|Summary||After someone close to Tony is murdered, the team becomes involved in a deadly game of cat and mouse.|
|Status||This story is completed|
The weak sunlight of early morning shone through the window, unbroken by the open curtains. It illuminated the white carpet and fell upon the white walls, coloring them with faint hues of blue and yellow. The sounds of the street outside were muted and quiet by the time they reached the apartment on the eighth floor, and their distance, combined with the gentle tone of morning, gave the high-ceilinged rooms a serene air.
In the bedroom, too, light fell calmly, filtered through the closed drapes and alternately illuminating and shadowing the creases of clothing crumpled on the floor. A woman’s clothing, and a man’s, of varying qualities, they lay where they’d fallen, or been tossed. The light glinted off the pictures on the bureau, reflected in the large mirror mounted on the wall opposite the window, and sparkled when it touched the broken glass scattered across the floor on one side of the bed.
Anthony Dinozzo yawned, stretched, and reached out to pull the woman closer to him. He frowned when his hand brushed across the wetness on her bare skin. His eyes flickered as he came awake at the wrongness, and then opened fully as he placed the sensation, as half-remembered nightmares reconciled with reality, and not in the way he would have liked.
The cool morning grew dark, the cold suddenly oppressive, as he sat up, the blankets heavy around him, and leaned over the woman for confirmation. Her dark eyes were open, wide and fearful, and he flinched as he saw the blood staining her body. He reached back quickly, pulling his hand away from skin that, only a few hours ago, had been vibrant and rich. A few hours ago -- what had happened? He shuddered, her blood warm on his fingers, and struggled out of bed, the sheets clinging like desperate hands to his body.
He reached for his clothes, pulling them on without thought, and then reached for his cell phone with numb fingers. He turned from the body in the bed as if by doing so he could erase it from his memory.
The phone was ringing in his ear, shrill and strangely mundane, and he swallowed harshly, wondering who he’d called.
"Gibbs." Gibbs sounded awake enough, Tony thought vaguely -- what time was it? "Who is this?"
He forced bile back down his throat as his gaze returned to the sheet-draped body. "Boss?"
"Dinozzo?" Gibbs asked. "You okay?" Maybe he thought he would have to plan another sewer expedition. Actually, Tony decided, that wasn’t funny.
"I think I’m in trouble."
His gaze drifting again to the body on the bed, he recalled the sticky warmth of her blood and thought that that was an understatement. He dropped the phone, nearly stumbling as he dashed for the bathroom, Gibbs’ tinny voice a distracting buzz in the background.
Gibbs braced himself and kicked open the wooden door to the apartment, remembering what had happened the last time Dinozzo’d been in trouble. Though this time it wasn’t his own responsibility, Dinozzo had sounded awful on the phone, lost and shocked, at least, and that was -- rare. Gibbs wasn’t sure what to expect. Blood, bodies, or an overreaction to something his girlfriend (or whatever she was) had done?
The door swung inward and Gibbs stepped inside, taking in the calmness of the expensive apartment. Light wood, an overall air of femininity -- looked like it had been decorated by his first wife. Nothing to complain about, if you happened to like flowers and irritating glass furniture, which Gibbs didn’t.
He didn’t see any immediate threats, no crazed husbands or angry exes, but kept his gun out in case. Where was Dinozzo? He’d had the agent’s cell traced to this address, but it didn’t look like anyone was home. "Dinozzo?" he called, hesitant to alert anyone else to his presence, though given his entrance, he doubted it would be a surprise.
"Boss?" The call came from down the hall and Gibbs headed in that direction. "In here." The voice came from behind a partly-opened door; Gibbs pushed it open the rest of the way and came face-to-face with Tony. "I was coming out to see you," he said, though his eyes showed only surprise. His smile was ghastly.
Gibbs replaced his gun in its holster and felt the hairs on the back of his neck rising. "What is it? You okay?" He glanced over the other agent, not seeing any signs of injury. Unless the injury was mental.
Dinozzo shook his head once, swallowed. "Not -- she’s . . ." Gibbs changed his mind -- the look in Dinozzo’s eyes wasn’t surprise, but shock -- and brushed past him to look for its source, for the she in question. He glanced at the sheet covering what appeared to be a person on the bed and then turned back to his agent.
"What happened, Dinozzo?" He forced his voice to stay calm, cool. Unassuming, non-accusatory.
"I, ah, woke up and Alice was, ah." He shrugged, his shoulders trembling.
Gibbs turned away and crossed the room in a few steps to pull the sheet back from the body. He heard Dinozzo behind him, sensed him turning away, but focused his attention on the woman, the still-liquid crimson. He wondered what Ducky would say about time of death. He slid the sheet back over the woman’s head and stood by the bed. There was glass on the floor; there had been a struggle. "Damn it, Dinozzo, what happened? What did you do?"
He shook his head. "I didn’t. She was like this -- it must have happened when I was sleeping."
"Somebody shot her and you didn’t wake up?"
"I don’t know," he said. "Looks like it." He shuddered and forced his face to remain blank, but he reached back for the wall to hold himself steady.
Shit, Gibbs thought succinctly, reaching Tony’s side in time to keep him from falling. "Go sit down. She military?" He nodded and Gibbs sighed, wondering if that would work in their favor. "Go. I’ll call a team."
He watched the younger agent disappear down the hallway and then turned back to what was now officially the crime scene.
It was going to be a hell of a day.
An hour later and the apartment was alive with the investigation of death. The cool morning light that had greeted Gibbs’ arrival had turned gritty and bright, and the hushed serenity was broken by the click of cameras, the soft discussion taking place near the door, the calls across the small space as agents compared findings and requested tools. Even the fragile tables had been recontextualized, sleek black equipment scattered across their smooth surfaces. The scene itself was infinitely familiar; there were only so many ways to approach a murder investigation, and he’d experienced most, if not all, of them.
What didn’t fit was the suspect.
It was standard in any murder investigation, of course, for the person who discovered the body to be questioned. Sometimes the resulting information would be enough to clear said person; other times, it wouldn’t. If the person had spent the night with the victim -- in this case, Alice Vasquez -- and then woken up to find her dead beside him, he logically became a suspect.
Sometimes, Gibbs decided, logic was overrated.
Dinozzo sat on the couch, seemingly oblivious to the organized chaos around him and the curious looks sent in his direction. Gibbs would have preferred that he wait somewhere else -- protocol did usually suggest that the lead suspect should not be given access to potential evidence -- but the only other room suited for any sort of waiting appeared to be the bedroom and that was not an option. Given the number of investigators, it was unlikely that Tony would be able to do anything, anyway, and in order for him even to try, he would have to move on his own, a possibility which seemed unlikely.
Gibbs moved into Tony’s range of vision, clearing his throat to get the younger agent to notice him. Tony blinked. "Boss?"
"You ready for questioning, Dinozzo?" Though it was phrased as a question, his tone suggested that disagreement would be futile.
Tony nodded. "Here? You in charge of the case?"
"For now," Gibbs said. Dinozzo could be damned irritating at times, but that alone wasn’t enough to warrant a stay in jail. Unfortunately, he had nothing more than a gut feeling, intuition, on which to base the assumption of Tony’s innocence, and shifting command to another agent would almost certainly guarantee that Tony be treated as a lead suspect, almost certainly guilty. He doubted Tony would be able to talk his way out of that, even if the agent in charge were female.
Or maybe, given the victim’s gender, maybe especially if the SAC were female.
"Yeah." Tony let out a breath. "Yeah, I’m ready. You gonna read me my rights?" His smile was a sick imitation of his usual demeanor.
Gibbs stared at him, wondering if he preferred a silent Tony over an overcompensating one. "Let’s go."
"Crime scene’s not the best place for an interrogation, Dinozzo." Tony shrugged, and if the body in the bedroom hadn’t been enough, his lack of a retort was surely a sign of the seriousness of the situation. Gibbs stepped out of the way so that he could stand and then turned away as someone called his name.
"Agent?" Gibbs acknowledged, and the man standing in the kitchen doorway nodded his head in affirmation.
"Found something I think you’ll be interested in." With a glance back at Dinozzo, Gibbs followed the man into the other room.
"What is it," he paused to check the agent’s badge, "Agent Haviland?"
Haviland gestured to the full garbage can in the corner. "Looks like they didn’t bother to take out the trash."
"Which, as far as I know, isn’t a crime." He was not in the mood for enigmatic question-and-answer sessions.
"No, but this could be." The agent gestured with a gloved hand to a small plastic container resting near the top of the pile.
"What is it?" Gibbs repeated.
"According to the label, ketamine hydrochloride." Gibbs waited for him to continue. "Prescription’s made out to a Daniel Wilmore."
"It appears to be stolen, or at least obtained illegally. Not surprising, considering its street popularity." He shook his head. "Guess this is gonna be a bad day for the agency."
Haviland looked at him in disbelief. "One of our guys gets high and kills his girlfriend."
Gibbs released a breath slowly, curling his lips into something resembling a smile. "If I were you," he said slowly. "I’d keep that opinion to yourself until you have the evidence to back it up."
The agent swallowed, nodded. "Right."
"Good." Gibbs nodded and turned to go, watched Dinozzo for a moment from the distance of the kitchen. Tony looked lost, confused as to why he was there, or maybe in another world entirely. A contrast to the purposeful, smooth agents moving around him.
Gibbs crossed the room quickly. "Ready?"
"Sure. Where’re we going?"
"Coffee place down the street." Gibbs studied him for a moment. "And then headquarters. I wanna get a blood sample."
Tony stood up shakily, followed him towards the door. "Blood sample?"
"The parrot act’s not flattering," he said. "Yeah, a blood sample." He opened the door and let Dinozzo leave in front of him. As the door closed behind them, he decided that "a hell of a day" was going to be an understatement.
Faint techno-bass reverberated throughout the lab and was ignored, at least on a conscious level, by the room’s occupants. Gibbs took a sip of lukewarm coffee and watched as Abby inserted the needle smoothly into Tony’s arm. Dinozzo didn’t flinch when the needle slid into his skin and watched as his blood filled the syringe. Wondering what secrets it held, what it would reveal?
Well, Gibbs was rather anxious to find out, too.
Abby withdrew the needle, swabbed the hole with cotton and capped the syringe. She grinned at Tony, waiting for the punch line. "First choice for a random drug test?" she asked.
"Not exactly," Dinozzo said. He sounded normal enough, like giving blood samples was something he did every day. Like he was there to watch Abby solve a case, rather than because he was under suspicion of murder.
"‘Not exactly.’" Abby looked thoughtful. "Poisoned? Take a bite out of evidence?"
Tony looked down. "Actually, I am the evidence."
"Huh." She nodded. "Cool."
"Come on, Dinozzo. Questioning." Tony stood, avoiding Abby’s gaze, and followed Gibbs out of the lab and into the elevator. He didn’t speak until they’d moved down the next hall, and Gibbs didn’t speak to him. Their outward appearance was that of agents on their way to hear a confession or receive a new case. Nothing out of the ordinary, nothing unusual, no cause for alarm. Simply purposeful, ignoring the others around them.
And though if they were anywhere else they might have attracted attention -- a result of the intent with which they moved, the easy grace and confidence promising not only potential but results -- at NCIS, they were only part of the crowd.
"An interrogation room, boss?" Tony asked as Gibbs came to a stop and opened the door.
"Procedure," Gibbs answered. He flicked the lightswitch and dim fluorescents came to life with a dull hum. "Unless you wanna do this with an audience. Kate can offer commentary."
"Ah, here’s fine." Dinozzo took a seat at the wooden table and Gibbs sat across from him, his coffee within easy reach. Gibbs switched on the recorder, spoke into the microphone, his voice low. Set the scene, crossed his arms, and began.
"What happened last night, Dinozzo?" Words spoken casually, like they were having a discussion.
Tony sighed, closed his eyes for a moment as if in memory. "I went to Alice’s."
"And." He swallowed. "I can’t remember."
Considering the way the morning had gone, that was only fitting.
"That’s convenient," Gibbs said calmly. He stared into unnaturally dark eyes and waited for a response. It didn’t take long.
"You think I did it?" Tony asked, and he almost managed to keep his voice completely unaffected.
Gibbs shrugged. "You said you didn’t. And no, I don’t. But I wanna know what happened."
"Don’t we all," Tony muttered. The bleakness in his eyes would have been startling if Gibbs hadn’t known that the man had woken a few hours ago and discovered he’d been sleeping next to a corpse. Tony wasn’t stupid; he had to know that he was the most logical suspect. That he was, at that point, the only suspect.
All in all, the bleakness was probably appropriate.
Gibbs reached out with one hand and switched off the recorder. The click seemed to echo in the quiet mark two parts -- before and after. On the record and off. Tony regarded him steadily, as if he were unaware of the gravity, the importance, of the gesture. "Just because I believe you doesn’t mean everybody else will," Gibbs said, though he doubted it was necessary.
"I know," he said. "And believe me, if I knew what happened, I’d tell you. But I don’t. I don’t remember." His words became clearer as he spoke, gained enunciation and emphasis so that the edge to "remember" was almost visible, razor-sharp and exposed. A knife to bare skin, hovering against a pulse.
Gibbs’ phone rang, disturbing the silence left by Dinozzo’s words. The younger agent swallowed in apparent relief as Gibbs flipped the cell open. "Yeah. Gibbs."
"So I just ran Tony’s blood," Abby said. "He irritate another serial or something?"
"What’d you find?" Gibbs asked.
"You sure you don’t wanna come down for this? Got pretty pictures."
"Abs," he prompted.
"Okay," she said. "So I ran his blood and found traces of what I’m pretty sure is ketamine."
"Ketamine," he repeated.
"Yeah. Originally an anesthetic, but it’s hit the streets." She paused. "How’d Tony get it?"
"That’s what I’m hoping to find out. Thanks, Abs." He snapped the phone shut and returned it to his jacket, thankful that the recorder was off. He was not looking forward to this.
"What’d she say?" Dinozzo asked.
Gibbs looked at him. "Found traces of a drug in your blood."
His eyes widened. "Could explain why I can’t remember what happened to -- why I can’t remember."
"Yeah," Gibbs said. "It could explain why Alice Vasquez is dead."
"Yeah," Tony echoed, and Gibbs nodded. Nodded like it was okay, like he understood, and hoped there was some way he’d misinterpreted the darkness in the other man’s eyes. Because guilt would be damning, though perhaps not completely. Dinozzo could feel guilty for not awakening, for not intervening, for not saving Vasquez’s life. He didn’t necessarily feel guilt because he’d killed her.
There were agents working the scene. The body was being sent to Ducky for examination. There would be evidence, something leading to a killer, a conviction.
The most important question, of course, was the identity of said killer. But Gibbs would find it, he and his team, and if they didn’t like the answer, well . . .
The slow tick-tock of the clock mounted high on the wall behind him did nothing to diffuse the tension in the room. If anything, it provided background music, a steady drum variant like the drumming of sharp fingernails. The difference was that fingernails were usually attached to a person and people could be reasoned with, or at least intimidated; the clock would continue its insufferable ticking right up to the point when Gibbs turned around and shot the damned thing.
Suffice to say, he didn’t like waiting. He could do it, of course; he’d had practice and some might say he was even good at it, but that was when the cases were distant, when though time was of the essence, it wasn’t one of his agents he was questioning. One of his agents he was waiting to crack.
Dinozzo leaned back in his chair, eyes half closed. Gibbs wasn’t sure if he was actually dozing or just waiting, unsure of what to say next. Not that he’d been given any prompts; after Abby’s phone call, he’d been silent. He hadn’t even asked what drug she’d found, what was in his blood. Was it apathy or disassociation, evidence of something more? Evidence of guilt? Or was it simply shock? Dinozzo had to get to the hospital, or at least had to be cleared by Ducky, but the minute this got out, the minute the media got hold of what had happened, arranging for private questioning would be a near impossible task.
Though was it necessary, private questioning? What did he hope Dinozzo would say to him that he wouldn’t want other investigators to hear?
Did he think he would hear a confession?
No. He was simply trying to help, giving Dinozzo a chance to think through what had happened with someone who wasn’t trying to convict him.
"So. Tell me what you do remember."
"Name, date, and current president?" Gibbs raised an eyebrow at him and he twitched his shoulders in something like a shrug. "I went to Alice’s, I guess."
He shrugged again. "I guess. Finished the paperwork on the Foster case, and then . . . it’s blank. I don’t know. I just don’t know." The force evident in his earlier words was gone, leaving them dull and emotionless. Lines recited often enough to lose any value, any meaning.
"Okay," Gibbs said. "We’re done for now."
Tony nodded, light glinting off the thin slits of slightly-open eyes. "Thanks."
"Don’t thank me yet." He stood, made sure the recorder was off, and half-turned to the door, saw Dinozzo moving in his peripheral vision, and then realized something was wrong.
Tony shoved his chair back from the table with surprising force and took a step forward as if to follow Gibbs to the door, and then stumbled and dropped without grace to the floor. Gibbs turned, felt the door swing closed behind him as he knelt at the man’s side. Reflex had him tilting the younger man’s head back, fumbling for a pen to shove between his teeth. Too-bright eyes, the sheen of sweat. What the hell was this?
Ketamine, he realized, and reached into his pocket for his cell phone. Ducky and then a medic, EMTs and the hospital. Though the protocol, the paperwork and proper channels could pull him from the case . . .
Right now, that didn’t matter.
Dinozzo’s eyes flickered and Gibbs let the smooth plastic phone fall back into his pocket. "Dinozzo?" The younger man clenched his hands into a fist, shooting his arm out as if to connect with Gibbs’ face. Gibbs deflected the blow easily, catching Dinozzo’s arms and holding them down. Tony fought only briefly before subsiding and Gibbs felt his muscles relax. He watched the younger man swallow, his head lolling back until he raised it to meet Gibbs’ eyes. "About the questioning," he said. His eyes like mercury, liquid and deadly.
"What is it?"
"I think maybe I was wrong."
"You were wrong," Gibbs echoed, his tone flat.
Dinozzo nodded slowly, swallowed again. Spoke in barely more than a whisper. "I think maybe I did it." His bravado, his pretense of confidence, didn’t hide the rawness and fear and Gibbs shook his head, knowing what was necessary. What Dinozzo needed. Fearless leader, impart your confidence, share your faith . . .
"What, the seizure gave you some kind of insight? You didn’t do it." He reached down to pull Dinozzo to his feet, heaving the younger man up and supporting his weight as they made the one, two, three steps to the door. "Come on. We’re getting you to the hospital."
"Okay." The lack of emotion in the agreement was almost as frightening as the seizure itself had been, Gibbs thought, and he felt the curious gazes of those they passed on the way to the garage. Felt them, and ignored them for the most part. He met the eyes of the most intrusive onlookers and felt them give way. Watched them break contact, bow their heads and continue on.
He wasn’t protecting anyone. Just doing his job. And in the past, alliances had been forged and trust earned. He wasn’t ignoring protocol or sheltering a suspect, he was obeying rules long since etched into his mind, concepts that over time had become second nature. Comradeship. Respect. Responsibility to those he commanded.
And devotion to his fellow soldiers, to his squad, to his team, because they’d earned it. He wasn’t in the Marines anymore, but some concepts still held true, and this was one of them.
He was doing what he knew how to do, what felt right. What was right. And somehow, as always, the answers would come.
A light rain had started, misting the windows of the car as Gibbs pulled out of the garage. Dinozzo didn’t talk to him, stared out the window at the blurred scenery instead, and Gibbs wasn’t sure if he wanted it any other way. What had Dinozzo seen, hallucinated? What images of blood and flesh and death had he visualized?
D.C. was a haze outside the window, the frame creating a collage of images. Trees, cars, clean buildings and traffic signals. Tony was a disturbing presence in the passenger’s seat, too quiet. Gibbs would have preferred his usual irreverent comments to this silence; in all honesty, he would have preferred just about anything to the younger agent’s apparent apathy. The complete lack of any sort of signal was disconcerting, not to mention annoying. Though maybe the latter was a result of the former; he wasn’t sure.
They were halfway to the hospital when he realized they were being followed. Should have seen it sooner, of course, but his thoughts had been elsewhere, rerunning conversations, crime scenes made monochrome with age. Still, he shouldn’t have lowered his guard, shouldn’t have assumed . . .
Assumed what? That the Vasquez murder was unrelated to anything else?
He glanced again at the rearview mirror to make sure he wasn’t imagining the presence and then sighed as they came to a stoplight and he got a good look at the side of the van following them, saw the insignia identifying it as a local news station. Coincidence? It was possible, but he doubted it. Great. Whoever’d leaked this was going to find him- or herself out of a job in the very near future.
"Boss?" The query surprised him. He’d assumed Dinozzo had fallen asleep.
Gibbs glanced back up at the traffic light, watched red turn to green. "Must be running out of news." Indifferent, as if the reporters would be interested in something simple like a traffic violation. As if they weren't chasing the latest sensationalist headline.
"That or somebody forgot to tell us it’s NCIS appreciation day."
Gibbs raised an eyebrow, more appreciative of the change in Dinozzo’s demeanor, however strained, than he wanted to show. Behind them, the van accelerated and he wondered if this would be shown on the six o’clock news. NCIS agents cause ten-car pileup while fleeing local press. That would definitely draw attention to the case, if the station hadn’t been planning a broadcast in the first place. And maybe they weren’t. Maybe it really was simple coincidence that had the van following them, simple coincidence that this was happening now.
And if one believed in coincidence, they might consider that a plausible explanation.
Gibbs was not one of those people.
He braked quickly, twisted the wheel and spun the car sideways. The media van loomed large out the window, passed within a few inches and continued on ahead. Gibbs completed the turn smoothly, aiming the car in the direction from which they’d come. Back to headquarters. He glanced over at Dinozzo in time to see the tremors shaking the other man’s hands. Though Tony didn’t turn from the window, he clenched his hands into fists as if he sensed the direction of Gibbs’ gaze. "Hospital’s out?" he asked.
"Unless Ducky says otherwise." Dinozzo nodded, seemed to accept this. Maybe even to appreciate it. Gibbs glanced at him again and returned his focus to the road. One crew had found them; most likely, there’d be another.
No one seemed surprised when they reentered the building, striding across the floor to the bank of elevators. If anyone wondered what had happened (or if anyone knew, because the news crew had to have been tipped by someone) they didn’t mention it, didn’t ask. As far as they were concerned, that Gibbs continually looked back to check Dinozzo was a result of the younger agent’s rumored haplessness. Not that there was much to support the rumor -- a few, very few, mistakes during undercover work -- but . . .
Those who didn’t listen to rumors assumed that it was a result too much time spent working together, too much time in the field. A reflex. I’ve got your back. Admirable, but not unusual.
Either way, at that point, it wasn’t of much interest. That would probably change once the six o’clock news aired, or if the anonymous source kept talking, but in the meantime, Gibbs and Dinozzo moved freely.
The doors to the morgue hissed open to admit them. "Hey, Duck," Gibbs said. "Got a minute?"
Ducky nodded. "Mr. Colson won’t mind waiting for a bit," he said, nodding to the body laid out on the stainless-steel table. He set down the unused scalpel and stripped off his gloves. "What is it, Jethro?"
"Take a look at Tony."
Ducky raised his eyebrows. "Am I looking for anything in particular?"
"Anything unusual. Make sure he’s in good shape." Tony muttered something behind him and Gibbs pretended he hadn’t heard, didn’t bother turning around to ask for clarification. Who knew what a slap to the back of the head would do to Dinozzo now?
"Hm." Ducky waited for Gibbs to continue but didn’t seem surprised when there was nothing else. He turned his attention to Tony instead, allowed his gaze to drift to one of the unoccupied tables just long enough to allow suggestions to formulate, and then nodded at the stool in front of the viewing screens. "Take a seat."
Gibbs waited for only a few seconds before turning and heading back upstairs. Ducky would take care of Dinozzo, and keeping him down there would, in theory, keep him away from anyone who would take advantage of the situation. He trusted security to keep out reporters, but if anyone inside felt like earning some extra money and Dinozzo happened to mention what he thought he remembered, any chance of keeping damage to a minimum would disappear. It wasn’t that Gibbs thought Dinozzo couldn’t handle himself, but . . .
But right now, he wasn’t sure.
Kate was at her desk, a paper cup next to her computer. Gibbs looked longingly at it for a moment, wished he’d had time to stop for more coffee after ditching the press van. He waited for a few seconds, until Kate looked up. She should have seen him sooner, should have been more aware, he thought, but that was an issue for another time.
"Gibbs," she began, and then frowned. "What’s wrong?"
"Got a case," he said. "Woman found murdered in her bed this morning."
Kate tilted her head. "Fairly blunt," she commented. "Any suspects?"
"Yeah. He’s downstairs."
"That’s fast." Gibbs glanced at Tony’s desk and she shrugged. "Overslept? I tried calling, but he’s not home."
"He’s downstairs," Gibbs repeated and Kate blinked, making the connection.
"You’re kidding. I mean, you’re obviously not, but . . . Tony? There’s got to be a mistake."
"He didn’t do it, but right now, we don’t have anything else. I want you at the crime scene. Somebody already called in the press." Gibbs leaned over his desk, scribbled Vasquez’ address on a notepad and handed the page to Kate.
"Make sure no one jumps to any conclusions."
She nodded. "Sure." She paused. "Is Tony . . . is he okay?"
"Ask Ducky." Kate winced at the implications. Gibbs shrugged in apology and continued, "He’s taking a look at Dinozzo now. Making sure everything checks out."
"Right," she said. "Where’re you headed?"
"Somebody decided to bring in the media. I’m gonna find out who."
Tony let out a sigh as Ducky stepped back. "You don’t look well," Ducky said, "but I imagine you already knew that."
"Kinda guessed as much," he said.
"But aside from the ketamine you said Abigail found in your blood, I don’t think there’s anything out of the ordinary. Of course, to be certain, I’d want to run a full battery of tests, none of which I imagine you’d enjoy."
"No," Tony agreed.
Behind them, the doors slid open and Ducky turned to see the visitors. "Hey, Dr. Mallard. Got another one for you," one of the attendants said, handing him a thin sheaf of paperwork as the other man wheeled in the gurney. Tony looked at the dark-covered shape and then looked down at the floor.
"Thank you," Ducky said, glancing at the pages. The attendants finished their job and left; Ducky looked at the waiting gurney and then at the still-waiting body on the other table. "Miss Vasquez takes precedence, I’m afraid."
Tony was glad the pathologist’s words weren’t directed at him because he didn’t know how he would have answered. What he would have said. Resting his head in his hands, he wondered if there was anything he could do to make this all go away. He stood, waiting as a wave of unsteadiness rushed through him, and Ducky looked at him with concern. "If you’d like to rest for a bit in my office . . ."
Tony smiled weakly and the look on Ducky’s face told him that he probably would have been better off not bothering to try. "I think I’ll take you up on that."
The organized chaos that had reigned while Gibbs had been at the scene was gone by the time Kate arrived at Vasquez’ apartment. In its place was the constant hum of tension, an unsolved crime. Recent death. Intentions hung in the air, unanswered questions and evidence so easily overlooked. How many truths would remain unfound, trodden over and rendered meaningless by the feet and hands of well-meaning agents?
Kate showed her badge to the male agent who stepped towards her when she opened the front door. "I’m here at Special Agent Gibbs’ request." She slipped the leather case back into her jacket as the agent shifted his weight, reevaluating her as a fellow agent instead of an unknown woman. She’d seen the possibilities flickering through his eyes as she entered, as he attempted to place her in the correct context. An intrusive reporter, someone who’d come to gawk at the scene, the murderer herself, coming to gauge progress.
"Agent," the man acknowledged her. He met her gaze in apology and she nodded slightly in acceptance.
"Can you tell me what progress has been made?" she asked, feeling something shift inside her as she began to distance herself from the human aspects of the crime.
"We’re almost done here. The ME’s guys have already been here to transport the body," the agent said. "We’ve got photos, samples, even found the murder weapon. From what we’ve found, it looks like it’s a pretty open-and-shut case."
"Gibbs didn’t have time to familiarize me with what happened here," she said, not entirely lying. "Could you fill me in?"
The agent shrugged. "Judging from what we’ve found, it looks like this guy -- Dinozzo, I think Agent Gibbs said -- came over to visit his girlfriend. Something went wrong and he shot her."
"‘Something went wrong?’" she echoed, glad for the distance afforded to her by her position as an investigator. She was an NCIS agent now; later she would deal with the emotions, the disbelief, the desire to shake her head and say again that there had to have been a mistake, it couldn’t be true, Gibbs knows this is all wrong, too.
"They had an argument?" he offered. "I don’t know." He looked towards the kitchen and back at Kate. "It looks like drugs were involved. Maybe they got high and he blew things all out of proportion. Seemed like a good idea at the time or something." He shook his head. "Hell of a thing to happen."
She nodded, took a breath. "Yeah. Have you mentioned what you told me to anyone else?"
He shook his head. "Agent Gibbs doesn’t want us talking," he said. "The scene’s been sealed."
Kate wondered what Gibbs had said to the man to inspire the amount of reverence -- and fear -- in his voice. Maybe Gibbs had just been himself. "Good." She glanced behind the man to the bagged evidence on the table. Waiting to be transported, as the body had, to NCIS headquarters, where it would be examined until a case could be built, until they had proof. She wondered if Gibbs had told Abby what had happened, had prepared her, and then she directed her attention back to the scene.
"Excuse me," she said, stepping around the other agent. He turned to watch her pass, watched her step over to survey the table’s contents, their labels. She pulled a latex glove from her pocket and slipped it on before she touched the bag containing a gun. "This the murder weapon?"
"As far as we can tell."
Kate held the bag up to the light to get a better look at the weapon. It was standard NCIS issue, almost identical to the one in her own holster, but it was issued to members of other law enforcement agencies as well, not to mention available for purchase by members of the general public. All together, its familiarity was inconclusive, at least for the moment. They’d run it at the lab, check the serial numbers and know for certain.
She moved on to the next piece, skimming over the blood samples, the fingerprints and the scrapings. "Ketamine hydrochloride?"
"Popular street drug," the agent answered.
She checked the name on the label. "Who’s Daniel Wilmore?"
The agent shook his head. "We’ll be running a check on that. Not the occupant of this apartment, anyway."
She nodded and returned the bag to its place on the table. "Where did the murder occur?"
"Bedroom." He tilted his head in the direction of the hall. "But we’ve already gone through the scene. I don’t think you’ll find anything else."
"I know," she said. "But I’m in charge here, and I’d like to know what I’m in charge of."
He raised an eyebrow, lowered his chin a few millimeters. "Sure." His tone discounting her, writing her off. If she wasn’t going to take his word on this, then she was a promotion-hungry misandrist, all brass and ice, right? Damn it, it was too early for this. She glanced at her watch. Early afternoon, but still too early.
Kate ignored his gaze as she headed down the hall, ignored the desire to shake her head or rub a hand across her face. The hallway was narrow and she stepped into the bedroom, glad to find that she had the room to herself.
Glancing at the clothes on the floor, at the rumpled sheets, the dark stain on the mattress, she was once again glad for the protective distance symbolized by her badge and gun. The voices from the apartment’s main room were audible, but just barely, and she wondered what Tony would have said if he were here. Something about dangerous sex, maybe.
She almost made a comment herself, but closed her mouth when she realized there was no one around to hear it.
Abby turned from the computer as Gibbs strode into the lab and he wondered, only briefly, if he was losing his touch. "If this is about the Tony being evidence thing . . ."
She raised her eyebrows. "Really," she said. "‘Cause I gotta say, I’m stumped. You gonna fill me in?"
"If I knew what was going on." He sighed. "A woman was murdered this morning. Tony’s the lead suspect."
"Wow." Abby nodded slowly and then spoke. "That explains a lot. At least in theory." She paused. "And you’re looking for proof he didn’t do it? What can I do?"
"Press van tried to follow us earlier. I want to know how they knew."
"Doubt they’d tell you if you asked," she agreed. "What branch of the press are we talking about?"
"T.V. The van was from Channel 4."
"I’ll get on it," she said.
"Thanks." He heard the keys clicking even as he was turning to go.
"Of course," she said. He was at the door when she called out, "Gibbs?"
He turned to face her. "Yeah, Abs?"
"If I can’t find it . . . I mean, if it was a face-to-face exchange and not called in . . ."
"Just find what you can."
Tony woke with a start and nearly fell off the couch in his clumsy haste to escape the remnants of nightmares. He tried to recall his location but the images in his head pushed away conscious thought. He reached to draw his weapon and his hand clutched at empty space. He didn’t have his gun because he’d left it in the bedroom after he’d pulled the trigger, after Alice had stirred and he’d pressed the barrel to her chest, held it against her heart. He stumbled to his feet, forcing himself to breathe as he scanned his surroundings. Looking for her body. Expecting, somehow, to find the gun on the floor, tossed aside.
His heart rate slowed as he took stock of his location, as the familiarity of the setting made its way past the blind terror that had awakened him. An office. Ducky’s office. He could hear voices from outside, through the closed door. Ducky, his assistant, Jimmy whatever the hell his last name was, and someone else.
He sank back down onto the couch, rested his face in his hands. Gibbs, who would want to know how he was feeling and what was going on and by the way, had he remembered what happened last night yet? Gibbs, who thought he hadn’t done it. Hadn’t killed Alice.
Strange, Tony thought. He’d thought he’d be more broken up about being accused of murder. About killing Alice. It should have affected him more. Not that the distance wasn’t welcome -- it was -- it was just strange. Surprising. Kind of funny, in an ironic who-would-have-thought sort of way. He sighed, wondering if that made him a sociopath.
He didn’t remember standing, crossing the room, but he found himself next to the door, his hand on the doorknob. The cool metal sliding under his hand, the door swinging outward and bright halogen-hot light pouring into the dim office.
Ducky was in the middle of an autopsy. Gibbs was just there to oversee the work, talk to his friend. Tony let out a breath. Normal. If he were quiet enough, maybe he could get out without Gibbs noticing him. An extreme possibility, but it wasn’t impossible . . .
Though it was close enough.
Gibbs turned as he opened the door, as he stepped of the office, and Ducky looked up from the body, scalpel in hand. Tony nodded in acknowledgment, like he was okay. Like this was normal. Like he was fine.
Except he wasn’t, because it was Alice on the table. Alice. Alice’s blood would be on Ducky’s scalpel, and it was his fault. He swallowed. "Thanks for letting me use the office, Ducky," he said. His voice, he thought, sounded good enough. Jimmy muttered something about taking a break and ran for the door. Ducky frowned at him. Gibbs’ face was impassive. Tony nodded in acknowledgment and headed towards the door. So far, so good.
"Where do you think you’re going, Dinozzo?"
He stopped, didn’t turn around. "Home. Figured I’d work on my plea."
"Mixing logic. You planning on pleading, you’re gonna have to be charged first."
"Well, boss, I’ll be there when you’re ready to pick me up." The sarcasm lent his voice an edge that, if he were lucky, would pass as energy. Emotion. Both of which he was running low on otherwise.
He hadn’t heard Gibbs move, but suddenly the other man’s hand was on his shoulder, turning him around. "No, you won’t. You’ll be in Ducky’s office. Waiting."
"Ah, that’s okay. No T.V. . . ."
Gibbs stared at him, waited a beat. "It wasn’t a suggestion."
He shook his head. He didn’t have time for this, didn’t want to play games. "Yeah. Actually, I’ll be waiting in Ducky’s office."
Gibbs stared at him a moment longer. "Good." Gibbs turned, strode back to Ducky and Al -- to the body on the table, and Tony retraced his path to the office, closing the door tightly behind him.
Gibbs waited until the door to Ducky’s office had clicked closed before returning his attention to the autopsy. At another time, he wouldn’t have been surprised if Dinozzo had left the door open just to irritate him, to make his attempt at isolation completely ineffectual. At another time.
Ducky spoke as he readied the blade. "If you’d like to escort him home, Jethro . . ."
"He’s staying here," Gibbs said. He sighed, looked down at Vasquez’ face, the eyes closed and the mouth still. One of countless others, victims. That he had a suspect this time, a confession, didn’t help. This time the suspect was wrong, the confession a lie. "He thinks he did it."
Ducky nodded, didn’t seem surprised. "Yes, I thought it was something like that. Why?"
"Why does he think he did it?" he asked. His hands deft. Smooth, clean cuts.
Gibbs shrugged. "He remembers."
"Memories are usually remembered events," Ducky commented mildly.
"He remembers. Doesn’t mean it was him." Ducky didn’t answer and Gibbs watched him for a moment before continuing. "When he called me this morning, he said he didn’t do it. Then he had some sort of seizure and said he did it."
"Hm," Ducky said. "He said Abigail found traces of ketamine hydrochloride in his blood?"
"Yeah, she did."
He looked up to meet Gibbs’ eyes. "I believe hallucinations are a common effect of ketamine, actually." He looked back down at the body, set the scalpel down among the other instruments with casual precision.
Gibbs’ cell phone rang, shrill in the otherwise silent bay, and he flipped it open, turning away from the table out of habit. "Gibbs."
"It looks like they’re about done here," Kate said. "You want me to stay in case somebody stops by?" She was offering, he thought. She wasn’t anticipating a request, but volunteering.
"Assign a guard and come back here."
"Will do." She disconnected and he replaced the phone in his jacket, where it rang again almost instantly.
"Gibbs," he repeated.
"I found your source," Abby said. He could hear music in the background, a mechanical rhythm.
"Who is it?"
"That’s the thing. I found out where the tip came from, where it was sent."
She sighed. "Called in anonymously from a busy pay phone just outside town."
"Let me know if you find anything else." He snapped the phone shut before she could reply and turned back to the autopsy in progress.
Kate slowed the sedan as she turned the corner, pulled into the NCIS garage. She parked the car, twisted the key to release it from the ignition. Stuck it in her pocket, the metal warm and jagged in her hand, and opened the door. She went around the car, opened the passenger’s side door. The box had shifted during the ride, but not enough to dislodge the evidence contained within. She bent down, wrapped her arms around the cardboard container, and slammed the door shut with her foot as she stepped away.
The box was surprisingly light, though she supposed expectations didn’t weigh much at all, and the pieces that could convict a man were so often almost invisible. Fibers. Fingerprints. Genetics. All of which lent the box its imagined weight, so much more than its physical equivalent.
She shifted the box to one hand, balancing it under her arm as she reached for her cell phone, dialed Gibbs’ number. She waited as the cell searched for a connection, marveling that she’d managed not to drop anything. Gibbs answered on the second ring. "I brought the evidence with me, everything they found," she said.
"Bring it down," he said curtly, disconnecting almost immediately. She sighed, wondering what had happened, what had gone wrong. The grudging affection that usually tempered his abruptness, his need to get the job done, was gone. In its place was an edge of something darker, harsh. Something beyond annoyance. Like maybe he’d found something with which to convict, to prove, and this time, he wished he hadn’t.
Not that she blamed him.
She stepped into the elevator, pressed the button to take her to the autopsy bay. Judging from the lack of music in the background of the call, Gibbs wasn’t in Abby’s lab. Ducky’s morgue was the most likely alternative, and as the doors hissed open to admit her into the bay, she saw that she was right.
The ventilation system ended a cycle as she entered the room, making the near-total silence she found within even more obvious. Gibbs and Ducky were standing over an autopsy table, not speaking. Gibbs looked up only briefly to note her presence, or maybe to acknowledge her. Ducky’s hands, protected by gloves stained red, were replacing organs, fitting them into the open cavity; she watched him only long enough to see that the autopsy was nearly finished.
Tony was nowhere in sight.
"This is everything they found. I thought it’d be best if I brought it over here, so we can get started on it as soon as possible." She knew she wasn’t saying anything new, anything that wouldn’t surprise Gibbs, but speaking the inanities helped. If anything, it would force him to say something, to tell her what was going on.
At least, in theory. She doubted anything could actually force Gibbs to do something he didn't want to do.
"They found the weapon?" Gibbs asked. Ducky continued to work, though she knew he was listening.
"Yeah. It looks like NCIS issue."
Gibbs nodded. "Take it to Abby and have her run it. Make sure it’s his." Make sure it’s his. Like he already thought it was and was only seeking confirmation.
"Where is he?" Kate asked.
"Ducky’s office," Gibbs said. "Resting." The tone of his voice suggested Tony was doing anything but that. She started towards the office and though she could feel him watching her, his gaze daring her to ignore his unspoken command, he didn’t say anything. Maybe because he didn’t really want her to. Maybe because he thought she would be able to help.
Or maybe because he didn’t think it would matter.
Tony was sitting on the couch across from Ducky’s desk, his eyes fixed on a point somewhere in front of him. He blinked when she closed the door, as if stirring from sleep. "Hey," she said. "How’re you doing?" The words sounded strange, as though they belonged at a hospital or at the bedside of a sick friend. Not here.
He shrugged. "Bored. This is Gibbs’ version of sending me to my room."
She laughed, a barely-audible explosion of air. If he was making jokes, it couldn’t be too bad, right? And then she watched as his shoulders relaxed slightly at her smile, as he focused on her, his gaze heavy and clinging. Like a drowning man clinging to a piece of driftwood, trying to stay above the waves.
It was definitely bad. He was just trying to pretend otherwise, too. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to back away slowly, run screaming from the room, or tell him that it was going to be okay. It was a combination of all three, really.
"I thought your room would be messier," she returned. It was weak, but at least it was something.
"You think about my room a lot?" He twitched his eyebrows at her, grinned.
She rolled her eyes. "Yeah. Whenever I come across ads for housekeeping or pest control."
"Ouch." He feigned hurt and she waited as the expression faded from his face, leaving something too blank, too faux-normal. He leaned back against the couch. "So, you, ah, heard anything?"
"Anything . . .?" she questioned.
"About what happened. The autopsy. Did Ducky find anything?" His voice was steady. She wondered if he knew he was tapping his foot, a steady rhythm like a drumbeat in the background. She raised an eyebrow and he glanced down, stopped, looking vaguely contrite.
So much for pretenses.
"I just got here," she said, hoping he wouldn’t ask where she’d been. "I think he’s finished, but I didn’t ask. Gibbs was . . ."
"Gibbs?" he offered.
She shrugged. "Pretty much."
"Oh." He sighed. "Worth a try."
The door opened and Kate looked away from Tony to see who was entering. Gibbs nodded to her. "Let’s go."
"I’m not invited, boss?" Tony asked. Gibbs paused and Kate didn’t think he was considering the validity of the question, but that he was evaluating Dinozzo. Making sure Tony wasn’t going to snap. A long moment passed and then Gibbs nodded, tilted his head towards the open door.
"Come on." He turned, headed back out to the main room, and Kate exchanged a glance with Tony, met his eyes for a moment and saw something too fleeting to name. Fear? Satisfaction?
She looked away before he could register the questions in her own eyes, ashamed of her own uncertainty. She didn’t think he was guilty, but she just . . . she just didn’t know. Gibbs was worried, and that itself was frightening.
Kate and Tony caught up with Gibbs while he was waiting for the elevator car to arrive. Gibbs was carrying the box of evidence Kate had brought from the crime scene, which answered her unspoken question as to their destination. To Abby’s lab it was. The elevator ride was silent; Gibbs stared straight ahead, Tony stared at the floor, and Kate shifted her gaze between the two of them, finally decided to stare at a point midway between the left wall and the door.
She was incredibly glad when the ride ended.
They left the elevator in single file, Gibbs leading the way and Kate lingering, bringing up the rear. Not so much because she wasn’t sure what she was doing, but because . . . because . . .
She remembered watching scary movies as a kid, watching as the characters wandered single-file down darkened corridors. She’d always felt bad for the brave guy in the front, the one leading the way, because he’d run head-on into the monster. Likewise, the guy in the back would be picked off easily, without the others noticing. It was the one in the middle who was safe, who was protected.
Tony, then, was protected. Not from a monster or a killer waiting to jump out from one of the offices, but from the potentially more dangerous demons, the demons in his own mind. Gibbs may not have been totally unconvinced of Tony’s guilt, but he wasn’t abandoning him. Neither was Kate. Despite their questions, they were protecting their team member. Keeping him safe. And they were demonstrating it in one of the most primal, basic ways possible.
