Estratto

Chapter One

“YOU SURE this is the place?”

Dex shifted his entry weapon to one side and stepped up behind his brother at the surveillance console while the rest of the team double-checked their equipment at the other end of the BearCat. Cael tapped away at the keyboard, bringing up a grid of the area, satellite mapping, and a host of surveillance feeds from local businesses he’d undoubtedly “borrowed.”

“College Point, Queens, near the Canada Dry bottling plant. That’s what our source tells us.”

“Reliable?” Dex asked, receiving a curt nod.

“Hasn’t let us down yet.”

Hopefully this wouldn’t be the first. The last thing they needed was to waste more time with another dead end. Four months of reconnaissance and intel gathering from Unit Alpha’s Intel and Recon agents, and Defense agents finally had something useful to go on regarding the whereabouts of The Order of Adrasteia, though they still didn’t know how big the group was or how spread out they were.

Despite being Human perpetrators, which should have fallen to the jurisdiction of the Human Police Force, the threat was against Therian citizens, not to mention the Order had declared war against the THIRDS by executing a THIRDS agent. The online video of Agent Morelli’s death had gone viral and ended up being broadcast on television two days before Christmas. Dex could still hear the bastard’s voice in his head as if he’d watched the whole thing yesterday, the spiteful words dripping with venom.

In order to cure our city of its disease, we must dispose of its carriers, starting with the organization that promotes the sickness. We will unleash Hell upon these sinners, starting with the THIRDS.

Seconds later, the THIRDS organization went to Threat Level Red. They had to stop the Order before they had any more loss of life and before any more zealots jumped on the crazy train. Since then, the already tremulous relationship between Human and Therian citizens was growing more unstable by the day, which was exactly what the Order wanted.

The THIRDS had recruited volunteers to patrol the city, removing the Order’s hateful propaganda, but it was a futile endeavor. With every poster spouting “Humans 4 Dominance” or sporting the Adrasteia goddess symbol the THIRDS took down, three or four took its place. So many flyers littered the streets, they resembled the aftermath of a tickertape parade. Everywhere Dex looked, the Order was leaving its blood-red mark, promising hellfire and chaos, refusing to give in unless they got their way, or the city burned, whichever came first. The media wasn’t helping any either. Turning on the TV, one would think a presidential election was going on, what with all the ludicrous accusations and childish attempts to discredit the opposing side.

In the middle of it all were the THIRDS. Since the Order had surfaced, the organization had been accused of everything from sitting on the fence (too cowardly to pick a side), to being traitors to their species (depending on the agent being accused), to being the source of evil itself, to being the only thing keeping this city from crumbling. No matter what they did, someone accused them of something—not working hard enough or fast enough or not giving enough of a shit. It would have driven Dex out of his mind ages ago if he let it get to him, which was why he didn’t. Most importantly, he wouldn’t allow it to get to his team.

Sloane strode up to him, addressing Cael as he handed Dex his ballistic helmet. “What do we know about the area?” Dex snatched the helmet from his partner with a groan.

“I hate this thing.”

“When a bullet hits your helmet instead of your skull, Rookie, you’ll love it.”

Damn. Can’t argue with that.

Cael didn’t bother hiding his amusement as he answered Sloane’s question. “Mostly industrial estates and construction firms. Fifteenth Avenue ends at the East River, though there’s a small dirt drive that heads into the sign and window factory’s parking lot—if you can call it that.” His expression sobered, his Therian pupils dilating in his silvery eyes. “But the immediate area surrounding it is residential, with Popps a couple of blocks away.”

“What’s Popps?” Dex asked. He wasn’t all that familiar with the area, and after months of running around the city, the neighborhoods were all starting to blend together.

“The Poppenhusen Institute. It’s a community center offering programs for kids and families.”

Ash joined them with his usual cheerful growl. “Great. Bastards know what they’re doing. The industrial sites offer plenty of cover, but the residential area makes it difficult to go in aggressive. Last thing we need is a stray bullet catching some poor kid.”

Sloane nodded his agreement before motioning to the console’s large flat screen. “Do we have an exact location?”

“Here.” Cael pointed to a small area near the edge of the river at the end of Fifteenth Avenue. The property consisted of two small buildings on a small expanse of dirt with a chain link fence going around the front and the East River around the back. “It’s listed as IGD Construction Supply Services, but it’s a front. At least now it is. I conducted a search for businesses and individuals who’ve had contracts with them and turned up plenty of hits, but they were all jobs completed over a year ago, with nothing in the works since. I called from one of our secure lines back at Recon, pretending to be a client and the ‘secretary’ said the company was in the middle of a restructure and not taking on any new projects.”

