DISCLAIMER: See Chapter One.

Light in the Shadows
By Canna

Part Four, Chapter Two




Alex's eyes shone from a distance. "Hitmen, that's what they're doing. They're hiring out contract killers."

Alex stood abruptly and began pacing, concentration evident on every feature. "I bet if we look further into the background of Rakowski, Brenner, and Talon, we'll find a personal connection. Rakowski has the means to supply the ultimate assassins: fearless, experienced in combat, heightened reflexes. He knows Talon, somehow, maybe through Brenner ... and the connection to OCD provides him with a client list. Plus the resources of Mr. Kettler. Kettler indicated during his conversation that they have some hold over him. Maybe an old hacker offense, or something else. It's not a military conspiracy at all, just a good old-fashioned illegal operation with the oldest motive in the book: money."

"Alexis, damn ... that makes perfect sense." Ringo's glee radiated over the phone, "And now, crazy broads, how do we nail them?"

Alex continued to pace, the quarter moving automatically through her fingers. "It's getting close to time to call in our friends and bring the system back into this. What we need to do is set things up so that they can obtain legal evidence that'll nail these bastards." Alex paced some more. "Let's wait a bit. Ringo, keep at that hard drive. We'll see what we can do to identify the other names on the spreadsheet. And Kettler should still be at work, there's a chance the phone tap might give us something."

"Roger, wilco. I'll stay on the line in case you need me to send anything else over VNC."

"Got it."

The team set to with a will, hunting through databases. One after another, the unidentified names on Kettler's spreadsheet yielded connections to organized crime. Alex and Olivia also began mapping out the flow of money described by the spreadsheet. A clear pattern emerged: The payments first went from the clients to Brenner, then were disbursed to Rakowski, Talon, and Kettler, and in smaller amounts to the members of Black Shadow.

"Brenner is their front man. I'll bet you that's why he retired to private practice."

The lawyer and detective were immersed in their scrutiny of the printed spreadsheet when one of the voice-activated receivers on the other side of the table clicked on. They fell silent immediately. Olivia scribbled a note on the pad of paper in front of them. It's the phone tap. Alex nodded.

"Hello," said a brusque voice.

Kettler's nervous voice filled the room, "I think we're in trouble, General. That Cabot woman came to see me today at my office. Talon wants to go ahead but I think we should cancel the meet."

Rakowski's anger was clear, "What did you tell her?"

"Nothing, I didn't tell her anything. But they're on to us. We should close this down."

"Listen, you snivelling insect, you don't tell me what to do. You say one word to anyone and you'll find yourself at the bottom of the Hudson, do you understand?"

Kettler's frightened voice replied, "Yes sir." The man swallowed audibly. "Has the location been chosen yet?"

"The McTavish warehouse next to Hudson River Park. If you're not there, you'll spend the remainder of your hours on this earth praying you'd never been born, understand?"

Rakowski slammed down the phone in fury.

Alex and Olivia looked at each other with predatory intent.

"So there's a meet," said Alex. "I believe it is time to call in our friends and haul these shadows into the light of day."


Alex glanced at her watch. Just before five. She picked up the Nokia and dialed Munch's number at the precinct from memory.

"Munch, Manhattan SVU."

"John, I am an anonymous informant calling in with an anonymous tip. Take a breath and say 'Sir, I understand'."

There was a pause, then a breath, then the sentence was dutifully uttered.

"Great job, John. Do you have a pencil and paper handy?"


"Good. John, we know what's going on and we need your help."

"Go ahead, sir." Munch was on board and Alex grinned.

"Your anonymous informant has evidence that a nefarious group of individuals is engaged in the practice of supplying contract killers for hire to members of the underworld. I'm going to fax you a copy of a spreadsheet that shows the disbursement of payments among the four members of this group, the hired hitmen, and a number of other names that we believe to be their clients. The four ringleaders are Counselor Michael Brenner, General Walter Rakowski, whom you already know, plus Jack Kettler and Jason Talon, both members of the FBI's Organized Crime Division. Check into those other names, we've identified four so far that are underworld kingpins. We also have the time and location of a meet: tomorrow night, 10 pm, at a 'McTavish warehouse' near Hudson River Park."

Munch was scribbling furiously.

"Give it all to Cragen, John, and see if you can set up a raid. These men are armed and very dangerous, try to get SWAT support. And we need admissible evidence against them. Try to get the place bugged well in advance, don't move in until you get something we can use. I'm sure it's one of those old abandoned warehouses that hasn't been torn down yet by the renovation project, so gaining entry shouldn't be a problem."

"Is there some way I can contact you again, sir?"

"Yes, use this cell number." Alex read off the untraceable number from the Nokia. "If we don't hear from you, we'll be at ..."

Alex turned to Olivia, who searched her memory. "Tell him Pier 25. It's close by and there's a snack shop we've both been to."

"John, another anonymous informant says there's a snack shop at Pier 25 you'll remember. We'll meet you there at 9 pm tomorrow."

"Sir, I do understand that. But we'll keep your identity confidential, are you sure you won't give me some way to contact you again?"

Alex grinned broadly, "That's very cute, John. You should have been an actor. We're sending the fax to the Kinko's just across the street from the precinct."

"If you insist, sir."

"We'll see you tomorrow. And good luck." Alex hung up the phone. Next Alex located the Kinko's number and phoned them for their fax number. Alex attached an RJ-11 cable from the data port on the room's phone to the back of the laptop. She was about to transmit the spreadsheet directly to the remote fax machine when the room phone rang.

Olivia hit the speakerphone button, "Yes?"

"Cutie, you know your pal Stabler? I think I can clear him. This clown hasn't even bothered to clear his network logs. I think I've got him on two out of three counts of record tampering. Give me some timestamps: when did you visit Rakowski, and when was Stabler suspended?"