It wasn’t until they entered Abby’s lab that they broke formation, spread out. Kate wasn’t entirely sure Tony had noticed what had happened, but she suspected that Gibbs, at least, had.
"Hey, guys," Abby said, looking away from her computer to greet them. "I haven’t found anything else, Gibbs. It’s a popular phone booth and it’s not like whoever it was paid with a credit card."
Gibbs tilted his head in acquiescence and set the box on the table in the center of the room. "Take a break, Abs." She pushed her chair away from the computer and came to stand by the table, began shifting through the evidence.
"Same case?" she asked. Kate wondered if she was intentionally not mentioning specifics. Was it a precaution or was she attempting to make it less real?
"Yeah. Run the gun," Gibbs said. "See if anybody comes up."
Abby looked from him to Tony and back again. She shrugged. "Sure. It’ll take a few minutes." Gibbs nodded and stepped away, letting her get to work. Tony crossed his arms over his chest, a gesture that could be interpreted as casual or as defensive, and Kate just sighed. She had the feeling that it was going to be a very long day, indeed.
Gibbs watched his team members out of the corners of his eyes, though he needn’t have bothered being surreptitious. Neither Tony nor Kate were paying attention to him. Tony was staring in Abby’s general direction, as if he thought he could speed up her search if he focused hard enough, and Kate was watching Tony, her expression curiously undefined, or maybe undefinable.
Finally Abby spun her chair around to face them. Tony blinked at the movement and Gibbs wondered what he’d been seeing. Maybe nothing at all. "Serial numbers match," Abby said, looking regretful. "The gun you found is definitely Tony’s." Gibbs glanced at Dinozzo, who didn’t look shocked by the news. That wasn’t surprising; he was already claiming responsibility for the death. He’d probably expected this.
Not coincidentally, so had Gibbs.
Kate, on the other hand . . . he heard her soft gasp, almost silent as she tried to stifle her reaction, out of duty, affection, shame. Did she wish Gibbs hadn’t brought her into this, that he’d taken charge and assigned her to do paperwork? No. She didn’t. He’d worked with her long enough to know that even if she didn’t want to be here, to work on this case, she knew it was necessary. She owed it to herself as an investigator and to her teammates. Because, though it wasn’t strictly assigned by NCIS, it was her duty.
And she’d assigned that duty herself.
Gibbs looked at Kate, met her eyes as she steeled herself. She blinked and looked away, back at the computer and Abby. Neutral territory. Whatever worked.
Gibbs, too, turned back to Abby, though not for the same reasons. He pulled a plastic bag from his jacket pocket and tossed it to her. She caught it neatly and held it up to the light. Ducky had extracted the bullet from the victim’s body and had not cleaned it more than necessary, necessary being enough to allow for identification. The metal gleamed only in patches, the remainder still dark and dull. "This come from Tony’s gun?" Gibbs asked.
She lowered the bag, set it on the table next to Dinozzo’s gun. "If you pulled it from the victim," she began and then she shrugged, turned back to the gun. She lifted the weapon with gloved hands, slid the magazine out to check how many rounds were left. "I’ll check." She disappeared into one of the rooms off the back of the main lab and Gibbs resigned himself to another wait, surveyed his agents. Dinozzo resumed his staring and Kate studied the tiles on the floor.
Abby returned a few minutes later, thick headphones draped around her neck. She switched off the lights as she returned to the desk and Gibbs refrained from asking if that was necessary. She was already refraining from her usual pre-sharing lecture (a habit Gibbs wondered if she’d learned from Ducky) and he didn’t want to push it. She slid the bullets underneath the microscope and switched the view to the main screen.
The bullets were shaded in tones of metallic gray and white, dark lines marking ridges and striations. The screen cast a dim glow, not enough to illuminate faces, expressions. The tension in the room was still obvious, rising and then holding steady at an uncomfortably high level. Whether or not the bullet came from Tony’s weapon would not be the deciding factor in his guilt, though it would certainly contribute to the case against him. The deciding factor, Gibbs thought, would be whether or not Dinozzo kept insisting that he did it. Whether or not Dinozzo really believed he did it, and if so, if he decided to share that fact with anybody else, anybody outside of their team. Ducky had said ketamine could cause hallucinations, which made Tony’s memories of the murder suspect; however, Gibbs doubted that any other investigator would consider the ketamine as anything more than evidence of Tony’s guilt.
Not that he could fault their logic. If he didn’t know Dinozzo, hadn’t worked with him and seen past some of the man’s more irritating fronts, maybe he would assume the same. But that was just speculation, a what-if game. Irrelevant.
Abby gestured with the mouse, moving the cursor across the screen. "Okay, this is the bullet from the body," she said. "And this one’s from Tony’s gun. Judging from the similarities in the patterns - they’re damn near identical -- I’d have to say yeah, that’s the murder weapon."
"Told you so," Dinozzo muttered.
"Doesn’t mean you pulled the trigger," Gibbs said.
Dinozzo’s eyes darkened, near-black in the dim room, and he shook his head. "Then who did? Alice? The invisible man? I mean, I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but I’m telling you, it’s a waste of time." He uncrossed his arms and spun around, nearly tripping over Kate in his desperate attempt at escape. The doors closed quietly behind him and Gibbs sighed. Kate turned and headed towards the door herself as if to go after him.
"Don’t," Gibbs said. The tired edge to his voice betrayed more than he’d wanted.
"Gibbs?" Abby asked.
"Give him a minute," he said. Abby and Kate exchanged glances and Gibbs ignored them. He glanced at his watch and frowned. Something was wrong. If he were Dinozzo . . . he whirled, the sudden movement startling the others, and left the room.
The hallway was empty.
How were they supposed to protect him if he took off?
Wait -- Dinozzo was gone, but the elevator doors had closed as Gibbs had stepped into the hall. He glanced at the overhead display, shook his head -- what did Tony think he was doing? -- and hit the stairs. Three floors and he reached the main level at a dead run, slammed open the door and crossed the lobby.
The light rain of the morning had returned and the street was cold and gray. Dinozzo was striding angrily down the sidewalk, dangerously close to the curb and seemingly ignorant of his proximity to the road, of the cars speeding past, of the water misting around him. He didn’t hear Gibbs come up behind him and nearly stumbled into the street when the senior agent caught up with him and spoke. "What do you think you’re doing?"
Tony regained his balance, looked away. "I needed some air."
"So, what, you thought you’d play in traffic?" He shook his head. "You got a death wish?" he asked, and for a frighteningly long moment, Tony was silent, as though he were seriously considering the question.
"Look, boss," he said, "I know you think you’ve got to do this ‘cause I’m on your team, but there’s no point. I pulled the trigger, I killed Alice, and this is my case, okay? Not yours."
"You said you didn’t do it, Dinozzo."
Tony shrugged. "So I lied."
"So you hallucinated," Gibbs corrected.
"So now I’m seeing things. Great. I can plead insanity." He sighed, ran a hand through his hair and looked surprised at the water on his fingers. "Look, I just wanna go home, okay? You can question me or process me . . . later."
Gibbs regarded him impassively, remembered that this was the outcome of his last decision, and then nodded. "I’ll give you a ride."
It was only mid-afternoon by the time Gibbs returned to NCIS headquarters, but the overcast sky was already promising twilight. Coffee in hand, he returned to the lab where he’d left Kate, though he wasn’t sure she’d still be there.
She was. She and Abby looked up from the evidence-strewn table at his entrance and waited expectantly as if they wanted him to produce Tony out of thin air. Or at least tell them what had happened. "Dropped him at his apartment," Gibbs said in answer to their unspoken question.
"You left him at his house?" Kate asked. She looked only vaguely aware of her incredulous tone. He couldn’t really blame her. If Dinozzo hadn’t crashed after Gibbs had walked him up to his door (and followed him inside to be sure), the senior agent would still be there. Even if it meant sitting through one of Dinozzo’s damned movie marathons.
"He’s sleeping," Gibbs said. He wasn’t sure whether it had been a necessity borne out of emotional exhaustion, a symptom of shock, or whether Tony simply found it preferable to being awake and conscious of the chaos his life had become.
Kate didn’t ask, either.
"Is he okay?" Abby asked.
Gibbs nodded. "He’ll be fine." Physically, anyway. And once they got this solved, it would do wonders for his mental health, too.
"Gibbs," Kate said. She interlaced her fingers nervously and looked straight at him. "If Tony didn’t kill her, who did?"
Well, at least she wasn’t avoiding the subject.
"That’s what we’re going to find out," he said.
She spread her hands in question. "But where do we begin? I mean, everything we’ve found points to him."
Gibbs paused, turned to look at her directly. "Do you think he did it, Agent Todd?"
She bit her lip, nodded . "Based on the evidence, Dinozzo is the lead suspect."
Good. He rephrased the question. "And do you think he did it, Kate?"
"No." Confidence outweighed misgivings, doubts. Fear. One word carried the strength of her beliefs, and it was enough.
"You’re learning," he said. And she was. The NCIS investigator balanced out the woman who knew Tony, who worked with him. As long as she relied on both, didn’t ignore either the facts or her instincts, she’d do fine.
And now was a good time as any to start practicing.
The television was on when Tony awoke, its flickering light slowly forcing its way through a haze of dreams. He sat up, rested his head on the back of the couch, stared blearily at the screen until his mind began processing the information. Gritty, lots of shadows. Dark music didn’t bode well for the hero. The Fugitive, he decided, early or mid-series, when it was still black-and-white. Noir at its finest. He liked the show, he thought, but not right now. It was overly relevant, foreshadowing. A portent. He fumbled for the remote and the images disappeared, the sound fading into static nothingness.
The apartment was suddenly very, very quiet. He didn’t remember switching the television on to begin with and wondered if he’d just forgotten, done it out of habit, or if Gibbs had done so before he left.
When had he left? He looked at the clock. The numbers on the VCR were flashing midnight. He’d forgotten to reset the clock after the last outage.
Tony stood, stretched and walked over to the window, lifted the blinds. The sun was setting, the streetlights glowing. It was early evening, though it felt much later. He reached out to pick up the telephone on his desk, held his hand over the keypad to dial, and stopped.
Did he really want to know?
Did he really want Gibbs to have to tell him? This wasn’t just a show of team support, a bland all- for-one-one-for-all demonstration. This was something more. Devotion. Loyalty.
Tony knew what lengths his boss would go to for something he believed in, for what he thought was right. He’d seen it first-hand, Gibbs’ single-mindedness. Gibbs wouldn’t give up until it was too late, wouldn’t see his mistake until there was no going back.
And that would do more than ruin his career.
What about Kate? At least Gibbs had his convictions. Kate just felt like she owed him something. Like because they worked together, Tony had to be innocent and it was her responsibility to find proof.
Damn it, he’d pulled the trigger. Even though he couldn’t remember why, didn’t know what had led up to it or what had come after, he remembered killing her. He remembered watching her die.
Much as his friends -- his team -- might try, they couldn’t erase that.
And he wasn’t going to try, either. So he didn’t remember why. How. He remembered doing it and that was enough. It was an excuse he’d heard so many times as a street cop. So many people who thought that somehow not knowing what happened would pardon them, would make a difference. Most of the time, they were lying. The other times, well, it had never really mattered if they’d meant to kill their wife or husband or kids -- there was still at least one dead body. "I didn’t mean to" was an excuse. A plea. A stupid attempt to convince someone that intent mattered more than life.
And Tony was not going to lower himself to that level.
He dropped the phone back down with an unsatisfying plastic crash and let the blinds fall closed. He returned to the couch, switched the television back on, changed the channel as soon as the screen came to life. Liberty Valance was on, with easy divisions between the good guys and the bad guys, them and us. He wondered what he was. Under which category he fell.
The apartment complex formerly home to Alice Vasquez was quiet. Most of the residents appeared to still be at work, judging from the emptiness of the parking garage, and those who were home were doing their best to keep to themselves, to stay away from the investigation. Which should have been a nice change, because most of the time, those most interested in helping the police were actually the least helpful.
In this case, though, Gibbs wouldn’t have minded if somebody came forward. Somebody who could vouch for Tony or even put another person at the scene of the crime. Somebody who happened to see a shadowy figure enter the apartment early that morning. Somebody who could give them another suspect, something to work with. Because right now, he was going with the good-character argument, and given the evidence, that would not stand up in court.
His cell phone rang as he and Kate stepped from the elevator onto the floor housing the crime scene. He snapped the phone open and continued down the hall as the metal doors slid closed behind them. "Gibbs."
"I did the blood work from the victim’s body," Abby said without preamble. "Came back positive for ketamine, negative for pretty much everything else."
"Any way to tell how it got there?" Would it make a difference? He didn’t know. Wouldn’t know until he found out, until he got the facts and held them against theories, circumstances. Until he saw what fit and what didn’t.
"Ingested versus injected?" she asked. "That’s more Ducky’s thing."
"Well, Abs, could you ask him?"
He sensed her nod over the phone and her words reaffirmed the gesture. "Yep. I’ll keep in touch."
"You, too. Let me know what you find."
"Will do." He shut the phone and turned to Kate. "There was ketamine in Vasquez’s blood, too."
"What does that mean?" she asked.
"I’m not sure," he admitted. "But I don’t think it’s nothing." She didn’t reply and they continued down the hall, passing the doors of Vasquez’s former neighbors. The ones who had been home had already been interviewed, questioned. No one had heard or seen anything at all, of course. Even if they had, they weren’t going to get involved.
So much for neighborly concern.
He stopped in front of the door to Vasquez’s apartment and opened the door, nodded to the agent inside. Haviland, wasn’t it? The one who had a problem with making assumptions. Aware that Kate wasn’t behind him, Gibbs turned around to find her still standing in the hallway, staring at the ceiling. "What is it, Kate?"
"Think the invisible man shows up on camera?" she asked. He followed her gaze up to see the blinking red light of the security camera.
"Let’s find out."
The landlord was a small, well-dressed man who had made his irritation with the previous round of questioning known. He hadn’t seen anything, didn’t know the victim well, couldn’t think of anything else to add, and did Gibbs know how long the investigators would need access to the apartment?
Judging from the expression on his face as Gibbs and Kate approached, he wasn’t looking forward to this round, either. Good -- maybe he’d give Gibbs a reason to shut down access to the entire floor. "There’s a security camera outside Vasquez’s apartment," Gibbs said, resting his hands on the man’s desk next to the nameplate reading "R. Foster."
"And you want to see the footage," the superintendent guessed. Gibbs nodded and he sighed. "Come with me."
Gibbs and Kate followed him down the hall to a door labelled "Security." "I thought you didn’t have security guards," Kate said.
"But this is ‘Security?’" she asked.
"Guards are too damn expensive. Cameras feed to here. When there’s a problem, I look at the tape."
Kate sighed and Gibbs silently agreed. A woman had been murdered in her apartment -- hell of a lot of good the tape had done.
The landlord sat down in front of a wall of television screens. "Okay, this is the camera you want." He pointed at a dark monitor. "Oh, crap."
"Something wrong with your tape?" Gibbs said, his voice painfully polite. Beside him, Kate bit her lip.
The man shook his head. "No, the tape’s playing fine. Something’s wrong with the camera." He pressed a button, apparently rewinding the film, and shook his head again.
Gibbs and Kate exchanged glances and left the room. They returned to the hallway outside the crime scene and Gibbs frowned at the camera, reached up to touch the lens. He scraped his fingernail across the glass and nodded at the black paint that came off.
"Not a malfunction," Kate said. "Looks like the drug-inspired impulse theory’s out."
"You wanna tell Dinozzo?" Gibbs asked, returning his gaze to the camera.
"What are you going to do?"
"Extol the virtues of security guards," he said. "And find out how whoever it was got up here."
Kate stood outside Tony’s apartment, raised her hand and knocked once. She glanced at her surroundings again, checked for cockroaches and/or muggers lurking in the shadows. How hard was it to replace a few lightbulbs? Of course, maybe then the tenants on the other floors would feel jealous. She shook her head and knocked again. Gibbs had mentioned that Tony’d been sleeping when he’d left. Maybe he hadn’t yet awakened.
Well, this was certainly worth waking him up for. She just hoped she wouldn’t be interrupting anything.
And then she remembered the desperate look in his eyes. She wouldn’t be. She crossed her arms and waited, listened for footsteps. Nothing. She sighed. The one time she actually wanted to go to Tony’s apartment, when she actually had something important to tell him, he wasn’t going to open the door. Great.
Great, and why? Because he was sleeping? Judging from his reaction times on the occasions he’d fallen asleep at work and been woken none too gently by his team members, she wouldn’t have considered him a deep sleeper. She bit her lip, remembered the paint scratched off the camera. This was planned. What if . . .?
She tested the doorknob and found it locked, reached into her purse and pulled out a pick. A few moments of scrabbling and the lock clicked open. She slid her purse back onto her shoulder and opened the door. She heard talking, but it was faint and she didn’t recognize the voices. She stepped further into the apartment and saw the television, the source of the noise. She stared at the screen. An old Western, which didn’t surprise her. The black-and-white screen tinted the room gray, sent flickering shadows across the lower half of Tony’s face where he slept, head resting against the back of the couch.
He was okay. Of course he was okay.
She paused, listened to his even breathing, the drawled dialogue from the television. She shook her head at the absurdity of the latter and wondered why he liked these movies. Standard fare of the modern man? Not really. Maybe he liked knowing which side to root for, which side was going to win.
Or maybe he just liked John Wayne.
He sighed in his sleep and she tilted her head, regarded him. He looked strangely vulnerable, young. Unfinished. If she didn’t know him . . .
If she didn’t know him, what?
If she didn’t know him, she wouldn’t have said he looked like a murderer. Not that he was. Not that he did now. But because she knew him, worked with him, she knew that this was not the Tony who smirked and laughed and went through her purse when she wasn’t looking. How many sides he have, did he conceal?
And why did he conceal them at all? Was it something he’d learned as a cop? Had the easy smile been learned along with the disregard for personal space, defined boundaries? She’d spent years training, protecting the President, and she hadn’t developed those traits herself. But maybe she’d been out of touch, distant. Protected by the expected sophistication of the threats she faced. He hadn’t been so lucky.
She shook her head, glad that he was asleep. Because if he found her in his apartment, watching him sleep, she’d never live it down. Still, she wondered what he was like, really. Unless this, too, was a mask . . . no. She refused to stand there any longer and think about who he was and what he did and why. He was Tony. She wouldn’t think of him as anything else.
Of course, before today, she hadn’t needed to.
Suffice to say that she’d had a few epiphanies.
"Hey, Tony," she said. His eyes twitched but didn’t open and she sighed. If he were faking, the next time he’d wake up to a refreshing glass of ice water across the face. She turned, stepped behind the couch, touched his shoulder. "Hey."
He froze, opened his eyes, and looked at her. Their gazes connected and for an instant she stared into eyes too old for his face, strangely unfamiliar. No, she realized, not unfamiliar. Exposed. Free, for a moment, of consciousness and facade, walls and personality. Stripped down to something basic, to necessities.
But only for an instant. And then he blinked and the unknown was gone, Tony returned. "You’re in my house," he informed her.
"Yeah. I picked the lock."
He raised an eyebrow. "Dare I ask why, Ms. Todd?"
She shrugged, ignored his grin and the tone of his voice. He was trying too hard. "Gibbs told me to."
His laugh was short, strangled. Considering that he was looking at her upside-down, she thought she understood why. She hoped she understood why. "He say why?" he asked.
She nodded, walked around to the front of the couch. He sat up straighter, frowned as she turned off the television and stood in front of the set. "Yeah. The camera in front of Vasquez’ apartment was covered. Considering that was deliberate, it means the murder was premeditated."
"Yeah?" Considering what this meant, she was surprised he didn’t sound more interested, more enthused.
"So you’re off the hook." At least tentatively. It was a start, proof that she and Gibbs weren’t chasing the impossible.
"That’s not gonna hold up in court," he pointed out.
"But it’s a place to start."
"It is," he agreed. He leaned forward, rested his hands on his knees, looked away. "Why are you doing this, Kate?"
"Gibbs sent me," she repeated. She doubted that was what he meant, but it was worth a try.
"Not ‘why are you here.’ Why are you doing this? Just let it go, okay?" He carefully avoided her eyes and she winced at the sound of his voice, the obvious effort it took not to toss her out of the apartment. Though if he tried that . . . let him try, she thought. Just let him try.
"Let it go? Tony, this is your future at stake here," she reminded him.
He nodded. "And yours’," he said. "And Gibbs’."
. . . oh. So much for moral outrage. This wasn’t apathy, at least not completely. It was concern. Martyrdom? No, that was taking it too far.
"Yeah," she agreed. "If we let an innocent man go to prison, it will be."
He sighed. "Kate, just don’t. Please. Drop it."
"What is it?" she asked. "What aren’t you telling us?" Because there had to be something. If there was a chance, he wouldn’t be doing this, sacrificing himself. No. Not sacrificing.
"I’m telling you what happened," he said. "You’re not listening."
She shook her head. "Not gonna work. Not for me, not for Gibbs."
"Because we know you. And you didn’t do it."
And he just looked at her.
The so-called security room was abandoned when Gibbs returned and he sighed, turned and retraced his steps downstairs. Foster was in his office and he looked up when Gibbs entered, the oh-not-again expression on his face making his feelings clear. Gibbs smiled at the supercilious little man, crossed the room to stand in front of the desk.
He did not sit down. Instead, he loomed over the man, waited for him to end the call. Which he did.
"How can I help you, Special Agent Gibbs?" The landlord’s smile was obviously false, probably intentionally so. So he didn’t want to help. Somehow, Gibbs would survive.
"I really do appreciate your willingness to help," Gibbs began. "Especially considering that a woman was murdered in this building early this morning."
The landlord nodded, ignored the sarcasm. "Yes, of course." Foster would make a terrible politician, Gibbs decided. Or maybe a very, very good one.
"I’ll be using the security office."
"Using?" The man’s eyebrows rose as if to underline the incredulity in his voice.
"Using," Gibbs repeated. "For its intended purpose, which you may or may not be familiar with."
Foster’s eyes narrowed. "How long will you need the room?"
Gibbs turned to go, didn’t bother turning around to answer. "I’ll let you know when I’m done."
"Agent Gibbs, I’m afraid that’s just not possible." He sounded satisfied with himself, as if his refusal, technically to-code and polite, was enough. As if by telling Gibbs no, he expected the agent to listen.
Gibbs turned around slowly, met the man’s eyes. "It is," he said. "Believe me, it is."
The man nodded. "I’ll escort you," he said and Gibbs didn’t allow his amusement to show. He echoed the man’s nod, instead, and let him leave the room first. He dialed his cell phone as they walked, spoke quietly. "Abby?"
The background music cut off abruptly. "You found something?"
"I need you to come to Vasquez’s apartment building," he said. An answer in and of itself.
"You got the address?"
"Call me when you get here." He snapped the phone shut and smiled blandly at Foster. "An specialist will be here shortly so I don’t take any more of your time than is necessary."
"Good." The man nodded, continued down the hall. He let Gibbs enter the security office first and waited until the door was securely closed to speak. He probably thought he was protecting himself, making sure none of his tenants saw him intimidating an NCIS agent. Gibbs waited patiently, glanced at his watch. How long would it take Abby to get there?
"Is this really necessary?" Foster asked, his tone conspiratorial. "I’ve heard you already have your lead suspect in custody."
"Yes," Gibbs said. "It is."
His smile didn’t reach his eyes. "Because I’m happy, of course, to cooperate with law enforcement personnel, but I’m not sure how far you can take this." He nodded like he’d made a point, like his subtle threat had some chance to work. Like there was a chance Gibbs would be coerced by this obvious, smarmy little man. Like there was a chance this could all be made to disappear.
Actually, the phrase "a snowball’s chance in hell" came to mind.
How far he could take this?
Foster had no idea.
"Far," Gibbs said. The word itself was meaningless, but everything else -- his tone, his voice, his posture -- conveyed all the answers Foster would need. All the answers and more than enough promises to make them real. He smiled at the man, waited for him to give him a reason.
Surprisingly enough, the landlord suddenly remembered a phone call he had to make.
By the time Abby arrived, Gibbs could feel the beginning of a headache at the base of his skull. Staring at the flickering black-and-white monitors, watching residents arrive and depart, was not forwarding the case, nor was it soothing to his eyes. "Hey, Gibbs," Abby said. "I brought you coffee." She handed him the paper cup, sat down before the screens. "What’m I looking for?"
"The security camera outside Vasquez’s apartment was covered," Gibbs said. "I wanna know who covered it and when."
She nodded. "The second part should be easy. The first, not so much." She raised her hands defensively at his look. "Which doesn’t mean I can’t do it. Just that it’ll take longer."
"We need this fast, Abs. Sooner we get it, the sooner we get the killer and Tony’s off the hook."
"I know, I know," she said, frowning at the screens. "Top priority."
Gibbs took a sip of coffee. "What did Ducky say?"
"Hm?" she said. "Oh. He said he didn’t know."
"He didn’t know?" Gibbs repeated.
Abby turned from the screens to look at him. "He said he couldn’t find a point of injection, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. There were recent bruises on her arms, but that just means she was held down. Could’ve been voluntary. Did Tony happen to say . . .?"
She shrugged. "Oh well. It’s inconclusive, anyway."
Gibbs nodded. "Okay." He glanced at his watch. "I’ll be back. If the landlord, guy by the name of Foster, happens to come by, tell him this room’s off-limits."
"Sure," she said, returning her gaze to the screens. His phone rang and Abby didn’t look up, already engrossed in her work. The door clicked shut behind him as he answered the call. "Gibbs."
"Special Agent Gibbs, I’m calling on behalf of Director Morrow." Gibbs waited for her to continue and she did. "He’d like to see you in his office." Right away? Save for emergencies, the workday was almost over. At least for the director. Gibbs wondered how long it would be before he himself went home.
"I’m on a case," he said. He doubted that would make a difference. It was probably because he was on a case that Morrow wanted to see him.
"He understands that," the secretary said. She waited for his response.
Gibbs sighed. "I’ll be there as soon as I can."
"Thank you. I’ll let the director know," the woman recited before hanging up. Gibbs stared at the phone in his hand for a moment and then dialed.
"Agent Todd," Kate answered briskly. He wondered if she changed her response based on the caller ID screen.
He pressed the button to call the elevator. "Where are you?"
"At Tony’s, like you said."
"Head back to headquarters. Both of you. I’ll meet you there."
"Wh--" she began, but he cut her off, returned the phone to his pocket, stepped inside the elevator. He was willing to bet the director wanted to see him about Dinozzo, and until he found out what was going on, he was keeping all the evidence -- and the suspect -- within his reach, under his control.
Under his protection, for what that worth.
Kate glared at her cell phone before slipping it back into her purse. How hard would it have been to answer her question, to tell her why?
"What’d he want?" Tony asked. He sounded glad for the change of subject. She couldn’t blame him, though if he thought this was over, he was wrong.
"Us," she said. "Back at headquarters."
Tony didn’t look surprised. "And he didn’t say why," he guessed.
He nodded, reached for the remote control. "Tell him it’s not worth the effort."
She ignored the obvious dismissal. "What part of ‘us’ don’t you understand?"
He blinked at her, did his best to look innocent. It didn’t work. "The part where it involves me," he said finally. "Technically, I shouldn’t be involved . . ."
She rolled her eyes. "So maybe he wants to book you now."
"Gee, thanks, Kate."
She shook her head, suddenly annoyed. He was giving up, leaving Kate and Gibbs to fight this for him. Without him. The least he could do was try. "Isn’t that what you want?" she asked, unintended sarcasm coloring her words.
Tony exhaled, let his head drop back against the back of the couch. "Yeah. Yeah, it is."
She paused, unsure of how to respond. She settled for the inevitable. "So. Let’s go."
"Give me a minute," he said. His attempt at returning her sarcasm, if it was intentional, failed. Miserably. She didn’t bother replying, didn’t know where to begin. Not with an apology, but . . .
It didn’t matter. He stood, dropped the remote on the couch, pushed past her to the bathroom. The door slammed shut and she heard the shower start. She crossed her arms and sighed, ignored the temptation of the newly-abandoned couch. Instead, she stood by the window, lifted the blinds and glanced outside. Tony’s apartment was strangely isolated and the reminder that there was an outside world helped. The sun had set, she realized. Night had officially fallen. The morning seemed mundane and unreal.
She had resigned herself to a long wait and so was surprised when the door opened only a few minutes later and Tony stepped out. His hair was dry, she noted, and raised an eyebrow at him. Busted. He shrugged and turned to the side, visible only in profile. Kate looked away, feeling voyeuristic. She didn’t know him well enough for this, she thought, and wondered if that made sense. She knew him well enough to know that he wasn’t a murderer, but not well enough for these normal, daily things?
Well, no. She didn’t. They were partners, team members, but not, by the usual definition of the word, friends. They didn’t spend weekends off together, didn’t go see movies or meet for lunch outside work. But there were some things more important than friendship. Some bonds went beyond that. Instead of a few hours spent catching up every now and then, they spent countless hours reviewing cases, exchanging theories, training. Working side by side, day after day.
So no, they weren’t friends. They were partners. And while she probably wouldn’t invite Tony over for dinner, she would trust him with her life. In the past, she had.
And despite his current status as lead suspect, she still did.
She heard a cabinet open, heard something rattle, and turned back in time to watch him dry-swallow something from his cupped palm. She frowned and as if sensing her expression, he held the bottle out to her, displayed the label. Aspirin. She shrugged, embarrassed, and he switched off the light, grabbed his jacket from the back of a chair. She waited until he was in front of her before leaving the apartment herself.
No way was she showing up at headquarters late and without Dinozzo.
Gibbs nodded to the secretary as she waved him through to the director’s office. He stepped inside, closed the door, waited to find out what this was about.
"Gibbs," Morrow acknowledged him. "I just got off the phone with Raymond Foster, the landlord at a crime scene you’re investigating. He wants to file a complaint."
He kept his face blank. "Sir?"
Morrow sighed. "I directed him elsewhere, but that’s not the reason I called you in here. I also received a call from the parents of the victim whose murder you’re investigating. Someone informed them that you’re in charge of the case -- an assignment I don’t recall making, actually -- and explained your relationship to Agent Dinozzo. As you can imagine, they’re not happy that the lead suspect’s direct superior is the lead investigator."
"Are you pulling me off the case?" Because that would make all of this a hell of a lot more difficult. Still, he could do it. He’d done it before.
Morrow sighed. "I never assigned you to the case, Gibbs. The Vasquezes aren’t happy with this. They’re threatening a lawsuit. If we give them anything to support that . . ."
Gibbs nodded. "I understand, sir. Do you know who called them?"
"They didn’t say."
Another anonymous source. What were the chances? "Do you know who’ll be taking my place?"
"I haven’t made an assignation yet," the director said. He rubbed a hand across his eyes, spoke. "Gibbs . . . I’ll have the SAC keep you updated."
Gibbs met his eyes. "Thank you, sir." He turned, ignored the relieved look on the secretary’s face as he left the office. He found Dinozzo and Kate waiting in the bullpen. Kate was pretending to examine something on her cell phone, though the real object of her attention was obvious: Tony was leaning against his desk, apparently looking for the chance to escape.
Well, if Gibbs could help it, that wouldn’t be necessary.
"Somebody told Vasquez’s parents that maybe there’s going to be a cover-up," he said. Kate frowned and though Tony’s eyes darkened, he kept his face blank.
"Did the director say who it was?" Kate asked.
"He didn’t know," Gibbs said. "Find out. In person, if you have to." He glanced at Tony, decided not to mention the potential lawsuit or the fact that he wasn’t exactly heading the investigation. If all went well, maybe that wouldn’t matter. "Dinozzo, you’re with me."
"Where’re we going?" Tony asked.
"Abby’s looking at security feeds. If she finds something, maybe you can make an ID." Tony looked doubtful but didn’t protest. Gibbs tossed his empty paper cup in the trash and nodded to the others. "Let’s go."
Note: In response to the logical fallacy pointed out by LimeJuiceTub, the last scene of chapter twelve has been revised, with the result that Gibbs does not at this point head the investigation.
Alice Vasquez’s parents were wealthy; their house loomed large over a well-groomed lawn. Kate slowed the car to a stop on the paved driveway, glanced up at the faceless windows. The Vasquezes weren’t answering the telephone and Gibbs wanted an answer. So did she. So did Tony. So . . .
She stepped from the car, made sure to lock it. Despite the neighborhood, she wasn’t taking any chances; filing a report about a stolen vehicle -- and explaining the theft to Gibbs -- would make a fine end to the day, indeed. She shouldered her purse and walked up to the door, her heels clicking loudly on the concrete. The driveway was well-lit and her shadow was large, oddly professional. She felt like the Avon lady, she thought. If only. It would be a hell of a lot simpler to sell comestics than ask for these answers.
At least in theory.
Kate shivered and glanced at her watch, wondered if maybe the reason the phone hadn’t been answered was that, quite simply, no one was home. Would Gibbs want her to track them down, wherever they were? The answer didn’t require much thought. Of course he would.
The front door opened and Kate resisted the urge to smooth her hair, adjust her purse. She was a professional. Just doing what she had to. Just here to ask a few questions, ma’am.
"Can I help you?" The woman’s face was stern, unrevealing.
Kate offered her best sympathetic look. "Mrs. Vasquez?" she asked.
The woman moved her head only a fraction, only enough to signal a negative answer. "No."
"Are the Vasquezes home?" Kate asked.
"Yes," the woman allowed.
"Would it be possible to speak with them?" she asked. She pulled her badge from her purse, held it up for the woman’s inspection. "I’m with NCIS. I need to ask them a few questions."
"They’re unavailable," the woman said. "I’ll tell them you stopped by."
"It’s about their daughter, Alice," Kate said. "About her death. Her murder."
The woman didn’t look surprised. "I’ll tell them you stopped by," she repeated. Kate shifted her weight, wondered if she was supposed to push past the woman or hold her at gunpoint. What would Gibbs do?
She heard footsteps approaching behind the woman, saving her from having to answer that question. "Who is it, Julia?" the voice asked. The woman -- Julia -- turned away, revealing a glimpse of the room behind her. Ornate, elegant. As were its occupants. The woman who’d spoken, she thought, was Mrs. Vasquez. She had her daughter’s eyes, Kate thought, and wondered if Alice had possessed her mother’s grace, too. Not that it mattered.
"NCIS," Julia said. "She wants to question you."
The older woman nodded. "Let her in, Julia. Better now, before Richard wakes."
Julia turned back to Kate, her eyes hard and dark. For a moment, Kate thought she was going to ignore the order, but she stepped aside, allowing Kate to enter. The snap of the door closing behind her was eloquent.
"Mrs. Vasquez," Kate said. "I’m Agent Todd. I’m sorry to bother you at home, but I couldn’t reach you by phone . . ."
"Of course you are," the woman interrupted. "Please." She didn’t ask Kate to sit down, didn’t move from the foyer.
Kate nodded. "How did you find out about your daughter’s death?" It was blunt, but best to begin at the beginning. And this woman would not appreciate tact, she thought, not now.
"As I told your director, it was an anonymous call. The caller said she was an investigator but didn’t give a name." The woman’s gaze was cold. "I sincerely hope this is not how all of your investigations are run, Agent Todd."
"It’s not," she said curtly. This was a defensive response, she thought. An attempt to conceal emotions, and a familiar one at that. "Do you know if your daughter had any enemies, Mrs. Vasquez?"
"Alice didn’t keep in touch," she answered. "Her work kept her busy."
"Can you think of any reason for her death?" Kate tried.
"I’m not the person you should be asking," Vasquez said. "I believe you have the suspect in custody. He should be able to answer your questions."
"That notwithstanding," Kate repeated. "Can you think of any reason your daughter was killed?"
The woman’s graceful hands tightened into fists. "As I said, Alice didn’t keep in touch," she said. "And that, I think, is all I have to say, Agent Todd."
Kate nodded minutely. "Thank you, Mrs. Vasquez. If we have any more questions, we’ll be in touch."
"Julia," Vasquez said and the other woman stepped forward as if to enforce. Kate stepped back, turned on her heel. Julia held the door open for her and closed it as soon as she was outside. Kate retraced her steps to the car, unlocked the door and slid inside. She started the engine, feeling eyes on her as she drove down the driveway. She rubbed a hand across her eyes, wondered if the others had made any progress. She wondered if she was going to be getting any sleep in the near future and decided that it didn’t matter, not right now. What mattered was clearing Tony’s name. Because even if she were at home, lying in bed, she doubted she’d be able to sleep.
There was too much to do. Too much at stake. And somehow, she thought, not enough time.
Abby spun her chair to greet Tony and Gibbs as they entered the security room. Tony stuck his hands in his pockets and stared at the screens behind her, seemingly oblivious to her concerned glance, and Gibbs cleared his throat to get her attention. "Okay," she said. "You’re not gonna like this."
"That’s a surprise," Gibbs said. "Give it to us anyway."
"Your guy’s not on camera," she said.
He raised his eyebrows. "How is that possible?"
Abby shrugged. "He avoided all of the cameras? Not hard to do if you know where they are. Stay close to the wall, duck when you need to. Take the back stairs when possible. It’s really scary how many places think ‘out of the way’ equals an auto-safe zone."
Gibbs stared at the screens behind her, blank walls and empty hallways. "This was planned," he said. "They knew where the cameras were and only covered the one they couldn’t avoid."
"Looks like," Abby agreed. She turned to face the screens herself. "I’ve got them covering the screen here," she said, pointed the screen closest to her. Gibbs watched as the grainy image dissolved into blackness. "Spray-paint. Quick and efficient," she commented.
"So you’ve got a time," Gibbs said, gesturing to the only point of light on the screen, the timestamp. "Five twenty-nine. You scanned the camera at the front entrance?"
She gave him a look. "Of course."
"Like I said, avoided." She looked regretfully at Dinozzo, who shrugged almost imperceptibly.
Gibbs sighed. "Meet you back at headquarters, Abs. Make a copy of the tape."
She nodded. "Sure thing, bossman." She bent back over the keyboard.
Gibbs turned to Dinozzo, who nodded wordlessly and followed him out the door. He waited until they were in the elevator before speaking. "Still wanna go with the guilty plea?" Gibbs asked.
Tony stood still, looked straight at Gibbs. "I remember doing it," he said, sounding tired. Raw. "I know what happened."
"You think you remember," Gibbs said. "Like I said before, you hallucinated."
"Right, and does the insanity plea ever actually work?" he asked.
"Didn’t say you were insane, Dinozzo. I said you hallucinated. According to Ducky, that’s what happens with ketamine."
Tony shrugged, looked away, and Gibbs sighed, wondered what it would take. He decided not to press further. Not now. Kate should have finished with the Vasquezes; maybe she would have found something. And if not, they’d keep looking. For as long as it took. No matter what Morrow said, and no matter what Dinozzo said. Gibbs was not going to lose an agent, especially not for something he didn’t do.
No matter what Tony said, Gibbs wasn’t going to let him go down for this.
Tony was barely aware of the ride to NCIS headquarters. He knew Gibbs was driving and that every once in awhile, the senior agent glanced over at him, but the part of him that sensed this was distant, remote, some primitive instinct responsible for awareness of the world around him. Coherent, linear thought was difficult; he kept coming back to one concept.
The words were harsh, jarring and discordant when placed with the vivid images of Alice’s death. Not. Guilty. Not guilty. Not guilty. Notguiltynotguiltynotguiltynotguilty -
"Tony?" Gibbs’ voice was sharp, derailed his thoughts.
He blinked, found it easier to speak than he’d expected. "Yeah, boss?"
He glanced around, realized they’d come to a stop in the NCIS garage. Right. He nodded, followed Gibbs across the lot and to the elevator. This was easy, he thought. One foot in front of the other, make sure he was still with Gibbs, and don’t trip. He’d process the revelation when he had time. Or maybe never.
He reached the bullpen on autopilot, sank down gratefully into his chair. Gibbs went to his own desk, reached for the phone and spoke in low tones. A few minutes later, he put down the phone and Kate appeared, strode in like she had someplace to be. Which she did, he realized, as she stopped in front of Gibbs’ desk and pulled out her PDA, began reading from the screen. Their voices blended together with the whir of the ventilation system, audible in the silence of the near-empty building. The noise was comforting, reminded him of falling asleep in the car as a kid, hearing his parents whenever he awoke, knowing they were still there. He wasn’t alone. He wasn’t . . .
Kate’s voice rose and Gibbs spoke louder, bringing him abruptly back to the present. They were still talking, Kate leaning over Gibbs’ desk like she was trying to make a point. Gibbs shook his head, looked annoyed. "So we’ll work faster," he said.
"Do they know who?" Kate asked.
She shook her head. "Gibbs . . ."
Tony sighed, pushed out of his chair. They didn’t look up when he left the area, a fact for which he was grateful. No matter how well they meant, this was something he had to do for himself. By himself.
Now or never.
The morgue was dark when he entered, but his movements triggered the lights, harsh fluorescents blinking to life overhead. Ducky had gone home and the room was silent. He crossed over to the metal cabinets, cold storage, though that wasn’t funny.
He found Alice on the third try.
"Where the hell’s Dinozzo?"
Kate flinched, glanced behind her. "I didn’t see him leave," she said.
Gibbs shoved his chair back, stood. "Well, he did." He rubbed a hand across his face. "I’ll take up and out. You take down."
Kate nodded and turned, ran to the elevator. If Tony were with Abby, there was nothing to worry about. Though Abby hadn’t called them, hadn’t said she’d returned, so that possibility was very slim. If he weren’t with Abby . . .
The lights were already on in the morgue and she stepped inside, unsure of what she expected to find.
He was standing next to the crypt, one of the drawers pulled out. She didn’t need to guess which one it was, who it held. She approached him from behind, touched his arm. "Tony." He didn’t react and she tried again, spoke louder. "Dinozzo."
He turned, then, and she wondered if she was too late. If she and Gibbs were too late. If it was, somehow, already over. Her fears were reflected in his eyes and must have been obvious on her face, because he smiled as if to reassure her.
He smiled, but it wasn’t okay.
Three in the morning was a terrible time to be awake, Gibbs thought. It wasn’t by any means a revelation; he was more than familiar with the thought. He took a sip of now-cold coffee, looked away from the computer screen to check on Dinozzo. Still sleeping, head resting on his desk. Kate had found him in the morgue, said nothing had happened, that he’d been fine. She was a terrible liar, at least when the subject was as personal as this.
And it was personal. Gibbs wasn’t going to abandon Dinozzo and neither was she -- and not because of an order or some belief that agents stick together. She was in this because she believed that Tony had killed Vasquez about as much as Gibbs himself did. Which was not at all. All the evidence (though admittedly, there wasn’t much) pointed to a set-up, to Vasquez’s planned death. Dinozzo, as far as Gibbs could tell, was just the fall guy, a convenient place for the blame to fall.
Except for the anonymous caller.
Tony shifted in his sleep, muttered something and fell silent. Was it wrong to consider the anonymous caller, the one who’d tipped the media and called Vasquez’s parents, as a clue? For all Gibbs knew, the caller was just a concerned agent, somebody who didn’t like how the case was being handled, or maybe just didn’t like Dinozzo. Could be nothing more than a coincidence.
That was, if the same person had placed both calls.
Gibbs stared at the computer screen, seeing nothing of what it displayed. If the same person had placed both calls. If not, there was still the possibility that two pissed-off agents existed, which wasn’t improbable, but it also meant that maybe there was another reason for the media tip-off or notifying the Vasquezes. It opened up an entire new set of motives, an entire new set of suspects. A set which would, if not exclude Dinozzo, at least make him one of a group. Which would make turning over the case easier; he could focus on finding the real killer, rather than clearing Tony’s name.
And all he had to do was find out for certain.
