Oh man, I can't wait to get to bed. Blair steered the Volvo down the quiet, midnight street, heading home after a very long day at the university. He'd gotten too far behind in his work because he'd spent so many hours at the station with Jim over the past month, and now he found himself facing the deadline that had, not so long ago, seemed much further away.
But at least he'd finished grading the fifty essays and submitting his article to The Journal of Cultural Anthropology. He really hoped it got published. He needed a feather in his cap to placate the Dean, who was becoming less than pleased with the amount of time he was putting in at the university. Truthfully, he was beginning to feel guilty for shirking his academic responsibilities. He'd gotten people to cover for him far too often. It was the university that was paying him, after all, and although he loved working with Jim and recognized the weight of the duty he had undertaken in helping the Sentinel with his senses, he didn't want to neglect the duty he had taken on with the university years before he'd met Jim.
The street was so dark that when his headlights caught the tiny figure dashing across the street, it looked as though the figure glowed with a light of its own. Then it was gone, and it took Blair's brain a moment to process the fleeting image as a young child. A boy?
What the hell was a child doing running across the street at midnight?
Blair pulled the Volvo over to the side of the road, turned off the engine, and hurried out of the car, leaving the headlights on for the light they provided. He thought he'd seen the child dash into the alley. In fact, that was pretty much the only place in the vicinity to which a person could disappear. Cautiously, Blair approached the narrow alley, squinting in an attempt to penetrate the thick darkness.
"Hello? Is anybody here?" He kept his voice light and reassuring, hoping it would draw the young child out of his hiding place. "My name's Blair. Hello? Are you hurt?"
Blair walked deeper into the alley, spotting a large trash bin against the wall. The child had to be hiding behind the dumpster. Sure enough, as he took a couple more steps, he heard the boy's soft whimpers. Crouching lower so as not to appear too threatening, Blair slowly worked his way around the dumpster and saw the little boy cowering in the corner between the bin and the wall. He looked to be no older than five, with dark hair and enormous brown eyes. His face and hands were dirty, his feet bare, and he wore only a white T-shirt and cotton underwear. He flinched away from Blair, his legs drawn up against his chest, and buried his face against his knees.
"Please. Please don't let him find me," came the whimpered plea.
"It's okay," Blair reassured the boy, his voice soft as he crouched lower. "I work with the police. I won't let anybody hurt you, okay?"
The little boy's whimpers faltered and he raised his head, his cheeks wet from tears. "The police?"
Blair nodded, managing a smile. "Yes. If you come with me, I'll take you someplace warm and give you some food. Then you can tell us how you got out here all by yourself."
The little boy's eyes suddenly darted upward to a point behind Blair, going wide with horror. Uh-oh. Blair had only enough time for a spark of panicked dread, not even getting the chance to turn around, before a sharp pain at the base of his skull sent him into unconsciousness.
Jim woke from a light sleep, turning on his side and glancing at the digital clock on his bureau. 4 a.m. He slammed awake, throwing off the covers. It was nearly dawn, and he hadn't heard Blair come home yet. Extending his hearing, he found the loft quiet, devoid of the familiar heartbeat to which he had grown accustomed.
Damn, Blair should have been home four hours ago. He'd called just before leaving the university, waking him from a nice dream in the process. As soon as the call had ended, Jim had rolled over and gone right back to sleep. It had been an exhausting week, after all, and this was the first decent sleep he'd gotten in several days.
So where was Sandburg? Grabbing his cell phone from the charger on the night table, Jim dialed Blair's cell phone. After five rings, the voice mail answered, but Jim hung up and immediately dialed Blair's office number. Again, he got the voice mail.
Oh God, what's happened to him? No way would Blair not come home without calling to let Jim know -- not unless something had happened to prevent him from calling. Several possibilities flashed through Jim's mind in the span of a few seconds. Car accident. Car jacking. Mugging. Kidnapping. Getting shot. Beaten. Knifed.
He dialed Simon's home number. After three rings, a sleep-heavy voice answered.
"This had better be good."
"Sandburg hasn't come home yet, sir. I need an A.P.B. placed on his car. I'll be heading out to look for him. Retrace his path --"
"What? Hold on a second, Jim. The kid's probably out with some girl."
"No, sir. He called me just before leaving his office. Said he was on his way home. That was four hours ago."
"So? Maybe he met someone on his way out. Ran into a fellow late-nighter and --"
"No, sir," Jim growled, his frustration rising. "He would have called me. Something's happened to him." And I'm wasting time. "Please just put the A.P.B. out on his car, sir. I've gotta go. I'll call you if I find him." Alive, he prayed silently. Please, Chief, be okay.... and I swear to God I'll kill you myself if you do end up just being with some girl.
There was crying. Soft at first, then slowly growing more hysterical. The sound called to him, pulling him towards consciousness. Someone was crying. Someone was in trouble. Sad? Hurting? Scared? It sounded like a child.
The distant ringing of a phone joined the tiny sobs. Five rings, then the sound stopped, leaving only the child-like cries. He opened his eyes, but there was little light and it took his eyes a moment to adjust. He had a colossal headache, complete with a painful throbbing in the back of his head. Gradually, the room coalesced around him. Four walls and a ceiling. Two figures were huddled in the corner, appearing as dark shadows in the dimness. One was large, obviously a man, and the other was small, like a child.
A gruff voice overrode the crying. "Shut up, boy!" A slap, and Blair winced, anger flooding his chest at the same moment the memories came to him. Driving along the road. A boy running out in the street. Huddled in the alley... Pain.
"Hey." He'd meant the word to sound harsher than the weak gasp that had emerged. He tried again. "Hey! Leave him alone." His voice was stronger this time, more authoritative, and the dark figure turned to look at him.
The darkness seemed to be getting gradually lighter as Blair's eyes continued to adjust, and he could make out the man's face. Square, with harsh cheekbones and a protruding chin. Black, curly hair. A prominent nose. Dark, angry eyes.
The man rose, walking toward Blair, and it was then that Blair realized he was on a bed with his hands above his head. He tried to move, but his wrists were handcuffed to the bed rail.
"You should mind your business." The man stopped just at the edge of the mattress. He towered over Blair, his face twisted with anger, studying Blair as though he were a specimen in a laboratory cage.
Blair found his voice again. "Who are you?"
"You don't need to know that. I know who you are, though. Blair Sandburg. You've got a driver's license, some kind of college ID, and a police observer card in your wallet. I know where you live. I'll bet there's someone home you want to keep safe. Give me any trouble and I'll make sure they are not safe."
