DISCLAIMER: See Chapter One.


Light in the Shadows
By Canna

Part Four, Chapter One


Alex and Olivia were up early and set to with a purpose. Alex hit the shower first, while Olivia got the coffee going and roused Ringo. He was in his usual irritable morning-mood but got up quickly and helped Olivia pack a variety of devices into the duffel bag. They double checked that each piece of equipment was working properly before they packed it. Ringo also reviewed the operation of each one with Olivia, though they had already gone through it all yesterday evening.

Olivia hit the shower next and Alex made coffee. Soon everything was ready. The detective and the lawyer were moving back into the city, having reserved a room at the Hyatt only two blocks from 26 Federal Plaza. Ringo would stay at the cabin. They had debated having him relocate as well, but it would take time to get all his equipment set up again. More importantly, it was good strategy to keep a member of the team disconnected, in case something went wrong. If the worst happened, Ringo would call Elliot and take it from there.

Olivia slapped a hand of friendship on Ringo's shoulder, "Make me proud, cutie."

Ringo smirked, still trying to rouse himself with generous gulps of caffeine.

Alex and Olivia packed their gear in the SUV and Olivia steered the vehicle back onto the Long Island Expressway, speeding toward the glass, steel, and human pulse of New York City.

Alex checked them in to the Hyatt under an assumed name, paying cash in advance for one day. The desk clerk was clearly surprised by this unusual procedure but consented.

When they got to their suite, Olivia went straight to the large work table in the outer room. Since this location would serve as their base of operations for the next while, they had chosen a sizable suite complete with all the trimmings of modern business travel: broadband internet, multi-line speaker phone, USB printer, fax machine, coffee maker, even a fridge. She began unpacking their gear. She withdrew two VOX-activated wireless receivers, provided by Ringo from his bottomless collection of technical paraphernalia. She powered them up, but refrained from yet another nervous check of their operation.

The detective retrieved a smaller satchel from the duffel bag and placed a few items within. She spoke to Alex, who was perusing some handwritten notes and playing with a quarter in her left hand. "Alex, are you ready?"

Alex looked up, "Yep. Let's do it."

"Ok. Let's get communications up and running." She handed Alex one of the two Nokias while she phoned Ringo's cell number. "Ringo, we're ready. How about you?"

"Ready as I'll ever be. Hang on, I'll connect Alex." First, she heard the phone on the other end being placed into one of Ringo's devices, which provided a speakerphone interface to the cell. Then Alex's cell rang. Alex picked it up and they confirmed the three-way connection.

The lawyer and detective clipped the phones to their belts and connected wired earbud-plus-microphone devices. They'd look no more suspicious than the millions of other city folk who wandered the streets of New York looking like raving madmen as they engaged in conversations with invisible second-parties.

The plan was to have Olivia leave first. She took one last look at Alex. She found the ADA looking back, and biting her lower lip in amusement. "Liv, you look a bit ... intense for a purchasing grunt taking inventory."

They'd settled on the inventory ruse after proposing and discarding many alternatives. The cover would give the detective a legitimate excuse to scramble around under Kettler's desk, purportedly hunting for serial numbers and UPC bar codes.

Olivia looked herself over, "Do I?"

"Um, consider losing the badass leather jacket when you get upstairs, ok?"

Olivia grinned, "Ok, point taken." She pressed a brief kiss to Alex's lips then strode for the door. "See you soon."

Step One: break into FBI headquarters.

Olivia strode through the familiar front doors of 26 Federal Plaza, her badge of office displayed prominently on her belt. As she approached the security guards barring entry to the building's interior, she disconnected the cell-phone earbud and dropped it into the left pocket of her jeans. The cell phone remained live on her belt, connected to Ringo. She retrieved the badge from her belt and presented it to the security people with as much boldness as she could muster. "Detective Olivia Benson, Manhattan SVU. I'm here to see Sean Neeland, in charge of FBI purchasing." Their meticulously prepared strategy had a 'Plan B' contingency if she was asked for proof of her fictitious appointment, but she hoped it wouldn't be necessary ... at least not yet.

The bluff worked easily. The disinterested security guard took one look at her badge and waved her through. So far so good. Olivia approached the elevators and pressed the button. Trying to look as casual as possible to the multitude of government employees wandering past her, Olivia removed her jacket and stuffed it into the satchel she was carrying over her shoulder, along with the NYPD badge. Alex was right: if I'm supposed to be at work, I shouldn't even be wearing a jacket. She tried to jam the jacket to the bottom of the bag, bundling it beneath the devices in her satchel so they could be retrieved easily when needed. She also retrieved a Yankees baseball cap from the bag and donned it. They'd decided on this detail in the hopes that it would prevent any stray hair fibers from landing in Kettler's office, to be picked up by the meticulous crime scene units that would eventually visit it ... if all went well.

Olivia rode the elevator upward with a handful of others, emerging at last on the 23rd floor. She stepped to the imposing front desk. A stern receptionist sat like a gatekeeper before the great seal of the FBI.


"Olivia Benson from purchasing, here to take inventory on some of your computers." Olivia withdrew her driver's license from her back pocket and presented it.

The gatekeeper was unimpressed, "I have received no notification that inventory was scheduled for today."

