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Contract Corruption

Chapter Text




I fear not the dark itself,

But what may lurk within it.



Friday, November 15, 2019, 10:45 PM

Meatpacking District

Washington St & Little W 12th Street

New York, NY


                The carpet stunk of rancid meat, permeating from the drafty windows painted black. Beneath the smell of slaughterhouse was sweat, blood, and rusty metal, twisted together, swept through the flickering light and agonized breaths. The whimpering, muted and muffled, audible only over the dragging of restraints between dirty shag and linoleum. There was a thick, noxious, almost putrid mist hanging in the air and it wasn’t coming from the butcher shops or packing buildings just blocks away. This was worse and it lingered in the air like fog as a cigarette was lit moments after another was snuffed out.

                Justin Andrisani and Dickie Stabler, flanked by three other much larger men, paced the floor, near the window with streaks in the paint, peering into the night as the squeals of heavy tires moving around the corner captured their attention. They were waiting for transport and it was late. The muscle already put hands on the collateral three times; blackening an eye, busting a lip, and dislocating a thumb, instilling the threat in the others for a time. Staying quiet didn’t seem to register even after enduring the pain or hearing the threat of death from men who reeked of cigarettes and alcohol. They’d already experienced worse and still had to inhale another breath into their agonized lungs.

                They’d already been bestowed a fate worse than death.

                “Finally,” Dickie had his eyes on the headlights while Justin’s was scanning each face, every tear-filled eye, as they shook like leaves along the furthest wall. “Remind me to punch the driver for putting this op at risk with less-than-cooperative collateral.”

                “He better have a good reason to go pissing off the boss again,” Justin’s eyes were still lingering on the barely legal daisy chain, at the collectively broken, fixating on their distant, exhausted expressions as they refused to look at anything but the floor. “Before we go moving anyone…do you plan on wrapping the hand on the girl with the dislocated thumb or are you just going to make sure she’s permanently maimed for the highest bidder, Andrus?”

                Andrus was approaching three hundred pounds and towered at nearly six foot seven inches tall. He was a goliath of a man that utilized it to reduce the average person to a cowering mess in seconds. Andrus’s stature and imposing size was more than enough to intimidate the small, frail women barely dressed in shorts and tank tops complete with tears and rips. Justin and Dickie, however, didn’t seem to flinch as they approached, gathering the three that had been injured, hauling them to their feet, leaving the other eleven to be divided among their cohorts. This was normal, though.

                Andrus could drag five of them down or up a flight of stairs without even breaking a sweat.

                “If you’re so concerned about her hand, you wrap it,” Andrus snapped as he shoved the first three forward, toward the stairwell, aiming his fingers toward the man at the door. “We have a deadline and we’re already behind schedule.”

                “Maybe you should consider different intimidation tactics and stop before you break bones,” Dickie retorted, his twitchiness ample while he adjusted his grip around a length of chain extended between the brunette and the blonde that had been given a busted lip and a blackened eye for their troubles. “You already reduced the immediate movability by leaving marks.”

                “I don’t hear anyone else stepping up to do what is necessary,” Andrus manhandled a length of chain, knocking the three girls at the rear to their knees, encouraging a simultaneous yelp as the linoleum gnawed at their skin with an unpleasant grind. “Do you plan on protesting that as well?”

                “You are a fucking twat, Andrus,” Justin flicked a lit cigarette directly at the back of his bald head and watched the sparks fly as it bounced before tumbling against his shoulder, eliciting a groan as he swatted it into the nearby sink. “I’ll take care of the thumb; you just get the truck loaded before we get caught by the eyes of New York.”

                The footfalls and gentle taps muddled by watered-down grumbling of men who had nothing better to do than quibble about the horde of hundred-pound girls tethered together. The insufficient length of restraints around their ankles was causing a problem in the narrow stairwell and the noise was carrying through the empty commercial building. Dickie wisely adjusted the latch at the ankle of the two girls at his hip, carefully keeping enough room between them for movement while taking no chances for them to run. That had already happened before and the responsible crew paid dearly for that mistake. They didn’t need to be a second example for others to learn from.

                “Hurry up, we’re already on thin ice,” Dickie poked the first girl between the shoulder blades, coaxing her forward while his eyes were focused on Justin as he lifted the little brunette off of her feet to bring up the rear. “Andrus won’t tell it like it is—he’ll blame this shit on us.”

