Rise amp fall, p.3
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       Rise & Fall, p.3
 

         Part #4 of THIRDS series by Charlie Cochet

  Chapter 2

  “I’D LIKE to take a moment to thank each and every one of you for your hard work, dedication, and perseverance. This has been a difficult month for Unit Alpha, especially for Destructive Delta. Sloane Brodie and Ash Keeler are two of our most experienced Therian Defense agents, and we wish them a speedy recovery.”

  Lieutenant Sparks stood behind the sleek black podium at the front of the expansive conference room in her signature white pantsuit and five-inch heels giving a speech on Unit Alpha’s performance and how pleased the higher-ups were with the results. Thanks to Destructive Delta’s hard work, Reyes was behind bars, though not before handing Sloane a list of the remaining active members of the Order during their intense interrogation session. Because of Ash’s undercover work, the Coalition was disbanded, for the most part, and the members who’d been arrested the night of the trade-off were starting to crack under the pressure. So far none of them knew where to find Hogan as the guy never spent more than a couple of nights in the same place, but they were able to provide a list of previous hideouts along with interesting facts Dex hoped would turn into leads.

  At the office, everything was business as usual. Not that he’d expected Unit Alpha to come to a standstill after what happened to Sloane and Ash, but it was an odd feeling, witnessing the world go on as if nothing had happened. Then again, that was the job. No matter what was going on around you, you had a duty to perform, and Dex was looking forward to getting on with his duty by catching that son of a bitch Beck Hogan.

  “I’m happy to report agent Brodie has been transferred from ICU to a private room where he’ll be monitored until the doctor sees fit to discharge him. He has a long recovery ahead of him, and I’m certain he’ll appreciate your well wishes. HR will be arranging a party for him upon his return. They’ll be sending a memo closer to the time.

  “Now, as you all know, this case was issued a Threat Level Red. Beck Hogan is our priority, and we’ve been given the all clear from the Chief of Therian Defense to bring Hogan in using any means necessary. Hogan and what remains of the Coalition have gone underground, but our SSA on this case has informed us they’re still in the city. We believe Hogan won’t be going anywhere until he’s finished what he started.”

  Dex’s jaw muscles clenched. Well that made two of them. Until Hogan paid for what he’d done, Dex wasn’t going anywhere. There was no safe place for Hogan to hide.

  A hand landed on his shoulder, and Dex tilted his head back to find his brother giving him a warm, sympathetic smile. Dex returned the gesture with an added wink to ease his little brother’s concern. They’d texted while Dex was at the hospital, but it had been days since they’d really talked, which wasn’t like them. He’d have to set some time aside to hang with his bro. The screen above Sparks came to life, catching Dex’s attention. It showed eight mug shots, a few of them already familiar to Dex and his team.

  “Hogan and his followers have been hunting down these Humans. Former members of the Westward Creed who were responsible for the deaths of several Therians during the Riots of 1985. Among the Therians killed, we’ve discovered two of them were related to Hogan. His mother and sister. All except for two of the Westward Creed went on to become members of the Order. As it stands, Angel Reyes and Richard Esteban are in prison. Albert Cristo and Craig Martin are deceased, as is Toby Leith.” Sparks tapped the podium’s interactive surface zooming in on three of the mug shots, one of which was labeled deceased. Wait a minute. When the hell had that happened? As if reading his mind, Sparks answered.

  “Leith was found by the HPF late last night over in the Bronx. A large Felid Therian mauled him to death. Evidence suggests it was Hogan himself. We expect Hogan to go after the remaining members, Ox Perry and Brick Jackson. We’re attempting to make contact, but it looks like they’ve caught on to Hogan’s plan and have gone underground as well. Since our SSA informs us Hogan and his crew are still somewhere in the city, it’s safe to assume the same goes for Perry and Jackson.”

  Dex held a hand up. “Excuse me, Lieutenant? Why wasn’t Destructive Delta called out for Leith’s murder?” Even if he was in the hospital, he would have been called in, or at the very least his team, and he knew for a fact Destructive Delta hadn’t been out in the field since Ash had been shot. What the hell was going on?

  “Because Destructive Delta is no longer working this case.”

  Dex launched to his feet. “I’m sorry, what?”

