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
"Did you get any sleep? You look a lot better than you did this morning." Elliot looked appraisingly at his partner as she walked alongside him towards the surgical waiting room where the doctors would come to find them after they'd finished working on the female victim. Even under the harsh fluorescent lighting of the beige corridor, there was healthy color in her cheeks.
"No sleep, but I did have a really good early dinner."
"Home-cooked vegetable stirfry."
"No. Is it not conceivable that I might have been treated to dinner?" Olivia smiled ambiguously as she watched her partner's mind racing behind his bright blue eyes.
He was about to use his best interrogation technique on her when a man in blue scrubs walked over and asked, "Detective Stabler?"
"That's me. And this is my partner, Detective Benson."
He extended his hand. "I'm Dr. Boyd. I'm one of three doctors who worked on Meliza Perez and I was asked to speak to you."
"Is she going to make it?" Olivia's blunt question and direct gaze seemed to take the doctor by surprise. She supposed he was expecting Elliot to do the talking.
"We've done our best, but I can't guarantee a good outcome. She was shot once in the head and twice in the torso. The shot to the head was a glancing one that shaved a piece of bone off her skull, but it was the most minor in terms of damage. The second bullet broke a rib and penetrated her left lung. Damage was extensive and we had to remove about a third of her lung, but we recovered that bullet for you, the thoracic surgeon has kept it and is preserving the chain of custody for the crime lab. I was responsible for repairing the damage caused by the third bullet. That one ricocheted off a lower rib and sliced through her belly before lodging itself in her pelvic bone, near her lower spine. She's lost her spleen and a few feet of intestine and there is a continued danger of infection. We also couldn't extract that slug, so the only one we have for you is from the rib."
And the one at the scene, Elliot thought. "Thanks, Doc. I take it she'll be out for a while?"
"She's going to want to be. She didn't lose her spleen to a bullet, she lost it to a beating. So in addition to the pain from the surgery, she's also going to have to deal with the pain from her other injuries, including six broken fingers and a broken jaw. We attended to those injuries as well."
"She was beaten?" Elliot was hating the case more by the second.
"Badly. I'd say tortured over several days. Some of the broken fingers were starting to heal and two were broken more than once." He looked at his watch. "If there's anything else, please have the hospital page me, but she came in at the end of my shift and I've been on my feet for thirteen hours now..."
The detectives thanked him and he nodded wearily before taking his leave.
"Want to go check out the scene?" Elliot asked, having already told her that the couple had been shot in what had been thought to be an empty apartment in a run-down building in Washington heights.
"What does the Captain want?"
"Said we were to head down to get a preliminary report from the M.E., but I spoke to her when I was on my way over to pick you up and she wasn't intending to do the post on Angel until tomorrow."
"Still, she'll at least be able to tell us if he was subjected to the same treatment as his wife."
As they got to the car, Elliot's phone rang, so Olivia automatically got into the driver's seat while he answered. "Stabler."
He listened for several seconds. "We're on our way to see Warner now. Doctor says the wife was tortured. The bastards leave behind anything useful?"
He hung up without saying more, but Olivia could see the muscles in his jaw working and she knew the case was affecting him more than most. "Elliot?" she asked gently.
"Munch thinks they were trying to get them to give up the location of the kids. There was a copy of this morning's paper on the floor - smeared with blood and saliva, like it had been used to smack one of them across the face. It was folded to the page with the report of the murders. It included the information that two kids had been hiding in the apartment and that they're in foster care now."
"Shit. So they knew the parents didn't have the information..."
"They were no longer useful, so they shot them." He wiped his hand over his face. "They tortured them for days because they didn't believe they didn't know the City had the kids."
"And we were the ones who allowed the press to tell them that they kids were alive and well..." Olivia understood his despondency. She, too, felt awful. "Any ID on the two dead guys who had the kids?"
"One was in the system. When we're done at the M.E., Captain wants us to come by the house for a briefing. Whoever they were, nobody's found a link to the Perez family, but there must have been one, because the doers tracked them down without the resources of the NYPD."
"And somebody was abusing those kids..."
"Yeah, but right now I'm betting it wasn't that lady up in recovery or her husband."
"But they know who it was..."
Elliot nodded and flipped open his phone. "Cap'n. I think we should put a couple of uniforms outside Meliza Perez's room. I also think we should get the kids to a safe house. Somebody wants that family out of the way and so far they've been lucky." He cringed as he said it, because one dead father, one mother clinging to life and two sexually abused children didn't seem like anybody's idea of "luck", but at least three out of four were alive, despite the best efforts of some really bad people.
Olivia said nothing and they rode the rest of the way to the M.E.'s office in silence.
"What have we got so far?" It was almost midnight, but there was no hint of fatigue in his voice as Captain Donald Cragen faced his four best detectives.
Tutuola perched on the edge of a desk, facing the captain. "Two dead guys from downtown have been ID'd as Antonio and Manuel Arguello. Brothers. Antonio, AKA Tony, was in the system for fraud. Ran a neighborhood pyramid scheme that went real bad. He's been tryin' to get in good with the people on the block ever since. Paid restitution and avoided spendin' any time inside; no indication that he's ever been involved in anything hardcore. His brother is a wannabe gangster with a juvie record, sealed, but my contacts in narcotics tell me he was just workin' as a runner when he was about twelve and his Mama put the brakes on him after that. He talks a lot, but don't do nothin' illegal."
