Smoke amp mirrors, p.1
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       Smoke & Mirrors, p.1
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         Part #7 of THIRDS series by Charlie Cochet
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  Chapter 1

  SOUND EXPLODED in Dex’s ears. His head throbbed, and his face hurt. He tasted blood, and his body didn’t feel like his own as he struggled through the lethargy. His limbs felt heavy, like he was swimming in molasses. With a groan, he forced his eyes open. It was dark save for the halo of light floating somewhere above his head. Where was he? The last thing he remembered was Sloane’s strong arms around him, wrapping him up in warmth, holding him close. Sloane had nuzzled his face in Dex’s hair, then kissed him good night, followed by a soft “I love you.”


  Dex bolted upright, a gasp caught in his throat as he surfaced through the haze. His eyes widened, and his heart beat furiously as he realized his wrists and ankles were zip-tied to a chair.

  “What the hell is this?” He looked up and reeled from the stabbing white light. It seared his vision, and he shut his eyes tight for several seconds. A halo was all he could see before he was finally able to focus on the stretch of nothingness around him. Shadows surrounded him on all sides, the only light coming from the lamp hanging over his head. “Hello?” It struck him then.

  They’d taken him from his home.

  Oh God, where was Sloane? His blood ran cold, and he jerked against the restraints. “Somebody answer me!”

  “You’re awake. Good.”

  Dex froze. He peered into the shadows and could just about make out an outline, along with the glow of eyes. A Therian.

  “Who are you? What is this?” Dex demanded, his voice hoarse from his dry throat. It was like his mouth was full of cotton. Most likely a result from whatever they’d given him to knock him out. He did his best to ignore the queasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. Someone had broken into his house and taken him from his boyfriend’s arms. He had no idea where Sloane was or the condition he was in. Was he hurt… or worse? Please let him be okay.

  “I’ll be the one asking the questions here, Agent Daley.”

  “Where’s Sloane?”

  A tall wolf Therian in an expensive gray suit emerged from the shadows. “Looking for you, I imagine. I don’t really care. My interest lies with you, not Sloane Brodie.”

  Dex had expected a thug or a raging psychopath. The Therian before him didn’t appear to be either, but appearances could be deceiving. Refined, smooth, chiseled jaw, and handsome, with rich black hair neatly styled, he looked to be in his late thirties, maybe early forties. The Therian cocked his head to one side, his sharp gray eyes studying Dex. He seemed to come to some kind of conclusion and pulled a chair out from the darkness to place in front of Dex.

  Dex studied his adversary, noting how nonchalantly he unbuttoned his tailored suit jacket and took a seat. He crossed one leg over the other and placed his laced fingers over one knee, as if he were about to have an informal business chat.

  “Where is it?” he asked smoothly.

  “Why do you spooks always start with such cryptic questions?” Dex frowned down at himself. “Why am I in a suit?” He was pretty sure he’d gone to bed in a T-shirt and pajama bottoms. The suit was tailored to fit. Everything from the black dress pants to the pristine white button-down shirt to the black jacket fit like a glove. Even his shoes hugged his feet comfortably. “How do you know my shoe size?”

  “I know everything about you.”

  Dex glanced around the room. There were no cameras, windows, nothing but the bare concrete floor and walls. “Why?”

  “Where is the file?”

  “Why the tie?” This was bizarre. Someone had painstakingly fixed a tie around his neck while he’d been unconscious. Who kidnapped people and dressed them up in fancy clothes?

  “Answer the question.”

  “How about we start small,” Dex offered. “What do I call you?” He needed to figure a way out of this. There had to be a door somewhere behind the Therian. The guy hadn’t just materialized out of thin air. Of course, first Dex would have to get himself out of the chair. It was steel and bolted to the floor.

  “Don’t act cute with me, Agent Daley.” The wolf Therian smiled pleasantly. “And you can call me Mr. Wolf.”

  Mr. Wolf. Right. “Now who’s being cute?”

  Wolf chuckled. “I do appreciate a man with a good sense of humor. You’re very charming.” He looked Dex over and smiled warmly. “You’re taller than I imagined, and your photo hardly does you justice. You’re far more handsome in person.” He motioned to his own eyes. “Beautiful color. Absolutely stunning.”

