DISCLAIMER: See Chapter One.

Light in the Shadows
By Canna

Part Three, Chapter Two


It was nearly full dark when they arrived within view of the cabin.

The instant Olivia saw the first obscured view of the lodge she knew something was wrong. The detective froze and pressed her hand against Alex's chest, indicating that they should stop. Alex froze as well. She barely saw the smooth motion of Olivia's hand as it pulled the Glock from its holster.

Olivia waited a full minute, then brought her lips to Alex's ear. "We didn't leave that many lights on," she said in a whisper.

Alex whispered back: "Are you sure?"

Olivia nodded. She waited one more minute, then breathed again in Alex's ear: "Stay here and don't move. Do you hear me?"

Alex nodded mutely. Various parts of her rebelled violently against the need to be protected, yet again, like a helpless child. But without a gun of her own she was completely defenseless. And with a gun, you're what? A danger to everyone in a five mile radius.

Olivia took one more look at Alex, then abruptly kissed her. She ran her hand behind the soft blonde hair and pulled Alex's ear to her mouth. Her voice was barely audible, "Alex, I know you hate this. Just answer this one question: if I were arrested, would you let me represent myself in court?"

Still holding the blonde head securely in her hand, Olivia pulled back and looked into Alex's eyes. She saw the race of emotion, nature warring with sense. But the eyes calmed quickly.


Olivia grinned, "That's good to know, 'cause I would suck at it very badly."

Alex couldn't help a smile. Still whispering, she pushed Olivia away. "Go on, you pirate. I'll be good."

Olivia pressed one more kiss to her lips, then disappeared into the forest.

When Olivia came within clear sight of the cabin's back windows, she saw that the lights inside were ablaze. Someone inside was either very confident or very stupid. Silent as a cat, she approached the steps to the porch and ascended. Dropping to a crouch, gun held in both hands, she approached the back window. Slowly, she raised herself and peered through the corner of the glass.

The sight was certainly not what she had expected ... but it was enough to make her expel a breath of amused relief and lower her weapon. The window revealed an individual who had to be the official mascot for the Geek Squad. A rail-thin man with long blonde hair was bent over a nest of cables on the desk in the living room. He was clearly muttering to himself, and he sported heavy-framed glasses that were never 'in', either before, during, or after the Buddy Holly era. Straightening momentarily, he surveyed the rat's nest, all of it vaguely connected to a jumble of computer equipment that seemed to have sprouted spontaneously from the flat surfaces of the cabin.

So this is Ringo. How did he get in? Asshole. The detective had half a mind to kick the back door down and start firing, just to see what he'd do. But her responsible-self triumphed over her rogue-self. She retreated quietly from the window and returned to the woods to find Alex.

The lawyer was sitting on the forest floor with her arms crossed, her back leaning against a tree. The fixed set to her face was visible even in the darkness. She turned when Olivia approached. The detective's gun was holstered, and the swagger was firmly back in place. It was clear that whatever had alerted her instincts had been a false alarm.

"Liv, you're right. I do hate this."

"I know." Olivia understood completely, there just wasn't anything they could do about it right now. The detective offered a hand. After a moment's hesitation, Alex grabbed it and pulled herself up.

"So, false alarm?"

"Yep. Your friend Ringo decided to arrive three hours early. He let himself in, by means unknown, and has begun redecorating the place into a techno-geek haven without our permission."

"Did you talk to him?"

"I admit, my sensitive social nature did tempt me to kick the door down and start blasting, with the intent of scaring the shit out his sorry lock-picking ass. But I resisted, in deference to your long acquaintance."

Now that's a Kodak Moment I'd pay to see. Alex barely restrained an outright laugh.

Olivia motioned to the cabin with a flourish. "I thought you should do the honors. You're welcome to the gun of course."

Whoo boy, this is going to be interesting. She and Ringo had known each other since first year university and she valued his friendship very much. However, he could be ... trying ... at times. Her beloved detective had the patience of Job when it came to her job and the suffering victims she had to console on a daily basis. But outside the job, Olivia sometimes revealed an impatience with the idiosyncrasies of her fellow beings. Oh boy ...

Alex took Olivia's hand as they headed back toward the cabin. "Liv, try to be nice, ok? I'll tell you up front, he's a ... unique ... individual. You've just got to know how to handle him. Underneath he's a really great guy, trust me."

Olivia squeezed the hand entwined with her own, "No problem, Ace."

Alex climbed the porch and pushed open the back door. The living room had indeed been transformed. Ringo had covered the desk with three flat-screen monitors, a big tower computer, and various unidentifiable devices. Amid the rat's nest of cables and equipment, he looked ready to launch the space shuttle. Boxes of god-knows-what had been tossed haphazardly on the armchair, the couch, the floor. Ringo looked up from his station when he heard the door open. His face cracked into a broad grin, "Alexis!"

