Against the grain, p.15
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       Against The Grain, p.15
 

         Part #5 of THIRDS series by Charlie Cochet
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  Ash swallowed hard. He’d never taken anyone to Arlo’s grave. Not even Sloane. It was a burden he’d always placed on his shoulders and his alone. Mostly, he never wanted anyone to see his heartache. “You really want to?”

  Cael nodded, his sincerity unquestionable.

  “Okay. I’d like that.”

  An hour later, they were in Ash’s new truck heading for Brooklyn. It was the first time he’d taken the black truck out since driving it off the lot a couple of days after Christmas. Fucking taxicabs had been bleeding him dry, and since he was off the meds—on account of them being stolen—he went back to driving. Ash headed to the Holy Cross Cemetery in Brooklyn, passing through Park Slope on the way there like he always did. He stopped at a red light and said, “This is the neighborhood I grew up in.”

  Cael looked out his window. “Do your parents still live here?”

  “No. They moved away after Shultzon took custody of me. I don’t even know where they are now. I set up an alert on Themis to let me know if they pass away, but I don’t want to know where they are.” It would be too tempting for him to show up on their doorstep, and no one needed that kind of drama. He certainly didn’t. It’s not as though they would welcome him. If they’d wanted him in their lives, they would have called. He wasn’t exactly hard to track down considering he worked for the THIRDS. His parents probably didn’t even know if he was alive. His father certainly wouldn’t care.

  Cael didn’t ask him any more questions, and Ash was grateful. When he felt like he could share something, he did. He parked off Brooklyn Avenue and turned off the engine. Cael handed him the bouquet of flowers, and Ash took them from him with a kiss.

  “It means a lot to me, you being here.”

  Cael smiled that beautiful smile of his. “I’m always here for you, Ash.”

  With a wink, Ash got out of the car. He came around and closed Cael’s door for him after he hopped out. Ash activated the alarm, and they headed for the entrance, his nerves turning what little he had in his stomach to lead. Every year it was the same. That sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach and the emptiness in his heart he could never fill. Would things be different now that Cael was here with him? His visits had never been long. Usually he came, placed the flowers on the ground in front of Arlo’s tombstone, said a small prayer, and left. Ash walked along the empty path flanked by trees, grass, and graves, lost in his own thoughts. The temperature was midthirties, and the wind was bitter, or maybe it felt that way because of where he was, but at least it wasn’t cloudy or rainy. Ash appreciated how Cael didn’t try to fill the silence with conversation, simply offered his quiet strength. They finally reached the grassy pitch where Arlo’s tombstone was. Every year the marble tombstone seemed to get smaller, and it struck him that it was simply how long he’d been coming here, his body growing, his legs getting longer, his chest broader. To think he’d been such a scrawny little kid once upon a time.

  What the hell was he doing here? This had to be the stupidest thing he’d ever done. His chest felt constricted, and it was getting hard to breathe. A warm hand slipped into his, and he took a deep breath. His eyes moved down to Cael, who gave him a warm smile.

  “Tell me something about him.”

  Ash inhaled deeply and let it out slowly. He thought back to when he and Arlo had been kids. Inseparable. “He loved to ice skate,” Ash said, his voice rough with emotions he thought he’d have moved on from by now. “When there was a thunderstorm, I’d climb into his bed and tell him it was to keep him safe, when really, I was the one who was scared.” He chuckled at the memory. “I used to do that a lot. Act like the big tough guy, when all I wanted was to have him there with me. I missed him so much when he wasn’t there.” His voice broke, and he blinked back his tears. He had to hold it together.

  “Who are you, and what are you doing here?”

  Ash turned, his chest tightening at the sight of the elegantly dressed couple in black hats and winter coats. The world around him was reduced to a blur of color and mumbled sounds.

  “Ash?”

  “Mom….”

  Ash’s heart squeezed in his chest as his mom took a step toward him, only to have his father throw an arm out to stop her. The look of remorse on her face crushed what remained of Ash’s heart into tiny pieces. Was it possible she didn’t hate him? That she’d forgiven him after all these years?

