Prodigal

by Domenika Marzione

One

"... and that's why I am the master and you are the probie," DiNozzo finished with a flourish, spinning on his heel and turning right into Hollis's wheelhouse. But Gibbs wouldn't appreciate her knocking the cover off of this fastball, so she checked her swing, settling instead for a raised eyebrow as DiNozzo first stopped short and then stepped back as recognition set in.

"Colonel Mann," he said by way of greeting, not-so-surreptitiously looking around for Gibbs. "What brings you to our humble house of detection?"

"There was a break-in at a lab at Fort Meade last night," she answered.

"Isn't that your job?" Gibbs asked, appearing out of nowhere from behind her and moving past without pausing, straight to his desk. "Army CID."

Jethro, like all marines, made 'Army' sound like a totally different four-letter-word without even trying.

"We think they were yours," she continued, unfazed.

"You think," he repeated.

She let the snide tone slide because she understood how shaky her intel was. "They weren't in uniform," she allowed.

Gibbs gave her a sour face. It was only going to get even more sour once she explained further.

"None of this narrows it down to active duty Department of the Navy personnel," he said as he handed back the folder she'd brought. "It just doesn't rule them out."

"Agreed," she replied, ignoring the way DiNozzo, McGee, and David were hanging on every word, as much looking for subtext as trying to parse the text. "But I've got orders to bring you in on this until they are."

"Partners," Gibbs mused, a twinkle in his eye and a tiny look up in the direction of Director Shepard's office. "Takes two to tango."

"Oh, it's good to go," she assured, letting a trace of her own annoyance seep through. She had not appreciated being told that this was a job too big for little old CID, that by extension she in particular wasn't up to the task. "Director Shepard was most generous with sharing her resources."

'Magnanimous in victory' was not a phrase applied to NCIS on any level.

"In that case," Gibbs said. "What else've you got? You didn't come all this way just for this." He gestured with his chin toward the folder in her hand.

She fished the flash drive out of her pocket. "Video camera footage."

After some signal from Gibbs, McGee came forward and accepted the drive, bringing it back to his desk and plugging it in. A moment later, the dark, grainy footage was on the giant plasma screen.

Hollis had watched it a dozen times already, at least. Five men, all of military bearing but dressed completely in black with balaclavas, gloves, and night vision gear appeared at the 00:22:15 mark; four moved purposefully through the lab's main room, carefully looking for something in particular and not as a general ransack, as the fifth kept watch through the window into the hallway. The video had an audio feed, but the men were observing perfect noise discipline, even catching a pencil before it fell to the ground. The first half-dozen times, Hollis had missed the noise the one playing sentry made to warn his teammates that someone was on approach. The men disappeared into the shadows as a flashlight beam cut through the room, and then waited for the all-clear signal before continuing.

"Fast-forward until the ten-minute mark," she told McGee, who complied.

The guards appeared at 11:42:18, opening the door but not making it as far as turning on the lights before a fight broke out. It wasn't a fair fight; the burglars were well-trained in hand-to-hand and the MPs, while far from helpless, weren't able to gain the upper hand. The black-clad men arranged the unconscious MPs on the ground with surprising gentleness, then made one final sweep of the room before moving out of the frame.

The video ended at 19:26:52.

"In and out in under twenty," DiNozzo mused, nodding with reluctant admiration. "Not bad except for them tripping the silent alarm."

"What did trip it?" McGee asked, rewinding the video to play back the part Hollis had told him to speed through.

"Motion detector in a drawer," she answered. "Provost Sergeant told us; you can't tell from the video."

"Some of them might be marines," David said, not taking her eyes off of the screen. The video had started again at the beginning and the fight was already replaying. "But one of them is -- or was -- IDF."

Hollis turned sharply. Espionage was the assumption, but they'd been working on the presumption that the ultimate recipients weren't allies.

"You can tell?" DiNozzo asked, skeptically. "Or are you just claiming the guy who kicked the most ass?"

"He did not kick the most ass," David replied tartly. "But from the ass that he did kick, I can tell that he got trained by the IDF, at least at the beginning."

Which was, more or less, how both the MPs and then CID had pegged the others as marines -- MCMAP was a synthesis of many styles, but it was unique in enough places to identify. Which didn't mean that they were marines, but it strongly indicated it. She thought that Gibbs had probably drawn the same conclusion as well, but Jethro was ever hard to read when he felt like being opaque.

"What kind of 'lab' is this?" David asked, still watching. "There does not seem to be much in the way of equipment."

"Where is this, anyway?" Gibbs asked with false casualness. He hadn't missed that she hadn't said. "Apart from 'Fort Meade.'"

"Near the Meade Shopette," she answered, giving him her best 'don't press me on this now' look. He knew as well as she did that not everything that happened on a military installation was findable on the visitor's map.

"That's not--"

"McGee, can you clean this video up?" Gibbs cut DiNozzo off and Hollis was grateful. "See if we can't get a face somewhere?"

"I can get Abby to run this through a few filters to remove some of the artifacting, see if the facial recognition software can't get a profile out of a lucky angle," he offered dubiously, not willing to say 'no' but clearly not holding any hope.

"Do it," Gibbs ordered. He looked back to Hollis. "Do we know if they got anything?"

Hollis nodded. "At least one box of SD memory cards," she replied, making a gesture with her hand to show how small the box was. Smaller than an Altoids tin. "The lab personnel are still doing inventory, but we're not sure we'll ever find out unless we catch these guys and they confess."

"A covert lab and they are not keeping close watch over their material?" David sniffed. "It is no wonder, then, that they were burgled."

"One of the researchers died recently," Hollis said with a shrug. "His effects are still being accounted for."

"'Died' or 'was killed'?" DiNozzo asked warily.

"Why don't we continue this conversation on the road," Gibbs not-really-suggested, already sure of the answer. "DiNozzo, get McGee."


Two

Director Shepard called her and Gibbs into her office at 1200.

"I have had three very interesting conversations today," Shepard began as soon as the secretary closed the door behind her. "The first was from the director of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. He said that we might have accidentally stumbled upon a lead into one of their existing investigations and would I be so generous as to make my agents available for debriefing and to hand off the case. The second was from your boss, Colonel Mann, reporting that he'd gotten the exact same message. And the third came from the Pentagon, from the office of an Air Force two-star I've never heard of, asking for an appointment."

Shepard sat forward in her seat and folded her hands neatly on her desk.

"What the hell are you two up to and why does the Air Force care so much?"

Hollis looked over at Gibbs, who gave her a minute shrug that she correctly interpreted as the particular brand of indifference to politics that made him a brilliant investigator and a piss-poor ally in a bureaucratic fight.

"Honestly, ma'am, I have no idea why the Air Force is interested," she answered. "We've had a break-in at Fort Meade, possibly preceded by a suspicious death, and we've had a murder at NAB Little Creek followed by another break-in. Our suspect profiles, such as they are, indicate a group of five men with training by the Marines and possibly the IDF. Neither Doctor Feng nor Doctor Kennedy were present or former Air Force personnel and we don't have a single piece of evidence stamped 'property of the United States Air Force.'"

They were operating under the possibility that the five men were mercenaries and/or traitors, but there was the possibility that they were still working for some government alphabet soup agency and this was sanctioned, lawful or not. In which case it still didn't explain why the Air Force had the lead.

"General O'Neill is showing up at 1500," Shepard told them. "Before that time, I want to know why the Air Force is interested and whether that interest should supersede our own."

"We had a man murdered on Navy grounds," Gibbs said evenly, as if one dead civilian employee trumped the entire military political game. "Our interest is in finding out who did it, not in covering the Air Force's ass."

Shepard rolled her eyes and pointed to the door. "You can be noble on your own time, Jethro. I am not going to fight the entire Pentagon so that your sensibilities aren't bruised. If you want me to cash in favors for you to keep this case, you're going to have to give me something more than old-time aphorisms and a couple of foot-stomps."

They went back to the bullpen.

"McGee, get me anything and everything on an Air Force Major General O'Neill. Break into whatever you have to. DiNozzo, find me any connection between Feng and Kennedy and the Air Force. See if any of their previous employers had military contracts or even if they lived in driving distance of a base. Where is David?"

"Abby's," McGee replied, already typing.

"Doing what?" Gibbs asked when nothing else was added.

"Abby wouldn't say," McGee answered with a frown. "She just said that only Ziva could come down."

"I'd suspect she's seeking advice of a female nature," DiNozzo said, "but she asked for Ziva, who knows absolutely nothing about that."

By the time David returned five minutes later, the official photograph of MG Jonathan O'Neill was up on the plasma.

"Girl talk?" Gibbs asked archly.

David looked confused for a moment. "No, Arabic talk," she replied. "She is processing evidence for another agent and needed translation help."

"She doesn't have a dictionary?" Hollis asked.

"These were not words that are in most dictionaries," David said with a wicked grin, then sobered when Gibbs's own expression didn't change. "Was there something you needed from me?"

Gibbs gestured for her to go to her desk, which she did.

"You're not speaking, McGee," he said.

"That's because... right, never mind," McGee trailed off. "Major General Jonathan 'Jack' O'Neill, Director of the Office of Space Intelligence based out of the Pentagon."

"Space Intelligence," Gibbs repeated before anyone else could. "He's our liaison with the aliens?"

Everyone chuckled. The others because it was ridiculous on the face of it, but Hollis because she'd been in the Army for twenty years and knew that that didn't mean that it didn't exist anyway.

"More likely he's the guy running the military's spies on China and Russia and other space programs," McGee said once everyone had stopped snickering. "He's a pilot, but he seems to have started a second career on the ground -- his postings are mostly in covert action units, STS and its quieter siblings, that sort of thing. Multiple decorations, most without unclassified citations. He's been in his current position for less than a year -- and he spent only about a year as a one-star, going by the date on his recommendation for promotion to general officer."

"So the Air Force got this case because O'Neill's got wings?" Hollis mused aloud. "Is this all some space tech espionage thing?"

"They got it for more reasons than O'Neill's favoritism," DiNozzo said. "Feng and Kennedy both paid Colorado state income tax from 2004 through 2006. Which is entertaining and amusing because, according to their employment histories, neither of them ever worked or lived in Colorado."

Hollis exchanged a look with Gibbs, who grimaced right back.

"Where in Colorado?" she asked, knowing the answer.

"El Paso County," DiNozzo announced triumphantly. "Home to Peterson and Schriever Air Force Bases and, dun-dun-dun, NORAD."

Missile defense and space programs. Fabulous.

"From 2004 through 2006, Feng was supposed to be in Texas and Kennedy was allegedly in Cambridge," DiNozzo went on. "Of course, we didn't do background checks on them going back that far, possibly because we assumed their current employers might have. Considering their security clearances and all."

"Plenty of time to correct that," Gibbs said.

"Right," DiNozzo agreed, then turned to David. "Texas or Massachusetts?"

"Texas," David answered, standing up to get the file DiNozzo was holding up for her. "I like the accent better."

By the time 1445 rolled around, they had established that it was highly probable that neither Feng nor Kennedy had ever been to Texas or Cambridge, respectively, although the covers were well done, which was why it was only 'highly probable' and not 'certain.' They went up to Shepard's office and briefed her on what they suspected; Shepard didn't tip her hand, but Gibbs seemed to think that she'd go to bat for them.

General O'Neill was escorted past the bullpen by a security agent a few minutes after they got back downstairs, an O-5 in USAF service uniform trailing behind. O'Neill had the weariness of a man who'd run a lot of miles to get to middle age, but Hollis didn't confuse that with softness or weakness. Quite the opposite. His staff officer -- guy's posture screamed 'jet jockey' even before he got close enough for Hollis to see the wings -- greeted them with a friendly smile and a muted southern twang that was meant to put them all at ease and assure them that his boss meant no harm, but Hollis didn't bite. O'Neill had come here to close down their investigation and he -- and Lieutenant Colonel Mitchell -- seemed to believe that they'd have no trouble doing so.

"What are the odds that OSI is even investigating this?" she asked Gibbs as they watched the trio head upstairs to Shepard's office. "I'll bet you an evening's work of sanding that there's no open casefile and no agent assigned."

"I don't want you wrecking my boat," Gibbs replied, nodding at Mitchell, who'd turned back to look at them as he made the last turn on the stairs.

Ten minutes later -- nobody storming out of Shepard's suite, no voices heard, no calls to get upstairs and explain themselves -- and Hollis's cell phone rang. It was her deputy; this case was taking most of her time, but she had other ones open and a unit to run, even if she wasn't doing a lot of it hands-on at the moment. Duplasse was calling for a reason, though -- one of her cases had had its court date pushed up and the prosecuting officer was on his way over there now to prep her for testimony.

"I gotta get back to the farm," she told Gibbs once she was finished. "Let me know what happens."

He nodded and she left.

She got back to her office and breathed the familiar air of Army with something like relief. And then she found all of the crap that was waiting for her and there was a brief second when she remembered that she already had twenty years in (twenty-two and counting) and didn't need to do this anymore if it wasn't fun. But that was only a brief second, because Duplasse was already waiting with folders in hand and a list of fifteen things that had been too trivial to mention over the phone but were also important enough to bring up before she got locked in a room with the JAG lawyer.

The prep took too long -- brand-new lawyer, old-hand investigator, bad combination -- and then there was the rest of what Duplasse hadn't had time to explain and, before she knew it, it was after eight and the office was almost empty. Her phone had no messages, which didn't mean anything except that L. Jethro Gibbs hated voicemail. She went home, took a slab of tilapia out of the freezer and broccoli out of the fridge and while the two were achieving edible temperature, she gave up and called Gibbs.

"Do we still have the case?" she asked him as soon as he picked up.

"I'll tell you in a minute," he said.

"Should I call you back?" He didn't sound rushed or harried.

"No, you should open the door," was the reply. "I've got my hands full."

She found Gibbs in her doorway, cell phone in one hand and six-pack in the other. He walked by her with an insouciant peck on the cheek.

"Do we still have the case?" she called after him, closing the door and her cell phone.

He held up the six-pack. "It'd have been bourbon if we were going to drown our sorrows."


Three

Hollis was in the middle of trying to help Valdez come up with a professionally acceptable euphemism for "we found him by following the pee trail" when her phone rang.

"How soon can you get down to Pax River?" Gibbs asked without preamble.

She looked at her watch. "At this time of day?" she scoffed. Two hours would be overly ambitious.

If it was really important that she see things first-hand, he'd insist and she'd agree. She wasn't a fan of second-hand interpretations of crime scenes, but she wasn't a fan of sitting in traffic for a couple of hours just to show up to see the last of the photos being taken, either.

"I'll call you when we're heading back up," he said, apparently deciding that it wasn't worth her travel time to get what was left first-hand. "McGee'll email you the photos."

He hung up without waiting for her agreement and she mentally canceled what she'd hoped would have been her first early night this week. This month.

"What about 'emissions'?" Singleton offered.

"That's for jizz, man," Valdez sighed, the heels of his hands banging in frustration on his keyboard wrist rest. "What's that sign they put up at the pool that's a nice way of saying 'don't pee here'?"

"'No Expectorating'?"

"That's just the polite word for 'spitting.' I don't think there's a sign that says 'no peeing.'"

Hollis went back to her office after once again insisting that swapping out 'urine' for 'pee' made things workable if not elegant and saw the McGee had indeed already started sending her crime scene photos.

The murder was in a lab, but not the secretive kind of lab that had been the original crime scene at Meade. This looked like a high-school classroom, with ample equipment at regularly spaced intervals. The body was prone between two peninsulas of workbenches, then in later photos turned over so that she could see that the throat had been neatly and deeply sliced just like Kennedy's. There were also a couple of bloody footprints that were barely recognizable as such; there was no tread and the footbed was much too wide for any human foot.

Unable to glean much more than that without being at the scene to look around and ask questions, she might as well do what she could. And what she could do was Google.

If Andrew Litorsky had been involved in the kind of highly-classified research that Kennedy and Feng had been working on, it either wasn't recent or it wasn't his full-time assignment because the Navy wasn't interested in hiding his existence. He had a listed office and phone number in the Pax River directory, a Facebook page, and his own website. The last of which included a version of his CV, which in addition to listing his current position at Pax River put him at Fort Carson between 2003 and 2005.

Hollis called up the Fort Carson CID office and asked them to dig up intel on Litorsky. They got back to her less than an hour later -- Litorsky had worked in a weapons development lab, had taught a couple of PME classes (including one geared toward the operators in the 10th Special Forces Group), and had left to go back East after his parents had been injured in a car accident in Maine. Which explained the year teaching high school physics in Augusta before he returned to military employ, this time with the Navy, where he was apparently doing much of what he'd been doing in Colorado.

"Can you find out if he ever had a parking pass for any of the Air Force bases in town?" she asked the agent who'd returned her call, Clough.

"Uh, okay," Clough agreed. "Should I see if OSI's got anything on him?"

Hollis thought of General O'Neill and wondered how far his reach went, especially with his long connection to the area. "You can try."

Gibbs called her in the late afternoon, right around the time she was debating whether to go home or hang out in the office until she was summoned. "We'll be back in half an hour," he said. "Mushrooms or sausage?"

"Both," she replied. "And extra cheese."

Clough didn't call her back until she'd already started on her pizza and was involved in the (Gibbs-less) team discussion of the importance of eating crusts. She wiped off her hands, grabbed a pen from Gibbs's desk, and opened the phone. Gibbs hadn't returned from wherever he'd gone -- speculation was to see if Ducky had come up with anything yet, since Gibbs had been deemed too young for prostate trouble (the tips of DiNozzo's ears were still a little pink from lingering embarrassment when she'd given him a look) -- and so she had to balance herself and her pizza to reach over for a pad.

"Litorsky had on-base parking privileges at Schriever AFB in March and June of 2004," she announced after hanging up. "Don't know why. The base cops are not interested in discussing him or what he might have been doing there."

"That we can guess why," DiNozzo said sourly as he sipped at his soda. "Anyone want to place a bet on whether we get another call from General O'Neill tomorrow morning asking us to hand the case over to the invisible OSI agents?"

"Maybe they're O'Neill's aliens," David suggested, swiping the last piece of the red-pepper-and-black-olive pie from under McGee's outstretched hand. "And that is why we do not see them."

"Why not?" McGee replied sulkily, removing the empty box to get to the sausage and mushroom (with extra cheese) pie. "We have an alien working for us."

David hissed, then took a bit of her pizza.

"Don't be ridiculous, McGee," DiNozzo snorted dismissively. "Any life form intelligent enough to travel through the galaxy to find Earth would be too intelligent to spend its time here arresting airmen for check kiting. No, aliens would be hooking up with Karen Allen or doing something else that shows higher understanding."

"Like moving in with Pam Dawber," McGee suggested.

"Another fine example," DiNozzo agreed.

"Does your team have discussions like this, Colonel Mann?" David asked with a frown.

Hollis thought about how she'd spent too much of her morning. "On a good day."

By the time Gibbs returned -- with Ducky -- they had more or less gotten back to talking about the case.

"The wound was made by the same type of blade," Ducky confirmed, standing by McGee's desk and eying the pizza carefully before Gibbs handed him the white paper sack that had been sitting on his own desk. "But whether it was the same knife, I cannot say for certain. It is a very clean wound -- expertly done, hitting nothing unnecessary to the purpose of rapid exsanguination -- and it is a very common type of blade, especially in the circles in which our two victims traveled."

The marks were consistent with several types of general issue military knives, especially those favored by the Marines. Very well sharpened and kept in excellent condition knives, which cut down on identifying features or distinctive wound patterns.

Ducky made a pleased noise as he opened the foil-wrapped package that had been inside the paper bag. Whatever his preferred type of pizza was, Gibbs had gotten it for him. Hollis couldn't see the slices from where she was sitting, but a few minutes later, she thought she smelled anchovies.

"If Litorsky was living on the up-and-up since he left Colorado," McGee mused, "does this mean that whatever he was killed for goes back to 2004? Or are we assuming too much by saying that he's no longer doing classified research or working with anyone else, say Feng or Kennedy?"

"If a tree falls in an empty forest, does it make a sound?" DiNozzo asked.

"Yes," David replied, shaking her head. "That is a stupid question."

"It's the internet age," McGee continued. "People do all sorts of collaborative work without ever being in the same room together."

"Like voiceovers for animated movies," DiNozzo added. "Cameron Diaz and Mike Myers didn't meet each other until the red carpet of the Shrek premiere."

"The point being," McGee sighed, looking at Hollis and Gibbs, "we don't even know what we don't know."

"Rumsfeldian of you, Tim," Gibbs said dryly as he took a bite.

"Can't you search Litorsky's computer, see if there's something?" Hollis asked.

"Would if I could," McGee sighed. "It's gone. His laptop wasn't in his office or in his apartment. We brought back the external hard drive that was in his apartment, but it's been trashed."

That made it three-for-three -- by the time of the break-in at Meade, Feng's computer had been 'destroyed' after classified material had been removed by his bosses while Kennedy's computer had been so relatively innocuous that everyone assumed that there had been a second (now lost) computer with all of his real research on it.

"Can you un-trash it?" Gibbs asked.

"It wasn't merely wiped clean -- it was physically destroyed in a way that will take hours to rescue the bits that are left," McGee answered. "Which we're doing -- I've got a recovery process running down in Abby's lab now. But I'm not sure we'll be able to get anything off of it and, if we do, if what we get will be either useful or relevant. The flash drives were all cleaned up by someone who knew what they were doing, so it stands to reason that the hard drive has been similarly dealt with."

"Where is Abby?" Hollis asked. She knew Gibbs would have brought her along -- and had her favorite pizza, too -- if she'd been here.

"Bowling night," everyone replied almost simultaneously.

"Does the seemingly professional destruction of data lend weight to the theory that these murders are in response to a program of research someone would like stopped?" Ducky asked, dabbing neatly at his mouth with a napkin.

"It certainly doesn't make it more likely that they want the project to keep going," DiNozzo answered. "Or at least, not by the people currently doing it."

"But that's only if it's ongoing research," McGee pointed out. "If it's something that goes back to whatever they were doing in Colorado -- if they were doing something in Colorado -- then why go after them now?"

"Perhaps someone else, a part of their team, has made their own breakthrough and is killing off anyone who would be competition," David suggested.

"Wouldn't be the first time jealousy killed," DiNozzo agreed with a shrug. "Except how many geeks do you know who could sneak up and kill people with that kind of ease? There were no defensive wounds and nothing under the fingernails -- neither Kennedy nor Litorsky knew what was coming or had much of a chance to stop it once it arrived. Look at McGee -- you don't see him fitting our killer's profile and he has to pass a physical fitness test."

"I work out," McGee insisted, defensive and hurt.

"Exactly my point," DiNozzo retorted. "And what government pay grade are these researchers at? Enough to hire a hit man? Where would they even find one? Online? Aren't all the guns-for-hire on Craigslist undercover agents fishing for an easy bust out of the shallow end of the gene pool?"

"Let's get some hard evidence one way or another before we start getting carried away by any theories," Gibbs warned.

After they ate, they compiled lists -- what they knew, what they wanted to find out, what they had in terms of evidence, what they could use to make concrete connections between any of their two definite murders and one suspicious death.

The following morning, there was no phone call from General O'Neill. But there was a call from Abby to McGee.

"We've got some of the data off of Litorsky's hard drive," McGee announced, pleased. "It includes at least one name."

Hollis looked at Gibbs, who shrugged minutely. "Let's go see what she's got."

Abby was fully caffeinated and raring to go when they arrived and Hollis let Gibbs deal with her and McGee talking around, over, and with each other instead of getting to whatever the point was. He must've been in a good mood, as he let them go on for a whole minute and a half before shutting them down.

"You are no fun, Gibbs," Abby sighed after he'd finally gotten their attention. "You don't understand how amazing it is that we got something, anything, off of this hard drive. It was a paperweight. It still is mostly a paperweight. And the odds of us getting data segments big enough to actually be useful to you... This is really big!"

"I'll be impressed when you share what you've got," Gibbs told her.

Abby rolled her eyes at the resident buzzkill, but nodded. "Okay, so in addition to everything being completely and totally wrecked, everything we did find was encrypted. And not by amateurs, either. Whoever ended up with Doctor Litorsky's hard drive wasn't going to have an easy time of it even without the power drill decorating job."

"But you've decrypted some of it," Hollis prompted, eyes still on the big screen against the wall with its windows and Matrix-like data streams.

"We decrypted some of it," McGee confirmed. "Emphasis on some. But what was in that some was an email address -- or part of one, really. But the important part, because this--" he highlighted a jumbled bunch of text and symbols in one of the windows "--can get translated into this:"

Another window popped up with the first page of a service jacket and a photo.

"Air Force Major Evan Lorne," McGee introduced. "We don't know why he was either sending or receiving an email from Doctor Litorsky, but his .mil address was on Litorsky's computer."

"Is he another one of O'Neill's space-spies?" Gibbs asked.

"He could be," McGee said with a shrug. He didn't seem to think so. "His service record's pretty vanilla, but not vanilla enough that it looks like it's a whitewash. He flies KC-135s, deployments to everywhere from Korea to Kosovo to Kabul, a couple of minor awards, one night in the drunk tank at Osan with no charges filed back when he was a lieutenant. Currently doing a tour as a flight instructor at Altus AFB. We can track him down, see if he'll talk to us."

"Oh, he can talk to us," Hollis said darkly. McGee looked at her nervously.

"What else've you got?" Gibbs prompted.

"What makes you think we've got anything else?" Abby asked, sounding hurt. "Was this not enough? We got you a name and a face from an incomplete pile of gobblygook off of a hard drive someone went all City of the Living Dead on. You should be thrilled with us, Gibbs. Throwing us parties. Giving us kisses. Or at least Caff-Pows."

"What else've you got, Abbs?" Gibbs asked again, a smile playing on his lips. Abby could drive Hollis crazy with her quirks and her hyperactivity and the whole goth thing, but all of that seemed pretty harmless when she could get Gibbs to crack like this so easily.

"What seems to be part of of a Canadian postal code," she answered, giving in like Gibbs was an intractable child. Which he sort of was. A map of Ontario popped up on the screen. "This was actually a lot harder to figure out than the email because it made no sense even after it was decrypted and so we thought we'd failed on the decryption because there was so little to actually make sure we were getting it right -- it was all formulas and equations and stuff that doesn't look like it's in English even when it's English because it's all Greek letters and you think you're maybe looking at the Greek version of Wheel of Fortune when nobody can afford to buy a vowel. But McGee is a genius with the decryption thing and so it's not some puzzle from an impoverished, vowel-deprived Spartan, but instead most of a postal code."

A part of western Ontario was highlighted on the screen, P7K-5XX written on the yellowed region.

