Rise amp fall, p.7
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       Rise & Fall, p.7
 

         Part #4 of THIRDS series by Charlie Cochet

  sense considering his Felid classification. The first time they’d met, after Sloane had been forced to literally drag Austen in to get information from him, Austen had used the excuse that cheetah Therians were skittish by nature, but Dex was coming to learn there was more to it. Was it a survival instinct from his days on the street? There was a lot Dex didn’t know about Austen, and he was curious. Mostly because he had the feeling Austen knew more about him than he was letting on.

  “No sweat, Daley. How’s Broodybear?”

  “He’s got a lot of recovery ahead of him, but it’s looking good.”

  Austen nodded, his sharp amber eyes studying Dex. Like he knew something Dex didn’t. What the hell did a THIRDS Squadron Specialist Agent do, anyway? Other than mysteriously pop out from the shadows every now and then.

  “You didn’t call me to talk about Sloane.”

  “I’m going after Hogan.”

  “Sparks pulled Destructive Delta off the case.” Austen cocked his head to one side in thought when his eyes widened. “Oh no. Listen, I know you want to get Hogan for what he did. I understand feeling pissed off and wanting to kick him in the fuzzy sack, but this isn’t just any Therian you’re going after. Hogan is fucking huge in his Human form. In his Therian form he’s lethal. He’s a tiger Therian, man. You’ve seen them. Look at Hobbs. The dude’s like three hundred pounds and you’re like what? One sixty?”

  “One seventy-five.”

  “Dude’s like two of you put together.”

  “This guy tried to kill Ash twice. He put Sloane in the hospital. I’m going to do this whether you help me or not.” Dex would only have access to Themis for two more days. After that, any searches he performed under his “on leave” status would get flagged and reported to Intel, who would most likely pass it on to Sparks.

  “Do you realize what would happen if Lieutenant Sparks found out?”

  “That asshole has threatened my family and my team. I’m putting a stop to this before anyone else I care about gets hurt. It’s not going to stop until Hogan is behind bars or dead.” Dex hesitated, wondering how much he should confide in Austen. Sloane trusted him, which meant Dex would trust him. “There were Felid Therians staking out Sloane’s apartment today.”

  “Shit. I was going to pass by but got held up. Were they Hogan’s?”

  “Yeah. One of them knew my name. I don’t know what the hell they were doing there, but it couldn’t be anything good.”

  “Damn it. Are you going to tell Sloane any of this?”

  Dex thought about it for a moment before shaking his head. “Not yet. I don’t want him worrying about it. I’ll tell him once he’s settled in at home.”

  “Fine. What do you need?”

  “Information. I have access to Themis for a couple of days to finish off my reports on the Coalition exchange and the explosion outside my house. I’ll get what I can without raising any red flags, but I might need you to follow up on some leads. I need to find Ox Perry and Brick Jackson before Hogan does. If you get any information on either of them, on Hogan, or any of Hogan’s guys, I want to know about it first.”

  Austen gaped at him. Not exactly the reaction Dex had been hoping for. “You want me to keep information from Sebastian Hobbs? I know he looks like a nice guy, and he is, sexy too, but if you fuck with his case, he will bust your shit up. He fucked up once, he’s not going to let it happen a second time.”

  “What did happen?” Dex leaned against the terrace wall, and Austen followed his lead, getting a little closer to him than Dex would have liked, but he let it slide. If anyone came nosing around, they’d think they were a couple of guys sneaking in a little make-out session. It wasn’t exactly uncommon. Especially with Austen being a Therian. It was amazing how many Humans got stupid when they saw a Human and Therian kissing in front of their kids. It was okay for them to suck face, but the moment it wasn’t two Humans. Bam. Bring on the plague of locusts. He turned his attention back to Austen. “I know Seb was on Destructive Delta, and he was transferred, but I don’t know much else. Everyone’s pretty tight-lipped about it.”