Alex smiled in genuine fondness. Her old friend was a wacko of the old school but he was brilliant, and he was fun to be around. She felt a surge of confidence: with Ringo on their side, the vast resources of the Information Age were at their disposal. Their enemies were in for a nasty surprise.

Ringo grabbed Alex in a bear hug and she squeezed him back, "It's good to see you, Ringo." She pulled back and favored him with a smirk. She glanced at his threadbare Motley Crue T-shirt and the fraying hole in the left knee of his jeans. "You're looking ... well-groomed, Ringo, as always."

"Damn right," said Ringo. "Top of the line." He looked over Alex's shoulder at Olivia. The detective had her hands in the pockets of her leather jacket as she watched the scene with amusement. Alex and her old friend made quite a pair: the statuesque ADA and this scruffy, goofy-looking nerd. She vowed to learn more about Alex's days in the 'chess club'. The potential for teasing was enormous.

"Hiya, cutie, what's your name?"

Watch it, asshole. "Detective Olivia Benson, NYPD Manhattan." She extended her hand.

"Woah, a cop!" Ringo shook her hand.

"Do you happen to have something as mundane as a first and last name?"

"Woah, a cop who uses big words! Who knew. Richard Langly, ma'am. Everyone except the police calls me Ringo, but I'll make an exception."

"So, Ringo, what can you do for us?"

Ringo waggled an eyebrow in a failed attempt at a roguish expression. "I can do anything you want, honey."

Alex steered the conversation around before Olivia's irritation-meter crept any further into the red zone. "Let's sit down for a bit. Ringo, we need to tell you what's going on."

Ringo moved one of his boxes off the armchair and sat down while Alex and Olivia took the couch. Alex started from the beginning, with the case against Max Klein and the unexpected appearance of Brenner as his lawyer. Ringo was attentive as she presented the information they had uncovered so far, about Rosa Zacharias and General Rakowski, about the tampered records and the assassination attempts.

"Altering military and criminal records? That's impressive. These guys must have someone who's skilled and well-connected. And they can field manpower."

"Yeah," Olivia nodded. "Problem is, we don't know who we're up against. Ringo, before we go any further, I want you to think seriously. These people are dangerous, they've managed to put two cops and an ADA on the run already. Do you want to get involved in this? If not, just say the word, no hard feelings."

Ringo looked at her with a smirk, "I guess Alexis here hasn't told you much about me. Conspiracies are my middle name, cutie. These bastards are fucking up peoples' records, their lives, and using the internet we built to do it. You're damn right I'm getting involved."

Cutie or not, Olivia couldn't help a smile, "Well, ok then. Glad to have you on our side, Mr. Langly."

"So where do you want me to start? You said you had some ID to check out."

"Right." Olivia went to the kitchen counter and returned with the wallet. "I pulled this off one of the jackasses who tried to kill Alex at her apartment." She extracted cards one-by-one from the wallet, placing them on the coffee table. "VISA ... debit card ... driver's license." She held the latter to the light. "Ken Gaston, address in Brooklyn." Olivia laid the card on the table and turned her attention to the billfold. "And here we have a bit of cash, plus an intriguing little piece of paper." She placed the fragment on the table. "Looks like a phone number, probably his contact."

Ringo approached the table and sank to his knees, picking up the pieces of evidence one at a time. "Plenty to go on here. I'll get on it."

Grabbing the wallet and its scattered contents, Ringo returned to his cyber-haven. He plugged a pair of headphones into the tower, and soon the tinny sounds of Metallica playing full blast could be heard. Ringo was off in his own world, typing and clicking a blue streak as he made his way around the virtual world of cyberspace.

Alex leaned back, "Nothing else for us to do tonight, I guess. I'll fix some dinner."

"You cook?"

"In an approximate sort-of way. Do you mind pasta?"

"Sounds great. I'll call Elliot and see how he's doing, bring him up to speed."

Alex nodded, and headed for the kitchen.

Olivia was nearly finished cleaning out her gun when Alex called that dinner was ready. The detective walked over to the oblivious hacker and shook his shoulder. Ringo snatched off the headphones.

"You want something to eat?"

Ringo was clearly on another planet. He just nodded and wandered to the kitchen, returning with a plate of spaghetti and a can of Coke. Headphones back on, he returned to the realm of databases and IP addresses, eating with his left hand while manipulating the mouse with his right. Olivia just shook her head.

It was eleven o'clock when they finished dinner and got everything put away. "Alex, I'm going to turn in." Alex nodded, "Me too." The ADA wandered over to Ringo and snapped his headphones.

"What's up?"

"Ringo, we're turning in. There's a second bedroom down the hallway, next to the bathroom. That's yours, ok?"

"'K." Headphones back on.

Alex just smiled.

