Against the grain, p.20
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       Against The Grain, p.20
 

         Part #5 of THIRDS series by Charlie Cochet
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  guy’s face, breaking his nose. He hung on to the guy and kicked back, catching a second goon in the chest and sending him hurtling to the floor. Spinning toward the guy in his grip, he thrust his elbow back again and caught a third gunman in the face while he front kicked a fourth in the chest. In between each gunman attempting to recover, Ash hit fast and hard. Punch in the kidneys to those stupid enough not to wear a vest, a kick to the knee, shattering it, the guy’s howl echoing through the hall among his cohorts’ screams. The fifth asshole wasn’t as stupid. He came at Ash fast, trying to take out his knee since he couldn’t get a hit in above the vest.

  Ash put his fists up and shuffled back, parrying and dodging the large man’s fists and kicks until the guy was out of breath. Ash grinned.

  “My turn.” No time to be fancy. Ash charged, threw his arms around his opponent’s waist, and lifted him off his feet with a fierce cry. He slammed the guy into the wall with all his weight and swung his elbow against the side of the Human’s head before kneeing him in the balls. The man crumpled to the floor as soon as Ash released him.

  “Assholes.” Ash turned and hurried down the hall, where Sloane had scratched the ever-living fuck out of a gunman who’d aimed his gun at Hobbs. Sloane scratched at the closed door leading to the stairs, and Ash opened the door. They all rushed through, and he followed Sloane as he leaped and ran down the stairs. Looked like they were heading down to sublevel.

  Hang on, sweetheart. I’m coming.

  Ash had turned a corner where he ran into Sparks kicking a couple of Fuller’s goons’ asses. She swiped a leg out, knocking one off his feet and slamming him onto the floor before delivering a blow to the face that put the guy out. Casually, she stood and turned to him.

  “Good. You’re here.”

  Where the hell had Sparks learned to fight like that? And was that a bow attached to her thigh rig? He put all that aside. “Where’s Cael?”

  “Downstairs with Agent Daley.”

  Ash made to go around her when she stopped him.

  “You can’t go down there.”

  “What? Are you crazy? Fuller’s down there.”

  Sloane hissed, and Sparks thrust her finger at him. “Stand down, Agent Brodie. No one’s going anywhere. Agent Maddock and Agent Daley are taking care of it. You will wait for my signal.”

  “We can’t leave them down there alone to face Fuller,” Ash growled. If he had to go through Sparks, then he would. He was about ready to when she put her hand on his shoulder.

  “Do you have faith in him?”

  Ash frowned. “Of course I do, but—”

  “You either do or you don’t, Keeler.” She moved her hand away. “You need to let him fight his own battles.”

  Like hell he did. What Sparks was saying made sense, but that didn’t mean he could stand here and let Cael face that bastard on his own. Cael had been doing great in their training, but they hadn’t been at it very long. “I….” Fuck. What was he supposed to do?

  “Trust him.” Sparks insisted. “And in the meantime, you can help me keep those bastards from reaching your teammates.” She nodded behind him to the hoard of goons coming their way. Ash looked down at Sloane.

  “What do you say?”

  Sloane looked past Sparks to the door that would lead into the subbasement, then behind him. He let out a roar and turned on his heels, charging toward the oncoming men. Ash gave Sparks one last glance.

  “I hope you’re right about this.” With that, he followed Sloane and Hobbs.

  CAEL HAD never hated anyone. He’d disliked some people, really disliked them, but never truly hated anyone. Until now. The thing Cael’s nightmares were made of stood toward the end of the subbasement with a handful of goons. Around them, the place was filled with moldy brick pillars, pipes, crappy lighting, fuse boxes, and a couple of old turbines that looked like they came out of the industrial age.

  “Nice to see you again, kitty cat. How’s the lip?” Fuller asked with a laugh.

  “Fuck you,” Cael spat out, his grip tightening on the case in his hand.

  “Ooh, isn’t that precious. Now be a good boy, and hand over the case.” Fuller grinned widely as his men readied themselves.

  Dex stepped in front of Cael. “If Shultzon wants it, he’s going to have to come down here to get it himself.”

  “Yeah, that’s not going to happen,” Fuller drawled.

  “If he wants this case, he needs to give us assurances that our teammates are safe. That’s all we want. He can take whatever the fuck is in there and fuck off for all we care. We want our guys.”

  Fuller appeared to think about it. He turned and tapped his earpiece, speaking quietly. Cael waited with bated breath. Please let this work. With a deep frown, Fuller turned back to them.

  “You’re in luck,” Fuller said gravely, heading for a pair of steel elevator doors to their right. “The doc is on his way.”

  They waited patiently for the elevator to arrive. When it pinged, the doors opened and Shultzon stepped out. The asshole had the audacity to smile at them.

