Hell & high water, p.4
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       Hell & High Water, p.4

         Part #1 of THIRDS series by Charlie Cochet

  been? Lou had been the closest thing to a committed relationship Dex had ever had. There had been a lot of first-time moments.

  No point in analyzing it now. His relationship, much like his career at the HPF, was over. All he could do now was what he did best, throw himself into his work. This was his last chance. He had to make this work.

  Being a detective for the HPF meant he got shit from Humans, because that’s where his jurisdiction started and ended. Being an agent for the THIRDS meant he’d be getting shit from Humans and Therians. Double the fun. He couldn’t complain. It also meant he was getting double the pay and benefits, if he survived long enough to reap the rewards. Wait…. THIRDS, Therians, Alphas… predators.

  “Oh my God,” he gasped and abruptly clutched onto Tony’s arm as reality set in. “I’m going to be shredded like string cheese!” He’d been stabbed, shot, received broken bones, fractures, sprains, beatings, bruising, cuts, but he’d never come up against someone who could kill him with one bite.

  “What is it with you and cheese?” Tony pried Dex’s fingers off his arm and continued to walk, ignoring Dex’s near panicked state. As an HPF detective, Dex had never faced any Therians in their Therian form, not even docile ones. After all, shifting in public was considered a misdemeanor, right up there with indecent exposure, and once they were in their Therian form, if they committed a crime, they were the THIRDS’ responsibility. Now they were his responsibility, and he was going to be dealing with Therians who wiped their asses with the law.

  The closest Dex had ever gotten to being mauled was when Cael hit puberty and his first shift happened. Therians could control their shift but it was possible for an overly stressful moment to trigger a shift; which was why most first shifts happened when puberty hit and tended to happen spontaneously. Like every other young Therian going through the frightening ordeal for the first time, Cael went nuts. Despite having attended all the mandatory classes for Families with Therian Youth—which was meant to prepare them for that exact moment, they all panicked, and Cael managed to graze Dex’s leg with his claws before Tony got his hands on the First Shift Response Kit containing the necessary sedatives.

  As much as Dex understood it was still his little brother inside the cheetah Therian and that Cael hadn’t meant to hurt him, Dex’s blood all over the kitchen floor had left them all shaken. It was Tony who had then made certain his boys recovered, both physically and psychologically from the aftereffects. The faint scars on Dex’s leg no longer brought them the overwhelming guilt it once had—Tony for not preventing the near miss, Dex for being afraid of his own brother, and Cael for having hurt Dex.

  “I’m not being a drama queen here. I am about to shit a brick.”

  Tony stopped to give him a pointed look. “You want to survive, Rookie, you listen to your partner.”

  “Rookie?” What the hell? “I’ve been on the force ten years!”

  “The Human Police Force. In this world, you’re a rookie. You’ll be dealing with all the same nutjobs you were dealing with before, except now they have jaws and claws that will pull you apart like your favorite string cheese. Remember that. Jaws and claws. Repeat after me. Jaws.”

  He was serious. Dex took a deep breath and released it slowly, his anxiety giving way to irritation. “Jaws.”

  “And claws.”

  “And claws,” Dex said, enunciating each word. He had a terrible urge to make claws with his hands, but he got the feeling Tony might kick his ass. Still, it was tempting. Clearly his face must have said as much, because Tony jabbed a finger in his direction.

  “Don’t fuck around with this, Dex. I’m serious.”

  “Yeah, I can tell by the way that vein on the side of your head is throbbing.” He made to touch it only to have Tony smack his hand away.

  “Boy, you must be out of your damn mind. Are you listening to me?”

  “Yes, all right, I get it. Listen to my partner. Do you know who my partner is?”

  They came across a huge door that looked as if it was made from bulletproof glass with the words “Authorized Personnel Only” in large white letters displayed across it. Next to the door was another black screen like the one in the elevator. Was there anything on this floor besides walls and doors?

  “Let me remind you of something else that seems to be slipping your precious little mind. I’m your sergeant. I know shit before you do. I also have the power to make your life miserable.”

  Dex peered at him. “But you already do that.”

  “Yeah, but now I get to do it around the clock.” His evil grin had Dex taking a step back. Note to self—think before opening big mouth. “Also, if we’re on the clock, you address me as Maddock, Sarge, Sergeant, or Sir. Also, you’ll hear your brother referred to by his first name rather than surname. Less confusing.”

