Rack & ruin, p.6
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       Rack & Ruin, p.6
 

         Part #3 of THIRDS series by Charlie Cochet
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  Every day on the job was like opening a mystery box. He never knew what he was going to get. One particular incident from the previous week jumped out at him.

  “Dex serious is ‘Uh-oh, I dropped a gummy bear inside the grenade launcher.’” He glanced over at his partner and wondered how the guy always managed to look innocent no matter how devious a scheme he’d just pulled off.

  “I hadn’t realized it was stuck to my visor until it fell in. Then it was too late.”

  “You almost took that perp’s eye out,” Sloane reminded him.

  “Luckily the evidence was edible.”

  “That’s gross. You’re damn lucky it didn’t fuck up the grenade launcher. Letty would have kicked your ass.” As much as Letty loved Dex, she loved her toys just as much and got mighty pissed off when someone broke something through carelessness. Especially since she’d then have to explain to Maddock why the team had gone over their equipment budget and the reason for the equipment malfunction.

  They walked into the elevator that was thankfully empty, and Sloane provided his handprint along with his badge number to get them descending to the thirteenth floor. It occurred to him his caffeine intake had nearly doubled in the last few months. His eyes landed on the likely cause.

  Dex held his hand up in promise. “No more gummy bears while my visor’s down. Got it. What I was going to talk to you about is you-serious.”

  “I like how you glossed over the whole eating gummy bears out in the field infraction with your offer of not eating them with your visor down.” His partner was the king of evasive tactics. Well suited for government work.

  “Do you want to hear what I have to say?”

  “If I must.”

  “Cute. I think you should take Dr. Shultzon up on his offer.”

  That brought Sloane up short, and he turned to find Dex was serious. “You do?” He thought about his first day back at work after the few days he’d taken off to take care of Dex following the incident at the facility. He’d been surprised to find a voice mail from Shultzon asking if Sloane wanted to meet up for coffee and a chat. He’d left his phone number, which Sloane had programmed into his phone but hadn’t so much as looked at.

  “When was the last time you spoke to him?”

  “Aside from the few words at the facility, when I was sixteen and started with the THIRDS. We weren’t allowed contact after that.” The elevator doors opened, and Sloane stepped out with Dex on his heels “I wouldn’t have known how to get a hold of Shultzon even if I wanted to.”

  “Maybe it’ll help.”

  Sloane didn’t bother giving it any thought. “Okay. I’ll call him when we get back to the office.”

  “You want me to make myself busy?”

  “Actually, you mind staying?” He felt a little embarrassed asking, but Dex’s broad grin set his mind at ease. Having Dex nearby would help him feel less nervous. After the incident at the facility, Sloane had tried his best to put it all behind him. Then again, he’d thought he’d put it behind him once before, and it all came crashing down around him thanks to Isaac Pearce. Still. Maybe Dex had a point. If seeing Shultzon had triggered his dreams, maybe the doctor could help stop them. It was worth a try.

  “’Course not.” Dex beamed up at him.

  “Thanks.” They walked into the expansive canteen, which was laid out more like a giant mall food court than an employee canteen. Sloane spotted their team at their usual table over by the window. It was nice to see Hudson and Nina had joined them. Monday mornings were especially busy with caffeine in high demand whether in the form of coffee, tea, or energy drinks. From the moment their day started until lunch, agents needing their fix packed the place. Calvin and Hobbs seemed to be the only ones missing, which really was no surprise. Hobbs tended to avoid large crowded places, and wherever Hobbs went, Calvin followed.

  Sloane greeted some of his fellow Defense agents while they joined the drink line. It moved quickly, and Dex got his ridiculous frothy cappuccino sprinkled with chocolate powder. Impressive, seeing as how the canteen didn’t offer chocolate powder. While Dex was distracted chatting with Levi who was adding a packet of sweetener to his very plain, very black coffee, Sloane quietly ordered a sugar-free vanilla latte. He didn’t need Dex knowing his coffee tastes were rubbing off on him.