Olivia was already dropping off when Alex joined her. She snuggled into her new favorite place in the world, head on Olivia's shoulder and lying partly on top of her. Olivia's arm surrounded her immediately. "What's this 'Alexis' thing?" the detective asked sleepily.

"Chess club ... someone thought it sounded Russian."

Olivia burst out laughing. It was a rich, merry sound that warmed Alex right to the tips of her toes. After a few chuckles, Olivia drifted off again. The detective's steady heartbeat beneath Alex's ear brought back the gentle lap of the waves in Brosewere Bay. Two soft metronomes, one imagined, but the other very real indeed.

Alex and Olivia were both early risers and were up the next morning shortly after seven. They found Ringo sprawled on the couch, covered with printouts and fast asleep.

Alex hunted through the kitchen cupboards for some sort of appliance that would allow them to make coffee.

"Wonder if he got any sleep?"

"We'll leave him a bit longer. Alex, I'm going to go for a run, it's been days."

"Sure you're up to it? Don't go tearing that wound back open."

"I'll take it easy, don't worry." The detective went back to the bedroom and changed into the track suit Alex had picked up when they were still in the city. She gave the ADA a quick kiss before she headed out. "You are an absolute genius picking up these sweatpants. I think I would have gone nuts without 'em."

"Be careful, don't push yourself too hard."

After the detective disappeared into the woods, Alex got coffee started using the stove, an antique appliance, and some technical creativity. As she started the brew, she realized something was missing. Newspaper. Ever since college, Alex Cabot's daily routine had included the morning paper. Military conspiracies or not, it was unthinkable to do without it. She scribbled a note on the counter in case Olivia came back early, and headed out to the car.

Olivia did take it slowly at first, paying close attention to her side, seeing how it felt. So far so good. She worked up to a moderate but steady pace and headed deep into the woods.

The dark-haired detective had always been an athlete, first joining the track team back in junior high. She loved physical exercise, and jogging in particular. She loved the feel of her body working, the synchronicity of muscles operating in close collaboration, and the centering quiet that it brought to her mind. The steady pace of jogging was a part of her routine that she looked forward to every day. She also lifted weights a few times a week .. but most days she just went running.

After about 25 minutes Olivia stopped in a clearing and stretched for a bit, working kinks out of tendons and muscles that hadn't been treated to their usual workout for days. You're getting old, Benson. Never used to stiffen up this fast. The birds were past the peak of their morning symphony but still sang merrily, discussing cheerful mysteries that no human being would ever be privy to. The air was on the chilly side, but just right for a run. It's peaceful out here. We should come back after this mess is over.

Three sets of twenty-five pushups ... one minute pause in between, and push yourself for ten or so extra on the last set. Chin-ups, same drill, three sets of fifteen. An overhanging branch filled in for her usual stop in the city park near her building.

Both the physical exertion and the return to routine were envigorating. Everything back to normal. Time to hunt down some bad guys. The detective picked up her previous pace and headed back to the cabin.

Alex looked up from the kitchen table when Olivia came in the back door. The detective was covered with a thin sheen of sweat. She was breathing deeply but steadily, no signs of overexertion.

"How'd it go?"

"Good, no problems." Olivia dropped into one of the kitchen chairs. She radiated the clean, cold air of the outside.

"Do you want some eggs? I wasn't sure how long you'd be gone, it only takes a couple of minutes."

Olivia grinned, "Eggs are actually the one thing I can vaguely handle in the kitchen ... but that'd be nice, thanks."

The detective noticed the newspaper on the kitchen table. Alex had the business section spread out in front of her while the remainder of the publication lay in a neatly-folded pile off to the side.

A dark eyebrow went up. "You drove 5 miles into town to get a newspaper?"

Alex looked at the detective and made a wry face. "I'm afraid it's an obsession. For many long years I have accepted the fact that I am unable to function without reading the newspaper in the morning. Sorry, rampaging assassins or not, you'll just have to live with it."

Olivia held Alex's eyes.

"I would love to live with it."

Alex's heart stopped, then flipped over a full 360-degrees. Lost in dark eyes that warmed her entire being, she realized that she had stopped breathing.

Olivia rose and kissed her gently on the lips. Her voice was soft, "I mean that with all my heart, love."

One more second to let silence speak on her behalf, then the detective retreated to the shower.

Alex felt like she was glowing, awash in sunlight, with happy little butterflies dancing around her.

Amidst her joy, it occurred to Alex to marvel: it had taken several assassination attempts and at least three dead bodies to bring them to this new state of happiness. We really are a messed-up species, aren't we?

"Should we wake him now?"

"Yep," said Olivia. "We need to know if he's found something we can work with. He can go right back to sleep if he wants."

Alex did the honors, shaking the computer guru into wakefulness and passing him a hot mug of coffee. "Hey Ringo. How much sleep did you get?"

