~Light in the Shadows~
Part Four, Chapter One
Alex and Olivia were up early and set to with a purpose. Alex hit the shower first, while Olivia got the coffee going and roused Ringo. He was in his usual irritable morning-mood but got up quickly and helped Olivia pack a variety of devices into the duffel bag. They double checked that each piece of equipment was working properly before they packed it. Ringo also reviewed the operation of each one with Olivia, though they had already gone through it all yesterday evening.
Olivia hit the shower next and Alex made coffee. Soon everything was ready. The detective and the lawyer were moving back into the city, having reserved a room at the Hyatt only two blocks from 26 Federal Plaza. Ringo would stay at the cabin. They had debated having him relocate as well, but it would take time to get all his equipment set up again. More importantly, it was good strategy to keep a member of the team disconnected, in case something went wrong. If the worst happened, Ringo would call Elliot and take it from there.
Olivia slapped a hand of friendship on Ringo's shoulder, "Make me proud, cutie."
Ringo smirked, still trying to rouse himself with generous gulps of caffeine.
Alex and Olivia packed their gear in the SUV and Olivia steered the vehicle back onto the Long Island Expressway, speeding toward the glass, steel, and human pulse of New York City.
Alex checked them in to the Hyatt under an assumed name, paying cash in advance for one day. The desk clerk was clearly surprised by this unusual procedure but consented.
When they got to their suite, Olivia went straight to the large work table in the outer room. Since this location would serve as their base of operations for the next while, they had chosen a sizable suite complete with all the trimmings of modern business travel: broadband internet, multi-line speaker phone, USB printer, fax machine, coffee maker, even a fridge. She began unpacking their gear. She withdrew two VOX-activated wireless receivers, provided by Ringo from his bottomless collection of technical paraphernalia. She powered them up, but refrained from yet another nervous check of their operation.
The detective retrieved a smaller satchel from the duffel bag and placed a few items within. She spoke to Alex, who was perusing some handwritten notes and playing with a quarter in her left hand. "Alex, are you ready?"
Alex looked up, "Yep. Let's do it."
"Ok. Let's get communications up and running." She handed Alex one of the two Nokias while she phoned Ringo's cell number. "Ringo, we're ready. How about you?"
"Ready as I'll ever be. Hang on, I'll connect Alex." First, she heard the phone on the other end being placed into one of Ringo's devices, which provided a speakerphone interface to the cell. Then Alex's cell rang. Alex picked it up and they confirmed the three-way connection.
The lawyer and detective clipped the phones to their belts and connected wired earbud-plus-microphone devices. They'd look no more suspicious than the millions of other city folk who wandered the streets of New York looking like raving madmen as they engaged in conversations with invisible second-parties.
The plan was to have Olivia leave first. She took one last look at Alex. She found the ADA looking back, and biting her lower lip in amusement. "Liv, you look a bit ... intense for a purchasing grunt taking inventory."
They'd settled on the inventory ruse after proposing and discarding many alternatives. The cover would give the detective a legitimate excuse to scramble around under Kettler's desk, purportedly hunting for serial numbers and UPC bar codes.
Olivia looked herself over, "Do I?"
"Um, consider losing the badass leather jacket when you get upstairs, ok?"
Olivia grinned, "Ok, point taken." She pressed a brief kiss to Alex's lips then strode for the door. "See you soon."
Step One: break into FBI headquarters.
Olivia strode through the familiar front doors of 26 Federal Plaza, her badge of office displayed prominently on her belt. As she approached the security guards barring entry to the building's interior, she disconnected the cell-phone earbud and dropped it into the left pocket of her jeans. The cell phone remained live on her belt, connected to Ringo. She retrieved the badge from her belt and presented it to the security people with as much boldness as she could muster. "Detective Olivia Benson, Manhattan SVU. I'm here to see Sean Neeland, in charge of FBI purchasing." Their meticulously prepared strategy had a 'Plan B' contingency if she was asked for proof of her fictitious appointment, but she hoped it wouldn't be necessary ... at least not yet.
The bluff worked easily. The disinterested security guard took one look at her badge and waved her through. So far so good. Olivia approached the elevators and pressed the button. Trying to look as casual as possible to the multitude of government employees wandering past her, Olivia removed her jacket and stuffed it into the satchel she was carrying over her shoulder, along with the NYPD badge. Alex was right: if I'm supposed to be at work, I shouldn't even be wearing a jacket. She tried to jam the jacket to the bottom of the bag, bundling it beneath the devices in her satchel so they could be retrieved easily when needed. She also retrieved a Yankees baseball cap from the bag and donned it. They'd decided on this detail in the hopes that it would prevent any stray hair fibers from landing in Kettler's office, to be picked up by the meticulous crime scene units that would eventually visit it ... if all went well.
Olivia rode the elevator upward with a handful of others, emerging at last on the 23rd floor. She stepped to the imposing front desk. A stern receptionist sat like a gatekeeper before the great seal of the FBI.
"Olivia Benson from purchasing, here to take inventory on some of your computers." Olivia withdrew her driver's license from her back pocket and presented it.
The gatekeeper was unimpressed, "I have received no notification that inventory was scheduled for today."
Olivia subtly moved her hand to the cell phone on her belt and pressed one of the numbered buttons. It was the prearranged signal to Ringo to activate 'Plan B'. Hopefully, he was also hearing the entire conversation. Olivia tried to look bored, like any other civil servant putting in her 37.5 hours a week and accumulating benefits.
"My boss, Sean Neeland, just sent me over. He said you should call him if you needed authorization."
The intimidating receptionist raised an eyebrow, but retrieved her internal phone directory from a neat vertical file on her desk. She flipped to the relevant entry: Sean Neeland, head of purchasing, and dialed the number.
Electronic signals raced through the NYNEX phone network, seeking their destination. They paused at a number of databases, querying for their next path. At the sound of Olivia's pre-arranged tone, Ringo immediately activated a series of roadblocks and detours which sent the dutiful signals out of the city toward a rustic cabin in the woods. The cabin's landline rang on his desk.
Ringo let the phone ring twice, then picked up, "Neeland, purchasing."
"Mr. Neeland, this is Sally Rowles at the FBI front desk. A woman claiming to be one of your employees, an Olivia Benson, is requesting access to our offices to take inventory."
"Yes, Ms. Rowles, Benson is one of my people. I'm working on some reports and I'm missing some information on some recent items purchased by Mr. ... " Ringo randomly rustled the scraps of paper on his desk. "Mr. Jack Kettler, equipment he purchased for his office. Please let her through, my report needs to be in by this afternoon."
The efficient Ms. Rowles frowned at this display of last-minute disorganization ... but she was not entirely insensitive to the plight of a fellow bureaucrat trying to meet the never-ending sequence of deadlines imposed by government service. "Thank you, Mr. Neeland."
She hung up and turned to Olivia, "Who is it you need to see?"
Olivia knew full well Ringo had transmitted Kettler's name over the phone. Suspicious witch. Feigning an air of boredom, Olivia reached into her satchel and appeared to consult a piece of paper within. "Kettler, Jack Kettler."
Ms. Rowles nodded at last, and rose from her seat, "Come with me, I'll show you to his office."
Not good, not good ... don't want him to know I've been here. Persisting with her air of disinterest, Olivia waved off the secretary and headed into the inner sanctum of the 23rd floor as if she owned the place. "No problem, been here before, I know where it is."
Just sit back down and file something, please ...
To Olivia's enormous relief, the receptionist let her go.
Olivia wandered into the labyrinth of cubicles and glass-doored offices. She scanned the names on the doors as she passed but found no mention of Kettler's name. Once she was sure she was out of hearing range of the dragon at the front desk, she popped her head into an occupied cubicle.
"Hey there, looking for Jack Kettler, know where his office is?"
The civil servant within barely looked up. He motioned over his shoulder: "Just keep going, second-last office on the right."
Olivia continued into the nether regions of the 23rd floor. At last, she saw Kettler's name imprinted on one of the doors. She veered away from his office and found a bare space of wall on the opposite side of the floor to lean on. As casually as possible, she reached into her satchel and retrieved a clipboard. The pages on it contained the technical specifications for much of Sony-Ericsson's product line, helpfully printed out by Ringo, and she appeared to peruse them with intensity, flipping from one sheet to another. She retrieved the earbud and microphone from her pocket and connected it to the phone. Unclipping the phone from her belt, she made a pantomime of placing a call. A few people were standing in their cubicles, conversing in small groups, but no one looked her way.
Before she spoke, she looked directly at the glass door to Kettler's office. He was there, ensconced behind a nest of computer monitors.
"Sean, I can't read your handwriting. Can you read me the model number on the printer I'm supposed to be looking for?"
It was their prearranged signal.
Step One completed.
Alex had heard everything, thanks to the three-way conference call. When she heard the signal she grabbed her newly-purchased jacket and left the hotel room. You're up, Cabot.
"I'm disconnecting." Alex pressed the red button on the Nokia. When she reached the sidewalk outside the hotel, she hit the pre-programmed speed-dial for Kettler's office phone.
"Good morning, Mr. Kettler. My name is Alexandra Cabot."
Alex waited as Kettler paused. She could practically hear his brain scrambling in confusion.
Parked across the hall from Kettler's door, Olivia saw the hacker rise to his feet, phone pressed to his ear. Even from this distance, the confusion and fear on his face was evident. It's working.
"Thank you for not insulting us both by pretending you don't know who I am, Mr. Kettler. I am standing at the lovely fountain outside the front doors of 26 Federal Plaza, and I have a proposal to present to you. You have exactly one minute to come down and meet with me. If you don't make it down in 60 seconds, I'll be gone." The plan was to set a deadline so sharp that he had no chance to call anyone else, or lock his computer. "If you don't meet with me, the proposal is off the table, and you will soon find yourself a very unhappy man, Mr. Kettler."
Alex disconnected the call without a further word, leaving Mr. Kettler in a state of bewilderment.
Olivia watched Kettler intently. Go, asshole. You know you have to. Three more seconds and Olivia saw the hacker grab his jacket and leave his office. He transmitted a brusque message to a secretary in one of the nearby cubicles. "Jackie, just got a call, I have to go out for a while." Bye bye, birdie.
Step Two completed.
As soon as Kettler was out of sight, Olivia advanced on his office, staring at her clipboard in apparent concentration. As she was about to enter, Secretary Jackie stopped her. "Where d'you think you're going?"
Olivia looked up from her clipboard, favoring the vigilant employee with an air of remote disconcern. "I'm from purchasing, taking inventory. Cleared it with Rowles at the front desk."
Jackie looked at the detective, wondering whether further action was required.
"I can wait if you want to call her first."
Apparently the suggestion of a verbal exchange with the fierce Ms. Rowles was enough to dissuade Jackie from pursuing this matter any further. "Go ahead."
Olivia nodded and entered the office. She gave the door just enough momentum to swing closed, but not latch. She hoped the unlatched door would reassure the vigilant Jackie outside.
Clock is ticking ... move, Benson. Olivia strode to Kettler's desk and dropped to her haunches, concealing herself in the shadow of the monitors. She snapped on thin, form-fitting latex gloves from her back pocket, then spoke in hushed tones into the microphone suspended below her mouth.
"Ringo, I'm at his computer. Talk to me."
"What operating system is he running?"
Olivia hissed back through the microphone, "Ringo, my understanding of computers equals your ability to run a four-minute mile. Speak English. What do you want me to look for?" Olivia could hear the grinding teeth on the other end. "Deal with it, genius. You're not here risking your exposed ass."
"Just look for a computer, not a monitor. A big box with blinking lights, like the one I have on the desk here. Or maybe a laptop."
Olivia scanned the desk quickly, "Yes, it's here under the desk. Big fucking grey thing with an Apple logo on the side."
Ringo breathed a huge sigh of relief, "Thank all the saints. My respect for this man just rose. Cutie, welcome to the greatest operating system in the world. UNIX core, but with a user interface that even you can manage. Is the front panel also grey, and perforated with holes?"
"Yes, that's what it looks like."
"G5. Cutie, get the grey hard disk out of your bag, the one in the US Modular casing. And the firewire cable. And hurry up."
Ringo had explained all this jargon to her yesterday and then again this morning. She located the items quickly, "Got it."