  “You’re to gather whatever intel you have on Perry and Jackson, finish any pending reports from this case, and submit them to Themis. As of this moment, Team Leader Sebastian Hobbs will handle Hogan and his crew. His team, Theta Destructive, will be the lead team on this. Destructive Delta is officially on leave.”

  Cael gasped behind Dex. “On leave?”

  “For how long?” Dex asked. He was having trouble processing the blow they’d been delivered.

  “Until I feel the team is no longer under threat from Hogan and his crew. I want you all in secure locations watching your backs. Protective details will be assigned where necessary. You’ve nearly lost two agents. Let’s not go for a third. You and your team are dismissed. I expect those reports by the end of the week.”

  “But—”

  Sparks’s piercing blue eyes pinned Dex with a subtle warning, her tone firm. “Dismissed, Agent Daley.”

  The room was deadly silent with none of the other agents daring to make eye contact with him. This couldn’t be happening. Dex left the room with the rest of his team on his heels. He headed for his office, not giving a second thought to the fact everyone was following him. Numbly, he dropped down into his chair. The door to his and Sloane’s office swished closed, and the walls went white, sending the room into privacy mode before Letty exploded, startling Dex.

  “This is motherfucking bullshit!” Letty fumed, pacing from one end of the office to the other, her sparkling brown eyes ablaze. “How can she pull us off the case? She saw what those assholes did to Ash! They fucking shot him. Son of a bitch ordered his little bitches to kill him, and then they almost killed Sloane! Mierda. Carajo!” She let out a frustrated growl, looking like she was about to punch something. Rosa grabbed her by the shoulders and brought her pacing to a halt.

  “Oye, calmate,” Rosa ordered in Spanish. She said something else to Letty in Spanish Dex couldn’t understand, but there were definitely some colorful expletives thrown in there. She subtly nodded toward Dex, but he’d caught on to it. Letty inhaled deeply and let it out slowly before turning to him.

  “I’m sorry, Dex. This is fucked up.”

  All Dex could do was nod. He glanced up to find his team standing behind Sloane’s desk, all watching him.

  “What?”

  “Are you okay?” Calvin asked from beside Hobbs who looked equally worried. “You’re quiet. I thought you’d be….”

  “Flipping your shit,” Letty finished.

  “Leave him alone,” Rosa huffed and came around the desk to wrap her arms around Dex’s neck. She gave him a comforting squeeze before pulling away. “Come on. There’s nothing we can do. Sparks gave her orders. You all best watch your backs. I don’t trust any of those putas.” Rosa turned to Cael, asking him where he was going to stay. Cael mentioned something about hanging out at Tony’s, and Dex might have heard his brother say his name, but he was too focused on trying to remain calm and not flipping his shit as Letty had suggested. The rest of his team left the office one by one, each giving Dex a reassuring pat on the shoulder, insisting he call if he or Sloane needed anything. Cael was the only one who stayed behind.

  This had to be a mistake. Sparks couldn’t take them off the case. They’d been working this thing for months. First they’d gone up against the Order. Then Ash had risked his life to infiltrate the Coalition. The bastards had tried to kill him for it. And what they did to Sloane….

  “Sparks.” Dex shot to his feet. “I need to talk to Sparks. This has to be a mistake.” He turned for the door when Cael stepped
in front of him, his hands to Dex’s chest to stop him.

  “Don’t.” His little brother looked up at him, his big silver eyes pleading. “Don’t do anything stupid, Dex. Sparks isn’t Dad. She’ll suspend you if she thinks you’re going to be a problem. She’s done it before.”

  “I need to know why.” Besides, what would be the point of suspending him if he was already on leave and off duty? Surely she wouldn’t ask for his badge and gun for a simple question. She might be a hard-ass, but she was fair and reasonable. “I need to know why.”

  Cael’s arms dropped to his side, his voice quiet. “Sometimes we don’t get a why, Dex, no matter how bad we want one.”

  Dex hated seeing his brother looking so miserable. Cael was referring to more than their current situation. His brother was still hurting over Ash’s rejection. Even after admitting there was more than friendship between them. Hell, the guy had taken a bullet for Cael. Ash obviously had his reasons, but why wouldn’t he share those reasons with the guy he was so crazy about he would die for?

  “Lieutenant Sparks rarely pulls a team from a case,” Cael added, seeming to gather himself. “If she does, it’s for a good reason.”