Olivia subtly moved her hand to the cell phone on her belt and pressed one of the numbered buttons. It was the prearranged signal to Ringo to activate 'Plan B'. Hopefully, he was also hearing the entire conversation. Olivia tried to look bored, like any other civil servant putting in her 37.5 hours a week and accumulating benefits.

"My boss, Sean Neeland, just sent me over. He said you should call him if you needed authorization."

The intimidating receptionist raised an eyebrow, but retrieved her internal phone directory from a neat vertical file on her desk. She flipped to the relevant entry: Sean Neeland, head of purchasing, and dialed the number.

Electronic signals raced through the NYNEX phone network, seeking their destination. They paused at a number of databases, querying for their next path. At the sound of Olivia's pre-arranged tone, Ringo immediately activated a series of roadblocks and detours which sent the dutiful signals out of the city toward a rustic cabin in the woods. The cabin's landline rang on his desk.

Ringo let the phone ring twice, then picked up, "Neeland, purchasing."

"Mr. Neeland, this is Sally Rowles at the FBI front desk. A woman claiming to be one of your employees, an Olivia Benson, is requesting access to our offices to take inventory."

"Yes, Ms. Rowles, Benson is one of my people. I'm working on some reports and I'm missing some information on some recent items purchased by Mr. ... " Ringo randomly rustled the scraps of paper on his desk. "Mr. Jack Kettler, equipment he purchased for his office. Please let her through, my report needs to be in by this afternoon."

The efficient Ms. Rowles frowned at this display of last-minute disorganization ... but she was not entirely insensitive to the plight of a fellow bureaucrat trying to meet the never-ending sequence of deadlines imposed by government service. "Thank you, Mr. Neeland."

She hung up and turned to Olivia, "Who is it you need to see?"

Olivia knew full well Ringo had transmitted Kettler's name over the phone. Suspicious witch. Feigning an air of boredom, Olivia reached into her satchel and appeared to consult a piece of paper within. "Kettler, Jack Kettler."

Ms. Rowles nodded at last, and rose from her seat, "Come with me, I'll show you to his office."

Not good, not good ... don't want him to know I've been here. Persisting with her air of disinterest, Olivia waved off the secretary and headed into the inner sanctum of the 23rd floor as if she owned the place. "No problem, been here before, I know where it is."

Just sit back down and file something, please ...

To Olivia's enormous relief, the receptionist let her go.

Olivia wandered into the labyrinth of cubicles and glass-doored offices. She scanned the names on the doors as she passed but found no mention of Kettler's name. Once she was sure she was out of hearing range of the dragon at the front desk, she popped her head into an occupied cubicle.

"Hey there, looking for Jack Kettler, know where his office is?"

The civil servant within barely looked up. He motioned over his shoulder: "Just keep going, second-last office on the right."

Olivia continued into the nether regions of the 23rd floor. At last, she saw Kettler's name imprinted on one of the doors. She veered away from his office and found a bare space of wall on the opposite side of the floor to lean on. As casually as possible, she reached into her satchel and retrieved a clipboard. The pages on it contained the technical specifications for much of Sony-Ericsson's product line, helpfully printed out by Ringo, and she appeared to peruse them with intensity, flipping from one sheet to another. She retrieved the earbud and microphone from her pocket and connected it to the phone. Unclipping the phone from her belt, she made a pantomime of placing a call. A few people were standing in their cubicles, conversing in small groups, but no one looked her way.

Before she spoke, she looked directly at the glass door to Kettler's office. He was there, ensconced behind a nest of computer monitors.

"Sean, I can't read your handwriting. Can you read me the model number on the printer I'm supposed to be looking for?"

It was their prearranged signal.

Step One completed.

Alex had heard everything, thanks to the three-way conference call. When she heard the signal she grabbed her newly-purchased jacket and left the hotel room. You're up, Cabot.

"I'm disconnecting." Alex pressed the red button on the Nokia. When she reached the sidewalk outside the hotel, she hit the pre-programmed speed-dial for Kettler's office phone.

"Kettler, OCD."

"Good morning, Mr. Kettler. My name is Alexandra Cabot."

Alex waited as Kettler paused. She could practically hear his brain scrambling in confusion.

Parked across the hall from Kettler's door, Olivia saw the hacker rise to his feet, phone pressed to his ear. Even from this distance, the confusion and fear on his face was evident. It's working.

"Thank you for not insulting us both by pretending you don't know who I am, Mr. Kettler. I am standing at the lovely fountain outside the front doors of 26 Federal Plaza, and I have a proposal to present to you. You have exactly one minute to come down and meet with me. If you don't make it down in 60 seconds, I'll be gone." The plan was to set a deadline so sharp that he had no chance to call anyone else, or lock his computer. "If you don't meet with me, the proposal is off the table, and you will soon find yourself a very unhappy man, Mr. Kettler."

Alex disconnected the call without a further word, leaving Mr. Kettler in a state of bewilderment.

Olivia watched Kettler intently. Go, asshole. You know you have to. Three more seconds and Olivia saw the hacker grab his jacket and leave his office. He transmitted a brusque message to a secretary in one of the nearby cubicles. "Jackie, just got a call, I have to go out for a while." Bye bye, birdie.

Step Two completed.

