DISCLAIMER: Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and all characters are property of NBC and Dick Wolf.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
SPOILERS: Some references to "Guilt"

By D.S.

A jumble of brown and black cords flew into the back seat of Elliot's sedan.

"She get a match?" he asked.

"Yep." Olivia settled herself into the passenger seat and reached for the shoulder belt. "All of them."


"All of them," Olivia repeated, letting her frustration show. "They're identical. Warner says it could have been any 16 gauge."

"Shit." The car merged into the far lane. "Well, at least we know it was an extension cord."

"Terrific." Olivia couldn't contain her sarcasm. "There can't be more than two thousand places to buy extension cords in the City – we can just stake 'em all out."

His silence was a warning: That was Bitchy Liv's one free bite. Don't take it out on him, Olivia.

"What do you want to try next?" she asked, trying to apologize with her tone.

"The Dixons got home from their cruise today. What do you think?"

I think it's pathetic that our best shot right now is a couple who weren't even in the country when their neighbor was murdered. With a sigh, Olivia rested her head against the back of the seat. "Let's go talk to 'em."

As Elliot steered the car around a corner, the likeness of a beautiful blonde woman came into view in the distance, growing larger as they drew near. "That's a new one," Elliot said. "'New ideas for a new world.'" He shrugged his tepid approval. "Could be worse."

No opinion emerged from the passenger side. Olivia was content to bask in the woman's image, just managing to stop herself from turning around as they passed the sign.

"You go to that shindig last night?" Elliot asked.

"Yeah." For what it was worth.

"How's she holding up?"

"Hell if I know," Olivia replied. "I just got to the 'Hi, Alex' part when Glad Hands shoved her at someone with more money."

"In other words, at anyone else in the room," Elliot quipped.

That stung, but for reasons he wouldn't understand. "Speak for yourself," she said, covering her sensitivity with a joke. "I buy for one, remember?"

It was true, though. She was out of place at that fancy do last night, dollar-wise and connection-wise. She didn't know how she'd ended up on Alex's fatcat mailing list in the first place. Then again, she hadn't exactly brought the error to anyone's attention, either. Reading those invitations at least told her where Alex would be on any given night. As pathetic as it was, it was the only communication the two had any more.

She had mentioned last night's event to Elliot a while back. "It's not far from your place," he urged her. "You should go."

"I don't know. She hangs out with politicians now."

"Exactly," he said. "She'll be glad to see you. I sure as hell would."

And so, at a quarter after nine, wearing her best dress, Olivia stepped out of a cab and into an art gallery where dozens of people stood around chatting with long-stemmed wine glasses in hand. Milling around a few of the groups long enough to conclude that she would have nothing to add to the conversation, she weighed her choices: Find Alex or bolt.

Fuck it. She hadn't gone to all this trouble just to bail out. Meandering into the next room, she immediately spied her friend at the center of a sizeable group of attentive males. Very attentive, some of them.

Alex was giving them the "polite-but-bored" smile that Olivia had seen a few times before, usually at the Christmas party or some other function where hounds like Trevor Langan vied for her attention. Even the woman's half-smile was dazzling, though, evidenced by the admirers surrounding her as if waiting to carry her books home.

This was stupid, Olivia decided. It wasn't like Alex had time to socialize. This is not about you, Olivia.

Still, she couldn't bring herself to leave just yet, and a moment later the blonde's gaze flickered across the room, her eyes widening as they landed on the detective. With an embarrassed smile, Olivia waved goodbye.

"Liv, wait!" Alex was practically running. When she was close enough, she grasped Olivia's arm. "Oh, God, Olivia." She reached around her for a hug and then stepped back. "It's so good to see you."

"You, too."

"Thank you for coming," Alex said sincerely.

"Oh, yeah." Olivia reached into her purse and presented a folded slip of paper.

"What–" Alex reached for it, then seemed to realize what it was. Without unfolding it, she shook her head. "That's not what I meant." She pressed it into Olivia's palm, leaving her own there. "You don't have to do that. You already gave."

"Well, you know, those thank-you cards are the only mail I get besides bills." Actually, it was the only mail that meant anything to her. Every once in a while when she was missing her friend, Olivia yielded to childish temptation and opened the drawer to read the inscription again. Thank you, Liv – for everything. I love you. Alex. "It's not much," she said. "I wish I could do more. Those TV ads must cost a fortune."

"Just having you here is fantastic," Alex said. "It's been so–"


Damn it. Olivia tried to hold back her grimace.

"Greg Robson wants some face time," the newcomer said. "He says he's got something big for you in his pocket, so let's hope it's a check." He grabbed her arm and began walking her toward the center of the room like a lost child.

It was a guilty pleasure, Olivia admitted, to see Alex yank her arm away a few steps into the march. She knew Alex well enough to know that Oh Mighty Terry was getting an earful. Maybe advising him to show her a little respect, a long overdue warning as far as Olivia was concerned.

Alex swung back around to offer a wordless apology, and Olivia smiled her acceptance. Her view was soon blocked, though, by one Terry White. "Sorry about that, Detective," he said. "I'm afraid Alex will be tied up all evening."