  “Because it was messed up,” Austen replied with a shake of his head. “Seb and Hudson were involved at the time. Seb was crazy about the guy. They were inseparable. Really sweet. Anyway, the team was at a murder scene, and they’d been given the all clear. Except it wasn’t clear. The gunman was still there. Hudson was seeing to the body when the shooting started. The guy shot at Hudson, and Seb broke protocol. He should have made sure all the civilians were safe. Instead, he went for Hudson. A bullet missed the doc and killed a kid.”

  “Shit.” Dex had known it was something bad, but he had no idea. No wonder Seb had looked devastated when Dex had brought up the incident at the hospital.

  “Yeah. A shitstorm of epic proportions rained down on them. The family pressed charges, the lawyers came out, and it went to court. In the end, the agent who’d reported the all clear took the fall. He’s probably working in a pretzel kiosk in a mall somewhere. Seb got demoted and transferred from the team, and the THIRDS introduced the “no fraternizing” rule. The most dangerous cases he dealt with were the ones giving him paper cuts. They stuck him in archives for a while. The world moved on, and Seb was put back in the field. Of course, by then, there was no salvaging his relationship with Hudson. I don’t think either of them could face what happened. Guess the THIRDS decided to give Seb another chance by promoting him into Stone’s old position. Can’t believe the bastard turned traitor on us.”

  Dex was hardly about to lose any more sleep on Levi Stone. Right now, he had his own problems. Knowing what happened to Seb made him feel worse, because no matter what, he couldn’t back out of this. He’d never impede another agent’s investigation, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t going to conduct his own. “Austen. Please.”

  “I can’t withhold information.”

  Damn it. He’d really thought Austen would help him out, if only for Sloane’s sake. The two went way back. Sloane had taken him off the streets, gotten him recruited to the THIRDS, and trusted him like family. Austen gave him a cocky grin, and Dex held his breath.

  “But I can give you whatever intel I get on this case before I give it to Seb. I’ll hold out as long as I can.”

  Dex couldn’t keep his relief from showing. He gave Austen a smile and shook his hand. “Deal. Thank you. I owe you one.”

  “I’m gonna hold you to that, Daley.” Austen winked at him before disappearing into the shadows again. How the hell did he do it? Dex walked off in the opposite direction toward Seventy-Second Street where he’d parked his Challenger.

  Tomorrow morning, Sloane would be released from the hospital, and Dex would take care of him like he’d promised he would. He would also try his damn hardest to find Hogan. The tough part—besides finding the guy—would be trying to do so without rousing Sloane’s suspicion. The thought of lying to Sloane made him feel like shit, but he had to see this through. If he told Sloane, his partner would most likely try to talk him out of it, and if that didn’t work, Dex was sure Sloane would come up with a way to stop him. He couldn’t let that happen.

  As he headed home, Retro Radio played in the background, relaxing him. He thought about his next move, because as good as Austen was, Dex couldn’t sit around waiting for intel to fall into his lap. Austen had his work cut out for him. Had Hogan sent those two to finish Sloane off? It didn’t make any sense. Hogan was smart. He had to know the THIRDS would be keeping a close watch for him. Damn it. Dex needed more information, but he needed a place to work from first.

  Traffic stopped for the red light near Columbus Avenue, and Dex’s gaze landed on La Pain Quotidien on his left. An insane idea struck him. Shit. And he was only five minutes away from the place in question as well. Instead of turning on Columbus to head home, he continued toward West Seventy-Seventh Street. He managed to find a parking spot next door to Clove Catering.

  Lou’s catering business was open twenty-four hours a day. It was fancy but
reasonably priced. They catered weddings, corporate events, galas, and fundraisers. Dex didn’t know anyone else who worked as hard at their career or loved it as much as Lou. His ex was also a bit of a control freak, which most likely played a part in his success. But his hard work had paid off, and over the last couple of years, Lou had been featured in the media as an up-and-coming talent. He’d been interviewed in New York Weddings magazine among a host of other big-name wedding magazines and newspapers. The company had doubled in size. The food was top-notch, the service second to none, and Lou wasn’t pretentious like some of the owners of a few other companies Dex had met while accompanying his ex-boyfriend to a couple of conferences. He hadn’t even been aware caterers had conferences. It was weird going somewhere to see the latest in food-tray technology. But the eats had been awesome, so Dex never complained.

