Hell & high water, p.19
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       Hell & High Water, p.19

         Part #1 of THIRDS series by Charlie Cochet

  “Sorry, I was expecting someone else.”

  “You mean Dex?” Ash arched an eyebrow at him and waited, but not very long. “What was he doing here?”

  Sloane closed the door behind him. “Cael asked me to take Dex home, but he was out of it. I realized too late that I didn’t know where he lived, so he crashed on my couch.”

  “And you couldn’t call Cael?”

  “It was late and I was tired, not to mention he was busy with you. What’s the problem, Ash?” Today was turning into one hell of a clusterfuck.

  “Did you sleep with him?”

  “What?” Sloane stared at his friend. “What the hell, man? Is that why you came over, to ask me if I’m fucking my partner?” How long had Ash been thinking this? How could his friend think it? He was the only one who’d known about Gabe, the only one who knew everything about Sloane.

  “I came over because I was worried. When Maddock said you’d called in, I knew something was wrong. You never call in. Now I know why.” Ash’s expression grew stern. “Well did you?”

  “No,” Sloane replied through his teeth. “I did not fuck my partner.”

  “But you wanted to.” It was more a statement and less a question, which Sloane didn’t appreciate. Mostly because Ash was right, and they both knew it.

  Sloane folded his arms over his chest. “You have five seconds to tell me what you want.”

  “Fine. I thought I should let you know your lunatic of a partner went running after some punk on a bike.” Ash dug into his pocket and pulled out a rock. Sloane stiffened, his heart hammering when he saw faint blood stains. “Hit him in the head with this. He’s okay. Bled some, but nothing serious.”

  Sloane grabbed his boots from the shoe rack. “Jesus, Ash, and you didn’t think to go with him?”

  “He was fine. Besides, he can handle himself. It was some little prick. If you ask me, the guy deserves to get the shit kicked out of him for being a fucking Eagles fan.”

  “Wait, what?” Sloane’s stomach plummeted. He grabbed Ash’s shoulders. “What did this guy look like?”

  “About five nine, five ten, scruffy jeans, black hoodie, some lame ass band T-shirt, and a stupid Eagles cap.”

  “Shit. That guy was at the bar last night. Call for backup!” Sloane threw his boots off and started stripping. He didn’t know what the hell was going on but it couldn’t be a coincidence. Had Eagles cap guy followed them home? Had he been watching them? How else would he know where to find Dex?

  “Are you going to shift?”

  “Dex is in trouble! And track him. He was wearing his com when he left.” As he quickly removed all his clothes, he prayed Dex was okay. He had to be.

  Oh God, what if he got there and Dex was…. He couldn’t think that. He couldn’t think about anything else other than getting to Dex. As he stripped down completely, hearing Ash on his cell phone behind him, Sloane closed his eyes, took a deep breath and forced his Human side to retreat. His muscles tensed and pulled, his teeth gritted against the agonizing pain as his Therian side tore through him, clawing and twisting to come out. His vision blurred before it became sharper, his sense of smell intensifying as his mass shifted, his skin stretched and contracted, his fur piercing his flesh as it surfaced.

  As the pain deepened, all he could think about was Dex. Please let me get to him in time.

  DEX HAD taken two of the thugs down before half a dozen more jumped him. He had enough time to tighten his abs when the baseball bat collided with them, knocking the wind out of him. He doubled over and fell to his knees, hugging his abdomen. They didn’t give him a chance to get up, the bat hitting him on his back and sending him sprawling forward. He curled in on himself, protecting his head, the coppery taste of blood in his mouth as they kicked him in the ribs.

  “Stay away from the HumaniTherians case, Daley.” It was the jerk he’d stupidly followed right into an ambush. How the hell had the guy found him? Smart move, Dex. “And stay away from Sloane Brodie.”

  “What?” Dex wheezed, when the baseball bat collided with his arm. He let out a sharp cry, the pain in his side almost as bad as the one in his head. His face throbbed from where it had rubbed against the wooden planks of the pier when he’d hit it the first time. He felt sick, and he knew the only reason he hadn’t thrown up was because his stomach was empty. He’d promised Sloane he’d fight back, and he had, at first. They didn’t want to kill him, only beat the shit out of him. He was so tired of getting beat up.