As soon as Kettler was out of sight, Olivia advanced on his office, staring at her clipboard in apparent concentration. As she was about to enter, Secretary Jackie stopped her. "Where d'you think you're going?"

Olivia looked up from her clipboard, favoring the vigilant employee with an air of remote disconcern. "I'm from purchasing, taking inventory. Cleared it with Rowles at the front desk."

Jackie looked at the detective, wondering whether further action was required.

"I can wait if you want to call her first."

Apparently the suggestion of a verbal exchange with the fierce Ms. Rowles was enough to dissuade Jackie from pursuing this matter any further. "Go ahead."

Olivia nodded and entered the office. She gave the door just enough momentum to swing closed, but not latch. She hoped the unlatched door would reassure the vigilant Jackie outside.

Clock is ticking ... move, Benson. Olivia strode to Kettler's desk and dropped to her haunches, concealing herself in the shadow of the monitors. She snapped on thin, form-fitting latex gloves from her back pocket, then spoke in hushed tones into the microphone suspended below her mouth.

"Ringo, I'm at his computer. Talk to me."

"What operating system is he running?"

Olivia hissed back through the microphone, "Ringo, my understanding of computers equals your ability to run a four-minute mile. Speak English. What do you want me to look for?" Olivia could hear the grinding teeth on the other end. "Deal with it, genius. You're not here risking your exposed ass."

"Just look for a computer, not a monitor. A big box with blinking lights, like the one I have on the desk here. Or maybe a laptop."

Olivia scanned the desk quickly, "Yes, it's here under the desk. Big fucking grey thing with an Apple logo on the side."

Ringo breathed a huge sigh of relief, "Thank all the saints. My respect for this man just rose. Cutie, welcome to the greatest operating system in the world. UNIX core, but with a user interface that even you can manage. Is the front panel also grey, and perforated with holes?"

"Yes, that's what it looks like."

"G5. Cutie, get the grey hard disk out of your bag, the one in the US Modular casing. And the firewire cable. And hurry up."

Ringo had explained all this jargon to her yesterday and then again this morning. She located the items quickly, "Got it."

"Now find the firewire port on the back of the G5. It'll be a thin, vertical rectangle and marked with a symbol that looks like a radiation-hazzard sign ... like the letter Y. When you find the thing, plug in the disk."

The correct port was quickly located and Olivia plugged in the external hard disk, housed in its bus-powered enclosure.

"Done. Now what?"

"Find the mouse and look at his monitor. What do you see?"

Olivia raised her head above the desk and moved the mouse to disengage the screen saver. "I see a pile of open windows."

"Look at the top-left corner of the screen. What do you see in the menu bar?"

"At the top-left corner? I see a blue Apple logo."

"No, stupid, just to the right of that. There should be a word, what does it say?"

"It says X-one-one."

Ringo muttered to himself, "MIT and their bloody X11, join the New Millenium already." He addressed Olivia again, "Do you see a row of icons either at the left of the screen or at the bottom?"

"Yes, it's at the bottom."

"The one at the far left should be a two-toned blue thing with a smiley face that looks like a Kandinsky painting."

"Yes, I see it."

"Move the mouse, and click on it. You do know how to click, don't you?"

"I also know how to kick your ass, jerk." Olivia did as she was instructed and a window surrounded by a brushed-metal border popped to the front.

"Now type 'splat-N' on the keyboard."

"'Splat'? What the hell is 'splat'?"

Sighing mightily, Ringo provided alternative instructions, "Move the mouse to the menu bar at the top, to the 'File' menu. Click on it, then move the mouse down to the entry 'New Finder Window' and click again."

"Done. Another brushed-metal window appeared."

"I know that," he snapped. "Now look at the top-left corner of that window. Tell me what you see, starting from the top. And hurry up."

"Circular icon, label is 'Network'. Below that are two squarish-looking icons. The top one is labelled 'Cylon', C-Y-L-O-N, and the lower one is labelled 'Ringo'."

Ringo muttered again, "What a fucking nerd. Click on the 'Cylon' icon, then go back up to the 'File' menu in the menubar and select 'Get Info'." Olivia did so, as Ringo continued to speak. "You'll get a little window. Read me the entries for 'Capacity', 'Available', and 'Used'." Olivia saw the entries immediately and reported their values. "Under 60 Gig, perfect. Close that little window, cutie, by clicking on the red button in its top-left corner. You'll be back to your brushed-metal window, and you have only one thing left to do. Just drag the 'Cylon' icon onto the 'Ringo' icon. Got it?"

Olivia executed the instructions, and was gratified to see another small window appear, reporting that copy was in progress and displaying a colored status bar. "It's copying, Ringo, there's a little window and a status bar."

Ringo breathed a sigh of relief through the phone. But they had more to do. "Cutie, you know how to do the rest. Clip that induction-tap onto his phone line and plant the bug somewhere near his desk. And hurry up. Cabot can only keep him talking for so long."

Olivia muttered in growing frustration, and concern, "I know that." Olivia first retrieved the bug and secured it with duct tape to the underside of Kettler's desk. She flicked the tiny switch, activating its wireless connection to the receivers in their hotel room two blocks away. She next retrieved the phone tap apparatus and popped her head above the level of the desk. Kettler's desk phone was placed immediately to the right of his monitors. Olivia scanned the grey RJ-11 cord that snaked from its rear port, tracing an exposed, elevated path to the phone jack on the far right-hand wall.

