SETTING: Season 7 (post-Purgatory, pre-Frame)
SPOILERS: Mild spoilers for Season 3, Blind Spot, End Game, Purgatory
DISCLAIMER: The Law & Order characters are owned by Dick Wolf. No infringement of rights is intended. This story is written for entertainment purposes only.
Park Slope, Brooklyn, NY
Monday, May 19
Please, not again. Alex Eames spared brief glances at her partner as she maneuvered through Brooklyn streets made narrow by double-parked delivery trucks. To most people, Bobby Goren was his usual self: introspective, observant, restless and occasionally impulsive. But Alex saw past all of that. Bobby was hiding something from her; she couldn't tell if it was important or trivial, but it left her with a sinking feeling.
On a normal day he might point out a restaurant as they drove by, with comments about foods from Brazil or Ethiopia. He'd browse through papers and photos in his leather binder, discuss their case or make phone calls. This evening he was too quiet, too still. If she didn't know better she might think he was sick.
She'd first noticed it a couple weeks ago and had actually asked him if he was feeling ill. He'd claimed he was fine, and for a short time she believed him. But she periodically caught flashes of uneasiness. In her mind she formed a list of possible causes: his brother, his nephew, his health, his job.
Alex fluctuated between irritation and dread. She thought they'd cleared the air after he finally got back from his six-month suspension – that had been a difficult process. She'd hated the feeling of alienation from her partner. It took her a long time to get past her anger, but she was sure they were back in tune with each other. It hurt to see Bobby struggling now, and to feel that he didn't want to tell her what was wrong.
Alex had barely been home from work for an hour tonight when she got the call from Captain Ross. She'd sighed, packed her uneaten dinner into the refrigerator and returned to One PP, where she met her partner. They were now driving through Park Slope, one of the more expensive neighborhoods in Brooklyn.
Ross hadn't given them much information on the situation: a man had been found dead inside a grocery store he owned after the store's security alarm went off. It wasn't even clear whether this was an accident or a homicide, but the captain said Major Case had been called because the man was a personal friend of the Mayor.
They were still several minutes away from the scene when Alex decided to prod Bobby a little. She saw an Indian restaurant, and pointed as they passed.
"You know," she said, "the last time I ate Indian food I was sick to my stomach for two days." She was relieved when Bobby looked at her with concern. Good – at least he wasn't totally off in his own universe.
"Food poisoning?" he asked. "When did that happen?"
"Oh, a long time ago – before my nephew was born. I don't think it was actually food poisoning; more like a bad reaction to the curry. It was so strong, so hot!"
"Curry's not just one spice, you know. It doesn't have to be hot - it varies a lot from country to country." Bobby shifted in the passenger seat, turning partway toward her. "Even within Indian cuisine there are different levels of spice. And it's not all vegetarian."
"I know, but I haven't been interested in trying Indian food since then." Alex shrugged, keeping her eyes on the road. She started to feel calmer – this was more like Bobby.
"Your nephew's what – four years old?" he asked. "It's been that long?"
"Well, maybe part of it is that I had a bad reaction to the date I was on, too." She grimaced. "It was one of my trademark disasters. But yeah - I haven't wanted to touch Indian food since then."
Her implied challenge should have prompted Bobby to action. In normal times he would have suggested a couple of Indian restaurants; he'd have insisted on lunch the next day.
Instead he withdrew and seemed to deflate. Bobby leaned back in his seat and turned to look out his side window. He was silent for a long time until he finally said, "There it is," and pointed ahead. A couple of NYPD cruisers blocked half the street.
Alex sighed. They needed to clear up this problem, but it would have to wait. She went through the routine of showing her badge and speaking to the officer on duty; she parked as close as possible to the grocery store, which was cordoned off by yellow police tape.
Once out of the car, she looked up at the storefront. The name of the store, "Winter Market", filled a large, new-looking sign painted in yellow and green. A colorful banner was strung across the full width of the window; it announced a Grand Opening, with tomorrow's date as the big day.
"I'm betting they don't open on schedule," she said, gesturing to the banner, but her partner was already striding toward the front door. "So glad you agree," she muttered.
Bobby paused and turned back with a guilty expression. Just then a man with a detective's shield clipped onto his leather jacket came out of the dark store.
"Scarpelli, with the 7-8." He reached out a hand toward Bobby. "You the Major Case detectives?"
"Yeah," Bobby replied, shaking Scarpelli's hand. "I'm Goren, and this is my partner, Eames."
Scarpelli also shook hands with Alex. "Come on in," he said, holding the door open for them. "The vic's in the butchers' stock room in back. Looks like he bled out from a head wound. You guys beat the coroner and CSU, but you might've made the trip here for nothing – the old man could've just slipped or had a heart attack."
They walked down an aisle of canned and boxed goods. Even in the dark, the floor shone with a high gloss, and Alex smelled a lemony disinfectant. Everything was new, neat and ready for business.
"What can you tell us?" Alex asked, reaching into her pocket for her notepad.
