"How did you get into NCIS?"

"I smiled?"

- Kate and Tony, "Hung Out to Dry"

Chapter I

Ellie Lacher was six; the daughter of a Navy lieutenant commander. She was wearing a faded yellow sundress and battered, grass-stained sandals.

Tony knelt in the slowly-drying mud and snapped a photo of the way Ellie's pretty dress had been pushed up around her hips. He framed her heart-shaped, freckled face with his camera and shot those glassy blue eyes and pinkish lips twice, making sure that the angle was enough to catch the bruises on her neck. He didn't need directions to know what to record: he had worked too many dead kids in other cities, and this wasn't the worst body he had ever seen. That honor had gone to a three-year-old named Kyle he had found in Philly, who had been sliced to pieces and spread out over the alley like so much garbage. He had been fine until he had seen the Campbell's chicken soup can in one of the sticky stretches of blood. He'd thought, It's like a Warhol painting, and then he had been down for the count, on his knees and puking on someone's doorstep.

Compared to Kyle, Ellie had died gracefully. In her pretty yellow dress, she looked like nothing so much as a sunflower trod into the ground.

Lucas was white-lipped, moving around the perimeter and chewing out witnesses indiscriminately, and Tony let the passing diatribe go over his head. Everyone was going to be snappish today. He looked down at the body again and took another picture, no longer sure what he was capturing but hoping to record a little of this senselessness, give in to one blurry photo out of an otherwise perfect roll.

After the brightness of the flash cleared, he saw that he had photographed a wide angle of the girl's body, and knew that it was a perfect picture, one that would never be seen as anything but intentional. Somehow, it made him feel sour.

Lucas was already there, and bristling. "The feds are here."

Tony tugged his sunglasses down, as if his incredulity could only be conveyed through direct eye-contact. The glare bit at him, his pupils became pinpricks, and Lucas became one shadowy figure on a dark canvas. This wasn't his day for pulling off a gesture, significant or otherwise.

"You're kidding me. FBI?"

"Did I say it was the fucking FBI, Dinozzo? I said it was the feds. Lacher called in NCIS. We've got some bastard at the tape with his M.E., and they want in. Go do your thing."

He had become the unofficial go-between for any departmental rivalries since he had made the mistake of landing himself in charge of their only hostage negotiation that year. Apparently the brass thought that anyone who could charm gunmen into releasing a few civilians could probably soothe whatever feathers happened to get ruffled in the line of duty. By now, he'd been immersed in so many bureaucratic squabbles that he preferred men who would rather shoot than talk, and he'd told the Captain as much, not like that had earned him any brownie points. All it had gotten him was a long-winded speech about how they all had to do their part, and how if Tony could talk, he was going to have to talk until he went hoarse, because that's how they were going to use him.

And use him they did, at every opportunity. Lucas hadn't been slow to catch on to his partner's talent, and had started foisting him off on interviews at every opportunity. Ellie Lacher was Tony's first chance to work a real scene in a week, and if it had been any other death, any other type of victim, he would have broken into a victory dance right next to the corpse.

As is, he wasn't dancing, but he was going to hang on to this case. He sure as hell wasn't going to drop it to go "do his thing" with the Navy cops, just because Lucas, having passed off the unpleasant task of photographing the body, wanted to collect the remaining publicity glory.

"I'm busy," he said shortly.

"Come on, Tony."

"Not the most persuasive argument I've ever heard. Besides," he said, crouching down to peer at the shape of a footprint in the mud, "they have valid jurisdiction. You want to be the one to tell Lacher that we sent his boys away just because you wanted to mark your territory?"

"Lacher's grieving," Lucas said. "He doesn't want anything besides his daughter's killer locked up. Who gets the job done isn't important to him."

"Shouldn't be important to us, either."

He kept his tone flippant, but he could feel himself losing the argument. They were both right, and it boiled down to being a lot more complicated than his own issues about being used as Homicide's trained talking monkey, but what was important was that the job was finished off, and neatly. If Lucas tried to talk to NCIS, he'd start a turf war that would probably cost them their share in the case. Besides, it felt petty and a little cruel, fighting like vultures over this particular type of carrion.

