McGee's eyelids squeezed shut reflexively in an effort to escape the terrible sight before him: a human body reduced to its basest components. Limbs, sinew and chunks of organs lay strewn across the room like a B-grade horror movie. The entire room smelt like a butcher's shop; which to some extent it was. It was almost inconceivable that these disparate pieces were once part of a living breathing person: filled with love, hope and ambition.
He swallowed hard, took a deep breath, and brought the camera up again, letting the auto focus do its job work. That allowed him to defocus his own eyes so he did not have to process the images himself.
Ducky and Palmer were standing at the doorway deliberating on where to begin. The job was so big and so ghastly, it seemed insurmountable.
McGee took a final shot and looked down at his feet. He should try for another angle but, even with protective bootees, every step contaminated the crime scene: there was no clear piece of floor. The best you could hope for was to minimise the impact.
"That's probably enough photos, Timothy," said Ducky softly. "Mr Palmer and I will start collecting the actual body parts if you can gather up anything else for the evidence bags."
"Sure." McGee sidestepped gingerly over something he didn't recognise, placed the camera outside the door and collected a handful of plastic bags.
Scouring the floor for non-biological material to the sound of body parts being slapped against each other in a huge bag, he was reminded of his college forensics course. The simulations always involved just a single body part – an arm, a leg, a spleen. At the time he assumed it was for modelling simplicity, it had never occurred to him the human body might actually come apart like that.
Then, while trying to extract a piece of metal from some flesh, he saw part of a face and his heart dropped: it was her. Until that moment, he had still held out some insane hope that the conglomerate of body pieces might belong to some other random person; but now there was no doubt.
Suddenly he heaved into an evidence bag, the liquid feeling unusually warm through the thick plastic. He closed his eyes again to compose himself.
"Yes thanks, Ducky." He sealed the evidence bag, tagged it 'collateral evidence' and placed it on the pile. He'd have to remember to remove it before it landed on Abby's desk.
He looked up as Gibbs appeared at the door. "It's her, Boss."
"We should wait until we have DNA."
McGee stared at his boss in disbelief. Now who was holding out false hope? "I've been looking at that face for two days, boss."
"Yeah, OK," Gibbs surrendered. "I'll go see Lt James and tell him what we've got."
"I should go with you."
Gibbs looked down at the young agent and nodded his agreement grimly. "I'll get Ziva and DiNozzo to finish up here."
Lt Rick James had come into McGee's life only two days before. A Naval computer programmer, his sister had disappeared in the dead of night, her kidnapper leaving behind a single heart-shaped note with detailed instructions that he was to go about his usual business and tell no one what had happened or she would die. Tony joked the kidnapper had taken his sister because it wasn't as if computer geeks had girlfriends or wives, but then Tony wasn't well disposed towards computer geeks nowadays, if he ever had been.
When reminder messages started flashing up on Lt James cell and in untraceable emails to his work and home accounts, McGee became involved. Whoever it was obviously knew Lt James daily routine and was computer savvy enough to test McGee's prowess. Together McGee and Lt James worked frantically day and night at headquarters and in McGee's home: to no avail. Even McGee's sister had learnt to keep her distance, working diligently at his writing desk in uncharacteristic silence.
They had a suspect: a dishonourably discharged Navy computer geek accused of treason. The profiler had deemed him a perfect candidate; he had a history of violence, a tendency towards vendettas and a grudge against all his fellow computer geeks. Unfortunately, they were not able to sway a judge and a warrant was denied.
The discovery of this body gave them enough evidence to bring him in for questioning, but they did not have enough yet to convict.
Gibbs and McGee stood in front of Lt James immaculate blue painted wooden door. This part of the job was never easy. Gibbs knocked twice and the door snapped opened. McGee would never forget the look on Rick James' face as their eyes met. The next moment, he was lying on the ground dazed with an aching jaw. Above him and somewhere off to the left, Gibbs was holding back a crazed madman who was hell bent on killing him.
"Why didn't you get the trace?" James yelled. "She'd be alive if you'd done your goddam job."
McGee couldn't answer. Part of him thought he was probably right; the rest of him was too dizzy and nauseous to talk. He watched Gibbs manhandle Rick back into the house.
"Stay put, McGee."
It was an easy request to fill: the world was eddying around him. His eyes slid shut of their own accord and his mind's whirlwind took him for another spin.