Rack & Ruin, p.1part #3 of THIRDS Series
“HE’S GONNA run.”
Dex took his partner’s tech vest from him and handed it to his brother in the BearCat. “You think?” He peered out one of the BearCat’s ballistic windows but couldn’t see jack this time of night, especially since their little friend was well camouflaged among the Central Park greenery. It didn’t help that Hobbs had somehow managed to park their black tactical vehicle in a thicket of trees shrouded in enough darkness to make Dex feel as if a black hole had sucked him up. He had to give his Therian teammate credit. Hobbs could park the BearCat up a freakin’ flagpole if he had to. Maybe being a huge-ass Therian made it easy for him to maneuver huge-ass vehicles. Parks and Recreation was going to be so pissed if they found out they’d been driving off the roads.
“He always runs.” Sloane removed his thigh rig next and handed it over. Dex promptly passed it off to Cael. His brother huffed but took it without question, undoubtedly knowing Dex was doing it to annoy him. Ah, the perks of working with family. Rosa sat on the bench, looking on in amusement and checking her Postshift Trauma Care (PSTC) kit, while Hobbs sat in the driver’s seat inside the front cabin bugging his spiky blond-haired partner. Calvin was in the passenger seat, being a grump as he cleaned the scope of his sniper tranq rifle.
Dex had no idea what had Calvin sporting the pouty face. He wouldn’t be surprised if it had something to do with his best bud sitting across from him. Either Hobbs was oblivious to Calvin’s mood, or he was purposefully ignoring it. Considering he was sitting inches away from the nozzle of his partner’s tranq gun, it would probably be in Hobbs’s best interest to play nice. Dex had walked in on the pair sucking face back at the hospital after Hobbs had been hurt in the Therian Youth Center bombing. It had been one hell of a surprise and explained the pair’s off behavior leading up to the incident. Things quickly returned to normal between the two afterward. Somewhat. If Dex were a betting man, he’d say that was the problem. Hobbs was carrying on as if nothing had happened, and Calvin had been hoping something had changed. He’d confided as much to Dex back at the hospital. Whatever was going on, Dex hoped the two managed to work it out soon.
Letty was checking the magazines of her various guns. And Ash… Dex didn’t know where the hell Ash was. Just another shift for Destructive Delta.
Sloane pulled off his boots, and when he stood to remove his uniform shirt, Dex couldn’t help but try again. “As much as we all love seeing you get nekkid, partner, I wish you’d at least reconsider—”
“Dude, the rest of your shit is heavy enough,” Dex whined, lifting his arms to show the various pieces of tactical equipment hanging off them, the heaviest being the PSTC kit he carried to aid his partner postshift.
“I’m not getting rid of my sneakers.”
Dex let his arms fall back to his sides. “They’re not even government issued!”
Sloane shrugged. “Don’t care.”
“You’ve had to replace two pairs in the last four months.”
Sloane paused in the middle of unbuttoning his shirt to arch an eyebrow at him. “And whose fault is that?”
“It was an accident.” Dex blinked innocently. The look on Sloane’s face told him his partner wasn’t buying it. Damn it. One would think being the Team Leader’s secret boyfriend at the very least would earn him the right to get away with things others couldn’t. But in Dex’s case, it meant he got away with less because Sloane knew him far better than anyone—with the exception of his family—and loved to burst his bubble.
“As in you accidentally dropped my sneakers off the Brooklyn Bridge?”
Dex did his best to look affronted. “What are you suggesting? It was a windy day.”
“Funny how nothing else got blown away,” Sloane grumbled, pulling off his shirt and tossing it over Dex’s head. He felt like a coatrack. The rest of the team didn’t help at all with their snickering. A loud thunk sounded at his feet, and Dex pulled the shirt off his head to swipe up a boot.
“Size fourteen, man!” Dex waved Sloane’s huge black boot at him. “Somewhere on the Hudson, a duck’s using your sneaker as a flotation device.”
“Ducks already float.”
“Yeah, but their little legs must get tired of moving them about.” Dex wiggled his index and middle fingers to simulate duck feet. His half-naked, sexy-as-sin boyfriend held a hand up to stop any further protest. Dex wished the truck were empty so he could do some of his own pouncing on his jaguar Therian partner.