Blair felt a twinge of fear in his chest. Damn. Was Jim really in danger from this creep? Blair examined the man more critically, studying his build and estimating his weight. Two hundred pounds, maybe. Blair would bet money that the guy wouldn't get the drop on Jim. In fact, if he tried, the Sentinel would probably hear him coming half a mile away and get the drop on him. Then he'd use his famous Ellison-persuasion tactics to find out where Blair was and, as a result, where the little boy was as well. Of course, in a perfect world, Blair wouldn't risk even an inch of putting Jim in danger, but, at the moment, the Sentinel was the child's best chance for survival.
Yes, Blair would bet on Jim Ellison any day of the year.
"Like that's a threat I believe," Blair mocked, forcing a laugh out of his tight throat. "You're so chicken-shit you pick on little boys. The only reason you got the drop on me was because it was dark and my back was turned. You --"
A stinging slap whipped his head to the side and brought instant tears to his eyes. His jaw actually hurt from the blow, the pain radiating down his neck. God, the guy was strong!
"Shut your mouth," the man ordered, his voice low and flat.
If the guy had yelled, Blair would have expected that, but the calm, icy quality in the kidnapper's voice sent a shiver down his spine. The man before him was not someone he could mess with. Psychological games were out if he wanted to stay alive and help the boy. So Blair kept his mouth closed and stared silently at the man. The little boy continued to whimper in the corner.
"Very good. You learn fast. That'll go in your favor."
I certainly hope so, Blair added silently.
The man turned away from Blair and moved back toward the boy. The child pressed himself harder into the corner, his whimpering escalating to cries as the man approached.
"I told you to shut up, boy!" the kidnapper yelled, one hand unfastening the top button of his jeans
Immediately, the child quieted, staring up at his captor with wide, wet eyes. Blair tensed and tugged at the handcuffs. The bed rail looked fairly strong, and he didn't think he'd be able to break free.
Damn, but he couldn't just lay there and watch that psycho hurt the child. "Hey! Get away from him. You feel this sick need to show how strong you are? Why don't you try something on a man instead of a child, you sick pervert?! Huh? Come on!"
The kidnapper straightened and turned around. When Blair saw the man's face, he knew he was in serious trouble. Pure rage, if such a thing existed, burned in the man's dark eyes. Rage directed squarely at him.
Oh shit. Oh God. Not a bright idea. His stomach twisted and he once again tugged uselessly at the handcuffs. He was so damn helpless and this psycho was going to kill him and then do God-knows-what to the little boy. No way. If I'm gonna go, it's gonna mean something.
Tensing, Blair watched the man make his slow, rigid approach. He stopped when his knees hit the mattress and stared down at Blair, his nostrils flared.
"You don't listen. I'll make you listen," his captor said in that frighteningly calm voice, sending another shiver down Blair's spine.
Blair swallowed, resisting the urge to close his eyes and pretend that he was really back in the loft resting in his own bed. That would be so nice. Only he'd probably never sleep in his bed again because this maniac looked more than ready to tear him apart with his own hands. I'm sorry, Jim. I've got to try.
"That's right." Blair tried to keep the quiver out of his voice. "You want me?" Come on... "What are you? A coward?" Closer... "You're a freak! A loser!" Come on, goddamnit!
The man's eyes burned, his jaw tight and his fists clenched. "You need some manners, boy." He raised his fist and brought it down hard.
Blair was prepared for the attack and used his legs to push himself quickly out of the way. The blow still tagged him in the side though, setting his ribs on fire, but he ignored the pain as he brought his legs up fast. In the next heartbeat, Blair had the guy's head locked between his thighs. He held on tight, refusing to let go even as his kidnapper struggled.
The man's arms pulled at Blair's legs, but to no avail. The madman pushed forward, forcing Blair's legs up and back so that he was resting almost completely on his shoulders, his arms held painfully at an awkward angle against the railing. His shoulders burned, tendons strained to the point of snapping. Goddamn, it felt like his right shoulder was about to pop out of its socket. Shit, shit, shit. He couldn't let go, so he gritted his teeth against the pain and suppressed a scream as his shoulders protested.
A bright hot flare of pain sliced through his left thigh, pushing the scream out of his throat. The strength left his injured leg, allowing his abductor to twist free. The pain flared angrily when the man's weight pushed down on the leg and, in the next instant, the crazed man was on top of Blair holding the pocket knife that Sandburg had received at his Bar Mitzvah. The blade was extended, wet with blood, and the man pressed the tip against the jugular in Blair's throat.
"You stupid fuck." He pressed the sharp point harder into Blair's skin, almost drawing blood. "That's the last time you'll do anything like that."
Jim spotted the Volvo even before the headlights tagged the lifeless car, and a cold feeling settled in his stomach. With his hearing extended, he already knew that Blair was nowhere in the vicinity. The only things around were old buildings and a couple of empty warehouses.
But his nose picked up the faded scent of blood.
Swallowing the lump in his throat, he followed the scent to its source: a narrow alley a few feet in front of the Volvo. There was little light in the area, and his pupils expanded to their maximum diameter to find the small drops of blood nearly invisible against the blacktop. Though he couldn't tell by scent alone whether the blood belonged to Blair, the fact that the Volvo was abandoned only a few feet away led Jim to the conclusion that Blair had either walked or been dragged into the alley.
Jim studied the area and found a set of small footprints outlined in blood, indicating that the person had been barefoot and cut his or her feet while running; and, based on how far apart the individual footprints looked, the person -- child, judging from the size -- had obviously been running.
A scenario formed in Jim's mind. Had Blair found a child and followed the kid into the alley? To confirm his hypothesis, Jim searched the blacktop until he found one booted print the size of Blair's foot. An additional search turned up a few more booted prints. Yes, Blair had walked into the alley after a child -- a barefoot child that had been running from someone or something.
But had the drops of blood near the dumpster come from the child or from Blair? Pursing his lips, Jim walked the length of the alley, his eyes scanning the area. Aha! Another print, a different size and pattern than Sandburg's, with another drop of blood near the heel's indentation. A third person -- a large man, judging from the size and density of the print. The man was heavy. Maybe two hundred pounds, probably more. A pang of victory tightened Jim's gut. He decided to wait on calling for back-up since he didn't hear anybody in the immediate vicinity, and he wanted the opportunity to work unimpeded using his senses.
Continuing with his examination, he concluded that the child had escaped from someone, but if that was true, then the odds were that the child hadn't gotten very far. A sliver of hope blossomed in Jim's chest and he absently fingered his sidearm. He extended his hearing even further, searching for heartbeats, but he found only silence. Just how distant a heartbeat would he be able to hear? Damn, from now on, if... when he found Sandburg, he promised himself that he'd stop putting up such a fuss when the kid wanted to run sensory tests. Finding the child's bloody footprints once again, he began to track them back to their source.