"Their mother and older brother went in to ID the bodies," his partner Munch added. "They're coming in for an interview at 10:00 tomorrow. Want to know what we're doing to solve the case."
"Did we find out whose apartment they got shot in?" Cragen asked.
"Manuel's on the outs with his girlfriend, so he decided to sub-let that dive from one of his homies from his drug-running days." Fin supplied. "Brother by the name of Khalid Johnson. Seems Khalid won't be needing it for a while, since he's spendin' eighteen months as a guest of the New York State Department of Corrections."
"Does this Khalid have any link to the kids or to the Perez family?" The question elicited a shrug from Munch and Tutuola just stared at the floor. Cragen was getting agitated as none of the answers to his questions brought him any closer to making sense of the crimes.
"What about you two?" He turned to Benson and Stabler. "Anything more on the family?"
"M.E. confirmed both parents were tortured and the father had lost a piece of his index finger weeks ago, which seems to be an unrelated injury. Working theory is that they were trying to get the parents to give up where the kids were hidden, but today's Daily News answered that question." Olivia watched him carefully, but he recited the information without inflection. "Some interesting trace on the father: his clothes were stained with avian blood and CSU found feathers and bird sh... feces in the soles of his workboots. Their best guess is that he worked in a poultry processing plant. Turkeys, to be precise."
"Unlikely." Benson replied. "They found a receipt in his pocket for a bus ticket from Little Rock, dated six days ago."
He turned to Munch and Tutuola. "Tomorrow I want you to find a link between these people and the Arguello brothers. Their kids were with those guys, so check the phone records for calls to Arkansas. And get a subpoena for the phone records of the relatives who're coming in tomorrow, just in case."
To Benson and Stabler: "You two, the kids were pulled out of school six months ago. Find the last address given to the school and canvass the neighborhood - use a few uniforms to help you. Show pictures of the family and of the brothers. Talk to the school. Find out how many other kids have fallen off the records without a forwarding address. This seems to be too big a deal to somebody, with too many people dead, just for the abuse of two kids, so let's not make any assumptions." He glowered at them. "And you'd better be there by first bell, because I want you back here by 10:00 to conduct the interview of the Arguello family."
Then, as an afterthought, he added. "And I've gotta call Huang." George Huang was the psychiatrist attached to the Special Victims Unit. "Somebody needs to talk to those kids. They hold the key to this entire mess."
By the time Olivia Benson gave her name to the concierge in the building on East 61st Street, she was starting to feel as though the previous evening and the time spent with Alex had been another one of those dreams.
After going through telephone and bank records until three a.m., she'd gone home to sleep for three hours before heading to Washington Heights with her partner, just as the school was starting its breakfast program. They'd immediately got lucky, because the woman administering the program had remembered the kids. She was an older woman named Anita Silva.
"Roberto and little Angela. They were always here for breakfast. Very well behaved, although Angela liked to giggle when the other kids were naughty."
"Did they have any particular friends - kids whose homes they might have gone to to play?" Elliot had asked.
"Or did they arrive with any kids - like maybe they'd walked to school together?" Olivia added.
"Yeah, I think they lived real close to Rosie. Rosita Arguello. They always came in together - Rosita's mom would walk them to school, even though Rosie doesn't qualify for the meal program."
The link. Olivia had schooled her features so Mrs. Silva wouldn't notice her reaction.
"Do you know Rosita's mom's name?" Elliot had already had his notebook out.
"Lisa Arguello. She used to be Lisa Rodriguez and she's a teacher here." She looked sad. "But she won't be here today - not since her husband's two brothers got murdered last Friday. Did you hear about that? Have they caught the guy who did it?" Obviously Mrs. Silva wasn't big on reading newspapers and the local television news had not mentioned the fact that two children had been hiding in the apartment during the murders. Or maybe, unlike the killers, she had simply not made the connection.
The next stop had been the school's administration offices, where they'd received confirmation that the two families had lived in the same apartment building. The assistant principal who'd helped them had confided, "It's not a great building, but Mrs. Arguello moved in there with her husband after they married in the mid-fifties and it was nice then. Since he died, she feels as though it would be disloyal to his memory to move; it would be like saying that the home he made for them isn't good enough. So Rodrigo, that's Lisa's husband, he found his family an apartment on the floor below, so he could stay close to his mother." She'd shrugged. "Mind you, if the neighborhood picks up and that building goes condo, it will be worth a fortune - all the apartments in there are two to four bedrooms."
And if the neighborhood doesn't "pick up", your kids have to run the gauntlet of drug dealers on the way to school and your brothers get shot by neighborhood pedophiles, Olivia had thought cynically. At least it was good to see that the New York City obsession with real estate was thriving uptown.
"Olivia Benson for Alexandra Cabot, apartment 1810."
"Of course, Miss Benson," The liveried doorman replied politely, as he picked up the phone.
Olivia wondered if she looked ok. It had been a long day and although she'd left at 4:00 to go home and get some sleep, she knew that the tension in her body would persist throughout the case. It always did.
"Miss Cabot says you're to come right up. The express elevators are around to the right. Have a wonderful evening."