Ringo grabbed the coffee and took two swallows before answering. "What is it with you 'career' people, have to be up before the break of dawn? What the hell time is it?"

"It's 8:30. Did you find anything? If not, I'll take that mug and you can go back to sleep."

Ringo shook his head, "No no, I'm up. Yeah I have something." Olivia handed him a plate of scrambled eggs and some toast. Ringo took a few bites and a few more gulps of coffee before he presented his findings.

"OK, first the phone number on the piece of paper. It's a cell, prepaid, and never recharged with a credit card. No way to trace its owner. But I can tell you its location."

Olivia was impressed, "You can triangulate a cell from here?"

Ringo grinned at her, "Like I said, cutie, I can do anything you want."

"How are you connecting to the net anyway? Dialup?"

Ringo snorted in disgust. "You've gotta be kidding. Satellite, baby doll." He motioned to an open receiver on the desk while shoveling another forkful of eggs.

Olivia kept her temper in check. This guy was a special breed of jerk, but he was clearly very capable and they needed him. "So where is our untraceable cell?"

"It's been stationary at an address in Manhattan for the last ten hours." Ringo shuffled through the mess of papers on the couch and retrieved one. He thrust it at Olivia.

As Olivia glanced at the address, her face morphed into an unpleasant smile. "Well, well, well."

"You recognize it?" Alex asked.

"Oh yes. General Rakowski. We visited him at this address the day before Elliot got canned."

"If you liked that, you're gonna love this. It took some doing, but I found records on your Mr. Ken Gaston. Ex-marine, and in the same unit as Max Klein. They were in the Gulf at the same time."

"You're kidding." Alex thought for a second. "So we have a connection between Gaston and Klein. Now, how does Rakowski fit in?"

Ringo rifled through his papers again, "Here's the unit's chain-of-command from their time in the Gulf. Believe that should answer your question." Ringo turned back to his breakfast as the ADA and the detective peered at the piece of paper.

"Well I'll be damned. Colonel Walter Rakowski was directly up the chain from the unit." Olivia looked more closely at the paper. "We have some folks in between: a Major Zelinsky, Captain Sutherland, and Lieutenant Spader." She looked at Ringo, "Any chance you could trace these folks? Find their current addresses?"

Ringo smirked, "Way ahead of you, cutie." He thrust some more crumpled papers in her face. "Zelinsky and Spader are long gone, retired and relocated to California and Arizona respectively. However Captain Sutherland, who is now Major Sutherland, retired only a year ago and he's still here. Has an address in Glen Cove, about one hour's drive from here. And there's a phone number."

Olivia was truly impressed ... and slightly discomfited. Though she was grateful for the results, this hacker-shit was disturbing. Their lives really were an open book to those with the skills to read it. "Amazing work, Ringo."

Ringo grinned around a mouthful of food, "My pleasure, cutie."

Alex turned to Olivia, "It's coming together, Liv. Rakowski was their Colonel during the Gulf War and he clearly still has control over them: he was able to call up Gaston and others, probably also from the unit, to help in a highly-illegal operation."

Olivia's mind was racing as well. "What's the hold he has over them? Blackmail? Simple bribery?"

Alex remembered the sorry figure of Jacob Trent slumped over the interview table. "Drugs. Remember Warner's unidentified compound? I'd wager money there's a connection."

Olivia nodded, "You may be right. So now what? Do we call this Major Sutherland?"

"Damn right we do. We need information." Alex was up in a flash. She grabbed Ringo's report and headed for the phone.

Olivia jumped to her feet, "Alex, don't use the landline. Hang on a second." The detective rooted in her jacket pockets and came up with one of the two Nokias. She handed it to Alex.

The ADA nodded in assent, "Good thinking. Ringo, can they trace a cell call?"

Ringo stood up, "Of course they can."

Alex paused. "Then they can triangulate."

"Right. You should drive away ... head toward the guy's place, and make the call when you're nearby. Then shut off the phone for good. Or use a payphone."

Olivia nodded, "Yep, Alex, let's do it. Drive to his place and call from a payphone. If he's not there we've only wasted a couple hours drive."

Alex put the phone down, "Ok. Sounds like a plan."

Olivia drove this time. She pushed the speed limit and they were in Glen Cove in under 45 minutes.

"There, payphone on the corner. You have the number?"

Alex nodded. She got out while Olivia kept the car running and her senses alert.

Alex picked up the payphone and dropped in some coins. The phone rang twice before it was picked up by a female voice.

"Sutherland residence."

"Good morning. I'm Assistant District Attorney Alexandra Cabot and I'd like to speak with Major Sutherland please." No point in subterfuge now. If Sutherland was an enemy he'd know who was calling no matter what name she invented.

"Hold a minute, I'll get him." The phone was put down and Alex waited.