“Security?”

“A piss-poor security network, consumer-grade crap. There’s a camera on the north side, another on the south, and one on this house here, which acts as the office. I can have the feed looped faster than Dex can sing the chorus to Alice Cooper’s Poison.”

Dex opened his mouth, and Sloane clamped a gloved hand over it. “No. Cael, don’t encourage him. Ash, entry.”

“I don’t like this.” Ash studied the screen, his beefy arms folded over his tac vest. “We’re talking confined quarters. If they’re in there, they’ve got to be prepared. The second structure is our primary target and where they’ll most likely be. It has no windows, two small entrances on the side, and three vehicle entrances at the front. The good news, it’s aluminum, so it’ll be easy to blow that shit sky high.” Ash’s frown deepened.

“Either way, 110th Street is out of the question. They’ll see us coming. I say we have three teams. Team one comes up Fifteenth Avenue, past the bottling plant, to there,” he said, pointing to a medium-sized, tan brick house on the screen. “They can use that entryway. The wooden fence and the house will cover them. They go around the back, cut through the chain link fence, and end up in the back of IGD’s yard. They can sneak up on them from behind, take out whoever’s in this office, and then come in strong from the front, especially since the windows have burglar bars so our perps won’t be able to get out that way. Anyone comes at the team, they can throw the bastards in the river, but that’s just my opinion.

“Team two takes the same route, comes up behind the primary target, breaches the perimeter using this door here, giving you room to maneuver should the bastards come through the second and third entrance, or the side doors. And speaking of, if they do, we’ll have the third team ready across the street having approached through the back of the sign and window factory. There’s enough construction equipment and debris to conceal them.”

With a curt nod, Sloane gave Ash a firm pat on the shoulder. “Good work. You heard him, team. Cael, you’re our eyes. Keep us informed of all activity.”

“Copy that.” Cael turned back to the console while Sloane addressed the rest of the team.

“Letty, Rosa, you’re team one. You take the office. Calvin, Hobbs, you’re team two. Go around the back of the primary target, take out the door, and smoke ’em out.”

Calvin gave him a curt nod and walked off with Hobbs close behind to prepare the necessary explosives and nonlethals.

“Ash, Dex, you’re with me. We’re coming in behind the sign and window factory.” Sloane tapped his earpiece. “Agent Stone, Agent Taylor, this is Agent Brodie.”

The Team Leaders’ gruff voices came in over their earpieces. “Agent Stone, here. What are your orders, Agent Brodie?”

“Agent Taylor, here. Ditto.”

Sloane rolled his eyes. “Agent Stone, I want you and your team situated at the corner of 110th Street and Fourteenth Road. Make sure no one comes in or out. Have Beta Pride on standby and keep an eye out for civilians.”

“Copy that.”

“Agent Taylor, you and your team take the corner of 112th Street and Fifteenth Avenue. You know the drill. Have Beta Ambush on standby and keep an eye out for civilians. Try not to scare any kids today.”

There was a deep rumble of laughter from the other end. “And take away Keeler’s fun? Perish the thought.”

“Kiss my ass, Taylor.”

“You just come on over here and bend over, Keeler. We’ll have ourselves a gay ole time. Taylor out.”

“Pussy,” Ash muttered.

“That’s kind of the opposite of why I’d kiss your ass,” Agent Taylor said with a laugh.

Ash opened his mouth for a rebuttal—undoubtedly one laced with enough obscenity to make their ears bleed, but Sloane was too quick, tapping Ash’s earpiece and jutting a finger at him. “You and Taylor can have your battle of wits some other time.” Ignoring Ash’s glare, Sloane turned his attention back to the team.

“All right, watch your backs, and let’s show those sons of bitches what happens when they mess with our city. Letty, Rosa, give us a five-second lead.”

“You got it.” Rosa put on her ballistic helmet and lowered the visor; the rest of the team followed suit. Sloane’s voice came in loud and clear.

“Let’s move out.”

Destructive Delta’s BearCat was parked at the corner of 112th Street and Fifteenth Avenue, and they gave a small wave to Beta Ambush’s truck as it pulled up to the sidewalk a few feet away from them. Everyone scrambled out, heading toward their respective starting points.

