...And You Show Up For Work
By Brittany S. Frederick
"Is it me or did it just get a little colder in here?" Detective Elliot Stabler quipped.
"Very funny, Stabler," Detective Toby Rayner said from the other side of the booth at O'Malley's Bar. "You forgot I'm not even Canadian." Stabler chuckled and looked at Rayner's badge folder, which had his Canadian badge and ID as a member of the Unsolved Crimes Unit of the province of Ontario. "You're a Canadian citizen, Toby," he said. Rayner shrugged. "I moved from Orlando. I've still got a good dose of warm-bloodedness in me."
"What about your partner?" Stabler inquired.
Rayner looked at the empty space next to him, as if he was used to having his partner by his side. Stabler chuckled at that, then the two of them looked a little farther down their side of the seating area to where a shorter, dark-haired woman and Toby's partner, Lindsay Merton, sat talking excitedly to Detective Brian Cassidy. "She's American, California," Rayner said and the two of them went back to their own business. The Canadian detective took a drink of his virgin pina colada and Stabler thought back to the first time he'd heard that the Canadians were coming to New York.
"We caught someone on the Mullaney case," Cragen announced to Stabler and Benson.
"A witness? A vic? A perp?" Stabler asked hopefully, struggling with the case as it was. His spirits fell when Cragen shook his head. The captain looked up from the work on his desk and at the two detectives in all seriousness.
"Detectives from Canada," he said. Stabler blinked. Benson raised an eyebrow.
"You've gotta be kidding me," was Stabler's assessment.
"They're members of the Unsolved Crimes Unit from Ontario," Cragen elaborated. "Apparently Tommy Mullaney had his hand in the maple leaves and a sister of his got whacked up there two years ago. The case was left open and they got their hands on it."
"So what do you expect us to do?" Benson inquired.
"Nothing, actually," Cragen replied. "I spoke on the phone to their commander, a Lieutenant Corday, I believe, and they're flying out tomorrow morning. They should be here in three days."
"They're coming out?" Stabler blurted. "Why are they coming out?"
Cragen shrugged. "Don't ask me. They're Canadians. Maybe they don't get as many vacation days as we do."
That conversation seemed a far cry from what Stabler was seeing now. He looked around the bar. Aside from Merton and Cassidy, there were conversations all through the general area, as the police had generally taken over the seating. His own partner, Olivia Benson, seemed to be in a civil argument with the hot-blooded Patricia Bowen, while Monique Jeffries and Alicia Paxton debated the affirmative action movement. Kelson Hansard looked bored out of his mind by John Munch, interjecting logic here and there, and the two supreme rulers, Captain Cragen and Lieutenant Corday, seemed quite interested in whatever it was they were talking about.
"So where does the case go from here?" Rayner broke in. Stabler turned back to the younger detective and shrugged. "I don't know. It's up to McCoy and Carmichael from this point on." Toby nodded. "But we got him." Stabler let out a resigned sigh. "Yeah, we got him." Rayner raised an eyebrow. "You don't regret it, do you?" Stabler blinked. "What, you never had a cop kill somebody before?" Rayner sighed. "I don't know. If it had ever happened I assumed it'd be solved long before it got to the basement where I work," he said with a chuckle. "But I've never heard of it." He paused. "A murder's a murder. What does who it is have to do with it?"
"A lot if you live in New York," Stabler replied.
"Apparently," Rayner quipped. Stabler was unamused and let out another sigh. "When does it happen?" he asked the younger man. "When what?" Toby questioned. "When does a cop lose that passion for the job? When does it become just the job? When would they do such a stupid thing?" Rayner shrugged. "Like a bad marriage I suppose. Everyone has their reasons for getting together, reasons for breaking apart." Stabler laughed. "I suppose you've had that experience." Rayner shook his head. "Perfectly single. The only thing I'm married to is my partner," he added with a laugh. Stabler laughed with him. "Well, I'm married with children, so you can assume the rest." Rayner winced as if he'd been slapped. "Must be brutal. Go through a lot of aspirin?" His companion took a long drink of his beer and then laughed. "These days, we just buy it bulk."
"Can I ask you a question?" Rayner offered in the resulting silence. Stabler nodded. "Shoot."