  Dex leaned forward, his lips curling up wickedly. “You trying to get information out of me or date me?”

  Wolf chuckled. “I can see you’re going to be a handful. All right, Agent Daley—May I call you Dex? Agent seems so formal.”


  “Dex, your little ‘I’m just a ditzy blond’ act isn’t going to fly with me. I know perfectly well who you are and what you’re capable of.”

  Dex sat back with a smile. “Do you now? FYI, I’m more of a dirty blond.”

  Wolf arched an eyebrow at him. The man wasn’t quite sure what to make of Dex. Despite Wolf’s calm and nonthreatening demeanor, something in his eyes warned Dex to tread lightly.

  Wolf cleared his throat before continuing. “Dexter Justice Daley, born August 18, 1980. Only child to Gina and John Daley. Adopted by Anthony Maddock. Adopted brother, Cael Maddock. You were an HPF officer before becoming a detective like your father before you. Then you testified against your partner for shooting an unarmed Therian youth in the back. Your boyfriend at the time, Louis Huerta, walked out on you.

  “You were hired by the THIRDS and appointed a Defense agent for Unit Alpha’s Destructive Delta. Your Team Leader is Sloane Brodie, a First Gen jaguar Therian who spent the majority of his youth in the First Gen Research Facility being prodded and poked like a lab rat. You’ve been together for a year and roughly two and a half months—he had a few commitment issues to work out. This month he moved in with you. He thinks you need to eat healthier, and he’s correct. You consume copious amounts of caffeine, sugar, and red meat, have a somewhat unusual obsession with the eighties, and enjoy karaoke. Have I left anything out?”

  Who was this guy, and how did he know so much? Dex smiled widely. “Yeah, I love dancing, sadly can’t hold my liquor, and give great head.”

  Wolf’s eyebrows shot up before his expression returned to its previous impassive state. He shifted in his chair, and Dex held back a grin. He could use this. Dex held Wolf’s gaze.

  “Did you know I can make my boyfriend purr in Human form? And I don’t mean figuratively. I mean, I can literally make him purr.”

  Wolf peered at him before brushing some nonexistent lint from his suit jacket. “Not possible.”

  “Oh, but it is,” Dex replied, his voice low and husky. “I’m good with my mouth.”

  Wolf smoothed down his tie before meeting Dex’s gaze. He carried on as if he hadn’t heard Dex. “I know you would risk everything for your loved ones. Your career, your heart, your life. You have a fierce sense of justice. I know at this very moment you’re considering your options and how you can get out of that chair. Those are Therian-strength zip ties, Dex. You won’t be going anywhere, and unlike most, I won’t underestimate you. You’re quite good at discovering your opponent’s vulnerabilities. Fortunately for me, I have none. I know you play the fool, act the class clown, hiding who you really are.”

  Dex cocked his head to one side and smiled. “And who’s that?”

  “A very dangerous man.”

  Here he was tied to a chair, and he was dangerous? “That’s funny.”

  Wolf stood and shoved his hands into his pockets. “It is funny, because even you don’t realize it.” He leaned forward, his gaze holding Dex’s. “Others may not see it, but I do. There’s
darkness lurking behind those pale blue eyes. You never did quite recover from your parents’ murder.”

  Dex opened his mouth to reply when the words sank in. His gut twisted. No. Absolutely not. “My parents weren’t murdered. They were killed in a shoot-out. Wrong place, wrong time.”

  Wolf moved his chair closer to Dex and sat. “You didn’t believe it then, and you don’t believe it now. It may be what you were told, what you wanted to believe, but deep down inside, you know the truth you buried long ago.”

  “What do you know about my parents?” Why was he asking? It wasn’t as if he could trust Wolf. For all he knew the guy was making shit up to rattle him, to make him talk.

  “Do forgive me. I seem to have deviated from my intended path.” Wolf let out a pleasant laugh, as if he were conversing with a friend. “You’re very easy to talk to. Let’s try a different approach. Gina Daley was killed for interfering in business that was no concern of hers. Sadly, she dragged your father into it. I want the file she had in her possession the night she was killed.”

