The Out of Towners
Obligatory disclaimer: if I owned them, I wouldn't have time to be writing this. I'll leave it to your imagination to figure out what I'd really be doing. Now get your minds out of the gutter!
At least it's not Gibbs' tiny excuse for a vehicle, DiNozzo grouched to himself.
Not that he'd say anything like that out loud. Not if he wanted to keep his job, and with his own car payment coming due on the fifteenth, DiNozzo needed to keep the paychecks coming.
No, there were only two types of cars that DiNozzo wanted to be seen in: fast, and faster. Red was good. Chick magnet was even better. Convertible, leather seats with the texture of butter so soft it would spread with a feather off a duck's breast. Sound system sweet enough to convince Pavarotti that there was a violin quartet in the back seat.
Yet here he was, riding in neither Gibbs' car nor DiNozzo's fantasy vehicle. Instead he was huddled in the back seat, shades on and eyes closed, pretending that taking a nap in a sedan with the rest of his team coming home from a mandatory and incredibly boring seminar on sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace was his idea of a really good time. There had been only two good things about the whole damn thing: one, he'd learned yet another way to push Ziva to the brink with a girly joke and two, that the Flying Fish microbrewery beer that was served in the hotel bar wasn't half bad.
There was also a lot of miserable things. The hotel shower was tepid with the water dribbling out of the shower head instead of a steady drenching. The ice machine, in dire need of sound-proofing, was located next to his room, and it always decided to churn out more ice at four AM. And four of the six lecturers were sour-pussed old hags who decided from the moment that DiNozzo entered the room that he was a sexual deviant who ought to be fired sooner rather than later and that it was their job to make certain that he knew The Rules so that no one wasted taxpayer dollars on the low-life scum that was DiNozzo. The other two lecturers were of We're Protected Categories—African-American and Middle Eastern-American—who likewise agreed that one Anthony DiNozzo was a blot upon the NCIS as well as American society in general.
It didn't help that they appeared to love McGee. Who wouldn't in a class like that? DiNozzo grumbled to himself. Little baby face McGeek: boy scout, trustworthy and honest and smart.
Gibbs' admonition still echoed in the back of his skull: suck it up, DiNozzo. It's only a day and a half.
Murders occur in much less time, had been DiNozzo's response.
Gibbs had had a response, too. DiNozzo's brains were still rattling from it.
At least McGee was driving. If it were Gibbs, they'd be home by now although a few vital organs such as livers and lungs would have been left back in Philly at the hotel. Ziva? They'd never make it home alive. McGee, on the other hand, drove like a little old lady, nice and sedate. He allowed others to cut in front of him on the turnpike. He pulled over so that speeders could dash by him on the left doing ninety in a sixty-five speed limit, clucking at the state trooper who was parked on the side of the highway, ticketing the unlucky one who'd gotten himself caught.
With McGee driving, DiNozzo could catch up on lost sleep.
Then it happened: Gibbs' cell rang. That shouldn't have been a remarkable occurrence. Gibbs' cell rang routinely throughout the day, delivering good news and bad, facilitating communication between team members and onward and outward to the world at large. There were two things that made it remarkable, to DiNozzo's way of thinking: they were in the middle of cornfields where cell service should have been pitifully scant, for one thing. Worse: they were supposedly driving home. No one ought to be calling them unless there was some sort of national emergency.
DiNozzo listened hard, his attention completely at odds with his desire to sleep. The radio was on at a low volume, just enough for McGee to listen to the various traffic reports for avoidance purposes. You really think you can skip over D.C. traffic, McWishfulThinking? DiNozzo ignored it in order to concentrate on Gibbs' half of the conversation.
"West Virginia?" Pause. "Which side of the state, sir?" Another pause. "'Bout three hours, give or take. Send the details to McGee's computer. He's the only one who brought his along."
"Boss?" McGee kept his eyes on the road. A truck roared past, leaving them in the dust. A state trooper, hiding in a grove of trees, peeled out after the truck. McGee couldn't help the little smirk that twisted his lips.
"You did bring your computer along, didn't you, McGee?"
"Yes, sir. The laptop. With WiFi capability."
"I hope that means that you can get it to work in the middle of nowhere."