"Now find the firewire port on the back of the G5. It'll be a thin, vertical rectangle and marked with a symbol that looks like a radiation-hazzard sign ... like the letter Y. When you find the thing, plug in the disk."
The correct port was quickly located and Olivia plugged in the external hard disk, housed in its bus-powered enclosure.
"Done. Now what?"
"Find the mouse and look at his monitor. What do you see?"
Olivia raised her head above the desk and moved the mouse to disengage the screen saver. "I see a pile of open windows."
"Look at the top-left corner of the screen. What do you see in the menu bar?"
"At the top-left corner? I see a blue Apple logo."
"No, stupid, just to the right of that. There should be a word, what does it say?"
"It says X-one-one."
Ringo muttered to himself, "MIT and their bloody X11, join the New Millenium already." He addressed Olivia again, "Do you see a row of icons either at the left of the screen or at the bottom?"
"Yes, it's at the bottom."
"The one at the far left should be a two-toned blue thing with a smiley face that looks like a Kandinsky painting."
"Yes, I see it."
"Move the mouse, and click on it. You do know how to click, don't you?"
"I also know how to kick your ass, jerk." Olivia did as she was instructed and a window surrounded by a brushed-metal border popped to the front.
"Now type 'splat-N' on the keyboard."
"'Splat'? What the hell is 'splat'?"
Sighing mightily, Ringo provided alternative instructions, "Move the mouse to the menu bar at the top, to the 'File' menu. Click on it, then move the mouse down to the entry 'New Finder Window' and click again."
"Done. Another brushed-metal window appeared."
"I know that," he snapped. "Now look at the top-left corner of that window. Tell me what you see, starting from the top. And hurry up."
"Circular icon, label is 'Network'. Below that are two squarish-looking icons. The top one is labelled 'Cylon', C-Y-L-O-N, and the lower one is labelled 'Ringo'."
Ringo muttered again, "What a fucking nerd. Click on the 'Cylon' icon, then go back up to the 'File' menu in the menubar and select 'Get Info'." Olivia did so, as Ringo continued to speak. "You'll get a little window. Read me the entries for 'Capacity', 'Available', and 'Used'." Olivia saw the entries immediately and reported their values. "Under 60 Gig, perfect. Close that little window, cutie, by clicking on the red button in its top-left corner. You'll be back to your brushed-metal window, and you have only one thing left to do. Just drag the 'Cylon' icon onto the 'Ringo' icon. Got it?"
Olivia executed the instructions, and was gratified to see another small window appear, reporting that copy was in progress and displaying a colored status bar. "It's copying, Ringo, there's a little window and a status bar."
Ringo breathed a sigh of relief through the phone. But they had more to do. "Cutie, you know how to do the rest. Clip that induction-tap onto his phone line and plant the bug somewhere near his desk. And hurry up. Cabot can only keep him talking for so long."
Olivia muttered in growing frustration, and concern, "I know that." Olivia first retrieved the bug and secured it with duct tape to the underside of Kettler's desk. She flicked the tiny switch, activating its wireless connection to the receivers in their hotel room two blocks away. She next retrieved the phone tap apparatus and popped her head above the level of the desk. Kettler's desk phone was placed immediately to the right of his monitors. Olivia scanned the grey RJ-11 cord that snaked from its rear port, tracing an exposed, elevated path to the phone jack on the far right-hand wall.
"Ringo, I think we have a problem. This office is a bloody mess, there's paper everywhere and the phone cord is mostly hanging in mid-air, it runs right over his floor and over some stacks of paper. None of it is concealed. Where am I supposed to attach the tap so he doesn't see it?"
"Jesus Christ ... I don't know, am I there? ... Wait, you said his office is a mess. Then just dump some papers on the damn thing. He'll never know the difference."
"Ok, decent idea," Olivia assented. She clipped the induction pickup and its attached transmitter to a slack portion of the phone line, switched on the device, and randomly rearranged some stacks of hopefully-meaningless printouts to cover it. Finally, she returned to Kettler's desk and glanced at the progress meter on the copy dialog.
"Copy is at 65% and moving."
Ringo muttered in growing anxiety. "Shit, shit ... how long can Cabot keep him talking? Why didn't we pull her back into the conference call after she phoned Kettler?"
Olivia kept her peripheral vision on the glass door to the office. Her concern grew along with the shaded blue bar on the screen in front of her. "'Cause we couldn't risk him hearing our voices from an open cell in her pocket. Just trust her, Ringo. She'll do it ... 70% ..."
As the long seconds dragged on, Olivia kept her attention on the office door. Still no unexpected movement from the employees beyond. Nevermind keeping Kettler out of the office, she knew that this inventory-ruse would evaporate quickly all on its own if she stayed too long.
The strain in Ringo's voice was transmitted clearly by the tiny earpiece. "Olivia, maybe it's enough. Just pull the plug and get out of there."
He actually used my name ... he must really be worried.
"No, just wait, we'll have it all in another minute. 79% ..."
C'mon Alex, keep him talking ...
As Alex pressed the red button on her phone, disconnecting the call to Kettler, she glanced at her watch. One minute. She was prepared to wait longer than that if necessary. They had all the bases covered: if Kettler tried to take extra time to phone someone, Olivia would spot it and inform Ringo, who'd then call her on the cell. They couldn't lose ... at least not this particular phase of the operation.
Alex reviewed the approach she would take with Kettler and she rested lightly against the fountain with her arms crossed. She glanced at the slim watch on her wrist. Thirty seconds to go.
At the cabin yesterday, the team of conspirators had considered a number of strategies for her conversation with Kettler. The simplest possibility was just to blow smoke and keep Kettler occupied until Olivia completed her mission. At the opposite end of the spectrum was the idea to have Kettler set up a meeting with the other conspiracy members. Both extremes were rejected and the team had turned to intermediate alternatives. Olivia's voice had eventually prevailed: provoke him. Alex should use the same approach she'd used on Rakowski: scare him, make him uncertain, in the hope that their adversaries might be prodded into a foolish move that would expose them.
Gathering her thoughts and wits, Alex waited. Her watch reported an elapsed interval of 45 seconds when the weighty, unhappy figure of Jack Kettler emerged from the building's front doors. Alex recognized him immediately from his personnel photo.
The ADA noticed that the hacker had no trouble picking her out from the crowd. He knows what I look like. That did not bode well for Olivia's safety during the next phase of their plan ... but too late now, the time for revision of details had passed.
Kettler walked up to Alex. He kept his hands jammed in the pockets of his ill-fitting coat and regarded her with sullen wariness.
"What do you want?"
Alex kept her arms crossed and smiled, projecting confidence. "Good morning, Mr. Kettler. I trust you've had a good day so far."
"Mr. Kettler, I have an idea that will make your day improve in quality by a tremendous amount. Are you interested?"
Kettler looked at the masonry beneath his feet and did not reply.
"Jack, you are in a world of trouble." Alex's first use of his given name was premeditated, designed to invoke a personal touch at a vulnerable moment.
"Jack, I want to help you. You're just a cog in this machine, we know that. You've been coerced, Jack, and we want to help you." Alex had no evidence of any coercion ... but what human being isn't eager to accept the suggestion that someone else 'made them do it'?
"Jack, look at me." The hacker's troubled eyes turned to hers and were immediately trapped within the clear blue light of certainty. More than any words Alex could have offered, her expression and stance bespoke a certainty of intent and purpose that every human heart longed for. Given the conflicted state of his own heart, there was no contest.
Alex saw the turmoil and discomfort and ran with it. "Jack, you have to get yourself away from all this." The ADA did not know what 'this' was, but the vague article was ideal for the present situation, covering all possibilities. "We know you're not responsible, we know they made you do it. Trust me ... a couple more days, and I'll have all the evidence I need to shut down your operation." Pure smoke, but Alex made it sound like canon from the Old Testament. "I don't want you to go down with them. Turn yourself in, Jack. I can help you."
The hacker's face was in turmoil. "You don't know shit. What do you need me for if you've got it covered like you say?"
This particular exchange was as familiar to Alex as the back of her hand. She had engaged in precisely such wordplay over bargaining tables too numerous to count: bluffing that one's case was solid, whilst simultaneously convincing the witness that his or her testimony was crucial. He's not stupid. Watch it.
"I don't need you at all, Mr. Kettler. I'm offering you a deal because I'm tired of this, because I'm sickened by the behavior of the people involved, and because I don't think you're the one who deserves to pilot the ship into the ground. I've seen many miscarriages of justice in my lifetime and I don't want to see another."
That flagrantly-emotional appeal was at the far edge of Alex's repertoire and she hated to use it. But times were desperate: lives were at stake and she didn't hesitate.
Jack Kettler did hesitate. The beautiful blonde woman before him offered a vision of escape, a door to a new place where he was no longer bound by the odious orders of the ruthless men who held him in indentured servitude. But the bonds that held him in that servitude raised their insidious voices, overwhelming the brief vision of freedom. He had known for a long time that he could never escape this particular trap ... because it was of his own making.
Kettler looked at the ground, scrutinizing the patina of scratches on the old marble around the fountain. "Ms. Cabot, I doubt that you mean what you say. And despite your claims, I don't think you do know who you're dealing with. I have also seen many miscarriages of justice ... and if you keep this up, you're going to be the next on the list."
Stall, Alex, stall. Alex's peripheral vision was trained on the front doors behind Kettler's shoulder, watching for Olivia. The detective was not yet out of the building ... she had to keep him talking. "You don't think I know who I'm dealing with? Mr. Kettler, I think you overestimate your abilities. We know about the Black Shadows, we know all about them and their fondness for a decommissioned drug know as T-six. We know about Rakowski, we know about Brenner, we know about you ... need I go on? Your ship is sinking, Mr. Kettler. Grab a lifeboat while you still can."
Kettler looked up sharply, "How do you know about T-six?"
Alex's voice softened just a bit. "Jack, we do this for a living. It's our job and we're good at it. You can't win. All you can do is cut your losses, and now's the time. I want you to come with me to the DA's office and turn yourself in. Talk to the DA and explain what you know. We can help you, Jack."
For a moment, the hacker's troubled eyes appeared receptive to the suggestion ... but the light of hope quickly faded. "It's too late, Ms. Cabot. Go ahead and play your hand, and I'll play mine."
Alex scrambled for a new angle. She had to keep him talking ...
Then, like an angelic apparition, a familiar, swaggering detective pushed open the front doors to 26 Federal Plaza, shrugging on her leather jacket. Despite the distance, their eyes found each other immediately. Olivia nodded minutely, signaling the success of her mission. The detective then diverted her path to her next destination.
Alex fought to suppress an expression of triumph as she returned her eyes to the unfortunate individual before her. Tearing her thoughts from Olivia, she stared at Kettler ... and realized that she was looking at a very lost and unhappy member of the human race. Recognizing the despair in his eyes, she regretted that they had been unable to reach a compromise. She tried one last time: "Jack, whatever the hold is they have on you, you don't have to do this. Come with me, turn yourself in."
Jack Kettler didn't even look up, just turned on his heel and headed back toward the majestic front doors of 26 Federal Plaza.
Olivia was observing in many directions at once as she walked away from the federal building. She kept an eye on Alex and Kettler as she walked by them. She kept her senses alert for any unwanted attention as she scanned the area for her next stop, a pre-arranged meet with one of Ringo's colleagues.
Ringo had contacted his friend and collaborator, John Byers, to meet her at this precise time by the newsstand on the corner across from 26 Federal. She'd been given a description: tall, grey suit, brown hair, beard. She found the likelihood of Ringo knowing anyone who owned (much less wore) an actual suit remote in the extreme, and was ready to entertain remote interpretations of the word as she waited for the pedestrian light to change. Olivia crossed, leaving Alex behind her in body but not in spirit.
The newsstand soon came into view ... and there beside it was a thoroughly normal-looking individual who could have passed for any of the well-dressed yuppies scurrying around her on errands of great import. Sandy hair, trimmed beard, and a small pin on his lapel displaying the obscure state crest of the state of Virginia. That was the distinguishing feature that Ringo had told her to look for.
Olivia walked up to Byers and supplied her end of the pass-phrase. "November 22, 1963."
"A date to remember. Good to meet you, Detective Benson." Byers extended his hand and Olivia shook it. Firm grasp. A hacker who can pass for a civilian ... who knew.