Blair closed his eyes and tensed, waiting for the slice that would sever his jugular and end his life. Ironic that it would come from his own pocket knife -- a trusted tool he'd carried with him for years and which had proved his ally on several occasions. His leg throbbed angrily, hot with pain. He was shaking all over, quivering like a lost puppy caught in the rain.
And, oh God, the child was going to see this. See the blood spurt from his neck. See his body twitch as the last reserves of life drained from him.
Then Jim would eventually find his body, and that was Blair's biggest regret of all because he knew his death would hit Jim hard. The Sentinel had been hurt so goddamned much already by too many people -- people who had died or left him, prompting him to close himself off to the world. Only in the last few years had Jim learned to trust again. To open up and let someone in. Now some screwed up maniac was going to slit Blair's throat and, in the process, deliver another blow to a man who had already lost so much. Jim would be left without someone to guide him. Maybe Simon could fill that role, but, if not, what would happen to Jim? Had he gained enough control as a Sentinel to use his senses without zoning?
Oh God, please don't let me die.
Someone somewhere must have heard his prayer because the blade slid away from the tender skin of his neck and the man's weight lifted. Hesitantly, Blair opened his eyes to see the guy standing rigidly a foot away from the bed, his dark eyes fixed on Blair.
"You won't talk back to me again."
Blair swallowed, his heart pounding. Where the hell was the guy going with that statement? He watched as the man turned around and walked back to the little boy.
No. Oh no.
"This is your punishment, Mr. Blair Sandburg," the man announced coldly as he leaned over the cowering, whimpering boy.
"No, don't. Please," Blair pleaded. "I'm sorry. I won't do it ag --"
A hard blow to the boy's face cut Blair's words off in his throat and brought guilty tears to his eyes. The boy's scream filled the small room as he tried to push his little body impossibly further into the corner.
Jim followed the child's bloody footprints to a small street near a cluster of one-story buildings. Slivers of glass and rock littered the blacktop, and it was obviously here where the child had injured his feet. Whoever he or she had been running from, the pursuer had obviously been terrifying enough to push the young child into running over glass, not even slowing down as the evenly-spaced footprints told him. But the bloody footprints stopped there, so where had the kid come from?
Jim raised his head, listening, sniffing, searching for clues. He performed a visual sweep of the ground, locating the pursuer's large footprints. Taking off like a bloodhound, he tracked the prints to a small, brown building that had obviously been abandoned for quite some time. Wood planks boarded most of the windows, and the main door hung open. Drawing his gun and extending his senses, Jim made his way up the three steps to the entrance. The building was quiet, void of heartbeats. Still, he kept his gun ready -- just in case.
Inside it was pitch black and dead silent so that even Jim's sentinel vision took more time than usual adjusting to the darkness. He could make out shapes of things. A sofa. A square object that could be a table. The building had obviously been an office some time ago, but someone had evidently converted it into a makeshift abode.
The outline of a door broke the smoothness of a wall, and Jim continued forward, tense, listening. Cautiously, with his finger poised on the trigger even though his senses told him the place was deserted, he walked through the doorway, his back rigid and his stomach tight. He didn't consciously realize it, but he was bracing himself for a discovery that could shatter his tenuous control. He didn't recognize the cold fist of fear in his stomach as he moved over the threshold, didn't acknowledge the tremor in the hand that gripped the gun.
But it all came crashing down when he confirmed that the room was truly empty. His legs betrayed him, dropping him to his knees, and the gun clattered to the wood floor. He's not here. Oh God, he's not here. His relief was so strong that it stole his breath and left him momentarily helpless. The only thought playing through his mind was a silent prayer of thanks that he hadn't found Blair lying dead in this dark, abandoned building.
Slowly, he composed himself and picked up the discarded gun. His relief shifted to something just as powerful -- anger. His prayer turned to a sudden, venomous curse and he mocked himself for giving in to the temptation to pray to a being that either didn't exist or didn't give a fuck, because no god worth a damn would keep letting this shit happen. Find me one goddamned person on this planet better than Blair Sandburg, you miserable fuck! You can't do it, can you? Just once.... ONCE .... could you maybe raise a finger and look out for him? Just once, goddamn you!
Blair's world consisted of a mass of hot pain that was his left leg. The pain was infectious, making him miserable all over. He couldn't even move the limb without crying out from the agony it produced. So focused was he on the pain that he didn't realize his captor was in the room until the man pulled at the button on his jeans, sending Blair's heart into immediate overdrive.
"What --?" he started.
"Don't want you dying on me, not yet," the man growled, unzipping Blair's jeans and pulling the pants off.
Blair stifled a scream as his injured leg was jostled roughly, the denim scraping against the wound. The sudden air he felt against the skin of his legs made him shiver and left him feeling shamefully exposed in his thin cotton boxers. He tried to move, in a near-panic from what he imagined the guy had planned, but the pain in his leg stopped him.
He was totally unprepared for the warm liquid that sloshed over the wound, bringing white-hot agony in its wake and ripping a scream from his chest that lashed his throat on its way out.
"Don't want your leg getting green, Blair-boy."
Oh shhhhit! SCREW YOU! His leg was on fire with pain like he'd never felt before. What the hell had the maniac used? The scream died, leaving him panting hard and sweating. He forced his head up to look at the guy, focusing on the bottle held in his hand. Vodka. Man, oh man, that hurt.
Blair was distantly aware of the fact that he should be grateful the deep wound had been sterilized. If he ever got out of this, it would be nice to have both of his legs. Not to mention that gangrene wasn't fun and would likely have killed him before he got the chance to figure out an escape... or be rescued by Jim and Simon and the whole Major Crimes gang, who he was sure had to be looking for him by now, the "twenty-four hours" requirement be damned.
Blair tore his gaze away from his captor and turned his head to look at the little boy still huddled in the corner, obviously doing his best to curl himself into an invisible ball. A fresh surge of anger warmed Blair's chest, and he looked back at the kidnapper. Bitter words died on his lips, though, when he remembered the consequences resulting from the last time he'd mouthed off.
Jim pushed himself off the floor and whipped his cell phone out of his jacket pocket. Exiting the dark room, he dialed Simon.