"Of course she will." The reply held two meanings, and they both knew it. But Olivia was not here to make a scene. She held out her hand – "Here" – before realizing her mistake. White would just make fun of the paltry sum she could scrounge up on a cop's salary.

To her surprise, he slipped the check into his pocket without looking at it. "I'm sure she'll appreciate it."

"I want to help," Olivia said.

"If you really want to help, Detective, do something about the west side murders. They're killing her." And then he was gone.

Do something. As Elliot weaved through traffic toward Meya Franco's neighborhood (Victim # 2 on the board), the words stuck in her craw again. Do something. As if they weren't busting their asses already. "Asshole."

"Whiny bitch."

A corner of her mouth rose. "Not you, Dickhead."

"Glad to hear it, Cocksucker."

She laughed. "Just drive."

Her thoughts gradually wandered, coming to rest, as they often did, on Alex Cabot and the man at her side these days. Olivia had only run into him a few times, which was a good thing: She wasn't a fan, and the feeling was mutual. That first meeting . . . .

"What are we missing?"

No one answered. No one was there to answer. Elliot and Fin had gone home a couple of hours ago. Munch would be back from his vacation tomorrow, supposedly not angry at having it cut short.

Olivia walked over to the board and stared at it with her arms crossed. "What are we missing?" she said again.

She pressed an index finger against each of the round red tacks representing the places where three women died clawing desperately for breath, and were then violated. There was no easy midpoint to spot, no obvious pattern screaming out at them.

Investigating the first call, of course, she and Elliot had no way of knowing that they would be looking at a serial, and it wasn't clear even after the second. There were similarities. Both victims were single women. Both were killed between five and six in the morning. They lived several miles apart, on the outer edges of the precinct.

But Linda Djavaherian was killed by a man's bare hands. Meya Franco was strangled with a cord of some kind. Linda was a blonde Caucasian; Meya was Latina. Linda had reported disturbing phone calls in the days before her death; Meya hadn't. Linda was an executive secretary for an international stockbroker; Meya worked evenings dispatching tow trucks for Triple A.

The third death brought everything together. Just before dawn six days ago, Kara Jann drove home from her law firm after an unexpected all-nighter for a quick change of clothing and to feed her cat, and never returned. She had mentioned some "crank" phone calls to her secretary, and she was strangled by the same type of cord, Warner said. The last two murders were refinements of the initial botched attempt, they reluctantly concluded.

Financials had been perused. Belongings had been analyzed. Trash had been emptied onto drop cloths and picked apart. So far, the detectives knew what the women did not have in common. None of the three shared the same dry cleaner, the same grocer, the same vet, the same bank, the same church, the same library, the same health club, or the same any goddamn thing.

Vince McKay was cramming this case down Alex's throat. "Three women raped and murdered in her own back yard, and Ms. Cabot's Special Victims Unit has made no progress," he intoned in last night's sound bite.

"Back yard" was a stretch. Two shared Alex's zip code – which bothered Olivia, she acknowledged – and the third was one digit away, but none of the women lived that close to each other, let alone Alex. She glanced at the fourth pin, this one green, which marked the ADA's address.

As for "Ms. Cabot's" Special Victims Unit, the prick hadn't called it that when Munch and Fin broke up a kiddie porn ring in August. And considering that Alex had been on leave for nearly four months when the first killing took place, it was ridiculous to point fingers at her. McKay was, though, and Alex's people said it was a problem.

Olivia shook her head. Alex's "people." What SVU used to be, until a married man in Washington, D.C., failed to realize that his mistress was serious about wanting a new car and what she would do if she didn't get it. One winter morning, a rather eye-opening article appeared in the Washington Times, and by that afternoon, the No. 2 man in the United States Attorney General's office was history. To fill the gaping credibility hole, a power-that-be tapped his old law school classmate, a man with impeccable legal and – more important at the moment – moral qualifications. Arthur Branch's appointment shocked the New York legal community. Eight months before what was supposed to be an uncontested reelection, the District Attorney's Office of New York County was thrown wide open.

"Everyone's been caught flat-footed," she remembered Alex saying a few days later at lunch. "It's a level playing field."

Some detective she was. While her friend rattled on, Olivia missed the signs. To her, it was mere office gossip, a mildly intriguing excuse to indulge in the sound of Alex's voice. To Alex, she realized too late, it was a life-changing event.

"Branch isn't endorsing anyone," Alex went on. "Everyone figured it would eventually be Westervelt, but he can't do it now with his tax problems. And Herrer–" she leaned forward as if someone at a nearby table might actually try to follow her stream of consciousness – "That divorce has gotten way too ugly. Barlow probably has the best shot."

"Mm." Olivia had figured out early on that the level of her required participation in this conversation would not be extensive. She took a sip of her diet something. Coke, she decided.

"Liz says she's not interested."

"Mm." You're so beautiful when you're excited. That thought, unfortunately, brought others unwillingly to mind. Olivia almost never allowed her thoughts of Alex to become prurient, but a flushed face and sparkling blue eyes could overcome anyone's resolve. She imagined what it would be like to kiss her.

"What do you think?" Alex took a breath.

"About what, exactly?"

"The DA's race," Alex replied slowly, as if to say, "That's what I've been talking about for the last twenty minutes."

What was there to think? "Sounds like it'll be interesting."