He stood quickly, shoving the chair out of the way. Across the room, Tony jerked awake. "Boss," he said, as either an acknowledgment or an attempt to identify his location. Or both.
"Yeah, Tony," Gibbs said.
"Where’re you going?" he asked, paused. "Also, what time is it?"
"Three," Gibbs answered, ignoring the first question.
Dinozzo frowned. "Where’s Kate?"
"Home. Sleeping." At least in theory; at least one of them would have to be at their best the next morning.
He blinked. "Oh. Three as in morning."
"Yeah," Gibbs said, continuing on his way. Tony caught up with him at the elevator, followed him into the car just before the doors slid shut. The dull surface distorted their reflections, showed only vague lines and shapes like a bad impressionist painting. Tony stuck his hands in his pockets, rocked back on his heels. It was a good sign; he’d been entirely too still for Gibbs’ liking. Not that Gibbs craved constant motion, but Dinozzo was usually, if not hyperactive, at least -- alive. Demonstrating awareness of his surroundings and the way he fit in and around them. That he’d spent this much time staring off into space or sleeping or just not moving was understandable -- a symptom of shock, an attempt to deal with the dramatic twist his life had taken less than twenty-four hours ago -- but it was good that he was coming out of it, dealing. Moving on.
Gibbs raised an eyebrow in query.
"I, ah . . . thanks."
"For what?" He met Dinozzo’s gaze calmly and wondered what Tony had expected Gibbs to do. Not answer the phone? Give him a ride to the police station? Step back and let another agent take charge, let Tony turn himself in?
If so, why had he called Gibbs in the first place?
No, Gibbs thought, Tony’d known what he would do. And what Kate would do. That was why he’d called, why he’d asked for help. Because consciously or not, he had to have known that they wouldn’t let him do this, wouldn’t let him make a mistake. Not now. He knew that they would support him. That they would help him.
All for one, indeed.
"This," Dinozzo said.
"It’s my job," Gibbs answered. It could have sounded like a dismissal, an excuse. Like Gibbs was only helping him, only going along with this, because he was an NCIS agent and Tony’s direct superior. Dinozzo nodded slowly, agreeing. Understanding.
It could have, but it didn’t.
The elevator chimed, signaling their arrival. Tony followed Gibbs off of the elevator, glanced at the surroundings. "Abby’s still here?"
"Should be," Gibbs said. Because while Kate’s skills weren’t immediately necessary, Abby’s were and he’d told her as much. When Morrow assigned the new SAC, receiving priority results would become more difficult, which meant that he had to get what he could now, before protocol took over and channels became official or near-impossibly slow.
Despite the early hour, Abby looked, if not energized, at least awake. She nodded at Gibbs and Tony as they entered. "Hey, Tony," she said with a smile and then turned to Gibbs, her expression turning more serious. "Nothing yet," she said.
"But you’re still looking," Gibbs said. He didn’t need to ask.
"Yup," she agreed.
"But right now, see if you can find out who told the Vasquezes about their daughter," he said.
"One of our guys or somebody else?" she asked over her shoulder, hands held over the keyboard.
He took a sip of coffee, swallowed. "That’s what you’re finding out."
She nodded. "You think it’s the same guy?"
"Could be," he said. "If not, could give us somewhere to look."
"Like a vengeance thing?" she said. "Somebody killed their daughter and called to share the news?"
"Except they said they were NCIS."
"Or the Channel Four call’s the clue," she said over the clatter of keys. "Which makes it an agency thing."
"Find out, Abby."
"I’ll keep you posted," she said.
Tony spoke for the first time since they’d entered. "Thanks, Abby," he said. His voice was humorless, underlined the sincerity of his words and the seriousness of the situation.
She nodded again, her pigtails swinging. "Not a prob. ‘s what I’m here for." Though that didn’t explain why she was pulling overtime, rewatching security feeds which had yielded nothing on the first passes. She didn’t elaborate, though, and Dinozzo didn’t comment on the disparity.
"We’ll be upstairs," Gibbs said. They left to the sound of syncopated drums and artfully placed static.
When Kate arrived at seven, Gibbs and Tony were already there. Or, more likely, they had yet to leave. She set Gibbs’ coffee on his desk, waited for a report. He was using the phone and didn’t look up at her, though he did reach for the coffee. She turned, retreated to her own desk. Tony was watching her, didn’t look away when she returned the gaze. It was almost a challenge, she thought. Fine. "Sleep well?" she asked.
"Yeah, actually." He tilted his head at the desk. "Lot more comfortable than it looks."
She shrugged. "Looked like it last night."
His reply was interrupted by Gibbs’ slamming down the phone. Kate flinched and looked over at him warily. "SAC’s on her way," he said.
"SAC," Tony repeated.
"It’s an acronym, Tony. Stands for Special-," Kate said.
"Yeah, Kate, I know." He looked at Gibbs, his expression unreadable. "Thought you were in charge, boss."
"I was," Gibbs said. "Morrow . . . changed his mind."
"Oh." Tony paused. "So does that mean-"
"It doesn’t mean anything," Gibbs said, his tone allowing for no argument. Tony stared at him until Gibbs’ glare made him look away, and then he transferred his gaze to Kate. She shrugged minutely, sighed. Almost like normal. She glanced back at Gibbs in time to see his focus shift; she followed his gaze up, over, to see what it was.
The woman strode into their area, passed Kate’s and Tony’s desks with no more acknowledgment than a quick nod. She stopped in front of Gibbs’ desk and he leaned back in his chair, countering -- or ignoring -- any intimidating factor her stance would have created. "Special Agent Gibbs," she said. "I’m Terri Hartley. Morrow said that you were in charge of the Vasquez case."
"I was," Gibbs agreed.
"He’s transferred that status to me, of course, but he wants me to keep you posted . . . he said the agent in question is under your command."
"He is," Gibbs said, nodded towards Tony. "Special Agent Dinozzo, your new SAC."
"Pleased," Tony said, his tone suggesting that he was anything but. Kate, watching silently, wondered if he was even aware of the transformation. Gibbs’ cues were obvious, but did Tony notice how he reacted to them?
Hartley frowned at him, at Gibbs. "The lead suspect is still on the job, Gibbs?"
"No, Hartley, he’s in custody," Gibbs answered. "Agent Todd’s been assigned to guard duty. The transfer was completed last night." He shuffled through the papers on his desk, handed the SAC a form. Kate blinked, distinctly not remembering having signed one, but kept her face blank.
"Morrow says you’ve got a personal connection to the case," Hartley said, stopping just short of leaning on Gibbs’ desk.
Gibbs took a sip of coffee. "Well, your lead suspect’s on my team, if that’s what you’re asking."
Hartley looked at the form in her hand, narrowed her eyes. "As is Agent Todd."
"Agent Todd is Dinozzo’s coworker, Hartley, not his CO."
Hartley raised an eyebrow at him. "The transfer was approved?"
He gestured to the paper she held. "All there in black and white."
Hartley sighed. "Look, Gibbs, Morrow says you don’t think your agent did it."
"A fact which is irrelevant, isn’t it, Agent Hartley?" He smiled benignly and Kate wondered what he was trying to do. If he was aiming for the fat, dumb, and happy routine, he had a long way to go. Instead of projecting willingness to cooperate, he was projecting the exact opposite. This wasn’t his usual irritation with those who got in his way; it was something more intense. Hartley had allowed him to make this into a game, had given him a focus point. Somewhere to target his anger, a fulcrum for his . . .
For his rage. Based on the look in his eyes, it was not an exaggeration.
"I’m not trying to be the bad guy here. You think Dinozzo’s innocent, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. As much as evidence allows," Hartley said. "But I’m starting to think maybe you’re hiding something."
Gibbs blinked slowly. "Like what?"
She shook her head. "You want me to keep you posted, Gibbs, you’re going to cooperate with me." She turned to Kate. "Agent Todd, could you remove the suspect, please?" Kate glanced behind her, caught Gibbs’ eye. He nodded and she stood, waited for Tony to grab his jacket.
"Am I under arrest?" Tony asked, coming to stand next to Kate.
"Not at the moment," Hartley said. She turned deliberately, dismissing them, and Tony followed Kate out of the bullpen, down the hall.
"You sure you only have one sister, Kate?" he asked once they were a safe distance away, once Gibbs’ and Hartley’s conversation was barely audible.
She nodded. "Yeah, why?"
He shrugged. "Hartley reminds me of you."
Kate rolled her eyes. "Funny."
"No, really," he said. "And not just the I-am-woman-hear-me-roar thing. Could be a cousin." He paused. "Do you have any cousins?" She glared at him and he raised his hands in mock surrender. "Just asking."
"Glad to see you’re in a better mood," she commented.
"Yeah, well . . ." He spread his hands as if to punctuate his sentence. "Where’re we going, warden?"
"I could use some fresh air," she said. "And I don’t know about you, but I’m not looking forwards to post-Hartley Gibbs." And since she had no idea what had transpired in her few-hour absence overnight, she didn’t want to barge in on Abby in the middle of evidence analysis. Not until she knew what Gibbs was doing, how he was going to conduct the investigation since he was no longer technically in charge.
"Good point," he said. "Me neither, now that you mention it."
Despite the fact that Hartley had said she wasn’t going to arrest Tony, Kate was relieved when they made it out of the building without being accosted. The front lot was mostly empty, given the still-early hour, and the morning air was cool and damp. She and Tony headed down the sidewalk, the noise of passing cars muffling the sounds of their footsteps. She stuck her hands in her pockets, wished she’d brought gloves. She hadn’t thought she would need them, and in a few hours when the sun rose higher, she probably wouldn’t.
"So," she said finally. "What happened after I left?"
Tony drew in a breath, exhaled slowly. "Not much," he said. "Gibbs . . . investigated."
"Let me rephrase that, then. Where are we on the case?"
"Abby’s looking at security footage and phone records," he said. "Don’t know what Gibbs thinks she’ll find."
So Gibbs hadn’t told him anything, either. Kate sighed internally. That didn’t come as a surprise, really. Her cell phone rang and she answered it immediately, the plastic cold against her fingers.
"Where are you?" Gibbs demanded.
"Just down the block," she said, nodding in answer to Tony’s mouthed "Gibbs?"
"Get back here. I’ll meet you outside." The phone went dead and she slid it back into her purse.
"He’ll meet us outside. Apparently he found something."
"Or they banned him from the building," Tony said.
"Don’t even joke about that," she said. He grinned and they retraced their steps. Gibbs was waiting outside the front door and Kate watched him as they approached. His trenchcoat billowed in the unseasonably cold wind.
He met them midway across the parking lot. "So, what, you thought you’d wander off?"
"Needed some fresh air," Tony said.
"Get plenty of it where we’re going," Gibbs said, turning back to the building.
"Which is where?" Kate asked.
"Veterinarian’s office," he said, opening the door to the garage.
"You got a new suspect?" Tony asked.
Gibbs unlocked the sedan. "No, but the ketamine was stolen from his office."
"And you think maybe he knows something?" Kate asked.
Gibbs sighed, slid into the driver’s seat. "No, Kate, I’m thinking about getting a dog."
"Told you Hartley banned him," Tony muttered. Gibbs pulled out of the garage, accelerated onto the street without a reply. "Wait, she did, really?"
"Hartley’s focusing on Vasquez," Gibbs said. "She’s got enough agents working on that." He slammed on the brakes as the light in front of them turned red and Kate decided not to push the question.
Considering the time and that Daniel Wilmore’s office was located downtown, they were lucky to find a parking space across the street. Gibbs swung out of the car, didn’t wait for Kate and Tony to follow him. They caught up with him on the other side of the street, in front of the large plate-glass windows of the veterinary clinic. He wrenched the front door open hard enough that Kate wanted to remind him they were going to question a potential witness, not a suspect.
Sanity prevailed and she didn’t.
The waiting room was mostly empty; a lone couple sat on one of the benches, fretting over a small dog that growled when the agents entered. Gibbs ignored it, strode across to the reception desk, sliding his ID open and showing it to the receptionist. "Special Agent Gibbs, NCIS," he said.
"How can I help you?" the young man said.
"Is Dr. Wilmore in?" Gibbs asked.
"Uh, yeah, I’ll see if he’s available," the man said. Kate and Tony exchanged glances, waited as the young man dialed the phone, spoke with his boss and then nodded to Gibbs. "Go on back -- he’ll be waiting."
Wilmore’s office was well-decorated, done in wood and leather. Kate wondered if he ever actually examined animals; she’d never thought about how much money veterinarians made. A lot, apparently. Wilmore looked up from his desk when they entered, stood to greet them. "I’m Dr. Wilmore," he said. "How can I be of service?"
"Dr. Wilmore, I’m Special Agent Gibbs, with NCIS." He gestured to the agents behind him. "This is Special Agent Dinozzo and Special Agent Todd." Wilmore waited expectantly and he continued. "We’re here about a theft you reported a week ago." Kate frowned, wondered what else Gibbs had found that he hadn’t told them about.
"NCIS investigates this sort of thing?" the doctor asked. "Not that I’m complaining."
"We believe it’s connected to a case we’re currently investigating," Gibbs said.
"What kind of a case?" Wilmore asked.
"I’m afraid that’s confidential," Gibbs said. "What can you tell me about the drug theft?"
Wilmore shook his head. "Someone broke into the office last Tuesday, broke a window and triggered the silent alarm. They went for the inventory, stole a variety of drugs and were gone by the time the police arrived. I’ve filed a report . . ."
"The police find anything?" Gibbs asked.
"No, but they said they’d let me know if they did," Wilmore said.
Gibbs sighed, stood. "Thank you, Dr. Wilmore. If you think of anything else, here’s my number." He pulled a card from his wallet, handed it to the doctor.
Wilmore nodded. "You’ll let me know if you find anything?"
"Yeah," Gibbs said. "We will." He turned on his heel, nodded to Tony and Kate. They followed him out of the office, down the hall, out to the street.
"A coincidence?" Tony asked.
"It’s almost too neat," Kate said. "Too unrelated."
"Too neat would have been if they found Dinozzo’s fingerprints at the scene," Gibbs said, glancing down the street before jogging across. "No, it fits."
"So where do we go from here?" Kate asked as they reached the other side of the street intact.
"Back to headquarters," Gibbs said. "To see if Hartley’s done."
"I thought you were ban - off the investigation," Tony said as he opened the car door, slid inside. Kate hid a smile, waited to hear Gibbs’ reply.
"Why would you think that, Tony?" Gibbs asked as his cell phone rang. He ignored Tony’s none-too-discreet sigh of relief and answered. "Gibbs. Yeah, Abs." He paused, listened. "Okay. Has Hartley been by? Yeah, you probably should. Thanks." He snapped the phone shut, dropped it into a pocket and started the engine.
Kate leaned between the front seats. "What did she say?"
"The call tipping the Vasquezes came from the same phone as the one to Channel Four," he said. He pulled out of the lot quickly, slamming Kate against the back seat. She buckled her seatbelt and braced herself for a very short ride.
They fanned out when they reached the bullpen, found it abandoned, free of SAC Hartley and her team. Kate went to her desk, busied herself with her computer, while Gibbs picked up his phone. Tony just sat, relieved to be off his feet and not worried about the possibility of dying in a traffic accident. He closed his eyes for a moment, pressed the heels of his hands to his eye sockets as if that would make a difference, before giving up and rummaging around his desk for the aspirin. The headache of the day before had faded, but not enough to be comfortable. He crunched the tablets between his teeth, considered the logistics of stealing Kate’s water bottle and decided in favor of not moving at all.
"This belong to either of you?" Gibbs asked. Tony blinked, feeling as if he’d been caught red-handed, and stood, crossed the floor to see what Gibbs was frowning at. Kate did the same, albeit more quickly. Tony regarded her enviously and then dismissed the thought.
"What is it, boss?" he asked. Kate was staring at the piece of paper, a slight frown on her face.
"Poetry," Kate answered for him.
Tony raised his eyebrows at Gibbs. "You read poetry?"
"If it were mine, I wouldn’t have asked," Gibbs answered. Tony leaned over Kate’s shoulder to see what was on the page. The words were neatly typed, clear and legible:
Her eyes grew wide for a moment; she drew one last deep breath,/
Then her finger moved in the moonlight,/
Her musket shattered the moonlight,/
Shattered her breast in the moonlight and warned him with her death.
"Catchy," Tony commented, taking the page from Kate.
"Noyes," Kate said. "The Highwayman."
"It’s yours?" Gibbs asked.
"No, I just recognize the poem. You don’t know who left it?"
"No, I don’t," he repeated. He took the page from Tony, scanned the lines again and then raised his eyes to look at his agents. "But I’m going to find out." He pushed past Kate and Tony, left the bullpen and disappeared into the elevator.
"Gibbs has a secret admirer?" Tony suggested, feeling his headache intensify by something infinite.
Kate turned to face him. "Tony, considering what happened yesterday . . ."
He interrupted. "I get it, Kate. ‘Warned him with her death.’" He met her eyes, tried for a smile. "You think this’ll clear me?"
It would have been too much to hope that the poem could have been kept from Hartley, Tony thought, though it really would have been nice. Based on the looks she kept giving him, it was definitely not going to be enough to clear his name. He grinned at her and she narrowed her eyes, looked away. Small victories.
"Okay, I ran the prints," Abby said, spinning her chair around at a dizzying speed.
"And?" Gibbs asked. Hartley glared at him and he ignored her.
"Well, three people came up," she said. "You, Kate, and Tony."
Kate sighed. "We all touched it," she said. "When Gibbs found it."
Abby nodded. "Right. So it just means your guy was smart enough to wear gloves." Hartley raised her eyebrows and Abby shrugged. "Or that Gibbs is secretly an evil killer with a yen for lyric poetry."
"You never know," Tony said. Gibbs glared at him and he shrugged.
"Or it could be completely unrelated. An untimely valentine or something," Abby added.
"Thanks, Abs," Gibbs said, nodding to his team members. They followed him out into the hall, trailed by Hartley.
"Gibbs, this is evidence," she said.
"Of what?" he asked. "So maybe I like poetry."
She didn’t look amused. "Agent Dinozzo, don’t leave town," she said. She glared at all of them before returning to Abby’s lab. The elevator arrived as if on cue and they filed in.
"She can’t be serious," Kate said. "So she’s saying you covered all the cameras so that you could kill Vasquez spontaneously, and now you’re leaving notes to taunt yourself?"
Tony frowned. "Do I look insane?" Kate raised an eyebrow at him. "No, really, do I?"
"No more so than usual," Gibbs said as they stepped off of the elevator. "Kate, you escort Tony home."
"What? Why?" Tony asked. Not that he was complaining.
"Because I don’t want you here," Gibbs said bluntly. "Somebody’s leaving notes and Hartley’s looking for excuses."
"You want me to stay with him?" Kate asked.
"You could sound more enthusiastic," Tony said, managing to sound disappointed.
Gibbs sighed. "Nah. Do a perimeter sweep and then report back." He headed to his desk, leaving Kate and Tony to stare at him and then each other.
"At least you’re moving up in the world," Kate offered.
Tony frowned at her. "I don’t like your logic," he said finally.
She shrugged. "So, let’s go."
Kate dropped Tony off at the curb, promising to return after scanning the block. He nodded, too weary to protest, and crossed the parking lot, headed up the stairs to his apartment. His footsteps were loud on the stairs and in the hallway and his hands felt numb as he fumbled in his pocket for the key to the door. It wasn’t fair, he thought. He’d slept more than enough -- how could he still be tired?
Of course, the entire series of events wasn’t fair. Not to him, not to Alice, not to Gibbs and Kate. Or to Abby, who was staying late to process evidence, or Ducky, who’d let him sleep in his office.
He managed to fit the key in the lock, twisted the knob and let himself in. He switched on the lights, brightening the gloom, and wondered if he should open the blinds. Too much effort. Besides, Kate would be there soon, at least in theory, and if she were going to stay there for any length of time, she’d probably end up cleaning the entire place.
He shrugged out of his coat, dropped it on the couch, and crossed over to the desk to check his answering machine. Not that he had the energy to return calls; it was a habit. The light was holding a steady zero. He hadn’t been expecting any calls, anyway. He flipped his wallet onto the desk, plugged his cell into the charger, glanced at the photos covering the desktop, and stopped.
Wallet. Cell. Charger. Photos. Like a game -- which one didn’t fit?
Photos. He reached for them, their surfaces glossy and smooth. Alice, he realized. Alice, sleeping. Alive. He frowned, wondering when they’d been taken. He flipped through them. Sleeping, sleeping . . . and not. He was in that one, he thought; she was dead and he was sleeping. He stared at the picture, knew exactly when they’d been taken. His vision burned and he let the photos fall through his fingers, scatter across the floor.
The photos had been covering something, he saw, and he picked up the necklace, held it by the chain. Alice’s necklace. He’d joked about dog tags and unfastened the clasp, coiled it on the bedside table. He’d -
"Tony?" Kate asked, coming up behind him. "What . . ." He heard her move, the soft scratch of her fingers across the photos as she picked them up, comprehended what she saw. "Oh my God."
Yeah. That about summed it up, he thought. She said something about calling Gibbs and he heard the mechanical beeping of her cell phone as she dialed. He let the necklace fall, the chain sliding roughly back onto the desk, and became aware that Kate was talking to him. "I’m okay," he said.
"Right," she agreed, pulling him away from the desk. "Right."
He wondered briefly if Hartley would consider this to be proof of his innocence and then decided not to wonder for a little while.
Gibbs abandoned the car in front of the apartment complex, yanked the keys from the ignition and slammed through the glass lobby doors. He unclipped his holster as he ran up the stairs, ready to draw his gun if they’d missed something, if Kate’s "someone" was still in the building. Just in case. Damn it, sending Dinozzo home was supposed to make things easier and Kate’s presence was supposed to assure that. Not that this was her fault, or Tony’s, but -- it was an irrational annoyance, he told himself. Not that it made a difference. He raised a hand to knock on Tony’s door, but it opened before he could touch the wood.
Kate’s face was a carefully arranged mask, the consummate professional. Her eyes were the only flaw in an otherwise perfect shield, the only piece betraying her worry. Her fear. Her lack of control. None of which she alone felt, Gibbs thought, but she would have to learn to do something about concealing them. Later. He nodded to her as if in greeting and she stepped back to let him in. She closed the door behind him, locked it and followed him into the apartment. "I talked to management," she said. "They don’t know anything."
What else was new? "Where’s Dinozzo?" Gibbs asked, speaking slowly to counteract her own near-breathless delivery.
"In the living room," she said. She drew in a breath, exhaled, touched his arm as he stepped away. He turned deliberately, wondering why she couldn’t talk while they were walking. What she didn’t want Dinozzo to hear. "Gibbs," she said. She hesitated, decided to go through with it. "The pictures . . ." She stopped, tried again. "Whoever’s doing this, they came in here, into his home." As if that were worse than breaking into Vasquez’s home, killing her. Well, it was personal; that made all the difference. "We can’t leave Tony here."
"We won’t," he said, kept his voice calm as if he could transfer some of that to her, as if she would notice. "You called Hartley yet?"
"No," she said. "I didn’t know if I should." She met his eyes, asking for his opinion. For his opinion, for his guidance. He sighed, feeling twenty-four-plus hours without sleep and not enough coffee creeping up on him.
"She’s the SAC, Agent Todd," he said, making sure his eyes didn’t contradict him, his instructions. "You should." He waited until she was dialing before he turned back to the room where she’d said Tony was waiting.
The blinds were still closed, he saw, and the television was on. Just as he’d left it. Dinozzo was on the couch, staring at the screen. Football, figures in brightly-colored uniforms moving in strangely orchestrated patterns. The volume was low, almost inaudible, and Gibbs wondered if Tony even knew what he was watching.
Tony looked away from the screen when Gibbs approached. "Hey, boss," he said. Like Gibbs had stopped by for a social call, to watch the game.
"I thought I told you not to give Hartley an excuse," Gibbs said.
Dinozzo shrugged. "This is the opposite, I think. Hard to be the murderer if I’m in the pictures. Unless she’s going to go with astral projection, in which case Abby’ll be overjoyed." He trailed off, looked confused, like he didn’t know where he’d been going with that. He nodded to the desk. "They’re over there. Kate picked them up."
Gibbs crossed over to the desk, snapped on a pair of latex gloves before examining the photos. They were placed face-down, as if in an attempt to bury them, to suffocate the images. He picked them up and felt the room go still, his focus narrowing. Dinozzo’s girlfriend, sleeping. And in the next, she was dead.
And in the next, the photographer’d caught Tony. Dinozzo himself was sleeping, apparently undisturbed by the death, his eyes closed in a parody of the body next to him. It was a close-up -- where had the photographer stood? Tony slept, frozen in time and infinitely vulnerable, and Gibbs tossed the photos down in disgust. This wasn’t a simple murder. It was a warning. "Warned him with her death," indeed. It would have been simple for the killer to pull the trigger a second time, but he hadn’t. Why?
Because he wanted revenge, to frame Tony? What had Tony done to deserve this?
Or was Tony simply convenient, as Gibbs had thought earlier? Was the target Alice -- was framing Tony an attempt to distract them from the real reason she’d been murdered?
"Hartley’s on her way," Kate said, interrupting his thoughts. He looked over his shoulder to see her in the doorway and she continued. "She’s bringing a team."
"Think I should straighten up before she gets here?" Dinozzo asked. Kate blinked and Gibbs met her eyes steadily. Better bad jokes than collapse.
"Nah, I think that’d be giving her an excuse," he answered in the same tone. He looked at Kate. "You said you already talked to management?"
"Yeah, and they said they didn’t give anyone a key. Other than that . . ." She sighed. Gibbs pulled off his gloves, let them fall onto the desk, cover the offending photos. Not unintentionally.
Dinozzo spoke hesitantly. "There’s, ah, something else," he said, and Gibbs waited for him to continue, raised an eyebrow when he didn’t speak again. In answer, Tony opened his fist, revealing something wrapped around his fingers.
Gibbs frowned, decided not to squint. "What is it?"
"Alice’s necklace," he said. "It was under the pictures."
"Photo-documentary and a souvenir," Gibbs said. "They must really like you."
"Yeah, I’m flattered," Tony said. He stood, came to stand by the desk, unwound the chain from his fingers. It left white marks where it had pressed against his skin and Tony flexed his fingers as if to force blood to start circulating, to restore feeling. Gibbs, feeling Kate’s eyes on them, didn’t comment, didn’t look up to see the emotions on her face.
He didn’t need to.
Tony dropped the necklace, finally, and it fell with a soft clink onto the desk, effectively ending the conversation.
Hartley’s team arrived fifteen minutes later, thundering up the stairs like an army lying siege. Which, in some ways, they were. At least they didn’t smash open the door and come in with guns drawn, Kate thought. Though Gibbs had been very close to doing that himself when he arrived. Still, he had a reason. Hartley’s only excuse for concern was her job and, Kate thought, that wasn’t enough.
"What’s going on, Gibbs?" Hartley asked, stepping into the living room as her team spread out behind her, waiting for instructions.
"Somebody left a present for Agent Dinozzo," Gibbs said, baring his teeth in what was technically a smile. "On the desk."
She frowned, stepped over to the desk and nudged the necklace aside, spread the photos across the surface with one slim, gloved finger. She glanced at them, looked at Gibbs. "You found these?"
"I did," Tony said, speaking from his place against the wall. Kate wasn’t sure if he was attempting to project an air of nonchalance or if he was relying on the wall to keep him upright.
"And I was there when he found them," Kate said, drawing Hartley’s attention away from her team member.
"Either of you wear gloves?" the SAC asked.
"Yeah," Tony said. "Because I usually come home expecting a crime scene." His tone, unhampered by any genuine emotion, anything other than sarcasm, fell heavily in the too-bright room.
Hartley stared at him in assessment, turned to her team. "Get prints, pictures. Bag the evidence," she said brusquely.
Gibbs stepped forward, ignoring the forensic team and their leader. "Tony, Kate, I’ll meet you back at headquarters."
"But," Tony began. Gibbs’ glare cut him off mid-sentence and he nodded, shoved away from the wall and strode across the room. Those members of Hartley’s team unlucky to be in his path moved quickly out of his way and Kate, following in his wake, smiled coldly at them, understanding what Gibbs had felt at Hartley’s appearance. This wasn’t their fault, really, but because of their position, they were, at least emotionally, the enemy. It was primitive and illogical, but undeniably true.
And Kate had no qualms about leaving them to the wolf that was an enraged Gibbs. She did, however, restrain herself from slamming the door on her way out.
Fifteen minutes from NCIS headquarters and Kate looked away from the road ahead to pull the pen out of Tony’s hands before it snapped and ruined the upholstery. She wrenched it away, stuck it with the others and glared at him. "Can you please just sit still?" she asked, turning her attention back to the road. At least he wasn’t sulking, she thought. Just destroying her car.
He shrugged, reached for the radio dial. She slapped his hand away and he sighed, turned his head away to look out the window. The clouds of early morning hadn’t faded; if anything, they were growing heavier, promising rain. "Sorry," he said, sounding drained, gray and empty.
"What’s wrong?" she asked, immediately regretting her words. She knew what was wrong, and if that wasn’t what was on his mind, then this was just one of his games, how-fast-can-I-drive-Kate-insane.
"Nothing," he said. She slowed as the light ahead flashed yellow, red. "Kate . . ." he said, stopped, his silence offering too many possibilities.
"What?" She said it harsher than she’d meant to, but he answered anyway.
"Maybe you shouldn’t be involved." He nodded once, as if to confirm what he’d said.
"What?" she repeated.
"If this is about me, if Alice wasn’t the target." He swallowed, continued. "Maybe they’re not going to stop with leaving me pictures and jewelry."
"Tony," she began, accelerated as the light turned green. She went for the simple, straight answer. "No."
"What?" He sounded incredulous, like he’d really thought she’d agree, say goodbye, and head to Cabo for a vacation.
"No," she repeated. "I’m staying on the case. So’s Gibbs," she said, preempting his potential next question. Or threat.
He slumped back against his seat. "I’m just saying . . ."
"I appreciate your concern," she said, not taking her eyes from the road. "But this is kind of my job. And just because you’re, well, you, doesn’t mean I’m abandoning you."
"That’s sweet," he said dryly. She nodded and reached across to move her purse out of his immediate reach.
Gibbs arrived half an hour after they did, strode into the bullpen with a fresh cup of coffee in hand. "They find anything?" Kate asked.
He set his coffee down, pulled his chair out and sat down. "Dinozzo’s place could use an exterminator."
Tony tilted his head in silent agreement. "But no fingerprints?"
"Not while I was there," Gibbs said. "But since they covered the cameras . . ."
"They probably wore gloves," Kate finished. "Did you give the pictures to Abby?"
He looked at his computer. "I sent Abby home," he said. "The evidence’ll be here when she gets back."
Kate frowned. "So, what, we just wait?"
Gibbs looked at her over the computer screen. "Yeah," he said. "We send Tony home and hope Hartley finds something before the killer decides to get more friendly." He took a sip of coffee, looked back at his computer. She sighed.
"I’ve been thinking," Tony said, carefully avoiding Kate’s gaze. "Maybe that’s a good idea, actually." He widened his eyes as if the idea had just occurred to him. "If this is about me -- if they’re targeting me and went after Alice . . ."
"We should remove all potential obstacles," Gibbs said. "Give them a nice, clear path."
"That’s not-" he said.
"End of discussion," Gibbs interrupted. "Any idea as to who it could be?"
Tony blinked. "What?"
"The killer, Tony," Kate said. He narrowed his eyes at her.
‘Thanks for clearing that up, Kate. And no, I don’t think I know any psychopaths. Outside of work," he added.
"Good to know, Agent Dinozzo," Hartley said, stepping into the bullpen. Kate wondered how much of the conversation she’d overheard, wondered why it would matter.
"Agent Hartley," Gibbs said. "What can we do for you?"
"Alice Vasquez’s parents want an answer," she said, turning from Tony’s desk to face Gibbs. "So does Morrow."
"So do we," Kate said. She smiled at the woman and wasn’t surprised when Hartley didn’t smile back.
"My team came up empty," Hartley said, sounding like she was presenting evidence. "No fingerprints. No evidence of forced entry."
"The lock’s old," Tony protested.
Hartley ignored him, rested her hands on Gibbs’ desk. "So I’ve got an idea, Gibbs. We arrest our lead suspect. That way, the Vasquezes and Morrow are satisfied, and if there’s really somebody after him, we can guarantee his safety."
"Are you asking me for permission?" Gibbs asked.
"How’s he still your lead suspect?" Kate asked before Hartley could answer. "Or are you seriously going with astral projection?"
Hartley blinked at her, looked confused and returned her gaze to Gibbs, ignoring her question. "No, I’m not," she said. Gibbs looked mildly interested and Kate waited.
"So you’re here to arrest me?" Tony asked.
Hartley sighed. "No, Agent Dinozzo, I’m not. I am, however, giving you a deadline," she said to Gibbs. "If you don’t come up with something that can’t be explained by Dinozzo having an accomplice by tomorrow morning . . ."
Gibbs stood. "Thank you, Agent Hartley." He nodded at her and she frowned, turned and left the bullpen.
"I have an accomplice now?" Tony asked.
"Can she do that?" Kate asked. Gibbs raised his eyebrows at her and she sighed. "Yeah."
"So," he said. "Let’s not give her the chance."
Tony nodded. "Where do we start?"
"Kate’ll call Abby," Gibbs said. "And you’re going to a hotel. We have a deadline, Dinozzo."
"I heard," Tony said. "And that’s why we’ve all got to-"
"She’s looking for an excuse," Gibbs said. "If the lead suspect happens across the evidence to exonerate himself . . ."
"He’s right, Tony," Kate said. "Not that I’m looking forward to doing your share of the work."
Tony paused. "Do I get to pick the hotel?"
Gibbs sighed, reached into his wallet and pulled out the NCIS credit card, tossed it to Tony. "Within reason, Dinozzo. Within reason."
He grinned, grabbed his jacket and draped it over his arm. "Have fun, Kate."
The phone was ringing when Tony finally realized that he wasn’t dreaming. He reached for the handset just as the caller hung up, and sighed. He glanced at the clock, blinked at the unfamiliar surroundings before the events of the past two days came rushing back. He lay back in bed, wondering if he’d just miss the report-to-jail call or if Gibbs was trying to share good news. Gibbs. Good news. He decided he was probably glad that he’d missed the call and was debating whether to wait in case whoever it was tried again or to call room service when the phone rang a second time.
He fumbled for the handset. "Dinozzo."
"Tony," Gibbs said. He sounded tired, Tony thought. "Get up. Got another body." Gibbs paused. "Another poem."
"Where?" His hands reached for pen and hotel-logo paper, moving automatically.
Gibbs sighed. "1513 Harris."
"On my way, boss." He dropped the phone back into its cradle, stood and stretched before what Gibbs had said sank in.
What had he said to Kate?
"Maybe they’re not going to stop with leaving me pictures and jewelry."
He made it to the scene in less than half an hour. Gibbs would have been proud of his driving, he thought. The streets were still mostly empty; rush hour wasn’t for a few hours and he didn’t think that the paperboys were even out yet.
1513 Harris was located in a nice, quiet neighborhood. Good property values, the denizens mostly young professionals. He parked his car in front of the house, displayed his badge to the guard at the door and stepped inside.
The foyer was alive with action, a team taking pictures, documenting. He moved past them, recognized Gibbs among the men standing on the edge, blocking his view of the next room as they conversed. He crossed the room to see them, peered over Gibbs’ shoulder. Saw the thin body on the bed, the dark patches on the sheets, the delicate hand resting on the woman’s stomach, and, finally, the glossy dark hair, escaping its restraints and falling in brunet waves across the pillow.
Tony felt the room shrink, the voices behind him fading to a dull roar. The sun was rising outside, shading the room in pastels, and he stared at the still hand, the manicured nails, wondered if she would have been awake by now, otherwise. Otherwise being if she were alive. If she hadn’t been in the wrong place, if she hadn’t made the fatal mistake of knowing him. He lifted his gaze from the bed to the window, to the sun, the gentle rays over the expensive houses across the street. Had she stood at that window, raised a coffee mug to her lips and watched the sunrise, fulfilled that part of her perfect-life scenario?
He’d told her not to get involved. He’d asked her to leave him alone on this and she’d ignored him, said she wouldn’t go. Because she was his team member, his partner, his friend. And he’d given up, accepted her argument and left her to find proof of his innocence while he’d gone off to wait, to watch bad sitcoms and nature documentaries while eating overpriced food from room service.
And while he was watching The Late Show, whoever it was, whoever had killed Alice, had followed her home, had broken in and murdered her in her bed. He wondered if she’d awakened, if she’d known before or as it was happening. He hoped desperately that the answer was no, that it had been somehow quick and silent and over before she’d found any semblance of consciousness. Logic said the opposite, his experience said the same, and a cold, quiet voice in the back of his mind wondered if he’d be getting pictures of her, too. If her necklace, the small silver cross, would be waiting underneath, coiled like a snake about to strike.
No. Please. Please.
"Tony," Gibbs said, his voice rendered unfamiliar by distance and events and an emotion Tony wasn’t able to identify, didn’t recognize. Tony swallowed, realized he was speaking aloud and stopped abruptly, blinked to clear his vision.
"Kate," he said.
Gibbs glanced at the body as if seeing it for the first time or through Tony’s eyes, stepped in front of him to block his view, took hold of his arms as if to shake him. To bring him back, to pull him away. "No," Gibbs said. "No, it’s not. Kate’s fine." He spoke slowly, deliberately, and his words, if not their meanings, were easy to comprehend.
Tony stared unseeing at the sheet-draped form. At her body. Gibbs’ fingers were locked in a death-grip, tight and bruising. "What?" he said dully.
Gibbs stared at him, his eyes like glaciers, cold winter. Hell frozen over. "Kate’s fine, Dinozzo. I called her, too. She’s on her way," he said.
Tony glanced over Gibbs’ shoulder for verification, as if the revelation would be obvious in his perception of the body, as if he would look at the woman and no longer see Kate forever still. "Agent Hartley was killed early this morning," Gibbs said, explained. Warned. "We’ll know more when Ducky gets here."
Tony moistened suddenly dry lips, managed, "Oh." It wasn’t enough, he thought, but Gibbs nodded as though he’d said more, released his arms and stepped back. Tony realized suddenly that they were alone, that the men Gibbs had been talking with had left, retreated to other areas of the house, and he wondered what had happened in the split-second he’d recognized Kate.
"Hartley was supposed to be at headquarters two hours ago to prep your arrest," Gibbs said. "When she didn’t show, one of her agents came by, found her." He reached into his pocket, came up with a plastic bag containing a crumpled page. "It’s been I.D.’d as another verse from the poem on my desk." He handed the bag to Tony, the plastic crinkling in the silence. It seemed obscene to be happy, Tony thought, to be happy that the dead woman wasn’t Kate. Because someone was still dead, an NCIS agent for what that was worth, and the death was still related to him, a result of some plan, some logic he didn’t understand. It seemed obscene to be happy, grateful, but he was. That didn’t make a difference.
He realized he was still holding the evidence in his outstretched hand, looked away from Gibbs and lifted the plastic bag to eye level so he could read the contents:
Not till the dawn he heard it, his face grew grey to hear/
How Bess, the landlord's daughter,/
The landlord's black-eyed daughter,/
Had watched for her love in the moonlight, and died in the darkness there.
"Sort of makes me glad I didn’t major in English," he said, handed the bag back to Gibbs quickly, almost fast enough to mask hands shaking with adrenaline, with relief. The past two days had taken a toll on his savoir-faire points and in the aftermath of Kate not being dead, he had the sudden desire to rebuild, to restore. "Did they find anything -- do they know who did it?"
"They’re still dusting for prints," Gibbs said. "Don’t think they’ve found anything yet." He sighed, closed his eyes for half a second longer than was necessary. A commotion near the front door had them both turning to see Ducky and his assistant approaching. Neither of them looked surprised at the familiarity of the body, neither did a double-take and checked to make sure that it wasn’t -- that it wasn’t her. Of course not. Ducky probably had the luxury of Gibbs telling him who the victim was before he arrived, warning him beforehand. And of course he’d shared that with Jimmy. Tony stepped out of the way to let them through the doorway, feeling a flash of irritation at Gibbs for letting him walk into this blind. For letting him think, even for a moment, that it was Kate, that Kate was dead.
It passed. He let out a deep breath and watched as Jimmy scurried around, trying simultaneously to document the body and stay out of Ducky’s way, somehow projecting the impression of circus clowns pouring out one of those ridiculously small cars, tripping each other and going down with entangled limbs. The humor felt vaguely inappropriate, though no more so than his own happiness at the victim’s identity, or really, the opposite. At who the victim wasn’t.
More noise at the front door, high-heeled shoes on tile, and he turned to see Kate coming towards them, looking as tired as the hour dictated, but alive. He nodded at her, searching for witty greetings and coming up empty. Just as well. She raised her eyebrows at him, shouldering past to give Gibbs a paper cup of coffee, to watch as he drank deeply, the wool of his jacket rustling as he lowered his arm.
"You were right," Kate said, and Tony blinked, realized she was speaking to him. "Whoever it was didn’t stop with leaving you pictures and jewelry."
"What can I say," he said. "I’m a special kind of guy."
She sighed, switched tones and addressed Gibbs. "They find anything other than the poem?"
"Not yet," he said. He watched Ducky and Jimmy move the body, sliding it into the black bag. "But I’m not in charge of the investigation."
"Hartley’s dead," Tony said. "Who else are they gonna assign? I mean, I’m not the lead suspect anymore, right?"
"No, you’re the target," Gibbs said, his expression inscrutable. He looked back at Ducky, nodded at the M.E. and turned back to his team. "Let’s go," he said. "Back to headquarters." He pushed past Kate and Tony, didn’t look behind him to see if they were following.
Tony frowned. "Did I miss something?" he asked.
Kate shrugged. "No more so than usual," she said. They followed Gibbs out to the car, the fresh morning sunlight. The drive to NCIS headquarters took longer than usual, Tony thought, but maybe that was just him. He checked the side mirror several times to make sure they weren’t being followed and couldn’t help but wonder if there would be someone else. If someone else would die before the killer decided to go after him. If next time, it really would be Kate, or Gibbs. Or both. And he still didn’t know why.
Abby’s lab was mercifully silent when Gibbs entered, as if she were aware of the gravity of the situation. It was odd, he thought; though on a physical level he did appreciate the lack of background noise, considering that they had a potential serial on the loose, and said serial was targeting of his agents, he didn’t really want silence. He wanted rapid-fire questions, answers, cell phones constantly ringing as information spread and a case was built. He wanted action, not agents murdered in their beds and Polaroids of the crime, trinkets and souvenirs. He set his coffee cup down on the lab table hard enough for it to splash through the small gap in the lid. Thankfully, Abby didn’t seem to notice.
Abby turned on the main screen with a loud click, redirecting his attention. "Considering that Tony’s gun’s still right there," she said, pointing to the table now devoted solely to evidence from the Vasquez murder, "it’s not surprising that this bullet came from a different weapon."
"Thank you for pointing that out, Abby," Gibbs said, allowing some of his irritation to manifest in sarcasm. If it bothered her, she didn’t let on.
"But it’s still close. Same type, .38 caliber. Which could be a coincidence -- the guy liked Tony’s gun and decided to get one just like it," she said. "Or, less likely, it means that framing Tony was just convenient. The guy saw that it was the same type of gun and took advantage of the opportunity."
Gibbs nodded. "First one makes more sense, considering the cameras were covered to make sure the guy wouldn’t be seen."
"Yeah," she agreed.
"Anything else?" he asked.
She shrugged, shook her head. "Not yet. Ducky’s prelim said it was fired point-blank, which makes calculating trajectory pretty useless."
"Thanks, Abs," he said, and this time, he meant it.
She spun around in her chair. "Yup." He was almost out the door when she called out, "Gibbs?" He spun around, waited. "Be careful, ‘kay? Don’t kill yourself over this."
