Hell & high water, p.13
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       Hell & High Water, p.13

         Part #1 of THIRDS series by Charlie Cochet

  Pearce,” he told his phone, tapping the center, knowing it’s where the speaker button was. Pearce answered on the second ring.

  “Daley, you do realize that fashionably late still requires you to show up.”

  “I’m so sorry, man. My nap went into overtime.” And then some. “You still up for that drink?”

  “Yeah. I figured that might be the case so I hung around and grabbed a bite to eat. If you hurry, there might still be some wings left.”

  “Sweet. Be there soon as.”

  Dex found a parking space around the corner from Poena. At this time of night on a weekday, the pub would be busy, but not overly, especially since it was small and cozy, consisting of mostly scuffed wood and old vinyl with two copper beer stations. The walls were lined with faded black and white photos from the 1940s. It was one of those old bars that had been around for ages, the world around it changing while inside it stayed the same. Dex was a little surprised Pearce had picked this place. Once inside the dimly lit pub, he searched Pearce out, finding him at a small table in the corner.

  “Sorry,” Dex said when he arrived, removing his jacket and placing it on the back of his chair before he took a seat.

  “Stop apologizing, Daley. Just buy me the next round.”

  “You got it.” Dex motioned for one of the waitresses and a pretty brunette came over, removing a pen and small white pad from her short apron. He ordered two beers. At least he was no longer falling asleep, though he was pretty hungry. He added a burger and basket of fries to his order. Sloane would probably kill him, but what the hell. It wasn’t as if the guy wasn’t going to make him work it off in their next training session anyway. Sloane wasn’t a health nut, but he definitely frowned upon Dex’s junk food habit.

  The waitress promptly returned with their beers, popping the caps off and placing the bottles on the table before going off to continue her rounds.

  “I thought maybe you got called out on an emergency.” Pearce grabbed his beer and made a toast with Dex in thanks.

  “Don’t jinx it, man. We’ve been called out every day this week. It’s a bad one.” He took a sip of his cold beer and let out a contented sigh. Damn that felt good. “I’m not used to sitting in the passenger seat while my baby brother does all the driving.” Looking Pearce over, Dex wondered if maybe the guy didn’t have a bad case of his own going on. He looked like he could do with a long nap himself, or several.

  Pearce’s expression turned sympathetic. “The HumaniTherians case?”

  “Yeah.” Dex’s food arrived and he thanked the waitress before offering Pearce some fries. When Pearce declined, Dex dug in. The pub wasn’t much to look at, but it sure made a damn good burger.

  Pearce leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table. “That sucks about the case.” His gaze shifted down, his body subtly trembling. Dex sat back, wiping his mouth with his napkin as he discreetly took in Pearce’s bouncing leg.

  “You okay?”

  “Yeah. No.” Pearce let out a humorless laugh. He shook his head, looking as if he was trying to think of what to say or how to say it. Concerned at Pearce’s sudden rattled state, Dex leaned forward, his hand coming to rest reassuringly on Pearce’s arm. Something was definitely up. Maybe he hadn’t known Pearce long, but it didn’t take a genius to know something was bothering the guy.

  “Hey, you can talk to me.”

  “Okay. I didn’t just ask you here to have a drink. I wanted to talk to you because I’m worried. I saw the news footage of you outside that catering company last week. You were being dragged along by Agent Brodie, and well, I couldn’t….” He frowned and rubbed at his jaw. “I couldn’t keep it quiet any longer. You gotta be careful, Dex. Watch your back.”

  “I know, it’s a tough case—”

  “I’m not talking about the case,” Pearce said quietly, shifting in his seat. “I’m talking about your partner. There’s a lot you don’t know about him. The guy has secrets. Things he doesn’t want getting out in the open. Things the THIRDS don’t want getting out in the open.”

  Dex sat up, wondering what could possibly have Pearce so worked up. “What are you talking about?”

  “Have you read his file?”