"What is with this workhorse thing?" the younger man questioned. "Is that a New York trend or something that developed after I fled the country?" Stabler raised an eyebrow. "Come on, what do you do down there, sit in your chair and shoot darts at a picture of Rush Limbaugh?" Rayner laughed. "Where we work, I don't know ... it's the end of the line. So we work it as best we can, we take our time. Not like we neglect things but upstairs there's not a big rush order on anything we've got in our hands. We do the best job we can do day in and day out, and the pieces fall where they may." Stabler shrugged. "You'd never cut it here, Rayner." Rayner gave an equally apathetic shrug. "That's why I'm there and you're here."
"Why'd you become a cop?" Stabler interjected.
"Me?" Rayner said, a little caught off guard. "I thought I could do something good with my life. Change the world. Uphold the system of good and evil. And I love solving problems." Stabler nodded. "And now?" he asked. "And now I've learned that I can't solve everything, but I can solve something. And I'll do the best I can to solve anything at all. If I do, I've done my job."
The American detective nodded, taking it in. "Here's what I don't get. They have all this love for the job, for the badge, you know, and then people like Detective Taylor turn around and throw it all away. What is it? What's this whole top-of-the-world thing we get? And if it means so much, why are we getting rid of it? I don't understand the transition. Or maybe I don't understand the parts." He sighed. "Help me out here, Boy Wonder. You're some sort of genius. Do your thing."
"I wouldn't say genius..." Rayner trailed off.
"That's the word I hear a lot of people using," Stabler said. "Give it a shot."
"All right," the younger man relented. "Using my own personal experience as an example... I got to being a cop because I have a fundamental belief in the system, in good and evil, in justice. You pursue every case you've got because you believe that if you do your work, the system will hold up its end of the bargain and justice will be served. You believe yourself to be an instrument of the system. If the floor falls out from under you...that whole perspective is shot."
"Good answer," Stabler agreed. "And the floor fell out from under Taylor."
"That's my guess," Rayner said.
The two men paused briefly, searching for something to say, Rayner sipping peacefully from his drink, Stabler thinking over the whole thing, finally taking another drink from his bottle and shaking his head. "Let's go through this piece by piece," he said, spreading his hands on the table. "There's a fundamental belief..."
"A fundamental belief," Rayner repeated. "I mean, society values the hero. We spend our childhoods as X-Men and Power Rangers and cowboys and knights. All we want to do is slay the dragon or save the princess or whatever. Every fairy tale, every story, has a hero. And most of the time, the heroes win. The cliche is good always triumphs over evil. So you want to be the hero. You have to play on the side of the angels." He laughed. "Hey, I remember when I was a kid, me and my two brothers in the backyard, Vermont in the summertime, we'd spend the whole day arguing over who got to be Prince Valiant."
Stabler laughed with him. "In my family, it was Superman."
"To each his own," Rayner decreed, taking another drink.
"You want another?" Stabler offered, looking at the close-to-empty glass.
"Nah, I've had enough tonight," Rayner replied, and Stabler shrugged. The younger detective picked up the thread of discussion. "So anyway, you want to be the hero. You believe in good and evil, and..." he looked over his shoulder at his partner and Detective Cassidy, in the next booth and apparently having a good time on their own. He gestured a hello to the shorter woman and she returned the gesture, then Rayner turned back to his own conversation. "...who knows, maybe you even believe in getting the girl," he continued and the reference was obviously meant for his partner and her company. Stabler could read it by the mischievous look on his face and they chuckled together before Rayner finally, really continued. "So you go to the one occupation you always see as the ultimate hero, the protector of the innocent... the police. And you go on about your saintly business of locking up the monsters of modern society because you feel right about it. But if you screw up, or if they screw up...you feel wrong. You feel you're not the hero. Wrong place, wrong time, maybe both. You reevaluate your choices. You get burned badly enough, in a tight enough spot, you take what you've got and you run with it."
"In this case, a badge, a knowledge of criminal procedure, and a gun," Stabler concluded. Rayner nodded.
"You want to set things right. You want to fix the problem. Convince yourself, convince someone else, convince whoever that the system works. That this is right in the right place at the right time. That you're the hero. So you find the mistake. And you fix it with everything you've got. In the case of Taylor, if the Tommy Mullaney case burned him bad enough, he hunts down Mullaney and caps him. Thinks he can get away with it because he knows how it's done. Thinks that he'll get a medal or something because he set it right. Thinks that the problem has been fixed. But doesn't realize he's created another problem. Himself."
