DISCLAIMER: The characters in the story are the creation of Dick Wolf and I'm using them without permission for entertainment and not for profit. The story is my own.
SPOILERS: Set after Alex comes out of witness protection, so there may be some spoilers for those who have not seen the show (or L&O) to that point. I've taken some minor liberties with canon, but they shouldn't be too distracting.
FEEDBACK: To Alcina_to_Zauberflote[at]sympatico.ca
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Blood is Thicker
Olivia didn't know how long the buzzer had been going, because she only heard it as she stepped out of the shower. She ran to the intercom, towel-drying her hair so that she wouldn't drip all over the floor. She continued to attempt to dry herself off with one hand as she asked who was at the door downstairs.
"Rhonda Preston. I understand you're taking care of my grandson?"
"Yes. Please come up. I'm in 402." Shit. She rushed into the bedroom and dragged on underwear and a pair of jeans. She was just pulling a t-shirt over her head when the doorbell rang.
She started speaking as she was opening the door. "Sorry about that. I wasn't expecting you 'til tonigh " She stopped abruptly as the woman swayed on her feet and became dangerously pale.
Olivia put out a hand to steady her. "Sorry. Maybe someone should have warned you, but there's really no easy way. Please come in." The woman walked in stiffly, but her eyes never left Olivia's face. "May I get you a drink of water, or would you like a cup of tea or coffee?"
"Even your voice How ?"
"Mrs. Preston, why don't you sit down and I'll tell you what I know and maybe you can fill in some blanks for me, too, ok?"
Rhonda Preston nodded. "Is my grandson ok?"
"Sorry, I should have said right away. He's fine. He went down for a nap ten minutes ago, which is why I took the opportunity to have a shower."
The older woman smiled. A genuine smile of empathy. "He's a handful but they all are at that age. I tell Gladys " Her voice trailed off and a lost look replaced the smile.
"Would you like to see Jamie?" Olivia hoped that seeing her grandson would steady the woman.
After receiving a nod in response, Olivia led the way to what had once been her study. Rhonda Preston approached the crib slowly, as though not daring to hope that her grandson was in the same condition as the last time she'd seen him. As she stared down at the little boy, her body began to shake. She was obviously crying and Olivia withdrew, deciding to make a pot of coffee and allow her some privacy.
Olivia looked around from the coffee she'd been pouring. "Olivia, please. Would you like cream and sugar?"
"No, thanks, I take it black. And thank you for taking care of Jamie. It terrified me to think how close he came to being taken in to foster care. You hear those rumors of children getting lost in the system, so when they told me that a police detective had volunteered "
She walked with Olivia back to the living room and accepted the mug Olivia handed to her. "I was visiting my sister in Los Angeles and we decided to drive up to Big Sur for a few days. I didn't take my cell phone because Gladys knew that she could reach me at Rosa's cell number if there was an emergency " Tears filled her eyes, but they didn't fall.
"Have you seen Gladys?"
Rhonda Preston nodded. "They had told me I couldn't get a flight until this morning, but then I got a seat on the midnight flight. I went to see her this morning " This time the tears fell and she fumbled in her handbag, retrieving a small packet of tissues and removing one with trembling fingers. After several minutes she composed herself and took a sip of her coffee. "Can you tell me what happened to her?"
Olivia hesitated, battling the "cop" habit of not discussing an ongoing investigation with an interested party. Finally, she decided that since she'd been pulled from the case early on, there really wasn't anything sensitive that she could be accused of leaking. "From what I understand, the evidence indicates that Gladys was assaulted by Mr. Stirling and she hit him on the head. He died from his injury." She waited a few seconds before asking, "Do you know what their prior relationship was?"
"He's he was Jamie's father. Gladys is everything anybody could ask for in a daughter, but she has always liked bad boys. She was one of the most successful real estate agents in the county when she took up with Stirling. I didn't like the way he treated her in public and I suspected it was worse in private. Then she discovered he was cheating on her." Preston stopped talking.
"Did she see him with someone else?" Olivia asked, softly, wanting the woman to keep talking because there was a lot of ground to cover.
The older woman shook her head. "She'd heard rumors women called him at odd hours, that kind of thing. Then a woman one woman went to Gladys's office. Made a scene. Threatened my daughter's life. I begged Gladys to leave him and, for the first time, she seemed to be leaning that way Then she discovered that she was pregnant, so she stayed. And it got worse.
"One day, when Jamie was just a month old, the woman showed up at their house. I think her name was Chrissie or Christie something. She pushed Gladys out of the way and charged into the house. She said she was looking for the little bastard." Her eyes met Olivia's. "That time she threatened my grandson's life. That time Gladys left."
Olivia remembered the modest way Gladys lived. "She left everything behind."
"Everything except Jamie. She wouldn't even let me visit for a month. Then she insisted that I take three trains and a bus to get to her, so that he wouldn't follow me and find them." She hiccupped. "I must have made a mistake "
"Mrs. Preston, what happened is not your fault."
"I can't help wondering if "
"Neither you nor Gladys should have had to live like that. Everything that has happened is Stirling's fault. It's important that you believe that for yourself and so that you can be strong for your daughter and grandson."
"She opened her eyes this morning," Preston gave Olivia a shaky smile. "But they say they'll be keeping her sedated for a few more days."
"Will she make a full physical recovery?" Olivia didn't want to lay bets on Gladys Preston's future emotional wellbeing.
"They think so, but she'll need plastic surgery." She looked curiously at Olivia. "You look more like my Gladys than Gladys does right now. How how is it that you look so much like Bill?"