  Dex didn’t reply. Mostly because he refused to accept the decision or whatever reason was behind it.

  Cael motioned to the door behind him. “I’m heading home to pack. I’m gonna hang at Dad’s for a while. You know his place is like a fortress. If the Zombie Apocalypse ever comes, you know where to find me. Sparks will probably reassign him until we’re brought back in. You should stay with us. It’ll be fun.”

  “Thanks, bro, but Sloane’s staying with me while he recovers.” Dex was really looking forward to spending some time with his partner, just the two of them. Looked like he was going to have a little more free time than he’d expected.

  “Right. Sorry. Dad mentioned it. How is Sloane?”

  Dex felt his heart squeeze in his chest and his anger flaring up, but he tamped it down. He didn’t want to end up snapping at his brother. It wasn’t Cael’s fault, and he had his own worries. He didn’t need Dex being an asshat. “He’s pretty banged up, and he’s got muscle weakness in his right leg, so he’s going to be placed on a mobility plan, plus therapy.”

  “Shit. How long?”

  “Doctor said in Sloane’s shape it should take a month at most. If not it could be two to three months before strength in his leg muscles return. Sloane’s really worried about it.”

  “Of course he is,” Cael said, shoving his hands in his pockets, his expression turning somber. “Large Felids don’t do well in small enclosures for extended periods of time. They need space.” He seemed to drift off into his thoughts again, and Dex had no doubt which Felid Cael was thinking about.

  Dex took a seat on the edge of his desk, reminding himself his little brother wasn’t so little anymore. Cael didn’t need him riding in and fighting his wars for him, making a fuss and coddling him. But nothing was going to stop Dex from being there for his brother like he’d always been. “How are you holding up?”

  Cael shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m trying to keep myself busy. I don’t want to think about it. It’s easier with him not being here.”

  “You miss him, don’t you?” Falling fast and hard was a trait he and his brother shared, and despite Cael’s initial reaction to Ash’s rejection, his brother had put away his claws—for the time being anyway. Dex had expected Cael to shred Ash to pieces for breaking his heart, but instead, Cael was licking his wounds and regrouping. It would appear his brother knew how to handle Ash better than anyone. Dex had witnessed it himself countless times and been stunned stupid. If Cael could manage before, he’d do it again. It was only a matter of time.

  Cael let out a heart-wrenching sigh. “I’ve wanted to call him so many times, but I kept thinking about that day in the hospital. Whatever it is he’s dealing with, it’s important to him. I wish he’d confide in me.”

  “Give him some time.”

  “Thanks, Dex.” Cael gave him a small smile. He walked over and gave Dex a hug. “Be careful.”

  Dex returned his brother’s embrace. “I will,” he promised. Cael left, and Dex sat in the silent office on his own, his gaze landing on the empty chair across from him. Right now, Sloane should have been sitting there, telling Dex he hadn’t had enough coffee to deal with his shenanigans. Damn it, he needed answers.

  Determined, he left the office and made his way through Unit Alpha’s bullpen, aware of the concerned gazes following him. The door to Lieutenant Sparks’s office was open, and she was typing away at her desk’s interface. Before he could knock, she addressed him without having to look up.

  “Come in, Agent Daley. Please close the door behind you.”

  “How…?”

  “Your scent.” She stopped typing and met his gaze. “You’re the only agent in Unit Alpha who uses a Citrus Splash and Berry Fusion body wash.”

  Damn. His eyes landed on the mark on her neck. Right. Cougar Therian. Smell. He wondered if she recognized every agent by their shower gel or if his was weird enough to stand out. Most likely the latter.

  “Can I speak with you a moment?”

  “Of course.” She motioned to one of the two empty chairs in front of her sleek black desk. “I know you don’t agree with my decision.”

  Dex sat and pretended he wasn’t as nervous as he felt. Sparks wasn’t just intimidating as a Therian and commanding officer. She had a way about her and a gaze that made him feel like she could uncover his deepest darkest secrets. Sloane was mysterious. Sparks was an enigma. It was like she was made up of the job and nothing else.

  “With all due respect, Lieutenant, no I don’t. How can you pull us off the case after all the work we put into it, after everything we’ve been through?”

  “That’s precisely why I’m reassigning the case, Agent Daley. You’re two agents down, and one of those agents is your Team Leader. They’re also the most experienced members of your team.”