"Good morning, Major. I'm Assistant District Attorney Alexandra Cabot with the Manhattan DA's office. If it's not too inconvenient I wonder if we could drop by your home and talk with you. It's a matter of great urgency."

There was a pause on the other end. "Well yes, that would be fine. Where are you?"

"We're close by, sir. We can be there in ten minutes. Would that suit you?"

Another brief pause. "Alright, come on over."

It was understandable that the man was slightly bewildered. Alex was encouraged by his apparently-genuine tone. "We'll be there in ten minutes, sir. Thank you for your time."

Alex hung up and returned to the SUV. "We win: he's there and he'll see us. I told him ten minutes. 708 Elm Street."

Olivia handed Alex the map with the Glen Cove inset displayed on its elaborately-folded front face. "Tell me where to turn." She pulled out of their parking space and followed Alex's verbal instructions.

They arrived at the Major's modest bungalow in five minutes, and spent the next five just watching from a location two houses down. There was no movement of any kind, except for a big German Shepherd chained to a post in the front yard. Damn dogs. Olivia would never admit it but she had a secret fear of dogs, originating from a close-encounter with a neighborhood Rotweiler when she was eight years old.

Alex glanced at her watch, "We've given him two minutes of fashionably-late grace period. Let's go."

The lawyer and the detective banged the doors closed on the SUV and headed up the walk to Major Sutherland's modest home. Olivia found this residence much more in keeping with a career military man than the ostentatious digs where they had met the now-infamous General Rakowski. She kept a fragment of her attention on the dog in the yard, grateful that he was restrained and that he didn't start barking to wake the neighborhood. Alex pushed the doorbell. Olivia hung back, happy to let Alex do the talking. This was the ADA's forte.

The door was opened by a straight-backed but kindly-looking man in his late fifties. Alex flashed her ID, "Good morning, Major. Thank you for seeing us. I'm ADA Cabot and this is Detective Benson from NYPD Manhattan. May we come in?"

Sutherland nodded and opened the door. He was wearing simple clothes: a sweater over comfortable-looking slacks. He shook hands with Alex, then with Olivia. "What brings Manhattan law enforcement out this far?"

Alex kept quiet as Sutherland guided them to chairs in the living room. She reviewed her opening words as she walked into the room and seated herself in the proffered armchair.

"Major, do you remember Max Klein? He was a member of the unit you commanded during the Gulf War."

Sutherland looked at the ADA, "Yes, I remember Max."

"What do you remember about him, specifically?"

The Major took a breath, then exhaled sharply, "Max was quite a piece of work. Violent character. In my opinion, they should never have let him enlist."

"Do you remember another marine, Jacob Trent?"

"Sure. He and Max were as close as brothers. I believe they knew each other from school."

Alex nodded, "Yes, that's what we found. What else do you remember of the relationship between Max and Jacob?"

Sutherland frowned, "It was not a good thing. Jacob was always a bit shy of a full deck, if you know what I mean, and he was enamored with Max. Max could make him do anything. Killing, especially. Max fed on it like a vampire, but Jacob was always soft. Neither of them had any business being in the forces. Damned recruiters, just looking for warm bodies."

"Major, we picked up Jacob Trent recently, assault on a police officer. When his blood was tested, the Manhattan medical examiner found evidence of a mysterious drug that was unknown to her computers. Do you have any idea what that drug might be, or how Jacob got hold of it?"

"An unknown drug?" The Major looked over at the mantelpiece, and sighed minutely. "Yes, I probably know what it is. Was the ME able to determine its general nature?"

"Based on chemical similarities to known compounds she estimated that it was psychotropic in nature. What do you know?"

The Major sighed. "This information is classified. But since it has come to the attention of the New York police, it looks like it has declassified itself, all on its own."

Sutherland turned back to his guests. "About a year before the Gulf War, a Colonel Rakowski came by our unit from headquarters. He was seeking to recruit a handful of volunteers for a special program. I was the captain at the time, in charge of four platoons. Colonel Rakowski made it clear that he was looking for a particular type of volunteer, men with either violent tendencies, or ones who were particularly ... pliable. I was uncomfortable with the request from the beginning, but there was nothing I could do. Max Klein was one of the first I approached. He had a record from before he enlisted."

"Yes, we know about that."

"His friend Jacob Trent also fit the profile."

"What about a Ken Gaston?"

Sutherland nodded, "Yes, he was another one. There were ten recruits in total. The colonel set up shop in one of the unused barracks on the base and kept the recruits away from their regular duties for weeks at a time. I didn't know much about the program at first, but eventually I learned some details."

Alex and Olivia sat forward, attentive.