Olivia's heart thudded and she felt faint. She hesitated to ask the next question because, after all these years, she wasn't sure she wanted anyone to be present when she obtained answers to the questions that had dominated her life. "Bill?" she asked weakly.
"Gladys's father. The man who raped me. The reason I left Manhattan when I was a young woman. The reason I left NYU after three years. I eventually got a degree from a community college by going to night school while waiting on tables during the day and tutoring high school students when I could get a babysitter for my daughter."
"My mother was also a student at NYU." Olivia wasn't quite sure whether she should tell Rhonda Preston that her mother had also been raped. "It would mean a lot to me if you could tell me what happened and what you know about Bill. Did you report your rape?"
Preston shook her head. "No. I was too embarrassed and shaken and Bill's family was rich. There was no way anyone would have believed a scholarship student from Bridgeport, over him. He died a few years later, though. I read it in the paper. Crashed his sports car and killed the young woman who was with him, too."
"What was Bill's last name?"
"Lawson. William Lawson Jr." She frowned. "He was so angry. He hid it with cruel humor and he spent a lot of money, so he had lots of friends. I'd see them at a bar on West 4th Street where all the students congregated for the free popcorn and cheap beer. One night, just as we were celebrating the end of finals for most people, I left before my friends because I had one last term paper due the following day. I was living in an apartment on the other side of Astor Place. He must have followed me, because he pushed me down the stairs to where the door to the basement apartment was. I remember that the garbage can got knocked over and my face was pressed against a torn garbage bag "
She took a deep breath and seemed to gather her strength before continuing. Olivia wondered if she had ever really spoken of the attack before. "I couldn't see who it was. He attacked me from behind. He held a knife to my throat and then used it to cut off my clothes. He was so brutal, that it was hard to imagine that a human being could treat me like that " She looked pleadingly at Olivia, as though Olivia could help her understand. "I was a bookworm. I wanted to be a librarian. Why did he choose me?"
Olivia said nothing, she just reached for Rhonda's hands and squeezed them. The gentle human contact seemed to comfort the older woman and she continued speaking. "At first I fought. I couldn't breathe and when I tried to scream my mouth filled with garbage and I felt as though I would suffocate. Then, as he brutalized me, I longed to suffocate, but we human beings are a hardy species " She closed her eyes. "I probably wouldn't have known who he was I didn't want to know who he was. I just wanted to lie there and wait for death to come. I know it sounds melodramatic "
"It doesn't," Olivia said immediately.
"I was lying face down and he kicked me before he left. He kicked me so hard that my body turned and I saw him. He looked straight at me. He looked at me as though he hated me and then he walked away. I told my roommates that I'd been mugged and didn't want to go to the police. I felt inhuman. Ashamed."
For a minute or two she seemed to be lost in her own thoughts, then she added quietly, "Two days later I went to look up some exam results and I passed him in the hallway. He asked me he asked me if I'd had a good time the other night after the bar. I I threw up." She sighed. "It was the end of the semester, so I didn't have to go back. I couldn't go back. I'd already registered at Middlesex County College when I found out I was pregnant."
"Did you tell him?"
Preston shook her head violently. "I hated him so much But I wasn't going to further violate my body with a back-alley abortion because of that bastard. This was one year before Roe versus Wade changed things," she explained. "And I do wonder if I might have made a different decision if it had happened a year later. I'd like to think not, because I love my daughter so much." She looked curiously at Olivia. "Was your mother Bill's girlfriend? I know he seemed to have a lot of them."
"No," Olivia said numbly, "she was another one of his rape victims. But she never knew who he was." She swallowed. "Does Gladys know about ?"
"Not really. I told her who her father was that he was a cruel man who brutalized me. I have physical scars from a broken bottle and the scattered garbage. I think she assumes we were in some sort of a relationship. But thinking that, I always wondered why she stayed with "
"But she didn't. She left him. And when he found her, she fought back."
Preston blinked. "Thank you," she said eventually. "You've been more than kind." She looked towards the door of the room where her grandson slept. "I should take Jamie home." She looked completely lost. "I'll need to find someone to look after him, when I visit Gladys. Maybe my sister can fly in from California "
"Mrs. Preston, I have another week of vacation coming to me, I'll be happy to keep Jamie until then, or over the next few days as you make arrangements. You'd be welcome to come and see him as often as you like."
Tears filled her eyes at Olivia's kindness. "How could such an evil man have been responsible for the existence of you and Gladys?"
Olivia felt the sting of her own tears. "Genes only provide some of the raw material. They don't determine what we do with it. It's not a hardship for me to look after Jamie. He's a wonderful little boy and I don't have any close relatives, so finding out that he's "
"Hush," Rhonda Preston said with a small smile. "You have a sister."
"Alexandra, you look exhausted."
"I know, Auntie Jo. It's been a busy week for me." Alex smiled wanly at her uncle and his wife.
"We read about that arsonist," Lawrence Cabot said with a frown. "I hope you're going to prosecute him to the fullest extent of the law."
"Even if I didn't want Branch's job, that would have been a foregone conclusion, but with the victims being featured on every news broadcast, the pressure to ask for the death penalty is incredible," Alex confirmed.
"I don't believe the state should kill its citizens," Jody Cabot said with a shudder.
Alex sighed. "I admit that I have reservations about the death penalty as a concept. But some of the things I've seen prevent me from registering a conscientious objection to asking for it. I have to say that this case is one where I can offer no argument that the guilty party should be allowed to live at taxpayers' expense until the end of his natural life."
