AN: I freely admit that I'm writing of bureaucracy I know little about here; I've done my research to the best of my ability, but if I'm waffly and vague at any point it's because I can't be more accurate, not because I don't want to.
I've had valuable help and advice from The Nagging Cube, for which I'm sincerely grateful. She suggests that I mention before we begin, that the story concerns Traumatic Brain Injury, its effects and consequences. If this distresses you, I apologise, and please do stop reading now.
Takes place before Ellie's arrival.
The Wife Didn't Do It
The scene flickering on the TV behind the bar showed a fine morning, outside JAG headquarters at Falls Church. The woman walking away from the building had a microphone from a national media company thrust at her, rudely as was the usual method of reporters.
"Mrs Childs, did Jag agree to look at your claims?"
Another intrusive piece of national plastic joined it. "Will JAG take up your case?"
The woman, whose birth certificate said she was thirty-four, but who appeared maybe ten years older, especially in the bright, bleaching sunshine, and despite a hopeful dab of make-up and her best clothes, looked bleakly at the reporters.
"Where were you when Cass was alive and needed your support?" She turned sharply and walked away, followed closely only by one team from a local, Virginia company, although the nationals could be seen trailing along in the background.
"Susie," the local front-man asked more gently, "did you have any luck?"
Susannah Childs stopped walking and faced the camera. She took a deep breath. "Yes, Rob. Thanks to the help of the Veterans Association," she said slowly, "the Judge Advocate General's office has consented to look at the material I've presented. I believe them to be unbiased, and I can only hope that they'll see there's something to be investigated about how my husband's patrol came under fire where and when they did. Whether they'll be able to do anything is another story, but I'm more hopeful."
"And have you been able to arrange Lucas's funeral yet?"
The widowed woman's composure almost deserted her, but she took a deep breath and said desolatey, "No, Rob, I still haven't been able to find out where he is."
The camera followed her as she walked away, as a voice-over said, "Mrs Child's husband was the only survivor of a USMC patrol that came under fire in an area of Helmand known as 'watch-your-back park', which was thought to be under US control." A picture that was becoming quite well known, at least on the Virginia news channel, flashed up – a handsome, tanned man with sunbleached hair, in combat dress, "First Lieutenant Childs was repatriated with severe head and other injuries; he died at his home six months later, five weeks ago. Mrs Childs, and others, believe there are inconsistencies in the accounts of the circumstances that led to the deaths of five Marines and Lieutenant Childs injuries, and have been asking for an investigation. So far these requests have been deemed unnecessary."
Mrs Childs was shepherded into a car that pulled up, by a tall, iron-grey haired man who walked with a limp and a stick, and was driven away. The program moved on.
"Aaah... lying bitch," a voice hissed softy, and Gibbs, reaching for his coffee order, paused to see who was speaking.
"What d'you mean?" he asked curiously, and then paused again, his eyes crinkling with a smile of pleasure. "Jack? Jack Fulford?"
"Gibbs? Gibbs!" The big, florid-faced man instantly offered a beefy hand. "Looking good, Jethro – I hear you're with the feds these days?"
"You hear right... NCIS. Damn, it's good to see you. What are you doin'? Something on the hill, by the looks of you." He indicated the man's impeccable city suit.
"Oh yeah, eastern bloc analyst at the Pentagon. It pays the bills... puts the weight on..." he patted his comfortable paunch. "I was on my way over to an early meeting with the District Commandant, parked my car, found I was really early, I mean, who calls a meeting for eight am?"
Gibbs grinned evilly. "Anyone in the military. You should remember! What's early at the Pentagon? Elevenses?"
Jack smiled ruefully. "Hell, something like that. I call it flexi-hours... I looked for coffee – I see you're still an addict – hey, ran into you of all people."
Gibbs grinned again at his old buddy from the Corps. "No problem finding me here... creature of habit – I come in every morning on my way in – unless we've got a case and I'm in a hurry. It's a wonder I don't meet more old friends sooner or later." He paused, frowned and asked again, "So, what did you mean? You know her?"
