DURING THE Vietnam War, the use of lethal biological warfare led to the spread of the Melanoe virus, infecting millions worldwide and causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands. Although no country would take credit for releasing the virus, the world’s top scientists came together to create a cure. The vaccine known as Eppione.8 used strains from animals found to be immune to the virus, but one year after distribution, the course of human history was forever changed. A dormant mutation within the virus was activated by the vaccine, resulting in the altering of human DNA, and giving birth to a new species: Therians.
When the first infected Humans began changing in the late seventies, some didn’t survive. Their Human bodies were unprepared for the shift. Others died of cancer or infections due to weakened immune systems, while others vanished. Rumors ran rampant about governments trying to clean up their mess. When it was clear the “problem” wasn’t going to go away, the US government tried to regain control of the masses, creating the Therian database and quickly passing new laws that would force all surviving Therians to register and get marked, supposedly for their own safety and that of their fellow Human citizens.
The government had been treating the first wave of Therians as a side effect of the war, one that would eventually die out. Then in 1976, scientists discovered what was really happening. The first generation of purebred Therians had been born. The mutation had perfected itself. Solidified, inside these First Generations. Suddenly, there was an advanced new species and along with it, a whole new set of fears.
In an attempt to restore social order, the US government quickly put new regulations and laws into place, along with a Therian branch of government. In 1990, Human and Therian legislators launched the Therian Human Intelligence, Recon, Defense Squadron A.K.A the THIRDS, an elite, military-funded agency comprised of an equal number of Human and Therian agents and intended to uphold the law for all its citizens without prejudice.
As long as Humanity continued to repeat the mistakes of the past, organizations like the THIRDS would be needed to ensure Humanity had a future, even if they had to stumble along the way to get there.
FUCK. MY. Life.
Dex closed his eyes, wishing this was nothing more than some freakishly vivid dream where any moment now, he would wake up and everything would go back to the way it was. Of course, when he opened his eyes, nothing changed. He splashed more water on his face in an effort to ease the tension, but it didn’t help. Not that he’d been expecting it to. After wiping the excess water from his face, he paused to glare at the man in the mirror. The guy staring back at him looked like shit, pale with reddish-brown circles under his eyes that made him look as if he’d either been crying or using crack. There were definitely a hell of a lot of sleepless nights involved. Dex didn’t like the guy in the mirror. What an asshole.
“Are they out there?” His voice came out rough, as if waking from sleep—deep or otherwise—had been out of his reach for some time.
A hand landed on his shoulder, offering a sympathetic squeeze. “Yes. Remember what we talked about? As soon as you’ve had enough, you walk away.”
Dex let out a snort. It was way too late to walk away. Had been about six months ago. He straightened and snatched a paper towel from the automated dispenser. It was like drying off with newspaper, the same newspapers that had his image plastered all over their pages. Images that had been run through some Photoshop douchebag filter to make him look like even more of a prick. He chucked the paper into the wastebasket and stood there, finding it difficult to face his lawyer.
“Hey, look at me.” Littman stepped up to him and patted his cheek. “You did the right thing.”
Dex looked up then, searching for something, anything that might help the pain go away even for a little while. “Then why do I feel like shit?”
“Because he was your friend, Dex.”
“Exactly. And I fucked him over. Some friend.” He went back to leaning over the sink, his fingers gripping the porcelain so tightly, his knuckles hurt. “Goddamn it!” That son of a bitch! What the hell had Walsh been thinking? Obviously he hadn’t been, or neither of them would be in this mess. Or worse, maybe Walsh had thought it through. Maybe he’d been so certain Dex would have his back that he thought “fuck it.”
Dex closed his eyes, trying to get the man’s face out of his mind, but he could still see it clearly. That face was going to haunt his dreams for a long time coming. The mixture of anger and pain when the verdict had been given—anger directed at Dex, and pain brought about by what he’d done—had been there for the world to see, especially Dex.
