Rack & ruin, p.14
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       Rack & Ruin, p.14
 

         Part #3 of THIRDS series by Charlie Cochet
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  He’d never seen Dex move so quickly after waking up, especially before he’d had coffee. Dex got dressed and cast him a shrewd smile.

  “What? Adrenaline kicks caffeine in the ass.”

  They rushed out of the house and took Sloane’s car, making it from Dex’s house to the Brooklyn address Austen had relayed over the phone in less than twenty minutes. Sloane parked on Sullivan Street outside a rundown house with boarded-up windows. Rusted burglar bars secured the basement and first-floor windows, and the door looked solid. But the lock was a piece of shit, and all it took was a good kick. The door slammed open, and they quickly closed it behind them before taking the stairs two at a time to the second floor. There were several doors. Dex grabbed Sloane’s arm and whispered hoarsely. “There.”

  Sloane removed his Glock from his holster and signaled for Dex to get behind him. Dex nodded, drawing his own backup weapon, and the two of them slowly approached the only door with a glowing light coming from underneath it. As they got closer, Sloane could see the door was slightly ajar. He was about to reach for it when he heard Austen groan.

  “Place is clear, Sloane.”

  Regardless, they walked in with caution. It wasn’t that he couldn’t trust Austen, but he sure as hell didn’t trust the Coalition, and there was no telling what they’d do or if Austen was operating under duress. Once inside the apartment, Dex and Sloane split up. Sloane swiftly checked the tiny box of an apartment when he heard Dex call out.

  “Over here! I found Austen.”

  Sloane followed Dex’s voice to what he assumed was supposed to be a living room. It was the only room in the place that wasn’t filthy. The floor had been swept, and there was a clean mattress in one corner, a crate with a battery-powered utility lamp, some books, a duffel bag, a backpack, a large cooler doubling as a table, and propped up against the far wall was Austen. He held a hand to his shoulder, blood soaking into his T-shirt underneath.

  “Austen? Shit.” Sloane hurried over to the cheetah Therian and knelt down beside him. He carefully lifted Austen’s hand to assess the damage. “Take it easy.” There were three fresh slashes on Austen’s shoulder. A felid had taken a swipe at him and caught him. “It’s not bad, but you’ll need stitches.” He returned Austen’s hand back to his shoulder and pressed down. Austen sucked in a sharp breath. “Hold on. Help’s on its way.

  “I’m okay. Someone tried to give me some stripes. Don’t they know cheetahs don’t look good in stripes?” He looked down at his bloodied hand. “Coalition piece of shit. Cougar asshole came out of nowhere.”

  “So it was them?”

  “Someone snitched on me. A snitch snitched on the snitch,” Austen said with a laugh then groaned.

  “You’ll be okay,” Sloane promised him. The cuts were deep enough for stitches but not enough for Austen to bleed out.

  Austen nodded, his expression turning somber. “The last two random acts of violence weren’t so random.”

  “What have you learned?”

  “That dude who got caught in the crossfire over on Broome Street? He was murdered.” Austen closed his eyes, and Sloane panicked.

  “Austen!”

  The young Therian gave a start, his eyes flying open so he could stare at Sloane. “Easy there, Broody Bear. What you yelling at?”

  “Sorry, I thought….” Sloane felt embarrassed. A part of him felt responsible for Austen. It was because of Sloane that Austen was working for the THIRDS to begin with.

  “Aw, look at you,” Austen purred. “All worried about me. I’ve grown on you.”

  “Like a bad habit,” Dex muttered. Austen chuckled and gave Dex a wink.

  “You’re all right, Daley. Though sexy pants here is in a whole other league.”

  Sloane was aware of Austen’s crush. The kid had been infatuated with him for years. He’d tried his best to let Austen know nothing could ever happen between them. He just didn’t see Austen that way. It was hard not seeing him as that scrappy little kid he’d met years ago. “Austen, I….”