So much for her not noticing. He nodded, met her eyes. "Yeah, Abs. I’ll do my best."
And hopefully, that would be enough. He continued out to the hall, called the elevator and waited impatiently for it to arrive.
Kate looked up from the file she was reading as the elevator arrived, set the papers down as Gibbs entered. She waited for him to speak, but he ignored her questioning look, headed over to his desk and sat down. She glanced at Tony, who raised his eyebrows, twitching his shoulders in a barely-visible shrug. Well, it was up to her, then.
"I’ve worked up a preliminary profile," she said. Tony set down his own file, leaned back in his chair as if waiting to hear a good joke.
Gibbs looked up from his desk. "Preliminary?" he asked.
She frowned. Considering that she’d had an hour to work on it, yeah, it was preliminary. She didn’t say that. Instead, she met his eyes, nodded. "Preliminary," she repeated.
He nodded. "Okay," he said, waited for her to elaborate.
She stood, pushed her chair back and stood, as if walking, pacing, would help her work. Sometimes, it did. This time, it was a way to release excess energy without being overly obvious, without adopting one of Tony’s annoying twitches. "The kills are quick," she said. "The killer doesn’t torture his victims. Both Vasquez and Hartley were probably asleep right until the end."
"So?" Tony asked. He was maintaining his listening-to-a-story pose, betrayed only by the fact that he was toying with a pen, snapping it in a quick rhythm against the side of the desk. She ignored him, went on.
"He doesn’t get off on the deaths, themselves. He took pictures of Vasquez, a necklace . . ." She spread her hands, raised them in a what-if gesture. "If we wait long enough, maybe we’ll get the same for Hartley. This is a game to him -- he’s baiting us."
"Me," Tony interrupted, dropping the pen. It hit the desk with a plastic clatter, a disappointing finish. "He’s baiting me." He stood, crossed his arms. "Hartley looked like you, Kate."
"Yeah, you said that," she said, wondering what he was trying to say. Hoping he wasn’t going to make her next point.
He shook his head. "I thought she was you, Kate. When I first saw her, I thought it was you. It’s a warning."
"Well, yeah," she agreed.
"Whoever it is, they’re warning me that they’re not going to stop with Alice," Tony said, his voice trailing off. He sighed, sat down again, reached for the pen.
"Additionally," Kate said, "Hartley was in a position of power -- she was the lead investigator. Not only is it a warning that the killer might go after us, it’s a warning that he can. He killed Hartley. He’s telling us that power doesn’t matter, position doesn’t matter." Gibbs nodded; she continued. "It’s unlikely that Vasquez’s death was anything more than a warning, too, the tip of the iceberg. He gave Tony the pictures to taunt him -- ‘look at what I’ve done, what I could’ve done.’"
"So, what, Kate?" Gibbs leaned forward, though he didn’t stand. He didn’t need to. She crossed her arms, waited for his argument. "We look for people who like power and don’t like Dinozzo?" he asked, his tone suggesting that the possibilities were something near infinite.
She sighed. "Yeah. Right now, that’s who we’re looking for." Gibbs nodded, reached for his phone. She spoke again before he could dial. "With this kind of killer, it’s a game and once it’s not fun anymore, he’s going to escalate." She took a deep breath, exhaled. "I don’t know how long it’ll be, but he’s going to go after Tony. It’s only a matter of time."
Tony raised his eyebrows. "And on that cheery note . . . Kate, how’d they know Hartley was the SAC? Maybe that part’s a coincidence."
"The news, Tony," Gibbs said. "Remember the anonymous call? Channel Four didn’t drop it and neither did anyone else." He stood, finally. "Let’s see if Ducky’s found anything. Maybe we can narrow the field."
"Agent Hartley wasn’t drugged," Ducky said as he stepped away from the autopsy table, stripped off his gloves and deposited them into the hazardous waste container. "As there are no defense wounds on her arms, it appears that either she was a very sound sleeper or the killer was very quiet."
Gibbs took a sip of coffee, nodded. "She died from the gunshot?" It was the most likely cause of death, the only one suggested, but if there was something else, it would give them another lead, something they were starting to need very badly.
"About an hour before her body was discovered," Ducky said. "Up until that point, she was a very healthy young woman." He shook his head. "And this was a message for Tony? A terrible waste."
Tony frowned as though unsure whether to agree or be offended. "Yeah," he said finally.
"You know, it’s really quite rare for criminals to come after investigators," Ducky said. "Though I do remember -"
"Later, Duck," Gibbs said, lacking the energy to wait, to listen to a story, no matter how well-told.
Ducky nodded. "Right." He glanced at Gibbs, narrowed his eyes, looked at Dinozzo. "A dubious honor, isn’t it? Be careful," he added, almost as an afterthought. Gibbs sighed, strode out of the morgue with his agents close behind.
"That offer any insight, Kate?" Gibbs asked as they stood in the elevator.
She shook her head, looked regretful. "Like Ducky said, either Hartley was a sound sleeper or the killer made an effort not to wake her."
"Yeah," Gibbs said. He let out a breath as the elevator chimed its arrival and the doors opened.
"So, what’s next?" Tony asked, following Gibbs into the bullpen. "We wait?"
"Abby should be finished with the evidence collected at the scene in a few hours," Gibbs said. "When she finds something, we’ll work with it."
"And until then we just hope nobody shoots at Tony?" Kate asked, leaning against the side of her desk.
Gibbs set his coffee down gently with an incredible effort. "Do you have any other suggestions, Agent Todd? Any idea where we should start looking? Any suspects?"
She looked away, spoke with obvious reluctance. "No."
"This mean I’m living in a hotel for the next few days?" Dinozzo asked. His casual tone sounded forced; Gibbs knew the feeling well.
"No," he said. "You’re staying with me."
"What? I’m not sure that’s a good idea, boss," Tony said.
"He’s right, Gibbs. That could force the killer’s hand . . . oh," Kate said, nodded. "But I’m not sure pissing him off is the best way to approach this. This isn’t Fornell we’re dealing with."
Gibbs ignored her, looked across to Dinozzo. "Tony, did you order room service last night?"
Tony frowned as if confused, unsure of what to say in order to not anger his boss. "Uh, yeah," he said. "You said ‘within reason.’"
Gibbs nodded. That wasn’t the point. "And when they came to the door, they announced who they were."
"Right," Dinozzo agreed.
Gibbs looked at him, waited for him to catch on. "And . . . did you see an I.D.?" Tony opened his mouth as if to confirm and then closed it abruptly, shook his head. "So," Gibbs said. "If you stay in a hotel and the killer says he’s with room service or management . . ."
"I’ll check their I.D., verify who they are," Tony said quickly. As if it were elementary, something he’d known from the very beginning.
"And if you forget? If he grabs the delivery man before he knocks, take his I.D.?" Gibbs shook his head. "You’re staying with me. House arrest, as it were."
"What’s wrong with my own house?" Dinozzo asked.
"The lock. The door. The security." Gibbs raised an eyebrow, wondered if Tony wanted him to continue.
"The location," Kate added. Tony glared at her.
"Boss, I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but, no offense, you’re better at being an NCIS agent than being cannon fodder." He bit his lip, sighed. "So I’ll stay in a safe house or something. Not a hotel, but not with you, either. And when Abby finds something, we’ll work with that."
"Dinozzo . . ." Gibbs warned.
"What, a safe house isn’t safe enough?" Tony asked, blinked innocently.
Gibbs shook his head. He was too tired to deal with this. He could grab Dinozzo later, arrange another transfer or take him hostage, if it came to that. "Fine. Get started on the paperwork."
The call came an hour later, the ring of the telephone a harsh, jangling sound in the unnatural stillness of mid-afternoon. Kate looked up from her desk in time to see Tony flinch at the noise. It had startled him; she wondered what he’d been thinking about, how deeply involved he’d been. He caught her looking at him and frowned slightly, looked away. She wondered why, what she’d done or hadn’t done, and decided that it was pointless to worry. She looked over at Gibbs, listened to his end of the conversation. Watched the expression on his face as his eyes narrowed, his lips curving in a smile that had nothing to do with mirth, and wondered what had happened. What they’d found.
Who they’d caught . . .
She shivered in reflex as she watched Gibbs change his focus, remembered how he’d directed his anger at Hartley. She felt no pity for his new target.
"They’ve got a suspect," he said, replacing the phone in its cradle. He opened his desk drawer, pulled out his gun and checked the clip. Kate took her cue, slid her own weapon into its holster. Gibbs closed the desk drawer with an audible snap, stood. As he passed by her desk, Kate could feel the tension radiating off of his body and wondered how personally he was taking this.
The thought was very, very fleeting.
Gibbs turned to make sure the rest of the team was following, nodded curtly. "Let’s bring him in."
"How’d they find him?" Kate asked as they entered the garage.
Gibbs spoke over the noise of their footsteps on the concrete floor. "Neighbor heard about the death, reported seeing a man enter and leave the house early this morning. Gave a description, which matches a man released from jail two weeks ago on good behavior." He unlocked the car, slid inside and started the engine. "Apparently, Dinozzo testified against him."
"Who?" Tony asked as he buckled his seatbelt. Kate did the same, past experience telling her that when Gibbs was this close to solving a case, his driving abilities became -- streamlined, which resulted in a ride Tony’d once described as the roller coaster from hell.
Gibbs glanced in the rearview mirror, met Kate’s eyes for only an instant before reversing the car, heading out of the garage. "Pusher by the name of Cory Gamble. Mean anything?" Kate braced herself as they pulled out of the garage, waited for Tony’s answer.
"Ah. Um. Arrested in ‘99, I think, in a sting. Yeah, we searched his house and it turned out he liked little kids, too," Tony said. "I testified, but so did the other guys. He wasn’t exactly my arch-nemesis, if that’s what you’re saying."
"Yeah, well, looks like maybe he doesn’t know that," Gibbs said, narrowly making the turn onto the highway.
Considering that he’d only been released two weeks earlier, Kate thought, Gamble’s apartment wasn’t too bad. That said, it wasn’t anywhere she would want to live. The apartment complex looked like it had been built about forty years ago and obviously maintenance wasn’t a priority. The front of the brick building was covered in graffiti and only a few blades of grass were visible underneath the debris covering what had probably once been a flowerbox next to the front stoop. She resisted the urge to pull her jacket closer around her, not wanting to obstruct easy access to her weapon.
Gibbs opened the front door, stepped inside, and she and Tony followed him inside. Dust floated in the filtered sunlight from the large, barred windows overhead. "Unit 2B," Gibbs said. "Upstairs." They followed him up the stairs as quietly as possible. The hallway was dingy and dimly lit, the walls patterned with something orange and vaguely floral. A window located at one end was the only source of natural light.
Unit 2B was the last door, the one closest to the window. Gibbs slid his gun out of its holster, reached for the doorknob with the other hand. Tony stood behind him and Kate waited against the wall, gun at the ready. Gibbs glanced at them, nodded and reached for the doorknob. It twisted in his hand and in one fluid motion, he slammed the door open, lunged inside. "Federal agents!" he called. "Freeze!"
Tony stepped in behind him, scanned the room and shook his head, and a moment later, Kate followed him inside, gun still drawn. The unit was small; they were standing in what doubled as a living room and a bedroom. A small kitchen was located to the side, which meant the remaining door probably led to a bathroom.
Gamble was nowhere in sight. She let out a breath, didn’t lower her weapon.
Gibbs nodded at Tony, who crossed the room, his shoes near-silent on ancient brown carpet, to stand next to the bathroom door. Kate held her breath as he reached out, opened the door, and revealed nothing more than that she was right -- it was a bathroom. He stepped into the doorway, scanned the room as if he expected Gamble to jump out from behind the shower curtain.
No such luck.
"Clear," Tony said, turning back to the main room just as something leapt out from against the wall, smashed into him and sent him sprawling down onto the carpet. He hit the ground and Kate tightened her grip on her own weapon, brought it to bear on Tony’s attacker.
"I said freeze," Gibbs said calmly, aiming his gun almost casually at Gamble. There was nothing casual about his voice, though, or his eyes, and Kate swallowed, wondering if there would be a suspect left to question. But the man raised his hands, surrendering and not giving Gibbs an excuse, and Kate stepped forward, holstered her gun and spun Gamble towards the wall with admittedly more force than was necessary. She patted him down with as little contact as was possible, came up empty and lowered his arms, snapped handcuffs around his thick wrists.
Tony winced, sat up. "When I said ‘clear,’ I meant except for him," he said, brushing himself off as he stood. Kate rolled her eyes at him and didn’t fail to note that Gibbs had yet to holster his gun.
"You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law," Kate began, thankful for the routine. She glanced over at her team members as she spoke. Tony was staring at the man, his expression unrevealing and calm, and Gibbs was looking out the window, presumably at the street below.
At least it was over.
The interrogation room was very quiet. Kate stared through the one-way glass, watched Gibbs stare at Gamble. Beside her, Tony leaned against the wall, his eyes on the spectacle, seeming barely to breathe. Kate looked over at him, wondered what he was thinking. Gamble had murdered two women in an attempt to get revenge for something Tony had dismissed as routine, unimportant. If he’d considered Gamble to be a threat, would Vasquez and Hartley still be alive? If he’d followed up on the case . . .
Maybe she didn’t want to know what he was thinking, after all.
Gibbs didn’t take his eyes off of Gamble as he placed a folder on the table. The ex-con glanced at the folder, looked like he wanted to ask what was in it. He didn’t. Gibbs took a sip of coffee, swallowed and began.
"You were released from jail two weeks ago," he said.
Gamble nodded. "Yeah."
"Did you plan this while you were inside or just last week?" Gibbs asked. He shook his head minutely, rested his hands on the table. "Actually, it doesn’t matter." He opened the folder, handed Gamble a photo. "You keep copies for yourself?"
Gamble shook his head, dropped the picture onto the table, revealing it to be one of the photos of Alice Vasquez. "I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about."
"Murder, Mr. Gamble." Gibbs smiled blandly. "Murder and Tony Dinozzo."
Gamble frowned. "What are you asking me, Agent Gibbs? If I know Tony Dinozzo?"
"No," Gibbs said. He leaned forward, spoke in a low tone. "I know you do." He leaned back, waited for Gamble’s response.
"Yeah, I think he was one of the cops who raided my house, couple years ago and then today," Gamble said. He shrugged. "So? He kill somebody?"
Tony gritted his teeth and Kate glanced over at him. He didn’t seem to notice and she returned her gaze to the interrogation. Gibbs chuckled, a frighteningly dark sound. "No, but that’s what you wanted us to think, isn’t it? It’s why you covered the cameras. Why you broke into Daniel Wilmore’s office and stole the ketamine. Thing is, Gamble, you made a mistake."
Gamble shook his head. "What is this?"
"You made a mistake, Gamble. You planned it all out, made it look like Dinozzo was dirty, a druggie who killed his girlfriend." Gibbs shook his head, leaned back in his chair, lifting two of the feet off the floor. "Did you think we wouldn’t look into that, Gamble? You think we wouldn’t look at the footage, find the paint?"
"What paint? Look, if you got a problem, you can talk to my parole officer. I’m through," Gamble said, crossing his arms.
Gibbs dropped his chair forward, slamming all four feet down. "But we did, Gamble. We found the paint, and that made you mad. You decided that wasn’t enough. You wanted to keep playing. Because this is just a game to you, revenge. So you broke into Dinozzo’s apartment and left him a little present." He stood, walked around the table to lean over Gamble’s shoulder. "And early this morning, you snuck into Terri Hartley’s house and shot her in her own bed."
"Bullshit!" Gamble snapped, jerking his chair away from Gibbs and standing. He shook his head. "I don’t know what Dinozzo told you, but this morning I was at work."
"At work," Gibbs repeated, a smile playing at the edges of his mouth.
"At work," Gamble repeated. "Yeah. Janitorial work at Grand Central. You can check if you want. I was there all night, didn’t get off until eight, and then I went home to sleep. Got up to take a shower and all of a sudden you guys are busting through the door." He shook his head again. "Yeah. Check if you wanna. Call my goddamned parole officer. I don’t care. I’m outta here."
Kate winced as the ex-con wheeled around, slammed out the door. Beside her, Tony sighed. The tech behind them stopped the tape machine with a loud click and Kate looked back at the interrogation room in time to see Gibbs slam his hand down onto the table with enough force to nearly upset his coffee, nearly send it spilling across the folder and the garish photo still face-up on the table.
Tony closed his eyes for a moment and Kate just stared, watched as Gibbs gathered his folder and leftover coffee and followed Gamble out of the room, not bothering to close the door behind him.
The streetlights outside glowed in the twilight and the office was emptying out as the other personnel went home. The bullpen was quiet; Gibbs wasn’t sure if the others didn’t have anything to say or if they just didn’t want to say it, were afraid of what would happen if they did. He waited, silently daring them to try. The computer screen wavered before his eyes, the cursor a sharp and painful stab of light, and he blinked, closed his eyes to delay the headache that would inevitably develop after too many hours working on the damned machine.
Someone was screaming, somewhere nearby. Very, very close. Their voice was androgynous and shrill, oddly mechanical . . . Gibbs blinked, realized he was no longer sitting upright and looked at the clock. Two minutes, not bad. Across the room, Kate answered her cell phone. She spoke for a few minutes, waited and spoke again. Finally, she pressed a button to end the call and turned to address her team members.
"Gamble was telling the truth," she said. "And the agent who took the neighbor’s call did take a name, but doesn’t remember what it was."
"It’s part of his game," Tony said. "He wanted to see if we would go for it."
"Yeah," Kate said. "And we did." She paused. "At least . . . at least it was just a waste of time. Not another body."
"There is that," Tony agreed.
"Or maybe we just haven’t found the body yet," Gibbs said.
"Or that," Tony added. Kate tilted her head in acquiescence and Gibbs sighed as Abby appeared, entered the bullpen with an expression implying bad news. Somehow, he’d expected as much.
"Hey, Gibbs. You look tired," she greeted him. He frowned at her and she shrugged. "I’m coming up empty. I even ran the paper the poem was printed on -- standard weight, generic brand . . . could’ve come from any office supply pretty much anywhere." She glanced at his expression, nodded. "I’m still working on it, but I’m not sure what else there is to find. Sorry . . ."
"Thanks for trying, Abby," Kate said, drawing her attention away from Gibbs. "We’re not making any progress either, so it’s pretty much par for the course."
Abby looked regretful. "But I’ll let you know if I do find anything." She shrugged in apology, headed out of the bullpen. Kate bit her lip, exchanged a glance with Tony. He looked blank and she widened her eyes, looked intent. Gibbs wondered if she thought he couldn’t see her, that the exchange would somehow go undetected.
Finally, Tony seemed to get the message. He stood, grabbed his jacket and bag. "Guess I’m gonna call it a night," he said. "See you tomorrow."
Kate nodded. "I’ll give you a ride, check out the safe house." She looked at Gibbs, waited for his reply. He wondered what she would do if he said that he’d work for a few more hours and decided that ultimately, it wasn’t worth the effort.
He nodded. "Yeah." He gathered his own belongings, followed his agents out to the garage. Kate looked like she wanted to say something more, but he glared at her before she could speak and she shrugged, headed to her own car with Dinozzo trailing behind her, a distracted satellite. Gibbs waited until they were gone before shifting out of park and leaving, himself; he drew the line at having his own agents follow him home.
Tony frowned at what would be his temporary lodgings. The building had more resemblance to a prison than a home, in his opinion. The low structure was done in shades of brown and gray, as if that would counteract the thick panes of the windows and the dull metal of the front door. Maybe it would make up in amenities what it lacked in aesthetics, he thought, though that was most likely wishful thinking. At least he hadn’t gone with the maximum security option.
He shouldered his bag as he stepped out of Kate’s car, closed the door and waved one hand in a vague salute. The night air was cool, a slight breeze disturbing the tranquility of the nearby Potomac. It was a nice change; while Tony wasn’t claustrophobic, the NCIS office had been driving him insane. Watching Gibbs work was a lot more relaxing when the case wasn’t this personal.
Kate bit her lip, unrolled the passenger’s side window next to where he still stood. She bent forward but stopped before she actually leaned across the seats to cut the distance, before making such an obvious gesture. Tony shifted his weight, wondering what she was going to tell him, for what she was going to chastise him. As if having the same thought, she sighed. "Just be careful, okay?" she said.
He nodded. "Yes, mom."
"Don’t go there," she said.
"Right," he said. "Because my mother isn’t nearly as-" The window snapped closed before he could finish his sentence and he grinned as Kate pulled away from the curb without looking back. He watched as the small car accelerated through the next intersection, disappeared in the early-evening traffic. He felt a strange pang of loneliness as he turned back to the blank industrial front of the safe house and hoped that Kate and Gibbs, at least, would get a good night’s sleep.
A car door slammed behind him and he whirled before he could place the sound, recognize it for what it actually was. He was already reaching to where his gun should have been by the time he realized that the potential assailant was, in fact, a woman dressed in a dark uniform, holding a pizza box in front of her as if it would shield her from the jumpy NCIS agent.
"Ah. Sorry," Tony said, letting the folds of his jacket fall back down. "Thought you were somebody else."
She smiled shakily. "This is 848 Wainwright?"
He glanced behind him at the safe house and nodded. "Yeah."
"Your pizza," she said, shoving the box at him. He took the box, wondered who’d ordered. She scurried back to the car and retrieved a plastic bottle of soda. He took it from her, balanced it on top of the box and wondered how he was supposed to reach for his wallet, let alone open the front door.
"I didn’t order a pizza," he said, deciding that would be the most efficient route.
She frowned, glanced down at her clipboard. "Um, it was paid for by a Jethro Gibbs. He said it was delivery . . ."
"Oh. In that case, sure. Right address."
"Good. Have a nice night, sir," the woman said. She offered him a look that was more grimace than smile and retreated to her car, slammed the door. The automatic locks sounded a few seconds later, and then she was retracing Kate’s path, heading down the street. Tony frowned after her, wondered if he should take Gibbs’ ordering him food as a sign of affection or of pity and decided he wasn’t sure he wanted to know for certain.
A particularly cold gust of wind sent a shiver down his spine, the hair on the back of his neck prickling, and he looked away from the street, taillights in the distance like small red eyes. He set his dinner down in order to open the front door and let out a deep breath once he’d closed and locked it behind him. Not that he was worried (though this time, a corner of his mind argued, his fears were most certainly rational).
The inside of the safe house was no better decorated than the outside, he noted with disappointment after switching on the overhead light. He set the pizza down on the small table in front of the couch, dropped his bag onto a nearby chair. He considered exploring the house, seeing what there was to work with, and decided against it. There’d be time later, and if not, that would be because he’d be heading back to his own apartment. If he missed out on seeing the bedroom, it wouldn’t be a loss. He did, however, need to find the kitchen; a few minutes’ rummaging found him a selection of glasses. He went for a balance between cleanliness and comfort and grabbed the one that looked the least federally-approved.
Dinner guaranteed, he dropped down onto the couch gracelessly, switched on the television and opened the pizza box. The room filled with the smell of pepperoni and cheese, definitely better than the stale, musty odor of disuse that had greeted him. He filled the glass with soda, reached for a piece of properly greasy pizza, and turned his attention to the television screen. Either the house’s last tenant had good taste or he had good luck; he settled back against the couch as the Cheers theme began.
Kate sighed, resting her head against the doorframe as she fit the key into the lock. If she was this tired, she thought, she didn’t want to know how Gibbs felt. Her coat was heavy on her arms and her feet hurt, the suddenly-too-high heels causing gravity to press painfully against her ankles. The morning seemed like a very long time ago and to top it off, she was starting to think she’d sprained something while cuffing Gamble.
The tumblers finally clicked and she opened the door with relief, stepped into her dark apartment and tossed her purse onto the end table. She slid out of her jacket, tossed it over the back of the couch, too tired to hang it in the closet. Her shoes were placed neatly by the door; those were too expensive to be thrown aside.
The answering machine was blank, which wasn’t surprising. The most likely callers were either out of town or resting, probably either by working on a boat or watching television. She switched on the lamp, bathing the room in cool yellow light, and wondered if it would be better to take a bath or just go straight to bed, pull the comforting weight of thick blankets over her head and stop thinking for a few hours. Or -
She paused, hearing something shift in the corner of the room, next to the bookshelf. Brushing the tips of her fingers against the slick plastic of her gun, she stared ahead, searching the shadows for shapes, for threats.
There was, of course, no one there.
She let her hand fall away from her weapon, smiled at herself. Jumping at shadows, she thought. Literally. The stereo was on and she stretched her arm out, reaching to switch off the power. She didn’t remember turning it on to begin with, but she hadn’t exactly been paying attention that morning. She could have thought the apartment was too silent, left a CD playing as she’d rushed out the door.
Except the CD, it seemed, was still playing, explaining the noise she’d heard. She altered the direction of her hand, turned the volume louder in an attempt to recognize the singer. The music itself was unfamiliar; after listening for only a few seconds, she was almost certain it was not one of her albums. It was mournful, heavy and sad. A requiem. She took a step closer, heard something rustle underneath her stockinged foot. Bending down, she found a piece of paper, crumpled. She picked it up, straightened it out as she stood. The music seemed to swell and her breathing grew louder as she stared at the words, mere shadows in the dim light:
Heard a carol, mournful, holy,/
Chanted loudly, chanted lowly,/
Till her blood was frozen slowly,/
And her eyes were darkened wholly.
Gibbs stared at the ceiling, too wired to sleep and too weary to go downstairs and work on his boat, a ritually soothing task. He sighed, turned over and watched as the numbers on the clock shifted. One minute passed, one minute to go. One minute closer to . . . what?
To falling asleep, starting to recover from the stress of the past few days and the inevitable stress that the future would bring. He closed his eyes resolutely, only to open them thirty seconds later when someone’s car alarm went off down the street. He winced at the noise and sat up, shoving the blankets away. He was missing something. Something was wrong, had gone unnoticed, and he wasn’t going to be able to sleep until he found out what it was.
He’d start by narrowing the possibilities. He reached for the phone without looking, dialed Dinozzo’s cellular. It was unlikely that Tony was asleep by now, he thought. Though if he was, Gibbs envied him.
Tony’s phone rang once, twice. Gibbs frowned, waiting. A minute and then the auto-answering service kicked in. He cut off the recorded voice mid-sentence, listened to the night silence. The car alarm was gone, its owner having identified the vehicle as his or her own. He sighed, wondering if he was jumping to conclusions. Was this logical? Was there a rational explanation that his mind, deprived of sleep, just wasn’t seeing?
As if in answer, the phone rang. He answered it immediately, switching on the bedside lamp with his other hand. "Gibbs."
"Gibbs, it’s Kate." The breathless quality in her voice that he’d noticed after Dinozzo had found the Vasquez photos had returned. He was suddenly wide awake, sleep an impossible concept.
"What’s wrong?" he asked, keeping any trace of worry from his voice.
"Someone’s been in my house," she said. "Not just someone, but . . ." He heard her take a breath, swallow. "They left a note. A verse. It’s not from the same poem, but it’s definitely a threat."
"Kate, get out of there," he said. Made a decision. "Dinozzo’s not answering his phone. I’ll meet you at the safe house."
"Right." She ended the call and he set the handset down, swung out of bed.
He was damn near sure that this was the thing he’d missed.
The street was even quieter than it had been when she’d dropped Tony off, Kate thought. She parked her car neatly next to the curb, stepped onto the sidewalk as Gibbs’ car squealed to a halt in front of her. He barely took the time to yank the key out of the ignition, but he was more composed when he met her in front of the safe house. "You talked to Dinozzo?" he asked.
She shook her head. "No, I just got here."
He sighed. "Okay. We’re going in the front."
"You think," she began.
"Dinozzo’s not answering his cell. There’s a serial after him. What I think doesn’t matter," he said.
She nodded, followed him up the cement stairs to the front door. He pulled a key from his pocket, unlocked the door. She slid her gun from its holster and he did the same, holding his weapon with one hand as he glanced back at her. She lowered her head a fraction of an inch, meeting his eyes, and he turned, slammed open the door. "NCIS! Federal agents! Dinozzo, are you here?"
She followed him inside in time to see a dark shape dart from the room, further into the house. Gibbs fired at the figure, splintering the wood paneling on the wall as the shape ducked. "Check Dinozzo," Gibbs yelled, sprinting after the figure. Kate swallowed, didn’t holster her weapon as she scanned the room. The room was rank with the smell of grease and cheese and the television was the only source of light. She stepped closer, looked over the couch. Lucy and Ricky were having breakfast and Tony was sprawled on the couch, oblivious to the onscreen events, the studio laughter.
Her skin went cold as she dropped to her knees, her hands pulling back his collar, checking for a pulse. The cotton ripped in her haste and she swore that if he would be okay, if they were in time, she’d buy him a new one.
His pulse was there, a steady pumping of blood. She exhaled. Thank God. He was alive. Unconscious, but alive.
Another gunshot sounded in the distance and something fell. She stood, tightened her grip on the Sig and ran after Gibbs.
The hallway, like the rest of the house, was dark. She stumbled as her foot snagged on the edge of a rug, caught herself on the wall and continued. Three rooms stemmed from the hallway up ahead; she stopped to listen. Where was Gibbs? She didn’t hear footsteps, didn’t hear another gunshot. Hesitantly, she continued down the hall. One foot in front of the other, stop and check.
Her foot connected with something soft and she jumped back as Gibbs hissed. "Gibbs," she said unnecessarily, kneeling next to him. He was sitting on the floor, his back against the wall. Though her eyes hadn’t completely adjusted to the dark, he didn’t appear to be bleeding.
"Outside," he said. "Went outside."
"Now," he said. She nodded, stood and ran down the length of the hall, skidded to a stop in front of the back door. She opened it quickly, not wanting to give the assailant time to prepare. The door opened onto a few feet of dead grass, a sad attempt at a back yard, and then another street, apparently commercial and as deserted as the one out front. Where the hell had he gone?
There -- a shape beneath one of the streetlights, twenty yards ahead. "Freeze!" she shouted. To her surprise, the figure did. It stopped and turned to see her, raised its arms, casting a dark silhouette in the large pool of light.
"You’re under arrest," she said, walking forward, keeping her gun trained on the man’s head. "Stay where you are."
And then, almost faster than she could track, he moved, bringing one of his arms down and drawing a weapon. She saw him raise the gun, its barrel glinting in the light, and even as she was tightening her finger on the trigger, she doubted she would be in time.
He shot first and she knew she was right, felt her gun drop from her hand. The street was hard, tore at her skin as she went down. At least she’d be able to rest, she thought as her vision blurred and the light overhead faded out.
Gibbs blinked, forcing the brilliant stars bursting like fireworks across his vision to retreat, fade away. The wall behind him was comfortingly cool, a contrast to the sharp ache spreading across the side of his head. He should have seen that coming, should have known better. Hell, he did know better; he’d just gotten caught up in what was happening, made a mistake. Assumed the assailant would have headed straight outside, not waited to blindside him as he passed. He flexed his hands, waiting for complete motor control to return. They’d been in time, though; Dinozzo was okay. Otherwise Kate wouldn’t have left him, right?
Unless it had been too late and she’d had to reassess her priorities.
A gunshot sounded outside, on the street behind the house. He struggled to his feet, retrieved the Sig from where it’d fallen when he’d hit the floor. He closed his eyes against the wave of dizziness that threatened to overwhelm him, but didn’t give himself more than a few seconds. If Kate had shot the killer, there would be time for rest later, and if she hadn’t, if it were the other way around, he had no time to indulge.
He crashed through the back door, his boots crunching on dead grass and then thundering onto asphalt. The cold air was sweetly refreshing, heavy with potential. He gripped his gun with both hands, willing himself to keep his balance, to find Kate. Fulfill his duty. How many minutes had passed since the gunshot? He scanned the street, looking for a sign.
And found one.
Crumpled in the streetlight’s nimbus, illuminated only faintly, Kate’s hands were outstretched as if she’d been reaching for something when she fell. A glimmer of wetness was visible on her shoulder, spreading down over her chest and onto the blacktop beneath her. He stumbled to a stop next to her, dropped and felt the street come up hard on his knees. He swore under his breath, reached for his cell phone and dialed. "This is Agent Gibbs. I’m at the Wainwright safe house. I’ve got two agents down." The words came naturally, smoothly, betraying only the slightest hint of his emotions. The operator promised an immediate response and he snapped the phone shut, tossed it aside.
Kate’s eyes were closed, but she was breathing. He peeled her jacket away from her shoulder and wondered if he should make this an initiation rite, a bullet through the shoulder for everybody on his team. She shuddered at his touch but didn’t open her eyes, didn’t awaken. He stripped out of his own coat, pressed it to the wound and waited.
Seconds grew into minutes and he listened, kept his hands pressed to the fabric, felt it grow damp with her blood. And what about Dinozzo? Had they been in time?
Finally, he heard the sirens screaming in the distance, growing louder, louder, until he could see the flashing lights. He didn’t stand until the EMTs were taking his place, checking Kate’s vitals and pushing him back. "You said there were two agents," one of the uniformed men said, blocking Gibbs’ view of Kate.
Gibbs blinked, nodded. "Yeah. The other’s back at the house." The EMT turned back to his team, called out instructions and then turned back to Gibbs.
"Lead the way."
Gibbs whirled, ran back to the house with the EMT on his heels, the cavalry arriving too late. The back door was still open; he didn’t need to bother with the doorknob as he retraced his steps through the house to the living room, the sound of canned laughter. He stopped in the living room, let the EMT push past him to the couch. The black and white light of the television left Dinozzo’s face chalk-white, deepened his eyes into bottomless shadows. The collar of his shirt was torn and Gibbs wondered what he and Kate had interrupted or arrived too late to witness.
And then the EMT was bending over Dinozzo, pressing at his throat with gloved fingers. He looked up to meet Gibbs’ eyes, nodded. "Pulse is strong."
"Good," Gibbs said. "Good."
The man -- no more than a kid, really -- smiled at him. "Yeah." His smile changed to a frown. "Sir, are you okay?"
"I’m fine," Gibbs said, forcing authority into his voice and supporting it by hardening his gaze.
"Okay," the young man said. He stepped back from Dinozzo. "I’ll get a stretcher."
Gibbs nodded, watched him go and then let himself lean against the side of the couch. He watched Dinozzo breath, the steady rise and fall of his chest. They’d been on time. On time. On time.
But what had happened? Surely Tony hadn’t simply fallen asleep and let the killer conk him on the head. He crossed his arms, surveyed the area. The television wasn’t playing loudly enough to mask the sounds in the rest of the house. He narrowed his eyes, frowned at the remnants of what appeared to be Dinozzo’s dinner, littering the coffee table. Pizza box, cold pizza, half-empty glass.
And underneath the glass, a piece of paper.
He reached forward, viewing the scene as if from a great distance. He slid the glass out of the way, lifted the folded page and opened it. The words were in a familiar font, their cadence something he’d come to know well:
Blood-red were his spurs i’ the golden noon; wine-red was his velvet coat,/
When they shot him down on the highway,/
Down like a dog on the highway,/
And he lay in his blood on the highway, with the bunch of lace at his throat.
He set the page back on the table, reached for the photos. He held them up to the television light so that he could see them, peered through the glare. Dinozzo, sleeping, apparently a few minutes before he and Kate had burst through the door. There would have been no postmortem photos, he realized, because the postmortem would be on scene, in something like living color. He recalled Alice Vasquez’s body, and Hartley’s as seen through Tony’s eyes. All too prophetic, as it turned out.
He let the photos fall, caught them before they could land in the spilled soda and set them safely aside. He sat down on the couch, a careful distance from Tony, and let out a deep breath. Onscreen, Lucille Ball was trying to convince her husband to let her do . . . something. He leaned forward, rested his head in his hands. They’d been in time. The shot hadn’t killed Kate; the EMTs were working on her. And in a few minutes, they’d be working on Dinozzo, too.
They’d been in time.
For the first time in too many hours, he let the darkness come.
The voice was familiar enough to be a comforting drone, just louder than the buzz of the florescent lights, the beeping of far-off machinery. Gibbs reached up to rub the remnants of sleep from his eyes, wondered why he had a headache. His vision blurred for a frightening moment and then cleared to reveal the owner of the voice. Ducky nodded at him. "Good morning, Jethro," he repeated.
Gibbs sat up straighter, took stock of his surroundings. A hospital waiting room, sterile, crisp and bright. The clock on the opposite wall, mounted over the windows, read 7:14; the windows themselves looked out over a crisp, cold morning. He stretched, returned Ducky’s nod. "Morning, Duck."
A hospital waiting room. He blinked as the significance of his surroundings sank in, tried to remember the events of the night before. The safe house, Kate in the street, another verse. And then being woken by the EMT, calling Ducky, the ride to the hospital as night gave way to morning. "Where’re Kate and Tony?"
"Down the hall," Ducky said. "Resting."
"When’d she get out of surgery?" Gibbs asked, coming to his feet abruptly. "I told you to wake me."
Ducky held out a cup of coffee like a peace offering. "Just after three," he said. "And I did try."
Gibbs took the coffee from him but didn’t reclaim his seat. He crossed over to the windows instead, looked down at the parking lot and the crowded street beyond. It was too cheerful, too normal for the way his life -- all of their lives -- had been going, lately. He took a sip of coffee, stared out at the sky, the clouds visible over the tall gray buildings, evidence that life did, in fact, go on.
He felt, rather than saw, Ducky come to stand next to him. "They’re going to be fine, Jethro," Ducky said, answering, as always, his unspoken questions. "The bullet passed through cleanly."
Gibbs didn’t look away from the window. "And Dinozzo?"
"Traces of a sedative, phenobarbital, were found in his blood. The effects should be wearing off shortly. Aside from feeling as though he had a rather long night, Tony should be fine."
And that he’d said "should be" and not "will" was the problem, Gibbs thought, but that wasn’t Ducky’s fault. He sighed, draped an arm over the other man’s shoulder. "Thanks, Ducky."
"Hm," Ducky said, accepting the thanks. "Do you know what happened?"
"Had a feeling something was wrong," Gibbs said. "Kate found a note in her apartment, called me. We found Tony out cold at the safe house . . . I went after the perp and slipped up." He took a sip of coffee, swallowed and kept his eyes on the traffic below. "Kate took over. Got shot. Looks like we got there just in time," he said. "I found another verse and some photos by Dinozzo."
"Yes, Abigail has those," Ducky said. He shifted, checked his watch. "Visiting hours aren’t for another forty minutes. Shall we have breakfast while we wait?"
Gibbs watched the traffic light turn red, halting a line of cars. "Cafeteria food, Duck?"
"Mm, no, there’s a rather good bakery just down the street," Ducky said. "They’ve a lovely brick oven, which, as you know, allows for the contents to be cooked evenly . . ." Giving in, Gibbs smiled and followed him down the hall.
Tony stared at the ceiling, shades of soft white and yellow blurring before his eyes. He was awake, he decided; this just wasn’t where he’d gone to sleep. It was decidedly more sterile, and more modern. He swallowed and grimaced at the thick feeling in his mouth. "Morning, Dinozzo," Gibbs said. Tony turned his head with a great effort to see the man sitting in the chair next to what appeared to be a hospital bed.
"Boss," he said.
"Yeah." Gibbs shifted in the chair; it looked uncomfortable, a plastic monstrosity. "Feeling better?"
"What happened?" Tony asked. He’d decide whether this qualified as "okay" based on the reason for its existence.
"Our guy decided to get more friendly." Gibbs watched him, his eyes giving nothing away. A bruise was darkening on one side of his face and Tony swallowed, wondered what he’d missed. What he was missing.
"Oh." He leaned back against the pillows. There was something he had to say, something important that he couldn’t forget. Right. "Ah, thanks for the pizza."
"The pizza. Dinner. Delivery girl said it was from you . . ."
Gibbs leaned forward. "Why the hell would I send you pizza?"
"Figured you were . . ." He gave up, shrugged. It seemed to take an incredible amount of energy. "Hey, where’s Kate?"
"Down the hall," Gibbs said. He stood, pushed the chair back. "You remember what I said about checking I.D.?"
"Yeah." He sighed. "She had a clipboard. Company car, uniform."
"Damn it." Gibbs studied him for a long moment and then made a decision. "Get some rest, Tony. You’re gonna need it." Tony opened his mouth to ask why, but Gibbs was already gone, the door closed tightly behind him. He sighed, wondered what he wasn’t being told. Something, that was obvious. He wondered how bad it was, what had happened, what he’d just unwittingly told Gibbs.
Making a decision, he stood, using the bed for support until he was sure he wasn’t going to fall. His hands were shaking, but at least he was relatively sure of the cause; it was physical and not a reaction to a death, to something he’d seen. Which meant that it would fade. He was still wearing the clothes from the day before, which was a good sign. The events bringing him here couldn’t have been too bad.
He made it to the doorway, opened the door and leaned against the doorjamb, resting his forehead against the cool wood. The hallway lights were bright, causing spots to dance before his eyes, and someone was paging a doctor, their voice distorted by the PA system. He heard footsteps and looked up to see Ducky hurrying towards him.
"I believe Jethro’s instructions were for you to rest," Ducky said, placing a hand on Tony’s back and gently turning him around.
Tony ignored the hint. "What happened?"
"He didn’t tell you? No, I don’t imagine he would have." Ducky sighed, guiding him back inside. Tony frowned at him but didn’t resist. Ducky waited until he was safely back on the bed before continuing. "The killer paid you a visit last night. Jethro arrived in time to intervene and found you unconscious. He found a poem, as well . . ."
"Did he get the guy?"
"No." Ducky frowned, shook his head. "Though he did try. As did Kate."
"Kate. Gibbs said she was right down the hall," Tony said.
"Yes, she is," Ducky said.
He was getting tired of being told everything but the important details, everything but that which would make a difference. "And . . ."
"She’s resting comfortably," Ducky finished.
"Resting?" He blinked. "What am I missing?"
"Ah, she attempted to apprehend the killer and received a bullet wound."
His hands clenched the scratchy blankets, the itchy weave pressing against his skin. "Is she okay?"
"Yes, yes. She’s fine," Ducky said quickly.
Tony nodded, wondering if Gibbs had given instructions to Ducky, too. Wondering if maybe those instructions had been to keep him in here at all costs -- but he wouldn’t lie about Kate, would he? "Where’d Gibbs go?" he asked.
"He said something about a lead," Ducky said. "I trust he’ll keep us updated." This was accompanied by a lift of his eyebrows, as if to acknowledge that the updates would come when Gibbs had a spare moment or felt like sharing. Tony frowned, wanting to push the issue, but that, he thought, would aggravate the dull throbbing in his head and it was easier just to lie back, close his eyes and let the soft hospital sounds and Ducky’s contemplative gaze lull him to sleep.
Abby looked up as Gibbs entered the lab and, seeing the plastic cup in his hand, didn’t wait for him to ask before answering his question. "I found traces of phenobarbital in the pizza, more in the soda," she said. "Any idea how it got there?"
"My guess?" he said, handing her the cup. "Somebody made it especially for Tony."
She took a sip from the brightly colored straw, swallowed. "Pizza Hut, accomplices for hire. Catchy. You think you can get them to admit to it?"
"Whoever ordered it said it was from me," he said. "Dinozzo said the girl who delivered it had a company car and a uniform, but . . ." He frowned, trying to remember if the figure who’d blindsided him had been female. It could’ve been; the darkness had concealed distinguishing characteristics and whoever it was had been moving fast. Not to mention hitting hard.
"But you don’t think she actually works there," Abby finished. Her eyes widened as she made the connection. "Your serial’s female?"
Gibbs raised his eyebrows in agreement. It was a theory, anyway; whether or not it would hold true remained to be seen. "Rare, but not impossible," he said.
Abby nodded, set the plastic cup down on her desk. "Guess that supports the psycho ex theory."
"The psycho ex theory?" he asked, not entirely sure he wanted her to elaborate.