  “Got it, Sarge. So… would you care to elaborate on who my partner is?”

  “You’ll be meeting your team soon enough.” Tony gave him a smug grin and Dex cursed under his breath. That couldn’t be good. How could Tony hold out on him? The man had been there for Dex when he’d hooked up with his first boyfriend and then proceeded to get dumped by his first boyfriend and now recent ex-boyfriend. Tony had been there to explain the importance of condoms and lube—now that had been an awkward conversation. Why wouldn’t he tell him about his new partner? Was it that bad? Pearce’s words echoed in his head. Don’t expect a warm welcome.

  At the end of the short corridor was a set of twelve-foot-high glass-paned double doors. In bold white letters high above, it read: UNIT ALPHA. Well, here it was. Behind those doors lay a whole new life. A life he was either going to excel at, or totally crash and burn.

  Now that he stood with that title looming over him, he had a sudden bout of panic. What if he couldn’t hack it as a THIRDS agent? Sure, he had shined during the training, but this wasn’t training. He was part of a tactical team now, a team that included his family, his real family. If he failed, not only would he be letting them down, he could get them killed. Before those fears could burrow any deeper, a smooth male voice with a rich British accent called out from somewhere behind them. They turned to find a Therian male—whose markings on his neck stated he was a Canis Lupus—and a Human female in white lab coats quickly approaching.

  “Sergeant Maddock, can we have a moment, please?”

  “Hudson, Nina, great timing.” Tony turned to introduce Dex. “This is our newest recruit, Agent Dexter J. Daley. Dex, this is Destructive Delta’s medical examiner, Dr. Nina Bishop, and our chief medical examiner, Dr. Hudson Colbourn.”

  “Dr. Bishop, pleasure to meet you.” Dex took the woman’s hand with a smile. She was tall and slender with delicate features, deep brown eyes, and dark hair. She also had a sharp gaze that was currently sizing him up as she shook his hand. To Dex’s relief, her pursed lips soon gave way to a warm smile, and Dex let out the breath he’d been holding.

  “Pleasure’s all mine, Agent Daley.”

  Next to her was the chief medical examiner sporting trendy black-framed glasses. The Therian oozed elegance and confidence as he held out his hand. He was also pretty hot. “Nice to meet you, Dr. Colbourn.” The way the doctor eyed Dex said he wouldn’t mind giving Dex a personal examination. Shame they’d be working together. Dex never mixed business with pleasure. Even worse than relationship drama, was workplace relationship drama. He’d never been mixed up in it himself, but he’d seen enough at the HPF to scare him straight—so to speak. It was also against THIRDS policy.

  “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Agent Daley.”

  Dex grinned widely at Dr. Colbourn and beside him, Tony rolled his eyes.

  “Sergeant Maddock and Agent Cael talk about you so often, I feel like I already know you,” Colbourn added.

  “Lies, all lies,” Dex teased. “Except for the good parts. Those are all true.”

  Dr. Colbourn gave him a wink. “Well, we look forward to working with you. And we apologize for interrupting your induction, but we need
to borrow the sergeant. It concerns a case we’re in the middle of.”

  Tony let out a heavy sigh, his brows furrowed with unease. “The HumaniTherians case. Cael and his partner Rosa Santiago have been working it for weeks.”

  “Any leads?” Judging by Tony’s deepening scowl, Dex figured that was pretty much a “no.” Therian forensics was far more complicated than Human forensics, not to mention it was still in development, despite newer and more advanced Therian techniques coming to light all the time. Of course, that didn’t help when you were trying to work a Therian homicide and your victim resembled ground beef.

  “Nothing so far,” Tony replied grimly. “We’ve got a briefing scheduled this afternoon, so I’ll fill you in then. But it’s not looking good. Why don’t you find your way down to Sparta. I’ll introduce you to the rest of the team and continue the tour as soon as I finish up here. Then we’ll get you assigned a locker. Your details are already in the system, so use the identification pad in the elevator to go to level “B.”

  “Sure thing.”

  “There’s a lounge and a snack bar. Wait for me in either of those. Do not go wandering around.” Tony gave him a warning look before motioning for him to get lost.

  “Okay.” He didn’t know what Tony was so worried about. It wasn’t like he was going to go running around like a crazy person. The last thing he needed was for his new team to think he was some kind of nutjob. He left Tony and the medical examiners to make his way back down the corridor, giving friendly smiles and greetings as he went. Those who weren’t too busy saving the world from itself greeted him pleasantly enough. Most seemed more curious than anything.