Olivia racked her memory, "We visited Rakowski last week, Thursday, just before lunchtime. Then Elliot got canned by Cragen on Friday afternoon."

Ringo snickered, "Dumb bastard. His network logs show a connection to the Pentagon records office last Thursday afternoon, around 2 pm. An FBI geek accessing Pentagon records? If he had some OCD reason to do that I'd love to hear it. Plus I see a connection to CitiBank. Timestamp is the weekend before last, before Brenner appeared as Klein's counsel. The connection is to an IP address that's heavily locked by bank security. No way should he have been there."

Alex was grinning in delight. "Ringo, you are Elite, buddy, Elite. Send me that log, I'm gonna fax it over to Munch along with the spreadsheet."

"Here it comes." Ringo's matching grin transmitted clearly over the phone line. "Alexis, we've got 'em ... you too, hottie cop. Eat this, assholes!"

All three were grinning like maniacs when Alex disconnected the call. She picked up the phone and dialed Munch's number again, hoping he'd still be there.

"Munch, SVU."

"Hi John. It's your sister."

"Hey, Sylvia! What's up? How are those hydrangeas doing? How are the kids?"

"The kids have additional anonymous evidence: a log file from Mr. Jack Kettler's computer displaying some fascinating network connections. One is to the Pentagon's record office and is timestamped shortly after Elliot and Olivia went to interview Rakowski. The other one is a highly-illegal connection to CitiBank, dated just before the mysterious Counselor Brenner appeared and presented his damaging exhibits on Rosa Zacharias. I'm including the log in the fax."

"Great to hear Joanie won that spelling bee! I'll call you later after you pick up Trudy from ballet class, you can tell me all about it."

"You bet, John. Looking forward to it." Alex hung up. That man was a prize.

Within two hours, one of the Nokias rang and Olivia picked up, "Yes?"

Munch recognized his squadmate's voice immediately. "Olivia, thank God you guys are alright. We got a call Saturday night about the gunshots in Alex's apartment building. We went over there and the place looked like Beirut on a bad day. We feared the worst ... thank God you guys made it out."

"We're fine, John, and thanks for your concern."

"Where's Elliot?"

"He went into hiding with his family. We have a connection to him over a prepaid cell, untraceable. How did it go with Cragen?"

"I think we're good. I got your fax and showed everything to Cragen. A SWAT team is being scheduled for tomorrow night. We located the McTavish warehouse, the tech crew will be setting up bugs and cameras tomorrow morning. I tell you, Cragen was mightily pissed when he saw that military logfile access you sent over. You'd have enjoyed the fireworks. Elliot is reinstated. If you can contact him, I bet he'd love to join this little party."

Olivia smiled in genuine happiness. "That is exactly what we hoped. You bet I'll call him. You remember that snack shop at Pier 25? We'll meet you there tomorrow night, 9 pm, ok?"

"Yep." Munch paused, "You be careful, Benson, you hear me?"

Olivia smiled, "As always, Munch. And you too."

Olivia next called Elliot's cell, the third of the Nokias.

"Elliot, buddy, how are you doing?"

"Good. We're comfortable here, well out of the city. How's it going on your end?"

"Elliot, I think we're about to nail these bastards." Olivia proceeded to explain everything that had happened in the last tumultuous days. She concluded with a description of the network logs Ringo had retrieved, and reported on Munch's conversation with Cragen. "You're reinstated, buddy. Leave Kathy and the kids where they are, but what say you come and join us to kick some record-tampering ass?"

"Wouldn't miss it for the world, Liv. I'll be there."

Olivia transmitted the address of the Hyatt and their room number, concluding with a description of the time and place of the meet. "We'll be leaving here around 8:30, can you make it by then?"

"You bet I can. See you tomorrow."

Saturday's daylight hours passed without incident. Alex, Olivia, and Ringo rechecked their plans and thoughts over the room's speakerphone, but no further insights were forthcoming.

Around 7:30 pm, there was a bold knock at the door. Olivia grabbed her loaded Glock from the counter and went to the peephole. Her wary expression changed to a grin of genuine happiness when she spotted her partner, and she yanked the door open.

"Elliot, damn, it's good to see you." The partners embraced with a fierce hug.

Elliot's patented grin was equally broad, "So you guys have a suspect?"

Alex smiled and rose from her post at the laptop. "We have four-plus suspects, Elliot. They're all going down, and this is going to be an operation for the history books."

Elliot's embraced the ADA as well. "It's good to see you, Alex."

As he sat down, he clapped his hands together. "Ok, kids, what's the plan."

There wasn't much time, but Alex and Olivia brought Elliot up to speed as quickly as they could. The clock on the wall advanced at its implacable pace. Very soon, it was time for them to leave.

Olivia, Alex, and Elliot arrived in the vicinity of the Pier 25 snack shop at the same time as Munch. They didn't even step inside, just huddled together in the shadows.

"We're all set up. SWAT is on the scene, and we have a tech van with surveillance in place, all concealed."

"Take us there, John," said Olivia. "These bastards have screwed with us long enough. Let's get 'em."

Munch led them from Pier 25 beyond the ongoing renovation of Hudson River Park and into the dark warren of old dockside warehouses, abandoned and left to their slow decline for many years. An unmarked white van was parked on an isolated and barely-illuminated street. He quietly knocked a staccato code of prearranged sequence on the back door. The doors opened, revealing an interior crammed with two technicians, a bank of television monitors, and other surveillance equipment.

Munch spoke quietly, "Gus, Paul. I believe you've met Detective Benson here, and this is ADA Alex Cabot."

The technicians nodded in greeting.

"How's it going?"

"Everything's set up. We have plenty of audio in the warehouse and some cameras. The place is around the corner and a block down the road. We've got a camera watching the exterior."