                “Even though he’s the fucking moron that got lost and couldn’t figure out how to work a garage door once we got there?” Justin grunted and followed Dickie down the stairs, leaving a gap of two steps between them after nearly taking a tumble. “I’ll wrap her wrist at the bottom of the stairs, where I can see. You just get them to the truck before Moose goes off and decides to anxiety eat.”

                “Just, don’t fuck around, okay?” Dickie only waited for the nod before disappearing into the night air, his grip tight around a coil of steel.

                It was quiet. Maybe too quiet. Justin was acutely aware of the sobbing against the center of his back as he made the final descent to the bottom of the stairwell, carrying her like a sack of potatoes. She had given in and given up long before the moment that her first phalange was forced to pop free from the metacarpal, leaving her thumb incapable of moving on its own. That was the common theme between all of them. They were all broken, shells of their former selves, and waiting for something to break.

                It might have been bold and brave of her, as her feet touched the tile between the threshold and the steps, as a soul cried out from the depths. “I don’t want to die.”

                “Hold still and don’t scream,” Justin saw something familiar in her expression, buried beneath the dirt, dried sweat, and tears, in the flecks of green and gold still shimmering at the center of white and bloodshot, as he held her wrist and thumb.

                She was tougher than she looked, but the scream had to be muffled with her forearm until the drool came down and the popping of her thumb echoed through the corridor. Justin held her up and ripped a section of his shirt from beneath his hoodie, yanking just enough to cradle the wounded digit against her index. A lull passed over her face, as the desire to pass out kicked in and the pain worked through her frail, malnourished body. Justin tapped her cheeks with the tips of his fingers just enough to make a sound, slapping reality back into her. She needed to stand up. They needed to move.

                “Come on, we gotta go,” Justin heaved a labored breath and hauled her to her feet, grunting as her ankle lead popped free on one side. “One foot at a time.”

                Around the corner, where the row of meatpacking and industrial gates was pulled shut, the van was sputtering as the door was open just enough to shove the last girl inside. Andrus had already sucked through another cigarette and flicked it into the street while Dickie came around to the same side, peering down the sidewalk. Justin was taking too long and it was signaling every alarm bell in his brain. Dickie popped his hoodie up and tied it in place as the man behind the wheel rolled the window down just enough to toss the sparked butt in his direction. Enough was enough; patience was wearing thin.

                “Where in the fuck is your boyfriend, Stabler?” the driver, Nino, popped his elbow out onto the side of the door and glared, elevating his voice as Dickie paced. “Did your man leave you for that little doll that is supposed to go in the back?”

                “Oh, that’s a good one,” Andrus chuckled and kept his eyes directed toward the back of the van, as the exhaust began to rise. “He knew she couldn’t fight him off…easy plum to pick.”

                “Nino, Andrus, why don’t you both practice being quiet so we don’t get caught?” Dickie would never have uttered the words out loud that he wouldn’t have blamed Justin if he bolted but they were both as good as dead if he did. “Justin’s loyal.”

                The sound of a scream amplified over the quiet before distinct, hollow popping of a gun and shattering of glass. Justin’s voice, shrill and startled, grew nearer as his stuttered footsteps met the puddles in the street. Every cuss word combination left his mouth before Dickie and Andrus could even get to the corner, to find him desperately limping in their direction. The girl was gone. Justin had more than paid the price as the blood dribbled down the side of his face and from a fresh gash just inches from his crotch.

                She had aimed and missed.

                “She got me with a broken ankle cuff in the fucking face and then tried to lob off my dick with it,” Justin dropped to his knees on the pavement, letting the blood pour down the front of his clothes and onto the ground. “I got three shots on her—”

                “You obviously missed,” Andrus didn’t care about his wounds, he cared about the loss of their collateral because of carelessness. “Marcus is going to go ham…”

                “Jesus, fuck, Justin,” Dickie knelt, guiding one of his arms over a shoulder to aim him back to an upright position while Andrus was focused on locating a barefoot, barely dressed teenager with chains still affixed to her wrists and an ankle. “She got you good, didn’t she, man?”

                “Never trust a female, kid, never…ever,” Justin spat, splattering his blood on the sidewalk and let Dickie lead him away from the first mess while Andrus was shouting down the street. “Fuck, what in the hell is he doing?”

                “We’re going to get fried. That little bitch got away AND she’s completely unrestrained,” Andrus came back with two lengths of chain, the mangled restraints dangling at the ends, his face reddened in the dimmed, amber street lights. “You better have gotten a shot that’ll do more damage than a fucking flesh wound, Andrisani.”