Dex fell into formation behind Sloane with Ash at his back, their rifles in their hands as they quickly jogged down the sidewalk and turned onto Fourteenth Road. They could see Beta Pride’s BearCat parked near the corner, and they headed toward it, alert to everything around them as they passed all the two-story houses with their white picket fences. The sky was blue with some wispy clouds hovering over them, the weather in the mid-60s, and the neighborhood quiet at this time of day. No one would ever suspect anything was wrong, unless they looked out their windows and spotted the three heavily armed THIRDS agents dashing by.

Before they got to the truck, Sloane signaled for them to cross the road, where they stopped at the corner of 110th Street. Although they were a block away from IGD, Sloane wasn’t taking any chances of their getting spotted. They turned the corner, and following his silent signal, they dashed behind the parked cars and waited. As soon as they received the okay, they darted across the street, down the side of one of the businesses, and around the back to its parking lot.

A man in a gray suit carrying a portfolio and armful of papers froze on the spot, eyes going wide. Dex motioned for him to go inside, but it took three tries before the guy snapped himself out of it. He made like the wind back toward the building’s exit, nearly running into the glass door in his attempt to flee. Sloane motioned forward, and Dex readied himself, inhaling deeply and releasing it. Eight months on the team and at times, he still couldn’t believe he was a Defense agent for the THIRDS. His agency dog tags pressed against his skin under his uniform reminded him he was no longer a homicide detective, but a soldier. He’d been awarded his tags six months in, after passing his probation with flying colors.

Despite his initial reluctance to join the THIRDS after HPF bureaucrats had all but forced him into it, Dex had never felt more content than the moment his lieutenant placed those tags around his neck, with his dad and brother looking on nearly busting at the seams with pride. Those tags were a reminder of his new life, and everyone who now depended on him. Destructive Delta had taken him in, even if it had been a shaky start, but one thing he knew for certain, he had no intention of letting them down.

They reached the wooden fence separating them from the back of the sign and window building. Sloane stepped aside and gave Dex a nod. Rookie gets to breach. Let the fun begin. Dex turned, giving Sloane access to his backpack and the Hooligan kit inside. Seconds later, Sloane handed him a small crowbar, and Dex jammed the end between two of the wooden boards before giving the iron bar a fierce jerk. The wood creaked and splintered. He grabbed the looser board with a gloved hand and tore it off. Once the second board was off, it was easier to remove a third. He turned to give the crowbar to Sloane only to be met with a set of scowls.

“What?”

Ash motioned to the fence. “Your skinny Human ass might fit through there, Daley, but we’ll be lucky if we can get a shoulder in.”

Seriously? Dex turned back to the fence, grumbling under his breath as he stabbed the crowbar between two planks. It wasn’t his fault his Therian teammates were built like brick shithouses. He was lucky he didn’t end up having to remove half the fence. Not only was he still getting used to being on a tactical team, but on a Therian one. Being inconspicuous while armed to the gills took skill. Being inconspicuous while standing at nearly seven feet, weighing almost three hundred pounds, and armed to the gills took some kind of voodoo magic. He was still trying to figure out what manner of sorcery Hobbs had used to disapper behind a Scion iQ during their last assignment.

“Move your ass, Rookie,” Ash growled.

“You’d like that wouldn’t you?” Dex replied with a groan, tearing off one particularly stubborn board. “You really need to stop eyeballing it, man, or I’m gonna start getting ideas.” He chuckled when Ash cursed him out under his breath. With the task complete, Dex handed the crowbar to Sloane, who quickly returned it to its place in Dex’s backpack. He gave Dex a pat on the arm to signal he was done, and Dex stepped aside, falling into formation once again. He paused, arching an eyebrow at Ash.

“I’m not going to look at your ass, Daley. Not if you were the last fuckable thing on this planet.”

Dex grinned widely. “So you’re saying I’m fuckable?” God, he loved winding the guy up. It was so damn easy.

Ash gave him a shove through the fence. “I’m saying if you don’t shut your trap, the next time I look at your ass will be while I’m taking aim to shoot it.”

“The next time?” Dex laughed. “Oh shit. Keeler’s been looking at my ass.”

“Sloane,” Ash grunted.

Sloane shook his head as they used the heavy machinery around the sign company’s yard to conceal them. “Dex.”