Olivia couldn't help approaching the corner and looking cautiously around it at the old building in question. Large painted letters, peeling and faded with age, proclaimed its once-proud owners: 'McTavish and Sons'. The place was in absolute darkness and its windows were boarded over.

The technician continued, "The SWAT team has assembled in the warehouse right beside us. They're waiting for you."

The three detectives and the ADA proceeded to the indicated building. Its windows were bricked over ... good location, no light could leak through to the outside. They entered as quietly as possible and headed for a door off to the side beneath which a sliver of light emerged.

The SWAT team was gathered around a table, discussing their plan in subdued tones over an architectural sketch of the warehouse. Fin was there as well, and looked up with a smile when he saw the quartet arrive.

"Liv, Alex, great to see you. We saw your place, Alex. Man, that was messed up. Looked like a war zone."

Elliot glanced at the assembled SWAT team, "Only four guys?"

"That's all Cragen could get us. The perps don't know we're here, should be enough."

"So what's the plan?"

Munch took over, "Basically, we wait til they show up, then listen to their conversation until they say something we can nail them with. Then we go in. Alex, you should stay in the van, tell us when we've got something we can use."

Alex nodded, "Right."

"And Olivia, we need someone to coordinate the op from the surveillance van. Figured it should be you since you know more about this case than any of us."

Olivia also nodded, accepting the logic, though she was itching to join the action. "Ok. Then Alex and I will head back to the van and familiarize ourselves with their setup." Before heading back to the van, Olivia introduced herself to the leader of the SWAT team and listened to a brief exposition of his strategic thoughts. They agreed on the initial placement of his men, concealed in the shadows across from the warehouse. It was 9:20 and they needed to get into position soon, well before the conspirators arrived.

Olivia listened to Gus explain their setup as he pointed out the various cameras they had in place. One allowed them to view the outside of the warehouse without leaving the hidden confines of the van while the others were placed within the old building. All were equipped with sufficient amplification and digital image-processing to defeat the dim illumination, and they could see the cavernous, mostly featureless interior of the warehouse clearly. Headphones in place, Olivia checked communications with each of the SWAT team members and with her squadmates.

"Ok, we're ready. Nothing to do but wait. Let's hope this works."

The minutes ticked by. 9:35 ... 9:40 ... 9:45 ... Olivia and the police technicians were accustomed to such long periods of vigilant inactivity from many stakeouts, but Alex was restless. "Where are they?" she muttered.

"Just wait. They'll show."

At 9:52, the exterior camera showed two men in 3/4-length leather coats walking casually toward the warehouse. "There," Olivia said in a low voice. The van was well shielded for sound, but it was natural to take precautions. The men were trying to look casual but it was clear that they were not out for an evening stroll: their eyes swept the darkened street, back and forth, with wary vigilance. The men took up positions on either side of the front door to the McTavish warehouse. They held their positions, eyes scanning continuously for danger. After a full three minutes, one of them retrieved a radio from his pocket and spoke quietly. Olivia reported in a quiet voice over her miked headset: "Two lookouts, either side of the front door. They've just signalled by radio. Heads up."

Another minute passed, then a black Lincoln drove slowly into the street. It stopped at the warehouse entrance. Two men emerged, one from the passenger seat and one from the back. These two scanned the street as warily as their comrades but didn't bother to conceal their weapons: Tec-9 machine pistols. Shit. The SWAT team's Colt M4 assault rifles should be able to handle them, though, with a similar rate of fire and greater accuracy.

Apparently reassured that the street was quiet, one of the bodyguards opened the back door of the Lincoln. A portly older gentleman sporting a fedora emerged, supporting himself with a cane. The bodyguard assisted the older man to his feet and took his briefcase, then he and his companion ushered their charge into the warehouse. The lookouts remained at their posts and the driver of the Lincoln remained behind the wheel, though he turned off the car's motor. A second sedan arrived shortly. It parked in front of the first one and disgorged three more well-dressed individuals, driver included, who entered the warehouse together.

After another minute, a dark blue BMW approached and pulled up behind the Lincoln. There was no fanfare this time. The doors simply opened and three familiar characters emerged: Jason Talon from the driver's side, Walter Rakowski from the passenger's side, and the unhappy figure of Jack Kettler from the back seat, bearing a briefcase. Talon and Rakowski ignored the lookouts as they strode into the warehouse, with Kettler following behind.

Olivia tabulated the odds: not great, but not overwhelming. She reported to the police team over her headset, "Five combatants and four principals inside, two of them probably not a threat. Plus the two lookouts at the door and the driver in the black Lincoln."

The interior cameras revealed that the gentleman in the hat, whom she mentally labelled 'The Godfather', had seated himself at a table. Besides a profusion of packing crates, the table and its attendant chairs were the only pieces of furniture left in the old warehouse. His five bodyguards had arranged themselves strategically: two behind him, two in the far corners of the room ... and one out of view of the cameras. Damn, damn ... where is he? When Talon and Rakowski entered they took the seats at the table opposite.

Olivia reported over her headset, "They're at the table in the middle of the room." The SWAT team had surveyed the area beforehand and knew the precise layout of the space. "Talon, Rakowski, and our Godfather are sitting down. Kettler is standing next to them. Two minders right behind the Godfather, two in the far back corners, but one of them I can't see. Might be by the door."

Alex grabbed a set of headphones, waiting for the conversation to start.

Rakowski spoke first, "I trust all is well with you, Mr. Fabrocini."

The Godfather replied with a heavy accent, "Yes, yes. Now down to business. I need a team of three or four to help me with some of my ... associates."

Talon: "Do you have the details of the operation you have in mind?"

Fabrocini motioned to one of his bodyguards, who laid the briefcase on the table and retrieved a manila envelope. Olivia, Alex, and the police technicians watched intently on the TV monitors.

