DISCLAIMER: The characters in the story are the creation of Dick Wolf and I'm using them without permission for entertainment and not for profit. The story is my own as are any errors that may have slipped past my beta readers.
SPOILERS: Set after Alex comes out of witness protection, so there may be some spoilers for those who have not seen the show (or L&O) to that point. I've taken some literary license with Elliot's marital situation and Olivia's educational background, among other things, so fair warning to the keepers of the Canon. Oh, and this is my first L&O story, so your patience is appreciated and feedback of all kinds is welcome.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Open to Persuasion
The building was one of those on Avenue A that would probably be chopped up into half-million dollar studio condos in a few years, but for now it sat, gently neglected, as a repository for families receiving inadequate Section 8 housing assistance, students and the new immigrants who were the low-wage engine of the city's service economy. The glass doors that led to the lobby were etched with gang tags and the security lock was broken, allowing Detectives Benson and Stabler to walk in unobstructed.
The stale, humid air in the lobby smelled of cheap pine disinfectant and the walls were coated with thick brown paint that had obviously been chosen more for its failure to reveal grime and resist repeated removal of graffiti than for any esthetic reasons. It was a far cry from the building where Alex Cabot lived, but it was several steps up from the hell-hole where the Perez children had been discovered at the start of the investigation into the Johnson case.
By silent and mutual consent they ignored the tiny elevator with its old-fashioned gate and headed for the worn marble stairs. From the elaborate molding, the cracked black and white tiles in the lobby and the stairs, Olivia imagined that this had once been an attractive Art Deco building, but she wasn't sentimental about its current shabby appearance. There was little enough affordable housing in the city and most of this building's residents would be forced out if anyone invested enough in it to restore it to its full potential. They got to apartment 4C and knocked on the door.
"Yes?" a voice asked hesitantly.
"Mrs. Nelson, I'm detective Stabler from the New York City Police Department, my partner and I would like to have a word with you about Benjamin Jefferson." Elliot held his badge up to the peephole.
There was the jangling sound of keys and the scrape of a police lock being disengaged. A deadbolt slid back and the door opened the scant three inches allowed by a heavy security chain. A small woman looked through the opening, but made no attempt to disengage the chain or let the detectives in. "I don't have anything helpful to tell you. I wasn't with Ben when he was taken. He only stays stayed with me during the week."
"Mrs. Nelson, we're not assuming that you're in any way responsible for what happened to Ben. We're just trying to understand who he was as part of our investigation, so we're speaking to everyone who saw him regularly, like his teacher, his cousins and you, his babysitter. I know this must be difficult for you; losing a child who's a regular part of your life always is. We promise that we won't take up too much of your time." Olivia spoke quietly, every word imbued with reassurance and empathy. Elliot marveled at the way the older woman's resistance visibly melted as his partner spoke. When Olivia stopped talking, Mrs. Nelson quietly closed the door and there was the click and jangle of the security chain falling away before she opened it again.
"Please, come in," she invited in a thready voice.
They followed her into a neat living room with a waxed parquet floor in need of refinishing and beige overstuffed furniture, liberally covered by hand-knitted Afghans and old-fashioned quilts. There were no rugs on the floor and the woman's profession was confirmed by the baby gates that blocked access to the tiny kitchen and narrow hallway, the two mismatched high chairs at the dining table and the play pen that was half full of brightly colored toys, even though no children were in evidence.
"May I get you some coffee or water?" Corinna Nelson's manner was nervous and when the detectives declined her offer of refreshment, she perched on the edge on an armchair and invited them to sit.
"What do you need to know?" she asked, rubbing her arms as though for warmth, even though the fan in the window did little more than stir the humid air. She was a thin woman with pale, age-spotted skin and light, almost colorless, gray eyes. Her salt and pepper hair was cut short in an old-fashioned way that reminded Olivia of her grandmother, even though this woman was probably only in her mid or late fifties.
Elliot let Olivia ask the questions and, in halting sentences, they learned that Corinna Nelson usually took care of four children during the week: one infant, one toddler, Ben Jefferson and a seven-year-old boy named Todd. "Ben and Todd took the school bus with my next door neighbor's little girl, so she'd meet them and walk them up so's I didn't have to take the little ones downstairs to the bus stop unless little Carly wasn't at school that day."