  “Cael, Dex. I would say it’s lovely to see you, but I doubt the feeling is mutual. Now I’m in somewhat of a hurry, so if you don’t mind.” He motioned toward the case. “And please do spare me the speech regarding my betrayal. We’ll simply have to agree to disagree on that matter.”

  Dex shook his head. “How do we know you’ll release our teammates?”

  Shultzon removed a small keypad from his pocket. “This here will open the cages, releasing your boyfriends. How about a trade? Their freedom for the case.”

  Cael gritted his teeth in order to keep his mouth shut. That bastard had locked them up in cages?

  Dex nodded. “Okay.” He turned to Cael. “You sure about this?”

  Cael nodded. “Yeah.” They didn’t exactly have much of a choice. This was the only way to end this. He drew a deep breath and faced Shultzon.

  “We meet in the middle. I give you the case, you give me the keypad.”

  “Deal. And please make it quick, my dear boy. My ride is waiting.”

  Cael took a deep breath. He thought about everything Fuller had done to him. For almost two years that asshole controlled every part of his life, from what he ate to who he talked to. He’d let Fuller in, let him hurt him, hurt his family, let him get in his head and make him feel worthless. Cael’s anguish spread through him, and he used it to fuel his anger. He slowly walked toward Shultzon, who he trusted about as much as he did Fuller. Sparks was waiting on his word.

  Cael was perfectly aware of Fuller discreetly shifting behind Shultzon, but Cael continued forward. He held his left hand out as Shultzon reached in his pocket and pulled out the keypad. He held it up for Cael to see. Cael held out the case. The rest went as expected.

  Shultzon grabbed the case, and instead of releasing the keypad, he dropped it and snatched Cael’s wrist, jerking him back and into Fuller’s arms.

  “Take care of it!” Shultzon shouted as he made a break for the elevator.

  “Cael!” Dex broke into a run toward Cael, only to be waylaid by Fuller’s men, who advanced on him.

  Fuller’s arm wrapped around Cael’s neck and lifted him off his feet. Cael’s fingers dug into Fuller’s arm as he coughed and sputtered, his legs kicking out. He stilled in Fuller’s grip, ignoring his laughter as he took hold of Cael’s head.

  “I wish I could say I was sorry, but you and your brother put me in prison. I’ve been waiting a long time for this.”

  “Me too,” Cael growled, snatching his tactical knife from his thigh rig and stabbing into Fuller’s arm. With a howl, Fuller released him, and Cael landed on his feet. He dropped down and kicked back, catching Fuller on his knee and bringing him crashing to the floor. Cael sprang up, readying himself as Fuller pulled the knife from his arm.

  “You stupid little shit!” Fuller threw the knife to one side. “I’m going to enjoy tearing you apart with my bare hands.”

  Cael could see Dex fighting from the cor
ner of his eye. His brother was holding his own against the men. He’d already unarmed one and taken two down. With a grin, Cael motioned for Fuller to advance.

  “Aren’t we cocky?”

  “I’m not afraid of you anymore, you prick.”

  “We’ll see about that.”

  Fuller let out a fierce roar as he charged Cael, who spun to his side, missing Fuller, who ran past him. Fuller skidded to a halt and turned back, his frustration and growing ire clear on his face. He charged Cael again, and Cael remembered what Ash had told him about using his size to his advantage. He sped right for Fuller, dropping himself to the floor and sliding under Fuller, where he threw a fist, punching him in the balls. Fuller let out a strangled cry and grabbed his groin, his face contorted with pain and rage.

  With Fuller doubled over, Cael snapped his fist forward, catching Fuller in the nose. Ash’s words rang in his ears, and Cael delivered a fierce, unrelenting assault to Fuller’s face and neck, and when Fuller pulled back, Cael jumped and brought down all his weight on Fuller’s bent knee, shattering it.

  Fuller hit the floor cursing and sputtering blood from his broken nose. He held on to his knee with one hand and reached for his gun with the other. Cael dove for the discarded knife, scooped it up, and hurled it at Fuller, catching him in the throat. A horrible gurgling sound met Cael’s ear as Fuller stared wide-eyed at him, his hands grasping at his neck around the embedded knife.

  The door ahead of them burst open, and Ash came running in with Sloane, Hobbs, and Sparks trailing behind. Sloane dispatched the last gunman trying to take Dex down. It was over.

  Ash ran to Cael’s side and threw his arms around him, holding him tight. “Oh thank God.” He pulled back and looked him over. “Are you okay?”

  Cael nodded, his gaze going to Fuller gurgling and sputtering his last breaths. Ash turned, his expression somber before he pulled Cael against him once more, kissing the top of his head. Dex and Sloane came to join them.

  “You okay?” Cael asked his brother. Dex looked a little worse for wear, but other than that, he seemed fine.

  Dex gave him a wink. “Never better.” He threw his arm around Cael’s neck and gave him a squeeze. “I’m real proud of you.”