  After saying good-bye to Levi, Dex and Sloane joined their team at the long gray table. It was like any other day. Rosa and Letty were chatting away in Spanish, Cael was on his tablet, and Hudson was in the middle of a rather animated debate with Ash who appeared to be back to his old self, stirring up trouble and sending tempers flaring. The only difference today was the space between Ash and Cael. The two were usually attached at the hip, even when they were in the canteen. Today Ash was sitting on one end of the bench, flanked by Rosa and Nina, while Cael sat on the other side of the table toward the opposite end. He also looked miserable. Sloane took a seat beside Hudson with Dex sliding in next to him.

  “Absolutely ludicrous.” Hudson let out a frustrated huff before taking a sip of his milky tea. “There is no room for vigilante behavior in a civilized society.”

  Ash sat forward, jamming his finger down against the table to emphasize his point. “If you haven’t noticed, Doc, we don’t live in a civilized society. We live in a fucked-up world swarming with stupid people doing stupid shit. How many bodies have you wheeled into your shiny lab this week alone?”

  Hudson arched an eyebrow. “What you’re suggesting would merely add to that body count. These are armed Therians going around shooting and assaulting Humans. Simply because they do so in the name of justice, does not make it acceptable. Violence is never the answer.”

  “How about you come out in the field with us when the shit’s hitting the fan, and then tell me violence isn’t the answer. Maybe it isn’t in your tea-drinking, I-do-beg-your-pardon country where some asswipe isn’t handed a gun for opening a bank account, but not here. Do you know how old I was when I fired my first gun? Six. Now you tell me, Doc. What the fuck is a six-year-old doing being taught to shoot a gun?” Ash let out a snort of disgust. “Say what you will, but the Coalition are doing us a favor rounding up these assholes. We’ve become a society of walking contradictions. We bitch and moan about how bad things are, but the second someone makes a suggestion, we’re shouting bloody murder about our civil rights.”

  Wow. Ash was on a roll today. Sloane didn’t know what had ticked his best friend off to warrant the epic rant, but it must have been serious.

  “Are you fucking kidding me?” Dex gaped at Ash, and Sloane stifled a groan.

  Here we go.

  “Yeah, I’m serious. Those guys have rounded up more members of the Order in the last three weeks than we have in months.”

  “There’s a reason for that,” Dex ground out. “I don’t know if you recall, but we operate under this nifty little thing called the ‘law,’ which the Coalition wipes their asses with. If we went around shooting down and beating up whoever the hell we felt like, dragging them in without evidence or regard for the law, I’m sure we’d round up plenty of assholes in no time. How can you defend those guys?”

  “I’m not defending them. I’m simply saying whether we like it or not, they’re getting the job done.”

  “And leaving us to pick up the pieces and sort out their mess,” Dex argued.

  “Whatever.” Ash removed his phone from his pocket and stood. He turned when Cael got up.

  “Ash, can I talk to you a sec?”

  “Not now, Cael. I’ve got to take this call.” Ash walked off, and Cael sat back down. He stared at his tablet for a moment, the entire table having gone quiet. Apparently Sloane wasn’t the only one to have noticed the brush-off. What the hell was that about? Ash had never brushed Cael off like that.

  “Excuse me.” Cael grabbed his tablet and hurried off in the opposite direction Ash had taken. Sloane felt Dex squeeze his leg before he took off after his brother.

  “What the hell was that?” Letty asked.
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  “I don’t know. Ash has been… off lately.” Rosa turned to Sloane. “You should talk to him. He’s been in his own world for weeks, and he won’t talk about it. Not that he’s ever been big on sharing, but I’m worried. He hasn’t said anything remotely inappropriate to me in ages.”

  “I’m rather disturbed we gauge Ash’s wellbeing through his lack of inappropriate comments,” Hudson muttered, taking another sip of his tea.

