Hell and High Water
Many many thanks to dmk0064 for the proof-reading, and the always insightful advices. All remaining mistakes are mine.
General settings of the story are loosely based on an old episode of ER (season 2), from which this story got its title.
More notes at the end.
Chapter One: The Boy
The takedown had gone smoothly. Muller and his crooks had been arrested and no one had been harmed. After an exhausting and nerve-wracking week of following dubious leads, paper trails, and endless stakeouts, Peter could finally relax and appreciate the victory.
"That was a great job in here, Neal," Peter said as he put his hand on his partner's shoulder.
"You weren't bad yourself. Glad I finally had to ask you about Prada." Neal shot back with a smirk.
Peter dismissed the compliment with a roguish smile. "Come on, they weren't even good imitations! A kid – well, a 15 years old girl at least – would have made the difference between the real and the fake ones."
It was almost dusk already when they finally left Muller's lair. It was an abandoned warehouse, next to the docks. Not the most pleasant neighborhood. Not the liveliest either, especially on a cold and rainy day like this one. It had been raining cats and dogs all day. Apart from a few dockers, barely visible through the heavy curtain of rain, not a soul was brave enough to face the weather outside. Looking West, Peter could not even distinguish the shore of New Jersey on the other side of the river. The evening light was decreasing very fast. In half an hour at the most, it would be completely dark.
Peter and Neal waved a quick goodbye to the team and hastily headed to the Taurus. It was parked a couple of blocks away, a little way out of all the FBI vehicles surrounding the warehouse. Though it did not take Peter and Neal more than five minutes to get there, they were soaked by the time they reached the car.
Driving in those conditions would not be a pleasant experience, but Peter could not wait to go home, feel the warmth of his couch, the softness of Satchmo's fur, the delicate skin of Elizabeth….
Peter was reaching for his car keys when he heard what seemed to be a faint scream. Instantly, he was back to the present, all senses in alert.
"Did you hear?" he asked Neal in a whisper.
"Yes. It seems to be coming from there," Neal whispered back, pointing toward the end of the street.
They walked up the street, following the screams. They were now loud enough to be identified as being from a young boy or a girl, crying and calling for help. Yet, the area was totally empty. Unsettled, Peter drew his gun, as he continued his way along the street, checking every corner, every car. Neal's shout made him startle.
"It's coming from there!" he exclaimed, pointing down at the ground. "The manhole!"
The lid was missing, showing a dark open hole, and offering a very dangerous trap in the growing darkness. Peter and Neal carefully crouched and bent over the hole to take a look inside. A kid, about 8 or 9 years old, was standing against the wall of the tunnel, petrified. He looked up at them and stopped crying. He didn't seem particularly reassured though.
The heavy rain of the past days had swollen the flow of waters in the sewer, and even standing on the sidewalk of the tunnel, the kid had water up to his knees.
"Hey buddy," Peter said softly. "You okay?"The boy blinked and didn't answer. He seemed unable to move. "Are you hurt?"
The kid slowly shook his head. Peter sighed with relief. The boy was all right, and communicative. It was just a matter of getting him out of there.
"Look Peter, the last rung of the ladder is broken. And he probably can't reach the upper one."
Following Neal's finger, Peter inspected the ladder. It was indeed defective. The last rung was missing and it was just a matter of time before the other steps corroded away as well.
"Okay buddy, we're gonna get you out of there." Peter told the boy. "Tell me, what's your name?"
"Tommy," the boy said tentatively.
"Tommy, I'm Special Agent Peter Burke. I work for the FBI. And this is Neal," he added pointing at his partner. "He…"
"I'm working with the FBI too," Neal cut off hastily with a bright smile for Tommy and a sideway glance at Peter.
Peter rolled his eyes but let it go. It was exactly what he was about to say but it was not the time for a pointless argument, so he quickly turned back his attention to the kid in the hole.
"So, Tommy, I'm going to come down next to you and I will help you out. How is that?"
Tommy nodded. The presence of the two adults seemed to have reassured him a little. He was still glued to the tunnel wall but he looked slightly more relaxed. He was staring without a blink at Peter with his big brown eyes, as if losing eye contact with his savior might make him disappear into thin air.
Peter was soaked from head to toe, literally. His shoes had not resisted the assault of the heavy rain and his wet socks were unpleasantly scratchy.
"I don't like it Peter," Neal said with a stern voice.