Olivia thanked him and made her way to the elevators. The walls were mirrored and she studied her reflection critically as she rode up to the 18th floor. Her hair was starting to look shaggy - she needed a haircut - but the low-riding black jeans and the burgundy ribbed sweater hugged her body and looked good, especially with her new jacket and those ridiculously expensive short boots that Fin had persuaded her to buy when they'd been working together while Elliot took a few days off at the beginning of the school year.
Alex answered the door wearing a blue sweater the exact color of her eyes and black drawstring pants. Her hair was loose, her feet were bare and she wasn't wearing her glasses. Olivia was rendered speechless. The only thing saving her pride was the fact that Alex seemed to be staring right back.
"Let me take your coat," Alex said after several seconds. Her voice, soft and low, stole Olivia's and the dark-haired woman mutely handed over the garment.
"Thanks. I brought wine." She finally managed to say as she handed over the gift bag, relieved that her hand wasn't trembling.
"Thank you. I've got a bottle open, if you're not on call."
"Thanks. No, I'm not. Cragen sent me home at four and said he doesn't want to see me until 7:30 tomorrow morning." She grinned at Alex. "I must have really looked like shit."
"You could never look like shit." Alex replied matter-of-factly, wandering over to the kitchen to pour the wine.
Olivia flushed at the compliment, but was immediately distracted by the view from the ADA's living room. She'd been to Alex's new apartment before, but the curtains must have been closed. One wall in the living room was made of glass. The apartment faced south and directly overlooked the 59th Street Bridge. Past the bridge, Olivia could see the flow of tail lights as the FDR drive hugged the eastern edge of Manhattan down to the UN building. It was arguably one of the best views in the City and definitely one of the most expensive.
She felt, rather than heard, Alex walk up to stand next to her and as she turned to look at her, Alex handed her a glass of wine. "Thanks. Great view."
"Thank you. One of the advantages of being a spoiled rich kid. The penthouse on the Upper West Side was a law school graduation gift and it made a helluva profit when I... died. My mother told me that she'd give me an apartment commensurate with how I placed."
Olivia's eyes widened. "What would you have got for first in class?"
"Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park."
Alex grimaced. "Trust me, on an ADA's salary, just the maintenance on that place was bad enough. If I'd actually got the place on Fifth, I might have been forced into private practice."
Olivia laughed. "Which would have been a terrible blow to the criminal justice system."
Alex flashed an ironic smile. "Yes, well, if my mother had thought of that, we wouldn't be having this conversation right now."
They were silent as they both remembered the years of separation while Alex had been in the witness protection program because of her job. Olivia silently sympathized with the pain of Alex's loss, because her mother had died while the blond woman had been in the program, so she'd died believing that she'd outlived her daughter. Because the beneficiary of Alex's estate upon her "death" had been the Cabot foundation, she'd been able to pick up the threads of her financial life with relative ease once she'd come out of the program. But she would never recover from having missed out on the last year of her mother's life.
"She always told me she was proud of me, even though she'd worry less if I was representing Donald Trump instead of prosecuting Jeffrey Dahmer." Neither woman remarked on how very right Alex's mother had been to worry.
"Ah, but then you would have been spending more time with the likes of Trevor Langen and less with the cops who investigate the Jeffrey Dahmers of the world," the detective said lightly. She knew that Alex had dated the sleazy defense attorney and her reaction had been Alex's first indication that Olivia felt more for her than professional respect and friendship.
Alex met her eyes and raised her glass. "Here's to the fringe benefits of a dirty job."
Their glasses touched and Olivia said quietly, "Cheers."
"Come on, I'd better feed you. Dinner is almost ready."
"Can I do something to help?"
"Put on some music?"
"Sure." Olivia wandered over to the stereo and looked over the shelves of CD's. Most of them were classical - Alex seemed to have a special fondness for certain Russian and Italian composers. She smiled when she noticed that the classical CD's were arranged alphabetically by composer and the popular CD's by artist. Eventually she settled on Joan Armatrading, whose acoustic guitar and raw emotion seemed to suit her mood. She tried not to imagine what Alex would make of her choice.
The first song on the CD was 'Heaven' and Olivia got goose bumps as Armatrading's voice emanated from the speakers and wrapped around her.
Came into my life
Made me feel like I
Was really something
Took me by surprise
Someone with your charm
Looking my way
Am I in Heaven
Am I in Heaven
Am I in Heaven
Have I gone up
Have I gone up
To the big cloud number nine
You... brought me out of my shell
I don't know what you do... but you do it well...
"That song reminds me of you." Alex's voice, so close, startled Olivia.
The admission from the ADA made Olivia feel as though she'd been punched in the gut and she felt tears come to her eyes. The hand holding her wineglass shook slightly. She was completely unable to hide how moved she was by the statement and although Alex had been the one to declare deeper feelings than either had spoken of before, Olivia felt completely vulnerable and exposed. She forced herself to look away from Alex's direct stare.
"Are you sure you don't mean 'Down to Zero'?"
Alex caught her meaning and smiled. They both knew the gossip about Olivia was pretty accurate. She dated, and had sex with, men. Not often and not in the context of relationships, but definitely with the males of the species. The lyrics of 'Down to Zero' contemplated romance in its many forms.
I am not in love
But I'm open to persuasion
East or west
Where's the best
With a friend...
"No," Alex replied firmly. "Definitely 'Heaven.'" Their gazes locked and then Alex nodded as though reaching a conclusion. "Come on, let's eat. You probably haven't eaten anything since the last time I fed you."
