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4. Free is a Four Letter Word
"Detective Benson?" Lilly unsnapped the catch on her holster and pushed through the door already ajar. "Olivia?" She set the coffee tray and paper bag she had been carrying onto the dresser and crept toward the bathroom, weapon drawn.
She nudged the door open with her foot.
Olivia dropped her toothbrush in the sink and threw her hands up. "Whoa, whoa, whoa!"
"Shit," She whispered, lowering her gun. "Your door was open " Lilly re-holstered her weapon unsteadily.
"It was stuffy, I needed some air." Olivia slipped past the other woman into the main room, feeling an acute need for air again.
"I am so sorry," she breathed. "People just don't leave their motel room doors open around here."
"I'm generally better armed than intruders."
A contented look of amusement crept across Lilly's face. "I brought you breakfast."
Olivia eyed the paper bag. "I'm starving." All graces aside, Olivia tore into the pastry as she sweetened her coffee. "Running makes me hungry." She took another chunk out of the donut.
"I missed my run this morning," Lilly admitted.
"You should have come earlier, we could have gone together."
"I'll have to remember that for next time " The trill of a cell phone interrupted her thought. "Rush," she answered.
Olivia watched as Lilly paced with great restraint. Deliberate footfallsheel, toe, heel, toereverberated in the smooth sway of her hips. Truth be told, her strut was more reminiscent of an Italian supermodel than a hard-ass detective. Low rise pants pulled her eyes to Lilly's waist as her words became a mumbled soundtrack.
She spun on her heel and tapped the butt of her gun as she spoke: "We'll be right there."
The women entered the squad room with purpose, Olivia's long strides barely keeping her beside Lilly's slighter, yet swifter pace.
Jeffries breezed past, tightening his tie and Vera was not far behind. "It's on your desk," he said, tossing his jacket over his shoulder jauntily, dangling from two fingers like some rotund male model as he lumbered by. "I wanna know what it says."
The men's brusque exit left a noticeable void in the squad room. Lilly threaded through the space to her desk. She sat gingerly in her chair as she lifted the envelope from her inbox. Substantially lighter than the last and, predictably, the envelope did not bear the same Lancaster postmark as the one prior. Her eyes probed the nondescript manila for clues about its sender. No spots, no smears, no smudges. The same handwriting addressed Det. Lilly Rush and taunted Olivia Benson with each and every stroke of pen to paper.
If she had any doubts, the note last night had vanquished them. Alex was playing cat and mouse and she couldn't figure out the angle.
"Well," Lilly sighed, surveying the lone page from the envelope. "Let's go find these guys before our vigilante does."
"Given up on the postmark?" Olivia smirked.
"It can wait. I want to find these guys alive so we can connect the dots. I'm tired of being two steps behind."
I'm with you on that.
The first address was an inevitable bust: a flop house whose tenantthe illusive Johnny Jackhadn't been seen in over eight hours. The second address, however, held the macabre answer to his whereabouts.
Johnny Jack and Frankie Velasquez lay face down on the sidewalk, Jeffries consulted with the coroner as Vera paced, fingers laced behind his headundoubtedly contemplating the obvious similarities between the murders.
"Small world," the blonde said as she released her seatbelt.
Slamming the car door, Lilly announced her arrival. Olivia stood behind the passenger door, watching their exchange from afar.
"What are you doing here?" Vera said gruffly.
"You wanted to know what it said." She handed the paper to Vera.
He stared at it blankly. "Sonuvabitch."
"The same black luxury sedan was seen at both crime scenes. The boys at the first scene ID'd a BMW, the old lady in the apartment across from the second scene thought it was a MercedesI'm going with the kids' on this one."
Dread settled in the pit of her stomach as she thought about the night before. She knew that captivity could do things to men now she hoped that Alex's freedom hadn't done something to her as well.
"I think it's safe to say that these are hit lists. The way I figure it, we have a problem We don't have long before ViCAP pings this as a serial crime and we get our hands tied."
Vera gnawed on his fourth donut of the brainstorming session. "Does this woman want to get caught or what? Why warn us?"
"What if she's not the killer?" Olivia said casuallyhoping she was rightand sipped her cold coffee for effect.
"Then how does she know who's going to die next?"