  It didn’t take him long to get down to the basement, and through a set of twelve-foot-high double doors with the word “Sparta” painted across them. Inside, the place was bigger than any gym he’d ever been to, bustling with agents in various stages of undress as they went from one part of the facility to another. Straight ahead of him in the center was an expansive open area filled with plenty of comfortable looking couches and widescreen TVs, most likely the lounge. It was occupied with agents sitting around chatting, napping, or playing with their tablets. He wondered if any of these agents were part of his team. Tony said to wait in the lounge. He didn’t say not to talk to anyone.

  Dex scanned the room for any Therians who looked like they might be Alphas, and although he couldn’t make out the marks on their necks telling him what classification of Therian they were, he could still discern them from the Human agents. Spotting Therians was pretty easy. All one had to do was look for the telltale sign—the clear presence of tapetum lucidum, the layer of tissue behind the retina that reflected visible light, released it back, and increased the light available to the photoreceptors. Or in other words, what helped animals see at night. When the light hit their eyes a certain way—boom, Therian.

  Over on one of the large gray couches were three Therians, two male and one female, joking and laughing. They seemed approachable, in a “we can turn you into linguini but only if you piss us off” kind of way.

  “Hey, sorry to interrupt, but I’m looking for Destructive Delta? I’m the new guy.”

  The three Therians regarded him before bursting into laughter. He wasn’t really sure what they were laughing at, but he joined in on the fun, chuckling along with them, until it occurred to him they thought he was joking. “No really. I’m the new guy.”

  The laughter died.

  Their mouths hung open and the largest of the three agents stared at him wide-eyed. “Shit, you’re not kidding. Sorry, bro, we thought you were messing around. You sure it’s Destructive Delta?”

  Dex tapped the patch on his sleeve that said so. “Yep. I’m guessing you guys aren’t Destructive Delta.”

  “No, we’re Intel for Unit Beta, Troop Gamma. Everyone comes down here because Unit Alpha has the best equipment.”

  The female Therian nodded in agreement. “And a bigger pool.”

  Unit Alpha had a pool? Sweet! Dex couldn’t wait to use that.

  “Also, it’s fun to watch them kick each other’s asses during training,” the second male Therian added with an evil grin.

  “Sounds like fun,” Dex said cheerfully. “So, can you point me in their general direction?”

  The female agent looked genuinely concerned. “You sure you don’t want to wait for your commanding officer to be introduced? I think they’re training right now. Agent Brodie gets pretty pissed when you interrupt his training.”

  “I’m not going to interrupt,” Dex promised. “Just want a sneak peek.” The last thing he wanted to do was get on his Team Leader’s shit list from day one.

  “Okay. It’s your funeral.” The largest of the agents pointed to a corridor behind Dex.

  That was encouraging. “Thanks.” He headed for the busy passageway, making sure to stay out of everyone’s way and keep his head down. There were several enormous training areas filled with agents working the classy-looking treadmills, doing weights, push-ups, sit-ups, and everything else to keep their bodies in peak physical condition. The equipment was top-of-the-line, shiny and new. The floors were covered in dark rubber tiles that looked as if they had been installed only recently.

  Some of the rooms were set up for martial arts, while others were set up for boxing. There was even a yoga studio that had as many male agents in it as it did female. No wonder so many agents crowded down here. There was no sign of a pool, though, so he figured it was on the other side of the facility. Who knew what else was down here. The place was huge.

  “You son of a bitch!”

  Dex straightened, listening to the litany of curses that followed the initial exclamation. Following the cursing, he found the room it was coming from. It was a large training bay at the end, but unlike the others filled with numerous agents, this one only had a handful of them. He made sure to keep himself discreetly tucked to one side of the open double doors as he carefully peeked inside. There were seven agents separated into little groups. He immediately spotted his brother on one side sitting on the floor cross-legged with a tablet in his hand. What a nerd. Dex’s phone buzzed and he gave it a quick glance. CaelMad liked your photo.

  “Seriously, dude?” Dex muttered under his breath, returning his phone to his pocket. There were hot, sweaty guys beating the crap out of each other in the same room, and Cael was playing around online. Dex was going to have a serious talk with his brother.

