Rise amp fall, p.13
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       Rise & Fall, p.13
 

         Part #4 of THIRDS series by Charlie Cochet
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  “Are you fucking kidding me?” Cael rounded on him. “You want me to turn a catering van into a surveillance van in two and a half hours? Are you out of your mind?”

  “Come on, Cael. You can do it. You’re awesome at that stuff.”

  “That stuff isn’t like hooking up your home theater system, Dex! Especially without access to my equipment locker at work.”

  “Your brother’s right, Cael. You can do it,” Ash said gently, bringing Cael’s tirade to a screeching halt. Cael’s cheeks went pink, and he frowned down at his sneakers while Ash continued. “If anyone can pull this off, you can. You’re the smartest, most capable guy we know. We have faith in you.”

  Dex noticed how Calvin and Letty exchanged glances. They weren’t stupid. It was only a matter of time before the rest of the team figured something was going on between his brother and Ash, even if technically nothing was going on.

  “Fine. But you need to drop the van off at my apartment, like, yesterday.” He stormed to the end of the van and slipped out. Calvin soon followed, leaving a confused-looking Hobbs behind. Dex threw him the keys.

  “You mind driving?” Keeping Hobbs busy would probably be a good idea. He had a feeling this mission wasn’t going to be as straightforward as Austen made it out to be. Aside from the fact Calvin was taking a risk going undercover, there was the question of how far he was willing to go to get any useful information. There was no telling how Hobbs would react.

  “What do you need me to do?” Letty asked.

  “I need you to get some equipment ready. Tranq guns, vests, whatever you can get together under the radar, but I want to keep the real firepower minimal. The last thing we need is to start a shootout and draw attention to ourselves. I’ll fill Rosa in, and if she agrees, I’ll ask her to have her medical kit ready. Ash will call you and keep you informed. We’ll let you know the moment we locate Collins. No sense in having everyone here tonight.”

  “Got it.” Letty headed for the door when Ash followed her.

  “I need a ride.”

  “Well let’s go, then, partner. What happened to your face?” Letty inspected Ash’s jaw on the way out, and Dex heard him grumble about how he cut himself shaving or something, which made no sense considering his jaw was full of stubble. With only Hobbs left, Dex motioned toward the front of the van.

  “We can drop it off and catch some dinner. What do you say?”

  Hobbs gave him a nod as he slipped in behind the wheel and buckled up. Dex took a seat beside him and did the same. He turned the radio to his favorite station, though he kept the volume low.

  “I’ll call you after it’s over and let you know what information we get. I can take care of the surveillance with Austen tomorrow.”

  “No.”

  Dex blinked at Hobbs. “I’m sorry?”

  “I’m going to be here.”

  “Hobbs, why are you torturing yourself, man? You know he’s going to have to… get close to Bautista.” Dex studied his teammate. It was hard to tell what Hobbs was thinking. Despite his inability to speak most of the time, Hobbs was one of the most expressive guys Dex knew, but it only applied when Hobbs wanted you to know something; otherwise his poker face had those Easter Island dudes beat. His stern expression gave away nothing, but his white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel as he drove told another story.

  “I know.”

  “So why torture yourself?”

  “He’s my partner,” Hobbs said solemnly. “I need to make sure he’s safe.”

  “We’ve got his back.”

  They stopped at a red light, and Hobbs sat quietly. Seconds ticked past before Hobbs spoke up. “I’ve had his back longer. And I always will.”

  There was no point in arguing. Felid Therians were some of the most stubborn around. Dex gave in, telling himself he needed to be on alert. Every time he was around Calvin and Hobbs, it felt like a storm was brewing. One of these days, one of them was going to snap, and Dex had no idea what kind of fallout it would lead to. He hoped the two would find a way to work it out before it started hurting their friendship. As they headed for Cael’s apartment, he realized he wasn’t the only one whose relationship this mission was risking. By the end, it would either strengthen their bonds or destroy it.

  IT WAS time.

