Carisi knocked lightly on Barba’s open office door. Normally he wouldn’t bother, especially when the door was open, and Barba’s expected eyeroll and huff about manners in response was practically rote at this point, but he could see that Barba was on the phone and despite what Barba may mutter under his breath in his darker moods, Carisi did have some manners.
Not many. But some.
Barba glanced up when he knocked and gestured vaguely in what Carisi took as an invitation to come in, and he wandered into the office, glancing at the scattered files across Barba’s desk. “Yes, sir, I understand that,” Barba started, sounding unusually irritated, even for him, and Carisi winced. “I just think—”
He broke off as whoever he was on the phone with started speaking, and Carisi cast about for some distraction on Barba’s desk, since this didn’t sound like a conversation he should be eavesdropping on. He saw the corner of what looked like a massive envelope made of creamy parchment sticking out from under a pile of file folders, Carisi reached for it, curiosity piqued, though he froze when Barba lurched forward, glaring at him as he shoved the envelope back under the files.
Well now Carisi had to see what it was.
“Yes, sir,” Barba said stiffly. “I’ll take that under advisement.” He hung up, still glaring at Carisi. “Just coming into my office unannounced isn’t enough for you?” he sniped. “Now you have to try and look through my private mail.”
“Firstly, I knocked,” Carisi said. “Secondly, what was that?”
“That was the mayor,” Barba said with a sigh, reaching up to pinch the bridge of his nose. “He wanted to weigh in on the Gutierrez Grand Jury.”
Carisi had learned his lesson the hard way about weighing in on one of Barba’s Grand Juries, especially when it centered on an officer-involved shooting.
“But that’s not what I meant.” He nodded toward the stack of files hiding the envelope he’d seen. “I meant, what’s that?”
Unless Carisi imagined it, a slight flush rose in Barba’s cheeks. “Nothing,” he muttered dismissively.
Carisi raised an eyebrow. “Sure didn’t look like nothing.”
Barba sighed again. “You’re not going to drop this, are you?” he asked, seemingly rhetorically, already reaching for the envelope, which was even more absurd when it was fully revealed. He shoved it toward Carisi as if it physically pained him to touch it. “Rita likes to have her fun with me,” he said sourly. “It’s the same joke every year, as if it’ll somehow magically get funnier with each iteration.”
Carisi flipped the envelope over, eyebrows shooting up toward his hairline as he read out loud, “‘The Mayor’s All-Borough Charity Benefit Mr. New York Pageant’?” He looked from the envelope to Barba. “Are you kidding?”
Barba winced. “Unfortunately, no,” he said. “Rita sits on the board and every year she thinks it’s just plain hilarious to invite me to audition as a contestant.”
“Aren’t city employees ethically forbidden from participating in events like this?” Carisi asked, trying with all his might to hold back his laughter at the very thought of Barba participating in a beauty pageant.
Barba glared at him. “Fortunately or unfortunately as the case may be, unlike you, I’m not a city employee,” he huffed, shuffling some papers around on his desk. “I work for New York County. And Rita knows this. And exploits it. Every chance she gets.”
He snatched the envelope back from Carisi, whose shoulders were shaking with silent laughter. “Did you come here for anything other than to mock me, Detective?” Barba asked frostily, and Carisi couldn’t quite contain a snort.
“Sorry,” he said, trying to cover his laughter with a cough and failing miserably. “I, uh, I came to drop off—”
He gestured vaguely at the file folder, wheezing slightly as he did, and Barba’s glare deepened. “Then unless you have anything else case-related,” he started threateningly, and when Carisi couldn’t find it in himself to speak, Barba glowered at him. “I thought as much. You can see yourself out, Detective.”
Carisi nodded mutely and turned to head to the door, pausing and forcing himself to recover the power of speech. “For what it’s worth,” he started casually, and Barba glanced warily up at him. “If you were in a beauty pageant, you’d have my vote.”
His words might have been more convincing had they not been punctuated by a veritable cackle of laughter at the end, and Barba’s glare could’ve melted paint, the tips of his ears burning red. “Get out,” he growled, and this time, Carisi really did leave.