Her pallor worried her uncle and he asked gently, "Alex, are you sure there's nothing wrong? You know you can talk to us if something's bothering you, even if there's nothing we can do to help."
His niece shook her head. "This is one I need to fight on my own." She tried to smile. "Now tell me about this unexpected trip to New York."
He grimaced. "It's the foundation. We're not confident that changes in anti-money laundering and anti-terrorist financing laws have been fully incorporated into reporting practices. We discovered last month that Denis Ashford, the administrator we hired after your mother passed away, lied about his credentials. He was immediately dismissed, but it's called into question some of the procedures he was responsible for putting into place."
"That's of some concern," Jo added, "because Larry has mentioned that the law, your specialty, treats us the same as any charity that's trying to sponsor training schools for terrorists."
"Even though your beneficiaries are all in the US and are themselves registered charities?" Alex was surprised.
"We have one or two international agencies to whom we provide some funding," Larry admitted.
Alex forced back her worry and tried to will herself into a more professional mindset. "Uncle Larry, in a post-9/11 world, moving into the realm of international donations isn't something to be undertaken lightly. I wish I'd " I wish I'd known. But then she couldn't have been informed, because at the time the decision had likely been made, her family had thought she was dead.
Although her uncle would literally have been at the forefront of the changes that had occurred as the legislative and executive branches of the government looked for ways to cut off funding for terrorist organizations, her aunt might not appreciate Alex's concern, if all Larry had done was "mention" the legal implications. So she turned to her aunt and explained, "In 2001 an executive order was signed that prohibits transactions with organizations that the White House deems to be 'associated' with terrorism. It's broad enough and with enough teeth to make it a serious concern for legitimate charities working across borders. Assets can be frozen and reputations ruined, even before a full investigation that would reveal no wrongdoing."
Jo looked suitably alarmed and Alex tried to make her tone more reassuring as she continued. "I'm positive that the international charities you've worked with are squeaky clean, but these laws use databases of names as tools for revealing terrorist connections. Since names are nowhere as unique as DNA, the risk of being damned by suspicion can only be managed by creating infrastructure for and proof of due-diligence, no matter how innocuous your business might be."
Jo looked at Larry, who nodded agreement with Alex's assessment. "If you have the time, Alex, we could use some legal help. We can call in someone from the firm we keep on retainer and which suggested the review in the first place, but a volunteer would save us a thousand dollars an hour."
"Come on, Uncle Larry, surely one of your K Street lobbyists could recommend a firm in Manhattan that would do it pro bono."
"Probably, but nothing is done as a favor in Washington without the expectation of the favor being returned. After the scandals of the last few years, I'd just as soon keep the foundation away from the cronies of K Street operatives."
"I suppose you're right," Alex conceded, but she was still working hard at hiding the anxiety the conversation was causing her. Her parents had both devoted significant percentages of their lives to making the Cabot foundation flourish and it was the only thing keeping one pediatric wing of a Manhattan hospital open among many other worthy causes it supported.
"I'm willing to take a sabbatical from the firm to try to sort it all out." Jo told Alex, thereby doing nothing to alleviate her anxiety. Obviously my explanation of the law struck a chord. What the hell had Ashford done to make them look into his credentials? Alex felt a headache coming on as her aunt continued, "I've got some good people running things and this is more important." Even if Jo's suggested course of action was only a precaution, the mere thought that the Foundation might be at risk chilled Alex. She felt close to tears. This was the last thing she needed after the day she'd just had.
"Try not to worry, Alex," Larry said gently when he noticed the strain on his niece's face. "I happen to have a law degree, so I can at least determine the extent of the problem and call in reinforcements as needed.
You have a law degree, but you haven't practiced in more than fifteen years, Alex thought. "Can we have dinner again after you've had a chance to go over the books and records? I'd like to keep in touch with what's going on."
"Deal," her aunt said with a smile. "So now that we've got the business and family business out of the way, why don't you tell us what's bothering you?"
Alex's eyes reddened and she pressed her lips together, but otherwise there was no external betrayal of her emotional state. "I think I'm ruining my life, but everything I know, everything I've been taught, tells me that I'm doing the right thing."
"Why don't you talk through it with us? Maybe saying it out loud will help you get some perspective," Jo suggested.
"There's somebody that I've become involved with." She clenched her jaw. "There's somebody I was involved with, but we're going to be keeping our distance from each other from now on."
"A woman," her uncle immediately concluded and Alex nodded.
"How did you meet?" Jo asked.
"She was one of my detectives when I was in SVU. But before you ask, nothing happened when we worked together regularly. Well, nothing except for a close friendship. She understood so many of the conflicts I faced in prosecuting sex crimes and she was unflagging in her support of me when I had to cope with the times when the paths of justice and the law diverged and my job required me to side with the law." She laughed bitterly, "Forget justice; sometimes the fundamentals of fair play didn't coincide with what I was legally obliged to do. She'd argue with me so passionately, so fiercely, in defense of her moral position, but she was never less than kind to me when it became clear that that position was in conflict with the requirements of my job."
"So when did you become involved?" Larry was curious.
Alex shrugged. "I think we both realized that we'd become more than colleagues on the night I was shot. They say your life flashes before your eyes as you're dying, but mine didn't. All I felt was a compulsion to cling to her life; to tell her that I wasn't going to die because I didn't want to leave her. When I was forced into the witness protection program a major reason was to protect my mother, yet I chose not to tell my mother that I wasn't dead I insisted on telling Olivia and her partner, of course. But I wouldn't allow Olivia to grieve for me, because I could tell from her reaction to the shooting that everything I felt for her, she felt for me."