  Dex closed his eyes, suddenly nauseated. He needed the room to stop spinning and his stomach to stop turning over. Wolf was right. Deep down, he’d always known, but this… this was just too much. All these years he’d tried denying the fact there might be more to his parents’ deaths than mere coincidence, but he’d never delved deeper. He’d been scared to. Afraid of what he’d find. To him, his parents had been two regular people who’d loved him very much and who’d been taken from him far too early in life. He’d wanted to preserve their memory. Dex opened his eyes and took a deep breath. There was no running from it now. He needed answers.

  “It’s been almost thirty years. Why are you looking for this file now?”

  “That information is inconsequential. I would very much like that file.”

  “If there is a file, I don’t know where it is,” Dex replied truthfully. “This is the first I’m hearing about it. If you’ve been watching me, studying me, you’d know that.”

  Wolf stood and removed his suit jacket in no particular hurry. He took hold of his chair, placed it to one side, and draped his jacket across the backrest. Dex observed him, the way he moved, how he smiled warmly as he removed the cuff links from his sleeve cuffs. Once he’d slipped the cuff links into his jacket pocket, he rolled up his sleeves. Not in a half-assed way either. He wasn’t in any kind of rush. The fabric was folded meticulously. First one sleeve, then the other. From his pants pocket he pulled out a pair of black gloves and slipped them on.

  “I hear you have quite the pain threshold.”

  Dex sat up straight and rolled his shoulders. His heart raced, and his muscles tensed. He subtly closed his hands into fists to keep Wolf from seeing them shake. When he spoke, he made certain his tone gave away nothing of the fear shooting through him. “Moving on to the kinky stuff already. That’s not really my scene, but whatever floats your boat.”

  With a chuckle, Wolf stepped in between Dex’s knees. He took hold of Dex’s chin, his smile turning apologetic. “Forgive me, but I’m going to have to bruise this pretty face of yours. I hoped to avoid it, but you’ve left me no choice. It’s nothing personal.”

  Dex shrugged. He wouldn’t give Wolf the satisfaction of knowing he was scared. No point in him losing his shit. Wolf wasn’t like anyone he’d faced before. He was a professional given a job to do, a job he took pride in. The steel of his gray eyes told Dex all he needed to know. There would be no mercy coming from Wolf. Any and all pain inflicted on Dex was of his own making for not cooperating.

  “Just part of the job description. I get it.”

  “Thank you for being so understanding.” Wolf ran his thumb over Dex’s bottom lip. “I like you, Dex. In fact, I like you so much I’m going to start small.”

  “That’s really kind of you.” He swallowed hard, his eyes never leaving Wolf’s.

  “I know,” Wolf replied sincerely. “Now brace yourself.”

  Dex nodded. He clenched his jaw and inhaled deeply through his nose, his fists balled so tight his knuckles were white. Think of home.

  The first blow had him seeing stars. For all of Mr. Wolf’s sophisticated charms, he was a Therian, and one skilled in the art of causing pain. That much was evident right away. Wolf also managed to inflict damage without incapacitating. After all, if he wanted information out of his prisoner, a method of communication was key. The most intriguing part was how Wolf managed to beat the shit out of Dex while keeping himself looking impeccable. Even with Dex’s blood splattered over his white shirt, he looked elegant. Dex would have commended him if he could talk.

  The worst of it wasn’t the blows to the face, the split lip and brow, the throbbing, or even the taste of his own blood inside his mouth as well as the blood trickling down from his nose. It was the fiery concoction that must have been brewed with the Devil’s piss because it burned like a son of a bitch when Wolf applied it to one of Dex’s open wounds. It scorched his flesh, and when Wolf applied it to Dex’s brow, he cried out. Tears pooled in his eyes from the sting, but he quickly blinked them away and gritted his teeth, pushing through the pain. His heart was pounding, and he jerked in his seat, sucking in gulps of air. Jesus, it burned.

  “I know,” Wolf cooed. “I’m so sorry.”

  He pressed his lips to Dex’s. It was brief but gentle, startling Dex. He tugged at his arm, instinct propelling him to punch Wolf in the face, but all that did was send more pain up his arm.