Olivia handed over the hard disk and nodded. She glanced back over her shoulder at Alex and Kettler. "I have to go, Mr. Byers. Thank you for your help."
Byers took the disk and departed without another word.
Olivia turned back to Alex and Kettler. The hacker was turning to leave. The detective watched as he headed back toward the front doors of the building. Her next task was to wait outside, ready to provide a tail if and when necessary.
'When necessary' turned out to be right now: Kettler bypassed the front doors and kept walking, in the direction of the subway stop two blocks away.
"Ringo, he's not going back in the building. I'm following."
Olivia kept Kettler in her sights but hung well back. As expected, the hacker headed for the stairs to the subway, and she followed.
The tiny speaker in her ear transmitted a couple of clicks, then Alex's voice appeared.
"How did it go?"
"We got it, Alex, and Mr. Byers was where he was supposed to be. I'm following Kettler into the subway, might lose you in a minute. How was the conversation?"
"Scintillating. He didn't give anything up, but I think we've got him worried."
Olivia injected a spare token from her pocket into the subway turnstile and pushed through. Kettler was about ten meters in front of her and heading for the platform to the Number One train.
"I'm heading back to the hotel. Be careful, Liv."
"You too. He's getting on the train ... later."
As expected, the connection began to fragment as Olivia entered the Faraday cage of the subway car. She was pleased to see that Kettler was absorbed in his own thoughts and paying little attention to his surroundings. He grabbed one of the vertical posts and persisted in his intense contemplation of the scuffed floor of the train.
The train rattled along, barrelling north along the western edge of Manhattan. Kettler finally looked up when they approached the City College stop. Olivia emerged behind him, through a different door, and followed him upward to street level. His path took him through a maze of streets. Where is he going?
The answer was quickly revealed when Olivia saw the pulsing flash of red and blue lights two blocks ahead. Crime scene. Four NYPD patrol cars blockaded the street, barricading the curious public from the anthill of official vehicles and individuals beyond. The jackets of the milling personnel displayed a variety of acronyms in bold, yellow letters: NYPD, ATF, FBI.
Olivia stopped at a discrete distance from the scene. Kettler walked up to one of the officers guarding the boundary and presented identification. The officer waved him through. Should I get closer? Kettler exchanged further words with the officer and was pointed toward the steps of a three-story brownstone. No, Benson, take it easy. Plenty of evidence on that hard disk, don't risk it now.
Kettler approached a tall man perched on the upper steps of the brownstone. The individual spotted Kettler quickly and took his leave of the other besuited gentlemen with which he was conversing.
Olivia watched as the unidentified Mr. X pulled Kettler around the corner of the brownstone. They spoke in heated tones. The detective had no camera at her disposal but her trained memory would serve. She noted short blonde hair, a trim mustache, the man's approximate height, the outline of his facial features. At length, Mr. X pushed Kettler roughly in the shoulder and spoke angry words. Olivia couldn't hear the words but the emotion behind them was plain.
Mr. X closed his discussion with the hacker and returned to the crime scene. Kettler turned unhappily and headed back the way he'd come. Olivia retreated into the shadows of a doorway and waited until he'd passed, then continued her tail.
Alex paced the floor of the hotel room, quarter cycling through the fingers of her left hand, mind trying hard to focus but failing utterly. Olivia was out of communication. Since Kettler was out of his office, the taps were showing nothing. Ringo was busy with his analysis of the hard disk data, rapidly uploaded to his machines over the 100-base-T ethernet in Byers' office. Alex, alone, was left with nothing to do but pace, and worry.
Alex cursed herself for the plan that she herself had designed. Olivia, please be safe. Again and again she restrained her hand from picking up the phone and calling Olivia's cell number. She could be in a tight spot, don't ring her phone just because you're a nervous wreck.
The mute, illuminated numerals on the bedside clock advanced with implacable regularity ... the phone stared at her with threatening promise ...
Like a missive from heaven, there was a knock at the door. Alex raced to the door and peered through the peephole. Her detective stood outside, leather jacket and all, and Alex yanked the door open.
"Liv ... I was so worried ..." She reached out to the detective, pulling her into the room, needing contact, needing touch to reassure herself.
Liv was grinning, her blood alive with the adrenalin of their risky operation. "We did it, Ace. Your plan worked perfectly." She placed her hands on Alex's hips as she pressed the lawyer's back against the wall just inside the door.
"Did you find out anything from the tail?" Alex draped her arms over Olivia's shoulders, her knees weak with relief. Her hand explored the dark hair.
"He went to a crime scene. FBI and ATF were both there. I didn't get too close but I saw him head straight for a man. Tall, blonde, mustache." Olivia's exploring hands worked Alex's royal-blue blouse free from her jeans as she spoke. "I've got a good description, I'll recognize him again. He pulled Kettler aside, conversation looked pretty heated. Kettler went back to his office after that."
Alex clenched her fingers in Olivia's hair, "I bet that's his contact. We scared him, and he ran to papa. I believe we've found another member of our happy little band."
"Hopefully he's the last one." The proximity of Alex's lips was becoming increasingly distracting.
"Now to find out the identity of Mr. X, and to figure out what he's up to."
"Ringo's friend has started the upload on the disk?" Olivia's hands moved to the top button of the lawyer's jeans, working it free.
"Yes, Ringo called, confirmed that the upload was in progress." Alex pulled Olivia in for a brief kiss, a brief touch of lips in between sentences.
The detective slid her hands just under the waistband, pressing against soft skin. "Anything on the taps yet?"
Alex's breath began to show signs of instability. "Nope, but they're voice activated, they'll start recording when they need to."
Olivia abandoned the conversation and turned her full attention to the woman in her hands. She pressed her lips to Alex's and sank her tongue into a welcoming haven. Both of them were fuelled by adrenalin, by the need to reconfirm life and love after a close brush with danger. Olivia's hands worked at the remaining buttons restraining the denim.
Olivia's voice dropped by several intervals, "You are magnificent, Alex ... so brilliant, so beautiful ..." Olivia's hands wandered, exploring possessively. "You take my breath away. Let me love you ... Alex ... let me love you ..."
Alex closed her eyes. God, her detective had a way with words. The low voice and beautiful words resonated in her blood. Alex's fingers threaded through soft hair, clutching at it, conveying her positive response through touch rather than words.
Hands sliding down Alex's hips, Olivia sank to her knees. Bringing her hands to the unfastened jeans, she pulled them down ... down ... and away. Dark eyes drank in the beauty revealed as she pushed the garment aside. Olivia ran her hands upward, over toned thighs. She pressed her mouth to the soft abdomen before her, tracing it with lips and tongue. Alex gasped, pressing the detective against her.
Pulling back, Olivia looked up at the ADA, seeing her through a haze. She was bewitched by the silken blonde hair, the perfect bone structure, the penetrating blue eyes. The detective rose to her feet and placed strong hands firmly behind the lawyer's thighs. "Wrap your legs around me, love."
Olivia lifted Alex easily and carried her to the massive desk, setting the lawyer down on the edge. She just looked into blue eyes for a moment, stroking the soft skin of the blonde woman's cheek, letting the anticipation build. Alex was impossibly aroused by the sensation of Olivia's strength ... by the feel of rough denim between her bare thighs ... by the love in the deep brown eyes that held her. The detective made to shrug out of her jacket, but Alex stopped her, "No, leave it on."
Olivia sank to her knees once more and brought Alex's knees to her shoulders. A posture of worship. Alex leaned back on the desk, waiting for the touch she craved. Olivia proceeded slowly, pressing only her cheek against the soft skin of the lawyer's thighs at first, then tasting the skin with her tongue, building the arousal. Alex's breath was ragged, fighting the urge to press Olivia against her.
Finally, Olivia opened Alex's center with her thumbs and sank her tongue within. Alex cried out, awash in overwhelming sensation. "Oh God, Liv ... oh God." Knowing that it was this impossibly arousing woman touching her, this woman that she loved so much ... the knowledge shot fire through her body. No experience with anyone else had ever come close. Long slow strokes ... a slow build ... Alex's body moved with her, losing herself to pure sensation.
Olivia took her time, building it up, listening for the pace of the soft cries of pleasure above her. With careful skill, she finally moved her attentions to the swollen bud of nerves that begged for contact. She sucked gently, and little time passed before the sounds above her and the overheated muscles below her spasmed in release. As Alex continued to pulse from her attentions, Olivia rose from her knees. Beautiful. Alex in a state of ecstasy was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. She passed one arm under Alex's shoulders, the other under her knees, and lifted her with easy strength. She carried her to the bed and laid her down.
As Alex drifted in the blissful haze of the retreating waves, Olivia gently removed the lawyer's blouse. Holding herself on one elbow, the detective watched the woman she loved. No painter or photographer would ever be able to capture such beauty. The brilliant woman languished in pleasure before her eyes, her magnificent body open, inviting, and centimeters away. Before Alex's haze of pleasure passed, Olivia brought her hand between Alex's parted legs, and began again.
Only tiny motions at first, barely entering her, but Alex's body caught the slow rhythm ... her hips responded, meeting the delicate movements, asking for more. Olivia gradually deepened her motion. Mesmerized, she watched Alex respond, answering every thrust with her body, her averted expression clouded by blissful sensation. She avoided any other touch, allowing Alex to focus on the one source of contact, wanting to draw it out as Alex had done for her.
Alex turned her eyes to meet the brown ones watching her. They held each others' gaze as the erotic tableau evolved in timeless perpetuity ... then eventually approached its conclusion, bringing Alex to another wave of pleasure.
Olivia was still wearing the infamous leather jacket as she held the lawyer in her arms, waiting as the woman drifted back to an earthly plane.
"Liv," Alex's voice was still tinged with the echoes of her release. "I love you so much."
"I love you too, Alex."
At length, her waking self restored, Alex smiled and fingered the leather jacket.
"I think this splendid garment has outlived its usefulness. Wouldn't you say?"
Olivia smiled back, "Who am I to argue with a lawyer?"
Alex took charge and proceeded to return the favor. Fortune smiled, and the voice-activated recorders in the outer room of the suite remained blessedly silent.
After a happy interlude of irresponsibility, Alex and Olivia admitted that their little vacation from reality had lasted long enough. Alex got dressed again and sat down at the work table with its multitude of electronic devices. She retrieved the G4 laptop Ringo had provided and hooked it up to the room's T1 line and USB printer. Olivia occupied herself with the room's coffee maker.
"What's next, Ace? Anything we can do until Ringo reports back on the hard drive contents?"
"I think we might try tracking down the mysterious Mr. X that you saw with Kettler. I'm going to call Ringo. I think he can set us up with something we can search on our own."
Alex dialed the cabin on the room's speakerphone. "Ringo, how's it going with the information from the drive?"
"Not bad, Alexis, not bad. Suspicious bastard has a lot of encrypted files here, but they're not too hard to crack ... and they show me exactly where to start looking."
"Ringo, Olivia tailed Kettler to an FBI/ATF crime scene and saw him talking to someone. Heated discussion, and she got a good look. I think this may be our next player. Any way you can let us troll through FBI personnel files so Olivia can look at some photos?"
"Yeah, I think I can set that up. Hang on a second, I've still got their database open ..."
The sound of keys tapping rapidly could be heard in the background. Olivia sat down next to the lawyer, handing her a mug of coffee.
"Alex, you've got a VNC client on that laptop I gave you. Utilities folder."
Alex clicked around with the mouse. "I see it, starting it up. Give me an IP address and a port number."
Olivia blinked at the litany of obscure acronyms. She hadn't realized that her lawyer was so proficient with computers.
Ringo recited the numbers and a large window opened on the laptop screen, displaying an inset window with the seal of the FBI imprinted on its surface. "That's their personnel database, you've got access. It's pretty easy to navigate, there's a link to an organizational chart on the left, might be the best place to start."
"Ok, Ringo, thanks. Call us back when you have anything."
"Will do." The hacker disconnected the call.
"You really are a closet nerd, aren't you, Counselor?"
Alex smiled, "Maybe. Here we go ... Where should we start looking?"
"OCD, I guess. It's Kettler's division."
Alex nodded. She hunted around the menus for a bit until she found the relevant department. "Where's Kettler?"
Olivia leaned toward the screen, scanning the entries. "There," she pointed.