  “You got a guy. I get it. ’Course you do. Look at you.” Austen let out a soft laugh, though it fell flat. “Besides, I’m just an upcycled thief.”

  “Hey, you’re an agent, and a damned good one. Without your skills, the THIRDS wouldn’t have the information it does. What you do matters, Austen. You help save lives.”

  Austen pursed his lips. “Yeah, I am pretty awesome, aren’t I?”

  Sloane chuckled, and Austen’s expression grew hard once more. “The Coalition executed that guy. Made it look like he got caught in the crossfire. My guess is he was set up. Your second victim is Craig Martin. Run their names for known associates dating back to the riots, and I’m willing to bet you’re going to get more than you bargained for. There’s more going on here than we thought. I’ve heard the word rogue whispered around, and I don’t mean the cheeky kind you find in romance novels. I think some of the Coalition members have secretly gone rogue.”

  It was as Sloane had suspected. Something else was going on, and it had nothing to do with rounding up members of the Order. “You’ve done an amazing job, Austen. I’m really proud of you.” And he was. He meant everything he’d said to Austen. The young Therian was one hell of an asset. One of the good ones. Ballsy and determined to see justice prevail.

  Austen beamed brightly at him. “Thanks, man. I also found something on the prick looking to take over the Order.”

  “You’ve been busy.”

  “Don’t want to let you down.” Austen shrugged, his gaze moving away from Sloane. Sloane took hold of Austen’s face and turned him so he could meet Austen’s gaze.

  “You never do. I wish you’d listen when I ask you to be careful.”

  “Life in the fast lane, my man.” Austen was smiling again, and Sloane was relieved. It took a lot to get Austen down. Sloane had always admired that about the guy. Austen shifted, letting out a low hiss before continuing. “The rumors about there being more than one Human looking to crown himself King of the Crazies is bullshit. There’s just the one. This new guy. He’s got a tattoo running down the side of his neck. Big one. I looked it up. It’s the Hydra, a multiheaded serpent from Greek mythology.”

  “You did great, Austen.” Sloane gave Austen a gentle pat on the arm. “You’ve given us our first major leads and confirmed my suspicions on the Coalition.”

  “Sloane?”

  “Yeah?”

  “I’m worried.”

  “Don’t be. I promise you’ll be taken care of. You trust me right?”

  “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.”

  “Good.” Sloane’s phone went off, and he saw on his caller ID that it was Rosa. He quickly answered and gave her the apartment number. Moments later she was unpacking her first-aid response kit next to Austen. While Austen flirted and bantered with Rosa and Rosa patched him up, Sloane had a chat with Dex who looked concerned.

  “Sloane, he’s going to need someone to keep an eye on him and keep him safe in case the Coalition makes another attempt to shut him up. At least until he’s gotten all his strength back.”

  “I know just the guy for the job.” Sloane pulled out his phone and scrolled through his contacts. “Osmond Zachary.” He tried his best not to laugh at Dex’s jaw nearly becoming unhinged.

  “As in the guy who hung me upside down from my ankles because he wanted my Cheesy Doodles?”

  “Yes.”

  “Yogi will probably eat him!”

  Sloane frowned at Dex. “Don’t call him Yogi. He doesn’t like it. Call him Zach.”

  “Seriously?”

  “He owes me a favor.”

  “For what?” Dex whined.

  Sloane wriggled his eyebrows. “For my giving him your Cheesy Doodles.”

  “Sadist,” Dex gasped. “I don’t think I like you anymore.”

  “Yes you do.”

  Dex stuck his tongue out at him and walked off toward Rosa and Austen. It didn’t take long to explain the situation to Zach’s Team Leader in
Unit Beta. The agent’s workload would be passed onto someone else on Zach’s team. They were mostly low-risk warrants other agents could handle. Zach was happy to help Sloane. The guy wasn’t much of a talker, and he looked damn intimidating. Scary as shit was more accurate. But he was a really sweet guy—unless someone tried to steal his snacks. It was a shame others often dismissed him as a brainless musclebound thug. Zach was well-spoken and much smarter than he was given credit for. As if somehow size and muscle mass equated to smaller brains. Idiots. Rosa had just finished patching Austen up when there was a knock on the door.

