Rise amp fall, p.9
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       Rise & Fall, p.9
 

         Part #4 of THIRDS series by Charlie Cochet

  Sloane ran a hand over his stubbly jaw. He really needed a shave, and to not have this conversation. But if there was anyone he trusted to keep a secret for him, it was Austen. “Yeah.”

  Sloane’s relationship with Dex had been a challenge from the beginning, but if he really thought about it, the signs had been there from the start. From the moment they’d met, Sloane couldn’t fight how bad he’d wanted Dex. The more he got to know Dex, the more he wanted to know. With every conversation, every joke, smile, tease, outburst from Dex, Sloane got in deeper. It was fast, but Dex had put himself out there, risking his heart, and although it took Sloane some time to catch up, he was glad he did. Otherwise he’d be missing out on something amazing. He’d tried to be sensible, but lately his heart had started speaking louder than his head.

  “He’s in love with you, isn’t he?” Austen asked.

  Sloane nodded.

  “You love him?”

  Why was everyone asking him that? “It’s… complicated.” Man, was it complicated.

  Austen gave him a knowing smile. “Love is only as complicated as you make it, Sloane.”

  Why was everyone giving him relationship advice? Or presuming to know what he felt or would feel? They sat in silence until Sloane couldn’t keep himself from asking the question swirling around in his head. “Does anyone else know? And don’t get any crumbs on there. It’s where we put our clothes.”

  “Among other things.” Austen wriggled his brows and Sloane groaned.

  “Have you been spying on us?”

  Austen rolled up the cheese snacks and put them to one side before getting up and heading for Dex’s nightstand. He pulled it open, reached in, and plucked out a wet wipe from the packet inside. How the hell did Austen know they were in there?

  “I like to know what goes on with my team. The other guys are fun,” Austen closed the drawer and dropped onto the bed next to Sloane, a wicked smile on his face, “but you two? Best free porn ever.”

  “You’ve watched us have sex?” Sloane gaped at him. Austen didn’t seem the least bit bothered.

  “Like I said. Free porn. Your boy has a mighty fine ass. And he’s so energetic. Seriously. Do his batteries ever wear out?”

  “No more spying on us. Now answer the question.”

  “Everyone around the office thinks you’re bosom buddies. A budding bromance. Like Tango and Cash.”

  “An eighties movie reference? Really? You are spending way too much time around Dex, whether he knows it or not.”

  “What can I say? The dude is entertaining as fuck.” Austen kicked off his shoes and swung his legs onto the bed. He put his hands behind his head as he moved his feet from side to side. Sometimes he reminded Sloane of the scrawny little kid who’d stolen his wallet all those years ago. Austen let out a laugh. “Have you noticed how he picks out all the red gummy bears and eats them first? Or the way he eats around the peanuts of his M&M’s before eating the peanuts?”

  Sloane scowled at him. “Seriously. No more spying on Dex.”

  “Got it.”

  Why did Sloane get the feeling Austen was going to completely ignore him? “So no one suspects anything?”

  “Just keep doing what you’re doing,” Austen assured him. “Everyone assumes that’s just what your boy’s like. He’s always teasing and joking with everyone. He hangs off the rest of the team, so it’s not like he’s just hands on with you. Some of the other agents in your department, not so subtle. Gerry? He practically has ‘I’m fucking my partner’ stamped on his forehead. The guy all but jizzes his pants every time he sees her.” There was a pause, and Austen’s feet went still before he spoke up again. “You guys are good together.”

  “Thanks. So…?”

  “Right. Intel. Work. Wayward boyfriend.” Austen rolled onto his side and propped himself on his elbow so he could look at Sloane, his expression serious. “Your boy’s not letting this go. He’s got me giving him intel before I pass it on to Seb. I sent him some information on one of the old Westward Creed guys. An Ox Perry who’s been spotted in Queens. There’s no word on Hogan yet, but he’s bound to go after one of these guys, so your boy’s got a fifty-fifty chance of running into him. I’m not a hundred percent sure yet, but Brick Jackson might have hauled ass to Cali. I’m waiting on confirmation. It’s looking like he might have used a fake passport. Of course, we’re still left with Perry. Luckily Hogan’s only got about a dozen or so crew members left.” His gaze dropped to the mattress, and he ran his hand absently over the cream-colored sheets.