  After they’d dropped off the van and left Cael to do his thing—which meant staying far away since his little brother had his fur all bristled—Dex and Hobbs had gone out for some dinner. It wasn’t any more pleasant, with Hobbs spending most of the time brooding. Dex did his best to cheer Hobbs up and distract him, but the tiger Therian always ended up lost in thought. It didn’t take a genius to figure out what—or rather whom—he was thinking about.

  A couple of hours later, they all sat in the back of the van while Hobbs drove. Everyone was dressed in dark colors except for Calvin who was looking all smooth and ready for a night on the town in his trendy jeans, white shirt, and preppy gray vest.

  The surveillance console Cael had installed was impressive, complete with two flat-screen monitors, digital drives, keyboard, earpieces, a wireless digital printer, a carbon monoxide and oxygen level alarm, and a joystick for controlling the periscope in the roof. Speaking of roof….

  “Holy shit!” Dex’s hand flew to his head. Oh my God, Lou was going to kill him. “Bro, you cut a hole in the roof of Lou’s van!”

  Cael blinked at him. “Yeah, but it’s retractable. From the outside it looks like a small fan.”

  “You cut a hole in the roof of Lou’s van!”

  “You wanted a surveillance van,” Cael grumbled, “you got one. Give me your phone?”

  “Why?” Dex reached into his pocket and took out his phone only to have his brother snatch it away from him.

  “Because I forgot something.” He tapped away at Dex’s phone, not bothering to ask Dex for his secret code to get past the main screen. Damn computer nerds. Several speedy taps later, and he was shoving Dex’s phone back at him.

  Calvin looked the console over and whistled. “Damn, Cael. You had all this in your apartment?”

  “Well, yeah. Where else would I have it?”

  Hobbs parked the van a few doors down from Candy Bar, then came to join Dex, where Cael proceeded to go through all the equipment with them before testing it out. His little brother had “borrowed” several camera feeds from local businesses using encrypted coding, so every time Dex or Hobbs moved one, it would seem like it was part of the camera’s regular rotation.

  “Okay, we’ve got eyes and ears,” Cael said and handed them each an earpiece. They were exactly like the ones they used while on the job.

  “These aren’t THIRDS issued, are they?” Dex asked.

  Cael gave him an uninspired look. “Yes, Dex. I’m using standard THIRDS issued earpieces to do surveillance for an unsanctioned mission.” Well, someone got up on the snarky side of the bed this morning. Speaking of snarky, Ash had barely said a word since they’d picked him up.

  “A simple ‘no’ would have sufficed,” Dex muttered at his brother while discreetly glancing over at his gruff teammate. Ash was sitting on the bench lost in thought. He sure as hell wished Ash was ready for this. The guy was providing Calvin backup along with Austen in case something went wrong. He turned back to the console’s screens showing the perimeter around the van, as well as Candy Bar. Being a Friday night, it was already getting packed. Using one of the sleek joysticks, he could switch between cameras, move them around, zoom in, and out. One of the cameras was directly across the street, allowing him to zoom right in through Candy Bar’s large front window to the bar and a portion of the seating area.

  Austen clapped his hands together. “Okay, guys, let’s get this porno started.”

  Dex heard Hobbs growl beside him. Let the fun begin.

  “What do you think?” Calvin asked, holding his arms out at his sides.

  “Sexy, but a little too neat. We need to scruff you up a bit. And you gotta lose the jacket.”

  Calvin look
ed down at his jacket with a frown. “What’s wrong with it?”

  “Too boy-next-door. Daley, give him your jacket.”

  Dex removed his belongings from his leather jacket before handing it over to Calvin. It was a little longer on Calvin since Dex was taller but still looked good. Austen fussed with Calvin’s shirt collar, opening the top button and wriggling his brows.

  “Seriously man, you need to get laid,” Calvin grumbled, slapping Austen’s hand away from his collar. Austen puckered his lips and blew him a kiss.

  “You offering, Cal? Maybe a little dessert after dinner?”

  “Can we get on with this?”