"We don't have the last letter and number, but from the first four, we can tell it's part of a postal code for Thunder Bay, Ontario," McGee picked up, "And while we can give you a list of every home, business, and government building in that postal code, none of it seems to have direct ties to Doctor Litorsky. At least without doing a lot of leg-work."

Hollis didn't exactly thrill to the idea of calling up the RCMP to go on a wild goose chase, but they might not have a choice.

"Was this in the same email as Lorne's address?" Gibbs asked.

McGee shook his head. "It wasn't in any email at all as far as we can tell. It was in a document that's not completely intact. Lorne's address was retrieved from a shred of an email where that's all we were able to get -- we don't even know if he was the sender or recipient. Hell, Litorsky could have been sending Lorne's address to someone else entirely. We really don't have enough of a picture."

Gibbs sighed. "Keep working at it."

"Will do, Boss," McGee said, turning back to the keyboard in front of him.

Hollis turned to go, knowing that Gibbs would be behind her.

"That's it?" Abby protested. "'Keep working at it'?"

Gibbs paused. "This is your job, Abby," he reminded her. Her frown deepened and Gibbs sighed again. "You did good. Both of you."

And with that, he walked past Hollis and she had to jog to catch up to him before the elevator, Abby's jubilant "Thank you, Gibbs!" following after.

McGee had sent the data on Lorne upstairs, since by the time they got back up to the bullpen, DiNozzo was getting off the phone with what was apparently Lorne's office.

"--53? Great. Thanks. You've been a big help." He hung up the phone and turned to Gibbs. "Major Lorne is currently enjoying the slightly windy skies of southwestern Oklahoma with a group of baby tanker pilots, but I did get his cell phone number from the Airman with the sexy voice. Colorado Springs area code, by the way."

DiNozzo then left a message on Lorne's cell phone, which apparently went straight to voicemail. "We'll see what that does," he said once he hung up. "Think he's legit?"

"Doesn't matter so long as he calls back," Gibbs replied.

Lorne didn't call back until the following afternoon. Hollis wasn't there when he did, but she heard the recorded version later on. Lorne apologized for the delay in returning the call -- he'd forgotten to charge his cell phone -- and seemed curious and perplexed why NCIS was interested in him at all. He didn't recognize the name Andrew Litorsky off the bat -- or at least he said he didn't -- but with a few more details recollection kicked in and he thought he might've driven the guy somewhere when he'd been doing his stint driving C-17s. Not Thunder Bay, though. As per direction from Gibbs, DiNozzo had asked if it was possible to send agents out to Altus to do a more thorough interview. Hollis had agreed that this might spook the guy if he was part of O'Neill's secret army, but instead Lorne offered to meet them in DC -- he was going to be in town next week anyway, or at least in Silver Spring to go to a wedding.

"So we've got nine days to poke a hole in his story," Hollis said once the sound file was stopped.

"You think he's lying, too?" McGee asked. "Gibbs--"

"Is right here," Gibbs said, showing up with a cup of coffee in hand.

"We have had a lot of people lying to us," Hollis told McGee. "And it just so happens that they're all lying about the Air Force's involvement in this case. So, yes, I want to have enough ammunition to try to catch Major Lorne if he's going to be less than forthcoming to us."

The week went by with very little in the way of breaks in the case. Hollis split her time between NCIS and CID duties, although most of her week seemed to be sitting in the small, cramped offices of the JAG corps.

There'd been some thought put into bringing Lorne in to NCIS headquarters, but it had been quickly dismissed -- at least by Hollis and then by Gibbs. They needed information and, with Lorne neither a suspect nor an official person of interest, there was no point (and little justification) in doing the informal perp-walk that was an invite to headquarters. Lorne was neither a suspect nor an official person of interest because his story was either excellent cover or completely legit; they'd been unable to find any obviously exploitable holes without performing the kind of search that would raise red flags in places where they needed to keep a low profile.

They ended up agreeing to meet in some cafe in Silver Spring that turned out to be less about coffee and more about 'ambiance.' It wasn't Hollis's kind of place, but she rather enjoyed Gibbs's obvious discomfort. David and DiNozzo, however, looked perfectly at home at separate tables in the background.

Lorne showed up alone and on foot, dressed casually and looking at ease with the world in general. He had a little bit of a pilot's cockiness, but none of the aggressive posturing that went with the fighter crowd. He didn't seem suspicious of the circumstances and had no trouble sitting with his back to the door. "Sorry about the place," he said with a wry frown as he sat and looked around. "I didn't do any recon before passing it on as a location."

He ordered coffee, looked properly horrified when the waitress asked if he wanted the hand-ground organic Kenyan or the coffee roasted by the rain forest tribes of Brazil who'd harvested the beans, and rephrased his order by asking for the darkest roast they had that didn't come with any flavorings in it. Which was more helpful than Gibbs had been, since he'd just repeated "coffee, strong coffee" until the waitress had gone away.

"So, apart from introducing you to some very pretentious coffee, what can I do for you?" Lorne asked, tucking in to one of the complimentary muffins. "I can't really help you much with Doctor Litorsky or why he died. I hadn't spoken to him in years."

"But you knew him," Hollis prompted.

Lorne shrugged. "Knew him? Yes, ma'am. Knew him well, not really. I was his glorified taxi driver for a couple of tests of whatever he was doing. He was nice -- nicer than most of the rest of the researchers, which is most of the reason I remember his name at all -- but it was really a situational thing and not anything that grew into what I'd call a friendship."

"How'd he get your email?" Gibbs asked.

Lorne leaned back as the waitress presented him with his coffee, then proceeded to frown at him as he poured in some cream. "My Air Force email? He could've looked it up, I guess. I might've given it to him..." he trailed off and took a sip.

"You two didn't carry on any correspondence, then?" Hollis took a sip of her tea. Which was just as pretentious as the coffee, but she'd forestalled a discourse on the matter by picking one that didn't look too bad and sounding like she would brook no suggestions.

Lorne made a face. "Honestly, I don't remember. If we did, it was purely in relation to whatever was getting loaded into the belly of the plane. I'd offer to look it up or print it out, but I don't save emails from that long ago unless they're going to be needed. I don't use that account for personal correspondence, so whatever it was, it had to do with work."

"Can you say anything about those missions?" she asked. "We know he was doing weapons design for the Army at that time, although he was also apparently doing a joint project with the Air Force. We'd like to rule that out as a cause for his death."

Lorne smiled. "You know about as much as I'm probably allowed to say, ma'am. A lot of those tests were duds, I can tell you that. We used to joke about how much fuel we were wasting when they could've just set the things up in their basements with the same effect."

"How'd you end up driving Globemasters?" Gibbs asked.

Lorne chuckled. "Long, long story. Short version is that I am not a morning person and have trouble accounting for time zone differences before I'm fully caffeinated."

"Missed a filing deadline?" Hollis guessed.

"Yep," Lorne confirmed, still smiling at what he obviously considered to be very funny now, although it had probably not been so much at the time. "Instead of training to move up to KC-10s, I ended up learning the finer points of long-haul cargo transport."

Hollis and Gibbs alternated with a few more questions, but Lorne didn't have much more to add. He was amiable and artless and seemed like the kind of nice guy officer whose ambition had gotten him so far and no further because he'd set his goals low. The question was whether that's really who Evan Lorne was or just who he was supposed to appear to be. To his credit, Hollis really couldn't tell.

"When's the wedding?" she asked as they were winding up.

"Saturday night," Lorne said with a headshake. "I get a few days out of the onesie and have to jump into a monkey suit."

"Air Force buddy?" Gibbs asked.

Lorne shook his head. "College roommate's finally taking the dive," he said. "I don't take leave and fly halfway across the country for anyone in the service getting married anymore. What's the divorce rate these days?"

Gibbs, thrice divorced for reasons that had something to do with the pressures of being married to the job, chuckled.

They parted after Lorne promised to answer any additional questions. David, who'd packed up to go at Gibbs's signal, was still fiddling with the contents of her purse outside the cafe door. She let Lorne pass and disappear around the corner, then picked up her tail after McGee, sitting in the car across the street, told her which way he'd headed. Gibbs paid the tab and he and Hollis left, walking in the opposite direction.

"What do you think?" she asked, looping her arm through his as they strolled. Like two lovers out for a relaxing walk instead of two wired agents waiting to see if they were being followed.

"I think he's a spook working for O'Neill," Gibbs replied.

"So this was what, a test?" She was willing to be convinced. "To see what we know?"

"Possibly," Gibbs agreed. "His bosses aren't having any luck closing us down."

It took another fifteen minutes before DiNozzo confirmed that there'd been no tail on them and they could circle around back to the SUV. David checked in and reported that Lorne was leaving the downtown area on foot and heading for a residential area. They fixed a point to retrieve her and everyone got ready to move out.

The conversation on the drive back to the Navy Yard was on everyone else's impressions. DiNozzo seemed to be willing to trust Gibbs's instincts without supplemental evidence, but David said that she thought he'd been trained in negotiating -- for hostages, not extra donuts from the DFAC.

"His body language is very good," she said. "Very poised, showing attention and the willingness to compromise without appearing weak. He will seem reasonable and invite discussion. He is probably very good at what he does."

When they got back to the bullpen, Gibbs asked McGee to dig up dirt on Lorne. "Go through everything we didn't go through before."

McGee made a pained face. "Can I not do that from here, Boss? Remember how much trouble I got into last time? They probably have my IP flagged. Abby's, too."

Gibbs cocked an eyebrow, like he expected a better answer.

"There's an internet cafe in the mall with the taco place," McGee offered. "I could do it from there. They'd still probably know it was me because I work for you and you're looking for dirt on Lorne, but there's less circumstantial evidence."

"Go," Gibbs sighed. "Don't forget the habanero sauce this time."

McGee blinked, realized he'd been handed lunch detail, looked as if he might ask for cash, then thought better of it.

"Fish tacos, McGee," David called after him as he headed for the elevator. "With extra lettuce."

Forty minutes later, McGee returned with news and tacos.

"Major Lorne's been drawing hazard pay adjustments continuously since he was a senior captain," he reported as he handed out parcels of food. "Including combat pay, which he is currently receiving."

"Baby pilots are dangerous, but not that dangerous," DiNozzo said, sniffing the packet McGee had given him and then handing it to David. "I guess the Gibbs Gut is right again."

"But what does that get us?" Hollis asked, unwrapping what turned out to be a trio of enchiladas. It wasn't as if confirming Lorne's status as a clandestine operator did much for their case knowledge.

"It might get us enough to get read in on whatever the hell's going on," Gibbs replied, holding his hand out to McGee, who was frantically looking around in the bottom of the bag. "Three dead men and three Air Force spooks says either that they can't find the problem or that they are the problem."

McGee sighed with relief as he dug out a plastic container filled with orange-red sauce and handed it to Gibbs.

"Whichever one it is," David said as she grabbed a stack of napkins, "I do not think that they will like our idea of a solution."

"Tough on them," Gibbs said, settling down to eat.


Four

"-- Occam's Razor," McGee sighed. "It's unnecessarily complicated and therefore less likely."

DiNozzo stuck his tongue out, but McGee didn't see it, distracted by something on his computer screen.

"Hello," he murmured at the monitor.

"McGee?" Gibbs prompted. "Share with the class."

A map appeared on the plasma a moment later, a red dot flashing in downtown DC. "Major Lorne's cell phone has been turned on."

The phone had been off for more than a week, the battery removed so that it couldn't be remotely activated (or so it was assumed). And now, suddenly, it was back on.

"The Mall," DiNozzo said, eyes on the screen as the map zoomed in. "National Museum of American History. Maybe he's looking at the First Ladies' gowns. I hear Eleanor Roosevelt's is pretty racy."

"It is long and pink," David told him. "It is not a flattering shade of pink. For Major Lorne or anyone else."

DiNozzo was hard-pressed to reply, so Hollis took advantage of the silence.

"Does this mean that something's about to go down or that he wants us to know where he is?"

"I guess we'll find out," Gibbs said as he stood. He turned to his team. "Get your gear."

They took two cars. She and Gibbs rode together in a comfortable near-silence after the other three fairly scrambled for the SUV.

"He's moving -- on foot," McGee radioed. "He's currently going west, looks like through the Constitution Gardens. Seems to be in front of the Washington Monument."

"'Seems to be' isn't going to help us," Gibbs told him, holding Hollis's wrist instead of the radio in the hand it was attached to. "Find him and don't lose him."

They made good time considering it was getting close to rush hour, but they were also lucky. By the time they got up there, Lorne was stopped again, by the Vietnam Memorial. Gibbs pulled in behind the SUV DiNozzo had been driving and everyone met between them on the sidewalk.

"Hasn't budged," McGee reported, holding up the phone as if Gibbs would want to verify for himself. Gibbs, being Gibbs, made a disgusted face at the technology and started walking into the park. Everyone else jogged to catch up.

In the context of the interview, Lorne had been a small man with the capacity to be a very large presence, but here in the open, with hundreds of people wandering around, he was invisible.

"He's still here," McGee insisted, sensing everyone's (but especially Gibbs's) doubt. "He's within a hundred meters."

"Or his phone is," David pointed out, looking not at the faces of the people around them but instead at their feet. "We should see if it has not been left on the ground somewhere."

"It hasn't," Gibbs said with a half-sigh. "Call the number," he told DiNozzo, who whipped out his cell phone to do so.

Meanwhile, Gibbs started walking again and, dutifully, they all followed once more. Hollis took a half-second to be thankful that their professional paths didn't cross more often than they did; she already spent enough time two steps behind Jethro, chasing after him to see where he'd gone.

This time, he stopped in front of a tall, good-looking young man just as a cell phone started ringing.

"Who are you?" Gibbs asked him as he fished out the phone, which stopped ringing after the second time as DiNozzo terminated the call. Gibbs flashed his badge. "And what are you doing with Major Lorne's cell phone?"

Hollis noticed that the young man looked surprised, but not shocked. Either at being stopped by police in general or military police in particular.

"Lieutenant Aaron Gillick, sir," he replied. "And I have it because he gave it to me."

"Uh-huh," Gibbs said. "You got proof?"

"Sir?"

"How do you know Major Lorne?" Gibbs challenged. "The Air Force is putting marine infantry on refuelers now?"

His emphasis made it clear he didn't think Evan Lorne actually was a flight instructor.

"We've worked together, sir," Gillick replied. He didn't refute the MOS assumption, which wasn't that far-fetched from Gillick's build, but not a leap Hollis would've made on her own, at least not out loud. Nor did he pass comment on Gibbs's tone.

"Why did he give you the phone?" she asked instead.

Gillick gave her a sheepish grin. "I broke mine, ma'am. Dropped it. Major Lorne said that that's why they don't give marines nice things. I'm supposed to be meeting my fiancée at the Washington Monument this afternoon."

"She has Major Lorne's phone number?" Hollis let her incredulity show. "She Air Force?"

"No, ma'am," Gillick replied, holding up the phone. "I called her earlier."

"You're going to have to call her again and tell her you're not going to be able to make it," Gibbs told him. "And we don't allow visitors in our brig."

"Brig?" Gillick repeated, alarmed. Hollis hid her own surprise, but she saw it flash across David's and McGee's faces. DiNozzo, however, looked a little smug, like he'd seen where this was going all along. Maybe he had -- he was the one with civilian police experience. "For what?"

"For stealing a cell phone to start with," Gibbs said, gesturing in the general direction of the cars. "We'll see what else shakes loose from there."

"With all due respect, sir," Gillick began, holding his ground. "But don't you folks have better things to do than arrest people who aren't carrying permission chits to borrow cell phones?"

"You want a charge of resisting arrest on top of that, Lieutenant?" DiNozzo asked warningly. "We can oblige."

"Just come with us," Gibbs said, almost reassuringly. "We get a hold of Major Lorne, he confirms that he lent his phone to you, and you're free to go."

DiNozzo pulled out a pair of cuffs, dangling them with false unconcern from his index finger, and Gillick held up his hands in surrender. The phone was still in his left hand and David took it, handing it over to McGee, who immediately opened it, presumably looking for the call record.

They got Gillick to the car and transported back to NCIS headquarters without incident.

"The phone's clean," McGee reported as Hollis, Gibbs, and DiNozzo returned from getting Gillick in-processed. The agents in charge of that hadn't even batted an eye at Gibbs bringing in someone for what would at best be wrongful appropriation. "The SIM card's brand new and the memory's been replaced as well. The only call is this morning to a San Jose area code, phone belonging to a Danielle Esposito. Call lasted ninety-three seconds -- long enough to leave a pretty long voicemail message or have a short conversation."

"The fiancée?" Hollis asked.

"Don't know yet," McGee admitted. "Got voicemail again."

A California driver's license appeared on the plasma; Esposito was the sort of attractive that not even the DMV could completely hide.

"She's quite the hottie," DiNozzo said as he went to his desk. "Could probably do better than picking up junior marine officers."

"You are a pig, Tony," David said tiredly. Hollis was mostly immune to it by now and suspected David was as well, but routine was routine.

"Just an observer of human nature," he said as he leaned back in his chair. "Maybe she likes to order them around."

"She'd be qualified to," McGee said, reading off of his screen. "She's got a doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford, post-doc fellowship at UCal-Berkeley, and she is currently employed by the Sagler Institute. Nice."

"What's that?" Gibbs asked.

"It's a science and engineering think tank," McGee answered.

"Oh, god, an army of McGeeks," DiNozzo sighed. "What's someone like her doing there?"

"It's very small, pretty low-key, more interested in research than pushing policy," McGee went on, ignoring his colleague. "Everyone affiliated with it does cutting-edge work, but it's not where you go to get famous."

"So a possible tie-in to whatever program is running out of Meade?" Hollis asked.

"Could be," McGee agreed. "Sagler people aren't all in one place -- it's mostly a source of funding, not a place to do anything. I'm sure a fair amount of them are involved in military research."

"What do you have on Gillick?" Gibbs asked as Hollis finally sat down in the chair she'd dragged over to Gibbs's desk earlier.

A copy of the first page of his file appeared on the plasma. "He is a very good marine," David said simply. "He served two tours in Iraq for which he received various awards. At the conclusion of the second, he was transfered to a unit that is most likely a cover for a clandestine operation, and he has remained there ever since. He is officially assigned to Camp Pendleton."

"Probably hasn't seen the beaches of SoCal for years," DiNozzo said. "Gillick's pretty pale, even for a Minnesota boy."

Hollis turned in her seat to face David. "How much is on the page and how much are you reading between the lines?"

The Army had all sorts of 'placeholder' units, fake companies and battalions complete with headquarters staff, usually so that those in highly secretive units could provide their operators with proof of occupation as required for civilian activities like securing a car loan. But the Army was a big place, with centuries of cross-hosting and re-naming and even the most veteran NCO doing paperwork wouldn't blink an eye at a unit designator he didn't recognize. But the Marines were tiny by comparison and fetishistic about making sure even the most boot private had the entire Corps history memorized.

"The Twenty-Seventh Marine Regiment was stood down after Vietnam," Gibbs said, not looking up from whatever he was reading on his desk as he proved Hollis's point. "Pretty crappy cover story as far as they go."

"So he's a dark-sider," Hollis said, brushing the fact aside for now because it was merely confirmation. "Do we have anything that we can possibly use to tie him in to either the murders or the break-in?"

McGee made a face that could've meant anything from 'I don't think so' to 'I have really bad gas', but it was probably the former.

"We can see what Major Lorne has to say when he shows up," David finally said. "That is why we have brought Lieutenant Gillick in, yes?"

Gibbs gave a tiny shrug and a tinier smile.

"How are we going to get Lorne here if Gillick's got his phone?" McGee asked.

"They must've made arrangements," DiNozzo answered. "We just have to find out what they are."

"Which you won't do by sitting on your ass here," Gibbs said.

"On it, Boss." DiNozzo fairly bounced out of his seat, then paused when neither McGee nor David rose as well. "Who's with me?"

Hollis smiled and stood. "I am, Special Agent DiNozzo."

A flash of something that might be panic crossed his face. "I'm honored, Colonel," is what he said, though.

Gillick had already been brought into the interview room by the time they arrived, stopping first in the viewing room because a suspect should always be observed in his natural element. He was still in the clothes they'd brought him in; Gibbs hadn't wanted to play that game out too far.

Gillick seemed very calm for someone who'd essentially been kidnapped off of the street by people with the power to destroy his life and his career. She looked over at DiNozzo, who made a wry face of agreement. Combat veteran or not, Gillick should've been more nervous than this if he'd been an innocent duped into decoy duty by a former colleague.

"At least he's not sleeping," DiNozzo said, gesturing for her to precede him. "The hardcore ones always sleep."

Gillick stood when they entered, waited for Hollis to gesture for him to sit, and then did so with his hands in his lap.

"How were going you to return Major Lorne's cell phone, Lieutenant?" she began. "You going to give it to him next time you saw him or did you have plans to meet up? How long were you expected to keep it?"

Gillick shrugged. "I'm on libo, ma'am. That doesn't go on forever."

"That also doesn't answer the question, " DiNozzo pointed out.

"He said I could keep it through today and he'd call me tomorrow," Gillick answered, polite but with just enough something for Hollis to confirm (to herself, at least) that he was a much harder case than he was letting on. Up close, the relaxed demeanor was a little less so, a current of tension running through him that was harder to see at a distance -- or if you hadn't been interrogating suspects for a living for a while. But it still wasn't the panicky edge that she'd come to expect from the innocent. It was the energy of someone at work, someone who still thought they were predator and not prey.

"Miss Esposito," DiNozzo mused. "Doctor Esposito. A bit above your pay grade, I'd think. You two meet at work?"

Gillick maintained his composure despite the insult. "We don't work together, so no."

"Where did you meet?" Hollis asked, trying to soften her approach a little. Not a lot -- she knew better than to try to play Little Miss Soft Touch -- but if DiNozzo was going to be the sharp tool, she'd be the heavy one.

"San Diego, ma'am."

Another response that was barely sufficient as an answer -- true, no doubt, but not informative. Not giving anything away.

"Does she know what you do?"

"Do, ma'am?" Gillick smiled wryly. "She's well aware that I'm a marine, yes."

"I think the good Colonel was referring less to the 'lieutenant' and more to the fact that you're assigned to an inactive regiment," DiNozzo said. "Or does Doctor Esposito do the same shady work you do?"

"I already told you that we don't work together," Gillick said evenly.

"Why are you in DC?" Hollis asked.

"Libo, ma'am."

"Nobody from Oceanside comes to DC for libo, Lieutenant," DiNozzo retorted. "Marines from Pendleton go down to TJ when they get a pass. It's even actually almost nice this time of year."

"Fiancée's presenting at a conference," Gillick replied with a shrug.

"Danielle," DiNozzo tested out the name. Apparently he'd noticed as well that Gillick didn't use it. "Is she a 'Danny' or a 'Dee' or one of those women who makes you use the whole thing all of the time? I dated a Mary-Katherine once who hated nicknames. Unnecessarily complicated at certain junctures. Or is she a 'Dan'? She could pull it off, I think. Maybe you like it? Don't answer that if it's going to cause an Article 125 problem."

Gillick said nothing, but Hollis could see that he was paying them more attention, working harder to keep them from under his skin and out of his head. Danielle Esposito was nearby and accessible to them and he knew it.

"Why is Major Lorne in DC?" she asked.

"You'll have to ask him, ma'am."

"A task made more difficult by the fact that his cell phone is sitting on McGee's desk," DiNozzo pointed out sourly. "You have no way to contact him? What if something happened? Say, you getting arrested and needing a helping hand?"

"I believe Major Lorne assumed that I would not be doing anything in violation of any civil or military statutes and could be trusted with his property for twenty-four hours."

"More fool him," DiNozzo said. "And more fool you. You get to spend the night in our deluxe accommodations instead of with your lovely Danielle."

"Major Lorne just happened to be around when you broke your phone?" Hollis prompted. "And he just happened to decide that he wasn't going to need his own for at least part of his stay in DC?"

She did not mention that the phone had been practically prepped for this event, that it had been wiped and most certainly not a casual hand-off.

"Apparently, ma'am."

When they'd found Gillick, she'd wondered if he'd been a convenient patsy, but now she was pretty confident that he'd known what was going on. The problem was that she had absolutely no proof -- of any of it -- and she suspected Gillick (and Lorne) knew that, too.

"You said in the park that you two have worked together. Do you currently work together? Is that why he knew your phone was broken? Is that why you both are in DC?"

Gillick sighed, but said nothing.

"I asked you a question, Lieutenant."

He looked her straight in the eye. "I'm declining to answer, ma'am."

"Ah," DiNozzo sighed happily, rubbing his hands. "And now we get to the fun part."

"Asking who you work with is not compelling a self-incriminating answer," Hollis told him. "I'll take your refusal as an affirmative reply."

"As you will, ma'am."

"Do you know about the murders of Doctors Kennedy, Feng, and Litorsky?"

Gillick blinked mutely at her.

DiNozzo suddenly slammed one hand down on the table, startling them both.

"Hunh," he said thoughtfully, looking at his reddening palm. "So it's not just a Gibbs thing. It works for everyone."

The moment broken -- perhaps DiNozzo's intent -- he looked over to Gillick. "Look, we appreciate your diligence in maintaining OpSec and your willingness to take one for the team. But being as we don't really have a clear enough picture of the Op your Seccing, we can't actually see the grenade you're throwing yourself on. You can't get an award for an act of valor nobody witnesses, so you're kind of wasting your big moment here. Should we try it again and you can answer a few questions with real words instead of your admittedly powerful anime eyes?"

"I'd rather we didn't, all due respect," Gillick answered. "I'm going to terminate this interview now. I'd like all further questions to be made with counsel present."

Hollis stood up, forcing Gillick to rise as well. "Very well. We'll have arrangements made."

Gillick nodded once and stood at rest, waiting for her and DiNozzo to leave.

"Are we really going to make arrangements?" DiNozzo asked as they walked down the hall. "Because I don't think the cell phone charges would stick in a basketball court, let alone a court martial."

"If he asks again," Hollis answered. "Right now, let him sit and think he's won something. A false sense of security is sometimes easier to break down than a highly developed sense of duty."

They walked back to the bullpen, the occupants of which were down to just David and McGee.

"Miss anything interesting?" DiNozzo asked once they arrived.

"A rather nervous phone call from Danielle Esposito," McGee replied. "She called the cell looking for her fiancé. It doesn't sound like she's in on whatever's going on."

"Or she is a very good actress," David cautioned.

"Play it," Hollis ordered, knowing it would have been recorded.

The call itself was brief. Esposito was first wary and then concerned when Gillick didn't answer and instead an NCIS agent was on the other end of the line. She wasn't frantic, but there was a touch of bewildered fear in her voice that turned to annoyance once the topic turned from Gillick to Lorne. Whom she professed not to know except as someone Gillick had once worked with and who'd been generous enough to lend him his phone. She thought Gillick's arrest was ridiculous, probably harassment, and asked for the agent-in-charge's name so that a complaint could be filed. McGee handled the call reasonably well, but he was frowning when the sound file ended.