"Yup." She nodded vigorously and then, seeing his expression, saw fit to explain. "Tony said he couldn’t think of anybody who’d do this, so I came up with my own theories, one of which is that it’s an angry ex-girlfriend bent on revenge. You know, ‘Carrie,’ fifteen years later."
He took a sip of coffee, nodded. "Keep up the good work, Abs." She grinned and he turned, left the lab and headed down to the armory. Dinozzo’s weapon was still considered evidence, still set aside in the hopes that it would lead to a connection or a conviction, and Gibbs didn’t want to wait until that happened before returning it. The killer was escalating, tiring of his or her game; whoever it was had made an attempt on Tony’s life. Considering that the killer was armed, it seemed unfair -- and highly illogical -- to expect Dinozzo to defend himself with his bare hands. Allotting the other agent another weapon wasn’t entirely legal; however, if he happened to check another out for himself and then leave it where Dinozzo could find it, should he need to . . . that was another story.
After all, accidents did happen.
The sound of the door closing awoke Tony; he opened his eyes slowly to find that he was alone in the room, Ducky no longer maintaining his watch. He sat up, waited for the room to spin and was pleasantly surprised when it didn’t. He swung out of bed, ready to try this again. If all went well, he’d make it past the doorway. At least this time he had a destination, a goal. Kate was right down the hall and he was going to see for himself what had happened. At the very least, he could verify what Ducky had told him, and maybe . . . maybe she would tell him what had happened, share the details that Ducky could not and which Gibbs refused for his own good, or whatever logic the senior agent used to justify keeping Tony in the dark.
It really wasn’t fair, Tony thought, considering that this was about him, that all of this was happening as a result of something that he’d done, though he wasn’t sure what action that was, what the catalyst had been. Of course, he had to admit that this was how Gibbs usually conducted investigations; maybe it was wrong to think that his boss would make an exception just for him.
Not that this justification made him feel any better.
He made it to the doorway, opened the door and peered outside. Ducky was nowhere in sight and the hallway’s other occupants appeared to be too busy to care about what he was doing, where he was going. He glanced in both directions, wondered what "down the hall" really meant. The next room, the one after that, the one after that? Not to mention the fact that a bank of elevators and a stairwell were located at the end of the hall; technically, he supposed, Gibbs could have meant . . .
But he’d worry about that when he came to it. He stepped into the hall, closed the door behind him. There was no reason to alert anyone to his absence any sooner than was necessary. He wondered again what he wasn’t being told, why it was so important for him to be kept in isolation, away from the case and from Kate. When he’d been the lead suspect, the need for discretion had been understandable, but since his status had changed, as Gibbs had so eloquently put it, from suspect to target, that reason no longer applied.
Then why . . .?
He glanced into the first room, decided that its occupant was most definitely not Kate, and continued on. He doubted Gibbs was doing this just to be irritating, as Tony hadn’t exactly put up any resistance and he didn’t think he fit into the bumbling-civilian category. Which meant that Gibbs was doing this because he thought it was necessary.
Because Gibbs was trying to protect him.
Gibbs was keeping him out of the line of fire, Tony realized. The events of the past few days, culminating in Kate’s injury the night before, must have convinced him that Tony was not only a liability, but in danger, himself. Hence his offer to have Tony stay with him, his agreement on a safe house, maybe even the fact that he’d arrived in time the night before. It explained Ducky’s hallway and then bedside watch, too; Gibbs knew he could trust the ME.
Which meant that Gibbs was doing this on his own. All on his own. Suddenly Kate’s intense desire to drop Tony at the safe house made sense. She hadn’t really wanted to go home; she’d wanted Gibbs to go home. Because she’d seen something, watched the effects of this case take their toll . . .
And Tony’d been too involved in it himself to notice.
He opened the next door and saw the results.
He didn’t remember moving, but then he was in the room, staring down at Kate. Sheer reflex told him to close the door behind him, make sure no one would come inside and try to drag him away, but the rest of his mind was focused on the dark hair surrounding skin far too pale, the needles and wires connected to her arms, the soft beeping of the machines monitoring her vitals. He stared at the soft rise and fall of her chest, a distant part of his mind telling him that if she were awake, she’d definitely kill him for that.
He didn’t notice when the door opened behind him, didn’t know that anyone else was in the room until Gibbs spoke. "She’s going to be fine, Dinozzo."
He blinked, turned from Kate. "Yeah. Ah, yeah, I know. Ducky said she was down here and I figured I’d just . . ."
"Make sure he was telling the truth?" Gibbs took a sip of coffee, fixed Tony with a hard stare until he shrugged, looked away. Close enough to confirmation. "He was."
"He said you had a lead," Tony said, anxious to change the subject. To get this resolved.
"Yeah. Looks like we might be looking for a woman. You remember what the girl who delivered the pizza looked like?"
"She was, uh . . ." He bit his lip. "You know, I didn’t notice." He’d had other things on his mind, after all, and to be honest, she hadn’t exactly been a ten.
Gibbs looked at him dubiously. "Right."
"I had other things on my mind," he said.
"And she probably didn’t rank high enough," Kate said. Rasped. Tony turned, caught between happiness that she was, in fact, alive, and irritation that she was, well, herself. She smiled weakly, pushed herself up against the pillows and winced.
"Now that I can buy," Gibbs said.
Kate laughed, a dry, harsh sound, and Tony turned to the pitcher on the bedside table, poured water into a plastic cup and held it out to her. She reached for it, her hand catching on the wires. He swallowed, stepped closer and, overly aware that both Gibbs and Kate were watching him, disentangled her fingers. She nodded in thanks, took the plastic cup from his hands and drank. "I get him?" she asked a moment later.
Tony looked at Gibbs, waiting for an answer. Surely Gibbs would have mentioned if she had. Gibbs frowned. "Him?" he asked.
"The guy at the safe house," Kate said.
"He was male?" Gibbs asked, ignoring the redundancy.
"I thought so," she said. "It was dark." She sighed. "Was tall."
"Yeah. Well," Gibbs said. "Get some rest, Kate."
"Yeah," she murmured, her eyes closing as she sank back against the bed. Gibbs motioned Tony out of the room, closed the door behind them. As they stood in the hallway, in the patches of gray light let in by the large windows, Tony wondered if this was how Ducky had felt. No, Ducky’d had more information, known what was going on. He had that privilege, the honor of being an equal and not a subordinate.
"What the hell happened?" Tony asked, resisting the urge to lean against the wall. "And not the Cliffs Notes version," he added.
"You tell me, Dinozzo."
He spread his hands, held them palm-out as if to emphasize their emptiness. "I don’t know. I was watching Cheers and then I was here."
"Yeah," Gibbs said. He didn’t sound like he was surprised by Tony’s answer. "Your pizza, which I didn’t send you, was drugged."
"Oh." Well, that explained a lot. He nodded, avoided meeting Gibbs’ eyes. "And Kate?"
"Went after the killer."
Obviously -- and where had Gibbs been? Tony wondered how he’d gotten the blackening bruise and decided not to ask. "Oh."
Gibbs looked past him, out through the windows. Tony turned, followed his gaze and watched a plane ascending into the sky, a silver shadow against the clouds. "This might not be about you, Tony."
He frowned, wondering what he was still missing. "What do you mean, boss?"
"She found a note, too."
"Kate?" he asked.
"No, Abby," Gibbs said automatically, sighed as if in realization that maybe that was yet to come. "Yes, Kate," he said.
"A poem?" Tony asked.
Tony looked down at the floor, the flecked-tile pattern, and back up at Gibbs. So the killer was going after Kate, too. That didn’t mean this wasn’t about him, just that he was right. Kate and Gibbs were in danger. He swallowed as the image of Alice’s body flashed into his mind, brilliant and harsh. "You’re not . . . you’re not just gonna leave her here, right? I mean, if the killer’s going after her, too."
"You volunteering for guard duty?" Gibbs asked. Tony opened his mouth, ready to agree if necessary, and Gibbs continued. "I’ve requested a guard, yeah. Should be here any minute."
"That’s why Ducky was here?" Tony asked. Filling in. Doing what Gibbs, at that point, couldn’t?
"That’s why Ducky was here," Gibbs confirmed. Tony nodded, allowing himself to relax, letting some of the morning’s tension fall from his shoulders. He stared out the window, tracing the path the plane should have taken. Up and out through the Washington sky. The sharp click of high heels a few moments later brought him back to full attention. A blond woman was coming towards them and Gibbs stepped forward to intercept her, to make introductions before Tony could speak.
"I’m Agent Narida," the woman said, flipping her badge open smoothly. She closed it, slid it back into her pocket, revealing a dark holster as she did. Tony watched the way her muscles stretched, contracted underneath the smooth fabric of her jacket. "I’ve been assigned to guard duty."
"Narida," Gibbs said. "I’m Special Agent Gibbs. This is Special Agent Dinozzo." Tony smiled at her; she lifted her eyebrows. "Agent Todd’s in room 210. Nobody goes in without proper credentials."
"I’ve worked guard duty before, sir," Narida said, crossing her arms.
"And verify the credentials," Gibbs added. Narida frowned at him but didn’t protest. Tony offered her an apologetic smile, erasing it when Gibbs turned around to address him. "Back to your own room, Dinozzo."
"But I’m fine," Tony protested. Tired, but who wasn’t?
"No, you’re not." Gibbs glared at him and he gave in, allowing himself to be herded back into the room. Gibbs closed the door behind them, pulled a Sig Sauer from his jacket pocket. Not from his holster, Tony realized, which was strange.
"I swear, boss, I’ll stay," Tony said, raising his hands in what he thought was probably only mock surrender.
Gibbs grinned, a startling sight given the situation. "Don’t tempt me." He set the gun down on the bedside table. "Yours is still in evidence." He lifted his coffee to his mouth, swallowed. "And you know me. Always losing things."
When in reality, he was anything but. Tony nodded, didn’t reach for the gun. It was too early and he didn’t want Gibbs to think he was that desperate. Gibbs turned to go, looked back when he reached the door. "And I’m serious, Tony. You’re staying here."
"But -" The door closed, cutting him off, and he sighed, wondered if "here" extended to the hallway where Narida was waiting.
"Hey, Abs," Gibbs said, tossing the plastic bag to Abby as he entered the lab. She spun her chair around in time to catch it and held it up to the light. She was tapping one of her heavy boots in time to the background music as she worked.
"A bullet," she said. "Interesting." She lowered the bag, looked at Gibbs. "Another victim?"
He shook his head. "Luckily, no. That’s the one that shot Kate."
Abby winced, reached for a pair of latex gloves. She had to take off her rings in order to slide them over her hands. "She’s doing okay, though, right?"
"Yeah. Good enough to put up with Dinozzo for a few minutes," he said. "Got a guard posted outside her door."
Abby nodded. "And you want me to see if this came from the same gun as the one that killed Hartley?" Gibbs returned the nod and she grinned. "Will do." She leaned forward, slid the bullet out of the bag and under the scope. Gibbs crossed to the evidence table, handed her the bag containing the other bullet and she slid it next to the former, adjusted the scope’s knobs to bring the images into focus. Apparently satisfied, she hit the switch to transfer what she was seeing to the larger screen.
"Okay," she said. "So we’ve got matches here, here, and there . . ." She turned around to look at Gibbs, to judge his reaction. "I’d have to say they’re from the same gun."
"You’d have to say?" he asked.
She rolled her eyes, rephrased. "They’re from the same gun."
"Good," he said. That ruled out the possibility that the attacker at the safe house had been male, which would have given the case an entirely new direction. "Thanks, Abs."
"‘Course," she said. "You need the bullet?"
"Add it to the pile," he called over his shoulder. The doors hissed closed behind him, muting her music, and he wondered how logical her psycho ex theory really was. He was not unfamiliar with the concept of a woman’s wrath -- he had the scars to prove it -- but surely Dinozzo knew better than to get into something he couldn’t handle. Unless he hadn’t been able to tell, hadn’t known. Would a vengeful ex-girlfriend, for lack of a better term, be preferable to an angry ex-con?
It didn’t matter, Gibbs decided. All that mattered was how far they decided to take the game and how far they got before he stopped them.
He was missing something. A connection hadn’t been made, something had gone unnoticed. Gibbs reached for his paper cup of coffee, frowned when he realized it was empty. Three hours since he’d left Kate and Tony at the hospital and he had nothing to show for it, aside from the fact that both Hartley and Kate had been shot by the same weapon. The problem, he thought, was that there were too many possibilities, too many chances. Too many people, too many chances. Dinozzo didn’t think he had any real enemies, but that didn’t matter to the person who considered herself one.
And without any leads, there was no way to find that person. Whoever it was had planned this, made sure they would be left with nothing, and any significance that could be found in that was meaningless without names, potentials. Hell, aside from the fact that the killer was focused on Tony, they didn’t even know the motive. Did the killer want to frame Tony, and failing that, destroy those close to him? Did they want to make Tony feel guilty or to frighten him, let him know that his time was running out?
There was no way to tell.
There was no way to tell and time really was running out. By the time they got a break, it could be too late. If the break came in the form of Kate’s body, or Tony’s . . .
"Am I interrupting something, Jethro?" Ducky’s voice was quiet, soothing. Gibbs looked away from the computer screen with relief.
"Just thinking, Duck," he said, leaning back in his chair. "I’m missing something. There’s something we haven’t seen."
"Yes," Ducky agreed. "But thanks to what you did see, Tony is still alive, and Kate will recover."
"Yeah," he said. "But what about the next time?" He looked up to see Ducky watching him with sympathy, shook his head. "Thinking out loud."
"That does help sometimes," Ducky said. He smiled at Gibbs, all the help he could offer.
"You heading out?" Gibbs asked.
"Down, actually," Ducky said. "An unfortunate ensign found himself on a shooting range yesterday." Gibbs watched him leave, returned his attention to the case. No leads. He frowned, staring off into space. No leads, and a question.
He replayed the events of the case. Dinozzo woke up and found Vasquez dead. The ketamine used to keep him quiet during the murder was planted at the scene and the camera was covered. A failsafe, in case the investigators didn’t immediately arrest Tony? And then Hartley, just assigned as the SAC and who resembled Kate. The killer had followed her home, killed her and then given them the Gamble tip. And finally, the killer had gone after Tony at the safe house.
How? How had the killer known to go after Hartley, found out where she lived? How had the killer found out about Gamble, known that Tony’d investigated the case? And how, then, had they known that Tony would be at the safe house?
How, indeed. And all along, it had been right there. Gibbs stood quickly, ignored the elevator in favor of the stairs. If he were wrong, if all of that was a coincidence or could be explained otherwise, he would look for another connection. And if he were right . . .
If he were right, this could all be over by the end of the day.
Abby looked worried to see him return. "Another victim?" she asked.
"No," he said. He strode over to the evidence table, shuffled through the bags until he found the one he needed, the one containing the bullet extracted from Hartley. "Run this through the NCIS database. D.C. only."
"What?" She blinked, took the bag from him. "You think the killer’s . . ."
"On it." She slid the bullet out of the bag, fit into the scope and turned back to the computer, began pressing keys. A few moments later, she sat back, her eyes intent. "It’s scanning."
Gibbs didn’t answer as he watched the images fly by on the screen. One minute passed, and then two. Three. And then the machine beeped, showing an alert in green. Abby leaned forward, looking surprised. "How’d you know?"
"Got a match?" he asked.
"Yeah," she said, reading from the screen. "The weapon belongs to a Monica Narida. She’s currently assigned to -"
"Guard Kate’s room," Gibbs finished. He didn’t wait for Abby’s affirmation before spinning on his heel and sprinting out of the lab.
Tony sighed, flipped through the last few pages of the old magazine and tossed it on the table next to the weapon Gibbs had left him. He glanced at his watch, wondered how long it would be before Gibbs decided to have him released. How was Gibbs keeping him here, anyway? Had he gone as far to threaten the hospital staff?
He stood, stretched. He was getting hungry and besides, he wanted to check on Kate. He glanced at the Sig, slid it into his pocket. Would’ve been nice if Gibbs had happened to bring his holster, too, but he’d work with what he had.
He closed the door behind him, looked down the corridor. Narida was just stepping out Kate’s room, her dark suit vivid against the pale hospital walls. He quickened his pace, frowned as she did the same. Wasn’t she supposed to be guarding Kate? Maybe there’d been a shift change that he hadn’t noticed. That Gibbs hadn’t told him about.
Or maybe this was something else entirely.
He broke into a run, slammed open Kate’s door. The machines were off, he noticed, or at least silenced, and the bed linens were askew as though there’d been a struggle.
And Kate didn’t appear to be breathing.
He turned, ran back into the hallway. Why the hell hadn’t anyone noticed? The nurses down at the station looked up as Kate’s door slammed open, hitting the wall. "I need a doctor in here now!" he yelled. He didn’t wait to make sure they were following him before returning to her bedside, tilting her head back and positioning his hands over her chest.
Yeah. If she were awake, she’d definitely kill him.
He braced his hands, shoved down and then moved up, held her nose shut and exhaled into her mouth. Where the hell were the doctors?
And then they were pushing him aside, back, replacing his outdated CPR with medical instruments and needles. He watched them for only a second, making sure they were really going to take over, and then thundered out into the hall. Narida had been heading for the end of the hall, the stairs and the elevator. He doubted he could catch up with her now, but he had to try.
One of the elevators was in use, the alert overhead revealing its destination to be the garage. He slammed the button to call the other elevator and then gave up, taking the stairs, instead. His footsteps echoed in the narrow stairwell and he nearly fell, caught himself on the metal railing and stumbled through the door into the garage.
The elevator had already arrived. He leaned forward, bracing his hands on his knees, and listened for the tell-tale snap of high-heeled shoes on the dry cement, wondering if she’d ducked behind one of the thick gray support pillars.
He didn’t hear anything. So if she really was down here, she was already in her car. The question was, which car was hers?
He went with the one closest to the elevator, crept to its side and peered in. Empty. One down, how many to go?
And then the car next to him started, its engine roar deafening. He lunged out of the way in time to avoid being hit head on and the floor came up hard. He hissed in pain as his shoulder hit the ground and he rolled to his feet, glad he didn’t need his left hand to shoot. He checked to make sure the Sig was still in his pocket and looked up in time to see a dark sedan peeling out of the garage, fishtailing as it headed up the exit ramp. No way he was going to catch it, but at least he could get a license number. He ran after Narida just as another car pulled into the garage with squealing tires, missing him narrowly as it stopped less than a foot away. He watched as the taillights of Narida’s car disappeared onto the street, her car turning and accelerating away.
"It’s Narida," Gibbs shouted, opening his car door and immediately breaking into a run for the stairs.
"I know," Tony said, resting his hands on the hood of Gibbs’ car. It was warm, too hot, and he pulled his hands away quickly. "That was her. Leaving."
Gibbs halted, swore under his breath. "Kate?"
"They’re working on her."
Gibbs sighed, holstered his gun and eliminated the distance between them with four long steps. "I thought I told you to stay up there, Tony."
He shrugged, wondering if Gibbs would give him a minute to catch his breath. "I saw something and went with it."
"Right," Gibbs said, letting Tony lean against him as they headed to the elevators. "Did you think that maybe there was a reason I told you to stay up there?"
Tony shrugged. "For a minute," he admitted. "But Narida was heading for the elevators and . . ."
"You went with it." Gibbs nodded. "Good job, Dinozzo."
Gibbs rolled his eyes, didn’t answer as the elevator chimed its arrival and they stepped out. The hallway was significantly busier than it had been when he’d left a few minutes ago. Gibbs stood in the doorway to Kate’s room and watched as the medical team finished what they were doing. Tony, standing behind him, swallowed and stared at the machines. They’d been turned back on. She was alive. He’d been in time.
"What happened?" Gibbs demanded.
One of the nurses stepped back. "It appears she was suffocated, sir, but we have a heartbeat."
Gibbs let out a deep breath, sounding almost relieved, and nodded. He let the team finish and stepped aside as they headed for the doorway. He and Tony filed into the room, stood over Kate’s bed.
"So it was Narida?" Tony asked after a moment. "She’s the one who killed Alice and Hartley?"
"And tipped us about Gamble and tried to kill you at the safe house," Gibbs agreed.
Tony winced, remembering the leather holster, provocatively dark against the whiteness of her shirt, and tried to imagine the weapon gripped by those delicate hands, pressed to Alice’s chest. While he’d done nothing. While he’d slept.
"She wasn’t the pizza girl," he said finally.
Gibbs raised his eyebrows. "So she paid somebody else to deliver." He sighed. "What’d you do to her, Dinozzo?"
He shook his head. "I swear, boss, I’ve never seen her before in my life." Gibbs frowned at him. "Believe me, I’d remember if I had."
Gibbs nodded. "I do. Just means that we’ll have something else to ask her when we find her."
"At least we know who she is," Tony said.
"Yeah," Gibbs said. "Yeah." He was watching Kate; Tony swallowed and did the same. The sound of her breathing filled the room and he wondered what would have happened if he hadn’t decided to go visit Narida.
No, he thought, it was probably better not to wonder about that. And definitely better not to mention it to Gibbs.
The second and third guards arrived an hour later. A pair, just in case. Tony sat in one of the uncomfortable chairs lining the hallway and watched as Gibbs briefed them on their assignment, an undoubtedly harsher lecture than he’d given Narida. When he was finished, he came over to speak with Tony. "Let’s go."
Tony stood, winced at the pull in his shoulder. "Where’re we going?"
"Narida’s house," Gibbs called over his shoulder.
Tony hurried to catch up with him. "You really think she’ll go back there? She knew enough to cover the cameras -- I don’t think she’s going to make that mistake."
"No," Gibbs agreed. "But I think we might find out where she went. And why."
"Right." Tony followed him down to the garage. The government-issue sedan was still where he’d left it, abandoned in the aisle. Tony opened the passenger’s side door as Gibbs got in, made sure his seatbelt was buckled before Gibbs started the car.
"Call Abby. Get Narida’s address," Gibbs said, handing Tony his cell phone. Tony blinked, trying to remember where he’d left it. "Found it at the safe house," Gibbs said. Which made sense. Tony nodded, dialed.
"Hey, Abby," he said, listening to the pulsing beat in the background.
She sounded glad to hear him. "Tony, how’re you doing? You at the hospital?"
Gibbs accelerated up the exit ramp, took the corner tightly. "Leaving, actually," Tony said.
"‘Cause Gibbs said your killer was guarding Kate’s room," Abby said. He wondered if Gibbs had told her anything else, if he’d called her after Narida had escaped. He replayed the events of the past hour -- no. So she’d been waiting, wondering if Kate was alive, maybe if he himself was alive. Somehow, that didn’t surprise him.
"She was, and Kate’s fine."
"Oh. Good," Abby said. "So, what do you need?"
He glanced over at Gibbs. "Narida’s address."
He heard clicking in the background, Abby pressing keys. "House calls, hm? Okay. Narida lives at 1121 Bremmer."
"1121 Bremmer," Tony said to Gibbs, who nodded and jerked the car into the other lane.
Abby was talking to him, asking something. Tony forced himself to pay attention to the conversation and not the continuing near-death experience. "So she escaped?"
"Yeah," he said.
"But at least you know who you’re looking for."
He nodded. "That’s what I said."
"Keep me posted, okay?" she asked.
"Will do." He ended the call, slid the phone into the jacket pocket without the gun and settled in for a short ride. The sky, already gray with clouds, was darkening; the streetlights were beginning to glow. He winced as they shot through another intersection just as the traffic light turned red. Gibbs glowered at him and he decided to refrain from commenting.
Narida’s house loomed large on the quiet street. She lived across from a park, which meant that on one side of the street, once one got past the sidewalk, trees swallowed up any light. Gibbs, of course, parked on that side of the street. Tony decided he was getting very tired of suburbia -- why couldn’t anyone live in an apartment like a normal person? Gibbs opened his door and Tony did the same, following him across the road. Tony fingered his gun, slid it out of his jacket and clicked off the safety. Just in case.
The front door was unlocked. Tony frowned as Gibbs opened it cautiously, ready for someone to leap out at him and attack.
No one did, and they stepped inside, Tony closing the door behind them. Gibbs reached out, switched on the overhead lights and Tony blinked at the sudden brightness. "I’ll take upstairs," he said. Gibbs nodded, continued down the hallway. Tony turned, took the stairs two at a time. It was unlikely that anyone would be in the house, he thought, so stealth wasn’t really an issue. He ducked into the first room and halted.
For once, luck was on his side.
"I found something," he called. He heard Gibbs coming up the stairs, waited.
"What is it?" Gibbs asked as he appeared in the doorway. He’d replaced his gun in its holster, Tony noticed, but hadn’t snapped the holster shut. So he still thought there was a chance that something would go wrong, that someone was waiting.
"Looks like Narida has a hobby," he said, gesturing to the opposite wall, the collage of photos and articles adorning the plaster. Gibbs pushed past him to examine the work. "You gotta wonder how she passed the psych exam."
"Nah, the standards are pretty lax," Gibbs said. He squinted at the pictures, candid photos, and the articles, the memos. Tony came over to stand by him and do the same. Gibbs in line for coffee. Tony in his apartment parking lot. Kate as she went through the NCIS security checkpoint. "These are all from the past year," he murmured.
"Yeah." Tony frowned. "And you know what’s weird?" Gibbs looked at him expectantly, waiting for the punchline. "Aside from the whole NCIS-collage thing. If she’s after me, why are all of us in these?"
"Unless she’s not after you," Gibbs said. "Maybe you were just the beginning." His eyes seemed colorless in the dimly lit room, making it impossible to see what he was thinking.
"So what’s the big finish?" Tony asked. As if in answer, something crashed in the back yard. He met Gibbs’ eyes, shrugged. "Pretend I didn’t ask."
"You take the front," Gibbs said, ignoring his comment. Tony nodded, followed him down the stairs, making an effort to be quiet. They separated at the base of the stairs, as Gibbs went down the hallway and Tony went out the front door.
The night seemed to have grown much colder since he’d entered the house, he thought as he closed the door with a soft click. He held his gun in front of him, ready to shoot if Narida had, for some reason, decided to come home and hide in the back yard. He didn’t know why she would, but he didn’t expect to; that was more Kate’s thing.
Something shifted across the street and he narrowed his eyes, squinting to see in the dark. There, there it was again. Someone was over there, standing just beyond the streetlights’ illumination. He jogged across the street, took cover behind Gibbs’ car, peered over the hood. Yes, there was definitely someone there. He slid out from behind the car, darted behind the next one. Closer and closer.
From three feet away, he could tell it was Narida.
"Federal agent," he said, raising the gun. "Freeze."
She turned to see him, smiled. "Agent Dinozzo."
"Hands in the air," Tony said. She shrugged, lifted her arms. He frowned, wondering why she’d come back. Why she was here, why she wasn’t reaching for a gun. So much for a big finish, explosive burnout. He stepped closer to her, reached out to turn her around, shove her against the car. She’d changed clothes, he realized, running his eyes over her body. The suit had been replaced with efficient black clothing, absorbing the light, and the heels had been replaced by dark running shoes. She was prepared for something, Tony thought. She knew . . .
Narida looked up at him, met his eyes and smiled, her hands moving down and out. He saw the glint of metal and reached out to catch her dominant hand as something jabbed into his right arm. He glanced down as her left hand shoved the syringe in and he wrenched out of her grasp.
"I said freeze," he repeated, wondering where Gibbs was and what she thought she was going to do. Prodding him to death with medical instruments was not what he’d expected. Her previous actions had been more theatrical, her murders more dramatic, and her outfit said that she knew what she was doing. That she was ready.
"I’m not moving," she said. He could hear his own blood pounding in his ears and her smile turned mocking. "It’s a game, Tony," she said. "And you’re just a pawn." He frowned at her in confusion as the gun dropped from his hand and the streetlights winked out, one by one. Until all that was left was the glimmer of her predatory smile and then her hands, electric on his arm, and then nothing at all.
The back yard was empty. Gibbs stood in front of the back door, scanned the area for a fourth time. Something moved and he shifted his weapon, aiming it at the dark shadow. But it was too small and as it came closer, he saw that it was simply a black cat. Well, that was fitting. He lowered his gun, glad that Dinozzo had gone around front. But what had caused the crash? There was a trash can in the corner, but the cat had come from the opposite direction. Still, cats were known to move; it could have leapt onto the can and, startled by the noise, taken off.
Or . . .
He crossed the yard, sending the animal scurrying back into the shadows, and knelt beside the trash can. A hole had been punched in the side. A hole, as if made by a bullet. If someone had used a silencer, all they would have heard from inside was the crash, and that would have drawn them outside. But why?
Divide and conquer, he thought. Divide and conquer.
He dashed around the side of the house, reaching the street in time to see red taillights disappearing around the corner. The car he’d driven was still there, but Tony was nowhere in sight. He ran across the street, pulled out his keys to unlock the car and opened the door.
It was locked.
Which meant that it had been open before. And he was sure that he’d locked it. He knelt down, examining the lock. Light scratches covered the metal, as if someone had picked it in a hurry, not taking the time to make sure their intrusion would go unnoticed. He stood, unlocked the door and slid inside.
There was something on the passenger’s seat. He reached over, held the cloth up so he could see what it was.
Tony’s jacket. The gun was missing, he realized.
He shook the fabric, watched as a small white piece of paper fluttered down. He dropped the jacket, reached for the paper. The note was typed, he saw. This had been planned. Narida was moving on from poetry, as far as he could tell. The note simply read "Queen takes pawn."
What had Kate said? "This is a game to him -- he’s baiting us." And aside from the pronoun issue, she was absolutely right. It was a game, and they were playing along. She’d given them clues -- the photos, the necklace, the use of her own weapon -- and they were following along blindly.
He crumpled the note in his hand, started the car and reached for his cell phone. Narida was no longer operating under the pretense that she was an innocent agent; she’d grabbed Dinozzo, which meant she knew they were onto her. So there was no need to worry about alerting her. "This is Agent Gibbs. I need an investigative team to 1121 Bremmer right now and an APB out on Agent Monica Narida."
Abby’s lab was painfully silent. Gibbs stared out the window, crossed his arms and waited. The sky was black, timeless. "Gibbs," Abby began.
He turned, fixed her with a hard glare. "What?"
She shook her head. "Nothing."
His cell phone rang and he answered it immediately. The plastic was slick, too fragile in his hand. "Gibbs."
"Agent Gibbs, this is Agent Hythe. You wanted us to let you know when we finished at the crime scene." Did the agent think he’d forgotten this? Dinozzo was missing and the agent was telling him what he’d said.
"And?" Gibbs prompted.
"We’re finished. Sir," he added as an afterthought, as if he thought it would deter Gibbs’ wrath, allow him to get off the phone sooner and go home to his family, let him go to sleep in a safe, warm bed. Like hell.
"And?" Gibbs repeated.
"We came up empty," the agent said.
"There’s nothing," Hythe said, sounding incredulous, amazed at Narida’s ingenuity. "It’s like she knew exactly what she was doing." Which she did, because she was a field agent. She knew what they would be looking for, what to avoid.
"Keep looking," Gibbs snarled, snapping the phone shut before Hythe could protest.
"Gibbs," Abby said again. "I know you’re worried, but you’ll find them." She smiled; it would have been more comforting if she’d looked like she believed it, herself.
"Thanks, Abs," he said. Because he did appreciate her attempt, even if it didn’t work. She sighed, went back to monitoring. He returned his gaze to the windows, hating the wasted time but not knowing what else he could do. They had an APB out. Roadblocks were being considered. Agents had been posted at the airports. Narida would not be leaving town, he knew, but that was not a comfort. There were plenty of ways in which one could be killed in Washington D.C., and plenty of places in which one could hide. He clenched his hands, stared out at the black void that was the world beyond. He had a name. He had a name, a picture, a woman to search for. He knew what he was looking for, but he didn’t know how to find her.
And in the meantime, time was ticking away. Kate was in the hospital, unconscious after a bullet would and then an attempt on her life. Tony was missing, his life at the hands of a madwoman.
And Gibbs had no idea where to look.
The television was on but muted, the images casting an orange glow over the floral bedspread. A local station, broadcasting a news show. Through the window and across the street, a neon sign shone brightly. A dangerous, poisonous blue, flashing open, open, open. A motel. He was in a motel. Tony swallowed as he became conscious of the cheap plastic weave of the blanket underneath him and the cold metal cuff around one of his wrists. The other cuff was attached to the bedframe; he gave the cuffs an experimental tug and was rewarded with a soft clinking noise as metal snapped against metal.
He closed his eyes against a wave of nausea, tried to think through it. He was certain that he wasn’t here voluntarily. No, like everything else lately, it was because of Narida. She’d jabbed him with a syringe containing . . . something. Something not good. And then she’d dragged him away. He wondered why and then decided that he hoped he wouldn’t find out.
He opened his eyes cautiously, wondering where she was and what had happened to Gibbs. Surely he hadn’t fallen victim to whatever Narida’s plan was. If Gibbs had come upon her, Tony thought, he probably would have shot first, rather than waiting for her to knock him out. Which though occasionally inadvisable, was, in this situation, wise. The idea gave him hope; if Narida didn’t have Gibbs, that meant Gibbs was free to continue working on the case and to notice Tony’s absence. Which meant that the odds of his being rescued were definitely in his favor.
That seemed to be happening a lot lately, he thought. Gibbs rescuing him. He wondered briefly if he should thank his boss for that, send him a card or something, and then caught himself, forced his attention back to his current situation. If and when Gibbs broke down the door, he was not going to find Tony staring off into space, a vapid smile on his face. No. Tony pulled again at the handcuffs, relishing the sudden reality of the metal biting into his skin.
Speaking of breaking down the door, where the hell was Narida? Did she assume that because he was cuffed, he wouldn’t be able to escape? He glanced over at the bedside table, the telephone. She’d pulled the table just out of his reach, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t yell for help.
Maybe she just thought no one would listen.
As if in answer, the motel door opened and Narida stepped in, locked and chained it behind her. She was carrying a plastic bag which she set at the foot of the bed. "You’re awake," she noted.
"Yeah," he said, shifting so that if she happened to come near him, he’d be able to grab her. Not that she would make that mistake. "You bring me dinner?"
"No, but you can watch me eat," she said, pulling out a paper-wrapped parcel and a water bottle. She crumpled the plastic bag and tossed it aside, took a seat in the straight-backed chair across from the bed. Not in line with the window, he noted, but maybe that was a coincidence and not a result of some innate psychopath’s sense of self-preservation.
"This your master plan?" he asked. "Make me hungry? Because it seems like you went to a lot of effort."
She unwrapped the paper, revealing a bland-looking sandwich. "I did. I have."
"Where are we?" he asked, going for the obvious. He didn’t recognize the area, but depending on where they were, maybe he could do something, though he wasn’t sure what. Still, knowledge was, at least in theory, power.
Narida took a bite of her sandwich, chewed for a moment. "A hotel," she said.
"Uh-huh. And how’d you get me in here? Bribe the clerk?" If she said yes, that would give Gibbs someone who could tell him where to find Tony, who’d seen what had happened.
"I told him my husband had overindulged," Narida said. "He helped me carry you in here." She smiled and took another bite of her dinner. Tony narrowed his eyes at her, forcing lightness into his tone.
"What is it with women and health food?"
She bared her teeth at him. "I liked you better when you were unconscious. Don’t give me an excuse."
Funny, Gibbs had said essentially the same thing. "Just making conversation," he said. She took another bite of her sandwich, didn’t lean back. Didn’t let her guard down. As if she expected that he would leap at her at any moment, that she would need to defend herself. Surely she had no such illusions. She’d killed Alice and Hartley, both of whom, for all that they were unprepared, were not inexperienced civilians. Not to mention the fact that he was chained to the bed.
"What happens if I yell?" he asked.
She set her sandwich down, wiped her hands on its paper wrapper. "It depends," she said. "On whether or not anyone decides to come to your rescue."
"If they do?" he pressed.
"I shoot them," she said simply. "I kill them and it’s one more body. And then we’ll have to find another room." She picked up her sandwich, took a small bite and washed it down with a sip of water.
He swallowed, nodded, and didn’t speak again.
Gibbs paced back and forth across the suddenly-too-small lab, coffee clenched in his hand like a strange rosary. All of the lights were on, creating a glare that masked the windows, turned them into mirrors. This was taking too long. It was taking too long, and he didn’t even know if scanning the NCIS file on Monica Narida would yield any results. It would tell him when she’d joined NCIS, with what degree of accuracy she could shoot, but that wasn’t the information he needed.
"I got it," Abby said and he abandoned his futile exercise, crossed the room to stand by her side, read over her shoulder. "Accepted in ‘98, transferred from her post as lieutenant . . . looks like she made the switch after her daughter died. Said she wanted to help others like her." Abby looked over at him, her eyes sad and dark. "So why’s she going after Tony?"
"If I knew that," Gibbs began. He gave up, shook his head. "What else is there?"
"A home address, which I already gave you . . . she’s a pretty good shot, too."
"Kate knows that first-hand," Gibbs said. Abby shrugged in apology.
"I don’t know, Gibbs," she said, interlacing her fingers and shrugging. "Maybe we’re looking in the wrong place."
He nodded. "Kate got a note," he said.
"And tests indicate she sent that one, too," Abby said. "So not a copycat, but . . ."
Gibbs met her eyes. "But maybe Tony’s not her target."
"He’s her hostage," she said.
"‘Queen takes pawn,’" he said.
Narida stared at them silently from the screen, her glorified mug shot unrevealing and cold.
The sky outside was beginning to lighten with the first streaks of daylight when his phone rang, startling Gibbs from a half-doze. Across the lab, Abby looked up from her computer, listening. Gibbs straightened abruptly, reaching into his pocket with a clumsy hand and snapping the phone open. "Gibbs," he said, wondering if this was it. If this was the call he never wanted to get, explaining that he’d waited too long, been too late, and somebody’d paid for it.
Explaining that they’d found Dinozzo’s body.
"Agent Gibbs," the voice said, feminine and almost unbearably smooth. He widened his eyes at Abby, mouthing "trace it." She nodded, returned her gaze to the computer screen. The sound of typing filled the lab and he did his best to ignore it, focused on the call. On Narida.
"Narida," he said. "Where’s Dinozzo?"
"With me," she said, sounding amused.
"For now," she confirmed.
He tightened his grip on the phone, turned to face the windows, fought to keep his voice steady and emotionless. "What do you want?"
She sighed, a weary, desperate sound. The first crack in her armor, he thought. It would not be the last. "Like I said, Gibbs, this is a game. I want to win."
"What kind of a game?" he asked. Inane, probably irrelevant, but it would buy time, keep her on the line.
"Chess?" she said. Guessed. "The endgame, as it were."
"Who are you playing against, Narida? Dinozzo? Kate? Me?"
"Do you know what I’m doing right now?" she asked, ignoring his question.
"What are you doing right now, Narida?" he asked, playing along.
Silence filled the line, heavy and mocking. "Agent Dinozzo looks great in red," she said finally.
He ground his teeth. "I think, Narida, that he’ll say the same about you," Gibbs said, his voice steel, emphasizing each word so that there would be no mistaking his intent. His promise. Abby snapped her fingers, drawing his attention from the call. He spun around to see her. "I got it," she mouthed. He nodded in return.
Something crashed in the background and she swore under her breath. "Sorry to cut this short, Gibbs, but something’s come up." She cut the connection and he snapped the phone shut, wheeled around to see Abby.
"The call came from Tony’s phone, from a motel room." She scrawled the address on a piece of paper, handed it to him. She opened his mouth as if to say goodbye, to ask him to be careful or to bring Tony back in one piece, and he met her eyes, nodded before she could speak.
And then he was gone.
The brakes squealed as Gibbs slammed the car to a stop in front of the Elmsdale Motel. He ignored the fact that he was blocking half the street; it didn’t look like a busy neighborhood and he had more important things to worry about than whether somebody had to take a detour. Behind him, his backup did the same, effectively rendering the street impassable. He unholstered his gun as he got out of the car, flicking the safety off as he ran across the sidewalk, wrenched open the door. Agent Hythe caught the door before it could close and followed him inside. The clerk working the desk looked up as he ran through the lobby, trailed by two other agents. The rest of the team was waiting outside in case Narida tried to make her escape via an alternate route; he was not letting her get away.
Not this time.
"Hey!" the clerk said, his voice dangerously close to a whine. "What’re you doing?"
Gibbs ignored him, decided to let one of the others do the explaining if they felt like taking the time. The door to room 113 was locked and he didn’t bother waiting for someone to produce a key or a pick; he simply kicked it inward with enough force to splinter the cheap wood when it hit the wall. He stepped and scanned the room, his finger on the trigger of his gun.
The room was empty. He let out a deep breath. This was happening too often and it was not a coincidence. Adrenaline pounding, it was all he could to do stand still and simply survey the room, look for clues, an explanation. The windowpane was unbroken and he could see the other agents outside, waiting for something to happen, an explosion of action or at least a reason to justify their salaries. The room itself was clean, relatively speaking. A lone chair waited next to the scarred desk and aside from a missing pillowcase, the bed was made. The only sign of use, of a struggle, was the lamp on the floor. It had been knocked from the bedside table; the power cord disappeared behind the nightstand and the alarm clock was balanced precariously on the edge.
Gibbs holstered his gun as his indoor backup shoved past him. Abby had said this was the room and he didn’t doubt her. But what if this was another one of Narida’s games? She had to have known that he would trace the call. Could she have made the call from this room and then returned to her base location? Was she across the street right now, watching the NCIS agents shake their heads in confusion?
But if that was the case, she would have left something, a clue. She would have wanted him to know for certain that he’d been had. He stepped closer to the bed, the fallen lamp, and crouched down next to the metal headboard as something else caught his eye. There were scoring marks on the bedframe, marking where another piece of metal had scraped the surface. Violently. Another piece of metal.
He leaned over the bed, searching for telltale marks of red on the dark floral pattern. She’d said Dinozzo looked good in red and he didn’t doubt what she’d been implying. He didn’t doubt that she’d watched Tony bleed, that while she’d been talking to him, she’d stood over Tony and smiled. The crash he’d heard over the phone could have come from someone -- Tony -- lunging for her, knocking the lamp over as he did and, if he’d been cuffed to the bed, causing the scars on the metal.
Some of them, anyway.
"Agent Gibbs," Agent Hythe said and Gibbs stood, turned from his study of the blanket. Hythe swallowed. "I, ah, found something."
"Something?" Gibbs queried.
"In the bathroom," he said, as though he thought that was explanation enough. Gibbs regarded him coldly, pushed past him into the small room. Gibbs was right; Narida had left a clue. It was positioned on the bathroom counter, where it stood out against the mostly-white surface. He was right, too, that Tony’d been cuffed to the bed. And he found the missing pillowcase.
And both the handcuffs and the pillowcase were smeared with blood.
It looked like it was going to be a beautiful day. Outside of the motel, that was. The blacktop sparkled in the early morning sunshine. Across the street, the sunlight caught on the metal support of a neon sign, drawing Gibbs’ attention to that storefront window in particular. He stared at the dark gray sign, turned off for the time being, and wondered if Dinozzo had seen it, if Dinozzo had stared at the world outside and wondered how long it would take for Gibbs to find him.
He wondered if Tony was still wondering that. If he still had that ability. If Narida hadn’t killed him. But she wouldn’t have, he told himself. She had to know that she was more valuable, her life was worth more, if Tony was still alive. Though, at this point, maybe she didn’t care. It wasn’t like she’d be returning to her NCIS job any time in the future. The endgame, indeed.
He turned from the window back to the cramped dimness of the motel room, snapped off the plastic gloves and reached for the bag he’d tossed on the bed. It rested where it had fallen, the sunlight’s reflection temporarily obscuring his view of its gory contents. And then he picked it up, the plastic rubbing against the latex residue on his fingers, and the pillowcase inside shifted, the handcuffs glinted. Ruby-red like wine.
He lowered the bag, removing it from his vision, and gripped the plastic tighter, felt it start to tear under his fingers. He addressed Agent Hythe and his partner. "Let me know what you find," he said. Hythe nodded, looked relieved to hear that he was leaving. Gibbs noted his expression only peripherally, too tired to take any satisfaction in the transparency of the younger agent’s emotions.