"Ringo, I think we have a problem. This office is a bloody mess, there's paper everywhere and the phone cord is mostly hanging in mid-air, it runs right over his floor and over some stacks of paper. None of it is concealed. Where am I supposed to attach the tap so he doesn't see it?"

"Jesus Christ ... I don't know, am I there? ... Wait, you said his office is a mess. Then just dump some papers on the damn thing. He'll never know the difference."

"Ok, decent idea," Olivia assented. She clipped the induction pickup and its attached transmitter to a slack portion of the phone line, switched on the device, and randomly rearranged some stacks of hopefully-meaningless printouts to cover it. Finally, she returned to Kettler's desk and glanced at the progress meter on the copy dialog.

"Copy is at 65% and moving."

Ringo muttered in growing anxiety. "Shit, shit ... how long can Cabot keep him talking? Why didn't we pull her back into the conference call after she phoned Kettler?"

Olivia kept her peripheral vision on the glass door to the office. Her concern grew along with the shaded blue bar on the screen in front of her. "'Cause we couldn't risk him hearing our voices from an open cell in her pocket. Just trust her, Ringo. She'll do it ... 70% ..."

As the long seconds dragged on, Olivia kept her attention on the office door. Still no unexpected movement from the employees beyond. Nevermind keeping Kettler out of the office, she knew that this inventory-ruse would evaporate quickly all on its own if she stayed too long.

"76% ..."

The strain in Ringo's voice was transmitted clearly by the tiny earpiece. "Olivia, maybe it's enough. Just pull the plug and get out of there."

He actually used my name ... he must really be worried.

"No, just wait, we'll have it all in another minute. 79% ..."

C'mon Alex, keep him talking ...

As Alex pressed the red button on her phone, disconnecting the call to Kettler, she glanced at her watch. One minute. She was prepared to wait longer than that if necessary. They had all the bases covered: if Kettler tried to take extra time to phone someone, Olivia would spot it and inform Ringo, who'd then call her on the cell. They couldn't lose ... at least not this particular phase of the operation.

Alex reviewed the approach she would take with Kettler and she rested lightly against the fountain with her arms crossed. She glanced at the slim watch on her wrist. Thirty seconds to go.

At the cabin yesterday, the team of conspirators had considered a number of strategies for her conversation with Kettler. The simplest possibility was just to blow smoke and keep Kettler occupied until Olivia completed her mission. At the opposite end of the spectrum was the idea to have Kettler set up a meeting with the other conspiracy members. Both extremes were rejected and the team had turned to intermediate alternatives. Olivia's voice had eventually prevailed: provoke him. Alex should use the same approach she'd used on Rakowski: scare him, make him uncertain, in the hope that their adversaries might be prodded into a foolish move that would expose them.

Gathering her thoughts and wits, Alex waited. Her watch reported an elapsed interval of 45 seconds when the weighty, unhappy figure of Jack Kettler emerged from the building's front doors. Alex recognized him immediately from his personnel photo.

The ADA noticed that the hacker had no trouble picking her out from the crowd. He knows what I look like. That did not bode well for Olivia's safety during the next phase of their plan ... but too late now, the time for revision of details had passed.

Kettler walked up to Alex. He kept his hands jammed in the pockets of his ill-fitting coat and regarded her with sullen wariness.

"What do you want?"

Alex kept her arms crossed and smiled, projecting confidence. "Good morning, Mr. Kettler. I trust you've had a good day so far."

Kettler grunted.

"Mr. Kettler, I have an idea that will make your day improve in quality by a tremendous amount. Are you interested?"

Kettler looked at the masonry beneath his feet and did not reply.

"Jack, you are in a world of trouble." Alex's first use of his given name was premeditated, designed to invoke a personal touch at a vulnerable moment.

"Jack, I want to help you. You're just a cog in this machine, we know that. You've been coerced, Jack, and we want to help you." Alex had no evidence of any coercion ... but what human being isn't eager to accept the suggestion that someone else 'made them do it'?

"Jack, look at me." The hacker's troubled eyes turned to hers and were immediately trapped within the clear blue light of certainty. More than any words Alex could have offered, her expression and stance bespoke a certainty of intent and purpose that every human heart longed for. Given the conflicted state of his own heart, there was no contest.

Alex saw the turmoil and discomfort and ran with it. "Jack, you have to get yourself away from all this." The ADA did not know what 'this' was, but the vague article was ideal for the present situation, covering all possibilities. "We know you're not responsible, we know they made you do it. Trust me ... a couple more days, and I'll have all the evidence I need to shut down your operation." Pure smoke, but Alex made it sound like canon from the Old Testament. "I don't want you to go down with them. Turn yourself in, Jack. I can help you."

The hacker's face was in turmoil. "You don't know shit. What do you need me for if you've got it covered like you say?"

This particular exchange was as familiar to Alex as the back of her hand. She had engaged in precisely such wordplay over bargaining tables too numerous to count: bluffing that one's case was solid, whilst simultaneously convincing the witness that his or her testimony was crucial. He's not stupid. Watch it.