"You owe me one," he said to Lucas, and stood. He put the sunglasses back on, not so much to dampen the brightness but more to hide his eyes from the men he'd have to chat with. "I'm going to split the jurisdiction with them. No sense playing hardball right now. Lacher wants them, we can work with them."

"More work for you," Lucas said lightly.

"Yeah, I'll take one for the team and play nice. Don't forget, though, you're senior. You're the one the brass is going to blame if I fuck up."

Leaving Lucas with that unpleasant caveat, he turned and walked to the tape, sliding back into the real world again. He could feel Nice Guy Tony settling around him like a second skin, a smile already beginning to curve his mouth, but he suppressed it, turned it into a straight line. Nice didn't mean stupid.

He found them being stalled some distance from the scene, a nervous freckled kid in a uniform trying to talk fast enough to get them in circles. It wasn't working, Tony noticed to his amusement. Freckles wasn't in danger of becoming anybody's go-between. Unfortunately, his distinct failure meant that these would be two very pissed-off men by the time Tony got to them, and he probably wouldn't be able to use any of the one-liners in his usual bag of tricks. Besides, either way, these two didn't look like they'd fall for any of it. The agent with the godawful hair cut might as well have been made out of steel, and even the M.E. looked as if he'd cheerfully dice Freckles apart with a scalpel at the slightest provocation.

Lucas was going to regret sending Tony over. If these guys were smart - - and they looked like they were - - Tony was going to have to give them more than some lip-service in the name of cooperation. He had the nasty feeling that he wasn't going to end up with the lion's share of this investigation.

He scared Freckles off by flashing his shield; the kid bolted like a rabbit into the safety of the crowd, eager to get back to his car. Tony grinned after him - - that was what they got, sending a rookie to do a man's job - - and then swung his shield around to meet up with the face of Steely Dan.

Old Steely raised his own badge in response. Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs. Tony decided that it wouldn't really be politick to say anything at all about the man's name. A crease had appeared in his forehead when he'd seen Tony's eyes lingering on the ID, and Tony thought that he had probably heard it all before. And if Tony couldn't be original, he wasn't going to try at all.

"This is Dr. Mallard," Gibbs said, jerking his head at the M.E. He nodded at Tony. "Detective."

"All right, I'm guessing that you had all the pleasantries you could stand from Freckles, so let me move on to business." Gibbs didn't exactly break out in a jig, but he made a grunt that was probably agreement, so Tony counted it as a victory. "You want the body. You have jurisdiction. I'm not going to try and stop you from taking it. I just photographed that little girl from head to toe and I am so not in the mood to play tennis with you for her body."

"That's . . . refreshingly noble of you," Mallard said. He looked as if Tony were a particularly interesting new specimen of humanity.

Tony, who found that more than a little creepy, continued. "But I've got a condition."

Gibbs said, "Doesn't everyone?"

"The body's yours, the case is yours," Tony said, "and I'll defer to you, but I want to be included."

Gibbs just looked at him. Tony looked back, but couldn't match the concentration of that stare. Gibbs was stripping away his defenses, flaying him alive. It made him want to cringe away and curl up to hide his belly from that splitting gaze: it was just too damned invasive, like every little sin was breaking out on his skin. He kept his head up, as if this didn't bother him, and hoped this wouldn't turn into a staring contest. Tony had a tendency to blink.

It was a hundred years before Gibbs nodded. "Fine. But just you. Not your partner."

He thought of Lucas pacing and snarling. Lucas had a daughter named Marie - - Tony had played with her at his first department barbecue, when, as the rookie, he'd been assigned to babysitting duty. She'd roped him into playing marbles squatting down on the hot basketball court. Cute little girl. Lucas would want a piece of the case because it could have just as easily been Marie lying in the mud, all tangled up in her pretty Sunday clothes.

"No deal," Tony said. "He'll want this."

"It's not a negotiation, Dinozzo," Gibbs said. "If it comes down to a turf war, we have the edge. You're included at my discretion. You screw up, you're out. You piss me off, you're also out."

