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“THIS IS not gonna be pleasant, but you’ve all worn the uniform long enough to know what we do rarely is.”
Team Leader Colin Zachary faced the row of THIRDS Defense agents from Alpha Sleuth, which Osmond Zachary was a member of. It was tough having six older brothers who worked for the THIRDS, all as Defense agents. It was tougher when one of them was your Team Leader. Colin was a no-nonsense kind of guy who could scare the shit out of someone just by looking at them. Bear Therians were frightening in size and were often written off as brainless, muscle-bound thugs. Like the rest of his brothers, Colin might be a brick wall of a guy, with a head hard enough to match, but he was quick, sharp, and smart. He was taller than Zach’s seven foot four and had twenty pounds on Zach’s three hundred and ten pounds. Everyone respected the Zachary brothers, and Zach was proud to work alongside them, even if they did like to bust his balls whatever chance they got. Thankfully Finley, Boyd, Bram, Alastair, and Edan, weren’t on Alpha Sleuth.
“I know Mr. Barlow and Mr. Kerner aren’t the most popular guys right now.”
Yeah, no shit. Zach refrained from scoffing, unlike some of his teammates. That was an understatement if he ever heard one. Prosecutor Aaron Barlow couldn’t seem to keep himself out of the headlines these days, and not because he was running for senator in the upcoming election, but for his controversial comments regarding harsher laws and regulations for Therians. The man could spout that he wasn’t anti-Therian as much as he wanted—after all, some of his best friends were Therians—but the second he opened his mouth, the disdain was clear as day. He spoke of stronger laws to protect citizens, but what he meant was stronger laws to protect Humans from Therians, because Therians weren’t real citizens. They were a mistake Humans were forced to tolerate.
Barlow’s counsel, Bill Kerner, wasn’t as vocal, but his anti-Therian stance was just as known. The man was ex-JAG, and rumor had it Kerner was quietly pushed out of the US Army JAG Corps when his personal beliefs bled into the courtroom and could no longer be ignored. The two men had become a powerful force, driven by hate and a common goal, causing an even greater divide between Humans and Therians—not to mention giving anti-Therian groups everywhere the excuse they’d been looking for to escalate the violence against Therians.
Several of Zach’s fellow agents exchanged glances. They were most likely thinking along the same lines as he was. Barlow and Kerner despised Therians, had no trouble publicly expressing how little they thought of the THIRDS, yet neither had any qualms about sending THIRDS agents out into the line of fire to protect them. Apparently, Therians were good enough to take a bullet for them, just not good enough to be equals.
“I know. I know.” Colin held a gloved hand up and sighed. “But it’s our job. We swore an oath to preserve life, no matter the species and no matter how much of an asshole someone is. We’re going to go out there and do our jobs. Mr. Barlow and Mr. Kerner will be exiting the building via the front of THIRDS HQ.”
Next to Colin, his Human partner, Duke, shook his head and sneered. “Are you fucking kidding me? I thought Lieutenant Mendoza and Sergeant Volkov talked them out of that dumbass decision.”
The vein on the side of Colin’s head pulsed, and Zach could tell his big brother was probably popping brain cells trying not to lose his shit. Colin never lost his shit. When he spoke, he was calm and in control.
“Mr. Barlow has chosen to ignore our counsel and that of Unit Beta’s THIRDS officers, stating he refuses to be intimidated. We’ll be going out as the first line of defense, with Beta Sloth and Epsilon Ursid providing backup. A car will be waiting for Mr. Barlow, his daughter, his assistant, and Mr. Kerner outside the gate, and a perimeter has been set up by Unit Alpha to keep the protestors away. We advised Mr. Barlow against having his daughter with him for this visit, but he informed us he and his daughter have a private jet waiting to fly them to DC, so they’ll be heading straight for the airport from here. The crowd continues to grow as word of Mr. Barlow and Mr. Kerner’s presence spreads, so remain vigilant. They’re due to finish their tour of Unit Alpha in twenty minutes. If Lieutenant Sparks hasn’t skewered them with one of her five-inch heels.”
If only they were so lucky.
“Okay, Alpha Sleuth. Grab your shields and let’s move out.”
Zach grabbed his shield and turned to fist-bump his Human partner, Sawyer, before they fell into formation behind Colin and Duke. They made their way through the armory and up to street level. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end as they neared the exit. He could hear the noise of the crowd through his helmet before the doors even opened. Rolling his shoulders, he lifted his shield and readied himself as his team exited THIRDS HQ and headed for the gate. Across the street, a mob of protestors—both Human and Therian—chanted and shouted against Barlow and what he stood for. Agents from Unit Alpha, also in full tactical gear, stood among the crowd, while Unit Alpha’s Recon agents maintained the peace.
