Against the grain, p.18
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       Against The Grain, p.18
 

         Part #5 of THIRDS series by Charlie Cochet
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  “We can’t leave you guys out there.”

  “That’s an order, Santiago!”

  “Copy that.”

  “Where’s Hobbs?” Sloane said, looking around. He tapped his com. “Hobbs? What’s your twenty?”

  “Take him!”

  Cael edged toward the end of the car, looking over Sloane’s shoulder in time to see Hobbs taking down three armed men as he protected his brother, who lay unconscious at his feet.

  Seb!

  Hobbs’s shield was on the ground out of his reach, but he didn’t let that stop him from raising hell and protecting Seb. He let out a fierce roar as the Human gunmen approached with rifles in hand. One launched at Hobbs, and Hobbs lifted the guy off his feet. He flung him at two of the other armed men. Around them, Seb’s team was trying to get to them, but they were being kept busy by the rest of the hijackers, along with Taylor’s team, who was clearing the area of the panicking and screaming citizens.

  “Fucking tranq him!” the large masked Therian shouted while someone took aim.

  Cael opened his mouth to warn Hobbs when a gloved hand clamped over it. Ash kept him quiet, and they watched in horror as a dart hit Hobbs in the leg, another in the arm. Hobbs crumpled to the ground beside his brother. Whatever they were using, it wasn’t standard issue. Cael had never seen a tiger Therian go down that quickly.

  Oh God. Hobbs.

  Cael moved Ash’s hand away from his mouth, his voice hoarse. “We can’t let them take him!”

  “We’re outnumbered,” Sloane said, grabbing a magazine from his vest and reloading his rifle. “We need to keep that case safe.”

  It took seven Humans to move an unconscious Hobbs. They left Seb behind. Why would they take Hobbs and leave Seb? Ash interrupted his thoughts and turned to him.

  “You and Dex need to make a run for it. We’ll cover you.”

  Cael had no time to respond. Ash grabbed hold of his vest and hauled him to his feet along with Dex. He released them, snatched his shield up, and along with Sloane came out from behind the car. Ash roared and charged the group of men heading for them. He and Sloane worked together, covering each other’s backs and using their shields to slam into the Human hijackers. The men went flying. Cael had never seen anything like it. The hijackers doubled in number, and Cael gasped when Ash was shot in the leg with a tranq.

  “Ash!”

  “Run!” Ash shouted, dropping onto one knee. Sloane backed up against him, helping him up with one arm when Sloane’s shield clattered to the ground. A tranq hit Sloane’s arm. Another hit Ash in the same spot, then in the other leg. He crumpled to the asphalt with Sloane landing on top of him.

  The large Therian walked toward them. “Take them!”

  “No.” Cael shook his head when Dex grabbed Cael’s vest and pulled.

  “We have to go!”

  Cael and Dex sped down Ninth Avenue and into the commercial building site on the corner of Ninth and West Thirty-First Street. Their boots kicked up dirt and splashed through mud puddles as they dodged the bullets whizzing around them. They sprinted in between containers, through massive tubes, and jumped over cinder blocks. Shots rang out all around them, but they couldn’t stop. Cael led the way, knowing Dex could follow the reflecting letters of his name on the back of his vest. The Therians would be able to see him regardless of the letters, and hopefully the Human gunmen would knock themselves out against something, the assholes.

  Cael knew exactly where they were, and he thanked the city’s never-ending construction for the first time in his life. He knew where they could hide, rest for a while until they could get a hold of someone to come get them. But first they had to lose these bastards.

  “Dex! Leapfrog!” Cael called out behind him, holding out the case at his side and slowing enough for Dex to overtake him. Dex snatched the case and ran, skidding when he came to the chain-link fence at the end and getting on his hands and knees. Cael picked up speed, leaped on his brother’s back and his tac vest, snagged a hold of the fencing, and climbed. They’d done this hundreds of times as kids in the park. Cael landed on the other side, catching the case that Dex tossed over before he climbed the fence. Dex was as adept at climbing as any Therian. He’d spent his childhood getting into mischief by climbing whatever he could reach.

  They took off, the hijackers forced to climb or break through the fence, giving them enough of a lead. Cael ran across Tenth Avenue into the 10 Hudson Yards office tower currently under construction. It was a maze of steel girders, cranes, equipment, coverings, tubes, mixers, wiring, and shrouded with enough floors, rooms, and darkness for them to hide in. They ducked through some scaffolding, and Cael clipped the case to his tac vest before he started to climb, Dex close behind. They climbed up the scaffolding and into the building, careful to avoid falling into any unfinished areas. Cael could hear the shouts of the men down below as they tried to find their way. Cael took Dex’s hand so they could venture farther into the darkness, where the Human hijackers would have trouble chasing them even with their flashlights. They climbed up and up, until Cael heard nothing but the faint sounds of the city. When they finally thought it was safe, he bent over to catch his breath, his heart pounding fiercely. It was dark all around them, save for the rays of moonlight shining through the small gaps in the plastic coverings.