  “No.” Technically, Sloane had been in the right, checking out Dex’s file. He had every reason to know who his new partner was going to be, especially someone recruited from the outside. It stung a little, but Dex understood. Of course that didn’t mean he would go running out to do the same. “Anything I need to know, I’ll find out on my own.”

  “You think he hasn’t read yours?”

  Dex’s expression must have said it all because Pearce gave him a nod.

  “He already has. Nice. Well, I’ve read his.”

  “How?” There was no way the THIRDS would give the HPF access to their agents’ personnel files unless there was a damn good reason, and he was sure the information available would be limited once permission was granted. What reason could Pearce have possibly given to receive access to a THIRDS Team Leader file?

  “I pulled in a favor.”

  Must have been some favor. From what Dex had learned in his short time at the THIRDS, these guys covered their asses, and they were especially wary of the HPF. The relationship between the two organizations was strained at best. Whenever politics were involved, it didn’t come down to who could do the most good, but who could stomp their foot the loudest before storming off and taking their toys with them. “Okay. I don’t understand what’s going on here.” Ever since Dex had gotten recruited, Pearce had been warning him about Sloane. The whole thing was starting to unsettle him.

  “There was always something off about him, and I had to know what it was. Especially since….” Pearce closed his eyes tight for a moment before seeming to compose himself.

  “Since what?” What could possibly be so hard to say? “Pearce—”

  “Since he was sleeping with my brother.”

  Dex’s heart plummeted. “What?”

  “Sloane Brodie and Gabe were sleeping together. A year before Gabe died, it had gotten pretty serious. They’d been together four years.”

  Dex was so stunned, all he could do was sit there, attempting to process what he’d heard.

  “You didn’t know? No, of course you didn’t. Did you really think he was running off all those other agents because his work partner had died? It would have been rough, but he would have pushed through. Brodie was out of commission for six months. The THIRDS made up some bullshit about him being on special assignment or some such nonsense like they always do when one of their agents is down for the count. They don’t like to admit those guys are as vulnerable as the rest of us.”

  “Did they know?” Dex’s voice cracked, and he cleared his throat. “The team, I mean. Did they know about Sloane and Gabe?”

  Pearce shook his head. “It’s against the rules. At the first hint of anything more than bromance, one of them would have been reassigned. They gave Brodie that much time for a reason, and I wanted to know what that reason was, but when I got access to his file, I couldn’t find anything.”

  “Wait, you didn’t find anything?” So what had Pearce gotten himself so worked up over?

  “That’s the problem. When my brother was alive, I saw his file. He wasn’t supposed to show it to me, but when he got recruited, he was so excited that he took me on a tour of the place, including his office. What I saw was frightening. It had everything, from his height, to where our parents took us on vacation when we were kids. The thing was a complete map of his life from when he was born. Yet in Sloane’s file, the only information there is of his time with the THIRDS. There’s nothing about where he came from, who his parents were, and nothing pertaining to medical records. My brother had to pass a quarterly examination that included a physical. All the results were in his file. Why aren’t Sloane’s?”

  “I don’t know. Maybe it’s different the higher up the food chain you get?” At the moment, Pearce seemed to know a lot more than Dex di
d, if what he was saying was true, though the guy had no reason to lie, especially since Dex could go back to HQ at any time and debunk his story. The desperate plea in Pearce’s eyes was hard to ignore. This was obviously important to him, the least Dex could do was hear him out. “You look like you have a theory. Theories can be dangerous.”

  “I’m sure it has something to do with him being one of the first.”

  Dex frowned. “First what?”

  “Jesus, Dex.” Pearce scooted his chair closer and leaned in, his hazel eyes intense. “This guy is what’s keeping you from ending up like my brother, and you have no idea who he is or what he’s capable of.”

  Actually, he did. Sloane Brodie was his partner and Team Leader, he was high-strung and emotionally unstable, but now Dex understood why. Sloane had been in love with Gabe Pearce. From the moment Dex had come crashing into Sloane’s life, the guy had been waging war with himself. He liked Dex, and his heart was giving him hell for it. He wasn’t supposed to like anyone who tried to take Gabe’s place. Were the roles reversed, Dex probably would have done the same. He sure wouldn’t have welcomed some jerk from an outside department with open arms, watching as the new guy waltzed in and took the place of someone he’d loved. Sure, it wasn’t the guy’s fault, but his heart wouldn’t care about that. He’d have been hurting and angry.

