Rack & ruin, p.16
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       Rack & Ruin, p.16

         Part #3 of THIRDS series by Charlie Cochet
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  “They won’t,” Cael snapped. “We won’t let that happen.”

  “Agent Brodie.” Lieutenant Sparks laced her fingers over the podium. “Suggestions?”

  Dex turned in his seat to watch his partner. He’d come to know that look. Sloane was running all the options through his head, the different scenarios and possible outcomes. He would be searching for a way that would result in recovering Ash, not losing Reyes, and possibly getting their hands on the Coalition once and for all. Sloane shifted his gaze to Sparks. “We give them Reyes.”

  Sparks studied him. There was something in her gaze. “What do you need?”

  “For the Coalition to allow us to choose the location, since they have the upper hand.”

  “I’ll get it done.” She turned off the screen and turned to speak with Tony while Sloane addressed the room.

  “Everyone, let’s suit up and head out. You’ll receive my instructions on the way.”

  Sloane wasn’t taking any chances, and Dex didn’t blame him. If they wanted to get Ash back in one piece, they’d have to tread carefully. The tension was palpable, with everyone looking grim and determined. Sloane informed Destructive Delta that they were going in heavily armed. One of their own was in trouble, and they would be retrieving him using any means necessary. Once they’d geared up, they waited in the BearCat until Reyes was escorted in. His hands were cuffed, but his legs were free. He was also wearing a tactical vest and helmet.

  Tony secured their prisoner, and the BearCat headed off with Beta Pride and Beta Ambush keeping their distance. Sloane had relayed the information of where he wanted them to stand by. He withheld the location of the tradeoff, instructing the two Team Leaders he’d give them the address when it was time to move in. Taylor had been livid. Sloane didn’t care. Right now, Destructive Delta only trusted each other.

  The BearCat drove up West Street and made a left on Oak Street, which was barely wide enough for the truck to fit through. The road abruptly turned to dirt and gravel. To each side of their truck was a long chain-link fence. Their left was pretty much clear with nothing but an empty lot. But ahead of them and to their right it was a mess. There were train compartments and storage units stacked all over the place in varying heights. There were piles of wooden pallets, bundles of rusted metal fencing, trucks, cranes, slabs of concrete, cinder blocks, and a whole lot of shadows. It was a tactical nightmare, but for some reason, it’s what Sloane wanted.

  Hobbs slowed the truck, and Calvin came out from the front. A black wool beanie covered his blond hair, and he was dressed in a black uniform rather than their standard charcoal gray. He looked like he was about to burgle someone, except the black tac vest and large, elongated black bag in his gloved hand stated otherwise. Calvin gave Sloane a nod, before silently slipping out the back of the truck.

  Calvin was a quiet guy, but Dex was coming to learn the quiet ones were the ones you had to look out for. His teammate might not be a military sniper, but that didn’t make him any less skilled or dangerous. Dex could see it in the guy’s face. Something in his deep blue eyes clouded over when he was about to take position for a hit. He never discussed how he felt about what he did or when he had to take someone out. That’s what the THIRDS appointed psychologists were for.

  With Calvin gone, the truck continued down the dirt road and pulled off to the right. The place was brightly lit in some areas from the floodlights while other areas were cast in shadows. Unless he was wearing his night-vision goggles, there was no way Dex would know what was stalking around in the darkness. It would be up to his Therian teammates to have those areas covered.

  Sloane was out of the truck first, and the rest of the team followed. Maddock and Hobbs got Reyes out of the truck. The rest of the team got into formation, and they escorted Reyes into one of the brightly lit areas in the center of the yard. Showtime.

  There were containers in front of them and behind, as well as to their sides. They stood in a neat little row, geared in their tac vests and ballistic helmets. They had enough firepower to take down a small army and were prepared to do so if the Coalition gave them any trouble. This would be the first time they’d be facing the group. They heard the sound of multiple footsteps on gravel and watched the masked members of the Coalition emerge one by one from behind one of the rusted steel containers. They were all dressed in black-and-gray camouflaged uniforms, black masks covering their faces, bulletproof vests, ballistic helmets and carried plenty of firearms. Bringing up the rear were two large Therians dragging Ash between them. They kept their distance, Ash held up between them.