  Dex gasped a lungful of air as he paced. “Fuck.” He ran his hands through his hair. “Fuck.”

  Cael didn’t have to ask Dex what he was thinking. His brother was worried about Sloane, same as Cael was worried about Ash. “Why do you think they took them?” Cael asked.

  “I don’t know, but that wasn’t by accident,” Dex said, taking a seat on a cinder block to catch his breath. “They purposefully shot at them, and that one guy, he shouted at his men to take them. They were under orders to take them.” He leaned his elbows on his knees, his head falling into his hands. “This is so fucked.”

  Cael couldn’t agree more. Normally the whole of their organization would have been out there by now making it rain fire and brimstone, getting everyone to safety. The hijackers would have been down and out. Even if dispatch was incommunicado, there was no way they wouldn’t have heard of a damn hijacking in the middle of the city involving tactical vehicles and a Mack truck.

  Something stirred in the shadows, and Cael removed his Glock and aimed at the figure heading toward them.

  “THIRDS! Hands up or I’ll shoot!”

  “Easy there, pal.” Austen emerged, his hands held up in front of him.

  “Austen?” Dex stood, his fists at his sides. “What the fuck are you doing here?”

  Austen kept his distance, his hands still held up. “I’m here to take that off your hands.”

  He nodded toward the case, and Dex put himself between Austen and Cael. Cael swiftly unclipped the case from his vest and held on tight.

  Dex was having none of it. “Fuck you. We were hijacked, and you want us to hand this over to you?”

  Austen frowned at him. “I was the one who warned you about the hijack, dumbass.”

  “That means fuck all,” Dex snapped. “You could be working with them and did that so we’d trust you. So we’d give you the case if you asked for it. Well, it’s not going to happen.”

  “I’m not working with them,” Austen insisted, taking a step toward them.

  Dex had his gun out and aimed at Austen’s vest in a heartbeat.

  “Whatever. We’re not giving you anything. We’re waiting for backup.”

  “Backup’s not coming.”

  “What?” Cael couldn’t believe that. There was no way the THIRDS wouldn’t send teams out. Their agents were down, the streets were in chaos with armed men running around, and who knew how many were hurt.

  “The THIRDS have been notified of a traffic accident. Your Team Leaders have reported in that everything is under control. The situation has been contained. The area has been cleared and swept.”

  Cael gaped at him. “That’s bullshit. Two of our Team Leaders ar
e down.”

  “It’s been cleared,” Austen assured them. “The hijackers are gone. Our operatives have taken care of everything.”

  “Your operatives?” Dex shook his head, a look of disbelief on his face. “It’s Sparks, isn’t it? She set us up.”

  Oh God, it was true. Cael couldn’t believe it. They’d been set up. Who knew what connections Sparks used to contain the situation.

  “Set up? What the hell are you talking about?” Austen stared at them, stunned.

  “Sparks,” Dex repeated angrily, his gun still in hand. “She gave us these orders. Worked out the routes, everything. I didn’t want to believe it, but…. Fuck!”

  “Where the hell have you been getting your intel?”

  Dex told Austen everything, from what they’d learned from Shultzon to Ward and the meds. Cael held firmly on to the case. He didn’t know if they could trust Austen. He wanted to, he really did. They needed all the help they could get on this.

  “Shit.” Austen shook his head, his lips pressed in a thin line.

  “You knew?” Dex took a step toward Austen.

  “Yeah, I knew.”

  Dex raised his gun again, aiming at Austen. “So you are working with her.”

  “I am. But it’s not what you think.”

  “Jesus Christ, Austen! Did you see what happened back there? We’re being hunted.”

  Dex threw a hand up, and Cael felt his gut twist. This couldn’t be happening. Granted, there was a lot they didn’t know about Austen and what he did, but could he really betray all of them like this?

  “Dex,” Austen warned.

  “God knows what they’re going to do to Sloane, and you’re telling me you’re working for the person responsible?”

  “Dex.”

  “How could you do that to us?”

  Austen’s expression hardened. “Would you shut the fuck up for two fucking seconds!”

  Dex promptly shut his mouth.

  “Yes, I’m working with Sparks. No, she’s not who everyone thinks she is. And I swear on my fuzzy sacks if this gets out, I will beat the shit out of both of you. I don’t care who your boyfriends are.”

