Hell & high water, p.9
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       Hell & High Water, p.9
 

         Part #1 of THIRDS series by Charlie Cochet
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  took pity on his partner, guiding him toward the front door. “Look, I understand what you were trying to do, but it’s not that easy. I know you’re proud of your baby brother, and believe me, he’s proud of who he is too, but what you need to understand is that being a THIRDS agent means facing a whole new level of stupid.” They stepped outside into the crisp, late September air, the sun shining and the neighborhood peacefully quiet. The only indication anything was amiss were the scores of agent vehicles blocking off both ends of the street and the numerous agents securing the area.

  “As an HPF agent, you only had to worry about dealing with other Humans, getting shit for being a cop. Here, everyone hates you for one reason or another, and sometimes it feels like you can’t win no matter what you say or do.” Sloane let out a heavy sigh. “Some of us have learned how to deal, but Cael’s a sweet guy, grew up in a loving home with Humans who accepted him from the start. It’s harder for him. You need to let him cope in whichever way is best for him.” Sloane chose his words carefully, knowing in the end it wouldn’t matter. Dex would come face to face with harsh reality sooner or later. “I’m more worried about how you’re going to deal.”

  “Me?” Dex gave him a smirk. “Maybe you haven’t noticed, but I’m a big boy. I know the world’s not all sunshine and unicorns.”

  “What I mean is, how are you going to deal when someone decides to be a little more proactive with their hate than that prick of a waiter? You’re going to come to his rescue? Because I can tell you right now how well that’s going to go down.”

  “So I’m supposed to stand there and do nothing?” Dex let out a frustrated breath. “I can’t do that.”

  “No, you let your brother do his job, handle things his way, and if he needs you, he’ll let you know. Your job is to back him up and protect him from any physical threat that puts his life in danger. It is not your job to come riding in on your white horse to slay all the dragons because they insulted him. Or threw bricks.”

  Dex’s eyes clouded with anger, and when he spoke, it was through his teeth. “Someone threw bricks at him?”

  “Don’t worry. Ash threw them back.” Sloane gave Dex a smile. He wasn’t sure why he was going out of his way to reassure Dex. He told himself he was doing it for Cael. “You’re not the only one looking out for him, Rookie. Okay?”

  Dex nodded, though there was no telling if any of what Sloane said had actually found its way into that thick skull. They headed to the BearCat, a deep frown on Dex’s face. “Sometimes the amount of stupid in this world confounds me. I swear some of these citizens are evolving backwards.”

  “We’ve come a long way,” Sloane offered, though he had to admit, sometimes he found it a little difficult to believe it himself.

  “Not enough if you ask me.”

  “You sound like a grumpy old man.”

  Dex cast him a sideways glance as they rounded the back of the BearCat. “Shut up and get off my lawn.”

  “I’m not on your lawn. I think the Alzheimer’s setting in.” That earned him a chuckle, and Sloane held back a smile. When he wasn’t fighting it, Sloane could fall into an easy banter with Dex, something he hadn’t had since Gabe. The thought that he might actually have found a partner he could get along with should have made him feel relieved, but instead, it made him feel guilty. Before his thoughts could delve any deeper, he told himself now was not the time to be thinking about this.

  Cael was already in the truck when they climbed in, and the young agent scooted to the end of the bench. With a subtle prod to Dex’s arm, Sloane motioned toward Cael. Dex slid up to his brother, bumping his leg playfully. When Cael’s frown only deepened, Dex leaned in to talk quietly. Sloane couldn’t make out exactly what was being said, but he did hear the sincerity in Dex’s low voice. He also heard something that sounded like an apology.

  As Sloane took a seat and watched Dex, he felt a hint of sadness wash over him. How different might things have turned out if he’d grown up in a family like Maddock’s, a loving home rather than padded white walls, siblings and parents instead of doctors and nurses. Cael’s laugh snapped him out of his dark thoughts, and he found himself smiling at the brothers. Dex’s arm was around Cael’s neck as he teased him, Cael’s words filled with affection despite his cursing.

  “You’re such a dork,” Cael laughed softly, shaking his head at his brother.

