Hello, friends! Sorry for the delay in posting when I promised an earlier update. I have two more weeks of work craziness but I anticipate sticking to a weekly posting. Thanks once again to all those who are reading! It's nice to know that even if there aren't quite as many of you out there as there once were...many of you are still here and reading! So...enjoy!
Twenty minutes later, Ziva was illegally parked in front of the diner Maritza identified. The neighborhood was largely deserted this time of night. Most businesses were closed and no foot traffic came through. She spent a minute taking stock of her surroundings—the diner, its exits, the flow of local traffic, all the cars parked nearby. Nothing seemed amiss, though going in blind like this meant she wasn't sure exactly what to anticipate. It wasn't the way to run a mission, but she'd learned long ago to be flexible and creative in times like this. She grabbed her keys and phone in her hand. She contemplated the knife in her glove box but had second thoughts upon glancing down at her ensemble. She had nowhere to hide a weapon and she was no longer in the habit of wearing a thigh sheath for her knife. She would have to settle for the pepper spray on her keychain and hope for the best. In and out.
Ziva entered the diner, flashed a tight smile at the lone waitress on duty, and made her way quickly and purposefully to where she assumed the bathrooms were located. The place was relatively empty; it seemed they were in the clear.
Knocking on the door, Ziva announced her presence before entering. What she saw when she entered the bathroom nearly broke her heart.
Maritza was young, very young, no more than twenty, and wearing a cocktail dress nicer than Ziva's. Still, the black strapless number was a little too loose and the girl looked awkward and uncomfortable in her towering heels, almost like she was playing dress-up. She was bent over the sink, dry-heaving. Whatever remained of her make-up was running in tracks down her face. All her weight seemed to be resting on her forearms, as if she was trying to climb into the porcelain basin and escape down the drain.
"Ziva?" She choked, eyes bleary with tears and withdrawal.
Ziva offered the girl a reassuring smile. "Yes, Maritza. I am Ziva. Are you ready to go?"
Maritza nodded, though nearly collapsed when she tried to move away from the sink. Ziva quickly went to support her. Maritza's slight body crumpled onto hers. The girl reeked of booze and cigarettes.
"All right," Ziva murmured, hefting her charge up to balance on her heels. When the girl's legs refused to remain locked and steady, Ziva helped Maritza remove her shoes. Maritza's balance seemed to improve on bare feet.
Ziva shoved the expensive heels into Maritza's hands. "Let's go."
They made an odd pair. Ziva, a put-together adult, guiding a girl who looked like she took a game of dress up a few steps too far. Ziva gave the waitress an apologetic look on their way out, ignoring the roll of her eyes.
They were almost safely to Ziva's car when she heard it: the unmistakable sound of a revving engine and screeching tires. They'd been spotted.
"Shit," Ziva cursed, turning to see the headlights of a dark sedan bearing down on them. Maritza whimpered and burrowed into her arms. The driver slammed on the brakes. A black Audi effectively blocked Ziva's car into its spot. The window rolled down.
"Yo, mija, get in the car!" A white male in his early twenties with a distinct air of wealth about him tried to act like a guy who'd just lost his date. Maritza huddled in closer to Ziva, tears rolling down her face.
Ziva spoke on the silent girl's behalf. "It appears your friend has had too much to drink. I am going to take her home."
"No, no, Maritza," the man's smile turned predatory. "Baby, you're coming home with me tonight. I got you."
"Fuck off, Matty," Maritza screamed with a sudden burst of brazen energy. She thrashed a bit in Ziva's grasp. Ziva tightened her grip on the young woman's shoulders; it was clear this Matty was nothing but bad news and she was not about to let the girl go back to him.
"Calm down," Ziva murmured to her charge, not wanting Maritza to further escalate the situation. "Let me handle this."
Ziva addressed Matty with a bright face. "I will be taking your friend home tonight. I would be happy to call the police to sort this out if we need to." She held up her phone.
Matty laughed and rolled his eyes. "Yeah, okay, lady. Just mind your own fucking business and hand over my girlfriend."
Lady? Ziva's lips curled up in a devious grin of her own. "I believe she told you to fuck off, Matty."
Maritza stood straighter in her arms. A smile that was much too wide stretched across her face. "I did, asshole!"
Matty didn't seem to like that answer. Ziva internally cringed at the gun the man produced into view. He waved it around with no regard for their safety or his own. Ziva arranged her keys in her hand so she had her pepper spray handy. She didn't like the idea of spraying an armed man, but odds were he'd reflexively drop the gun. If not, he'd at least lose his clear shot at them.
"Maritza, get in the damn car. Now." The young man's words were slurred. His eyes were red-rimmed.
