During the Vietnam War, the use of lethal biological warfare led to the spread of the Melanoe virus, which infected millions worldwide and caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands. Although no country took 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—and one year after distribution, the course of 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 became clear the “problem” wasn’t going away, the US government tried to regain control of the situation, creating the Therian database and quickly passing 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 treated 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 Therians had been born. The mutation had perfected itself, solidified, inside these First Generations. Suddenly, an advanced new species had evolved, 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 aka the THIRDS, an elite, military-funded agency comprised of an equal number of Human and Therian agents.
But long before the inception of the THIRDS, monsters lurked in the shadows, threatening Therian life across the globe. And a different kind of organization emerged after the birth of Therians—TIN, the Therian Intelligence Network. While the THIRDS existed to uphold the law for all citizens without prejudice, TIN operated in the shadows, righting the wrongs beyond the reach of the law.
As long as the injustices of the past continue to be repeated, organizations like the THIRDS and TIN will be needed to ensure both Humans and Therians have a future, even if they stumble along the way to get there.
[Location: Redacted, SPAIN]
Warrior. Weapon. Hunter.
The names were many, but none changed who he was or what he was inside. Trained in the art of invisibility, master of the hunt, a terrifying force to be reckoned with. His expertise in various forms of lethal combat made him an agent of destruction. By the time his prey discovered his presence, it would be too late.
Silence engulfed him as he lay in wait beneath the water’s surface, his mind and body a study in absolute control, his heartbeat a steady rhythm as he counted the seconds.
It was time.
Slowly he emerged, water sluicing over his bare chest, his muscled body toned and sculpted from years of intense training. Knife between his teeth, he waded through infested waters, aware of the beast floating nearby, eyeing him, hoping to make him its next meal. Gingerly he approached the water’s edge and took his knife in hand, his breath controlled as he crouched low, eyes locked on his quarry.
You’re mine now.
One step closer. Two. Three.
His prey lay motionless, completely unaware.
“What are you doing?”
“I know you can hear me.”
At the low grumble, Dex straightened, his voice a hoarse whisper. “You’re ruining the moment.”
“Which is?” his quarry murmured, not so much as glancing in Dex’s direction from where he lay, long legs crossed at the ankles and fingers laced on his flat, muscular abdomen. The giant beach umbrella provided shade from the intense heat and glaring sun, his eyes undoubtedly closed behind the dark sunglasses.
Blue-green waves crashed gently against the shore, the sand beneath Dex’s feet hot as he crossed the short distance to the sexy Therian stretched out on the blue beach towel.
“Is that what that was? Because from here, it looked like you were swimming around with a cocktail umbrella between your teeth.”
Dex sniffed and lifted his chin. “It’s a knife.”
“And the giant donut float?”
“An alligator ready to attack.”
Dex chuckled as he dropped to his knees beside Sloane, then straddled his lap. He leaned in for a kiss. “Must be why you married me.”
Sloane slid his hands up Dex’s thighs to rest on his hips. “Someone had to keep you out of trouble.”
“And how’s that working out for you?” Dex teased, smiling against Sloane’s lips.
A laugh rumbled up from Sloane’s expansive chest as he wrapped his strong arms around Dex and brought him in for a deeper kiss. The scent of saltwater, coconut sunscreen, and Sloane made Dex moan. At times he still couldn’t believe he was married to this amazing man. How had it been almost four years already? And how was it possible his husband seemed to get even more handsome with age? Sloane’s pitch-black hair had white strands interspersed, the same white that connected to a neatly trimmed beard on his chiseled jaw. Dex had a few silver strands of his own, but they were harder to see in his dirty-blond hair. It seemed like a lifetime ago that they’d first met.
Dex savored Sloane’s kiss, melting against his sinfully gorgeous body. He was everything to Dex—his partner in crime, his mate, a sleek black jaguar Therian with amber eyes that could reach into the depths of Dex’s soul. They shared a bond most couldn’t fathom, one only those closest to them knew of.
“No, really, what were you doing?” Sloane asked with a hum as Dex trailed kisses down his jawline, ignoring the feel of eyes on them. The beach might be Therian-friendly, but that didn’t mean everyone occupying it was.
“Remember last night when you were galivanting about the city?”
Sloane’s lips lifted at the corners in a smirk. “You mean when I was out working and you stayed in our hotel suite binge-watching old eighties TV shows and eating your weight in desserts?”
