this was going to take a while. In his helmet, Sloane received the confirmation he’d been awaiting from Ash.

  “House and perimeter are clear.”

  “Copy that.” Sloane removed his helmet and clipped the straps to the back of his vest, Dex doing the same.

  Dex whispered at him. “I didn’t know charities paid so well.”

  “They don’t. Ortiz was already wealthy before he took over HumaniTherians United.” They went up two flights of stairs to Ortiz’s office where Hudson and Nina were crouched over the body. The office was as opulent as the rest of the house, rich mahogany and glass-cased shelving units around the room, with a fancy drink cart in one corner and a couple of leather wingback chairs. Everything looked pristine and in its place, except for Ortiz lying in a pool of his own blood. Sloane received a nod in greeting from Hudson and Nina as they approached; all around them CS agents were busy sweeping the place.

  “What have we got?”

  Hudson got to his feet. “Mr. Hector Ortiz, Chairman of HumaniTherians United. His body was discovered by his wife around noon. According to her statement, he’d been mingling with guests all morning, but when she went to make introductions to newly arrived guests, she couldn’t find him. She figured he had snuck off to do some work as he had a habit of doing. Came up here and found him dead.”

  “And you’re sure we’re dealing with the same perp?” Sloane studied the corpse. Ortiz lay with his throat torn, like the previous victims.

  “We’re certain it’s the same killer, but there’s something bothering us about this one.”

  “Oh?”

  Nina pointed down to the victim’s neck, and Sloane crouched down for a better look, Dex following his lead. “See here? There’s a small tear where the claw hooked the victim’s neck and pulled, but the movement wasn’t carried through. It’s as if he was quickly released. Like maybe the victim moved unexpectedly.”

  Dex cocked his head to one side, studying the tears. “That makes sense. If someone was trying to slash his throat, wouldn’t he try to get away?”

  “Not if he didn’t know he was going to be attacked. The movement suggests he was turning when he was struck. Something might have spooked the attacker, who quickly regained his objective and struck again, only the second swipe was successful, tearing the throat and allowing the victim to bleed to death.”

  “What’s the strange part?” Sloane’s concern regarding this case was steadily increasing. Something wasn’t adding up. He stood to face Hudson, whose troubled expression mirrored his own feelings on this.

  “The depth of the tears and the direction of blood spatter indicate the strength behind the swipe was far weaker than that of your average Felid, unlike with the previous victims.”

  Sloane considered that. “Is it possible the victim fought back and injured his attacker?” It was a long shot. Hudson dashed his hopes with a shake of his head.

  “There are no traces of fur or skin under his fingernails, no hairs on his clothing, and the evidence suggests it’s likely that all the blood is his, but we need to get it all back to the lab to confirm. So far, CS agents are having trouble finding any evidence the attacker was even here other than poor Mr. Ortiz. My theory—and this is only a theory until we can properly examine him—is that the last two victims were smaller than the attacker, whereas Ortiz was bigger.”

  Sloane frowned. “I don’t see how that would make a difference.”

  “Exactly,” Hudson replied. “I hate to say this, lads, but there’s an awful lot not making sense here.”

  “Like the fact that the attacker only attacks with his right.”

  The three of them turned to Dex, who was still crouched down beside the victim. He pointed at the victim’s neck. “All three victims had their throats slashed from left to right. Plus, according to the case file, none of the victims had any other scratches on them, which is pretty implausible.”

  “How so?” Hudson asked curiously. Nina brought up the forensic reports of the previous victims, studied them and nodded her agreement.

  Dex continued. “All three victims had been standing at the time. For a Felid to have reached their necks, especially with someone as tall as Ortiz, he would’ve had to get on his hind legs. How did he manage to strike each victim with his right, yet not leave any scratches at all anywhere with his left? Even if he’d knocked them over, he would’ve had to have left some mark on at least one of them. Do you know how many times Cael clobbered me with his left paw during play when we were growing up? Nearly every time. And even with his nails clipped, he left a hell of a lot of scratches.”

  “He’s right,” Sloane agreed, aware of Dex staring at him, complete surprise on his face. “It’s pretty damn strange that our attacker left no other serious wounds or even scratches. It’s too clean. What else do we know?”

  Nina scrolled through the notes on her tablet, her grim expression not boding well. “Recon’s interviewing the guests, but so far no one witnessed any suspicious activity or saw the chairman arguing with anyone. There was live music going on at the time and despite a supposed attack from a Felid this size, no one heard a sound. There’s a long list of enemies, but it’s to be expected from a man like Ortiz. Intel’s running them through Themis now. His wife says nothing was stolen from the office. His wallet and keys were still in his pockets.”

  “At this point, we can probably rule out theft gone wrong,” Dex pitched in.

  Sloane carefully mulled over everything he’d learned so far, but he was no closer to piecing anything together now than he had been when this mess started. The only reason they knew their perp was a Therian was due to the slash marks consistent with a Felid attack. Sloane surveyed the room, taking note of all the guards and HPF officers lingering about. “How’d he get past all the security?”

  “Good question. Do you think it could be an employee?” Dex offered. “Or someone dressed like an employee?”

  “Dex might be right.”

  Cael approached them with Rosa at his side, and as soon as she was close, she motioned for Sloane and Dex to join them. “Thanks. Let me know as soon as y
ou get anything new.”

  “Absolutely,” Hudson replied, his blue eyes observing Dex keenly. “Dex, nice to see you again.”