  “What aren’t you telling me?” Sloane knew Austen’s little signs. The kid was too clever for his own good. He obviously wanted to tell Sloane something but didn’t want to rat out whoever had given him the information. So he purposefully gave little gestures prompting Sloane to ask. If it was Sloane demanding information from him, Austen could get whatever was bothering him off his chest without turning stool pigeon.

  Austen met Sloane’s gaze. “He’s going to tell you. He wants you to get settled in first.”

  “Now you’re making excuses for him? What’s he keeping from me this time?”

  “He had a run-in with two of Hogan’s goons over at your apartment.” Austen cringed, and rightfully so.

  “What the ever living fuck?” Sloane took a deep breath and let it out slow. His head was pounding already. “First he lies to me about not going after Hogan, and now he lies to me about this?”

  Austen pursed his lips thoughtfully before opening his mouth. Sloane knew exactly what he was going to say, and it pissed him off even more. He held a hand up to stop him.

  “I swear if you say technically he’s not lying, he’s just withholding information, I will beat you with my crutch.”

  “Wow. Those meds make you grumpy… er.”

  “What happened?” Sloane demanded.

  “I don’t know. Considering they ended up getting plugged, and your boy came out of it in one piece, I’m going to say it went well.”

  Sloane shot Austen a warning look. “Now is not the time.”

  “He said they were casing your apartment.”

  Could they have been there waiting for him to come home? Had they been ordered to finish the job? Whatever happened, the bastards must have gotten away. At least Dex had managed to walk away unharmed. The lies were piling up.

  “Hey, Broodybear?”

  “Don’t call me that,” Sloane snapped. His partner probably hadn’t even called in backup. For all Sloane knew he’d kept the incident from the THIRDS. He’d have to if he didn’t want to bring unwanted attention to himself. “That little….” How was it possible to want to protect yet strangle someone at the same time?

  “At least give him a chance to tell you.”

  “Like he told me about Destructive Delta getting pulled only to go out and keep working the case after I asked him not to?” Sloane couldn’t deal with this right now. “And Ash?”

  “He’s keeping an eye on your boy. I called him to let him know Dex was on the move. Those baby blues gotta be going somewhere right? I didn’t have an exact location to give him, just a general area. Flushing, Queens. Your boy’s going to have to do some digging first. He’s got a rough area to work with, along with some previous sightings, but nothing specific. Between Seb, Sparks, and your boy, I’ve got a pretty tight schedule, but if you need me, let me know.”

  “Okay. Thanks.”

  Austen looked like he was going to say something else but instead gave Sloane a nod and walked off, the room once again falling to silence. He knew Dex would have called for backup if he’d thought he was in over his head with those assholes outside Sloane’s apartment, but the fact he hadn’t told Sloane when he’d brought up their team being pulled off the case, confirmed Dex planned to go after Hogan. Question was, what was Sloane going to do about it?

  DEX SAT at the large steel table in his makeshift base of operation with his laptop and a host of other equipment spread across the table’s surface. He’d finished the last of hi
s reports for Sparks but hadn’t submitted them. On his laptop he was logged into his desk’s interface at work with several windows open containing all the information he had access to on the Westward Creed and the Coalition.

  Dealing with the THIRDS meant he had to be extra careful. If he transferred, downloaded, or cross-referenced any information, Intel would know. He also couldn’t have any algorithms set up, which meant he’d have to hunt down information the old-fashioned way. Every piece of technical equipment was monitored by the THIRDS, and he couldn’t ask his brother for help because then Cael would know what he was up to. That didn’t mean he couldn’t get the job done. He’d been a detective long before joining the THIRDS, and he’d managed to solve cases without all the fancy gadgets and Themis. Thanks to his techno-geek brother, Dex had invested in a pocket-sized, high-end, high-resolution digital information camera. During his time with the HPF, Dex never left home without it. The habit hadn’t left him. He kept the camera locked up and hidden in a secret compartment in the trunk of his car under the spare tire.