Talon took the envelope and retrieved its contents. He paged through a series of photographs. "That's five targets, not an easy operation. It'll cost you extra."

Fabrocini's eyes narrowed, "I expected so. But I will pay your price. The Carpettas murdered my nephew and they will pay for it. I want them dead, all of them. Name your price."

Alex snatched off the headphones, "We've got it, tell them to go."

Olivia spoke rapidly into her microphone, "We are a go, we have it. Take out the two lookouts and the driver, then go in. Watch for the missing man, I still can't see him on the monitors."

Olivia heard the answering command from the SWAT team leader, followed by the screamed order, "Police, freeze! Drop your weapons!" The lookouts did nothing of the sort and snapped their sidearms to bear. Gunfire exploded outside the van. Olivia stared at the monitors, trying to see everything at once. The SWAT team was well-trained and well-positioned and the two lookouts at the front doors were quickly felled. The driver was stupid enough to emerge and return fire, and he was speedily dispatched as well. The team and her three squadmates rushed for the front door. Inside the warehouse, revealed by the hidden cameras, one of the bodyguards dragged Fabrocini backwards, behind the safety of one of the innumerable stacks of packing crates. Olivia focused on the movements of the other heavily-armed bodyguards, who took cover as well. "They've taken cover, be careful dammit. You've got two center-right, one far-right and one far-left. And I still can't see number five." She realized she'd lost track of Rakowski and Talon. "Two principals also unaccounted for. Watch it."

Olivia was itching to join them but knew someone had to coordinate. The first SWAT member through the door dove for cover to his left as one of the Tec-9's fired directly at his position. The team leader yelled over the radio. "Give cover, Jackson, give cover. The rest of you, don't bunch up in the fucking doorway or they'll nail us like fucking bowling pins."

Employing careful tactical manoeuvers, all seven cops eventually made it through the door and behind cover. One team member had been hit in the arm and was down, unable to operate his weapon, but one of his comrades dragged him to cover and held their position. Then missing gunman number five appeared without warning near the doorway, firing indiscriminately at the officers who had taken insufficient refuge within his line of sight. Another officer fell and the rest backed into further cover, retreating into the far-left corner of the warehouse.

Elliot yelled over the radio, "Liv, we're cut off. We're covered but we're cut off from the door and we have two men down. Call for backup, call for backup." Olivia grabbed the police-band radio, "Ten-thirteen, ten-thirteen, officers under heavy fire, all units near Hudson River Park respond." Olivia reported their location as precisely as she could. The impulse to race into the building to help her colleagues was overwhelming ...

Olivia was pulling the Glock from its holster when Alex grabbed her arm and pointed at the exterior monitor. "Liv, it's Talon! Look, he's leaving!" Liv snapped her focus to the monitor and indeed saw Talon's blonde figure racing out of the warehouse through a side door. There had been no side door in the plans ... how had they missed it? But it was on the back-right side of the building, it wouldn't help her comrades trapped in the opposite corner. Olivia was torn with the choices presented. Go after him? Go through the door and try to take on their adversaries from behind?

Her decision was made for her when Alex bolted from the van in the direction of Talon's retreating figure. What the hell is she doing!?

Olivia ripped off the headset and threw it at Gus. "Tell Stabler and the others to stay down, and tell the reinforcements to hit that side door when they get here."

Olivia leapt from the van and sped off after Alex, ready to tackle the woman and knock her out if she had to. Talon raced into the darkness behind the warehouse, navigating his way through alleyways covered with ancient debris. Alex was still ahead of her when she saw Talon yank open the door to another abandoned building.

Alex was through the door just as Olivia caught up to her. The detective followed and immediately pinned Alex against the wall with her body, pressing her hand across her mouth. She felt Alex's resistance but held on, immobilizing and silencing the ADA. She turned her head to listen to the sounds of the building. Racing footsteps reached a landing above and turned, to the left. A door opened above them. Then muted voices raised in argument ... more than one voice ... three, in total.

Olivia listened for another minute. The voices grew quieter but they were still there. Finally, Olivia looked up at the woman trapped in her arms. Fierce blue eyes blazed at her with indignation. Before she released Alex, Olivia pressed her mouth close to the lawyer's ear and whispered, her voice barely audible, "Have you ever heard of a quaint concept called 'backup'?" Olivia returned her gaze to the lawyer's, cautioning her with her eyes to keep still. She released her grip.

Alex's eyes were still on fire, but she fought for calm. She pressed her ear to the detective's, "Liv, the others are pinned down and we can't lose him now. He may be gone by the time backup arrives."

Olivia looked at her, wanting very badly to object. But the ADA was right. It was time to get this guy and take their lives back. The detective nodded once. She whispered again in Alex's ear, "There are at least three of them up there, behind a closed door. You stay behind me, do you understand?"

Alex nodded, her expression a mask.

Motioning Alex behind her, Olivia began to mount the stairs. She listened for any change in the muted conversation above them.

When they reached the upper level, they approached the door behind which the voices could be heard, louder now. Olivia waited again. She only heard two voices now, but they were still there.

Now or never. Olivia regretted that she'd not had the time to train Alex in the skills of armed engagement: checking your blindspots, identifying good cover, anticipating an opponent's moves. The lawyer's presence of mind, tactical brilliance, and sang-froid under pressure made her a natural for crisis situations. She would have been good at this. Hell ... she's good at anything she puts her mind to.