"I don't need you at all, Mr. Kettler. I'm offering you a deal because I'm tired of this, because I'm sickened by the behavior of the people involved, and because I don't think you're the one who deserves to pilot the ship into the ground. I've seen many miscarriages of justice in my lifetime and I don't want to see another."

That flagrantly-emotional appeal was at the far edge of Alex's repertoire and she hated to use it. But times were desperate: lives were at stake and she didn't hesitate.

Jack Kettler did hesitate. The beautiful blonde woman before him offered a vision of escape, a door to a new place where he was no longer bound by the odious orders of the ruthless men who held him in indentured servitude. But the bonds that held him in that servitude raised their insidious voices, overwhelming the brief vision of freedom. He had known for a long time that he could never escape this particular trap ... because it was of his own making.

Kettler looked at the ground, scrutinizing the patina of scratches on the old marble around the fountain. "Ms. Cabot, I doubt that you mean what you say. And despite your claims, I don't think you do know who you're dealing with. I have also seen many miscarriages of justice ... and if you keep this up, you're going to be the next on the list."

Stall, Alex, stall. Alex's peripheral vision was trained on the front doors behind Kettler's shoulder, watching for Olivia. The detective was not yet out of the building ... she had to keep him talking. "You don't think I know who I'm dealing with? Mr. Kettler, I think you overestimate your abilities. We know about the Black Shadows, we know all about them and their fondness for a decommissioned drug know as T-six. We know about Rakowski, we know about Brenner, we know about you ... need I go on? Your ship is sinking, Mr. Kettler. Grab a lifeboat while you still can."

Kettler looked up sharply, "How do you know about T-six?"

Alex's voice softened just a bit. "Jack, we do this for a living. It's our job and we're good at it. You can't win. All you can do is cut your losses, and now's the time. I want you to come with me to the DA's office and turn yourself in. Talk to the DA and explain what you know. We can help you, Jack."

For a moment, the hacker's troubled eyes appeared receptive to the suggestion ... but the light of hope quickly faded. "It's too late, Ms. Cabot. Go ahead and play your hand, and I'll play mine."

Alex scrambled for a new angle. She had to keep him talking ...

Then, like an angelic apparition, a familiar, swaggering detective pushed open the front doors to 26 Federal Plaza, shrugging on her leather jacket. Despite the distance, their eyes found each other immediately. Olivia nodded minutely, signaling the success of her mission. The detective then diverted her path to her next destination.

Alex fought to suppress an expression of triumph as she returned her eyes to the unfortunate individual before her. Tearing her thoughts from Olivia, she stared at Kettler ... and realized that she was looking at a very lost and unhappy member of the human race. Recognizing the despair in his eyes, she regretted that they had been unable to reach a compromise. She tried one last time: "Jack, whatever the hold is they have on you, you don't have to do this. Come with me, turn yourself in."

Jack Kettler didn't even look up, just turned on his heel and headed back toward the majestic front doors of 26 Federal Plaza.

Olivia was observing in many directions at once as she walked away from the federal building. She kept an eye on Alex and Kettler as she walked by them. She kept her senses alert for any unwanted attention as she scanned the area for her next stop, a pre-arranged meet with one of Ringo's colleagues.

Ringo had contacted his friend and collaborator, John Byers, to meet her at this precise time by the newsstand on the corner across from 26 Federal. She'd been given a description: tall, grey suit, brown hair, beard. She found the likelihood of Ringo knowing anyone who owned (much less wore) an actual suit remote in the extreme, and was ready to entertain remote interpretations of the word as she waited for the pedestrian light to change. Olivia crossed, leaving Alex behind her in body but not in spirit.

The newsstand soon came into view ... and there beside it was a thoroughly normal-looking individual who could have passed for any of the well-dressed yuppies scurrying around her on errands of great import. Sandy hair, trimmed beard, and a small pin on his lapel displaying the obscure state crest of the state of Virginia. That was the distinguishing feature that Ringo had told her to look for.

Olivia walked up to Byers and supplied her end of the pass-phrase. "November 22, 1963."

"A date to remember. Good to meet you, Detective Benson." Byers extended his hand and Olivia shook it. Firm grasp. A hacker who can pass for a civilian ... who knew.

Olivia handed over the hard disk and nodded. She glanced back over her shoulder at Alex and Kettler. "I have to go, Mr. Byers. Thank you for your help."

Byers took the disk and departed without another word.

Olivia turned back to Alex and Kettler. The hacker was turning to leave. The detective watched as he headed back toward the front doors of the building. Her next task was to wait outside, ready to provide a tail if and when necessary.

'When necessary' turned out to be right now: Kettler bypassed the front doors and kept walking, in the direction of the subway stop two blocks away.

"Ringo, he's not going back in the building. I'm following."

Olivia kept Kettler in her sights but hung well back. As expected, the hacker headed for the stairs to the subway, and she followed.

The tiny speaker in her ear transmitted a couple of clicks, then Alex's voice appeared.

"How did it go?"

"We got it, Alex, and Mr. Byers was where he was supposed to be. I'm following Kettler into the subway, might lose you in a minute. How was the conversation?"

"Scintillating. He didn't give anything up, but I think we've got him worried."

Olivia injected a spare token from her pocket into the subway turnstile and pushed through. Kettler was about ten meters in front of her and heading for the platform to the Number One train.