  Cael opened his mouth to reply but thought better of it. Now was not the time. How Austen knew Ash was his boyfriend wasn’t really important right now.

  “Sparks is a Tin Man.”

  Dex frowned. “Like, Wizard of Oz Tin Man?”

  “Yes and no. It’s just a nickname, ’cause the Tin Man had no heart, and well, TIN operatives aren’t known for being warm and cuddly. Anyway, Sparks is part of TIN—Therian Intelligence Network. Sort of the Therian version of the CIA. They exist, but technically they don’t. We SSAs work for them. Back in the ’90s when the THIRDS opened their doors, Sparks was planted in the THIRDS to make sure everything remained on the up and up. The THIRDS had the potential to wield a shit ton of power, and with the military to fund them and back them up, it made them a force to be reckoned with. Where there’s that kind of power, you’ll find those looking to either abuse it or exploit it. Someone in the Branch of Therian Defense has decided to fund a little side project using the THIRDS as a scapegoat. That is the project.” Austen craned his neck to point at the case in Cael’s hands.

  “What is it?”

  “The drug you have in your hand is called Peitharchia7. It has the ability to suppress the Human side of a Therian. It also enhances the feral side, making the Therian susceptible to suggestion and, more importantly, commands.”

  “Fuck. I was right,” Dex groaned, returning his Glock to his thigh rig.

  “And some asshat in the government wants to use it to control Therian soldiers. Take away the Human consciousness but leave the Human body. We all know it’s against Geneva Convention protocols for Therian soldiers to fight in Therian form. This gives them a way around that. It also means that intel will be hard as fuck to extract, because once that shit wears off, the Therian soldier won’t remember jack. Hard to get intel from someone who has no memory of what he’s done.”

  “Is it the same drug Isaac injected Dex with?” Cael asked, taking a seat on the cinder block his brother had vacated, the case secured between his knees.

  Austen shook his head. “That was a watered-down version. The shit you’ve got there is far more potent. It will fuck a Human up. It’s so dangerous, it has to be used with a preliminary drug.”

  “Hold up. There’s another drug?”

  Just as Dex said the words, it struck Cael. “Thelxinomine.”

  Austen nodded. “You guessed it. Peitharchia7 won’t work on its own. It would potentially kill the Therian soldier or fuck his head up badly, rendering him unfit for duty. The Therian needs to be prepped first with a preliminary drug that will—with enough doses—short-circuit the Human side of the brain, leaving the feral half in control and susceptible to Peitharchia7, which will allow them to be controlled.”

  “Is the Thelxinomine in here as well?” Cael asked, looking down at the case.

  “No. Sparks had me hunt down that shit and swipe it. I just collected the last of it.”

  “From where?” Cael peered at Austen. He had an idea of what Austen was about to say.

  “Your boyfriends’ desks.”

  “This gets better and better,” Dex groaned. “So Sloane and Ash were on the preliminary drug. Was Ward prescribing that shit to Therians as a painkiller?”

  “To specific Therians. Therians who made ideal candidates for the program. What better place to find Therian soldiers than the THIRDS? I’m guessing plucking Therian soldiers already enlisted would draw too much attention, and obviously they couldn’t just walk up to their chosen candidates and be like, ‘Hey, you wanna be the first test subject of this new unsanctioned military-grade mind-control drug that could potentially fuck you up?’”

  Cael processed everything they’d learned from Austen. He still had so many unanswered questions, and his thoughts kept going to Ash. He prayed Ash was all right. A lump formed in his throat at the thought of him being taken. He looked up at Austen. “That’s why they took Sloane and the others. To use them for this program.”

  “Yeah. Defense agents are the easy choice. Your boys are First Gen. Perfectly healthy Therians. Strong Alphas. Ideal soldiers.”

  Dex frowned. “Hobbs wasn’t on Thelxinomine. Was he?”

  Austen shoved his hands into his pockets, his expression sympathetic. “Your boy Hobbs takes meds for his anxiety. They were switched out three weeks ago when he went for a refill of his prescription. I swiped his a week ago, but that shit had already worked its way into his system, which is why he’s been experiencing severe setbacks.” This time it was Austen who looked puzzled. “To be honest, I would have expected Seb to be on the list. He’s Pre-First Gen and takes a shit ton of Therian medication, but he’s fucking huge and strong as a brick shithouse. There was ample opportunity to switch out one of his meds, but for some reason he wasn’t targeted.”

  Cael cocked his head to one side, studying Austen, his stance and mannerisms. You have got to be kidding me. “The male nurse who made off with the drugs I found in Ward’s office? That was you!”

  Austen wriggled his eyebrows. “Yes it was. A little hair dye, some contacts, and a dash of makeup to cover up my classification.” He tapped the tattoo on his neck marking him a cheetah Therian. “It’s all part of the magic.”

