Benson looked up at the knock on her open door and motioned for the two detectives to enter. “What’s up?” she asked, watching as they glanced nervously at each other. Carisi was holding a file in one hand.
“Uh, we have a situation,” Rollins said.
Benson took off her glasses and, setting them on the desk, leaned back in her chair. “What kind of situation?”
“Show her,” Rollins said, elbowing Carisi.
He gave her a look that clearly said why me? but started toward the desk. “We had a call about a break-in,” he said. “A woman named Holly Hooper was alone in her apartment last night and woke up to a man standing in her bedroom.” Carisi paused, looking at Rollins as she stepped up beside him.
Benson lifted her eyebrows. “Was she assaulted?”
“No, he didn’t touch her,” Rollins answered.
“Then why is SVU getting a break-in—”
“He was wearing a G-string and fishnet stockings,” Rollins said. “And nothing else,” she added.
“Ms. Hooper said she thought he was gonna rape her,” Carisi said, “and he did break into her apartment—unies found damage to her lock—in his underwear.”
“In someone’s underwear,” Rollins remarked with a smirk.
“She says she turned on a lamp and begged him not to hurt her,” Carisi said.
“And he seemed startled and dropped his…bouquet and took off,” Rollins added.
“Bouquet? He had flowers?” Benson asked.
“Not exactly,” Rollins answered.
Benson sighed. “Is there a reason for all this run-around?”
“Sorry, Lieu,” Carisi said. “We got footage from three different security cameras, one in the entranceway of Ms. Hooper’s building, one from the building across the street when he came out, and one…from a bodega where he bought a bottle of bourbon, powdered doughnuts, and a pack of gum.”
Benson looked at Rollins as the younger woman ducked her head. “Something amusing about this?” she asked.
Rollins shook her head, doing her best to wipe the smile from her face. “No,” she said. “Sorry. It’s just the image—” She broke off, shaking her head and biting her lip. “No,” she repeated, her expression growing serious. “Sorry.”
Returning her attention to Carisi, trying to rein in her impatience, Benson said, “So this guy can be identified…?”
“They’re very clear pictures,” Carisi answered.
Benson reached out a hand. “Am I allowed to see, or…?”
The detectives glanced at each other again.
“Guys,” Benson said, spreading her hands in exasperation. “I’ve got a million—”
“It’s Barba,” Carisi cut in, his face flushing.
Benson stopped, blinking in surprise. “What’s Barba?” she asked after a few moments.
“In the photos—on the security tapes—it’s Barba,” Carisi said.
“Barba was in the store when the guy bought—”
“No, Liv,” Rollins cut in quietly. She elbowed Carisi again. “Give it to her.”
Carisi held out the folder and Benson leaned forward, snatching it from his hand. She flipped it open on the desk and froze, staring down at the first image. It had been zoomed-in and enlarged, cleaned up, but the face—even with a shadow of stubble—was familiar. She’d know him anywhere. She didn’t even have to put on her glasses.
She felt the air leave her lungs in a rush. “What…” She couldn’t finish the thought, though. She thumbed through the pictures with numb fingers. Pictures of him running out the door, grainy shots of him outside on the sidewalk, and those oh-so-damning shots of him in the bodega. Rafael Barba, wearing nothing but a thong and fishnets. “How’d he pay?” she heard herself ask. The sound of her own voice was muffled by the roar of blood in her ears.
“He had cash tucked into the top of his stockings,” Rollins said.
“Hey, at least it wasn’t in the—” Carisi broke off, flushing darker than ever when Benson’s eyes slid up to his face. “Sorry,” he said.
“Looks like there would’ve been room,” Rollins muttered.
“That’s not—” Benson stopped when they both looked at her. “Appropriate,” she finished, changing course at the last moment. “What’s this?” she asked quickly, holding up the last photo to distract them from the fact that she was flustered.
“Oh. Bamboo,” Carisi said.
“Bamboo?” Benson asked, dropping her gaze back to the photo. The leafy stalks were tied up in a red bow that had come partway off when the bundle was dropped on the floor. “Why in the hell—” She stopped herself, though. What was the point of that question when not a single thing about this whole situation made any sense?
“He also dropped this in the store,” Carisi said, pulling an evidence bag from inside his jacket. He handed it to Benson. In the bag was a small photograph, from a wedding. The groom’s face had been scribbled over in Sharpie. The photo was creased and worn, but Benson immediately recognized the bride.
“That’s Captain Eames from Major Case,” she said, looking up at the detectives. “Where’s Barba? Was he picked up?”
“No, we just made the ID,” Rollins said. “We thought you’d want us to handle it…personally…”
“Fin’s gonna be sorry he picked this week for vacation,” Carisi said.
Benson opened her mouth, but before she could respond, she caught sight of Barba stepping out of the elevator. He had his briefcase in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other, and he strolled across the precinct, heading toward Benson’s office. He was dressed to the nines as always, but she couldn’t help seeing him as he appeared in the photos—only the triangle of red cloth covering his crotch—
Barba stopped in the doorway of her office, looking around at the three of them. “What?” he asked, quickly taking in the way they were all staring at him, and their awkward silence.
“Come in and shut the door,” Benson said, closing the folder on her desk.
Barba regarded her for a few seconds before obeying. “What’s going on?” he asked once the door was closed.
“Have a seat,” Benson said.
Barba glanced at Rollins and Carisi before turning his attention back to Benson. He didn’t miss the fact that she’d slipped into professional mode. Barba set his briefcase on the floor and his coffee on the corner of her desk, unbuttoned his jacket, and folded himself into the chair in front of her desk. “Care to share?” he asked.
“You’re chewing gum,” Benson said.
Barba cocked an eyebrow. “That’s the reason for the interrogation vibe?”
“Where’d you get it?”
“Where’d I get my gum?” he asked, clearly confused. “I stopped for a newspaper—”
“Where were you last night?”
Barba stared at her. His heart was pounding, now. He didn’t know what was going on, and her expression was giving nothing away. “Home,” he said. He refrained from asking why she wanted to know.
“Alone?” she asked.
“Of course alone—” He stopped himself again, drawing a bracing breath through his nose to calm his nerves. “Yes, I was alone. All night,” he added pointedly, keeping his voice low and level. He waited, watching her exchange a look with her detectives.
“Can your doorman or anyone corroborate your story?” Benson finally asked.