  Cael took a step forward, and Dex discreetly held a hand out to stop him. They couldn’t give the Coalition any more power over them. Now that the bastards knew Ash hadn’t really betrayed his team, they could use him against Destructive Delta.

  “We have Reyes,” Sloane announced. “Let’s do this.” He turned to Hobbs. “Hobbs—”

  “I’m going,” Cael said, his expression uncompromising.

  Sloane shook his head. “Cael, Ash can barely stand on his own. His weight is too much for you.”

  “Then Dex will help me.”

  Sloane looked to Dex who nodded. If it’s what Cael wanted, Dex wasn’t going to deny his brother. Dex would have demanded the same if it had been Sloane. It was obvious Sloane wasn’t happy about it, but he gave in.

  “All right. Be careful. We’ll watch your backs.” Sloane gave a nod and stood to one side as Tony and Hobbs handed Reyes over. Dex could tell his dad was unhappy about the decision, but all he did was ask them to be careful. Dex had every intention of protecting his little brother.

  They each took Reyes by an arm and walked him toward the members of the Coalition holding Ash. Dex felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. He didn’t like this. He knew Sloane had a plan, and his trust in Sloane was the only thing keeping him grounded right now. As they slowly made their way over, he quietly addressed his brother.

  “You okay?”

  “I’ve been better,” Reyes muttered.

  “I wasn’t talking to you, asswipe.”

  Cael’s gaze remained straight ahead of them. “I’m fine.”

  “I appreciate your concern, agents.”

  “You’re wearing protection aren’t you?” Dex grunted. “So shut up.”

  “Yeah, because that’s going to keep me from bleeding to death when I get shot full of holes everywhere else.”

  Dex smiled wickedly. “Don’t be silly. They’re not going to kill you here. They want to make you suffer.” They stopped a few feet away from the two large Therians and Ash. The moment they released Reyes, Ash was shoved forward. Dex and Cael rushed over, catching Ash before he could crumble to the ground. Fuck, he was heavy.

  “Ready?” Cael asked Ash softly.

  “Cael?” Ash’s voice was so low and weak, Dex barely heard him.

  “Yeah, it’s me. I’m here, big guy.”

  “I’m sorry,” Ash said, his words coming out slurred as he hung his head. Dex felt for him and Cael. He could see how hard this was on his brother.

  “We’ll talk later. First, let’s get you out of here.”

  Dex slipped his arm around Ash’s waist and gritted his teeth. Even with Cael sharing the weight, it was difficult moving Ash and very slow going. He could feel Ash making the effort, hear him groan painfully as he put one foot in front of the other. Those assholes had really done a number on him. Dex discreetly leaned into Ash.

  “Who’s our target?”

  “Preston Merritt,” Ash murmured. “He’ll give himself away.”

  Dex discreetly tapped the communicator button on his vest. “Did you get that, Sloane?”

  “Loud and clear.”

  Just as Sloane said the words, one of the Coalition members behind them called out after Ash.

  “Hey, Keeler! We’ll be seeing each other again soon, I promise you. I might just pay your twink boyfriend a visit.”

  Dex had no idea what the hell happened. One second
they were holding onto Ash who could barely keep his own head up, the next thing he knew, Ash had let out a fierce roar to rival his lion Therian one and was heading for Merritt one faltering step at a time. Merritt raised his gun at Ash, and everything went to hell. Sloane yelled for Merritt to put his weapon down, and the guy did. Only to take aim at Cael.

  “TARE!” Sloane’s authorization for Calvin to take the kill shot echoed in Dex’s ear, and he saw the visor of Merritt’s helmet splinter before his body crumbled to the ground. Cael ran after Ash, and a Coalition member took aim at him.