"Maybe she's got a line into the organization."
"That's good," Lilly tapped her pen on the desk. "And she's trying to bring it down without getting killed," she hypothesized.
"Why don't we just go track down everyone else on the sheet?" Vera asked the obvious.
"There's no order. The latest vics weren't even on the original sheet."
"And I, for one, don't want to protect a gang of drug dealers from getting offed." Jeffries leaned back in his chair.
"So what? We just sit here and wait for the next letter?"
"Got a better idea?"
"The postmark. Anyone been to Reading yet?"
"What?" Vera grunted.
Lilly stifled a yawn with the back of her hand. "I don't think it's coming."
"It's early." It wasn't. At least not for the normal waking world but to Olivia 11 o'clock at night felt like middaythings were just starting to happen. "You hungry? I could really go for a cheesesteak."
Lilly started to decline, but her voice was drowned out by the buzzing of Olivia's cell phone.
"Hold that thought." Olivia held up a finger as she answered the phone.
"Liv, what the hell is going on?"
"Hey partner, I've missed you too." She smiled at Lilly and stepped away from the cluster of desks.
"Don't bullshit me"
"Jesus Elliot, calm down. What's wrong?"
"What isn't wrong?"
"That's a compelling question, but I'm afraid you're going to have to be more specific."
"DEA's been sniffing around."
"Shit." She ran a hand through her hair.
"It gets better Hammond was here asking for you."
"You didn't tell him"
"No, but Cragen's on a rampageand he wants to know where you are, too. I said I didn't know." Elliot lowered his voice. "He knows I'm lying, Liv."
"Calm down. He doesn't know anything and neither do you so stop freaking out. I'm on vacation."
"Why are you willing to risk everything for her?" he scolded.
His tone was irksome but she was used to it. He'd never approved of their relationship. Alex was perennially the villain in his eyesand her abrupt disappearance did nothing to quell this notion.
"Trust me, this is different."
"What if she doesn't want to be found? Have you ever stopped to ask yourself that?"
"I had a female partner once." Olivia slumped and stared into her beer.
"How'd that work out for you?" Lilly slurred.
"It was different."
Lilly nodded at the understatement of Olivia's career. With no word from the guys, the women had given up hope that another envelope would arrive (and the midnight shift along with it.) Now they sat on wooden benches, looking at each other over an empty pitcher and half-empty pilsner glasses.
"What about you?"
"Scotty's good, he's not around much lately, though."
"So he knows the value of vacation time, I take it. Unlike myself" she passed her glass from one hand to the other before she spoke again. "Even when I'm on vacation I'm working."
"Yeah," Lilly looked up, head heavy. "Why is that?"
"The night Alex was shot, I was there. Elliot and Iwe both hit the deck "
"You shouldn't blame yourself." The clumsiness of her posture belied the lucidity of her words.
The blonde's thumb squeaked down the side of her glass as she considered the question. "Protect and serve may be in our job description but self-preservation is an imperative of the human condition."
Olivia's hand slid across the sticky table to cover Lilly's. "Aren't we existential when we drink?"
Lilly smiled at Olivia's brazenand now infamouswandering hand. Bloodshot eyes wearied from the hour and haze of smoke squinted at her. "We should go."
5. Tooth & Nail
"1800 Franklin," Olivia repeated as they rolled down the street.
She tried to focus on the paper in hand to keep from being felled by the worst hangover in recent memory. Olivia massaged her temples and shielded her eyes from the unforgiving midday sunlight streaking through the windshield.
When the bedroom door creaked open at six o'clock Olivia was certain it was a cruel joke. Four hours of sleep netted amidst two deformed cats was not exactly what she was expecting when Lilly invited her in.
Lilly's couch was scarcely more comfortable than her smelly motel bed and the raspy purring that replaced the grunts and groans of her neighbors only slightly more palatable. Rounding out the misery was the shame of a morning after that lacked any real sin. Still there was guilt over something that might've happened had Lilly not studiously stayed at arms length as they stumbled into her living room.
Lilly cleared her throat softly. "This must be it."
The brakes groaned as the car slowed. The women focused on the crowd gathering at the corner and the mass of people spilling out into the street in front of them. The original commotionwhatever it waswas lost to the resulting furor.