  “Thanks, Dex.”

  Something seemed to dawn on Ash. “Fuck, Shultzon’s getting away!”

  “No, he’s not,” Sparks declared. She tapped her earpiece. “Is the package secure? Good.” She turned to them with a smile. “Those were my operatives. They were waiting for Shultzon’s transport to land on the roof. The moment they did, they subdued the pilot and took out the men on board. Then they took their place. Shultzon believes he’s being transported to a secure location. He has no idea it’s one of ours. Good work, gentlemen.” She scratched the top of Hobbs’s head, making him purr.

  “So… you planned for him to get away with the case?” Ash asked.

  “Yes. Shultzon knew you three had escaped, but he didn’t know Cael and Dex were also aware. They acted as if they didn’t know. We couldn’t rouse Shultzon’s suspicions. As far as he knew, Dex and Cael were desperate to get their lovers back alive. With the three of you free, his biggest concern was the drug. He could always get new candidates. He took the case and left Fuller to dispatch anyone left behind so he could get away. My operatives are sweeping the facility.” With a scratch behind Sloane’s ear, she headed for the doors they’d come in from.

  “I want to see the five of you and Calvin in my office first thing in the morning.”

  “Calvin’s in the hospital,” Ash called out after her.

  “No, he’s at home. His injuries were minor and taken care of. Austen’s looking after him, along with a private nurse. He’ll be fine, and so will Seb. Someone will be along for Fuller. Go home and get some rest.”

  With that she disappeared, leaving them all stunned stupid.

  Dex turned to them. “What do you think she wants to talk to us about?”

  “I don’t know, and I don’t care.” Ash put his arm around Cael. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”

  Cael paused. He went to Fuller and crouched down by his corpse. Ash joined him, speaking quietly.

  “He left you no choice.”

  “He was going to kill me,” Cael said. “I’ve never killed anyone before.” The thought hadn’t occurred to him until now. He’d fired his weapon plenty of times, tranqed perps, and shot in self-defense, but he’d never killed anyone.

  “Whatever you need,” Ash said, pulling Cael to his feet with him, “we’re here for you, okay?”

  Cael nodded, following Ash and the rest of his team out of the subbasement. Cael didn’t know what to think about what had happened. He was still processing a good deal of it. But it also occurred to him that he’d stood up to Fuller. He’d stood up for himself and proved he was as fierce a Therian agent as any other Felid THIRDS agent. Cael felt a huge weight lift off his shoulders. He was capable, always had been. Smiling to himself, he put his arm around Ash’s waist as they walked out of the facility.

  He was going to be fine.

  Chapter 12

  CAEL STOOD at attention inside Sparks’s office with the rest of their team. They hadn’t seen her since the facility. Last night after they’d showered and gotten into bed together, Cael and Ash had talked for some time, both wondering if they’d see Sparks again after that, considering who she really worked for. Yet here she was, carrying on with her lieutenant duties as if nothing had happened.

  The office was in privacy mode, and Sparks sat calmly at her desk, stoic as usual in her signature white pantsuit.

  “This team seems to have trouble obeying the rules. Why do you think that is, Agent Brodie?”

  Dex held a hand up. “Lieutenant—”

  “I believe I was addressing agent Brodie.”

  Dex quickly shut it.

  “Could you be more specific?” Sloane asked, his expression giving nothing away.

  Sparks cocked her head to one side before tapping her desk. The large screen on the wall above her head flickered to life. It split into numerous smaller screens showing different footage. To Cael’s horror, he realized it was digital footage of their team, one of them time-stamped over a year ago of Dex and Sloane going at it in the parking garage. He did not need to see that.

  Although the angle didn’t catch them with their hands on each other—or rather in each other’s pants—there was no question what was going on, especially with all the sucking face happening simultaneously. Another screen showed Calvin kissing Hobbs back when Hobbs was in the hospital, while a third screen showed Ash kissing Cael in his office, which had supposedly been on privacy mode. Jesus, when she said she knew everything, she hadn’t been kidding.

  “Did you honestly believe I wouldn’t notice? Then there’s this.”

  She tapped the screen, and Cael recognized the footage as “borrowed” camera feeds. Who the hell was behind all this? The screens changed, this time showing footage of them at various locations around the city as they went after Hogan. The ballroom, their surveillance van, the grain terminal.

  “I believe Destructive Delta was put on leave.”

  Dex opened his mouth, and Sparks cut him off.

  “I’m not going back on my word, Agent Daley. Seb will remain in his position. His work during this case, despite your interference, is still commendable, as is his solidarity. I’ve wanted to promote him for some time.” She turned her attention back to Sloane. “Now, I ask again, Agent Brodie. This team seems to have trouble obeying the rules. Why do you think that is?”