Stabler picked up the thread, being more familiar with court prosecution than the younger Rayner, who spent all his time in a second-floor office making phone calls and follow-ups for all the New York detective could determine about his job description. "And the system takes him down because that's what the system is. He's out there hanging for a crime he fights to prevent by a system he tried to uphold, after doing something he thinks is good and right and just. So his concept of good and evil is shattered. His belief in the system is gone. He has to question his choice, his life and the principles he thought he stood for. And all we've got at the end of the road is a screwed-up convicted murderer who doesn't know who or what he is anymore. Families, friends, collateral damage, it's all secondary. He doesn't believe anything anymore."
Rayner nodded. "It's a vicious world. Sometimes I wonder how we keep from joining it."
"Because we have a lot of faith," Stabler suggested. "Because we know we get burned and that doesn't keep us from the fire because we've got a block of ice to save us. Or because we're too stubborn to give up. Maybe it's something in the bloodlines. I know I've got some Irishmen in mine." Rayner nodded. "Most of mine are English, at least as far as I bothered to know. But I mean, when do we give up? Is there a breaking point? When do those of us who never look the other way suddenly sneak a peek around the corner?"
"We all have a point," Stabler said. "It's different every time. I mean, what's the end of the world for me is probably a thorn to you. I have people to look out for beyond myself, you're a guy on your own. Economics, psychology, math - all of a sudden it all comes into play." He paused. "I came real close, once. Couple of child cases. I was seeing red right and left. Had to go to a police shrink. They considered yanking me out of the unit." He rubbed the bridge of his nose in rekindled frustration. "Ever happen to you?"
Rayner shook his head. "Not to me, not yet. But Patricia -- that's a different story."
"Bowen?" Stabler repeated, looking back across at the Canadian and Benson, who were still arguing. "What happened to her?"
"She got accused of being on the take in Fugitive," Rayner elaborated. "Broke her career, sent her to the UCU ... she let another guy take the fall in a case we had last summer, tells me she wasn't entirely sure the guy was guilty but she didn't want to go that road again, didn't know what she would do. Personally, I think he did it, but you could see it in her eyes ... she's career police. Her aunt's a Colonel, eats lunch on Tuesdays with our administrative. Her reputation, this whole 'blue wall' semantics game, means a lot to her."
Stabler nodded. "I can see where that would make sense. I mean, just watching her interrogate Mullaney's brother, that was intense. I was on the other side of the glass, and I was getting scared. How does she do it?"
Rayner shrugged. "I don't claim to know, but she's good at it. Between her and Kel Hansard, no one's slipped through their fingers yet. Once they're in that interrogation room - they're dead. No other way about it."
"It's all in the mind."
"Interrogation's very much a mental thing." Rayner smiled. "I must have read a half dozen books on it before I went into Dilbert the first time but reading material is no substitute for experience."
"You call your interrogation room 'Dilbert' up there?" Stabler asked, raising an eyebrow.
Rayner nodded. "We decided it kinda reminded us of that, that whole creepy corporate atmosphere where they're basically a prisoner of their own cubicle. You should see it ... we have Dilbert cartoons pasted on the outside walls. We get bored," he added by way of explanation.
"I never would have guessed," Stabler said, chuckling. "But it's all in the mind."
"Of course it is. Interrogation's not a physical thing. We call that violence."
"I was talking about the police psyche, actually, but yeah."
"Ah, that too." Rayner caught his gaffe. "How do you figure?"
"All of the mental complexes have to do with perception, nothing with the environment. It's like they're in their own little world and then the real world butts in and all of a sudden nothing's the same anymore."
"Funny, I don't feel that way."
"Yeah, but you're basically a desk jockey, Rayner," Stabler shot back. "Taylor rode a radio car for three years, fought his way up to Fraud. He went out and was out on the street every day."
"I know," Rayner agreed. "But my job isn't anything less."
His mind flashed back to a time he'd rather forget.
Toby sat across from Kelly Sterling, the department shrink, and Lisa Pryde, a foreign inspector, when his pager went off. He checked it. It had Lindsay's number on its face. But red alert bells went off in his mind when he noticed she hadn't left her usual message on it. Someone was at Lindsay's apartment paging him. And it was either the partner who'd stormed out on him a week ago or someone who shouldn't be there.
He excused himself from the meeting and drove to the apartment as fast as the police-issue Stratus would get him there.
