Blood. The smell of it was thick in his nose. White veins of fat twined within thick chords of muscle. He was overwhelmed by the sight, the smell. He wanted to touch, to taste, to immerse himself in the crimson tide.
He ignored the compelling voice. He didn't want to be drawn away.
He turned to face his concerned friend.
"Jim. I'm only going to say this once. Step away from the steaks."
Jim sighed and gave the grocery cart a push, the wheels squeaking in protest for him. Blair was perusing the produce section, squeezing vegetables and poking at odd shaped fruit. What the hell was okra, anyway? The expanse of greenery looked far to healthy. Jim slipped a package of sugared marshmallow candy into the cart while Blair wasn't looking. If he wasn't going to get his steak, he was going to get his sugar.
He would put up with Blair's concern with his cholesterol. It wouldn't do for the grad student's test subject to end up passing away with a massive coronary, after all. Simon ribbed him about Blair's controlling nature when it came to food, but Jim merely looked smug when the captain got his results from his annual physical and had to go on a special diet. Blair had been more than helpful, offering Simon fruit and vegetable creations. Simon stopped the teasing, and now only rolled his eyes.
Now, with the cart full of organically grown food -- don't want to disrupt that careful balance of the physiology of a modern day Sentinel -- Jim was wondering if he would be able to get a bottle of soft drink past his guide. The last time he drank a cola, he accidentally snorted some when Blair had made a comment about the mating rituals of a tribe he had been studying. The sensation of a million bubbles sizzling in his nasal passages had rendered him all but comatose and Blair had expressly forbidden the consumption of anything resembling coke, ranting on about the utterly artificial substances that Jim was putting into his body. So no carbonated beverages. Nothing fizzy. Except for beer. Not even Sandburg was crazy enough to deny Jim Ellison, Sentinel of the Great City, his beer.
But sometimes, the craving for a ice cold Pepsi was almost too much to resist.
Blair popped a brown bag filled with fresh mushrooms into the cart and grinned up at Jim.
"I think we're set."
Jim picked out a line, listening as Blair mumbled on about Sentinel survival in modern times and being able to pick the fastest moving checkout line. Survival of the fittest, he who moves through the cashiers the fastest....
Jim lost track of the barely audible mutterings as the lady at the cash smiled warmly at him. He smiled back and pushed Blair ahead of him.
"Come on, Chief."
Her smile faltered. As they pushed the cart out into the parking lot, Jim could hear her sigh wistfully. Then she made a comment to her fellow worker at the other cash, "Either married or gay...or both. What's a girl supposed to do?"
Jim could feel a flush working up his face. Damn his senses.
"What's up, man?"
"Nothing. Nothing. Just...something someone said." He shook his head. They began unpacking the cart into the back of the truck, pulling the tarp over them to protect from the possibility of rain, a constant threat in Cascade. "Chief, do you ever...wonder about what people think about us?"
Blair looked up from his struggles to tied the twine of the tarp tight. "Think about us?"
"The cashier....she...uh...thought we were gay."
Blair snorted. But when he saw the nervousness in Jim's eyes, he turned serious again. "Well, all I can say is that I've heard things...at the station. I mean, I'm not exactly the poster boy for straight America, you know."
Jim frowned. "Have people been harassing you?"
Blair shook his head. He finished his last knot with a flourish. "No. Honestly they haven't been that bad. Nothing I haven't gotten before. Look, Jim. We live in a society where its unacceptable for two guys to be comfortable around each other unless its in a locker room. For two guys to live together, shop together, it's not standard. When you think about it, it's a comment on how times have changed that the perception of two guys doing things together necessitates them being gay. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. The gay activists have been searching for validation for years, trying to have their lifestyles accepted. Unfortunately, that tends to mean that close friendships can be mistaken..."
Jim smiled and set his hearing on autopilot, what he usually did when Blair went into lecture mode. As Blair rambled, gestured and managed to get into the cab of the truck without incident, Jim buckled up and turned the key. Nothing happened. No happy putt putt, no comforting purr of the well tuned engine. No gentle roar of the horsepower beneath the hood.
Blair trailed off mid-sentence. Jim stared at the windshield. Blair bit his lip, eying the Sentinel warily. Jim smacked the wheel in frustration. He pulled his cell phone out and punched the first digit of the towing company's number. He was about to press the second when the cold barrel of what he just knew was a gun pressed against his temple.