  Wait, what was that? Was Hudson flirting with Dex? Sloane glanced over at his partner and the dopey grin on his face. Well, if he was, Dex was enjoying it. Not that Sloane cared. If Dex wanted to risk his job by hopping into bed with Hudson, that was his problem, though Sloane should at least make an attempt to steer his partner away from danger. He grabbed Dex’s arm, hauled him to his feet, and led him to Cael and Rosa. Dex didn’t say a word, but his arched eyebrow indicated his humorous surprise. What Dex found so amusing was beyond him. What’s more, he didn’t care. They walked off to one side away from all the other agents and hired security.

  “What have you got?” Sloane grunted, ignoring his partner’s stupid grin.

  Cael tapped away at his tablet before handing it to Sloane. It was a list of everyone who had been in attendance at the time, from guests to employees, including which were Therians and their confirmed classifications. “The guest list is small. We’re lucky it was a brunch and not an evening event. There were only twenty-five guests, with three times the number of employees. Mrs. Ortiz has used the same security firm for the last ten years, plus a few HPF officers working overtime. So far, no one’s seen or heard anything out of the ordinary. Only three of the fifty guards employed by Mrs. Ortiz are Felids, and they were in Mrs. Ortiz’s company the whole time, confirmed by several guests. She did hire an offsite, high-end catering company—Thalia’s Kitchen Events & Catering on Fifth and West Thirty-Third. The staff is still being interviewed at the moment, but so far no Felids. They’re also all present and accounted for. I doubt whoever killed Ortiz would stick around.”

  Sloane nodded, going through the list before handing it back to Cael. “In other words, we’ve got nothing. Has Intel run Ortiz through Themis?”

  “They’re working on it now,” Rosa replied.

  A Recon agent came rushing toward them. “Agent Cael, Agent Santiago, one of the staff says he has some information that might help.”

  Cael gave the agent a nod. “Thanks, Russo.”

  Finally, they might have something. Tracking Therian perpetrators was difficult but there was always something—a hair, a fiber, saliva, a tooth—something left behind during a violent encounter when a Therian’s instinct was at its most animalistic, despite the Human inside. It took a great deal of control to strike the right balance. These attacks were too controlled.

  They followed Agent Russo out of the office and down the stairs through the drawing room into the dining room. A dark-haired waiter sat in one of the dining room chairs. When he saw them approach, he jumped to his feet and made his way over, stopping abruptly when he saw Sloane. A sneer came onto his face, his sharp eyes scrutinizing. At the end, he turned to Dex.

  “I’ll talk to you,” he said with a haughty sniff, looking Dex over.

  Dex’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. His partner obviously hadn’t been expecting such a blatant display of discrimination so early in the game. He’d better get used to it. Dex opened his mouth, when Cael discreetly shook his head. With pursed lips, Dex addressed the waiter.

  “Sir, you stated you had some information involving the victim?”

  “Yeah, I know who killed him,” the waiter replied with confidence.

  “You saw what happened?”

  “No, not exactly. There was this Therian freak—” The waiter cut himself off when he saw the disapproving look on Dex’s face. Sloane had to admit, the rookie had a pretty intimidating perhaps-you’d-like-to-rephrase-that-before-I-beat-you look. “Uh, I mean this Therian. He was a bartender with the catering company, and he was acting all weird and nervous. He was Unregistered.”

  “How do you know?” Dex asked.

  “He was wearing a turtleneck and kept fussing with it. It wouldn’t be the first time Mrs. Ortiz used a company that hired Unregistered Therians. She thought she was doing good. So much for that.”

  Dex looked thoughtful. “So you didn’t actually see or hear this Therian attack Ortiz?”

  “No.” The waiter grew less certain. “But he was up to something. So I confronted him, told him I was going to call you guys to pick him up. The prick kept on working like I hadn’t said anything. So I called it in. Of course when I went back, he was gone.”

  “What time was this?”

  “It was before eleven when I confronted him,” the man replied.

  “Could you describe this Therian for us?”

  “Yeah, he was tall, pretty big, over six feet. Amber eyes,” His gaze darted to Sloane before moving away. “Um, dark hair. If I had to guess, I’d say a Felid.”

  “What makes you say that?”

  “A lot of the time you can tell, you know? The way he moved. Like he was stalking.”

  “Can you tell us anything else?” The waiter shook his head and Dex looked over at Rosa who’d been recording everything and converting it to text. “Okay. Agent Santiago will go over your statement with you. She’ll also need a signature from you. Thank you so much for your time.” He motioned to Rosa who ushered the waiter to the table. Dex met Cael’s gaze and motioned to the doorway, Sloane followed.

  “What was that?”

  “What?” Cael looked confused.

  “You let that racist prick shut you out of your own investigation.”

  Cael merely shrugged. “If talking to you meant he was going to cooperate then I don’t care.”

  “You should care, damn it. If you don’t, how can you expect assholes like that to care?”

  “They don’t care, Dex, and they’re not going to. That’s why they’re assholes.” Cael leaned into Dex and poked him in the vest. “This isn’t the HPF. You’re in our world now and it’s scary, and ugly, and fucked up. They won’t pat you on the head and tell you how special you are because you have a black daddy and a Therian brother who proudly waves his rainbow flags with you. Here, you’re a freak like the rest of us, so don’t tell me how to do my job.” Cael stalked off and Dex stood speechless. The silence didn’t last long.

  “What just happened?”

  Sloane let out a low whistle. “Wow. I didn’t even know he could get that mad. Guess I was wrong. Nice going, Rookie.”

  Dex blinked at him. “What did I do?”

  The hurt expression on Dex’s face was too much for Sloane to bear, and he
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