"Rakowski was testing some sort of experimental drug. He called it 'T-six'. Its purpose was not entirely clear. I saw enough to know that it was supposed to suppress the men's sense of caution, and to make them more pliable to instruction. To suppress their sense of self, essentially, conscience, doubt, fear, questioning of authority ... make them machines. I also saw a number of indications that the drug was enhancing their abilities in various ways. Better powers of observation, better recall, faster reflexes. Might have been simply a side-effect of the mental effects of the drug, suppressing distraction and what have you, I don't know. But the results were impressive. Before the program, Trent was only a mediocre shot, near the bottom of his platoon. I couldn't believe it when I saw him training under Rakowski: near-perfect accuracy with both fixed and moving targets. It was impressive, but it was disturbing as well. The man's eyes were ... vacant, when he was on that stuff. Don't know how else to describe it."

"Was the drug used on actual missions in the Gulf?"

"Yes it was. Nine of the recruits were assigned to Rakowski on extended duty, I rarely saw them. Their code name was Black Shadow. I was aware of some of their activities as part of our general operations control in the area. They were being sent out in groups of three or four on special-ops, surgical strikes on key targets far behind enemy lines. It worked, their missions were always successful and they always came back."

Olivia asked, "You said there were ten recruits initially."

"Yes. I don't know what happened to Oberman. He just disappeared at some point during training at the base. Rakowski never reported him AWOL, or injured. He and his file just vanished and we never heard from him again."

"Is this program still active, Major?"

"No it's not. Despite its apparent success, there were three bad incidents that no one could sweep under the rug. One involved Klein. His team had just returned from one of their missions and was chowing down with the regular grunts in the mess tent. No one ever figured out what provoked him, but he flew into a rage and launched into a group of soldiers at another table. Not just a fist fight, he had his knife out and severely wounded three of them. Two were so badly hurt that they were sent home with medical discharges. It took five guys to finally get him under control. I was called in ... he was raving like a lunatic, still trying to get up with a pile of marines holding him down. I called in our medic, had him sedated. The medic had one chance to talk to him in the brig after he regained consciousness. Based on their conversation, he described Klein's behavior as a psychotic break of some sort. But in less than a day, Rakowski showed up with signed orders from way up the chain and whisked Klein away. The second mess was similar, I wasn't there but I heard about it. Another member of Black Shadow, another bad fight, apparently unprovoked ... more wounded marines.

"The last incident was the worst. One of the Black Shadow recruits lost it completely on a mission and ended up murdering eight civilians. Miraculously, his two teammates restrained him before he could do any more damage and called in one of my platoons. Women and children ... he'd killed them in a blind rage ... throats cut, bodies mutilated ... I saw the damage myself. His victims were refugees hiding in an abandoned one-room shack. The place looked like a slaughterhouse, blood everywhere, all over the walls. It's not a scene I expect to forget in this lifetime."

"So you suspected the drug."

Sutherland nodded, "Nothing like this had ever happened before the men joined Rakowski's program. A few scuffles on leave, after they'd had too much to drink ... but nothing like this. After the civilian murders, I'd had enough. No orders from on high could justify that kind of madness. These men had been turned into unstable, wild animals. I wrote a letter of protest, as did several of the other unit commanders in the area. Rakowski vanished soon after and the program was disbanded. At least, officially."

Alex's mind was racing. Had Rakowski kept the program active despite the order to disband? Or had it just retreated into the bottomless pit of military secrets?

"The reason we're here is that Max Klein was arrested a couple of weeks ago. We have solid forensic evidence that he raped and murdered a housewife in one of the city parks. The sheer volume of forensic evidence was surprising from the beginning. He made no attempt to conceal the crime ... he didn't even bother to wear gloves, his fingerprints were all over the place. After your description, it appears that the crime is evidence of another psychotic break."

"Did you find evidence of this unidentified drug in Max's blood?"

"We never did a blood test. He was arrested two days after the crime and showed no signs of intoxication. There was no motivation for a blood test. The drug signature only appeared when Detective Benson and her partner went to interview Jacob Trent. He was clearly under the influence and tried to assault Detective Benson during the interview at his apartment. We brought him in on the charge of assaulting a police officer and took a blood sample."

Sutherland was deep in thought. "How are they getting it? Are they still in the service?"

"No, they both left the service four years ago, after their six-year tour of duty."

"Then I have no explanation. The program was disbanded, I saw the orders myself. I was promoted to Major near the end of the conflict and I never saw any of the Black Shadow boys again."

"Do you have any idea how we could get a hold of the formula for this 'T-six'?"

"No idea. Everything I've told you is classified. You'd need one hell of a subpoena to get a hold of any records regarding T-six or the Black Shadows."

Alex racked her brain for a further question, but could think of none. She glanced at Olivia. The detective shook her head minutely. Alex turned back to Sutherland and rose, extending her hand. "Major, I can't thank you enough for the information you've given us. We have reasons beyond what we've told you to suspect that a conspiracy of some sort is operating at a very high level. They've already committed a number of crimes. Thanks to your information, we have a much better idea how to proceed."