  The little bell above the glass door jingled merrily and announced his presence as he walked in. There was a large greeting area containing several sleek white tables with couples sitting across from event organizers browsing through menus and albums. Event photos lined the walls in elegant, antique-style frames. The circus roses in frosted white vases added a burst of color to the mostly white and black décor. At this time of night, Lou would still be in. He always worked late on Wednesdays to catch up on invoices. Dex greeted some of the employees he recognized along the way to the main reception area where he found the twins, Jeremy and Joseph. They were a couple of cute blond twinks who were Lou’s assistants. They smiled brightly when they saw him, greeting him in unison.

  “Hi, Dex.”

  “Hey, guys. How’s it going? Still saving the world from the fashionably challenged?”

  “Oh my God. Seriously, Dex. Some people can’t be saved, no matter how much you try,” Jeremy said, leaning forward and adjusting his trendy black-framed glasses. “Have you ever been to a vampire wedding?”

  “Thankfully, no.” The thought alone made him cringe.

  Joseph shook his head sadly. “Sweetie, Mauricio spent ten hours gluing tiny white rhinestones to the groom so he would sparkle when he walked down the aisle.”

  Dex let out a bark of laughter with Jeremy and Joseph joining in. “Oh shit.” He doubled over at the thought of what Lou’s face must have looked like when the request had been put in. Dex had always tried his best not to laugh when Lou came home ranting about some of his clients’ crazy wedding ideas, but Dex had to admit this one took the proverbial wedding cake.

  Jeremy let out a delicate snort and smoothed out his preppy sweater vest. “Lou told the kitchen staff to add a little extra kick to the sangria in the hopes no one would remember it the next day.”

  “We were just lucky it wasn’t an overly sunny day,” Joseph added, “or we might have ended up with mass casualties. I can see the headlines now, ‘Wedding Guests Spontaneously Combust via Rhinestone Vampire’.”

  “Wait, isn’t that a country song?” Jeremy asked.

  Joseph gave his brother a gentle pat on the head. “It’s ‘Rhinestone Cowboy,’ sweetie.”

  “Oh.”

  The three laughed until Dex heard Lou behind him.

  “What’s going on here?” Dex turned with a wide grin, and Lou rolled his eyes at him. “Should have known. Are you flirting with my staff again? And before you ask, the kitchen’s closed.”

  “Hey, Lou.” Darn. He’d hoped to sneak into the kitchen before seeing Lou to charm some tasty treats from Brian the head chef. Despite his arched eyebrow, Lou gave Dex a hug, and Dex returned the embrace.

  “It’s nice to see you, Dex.” Lou motioned toward his office, and Dex followed, waving to the boys who went back to discussing the sparkly vampire wedding debacle. Inside Lou’s office, everything was exactly as it had been the last time he was here. Dex took a seat in the flowered wingback chair in front of Lou’s white vintage-style desk. He hadn’t realized how worn out he was until he was sitting.

  “How are you? You look tired.” Lou’s gaze was sympathetic as he took a seat behind his desk. “How’s Sloane doing?”

  “He’s getting better. Thanks.”

  “You haven’t been to see me here in a year.”

  “Yeah, well, technically, you told me not to come see you at work.” Lou had been clear about it, though Dex was more than aware Lou hadn’t meant never to come near the place.

  “When we broke up,” Lou said. “I thought you’d try to win me back or something.”

  “Are you disappointed I didn’t?”

  Lou had told Sloane he’d had his chance with Dex and blew it, how Sloane shouldn’t make the same mistake. Was it possible Lou regretted their breakup? Lou seemed to have moved on with his life. Dex certainly had. Lou was a great guy, and Dex was glad they could stay friends, but as a couple they hadn’t been right for each other.

  “Why are you here, Dex?”

  Was it him, or was Lou being a little touchy today? Ignoring Lou’s frustrated tone, Dex came out with it. “I need a favor.”