                Dickie gave Justin a modest shove into the cargo truck while Andrus disappeared into the dark, in the direction of another, unmarked mover. “Let’s get out of here before those approaching sirens find the mess we just made.”

                The taps against the back from their relief men gave the signal as Nino gave a nod, peeled into the street, and headed toward the industrial district. Calling what had just happened a mess would have been an underestimation. Dickie held onto his bleeding best friend while the light glimmered against the shattered glass along the building where the shots had been fired. This wasn’t as bad as last time but it wasn’t better. This would certainly get them into more trouble with Marcus but they were already, secretly, hoping that one of those shots had gotten her in the back.

                Enough damage to drop her in some alley in the dark; where she could be forgotten all over again and no one would know her name.



No one ever told me that grief

Felt so much like fear

C.S. Lewis


Tuesday, November 19, 2019, 12:15 AM

Gapstow Bridge, Central Park

New York, NY


                The perimeter was already taped off, sectioned across both ends of the bridge and down a worn path where Sammy and Vic had been camping out beneath respective shrubbery. Blue and reds strobed while the white spots were raised, ushering in the next wave from the 20th Precinct. The last of the sirens reverberated, rose and fell like the crescendo of a symphony, and became silent with a final bellow. Officers moved with certain synchronicity, urgency swelling as the rain picked up and the wind changed. They were heavily canvassing the area, marking everything that didn’t belong, snapping photos along the way. It was controlled chaos; poetry in motion. Most of them were silent, absent the meticulous driven chatter as the scene was processed.

                An unmarked, dark SUV pulled alongside NYPD sedans, shifted into park, and their brass was visible the moment light hit. The distinct shape and markings of a Sergeant’s badge and a Lieutenant’s badge, respectively, flickered as both women sauntered across wet ground, eyes trained on what remained of the interviews with the witnesses and the body strapped to a gurney. The day had worn on and neither had gone home but had managed to sneak a few z’s from the confines of the bunks. It wasn’t enough, though. They both knew it never truly would be enough.

                “What are we looking at Sawyer?” Lieutenant Ayanna Bell approached a fairly petite, redheaded Detective lifting the edge of the black plastic wrapped around the body, scrutinizing it with intent.

                “I’ll let the ME make the leap but it looks like the cause of death just might be the single GSW to the forehead,” Detective Hailey Sawyer lifted her chin, her latex gloves stark against the plastic and black jacket she was wearing, a single brow lifted as she folded the flap back, exposing the face and chest a little more. “They left him unrecognizable. Beat him to a pulp and slashed his features.”

                “Sounds like Cressini’s very usual modus operandi,” Sergeant Monique Jeffries hadn’t gotten to the scene completely but she already had enough knowledge on their first thought as she crossed her arms, stood at the end of the gurney, and pressed her lips together. “Surprised he doesn’t have the typical size thirteen to the chest.”

                “It is his signature but…” Hailey tilted her head and gestured toward the chest, where a boot pattern normally would be, with the message that Sammy and Vic had discovered earlier instead. “I think this was meant as a much bigger message for our Captain instead of his usual skittering across the room to piss in the corner.”

                “You know Stabler is going to be pissed if I call him without damn good cause, Sawyer, and I need more than a message on a dead guy’s chest,” Ayanna held a breath and glanced at Officer Luca Cerullo as he was finishing up a statement with Vic just feet away. “Luca! Were the witnesses any help?”

                “Both of them were in the brush when the victim was tossed over the side but they said it was a couple of big fellas having a real conversation with each other,” Luca Cerullo made a sweeping gesture toward the rise of Gapstow, looping the edge of his notepad in the same direction while his brown eyes squinted beneath the floodlight. “They stayed hidden until after the van peeled out.”

                “There’s no way that Cressini supervised this but he definitely put in the order,” Monique shook her head and stole a glance at her watch, at the hour, groaning over the prospect of bothering Stabler. “Someone has to make the call and I don’t want to interrupt him unless I absolutely have to.”

                “Didn’t the Captain say to call if anything develops on this case?” Detective Gianni Savarino came in from the rear, his mood in the toilet and a yawn still on his lips as he shivered in his wool coat. “Can’t be that important if he said to interrupt.”

                “Oh, this is how you show everyone that you’re still single, Gianni,” Hailey had a snarky grin on her face as one of the uniformed officers had walked away from asking her about moving the body for the medical examiner. “You don’t get why we all want to drag this out and that’s okay. You’re a perpetual bachelor and personal choices are personal choices.”

