Rise amp fall, p.18
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       Rise & Fall, p.18
 

         Part #4 of THIRDS series by Charlie Cochet
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  “He was busy with work. Meetings. Church.” Something seemed to dawn on him, and his expression fell. “He lied to me.”

  The irony was not lost on Dex, and he squeezed Sloane’s hand under the table. He would be spending a long time groveling and making it up to Sloane. He looked forward to it. Sloane deserved to be treated a lot better than the lousy job Dex had been doing lately.

  “I can’t believe this.”

  Bautista’s shaky voice caught Dex’s attention, and he turned back to the screen. Tears pooled in the wolf Therian’s eyes and several escaped. His bottom lip quivered, but he tried his hardest to get himself together. He continued to shake his head, as if doing so would make everything he’d seen and heard untrue. Calvin offered him a tissue, which Bautista took with a muffled “thanks.” “Do you have proof of what he’s done? I need proof.”

  “I have a whole team of agents who he attacked. My Team Leader is next door on crutches. Your boyfriend helped Hogan plant a bomb that nearly killed him.” Calvin showed him a picture of Sloane.

  “I saw him on the news,” Bautista said quietly. “What do you want from me?”

  “We’d like you to have him meet you. Somewhere familiar to the both of you, but preferably with not a lot of foot traffic. Out in the open. We’ll clear the area, set it up with our own agents. You just meet with him. We’ll handle the rest.”

  Bautista let out a heart-wrenching sigh and nodded. “Okay. I know it sounds ridiculous, considering everything he’s done, but you won’t… you won’t kill him will you?” Bautista covered Calvin’s hand with his, his eyes pleading.

  “We’d prefer to arrest him,” Calvin said gently, removing his hand from under Bautista’s. His job had been done. He’d made the connection, gotten the information. Now it was time to put it to use and cut Bautista loose. It was shitty, but it was what had to be done, and Calvin seemed to be all too aware of it. “But if he becomes dangerous, we can’t risk any civilian casualties.”

  “I understand,” Bautista conceded.

  Calvin stood and gave him a small smile. “I’ll give you time to get yourself together before you call him. It’s important he meets with you tomorrow. Preferably early in the day.” Calvin left the room, joining Dex and the rest of the team next door.

  “You okay?” Dex asked him.

  “Yeah, I feel kind of shitty. He’s a nice guy. I can’t imagine what must be going through his head right now. Finding out his boyfriend of ten years is a murdering scumbag.”

  Hobbs put his arm around Calvin’s neck and gave him a reassuring squeeze, receiving a pat from his friend before Calvin moved to the monitors to watch Bautista. The wolf Therian wiped his eyes, took a deep breath, and removed his phone from his pocket. It was now or never. They all watched on the edge of their seats as Bautista called Collins, his voice sounding far more casual than he appeared. Bautista chatted about nothing in particular before telling Collins he missed him. He asked if they could meet up for lunch tomorrow because it had been so long since they’d gone out for a meal together. With bated breath they all waited, when finally Bautista let out a sad smile.

  “Perfect. I’ll meet you at our usual spot at noon. I love you.”

  Seconds later, Bautista ended the call, placed his phone on the table, and burst into tears.

  To Dex’s surprise, Hobbs appeared beside Calvin and nudged him. He motioned to the monitor where Bautista was crying and nodded.

  Calvin smiled at his partner and left the room to comfort Bautista.

  “Man, now I hate Collins even more,” Dex said through his teeth. “The selfish prick. How could he put the poor guy through this? Telling his boyfriend he was out at church or in meetings while he was murdering people. How could he come home and act like everything was hunky-dory?” At Calvin’s signal, the team left the room to join him, with Dex staying behind to help Sloane. As soon as his partner was on his feet, Dex stepped in front of him.

  “I’m sorry for being such an insensitive asshole,” Dex said. “For leaving you home on your own while I was out there. Lying to you about it.”