  Sloane seemed to think about it. “My team operates to the best of their ability within the limitations set by the laws they uphold, laws violated by the perpetrators we’re tasked to detain. There are times when in the pursuit of justice, the rules are bent, but only as a last recourse.”

  Sparks didn’t look convinced.

  Dex held a hand up, and Sparks let out a heavy sigh. “Yes, agent Daley?”

  “The THIRDS is the
only agency that allows family to work together. Why?”

  “Research showed agents who belonged to a positive family dynamic had a higher rate of success in all areas of performance than the general employee population. Agents who had this type of positive support system at the workplace outside of their teams seemed to cope better with stress and produced higher results during psych evals. The THIRDS decided to allow it as long as agents were in different departments. It’s been very effective.”

  “Right,” Dex agreed. “My bond with my family keeps me sane. They share in my joy and pain. They understand what it’s like to bleed for this job. They back me up and I back them up, because of our bond. Because I will do whatever it takes not to let them down. Whatever we face, as long as there’s breath in my body, I will fight for them.”

  “Admirable, agent Daley, but what are you getting at?”

  “Destructive Delta is also my family. We might not be related by blood, but that doesn’t make them any less family. Cael, Tony, and I aren’t related by blood, but we’re still family.”

  “That hardly sets my mind at ease, considering what I’ve seen.”

  “Okay, yes, somewhere along the line, things changed for some of us, but since that day, have Sloane or I done anything to impede our performance outside the normal levels of any partnership not involved in a romantic relationship? And let’s face it, it’s not like your agents aren’t forming bonds or relationships. The rule was brought in because of what happened with Seb and Hudson. But that could have happened to anyone, whether they’d been in a relationship or not. We’re all fallible.”

  “That’s a very pretty speech, but I’m afraid you’ve left me no choice. Destructive Delta is unstable and insubordinate. Your unorthodox methods may bring results, but not without a great deal of chaos involved. You also seem incapable of working a case without blowing something up. I think it’s time to consider disbanding the team.”

  The room was filled with gasps and curses.

  “What?” Cael shook his head. She couldn’t. After all these years? He couldn’t be reassigned to another team. No one understood him like his team. His quirks, his weird inability to drink coffee, or his little spurts of hyperactivity. And Rosa? Sparks couldn’t take Rosa away. She was his partner. They worked great together.

  “Will that change be put forth by you or your replacement?” Sloane asked calmly.

  Sparks narrowed her eyes at him. “Excuse me?”

  “I assume now that your cover’s been blown, TIN will pull you out of the THIRDS and move you elsewhere.”

  “My cover remains intact, Agent Brodie. The only ones who—” She closed her mouth, and her bright red lips spread into an approving smile. “I see. Do you honestly believe blackmail would make a difference to someone in my position?”

  “No. And I have no intention of blackmailing you. You’ve worked damn hard to get where you are. So have we. Both our covers have been blown.” Sloane shrugged. “Or maybe they haven’t. Yes, our methods are unorthodox, yes, we do seem to attract an unusual amount of crazy, but we’re a damn good team, and we always come through for each other. We get the job done, we protect this city, and we bring down assholes like Isaac, Reyes, Collins, and Hogan. Maybe it’s time the THIRDS removed, or at least amended, the no fraternizing rule. In all the years I’ve been Team Leader of Destructive Delta, we have never failed you. We may have disappointed you along the way. We might have stumbled. But we always get up. So please forgive me when I say it’ll be a cold day in hell before I let you break up my team.”

  The room fell into silence, with all eyes moving from Sloane to Sparks, who was frowning deeply. She studied him closely before tapping away at her desk’s interface. The screen behind her went black, one word appearing in the center of each screen.

  Deleted.

  With a sigh, she laced her fingers together on the desk’s surface. She met Sloane’s gaze. “I’ll consider your request concerning the no fraternizing rule, agent Brodie. Perhaps in the meantime, you and your team can attempt to show a little discretion. Keep your personal activities out of the parking garage.”

  Sloane grinned broadly. “Yes, ma’am.”

  “Also, I think it’s time Destructive Delta steps up its game. You’ve all been extremely lucky until now. Yes, a good deal of that has been skill, but you could do better. You’re top agents on a top team. I don’t want you to be the top. I want you to be the best. I expect you and Agent Keeler to get every member of your team up to your level.”

  Ash’s jaw dropped. “But…. We’re talking over twenty years of field training and—”

  Sparks arched an eyebrow at him. “I’m sorry, Agent Keeler. I believe the response you were looking for was ‘yes, ma’am.’”

  Ash swallowed hard, his voice gruff when he replied, “Yes, ma’am.”

  “You’ll start receiving callouts on Monday. Enjoy your weekend. Dismissed.”

  Cael turned, waiting for the door to swish open before heading out with the rest of his team. He wondered if they were as confused as he was.

 
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