“I think what you meant to say was while I was fueling this weapon of mass destruction”—Dex motioned to himself—“and researching undercover techniques.”
“From an old eighties spy show.”
“Hey, that show was based on real spy craft.”
“No, it wasn’t.”
“But it could have been.”
“It could have,” Sloane said, then popped a kiss on Dex’s lips. “But it wasn’t.” He smiled at Dex’s pout and tapped his flank. “As much as I love debating the factual validity of your eighties movies and TV shows, I’m thirsty. How about you get me a frosty drink?”
“Already on it, amor de mi vida.”
Sloane hummed. “Te amo, cariño.”
“Te amo, mi conejito.”
“Little bunny? Really?”
Dex booped the tip of Sloane’s nose. “Because you’re so cute and fluffy.”
“Ah, yes. That must be why that guy jumped out of the moving bus we were on last week. Clearly, my fluffy cuteness overwhelmed him.”
Dex laughed as he sat up. “Sit tight, Daddy, while I get you that drink.”
“I’ll just stay here and look pretty, then,” Sloane drawled. “And don’t call me Daddy.”
With a chuckle, Dex stood. He tugged his slip-ons onto his feet and grabbed the button-down flamingo-patterned shirt off his towel, the fabric heavier than it should have been, thanks to the lightweight holster sewn into it and the Sig P365 with suppressor discreetly tucked inside. Shirt on and unbuttoned, he removed his sunglasses from the front breast pocket and slipped those on, then pressed the metal center bridge as he pushed them up his nose. He headed for the plaza and the giant metal sculpture of—he wasn’t entirely sure what it was. Modern art was not his thing. Something to do with swimming.
A cougar Therian pushed a drink cart over to the base of one of the sculpture’s legs. Joining the small line that formed, Dex pulled a couple of Euros out of his pocket, aware of the small tourist group of Therian college kids who stopped to ogle him. They murmured and giggled among themselves. One of the young Therians, a wolf, playfully waved at Dex, who smiled and waved back. The wolf Therian licked his full bottom lip and motioned Dex over.
Dex put his left hand to his heart in apology while showing his wedding ring. The young wolf Therian pouted before the group moved on, laughing and teasing their friend. With a chuckle, Dex stepped forward in line. He finally reached the vendor and smiled.
“Tienes refresco de cereza?”
The cougar Therian shook his head. “No cherry, solo limón.”
“Esta bien. Dos refrescos de limón, por favor.”
The guy reached into a separate compartment on his cart and pulled out two frosty cans of fizzy lemon soda.
“Thanks.” Dex paid and took the cans. He popped open the can that was slightly lighter in color and took a long gulp of the lemon drink as he headed back toward the beach. A quick scan of the ingredients revealed the intel he’d been waiting for. He tossed the can into the trash as the chemicals started melting the aluminum.
A shrill scream pierced the air, and on instinct, Dex ducked and turned while tourists and locals scrambled in panic, several removing their phones—whether to call the authorities or take video was anyone’s guess. The vendor lay on the ground, blood pooling beneath his head.
Dex’s earpiece came to life, Sloane’s growl on the other end. “What the hell’s going on?”
“Asset is down.”
“Do you have the intel?”
“Target has been confirmed.” He scanned the area for a shooter and found a leopard Therian on a dirt bike, a gun with a suppressor in his gloved hand. His amber eyes met Dex’s from behind his helmet’s clear visor before he burned rubber and sped off.
“Shit!” Dex bolted after the guy, sprinting across the plaza to the street. Thankfully so many tourists were milling about, it slowed the shooter down, giving Dex the time he needed to commandeer transportation. He yelled in Spanish at a Therian standing next to an idling Guzzi Le Mans. Apologizing, he pushed the guy out of the way and jumped on the motorcycle. He shoved the helmet onto his head and shouted a promise over his shoulder that he’d return the bike. Car horns blared as he sped into the street.
“Do I hear a motorcycle?” Sloane hissed. “We’re on a timeline. Please tell me you’re not—”
“In pursuit. This is our guy.”
Sloane cursed under his breath. “K, pick me up.”
“¡Carajo! Why does everything end in a high-speed chase with him?” Keane growled.