"So you've been together since you got back?" Her uncle looked hurt. "Alex why didn't you tell us? Surely you know you can rely on our discretion."
"There was nothing to tell. I had two years to think while I was in the program. And two years to observe. The average civilian has no idea how government, and the laws passed by government, affect their lives for better or worse. I mean, who anticipated that the USA PATRIOT Act and related executive orders designed to cut off terrorists' funding, could create such a nightmare for legitimate charities as well as commercial businesses and financial institutions?"
Despite her obvious exhaustion, Alex spoke passionately, leaning forward as she warmed to her subject. "And that's before we consider the issues surrounding the preservation of personal liberties and protection of the vulnerable. No matter whether you consider yourself to be liberal, progressive, conservative or at any other point on the political continuum, you have to acknowledge that the people who run things are benefiting hugely from the ignorance of the population. At the same time, the rules, so misunderstood by the innocent, are being used and manipulated for malevolent reasons by others. The way pedophiles take advantage of the differences in state laws alone would make your hair stand on end. I feel as though I'm in a unique position to change all that and being allowed out of witness protection seemed like a second chance to act."
"And you decided that Olivia didn't fit into the act?" Larry Cabot frowned. What on earth had his brother said to the girl to make her take the principle of noblesse oblige to such a self-sacrificing, maybe even self-destructive, level?
Alex shrugged. "I assumed that after almost two years she'd have moved on. There was never there was never anything acknowledged between us and, I suppose, I'd convinced myself that the pain the love on her face, as she said good-bye to me, had been wishful thinking on my part. So I called to tell her I was back, but I didn't offer to meet. I was cool. But I didn't want her to hear it from somebody else. I assumed that she had moved on and was probably in a relationship. I was afraid that getting close to her again would make everything else insignificant. I thought it was best to leave well enough alone."
"What changed?" Jo was genuinely curious.
"We bumped into each other at the opera. You know how I feel about opera and talking to her was like talking to someone I'd conjured up to be the perfect companion for what I still consider the perfect evening out." She closed her eyes. When she opened them again, she made no attempt to hide the hopeless love she felt. "Auntie Jo, she's so beautiful. So principled and strong. We talked and time flew and neither of us wanted to break the connection. We started meeting regularly for the opera, then the occasional jazz concert and then lunch. Nothing like dating, or so I told myself, but it was. It was an old-fashioned romantic courtship, although we never even kissed."
"If it's all so innocent, then why can't you have that as well as your political career?" Larry was confused and his wife kicked him under the table.
"It changed recently. We'd both put the rest of our lives on hold and we'd been spending all our free time together. The only social times we weren't with each other were related to work. Something had to give and eventually she asked me to go away with her. Going away together would have changed everything."
"You declined," Jo said, kindly.
Alex nodded. "She was hurt angry. She decided to try to move on and she dated someone else."
"Revenge?" Jo asked.
Alex shook her head. "No, I don't think so. More like determination to do the right thing and distract herself with a new romance. And when she did date someone else, she didn't tell me. I just knew." She laughed bitterly. "God, that hurt. But the odd thing was that when she saw my reaction, she got hurt and confused. She'd genuinely thought that she was doing what was best." She took a shuddering breath. "Then it all got even more convoluted." She told them briefly about Olivia's newly discovered family and the decision to take in Jamie.
"I'd like to think that it's my instinct to protect her from the pain of loving that child and having him taken away which drove my disapproval, but I don't know. I know it hurt to see them together." Family. The bond she would never have with me and he got it just from genetic code. "So I went over to apologize and We finally admitted that we that maintaining the close friendship was an exercise in frustration and it had to end. So we agreed not to see each other socially any more except for the three more operas for which we already have tickets." She shrugged. "That's it: the tragic, short love story of Olivia Benson and Alexandra Cabot."
A tear spilled down her cheek and she brushed it away with the back of her hand. "Sorry. I don't mean to make a scene." Her uncle thought that, perhaps, in the rigidly disciplined world of Alexandra Cabot, a single teardrop constituted a "scene".
"Alex," Jo said softly.
"Please Auntie Jo, don't be kind to me right now. I can't handle it."
"Do you regret it?" Jo asked.
"No," Alex said immediately. "I got to hear her say that she loves me. It's more than I thought I'd have, even if it's less than I want." She folded her napkin and picked up her bag. "Look, thank you so much for dinner, but I have an early court appearance tomorrow." She kissed the couple and beat a hasty retreat.
"Larry, we have to do something."
"What?" He shrugged in a way that reminded his wife of Alex. "A platonic relationship ended. She's in pain, but it was her choice."
"Platonic? What are you, blind? The pain we just witnessed could only come from someone who knew exactly what she'd just lost: physically, emotionally and in terms of her future."
"I still don't see why that gives us some obligation to interfere or, indeed, what form that interference could possibly take."
"Well, for one thing, you can convince her that making a difference doesn't mean sticking to whatever rigid plan she formed while she was in witness protection. That kind of isolation, especially following severe trauma, is unlikely to inspire the most rational thought."
"Jo, I spoke to Alex about exactly this subject years before she was shot. She was determined to turn her back on her attraction to women in order to prevent it from hindering her upward trajectory through New York politics. I told her she was kidding herself then and she didn't listen to me because she's really, really good at it; I don't see why she'd listen to me now."