  The DIC captured the information on his Themis screen perfectly, and the wireless signal transferred it to his tablet. Sort of the way spies used to take pictures of secret documents on their tiny cameras. Man, technology was awesome. Though he really wished he’d paid more attention in his computer science classes rather than surfing the internet for porn. He was the only one who’d never gotten caught, thanks to his little brother showing him how to properly dispose of the browser’s history.

  The DIC beeped, letting him know the transfer was complete. All the images of every file he’d taken screenshots of were on his tablet, clear as day. He submitted his reports and logged off his interface. It went black with glowing blue letters scrolling across the screen reading, Thank you, Agent Daley. Enjoy your time off. God, sometimes he hated Themis. He was pretty sure the feeling was mutual.

  Thanks to Austen, Dex finally had a lead. Ox Perry had been spotted in several locations around Flushing, Queens. Dex rummaged through his backpack and removed the map he’d bought at the convenience store down the street. He stood, unfolded it across the table, and grabbed a highlighter. It was time to get to work. At least now he could concentrate. He’d left the house and sat in his car for what seemed like ages. He couldn’t leave Sloane on his own. What if something happened to him while Dex was gone? Dex would never forgive himself. So he’d called Austen and asked him to use his super-agent skills to watch over Sloane and keep him safe until Dex returned. Austen hadn’t been happy about it, but Dex was quickly coming to learn there was little Austen wouldn’t do for Sloane. He felt pretty shitty exploiting Austen’s feelings for Sloane, but if it meant keeping Sloane safe, he’d do whatever he needed to.

  Scrolling through the information on his tablet containing both intel from Themis and Austen, Dex started to highlight streets where Perry had been spotted. Once he was done, Dex went over Perry’s record. He’d been the youngest member of the Westward Creed back in the 1980s during the riots and arrested for assault, along with a host of other charges due to the deaths of several Therian citizens. However, the charges against the eight youths had been dropped, the Human judge claiming missing evidence. Considering the time, it was mostly the result of corruption. The new branch of Therian government had still been in the process of passing its laws. According to Tony, with the chaos and violence sweeping through the streets, cases like this were tragically not uncommon.

  After Perry was released, he seemed to have kept his nose clean. Human, single, no longer living at the address listed on Themis for obvious reasons. He worked for a construction firm but hadn’t reported in for days, or so the guy’s boss said. Considering Perry had been working there for over twenty years without a change in management, it was possible the guy was covering up for him. Dex leaned his arms on the table and studied the map.

  There had to be a pattern. Reasons for Perry to be visiting these locations. Dex brought up the same map of Queens on his tablet and zoomed in. He began going into Street View one by one, making lists and notes of all the shops, buildings, houses, cars, everything. The more he jotted down, the more he felt he was onto something.

  Hours passed until Dex’s eyes started to sting. What time was it? He checked his watch. Holy fuck! It was almost midnight. Where the hell had the time gone? Looking up, he found a plate with a sandwich, a glazed donut, and next to it a can of Coke. Beside the plate was a note scribbled with Lou’s handwriting.

  Tried to say hi but you were in your weird cop-zone. Don’t forget to eat. xo Lou

  Damn. Lou had been down here, talked to him, and Dex couldn’t remember. He’d been so absorbed in his work that he’d completely blocked everything else out. It was nice of Lou to bring him something to eat. Eat.

  “Oh my God!” Dex scrambled to remove his smartphone from his pocket. Shit. Shit. Shit. Three missed calls from Sloane and two texts asking him if he was going to make it to dinner and hoping he was okay. “I am the shittiest boyfriend ever!” He tapped Sloane’s picture and listened to the phone ring, pacing around the office until Sloane’s groggy voice answered.

  “Hello?”

  “Forgotten me already,” Dex teased. He felt so shitty.

  “Hey. Sorry, I took some painkillers after dinner, and I guess they knocked me out.”

  Dex dropped down onto the couch, his gaze landing on the desk scattered with all his work. “I’m so sorry I didn’t make it to dinner.”

  “It’s okay. I called Ash, and he picked up some food. We hung out. Meeting ran late?”