No time now. Olivia drew back from the door and whispered almost inaudibly in Alex's ear, "Alex, listen to me and do what I say. The door opens inwards but it's a fire door, steel. When I go through, you hold it open, barely, just a crack. Stay well back and completely covered by the steel. Got it?" Alex nodded. Olivia continued: "When you hear me call your name, I'll be telling you where the best cover is. Right after you hear my voice, you'll hear me firing, to force the rest of them to duck. Then and only then do you come in. You head straight for cover. Whatever it is, stay behind it with as much of your body as you can, like a foxhole in Normandy. Just stay there and give me fire support. Shoot anything that moves but aim, and watch your ammo. And if you hear me say 'cover me', that means start firing at anything, just to keep them down so I can move locations. But don't waste your ammo: lay down suppressing shots about once per second until I've reached cover again. If you need me to do the same for you, just yell it out as loud as you can, I'll know your location from your voice. Do you understand?" Alex's quick mind appreciated all this perfectly and she nodded.

"When are you going to come in?"

"After I hear you call my name, describe cover, and start firing."

Despite the utter recklessness of this idiotic plan, Olivia couldn't help a grin and a shake of her head. Lordy, lord ... where angels fear to tread and all that. We're all nuts. "Ok, Ace, let's do it."

Olivia approached the door and placed her hand on the doorknob. She waited, listening. Voices raised in dispute, all some distance into the room. Must be a big room, those voices are meters away. Again she could hear three voices, but that was no guarantee that there were only three men in the room. Olivia dropped to a squat: people naturally scanned their surroundings at eye level, it was always wise to enter a hostile environment either above or below the natural line of sight. When she had been listening from her vantage point at the bottom of the stairs, she had not heard the door squeak or make any other disruptive sound when it was opened, she'd only heard the click of the latch.

So here we go.

Olivia slowly turned the doorknob and pushed the steel door open minutely. The voices became clearer immediately and Olivia fixed their locations on her mental map. Center-left, range 35 meters. This is one shit of a big room ...

"We're leaving now, Gaston. You follow my orders, and I don't give a shit how much you're gonna miss your fucking paycheck. Grab your gear or leave it, I don't care, but we are out of here."

Gaston. Hello. "But sir, we can take 'em." The unseen man's voice was strained, "There's not that many out there, there's four of us here, we can take 'em easily." Four ... oh shit ...

Olivia eased further through the doorway, maintaining her crouch. She finally got a good glimpse of the room. Machine shop, big one.

"Shut the fuck up, Gaston! I'm your commanding officer, and I'm telling you that we are leaving."

Olivia slid away from the door, taking partial cover behind a drill press. She was gratified to see Alex doing exactly as she had instructed, keeping the door open but only by a centimeter. The strain and anger in Gaston's voice was growing: "Sir, you are not my commanding officer. My men and I are staying." That's it, boys, just keep bickering.

From her partially-shielded location, Olivia rapidly scanned the area. The room was enormous. It was clearly a high-bay area for heavy-equipment work: she spotted a crane suspended from massive rails mounted on the exposed beams of the vaulted roof, which was at least 15 meters above her. She checked the positions of the men, the machine stations, and the scattered work benches. Talon and Gaston were about 25 meters away now, she could just barely see the tops of their heads. She spotted a fragment of another figure to their right, range 15 meters. Gaston had said 'four'. He probably did not mean to include Talon, only his Black Shadow buddies ... which meant there were two others that she couldn't see yet. Too late now. Scan for cover. To her left, five meters to the left of the door and only three meters in front of it, was a massive milling machine. Nothing could get through that mass of steel. It was a bit far back from their targets, but it was a good spot for suppressing fire. Before she called Alex forward, Olivia adjusted her own position, moving further into the room to the right, quiet as a cat, remaining crouched and concealed behind the machine tools. Advancing further, she saw a vast open area beyond the next row of tooling stations. She realized that the work stations were arranged in a semi-circle around it. High-bay area, right beneath the crane. The central space was unoccupied, except for a big forklift parked in the middle.

Olivia had reached the edge of the machines' cover and could go no further. Still no sign of Black Shadows 3 and 4, but number 2 was very close now, less than 10 meters away. Easy hit. Take him down first while you have the chance. Olivia eased her body and her gun into position, sighting on Black Shadow 2, aiming at his head. It was an easy and lethal shot at this range. Here we go. She took three deep breaths, feeling herself calm further with each one. She visualized the sequence of events she had in mind, then took one last inhale.

On the exhale she fired, twice. Black Shadow 2 dropped like a stone. Olivia stood up and aimed for Talon and Gaston while spare neurons scanned for the other two. Gaston's response was unbelievably fast, she'd never seen anything like it. By the time she'd reached her full height and readjusted her aim, he had already dragged Talon halfway to the sheltering semi-circle of machine stations.

Olivia fired four shots at them but they were too far away and moving too fast. When they reached cover the detective yelled: "Alex, now, milling machine five meters to your left. Two bogies to your left, they have cover ... two more unidentified." Olivia fired five times more at the retreating targets, her shots spaced by a full second apiece.

That should do it, she should be in position. The detective had no time to see whether her instructions had been followed. She had to keep after Gaston and Talon, and the next source of cover that would bring her in range was the forklift. It was 30 meters away ... 30 meters of completely open space. Be there, Alex. Placing her faith in the unfailing competence of the ADA she yelled again: "Alex, forklift, cover me." Without a second thought, she sprinted from the cover of her current location and raced for the back side of the forklift. She was gratified but not surprised to hear the answering fire, originating from behind the milling machine and directed to its left.

Olivia slid into position behind the forklift like a base runner ... and to her horror encountered Black Shadow 3 standing behind the machine, right in her path. Time went to slow motion. Still sliding across the worn tiles under her own momentum, she tried to bring up the Glock and stop her forward motion at the same time. Shit, shit, shit ... aim, Benson, aim. She watched the ex-marine respond to her sudden presence with terrifying speed. Two guns came up at the same time, snapped into position at the same time, and fired at the same time.

By the grace of God, one hit and one missed.

The marine recoiled from the hit of the big Glock hollow-point fired at close range as it transferred its momentum to his chest. But he didn't drop. Like a machine, he swung back onto target. In growing horror, Olivia fired again and again from her supine position. It took four more bullets to bring him down. Finally, perforated like a bleeding effigy, he dropped to his knees and collapsed. God almighty, what are these people on?