“Hey, I’d prefer it if they quietly surrendered, but for some reason, they always run. Not my fault,” Dex shouted over the noise of his bike as he weaved through traffic, narrowly missing a couple of pedestrians who emerged from behind a parked car to cross the street.
“Somehow I find that hard to believe,” Keane offered, a note of sarcasm in his low grumble.
The sidewalks were packed with both tourists and locals, the crowds steadily increasing as it got closer to dinnertime for the tourists. Dex grinned despite his abrupt detour into oncoming traffic, thanks to a stopped taxi. He jumped the center lip that divided the two lanes and got back on his target’s ass. “Ouch, gum drop. You wound me. Huggies en route?”
A heavy put-upon sigh resounded in Dex’s ear. “Must we have the ridiculous nicknames?” Rowan asked.
“We must. And what I think you meant to say was badass codenames.” A delivery van pulled out of a side street along with a couple of mopeds. A bus emerged ahead of him, forcing him to veer into the next lane in between two cars that swerved in an attempt not to hit him.
Angry horns blared, but he hit the accelerator and sped up, making a sharp right into the bus lane to avoid mowing down a guy jaywalking, the curses loud and plentiful. Why did they always have to bring mothers into it?
“No, I meant ridiculous nicknames,” Rowan replied dryly. “That’s why I said it.”
“Somewhere buried under all that genius and teenage angst is a sense of humor, I just know it,” Dex said, cursing to himself as the light ahead turned red. As predicted, the guy jumped the curb and sped down the sidewalk, Dex right on his tail.
“I’m not a teenager.”
“You know what a clapper is?” Dex asked.
“Something you should discuss with your doctor?”
“What? No. That’s not—” The asshole drove through a small cafe and a painted wooden menu that splintered into several pieces, one of them flying at Dex, who jerked to the left to avoid getting impaled by it.
“Does Atlas know what you’ve been getting up to?” Rowan asked.
Sloane sighed. “I’m more than aware of what Chaos gets up to. Can we focus on the target, please? Fifty-two minutes, Chaos.”
“I’ll make it. Sit-rep?”
“I have Atlas,” Keane replied. “We’re on your tail, except, you know, on the street, where vehicles belong.”
So much sass that one.
Although armed, the Therian Dex chased didn’t so much as glance in his direction. Despite the awesomeness of Hollywood movies, shooting a moving target while in motion yourself wasn’t as easy as they made it look, especially when the majority of your focus was on not plowing your motorcycle into another vehicle.
“Traffic’s getting tricky,” Dex said as he shouted for people to get out of the way, several of whom dove from their path. “K, what have you got on our shooter?”
“Hired gun. He was supposed to intercept the drop before you arrived and eliminate the asset, but a traffic accident slowed him down. He was too late.”
“Never thought I’d be grateful for traffic,” Dex muttered. Thankfully the sidewalks were wide, though it didn’t stop the asshole from plowing through a beach display. Dex batted an inflatable ice cream cone away, only to get smacked in the face with another blowup.
“You okay?” Sloane asked.
“Asshole almost took me out with a unicorn!”
“I should be concerned by those words,” Keane said. “Sadly I’m not. Because it’s you.”
“Love you too, K.” The road forked, and his target zoomed back onto the street, driving right through a red light at the intersection. Cars, buses, and mopeds slammed on the brakes, the air filling with horns and shouts. Dex sped through a gap in between two trucks, wheels burning rubber as he skidded by. The architecture of the buildings changed from modern to old stone. This wasn’t good. “He’s heading down Isabel.”
Traffic exploded the closer they got to the Columbus Monument and roundabout. Slivers of concrete displaying a palm tree every few feet divided multiple lanes. The sidewalks were packed, and suddenly it was like being in a pinball machine. Dex knew exactly where the bastard was going. As they veered onto La Rambla, Dex cursed under his breath. “We’re about to have company.”
“Perfect,” Sloane growled. “You need to stop this guy.”
“On it, honey bear.”
Sirens echoed through the air as the GUH—Guàrdia Urbana Humana—joined the chase. There’d be plenty more where they came from. His target made a sharp right. “He’s heading into Plaça Reial.”
“Forty minutes,” Sloane said.
“I’ll get it done,” Dex assured him. This asshole wasn’t getting away from him. The guy leaped off his bike, tossing his helmet as he bolted toward one of the hotels, tourists scurrying off, wondering what the hell was going on. Sirens pierced the air around them, and Dex abandoned his own bike and helmet as he took off after the guy.
