Rack & ruin, p.10
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       Rack & Ruin, p.10
 

         Part #3 of THIRDS series by Charlie Cochet
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  “You’re clear.”

  Sloane preserved his silence, watching with growing concern as Calvin entered a room he expected to be clear and instead met the barrel of a gun. Two shots in his leg, and Calvin went down cursing up a storm. Sloane remained quiet. Cael blinked, stared at the screen, then jumped to his feet.

  “Shit.”

  Shit was right.

  Sloane stepped to one side as the doors to the observation deck slammed open, and a very pissed off Calvin stormed in, bright red paint splotches on his tac pants where Letty had shot him.

  “What the fuck, Cael!”

  Cael gave a start and faced Calvin. “What happened?”

  “That’s what I’d like to know.” Calvin marched up to Cael, his face flushed with anger. Although it wasn’t like Calvin to blow up at one of his teammates, the guy had every right to be angry. “You said the room was clear.”

  Cael’s eyes went from Calvin to the monitor and back. “I’m sorry. I must have looked at the wrong screen.”

  “The wrong screen?” Calvin stared at his teammate in disbelief.

  Cael crossed his arms over his chest. His tone defensive. “I said I was sorry.”

  “Sorry? Sorry’s not good enough, Cael.”

  “What else do you want me to say?”

  “How about what you’ll tell my mom when you’re on her doorstep to let her know her son’s dead because you looked at the wrong screen! Get your head out of your ass. What the hell’s going on with you?”

  “What’s going on with me? What the hell’s going on with you? You’ve been acting pissy for months!”

  Calvin looked as if he’d been slapped in the face. “What?”

  “Please, like no one’s noticed,” Cael scoffed. “You’ve been moping and grumpy.”

  “That’s my problem. At least it’s not interfering with my job, which is more than I can say for you.”

  Hobbs showed up, a deep low mewl coming from him as he padded up to Calvin. He bumped his head against Calvin’s leg, and Sloane watched as Calvin pushed his head away. The two young agents continued to bicker while Hobbs chuffed and mewled in an attempt to get his partner’s attention.

  “All right, that’s enough,” Sloane snapped. The three agents gave a start and turned to face him. Cael and Calvin quickly stood to attention, their hands clasped behind their backs while Hobbs sat beside his partner, his ears flattened against his head in worry. They’d been so absorbed in their argument they’d clearly forgotten Sloane was even there. “I have to say, I am truly disappointed. This has been the worst training exercise I’ve seen in a long time.” Sloane came to stand in front of them. His agents couldn’t even look him in the eye. They were supposed to be an elite team with years of experience. They were trained better than this. “Cael, you weren’t even paying attention. You allowed your teammate to walk into a goddamn trap. Calvin, you shouldn’t have been relying on Cael to do all the work for you. You made yourself a sitting duck, and then to make things worse, you got so pissed off at Cael, you didn’t even bother to neutralize the threat after you went down.”

  “I got shot because of him,” Calvin argued. He seemed to catch himself and tacked a quick, “Sir” at the end.

  “In the leg,” Sloane replied curtly. “You’re a fucking sniper, but you didn’t bother shooting a target who was two feet in front of you.” Sloane moved onto Hobbs. “And where the hell were you when your partner needed you? You should have been right behind Calvin. The moment you saw your partner unable to take the shot, you should have stepped in to neutralize the threat.”

  Hobbs lowered his head, a soft moan coming from him. He nudged closer to his partner, but Calvin ignored him. Usually Calvin would oblige with a scratch behind the ear to reassure him.

  “I don’t know what’s going on with all of you, but it ends now. I’m not about to risk the safety of this team, of the people we’re supposed to protect because you can’t get your shit together. You have personal problems to deal with, I get it. We all have shit to deal with, and guess what? The Coalition doesn’t give a flying fuck about our personal problems. We still have a job to do. We have never let each other down before. Are we going to start now?” All three shook their heads somberly. “Good. This better be the last time I see such a piss-poor display.” He gave a nod, and the three started to head off. “Oh, and just to be sure it doesn’t happen again, the three of you are on equipment pickup duty for the next month. Have fun with that.”