"Ah, Timmy," DiNozzo sighed, "you bring out the best in beautiful women. And by 'best', I mean threats of charges filed."

"I gave her Gibbs's name," McGee retorted.

"And I'll give her yours," Gibbs said as he returned to their area. Hollis had seen him come down the stairs, so there was no sneaking up on her this time.

"Any luck?" she asked him.

He didn't pretend to not understand; he maybe looked a little bit pleased that she did. "Director's going to try. Probably won't work any better than last time."

"It will not work," David said crossly. "Anything we get here, we are going to have to discover for ourselves."

DiNozzo held up a finger. "Can I get the subtitled version of this conversation, for people who aren't telepathic -- or freaky Israeli assassins?"

"We need to get read into this program," Gibbs said. "We're useless otherwise and, as long as we are, people are still going to die."

Hollis could only grimace in agreement. They didn't know if or how many others were at risk, not without any idea as to why they were being targeted.

"You get anything out of Gillick?" Gibbs asked.

"The part of his jacket where it says he went through SERE isn't made up," DiNozzo answered sourly. "He certainly paid attention during the R phase."

Hollis shook her head. "He's done this before."

Gibbs looked sharply at her.

"I did a stint as cadre for SERE once upon a time. I know what they look like when they're trying to put their lessons into practice under stress. He's not as smooth as Lorne was, but this isn't the first time he's been interrogated."

"He has no arrest record," McGee said slowly. "I'm taking you mean out in the field."

"Wouldn't be the first time," Gibbs said with a shrug. "Takes a certain personality."

Which also had a large overlap with certain other personality types.

"He wasn't Lorne's dupe," Hollis said, because Gibbs was still waiting for an actual report on the interview. "We were. This was a set-up."

And probably a set-up with a time frame -- this had been a window in which Lorne had wanted to accomplish something.

"Does this mean that Gillick knows nothing besides the fact that he is a sacrificial lamb?" David asked. "Lorne would not hand us a significant intelligence source, even to distract us. Interrogation training or not, everyone breaks."

DiNozzo laughed bitterly. "You're forgetting which side of the Patriot Act we're on this time, Ziva. We don't exactly get to use enhanced techniques to break one of our own covert operatives. We push too hard, you're writing parking tickets in Haifa and we're all agents afloat on an AGOR in the middle of nowhere. Except Colonel Mann, who'll end up a supply officer wherever the Army puts people out to pasture."

Hollis was probably a candidate for 'encouraged' retirement, actually, but DiNozzo wasn't wrong.

"Is there any other way we can track Lorne?" she asked. "We can't assume he's in DC -- Gillick could have had the phone since it was disabled and there's no reason to think that there's actually going to be a hand-off tomorrow --but that doesn't mean that he isn't."

They'd exhausted almost every possibility already. Lorne was either using an operational fund or paying cash; his credit cards and bank accounts had remained untouched. There'd been a BOLO out, but nobody'd put much hope in that; Lorne was average in appearance and trained to blend in.

"I guess we'll find out if another scientist turns up dead tomorrow morning," DiNozzo said.

The next day did not bring news of another body. But at 0915, it did bring a phone call to Lorne's cell.

"'Restricted,'" McGee read off of the screen before handing it to Gibbs.

It was not a surprise to find out that it was Lorne calling for Gillick and then (presumably) pretending surprise and annoyance at what had happened to him. Lorne assured Gibbs that he had indeed lent his phone to Gillick and didn't see why he had to come in to write out a statement to that effect.

"He'll be here at noon," Gibbs said as he snapped the phone closed.

"He knows he'd be walking into a trap, right?" DiNozzo asked skeptically. "Do you think he'll show?"

Gibbs shrugged. "We'll see if he does."

Gillick, having overnighted in the brig, was brought back to the interview room. He did not ask where his military counsel was, nor did he react beyond shaking his head when told that Lorne was coming to retrieve him.

Hollis left McGee with Gillick; there was a chance that honey might get what vinegar had not, but she didn't think it likely. Nonetheless, McGee was the least-threatening-looking among them and if Gillick was going to let anything slip, it would be to him.

At 1155, the front desk called to tell them that Major Lorne was there to see Gibbs.

"Send him up," Gibbs said.

"Didn't see that coming," DiNozzo admitted.

"Perhaps Gillick was not intended to take the fall," David offered, her tone making it clear that she didn't believe what she said.

By 1210, however, Lorne had not appeared. The elevator had opened three times, each time revealing NCIS staff going about their routine business.

"Did he get lost?" Hollis asked. The building layout was a little less than straightforward in places, but almost every wrong turn was easily correctable.

A minute later, an alarm sounded. It wasn't the fire alarm, since everyone's immediate reaction was not to grab their coats, but instead to reach for their firearms.

"Brig break," Gibbs muttered angrily as he moved around his desk and headed off in the direction of the interrogation area. "Should've known."

Hollis ran after him, David and DiNozzo on her heels. They pushed past concerned agents to get to the interview room, which was empty.

Gibbs grabbed one of the security agents already there.

"There's an Air Force Major Evan Lorne in the building," he said. "Probably in civvies. Find him and hold him."

Hollis went into the observation room to find the technicians.

"McGee took the prisoner to the head at 1200," one reported. "They never came back."

She went back out into the hallway. "Where's the nearest bathroom?" she asked one of the security agents who'd stayed behind.

The agent gave her an annoyed look, like he thought it was completely typical for Army CID to be at risk of pissing themselves in a crisis, but pointed.

"Come on," she told David, and the two of them ran in the direction indicated.

McGee was alone and unconscious on the floor in front of the urinals. David got to him first, turning him over with firm but gentle hands and checking him over for injuries beyond the growing welt on his forehead. "McGee," she said loudly, smacking him lightly on the cheek. "McGee!"

He was starting to come around as Gibbs and DiNozzo appeared in the doorway.

Gibbs knelt on one knee on the other side of McGee from David, giving him his own visual inspection. "What happened, Tim?"

"Ambush," McGee answered groggily. "Three of them."

They brought McGee down to the morgue, as much to get him away from the curious onlookers and rightfully eager security agents as to get him looked over by Doctor Mallard. Abby found them there, careening into the room in full tizzy and throwing her arms around the still-dazed McGee, who swayed under the force of the attack.

"Abbs," Gibbs warned. "Careful he doesn't puke on you."

Abby let McGee go and stepped back cautiously.

With an ice pack to his forehead and a clean bill of health (plus two Tylenol) from Ducky, McGee explained what happened to them and to the security agent who'd tracked them down.

"There was one set of shoes in the first stall," he began, voice low. "Oriented the right way, pants at the ankles. I told Gillick we'd wait outside and he agreed. Special Agent Cromer exited about two minutes later, we went back in. There were three marines in utility uniforms waiting, one by the door blocking our egress and..." he trailed off. "I don't remember the rest. I presume I got my head rammed into a urinal--"

"Eww," Abby cried, wiping at her lips furiously with a tissue, since she'd kissed McGee's bruise. "You should've said something, McGee!"

"Did you see the nametapes?" the security agent asked. The others seemed to know who she was, but nobody'd bothered to introduce her to Hollis. "Could you identify the three if you saw them again?"

"No and maybe," McGee sighed. "One was Caucasian -- blond -- and two were Hispanic. One of them was really, really big."

"The Caucasian or--"

McGee shook his head, then moaned quietly at the repercussions.

"Could be our three marines from Meade," Hollis said quietly to Gibbs. One of them had been reported to be very tall.

"That would be tidy," was his reply. "Except we're still missing Ziva's Israeli."

They were all back in the bullpen by the time security lifted the lockdown and reported that neither Major Lorne nor anyone matching McGee's descriptions were in the building.

"How'd they get in and how'd they get out?" Hollis asked. "This isn't some minimum security facility."

"If McGee's marines were wearing utes, then they might've come in the front door," DiNozzo offered. "Why break in if you don't have to?"

"Get--"

"On it, Boss," DiNozzo cut Gibbs off, picking up the phone.

"We should also make sure that it was, in fact, Major Lorne who signed in," David pointed out. "We did not see him and there is no reason for the guards to know what he looked like. Ten minutes is more than enough time to prepare for something like this."

DiNozzo had asked for and received all footage from when they'd arrived with Gillick yesterday afternoon through the alarm going off. "If they'd gone out the front door, we'd have known by now," he explained as he queued it up.

Even fast-forwarded, it was going to be tiring work, so they started at the end and rewound on the possibly hopeful supposition that the ambushers had shown up today and hadn't been lying in wait since yesterday.

Going backward, there were no marines -- or anyone fitting McGee's descriptions -- before Lorne appeared.

"So it was him," DiNozzo said. "Kind of academic now."

Played back at normal speed, Lorne, dressed in civilian clothing, appeared at the guard station, showed his military ID, waited for the guard to call upstairs, and then signed in. He went through the metal detector, retrieved his keys, and moved out of the frame.

With nothing else to glean from Lorne's cameo and security already tracking his movements within the building, they went on, pausing at each marine dressed in a utility uniform. Most were immediately disqualified based on appearance or gender, but there were a few where they paused and zoomed and waited for McGee to say that he was pretty sure that this was not one of his attackers.

"Oh, ho, ho," DiNozzo chuckled as he froze the tape again. "I'm guessing this is your Jolly Green Giant, little Sprout."

The figure on the screen was certainly well above average size and could conceivably be Hispanic from what little they could see of his skin tone, but he was also wearing his cap and his face was hidden from the camera's view. He had swiped through with a valid ID card, since the guard had looked at the screen and saw nothing amiss.

"What's the timestamp?" Hollis asked.

"One step ahead of you, Colonel," McGee said, typing away. "Staff Sergeant Alfonso Ruiz, assigned to a maintenance unit here at the Navy Yard."

The official picture came up. Dark-skinned and small-framed, he didn't look anything like the man on the tape.

"Either the guard is incredibly nearsighted or someone pulled a switcheroo," DiNozzo said dryly.

"There's a chance..." McGee trailed off, typing furiously. Everyone waited, but he kept typing. Right when Hollis was about to prompt him, he looked up. "Hah."

A new photo appeared on the plasma, this time of someone who could conceivably be their mystery marine.

"Who is he?" Gibbs asked.

"Working on it, Boss," McGee assured, once more typing furiously. Hollis couldn't see his fingers, but there was a cascade of muted clicks coming from behind his screen. "I'm pulling up all personnel files that were accessed in the same time frame as Staff Sergeant Ruiz's. Narrowing that down should be easy."

While McGee did his thing, the rest of them went back to the video footage. They found four more possibilities -- two of which McGee looked up and discounted and one which he wasn't certain about but who turned out to be legitimate. The fourth was put in the 'possible' pile but they didn't find another candidate before McGee told them to pause the tape.

A service jacket popped up, this time attached to the photo from before.

"Staff Sergeant Manuel Ortilla," McGee announced. "Who is a long way from where he's supposed to be. His unit's on a cruise with the USS Teddy Roosevelt carrier group. They made a port call in Cape Town last month."

Which meant he probably wasn't AWOL.

It took McGee the better part of an hour to pull up the records of their other two likely candidates, Sergeant Andrew John Reletti (assigned to MARSOC) and Sergeant Christopher Suarez (who was supposed to be in transit to Yuma after finishing sniper school in Hawaii).

"They've got better covers than Lieutenant Gillick," McGee said. "Is it because they're more important or because theirs are more likely to be checked?"

"The latter," David answered. "Gillick was retrieved at considerable expense. He is not unimportant."

"They're enlisted, he's an officer," Gibbs added. "Different kinds of questions come up."

"Including 'what the hell are they doing?'" Hollis said darkly as Gibbs phone rang.

He answered it, said a few words, then hung up.

"Possibly committing murder," he said, standing up. "We've got another dead scientist at Norfolk."


Five

"Any chance you'll be able to tell if that head wound is pre- or post-mortem?" Hollis asked Ducky as they crouched next to the body of Doctor Sumesh Pal.

Pal had had his throat sliced, same as Kennedy and Litorsky, but either the incision wasn't as precise or Pal had been of strong stuff because he'd managed to get up from the desk where he'd been mortally wounded and cross the room, finally dying by a file cabinet next to the window. In addition to the throat cut, however, there was a gash on his forehead. It was covered in blood, but whether it was blood from the wound itself or merely transferred, it was impossible for Hollis to tell.

"I would not like to be quoted for attribution before I get him on to a table," Ducky replied, "but I would say ante-mortem. Not much before, however, as the blood at the site is mostly from the pool he was found in. But it was most certainly not the cause of death."

Hollis smiled and stood up, feeling her age in her knees the way she rarely felt it anywhere else. "Even us Army types can figure out that much, Doctor Mallard," she chided, smiling at him when he looked up, fearful that he'd insulted her. "McGee got his head clipped in about the same spot. I was just hoping it wasn't a coincidence and was maybe a pattern instead. We're running short on leads here."

"A pattern besides the smile carved in his neck?" Gibbs asked sourly from somewhere behind them.

Hollis ignored him; he'd been in a pissy mood since they'd gotten the call -- since the brig break, really -- and she just didn't feel like dealing with it or him. They were all upset about Lorne's engineering Gillick's escape and they'd all have to shelve it for the time being. Gibbs was blaming himself, which would've been merely worth an eye roll, but McGee was also blaming himself and, either out of conditioning or concussion, was mistaking Gibbs's self-flagellation for disappointment in him. It wasn't Hollis's place, either personally or professionally, to criticize or correct Gibbs's team management, so the best thing she could do was pretend not to see it so long as it didn't get disruptive. McGee was off to Pal's apartment with DiNozzo and the local NCIS agent who'd caught the case, so there shouldn't be too much of a problem. At least with McGee.

"There's blood on the cabinet handles," she said, gesturing with a gloved hand. "Either he hit his head or he was reaching for it."

Ducky stood up with a quiet sigh. "Indeed," he agreed, looking at the handle and then at Pal's forehead. "It's very possible it was the former. Or both. He would have had very little strength by the time he made these last steps and the floor would have been very slick. A curious journey, all told. The telephone is in the other direction and there are closer windows from which he could have tried to escape. Presumably he was intending to retrieve something in the cabinet, but what?"

"Can't tell until you release the body and we can move it, Duck," Gibbs said.

"That could have been done almost instantaneously," Ducky retorted. "There was nothing about the body in situ that changes my evaluation. Mr. Palmer?"

Palmer, who'd been hovering outside the room, far out of the way since Gibbs had snapped at him about something, appeared in the doorway. "Yes, Doctor Mallard?"

It took a few minutes for the body to be bagged and removed; Hollis looked around the office as she waited. It was modestly-sized and cluttered with papers and journals and binders, afternoon sunshine falling on the posters of planetary phenomena on the walls, and the somewhat distant sound of the Navy's busiest facility a pleasant background. Not a bad place to work at all, really, apart from it being covered in blood.

David edged into the room as the body was being wheeled out. She'd been sent to interview whomever might've been around yesterday evening (Ducky had put time of death at 1800, which would've been about the time Hollis and DiNozzo were verbally sparring with Gillick), plus the unfortunates who'd found the body.

"Doctor Pal was known to work late hours," David began as she flipped open her notebook. She took notes in Hebrew, Hollis saw, which was something Gibbs should have probably gotten her out of the habit of doing, but Jethro wasn't about to prioritize the prosecution angle over the investigative. "He routinely began his working day after noon, staying until midnight or later. The building has key-card access and his entries and exits are consistently timed; his colleagues in the adjacent offices say that they never saw him in the mornings unless he'd not gone home the previous night. The person who found the body, a Doctor Suga, said that she'd had a question for him since the morning, but waited until noon to see if he was in."

"Did she see anything? Anyone who didn't belong here?" Hollis asked.

David frowned. "She was not much help," she replied. "She is very distraught by the crime scene. She found the body, returned to her own office, locked the door, called 911, and stayed where she was. The base police had to unlock the door with a master key to get to her. She is being sedated because she is becoming hysterical."

Gibbs made a disgusted noise. "Anyone else?"

"The next-closest neighbor, a Doctor Callahan, was not here yesterday afternoon, but said that there was nothing this morning and there has been nothing out of the ordinary this week," David continued. "No one reporting anything missing or unauthorized personnel in the hallways or strange cars in the parking lot used by those in this building."

"Is he in a position to be aware of all of this?" Hollis asked skeptically. Her experience was that there were huge perception gaps in situations like this.

"It has been verified by base security and Special Agent Nicienzo," David replied. "Who also told me that there'd been a break-in here last year and that, despite improvements in security measures as a result, the 'residents' had taken it upon themselves to be more vigilant. A 'neighborhood watch' is what he called it. He did not sound pleased."

No kidding, Hollis chuckled to herself.

"What kind of break-in?" Gibbs asked.

"A pair of sailors broke in to look for materials with which to make crystal meth," David answered. "They had prior instances of failing drug tests and possession with intent to distribute and have since been successfully prosecuted. Special Agent Nicienzo has promised to provide all of the records from the case, but he is quite sure it was an isolated incident as far as this building went. There have been several reports to the masters-at-arms by the 'watch' since, but none have resulted in any open cases and none have been from Doctor Pal."

Probably unrelated, although Hollis wanted to look over the drug case files nonetheless -- this whole business was too involved to automatically reject the notion that Pal had been targeted for elimination months ago. "This wasn't the office they broke into, right?"

"No," David confirmed. "It was on the other end of the floor, a chemistry lab. They apparently saw the beakers through the window."

With all of the environmental photographs now taken and the body removed, they could go to the file cabinet Pal had died getting to. The cabinet was locked, but, after a nod from Gibbs, David picked the lock with ease and carefully opened the top drawer, the one with the (most) bloodied handle.

Inside, there were files in the front and three plastic boxes in the rear. One was obviously a first-aid kit, band-aid box visible through the translucent lid, but two were not. They each took one, Gibbs giving the first-aid kit to a displeased David, and stepped back to examine them.

Hollis's was full of flash drives, maybe a dozen in all, along with a couple of SD memory cards still in their shrink-wrapping and a card reader that was not. "I've got data storage," she announced, turning back to the others. "Who's got the Cracker Jack prize?"

There was a possibility that this was it -- especially considering the emphasis on data destruction at the previous crime scenes. They'd already bagged a computer, but it wouldn't turn on and McGee was hoping either he or Abby could fix it back at headquarters.

There was also the possibility that Pal had been going for the first-aid kit. Panic and denial and whatever else affected a man dying of blood loss could have led Pal to focus on getting himself a gauze pad.

"Not me," Gibbs said. "I've got slides."

He lifted one up to the light and squinted at it.

"I believe that I have found your prize," David announced. Her back was to them, but she turned around slowly with an M9 dangling from her pen.

"Well, then," Gibbs chuckled mirthlessly, pulling an evidence envelope out. "I guess we know what he was looking for."

They were still collecting evidence from the file cabinet when DiNozzo called Gibbs. It was a short conversation, punctuated on Gibbs's end almost entirely by monosyllabic noises and an exhortation to do what they could.

"Place's been trashed," he said as he closed the phone. "They went there after killing him here."

"Which means that whatever they were looking for here, they didn't find." Hollis held up the bin of flash drives. "What are the odds they didn't know about these?"

"They did not search this place," David said, looking around. "Not unless they did so before they sliced Doctor Pal's throat."

The blood spatter was undisturbed and the pools that had formed after Pal had fallen were similarly untouched.

"If there was five of them, then all they need is one or two to hold him and the rest can move around," Gibbs said. "They might've gotten him to 'help.'"

Ducky would tell them if there were any signs of coercive restraint.

Hollis was about to ask where the supply of larger evidence bags was when something caught her eye, a glint of light off of something shiny on the ground. She put the box of drives down, then crouched to look for what she'd seen. "Found his cell phone," she said, dropping down carefully to avoid the pools of blood while still being able to reach between the table and the wall. She couldn't get to it, but Gibbs handed her a ruler and she was able to slide it over. It was missing the panel over the battery and the battery itself -- most likely it had come off on impact, she found both nearby -- and had blood smears along the sides. She slipped it all straight into an evidence envelope to minimize the fingerprints and avoid smearing any of the blood.

"Guess that's why he didn't use the one on his desk," Gibbs said. "Still should've."

"Perhaps he was not trying to dial for help," David said, standing far enough away that Hollis could back up and stand. "His actions are not consistent with someone trying to save themselves. He did not seek to escape or to call for help, but instead went for his gun and took out his cell phone." Hollis hadn't sealed the envelope yet and David slipped the phone out carefully, flipping it open and holding it up so that Gibbs and Hollis could see the keypad. "He was not dialing for assistance. He was looking for a number he did not have memorized."

There was blood on the top part of the keypad, not on the numeric grid but on the buttons that brought up the menu and contacts list.

"Was he trying to warn someone?" Hollis asked. "We won't be able to tell unless he actually got the call through."

They'd pull up his call records from the provider and use that until the phone itself had been processed for evidence. With help from the techs and Nicienzo, they finished up the crime scene and moved on to take a tour of the building (key card access and video monitoring of the front entrance, but the video feed went down at 1700 and back up at 1900) and the nearby environs.

Gibbs gave Nicienzo copies of the photos of Lorne, Ortilla, Reletti, and Suarez, but didn't pretend that it was likely he'd find any of them on any cameras anywhere. Three marines at an Army base had been difficult to look for; at Norfolk, they'd be impossible. "Just make sure they don't come back," he told the junior agent.

With nothing but scene processing holding them here and that being handled by local agents, they went back up to DC. McGee and DiNozzo were still at Pal's residence, but Ducky had taken some of the evidence back with him when he'd left and Abby found them shortly after they got back to the bullpen.

"The computer is fried," she told Gibbs.

"Un-fry it," he replied, sitting down and grimacing at the pile of messages on his desk.

"I can't, Gibbs," Abby sighed. "I'm not speaking figuratively. The insides are melted, like someone opened it up, scooped out all of its guts, put them in the microwave for ten minutes, and then put them back in. Except a microwave would've exploded because of all of the metal bits. And I'm not sure how they did it without damaging the chassis because that part's fine, not even a scratch from opening it up, let alone the scorch marks there should've been from all of the melty goodness inside."

Gibbs looked at Hollis and she looked right back, alarmed and hopeful all at once. This sounded terribly familiar. Li Feng, the Meade scientist whose death was not officially part of their investigation because it was not officially a homicide, had possibly died of electrocution. Except there were no burn marks on the surface of the body despite possible signs of electric shock fatally disrupting his heart rhythm.

"Can you figure out how they did whatever they did?" she asked.

Abby sighed. "I've got some queries out on the boards the Special Operations guys chit-chat on, see if it's some kind of cutting-edge thing, but, really? I don't have a better theory right now than 'Han Solo did it.'"

"So long as he shot first," DiNozzo said as he and McGee returned, each with a crate in their arms. "Hi, Boss. We brought back souvenirs. Well, for Abby at least. You've never struck me as a memento kind of guy."

"You're always so thoughtful," Abby chirped, kissing McGee's cheek as he handed over his box. She stuck her hand in and pulled out a decorative knife. "You always know just what I want."

"Hey," DiNozzo protested. "That was my idea."

"Start with the phone, Abbs," Gibbs told her. "McGee can do what he can until you get it back to him."

"Right," she agreed, then turned back to DiNozzo. "Come on, Jeeves."

DiNozzo frowned, but uttered a 'yes, ma'am' in a passable English accent, and followed.

"What am I doing?" McGee asked Gibbs once they were gone.

"Going through Pal's phone records from today until the week before Li Feng died," Hollis answered, handing him a notebook page with Pal's cell, work, and home phone numbers on it. McGee almost got away with his sidelong glance to Gibbs for confirmation, but realized he was caught and frowned. "See if he was able to call whoever he was trying to dial as he bled out, plus see if there are any ties to Colorado."

Trying to sort through all of the evidence and information took them through the evening and they ended without a dinner break at almost nine. DiNozzo and David had had to split their attention between the evidence and chasing down McGee's phone numbers as McGee himself had to go down to Abby's lab to try his hand at trying to recover anything from the melted laptop. Nobody really wanted to stop where they were -- which was nowhere -- but Hollis agreed with Gibbs that they were hitting the point of diminishing returns, especially as they couldn't follow up on most of their ideas because of the hour. It had been a long day and Gillick's escape felt like it couldn't possibly have been that morning.

"You got anything better than fish and broccoli planned?" Gibbs asked her as they headed down in the elevator.

"The Nats are in Chicago," she replied, since it was late and she'd forgotten her Gibbsese-to-English dictionary at home. Whether he was asking her to come over or inviting himself to her place, she wasn't sure. Either way, she'd probably say yes. "It's still early enough to catch the end of that."

Gibbs gave her one of those sly grins that were maybe the entire reason she'd fallen for him in the first place. "Got a better idea."

The next morning, she stopped off at her place to change and then went in to her office because she tried not to be absent for too long. She got back to NCIS before noon and apparently hadn't missed anything too interesting. The laptop was well and truly unsalvageable, not a single byte recoverable, and the flash drives she'd brought back were turning out to be innocuous -- old, already-published research and copies of manuscripts and papers. The phone log was being winnowed down with the obvious calls (dentist, cable company, sister) eliminated and DiNozzo still applying pressure to get the numbers behind the 'restricted' calls identified.

"He never got that last call off," DiNozzo said to her as he waited on hold, his phone to his ear. "The last outgoing call was to an auto-body place to schedule an inspection. At least he won't have to deal with the DMV one last time."

Their work was interrupted by security agents still trying to figure out what the hell had happened with Gillick and Lorne yesterday; Hollis got pulled into an empty cubicle for a quick interview, mostly just confirming what she'd seen and done and why they'd immediately assumed that it was their prisoner who'd escaped (and what were they doing holding him in the first place). She'd been half-expecting a witch-hunt or an attempt to pin blame on Gibbs's team (including her), but they seemed to accept her answers and it wasn't adversarial.

Abby was there when she returned to the bullpen.

"Hey, Colonel," Abby greeted her. "I was just telling Gibbs that there's no way I can match up the three marines who attacked McGee with the footage from Fort Meade."

Hollis sat down, disappointed and a little surprised. "It's not them?"

"Oh, it's probably them," Abby assured quickly. "The comparative sizes match up, especially if the fourth one is Major Lorne. But I'd never get it to stand up in court. The angle plus the lighting plus the artifacting makes it all completely inconclusive -- I can say it's them, but I can also say it's, like, a third of the Marine Corps."