  “Okay,” Lou replied, his gaze suddenly turning suspicious. “It’s not about adding a donut wedding cake to the menu, is it? Because the answer is still no.”

  “A tower of glazed goodness. Don’t know what you’re missing,” Dex teased.

  “I’ll learn to live with it. Now what did you need? I’m waiting for someone.”

  “Oh, sorry. I didn’t know you had an appointment.”

  Lou cleared his throat and averted his gaze. “Not an appointment. Bradley’s meeting me for dinner.”

  Reeeally. Dex leaned his elbows on Lou’s desk, and propped his chin on his laced fingers. No wonder Lou was dressed all snazzy. Lou always dressed well, but now he was dressed for a night out on the town. There seemed to be a little more gel in his dark hair, and Dex caught the subtle whiff of Lou’s most expensive cologne.

  “Bradley as in bartender Bradley?”

  “Bradley as in bar owner Bradley,” Lou corrected with a sniff.

  Dex grinned broadly. “Therian Bradley.” He tried not to laugh at Lou’s huff.

  “Yes, Dex. How many Bradleys do we know?”

  “Wow.” Lou was getting all grumpy. Interesting.

  “Sorry,” Lou mumbled. “I’m nervous.”

  Dex nodded, but didn’t say a word. He didn’t have to. He knew Lou. The guy would give himself away. A few weeks ago at Dex’s birthday party, they’d seen Lou and Bradley getting cozy by the bar as they chatted.

  Lou frowned at him. “What?”

  “Nothing.”

  “You think I like him.”

  “You seem a little… flustered is all.” Dex watched in amusement as Lou closed his appointment book. Straightened it. Nudged it. Unstraightened and restraightened it.

  “It’s only dinner.”

  “Uh-huh.” Anything Lou labeled as “only” something meant it was usually anything but.

  “I’m trying not to think about anything else.”

  “Why not? Bradley’s a really nice guy.” He’d liked Bradley from the first day he’d stepped foot in Dekatria, and not just because Bradley had been secretly cheering for Dex and Sloane to get together, but because he was a genuinely nice guy who always seemed to care about people. He was friendly, always smiling, laid back, and ready with a wink.

  “So, what kind of favor did you need?”

  Dex held back a laugh. “Not even gonna to try and be subtle about it? Okay. I’ll butt out. I came to ask you about the empty office you have next door. Is it still empty?”

  Lou observed him. “Yes. Why?”

  “Can I use it? I have some undercover work and need somewhere kind of off the grid to work from.”

  “And your ex’s catering company is off the grid?”

  “How many exes do you still keep in contact with?” If it hadn’t been for Sloane, Dex probably would have been another ex-boyfriend Lou never spoke to again. Dex wasn’t in the habit of keeping in contact with any of his other ex-boyfriends, but he was glad Lou decided he wanted to remain a part of Dex’s life. Four
years they’d spent together, sharing a lot of ups as well as downs. He liked having Lou as a friend.

  “Point made,” Lou said. “Yes, it’s empty. Why can’t you work from your house?” The question was more out of curiosity than frustration.

  “Sloane’s staying there while he recovers.”

  Lou blinked in surprise. “He’s staying with you?”

  “Yes. I asked him to. He has a lot of recovery to do and a list a mile long from the doctor about what he can’t do if he’s going to heal quickly. Luckily, he’s in great shape, and his Therian body has already started the healing process. Why are you looking at me like that?”

  “Are you sure you’re not moving too quickly, Dex? Sloane’s kind of… restless.”

  How the hell did Lou know? “We’re working on it. And it’s not like I asked him to move in. I’m just taking care of him while he’s getting better. He could have said no.”

  “He could have.” Lou got up and walked over to a framed painting of cloves, the sweet yet spicy aromatic flower buds the company was named after. Behind it was the small wall safe where Lou kept some cash, important paperwork, and spare keys, including the keys to the office Dex was asking to borrow, though right now he was more interested in whatever point Lou was trying to get at. “Maybe you haven’t noticed, Dex, but Sloane has a really hard time saying no to you.” He removed a set of keys from a key box and tossed them at Dex who caught them in midair. “Granted, you have a knack for getting your way, but Sloane in particular has trouble putting his foot down around you.”

