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The wind cut through her like a wickedly cold knife as Olivia Benson walked towards a scene of flashing lights and bright yellow police tape. Preparing to push her way through the huddled crowd of inquisitive onlookers, she briefly wondered how gruesome the sight before her would be. Another typical day in a seemingly long line of never ending, depressing days. In a detached part of her mind, she had quietly begun to realize that she was slowly but surely fraying at the edges, and wondered how long she could hold herself together.
Straightening up from a crouch, Elliot Stabler idly watched as his partner made her way through the crowd, flashing her badge. He had seen and heard enough to know that they were dealing with a sadistic sociopath with a penchant for six year olds. A familiar rage was beginning to well up in his heart, and this time he welcomed it. He needed it to fuel what he knew would soon become a manhunt, to blank out all thoughts of an empty house and an empty life, and focus solely on the relentless pursuit for this latest monster.
Sighing as she put down the phone, she winced and tried not to think of the images flashing in her mind at Cragen's description of the latest attack. "Not now, not yet". There would be plenty of time to look at the pictures and absorb the horror of the carnage once all the reports came in. More than two and a half years on the job, and Casey Novak still had a hard time dealing with the children. Not that the rest of the victims were any easier, but she had learned how to handle that. The coffee cup was halfway to her mouth when she realized that it was already empty. Frowning at it, she gave a mental shake, and headed towards the coffee machine. She would need all the caffeine she could get today.
She checked her watch as she walked briskly toward her office. She wanted to get in early today, take stock, get her bearings. Pausing for a moment to take in the sights, sounds and the smell of Manhattan, she gave in to an uncharacteristic and rueful little laugh. Life was beginning to look good again. No more hiding, no more lying, no more pretenses. Alex Cabot was back in town, and boy, would the town know it!
A canvas of the neighborhood turned up exactly what he expected. Nothing. Not even a junkie, a hobo or a nosy insomniac. Strange, for New York. Apparently, the perp was stealthier than a cat. And adept at avoiding notice. Munch almost wished he could blame it on a conspiracy. Conspiracies were good and fun and could sometimes be used conveniently to neatly explain the most bizarre incidents. He'd much rather use a conspiracy with some vague goal at its root to explain the depravity of the crime, than believe that it was an expression of the darkest recesses of human nature. Besides, Munch reflected as his lip quirked up, they were useful to occasionally bug the crap out of Olivia. She always took the bait so beautifully. The final door of the neighborhood closed behind him as he started walking towards the squad car, where Fin was waiting.
Driving back towards the precinct, Fin half listened to Munch rant on about the total uselessness of neighborhood watches. He was used to his partner's riff's by now. For the thousandth time, he idly wondered why he let Munch turn him into his personal chauffer. Today he would have much preferred to be sitting on the passenger side, warming up both his hands on a tall cup of coffee. Even for a hardened cop like him, the crime scene had left a chill in the soul. It took a lot to shake his calm, but this one had succeeded. Beyond the gruesomeness of the crime, it was the third one bearing this MO in two months. The perp was beginning to escalate. He could feel the urgency of the hunt beginning to build up.
Huang began poring over the pictures of the two previous murders again the moment he heard the news. He wanted to be prepared before CSU turned in the latest pictures. The meticulousness of the staging was an instant giveaway. It was a blatant "Look at me, you assholes. I'm laughing at you", shout. No, this wasn't your garden variety molester run amok. This was a cold-blooded psychopath who liked to hurt, mentally and physically. While the children bore the results of his physical sadism, it was the mental agony inflicted on the helpless adults that gave him the most pleasure. It was a deliberate cat and mouse game. The escalation of his violence showed that he was increasingly getting desperate for a recognition and adulation. He needed the hysteria and the resultant clamor to satisfy his craving. Taunting the cops was just an added bonus.
Putting down his pen, he wearily closed his eyes and pressed fingers to the bridge of his nose. It got to him sometimes. Understanding this. Knowing how they think. True, knowledge was power, and in his work, it was a power wielded for good. Though he believed that a cerebral approach to solving crimes was the best, sometimes he just wished he could let go and punch it out. Give the shitbag exactly what he deserved. Sighing, he opened his eyes and started going over the photos again one last time before meeting Cragen and the rest of the squad.
He listened carefully as the squad filled him in on the latest developments. The little girl had been carefully laid out next to a dumpster in a residential neighborhood, and there were no witnesses. He didn't doubt that CSU would have a tough time coming up with any significant forensic evidence. The only thing they had left to go on was Huang's profile. With Warner confirming in her preliminary report that the pattern of abuse looked to be the same, it was about time to confirm the growing speculation in the media. The Amber Alerts at the disappearance of each of the children had already made it obvious. Television channels had replayed the shock, alarm and grief of the families many times. Now, they could expect mass hysteria and fear, and unbelievable pressure from all corners to produce a suspect.
He directed Munch, Fin, Stabler and Benson to recanvas the neighborhoods of the first two abductions for the presence of any suspicious strangers. As they started gathering their jackets and overcoats, he noticed the sudden hiss of frustration Olivia made as her jacket seemed to get caught on something. She seemed to be more and more on the edge these days. Making a mental note to talk to her soon, Cragen turned towards his office, unconsciously squaring his shoulders. It was time to face the circus.
Melinda Warner walked back into the autopsy room, the mask on her face hiding her slight grimace. Dealing with the families of the victims was always hard. Sometimes she couldn't decide what was worse, having to autopsy a child, or to try and keep the parents from realizing the worst of their injuries. It wasn't always easy to maintain a clinical detachment. But that was exactly what she needed to do. The only way that she could help them was by doing her job, and doing it damn well. Blocking all thoughts of the parents out, she picked up her dictaphone and started cataloguing the external injuries.