  “Shhh, it’s okay.” Wolf wiped Dex’s blood from his lips with his thumb before he ran a hand over Dex’s head, soothing him. “Please. You can make this stop. Just tell me what I want to know.” He crouched down between Dex’s knees and slid his hands to Dex’s thighs, then to his hips. Wolf’s dark brows were drawn together, his lips pulled down in a frown. “I’m really not enjoying this. You’re a good man, Dex. I don’t like hurting good men.”

  “You could stop,” Dex said with a shaky laugh that verged on a sob, but he pushed past it. His vision was growing blurry again, and he shut his eyes tight. For weeks his eyes had been bugging him, itching, blurring, and until recently it had been a minor inconvenience. He’d put it down to fatigue, but Sloane had been worried, so Dex promised he’d make an appointment with the eye doctor. He wished he’d done it sooner. Now was not the time for his vision to be giving him problems.

  “I wish I could, but I have a job to do, and once I give my word, I follow through. Dex, please. Help me help you.”

  Dex gazed down at Wolf, his voice a low growl. “You know what? Fuck you. At this point, even if I had the goddamn thing, I wouldn’t give it to you.”

  “Such language.” Wolf tsked.

  Dex let out a laugh. “Well, get used to it, Buttercup, because it just gets prettier from here on out.”

  “I was afraid it would come to this.” Wolf stood and leaned in, pressing his cheek to Dex’s as he slipped one hand around the back of his head. He murmured softly as he stroked Dex’s hair. “I’m going to ask you one more time. Where is the file Gina Daley had in her possession the day she died?”

  When Dex didn’t reply, he received a punch to the kidney. Fuck. At this rate he’d be pissing blood for a week. If he survived.

  “All right.” Wolf straightened and released a sigh. “Just remember, you brought this on yourself.” He slipped into the shadows and returned with a long, narrow wrap of dark leather. After moving his chair closer to Dex, he pulled the ties loose and unrolled the leather on the chair’s seat. Dex’s jaw muscles tightened at the neat row of long, fine needles. They looked like the kind acupuncturists used. Dex twisted his wrists, the sweat on his skin only allowing for minimal movement, not enough for him to free himself.

  Gently, Wolf took hold of Dex’s left hand and bent to give his fingers a kiss before taking hold of his middle finger. Dex’s body betrayed him, trembling under Wolf’s touch in anticipation of the pain. Nothing he’d experienced before could prepare him. All he could do was endure. Pray he could somehow f
ind a way to get out of this. To survive. Wolf slipped one of the needles out, crouched down in front of Dex, and placed the tip under Dex’s fingernail. Wolf’s steel-gray eyes met Dex’s. “This is going to hurt a great deal. It’s all right to scream. Again, you’ve left me no choice.”

  Dex’s eyes watered as Wolf began to push the needle in. His heartbeat skyrocketed, and he jerked against the restraints. Oh God…. He’d endured a hell of a lot in his life, in his career at the HPF and then the THIRDS, but never anything like this. He focused on his breathing, on finding a safe place inside his head. Sloane….

  The needle plunged deeper, and Dex jolted, a strangled cry torn from his lips. He pushed against the floor with his feet, jerked his arms, and twisted his body in an attempt to get away from the agonizing pain, but nothing he did would ease his suffering.

  “This is just the beginning, Dex,” Wolf assured him softly. “I will break you.”

  “Fuck you,” Dex spat. Sweat beaded his brow, and his fingers shook. It was only going to get worse. With a sigh, Wolf moved on to the next finger, and Dex closed his eyes, his muscles straining and sweat dripping down the side of his face as the second needle was pushed in under his fingernail. Sometime between the third and fourth needle, everything went black.

  “Stop! Stop, I can’t take anymore!”

  Tears ran down Dex’s cheeks. His face hurt from laughing so hard.

  “You give up?”

  Sloane’s smile brought little creases to the corners of his amber eyes, making Dex’s heart skip a beat. He was so damned beautiful. New silver strands had appeared in his beard and at his temples, adding to his sex appeal. Sloane was one of those guys who grew even more gorgeous with age, and Dex’s heart swelled at the thought of growing old with the man he loved.

