AN 1: No new chapters guys, just breaking up a 30K text into manageable bits. And fixing umpteen spelling mistakes.
AN 2: For those who have dropped in, OZ was an HBO TV show about life in a max-security prison that ran for 6 seasons. Everyone knows Law and Order:SVU. In this story, Toby has been released from Oswald, but the ghost of his prison lover still haunts him.
City lights at night, fading and dying with the rising dawn, and the loss of each one enough to break your heart.
My lover is dead.
Millions upon millions, like the stars he had yearned for back when there were no stars for him, only plastic and foam and steel ten inches above his nose and the neurons firing behind his eyes.
If he closed his eyes now he'd be back there, the Correctional Otherworld, where the universe was held in stasis and light never moved more than a few inches per second. His seven years away meant nothing, not really. A blink, a second, and it was all over. His children might have grown older, and one was gone, (/like in a dream when / someone wakes up and screams/) but nothing had changed. The river still flowed. The city still breathed. And, Tobias Beecher's soul was still caught, trapped in clawing arms, pulled over the railing, broken and bleeding on the floor.
Every night he bled memories. He sweated pain. On the really bad nights he'd wake up screaming.
Don't forget me.
This memory, it's poison. He has to forget. Cough it up, shit it out, do something. Else it stays in him, festers, eats him up alive.
You are death. Let me live.
How could he live, when even now he saw Chris Keller everywhere he went? On the streets, that high forehead, shadowed eyes, the nose that belonged on a Caesar bust, overlooking armies, atrocities, all the fulcrums of history. A dead man's face always. Even when he was alive.
Toby could have managed those brief moments, but not when they were so blatant as the one he'd had the previous morning. In the courthouse his attention had been caught by a dark head, a sharp profile, same arrogant, angry tilt of chin. Toby's muddled, harried attention, fuzzy from five hours of waiting for a courtroom slot and the fine tension singing in his memory had seized upon that image, gave it a name.
"Chris...?" he'd whispered, stepped forward, blinking myopically, fumbling for his glasses. "Chris?"
Chris' ghost had turned away, presented a back that was still so familiar that Toby would still have recognised him without his face. Toby's gut twisted in agony. He couldn't lose him again. He couldn't. Then Marcie had returned with a stricken-looking family, their eyes pleading for the help that he could give where the law could not. He had talked to them even as his heart beat wildly and sweat pooled under his arms and his eyes flickered past the knot of people to the place where the ghost had lingered.
Maybe I'm losing my mind.
The night closed in on him like glass walls of his pod. His arms and legs throbbed at their old break sites, his lips ached from phantom kisses. The ghost pressed him into the mattress, hard thighs urging his knees apart.
He clutched only emptiness.
The ghost whispered, didn't you promise me that we'd see Heaven together? Why are you still here?
And now a first sharp sliver of sunlight cut open the dead sky. The city dimmed. Somewhere on the river a barge horn groaned out to a mate. Toby's cell phone burred softly in his pocket. For a long moment he thought about not answering it, letting it ring out.
The water far below him feathered from a stiff wind. The river where the bones of dead men lurked. He would join those bones, find Chris down there, find peace at last, for here there was only pain.
The phone stopped ringing, then started again.
He dragged out the phone, ready to throw it into the water. At mid wind-up he glanced at the screen. It was Marcie.
"Son of a bitch!"
He'd never been able to ignore her.
"Where are you Tobias? I've got Helen here and she's just hysterical. I can't get a sensible word out of her sideways." Her Southern lilt was pronounced - a sure sign of stress.
New day, same shit. He was still here.
"I'll be there in thirty," he said resignedly. "Get some of that herbal tea stuff into her and don't let her leave."
He slapped the phone shut and pulled his motorbike helmet on. A passing trucker saw him and the bike and tooted cheerily. Toby didn't wave back. He knew what the trucker didn't: he had no alliances, no allegiances. He belonged nowhere.
Only thing is, this morning somebody needed him more than he hated himself. So he wouldn't be jumping off the bridge just yet.
MB: Tell me about your first time. How do you remember it?
ES: It was painful.
MB: For You?
ES: For Her. I thought I'd done something wrong.
The sound of hydraulic squealing outside jerked Elliot out of his dream.