He strode down the hallway, back into the lobby. The clerk was still at the front desk, speaking into the telephone receiver. Gibbs caught flashes of his words as he approached the man; apparently the clerk considered the NCIS agents’ presence a worthy topic of conversation. The clerk looked surprised as he leaned over the desk and reached out, pressed one finger to the plastic-covered telephone cradle and disconnected the call.
"Hey, what was that for?" the clerk whined, dropping the handset with a clatter. His voice was high-pitched, his hair just a little too long. "You can’t do that!"
"You rented room 113," Gibbs said. "To who?"
His grievance temporarily forgotten, the clerk shrugged. "Ah, um, a blond lady. And her husband."
Gibbs wondered if Dinozzo had been conscious enough to find amusement in the cover story. "You keep records?"
The clerk blinked at him, positioned his hands over the keyboard attached to the desk’s lone computer. A few minutes of painstakingly slow typing and he looked at Gibbs. "They paid cash." As far as revelations went, that was disappointing.
"When did they leave?" Gibbs asked.
The man shrugged again. "Twenty minutes ago?"
"Is that a guess?"
"I guess," the man said. Gibbs stared at him and watched as his eyes slowly widened in realization, in anticipation. In fear.
Gibbs leaned further over the desk. "If I find out you’re not telling me something, you’ll be arrested," he said. "Charged as an accessory. Do you know what the penalty for kidnapping is?" The man shook his head wordlessly and Gibbs met his eyes, spoke in a low tone as if sharing a confidence. "It’s a lot worse if you’ve kidnapped a federal officer."
"A federal officer?" the clerk asked, shook his head. He raised his hands as if in surrender, as if to ward Gibbs off. "Look, man, I don’t know what you’re talking about. The chick rented a room last night, said her husband needed a place to sleep it off. And then they left before you got here. I swear, I didn’t get involved."
And that, Gibbs thought, was only one reason to kill him. He narrowed his eyes at the man. "The hostage, the ‘husband.’ Did he walk out of here?"
"Sort of. He was leaning on the blond lady, the kidnapper or whatever." So Tony was alive. Gibbs didn’t allow his relief to show. That wouldn’t help here, and for all he knew, it would be short-lived. "Hey, does this mean I’m gonna be on one of those police shows?"
"No," Gibbs said. "It doesn’t." He shoved away from the desk, the carpet grinding under his heel, and headed outside. The sunlight was cool on his face, light and gentle, but he took no notice as he got into his car, tossed the evidence bag onto the passenger’s seat and started the engine.
Abby spun around and clicked off the music as the lab doors hissed open to admit him. "You find," she began, and then Gibbs tossed her the evidence bag. She caught it, stopped abruptly and raised it to eye level, did a quick visual exam. "Tony’s?" she asked, sounding infinitely more subdued. He nodded and her eyes widened. "But you didn’t find a body."
"No." He stepped back, crossed his arms and waited.
"Oh." She bit her lip, slid her rings from her fingers and slipped on a pair of gloves. "What happened?"
Gibbs gave up attempting to maintain a calm pose, resumed his pacing. "Narida was already gone. Left us a present. The desk clerk couldn’t tell me a damn thing." Aside from the fact that Tony was, or at least had been, alive, but he didn’t need to tell Abby that he’d had his doubts. That he’d ever questioned the possibility.
"I meant to Tony," she said, extracting the handcuffs from the bag, spreading the pillowcase out on the table. From this distance, the blood smears looked like a design, some avant-garde abstract statement. "This doesn’t look like his kind of thing. With the blood and all," she added.
He sighed. "Looks like Narida got tired of just watching him."
"Oh." She nodded, didn’t ask him to elaborate. He wasn’t sure if she knew that he couldn’t or if she just didn’t want to know. "And you want me to see if I can pull anything from this."
"I’ll get right on it," she said. She swallowed. "Was it . . . did she say anything? I mean, did she hide this or something?" Her tone suggested that she hoped that was the case, that Narida had tried to conceal what had happened. Her tone suggested, too, that she thought it was unlikely.
"She left it on display," he said. Confirmed. She winced and he turned to go.
"Gibbs, this shouldn’t take that long." Was she asking him to stay? Yes, he thought, she was. But he couldn’t.
He turned, met her eyes."Give me a call when you find something, Abs," he said. She nodded in understanding and he continued on his way. Watching her work would drive him insane; it was one thing to watch her pull up the results on an unknown recruit, a death unfortunate but completely unrelated, but this was Dinozzo. This was personal. And he was not going to make another mistake.
He glanced at his watch as he waited for the elevator to arrive. Visiting hours wouldn’t begin for another forty minutes, but if he stopped for coffee, it would take that long to drive to the hospital.
Gibbs nodded to the two agents standing in front of Kate’s room, one on either side of the door. One of them opened her mouth as if to ask for Gibbs’ identification. He glanced at her sharply and she closed her mouth, nodded. They were guarding one of his agents and it was he who’d requested -- ordered -- their presence; he didn’t need their permission to enter. He closed the door behind him, ignoring their frowns, and crossed the room to sit wearily in the chair beside her bed. She was doing better, which was to say that she was breathing on her own; aside from the few wires running to the machines which monitored her vitals, she was free of any mechanical intervention. Doing great, all things considered.
Gibbs set his coffee cup down on her bedside table, crossed his arms over his chest. The sunlight filtering through the half-closed blinds cast a pattern of shadows across the stark white bed linens, reminding him, only for an instant, of Tony’s blood on the harsh white sink. He sighed, tried to focus his attention on Kate, as if by doing so he could roust her from her sleep and force her to get better, to recover more quickly. Not that he had any idea what she would know, how she would be able to help, but worrying was easier with at least two people. If she took on the obvious panic, he would be able to devote his energy to telling her why she shouldn’t worry.
As if aware of his thoughts, Kate stirred. Her eyelids flickered and then she opened them completely, looked around and saw him, paled as though his presence confirmed some nightmare. Which it probably did. "The guard," she said, forcing herself to sit up, using her hands to keep herself steady.
Gibbs nodded. "Narida," he said. "We know."
"Oh," she said, letting herself drop slowly back against the pillows. She let out a deep breath. "What’d I miss?"
There would be no easy way to say this. Gibbs chose the fastest, simplest explanation. "She has Tony." He reached for his coffee, took a sip while he waited for his words to sink in. It was hot and bitter, though the latter was probably only psychosomatic, just in his head. A result of his emotions, the general bitterness of the day.
"You’re kidding." It was a reflex, not genuine disbelief. He raised an eyebrow at her, waited for her to continue. "My God, Gibbs, we have to find her. She’s going to kill him."
Did she think he didn’t know that? "We’re trying, Kate. She knows what she’s doing." He frowned. "How do you know she’s going to kill him?" If she’d said something, explained something to Kate before trying to kill her, maybe he could use that explanation to figure out where she would have gone. Where she would have taken Tony.
How much time he had.
Kate closed her eyes for a few seconds, during which Gibbs wondered if he’d triggered some sort of relapse. "Isn’t that what she’s trying to do?" she asked, opening her eyes again.
"That’s the question," he said. He rubbed a hand across his eyes, trying to think. He gave up, stood, pushing the chair back as he rose. He looked down at her, shook his head. "Like I said, get some rest. I’ll let you know what happens."
"You’d better," she said. He glanced back at her and she met his gaze evenly. He grinned, a reaction which almost surprised him as much as it appeared to startle her. She opened her mouth to speak and was interrupted by the ringing of his cell phone. He pulled it from his pocket, snapped it open.
"Gibbs," he said.
"The blood’s Tony’s," Abby said instantly, not bothering with a greeting. Which he appreciated.
"Narida touched the cuffs and the pillowcase," she said.
"What else?" he pressed.
"What else am I looking for?" she asked. "Considering that we already know who the killer is and who the vict-" She stopped, began again. "We already know who she’s holding hostage."
He was aware of Kate’s gaze boring into his back. "Something to tell us where she is, maybe?"
"I don’t think we’re gonna find that from a pillowcase," she said, her tone a combination of apology and annoyance.
He sighed. She was right and taking his frustration out on her would serve no purpose. "Yeah. Thanks, Abs." He ended the call, slid the phone back into his pocket and turned to find Kate watching him.
"What did she say?" she demanded.
"Narida’s holding Dinozzo hostage," he repeated, his voice emotionless. She could make of it what she wanted. "And she’s leaving us clues."
"Clues," she repeated.
"Pillowcase covered with blood," he said. "And the handcuffs she used to chain him to the bed."
She raised her eyebrows. "The bed?"
"She took him to a hotel," he said. "Called me from there and then took off."
Kate sighed, suddenly looking tired. "What do we do?" she asked.
His shoulders stiffened and he glanced down at his coffee cup, glad for the distraction, the excuse. "Well, Agent Todd, I guess we wait," he said after a long moment. He didn’t linger to hear her response, heading for the door instead. He let himself out without speaking to the guards and strode down the hallway, alone.
Gibbs refused to stay at the hospital. It was unlikely that Narida would be returning there, which meant there was no reason for him to set a trap or to wait and scan the faces of passersby, and he didn’t want to return to Kate’s room, to wait restlessly under her condemning stare. She wanted answers and she expected him to find them, to at least create the illusion of a search. He didn’t have the energy for such futilities, no matter how comforting she would find them. And once visiting hours ended, that wouldn’t be an option, anyway. He couldn’t go home and work on his boat, either, sand the rough edges and let the repetitive motion lull him into a calmer state. Not while Tony was still missing.
So he went to back to work, to NCIS headquarters, sat at his desk and did his best to pretend that he didn’t notice that both Ducky and Abby seemed to be taking more breaks than usual, finding excuses to come up to his floor and shoot worried gazes at him over the tops of the dividers. He met Ducky’s eyes once when he couldn’t avoid it, shook his head ever so slightly. They weren’t helping; their sympathy (because it couldn’t be pity) was, if anything, suffocating. Not to mention a waste of time. If they had nothing to offer, there was no reason for them to disturb him.
And so, as he’d told Kate that he would, he waited. There simply wasn’t anything else to do. Driving around aimlessly in an attempt to spot Narida would be worthless; alerts had been broadcast and if anyone saw her, he would be the first to know. He had no reason to re-examine the evidence gathered from the murders, as he knew who had committed them and where she lived. All of the facts he usually strove for were in his hands, and for once, they weren’t enough. The problem, he thought, was that they were all he had.
Minutes passed, grew into hours, and he waited, watched as the sky outside grew brighter and then as the light began to fade, heralding the end of another day. Almost one full day had passed since Dinozzo had disappeared, since she’d grabbed him. He knew the statistics, how the chances of abductees dropped with each passing minute, but he had to think that they didn’t apply here. Narida had taken Tony and left clues to taunt the investigators. She’d left bloody evidence, designed for maximum shock value. She was playing a game and he had to think that she was waiting for the big finish, the winning move. Checkmate. Which meant that she wouldn’t kill Dinozzo until she deemed it worthwhile. She would wait until she thought his death would have the most effect, until it would be most devastating.
Reports trickled in from the airport, the bus stations. Every hour, on the hour. Nobody’d seen anything; he didn’t expect them to. Narida was an NCIS agent. She knew what to do and what not to do, how to avoid being caught and to throw them off of her trail. Every hour they called in and said that they had no idea where she’d gone, where she’d taken her hostage. The general consensus was that she was hiding somewhere in D.C., because as far as they could tell, Narida and Dinozzo had simply disappeared into thin air. Gibbs grew tired of their unchanging words, their continual lack of information, but he didn’t dare turn his cell phone off or ignore the ring of his desk phone. Because maybe, just maybe, one of the calls would be from Tony.
This time the return to consciousness was quick, possibly because of the sudden awareness that there was a cold gun barrel pressed against his forehead. That was, Tony thought, a great incentive to find out what the hell was happening. It took surprisingly little effort to stay still, to not sit up and lean towards the gun. And the woman holding it. "Feel like driving for awhile?" Narida asked.
"Depends. Get the gun out of my face and we’ll see," he said. He marveled at the calmness of his tone, wondered if Gibbs would have appreciated that.
She nodded and sat back, allowing up to push himself up in his seat. His wrist ached, a thin line of blood marking where the cuff had torn at his skin. At the same time, the gash on his shoulder threatened to reopen and he stopped before that could happen, not wanting to replay the events at the motel. They were in an unmoving car, standard government issue. From what he could tell, it was the same one that had nearly hit him when exiting the hospital garage, which made sense. Narida was sitting in the driver’s seat, her feet braced on the floor, and he was occupying the passenger’s seat. He glanced over at the door; of course it was locked. Not that he thought he would have been able to make it, but maybe it would have been worth a try. He raised his gaze, looked out the window. He didn’t recognize the area; it was commercial and mostly deserted. A check of the dashboard clock explained why; business hours were over. Twilight was descending, lending the scene a vaguely surreal light. They were parked beneath a streetlamp, he saw, like a couple of teenagers on a date.
"We still in D.C.?" he asked, keeping his hands steady, in plain sight. He didn’t want to antagonize her yet, as she was aiming the Sig directly at his chest and there was no way she’d miss at this distance. He knew from recent experience that she had good aim. While he could turn the resulting scar into a good story, the shirt would never be the same.
"For now," she said.
"And you want me to drive where?" he asked.
"I’ll tell you on the way."
He nodded. He was reluctant, to say the least, to head out of the city with Narida. Gibbs was based in D.C. and once they left the city, the chances of Gibbs finding him diminished as potential hideouts expanded exponentially. "You know this is only making it worse, right?" he said. "Gibbs is going to be even more pissed off if he has to go on a road trip to find you."
It was the wrong thing to say. Her eyes narrowed and she tightened her grip on the gun, the muscles in her arm tensing as though it took physical effort not to pull the trigger right then. He licked his lips, wondered if he was supposed to apologize. Pointing out that Gibbs would be even more irate if he found Tony’s body first probably wouldn’t help the situation, either. Tony fought back a smile, recognizing the reaction as more hysterical than humorous. "But you probably don’t care," he said.
"You’re right. I don’t." In retrospect, he decided, reminding a psychopath that she didn’t care about what happened was probably a bad idea. He fought not to flinch as she regarded him, her gaze cold and remote. He was being assessed as a threat, he thought, which was an experience he hadn’t had for a long time. Finally she made a decision. "I’m going to get in the back seat," she said. "Once I’m back there, you’re going to drive." He nodded. "I’m a good shot, Tony. Even if you make it outside, you’re not making it off the street."
"I get it," he said, allowing more emotion than he’d intended to color his tone. If she took offense, however, she didn’t say as much. Instead, she leaned closer to him, sliding over the seat divider. She passed close enough for him to have grabbed her, to have thrown a punch or cut off her oxygen supply until she fell unconscious. The gun, however, was unwavering and he doubted he would have been able to reach her before she got at least one shot off, which would have made his follow-through difficult.
"Now," she said, gesturing with the gun. He eased into the driver’s seat, aware of the gun pointed at him, though he couldn’t see it. She spoke over his shoulder. "Go. Head for I-66."
He swallowed, shifted out of park and pulled away from the curb. He glanced at her in the rearview mirror. She sat in shadows and against the dark-colored interior, it seemed as though she, too, was a shadow, save for the whites of her eyes. She held the gun too low for him to see, but he knew that it would be darker than the shadows, entirely black, even as they passed under streetlights and by other cars, their taillights glowing like eyes in oncoming night.
Pressing his foot to the gas pedal, Tony wondered if there was any way to attract the attention of the nearby cars, signal someone so that they would call the police, who would then pull him over and end this. He doubted it; anything obvious enough to be seen by anyone else would also be seen by Narida, who would undoubtedly not wait for the police to pull them over before shooting him. And at that point, any personal interest in the case would obliterated. He didn’t think Gibbs would appreciate if Tony provided him the murderer at the cost of his own life.
Well, that was okay, because Tony wouldn’t appreciate it, either.
"So, do we have a destination in mind or are we just out for a ride?" he asked, hating the knowing look in her eyes. No, not knowing -- commanding. It was one he’d seen very often in Gibbs’ eyes lately, though for very different reasons. Gibbs had a terrorist to catch. Narida . . . Narida was playing a game. So, he thought, it really did come down to good and evil. Pity it took this long for him to realize that.
"I know where we’re going," she said. "You don’t need to, right now."
He narrowed his eyes at her, at Alice’s murderer. "Do you mind if I turn on the radio?" he asked, not waiting for her reply before he reached out with one hand and twisted the knob. The speakers blasted to life, a roar of drums and guitar. She had good taste, he thought; unfortunately, the station was his default, too.
"Turn it off," she snapped. He didn’t dare smile at the reaction, kept his satisfaction internal. "Now!"
"Hey, it’s your music," he said, but he did as she said. She leaned around the headrest, wrapping one hand around his neck as she pressed the Sig against his temple.
"Try that again," she whispered. "And I’ll shoot. You’re not necessary, Agent Dinozzo."
He didn’t dare nod, not with her that close, and spoke instead. "Right."
"Good." She retreated into the back seat and he could breathe again. He scanned the road ahead, checking for potential obstacles and anything he could use in his favor. There, two blocks ahead. A patrol car, its lights turned off. He swallowed, kept his gaze on the road. No need to alert her; she’d see it soon enough. And if she didn’t . . .
He pressed his foot harder to the gas, easing the needle on the speedometer higher, higher. "We’ll get there soon enough, Tony," she said, sounding like a twisted version of his mother.
"I just can’t wait," he replied. She frowned at the sarcasm and then hissed. The sound was frighteningly feral, dangerous.
"Slow down." The gun barrel was back, pressed to the side of his neck, but it was too late. As they passed the patrol car, it eased out after them, its lights flashing in a dizzying blur of red and blue. "Speed up," she ordered. He slammed the pedal to the floor, felt gravity press him back against the seat. Luckily, he thought, they were still on side streets. If they’d already reached the interstate, there was no way he could risk this.
The patrol car sped up, too, until it was nearly touching the bumper of Narida’s sedan. Tony glanced in the rearview mirror. There were two officers in the car, the driver and his partner. Which meant that when they caught up, odds were three to one against Narida. Unless he moved too slowly and she used him as a hostage or a human shield.
"If they catch us," Narida said, her voice low. "I’ll wait until they get close enough, and then I’ll shoot both of them. And then you, Tony. You want them to die, too?"
There was that. He swallowed, floored the gas pedal. The car behind them did the same, accelerating. He’d attracted their attention; now he had to lose it. He looked ahead, desperate for ideas. There, up ahead at the intersection. He shook his head in answer to her question and tried to ignore the siren screaming behind them. If he waited too long, they would catch up, and he didn’t doubt Narida’s threat. She would do it. She would kill the officers and they had nothing to do with this. Not that he knew what "this" was, but he was not going to hand her two more victims.
The light ahead turned green and he swerved the car into the left lane, thankful for the fact that there was no oncoming traffic. Another few feet and he was straddling the sidewalk, one wheel dragging. It slowed the car down, but the patrol car was close enough already for the distance to be irrelevant. Narida’s breath was loud in his ear; she was practically panting in anticipation. On the bright side, she wasn’t shoving the gun into his neck. He forced himself to concentrate on driving, to ignore her proximity. Up ahead, a storefront loomed large, promising and inviting. He checked the rearview mirror again, jerked the car to the side, aiming for the large display window. Better than hitting concrete.
The car dropped off the sidewalk with a loud thump, riding on asphalt for only a few seconds before reaching the other side of the street and bouncing over the next curb. The patrol car was a foot away; the siren and Narida’s breath filled his ears, strange background music. He watched as the distance between the front of Narida’s car and the storefront dropped. Ten feet, nine, eight. And then he jerked the wheel, spinning it hard enough to send the car careening at a nearly ninety-degree angle back onto the street. As he fought to recover the wheel, to avoid smashing into the buildings lining the other side of the street, he heard the glass break, the metal crunch as the patrol car shattered the window he’d so narrowly avoided.
Narida laughed, a vicious, cruel sound. "Good. Keep going," she said. He swallowed, feeling a headache starting to pound, dull and heavy. It was either a result of the adrenaline high or a side effect of whatever Narida’d injected him with, possibly a combination of both. He risked glancing out the side window, winced at his destruction. He didn’t see anyone leaving the patrol car, anyone calling for help, but maybe that was because they were unconscious. It was better than being shot by Narida, he thought. At least this way they had a chance.
The sign for interstate 66 glowed a harsh white in the dying daylight and he shot forward onto the on-ramp, hoping desperately that the other drivers would get out of his way. "Slow down," Narida said as he left the on-ramp, merged with the other traffic. She returned the gun to his neck, and though she pressed it lightly to his skin, the barrel seemed to burn. He did as she asked, slowing to a respectable and painfully normal speed. Just another guy heading home from work. Just another guy.
So much for leaving Gibbs a trail.
The day ended with rain, sheets of gray shadowing the black sky, replacing the hazy shapes of twilight. The harsh colors were preferable, Gibbs thought, to the previous surrealist tones. Unless Narida was keeping Tony outside, in which case it would be best to hope for sunshine, warm weather, to increase the chances, prolong the amount of time they had. Would have.
He glanced at the desk phone, considered calling Kate at the hospital. But what would he say? She would want news, would want to know what was happening, and he was not the kind of person who dealt in vague reassurances. His call, then, would only make things worse. One decision out of the way. He took a sip of coffee, draining the paper cup, and tossed it into the trash. It hit the plastic liner and disappeared out of his view with a papery rustle. He leaned forward, rested his elbows on the desk and pressed his hands to his eyes until he saw pale spangles on the near-black.
The phone rang and he answered it without looking, painfully aware of every hour of missed sleep and wondering how much longer he could go. "Gibbs."
The speaker was unfamiliar, male with a New Hampshire accent. "Agent Gibbs, this is Sandoval at the first precinct. You’re the one who put out the APB on a plate number, ah, DP4893?"
"Yeah, I did."
Sandoval’s breath was loud in Gibbs’ ear; the officer was contemplating what to say and in the process, wasting time. "Looks like we got a lead."
But maybe the wasted time could be forgiven. Gibbs reached for a pen, paper. "What do you have?"
"A sedan with those plates was spotted heading for the I-66 exit an hour ago."
"An hour ago?" he asked, tightening his grip on the pen until the plastic threatened to give. "Why wasn’t I told sooner?"
"Because the unit following them was involved in an accident," the officer said. "Rogers tried to pull ‘em over and your suspect rammed ‘em into a storefront window."
Gibbs dropped the pen, watched it roll across the expanse of paper. "You lost them."
"The officers are alive," Sandoval said, his tone cold, dismissive. Apparently NCIS had more important things to worry about than the lives of those on the local force; his tone said that the feeling was now mutual. Gibbs wondered what help the man could have been, decided it didn’t matter. "If you wanna come down to the station, see the patrol tape, feel free."
"I’m on my way," Gibbs said, dropping the receiver back onto its cradle. He pushed the chair back, reached for his coffee and remembered that it was gone. He sighed, grabbed his coat and bag, and left. The tape was an hour old. That Narida’d been seen heading for I-66 meant simply that she was heading west. Still, the knowledge that he could actually do something with his sense of urgency felt good, and it was the only lead he had.
Because of the relatively late hour and the storm, not to mention his intense desire to get where he was going, the drive to the precinct building took a very small amount of time. He parked the car a short distance from the concrete building and strode across the lot, his boots sending arcs of water droplets through the air each time they hit the pavement. The bright lighting of the precinct was near-blinding after the night drive and he blinked, waiting for his eyes to adjust.
"Excuse me. Are you Agent Gibbs?" The young cop working the desk was addressing him. He took a step closer, nodded.
"Yeah. Is Sandoval in?"
"He told me to be on the lookout for you, sir." He spoke politely, without inflection. Until the "sir," when the sarcasm slipped out.
Gibbs gritted his teeth, decided the kid wasn’t worth the effort. Sandoval, maybe, but not the kid. "Is he in?" he repeated.
"Upstairs. Second desk on the left." The officer waited for his next question, looked annoyed when he didn’t ask one and headed for the stairs instead. The second floor was a mess of desks and chairs, low wall-dividers and cheap lamps. The whir of the ventilation system was loud, a constant hum. Sandoval was a tired-looking man dressed in a too-large suit. He looked up from his computer as Gibbs approached, but didn’t bother narrowing his eyes, looking annoyed. Either he was used to this or something in Gibbs’ expression told him that it would be a pointless gesture.
"Sandoval?" Gibbs asked.
"Yeah." He stood, gestured for Gibbs to follow him.
"If I could get a copy of the tape, I’ll be out of your hair sooner," Gibbs said. "Won’t have to bother you again. It’ll save both of us time."
Sandoval sighed, ran a hand through his hair. "I’ll call down to the lab," he said. "Have ‘em make you a copy, yeah."
Sandoval ignored him, picked up the phone and waited for a connection, dialed and spoke. He hung up a few moments later. "It’ll be a few minutes. You can wait here or downstairs."
"Here’s fine." Sandoval nodded, went back to his computer. He was a fast typist, his speed almost enviable. Gibbs turned away, scanned the room for the coffee machine. It was behind the desks, on the other side of the room. Sandoval didn’t look up as he passed, or as he returned, styrofoam cup in hand. Not surprisingly, the coffee was terrible. He drank it slowly, waited.
Something like ten minutes passed before the tape arrived, brought by a tall man with a neatly clipped beard. Abby’s antithesis. He handed the tape to Sandoval and disappeared back down the stairs. Sandoval called Gibbs over, handed him a form. "Fill it out," he said, sliding the tape out of Gibbs’ reach as if he thought the agent would take it and run. Which he might have. Gibbs leaned over, grabbed a pen from Sandoval’s desk and filled in the blanks. Sandoval looked it over before handing him the tape, and then nodded. "Have a nice night, Agent Gibbs," he said.
Gibbs didn’t bother with a response.
He saw through the windows that it was still raining and he stuck the tape in the pocket of his trenchcoat before leaving the building. He pulled out his cell phone, dialed as he walked, switching the phone to his other hand to unlock the sedan.
"You’ve got Abby."
"Hey, Abs. I’m bringing you a tape," he said, starting the car. He switched on the windshield wipers, watched the blades cut through the torrents of water.
"Music or video?"
"Video. Taken from a patrol car chasing Narida."
"I’ll be waiting." She paused. "Drive carefully . . ."
He rolled his eyes. "Thanks." He ended the call, slid the phone back into his pocket and pulled out of the lot, sending a wave of water onto the sidewalk as he accelerated onto the street.
As she’d promised, Abby was waiting when Gibbs entered the lab. He handed her the tape, watched as she glanced over it and began to work. "What’m I looking for?" she asked. "I take it the patrol car lost ‘em."
"Yeah. Narida ran them off the road." He sighed, feeling water dripping from his hair down the back of his neck. "Find something that’ll lead us to Dinozzo."
She nodded, switched on the wall-mounted monitor. Static filled the screen, followed by a gritty black-and-white streetscape. She played the tape and both she and Gibbs watched in an almost reverent silence. The tape had been taken in a commercial area, somewhere near, as Sandoval had said, I-66. Gibbs didn’t recognize any of the buildings. A dark car, rendered a gritty black onscreen, sped by and then the cruiser pulled out after it, tracking. The sedan grew closer as the patrol unit sped up and the camera jerked as the car hit bumps, went over curbs. Narida’s sedan loomed large, larger, and then it swerved away and a large window filled the screen, breathtakingly close and growing closer. And a crash as the hood hit the glass, followed by more static.
"Gripping," Abby said, cancelling the projection feed. "They okay?"
Gibbs blinked, recalled Sandoval’s words. "The cops? Yeah." He crossed his arms. "So . . ."
"So I saw the same thing you did," she said. "Pretty much nothing. Tony was in the car?"
"In theory." Because if he wasn’t, the odds of finding him alive were very, very slim. It was unlikely that Narida would have left town with a loose end like that. Like him.
"Hm." She glanced down at the keyboard, opened a new program. "I’ll see if I can get a confirmation."
She spoke as she worked. "What’s next?"
"This was taken near the I-66 exit."
"‘Go west, young man?’" she asked. "That’s a lot of ground to cover."
"You have a better idea?"
She fell silent, pressed another key. "I’ve got something."
"What is it?"
Instead of answering, she transferred the image to the large screen, walked around the desk to point at what she was seeing. Gibbs followed her, stood next to her as she gestured. "This is right before they swerved. We’ve got two heads, so either Zaphod Beeblebrox is driving or . . ."
He frowned at her. He didn’t have time for games. "Abby?" he prompted.
"Or Tony’s driving and she’s right behind him," she finished. She darted back around the desk and he heard her pressing buttons. "I’m magnifying that area . . . there." The screen flickered and then refocused. The picture was grainy, but clear enough. Dinozzo was driving and Narida was in the back seat, holding a gun to his head. Gibbs gritted his teeth, stared at the silhouettes.
When he found Narida, she was going to be very, very sorry.
The streetlights were a golden haze in the slanting rain and the guardrail glinted with water. Narida hadn’t removed the gun barrel from its place against Tony’s neck; every time he shifted his speed, she applied more pressure. It was very Pavlovian, he thought, and wondered if Kate would have been surprised at the word, or at least his use. Yes, he thought. She would have been. If she hadn’t been lying in a hospital bed because Narida had tried to kill her.
"Do I get to know where we’re going yet?" he asked.
"I’ll tell you when you need to know," she said. "Miles to go."
"‘And miles to go?’" he asked. "I’ve been meaning to ask you, what’s with the poetry?"
He didn’t need to look at her to sense her amusement, her smile. "I’m an English major," she said.
"Oh." He bit his lip, concentrated on the road. The headlights of cars approaching from the other direction were few and far between; most people, it seemed, were wise enough to stay out of the storm, especially this late. Most people were probably at home, warm and safe. He winced as the car hit another bump, jarring his wrist, his shoulder, his head. The adrenaline rush was gone, long since replaced by irritation, disgust. An incredible desire to finish this, to get it over with.
Behind him, Narida shifted and he heard soft mechanical beeps, as though she were dialing a cell phone. Which, he saw as he glanced in the rearview mirror, she was. His cell phone, apparently. Thank God for unlimited roaming. "Ordering dinner?" he asked. "‘Cause I could really go for some Chinese."
She narrowed her eyes at him and he shrugged, listened. She sighed, apparently waiting for the person at the other end to pick up. She hadn’t mentioned having an accomplice, so maybe she really was getting dinner. He doubted it. "Agent Gibbs," she said. Tony kept himself still, his face blank. Calling Gibbs meant letting him trace the call. Which meant he would know where they were going, where she was taking him. But didn’t she know that, too? She’d said as much at the motel, mentioned "rule number nine" and leaving clues.
"No, he’s fine. A very good driver, actually. I thought you’d find that amusing." She paused, listened. "I want you to wait, just like I had to." Tony risked another glance at the rearview mirror and saw her eyes darken, wondered what Gibbs was telling her. "It doesn’t matter, now, does it? I just wanted to tell you that he’s still hoping you’ll find him. He probably will be, right up until the time I put a bullet-" She stopped speaking and Tony looked back, saw her turn the phone off. "He hung up," she said.
"Yeah, he doesn’t like when people threaten him," Tony said.
"It wasn’t a threat," she said, leaning forward. "It was a promise."
"That’s what they all say," he said. He sounded tired, he thought, not unafraid. Maybe she wouldn’t notice the difference. He looked back at the street, the sporadic patches of light. The blacktop was slick with rain and he wondered what would happen if he went off the road. He doubted Narida would call 911. He yawned as the streetlights blurred with rain, felt the wheels start to slide on the asphalt. At least . . .
Narida’s fingernails were sharp and his eyes snapped open as she pressed them into the other side of his neck. "No easy way out," she said.
"Maybe you should’ve thought about that before you drugged me," he said.
"I’ll keep you awake," she said, pulling her hand away. "I’ll tell you a story."
"A story," he repeated.
"I’ll tell you how she died. How I waited until you were out, how I pressed this gun to her chest and how she opened her eyes when she felt-" He slammed his foot down on the gas pedal, sending Narida sprawling against the back seat. She laughed. "See? Not that hard."
When he met her eyes in the mirror, they were bright and cold and he swallowed, returned his focus to the rain, the steady movement of the windshield wipers and the beat of water on the roof. If he hoped that Gibbs would hurry, would that be proving her right?
He decided it didn’t matter.
He was missing something. Gibbs stared over Abby’s shoulder at the monitor, aware only peripherally of the lines flashing rapid-fire across the computer screen. Narida had given him all of the answers; he just didn’t know how to put them together, how to assemble them so that they would make sense, so that they would explain her motivations, her reasons, her destination. So that they would explain not only what was happening, but why.
And while he was standing here trying to figure that out, Dinozzo was getting farther and farther away.
"They were heading west on I-66," Abby said, turning to look up at him. "Just passed Bunker Hill before you hung up." Her voice, though free of condemnation, was questioning. She was wondering why he hadn’t waited, why he hadn’t listened to Narida’s threats so that they could get a better idea of her location. It was a damned good question, he knew, but he had an answer. The problem was that the answer lay in the tone of Narida’s voice, in more than her words, and there was no way to fully convey that, for Abby to understand not only what she’d said, but how she’d said it, the rising edge of insanity and the sharp, too-familiar promise of more violence.
"I don’t like being threatened," he said, a purposely obvious understatement. She quirked her lips in something like a smile, but the expression was short-lived.
"How’s Tony?" she asked. "Did she say what happened?" He followed her gaze to the bagged evidence, neatly labeled and tagged, spread out across the table like trophies. Her eyes lingered on the handcuffs, the dried blood dark under the bright lights.
"She said he’s fine," Gibbs said, hating the triteness of the words and their dubious truth. She said. She being the woman who’d killed an ensign and an agent, who’d tried to kill Kate and kidnapped Tony, events which did cast doubt upon the honesty of her words.
Abby looked away from the evidence, back at him. "You believe her?"
He sighed. "Alternatives, Abs?"
She winced and he wondered which alternatives she was seeing, which possibilities and futures. How many ways the blood could have ended up on the handcuffs, the pillowcase. "Yeah. Right." She let out a breath, rested her hands on the edge of the desk. "You’re gonna redirect the search?"
"Yeah," he said, though he didn’t move. Abby frowned, spinning her chair around to face him.
"Gibbs?" she prompted.
He crossed his arms, wished he’d taken the time to stop for another cup of coffee. "She said she’d had to wait. That we’d -- that I’d -- have to wait like she did."
Abby’s eyes widened. "So it is a vengeance thing."
"Yeah," he said. "Question is, what’s she want vengeance for?"
"Waiting," she said. He glared at her and she shrugged. "She’s after you?"
"That’s what she implied." He pressed his fingers to the bridge of his nose, closed his eyes. Dangerous, that; how long had it been since his nap at the hospital? "Pull up a map of the area where we lost her." He heard the rustle of cloth, keys clicking as she typed, but didn’t open his eyes until she spoke.
"Got it." She gestured to the screen, tracing the line of highway, a brilliant green boundary. "Here’s I-66, Bunker Hill . . ."
He mentally continued the path, down and across, west. "Pull her file up again."
She raised her eyebrows. "You got something?"
"Maybe." He stepped forward, leaned over her shoulder to focus on Narida’s picture. Her eyes were unnaturally dark and he couldn’t remember if they’d been that way before. "Where was she stationed?"
Abby scanned the page, found the answer. "Fort Belvoir, but-"
"She didn’t live there," he finished.
She blinked, tilted her head. "How’d you know?"
"I went to her house."
Abby snapped to attention. "What?" she asked incredulously.
He ignored her, trying to think. To remember. A two-story house on a warm summer’s day, the well-groomed woman answering the door. "A long time ago. In ‘95."
She shook her head. "You just now remembered this?"
"No, I just thought now would be a good time to bring it up," he said, annoyance, mostly directed at himself, creeping into his tone. "Yeah, Abs, I did. You’re familiar with the concept of plastic surgery?"
She grinned. "Definitely." She shook her head, the grin fading as she returned to the seriousness of the situation. "So she transferred out of the army, got a new look, and came to work for NCIS?"
"Looks like it."
She bit her lip, frowned at the computer screen. "And her name didn’t ring any bells?" Was she questioning him or the ones who’d let Narida into NCIS?
"It didn’t used to be Narida," he said. "She used to be married."
"Wait, she’s not one of your-" She blinked at his look, shrugged. "Didn’t think so. Why’s she after you?"
He sighed, slid her chair out of the way and headed for the exit. "My guess? She thinks I killed her daughter."
"What?" she shouted. The doors closed, cutting off whatever else she would have said. He ignored the elevators in favor of the stairs; he couldn’t wait for the car to arrive. If he really did know where Narida was going, where she was taking Tony, then she hadn’t been that far away from her destination when she’d called. And if that was her final destination, where it would end, Dinozzo would have very little time left. He didn’t doubt that she would kill him as she’d tried to before, just as he didn’t doubt that Tony would still be hoping for rescue. Because in the past, Gibbs had been in time, hadn’t let him down.
But wasn’t there a first time for everything?
He wrenched open the car door, jammed the key into the ignition and started the engine, nearly backing into another sedan as he pulled out of the parking space. Maybe there would be a first time, but he was not going to let this be it.
"Go left." The words were spoken softly, almost inaudible over the roar of the rain. There was, however, no mistaking their intensity, the malice lacing the syllables.
"Woodstock?" Tony asked, turning onto the off-ramp. "Not nearly as good as the concert, or so I’ve heard."
"Good place to raise kids," Narida said. "First street on the right."
"So, what? I park and you kill me?" he asked, carefully not meeting her eyes in the mirror. The streetlights here were few and far between and he had to strain to see the road in the darkness. Woodstock: End of the Road didn’t have a real ring to it. If it were up to him . . .
"Why? You wanna go out in a burst of glory?" she asked. "Not gonna happen."
"If I speed up and you shoot me, odds are you can’t grab the wheel in time to avoid a crash," he said.
"You won’t do it," she said. "Because you still think he’ll get here in time." He gritted his teeth, unsure of what to say in answer. Telling her she was right would only give her satisfaction, but there was no point in disagreeing; the truth was obvious enough. He remained silent. "So you’ll do exactly what I tell you."
"That’s gonna get old fast," he said.
"Next right," she said. "It won’t be long."
Which, in its own way, was actually kind of comforting. He just hoped it wouldn’t end in accordance with her plans.
Paved streets soon gave way to gravel roads and the streetlights disappeared entirely. "End of the road," Narida said, pressing the barrel of the gun harder against his neck. When Gibbs found him, Tony thought, he was going to look like hell. He slowed the car, waiting for her instructions. "It’s this driveway," she said, and he turned the car, watched as a house came into view.
"Coming home," she said. "Stop the car." He glanced ahead, wondered if he could go fast enough to cause any damage if he slammed the car into the surrounding trees. Would that buy Gibbs time, or would it just make Narida mad? But it was already too late; the car was easing to a stop, gravel crunching under the tires.
The pressure on the gun abated slightly as Narida shifted; he heard something click and then she leaned forward. "Get out of the car."
He nodded, sliding his hands from the steering wheel to undo his seatbelt. He reached for the door handle, felt the gun barrel disappear from his neck as Narida readjusted her aim. Now or never. He threw the door open, hitting the ground as the gun went off overhead. The side-view mirror shattered, throwing glass into the air, and he slid around to the front of the car, pulling himself into a crouching position. The back door opened and he heard Narida step onto the gravel as he calculated the distance to the woods. Not enough time.
"Tony, it’s not worth the effort," she said. "It’s raining and I’m just going to shoot you when you try to run."
She did have a point, he thought. But that didn’t mean he was going to surrender without a fight. He licked his lips, sighed. "Okay," he said, standing slowly, raising his hands. She nodded when she saw him.
He shrugged. "I’m not a fan of unnecessary pain."
"Over here. Now." She didn’t gesture with the gun, kept it aimed at his chest, and he walked cautiously around the front of the car, keeping his hands up. He didn’t seen any lights through the trees, which meant that it was unlikely anyone would be coming to investigate the gunshot. Which meant that he was going to have to stall for time himself.
She held out a pair of handcuffs, wet with rain, and he tried not to think about the other ways in which the gesture could have been taken. Not now, not here. Not with her. He took another step towards her, narrowing the distance. Three feet and counting. She frowned, lifted her hand as if to throw the handcuffs at him, and in doing so, shifted her aim ever so slightly to the side. He took advantage, swinging one hand forward to knock the gun out of her grasp as his other hand reached to restrain her. He connected with the gun hand, sent the weapon skittering away across the gravel, but she stepped to the side, pulling her other hand out of his reach. He glanced up in time to see her readjusting her aim, swinging the handcuffs in the rain and then bringing them down as if to slap his shoulder.
Which wouldn’t have made a difference, wouldn’t have helped her at all, if she hadn’t been aiming for the shoulder she’d already cut.
He realized her intention too late and hissed as the metal split the skin a second time, a wave of heat burning across his shoulder. He kept his balance, and then she brought her other hand forward, slamming her fist neatly into his stomach.
She didn’t, he decided, fight like a girl. Which was not a good thing. He dropped against the side of the car, trying to breathe. He blinked rain out of his eyes, saw her approaching and then she was jabbing him with the damned gun again, pushing him forward, out of the rain and into the house, where it was, if not warm, at least dry.
She removed the gun from his ribs, closed the door behind them and flicked on the lights. He turned around to see her, leaned against the wall for balance. "Chivalry is overrated," he said.
She smirked. "Have a seat," she said, crossing her arms. "He’ll be here soon."
"I don’t mind standing," Tony said.
"You will." She didn’t take her eyes off of him as she reached for her jacket, rummaged through the pockets and pulled out a too-familiar syringe.
"I don’t think so," he said. "Are you licensed to dispense that?"
"No, but I’ve got plenty of practice," she said. "And I can’t have you trying to escape again or getting in the way when he busts down the door."
"Ah, how about I just promise to stay still?" he asked, watching her approach.
"I think you’d be lying," she said. He opened his mouth to reply as she darted forward, shoved the needle into his arm. He fought not to flinch, not to give her that satisfaction. As he watched the world recede, he wondered if it would be too much to ask to just stay asleep until this was over, until the cavalry arrived and a happy ending was in sight.
The road ahead was dark, lit in split-second intervals by streetlamps overhead and the rain-smeared blur of oncoming headlights. Gibbs’ foot was heavy on the gas pedal, but too many miles separated him from his destination, from Dinozzo. There was still, too, the possibility that Narida was taking him elsewhere, but Gibbs doubted it. She’d lived in Woodstock; Woodstock was where it had begun and he would lay money on the fact that it would end there, too. If Narida were logical, rational, she would take Tony somewhere else entirely, somewhere he would never think to look -- but she wasn’t logical. She’d escalated, gone too far and was deteriorating, slipping.
Which made it even more important to find her sooner, to get to Dinozzo. She had nothing left to lose and she had to be expecting his arrival. She just didn’t know when he would get there, and right now, that was the only aspect working in his favor. The element of surprise.
He took one hand from the steering wheel, fumbled in his jacket pocket for the cell phone and dialed, bypassed the switchboard and connected to Hythe. The younger agent sounded tired, as though Gibbs had wakened him. Too bad. "This is Gibbs."
Hythe came to attention. "Yes, sir?"
"I’ve got a destination for Narida."
"Congratulations," Hythe said, sounding as though he wasn’t sure what to say next, or if congratulations were even in order.
"You’re backup, Hythe. Get your team together and head for Woodstock."
"Woodstock?" the agent echoed.
"Yes, Woodstock!" Gibbs snapped.
"Where are you?"
"On the way, Hythe, where you should be."
Hythe took a deep breath. "I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, sir, but there was a bad accident . . ."
"Unless you’re in the hospital, you’re going to need a hell of a better excuse."
"No, sir." Hythe paused. "The accident stopped traffic on this end of the I-66. They’re rerouting, but until they do, we’re stuck."