"The dead guy's name is Robert Winter," Scarpelli said. "He's the owner of this store and another in Queens – and he's a pal of the Mayor. In fact, him and some Councilmen are supposed to be here in the morning for the ribbon-cutting – which is why Major Case was called."
"Lucky us." Alex said. "Who found him?"
"The guard from the security company," Scarpelli replied. "The alarm went off at six-thirty. The guard says they had a bunch of false alarms – some bug in the system they couldn't figure out. When he showed up this time, he expected to just reset the system again."
"Do the security tapes show anything?" Bobby asked. He was ahead of the others, and increasing his lead with every step.
"Apparently that's another bug," Scarpelli said. "The guard says the cameras shut off by themselves around six, but it didn't trigger any kind of alert until a half hour later. So you have a pretty neat window for the time of death."
It seemed to Alex there were too many coincidences for the man's death to be a simple accident, but she held her tongue until she could see for herself.
By this time Bobby had reached the double doors that led to the stock room, where they could see bright lights. He pushed one door and paused, holding it for Alex and Scarpelli. He looked at her uncertainly.
Alex met Bobby's eye as she passed, trying to convey that she wasn't upset. He seemed to get the message: he nodded and took a deep breath. The moment was enough, and then they both turned their attention to the scene, pulling on latex gloves.
The dead man lay face down on the floor, a few feet from the doorway of what looked like a small office. There was a gash on the back of his head. His white hair was darkened with blood, and he lay in a pool of it.
The man hadn't died quickly, though. A messy, smeared trail of blood led back to one of three stainless steel tables in the center of the spacious area.
The table tops were empty. A counter along the far wall was covered with cutting blocks, scales and knives of various sizes – all shining clean and laid out in order. Next to the counter was an industrial-size sink, also stainless steel, also clean. A walk-in refrigerator was nearby.
Two uniformed officers and a security guard in grey and black stood nearby. Alex immediately guessed the guard was a retired cop – he had that experienced, tired look. She approached the men to introduce herself and her partner.
Bobby crouched beside the body and carefully patted the pockets. He must have come up empty, because he asked, "Was there a wallet or any ID?"
"Not on him," Scarpelli said, "but there's a wallet on the desk in there." He jutted his chin toward the office.
Bobby said, "This blood may have been smeared and cleaned up – see here? Also, he's got an empty belt-clip where his cell phone should be. Did you find it?"
"Where do those doors go?" Bobby asked, pointing toward another set of swinging doors.
"The produce stock room," Scarpelli said. "I checked – it doesn't look like anything happened in there."
"Did you know Mr. Winter?" Alex asked the security guard, who had introduced himself as Frank Fitzgerald.
"Not really," he replied. "I usually cover second shift, so I've mainly worked with the store manager, Mr. John Lasalle – he's been notified."
"And you're sure this is Robert Winter?" Alex asked.
"See for yourself." Fitzgerald pointed to the double doors they'd just come through. On the side facing into the stock room was a large poster: it proclaimed, "Winter Market Employees – You Make Us the Best!" above a picture of a smiling man who stood beside a display of fruits and vegetables. "Robert Winter, Owner" was printed at the bottom. He had sparse white hair, was a little overweight, and seemed to be in his late sixties.
Bobby gently grasped the dead man's head and turned it so Alex could see the face: even marred by blood, they could tell it was the man in the poster.
"When did you get here, Mr. Fitzgerald?" Bobby asked.
"Six-forty-five," he replied. "I was at the Safety Shield office, just over in Woodhaven."
As Bobby continued to examine the body, Alex turned back to the security guard and officers. "Was there any sign of a break-in?" she asked.
"They didn't need to break in," Fitzgerald replied. "When I got here the entrances were unlocked. See, these locks are all controlled electronically." He swept his arm in an arc to indicate the whole store. "There were five times during the past couple weeks when everything ended up unlocked. Every time, the alarm didn't go off until later: five minutes, ten minutes, sometimes more."
Alex scribbled in her notepad. "We'll need to get a record of them. Is that a known bug in the system?"
He shook his head. "I've been with the company six years – since I retired from the NYPD – and I never heard of this happening. It's crazy. They've had the computer guys and the hardware guys working on it, but they can't figure it out. The other Winter Market store has the same system: not a single problem."
Bobby was still crouched over Mr. Winter; he called out without looking up. "Does it control the cameras, too?"
"Cameras, thermostat, lights, everything," he said. "This is the top-of-the-line setup."
Alex looked around the stock room. There was a camera mounted high in one corner – it would have a clear view of anyone entering from the store or from the loading dock. "Detective Scarpelli told us the security cameras were off," she said. "Was that part of this shutdown problem?" she asked.
"Yes, it was." Fitzgerald pointed to a panel mounted on the wall near the exit door. "Like the other times, I came in and manually entered the reset code - first thing, before I even turned on the lights. That stopped the alarm and started the cameras again."
"The lights were off?" she asked. At Fitzgerald's nod, Alex pointed past Bobby and the dead man to the unlit office. "And was the office door half open like that when you got here?"