  “Everyone has their little telltale signs,” Rosa said. “For instance, the more cups of tea you have in a day, the more stressed you are.”

  Hudson’s teacup came to a halt in midair. He frowned and glared accusingly at the brew before setting it down. “Betrayed by my beverage.”

  “This is his fourth cup this morning,” Nina chipped in with a broad smile.

  “Thank you, love.” Hudson sighed and carried on drinking his tea.

  Sloane didn’t like the sound of that. Hudson was nothing but steady and calm. Granted, attempting conversation with Ash was a surefire way to spike your blood pressure, but judging by Nina’s comment, Hudson seemed to have been feeling agitated far before his debate with Ash. “Everything okay, Hudson?”

  Hudson’s cheeks flushed slightly, and Sloane wondered what he’d said to bring about such a response.

  “Everything’s perfectly fine. Thank you, Sloane. It’s just one of those days.”

  Nina leaned forward, talking quietly. “One of those days when Sebastian Hobbs walks into the lab to pick up lab results looking all fine and muscly.”

  Hudson’s teacup clattered against the table. “Oh for heaven’s sake, Nina.”

  “What?” Nina blinked innocently.

  Ah. That explained it. Sloane gave Hudson a sympathetic smile. If there was ever a cautionary tale regarding the dangers of falling in love with your teammate, that was it. The irony wasn’t lost on Sloane. However, Sloane wasn’t Sebastian Hobbs. Seb had been madly in love with Hudson, so much so it led to him being careless, disregarding protocol, and the results had been catastrophic for everyone involved.

  An agent had to fuck up pretty bad to get transferred off a team, and Seb had not only fucked up, but done so with flying colors. The incident had destroyed Hudson and Seb’s relationship, though it was clear the two still harbored deep feelings for each other. It was a shame. The two had been sweet together.

  Sloane had tried to help his friend and teammate at the time, but love had turned Seb inside out, and in the end Sloane watched an exceptional agent break down and lose it. Sloane would never allow himself to follow such a path to ruin. He cared about Dex very much, and there was little he wouldn’t do for him. But to be blinded by love to the point where he’d risk everything? The career he’d worked so damn hard for? The safety of his team, of those around him? He’d like to think he had better sense than that. Besides, he and Dex were doing just fine as they were without bringing love into it. They’d only started officially dating a few months ago, and it had been rough getting there.

  The rest of the table broke off into conversation again with Rosa changing the subject much to Hudson’s obvious relief. Sloane excused himself, reluctantly took Dex’s mug, and headed back to the office, his thoughts going to his own relationship. At times, he wondered if things were moving too fast between them. There had been a strong, sexual attraction from the start, and that attraction had turned into affection. If Dex hadn’t asked for more, would Sloane still be lingering on the edge of commitment? Would he have taken the next step in their relationship? His earpiece beeped, cutting through his thoughts. He tapped it and answered.

  “Brodie here.”

  Lieutenant Sparks’s voice came over the line. “Sloane, would you stop by my office for a moment?”

  “Yes, of course. I’m on my way.”

  “Thank you.”

  Sloane stepped into the elevator, wondering what the lieutenant wanted to speak to him about. Maybe they finally had a break in their case. A few minutes later, he walked into Lieutenant Sparks’s office. She motioned for him to close the door. Doing so, he took a seat in one of the chairs in front of her desk and waited for her to finish typing something into her desk’s interface. Once finished, she leaned back in her chair and smiled at him. Her eyes went to the mugs in his hand.

  “Interesting choice of drink ware.”

  He followed her gaze to the two mugs, completely forgetting about Dex’s “poop” mug. His face probably looked as red as it felt.

  “I’m going to go out on a limb and say that’s Agent Daley’s mug.”

  Sloane cleared his throat and nodded. “You would be correct.”

  She chuckled. “I knew he would be a good fit for your team.”

  Funny how everyone had known that before Sloane. It had taken him longer than most to see it, but now he couldn’t imagine being partnered with anyone else. The lieutenant’s smile fell away, and she was all business.