"So, you don't think I'm stupid?"

"Stupid?" Olivia was perplexed. "Why would I think that?"

"I don't know. I keep thinking it." For the first time since the two sat down, Alex dipped a fork into her entre. "But you know, it'll be at least a decade before I have another shot."

Another shot? The point of Alex's discourse finally hit home. Alex was thinking of running for DA?

"I love you, Alex, but you're nuts." In a perfect world, it's what Olivia would have said. Instead, she mumbled cowardly the words her friend wanted to hear. "Uh, might be fun. I guess there's not really a downside . . . ."

There was, of course, a big downside. Several, in fact. One was being ridiculed by virtually every major daily in the city where one happens to live and practice law. Too young, the New York Times said. Too inexperienced and, judging by the fact that she had the gall to even try, too arrogant or too deluded.

Too immature, the Ledger added. It was well known in the legal community that Cabot had been jailed by veteran jurist Lena Petrovsky for contempt of court some years earlier.

Too unethical, the Post speculated. Somehow – Senior Bureau Chief and rival candidate Vincent McKay denied any knowledge of the leak – certain file material had surfaced regarding a month-long suspension of ADA Cabot for unspecified misconduct. Cabot's former supervisor Elizabeth Donnelly refused to verify the documents, or to confirm rumors that Cabot had fraudulently induced two SVU detectives into conducting an illegal search. (Detective Elliot Stabler declined comment, the Post reported, except to dismiss the accusations as "----ing bull----.")

The prediction of all pundits: Alexandra Cabot had zero chance in the primary.

"Tough crowd," Olivia said gently, reading over her shoulder in the ADA's office.

"'One wonders whether law schools should consider adding a course in humility,'" Alex read.

"But then we wouldn't have any judges," Olivia joked.

"Maybe journalism schools should add one of those, too." Alex tossed the article on top of the others.

It wouldn't be much comfort, Olivia figured, but she slid her arms around Alex anyway. "Sorry, Sweetie. What are you going to do?"

"They're ignorant."

"I know."

"So I guess I need to educate them."

True to form, ADA Cabot fought back.

Yes, other candidates had been entrenched in the system longer than she had, Cabot said – and it was time for a change. The old ways had given the City of New York a 67-percent recidivism rate, she pointed out. And if one measured experience by actual experience instead of calendar years, certain leaked spreadsheets – of which Chief Deputy DA Elizabeth Donnelly denied any knowledge – revealed that Cabot had, throughout her entire eight-year career, carried a case load three times that of, say, White Collar prosecutor Vince McKay, and had tried six more cases.

And yes, she had been penalized for contempt of court, Alex admitted. She represented The People, and sometimes The People had to be heard despite the risk of personal consequences.

The turning point, everyone agreed later, was the debate. Two weeks before the hurriedly put together primary, it would be the only opportunity for voters in Manhattan and surrounding areas to see all seven candidates together. And that meant a trip to Bloomingdale's.

Nearly 40 percent of the viewing audience, including four SVU detectives and their captain in a video room at the 16th Precinct, watched a slender blonde woman in a teal skirt and jacket hold her own against six cookie-cutter white males in dark suits. Alex shone like a beacon.

"Forty-two women have come to you with allegations of marital rape since the exemption was struck down in 1984, Mr. Reynolds; why hasn't your office prosecuted a single case?" she queried one candidate. "Describe the interior of any children's shelter in your precinct," she challenged another. "How is it that you prosecute nineteen prostitutes for each john in your precinct?" "My concern, Mr. McKay, is that the average time served for white collar crime in your bureau has decreased while the amount stolen has increased."

Alex was knowledgeable, articulate, and, her opponents discovered too late, she resonated with women – a whopping sixty-seven percent of them. When the dust settled, voters in New York County had an unexpected decision to make come November: The youngest candidate and only second woman ever to run for the office, or Vincent McKay, 28-year veteran from the White Collar Crime Division.

McKay had one advantage from the start, Olivia mused now: There was no sense of urgency in White Collar. Cases took months, sometimes years to piece together. Serial embezzlement did not keep people terrified in their homes. "No red tacks," she murmured.

No, no, no . . . .

Olivia scanned the report once more, in case it said something completely different than it had the first three times she read it. Shit. She slapped the sheet down on her desk. "Fuck me," she muttered.

"If my numbers slip in the Village, I might try that."

"Alex!" Rising from her seat, Olivia wrapped her arms tightly around the other woman, receiving an equally warm embrace in return. "Shouldn't you be at some fundraiser?" she teased when they finally broke apart.

"Just got back from one," Alex replied. "At Herby's." Olivia knew where it was, but she hadn't been to the gourmet burger place often. It was a little too pricy for the SVU crowd to patronize, except on special occasions like Munch's twentieth. "Almost forty-three thousand."

"Jesus – who'd you have to fuck to get that?"

"Half of Manhattan." Alex rolled her eyes. "But it'll plaster my face on a few more billboards. Just what everyone wants."

Truer than you think. Personally, Olivia was hoping the one on her way home from work stayed up through the election. It was only a six block detour, and well worth it. That larger-than-life Alex, pensive, holding her glasses in one hand – "Cabot for District Attorney–New Ideas for a New World." Who could resist? Not Olivia Benson.