"Yes, sir. I found Blair's Volvo parked by an alley near the corner of Fifth and Broadway. I found blood and sets of footprints and tracked them back to an old building." He walked through the main entrance and stood outside on the steps, searching for an address. None was visible so he moved back into the building. "I checked out the inside and there's evidence that the place was recently used, but it's deserted now."
"Damn. How much blood, Jim?"
"Bloody footprints and a few drops. Not much. Not enough to indicate a homicide. The bloody footprints, though, belong to a child. From the size, I'd guess the child to be eight to ten years of age." His hand tightened on the phone as he walked through the building. "I'm inside now doing a sweep. I'd like to go over the place before it's swarmed by forensics."
"Okay, Jim. Units are on their way now. Be careful."
"I will. See you soon, sir." He could hear the scraping of wood and rustling of fabric as Simon searched through his drawers for clothes.
Snapping the phone closed, he dropped it back into his pocket and continued to move through the small building. There was only the make-shift living room, the back room, and a bathroom. There didn't appear to be much to find in the place. Furnishings were sparse and there was only a bare mattress in the room. The bathroom held a few toiletries, but nothing that would give Jim a clue about where the inhabitants had gone.
Moving back into the main room, Jim searched the worn sofa, uplifting the cushions and sliding his fingers along the crevices in the back and sides. He felt something like cardboard and pulled it out, keeping his fingers along the edges to avoid getting his prints on the item. It was a small, square object and he studied it with Sentinel eyes in the darkness. A matchbook. The cover sported white letters: Cheap Shots. Jim recognized the name as a bar only a mile away.
Replacing the cushions on the sofa, Jim dropped the matchbook on the couch for forensics to find, knowing there was a high likelihood that the suspect's fingerprints were on the cover, and moved outside. The place was crawling with prints, Jim knew that much. His sensitive eyesight had already picked out prints on the bathroom doorknob, caught in the low glow of a street lamp visible through one of the unboarded windows. Since the guy had probably left in a hurry, he likely hadn't thought about wiping the place down. Stupidity was the only reason ninety-percent of these bastards ever got caught. Arrogance accounted for another five percent, and the remaining downfalls were usually brought about by sheer dumb luck.
Blair was so cold, shivering, wishing the guy would at least cover him with a blanket. His leg still hurt, but the pain had dulled to a deep, ubiquitous ache. Sweat trickled down his neck, tracing a path down his shoulders. It was weird that he was sweating despite the cold, and he vaguely realized he probably had a fever, but he couldn't figure out if he was sweating from the constant pain or an infection in his left leg. Lying exposed like this to who-knew-what kinds of bacteria probably wasn't the best treatment for a deep, open wound, but it wasn't like he had a whole lot of choice in the matter. Obviously, his drunk captor hadn't thought to cover the wound after the impromptu alcohol cleansing.
And he had to go to the bathroom. If he laid there much longer he'd end up wetting the bed. That would likely not go down well with the man in the next room.
The child lay asleep in the corner, still huddled in the same position he had been in the last time Blair checked on him. The sun had risen hours ago, allowing light to filter in through the small window near the ceiling -- one of those warehouse-type slat windows. The light allowed him to make out the boy's features for the first time. The kid was fair-skinned with a round face and dark hair. Dark bruises marred his face, neck, arms, and legs, and Blair felt another surge of anger as he imagined what the boy had endured to sustain those bruises.
Bastard. How the hell can anybody do this to a child? He'd seen a lot of shit in his time, especially during the years he'd spent with Jim, but no matter how many horrors he witnessed, he just couldn't understand how any person could be so brutal to a child.
The cold continued its assault, and he wished once again for a nice, warm blanket, but he knew it was an idle wish, one likely not to be granted, so he pushed the thought out of his mind as best he could and focused again on the child. Maybe he could use the brief respite provided by their captor's absence to gain some information.
"Hey there." He kept his voice low. "Wake up." The boy stirred, shifting in the corner, but his eyes remained closed. "Come on, wake up. Open your eyes for me."
The child's eyelids lifted, revealing glazed, dark eyes. He blinked at Blair, his gaze blank.
"What's your name?" Blair inquired, his voice light and reassuring.
The boy turned his face into the corner.
"Hey, hey. It's okay. I just want to know your name. You know mine, remember? It's Blair."
Slowly, the little boy turned his head to look at Blair.
"So what's your name?"
"Tommy," the boy answered in a hushed, quivering voice.
"Do you know your last name?"
The boy nodded. "Baynor."
"Can you tell me how you got here?"
The boy lowered his head, rubbing circles on his knees with one finger. "I was walking home with Ricky and the man came up in his car and asked for directions. He hit Ricky and knocked him down and pulled me in the car."
"You were walking home from school?" Blair asked.
"Were there any people around?"
"I don't know."
"What are your parents' names?"
"Rick and Laurie."
"Do you live in Cascade?"
Tommy shrugged. "Yeah."
"Do you know your address?"
Tommy swallowed. "Twelve thirteen Trent Street."
"Have you ever seen anybody beside the man? Is he the only one here?"
Tommy nodded. "Just him."
"Do you know his name?"
"He told me to call him Mr. Balentine one time."
The floorboards just outside the door creaked, and Blair tensed, immediately ending the conversation. The little boy flinched, huddling back into his protective ball as the door swung inward. Balentine's large frame filled the doorway, and his eyes bounced back and forth between Tommy and Blair, finally settling on the boy.
Blair needed to get the man's attention away from the child. "C-Can I please go to the bathroom?" He hoped he sounded sufficiently weak and timid.
Balentine turned to look at Blair, his eyes narrowing as he studied him. His gaze drifted over Blair's body, starting from his face and working down, pausing over the bulge in the front of his boxers and bringing a flush to Blair's face.
"Okay." Balentine nodded, his face stern. "Don't try anything."
"I won't," Blair croaked weakly, trying to convince the man he wasn't a threat. It didn't require much of an acting job.
The man moved over him, retrieving a set of keys from his pocket. He slid one of the keys into Blair's handcuffs, and the cool metal opened, releasing Blair's arms from their numbed position. He winced as the circulation was restored to his hands. Maddening tingling started almost instantaneously, and he rubbed his wrists against the phantom pain of the cuffs. Deep red marks circled his wrists, flaring when he touched them, but, still, the massage felt good.
"Come on." Balentine grabbed Blair's arm roughly and hauled him to his feet.
Pain shot through Blair's injured leg and he cried out, collapsing against Balentine. He'd actually forgotten about his leg, the dull ache fading into the background as he'd focused his concern on the child. Balentine growled something and grabbed Blair's shirt with both fists, dragging him to the bathroom.