  “I called you in because we haven’t had a chance to talk since the incident at the facility. I wanted to know how you were doing.”

  “I’m fine. Thank you for asking.” Although he did appreciate his lieutenant’s concern, why was it coming now and not months ago when the incident occurred? Regardless, he was happy she’d taken the time to talk to him personally. “I appreciate you not suspending me,” he added.

  “I think we both know you were never in danger of getting suspended. However unorthodox your methods are at times, you get results. You always do. The Chief of Therian Defense knows it too. He’s very impressed with you.”

  Sloane couldn’t help his surprise, considering he’d all but implied the guy was a jackass over the phone with him. “Is that so?”

  “You did an exceptional job, Sloane. Not only did you retrieve Dr. Shultzon, but you also rescued your partner and eliminated the threat without the loss of any civilians or officers.” She tilted her head to one side, her penetrating gaze never leaving his. What wasn’t she saying?

  “I had no choice.” His gut tensed. He knew her well enough by now. She was searching for something. Then it occurred to him. “Wait. What exactly is at question here? My order to neutralize the threat or the motive behind it?” And why the hell was it coming so late? He’d followed all the required protocol at the time. Given his statement, filled out the report, passed his eval, and even saw his THIRDS appointed psychologist, which was customary after a shooting that resulted in loss of life.

  Sparks shrugged. “I think you stopped a very dangerous Human who hurt a lot of innocent citizens as well as two of your partners.”

  It was best he ignore her statement on Isaac hurting his partners. She knew damn well Isaac had done more than hurt them. Actually, now that he thought about it…. “My partner and Dr. Shultzon wouldn’t have been put in danger if the THIRDS had been honest about the status of the facility. You said it was no longer in use.”

  “That was the information I had at the time. We discussed this during your briefing, Sloane.”

  “Yes, and I wasn’t given any answers then either.” Much like he wasn’t getting any answers now.

  “I’m afraid I can’t give you any more information. All you need to know is that the facility has been permanently decommissioned. Everything has been either shipped out or destroyed. The building is under lease.”

  “And the drug?”

  Lieutenant Sparks met his gaze head on. “None of your concern. You’re a Defense Agent. Your responsibility is to your team and the citizens of New York City. Anything you need to know, you will be informed of.”

  Sloane kept his mouth shut. He should have known he wouldn’t get any answers. “You’ll have to forgive me, Lieutenant, but I’m not sure why you’ve called me in here.” It clearly wasn’t to see how he was doing.

  “This organization was built on agents like you and Agent Keeler. You don’t shy away from making the tough decisions. You do what needs to be done.”

  Sloane was confused. Why was she telling him this? He opened his mouth to ask as mu
ch when she stood, straightened out the jacket to her pantsuit, and motioned to the door.

  “Thank you, Sloane. That will be all.”

  What the hell? Sloane stood and gave her a nod. He headed for the door when she stopped him.

  “Sloane?”

  He turned to face her and was taken aback by what he saw. The pupils of her deep blue eyes were dilated, making them almost appear black. Her piercing gaze and icy demeanor sent a chill through him despite the smile on her face. It was the look of a Felid who’d been to hell and back. He might not know all that much about Lieutenant Sparks’s past, but something told him the two of them weren’t all that different. Sparks had her demons, and for reasons unknown to him, the death of Isaac Pearce seemed to be holding them at bay. At least for a little while. Sloane knew too well how it felt.

  “Between you and me, Sloane? We both know you could have taken Isaac Pearce alive.”

  Sloane’s jaw muscles clenched. “Thank you for inquiring after my well-being, Lieutenant.” With that, he left the office.

  Lieutenant Sparks had been trying to tell him something, and he’d figure out what it was. One thing he did know was that she wasn’t wrong. Like she’d said. He’d done what needed to be done, and that was the end of it.