"It does, sir. Anywhere I can get cell phone service, I can get computer—"
"Good. Use that GPS thingy in the dashboard, McGee. We're going to Starksville, West Virginia."
Ziva sat upright on the seat next to DiNozzo, proving that she had been sleeping just as much as he had. "West Virginia? What about home?"
"Little detour," Gibbs grunted. "It's on the way."
"Technically, it's west of here by a bit more than a hundred miles—"
"We're the closest," Gibbs interrupted McGee's clarification.
DiNozzo felt it was time to enter the conversation. "What's in Starksville, West Virginia, boss?"
A disgusted and unhappy grunt. "A dead petty officer, DiNozzo."
Gibbs slowed down as the buildings that constituted Starksville came into view in the distance, the sedan kicking up dirt from the edges of the road where ditches hadn't yet dropped away. McGee was now his co-pilot, his laptop open and whirring, reporting from the information that headquarters had sent through. McGee was also trying to brace both himself and his laptop against the side of the sedan to keep from being flung through the window at top speed.
"Petty Officer Randi Johnson, stationed on the USS Determination, working as a communications officer on her second tour of duty. The Determination got into port three days ago, and Petty Officer Johnson was on leave. According to her commander, Johnson was headed home to Starksville where she grew up and has a home. Commander Wilson also believed that a friend of hers, Petty Officer Willa Mathis, was accompanying her.
"Here's her jacket." McGee waited impatiently for the screen to load, Ziva and DiNozzo looking over his shoulder from the back seat of the sedan. "The signal's weak. It's coming in slow."
A head shot leisurely reconstituted itself onto the computer, showing an attractive girl with dancing brown eyes, her hair pulled back into a regulation bun underneath her white naval cap.
"Petty Officer Randi Johnson," McGee read from the screen. "Age twenty-five, went ROTC through the University of Delaware, earning an associate's degree in computer information systems before becoming active in the service. She was involved in some of the encryption work on the USS Determination, boss," he reported. "Commander Wilson is already calling his staff back to duty, to change the codes."
"Good," Gibbs grunted. "What else, McGee?"
"Johnson doesn't have any next of kin," McGee read. "She listed—hey, she listed Petty Officer Mathis as her next of kin."
"They're friends, McGee. What's so strange about that?"
McGee gulped. "Boss, Petty Officer Mathis is accused of Johnson's murder."
Gibbs observed the three buildings that made up the center of Starksville: the all-around government building which appeared to double as the police station and the local jail, a small market heavy on local produce, and a store that carried everything from clothing to cosmetics to hardware. No post office; the town was likely too small to possess its own zip code. He frowned; this was the kind of place that he liked, far from the nonsense found in D.C., and to have it sullied by something as dirty as a murder just didn't seem right. That the murder involved a couple of naval petty officers made it all the worse.
The murder had taken place at Petty Officer Johnson's home a few miles from here but touching base with the local police was the right thing to do. They had found the body, had arrested Petty Officer Mathis, and had the details. NCIS had jurisdiction, but cooperation went a long way toward making everyone's lives easier and his team had already let him know that easy was better. Easy meant faster. DiNozzo in particular was chafing at the bit to get back to D.C. and the city life that he liked.
"Signal's giving out," McGee informed him. "We must be between towers. I'll need a landline to get anything more between us and Headquarters."
"You have anything more that I need to know?" Gibbs asked, pulling the sedan into the ruts that passed for a parking spot in front of the government-looking building.
"No, boss. There weren't many details sent through."
"Then let's go find some." Gibbs slammed the car door behind him, Ziva and DiNozzo following, McGee taking another moment to shut down the laptop and stowing it away before hustling to catch up.
It wasn't hard to find the police station within the government building. It was one of three doors, and the only one with a sign missing. Since the other two said Mayor's Offic (the 'e' had fallen off) and Town Clerk (and, scrawled underneath, was a hand-written sign proclaiming that the clerk was the one to see for anything resembling work), Gibbs presumed that the third must be the one he wanted.
He was right. A kid looked up at him; Gibbs estimated that the boy was all of fifteen. Sitting in for the dispatcher? Maybe. Small towns like this didn't have the manpower to be picky about things like child labor laws.