"Don't stop," Olivia said suddenly, fighting off a curious glance from the other woman. "Keep driving."
Instinct told her to sink into the seat, but she remained upright. Agent Hammond was dealing with a more pressing matter: two bodies, bloodied, executed lay on the sidewalk. Vera and Jeffries' amiable ways noticeably absent, they were now embroiled in a turf war of another kind.
"The feds are everywhere. They've hijacked our case." Vera stomped into the room.
"DEA?" Olivia asked, already knowing the answer.
"Yeah," Jeffries groaned as he fell into his seat.
Vera sloshed coffee haphazardly into a paper cup. "Some B.S. about it matching the M.O. of a coupla drug hits in New York. Now we can't take a leak without these assholes asking us where we're going."
Lilly leaned forward. "What did you tell them?"
"Don't worry. Your precious cold case is safe. As far as they know we're just the poor bastards that were catching when people started dying."
Lilly settled back into her chair and shook her head. Olivia rubbed her face wearily. They both knew the case was no longer safe. In fact, it was looking quite grim for the duo. They both had their reasons for continuing the quest and Hammond's presence was inextricably complicating. Lilly had a choice to makeOlivia had posed it to her an hour beforeshe'd either give Olivia and the case over to the feds or she'd withhold and jeopardize everything to solve the case. Olivia had preyed on her emotions. She wasn't proud of herself, but Desperate times
She needed air.
Olivia was half out of the chair when a booming voice glued her to the seat.
"Rush, Vera, Jeffries," Lieutenant Stillman paused, regarding Olivia coolly. A cavalcade of men filled the room behind him. "This is Agent Hammond. I'm sure you're all aware that the DEA has offered their help to solve the drug dealer murders. He'll be using our squad room as home base for the duration of this case."
The tall bald man boldly paced beside the bank of desks, arms clasped behind his back. "I'm sure you all think we've come to take over your case and you're right." The detectives shared a sideways glance, Vera punctuating the sentiment with an obscene hand gesture. Hammond slammed his fist onto Vera's desk. "The DEA is taking this case very seriously and we're asking for your help in closing it. It's going to require cooperation at every level. Make no mistake, we are not here to steal the glory, our number one priority is ending this killing spree."
Olivia tipped back in her chair and rolled her eyes. She'd been privy to a number of Hammonds The DEA is on your side sermons and there was little new material to be found in his oral meanderings that afternoon.
"And you," Hammond pointed at Olivia. "You shouldn't even be here."
"Lilly," the Lieutenant beckoned. "My office."
Rush dutifully followed her commanding officer into his office. Her proud cadence was something to behold. Even faced with reprimand, Lilly stood tall, admitting no wrong-doing.
"Boss," she started.
"Close the door."
Lilly peered out at the squad room. Men moved hastily around the room, moving desks, setting up equipment and displacing her friends and coworkers. She leaned against the door as the tumbler softly snicked into place.
"Just because your partner is on vacation doesn't give you the go ahead to take up with whoever walks through that door."
"She's a cop and a witness" The genteel tone that had worked so many times before, failed her now.
"I don't care if she's the New York police commissioner, she has no jurisdiction here. Her badge might as well be made of plastic."
"What ever happened to professional courtesy?" Lilly folded her arms across her chest.
Stillman leaned against his desk. "I've talked to her Captain and as far as he's concerned she's on vacation." He clapped his hands together. "There were no arrangements made between our departments so there is no professional courtesy to extend. From this moment on she's a witness and that's where it ends. No more Cagney and Lacey, Lilly. I mean it."
Sitting on Lilly's stoop, sipping a mediocre Pinot Noir, it occurred to Olivia: This could only end badly.
Numbed by red wine and the days' defeat, Olivia let go. "I don't know what I'm going to do." Her shoulders slumped, succumbing to the weight of her words.
"It'll blow over," Lilly spoke into her glass before draining it.
"I don't think it will." Olivia looked at the stars, their novelty not yet having worn off.
"DEA will ride it until they get bored and we'll be left with the unsolvables." A casual shift and her thigh pressed against Olivia's. "Trust me, it happens all the time."
Not before scaring Alex off again. "That's what I'm afraid of."