It wasn’t quite a warning, more a friendly reminder to shut his pie hole. Regardless, Dex looked over his shoulder at Ash who was grinning smugly. Dex mouthed the word, “narc,” causing Ash’s grin to fall away to a glower. That was more like it.

They scurried along the side of the building, their sights on the target across the street. A small bulldozer was parked a few feet away from the building’s back entrance, and they crouched down beside it in the dirt and patches of dry weeds. He heard Sloane’s quiet words come through his earpiece.

“Letty, Rosa, what’s your twenty?”

“We’re coming up behind the office now.”

“Copy that. Calvin?”

“We’re about to fix the det cord to the door. Do you want us to—”

Calvin was cut short when a shot popped through the air.

“Calvin?” Sloane edged toward the front of the bulldozer. They could hear low groans coming through their earpieces, and Dex’s heart was in his throat. Sloane’s curses continued as he tried to get an answer from their teammate. “Goddammit, Calvin, talk to me. What the hell happened?”

“Shooter,” Calvin wheezed, his breath ragged as he tried to talk. “I’m okay. Got hit in the vest. Fuck, shit hurts. We’re under fire.” Just as he said the words more shooting erupted. It was coming from somewhere close by.

Sloane peeked around the bulldozer looking to pinpoint the location of their shooters. “I’ve got a visual. There’s a charter bus just ahead. All the windows are smashed to shit. It’s been stripped. I make two shooters inside.”

“Looks like someone wasn’t happy with their service,” Ash muttered.

“Cael, is the area clear?” Sloane asked.

“Aside from our shooters, affirmative. No civilians.”

“Agent Stone, Agent Taylor?”

“This is Agent Stone. Area’s secure.”

“Agent Taylor here. Area’s secure.”

“Copy that. Destructive Delta, we’re going in aggressive. Go, go, go!” Sloane darted out from behind the bulldozer with Dex and Ash on his heels to a chorus of gunfire, bangs, and shouting across three locations. They sprinted to the stripped black-and-gold charter bus, and Sloane pitched a couple of smoke bombs through one of the smashed windows before they breached the bus through the open driver’s side.

“On the ground! Get on the ground now!” Sloane yelled. The two Human shooters threw their rifles to one side just as Ash grabbed them and roughly forced them onto the floor of the bus.

“Hands behind your backs,” Ash spat out, taking zip ties from his utility belt and securing their wrists.

Calvin’s warning came through their earpieces. “Fire in the hole!”

“Dex, side doors!” Sloane pushed Dex to the front of the bus. They ran across the street to the aluminum structure as the third vehicle door catapulted off the building in a burst of smoke, skidding across the dirt until it launched off the side into the river. Like there wasn’t enough shit down there already.

Dex and Sloane positioned themselves to either side of the smaller entrances with their backs to the aluminum structure and waited. They didn’t have to wait long. The doors swung open, a rifle poking through the doorway beside Dex. He snatched it with his right hand and thrust his left elbow into the gunman’s face, snapping his head back and bloodying his nose. Dex tossed the gun to the grass beside him with one hand, and with the other, pointed his rifle at the emerging Humans coughing and gasping, their eyes bloodshot and tearful from the smoke.

“On the ground! Get on the ground now!” Dex ordered. “Hands where I can see them!” One of the gunmen tried to reach under his open plaid shirt, but Dex shoved a boot down against his back, pushing him harshly onto his stomach against the dirt. “I said hands where I can see them!” He unhooked a handful of zip ties from his belt, crouched down, and lifted the hem of the guy’s shirt to find a revolver. He tossed it out of their reach, then looped a tie around the man’s wrist and gave it an extra tug, enough to make the guy hiss. As soon as he’d checked all three for additional weapons and secured them, he stood and tapped his earpiece. “I’ve got three in custody.”

Rosa’s breathy voice came through, “We’ve got four in custody.”

“We got five in custody,” Calvin added roughly, yelling something at one of the perps. His teammate sounded grumpy, but then who wouldn’t be after taking a bullet to the vest? Dex took a step back, watching in amusement as Ash dragged over the two gunmen from the bus, both practically dangling off the ground. Unit Alpha’s Therian Defense agents were all made of Apex predators, large Felids, each Therian agent with the strength of two Human agents. When the teams faced Therian perpetrators, the score was pretty even, with a Therian agent’s advantage depending on the shape they were in, their skill, and their smarts. When facing Humans, Therian Defense agents didn’t even break a sweat. Dex liked those odds.