  There was no point in asking questions. These guys had been paid to hurt him, to warn him off. They clearly didn’t know him. Dex tried to move despite his bruised and battered body, but he didn’t get anywhere, a boot clamping down on his back and slamming him back into the pier. Dex sputtered rainwater, gasping as his lungs struggled to take in air. A roar shook the windows around them, and a large black body appeared in the distance. He couldn’t see very clearly, but he didn’t have to. He smiled through the sharp sting on his lip.

  “You’re all fucked now,” Dex murmured as the black mass swiftly approached. He heard the thugs cursing and making a run for it, scrambling away as fast as they could in all directions. Sloane sped past, his roars and hisses echoing in Dex’s ears. There were sharp cries and pleas, and although Dex knew Sloane wouldn’t kill anyone, his partner wasn’t against delivering a few permanent scars.

  His lids grew heavy as his world filled with sirens and shouting. Defense agents with rifles flooded out of trucks, HPF officers scoured the perimeter, guns in hand. His partner hadn’t just brought the cavalry out for him, but the whole fucking army. Something huffed over Dex, and he reached up, barely aware of how badly his hand was shaking. Sloane appeared before him and despite the pain it brought to his lips, Dex couldn’t keep from smiling when his partner put his muzzle to his hand, his chainsaw-like purr sending vibrations down Dex’s arm.

  Despite his blurred vision and the darkness that crept in around him, Dex couldn’t understand how anyone could hate such a beautiful soul. He rolled slightly back, his whole body searing with pain as he shivered violently. Then all at once, he was warmer. Sloane lay against him, his tail curled protectively over Dex’s legs, his fur and mass emanating warmth. He laid his head gently against Dex’s. A raindrop landed awkwardly in Sloane’s ear and it twitched as if he were nothing more than a big house cat. Somewhere close by, he could hear Ash calling out to him, telling him to hang on, that help was coming.

  “Not the Therian! He’s a THIRDS agent!” Ash shouted. “That’s his partner! Round up those assholes in the truck and don’t worry about being gentle. What’s that? Oh, he wants to bitch about being clawed? Bring him here. I’ll give him something to really bitch about!”

  Sloane’s ears went flat, and he bared his teeth, hissing at the paramedics as they cautiously approached. Ash ran over and crouched down in front of them. He put his hand to Sloane’s head, receiving a soft mewl.

  “Sloane, come on, buddy. Dex needs medical attention. You gotta let them do their thing. They’re here to help him.”

  Sloane huffed and turned his head to Dex, nudging him, a soft growl escaping him. Dex put his hand to Sloane’s nose and smiled. “S’okay.” A wide pink tongue licked at his hand and Dex scrunched his nose. His voice was hoarse when he spoke. “Ew, that’s gross, man.”

  Sloane closed his eyes, his muzzle wrinkling before he stood and padded to one side. Dex kept his eyes on him as the paramedics made their assessment before moving him onto a gurney, causing him to cry out at the pain when someone hit a sore spot. Sloane let out a thunderous roar, and Dex put a hand out to quiet him. The last thing he saw before he blacked out was bright amber eyes watching over him.

  “THIS IS all my fault.”

  Despite being in a private room that resembled more a bedroom than a hospital room, Sloane still couldn’t feel at ease. Normally, he wouldn’t have stepped foot inside one of these places, but they’d brought Dex to the New York Presbyterian Hospital, the THIRDS preferred medical facility
. There were some perks to working for his organization, and outstanding medical treatment was one of them. It wasn’t the service, however, that made Sloane anxious, but the deep-rooted anxieties it brought out in him. Still, he couldn’t leave Dex. He had to know his partner was okay. He had to apologize, had to…. God, he didn’t know what he had to do. He knew he’d fucked up, and now Dex was lying in a hospital bed. How was Sloane going to face Maddock and Cael knowing he’d let this happen?

  “Hey, stop for a second.” Ash took hold of his shoulders, stopping him from pacing a hole in the pristine carpet. “Are you okay?” He motioned around them. “In here, I mean.”