A soft clink as the empty glass was discarded. "Hey," Lilly breathed against her cheek. "We'll close it out."
Olivia turned. She was about to spill her guts, to drown in her good intentions and expel the entire star-crossed lovers storyfrom beginning to bloody endwhen it happened: A cold palm cupped her cheek, stars sparkled in heavy lidded blue eyes, cherry lips pressed against her own and she was lost to the sweet and sour slide of Lilly's tongue.
Olivia bowed her head. "Lilly," she whispered.
"I'm sorry, I just thought" Guilty eyes looked away. Lilly exhaled. "You have someone else in New York."
"Not exactly." Olivia hesitated. "She's here."
Lilly's head dropped into her hands. "Oh god," she mumbled. "I should have known."
"Alex and I were " When Lilly set eyes on her again, Olivia shivered, fumbling for words. She hadn't spoke of Alex's deathlifewhatever, with anyone. Even Elliot tip toed around the issue, except when he deigned to chastise her for the crusade. She wasn't ready to speak the words. Instead, she reached deep into her pocket and offered up the noteundeniable proof that Alex was alive, even if Olivia couldn't say it aloud.
Lilly scrutinized the scrap of paper. "She's alive." It was said so matter-of-factly that Olivia thought the worst was over.
"I'm sorry I couldn't tell you"
Smiling, Lilly shook her head. "And now dealers are dropping like flies and you don't think she has anything to do with it?"
Olivia straightened. "And what, you think she killed ten people?"
"I think that we need to be open to the possibility that Alex's role in this may be more than anonymous tipster."
"Have you read her file, Detective?" Olivia snorted.
"A woman with her whole life ahead of her had it taken away. That's a pretty good reason for revenge, if you ask me."
"She's not like that. Alexshe's logical."
"You're twisting my words." With that, Olivia was on her feet, towering over the other womanan empty show of misplaced dominance.
"People change, Olivia. I've seen it in every case I've ever worked. You need to be ready for the possibility that when we find Alex, she may not be the woman you once knew."
Olivia paced, each step stomping her frustration into the porch. "Don't tell me what I'll find." Her finger wagged, her headher whole bodyshook in defiance. "She couldn't"
"What makes you so sure?"
"You have no right." Olivia was close to tears, unable to articulate her reasons, her beliefs, what she knew to be the truth even with no proof to support her tenet.
"I have to be open to every possibility. Maybe you're too close to the case to be objective."
"Maybe I am, but that's why I'm here."
Under the cover of darkness, she slumped in her car watching the women on the stoop. Set aglow like a perverse outdoor dinner theatre she'd watched the blonde make her move.
Three years hasn't changed much has it, Liv?
She never labored under the assumption that Olivia would wait for her so the curious expression she wore after their kiss had surprised her. Grief or guilt, she couldn't say.
She felt the other woman's embarrassment as she hid her face; she read her confusion as Olivia palmed her note, was riveted when the deception was revealed and overly-interested in the subsequent anger. Though she was unable to hear their words, the meaning was clear.
She recognized Olivia's indignant expression, her defensive body posture, the trademark overcompensation in her strut as she walked away. She tried not to stare too hard, too long so that Olivia wouldn't feel the weight of her gaze, and instead studied the other able bodied detective from afar.
She let Olivia stalk off, a commendable decision of that she was certain. She was struck by the quiet fire that seethed just under the surface of the blonde detective. Olivia was unabashed about her anger, but this oneshe was dangerous.
As Olivia sped awaythe squealing tires were always a nice touch, Livshe pressed the glowing buttons. She watched as the blonde scrambled for her phone, the deep breath she took before answering, and catalogued it all.
"Rush," she answered.
"Detective Lilly Rush?" a woman's hushed voice came in response.
Lilly plugged her ear as a car sped by. "Yes, who's this?"
"I think you know who this is, Detective."
"Where are you?"
"Save your questions. I don't have much time. I need you to take Detective Benson off this case. Send her home, she doesn't belong here."
"With all due respect, neither do you. Aren't you supposed to be keeping a low profile?"
"There are things you can't possibly understand."
"Why are you doing this?"
"I have my reasons."
"Look, why don't you just come down to the station and we can talk about this in person."