“Ten minutes,” Colin said, his voice coming through Zach’s earpiece.
Human security in black suits were scattered up and down the sidewalk, in the street, and around Barlow’s car. News vans were parked along the opposite side of the street, cameras and newspeople reporting on the event, with more than one reporter pushing their way through the crowds to get to Unit Alpha’s Defense agents, most likely hoping to get a sound bite from Therian agents. Good luck with that.
Barlow and his entourage exited the THIRDS, and instead of heading straight for his car, he stopped halfway there and turned to wave at the crowd, as if they’d been chanting his name instead of cursing it.
Zach gritted his teeth. What the hell was the guy doing? Like he was purposely trying to antagonize the crowd. The more he waved and smiled, the angrier the protestors became. Something tugged at Zach’s fist, and he turned his head with a frown, but no one was there. Another tug had him dropping his gaze, his eyes going wide at the tiny Human girl gazing up at him with big brown eyes and a big smile, her small hand gripping his gloved fist. She couldn’t have been more than five or six years old. Zach uncurled his fist on instinct, and she took hold of his hand. She was chatting away at him, but he couldn’t hear her through the noise of the crowd and his helmet. Glancing up, he spotted her father talking to his counsel, unaware that his daughter had wandered away from his side.
A tug to his hand had Zach turning his attention back to the little girl. She held her brown teddy bear up to him, and with a smile, Zach knelt in front of her. He pushed up his visor so he could hear her better.
“Hi,” she said with a smile. “I’m Maisy.”
“I’m Zach. It’s nice to meet you, Maisy. Why aren’t you with your daddy?”
Maisy looked at her dad and shrugged. “He’s always busy.” She turned her big brown eyes back to him. “You’re very tall. Are you a bear Therian?”
Zach nodded. He pulled down the collar of his tactical vest so she could see his classification tattoo on the left side of his neck.
“I wanted to show you my teddy. He’s just like you,” she said proudly, presenting him with her stuffed toy.
“Oh?” Zach gently took the bear from her. “Is it because he’s a very handsome bear?” he teased.
Maisy giggled and shook her head, her curly pigtails swishing with the energetic movement. “No.”
Zach let out a mock gasp. “Are you saying I’m not a handsome bear?” Maisy’s laughter made him smile wide. She was adorable.
“No, that’s not what I’m saying,” Maisy replied with another giggle. “I meant you protect me, just like Teddy. Daddy says all Therians are dangerous and scary, but you’re not scary. You’re a good bear, like Teddy.”
Zach blinked at Maisy, her words causing a lump to form in his throat. He swallowed past the emotions bubbling up inside him at her sweet innocence. How long would Maisy—with a parent so full of hate—continue to believe he was a good bear? “Thank you.”
“Maisy,” Barlow hissed angrily. “You get away from him right now!”
“But, Daddy, Zach is my friend.” Maisy lifted her little chin in defiance as she held on to Zach’s hand.
Barlow’s stunned expression would have been comical if it hadn’t been followed by the fiery loathing in his eyes when he moved his gaze to Zach. The man marched over, and Zach slowly stood, aware of Maisy inching closer to his side rather than going to her father.
Barlow thrust a finger up toward Zach’s face as Zach towered over him. “How dare you touch my daughter. I’m going to have your badge for this—” He dropped his gaze to Zach’s name tape. “—Agent Zachary.”
“Is there a problem, Mr. Barlow?” Colin asked somberly, appearing before them. Barlow gave a visible start before quickly composing himself.
“Yes, there is.” He looked at Colin’s name tape before letting out a snort of disgust. “Not that you’ll do anything about it, since he’s clearly related to you. When I’m elected, that’s the first thing I’m going to push to have changed at the THIRDS. This organization is a disgrace, allowing family members to work together. God only knows the level of corruption.”
Colin narrowed his eyes at Barlow. “May I ask what infraction you believe Agent Zach has committed?”
“He put his hands on my daughter.”
Zach forced himself to remain quiet. Anything he said would only escalate matters. Barlow had formed his opinion of Zach far before Maisy decided they were friends.