Peter looked at his partner. Kneeled down next to him, Neal was vigorously rubbing his hands together. The cold rain had made them all red. Like Peter's, not a single piece of Neal's clothes was still dry. Water was pouring down the sides of his hat.
Peter didn't like it much either. He was all wet, his hands and his shoe soles made slippery by the rain. The ladder looked anything but safe and the flow of water in the sewage tunnel was furious and growing by the minute. But it was also obvious that the kid was exhausted. He could slip into the water at any moment, and he might not be able to hold on long enough for a rescue team to arrive.
Peter shook his head. "We can't just leave him there."
He rubbed his hands on his shirt in a pointless effort to dry them a little, and turning around he put himself into position to go down through the manhole. Carefully, one foot after the other, Peter went down the ladder, testing each rung before putting all his weight on it, and keeping a firm grip on the bars, just in case. This proved to be a thoughtful precaution as, while he was reaching the last rung, it gave under his foot.
A double exclamation from Tommy and Neal echoed the sinister crack of the rusty metal.
Swinging a little while reaffirming his position on the upper rung, Peter dropped a few inarticulate words.
"Peter…" Neal started, concern filling his voice.
"I'm fine," Peter cut him off grumpily. "Just another rung broke."
"Just… Be careful, please." Peter heard Neal mutter.
Firmly holding the side bars of the ladder, Peter made a short jump and reached the ground. He shivered as the cold water came in contact with the base of his calves. Peter steadied his position on the sidewalk of the tunnel and carefully slid to get closer to Tommy.
The flow was tumultuous and, under the surface, unidentified objects were occasionally hitting Peter's ankles. Now Peter could totally see the terror in the kid who had been trapped here for probably quite some time with little hope of someone coming to his rescue. Not to mention the growing darkness of the tunnel which was giving the scene an even gloomier tone. Shaking his dark feelings, Peter focused on his mission – rescuing Tommy – and turned toward the young fellow.
"Okay, Tommy. Give me your hand," he asked, trying to make his voice casual and positive, as if the situation was anything but perilous.
Peter held out his hand in Tommy's direction. Slowly, the boy detached his hand from the concrete wall and raised it to reach Peter's. Frail fingers clang to solid ones. Tommy held Peter's hand with all his force. His hand was ice-cold.
"Good. That's good." Peter continued, reassuring the kid. "Now come closer. Slide along the wall. There. Good. You're almost there."
Once Tommy was close enough, Peter started sliding back until Tommy himself could reach the ladder and grab it.
"All right. Now comes the hard part," Peter announced. "Tommy, I'm gonna lift you up. You'll grab the highest rung you can, and you'll try to put your feet on the ladder. I've just tested them, all the rung that are left are solid. Don't be scared."
Tommy nodded slightly, obviously not totally convinced by Peter's assurance.
"Neal," Peter called his partner "I'm going to lift Tommy, be ready to help him climb if he needs it."
Looking up, Peter realized that it was already much darker outside, the main source of light being from a lonely street lamp nearby.
"Got it," Neal answered.
"The flow seems to be decreasing," Peter noted. "Good, it's gonna make things a little easier."
But it seemed Neal wasn't of the same opinion.
"No Peter, it's not good!" He yelled, "Hurry up! Get out of here, both of you!"
"Something must be blocking the flow. But eventually, water will beat whatever it is, and the flow will come back, stronger – Just hurry up, okay?"
Driven by Neal's pressing tone, Peter grabbed Tommy by the waist and lifted him up as high as he could. Neal had just grabbed Tommy's arm when a rumble echoed in the tunnel. In a fraction of second, the rumble became a roar, and looking down the tunnel, Peter saw the wave coming right at him. Hastily, he pushed Tommy's up with one hand and held the ladder with the other.
But the wave was too strong. Peter's feet slipped and he lost his balance. In his fall, he lost his grip and, before he could regain it, he was swept away by the unrestrained waters.
"Peter!" Neal's scream was the last thing he heard before the waters swallowed him in their tumultuous whirl.
To Be Continued…
A/N: To avoid possible confusion, a little note on sewage systems. In most cities, and particularly in big cities, there are 2 independent networks. One for the waste waters (those coming from your sink and bathroom), that takes the water down to the treatment plant. The other is made only for the rain and ground waters. That's the one whose holes you see along the gutters. Those waters are released directly in close rivers and shores. Yes, this isn't really clean, but rainwater flows are too variable to be lead to the treatment plant. It would cause overflows and hence biggest pollution problems. Now, you'll think twice before throwing anything in the gutter, right? ;-)