“No,” Littman insisted. “He fucked himself over. All you did was tell the truth.”
The truth. How could doing the right thing turn out so goddamn bad? Had it even been the right thing? It had seemed like it at the time. Now he wasn’t so sure. Regardless, he couldn’t hide out in the restroom all his life.
“Let’s get this over with.” A few deep breaths and he followed Littman out into the corridor. The moment he stepped foot out there, the locusts swarmed him, microphones buzzing, recorders and smartphones at the ready, flashes going off, cameras rolling, a litany of questions flying at him from every direction. It was as if he were underwater, hearing everyone outside the pool yelling and screaming as he sank to the bottom like a stone, no discernible words, only muffled sounds. Littman stepped up beside him, one hand behind Dex’s back in assurance, the other held up to the crowd in a vain attempt to bring order to chaos.
“Detective Daley will do his best to answer your questions, but one at a time, please!”
A tall, gray-haired man in an expensive suit pushed through his gathered comrades, ignoring their murmured grunts of displeasure, to place a microphone in front of Dex. A half a dozen more swiftly joined it.
“Detective Daley, what would you say to all the Humans who believe you betrayed your own kind?”
At least he’d been prepared for that one. Dex buttoned up his suit jacket, the gesture allowing him a few seconds to calm his nerves and collect his thoughts. Smoothing it down, he met the reporter’s gaze. “I joined the Human Police Force to make a difference, and sometimes that requires making tough calls. I chose to tell the truth. No one is above the law, and my job is to enforce it.”
A blonde woman in a tailored navy blue pantsuit swiftly jumped in. “Is it because your brother is Therian? Are you a LiberTherian Sympathizer?”
It was hardly the first time he’d been accused of such. Having a Therian brother was the sole reason the Human Police Force had taken longer than necessary to consider him when he’d applied ten years ago. If his father hadn’t been a respected detective on the force, Dex was certain he never would’ve been considered, much less hired. Knowing what they thought of his brother should have been enough to make him walk away, but it was those same close-minded individuals Dex had wanted to reach. That was why he’d joined the HPF, to continue making a difference from the inside, like his dad once had. It turned out to be a whole lot harder than he’d imagined, but that only succeeded in strengthening his resolve.
“My brother and I share the same beliefs when it comes to justice. Our fathers taught us to treat both Therians and Humans as equals. I may be liberal-minded, but my strong belief in justice for both species hardly makes me a sympathizer.”
An auburn-haired man with a shit-eating grin shoved his smartphone in Dex’s face, almost hitting him in the teeth. His expression told Dex he didn’t much care if he had. Dex calmly pulled back, his jaw muscles tightening. “Detective Daley, why haven’t you joined your father and brother over at the THIRDS? Is it because you didn’t qualify?”
Dex returned the asshole’s grin. “Wha
“But you did go through their training.”
“I was offered the opportunity to take the three-week training course in the hopes I might reconsider becoming a candidate. I complied as a courtesy to my family, and I admit, a part of me wanted to know if I was up to the challenge.” And damn, had it been one hell of a challenge! Three weeks of intense physical training and skill-building exercises, rappelling, fast roping, room entry procedures, building searches, close quarter combat, and tactical weapons training. Dex had been pushed to his limits, and when he thought he couldn’t give any more, he was forced to reach deep down and give an additional 10 percent. It had been the most grueling, demanding, psychologically stressful three weeks of his life. Nothing he’d ever done had come close to what he’d been put through in those three weeks, not even the HPF training academy.
The THIRDS were the toughest sons of bitches around, and Dex had wanted to prove to himself that he could hack it. But join them? That was something else altogether.
“Did you pass?”
Dex couldn’t help his pride from showing. “Top of the class.”
“Will you be applying now?” another journalist asked.
“I intend to continue offering my services to the HPF.”