Ziva glanced between Maritza and Matty, trying to read the situation. Maritza had gained a newfound confidence in Ziva's presence. She made a show of slipping her heels back on. Matty clearly wasn't backing down, either. He flapped the gun in the window, tapping the barrel against the side of his car.
"Matty, this will not end well," Ziva promised, one hand up in surrender. "Please just move along and call your girlfriend in the morning."
"Like hell," Matty shouted. Ziva picked up on a few other male voices in the car, hidden in the backseat, egging him on. Ziva regretted not stopping home for the Jericho stashed under her mattress. She tried to look bored as Matty and Maritza screamed back and forth at one another, their insults vulgar and unspecific.
"Maritza, let's go back into the diner. We will call the police," Ziva urged the girl, betting these thugs wouldn't want to cause that big of a scene. But Maritza was still full of liquid courage and all wound up. A final obscenity screamed at Matty was his breaking point.
Ziva watched in aggravation as the rear tire on her car deflated. Matty cackled and raised his weapon again. Maritza looked around frantically, starting towards the Audi but then changing her mind and stepping back. Matty met Ziva's eyes and Ziva saw a real darkness there, the type of abyss that was generally true evil abetted by illegal substances. She knew his kind. He wouldn't hesitate to shoot again. Dammit.
"Maritza, run," Ziva said quietly before grabbing the girl's arm and pulling her in the direction of a nearby alley. She was betting on Matty both hesitating to shoot and, hopefully, being a terrible shot. Dragging her charge along, Ziva demonstrated a low crouch-run that kept them covered by the cars parked on the street.
Another gunshot. Shattering glass. Maritza screamed.
"Go, Maritza. Go! To the alley!" Ziva pushed the girl in front of her, looking over her shoulder. The Audi did a screeching three-point turn and sped back in their direction. Maritza yelped as she tripped on a soggy box littering the alleyway. Ziva looked around for an escape. Spotting a gangway a few yards ahead, she urged Maritza to keep running. Matty blared the horn at them as the car raced up the alley, closing in on them. In the periphery of her vision, halogen lights burned bright behind them. He would gain on them in moments.
"Oh God. Oh no," Maritza cried, tripping again. Ziva swept in behind her and kept her on her feet. She practically pushed her down the gangway.
"Run! To the street! Get a cab!" Ziva yelled out directions to a girl who was definitely not in a mindset to follow them. Maritza scrabbled along the narrow passage between buildings, crying out each time she tripped and twisted her ankles in her heels. The concrete was uneven and strewn with debris. Ziva shoved Maritza along, ignoring her yelps when her skin caught on the jagged brick of the buildings. Ziva checked to see if their tail had caught up with them yet. They were clear. Luckily the gangway was short; they were coming up the side of the diner. Had Matty fired on them in that narrow passage, they would have been easy targets.
The two women practically fell onto the empty street. Ziva threw her hand up to flag down a cab before she even cleared the sidewalk. More luck was on her side as one pulled to the curb almost immediately. She flung open the door, shoved Maritza inside, and urged the driver to move.
In typical city fashion, the driver was completely disinterested as to why two breathless, terrified, scuffed up women had fallen into the back of his cab. He pulled away from the curb and off into the night.
Walker had personally dropped Tony off at his apartment to ensure he would not spend yet another night passed out on his desk. There were still files to go through, though. Kate had dropped off some North Star cases earlier and they'd finally gotten the go-ahead on some of Shepard's emails. Most of it had gotten a first look that afternoon by either Nathan or Tony, but a second look never hurt. Especially since they had a whole lot of zilch so far.
Nathan had tried to make Tony promise to do nothing but drink a few beers and watch a movie. Tony had only said he would try. It made his partner feel better, Tony knew. Cases like this Walker worried about not pulling his full weight—that trying to get home to his girls, to actually make a soccer game or parent conference, would mean he wasn't contributing to the case. Tony, of course, thought this was ridiculous. It wasn't like he had any obligations outside of work, really, and a few extra hours doing grunt work was an easy sacrifice if it meant Walker got to be a proper father. It was an endless debate between the partners, one that wasn't likely to be settled anytime soon. Showing up in the morning with a lead would go a long way to soothing Nathan's unnecessary guilt.
Tony's head swam with new information after settling down with the files, pizza, and a beer at the coffee table. Nothing jumped out at him yet, though. He figured a shower would help focus his thoughts. If not, there was always another beer and a basketball game on to distract him before he finally fell asleep. Undoubtedly, after a few hours crashed on the couch, he'd wake up with a better grasp of the case.
Just as he was settling in after his shower, his phone rang. He glanced at the caller ID and smiled. Ziva.
"Professor David, to what do I owe the pleasure?"
"Detective, where are you right now?"