  “Hey, whoa.” Sloane put his hand to Dex’s cheek. “Now you listen to me. Don’t you dare compare yourself to that asshole. You’re a good man, Dex. Your heart was in the right place. I admire you for that. This whole situation has made me realize how much I’ve taken you for granted.”

  “What?” Dex shook his head. “Sloane—”

  “I have. I know I have. You’ve been nothing but supportive, understanding, and amazing. I’ve put you through a hell of a lot, and I’ve hurt you. I swear, I’m going to try my damn hardest to deserve you.

  “So no comparing yourself to Collins. However he tries to justify his actions, he’s killed people in cold blood. If we don’t stop him, Hogan, and the rest of their crew, who knows where this will end?”

  “You’re right.” He kissed Sloane before wrapping an arm around his waist and leading him out of the room. Bautista was in the hall, and when he saw Sloane, he gingerly approached.

  “I’m so sorry, Agent Brodie.”

  “You can’t be held responsible for his actions, Felipe. He made his choices, and now he has to answer to them.”

  Bautista nodded. “Thank you.”

  Calvin escorted Bautista from the building. He’d be dropping him off, and Austen would take over surveillance from there, making sure Bautista didn’t change his mind and try to warn Collins. Dex doubted the guy would try to skip town. From what he’d heard, Bautista loved his job and cared a great deal about the kids he taught. Dex was relieved the Therian wasn’t involved with the Coalition. He hoped Bautista would move on from this and maybe find himself someone more worthy of his love than Collins.

  As soon as the two were gone, the team gathered around Sloane in the middle of the hall.

  “So where’s the meet?” Dex asked Seb who checked his tablet.

  “Wagner Cove Central Park.”

  “Great.” Sloane motioned toward the next room, and they all followed him. The room was equipped with everything they’d need for a mission. An unapproved THIRDS one anyway. Between Letty and Austen, they now had enough firepower to go in, arrest Collins, and face Hogan’s crew if they showed up. Everything from unmarked uniforms and vests to tranq guns. Two large steel tables were positioned together in the center of the gray room with maps and several tablets. Sloane stood at the head of the tables and grabbed a black Sharpie, along with the huge map of Manhattan.

  “All right. Seb, how do you want to play this?”

  Seb studied the map before pointing to Terrace Drive in Central Park. “I’ll have Theta Destructive on standby here in the BearCat.”

  “You sure you want to bring your team into this?” Sloane asked.

  “Don’t worry about my team. I’m not about to let you guys go in there without backup.”

  “Okay.” Sloane motioned for Dex to get closer and pointed to West Drive. “I think we should park the surveillance van on one of these paths here near the lake, off West Drive. You’ll be close enough to catch everything, but far away enough not to be spotted by any of Hogan’s gang if they happen to be in the area. I’ll be in there with Cael.”

  Dex’s head shot up. “No way. You’re not even supposed to be exerting yourself as much as you are.”

  “Dex, I’m not going to send my team into danger and then sit at home twiddling my thumbs, waiting to hear what happened.”

  “It’s a catering van, Sloane. It’s not equipped to handle anything remotely resembling a medical emergency or PSTC. It doesn’t have any kind of holding bay either. The only reason we’re taking it is so we can make a quick getaway if we need to.”

  “Okay,” Sloane agreed. “Then I’ll be in the BearCat with Seb.”

  “Sloane—”

  “I’ll be in the BearCat with Seb.” Sloane’s tone was of Team Leader, and he’d made his decision. As much as Dex wanted to argue how Sloane had no business being out in the field in his condition, he backed off. It was up
to the both of them to know where to draw the line between their personal relationship and professional one.

  “Okay.”

  “I’ll watch the van,” Cael volunteered. “Give me a call if we need to get lost, and I’ll make sure the engine’s running. We can get the hell out of there if we need to.”

  Sloane agreed. “Seb, get some of your guys undercover and have the rest discreetly redirecting any foot traffic that might head Dex’s way.” He turned his attention to Dex. “You, Ash, Hobbs, Letty, and Rosa will be concealed in the shrubbery nearby waiting. On your call, you move the team in.”