Sloane stepped up beside Dex and patted him on the back in approval as he gave his orders. “Beta Pride, Beta Ambush, move in. I want our perps lined up, asses to the floor. Agent Taylor, Agent Stone, see if you can get any information out of them.”

As soon as their fellow agents from Beta Pride and Beta Ambush showed up, they left the perps to them, and Sloane motioned for Dex to follow. Along the way, they removed their ballistic helmets and handed them to one of the agents standing by. They headed into the main structure, which was still smoky from Calvin and Hobbs’s entry.

“What have we got?” Sloane asked as they took in their surroundings. The aluminum structure was supposed to be a three-car garage, but instead had been set up as a base, with insulated walls, rows of metal shelving running down two of the walls, a third wall strewn with corkboards containing maps, newspaper articles, invoices, and a host of other random paperwork. In the center of the room were three large metal tables with supplies, boxes, burner phones, masonry tools, and weapons. Dex caught Hobbs’s gaze and followed the silent agent’s finger pointing to one of the large shelving units. Calvin joined his partner and called them over.

“Sulfuric acid, nitroglycerine, batteries, timers.” Calvin picked up a box of heavy-duty nails. “From the looks of it, they weren’t thinking about just taking out buildings.”

Sick bastards. It was bad enough they wanted to plant bombs, but to build them with the specific purpose of killing and maiming innocent citizens? How deluded could they be to think they’d be doing good? Like crime in this city wasn’t bad enough, now they had a whole new level of fucked up to deal with.

“Any explosive devices already constructed?” Sloane asked.

Calvin shook his head. “No, just the materials, though Hobbs says they’d need more than this. He thinks maybe they were in early stages, collecting supplies, getting ready to build the bombs.” He cast Hobbs a glance, and his large Therian partner nodded somberly.

“Okay, thanks, guys.” Sloane let out a sigh, and Dex knew what his partner was thinking. Unless one of those bastards out there spilled, they wouldn’t have much to go on. Getting these assholes off the street was a win, but until they had Isaac Pearce, the danger was nowhere near over. Who knew how many more bases just like this one were out there. How many already had devices waiting to go off?

Dex stepped up to the corkboards, hoping to glean some information, anything that might give them a clue as to where to find the Order’s leader. “Everything’s so neat.”

“What do you mean?”

Sloane joined him, and Dex waved a hand over one of the corkboards. “All the maps are brand new, like they’d just been bought, and they’re not of any specific locale. There’s a street map of Brooklyn, a subway map of New York City, a bike map of Manhattan, and I’m pretty sure that one there of this area is an Internet printout. The news articles are perfectly clipped and all from the last two months. They pinned up the invoices for Christ’s sake. What bomber pins up their supply invoices? Are they planning on writing off the expenses?” He leaned in closer. “They’re also all dated two months ago.” Looking around the room, he strode back over to one of the shelves, where he ran a gloved finger over one of the timers. “There’s a thin layer of dust on most of the supplies. Like they’d been placed on the shelves and not touched since. They could have been waiting for orders, or….”

“They could have been waiting for us,” Sloane finished. He stroked his jaw. “Good job, Dex. You’re right. This all seems too… easy. Let’s see if anyone’s cracked.” He tapped his earpiece. “Cael?”

“Call in the CSA’s?” Cael replied over their earpiece.

“Yeah. I want this place swept from corner to corner, and I want to be notified as soon as they get the detailed inventory attached to the case file.”

“You got it.”

Dex followed Sloane outside where fifteen perps were sitting on the ground in a neat row, hands secured behind their backs with nearly twice the number of heavily armed agents positioned around them in case someone got a stupid idea in their head. It was amazing what some criminals did when they were desperate. Just as the thought crossed his mind, one of the men jumped to his feet and started running.

Ash stared after the guy. “Where the fuck does he think he’s going?”

With an agent drawing in from every angle, the guy came to a skidding halt then stunned them all by jumping into the East River where he proceeded to sputter, gasp, and in between drowning, call out for help.

“Seriously?” Dex had seen some pretty stupid shit in his time, but this one was right up there with the guy who tried to steal his patrol car with him in it back when he’d been an HPF rookie.

Ash let out a snort of laughter. “What an asshat.”