“My story?” Barba asked. He leaned back in his chair, adjusting his lapels.
“Poor choice of words,” Benson said, holding up a hand, and he realized that she was far more upset than she was letting on. “Anyone who can put you in your apartment building—”
“I need an alibi?” Barba cut in. He saw Benson debating how to proceed. Whatever was in that folder, Barba knew they shouldn’t be discussing it like this, in her office—he knew it by her questions, by her body language, by her face.
Nonetheless, she reached over the desk and set the file in front of him, turning it in his direction. Barba stretched out a tentative hand and paused, meeting her eyes. She gave a small nod toward the folder, and he flipped it open.
He leaned forward, letting out a breath. He stared down at the first photograph, his scalp suddenly tingling, his skin prickling. “What the…fuuuuck,” he said, his voice barely audible.
“Do you know a woman named Holly Hooper?” Benson asked.
“It appears you were in her apartment last night,” she said. “Dressed like…this,” she added, gesturing toward the photos. Barba picked up one of the pictures and sank back in his chair, staring at it. “She woke up to find you in her bedroom with a bundle of…bamboo stalks.”
“Is this a joke?” he asked without looking up.
“Do you know Alexandra Eames from Major Cases?”
Barba couldn’t tear his eyes from the photo in his hand. “Only by reputation,” he muttered absently. He searched the image, his brain floundering to find some rational explanation. Maybe I was drugged, he thought. He gave his head a shake. He was drugged enough to put on a G-string and fishnets—and where the hell had they come from, anyway?—and break into a woman’s apartment, and then he’d strolled casually into a store before going home to, what? Change into boxers and crawl into bed, only to wake in the morning with no recollection of leaving? He didn’t feel remotely hungover, and he certainly would’ve noticed if there’d been a pair of fishnet stockings draped somewhere in his apartment.
“We need to take you for a tox screen,” Benson said.
“I feel fine,” he answered. He forced his gaze away from the picture and met her dark eyes. “I don’t understand how this is possible,” he said. “This isn’t me. I mean, I know it looks like me, but there has to be some sort of explanation.”
“Sure, maybe someone cloned you,” Rollins suggested.
“Or what was that movie where Nicolas Cage and John Travolta switched faces—” Carisi started.
“That’s enough,” Benson said. She leaned back, tapping her pen on the arm of her chair. To Barba, she said, “You had a picture of Captain Eames in your, uh…stockings, you dropped it when you pulled out the money—”
“Stop saying you,” Barba interrupted, sliding the photograph on top of the others with a grimace. “You can’t actually believe this is me, that I would—A photo of Eames?” he said, his stunned brain finally catching up. “I’ve never even met her.”
Benson picked up the evidence bag and held it out. Barba reached for it and then hesitated, curling his fingers back. “If I’m a suspect—” he started.
“Let me worry about the chain of custody,” Benson said. “Right now we’re only looking at breaking-and-entering which, depending on the toxicology report, might be explainable as a…misunderstanding.”
“Jesus Christ,” Barba said, scrubbing his hands over his face. “I didn’t break into someone’s bedroom in—this,” he said, gesturing toward the folder with a flick of his wrist. He snatched the evidence bag from Benson’s fingers and looked at the wedding photo. “I assume the husband’s face isn’t supposed to be blacked out,” he said drily. “Has someone checked on—”
“Her husband passed away—I’m not sure, fifteen years ago? Maybe longer?” Benson said. “You’re sure you’ve never met her?”
“I’m positive,” he answered, looking over the desk at her. “Liv,” he said. He could feel himself reeling, and he tried desperately to find something that made sense, something to keep himself grounded. “I swear to God,” he started, but he realized he couldn’t complete the sentence. How could he? He couldn’t say with absolute certainty that he wasn’t the man in the photographs. He had no explanation, and he despised the swirl of helplessness and uncertainty that was tearing through him.
“We’ll figure it out,” she said quietly. “Do you want a lawyer?”
He stared at her, swallowing. She continued to regard him, her expression steady. Her calmness was familiar and comforting. She was as confused as he was, but he had absolute faith in her ability to find the truth. “No,” he said. “I’ll…do whatever you want.” He dropped the bag onto the file. “I need to have Carmen cancel my appointments…at least I don’t have court…”
“Did you take anything last night?” Benson asked. “Have anything to drink?”
“I had scotch,” he said. He spread his hands. “Test me for whatever you want. If I have drugs in my system—”
“You mean bourbon?” Carisi asked.
“I don’t drink—” Barba started.
“Or powdered doughnuts?” Rollins interrupted.
“Amanda,” Benson said. “Go see if forensics has anything from the apartment yet.”
“Right, boss,” Rollins said. “Sorry.”
“Carisi, take Barba for his toxicology. I’m going to call Eames,” Benson said. She looked at Barba. “Let’s stay calm and figure this out,” she said.
* * *
“I realize this is…unorthodox,” Benson said.
Eames shook her head. “I’ve never met Rafael Barba,” she said, frowning down at the picture of herself from her wedding day. She touched a thumb to the plastic over her husband’s blacked-out face. “And if he has a grudge against Joe, he’s twenty years too late,” she said. She looked up at Benson’s gesture, and over her shoulder as Carisi escorted Barba through the precinct.
“He doesn’t look familiar?” Benson asked.
“I—He looks like—” Eames stopped, frowning. He did look familiar, except the mannerisms and body language were all wrong. Her mind was racing, though, and she turned her attention back to Benson. “You don’t have forensics yet?” she asked.
“Still waiting on fingerprints,” Benson said. Her gaze sharpened on the other woman’s face. “Do you know him?” she asked.
Eames shook her head. “He says he wasn’t there, right?”
“He doesn’t remember any of it,” Benson agreed.
“And you trust him?”
Benson glanced toward Barba and swallowed. “With my life,” she said quietly. “But the pictures seem to be—”
“Bring him in,” Eames said, and Benson gestured for Carisi and Barba to enter. “Let me see the images from the security footage,” Eames said, and Benson handed over the file. Eames opened the folder and felt a cold rush of recognition. She held herself rigidly in her chair, staring down at a photograph. She let out a breath.
“Captain?” Benson said, but Eames didn’t immediately answer. “Alex,” Benson said, and Eames looked up. “What is it?”
“This is Kevin Mulrooney,” Eames said.