Tony's smile disappeared. The words sounded promising, but the tone was all wrong. "At my apartment. Why? What's wrong?"
Ziva let out a bark of a laugh. "I have one of Jenny's girls here. I cannot get ahold of her and, after a thug shot out my tire, we are driving around aimlessly in a taxi."
Tony blinked at the TV. His brain refused to process the information. "What?"
"I have a girl. We were shot at. We need somewhere to go and I am fairly certain this relates to your case." The words were rattled off in rapid-fire with escalating impatience.
Tony was still hopelessly confused. "You rescued another girl?"
"Not by choice," was her gritted response. "She would prefer not to go to the police station."
"Okay," he glanced around his small living space. "Come to my apartment then. We will figure it out." He rattled off his address. Ziva got shot at again? Twice in one week? She was fast approaching his all-time record. Visions of the mysterious dark-haired beauty flashed in his brain. Images that weren't entirely professional. Down right pornographic, more like.
"Thank you," Ziva exhaled, sounding suddenly exhausted. "We will be there soon. We will also need your credit card." Then she hung up.
A few minutes later, Tony was paying off a hefty meter total and escorting a finely dressed Ziva and a drunken teenager into his apartment.
"Welcome to Casa DiNozzo," Tony gestured around the one-bedroom. It was small, but functional. He'd lucked out with a nicely rehabbed kitchen, though he never cooked. Still, he took care of the place and it was homey—a comfortable couch, a top of the line flat screen TV and entertainment center, and built-in bookshelves full of DVDs.
"Nice," Ziva looked him up and down with an arched brow, talking a slow walk through his space. She stopped at the small archway that led to his bedroom and gave the room a quick once-over. "A full?" She turned back to him with disbelief.
He shrugged, "That's all the room I need to work."
Maritza remained in the doorway, shivering. Tony took pity on her and walked over with a blanket. Wrapping the young girl up in it, he helped guide her to sit on the couch. Ziva watched him with a soft look on her face.
"So sounds like you ladies had an eventful night," Tony began, earning a nervous giggle from Maritza. "Let's hear what happened."
Ziva sat on Tony's leather couch as she waited for him to return to the room. He was on the phone with his partner just a few feet away in the kitchen, relaying the information they'd given him so that Detective Walker could get the proper alerts out. Maritza was quietly sniffling into the blanket on the couch, lost in her own thoughts. Ziva spared her a look of sympathy but found it hard to keep her eyes from drifting over to Detective DiNozzo.
It stirred something inside of her listening to his hushed conversation with his partner as he detailed the situation. DiNozzo was a fairly tall man with broad shoulders, not overweight but built thickly. The men she'd worked with in her past life tended to be more slender, more of an unassuming physical presence until their strength was called upon. Still, there was a common way that a man held himself who was confident in his physicality. Here, now, in his own home, DiNozzo still stood tall, muscles strung and ready for a fight.
It was adrenaline, really. It made the body taller, leaner, and heated. Her story had sent the detective into immediate action and now Ziva could only sit back and watch. It was hard to do, what with all the adrenaline still coursing through her own body. It made Ziva recall one of the sometimes added benefits of her last job—the comedown from a mission well done. Minds and bodies still buzzing, still needing a release, it wasn't exactly uncommon to find that release in the arms of a teammate. The sex was generally meaningless and always good. It wasn't something she missed per se, but watching Tony pace his small apartment, muscles flexing beneath his worn t-shirt, voice low and urgent, well, Ziva couldn't help but wish this particular mission could have such a beneficial outcome.
Frustrated, Ziva began picking at her cuticles.
Tony ended his phone conversation and headed back in their direction. Ziva shook her head clear of her wayward thoughts.
"My partner is heading the search for Matty and his crew," he nodded at Ziva before turning to Maritza. "My friend, Kate, is coming over. She's with the FBI, okay?" Tony sat on the edge of his coffee table, leveling himself with Maritza. He was careful to keep his tone kind and non-threatening, Ziva noted. It put Maritza at ease; she seemed to watch him with a bald-faced trust that impressed Ziva.
"Is she going to…?" Maritza let out something between a sob and a hiccup. "Am I in trouble?"
Ziva swiveled her head to look at Tony sharply. He'd been good so far, sticking mostly to the details of the night's events, and allowing Maritza to hedge around the bounds of her relationship with Matty. Here was the tricky part, Ziva knew. Prostitution was illegal. Maritza could face charges if Tony decided to go there. Jenny had often complained to Ziva that law enforcement often resorted to pushing charges on the victims to get to the bigger fish, the traffickers. Ziva had a feeling that Tony wouldn't cart this vulnerable girl off to jail, but her instincts had been wrong before. And now he was bringing in the FBI?