  “Yeah, you know these PR nerds. Then I went and had too much sugar and totally crashed. I went for a nap in one of the bays and just woke up.” He closed his eyes, hating himself for telling more lies. But it was to get Hogan off the streets. To keep Sloane safe. He wasn’t a terrible person for wanting to keep his family safe, was he?

  “I told you not to binge on sugar after eight o’clock.”

  “You are wise.”

  “You okay? You sound… off.”

  I don’t deserve you. “Just tired.”

  “When are you coming home?”

  Dex swallowed hard. Did Sloane realize what he’d said? Sloane couldn’t have meant it how Dex thought he did. It was just a turn of phrase. He didn’t mean their home. It didn’t matter. Sloane was waiting for him, in his bed, under the covers, and warm. Home. Why did that keep popping up in his head? His gaze went back to the table. Home. What if those locations were connected to someone close to Perry? Why else would he keep going back there?

  “Dex?”

  “Sorry, um, it’s late, I stink, and you’re all cozy. Would you think I’m a dick if I crashed here?”

  “At work?”

  “Yeah. By the time I get in it’ll be really late, and I don’t want to disturb you. Doc said you need lots of rest.”

  There was a pause at the other end of the line, and Dex’s heart broke at Sloane’s soft words. “You do what you gotta do. Just stay safe for me.”

  “PR’s dangerous work, but it’s not that dangerous. Unless they ask me to read at the children’s library again. Then it can get pretty hairy.”

  Sloane chuckled. “Better you than me.”

  “Thanks, partner,” Dex said dryly. “You sure you’ll be okay?”

  Sloane’s voice was sincere when he answered. “Yeah, I’ll be fine.”

  “Okay. I love you, you know that?”

  “I know.”

  Dex could hear the smile in Sloane’s voice. How could something make him feel both wonderful and horrible at the same time? “Good night.”

  “Good night, Dex.”

  Sloane hung up, and Dex sat there for a moment wondering what the hell he was doing. He had an amazing guy waiting for him at home, and he was about to sleep on some pimp’s reject couch in a makeshift base in the basement of his ex-boyfriend’s catering company. Scrolling through his phone, he found a text from Austen.

  No updates.

  Dex had to move quickl
y. If Seb started feeding algorithms into Themis on Ox Perry, something was bound to pop up. Dex was onto something, he just had to figure out what it was. He went back to the table and went over his notes, going over every detail until he was all but falling asleep and drooling on his map, but he shook himself off and continued. He made a mental note to bring a coffee machine. Checking his list for the hundredth time, something suddenly jumped out at him. It might be nothing, but then again it could be everything. Two of the streets had ice cream shops. One street had a pizzeria. Another had a bakery. Then a confectionary store. A children’s clothing store. A kid’s book shop.

  “The guy’s got a kid.” No wonder Perry kept getting sighted in the area. He had a child somewhere around there. Finally, Dex had something. A Google search later, and Dex was grinning. There was an elementary school in the area. He picked up the sandwich and took it back to the couch. Damn, this couch was fugly. Not even tacky, just really fucking ugly. Even Cael wouldn’t go near the monstrosity in his Therian form to scratch it, and his brother loved clawing furniture. Tony had replaced three couches, two armchairs, six sets of curtains, and countless other furnishings while they’d been growing up. Cheetah Therians were incredibly curious. They also liked climbing, touching, clawing, and chewing.

  Tomorrow he’d get up early to stake out the school in case Perry showed up. Sloane would most likely be sleeping in because of the meds, so it gave Dex some time. He’d also have to stop by the office and visit with PR for a while. He never thought he’d be glad they called. As Dex ate his sandwich, he checked his watch. If he went to sleep now, he’d get about four hours of sleep. Once he was done eating, Dex lay down, stared at the exposed ceiling, listened to the whir of the boiler in the small room next door and told himself he was doing the right thing. The thought of Hogan getting his claws in Sloane was enough to have Dex digging his nails into the couch cushion until his fingers hurt. There was no way Dex would let that son of a bitch get near Sloane. He fell into a restless, dreamless sleep.