“Who—Are you sure?” Benson asked.
“Positive,” Eames said. “Or at least as positive as I can be without your forensics results.”
“Thank God,” Barba said, sinking onto the couch with a huff of breath.
Benson glanced at him briefly before looking back at Eames. “How is that possible? He looks—”
“He looks just like Barba,” Carisi said.
Barba was too relieved to offer any snarky comments, and he leaned his head back against the sofa and closed his eyes. After only a few seconds, however, he said—eyes still closed—“Wait—Kevin Mulrooney? Wasn’t he the ADA who murdered—” He lifted his head. “He’s not in prison?”
Carisi said: “There was another ADA who looks just like you?”
“He was released about two months ago,” Eames said. “I testified at his parole hearing but apparently he’s been a model prisoner. He’s been keeping himself out of trouble. Has an apartment, and a job at the zoo.”
“The zoo hires murderers?” Carisi said. “Last time I take my nieces—”
“Ten years for premeditated murder?” Barba asked as though Carisi weren’t speaking. “Who was the prosecutor? My Cousin Vinny?”
“He was a defense—” Carisi stopped at the look Barba shot him.
“His insanity defense was understandably convincing,” Eames told Barba. “You can look up the details if you want.” She turned her attention back to Benson. “I have his address,” she said, reaching for a notepad on Benson’s desk. She wrote out the location from memory and handed it to Carisi. She looked at her wedding photo. “Even after all this time,” she muttered, shaking her head.
Carisi stopped halfway to the doorway and turned back, frowning. “Uh, Lieu?” he said. “This is Holly Hooper’s apartment building.”
“He lives in the same—Didn’t unies canvass the building?” Benson asked.
“There’s no doorman or anything,” Carisi said, “and they went door-to-door but no one—”
“Go,” Benson said. “Find him, get him in here.” She sighed, leaning back in her chair. She looked at Eames. “The woman thought he broke in to assault her, but he was scared off when she turned on a light.”
Eames shook her head. “Sexual assault? I don’t think so. Especially not dressed like this,” she said, touching a finger to the surveillance photo. “Bobby—my former partner, he could explain it better if he were here, but this was more of a defense mechanism than anything else. He wore the lingerie under his clothes for…strength. His alter ego—Gabrielle—gave him the strength he didn’t have as himself. And when he killed Boz Burnham it was about revenge. Against me, mostly.”
“You were friends?” Benson asked carefully.
Eames looked up. “He was important to me, once. After Joe’s death. I thought I knew him but I was wrong. And I don’t know what he’s capable of now after all these years, what happened to him in lockup. All I know is he’s kept his nose clean since he’s been out. I haven’t had any contact with him. But sexual assault? I doubt it.”
Benson’s phone buzzed, and she looked at the screen. “Fingerprints match Kevin Mulrooney,” she said.
“I need a drink,” Barba proclaimed. He and Benson stared at each other for a few seconds.
“I don’t think I should be involved in the investigation,” Eames said, pushing to her feet. “Or have any contact with him at all unless it becomes…necessary. But let me know if you need anything. Also,” she added, tapping a finger on the folder, “Mulrooney didn’t drink bourbon. That was my drink back then.”
“Thanks for your help,” Benson said, rising to shake the other woman’s hand. “We’ll keep you up to date. If he’s still fixated on you, which the photo seems to indicate…” She trailed off. She didn’t need to tell the Major Case Unit’s captain to be careful.
Eames nodded. “I’ll let Bobby know, too,” she said. She looked at Barba, and he got to his feet to extend a hand. “Mr. Barba,” she said. “May we meet under better circumstances next time.”
“Captain Eames,” Barba answered. “I can’t tell you how glad I am that you stopped by,” he said, and she smiled, nodding at Benson before leaving them alone.
Barba walked over and closed the door with a soft click before turning to face Benson. He was still wearing his vest, but he’d shed his jacket and loosened his tie. His sleeves were rolled up, and she could see the cotton taped over the inside of his elbow from his blood tests.
“Having Carisi watch me piss in a cup wasn’t the way I expected to start my day,” he said, his voice deceptively mild.
She spread her hands. “What did you want me to do?” she asked. “Even you couldn’t say for sure it wasn’t you. It looks just like you,” she said as he walked toward her desk.
Barba glanced down at the folder and tented his fingers on the cover. He looked back up at Benson. “I’ll admit, the resemblance is remarkable,” he said.
“So? You can’t be upset with me for doing my job.”
“Of course not,” he said. He flipped open the folder and held up a photo. “But I’d think you know this isn’t my preferred choice of undergarments,” he said, raising an eyebrow.
Benson put her hands on the desk and leaned forward, holding his gaze. “What did you want me to do? Tell my detectives it couldn’t be you because you’d need a bigger thong?” she asked in a low voice.
He set the photo down and leaned onto his fists on the desk. “It’d be nice to think you’d recognize my body by now,” he said.
They stared at each other over the desk, and she realized that he was hurt—more hurt than he wanted to admit. “Rafa,” she said, and he pushed himself upright, turning away from the desk. “I had two minutes to process all of this before you walked in, of course I had doubts but I had to do my job.”
“Doubts,” he said with a nod, bending to grab his briefcase and blazer.
“I know you would never do anything like that if you were in your right mind, but we had to consider all possibilities.”
“I suppose if we’d disclosed, then they could’ve just asked you if that’s what I looked like,” he said with a shrug.
“You want to talk about disclosing now?”
“I don’t want to talk about anything now,” he answered. “I assume I’m free to leave?”
“I—” She stopped herself and clenched her jaw. She gestured toward the door, palm-up.
“See you later,” he said, opening the door. He hesitated in the frame and turned his head partway, casting her a sidelong look over his shoulder. “You know I’d never want you to not do your job,” he said. “It’s been a rough morning.” And with that small attempt at a peace-offering, he strode from her office and toward the elevator with his chin up.
* * *
“I demand to know why I’m here,” Kevin Mulrooney said as soon Benson walked into the interrogation room. He was pacing, agitated. “I’ve done nothing wrong, and these detectives kept me from going to work, I can’t lose that job,” he added, flinging an accusing arm in Carisi’s direction.