  Zach stood on the other side looking uncertain. “Hey, Zach. Thank you for agreeing to help.” Sloane led him into the living room where Rosa finished applying the last bandage to Austen’s shoulder. When Austen saw Zach he nearly jumped out of his skin.

  “Holy fuck!” Austen’s eyes went wide as saucers as he gaped at Zach.

  “Austen, this is Agent Osmond Zachary from Alpha Sleuth, Unit Beta. Agent Zachary, this is Austen.”

  “What happened to him?” Zach asked, his eyes taking in all the bloodied gauze pads scattered around Austen before his eyes moved up to Austen’s shirt. A deep frown came onto Zach’s face, making him look even more intimidating, if that was possible.

  “The Coalition wasn’t happy with Austen for helping us. I’m afraid they might try to hurt him again. I need you to protect him.”

  Zach gave him a stern nod. “I won’t let anything happen to him.”

  “Good. Call me if you run into any trouble.” Sloane patted Zach on the shoulder and thanked Rosa for her assistance. He told Austen to behave himself. There was no snappy comeback or flirtatious quip from Austen who was eyeing Zach with uncertainty. Sloane put it down to Austen’s skittish nature. Cheetah Therians didn’t give their trust easily. It had to be earned. They were too vulnerable in the Therian scheme of things.

  On the way to the car, Sloane asked Dex if he wanted to get some breakfast close to home. It was 5 a.m. There was no point in going back to bed just to get an hour’s sleep, if that. He found them a café a couple of blocks from Dex’s house, and they sat across from each other in a booth and ordered coffee and breakfast. Well, Sloane ordered breakfast. Dex ordered a banquet. Where did his partner store all that food? Anyone who saw him eat would think he was a Therian with how he put food away.

  “You really care about Austen, don’t you?” Dex asked, after swallowing a mouthful of scrambled eggs, sausage, and pancake.

  “I might have been the youngest agent to join the THIRDS, but Austen was even younger when he joined as an SSA. He was fourteen. That was almost ten years ago. The kid’s had a tough life, and yeah, he was a thief, but he’s always kept his nose clean. His parents kicked him out after his first shift. He was eight. State tried to find him a new home, but he kept running away. He has a hard time trusting people. And if he doesn’t trust you, good luck keeping up with him.”

  “And then he met you?”

  “Little prick tried to steal my wallet.” Sloane chuckled at the memory. “I chased him all through Central Park. Lost him a few times, but I outmaneuvered him. He was really good, but his true potential was going untapped. With the right training, who knew what he could do. I told him who I worked for. There was a chance he’d bolt, but he didn’t. He asked me to buy him a slice of pizza and a soda.”

  Dex gaped at him. “He stole your wallet, found out you were the law, and then asked you to buy him a slice of pizza?”

  “And a soda,” Sloane reminded him. “He was very serious about the soda. Kid’s addicted to sugar.” He smiled slyly. “Sounds like someone else I know.”

  Dex actually looked insulted. “I’m not addicted to sugar.”

  “The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.”

  “Screw you. I don’t have a problem,” Dex grumbled.

  “That’s denial talking right there. Tell me,” Sloane said, leaning back against the booth’s seat. “What did you have for breakfast yesterday?”

  “Leftover pancakes with fruit in them from the morning before last. Which you made. I’ve never had fruit in my pancakes before. It’s weird.”

  “It’s not weird. And if you will recall, I made very healthy pancakes with fruit, which you then drowned in maple syrup. Full calorie. High fructose.”

  Dex rolled his eyes. “I didn’t drown them.”

  “They were floating.”

  “Back to Austen.”