  “All right, team. We’re heading to the catering company,” Maddock declared, joining them along with the rest of the team. Dex removed his arm from around Cael as everyone took their place on the bench and buckled up. Rosa waved her tablet from beside Ash to get their attention.

  “We’ve got a possible lead from a witness who stated there was an Unregistered Therian employee—a bartender and possible Felid, working with the catering company. According to guests, they were served drinks by him at his station until just after noon when he left—the guy was pretty hard to miss. To be honest, I don’t think he’s our guy. He would have had to slip away long enough to undress, shift, kill Ortiz without leaving anything behind, shift back, and even if he managed to dress himself afterward, he would have needed PSTC. No one claims to have seen anyone with PST symptoms. Still, he’s the closest thing to a lead we’ve got right now. We need to interview him.”

  Next to Rosa, Letty spoke up. “Even if the catering company hired an Unregistered, you really think they’re going to admit it?”

  “They don’t have to,” Dex pitched in. “They’ll have records.”

  Sloane regarded him. “You sound pretty certain.”

  “My ex owns a catering company. He’s dealt with Unregistered Therians in his business before and there’s always a trail. Invoices, receipts, schedules, something.”

  “A cop’s boyfriend hiring Unregistered Therians?” Ash sneered. “How’d that work out?”

  “It didn’t, because he didn’t hire them.” Dex pinned Ash with a glare before turning his attention to Maddock. “Lou might not have hired Unregistered Therians, but he worked with vendors who did. They usually handled backend duties like making deliveries or working storerooms. The vendors always kept some kind of record to cover their asses.”

  Maddock gave a nod. “Okay. Cael, you and Rosa go in and see about those records. Sloane, you and Dex go in as backup. Ash, Letty, stake out the perimeter, Calvin and Hobbs will handle surveillance. Cael, bring up everything you’ve got on the catering company.” He stood and made his way to the surveillance console, Cael joining him. Next to Sloane, Rosa and Letty chatted when Ash leaned over Sloane to sneer at Dex.

  “Ex, huh? What’s the matter? He couldn’t handle all that Daley charm?”

  Dex’s jaw muscles tightened but he remained silent.

  “Shit, Rookie’s got no comment? Must have been bad then. Means he dumped your ass.”

  “Ash,” Sloane warned, frowning at his friend. It was starting, just as it had with the other agents.

  Candidates who passed their training and made it to the final round of the application process were interviewed by the team, and although all the other agents who had slipped in and out of Gabe’s position had been approved, it hadn’t been because the team believed they’d fit in, but because they knew they wouldn’t, making it seem like it was the rookie who couldn’t hack it once he was in. It was fucked up, Sloane was aware of that. And if their superiors found out he’d not only known about what was going on, but had allowed it, he’d be in deep shit. The simple truth was, his team hadn’t been ready for anyone new, but the higher ups didn’t care. They were a man down. Sloane didn’t hold it against them. They didn’t know what Gabe had meant to his team, to him. With anyone else, Sloane would’ve let Ash do his thing, but now… he wasn’t so sure.

  “What? We’re a team. If Daley really wants to be a part of it, he needs to share with us.”

  Sloane was about to advise his friend to mind his own business when Dex leaned over him, his intense pale gaze focused on Ash. The anger and pain in those blue eyes caught Slo
ane by surprise. He didn’t know what it was about Dex, but the guy had a way of getting to him.

  “Yes, he did dump my ass, because apparently I’m an asshole for believing an unarmed kid, Therian punk or otherwise, didn’t deserve to be shot in cold blood in the back. Because the guy was already dead, right, so why be a dick and turn my partner in? Why turn my whole fucking life upside down for a silly little thing like the truth? My ass got dumped because the whole thing became such a fucking inconvenience for someone who was supposed to have given enough of a shit about me to be there for me, who promised me he would stick by me, but at the first sign of real trouble bailed. And why wouldn’t he when the fucking Titanic was sinking around him? Is that enough sharing for you, Ash? Because if not, I’ve got some great stories of me when I was a kid and found out my parents had been killed by a bunch of street punks. Would you like to hear about that? No? Then shut the fuck up and keep your dick comments to yourself, you self-absorbed prick.”