  “Got it.”

  “I’ll inform Calvin to get Bautista out of there the moment you make your move. I want everyone in their positions at 10 a.m. sharp, geared up and ready to go. If you gotta tranq the shit out of Collins, you do it. But try to make it fast and low key. The last thing we need is the HPF calling it in. Everyone clear on what to do?”

  Everyone’s collective “affirmative” ended the briefing. The girls headed off with their equipment, and Dex handed Hobbs the keys to the van. It would be better if he took the thing home and picked them all up in the morning. While Seb, Sloane, and Ash went over a few details, Dex approached Cael.

  “Dad won’t suspect anything, will he?”

  Cael went over to the equipment and grabbed a vest. “Nah. You know he never asks where we’re going. I tell him I’m going out, and he tells me to take care. He’s kind of pissed at you, by the way. This morning he was mumbling to himself as he walked around the kitchen.” Cael lowered his voice to mimic their dad’s deep baritone, “Damn boy can’t even pick up a damn phone. What he needs is a good ass whupping.”

  His brother looked too damn happy about it. Crap, Dex hadn’t called his dad in days. Tony didn’t expect him to check in, but Dex should have had the courtesy to let him know everything was all right, considering recent events. Tony was probably worried about Sloane, how his recovery was going, whether the two of them were ready to strangle each other, or more likely whether Sloane was ready to strangle Dex. It was never a good thing when his dad mumbled to himself. It usually meant Dex was going to end up paying for it later.

  “I’ll give him a call as soon as this is over.” Hopefully it wouldn’t all blow up in his face and his dad wouldn’t be kicking his ass. Seb, Ash, and Sloane finished hashing out the details, and everyone grabbed what equipment was left. They agreed to call if anything changed. Seb and Sloane chatted as they headed out, with Dex carrying his and Sloane’s equipment. Outside, Ash caught hold of Cael’s arm. Since Seb and Sloane stopped to continue their conversation, Dex pretended not to eavesdrop on his brother and Ash.

  “Hey, listen, I know things between us are rough, and it’s completely my fault, but how about if after this is all over, we sit down and have a chat. Just the two of us? Please. I… don’t want to lose you.”

  From the corner of his eye, Dex saw Cael fold his arms over his chest, his gaze hard.

  “You have to have something to lose it, Ash.”

  Ouch. Dex almost cringed. He kind of felt sorry for Ash. Cael obviously hadn’t retracted his claws completely.

  “I deserved that,” Ash said, “But give me a chance to explain. I’m sorry I’ve been pushing you away. I want to let you in, I really do. More than anything. I promise to try harder. Give me a chance. If what I have to say isn’t good enough, then… well, you decide.”

  Cael seemed to mull it over, a host of emotions crossing his face, many of which Dex knew all too well. His brother was afraid of getting hurt, even more than he already was, but he also wanted Ash more than anything. Cael was easy to read, always wearing his heart on his sleeve like his big brother.

  Damn it, Cael, say yes. Put him out of his misery. You know you want to.

  Cael’s expression softened and he nodded. “Okay.” He met Ash’s gaze and spoke softly. “Please don’t hurt me anymore, Ash. I don’t think my heart can take it.”

  Ash swallowed hard. He looked like he wanted to reach out but held himself back. “We’ll work it out somehow. I promise. Be careful tomorrow, okay?”

  “Van sitting isn’t exactly dangerous work,” Cael teased. “You’ll be out there, so you take care. And wear a vest this time.”

  Ash chuckled and gave Cael’s cheek a playful nudge like he’d always done. “Got it.” With a wink, he walked off, calling out a grumbled good-bye to the rest of them. Dex pretended to be inspecting the equipment when Cael came to stand beside him.

  “You can stop acting like you weren’t eavesdropping.”

  Dex blinked innocently. “Moi?”