  “I’m surprised you bother to visit him,” his father ground out through his teeth.

  “I’ve visited him every year for twenty years,” Ash said quietly. He shouldn’t feel like that insecure, frightened child. His father no longer had a hold on him. Ash had every right to be angry. Angry for what they’d done to him. He could if he wanted to, but what was the point? It wouldn’t undo everything that had been done. It wouldn’t bring Arlo back. There was no doubt his father hated him as much now as he had then. Ash could see it in those piercing amber eyes. It was hypocritical of his father to loathe him for being a Therian, when the same “contamination” that ran through Ash’s veins was in his. The unstable mutation in his father had been incomplete, and unlike many Pre-First Gen Therians, his father couldn’t shift. It made it easy for him to deny being infected at all. The mutation had cost him an arm, but the rest of him remained very much Human. His father looked him over and sneered.

  “Do you really think that by coming here, you’ll be absolved for what you did?”

  “It wasn’t my fault,” Ash replied, doing his best to believe it. Twenty years, and the only changes in his father were the silver strands in his auburn hair and the wrinkles around his eyes and mouth. He was still large, strong, imposing. The resemblance between them was easy to see, and Ash hated it.

  “Then why do you come every New Year’s Day to punish yourself for facing another year without your brother? That’s why you come here. Not to remember him or feel connected to him, but to punish yourself for letting him die.”

  “That’s outrageous!” Cael turned to Ash, who couldn’t bring himself to deny his father’s words. “Ash?”

  “You should have been with him that day. At least then I’d have the memory of two good boys and not of a dead son and the abomination his brother became.”

  Cael gasped, his hold tight on Ash’s arm. “How could you be so callous to your own son?”

  “He’s not my son,” Ash’s father spat out. “He’s an animal. A filthy beast that should be locked away in a zoo.”

  Ash flinched at the words, berating himself for his cowardice. What good was all his ferocity when he couldn’t stand up to one man? Why did he continue to punish himself? Why did this one Human have the power to paralyze him? Cael stepped between Ash and his father, taking Ash aback. His sweet cheetah Therian bristled, his arm back behind him as if shielding Ash from his father’s onslaught.

  “What happened to Arlo was tragic, but instead of being there for Ash, who was very much alive, you threw him away. You blamed him for Arlo’s death, but it wasn’t his fault. If he’d been there that day, he most likely would have been killed as well. He was just a child, for heaven’s sake! He needed you. You were supposed to protect him, not throw him away!”

  “I don’t know who the hell you are, but you stay out of this you little Therian—”

  “Hey,” Ash growled, his voice as fierce as his Therian roar, bringing his father to a standstill. “Say what you want to me, but you watch what you say to him. I won’t let you treat him the way you’ve treated me. All these years I blamed myself for Arlo’s death. I told myself I’d failed him. That I’d failed you. But the truth is, you failed me. Your job was to love me. To keep me safe. Instead you called Animal Control to take me away. Your own son! In your eyes, I was as dead as Arlo. I’m very much alive, and I’ve been blessed with a new family. One who loves me no matter how fucked-up and miserable I may be. I have great friends and the love of a man who proves that I’m not the monster you made me out to be.” Ash slipped his arms around Cael and held him close.

  “
Thanks to Cael, I’ve learned that everything I believed about myself was wrong. I deserve to be loved and live a full, happy life. I’m an agent for the THIRDS, and what I do matters. I protect my city, both Therians and Humans, and fight so that one day assholes like you are the minority, and your bigoted, hateful, ignorant voice will fade away. Most importantly, I’ve grown up to be a good, decent man who is nothing like you.”

  His father blustered and huffed, opening his mouth to rebut, but no coherent words escaped. His faced turned crimson, his nostrils flaring before he turned away, snapping at his wife, “Come along, Vivian.”

  “One minute.”

  “Vivian, now,” his father fumed.

  She clasped her hands together. “Please, Richard. Just one minute.”

  “Fine. I’ll be in the car. If you’re not there in five minutes, you can take a cab.”