"And do you live alone, Mrs. Nelson?" Olivia asked gently, looking steadily into the woman's eyes. She knew that Stanley Nelson had been a retired bus driver who'd been killed three years earlier in a car accident and she didn't want to stir up painful memories, but she had to ask, regardless of the fact that his widow didn't look like the type who would need a revolving door for transient boyfriends.
To her surprise, the older woman briefly broke eye contact to look down and to the left before looking back at Olivia again as she said, "Yes, I do." It was the unconscious body language of someone telling a lie.
Olivia looked up at her partner, who allowed a frown to crease his brow before his expression settled back into impassivity. He had noticed. She nodded almost imperceptibly before turning back to Mrs. Nelson. "Do you have friends or family who stay with you every now and then maybe to help out with the kids? I know that taking care of a toddler can be especially hard work."
"My my nephew stays with me sometimes he lives on the Island and works in the City most of the time, so sometimes he's too tired to deal with the LIRR." Elliot wasn't too fond of the Long Island Railroad himself, but it was obvious that there was more to this story than the quality of service on the MTA. Two splashes of color stained the older woman's cheeks as she added anxiously, "But he doesn't take care of the kids. And the girls are no trouble anyway, even though Tanya's almost three."
"Mrs. Nelson, it's a weekday. How come you don't have any of the kids with you?" Elliot asked, wanting to distract the woman so that Olivia could choose her next question carefully. There was something not quite right about what had started as a routine interview and he sensed they were at a critical point.
"I've been shook up since Ben was Ben died. I asked Tanya and Carol's mom not to send them over this week. I need a rest before I start to work again." She had suddenly become fascinated by the pattern on the floor.
Olivia immediately noticed the omission. Todd was also not there, but Mrs. Nelson had not asked his mother not to send him back. The woman's fear at this line of questioning was almost palpable. She decided not to push just yet. "What's your nephew's name?" Olivia's tone was casual, but Corinna Nelson jumped. "We'll just need to talk to him, since he probably got to know Ben as well."
"N-not really. He was usually here pretty late after the kids had been picked up, you know?"
"His name, Mrs. Nelson?" Elliot reminded her firmly.
"We're going to need the names of all the kids who were in your care at the same time as Ben, along with their parents' contact information. We'll also need contact information for Gary," Elliot said, making any trace of color fade from the widow Nelson's cheeks.
"I don't see why "
"It's just routine," Olivia reassured her before changing the subject. "Please, tell us about Ben. Did he have any problems at home?"
The woman visibly sagged with relief when the detectives moved away from the topic of her nephew and she answered almost eagerly. "No, no. He was a happy little thing. His mother has a daycare center at her job and that's where he went until his baby sister came along. Each employee only gets one space, but by then he was already in pre-school and I'd just started up to make some extra money after Stan died, so he was my first little one. He missed his momma, but he settled down real quick, especially when Todd started coming." There was genuine affection in her voice and she seemed unaware of the tears that had started flowing down her prematurely lined cheeks.
"What about Ben's dad? Did you ever meet him?" Olivia continued, her voice still soothing.
"I saw him about once every week or two when he was home on leave, because he liked to take his wife out to romantic dinners at the little restaurants around here, so I'd take care of Ben and Karen." Corporal Daniel Jefferson was on his third tour of duty in Afghanistan. "He loved that little boy so much This will break his heart." Thin shoulders heaved as Corinna Nelson began to sob.
They waited for her to collect herself and then took down the contact information for the five other children whose care had coincided with Ben's, along with the information on Gary Blackwell, before standing and heading for the door.
As she opened it to let them out, Elliot asked in a matter-of-fact voice, "Mrs. Nelson, what happened to Todd?"
"I don't know," she replied in a broken voice. "He won't say."
Almost five hours later, Olivia finally had a chance to call Alex and, even then, it wasn't a personal call. "We need you to come down to the house. We've hauled in a guy for questioning on the Jefferson case. Babysitter's nephew. Turns out another little boy in the babysitter's care was sexually abused, but the parents didn't even know and he's the missing link."