"OK, let's check his colleagues, then move upward from there." They started with the other members of Kettler's team, then went a level higher to the more elevated ranks of the IT group. Photographs flashed by, but none were familiar to Olivia. At last they reached the leadership of the Organized Crime Division.
Olivia recognized the photograph at once, "There. That's him."
Alex peered at the screen, "Jason Talon, deputy director of OCD. Well, well, well. What an entangled little web we have here."
"What's the connection, Alex? Rakowski and Brenner are military, Kettler and Talon are FBI. What are they doing together?"
"I don't know." Alex retrieved a quarter from her pocket and began her familiar ritual of concentration. "But this guy could explain one of our open mysteries: the taps on our phones. He's high enough up the chain that he could have issued false orders to his minions to install the taps."
"No way to know." Olivia had a sudden thought, "Wait, there's something else we haven't explained: how they knew we'd be in Bayport, the day our brake lines were cut. Someone must have looked at the precinct's motorpool log ... the FBI have the authority to do that. Maybe it's been them all along, acting under false orders. Maybe there's never been a mole within the NYPD itself."
Alex's eyes sparkled, "Yes, excellent suggestion, Detective. That would make all sorts of sense."
Olivia grabbed for the phone, "I'm gonna call Jerry at the motorpool, he was on duty the night I reserved the car. Maybe he remembers something. He can't trace us and I doubt he knows anything that's happened. Should be safe."
Alex nodded, and Olivia dialed the main number of the 16th precinct, asking for the motorpool. She was eventually connected to Jerry Lowe, one of the shift managers.
"Hi Jerry, it's Olivia, Olivia Benson."
"Hey, Liv, how you doing?"
"Fine, Jerry. Look, I have a question for you. You remember last week, last Friday, when I came in and reserved a car?"
"Yeah, I remember."
"Did anyone stop by later and ask to look at your logs?"
The man checked his memory, "Yeah, you're right. Some guy in a suit came by. He showed FBI ID, looked ok. Did I do something wrong?"
"No, Jerry, he had authority, it's fine. Do you remember the guy's name?"
The motorpool technician thought for another moment, "No, sorry Liv, don't remember his name. He was a skinny guy, balding, if that helps."
"No problem. Thanks, Jerry. Take it easy."
Two triumphant expressions beamed as Olivia hung up the phone, "Well, there goes another piece of the puzzle. I'm glad it wasn't a cop. Maybe we can still trust the force."
"Yes, this is definitely good. We're finally detecting a boundary around our conspiracy: Rakowski, Brenner, Kettler, and Talon. Plus the Black Shadows, and some probably-innocent dupes from the FBI."
Just then, the phone rang. Alex hit the speaker button, "Yes?"
"It's Ringo. I've got something you should look at. It's a spreadsheet, buried deep in his directory structure and encrypted. Start your ssh server and feed me your IP address, I'll send it over."
Alex navigated the relevant application and read off their DHCP-assigned network address.
"Should be on your desktop. Have a look."
Alex double-clicked the file that had just appeared and Excel opened. A large multi-page spreadsheet appeared, filled with columns of numbers prefixed with dollar signs. And columns of names. "Any idea what we're looking at, Ringo?"
"The monumental idiot is so confident in his pathetic encryption algorithm that he's used real names. Have a look, they're all there: Rakowski, Brenner, Klein, Gaston, the whole bunch."
Alex and Olivia stared intently at the display, "That's a lot of money changing hands." Many of the entries were into the six-digit realm.
"And there's Talon." Olivia explained to Ringo their identification of the man Kettler had gone to meet, plus the evidence they'd obtained from Jerry at the motorpool.
"Who are these other people? Garrutti ... Feldman ... Liubov ... Marzzone ... Tarkinton ... Fabrocini ..."
Olivia's memory resonated with one of the names. "Marzzone." She looked closer at the screen. "Marzzone, A. ... OCD ... what do you bet that's Angelo Marzzone, head of the Marzzone family."
Alex leaned back abruptly, her eyes flashing with sudden insight.
The numbers on the spreadsheet drifted, then melded into a discernible pattern ... the pieces of the puzzle they had collected coagulated at last, solidifying into a construction that explained everything.
"I think I know what they're doing."
Part Four, Chapter Two
Alex's eyes shone from a distance. "Hitmen, that's what they're doing. They're hiring out contract killers."
Alex stood abruptly and began pacing, concentration evident on every feature. "I bet if we look further into the background of Rakowski, Brenner, and Talon, we'll find a personal connection. Rakowski has the means to supply the ultimate assassins: fearless, experienced in combat, heightened reflexes. He knows Talon, somehow, maybe through Brenner ... and the connection to OCD provides him with a client list. Plus the resources of Mr. Kettler. Kettler indicated during his conversation that they have some hold over him. Maybe an old hacker offense, or something else. It's not a military conspiracy at all, just a good old-fashioned illegal operation with the oldest motive in the book: money."
"Alexis, damn ... that makes perfect sense." Ringo's glee radiated over the phone, "And now, crazy broads, how do we nail them?"
Alex continued to pace, the quarter moving automatically through her fingers. "It's getting close to time to call in our friends and bring the system back into this. What we need to do is set things up so that they can obtain legal evidence that'll nail these bastards." Alex paced some more. "Let's wait a bit. Ringo, keep at that hard drive. We'll see what we can do to identify the other names on the spreadsheet. And Kettler should still be at work, there's a chance the phone tap might give us something."
"Roger, wilco. I'll stay on the line in case you need me to send anything else over VNC."
The team set to with a will, hunting through databases. One after another, the unidentified names on Kettler's spreadsheet yielded connections to organized crime. Alex and Olivia also began mapping out the flow of money described by the spreadsheet. A clear pattern emerged: The payments first went from the clients to Brenner, then were disbursed to Rakowski, Talon, and Kettler, and in smaller amounts to the members of Black Shadow.
"Brenner is their front man. I'll bet you that's why he retired to private practice."
The lawyer and detective were immersed in their scrutiny of the printed spreadsheet when one of the voice-activated receivers on the other side of the table clicked on. They fell silent immediately. Olivia scribbled a note on the pad of paper in front of them. It's the phone tap. Alex nodded.
"Hello," said a brusque voice.
Kettler's nervous voice filled the room, "I think we're in trouble, General. That Cabot woman came to see me today at my office. Talon wants to go ahead but I think we should cancel the meet."
Rakowski's anger was clear, "What did you tell her?"
"Nothing, I didn't tell her anything. But they're on to us. We should close this down."
"Listen, you snivelling insect, you don't tell me what to do. You say one word to anyone and you'll find yourself at the bottom of the Hudson, do you understand?"
Kettler's frightened voice replied, "Yes sir." The man swallowed audibly. "Has the location been chosen yet?"
"The McTavish warehouse next to Hudson River Park. If you're not there, you'll spend the remainder of your hours on this earth praying you'd never been born, understand?"
Rakowski slammed down the phone in fury.
Alex and Olivia looked at each other with predatory intent.
"So there's a meet," said Alex. "I believe it is time to call in our friends and haul these shadows into the light of day."
Alex glanced at her watch. Just before five. She picked up the Nokia and dialed Munch's number at the precinct from memory.
"Munch, Manhattan SVU."
"John, I am an anonymous informant calling in with an anonymous tip. Take a breath and say 'Sir, I understand'."
There was a pause, then a breath, then the sentence was dutifully uttered.
"Great job, John. Do you have a pencil and paper handy?"
"Good. John, we know what's going on and we need your help."
"Go ahead, sir." Munch was on board and Alex grinned.
"Your anonymous informant has evidence that a nefarious group of individuals is engaged in the practice of supplying contract killers for hire to members of the underworld. I'm going to fax you a copy of a spreadsheet that shows the disbursement of payments among the four members of this group, the hired hitmen, and a number of other names that we believe to be their clients. The four ringleaders are Counselor Michael Brenner, General Walter Rakowski, whom you already know, plus Jack Kettler and Jason Talon, both members of the FBI's Organized Crime Division. Check into those other names, we've identified four so far that are underworld kingpins. We also have the time and location of a meet: tomorrow night, 10 pm, at a 'McTavish warehouse' near Hudson River Park."
Munch was scribbling furiously.
"Give it all to Cragen, John, and see if you can set up a raid. These men are armed and very dangerous, try to get SWAT support. And we need admissible evidence against them. Try to get the place bugged well in advance, don't move in until you get something we can use. I'm sure it's one of those old abandoned warehouses that hasn't been torn down yet by the renovation project, so gaining entry shouldn't be a problem."
"Is there some way I can contact you again, sir?"
"Yes, use this cell number." Alex read off the untraceable number from the Nokia. "If we don't hear from you, we'll be at ..."
Alex turned to Olivia, who searched her memory. "Tell him Pier 25. It's close by and there's a snack shop we've both been to."
"John, another anonymous informant says there's a snack shop at Pier 25 you'll remember. We'll meet you there at 9 pm tomorrow."
"Sir, I do understand that. But we'll keep your identity confidential, are you sure you won't give me some way to contact you again?"
Alex grinned broadly, "That's very cute, John. You should have been an actor. We're sending the fax to the Kinko's just across the street from the precinct."
"If you insist, sir."
"We'll see you tomorrow. And good luck." Alex hung up the phone. Next Alex located the Kinko's number and phoned them for their fax number. Alex attached an RJ-11 cable from the data port on the room's phone to the back of the laptop. She was about to transmit the spreadsheet directly to the remote fax machine when the room phone rang.
Olivia hit the speakerphone button, "Yes?"
"Cutie, you know your pal Stabler? I think I can clear him. This clown hasn't even bothered to clear his network logs. I think I've got him on two out of three counts of record tampering. Give me some timestamps: when did you visit Rakowski, and when was Stabler suspended?"
Olivia racked her memory, "We visited Rakowski last week, Thursday, just before lunchtime. Then Elliot got canned by Cragen on Friday afternoon."
Ringo snickered, "Dumb bastard. His network logs show a connection to the Pentagon records office last Thursday afternoon, around 2 pm. An FBI geek accessing Pentagon records? If he had some OCD reason to do that I'd love to hear it. Plus I see a connection to CitiBank. Timestamp is the weekend before last, before Brenner appeared as Klein's counsel. The connection is to an IP address that's heavily locked by bank security. No way should he have been there."
Alex was grinning in delight. "Ringo, you are Elite, buddy, Elite. Send me that log, I'm gonna fax it over to Munch along with the spreadsheet."
"Here it comes." Ringo's matching grin transmitted clearly over the phone line. "Alexis, we've got 'em ... you too, hottie cop. Eat this, assholes!"
All three were grinning like maniacs when Alex disconnected the call. She picked up the phone and dialed Munch's number again, hoping he'd still be there.
"Hi John. It's your sister."
"Hey, Sylvia! What's up? How are those hydrangeas doing? How are the kids?"
"The kids have additional anonymous evidence: a log file from Mr. Jack Kettler's computer displaying some fascinating network connections. One is to the Pentagon's record office and is timestamped shortly after Elliot and Olivia went to interview Rakowski. The other one is a highly-illegal connection to CitiBank, dated just before the mysterious Counselor Brenner appeared and presented his damaging exhibits on Rosa Zacharias. I'm including the log in the fax."
"Great to hear Joanie won that spelling bee! I'll call you later after you pick up Trudy from ballet class, you can tell me all about it."
"You bet, John. Looking forward to it." Alex hung up. That man was a prize.
Within two hours, one of the Nokias rang and Olivia picked up, "Yes?"
Munch recognized his squadmate's voice immediately. "Olivia, thank God you guys are alright. We got a call Saturday night about the gunshots in Alex's apartment building. We went over there and the place looked like Beirut on a bad day. We feared the worst ... thank God you guys made it out."
"We're fine, John, and thanks for your concern."
"He went into hiding with his family. We have a connection to him over a prepaid cell, untraceable. How did it go with Cragen?"
"I think we're good. I got your fax and showed everything to Cragen. A SWAT team is being scheduled for tomorrow night. We located the McTavish warehouse, the tech crew will be setting up bugs and cameras tomorrow morning. I tell you, Cragen was mightily pissed when he saw that military logfile access you sent over. You'd have enjoyed the fireworks. Elliot is reinstated. If you can contact him, I bet he'd love to join this little party."