Tony held up a hand, keeping Ziva's temper at bay and calming Maritza's panic. "I'm a homicide cop, Maritza. Not vice. My friend Kate works for a group that helps girls who are in situations like the one I suspect you're in. She works with North Star, too."
"North Star…" Maritza shivered. "That's where Jenny, I mean, Professor Shepard wanted me to go."
"Exactly. And we'll talk more about that." Tony flashed a grin at Maritza that seemed to light up her face in response. "We are all here to help you, okay? Kate, too. You're not in trouble here. Not tonight."
"What will happen to Matty?" Maritza asked in a small voice, toying with her blanket.
Ziva let out a long breath and looked to the ceiling. Tony shot her a warning look, which she promptly ignored.
"What Matty is doing is a crime," Ziva couldn't help the edge in her voice as she jumped in to answer, "and hopefully he will be prosecuted accordingly."
Maritza dissolved into tears again. "But Matty wasn't the one who… Matty just listens to his uncle, okay? He cares about me, I know it, and sometimes he just uses too much and then—
"He tried to shoot us," Ziva cut off Maritza's blathering. Normally, she could tolerate a certain degree of adolescent immaturity; she dealt with it on a daily basis after all. But the injustice of Maritza's current situation seemed to tap directly into Ziva's need for swift justice rather than her sympathy.
Tony stood up, putting his back to Maritza, and fixed a look that clearly said to knock it off to Ziva.
"Hey," he snapped, glaring at Ziva. Ziva, not happy with being chastised in such a way, scowled back at the detective.
Composing himself, Tony turned so that Maritza could see his face again; it was now drawn into a mask of calm. "Look, Maritza, Matty made some bad choices tonight and he will have to deal with those consequences. You are not in any way responsible for those choices, do you understand?"
"Good. Now tonight we are going to talk about the choices you can make going forward. Because our job is to keep you safe, got that?" Tony leveled his gaze with the young woman. Ziva was less impressed by the placation this time around because her faith was rapidly dwindling that she'd truly done anything to help Maritza tonight. Whatever life Maritza was in right now, she wasn't ready to leave it yet.
Ziva sat, stewing in her mood, as Tony directed Maritza toward clean clothes and the shower while they waited for his FBI friend to arrive. She bit her lip and mentally ran through all the things she would say to Jenny for getting her into this mess.
"Jumping down the victim's throat?" Tony shot off flippantly after the shower started running and he came back to the living room. "Not exactly helpful, Ziva."
"She will go right back to him. Tonight was a waste of our time," Ziva scoffed, picking at her nails again. This time it was in a concentrated effort to nonverbally dismiss the detective. Anger burned a familiar ring around her heart. Deep down, she knew it wasn't entirely fair to direct it all at a broken young woman, but examining why it should be channeled anywhere else at this moment was too much.
Collapsing on the couch next to her with a groan, the fight seemed to seep from Tony. This confused Ziva, as she was still ready to burn off the remaining buzz in her blood and if sex wasn't on the agenda, then a good verbal sparring could suffice. She made a face at DiNozzo, which he missed because he was closing his eyes.
"You never know." Tony propped his legs up on the coffee table. He folded his hands under his head, shifting his body to find a comfortable position. It somehow led to him scooting closer to her, so that the tangible heat of his body was in touching distance. "If I've learned one thing, it's that you never know what the victim is really thinking—tonight's indifference could be tomorrow's will to leave." He yawned.
They fell into a silence. It wasn't exactly comfortable, well, for Ziva at least. Tony seemed quite zoned out. Ziva tried to hold onto her anger despite the fact that Tony's slow, even breaths filled the quiet room. Behind the bathroom door, the muffled spray of the shower could be heard. The detective didn't seem to mind that she was perched next to him on the couch. Kicking her shoes off, she stifled a groan at the sensation of blood rushing to her recently tortured feet. She didn't even want to look at how damaged they were. She tucked them up under her body, resting her weight on her arm that rested on the back of the couch. Tony's eyes remained closed, though she wasn't fooled that he was sleeping. She could tell he watched her beneath those unfairly long lashes. Since turnabout was fair play, she let her own eyes wander over his frame. She kept a scowl on her face, though, lest he think she was suddenly happy with this situation.
"I do not know how you do it," she confessed, thinking of how many times Tony must've dealt with similar situations. "A rescue mission with no clear exit strategy."
A grin curled on Tony's lips. He opened his eyes fully to regard her, those sea-blue depths twinkling at her. "What? You think we should just pluck her from this situation, lock up the bad guy, and her life will be normal again? There's more to it than that. There's a whole psychology at work here."
"I know that," Ziva said emphatically. And she knew that all too well. "It does not make it any easier to watch her continue to suffer, to continue to choose a life that was never her choice at all."