  “And Ward’s body disappearing? Was that all part of the magic too?” Cael asked irritably.

  “No. That was my associates.”

  “Why did Sparks pull us off the case?”

  “She didn’t want to put you in danger.”

  Cael threw his arms up, motioning around them.

  “Yeah, okay. She didn’t really have a choice. We had to move the drug out before it disappeared. We lost an operative getting it out of the facility. Ten years, man. We’ve been after this shit for ten years. When it was time to move out, Sparks picked the three teams she trusted most.”

  “If Sparks is on our side,” Dex said,
“then who’s been working on the control drug?”

  Austen arched an eyebrow at him. “I’ll let that percolate in your head for a moment.”

  Dex and Cael came to the same conclusion simultaneously. They both looked at each other, with Dex being the first to vocalize their thoughts.

  “Shultzon.”

  “Somebody give the boy a teddy bear. Yes, Shultzon. He was the one working from the First Gen Research Facility that had supposedly closed down. That day you boys took down Pearce and Sparks showed up, she wasn’t pissed because she’d been kept in the dark about the facility. She was pissed Shultzon managed to clear out the lab of anything that might incriminate him. He took his show on the road. TIN had an agent undercover with Shultzon for ten years, waiting for the guy to finish the drug and present it to his superiors. Shultzon is the puppet. TIN wants the puppet master. You can bet your ass this isn’t the only unsanctioned project going on.”

  “That son of a bitch,” Dex ground out angrily as he started to pace. “Now I hate him even more. What he did wasn’t enough? I should have trusted my gut, but I kept thinking it was me being overprotective. That fucker.”

  “Hey, calm down.” Cael stood and pulled his brother in close. “It’s okay. We’ll get them back.” He felt Austen’s arms around him. “What are you doing?”

  “Oh, I’m sorry. You’re having a broment. I thought it was a group hug. My bad.”

  He pulled away, and Cael released Dex.

  “Dude, you’re weird.”

  “Says the guy related to that dude.” Austen pointed a finger at Dex.

  Cael picked up the case. “If TIN has the power to cover all this shit up, why didn’t they move the drug themselves? Why get the THIRDS to do it?

  “The facility Shultzon was using belongs to the THIRDS. One of hundreds across the country. His project was buried under a shit ton of fake legitimate research projects. If Shultzon got wind that TIN was moving in, he’d blow the whole thing wide open and expose TIN. They couldn’t have that. We’re talking national security.”

  “So the THIRDS take the fall. Is that it?” Dex let out a snort of disgust.

  “That’s the way the Cheesy Doodle crumbles, Daley. There’s an order to things, and if someone’s gotta take one for the team, it’s gonna be the little guy.”

  “So now what?” Cael could have sworn he heard something.

  “Now, you duck.”

  Neither of them questioned Austen’s casual order. They ducked, an arrow flying over their heads before they heard a scream and a gurgling sound. Standing, they turned to find a Human gunman lying on the floor in a pool of blood with an arrow sticking out of his heart.

  “Guess there was a straggler,” Austen murmured.

  “What the fuck?”

  Dex took Cael’s arm, pulling him close as they both gaped at Sparks as she emerged from the shadows dressed in a formfitting black leather jacket, pants, high-heeled boots, and in her hand, a high-tech bow.

  “Holy shit!” Dex turned to Cael. “Dude, did Sparks just shank that guy with an arrow?” He turned back to Sparks. “What the fuck is going on?”

  “Good job, Austen.”

  Austen gave her a two fingers salute. “Ma’am.”

  “Are you two all right?” Sparks asked, collapsing the bow and clipping it to her thigh rig.

  Cael was having trouble finding his words. His brain had ceased functioning.

  “Yes. Sort of. No.”

  Apparently so had his brother’s brain.

  “I take it Austen has filled you in?” She motioned for them to follow, and after some hesitation, they did. Cael held the case tight in his hand as they followed Sparks through the barely lit floor.

  “What’s Shultzon going to do with Sloane, Ash, and Hobbs?” Cael asked her.

  “He’s going to use the drug on them. The hijackers are mercenaries for hire. Shultzon ordered them to retrieve specific agents. Selected candidates for the program. They were supposed to have been retrieved at a later date in a far more inconspicuous way, but Shultzon was left with no choice. Considering Shultzon’s history with Sloane and Ash, along with their record at the THIRDS as top agents, I’m not surprised he chose them. He knows them inside and out. Knows what their bodies can take, what they respond to.”

  “But… we have the drug,” Dex said.

  Sparks stopped and turned to them.

  “That’s correct, Agent Daley. And any moment, Shultzon is going to be calling
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