"Is there any chance that Lieutenant Gillick is the fifth one?" Hollis asked, stealing a quick glance to see if David had returned. They got on well enough, but she wasn't sure how David would handle her evaluations questioned by someone not on her team. "Or, conversely, can we rule him out?"

Abby shook her head. "Aaron Gillick's a little too hunky to be our Mystery Dude -- he's got broad shoulders and a pretty developed upper body and this guy's more lanky. They're probably about the same height, though."

"So we've got a lanky man, about six-one, who may or may not have krag maga training at the hands of an IDF instructor," McGee summarized sourly. "This isn't a lot to go on. I hope Ziva's got better news."

Almost as if on cue, David entered the bullpen, pulling off her hat in frustration. "The list of Israeli citizens with engineering or physics degrees working in the United States is staggering," she announced crossly, pulling an envelope out of her backpack. "The list of those working for US government agencies is smaller, but still very long. If it is someone from Mossad or Aman, they are not on the list because we are not to interfere."

She handed the envelope over to Hollis, entirely because she was closer than Gibbs and David would have had to walk around her to get to him.

"I'm guessing our help from your end is going to be limited," DiNozzo said dryly.

They'd already done the legwork they could before seeking the Mossad's help; they'd run checks on American military attaches to Embassy Tel Aviv, anyone who'd gone on exchange with the IDF, US citizens and dual citizens who'd either enlisted or been drafted into the IDF, members of the Israeli diplomatic corps, the works. Nothing.

"It depends," David answered, returning to her desk. "If it is an active operation, sanctioned by your government or not, then no, there will be no assistance. But if it is someone acting against Israel's interests, especially a citizen, then we can expect whatever help we need."

Most of the time, it was entirely possible to forget that Ziva David was not merely an NCIS agent with an accent and that the country she swore loyalty to and served was not the same as everyone else's. And then there were moments when you were forcibly reminded that she answered to a different authority and that she might need to (and choose to) act against the best interests of the United States to meet those primary obligations.

Inside the envelope were several sheets of names, single-spaced and three columns per page. Hollis skimmed them, then handed the packet off to Gibbs. Who in turned looked at them, frowned, and turned back to Abby.

"Find me something, Abbs," he commanded, rubbing at the bridge of his nose. "We've got a whole lot of nothing here."

Especially because the security agents who'd questioned Hollis had already told her that there was very little likelihood of being able to charge Ortilla, Suarez, and Reletti with anything more than using false identification and no way to tie anything to Lorne.

Director Shepard wanted both Hollis and Gibbs in her office for a briefing (and chewing-out; she wasn't happy with the cell phone stunt and its fallout) and to remind them, sharply, that she was sticking her neck out by protecting what was essentially an investigation into a clandestine operation by their own people.

"Spilling our defense intelligence secrets is what the New York Times does, not NCIS," Shepard said with a frown. "If they're committing murder, prove it. But stop grasping at straws where everyone can see you because it makes you -- and me -- look desperate. You have five names and you can't tie any of them to the actual killings. Change that or be prepared to lose the case."

Thus chastened, they went back downstairs, where DiNozzo was the only one there.

"Got a present for you, Boss -- and Colonel Other Boss," he announced as they returned. An official photo belonging to a female Air Force officer was on the plasma. "Introducing Lieutenant Colonel Samantha Carter, USAF. Pilot turned Pentagon hack turned top researcher for our well-armed friends in the skies. She called Dr. Pal two weeks ago from a restricted number that got traced back to Cheyenne Mountain, home of NORAD, where she is currently assigned to the Deep Space Telemetry program."

Hollis cocked an eyebrow. "Is she one of O'Neill's spooks?"

"It's hard to tell," DiNozzo answered with a frown. "She's got a PhD in astrophysics and a long list of publications on stuff I can't even figure out but seems to have to do with, well, space. Also, she's got a Wikipedia page."

"A what?" Gibbs asked, sitting down.

"You're kidding," Hollis said -- to DiNozzo. She'd completely buy that Gibbs had never heard of Wikipedia.

"Actually not kidding, but I can understand the skepticism," DiNozzo went on. The photo disappeared off of the plasma and there it was, a Wikipedia page on Samantha Carter. "She's apparently quite the geek-warrior princess. I'm sure McGee knows all about her."

McGee, when he got back, did know who she was. "She gave a talk at MIT when I was there," he said. "One of my buddies was doing aeronautical engineering and he dragged me along. I didn't get half of what she was saying, but everyone else seemed to like it."

"You speak to her?" Gibbs asked.

"No," McGee sighed. "We went to the dinner, but so did everyone else and--"

"I meant DiNozzo," Gibbs told him archly as David returned from her questioning at the hands of the security team.

"Right," McGee sighed, sitting down.

"No such luck," DiNozzo replied. "Out of the office until Tuesday. Which may or may not be helpful depending on if we can figure out where exactly she is."

A half-hour later, their luck seems to have turned. "Samantha Carter is a passenger on an American Airlines flight from Colorado Springs to Baltimore that lands... in one hour," David announced. "She is also booked on a flight from Baltimore to Colorado Springs on Monday evening."

"That's convenient," Hollis said.

"Not just for us," McGee replied. He'd been charged with digging up more background on Carter. "She's a featured speaker at a DARPA conference on Thursday."

Hollis looked over at Gibbs, who nodded. "Ziva, take DiNozzo and get up to BWI, find Carter and figure out where she's going. If she's here for a conference, she'll be booked into a hotel. Find out which one."

"Boss, did you mean 'DiNozzo, take Ziva and get up to the airport'? Because if Officer David is driving, we might not get to the airport."

Gibbs didn't have to reply, David hit DiNozzo in the arm, hard, and started to walk to the elevator and DiNozzo turned to grab his backpack and chase after her.

"What time is her panel on Thursday?" Hollis asked McGee. She'd gone to enough conferences to know that not everyone stayed for the duration. "And how long does this conference run?"

"Uh," McGee trailed off as he searched. "She's in the two-to-five block on Thursday afternoon, which is the second day. The conference runs panels Wednesday through Saturday and there's a toy show on Sunday."

"Toy show?" Gibbs repeated.

"A demonstration day," McGee explained. "It's a conference on nanotechnology and it's DARPA. There's going to be a whole lot of fun stuff on display."

"Including something that could've zapped Doctor Pal's computer?" Hollis asked. "Or Doctor Feng?"

McGee made a face to indicate that he didn't know.

"Do we have anyone who'd be able to find out?" Gibbs asked sourly. "Someone who isn't working for these people?"

Which would be impossible to tell, Hollis knew. Even people without any formal links to the military were turning out to be tied into this -- she'd bet money that Danielle Esposito, Gillick's fiancée, was tied into this somehow.

"I can get a guest list," McGee offered. "See who's on it, see if there's anyone familiar enough to trust."

"Do it," Gibbs told him, not sounding optimistic.

Ducky called to say that he'd finished the autopsy and Hollis and Gibbs left McGee to his work.

The cause of death was exactly what they thought it was, the gash on Pal's forehead was perimortem, and there were no signs that Pal had been tortured or otherwise physically coerced. "Which is not to say that there were no unique or unusual markings," Ducky pointed out. "Just none that are recent."

He showed them faint scarring around the wrists, mild and unnoticeable unless you were looking for it, and similar marks around the ankles.

"Cuff marks?" Gibbs asked skeptically. "A little hardcore for a guy with one parking ticket."

"My job is not to divine the context, Jethro," Ducky retorted. "Merely the provenance."

There were a couple of other markings -- an almost perfectly round discoloration in the skin on the right bicep, for instance -- that Ducky could not point to definitively as torture or even necessarily misadventure, but seemed out of place on a homebody-with-no-hobbies physicist whose misfortune seemed to have been confined to working on a research project someone else either didn't want or wanted very much.

"This gets weirder and weirder," Gibbs sighed as they went back upstairs.

"Tony and Ziva called in," McGee said as they returned. "Lieutenant Colonel Carter didn't check into a hotel. She went to a private home in Georgetown -- listed as belonging to a Jack O'Neill. She had keys and everything, apparently."

Hollis couldn't help but laugh.

"They still there?" Gibbs asked.

"Parked across the street," McGee confirmed.

"Looks like we got ourselves a stakeout," Hollis said. "I hope nobody had plans."

McGee looked pained, but he needn't have worried. Gibbs volunteered himself and Hollis for the late shift, telling DiNozzo and David to be back -- with coffee -- at 9am. McGee had gotten himself added to the guest list at the conference tomorrow and had plans to meet up with an old colleague who did some kind of engineering.

It was a quiet stakeout, as most were, and boring as hell, as almost all were. Nobody left, nobody showed up, and the pattern of light usage indicated a late dinner and then going upstairs. The next morning, O'Neill and Carter left the house together, both in their service uniforms, and headed for the SUV parked in front of the house.

"Follow them or canvass the neighborhood?" she asked.

"We can do both," Gibbs replied, looking at his watch. "Ziva and DiNozzo'll be here in a bit."

Hollis didn't even ask how the division of labor was going to go. She checked her face in her compact mirror -- she'd changed into civvies before they'd shown up to relieve David and DiNozzo -- and opened the door. "Try to be discreet," she told him. "They're probably used to checking for tails."

"I am the soul of discretion," Gibbs said cheekily and she gave him a flat stare. If anyone was the embodiment of choosing valor over discretion, it was Leroy Jethro Gibbs.

He pulled out slowly and she crossed the street to O'Neill's. It was a cute place, red brick with a red door, attached on one side to a very un-cute neighbor with baby blue aluminum siding. The other side had a brick walkway leading to the backyard and a white picket fence separating it from the next property. Hollis rang the doorbell and, when nothing happened, she rapped on the door with the brass knocker.

"He's gone for the day," a voice called out from the other side of the picket fence. Hollis turned to see a middle-aged woman in business clothes standing on her front porch with her delivered copy of the Washington Post in her hand. "You just missed him."

Hollis jogged over and introduced herself by rank, although she might have mumbled a bit on which service's Criminal Investigative Division she worked for. Most civilians, even in greater DC, couldn't tell them apart.

"Jack in trouble?" the woman -- Marianne -- asked, concerned.

"I hope not," Hollis replied earnestly, realizing that Marianne would probably talk a lot so long as she thought it was for O'Neill's benefit. "That's what I'm here to make sure of."

With a little bit of misdirection-by-omission and a lot of simple and straightforward questions, Hollis indeed got Marianne to spill. Jack O'Neill was a good neighbor -- quiet, kept the place neat (unlike the previous owner) and did it all himself, barbecued in the back in the summer with the Nats games on the radio, shoveled her sidewalk too during the rare snow. He was friendly without being open or chatty -- he'd gotten her grandson interested in hockey and took him to the occasional Caps game, but didn't talk too much about work except to say that it was a lot of paperwork and that being a general was overrated.

"I don't think he likes it here much, to be honest," Marianne said with a little sadness. "Don't know if it's the job or being away from people he knows."

"Like Samantha Carter?"

"Like her," Marianne agreed. "I think she does like it here, or at least time away from whatever it is she does. And she makes Jack seem a little less... lonely."

"So they're together?" Hollis prompted.

"I've always assumed," Marianne replied, "Sometimes she visits with another fellow, but most of the time it's by herself. I've never asked, though -- it's not a question you can just stick into a conversation. She's a very lovely woman, though -- very smart. She helped my grandson pick out a science project last time she was out here. My daughter and I are liberal arts majors; I don't think baking soda volcanoes are in anymore."

There was more to the conversation, but it was all about the possible love affair of Jack O'Neill and Samantha Carter and nothing that would give any indication that O'Neill was running a covert operation out of a neat Georgetown semi-attached. She thanked Marianne and bid her a good day, not bothering to ask her to not mention the conversation.

She crossed the street and pulled out her cell phone, dialing DiNozzo. She told him to pick her up around the corner and they'd follow up wherever Gibbs needed coverage. Then she called Gibbs, who told her that O'Neill had dropped Carter off at the conference site and then proceeded on to the Pentagon; Gibbs was on his way back to the conference site and DiNozzo and David could relieve them there.

DiNozzo pulled up ten minutes later -- they had already been en route -- and they drove to the site, finding a parking spot three cars behind Gibbs's.

"You're on," she told them, getting out. "Have fun."

Gibbs drove straight to her place.

"You should come up," she told him. "We're not going to get a full shift off."

They took turns showering and she made grilled cheese sandwiches in the frying pan. When DiNozzo called Gibbs's cell phone, they'd been asleep for four hours.

"Ziva's found her Israeli," he said once he closed the phone. "Having lunch with Carter."

They stopped for coffee (and a Caff-Pow) on the way back to NCIS headquarters, going straight to Abby's lab.

"I'm running Ziva's pictures for a match," she called out as they crossed the threshhold. The large plasma was showing a slideshow of photos of a dark-haired man sitting at a table at an outdoor cafe, Sam Carter sitting across from him if the blonde hair and dark blue coat were any indication. The man looked to be mid-thirties, Middle Eastern in coloration, and rangy in build. He was wearing sunglasses, which wasn't going to help, but his ears stuck out a little, so maybe that could.

"Where's Ziva?" Gibbs asked, putting the giant cup on the nearest counter.

"She's with Tony still," Abby answered, tottering back and forth between the computer running the facial recognition software and one of her other machines. "She'll go straight to her secret squirrels once I can get her a name."

It was about ten minutes before the computer beeped.

"And here we go," Abby announced cheerfully, hitting the phone console on her table. The music cut off (mercifully) and a dial tone filled the room. "Let's get a full audience before we reveal our prize winner."

"Yes, Abby?" David answered. "Do you have a name?"

"Of course I have a name," Abby replied, sounding hurt. "I wouldn't just call you to tell you that Gibbs and Colonel Mann are waiting impatiently in my lab."

"Abby," Gibbs half-prompted, half-warned.

A photo popped up of the same man, except without the goatee and sunglasses.

"Your latest Man of Mystery is Doctor Jonathan Refael Safir, MD," Abby read off. "Born in Rishon LeZion, Israel, he is an epidemiologist here on an H-1B visa sponsored by the DoD."

Gibbs sucked on his teeth. "The DoD part makes sense," he said. "But what about the epidemiology part? What's he doing running around with these people?"

Hollis shrugged. "Maybe he's not active in the field?"

"Oh, no," Abby replied, pointing to the screen of her computer, which showed a bibliographic list off of some database. Hollis couldn't see the words clearly from this distance, but she could make out the format. "He's active. He's got a fairly regular publication schedule going back more than a decade. It's less frequent now than it was five years ago, but he's still cranking stuff out. Oh, hey, that one looks kind of interesting."

"Focus, Abby," Hollis exhorted.

David asked for Safir's date of birth and told Gibbs that she would follow Safir once the lunch broke up, which looked to be imminent, and then do her own research. DiNozzo's response was mostly inaudible, but it seemed to involve being left alone with a hot blonde if David's reaction was any indicator.

"Can you tell me if he's the fifth man in Lorne's search party?" Gibbs asked Abby once the call had been terminated.

"He's the right body type," Abby answered with a frown. "But I can't be any more certain than I was of the other four being Lorne and the marines who attacked McGee. They don't list hobbies or lethal skills on the visa form."

A thought came to Hollis. "Does he have an application in for a green card?"

"Nope," Abby replied after a moment's searching. "Which is weird, because the H-1B's totally a back door to resident status and if you're working for Defense, theoretically you're vested enough in the country to want to stay."

"Depends on what he's doing," Gibbs said, picking up his coffee cup in anticipation of leaving. "And for whom."

Hollis gave him a look. "You think he's an Israeli spy?"

Before they'd realized that they were crossing swords with an American military clandestine operation, espionage had been the leading theory. It hadn't been completely ruled out.

"I don't know what to think anymore," Gibbs sighed. "What the hell's an epidemiologist doing on a commando team led by an Air Force tanker pilot and staffed by marines?"

Once they left Abby, Gibbs didn't stop at his desk, instead going straight up to Shepard to get someone other than his team tasked with staking out O'Neill and Carter. Watching the two of them go at it was uncomfortable for various reasons; their personal history and their professional history (and where that line had been completely obliterated), the way Gibbs could so utterly flaunt the chain of command, the way she was only a peripheral part of the conversation for all of that plus the fact that she was from a different organization (and a different unit she was currently not giving nearly enough time and attention to). When it ended, she was relieved for more reasons than just that Gibbs had gotten what he'd wanted and she wouldn't be staying up all night sitting in a car with bad coffee.

When they got back to the bullpen, she called in to her own office. There were a half-dozen crises, minor and not, and the cases she had open that weren't related to the Meade break-in were still waiting (along with the JAG lawyers who had various degrees of appreciation that she had better things to do with her life than be at their beck and call).

Gibbs was watching her when she looked up after putting the phone down. "What's so amusing, Gunny?" she asked.

He smiled, like he always did when she called him by his old rank. "Nothing, Colonel."

McGee showed up, looking a little better dressed than usual.

"Have fun at the toy show?" Gibbs asked.

"It was actually a lot of fun," McGee admitted, loosening his tie a little as he sat. "It was also a little embarrassing because I've forgotten so much since college and grad school and I could see so much that I know I used to understand, but it's now just barely familiar gibberish."

"Was any of it gibberish that could help our case?" Hollis asked.

"Yes and no," McGee answered. "Mike's heard of a couple of prototype weapons that could do to, say, a laptop what got done to Doctor Pal's laptop. He doesn't think any of them are far enough along to be tested outside of a lab -- or on a living being -- and they're certainly not going to be on display on Sunday. But he's going to look around for me."

"You trust this 'friend' of yours?" Gibbs didn't look up from where he was squinting at a message.

"Mike?" McGee scoffed. "He's actually proud of the fact that the CIA told him that they'd rather take a Chinese spy than him. He's not exactly secret agent material. "

Hollis thought of the latest addition to Lorne's team. "We might have to redefine our terms on that front."

DiNozzo called in half an hour later, wanting to hear it directly from Gibbs that he'd authorized relief in place on the stakeout. "Thank god," he sighed after Gibbs ordered him back to the office. "Metro PD thought I was one of those guys who masturbates in cars. All I was doing was changing the battery in the camera. At least when Ziva was here, they thought we were engaging in a little afternoon delight."

David had followed Safir into the Metro and then out at College Park and into a waiting car, a silver Nissan Sentra, driven by someone who could possibly meet Sergeant Suarez's description, Maryland license plate obscured by one of those reflective coverings that rendered photography useless and she'd been too far away to try anything but her zoom lens. Safir lost, she'd gone off to meet her contact and that was the last DiNozzo had heard from her.

DiNozzo had been back for more than two hours by the time David returned.

"Safir is clean," she said. "He has no relationship with any intelligence service nor is he suspected of any kind of espionage activity for or against the United States. He is still on the faculty of Tel Aviv University and is known by the Mossad to be engaging in highly classified work for your Defense Department, but it has been assumed to be purely medical research-oriented."

"Oops," DiNozzo murmured sarcastically.

"Military history?" Gibbs prompted.

"Infantry, Golani Brigade. He saw combat during his initial duty and during a call-up near the start of the Second Intifada, nothing since -- he hasn't lived in Israel full-time since 2001. However, he does have instructor certification in krav maga."

All of which was enough for Hollis to go along with the theory that he was Lorne's fifth man.

"Your colleagues aren't worried about him?" she asked.

"There will necessarily have to be some re-evaluation in light of events," David answered with a wry expression, then smiled. "But my contact... he said that the biggest threat Safir poses to Israel is that he occasionally votes Likud."

With the understanding that everyone would keep their cell phones handy and be ready to come in the moment one of the stakeout agents called in something of note, they went home. Hollis didn't look around for Gibbs and he didn't chase after her; they could use a little time out of each other's pocket. She wanted a commitment from him, but they weren't married. She made tentative plans to go to Belvoir the next day instead of NCIS, at least for the morning; her boss would like a briefing that wasn't delivered through email or a phone line.

She was most of the way through explaining to El Jefe how they were actually quite close to solid evidence instead of a mess of speculation that sounded nice but wasn't admissable (and was more likely a giant bowl of poison fruit) when there was a knock at the door and Valdez stuck his head in.

"Colonel?" He handed her a folded piece of paper from the message pad, grimaced apologetically at El Jefe, and closed the door behind him.

Knowing El Jefe would suffer the interruption if it was worth it, Hollis opened the paper.

"Special Agent Gibbs: marine dead, throat cut, knife at scene, Lorne's prints. Return ASAP."

She held up the paper. "I think we just got some hard evidence, sir."


Six

"Took you long enough."

She cocked an eyebrow at Gibbs as she set her bag down. "What've you got?" she asked instead.

"Staff Sergeant Jamail Baxter," DiNozzo began, official photo popping up on the plasma. "Drill Instructor, Parris Island. Ten days ago, he was on leave in his hometown of Jackson, Mississippi when this happened:"

The official photo was replaced by one from a crime scene, Baxter supine on the ground with a slash wound across his neck and bruising on the left side of his face. There was blood everywhere around and on the body.

"At the time, this was considered an unfortunate incident of the routine robbery-gone-wrong variety," DiNozzo went on. "His watch and wallet were taken and his credit card was used to pay for gas in Shreveport the day after his body was discovered."

"But," Hollis prompted, since she already knew the punchline to this show-and-tell.

"But Jackson being the little city with the big crime rate and the not-so-big forensics unit, they finally finished processing the knife found at the scene," DiNozzo went on, changing the picture to a photo of a bagged ka-bar knife, dried blood on the blade. "The blood was Staff Sergeant Baxter's, as expected, but the fingerprints turned out to belong to one Evan Lorne, officer in the United States Air Force. We're getting the knife sent to us, see if either Ducky or Abby can match it as the murder weapon in our cases."

It had sounded hinky before and it still sounded hinky now, especially having seen the photos of SSgt. Baxter, who looked like he could have swatted Lorne like a fly. The bruising on his face and knuckles indicated that he'd put up a fight, but unless that fight had been with one of Lorne's marines, leaving Lorne himself to make the kill, something was amiss or Lorne should be pretty beaten up and there would be DNA at the scene. Even that didn't add up -- all of the kills thus far had been clean and precise, with the exception of Sumesh Pal's murder, which had at least been part of the pattern if not as easy. This was neither in the scope of the previous murders -- not a civilian scientist -- nor was it as meticulously executed.

"What did Baxter do before terrorizing recruits?" she asked.

"His billets are all completely in line with his pre-DI MOS," McGee answered with a grimace. "Which was 0811 -- artillery cannoneer."

Hollis shook her head. "So either one of them's a dummy placement or someone's trying to frame Lorne by killing a random marine."

"Or both," David suggested.

"We're running checks on all of his prior assignments," McGee said. "See if everyone who's signed his fitreps has actually met him."

DiNozzo made a frustrated noise. "Even if one of them turns out to be bogus, what does that get us? Another link we can't prove exists? We already have three marines we can't get interviews with even after McGee IDed them as his bathroom buddies. What are the odds that General O'Neill is suddenly going to let us have a clue on this one?"

"O'Neill's not going to have a choice on this one," Gibbs retorted. "We've got Lorne's fingerprints on a weapon used to kill a marine. We take that and see what we can turn it into."

Getting a warrant for Lorne's arrest turned out to be fairly straightforward. Jackson's police were more than happy to hand over the case once they were told that their prime suspect was a Black Ops guy who'd never be allowed to stand trial in open court. ("We've got enough red ink on our board," Lieutenant Civico said. "Conviction rate'll be slightly better than shit without one more.") Getting Lorne was not going to be anything close to straightforward.

"He's what?" Hollis asked.

"UA. AWOL. The Air Force uses AWOL, right?" DiNozzo mused. "Anyway, Major Lorne is neither at work nor in possession of any token of official leave and the people charged with knowing where he is do not actually know where he is."

"But we know he's never actually been stationed at Altus," Hollis pointed out. "How would they know if he's accounted for or not?"

"Because the person on the other end of the line isn't in Oklahoma," McGee answered, pleased with himself. "They're in Colorado Springs."

Hollis stared at him, waiting for an explanation.

"The phone number is legit -- it's got the same extension as other base phone numbers and it has been previously assigned to other pilots in that training squadron," McGee continued quickly. "But just on a whim, I set up a trace when we called it earlier. The call is redirected to a phone in Colorado Springs. Cheyenne Mountain, actually."

She wasn't sure whether or not to laugh. "So they're in a position to know the truth, which is different from actually speaking it," she said instead. "Are they giving us that just so we don't head there to hunt him down?"

"No, we're giving you that because it's true. And because we'd rather do the hunting-down ourselves."

Hollis turned around to see Lt. Col. Mitchell standing behind the partition next to David's cubicle, visitor's tag clipped to his jacket.

"You must have brass ones showing up like this," she told him.

"Believe me, I'd rather not be here," Mitchell replied with a grimace. "None of this makes sense."

"What, you've never had someone sneak off the reservation before?" Gibbs asked, appearing from behind Mitchell, startling him a little.

"We've got room for improvement in that area," Mitchell admitted evenly. "But we'd rather not air this family squabble out in front of the cousins."

"You didn't come here thinking you could just smile and we'd drop a murder investigation --a multiple murder investigation -- just because you asked nicely, did you?" Hollis scoffed. She'd had enough experience with SOCOM types to know that that was exactly what most of them thought they could get away with. Rules and regulations were for other people.

"No," Mitchell agreed with a shrug, then gestured to the stairs. "But that's why I'm not here to ask you. Got an appointment with Director Shepard."

Mitchell nodded at her and Gibbs and then continued on his way.

"She's not really going to make us drop the case, is she, Boss?" McGee asked warily as they watched Mitchell climb the stairs. "We have a suspect and evidence and--"

"And none of it will matter if this was sanctioned by your government," David finished for him. She raised her eyebrows meaningfully when McGee made a noise of protest. "Lawful order or not, if Major Lorne was acting in the service of his country on someone's command, then that someone will make sure that this case is never solved."

Hollis knew it was more complicated than that, that there'd be fifteen ways of challenging any attempt to stuff this all under a rug, but most of those ways were not available to them without stronger evidence and a better connection between Lorne, his team, and the crimes than the ones they had now. Even with the knife, almost everything they had was circumstantial.

"We're not dropping anything," Gibbs said, since everyone was still looking to him for reassurance. "And O'Neill doesn't think he's getting anything. You don't send a light bird to ask these kinds of favors."

Hollis gave him a look, since making it to O-5 was not a nothing thing and Mitchell, for all of his easy affability, was not a nothing guy. Gibbs gave her a look right back because he wasn't wrong and they both knew it.

It wasn't ten minutes later when Gibbs's phone rang. "Director wants to see us," he told her, keeping most of the smugness out of his voice. He turned to his team. "Get me something."

Mitchell was sitting with his elbows on his knees when they entered.

"Colonel Mitchell was just telling me how unlikely it is that Major Lorne is really our suspect," Shepard said with a mildness that snapped Mitchell up to standing.