Benson’s steps faltered for a moment. He looked so much like Barba that she felt a sense of unreality wash over her. Mulrooney was wearing grayish-blue coveralls, though, and his hair was a messy mop on his head. It had none of the gray that had begun to creep through Barba’s. He had a faint scruff of beard across his jaw; that had appeared as nothing more than a five o’clock shadow in the late-night surveillance video.
Their builds were similar, and their faces were nearly identical. He even sounded like Barba, at least in tone.
Now that she was in the same room with him, however, Benson knew without a doubt that if Mulrooney were to show up in her bedroom, she would never mistake him for Barba. She knew she couldn’t judge herself too harshly when she’d had nothing but a series of enlarged photos to go by, but she still felt a rush of guilt. She should’ve gone on record that Carisi’s Face/Off theory was more plausible than Barba breaking into a woman’s apartment in a tiny scrap of underwear.
Now it was too late, and she wasn’t sure she’d be able to undo the damage she’d done to his ego.
“Please have a seat, Mr. Mulrooney,” she said, gesturing toward the chair on the opposite side of the table. Mulrooney wasn’t handcuffed. “I need to ask you some questions.”
“Am I under arrest?” he asked.
“We have evidence that places you at the scene of a crime,” she said, settling herself into a chair. “Let’s see if we can’t clear this up.” She pointed to the other seat. Kevin sighed and ran a hand through his hair. He dropped into the chair and laced his fingers on the table, staring across at her.
Even the color of his eyes is the same, she thought. But the similarities are all superficial. Up close, she could see that the lines at the corners of his eyes were different, the creases of his face were different. Barba’s face was as familiar to her as her own, and she would never mix up the men if they were side by side.
She pushed thoughts of Barba away. She had to focus on Mulrooney and what had motivated him to break into his neighbor’s apartment in the middle of the night in his underwear. Benson had done some research, and the man before her seemed quite different from the fastidious, vain Kevin Mulrooney described in his file. His coveralls were stained, his hair unkempt, his face unshaved. She knew that incarceration changed people, and he’d been locked up for nearly a decade.
“Where were you last night, Mr. Mulrooney?” she asked.
“Home. In my apartment. Alone. All night,” he said. “Any evidence you have that says otherwise was planted.”
“Planted? I understand you know something about that, don’t you?” Benson asked.
Mulrooney glanced at Carisi, then back at Benson. He offered a sickly smirk that held none of the bravado he was trying to display. “Did Eames send you to find me?” he asked. “Look, I—I’ve changed, alright? I had a lot of years to think about…things. I’m sorry for what I put her through. I’m sorry for what I said to her. I tried to tell her, but she refused—”
Benson held up the bagged wedding photo. “Carrying this around doesn’t look good, Kevin,” she said.
Mulrooney reached out, snatching for the bag. “Where’d you get that?” he asked as Benson pulled it out of his range. “You were in my apartment?”
“Sit down,” Benson said. Mulrooney, half-raised from his seat, sank back into the chair, looking ill. “This wasn’t in your apartment, Kevin, you dropped it in the bodega last night.”
“What bodega? I wasn’t in a bodega,” he said. “I’m being framed, or…or…” He trailed off, his shoulders slumping. “It doesn’t matter what I say,” he said. “Does it?”
“Did you take any drugs last night? Did you have anything to drink?” Benson asked.
Mulrooney shook his head. He looked so defeated that Benson had actually begun to feel sorry for him. “I took Tylenol this morning,” he said quietly. “I’ve had a headache.”
“A headache?” she repeated. “Any other problems? Nausea? Confusion? Forgetfulness?”
“I was a lawyer for a long time, Lieutenant,” he said. “I could give you a whole line of defenses, but what’s the point? I wasn’t drugged, and you’ll find that out with the toxicology report.”
“How can you be certain?” she asked.
“I didn’t go anywhere yesterday,” he said, spreading his hands. “Except work and then home. If Alex thinks I have any intention of bothering her, you can let her know she doesn’t have to worry. I just want to get on with my life,” he said. “I’ve already lost everything. Everything. Can’t you just let me go back to cleaning up animal shit in peace?”
Benson opened the folder and turned it toward him, spreading the surveillance photos out for him to see. Mulrooney leaned forward, glanced over the photos, and sat back with a grimace. A few seconds later, he leaned forward again and snatched up one of the pictures. It trembled in his fingers as he stared at it.
He ran his thumb over the fishnet stockings, and Benson could see his throat working as he struggled to swallow. “Gabby,” he breathed, barely audible. He looked up at Benson, and his confusion and distress were palpable. “I walked into a store like this?” he asked. There were no more denials, no insistence that the images were doctored or of someone else. Barba may have doubted himself briefly, but Mulrooney recognized himself immediately.
“After breaking into your neighbor’s apartment, you apparently ran out of the building, went to the store on the corner to buy bourbon, doughnuts, and gum, and then you went back to your apartment. After we realized that you live in the same building as the break-in, we were able to find footage of you reentering the building just two minutes before the police got there. You didn’t interact with anyone, and you didn’t answer your door when the officers canvassed the building.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Mulrooney said.
Benson raised her eyebrows. “Oh, I agree,” she answered. “Which is why I’m hoping you can explain.”
“I don’t even drink bourbon, I could never stand…” He trailed off, his brow wrinkling. He chewed on the inside of his lip as he studied the photograph. He shifted in his seat. “I…don’t remember…” he finally said softly.
“What time did you get home from work?” Benson asked.
He shook his head. “I don’t remember,” he repeated.
“That’s convenient,” Carisi said.
“I want a lawyer,” Mulrooney muttered. When Benson put her hands on the table to push herself up, he said, “No, wait.” He met her eyes across the table. “What did I do? What did they say I did? Did I hurt someone?”
“Afraid we found another Boz Burnham?” Carisi asked.
“Boz Burnham was a murderer,” Mulrooney answered with barely a flick of a glance in Carisi’s direction.
“Well your neighbor thought you were gonna rape her,” Carisi said.
“Ridiculous,” Mulrooney said, keeping his eyes on Benson. “Ask Alexandra, she might hate me but she’ll tell you.”
“She did, actually,” Benson said. “So what were you doing there, Kevin? Why did you put on that outfit—”
“If it can be called that,” Carisi interjected.
“—and break into your—”
“I was probably already wearing it.”
“—neighbor’s apartment with—”
“I don’t remember putting it on but when I’m stressed—”
“—a handful of bamboo stalks?”