"I'm heading back to the hotel. Be careful, Liv."

"You too. He's getting on the train ... later."

As expected, the connection began to fragment as Olivia entered the Faraday cage of the subway car. She was pleased to see that Kettler was absorbed in his own thoughts and paying little attention to his surroundings. He grabbed one of the vertical posts and persisted in his intense contemplation of the scuffed floor of the train.

The train rattled along, barrelling north along the western edge of Manhattan. Kettler finally looked up when they approached the City College stop. Olivia emerged behind him, through a different door, and followed him upward to street level. His path took him through a maze of streets. Where is he going?

The answer was quickly revealed when Olivia saw the pulsing flash of red and blue lights two blocks ahead. Crime scene. Four NYPD patrol cars blockaded the street, barricading the curious public from the anthill of official vehicles and individuals beyond. The jackets of the milling personnel displayed a variety of acronyms in bold, yellow letters: NYPD, ATF, FBI.

Olivia stopped at a discrete distance from the scene. Kettler walked up to one of the officers guarding the boundary and presented identification. The officer waved him through. Should I get closer? Kettler exchanged further words with the officer and was pointed toward the steps of a three-story brownstone. No, Benson, take it easy. Plenty of evidence on that hard disk, don't risk it now.

Kettler approached a tall man perched on the upper steps of the brownstone. The individual spotted Kettler quickly and took his leave of the other besuited gentlemen with which he was conversing.

Olivia watched as the unidentified Mr. X pulled Kettler around the corner of the brownstone. They spoke in heated tones. The detective had no camera at her disposal but her trained memory would serve. She noted short blonde hair, a trim mustache, the man's approximate height, the outline of his facial features. At length, Mr. X pushed Kettler roughly in the shoulder and spoke angry words. Olivia couldn't hear the words but the emotion behind them was plain.

Mr. X closed his discussion with the hacker and returned to the crime scene. Kettler turned unhappily and headed back the way he'd come. Olivia retreated into the shadows of a doorway and waited until he'd passed, then continued her tail.

Alex paced the floor of the hotel room, quarter cycling through the fingers of her left hand, mind trying hard to focus but failing utterly. Olivia was out of communication. Since Kettler was out of his office, the taps were showing nothing. Ringo was busy with his analysis of the hard disk data, rapidly uploaded to his machines over the 100-base-T ethernet in Byers' office. Alex, alone, was left with nothing to do but pace, and worry.

Alex cursed herself for the plan that she herself had designed. Olivia, please be safe. Again and again she restrained her hand from picking up the phone and calling Olivia's cell number. She could be in a tight spot, don't ring her phone just because you're a nervous wreck.

The mute, illuminated numerals on the bedside clock advanced with implacable regularity ... the phone stared at her with threatening promise ...

Like a missive from heaven, there was a knock at the door. Alex raced to the door and peered through the peephole. Her detective stood outside, leather jacket and all, and Alex yanked the door open.

"Liv ... I was so worried ..." She reached out to the detective, pulling her into the room, needing contact, needing touch to reassure herself.

Liv was grinning, her blood alive with the adrenalin of their risky operation. "We did it, Ace. Your plan worked perfectly." She placed her hands on Alex's hips as she pressed the lawyer's back against the wall just inside the door.

"Did you find out anything from the tail?" Alex draped her arms over Olivia's shoulders, her knees weak with relief. Her hand explored the dark hair.

"He went to a crime scene. FBI and ATF were both there. I didn't get too close but I saw him head straight for a man. Tall, blonde, mustache." Olivia's exploring hands worked Alex's royal-blue blouse free from her jeans as she spoke. "I've got a good description, I'll recognize him again. He pulled Kettler aside, conversation looked pretty heated. Kettler went back to his office after that."

Alex clenched her fingers in Olivia's hair, "I bet that's his contact. We scared him, and he ran to papa. I believe we've found another member of our happy little band."

"Hopefully he's the last one." The proximity of Alex's lips was becoming increasingly distracting.

"Now to find out the identity of Mr. X, and to figure out what he's up to."

"Ringo's friend has started the upload on the disk?" Olivia's hands moved to the top button of the lawyer's jeans, working it free.

"Yes, Ringo called, confirmed that the upload was in progress." Alex pulled Olivia in for a brief kiss, a brief touch of lips in between sentences.

The detective slid her hands just under the waistband, pressing against soft skin. "Anything on the taps yet?"

Alex's breath began to show signs of instability. "Nope, but they're voice activated, they'll start recording when they need to."

"Lucky us."

Olivia abandoned the conversation and turned her full attention to the woman in her hands. She pressed her lips to Alex's and sank her tongue into a welcoming haven. Both of them were fuelled by adrenalin, by the need to reconfirm life and love after a close brush with danger. Olivia's hands worked at the remaining buttons restraining the denim.

Olivia's voice dropped by several intervals, "You are magnificent, Alex ... so brilliant, so beautiful ..." Olivia's hands wandered, exploring possessively. "You take my breath away. Let me love you ... Alex ... let me love you ..."

Alex closed her eyes. God, her detective had a way with words. The low voice and beautiful words resonated in her blood. Alex's fingers threaded through soft hair, clutching at it, conveying her positive response through touch rather than words.