"Look," he sighed. "I know you've got the knife and I know it looks bad that he's AWOL, but Lorne is not your man for these murders."

"And we're supposed to take your word for it why?" Hollis scoffed.

"Because I've been leading the investigation from our end," Mitchell retorted. "I have a dozen suspects more likely than Lorne."

"Of course you do," Gibbs agreed. "Because your boss is running this op. You're not leading any investigation. You're the mop-up man."

"I'm not mopping up anything." Mitchell looked annoyed. "We don't kill our own, Special Agent Gibbs. We lose enough as it is. This isn't some cloak-and-dagger crap to get out of paying anyone's pension."

"Then explain to me why your boss is running Lorne's team through his girlfriend while you chase down 'suspects,'" Gibbs shot back.

Mitchell blinked, the expression on his face a testament either to his utter confusion or his consummate acting ability. "What are you talking about?"

"Samantha Carter normally has lunch in downtown DC with Jonathan Safir?" Gibbs pressed. "She stepping out on O'Neill or passing on messages?"

"Sam? And Safir?" Mitchell shook his head, not bothering to pretend that he didn't know who either of them were. "When?"

Gibbs looked over at Shepard, who gave him a small, secretive smile that was reflecting much more than just the current victory in their fight to keep the case active and in their own hands.

Hollis fought back irritation and turned to Mitchell. "Now you see why we're a little hesitant to just take you at your word that Lorne's got nothing to do with this."

Mitchell flashed her a dark look. "You wouldn't take me at my word if there were a stack of bibles here for me to swear on."

"Maybe if you gave us something useful that we could verify, you wouldn't have to," Gibbs said. "Read us in on the project."

"No can do," Mitchell said with a shrug. He wasn't smug about it, just full of the acceptance that this was how it had to be. "You're welcome to go over my head -- again -- about it, but the answer's not going to change."

"There must be something we can get without clearance," Hollis offered, mostly to kill the potential pissing match between Mitchell and Gibbs. Jethro knew Mitchell wasn't going to budge, but he wasn't above letting his frustration win out and push Mitchell just to have done something. Which would be counterproductive in the long run, even if Shepard would probably let him get away with it. "How about we go downstairs and we can compare notes, since we seem to be operating on parallel tracks here."

Accepting that he wasn't getting anywhere with Shepard, Mitchell followed her and Gibbs back down to the bullpen. McGee, DiNozzo, and David watched curiously as Hollis gestured for Mitchell to take the chair next to Gibbs's desk that was her own unofficial space in the team area.

"McGee, bring up the photos of Colonel Carter and Doctor Safir," Hollis ordered. McGee didn't look to Gibbs and just did it; Hollis had noticed that that was starting to happen more frequently, which, considering the thoroughness of Gibbs's conditioning, was no mean accomplishment.

The photos popped up on the plasma, McGee rotating through at a slow pace to best let Mitchell see and absorb. Hollis watched his reactions instead of the screen. Mitchell was looking for something, something they weren't seeing, but she didn't press. At least not on that.

"Okay, we showed you ours," she prompted. "You show us yours."

"When was this?" Mitchell asked instead.

"Last week," David answered from behind Hollis. "During Colonel Carter's visit to DARPA. She stayed with General O'Neill."

"Shit," Mitchell murmured to himself, then stood. "Okay, look. All of the reasons that you folks weren't read in on this in the first place still stand, so I can't tell you much of anything. But I can tell you this: this isn't what you think it is. Colonel Carter's not passing on orders and Major Lorne is not your killer. He's not..."

"Capable of it?" DiNozzo finished. "You can do better than that, Colonel."

"Oh, I'm sure he's capable of it if it were required," Mitchell replied easily. "But... If, in a hypothetical situation, if a hypothetical covert program needed to send out a direct action team to do this kind of job, hypothetically speaking, it wouldn't be led by someone like Major Lorne."

"His associates certainly seem to be up to the task," David said.

"That's not the point," Mitchell returned. "It's a waste of resources. They're capable of... much finer tasks."

Which was a more credible explanation than insisting that Lorne was too nice a guy for such dirty work and possibly a little something in return for showing him the pictures. Hollis wasn't quite ready to fall for the reluctant obstacle, 'gee, I'd love to help you if I could' routine from Mitchell, but she was sure that he was clearly upset at what had been going on behind his back and possibly upset enough to give them something. He at least wasn't denying that Safir, McGee's marines, and possible Gillick were working for Lorne.

"We're supposed to take all this as truth from someone who doesn't even know what his own boss is doing?" Gibbs asked, still sounding like he was spoiling for a fight. "O'Neill's got you pretty far out of the loop, seems like."

"He's not my boss," Mitchell answered. "Not directly. And he'd be no more likely to task Lorne with a murder spree than my immediate CO would be. Look, obviously stuff's going on that I was not aware of, but... if anything, seeing those pictures has made me even more sure that Lorne's not your man."

"Well at least one of us is," Hollis said.

Mitchell stood up and turned to Hollis. "I'm sorry I can't give you what you need. I really am. If only so that you'd stop wasting your time chasing after Lorne instead of going after the real killer."

He left them then and Hollis reclaimed her seat.

"Well, that was marginally useless," she said. "Not completely, but marginally."

"What 'marginally'?" Gibbs asked sourly.

"We kept the case," McGee offered, then paused. "We did keep the case, right?"

"Mitchell's going to find out what the hell Carter's up to," Hollis told Gibbs. "From there, we see what shakes loose."

Mitchell had referred to Carter by her first name -- by a nickname. He knew her personally; his reaction hadn't been so much surprise, Hollis knew, as betrayal.

"Or he finds out and gets better at hiding it all," DiNozzo chimed in.

A possibility, but Hollis was willing to bet against it. "I think he wants this to stop. If we never find out how, then I'm okay with that. But I don't think he'll be able to hide it if he fails."


Seven

"You're kidding me, right?"

Hollis looked up from the medical report she was reading to see what DiNozzo was complaining about.

"McGee, there's, like, fifty here," DiNozzo went on, eyes still on his computer screen. "I thought you were going to filter them first."

"I did," McGee replied sourly and Hollis realized what this was. "Ziva's got the ones with military connections."

After Staff Sergeant Baxter's murder, she and Gibbs had tasked McGee with pulling up a list of every knife-related homicide in the country, going back to a month before Li Feng's death. It wouldn't get them all possibilities -- Feng's death wasn't even classified as a suspicious death -- but it might get them some other possibilities that they'd not have found otherwise because they hadn't happened on military bases or to active duty personnel. Obviously Lorne hadn't been implicated in any other crime, but if they could establish any kind of connection, then it would get them further than they were now. Which was really nowhere.

DiNozzo groused some more, but went about further narrowing down the list. It was busy-work in a way, but it was also the sort of boring gruntwork that came with the job and DiNozzo, for all of his tendencies to bitch about work when Gibbs wasn't around, understood that.

Gibbs wasn't around because he was off meeting with his contacts about O'Neill's program and other points of interest that Mitchell hadn't been willing to share. Hollis had wanted to go with him -- this was still a joint operation no matter how much it had been taken over by NCIS and she was still co-lead investigator -- but he'd first told her not to and then, when that had failed miserably, he asked her not to.

"You have your sources, I have mine," he'd said after she'd come very close to tearing him a new one for flat-out refusing to let her accompany him. "Mine tend to be ornery and pissed off and won't like the impression that I'm pimping them out to CID. It's not like I'm not going to tell you what they say, Hol. Just... trust me that I'll get more out of them if you're not there. There's no reason for both of us to go into debt for this."

She'd let him go alone because he'd asked, not because she'd been swayed by his arguments.

"How are you coming along on verifying Baxter's old postings?" she asked McGee. That had been the justification for him foisting off the trawling of victims on DiNozzo and David.

"He's on the up-and-up through July 2004," McGee answered, looking up but still typing away. "I'm having trouble tracking down anyone from after his second tour in Iraq -- his CO left the service. I'm trying to find him now, but there's no address on file and the guy's last name is Kim."

Hollis tipped her head in acknowledgment of that difficulty. "Keep trying."

David returned before Gibbs; she'd been meeting with someone from Mossad, but Hollis didn't think it was necessarily related to either the case or Safir; Hollis thought she was the only one who'd blinked at the idea of a colleague casually going off during work hours to meet with a member of a foreign intelligence service; Gibbs had merely told David not to be all afternoon. Now that she was back, however, David, was as unimpressed as DiNozzo to see the amount of phone calls and crime-scene photos in her immediate future, but she started her work with only a deep sigh.

"I do not like making phone calls," she said to no one in particular after an hour's frustration on the phone that floated in and out of Hollis's awareness. "Nobody believes I am who I say I am. Is there some rule that you must be native-born to be law-enforcement in this country?"

"At least you just have trouble because of your accent," McGee told her. "Tony's first language is English. He's got no excuse."

Hollis didn't look up to see what kind of gesture DiNozzo, who was on the phone, made in response, but she heard the movement. She was on the second-to-last page of Ducky's wound pattern analysis, which was a lot of eloquent prose all saying that the knife that had killed Baxter was certainly the same make and model as the one that had killed Pal, Kennedy, and Litorsky but that there was no way to guarantee that it was actually the same one. Which put it in the same category as every other bit of evidence they'd collected - circumstantial. They still had nothing to tie Lorne to anything but the death of Jamail Baxter and even that was suspicious.

Gibbs returned around 1630, damp from the heavy rain and cranky for other reasons.

"Well?" Hollis prompted after he'd gotten settled at his desk. The others did their best to pretend they weren't eager for the answer.

"O'Neill is running the first SAP staffed by people who can keep a secret," Gibbs answered with a frown. "A lot of people want to know what the hell he's doing."

Gibbs's contacts hadn't been able to get much. O'Neill's program had existed for a decade at least but was definitely post-Cold War, was extremely well-funded, and there was no consensus about what it actually did and who was involved. "'Technology intelligence acquisition,'" Gibbs said sourly. "They're a little well-armed for a bunch of nerds."

McGee, on to his second page of James Kims, did not react.


It was two days later and Hollis was in her service uniform outside of a courtroom turning her phone back on to check the voicemails that had accrued.

"Road trip to Madison," Gibbs said in the fourth one. "Be ready at six."

Hollis looked at her watch. This was a ponderous panel and she wasn't sure they'd be done by six, let alone that she'd be in any position to be packed and ready. Forget actually knowing why she was headed to Wisconsin and whether she really needed to be or if this was just another case of Gibbs's inability to delegate. She suspected the latter -- he would've sounded a little more excited if they had a bead on Lorne -- in which case she could blow him off and remind him that she had other obligations. Instead, she went and found the JAG lawyer and asked what the odds were that she'd actually get called as a witness today, the last day before a three-day recess. Twenty minutes later, she was headed back to the office.

"Why are we going to Wisconsin?" she asked when Gibbs picked up his phone.

"We got the right James Kim," Gibbs answered. "And he's not an artillery officer."

The flight left from Reagan National after eight and got in to Madison after ten, after which they went straight to the hotel with instructions to meet in the lobby at 0700 the following morning. NCIS had sprung for two rooms only, so Hollis forestalled a lot of hemming and hawing among the junior members of the team by announcing that they'd split up along gender lines.

"One of those had better be for me," Hollis told Gibbs when she saw him in the lobby at 0650 holding two coffee cups. He cocked an eyebrow, but handed one over without a word. It had cream (not milk) in it, which was how she took it.

McGee had his phone out and was programming a route to Lt.Col. (ret) James Kim's home by the time David and DiNozzo arrived, each with their own coffee. "It should take about twenty minutes with no traffic," he said.

A half-hour later, they were stuck firmly in traffic and they all had to hope that Kim hadn't already left for work.

"Did you speak to him?" Hollis asked McGee as Gibbs stressed and flexed his fingers on the steering wheel. Jethro in traffic was exactly as she'd have imagined if she'd bothered to imagine him stuck in traffic. Everyone in the car was on their best behavior.

"I left a message," McGee answered with a frown. "Boss, if you want to get off at the next exit, we can take local roads from here."

Gibbs's skepticism of either GPS or McGee's navigating (or both) showed on his face, but he said nothing. He did start working his way into the right lane, though.

Ten minutes later, they were turning on to the right street when they saw something that made them worry a lot more than the fact that Kim might've already left for work.

"I hope those police cars are not here for the same reason we are," David said, leaning forward to look past Gibbs's right shoulder.

"Crap," Gibbs sighed, since their luck hadn't been that good.

MPD seemed surprised to see NCIS (Hollis hadn't bothered to throw in the 'and CID,' choosing to let her uniform speak for itself) pulling up to their murder scene.

"He was a marine," Gibbs told Detective Feasby.

Feasby didn't even blink. "So was I. That doesn't answer my question."

"A marine was killed a few weeks ago," Hollis said. "We believe he was killed because of something he saw or did while under Kim's command."

It wasn't precisely true, of course, but it was their working theory, the reason they'd gotten permission to chase him down, and Feasby didn't need to know differently. At least not yet.

"We came out here hoping Colonel Kim could shed a little light on the situation," she went on, pretending she didn't see Gibbs's smug look. Like he thought that he was really actually responsible for her fast talking. She'd been a professional-grade bullshitter for a lot longer than she'd known him. "This wasn't what we had in mind."

"You think this is all connected?" Feasby asked with a frown. He was looking at her chest, but with the sort of distraction that meant he was looking at the junk on the front and not what was underneath. "Colonel Mann... The Army's in on this, too?"

"It's a big case," she answered. "Do you think it's possible for us to take a look around?"

Feasby didn't seem overjoyed, but he also had the resigned look of someone who understood just how much this was out of his hands. He gestured for them to pass.

The house was small and neat, orderly in a way that Hollis expected every retired career marine's home was. She wasn't the only one to make that assumption.

"It's like Gibbs's house," DiNozzo whispered to McGee as they moved through the front of the house; Kim had been killed in the kitchen. "Except there are more ducks."

Kim had apparently been a duck hunter and the living room was tastefully and sparely decorated with duck-themed items.

One look at the body and any doubts that might have lingered that this was just an unfortunate coincidence vanished. Single slash across the throat.

"Whoever it was grabbed him from behind," Feasby told them as they squeezed carefully into the already-crowded kitchen. "Signs of struggle -- the chairs and table are askew and we got fibers underneath his fingernails -- but no defensive wounds. We've processed the place for prints, but..."

"What kind of fibers?" Gibbs asked.

"Some synthetic," Feasby replied. "Blue. My guess, it'll turn out to be from the sleeve of whatever coat his assailant was wearing."

He turned, saw an oblivious McGee standing right next to him taking pictures with his phone, and grabbed him in a quick restraining hold. McGee scratched at Feasby's arm before Feasby pretended to slice his throat.

"It's a pretty basic move," Feasby went on, releasing McGee, who stepped back with a disgruntled expression and ignored DiNozzo's laughter at his expense. "They teach it to marines in Boot."

"I know," Gibbs said wryly. Feasby's expression changed and Hollis kept back the sigh as the two former leathernecks had a moment of recognition and silent bonding. Normally the whole cultish thing was annoying -- it happened with the Army, no doubt, but not to the extent that every marine assumed that there was at most one degree of separation between him and every other marine -- but here it might work to their favor.

"Basic move or not, they did not teach Colonel Kim how to defend against it," David said from where she was standing, which was on top of a newspaper on top of a chair so that she could take photos of the entire kitchen.

"They did," Gibbs told her. "Wouldn't have made a difference. Get to the jugular fast enough and it's all over."

David gave a tiny shrug of agreement, then went back to her picture-taking.

"One of Lorne's marines?" DiNozzo wondered aloud. "I don't think Lorne's big enough to do this himself."

Kim looked to have been a little taller than average height and of regular build. Lorne might've been able to do it, but it probably would have been far messier than this.

"Who called it in?" Hollis asked.

"MGE service guy," Feasby answered, gesturing to the closed kitchen door, which had a window in it. "The automated reader was blinkered and Kim had called in for a repair for this morning. Guy showed up at 6:30 and rang the doorbell, got no anwer so he came around the back and peeked through the window."

The time of death was estimated to be 9:30 last night; Kim had already been dead before they'd landed.

"Anyone else live here?" DiNozzo asked. "From the ducks, I'm guessing 'no.'"

"Divorced, ex-wife and kids over in Sun Prairie," Feasby replied with a frown. "We sent a car over to do notification."

The body was removed as soon as everyone had taken their pictures; there was a little bit of pressure to get the worst of the gore cleaned up before Kim's family arrived.

Feasby was accommodating as far as letting them participate in all facets of the investigation, including letting them ask questions of Lorraine Kim, the ex-wife.

"Five bucks says that you end up taking this case from me," he'd said when Hollis had thanked him for his cooperation. "Might as well make sure you have everything you need to get the guy."

Mrs. Kim, distraught in a way that ex-wives usually were not, told them that she and her late husband had been divorced for ten years, that the strain of a military marriage had gotten to be too much, and she'd returned to her hometown to raise their three children. It had been a relatively amicable divorce and they'd managed to stay friendly for the sake of their children. Colonel Kim had filed his retirement papers on his twentieth anniversary in the Corps and taken a job at the university to be closer to the kids.

"Where was your ex-husband stationed in 2004?" Hollis asked her after they got the basic questions out of the way.

"In 2004?" Mrs. Kim repeated, closing her eyes as she tried to remember. "Jimmy was in Colorado Springs already, I think. Yes. He moved back from Honduras in 2002 and the kids spent the summer with him in San Diego in 2003 and then it was three years in Colorado Springs before he moved back here."

At the mention of Colorado Springs, Hollis exchanged a look with Gibbs.

"Colorado's a little inland for a marine," Gibbs prompted. "Do you know what he was doing there?"

Wiping away fresh tears, Mrs. Kim shook her head. "He was an intelligence officer," she said ruefully. "I got plenty of iterations of 'I can't tell you' even before we got divorced. It was probably one of the reasons we did get divorced. It's hard to share your life with someone who can't reciprocate."

After the interview, Hollis asked David and DiNozzo to look through the place to find any photos or souvenirs of Kim's time in the service. There was no I Love Me wall per se, just a couple of framed photographs and his officer's sword on a plaque on a wall in his office, and she knew there had to be a cache somewhere. Gibbs had one, too, although she'd never seen it.

By late afternoon, Gibbs was on the phone back to Shepard explaining what had gone on and wrangling out how much longer they could stay. By the evening, Feasby was already hearing murmurs from his boss that the case was going to be plucked out of their hands. Unlike the police in Jackson, he was not relieved. Resigned, maybe, but not happy about it at all.

Hollis wondered if Feasby realized what kind of respect Gibbs was paying him by not actually taking over the investigation and bringing in his own lab people. A couple of things were FedExed back to Abby, but the rest was left in the hands of Madison's finest, entirely because Feasby obviously trusted them.

David found a small box in a locked file cabinet in Kim's office. In it were unmarked photographs of unnamed people. But that didn't mean that they didn't know who any of them were.

"I believe we have found our connection," David announced, holding up a photo. In it was Kim, Jamail Baxter, and two other marines sitting around eating MREs in a forest clearing that looked like it could have been anywhere.

"We already knew that Kim and Baxter knew each other," Gibbs pointed out sourly.

"Yes, but we did not know that they knew Samantha Carter," David agreed, holding up the next photo. In it, Carter, dressed in utes and holding a canteen, was sitting on a log between Kim and a bespectacled man.

Hollis chuckled mirthlessly. "This world keeps getting smaller and smaller."

The photos, about a dozen in all, were completely devoid of any context. There was no way to figure out when or where they had been taken; Carter had shorter hair, but past that, nothing. The trees behind them were garden variety oaks and nobody was wearing their blouses so there were no patches or even nametapes visible. Baxter was in most of them and the ones that Kim wasn't in Hollis assumed he was the one taking; the other two marines were in most of them as well, with the odd extra character. All of the photos were scanned to send back to Abby to get names to put on the faces.

"What are these?" DiNozzo asked as he finished scanning. "R&R for O'Neill's group of tech spies?"

It was as good a guess as any. Probably a better one than most.

It was already after nine when they quit the house. Hollis asked Feasby for a recommendation for a place to eat and he gave them directions to an Indian place nearby from which it would be easy to find the highway that would take them back to their hotel.

Dinner was definitely of working-meal variety; the restaurant was mostly empty, but they still kept their voices down as they discussed what the implications were of Baxter and Kim both being part of O'Neill's unit.

"Baxter and Kim were both in Colorado at the same time as Feng, Kennedy, Litorsky, and Pal," McGee said. "It's fair to assume that Kim led a team the way Lorne does--"

"--and Colonel Mitchell most likely does," David added, tearing off a piece from the giant nan.

McGee tilted his head in acknowledgment. "Is it also fair to assume that Kim's team saw or participated in something the scientists were doing and that's why they're getting bumped off?"

"We don't have a strong connection between the scientists," Hollis pointed out, entirely to play devil's advocate since she was willing to bet that this was exactly what was happening. "Proximity, that's it. And for civilians working for the military in Colorado Springs, that's not going to count."

"We have a link between Lorne and Litorsky," DiNozzo offered. "Even if it's not exactly the one Lorne told us it was."

"It was," Gibbs said, sipping at his tea. "He might've been lying about how well he knew him, but not about why."

"We can't prove either of them knew the others," McGee said. "We can say that it was likely, that the similarities in how they were killed makes it probable that it was the same killer and therefore the same reason, but..."

"I thought you were supposed to be advocating the conspiracy," David said. "And letting Colonel Mann tell you why you were wrong."

"I don't think he's wrong," Hollis said before McGee could defend himself. "But I don't think we can prove he's right yet, either."

"Maybe I'm just not as into the whole black ops thing as everyone else," DiNozzo sighed, leaning back as the waiter arrived with their entrees. "But I don't like the idea that we're just slaughtering our own because we don't like what they saw. The Pentagon paraded around with a 'Kick Me' sign for Abu Ghraib and is content to let the rest of the world assume they're restaging the Spanish Inquisition in various Third World countries. What's the point of taking some pretty extreme measures against a black op becoming public, even if it's really nasty?"

"Especially if it is a program as well-hidden as General O'Neill's," David added, pointing so that the waiter knew the paneer makhani was hers.

"Six murders so far's pretty extreme," DiNozzo went on. "Even most conspiracy movies stop after two or three. Except The Parallax View -- that had a pretty impressive body count. I hope this ends better than that does, though."

They focused on eating then, Hollis enjoying a very nice fish bhuna, but then Gibbs's cell phone rang.

"What is it, Abbs," Gibbs answered, then listened to her answer before holding the phone away from his mouth. "McGee, where's your phone?"

"In my pocket?" McGee answered, confused. He reached down, but then his eyebrows shot up. "Or not. Crap. I must've left it at the house."

Abby had sent McGee some photos but hadn't heard back from him, nor had he answered when she called. She knew better than to send the pictures to Gibbs's phone, Jethro having a very fragile detente with modern technology. As it was Gibbs handed off his phone to McGee to complete the conversation with Abby.

"Abby's got IDs on some of the people in Colonel Kim's photos," McGee explained as he handed the phone back to Gibbs. "All of the other marines and two of the civilians. Can we go back to the house to get the phone? It can wait for the morning, I suppose, but..."

Gibbs made an annoyed face that everyone took as acquiescence. They finished up, paid, and piled back into the SUV to return to the crime scene.

The house was cordoned off with police tape, but there was nobody posted.

"How are we--" McGee cut himself off as David brandished a lockpick. "Nevermind. Someone want to call my phone once we're inside?"

DiNozzo sighed and pulled out his own phone, waggling it in front of him.

McGee and David exited the car, parked across the street, and headed for the house. A sharp, low whistle from Gibbs stopped them in their tracks, though.

Leaning forward, Hollis saw Gibbs indicate through hand gestures that he'd seen something in one of the second-story windows. Everyone else picked out their flashlights and quietly got out of the car, unholstered their weapons, and joined McGee and David.

"Covered flashlight," Gibbs explained. "Window on the right."

"The office," David whispered back. "Someone is here to finish looking for what they did not find."

"DiNozzo, Ziva, you two get the exits," Gibbs ordered. "Watch out in case they're not using a door.'"

When they approached the front door, they could see that the tape had not been tampered with. David made quick work of doing so, peeling back the strip over the door edge with practiced ease as DiNozzo disappeared around the side of the house. David had them inside in seconds, where they paused to listen for movement. They heard nothing, so Hollis followed Gibbs up the stairs and McGee followed her.

The upstairs was three rooms and a bathroom with the office being the second door on the right. They moved slowly, not wanting to give away their position, and Hollis hoped for no creaky stairs. As they got close to the landing, they could hear the shuffling of papers and the quiet movements of someone who knew what they were doing by searching a dark room with only a red-lensed flashlight. There seemed to be only one person, which was a relief in that Hollis really didn't like the odds of the three of them against Lorne's full team.

Gibbs gestured for her and McGee to bracket the door and they did, guns drawn. Gibbs came up and past them, reaching in to the room to where he knew the light switch to be.

"Freeze," he ordered, flicking on the overhead light.

"Fuck," Lorne cursed quietly, pushing his NVGs up and blinking quickly. "Hello, Special Agent Gibbs."


Eight

"A mole hunt."

General O'Neill shrugged. "You want to tell me you've never had to investigate one of your own, go ahead."

By the time they'd brought a compliant Lorne back to the Navy Yard, there had been a welcoming committee. Defiant, Gibbs had brought Lorne directly down to Processing instead of up to Shepard's office and told the agents in charge that Lorne was not to be left alone and to be considered a risk for violence. Lorne, small and mild-mannered, had merely cocked an eyebrow at the threat of a strip-search.

"We don't normally have our agents charged with internal investigations go AWOL and then turn up as prime suspects in half a dozen related murders," Shepard replied archly.

"Our rogue agent's trying to throw you off the scent," O'Neill said, as unaffected by Shepard's icy demeanor as he'd been by Gibbs's more openly belligerent tone. "He's doing a damned fine job of it. Not to mention completely making a hash of our end."

O'Neill's story was plausible but unprovable without more details or more evidence -- which, to be fair, was the same state they were in. He told them that he'd been made aware of a sleeper agent within his unit's ranks, one with a specific but unknown task, and that he'd had to carefully respond with countermeasures that wouldn't tip off whoever it was. With no idea how far up the ranks the mole was or what kind of access they had, he'd been powerless to act until the bodies started falling and then, once they did, he'd been limited in his responses.

"Why Lorne?" Hollis asked. "Wouldn't that tip off your network?"

"He was the one who got the initial intel," O'Neill replied. "And he's... well-suited to the task."