Blair couldn't move his wounded leg, so it dragged helplessly on the floor, jiggling painfully with every crevice in the wood. The room spun, and he suddenly felt nauseated, the pain bringing the sting of tears to his eyes. Moments later he found himself standing in a darkened room over a toilet, the white porcelain barely visible in the blackness. Balentine had his arms wrapped around Blair's chest, holding him up, and as soon as Blair realized that, he used his good leg to support his weight, pushing imperceptibly away from the man and trying to suppress the shiver that threatened to rise just from the sensation of the man's body heat against his back.
"Let's get this done," Balentine growled in Blair's ear, his breath hot against Blair's cheek.
Before Blair could move his arms to do his business, he felt a hand snake into the flap of his boxers. He tensed, the nausea threatening to overtake him again, and closed his eyes tight, using one hand to push against Balentine's arm.
"I can do it." The words came out as a croak. Blair didn't want to anger the man and risk Tommy paying the price, but he didn't think he could endure just standing there and letting the man fondle him.
"Shut up!" Balentine hissed, his hand grabbing Blair's genitals.
Blair gasped as a new pain shot through his groin, and he clamped his mouth closed, his heart beating like a jackhammer in his chest. He was certain Balentine could feel the pounding as well because each beat hit with such force that it rocked his body, or so it seemed.
Balentine's grip eased up, and he pulled out Blair's penis, holding it in position. "Now go."
Blair swallowed, his face hot. He really needed to urinate but he didn't think he could do it now. Still, he had to do it because he didn't want to stand there any longer than necessary, and he certainly didn't want to risk Balentine's wrath if the guy thought he'd been lied to.
He kept his eyes closed and tried to relax, focusing on taking slow, deep breaths. Eventually, he succeeded, almost sagging with relief when he completed the task, but his relief ended quickly when he felt Balentine's thumb begin to caress the sensitive skin down there. Tensing, he used all the willpower at his disposal not to resist the fondling. He wasn't sure how far he was prepared to let the guy go, but he was determined to play it safe for as long as he could stand it to protect that little boy in the other room, knowing he was too weak and in too much pain at the moment to even attempt to overpower Balentine. Hell, even in his best condition he'd have a hard time taking the two-hundred-plus-pound man behind him.
His shame sprang hot and bright in his face when he felt his penis begin to harden beneath the man's touch. Abruptly, Balentine's fondling ceased, and he tucked Blair's penis back into the boxers. Blair almost released a choked sob in relief, but managed to hold it back.
"Good boy," Balentine whispered, dragging Blair back into the room and aggravating the pain in the injured leg once again.
"The prints belong to Joseph Balentine." Simon handed the folder to Jim and leaned back in his chair.
Jim opened the file and locked onto the man's photograph. He had a square, wide face and dark eyes. His file listed him as 230 pounds and six-foot-four inches tall. He'd done time years ago for aggravated assault and was released in 1982. Then he'd been convicted in 1984 for a sexual assault and was released again in 1994. Current address: 1215 Moss Lane, Seattle, Washington.
Jim looked up. "The address --?"
"Was checked out by one of the patrolmen as soon as we got the information. Dead end. He hasn't lived there for three months."
"Why didn't you tell me as soon as you got the information?"
"You were with Megan doing your stuff and trying to find more evidence at the scene. There was no need to tell you until we checked it out. This is a team effort, Ellison, not a one-man game. Understand?"
Jim clenched his jaw and offered a terse nod in reply, turning his gaze back to the file. Damn. He gripped the edges of the file in anger. The justice system strikes again. If Balentine had stayed in prison, Blair would be safely at the loft right now or at his office or on some date or just about anywhere living life rather than going through God-knows what.
Simon's voice cut through Jim's anger and he looked up at the captain.
Jim nodded tersely. "Fine, but I'll be better once I find this bastard."
"Once we find this bastard," Simon corrected, rising from his seat. "I don't want you going off half-cocked here, Jim."
"I'm not." A hard edge cut his voice. "I'm going off to Cheap Shots."
Now he definitely had a fever. He was alternating between freezing and burning up. His wrists were once again secured to the head rail, though the cuffs felt looser this time. He tried a few experimental tugs, but he didn't think he'd be able to slip out of the rings.
His leg felt like it was on fire, the pain radiating up his back. The ache was so constant in its intensity that it wore at his control, pushing tears of exhaustion to his eyes at random intervals. He just wanted the pain to stop, even if just for five minutes so he could get some rest. A reprieve. A fucking break.
The floorboards creaked again and the knob jiggled, then the door swung inward and Balentine entered. A muffled whimper arose from the corner of the room, and Blair turned his head to see Tommy cowered in his usual place in the corner, his face hidden toward the wall.
God, it was like a sauna in the room. Couldn't Balentine give him some water? Just a little bit of water. Was that too much to ask?
Balentine moved over to the little boy, unzipping his own jeans as he did so, and Blair's stomach twisted suddenly. No. No. This was not going to happen if he could help it. He pulled at the handcuffs, his struggles becoming more frantic as he watched Balentine slip out of his jeans to stand exposed in front of the frightened child.
"Hey!" he meant to shout, but the word emerged as a hoarse croak.
He had to risk Balentine's wrath because, as it stood, little Tommy didn't have much to lose. Maybe his life, but Blair really didn't think Balentine would kill Tommy in retaliation for Blair's transgression. No, he wasn't done with the boy yet, Blair concluded bitterly.
"Hey!" He tried again, his voice only marginally louder this time. "Leave him alone! Look, you want a grown man, I'm right here!"
Balentine ignored Blair, his attention focused completely on the boy as he made soft cooing sounds that turned Blair's stomach.
"Shhhhh," Balentine soothed, coaxing Tommy almost gently from his protective ball. "It's going to be okay. Come here. Come on. Shhh. Don't cry."
Tommy's whimpers died abruptly, and Blair watched in horror as Balentine pulled Tommy close to him and slid the thin T-shirt off the child.
"Turn over on your stomach, Tommy," Balentine commanded gently.
Oh God. Blair swallowed the bile that rose in his throat and tried again to get Balentine's attention. "Hey! Hey Balentine! Yeah, I know your name, man! I know who you are! Get over here, you sick son of a bitch. Come on!"
Still, Balentine ignored him as he pulled off the boy's underwear. It was as though Blair didn't even exist. Balentine lowered his bulky frame over Tommy's small, bare body. Blair pulled hard at the handcuffs, his wrists slick with sweat and blood from where the cuffs dug into his skin. Still, he pulled harder, desperate to break free, knowing that, even if he did so, he'd probably still be no help to Tommy. Goddamnit, budge, damn you! he screamed silently at his hands as they remained solidly locked in place with the cuffs.