  Those amber eyes had been filled with so much pain not long ago, and now they lit up with affection and laughter. With every passing day, despite the darkness they sometimes encountered on the job, Dex witnessed Sloane embrace the growing lightheartedness within him. It was their day off, and they’d been too tired to go out, so they decided to lounge around the house reading, watching TV, eating, and cuddling. In the afternoon they’d made love, then took a nap. Dex had never been happier.

  “I give up,” Dex said with a husky laugh, drawing his knees up and pressing them to Sloane’s hips. “I’m tickled out. I’ll eat the rabbit food.”

  Sloane planted his elbows on either side of Dex’s head, his eyes bright with laughter. “Am I going to have to tackle you every time I ask you to try a new vegetable dish?”

  “If I’m going to start gnawing on bark, I should get something out of it.”

  Sloane laughed. “You are getting something out of it. Good health.”

  “But why does healthy food have to taste like boiled grass?”

  “Hey, my veggie dishes do not taste like boiled grass.” Sloane’s expression softened, he stroked Dex’s hair. “Do you know why I’m always trying to get you to eat healthy?”

  “Because eventually I have to be a grown-up and realize gummy bears are not one of the four basic food groups? Even though they should be. I mean, some are green, right? Like vegetables.”

  “That’s not why.” Sloane lowered himself onto Dex, mindful of his weight. He held Dex close and planted a tender kiss on his brow. “Because I want you to live a long life. I want to have you with me as long as possible.”

  Dex blinked up at him, surprised by Sloane’s heartfelt confession. “Really?”

  “Yes, really.”

  Sloane kissed Dex’s lips, a soft, lazy kiss that had Dex letting out a sigh. He was so madly in love with this man.

  “Are you trying to guilt me into eating healthier?” Dex teased, nuzzling Sloane’s neck.

  Sloane’s rumble of a chuckle sent a delicious shiver through Dex. “Maybe a little.”

  “You’re evil.”

  “I know.” Sloane nibbled on Dex’s earlobe before whispering in his ear. “Time to wake up, babe.”


  “Wake up, Dex.”

  Dex snapped his eyes open, and his body shrieked with pain. A jolt went through him, and he cried out. His cheeks were wet from tears, his fingertips bloodied and throbbing, his hands shaking. His body was like one giant nerve ending, exposed and in agony. He started to shiver horribly. He was cold, his skin crawled, and sweat dripped down his face. Inside his blood boiled, and he was having trouble breathing. Swallowing past the bile in his throat, he glanced down at the five needles sticking out from under his fingernails on his left hand. His right hand had another two. Oh God, why the hell had he looked?

  “Were you dreaming of him?” Wolf asked serenely as he began to slowly remove the needles one by one.

  Jesus, what now? Please don’t let me throw up. Please. Wolf sat in the chair again, the wrap of needles now on the floor by his pristinely shined shoes.

  “It sounded like a good dream. Your man’s quite something, isn’t he? Despite his time in the First Gen Research Facility, he’s managed to lead a relatively normal life. Friends, love, a successful career? Not everyone who survived was so lucky. Granted, he wasn’t able to leave the demons behind, but it would seem he’s learned how to cope with the darkness inside of him. How are the nightmares, by the way? Better? I think they’re better now that he has you at his side.” Wolf’s smile faded, his expression becoming troubled. “He’s lived through so much pain. I hate to think what would become of him if you were torn from his life.”

  Dex didn’t reply. He was pretty sure Wolf could see the loathing in his eyes.

  “I know what you’re thinking,” Wolf said with a sigh. “What kind of person feels nothing when bringing another so much pain?” He dropped the last needle onto the floor by his chair.

  What time was it? Better yet, what day was it? How long had they been at this? Dex had lost track of how many times he’d passed out. Wolf liked to change things up. He’d alternate between the needles to his fingernails and the ones to various pressure points around his body, to beating the shit out of him one vital organ at a time. His body was bruised inside and out, his skin was caked in blood, and his left eye was all but swollen shut. Dex groaned, feeling his empty stomach lurching. He reeked of sweat, blood, and bodily fluids he couldn’t give a second thought to or he’d retch. Fuck, was Wolf still talking?

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