Casey stood beside Cragen as he adeptly fielded the volley of questions thrown at him in the press conference. She couldn't help admire the way he projected a sense of calm and control. He was in charge, and he would make things all right. She was just there to indicate that the weight of the DA's office was fully behind the investigation and that all available resources would be at their disposal, 24/7. The big man had called her into his office just before the news conference, and after getting an update, told her to give the case highest priority. For once, he wasn't questioning her ability to deal with the situation, something that had been occurring more and more often recently, ever since she had dared to defy his orders and taken on the Pentagon. Besides, with the return of everyone's favorite wonder child, she couldn't help but wonder how long it would be before the comparisons started surfacing again. But this time, she wouldn't have to deal with the ghost of perfection anymore. Flesh and blood was never perfect. With a tiny inner smile, she turned her attention back to Cragen, who was concluding the session.
Denial was a good state to live in. It helped to cope. Deny the loneliness, deny the despair, deny the concerned support. If you didn't acknowledge it, it didn't exist. Being a loner didn't necessarily mean that you were lonely. Those fly-by-night encounters were just a means to scratch an itch, not an attempt at human connection. Acknowledging the support meant admitting that there was a need for the support. Olivia had been pushing it all away, and forcing herself to go on. The job was her life. There had been nothing more since that fateful night when a single gunshot had shattered her burgeoning hopes, and had taken away the one person who made life seem much brighter.
Oh, she had been content before she met Alex, but falling in love was a whole new level of life. One that was hard to come down from. It had taken her a while to get to know Alex, see the warmth and the liveliness beneath the veneer of icy intelligence and the snobby arrogance of the privileged. It had been an awkward dance, one step forward, and three steps back. Seeing her with Trevor Langan had cooled Olivia's ardor considerably. But things had been picking up again when the Colombians came calling. What hurt even more was the realization that her feelings were returned, just as they had to be separated. It left Olivia wondering which fucked up vodka-guzzling pre-revolutionary depressed ghost of a Russian author was scripting her life.
And now she was back. Apparently, Cesar Velez had been "otherwise dealt with" and Alex had refused to continue with the WPP despite fear of his successors. A fact that made for great press and added to her reappointment to the DA's office. Not surprising that Branch was promoting the photo opportunities. Stories like that were a goldmine in an election year. But in the week that Alex had been back, Liv had barely had an opportunity to talk to her. Work had kept her busy and moving, while Alex was immersed in reestablishing her life.
She could see the faint question in Elliot's eyes. He had long ago guessed about her feelings for Alex, and had been calmly supportive. But just now, she felt a flash of irritation at that look. "Stop being nosy," she wanted to yell. And as quickly, it vanished in a feeling of guilt. She had pushed at him enough when he hadn't been ready to talk about his divorce. Lately, all these feelings had contributed to little cracks and fissures in their relationship. Yet another thing that was gnawing at her and added to the stress. She missed that easy camaraderie and connection.
She pushed those thoughts away again as she picked up the file. The placing of the body in such an open place was unusual. Even when perps wanted bodies to be found, they usually disposed of them in isolated places to avoid getting caught. This guy was unusual in his audacity. As no one had witnessed anything that seemed out of the ordinary, then the perp could well be someone they were all used to seeing on a regular basis, maybe the newspaper guy, a street sweeper or a garbage man. It was time to check them all out and see what came of it.
Why did he choose these particular kids? What connected them? Besides the fact that they were all white, and came from apparently decent homes, the choices seemed random. Ashlee Towson, the first victim, had disappeared from the supermarket, and no cameras had caught that. Keyleigh Michaels wandered off at the mall, and the last, Sophie Gallo, had been snatched from Central Park, where she had been on a school trip. All crowded places, where you wouldn't notice strange vehicles. Elliot's gut feeling was that they had all been crimes of opportunity. The perp took his chances when he saw them. Which also meant that he was sufficiently prepared to take those chances. And crowded areas like these were perfect for finding new victims. The question was, how did he manage to keep the cameras from catching anything?
Elliot Stabler was a protector. He was a father, a husband, a cop. He was a decent man. A good man. A man who tried to live a straightforward, simple and principled life. But life always has other ideas. There was something fundamentally wrong with the universe if twenty years of being a faithful husband and family man rewarded you with an empty apartment and weekend visits. The increasingly bitter arguments towards the end had exhausted all his inner reserves. Why couldn't she ever accept his need to keep her and their kids untainted by the horrors that he faced? They were his reason, his support, his sanity. Just knowing that at the end of a bad case, he could go home and lose himself in the innocence of the normal and the mundane kept him going. Now that home had turned into an echoing house. Sometimes, he was actually glad to have cases like these. They gave him a perfectly legitimate excuse to not go there and face that loneliness. Immediately he felt a twinge of guilt at such thoughts. He looked down at the photos again - there was nothing to be found in the lost innocence, the bewildered eyes. He had tried to keep his children safe, and now he wasn't around to protect them. And he hadn't been there for so many others - kids like Ashlee, Keyleigh and Sophie.
Shaking off the dark thoughts, Elliot got up to refill his coffee. The phones were ringing off the hook from the calls to the tip line. The Captain had commandeered detectives from other units to help answer these calls, while his four main detectives continued to go over the accumulated reports. Looking up as he tasted the coffee, he noticed the ME entering the squad room. She walked with a confident, slightly sinuous stride. Unfortunately, her hair was still tied up. Lately, he seemed to be noticing that little extra detail about her. They reached the desk at the same moment, and he saw the hint of a triumph in her beautiful dark eyes. "We've got DNA."
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