"No, it doesn't," Tony agreed. He studied her carefully. Ziva shifted uncomfortably under his scrutiny. "Why did Jenny give Maritza your number?"
Her whole body tensed with the question, drawing into itself protectively. She made the mistake of catching DiNozzo's gaze, so heavy and intense she could feel it burn her skin even as she looked away.
"I do not know," she answered. Half-truths were not quite lies, after all, and would generally pass the test.
Tony sat forward again, lowering his feet to the floor. He turned to her and though his posture remained relaxed, there was a rigidness to him now that suggested he was back to business. Refusing to say more, Ziva mirrored his posture, putting up a confident façade of her own. They sat in silence for a long moment. She could see the wheels turning in Tony's head, watched things click into place, and struggled to keep her composure. She must be losing her touch to be struggling under such a soft interrogation.
The sudden screech of the hot water shutting off broke their stalemate. Ziva flinched.
"A rescue mission with no clear exit strategy," Tony murmured her own words back to Ziva. His eyes softened as they brushed over her face. "That's why she called you."
Not waiting to read her reaction, Tony stood and went to the kitchen. Ziva clasped her trembling hands together.
In his darkened kitchen, Tony dug through his sparse cupboards. His long work hours meant he didn't keep much on hand. His tendency to spend his off-nights losing himself in tumblers of whiskey meant that what little he did have tended to be perfect hangover food. After tossing a few stale boxes of cereal in the trash, he stumbled upon an unopened box of Saltine crackers. Perfect. Grabbing a bottle of water from the fridge, he turned to go back to the living room.
And found himself face to face with Professor Ziva David, lurking in the shadows. He jumped.
"Sorry," she grinned, not sorry at all. Before he could make a comment about her sneaking up on him, she popped a hip to the side and waved the stilettos that dangled from her hands. It was a move so calculated in its sexiness that he forgot to breathe for a second. And what a change from the angry, hardened woman he'd left in his living room.
"Crackers?" He held the box aloft, cringing at his response. It was like he'd never had a beautiful woman in his apartment before. (And, fine, he didn't tend to bring too many women back to his own apartment, let alone have them show up with a teenager after being shot at and chased under suspicious circumstances so he supposed he could give himself a little leeway on this one.)
Ziva made a face and shook her head. "No, thank you." She paused, and then wriggled a bare foot in his direction. "First aid kit?" Though momentarily distracted by her beautifully toned leg, he winced when he took in her foot.
"I know." Though the rest of her somehow still looked impeccable after the night's events, her feet were a mess. Red, swollen, and covered in oozing blisters, they were not a good advertisement for wearing stilettos in a foot chase.
"First aid kit is in the bathroom." Unsure exactly how to help Ziva in that moment, he handed her the bottle of water he'd retrieved for Maritza. She accepted it with a small smile as he went back to the fridge for another.
"When Maritza is finished, I will clean and bandage them," she said decisively, turning back towards the living room on her heels.
Tony gave her an appreciative once-over. His mind went back over her earlier comments and, beyond that, all the strange things he'd learned about her so far. He'd known this woman a handful of days and she'd impressed him every one. She wasn't even a cop; certainly she was more than a bookish professor. Yeah, eight years in the military but her instincts seemed far more impressive than that. More special forces than combat. Whoever this woman was or wasn't, she was profoundly interesting. And beautiful. Did he mention that?
"You are staring, Tony," Ziva tossed back over her shoulder.
Tony raised an eyebrow. "Yeah. So."
Lazy smile on her face, she turned back to look at him. "So… It is not polite."
He fell into the molten heat of her eyes. "I'm not trying to be polite, Ziva." His chest tightened when her gaze dropped to his lips.
"I've noticed," Ziva said, her voice liquid honey. She paused, taking her time to uncap her bottle of water then take a long, slow drink. "You are honest, Tony. I like that."
Tony shrugged. True. He was good at playing any number of roles, but when push came to shove, he hated to lie. He was also now thoroughly confused by this woman. He had rattled her in the living room before, that much was clear. He had no doubt his words had struck close to home, though what exactly home was he'd still yet to figure out. But in a few minutes' time she was back, up and fighting, in full-on seduction mode, appealing to his vanity and…to what end? Just to get the upper hand?
"What about you, Ziva?" He drew her name out in a way that seemed to spark a flash of annoyance from her. He stepped closer into her personal space, liking how she didn't back down from him. Her chin tilted up in clear defiance. She wouldn't acquiesce her territory, and that was fine with him because he relished the heat rolling from her body. "Are you being honest with me?"
Well, that cut deep. The slow burn in her expression died down, turned cold as ice. "Yes. I am."