  Agents were shuffled around where they were needed, when they were needed. When Hobbs and Cael had been in the hospital, Taylor had been called in to back up Destructive Delta. Couldn’t she do it now? “Yes, but you can temporarily assign someone.”

  “I can, but I’m not going to.”

  “Why?” He tried not to come off as insubordinate, but he needed to understand. It would seem needing to know ran in the family. Not a great trait to have when working for an organization often insisting they didn’t need to know. To his surprise, Sparks’s expression turned sympathetic.

  “I’ve been doing this job a long time, Agent Daley. When a team is hit this close to home, it’s difficult to maintain objectivity. I assure you, it has no bearing on your professionalism. Over two years ago, Destructive Delta suffered the loss of one of their own, a loss they found difficult to recover from. They performed their duties admirably, but the strain was beginning to show. Then you came along and inspired them. From the moment Sergeant Maddock suggested you as a possible candidate, I knew I’d found the right fit for Destructive Delta. However, you’ve also had an intense first year. Not many rookies have endured what you have in such a short period of time. I should have sent you on leave earlier, but you possess a resilience and ability to endure I admire. You have a lot of potential.”

  “Then why not let me work this case?”

  “Because Hogan has issued a threat against your team, two members of which he’s successfully put out of commission. I won’t put the rest of the team at risk. Destructive Delta needs a break whether you agree or not. Sebastian Hobbs is more than capable. Go home, check on your partner, make sure you’re both safe. Maddock informed me Sloane will be staying with you. I’m putting a protective detail one block away from your residence. If at any point you feel you’re in danger, call it in. I know this is difficult, but my decision is final. You’ll have access to Themis until the end of the week. Finish your reports, and Maddock will notify you the moment anything changes.”

  Ther
e was no point in arguing. Lieutenant Sparks had made up her mind, and nothing Dex could say would change it. Her argument was sound but didn’t change the way Dex felt about it. Feeling annoyed and pissed off, he opened his mouth before thinking.

  “And the decision to withhold vital medical information that nearly killed Sloane? Whose decision was that?”

  Something flashed in Sparks’s steel blue eyes, and Dex realized only too late he’d stuck his foot in it. Again.

  “Agent Daley, I highly recommend you use caution when challenging decisions against your superiors. The Chief of Therian Defense is not a patient Therian. I understand your anger and frustration. Agent Brodie is your partner, and I hope you believe me when I say I fight tooth and nail to protect my agents. However, I will remind you there is an order to things. One we may not understand or agree with, but necessary nonetheless. I assure you, the decision did not come lightly.”

  In other words, Sparks had no say in the matter. It hardly eased his mind or made it any less fucked-up, but the last thing he wanted to do was piss off his lieutenant. With a curt nod, he got up and headed for the door when Sparks called out to him.

  “Oh, and you’ll be receiving a call from PR. They’d like to set up a meeting to discuss possible campaigns. I approved the request. It’ll be good for you and the department in light of recent events. Plus it’ll keep your mind off the case.”

  Are you fucking kidding me? He turned to her and mustered up a smile. “Sure.” He excused himself and left before he could explode. They’d taken him off the case, but they wanted him to go out there, smile, put on the charm, and tell everyone how awesome and shiny everything was? This day was getting better and better.

  He headed for the locker room in Unit Alpha. It would be a lot less crowded than the one down in Sparta’s training bays. At least he wouldn’t have to worry about training for a while, though he should probably make use of the free gym membership the THIRDS provided. With Sloane staying with him, Dex had no doubt his partner would attempt to convince him to swap his yummy snacks for something healthy. When had vegetables become a snack? It was bad enough they’d forced their way onto dinner plates, now they wanted to take over snack time too? He was so lost in his thoughts he almost ran right into Seb.

  “Shit. Sorry, man.”

  “No problem, Dex. I was coming to find you. I gave you clearance to access the intel on Leith in case you needed to add any additional information.” Seb gave him a sympathetic smile. “If you need anything at all, I’m here to help.”

  “Thanks.”

  It was easy to forget Hobbs had older brothers since Dex rarely ever saw Hobbs in their company. Then again, the last time the three brothers had been in the same room, it had been a complete clusterfuck, and Hobbs had been unconscious. There was a lot of bad blood between Rafe—the eldest of the brothers—and Seb. It didn’t help that Rafe was an even bigger asshole than Ash. Was it even possible?