After losing a round of Rock-paper-scissors, one of Beta Ambush’s Therian agents started stripping, cursing up a storm the whole way. Down to his colorful boxers and flipping off his fellow teammates whistling and throwing catcalls at him, he dove into the river, popping back out a few breaths later and dragging the wheezing man with him. The dark haired agent pulled himself up with one hand and tossed the man up onto the dirt with the other.

The agent climbed out, snatched the towel from a teammate, and glared at their arrestees. “That’s the last time I’m doing that. Someone else want to be a moron, you’re going to drown. Shit, that water’s cold.” He gave a sniff. “Ugh, it reeks. Am I going to be quarantined? This shit smells toxic.”

His teammates laughed until Sloane held up a hand, silencing everyone. He stepped up to the line of somber looking men, a couple looking no older than Cael. In fact, one in particular caught Dex’s attention. The kid was sixteen, seventeen at most.

“Where’s Isaac Pearce?” Sloane demanded. He paced slowly in front of them, his intense amber gaze studying their perps. Dex wasn’t surprised to find fear creeping into some of their defiant gazes. None of them looked like hardened criminals. Standing over six and a half feet tall and weighing 240 pounds without the eighty pounds of equipment strapped to him, Sloane Brodie was imposing to most even when he wasn’t in intimidation mode. Add the fact he was a Therian with the government tattoo on his thick neck marking him as a jaguar Therian and the twenty-odd years of field experience, and you’d have to be dumber than the guy who swan-dived into the river not to be scared shitless.

“Do you realize the severity of your situation? Do you think the THIRDS takes terrorism lightly? Your so-called leader murdered an officer of the law in front of the world. He’s made threats against innocent civilians, against innocent children. He’s looking at life in prison, if he’s lucky. This is your chance to do the right thing, to save what’s left of your future.”

One beer-gutted idiot spat at Sloane’s feet. “We’ll never talk to you, Therian freak. Your kind is a mistake. The Human race is superior. You’re nothing more than a glorified pet. Your kind should be locked away in zoos with the rest of the animals or put down. Humans for dominance!” The guy started chanting and Dex rolled his eyes. “Humans for dominance! Humans for—”

Sloane’s boot against the guy’s chest, knocking him over and onto his bound up arms, put a stop to the chanting. It wasn’t even a kick. A tap from Sloane was enough to send the guy tipping over and flailing like a turtle on his shell trying to right himself. Dex put a gloved fist to his mouth to keep himself from laughing. “Anyone have something useful to say?” Sloane asked.

Dex studied the silent, glaring group, his gaze landing on the teenager again. The kid swallowed hard, his eyes not moving from the ground. An older man with a strong resemblance knelt beside him. Dex tapped his earpiece. “Sloane.” His partner glanced at him, and without a word walked over, following Dex to one side.

“What’s up?”

“I think we should try the Deceptive Dash.”

Sloane arched an eyebrow at him. “You think it’ll work?”

“That kid’s ready to shit a brick. I’m thinking the guy next to him is his old man. Probably dragged him into this mess.”

His partner rubbed his jaw then nodded. “Okay.” Sloane turned and signaled Ash over.

“What’s going on?” the surly agent asked, and Dex could tell Sloane was trying hard not to smile when he spoke.

“We’re going with the Deceptive Dash.”

As expected, Ash let out a low groan. “Fuck me.” He glared at Sloane. “I can’t believe you not only allowed him to make this a thing, but you let him name it.”

Sloane shrugged, his eyes lit up with amusement. “You couldn’t come up with anything better.”

“Because I didn’t agree with the stupid idea.”

“Yeah, well, it’s effective, so suck it up.” Sloane gave him a hearty pat on the shoulder, chuckling at their teammate’s pout.

“Who’s the target?” Ash grumbled.

“The kid.” Dex tapped his earpiece. “Cael, drive the BearCat up.”

“Copy that.”

Dex headed toward the approaching BearCat and hopped into the back when his brother opened the doors.

“What’s up?”

“We’re doing the Deceptive Dash.” Dex positioned himself to one side of the truck, hearing Ash cursing and growling as he approached.

“I can’t believe you convinced Sloane to adopt that as an official strategy,” Cael said with a laugh, settling in behind the surveillance console. Guess his brother was going to stick around for the show. “Ash hates it.”