Jack Fulford winced. "Ouch... didn't mean to be overheard... I don't use language like that. Not since the Corps. You remember, I didn't even have much of a mouth then!" He gave Gibbs a boyish smile that made the other former Marine remember how well they'd got along in those days, and how little he bothered to keep in touch with good friends now. His loss.
"Look," Fulford went on ruefully, " just forget I spoke, OK?"
The investigator in Gibbs wasn't going to do any such thing. "You said she was lying," he persisted. "She didn't look like she was."
"She wouldn't. She's a damn good actress. Very smart lady. She'd break your heart, the cold witch."
Gibbs was thoroughly intrigued. "You mean she's not really after justice – what she sees as justice – for her husband?"
"I mean," Jack Fulford said heavily, "that she killed him. I mean that she didn't want to look after him anymore, and she killed him. In cold blood. I don't know why she's making a fuss, it's drawing attention to her... I guess she thinks she'll get compensation at the end of all this. She's after money. Her and all the other ones."
Gibbs looked at him in horror. "And you know all this how, Jack?"
Fulford looked awkward. "Ahh... well, that's why I said forget it...speaking out of turn... I can't exactly tell you, Jethro. Analysts talk to each other, you know?" He sighed, anger vibrating out of him like sound waves. "I knew Luke Childs fifteen years ago when he was a young WO in my Task Force, saw the potential even then. He was a First Lieutenant when he was wounded; had his own squad, was about ready to be made up to Captain. When I heard he'd been repatriated I looked into things to see if there was any way I could help."
He glanced round, and although there didn't seem to be anyone listening, he put his hand under Gibbs' elbow and steered him towards the entrance. Outside he stopped and faced his old friend again.
"My – er, sources... well, I found out that Mrs Childs had refused to put her husband into residential care – insisted she could do a better job. Way I heard it, her better job had him losing weight, and covered in bruises... She'd joined a bunch of rabble-rousers trying to say something had gone wrong in Helmand and got them all killed. How's that looking after her husband? She should have been at home with him if that was what she'd chosen. Her father was helping her, she said, man of sixty. Shouldn't have been expected to do a physical job like that. He died, and surprise, surprise, a fortnight later, when she's found she can't do it on her own, her husband's found dead in his bed."
"What killed him?"
"Jethro, I haven't been able to find that out... their family doctor very kindly arranged to have Lieutenant Childs' body taken to the local mortuary in an ambulance, rather than calling the coroner's men – but he was no sooner there than the Department of Veterans Affairs hurried in and took charge of the remains. They're being secretive about why, makes you wonder, doesn't it? They suspected something."
"It's a big jump to saying she killed him, Jack," Gibbs said dubiously. It wasn't that he disbelieved his friend; but it was a huge assumption.
"Yeah," Jack said bitterly. "One of my sources heard her say, to dear Julia, one of her trouble-making friends, that he 'was fading', and that it 'was so easy to hurt him,' – and at that point he stopped listening because he didn't want to hear her say anything even worse. Look... you saw the guy driving the car she got into?"
"Hard to see him – the other guy outside the car now, he looked like a vet."
"Yeah, both of them are from the Veterans Association. The older guy's the area co-ordinator, Bill Towb, the younger guy, the driver, his name's Dave Lord. She spends a lot of time in his company apparently; was already doing before her husband died." He snorted. "Poor guy would have died sooner rather than later, I should think. All she had to do was wait... Jethro, I've said more than I should already. The bitch killed him." He glanced at his watch. "Like I said, forget it. I should get to my meeting... Hey, we shouldn't be strangers; I'll get in touch, meet up for a drink some time."
He hurried away.
Gibbs walked slowly, deep in thought. He'd encountered it so many times he should have been hardened, and mostly he was; people killed by their spouses, for love, hate, rage, jealousy, greed... or lazy, calculated hard-heartedness. 'It was so easy to hurt him'; his blood ran cold, recalling the words. A defenceless man at the mercy of a woman who didn't want to be bothered with him. Jack had uncovered something very nasty, and he was going to have to talk to his old friend again and worm more out of him. In the meantime, he was going to have a word with Mrs Susannah Childs.