He had the courtesy to wait until he was halfway down the hallway to finally give in to his laughter.
Needless to say, Carisi was in an infinitely better mood when he returned to the precinct, content to carry around the thought of Barba in a beauty pageant for the rest of the day.
Hell, for the rest of his life.
But his good mood seemed short-lived as he joined Amanda, who was pinning typed letters up on the evidence board. “We got a new case?” he asked.
“Yeah, and it’s a doozy,” Amanda said with a grin. “Someone’s threatening to blow up a beauty pageant. Seems like a victimless crime to me.”
Carisi ignored that. “How is that an SVU case?” he asked instead, his brow furrowed.
“It’s not,” Olivia said as she joined them, casefile in hand. “Joint-terrorism is technically running the op but the letters specifically state that the perp wants to blow up the ‘queers and fags’ at the event, which—”
“Makes it a hate crime,” Carisi finished with a sigh. “Which is where we come in.”
“Couldn’t they just blow up fashion week instead?” Fin asked as he joined them, taking a sip from his cup of coffee. “That wouldn’t be a hate crime, that’d be a service to humanity.”
Carisi stared from Fin to Amanda. “How about we don’t blow anyone up? Last I checked, models and beauty pageant contestants still deserve to, y’know, live.”
Olivia cleared her throat. “Anyway,” she said, “the event being targeted is a charity event put on by the mayor’s office.” Carisi had a sudden feeling of realization settle like ice in his stomach. “Joint-terrorism suspects that the person behind the threats works either for the mayor’s office or for the event itself, but getting to interview the people involved without causing a panic is proving to be difficult.” She pursed her lips. “Made more so by the fact that the mayor’s office isn’t exactly cooperating fully with the investigation.”
Carisi worried his lower lip for a moment before sighing heavily. “I may know someone who can help us,” he said reluctantly. “Someone who’s been invited to participate in the pageant and could talk to staff and other participants without raising suspicion.”
“No wonder you were so sensitive about blowing it up,” Rollins said with a smirk. “You dating a beauty queen, Carisi?”
“Beauty king, I think you mean,” Fin said with an identical smirk.
Olivia ignored both of them. “That’s great, Carisi,” she said, though her enthusiasm was tempered somewhat. “Why are you saying it like it’s a bad thing?”
“Because he’s actually, literally going to murder me,” Carisi sighed, already pulling out his cellphone and dialing Barba’s number from memory. “But maybe it’d be better if you spoke to him first.”
He handed his phone to Olivia, who looked baffled even as she held it up to her ear, though recognition and understanding flashed across her face as soon as Barba picked up. “Actually, Rafa, it’s me,” she said. “Just using Carisi’s cellphone.”
“Rafa?” Rollins repeated, as Olivia walked away, talking on the phone in an undertone. “You mean—”
“Barba,” Fin said, his grin widening. “Of course. Now it all makes sense.” He turned his smirk on Carisi. “He really is going to kill you, you know.”
“I know,” Carisi sighed, slumping down at his desk.”Let’s just hope we find the bomber and quick.”
Both Rollins and Fin looked like there was more they wanted to say to that — more jokes they wanted to make at Carisi’s expense, more like — but Olivia appeared, looking grim. “He’s in,” she said, handing Carisi’s phone back to him. “He’s not thrilled, needless to say, but he’s agreed to help.”
Carisi looked up at her hopefully. “Does that mean he’s not going to kill me?”
“Rollins, liaise with Joint-terrorism, loop them in to the plan,” Olivia said, conspicuously avoiding answering Carisi’s question, at least directly. “Fin, reach out to the pageant coordinators. Figure out what sort of costumes we’re going to need and then head to evidence and see what you can pull from there. Carisi…” She trailed off. “You’re going to serve as Barba’s handler.”
“His handler,” Olivia repeated. “You’ll be monitoring him and serving as NYPD support for every stage of the operation. You’ll keep him posted on developments and assist him however needed without breaking his cover.”
“Why me?” Carisi asked with something like horror.
Olivia cleared her throat. “He requested you,” she said delicately.
“Oh, God,” Carisi groaned. “He really is going to kill me.”