“—it helps calm…Bamboo stalks?” Mulrooney stared at her. Benson saw something like recognition sink into his features, and she leaned forward. “Oh, Jesus,” he whispered. “A bear. Oh, God. I thought…I thought she was a fucking panda.”
Benson blinked. “Excuse me?”
“You wanted to have sex with a panda?” Carisi asked.
“Sex—Of course not,” Mulrooney said, looking at the detective. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
“What’s wrong with me?” Carisi asked, touching a hand to his own chest. “You just said you broke into a woman’s apartment in lingerie because you thought she was a panda bear.”
“Detective,” Benson said, shooting him a quick look. To Mulrooney, she said, “Please continue, Kevin. You thought who was a panda?”
Mulrooney put his palms against his temples. “I don’t remember what…Maybe…maybe I was drugged after all, or I had a…a…psychotic break or—or—or—”
Benson didn’t need to look back to know that Carisi had opened his mouth, and she held up a hand to silence him. “Let’s try to stay calm,” she told Mulrooney. “Let’s start with an easier one. Where would you have gotten bamboo?”
“I have bamboo in my apartment,” Mulrooney said. “I—I—I take it to work as—as—” He stopped and pulled in a deep breath, trying to calm himself. He lowered his hands to the table. “As a gift for the pandas. They’re my favorites and they’re always…sad. Neglected. I…” He frowned again. “No, wait, there’s something…something I should remember…”
“You said you thought ‘she’ was a panda? What does that mean?”
“I remember seeing one of the pandas in the hallway and I went to get some bamboo to lure her out and back to the zoo before someone got hurt, but by the time I got back to the door she was going into my neighbor’s apartment.”
“That makes exactly zero sense,” Carisi said.
“I’m aware of that,” Mulrooney answered, running a hand down his face. He shook his head. “There’s something about the bears…at the zoo…”
“You know what, let’s wait for your tox screen results,” Benson said, getting up. “Detective Carisi, get Mr. Mulrooney something to eat and drink while we wait. Try to relax, your memories might start to come back in pieces. I’ll be back in a bit and we can call an attorney for you—”
“Forget it, I take it back,” he said. “Whatever I did…”
“Sit tight,” she said.
When Benson stepped out of the interrogation room, she was surprised to see Barba. She closed the door behind herself.
“It’s a little unsettling,” he said, gesturing toward the glass with his chin.
“He looks nothing like you, really,” she said.
He smiled, a humorless twist of his lips. “Of course he does,” he answered quietly.
She shook her head. “Not up close. Not in person. I’d never mistake him for you.”
Barba sighed. “I appreciate the sentiment, Liv, but I was out of line,” he said. “You were right, even I couldn’t say for sure it wasn’t me. But let’s table this for now? What’s this guy’s deal? He’s gotta be on something, right?”
Benson turned to look in at Mulrooney. “Something, but I’m not convinced voluntarily.”
“You think he was drugged? This is a guy who premeditated a murder and framed a police detective because she’d refused to lie on the stand.” When Benson looked at him, he shrugged a shoulder. “I looked up the case, and I’d like to know why no one ever mentioned the resemblance. But my point is, he knows the system and he’s had a long time to stew and plot. The photo of Eames would indicate that he’s still fixated. It seems more likely that he’s playing a con of some sort.”
“I don’t think so,” she said, peering in at Mulrooney. “I think something else is going on, here. I just don’t know what.”
“Well, I’m sure you’ll figure it out,” Barba said. “I’m going to head out...again. I have this strange feeling like…everyone here has seen me naked,” he joked He searched her face as she smiled dutifully. “I just wanted to, you know. Touch base.”
“Like you said, it was a rough morning,” she said. “I’ll let you know as soon as we have any information.”
“I can’t be involved in this case.”
“I didn’t mean professionally,” she answered.
He nodded. “Liv, I—” He stopped at the sight of Rollins approaching. “I’ll talk to you later,” he said instead of whatever he’d been about say. He touched her arm briefly as he passed, and she covered his fingers for only a second before they were gone.
* * *
“It’s a tranquilizer used for large animals. I’m sure the zoo has a supply on hand. Like ketamine and fentanyl, it causes memory loss, hallucinations, confusion. Some of the memories might continue to come back, but there’s no guarantee.”
Mulrooney regarded her for a few beats before raising his eyebrows and hands. “I didn’t take any,” he said.
“No. It looks like someone injected you,” she answered.
“I remember…going into the apartment. I was calling for the bear and then…someone turned on a light and…I thought it was Alex,” he said, dropping his eyes to the table as he shifted in his chair. “And I…panicked. I didn’t want her to think I’d done it on purpose, that I was stalking her. I thought…I don’t know. I thought I’d get her something to apologize but I just remember being so tired when I got back that I thought I’d wait and apologize in the morning. I put the bourbon and doughnuts in my freezer. They must still be there. And I went to bed.”
“You didn’t think it was strange to wake up in fishnet stockings?” Benson asked.
“I didn’t. Wake up in them, I mean. Listen, if someone drugged me then it had to have been at work. There’s something I can’t remember. Something about the bears. But it’s all…” He fisted his hands on the table in frustration.
“Detectives are on their way to question the staff.”
“The only job I could get and now it’s gone, too,” he muttered.
“The opioids in your system could’ve killed you,” Benson said. “Can you think of anyone there who—aside from yesterday—would have any reason—”
“I don’t exactly make friends,” Mulrooney said. “I keep to myself.”
“Just you and the animals,” Benson suggested. “They don’t judge, right, Kevin?”
“I’m not even allowed into most of the enclosures with them,” he said. “They have to be…transferred…”
Benson leaned forward. “What is it you’re remembering?” she asked.
“I can’t…” He curled a fist against his forehead and closed his eyes.
“Okay,” Benson said. “Tell me something else. Tell me about the picture of Captain Eames.”
Mulrooney opened his eyes. “Alex made Captain?” he asked. He paused, touching his tongue to his lower lip. “Good for her,” he finally said quietly.
“You said you’ve moved on and don’t wish Captain Eames any harm,” Benson said. “Why did you have her picture—”
“No, no,” Mulrooney said, shaking his head and shifting in his seat. “It’s not—I’ve had it—I had it in prison with me, it’s not what you think. It’s a reminder…”
“Of what she did to you? Costing you everything?” Benson suggested.