  The agents cursed under their breaths but didn’t utter a word at him. Equipment duty was a pain in the ass and a perfect disciplinary measure. For a month they’d personally have to inspect every piece of equipment in Destructive Delta’s armory and their BearCat. Clean every nozzle, check every chamber, reload every magazine, dust, clean, disinfect, and deliver uniforms to Laundry Services along with a host of other fun tasks.

  Sloane’s earpiece beeped several times, and he tapped it to answer. “Agent Brodie here.”

  Austen’s voice came over his line. “Con Ed plant. Twenty minutes.”

  The line went dead, and Sloane tapped his earpiece again. “Destructive Delta, we’re moving out. Now. Hobbs, stay in your Therian form. Calvin, you drive.” Sloane ran out of the observation deck, catching up to the rest of his team as they rushed down the wide stone corridor toward the armory, connecting with Maddock along the way. “Sarge, I’ve just received intel on the Coalition. We’re heading out.”

  “Copy that. Keep me posted, and take some backup with you.”

  Sloane grabbed his tranq rifle and tucked extra magazines into his tac vest’s pockets as he addressed his team. “All right everyone. If you get close enough to take one of these bastards down, you do it. If we can get our hands on just one of them, we might finally be able to get some information. Watch your backs and stay alert. Call for backup if you need it.” His earpiece beeped, and he answered it. “Agent Brodie.”

  “Taylor here. Beta Ambush will be on standby. We’re heading out to the location now.”

  That was quick. Maddock must have asked Taylor to provide backup. Though he wished Maddock would have asked Levi instead of Taylor, but there wasn’t much Sloane could do about it now. “Copy that.” As Sloane’s team made for the BearCat, Dex pulled back to walk beside Sloane.

  “Judging by the royally pissed-off faces, I’m going to take a guess and say the training session didn’t go as planned.”

  “It was a fucking disaster,” Sloane admitted. He’d never faced this problem with his team before. They weren’t invincible, and even Sloane had been dealt some shitty blows on the personal front, but it felt as if his team was falling apart, and he couldn’t let that happen. “I need you to talk to your brother. He really dropped the ball back there.”

  “What about Ash?”

  “Ash wasn’t there. And just so you know, I’m not taking sides. If it had been Ash who’d fucked up, I would have called him out on it, but he wasn’t there at the training session. Your brother was. I’m sorry, Dex, but Cael has to pull himself together before someone gets hurt. I’ll deal with Calvin and Hobbs.”

  Dex let out a resigned sigh. “You’re right. I’ll talk to him.”

  As they climbed into the truck, Cael came to sit beside Sloane. “Where’s Ash?”

  “I don’t know. He had evals this morning but should have been out by now.” Sloane didn’t tell Cael which evals Ash was having. That was up to his best friend if he wanted to tell someone. Aside from their quarterly physical and psychological evaluations, the THIRDS often pulled agents in for random screenings. It kept everyone on their toes and from doing anything stupid.

  “Sloane, I’m really worried. I’ve been thinking about the way he’s been recently, and it made me wonder if being back at the research facility got to him.”

  Shit. Sloane had been so wrapped up in his own little world, he hadn’t thought about how Ash might be dealing with the whole thing. It made sense. After all, Sloane had been having nightmares since the incid
ent, but at least he had Dex to help him through it. Ash wasn’t the kind of guy to ask for help, and he certainly wasn’t into sharing his feelings. Looked like his teammates weren’t the only ones needing a good kick up the ass. Some fucking friend he was. “You’re absolutely right, Cael. I promise you, as soon as I get the chance, I’ll talk to him.”

  “Ash is always acting like such a tough guy that it’s easy to assume nothing gets to him. Having all that come crashing back has to have affected him in some way. I just wish he’d say something rather than bottling it all up. I’ve tried talking to him, but it’s like he’s avoiding me.”

  Sloane gave Cael a reassuring pat on the leg. “I’ll talk to him.”

  “Thanks. And I’m sorry about the training session today. I won’t let it happen again.”