"Not true. I had two honey glazed doughnuts no more than four hours ago... And one with red jelly with my coffee, and..."
Alex smiled smugly. "The prosecution rests."
Olivia chuckled and followed her into the dining room. Glad that the subject of what was happening between them had been introduced and relieved that it hadn't affected the relaxed feeling between them. They were both aware of the humming undertone of sexual awareness, but they both seemed to want to just let it simmer.
Dinner was delicious. "You're a good cook." Olivia was pleasantly full and finishing off her second glass of wine.
"Don't sound so surprised."
Olivia chuckled. "I'm surprised you find the time to be good at something else. You're very good at that lawyering stuff you do eighteen hours a day."
"How'd you manage to turn that into a compliment?"
"I'm inspired by visions of where flattery will get me."
"I don't imagine you have to resort to flattery to get anywhere." Olivia blinked. Alex was flirting.
"Some places are more special than others, so I'm willing to put in the extra effort." She decided to flirt back, more in the way her eyes lingered on Alex's lips than in anything she said.
Alex licked her lips and Olivia felt her nipples tighten. It amazed her what the blond woman could do to her body without even touching her. Then she remembered what the touching had felt like and she put down her glass so she wouldn't drop it. She felt as though her IQ was falling by the second. Needing to say something, anything, to prove that her vocal cords worked, she asked, "Have you dated a woman before?"
Alex smiled. "Yes. You?"
"Not before yesterday. But it's something I could easily get addicted to." She watched a cloud pass over Alex's face. "Baby, did I say something wrong?"
Alex looked down for a few seconds before looking up again. "No." She tried to smile. "But I don't think it's appropriate to talk about a previous relationship on your second date."
"But I asked, so I think that makes it ok... Unless you're uncomfortable..."
The ADA shook her head. "It was a long time ago... and it was a sort of addiction. When I was at Columbia I had to do a calculus course as part of my Math requirement and the professor was sick, so she was sent in as a substitute. She was a grad student doing a masters in applied Math. Her name was Meredith Atherton and she was a former Jawjuh debutante. I'd dated both sexes, but I'd never been in love... until I met Meredith." She shook her head. "God, I was arrogant. I decided I wanted her and I set out a plan for seduction."
"And it worked."
"Oh yes. It was so intense that we started worrying about grades - but we were both geeks, so in the end, not even all that sex was going to get in the way of a GPA. We were both in our final years at Columbia - I was a senior and she was working as a teaching assistant as she finished her dissertation... and we both ended up getting our fondest wishes. For me that was Harvard Law and for her it was Cornell, working on particle acceleration or something equally incomprehensible and working towards her doctorate. She wanted to solve the mystery of cold fusion in her lifetime. I told her the oil companies would have her assassinated if she did, but she insisted it was worth it. She was like some optimistic character out of Star Trek."
"Did your relationship survive the separation?"
Alex looked haunted. "For more than a year. We drove a lot of miles. Do you know that there's no direct route between Ithaca, New York and Boston, Massachusetts?" She sighed. "Then one weekend she came to see me and before the door even closed behind her, she started to cry. She was pregnant. She'd had an affair with one of her mentors... He was married, she didn't want an abortion and she didn't even want a relationship with him. According to her, it had just "happened" while they were at a conference together."
"You must have been devastated."
Alex nodded stiffly. "I'd never felt so betrayed in my life. Of course, I'd had a relatively charmed life to that point. Whatever I'd wanted, I'd got - no matter how much hard work was required. And I thought I'd been working pretty hard on this relationship thing, so I had no reference point for what I saw as failure. God, I was so selfish. The thing was, we'd talked about having kids and there she'd been presenting me with what was essentially a fatherless baby that we could have raised as ours... At least that's the way I see it now. At the time I just lashed out. I told her I didn't care what she did and it was her boyfriend's decision and hers. I asked her to leave. The roads were icy. She never made it back to Ithaca." She stopped speaking and gulped her wine.
"So you decided that was it with women and never dated them again?"
Alex shrugged. "I don't think it was conscious. I just didn't want to feel that depth of emotion again. I didn't want to be hurt on that scale or have the potential to hurt anyone else on that scale. My feelings for men are more... controllable."
"Because I didn't see this... thing with you coming. You were Detective Benson: straight, off-limits. No matter how gorgeous, you were uninterested and... safe."
"I'm not uninterested, Alex."
"I know," Alex replied softly.
"Nice of you to join us, Detective Benson." Donald Cragen was not pleased.
"Sorry, Captain. I overslept."
Olivia sat down next to her partner. The SVU detectives had gathered around a white board where photos of all the players they'd identified were tacked up, with notes written beneath the photos, highlighting their subjects' links to each other. "You might have overslept," Elliot said so softly that only Olivia could hear him, "but you didn't do it in your own bed. I spent ten minutes leaning on your doorbell at 6:45 and there was no answer."
"Is the current case not exciting enough to hold your attention, Detective Stabler?" Captain Donald Cragen asked testily. One detective half an hour late and the other carrying on a personal conversation during a briefing were not things he considered appropriate when they had three dead bodies in four days, not to mention two sexually abused kids with a mother who'd been tortured. And zero suspects.
"No, Cap'n, just greeting my partner."