"I was hoping you'd still be here," Alex said. "Although you shouldn't be."

"I could say the same for you."

"We didn't get a chance to talk last week. I thought maybe – actually, it's probably silly; of course you've eaten already." Alex seemed almost nervous. "Terry doesn't let me eat at these bashes," she joked. "I might be unable to ask for money for ten seconds while I swallow."

But Terry isn't here, is he? How long had it been since Olivia had sat across a dinner table gazing into clear blue eyes? "I'm famished," she said. She stepped over to the closet to gather her jacket and purse.

"Good." Alex cleared a space on Olivia's desk and sat down on top of it, which brought another smile to Olivia's face. She loved it when the ADA did that. "Maybe you can tell me why I should keep doing this," Alex said.

Cheering Miss Cabot – assignment gladly accepted. It had been painful to be shut out of Alex's life for so many months. Except for an endorsement (like anyone gave a shit) and a couple of puny donations, Olivia Benson had nothing to offer the campaign. Before she needed every waking hour to run in place on their triple homicide, Olivia had volunteered to make calls or hang flyers or stuff envelopes or do something, but her help was not needed, Terry informed her.

Her smile faded, however, when she realized that Alex was serious.

"Because . . . ." Olivia couldn't come up with the words. Somehow, "because you're stuck with it" didn't seem appropriate.

Alex laughed humorlessly. "Yeah. I can't think of anything, either. Working twice as hard with none of the satisfaction."

"You'll have your satisfaction if you win."

"Thank you for not saying 'when,'" Alex said. "I get so tired of hearing that from Terry."

Pessimism? That wasn't like Alex. Realistic, yes, not defeatist. "Has something happened?" Olivia asked.

After a long pause, Alex spoke again. "McKay is such a bastard."

"What's he done now?" What dirty trick was left to pull? Olivia thought he'd hit them all.

"Sam Cavanaugh."

Oh, God.

"It's Sam's birthday tomorrow," Alex continued. "The media ate it up. Why ask about my ideas for drug court when you can ask how it feels to put a young man on a feeding tube for the rest of his life?"

"You didn't, Alex," Olivia said. "You know that."

There was no answer.

"I can't believe Linda Cavanaugh would let Sam be used like that."

"She didn't," Alex replied. "They were waiting for her at the care facility. She said I was just trying to protect others like her son from a monster, and she doesn't blame me for what happened."

"See?" Olivia said softly.

"We know she does."

No, you think she does because you do.

"Enough about me," Alex said, shutting off that unpleasant subject. "What were you reading when I came in?"

Olivia took her time unfolding her scarf. Tell her or not? Tell her, obviously. She was going to learn about it all too soon. So, ruin her night or wait til tomorrow? The timing of this reunion was lousy.

"What's wrong?" As perceptive as ever.

Just get it over with, Olivia. You never could keep anything from her. "Remember Jeremy Caldwell?"

"Two years ago," came the easy response. "B & E, double rape."

Olivia wasn't surprised that she remembered it. She might have been able to come up with the details anyway – Alex had an amazing memory – but one of the first tasks her new campaign manager had assigned ADA Cabot had also been to go back through case files and look for time bombs. Olivia had spent several evenings and a couple of Sundays at Alex's old apartment helping out. Neither woman flagged the Caldwell case.

"Two victims, two I.D.s, opportunity, access, all-around sleazeball," the attorney recited, almost as if she were arguing it again to the jury.

"Wrong guy," Olivia said bluntly.

"What?" Alex grabbed for the report.

Olivia hated having to dump that on her. The last thing Alex needed right now was a conviction tossed out because the real perpetrator happened to get caught by another unit and confess to a handful of other rapes. With four weeks left, the race was a statistical dead heat, according to last night's Ledger. It wouldn't take much to tilt it one way or the other.

Alex held out the sheet. "Could this guy be a name dropper?"

I wish. "His DNA matches an unknown in Brady O'Connell's apartment."

Black eyeglasses dropped to the desk, and for a long moment, Alex stared at the floor. "OK," she said quietly. "I'll have Liz get a release order." She was undoubtedly picturing the press conference that Caldwell's righteously indignant attorney would hold in the next day or so. "Gross miscarriage of justice . . . politically ambitious Assistant District Attorney . . . ." Film at eleven.

Blue eyes looked up with a small degree of hope. "Anything on the serial?"

"I'm sorry," Olivia sighed. That was all she could think of, other than a meaningless platitude that she really was trying. That's what she was doing here tonight, and night after night before that. Not what Alex needed to hear, Olivia knew. "I'm sorry."

What else could she say? That she and Elliot were in over their heads? That for the first time in their careers they had actually tried to bring Major Cases in, only to be turned down? Alex knew that already, and she knew why: McKay had called in a favor on the Old Boys hotline. Word was out – SVU was an island until the election. As difficult as it was to comprehend, Olivia had come to believe that McKay cared more about winning than he did about catching the man who had murdered three women.

"It's not your fault," Alex said.