A sharp scream from Tommy whipped Blair's head around, and he gasped when he saw Balentine's hard thrusts. Oh please, God, where are you? How could you let this happen? He was desperate to close his eyes, but he couldn't, feeling that he'd somehow betray Tommy by deserting him in his agony. The little boy cried, screaming as hard as his throat would allow.
I'm not seeing this. I'm not hearing this. I'm not seeing this, oh God, I'm not hearing this. Each scream threatened to send Blair over the edge because he knew, oh God, he knew, how near-impossible it was for Balentine to fit into the tiny boy's rectum. He knew the child was being ripped open, brutalized, hurt in a way that no one -- much less a child -- should ever be hurt.
No, no, no. This isn't happening. I'm not seeing this. I'm not. I'm not hearing this. Please, oh please, God, make this stop. He was crying now himself, sobbing, in fact, hot tears rolling straight down along the sides of his face to plop onto the filthy mattress. He wanted so badly to turn away from the horrific sight, but he couldn't... He couldn't. He was desperate for Tommy to look at him so that maybe, just maybe, he could convey some measure of something good to the child. At the very least let Tommy know that he wasn't suffering alone. Tommy didn't look up, though, just kept his face turned toward the wall, screaming, his hands clenched in fists above his head as Balentine pummeled his smaller body.
Then Balentine sagged with an audible cry of satisfaction and rolled off Tommy. You bastard! "You fucking bastard!" Blair screamed, the pain in his leg and wrists and the fever ravishing his body driving him to hysteria. Balentine spared Blair only a glance, looking almost ashamed as he grabbed his jeans from the floor and turned away to hurry out of the room.
Jim stepped into the bar, performing an automatic visual sweep, searching for one face in particular. He didn't see Balentine, so he walked up to the bar and withdrew Balentine's picture from his jacket pocket as he caught the attention of the bartender.
"Have you seen this man?"
The bartender studied Jim suspiciously. "Who are you?"
Jim pulled out his badge. "Cascade P.D. Have you seen this man?"
The bartender's expression changed, the suspicion in his eyes melting to curiosity. "Uh... Yeah. He comes in here almost every night. Drinks a lot. Why? He done something?"
"Yeah." Jim pocketed the photograph and leveled a steady gaze at the bartender. "And if he comes in here tonight, you're not to tip him off. That would put you as a possible accessory."
"No, sir. I don't even know him. Accessory to what?"
Jim ignored the question. "Do you know anybody who does know him?"
The man shook his head. "No. He sticks pretty much to himself. Barely talks. Just orders drinks."
"What's he order?"
"Mostly hard liquor. Vodka straight."
"How does he pay?"
"Always? Does he ever use a credit card?"
The bartender shrugged. "I can't remember."
"You keep credit card receipts, don't you?" Jim's tone was ice.
The bartender swallowed nervously. "Uh. Yeah. Yeah we do, but, uh, don't you need a warrant, or something? I'm not sure the boss would want me just giving out customer's credit card numbers."
"Who's the boss?"
"Mr. Delveco. He's out of town."
"Does he have a phone where he is?"
"Uh, just an answering service."
"Who's in charge?"
"I am, for now."
Jim suppressed a sigh. "Look, Mr.... uh...."
"Johnson. Dan Johnson."
"Dan Johnson?" Jim was suddenly skeptical of the man's veracity and tuned his senses into the bartender's heartbeat, finding it elevated but steady.
"Okay, Mr. Johnson," Jim began with all the politeness he could muster, "it would really help me if you could let me see those credit card receipts. Do you think you could do that?"
Johnson still seemed uncertain. "Uh, can't you cops, like, check out credit card activity on the computer?"
Jim mustered a patient smile. "Yes, of course, and we're doing that, but I'd still like to see them, if you don't mind."
He knew Balentine didn't have a card because he'd already read the man's credit report, but Balentine might have gained fraudulent use of a card, as many felons did and, in that event, Jim wanted to go over the signatures to see if he could spot Balentine's handwriting. He'd already seen the man's signature several times on various court documents, so he was fairly confident he could pick out a fake signature in Balentine's handwriting.
Blair listened in gut-twisting misery to Tommy's hard, muffled sobs. The child lay naked in the corner, curled into a fetal ball. Dark blotches were visible on the wood floor and Blair tried not to think of them as blood, though he knew that's what they were -- the child's blood, the result of torn flesh and, maybe, injuries more severe.
His own injuries were becoming cause for alarm. His leg still hurt, but it was a distant ache and the limb itself felt about five sizes too big. His hands were numb, the sharp cuffs embedded in the skin from his previous struggles. At least those wounds no longer hurt. He was sweating constantly now and the room felt stifling hot, like a boiler room, and he desperately needed some water. He felt practically naked lying there in his cotton boxers, his T-shirt bunched beneath his armpits from his previous struggles, leaving his belly completely exposed.
Blair swallowed and took a deep breath, preparing to find his voice and hoping to keep it steady. "Tommy."
The boy just continued to cry, the sound not even wavering as an indication that Tommy had heard him.
"Tommy," Blair said again, slightly louder this time. He didn't want to risk drawing Balentine into the room, so he couldn't raise his voice too much. "I need you to do something for me. Can you?" He needed the boy to look for something that Blair could use to try to pick the locks on the handcuffs.
Tommy didn't seem to hear him as he remained curled into his tight ball, his body shaking with broken sobs.
The floorboards creaked and the door swung inward, prompting Blair to grow instantly silent. Balentine staggered into the room, a Vodka bottle clutched in his right hand, his face flushed and his eyes rimmed with red. He was obviously drunk, and Blair's gut twisted with that realization. The man barely glanced at Tommy, sauntering instead toward the bed, his dark eyes roaming over Blair's body with an almost predatory hunger.
"So, you know my name, boy?"
Blair froze, his breath caught in his throat.
Balentine raised the Vodka bottle and poured half the remaining contents over Blair's stomach. Blair nearly convulsed in surprise and he closed his eyes, struggling to control the tremors that coursed through his body. He wasn't prepared for the cool, wetness that touched his navel and he shuddered, clenching his eyes tighter as he felt the man's tongue course a path up to his bunched T-shirt, then probing a little further to touch the nipple ring.