Talon, Gaston ... Alex ... move. Olivia was just bringing back her left elbow to leverage her way to a standing position when her luck ran out completely.

The missing fourth marine appeared as if by dark magic just beyond the far end of the forklift's protective shadow. Olivia snapped the Glock back onto target and fired one-handed ... and missed.

The slide racked back and held with a sickening click. Empty.

The marine looked at her with no expression whatsoever and raised his sidearm.

Alex ....

The man's head exploded in front of her eyes, a spray of blood and tissue erupting in a jet from the left side of his face. His blank expression never changed as he dropped to the ground.

Alex had spotted the marine as he emerged from the semi-circular nest of machine tools and ran toward the forklift to assist his squadmate. Liv. Operating on pure instinct, functioning like a machine herself, she tracked his motion and fired as soon as his head held still for a second in her sights. She saw him drop to the ground, then she sank behind the protective cover of the massive milling machine.

Alex knew it was stupid to betray her position, but she had to know. "Liv!" she called out, "Liv, are you ok?"

She knew her clip was down to one or two rounds at most and she took the opportunity to swap it out for another. A distant and presently-irrelevant part of her mind marvelled at the fact that her hands were rock-steady.

"Fine. Alex, get out of there. There are two more. They're to your left. Move."

Despite the dire situation, Alex sighed in relief at the sound of Olivia's voice. Slapping the new clip into place, she scanned her surroundings, looking for a new source of cover and listening for any approaching sound. The distant gun battle between Elliot and his crew and the mobsters could be heard in the distance ... but closer to hand, she heard nothing but a drip of water from some unidentified location.

Alex rose to a crouch and made her way to her right, back toward the door and away from the suspected location of their remaining adversaries. She kept her eyes fixed to the left, watching for any indication of an enemy's approach. She glanced over her shoulder, spotting a possible new source of cover: a lathe near the corner of the room. She returned her focus to the left and retreated, as slowly as she dared.

A heavy hand grabbed Alex's shoulder from behind. Alex turned in utter shock and tried to bring the Beretta to bear. A powerful fist slammed into her face and the lights went out.

From her position behind the corner of the forklift, Olivia saw the whole thing. Gaston rose like a ghost from the machines and punched downward. A second later, he had dragged the dazed attorney to a nearby standpipe in the corner of the room. Pulling handcuffs from his belt, he secured the ADA's left wrist to the vertical pipe. Olivia had swapped in another clip, but the two were too close together and too far away to risk a shot.

Benson, you stupid, stupid, stupid bitch, why did you let her join this insane operation? Arguments surfaced: 'cause you can't let her out of your sight, that's why ...

Gaston smiled and ran his hand possessively through blonde hair. "Detective!" he called out, "You watching this? I've got your little girlfriend ... whatcha gonna do about it?" He kept his body close behind Alex's limp form, knowing his opponent would never risk such a dangerous shot.

You need to get the upper hand ... provoke him.

Olivia shouted back: "Hey asshole, I like the nose job. Looks good on you." T-six ... psychotic breaks ... could use one right about now.

Gaston's expression turned black. "You fucking bitch." He drew a knife from his belt and pressed it to Alex's throat. "Come out right now with your hands up. I want to see your gun and I want to see you drop it at my feet. Understand, bitch? Or your little friend is gone. You hear me?"

Guess the psychotic break was not a good idea.

Olivia rose and emerged from cover, holding up her hands with the Glock held in her right hand in an unthreatening, inverted position. She refused to look at Alex, or think about how close the K-bar blade was to the blood sustaining the life she held most dear. "Gaston, let her go. This is between you and me."

Gaston's wild eyes flashed in triumph.

No, Benson, wrong strategy ... don't play his game ... provoke him ... provoke him and get his attention away from Alex.

Olivia pushed Alex out of her mind and summoned every ounce of vitriol she had at her disposal ... which amounted to a considerable stash, given the circumstances.

"You're a pathetic excuse for a man, Gaston. You look like a fucking raccoon with that broken nose." Olivia strode toward the marine, firing off one insult after another. "You think you can do better this time? Fat fucking chance, asshole. You need a gun to take me down? I sure as hell don't." Still advancing on him, she tossed the Glock to the floor. "Need a gun? Need a knife? Need a woman to hide behind? Come and get me, you fucking worm."

That did it. Gaston dropped the knife to the floor and roared in fury. He launched at Olivia like a madman ... which was exactly what she'd hoped. The uncoordinated attack was easy to anticipate and counter. His momentum was predictable and she had no trouble stepping aside at the last moment, leaving only her bent knee in his path to send him to the ground.

Olivia fully expected Gaston to fall like a ton of bricks and she was ready with the followup ... but he didn't. To her astonishment and discomfiture, he shifted his weight at the last moment. He threw a straight-arm punch right at her face and she barely evaded it in time. Olivia retreated a couple of paces. Heightened reflexes ... damn. Sutherland wasn't kidding ...

Clamping down hard on the cold fingers of fear that chilled the edge of her awareness, she and Gaston stalked each other ... evaluating, circling, seeking an advantage. His eyes were wild but he saw everything. Liv, don't underestimate him again. Just watch and wait for an opening. This was real fighting, not like in the movies, none of this business of filling up 70 mm film with two guys gradually pummelling each other into submission over an extended period of many minutes. In street fighting, every strike was intended to maim and disable, to injure as severely as possible. The fight would be over the first time one of them landed a solid hit. Her teacher had always told her to watch her opponent's eyes and it was good advice that had served her well. An attack was always prefaced by a flicker of intent, and with enough practice, it was enough warning to enable you to respond. She watched Gaston, his eyes wild and staring, and she waited for a signal.