  “I’m counting on it.” He gave Cael a reassuring smile, watching the young Therian look a little more at ease. Cael was right about Ash. Getting his best friend to open up was going to be no easy task. More like pulling teeth. Sloane couldn’t fault him, he was no better at opening up himself, but he was working on it. Dex made it easier. Ash had been there for him all those years ago. Sloane hoped Ash would let him be there for him now. Something told him that was easier said than done.

  Chapter 7

  IT WAS all go from the moment the truck stopped just off the intersection of Avenue C and East Thirteenth Street. There were half a dozen masked Coalition members dispersing. They’d clearly been warned, but Destructive Delta managed to make it in time. The team had split up, with everyone taking off after a Coalition member while backup made its way there.

  Dex raced down East Thirteenth Street after one particularly huge Therian, and he wondered why the hell he always ended up against the biggest guys. For a moment, Dex thought he was about to lose the guy, certain the Therian would head straight for FDR Drive. Except the masked Therian didn’t get anywhere near FDR. Before Dex’s eyes, the guy jumped onto the hood of a car parked beside the plant, hopped on the car’s roof and then leapt onto the large garbage container before disappearing over the fence of the Con Edison Plant.

  “Fuck me,” Dex growled. He took a deep breath and followed, regardless of his equipment. He wasn’t going to lose the guy. Not this time. He jumped onto the Honda’s hood, the metal denting and protesting under his boots, before jumping onto the roof. The car had been parked nearly touching the container, and to Dex’s relief, there was some kind of rectangular metal box sticking out of the container’s side right in front of him. It was wide enough for him to prop the front of his boot. He reached out and grabbed the edge of the container, braced a boot on the metal box, and hoisted himself up on the ledge, praying he didn’t fall headfirst into trash bags of God only knew what.

  This was where being a Felid Therian would have come in real handy. If Hobbs had been here with him, he would have leapt over this thing with no problem. Dex stood and held his arms out to keep his balance as he quickly but carefully walked around the ledge of the container to the fence. It wasn’t at all graceful or as easy as it looked in the movies, but at least Dex landed on the other side on his feet and not his ass.

  He caught sight of the masked Coalition bastard running toward what looked like a steel bridge connected to several of the buildings. Dex gave chase, hearing nothing but the loud whirring and buzzing from the plant around them. Fuck. He sure hoped he didn’t get electrocuted. Don’t touch anything. It didn’t help that wherever he looked he spotted Danger High Voltage signs. Dex had to catch the guy before he disappeared into the shadows, or Dex was screwed. If he stopped to remove his night-vision goggles from his backpack he’d lose the guy for sure, but if the Therian made it to the shadows before Dex caught up, he wouldn’t have any choice but to stop. Walking into the darkness where a Therian lay in wait was suicide.

  Pushing himself, he picked up his speed, catching up just enough to reach out and grab a strap on the guy’s vest. He gave it a fierce jerk, and although it wasn’t nearly enough to bring the guy down, it was enough to unbalance him momentarily.

  Dex took advantage of the flailing perp. He tripped the guy and threw all his weight into the large Therian. They both hit the ground rolling. They thrashed and struggled with Dex getting slammed hard against the solid ground, forcing the air out of his lungs. He tried to get to his earpiece, but his hand was forced against the ground. With his free hand, he grabbed a fistful of the Therian’s mask and pulled. Auburn hair sent his stomach plummeting, and then his worst fear was confirmed.

  “Ash?” Dex rolled onto his side, unable to believe what he was seeing.

  “Fuck,” Ash snarled. His eyes suddenly went wide, his gaze somewhere behind Dex. “No! Wait—”

  Dex’s world went black.

  DAMN. AGAIN?

  Dex really needed to stop turning this into a thing. Sloane was going to kill him. He stayed exceptionally still and made certain his breathing remained steady. They’d tied his hands behind his back with heavy rope, along with his ankles. He was blindfolded and gagged, but at least he could hear. From what he could make out, there were at least two others in here with him. Wherever here was. He listened to the voices, one of them he’d recognize anywhere. Ash was arguing with someone. Afraid they might realize he was awake, Dex didn’t take any chances in testing the ropes securing him. Not yet anyway. Then he heard Cael’s name.