"Why don't we show her?" Jo suggested.
"Why don't we get her more involved in the foundation? There's more than enough to do there and even if she worked full time, she couldn't physically do all the good that can be done through the various trusts." When he looked intrigued, she went on. "The tax and compliance thing; why don't we pretend it's ten times worse than it is? It wasn't as though Ashford was diverting money to Hezbollah. He lied about his accounting qualification, so the lawyers say we have to review procedures, especially in the light of what Alex said about that executive order, but he did have a valid MBA. And you know Alex, as long as there's the possibility of risk, she'll keep digging. That girl worries more than the rest of the family combined. If we muddy the waters enough, it will be months before she realizes that there was nothing really wrong in the first place."
"And if there is anything wrong, she's guaranteed to find it." Larry smiled. "She's a hell of a prosecutor, but part of what drives her is that she's a Cabot and we have a tradition of making sure that our kids are hooked from childhood on the satisfaction of doing good and apparently my brother did a more extreme job of that than most. Whatever her profession, she'll have been at least partly drawn to it by the ability to do good in a concrete way."
Jo nodded. "Philanthropy, in the order of magnitude of the Foundation, is a huge responsibility, but it's also addictive So what do you say? Can you come up with some plausible potential legal problems by the time we meet her again?"
Her husband laughed. "You're a devious woman, do you know that?"
"Mm," she agreed with a grin. "It's one of my more endearing qualities."
Alex's throat hurt. She walked into her apartment and released a shaky sigh, incredibly grateful that she'd made it home without crying. She had been spared that humiliation at least.
She had voicemail. She dreaded and hoped that one message was from Olivia. She hoped her detective had called because she was desperate for the sound of her voice and she wanted to know how that evening's meeting with Rhonda Preston had gone and whether Olivia had managed to get answers that would help her make peace with the past. She dreaded receiving a message from Olivia because she was desperate for the sound of her voice and the addiction that caused the desperation was one she had to shake.
Olivia's was the third message. "Hi, Alex. I was just calling to find out how you were. It was a hard day for me, but I hope work distracted you and you weren't too sad. I met Rhonda Preston and found out my mother's rapist's name. I I'm sorry I missed you, but you don't have to call me back. See you back at the squad or Hogan Place if you decide to prosecute Brown personally. Bye."
Alex sat down carefully, feeling as though her body was fragile, likely to break, the pain in her throat having spread to her chest, making it hard to breathe. She gasped, surprised at how like a sob it sounded. She knew she should call Olivia back even an acquaintance would politely inquire about the answers the detective had got about her past. See you back at the squad or at Hogan Place. Was that all they would have? Was that really what she'd condemned herself to? To be nothing but an acquaintance as though the previous night had never happened?
She played the message again. I'm sorry I missed you. The sound of Olivia's voice brought back a flood of memories.
Do you regret it?
The question. The answer. The truth. She'd got to experience the most impossibly beautiful intimacy and the most incredible pleasure with Olivia and she did not, could not, regret it. However, in the aftermath, sitting in her apartment in a rumpled suit with nothing to look forward to for the foreseeable future except work, she felt a sense of loneliness that was so acute it made her wrap her arms around her own waist and hug herself in a futile effort to keep it at bay.
Through the haze of pain, she wondered how Olivia was faring. Olivia, who loved her so much and who had had exactly the same experience the night before. Olivia who was also grappling with information about her past and uncertainty about a future where she'd found close relatives, but wasn't sure of her welcome into their family or if she even wanted that welcome. No matter how difficult it would be, she knew that she had to call Olivia.
She dialed the number and as soon as Olivia picked up the tears Alex had been holding back from the time of their good-bye kiss that morning refused to be held back any longer.
"Alex," Olivia asked, sounding confused and worried.
"Sweetie, don't cry. Please don't cry." Alex continued to sob helplessly. "I miss you, too. I miss you so much . Baby, you're not alone in this."
"Is that supposed to make me feel better?" Alex sniffed loudly and hiccupped. "I'm supposed to take comfort in hurting you, too?"
"I take the good with the bad, Alex. It hurts, but I wouldn't trade last night to make the pain go away."
"Nor would I. How are we going to get past this?"
"I don't know," Olivia admitted, her own tears threatening.
"He's got another two teeth coming up. They look like little grains of rice."
Alex smiled through her tears. "You're besotted. How did things go with his grandmother? What did she tell you?"
Olivia recounted Rhonda Preston's revelations. "She's going to tell Gladys when she visits her tomorrow. And maybe in a few days, she'll take Jamie to visit his mom."
"Are you going to be ok?"
Olivia was quiet for a while. "I think so. I'm trying to prepare myself in case she doesn't want anything to do with me. I hope that doesn't happen, because I'd like to keep in touch with Jamie, at least, but I really like Rhonda and if her daughter is anything like her, I figure she's the forgiving type."
There was silence on the line as the thought occurred to them simultaneously that it was probably Gladys's forgiving nature that had kept her involved with the man she'd killed.
"She'd be stupid not to want you in her life," Alex said. "Right now, I can't think of anything more stupid than having the opportunity to be loved by you and walking away from it."
"Alex don't." Olivia listened to Alex crying helplessly on the other end of the line and realized that no matter how hurt she felt by Alex's decision, in the end, she didn't have to hold herself responsible for the situation that was a burden that Alex bore alone. She wondered if she'd been selfish by pushing the issue of their spending one night together. "Is there something I can do to make you not hurt so much?"