  Dex’s thoughts went to the parking garage and the expression on Sloane’s face after what happened. Jesus, the guilt was probably eating the poor guy alive. Sloane was attracted to him and that probably made everything ten times worse. Sloane wasn’t on the rebound, he was still mourning. Damn it. Dex had fucked up. Badly.

  “All I know is that the very first THIRDS agents recruited were First Generation Therians. Sloane Brodie is one of them. He was recruited when he was sixteen, trained, and worked part time for the THIRDS while attending college. It was all arranged by the THIRDS. But it’s like the guy appeared one day out of nowhere. I did some digging, and I can’t find any trace of him before then. The only way that could happen is if the government was covering it up.”

  “But wouldn’t that just arouse more suspicion than if they made up some bullshit?”

  “Considering no one outside the THIRDS has access to the file, who’s going to question it? And if someone did, you think the government’s going to give them a straight answer?”

  “You got a point. Jesus Christ, Pearce. How long have you been looking into this?”

  “From the moment I knew it was getting serious between him and my brother.” Pearce swallowed hard, his expression grim. “Of course it doesn’t matter now.”

  “I understand your concern, and I appreciate it,” Dex stated sincerely, “but my family’s been working with the guy for years, and believe me, if they thought anything suspicious was going on, they would have told me. Sloane’s intense, sure, and maybe there is something there the THIRDS don’t want getting out, but I don’t believe it’s anything sinister.”

  Pearce let out a resigned sigh. “You’re right. I’m sorry. Guess I’m having trouble letting go.”

  “And that’s perfectly reasonable, Pearce.” He patted the guy’s arm, wishing there was something he could say or do that would help. “If you need someone to talk to, ring me anytime.”

  Pearce smiled at him. “Thank you, Dex.” His smile faded as he looked down at his fingers. “I think it’s the guilt eating away at me. If I’d left him alone, maybe he’d still be alive.”

  “What do you mean? You had nothing to do with what happened to your brother, Pearce. He was having a meet with an informant. We all know how ugly those things can get sometimes.”

  The anguish in Pearce’s eyes was heartbreaking. “I know, but my last words to him were unpleasant, and after he’d been so happy. Brodie had surprised him with cruise tickets. They were going to go on their first vacation together that week. I felt like I was losing him. I barely saw him because he spent all his free time with Brodie. From the moment he joined the THIRDS, it seemed like all we did was argue. We argued that night, said things we didn’t mean. Next thing I know… he’s dead. If I’d walked away….”

  “Don’t do that to yourself. You can’t blame yourself for what happened to your brother. You were looking out for him, and that’s what brothers do, right? What happened to Gabe was tragic, but he was an experienced agent whose job was to take those kinds of risks.” He gave Pearce’s arm a squeeze. “From what I’ve heard, your brother was a great guy. He would have wanted you to go on living.”

  Pearce took a long swig of his beer, a sad smile on his face. “Sorry. I didn’t invite you here to listen to my sob story.”

  “Consider it making up for lost time,” Dex replied with a big grin, holding up his beer and tapping it against Pearce’s. “I don’t get a lot of time to socialize outside of work these days, so it’s nice. Thanks for inviting me.” He noticed the black string around Pearce’s neck with some kind of metal Greek style pendant with an image of some goddess’s face. “That’s pretty cool.”

  “Thanks.” Pearce flushed, looking embarrassed. “I made it.”

  “No shit?” Dex sat forward, taking in the intricate piece of metalwork. “Wow. I’m lucky I can use a pen. That’s amazing.”

  “I do metalwork. I have a workshop in Brooklyn. You should drop by sometime. I’ll show you around.”

  “I’d like that.”