  “Look, I’m not interested in your boyfriend—”

  “He’s not my boyfriend,” Ash replied snidely. “He’s just a kid who wishes he were. The guy’s got a hard-on for me. Hangs on my every fucking word. He’ll do what I tell him.”

  That fucking prick. It took everything Dex had to remain still, his head pressed against a solid concrete floor. His left arm was starting to ache from lying on it. Dex continued to listen, trying to commit the second, unfamiliar voice to memory. It was hard to get a read on someone based on voice alone, but little things were starting to come through, like the guy’s arrogance.

  “And you think he’ll listen to you over his own brother?”

  There was some moving around before Ash spoke up. “I think if you want something bad enough, you’ll do what it takes. He’s young and infatuated, which means he’ll do stupid things, including ignoring his big brother’s warnings. I’ve had the kid on the ropes for days.”

  “You really expect us to let him walk out of here now that he’s made you? He’s a THIRDS agent.”

  “I say we get rid of him.”

  Shit. There was a third guy. Thank goodness Dex hadn’t made a move. Who knew how many there were.

  “You fucking lay a hand on him, and I’ll get rid of your balls. The deal was I would get in on the action, provide you with intel, and in return, the Coalition would stay away from my team.”

  Dex stifled a scoff. How very considerate of Ash. This whole time not only had they been hunting one of their own, but their own teammate. It was like a bad dream. His thoughts went to Sloane and Cael. This was going to crush them. Dex quickly reined in his growing ire. First he had to get himself out of this.

  “Yeah, well, if we’d known what a pain in the ass your team was going to be, we would have reconsidered.”

  “You asked me to join, remember?”

  “I’m fucking regretting it already.”

  The third guy chimed in again, his voice odd, like it was purposefully muffled. “Funny how shit always fucks up when you’re around. You’re bad luck.”

  “That’s me,” Ash said roughly. “I’m like a bad penny. I always turn up.”

  Was Ash quoting Indiana Jones? Not the time, Daley. He waited to see what their next move would be when Mr. Arrogant-Prick-Not-Ash spoke up.

  “Fine. But the boss is going to hear about this. If that little shit causes us problems, it’s on your head.”

  Okay. There was a boss, but he wasn’t around, and judging by Mr. Asshat, he was most likely the second-in-command Austen had mentioned. Silence followed until Dex was abruptly hauled off the ground and slung over someon
e’s shoulder. He was carried away, and soon Ash’s rough whisper broke the silence.

  “I know you’re awake. I can tell by your breathing.”

  Fucking Therians.

  “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll keep playing dead.”

  Dex did as he was told. He listened to all the sounds around him, but it was nearly impossible to tell where he was. It was cool and had an outdoorsy smell, but they were definitely indoors. There were the sounds of several footsteps from at least three others and the opening and closing of heavy doors. A door shrieked somewhere and slammed. Metal. Dex could tell the place was dimly lit. Although the bandana around his eyes was black, there was a little light coming in from underneath. A door close by opened and then closed, and Dex felt a breeze against his face and heard the distant sound of busy traffic and blaring car horns. They were outside. Then Dex was dropped on a seat. Ash’s truck. The ropes binding his ankles and wrists were sliced off and the gag removed.

  “Keep the blindfold on until I say so.”

  The door slammed to his right, and Dex sat unmoving, his temper simmering under the surface. He heard the engine of Ash’s monster pickup truck roar to life, and a seatbelt was roughly pulled across Dex’s chest. It clicked into place, and then the truck was moving. A few minutes later, the blindfold was yanked off, taking some of Dex’s hair along with it.

  “Fucking shit.” Dex was seething, especially since Ash was sitting there looking so goddamn calm. “How long have you been a traitor?”

  “Don’t be such a fucking drama queen.”

  “Are you kidding me?” He didn’t even know where to start with how pissed off he was. If he didn’t think punching Ash across the jaw might get them killed, he’d have done it by now. “You son of a bitch! How could you do this? To Sloane? To Cael?”