The desultory crash and bang of emptying dumpsters and the back and forth easy obscenities of the trash men echoed through a cramped storage room, muffled by old boxing bags and gym mats. Elliot looked up at the grimy window and wondered if he'd really ended up on the wrong side of the wall. Felt a pang of envy. Far better to be down on the streets, banging bin-lids. Some lives were so simple. Necessary. If there was garbage, rot, corruption, it would be taken away. There was no ambivalence in deciding what needed to go. Garbage just was. It never called a lawyer to have evidence disallowed, it never raped, it never pretended towards kindness in order to extract a physical favor.
He took a deep breath. The smell of garbage and early morning hit the back of his throat. Same as bodies smelt on the point of discovery, that same sweetish undertone of decay from food scraps and other unmentionable things. Elliot remembered opening the high, narrow window last night - it was stuffy in this back-room - and stumbling into a broken, uncomfortable sleep. But all sleep was broken now.
"Well, we really must stop meeting like this."
Olivia stood in the doorway, arms folded. She had her schoolmarm voice on along with a new linen suit. It must be a Monday. Sometimes she did the markets over the weekends with one of her girlfriends and came in wearing the evidence.
He threw an elbow over his eyes and made no move to get up. "We must."
Olivia put on a shouldn't you have gone home Elliot? face, segued it into an Are they the same clothes you were wearing yesterday face and finished with a why the hell are you sleeping in here anyway? expression.
To her credit she only said, "you want coffee then?"
"Yeah, that'd be good."
Back in the meal room the percolator grumbled with boiling water, spat murky liquid into the grimy pot. Olivia scrubbed at a bit of residue inside a cup with a teaspoon.
"So I take it that last night's make-up dinner with your family didn't go too well."
Elliot rubbed his face. Tension sparked across his shoulders. Echoes of last night flashed in sharp, staccato images. Kathy at the table, face drawn and pinched. Talking about the children. The children. Not our children. And not us. But then the us had disappeared a long time ago.
"Guess I'm right back where I started. I tried to explain about my..." he winced, his feelings too nebulous a concept to verbalize, "...how this job has affected me, but she didn't want to listen."
"And the counseling?"
"Even the counselor said we should be taking a break. Christ. Right now I feel like a ship without a harbor."
"You talked to Huang about it maybe? Just, you know, he's familiar with you. He's not a stranger."
Elliot's mouth quirked. He'd smile if it wasn't so close to the bone.
"You know, if I was a serial killer or a rapist he'd be able to tell me straight away what my problem is. But all he can say is that..." He trailed off. Olivia didn't need to know about the things that plagued him - the depression, the impotence, the rage that sometimes threatened to smother him. "Well, he has his theories."
She handed him coffee, watched him swing upright and gulp the bitter liquid down.
"Careful Elliot, it's hot."
"Not really," he said between breaths, but the reality was that nothing much seemed to make an impact on him. Not now, with this shell that he had grown - at first to protect himself from the day to day horrors, and then to block anyone else who might try to find a way inside. Including his wife and children. Including other people. He was safe in there, impervious to pain. Impervious to every other emotion too, and that was going to be the problem.
Olivia followed him through the cluttered office. "Well, if it's any help, we've got a busy day ahead of us. Seems there's been a breakthrough in the Michelson case."
"Great. I'm sure Fin and Munch are on it right now."
"I would, but they're dealing with another complication."
She pulled out a crumpled, stained card that must have been fished out of a gutter after having been through several hot wash cycles.
BEECHER-HILYER-FULMAN. A cell phone number. No other information.
"Lawyer's business card?"
"You'd wish. Cragen wants to see us about this."
"Helen. Helen, calm down and talk to me."
"I got this letter." She rummaged around in her handbag, blinded by tears, "...this fucking letter."
Marcie Hilyer sat down next to the sobbing woman and laid a steady hand on her forearm. "Helen, I have the letter. It's on the desk."
Toby noticed the envelope in between two sheets of baking paper - Marcie was always thinking ahead. He noticed one of the newspaper's printed E's had fallen out. Ransom note, then.
"How long have you had this?"
"Um, yesterday morning. I couldn't think what to do," Helen blew her nose.
"You gone to the police about this?"
"No! He said he'd kill them if I went to the police. They'll tell my husband...he'll claim I'm unfit, I'll lose custody..."
"Helen. Let me make some phone calls. Then we'll see what we can do."