Mulrooney shook his head again, chewing his lip. She could see the shine of tears in his eyes, saw his throat bob as he swallowed convulsively. “What I did to her,” he finally said, dragging his gaze up to hers.
“You wanted revenge against her.”
“Yes,” he breathed.
Benson waited a few beats. “Then why is her husband’s face blacked out, and not hers?”
Mulrooney drew a shaky breath, and as he let it out, she could see him deflate. “He was never good enough for her, anyway,” he said. “And he was gone. If she’d only given me a chance—” He cut himself off, and seemed to be trying to swallow the words back down.
“It sounds like you’re still fixated to me, Kevin,” Benson said. “You carry the photo with you—”
“No. No. I leave it home,” he said, straightening. “I know you don’t believe me, but I know what I’ve done. I know she’ll never give me the chance to apologize, but I keep the picture as a reminder so I don’t ever fall back into—”
“Why did you have it with you last night?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I…” He looked down at the photos of himself, and reached out to touch a finger to the stockings in one of the images. “I must’ve been upset. I must’ve been…” He swallowed.
“Scared?” Benson offered.
Mulrooney didn’t answer, but his expression as he stared at the photograph was its own response.
“The picture gives you strength? Like the stockings, and the underwear?”
He looked up at her. “You’re good at your job,” he said quietly. “Not as good as her old partner, Goren, but I bet you’ll be captain soon, too.” There was no accusation, or sarcasm, or anger in his voice. “Yes, it gives me strength. To be a better person. Whatever happened before I got home, I must’ve been upset.”
“Okay,” Benson said. “Okay, so you were upset. You got home, and you changed into this outfit, you got the picture and money. Why did you have money if you didn’t plan on leaving?”
Mulrooney shook his head. “Habit, maybe? You know how hard it is to find a dress with pockets—” He stopped. “No, I was going to leave,” he said. He looked at her, his eyes widening, and leaned forward. “I was getting dressed to leave.”
“By dressed, you mean—”
“Yes,” he said, waving a hand in dismissal. “Dress. I was getting ready and I heard a noise in the hall, and when I looked out I saw a panda going into the apartment, and I grabbed the bamboo to lead her back to my apartment but I wasn’t going to take her back to the zoo. She wouldn’t be safe there. I was going to keep her safe, that’s where I was getting dressed to go, but she somehow found me instead, but she was going in the wrong apartment and I had to stop her. But once I got in there, I realized I was wrong, it was Alex’s apartment, and she’d never forgive me, so I went to get her a gift but I don’t know what she likes anymore, only what she used to like, so I—” He drew a breath. He stared at Benson. “I remember,” he said. “I remember. I’ll help you. You can tell Alex that I helped.” He spoke eagerly, now, his face lighting at the idea. “I’ll go in and get them to talk, you can wire me, and she’ll know—she’ll know I was trying to do the right thing. Will you tell her?”
Benson regarded him steadily. “Let’s take this one step at a time,” she said. “Tell me exactly what you remember.”
* * *
“Black market…panda sales?” Barba asked. “How the hell…?”
“According to Mulrooney, they insure the bears for millions—and then fake the animal’s death, have veterinarians sign off that the death was natural, and then sell the bear to other zoos around the country that can’t afford to have them transferred from overseas the legal—and humane—way. And they use the insurance money to have another bear flown in from a preserve.”
“Why would people keep selling them bears if they can’t keep them alive?” Barba asked incredulously.
“It’s a lucrative partnership for everyone involved, and the deaths aren’t publicized here. They close the exhibit down for ‘maintenance’ until they get a new animal, and no one ever knows the difference.”
“But Mulrooney figured this whole thing out?”
Benson spread her hands. “He said he brings bamboo to the bears even though he’s not supposed to have contact with them.”
“Because they’re bears,” Barba said.
“He said they had an…understanding.”
“Him and the bears.”
“But when he snuck back there to give them their treat—”
“They eat bamboo,” Barba said. “It’s their regular food.”
“Do you want to hear this or not?”
“Of course,” he said, with a flick of his wrist. “Please continue. He sneaked back to treat the bears with a handful of sticks that they eat all day, every day. And? He saw them drugging the bears, I presume?”
“I know how this sounds,” Benson said.
“Do you?” he asked. “Because you seem to be giving this story a lot of credence.”
“There’s an insurance claim filed this morning that backs up his claim. Both pandas reportedly died of a blood disease that, according to the vets, they were born with, and the stress of being transported last month—”
“How many millions of dollars are we talking about?” Barba interrupted.
Benson raised her eyebrows. “Enough to make you doubt your career choices,” she said. “And enough to interest Eames. She’s authorizing an operation. It’s possible they meant to kill Mulrooney with the drugs they gave him—and it’s a miracle they didn’t—so it’s also possible he can get them to confess to something.”
“You’re sending him undercover?”
“If there actually is something going on, he’ll screw it up.”
“It’s worth a shot.”
“Why the rush? At least take time to investigate properly—”
“The bears might not have been transported out, yet. If we can find them before they are…” She trailed off.
Barba considered for a few moments. “You could send me in. If our resemblance could fool you, it’ll fool them.”
“It didn’t fool me,” she said, frowning. “And, no. If this turns out to be true, it’s dangerous. Even if it’s not true, he was drugged.”
“Or he drugged himself. Besides, didn’t you already have the detectives talk to the people at the zoo? They’ll know something’s up.”
“They pretended it was a routine probation check. Making sure Mulrooney was showing up to work, doing his job, et cetera. There’s no love lost, there. They call him LW.” She paused. “Which they told Carisi stands for Little Weirdo.” Barba winced, but she continued. “They all say he does his job, though, and doesn’t cause any trouble.”
“They call him that to his face?”
“Well. I guess I can tolerate being called Little Weirdo for a few minutes,” he said.
“I’m not gonna argue the point. You’re not involved in this case and it’s staying that way.”
“Maybe I’ll go over your head. When does Eames get here?” he asked.
Her lips parted in surprise. They stared at each other. His jaw was set, his eyes flashing. They both knew it was an empty threat; she knew he would never go to the captain behind her back, but that didn’t keep her from feeling the sting of his words.
“She’ll back me up,” she said, her lips barely moving.
“Why won’t you even consider that it makes sense—”
“I don’t want you anywhere near people who already tried to kill him. Because I’m not in love with him, I’m in love with you. You sonofabitch,” she said.
