May 1, 2014
"Jesus, you're a sight for sore eyes," he said with a wolfish grin, sliding a glass of whiskey over the tabletop while she settled into the booth across from him.
"So are you, you Walter White looking motherfucker."
They laughed together, easily, raised their glasses and tipped them towards one another, a sign of respect, before he tossed his back in one long swallow.
"How's it going, Elliot?" she asked him. While he gestured to the passing waitress, pointed to his empty glass and silently asked for another, he pondered his answer.
He'd spent the last few months living in a busted RV under a bridge, watching the river rushing by him, the sparkling lights of the city untouchable in the distance, feeling very much as if life itself had moved on, and left him frozen in place. He'd shaved his head and grown out a beard for the first time in his entire goddamn life - he was seventeen when he joined the Marines, and no beard allowed there, and after he got out it took some time for him to relax, readjust to civilian life, and about the time he did he was off to the academy, and no beards there, either. Unis weren't allowed to wear beards, and the rules were a little more lenient for detectives but Cragen had been somewhat old fashioned, and Elliot was, too, and here he sat, forty-six years old, and wearing his first beard. It had come in flecked with grey, and there was something grim about that he didn't like to think about.
The last few months he'd been living someone else's life. Wearing someone else's clothes, using someone else's name, doing someone else's job. The last few months, he'd buried Elliot Stabler, like he'd been trying to do for the last seven years. The last few months he'd been in danger, lying, brawling, starting fires, causing mayhem, carousing with evil sons of bitches, and he hadn't seen his daughters' faces in so long he was starting to ache with missing them. After everything he'd been through, over the last few months, when Ayanna asked him how's it going, his answer should have been pretty fucking bad.
But it wasn't, and that scared him.
"It's good," he said. "I'm in this now. Kosta's put me in charge of his security."
"That's good," his Sergeant answered. "But that's not what I meant. We'll talk about the job in a minute. How are you doing? You talked to your kids?"
"Yeah," he said, nodding. "Yeah, talked to Maureen last week. She's getting married."
"That's great," Ayanna said, and it sounded like she meant it. All Elliot could muster in response was a weak yeah.
It was supposed to be great. Maureen was his oldest, his first, a beautiful girl he loved with his whole heart, and she was happy, or at least she'd sounded happy when she told him her news, and all he ever wanted was for her to be happy. But she was getting married. Leaving her father's house - well, technically, she'd done that at eighteen, gone off to college and lived in the dorms and started working as a waitress and got an apartment with friends and never, ever looked back - and making a new one for herself. She was getting married, and leaving her old life behind. She was getting married, and her mother wasn't alive to see it.
"The rest of them?" Ayanna prompted him.
"Yeah, yeah, they're good."
Maureen had told him that her siblings were good, but it had been ages since he'd talked to any of them. Kathleen, Dickie, Lizzie, they texted the cell he kept locked up at OCCB headquarters, checked in periodically, and he answered them when he could, but the job was too hot, right now. He couldn't see them, couldn't risk calling them from a phone Kosta could trace. The best thing for them right now was to be far, far away from him. Maybe that had always been for the best.
"Can we talk about the job now?" he asked ruefully.
The waitress was approaching, so they sat quietly for a moment, waited for her to drop off Elliot's glass before picking up where they left off.
"What've you got for me?"
"Like I said, Kosta's put me in charge of his security. He's going out tomorrow, he wants me with him."
Adrenaline rushed through Elliot's veins at the very thought of it, heady and thick and dulling the lonesomeness to a distant pang. His family was falling apart but he still had the job, and he clung to it with both hands.
"Got an invitation," he said. "From Manfredi Sinatra."
He was watching Ayanna's face carefully as he delivered this news, and he was pleased to see her surprise. Things were really happening now, the case moving forward at light speed, and he was eager to get into the fight.
"What do the Italians want with the Albanians?"
"Yeah, historically those two camps don't exactly see eye-to-eye."
"Elliot," she warned him, impatient. Probably itching to get out of this dive and get home to her pretty wife, her soft bed, she didn't seem to appreciate his theatrics, so he decided to dive right in.
"No one knows what Sinatra wants," he said. The Italians had been running their protection gambit longer than anyone else, and Sinatra had killed and stolen and cheated his way to the throne at the head of all the Italian families. To a guy like that the Albanians would be no more than a minor inconvenience; they were running drugs, running girls, extorting businesses, all the usual racketeering shit, but they were small timers, their sphere of influence limited, contained, and no real threat to the Italians. But Sinatra was getting old, and rumor had it there was already a battle for the succession underway. Maybe he just wanted to make some new alliances, maybe he was just trying to mitigate the damage when the other families started picking over the corpse of his empire like vultures.
