A/N: THANKS FOR READING! It's been a long drawn out process, and I wish to thank all of you for your patience! Peace.
Chapter 27: Untimate Control
Two days passed before Olivia received a phone call from Munch, requesting her presence at the precinct.
Liv popped through the squad doors expectantly, barely supporting any of her weight on her cane. Spotting Munch standing by the window talking to a fellow detective, she dropped her bag on her desk and hurried over to him.
"You called? You found something?" she quizzed as he looked up at her.
He opened his mouth to speak, but was interrupted.
"Detective Benson!" Reiner had stepped out from his office. "Can I speak with you for a minute?"
Liv glanced hesitantly at Munch, who nodded and gestured for her to go. She took a deep breath and began wobbling towards the open door.
"Have a seat," he instructed, as he closed the door behind her. When she had followed instructions, he cleared his throat. "Detective Munch tells me you have doubts about the Gardner case."
Olivia closed her eyes in a grimace. So much for 'under the radar'.
Reiner took her silence in stride and crossed in front of her, being careful not to trip over the end of her walking stick. He perched on the edge of his desk and locked eyes with her.
"I'm not going to pretend like I know you, but I'd like to think I did my homework pretty well." He crossed his arms and continued. "You know, Captain Cragen speaks very highly of you."
Olivia's hard gaze softened a touch, but she remained quiet.
"He said you have an aptitude for dealing with victims. You empathize, and they trust you. You're dedicated to finding them closure."
Liv shifted in her chair and inhaled. "Well, I'm flattered, but is there a point to this?"
Reiner smiled and dipped his head. "He also made me aware of a downfall of yours. He says you have a penchant for devoting too much of yourself to cases and to victims. Bordering on obsession, almost. I must admit, at first – I wasn't sure quite what he meant." He paused a moment as he reached behind him on the desk for a remote control. "However, I think I'm starting to understand."
Olivia, unsure of her professional footing, dropped her gaze to the floor.
The captain stood and stepped over to his chair. "In regards to the Gardner case, I have no doubts whatsoever in your performance. It was a clean shoot; it was a clean case. I have no questions regarding your integrity or ability – even the rats over at IAB crawled back in their hole faster than you can say 'Here, kitty cat!'" He leaned back in his chair. "But you? You're punishing yourself over the one bent nail in his coffin."
"But – " she attempted.
He waved her off. "I know, I know – it leaves room for doubt. Despite what the brass says, I would have agreed with you."
Olivia narrowed her eyebrows in response.
Reiner cleared his throat and leaned forward. "Which brings me to why I had your colleague call you down here. He would have told you personally, but I wanted to make sure we clear everything up. I thought it would be best if you were to see this for yourself."
He aimed the remote control, turning on the television against the wall.
Olivia turned in her seat to see. The blue screen was shortly replaced by a video of a crowded New York City street. Cars were lined up at a stoplight and the sidewalks were modestly packed with pedestrians. Suddenly, the normal traffic noise erupted into screams. The picture swung wild before settling on the other end of the block where smoke and fire had engulfed several cars. The camera bounced wildly as its holder ran towards the intersection.
"This video was shot by a tourist who was fortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. If you remember, this took place just before your confrontation with Gardner. Detective Stabler noted in his report that you had to pull quite the James Bond maneuver to get out of the backed-up traffic."
She rolled her eyes as she remembered. A vague memory drifted to her from her hospital stay – the nurses had been conversing outside her room. "Car bomb," she whispered.
"Yeah," Reiner sighed. "Bomb squad investigated; found an explosive device wired to the gas tank. They believed it had been built with the intent to trigger it remotely."
Olivia turned back to him. "What does this have to do with the case?"
He pointed to the screen. "The vehicle involved was a Toyota Camry. Witnesses reported it was blue. Partial VIN number was recovered, and it matches your missing car."
"And this –" He paused to hand her a photo.
Liv glanced down and saw the image of an automatic start keypad.
"This was in the pocket of Gardner's pants. It was rigged to act as a remote detonator."
Liv tried to quickly process all the information. There was something that was not connecting. "I don't understand. Why would he try to blow up a street? He wanted me to confront him – the bomb could have prevented that. And how did he do it without help? He couldn't have been in two places."
"I don't think things went exactly according to his plans." Reiner cleared his throat and handed her a manila folder.
She opened it to find photos of charred remains – both vehicular and human. Beneath the photos was a man's rap sheet.
"Nathan LeMont, twenty-nine years old, recently paroled," he listed from memory. "Grand Theft Auto."
Olivia's gaze shot up to his face. "Are you saying what I think you're saying?"
The man slowly nodded. "LeMont's aunt lives down the street from Captain Cragen. He had been living there since his release. His aunt stated he had gone for a walk that morning, never came back. Probably saw Gardner drive in and leave the car unlocked. He probably figured he'd take it for a spin down to his buddies at the chop shop, and walk away with a couple extra bucks in his pocket. May have been a crap car, but the spare parts business always has room. Little did he expect his empty pockets to be blown all to hell in the middle of a busy intersection."
Liv closed her eyes, rubbing her temples. Everything she had been chasing was screeching to a halt, and her mind had yet to comprehend the sudden stop lying ahead.
"Bomb squad said the remote only had a radius of less than two miles. The second LeMont drove out of range, it automatically detonated." Reiner cleared his throat and watched as she took in all the information.