  So these were the guys his brother spent so much time with. Cael never talked about them individually, always referring to them as his teammates, or if he was hanging with one in particular, his teammate. It didn’t bother Dex that Cael kept his work life separate from his homelife, especially since the THIRDS loved to keep everything classified. With Dex having been HPF, Cael was even less inclined to talk about work. It was no secret the HPF and the THIRDS barely tolerated each other. Had he known he’d be ending up here, he would have pushed his brother for more information on the team.

  Not far from Cael was a tall, slender Human female agent who was cursing up a storm in Spanish as she sparred with another, more petite Human female agent, who was also speaking Spanish. The petite agent was giving as good as she got, though with a bit less swearing. The fact that she was enjoying the match far too much for her own good seemed to be the source of her teammate’s irritation.

  A few feet from them were a blond Human agent and his bigger Therian teammate who was in the midst of some major brooding. Dex couldn’t hear what was being said, but Mr. Broody didn’t look pleased. He shook his head and started to walk off when his blond friend took hold of his arm. He kept his grip on his larger partner, his head tilted to one side and back as he was forced to look up to meet his teammate’s glower. Whatever he said made the large Therian nod and soon, a small smile came onto his face. Well, at least they’d worked out whatever it was that had been bothering Mr. Broody. He didn’t look like the kind of Therian you wanted to piss off. Then Dex looked over at the heavy mat in the cente
r of the room and changed his mind. Nope, that was the kind of Therian you didn’t want to piss off.

  With his back to Dex stood a large Therian over six and a half feet tall, dressed in a black T-shirt and matching sports pants. His knees were slightly bent, and his muscular arms were up as he took a fighting stance, waiting for the cursing Therian sprawled on his back to get up. It was pretty clear the guy on the floor was pissed as hell. The mark on his neck stated he was a lion Therian; he was also strangely enough wearing a blue T-shirt with a distressed image of Tony the Tiger on it. With a growl, Mr. Frosted Flakes—who had equally beefy arms and was actually bigger than black T-shirt guy—shot to his feet and charged.

  Frosted Flakes drove into his opponent with such force, it should have sent them both crashing to the floor, but instead, Dex gaped as black T-shirt guy threw his arms around his attacker’s waist, swiped his legs out from under him, lifted him and slammed him down onto the mat with enough strength to momentarily stun the larger Therian. Clearly, black T-shirt guy was his new Team Leader, Agent Brodie. Dex remembered what Pearce had said about the Therian, but even so, Dex had to admire Agent Brodie. He exuded confidence, calm, and a quiet strength Dex hadn’t been expecting.

  “Watch your temper, Ash.”

  Ooh, Agent Brodie had a sexy, gravelly voice. Dex quickly pushed that thought out of his mind and watched as Agent Ash rolled over with a groan. “Fuck you, man. You’re not supposed to be able to do that shit. I’m bigger and heavier than you!”

  “How many times do I have to tell you, that doesn’t mean anything if you’re not focused.”

  “Fuck this shit.” Ash got to his feet and took a swing at Agent Brodie, whose face Dex still hadn’t managed to get a look at. Damn it, why couldn’t they swap places or something? Not that Ash was bad to look at, but it was lost underneath all the snarling. Oh God, what if this Agent Ash Whatever was his new partner? Well, he wasn’t exactly spoiled for choice. Being Human, his only options were Ash, Mr. Broody, or Agent Brodie sexy-voice supposed-asshole.


  Agent Brodie had neat black hair and when he turned his head just enough, Dex could see scruffy stubble, which, despite his age—Dex estimated maybe late thirties—was sprinkled with gray. He was also fit. The muscles under his black T-shirt flexed and shifted as he moved, his biceps causing the sleeves to stretch. He had powerful legs and a mighty fine ass. Dex hoped Agent Brodie kicked the tar out of Agent Ash. He didn’t know why, but the bigger Therian rubbed him the wrong way.

  Dex was expecting a few punches to fly between them, not the epic, Bourne-like close quarter combat that ensued. The two Therians didn’t look like they were playing around, except for the lack of broken bones, which Dex was pretty certain they could have easily provided had they wanted to. Ash was bigger, fiercer, and meaner, but Agent Brodie was calm, focused, and fast as hell. Dex tried to keep track of the moves, looking for vulnerabilities and signs of predictability. The way Agent Brodie blocked Ash’s punches was impressive, because it was clear the larger Therian was a pro at fighting up close and personal.