Olivia smiled in genuine happiness. "That is exactly what we hoped. You bet I'll call him. You remember that snack shop at Pier 25? We'll meet you there tomorrow night, 9 pm, ok?"
"Yep." Munch paused, "You be careful, Benson, you hear me?"
Olivia smiled, "As always, Munch. And you too."
Olivia next called Elliot's cell, the third of the Nokias.
"Elliot, buddy, how are you doing?"
"Good. We're comfortable here, well out of the city. How's it going on your end?"
"Elliot, I think we're about to nail these bastards." Olivia proceeded to explain everything that had happened in the last tumultuous days. She concluded with a description of the network logs Ringo had retrieved, and reported on Munch's conversation with Cragen. "You're reinstated, buddy. Leave Kathy and the kids where they are, but what say you come and join us to kick some record-tampering ass?"
"Wouldn't miss it for the world, Liv. I'll be there."
Olivia transmitted the address of the Hyatt and their room number, concluding with a description of the time and place of the meet. "We'll be leaving here around 8:30, can you make it by then?"
"You bet I can. See you tomorrow."
Saturday's daylight hours passed without incident. Alex, Olivia, and Ringo rechecked their plans and thoughts over the room's speakerphone, but no further insights were forthcoming.
Around 7:30 pm, there was a bold knock at the door. Olivia grabbed her loaded Glock from the counter and went to the peephole. Her wary expression changed to a grin of genuine happiness when she spotted her partner, and she yanked the door open.
"Elliot, damn, it's good to see you." The partners embraced with a fierce hug.
Elliot's patented grin was equally broad, "So you guys have a suspect?"
Alex smiled and rose from her post at the laptop. "We have four-plus suspects, Elliot. They're all going down, and this is going to be an operation for the history books."
Elliot's embraced the ADA as well. "It's good to see you, Alex."
As he sat down, he clapped his hands together. "Ok, kids, what's the plan."
There wasn't much time, but Alex and Olivia brought Elliot up to speed as quickly as they could. The clock on the wall advanced at its implacable pace. Very soon, it was time for them to leave.
Olivia, Alex, and Elliot arrived in the vicinity of the Pier 25 snack shop at the same time as Munch. They didn't even step inside, just huddled together in the shadows.
"We're all set up. SWAT is on the scene, and we have a tech van with surveillance in place, all concealed."
"Take us there, John," said Olivia. "These bastards have screwed with us long enough. Let's get 'em."
Munch led them from Pier 25 beyond the ongoing renovation of Hudson River Park and into the dark warren of old dockside warehouses, abandoned and left to their slow decline for many years. An unmarked white van was parked on an isolated and barely-illuminated street. He quietly knocked a staccato code of prearranged sequence on the back door. The doors opened, revealing an interior crammed with two technicians, a bank of television monitors, and other surveillance equipment.
Munch spoke quietly, "Gus, Paul. I believe you've met Detective Benson here, and this is ADA Alex Cabot."
The technicians nodded in greeting.
"How's it going?"
"Everything's set up. We have plenty of audio in the warehouse and some cameras. The place is around the corner and a block down the road. We've got a camera watching the exterior."
Olivia couldn't help approaching the corner and looking cautiously around it at the old building in question. Large painted letters, peeling and faded with age, proclaimed its once-proud owners: 'McTavish and Sons'. The place was in absolute darkness and its windows were boarded over.
The technician continued, "The SWAT team has assembled in the warehouse right beside us. They're waiting for you."
The three detectives and the ADA proceeded to the indicated building. Its windows were bricked over ... good location, no light could leak through to the outside. They entered as quietly as possible and headed for a door off to the side beneath which a sliver of light emerged.
The SWAT team was gathered around a table, discussing their plan in subdued tones over an architectural sketch of the warehouse. Fin was there as well, and looked up with a smile when he saw the quartet arrive.
"Liv, Alex, great to see you. We saw your place, Alex. Man, that was messed up. Looked like a war zone."
Elliot glanced at the assembled SWAT team, "Only four guys?"
"That's all Cragen could get us. The perps don't know we're here, should be enough."
"So what's the plan?"
Munch took over, "Basically, we wait til they show up, then listen to their conversation until they say something we can nail them with. Then we go in. Alex, you should stay in the van, tell us when we've got something we can use."
Alex nodded, "Right."
"And Olivia, we need someone to coordinate the op from the surveillance van. Figured it should be you since you know more about this case than any of us."
Olivia also nodded, accepting the logic, though she was itching to join the action. "Ok. Then Alex and I will head back to the van and familiarize ourselves with their setup." Before heading back to the van, Olivia introduced herself to the leader of the SWAT team and listened to a brief exposition of his strategic thoughts. They agreed on the initial placement of his men, concealed in the shadows across from the warehouse. It was 9:20 and they needed to get into position soon, well before the conspirators arrived.
Olivia listened to Gus explain their setup as he pointed out the various cameras they had in place. One allowed them to view the outside of the warehouse without leaving the hidden confines of the van while the others were placed within the old building. All were equipped with sufficient amplification and digital image-processing to defeat the dim illumination, and they could see the cavernous, mostly featureless interior of the warehouse clearly. Headphones in place, Olivia checked communications with each of the SWAT team members and with her squadmates.
"Ok, we're ready. Nothing to do but wait. Let's hope this works."
The minutes ticked by. 9:35 ... 9:40 ... 9:45 ... Olivia and the police technicians were accustomed to such long periods of vigilant inactivity from many stakeouts, but Alex was restless. "Where are they?" she muttered.
"Just wait. They'll show."
At 9:52, the exterior camera showed two men in 3/4-length leather coats walking casually toward the warehouse. "There," Olivia said in a low voice. The van was well shielded for sound, but it was natural to take precautions. The men were trying to look casual but it was clear that they were not out for an evening stroll: their eyes swept the darkened street, back and forth, with wary vigilance. The men took up positions on either side of the front door to the McTavish warehouse. They held their positions, eyes scanning continuously for danger. After a full three minutes, one of them retrieved a radio from his pocket and spoke quietly. Olivia reported in a quiet voice over her miked headset: "Two lookouts, either side of the front door. They've just signalled by radio. Heads up."
Another minute passed, then a black Lincoln drove slowly into the street. It stopped at the warehouse entrance. Two men emerged, one from the passenger seat and one from the back. These two scanned the street as warily as their comrades but didn't bother to conceal their weapons: Tec-9 machine pistols. Shit. The SWAT team's Colt M4 assault rifles should be able to handle them, though, with a similar rate of fire and greater accuracy.
Apparently reassured that the street was quiet, one of the bodyguards opened the back door of the Lincoln. A portly older gentleman sporting a fedora emerged, supporting himself with a cane. The bodyguard assisted the older man to his feet and took his briefcase, then he and his companion ushered their charge into the warehouse. The lookouts remained at their posts and the driver of the Lincoln remained behind the wheel, though he turned off the car's motor. A second sedan arrived shortly. It parked in front of the first one and disgorged three more well-dressed individuals, driver included, who entered the warehouse together.
After another minute, a dark blue BMW approached and pulled up behind the Lincoln. There was no fanfare this time. The doors simply opened and three familiar characters emerged: Jason Talon from the driver's side, Walter Rakowski from the passenger's side, and the unhappy figure of Jack Kettler from the back seat, bearing a briefcase. Talon and Rakowski ignored the lookouts as they strode into the warehouse, with Kettler following behind.
Olivia tabulated the odds: not great, but not overwhelming. She reported to the police team over her headset, "Five combatants and four principals inside, two of them probably not a threat. Plus the two lookouts at the door and the driver in the black Lincoln."
The interior cameras revealed that the gentleman in the hat, whom she mentally labelled 'The Godfather', had seated himself at a table. Besides a profusion of packing crates, the table and its attendant chairs were the only pieces of furniture left in the old warehouse. His five bodyguards had arranged themselves strategically: two behind him, two in the far corners of the room ... and one out of view of the cameras. Damn, damn ... where is he? When Talon and Rakowski entered they took the seats at the table opposite.
Olivia reported over her headset, "They're at the table in the middle of the room." The SWAT team had surveyed the area beforehand and knew the precise layout of the space. "Talon, Rakowski, and our Godfather are sitting down. Kettler is standing next to them. Two minders right behind the Godfather, two in the far back corners, but one of them I can't see. Might be by the door."
Alex grabbed a set of headphones, waiting for the conversation to start.
Rakowski spoke first, "I trust all is well with you, Mr. Fabrocini."
The Godfather replied with a heavy accent, "Yes, yes. Now down to business. I need a team of three or four to help me with some of my ... associates."
Talon: "Do you have the details of the operation you have in mind?"
Fabrocini motioned to one of his bodyguards, who laid the briefcase on the table and retrieved a manila envelope. Olivia, Alex, and the police technicians watched intently on the TV monitors.
Talon took the envelope and retrieved its contents. He paged through a series of photographs. "That's five targets, not an easy operation. It'll cost you extra."
Fabrocini's eyes narrowed, "I expected so. But I will pay your price. The Carpettas murdered my nephew and they will pay for it. I want them dead, all of them. Name your price."
Alex snatched off the headphones, "We've got it, tell them to go."
Olivia spoke rapidly into her microphone, "We are a go, we have it. Take out the two lookouts and the driver, then go in. Watch for the missing man, I still can't see him on the monitors."
Olivia heard the answering command from the SWAT team leader, followed by the screamed order, "Police, freeze! Drop your weapons!" The lookouts did nothing of the sort and snapped their sidearms to bear. Gunfire exploded outside the van. Olivia stared at the monitors, trying to see everything at once. The SWAT team was well-trained and well-positioned and the two lookouts at the front doors were quickly felled. The driver was stupid enough to emerge and return fire, and he was speedily dispatched as well. The team and her three squadmates rushed for the front door. Inside the warehouse, revealed by the hidden cameras, one of the bodyguards dragged Fabrocini backwards, behind the safety of one of the innumerable stacks of packing crates. Olivia focused on the movements of the other heavily-armed bodyguards, who took cover as well. "They've taken cover, be careful dammit. You've got two center-right, one far-right and one far-left. And I still can't see number five." She realized she'd lost track of Rakowski and Talon. "Two principals also unaccounted for. Watch it."
Olivia was itching to join them but knew someone had to coordinate. The first SWAT member through the door dove for cover to his left as one of the Tec-9's fired directly at his position. The team leader yelled over the radio. "Give cover, Jackson, give cover. The rest of you, don't bunch up in the fucking doorway or they'll nail us like fucking bowling pins."
Employing careful tactical manoeuvers, all seven cops eventually made it through the door and behind cover. One team member had been hit in the arm and was down, unable to operate his weapon, but one of his comrades dragged him to cover and held their position. Then missing gunman number five appeared without warning near the doorway, firing indiscriminately at the officers who had taken insufficient refuge within his line of sight. Another officer fell and the rest backed into further cover, retreating into the far-left corner of the warehouse.
Elliot yelled over the radio, "Liv, we're cut off. We're covered but we're cut off from the door and we have two men down. Call for backup, call for backup." Olivia grabbed the police-band radio, "Ten-thirteen, ten-thirteen, officers under heavy fire, all units near Hudson River Park respond." Olivia reported their location as precisely as she could. The impulse to race into the building to help her colleagues was overwhelming ...
Olivia was pulling the Glock from its holster when Alex grabbed her arm and pointed at the exterior monitor. "Liv, it's Talon! Look, he's leaving!" Liv snapped her focus to the monitor and indeed saw Talon's blonde figure racing out of the warehouse through a side door. There had been no side door in the plans ... how had they missed it? But it was on the back-right side of the building, it wouldn't help her comrades trapped in the opposite corner. Olivia was torn with the choices presented. Go after him? Go through the door and try to take on their adversaries from behind?
Her decision was made for her when Alex bolted from the van in the direction of Talon's retreating figure. What the hell is she doing!?
Olivia ripped off the headset and threw it at Gus. "Tell Stabler and the others to stay down, and tell the reinforcements to hit that side door when they get here."
Olivia leapt from the van and sped off after Alex, ready to tackle the woman and knock her out if she had to. Talon raced into the darkness behind the warehouse, navigating his way through alleyways covered with ancient debris. Alex was still ahead of her when she saw Talon yank open the door to another abandoned building.