The detective had to hand it to her: Not once had Alex tried to distance herself from them, even though Olivia was pretty sure that Terry was telling her to. There had been no emphasizing that she'd been on leave for months before this case came in, or that the third victim actually lived in the 17th precinct. No lobbying to overturn whatever McKay had done to keep the case out of Major Case's hands. No spouting off about budget cuts. SVU had the resources to solve this case and they would, Alex insisted in the face of an increasingly critical media.

Another long silence passed, and when Alex looked up again, her expression broke Olivia's heart. "I shouldn't have done this, Liv."

At that moment, Olivia recognized the irony of wishing that Terry were there. But part of his job was motivating a candidate who was physically and emotionally spent, something Olivia had no clue how to do.

"No one is going to blame you for this," she tried.

"For Caldwell, or for the cord strangler?"


Alex smiled and shook her head, Olivia supposed at her political naiveté. "Yes, they will," the attorney corrected her. "For both. Both at the same damn time."

Something about her inflection worried Olivia. She hoped Alex wasn't going conspiracy theorist on her. "You don't think they're related, do you?" She knew she sounded as skeptical as she felt.

"No." Alex smiled without humor. "Except maybe as signs that this isn't meant to be. Listen, do you really want to eat out?" she asked.

Caught off guard by the change of subject, Olivia wasn't sure how to answer. She really wanted to spend time with Alex. But if Alex didn't . . . . "Not if you don't want to," she said.

"I've got leftover Chinese at my place."

God, it was tempting, but the analytical side of Olivia's brain forced her to glance at her watch. Out to Alex's place and then back to hers, she was looking at three o'clock in the morning. She had to meet the forensic psychiatrist at seven. Then again, how much sleep did a detective need in order to be told that they were looking for – duh – a white male who had issues with women. She was about to accept the invitation when Alex added, "I have plenty of room, and some stuff that'll fit you."

"You got guest rooms in that mansion?" Olivia joked.

"One, if we need it."

If they needed it? Did she mean needed it tonight, or–

Alex scooted off the desk to stand directly in front of Olivia, so close she could practically feel her body heat. "Olivia, I'm going to ask you something that I wouldn't ask you if I were in my right mind." She held her gaze. "Have you ever wanted to make love to a woman?"

It was a moment that Olivia never thought would come. Her heart pounded wildly. "Yes."

"So have I." Alex slipped her arms around Olivia's neck. "Come home with me. Please."

Now Olivia knew her friend wasn't thinking straight. She hadn't even checked to be sure they were alone in the public squad room before making such an intimate move.

Alex grabbed her hand and dragged her toward the observation room. Inside, she closed the door and shoved Olivia against it, capturing her lips in a fierce kiss.

Not a good idea.

Alex's hand slid beneath Olivia's blue overshirt and caressed her waist.

– Alex hasn't thought this through –

Another hand grabbed her hip and pressed their bodies together.

– Alex is tired and depressed, and --

Alex melted into her.

– I love her, and –

Teeth nipped at her neck.

– Alex needs a good fuck.

Olivia growled her intentions and flipped them around, pinning Alex against the door. She yanked the gray skirt up Alex's thighs, easing her own between them, rough denim against thin panty hose. With her left hand, she clutched blonde hair tightly as her tongue explored the heat of Alex's mouth. Her right hand untucked the matching silver blouse and eased under it to squeeze Alex's breast through silk lace. Alex moaned into her throat, and Olivia's thigh began a subtle motion.

Inarticulate sounds signaled Alex's growing passion, and within minutes she tore her mouth away, panting, clutching at Olivia's back. The guttural moans drove Olivia to press harder, and Alex threw her head back, slamming it against the door. "God!" she cried. "Olivia . . . . Ohhh, God . . . ."

Gradually, blue eyes came back into focus. "I love you . . . .," she whispered.

The momentary calm allowed Olivia to regain some sense of control. "Let's go."

Alex cupped Olivia's breast, teasing it with her thumb. "But I want to–"

"You will," Olivia interrupted. "Not here." She reached for the hem of Alex's skirt and drew it back down her body. "Come on."

She watched Alex tuck in her blouse, and as she reached for the doorknob, Olivia noticed that her own white shell was nearly all the way out of her pants. "I'll do it," Alex said, and then her hand was inside Olivia's jeans.


Now the button was undone, and Alex's hand was on the zipper . . . . An image of Alex on her knees flashed into Olivia's head.

"No," she managed to gasp, re-looping the button. "Your place. Now."

She had the presence of mind to check whether anyone had come into the squad room before letting Alex step out behind her. "I think I'll stop in the women's room," Alex said. "You've got me a little excited."

She wasn't the only one, Olivia realized as she walked over to the desk for her things. Unfortunately, there to dampen her mood lay the damn report that said Jeremy Caldwell was innocent. Of this crime, anyway. A shithead like that had probably done fifty jobs for every one on his rap sheet.

She thought about that for a moment, then picked up the phone and dialed a number.

No, he wasn't asleep, Elliot's raspy voice swore – one more reason to love the man.

"Remember Jeremy Caldwell?"

"Uh . . . ." Elliot was still half out of it.

"Oily redhead a couple of years ago; asked you if I was too much woman for you."

"Oh, yeah."

Olivia broke the bad news, and then moved on to the purpose of her call. "Caldwell lived in the 2-9," she said. "Is that ex-Marine buddy of yours still over there? More important, would he do us a favor?"