  Early the next morning, Dex headed for Queens, and Maspeth Elementary. He parked in front of a residence the next block over and turned off the ignition. From here he watched the yellow school buses drive past as they dropped kids off, as well as parents walking their children to the school. Parents were scattered in small groups, chatting to each other while their kids ran around, jumping handrails and climbing fences before their parents could notice and drag them away. It reminded him of when Tony used to hold on to the handle of Dex’s backpack while trying his damn hardest to keep Cael from climbing anything and everything he could get his chubby little fingers on. More often than not Tony would end up with one of them under each arm, carrying them inside to their classrooms, and dropping their little butts on their chairs before greeting the teacher and wishing her luck.

  One lone figure stood on the sidewalk looking down into the basketball court filled with kids screeching and playing as they waited for the bell to signal the start of another school day. Maspeth was a good school, and it accepted both Human and Therian children. Dex’s research had informed him it was more concerned with the education of its students and not their species. It was hard to believe segregated schools still existed. They were private schools and fell under the same laws as religious schools, so not much could be done about it.

  Today was Dex’s lucky day. Ox Perry was wearing a baseball cap and sporting a beard, but Dex recognized him. Was the guy being inconspicuous because he knew he was being hunted or because he wasn’t supposed to be here? Considering Dex couldn’t find any information regarding Perry having a child, Dex wondered if maybe Perry wasn’t granted access or visiting rights. Well, there was only one way to find out.

  Dex got out of his car and set the alarm before casually making his way over. He came to a stop beside Perry who took a subtle step to the side.

  “Hey,” Dex said with a friendly smile.

  “Hey,” Perry replied warily.

  “My name’s Agent Daley. I’m with the THIRDS.” Dex showed his badge. He was risking exposure, but he had a feeling Perry wasn’t about to go running off to tell the THIRDS. As Dex suspected, Perry’s eyes widened, and he took a step back, like he was going to bolt. But his gaze moved to the basketball court, and a conflicted expression came onto his face.

  “Easy there, Perry, I’m not here to arrest you.”

  “Look, I didn’t have anything to do with the Order. Reyes approached me months ago, and I told him to fuck off. I don’t want to have anything to do with him or the others. The whole Humans against Therians shit was a lifetime ago. I was a stupid kid. I made a mistake.”

  “I don’t think Beck Hogan sees it that way. He’s looking for you.” Dex followed Perry’s gaze to the court, surprised when a little girl waved at Perry with a big-dimpled smile. From here Dex could make out a black tattoo on her neck. Shit. No wonder Perry didn’t want to get mixed up with Reyes. He had a Therian child.

  “Is she your daughter?” Dex asked.

  “Yeah. Her name’s Beth.”

  “She’s adorable.” Dex couldn’t help his smile as the little girl screeched and laughed with her fellow students, her pigtails bouncing with her. His smile faded when he once again spotted the tattoo on her neck marking her as a wolf Therian. He understood the need for Therian laws the same way he understood the need for Human ones, but there were aspects he didn’t agree with. Justified or not, marking adults was one thing, but children? The whole classification thing had never sat well with him.

  Doctors claimed the process was painless for the kids, but Dex called bullshit a long time ago. He remembered when he and Cael had been kids, the way Cael had screamed and screamed when they’d marked him, big, fat tears rolling down his pink cheeks. He’d cried until his throat was sore and his voice hoarse. The whole thing had been terrifying for them all. Dex had been forced to wait outside the CDC Therian Registration office after trying to punch the doctor for hurting his little brother. Tony had been stone-faced the entire time. His dad had never been big on the whole classification thing either. He’d taken them out for ice cream afterward.

  “Beth’s my whole world. Lana, her mother, was a wolf Therian. A nurse. I met her ten years ago when I ended up in the hospital after someone hit a gas main at one of the sites I was working at. The explosion knocked me out. When I woke up, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. She was so beautiful. We started talking and then dating. I couldn’t lie to her about my past. I cared about her too much. After everything I’d said and done, she forgave me. Two years later, we had Beth. It was unexpected, but we were so happy. I was going to ask Lana to marry me.”

  “What happened? If you don’t mind my asking.” By the look on Perry’s face, it was clear Lana was no longer with him.

  “Lana was pre-First Gen. She lived through the mutation caused by Eppione.8,
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