  Sloane held back a smile. King of Evasive Tactics. “Like I said, I thought he was going to run. I bought him the pizza and soda—extra-large slice mind you—and we got to talking. He asked me dozens of questions about the THIRDS and was so excited he could barely sit still. As it happened, there was a robbery while we were in the pizzeria. A tiger Therian came in with a knife and started threatening everyone. I told Austen to get under the table and not come out until I said so. Then I got up and tried to talk the guy into putting the knife down. The guy didn’t take it well and came at me.”

  “Shit. What did you do?”

  Sloane shrugged. “I did what I had to. I took him down. Body slammed him into the linoleum.”

  “You took down a tiger Therian?”

  “I’ve had practice.”

  “Hobbs?”

  Sloane nodded. “The bigger they are, the harder they fall. And while in their Human form, they don’t always land on their feet. Anyway, the THIRDS came and took the guy away. I told Austen to come out and introduced him to the team. You should have seen his face. It was as if I’d introduced him to the Justice League or something.”

  Dex gave him a wicked grin. “Your geek is showing.”

  “Shut it.”

  Dex cackled and sat back. His expression softened. “I can’t say I blame him. I would have been pretty starstruck too. Big sexy badass.”

  Sloane chuckled. “Well, I don’t know about badass, but after that, Austen kept showing up everywhere I went. My biggest worry was when he showed up on calls. I was afraid he’d get hurt. I knew he wouldn’t quit just because I asked him to. Stubborn little shit. So I started giving him small jobs with no risk involved. He loved it. And he was good at it. I spoke to Lieutenant Sparks, introduced them, and next thing I know, she’s giving him a job. He’s been working with us since.”

  “Do you think what Austen says is true? Do you think some of the Coalition members have gone rogue?” Dex finished his coffee, and Sloane paid the tab, ignoring Dex’s grousing on having Sloane pay for his jumbo breakfast.

  “If Austen says that’s what he heard, I believe him. First thing, we’re getting on this lead. We need to let Cael know so he can get the algorithm set up. I want to know why these particular Order members. What is the Coalition up to?” They got into Sloane’s car and headed for HQ. They’d shower and change there. Sloane had to fill Maddock in on what was going on. Something was about to give in this case. He could feel it.

  Chapter 11

  THE NEXT morning, they finally lucked out.

  “We got something.” Cael came rushing into their office and hurried over to Sloane’s desk. He entered his code into the security panel on the right-hand side, and Cael’s desk interface replaced Sloane’s. A few taps later, and Cael was bringing up several windows.

  “We ran Craig Martin’s and Alberto Cristo’s names through Themis like Austen suggested. At first, the only hit we got on them were some minor assault charges when they were teens. Then I ran their names through Themis for known associates, as you said, and I got a shitload of hits. Not only were they both members of the Order, but get this, during the riots in ’85, a gang of Human youths calling themselves the Westward Creed went on a spree, assaulting Therian citizens left and right. The assaults were random and small-scale, but they soon escalated the violence until the gang members were arrested for causing the deaths of several Therians.”

  “Martin and Cristo were members of the Westward Creed?” Sloane asked.

  “Yeah, but Cristo got out before anyone d
ied. As for his friends, the charges were dropped due to missing evidence—or more likely due to the corrupt Human judge given the case. The judge was forced into retirement once the new Therian laws were passed.” Cael tapped Sloane’s desktop, and it split into eight screens with pictures and arrest records of the gang. The first one was of a young Craig Martin. Another photo jumped out at Sloane, and he sat forward.

  “Hold on a second. That guy there.” Sloane pointed to one of the mug shots. An eighteen-year-old punk named Angel Reyes. “Look at his tattoo. It matches Austen’s description of the one he saw.”

  Dex came to stand beside Sloane. “Shit. You think that’s the guy trying to take over the Order?”

  “How many guys in New York have a tattoo of a multiheaded mythological Greek serpent over their face and neck?”