He was and he would, a now wide-awake Detective Stabler declared. Leave it to him.

"Thanks, Partner," Olivia said. "And I am, by the way."


"Too much woman for you."

"Hell, I already knew that."

"Turn off here," Alex directed.

Before she could catch herself, Olivia said, "This isn't your exit."

Fortunately, her companion didn't seem to question how the detective knew which exit was hers, and Olivia didn't have to explain that she'd driven by Alex's new place a time or two in the past few months like some kind of stalker.

"I've got nothing in the fridge, so if we want breakfast we'll need to make a stop," Alex said. She ran her hand up Olivia's thigh. "Don't you think we'll be hungry?"

Oh, hell, yes. Olivia planned to burn off a lot of calories between now and then.

"They're fast," Alex said. "We'll be in bed in twenty-five minutes."

Or somewhere between the entry and the bedroom, the detective thought. There was a limit to human restraint, after all. Floor, couch, table, or all of the above. She wasn't particular.

As she watched Alex strut through the sliding glass doors – was there anything sexier than an arrogant attorney in a tailored skirt? – Olivia hurried after her, sidestepping two other women coming out. This place was pretty packed considering that it was past midnight; she hoped Alex was right and they wouldn't get stuck in a long line.

When she caught up to her, Alex was already browsing through the large produce section with a hand-held basket. "Does fruit sound good?" she asked.

No immediate response followed because, of all things, the first object of Alex's inspection happened to be a cantaloupe, which reminded Olivia of an annoying dream she'd had the night before. Like most of her dreams, she couldn't remember much about it. What she did recall was walking around in Linda Djavaherian's kitchen taking notes, and staring helplessly while the words disappeared as quickly as she wrote them. Sitting on the counter top was a cantaloupe, witnessing her incompetence. Fortunately, the victim had no other fruit to taunt her.

"Not cantaloupe," Olivia blurted out. "Maybe next time."

The more breakfast food Alex shoved into her basket, the warmer Olivia got. Grapes, pineapple, bacon, eggs, bread, cinnamon rolls, orange juice – did she plan to get any sleep?

The customer in line ahead of them had only two items, she was pleased to note; they'd be out of here in no time. Olivia was dropping their rolls onto the belt when a thought hit her – toothbrush. For a split second, she debated doing without, but old habits were hard to break. It probably wasn't a good idea either to announce to everyone that she would be spending the night with D. A. candidate Cabot by asking Alex if she had an extra one. "Forgot something," she muttered, maneuvering around the woman behind them to head for the toiletries section.

The shelves were well organized, and Olivia quickly found a cheap one that she liked. On impulse, she picked up a second one. If Alex ever stayed at her place, it would be hers. If not, eventually Olivia would get around to using it.

By the time she returned, Alex was through the line already, and was now leaning on a closed checkout counter by the exit with a contented expression on her face.

"Halverson's Card?"

Olivia turned her attention away from the beautiful blonde long enough to figure out that the checker was talking to her.

"Halverson's Card?"

"No." Olivia tendered a five dollar bill.

"I can do it by phone number," the woman volunteered.

"I don't have a card," Olivia said. "I don't shop here. I won't need a sack, either." She didn't want to sound rude, but she had places to be.

Pocketing her change, she turned away from the checkout line – and stopped.

Linda Djavaherian had a fresh cantaloupe on her counter. Kara Jann's sister had picked up a nearly full bag of catfood along with the Calico. Meya Franco had tossed a used Eveready into her trash; was that a new battery in her MP3?

Single women . . . late at night . . . in a hurry . . . . their regular grocers closed. More likely to buy a single item. And pay cash. And what would they do with their receipts? The same thing Olivia planned to do with hers when she walked past the large trash receptacle outside the store.

She glanced over at Alex and held up a finger. Be right there. She noticed the expression on Alex's face change – ah, "potential voter" mode, offering a smile and a hand to a young couple approaching her. My little celebrity.

That bought her a few minutes more to think this through. How did those discount cards work? She'd read about them in the paper, but the tiny store where Olivia bought the occasional tomato would never be big enough to computerize, let alone try to keep track of her buying habits.

It was worth exploring. Hell, anything was worth exploring. "Excuse me," she said. "Can I see one of those cards?"

The woman enthusiastically pulled out an application form (must get credit for signing people up), and Olivia skimmed it. Name, address, telephone number. Christ, did people give this information to anyone these days?

"Here you go." The woman cut cleanly between two identical cards and handed them to Olivia, who frowned. None of the victims had a card for Halverson's or any other department store. But then . . . you wouldn't need to hang on to it if you could just say your phone number.

To anyone who might be listening.

A hundred questions ran through Olivia's mind. How many places had those cards? Which employees could access the home address through a phone number? Would there be a record of it? She drew back her overshirt to show the badge clipped to her jeans. "Do you have a night manager?"

"Uh, yeah. Mr. Francione." The checker gestured toward an empty office – empty because its occupant was, at the moment, in voter-haze himself. Was it like this everywhere Alex went? Olivia almost laughed. Better get used to it. She planned on spending a lot more time around Alex from now on.