  The truck fell into thick silence before Maddock’s gruff voice cut through it. “Dex, come here a minute.”

  “Coming, sir.” Dex unfastened his belt and stood, pinning Ash with another glare before leaving them to join Maddock.

  “What the hell was that?” Ash said with a laugh.

  “That was you being a dick.” Sloane shifted in his seat to put some distance between him and his friend. As expected, Ash’s grin faded, and he glared at Sloane.

  “Wait, so you’re on his side now?”

  “I’m not on anyone’s side, but if you pull a shitty move, I’m going to call you out on it and you know it.” Their friendship had never been easy, but it was honest, no minced words between them.

  “Yeah, but not with him,” Ash hissed. His eyes went wide and he ran a gloved hand over his hair before leaning into Sloane. “Please don’t tell me you actually like him.”

  Sloane closed his eyes and let his head fall back against the truck’s padded panel, momentarily forgetting how nauseated it made him feel. Damn it. His mind had put it all behind him. Why couldn’t his body do the same? Inhaling slowly then releasing through his mouth, he sat forward again, his elbows coming to rest on his legs as the sick rolling in his stomach eased. “I don’t have to like him to get the job done. That’s something you should consider.”

  “So he’s staying?” Ash stared at him, stunned.

  Why were they having this conversation? Ash unfastened his belt and walked to the end of the truck and waited. Great. Just what he needed. With a sigh, Sloane unhooked his own belt and joined his friend, knowing he could be as stubborn as Ash if he wanted to be. Ash put his hands to his hips and shrugged.

  “What, Ash? Get it out of your system now so we can get back to this case.”

  “He can’t stay.”

  Sloane arched an eyebrow at him. “Is that so?”

  “Get rid of him.” Ash gave him a poke in the vest and Sloane frowned. Why did his friend have to make everything so damn difficult?

  “First of all,” Sloane batted his hand away, “I have no intention of getting my ass handed to me by Lieutenant Sparks for running off another partner. She’s made it clear. This is my last chance to play nice. We don’t have a choice. Considering all the other agents we’ve had, Dex is the best fit.”

  “That jackass?” Ash shook his head in disbelief. “Look, I know he’s Maddock’s kid and Cael’s brother, but that doesn’t mean he’s a good fit.”

  “And who is, Ash? Who’s going to be good enough to take Gabe’s place, huh?”

  Ash swallowed hard, his gaze dropping to his boots.

  “That’s right. This isn’t easy for me either, okay? So cut me a fucking break. Please, I’m asking you, as your best friend, don’t make this any harder than it has to be.” He held his breath, waiting. If Ash didn’t want to do something, there was nothing on God’s green earth that could make him do it. Ash could be a stubborn, hard-assed, unbearable prick, but he would come through for Sloane no matter what. He always had and always would. After a silent moment, Ash nodded.

  “Okay, but I hope you’re not asking me to be nice to him, because there’s a fucking limit.”

  “Heaven forbid,” Sloane muttered. “Just leave his personal life out of it. Got it?”

  “Yeah, fine. You fucking gay boys are so sensitive.”

  Sloane rolled his eyes and started to walk off when Ash grabbed his arm. “Hey, wait. This is serious. I want to get him something to make it up to him. What do you think he’ll like better, a knitted sweater or a couple of tickets to Mamma Mia? You can go as his date.” He slapped Sloane’s arm. “I can knit you one too. Then you can match.”

  “You know what, man.” Sloane jabbed a finger at Ash. “Fuck you.” He marched off to the sound of Ash’s cackling. Well, at least order had been restored. For now.

  “What, you don’t think I’m capable of picking up a knitting needle?” Ash called out after him.

  “Not unless you were going to stab someone with it. Now sit down and shut up.” Sloane dropped down onto the bench, Letty and Rosa both watching him in amusement. “What?”

  Rosa shrugged. “Nothing.”

  Ash stayed where he was, holding onto one of the ceiling straps as the truck drove through Manhattan, a shit-eating grin on his face. When Ash turned his head to the ceiling, seeming to lose himself in his own thoughts, Rosa slid up to Sloane, bumping into him playfully.

  “Hey.”