“Do you mind if I pause this incongruous exchange on water fowl to catch our guy?”
Dex held back a smile. “Ooh, someone’s been playing online Scrabble with Cael again. How many points did incongruous get you?”
When Sloane didn’t reply, Dex turned to his brother.
“Fourteen,” Cael offered cheerfully, earning himself a scowl from Sloane.
Dex shook his head. “Could have gotten twenty on Words With Friends.”
Rosa cut Sloane off, motioning to the large console’s surveillance monitor, which had been keeping an eye out for their target via infrared video. “Looks like Sloane’s right. Cabron’s in his Therian form.”
“Striptease is over,” Sloane informed them, hitting the large button on the BearCat’s side panel, causing the screen to drop from the truck’s roof so he could finish undressing and shift in private. Without his favorite peepshow, Dex turned to his brother who was looking somewhat spaced out. It started a few weeks ago, and it was beginning to worry Dex.
“What kind of Therian is our friend?” Dex asked. When his brother didn’t reply, Dex gave him a nudge. “You okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. Austen Payne is a cheetah Therian.”
So his brother had heard him? And what? Chose to ignore him? “Cael—”
Cael shook his head, his stern expression telling Dex his brother wasn’t in a sharing mood. Dex had considered pushing the matter but conceded now was not the time. Something was up with Cael and had been since he’d been in the hospital along with Hobbs after the bombing. Whatever was going on, it had to do with Ash. The guy had called in sick this morning, which was apparently like the second time he’d done so in the twenty-something years since joining the THIRDS. Lately Cael was easily distracted, his head elsewhere, which was dangerous not only for him but the rest of the team. Yeah, Dex would definitely be having a talk with his little brother. For now, he turned his attention to Rosa.
“So tell me something about this Austen guy.”
“He’s a slippery little shit,” Rosa said, though she was smiling affectionately when she said it. “Fast as fuck too.”
“Is that your professional opinion?” Dex teased, receiving a couple of loving expletives in Spanish. “How the hell is Sloane going to catch him?” If a cheetah Therian didn’t want to get caught, he didn’t get caught. Unless he made a stupid mistake. Rosa was right about how fast they were, whether in their Human or Therian forms. Dex remembered all the times he’d attempted to outrun his brother when they were kids. He never even came close to catching up with him despite being older and having longer legs—at least in his Human form. The only problem for cheetah Therians was the distance. They could only handle high speeds in short bursts. If Austen ran, Sloane could still catch up once the guy tired out. ’Course, who the hell knew where he’d run to by then.
“Sloane’s not going to chase him,” Rosa said, a wicked gleam in her eye. “He’s going to hunt him. No one stalks like our Team Leader.”
“Tell me about it,” Dex muttered. The guy had a bad habit of walking in a room and scaring the ever-living fuck out of Dex. It wasn’t right that a guy of Sloane’s size made no sound when he walked in his Human form. He was like a sexy ninja.
Speaking of his sexy ninja partner, the screen rose, and Dex crouched down in front of the huge black jaguar, talking quietly. “You be careful.” Sloane’s glowing amber eyes stared at him, and Dex eyed him warily. He was familiar with that look. “Don’t do it. Don’t—” A broad, sandpaper tongue licked him from his chin to his ear. “Damn it! Right in the ear! Every freakin’ time.” One would think he’d have learned after the first few dozen times his partner had licked him to annoy him. “That was—as usual—extremely unpleasant. Thank you. I appreciate it.”
Dex stood and wiped at his face and ear with his sleeve, ignoring his teammates chortling behind him. Letty opened one of the BearCat’s backdoors, but Sloane had to quickly rub up against Dex’s legs to leave his mark—as if it wasn’t all over Dex already—before leaping out of the truck. That done, Dex went to the console where his brother was tracking Sloane. He watched his Therian partner pad silently toward some bushes before he disappeared into the shadows. Dex could have sworn there had been something stuck on his partner’s back paw. Well, there was no way to know until Sloane returned. “You sure Sloane will be able to catch him?”