He backed off into Marcie's kitchen. A hideous wooden ship sailed up one green-striped wall. A barometer shaped like a sextant floated alongside. He knew that there was a model of the Titanic in her bedroom, the one time his loneliness had sent him in there. Not long after his release. They'd only kissed clumsily, the first person he'd touched since Chris, and it had broken him. He had blurted out his whole story, Chris from beginning to end, pepper shakes of Vern and Robson and Andrew and Mondo and a dozen other faceless men, a long diversion into Gary, and Marcie had held him in her arms and listened to his barely coherent ramble.
"Funny you should mention that," she'd said, and told her own story. Different time spans. Different people. But at its heart a lost love, lost children, and a hurt that would never heal.
They never talked about their almost-night afterwards, but sometimes if Toby was to think about the nature of God he would be reminded of something Marcie had said: Maybe God was not an all-powerful white man who moved people like chess pieces in some cruel test, nor was he Said's God, everywhere waiting to point and punish. No, God was a single mother from the poorest part in town, struggling to raise five billion children through the most difficult time of their lives.
And sometimes Toby wondered if God would not look a little like Marcie, dark, patient and caring, and maybe a little like Sister Pete - but certainly female, like the oldest books in the Bible hinted at, the lines the Redactors couldn't quite get away with removing.
Marcie was talking, oblivious to him not entirely in her kitchen, body and soul out somewhere else. Or maybe she was aware, and was using her words to bring him back.
"...it's lunatic hour. At the psych ward you'd always get pickup call two, three in the morning. A person could cope with themselves or their crazy relative for weeks, and snap, when they make the call for help it's always two in the morning."
"What about you? Have you made the call to the police?"
Marcie put one hand on her hip. "The word has gotten around, Tobias. Our first priority is to help people. Not money. Not prosecuting offenders. Helping. Supporting. They're mighty strong principles, and we have to stick to that. Might as well let her get some sleep, because she's not going to face the questioning in the state she's in."
"You have, then."
"Yes. They'll be here within the hour."
Toby nodded. The ship-clock chimed five. Another one in the hall tooted in simpatico.
"And you Tobias? What sort of sleep have you been getting?
"I've been alright."
"I can smell the river on you."
"I smelt the river on Henry sometimes. Sometimes he'd go out there and lose his nerve and come back, and I knew where he'd been. One day he didn't come back."
"Yeah, well if I'd half a spine I'd have done it a long time ago."
Behind her glasses her dark brown eyes brimmed with understanding and the hint of tears.
"Tobias, look at me. You really must get some help. You can't keep doing this to yourself. This man, Chris? He's haunting you, worse than any of my grandmother's spirits."
Toby cracked half a smile. "You know someone who can do some juju on me? Say a few spells, get rid of him?"
"Even if I did, it wouldn't help. It's you that's holding on. Let him go Toby."
It was his turn to brush up close to their shared pain.
"So who are they?"
"Some advocacy-slash-private detective-slash third party negotiation service for people with missing kids, kidnapping, threats. A fairly broad network of part-time legal and social consultants, some with underworld connections. However," Cragen held up the card, now safe in an evidence bag, "These are the three people directly involved. Peter Fulman, ex-cop, Marcie Hilyer - she worked with Human Services for fifteen years. And Tobias Beecher, ex-lawyer."
"Ex is the operative word with all of them, then?"
"What are their backgrounds?"
"We did a check. All of them have lost children - their own or close family members - through unfortunate circumstances. Several precinct departments have dealt through them, especially in cases where the victims themselves are too scared to come forward."
"What is the world coming to," sighed Olivia. "People afraid even to talk to us."
Elliot only shrugged.
"The problem is, they're far too close to being private vigilantes for the Justice Department's liking, and we've got to get this Beecher guy in for a talk. His name was red flagged on some unsolved murders. Munch and Fin have gone to pick him up along with Helen Michelson."
"What's the hassle? He could be legit," said Olivia. "Wouldn't be fair to get in the way of someone who's trying to do something good for victims at least."
"What's not fair is that he's a disbarred lawyer with a prison record, and mob connections," said Cragen. "Elliot, your job is to find out everything you can about this guy, get back to me. I mean everything. Who he knew in prison, what he ate, where he slept and who with. And what he's done afterwards."
"I'm on it."
"Okay then. Let's get to work people."
"What are you thinking?"
"Oh. Oh nothing."
"You seem like you're a million miles away, that was all."
Toby pulled himself out of the shuffle of recollections. Nothing specific. Just that it had struck him he'd just passed his date of mortal departure by two hours, and here he was, still alive. Was he disappointed? Yes. Compared to the weird elation of the last twenty hours, when he'd made his decision, to find a high place and do what he should have done eighteen months ago, this morning was a letdown.