  “I’m trying, man, but your hair’s like…. How the fuck do you get it to stay down?”

  Hobbs let out a huff and nudged Austen aside. Well, it was a nudge for Hobbs. It all but sent Austen hurtling across the van. Austen didn’t seem bothered. He brushed himself off and took a seat behind the makeshift console while Hobbs straightened out Calvin’s clothes and ran his fingers through his bud’s spiky hair, giving it the right tousled look.

  “Sexy and a stylist,” Austen teased Hobbs, “Is there nothing you boys can’t do?”

  “For fuck’s sake, Hobbs. You gonna braid his hair next? Get on with it.” Ash got to his feet, ignoring Calvin and Hobbs’s glares while Cael leaned against the van’s wall next to the bench, pretending he wasn’t watching Ash, at least until he seemed to notice Ash’s face. He walked around the bench and stepped up to Ash, who stood stock still when Cael reached out to stroke his thumb over the small nick.

  “What happened to your face?”

  Ash touched his jaw, his hand partially covering Cael’s. “It’s nothing,” he replied quietly. “Just a scrape. Don’t worry, okay?”

  A buzzer sounded in Dex’s head. Wrong answer. Obviously Cael was getting tired of Ash’s refusal to let him in. Dex could see it in his brother’s eyes, the way they turned from sparkling gray to steel. He pulled his hand back, swiped his messenger bag off the floor, and headed for the back doors.

  “Fine. I’ve gotta go. I’ve got plans.”

  “With Seb?” Dex asked.

  “Yeah.”

  “Seriously?” Dex motioned toward the console. “We’re in the middle of an undercover op, and you’re going to leave it to go on a date?”

  “It’s not a date. Besides, he called this afternoon. What was I supposed to do? Call him up and say, ‘Hey, Seb, sorry I can’t make it. I’m with my brother helping him shake down a guy who’s part of your investigation, the same one we’re supposed to stay away from?’ I’ll call you tomorrow, Dex.” He grumbled a quick good-bye to the rest of the team before slipping out of the van. Refusing to let his brother walk away like this, Dex followed, catching up with him before he could disappear down the street. “Hey, hold on a minute.”

  Cael stopped and turned, his cheeks flushed from anger. “What, Dex?”

  “When did you stop talking to me? We used to tell each other everything.” His brother was always so cheerful, always smiling and sweet. Dex hated seeing him like this.

  “We’re not little kids anymore. I’m not a little kid anymore.”

  “But we’re still brothers. That hasn’t changed.” Dex pulled him to one side, closer to the doorway of a closed business so they weren’t out in the open. No sense taking any chances. There was plenty of foot traffic with pedestrians on their way to one of the many restaurants and bars lining the street opposite them. “What’s going on?”

  Cael leaned against the brick façade and shrugged. “It’s just….”

  “Ash?”

  “Yeah. I thought being on leave would help, but it’s almost worse, because I can’t stop thinking about him. Hoping….” He let out a frustrated groan. “You saw him. He’s shutting me out, and I don’t know why.”

  “So you think going out with Seb is the answer? You think it’s fair to him?” He told himself not to meddle in his little brother’s love life, and although Cael wasn’t the kind of guy to lead anyone on or use them, his brother wasn’t exactly thinking clearly. He’d hate for Cael to do something he’d regret later on. And Cael would certainly regret it. The guilt would eat away at him.

  “I’m not going out with Seb. Seriously, Dex. You really think I’d do something like that? I was up front with him. The night of your birthday party, he took me home. We spent a long time sitting in his truck, talking. I told him I liked him and wanted to spend time with him, but it couldn’t lead to anything long-term because… I was in love with someone else. It turned out we had a lot more in common than I thought.”

  “Seb’s still in love with Hudson.”

  “Yeah. But Jesus, Dex. It was like, years ago.” Cael looked up at him, the heartache in his big silver eyes squeezing Dex’s heart. “He keeps holding on. Is that what Ash expects me to do? Hold on, waiting for however long it takes? I know he said he has issues to work out, but what if he can’t work them out? At the very least, I thought he’d care enough about me to confide in me. Why can’t we work our problems out together, like you and Sloane? Maybe he doesn’t feel the same way about me.”