It was hard to argue with that particular brand of illogical logic, and Tony shut his mouth. He wasn't sure how far he could push Gibbs, who hadn't warmed to him like Mallard. Gibbs didn't look as if he'd been at all impressed by Tony's fancy verbal footwork - - he had accepted Tony's offer of cooperation simply to take the path of least resistance. It wasn't like there was a downside to having Tony tagging along: Gibbs would have quick and easy access to the case findings, control of the crime scene, and someone to boss around. Tony got to see it through. It should have been easy to decide that he just wouldn't put up with this guy if things turned to shit, and it should have been easy to walk away and let Gibbs negotiate with someone else, someone who wouldn't pull their punches for the sake of justice and an ill-matched sense of camaraderie, but it wasn't. It was pretty damned difficult, actually.

Gibbs was a little closer to him now, as if to make sure that the full force of his presence was becoming clear to Tony. "You got that, Dinozzo? There's the deal. Are you in or are you out?"

Tony swallowed and decided that he definitely wasn't in control of this situation at all. Well, this miserable failure, at least, ought to convince people that he wasn't the ideal go-between.

"For now I'm in," Tony said, "since you asked so nicely."

He held out his hand and Gibbs matched the gesture. Shaking hands with Mallard was more pleasant, a little less like having your strength tested by one of those old-time carnival machines. The doctor actually smiled at him in a bemused fashion, and Tony found himself smiling back.

He lifted his camera for Gibbs. They might as well have a temporary truce. "I took pictures. You want to look them over, see if there's anything else I need to snap?"

Gibbs gave the small silver camera a distinctly mistrustful glance, and Tony had the unsettling feeling that he'd picked the wrong way to go about a truce.

"Is that digital?"

"Uh, yeah. Problem?"

He couldn't help being a little smug. The way Gibbs was eyeing the poor thing, it might as well have been a cobra poised to strike him. Tony ran his thumb across the surface as if petting it, and gave Gibbs a small smile that almost felt friendly. So the bastard had a weakness after all - - one the two of them had in common, most of the time. Tony wasn't exactly stuck in the Dark Ages, but he still typed two-fingered and his main computer experience came from online poker and free porn.

"If you're going to be working for me, Dinozzo," Gibbs said, taking the camera gingerly in his hands, "learn to take some real pictures."

His sense of common ground seemed to disintegrate underneath him, replaced with a sharp, pointed bitterness. Of all the arrogant, bull-headed - -

"I'm working with you. Not for you. This is a cooperative investigation, and you are sure as hell not my boss. I said I'd defer. I didn't say I'd lick your shoes. Don't treat me like one of your agents."

Gibbs's answering smile surprised him. "Wouldn't dream of it, Dinozzo."

"I must say, Jethro, I'm quite surprised. That young man didn't have any particular leverage over you, why allow him to share the investigation?"

Gibbs concentrated on Dinozzo's photographs. The detective had a good eye, Gibbs had to grudgingly admit - - the careful visual reconstructions of the body were as much art as science. The sketches skewed a little towards interpretive, and Gibbs was less than forgiving on whimsy guiding an investigation, but it was interesting seeing someone else revealed in simple pencil lines. Interesting, as long as it wasn't him. Still, looking at Dinozzo's sketches, even though they had been given freely, felt oddly personal, and he threw them onto the bed and stuck to the photos, instead.

Ducky was rearranging the hotel curtains, shifting the neat beige flaps into order. "You were impressed by his tenacity, no doubt."

"You want to tell me about the body, Duck?"

Ducky sat down, his hands folded over his knees. "Nothing that you haven't seen, unfortunately. Our young lady was sexually assaulted before her death."


"Strangulation. Someone's hands, no doubt. I measured the marks, perhaps if we found a suspect you might be able to match the grip size . . ."

Gibbs tossed the photos aside in disgust. "We don't have any suspects. And Abby can't run a grip size through the system. Lacher can't think of anyone holding a grudge. There's a chance we're looking at a random abduction."

They both knew all too well what it would mean if the case turned out to have been one unconnected to a motive. Random meant that they would have no place to start looking, and that they would likely finish without having found anything. They were working in the dark. His least favorite method of operations.

"Perhaps Detective Dinozzo could help you," Ducky said delicately.