Gibbs ground his teeth. "Find another damned way, Hythe. I lose an agent because of traffic and you’re out."
"Sir," Hythe acknowledged. The phone went dead in Gibbs’ ear and he restrained himself from tossing it out the window, threw it onto the passenger’s seat instead. No danger of falling asleep now. He accelerated, pushed the windshield wipers up another notch. The deluge wasn’t intensifying, but it wasn’t lessening, either. At least it meant the roads would be mostly empty; potential drivers would decide it wasn’t worth fighting through the downpour. Which meant he didn’t have to worry about as many other cars as obstacles, which meant he could devote more of his attention to Narida, her actions.
"I want you to wait, just like I had to." Not that it was his fault she’d had to wait, except he’d promised he’d find the bastard who’d been killing little girls. He’d promised, and then Emily had disappeared, and she’d taken to calling him daily for updates, asking what progress had been made on the search for her daughter. It was slow going, leads few and far between. The girls had been snatched from playgrounds; Narida -- Palmer, he thought, she had been Natalie Palmer then, a tall, pretty woman with laugh lines around her eyes -- had turned her back for five minutes, made plans for a lunch date and turned around to find that her daughter had vanished.
But Gibbs hadn’t lied. It took a year, a year of constant work, breathing the evidence, the bodies and the suspects, the motives. A year of bad coffee, too little sleep, and nightmares. It took a year, but he found the man, traced him to his cabin in the woods outside the base, broke in, saw what he was doing and fired a killing shot. He’d found the man, but it had been too late for Emily, and too late for her mother. So he’d killed the bastard, turned away from the little girl’s body, and had gone to tell Natalie.
It had been warm, sticky-hot with summer, and she’d opened the door before he could knock. She’d known. When he told her what had happened, she hadn’t acted surprised, hadn’t wept or fled. She’d stared at him, ignoring the other agents, and asked him how he felt, knowing that Emily had died because he was too late. She’d hoped, hoped and waited for an entire year, and what was there to say to that?
And now she’d decided that it was his turn.
The sound of the tires hitting gravel, bouncing along the rocks, jerked Gibbs’ attention back to the present and he twisted the wheel, dragging the car back into the center of the lane. Strange for no one to notice, for neither Kate nor Tony to yelp at the sudden movement, grasp the dashboard or the back of his seat. He glanced ahead, floored the gas pedal. The sooner he got to Woodstock, the sooner he found Dinozzo, the better. For all involved, including Narida. She was undeserving of pity, but any mercy he would have shown her would disappear if he was too late.
There was, Tony recalled, a mirror on the wall of Alice’s bedroom. Across from the window. With the curtains open, it reflected buildings and sky. When the curtains were closed, it reflected white gauze. She’d stood in front of the mirror to adjust the stark whiteness of her collar, brush her hair, and then she’d noticed him watching her in the reflection. She’d smiled. They’d both been late for work and he hadn’t really minded when Kate reminded him about his tardiness all day long.
Alice had kept a vase on her bedside table, frosted green glass. He’d brought her flowers and watched as she arranged them, teasing him about the color. Except the glass was broken, pieces of green calligraphy scattered across the floor like a code, like a map. The memory, if that was what it was, skipped, repeated. A needle stuck in a groove, a broken record. He opened his eyes as she came towards him. The room blazed with light; a fire was burning. He was safe and warm and this, whatever it was, was over.
This. Whatever it was.
Alice took another step towards him, her hair glinting golden in the firelight. He squinted at the strange shadows, the unfamiliar shapes of her features. Not Alice. Someone else. Another dead woman, Hartley. He pulled his hands away before she could touch them and her smile was all wrong. "Your fault," she whispered. "You killed me."
He shook his head. "No."
No. No. Not Hartley. He blinked, forcing the dream to retreat, to clear his vision. Narida. He was with Narida; she’d taken him here and they were waiting for Gibbs to arrive.
She stood, took a step back. "He’ll be here soon," she said. "And then it’ll be almost over."
"Almost?" Speaking seemed a great effort, but not one he could avoid.
"Loose ends, Tony. I left one in the hospital. But your part’s almost done." If he wasn’t mistaken, she sounded almost consoling, almost gentle. Like she thought he should thank her for promising that she’d kill him sooner rather than later.
"My part?" he asked.
"I would say I’m sorry to do this to you," she said. "But I’m not. You’re with him. The most obvious way, and the most effective."
With him -- with Gibbs. He was an obvious way to get to Gibbs. The logic made a frightening sort of sense. "Alice," he said. "Why?"
"She was pretty, wasn’t she? Did he think you were innocent?" she asked. "Did he ask you how it felt to pull the trigger and watch her die?"
"No." And it was true, he thought. Gibbs’ questions had been mostly benign. He hadn’t doubted that Tony was innocent.
Narida shrugged. "I think you’re lying. I’ll ask him myself." She turned away, back to the fire, ending the conversation. Tony let his head fall back against the wall, turned his gaze to the door. He had to wait. Had to wait, to warn Gibbs when he came in, because too many people had already died. Hartley, and Alice, and very nearly Kate. And the woman responsible for their deaths, the woman who’d killed them, was sitting across the room from him. She’d watched as they died, for no reason other than to make a point. Because she had something against Gibbs. She’d killed them, watched as their lives ended, for a cause they knew nothing about.
Their lives ended. He remembered Alice’s blood on his hand, cold in memory and with grief, and could only close his eyes as the events of the past few days, their significance and their meaning, broke free.
Woodstock had not changed visibly since he had last been there, Gibbs thought as he pulled off of the highway. His cell phone hadn’t rung since he’d talked to Hythe, which meant that the agent was probably flipping through old county maps, scrambling to find alternate routes, rather than going with the obvious option and requisitioning transportation, finding something that could fly in the rain. That fact in itself was disturbing; it almost made Gibbs glad that the agent wasn’t there. If he couldn’t find a way to get out of D.C., he most certainly did not belong in the line of fire.
Still, he didn’t like the idea of going in alone. Narida -- Palmer -- had had time to prepare. The element of surprise could be worthless, considering what he could be up against. He reached over, grabbed his cell phone and dialed, waited while he was transferred. He turned down a familiar road, scanned the trees on both sides. "I’m Agent Gibbs with NCIS," he said. "Pursuing a suspect wanted for multiple homicides and kidnapping. She’s taken another agent hostage." Remarkably distant, in those words.
"How can we help?" the dispatcher asked.
"Backup," he said. "Anything you can provide."
"Backup we can do," he said. "It’ll be a little while, though. Got a situation downtown. Some idiot took a sales clerk hostage. If you give me the address, I’ll put out a bulletin."
Gibbs ground his teeth, made another turn. Was it his imagination, or was the rain finally lessening? He gave the dispatcher what had been Palmer’s address, didn’t bother to thank him for his efforts. He pulled the car off the road, came to a stop next to the driveway. There was no point in alerting her to his presence any sooner than was necessary. He unsnapped his holster, checked the Sig’s clip and stepped out of the car. The rain was cold and hard, clouds covering the moon. Just as it wouldn’t illuminate the area for him, it wouldn’t illuminate it for Narida, either. He ducked into the shadow of the trees as the peak of the house’s roof came into view. A few more steps and he could see the first floor.
Narida’s car was parked in the driveway.
He blinked rain out of his eyes, tried to remember how the house was designed. Two stories. A front door and a back provided exits, not to mention the windows. The curtains were drawn, but light still shone through them. Someone was in the living room.
He darted across the driveway, wincing at the sound of his boots on the wet rocks. Still, it was doubtful that Narida would hear it through the walls and over the sound of the rain itself. He unholstered his gun; it was a comfortable weight in his hands. He stood next to the front door, listening.
Aside from the patter of the rain, it was silent.
He took a deep breath. He had to assume that Narida didn’t know he was there; otherwise, she would have turned off the lights, given him no clue as to where she was. His goal was to get Dinozzo out, he reminded himself. Narida could be dealt with later, when time was not of the essence, when she had no power.
He reached out with his free hand, tested the doorknob. It was unlocked. He pushed it inwards, watched as the door swung open, and then stepped inside, bringing his gun up to chest level, scanning the room for Narida, for Tony.
Dinozzo, he saw with relief, had made it this far. He sat on the floor, slumped against the wall. Gibbs looked for Narida, took stock of the room. It hadn’t changed since he’d seen it last. A fireplace took up half of one wall, the wood burning bright and hot against the chill outside. A empty couch sat in front of the fireplace. A flight of stairs stood in one corner of the room, carpeted for comfort. Or silence.
Narida was nowhere in sight.
Gibbs didn’t holster his gun as he crouched next to Tony, checking his pulse. Weak and fast, and his skin was too cold beneath Gibbs’ fingers. The torn fabric and dark stain across one shoulder offered an explanation; Narida’d knifed him. The bleeding seemed to have stopped, though, which meant that he probably wouldn’t die from blood loss. Small comfort. Where was Narida? Gibbs didn’t dare holster his gun and try to move Dinozzo until he knew Narida wasn’t planning an ambush.
He touched Tony’s good shoulder, waited for a response. Dinozzo flinched, pulled away, opening his eyes slightly, and then, seeing who it was, wider. "Boss," he said. "Sorry to keep you out this late."
"I’m getting used to it," Gibbs said. "Where’s Narida?" Tony glanced past him, opened his mouth as if to say he didn’t know, and then froze. Gibbs calculated the direction of his gaze. The stairs. She was on the stairs. He slid his gun into his jacket pocket slowly, hoping Dinozzo’s body would block the movement. He doubted she would believe that he was unarmed, but if she didn’t see the gun, she might let him get close enough to shoot before she did, herself.
"Agent Gibbs," she said. "We meet at last." Tony’s mouth twitched in something like amusement and Gibbs turned around slowly. She was standing halfway up the stairs, her gun leveled at his head, and she adjusted her aim as she came forward.
"We’ve already met, Natalie."
She shrugged, stopping as she stepped from the staircase. "Not like this, and I thought I’d go with the obvious greeting. How have you been, Gibbs? Good?"
"I’ve been better," he said.
"I don’t imagine these past few days have been easy for you," she said. "That was the point."
"I got that," he said. He rose slowly, waited for her to move, to give him an opening. Her glance flicked over Tony, came to rest on Gibbs’ face.
"Like I said, he hoped you’d make it." She sounded amused, like she thought that this would somehow fit into her plan.
He raised his eyebrows. "I did."
"Just in time," she agreed. "You’ll get to see it first-hand."
"Tony’s death. You’ll get to watch me pull the trigger."
"I don’t think so," he said. "You’ve killed enough people, Natalie. You’ve done enough."
"Like you did enough?" she asked. "Do you dream about her, Agent Gibbs? I do."
Tony shifted and winced, coming to his feet. Gibbs glared at him, wondering if he was intentionally making himself a target, giving Narida something else at which to aim. "No, Natalie, I don’t. There are others."
"I didn’t think you would. You didn’t seem the type." She smiled. "I bet you’ll see him in your nightmares, though." She tightened her grip on the gun, shifted it to aim at Tony. Gibbs stared at her, waiting. Waiting. Dinozzo stood next to him, tense. Ready to move, to fight, and unarmed.
And then her finger tightened on the trigger and Gibbs dropped below the bullet’s trajectory, taking Dinozzo with him. He didn’t hit the ground, didn’t give her time to adjust her aim before he lunged forward, shoving her arms up and out of the way. The gun flew out of her hands and up, hit the stairs and disappeared. She writhed beneath him, twisting to get out of his grasp, and he pinned her arms down. "Backup, Dinozzo, go find the damned backup!"
Tony muttered something that sounded like assent and Gibbs stared down at Narida, at Palmer, her eyes wide and dark. She went limp as the door slammed shut behind Tony, and she nodded. Game over. He backed off, slid away and stood, pulling his gun from his pocket and keeping it aimed at her as he moved. She lay still for a moment, as if she didn’t have the energy to stand. And then she met his eyes and grinned, hooking one leg around his foot and knocking him off-balance. He reached out to grab the staircase railing as she kicked again, smashing her foot into his knee. He dropped, adjusting the gun to compensate for the shift in height. She rolled to the side to avoid the shot, leapt to her feet and threw herself at him. He felt the gun slide out of his hand, wondered how far Dinozzo had gotten, and then she was reaching into her pocket, her hand closing on another gun. The one he’d given Tony, he thought, and he reached blindly for his own gun as she stepped forward, raised her Sig and brought it down with a blinding flash, brilliant and black.
Tony shivered as he stepped out into the rain, the front door slamming closed behind him. The house, at least, had been warm -- but the fact that he was no longer inside meant that this was almost over, and he was glad to sacrifice a little heat for that. He wiped water from his eyes, peered at the dark shapes surrounding the house. No light was visible through the trees, leaving no clue as to where the backup was waiting. If it were waiting at all. He glanced back at the house, wondered what Gibbs had meant. Was he supposed to wait for the backup or was he supposed to summon a team?
His shoes slid on the rocks as he broke into a jog, headed down the driveway. Gibbs had to have driven here, which meant that his car would be relatively close; it would provide a place to wait for the backup or a method by which to retrieve a team. Narida still had his cell phone and he doubted that Gibbs, knowing what he could have found, had left his own in the car.
What would he have found, had he been an hour or a day later?
A dark shape ahead revealed itself to be a sedan parked near the entry to the driveway. He quickened his pace, reached the sedan and opened the door. He slid into the driver’s side, glad to be out of the rain, and switched on the small overhead light. He didn’t see Gibbs’ phone, but the car keys were still in the ignition. He started the car, sighed in relief as the heater kicked on. Now there was just the question of who he was supposed to be finding for backup. The local police department seemed the obvious answer, but where was the rest of Gibbs’ team? Surely he hadn’t gone in alone . . .
Of course he had. Tony sighed. If Gibbs hadn’t been able to find immediate backup, he would have gone in alone -- which he had. One of his agents had been in danger, and he’d done what he had to do. His job. A job whose protocol, Tony recalled, expressly dictated that agents be prepared, that backup forces be in place. Usually that issue was made irrelevant by the fact that Gibbs had a team, that Tony and Kate were with him, but this time, they hadn’t been. Kate was in a hospital and he’d been Narida’s hostage, and Gibbs had been working alone.
Just like he’d been doing for most of this case. Tony stared numbly at the windshield as the realization sank in. He’d been working alone from the beginning, insisting that Tony hadn’t killed Alice and ignoring Tony’s protests. And then he’d taken over, however unofficially, after Hartley had been murdered, an act which, if someone felt like pressing the issue, could probably mean the end of his NCIS career.
So Gibbs hadn’t just been doing his job, breaking a few rules so he could catch the bad guy faster. Narida had challenged him and he’d stepped forward, done what was necessary to protect those under his command. He hadn’t just been doing his job, Tony thought. This was personal. Narida had challenged him. Tony didn’t know what she had against Gibbs, what had happened in the past, but in attacking his agents, she’d crossed a line.
This wasn’t his job -- this was his duty.
And, Tony thought, it had become his own. Gibbs had come this far for him, for Kate -- Tony would not disappoint him.
And right now, that probably meant finding the damned backup.
He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. He doubted Gibbs would appreciate him running back to ask what, exactly, he was supposed to do, but heading back to town if the backup was already on its way wouldn’t help, either. Conversely, if he just waited here and the backup wasn’t coming . . .
Something moved through the trees ahead and he squinted, trying to make out shapes as a pair of headlights pierced the night, blindingly bright. He blinked spots from his vision as a car, Narida’s car, shot past him, accelerated out of the driveway. He caught a glimpse of the driver as she passed, her pale skin and shadowed eyes. He tightened his grip on the wheel, processing what he’d just seen. Narida. Escaping. Where was Gibbs?
He glanced in the rearview mirror, saw red taillights fading into the night. If he tried, there was a chance he could catch her, but he couldn’t risk it, not without checking on Gibbs, first. Not without making sure. He gunned the engine, sending the car jerking forwards as the tires caught on slick gravel. He slammed on the brakes as he neared the house and barely took the time to make sure that the car had stopped before shoving open the driver’s side door. He stumbled, caught in the dangling seatbelt, found his balance and sprinted the short distance to the front door. He threw it open, not taking the time to be afraid of what he would find. The door hit the wall, bounced closed behind him, and he stopped, stared ahead.
The room was empty. Narida was gone, and so was Gibbs. The fire was still burning, but its warmth had disappeared. Tony felt colder than could be explained by the rain, the weather.
He scanned the room for clues, hints, explanations. He narrowed his eyes, crossed to the stairs and knelt next to the black matte of a discarded weapon. He swallowed as he spied the small pool of blood less than a foot away. It wasn’t enough to be fatal, he told himself, and for all he knew, it was Narida’s blood. But that didn’t explain how she’d escaped, why Gibbs had let her go, and he knew that the odds were much higher in favor of it being Gibbs’ blood, Gibbs who had been attacked.
But what had happened? Gibbs had been in control when he’d left; he’d taken Narida down and was holding her at gunpoint. Tony doubted that he would have underestimated her, would have let chivalry get in the way, but how else could she have escaped? Gibbs had made a mistake, Tony thought. He’d gone in alone and rescued Tony, but Narida had planned for this and he hadn’t known. He’d gotten this far and made a mistake, and maybe it had been fatal.
The front door slammed open a second time and he whirled around to see a swarm of uniformed officers coming at him, flashlights and guns held at the ready. Too late. He wondered if they’d passed her on the way in, if she’d slowed down and moved out of their way. "You’re the backup?" he asked.
"Responding to a call about a hostage situation," one of the men said. He motioned to the others, stepped closer to Tony.
"You just missed her," he said. "She, ah, switched hostages." Uniforms pushed past him, their radios squawking and crackling with static, and he stepped out of their way, leaned against the wall. "I need a phone," he said to the man who still stood next to him.
"Sir, what you need is medical attention."
"Not now," he snapped, his voice sounding worn and raw. The officer raised his eyebrows and Tony sighed, acknowledging the futility of protest. He raised his arm to rub his eyes, winced at the pain in his shoulder. "Let me make a phone call, first."
The man considered him and then nodded, pulled a cell phone from his pocket, handed it to Tony and then turned, called over his shoulder. "I need a medic in here, now!"
Tony swallowed, dialed the number and waited while the cell connected, the phone rang. "Abby," she answered.
"Hey, Abby," he said.
"Oh my God, Tony. Are you okay? Did Gibbs find you?"
"Ah, yeah. Yeah, he did." He licked suddenly dry lips, wondered how to say that he’d lost Gibbs. There was no good way, he decided, and the sooner he told her, the sooner they could start looking for him. "She’s got him. Need to put out an APB on her car . . ."
"She’s got Gibbs?" Abby asked, sounding incredulous. "What happened?" Tony winced, held the phone away from his ear as her voice rose and watched as the officer took the cell from him.
"I’m sorry, ma’am, he’ll have to call you back later." The officer listened, nodded. "We’ll do that." He snapped the phone shut, slid it back into his pocket and reached a hand out to Tony. "Ambulance is out front. Come on."
He nodded, let himself be led from the house. Abby would put out an APB, would take care of things for a little while. Narida wouldn’t get away, wouldn’t get away with Gibbs. The rain was a comforting drone on the metal roof of the ambulance, the fresh-nature smell at odds with the medical sterility. The sirens were silent but the lights on the tops of the cars were still circling, waves of blue and red. He closed his eyes as they closed the doors and the engine started, let the motion pull him down.
He was moving. In a car. On unpaved roads, judging from the roughness of the ride. Each bump, each rock, was jarring, sharp bursts of red across his vision. Something was wrong. There was something he’d forgotten to do. Something bad. He’d made a mistake and the stakes were too high, too dangerous. Someone would get hurt, someone would die, he was too late.
Dinozzo. He had to find Dinozzo. Gibbs swallowed, licked his lips and tasted blood. He tried to reach up, wipe it away, but his hands were chained. Cuffed. Something tugged at his memory, familiarity. He opened his eyes, winced at the influx of light. He was lying on his back, staring up at a gray ceiling. The car was small; his legs were cramping and he couldn’t stretch. He rolled onto his side, felt the seat fabric press against his face. He closed his eyes against a wave of dizziness, opened them cautiously. Head injury. He had a head injury. Dangerous, he thought, complications could be fatal. A voice in his head, lecturing. Ducky, he thought, and a cold table in the morgue.
He took a deep breath, looked over the top of the front seat at the driver. A blond woman. She didn’t look back at him, didn’t speak. Cold. He was cold. He stared past her, checking the surroundings. Trees. Lots of trees. Early morning light, gray and chill. Nothing familiar, nothing that told him where they were, where they were going. What had happened. He thought about asking the blond woman, but something told him that would be a very bad idea. It was because of her that he was here.
She cursed as the car hit another bump and he winced, feeling the car start to turn. Almost there, he thought, and then someone honked a horn, a loud, dying sound and the car jerked back, stopped turning. Weakness, he thought. It was a sign of weakness, and he could use it. The car sped up and he squinted to read the wooden sign visible through the windshield. They were passing the entrance to Shenandoah National Park. Meaningless without context. A truck rumbled past the window, close enough to rattle the window next to his head, and he gritted his teeth against the vibrations.
Dinozzo. He had to find Tony, or it would be too late. It already was too late. Something was wrong. There were so many things he should have done, should have seen, and he’d made too many mistakes. The light was unbearably bright and the driver had to be doing this on purpose, driving on the worst parts of the road. He braced himself against a wave of nausea and surrendered, not unwillingly, to the grayness spreading from the edges of his vision.
Tony awoke with the sense of having slept for far too long. He forced open heavy eyelids, waited for his eyes to focus, for the feeling of unreality to fade. He stared at the ceiling, blinked floaters from his vision as memory returned. Gibbs. Narida had Gibbs and she was getting further and further away. Except Abby had put out an APB, so maybe they’d already found her. Maybe he’d slept through the cavalry’s departure and arrival, which would be disappointing in that he’d wanted to be the one to find her, to find Gibbs, but if it meant that this was over, he wouldn’t complain. Considering that Gibbs had been kidnaped because he’d come to Tony’s rescue, Tony supposed he didn’t have much right to demand that he be the one to lead the charge, that he find Narida, kick down the door and save his boss.
He stretched, winced at the realization that one of his arms was in a sling and the other was doing a very good impression of a voodoo doll. He frowned at the monitor next to the bed, decided that it probably wasn’t doing anything important. He was alive, and based on his admittedly rudimentary medical knowledge, that was essentially all the computer was telling him. The adhesive stuck to his arm, pulled at the skin, but finally it gave and he dropped the wires on the side of the bed as the monitor began to shriek.
He’d forgotten about that part.
The door burst open and Abby entered, her skin bleached chalk-white by the harsh lights. She stopped abruptly when she saw him, closed her eyes and moved her mouth silently as if mouthing a prayer. He winced as her eyes snapped open and she crossed the room to his bedside, silenced the monitor with one quick gesture. A man darted into the room, his white coat classifying him as someone at least vaguely authoritative. His mouth gaped open for a minute and then he frowned. "What’s going on here?"
Abby shrugged. Her tone was admirably calm, betraying nothing, but she was standing close enough to Tony for him to see the darkening of her eyes, feel the tension pouring from her body in waves. "He decided he’s feeling better," she said. He wondered if there was any way the doctor would act as a bodyguard and then wondered what Abby was doing here in the first place. Had he missed being transported to D.C.?
"You can’t just," the man said. He sighed, shook his head. "I’ll get a nurse." He turned on his heel, left the room. Tony frowned as the door closed behind him.
"I don’t rate a doctor?"
"You’re a low priority," Abby said. She sighed, turned away from the door to look down at him. "Guess there was a hostage situation downtown. Got kinda messy."
"Oh." He sighed, shoved the blankets away with his free arm and frowned at the paper gown. "You happen to bring me some clothes?"
"I grabbed the stuff from your locker, but . . ." She shook her head.
"You haven’t found him." It wasn’t a question, though he wouldn’t have been disappointed if she’d corrected him, said that Gibbs was in the next room over and Kate was somehow on her way and Narida was finally, finally dead.
She sighed, crossed her arms. "Not yet."
"And I can’t just wait," he said.
"So what’re you gonna do?" she asked, uncrossing her arms and gesturing as she spoke. "I mean, you’re not Gibbs, so the gut thing’s kind of out of the question. Plus, in case you haven’t noticed, they’ve got you on God knows what ‘cause of your arm. Probably screws up your aim."
He ran his good hand through his hair, sighed. "So I’ll stick to moral support and leave the shooting to somebody else." He looked up, met her eyes. "But I can’t just wait, Abs."
She raised her eyebrows, nodded. "I know the feeling," she admitted.
"Right. So, clothes." She shrugged, headed back into the hallway. He sighed, glanced out the window, the pale gray light of morning. The door opened again and he turned, expecting to see Abby and finding a nurse, instead.
"Going somewhere?" the woman asked, taking in the blankets’ disarray.
He nodded, braced his good arm on the side of the bed and prepared to stand. "Back to work."
"I don’t think so, Mr.," she paused, glanced at his chart. "Dinozzo."
"It’s important," he said, trying for his most charming smile. The floor was cold beneath his feet and he wondered if Abby’d remembered shoes, too.
"Be that as it may, so is your health." She reached out and caught his arm, restraining him, as Abby entered the room, backpack in hand.
"What’d I miss?" she asked.
"Nurse Ratchett doesn’t want me to leave," Tony said. Abby raised her eyebrows at his tone but shrugged, swung the backpack over her shoulder and came to the nurse’s side.
"It’s okay," she said, touching the woman’s hand, removing it from Tony’s arm. "We’re just transferring him."
The nurse slid out of Abby’s grasp. "And you are?"
"His sister," she said. "Currently next-of-kin. Just bringing him home, closer to the rest of the family." She winked at the nurse, who narrowed her eyes and then nodded.
"I’ll get the paperwork ready."
Tony waited until the woman was gone, the door closed solidly behind her, before speaking. "My sister?" he asked.
"How’d you think I got in this far?" she asked, handing him the backpack. "Bathroom’s right there. Yell if you need anything."
"Will do," he said. He stepped into the bathroom, closed the door behind him. No wonder the nurse hadn’t given in; he really did look like hell. Too bad the high-fashion expensive-barber excuse didn’t extend to cuts and bruises. He fumbled through the bag Abby’d brought, gave up and dumped the contents on the floor. Black, unsurprisingly. Would highlight the toll the past few days had taken, but maybe that would help Abby’s sibling story, give them the appearance of family resemblance. Not that her story needed help; she’d probably come prepared with I.D.s, birth certificates and baby photos for good measure.
He stepped from the bathroom a few minutes later after a painful struggle with the sling. Whatever they’d given him was definitely wearing off. Abby was sitting cross-legged on the bed, her boots oversized and very black against the thin cotton sheets. She slid gracefully to her feet as he approached her, looked at him worriedly and took the mostly-empty backpack from him without speaking. "Just gotta stop by the front desk and check you out," she said.
"Lead the way," he said, gesturing for her to go ahead. She frowned at him, took hold of his outstretched arm and ducked underneath it, draped it over her shoulder.
"Ready, bro?" He grinned weakly and she nodded. "And it’s off to the nurses’ we go . . ."
Tony let Abby take the lead at the nurses’ station, happy to fulfill his role as weakened brother headed home for a bedside family reunion. Less than fifteen minutes later, they were striding towards the exit, stepping into the cool air. It still smelled of rain and he wondered when the storm had stopped, what else he’d missed. If Gibbs had been caught in the downpour. Narida didn’t seem like the type to offer her hostage a raincoat. She hadn’t offered him one, anyway.
"I’m parked over there," Abby said, tilting her head to indicate an area across the parking lot. "You wanna wait here while I bring the car around?"
He squinted, judging the distance. "Sure."
She nodded. "Don’t wander off." He raised his eyebrows in response, slouched so that he was leaning against one of the mostly-decorative concrete pillars in front of the building. The cement was cool against his scalp and he let out a deep breath, wondered where he was going to start. How had Gibbs known where to find him?
Well, of course. He was Gibbs. Tony, obviously, wasn’t, which left him at a distinct disadvantage in this area.
Footsteps echoed across the asphalt and he looked up. If Abby’s car were broken, that would just be perfect. But it wasn’t her; the footsteps belonged to a well-dressed and nervous-looking young man, who, upon seeing him, altered his course in Tony’s direction.
"Agent Dinozzo?" the man asked, stretching out one hand. Tony shook it suspiciously. "I’m Agent Hythe."
"Agent Hythe," he echoed.
"Yeah. I was working with Agent Gibbs. I was, ah, his backup, and I just wanted to apologize. I tried to get here sooner, but . . ."
"You were supposed to be here last night?" Tony asked. So this was Gibbs’ backup, his ace team. This man was the one Gibbs had been relying on, the one who’d failed him. The one who, at least in part, was to blame for the fact that Gibbs had been attacked and was now Narida’s captive.
"Yeah," he said. "I was. There was an accident, and . . ." Hythe trailed off, shrugged. Tony pushed away from the pillar, his good hand closing on the other agent’s throat, pushing him around so that Hythe’s own back was shoved against the concrete. The other agent coughed, his hands coming up to flail uselessly at Tony’s arm. Tony ignored them, his eyes narrowing as he stared at Hythe.
"She has Gibbs," he said, his words low and harsh. He heard them as if from a distance, didn’t recognize the arm holding Hythe as his own. Hythe nodded, his eyes widening with fear or lack of oxygen. Tony wasn’t sure if the difference mattered. He heard an engine start in the distance, a sudden roar over faraway traffic, heard Hythe’s ragged breathing and his own
"Tony!" Abby’s voice was loud, shrill with panic. He heard a car door slam and then she was pulling him away from Hythe. The other agent slumped, bracing his hands on his knees and breathing deeply. "What the hell are you doing?"
"Nothing," he snapped. He sighed, ran a hand through his hair again and didn’t meet her eyes, her questioning stare. "Let’s go, okay?"
She looked back at Hythe, nodded. "Okay," she said. She waited until he was safely seated, had buckled his seatbelt, before she opened the driver’s side door and got inside, and then she locked the doors as if she thought there was a possibility of him leaping from the moving vehicle. "We’re headed to D.C., to see Kate," she informed him, speaking loudly over the industrial-rock, a steady pulse of drums and staticky guitars. She didn’t sound as if she expected an answer and he turned his face to the window, watched Woodstock in the early morning mist and tried not to think about wasted time.
The car braked abruptly, enough motion to jostle him from unconsciousness. The movement was final; the car had stopped. Gibbs opened his eyes slowly, watched as smears of color resolved into more definitive shapes, objects. The sunlight was still too intense for him to risk looking directly out the window, but the filtered light spilling through the glass had changed, no longer dim and damp, growing warmer as the sun rose higher. Time had passed, he knew, though he wasn’t sure how much, how late he would be. If he’d already missed the deadline. He shifted his hands, careful of the handcuffs, bringing his wrists level with his eyes. The hands of his watch were invisible against the dark background. He swallowed, rested his head against the soft corner where the rectangle of seat cushion met the back panel. He was alone in the car. The driver’s side door was open and if he concentrated, listened hard enough, he could hear footsteps on gravel. She hadn’t left him alone, hadn’t given him a chance to escape. Beyond that, he could hear faint birdsongs, no other cars, leaves and branches rustling together in a faint wind. They were outside the city, somewhere rural and distant.
The door closest to his head opened, the sunlight catching on the glass and sending a bright flare across his vision. He winced, closed his eyes until he heard the door catch, the angle change. The woman was staring down at him and he pulled away, his legs strange and heavy as he used them to lever himself into a sitting position. His surroundings swirled before him for one dizzying moment and then the woman was speaking. He focused on her voice, cold and too personal, but grounding. "We’re here. End of the road."
He tried to speak, his mouth dry. He moistened his lips, tasted blood again, but didn’t find the source. He reached up, touched the side of his face tentatively, felt skin roughened with blood. He traced the trail upwards, flinching as his fingers brushed across the point of impact. "Here?" he asked. The light formed a corona around her face, obscuring her eyes.
She didn’t answer, instead reaching in and clamping one hand around his arm, pulling him towards her. He didn’t resist; there would be no point. She shoved him roughly in front of her, slammed the car door behind him. The noise and accompanying vibrations rushed over him, a wave of concussions, and he took a deep breath to steady himself. The air smelled of pine and dirt, no trace of smog or salt. They were inland and a good distance from any large city. "Inside," she said. "Let’s go."
He opened his eyes, looked gratefully to the shade of trees in front of him. They were in a clearing, a driveway. A wooden shack, a cabin, stood a short distance away, a thirty-second jog on a good day. This not being a good day, he wondered how long it would take, how long she would give him. There was no chance of him making a break for the trees; moving at more than a crawl seemed nigh impossible. The sun was beating a painful tattoo on the back of his head and he recalled a flash of black arcing over him, the instinct to move coming too slow. She stepped behind him and he felt the barrel of a gun press against his lower back. "Do it or this time I’ll shoot," she said, and he moved forward.
The walk to the cabin was an eternity and he heard a voice echoing in his ears, hoping he took the road straight to hell. Wife, he thought, ex-wife. And then she was stepping in front of him, unlocking the door and motioning him inside. The windows were covered and she flicked a switch, illuminating a room dusty with disuse. Stairs to one side, a room to the left. He’d run up those stairs, kicked open the door at the top and seen her fragile young body, freckled skin and dark hair, too late -
"Up the stairs," she said. He stepped forward, out of breath by the time they reached the second floor. She opened the door for him, stepped back. Now, he thought, if he knocked her down the stairs, if she fell -- but then she was closing the door behind them. The room was as he remembered it, the window through which they’d aimed the cameras letting in a square of bleached sunlight, dust filtering through the air. There was no furniture, but that made sense; the decorations had been sparse to begin with and that which had been there had been removed, needed as evidence. He turned away from the girl’s body, turned into the blow that knocked him onto his knees. The floor was wooden, stained panels running the length of the room, and he reached out to brace himself, cushion the fall and lessen the inevitable explosion that would come when the force reverberated through his head.
He gritted his teeth, stifling whatever cry would have come, and stared up at Narida, the dark shape of a gun in her hand, as memories returned, still images flashing across his mind, thankfully unaccompanied by any other sensations. Kate in the street, the drive to Woodstock, blood-covered handcuffs and the door slamming behind Dinozzo as he went for backup. A fight, the Sig sliding out of his reach and a long, long fall into darkness. Which didn’t sound half-bad right now, except for the fact that it would leave him completely defenseless, vulnerable.
"Gibbs," Narida said, and he’d heard her tone many times before, in nightmares and too often in reality. A thin layer of control, balanced delicately over pure madness. He heard himself, a far-off echo. Name, rank, serial number. Not now, not now. He cut himself off, waited for her reply. Her eyes widened, her lips curving into a smile. "You remember. Then you should know what’s coming."
"What’s coming," he repeated. She crouched down beside him, set the gun down a safe distance away and took his hands in her own. They were cold, dry, but he didn’t shudder, met her eyes, glad for the dim light and her location away from the window. She was confident, arrogant, he thought. She didn’t think he would attack her, that he could fight back. The problem was, at least for the time being, she was right.
"You remember what he did to her?" she asked, leaning over him. Her breathing was steady, calm. Her pulse would be, too, he thought. Because this was planned; she wasn’t getting off on it. It was methodical and prepared and she was acting out a script. This was revenge, not fantasy. Not yet.
"To Emily?" he asked. His voice was low, even. It was not so much an attempt to keep her calm as it was an effort not to aggravate the pain radiating from his skull. "What McKesson did to her?"
"To my daughter," she said. "What that bastard did to my baby." She leaned closer to him, lowered her voice as she spoke into his ear. "What you let him do."
"I remember," he said. "I’m the one who caught him." He doubted she needed the reminder, that he would be able to convince her to let him go.
"Too late," she said. "You were too late. You know how long she was dead before you got there, Gibbs? An hour. You had all that time, and you missed her by an hour. I’ve seen the reports, what you could have done. And you failed." Her soft soprano was condemning, surprisingly emotionless. That her control extended that far was both reassuring and frightening. While she was unlikely to snap, to finish this quickly in a burst of anger, it meant that she was likely to see this through to the end, go through the final stages of her plan, and he doubted he would like what she had in store.
"I did what I could," he said, and he thought that his voice lacked conviction. Blood was pounding in his head; the place where her gun had impacted his skull throbbed. How long had it been since he’d actually slept? "We all did. There was a team, Natalie. Only reason you can make these assumptions, can see today what we didn’t, is because we had to find that information. Had to do the work ourselves."
She shook her head. "She’s dead, Gibbs. Your work meant nothing to her. If you’d moved faster, she would be alive. Just a little faster, a few minutes here and there, and she would be safe."
"We found McKesson," he said. "Found the bastard who took her. I killed him. It was over, Natalie. Until you brought it back up."
"Over? She’s gone, Gibbs. Forever. That doesn’t end. Not for me. Not for you, anymore." She released him, his hands cold where she’d held them. She crossed to the door and knelt beside a bag, rummaged through its contents.
"Why?" he asked. "Tony and Kate. Vasquez. Hartley."
She looked up from the bag, her hair falling across her eyes. Shielding her. "You like them, don’t you? Kate and Tony. They’re your friends." She shrugged. "You know what it’s like to watch your whole world collapse? Everything you know change? The world goes, Gibbs, and you stay, and you watch everyone else walk by, and you wonder how they do it. Don’t they understand?" She shook her head, her hair out of her vision, and her eyes glinted in the dim light. "Look me in the eyes and tell me that you never thought it was true. That you never thought, just for a minute, he did it, that your protege was a killer. That you were wrong."
He was glad for the distance between them. "What I thought, what I think, doesn’t matter."
"That’s not an answer," she said as she stood. "But it doesn’t matter. You screwed up, Gibbs. I had a plan. I was going to kill them first and make you watch."
"You’re telling me this why, Natalie? Because right now, your plans mean nothing."
"I think they will," she said. "Because instead, I’m going to kill you, just like he did to her. And then, when you can’t do anything about it, I’m going to kill them. Hunt them down, one by one, and tell them that they failed, and then I’ll shoot them. Just like the others." She smiled at him. It was disconcertingly familiar, a cold distortion that he’d seen in the mirror many times before. "If you were still married, Gibbs, if your wives meant anything to you, they’d be dead, too. But because all you care about is your war, I’m going after your soldiers." She spread her hands, revealing the knife held in one. "Do you think she screamed, Jethro?"
He met her eyes, didn’t move as she approached him. There would be no contest of physical strength; she had both the gun and the contents of the bag, her kit. Shadows played across her face as she crossed the window’s path, continued towards him. "No one heard her," she said. "If she did, no one knows."
"They’re going to find you," he said. "They’re looking for you now."
"It doesn’t matter," she said. "I know what I’m doing. It won’t take long. Three bullets, Gibbs. One for you, one for him, and one for her. And then it’s done." She knelt down beside him, her eyes intent on his, and he smiled.
"I bet you made a great mother."
Her eyes widened as if he’d slapped her and then she nodded. "Yes," she said. "I knew you’d say that."
"So you probably know that as soon as I get the chance, I’m going to take your gun and shoot you in the head," he said. "Put you down like I did him."
"Don’t you dare compare me to him," she said. She tilted her head at him. "You’re dead, Gibbs, and so are they, but I’m going to make it last. For them." She raised the knife, pressed it to his throat, and then pulled it away. "For them," she whispered, and he almost laughed, because she had to know they would be expecting her. Finally, finally, his vision narrowed, the sunlit attic disappearing, and he closed his eyes; if he were unconscious, her attacks wouldn’t have nearly the desired effect, and that was all the advantage he had.
Tony started as the car slowed, blinked to orient himself to his new surroundings, outside the brick-and-glass building that was NCIS headquarters, dark red against a saffron sky. Clouds were hovering on the horizon, heavy and dark, and he wondered how long the ride had taken, how far Narida could have gone in that time. Abby pulled into the garage, looked over at him once she’d parked the car. "Sleep well?" she asked as she unbuckled her seatbelt, pulled the keys from the ignition.
"Considering," he said, pushing himself into a more upright position, cautious of the sling, the stitches pulling at his skin as he opened the car door, swung out and stood. He wondered if they made codeine in to-go packs, available legally without prescription. "Kate’s been released?"
She shrugged, looked apologetic as she got out of the car. "Not exactly."
He closed his eyes for a brief moment, sighed. "Abby . . ."
"You do a really good Gibbs," she said, and continued, more seriously, "Morrow called. Looks like Hythe took your attack personally."
Not surprising. "That’s how I meant it," he said, doing his best to keep his tone casual, nonchalant, like this hadn’t just shot his plan to hell. Not that he had much of a plan to begin with, but an assault charge would restrict his access, his freedom; at another time, he could have played along, but now -- hell, at another time, there wouldn’t be an assault charge, because Gibbs would be there, leading the investigation, rather than inspiring it. "He complained?"
Abby bit her lip, held the door open and then followed him inside the building. "To put it lightly. Morrow wants to see you in his office."
"Ah." He glanced ahead, shifted his direction, slid his free hand along the railing as he went down the stairs.
She caught up with him a moment later. "Tony . . . Morrow’s back that way."
He strode into the bullpen, slid the backpack from his uninjured shoulder. "I know."
She rested her hands on the edge of his desk, looking at him over the expanse. "And you’re not going there."
"Right," he said. He opened the top drawer, pulled out his sunglasses, aspirin. A weapon would have been nice, but showing up at the armory after ignoring the director’s summons would not be wise. Maybe Kate still had her gun; if not, he’d think of another way, find something else.
"From hostage to fugitive in less than twelve hours." Her amusement was weak, too obvious an attempt at covering nervousness and panic.
He turned to the lockers, knelt down and pulled the drawer open. "I see Morrow, he’s gonna pull me from the case." Kate had been holding out on him, he thought; she had a most interesting selection, he thought. Too bad she was probably going to kill him for going through it. Still, it was in Gibbs’ best interest, and picking on an injured man wasn’t exactly fair. Not that it would matter to her.
"Evidence or personal fetish?" Abby asked as he held a shirt up to the light to better examine it, decided it would work. SWAT team chic. He shoved cloth into the backpack, not bothering to fold the items. Either she’d be wearing them soon anyway or it wouldn’t matter.
"I’m guessing Kate’s not gonna wanna make her escape in a paper gown," he said. Explanation enough. He zipped the backpack, stood, bracing himself as subtly as possible against the lockers.
Abby nodded. "You want me to stall?"
"As long as you can." He reached into his pocket, came up empty. Right, Narida’d taken his, which meant it was probably somewhere in Woodstock. Retrieval was not an option. "Got a phone I can borrow?"
"Yeah. Downstairs." She glanced around as if to make sure no one would drag him away while she was gone. "Be right back." He watched her go, eyed his chair. No, if he sat down, it would be more difficult to get back up, and he didn’t have time to waste. Gibbs didn’t have time to waste. He leaned against the side of his desk, doing his best to look unobtrusive, like he was on the clock. He doubted Morrow would put out an APB, would alert security -- at least for a little while.
Abby returned after an agonizingly long few minutes, tossed him the cell phone. He reached out to catch it and winced; she shot him an apologetic look. "You think you’ll be able to find him? Morrow said he’s made the case the number-one priority."
He checked the phone’s battery, slid the cell into his pocket. "And yet, they still haven’t found them."
"True," she said. "You know where to start?"
"I’ll think of something," he said.
"If you happen to run across the other team . . ." she said, trailing off. He wondered what she’d suggest. Take cover? Create a diversion and run the other way?
"They’re looking for a rogue agent with a hostage. We’ll be looking for Gibbs."
She nodded, reached back as if to toss him the car keys and then thought better of it and simply handed them to him. "Keep me updated or I’ll kill you."
He mock-saluted her. "Good incentive." She shrugged and he turned, retraced his steps to the garage. Thankfully, no one stopped him and a few minutes later, he was turning onto the street, heading to the hospital. If Kate couldn’t leave, if her condition hadn’t improved enough, then he would be completely on his own. Which would make finding Gibbs, not to mention taking Narida down, more difficult.