  Sloane breathed in deep and let it out slowly. He appreciated Ash’s attentiveness. “I’m fine.” He wasn’t. Not by a long shot. But he couldn’t leave. He deserved this for what he’d done. Dex had been nothing but supportive, making him smile, laugh, making him feel things he hadn’t felt in so damn long, and what had Sloane given him in return? A lump formed in his throat at the sight of Dex under the white sheets, his tan skin covered in ugly bruises, cuts, and scrapes. The medical staff had taken x-rays, and the doctor confirmed there was nothing broken or torn. There was some swelling, and Dex would be in a lot of pain for a couple of weeks. Most surprising of all was when the doctor stated the assailants had gone easy on Dex. Like they were trying to hurt him, but not cause any real damage. It was unlike any assault he’d ever come across.

  “Oh my God!”

  The heartbroken expression on Cael’s face hit Sloane hard, and he found himself unable to do anything other than watch Cael rush to his brother’s bedside. He reached for Dex’s face then hesitated. There was a nasty bump on his brow from where the rock had hit him, and despite the amount of blood it had let out, it hadn’t needed any stitches. There was a small cut over his nose, nasty scratches down the right side of his face, his bottom lip was bruised at the corner, and there was another bruise on his left cheek. In the end, Cael opted for gently brushing Dex’s hair away from his brow.

  “What happened?” Cael asked, his voice so low it was almost a whisper.

  “Dex crashed on my couch last night. I was going to take him home, but he passed out in the car, and I didn’t know where he lived. Anyway, we had an argument this morning and he left. I thought he’d gone into work when Ash showed up.” He and Ash had given their statements to Recon agents as soon as they’d arrived at the hospital. That had been difficult when all Sloane had wanted was to be at Dex’s side. But there wasn’t much else he could do while the medical staff wheeled Dex away for emergency treatment to rule out any internal hemorrhaging, swelling, or broken bones.

  Ash recounted everything that had happened while he’d stood outside with Dex, and Sloane confirmed it. “I remember the guy from the bar. Dex actually pointed him out. Thought he was interested in me. Now I know he was interested in something else. I gave Recon a description and they’re getting Intel to run it through Themis. Soon as they get a hit, they’re putting an APB out. Defense agents are putting the screws on the guys who didn’t get away.”

  Cael nodded, and Sloane stepped up to him, tentatively putting a hand on the younger Therian’s shoulder. “I’m so sorry, Cael. I should have looked after him better.” Cael shifted his gaze to Sloane, the anger in his eyes was expected, but when Cael spoke, Sloane had expected that anger to be directed at him.

  “It’s not your fault. You’re his partner, not his babysitter. He’s a fucking THIRDS agent for Christ’s sake. He knows better!” Cael shook his head, tears in his eyes. “He’s always doing stupid shit like this. He gets hurt or pissed off and instead of doing something about it or talking to someone, he keeps it all inside until he ends up doing something fucking stupid. Asshole.”

  “Hey.” Sloane drew Cael into his arms and hugged him close. “It’s okay. He’s going to be okay. I know it looks bad, but it’s mostly bruising. The doctor gave him a sedative so he could rest.”

  “What about the next time?” Cael replied hoarsely. “Dad’s going to be so pissed at him. Good. He deserves an ass kicking.” He pulled back and wiped at his eyes with his hoodie’s sleeve.

  Seeing Cael like this, out of his uniform, looking so vulnerable and small, he was reminded how young Cael was, and how much responsibility Sloane now carried. He’d failed to protect Cael’s big brother. The way the kid looked up to Dex, the admiration in his eyes, the way he looked out for him, boasted about him…. Sloane had forgotten that kind of love existed.

  “I’m gonna go get him some coffee for when he wakes up, or he’ll start bitching,” Cael grumbled, leaving the room.

  Sloane let out a heavy sigh and dropped down into the pale green two-seater beside Dex’s bed.

  “Stop it.” Ash walked over and dropped down next to him, putting an arm around him.

  “Ash, he was pissed off I didn’t tell him about me and Gabe.”

  After some thought, Ash shrugged his large shoulders. “It was your decision to make.”

  “Yeah, but he’s my partner. I should have trusted him. Instead he had to hear it from that prick, Isaac.” Out of all the people who could have walked into the garage to help Dex, why did it have to be Isaac Pearce? Sloane was grateful the guy had shown up when he did, but out of all the other HPF officers who had most likely been in that courthouse, why him?