As he strode out of the elevator, his Senior Field Agent raised a curious eyebrow. You're ten minutes late, Boss, want to tell us why? No... whatever. "Morning, Boss." Gibbs grunted, and replied to Tim's similar greeting with, "McGee. Everything you can find on First Lieutenant Lucas Childs." He threw himself down in his office chair with a glare at the world that said, and leave me alone.
Tony regarded his boss seriously for a moment; it was clear that something was mega-bugging him, and just as clear that he wasn't going to say anything. After a glance at Tim to make sure he was comfortable, he minimised the window he'd been using, and opened a general search on the name, pretty certain that Tim would be starting from a detailed military standpoint.
The first link that came up, and it was at the top of a long list, was a news report. Five Marines on patrol had been killed in Helmand province, Afghanistan, in an area which was generally thought to be under US control, but where insurgents were sometimes encountered. The patrol leader, First Lieutenant Lucas Childs, was the only survivor, had been gravely injured, and would be repatriated as soon as he was made well enough to travel.
Tony looked for another report to discover if that had happened, and there encountered his first odd fact about the whole sad business. Many media companies took up the story of the five coffins that were carried down from a Hercules with all due military dignity, but not another thing could he discover about the lieutenant, not even a report of his death. Indeed, the only way he knew that Lucas Childs had died was when he found a Virginia company's video report on a group of widows, those of the men who had died, and the newly bereaved Susie Childs, attempting to speak to an official outside the Department of Veterans Affairs imposing building in Manhattan.
They were unsuccessful, and as the camera followed them as they moved away, the report was concluded by a freeze frame of Mrs Childs looking directly into the lens. The expression captured there was, to Tony, heartbreaking and chilling; that of a young woman, made old, on whose face bleak, desperate grief warred for dominance with bitter anger. The director had clearly chosen that shot as it told far more than any report possibly could.
"DiNozzo!" Gibbs was in front of his desk and in his face. "Did I tell you or McGee to find me that information?"
"McGee, Boss," Tony said levelly. Now maybe he'd find out what was on Gibbs' mind. The Marine caught the unrepentant note in his SFA's voice, and given what was on his mind just then, it didn't go down a bundle.
"So why are you doing it?"
"Because something's getting to you, Boss, and I'd rather have your six than not."
"Ya mean you're not just nosy?"
"I've never been just nosy, Boss. My nosiness, legendary as it is, has always been for a reason."
Not a glimmer of a smile. Gibbs grunted. "With me." He started for the elevator, barking "Let me know what you find" over his shoulder at Tim, and then lost a small scrap of his dignity when he realised he hadn't picked up his cell phone. He lost a larger scrap as he turned back, only to have Tony hand it to him. The elevator ride was silent. So was the walk to the car. So was the journey.
Finally, as they turned south onto highway 495, and now he had something to say, Tony broke the silence. When he and Gibbs were alone in a vehicle, he never felt, after all, that there was a vacuum to fill, to protect anyone else from the bear.
"Annandale," he said thoughtfully. "Where Mrs Childs lives." Gibbs gave him an irritated, 'ya think' look, and he had no idea why.
"Yeah, we're going to see Susannah Childs," he finally agreed.
"On the news... they call her Susie. Why are we going to see her? Hey... you think what she said needs investigating?"
Gibbs just gave him a 'don't be dense, figure it out' look and snorted. He knew he was being unfair; Tony hadn't heard the horrifying tale of neglect and murder that he had, or seen Jack Fulford buzzing with righteous anger. Any chance Fulford was wrong? Not a one – Jack was a good guy, and had never been prone to fanciful thinking in the Corps, nevertheless he was going to get more information on those sources – how many other mean and despicable things hadn't seen the light of day over the years? He didn't answer; and Tony just settled down in his seat. It was no problem, the Boss was in a strop, it'd happened before, like how many times? But he wasn't playing Gibbs' game, he'd tried already to lighten the mood and failed; enough.