  Dex was relieved when Pearce started talking about his metal shop and the work he did on his downtime. It was nice to forget about the HumaniTherians case for a while. Come tomorrow, he’d have to go back to staring at his board and praying they got a lead before they ended up with another victim.

  Chapter 8

  THIS CASE was driving him nuts.

  Dex wasn’t used to getting his information fed to him. When he was on homicide, he’d been responsible for investigating and gathering information. Not now. As a Defense agent, he provided backup and aided the investigation, but Recon agents carried out the investigative work. While Cael and Rosa were making phone calls and chasing leads, he was stuck at his desk, training, or staring at the same damn screen with the same damn information.

  “You’ll get used to it.”

  Dex swiveled his chair around so he could look at Sloane without having to move his head. “This sucks. Three weeks, man. It’s been three weeks.”

  “Believe me, Rookie, after a few months, you’ll be basking in these moments.”

  “Maybe,” Dex muttered, turning back to the screen. The HPF had finally given Intel access to their reports on threats called in against HumaniTherians. It had been a dead end. Forensics reports on the first two victims were clean, too clean. No fibers, hairs, fur, blood, skin, nothing that wasn’t the victim’s. They were still waiting on lab results from Ortiz, though as of yet, nothing flagged as being suspicious or out of the ordinary. There were no connections between the three victims. None of them had ever been in contact with one another. The only lead they had was Lloyd Everton, an Unregistered Therian who was in the wind.

  “They’ll find him,” Sloane said, as if reading his thoughts. He made a strange half groan half moan noise that caught Dex’s attention. He swiveled his chair around in time to catch Sloane stretching, his arms high above his head, his chest expanding and his neck exposed. He scrunched up his nose like maybe he was going to sneeze then lowered his arms, his gaze landing on Dex when he finished. They both sat there looking at each other until Dex snapped out of it. He cleared his throat, sat up, and tapped his desk’s surface to wake it up.

  “Have you given table hockey any more thought?” Dex winced at his piss-poor attempt not to draw attention to whatever the hell had just happened.


  Dex looked up hopefully. “And?”


  “Damn. You’re no fun,” Dex grumbled, ignoring Sloane’s chuckling.

  “Work’s not supposed to be fun. It’s work.”

  Dex let out a snort. “Tell that to Ash, who gets a kick out o
f scaring the shit out of little old ladies.”

  “That only happened once. And if I recall, you laughed your ass off for hours afterward. You were still laughing days later.”

  Dex couldn’t stop from laughing now. They’d been called out to a building over in Hell’s Kitchen on another wild goose chase for Lloyd Everton. They’d breached the apartment building when a little old lady came out of her apartment and ran right into Ash. The poor granny nearly had a heart attack. When she recovered, she started attacking Ash with her huge purse, smacking him upside the head several times. “That was the funniest shit I have ever seen. I think I actually wet myself, I was laughing so hard.”

  “TMI, Daley, TMI.”

  They were both snickering about the incident when Cael and Rosa came running into their office.

  “We’ve got a location on Lloyd Everton, the real Everton,” Cael exclaimed, going to Dex’s desk and pulling up street maps.

  Sloane and Dex answered simultaneously. “Where?”

  Rosa chuckled at them before motioning down to the digital map zoomed in on Dex’s desk, her smile quickly fading. “Greenpoint.”

  “Shit.” Sloane ran a hand through his hair as he paced the area next to Dex’s desk. “I hate Greenpoint. It’s a goddamn tactical nightmare.”

  “That bad?” Dex noticed everyone’s concerned expression.

  Rosa gave a solemn nod. “Every THIRDS team that’s ever gone in has had to fight their way out. The last time we went in, it didn’t go so well.”

  “Sounds like fun,” Dex replied dryly.

  Sloane grabbed Dex by the arm, pulled him out of his chair and to one side, his voice a low growl. “We’re going into a warzone with an undisclosed number of threats for a suspect who may or may not be our guy. I’ve got enough to worry about without you running off, getting yourself wounded or killed. This is your first Threat Level Red assignment. You damn well better survive it.”