Hands sliding down Alex's hips, Olivia sank to her knees. Bringing her hands to the unfastened jeans, she pulled them down ... down ... and away. Dark eyes drank in the beauty revealed as she pushed the garment aside. Olivia ran her hands upward, over toned thighs. She pressed her mouth to the soft abdomen before her, tracing it with lips and tongue. Alex gasped, pressing the detective against her.

Pulling back, Olivia looked up at the ADA, seeing her through a haze. She was bewitched by the silken blonde hair, the perfect bone structure, the penetrating blue eyes. The detective rose to her feet and placed strong hands firmly behind the lawyer's thighs. "Wrap your legs around me, love."

Olivia lifted Alex easily and carried her to the massive desk, setting the lawyer down on the edge. She just looked into blue eyes for a moment, stroking the soft skin of the blonde woman's cheek, letting the anticipation build. Alex was impossibly aroused by the sensation of Olivia's strength ... by the feel of rough denim between her bare thighs ... by the love in the deep brown eyes that held her. The detective made to shrug out of her jacket, but Alex stopped her, "No, leave it on."

Olivia sank to her knees once more and brought Alex's knees to her shoulders. A posture of worship. Alex leaned back on the desk, waiting for the touch she craved. Olivia proceeded slowly, pressing only her cheek against the soft skin of the lawyer's thighs at first, then tasting the skin with her tongue, building the arousal. Alex's breath was ragged, fighting the urge to press Olivia against her.

Finally, Olivia opened Alex's center with her thumbs and sank her tongue within. Alex cried out, awash in overwhelming sensation. "Oh God, Liv ... oh God." Knowing that it was this impossibly arousing woman touching her, this woman that she loved so much ... the knowledge shot fire through her body. No experience with anyone else had ever come close. Long slow strokes ... a slow build ... Alex's body moved with her, losing herself to pure sensation.

Olivia took her time, building it up, listening for the pace of the soft cries of pleasure above her. With careful skill, she finally moved her attentions to the swollen bud of nerves that begged for contact. She sucked gently, and little time passed before the sounds above her and the overheated muscles below her spasmed in release. As Alex continued to pulse from her attentions, Olivia rose from her knees. Beautiful. Alex in a state of ecstasy was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. She passed one arm under Alex's shoulders, the other under her knees, and lifted her with easy strength. She carried her to the bed and laid her down.

As Alex drifted in the blissful haze of the retreating waves, Olivia gently removed the lawyer's blouse. Holding herself on one elbow, the detective watched the woman she loved. No painter or photographer would ever be able to capture such beauty. The brilliant woman languished in pleasure before her eyes, her magnificent body open, inviting, and centimeters away. Before Alex's haze of pleasure passed, Olivia brought her hand between Alex's parted legs, and began again.

Only tiny motions at first, barely entering her, but Alex's body caught the slow rhythm ... her hips responded, meeting the delicate movements, asking for more. Olivia gradually deepened her motion. Mesmerized, she watched Alex respond, answering every thrust with her body, her averted expression clouded by blissful sensation. She avoided any other touch, allowing Alex to focus on the one source of contact, wanting to draw it out as Alex had done for her.

Alex turned her eyes to meet the brown ones watching her. They held each others' gaze as the erotic tableau evolved in timeless perpetuity ... then eventually approached its conclusion, bringing Alex to another wave of pleasure.

Olivia was still wearing the infamous leather jacket as she held the lawyer in her arms, waiting as the woman drifted back to an earthly plane.

"Liv," Alex's voice was still tinged with the echoes of her release. "I love you so much."

"I love you too, Alex."

At length, her waking self restored, Alex smiled and fingered the leather jacket.

"I think this splendid garment has outlived its usefulness. Wouldn't you say?"

Olivia smiled back, "Who am I to argue with a lawyer?"

Alex took charge and proceeded to return the favor. Fortune smiled, and the voice-activated recorders in the outer room of the suite remained blessedly silent.

After a happy interlude of irresponsibility, Alex and Olivia admitted that their little vacation from reality had lasted long enough. Alex got dressed again and sat down at the work table with its multitude of electronic devices. She retrieved the G4 laptop Ringo had provided and hooked it up to the room's T1 line and USB printer. Olivia occupied herself with the room's coffee maker.

"What's next, Ace? Anything we can do until Ringo reports back on the hard drive contents?"

"I think we might try tracking down the mysterious Mr. X that you saw with Kettler. I'm going to call Ringo. I think he can set us up with something we can search on our own."

Alex dialed the cabin on the room's speakerphone. "Ringo, how's it going with the information from the drive?"

"Not bad, Alexis, not bad. Suspicious bastard has a lot of encrypted files here, but they're not too hard to crack ... and they show me exactly where to start looking."

"Ringo, Olivia tailed Kettler to an FBI/ATF crime scene and saw him talking to someone. Heated discussion, and she got a good look. I think this may be our next player. Any way you can let us troll through FBI personnel files so Olivia can look at some photos?"

"Yeah, I think I can set that up. Hang on a second, I've still got their database open ..."

The sound of keys tapping rapidly could be heard in the background. Olivia sat down next to the lawyer, handing her a mug of coffee.