Sutherland rose and shook the ADA's hand. "I disliked the entire operation from the beginning. If Rakowski has managed to keep that drug in circulation he needs to be stopped. Please let me know if I can be of any further assistance."

"We will, and thank you again."

The Major ushered Alex and Olivia to the door.

Olivia steered the SUV back toward the center of Glen Cove. "So black ops are involved ... great, this is turning uglier, Alex. Do you think we're up against something that's actually sanctioned by some branch of the military? Rakowski could have moved his program under the dark umbrella of national security. These Black Shadow guys could still be in the saddle, doing God-knows-what for the CIA for example."

"I was thinking the same thing. But you know what? I don't care. If they are operating under orders, those orders are irresponsible in the extreme. They've unleashed unstable men onto the general population and we've seen the result. Whatever is going on, it needs to be stopped."

Olivia nodded, "I'm with you, Alex, but do we have the resources ... nevermind the authority ... to take on this operation?"

"Well if we don't who will?"

Olivia couldn't argue with that. She slowed her speed as she entered the center of town and navigated the weekday traffic.

"Liv, I want to buy a gun."

Having overcome her knee-jerk objections yesterday, Olivia nodded. "Yes, I think that's a good idea." Olivia thought for a minute. "You're going to have to present ID. Your ADA badge will get you past the usual waiting period for a firearm license but you're going to have to give your real name." Olivia pulled the SUV into a gas station and parked. "So let's do it here." She took out her Nokia and dialed directory info.

"Glen Cove." The automatic recording was replaced by a human voice. "I'm looking for a firing range in the area, any listing you can find." Olivia waited another 20 seconds. "Yes, go ahead and dial it."

The phone range twice after the operator forwarded the call. "Chesterfield Range."

"Hello. Do you sell semi-auto handguns? I'm in the market for a new one, and I'd like to try out a few before I decide."

Alex heard the tinny voice answer in the affirmative.

"Ok. Where are you located?"

Olivia looked at Alex, who grabbed the map, open to the inset of Glen Cove. The detective repeated the directions out loud. Alex nodded after each one, making some notes in the map's margins with a pen hastily retrieved from her back pocket.

Olivia clicked off the phone. "You should try out a few models before you decide. Firing ranges usually sell and rent guns, they're the best places to go."

Alex nodded, "Good. Let's do it."

The Chesterfield Range was on the outskirts of town, an open-air range located behind a rustic-looking main building. Olivia held the door open for Alex, then walked directly to the counter. A rotund gentleman garbed in an army-surplus hunting vest rose to greet them.

"What can I do for you ladies?"

"My friend here is looking to buy a sidearm. We'd like to try out a few first, what do you have?"

The man waddled to a display case, "Here you go, ladies, best selection in the area."

Olivia surveyed the models on display and picked out three, all good weapons: a Heckler & Koch P7M8, a Beretta 85FS Cheetah, and a Smith & Wesson 22A as a small-caliber choice. She pointed out the Glock in the display case to Alex, but skipped over it since they'd worked with one yesterday. "We'll need a 20-box each of 9 mm, 9 mm short, and .22 LR's."

The owner nodded, waddling to the back of the counter to retrieve the requested items. She forked over some bills.

"Liv, I can pay for this."

Olivia grinned at her, "Put your money away, you've paid for everything else on this lovely wilderness excursion."

Collecting the weapons and ammo and handing a few items to Alex, Olivia grabbed the two ear-protectors offered by the range owner and headed outside. She stopped at the door and motioned Alex to join her. Some fifteen meters in front of them was a series of twelve wide booths, each separated from its neighbor by a plywood divider and facing a firing lane with a paper target at the end. The targets were affixed to what appeared to be nothing more than bales of hay. Five of the lanes were occupied, with shooters firing a variety of weapons ranging from handguns to civilian assault rifles.

"Alex, here, take this." The detective handed her one of the ear protectors. "Yesterday, I wanted you to become familiar with the actual sound of a semi-auto going off. But you shouldn't practice too much with your ears unprotected or you could damage your hearing. Also, we're at a range now, and there are rules. See that guy over there?"

Olivia pointed at an individual surveying the occupied lanes. "He's the range officer ... acts kind of like a life guard. He signals 'clear' every twenty minutes or so. When he does, everyone has to put down their weapons and step back behind the line." Alex saw the broad line painted in white on the compacted dirt. "In a clear period, either he or someone else clears the targets and replaces them. And as a general rule, you should put on your ear protectors whenever you cross that line."