Hollis thought back to Mitchell's vague hints that Lorne was doing much higher-level work than simple assassinations. Which, when you got down to it, were not simple at all. But Lorne was preternaturally laid-back and she could imagine him being seen as unlikely a hunter as he was a killer.

"It cross your mind that he was the mole?" Gibbs drawled.

O'Neill held up his hands, which were scarred. "I didn't get these falling off the turnip truck, Special Agent Gibbs," he retorted. "Of course I checked. I will admit that I really don't like how he acquired his intelligence, but it was solid and so's he."

There was more backing-and-forthing, but with O'Neill unwilling to go into any kind of details and Gibbs refusing to let O'Neill talk to Lorne unless he wanted to appoint himself Lorne's legal counsel, they were at an impasse. O'Neill was waiting for more of his people to show up -- presumably to put together some kind of briefing that he thought would appease them -- and they agreed to disagree until later that afternoon.

"Do you know what you're doing?" Shepard asked Gibbs once O'Neill left. He started to bridle and she held up her hands to forestall it. "This is very high-stakes poker, Jethro. If you have the cards, I'll let you play them. But if you've got crap, let me know that you're bluffing."

Hollis knew that Gibbs understood that their cards were closer to crap than a full house. A pair of fours, maybe, a small victory but no way to win the big pot.

"Let me go talk to him," Gibbs answered. "Then I'll let you know."

They went back down to the bullpen, where DiNozzo, David, and McGee were waiting with thinly veiled impatience. All they'd had to do while she and Gibbs were in with Shepard and O'Neill was put out the BOLOs on Ortilla, Suarez, Reletti, and Safir, none of which were expected to bear fruit, and do the research on the names Abby had put to the faces in Kim's photos.

They hadn't had time or space to carry on an open discussion, but Hollis was sure that Gibbs was thinking as she was -- that this was another diversion, that Lorne was placing himself in the same position he'd put Gillick in. The question therefore became what the other four were up to and whether there was any chance they could be stopped. Or whether they should be -- Hollis expected nothing less than a full defense of Lorne from O'Neill, one that was heavy on exculpation and light on actual facts, but that didn't mean that O'Neill was wrong. A frame-up had looked like a possibility even before a motive for such had been introduced.

Of course, O'Neill hadn't been running a virtually leakproof covert unit by coming up with crappy cover stories for unsavory actions. Shifting blame from the guy in charge of the murder squad to a mythical mole, to be 'caught' or killed before anyone from the outside could verify the story, was extremely convenient. And just because Mitchell and O'Neill insisted that Lorne and his team could be put to better use didn't mean that they were. Sometimes even the number three hitter has to bunt.

"General O'Neill didn't look too happy on the way out," DiNozzo ventured.

"He's got a lot of problems right now," Gibbs answered without any smugness. He turned to McGee. "Get Lorne brought up to Interrogation."

Hollis didn't miss the way everyone's interest perked up, like Lorne versus Gibbs was the feature movie and they'd had enough with watching the previews. Normally Hollis would've been right there on the popcorn line, but while the others seemed to think that this would be another Gibbs virtuoso solo, she suspected this would end up being a well-matched duet and less satisfying for it. Lorne hadn't sent an amateur when he'd thrown Gillick to them to buy himself time and this was a much more important performance.

Lorne had been changed into military costume and was sitting quietly with his hands on the table when they entered the viewing room. If Gillick had had the look of someone who knew that he'd been trained to handle these sorts of situations and that he just had to trust that training, then Lorne had the look of someone who'd internalized those lessons well enough to teach them to others. Maybe he did. There was a profound calmness to him, a relaxation that completely belied the fact that he was sitting on the suspect's side of the table. It did not harbinger good things for the actual questioning.

If there were tacit or explicit orders for these murders, then they were a symptom and not the disease. Treating them instead of the underlying cause would not necessarily solve the problem. And Hollis -- and Gibbs, she suspected -- thought that Lorne was pushing them in the direction of doing just that. By protesting his innocence, he had been challenging them to look beyond him, but he was also steering them directly into the brick wall that was O'Neill's covert unit and its thus-far impenetrable veil of secrecy. It was damned if they did, damned if they didn't. If they persisted in viewing Lorne as their only suspect and focused on building a case against him for as much of this as possible, then they averted their eyes from whatever O'Neill's master plan was and would be distracted long enough for it to be completed. If they tried to dig up what was really going on, then Lorne would be the first obstacle in a world-class stonewall. And he seemed very confident of his ability to not crack.

"He looks like he's made his peace with falling on the grenade," she said to Gibbs as they were in the hallway between the viewing and interrogation rooms.

"I know," Gibbs agreed, not sounding at all happy about it.

Lorne stayed where he was when he saw Gibbs, but stood up when he saw Hollis. It was a message, like everything else that would go on in this room would be. Lorne was showing respect for her rank, not this investigation. The dutiful soldier and the uncooperative suspect all at once.

"Want to tell us what you were doing in Colonel Kim's house?" Gibbs began, throwing the folder down on the table and taking the far seat. Hollis sat in the one closer to the door.

"Same thing you were," Lorne answered. "Looking for evidence."

"From our end, it looks like you were either covering your tracks or finishing the job," Hollis said. She was a little relieved that Lorne wasn't pretending that he was just a pilot caught up in matters beyond his ken, but that, too, was intentional and not a gift.

A shrug from Lorne. "I'm sure it does, ma'am."

"Did you find any evidence?" Gibbs asked. He was confrontational, but not belligerent. Belligerence played directly into Lorne's game.

"Not before you showed up, no."

"What kind of evidence were you hoping to find?" Hollis wasn't going to play good cop to Gibbs's bad cop, not after they'd all sat around a coffee table in Maryland being civil and affable as Lorne lied to their faces.

"I'd have settled for anything, ma'am," Lorne replied. "Body count's getting a little unsettling."

A bitter chuckle from Gibbs. "Says the man standing to face charges for ratcheting it up."

"I didn't kill them."

"That's what they all say, Major," Hollis said. "We're usually safer believing the evidence instead of your word."

An accepting nod from Lorne.

"How did your prints get all over the knife that killed Staff Sergeant Baxter?" Gibbs pulled out a photo from the crime scene and spun it around for Lorne to see. Daring him to look at it. Lorne did and shook his head ruefully. Gibbs next pulled out the photo of the knife and Lorne looked at that one, too.

"I don't know," Lorne said, pushing the photo of the knife back toward Gibbs. He left the one of Baxter where it was, possibly anticipating that Gibbs would shove it right back in his face if he tried to push it away. "As far as I know, mine has never been out of my possession. I've gotten depressingly good at the forms for equipment replacement, but I haven't filled any out in the time frame under consideration."

They'd found a knife on Lorne in Kim's house, along with an M9 and a spare clip. The knife was the same model as the one (ones) that had killed their victims. Abby was still trying to find anything about it that would link Lorne more firmly to the murders.

"You expect that to be exculpatory, Major?" Hollis asked wryly. O'Neill wasn't going to let them look at the requisitioning paperwork and, even if he did, it would be the easiest thing to fake.

An amused smile from Lorne. "I don't expect anything I say to be exculpatory, ma'am."

"You think we're railroading you?" Gibbs gave him a skeptical look.

"Someone is," Lorne answered. "And you don't seem very interested in that part."

"Maybe because we don't have any evidence that suggests another suspect and instead we have you, an experienced covert operative with the resources to commit these acts and a man everyone agrees is capable of killing."

"Everyone's capable of killing, ma'am," Lorne said evenly. "That's not the same thing as committing murder."

"You've lied to us from the start, Major," Gibbs said. "Why should we start believing you now?"

"If I was responsible for this murder spree," Lorne replied, "then why did I suddenly get stupid? You don't have anything from the civilian murders, but suddenly you have a knife with my prints on it as the weapon that killed Baxter. And then I suddenly regain my senses again when it comes to Kim? The right question should be why you don't think that's odd. Or maybe why don't you care?"

"I don't care because it doesn't matter," Gibbs said. "If you didn't do this, then either you know who did or you've got a decent idea. Which makes the right question whether you're letting someone get away with murder to protect your unit or whether you're letting someone get away with murder because those are your orders. Accessory to murder's still a crime."

"If I knew who did it, I wouldn't have been poking around Jimmy Kim's office looking for clues," Lorne said, the first trace of annoyance in his voice. "If I am what you think I am, why would I care about due process and case-building? This won't be something that goes to court-martial."

Gibbs cocked an eyebrow. "Are you sure about that?"

The goal of this investigation was to find out what the hell was going on and if a military program was committing (sanctioned or unsanctioned) murders on US soil. Failing that, though, they had enough to ring Lorne up for Baxter's murder and could probably go for Kim's as well. The break-in at Kim's was a slam-dunk and that might give an ambitious prosecutor enough to bring in the Meade footage. Anything at all on Litorsky, Pal, or Kennedy would look all the more juicy in this context.

"I'm sure," Lorne replied.

"You think O'Neill will throw you enough rope to get yourself out of trouble?" Hollis asked. "Or to hang yourself?"

O'Neill's mole-hunt story could go either way. It could lay the groundwork for a slippery escape -- O'Neill had already waved off the AWOL charge as a necessary ruse -- or he could be setting Lorne up to go down alone, leaving the rest of the organization intact and unaffected.

"You play chess, Colonel?" Lorne asked with a complicated smile. "There's only one piece that has to be standing in the end. Everyone else is expendable."

And there it was. Whether he was pushed or if he had to jump, Lorne was prepared to take the fall. He was all but promising them that the case would end with him.

"You're very calm for someone up against these kinds of charges. I'd be a little more nervous if I was looking at life in a small cage."

"All due respect, ma'am, but I've seen worse than what Leavenworth has to offer," Lorne said.

"Is that a challenge?"

Lorne looked at Gibbs. "I'd rather it not be, but if you want to make it one, go ahead. I've apparently got nothing else on my calendar today."

Gibbs looked like he might want to answer that in the affirmative, but then the door opened and McGee stuck his head in. "Boss?"

Gibbs gave Hollis a look before standing up and following McGee outside.

"Where is your team?" Hollis asked once the door was closed again.

"In the field, ma'am," Lorne replied.

"Are they tasked with committing another murder or preventing one?"

Lorne smiled at her.

The door opened again and Gibbs entered along with two MPs; Lorne was apparently going back down to the brig.

"Lorne's knife's not the one that killed Kim," Gibbs told her after Lorne had been escorted away. DiNozzo and David appeared in the doorway; McGee was probably behind them.

"Which means he either ditched the weapon or he's not the killer," Hollis replied, pushing back in her chair. "I think it's the latter."

"I do, too, but that's not going to get us anywhere," Gibbs agreed. "He's daring us to charge him. God damned true believers."

With that, he pushed up off of the wall and left the room, leaving the rest of them to chase after him.

Back in the bullpen, sensing their boss's mood, the 'kids' started up with the presentations of what they'd learned.

"The marines in the pictures are Gunnery Sergeant Martin Kamber," McGee began, typing. An official photo popped up on the plasma, "and Major Jacob Benoit. Benoit should be in Qatar and Kamber is assigned to the Mountain Warfare Training Center at Bridgeport, but their official contact phone numbers go to Colorado Springs, so we can assume that they are still part of O'Neill's unit.

"The civilians are a Doctor Daniel Jackson and a Doctor Anne Simpson; Jackson's an archaeologist -- he's kind of infamous for some crackpot theories involving aliens -- and Simpson is an electrical engineer. Jackson's been on the Air Force payroll for more than a decade as a consultant; he's a skilled linguist and that's pretty much kept him fed after the alien theories didn't pan out. Simpson's your typical EE overachiever and currently works in the private sector in Silicon Valley."

"Jackson's with O'Neill," Hollis said, operating on nothing but her gut. "Is Simpson?"

"He's got an epidemiologist on staff, why not an engineer?" DiNozzo asked sourly.

"We can ask him later," Gibbs said, holding up a message slip. "He's due back at 1700."

Hollis resigned herself to another late night and another round of takeout. Her wallet and her waist were going to hate her by the time this case was finished.

O'Neill led his parade past the bullpen at 1645. With him were Mitchell and Sam Carter along with two new faces, one a very pissed-off general and the other the kind of O-5 only the Air Force could produce. Hollis looked over at Gibbs, who had on pretty much the exact expression she'd have imagined he'd have, and got ready to be summoned upstairs by Shepard.

Gibbs's phone rang five minutes later.

"More brass than a foundry," he groused quietly as they went upstairs. "And none of them are going to do anything but fling shit around."

"Careful, Gunny," she warned playfully, tapping at her own rank insignia. "Us brass tend to stick together."

She had a hard time keeping a straight face at the glare she got back.

The visitors were already seated when they arrived; Shepard introduced everyone as she joined them at the conference table. The seething general was Landry and the new light bird was Sheppard, which meant required tight smiles at the required joke. Landry was Mitchell's and Carter's CO, it was explained, and Sheppard was Lorne's.

"You the one who sent him off on this adventure?" Gibbs asked Sheppard.

"No, I'm the first one he lied to about it," Sheppard replied, unfazed by Gibbs's tone.

O'Neill gave a short spiel elaborating on his earlier story. Lorne came to him with credible intelligence of a sleeper agent within their organization, but not enough to be able to identify whoever it was or what their goal was beyond general disruption. O'Neill made the choice to exclude Landry, whom Hollis understood to be the operational commander, to keep the mole ignorant. On O'Neill's orders, Lorne assembled his team outside of the organization's view and began an investigation.

"How'd he do that?" Hollis asked. She understood the flexibility that went along with working in a covert unit, but entire teams dropping off the radar at once should have raised flags.

"In plain sight," Sheppard said wryly. "All of them were owed leave. Lorne took a few days for a wedding and it seemed perfectly natural for the others to coordinate. Nobody suspected a thing until they didn't come back."

Within the organization, the connection between the murders was taken for granted, but without knowledge of a mole, it was assumed to be an outside element with an unknown agenda. Mitchell led the official investigation.

"I was the patsy," Mitchell added with a good-natured grin that did not quite cover up the bitterness.

"No, that would be me," Landry corrected, not even bothering with the good natured grin. Instead, he glared at O'Neill.

"And what did that make you?" Gibbs asked Carter. "The double agent?"

"I was the one trying to use two separate data streams to figure out why all of this was happening," Carter replied tartly.

"Did you?" Hollis asked. This was the only part she was curious about, since this was where the real secrecy began, where all of their hypothesizing necessarily had to end because they just didn't know what was going on on the other side of O'Neill's curtain.

"The strategic part yes," Carter replied, making a rueful face. "We were initially making the same mistake that you probably still are -- assuming that this was an attempt to hide something that had happened."

"It's not?" Hollis ignored the swipe.

"It's to keep something from happening," Carter went on. "And what that something is, we don't know yet. The murdered men were never working on the same project together, so whatever it is, it's not straightforward."

"So this isn't over?" Shepard asked.

"It is if Lorne's been the one making sure you don't connect your dots," Gibbs said.

O'Neill made an annoyed noise. "He's not your killer, Gibbs. Even if we doubted his intel -- which we don't -- we can account for his whereabouts for the first murders."

According to O'Neill, the first murder was not the suspicious death of Li Feng, but instead the three murders of foreign nationals who'd worked with the program in the past. It was those deaths that had prompted Lorne's contact to reach out.

"He could have had help," Gibbs said evenly. Hollis couldn't tell if he was egging O'Neill on out of genuine belief or out of his deep distrust of black ops that he wasn't a part of. She suspected the latter. "He seems to have a very large network of convenient assistants."

O'Neill rolled his eyes. "He could also be the Easter Bunny when we're not looking, but he's not."

Sheppard seemed to find this amusing for more reasons than the obvious.

"Don't confuse our unwillingness to be transparent with our inability," Landry said calmly. He was pissed at O'Neill, Hollis understood, not at them per se, although Gibbs's challenging was going to tip the balance if he didn't back down. "We'd rather not be traipsing in here like a Mardi Gras parade with our underwear hanging out, but we are and, believe it or not, that's a favor to you. You haven't kept this case because Director Shepard has superlative negotiating skills, all due respect, madam. You've kept this case because we were keeping secrets from each other and working at cross-purposes, however necessary it might have been at the time. But by arresting Lorne you've united our efforts.

"The fact is that you're nowhere close to solving this and I'm beginning to doubt that you're even interested in doing so, Special Agent Gibbs. You have turned a murder investigation into a temper tantrum because you want a security clearance you can't have. There is a very good reason you haven't been read into this program, a reason that still stands and will stand."

"Even if you have to sacrifice Evan Lorne's career and honor to do so?" Hollis asked, already knowing the answer because Lorne had all but told them.

"Even if," Landry agreed. "There are some things that go on in the shadows for other reasons than that they are dark, Colonel."

Next to her, Gibbs made a small noise of disagreement.

"You said coming here was a favor," Shepard began before the silence grew too long. Hollis could see that she was still smarting from Landry's words, but unlike Gibbs, she could better roll with the punches. Which was why she had made Director at such an early point in her career and Gibbs was still a senior field agent. "You aren't rewarding us for being thorns in your sides. What do you want?"

"We want to talk to Lorne, first of all," Landry replied, holding up his hands to forestall interruption. "We're not asking for his release, at least not yet. But we do need to debrief him. Where we go from there depends on what he has to say."

The group field trip down to Interrogation did not pass through the bullpen area, but Hollis didn't even need to look to know that everyone in it was watching their progress along the concourse to the elevator.

They waited in the observation room for Lorne to be brought up. O'Neill's people discussed among themselves who should go in with Lorne, but O'Neill ended the argument by telling Sheppard to go do it.

"He's got the best chance of getting something out of him," O'Neill explained to Carter and Mitchell after Sheppard had gone. "We dragged him all the way back here, we might as well put him to work. The two of you are going to have to act on what he gets anyway."

Sheppard was sitting -- slouching -- in a chair when Lorne was brought in.

"Hello, sir," Lorne said wryly, flexing his wrists -- he'd been cuffed for the trip upstairs -- and sitting down without any kind of formality. "How's life back at the ranch?"

"There's a killer targeting scientists, then you go AWOL, then you are supposed to be the killer," Sheppard said with a frown. "How do you think life's going back at the ranch? And that's without anyone but Elizabeth and me knowing about--" he trailed off, making a vague gesture next to his ear. "We're keeping that part quiet because there's no way that goes down well and the marines already have their hands full with the panicked civilians thinking you'd booby-trapped their soap dishes or whatever."

A mirthless chuckle from Lorne. "I'm sorry, sir."

Sheppard sighed deeply, frustration seemingly spent. "I know."

"I'd have said something if I could have."

"About your buddy or about this?" Sheppard asked. "I can't believe you'd willingly... After all of the shit we've had to deal with, you go and do it voluntarily?"

Hollis made a mental note to ask about Lorne's 'buddy,' since she didn't think Sheppard was referring to his team or Gillick. Especially because a few feet away, Carter looked distinctly uncomfortable.

"We'd been through a lot together," Lorne said. "I trusted him. I trust him. Although I can't say I was too eager to agree at the time."

Sheppard shook his head in either bemusement or regret or both. "What's done is done. Now we have to figure out what the other guy is doing and make it stop."

For the first time, Lorne looked up at the two-way mirror. It almost looked as if he could see through it, although that was impossible at this distance.

"The gang's all here," Sheppard assured him.

"Yeah," Lorne agreed. "I wish I had more to tell them."

Landry made a disappointed noise.

"I'd have hoped they'd have worked it out by now," Mitchell told Carter. "Wasn't that the point?"

"It doesn't make you omniscient," Carter replied. "Just... crowded."

"You can start by telling us where you stashed Doctor Crankypants and the Musketeers," Sheppard offered. "The squid cops would probably be a little more comfortable if they were in plain sight when whatever happens next happens."

"We'd be more comfortable if there wasn't a when," Gibbs muttered darkly.

"Once Baxter turned up dead, we split up," Lorne explained. "If he was starting to go after... team personnel, then that was going to narrow things down."

"Kamber and Benoit are being watched like hawks," Sheppard told him.

Lorne shook his head. "They were never at risk," he said, sitting forward. "That... version of the team wasn't the target."

"Oh, crap," Carter hissed and everyone turned to her.

"Sam?" Mitchell prompted.

"Do you remember the big marine team shakeup when MARSOC got stood up?" Carter asked O'Neill and Landry, the latter of whose eyes grew wide with realization.

"Half of our jarheads went back to do that instead of this," Landry explained to O'Neill as Carter moved away from everyone else and pulled out her cell phone. "We had to rearrange the rest and bring in new ones."

"You had the Commandant on my ass by trying to replace them with airmen." O'Neill recalled, rubbing his face with his hand. "Who are we looking for?"

Everyone turned to Carter, who was carrying on a hushed conversation.

"Thanks," she said into the phone, closing it and turning back to the group. "Larue, Holden, Baumgartner, and Veracruz."

"Which one's the snake?" O'Neill asked.

Carter made a face. "I don't know. But three of them are the next victims and none of them are at the Mountain."

A knock on the glass drew everyone's attention forward again. Sheppard was standing next to the mirror, apparently waiting for something. Landry tilted his head toward the glass and Mitchell went around to the interrogation room to update Lorne and Sheppard on what had transpired.

"Where are they now?" Gibbs asked, an edge to his voice. Hollis understood why -- they had been reduced to bystanders, props so that O'Neill's people could complete their game. It grated on her, too, and she'd probably have been unable to hide it had she needed to.

"Sirs, we'll have to get teams out to look for Veracruz and and Holden," Mitchell said, addressing the mirror. "Lorne's got his people on Larue and Baumgartner."

"Do a relief in place for Lorne's team," O'Neill told Landry as Mitchell left the room to return to the observation area. "We're never getting him away from these people if something happens on their watch."

Hollis reached out to touch Gibbs's arm before he did something they were going to regret. She was no less annoyed by 'these people' for not being one of these people. It was casual disregard and it stung. He looked back at her, anger in his eyes, and she willed him to stow it with her own matching expression.

"We want in," she told O'Neill. "Sir."

"This isn't your case anymore, Colonel," Landry told her, not unkindly. "You hitched your cart to Major Lorne's guilt and getting him off of that hook is as far as that ride goes."

Next to her, Gibbs was looking suspiciously calm and maybe even a little smug. Hollis gave him a look, but he shook his head no.

Sheppard knocked on the glass again. "If we want to get in contact with Lorne's team, we're going to have to hurry. The next window is in less than an hour."

Lorne had been carrying a disposable phone when they'd caught him and it was returned to him.

"How'd you come up with this system?" Sheppard asked Lorne as they waited for whatever time 1312 AST was. Hollis looked at her own watch; it was too late to be early afternoon in Alaska, Newfoundland, or the Middle East.

"The boys pegged Yoni's average lateness to team meetings," Lorne replied with a shrug. Sheppard thought this was hilarious and Carter stifled a chuckle.

The phone conversation itself was heavily coded, but Lorne assured Ortilla that this was what he wanted and he and Mitchell arranged for the missing quartet to find transport to DC.

It was going to take hours to get everything organized on O'Neill's side and since they were disinclined to do much of anything in front of the little people, the generals and Mitchell and Carter left. Sheppard stayed behind with Lorne, who was still in the Interrogation Room.

"I don't want him getting lonely," Sheppard said with a shrug that was supposed to be casual but instead was quietly challenging. Gibbs left them, disinterested in picking that fight.

Back in the bullpen, DiNozzo, David, and McGee were waiting. Gibbs sent David to the observation room to keep an eye on Sheppard and Lorne, in case they said anything of interest.

"Where did that phone call go?" Gibbs asked McGee as he sat down at his desk.

Hollis smiled. Of course Gibbs would have assumed his team was on the ball.

"Austin, Texas," McGee replied. "Another disposable phone that made a call to a third phone in San Jose."

"DiNozzo, McGee, find all of the Larues, Holdens, Baumgartners, and Veracruzes in the Corps. See if any of them have ties to Austin or San Jose."

DiNozzo set to work. "Can I filter them by MOS or rank?"

"E-5 and up," Hollis answered. "Don't filter by MOS; we don't know what their covers are."

Hollis sat down at her semi-permanent temporary space. She perhaps could have asked for something less contorting than an extra chair and part of Gibbs's desk, but it would have been for status only; she was fine with what she had. Especially because it allowed her to lean in and have semi-private conversations in a place where there was really no privacy.

"What are you up to?" she asked Gibbs. "We can't bring these people in. We can't even find half of them."

That much only if DiNozzo was lucky. And all of this on top of being explicitly warned off by Landry and O'Neill.

"James Kim's kids deserve to know who killed their father and why," he answered, not looking up from where he was squinting at his message slips. "His death shouldn't be one more secret in a life full of them."

By nine, DiNozzo and McGee had a list of fifteen names. Gibbs called down to the observation room to tell David to tell Sheppard that visiting hours were over. And then he told everyone to go home.

"We're going to have a long day tomorrow."


Nine

The following morning, Hollis was alone in the bullpen with David and on the phone to her office when Sheppard returned with friends. Lorne's team, dressed in civilian clothing and looking remarkably fresh for having traveled all night, stood waiting to get permission to visit him. Dressed in civilian clothing, the marines looked both more and less dangerous in person than they did in their official photographs -- defiant and faintly abashed all at once, ready to either fight or apologize or both.

David said something to Safir in Hebrew and he responded in kind; whatever he said wiped the cautiously friendly expression off of her face.

"Be nice, Doc," Staff Sergeant Ortilla chided. "We don't get to see the Major if you piss off the fuzz."

Sheppard turned around. "Don't make me have you wait in the car."

"We took the train," Safir replied evenly. Sheppard rolled his eyes, clearly in on the joke even if Safir wasn't.

McGee had been down at Abby's dealing with an unrelated case and he came out of the elevator without looking, stopping short once he saw the group and then almost taking a step back once he realized who they were.

"They're on their best behavior," Sheppard assured easily.

McGee raised an eyebrow, either at the assurance or the tone with which it had been delivered. Sheppard was almost comically casual, the uniform and the situation seemingly mattering not at all. Most of it was an act, but not all of it. It was the kind of attitude that worked in Special Ops and nowhere else, not even in the Air Force. In Sheppard's case, O'Neill would probably tolerate a lot for results.

Hollis asked McGee to have Lorne brought up to Interrogation; he did so without hesitation or even giving the faintest glimmer of looking like he was about to suggest they wait for Gibbs. Or maybe extra security.

After other preliminaries, she asked David to escort them downstairs, but then tagged along. She wanted to see how everyone interacted, get a better feel for the suspects that were still suspects although nobody was treating them as such. Lorne was still being held on the murder of Baxter and the break-in at Kim's and there was no way he accomplished everything he'd done that they couldn't prove without these men, but here they were, not even being charged with breaking into NCIS headquarters and assaulting McGee, which could be proven. (As opposed to the break-in at Meade, which could not, at least not beyond a reasonable doubt.)