  Sloane walked into his office in a dark mood. At least until he saw Dex. He smiled at the serious frown on his partner’s face. It was strange how just the sight of him could lighten Sloane’s mood. Even when Dex was driving him out of his head. Sloane playfully flicked Dex’s ear, chuckling when his partner gave a start.

  “For the love of Lucy, you’re going to give me a heart attack one of these days.”

  “Nope. Your fried Mars bar wrapped in bacon is going to do that.” He took a seat at his desk. That didn’t even earn him an acknowledgment. Whatever his partner had been lost in thought about was really bugging the man. Sloane had an idea what it was. “How’s Cael?”

  “All over the fucking place because of that dickbag. I don’t know what the hell’s going on with him. Cael won’t talk to me about it.”

  “Rosa’s been worried about them too.”

  Dex sat back, his fingers resting on his stomach and drawing Sloane’s gaze to his partner’s lean figure. “Do you really think Ash believes all the bullshit he spouted about the Coalition?”

  “You know Ash. He likes to stir things up.”

  “I agree. But to think those guys are doing a better job than we are?”

  “Dex, Ash likes to push buttons. And he succeeds spectacularly when it comes to you. I keep telling you not to let him get to you.” Sloane knew it was easier said than done, but sometimes he wondered if Dex even tried to ignore Ash’s taunts. It was a good thing his partner was usually cheerful and lighthearted, because sometimes Sloane could swear he saw a little darkness under Dex’s shiny surface. He knew his partner had a bit of a temper, but it rarely showed itself unless he was exceptionally pissed off about something.

  “I can’t help it. It’s like he has some super powers of annoyance.”

  Sloane removed his smartphone from his pocket and swiped the entry pattern before tapping his contacts and searching for Dr. Shultzon’s number. There was no point in putting this off any longer.

  “Are you calling Shultzon?”

  “Yeah.” His finger hovered over the call button. He glanced up, and Dex gave him a cheesy grin before thrusting his thumbs up. Sloane couldn’t help but chuckle. Feeling slightly better, he took a deep breath and tapped the screen. Two rings later, and the doctor answered.

  “Yes?”

  “Hello, Dr. Shultzon?”

  “Sloane, how lovely to hear from you.”

  Sloane played with the strap of his thigh rig while he talked in the hopes of relieving some of his anxiety. “I hope you don’t mind me taking you up on your offer to call.”

  “Not at all.”

  “I thought maybe we could meet. Have a chat over coffee.”

  “Of course!” Shultzon sounded excited at the prospect. “Whenever you’re free.”

  “How about this afternoon?”

  “That would be wonderful. Would you mind stopping by the house? I’m waiting for a courier.”

  Almost done. “Not at all. I’ll give you a call when I’m on my way.”

  “Wonderful. See you soon.”

  Sloane hung up. He’d done it. He’d actually called and set up a meeting with Shultzon. God, if he was this nervous from just speaking with the man over the phone, how would he feel when he was faced with him? He was about to tell Dex about his meeting with Shultzon when he heard it.

  Snip

  It couldn’t be. Sloane stared at Dex who was gaping, mouth hanging open, his gaze just over Sloane’s shoulder. Heart pounding, Sloane slowly turned his chair, his worst fear confirmed. Sloane let out an inhuman sound before letting out a wail.

  “Oh my God, Sarge!”

  Maddock stood with a wide grin on his face, a pair of scissors in one hand, and a chunk of Sloane’s hair in the other. Sloane frantically felt the back of his head, coming up short on the left side. He opened his mouth, but only a strangled cry escaped.

  “I told you two weeks ago to get it cut. Now you have no choice.”

  “You butchered my hair!”

  “Shoulda gone to your barber, or stylist, or whatever the hell you young people call ’em these days. Get your hair cut, or I’m coming back for the other side.” Maddock placed Sloane’s hair on his desk and walked off humming and singing a song about getting a haircut.

  With a whimper, Sloane picked up his fallen locks.

 
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