A shot rang out, a chunk of stone flying off the pillar of the archway to Dex’s left. He darted behind it for cover, removing his own gun from its holster tucked into the hidden pocket. People screamed and police shouted from across the plaza. “Target is on the move. He went into the Hotel Reial.” Dex took off after him. He had to stay a step ahead of the police. Not getting shot by this asshole was also at the top of his list.
Dex followed the shouts and screams that followed the Therian as he sped through the hotel lobby, gun in hand. The place was packed with guests. He shot behind him in Dex’s general direction, and it went wide, the bullet lodging itself into a marble pillar to Dex’s right.
The police shouted for them to stop as Dex bolted into the emergency stairwell after his target. Fuck, this wasn’t where he wanted to be. A shot pinged off the steel railing, and Dex returned fire. He took the stairs two at a time, knowing exactly where they were heading.
Why? Why did they always head for the roof? The pounding of police boots against the stairs two flights down echoed alongside Spanish orders. His target exploded through the roof door, and Dex was right on his ass.
“Thirty-three minutes,” Sloane said.
“I’ll be there. You and the captain be ready. Babycakes, where’s my extraction?”
“On my way,” Rowan replied.
The sun blazed down on the exposed rooftop, the uneven surface filled with ductwork, equipment, piping, mechanical boxes, vents, and all kinds of other shit that turned their chase into a damned obstacle course.
A few short years ago, Dex wouldn’t have been able to keep up with his target, but now? He gritted his teeth and reached deep down, the sun reflecting off his sunglasses as he sped up, his target heading for a gap between two buildings.
“Fucker’s going to jump.” As he said the words, the guy did exactly that. Dex didn’t so much as hesitate. A burst of energy flared through his body, and he leaped, the world seeming to slow around him as he soared through the air before gravity did its thing and he fell, dropping and rolling the moment he hit the roof. He jumped to his feet without stopping, the Human police shouting from the roof behind him. That should slow them down for a bit.
“Where the hell’s my extraction,” Dex growled as he jumped down onto another rooftop, the sun blazing down on him. He shot at his target, cursing under his breath when the guy sharply turned.
“You do realize that twenty-four minutes ago there was no extraction,” Rowan argued.
“How long, pop tart?”
“Three minutes,” Rowan snapped. “Your ass better be ready, old man.”
“I’ll give you old man.” Dex scaled the small wall after his target and jumped down the other side. The rooftop here was filled with ducts, vents, tall structures, and doorways. He ducked behind a large vent the moment his target did the same. Dex fired from behind his hiding spot, a shot pinging over his ear. He needed this to be over. A helicopter appeared in the distance, and Dex cursed under his breath.
Maneuvering through the rooftop obstacle course, he hurried closer to his target. He shot a piece of piping across from the guy, briefly drawing his attention away.
“ETA thirty seconds,” Rowan shouted.
The whirring sound of helicopter blades intensified, and Dex used his opponent’s slip of distraction to fire, the guy letting out a yelp as the bullet hit his shoulder. Dex took off, barreling into him and sending him skidding across the roof.
“Fuck.” The Therian crouched and rolled to his feet. “How the fuck did you do that?”
“I don’t suppose you’re going to tell me who sent you?”
Gun raised, his target roared and attacked. Dex barely avoided a deadly shot to his abdomen. He gritted his teeth, his focus on making sure the bastard didn’t blow something off.
“Who sent you?” Dex demanded, jerking back and smacking the guy’s fist away from where his face had been.
“It doesn’t matter. The Prime Minister dies tonight.”
“Who wants him dead?”
The bastard grinned. “Nothing you can do about it, Human.”
“If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you didn’t like me.”
“I’ll like you better when I put a hole in you and watch you bleed to death.”
Dex motioned for the asshole to bring it. With every bullet that Dex dodged, every blocked punch and kick, his opponent became more confused and frustrated.
“Who the hell are you?”
A punch to the solar plexus was Dex’s response, sending the Therian stumbling back wheezing, his gun skidding across the ground. Unfortunately, he didn’t go down completely. He dove for his gun, whirled to fire, but was propelled back by Dex shooting him in the head.
“Enemy agent is down,” Dex said as he quickly checked the guy over and found what he was looking for on the Therian’s wrist. After jerking it off, he cuffed it onto his own wrist, then sped toward the edge of the roof, the officers shouting as they arrived and rushed toward him.