  Ash stood stunned, watching his father stalk off through the grass until he’d disappeared. He turned to his mother, his voice quiet. “How can you let him talk to you like that?”

  “Look at you. Look how big you are,” she said, smiling warmly.

  The back of Ash’s eyes stung. He remembered that smile, remembered when she’d squeeze him tight and kiss the top of his head. They’d bake together in the kitchen, and Arlo would end up eating most of the chocolate chips meant to go in the dough. His mom was as pretty now as she had been then. Her hair was silver, and her blue eyes didn’t sparkle the way he remembered, but she was still elegant and beautiful.

  Tears welled in her eyes, and Ash wanted to go to her, but she was already taking a step away from him.

  “And so handsome.” She composed herself and smiled again. “I caught you on the news a few months ago. You looked so dashing in your uniform.” Her gaze moved to Cael. “Is this your boyfriend?”

  Ash beamed proudly. “Yes. Mom, this is Cael Maddock. Cael, this is my mother, Vivian Keeler.”

  Cael gave her a nod. “Ma’am.”

  “You look so sweet together.” She took Cael’s hand in hers. “Look after him. He’s a good boy. He deserves to be happy.”

  “Mom…?”

  She stepped up to him and patted his arm, her hand lingering on his own gloved one before she pulled away. “I’m sorry. I have to go. It was wonderful to see you. Be safe.”

  She hurried off, and Ash stood watching her go until she’d disappeared beyond a group of trees. He didn’t know how long he’d been standing there, staring off into the distance.

  “Ash?”

  Ash’s vision blurred from the tears in his eyes. No matter how hard he tried to fight it, he was too exhausted. After all this time…. His knees felt shaky, and he had to sit down. He let himself drop to the grass in front of Arlo’s grave, leaned his elbows on his knees, and covered his face with his hands. Everything he’d been holding back over the whole of his life bubbled up and erupted like a geyser.

  A strangled cry tore through him, and he let the tears fall. He cried for the death of his brother, torn from his life too soon. He cried for his stolen and fucked-up childhood. For every godforsaken piece of shit that got away with hurting someone. For Cael and what he’d suffered at the hands of that asshole. For his mother living under his bastard father’s thumb. His mother…. Had she wanted to see him before today? When had she stopped hating him? Did she still blame him? He had no idea how much he’d missed her until now.

  He felt a hand on his back gently rubbing in circles, and Cael’s scent enveloped him like a warm blanket. Ash wrapped his arms around Cael, allowing himself to take comfort in the man he loved. Cael had stood up for him, fearlessly defended him. He pulled back and cupped Cael’s face.

  “Thank you for all that you are. For your gentleness, your fierceness, your smarts, your beauty, your charm, but mostly, thank you for trusting me with your heart.”

  “Did you mean what you said to your father?” Cael asked softly, removing a small packet of tissues from his coat pocket. He pulled one out and very tenderly wiped Ash’s face.

  “I meant every word.”

  Cael smiled and kissed his lips. “Good. I’ve always believed in you. I’m so happy that now you believe in yourself. You are a wonderful man, Ash. Never let anyone make you feel less than that.”

  Ash stood, bringing Cael along with him. He pulled him close and kissed him. How had he gotten so lucky? He couldn’t imagine his life without Cael. Without his sweet face and warm smile, his infectious laughter and charming quirks. Ash gave him a squeeze, his hand going to the back of Cael’s head, and he hugged him. It had taken him so long to see what was right in front of him. He had no intention of letting go.

  SHIT! AUSTEN tapped the security code into the panel on the small bulletproof case and opened it. Inside, snuggled securely in their padding, lay six large blue vials and, next to the vials, a Therian jet injector. This was it. Holy fuck, this was it.

  “You have to go! They’ll be here any minute.”

  Agent Boyle pulled a Glock from under his white lab coat, and Austen stared at him.

  “Are you insane? You can’t take on an army. Wait for the extraction team.”

  “There’s no time. Don’t worry about me. You have to get the package to Sparks.”