She stuffed the toothbrushes into her back pocket and strode toward them, casually keeping her badge displayed. This was always fun. Like most guys, when he saw Detective Benson looming, he would wipe off the drool and step away from the dream.

He didn't.

Later, Olivia thought back on it a dozen times, wondering what she could have done differently.

They both put it together in the same instant. She was looking at a man who was here every night, who could listen for women reciting their phone numbers, who had access to the applications and the computer database. A man who was standing there staring at her, wide-eyed with fear.

She knew. And he knew it.

In a single motion, Olivia reached behind her for her gun while Francione reached for a pair of scissors on the counter. He pulled Alex hard against him and jabbed them into her neck.

A tube of frozen orange juice rolled out from the sack that fell from Alex's hand to the floor. Blue eyes gaped at her in pure shock. Olivia knew the feeling.

"Let her go, Francione," Olivia ordered.

"Stay back," he said. Alex yelped as pointed metal pierced her skin.

Keeping his hostage squarely in front of him, Francione began to drag Alex toward the store entrance. For each step he took backward, the detective took one forward. There had to be an alarm in this place; someone had to have hit it. She just needed to stall until backup arrived. But the exit was so close . . . .

"Let her go, and you won't be harmed," Olivia said.

"I know who she is," he yelled unexpectedly. What did that mean? "You don't want anything to happen to her."

"No, I don't." For reasons that had nothing to do with who Alex Cabot was. "I don't want anything to happen to you, either."

He snorted his disbelief. "Right."

"You know I can't let you take her," she warned him. She maintained her steady pace toward them.

"You will, or I'll kill her. You know I'll do it." Alex's cry was more pain than fear this time, and Olivia saw blood oozing out onto the end of the scissors. They were sharp. All the better to cut up those damn cards with.

Six inches. She just needed six inches of unobstructed target. Maybe less. Her hand was steady.

Where was the backup? Olivia had no idea where the nearest unit might be. What she did know was that she could not let this man out of the parking lot with his hostage. Alex would be dead by morning.

"Here's the problem, Francione," she said. "If I let you leave, how do I know you won't hurt her anyway?"

Are you listening, Alex? I don't have a choice here.

At his silence, Olivia decided to try a different tact. "Look, do you think it's a coincidence that we were here tonight?" she asked. "Do you think she was talking to you because she liked you? She was on to you, Francione." If he thought about it, Olivia knew, he'd realize that what she was saying didn't make any sense. She was counting on the fact that most people weren't rational in a situation like this. "You're walking into half a dozen sharpshooters out there who really want her as their next D.A. I'm your last chance."

He hesitated, and then shifted slightly to look over his shoulder. Alex felt the movement and jerked her head the other way, which thrust her neck directly into the blades but gave Olivia what she needed. She pulled the trigger.

The bullet removed the right part of Francione's forehead, splattering blood and brain matter across the attorney's face. As he fell backward to the floor, Alex tumbled with him onto the linoleum. Olivia hurried over to her, pressing a hand against Alex's neck. She tore off her outer shirt and pressed it against the wound. "Stay still, Alex," she said. "I've got you. I've got you . . . ."

"Detective Benson."

Startled, Olivia shot up from her seat in the waiting room. What–? "What the hell are you doing here?" she said. Alex's campaign manager was here before Elliot?

"You should have called me," White said.

"Yeah, well, silly me for thinking I should let her mother know first." Olivia was irritated. "How'd you hear about it?"

"You didn't think the words 'The victim is Assistant District Attorney Alex Cabot' on an ambulance call would catch my attention?"

"What, you have a scanner?"

"No, I have friends who have scanners," he said. "How is she?"

"She'll be OK," Olivia replied. "It missed the carotid. Sorry, though, no ass kissing for a few days." Olivia knew she was being nasty, but she couldn't help it.

"You think I don't care about her?" he asked.

"Oh, I'm sure you do. It's hard for most guys not to."

"If you're suggesting what I think, Detective, I'm not blind, but I'm not a complete idiot either," White replied. "I knew better than to think I had a shot with you in the picture."

"I don't know what you're – hey!"

White waved the long-forgotten toothbrushes at her that he had just whipped out of her back pocket. "At first I thought you were both lying," he said. "Then you left, and Alex told me not to worry about sex scandals because she was hopelessly stuck on you and you weren't interested."

"Not interested?" Olivia repeated incredulously.

"Yeah, I know. I could see it a mile away." He reached into his wallet for a dollar bill. "Want a soda?" At the shake of Olivia's head, he inserted the bill into the machine and punched a button. "That's where I made my mistake. I thought it would distract her to have you around. Wear her down. 'Unrequited passion' and all that drama. She really wanted to win, and I did what I thought was best for her."

And thus the banishment of Olivia Benson from Alex Cabot's life. Knowing the real reason made her feel better.

"Looks like things have changed on that front," White continued. "Congratulations."

Maybe he wasn't so bad.

"Just don't fuck her in front of the window, and don't leave any marks."

"You foul-mouthed– What . . . ?" Now he was staring at her chest.

"You're a mess. Is that her blood?"