"Do we need to go in shifts?" Sheppard asked as they approached.

Hollis shook her head. "Your people are more of a threat loitering in the hallway."

"Or going to the bathroom," David added not-quite sotto voce.

"How long do we have, ma'am?" Staff Sergeant Ortilla asked.

"Depends on if we say something interesting," Safir answered brightly. "If we get Lorne to confess to murder, we can stay all day."

"Nobody's getting Lorne to confess to murder," Sheppard told them, like they might have otherwise seriously considered doing so. "It'll take us years to figure out his filing system if he's in the pokey and your company commander is pissed off enough as it is."

From the guards standing outside, Hollis could tell that Lorne had already been delivered. She wasn't sure if it was a good thing or a bad one that the guards didn't even blink at an Army officer and a Mossad agent bringing in a half-dozen military (and paramilitary) men to visit a high-risk prisoner. Perhaps this went a bit toward explaining how the three marines had gotten in and out on their first visit.

Hollis and David waited for them to enter. Sheppard opened the door and the others filed through.

"Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition," Sergeant Reletti murmured as he passed.

They waited for the door to close before heading over to the observation room.

Safir and Sheppard were in the chairs opposite Lorne; the three marines were positioned along three walls so that they had clear views of the door. Suarez was leaning against the mirror and Ortilla was facing it, standing behind Lorne and making him look smaller than usual. The positioning was defensive, but the mood in the room was not tense. Lorne's team was clearly not worried about Sheppard's ire, which Hollis took to mean that Sheppard had probably already said his piece. He was undoubtedly the kind of commander who reamed his people out in private.

"--teams. Figure out which one's the bad guy and take him down before anyone else gets hurt," Sheppard was saying.

"Are they sure that's it, sir?" Reletti asked. "There's not a fifth choice somewhere out there?"

Sheppard, his back to them, might've made a face, but Hollis could only see the shrug. "Colonel Carter seems to be sure. We're going to have to go with that."

"I don't like it, sir," Ortilla said with a frown. "There's too much we don't know -- or we didn't know until it was too late to do anything about it."

"Just because they're Air Force doesn't mean they can't figure out which end of the rifle to point at the bad guy, Staff Sergeant," Sheppard sighed. Ortilla made a frustrated face, like he wanted to clarify his point, but Sheppard continued on. "They've been doing this for a while -- longer than you have. From all reports you guys did a thorough hand-over briefing. Let them run with this. If nothing else, they've got numbers and resources on their side."

"Quality over quantity, sir," Suarez retorted cheekily. Sheppard turned around and gave Suarez a baleful look, one that spoke of inter-service rivalry debates of long standing as well as the comfort level between the men in the room.

"The sooner they catch this guy, the sooner we can take the Major and go," Reletti said, then paused, as if he'd just thought of something. "Do you know how he got your knife, sir?"

The tone was one of genuine curiosity, but Hollis didn't doubt that this was for her benefit.

Lorne frowned. "Best I can guess, it happened during our... hiatus. I was keeping my kit in the locker room; it wouldn't have been that hard for anyone to break in and swap out a knife. I thought something was weird with it at some point -- it was sharpened differently than I usually do it -- and I meant to ask my junior guy if he'd taken it to the armorer or something, but I forgot about it."

Plausible and unprovable, just like everything else. Hollis was maybe a little more inclined to believe it after two days of O'Neill's people glaring daggers at each other, but until they got a new and better suspect, anything Lorne said had to be taken in context.

"When this is all over," Safir began, "I think I will take some vacation time."

Sheppard turned to him. "You're kidding me, right?"

"No," Safir replied. "This is my first trip back since the High Holidays. I would like to go home and see my family."

Hollis looked over at David, who shook her head slightly. This was not the first indication that Sheppard, Lorne, and his team were not posted on US soil, but they hadn't been able to get anything on anyone. Safir's passport, like the marines' and Lorne's and Sheppard's, showed none of the activity that a foreign posting would require, nor did it seem like they were carrying official secondary passports. Which left a raft of other options, legit and not, but it gave Hollis and NCIS no leads on where they were operating from or what was going on.

"When this is all over, you are going straight back and explaining yourself to Carson," Sheppard told him. "Who, for the record, is as overjoyed as everyone else by what has gone on."

"Does this mean we can't take leave, either, sir?" Suarez asked.

Lorne fought off a smile as Sheppard made a frustrated noise.

"This means that you all have been forgiven on paper," Sheppard said sourly. "But you still have to settle up your accounts with everyone you've worried and pissed off over the course of this adventure."

"That's a 'wait a few weeks' or a 'no', sir?" Ortilla ventured.

"We'll talk about it later, Manny," Lorne said, ending the discussion. "I've got a lot of apologizing to do first. And it's not like you guys haven't been calling home regularly anyway."

They hadn't bothered tracking calls from any of the marines or Safir; none of them were currently paying for cell phones and it had been deemed a waste of resources to try to track them otherwise. Nobody had expected a seasoned special ops team to be calling their parents (or child; Ortilla had a son) while on a high-risk mission. Of course, nobody had expected a unit run by such types as O'Neill and Sheppard, where rules were for other people so long as the mission was accomplished.

"What do you make of all this?" Hollis asked David. "Circus or status quo?"

David frowned thoughtfully. "I believe it is both," she said after a moment. "They are interacting as they normally would, but with the knowledge that there is an audience that is not on their side. They are carefully feeding us information."

Which was what Hollis thought, but a second opinion didn't hurt.

"What do you make of Safir?" She didn't ask what David had said to him; it was probably irrelevant.

"The Mossad will be kicking itself that they did not scoop him up out of the army," David answered, then her expression turned bitter. "On the other hand, perhaps they tried and he said no."

"I'm sure they'll be taking an interest in him now," Hollis said mildly; she knew of David's complicated ties to her home agency.

She was watching the room as she spoke and maybe it was just the weeks of little sleep and the blinking lights on the console behind her reflecting on the glass, but she could have sworn that she saw Lorne's eyes glow for a second as he stood up suddenly and looked at the door.

Sheppard and Safir stood as well and the marines pushed off of the walls, alert and anticipatory when they'd been casual a moment before. In the observation room, Hollis nodded at David, who ran into the hallway to alert the guards.

"Sir?" Ortilla asked warily, taking a step toward Lorne. To hold him back or something else, Hollis didn't know.

Lorne shook his head, like he was clearing it, but kept his eyes on the door. "He's here."

"Who's here?" Sheppard asked. Lorne turned and gave him a meaningful look. "Fuck. All of our shit's upstairs."

Hollis turned to the tech sitting at the far wall. "Is there a security breach?"

The tech looks up at the inactive red-covered light near the ceiling. "Nothing's been reported. I'll call up."

"Thanks," Hollis said, turning her attention back to the scene in the interrogation room. She wondered if this was the start of another escape attempt.

"--going to tell them? Their murder suspect's Spidey-Sense is tingling and the real murderer's in the building while he's sitting around with the men responsible for a brig break?" Sheppard was asking. The voice was sarcastic, but the devil-may-care posture was gone. This was the real Sheppard. The question was whether he was leading a defense or an offensive rush. "We can't do anything, so we wait."

David was still in the hallway, one foot holding the door open. Hollis called to her.

"Anything out there?" she asked.

David shook her head no. "Just the guards. Should there be?"

"I don't know," Hollis replied. "They seem to think so."

"Security's got nothing, Colonel Mann," the tech reported. "Would you like me to report anything?"

Hollis looked at the tense tableau on the other side of the mirror and she hated that her instincts couldn't tell her whether this was a ruse or something she couldn't fathom.

"Not yet," she finally said. "But see if they can spare a couple of extra guards. We've got a lot of able men in that room."

It was five more minutes before three more guards came down. Along with them came Gibbs.

"What's going on?" he asked, looking at both Hollis and David.

"Our visitors seem to think that the 'real' murderer is somewhere in the building," David replied.

"And you believe them?" Gibbs asked, incredulous. "Aren't those the guys who beat up McGee in the head?"

"That's why there are five guards outside their door," Hollis told him. Removed from watching it play out in real time and falling for it, even a little bit, even if by some miracle it was true, made her feel angry with herself and, by extension, annoyed with Gibbs for pointing out her foolishness.

On the other side of the glass, Ortilla and Reletti were standing next to Lorne, a half-step away from being able to hide him completely from the door. On the other side of the table, Suarez stood closest to the door with Sheppard and Safir waiting behind him.

Gibbs made a disgusted noise and turned away.

"He's gone," Lorne said.

"Gone-gone or off-your-radar gone?" Sheppard asked. Nobody moved or relaxed.

Across the observation room, out of the corner of her eye, Hollis could see Gibbs turn back to face the mirror.

"I don't know that there's a difference," Lorne answered, a frustrated look on his face as he closed his eyes.

"Are you sure it's him?" Safir asked.

Lorne opened his eyes. "It's him."

"Any chance you know who he looks like on the outside?" Sheppard asked, but he didn't sound hopeful.

Lorne shook of his head.

Hollis exchanged a look with Gibbs; it almost sounded like Lorne had some kind of means for detecting something. He'd been physically searched and passed through at least three metal detectors while in their custody, so it wasn't as if he could be carrying anything. Maybe it was just a realization snapping into place. Or, judging by the look Gibbs was giving her, maybe it was just to screw with the audience.

"What the hell is he doing here?" Ortilla asked.

"Casing the joint?" Reletti offered. "He going after us or the fuzz?"

"Why would he go after the fuzz?" Suarez retorted. "They're the ones shutting us down."

"So he's going after us?" Reletti made a disbelieving face. "That doesn't make any more sense. Why wait until we were here? We're under guard and he has to get in and out."

Ortilla gave Reletti a look that was clearly a reminder that they themselves had done just that and Hollis idly noted that they almost had a confession, albeit for a case they'd never prosecute.

"He'd be trackable if everyone knew he was coming here," Reletti countered, pointing down to indicate the interrogation room. "It would've made more sense before we got pulled in by Higher."

"He knows where we are now," Suarez said.

"We've already been debriefed," Reletti argued. "He's gotta be here for the Major."

"The frame job was supposed to get you off his case and it worked," Sheppard said to Lorne, not challenging the assessment.  "You have any other piece of the puzzle that you haven't shared yet?"

There was an edge to the question; Sheppard wasn't quite as okay with being fooled as he'd said he was.

"If I do, I don't know what it is," Lorne replied, shaking his head. "I've done my part. Carter's putting together the tech side, so he's already failed at trying to stop us at the discovery phase. I'm hardly going to be necessary with implementation."

"Are you?" Sheppard asked pointedly and Hollis wished this conversation came with subtitles because they were speaking in a code that was visible insofar as it was obvious that they were carrying on on multiple levels, but not so that any of those other levels were accessible to outsiders. "The regular, lovable, Luddite you, sure, but…"

"That was never part of the plan," Lorne replied.

Sheppard sighed. "I'm going to get in touch with the brass. I don't think there were any contingency plans in case he came here. We're not really dressed for the occasion and our hosts aren't going to be much help."

"Sir?" Ortilla prompted carefully, gesturing with his chin toward the mirror.

"Screw'em," Sheppard replied, not even bothering to turn around. "We weren't their favorite people before."

"Still think I'm a fool?" Hollis asked Gibbs.

Gibbs didn't answer, which meant that the answer was no. He left without saying anything, going around to the interrogation room and getting confronted by Sheppard, who wanted his cell phone battery back. Hollis had tried to confiscate their phones before letting them go anywhere, but Sheppard had refused to hand his over -- "What, so you can data-mine the thing as soon as I'm out of sight?" -- and they'd ended up compromising by having the visitors hand over the phone batteries.

"You're not getting anything until you tell me what you're playing at," Gibbs replied. "You think we're just going to let you people run riot in here?"

"I'm trying to keep my people alive," Sheppard said. "Beyond that, I'm not sure what you think or whether it matters to me."

Sheppard was calm and dismissive, confident that Gibbs posed no threat. It was the same attitude that everyone from O'Neill's unit had, even Mitchell in that moment when they'd caught him off-guard. The cockiness was perhaps merited - O'Neill had largely gotten what he'd wanted - but it still rankled.

"Who do you think are you protecting him from?" Gibbs asked. "Us? Casper the Friendly Ghost?"

"You wouldn't believe me if I told you," Sheppard replied, unwilling to be goaded. "If you'll excuse me, I need to go make a phone call."

"I'm not letting you back down here," Gibbs warned as Sheppard took his first step past him. "This isn't a hospital with visiting hours and that's not a revolving door."

"Then they're staying," Sheppard said, gesturing behind him to Lorne's team, "and I'll go. And we probably pick this up when our bosses start shouting at each other."

If that was a promise to drag this over both of their heads, Sheppard had badly misstepped.

"They're not staying," Gibbs returned evenly. "Not unless you want us charging them for the last time they came down here."

Hollis exchanged a knowing look with David; Sheppard should have known better than to threaten Gibbs on his native turf.

"I'll be fine," Lorne told Ortilla, who looked like he might be weighing the option of getting booked if it meant he'd be able to still keep an eye on Lorne. "Go get this guy."

The marines and Safir left without a word, nodding to Lorne and following Sheppard out of the room.

"Take them upstairs," Hollis told David. "Take a couple of the guards and don't let them get the drop on you."

Gibbs waited for the door to close and then sat down at the table. Lorne did the same.

"What is this, some kind of mafia thing where you think you can run the show from a jail cell?" Gibbs asked. "You're still a murder suspect."

"Innocent until proven guilty, even under the UCMJ," Lorne replied patiently, if maybe not quite as easy as always. "I'm not trying to run anything, at least not anymore. It's all above my pay grade now."

Gibbs's, too, he didn't have to add. Hollis doubted the extra reminder would go over well.

"If this is a scam, I'll have you on everything you've ever done," Gibbs promised. "Covert op or not, I'll get it and I'll use it."

"I'm not running a scam," Lorne sighed. "I'm not trying to make you look bad, I'm not trying to bust out of here, I'm not trying to be any more difficult than I have to be beyond the nature of what I do for a living."

"You're doing a crap job of it," Gibbs told him sourly.

"I am," Lorne agreed. "But not for my own enjoyment."

The door to the observation room opened and DiNozzo appeared. "I heard I missed all of the fun stuff," he said as he drew up next to Hollis by the window. "Phantom suspects and ESP and all sorts of things that makes me think Patrick Swayze might be right behind me hoping that this is the moment when I'll see the real killer he's been trying to point out all along.... He's not, is he?"

Hollis made a show of looking behind him. "No."

"Good," DiNozzo sighed. "I've got enough trouble with people sneaking up behind me."

"Ditto," she replied, then allowed a small smile when DiNozzo did a double-take.

"You're not..." he trailed off chuckling and waggling his finger. "You're sly, Colonel."

"Not sly enough," she said sourly, gesturing with her chin toward the glass. "Lorne's got something and it has to do with whatever these murders are about."

DiNozzo cocked an eyebrow. "Beyond his prints on a murder weapon?"

Hollis shook her head. "Lorne was willing to fall on his sword until his higher command swooped in and decided to rescue him. He still will if they tell him to. That's not the same as actually being guilty."

"You think he's not?"

"We all think this is hinky," she pointed out and DiNozzo grimaced in agreement. "And the more time I spend watching him and his people and everyone in this program, the more I'm convinced that they're not playing us. They're playing around us. They've got something else going on and they've been giving us little bits once they're sure we can't do anything with them."

Which would have explained Lorne's earlier attitude toward his chances.

"So you think they screwed up by giving us Lorne?" DiNozzo mused. "They thought they were done with him and they weren't?"

"They didn't give him to us - we got him, fair and square," Hollis corrected. "But they let us keep him because they thought he'd done his part - he thought he'd done his part. Except maybe they were all wrong and Lorne's not done. Or the game has sufficiently changed that he's back on the board. It doesn't matter, really. They realize they've made a mistake and they're going to try to get him back now."

"Let 'em try," Gibbs said from the doorway. "Won't get 'em anywhere."

"I don't know about that, Boss," McGee's voice carried in from the hallway. Gibbs turned so that McGee could join them. "Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Matthew Holden is missing."


Ten

"Missing," Gibbs repeated, disgusted. "And they're just getting around to noticing this now?"

"He was on vacation," McGee explained ruefully. "He wasn't officially missing until this morning."

"Should we be asking Lorne about it?" DiNozzo asked, gesturing toward the glass. "Or his team, who should be closing in on the front desk by now if Ziva hasn't gotten them lost."

Lorne was sitting calmly, watching the mirror like he could see through it. It was disconcerting, Hollis thought, because he was oriented so that he was looking straight at them despite the fact that they were off to one side.

"McGee," she began, "can you do the same search on the building entry/exit logs that you did to find Lorne's team, but this time do it with Holden?"

McGee cocked an eyebrow. "I can," he agreed slowly. "You think he's been here?"

Everyone turned to look at her. Gibbs grimaced, but said nothing.

"Lorne's team was certainly acting like someone was here who shouldn't have been," she said. "If they're right, then we need to follow up. If they're just pulling our legs, then we need to know that, too. The only way we get anywhere with these people is by cutting down on the amount of baloney they can feed us."

"I'll cross reference the log with files that were modified," McGee said. "Should I search Veracruz, Larue, and Baumgartner, too?"

Hollis nodded and McGee disappeared. DiNozzo looked between Hollis and Gibbs and mumbled something about too much coffee and he, too, left. Hollis walked past Gibbs into the hallway; Lorne's uncanny gaze was disturbing her a little.

"You're buying what they're selling?" Gibbs asked, following her until she stopped a few feet from the door.

"I'm buying that the truth is probably somewhere between ours and theirs," she replied, cocking an eyebrow in challenge. She was not going to go along if Gibbs was going to drag them down a path that only made sense because he wanted it to and she wanted him to know that from the start. "I'm willing to buy that Lorne is not our killer. Which means I have to find someone else who is."

Gibbs sighed and leaned back against the wall. "They want to pin the blame on a ghost, Hol," he said. "I know how these operations work -- I used to be the one on the other side."

"Squeezing Lorne until he talks isn't going to get us anywhere," she told him, not without sympathy. She had never not understood where his zeal was coming from, but she had also always understood that they were part of a bigger game and might have to accept a smaller fish rather than go without. Left to his own devices, Gibbs would take an ax to a friend's forehead to swat a fly and she didn't want him doing that here, even if O'Neill's people needed a lesson in civics. "Especially not him. He's no less willing to take the hit than he was before and while his people would rather he didn't, they might not end up having a choice if we keep trying to pin them down."

Gibbs was about to say something when his cell phone started buzzing. "What?" he asked, then listened for a moment, then snapped the phone close and looked at her. "Matthew Holden was here."

Hollis looked back at the door to the interrogation room and the guards still posted outside. "I'd love to know how he knew that."

But instead of going in to ask him, she instead followed Gibbs back up to the bullpen.

"Holden didn't even bother swapping out anyone's ID," McGee began as soon as he saw them. A photo was on the plasma and she assumed it was Matthew Holden. "He just signed in, said he wanted to talk to an agent about a pending case, showed his own valid military ID, and they let him in."

"This place is turning into Union Station," Gibbs groused. "Who did he want to speak to?"

McGee stopped typing. "You, Boss."

Hollis exchanged a look with Gibbs.

"Where have we seen this show before?" DiNozzo asked sourly. "Did they check the holding cells, make sure everyone's accounted for?"

"He signed in at 11:20 and out at 11:40, which gave him twenty minutes to roam around the building," McGee added.

"Ziva, DiNozzo, print out copies of his photo and see if you can find someone who saw him," Gibbs ordered. "Start in this room."

As the two set to work, Hollis pulled out her notebook, flipping pages until she found the one she was looking for, and dialed the number written there.

"Mitchell," the voice on the other end answered as Gibbs pulled the notebook out of her hand to see what was there.

Hollis identified herself, then got down to business. "Do you know where Staff Sergeant Matthew Holden is right now?"

Mitchell didn't bother asking how they'd figured out which Holden or why she was asking. "Not a clue. He was formally rung up this morning, but that's just paperwork. We're still trying to trace his movements since his last shift on the clock."

"I can help you with that," Hollis offered. "But I want something in return."

A moment's pause.

"I may not be able to offer you what you want, but I'll do my best to make it a fair exchange," Mitchell said. "What've you got?"

"He left NCIS headquarters an hour ago," she replied.

Mitchell's response was a sharp exhale. "That's not somewhere we'd have thought to look for him."

"Colonel Sheppard, Major Lorne, and his team seemed to be surprised, too," she said mildly. "Although I'm not sure they knew it was Holden."

"We didn't know it was him, either," Mitchell said, sounding a bit... sad. Maybe even disappointed. Not for her scooping him, she didn't think. Maybe he had been friendly with Holden. Nevertheless, Hollis knew to press her advantage while she still could.

"Now you ask me what I want," she prompted.

"I can't make any promises, Colonel," Mitchell warned. "But I'll see what I can do."

Hollis looked at Gibbs, watching her warily, before she spoke again. "I want Holden when you're done with him. I want his name on a docket so that six families know who murdered their loved ones."

Mitchell sighed. "That's not... It's not that simple."

"Make it that simple," she told him. "I'm not interested in his secrets, I'm not interested in his other deeds and misdeeds. But if he killed these six people, then I don't want you and your program covering that up."

She hung up, not waiting for a response.

"They surprised?" Gibbs asked, a tiny smile in his eyes, if not on his lips.

"Oh, yeah," Hollis agreed. "But I'm not sure that's a good thing under the circumstances."

By the end of play, they had a decent picture of Matthew Holden's morning at NCIS headquarters -- he'd never come up to the bullpen, instead ending up on the floor with Interrogation but not coming close enough for Lorne's guards to see him -- and a better picture of his last few months. McGee had pulled up Holden's personal details and worked out that he'd either been missing-with-permission from his job (a placement with a robotics firm outside of Norfolk that was developing microbots for combat) or just off-duty and untraceable on the days of the murders. But that wasn't nearly as damning as finding out that he'd paid for plane tickets to Madison and New Orleans with his own money and in his own name.

"He's not even being subtle," McGee said, amazed, as he brought up the relevant info on the plasma. "It's like he's not worried about being caught."

"That's what you get when you work for a super-secret project," DiNozzo replied as he finished up the BOLO. "It pays to have someone else do the cleanup."

"I never traveled under my own name," David countered, sounding as mystified as McGee. "I never introduced myself by my own name except to other agents. I lived under an alias at all times."

"He has covering paperwork," Gibbs said. "And a government credit card. He didn't use them for a reason."

"Same reason he used Lorne's knife to commit the murders," DiNozzo picked up. "Ironic that Lorne ended up being the one to chase after him. Or was that intentional?"

"It was just a coincidence," Hollis replied. "I don't think Lorne is based in the States, so if he hadn't come home with the intelligence about the mole, he would have been a very unlikely and confusing suspect. The investigation would have had to go in circles until he was cleared."

"We're going in circles now," Gibbs muttered, turning away from the plasma. "Everybody go home."

Hollis didn't wait to see if he had any interest in seeing her later, but he called her before she'd even pulled out of the parking lot. She ended up at his place, sipping pinot grigio from a Steelers tumbler as he fiddled with the boat and not talking about the case.

The next day, she went to court to deliver the testimony that had been on hold since Madison. She was there all day, catching up on the paperwork Valdez had helpfully brought from the office (she was so definitely handing him the next five public intoxication/indecent exposure cases) while waiting to be called.

"They're trying to get Lorne sprung," Gibbs said in a voicemail she heard at the end of the day. "They've got Madison PD to agree to drop the charges on the break-in at Kim's and now they're leaning on us."

Lorne had been charged with the murder of Jamail Baxter. Not dismissing the case while openly searching for another man they suspected might be the real killer was... not good policing. But it was the only leverage they had to get Matthew Holden and, for six murders, Hollis couldn't muster a whole lot of guilt at the potential injustice of it. Lorne wasn't about to sue.

She was back at the Navy Yard on Wednesday, summoned by Director Shepard for another sit-down with O'Neill and his people.

"It's too much of a security risk," O'Neill said the moment the idea of transferring Holden to NCIS custody came up. "If he survives this, then we aren't about to let him trade on his experiences."

"You think we'd plea him down if he talked?" Gibbs asked, outraged. "For six homicides?"

"I didn't necessarily have you in mind," O'Neill retorted. "But if you want to throw yourself on the pile, suit yourself."

"What do you mean 'if he survives this'?" Hollis asked warily.

"Are you people still insisting that we're an assassination squad?" O'Neill asked, irritated. "If you want someone bumped off, you don't send us. You go talk to Delta or some agency with three letters and a better discretionary budget."

"You've seen the tracks he's laid, Colonel," Landry added. "Does any of it look like the work of a man who has future plans?"

Going out in a blaze of glory was certainly one explanation for the utter disregard for obfuscation beyond trying to implicate Lorne.

"There's been no termination ordered," O'Neill sighed. "We'd really like him alive and in position to answer questions when this is all over."

Hollis got the distinct impression that there were more issues than just 'how' and 'why' on the table, but didn't voice the thought. O'Neill and his crew -- Landry and Mitchell only, this time -- were tense and edgy and Gibbs was probably pissing them off enough for everyone. She'd have thought that getting a name and face on their mole might've improved things, but quite the opposite. McGee had said that Holden was working with a microrobotics firm; that plus whatever operational information Holden might have had access to and been able to send off would probably ruin anyone's mood.

Ruined mood or not, the discussion about releasing Lorne ultimately didn't go much better than the one regarding Holden.

"He's at risk," Mitchell said. "Holden's visit wasn't just to catch up on old times."

"He's in a cell," Shepard pointed out. "The guards and surveillance are there to keep him where he is, but they also serve quite well to keep everyone else out."

"Tell that to Lorne's team," O'Neill retorted. "Holden's already been in and out and you still wouldn't know if our people hadn't twigged to it."

There was no good defense to that one and Hollis was glad Shepard didn't try to mount one.

"If we release him to you, then that will be the last we see of him -- or any of you," Shepard said instead. "So, no. There will be no dismissal of charges until Staff Sergeant Holden is in custody."

It was perhaps unsurprising that Lorne's team showed up for a visit that afternoon.

"At least they're signing in under their own names this time," DiNozzo said as McGee hung up the phone. "Soon they might even be housebroken."

Sheppard was not with them this time. The marines were in their utility uniforms, looking much more like professional infantry, while Safir wore jeans and was unshaven and looked like he'd been grudgingly roused from studying for finals.

"I'd have thought you'd be off searching for Holden," DiNozzo said as McGee picked up the phone again to call down to get Lorne brought to Interrogation. "Or are you guys still in time-out?"

"Nobody's picking up," McGee said, looking at his watch.