It wasn't an unreasonable option. This was Dinozzo's home, not theirs - - Dinozzo would know of any sex offenders in the area and he certainly would have the connections that they lacked. But Gibbs had a headache from too many hours of going over the same pictures and he wasn't in the mood to ask for help. He glanced at the clock, and the glowing numbers showed that it was three in the morning. He and Ducky had been doing this for hours now. The sudden tiredness gave him an idea of what he was in the mood for. And if the downside of it meant that he'd be asking for help, well, that was something he'd have to endure. It would be worth it.

He yanked Abby's fax out of the mess of papers and jabbed at it. The type seemed impossibly small, and he had to squint at the numbers, which Ducky judiciously ignored.

"It is rather early, Jethro," Ducky said as he reached for the phone. "It might wait until morning."

"It'll keep him on his toes. Teach him to roll with the punches. And all of that other cliché crap."

"But mainly," Ducky said, "you'd like to wake him up."

"Well, yeah."

The phone only rang once before Dinozzo's voice, not at all sleepy, answered.

"Gotta be Special Agent Gibbs," Dinozzo said without waiting for him to start the conversation, "because anybody else would at least stall until the sun came up." Gibbs couldn't think of anything to say to that, feeling like he'd just been caught with his hand in the cookie jar, and Dinozzo grew more hesitant in the silence. "Lucas? Hey, Lucas, man, I'm sorry."

It was the same niggling, doubtful feeling he'd had when he'd been looking at Dinozzo's sketches.

"Right the first time, Dinozzo," he said, shaking it off. "Let me guess. Partner not happy with you?"

"I got him tossed from the damn investigation," Dinozzo said, "how happy would you be? He's not sending me flowers. What do you want?"

"Do you have your photos in front of you?"

"I'm not up this late playing Parcheesi. I like to be in someone's bed by now."


He could hear Dinozzo grinning, he knew it and hated it. He could just see the detective leaning back in his chair, feet planted on the desk, and that stupid, shit-eating, impossibly good-spirited grin on his face.

"If it's a good night, I'm not going to be in mine, am I? And again, what do you want?"

"A list of registered sex offenders in the area."

He heard Dinozzo shuffling papers. "You got a fax machine? Hey, am I going to get a copy of Dr. Mallard's report or do I have to get down and beg for it? Sharing is the name of the game, Gibbs."

"COD is strangulation, rape came back positive. No semen."

"Thanks for the Cliff Notes, really, but despite what you might have heard from my high school English teachers, I actually like to read the full version. Get me a copy. All right, I've got your list, but none of these guys live in Lacher's neighborhood, and that would be the best way to notice Ellie. Nobody living in the blocks next to her school, either. There's a chance that our guy is a newbie."

"Fax me the list anyway."

"Fax me the coroner's report."

Gibbs snorted. "Dinozzo, get your ass down here in fifteen minutes with all your notes and you can have whatever you want."

"Breakfast on your expense account?"

He laughed despite himself. "Get your ass down here," he said again, and hung up.

On the phone, Dinozzo had become someone who had always gotten everything he'd ever wanted, and Gibbs had to think back carefully to remember the tenser lines the young man had had in person, the way his mouth had tightened as he'd surrendered his camera. That, and the way Dinozzo had uncertainly said his partner's name, apologizing. At least the detective had instincts enough to give himself some substance under all the superficial charm.

"He's an interesting young man, isn't he?"

"Interesting's one word for it," Gibbs said. "Smart-ass is another. I don't want to talk about Detective Dinozzo, I want to talk about Ellie Lacher. Did you find anything else on the body?"

"A few stray black threads," Ducky said, shrugging. "I had them sealed and sent to the local lab, but black threads are almost as hard to trace as white cotton. Although I do recall an elderly woman strangled with a woolen scarf once. She inhaled some of the stray particles and they were eventually tied to the scarf her nephew had been keeping as a trophy. It seems that she passed him over in selection of an heir, an odd thing, since she wasn't particularly wealthy by any account, but I suppose murders have been committed for less . . ."

"Black threads," Gibbs said, disgusted. "And no suspects. If this guy gets cocky, we're looking at a second victim. Dinozzo had better give us something good."

"What do you expect him to have?"

"I don't know, but it better be worth the price of his breakfast."