“What if they don’t want you? Do you think they’ve lost their trust in you, knowing you helped send a good man, one of their own brothers, to prison?”
And there it was.
Dex turned his head to whisper Littman’s name. His lawyer smiled broadly and held a hand up. “Thank you all for coming. I’m afraid that’s all Detective Daley has time for. Please respect him and his family during this difficult time.”
“What about Detective Walsh and his family? Have you spoken to them? How does his family feel about what you did?”
Dex waded through the toxic pool of newspersons, refusing to think about the hurtful and hateful phone calls, texts, and messages from Walsh’s family. People he’d once had barbecues with, whose Little League games he’d attended. He’d never wanted to bring them so much pain, to take away their son, husband, father. Being on the receiving end of their anger was the least Dex deserved.
“Detective Daley! Detective!”
He ignored the onslaught of questions, from what his boyfriend thought about the whole thing to whether his career with the HPF was unofficially over, and everything in between. He wasn’t going to think about any of that now. All he wanted was to get home to said boyfriend and maybe cry a little.
Dex walked as fast, but calmly, as he could, with Littman at his side, making a beeline for the north entrance of the Supreme Court Criminal Branch. Outside, the news teams tried to crowd him in, and officers did their best to control the growing mob. The railings on either side of the exit only proved to be a nuisance, corralling him as he tried to push his way through. The steps were blocked, so Dex grabbed Littman’s elbow and hurried him down the makeshift ramp to the sidewalk. Thank God they had a car waiting for them.
Dex tried to be nice about getting the journalists to step back so he could get into the backseat. When a couple of jerks tried to cram in, Dex was left with no choice. He grabbed their smartphones and tossed them into the crowd behind them.
“You’re going to pay for that!” one of them called out as he scrambled to retrieve his device.
“Bill me!” Dex climbed into the car and slammed the door behind him. The town car pulled away from the curb, and he slumped back against the pristine leather, letting out a long audible breath. Finally, it was over. For the time being anyway.
“You sure you don’t want to be dropped off at home?” Littman looked nearly as haggard as Dex felt.
“Nah, the parking garage is fine. I need to drop off the rental anyway.”
“You know I would’ve been happy to pick you up at your home and drop you off.”
“I know.” Dex stared out the window as they drove up Centre Street, made a left on White, and then drove down Lafayette. When they made a right onto Worth, the Starbucks on the corner had him pining for some frothy caffeine goodness. “I needed to drive around a while before court. Listen to some music, try to relax a little.” He’d made sure to rent a car with the darkest tinted windows on the lot and a slamming sound system. Music was probably the only thing that had kept him from going crazy through this whole ordeal, what with his boyfriend’s busy schedule. It would have been nice to have Lou there with him, but he understood the man couldn’t drop everything for him. They both had demanding careers and sometimes sacrifices had to be made. Still….
“I understand. You should lay low for a while until this blows over. There’s talk of that heiress—the one who’s been having a not-so-secret affair with her Therian personal trainer, being pregnant, and Daddy’s not taking it well. That should keep the vultures busy for a while. I suggest you take some vacation time, maybe surprise Lou with a nice little penthouse suite in the Bahamas or something.”
In no time, the car pulled up to the curb in front of the deli next to the parking garage, and Dex mustered up a smile, holding his hand out to his father’s old friend. “Thanks. I appreciate everything you’ve done for me.”
“You know I’m always here if you need me.” Littman took his hand in his and gave it a pat. “Dex?”
“He would have been proud of you.”
The thought brought a lump to his throat. “You think so?”
Littman nodded, the conviction in his words going a long way to assure Dex. “I knew your dad a long time. Believe me. He would have been proud. And so is Tony. He’s left me about ten messages asking about how you are. Your brother’s probably worried sick as well.”
Dex pulled his hand away to remove his smartphone from his pocket and chuckled at the fifteen missed calls from his family. He held it up. “You think?”
“Call your family, before Tony hunts you down.”