  “Goddamn it.” He knew this was going to happen. Regardless of his feelings on the matter, Boyle was right. Austen swiftly removed the small hooligan kit from his back, opened the hidden padded pocket beneath the det cord compartment, and stuck the case inside before zipping everything back up and returning it to his back. He clicked all the straps into place and removed his own gun from his thigh rig.

  “Boyle—”

  Shooting erupted down the hall, and a small explosion shook the walls. They’d gotten through the locked fire door.

  “Go!”

  Boyle opened the door and slipped out into a blaze of gunfire, the door locking behind him before Austen could utter another word. He heard Boyle scream, and it jolted Austen into action. He couldn’t let Boyle’s sacrifice be in vain. The package had to be delivered.

  Austen looked around the room. The vent was out of the question. He’d be a sitting duck. There was a window above the filing cabinet just about big enough for his slender frame to slip through. Time to get to work. He pulled on his tac gloves with knuckle reinforcement and smiled. Now came the fun part. Leaping onto the stationary chair by the desk, he used it as a springboard to hop onto the top of the cabinet. Shielding his face with one arm, he pulled back his right fist and punched through the window’s glass. The glass shattered, and he hurriedly punched at the larger shards left in the frame so he could get through without getting cut up. He popped his head out, hearing the sirens going off in the facility.

  Assessing the surrounding area, it was immediately clear the only way was up. The building’s smooth surface was clear of anything he could use to climb down, and even if there had been something, the wall surrounding the building was lined with barbed wire. The roof ledge was three floors up. Fun times. He pulled himself back inside, hearing the shouts outside the room getting closer. They were looking for him. Quickly, he unhooked his hooligan kit and removed the grappling gun with rappelling rope. He clicked, locked, and secured all the pieces before securing his kit back in place. Getting on his back, he pushed his upper body through the window, aimed, and fired. The hook whizzed through the air, soared over, and sank, latching on to the roof’s ledge.

  “That’s my girl.” Securing the rope around his gloved hands, he pushed himself through the window just as a loud thud resounded against the heavy door. They’d be breaching any moment. He swung out and came back against the building, his boots hitting the smooth brick. Not wasting a single moment, he climbed the side of the building, one hand after the other, one step at a time. The sound of gunfire echoed through the otherwise quiet evening air, but no one would be calling it in. Next to the research facility, there was nothing around but empty warehouses used for equally shady dealings. Which meant if he was caught, no one would hear him scream.
That was the price he paid for doing the job he did. He gritted his teeth and moved as fast as he could without compromising his safety.

  “He’s heading for the roof!” someone yelled from the window below.

  A bullet hit the brick wall to Austen’s right, and he cursed under his breath. He breathed in through his nose and out through his mouth, his breath visible in the cold night air. Upon reaching the top, he pulled himself over, gathered up his shit at breakneck speed, and shoved it through the side zip in his bag. He took a few seconds to assess the area around him. Several of the rooftops were connected. Thank you, New York City. Austen bolted for the end of the roof, hearing a door slam open somewhere behind him. Gunfire erupted, and Austen dove behind a cooling unit.

  “Come out with your hands up!”

  “Sure,” Austen yelled, snatching a flashbang from his pocket. He pulled the pin, rolled out, and chucked it at the group of armed men before making a break for it. The bang was accompanied by a flash of blinding light and plenty of cursing, shouting, and grunting. Austen’s boot hit the roof’s ledge, and he leaped across to the other building, hitting the floor in a roll and carrying on as if he’d never stopped. Two roofs ahead, he spotted an iron ladder hanging off the side. He sped onward, ignoring the shouts, threats, and gunfire behind him. Approaching the ladder, he jumped on the ledge, turned, and hurried down, the armed men fast on his heels. Reaching the end of the line, he hopped down and landed on the roof of a car parked between the buildings.

  “Stop!”