There was no signal, nothing. He just launched a vicious kick directly at her face with no warning at all. Olivia barely managed to deflect it, taking the hit on her shoulder at a glancing angle. The man was incredibly fast, he seemed to go from a ready stance to an attack without even the time for thought. This is not good ... The whispers of fear rose in volume.

Benson, think. Olivia only remembered one person who had been this fast, and this inscrutable: daskalos. Although her teacher had trained her to observe and anticipate the customary reactions of ordinary mortals, she herself had never betrayed any of those weaknesses during their sparring sessions. At last, confidence began to return with memory. I trained with better than you, Gaston. All the drugs in the world can't match that.

The old feeling of skill began to return, remembered from the age of eighteen when she was at the height of her expertise. She remembered a state of pure reaction, reaction mediated entirely by a trained body and trained reactions faster than thought. Without anticipation, Olivia stepped in with her right foot and shot a straight-fingered hand directly at Gaston's eyes with blinding speed. He deflected, but only by a centimeter. He countered with a reflex, a counter-punch, but her body was waiting for it and was long gone by the time his fist entered her space. She seized on the possibility, attempting to secure his wrist against hers and smash the elbow with her other arm. But he was too fast and evaded the manoeuver. Again they backed off and circled each other warily.

No thought. Olivia stepped in close, turning, and sent an elbow smash directly at Gaston's already-broken nose, placing the entire angular momentum of her twisting body behind it. He deflected just in time, but the elbow caught him on the temple. It stunned him just long enough that Olivia was able to follow through, delivering a vicious blow to his throat.

Gaston nearly went down, but unbelievably he still managed a response, an awkward but still-powerful blow to her ribs. Olivia staggered backward under the momentum and lost her footing when her feet encountered a coil of electrical cable behind her.

Gaston had his left hand to his throat and was turning red from lack of air. But his right hand went behind him, reaching for something. Olivia assumed the worst, throwing knife. She hauled herself to the edge of the worktable behind her, hunting for any object that would serve as a projectile weapon. There, knife. She lunged at the object, reaching onto the table with her right arm.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw a figure emerge from nowhere, right next to her. Talon! Where did he ... Before the thought was completed, a heavy metal pipe smashed down on her extended arm.

The world contracted to a red sphere of pain, agony searing from her broken arm to every fiber of her body. Distantly, she heard the hoarse cry that was torn from her throat. There was nothing but pain ... she sank to the floor, trying to hold her arm and not hold it at the same time ... there was nothing but pain, and nothing mattered but to make it stop, make it stop, make it stop ...


Survival instinct summoned the stern voice of her old teacher from memory.

The detective fought like a wild animal against the overwhelming agony, trying to bring it under control. She opened eyes glazed with pain, struggling to control her breathing. Her mind resurrected brutal lessons in self-control from the quiet loft of two decades ago. Exercises where her mentor had trained her to hold the bent-leg Horse Stance, fundamental to all the martial arts, for twenty minutes at a time. The lactic acid burn was almost unbearable after five minutes. To continue beyond that forced her to a new level of mental discipline. Her mind eventually figured it out from necessity: how to achieve a concentration so absolute that the signals from her body were intercepted before they were interpreted as pain. She had learned to perceive them impassively, simply as information, to be acted upon or discarded.

Once again, dire necessity was the catalyst, and it brought back forgotten skills.

Olivia, meditate until you feel nothing but your own energy, nothing can distract you.

Olivia's new assailant glared at her with venom and tossed the metal pipe onto the worktable. Talon muttered as he turned to Gaston, "Want anything done, you have to do it yourself. Gaston, pull yourself together. Cuff this bitch, we need to get some answers." Gaston was gasping for air, holding his hand against his injured throat. He finally managed a couple of deep breaths, then turned to Olivia with a look of raw hatred.

Olivia backed herself against the worktable, pushing against the floor with a bent leg. Mind thrown to razor-sharp awareness by animal instinct, she was catching the pain at last before it could overwhelm her. Cradling her broken arm, and surreptitiously tucking her right hand into the waistband of her jeans to secure the injured limb, she feigned fear and defeat. Meanwhile, she focused on the position of her body relative to Gaston's, evaluating distance, leverage, angles. One chance, Benson, concentrate goddammit.

Gaston advanced on her slowly, still struggling for breath through his damaged trachea. He was approaching from the side, five feet ... four ... three ... two ...

Olivia visualized her anticipated motion from beginning to end. Then she struck out with her bent leg. Using the workbench as a backstop she slammed her foot precisely into the side of Gaston's knee, at an oblique angle that the joint could not withstand.

Gaston screamed and fell to the ground, grasping at his dislocated knee. Olivia rolled to her left side and used the strength in her left arm and leg to rise, viciously ignoring the urgent messages from her weakly-secured right arm. Focusing on nothing but her target, she kicked Gaston with perfect accuracy in the temple. He fell still immediately.

Olivia snapped her attention to Talon ... and found herself staring down the long barrel of a classic Colt 1911.

"You fucking bitch. I am going to enjoy watching you suffer."

Olivia's heightened awareness scanned for a way out. There was none ... yet.

Talon sneered, "Get down on your knees."

Play for time. "Fuck you, asshole."

"You either do it 'cause I told you, or you do it 'cause I blow your kneecap to pieces. Take your pick."

That was not a bluff. The man had nothing to lose by disabling her. Olivia held her right arm and dropped to her knees, while her senses remained wide open for a chance.

"Now get out your cuffs. You're gonna cuff yourself, sweetheart."

Olivia sneered back at him. "You stupid fuck. They're behind me and my arm's broken. I can't reach them."

The man stared at her with hatred thick enough to kill, but realized she was telling the truth. Keeping his distance and his gun trained, he circled around behind her. The detective kept track of his movements by sound, mechanically evaluating positions, distances, trajectories. Still no opportunity ... Then her peripheral vision picked up an unexpected movement way off to her right. What was that? Something moved.