"I don't deserve you." As she said the words, Alex's voice broke.
Intellectually, Olivia knew all the reasons for Alex's decision, but emotionally, she felt herself getting resentful of it. "Probably not," she tried to joke, "but you still have me and I want us to move beyond this. I want to be able to talk to you without feeling " She stopped speaking because a discussion of each other's feelings was exactly what they'd agreed they were not going to put themselves through any more.
"Want to talk about work?" Alex suggested with a sniff.
Olivia smiled. "Murderers, rapists and child molesters: our unique version of neutral territory."
"I'll be handling the Brown case personally, but I don't think it will go to trial. He's offering to help us close some cold cases if we take the death penalty off the table and put him in a federal prison in another state."
"Public opinion will probably drive this one and New Yorkers want revenge."
Olivia sighed. "We both understand how victims' families feel so much of the time. They just don't want to know that the person who took a life is still allowed the privilege of having one."
"The death penalty isn't supposed to be about revenge," Alex said, distracted from her tears.
"Except, we both know that isn't true, don't we?"
Alex agreed. "It's so very often about the misinterpretation of the instruction "an eye for an eye", which was supposed to limit the scope of revenge, not make it obligatory to take a second life if one had already been taken. The adage about an eye for an eye leaving the whole world blind simply doesn't have the same rhetorical impact as the original admonishment."
"Not that I'm going to waste a helluva lot of empathy on that sleazeball, Brown. I spoke to the kid who got away and I can easily imagine the terror felt by the one he drugged."
"And sexually assaulted," Alex added and Olivia grimaced. She'd been hoping that the manhunt that had started when Jasmine raised the alarm would have spooked Brown into stashing Lara and covering his tracks before he'd had a chance to rape her.
She knew instinctively that Alex felt as terrible about Lara's fate as she did. "I carry the burden on my conscience of inadvertently helping to put an innocent man in prison," she told the ADA quietly, "and I carry the burden of the awful consequences. Nobody has more respect for the concept of absolute and irreversible punishment than I do, but all those families Brown destroyed how can we tell them that he deserves to live?"
Alex sighed. "Some families object to the death penalty. They understand loss and they think it punishes the family of the criminal more than it punishes the criminal."
"Yes," Olivia agreed, "it's certainly logical to say that in order to suffer, you first have to be alive."
"I wish I could hold you right now," Alex said in a quiet voice. "I know I'm breaking my own rules by admitting that, but I just needed to say it. I thought I knew exactly how
gorgeous you were. I was wrong."
"Are you sure you don't regret last night?" Olivia had to know.
"How could I? Making love with you I'll treasure those memories always, Liv. And when you meet someone else, I hope she loves you as much as I love you."
"I'm not ready for that, Alex. I'm not ready and I won't be for a long time."
There was silence for almost a minute and then Olivia said tentatively, "If you're not doing anything at lunchtime tomorrow, I'll be meeting Rhonda in Washington Square Park. She'll be spending most of the day at St. Vincent's with Gladys and she wants to see Jamie. She was kind enough to come back here tonight and bring me the stroller and high chair from Gladys's apartment, so I figure meeting her ten minutes' walk from St. Vincent's is the least I can do."
"You know I shouldn't."
"Yeah. But it doesn't get any safer than that. In public, with Rhonda Preston in attendance along with a young man who still goes to the bathroom in his pants without embarrassment."
"If I can get away, I'll be there. Cold turkey isn't really working for me. I need to see you."
A week later it was Olivia's last full day with Jamie and she was determined to ignore the lump in her throat every time she thought about not seeing his wide smile and his demand to be picked up when she walked into the spare room in the morning. There'd be a lot less chaos in her apartment without the extra furniture and the toys, but she was really going to miss that little boy.
As she got him dressed, she talked to him. "We're going to the park early today and grandma is going to meet us there. And when you're really tired, we're going to walk over to the hospital to visit your mommy."
"Mama," he agreed, beaming.
Olivia smiled back at him. As much as she'd fallen for Jamie, she knew that her feelings couldn't compare with those of Gladys Preston. "The first coherent words she spoke were to ask about Jamie and she cried and cried when she saw him," Rhonda had said.
Gladys had also cried when she'd first met Olivia. That had been three days earlier, after Gladys had been moved from the ICU into a semi-private room. There had been tears in Olivia's eyes as well. Gladys's face was still battered and she'd need plastic surgery to fix her right cheekbone and, perhaps, her nose, but Olivia had seen her own face in pretty bad condition after it had taken her several minutes to take down a suspect, so it didn't stop Gladys from looking disconcertingly familiar.
"Mom told me, but I thought she was exaggerating." Gladys's lips had curved into a small smile.
Olivia had got goose bumps when Gladys had spoken because she'd heard that voice before on her own voicemail greeting. "If I ever need a coupla days off, can you put on a pair of contacts and fill in for me at the 16th precinct?" she'd joked and Gladys, obviously struck by the voice similarity, had laughed through her tears.
"Thanks for taking care of Jamie. Mom says you're doing a great job and he loves you."
"Thank you. It's been my pleasure. Although I have to warn you that he might be slightly spoiled when you get him back." She'd hesitated. "He saw the resemblance the night you were attacked and he wouldn't let anyone else touch him."
Gladys had looked away. "You know, I can't remember most of what happened. Were you the officer who investigated?"
"I was called to the scene, but when my captain saw the pictures of you in the apartment, he pulled me from the case. Don't worry about not remembering, the physical evidence will tell most of the story. Just concentrate on getting well, so you can go home to Jamie."