  “Wait, Dex knows Isaac?”

  “Kind of. He helped Dex out, then invited him for a drink.”

  Ash hummed. “Did Dex say what they talked about?”

  “Other than him telling Dex about Gabe, I have no idea. I don’t even know why he would tell Dex anyway. What does Dex have to do with it other than he’s my new partner?”

  “Probably looking to stir shit up. The guy’s a royal jackoff.” Ash removed his arm from around Sloane and sat forward to look at him. “What’s going on?”

  Sloane sat back. “I’m fine.”

  “Really? Because this….” He motioned at Sloane in general. “This doesn’t look like fine. It looks a lot like trouble. He’s not Gabe.”

  “I know that,” Sloane snapped, irritated. If he’d only acknowledged that in the beginning, none of this would have happened. “Dex is nothing like Gabe.” The two were as different as night and day. Gabe with his dark eyes, his shy smile and quiet laugh, always calm and collected. He’d always known what he’d wanted and how to get it. Dex was confident, but a good deal of the time, he hid his insecurities behind his smile and jokes. He was a charmer, hot-blooded, and full of life. Vibrant, loud, and enthusiastic. Gabe had made Sloane feel secure, appreciated, loved. Dex made him feel like his body was on fire from the inside out, as if he was the only guy in the room. The way he looked at Sloane… was as if all he could see were the good things in him, as if the terrible, frightening, ugly parts didn’t exist.

  There was a low groan and Sloane jumped to his feet as Dex’s eyes slowly fluttered open. “Hey, you’re awake.” He reached out to take Dex’s hand but Dex moved it away, scratching the back of it where the IV was.

  “Damn this is itchy.” His voice was raspy and groggy, but it was music to Sloane’s ears.

  Sloane couldn’t help his smile. “Yeah, they’re pretty annoying. I’m glad you’re awake. How do you feel?” Dex arched an eyebrow at him and Sloane cringed. “Right. Dumb question.” He bit his bottom lip and decided the hell with it. “I’m sorry, Dex. I’m so sorry.”

  “No,” Dex said firmly, his mouth in a tight line.

  Sloane braced himself. He would take whatever Dex threw at him. It was the least he deserved.

  “Don’t you dare blame yourself for this. I was stupid. I didn’t use my head.”

  Wait, was Dex reassuring him? After everything he’d done? “Yeah, but if I hadn’t been such a complete jerk, you wouldn’t have left, and—”

  “And they would have come after me somewhere else.”

  “When I saw you there on the pier, bleeding….” His heart did a little flip when Dex smiled up at him. How was it the guy always knew what to
say or do where Sloane was concerned?

  “Hey, one thing you’ll learn about me is I have a pretty thick skull, and as you’ve probably noticed, I get beat up a lot. Like, more than is normal. It must be my charm. It brings all the boys to the yard. I would teach you, but I’d have to charge.”

  Sloane felt the back of his eyes sting, but he quickly pushed that sentiment away. “You’re such an ass. I’m glad they didn’t damage your cheesy sense of humor.”

  “Hey, Dex.”

  Dex shifted his gaze to Ash, his smile pleasant. “Simba.”

  Ash looked unimpressed. “I should pull the plug. Put you out of your misery.”

  “You don’t need to pull the plug for that, just cover your face. I think there’s a bedpan around here you could use. Probably less full of—”

  “Dex!” His partner had the ever-living shit kicked out of him, yet was fine enough to continue his little feud with Ash. Amazing.

  “Sorry,” Dex murmured.


  Sloane gave Ash a sidelong glance of utter disbelief. “Really?”


  Casting his best friend one last warning glare, Sloane turned back to Dex. “Hey, I know you’re feeling like shit right now, but what can you tell me about what happened?” Dex patted the bed, looking for the tiny remote, and Sloane slid it into his reach, waiting as the bed slowly raised Dex into a sitting position. The fact that Dex sucked in a sharp breath and winced with the bed’s leisurely pace gave Sloane an idea how much pain he was in. Sloane expected the doctor would prescribe some hefty painkillers. When the bed finally reached its destination, Dex started talking.