"Does he have a record?"
"Exposing himself and masturbating outside a school in Suffolk County when he was twenty-five. That was ten years ago and nothing since. I find it hard to believe he hasn't done anything since then, so I'm suspecting he just hasn't been caught. Only reason we got him is probably that he struck too close to home when his aunt presented him with temptation he couldn't resist."
"What do you have on him, apart from his record and access to the victims?"
"Nothing much. Which is why we need a warrant to search his place. His aunt is acting really guilty, so we think it's possible she witnessed some inappropriate behavior that she doesn't want to talk about or has put out of her mind. We have her in another interrogation room, but she's fragile."
"Mere access isn't enough for a warrant and you know it. If the victims lived in the same neighborhood, hundreds of people can probably be linked to both of them from the parents' dry cleaners to the staff at the nearest McDonald's."
Olivia hated the fact that Alex was technically right, although every instinct in her body had been screaming that Gary Blackwell was their guy even before he'd bolted when he saw her badge. "I'm hoping to get some more information out of him during interrogation "
"Has he asked for a lawyer?" She wasn't surprised that Olivia was confident enough to ask for an ADA to be present on such thin evidence. Even if the ADA in question hadn't been in love with her, the detective had an impressive record when it came to getting under the skins of the dregs of society and getting them to provide clues to their incriminating behavior.
"No. Too damn sure of himself." And no wonder if he's been getting away with shit for ten years. "But we can hold him for a while because he took a poke at me."
"Are you hurt?" Alex's heart started to pound. She wouldn't put it past Olivia to be having this conversation from the emergency room.
Olivia rubbed her jaw where Blackwell's fist had struck a glancing blow. "Just my pride because he came so close to clocking me."
Alex let that sink in and struggled to ignore the sudden churning in her stomach. Olivia's job put her in harm's way, but she was more than competent and she would not appreciate the hysterical over-protectiveness which had been Alex's immediate reaction to the news that the suspect had attacked her. Alex fought for objectivity. What would I say if Elliot had just told me that? She paused, gathered herself emotionally and then replied in an even voice. "Ok, I'll be there in about half an hour."
"And Alex?" Olivia's voice was considerably lower and the ambient noise had dropped as though she'd moved away from the traffic of the squad room.
"Something else?" Alex smiled faintly, wondering what outrageous legal request her detective had for her in addition to a search warrant based on mere access to two victims.
"I love you, too."
Alex remembered that a declaration of love had been her last words to Olivia that morning and a grin lit up her face. Olivia had heard her. Olivia had probably also known exactly how hard it had been for the ADA to maintain professional objectivity after hearing about the attack.
"Keep that in mind if you don't get your search warrant," Alex teased, but her voice wasn't quite steady.
"I keep it in mind no matter what else is happening in my life," Olivia replied huskily. "I'll see you in half an hour."
Alex accepted a cup of bitter coffee from Don Cragen as they slipped into the observation room where the one-way glass allowed them a clear view of Gary Blackwell, who had spent the previous hour cooling his heels as Cragen personally interviewed Blackwell's aunt. Olivia had expressed the opinion that his reassuring presence might make her more forthcoming because she clearly viewed both Elliot and Olivia as threats to the fragile equilibrium she'd established after the death of her husband. It had been odd to share an observation room with her partner and her lover as her Captain interviewed a witness.
"We never had children," Mrs. Nelson had told Cragen almost conspiratorially. "People would sympathize with us because they thought we were deprived, but I'd had my tubes tied. But me and Stan, we didn't need anybody else in the family. Just the two of us was family enough. Still, there were children in our lives. I enjoyed taking care of my sister's two and Stan's brother had lovely twin girls And I was a teaching assistant, you know."
"Is Gary your sister's son?"
"No. My older brother Paul's. He lived out in Sag Harbor, worked for those rich people who had mansions on the water he was a landscaper. Gary spent his summers with rich kids, but he was never really one of them and I think that affected him. Me and Stan would invite him to the city on the weekends and take him to movies in Times Square and on rides on the Circle Line and he liked it when Stan would let him ride along on the bus when he was working But he never really opened up like the other nieces and nephew."
