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"A Grace and Staying"

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The elevator doors slid open onto a well-lit, bustling hallway. Detective Elliot Stabler stepped onto the unit. The familiar scent of industrial disinfectant and rubbing alcohol underscored with the sweet stench sick beds and sweat. He hated hospitals. Stabler spotted his partner Olivia talking with one of Sexual Assault Team Nurses outside of a patient room. Olivia looked tired, her chestnut hair tugged back in a messy ponytail and her face pale. The jeans and sweater she had scrounged from the bottom of her locker were rumpled. The sag of her shoulders and the way she scrubbed her face with one hand told him everything he needed to know.

She caught Stabler’s eye, and he saw her nod toward him and leave the nurse’s side.

“Wow, El, you look as wonderful as I feel right now. When was the last time you slept?”

He huffed a laugh and shook his head. “Pot” He pointed to her and then to himself. “Meet Kettle. What have we got?”

“Same. Just waiting on the doc to fill us in on current status. MO is identical to the last three, raped, beaten, and cut.”

“Is the victim awake?”

“No.” Olivia stared hard at the floor. “It’s worse than the others.” She looked over toward the nurse. “Patti told me this guy has evidence of long term trauma, multiple sexual assaults, some of the scars are old. Said it’s no wonder he’s not waking up.”

“Christ.” Elliot looked into the room and saw a man about his age lying flat on his back. His chest wrapped tight, and a nasal cannula strapped across his face, feeding him oxygen. Still, the victim seemed was holding his own. His face was a palette of bruising from deep purple to yellow with one eye swollen shut. His arms were bare and Elliot could see the small round red marks that indicated cigarette burns. “Do we even know who he is?”

“They left his ID on him along with a mug shot that they taped to his chest.” Olivia pulled a paper out of the back pocket of her jeans. “Parks and Rec worker found him naked in the Park. North Woods by the Loch and called it in. CSU is still out there at the scene. Vic’s name is Tobias Beecher. I called Munch when I got here. He should have his background soon enough.”

“Let me guess, no one saw anything?”

“Fin is canvasing with some uniforms, but you know how it goes. That part of the Park is all woods. Preliminary findings say he was dumped about 12 hours ago. Someone wanted him seen because they left him along a path the Parks and Rec guy swears he takes every morning.”

Stabler rubbed his neck. He was bone tired. Four attacks in as many days meant no one in SVU was sleeping. Three other men terrorized and left on display. Each attack was more brutal than the last, and each man marked with a single word. There was no connection between the victims other than the three previous men had been incarcerated at one some point in time. Different prisons, different crimes, each man was a non-violent offender when they went inside, not your typical skel. No repeat offenses, for all intents and purposes, each man looked like they had done their time and tried to keep themselves clean. He knew the talk around the precinct. Some of the old-timers considered this a non-issue, as long as it was dirtbags taking out dirtbags and no honest citizens were involved. The attitude made Stabler’s stomach churn. Rape was rape. Whatever these men had done before was not his problem. Elliot’s shoulders ached, and he felt the tendrils of a headache beginning to snake along his scalp. The sweatshirt he had pulled on after a half-hour nap in the crib at the Precinct smelled like yesterday’s socks, and his eyelids were like sandpaper. Elliot pointed toward the victim’s chest. “What did they carve this time?”

“You want to take a guess? Same as the last three. PRAG.”

“Do we know where this one served time?”

“Oz.” A sharp, clear voice interrupted the two detectives banter. Elliott turned on his heel. A small, older woman in a black turtleneck sweater and grey slacks stood a few feet from Olivia and Elliot. The woman had curled salt and pepper hair that was more steel gray salt than pepper. A pair of glasses hung around her neck on a chain beside a silver crucifix. She was no taller than Elliot’ shoulder but his inner Alter Boy took note of the ring on her right hand and the sensible black rubber-soled shoes.

She looked into Elliot’s face, and her face paled. One of her hands fluttered around her throat like a moth bumping against a window on a muggy summer night.

Elliot’s reached out to offer a hand and she shot backward bumping into a passing nurse.

“Has he seen you?” She whispered to Elliot.

“I’m sorry. Are you here to see Mr. Beecher?” Olivia asked, stepping around to put herself between her partner and the stranger.

“Who…please, he can’t see you.” The woman closed her eyes for a moment. Olivia placed a hand on the woman’s elbow and led her toward a visitor’s lounge. The overhead fluorescent lights were off, and the room was lit by a large lamp that sat on an end table in one of the corners. A low coffee table in the center of the room was strewn with tattered gossip magazines. The utilitarian hospital furniture arranged to give the impression of a home. Olivia led the woman to one of the chairs and settled in on the couch facing the he andr. Elliot hung back at the door, standing off to the side out of the woman’s site line.

“May I ask,” Olivia began.

“Sister Peter Marie.” The woman looked at Elliot. He saw fear and confusion. “I…” She began and stopped, clutched at her elbows, and started again. “I work at Oswald State Correctional, Oz. I know Tobias, he was…” Elliot watched a war going on behind her eyes as she decided how much to share. “I am the Psychologist there, but we kept in touch after his release.” Deep sadness replaced the fear. “I came as soon as I could.”

“He’s still unconscious, Sister.” Olivia’s voice was soft and compassionate. She let the words hang in the silence between the three. Chatter from the hallway bled into the room. “May I ask how you knew he was here.”

“His brother called me when the hospital called him.” Olivia’s eyebrows skated toward her hairline. Sister Peter Marie responded to Olivia’s unasked question. “Their relationship is complicated, and Tobias and I have had a long road together.”

“So you stayed close after he was released?”

“Close” isn’t a word that we use too often in Oz. I care what happens to Tobias if that’s what you mean.”

“Well, Mr. Beecher,” Olivia paused, “Tobias was critically injured, can you think of anyone who would want to hurt him?”

The small nun looked into Elliot’s eyes, her smile was grim. “Yes.”