  “Dude, he took a bullet for you,” Dex reminded him. “Plus, this is all kind of new for him. Even if something were to happen, you have to consider Ash might not be ready to leave his closet.”

  “But no one’s going to care. Hardly anyone cares about it anymore. I’ve never gotten shit for being with guys. The douche-baggery is reserved for my being a Therian.”

  “Maybe no one else cares, but Ash clearly does, so there must be a reason for it.”

  “Yeah, I guess you’re right.” Cael nodded, and a small hint of a familiar smile came onto his face. “Thanks, Dex. Be careful tonight, okay?”

  “You too, bro. And thank you for the van. I couldn’t have done it without you.”

  “Duh, of course,” Cael teased. “I’m the genius of the family. And the cute one. You’re the weird one with the cheese obsession.”

  Dex chuckled and poked him in the ribs, making him squirm with a laugh. “I’m not weird, you little nerd.” He gave Cael a playfully push. “Go on. Get out of here. Have fun. Get your mind off all this for a while.”

  “Thanks, Dex.” Cael gave him a quick hug before running off, waving his arm. Dork. Chuckling to himself, Dex headed back to the van and after a quick look around, climbed in. It felt good seeing his brother smile again. Inside the van was a different story. Everyone stood around looking like someone had told them they were doing another THIRDS calendar shoot. Luckily, he hadn’t had to do one yet, but he’d heard stories. Horrible stories.

  Austen looked around. “Wow. You need a chainsaw to cut through the tension in here.” He turned to Dex. “What’s up with your bro? He’s been acting kinda like he’s got a stick up his ass.”

  Dex cast Ash an accusing glare. “He’s going through a tough time.”

  Austen gave a lazy shrug as he leaned against the console. “Well, it’s probably not such a bad thing he’s got a date with Seb. Means he’ll keep him away from the investigation for tonight. Getting laid will do him good.”

  Ash launched out of his chair and pushed Austen up against the wall. “Watch your fucking mouth, you little shit. No one asked you for your fucking opinion, so shut the fuck up.” The van fell into silence with Ash resuming his seat. Austen held his hands up in front of him. When he spoke, he addressed no one in particular.

  “Question one: are you all screwing each other? Question two: how can I get in on the action?”

  “I’m going to check on Sloane and Rosa before heading into the bar,” Ash growled.

  Shit. Dex hadn’t texted Sloane with an explanation of where he’d gone. He still had no idea what he was going to tell his partner. Kind of hard to use PR as an excuse after midnight. “What are you going to tell him?” he asked Ash before the guy could stomp his way out the back.

  “That you’re sitting in your ex’s catering van which your brother set up like the fucking Pentagon to do surveillance
on Calvin while he seduces Collins’s boyfriend to get intel.”

  Dex’s eyebrows shot up to his hairline. “You’re kidding right?”

  “Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer.”

  “I think adding some more fiber to your diet might help.”

  “Fuck you, Daley.” Ash stormed out, slamming the van door behind him. That went well. Way to keep things on the down low. This whole night had the makings of a spectacular clusterfuck.

  “Is it me, or is he grumpier than usual?” Calvin asked.

  Austen looked thoughtful. “How can you tell?”

  “Cut the guy a break. He’s been through a lot of shit recently.” Dex sat down at the console and put in his earpiece. It was time to get this dog and pony show on the road. He didn’t even know what the expression meant, but screw it. Screw this. Screw everything. Dex was getting bored of all this asshattery. The silence that had engulfed the van was most likely due to his defending of Ash. “Austen, you going in or what?”

  “Yep. Give me five minutes; then send Cal.” Austen slipped out of the van, and they watched him on the small flat screens as he appeared from behind a Ford Fiesta two cars down. He strolled across the street and headed into Candy Bar. Dex switched cameras, following Austen as he walked to the bar, took a seat, and ordered a drink.