“I’ll give them both a call soon as I get in. Thanks.” After saying good-bye to Littman, Dex once again thanked him for helping him keep his sanity throughout all this and what was surely to come. Dex headed toward the rental in the parking garage. He wasn’t stupid enough to drive his precious baby to the courthouse. It was hard to lose the media in an Orange Pearl Dodge Challenger. If they weren’t in the city, he’d leave them eating his dust, but since he was in the city, it would make him a sitting duck.
As soon as he walked around to the rental’s driver’s side, he was doubly grateful he hadn’t brought his car, though he was no less pissed. Someone had slashed his back tire.
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”
He kicked the tire, as if doing so might magically repair it. Goddamn it, he should have let Littman drive him home. All he wanted was to get indoors, get something to eat, and vegetate on the couch. Thank God for auto clubs. He reached into his pocket for his phone when someone across the lot called out.
Instinctively, he looked up. A split second later the air rushed out of his lungs when something solid struck him between his shoulder blades. He stumbled forward, a blow to his thigh forcing him onto his hands and knees with a painful growl. Around him, three large Humans in black ski masks and black gloves crowded him. Damn it, where had they come from? Dex moved, intent on pushing himself to his feet when someone kicked him in the stomach, leaving him once again winded. He landed roughly on his side, holding onto his bruised ribs and stomach, his teeth gritted as he breathed heavily through his nose.
“You fucked up, Daley. You shouldn’t have testified against your partner.”
“Fuck you,” Dex spat out. Another kick confirmed mouthing off wasn’t appreciated. They obviously didn’t know him. With a groan, he leaned slightly to take in the sight of their neat attire. Maybe they did know him. “Who sent you?” He didn’t need to know. What’s more, he didn’t care. All he needed was enough time to figure out who he wa
“The Human race,” one of them snarled.
Dex let out a laugh. What an ass. It hadn’t taken him long to piece things together after noticing the gang’s black dress slacks and shiny black shoes. With a curse, he rolled forward to press his forehead against the asphalt. The only surprising part of this whole encounter was the fact it hadn’t come sooner. At least they weren’t going to kill him, just make him bleed a little. “Well, I got the message, so you can all go home now. You did your duty.” He received a blow to the arm with the shiny steel baton; most likely the same object they’d used to hit him in the back. Man, he was going to be sore tomorrow.
They dragged him to his feet, one holding on to each of his arms as the third came to stand before him. Dex closed his eyes and braced himself, his mind chastising him for being such a coward. The punch landed square across his jaw, snapping his head to one side and splitting his lip. Fuuuck, that hurt. He ran a tongue over his teeth to make sure nothing was loose. Nope, nothing there but the tangy taste of his own blood.
“Hey! HPF! Hands where I can see them!”
The Humans bolted and Dex’s knees buckled beneath him. Strong hands caught him, helping him stay on his feet. His back stung, his arm, thigh, and face throbbed from the blows, and his stomach reeled at the knowledge he’d done nothing.
“Daley, you okay?”
Dex recognized that voice. He looked up, puzzled to find fellow Homicide Detective Isaac Pearce holding him up, concern etched on his face.
Pearce helped him to the rental and propped him up against it, performing a quick assessment. Seeming confident Dex could stand, he surveyed the parking garage, but the perpetrators were long gone. His attention landed back on Dex. “You all right?”
“Yeah. Wish I could say the same about my suit.” Dex straightened, wincing at the sharp pain that shot through his body. “What are you doing here?”
“The usual summons, but my guy never showed. It was a nice day, so I figured I’d walk it. Glad I left when I did.”
“Yeah, me too.” Dex let out a small laugh then winced at the sharp sting it brought his lip. Tony was going to lose his shit over this.
“Any idea who they were?” Pearce asked worriedly.
Yep. “Nope.” Dex shook his head, wiping his hands on his slacks. “Just some pissed off Humans.” He had enough on his hands without bringing a whole new level of crap down on himself. “To be honest, right now, I just want to get home.”