Dex wriggled his brows. “I know.” Though he knew Ash’s disapproval of the maneuver stemmed from it being Dex’s idea and that it worked. His teammate especially didn’t approve of having his name married with Dex’s to form “Dash.” For all his bitching, Ash couldn’t deny their clashing personalities had a way of providing results when it came to interrogations. Ash was the kind of guy who made babies cry just by looking at them. The maneuver was less “bad cop/good cop,” and more “holy fuck get him away from me/I’ll talk to you because you’re not psychotic.” The best part was, there was little acting involved.

“Get the fuck in there.” Ash shoved the wide-eyed teen into the back of the BearCat so rough he stumbled. Dex caught him before he could run headfirst into something and knock himself out.

“Jesus, Keeler, take it easy.” Dex ducked his head to look at the kid. “You okay?”

The kid pressed his lips together, his brows furrowed. Dex motioned to the long bench where the team usually sat.

“Why don’t you take a seat, um… What’s your name?”

“You gonna sing him a lullaby too, Daley?” Ash snorted.

Dex ignored Ash, his focus on the kid who’d reluctantly taken a seat on the bench. “What’s your name?”

He received no reply. Ash stormed over and grabbed a fistful of the kid’s shirt, hauling him off his feet with a snarl. “He asked you a fucking question. Are you going to cooperate, or am I going to have to shift and pick my teeth with your scrawny ass bones?”

Dex schooled his expression, doing his best not to laugh at Ash’s cheesy lines. The kid’s eyes widened, a squeak escaping him when Ash dropped him roughly onto the seat and loomed over him. “You got five seconds to state your name before I get really pissed. Five.”

“Keeler,” Dex sighed. “That’s not going to help.”

Ash rounded on him, poking him in the vest. “That’s your problem, Daley. Too busy making daisy chains and cracking jokes to get your hands dirty.”

“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?” Dex planted his hands on his hips. Ash stepped closer, his voice a low growl, but Dex wasn’t intimidated.

“It means you don’t got the balls to get in there and do what you gotta do, always trying to be the good guy.”

“I am the good guy. We’re all the good guys! Screw you, man. I know how to do my job, and just because I don’t go around scaring old ladies or trying to make it rain vengeance and wrath, doesn’t mean I’m afraid to get my hands dirty.”

Nostrils flaring, Ash stormed over to the kid and lifted him off his seat again. “Now you listen to me, you little shit. Every minute you spend not talking, is another minute I gotta be in here with that gummy-bear-eating, Cheesy-Doodle-crunching, eighties-music-singing asshole, and that puts me in a bad mood. Do you want to put me in a bad mood?”

The kid shook his head fervently.

“Then answer his goddamn questions, or I swear on my momma’s grave I’m gonna make you wish you were never born.”

“Simon!” the kid burst out. “My name’s S-Simon Russell.”

Ash dropped the kid roughly onto his ass before turning to bark at Dex, “Get on with it, Daley.”

Dex took a seat beside Simon who was looking rattled and miserable, his shoulders slumped, and his wary gaze going from Ash to Dex.

“I apologize for my teammate, Simon. He gets cranky when it’s time for his sippy cup of OJ and a nap.” Dex could have sworn he saw the end of Simon’s lips twitch. “My name’s Agent Daley, and despite what you might think, I’m here to help you.”

Simon looked Dex over, assessing him. “Dad says all Human THIRDS agents are traitors to their race.”

The words were low, but Dex could hear the uncertainty in them. Dex would bet his salary the kid never would have gotten involved in this kind of thing if his fuckwit of a father hadn’t filled his head with hateful nonsense. “I’m not a traitor, Simon. I’m just a regular guy trying to do the right thing. It’s my job to protect innocent citizens and help those who are feeling lost. I believe everyone has a chance to lead a safe, happy life, no matter their species. You know, I was an HPF officer before I became a THIRDS agent, just like my dad was.”

Simon tilted his head and shifted slightly. Dex knew everything he needed to know about the young man in that instant, and he continued while he had Simon’s attention.

“My dad was a homicide detective for the Sixth precinct. He and his best friend Tony were the best at what they did. I was so proud of him. My friends would get sick and tired of me telling them how great my dad was,” he said with a chuckle, still feeling a squeeze to his heart when he thought of his father. A day didn’t go by when he didn’t miss his parents. “He was my hero.”

“Was?” Simon asked with a frown.