“Ten minutes,” Sloane informed him.
“I’ll be there.”
Ro and the helicopter hovered just above the building at the end, an unrolled ladder dangling for him. Dex picked up his speed, then jumped over the gap between two buildings. Shouts followed him along with gunfire. A shot hit the side of the helicopter, and Ro jerked the beast to one side, dragging the ladder with it. “I’m going to circle back,” Ro growled.
“No, I can make it.”
“Chaos,” Sloane snapped. “Don’t you fucking—”
Dex leaped off the side of the building, the world seeming to slow around him as he threw an arm out, stretching as far as he could reach. His fingers brushed the ladder as he fell, but on the last rung, he managed to grab hold of the rubber grip.
Ro sped off as Dex hung by one hand. He threw his other arm up and grabbed hold of the rung to climb the ladder. After pulling himself in through the open side, he swiftly dragged the ladder up, then dropped into the seat and buckled himself up.
“You’re in so much trouble,” Ro said through Dex’s earpiece.
Dex let out a breathless laugh. When wasn’t he in trouble? Less than a mile and a half away, Ro hovered over Casa Mimosa. Dex unstrapped himself, lowered the ladder, then quickly climbed down and jumped onto the building’s roof.
“Five minutes,” Sloane growled.
Dex opened one of the steel air vents and grabbed the duffel bag stuffed inside. He slung it over his shoulders and made a run for it, speeding across several rooftops until he got to La Pedrera.
“See you on the other side.”
Hurrying to the door, he removed the small key maker from his pocket. With a click of a button, the gadget buzzed, and he turned it. The door opened, and Dex slipped inside. He hurried down the stairs, pulling items of clothing out of the bag and changing as he went. By the time he reached the first floor, he was done. With the stairwell empty, he slid the fire extinguisher box up and shoved the duffel bag inside.
“You’re clear,” Keane said, and Dex opened the door and slipped inside the building. He straightened his tuxedo bow tie.
“How do I look?”
“Like you’re about to be very dangerous to my health,” Keane grumbled.
Dex held back a smile as he headed down the unique stone hallway. “Gotta keep you on your toes.”
“Three minutes,” Sloane said.
“Or, since I’m a lion Therian,” Keane continued, “and always on my toes, maybe we can forgo your testing the limits of my heart rate monitor. You know, I was thinking…”
Dex cringed. “Ooh, don’t do that. You’re too pretty to be thinking.”
“Fuck off,” Keane said, a hint of humor in his voice. “Smartass. I was thinking this time we’d try something new. Maybe you go in there, and I don’t know,” he said, most likely shrugging, “complete your objective without incident.”
“What are you trying to say?”
“They call you Chaos. What does that tell you?”
“That I’m a badass.” Dex slowed his pace as he rounded the corner and headed for the ballroom, glittering chandeliers hanging from the high ceilings of the luxurious palace.
Keane’s voice was a harsh whisper. “You know damn well that’s not why.”
“Relax,” Dex said with a smile. “It’ll be fine.”
“You always say that, and then next thing I know, Ro’s having to commandeer a double-decker bus. Those things are not made for sharp turns, Dexter.”
Dex let out a mock gasp. “You called me by my full name. I knew letting you hang out with Sloane was a terrible idea. You’re already picking up his bad habits.”
Keane sighed. “Just, try not to blow anything up.”
“Two minutes,” Sloane pitched in.
Dex strode across the floor and approached one of the wings, where a huge Therian in a dark suit stood at a podium.
“Invitation?” the tiger Therian asked.
Dex presented his wrist and the silver band he’d borrowed from his deceased friend. The Therian scanned it and motioned him to the door.
“Please enjoy yourself, Mr. Palmer.”
“One minute,” Sloane murmured.
Dex strolled into the luxurious ballroom filled with government officials, military personnel, and foreign dignitaries. He grabbed a glass of champagne from a passing waiter and approached a tall Human flanked by several Therian bodyguards. The man smiled when he saw him. He whispered something to one of his bodyguards, who nodded. The Human stretched his hand out to Dex.
“Ah, my dear friend, I’ve been expecting you.” He pulled Dex into a one-armed embrace, and Dex whispered in the man’s ear.
“Threat has been neutralized.” With a wide smile, Dex pulled back. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Prime Minister.”