                “Excuse you?” Gianni wanted to feign offense as he snapped on the gloves and shot a look at his cohorts, his voice elevating as he peered beneath the plastic one time before covering the victim’s face. “I date…I do! I date. I don’t see what that has to do with Captain Stabler, though.”

                “Oh, Gianni, Gianni, Gianni…” Monique smirked, rolled her eyes, and swung her arm around his shoulder, jostling him enough to nearly knock him off balance. “You see, when a man and a woman—”

                “Jeffries!” Ayanna cut her off before she could finish the sentence, smiling despite the tone of voice that accompanied the expression. “I think we can spare the details and make that call. The kid has no identification on him but the build, body type, and general appearance are all a little too close not to. He’ll be more pissed if we don’t.”

                They’d developed cohesion and synchronicity through speaking plainly, ignoring typical boundaries. Familiarity through blurring professional lines. It worked for them. It kept all of them honest, open and prevented the very typical disconnect that existed in specialized units. After all, they saw each other a whole lot more than their respective partners or families. Getting along and knowing each other’s quirks only served to keep those hours ticking by.

                “I’ll make the call,” Monique was already shifting away from the scene, her phone out and attention on the display as she scrolled through contacts. “It’s better than Savarino coming in hot like a bull in a China shop.”

                “Eat, my, ass, Jeffries,” Gianni emphasized each syllable and rolled his eyes in her direction as she held the cellular to her cheek.

                “You know your equipment is insufficient, teddy bear,” Monique had become more outward with her sarcasm over the years, allowing aspects of her femininity to blend with the strength of her role, her job, rejecting aspects of both. “Captain?”

                “…I really hope you’re not referring to me when discussing insufficient equipment, Jeffries,” Elliot’s voice had caught her off guard with a muffled laugh and a low groan on the other end.

                “Oh, no, that was meant for Gianni and his incessant, always open, mouth as usual. I hope I’m not interrupting?” Monique could hear a distinct, familiar voice in the background and knew he wasn’t alone but the thought had already crossed her mind that she had popped up at a bad time. “Wouldn’t have thought you’d want anyone to wait, given the situation.”

                “No, it’s fine, I asked for updates if something happened,” Elliot’s tone changed and Jeffries stalled as she listened, her eyes toward her Lieutenant’s concerned expression as the team stayed hovering over the body. “I need to know before I show up if it’s him, Monique…is it?”

                “About that—” Monique turned her torso away from the others and held a breath as she let ambiguity run its course once more. “Stabler, I’m not going to sugarcoat it. It looks bad and there’s no way of knowing if it’s him. At least not yet, anyway. It could be another diversion or something worse.”

                “How bad?” Elliot implored her, the sound of rustling on his end providing more than enough of a distraction as she shook her head, not wanting to divulge it. “Usual calling card?”

                “It might not have all of the telltale markers of a Cressini kill but I know it’s him,” Monique was still holding back some of the thoughts as she could hear Elliot relaying it to his company despite the best effort to cover the mouthpiece. “Bell knows it, too.”

                “Where are you?” Elliot’s question was meant to be straight forward but it was loaded.

                “You know you don’t have to be here until we get the body sent to the ME’s office, right?” Monique was sparing him the preemptive pain and assumptions as a friend instead of his subordinate as she moved along the water’s edge, creating a larger distance away from the team. “We can give you an update once they take a look. I promise you.”

                “Sergeant,” Elliot dropped formality on her and waited for the pause to continue speaking, keeping an even keel as Jeffries’s eyes found her reflection in the frigid water at her feet. “It’ll catch up to me but right now I have to focus and be the captain. We have two missing, not just Dickie, Jeffries. I need to know how bad it is so I can inform the other involved parties to be prepared.”

                “Does this have to do with Benson?” Monique skipped to the point and tilted her chin toward the scene as the medical examiner’s office van had begun to back into position. “You left that hanging for a long time, Stabler, and if this is going to make it worse—”

                “One of Liv’s team has a brother who got close to Dickie and were once arrested together,” Elliot cut her off from finishing the statement, soundly putting to bed the left-field mental process as she nodded despite herself. “They’ve already been communicating that they are back at it, only a lot worse this time. He has kids, Jeffries.”