"Did you know that Gary had been arrested ten years ago?"
"Yes, it was right after Paul died. Gary said they arrested him for loitering outside one of the houses where his father used to work. I suppose it was his way of being close to his father."
Cragen hadn't been surprised that Blackwell had kept the true nature of his crime from his aunt. "And did you notice anything odd about Gary's behavior when he was staying with you?"
"Well, I don't think his job was as steady as he wanted me to believe, because once there was a call for him and the lady said she was calling from 'the rooming house'. I figured he wasn't making much money if he couldn't afford his own apartment rent is cheaper out on the Island you know so when he asked if he could stay a while, I didn't mind. He's my blood, you know?"
"When did the woman call from the rooming house?"
"About two months ago. Right before he started living " She'd stopped abruptly.
"Gary has been living with you for the past two months?"
Mrs. Nelson had nodded.
"And he doesn't work very much?"
"He goes out every day, but I think he only works a few days a week at that Gristedes or the pet store where I told your detectives they could find him. He says that it's full time, but I don't know."
"Apart from his work, did Gary lie to you about anything else?"
"Once Once when I came out of the kitchen I'd been making supper and I thought Todd was sleeping on the couch he came out of the bathroom and Todd was with him. He said he'd been helping him, but helping him do what?" Her hand had trembled. "After that I never left him alone with the kids you can't be too careful. But I was just being cautious. Gary's mixed up, but he's a good boy."
"Is he still living with you?"
"No. After Todd's parents said they were moving because they thought Todd was being bullied and he wouldn't talk about it, I asked him to leave. To go back to the rooming house " Tears had spilled down her cheeks.
"Two days later two days later Ben disappeared. Ben wouldn't go with a stranger " The anguish she'd felt at having connected the suffering of the two boys to her decision to let her nephew live with her had been evident in every line of her body and the weight of it seemed to shrink her. "I didn't know. I thought he was just mixed up, you know? I never thought he could anybody could Ben " She'd broken down and started to cry. Helpless heaving sobs that shook her entire body. Olivia had entered the room to take the older woman a box of tissues and then she and Cragen had withdrawn. They didn't think they'd get any more out of the widow and they were sure she hadn't witnessed anything illegal.
Alex gave Cragen an approving look. "About halfway through your interview with Mrs. Nelson, I decided that I could write an argument for probable cause on a warrant to search Gary Blackwell's room at that rooming house. Munch and Tutuola are on their way out there now and my assistant has agreed to work on getting the warrant signed and faxed to the local police department who will participate in the search. Liz is on-side, so it should go smoothly."
"I guess I'd better go and make some calls. You ok to observe this interview? Huang will be along in a few minutes. This one's squirrelly enough that I thought we should get a psychological opinion. If you wouldn't mind filling him in on the background information we got from the aunt, that would be great."
"I'll be fine," she said firmly. "Olivia typed up some notes and emailed them to George on his PDA, so he'll probably have formed some preliminary opinions by the time he gets here." Before Cragen had left the room her attention had already shifted to the interrogation that was in progress on the other side of the one-way glass.
Olivia had abandoned the light cotton shirt she'd been wearing in lieu of a jacket to conceal her weapon and cuffs while she'd been outside, so she was wearing a white tank top and low-riding black pants. The top was streaked with dirt and the pants had a hole in the knee from her altercation with Blackwell, but that just added to the air of barely-restrained danger that Alex found just as sexy as the tenderness and empathy her detective could show to the victims of the horrible crimes she investigated. Either side of Olivia Benson was strong and womanly and, to the woman who observed her, irresistible.
"Sorry I'm late," George Huang said quietly and Alex wondered how long he'd been watching her watch Olivia.
"You're not. They haven't started probing about the crimes, yet. They're still challenging him on his living arrangements. He said he lived in a rooming house in Islip, but his aunt confirmed that even though he kept a room out there, he lived with her."
Huang nodded. "I read Olivia's notes on the way over here. Gary Blackwell targets boys who are the same age that he was when his father exposed him to people who socialized with him while never treating him as an equal. If they mistreated young Gary in any way, he would have felt powerless to do anything about it. Have they asked him about his childhood?"