  Ash twisted his body to get out of Agent Brodie’s chokehold. Ash landed beside Brodie and threw an arm around Brodie’s neck, forcing Brodie to bend over before delivering a blow to the ribs, or at least attempting to. Ash’s fist was smacked away, and Agent Brodie quickly retaliated by throwing his elbow up, making contact with Ash’s face, sending him reeling back with a bloodied nose. Ash wiped at his nose with the back of his hand.

  “Fuck! Come on, Sloane. I got a date tonight.”

  Agent Sloane Brodie finally turned around, and all Dex could think was, well, hello there.

  Shit, his Team Leader was hot. What was the likelihood that he was as big of an asshole as Pearce said he was? Dex made it a rule never to judge anyone based on someone else’s opinion of him, especially someone he had yet to meet. So far, there didn’t seem to be any signs of it, but then again, he was sure the agent hadn’t been promoted to Team Leader at the THIRDS because he gave the best hugs.

  Sloane caught a towel the petite female agent tossed to him. “Thanks, Letty. Ash, tell her what you tell all your dates. That you got hurt saving some kittens from a burning building.”

  “Surrounded by ninjas,” Cael added suddenly, a dopey grin stretched across his face. So his brother was paying attention.

  Ash thrust a finger at Cael. “Don’t encourage him.”

  Everyone laughed as Ash cursed them all out. The camaraderie among the team was evident in the way they ribbed each other and cursed at each other. Even when they were angry or annoyed, it was clear there was nothing spiteful or malicious behind it. They were a family, and Dex was about to intrude on that sanctity.

  It wasn’t only the whole family unit thing Dex was worried about. As he quietly turned and headed back toward the lounge, he couldn’t stop thinking about Sloane Brodie and Ash. The level of skill they showed during their sparring session spoke volumes. Ash’s form had been better than Sloane’s, denoting close quarter combat as one of his proficiencies. He hadn’t had to think about the moves, he simply reacted, no doubt from years of practice. It was his temper that let him down, whereas Sloane had experience in determining what was coming his way. His level of concentration in considering the surrounding variables had been impressive. He observed, adapted, and applied himself without hesitation.

  Dex dropped down onto one of the empty couches in the lounge. He was so out of his league. After a few minutes of wallowing in his own misery, he mentally shook himself off and stood up. Okay, so maybe he was out of his league at this particular junction of his career, but it was only his first day.

  You can do this, Dex. His team had been training and working out in the field for years. As much as he hated to admit it, Tony was right. He was a rookie. If he wanted to be up to par, he’d have to work damn hard. Of course, working damn hard would be a whole lot easier after something to eat. He joined a number of the other agents in the large snack bar lined with wall-to-wall vending machines providing everything from energy bars to gummy bears. Spotting one of his favorite snacks, he stepped up to the shiny machine and tapped the digital screen, watching as the last packet of Cheesy Doodles flopped down into the tray.

  “Mm, cheesy goodness.” Dex had just picked up the orange and black foil packet when a shadow loomed over him.


  Turning, Dex’s greeting died on his lips when instead of being met with an average-sized individual, he was met with a Therian who made Ash look like a hobbit. “Um, hey.” He peeked at the mark on the Therian’s tree-trunk of a neck. Ursus arctos. Fuuuck. “How’s it going?” Dex smiled brightly and took a small step to his right. Near-black eyes pinned him with a glare and a hefty finger pointed at the Cheesy Doodles in Dex’s hands.

  “That’s the last pack.”

  “Yeah. Sorry, man.” Dex moved away a little more, aware of how the other agents in the room were either staring at him wide-eyed or snickering quietly. He appreciated the way they were doing nothing to help him, bunch of pricks. Okay, Dex, time to grow a pair.

  “Hand it over,” the Therian growled.

  Or not. Dex blinked up at him. “I’m sorry, what now?”

  “Everyone knows those are mine.”

  Therian or not, Yogi Bear needed to learn some manners. “Considering I paid for them, I don’t see how that’s possible.”

  “All of them are.”

  “Seriously? You’re calling dibs on a vending machine’s worth of Cheesy Doodles?” Dex looked from the sneering Therian to the Cheesy Doodles in his hands and back. He arched an eyebrow at Yogi before reaching into the packet, plucking one and popping it into his mouth, followed by a wide grin. The room erupted into laughter and catcalls.

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