Alex was through the door just as Olivia caught up to her. The detective followed and immediately pinned Alex against the wall with her body, pressing her hand across her mouth. She felt Alex's resistance but held on, immobilizing and silencing the ADA. She turned her head to listen to the sounds of the building. Racing footsteps reached a landing above and turned, to the left. A door opened above them. Then muted voices raised in argument ... more than one voice ... three, in total.
Olivia listened for another minute. The voices grew quieter but they were still there. Finally, Olivia looked up at the woman trapped in her arms. Fierce blue eyes blazed at her with indignation. Before she released Alex, Olivia pressed her mouth close to the lawyer's ear and whispered, her voice barely audible, "Have you ever heard of a quaint concept called 'backup'?" Olivia returned her gaze to the lawyer's, cautioning her with her eyes to keep still. She released her grip.
Alex's eyes were still on fire, but she fought for calm. She pressed her ear to the detective's, "Liv, the others are pinned down and we can't lose him now. He may be gone by the time backup arrives."
Olivia looked at her, wanting very badly to object. But the ADA was right. It was time to get this guy and take their lives back. The detective nodded once. She whispered again in Alex's ear, "There are at least three of them up there, behind a closed door. You stay behind me, do you understand?"
Alex nodded, her expression a mask.
Motioning Alex behind her, Olivia began to mount the stairs. She listened for any change in the muted conversation above them.
When they reached the upper level, they approached the door behind which the voices could be heard, louder now. Olivia waited again. She only heard two voices now, but they were still there.
Now or never. Olivia regretted that she'd not had the time to train Alex in the skills of armed engagement: checking your blindspots, identifying good cover, anticipating an opponent's moves. The lawyer's presence of mind, tactical brilliance, and sang-froid under pressure made her a natural for crisis situations. She would have been good at this. Hell ... she's good at anything she puts her mind to.
No time now. Olivia drew back from the door and whispered almost inaudibly in Alex's ear, "Alex, listen to me and do what I say. The door opens inwards but it's a fire door, steel. When I go through, you hold it open, barely, just a crack. Stay well back and completely covered by the steel. Got it?" Alex nodded. Olivia continued: "When you hear me call your name, I'll be telling you where the best cover is. Right after you hear my voice, you'll hear me firing, to force the rest of them to duck. Then and only then do you come in. You head straight for cover. Whatever it is, stay behind it with as much of your body as you can, like a foxhole in Normandy. Just stay there and give me fire support. Shoot anything that moves but aim, and watch your ammo. And if you hear me say 'cover me', that means start firing at anything, just to keep them down so I can move locations. But don't waste your ammo: lay down suppressing shots about once per second until I've reached cover again. If you need me to do the same for you, just yell it out as loud as you can, I'll know your location from your voice. Do you understand?" Alex's quick mind appreciated all this perfectly and she nodded.
"When are you going to come in?"
"After I hear you call my name, describe cover, and start firing."
Despite the utter recklessness of this idiotic plan, Olivia couldn't help a grin and a shake of her head. Lordy, lord ... where angels fear to tread and all that. We're all nuts. "Ok, Ace, let's do it."
Olivia approached the door and placed her hand on the doorknob. She waited, listening. Voices raised in dispute, all some distance into the room. Must be a big room, those voices are meters away. Again she could hear three voices, but that was no guarantee that there were only three men in the room. Olivia dropped to a squat: people naturally scanned their surroundings at eye level, it was always wise to enter a hostile environment either above or below the natural line of sight. When she had been listening from her vantage point at the bottom of the stairs, she had not heard the door squeak or make any other disruptive sound when it was opened, she'd only heard the click of the latch.
So here we go.
Olivia slowly turned the doorknob and pushed the steel door open minutely. The voices became clearer immediately and Olivia fixed their locations on her mental map. Center-left, range 35 meters. This is one shit of a big room ...
"We're leaving now, Gaston. You follow my orders, and I don't give a shit how much you're gonna miss your fucking paycheck. Grab your gear or leave it, I don't care, but we are out of here."
Gaston. Hello. "But sir, we can take 'em." The unseen man's voice was strained, "There's not that many out there, there's four of us here, we can take 'em easily." Four ... oh shit ...
Olivia eased further through the doorway, maintaining her crouch. She finally got a good glimpse of the room. Machine shop, big one.
"Shut the fuck up, Gaston! I'm your commanding officer, and I'm telling you that we are leaving."
Olivia slid away from the door, taking partial cover behind a drill press. She was gratified to see Alex doing exactly as she had instructed, keeping the door open but only by a centimeter. The strain and anger in Gaston's voice was growing: "Sir, you are not my commanding officer. My men and I are staying." That's it, boys, just keep bickering.
From her partially-shielded location, Olivia rapidly scanned the area. The room was enormous. It was clearly a high-bay area for heavy-equipment work: she spotted a crane suspended from massive rails mounted on the exposed beams of the vaulted roof, which was at least 15 meters above her. She checked the positions of the men, the machine stations, and the scattered work benches. Talon and Gaston were about 25 meters away now, she could just barely see the tops of their heads. She spotted a fragment of another figure to their right, range 15 meters. Gaston had said 'four'. He probably did not mean to include Talon, only his Black Shadow buddies ... which meant there were two others that she couldn't see yet. Too late now. Scan for cover. To her left, five meters to the left of the door and only three meters in front of it, was a massive milling machine. Nothing could get through that mass of steel. It was a bit far back from their targets, but it was a good spot for suppressing fire. Before she called Alex forward, Olivia adjusted her own position, moving further into the room to the right, quiet as a cat, remaining crouched and concealed behind the machine tools. Advancing further, she saw a vast open area beyond the next row of tooling stations. She realized that the work stations were arranged in a semi-circle around it. High-bay area, right beneath the crane. The central space was unoccupied, except for a big forklift parked in the middle.
Olivia had reached the edge of the machines' cover and could go no further. Still no sign of Black Shadows 3 and 4, but number 2 was very close now, less than 10 meters away. Easy hit. Take him down first while you have the chance. Olivia eased her body and her gun into position, sighting on Black Shadow 2, aiming at his head. It was an easy and lethal shot at this range. Here we go. She took three deep breaths, feeling herself calm further with each one. She visualized the sequence of events she had in mind, then took one last inhale.
On the exhale she fired, twice. Black Shadow 2 dropped like a stone. Olivia stood up and aimed for Talon and Gaston while spare neurons scanned for the other two. Gaston's response was unbelievably fast, she'd never seen anything like it. By the time she'd reached her full height and readjusted her aim, he had already dragged Talon halfway to the sheltering semi-circle of machine stations.
Olivia fired four shots at them but they were too far away and moving too fast. When they reached cover the detective yelled: "Alex, now, milling machine five meters to your left. Two bogies to your left, they have cover ... two more unidentified." Olivia fired five times more at the retreating targets, her shots spaced by a full second apiece.
That should do it, she should be in position. The detective had no time to see whether her instructions had been followed. She had to keep after Gaston and Talon, and the next source of cover that would bring her in range was the forklift. It was 30 meters away ... 30 meters of completely open space. Be there, Alex. Placing her faith in the unfailing competence of the ADA she yelled again: "Alex, forklift, cover me." Without a second thought, she sprinted from the cover of her current location and raced for the back side of the forklift. She was gratified but not surprised to hear the answering fire, originating from behind the milling machine and directed to its left.
Olivia slid into position behind the forklift like a base runner ... and to her horror encountered Black Shadow 3 standing behind the machine, right in her path. Time went to slow motion. Still sliding across the worn tiles under her own momentum, she tried to bring up the Glock and stop her forward motion at the same time. Shit, shit, shit ... aim, Benson, aim. She watched the ex-marine respond to her sudden presence with terrifying speed. Two guns came up at the same time, snapped into position at the same time, and fired at the same time.
By the grace of God, one hit and one missed.
The marine recoiled from the hit of the big Glock hollow-point fired at close range as it transferred its momentum to his chest. But he didn't drop. Like a machine, he swung back onto target. In growing horror, Olivia fired again and again from her supine position. It took four more bullets to bring him down. Finally, perforated like a bleeding effigy, he dropped to his knees and collapsed. God almighty, what are these people on?
Talon, Gaston ... Alex ... move. Olivia was just bringing back her left elbow to leverage her way to a standing position when her luck ran out completely.
The missing fourth marine appeared as if by dark magic just beyond the far end of the forklift's protective shadow. Olivia snapped the Glock back onto target and fired one-handed ... and missed.
The slide racked back and held with a sickening click. Empty.
The marine looked at her with no expression whatsoever and raised his sidearm.
The man's head exploded in front of her eyes, a spray of blood and tissue erupting in a jet from the left side of his face. His blank expression never changed as he dropped to the ground.
Alex had spotted the marine as he emerged from the semi-circular nest of machine tools and ran toward the forklift to assist his squadmate. Liv. Operating on pure instinct, functioning like a machine herself, she tracked his motion and fired as soon as his head held still for a second in her sights. She saw him drop to the ground, then she sank behind the protective cover of the massive milling machine.
Alex knew it was stupid to betray her position, but she had to know. "Liv!" she called out, "Liv, are you ok?"
She knew her clip was down to one or two rounds at most and she took the opportunity to swap it out for another. A distant and presently-irrelevant part of her mind marvelled at the fact that her hands were rock-steady.
"Fine. Alex, get out of there. There are two more. They're to your left. Move."
Despite the dire situation, Alex sighed in relief at the sound of Olivia's voice. Slapping the new clip into place, she scanned her surroundings, looking for a new source of cover and listening for any approaching sound. The distant gun battle between Elliot and his crew and the mobsters could be heard in the distance ... but closer to hand, she heard nothing but a drip of water from some unidentified location.
Alex rose to a crouch and made her way to her right, back toward the door and away from the suspected location of their remaining adversaries. She kept her eyes fixed to the left, watching for any indication of an enemy's approach. She glanced over her shoulder, spotting a possible new source of cover: a lathe near the corner of the room. She returned her focus to the left and retreated, as slowly as she dared.
A heavy hand grabbed Alex's shoulder from behind. Alex turned in utter shock and tried to bring the Beretta to bear. A powerful fist slammed into her face and the lights went out.
From her position behind the corner of the forklift, Olivia saw the whole thing. Gaston rose like a ghost from the machines and punched downward. A second later, he had dragged the dazed attorney to a nearby standpipe in the corner of the room. Pulling handcuffs from his belt, he secured the ADA's left wrist to the vertical pipe. Olivia had swapped in another clip, but the two were too close together and too far away to risk a shot.
Benson, you stupid, stupid, stupid bitch, why did you let her join this insane operation? Arguments surfaced: 'cause you can't let her out of your sight, that's why ...
Gaston smiled and ran his hand possessively through blonde hair. "Detective!" he called out, "You watching this? I've got your little girlfriend ... whatcha gonna do about it?" He kept his body close behind Alex's limp form, knowing his opponent would never risk such a dangerous shot.
You need to get the upper hand ... provoke him.
Olivia shouted back: "Hey asshole, I like the nose job. Looks good on you." T-six ... psychotic breaks ... could use one right about now.
Gaston's expression turned black. "You fucking bitch." He drew a knife from his belt and pressed it to Alex's throat. "Come out right now with your hands up. I want to see your gun and I want to see you drop it at my feet. Understand, bitch? Or your little friend is gone. You hear me?"
Guess the psychotic break was not a good idea.
Olivia rose and emerged from cover, holding up her hands with the Glock held in her right hand in an unthreatening, inverted position. She refused to look at Alex, or think about how close the K-bar blade was to the blood sustaining the life she held most dear. "Gaston, let her go. This is between you and me."
Gaston's wild eyes flashed in triumph.
No, Benson, wrong strategy ... don't play his game ... provoke him ... provoke him and get his attention away from Alex.
Olivia pushed Alex out of her mind and summoned every ounce of vitriol she had at her disposal ... which amounted to a considerable stash, given the circumstances.
"You're a pathetic excuse for a man, Gaston. You look like a fucking raccoon with that broken nose." Olivia strode toward the marine, firing off one insult after another. "You think you can do better this time? Fat fucking chance, asshole. You need a gun to take me down? I sure as hell don't." Still advancing on him, she tossed the Glock to the floor. "Need a gun? Need a knife? Need a woman to hide behind? Come and get me, you fucking worm."