  “I got it, man. Don’t get dead. Believe me, I want it less than you do.”

  “Let’s go.” Sloane tapped his earpiece. “Destructive Delta, gear up. We’re heading out.”

  They all rushed from the office, Ash and Letty coming in from the right to fall in behind them, while Calvin and Hobbs fell in line from the left. By now, Dex had picked up on the formation and everyone’s position in the team line-up. There was a reason behind everything the THIRDS did, even something as simple as heading to the armory.

  Wherever they went, it was the same. Sloane was always at the head of the line with Dex close behind since he was Sloane’s partner and backup. They were responsible for directing the team. Behind Dex were Letty and Ash—the weapons expert and close-quarter combat expert. The four of them made up the first line of defense, protecting their Recon agents, Cael and Rosa. If somehow some bastard got past the first four agents, behind Cael and Rosa were Calvin and Hobbs—their sniper and demolitions expert. If all else failed, there was his dad who took up the rear. Eventually Dex would be trained to fill in for Sloane should his partner be incapacitated or separated from the team. The thought scared the ever-living fuck out of Dex.

  Geared up with an arsenal of weapons both lethal and nonlethal, they packed into the BearCat and headed for Greenpoint. The ride over was filled with tension, and no one uttered a word, not even Dex. He was fully aware he was a smartass, but even he knew when to shut his mouth. The large flat screen over the console showed their location as they drove. Hobbs took the I-495 east toward the Pulaski Bridge, and Tony tapped his earpiece. “Hobbs, park on the corner of Franklin and Cayler. We’re going in from behind.”

  Minutes later, the BearCat rumbled to a stop, and Hobbs and Calvin joined them.

  Tony motioned toward the console. “Cael, bring up the map.”

  Cael did as instructed, and Tony leaned over him to trace a rectangle on the screen. He tapped the center and everything within the rectangle went red. “That’s our radius. Between Greenpoint Avenue and Oak Street, and Manhattan Avenue to the East River. Intel says it’s where Everton will be hiding.”

  “How do we know he’s going to stick to that zone?” Dex watched as his dad tapped the surrounding areas. Small screens popped up with scrolling information.

  “Anything north of Greenpoint Avenue and west of the bridge is Canidae territory. South of Meserole Avenue and west of McGuinness Boulevard until Nassau, is Bear Therian Country. Any areas not in those two territories are where you’ll usually find the Felids. This here,” he said, tapping the rectangle once more, “is the only area that’s neutral. Intel informs us Everton’s Therian form is a jaguar, which means you’re our main guy on this, Sloane. Ash, you’re going in as backup. Cael, you scout ahead of them. Calvin, Dex, Hobbs, Letty, and Rosa, you’re on reconnaissance down West Street and everything up to the river. Sloane, Ash, and Cael, everything east of West Street. I want Everton conscious. I’ll man the truck, and if you need backup, shout. All right, let’s get going.”

  The team acknowledged their orders and quickly went about preparing. Dex stood to one side, checking Sloane’s PSTC kit when he caught Ash’s quiet growl at Tony. “You’re sending him out there to scout?”

  Tony didn’t bother to look up from his tablet as he spoke. “You seem to be more concerned about Cael than your new teammate.”

  “Hey, he signed up for Defense. If he can’t hack it, he shouldn’t be here. Cael is Recon. Plus this is Greenpoint, not Central Park.”

  “Cael can handle himself.”

  Ash let out a frustrated grunt. “That’s not the point.”

  “What is the point?” Tony finally looked up at Ash, one eyebrow raised. “Do you not trust in your team’s abilities, Agent Keeler?”

  “You know that’s not it,” Ash emphasized quietly. “Remember the last time we went in there?”

  “I do. That’s why he has to go in again. He needs to learn from his mistakes.”

  Ash looked like he wanted to argue, but instead, turned and shoved past Dex to get to the back of the truck. Dex would have flipped him off if he weren’t so concerned about what he’d heard. He made sure his brother was busy at the end of the truck before approaching his dad.

  “What happened the last time they went in?”

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