“Yeah, he was killed during the riots, along with my mom.” Dex let out a sigh and shook his head. “He’d gone off to deal with the riots on several occasions while on the job, and then he goes out to the movies one night with my mom, their date night,”—He swallowed hard, his gaze on his gloved hands clasped in front of him.—“and there was a shootout at the movie complex. My dad tried to get everyone out, including my mom. She… got hit in the crossfire. My dad got shot in the chest trying to save her.”

“I’m sorry,” Simon mumbled, looking even more deflated.

Dex gave a sniff and blinked back the sting in his eyes. Twenty-eight years and it still felt as though it were yesterday. “Yeah, I miss them, a lot. But, soon after, Tony adopted me, and a few months later, I got me a baby brother. I wouldn’t trade him in for anything. You got any brothers or sisters?” He didn’t know what possessed him to share what had happened to his parents with Simon, but as soon as he started, it came tumbling out. Simon was young. He had his whole future ahead of him, if he would only stand up for what he wanted, not what his father wanted for him.

Simon nodded. “An older brother. Matthew. He lives in Boston now.”

At least Matthew had gotten away. “He a good big brother?” Dex asked, noting the way Simon’s eyes lit up. Dex tried not to curse. The kid was younger than he’d anticipated. Fifteen at most.

“He’s awesome. He always looked out for me, played video games with me. We got into fights, but brothers do. He never thought he was too cool to hang out with me, even when his friends teased him about it. What about you?”

Dex smiled widely. “Am I a good big brother? I don’t know. Let’s find out.” He turned his head, grinning at Cael. “What do you say? Be gentle.”

“Aside being really annoying sometimes,” Cael replied, his smile reaching his eyes, “yeah, you’re an awesome big brother.”

Dex turned back to Simon whose jaw was all but hitting the floor. When he recuperated, he sputtered. “He’s your brother? But… but he’s a Therian!”

“Tell me something, Simon. If something happened and you ended up… different, would Matthew turn you away?”

Simon opened his mouth then seemed to think better of it. His shoulders slumped, and he shook his head. “No. He’d love me no matter what. I know he would.”

“So why would I do that to my little brother? He’s a regular guy, just like you.” Dex shrugged. “Maybe his DNA’s different, but I love him just like your big brother loves you. He’s also the only guy who can kick my ass at video games. He’s a total nerd.”

“Pot meet kettle,” Cael snorted.

Dex put his hand on Simon’s shoulder. “Something tells me Matthew doesn’t share your dad’s views.”

“No. They fought a lot. Dad had always told us Therians were wrong. Abominations from hell trying to corrupt God’s children. Matthew believed it at first.”

“But then?”

“He met Jenny.”

“Ah,” Dex smiled knowingly. “Your brother fell in love with a Therian.”

“Yeah. I was so scared for him. When Dad found out, he went nuts. Threatened Matthew, but Matthew refused to leave Jenny, so Dad kicked him out of the house, said he was dead to him. Dad told me I no longer had a brother, but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t act like Matt was dead. I wanted so bad to go with him, but Matt was only sixteen, and Dad threw him out without any money, didn’t even give him a chance to get some clothes.” Simon’s frown deepened, his voice growing angry. “How could he do that? How could he kick Matt out like that? I wanted to hurt dad so bad, but I was small and scared. I hated him.” He hung his head, tears in his eyes. “God, I’m such a pussy.”

“Hey.” Dex squeezed his shoulder. “Don’t be so hard on yourself. There wasn’t much you could do, and your dad’s bad decisions are on him. It’s okay to be scared, but you’re not a kid anymore, Simon. You can make your own decisions. What your dad’s involved in will put him away for a long time. He wants to hurt innocent Therians, Therians like Jenny, like my little brother.” Simon’s gaze shifted to Cael before guiltily darting away. “Is that what you want for yourself? Do you want to give up any chance of a future, at seeing Matt again for your dad’s mistakes?”

Simon bit down on his bottom lip, and after what seemed like an eternity, he shook his head. “No, I don’t want to go to prison, not for that asshole. I never wanted to do this, but he told me if I was going to be a Therian fucker like my brother then I should leave, that I’d be better off dead.” A tear rolled down his reddened cheek. He met Dex’s gaze. “Can you really help me?”

Dex nodded. “I promise, Simon. I will do everything in my power to get you to Matt, but I need you to help me.”

“Okay.” Simon gave him a curt nod, his expression determined. “What do I need to do?”

“I need you to tell me everything you know about Isaac Pearce.”

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