"Geez, Kate, you look –"Tony DiNozzo wrinkled his forehead and apparently thought better of his comment, "—really good for 3 a.m."
Kate Todd groaned, staggering to drop her laden duffle with a thud. "Where to?"
"Da Big Easy. Hurricanes, Mardi Gras, all the topless—"He blinked innocently in the blast of Kate's glare. "What?"
"Nouvelle Orleans," translated Ducky more eruditely, adding his own bags to the pile at the corner of DiNozzo's desk. "Named in honor of the duc d'Orleans –"
Looking way too alert -- probably, mused Kate enviously, because she'd yet to go to bed – Abby pogo'd on her toes in Ducky's wake. "Oooo ... I know a guy down there that makes the best fangs."
"Fangs?" questioned Kate, digging in her purse to come up with her compact. She snapped it open, then taking a peek shut it tight again with a wince.
"You know, "Abby curled her upper lip and did her best Vladish imitation, "fangs."
"No vampires," demurred Kate.
Hands on black-clad hips, Abby considered this. "What's wrong with vampires?"
In reply, Kate tilted her head in Tony's direction, "DiNozzo's afraid of them."
"When I was five," protested Tony.
"Tony," Abby scolded, "the Nosferatu are our friends."
"Someone wasn't very good friends with Seaman Lewis." Gibbs moved Abby out of his way with a gentle push, overnight bag in hand. His other hand was wrapped around a paper cup of coffee and a stack of crime photos, which Abby snatched as he went by.
"Wow. I'm just hoping he was pale to start with." She frowned at the glossy papers. "This just come in?"
Gibbs took them back. "Hot off the fax."
"Well where's my copy?"
"Full details and photos were sent to your lab, Abs."
"Cool," murmured Abby, a finger twirling in the chain of the oversized silver cross she had hanging around her neck. "We've never had an exsanguination."
Gibbs passed the victim's photos to Ducky, gathering up the rest of the team with a sweep of his arm. "Come on, people. We've got a plane to catch." He gestured a recalcitrant Tony toward the elevator. "You got a problem, DiNozzo?"
"Boss, did she just say 'exsanguination'?"
"Indeed, she did," replied Ducky, shuffling the photos to find the tightest close-up. "Looks like they pierced the carotid." He reshuffled the stack. "I presume they placed the body in some sort of tableau after the fact. Otherwise there should be a considerable amount of blood."
Waiting, Gibbs took a deep swallow of his coffee. "There is no such thing as vampires, Tony."
"Historically---," began Ducky, still lingering over the photos.
"Ducky? The plane..." reminded Gibbs.
"Oh, right." The ME gave a crooked smile and stooped down for his bags.
"Come on, Tony," Kate bumped the unmoving body with her purse. "If you get nervous I'll loan you my crucifix."
Having managed to herd the ME into the elevator, Gibbs released the button holding the door open. "You two get a move on or you're taking the stairs."
A suddenly motile Tony lunged for the rapidly closing doors and managed to squeeze in before they shut altogether. On the other side, Kate looked at her silver, distorted reflection and sighed.
"The stairs have no DiNozzo," she murmured at her reflected self. "Therefore, the stairs are good."
At 3 a.m., October in DC had been a chilly 44 degrees. When they stepped off the borrowed Lear, four hours later into the Louisiana dawn, it was at least a relatively balmy 62. Tony stopped and stretched in the open air, getting the kinks out from the cramped ride.
"We drop Ducky off at the lab and then we hit the crime scene," announced an already striding Gibbs. Behind him, the less energetic trio gathered up their gear and straggled after him.
"It's gotta be the caffeine," muttered Tony, earning a smirk from Kate. "Twenty-four hours a day. Seven days a week. It's like working for the damn energizer bunny."
Much louder he called after the rapidly retreating body. "You know where we're going, boss?"
Gibbs stuck out a folder-filled hand. "That way."
"Oh," murmured Tony, resettling his backpack. "That way. We're going 'that way', Kate."
"Main terminal," supplied a slightly breathless Ducky. "Car rental."
"It'll be rush hour by the time we get it," Kate noted.
This brought a grin from Tony. "You think that will stop him?"
Ducky caught his breath and Kate squinted at her BlackBerry while Gibbs argued with the rental clerk.
"I don't care what the request said, I ordered a sedan," floated across the empty patch of terminal.
"Twenty-three minutes," reported Kate. "Ten-point-seven miles between the airport and the crime lab."
Tony balanced on his toes. "Eight a.m., give or take a few minutes. Monday morning, so everyone will be running a little late. Give me," he glanced over at Gibbs' straight back, "thirty-seven minutes tops."
The ME, too, glanced toward the rental desk, assessing the situation. "He's already irritated. I say we arrive at the door in no more than twenty-eight."
"I don't care if it's clean!" The open corridor echoed the snapped retort slightly, adding depth to Gibbs' voice.
"I'll go for thirty-two," decided Kate.
"Fine. Just give it to me," growled Gibbs less audibly, taking the proffered keys roughly. He made for the door to the garage, not even looking backwards. "Get your butts in gear!"
Kate could feel the rental clerk looking at them sympathetically as they trudged along with the burden of their bags.