"I'm not sure I want to go back there "
"Gladys, the crime lab has released the apartment and I can help you make arrangements for a special kind of cleaning service that will remove every sign of what happened. While you're in here, you can even get an alarm system installed so that you'll feel safer. And you can always call me if you're worried. I only live ten blocks away."
"My sister " Gladys had said the words as though she'd been trying to get used to the sound of them.
Olivia had smiled. "Weird, huh?"
"In a good way," Gladys had agreed, but her voice had started to sound reedy with exhaustion.
"Why don't you get some sleep and I'll come back to see you tomorrow. I'll leave my business card with my home number on the back, so if you need to talk, or you want me to put Jamie on the phone, you just call, ok?"
She had called that night and they'd laughed again about the fact that they sounded alike and Olivia had visited with Jamie and Rhonda the following day.
"You look very handsome," she said to the youngest Preston and he ignored her as he tried to grab her coffee mug, which was just out of reach. The heat wave had broken and although it was a bright, sunny day, there was a hint of fall in the air, so he was wearing the only jacket she had for him, a Yankees bomber jacket. "Although I wish your mom was a Mets fan."
Her cell phone vibrated just as they were leaving the apartment and she smiled when she saw that the caller was Alex. "Good morning, Counselor."
"Olivia, I hate to bother you on your vacation, but I really need to talk through something "
"It's no bother, Alex. I'll be at the playground in Washington Square Park in half an hour and I'm not expecting Rhonda to show up for an hour or so, so if that's enough time "
"It's fine." Alex seemed agitated. "I really appreciate this."
Olivia was pushing Jamie in the baby swing when Alex arrived looking immaculate in a navy suit and white blouse. It was the third time she'd joined them in the park and Jamie recognized her. "Up," he demanded, lifting his arms.
As far as Olivia knew, Alex had never held a baby in her life and all she'd ever done was smile at Jamie, so she wasn't sure Alex would welcome him anywhere near her suit. "Sweetie, Alex is dressed for work. Come with Liv "
"It's ok," Alex reassured Olivia before picking up the little boy, who smiled triumphantly.
"Look, he gloats just like you, Liv." Alex smiled at Olivia, as her eyes wandered briefly over the detective's snug white sweater and worn jeans.
Olivia felt slightly breathless. "I don't gloat. I just appreciate the joy of winning." Olivia got a cup of juice out of the bag attached to the stroller and bribed Jamie into abandoning Alex. When he was settled on Olivia's lap, playing with her watch as he drank, she turned her attention to Alex. "So, what's on your mind?"
"Brown's mother came to see me. He's on suicide watch. He's changed his mind about the death penalty."
Olivia looked neutral, but she was glad she was wearing her sunglasses. "Is it a stunt to avoid the needle?"
"I checked with Rikers. Somebody got hold of autopsy photos of the fire victims and had been slipping them, one at a time, into his cell. Nobody knows how that could have happened, but Warner doesn't think the leak was at her office." When Olivia's face clouded, Alex continued, "I know everybody likes to point fingers at the police, but we both know why most police officers know better than to let a suspect have photos of his victims."
"Because so many of them would love it: trophies of their greatest successes."
"Exactly, but apparently that wasn't Brown's reaction. He shows no genuine remorse for having raped Lara although he makes the right noises but the deaths of those people in the fire really seem to be affecting him."
"Tell me you're not expecting me to feel sorry for him; tell me you don't feel sorry for him."
Alex shook her head. "No. He's not sleeping and he has nightmares and he's distraught and losing weight, but I've visited eight families who have multiple members dealing with the same psychological and physical symptoms because Brown killed their loved ones, or left them close to death, so that he could rape a little girl. I'm just I'm just concerned that the situation is exactly what we talked about the other night: by seeking the death penalty, I'll be putting Brown out of his misery and making his mother pay for his crimes."
"Are you sure he's not faking his remorse?"
"He's never killed before and the victims of all his previous crimes have been little girls: flashing, stalking, one reported incident of inappropriate touching where no charges were filed. He's given us details of four previously unsolved child-rape cases. Girls taken, drugged, raped and released."
"So he's been escalating "
"Lara was the first victim he almost killed, as far as we know. And he made a pretty good attempt to keep the fire contained, according to the arson investigators. All indications are that there was no pre-meditation with regard to the victims of the fire but he's still guilty of multiple homicides committed in the course of a felony, so he's eligible for a needle in his arm."
"Come on, Alex. How could he have tried to contain a fire in a laundry room?"
"I don't know the details, but he'd set it so that the smoke would travel through the building but the fire would be limited to a small area. Unfortunately, lint in the exhaust system caught fire and it went from there through the ceiling. It's not the first time an arsonist mistakenly thought he could control his weapon of choice."
"I suppose. It sounds as though your conscience tells you he shouldn't die. What happens if you go to Branch with that?"
"He'll pull me off the case and find someone to ask for, and get, the death penalty." She stared over to the swings where two little blond girls were squealing as a dark-skinned woman pushed them. "Being pulled would lead to questions about why. There'd be the assumption that I'd screwed something up or that I didn't have the guts to see the case through to the end."
She looked helplessly at Olivia. "There's no doubt that Brown did it, which is usually my biggest reservation in asking for the death penalty, because I know the system isn't perfect. But what happens when someone qualifies for the death penalty because of particularly heinous crimes, but doesn't deserve the peace of a painless, death which quiets his conscience forever? I want that man to live with his crimes; I want the victims' families to tell him everything he's done to them and I want him to have those pictures in his head forever." She gave Olivia a weak smile. "And no, I didn't put them in his cell."