That did it. Gaston dropped the knife to the floor and roared in fury. He launched at Olivia like a madman ... which was exactly what she'd hoped. The uncoordinated attack was easy to anticipate and counter. His momentum was predictable and she had no trouble stepping aside at the last moment, leaving only her bent knee in his path to send him to the ground.
Olivia fully expected Gaston to fall like a ton of bricks and she was ready with the followup ... but he didn't. To her astonishment and discomfiture, he shifted his weight at the last moment. He threw a straight-arm punch right at her face and she barely evaded it in time. Olivia retreated a couple of paces. Heightened reflexes ... damn. Sutherland wasn't kidding ...
Clamping down hard on the cold fingers of fear that chilled the edge of her awareness, she and Gaston stalked each other ... evaluating, circling, seeking an advantage. His eyes were wild but he saw everything. Liv, don't underestimate him again. Just watch and wait for an opening. This was real fighting, not like in the movies, none of this business of filling up 70 mm film with two guys gradually pummelling each other into submission over an extended period of many minutes. In street fighting, every strike was intended to maim and disable, to injure as severely as possible. The fight would be over the first time one of them landed a solid hit. Her teacher had always told her to watch her opponent's eyes and it was good advice that had served her well. An attack was always prefaced by a flicker of intent, and with enough practice, it was enough warning to enable you to respond. She watched Gaston, his eyes wild and staring, and she waited for a signal.
There was no signal, nothing. He just launched a vicious kick directly at her face with no warning at all. Olivia barely managed to deflect it, taking the hit on her shoulder at a glancing angle. The man was incredibly fast, he seemed to go from a ready stance to an attack without even the time for thought. This is not good ... The whispers of fear rose in volume.
Benson, think. Olivia only remembered one person who had been this fast, and this inscrutable: daskalos. Although her teacher had trained her to observe and anticipate the customary reactions of ordinary mortals, she herself had never betrayed any of those weaknesses during their sparring sessions. At last, confidence began to return with memory. I trained with better than you, Gaston. All the drugs in the world can't match that.
The old feeling of skill began to return, remembered from the age of eighteen when she was at the height of her expertise. She remembered a state of pure reaction, reaction mediated entirely by a trained body and trained reactions faster than thought. Without anticipation, Olivia stepped in with her right foot and shot a straight-fingered hand directly at Gaston's eyes with blinding speed. He deflected, but only by a centimeter. He countered with a reflex, a counter-punch, but her body was waiting for it and was long gone by the time his fist entered her space. She seized on the possibility, attempting to secure his wrist against hers and smash the elbow with her other arm. But he was too fast and evaded the manoeuver. Again they backed off and circled each other warily.
No thought. Olivia stepped in close, turning, and sent an elbow smash directly at Gaston's already-broken nose, placing the entire angular momentum of her twisting body behind it. He deflected just in time, but the elbow caught him on the temple. It stunned him just long enough that Olivia was able to follow through, delivering a vicious blow to his throat.
Gaston nearly went down, but unbelievably he still managed a response, an awkward but still-powerful blow to her ribs. Olivia staggered backward under the momentum and lost her footing when her feet encountered a coil of electrical cable behind her.
Gaston had his left hand to his throat and was turning red from lack of air. But his right hand went behind him, reaching for something. Olivia assumed the worst, throwing knife. She hauled herself to the edge of the worktable behind her, hunting for any object that would serve as a projectile weapon. There, knife. She lunged at the object, reaching onto the table with her right arm.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw a figure emerge from nowhere, right next to her. Talon! Where did he ... Before the thought was completed, a heavy metal pipe smashed down on her extended arm.
The world contracted to a red sphere of pain, agony searing from her broken arm to every fiber of her body. Distantly, she heard the hoarse cry that was torn from her throat. There was nothing but pain ... she sank to the floor, trying to hold her arm and not hold it at the same time ... there was nothing but pain, and nothing mattered but to make it stop, make it stop, make it stop ...
Survival instinct summoned the stern voice of her old teacher from memory.
The detective fought like a wild animal against the overwhelming agony, trying to bring it under control. She opened eyes glazed with pain, struggling to control her breathing. Her mind resurrected brutal lessons in self-control from the quiet loft of two decades ago. Exercises where her mentor had trained her to hold the bent-leg Horse Stance, fundamental to all the martial arts, for twenty minutes at a time. The lactic acid burn was almost unbearable after five minutes. To continue beyond that forced her to a new level of mental discipline. Her mind eventually figured it out from necessity: how to achieve a concentration so absolute that the signals from her body were intercepted before they were interpreted as pain. She had learned to perceive them impassively, simply as information, to be acted upon or discarded.
Once again, dire necessity was the catalyst, and it brought back forgotten skills.
Olivia, meditate until you feel nothing but your own energy, nothing can distract you.
Olivia's new assailant glared at her with venom and tossed the metal pipe onto the worktable. Talon muttered as he turned to Gaston, "Want anything done, you have to do it yourself. Gaston, pull yourself together. Cuff this bitch, we need to get some answers." Gaston was gasping for air, holding his hand against his injured throat. He finally managed a couple of deep breaths, then turned to Olivia with a look of raw hatred.
Olivia backed herself against the worktable, pushing against the floor with a bent leg. Mind thrown to razor-sharp awareness by animal instinct, she was catching the pain at last before it could overwhelm her. Cradling her broken arm, and surreptitiously tucking her right hand into the waistband of her jeans to secure the injured limb, she feigned fear and defeat. Meanwhile, she focused on the position of her body relative to Gaston's, evaluating distance, leverage, angles. One chance, Benson, concentrate goddammit.
Gaston advanced on her slowly, still struggling for breath through his damaged trachea. He was approaching from the side, five feet ... four ... three ... two ...
Olivia visualized her anticipated motion from beginning to end. Then she struck out with her bent leg. Using the workbench as a backstop she slammed her foot precisely into the side of Gaston's knee, at an oblique angle that the joint could not withstand.
Gaston screamed and fell to the ground, grasping at his dislocated knee. Olivia rolled to her left side and used the strength in her left arm and leg to rise, viciously ignoring the urgent messages from her weakly-secured right arm. Focusing on nothing but her target, she kicked Gaston with perfect accuracy in the temple. He fell still immediately.
Olivia snapped her attention to Talon ... and found herself staring down the long barrel of a classic Colt 1911.
"You fucking bitch. I am going to enjoy watching you suffer."
Olivia's heightened awareness scanned for a way out. There was none ... yet.
Talon sneered, "Get down on your knees."
Play for time. "Fuck you, asshole."
"You either do it 'cause I told you, or you do it 'cause I blow your kneecap to pieces. Take your pick."
That was not a bluff. The man had nothing to lose by disabling her. Olivia held her right arm and dropped to her knees, while her senses remained wide open for a chance.
"Now get out your cuffs. You're gonna cuff yourself, sweetheart."
Olivia sneered back at him. "You stupid fuck. They're behind me and my arm's broken. I can't reach them."
The man stared at her with hatred thick enough to kill, but realized she was telling the truth. Keeping his distance and his gun trained, he circled around behind her. The detective kept track of his movements by sound, mechanically evaluating positions, distances, trajectories. Still no opportunity ... Then her peripheral vision picked up an unexpected movement way off to her right. What was that? Something moved.
Her observation was cut short when a foot slammed into her back. As she hit the floor, she barely managed to get her left shoulder down first, protecting her right arm from further damage.
The reprieve was short-lived. Angry hands grabbed her arms without mercy and pulled them behind her back. The pain overwhelmed her again and she barely bit back a cry. "You fucking bastard," she hissed through violently clenched teeth. Through a red haze of agony she felt the cuffs being retrieved from their case on her belt and heard the clicks as they secured her wrists.
Liv, remember ... remember goddammit, you know how to do this. Ferocious concentration returned, turning aside the mind-numbing emergency signals from her arm. What did I see? As the man grabbed the back of her jacket and hauled her to her knees, she scanned her peripheral vision for any sign of the tiny motion she'd spotted before.
Talon grabbed the detective's chin hard in his left hand, interrupting her thoughts. "Little Miss Cop, I need to know some things and you're going to tell me. Number one: how many of your little friends are out there?"
Play for time. "Go to hell."
Readjusting his hold on the gun, Talon slammed the grip hard into Olivia's face. She turned her head in time to avoid the worst of it, but painful sparks exploded, saturating her nervous system. Olivia breathed hard but kept it under control. That's gonna leave a mark ...
Talon grabbed the front of Olivia's shirt and brought her face to his: "Don't fuck with me. This entire mess was engineered by you and that blonde bitch over there."
Keep his attention away from Alex! "And how do you know that?"
Talon shook her. He was clearly losing control. And sweating fear. You're losing it, asshole.
"How many are out there? Tell me where they're positioned and what their orders are."
Genetic ancestry, natural inclination, troubled upbringing ... the cause would never be isolated, but Olivia Benson's entire heritage backed her up in support of one single emotion: defiance. The ghosts of centuries past coursed through her blood. Those ghosts had protected a tiny island from invasion for a thousand years, fighting off Spanish fleets and German air strikes with equal ferocity. Their resolve found its incarnation today in the person of a valiant and worthy descendant.
Olivia smiled at Talon behind her rapidly swelling eye. "The entire New York City police department is out there. You're screwed, asshole."
Talon pressed the Colt against her shoulder and fired. Olivia couldn't suppress the enraged cry of pain as the .45 caliber slug tore through her shoulder and punched through the scapula behind it. Talon hung onto her shirt as she fought for breath and sanity.
"Where are they? Tell me where they are, bitch, and I'll let you live."
Olivia struggled to think through the haze of agony. How do I keep him here until backup arrives ...
"The next one destroys your elbow. You think you're getting out of this alive, don't you? Well you do what I say, or I'll cripple you for life."
He was about to hit her again when a clear, cold voice rang from the corner of the cavernous room.
"Over here, asshole."
Talon dropped Olivia and spun toward the origin of the new voice. As he was raising his gun, he found himself pinned by a sight he had not expected at all, thirty meters away.
He stared along an elegant nickel-plated barrel to the lethal blue eyes behind it.
Target clear ... fire on the exhale. Alex fired twice in quick succession, her locked right arm correcting for the recoil immediately, her eyes seeing nothing but the post and the unfocused image of a dead man right behind it.
Her shots landed precisely, two direct hits to the chest. Talon dropped to the floor, sinking from sight below the edge of the workbench.
Alex turned to the handcuffs restraining her left hand. Pulling the steel links taught, she fired the Beretta against the metal restraints. The chain parted immediately.
Keeping her senses open for the arrival of any further enemies, she strode to the work bench. Talon was flat on his back but still alive, though barely, gasping for breath despite the two bleeding holes in his chest. Alex kicked his firearm away and turned to Olivia. The detective was on her side, arms bound behind her back and breathing hard. Alex dropped to one knee and turned the detective's face to hers as gently as she could. "Hang on, love, just hang on."
Olivia actually managed to grin through the haze of pain. "Alex, it's ok. Nothing that won't heal." She was a tad more worried than that about the eventual recovery of her much-abused right arm and shoulder ... but cops have to be tough, right? She even managed a bit of a laugh. "Counselor, do you realize you just landed two perfect shots one-handed from thirty yards? Told you."
"Sweetheart, love, knock it off. I already know how tough you are. Don't move, ok?"
Olivia laughed weakly and nodded. "For your next trick, d'you think you could get these damn cuffs off? Keys are in my back pocket."
As gently as she could, Alex retrieved the keys and unfastened the handcuffs. Still keeping her peripheral vision on the prostrate figures of their enemies, she brought Olivia carefully to a sitting position and propped her against the workbench.
Through clenched teeth, the detective asked the question that was burning in her mind, "How the hell did you get your gun back? I saw it fall. It was way out of your reach."
Alex looked closely at Olivia. The wound in her shoulder was not bleeding that badly and her eyes were alert, though clouded with pain. "It fell on a piece of carpeting. The other end was near my hand and I pulled it over."
Olivia grinned, "Good work, Counselor."
Alex smiled back, "Detective, I get the distinct feeling that your fighting skills exceed those of a typical police academy graduate."