Cragen ignored him. "Tutuola, what did your tour of the neighborhood turn up?"
"Confirmed the information Elliot and Olivia got from the Arguello family. That bodega up on 180th is the hook-up point for guys looking for work as day laborers. It's run by a guy called De Leon. But a couple of the fellas waiting around for work told me that the guy who does most of the hiring is called Mr. Johnson. So far we got nothing on this guy. Not even sure he exists."
"Munch?" Cragen addressed Tutuola's partner.
"Your hunch about the school proved unfortunately prescient. We have a total of eighteen children who dropped out of elementary school in the last six months, with nobody asking to have their records forwarded. School officials put it down to the transient nature of the illegal immigrant population - families deported or moving to where the work is. But that school has a dropout rate that's double that of any other school in the district - including those with similarly high immigrant populations."
Cragen's face turned gray. "Sometimes it stinks to be right." He paced for a few seconds.
"We get anything from the Feds on the Arkansas connection, or did you both sleep through it?"
Elliot pretended not to notice the dig. "Telephone calls on Toni Arguello's cell tracked to a pay phone near some trailers where migrant workers live in a town called Cherry Grove, Arkansas. INS says that the only turkey plant in the county is known for not looking too closely at work authorizations. They do, however, keep photos of their employees on file, since they were featured last year on an animal rights web site. Interesting fact is that they pay relatively well because the turnover rate is high - something to do with health and safety regulations not being a high priority."
"Which is probably why Angel was missing a piece of his finger," Cragen concluded. "It fits."
"Munch, Tutuola, run down the parents of every kid who's gone missing. See if we can link them to De Leon or that Mr. Johnson. Cross-reference the list against INS records to see if the deportation theory holds up. Benson, Stabler, go pick up De Leon and bring him in for a visit. And while you're on your way uptown, call Huang and see if we've made any progress on the kids. I'll see if I can persuade the company in Arkansas to fax us the employee photos, or whether it's going to take a court order and a series of OSHA health and safety inspections."
"Now get to work, all of you. There's too much we don't know."
As Elliot and Olivia walked out onto the street he grinned at her. "So where were you this morning?"
"At 6:45? I must have been in the shower."
"And you didn't get to work until 8:00? Bullshit."
"I decided to have breakfast before coming in to work."
"Didn't you have a dinner date last night?"
"What does that have to do with anything? Is there some rule that says I'm not allowed to eat two meals in a row?"
"I'm going to get you to talk, you know that..."
She raised a trademark eyebrow at him. "Do you want me to drive or are you going to power us uptown on pure hot air?"
Alfonso De Leon had been in an interrogation room for an hour without giving up a shred of useful information. He'd been pleasant and cooperative and hadn't asked for a lawyer because he was only too pleased to "help out local law enforcement". He knew that many of the "recent immigrants" congregated outside his store between 5:30 and 8:00 in the morning and were picked up by businesses needing cheap labor, but he would, according to him, never condone allowing people to disobey the law of the land. He had never heard of the Arguello brothers and didn't recognize photographs of Angel or Meliza Perez. He'd certainly never heard of Mr. Johnson.
Elliot left De Leon with his partner and walked out to get a drink. He got a mug of coffee and walked into the observation room where Cragen was waiting. "He knows something," Cragen confirmed as soon as he saw Elliot.
"Yeah. It's too bad we have no leverage to make him share it with us." While he was speaking, Munch and Tutuola walked into the room.
"Maybe that's about to change," Munch said with a grimace that might have been intended as a smile. "Huang just called. Apparently the little girl has started to talk. She says that Mr. Alfonso sent them to stay with a lady called Miss Maria, while their parents went away to get new jobs that were going to make them Americans. She says the man who gave her parents the good jobs was a bad man. She won't say more than that, but now we have a new player. And assuming the bad man is our mythical Mr. Johnson, it seems our boy De Leon is, indeed, the missing link."
Cragen pushed the intercom button. "Detective Benson, I'd like a word, please?"
After Olivia had been given the new information, she and her partner waited several minutes before going back into the interrogation room. As they watched him through the one-way mirror, De Leon began to fidget and he almost jumped when they walked back in. "Sorry for the delay, Mr. De Leon," Elliot said politely, but we were consulting with the DA's office. This is a big investigation and we don't want to do anything to jeopardize it."
De Leon looked startled. "Well I hope you told the DA that I'm cooperating fully."
"Are you, Mr. De Leon?" Olivia looked skeptical. "Then why haven't you told us about the ever-so-kind Maria?"
De Leon flinched. Got him Olivia thought. "There's a lot at stake here, Mr. De Leon. This isn't just about two dead brothers on the Lower East Side anymore. It's about a child abuse ring that Federal investigators are looking into because of the Arkansas job connection." It was a huge exaggeration, but it had the ring of truth. "Now we know that you're involved up to your neck, in fact we believe you're one of the organizers."
Elliot immediately picked up on the way his partner wanted to approach De Leon. "We think you promised those desperate people work, maybe even sponsorship for their green cards, on the condition they left their kids behind with your caretaker Maria. And when the Perez kids somehow managed to contact their families about what Maria and her employer were doing to them, you put out a hit on the rescuers and the parents to protect your little organization."
"Wait! That's ridiculous! I would never..."