"Put the phone down detective."
Jim obeyed. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Blair wincing as a man grasped his ponytail in one hand while pressing knife along his throat with the other.
"Get out of the truck, leave your gun on the seat, and get out your handcuffs. No sudden moves or your friend gets a new smile."
Jim clenched his jaw. He could smell the fear rolling of Blair in waves as he placed his gun on the seat between them and pulled out his handcuffs. The man grabbed them, the gun never leaving its resting place on the side of his forehead.
Jim opened the door and stepped out of the truck. He winced slightly as his arms were pulled behind him and tightly cuffed. A yelp from Blair made him struggle briefly against the arms holding him. He counted five men. Three surrounding him and two holding Blair, binding his wrists in front of him with duct tape.
Jim met Blair's eyes, saw the fear and trust. He always saw the trust. As the men pushed them into a grey van, Jim wondered why the hell Blair trusted him after all the shit they'd been through. Then he realized that despite all the shit they'd been through, they were both still alive. He sighed inwardly. That meant he'd just have to keep them that way. He couldn't disappoint his one man cheering squad.
The van squealed out of the parking lot, leaving the blue truck alone and abandoned, nothing to indicate where they had gone.
Jim knew that they were in trouble. He had recognized one of the men as a goon hired by a mob boss. A mob boss currently on trial. A mob boss who wanted to find a witness, who could put him away for life. Only four men knew where the witness was. Jim, because he was in charge of the operation, Simon, because he was in charge of Jim, the DA, who was in charge of the prosecution, and Blair, because the witness would only talk to Blair. Four links in a chain. And the men pushing them out of the van were looking for the weak link.
Jim stumbled as a hand in the small of his back pushed him up a walkway leading to a unobtrusive house. It was one of three houses on the street, and judging by the fresh air tickling his nose, Jim figured they were far outside the city limits.
Blair collided with his back and muttered a quiet apology. Jim could tell that the younger man was scared, but was proud that he didn't show it. The last thing these guys needed was to know how terrified their captives where. And that included himself. He knew what was going to come. It was a matter of steeling himself for the ordeal that was surely in their future.
The five men moved them quickly into the house and down into the basement. Dark and dank, Jim could see the signs of flooding from the spring rains, and the smell of mould was heavy in the air. Two of the men went back upstairs. Jim could hear a phone ring once before it was answered. He attempted to listen in on the conversation, but was interrupted as the man holding the gun spoke.
"Thompson, tie the short one up over there," He pointed to a support beam running lengthwise along the ceiling of the basement. Thompson, one of the men holding Blair, pulled him over and threw a rope over the beam, tying Blair's hands high over his head. While Jim could almost touch the ceiling, the ropes held Blair almost in tiptoe, barely able to keep his balance. But to his credit, he didn't make a sound, even though Jim knew the strain on his arms would be beginning already. The leader pulled Jim over to a support post and lashed him tightly to it, ropes circling his waist above his elbows, leaving his hands trapped painfully behind him, still cuffed.
"Barton, the boss just called. He said you have an hour," One of the men called down the stairs. Jim stared at Barton, the leader. The one who would be calling the shots. Barton stared back.
"Well, detective, no use beating around the bush. We need the location of a certain witness. You are going to give us that location. Or we hurt your friend."
Barton nodded to Thompson, who drew out his knife and ran it slowly over Blair's cheek. Blair closed his eyes and Jim could see him resisting the urge to pull away. A minute shiver shook Blair's body, travelling up his legs and through his spine. Thompson moved behind the bound observer and with a savage slash, lacerated Blair's light sweater and the T-shirt below. Blair made a gasping sound, and Jim closed his eyes for a moment. There was silence. Not a sound but the soft rustling of cloth as the sweater dangled from Blair's arms in pieces.
"Now, Detective. Where's the witness."
Jim stared straight ahead. His throat was choked with the fear in Blair's eyes. He knew his duty. He had sworn an oath. He wouldn't, he couldn't give in.
Barton nodded again to Thompson.
Jim closed his eyes to block out the sight, only to have Blair's shrill cry of pain reverberate in his ears for an eternity. When he opened them again, Blair was limply hanging from the ropes, and blood was dripping from the knife in Thompson's hand. A deep slash, as long as Jim's hand marked the smooth plane of Blair's back, a thin trail of blood trickling down to pool in the small of his back.