Colin took note of Maisy’s small hand wrapped around Zach’s, her teddy held close to her as she all but hid behind Zach’s leg. When Colin lifted his gaze to Barlow, his eyes grew hard, and there was no question what he thought of Barlow. Colin had always been an expert at making his thoughts known with just a look. “I would be more than happy to accompany you inside, where we can discuss your grievance with Lieutenant Sparks.”
Barlow clenched his jaw, his muscles visibly tightening. Unit Beta might have their own THIRDS officers, but Unit Alpha’s Lieutenant Sparks ranked above them all, and her connections to both Humans and Therians in positions of power was enough to make any politician think twice, especially when they were throwing around dangerous accusations that had no merit.
“Are you trying to intimidate me?” Barlow growled at Colin.
Colin shook his head. “Absolutely not, Mr. Barlow. You believe one of my agents acted inappropriately, and I’m taking that accusation very seriously. The matter will be investigated fully, and fortunately”—he motioned toward the many news cameras pointing in their direction—“we should have plenty of video footage of the incident. Shall I send agents to collect the evidence? I’m certain the news stations will be more than happy to cooperate. I’ll need to take an official statement from you and your daughter. Shall we go inside?”
A tall, lanky man in an expensive business suit approached, then leaned over and whispered in Barlow’s ear. Whatever he said had Barlow turning red, and when he spoke, it was through gritted teeth.
“That won’t be necessary.” Barlow plastered a smile on his face and turned to Zach. He held out his hand. “I apologize for misunderstanding the situation. My daughter is very important to me, and I can be a little overprotective. Thank you for your dedication and service, Agent Zach.”
Zach gently removed his hand from Maisy’s and shook Barlow’s hand, amused at his attempt at a forceful grip. All Zach had to do was squeeze and Barlow would be on his knees. Of course, he didn’t. Instead he nodded in acceptance of Barlow’s apology. Barlow leaned in to whisper at him. “Come near my daughter again, and I will bury you.” Patting Zach’s arm, he held his hand out to Maisy.
“Come along, Maisy. Time to go.”
“I don’t want to,” Maisy protested. “I want to stay with Zach.”
Barlow’s nostrils flared. “Maisy Lou-Anne Barlow, you come with me this instant.”
Maisy shook her head and dug her heels in. The entire exchange was being broadcasted on national television, and Zach felt for Barlow, who was growing more red-faced by the moment.
Zach knelt in front of Maisy and smiled warmly. “You should go with your daddy. How about if I walk you to the car?”
Maisy let out a heavy sigh, her shoulders falling dramatically. “Okay,” she mumbled. She looked up at her father expectantly, and Barlow let out a sigh much like his daughter’s as he removed his gloves from his black trench coat and began pulling them on.
“Fine.” He spun on his heels and started for the car, grumbling something unintelligible under his breath.
Zach chuckled at Maisy’s adorable pout, and as he stood screams filled the air, followed by gunshots and the revving of an engine. Zach’s blood turned to ice when an armored vehicle jumped the sidewalk. Where the hell had it come from?
Barlow’s security grabbed their employer and shoved him into his limo, ignoring his cries for his little girl. If they planned to come back for her, they wouldn’t make it in time. Zach swept Maisy up in his arm and cradled her to his chest as he broke into a run, his ballistic shield protecting them from any stray bullets as THIRDS agents opened fire on the vehicle. Colin’s alarmed voice came through Zach’s earpiece.
“Zach, look out!”
A second vehicle rounded the corner ahead of him and jumped the curb. It lurched forward, and Zach quickly scanned the area around him—two vehicles headed in his direction, one from each side, parked cars blocked him on his right, and the THIRDS HQ fence towered to his left. He was boxed in. Maisy’s screams had him bolting again, and he spun toward the limo. The door flew open, and Barlow punched one of his security guys in the face when the man attempted to stop him from opening the door farther.
“Maisy!” Tears streamed down Barlow’s distraught face as he scrambled away from his security to reach his daughter.
Zach made a run for him, but he wouldn’t make it in time. If he could get Maisy to her father, the armored limo would offer them ballistic protection. Zach dropped his shield to the ground, curved side up. “Barlow! Incoming!”
Barlow nodded, and Zach quickly laid Maisy on the shield and strapped her in. “Hold on real tight, okay.” She nodded frantically, and Zach thrust his shield forward. It skidded across the sidewalk, and as soon as Barlow had Maisy in his arms, Zach turned, his brother’s panicked cry in his ears.
Zach heard the skidding tires, saw the smoke, and braced himself as best he could before the armored truck slammed into him. His feet left the ground along with the rest of his body. He soared through the air and fell. Then everything went black.