  “Cael!” Dex bolted toward his brother who was drawing his weapon as the shot rang out. The bullet never made it to Cael.

  Ash made sure of it.

  Destructive Delta opened fire as Merritt’s gang scattered like roaches with Reyes running back toward Destructive Delta. First time Dex had ever seen a member of the Order running toward the THIRDS. The Coalition members went down one by one as they were shot with tranqs to keep them from escaping. Around them gunfire erupted, agents shouted as Beta Pride and Beta Ambush’s agents flooded onto the scene. Dex could hear the chaos, but he was too busy dropping to his knees beside Ash, his gloved hands pressing down on the blood hemorrhaging from his body. “Agent down! We’ve got an agent down!”

  “No. No, no, no.” Cael shook his head and cupped Ash’s face. “Why did you do that?”

  Ash smiled at Cael, nudging his cheek playfully like he always did before he started gasping, coughing, and sputtering blood.

  “Hold on, Ash,” Dex demanded, as Rosa and the EMTs rushed over and got to work on him. There was blood everywhere, and Ash was coughing and gasping for air. Cael was growing frantic, panicking as Ash’s eyes rolled back. “Sloane, get Cael out of here!”

  Sloane grabbed hold of Cael who struggled against him until the larger Felid was forced to lift him off his feet. “No! Don’t you dare fucking die on me! You hear me, Ash? You asshole, you don’t get to die on me like this! Ash!”

  Dex stripped off his gloves as the EMTs peeled Ash’s uniform off. He looked up at Rosa who’d gone pale. “Rosa?”

  “I don’t know….” Tears filled her eyes, and she gave a sniff, wiping at her cheek with the back of a gloved hand.

  “Fuck.” Dex left the medical team to do their job, watching as they prepped Ash for transport. He was covered in blood, had an oxygen mask over his nose and mouth, and IVs sticking out all over. Cael was too distraught to realize the ambulance had whisked Ash away. Rosa was attempting to comfort him when Sloane stepped up next to Dex.

  “You okay?” Dex asked him, knowing this couldn’t be easy for him either.

  “No, but I’ll manage. Right now, I think you should take Cael home to your place. He’s going to need you. He’ll want to go to the hospital once the shock wears off.”

  “What about you?”

  Sloane gave him a small smile. “I always need you.” He gave Dex a pat on the arm, giving it a gentle squeeze before walking off toward Tony and the mess in need of cleanup.

  Dex put his arm around his brother and led him away from the noise and blood. “Come on, bro. Let’s go home.”

  Cael nodded, though it was pretty clear his brother was elsewhere. As they walked, Dex did his best to comfort his brother, praying Ash would make it through this. Throughout this whole ordeal, Cael had never questioned or lost faith in Ash. Dex shouldn’t have dismissed his brother’s feelings or Ash’s behavior. He promised himself if Ash made it out of this alive, he’d try harder to get along with the burly agent. Ash deserved that much.

  Chapter 12

  DEX HANDED his brother a cup of hot chocolate piled high with mini marshmallows like their dad used to make them when they were feeling under the weather. Cael sat up and took the mug from him, the first movement he’d made in what felt like hours.

  After getting to Dex’s apartment, Cael had made straight for the couch, leaving equipment and clothing on the floor in his wake until he’d finally reached it wearing nothing but his boxers, undershirt, and socks. It had broken Dex’s heart to watch his little brother curl up on his side, his head on the armrest and a throw pillow hugged tight to his chest. It was obvious then that Cael didn’t just have a thing for Ash. He was in love with him. Must have been for some time.

  Dex took a seat beside his brother, offering what comfort he could. Rosa had dropped by with an overnight bag she’d put together for Cael after stopping by his apartment. Cael had given his partner a key in case of emergency. It was the first time Rosa had had to use it. Dex had managed to get his brother to the bathroom upstairs, and Cael had numbly gone in for a long shower. When he was dressed and out, Cael wanted to go back downstairs to the couch, which is where he’d been since Dex had showered and changed. The whole incident had left Cael shocked. It was most likely the only reason his little brother wasn’t fighting to get to the hospital.