“Always does,” Cael murmured.
“So why does Austen run?”
Cael shrugged. “I think he likes it.”
“What do you mean ‘he likes it’?”
His brother’s cheeks flushed. Uh-oh. Dex knew that look. Cael worried his bottom lip and Dex waited while his brother racked his sweet little head trying to figure out whether he should spill or not. “Austen’s got a crush on Sloane.”
Dex eyed his brother, a silent conversation going on between them in which Cael gave him a shrug and apologetic smile. Interesting. Dex pursed his lips but said nothing. He sidled up to the bench before squeezing himself in between Rosa and Letty. There wasn’t much to do now other than wait and tease a little information out of his teammates.
“Is this Austen guy reliable?” Dex asked. “And how come this is the first I’m hearing of him?”
Letty looped her arm around Dex’s, and he smiled. He could always count on Rosa and Letty to bring him down to earth. They were both brutally honest and straightforward, but always with the best intentions at heart. Sometimes it felt like they were the only two with functioning relationships. Rosa was happily attached to her long-time girlfriend, and Letty was happily attached to whichever hottie made her toes curl that month. This month it was a firefighter from Brooklyn with dimples in all the right places.
“Austen’s good,” Letty offered. “Practically grew up working for us thanks to Sloane. He found the guy years ago when he was just a kid, got him a job. I don’t remember the story, but I’m sure Sloane’ll tell you if you ask. Austen’s a THIRDS SSA—Squadron Specialist Agent. You haven’t heard of him because, technically, he doesn’t exist. Those guys don’t work out of the office. You have to have high-level clearance just to access a file with his name on it. Every squad has their own specialist agent. Since they also function as confidential informants, they have to keep a low profile. Austen’s been off on some job for Lieutenant Sparks. He’s got mad skills. If you see him or talk to him, it’s because he wants you to.”
“Sloane’s coming back. And he’s got Austen,” Cael called out over his shoulder.
“That was quick.” Dex sprang to his feet and decided he’d meet his partner outside in case Austen decided he didn’t fancy getting in the truck. Having had no experience with the agent, Dex had no clue how Austen would react. Sometimes Therians were cooperative until they neared the big, scary black vehicle. The idea of being caged didn’t appeal, and Dex couldn’t blame them.
Dex jumped down and started for his partner when he noticed Sloane was walking funny. It was only until Sloane got close that Dex could see the reason why.
“Oh shit!” Dex doubled over laughing as Sloane hobbled over like he was drunk, the ferocity of having Austen in his jaws offset by the sheer hilarity of his partner trying to shake a black sock off his back paw. “Oh my God, I can’t breathe,” Dex wheezed, tears in his eyes.
Sloane huffed and continued to shake at his back paw, at one point skipping on his other three. Dex thought he was going to need Rosa to bring him oxygen. He’d been right. There had been something stuck on his partner’s paw when he left the truck. How Sloane had missed a sock was beyond him, but it was the funniest shit Dex had ever seen. “Hold up!” Dex managed to get himself together long enough to jog after his partner who stopped and stuck his back leg out. With a grin, Dex tugged the sock off. “Okay.” He received a huff in thanks.
Dex couldn’t help but feel somewhat bad for the cheetah Therian dangling from Sloane’s lethal jaws. The cheetah reminded him too much of Cael. Austen was small, lean, and clearly used to being dragged away by Sloane, judging by the way he hung in there looking almost bored by the whole thing. He didn’t attempt to get away even once. His front paws were crossed as if he were chilling. It became obvious to Dex that Austen trusted Sloane. Any other Therian would be shitting himself.
As soon as his partner reached the truck, he released Austen and hissed. Austen chirped and pushed his nose against Sloane’s, which made his partner’s ears flatten against his head before he let out a roar. Not surprising it startled Austen so bad; had he been a cartoon, his spots would have fallen off. A bristled Austen promptly jumped up into the BearCat with Sloane on his tail. Dex followed and closed the doors behind them. The privacy screen dropped, and Austen shifted first while Sloane sat patiently beside Dex, waiting his turn. Since Rosa had experience working with cheetah Therians—considering her partner was one—she provided Austen with Postshift Trauma Care, along with a THIRDS supplied disposable set of clothes, which she handed to him once he was strong enough to stick an arm out from behind the screen. A low grumble later, and Rosa disappeared behind the screen.