  Why did they always say that? Like Austen was going to decide, “You know what? I think I’ll do that.” Bunch of idiots. Taking off at full speed, he knew there was no hope the Human guards would catch him. The Therian ones might catch up, but from the quick glance he’d managed, they were all large classifications. Austen grinned as he sped through a congested parking lot filled with truck trailers and shipment containers. Everything was packed together, allowing him plenty of darkness to play in. The Humans would never hear him or see him. It was the Therian gunmen he had to be careful of. Austen paused and sniffed the air. They were getting closer. Across the lot was a large wooded area. The trees were mostly dried up, but it was dense enough to provide cover, especially at this time of night.

  Listening for the sounds of approaching guards, Austen stealthily used the containers to conceal himself as he made his way closer to the exit. Someone quietly gave orders, but Austen heard them fine. They were spreading out. He pulled his black beanie from his pocket, secured it on his head, and readied himself. Here we go. He picked up a couple of rocks, edged toward the end of the container, and hurled them over the next container. The rocks hit, and orders were given. Austen made a break for the woods.

  “Over there!”

  By the time the order was given, Austen was running at his full cheetah Therian speed. Although he wasn’t as fast in his Human form, he was still damn fast, and thanks to his Therian vision, he maneuvered through the trees easily. Making it out onto the other side, he came across an underpass. He jumped the fence, crossed the underpass, and kept running. Using the darkness as cover, he slipped in and out between buildings, climbing fire escapes, crawling through windows, and using the New York City landscape as his personal playground. He stayed high, knowing those goons would stay low, trying to follow his scent through the streets and alleys.

  A block away, there was an old abandoned school. He tore at one of the boarded-up windows and climbed through. Heading upstairs past debris-filled classrooms, he picked the crumbling auditorium. If anyone tried to get the drop on him, it would give him several escape options. Jumping onto the stage, he tapped his earpiece. “I’m coming in with the package.”

  “Agent Payne, this is unacceptable!” Sparks stated angrily.

  “I’m being hunted down. Do you really think I give two shits if it’s acceptable to you?” He was getting real tired of being dicked around. “I’m coming in, so if you want your goddamn package, you better have someone there to receive it!”

  “It’s too soon.”

  “Too fucking bad! This shit just blew up in our faces. We need to make this disappear, and we need to do it now!” He wanted to offload this thing as quickly as possible.

  “Where’s Boyle?” she asked.

  “Boyle’s dead. Or captured. Who the fuck knows. Point is, he’s gone.”

  There was a long pause before she spoke again. “Get the package to the drop-off point. I’ll arrange a transport.”

  Austen froze. “The usual suspects?”

  “There’s no one I trust more to get the job done without question.”

  “Without question? All those guys do is ask fucking questions!” He paused. “If word gets out….” And there was no doubt in his mind it would. Destructive Delta would have a target painted on their backs.

  “They can handle it.”

  “Cut them a break, man. They’ve had buildings falling on them, been exploded, shot, kidnapped, beaten, and now you’re throwing them into a fucking volcano?” This was fucked-up.

  “Don’t worry about them. I’ll make sure they have backup.”

  Great. More marshmallows to roast. “I don’t like this.”

  “Perhaps I need to remind you who you work for.”

  Austen narrowed his eyes, his voice clipped. “How do you sleep at night?”

  “Extremely well.”

  “They’re your agents.” Austen paced. “At least bench Sloane. The guy’s only just recovered.”

  “Your concern is sweet but invalid. He’s their Team Leader. Besides, benching him would arouse suspicion.”

  “You—”

  “Get the package to the drop-off point. You have half an hour.”

  The line went dead, and Austen kicked the wall behind him. Motherfuck son of a bitch! He was so pissed off he wanted to punch something. Getting himself together, he did what he always did. His job. He couldn’t let emotions cloud his judgment. Right now the package was what mattered. He wished more than anything he could inform Sloane. His friend had left several massages for him, and there was only so long he could ignore Sloane, but the less he and the rest of the team knew, the better it was for everyone. Especially Dex. The guy was in possession of a terrible conscience. Austen headed for the streets. Whatever Sparks said, Austen knew this was bad. He hoped Destructive Delta would make it out of this.

 
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