  Sloane glanced over at her with a small smile. He felt weary, but he didn’t want to take it out on his team, and Rosa—as brash as she could be—was always fussing over him and somehow getting away with it. “What can I do for you, Rosita Bonita?”

  She pretended to be put off by the tender nickname. “You can hear me out.”

  With a discreet peek to see if Dex was still busy with Maddock and Cael, Sloane leaned toward her. “Okay, but if it’s to tell me to get rid of him, I—”

  “Shouldn’t,” she cut in, a determined expression coming onto her face. She leaned into Sloane, speaking quietly. “I know you don’t like to talk about it, so I won’t. All I’m going to say is, he’s not like the other ones. You should give him a chance. If you need someone to kick Ash in the nuts, you know where to find me.”

  Sloane didn’t know what to say. He sat speechless as Rosa went back to her side of the bench and continued chatting to Letty. Now that he thought about it, the only protests concerning Dex that he’d heard so far had all come from Ash. In fact, Sloane had spotted more ogling coming from his teammates toward Dex than dirty looks, and he’d yet to hear any snide comments. Had his team accepted Dex without either of them realizing it and in such a short span of time?

  It took them a little over twenty minutes to get to Fifth and West Thirty-Third Street. As soon as the truck pulled up to the building, Sloane and Dex jumped out, Cael and Rosa close behind. The catering company was across the three-lane street and the second to last shop on the skyscraper’s storefront. There were various delivery trucks parked up and down both sides of the road with the sunlight reflecting off windows but mostly blocked by the large skyscrapers. As they approached the catering company, Sloane caught sight of a loading dock one store over, and he remembered what Dex had said regarding hiring Unregistered Therians. He caught Dex’s elbow.

  “You go ahead. Call if there’s an emergency. I’ll be there in a minute.”

  “Where are you going?”

  “To check something out.” He didn’t bother to wait around to see if Dex had listened to his orders. Using a parked truck to shield him, he swiftly crossed behind it and onto the sidewalk to the building, edging his way closer to the loading dock. Inside there was a van displaying fancy scripted lettering. It belonged to Thalia’s Kitchen Events & Catering, and it was parked with the rear toward the loading dock’s raised cement platform. Three large males were removing boxes from the van, all of them wearing turtlenecks. Sloane crept toward them, his tranq rifle in his hand at the ready. One of the males turned, his eyes confi
rming Sloane’s suspicion. When the Therian spotted him, he gave a start.

  “Easy now. I know you’re thinking about running, but we both know how that’s going to end.”

  The three males reluctantly put their hands in the air. Sloane stopped a few feet away and gave them a curt nod. “Let’s see those necks.” He eyed them cautiously as they each pulled down their turtlenecks, revealing nothing but skin. Sloane tapped the side of his earpiece. “Ash, I’ve got three Unregistered males in the loading dock two doors down from Thalia’s. Bring the TIK.” Hopefully the Therian Identification Kit would tell him what he needed to know.

  Within minutes, Ash and Letty were at his side. Ash approached the Therians with a growl. “Turn around. Hands behind your backs.”

  “We didn’t do anything,” one of them protested as Ash hooked a Therian-strength zip tie around each Therian’s set of wrists and gave the ends a tug, securing them tightly.

  “Besides maybe break a law or two,” Ash replied, stepping back as they turned around.

  Sloane motioned toward the bay doors. “There a back way into your employer’s shop?”

  One of the men gave a nod. “Yeah, second door. There’s a hallway that leads to the back entrance.”

  “Okay, let’s go. We’ll have a chat inside.” The last thing they needed was the news stations showing up, and curious bystanders were already starting to gather. They led the three males inside, down a stone passage with several metal doors. Their subjects came to a halt before one of the doors, and the tallest of the three tilted his head toward it.

  “You need a security code to get in.”

  Ash stepped up to the keypad and grinned. “You can trust us.”

  With a muttered curse under his breath, the Therian relayed the security code that Ash typed into the pad. A little green light flashed and Ash opened the door, stopping the males before they could go in.

  “Learn some manners.”

  Letty gave them a salute before walking in, rifle in hand.

  “That’s rather chauvinistic,” one of them huffed.