"I'm not a rube, Detective. But tell me, has that tactic ever worked for you?"
6. Splitting the Difference
The television's tinny speaker crackled as she spun the primitive volume knob.
"The police are working closely with federal agents to "
That was reporter-speak for The Feds have taken over the case and its sole purpose was to make the public feel more safe and secure and the cops less used and abused.
Olivia flopped onto the bed. She wasn't sure about the public, but she certainly didn't feel better for their involvement.
So close. Three years and countless dead ends had left her with reasonable expectations of her fact-finding missions, but she had never been so close. Olivia regarded each new piece of information carefully, weighing it against the things she knew to be true, testing it before making her decision.
Now, everything she held true was cast over, colored by speculation and circumstantial evidence. Alex wasn't a killer. She couldn't believe the same woman that once objected to Olivia's service weapon in her bedroom was so transformed during their separation. But as much as she doubted Alex's uncharacteristic turn as vigilante, she also began to doubt the merit of her mission.
What if Elliot was right? Maybe she didn't want to be found. Maybe she was happy, finally free to start anew. Moreover, what if Lilly was right? What if Alex's new life had changed her, corrupted her sense of justice and turned her into a killer?
A fist sounded against her door. Olivia rolled her eyes.
"Olivia," Lilly commanded. "Open the door."
Olivia held a pillow over her face.
"I know you're in there, I can hear the TV," she said, sounding disappointed that Olivia's evasion skills weren't better.
She threw the pillow at the door. "Go away,"
"We need to talk, Olivia."
"There's nothing to talk about."
"Just open the God damn door."
When Olivia finally surrendered, she flung the door open and stared at the woman darkening her doorstep. "What." Her words were sharp, edgy. There was no question, just a statement that lingered between them, daring Lilly to respond. Sensing the impasse, Lilly tried to slip past her but Olivia slapped a hand against the door and held it against her side.
"Let's just go inside and talk about this. Trust me."
Her eyes swept over the blonde, her ruffled hair was starting to fall to her shoulders, its messy bundle conceding to the days' events. Blue eyes implored her, cerise lips harkened back to temptation that had yet to subside when she spoke her name again. "Olivia."
Sighing, Olivia dropped her arm. Lilly didn't waste any time pushing through the door.
"Someone told me to send you home."
"What else is new?"
"But I can't." Lilly sat on the corner of the bed.
Olivia folded her arms and looked unimpressed. "That's good, because I'm not going anywhere."
"Just say what you have to say, Rush. Your manners are really starting to get on my nerves."
"We need to talk about Alex."
Olivia's eyes flashed. "Get the hell out of here."
"Just hear me out," Lilly reasoned.
"Whatever it is, I don't want to hear it."
"She called me."
Olivia shook her head, her face a canvas of raw emotion. And then under the scrutiny of such a fierce conviction she felt betrayed.
"She did it, Olivia. She killed those people."
"She told you that?"
"Not in as many words, but it all points to her."
"Be reasonable. If you want to find her"
"I've been doing this by myself for three yearsI don't need your help."
From the looks the junior agents gave Lilly when she nudged her way through the mass of black suits to her desk, it was pretty obvious that they hadn't expected her return so soon.
"Get tired of playing Thelma & Louise?"
"You're here late, Nicky," Lilly said, smirking as she dropped into her seat.
"The fun never ends," he yawned. "Another stiff."
Lilly glanced at the agents eyeing her, steaming paper cups in hand as they swirled around herlike sharks deciding if need outweighed their want. "A hit?" she whispered.
Vera leaned forward conspiratorially. "Looks like the others," he nodded. "Could be a copycat, thoughjust one vic and it was a woman."
She scratched the mess of hair piled atop her head and made a face.
"You didn't get a note, did you?" a voice behind her said.
She lurched forward as Jeffries squeezed her shoulder. "Easy," he held up a file and sat on the edge of her desk. Lilly smiled unconvincingly as he set the file in front of her.
"No," she said finally, shaking her head. "Not this time." She called. Probably right after she killed that poor woman. Lilly imagined the bespectacled ADA wiping the blood from her hands with a crisp white handkerchief. Dignity at its most indignant. She stared at the crime scene photo.