  “True.”

  Cael slid his hands across Reyes’s file, and it expanded, taking up the length of the desk. Several additional files popped up. He opened a side panel and ran a current search for Angelo Reyes. “Dude lives in the Bronx.”

  Sloane tapped the address, and once the information menu popped up, he had Themis send it to his tablet. “Cael, can you bring up the list of victims from the riots?”

  “Sure.”

  “Martin and Cristo’s deaths weren’t an accident, and I’m willing to bet they won’t be the last. I think these victims are connected to members of the Coalition, and someone’s decided to take advantage of this war against the Order to get revenge. That would explain the rumors Austen’s been hearing of members of the Coalition going rogue. Somewhere along the way on their little vigilante crusade, something changed. The only problem is, we don’t know the identities of any of the Coalition members. No faces, names, or info we can run through Themis and cross-reference with the list of victims.”

  Sloane’s phone went off, and he quickly answered, listening to Austen ramble off his latest intel. “Austen, you are fucking amazing. I’m going to make sure you get a raise. What? No, I won’t go out on a date with you. Don’t push your luck. Yes, I’m sure Zach isn’t going to shift and eat you. Stop being such a scaredy-cat.”

  Dex chuckled. “I’m starting to like that guy.”

  Sloane hung up and got to his feet. “He reminds me of you.”

  “Two of them?” Cael shuddered.

  “Thanks, bro.” Dex turned his frown on Sloane. “I’m not sure I like the sound of that.”

  Sloane leaned over Dex and gave his cheek a pinch, throwing Dex’s words back at him. “Aw, has anyone told you how cute your jealous-boyfriend face is?”

  “Oh. You are good, sir.” Dex wagged a finger at him. “I approve.”

  Sloane chuckled. “Come on. We’ve got a lead. Austen got a tip on Reyes. I need to inform Maddock.” He turned for the door when Cael stepped in front of him. He rubbed a hand over his hair, his eyes on his boots as he looked embarrassed.

  “I’m glad you guys made up. I’m sorry if I’ve been acting like a jerk.” He lifted his face and gave his brother a pout. Where did these two learn to do that pouty-lipped thing? It was devious and highly effective. “I’m sorry, Dex.”

  “It’s okay.” Dex threw his arms around his brother and hugged him tightly. “You know I can’t stay mad at you.” He took hold of Cael’s cheeks and squeezed them. “Look at that face. How can I stay mad at that?”

  “You done?” Cael asked through squeezed cheeks, looking most unimpressed.

  “I am.” Dex smiled wickedly, and Sloane braced himself. “Chirpy.” He released his brother and bolted from the room.

  “You colossal jerk!” Cael chased after Dex, and Sloane couldn’t keep himself from shaking his head at the two as he followed them out into the bullpen. Sloane left the brothers to their shenanigans while he headed for Maddock’s office. Finally, they were getting somewhere. Sloane had gotten pretty sick and tired of always being one step behind these bastards. It was time for the tide to change.

  MADDOCK STOOD at the podium at the front of the briefing room, addressing the three Defense teams. Sloane’s meeting with his sergeant had been brief, but together they’d quickly devised a strategy. One that would hopefully give them the advantage they needed. The end was near. Sloane could feel it.

  “Listen up. We’ve received a tip regarding the location of Angel Reyes, a Human we believe to be associated with the Order and possibly looking to assume leadership. If we can bring Reyes in, we might be able to get the locations of the remaining members of the Order and any bases of operation that may be left. This is the biggest lead we’ve had. Reyes has been sighted at the Baptist church on Hertz Street in Brownsville. I’ve already sent the location to your tablets. I want Reyes alive. We also need to get there before the Coalition, so everyone gear up and move out.”

  Everyone in the room dispersed, including Destructive Delta. As they headed for the armory, Dex edged up to Sloane and discreetly checked to make sure no one was within hearing distance. “How do you know the information won’t get out?”

 
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