                “We’re in Central Park,” Monique didn’t need him to elaborate further as she raised an arm toward Ayanna, capturing her attention. “…Gapstow. The van is already here, though, if you’d rather meet us back at the morgue?”

                There was a pregnant pause as the circling lights and strobes were in Monique’s peripheral until his answer came through, pointedly. “Make sure that they tear that scene apart, first…we’ll meet you at cold storage after we make a stop.”

Do I fear the sleepless nights?

You have no idea

How long the dark

Lasts when you cannot

Close your eyes to it.

-Tyler Knott Gregson


                The overly pronounced tap of footfalls on the tile, a seemingly endless ascent of stairs, and the haze of a breaking horizon had Elora squinting as the flutter of white light above her head staggered again. The fluorescent was dying. Argon and mercury vapor had begun to soften, leaving behind the purplish tinge along the electrode tips as the flicker shifted. A hum pulled her focus; like bees in a hive. Her eyes shifted up and stayed there, at the directory. Elora already knew her way but she studied it; studied the directions as though they were foreign, Sanskrit, etched behind a plate of glass that had begun to blur.

                None of it seemed real.

                Elora still had her gold tassel between her fingers, the zero and nine in gold at the top wrapped around the gathered loop marking the year of her commencement. There was something final in it and frightening as she slid it into her pocket. This moment was too familiar and the ache only climbed as her eyes glossed over the words Sixteenth Precinct in gold along one wall along with the floor it resided in. Her stomach was in knots as she wrapped her fingers around the ends of her hair, looping them until her index disappeared underneath dark tresses. She adjusted her grip on the messenger bag across her shoulder, the Columbia University pins and decorations along the flap barely visible while she gripped the zipper for comfort.

                This isn’t happening.

                “Can I help you?” An officer in her dress blues peeked out from the corner while Elora chewed on the inside of her cheek. “You look a little lost.”

                Understatement of the century.

                Elora nodded gently and tucked stray hairs behind her ears, looking every bit the part of a scared shitless graduate with barely a plan to speak of. “I’m looking for Special Victims Unit? I know I’m in the right building but I’ve never been here before.”

                “You’re just a couple of floors shy—take the elevator,” The officer couldn’t have been much older than Elora but her confidence was triplicated as she aimed her hand down a hall. “There’s another directory at the end of the hall. You won’t be able to miss it after that. There are signs everywhere.”

                “Thank you,” Elora wanted to be jealous of the poise of the woman opposite of her but the nerve inside of her belly was quickly dissipating as she made her way toward the elevator. “Come on, Elora Caruso, maintain that conviction, you putz.”

                This isn’t real.

                The ascent was nothing more than a haze and the gumption Elora thought she had begun to build was all but gone as the bell sounded and the doors parted. Turning back would look like the first of many failures the day after working so hard to finally get that master’s degree. Running for the door and accepting a pile of mud would be the easy choice, but Elora took that step into the hallway, nearing the placard along the wall for the Special Victims Unit squad room entrance. Her eyes glassed over as she watched them work from the hall—Elliot Stabler, Olivia Benson, Odafin Tutuola, and John Munch.

                “I can’t do this,” Elora wiped a stray tear and held her breath, nearly dropping to her knees as they buckled beneath her.

                “Miss, can I help you?” One of the gentler voices came from behind her, along with a soft hand to her shoulder like a concerned parent.

                Elora turned to face him, studying his distinguished features and figured he was Captain Cragen strictly by his mannerisms as she bit down on her lip, chewing on the ample curve as she hesitated. “I was just curious if that’s Sergeant John Munch in there with that group of detectives?”

                Captain Cragen scrutinized her face as the emotions morphed from fear to uncertainty to a form of happiness as she cleared her throat. “Yeah, he’s the tall one pontificating in front of his partner with the funny look on his face in there…I can go get him if you need to speak with him?”

                Elora tried to hold back the laugh but she expected the description as she glanced at the scene inside of the squad room again, contemplating them. “Yeah…I’d appreciate that.”

                “You just sit tight, I’ll be right back,” Captain Cragen didn’t want to linger but her faltering disposition was apparent as he didn’t wait for an affirmation before heading into the room where he interrupted the group.

                “I, I, really can’t…do this,” Elora was panicking, the yearning to stay fading as she took a final look at the group, her eyes full of tears.