"If you're asking me what I think "
"I think that your instincts for right and wrong have never let you down. Yes, they've got you in trouble, but the trouble has always been short-lived and you've been able to look yourself in the mirror afterward that's the most important thing. And you know I'm always available if you need to talk about any aspect of it."
Jamie sat up and shrieked, startling both women. They looked in the direction in which he was lifting his arms and saw Rhonda Preston coming towards them. "I'll say this much for the kid: he knows the people he likes," Olivia muttered. "I was fumbling for my key yesterday and my neighbor offered to take him from me while I unlocked the door man, talk about embarrassing. You'da thought the woman was trying to kill him."
When Rhonda got to them, Olivia introduced Alex, ignoring the fact that Jamie was practically throwing himself at the older woman. "How's my grandson?" Rhonda asked, rhetorically, since it was obvious that he was in fine form. Alex stepped back from the older woman and the baby, grinning at his antics.
The next few minutes seemed to unfold in slow motion. Olivia bent down to pick up the cup that the little boy had flung away in the initial excitement of catching sight of his grandmother. There was the sound of two gunshots and splinters from the tree behind them stung exposed skin.
"Gun! Down!" Olivia shouted instinctively, wrapping her arms around Rhonda and Jamie because they were within easy reach and taking them with her as she hit the ground hard. Several people screamed and ran for safety.
Olivia looked to where Alex had been and saw the ADA on the ground, but she looked unharmed. The detective turned her attention to the direction from which the shots had come and saw a short, disheveled woman coming towards them, a handgun still pointing in their direction.
She stared venomously at Olivia and shouted. "The papers said he beat and raped you, so you killed him. But look at you; you don't look beaten or raped. Hell, you don't even look as if you've ever had a kid. If it wasn't for that little bastard over there " She pointed the gun at Jamie, who was screaming.
Instinctively, Olivia moved almost imperceptibly away from Rhonda and Jamie, trying to separate the targets. She knew who the woman had to be and she had to make a quick decision whether to try to correct her misconceptions and risk having her turning her attention, and the gun, exclusively onto Jamie, or allow her to keep believing that she'd found Gladys and try to calm her down, anyway.
"Look Chrissie," she hoped she'd got Stirling's psychotic girlfriend's name right and that he hadn't had two of them, "why don't you put down the gun and we can talk about it?" As she'd spoken, she'd slowly got to her feet.
"Talk about what? It wasn't bad enough that you stole him from me the first time. You had to go and kill him?"
Olivia wondered whether, by taking off her sunglasses and revealing her brown eyes, she could distract the armed, unstable woman with the realization that she wasn't Gladys. She decided that the woman was too far gone to deal with such subtleties. The best she could hope for was to keep her talking until officers responded to the shots. There was a mobile unit at the south end of the park, so it shouldn't take long. "It was an accident," she said pleadingly. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Alex, who was almost out of the wild-eyed woman's line of sight, fumbling for her bag and assumed she was trying to call for help. She suspected that someone else would already have done that.
"I don't give a shit what it was," the woman said, sniffing loudly. "He was all I had and you killed him, so I have to kill you." She gave Jamie a look that was full of hatred. "I have to kill both of you." She aimed the gun at the little boy and Olivia moved. Propelled by terror and adrenaline, she took two running steps and then dived at the woman, angling her body so that, if she managed to get off a shot, it would hit the detective and not the child.
There was the sound of two more shots and then everything went dull for Olivia. She'd body-checked the shorter woman, landing on top of her on the ground. She felt as though somebody had kicked her in the ribs and the pain enraged her. She drew back her fist and with all her strength she swung at the woman's face. As the punch landed, the detective realized she was having trouble drawing a deep breath. The thought registered only briefly, before she lost consciousness.
By then, Alex had pulled out her phone and dialed 9-1-1. "Officer down," she said through tears. "This is Assistant District Attorney Alexandra Cabot. Gun fired at the playground, northeast corner of Washington Square Park. Officer down, we need an ambulance immediately. Repeat, officer down." She gave Olivia's name and badge number as authentication, as she kicked the gun away from the unconscious assailant's hand and pulled Olivia off her. Olivia was bleeding profusely from a puncture wound on the left side of her chest. Alex was alarmed to see small bubbles of air coming out of the wound along with the blood. She covered it with her hands and pressed down with all her strength.
"Give me a pad one of Jamie's diapers or something," she said desperately to Rhonda. She turned back to Olivia. "Baby, stay with me. It's going to be fine. Please, Liv, stay with me. I won't make it without you. Please "
There was the sound of running footsteps and the wail of sirens from emergency vehicles, but Alex barely noticed. Uniformed officers swarmed the area, assessed the situation, recovered the gun and handcuffed the unconscious assailant and it was only minutes before EMS workers forcibly moved Alex so they could work on Olivia.
"Where are you taking her?" Rhonda had the presence of mind to ask before EMT's raced off with Olivia on a stretcher as cops cleared the way.
"Closest trauma center is St. Vincent's. We've radioed ahead and she'll probably be taken straight into surgery."
She looked over at Alex whose blouse was more crimson than white and who was still holding a bloody diaper in her limp hand. Jamie was still crying and saying "If" over and over again. His grandmother felt her own tears gather: it was the first time he'd ever tried to say "Liv."
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