She turned and strode away from him before he could respond. Barba stood beside the vending machines, his hands clenched at his sides, staring after her.
* * *
“Alexandra,” Mulrooney said, stopping in surprise. “Alex.” He grimaced. “Captain Eames,” he said, holding out a hand. “Please, if you’ll just give me a chance—”
“Now isn’t the time, Kevin,” she cut in. “You told Lieutenant Benson you were willing to help with this investigation, that’s why we’re here. Our personal history doesn’t matter right now.”
Mulrooney let his arm sink back to his side. His gaze slid toward Barba, who was standing near Benson’s office, watching. Mulrooney frowned. “Isn’t he an ADA? What’s he doing here?” He looked at Benson. “You’re not prosecuting me for the break-in, you said—”
“Relax, Kevin,” Benson said. “He’s not here for you. But…you recognize him?”
Frowning, Mulrooney shrugged. He glanced at Eames, who was looking anywhere but at him. “Sure, he’s been on TV,” he said.
“Do you think it’s odd…Do you think he looks like you?” Benson asked.
Mulrooney’s frown deepened. He looked at Barba for a moment, and shrugged. “I guess, a little bit. What does that have to do with anything?” He looked at Eames, again, and away, again.
“Nothing, never mind,” Benson said. “Carisi and Rollins are going to get you wired with a mic, Kevin, and we’ll go over the plan. You understand this could be dangerous? They already injected you once, and a tiny amount can be lethal. If they suspect you of knowing anything, we might not be able to get inside quickly enough to administer an antidote.”
Mulrooney was looking at Eames, studying her face, but when the captain glanced in his direction, he quickly dropped his gaze. “I understand. I want to help—the bears. They’re the only friends I have left.” He paused. “I…I’m sorry for—” He stopped abruptly when Eames turned away from him, and Benson could see the pain in his expression before he managed to hide it. He squared his shoulders, lifted his chin, and looked at Benson. “I understand the risk,” he said.
In spite of her misgivings, Benson nodded and motioned for her detectives to get him ready.
* * *
Mulrooney turned slowly, raising his hands to shoulder-level. So much for a nice, lethal injection, he thought, eying the gun pointed at him. He felt surprisingly calm; the tight lines of the thong, pressing into his skin, helped some, but it was more than that. This was his chance, the only chance he was likely to get, to show Eames that he wasn’t the same person he’d been. This was his only chance at redemption, and if he failed, what did death matter?
“You never should’ve come back,” the guy with the gun said. “They’re just animals, man, they’re not worth it.”
“I was just an animal in a cage not long ago,” Mulrooney said. “But them? They’re innocent. They don’t deserve to be at the mercy of people like you.”
“So you’re willing to die? For a fucking bear? Because I’m willing to kill you for one. No one will miss you, LW. You know it and I know it. Do yourself a favor and walk out of here, go back to your lonely little hole in the wall, put on your girly undies—don’t think we didn’t research you when we hired you—and do whatever you do. Live to see another day, friend.”
Mulrooney considered his options for only a few seconds. If he said the safe word, Eames and Benson and their team would be in the room in about a minute. The man before him would be outgunned, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t get off a few good shots, if he chose to try, before being taken down.
On the other hand, if Mulrooney let himself be killed, they could get the man on his way out, catch him by surprise, and prosecute him for murder in addition to the panda smuggling charges. Was he willing to sacrifice himself to avoid putting others in danger? To avoid putting her in danger?
“I’m not leaving,” he said. “You’ll have to kill me.”
Before he’d finished the last word, the door was opening. Benson and Eames were the first two into the room, and they spread apart, yelling at the men to drop their weapons even though only one of the guys had a visible gun.
No, no, you’re supposed to wait for the safe word, Mulrooney thought, his stomach clenching in fear as he saw Eames circling toward him with her gun trained on the armed smuggler. No, he thought as he saw the man’s gun turning toward her. Mulrooney took a step forward automatically.
“Stay where you are, Kevin,” Eames said, glancing at him, and Mulrooney suddenly realized, with a sickening twist of his guts, that he’d distracted her. Time seemed to have slowed to a crawl, and he saw everything unfolding with crystal clarity.
Mulrooney threw himself forward without thinking, and he heard a gunshot rend the air. There were more gunshots, and yelling, but they were muffled by the roaring in his ears as he hit the floor. He didn’t feel the bullet tear through him, but he felt the impact of the cement floor. The air was knocked from his body, and he lay on his side, stunned, his mouth opening and closing like a fish out of water.
Eames was bending over him, and her mouth was moving, but he could hear nothing over the ringing in his ears. He blinked, trying to bring her face into focus as her features blurred. She put a hand on his shoulder and rolled him onto his back, and it was then that the pain came. He managed to suck in a breath; the air felt wet, and tasted coppery.
He lifted his hand from his stomach and saw the glistening redness of his fingers. Shot, he thought. He slid his bleary gaze toward Eames, assuring himself that she wasn’t injured. He didn’t know what was going on in the room, didn’t care about anyone or anything else.
“Don’t move,” she said, her voice finally breaking through the cacophony. “We’ll get you out of here—”
She started to rise, started to turn, and Mulrooney reached out, grabbing at her wrist. He felt the sliminess of his palm against her skin and grimaced. “Please. Alex. Please,” he said, but his words gurgled in his throat, and he coughed, turning his head as blood bubbled to his lips. He struggled to swallow. He tried to focus on the pain to keep himself from blacking out—the darkness was creeping into the edges of his vision—but the pain was already blurring into numbness.
She sank into a crouch beside him. “I’m wearing a vest, you idiot,” she said. In spite of everything he’d done to her, he could hear the tremor in her voice. He could see the pain in her features. He searched her face, trying to memorize every last line before he lost sight of it forever. She took a deep breath and covered his hand on her wrist. “Just hold on, Kevin,” she said. “We’ll get you out of here.”
“Please,” he repeated, trying to think of what else he wanted to say. “Forgive me, Alex…Alexandra,” he said. His words were garbled, and he tried to cough. He had no strength in his lungs and managed only to splutter blood. “I c—I could—I could’ve been—” He closed his eyes, gathering all of his strength. He tried to channel Gabrielle, tried to focus on the bite of the thong, but his body was numb. He was alone.