While Rosa helped their SSA regain Human functionality, Dex took a seat on the small single bench beside the weapons’ cage. Sloane immediately dropped his head on Dex’s lap, looking for an ear scratch, and Dex obliged, smiling when he heard the deep chainsaw-like purr and felt it vibrating against his leg.
“At least when he sheds all over you, you can’t see it.” Calvin cast his tiger Therian partner an accusing glare. Hobbs sat up with a frown. He reached over and gave a light tug on Calvin’s blond hair. “I don’t shed,” Calvin protested. Hobbs nodded. Clearly he disagreed. Dex watched the two in amusement as they argued, despite Calvin being the only vocal one. It was amazing how much Hobbs could say with his expressions and hand movements alone.
A slender, sinewy young Therian who seemed to be in his midtwenties stepped out from behind the screen with a fierce yawn. He ruffled his dark hair and strutted over to the bench where he dropped down beside Letty with a wide grin. The guy looked like he’d just rolled out of bed after performing at some rock gig, despite the out-of-place outfit he sported.
Dex didn’t have time to further study the agent before Sloane disappeared behind the screen. By now no one thought twice about Dex following his partner in. They figured after nearly a year of working closely together, Sloane no longer cared if his partner saw him naked postshift. Of course, they had no idea Dex and Sloane did a lot more than work together, and seeing his partner naked usually led to naughtier things in private.
As soon as Sloane had shifted, Dex began the Postshift Trauma Care. He hoped whatever information Sloane was looking to get from Austen, he’d be able to get it quickly. Sloane needed to eat a hefty meal filled with meat and carbs if he was going to regain his full strength. With the power bars and Gatorade finished, Dex helped Sloane back into his uniform. Not long after, Sloane was on his feet. He gave Dex a wink and a playful smack on the ass before hitting the button for the screen.
“Why did you run, Austen?” Sloane asked as he took the seat Dex had vacated earlier. “Again.”
Across from him, Austen blinked at Sloane. “What do you mean, why? Because you guys are fucking scary, that’s why. I never know who’s gon
Cael scowled at him.
“Dude,” Austen whispered hoarsely. “You’re gonna leave me hanging in front of the fit jaguar Therian? Not cool.”
With a grunt, Cael bumped his fist against Austen’s, drawing a big grin from him.
“We small Felids gotta stick together.”
“You done socializing?” Sloane asked.
“Yep. What can I do for you, Agent Broody?”
Dex bit his bottom lip to keep himself from laughing at the nickname. Sounded like something he would come up with. It certainly described his sexy partner to a T.
“Don’t suppose you’re going to reconsider my offer for a private workout session?”
Cael hadn’t been kidding. Austen did have a crush on Sloane. Dex was still trying to get a read on the guy. Part of him wanted to like the cheeky cheetah; the other part wanted to dislike him for the sheer fact he wanted to get his grubby little paws on Sloane. The guy made no attempt to hide his attraction to the larger Felid. Then again, Austen wasn’t the first to have a crush on Destructive Delta’s Team Leader. Dex had heard plenty of talk around the office from both male and female agents attracted to his partner, though no one ever approached Sloane. Hell, if Dex hadn’t been partnered with him, he would have chalked Sloane up as being out of his league. There was also something about his sexy partner that screamed, “Approach with caution”.
Austen turned toward Dex, seeming to notice him for the first time. He opened his mouth to say something, then paused before leaning in Dex’s direction. “Damn. Look at those baby blues. Aren’t you going to introduce me to your new pouty-lipped partner, Broody Bear?”
“That’s Agent Daley. I told you if you called me that again I was going to kick your ass. You wanna pay attention even a little?” It was as if Sloane hadn’t even spoken.
“Well hello, Agent Daley. You are one lucky dude. Destructive Delta has fine agents.” He lolled his head back to grin widely at Hobbs. “And I do mean fine.”