"Alex, you've got a VNC client on that laptop I gave you. Utilities folder."

Alex clicked around with the mouse. "I see it, starting it up. Give me an IP address and a port number."

Olivia blinked at the litany of obscure acronyms. She hadn't realized that her lawyer was so proficient with computers.

Ringo recited the numbers and a large window opened on the laptop screen, displaying an inset window with the seal of the FBI imprinted on its surface. "That's their personnel database, you've got access. It's pretty easy to navigate, there's a link to an organizational chart on the left, might be the best place to start."

"Ok, Ringo, thanks. Call us back when you have anything."

"Will do." The hacker disconnected the call.

"You really are a closet nerd, aren't you, Counselor?"

Alex smiled, "Maybe. Here we go ... Where should we start looking?"

"OCD, I guess. It's Kettler's division."

Alex nodded. She hunted around the menus for a bit until she found the relevant department. "Where's Kettler?"

Olivia leaned toward the screen, scanning the entries. "There," she pointed.

"OK, let's check his colleagues, then move upward from there." They started with the other members of Kettler's team, then went a level higher to the more elevated ranks of the IT group. Photographs flashed by, but none were familiar to Olivia. At last they reached the leadership of the Organized Crime Division.

Olivia recognized the photograph at once, "There. That's him."

Alex peered at the screen, "Jason Talon, deputy director of OCD. Well, well, well. What an entangled little web we have here."

"What's the connection, Alex? Rakowski and Brenner are military, Kettler and Talon are FBI. What are they doing together?"

"I don't know." Alex retrieved a quarter from her pocket and began her familiar ritual of concentration. "But this guy could explain one of our open mysteries: the taps on our phones. He's high enough up the chain that he could have issued false orders to his minions to install the taps."

"No way to know." Olivia had a sudden thought, "Wait, there's something else we haven't explained: how they knew we'd be in Bayport, the day our brake lines were cut. Someone must have looked at the precinct's motorpool log ... the FBI have the authority to do that. Maybe it's been them all along, acting under false orders. Maybe there's never been a mole within the NYPD itself."

Alex's eyes sparkled, "Yes, excellent suggestion, Detective. That would make all sorts of sense."

Olivia grabbed for the phone, "I'm gonna call Jerry at the motorpool, he was on duty the night I reserved the car. Maybe he remembers something. He can't trace us and I doubt he knows anything that's happened. Should be safe."

Alex nodded, and Olivia dialed the main number of the 16th precinct, asking for the motorpool. She was eventually connected to Jerry Lowe, one of the shift managers.

"Lowe, motorpool."

"Hi Jerry, it's Olivia, Olivia Benson."

"Hey, Liv, how you doing?"

"Fine, Jerry. Look, I have a question for you. You remember last week, last Friday, when I came in and reserved a car?"

"Yeah, I remember."

"Did anyone stop by later and ask to look at your logs?"

The man checked his memory, "Yeah, you're right. Some guy in a suit came by. He showed FBI ID, looked ok. Did I do something wrong?"

"No, Jerry, he had authority, it's fine. Do you remember the guy's name?"

The motorpool technician thought for another moment, "No, sorry Liv, don't remember his name. He was a skinny guy, balding, if that helps."

"No problem. Thanks, Jerry. Take it easy."

"You too."

Two triumphant expressions beamed as Olivia hung up the phone, "Well, there goes another piece of the puzzle. I'm glad it wasn't a cop. Maybe we can still trust the force."

"Yes, this is definitely good. We're finally detecting a boundary around our conspiracy: Rakowski, Brenner, Kettler, and Talon. Plus the Black Shadows, and some probably-innocent dupes from the FBI."

Just then, the phone rang. Alex hit the speaker button, "Yes?"

"It's Ringo. I've got something you should look at. It's a spreadsheet, buried deep in his directory structure and encrypted. Start your ssh server and feed me your IP address, I'll send it over."

Alex navigated the relevant application and read off their DHCP-assigned network address.

"Should be on your desktop. Have a look."

Alex double-clicked the file that had just appeared and Excel opened. A large multi-page spreadsheet appeared, filled with columns of numbers prefixed with dollar signs. And columns of names. "Any idea what we're looking at, Ringo?"

"The monumental idiot is so confident in his pathetic encryption algorithm that he's used real names. Have a look, they're all there: Rakowski, Brenner, Klein, Gaston, the whole bunch."

Alex and Olivia stared intently at the display, "That's a lot of money changing hands." Many of the entries were into the six-digit realm.

"And there's Talon." Olivia explained to Ringo their identification of the man Kettler had gone to meet, plus the evidence they'd obtained from Jerry at the motorpool.

"Who are these other people? Garrutti ... Feldman ... Liubov ... Marzzone ... Tarkinton ... Fabrocini ..."

Olivia's memory resonated with one of the names. "Marzzone." She looked closer at the screen. "Marzzone, A. ... OCD ... what do you bet that's Angelo Marzzone, head of the Marzzone family."

Alex leaned back abruptly, her eyes flashing with sudden insight.

The numbers on the spreadsheet drifted, then melded into a discernible pattern ... the pieces of the puzzle they had collected coagulated at last, solidifying into a construction that explained everything.

"I think I know what they're doing."

Part Four, Chapter Two

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