"For each time you don't answer Detective, we'll give him a mark. Tell me. Where is the witness?"
Silence, broken by another cry.
Jim stared at the slashes on Blair's back, vivid red on a pale canvas. His jaw ached, and his eyes were locked, but he wouldn't break. A rivulet of blood ran down Blair's spine to pool in the small of his back.
Barton was getting upset and Jim knew it was only a matter of time before the man lost his temper. He watched as the torturer moved into his personal space, standing before him, face to face. Dark green eyes searched bright clear blue ones, and slowly, understanding crossed the rugged features of the man before him.
"I see. I was mistaken." Barton turned away and looked at Blair. "Get him conscious. We've been going about this the wrong way."
Jim winced in sympathy as a bucket of cold water was thrown over Blair's torso. Thompson grabbed Blair's hair and pulled up his head. Jim could see the fluttering eyelashes that slowly opened to reveal pain-deadened eyes.
"Don't...tell 'em...anything, Jim," Blair rasped, vainly trying to focus on his partner. He groaned as Thompson simply gave him a shake, pulling a painful gasp from his lips.
"Oh, he isn't going to tell us anything, are you Detective?" Barton drawled.
Jim wasn't prepared for the fist that drove into his gut. He would have doubled over, but for the restraining rope about his waist, keeping him upright and against the post, unable to relieve the painful burn in his abdomen.
"But you, Mr. Sandburg. You are going to tell us what we need to know."
Another blow, this time to the left side of Jim's face, snapping his head around and momentarily impairing his vision. Pain flared along his cheek like an electric current searing his nerves.
"Tell me, where is the witness," Barton demanded of Blair.
Jim became lost in a haze of suffering; the impact of a pipe along his ribs, the twisting of his wrists in the handcuffs, and the blaze of agony as his knee was wrenched violently. There was no calm voice guiding him from the abyss as he lost himself in the pain, fading from consciousness.
The world began to return in small bits of sensation. Jim could hear the constant beeps of a monitor, and he could taste the disinfectant in the air, almost as strongly as he could smell it. But overshadowing it all was the soft drone of his best friend's voice, hoarse and rough.
"...I know that you're probably not hearing me, but Simon's really worried. I told him I'm not even sure if you're zoned, but he thinks that if I stay here you might wake up faster. Not that I'd leave even if he wanted me to, even if I could. The doc says he wants to keep an eye on my back to make sure infection doesn't set it. Simon's even picking up the hospital tab on department insurance. That was pretty nice of him." Blair's voice became despairing. "I'm so sorry Jim. God. I can't...I couldn't....He kept hitting you, just kept doing it. If Simon hadn't shown up with the SWAT team, you'd be dead. We'd both be dead." Blair trailed off.
Jim gathered his strength and opened his eyes.
Pain. Lots of pain.
He couldn't stop the groan that welled up from his belly and worked its way through his dry throat and out parched lips.
"Jim!" The joy in Blair's voice was sufficient to dull the worst of the pain. But the sight of his partner, curled on his side in the adjacent bed, hand cupped under his head on the pillow, brought on the awareness of his own injuries.
Jim raised his head and looked down at his leg. The white cast extended from his toes to above the knee and it was raised in traction. His right arm was strapped tightly to his chest and assorted bruises were liberally scattered on all the skin he could see. Damn, that had to hurt. Oh wait. It did. He dropped his head back onto the pillow.
"The witness?" He didn't look at Blair, half trusting, half fearing.
"Safe and happily enjoying the cable TV in his hotel room." Blair squirmed a bit on the bed, rustling his sheets. "Which is more than I can say for us. We sure were lucky. That grocery clerk saw the men ambush us, got a license number and everything. She called Simon and they managed to find us. Almost just in time."
Jim took a breath and opened his eyes again. He looked over at his partner. "You okay?"
Blair nodded slowly. "Yeah. It hurts. But, I got off easy. They really worked you over. I...I....I didn't tell them, Jim. I'm sorry."
Jim laughed, but stopped when his ribs protested. "Nothing to be sorry for, Chief. You did good. You did real good."
Blair gave a weak smile. Then he grew serious "I almost told them."
Jim sighed. "So did I."
The door opened an a nurse came in bearing two trays.
"Dinner, gentlemen. Chicken soup and Jell-O."
"When we get home, we'll have steak."