White flipped open his cell phone and pressed a speed dial number. "Danielle, get the usuals down to High View. Tell them Cabot was stabbed during the capture of the west-side strangler." He listened for a moment, then shook his head. "No, no press conference. Cabot is recovering from a serious throat injury. However, Detective Olivia Benson assisted in the capture and will answer a few questions." He hung up, then moved Olivia's jacket aside to inspect the white shirt beneath. "Ditch the coat. It's covering some of the muck. She's going to jump 10 points from this."

Olivia stared at him. "Do you have any sense of decency?"

"Do you want her to win?"

"Of course."

"Has McKay played fair?"


"Do I really need to go on?" Taking her answer for granted, he began issuing instructions. "We don't have much time; they're gonna mow over grandmothers to get here for this. Don't answer any questions about the investigation, and don't talk about why you were there – oh, and try not to say the name of the store. Halverson's gave her a couple of grand."

"Can I say that we had sex in the squad room earlier tonight?"

White blinked.

Ha – finally something that could shut Terry White up.

"No," he finally said. "But you can tell me about it later." He grinned at her, and for once she didn't find him so annoying.

Olivia set the tray on the bedside table. "OK, Doc says you can talk now," she said. "And from the looks you've been giving me, I gather you have something to say."

"Yes, I do," Alex said, unconsciously holding a hand against her neck as she tested her voice. She picked up yesterday's Ledger, with its splashy headline: Cabot Nabs Serial Killer, Survives Attack. "This was a bit much, wasn't it?"

"Mm," Olivia agreed. "Where do they get this stuff?"

"Where indeed?" Alex pointed to a couple of lines in the story. "'Cabot became suspicious upon realizing that all three victims likely drove past the department store exit at night and might have stopped in occasionally for last-minute purchases.'"

"Hmm, looks like a typo," Olivia said. "That probably should have said 'Cabot's hot lover.'"

Alex frowned at her, and continued to read. "'Upon entering the store, Cabot was 'on to' night manager Alan Francione, Detective Olivia Benson said at the scene.'"

"Technically, that's true; I did say that," Olivia noted. "They got it from one of the checkers. Who wants your autograph, by the way."

"Uh huh. And this?" Alex aimed a remote control at the television/VCR on her bedroom wall. On the screen flashed Jerry Caldwell and his attorney, standing on the courthouse steps for yesterday afternoon's press conference. "My client wishes to thank Assistant District Attorney Alexandra Cabot," the lawyer said. "It was partly through Miss Cabot's efforts that this injustice was rectified."

The image went still.

"Well, hey, you did authorize the release order," Olivia pointed out.

Alex gestured toward the screen. "Do I even want to know what that was about?"

Two auto break-ins and a possession with intent, all within the statute of limitations, courtesy of 'Townie' Townsend at the 2-9.

"So, Terry and I are getting along better these days," Olivia said, changing the subject.

Alex's eyes narrowed. "Why am I not surprised?"

"Well, you know, he did give me a gift." Olivia slowly unbuttoned her blouse. "He told everyone that ADA Cabot would require two days in bed to recover from recent events . . . ."

"You can fuck her brains out tomorrow, but I want 'em back on Thursday."

She lowered the zipper on her pants.

"You have one more day to go."

Her panties dropped to the floor.

"Did I mention that I haven't decided who to vote for yet?"



Second-time donor. Olivia placed the check on one of her five stacks and reached for the next one.

A happy woman breezed into the computer room. "Hey, Hot Stuff," she said, bestowing a friendly kiss on her lover.

Olivia paused with her finger above the T. "Someone's in a good mood."

"Someone's in a great mood," Alex corrected. She kicked both shoes off.

"And what has put that smile on Our Miss Cabot's face? Could it be that big double-digit lead she's got on pie-face?"

Alex came up behind her to nuzzle her neck. "Or could it be that little incident of excessive force this morning?"

"Well, that's why I'm in a good mood," Olivia replied. "But I haven't been down there pounding my head against a wall at the Men's Circle. How'd it go, anyway?"

"Half of them hate me, and it didn't go well with the rest."

What a surprise. "Terry's right, Honey; you shouldn't accept every invitation to speak, especially this close to the election," Olivia said. "You know they don't think women should work outside the home."

"I do now."

"Which makes your current mental state highly suspicious," Olivia said. "If you start singing 'Good Morning, Starshine,' I'm going to make you pee in a cup."

"Ah, but it all depends on how you define success," Alex said mysteriously. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a five-dollar bill. "This" – she held it up by both ends – "is from the wife of their founder. She slipped it to me on the way out when she handed me my coat." Alex gazed at the worn bill. "This is the most satisfying donation I've ever gotten."

Olivia smiled to herself. I think I can top it.

The doorbell rang twice in quick succession – Terry – and Alex took a step toward the living room. "What's on our plate this afternoon?"

"Terry wants to go over election night stuff, and then I've got more Thank Yous for you."

"Ugh." Alex looked pained. "How many? My hand is cramping from signing those things."

"Oh, is that why?" Olivia smirked.

That earned her a seductive grin. "Well, maybe we can test other theories before I leave for Kiwanis tonight."

Sounded good to Olivia. "I'll be here," she said.

When Alex was gone, she reached up for the check that had its own pile and laid it on the desk for when they were alone later. Linda Cavanaugh. This was one Thank You the candidate wouldn't mind writing.

The End

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