"About the case, sure, I buy that but…" He studied her carefully. He could see her struggle to uphold the façade. She wavered on her feet a bit. "There's more to you than what your dossier says. I may not be a great cop, but I know that much."
Pulling strength from somewhere, Ziva stood up taller. The corners of her eyes crinkled, almost as if in fear, though that didn't seem quite right. "This case is not about me. Why does it matter?"
Tony held her gaze. "It doesn't matter to the case but… It matters."
Ziva scoffed. Her face smoothed out again. "Right. Well, I believe Maritza is done."
She winced as she moved on her bruised feet. It made it easy for Tony to catch up to her before she ran off to the bathroom. He gently circled her wrist with his fingers as he leaned into her. Her breath quickened. Under the pad of his finger, he felt her pulse leap. He increased the pressure of his touch. And though he felt her urge to flee, felt the slight pull of her muscles, she remained frozen. Struck. Panicked.
"Ziva," he whispered, watching wisps of her hair flutter with his breath. "There's a reason Jenny involved you in this, why you were given this rescue mission. I can't see it yet, but I will." He was careful to keep any threat from his tone. He released her wrist, not wanting her to feel trapped by him. "I don't like it any more than you do. But we're in this now. And it matters."
Ziva's eyes slid closed and remained that way as he stepped back. There was a moment, a brief second, where it looked like she might be on the verge of tears. But as quick as the look appeared, it vanished, and Ziva was hobbling off the bathroom. Tony watched her go.
He wondered if he should be worried that in this whole messy case, the mystery that most intrigued him was her.
The young girl whose driver's license stated her age as twenty looked no more than sixteen curled up under a blanket on Tony's couch, hair still damp from a shower and make-up scrubbed from her face. She nibbled on crackers between gulps of water, trying to kick the last of the alcohol in her system.
"Maritza," Tony continued, from his perch on the couch's arm, "it's okay. Kate can help you, remember?"
The young girl remained unconvinced. This is why Kate resented Jenny Shepard's tactics. Here was a young girl, by her own account roped into servitude as an escort, drawn in by an older man who showered her with gifts and called himself her boyfriend. And then, when bills came due, subtly manipulated her into turning tricks for some cash. A carefully built and navigated slippery slope that had young Maritza in too deep before she even realized she was going under. And now this young girl, not even legally able to drink, was plied with alcohol each night because if she didn't, that same man would beat her up, assault her, threaten her life and her family members for debts she owed that she never knew she'd taken on.
"This is all my fault, anyway," Maritza swiped at her nose with the baggy arm of her sweatshirt. "I should've known…"
"You could not have known," Ziva said firmly, eyes intense. "That is how this works. That is how this man preyed on you and preys on other girls like you."
Kate's eyes flicked from Ziva to Tony, catching the approving look he sent Ziva's way. Though it seemed like a struggle, Ziva sent one back as well. Kate frowned.
"If you could give us his name, we can start building a case against him," Kate prodded in a voice carefully modulated with gentleness.
Maritza shook her head, terror creeping on her features. "No. No. He said he would hurt my family… My little sister, she's just six years old. And my father, he would never forgive me, if he found out…"
Kate expelled a short breath. "We can protect them. We can protect you."
Tony caught Kate's eye and nodded, picking up the conversation thread. "Hold off on a name for now, Maritza. Just tell us how you met him."
"I don't know…" Maritza bit her lip, glancing down at the recording device Kate had set out.
"You can do it, Maritza," Ziva encouraged, voice not gentle but full of strength. Kate watched it lift the young girl. "Stop this from happening to another girl like you."
With a shaky sigh, Maritza let the decision weigh on her a moment before speaking. "I met him at a networking thing for school, through my co-ed fraternity. He… he seemed so nice but mysterious at the same time. He told me I was really smart and pretty. You know, I don't feel like that a lot. Most of the kids in my frat come from money and I'm…well, just another poor scholarship kid. He made me feel special."
"Do you remember the name of this event?" Tony asked, pen at the ready.
Maritza shrugged. "Not really…but it was during orientation week, that Friday night."
"How long before he forced you to turn tricks?" Tony continued. It was clear Maritza trusted him the most. It was odd, usually young women in her situation found it easier to speak with other women. But Tony seemed to have tapped into his charming side, conveying a sort of protective big brother vibe, and it was working.
"A few weeks, I guess," Maritza's lower lip trembled as she glanced up at Kate. "I wasn't going to go home for fall break because I couldn't afford the ticket. He offered to buy it for me. I thought he was just being nice…. being like, a boyfriend. And when I got back to town, he had this party, all of these people that he works with." She took a deep breath. "He told me that I owed him. It was a first class ticket and if I wanted to repay him, I could spend some time with his friend." Maritza started crying again. "I'm so stupid. I didn't even really get it at first. I'd been drinking champagne all night and I just… I didn't even get what was happening and then I thought that maybe it was my fault somehow."