  Cael rolled his eyes at him. “Please. You are like the nosiest person ever.”

  “Ridiculous lies.”

  “I heard Rhonda from PR was hooking up with Josh in Accounting.”

  Dex gasped. “I thought she had a thing for Mark over in Recruitment?”

  “A-ha! I told you. I was totally making it up,” Cael replied smugly.

  “Damn. All right, I was eavesdropping. You mad?”

  “No.” Cael’s expression turned worried. “Do you think I made the right decision? What if we sit down and it all falls apart? What if things get worse between us?”

  Dex bumped his brother playfully with his hip. “What if it works out and you get everything you want?”

  Cael smiled shyly. “Thanks, Dex.”

  “Any time.”

  “You ready, Dex?”

  “Yep.” Dex motioned for Cael to follow. “Come on. I’ll walk you to your car.”

  As they left the dimly lit sidewalk outside the boarded-up house Austen had set up for them, Dex tried not to give too much thought to the next day. Finally, after months of frustration, dead bodies, and no leads, they were moving in on Hogan. They were going to get a location on the guy if they had to beat it out of Collins. This time tomorrow, Beck Hogan would either be behind bars or six feet under. Dex was fine with either one of those.

  IT WAS almost time.

  The day was bright with clear skies, the air crisp and cool. According to Seb, his agents were already undercover and in position around the area.

  Dex helped Sloane out of the van, a tingle going up his spine at seeing his partner back in uniform, even if it wasn’t his official THIRDS uniform. Then there was the crutch under his right arm. Dex really wished his partner would reconsider and head home, but Sloane was in work mode, and nothing would deter him, injuries or not. Who the hell knew what was about to go down or what would happen at the end of this. What was the likelihood they’d catch Hogan without the THIRDS finding out about it?

  “All right, let’s all get into position,” Sloane said. “Cael, get this van out of sight.”

  Cael gave him a salute. “You got it. Good luck.” He closed the doors to the van, and they all waited for him to drive off before Dex helped Sloane over to Seb’s BearCat concealed in the bushes off Terrace Drive. The back doors opened, and Seb appeared with Calvin beside him. They helped Sloane inside.

  “We’re ready when you are,” Seb stated.

  “Okay.” Dex turned to the rest of his team. “Let’s do this.” He tapped his earpiece. “Cael, you in position?”

  “Affirmative.”

  “All right, then.” Dex signaled forward. The rest of the team followed him, and he disappeared into the bushes.

  Time to get this party started.

  THIS WAS going to be too easy.

  Idiots. Going off to hunt their prey while leaving their baby bird in the nest. That’s why cheetahs struggled to survive. Why they were the most vulnerable of the Felids. So eager to trust, so innocent, needing someone to take them under their wing. Hogan smiled to himself. This was going to be fun.

  He pulled the officer’s cap down low over his eyes as he approached the van parked among the trees and dense shrubs, and he knocked on the back door. A few seconds later, the door cracked opened, and the young cheetah Therian appeared.

  “Is there a problem, officer?”

&nb
sp; “You have to move your van, son. There’s no parking on the grass.”

  “Oh. Sorry, I’ll go ahead and do that. Thanks.” He made to close the door when Hogan grabbed the handle and jerked it open, the kid tumbling out and into his arms. With a toothy grin, Hogan shoved him hard into the van before climbing in and securing the door behind him.

  “What the hell?” The young cheetah Therian scrambled to his feet and spun around, recognition dawning on his boyish face. “Shit.”

  “Afternoon, Agent Maddock. I hear you’ve been looking for me.”

  Big silver eyes widened as the kid took another step back, Hogan’s name escaping from between plump lips. He inched closer to the side of the van where the equipment was.

  “I hope you’re not planning on contacting your brother, because it would ruin my surprise.”

  The young agent glared daggers at him. Brave little shit. Hogan would give him that much. He almost felt sorry for the kid. No doubt he’d been corrupted by his Human family. A Therian should never be raised by Humans. They’d tamed him. Eaten away at the wildness in his heart until there was nothing left but a harmless kitten.