"You are definitely buying me dinner," observed Ducky as the door Gibbs had departed through slammed back in their faces.
"Whoa," Tony admired, tossing his gear into the already open trunk. "Way to go, boss."
"I wanted a sedan," muttered Gibbs.
"But a convertible, boss, it's got style."
Gibbs opened the driver's-side door distrustfully. "Don't want style."
"Wouldn't have guessed that," murmured Tony, lifting Ducky's bags into the trunk as well and holding out his hands for Kate's. "This is going to be a fun trip."
"If I were you," advised Kate, handing her packed duffle over, "I'd put on my seatbelt."
Ducky gripped the front seat as the Sebring slammed to another halt, this one just feet short of the turn off Tulane Avenue and into the squat crime lab's parking lot. He moved his left wrist unobtrusively into Kate and Tony's line of sight, the stopwatch function of the digital he wore ticking off another minute closer to twenty-eight.
"We should eat somewhere pleasant, tonight," he offered, breaking the silence that had previously been interrupted only by an occasional gasp from the back seat as Gibbs slid three-thousand pounds of Chrysler in and out of the hectic New Orleans morning traffic. "Perhaps Antoine's. They invented Oysters Rockefeller, you know."
"Expensive?" asked Tony mournfully.
"A bit," admitted the ME.
Gibbs gunned the motor as if he was really considering going through the minivan in front of them. When the traffic started its crawl, he took a sharp right, bouncing the wheels over the curb before gliding to a relatively controlled stop.
"I appreciate your alacrity, Jethro," the ME managed with due solemnity as he climbed out of the car. "I shall call you when I know something."
Gibbs waved a hand at him, barely waiting for the trunk to be shut before they were off again.
"They hose down the streets?" Kate looked at the shiny remnants of water puddling the cracks of Toulouse Street.
"Every night," said Tony.
The back alley cordoned off by yellow police tape was relatively untouched but anything they'd hoped to get from the surrounding area was now washed down the Orleans Parish gravity collection system. Gibbs ducked under the tape, offering his credentials, then giving an appraising eye to the young patrolman standing guard.
"You let them wash down the streets."
The young officer's unlined forehead almost creased. "Not the crime scene, sir."
"Do you think maybe you ought to have cordoned off the entire alley?" questioned Gibbs rhetorically.
"I suppose," the patrolman began, only to cough uncomfortably under the intensity of Gibbs' gaze. "I can see your point, sir."
"DiNozzo," ordered Gibbs, mentally dismissing the member of New Orleans finest, who happily moved to stand guard a little further away. "Measurements and photos."
"Yeah, boss, I'm on it."
"Kate, walk the perimeter."
"Got it, Gibbs."
Gibbs paced, squinting up and down the alley, finally coming to rest toed against one of the strips of white tape that outlined the position of the body.
"Why here?" he threw the question out into the air.
Kate shrugged, her hands holding the meager items she'd thought deserved to be bagged. "It's dark. Most of the foot traffic is on the main street."
"He was killed nearby," predicted Tony. "Wouldn't want to take a body far in the French Quarter."
"No blood," observed Gibbs, looking down at the cracked asphalt. "Where did it go?" He fixed Tony with a mild gaze. "And don't say 'vampire,' Tony."
"Well, it could be a vampire," speculated Kate, looking cross when Gibbs started to open his mouth. "I'm not talking about an immortal creature of the night. There are fantasy-prone personalities who adopt fantastic personas and live out carefully contrived storylines. An immortal being might be a compelling choice. "
"Okay," accepted Gibbs. "But that still doesn't tell me where the blood went." Ducking back under the tape, he moved to the alley's intersection with Toulouse, looking up and down the now neat and nearly empty street. After a few minutes, he called over his shoulder, "You two done?"
"I'm good," reported Tony, scribbling a few final measurements on his pad.
"Not much to see," said Kate.
"Then we go see if Ducky's turned up anything and then we find this Detective Branson."
"No defensive wounds. No sign of a struggle of any kind." Ducky paced around the unfamiliar autopsy table, occasionally laying a gloved hand gently on the pale, translucent flesh of the victim. "Looks like he bled out naturally, so, somewhere, there's one hell of a mess. There's over five-and-a-half liters of blood in the human body."
"You got an uplink with Abby yet?" questioned Gibbs.
"Haven't had the time," admitted the ME.
"You got anything you want to send her?"
"Not at the moment, no." Ducky turned back to the body. "I was just about to spread the ribs. The police tox reports are supposed to be imminent, but I haven't gotten them yet."
"I need to check in and see if she's found out anything useful about Seaman Lewis." Gibbs gestured his other agents toward the morgue exit. "You get anything, you let me know."
The reply, a mumbled "always, Jethro," was lost in the whirring of Ducky's saw.
"The world," reported the miniaturized Abby on the video screen, "is just full of interesting people."
"Our Seaman Lewis?" surmised Gibbs.
"Well, it seems the Seaman was AWOL."
"Actually, it's the reason why he's AWOL that's so interesting." She paused for dramatic effect.
"Give it to me, Abs," prodded Gibbs, crossing his arms.