"Is it a trap?"
"I don't think so," Elliot shook his head. "Sinatra requested a meet in neutral territory. He picked a real no man's land. Honestly, Sarge, if you'd asked me yesterday I'd have told you this place didn't exist, and now it's been dropped in our lap. This is a big get."
They were getting to the meat of it now; this was big. Bigger than the Albanians, this was a chance to kill three birds with one stone. Take out three of the most notorious criminal enterprises in the city in one fell swoop. This was it, the big one, that case that was gonna justify everything else, all the grief and all the struggle and all the pain. Nothing could wipe out the losses Elliot had suffered, but this…this could give them meaning. If Bell let him have his head.
"Would you just-"
"Meet's at Oak House."
"That supposed to mean something to me?" she asked blankly. The little balloon of excitement that had been slowly growing in Elliot's belly deflated somewhat, then; he thought she'd know, right off the bat, exactly how big this was. He hadn't counted on having to explain it all.
"Shit," he grumbled. "Can tell you never worked Vice."
"All right," he said. "All right. Oak House is a legend. Like an actual legend. You go to Vice or SVU, everybody's gonna know what it is and everybody's gonna tell you it isn't real." The whole city, he thought, was made of myths like this one.
"Story goes like this. In the old days, we're talking like, pre-Revolution, there were a couple of brothels in the city that started to work together."
"Like a whore's union."
"Yeah." Ayanna sure knew how to paint a picture, he thought. "Each house had like a…specialty. If you went to one and they didn't have what you were looking for, they'd send you to one of the other houses. Customers got exactly what they wanted every time, the houses shared business, everybody was happy. They were all named after trees. Dogwood House, Birch House -"
"Right. So, Oak House was the top dog. Their girls were sophisticated, classy. They catered to the elite. The real elite. Talking founding fathers, Vanderbilts, royalty, that sort of thing. The parties they threw were the social events of the season. The kingmakers, the guys who built this city, they did it from Oak House. But the houses collapsed like a hundred years ago. Government started cracking down on prostitution, and the newspapers were taking off, made it too risky. The brothels had to go small, went cheap and mobile. Started sending the girls to the customers instead of the other way around."
Elliot had heard the story a thousand times while he was with SVU. Some of the old timers talked about Oak House like it was a poison, a prison, and some of them talked about it with wonder, with reverence, like it was some fucking paradise of ethical prostitution. Yeah, right, Elliot had always thought. It didn't matter how well educated the girls were or how well they were paid or how powerful their clients were; prostitution was still servitude, and he wasn't gonna forgive some pimp for running girls just because the guy had class.
"But the place is still in operation?"
"There's a brothel that calls itself Oak House. No way it's the same one, but whoever's running this place, he's trading on the name. I talked to Kosta about it yesterday; apparently the only way to get in is to get an invitation from the pimp or from a current member. Kosta's too small time to get in on his own, Sinatra's doing him a favor. Treating him like an equal."
"I don't like the way you're looking at me," Ayanna grumbled. "You gotta stay on task here, Stabler. We aren't here to bust the Italians or some pimp. We're going after Kosta."
"Yeah, but Sarge, come on," he said eagerly, leaning across the table, "just think about it. These guys think they're untouchable. They're gonna be sitting in this house, talking about their operations. The intel we get here, we can bring all three of 'em down."
Kosta, and Sinatra, and the pimp. If Elliot played his cards right, if he was quiet and watchful, he could gather enough intelligence to arrest all three of them, and completely reshape the criminal underbelly of the city. He could make a difference. Nothing he did was gonna bring Kathy back - Kathy and the baby had bled out in the backseat of a taxi because Elliot had been too focused on the job to take care of her when she needed him most, and he was never, ever gonna be clean of that sin - but he could help someone else, and maybe if he helped enough people, maybe one day Kathy's ghost would forgive him.
"You can take the cop out of SVU but you can't take SVU out of the cop," Ayanna said wryly. "I need you focused on Kosta-"
"But whatever intel you get on this pimp, when we're done you can send it to Cragen, ok? Let SVU bust this guy for trafficking. You keep your eyes on the prize."
It was a compromise, but it was one he could live with. If someone else was gonna get the glory for busting one of the oldest, most infamous brothels in the city, at least it would be Cragen. The old man deserved it; he'd been like a father to Elliot, and he was one of the best, most decent people Elliot had ever known. Cragen was coming up on the end of his career, and this would be a good note to end on. Elliot could take a step back, for Cragen's sake.
"You got it, Sarge," Elliot said, and then he reached at last for his drink, and threw it back smoothly.
Game on, he thought.