It became one of the most painful memories of his life: the door open when he lays a hand on the knob, stepping in to find Lindsay's apartment full of paramedics, Patricia Bowen off to one side, numb, waiting. He knows immediately she paged him. And one look down at the floor, one glimpse at his partner's drained face amidst the huddle of medical personnel, with the tears already starting to fall, is all he needs to know why.
He was supposed to be there and he wasn't.
Stabler nodded as Rayner finished the story. "I'm sorry."
"She's okay." Rayner shuddered at the repressed memory even as he looked back over his shoulder at his partner. "She got out of the hospital just fine. But for a while, it was touch-and-go." His voice is quiet, hushed, full of wounded honor and other emotional baggage as he looks down at the table. "That's my job," he said. "To protect my partner."
"And you did the best you could," Stabler encouraged him. "We all have our moments."
He, too, remembered a painful memory. Nowhere near as brutal or as violent as the younger detective's, but one he still regretted each and every day, every time he looked at Olivia.
Her mother died falling down a flight of subway stairs after having one too many. Stabler remembers hearing the news from the captain. Being given the 'watch out for your partner' speech. And saying he didn't need it, because he knew his partner and he would watch out for her without instruction.
But he didn't follow through. She never told him, assuming he knew it, or at least that's how he saw it. And he knew she was hurting inside but the days went on and he did never really get to letting her know he was there. A few small gestures, maybe a couple of words, but if he did anything it was easily forgettable.
But that will never be good enough. He should have done more. In the one time she needed emotional support, he failed to support her. And now, he asks, what if the tables are reversed?
Rayner let out a sigh. "Sometimes I wonder."
"Wonder what?" Stabler said, his voice sober with the weight of his own tale.
"If it's worth it," Rayner admitted. "Before Linds got shot ... I was going to tell her that I was considering leaving the unit. Leaving the badge. Finding somewhere else. And I never told her."
"You still considering it?"
"I don't know." Rayner gave a slight shrug. "I almost did it when I never saw her for a month ... she got some boyfriend and I couldn't get it out of my head that something was horribly wrong ... I was so paranoid. I found myself on my own for the first time in three years. And I couldn't handle it."
"You two got back together," Stabler pointed out.
"Yeah, but it makes me wonder," replied Rayner, "what do I do when she really leaves me?"
The only thing you can," Stabler suggested. "Endure."
"I..." Rayner started. "Three years we've been together and I wouldn't dream of working with anyone else. It's gotten to the point where I see Linds ten, twelve hours a day and love every minute. We're ..." He looked back over his shoulder. "Hey, Linds, what was that phrase Sterling used to describe us?"
"Intrinsically dependent," Merton supplied.
"Thank you," he replied.
"You're welcome," she said with a smile and turned back to her conversation with Cassidy. He looked at Stabler, who was chuckling at the errant courtesy in the repartee. "We're intrinsically dependent on each other. We've built ourselves around being able to get certain things from each other ... we're so used to being together that we're almost like one person. Remove someone from the equation and all you get is half of a person. Not near good enough." He paused, his breath catching in his throat, "And I'll tell you right now, I think it's gonna be me, because I'd follow her anywhere she goes. I'm happy staying put. But Lindsay... I think she's destined for greater things. She just doesn't know it yet."
"Can't say it's the same for me and Olivia," Stabler replied, looking at his own partner across the room. "We work really well together, and I love working with her, but we have ... certain glaring differences." He turned back to the conversation. "I had to give her the 'we don't pick the vic' speech. You can imagine how that made me feel."
Rayner nodded. "I've never had to do that. I don't give speeches to Linds. We don't lecture each other. Although I suppose ... I kind of treat her like my little sister sometimes. Like I'm doing the doting big brother routine. I mean well, but after a while it gets on her nerves. I've got to try to fix that," he added, almost absently.
"You have a little sister?" Stabler inquired.
Rayner shook his head. "A younger brother and a sister-in-law. Had a second younger brother."
"December 4, 1989. Wrong place, wrong time."
Stabler nodded morosely. "At least you have family."
"You don't?" Rayner said, looking up from the table.
"We don't get along so hot since I took this job. And I spend more time with Olivia than I do with Kathy and the kids. Good thing is she understands I'm married to the street."
Rayner sighed. "Haven't spoken to mine in years. They were always so busy, I doubt they ever noticed when I left home for Florida U. Stayed in Orlando, moved to Canada, and yet not so much as a phone call. I don't want to call. I don't want to hear what I've been missing. With Ian and Diana -- my brother and his wife -- off on active duty with the Air Force ... it's best to just shut myself off from everything else and move on."