My God, it was like the guy was in heat. Hobbs smiled shyly before noticing his partner’s subtle glare, prompting him to drop his gaze to his tac pants and brush off some dust Dex doubted was even there.
Sloane sat back and laced his fingers over his stomach. He stretched his long legs out in front of him and crossed them at the ankles. “Am I going to have to get you neutered?”
Austen gave such a start that he nearly fell off the bench. “That ain’t funny, man. You shouldn’t joke about shit like that.”
A wicked grin came onto Sloane’s face. “Who said I was joking?”
“I see. It’s business as usual, then. Fine. It’s getting ugly out there. I’ve got no sympathy for those bastards from the Order, but it’s pretty messed up the way the Coalition’s dealing with them. These dudes don’t fuck around. I mean, they hunt the Humans down, catch them, beat the tar out of them, then leave them somewhere visible to warn the others. That’s usually when someone calls you guys.”
“Any luck tracking the Coalition?” Sloane asked.
Austen shook his head. “I haven’t been able to get close enough. These guys aren’t like the Order. They’ve got training. Not official government training, but like they’ve been shown the basics by someone who’s trained. They know how to stay hidden. Wherever they go, they have two members in their Therian forms to sniff out anyone who might be stupid enough to follow them. And before you ask, it’s never the same two Therians. So cross-referencing their classification through your fancy computer will probably give you a hit on every Therian agent in your organization.”
“Sorry. I know it’s a big load of nada. But I can confirm you do have a traitor in your midst.”
Crap. Not that they hadn’t known, but having someone else confirm it made it doubly fucked up. “How do you know?” Dex asked.
“Like I said. These guys haven’t been officially trained. They’ve been shown the ropes by someone who has. An agent. There are two male Therians leading the Coalition. One of them communicates with someone several times a day and usually gives orders based on whatever he’s been told. I’ve seen him answer his phone several times and right after, tell his team to retreat. Seconds later, THIRDS agents show up.”
Sloane nodded his acknowledgment. “Are you able to identify any of them?”
“No. They wear black masks that cover their heads and necks. The kind tactical teams wear under their helmets. Makes it so you can’t see any distinctive features. The main guy I’ve seen only once. Well, all I saw was his figure. He’s fucking huge. He was wearing one of those black masks, a black long sleeve shirt with bulletproof vest, and black-and-gray camouflage pants. It’s no wonder the press keeps thinking they’re THIRDS agents the way they’re geared up. For all we know, your rat might be in there, but there’s no way to tell. They don’t let their guard down for a moment. I get the feeling they don’t reveal their identities to anyone, not even each other.”
“What about names?” Dex asked. “They have to call each other something, don’t they?”
Austen’s frown didn’t bode well. “They use numbered codes, like one-eleven and twenty-three twenty-six. Have fun trying to figure out what the hell they represent.”
Sloane nodded to Cael who added the numbers to the notes he was taking on his tablet. Cael would undoubtedly be adding an algorithm to Themis to find out what the numbers could pertain to. They’d be looking into that later, though Austen had a point. The possibilities were staggering.
“Any idea how many there are?”
Again Austen shook his head to Sloane’s question. “I can’t imagine there are many. Whenever I’ve seen them, they’ve been in groups of five or six at most. Couldn’t say how many groups there are, but maybe if you cross-reference incident times with locations across the boroughs, you might get a rough idea. Can’t be two places at once right?” Sloane gave Austen a nod of approval, which made Austen grin widely. “See. I’m not just a pretty face.”
“All right,” Sloane replied with a smirk before continuing with his questioning. “Anything on the Order?”
“I’ve thrown a few hooks out on that one. I’ll let you know if anyone bites.”
Sloane stood and held his hand out to Austen. “Good work. Contact me if you get anything.”
“And next time,” Sloane warned, though there was a hint of teasing in his voice, “try not to run.”
Austen strode over to the end of the BearCat and turned to give Sloane a wink. “Now why would I give up the chance to be chased by a hot agent?” He saluted Sloane before opening up one of the doors and hopping out. He disappeared into the trees before Dex blinked. Rosa wasn’t kidding. The guy was fast, even in Human form.