  Ash let out an amused laugh. “I didn’t let her in first because she’s female, you jackass. I let her in first because she likes to shoot things, and I’m very considerate that way.”

  “All clear,” Letty called out.

  “I suggest you boys behave, or I’ll let her use you for target practice. Now get in there.” Ash pushed the first of their subjects through the doorway, the two behind quickly following.

  Inside, they found a large pantry filled with all manner of catering supplies and equipment, folded tables, chairs, and along the wall, several industrial-sized freezers. Ash ordered the Therians to line up before he removed the TIK from one of the pouches in his utility belt. Luckily the kit was nice and slim, so there was no need to untie the Therians in order to use it. “I won’t lie. This is going to hurt like a bitch.” Ash grabbed one of the Therian’s arms, pushed up his sleeve, and clamped the black digital band around the guy’s arm under the elbow. The small screen flickered to life and Ash pressed his thumb against it to log in. A few taps later, the Therian subject flinched as the identification kit accessed and analyzed his DNA.

  While he waited for Ash to perform the necessary scans, Sloane touched his earpiece. “Dex, what’s your position?”

  “Reception area. Ms. Thalia’s assistant is trying to give us the runaround, insisting her boss isn’t in, but a courier on his way out was carrying paperwork with her signature. Rosa’s doing her thing.”

  “Okay, I’ll be there in two.” Sloane tapped his earpiece again and turned to Ash. “What’s the verdict?”

  “Three confirmed Unregistered Therians, none of them Felids,” Ash replied, handing Sloane the TIK with the completed analysis report. Damn. Okay, he could still work with this.

  “Ash, read them their rights and begin registration. They’ve got a week.”

  Ash gave him a nod and addressed the three solemn Therians. They’d have one week to report to their nearest CDC clinic, complete their registrations and get marked, otherwise warrants for their arrest would be issued. Leaving his teammates to handle the bound Therians, Sloane left the pantry, walking out into a cream-colored hallway with lots of fancy gold frames, gilded tables, and crystal vases filled with fresh flowers. A young woman came out of one of the rooms and gave a start, her hand flying to her chest.

  “It’s okay,” Sloane assured her. “Can you tell me how to get to the reception area?”

  She shakily pointed to the end of the hall and a set of white double doors. With a “Thank you”, he made his way into what appeared to be some kind of small lobby. From there he could see the reception area where Dex, Cael, and Rosa were standing. A tall, slender woman sporting a painfully tight bun stood with her hands clasped in front of her as she looked down her nose at the agents, their stark dark uniforms and heavy artillery a sharp contrast to the ostentatious surroundings. When she spoke, it was in a clipped tone.

  “Allow me to reiterate, Agent Santiago. I am in the middle of a very important meeting with a client and have no time to waste on nonsense, nor do I appreciate the accusations. I have not, nor would I ever hire Unregistered Therians. So unless you have something more official to present me with other than your ghastly presence, I suggest you stop wasting my taxes and go catch some criminals.”

  “Ms. Thalia.”

  Everyone’s attention turned to him, including the irate owner’s, her gasp audible through the deathly silent reception area. A couple sitting by the door quickly got up and left, while the remaining customers looked on in interest. Sloane was aware of how intimidating he was and could be. It made the job much easier when dealing with citizens like Ms. Thalia. He loomed over her, his expression grave.

  “Now, we can either speak somewhere private or we can continue this discussion here. Either way, it’s in your best interest to cooperate.”

  The woman lifted her chin, her eyes darting from Sloane to the customers who remained.

  “Very well, Agent….”

  “Brodie,” Sloane offered with a smile.

  “Very well, Agent Brodie. We’ll discuss this in my office.” She spun on her very high heels and marched toward a door to the left of the reception area, opposite of where Sloane had come in. Cael and Rosa trailed after her, with Sloane and Dex close behind.

  “Where were you?” Dex asked quietly, holding the door open for their team.

  “You’re about to find out.” Sloane walked past Dex into the short hallway leading to an extravagantly decorated office lined with elegant white and silver wallpaper sporting several black frames of various shapes with event photographs. The silver glass-topped desk looked exceptionally pricey, as did the two white
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