  “Why would he do that, Dex?”

  Whatever Dex’s feelings on Ash, they didn’t matter now. What mattered was being there for Cael. “He cares about you.”

  “The things he said.” Cael took a sip of his hot chocolate. He sucked in a few marshmallows—which made Dex smile—before putting the cup down on the small coffee table beside the couch. “I thought maybe….”

  “He was protecting you. I realize that now. I should have known then. Sloane told me Ash asked him to keep us away from him.” Dex pulled his brother in to his arms and held him tight. “I’ve always believed he was such an asshole, and he is, but so am I. I shouldn’t have been so quick to judge him. You were right.” It was hard for him not to feel protective over Cael. Dex had always been the outspoken one, the funny kid, the one getting into some mischief or another. He’d been sent to the principal’s office more times than he cared to remember, and that had carried over from high school through to the dean’s office in college.

  Tony was always teasing Dex, saying he was the cause of his gray hairs. It was most likely the truth. Cael had been the quiet one. The well-behaved one. The sweet, smart kid. Any mischief or trouble Cael got into was a result of following along with whatever harebrained scheme Dex’s wacky little brain came up with, because Cael wanted to be like his big brother. He’d follow Dex around, trying to imitate him and do what he did. At least until he was old enough to know better. Holding Cael like this reminded Dex of all the other times some bastard had stomped all over his little brother’s heart. Dex sure as hell hoped this wasn’t going to be another one of those times.

  “Dex, what if Ash doesn’t make it?” Cael’s voice was quiet, as if saying the words alone might make it so.

  “Ash is a fighter. You know if death comes knocking, he will beat the shit out of it.” And Dex believed that. Ash was the hardest, toughest, meanest son of a bitch Dex knew. The guy wouldn’t go down without a fight.

  “What if he can’t?” Cael pulled away, his eyes puffy and red. “I need to be there with him. I need him to know I’m not pissed off with him. That I understand why he did what he did.”

  Just as Dex opened his mouth to reply, his phone buzzed. Removing it from his pocket, he saw it was Sloane. He answered with his heart in his throat. “Hey. I hope you have good news.”

  Cael stiffened. “Is that Sloane? Is Ash okay?”

  “Yeah? Awesome. We’ll be right over. Thanks.”

  “What is it?”

  “Ash is out of surgery. He has a shit-ton of recovery to do, but he’s going to live to roar another day.”

  Cael threw his arms around Dex and squeezed him tight. Dex chuckled and hugged him back. “Okay, Chirpy. Let’s go.” His brother pulled back and wiped a tear away.

  “I’m sorry I was such a dick to you,” Cael muttered dejectedly.

  “No, you were right. Sometimes I need reminding that you’re not a little kid anymore. Being older doesn’t always mean being wiser.”

  “You are wise. And I’ll always be your little brother. But sometimes you do deserve a good kick in the ass.”

  Dex chuckled
and helped his brother to his feet. “Come on, get dressed. You can’t go in your boxers and….” He peered at Cael’s feet and his blue-striped socks. “Are those koala bears wearing glasses on your socks?”

  Cael smiled, his cheeks flushed in embarrassment. “Yeah. Ash got me them for Christmas.”

  “That’s….” Dex searched his colorful vocabulary for the appropriate term, aware of his brother’s wary expression. “Pretty damn adorable.”

  Cael beamed at him, and Dex told him to move his ass. His brother hopped to it and got dressed in jeans, T-shirt, and sneakers. Less than half an hour later, they were at the hospital. They found Ash’s room and Sloane sitting outside it in his uniform half-asleep. Dex couldn’t wait to get him home. The poor guy looked exhausted. When Sloane saw Dex, he smiled the most beautiful smile Dex had ever seen, and Dex’s heart did a happy dance.