"It was not your fault," Ziva interjected in that steely tone again. Maritza looked up at Ziva, a strange mix of gratitude and fear on her face. That was it, then. Ziva had been Maritza's hero tonight, earning the young woman's trust. But Ziva was the muscle, the one who stared down bullets, and then Tony had come in with sympathy, kindness, and a hot shower. They'd forged a tentative trust with the girl and it would therefore fall on them to guide her out of this mess. Tony, Kate trusted to see this through. Ziva…well, Kate could only hope.
"I thought it would just be a few times…and when I was drinking and he was buying me all this nice stuff… It didn't seem that wrong," Maritza shrugged. "He used to tell me that it was noble profession. That women have this gift. Sexual currency, he'd called it. That it was my power and I'd be stupid not to trade in on it."
Tony and Kate were both careful to keep their expressions neutral. Ziva was having a harder time, her eyes narrowed and mouth drawn tight. Kate could practically feel the heat of her anger.
"When did things change, Maritza?" Kate passed the young woman some Kleenex.
"January. School started back up again, but he kept wanting me to skip classes. He wanted me to travel with him, meet his friends in Europe or wherever. But I don't have a passport yet, so," Maritza shrugged. "He sort of lost interest, I guess. That's when I met Matty."
"How'd you meet Matty?" Tony asked.
Maritza sighed, eyes tired as she looked up at Tony. "Kirby. That's his name, okay? My ex-boyfriend...pimp or whatever," Maritza spat the word out, nothing but loathing in her expression. Whether it was at the man or herself, or some twisted mix of both, remained to be seen. "Kirby. It's stupid and obviously a nickname. Kirby is Matty's uncle or something. I met Matty at one of his parties and we started to hang out. He was cool. And he never asked me to...well, not back then anyway." Maritza blew her nose then took a deep breath. "Matty's uncle tells him he'll take away his money if he doesn't follow his rules. And some of Kirby's friends? They aren't exactly nice guys and they have money and connections and all this power..."
The tissue in Maritza's hands was now shredded to bits. Kate watched her with sympathy. Her story wasn't unique in any way. Far too many girls found themselves in similar situations, which is why she even had a job. It didn't make it any easier to hear though, no matter how many girls told the story.
Tears now dried up, Maritza just burrowed deeper into her blanket. "I don't know what to do. Tonight, I was just so scared. Matty had been using and he was so angry. Not with me, but that doesn't mean he won't, you know, take it out on me. Professor Shepard had said that if I ever felt truly in danger to call her or her friend and they'd help, no questions…."
Kate watched as Ziva's face hardened in response, completely unreadable.
She understood why Jenny Shepard had taken matters into her own hands. Clearly, when Shepard noticed the signs of trafficking in her young student (per Maritza's account, it was an essay response to one of Shepard's lectures, a cry for help) she had done what she thought was helpful. Maritza hadn't been fully convinced, hadn't really seen herself the victim, and wasn't willing to seek North Star's help on her own, let alone involve the authorities. But Shepard had made the girl promise if she ever felt threatened or in danger, not to call the police but to get in touch with Jenny. Or if not Jenny, Ziva.
Kate turned her attention to the woman who had answered the call. She knew enough about her from DiNozzo's investigation—a close friend of Shepard's apparently with unexpectedly latent defensive skills. For some reason, Jenny trusted her with a mission that had, by Ziva's account, never been explained to her. Yet it had been executed with relatively few flaws.
Ziva was an interesting woman. She possessed that effortless elegance that Kate resented—hair that somehow fell in perfect, natural curls, a lithe figure that looked stunning even in a plain black dress, and skin that seemed to glow with only the slightest hint of make-up. Despite the urge to dislike her for her genetic lotto ticket, Kate had to admit the woman was savvy. Once Kate had arrived on scene to deal with Maritza, to explain her options and what might happen moving forward, Ziva had merely sat next to the young girl, offering silent support and occasionally pushing a cracker her way. She listened. She didn't act like she knew the answers, despite having good instincts, and, most importantly, regarded DiNozzo with a skeptical eye.
"It is up to you, Maritza. You make the choice," Ziva spoke after Kate and Tony had exhausted their arguments. "Either Agent Todd will take you to the halfway house, where you have no obligation to stay beyond tonight, or we can drop you off at your apartment. Your decision."
Maritza took a swig of water. Kate watched her closely. The college student was smart, just confused. Kate couldn't blame her. She'd found herself in a tight situation and was now working her way out of it. Part of the cycle of this particular abuse was deep manipulation, damn near brainwashing, that made it very difficult for victims to rework their thinking patterns and escape. It was the nature of this beast and what made her job so difficult.