"Just stay with us, okay? I can't do this alone." Marcie tilted her head towards Helen, her head pressed against the rain-spattered windscreen, Toby's twin in loss.
"Okay," he said, defeated. "Okay."
He turned his attention to the police officers who'd collected them. The odd couple. A craggy faced detective and his equally stony offsider of indeterminate ethnicity about who Marcie had surreptitiously made her secret sign of watch that one - two fingers to the back of the hand.
"Where are we going? This isn't where we normally go."
A studiously uninterested flick of eyes into the rear-view. "We're from sixteenth. Tenth's busy."
"Why do you need me? Marcie is more familiar with this case."
Marcie's hand grabbed his in warning. No, she mouthed.
"Just wanna have a little chat, is all." said the younger one. What had his partner called him? Fin.
Toby knew he should ask - am I under arrest? Just a chat. But these chats had a way of turning nasty, especially once they realised where he'd been for seven years. He'd needed to bring in his parole officer once, take a blood test. Take a poly, take a walk and get Peter in from his Boston base to come in and sort things out.
So they drove out to ground zero, to one of the stations where the special victims ended up, kid deaths, the rapes, the ones that turned the hardest stomachs. Toby knew all the special victims units well - he'd rescued a client or ten all over greater New York, but he never stayed long. Just in, sign whatever needed to be signed, and get the fuck out.
The Sixteenth Precinct station was a new one for Toby. He was getting close to the last number on his NYPD bingo card. The building was in bad need of refurbishment. Had that look of last being refitted during prohibition when the protection money from corrupt cops and bootleggers had bought some pretty cushy office equipment. All worn, polished wood, leather inlays, wrought iron in curlicues, chairs that were made to last for a hundred years and were getting close to their use by date.
Just-replaced computers sat incongruously on the massive antique oak desks, with no space between for anyone to walk around without corking themselves in the thigh or tripping over a filing cabinet. Stuffed toys were piled in a corner by the door, a stain of uncharacteristic brightness in this depressing place.
Toby felt Fin's insistent hand in his back, separating him from the women. Marcie cast him a couple of nervous, reassuring glances his way, before following a auburn-haired female detective into a side-office behind a cork-board leafed with photographs of sullen faced criminals.
Fin's hand bothered Toby. His gut instinct was to lash out, slap the offending hand away, but he was too long out of Oz to try it on by instinct alone. So he complied with just that touch of passive resistance, and was promptly deposited in a small room with a metal table, two uncomfortable metal chares, one way glass reflecting his face, and single window behind extra-strength glass.
Then he was left alone, door locked. Trapped.
His body recognised the entrapment a minute before his mind did. His heart pounded. His fingers trembled. He'd been places like this before. The Otherworld. That place. Where dead men lived.
This was seriously going to freak him out.
He walked around the table, feeling for all the like a animal in a cage. He tapped on the mirrored glass, knowing that there were people behind it. Watching.
"Look, I don't like being left alone in small spaces. I have serious claustrophobia issues," he said, as calm and firm as possible, trying not to do what he really wanted to do, pound on the glass screaming get me out of here, get me the FUCK out of HERE!
The tremors were killing him. He staggered to a chair. The walls swum. His shirt was soaking in his sweat.
The door opened. Chris Keller walked in, blue shirt, grey tie, an awful corporate version.
Toby just stared.
"This bothering you Mister Beecher?" Keller asked, brusque, impersonal. Teasing him. Walking around him, file open. "Stuck in this office? Bad memories?"
The ghost. Toby panted, too weak to do anything else.
"You. Get. The. Fuck. Away. From. Me."
He had died. He had died. He was in Hell.
A hell where Chris only looked at him with cold eyes, not recognizing, not caring, not loving. Just a condescending look layered with a hint of disgust.
His hell. The one where Chris never loved him. Where it had all been a lie...except the time in the gym, said he didn't love him and broken his limbs, his heart...
The female detective who had taken Marcie away walked in behind Keller, and her voice seemed to come from very far away, "Um, Elliot, I think something's really wrong with him."
Toby watched as the table tilted. Or maybe it was him tilting. Keller stepped forward, took him by the shoulders-
-to drag him into over the railing, to drag him into the Pit, into Hell-
Jesus! Don't touch me, don't fucking touch me...
Lashing out. Weak punches landing without force on solid flesh.
Then darkness, finally. Before he really embarrassed himself. Before he could cry.