"No, they haven't. Perhaps you should have a word with Elliot or Olivia provide guidance on where they should focus. They killed some time waiting for Don to finish up with the aunt by pressing him about why he ran and why he assaulted Olivia. All the answers indicate he panicked, but the longer he's in there, the more his confidence seems to be returning."
"But to interrupt the flow of the questions right now will only increase his confidence by making him think there's the chance of a reprieve from outside," Huang observed.
"Come on Liv," Alex said under her breath, willing the female detective to join them so that the interrogators could benefit from Huang's insights.
She could see impatience in Olivia's body language, even though the dark-haired woman looked deceptively relaxed as she leaned against the wall behind Blackwell with her arms crossed and an impassive expression on her face. "So let me get this straight, Gary," Olivia said with a hint of lazy sarcasm, "your story is that you only met Todd and Ben a few times, never spent any time alone with either, have never lived with Mrs. Nelson and what's that last part ? Why did you run from me and then try to assault me again?"
"I was defending myself. I thought you were a mugger. I told you." Gary's gray eyes were fixed in concentration as he picked at his cuticles.
Olivia's eyes lifted to the one-way mirror and she seemed to look directly at Alex. "Gary, you only ran after I identified myself as a police officer and there were at least three people unloading that trailer with you at the time who can confirm that. So how am I supposed to believe you about where you lived and what you did, when you lie to me about something so simple?"
Blackwell said nothing, but his forehead gleamed with fresh sweat and Elliot could sense his fear. Despite the streaks of dirt on her top, her torn pants and the livid scrape down her left arm from tackling Blackwell, Olivia didn't appear angry. She didn't even seem bothered by the darkening bruise along her jaw. Her outer equanimity discomfited Blackwell because something in her eyes hinted at a smoldering rage. Her iron control and failure to register pain clearly unnerved him.
"She's getting to him," George remarked with a small smile.
"You know what, Gary?" Olivia asked almost pleasantly. "I've reached the end of my patience with your bullshit, but I'm reluctant to send you off to Rikers for the night with a sign around your neck that says short-eyes because I think there's still some middle ground that can be reached in this conversation. So my partner and I are going to go for a coffee and leave you to consider your options."
"But while we're gone," Elliot added, "bear in mind that we spoke to your aunt and to Todd, who is safely living in another borough now and isn't afraid of you. We also found some fibers in Ben's hair which we think will link him back to you. And our colleagues are searching your room in Islip even as we sip coffee here in Manhattan."
Blackwell's head snapped up and there was a look of sheer panic in his eyes. "You can't do that! I have rights. I have a right to privacy!"
"Catch you later, Gary," Olivia said with a menacing smile that sent a shiver down Alex's spine. "And maybe then we can discuss what will make me feel better about the fact that I have a date later on and you have seriously ruined my outfit." With that understated threat, she followed Elliot out of the room with a confident sway of her hips that made Alex unprofessionally and immediately wet.
"She is very, very good," Huang said, openly admiring Olivia's interrogation technique.
You don't know the half of it, Alex thought, crossing her arms over her tingling breasts and schooling her features into a professional mask.
The detectives greeted the two people in the observation room. "Glad you finally made it," Elliot teased before turning to his partner. "He's ready," he pronounced with a smirk.
Olivia didn't look happy. She ran her fingertips over the discoloration on her jaw line and winced. "He's more than ready, he's toast. We should give Munch and Fin the heads up that there is definitely something incriminating in his room, so they shouldn't give up too easily. If necessary, we should have CSU go over it with a fine-tooth comb." She looked down. "Damn. I liked these pants."
"Put in a claim," Elliot advised. "So if you agree with me that he's about to spill, why are you not looking happy?"
"Ten years, Elliot. Do you know how many victims he could have abused and terrorized in ten years of working at pet stores and spending time with kids who want a puppy or a kitten? It also bothers me that we're assuming he managed to abuse Todd and snatch Ben on the LIRR. Where's his vehicle and how much evidence of other crimes is in it? From what his aunt says, his life has been pretty transient. Part-time and seasonal jobs while he lived in SRO's or cheap apartments. He probably never stayed anywhere long enough to get caught."