  Hobbs stepped up to Calvin, and Dex turned away, pretending to be busy with the equipment in front of him like an extra in one of those cop TV shows. From the corner of his eye, he could see Hobbs leaning in to whisper in Calvin’s ear, his hand squeezing his arm.

  Calvin nodded and replied with a quiet, “I’ll be careful.” The five minutes were up and Calvin left. Hobbs sat down in the chair beside Dex and put his earpiece in. This was such a bad idea, but who the hell was going to get Hobbs to go home? Dex hoped Calvin managed to get some useful information from Bautista without having to put himself in a compromising position.

  Speaking of Bautista….

  “There he is.” Dex pointed to one of the screens where a dark-haired Therian in a white shirt and jeans walked into Candy Bar. They watched as he headed for the bar and took a seat on the barstool next to Calvin. Go Cal. Check out the sassy smile. Damn. Calvin was better at flirting than Dex had given him credit for. He’d given Bautista a flirty smile before turning away to look at something else. Make him come to you. Nice.

  Bautista placed his order and turned slightly toward Calvin. “Hey.”

  “Hey.” Calvin smiled, showing his dimple and the cute boy-next-door look Austen had mentioned. His voice was throaty and came off as kind of shy.

  “You here with your boyfriend?”

  Wow. Bautista didn’t waste any time. Dex kind of felt bad for the guy. What was the point of being in a relationship with someone if you were never going to be there for them? A little voice in the back of his head waited for an answer, and Dex promptly told it to shut its trap. His situation wasn’t the same as Bautista’s and Collins’s. For starters, Dex wasn’t a psychopath. Then there was the fact Sloane was hanging around indoors due to medical reasons, not because Dex had tried to keep him locked away like some princess in a tower, which Collins seemed to be trying to do with Bautista. Concentrate, Daley.

  “Nah, he’s busy working,” Calvin answered somewhat wistfully. “Seems like he’s always too busy.” He took a sip of his beer and shrugged.

  “Mine too. Don’t get me wrong, he loves me. I know he does. I just wish he were around more.”

  “At least you know he loves you,” Calvin muttered.

  Uh-oh. Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!

  Bautista took a sip of his drink and swiveled his chair around so he faced Calvin. “Your boyfriend’s not dropped the L bomb huh?”

  Calvin shook his head. “We’ve been together a long time, and I was happy with our relationship.”

  “But now things have changed?”

  “Yeah. Well, for me they have. He’s amazing, warm, and the nicest guy ever. He’s fun and silly, makes me smile with his dopey grin. We’ve been through so much together. Is it wrong of me to want more?”

  “Do you love him?” Bautista asked.

  Dex swallowed hard, his gaze landing on Hobbs whose eyes were glued to the screen in front of him. His pupils were dilated so wide his eyes were more black than green, and if he leaned over any more he was going to fall into the equipment. Dex turned his attention back to the screen where Calvin’s blue eyes moved up, as if he were thinking, but he was actually looking past Bautista and straight at the camera.

  “Yes.”

  Hobbs inhaled sharply at the confession and sat back, his gaze not moving from the screen.

  Man, his team was so fucked. Dex turned his attention to Calvin once again. The two continued to talk about their guys, the good and bad parts. The drinks continued, though Dex could tell Bautista was getting thoroughly merry while Calvin was pretending to. For a Human of Calvin’s size, he could outdrink the toughest Therian. It’s like the guy had been weaned on whiskey.

  Bautista laughed at Calvin’s jokes and flirted back when Calvin teased him. Dex was seeing a whole other side of Calvin he’d never known existed, and he wondered how much of it was an act. Calvin was energetic, telling funny childhood stories about him and his best friend and all the mischief they got into. He listened when Bautista needed him to listen, was attentive, and when he smiled it reached his eyes. Bautista leaned in to whisper something in Calvin’s ear and Calvin nodded. Bautista stood and took hold of Calvin’s hand.

 
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