"There are a lot of families torn apart by the street," Stabler admitted. "I just hope mine doesn't become one of them."
"I think that personal peril comes with the job," Rayner suggested. "We have to give up everything -- family, friends, hobbies, all of that -- and we never look back. It asks so much."
"Yeah, but the reward is worth it, I guess," rationalized Stabler. "Get another bad guy off the street. Keep him from hurting innocent people ... All the while while hurting the people who thought they knew you."
"You can't do this job with a social life," Rayner said. "Too many variables. A cop's got to have his priorities in order. No second thoughts, no hesitation, just the job. You have to be the job." He sighed. "I'm the job and some days I think that's all I am. I work nine to eight, kill two hours in the arcade, stumble home and do it all over again the next morning."
Stabler took in the point. "Of course, you walk down the wrong alley dressed like that..." he began, indicating Rayner's solid black attire -- a black suit jacket over a matching polo shirt and pants -- "...and you're a terrorist or something."
Rayner shrugged. "That's why I stay out of the alleys."
"Can't stay out of all the alleys."
"I didn't know New York had that many. Are they as complex as the sewer system?" he joked.
"I was speaking metaphorically, but there's not much difference," Stabler corrected.
"The alleys of the mind." Rayner quirked an eyebrow.
"Yeah." Stabler nodded. "You know, those places that you run off to where you wallow in self-pity and self-doubt and guilt and all they run you into is the drugs or the bottle and sooner or later you don't know who you are anymore. Those ones that lead you to literal dead ends. Those alleys of the mind."
"Stabler, you're either really screwed up or really drunk."
"You're saying it doesn't make sense?"
"It makes sense but ... 'alleys of the mind' just sounds weird."
"I never said I was that articulate."
"No, you're drunk."
"I'm getting there. But you're right, I'm screwed up."
"Just as much as I am," Rayner conceded.
"I'm beginning to think that comes with the job, too," Stabler admitted.
They both laughed at that.
"Just think, every step is a choice," Stabler continued. "I could walk out of here and get hit by a car, or I could walk out of here and go home. I know which one I want, but I don't know what I'm going to get. Making the right choices ... if I'm lucky, that gives me the right answers."
"And if you're wrong?" Rayner asked.
"Then sooner or later, the streets all start to look the same. Until I run into one of the alleys."
"The alleys of the mind."
"Then it's game over, no question." Stabler checked his watch. "Damn, it's almost eleven. I should head home. The kids will be worried." He stood and gathered his belongings, Rayner standing with him. As if it was a chain reaction, the other groups started to break up as well.
"It was great talking to you," Rayner said.
"You too," Stabler replied, quipping, "You're not bad for a Canadian."
The two men shook hands.
"Watch yourself," Rayner warned. "Don't go down one of those alleys of the mind."
Stabler smiled. "Real, mental, emotional - it all goes back to the street. We might get transferred or go somewhere else or die or something, but the street never leaves us. The street's in our head, no matter what we do. The street's part of us. Alleys in the night, alleys of the mind -- in the end, in the mind of a cop, it's all the same."
Rayner nodded and as the SVU detectives were saying goodbye to their UCU counterparts, he added, "Take care of yourself, Stabler."
"You too," Stabler replied, adding as an afterthought, "You know, we're not that different after all."
"You think so?" Rayner said, intrigued.
"Yeah," Stabler said. "We both have the street. The work. That's what the job's about. For any cop, always, it all goes back to the street. The work is all that a cop is."
Rayner nodded as Stabler left their conversation at that and headed for the door.
"Hey, Stabler," Rayner called when he had gotten maybe halfway to the door of O'Malley's. Stabler turned with a questioning look on his face. "Yeah, Rayner?" he asked. "We've got one more day down here. Why don't you guys come and hang out with us?" he offered, quipping, "We'll show you how it's done in Canada."
The detectives in the room locked glances -- the Special Victims Unit detectives and the Unsolved Crimes detectives with each other and with themselves -- in the seconds it took for Stabler to think about it. Within themselves, as it said by the looks on their faces, they already knew the answer.
Nah," Stabler finally said. "I've gotta work tomorrow."
"Insofar as there's a philosophical point of view to this ... it's that
people die, people are born, relationships happen or don't --
and you show up for work."
-- Sam Waterston