  “What are you talking about? Sloane says no to me all the time.”

  Lou put his hands up before closing up the wall safe and returning the frame to its original spot. “Never mind. It’s your relationship and none of my business.”

  “You can’t start something like that and not follow through. You’ve obviously got something you want to say. Come on, Lou.”

  “When you and I were together, you did and agreed to a lot of things to make me happy, even if you weren’t ready.”

  Dex frowned. “Like what?”

  “Like moving in.”

  They’d already been over this. He’d even been over this with his dad. It was all in the past. Yes, Dex had gone through the motions with a lot to make Lou happy at the time, believing it was also what he wanted, but his relationship with Sloane was different. “I don’t see what this has to do with my current situation.”

  “Are you sure Sloane’s not doing the same? Moving at your pace to make you happy? He obviously cares about you a lot, but he doesn’t strike me as the relationship kind of guy, so if he really is trying for a future with you, maybe you need to follow his pace for a while.” Lou sat down again, and Dex tried not to sound annoyed, even if he was.

  “No one makes Sloane do anything he doesn’t want to do.”

  “This is different, Dex, and you know it.”

  Dex opened his mouth when he heard a familiar voice calling down the hall.

  “Lou?”

  Lou sat up straight and smoothed down his shirt. “In here, Bradley.”

  Bradley peeked into the room, a broad smile on his face. “Hey, guys.” He walked in dressed in trendy faded jeans and boots. The charcoal V-neck shirt and leather jacket covered up his arms’ tattoo sleeves, though part of a tattoo could be seen poking out from under his collar. The tall jaguar Therian extended his hand to Dex.

  “Hey, Dex. How are you?”

  “Good,” Dex returned Bradley’s smile and shook his hand.

  Bradley’s smile faded, concern coming into his amber eyes. “How’s Sloane? I’m sorry about what happened. I’ve been really worried about him.”

  “Shit, you called that day. Sorry, man. I meant to call you back.”

  “Don’t worry about it. You had your hands full. I completely understand.”

  Dex stood and backed up toward the door. “You could say that. Sloane’s doing better. Thank you. Listen, I don’t want to keep you guys.”

  “If you need anything, you have my number.” Bradley turned to Lou with a wide smile. “You look amazing.”

  “Thank you,” Lou replied, his cheeks turning pink. He stood and fidgeted with his hair.

  “We should go. Reservation’s for nine.”

  “Right.” Lou came around his desk to Bradley who gave his cheek a kiss, and Lou went red to the tips of his ears. As Bradley ushered Lou to the door, Dex whispered over at Lou.

  “You’re blushing.”

  Lou jabbed a finger in his direction. “Shut it, mister.”

  The three of them walked out, saying good night to the staff on the late shift. Outside it was breezy, the scaffolding against the building’s façade making the sidewalk a little darker than usual. It would give Dex a little more cover for when he came and went, which was helpful. Bradley waved at Dex, his free hand going to the small of Lou’s back as they headed for his car.

  With a chuckle, Dex waved the pair off. “You crazy kids have fun.”

  Dinner reservations, blushing, telling Dex to shut it. Lou was definitely crushing on Bradley. Dex was glad. The pair looked sweet together. Soon as he saw Bradley’s slick Grand Cherokee drive off, Dex headed for the black metal door next to Clove Catering to check out the state of the office. Making sure no one was watching him, he unlocked the door and slipped inside, locking it behind him. He flipped the light switch in the narrow hall, noting how it had been recently given a fresh coat of cream-colored paint. At the end, a wooden door led downstairs to an office and supply closet.

  Downstairs, Dex couldn’t have found a better setup. “Thank you, Lou.” There wasn’t much to it, but it was more than Dex could have hoped for. The rectangular room had a large metal table against the far wall, some electric sockets, a drab
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