Gibbs had expected Mrs Childs, Susie he thought bitterly, to be back from Falls Church ahead of them, and said so bad temperedly; (Tony didn't ask how he knew that was where she'd gone,) but when a polite knock produced no response, they decided they'd wait. Her house was family sized, white rendered, a bit much for a First Lieutenant's pay, but pleasant, and in a quiet back street. On the drive sat a tall all-purpose Nissan, which they both observed as they walked back past it, was kitted out to take a wheelchair.
"Built like a tank," Tony said quietly. "Safe, but heavy on gas. No wonder she didn't use it to get to JAG."
"She went with company, DiNozzo."
Well, Boss... a little more information earlier would have been nice... They got back into the car, and Tony was just taking a deep breath to voice his thoughts, politely of course, when the grey sedan that Gibbs had seen earlier on the news clip came round the corner and stopped behind the APV. Gibbs frowned. Mrs Childs was wearing scruffy jeans and a baggy shirt, not the business suit she'd worn to visit JAG, and he found himself wondering where she'd changed.
There was only one person in the car with her, younger than the man he'd seen on the news, and he watched their interaction closely. She didn't lean over and kiss the man before getting out of the car, however, and only gave him a half smile and what they lip-read as 'thanks', before she turned up the drive and the car pulled away. Gibbs shrugged internally. Well, maybe that wasn't the same guy, or maybe the neighbours were too observant.
Susannah dug around in her tote-bag for her front door key, and opened the door to let herself into the house, but paused as she saw the two men stepping out of the official looking car and crossing the road towards her. She waited, her face set in a neutrally polite expression. Gibbs saw a mask; Tony saw iron control. After they'd introduced themselves, she led them towards the house.
"Have you been waiting long?"
"Not really," Gibbs said with steely politeness. "Although we expected you back from Falls Church before this."
"Falls Church? I went there yesterday. I've been down to the VA this morning to help them deal with a flood they had during the night. I do things for them when I can; they did such a lot for Cass." She pointed to her car. "Had to get a lift again, Tank needs a new fuel injector unit." They followed her indoors.
The place was neat and spotlessly clean, and made Tony think of bad days when he'd dress and groom himself to absolute perfection as armour against the world. The only things out of place were a cardboard box on the floor, with tissue paper snowing all around it, and a dozen or so photos in frames, on the coffee table and the sofa. Mrs Childs gave an apologetic half-smile and moved the pictures from the settee to the arm of a chair so they could sit down.
"Packing the family photos away, Mrs Childs?" Gibbs asked, and the woman blinked, startled by the not very veiled hostility in his tone. (Tony hoped his own sharp intake of breath was silent.)
"I'm putting them back, Special Agent Gibbs," she said mildly. "They were upsetting Cass and I had to take them down." She pointed to the leg of the piano, which had some heavy dents and scrapes on it. "He did that with his wheelchair to try to make them fall down, so I took them down for him. I don't know how much longer I'll be here," Tony frowned slightly at what he heard there, "but while I am, I want to remember when there were happier times."
"They upset him? I thought he was –" Gibbs broke off, not knowing how to put it, but Susannah got his drift without difficulty.
"He wasn't a vegetable, Agent Gibbs!" Her eyes and her tone were a bit hot. "Everything that had made him the very intelligent man he was, was still there. The problem was, it was completely scrambled. He couldn't string his thoughts together..." She picked up a photo of the two of them, standing in a small sailing boat, holding hands, waving up at the camera, tanned and laughing. "I'd see him reaching for an idea," she said sadly. "I'd hope. I'd pray – that this time would be the time when a neural pathway miraculously repaired itself. I'd been told it wouldn't, but I still hoped... it never did... he'd lose it, and yell and scream for frustration, because he knew he'd been something greater than he was... it was hell, really."
"Hell enough to make you want to help him out of it?"
Tony said, "Boss!" in a shocked tone. Susannah didn't say anything for a moment, just sat and looked at the photo in her hand. Finally, she said quietly to her husband's image, "And I thought things couldn't get any worse." She looked up, eyes really blazing this time, stood up and faced him down where he sat on the sofa. "Go to hell, Special Agent Gibbs," she said in a soft, level voice that was more powerful than a scream would have been, "and take that bastard Jack Fulford with you."
AN: Much Tony-Gibbs angst to come – I love it...