Hollis looked at hers, too; it wasn't time for a shift change and the holding cells weren't a place left unattended even during meal breaks. She looked up at Gibbs, who was clearly already assuming the worst.

"Call security," he told McGee. "Have them meet us down there." He stood up and pulled his pistol from his drawer. "If you had anything to do with this, so help me God..."

"Sir, if we had anything to do with this, you wouldn't have seen us," Ortilla assured without a trace of arrogance.

The marines and Safir initially let them pass as Gibbs stalked toward the elevator and his team and Hollis followed, but then followed and Reletti held the door open as Gibbs pushed the button for the sublevel the cells were on.

"What the hell do you think you're doing, Sergeant?" Gibbs growled, sounding very much like the gunnery sergeant he once was.

"Major Lorne's more than a pawn to us, sir," Reletti answered, meeting Gibbs's glare impassively.

The stalemate ended when Safir took a step inside the elevator and McGee moved rather than get stepped on.

It was a crowded and very tense ride down.

The holding cells weren't built for long-term storage; they were meant to be temporary places to put sailors and marines before they were formally charged and either moved to permanent facilities or returned to their commanders for them to deal with. That didn't mean that security was lax, however, or that the cells weren't built to hold.

Except they hadn't.

The section was cut off from the elevators by a plexiglas partition with a keypad-entry door lock. The door was off its hinges and, beyond it, the monitor desk that doubled as a reception area was seemingly unmanned. Gibbs went straight to it, picking up the phone and then putting it down once he realized it was dead, then pulling out his cell phone.

"Lock down the building," he said to whoever was on the other side. "And get Doctor Mallard up here. We've got a body."

The guard was dead on the floor, no signs of struggle and no apparent cause of death. It did not bode well for what lay ahead.

"Don't touch the alarm," DiNozzo called out right before David did just that. "It'll freeze everything until security shows up with overrides. I think it's safe to say that the cows have already left the barn."

"Or not," Hollis said, looking at the door lying off-kilter against the plexiglas wall. The handle on the outside was warped. "This might've been a break-in and not a break-out."

Behind her, Suarez moved around so that he could see. He crouched carefully so as not to crowd her and still get a good look at the handle. "It's our guy," he said, standing up and turning to his team. "He hulked out on the door."

Hollis took another look at the handle and realized that the marks weren't from a grip or a prybar, but instead finger-shaped. "He high on something or just have help?"

Safir made a face. "Both."

They filed through the doorway and past the reception desk with the body lying next to one of the chairs, a spilled can of Coke nearby. The bank of monitors were all dark, although the console lights were all still lit. The door to the cell area proper, a thick steel door with a small peep window, was open and Gibbs and his team were already through it.

There were two more guards on the floor. Only one had gotten as far as unholstering his weapon. Like their colleague at the monitors, they had fallen without any indication how or why. David felt for a pulse, but shook her head and stood up.

The holding area was six cells with facing walls that were half-plexiglas and half opaque. The first two were occupied but the men inside were on the ground in the same drop-where-you-stand poses as the guards outside.

"Are they dead, too?" Hollis asked David, who was closest. Gibbs was down at the end of the hall with McGee and DiNozzo.

"They seem to be," David replied. "But the doors are locked and I do not know how or with what they were disposed of."

Hollis sniffed the air, but she doubted it was any kind of gaseous poison. At least she hoped; the sound of the ventilation system was loud in the silence.

Lorne's team didn't seem to wonder or care about the other prisoners and went down to where Lorne's cell was. In recognition of his exceptional circumstances, Lorne had not been transferred to another facility and had been granted some modicum of privacy and peace by being kept at the unoccupied end of the row.

"He's gone," McGee told her and David before they got there. "And he seems to have put up a fight."

Hollis pushed past the marines and Safir to get close enough to see and... stopped.

"'A fight' is an understatement, McGee," she said. The place was trashed. Destroyed in a way that even a prison riot shouldn't have been able to manage, let alone an altercation with one other man, even one who'd come prepared to yank doors off of hinges. Everything was destroyed, from the bunk ripped from the wall to the metal toilet lying awkwardly on its side far from where it was supposed to be. There were tattered and boot-printed sheets, a couple of mangled paperbacks, and the remains of a box of Oreos, its contents crushed and scattered around the cell.

"Blood," Gibbs said, standing up from where he'd been examining the side of the wrecked bed frame.

"I'll see your blood and raise you what looks to be skin and hair," DiNozzo called from the far corner, where the toilet should have been and now a puddle of water stood. He was picking at the wall behind where the fixture had been attached.

Outside the door, Safir was on his phone, presumably calling O'Neill's people. She couldn't hear him, just saw him through the plexiglas.

Security arrived a couple of moments later and Gibbs started ordering them around, irrespective of whether he had the authority to or not. A few of them bridled, but did as they were told since his instructions were in line with both protocol and common sense.

"Go and get your kits," he told his own team in no less patient a voice. "We've got a scene to process."

Hollis, with no kit to run for, stood waiting. She moved into the hallway again, catching the end of Safir's conversation and him hanging up.

"Who were you calling?"

He looked at her coldly. "People who need to know that you've fucked up again."

"Doc," Ortilla warned, but without either heart or heat. He was angry, too, and probably just wanted to make sure that Hollis didn't throw them out.

She walked away, down the hallway toward where the security agents had used master keys to enter the occupied cells. Ducky hadn't arrived yet and they were waiting for him before removing the bodies. She continued out into the room with the guard station. From the console, she had a clear view of the elevator vestibule and noticed for the first time that the elevators were key-access-only on this floor. The emergency stairs would necessarily not be locked, but there had to be an alarm. She got the attention of the nearest forensics guy and asked.

"The alarm should have sounded," he said. "It didn't."

Hollis gave him a look. "Did it not because it wasn't used or did it not because it was disabled?"

"Can't tell yet."

Taking a deep breath, she stepped past him, pulled on a pair of gloves, and opened the emergency door. Nothing happened - at least with the alarm. The forensics dude was running to his supervisor. The elevator opened and David, DiNozzo, and McGee were returning. Hollis called out to DiNozzo.

"I think this was their egress route," she told him. "I don't want Barney Fife over there processing what may be our most important evidence."

DiNozzo set down his box and pulled out his gloves. "More important than the Extreme Makeover: Prison Edition cell?"

"I didn't say most fascinating," Hollis told him, accepting an extra flashlight and evidence markers. "But this'll hopefully tell us how they got out and in what shape they were in."

DiNozzo dusted the push bar on the door for prints as Hollis started looking for blood drops. In light of the destruction in the cell, she was tempted to mark some of the gouges and scrapes in the stairwell, but she knew that they were more than likely the result of everyday usage. She did, however, find blood drops; the size and shape indicated that they'd fallen from a moderate height and the dripper(s) had been going down the stairs.

By the time she got back up to the doorway to get more markers and to find McGee waiting, DiNozzo was starting to take pictures.

"Holden's on the log as having entered at 10:42," McGee told her. "He hasn't left yet."

"Hasn't left or hasn't left through the front door?" Hollis asked, gesturing in the direction of their primary crime scene. "We've got three men who can tell us about how to get in and out of this place without passing by the guard desk."

"Ziva's already asked them about that," McGee said. "They went through the parking garage, apparently. I've got someone running the CCTV footage from the garage, see if they can catch either Lorne or Holden."

"Send someone down there to look for blood," she said. "One or both of them is bleeding."

"On it," McGee agreed and went off.

Hollis turned back to DiNozzo. "I went down four flights," she told him. "The drops end on the landing. I want see what's on the other side of the door, but I want to tell Gibbs where we are and what we're up to first."

It had gotten more crowded since she'd been in the stairwell. There were more security people, milling around with the sort of stunned looks that went with three of their colleagues getting killed at once and the complete failure to contain and protect those in their care. Ducky and Palmer were each attending separate bodies and she nodded grimly to Ducky as she passed. Lorne's team was where she'd left them, in the hallway watching what went on around them.

Gibbs looked up with a snarl as she entered, in anticipation of another interruption, but the look disappeared once he saw who it was. "You need help on the stairwell?" he asked.

"DiNozzo and I have the stairwell, but the blood trail goes through a door," she said. "I wouldn't mind help on that."

Gibbs looked around, assessing how much work was left to do in the cell.

"I can handle this," David offered. She was working her way along the far wall. "McGee can help once he returns."

Gibbs nodded thanks and gestured for Hollis to go first.

Ortilla stepped into her path once she was back in the hallway. "Is there anything we can do, ma'am?"

Hollis exchanged a look with Gibbs.

"How did Lorne know Holden was here?" he asked.

Ortilla grimaced and looked at Safir.

"They have something in common," Safir said with a frown.

Which was a completely unsatisfactory answer, but, judging by the looks on the men's faces, would be all that they would get.

"Do any of you have this 'something' in common with them?" Gibbs asked.

"No, sir," Ortilla replied.

"Then no," Gibbs told him.

"Wait," Hollis said, ignoring Gibbs's irritated look. "Why don't you come with us?"

If they were following Holden, who'd had the wherewithal to take down three guards and destroy an entire prisoner holding area, and if he was possibly still in the building, then she wasn't going to object to a quartet of operators tagging along.

Gibbs's phone rang as they entered the stairwell. Carter was at the front desk, unable to enter because of the building lockdown.

"If you want someone who can do what Lorne did," Safir said, "then let Carter in."

Gibbs grudgingly got the guards to send Carter down to where they were.

While they waited, McGee returned.

"If Lorne and Holden left, it wasn't through the parking garage," he announced. "They're not on the camera and there's no blood anywhere. We have guards posted there now, so nobody's getting out without a fight."

Hollis couldn't imagine why Holden would be hiding within the building with Lorne, She thanked McGee and then Gibbs told him to go help David.

Gibbs turned to Safir and the marines. "How did Lorne get the intel that Holden was the mole?"

The men looked at each other.

"If he means that much to you people, then why aren't you helping us?" Gibbs asked, voice rising.

"It could be related," Safir allowed. "But not in the way that you think."

The tension hadn't quite dissipated by the time Carter, dressed in her utility uniform and carrying a backpack, showed up and greeted them grimly.

"I'm sorry for this," she said, gesturing. "I'm sorry for all of it."

There was nothing of 'We Told You So' in her tone and, for that, Gibbs nodded acknowledgment.

"Come on," he sighed. "Let's go see what there is."

Ortilla gave Carter a rundown of what had transpired upstairs. Hollis thought she looked curiously unsurprised.

DiNozzo was down to the landing and taking photos of bloody dents in the door.

"They had another round here," he said, gesturing with his free hand to indicate the landing. "So Lorne was probably in good enough shape after that set-to upstairs to be able to fight back."

DiNozzo and Gibbs went through the door first. This was the level with the giant storerooms and the garage and whatever else was best done in large, cinder block rooms.

"He could be anywhere," Hollis said to Gibbs. Lockdown or not, there was still work going on and it was noisy. They were closest to where agents were disassembling a car and the sounds of power tools and metal-on-metal hammering richocheted off of the walls.

"What's over there?"

Over there was a cinder block wall with a metal door painted red and a keypad entry.

"Modeling room," DiNozzo answered. Carter must've made a face to indicate she didn't understand. "For reenactments?"

"Can we start there?" Carter asked as she pulled her backpack off of one shoulder and dug something out. It looked a little like a video camera, but instead of sleek plastic or shiny trim, it was mottled gunmetal gray and there were no little plastic buttons or viewscreens anywhere.

"What's that? It looks like a prop from an episode of The Flinstones meet the Jetsons." DiNozzo said.

"Is that going to work?" Safir asked Carter.

She made face and shrugged. "It worked on Vala. I've tweaked it a little so I can use it."

Safir didn't look confident and the marines looked outright skeptical.

"What is that?" Gibbs asked, holding out a hand not to ask for it, but to keep Carter from going anywhere with it. "What does it do?"

"It's our best chance to make sure Matthew Holden lives through this," Carter said. "I'll have to explain the rest later."

Hollis doubted that and she knew Gibbs did, too, but then Reletti started walking toward the red door and they lost the momentum to ask more questions or insist on more answers before proceeding.

Gibbs keyed the door open, holding off on the final number until the marines took a step back. They were undoubtedly skilled fighters, but they were also unarmed and they were looking for someone who'd already killed five people today without leaving so much as a mark.

The modeling room had part of a model built, what looked like half of a split-level done in plywood and duct tape. The living room was closest to the door with signs for 'couch' and 'television' and 'coffee table' where wood frames and tape outlines stood.

"Okay, so this is kind of creepy," DiNozzo said, looking around for what Hollis hoped was the light switch. The place was empty of people; the security lights were on and they cast menacing shadows, making the model look like a maze.

DiNozzo flipped a switch and there was a slapping noise, then the sizzle of the lights turning on. They were fluorescents, so the change wasn't huge at first, but the shadows were mostly gone.

Carter was about to press forward, taking her first steps to go around the model house on the left when Gibbs reached out and grabbed her arm. With hand signals, he gestured for Hollis and DiNozzo to go with her along with two of Lorne's team, which turned out to be Suarez and Reletti, and left Ortilla and Safir to follow Gibbs around to the right.

Reletti looked like he might've been considering asking for Hollis's gun, but she cocked an eyebrow at him and he backed off, although not without making it clear that he did not think that that was the most advantageous arrangement. She was qualified expert and had won a few marksmanship competitions; it would be enough.

It turned out to be a moot point. They made it around the side -- Suarez in the lead, despite DiNozzo's attempts to force the issue -- and stopped when they reached the next corner.

"It certainly took you long enough," Matthew Holden said.

Holden was leaning against the far wall of the room, an unconscious Lorne dangling a foot or so off the ground from a hook by the chain on his cuffed wrists. Both men were bloodied, but like they'd had a drunken fistfight, not like they'd destroyed as much property as they had.

"Where are you, Colonel Carter?" Holden called out. "Hiding's not really going to work now, is it?"

Carter stepped past Reletti and DiNozzo, the device held loosely in her right hand and partially obscured.

"Let's end this without a scene," Carter told him. "We've already started the specs for the multiphase disruptor. We'll have a prototype ready for testing by the end of the year. You've pretty much screwed the pooch on this one."

On the other side of the model, Gibbs leaned forward a little and Hollis caught his gaze. What the hell is going on? she hoped was on her face. He shrugged slightly.

"I'll admit that this hasn't gone as planned," Holden agreed. "But I'm not out of options yet. In fact, I am a little embarrassed that I didn't change strategies earlier."

Holden pulled a .45 out from behind his back, flipped off the safety and held it up.

DiNozzo and Gibbs raised theirs in response. Hollis, stuck behind almost everyone, didn't bother.

"Drop it, Staff Sergeant," Gibbs called out.

"Staff Sergeant Holden's not at home right now," Holden said cheerfully. His eyes glowed, like Hollis had thought Lorne's had and then dismissed because, seriously, what the fuck? -- and when he spoke, his voice was a couple of octaves lower. "But if you'd like to leave a message..."

"Okay, what the hell?" DiNozzo asked, voice rising.

Holden patted Lorne on the stomach, like a buddy. "Wake up, Major. You're missing the show," he exhorted in his normal voice.

Lorne stirred, but he wasn't fully alert yet. Holden looked at him speculatively, gesturing with the gun. "A gut shot? A head shot, maybe."

"Drop your weapon," Gibbs called out again. "You're not killing anyone else today."

Holden turned and smiled. "Is that a challenge, Special Agent Gibbs?"

"No, that's a promise," Gibbs answered.

"I have a shot," DiNozzo murmured. "Colonel Mann?"

Hollis pushed past Reletti and Carter, her own pistol in her hand still. With Holden oriented along the axis between Lorne and Gibbs, DiNozzo had the entire chest to shoot at. She was about to grant DiNozzo permission when Carter spoke.

"Don't," she urged quietly.

"We're not part of your army of disposable heroes, Colonel," DiNozzo warned. "You might be okay with Lorne or Gibbs taking a bullet so that you can cram Holden back into whatever box he escaped from, but--"

"It's not his fault," Carter cut him off. "Matthew Holden's done nothing wrong. You shoot him and you've just helped your murderer kill again."

"If you can kill him," Suarez muttered off to the side. "Nine mil might not cut it."

"What are you talking about?" Hollis asked as she watched Holden poke at Lorne, trying to get him to rouse completely while exchanging less-than-witty repartee with Gibbs.

"Holden's not at the steering wheel, ma'am," Reletti said. "He's just a puppet."

"This have to do with the glowing eyes and channeling of Barry White?" DiNozzo asked, not lowering his gun. "And the Incredible Hulk routine upstairs?"

"The mole isn't Holden," Carter said. "It's whoever's got control of Holden."

Hollis blinked stupidly. This was all ridiculous, even as she had no better explanation for what was going on. Occam's razor didn't apply to science fiction. "Remote-control people?"

"Is that what you're calling it now?" Holden called out. "You small, provincial people and your great big fears."

"We can do that now?" DiNozzo asked skeptically. "McGee really should be here."

"We can't and we don't," Carter answered vehemently. "It's unethical and fucking filthy. But others can and do."

It sounded like personal experience talking, Hollis thought. The very idea of someone else controlling her movements, her words, her anything... "Is there any chance Holden volunteered for this?"

"No," Carter answered firmly. "None of their previous subjects have been voluntary. If they even knew what was coming."

With another prod of the .45 to his belly, Lorne came awake with glowing eyes that quickly returned to normal. It was no less unsettling this time.

"And Major High-Beams over there's just another victim?" DiNozzo asked sarcastically.

"Major Lorne's got another... model," Carter explained. "It's a partnership, not a kidnapping. He's capable of independent thought and action. Holden's not. It's next to impossible to break that control, even for short bursts."

Holden laughed, loud and ugly. Gibbs had been talking to him throughout, the same sort of hostage-negotiator patter that sometimes helped and usually didn't and instead was just a way of saying 'nice doggy' until the cavalry showed up. But there was no cavalry. They could call for help, but to what purpose? A room full of people wouldn't get Lorne free -- or Holden, if Carter wasn't completely pulling their legs.

"The point, Special Agent Gibbs, is to whet your appetite," Holden was saying. "This will end soon, probably badly as far as Staff Sergeant Holden and I go, and probably for Major Lorne and his little friend, too. But not for you. You will keep digging, keep pushing, keep opening doors that Carter and O'Neill would like to keep closed. And that will be my victory. My 'mission accomplished.' And you'll end up doing much more damage to the Stargate Program than even I could."

"I'm pretty sure this guy's breaking, like, a dozen rules in the Evil Overlord Handbook," DiNozzo said with a levity Hollis knew he didn't feel.

"They tend to go on a bit," Carter replied wryly. "It's kind of useful sometimes."

"Like now, ma'am?" Suarez asked. "Your doohickey ready?"

Hollis looked down to the device still in Carter's hand. It looked the same as it had when she'd taken it out of her bag and she had no idea how Carter could even tell that it was on.

"It needs five minutes to calibrate," Carter said. "I didn't think we'd need it right away."

Holden was saying something to Lorne, too quietly for Hollis to hear.

"It's been five, ma'am," Reletti offered.

"I know," Carter said. "I can use it now but I'd like to give it as much time as I can just to be sure. I know Azem's okay with whatever happens, but..."

"Who's Azem?" DiNozzo asked.

"The Major's... partner," Reletti answered.

"Why does it matter?" Hollis asked. "If he's not holding Lorne against his will, then--"

"This might kill him," Carter cut her off. "It'll definitely kill Holden's puppetmaster."

"It won't work," Holden called over, the sing-song of a taunt in his voice. "You don't have the strength on your own anymore. Jolinar has been and gone and even she would not have been able to use that correctly."

"I'm ready to try," Carter said. "Lorne?"

Lorne's eyes glowed. "I have made my peace, Samantha Carter," he said in a voice that was most definitely not his own.

"That's never going to not be freaky, is it?" DiNozzo asked nobody in particular.

"Nope," Suarez agreed.

"Ma'am," Reletti prompted.

Carter raised the device and aimed it at Holden and Holden swung his pistol around in response, which in turn brought Gibbs's gun back up as Safir reached out to stop him.

There was nothing, then Carter grunted and there was a... noise, high pitched and barely audible, growing louder and louder until Hollis had to cover her own ears, imperfectly with her pistol in one hand, and then there was a flash of light. And then everything stopped.

It took a second for Hollis to blink the tears out of her eyes and for her hearing to return, but when she did and it did, she could see Holden on the floor and Lorne once again hanging limp.

With a nod to DiNozzo, Hollis ran forward, joining Gibbs with their pistols trained on Holden, who wasn't moving. Safir edged around Gibbs to examine Holden while Ortilla and Reletti got Lorne down off of the hook. She could hear him speaking, so he was at least conscious. Holden was not.

"Is he alive?" Gibbs asked. "Is it deactivated?"

"Yes and I don't know," Safir answered brusquely, not looking up as he worked. "Step back."

"It's gone," Carter said from next to Hollis. "They both are."

She didn't look overjoyed. Somewhere, there were two more dead men.

Hollis looked over to where Lorne was sitting up, still cuffed, and letting his men fuss over him. Tears were falling from his eyes and he looked very sad, if not quite grieving. Hollis tapped DiNozzo's arm and indicated that he should go uncuff Lorne.

Holden woke up with a moan and a cough that became a retch that became projectile vomiting and Gibbs had to jump out of the way.

"Oh, god, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Holden whispered over and over. Safir told him to stop apologizing in a curt voice, but he was gentle in his actions, wiping Holden's sweaty forehead and holding him awkwardly so that he wasn't lying in his own sick.

With the situation more or less stable, they called security and told them the situation was over and to lift the lockdown. The room flooded with personnel, the commotion all the more jarring and unwanted in light of everything that had happened. David and McGee raced down, wary and concerned and maybe a little regretful that they'd missed out.

"Should we get an ambulance?" McGee asked, looking at Holden, who was now sitting up, leaning against the wall and wrapped in a ratty blanket someone had found nearby. He was pale and drawn and kept his head bowed as Ortilla, sitting next to him, talked. Occasionally he'd look up with bloodshot eyes and once he met Hollis's gaze and she had to look away because it was a picture of despair and misery.

"We'll take care of him," Carter answered, looking at Holden and then turning back to McGee. "His wounds aren't on the surface."

Lorne's probably weren't all on the surface, too, but there were enough there that Safir was trying to treat them and Lorne was trying to bat him away. Suarez and Reletti were cracking jokes and trying to get Lorne to cooperate, but whether either was doing Safir any benefit was not clear.

"This is one hell of a mess," Gibbs said right behind her and Hollis spun around, not having noticed his approach.

"It is," she agreed. "But it's over."

"This part, anyway," Gibbs agreed, eyes on Holden and Ortilla, who had slung an arm over Holden's shoulders and pulled him in. Brothers in arms once more.

"Are you really that interested in any more of this business?" she asked, genuinely curious. She knew the man controlling Holden (something that still didn't sound right, even in her head) had been grandstanding, but Carter had told them afterward that he hadn't been wrong. One lunatic going to the newspapers or writing a blog about remote-controlled people and moles in intelligence organizations was just that -- a lone nut. But an open-ended investigation by people with both experience and credentials could make a mess. And Carter was worried that Gibbs would be the cause of a mess.

Hollis wasn't so sure. She didn't think that Carter or anyone in that program had any plans to use this technology -- Carter's revulsion had been too deep and she'd made it clear that O'Neill's was even more pronounced. Seeing Holden now, broken and alone even in a crowded room, Hollis was ready to wash her hands of all of it and leave it a secret among those willing to keep it. And she suspected Gibbs was, too. His resentment hadn't been based in the keeping of secrets per se -- although he had a crappy record when it came to keeping his nose out of places it didn't belong clearance-wise -- but instead at how O'Neill and his people had come across. Work in their business for long enough and you ran across agencies and individuals for whom the prestige of secret-keeping was more important than the secrets themselves or what they were being held for. But this wasn't an ego trip for O'Neill's group; they were true believers in a way that was not necessarily comforting, but at least one with which Hollis was prepared to live.

"I'd have been happier if I'd never heard of any of these people," he said, eyes on Holden and Ortilla. There was a note in his voice, sad and angry and frustrated and powerless. Any other time, she'd have been a little relieved to see that part of Jethro, something under the facade of cocky, confident cool that was both a turn-on and an impenetrable barrier. But not now. He sighed deeply. "We should get a name from Carter, whoever was jerking Holden's marionette strings. Close all of these cases up."

She nodded and he started to walk away, giving her shoulder a pat and a squeeze and lingering long enough for her to touch his hand with her own.

Once he was gone, she could see that Director Shepard was approaching, General O'Neill and Mitchell with her, and so she waited for them.

"It's over?" Shepard asked.

"Yes, ma'am," Hollis agreed. "All that's left is the paperwork. Which will probably be a little nonsensical with all of the redactions."

"I suppose so," Shepard agreed wryly. "Thank you, Colonel."

"What she said," O'Neill added with a wry half-smile that had nothing to do with humor. He held out his hand to shake. "I already apologized to Director Shepard, but I wanted to offer you a separate one. I know how these Army-Navy things go."

Hollis grinned and shook his hand. "I'm glad we're on the same side, sir."

"Me, too," O'Neill said. "Now if you don't mind, I think it's time I took my people home."

 Mitchell stayed behind as Shepard and O'Neill went on to offer congratulations and comfort to the others.

"You still want Holden?" he asked, already knowing the answer.

"I want a name I can put on a death certificate that can get attached to eleven closed murder cases," she said. "A name that's not going to cause trouble down the line."

"I can manage that," Mitchell agreed.

"And I want assurance that if we need to talk to anyone to close this thing up, you won't be throwing up walls."

Hollis knew as well as anyone that once O'Neill collected his crew and left the building, that would be the last time they saw anyone.

"Can you live with email?"

"Yeah."

Mitchell nodded. "Been a pleasure working with you, Colonel Mann."

Hollis cocked an eyebrow.

"Most of the time," Mitchell amended. "Sometimes, you folks were a right pain in the ass."

They shook hands and went their separate ways.

O'Neill and Shepard had made their way to Holden, who tried to stand up when he saw O'Neill but didn't get very far before O'Neill crouched down before him. He took Holden's chin in his hand and looked him straight in the eye, saw whatever he wanted to see and gave him a pat on the cheek before standing up again. For the first time since he'd been 'freed', Holden looked something other than bereft. Still broken - Hollis didn't think that would change for a while - but maybe for the first time he looked fixable.

"You ready to go home, Staff Sergeant?" O'Neill asked him.

"Yes, sir."


feed me on LJ?


Postscripts

Lorne: It was weird before it got weird.

Sheppard: Meanwhile, back at the ranch...

Gillick: Aaron and the delicate art of being collateral damage.


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2 August, 2010