  “Well, well. Aren’t you adorable?”

  “Fuck you, asshole!”

  Hogan launched at him, grabbed the young Therian around his waist, and tackled him to the ground. It was over in seconds. The kid was no match for a tiger Therian, much less one of Hogan’s size and strength. He used his heavy mass to hold the agent down on his belly against the floor, his arms pinned at the sides of his head.

  “And such sharp claws,” Hogan murmured, his lips close to the agent’s ear. “I bet Keeler loves that feistiness. I knew there was something going on between you two. He pretended so damn hard not to show he cared. But we saw right through him. You should have seen his eyes when Merritt said your name. There was this rage vibrating through him. Your ferocious lion could barely maintain a grip on himself. He might have been able to fool the Humans, but he couldn’t hide it from a fellow Felid. He’s in love with you. So much so, he would die for you. This time, I’m going to make sure he actually does.”

  “You’ll never beat him or my brother,” the kid spat out. “They’ll take you down and put you in a cage where you belong. With the rest of the rabid animals.”

  “There’s that mouth again. I hear it runs in the family. Shame. It’s a pretty mouth.” Hogan held both of the agent’s wrists in one hand so he could run the other down his slim neck and sinewy frame. He was soft yet firm. Hogan pushed his crotch up against the young Therian’s perky little ass. It would be a waste to get rid of the cheetah Therian so quickly. He slipped his hand under the T-shirt, moaning at the silky soft skin underneath. His hand travelled lower down, the tips of his fingers slipping under the waistband of the agent’s tac pants.

  “Maybe I should fuck you right here. We could make a little video for Keeler. I would love to see his face when he watches it. When he sees all the ways I defile his precious little chew toy. It’ll destroy him. What do you say?” His hand moved to the agent’s ass and in between his legs where he pressed firmly down. “Shall we give him a show?”

  “You sick son of a bitch! Get off me!”

  Hogan chuckled before the unexpected blow landed. The young agent’s skull slammed back into Hogan’s nose, causing him to roll off with a litany of curses, the wind knocked out of him when a boot kicked him in the stomach over and over. Officially fucked off, Hogan let out a fierce growl and snatched the kid’s leg, jerking him off his feet and slamming him down against the van’s carpet, making the young cheetah Therian gasp for air. Hogan straddled him, surprised by the kid’s ferocity.

  Hogan swiped his arm across his bleeding nose, momentarily letting his guard down when a punch caught him in the ribs. With a growl, he struggled to get a grip on the feral young Therian hissing and clawing at him. Silver eyes flashed with indignation.

  “You really think you’re a match for me?” Hogan snarled. “I’m going to put an end to your lover, your piece of shit brother, and the rest of your traitorous team. They took my revenge from me, now I’m going to take everything away from them. First your brother, then Keeler, then that asshole Brodie, and then I’m coming back for the rest.” He snatched a fistful of the agent’s hair and jerked him to his feet. “Then after I’ve had my fun with you and your sweet little ass, you’re going to join them in hell.”

  The kid landed a punch across Hogan’s face and kicked at the side of his knee, freeing himself long enough to lunge at the equipment on the console across from them where he managed to hit something on a keyboard. The last of Hogan’s patience snapped. He picked the kid up, shoved him against the van’s wall, took hold of his head, and cracked it hard against the side. The kid went limp in his arms.

  “Fucking little shit.” Hogan cursed and winced at his split lip. Fishing the burner phone from his pocket, he put in a call. “Pick me up. Little fucker was more of a pain in the ass than I expected. Don’t underestimate those assholes.”

  “DESTRUCTIVE DELTA, on my mark,” Dex instructed quietly, his fingers flexing on his tranq rifle from his hidden position inside the bushes.

  Bautista sat on the edge of the fountain in Wagner Cove a few feet away. Around them were agents dressed as civilians. One in rollerblades, another
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