"So we're formally advising you of your right to remain silent." And with that, Elliot recited De Leon's Miranda rights. They didn't even have close to enough to hold him on, but De Leon had been in and out of the system until he was thirty and he inherited the store from his uncle, so they were counting on the fact that he'd know it wasn't necessary to advise him of his rights until he was formally a suspect.
By the time Elliot had finished taking, a thin film of sweat covered De Leon's forehead. "Look, I'm not involved in any of this shit. I check out the casual workers that get picked up and if they look... reliable, I recommend them to a guy. He has connections with some farms down south where they have trouble keeping workers."
"And what exactly does "reliable" mean? That they have kids?" Olivia's skin crawled at the thought, but she could see by De Leon's reaction to her question that she was right.
"Look, it's nothing sinister. The guy wants people who have an incentive to do well. They're illegal and they have kids, so the promise of sponsorship is a big deal, you know? The American dream."
Elliot's hands bunched into fists, but his voice was calm. "So the jobs are down south and the parents can't take their kids, so you offer to, how can I put this, make arrangements?"
"I only make introductions; I don't make arrangements. I haven't done anything illegal."
Elliot slammed his hand down on the table, making De Leon jump. "How about immoral, huh, Alfonso? How about just plain wrong? You introduce vulnerable people to someone who lures them away with the promise of work and then you introduce their kids to pedophiles. Have I got that right?"
"I don't know nothin' about no pedophiles. I swear!"
"Tell us about Maria," Olivia demanded.
"I don't know nothin'! She works for the guy that hires the parents. My job is to vouch for her and reassure the parents."
Elliot lunged for him and Olivia grabbed her partner and walked him out. It was done more for show than because Elliot was in any real danger of assaulting the suspect, but she could see by the look in his eyes that he wouldn't have minded taking a swing at that particular suspect.
Cragen was still in the observation room; his face was flushed with anger. "I've called Cabot, she says that at the very least we can hold him on two counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor and at best on accessory charges if we get the elusive Johnson on child abuse. In the mean time, we're pulling his bank records to see if we can follow the money back to Johnson. Now go back in there and arrest him. Be scary but gentle. We need his cooperation to find whoever this Maria is and to find out exactly how many kids he's introduced to her so far."
He walked out of the room. "Munch, Tutuola, get to work on De Leon's phone records and we need search warrants for his home, business and car, in case he has a throwaway cell. Cabot should be able to get that done with her hands tied behind her back, but if she has any questions, tell her to get down here."
Olivia was glad nobody was looking at her, because she knew she was blushing. Pull yourself together, Liv. You knew going in that you'd have to work with her. Sooner or later she was going to come down to the squad, so get over it and act like a responsible police officer instead of a horny, sweaty-palmed teenager.
The problem was that she wasn't sure she could hide her feelings from the guys she worked with. She strongly suspected that she was in love with Alexandra Cabot and having spent the previous night making love with her, she wasn't sure she could manage to pretend that they were nothing more than friends who worked together. Bad she thought. This is very, very, bad.
Olivia Benson was frustrated. It wasn't just the fact that Alfonso De Leon had invoked his right to remain silent, hired a lawyer, been arraigned on the minor charges and released pending trial. It wasn't just the four days she'd spent with forensic accountants going through bank records and trying to match up significant transactions with stacks of telephone records without significant results to report. Despite those irritations, the case was shaping up, thanks to information they were getting from the Perez children and from Meliza, even though the beating and related trauma had left huge gaps in the woman's memory.
Olivia Benson was frustrated because since they'd spent the night together that Tuesday, she had yet to set eyes on Alexandra Cabot. Not a glimpse.
Alex had been to the squad room on Thursday, but Olivia had been with George Huang at a safe house in Queens interviewing the Perez children. If it hadn't been for the phone calls, she'd have been going out of her mind. Come to think of it, some of those phone calls were the reason she was frustrated and going out of her mind. In the last three days she'd discovered that New York County Assistant District Attorney Alexandra Cabot had an extraordinarily seductive voice, a vivid imagination and a dirty mind.
"You got an Alpha Juliet Corporation on your list?" Fin's voice broke into her thoughts.
"Yeah, wait, I think I saw that a while back." She went through her notes. "We had a wire transfer from Alpha Juliet Enterprises, not Corporation, going to one of those shell company accounts in the Channel Islands. They've got to be related. And that shell company is the one that De Leon makes quarterly payments to for... "Miscellaneous Confectionary" imports."
"Confectionary as in candy? Nobody would be dumb enough to call drugs that, would they?" Fin was obviously insulted.
Olivia chuckled. "God, I hope they don't think cops are that dumb," she agreed. "There's no indication that De Leon is importing drugs, but the accountant thinks some invoices are fake and the bodega is being used as a laundry. We might just have found a fake transaction."
"Not just one fake transaction," Fin confirmed. "We have confectionary payments totaling almost a hundred grand over two years."
Munch looked up. "The money flows from the bodega to the shell company whose ownership can't be verified, which also receives money from Alpha Juliet Enterprises and makes payments to Alpha Juliet Corporation. And we have a check payable to Alpha Juliet Corporation from the turkey company in Arkansas for "Recruiting Services" whatever that is."
Olivia could feel her adrenaline starting to surge. "Anybody else get the feeling that Alpha Juliet equals AJ and the J in question is Johnson?"