  “I didn’t realize the guy was the same one from the club until it was too late. Also, I was stupidly too worked up to pay attention like I should have been. It was a warning. He told me I needed to back off the HumaniTherians case….” Dex bit his bottom lip, his gaze darting to Ash and back.

  Ash held his hands up. “Fine. I’ll be outside, but keep in mind, Maddock’s gonna be here soon.”

  Sloane thanked his friend, turning his attention back to Dex. “What is it?” Dex didn’t shy away from his gaze when he spoke.

  “He told me to stay away from you.”

  “None of this makes any sense. We’ve been working the HumaniTherians case for months before you were recruited. Why the warning now? And why you?”

  “And what does it have to do with you?” Dex shook his head with a groan. “This felt… odd.”

  Sloane cocked his head to one side. “What do you mean?”

  “It felt like, I don’t know, like the time in the garage.”

  “You think it was the same guys who arranged this?”

  “I don’t think so. That had been about the trial, this was about this case. But it had the same feeling, like it was…. This is going to sound crazy, but almost, friendly.”

  “You’re right, that does sound crazy.” Sloane recalled the doctor’s words. “But now that you mention it, the doctor said something about this being one of the strangest assaults he’d ever seen. They didn’t cause any real damage, as if they’d been specifically instructed not to really hurt you.”

  Dex’s eyes widened. “Well they did fucking hurt me, hurt me a lot if you haven’t noticed.”

  “You know what I mean. They could have killed you, Dex, or put you in a fucking coma. Instead, they banged you up, warned you to stay away. This was done by someone who knows you, maybe not personally, but they know who you are.”

  The air seemed to have been sucked out of the room when Sloane’s words sank in. Shit, someone Dex knew had paid to warn him off.

  “I think we need my dad here,” Dex said.

  Sloane walked to the door and poked his head out. Ash was sitting in the seat next to the door, his arm around Cael’s shoulders, comforting him. “Hey, Ash.”

  Ash shifted to look up at him. “Yeah?”

  “Can you call Maddock? We need him to get over here, now.”

  “Everything okay?”

  “Yeah, call him up for me, will you?”

  Ash looked uncertain but nodded. Sloane thanked him and went back inside to let Dex know, but in the meantime, now that he knew Dex was out of danger, he could address his frustration. He sat at the edge of the bed, glowering at him.

  “I can’t believe you took off after that guy. What the hell were you thinking?”

  “I was thinking fucker threw a rock at my head, it hurt, and now I’m going to kick his ass.”

  “And look how well that turned out,” Sloane drawled, gently reaching out to inspect Dex’s brow. “You scared the shit out of me, Dex.” His gaze came to rest on Dex’s questioning look when the door to the room burst open and Maddock stormed in.

  “I was parking when Ash called. Came as soon as I could.” Maddock kissed the top of Dex’s head, and Sloane was reminded once again of his sergeant’s other life. How did Maddock do it? Watch his kids go off into the fray every day and not worry himself shitless?

  “I’m okay,” Dex groaned at his dad’s fussing.

  “Ash told me what happened. I want to tear you a new one right now for running after that punk, but….” Maddock let out a heavy sigh. “I’m glad you’re okay. I spoke to HQ. The guys we got locked up all say the same thing, that they were hired by some guy in an Eagles baseball cap just this morning and instructed on where to be. They were told to get you on your own and beat you, but be careful with you, which we all agreed made no fucking sense. Themis got a hit on our guy in the baseball cap. Ford Wallace. He’s got priors. Assault with a deadly weapon, armed robbery, theft, among a host of other things. Themis has surveillance of Wallace leaving the bar shortly after the both of you last night. There’s more footage of him following you to Sloane’s apartment. He was smart. Kept a good distance. Unfortunately we haven’t been able to locate any feeds close enough to Sloane’s place to catch him. It’s likely he followed you both home and waited for you. Don’t know what he would have done if you’d both left the apartment at the same time. Recon is searching for him now. What do you remember?”

  Dex looked over at Sloane who nodded his okay. They had to get down to the bottom of this. Just when they thought this case couldn’t get any worse.

  “They warned me to stay away from the HumaniTherians case and from Sloane.”

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