"Miranda Inez," Will Jeffries said. "She's not from around here. We've got feelers out, but DEA is telling us she's from New York."
"Do you believe them?"
"Any reason we shouldn't?"
Lilly remembered Olivia's violent reaction to Hammond, and was overcome by another wave of suspicion. "No," she shook her head, "I'm sure it's nothing."
Lilly didn't bother with the lights. She shouldered the door open and pushed her back against it as it closed. Flinging her keys onto the side table, she exhaled. One eye sparkled in the darkness. Her heels clacked as she crossed to the chair in the corner.
"Hey, handsome" she whispered into fur, a guttural purr her reply. She ruffled the cat's fuzzy head and continued on to the bedroom.
Staring at the ceiling, lying amidst cats and case files in her too-large bed, she went over it again. Something wasn't adding up.
Weariness won the battle leaving her subconscious to unravel the mysteries that she could not in her waking state.
As Olivia strode into the squad room solo, Vera nudged Jeffries. She tramped past the mass of men and stood insolently before the one that commanded them all.
"Where is she?"
The bald man huffed and looked around. "Who let her in?"
"Where is she, Hammond?
"You know I can't tell you that, Detective." The quirk of his lips and the condescension in his voice riled her last good nerve.
"Tell me. You have to tell me where she is."
"Even if I knew what you were talking about," he looked at the room full of men gawking at them, "why would I help you?"
"She's in trouble." In her voice was naked defeat. He was her last hope and she'd sacrificed her last iota of self-respect to stand before him and ask for his help. Making it that much worse was the fact that he knew all of that and instead of pity, she was met with balls-out contempt.
"I wonder why that is, Detective? You put her in danger."
"Please, just tell me."
Finally, her quiet desperation cracked his smug, contumelious façade.
"I can't. We don't know where she is."
"She left the program two years ago. She couldn't accept the life we gave her. She couldn't let go, couldn't move on, so she abandoned it. But then she's good at that, isn't she?"
Tires squealed as Olivia stomped on the gas pedal. The concrete columns blinked by as she sped out of the parking garage.
He knew something about the murders. He knew What the hell did he know? What did she know?
She slapped the steering wheel and gripped it tighter. The car's tires howled again as she took the corner to the on-ramp, engine revving as she raced onto the freeway.
The weight of another body pressed her into the mattress. She sighed into her pillow as a mouth covered her neck. Hips pressed into her ass, grinding through blankets and sheets, pushing her deeper still.
A hand turned her chin painfully upwards, a tongue sneaking between her lips. She gasped as the hand that had held her face squeezed her breast roughly.
"Oh," she sighed as a hand slipped into her pajama bottomsbetween her thighs. "Olivia," she moaned, bucking against the other woman's hand.
And then she was wrenched onto her back, a thigh pressed against her. Sleepy blue eyes opened then, peering up at the woman on top of her. A shadow cast over her features and Lilly leaned closer trying to find her eyes in the darkness.
The hand rubbed her harder, faster. "God," she moaned. "Let me see you."
Lilly pulled on the other woman's t-shirt. She tried to pull her into the lightbut she was so strong.
Alex folded her arms, leaned against the doorjamb, and looked generally unimpressed. Lilly's eyes fluttered, fixed on the glare reflecting off the blonde's glasses as Olivia's hand pounded into her.
She grunted, hips jerking, whispering the other woman's name as she came.
And she was running, bounding barefoot on wood, on concrete, on gravel. Chasing the other womanAlex. She felt light, she wouldn't tire, she ran faster and faster but it was never enough. Blonde hair swirled behind Alex, whipping, snapping in the wind as she fled.
Olivia sat on the hood of her car and smiled impishly.
"Inez," she gasped, bolting upright fumbling for the lamp. The manifesto sat in her lap before her eyes had adjusted to the sudden, searing brightness. Her cell phone buzzed.
"Rush," she answered, rubbing her eyes.
"Inez is dead," the familiar voice haunted.
"Yeah, I know," she exhaled, ignoring the pang of guilt that filled her chest and colored her cheeks. "Wanna tell me how you do?"
"You think I did it, don't you?"
"What am I supposed to think?"
She laugheda bitter expression, dripping with venom. "You have no idea who you're dealing with, do you?"
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