Alex nodded. Olivia donned her ear protectors and headed for the empty lane furthest to their right. Alex did the same and followed. When they reached the lane, Olivia arrayed the selection of handguns and ammo on the plywood counter and motioned Alex forward with a hand on her back. Olivia spoke close to her ear. The gunshot sounds were well muffled by the protective gear, but Alex could still hear the detective's instructions clearly.

"You tried out the Glock yesterday ... we've got two more 9 mm's here, and a .22 for comparison. Unlike the Glock, they've all got safeties, but otherwise the operation is basically the same. Give the .22 a try first, same procedure as before to load and prime it." The detective pointed to the compact Smith & Wesson and the box of .22 long-rifle cartridges. Alex lifted the gun and located the magazine release ... indeed, same spot as before. Standards are wonderful things. She dropped the clip and started feeding it diminutive .22-caliber rounds from the box.

"Liv, they're tiny. How can these things do any damage?"

"You'd be surprised. .22's are a favorite with professional hitmen, the recoil is minimal and they do plenty of damage. Folks in the gun business debate the relative merits of small and large calibers in an ongoing holy war with no conclusion. Some reports show greater stopping power from the larger calibers, others don't. One statistic I sort-of believe is the optimum penetration-depth in soft tissue: 12 - 18 inches. A .22 can achieve that easily. The heavier calibers tend to exceed it, that's why we usually use hollow-point ammo, the shape and consistency serves to stop the bullet early."

Dire statistics of death, yet Alex's logical mind was engaged. "Hollow-point ... that refers to the indented shape at the end of the cartridges we were using yesterday. I was wondering about that."

"Yep. But for a .22 you want a sharp profile. Slap that clip in and cock it." Alex did so. "Now the safety. This little guy has a traditional safety: you hit this switch right here and the hammer is locked in place. That lets you carry it around in 'cocked-and-locked' mode: round in the chamber, just release the safety and you're ready to fire."

Alex nodded at the explanation. She cocked the gun and aimed as she remembered from yesterday's lesson. When she pulled the trigger, the recoil from the .22 was almost non-existent, nothing like the kick from the Glock. Yet her shots weren't much more accurate than yesterday's. Alex fired a full clip, placing each shot carefully.

She put the gun down, "Feels too light, Liv."

Olivia nodded. Alex tried the HK P7 next, back to 9 mm. Olivia explained its unique squeeze-grip cocking mechanism. It was ostensibly the simplest and safest option on the market. But it was unusual, she found it non-intuitive herself. Alex worked through a full 8-round magazine, displaying absolute concentration. The paper target was 20 yards away, but not one shot landed outside the outer ring. She really has a talent.

The minute Alex picked up the nickel-plated Beretta, she knew it was the one. It felt solid in her hand and her fingers wrapped around the grip like a glove, exactly the right size and weight. Loading it was easy ... the slide moved smoothly ... and as she aimed it on target it felt like an extension of her arm, ready to do her bidding. The recoil was there but her arm absorbed it easily, it felt solid rather than disruptive. She put the gun down after three shots.

"I love it, Liv. This is the one."

Olivia smiled. The aesthetic Italian design fit the ADA perfectly. "It's a great gun, Alex. Beretta supplies the military with the M9 as their standard sidearm, it's similar to what you're holding. You made a great choice." Alex turned back toward the lane and concentrated on the feel of the Cheetah as she fired five more rounds.

"Clear! Weapons down, back behind the line." The range officer called the order three times and firing ceased. Alex pulled off the ear protectors as she and Olivia stepped back. Olivia took the opportunity to explain the function of the safety, which acted as a decocking lever on the Beretta F models.

"How do you prime it again from safety?"

"When the gun is uncocked, the trigger mechanism goes to a mode called 'double-action': the trigger draw roughly doubles in weight, and the first half of the draw serves to cock the hammer. After the first shot, the gun recocks automatically and you're back to single action."

"That's efficient, I like it."

The range officer called the all clear to return to the lanes. Alex and Olivia stayed for a while longer, the detective watching Alex's technique and giving her pointers. Alex was in her element: focused but relaxed, intent on learning a new skill and enjoying the process. When the range officer delivered the last target to their station they were both impressed.

"I think you should frame that, Ace." The paper was perforated with a beautifully consistent grouping just to the left of center.

"Still leaning a bit left, but yeah ... maybe I will." She couldn't help a grin, "Liv, this is a great sport. I really like it."

The detective threw her arm over the ADA's shoulder and grinned. "When we get back, I'm bringing you to the practice range at the precinct so you can embarrass the hell out of a pile of big burly guys."

Alex paid cash for the Beretta, presenting her ADA badge. They picked up several boxes of ammo, a gun-cleaning kit, a sheaf of paper targets, a couple of ear plugs, and a clip-on holster. As they drove back toward the south coast of Long Island, the press of the firearm against the back of Alex's hip made her feel absurdly ready for anything. Dumb, I know ... but who cares.

Part Three, Chapter Three

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