"I think…" Maritza paused. "I think I am willing to go to the shelter. For tonight at least."
Looking at the ceiling, Kate exhaled in relief. "Okay. That's fair. Can we take you there now?"
Maritza nodded and placed her bottle of water on the coffee table.
"You can borrow my clothes," Tony winked as the young woman stood up, slightly awkward over what came next.
Maritza smiled as she smoothed her hands over the worn Metro PD sweatshirt and the flannel pajama pants that engulfed her small frame. "Thank you, Detective DiNozzo."
Kate couldn't help but smile at the deference. Then, she remembered what Tony had asked her to bring. From her bag, she produced two pairs of only slightly used flip-flops.
"I think these might be helpful," she said, waiving them in the air. "They might not be the right size but…"
"Oh, thank you!" Ziva exclaimed, grabbing for one of the pairs and then tossing the other pair to Maritza. Kate looked on in sympathy at the blistered feet of the two women. Thankfully, the flip-flops proved a passable fit on each of them. Tony watched them all with a look of awed confusion.
"We ready…?" Kate cued, wanting to make it back home sometime that night.
"Yes," Maritza said, taking a deep breath. Ziva helped her stand up.
"Ladies. Thank you for gracing my humble home with your presence. I hope you all come back to visit very soon," Tony teased, ushering them out the door. Leading the way, Kate didn't miss that Tony's arm shot out to keep Ziva behind the rest of the group, whispering something into her ear that made a secret smile bloom on her lips. Kate rolled her eyes heavenwards.
A few minutes later, they were all safely buckled into Kate's car and on their way to North Star's halfway house. Maritza was dozing in the back seat. Ziva had her gaze fixed on the world that passed her by.
There was a comment on the tip of Kate's tongue. A vague thought that she knew should keep to herself but, well, she hadn't come this far in life without getting herself into, and out of, some uncomfortable situations.
"DiNozzo seems to have taken an interest in you," Kate broached the subject she just couldn't let go. There was an obvious vibe between the detective and the witness. It wasn't ideal. Not for their case, not for their victims, and certainly not for Tony's career. The last thing this already unorthodox investigation needed was more messiness. She glanced over at her passenger to see Ziva's reaction. There wasn't much of one.
"Really." Ziva responded with little inflection in her voice. She kept her eyes trained on the passing storefronts.
"Of course," Kate continued, warming to her message, "DiNozzo shows interest in pretty much any attractive woman that crosses his path."
Ziva lifted her head enough to grant Kate a look that made her feel all of ten inches tall. "Your point?"
"Look, Ziva, you seem like an intelligent woman," Kate began. She ignored the answering scoff from her passenger. Yes, she'd pretty much backed herself into a corner wherein anything she said would sound catty. But she was now more confident than ever this had to be said. Tony was her friend, after all. "Tony is a good guy. One of the best cops I've ever worked with. He is smart, loyal, and has solid instincts. But when he's in deep on a case, and with a case like this I think we can all agree we're already in the thick of it, he doesn't think clearly. He loses himself."
Ziva turned to study her. "What do you mean?"
Kate was momentarily flummoxed by Ziva's sudden interest in her words. "The job is his life. Others can find the balance, stay objective. But Tony wants to save everyone. He puts his whole heart into every case, every victim. Sometimes he can't separate himself from the work."
Ziva traced the skyline they drove past with her finger. "And you think his interest in me is only because of my connection to this case."
Pursing her lips, Kate continued, "I'm saying, I think it will be difficult for him to know."
"Yet you presume to know what he is thinking?" Ziva sniped.
"You're right," Kate agreed. She paused, unsure how much further to take this. Clearly, Ziva wasn't planning on hearing it. But Tony didn't exactly seem to be learning from past mistakes. "It's just that I've seen Tony go down this road before and I've seen the aftermath. This is not just for your benefit. I don't want to see him get hurt again, either. And I don't want him to put his career in jeopardy."
Ziva dropped her hand to her lap and turned to Kate with a piercing stare. "You seem to have quite an interest in Tony's choices."
Kate couldn't help but laugh. "Yeah. Weird, right?"
"Hmm." Ziva went back to looking out the window.
"He is a friend. And I am happily married," Kate flushed. She tapped an awkward beat on the steering wheel. "Look, I'm not saying it wouldn't work out. Maybe it would. But just…be careful."
"I appreciate your candor," Ziva said without a touch of sincerity.
Kate sighed. She checked out Ziva at a red light. Something in the way the woman stared off into the distance made her wonder if her warning wasn't far too late.