  “How is he?” Cael asked, and Sloane’s smile fell away.

  “The bullet didn’t hit any vital organs, but he lost a lot of blood. Plus they’d worked him over pretty good, which didn’t help. He’s going to be okay, but he’ll be on leave for a while.”

  “Can I go in?” Cael asked hopefully.

  “Yeah. Doctor says it’s okay for him to have visitors, but we need to make sure he’s not overwhelmed by it. I’ve asked anyone outside Destructive Delta who wants to visit to come in starting tomorrow. Give him time to rest.” He turned to Dex. “Your dad’s waiting for me to finish debriefing. You mind keeping watch for a few hours?”

  “No, of course not.”

  Sloane worried his bottom lip before turning Dex away from Cael who was watching Ash through the blinds in the window. “Dex, we need to watch our backs. When Ash woke up, he gave me a name. Beck Hogan. He’s the head of the Coalition, and he’s still out there. We killed his guy, arrested his men, and recovered Ash. I have no doubt he never intended to let Ash walk away. He’s not going to take this lying down.”

  “He also knows Ash would take a bullet for Cael.” Dex ran a hand through his hair. “Not to mention we still don’t know who the mole is. Fuck.”

  “Yeah. Sparks is concerned, which means this is serious shit. Destructive Delta could be his next target. She’s considering giving us all offsite assignments.”

  “Offsite assignments? What’s that mean?”

  “It’s all up in the air right now. But it means we’d operate from an undisclosed location on undercover jobs until the risk at HQ is contained. Either way, Sparks will be holding a briefing with Destructive Delta before the end of the week.”

  Dex nodded. “Okay. Stay safe.”

  “You too.” Sloane leaned into him, his fingers subtly taking hold of Dex’s and giving them a squeeze. “I’ll try to get back as soon as I can. I want some time with you.” With that, he went off, and Dex stepped up to his brother who was still standing at Ash’s window looking in.

  “You ready?” Dex asked. “I’ll be out here—”

  “No.” Cael turned to Dex, his eyes glassy. “Come in with me?”

  “Anything you want.” Dex followed his brother into the private room, closing the door behind them. As Cael approached Ash’s bedside, Dex took a seat on the blue couch next to it. How many times would he be visiting this hospital this year? This time he wasn’t a patient, though his injuries at the time couldn’t compare to Ash’s. The huge Therian looked almost average-sized in the Therian-sized bed. He was pale, his hair a mess, and sported an array of ugly bruises. One eye was purple and swollen, and he was hooked up to an IV among other things.

  Cael approached Ash’s bed with such care, it was heartbreaking. He reached out tentatively and put his hand to Ash’s brow. The agent’s eyes fluttered open, and he looked up at Cael. A slow smile crept onto his face.

  “I can’t believe you,” Cael said quietly, taking in Ash’s bruised and battered state.

  “I’m sorry,” Ash replied hoarsely. “I figured out the mole was someone who interacted with our team on a regular basis which meant they’d know… I couldn’t let them know the truth about you.”

  “And what’s that?” Cael asked softly.

  “That you mean more to me than anything. I couldn’t let them use you against me.”

  Cael sucked in a sharp breath. “What you said—”

  “Was all bullshit to keep you away.”

  Cael nodded. “Good to know. But that’s not what I was referring to. I meant I can’t believe you took a bullet for me.”

  Ash’s next words took Dex aback.

  “I’d die for you.”

  “I noticed,” Cael replied angrily. “Asshole.”

  “Don’t do that.” Ash frowned, casting Dex an accusing glare. “You look like your brother when you do that.”

  Dex didn’t get offended. Ash had every right to be pissed at him. Dex hadn’t exactly made his assignment any easier. Ash’s frown fell by the wayside when he turned his head back to Cael.

  “Please don’t.” Ash raised a hand to Cael’s cheek and wiped a tear away. “I hate to see you like this.”

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