  “I don’t need Sloane’s permission. And Cael—Cael’s just a kid. He’s a teammate. That’s all.”

  “Bullshit. I don’t believe that. You care about him. Everything you said about him back there was bullshit.” That much Dex believed. “And I know it. You want to know why?”

  “Not particularly.”

  “Well you’re going to hear it anyway. Because there was no way you were pretending back in the hospital when Cael was there. I saw you. From the moment I joined the team, I’ve seen how you are with him.”

  “Ever heard that expression, mind your own damn business?”

  “How is this not my business? My teammate, my boyfriend’s best friend, the guy my brother’s totally crazy about is a traitor. How—”

  “Cael’s crazy about me?”

  Dex opened his mouth, then closed it. “Seriously? Some asshole knocked me out and kidnapped me, wanted to off me, and you’re working with the Coalition, but you want to talk about your love life?”

  “Did Cael say he was crazy about me?”

  It was like talking to a fucking brick wall. But Ash’s grave expression told Dex he was serious about this. Fine. As long as he had Ash’s attention, he’d go with it. “I don’t know how you did it, or why the hell you deserve it, but yeah, he’s got it bad for you. I thought you knew. You told that asshole as much.”

  “I figured as much, but it’s different hearing it confirmed by you.” Ash’s stern expression never wavered.

  Dex shook his head, feeling a lump form in his throat. “Doesn’t matter though. Whatever you do, you’re going to end up breaking his heart.” The verdict on Ash’s sexuality was still out, though the whole straight image was swiftly crumbling. Even if Ash did feel something for Cael, he had bigger problems right now than relationship issues.

  “What the fuck do you know about me?”

  “Clearly not as much as I thought,” Dex snapped. “I might not have liked you, but at least I had some goddamn respect for you.” The truck came to a skidding halt, and Ash lunged across the seat. He grabbed Dex by the collar with both hands and jerked him close. His amber eyes were glowing and dilated, his fangs elongating.

  “Now you listen to me. This isn’t one of your stupid karaoke nights. These guys don’t fuck around. Right now I’m the only thing keeping them from putting a bullet in you. You want to keep our team safe? You shut the fuck up. And keep Cael away from me.”

  Before Dex could utter a word, Ash unfastened Dex’s seatbelt, opened the door behind Dex, and shoved him out. Dex flailed and turned, landing painfully on the sidewalk with a groan. He heard a door slam and the sound of screeching tires. Ash was gone.

  Dex sat up and rubbed his arm where he’d landed. He stared down the street, watching Ash’s taillights get farther and farther away. For the longest time, he sat there in a daze. It took him a while to realize he was on his street. Ash had dropped him off at his house.

  Not caring who saw him, Dex drew his knees up and let his elbows rest on them. He dropped his head into his hands and tried to figure out his next move. For the first time in his life, he was at a loss. When his ex-partner had killed that young Therian, Dex had known what the right thing to do was, despite knowing what it would do to his career. Now here he was again, facing the betrayal of someone close to him. Someone who he’d trusted with his life. He might not have gotten along with Ash, but he was big enough to admit he admired certain aspects of the fierce agent. The right thing to do would be to step forward and tell the truth.

  But what if Ash was telling the truth about their team being in danger? Had it been an idle threat to get Dex off his back? To scare him? He’d never seen that side of Ash. He’d all but gone feral inside the truck. Dex had almost been… intimidated. Dex pulled out his phone, scrolled through his contacts until he reached his dad’s number. His finger hovered over the “Call” button. What made Ash any different from Walsh? What if Ash had hunted alongside his fellow Coalition members and joined in on beating the shit out of the Order’s followers?

  “Fuck me,” Dex groaned. Why was this shit always happening to him? Why couldn’t someone else have discovered Ash’s little secret? “Fuck this. Fuck that. Fuck everything. Fuck!” He fell onto his back, glowering at the tree branches above him. It was a nice night. A little orange-and-brown bird chirped and hopped down a branch, coming to stop over Dex’s head. “If you shit on me, I will shoot
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