Except for Alexandra. She was beside him, holding his bloody hand, telling him to hold on. He had to find strength for her. He had to tell her.
“Better. You could’ve loved me,” he said, forcing the words through the blood. He tried to draw a breath and could manage only a shallow, wet gasp. He didn’t know if she could understand him.
“Yes,” she said, and he blinked her face back into focus. “Yes, Kev,” she told him, holding his hand sandwiched between hers so he could see it; he could no longer feel it. “Maybe I even did. You were there when I needed you the most.”
He spluttered, choking. He touched his teeth to his lip, forming the F, but he couldn’t manage the word.
“I forgive you,” she said, and the words settled over him like a warm blanket. He realized that she had tears in her eyes. She was crying for him.
I love you, he thought as the darkness ate away at her face. It was his last coherent thought.
* * *
“Are you alright? You wanna go get a drink. Or three?” Benson asked.
Eames offered a small smile. “I’m ready to get home. A hot shower.” She looked down at her hands. She’d washed away the blood, but she could still feel it. She sighed. “To be honest, I don’t know what to feel,” she admitted.
“He did terrible things,” Benson said. “But he also helped you through a hard time. It’s natural you’d feel…conflicted.”
“I can’t help thinking about what might’ve been,” Eames said.
“Do you want a ride home? I can have one of my detectives—”
“No, I’ve got a ride,” Eames said, looking toward the man standing on the other side of the police tape. He gave her a nod, and she smiled in return. “The only person who can really understand,” she said quietly.
“Your old partner?”
Eames turned back toward her. “Still is,” she said. “Just differently.” She regarded Benson for a moment as the lieutenant hid her surprise and nodded. “What about you? Someone waiting for you at home?”
“ADA Barba?” Eames suggested. She read Benson’s expression and held up a hand. “No need to worry, it’s our secret,” she said. “Just a hunch based on the way you looked at each other. How long?”
Benson considered. “That’s sort of a hard question to answer,” she said. She paused. “I, uh…We slept together after our first case. We agreed it was…casual, no strings, no hassle. There were a few…more times over the years,” she said. “We sort of…drifted apart a bit during my last relationship. I didn’t realize that he…”
“Something like that,” Benson said with a small smile. “After that relationship ended, we…I don’t know. He’s always there when I need him. I can’t imagine my life without him. We’ve avoided talking about any of that. About going public, disclosing, making it official. Making it real. We both have commitment issues.”
Eames looked toward Goren. “There are only a few people we can truly depend on in life,” she said. “Sometimes they come and go, and sometimes they stick around. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s how to accept the love that people are willing and able to offer.” She faced Benson again. “I testified a few months ago to keep Kevin locked up. And tonight he sacrificed himself to try to protect me. Sometimes love is imperfect and messy,” she said. She squared her shoulders. “I’ll be in touch, Liv,” she said, putting a hand on Benson’s arm. “Thanks for everything.”
“Let me know if you need anything,” Benson said. She watched Eames walk toward the police cordon, watched Goren lift the tape for her to duck beneath, watched him put an arm across her shoulders as they headed toward the parking lot.
Benson’s phone vibrated in her pocket, and she pulled it out. The text was from Barba: Well? What happened?
She stared at the words, trying to decide how to respond. He knew that the operation had to be over, one way or another.
Please answer. Even an emoji is fine.
Her thumbs hovered over the screen. Why was this so difficult? She needed to reassure him but she couldn’t find the words.
I’m coming there, he said, and that broke her paralysis.
No, she wrote back. Sorry. I’ll come to you.
There was a pause. And, then: Ok
* * *
Barba opened his door and stepped aside, but Benson hesitated in the hallway. “I almost identified you by your…” She gestured vaguely toward his crotch, keeping her eyes on his face, and she saw his eyebrows go up in surprise. “From some grainy surveillance photo. Do you know how embarrassing that would’ve been?”
“Embarrassing?” he repeated. “Like having the entire SVU squad looking at pictures of you in a G-string and fishnet stockings?”
“It wasn’t even you.”
“It was as far as they knew.”
“And it wasn’t the whole squad, it was literally only Carisi and Rollins.”
“Ah, yes, the two models of decorum,” he said. “Are you going to come in or would you like to continue discussing this in the hallway?”
“You were right.”
“The investigation. Mulrooney is dead.”
He stared at her. “What happened?” he said. “Jesus, Liv—Come inside. What happened?”
She walked past him into his apartment, and felt his hand, feather-light, at her back. He closed the door with a click. “They pulled a gun on him. He didn’t say the safe word, but we went in anyway. He thought Eames was going to be shot, so he…” She shook her head, turning to face him. “The guy only fired off one shot before we took him down, but it was enough.”
“I’m sorry, Liv,” he said, reaching for her arm. She turned away from his touch and started pacing, and he watched her.
“He’s probably better off, to be honest,” she said. “He never had a chance, really. You know?”
“Yes. I know.”
“All he wanted was a second chance.”
“In a way, he got one,” Barba said.
“Yeah.” She stopped and turned to face him. “I want one, too.”
He blinked. “What?”
“I want a second chance,” she said.
He waited, confused, but she didn’t continue. “With…me?” he finally asked, his voice incredulous. When she nodded, his brow dipped into a frown. “I didn’t realize we were past our first chance,” he said. “If this is about what you said earlier, or that I didn’t respond, you didn’t give me time to—”
“No, Rafa, I screwed up,” she interrupted. “I know that. I admit it, it was my fault.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” he asked, taking a step toward her with his hand out. “I’m sorry about earlier. I overreacted. We’re fine, Olivia.”
She shook her head. “We’re not fine,” she said, and he drew his hand back. “We just keep pretending, and I’m sorry, Rafael. You deserve better. You always have.”
“Are you…breaking up with me?” he asked, and she could see the emotion in his face.
She shook her head and stepped toward him, putting a hand on his arm. “I’ve taken you for granted,” she said. “I’m ready to be all-in. Everything. Always. No more…pretending.”
Barba was silent for several seconds. Then, keeping his eyes on hers, he fished in his pocket and lifted his hand. His grandmother’s ring glinted in the middle of his palm. Benson’s gaze slid from the ring up to his face. His lips slanted up into a crooked smile, and he raised a brow in challenge.
She nodded without hesitation and stepped into the curve of his embrace.