  The resemblance between Seb and Ethan Hobbs was clear, from their bright green eyes with smile lines at the corners to their jet black hair—though Seb’s was interspersed with some silver here and there—and their chiseled jaws. Both were rugged, friendly, and huge, with Seb somehow being even bigger than his little brother. Tiger Therians were the biggest of the Felid Therians. They weighed a goddamn ton in both Human and Therian forms thanks to all the muscle mass. Dex had learned a hell of a lot about the larger Felid Therians since joining the THIRDS, and from being partnered with one. Enough to know it was in his best interest to remain alert around them. They could go from sweet and cuddly to tear-your-throat-out pissed off in seconds. Like they had two personalities. One loved you, and the other would make a meal out of you. And not in a good way. Cheetah Therians were different. They reminded Dex more of Canid Therians. They had plenty of Felid qualities, but they were more affectionate, less confrontational, and more laid back.

  “I’m really sorry, Dex. You know I wouldn’t have asked for this.”

  Seb’s apology took Dex aback. This was a big opportunity for the guy. “I know, man. It’s okay. Congrats on the promotion.”

  “Thank you. I swear we’ll get Hogan.” Seb’s expression turned determined, and Dex appreciated his conviction, but it didn’t make him feel any better.

  “I know.” With a reassuring smile, Dex went on his way.

  It wasn’t Seb’s fault he’d been assigned the Hogan case. Years of obscurity after his fall from grace and a transfer from Destructive Delta, Seb was finally putting that part of his past behind him. He’d been handed his own team and a high-profile case. Good for him. Dex just wished it hadn’t been this case. Seb was a good agent, and Dex trusted him, but Destructive Delta should be the one bringing Hogan in.

  There were few agents in the locker room at this time of morning. Everyone was either out in the field or behind their desk. Dex hung his uniform shirt in his locker and stilled when it finally sank in. His team was off the case. Someone else was going after Beck Hogan. There was no telling what would happen. What if the guy decided to make a run for it? What if Hogan changed his mind and decided to cut his losses and disappear?

  Anger and frustration boiled up inside him until he couldn’t keep it in anymore. It tore through him with a fierce cry, and he slammed his locker door so hard it rattled the whole wall. It wasn’t enough. That son of a bitch was out there. First the THIRDS kept vital information to themselves, nearly killing Sloane, and now this? What if it had been Cael or one of their Human teammates? What if they’d been on leave to attend another funeral?

  With an enraged shout, Dex kicked at his locker before repeatedly jerking the door open and slamming it shut, each time with more force in an attempt to smash it to shit. He was vaguely aware of fellow agents hovering around him, but he didn’t care. His pulse was through the roof, and his face felt like it was on fire as he continued to beat the ever-living crap out of the inanimate object before him. An iron grip clamped down over his arm, and he spun on his heel, bringing his fist with him. He missed. A pair of tree-trunk arms wrapped around him, crushing him up against a hard body. What the fuck? Dex tried to struggle, his face pressed against someone’s chest when he heard soft words whispered by his ear.

  “It’s okay.”

  Dex stilled. He knew that voice, yet he was certain he’d never actually heard it so clearly before now. How was that possible? Shifting his head back slightly, he spotted the agent’s name embroidered on his uniform.

  E. Hobbs.

  “Hobbs?” The arms around him gave a squeeze, and something inside Dex burst. He clung on to Hobbs and buried his face against his chest. A large hand came to rest on the back of Dex’s head as he was held tight. Dex completely deflated. He allowed himself to be held onto, to be supported by his much larger teammate. He didn’t know how long he stood in Hobbs’s embrace, but when he pulled back, his face was hot and flushed, both from his little outburst and embarrassment. He took a seat on the bench in front of his locker, his gaze on his boots. Hobbs sat down beside him. Around them, the locker room was eerily silent with everyone having vacated the premises. If they didn’t think he was crazy before, they probably did now.

  “Sorry. I don’t know what came over me,” Dex muttered.

  Hobbs wrapped his arm around Dex’s shoulder. “S’Okay.”

  Damn. Two sentences—sort of—in a span of five minutes. Dex cast Hobbs a wary
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