"It's finally getting interesting," Fin murmured. "Why don't I check out the recruiting company's articles of incorporation and see if any of the names look familiar?"
"Hey!" Munch's shout made Fin and Olivia look up. "I have eight calls to Alpha Juliet Corporation made from De Leon's throwaway cell and another ten from the bodega. It didn't ring any bells because I thought it was just a candy company."
"Got it," Fin exclaimed. "Incorporated in Delaware. Beneficial owner is Alpha Juliet Enterprises, registered in the State of New York. And from the New York database it seems that the owners of record of Alpha Juliet Enterprises are Arnold A. Johnson and Maria Delacruz Johnson."
"Either of them have a driver's license? I'm checking wants and warrants." Olivia was typing as fast as she could.
Munch was the first to answer. "I have an Arnold and Maria Johnson sharing an address in Rye, New York, according to the DMV. He drives a classic 1998 Humvee H2 with a 2006 Bentley Continental for those quick trips to the mall. Mrs. Johnson must borrow the Hummer to take the kids to soccer practice, because I don't think they'd fit in her 2005 Porsche Carrerra."
"I guess raping kids pays well," Olivia sneered.
"Any progress?" Cragen had noticed some unaccustomed activity from his team and wandered out of his office. They quickly filled him in.
"D'you think we have enough for a search warrant? If eighteen kids have disappeared, maybe there's some evidence at the house."
"Should we pick them up for questioning?" Olivia was ready to go. She needed an outlet for her pent-up frustration.
"Sit tight until we get the warrant. Munch, get together a photo array and see if Meliza Perez can pick out Mrs. Johnson as Maria. Stabler lives out on the Island, on his way home, he can drop by the safe house and do the same with the kids. Benson, go over the file with Cabot and convince her to get that search warrant for us. I want to hit them at daybreak on Monday. The house and the cars - and bring Mr. and Mrs. Johnson down here for questioning after the search is conducted. Bring them in in handcuffs if necessary."
As he was speaking, Elliot walked in with a box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts. "Did I miss something?"
Olivia smirked. It was their first break in identifying the people behind the crimes and she'd been given the job of briefing Alex Cabot. Life was suddenly looking up. "Nothing much - only a crack in the case and the fact that we all have tomorrow off." As she spoke she started printing photos for Elliot's photo array.
Olivia was being handed files by the other detectives. "Come on, give me a ride to Cabot's place and I'll fill you in on the way."
"I'll call her now so she'll be expecting you." Cragen confirmed.
Munch leaned back in his chair. "It's Saturday afternoon. Anybody consider that the ADA, unlike her detectives, might have a life and may not be at home waiting for boxes of files to arrive?"
"Speak for yourself, Munch," Fin retorted. "I've got a life - and I'm going to give her a call right now and see if she feels like being spontaneous."
"I don't even want to know," Cragen grumbled, walking towards his office. "I want to see you all here at 5 a.m. on Monday morning. Benson, if Cabot anticipates a problem with the warrant, tell her to call me. Enjoy what's left of your weekend, folks."
There were assorted expressions of thanks before Elliot helped Olivia carry the files out of the squad room.
As they approached Alex's building, Olivia was in a bind. Alex had given her a key, "You're welcome any time" but there was no way she could let Elliot know that. And even if she let the doorman announce her, after her last conversation with Alex, she wasn't sure that she wanted Elliot to witness their first meeting in four endless days.
"I want you to come to the door wearing those red lace boy-shorts," Olivia had murmured huskily into the phone late the previous night. "I want to taste you through the lace and then I want to fuck you against the front door..."
She couldn't get away from Elliot long enough to warn Alex and she wasn't sure if Cragen would have made it obvious that both detectives were coming over, since only Olivia had been charged with the responsibility of reviewing the file with the ADA. Just as they were about to exit the unmarked car and leave it illegally close to, but not blocking, a hydrant just outside Alex's building, Olivia's phone rang. She saw the number and smiled. "Hi there."
"Is Elliot with you?"
"Yeah. We've got two boxes of files, so I needed the manual labor."
"And does he know that I'll be wearing my red boy-shorts under my jeans?"
"Uh... no..." Olivia could feel herself blushing.
"And does he know that I'll be wet from wanting you and that the entire time he's talking to us, all I'll be thinking about is pulling down your bra so that I can feast my eyes on your gorgeous breasts. I can almost feel your nipples against my lips... taste their texture on my tongue..."
Under the most innocuous and innocent of conditions, Alex's warm contralto voice could make shivers run down Olivia's spine. But Alex's low voice telling her in a near whisper everything sexual that she wanted to do to her, literally made Olivia squirm from uncontrolled sexual arousal. She wanted to tell Alex to stop, but she couldn't summon the strength because everything Alex was saying sounded so... delicious. And then she remembered Elliot.
"Uh... look, Alex. I know you have a lot of questions, but I promise I'll take care of everything when I get there, ok?"
Alex laughed huskily. "Is he suspicious?"
Olivia dared to look over at Elliot who was scowling. "She giving you a hard time?" he asked quietly.
Olivia shook her head and then said into the phone. "No." And Alex laughed again.
"We'll be there in two minutes and we'll be expecting coffee," she finally said, thinking that Miss Cabot really did deserve punishment and smiling as she speculated on the various forms that punishment might take.