A gasped sob escaped Blair's control and he tried to push himself harder into the mattress even as his leg flared with protest and the cuffs dug deeper into his flesh. He knew this was bound to happen sooner or later, but he'd held onto the hope that he'd figure out a way to escape or that Jim would come crashing through the door in time to prevent this. If only Balentine had left little Tommy alone and turned his attention to Blair earlier, then, maybe, Blair could get through it by focusing on the reprieve afforded the child. But it hadn't happened that way. No, the sick bastard had already satisfied himself on Tommy, leaving the child a broken heap on the floor, and was now turning to bigger game.
Suddenly the wet pressure disappeared and the mattress bounced, igniting bursts of pain in Blair's leg. A hard retching sound turned Blair's stomach, followed by the sickening splash and acrid scent of vomit. Blair's own bile rose in his throat, and he swallowed quickly, pushing it back down, grateful, at least, that the man hadn't thrown up on him.
"I'm goin' out," Balentine slurred.
Blair almost wet himself with relief, but managed to retain enough control to spare himself that humiliation. He kept his eyes closed, holding absolutely still as he listened to the retreating footsteps. He didn't spare a slivered glance until Balentine was some distance away, and when he did give into a peek, he saw the man leaning against the doorjamb, his back to the room. The Vodka bottle dropped from his hand and clattered onto the floor, the clear liquid spilling onto the dirty, wooden floor.
Balentine pushed himself off the doorjamb and staggered into the main room, not even bothering to close the door. From his angle on the bed, Blair couldn't see into that other room, but he heard Balentine clanging around in what sounded like a kitchen, which didn't make complete sense because Blair was pretty sure he was in some kind of an old office building or warehouse. Then again, some of those places had small kitchens. The loft had a nice kitchen. Spacious and efficient. He'd left a half-eaten turkey sandwich in the refrigerator, hadn't he? It had probably gone bad by now. Maybe Jim had eaten it. He hoped so. There was no use in the food going to waste.
God, it was so damn hot.
A loud crash made him jump, and he heard Balentine bark a string of slurred curses from the other room. Then there was a loud bang and the room shuddered slightly as though a door had been closed, which Blair hoped was true. If Balentine had actually left then maybe, just maybe, Blair could figure out a way out of this hell hole.
He held his breath, listening, but the place was quiet, the silence broken only by Tommy's soft crying. This might be his only chance to save himself and the child. The hope spurred a rush of adrenaline and he renewed his struggles, trying to pull free of the handcuffs or, at least, break the bed rails at the head of the mattress.
A faint, familiar scent tickled his nose and he ceased his escape attempt momentarily to inhale a deep breath, hoping to confirm the scent as something other than what he thought it was, but his heart clutched in his throat when his hopes were dashed. Gas.
Could things get any worse? He looked at Tommy, still huddled in the corner, crying, and Blair snapped the cuffs hard, pulling at them, using all the strength he had left in an attempt to break free. The metal dug hard into his flesh and warm blood trickled down his arms.
Then a brief, intense pain exploded in his right hand at the same time he heard a sickening snap and his arms were suddenly free. FUCK! He grabbed his hand, cradling it against his chest, panting hard and trying to get a grip on the pain. He allowed himself only a few moments until the pain abated to a more tolerable ache. He could already feel the heat of inflammation in his thumb.
Slowly, he rolled onto his side, holding his breath as his leg gave into an angry, painful fit. When the spasms had passed, he used his good hand to push himself into a sitting position, swinging his legs over the side of the mattress at the same time and resolutely ignoring the almost unbearable fire in his leg.
He was close to hyperventilating by this time, feeling like he'd just run a marathon. How the hell he was going to get himself and Tommy out of the building was beyond his comprehension.
Jim had been nursing the same beer for over three hours, and the glass was still half-full. Or half-empty, depending on how one looked at the situation. That was what they said, wasn't it? The cup was either half-full or half-empty. He stared at the glass, re-examining its contents. Half-empty. Not a goddamned thing to be optimistic about.
The bartender had let him look at the credit card receipts, but Jim hadn't spotted Balentine's handwriting. In fact, the only thing he'd gotten from the effort had been a colossal headache, aggravated by the constant buzz of noise in the bar, and he had been forced to turn down the dials on his senses in an attempt to alleviate the pain. It wasn't working very well, though. His head still throbbed and the headache gave no signs of abating.
So, here he was sitting like a lump on a log hoping Balentine showed his ugly, soon-to-be- photographed-for-another-mugshot face in this small, stuffy bar so Jim could pummel that ugly face into the wall and find out what the bastard had done with Sandburg. Screw the Fifth Amendment. Hell, screw the whole Bill of Rights. The Bible had it right. An eye for an eye. A life for a life.
Jim took a swig of his beer. Balentine was going to pay hard if he'd hurt Sandburg.
The door opened and a cool breeze blew into the bar. Jim looked at his glass, catching the reflection of the newcomer. The image was distorted, but he could tell that the man had dark, curly hair, a large nose, and a wide face. As the man moved forward, his image wavered in the glass, becoming more recognizable. Balentine.
Jim tensed, still as a statue as Balentine moved up to the bar, carrying the stench of inebriation with him, and ordered a Vodka, his voice thick and slurred. Several factors flew through Jim's mind at once. Balentine was drunk and ordering more alcohol. The suspect shouldn't have been driving as it was, but any more alcohol would completely ruin the possibility of him getting in his vehicle and driving home, if, in fact, he had arrived in a vehicle. Jim had been so focused on his own anger that he hadn't heard a car pull up outside.
If Balentine couldn't drive home -- something Jim as a police officer couldn't let him do, not with the real possibility that the man could end up killing innocents -- then he couldn't lead them to Sandburg. On the other hand, if Jim arrested him right now, then the guy might be unable or unwilling to cooperate, and Sandburg might not have the time to spare -- if he was even still alive.
Jim tightened his grip on the glass, his knuckles white as he stared at Balentine's back, pondering the options. The bartender glanced briefly in Jim's direction, a flash of nervousness in his eyes. Jim extended his senses, eavesdropping on the bartender's conversation with Balentine. The bartender was refusing to serve the man alcohol, which was likely because he knew a cop was sitting in the bar watching.
Jim almost smiled. Perfect. If Balentine couldn't get his fix here he might just return back home. Maybe stop off at a liquor store first.
Damn, but Balentine was still drunk and Jim just couldn't let the guy get behind the wheel. Deciding it was time to let Simon in on this new development, Jim whipped out his cell phone and dialed the station. It was late, but there was a good chance the captain would still be in his office.
On the third ring, Simon answered.
"Ellison," Jim announced. "Balentine's here at Cheap Shots. He's ordering a drink, but he's already drunk and the bartender's not indulging him."
"Hold tight, Jim. I'll have units there in no time."