"See, he's a big fan."
On the smaller screen Abby was viewing, Gibbs shut his eyes, attempting patience. "A big fan of what exactly?"
Gibbs frowned. "Who?"
"That's the culturally-astute bossman we all know and love," grinned Abby.
"Interview with a Vampire," offered Kate.
"Kirsten Dunst," Tony added.
The frown remained.
"The dude was a huge vampire fanatic," clarified Abby. "I'm talking major Vlad freak here. He had an e-mail addy under the name Strigoi Viu."
"Meaning? snapped Gibbs crisply.
"A Strigoi Viu is a living vampire. As compared to your usual undead one. Sort of like a vampire-in-waiting. It's a Romanian thing ... your kid gets born with a tail or some interesting body parts and they think he's destined to be undead. The Strigoi Viu don't drink blood but they do practice psychic vampirism." Abby paused. She looked disappointed when Gibbs remained silent on this last 'fact'. "You're not going to ask?"
"Don't think I want to know, Abs."
"Well, moving on then," said Abby. "I tracked down his blog. He was looking for a vampire 'experience'."
Tony raised a hand to the side of his neck. "This guy wanted to get bitten?"
"If he did, he picked the right place." Abby's pale hand twisted a hank of jet black hair. "Two days before Halloween in New Orleans? You can't get more vampirish than that."
"Where would he go to get bitten?" inquired Gibbs.
Abby sighed under the interrogation. "I should be down there. But given the ... givens, I'll just have to impart some of my wealth of cultural knowledge to you three. Tomorrow night, a few blocks from where you're standing, there will be the Halloween bash to end all Halloween bashes – the Vampyre Ball. That's with a 'y', Gibbs."
"It makes a difference?"
"It makes a difference," confirmed Abby. "According to his LJ, Seaman Lewis was planning on attending."
Gibbs put a hand to the tense muscles at the back of his skull. "LJ?"
"Live journal," put in Tony, shrugging under the resulting stares. "So, I read a few."
"Frat Girls from Naked U?" Kate grinned evilly. "The journal of Topless in Seattle?"
Gibbs gave them both a stern look before turning back to the camera. "Where's this ball, Abby? How do we get there?"
"You, Gibbs ..." Abby hesitated, "... don't. Honestly, there's no way you'd fit in."
"Abby," Gibbs warned.
"You're supposed to go in costume, Gibbs." She reached over and flipped a page in her scrawled notes. "The choices are: Dark Fetish, Goth, Arthurian, Edwardian, Vampire, Rubber or Victorian." She squinted at the screen, looking past Gibbs to Tony. "I'm thinking Tony goes Victorian retro. Maybe dark pants with a white poet's shirt. If he's the stand-in for Seaman Lewis, you want him to look like an enticing victim. White's a standout color at one of these dos."
"What about me?" asked Kate.
"Definitely leather. Go as a dom, that way you get away with being visibly armed."
As Tony burst out laughing, Kate delivered a sharp kick to his ankle. With a hurt look, he bent down to massage the bruised flesh. "What was that for?"
Glancing up at a smirking Abby, Kate smiled. "Just practicing."
"I think you should trawl some bars tonight, get a feel for the whole vampire thing." Abby looked shyly toward Gibbs. "Well, at least that's what I'd do ..."
"It's good, Abby," admitted the senior agent. "Get a plane ticket."
Abby's face lit with a luminous smile. "You're kidding."
"No, you're our vampire expert and apparently we need one." He watched Abby bounce on her toes. "Todd and DiNozzo will do the undercover work, though. You are strictly here as support personnel."
"No ball," returned Gibbs flatly. "Get back with me with an ETA and I'll pick you up at the airport."
"Um, guys?" Abby still jittered with excitement. "Tonight -- black only, okay? A little Victorian if you can find it. Rubber is always good if you can't."
Kate grimaced at the rubberized cat suit Tony held out. "One outfit at a time, Tony. She said 'Victorian.'"
"Or ... rubber," offered DiNozzo.
"God," groaned Kate, squinting at the size on an intricately corseted black dress in the reddish overhead lighting, "how does Abby shop like this?" She pulled the low-cut and long-skirted dress off the rack, holding it up under the dimly lit mirror. "I look like Elvira."
"Try it on," urged Tony, fingering a black and darkly emerald brocade vest.
"Leave me alone, Tony."
"I'm not kidding, Kate. Try it on." Tony plucked the vest from the hanger and added it to dark pants dangling over his arm. "Trust me."
Tony pressed up against her back, reaching over to hold the dress at her shoulders. "I know what looks good on women. Just this once -- trust me."
"Fine," Kate shrugged out of his grasp. "Anything to get this over with."
Tony pointed her to the curtained dressing rooms. "You show me yours and I'll show you mine." The strangled groan he got in reply caused the grin to widen. "Come on, Kate, have some fun."
"All right. Fine. I'll meet you at the mirror."
"Need help lacing that puppy up?" he asked sweetly.
"Don't push it, Tony."
Usual disclaimers apply. NCIS belongs to the properly incorporated. That isn't me. Thanks to Kikki for neverending e-mail support and to C for always wanting me to do better.