Her observation was cut short when a foot slammed into her back. As she hit the floor, she barely managed to get her left shoulder down first, protecting her right arm from further damage.

The reprieve was short-lived. Angry hands grabbed her arms without mercy and pulled them behind her back. The pain overwhelmed her again and she barely bit back a cry. "You fucking bastard," she hissed through violently clenched teeth. Through a red haze of agony she felt the cuffs being retrieved from their case on her belt and heard the clicks as they secured her wrists.

Liv, remember ... remember goddammit, you know how to do this. Ferocious concentration returned, turning aside the mind-numbing emergency signals from her arm. What did I see? As the man grabbed the back of her jacket and hauled her to her knees, she scanned her peripheral vision for any sign of the tiny motion she'd spotted before.

Talon grabbed the detective's chin hard in his left hand, interrupting her thoughts. "Little Miss Cop, I need to know some things and you're going to tell me. Number one: how many of your little friends are out there?"

Play for time. "Go to hell."

Readjusting his hold on the gun, Talon slammed the grip hard into Olivia's face. She turned her head in time to avoid the worst of it, but painful sparks exploded, saturating her nervous system. Olivia breathed hard but kept it under control. That's gonna leave a mark ...

Talon grabbed the front of Olivia's shirt and brought her face to his: "Don't fuck with me. This entire mess was engineered by you and that blonde bitch over there."

Keep his attention away from Alex! "And how do you know that?"

Talon shook her. He was clearly losing control. And sweating fear. You're losing it, asshole.

"How many are out there? Tell me where they're positioned and what their orders are."

Genetic ancestry, natural inclination, troubled upbringing ... the cause would never be isolated, but Olivia Benson's entire heritage backed her up in support of one single emotion: defiance. The ghosts of centuries past coursed through her blood. Those ghosts had protected a tiny island from invasion for a thousand years, fighting off Spanish fleets and German air strikes with equal ferocity. Their resolve found its incarnation today in the person of a valiant and worthy descendant.

Olivia smiled at Talon behind her rapidly swelling eye. "The entire New York City police department is out there. You're screwed, asshole."

Talon pressed the Colt against her shoulder and fired. Olivia couldn't suppress the enraged cry of pain as the .45 caliber slug tore through her shoulder and punched through the scapula behind it. Talon hung onto her shirt as she fought for breath and sanity.

"Where are they? Tell me where they are, bitch, and I'll let you live."

Olivia struggled to think through the haze of agony. How do I keep him here until backup arrives ...

"The next one destroys your elbow. You think you're getting out of this alive, don't you? Well you do what I say, or I'll cripple you for life."

He was about to hit her again when a clear, cold voice rang from the corner of the cavernous room.

"Over here, asshole."

Talon dropped Olivia and spun toward the origin of the new voice. As he was raising his gun, he found himself pinned by a sight he had not expected at all, thirty meters away.

He stared along an elegant nickel-plated barrel to the lethal blue eyes behind it.

Target clear ... fire on the exhale. Alex fired twice in quick succession, her locked right arm correcting for the recoil immediately, her eyes seeing nothing but the post and the unfocused image of a dead man right behind it.

Her shots landed precisely, two direct hits to the chest. Talon dropped to the floor, sinking from sight below the edge of the workbench.

Alex turned to the handcuffs restraining her left hand. Pulling the steel links taught, she fired the Beretta against the metal restraints. The chain parted immediately.

Keeping her senses open for the arrival of any further enemies, she strode to the work bench. Talon was flat on his back but still alive, though barely, gasping for breath despite the two bleeding holes in his chest. Alex kicked his firearm away and turned to Olivia. The detective was on her side, arms bound behind her back and breathing hard. Alex dropped to one knee and turned the detective's face to hers as gently as she could. "Hang on, love, just hang on."

Olivia actually managed to grin through the haze of pain. "Alex, it's ok. Nothing that won't heal." She was a tad more worried than that about the eventual recovery of her much-abused right arm and shoulder ... but cops have to be tough, right? She even managed a bit of a laugh. "Counselor, do you realize you just landed two perfect shots one-handed from thirty yards? Told you."

"Sweetheart, love, knock it off. I already know how tough you are. Don't move, ok?"

Olivia laughed weakly and nodded. "For your next trick, d'you think you could get these damn cuffs off? Keys are in my back pocket."

As gently as she could, Alex retrieved the keys and unfastened the handcuffs. Still keeping her peripheral vision on the prostrate figures of their enemies, she brought Olivia carefully to a sitting position and propped her against the workbench.

Through clenched teeth, the detective asked the question that was burning in her mind, "How the hell did you get your gun back? I saw it fall. It was way out of your reach."

Alex looked closely at Olivia. The wound in her shoulder was not bleeding that badly and her eyes were alert, though clouded with pain. "It fell on a piece of carpeting. The other end was near my hand and I pulled it over."

Olivia grinned, "Good work, Counselor."

Alex smiled back, "Detective, I get the distinct feeling that your fighting skills exceed those of a typical police academy graduate."

"Ask me again sometime."

The blessed sounds of sirens sounded in the near distance, approaching rapidly. Alex placed her hand tenderly against the detective's face. "They're coming, Liv, they're coming."

The lawyer spotted a roll of duct tape on one of the nearby work tables. She rose, and used it to good effect, binding the downed figures of Gaston and Talon into immobility.

She knelt once more to Olivia's level, bringing the fallen Glock 17 within reach of the detective's left hand, just in case. "I'm going for help, I'll be right back." Gently, she pressed their lips together. "Just hang on, love, just hang on."

Olivia smiled. "Go on, you pirate. I'll be good."

Part Four, Chapter Three

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