Her face had gone blank, but her brain was running on overload. For weeks she had laid awake at night, haunted by any and every possible piece of misunderstood evidence or missed clue. For weeks, she had felt as though the dead had risen again. Gardner lived in her apartment; he lived in her mind. He laughed at her struggles and failures, while playing with and distorting her memories. His victims would visit while she slept – pleading with her to save them, beseeching her to save the next victim, warning her to save herself. Every night she listened to them; every morning she felt powerless to prevent their suffering. She had known there was someone out there – someone who was responsible; someone about whom she knew nothing; someone who was watching her; someone who would strike again.
And now everything had changed. There was no one there – no one was watching her; no one else was responsible. Gardner's laugh was silenced, and the sick smile on his face contorted in painful fear before being blown away by her bullets. When the gun powder cleared, he had been reduced to a crumpled mess in a pool of blood.
Olivia took in a deep breath. The blood evaporated and the body vanished into a single tear that trailed down her cheek. She wiped it away as she again became aware of her surroundings.
She cleared her throat. "He planted a bomb."
Reiner nodded, but said nothing. He knew she was not speaking for his benefit.
"He had a back-up plan like Huang said. He was smart – he had to have known he wouldn't make it out alive. He probably didn't plan on it at all. He needed an insurance policy. The dining room overlooks the driveway – that's why he chose it. He planned on our confrontation taking place there. Once he had derived what he wanted from the situation, he would have detonated it. He would have taken ultimate control over our fates."
The captain sighed, thoughtfully rubbing his chin. "Too smart to realize that no man can control fate."
"No," Liv shook her head. "Too confident. He was too fixated on me – on controlling me – that he neglected to consider outside variables. Anyone in New York knows to lock their car doors, but he thought he was untouchable. He lost control of everything because of that mistake, and he had to quickly find some way to reclaim it. If he couldn't do it physically, mentally was the next best option."
Reiner rested against the back of his chair. "He created a phantom."
Olivia nodded. "He was smart."
"Not smart enough," he smiled, gesturing to her. "Agent Huang better watch himself. I nearly forgot you were a cop for a moment with all that shrink babble."
She allowed herself a grin as she dipped her head. "Well, he's been in my head for long enough. It's only fair I get a glimpse at his."
A chuckle escaped the police captain. "I assume you've come to terms with it all, then?"
"I believe so," she tentatively agreed.
"Alright, then. I think a few more days' rest can't hurt. Have a visit with Huang, and if he signs off on it, I expect to see you at your desk on Monday morning."
A full smile spread across her face as she stood. "Thank you, sir."
Reiner nodded, standing to shake her outstretched hand. "I'll be glad to have you back, Detective. Anything to dilute the Munch effect."
"Give it a couple years – you'll get used to it," Olivia advised as she stepped towards the door.
X x x x x x x x x x x x x X
Once free of the office, she let a large sigh escape her body. Numbness had crept in following realization, and it had now spread through most of her tissues. Auto-pilot steered her back to her desk, and habit caused her to pull out the chair and sit down. Liv leaned back in her chair and chewed on her lip. A few silent moments passed before she shook her head in astounded disbelief.
"Ultimate control, huh?" she muttered beneath her breath, reaching for her shoulder bag and extracting the worn manila file folder. She flipped it open and stared briefly at the man's photograph.
Guess who has it now, you son-of-a-bitch.
Olivia cleared her throat and stood from her chair.
"Hey, Munch!" she called out, walking over to his desk.
"Yes?" The older detective glanced up at her from his paperwork.
She smiled and held out the folder. "File this for me, would ya?"
Munch pushed back in his chair. "You got it," he nodded, taking it from her.
Liv thanked him and then grabbed her purse before leaving the squadroom. She was almost to the elevators when she heard her name being called out. Turning, she saw her partner coming from the other end of the hallway.
"Did Reiner talk to you?" Elliot asked as he reached her.
"Yeah," she nodded. "I just came from his office."
He folded his arms against his chest. "And?"
"Back to work on Monday, with Huang's approval, of course."
Elliot smiled. "That's great, Liv. We've missed you."
"Yeah," she said glancing at the floor. She waited a few seconds before speaking again. "By the way, you were right."
Her partner shrugged in understanding. "Bound to happen sometimes, right?"
Olivia grinned. "Right," she added, with a chuckle.
Elliot cleared his throat. "So what's your plan now?"
"Well, I figured I'd head over to Huang's office at some point. First on the order of business, though, is crawling into bed and actually getting some sleep."
"Good," he replied with a wink, patting her arm before turning to walk away. "You definitely look like you need it."
Liv rolled her eyes and punched the down button for the elevator. "There is something I find ironic, though."
"What's that?" Elliot asked with a grin as he turned to face her.
Glancing over her shoulder at him, she answered. "If Gardner hadn't planned to blow us up by planting that bomb – I probably wouldn't be coming back. We probably would have never found the car, and I'd still be out there chasing ghosts."
The elevator doors opened with a ding as the reality dropped the smile from his face.
Olivia stepped into the elevator and took notice of her partner's sober visage.
"Just something to think about, I guess," she stated with a shrug.
Elliot had remained rooted in place when the doors clicked shut, but Olivia let loose a relieved sigh nonetheless. At the present moment, she thought only of the bed faithfully awaiting her return.