“Don’t blame you.” Pearce motioned toward the slashed tire. “Need a lift?”
If he called the auto club now, Dex would have to wait for someone to come out—because he sure as hell didn’t have the strength or will to change the tire himself, wait for them to swap it out then drive the rental back to the lot. Or, he could accept Pearce’s offer and worry about the rental later.
“A lift would be greatly appreciated.”
“Great.” Pearce beamed at him. “I’m around the corner.”
With a murmured “Thanks,” Dex accompanied Pearce to his car, a silver Lexus that was more befitting a homicide detective. At least that’s what his old partner Walsh would have thought. The guy never did approve of Dex’s tastes. Come to think of it, Walsh was always making snide comments about what a “special snowflake” Dex was. He’d never paid much attention to the remarks, but in light of recent events, it was possible Walsh had always been a judgmental prick. Had Dex simply turned a blind eye to all of it? What if Dex had called him out on it sooner? Could they both have been spared all this?
“You okay?” Pearce asked again as soon as Dex was settled into the passenger seat beside him.
“Yeah, sorry. I’m still trying to wrap my head around all of this.”
“Why don’t you put on some music? Relax a bit. I’ll even let you choose the station.”
Dex gave a low whistle as he slipped on his seatbelt. “You’re going to regret giving me that kind of power.” He turned on the radio and navigated through the touchscreen to Retro Radio. Dex grinned broadly at Pearce, wiggling his eyebrows when Billy Ocean’s “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car” came blaring through the speakers. Pearce stared at him as if he’d lost his mind and Dex laughed. “I told you, you’d regret it.”
With a chuckle, Pearce drove out of the parking garage. “Where to?”
“West Village, Barrow Street.”
Despite Bobby McFerrin advising Dex a few minutes later not to worry and be happy, Dex was finding it difficult. If it were only that easy, Bobby. If only.
The ride down Sixth Avenue was quiet, filled mostly with power ballads and electro pop from the era of neon spandex, mullets, and shoulder pads with a wingspan to rival that of a Boeing 747. Dex appreciated Pearce letting him zone out instead of trying to make idle conversation. It was odd, being in Pearce’s car with him. They’d never offered more than the usual office greetings despite both working homicide from the HPF’s Sixth Precinct. Then again, Pearce had retreated into himself after losing his brother over a year ago, and no one at the Sixth could blame him. Having a younger brother of his own, Dex could imagine how hard it must have been on the poor guy.
Traffic wasn’t too bad this time of day, slowing down mainly near Tribeca Park and a few pockets down Sixth Avenue. Less than ten minutes later, they were driving onto busy Bleecker Street. Maybe he could convince Lou to pick him up a burger and fries from Five Guys on the corner. It was dangerous, having that place so close to his house. They pulled up in front of Dex’s brownstone, and Pearce turned to him with a smile. “Well, here we are.”
“Thanks for not kicking me out of your car,” Dex said, shutting off the radio.
“I’ll admit I came close when Jefferson Starship came on, but then I saw you tapping your hand in time to the music, and you had this sappy smile on your face… I didn’t have the heart.” Dex gave a snort and leaned back in his seat, smiling when Pearce started laughing. “You are one weird guy.” Pearce’s smile faded, and he suddenly looked a little embarrassed. “Want to get a coffee sometime?”
“Sure.” Dex tried not to let the surprise show in his voice.
“I know we’ve never said more than a few words to each other, but you’re a cool guy, Daley.” His brows drew together in worry, making him appear older than he was. Dex wasn’t more than a couple years younger than Pearce, but their job didn’t exactly allow for aging gracefully. “Be careful. I’d hate—” Pearce’s voice broke and he cleared his throat. “I’d hate for you to get hurt over all this. My brother, Gabe, believed in what he was doing and look where it got him.”