                It wasn’t time and she didn’t know when it ever would be. Elora could hear Captain Cragen describing her and gesturing in her direction, a concept that had her soul screaming for help as she started to back away. Fight or flight. She was choosing to run. It had become comfortable and the realization was even starker as she was halfway to the elevator, the buttons well within view. She waited at the doors until that dinging sound became salvation and the gap became big enough to pass through. As Captain Cragen came back into the hallway with John Munch just a step behind the doors crept closed, engulfing her in that space to evade.

                “I don’t know if I’m ever going to be ready.”

                The fog lifted and the shift of time moved much like the bed beneath her as Elora shot to a seated position from a tangle of sheets. A breathy sigh and a gasp escaped her lips as the darkness shifted, the dull glow of hanging bulbs peeking through the gaps in the drapery. The sweat had gathered along her temple and left her hair matted to her face as she feverishly groped her palms across the silky sheets, reassuring that she was truly there. It was another nightmare. Another recollection of a memory that had crawled to the surface and began to wreck what was left of her resolve. The woman that had begun to give up on ever knowing a father had disappeared and the unsatisfied, empty vessel that remained hadn’t slept well since confessing to Amanda Rollins.

                “So, this is what it’s like to go insane,” Elora muttered to herself as the oscillating fan finally touched her with a cool breeze, cementing that she was at home, alone, in her bed. “Fuck.”

                Elora brought her knees up to her chest and exhaled against the diminished gap between them, closing her eyes for a long moment. She’d lost count of the number of times that her consciousness had chosen to replay a lost opportunity to meet her father. The frequency had only increased tenfold since revealing that tidbit of information to Amanda. Elora wasn’t good at letting anyone in and when she did, disaster usually followed. Elora wasn’t in a place to dwell on it, though, as she lifted her chin and glanced at the clock.

                1:05 AM

                Both girls were asleep, peacefully, blissfully unaware of the mental torture that their aunt was putting herself through as she crashed against the pillow with a thud. Elora’s eyes moved along the ceiling, over the details that were visible in the dim. It was moments like these that sleeping alone felt more like a punishment than a choice; reminding her of the opportunities that didn’t seem to last. Fleeting glimpses of eyes, lips, face, arms, and hands that kept moving further away, just out of reach. Elora knew who they belonged to and saying it out loud felt like a betrayal of an already crumbling psyche as she clamped her eyes shut.

                The self-inflicted torture was halted abruptly with the low, staggering buzz from the front door in rapid succession.

                Someone was downstairs.

                “What in the holy hell?” Elora groaned and shifted onto her side, reaching for the robe draped across the handle to the closet as she slid out of the bed, haphazardly dodging the shoes in the way as she maneuvered with speed down the hall. “Please, God, don’t let this wake the girls.”

                No one had called. She hadn’t missed a page from work and the notifications were set on her cell. It wouldn’t have made sense to bypass a quick jingle but something was brewing in her stomach as the indicator light blinked a second time. Luckily, the buzzer wasn’t that loud but loud enough to be an irritant. Elora’s eyes took one, last look down the hall, at a propped open door where the soft glow of the nightlight still burned and only the subtlest squeak of a spring could be heard from a middle of the night rollover.

                “Who is down there thinking that this mode of greeting was better than calling or texting me first?” Elora wasn’t amused as she held down the intercom button, laying into her unknown guest just enough to make her point. “If it’s Wyatt down there, you know we’ve discussed this more than once. You don’t just show up in the middle of the night.”

                “Elora, Elora, it’s Stabler,” Elliot’s voice had her eyes widening while she harshly recalled Justin and Dickie showing up to relieve her of bourbon once or twice as she held her robe closed as though he could see her. “Liv is here, too—need to talk to you.”

                “Did anyone ever tell you that impropriety is still impropriety even though you both outrank me and one of you can suspend me?” Elora hesitated before she responded, her trepidation louder than the headache forming behind her eyelids as she chewed the inside of her cheek.

                Elliot was breathing into the mouthpiece, hanging on his words as though he didn’t know what to say despite knowing it had to be set free. “…Elora, a body was found in Central Park.”

                Blow by blow, the words hit her like a brakeless freight train. The air went out of her lungs and she held back the sob as she shook her head, refusing to let it sink in. Elora held onto the wall as her knees gave out, as it settled into the places of her mind that had already begun to let go. This was her nightmare. This was her worst fear unfolding. This was how her heart would finally break; knowing that those girls were going to lose so much more than anyone else could fathom.

                Elora’s fingers shook as she pressed the same intercom button again and swallowed hard while standing up as straight as she could. “Just—let me—uh, I’ll let you in…”