Alex was indeed wearing jeans when they arrived, which was a huge distraction for Olivia. She greeted them warmly, directed them to the dining table to deposit the files and told them that coffee would be ready in a few minutes.
"What have we got?"
Elliot was the first to reply. "Sorry, Alex - I can't stay for coffee. Liv will fill you in on the details because I've got another assignment, but we have Arnold Johnson and Maria Delacruz Johnson of Rye New York. They own a recruitment company that sends illegals down to Arkansas with a promise of higher than minimum wage and sponsorship for green cards."
"Mr. Johnson only recruits illegals who have kids, thanks to the careful screening of an asshole named Alfonso De Leon, who introduces them to Mrs. Johnson - known only as Maria to these poor suckers - who offers to make child-care arrangements or maybe even take care of the kids herself. So far only two kids have shown up of the possible eighteen to go missing from this arangement and those two have been repeatedly sexually abused. They managed to get word to their parents and some half-assed rescue operation was launched which left two male rescuers raped and killed and both of the kids' parents tortured and shot. The father didn't make it."
Alex's face became carefully expressionless as Elliot was speaking and by the time he finished her lips were pressed together in the cool, determined expression that usually meant trouble for her legal opponents. "The kids?"
Olivia sighed. "I'll be interviewing them again on Tuesday after they've had a chance to see their mother. Huang thinks that if they know their mother is going to recover and they feel a sense of safety, they'll be able to recall more details of their ordeal. So far they've confirmed that they were taken away by 'Miss Maria' and that she sent them to play with her 'friends' who hurt them."
"Now, if you don't mind," Elliot said wearily, "I've gotta go and see if the kids can pick Mrs. Johnson out of a photo array and ID her as Maria."
"Don't do that," Alex immediately said. And when Elliot would have argued, she continued, "Detective, kids are unreliable witnesses and DMV clerks are lousy photographers. I don't want the defense to be able to bring up the failure of not one but two eye witnesses to identify a suspect under those conditions."
"I'll explain it to the Captain, but I don't want my detectives to be the architect of exculpatory evidence that I then have to hand over to the defense."
Elliot nodded but he clearly wasn't happy and it was only a couple of minutes before he said his good-byes
When Elliot had gone, Olivia turned to Alex. "What do you need to know?"
"What proof do you have of the connection between the Johnsons and the abused kids - beyond the fact that the abuser shared one of the most common female names in the world with Mrs. Johnson?"
Olivia went to the dining table and started pulling documents and printouts out of a box. "Articles of incorporation and ownership documents for Alpha Juliet - a trade name owned and used by the Johnsons." She pointed out the names highlighted on the ownership documents. "In this stack of phone records are several calls between Alpha Juliet and De Leon and here," she pulled out a file, "is a payment, although we suspect there were more, between a company in Arkansas where the parents were employed and Alpha Juliet - for recruitment services. We also have a financial link between De Leon and Alpha Juliet through an offshore company in the Channel Islands."
"Could anyone else at Alpha Juliet have been engaged in these activities without the Johnsons knowing about it - so far nothing you've said, beyond the statements form the kids - links the principals to the crimes, only the company."
"Munch is going to the hospital to have Mrs. Perez pick Maria Johnson out of a photo array - unless you think that's a bad idea, too," she finished sarcastically.
Alex didn't take offense. "I know you guys want the satisfaction of having the victims pick out their abuser, but I want to win this case and you want to punish the abuser more than you want that." She smiled smugly. "You know I was right to make that decision."
"You'll never get Elliot to admit it. And I'm certainly not going to tell him that I agree with you. He already thinks I'm pussy-whipped." She smiled at the way the statement made Alex's mouth open without any sound coming out.
"Well, well, well, I believe our ADA is at a loss for words. Whatsa matter Alex, pussy got your tongue?"
Alex's blue eyes narrowed. "You told me that Elliot didn't know."
"He doesn't. Well, according to him, I'm much too quick to ask how high when you say jump..."
"You do nothing but argue with me!"
Olivia shrugged. "The man's just saying what he sees: I'm way too nice to you. F'rinstance, here we have an open and shut case..."
"You have no link between Johnson and the victims - unless the mother ID's his wife."
"The name Johnson is known to all the transient workers who gather at De Leon's bodega. It's known that Mr. Johnson is the guy who can hook them up with a good job out of state..."
"The name Johnson being only slightly more common than the name Maria," Alex argued stubbornly. "Have you got De Leon to confirm the link?"
"He's lawyered up," Olivia admitted reluctantly. "But he should be ripe for a deal. We have him on soliciting the kids and probably on money laundering for the Johnsons."
"Fine, I'll have my assistant call his lawyer on Monday."
"But what about the search warrant?"
"If the mother says you have the right Maria, you'll get your warrant."
"Good. Munch should be calling within the hour."
"So, Detective, having interrupted a very pleasant Saturday afternoon with all manner of work-related problems, how do you plan to make it up to me?"
"Oh, I don't know counselor, I'd say that after a certain telephone call this afternoon concerning red underwear, I think you're the one who has some making up to do..."
"Perhaps we can set up a plea arrangement?" She asked as she slowly walked over to Olivia.
"I'll entertain the idea, Miss Cabot, but your offer had better be compelling."
"I have a number of ideas, Detective, perhaps we can go through them one at a time, until you're completely satisfied."
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