"So, what? You want to try to get him on crimes we don't even know about?" Elliot verbalized exactly what Alex had been thinking.
"Don't you?" she asked belligerently.
"Based on his reaction to news of the search, I'd say it's likely that he kept trophies from previous crimes," Huang suggested.
"Most trophies are only incriminating in context," Olivia replied, her frustration obvious. "We need either a victim or a confession, or they're worthless."
"You don't think more victims will come forward once this hits the press?" Elliot was fidgeting, clearly ready to go back in to the interrogation room.
Since it was almost seven and they hadn't had lunch yet, Olivia could understand why he objected to a further delay in the proceedings, but she was so sure that Ben and Todd were the tip of Blackwell's criminal iceberg, that her stomach churned at the idea of his escaping justice for multiple crimes simply because law enforcement databases were so inefficient at talking to each other and young victims of sexual assault so often afraid to come forward. "Only if it's a slow news week," she muttered.
"If you're able to get details of his crimes, to establish his signature, you might get a match in VICAP," Huang pointed out reasonably.
Elliot's phone rang. "Stabler " He listened for a while and then said, "Sonofabitch."
"What?" Olivia asked.
"He didn't only keep trophies, he took photos. Everything's coming back to the lab, but they have eight pairs of boys' underwear, a digital camera and a stack of Polaroid photos. Fin confirms that there are nude photos of both our vics on the digital camera among other things he never wants to remember seeing." He grimaced. "Oh and you were right, Olivia, he has a vehicle. They found the keys to a Dodge van. They're trying to find it now."
"Read him his rights," Alex said tersely.
Elliot turned to his partner, who still looked grim. "Liv?"
"We do it your way. We sweat him until we have a full list of his victims." He wanted to acknowledge in front of the ADA and the psychiatrist that she'd been right about trying to get justice for the other victims.
She flashed him a tight, grateful smile. "You know he'll lawyer up because you just jinxed my idea by agreeing to it."
"So, Doc," Elliot turned to Huang, "any ideas on how we can get him to prefer talking to lawyering up?" Elliot asked.
"I have a few ideas," George replied with a smile and the next half hour was spent on psychological strategizing before the detectives returned to the interrogation room.
As the door slowly closed behind them, Huang turned to Alex. "I understand congratulations are in order."
"The AUSA job? Thanks." She wished she felt more enthusiastic or that she could at least pretend at enthusiasm in front of someone as perceptive as George.
"No, I meant you and Olivia. I think you're a good match."
"Which brings us back to the AUSA job," she said, with more than a trace of bitterness. "I'm seriously considering withdrawing my acceptance."
"Is that what Liv wants?"
"I haven't suggested it to her. But she wants me and I want her and a long-distance relationship would be untenable given our chosen careers." She sighed. "I just need to do something before Branch hires my replacement or I'll be unemployed and, from a prosecutorial perspective, unemployable."
"Don't act in haste, Alex. Olivia loves you with more passion than she brings to her quest for justice for victims of crime and we've just seen evidence of how deeply that particular passion runs. She wants you, but she also wants you to be happy and fulfilled in your work and I know you want the same for her. It would seem odd to me that you'd consider a quick decision that doesn't involve her, in order to try to meet her needs."
That's exactly what I did the first time. I made a quick decision that didn't involve her. And it might end up costing me everything worthwhile in my life. "I accepted a plea bargain on the Johnson case today. If Blackwell confesses and pleads guilty, my work for New York County is finished." Her voice broke but her expression was calm.
"I take about a month off the rest of August and the first few weeks of September."
"She's promised to take the time off as well and spend it with me. She'll make a decision about DC then. I know that Dana Lewis has been urging her to take a job with the Bureau because they've worked so well together in the past and she sees a broader application for Olivia's talents, but " she looked through the one-way glass into the small interrogation room, "that would mean leaving Elliot. It's a bigger deal than ending a seven-year marriage."
"You're both wise women. I know you'll make the right choices," Huang said enigmatically. "And I'm very pleased to hear that you'll both be taking a month to think about it and each other."
With another Mona Lisa smile, he turned his attention back to the conversation between the detectives and their suspect.
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