Fitzgerald nodded. "Just like that."
"Eames," Bobby called softly.
She went to his side and stooped.
"Look at his palms," Bobby said, carefully turning one of the hands to show her the blood rubbed into the heel of the hand. "His pants, too. He was trying to reach his office."
"...on his hands and knees, through his own blood, poor guy," Alex added with a frown. "What'd he want in there?"
"The phone," Bobby said.
"Right, since he didn't have his cell."
They rose and carefully stepped around the pooled blood to peek into the office. Sure enough, a telephone sat on the desk, within easy reach of the doorway. Everything looked neat and undisturbed.
Bobby pointed. "There's a safe." He changed to a clean pair of latex gloves before going inside and trying it. "Locked." He called loudly, "Mr. Fitzgerald, is the safe controlled by the security system?"
The guard yelled in return, "Yes, it is! It's got both manual and electronic controls."
Alex quietly said, "On the desk, Bobby. There's his wallet."
He picked up the wallet and checked the contents. "No cash, no credit cards. I've got a driver's license... insurance card... pictures of grandchildren."
"I'd have expected it to be in Winter's pocket. Is the cell phone inside the desk?" Alex asked.
Bobby checked the drawers. "No."
Alex followed her partner as he returned to the stock area, gazing all around. She could tell he was trying to picture what had happened.
He slowly approached the stainless steel table where the blood trail began. He said, "This table's out of line with the others. It was shoved back forcefully – the linoleum is scratched. And look, Eames." His fingers waved around the edge of the table. "Blood. His head hit right here."
As they were studying the scene, the double doors swung open to admit a team of CSU techs, who immediately began photographing the body and the rest of the area.
Bobby directed one of the photographers to get shots of the table and floor, and then continued his musings.
"So," Bobby said, speaking to Alex over the rising noise, "Winter fell backwards against the table, hard." Bobby kept shifting positions, studying the environment. "There's nothing here - all the equipment is on the other side. Why would he be on this side of the table, facing away? And why did he fall?"
"Heart attack?" Scarpelli said. "Stroke?"
"He wouldn't have gotten up again if it was either of those," Alex said.
"He was facing the office door over there," Bobby said, pointing across the area. "Someone else was here."
"Look. There's a black heel scuff," Alex said, pointing.
Bobby crouched and put his finger to the mark on the linoleum. When he looked up Alex saw his excitement. "It could be recent. What are Mr. Winter's shoes like?" he asked.
Scarpelli was close enough to the body to check. "He's got brown heels, all worn down," he said.
Alex said, "That wasn't made by Mr. Winter. It's far enough from the table that it could be from someone who shoved him. We need to find out how recently this floor was polished." She made another note in her book.
"Come here, Eames – stand right there." She stood with her back to the table, and Bobby planted his feet so he was facing her. "Someone was here – he came out of the office, and confronted Mr. Winter. Maybe they know each other. They argue. Mr. Winter pushes the other person first, and he scuffs his heel. He pushes back. Winter goes down, hits his head." Bobby was gesturing and speaking with confidence now.
"But he doesn't lose consciousness," Alex added. "He doesn't have his cell phone, so he tries to get to the phone in his office to call for help." She also felt a surge of energy as the events came into focus. "Would the attacker try to stop him?"
"If he does that," Bobby said, "he'll get blood all over himself, so he watches and waits till Winter collapses. He doesn't panic."
Alex had a sudden thought. "The phone popped off Winter's belt as he fell?"
"Or... the attacker knocked it out of his hand." Bobby stared at the floor for a few moments, calculating which way the phone might go. He strode around the long tables to the large double sink, and knelt to explore beneath it. It only took him a few seconds to come up with the phone, which was in the flipped open position.
"When was the last call made?" Alex asked, meeting Bobby's intense gaze. She went to his side to watch over his arm as he brought up the call history.
"He called Home at five-thirty-five," Bobby said, "probably to say he was staying late."
"No surprise," Alex said, "with a grand opening tomorrow."
"It lasted a little under three minutes."
"What about incoming?"
"Umm," Bobby said as he searched for the call log. "Here: he got a call from a Ron at five-fifty-one, one from Frannie at five-forty-two, and an earlier one from Ron at four-ten." He held out the phone to a CSU tech who waited with an open evidence bag.
By now the medical examiner and his team had also arrived, and were checking the body.
Bobby caught another CSU tech by the arm. "Can you test the floor here..." He indicated the area between Mr. Winter's body and the exit which led to the loading dock. "Look for signs that blood was cleaned up."
Alex scanned the floor as well. "Good idea - maybe the attacker wasn't that careful after all."
"Detectives?" A uniformed officer signaled to them from the entryway back into the store, where Alex saw that the lights had been turned on.
Alex peeled off her latex gloves as she turned to Bobby. "I'll go. It's probably the family." Their eyes met briefly, and she gave him a tiny smile and nod. At least they were still in synch as far as the job was concerned. She hoped they could work out the rest soon.