"Ask me again sometime."
The blessed sounds of sirens sounded in the near distance, approaching rapidly. Alex placed her hand tenderly against the detective's face. "They're coming, Liv, they're coming."
The lawyer spotted a roll of duct tape on one of the nearby work tables. She rose, and used it to good effect, binding the downed figures of Gaston and Talon into immobility.
She knelt once more to Olivia's level, bringing the fallen Glock 17 within reach of the detective's left hand, just in case. "I'm going for help, I'll be right back." Gently, she pressed their lips together. "Just hang on, love, just hang on."
Olivia smiled. "Go on, you pirate. I'll be good."
Part Four, Chapter Three
The next afternoon, Melinda Warner made her way to the fourth floor of St. Vincent's hospital. She had been called out to the Hudson River Park scene late last night. The dark, derelict warehouse district had been alive with emergency vehicles, a throng of police cars and ambulances. Their flashing red and blue lights illuminated the remains of the massive gun battle in strobing, garish color.
The place looked like a war zone. After organizing her technicians and coordinating the processing of the bodies of the fallen mobsters and ex-marines, she had remained, this time in her capacity as a doctor. She was very fond of the detectives of the 16th precinct and had pushed other medics aside to supply emergency assistance to her valued colleagues. Stabler had taken a bullet in the leg. He was quickly splinted, shot with painkillers, and wheeled away to the ER in an ambulance. Olivia's severely fractured arm and perforated shoulder blade merited closer attention, and Melinda used all the skill at her disposal to ensure that no permanent damage would result. Two SWAT team members and one of the police reinforcements had also been hit, but fortunately, none of their injuries were life-threatening. Even ADA Cabot had taken a nasty hit near her left eye, accompanied by a jagged cut. The injury had discolored rapidly, and the swelling of damaged tissue seeking to heal itself had closed her eye for the time being.
Pushing open the door to the semi-private hospital room, Warner surveyed her patients. Benson and Stabler occupied the room's two beds. Stabler's lower leg was in a cast and propped up on the bed sheet, while Benson's arm was in a sling with a cast on her forearm and heavy tape securing her shoulder. Both detectives had required surgery, for pinning work on their broken bones. Olivia also had a white gauze patch taped over her left eye: the hit from the pistol grip had been sharp enough that a detached retina was not impossible, and Warner had insisted on caution. The two detectives were engaged in animated discussion, replaying and analyzing the various tactics that had been employed at last night's warehouse battle.
ADA Cabot was sitting at the room's small circular table, her eye showing puffy discoloration beneath a white bandage. Across from her was a thin man with dark-framed glasses and straggly long hair, wearing faded jeans and a thin black T-shirt listing in small print the cities visited by Megadeth on their 'World Needs a Hero' tour. The two had a cheap chessboard between them, purloined from the floor's common room. They played easily, without the painstaking concentration of neophytes but with the casual skill of experts, recognizing patterns as they emerged on the board and chatting nonchalantly as they moved the pieces in rapid succession.
The blonde man moved a piece and plucked Alex's second bishop from the board. "Predictable, Alexis. Lasker's Combination."
"You think? Just believe that, Ringo."
Warner announced her arrival to her heavily bandaged friends, "Good grief, this place looks like a MASH unit."
Stabler looked up with a smile. "Hey, Doc, good to see you. Thanks for all the help last night."
"My pleasure. But you guys left quite a mess behind, we're going to be analyzing bullet trajectories for days."
The two detectives and the ADA had been quickly seized upon by the medics last night and whisked away. They were eager for news of the case.
"Did Talon make it?" asked Alex.
"He's still in intensive care but it looks good. No one's been able to interview him yet, but he should be awake in another day or so. Gaston is awake already and has been moved to a holding facility. He hasn't said anything yet, but we're waiting for the effects of the drug to wear off. We took a blood sample ... same signature as the one from Jacob Trent."
"What about Rakowski and Kettler? And that mob boss, Fabrocini?" asked Olivia.
"They stayed under cover in the warehouse, uninjured. Looks like you guys pinned each other down pretty effectively. It was all over when the reinforcements went in through that hidden side door, all but one of the mobsters surrendered. They're all in custody."
"How is the evidence-gathering going?"
"Munch and Fin are fine and they're working on it. Cragen himself is helping out and he's recruited assistance from the FBI's OCD director and a team of his people. They've already tracked down a number of open OCD cases on mob hits that match the dates and times from that spreadsheet." Warner smirked. "You know, the mysterious spreadsheet provided by Munch's 'anonymous informant'. Plus Kettler is singing like a nightingale. Liz Donnelly offered him a deal and he's spilling his guts."
Alex grinned, "Perfect. As their IT guru, I'm sure he has all the info we need to nail every last one of them. How did he get involved, anyway? He suggested they had some hold over him."
"Yes, it was a computer-security infraction that he was pulled in on as a grad student. Talon recruited him, and has been blackmailing him ever since with the threat of a conviction."
"One piece we never figured out was Brenner's role. We knew Rakowski recruited him to the Pentagon, and it looked from the spreadsheet like he was serving as their front man, collecting payments directly from the clients. We figured he was the one who provided the connection between Rakowski's squad of assassin's and Talon's client list."
"Yes, pretty close. Brenner and Rakowski got to know each other when Brenner was in the JAG office. A soldier under Rakowski's command was accused of illegal activity and Brenner served as his counsel. The charge was dismissed, under pretty mysterious circumstances. We're looking into that too. It's probably the incident where Brenner and Rakowski realized they had a common fondness for shady operations and, of course, money. As for Talon, believe it or not, he and Brenner met as kids. They were both military brats who moved around a lot, but they spent their teen years together when their fathers were posted at the same base. They became fast friends, kept in contact every since."
Ringo spoke up with a question of his own, "What did Jack-the-Hack do to get himself in trouble?"
"Kettler launched something called the 'DaVinci virus' into an oil company's computer systems."
Ringo recognized the incident, "The DaVinci virus, 1995. That was an impressive bit of work. Dangerous though. We all thought they never caught the guy."
Warner turned to the hacker and held out a hand. "We haven't met. I'm Melinda Warner, Medical Examiner for Manhattan."
Ringo shook the proffered hand and favored the stunning medical examiner with his patented, geeky-attempt at a roguish expression. Olivia rolled her eyes. Ringo, pal, you need to take lessons.
"Richard Langly, ma'am, pleased to meet you. But call me Ringo, everyone does."
"So Ringo, why do I get the feeling you're the mystery man behind the 'anonymous' spreadsheet and network logs?"
Ringo's grin persisted, "Why, Dr. Warner, I have no idea what you're talking about. I'm simply a law-abiding citizen visiting some friends out of concern for their well-being."
Warner was a bit of a rogue herself and appreciated the outrageous plans that her colleagues and their hacker friend had executed to solve the case. "If I'm going to call you Ringo, you have to call me Melinda."
"Beautiful name, Melinda. So those bullet trajectories you're analyzing ... I've done some consulting work for ... various people, I may have a piece of software that might interest you."
Warner was interested. "Really? The biggest challenge we face is combining the bullet trajectories with the reconstructed estimates of the shooters' movements during the conflict."
Ringo snorted in disdain at the supposed complexity of the task. "I've done some moonlighting in video game graphics, to pay the rent ... done plenty of work in animated texture-mapping of wireframes following calculated paths. Don't see why that couldn't be combined with your analysis of the projectile trajectories. Are you able to determine the relative times of the bullet hits?"
Warner's eyes flashed with the possibilities, appreciating Ringo's quick mind ... and truth be told, she also appreciated his outrageous confidence in his own abilities, a trait she shared in significant measure. "Not precisely, no. Certainly not on the time scale we'd need to help in the reconstruction of a short-term engagement. But I've always thought an algorithm could be written to watch automatically for matches between the bullets' paths and those of the shooters as they moved. Can you write that into an animated simulation?"
Ringo's smirk was tinged with a leer, finding the ME's mixture of technical savvy and beauty an enticing combination. "Of course. Why the hell not."
"Mr. Langly, would you be interested in a position with the New York Police Department's technical division? I believe we might have use for your ... special talents."
Ringo's roguish expression was almost convincing this time. "Only if you take me to a real expensive dinner, cutie."
Warner grinned at the bald-faced come-on. "Sure. I'll get you not one, but two Happy Meals at Mickey D's. That'll about break my weekly salary, but you get to keep the toys. And we get to keep the plastic cups too, I have a lovely set of sixteen back home."
Alex and Olivia glanced at each other, grinning in delight. Geeks of the world, unite.
Olivia only arrived at the squadroom around 1 pm the following day. Due to her injuries, she was on half-time for two weeks, but with full pay. She was confined to desk duty as well, maybe for an even longer time. The doctors had reassured her that her wounds were healing well, no permanent damage was expected, but it would take time and physical therapy to restore the full use of her right arm.
Olivia sat down across from Stabler, whose crutches were propped against his desk. She favored him with a grin, "We did it, buddy. We're banged up, but we nailed 'em good."
"Yes we did. Cabot stopped by earlier and she's slinging motions and indictments left and right. They're all going down."
Elliot smiled to himself, recalling the fond, loving looks that his partner and the ADA had exchanged during their time in the hospital room. Guess they found their way to each other at last. Kathy was so happy to hear it. She had a feeling about those two, even before I did.
"Oh, nearly forgot. Cabot left an envelope in your desk drawer."
Awash with the new joy of having found the love of her life, Olivia opened the desk drawer and retrieved the plain manilla envelope. She opened it and retrieved a brief note, written in Alex's precise hand.
You never got to see my apartment. I think you might appreciate my pride and joy: a 5.1-channel surround-sound system equipped with a powered-sub and a 42-inch wide-screen DLP Toshiba. And you're right, I am a closet nerd. The sentence was concluded with a winking smiley. I have a collection of DVD's as well, and I'd hazard a guess that we have some overlap in taste.
Donnelly's going to keep me here late, but don't let that stop you. The other item in the envelope is one I hope you'll keep in your pocket for a very long time, Detective.
Grinning foolishly, Olivia looked once more into the envelope ... and found a key. She withdrew it and stared at the keychain to which it was attached: a chess piece, White Queen, rendered in crystal. She held it up to the squadroom windows. The tiny charm cast no shadows at all, only caught the light of the sun and refracted it into a thousand beams, radiating brilliance, and warmth ... and love ... in every direction.
CODA: My sincere and heartfelt thanks to all of you kind readers who have taken the time to provide supportive feedback during the construction of this little tale. Your mails have been greatly appreciated.
Also, I expect I'm not the only pop-culture geek among you, and I hope some of you have been amused by the gratuitous nods and shout-outs to other films and television shows. For the sake of completeness, here they are. (At least the ones I'm aware of ... I have been known to speak in quotes without realizing it)
CSI: Warner's reference to Grissom and his Las Vegas crime scene unit Xena: the description of Olivia's mysterious martial arts instructor can hardly be missed as a supremely-cheesy tribute to the almighty warrior herself (including the 'listen to the silence' line from the finale). The cryptic quote 'daskalos' offers young Olivia is from the Tao Te Ching (written by Lao Ma, not Lao Tzu, according to Xena canon :-)) The X-Files: Richard 'Ringo' Langly and John Byers are two of the Lone Gunmen from the X-Files American Beauty: the Kevin Spacey quote from the Hotel Palermo A League of their Own: the source for Olivia's 'loose quote from a favorite film': 'If it was easy, everyone would do it' Battlestar Galactica: origin of the nerdy moniker 'Cylon' that Kettler assigned to his hard disk Bound: 'Angelo Marzzone, head of the Marzzone family', and 'the Carpettas' are direct shout-outs Bloodsport: 'Meditate until you can feel nothing but your own energy, nothing can distract you' is one of Shidoshi Tanaka's final admonitions to Frank Dux (Jean-Claude van Damme) during an intense training session Tommy Boy: 'That's gonna leave a mark.' Hackers: the 'DaVinci virus' was a key element of the plot Renaissance Man: 'And we get to keep these, I have a lovely set of sixteen at home' comes from a charming McDonald's scene with Danny DeVito ... and the one that got away, Aliens: As it is one of my favorite films of all time, the temptation to use Ripley's Great Line when Alex takes down Talon was almost overwhelming ... but I resisted. :-)