"If we take him in, he might not tell us where Sandburg is, sir."
"You said he was drunk, Jim. We can't follow him back. We can't let him drive. If he hits someone, the department would be looking at a shitload of liability. You know that."
"Yes, I know that, sir."
Jim sighed. "We arrest him. Can you hold off five minutes on the backup?"
"Uh... Why? Or should I even ask?"
"You can ask, sir... I needn't remind you that Sandburg's life and, possibly, the life of a child are at stake here, do I?"
"I don't think I like your tone, Jim." A pause, then a sigh. Finally, "Forget it, Jim. I'm not asking. Five minutes. Do not go overboard. Use your, uh, special skills, but do NOT -- and I repeat -- do NOT touch him. Understood?"
"Understood, sir." Nothing that'll leave marks, anyway.
He flipped the phone closed and rose from his seat. The bartender saw him coming and moved quickly away from Balentine as Jim took the empty seat next to him. Now that he was closer to the man and focused entirely on him, Jim smelled the residual scent of blood and semen and almost lost it right there.
The suspect looked at him. "Who'rrrre yooou?" he breathed heavily in Jim's face.
Jim crinkled his nose but didn't pull back. Holding out his badge, he gave the man a few minutes to study it, pleased to see the slow realization form in those dark eyes. Realization that soon shifted to fear.
"James Ellison. Cascade PD. Can I have a word with you?"
"What do yooou wannnt?"
Jim smiled pleasantly. "There was a robbery here at the bar last night and we're questioning all regular patrons. Can I speak with you outside for a moment? Then we can come back in here and I'll instruct the bartender to give you a drink. Hell, I'll even buy."
Balentine grunted, looking on the verge of throwing up. "Whatevvver the ffffuck you want, offissssser."
"Good." Jim slipped off the barstool and grabbed the man's arm, guiding him gently toward the door. "I really appreciate your cooperation, sir."
He stepped into the cool, night air and walked the man around the side of the building, moving all the way to the very back behind the dumpster where he would be able to work unobserved.
"Sssso? What do you want to knnnow?" Balentine drawled, oblivious to the dangerous isolation of his surroundings.
Jim smiled, then sprung to action, grabbing the man and spinning him around. He pushed Balentine face-first into the wall and hooked the man's arm with his own, pulling it up to a painful angle. "Where is Blair Sandburg?"
"Ow. Fuck man!" Balentine tried to push back, but Jim didn't budge.
"Where is he?!" He pulled the man's arm up another inch, feeling a measure of satisfaction when the man screamed. Jim didn't think the bar patrons would hear Balentine's cries over the noise of the television and general conversation inside.
"I don't know --"
Jim strained the arm some more and Balentine burst into tears. "Shit! Okay! Okay! Let go!"
"Not until you tell me where he is!"
"An old building off of Ash Street. Used to be an old diner! I swear!"
"Ash and what?"
"Ash and... uh... uh..."
Jim pulled up harder.
"Fuck! Twelfth!" Balentine yelled.
Jim eased up the pressure a bit. The man's heartbeat was erratic so he couldn't tell if Balentine was lying or not, but Ash did intersect Twelfth and that block was made up almost entirely of abandoned buildings. Sirens screamed in the distance and Jim handcuffed Balentine, then read the man his rights. Seconds later, the squad cars converged on the scene and Jim turned Balentine over to the officers as Simon greeted him.
"Jim." Simon puffed on his cigar and glanced critically at the man now being led in handcuffs to a squad car. "He's still alive, I see."
"He told me where Sandburg is." That was the only reply he gave the captain as he ran toward his truck.
Blair had no idea how long he'd been sitting on the edge of the mattress as the gas mixed with the stench of vomit in the room. It seemed like a small eternity, but he knew it couldn't have been more than a minute. He kept trying to move, but his body refused to obey. His left leg was useless, hot with infection and throbbing with pain. His hand hurt like hell, too.
Somehow, he had to get up. Get his ass off the bed. Move!
The hiss of gas became noticeable, magnified in the quiet and confirming what his nose had already told him...
Quiet. His eyes snapped to Tommy, now laying limp and silent on the floor. Oh God. What am I doing? Why was he just sitting there wasting precious seconds. Tommy was so small. It wouldn't take much of the gas to overwhelm the child.
With a clench of his jaw, he pushed himself to his feet...
... and landed flat on his face, pain shooting up his leg and pushing a scream from his chest. Bile rose in his throat, and this time, it got the better of him. He lay there on his stomach, heaving, his insides revolting even though he had nothing to throw up. The room spun, threatening to send him spiraling into unconsciousness, but he held on, his eyes locked on the small, motionless figure laying a few feet away.
Using his arms and his good leg, he dragged himself forward, gritting his teeth against the pain in his hand and leg. Some hellish time later he reached Tommy and maneuvered himself into a sitting position so he could pull the boy against his chest. It took more strength than he thought he had, and by the time he was done, the pain had broken him to tears. His vision blurring and his head swimming, he used his good leg to push himself up, using the wall as a brace. Somehow, he managed to keep Tommy clutched against his chest. He knew the child couldn't weigh all that much, but at the moment, the kid felt like a sack of cement.
Now all Blair had to do was get out of the building. That required walking. A choked sob flung its way out of his throat. His heart pounded and every muscle he had burned with exhaustion.
But failure wasn't an option. All he had to do was travel a few feet. Pain was pain, but if he didn't move both he and Tommy would die. The gas was already wearing at him, making him dizzy with nausea. He had to move now before it overtook him completely.
No pain. No pain. No pain, he chanted silently, forcing his left leg to move. As the muscles pulled, his leg flared angrily, but still he dared to put his weight down on the limb. An agonizing, unbelievable pain shuddered through the leg as he bore down on it, and he screamed even as he transferred his weight to the other leg. Sobbing and soaked with sweat, he continued forward, moving like a puppet with half its strings cut. Each step threatened to be his last, and he swore with each explosion of pain that it was too much. The human body could only take so much, after all. Sleep beckoned him, tempting him, urging him to just put the boy down and collapse onto the floor. Let the nice, quiet, peaceful darkness take over.
He didn't even realize that he'd made it outside until the icy air slapped him in the face. Oh God, the cold felt so good, penetrating the inferno that hovered over him. In the darkness, a sad, siren song wailed miserably. It sounded almost beautiful. A crackle and a whoosh of air touched Blair from behind, and he turned around, half-expecting to see Balentine chasing after him. Instead, the night erupted into a bright, hot ball of fire, slamming him backward through the air and into the soft, welcoming arms of oblivion.