For now, he’d hope for the optimistic outcome.
Her first thought, blurred as it was by sleep, was that Tony had died and had come back to haunt her, damning her to a sarcastic commentary for the rest of her life. Her second thought was that somebody had died. She sat up, revised her assumption. Somebody hadn’t died, but somebody was going to.
"Hey," he said, closing the door behind him. His movements were hesitant, awkward, more than was explained by the sling around one arm. Something was most definitely wrong.
Well, something more than usual, or what the past few days had defined as "usual."
"About time you stopped by," she said. "Where’s Gibbs?"
"Which brings us to the problem," he said, resting his hands on the end of her bed. She narrowed her eyes; he was relying too much on the bed for support in order for it to have been a casual gesture. "He found me, by the way. I’m okay."
She raised an eyebrow. "Right. That’s why you look like you’re going to collapse."
"You know, the idea that women are supposed to be seen and not heard still has merit," he said. "But the problem. She’s got Gibbs."
Which explained the "somebody’s going to die" look. She tightened her grip on the blanket covering her, wishing it was something more human, more responsive to pain. "What happened?"
"I went for backup and she . . got him." He waved his free hand in the air as if that made up for his lack of description, sighed. "Late last night or very early this morning."
"Where are they?"
He glared at her. "If I knew that, I wouldn’t be here."
"We have to find him," she said, pushing the blanket away and then retrieving it; the hospital gown revealed more than she wanted Tony to see, even when this much was at stake.
"Which is why I’m here." He swung a backpack from his shoulder, set it down on her bed. "Clothes."
She nodded. "Sign me out while I get dressed."
"That . . . could be a problem."
"A problem," she echoed.
"I sort of . . . Morrow wants to see me," he said, looking down at his hands. "I’m avoiding him," he added unnecessarily.
"Oh." So not only were they going after Gibbs, they didn’t have NCIS as backup.
The door opened behind him and Tony turned, looking as though he thought he’d have to hide under the bed. He relaxed as Ducky stepped into the room, his eyes widening when he saw Tony. "Tony, what happened?"
"She’s got Gibbs," Tony said. "Kate and I are going to find him."
"Ah," Ducky said. "Despite appearances to the contrary."
"We can’t just wait," Kate said.
Tony nodded in agreement, addressed her. "So I figure if you get dressed, we can silence the monitors or whatever and be out before anybody notices you’re gone."
"Or I could just sign you out," Ducky said.
"Or Ducky could sign you out," Tony said.
"Good." Kate raised her eyebrows when they didn’t leave as expected. "I’m not getting out of bed until you’re gone." Ducky nodded, stepped back into the hallway, closing the door as he left.
"He stop by for company or is he, like, your bodyguard?" Tony asked.
"More like a sentry," she said, waited another few seconds. "I’m not getting out of bed," she repeated. Tony rolled his eyes, turned his back to her, and she swung out of bed. Watching him warily, she leaned forward to grab the backpack and headed for the bathroom.
When she returned a few minutes later, she found Tony staring out the window at the parking lot below. She glanced past him, at the people moving below, the cars moving back and forth along the street, and then dropped onto the bed next to him, weary from the effort of maneuvering cloth over bandages. She slid out of her heels, left them where they stood on the floor, glossy black pillars. Frank Lloyd Wright does footwear.
He turned his gaze from the window and studied the shoes for a moment before looking up at her. "You know, Kate, those are usually called f-"
"Don’t," she interrupted, sincerely wishing she’d reconsidered the clothes she’d left at work.
He just grinned, a movement of skin and muscle that served only to emphasize the shadows under his eyes. "Because if that’s-"
"I"ll shoot you," she warned, reaching onto the nightstand for the gun Ducky’d brought, placing it there for either her comfort or his, or possibly on orders from Gibbs. At any rate, she hadn’t complained. She and Tony turned as the door opened again and Ducky stepped inside, nodded in acknowledgment.
"You’re free to go," he said. "Though I would advise that you return, once you’ve found him."
Tony nodded, spoke. He sounded desperate, like he had everything riding on the reply. Which, she thought, he might. Just as she did. "You happen to know anything about Monica Narida, Ducky? Like why she wants to kill Gibbs?"
"Hm." Ducky closed his eyes as he scanned his memory. "The name’s not familiar, no."
"She said something about wanting him to wait, like she had to." Tony tried to cross his arms, gave up when the sling got in the way, and pressed his free hand against his temple, instead. "Except I think he called her Natalie."
"Natalie, waiting . . . Natalie. Oh, my, yes." Ducky’s eyes widened. "The mother of a child whose disappearance Jethro investigated some years ago."
"He didn’t find the kid," Kate said.
"No, though he did find the killer." Ducky bit his lip, shook his head. "I never met the woman, myself, but from what Jethro said, she sounded . . . stable."
"You know what they say about appearances," Tony said. He glanced over at Kate. "Ready?"
She nodded, slid the Sig into her jacket pocket. "Yeah."
"Be careful, both of you," Ducky said, stepping aside so that they could exit.
"Will do," Kate said. She followed Tony out of the room, down the hallway and into the elevator. The ride was silent, tense, as she tried to decide what she wanted him to do. She would appreciate being told what was going on, but she wasn’t sure of the cost. At any rate, she followed him to the sedan, tracked his careful steps worriedly. "You want me to drive?" she asked when they reached the car.
He looked at her over the roof of the car. "You’re recovering from a gunshot wound," he said incredulously.
"And you’re recovering from involuntary bloodletting," she said, tossing the empty bag onto the back seat. "Among other things."
She widened her eyes in annoyance. "So I’m obviously more fit to drive than you are."
"But you don’t know where we’re going."
"And you do?"
He opened his mouth as if to confirm, but stopped before he spoke, shrugged and walked to the other side of the car, handing her the keys as they passed. She opened the driver’s side door, started the engine as he opened the passenger’s side and slid inside. "So," she said. "Where are we going?"
He sighed, rubbed his unrestrained hand across his eyes. "I don’t know," he said. "She went to Woodstock."
Kate frowned. "That’s, what, an hour and a half from here?"
He nodded. "I just -- I need to think for a minute. Just . . . drive." She glanced at him, wanted to argue, but decided against it. She pulled out into the sunlight and pretended not to notice that he put his sunglasses on as soon as they left the garage, despite the fact that clouds were moving across the sun, the ash-gray horizon expanding across the once-bright sky.
A wash of gray light, cool and soft. He could feel the blood pulsing across his eyelids, a sensation not unlike that of the sea at rest, a calm tide. The shoreline was a pinprick of light in the distance and he could look away, look to the thin line of setting sun that was the horizon; landfall was a strange and unnecessary concept. Steady, deep breathing bringing him down, down; unconsciousness was a haven, a safe place from which to witness -- or not -- the end. He was isolated, distanced, but he was not safe.
Gibbs opened his eyes and found himself lying on his side, staring at the woodgrain of the panels lining the floor. They were dirty, the varnish patchy with age and a poor application years ago. Awareness of his body returned gradually, a fact for which he was grateful. Narida hadn’t taken the cuffs off, which wasn’t surprising. The metal rubbed against raw flesh, skin scraped by an almost autonomic reflex, a fruitless defensive reaction as Narida maneuvered the blade over his chest. Shallow cuts, he thought. He wouldn’t bleed to death as a result. His headache, though still present, was diminished by a sense of thickness, tiredness, the knowledge that it would be much easier to slip back into unconsciousness and the temptation to do so. He considered the dangers of head injuries, concussions, and wondered how long he’d been out. The light had changed, dimmed; clouds had moved over the sun and taken away any sense of time. An hour could have passed, or a day. The thought was startling and he reached hastily to touch the still-drying blood, the closest thing he had to a clock, and a damned poor substitute.
He rolled slowly onto his back, winced as the wood pressed against his spine. If anything, he reasoned, that would keep him awake, and considering his other problems, the sensation barely deserved notice. He turned his head carefully to find Narida, to see what she was doing. What he could expect. The room was cool; the light that filtered through the clouds wasn’t enough to keep it warm, much less to illuminate the darkened corners. Her bag was still by the door, but she wasn’t there, wasn’t in the room.
He listened, holding his breath for a long moment as he waited to hear footsteps, to hear something that would reveal her location. The moment passed and he heard nothing. He sat up, moving as quickly as he dared. Had she finally made a mistake or was this part of her plan, some aspect of psychological torture? He didn’t see how it could be; she’d had no way to know when he would awaken and it seemed a ridiculous game to play, getting his hopes up only to lower them by stepping through the door dramatically. Beneath her, unfortunately.
Which meant that maybe this was a chance. If he could get out of the house, get into the woods, he could stay out of her reach until help arrived, until Tony and Kate arrived.
Assuming, of course, that Tony and Kate were on the way. And considering that when he’d last seen them, Kate was in the hospital and Tony looked like he should have been there, too, it was quite possibly a flawed assumption, based totally on hope and not at all in reality.
How long could he survive on his own?
Well, he thought, probably a lot longer than if he stayed with Narida.
He came to his feet shakily, leaning against the wall as the room wavered before his eyes. He glanced down to make sure that he wasn’t bleeding enough to leave an obvious trail. Would Narida be able to track him once he got outside? He couldn’t remember seeing anything about that in her file, but then, he hadn’t seen anything about her daughter, either. The relevance of her file, he thought, was greatly overstated.
He began to move towards the door, each step a red-hot burst in front of his eyes. Weariness threatened to drop him, as if exhaustion were a tangible weight. Had it only been six days since Dinozzo’d called him, six days since this had started?
Six days and nine years.
It wouldn’t be much longer.
He opened the door, fumbling with the knob, and stood at the top of the staircase. There was no railing and the first floor seemed a great distance away, the necessary act of descending a task requiring more than human strength. He closed his eyes against a sense of vertigo, a dizzying sensation of movement. It would be so much easier to wait, just to wait. But for all he knew, he would be waiting forever, or for as long as it took for Narida to return, and that was not an option. He could rest when he was away, when he’d escaped. After all, Dinozzo hadn’t waited; he’d been up and moving, making it up as he went along when Gibbs’d found him in the sewer. And Gibbs would be damned if he’d do anything less, himself.
Not that the thought made descending any easier than he’d expected.
He made it to the foot of the stairs after what seemed like an eternity of careful balancing, checking weight and judging distance. It was possible that he had nothing more than a concussion coupled with the disorientation that accompanied lengths of time without sleep. He didn’t want to consider the alternatives. Either he’d make it or he wouldn’t; debating possibilities and variables would be a waste of time and energy.
He leaned against the wall, breathing heavily, and listened again for Narida. He doubted she’d actually left the premises, but he wasn’t sure what else would explain her absence. Unless she was giving up, abandoning him and fleeing . . .
There was, he thought, really only one way to find out. Luckily it didn’t deviate from his planned path. He opened the front door, felt damp air on his skin and closed his eyes in momentary appreciation of the unexpected balm. The relief was short-lived; he had to keep going. He opened his eyes, glanced ahead, and froze.
Narida’s car was gone.
He stared at the empty space for a long moment, as if daring the car to return, his vision to contradict itself. The clearing was quiet, the edges where gravel met forest misty with fog. The air smelled of damp soil, decomposing flora. The area, he thought, was abandoned -- though it had seemed to be, too, when he’d found McKesson so many years ago. But he’d come from where he’d found McKesson and he hadn’t seen anyone else, hadn’t seen Narida, on his way out.
So. He could either wait to be rescued or he could rescue himself. How far was it from the cabin to the base, to the nearest city? He could remember driving, the path taken on that summer afternoon, but the distance/time conversion required skills of concentration and mental dexterity which were currently beyond his grasp.
He did, however, know that he wasn’t going to wait. He took a hesitant step forward, felt the minute shifting of rocks beneath the soles of his boots. If he made it to a main road, he could flag someone down, finish the journey in relative comfort. Providing, of course, that someone would stop for him; he probably didn’t look like the most trustworthy of men, certainly not like an NCIS agent in pursuit of a fugitive.
He had to get out of the driveway, at least. He could wait for a few minutes, get his bearings once he didn’t have to worry about Narida reappearing and finding him immediately, dragging him back into the house. He doubted that would happen; logically she would be getting as far away from here as possible.
Something crunched in the distance and he flinched. But he was in what was arguably the wilderness, or at least the forest; of course there would be noise.
It just wouldn’t sound like footsteps on loose gravel.
"Jethro," Narida called, her voice a deceptively light singsong. "Where are you going?"
"Thought I’d go out for coffee," he said, hearing the footsteps grow closer. He turned to see her; there was no point in running for the cover of trees if she were armed, which, he saw, she was.
"That’s rude," she said. The click of the Sig’s safety being released was loud in the stillness.
"Your car," he said.
"Was a dead giveaway, wasn’t it? Would tell anyone that we’re here."
"You moved it," he said. His voice sounded dull to his own ears. Apathy, he thought, was dangerous.
"Around back. You should really sit down," she said. "You don’t look well." She tilted her head, her gun unwavering. "Back to the house."
"The fresh air’s nice," he said.
She shrugged. "I’m not going to kill you out here, so there’s really no point in resisting. We’ve got a long way to go."
He narrowed his eyes at her, at the yawning emptiness of the Sig’s muzzle, but there was nothing he could do but abide. The sound of the front door closing behind him was loud and final and he looked with reluctance at the stairs. "Now," she said, following just out of his reach.
"What’s next?" he asked. He heard the click of the lock behind him, wondered who she thought she’d be keeping out. "You replaying McKesson’s fantasy?"
"Not entirely," she said. "No, I won’t keep you here for that long." She took a step closer to him. "Do you know how many times he touched her, how many times he hurt my baby? I’m not doing that, Gibbs. I’m not."
"Noble," he commented. She took a step forward, placed her hands on his shoulders and shoved him down. He went willingly, not wanting to waste any energy on a pointless show of defiance. There would be time for that later.
"Not to you, anyway," she finished. "The others, Kate and Tony, once you’re out of the way, they’re fair game." She smiled, her eyes bright in the chill gray light. "Now, I think I’d like to hear you scream."
The car was silent save for the humming of the engine, the sound of the tires on the pavement. They were passing a park, joggers in faded sweatpants moving along the sidewalks. A figure waited on one of the benches, a form rendered androgynous by the mass and quality of its clothing. The clock on the dashboard shifted, its electric-green glow measuring another minute’s passing. Kate bit her lip, glanced over at Tony. His face was blank and his shades reflected clouds, obscured his eyes. "Any brilliant ideas?" she asked.
He didn’t look at her. "I’m working on it. Genius takes time."
She sighed. "Well, what happened?" she asked. "The last I heard, Narida’d taken you hostage, and now she’s got Gibbs."
"Which is what matters."
"Damn it, Tony," she said, tightening her grip on the steering wheel. She didn’t have time for his pride. Gibbs didn’t have time. "I don’t care what you did or didn’t do. I need to know what happened. Without that, I’m pretty much useless as a profiler."
"Narida took me to Woodstock, where she used to live. Gibbs followed us, came in and rescued me. And then he sent me for backup and while I was waiting, she got him," he recited, his voice a tired monotone. He turned to look at her and she glared at the blankness covering his eyes. "What else do you want?"
"I don’t know," she said. "But there has to be something."
"And we’re just not seeing it," he said. "Right."
She shook her head. "So, what, we just keep driving until inspiration strikes?"
"Any other ideas?"
She stared ahead, keeping her eyes on the road. Safer, and if she couldn’t see him, he couldn’t see her. "Like I said, we’re not exactly fit to be the heroes here."
"You want to go back to the hospital, hope somebody else finds them?"
"No," she said, flicking on the turn signal. Another lap around the park, motion without purpose. "No. But I don’t know how much longer we can keep this up."
"As long as we need to," he said.
"Driving around D.C. isn’t going to help us find Gibbs," she said.
"Where do you want to go?" he asked. "Because if you have any ideas . . ."
"I don’t know," she said. "But for God’s sake, Tony, you look like you’re collapse, despite the fact that you’re already sitting, and it’s not like I’m feeling any better."
He sighed, reached into his jacket pocket and offered her a bottle of aspirin. She stared at the plastic container until the car behind them honked, drew her attention back to the green light ahead. She glanced back at Tony once they were moving again, unsure whether she wanted to laugh or cry, and the solemn expression on his face was so close to serious that she thought he was wondering the same thing.
The sun was setting. Ahead, a string of cars, their taillights glowing in early twilight like electric rubies, a higher wattage than found in nature. The air conditioner was on full-blast as if cold air would be enough to keep them going, enough of a stimulant. Tony glanced at Kate from behind the safety of mirrored lenses, noted the ashen color of her skin, the pain-lines around her mouth, and wondered if it really would be enough. Maybe he shouldn’t have done this. Maybe he should have left her at the hospital and gone to see Morrow. Maybe then she would be resting, listening to Ducky talk about whatever the hell happened to cross his mind, and Tony would be safe in his apartment, ignoring the traces left by Hartley’s forensics team and trying to pay attention to whatever inane show happened to be playing on the television screen.
And maybe Gibbs would get a little further away.
But maybe the other team would find him. Maybe they were already closing in on Narida. Maybe Tony and Kate were driving around for no reason, looking for something which had already been found. Maybe . . . but the phone hadn’t rung. Abby hadn’t called off the search. Which meant that the other team really was still out there, not making any progress.
Which meant that Narida still had Gibbs.
Which meant that every minute they spent driving around here was another minute lost, another minute given to Narida. Another minute which could mean the end, the big finish, triumph of the Norman Bates variant, zero sum.
Another minute, which could mean Gibbs’ death.
And they were no closer to finding him. How long had they been driving, trying to think of a place, a reason? So much time, so many miles. Such a distance and they hadn’t gone anywhere at all.
"You want me to drive?" he asked, looking out at the city through the window. They were passing a supermarket; a dark-haired woman was pushing a shopping cart across the parking lot to her car, trailed by two kids in jeans. Her kids. Tony had the curious sensation that this was what Alice would have looked like, later, that this was what her life would have been. And now, because of Narida, because of something entirely unrelated to her - a matter of chance and coincidence - it would never happen. The woman would never be her. She would never be that woman.
And then they passed the parking lot, left the harsh white light, the neon red sign of the supermarket behind.
"Ah," Kate began, and Tony realized that they were shifting, drifting towards the center line. He glanced back at her, saw her eyes closed in grimace. Definitely a bad idea. He reached across the seat, the space between, clamped his free hand onto the wheel and twisted, pulling them back into their own lane. His eyes watered at the sharpness spreading like wildfire in his arm and he pulled away as Kate let out a deep breath and steered the car to the side of the road, turned off at the next available break and eased them to a stop between two SUVs parked in front of a bland chain diner, anywhere USA. He leaned back, doing his best to breath deeply. Kate’s hands were trembling and she moved them from his view.
"We’re screwed," he said after a minute. Through the window he watched a green-uniformed woman set a tray down on a table, begin distributing plates. Life went on.
Kate’s laugh was more emotionless than he’d expected. "You just noticed that, Tony?"
"Seemed like a good time to point it out."
She sighed, not looking at him. He wondered if she was doing that on purpose. "You have any brilliant suggestions?"
He hesitated. "Food."
"Food," she repeated.
"Yeah. You know. Eat."
"But Gibbs," she began, and then stopped, pulled the key from the ignition. "Food. Right." She opened her door, stepped cautiously onto the pavement. Tony sighed, slid his sunglasses off and set them down on the dashboard. Not worth the questions. He glanced at them wistfully and then stepped out, himself, joining Kate on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant. Someone honked a horn in the distance and traffic hummed steadily on the road. He wondered if Gibbs could hear any of the same noises, if he was that close. Not likely, but didn’t all city traffic sound the same?
A few minutes later, the waitress he’d watched through the window appeared to offer a preliminary cup of coffee and take their orders, repeating their words in a bored monotone and then retreating to the kitchen. Tony glanced at Kate, who was staring at her hands, her fingers resting on the edge of the marble-laminate table. The roadway outside, the passing traffic, was recontextualized, reduced to a background decoration, a distant movie. The world outside.
"She’s got Gibbs and we’re stopping for dinner," Kate said, finally looking up.
"You can’t tell me you’re not hungry." Which wasn’t the point at all, but he didn’t know what else to say. The fact that he didn’t want her back on the road right away, and that he doubted he’d do much better without some sort of intervention, went without saying.
"It just seems somehow . . . wrong. Like if it were him - when it was him, when we were looking for you, he didn’t stop for meals."
"How long was I gone?" Tony countered and then froze, meeting Kate’s eyes. Neither, it seemed, wanted a reminder of passing time.
"Hm," she said, turning to look out the window at the rush of passing cars, the slowly darkening sky overhead. Their food arrived a few minutes later and they picked at their respective meals, drank generic restaurant coffee from mugs stained brown, an accident of design and not a testimony to their state of cleanliness, or so Tony hoped.
"So where do we go?" she asked. "It’s getting late."
"If I knew . . ." he said, lifting his coffee cup to his mouth and taking a sip. "We don’t know enough. I’ve been thinking about what she said, what she did, but . . ."
"And by now they could be almost anywhere," Kate said.
Kate’s eyes took on a distant look, as though she were looking straight through him. It was different than the blank look she’d been wearing for the past few hours, the glaze of exhaustion and pain, and Tony wondered if she would be able to explain Narida, understand the woman’s reasoning, and what it took to do that. Her insight took practice, he thought, surely not empathy. "So she’s obsessed with her daughter. Blames Gibbs for not finding her in time or . . . something," she said. "She took you to Woodstock."
"Where she used to live," he added.
She wrapped her hands around her coffee cup, brought back to the present, the real, by his interjection. "But because it was convenient or because it meant something to her?"
He frowned, looked down at his mostly-untouched food. "She was going to kill me there. She said she knew Gibbs would come." He sighed. "And then she was going to go after you. Loose ends."
"If this is all . . . if this is all about revenge," she said. "Maybe she took you there because she wanted to make a point. If she lived there with her daughter, it would have had significance to her. Maybe she wanted it to be significant for Gibbs, too."
"And bringing him there to watch me die would do the trick?" Tony took another sip of coffee, blinking at the strange sharp clarity of a caffeine rush on top of too many aspirin. "So how’s that help?"
"It means she’d probably take him somewhere significant, too." Kate bit her lip. "If this is about him, if she blames him for her daughter’s death . . ."
"We have to find out where her daughter died," Tony finished. He slid the cell phone from his pocket, dialed Abby’s number. That she answered seriously was evidence of the significance of the situation as a whole.
"Hey, Abby. I need you to find out where Narida’s daughter died."
"Narida’s daughter," she echoed.
"Gibbs was the lead investigator . . ."
He heard typing in the background and then she spoke. "Got it. Yeah. Looks like he tracked ‘em down. Killed the guy, but . . ."
His grip on the phone tightened. "Where?"
"Place outside Ft. Belvoir. Cabin. I’ll pull up directions."
"She get it?" Kate asked. Tony nodded, pulled a pen from his pocket and scribbled down Abby’s directions on a napkin.
She paused for a moment, her breathing loud in his ear. "Let me know . . ."
"I’ll call you when we get there." He snapped the phone shut, exchanged it for his wallet and tossed a few bills onto the table. More than enough to cover the tab, but they didn’t have time to waste. "Let’s go," he said, glancing up at Kate.
She was already heading for the door.
The slow, slow pumping of his heart. Something wet trickling down his arm, hot and burning as acid. Storm clouds gathering outside the window, heavy and ominous, and lightning striking the roof, traveling through the joists, through the floorboards, into his body in a white-hot flash. Narida laughed and pulled the trigger, and Tony went down, his eyes wide and staring, a silent plea. And in the distance, Kate was on her knees, the gun pressed to back of her head, execution-style. Ahead, an empty road, dry and dusty against the horizon, and he couldn’t look away, couldn’t look back.
And blood . . .
"‘Short days ago we lived, felt dawn.’" Narida’s voice was cool, a blade cutting through the thick haze of his thoughts. Gibbs opened his eyes slowly, blinking as he tried to bring her into focus, for the edges to clear. No dice. She was a point of light in a dark room, her surroundings stretching out to infinity. There was no way he would make it to the door now, down the stairs and out to the road. The top of his skull was smoldering, a low-grade flame that slowed his thoughts, rendered real-time thought impossible. Something was very wrong with his arm; beyond that was pain in a steady pulse, a heartbeat.
"‘Saw sunset glow,’" Narida said. "‘Loved and were loved. And now we lie.’"
"‘In Flanders Field,’" he said, his voice worn and his words almost incomprehensible.
Flanders Field. A long way from here. But soon enough. It was almost over. He closed his eyes, tired of waiting for the room to settle.
"End of the road, Jethro," Narida said. "Except your torch won’t be passed. I won’t let it." He felt her words as a rush of air across his face, warm with life. "I know the last half-hour of her life, what the M.E. said. It didn’t end with a bullet for her, but for you . . . the countdown starts now."
A memory of wind, snow beneath his shoes and an impossibly blue sky. Flag-draped casket and dark-suited mourners. To you from failing hands we throw the torch . . .
He let go.
The road was rough and uneven, littered with rocks, and the trees cast long shadows, tinged red with the setting sun, the onset of night. The woods looked dark and deep; if he stared at them long enough, he would start to see movement, skittering shapes among the exposed roots and low vegetation. Tony looked away from the forest, focused on avoiding the worst of the potholes. God, he was tired. It felt like jetlag, he thought, and wondered at the fact that the trauma of the past few days could feel like something so simple. The car was too warm; his hands were stiff on the steering wheel and he could feel beads of sweat forming on his forehead. He glanced at Kate, her eyes closed and her head tilted back. They were, he thought, truly the walking wounded; they’d be lucky if they could make it to the cabin without running off the road.
He just hoped that Gibbs would still be alive by the time they arrived. Because, if not . . . what else was there? Any other possibilities seemed impossible; death was supposed to be slow and gradual. There was supposed to be a buildup, something leading to the shootout, the climax, the deathbed speech before the hero went down in a blaze of glory and all that. There was supposed to be a sign. Foreshadowing. Anything else seemed even more unfair. It wasn’t just a movie thing, he reasoned; when he’d been on the force, he’d been able to tell, seen when the focus changed from the chase to the kill, the possibility and the adrenaline rush. He’d seen good guys go down for that, killed because they’d gone for the edge, fallen in love with the closeness of death.
Shit. Going for the edge. Going for it all. Why else did Gibbs have this job? Surely not for the sparkling conversation of his coworkers. Still, he couldn’t have known. This hadn’t been planned. But had there been something in Gibbs’ usually impassive eyes, a sense of fatalism, the knowledge that maybe this was going to be his last case, his last battle? Had he known, somehow, what would happen when he’d burst through that door, touched Tony’s shoulder and told him to go get the backup?
No. He couldn’t have. It would have been surrender, and that, Tony was certain, was not something Gibbs would voluntarily do. This was just coincidence, the average run-of-the-mill psycho kidnapping.
Because, after all, anything else would be impossible.
Kate stirred, pushed herself up in her seat and brushed strands of hair out of her eyes. He glanced at her, glad for the distraction. "We’re almost there?" she asked, adjusting her seatbelt where it pressed against her chest, against the bandages.
"Any minute," he said. She looked at him and he wondered what she’d heard, what his voice had betrayed. It hadn’t sounded important, to him. Their eyes met for a split second, but it was long enough for him to wish he was still wearing his shades. "You must be fun on road trips," he said, not particularly caring if she thought the attempt to change the subject was obvious. "What was that, five minutes before you crashed?"
"Yeah, well, usually I’m not recovering from bullet wounds," she said, fumbling for her water bottle. She took a sip, saw the look on his face and sighed, handing him the bottle. "I swear, if this wasn’t a matter of life and death . . ."
He took a deep swallow, relishing the lukewarm water even as he wished for something stronger. Maybe Gibbs was onto something with his coffee thing. "My point exactly," he said, too weary to think of a more cutting reply. She didn’t answer, slid the Sig from her jacket pocket and ran her fingers across the edge of the barrel. A question or a safety blanket, or some of both. He asked for her. "You think he’s okay?"
"He’s Gibbs," she answered, as though Gibbs were a force of nature on par with water and air, virtually indestructible.
Tony raised his eyebrows. "That he is." He returned her water bottle, pretended not to notice her look of distaste as she shoved it out of the way.
"Narida’s daughter," Kate said suddenly. "What was her name?"
He blinked, searched his memory for the answer. Either he’d forgotten or he’d never known; it just hadn’t seemed consequential. "I, ah . . . don’t know."
"Hm." She shook her head as if to clear it, reached for the napkin scribbled with directions and leaned forward, straining to see ahead. "There. I think that’s it." Tony followed her gaze, eased the car to a stop next to the turnoff. He cut the engine, listened to the strange silence.
"So . . ." he said.
Kate nodded. "Yeah."
He looked at the clock on the dashboard. Time to get going. He wondered if it was cold outside; if so, it would be a welcome change. "Backup?" he asked.
She bit her lip. "Not that I relish the thought of going in alone, but Narida’s both military and law enforcement. She’ll know what her chances are, if she sees a team."
He shrugged. "Yeah. Not good."
She closed her eyes for a moment, long enough for him to wonder if she’d passed out. She didn’t open her eyes when she spoke. "Have Abby call. Give us time."
"Good idea," he said, pulling the phone from his pocket and offering it to her. "I call the gun."
Her eyes snapped open. "What? It’s mine. Ducky gave it to me."
"Like you said, you’re not usually recovering from a bullet wound. So since mine’s less fatal, I get the gun. Plus, you get the phone." He waved it in the air until she snatched it away. She glared at him but acquiesced, apparently too tired to protest. That probably wasn’t a good sign, he thought, but it wasn’t like there was anything they could do about it now. He listened to her end of the conversation, tried to pretend that each passing second wasn’t a potential end. Finally she ended the call, shoved the phone into her pocket.
"She’ll give us twenty minutes," she said.
"Nothing like a deadline to motivate."
She licked her lips, glanced at him, one hand poised to open the door. "You ready?"
He slid the Sig into his jacket, met her eyes and nodded once. "Let’s do it."
The area was even quieter when he was out of the car, an illusion which was probably at least partly psychological. Fort Belvoir was relatively close and there were no walls to muffle noise, but the idea of open space made the sounds seem smaller, more distant. He closed the car door and considered the effects of the Sig’s recoil on his aim, if he fired with one hand. He hesitated and made a decision, pulling the sling over his head and reopening the car, tossing it inside.
Kate closed the passenger’s side door and looked at him over the roof of the car. "What, you can’t go into battle with bandages?"
He slammed his own door and then winced at the loudness. "No, I can’t shoot with one hand."
She raised her eyebrows. "Takes a big man to admit that."
He grinned. "You have no idea." She rolled her eyes and he shrugged, waiting for her to come around the car. They approached the driveway, Kate’s shoes unsteady on the uneven road. Tony winced, feeling faintly guilty. It was probably a good thing she didn’t have to worry about the gun, too, he thought, and wondered if his generous actions in that respect cancelled out the shoe thing. He decided not to ask.
By silent agreement they kept close to the trees, not because the trees would provide camouflage but because, should Narida see them, the thick trucks and shadows would provide cover. He hoped it wouldn’t come to that, though, because she had the ultimate advantage; all she had to do was kill Gibbs and their careful assault would be pointless.
The house loomed large in the clearing, a two-story cabin, its logs peeling and stained with age. Nothing moved behind the windows; no curtains rustled and he didn’t see anyone lunge for a weapon.
"There’s no car in the driveway," Kate said, her voice pitched low. "Either they’re not here or she moved it because . . ."
"She knew someone would be coming." He nodded, his eyes on the cabin, searching for movement. "Hate to disappoint her."
Kate’s laugh was mirthless, closer to a growl than an expression of mirth. "Right." He released the Sig’s safety, held the weapon at his side. No point in being unprepared. They stood next to the trees, waiting for a sign of movement, looking for the best point of entry. The night was cold, a slight wind rustling the leaves of the overhanging trees and chilling the sweat on his forehead.
"Should we go for it?" he asked.
"What’re we waiting for?" He heard the shifting of cloth and then she spoke again. "Looks like we’re down to fifteen, now."
"Since we’re doing this blind anyway . . . I say we go through the front door and hope she’s not waiting," he said.
"Can’t think of anything else."
He glanced back at her, considered asking if she wanted to wait outside, if she didn’t think she could make it, and decided against it. For one thing, he doubted she would take him up on the offer, and like she’d said, he didn’t exactly relish the idea of going in alone. She’d be unarmed, but she was still an NCIS agent and most of the time, he had to admit that she knew what she was doing. And, he thought, this wasn’t his alone. She wasn’t helping him find Gibbs; they were finding him together. Because he belonged to both of them.
"On the count of three . . ." And then they were crossing the driveway, sprinting for the front door. She stopped behind him, let him go first. He reached out, twisted the knob and swung the door open, stepping inside. He decided to forego on the traditional entry warning; he wasn’t going to give up the element of surprise and at this point, the only warning Narida was going to get would be the barrel of the gun pressing into her skull.
The front room was empty, containing only shadows and dust. It was dark; the dirty windows wouldn’t have let much light in, even if it had been daytime. A staircase hinted at Narida’s most obvious location, if she were, in fact, there. Tony glanced back at Kate, met her eyes. She stepped in behind him and closed the door. He tilted his head at the staircase and she nodded. They ascended as quietly as possible and Tony’s eyes widened as they neared the top, as a voice grew louder.
A voice. Narida.
Kate swallowed harshly, standing next to him at the top of the stairs, in front of the door which Narida had to be behind. The woman’s voice was muffled, but not to the point of incomprehensibility. Her voice was soft, almost loving, a tone Tony associated with whispers and light feminine laughter. He shuddered, feeling his skin crawl. Kate’s hand on his own startled him and he looked down, realized he’d been reaching for the doorknob, ready to enter. Not yet. Not until they knew more, until they knew if they could use any elements of the situation.
"Sleeping, I think, and then I’ll wake her. Do you know how long someone can live with their chest cracked, Jethro? Any ideas?"
He was alive. That was what they needed.
Tony glanced back at Kate, who nodded, and then he slammed the door open, lunged inside and felt the temperature drop, the night grow abruptly colder.
Narida was there, blond hair hanging in front of her eyes as she knelt over his body, her hands stained red. No -- not his body. Over Gibbs. Because despite all appearances to the contrary, surely she wouldn’t have been talking to a corpse. Despite the fact that Gibbs wasn’t moving, wasn’t reacting to their presence, and oh, God, there was so much blood. Kate pushed past him, desperate to see, and spoke, her voice deadly raw. "NCIS -- get away from him."
Tony swallowed, brought the Sig to bear on Narida. "Like she said."
Narida blinked, looked up. "But I’m almost done," she said.
"You’re done now," Kate said. Narida frowned, came to her feet.
"Against the wall," Tony snapped. Narida stepped away and Kate took her place beside Gibbs, her own injuries forgotten as she touched his neck, checking for a pulse.
"He’s alive," Kate said and Tony wanted to close his eyes in relief, wanted to slam Narida against the wall and cuff her, shove the gun against her forehead and watch her break.
"I’m almost done," Narida repeated, explained. As though if they’d gotten there five minutes later, maybe she would have been done and he’d really do it, really kill her. Kate leaned over Gibbs, brushing across his cuffed hands, his arm, and there was a sound from low in his throat, unfamiliar and almost inhuman. Tony felt his stomach clench as Kate looked up to meet his eyes, and then Narida was reaching, a cross-draw, pulling a gun from her holster. Because she was an NCIS agent after all, Tony thought, watching as she brought the weapon to bear on the others, Kate or Gibbs or at that range, possibly both. And then there was an incredible ringing in his ears and the recoil was exploding through his arms and Narida was crumpling.
Tony lowered the Sig, let it hang loosely at his side as he watched the woman fall. Alice’s killer, Hartley’s killer, and she’d tried to kill him and Kate and Gibbs, too, and he didn’t even know her daughter’s name.
Narida hit the floor, moaned as she curled around herself. She reached for her weapon, lying a few feet away, but her hand closed over air. Gibbs’ eyes flickered, startled back to life by the gunshot, and he swallowed, turned ever so slowly to see who had fallen. Who had died, Tony thought, and Kate’s own eyes were wide. He wondered what she was seeing, what was rendered invisible by his own distance.
"Told you," Gibbs said, his voice so low that Tony had to strain to hear what he was saying, to pick apart the syllables. His fever-bright eyes were on Narida as he lay unmoving himself, and Tony wondered to whom he was speaking. It didn’t matter, he decided. It didn’t matter at all. Gibbs closed his eyes again, his body slumping as conscious muscle control fled, and Kate swallowed.
"The backup would be good right about now," she said.
And as if in answer, they heard the front door slam open and the officers shout as they flooded into the house.
It was, Tony thought, over. Took long enough.
Hands brushing across his own. Footsteps thundering across the floor, reverberating through him, and then movement, the ruts in the road and inexplicable prick of a needle, and then it was all very distant and finally gone. He was somewhere beyond thought, but alive, and wherever it was, there was nothing at all, vast waves of gray and painlessness.
(Between the crosses)
He knew, at least subconsciously, where he was. The warmth of sunlight across bruises, the sharp tang of antiseptic, the slow weave of stitches and the corresponding pull of his skin, familiar voices speaking just out of his reach. He was in a hospital. He was in a hospital, and they were safe and it was alright for him to be here. He had time. He wouldn’t be late; no one was waiting.
(Did I get him?)
He could rest now.
He could rest and there would be no movement, no sharp sudden noises and bursts of color. All that ended with a blast, when Dinozzo pulled the trigger, when --
(That mark our place . . .)
He could rest.
The footsteps were familiar, as was the caustic tone of the nurse when she spoke for the third time that hour. "You’re not doing your friend any good, you know." Tony didn’t look up at her, didn’t take his eyes from the figure on the bed. For all he knew, she was right; Gibbs didn’t appear to be flourishing, despite their presence. But should he be? Narida appeared to have put all of her military and NCIS training to good use in making what were meant to be the final hours of his life pure hell. Tony closed his eyes, remembering the slow ticking of the clock as he sat next to Kate in the waiting room while his boss was in surgery, refusing to move despite the room’s haziness, its constant motion, and the sense of unreality that had settled over him. But Gibbs had made it through those hours, come out bandaged and stitched and theoretically healing, and now he just lay there, unmoving, shades of pale. Tony had never really considered how much life could exist in impassivity, how utterly devoid of life its absence was.
"But visiting hours are open, right?" Kate asked. Tony opened his eyes in time to see her bright and very obviously false smile.
"And we’re just visiting," Tony added. His smile was closer to genuine; after all, Marie was just doing her job.
She returned his smile slightly, the faintest twitch at the corners of her mouth, before sighing and checking the monitors. Satisfied that Gibbs was still alive, still there, she nodded and headed back out to the hallway, her soft-soled shoes quiet on the linoleum. He watched her go until she closed the door behind her, and then he looked up at Kate’s knowing expression.
"Already?" she asked, crossing her arms.
"What?" Tony widened his eyes in an expression of innocence. "I’m just being friendly. Sarcasm never helps, Kate."
She rolled her eyes. "Could’ve fooled me."
He opened his mouth to reply and then she looked down as Gibbs’ hand shifted, brushing against the harsh cotton linens with a soft rasp. Tony waited, holding his breath as though that would somehow help, would allow for this to be true. Kate, he saw, was doing the same, watching Gibbs with an attention bordering on reverence. Tony waited, watched as the other man’s eyes flickered, opened and focused. Gibbs lifted his head from the pillow as he took in his surroundings, took in their presence.
"Hey, boss," Tony said.
"Tony. Kate." Gibbs’ voice was rough with disuse, its edges blurred with sedatives and the simple effort of enunciating.
"Yeah." Kate nodded in confirmation.
He licked dry lips, swallowed. "You got her?"
"Yeah," Tony said.
Gibbs sighed. "Good," he said. "Good . . ." His eyes drifted closed again and Tony watched the steady line monitoring his heartbeat, a sharp green measure of life. That was it, then. Gibbs was alive. Sleeping, a normal level of unconsciousness. Alice was dead and Hartley was dead, and their deaths had been avenged in the most primitive way possible, but he couldn’t erase the image of that woman at the supermarket from his mind. What if, he thought, what if things had been different? What if Gibbs had arrived in time, that day so many years ago?
He still didn’t know the name of Narida’s daughter, and he didn’t think he would make an effort to find out.
"So," Kate said after a moment.
"So." He looked away from the monitor. "You want coffee?"
"Coffee?" she echoed.
He nodded. "Yeah. We’re filling in, remember?"
"Right. Coffee." She shook her head but grinned and eased out of her chair, followed him out of the room. "This wouldn’t have anything to do with the fact that she goes on break right now, would it?"
"Of course not," he said, doing his best to sound hurt that the thought had even crossed her mind.
"Right," she said.
"Right," he agreed. He closed the door to Gibbs’ room, leaving the other man to rest, and walked beside Kate to the elevators, certain that this time, there would be no one waiting to attack once their backs were turned.
The morning sunlight shone through the window, a soft yellow square on the folded linens, under which he’d spent entirely too much time lately, and under which he refused to linger for any longer. He could stand on his own, his balance returned; the concussion and resulting infection had faded. His arm was still making its presence known painfully, but it was better than it had been -- though arguably, most anything would have been. Even death? He wasn’t sure. At the time, it had seemed like it. Now, though, standing in the hospital room, fading bruises and cuts covered by layers of clothing, he couldn’t remember feeling more alive. It was more than the feeling of having survived the nearness of death, he thought, though that was part of it. Gibbs folded his trenchcoat, draped it over one arm and turned to find half of his team standing in the room’s doorway.
"Ready?" Tony asked, holding out a cup of coffee, which Gibbs accepted gratefully.
"I didn’t ask for an escort," he said after he took a sip.
Kate shrugged. "Abby said that if you didn’t get there in one piece, we wouldn’t see the light of day ever again."
"Hm." He looked at his bag, considered. "Hey, Dinozzo. Catch." Tony looked up in time to shield his face and to catch the bag as it arched downward.
Kate smirked. "Nice catch."
Tony slid the bag over his uninjured shoulder and Gibbs wondered how badly the other one still bothered him, how deeply Narida had left her mark. "Don’t make fun of the wounded, Kate. It’s not nice."
Kate rolled her eyes at him, stepping into the hall. "Takes one to know one."
"That makes no sense," Tony protested.
Gibbs smiled, quickened his pace and left them to trail behind, their bickering welcome in its familiarity. Things were back to normal, or at least to their usual state. Tony and Kate looked tired but sane, but alive, and Ducky had confirmed that when he’d stopped by the day before, thankfully sans flowers.
Things were back to normal and most importantly, Narida -- Natalie -- was dead. Dinozzo had pulled the trigger as Kate crouched next to his side, her hands frantic and her eyes desperate. Natalie was dead; there was nothing more to be done in that regard. Nothing except paperwork and attendance at the next day’s briefing. She’d left his life so many years ago and then returned as if from the dead, and now she was gone again.
She hadn’t understood, he thought. She’d lost a child but hadn’t stopped to grieve; her actions had taken the tone of vengeance. She hadn’t understood that there were others out there, others like her and like McKesson, and other little girls like Emily. And if she took him out because he hadn’t been in time for her own daughter, he would never be in time for anyone else’s child again. Never be in time for anything, but all she could see was her own loss, her own pain. To her, nothing else mattered, and now, it never would.
She’d been a soldier and she’d fallen by choice. He had no sympathy for her now.
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow . . .
He didn’t doubt that the next few weeks would be heavy with both present events and with memories. More sleep would be lost, more hours would be spent in the garage, sanding layer after layer as if that would erase more than just the rough edges of wood. While physical wounds would heal, were healing, he didn’t doubt that the events of the past few days would remain with him, dulled eventually by time but never fully erased.
But now, as he walked out of the hospital listening to Kate and Tony argue, felt the first rays of summer and the cool, counteracting breeze off the Potomac, he thought, for the first time in too long, that it would be okay.
After all, they had his back.