"Can I help you?" the kid asked, trying not to sound suspicious at seeing four people in suits and somber expressions march into the police station.
"Special Agent Gibbs, NCIS," Gibbs introduced himself, flipping open his badge, keeping it polite. "My people: DiNozzo, McGee, David. We're here about the murder of Petty Officer Randi Johnson. Can I see the officer in charge?"
The kid eased himself back in his chair. "You're lookin' at him, Special Agent Gibbs."
Gibbs didn't blink. He'd been half-expecting this. He glanced at the desk, looking for some sort of identification plate. "You got a name?"
The kid did blink. "Gary. Gary Fielding." He gathered himself together. "I'm the Chief of Police here in Starksville."
"Chief Fielding." Gibbs stuck out his hand, pretending that he met police chiefs every day who looked like they didn't need to shave. "Jethro Gibbs. What can you tell me about my petty officer?"
"Uh…" Chief Fielding glanced at the folder on his desk for support. "Uh, we got it all done." He belatedly realized that he was supposed to shake Gibbs' hand, and stood up to take it. "Wasn't much to it. The other woman was found standing over the body. There was a dent in the skull from the two by four she was holding."
Gibbs nodded, as if taking the kid's word for everything. "You won't mind if me and my team take a look." It was a statement, not a request.
"Uh, you don't have to—"
"Actually, we do have to," Gibbs interrupted. "Two petty officers makes it a Navy affair. How about we go some place where we can talk?"
"Uh, I can't leave the dispatch desk—"
"You got anyone you can call back to ride a desk for about an hour?"
"Not really. There's only four of us, and Gloria and Dennis are sleeping." Chief Fielding looked around desperately, apparently hoping in vain that the fourth member of the local constabulary would appear at his door. "Uh, maybe your secretary could answer the phone..?"
Gibbs manfully suppressed the guffaw that wanted to emerge. "Officer David isn't a secretary, Chief Fielding."
"And you wouldn't want her answering your phone," DiNozzo couldn't help but add.
To her credit, the smile stayed frozen on Ziva's face. It did, however, grow sharp edges that promised a certain level of mayhem should any inappropriate comments arise. Ziva felt on solid ground with this topic, since the four were returning from a mandatory seminar on sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. Ziva had ammunition. Ziva could wait.
Gibbs couldn't. "Maybe we could discuss it right here, chief," he suggested. "Maybe the phones will stay quiet for a bit."
"Maybe they will." The relief on the kid's face suggested that the phones hadn't yet rung at all today, and probably wouldn't for the rest of the week.
DiNozzo couldn't help noticing the college diploma framed in plastic masquerading as wood and tacked to the wall. "That yours?" The date on the document suggested that Police Chief Gary Fielding was older than he looked. Considering that Chief Fielding looked fifteen, DiNozzo was not impressed.
"Yup. Graduated last month."
"And this is your first job? Chief, straight out of school?"
"Yup. I won the shoot out."
McGee raised his eyebrows. "You ran for Chief of Police and won?"
"Nope. It was a shoot out. I shot ninety-four out of a hundred. Beat Gloria by three points."
DiNozzo couldn't believe it. "You mean, you got the job in marksmanship contest? How long have you been a cop?"
Fielding pointed to his diploma. "I was only eligible to become Chief after I graduated. Before that, I did it on weekends and vacations. I've been a cop for four years, ever since I turned eighteen."
DiNozzo swallowed hard, pointedly letting the others know that this was not the career path that DiNozzo himself had followed prior to joining NCIS. That the Baltimore Police Department demanded more credentials from its employees than an eighteenth birthday and peach fuzz on their faces. That DiNozzo himself had risen in the ranks—
Gibbs let the grin ease forth. "Well then, Chief, how 'bout we get down to brass tacks? Wha'cha got?"
Fielding dragged the manila folder over to himself, opening it up to remind himself of the facts and to have something to look at other than the imposing NCIS agent who had seated himself on one of the hard wooden chairs that he'd dragged over to be closer to the desk. "It was an open and shut case, sir." The 'sir' came out automatically. Young Fielding had been raised right. "Randi was home on leave."
"You knew her?" Ziva interrupted from her place on an equally hard wooden chair against the wall.
Fielding nodded. "She was three years ahead of me in school. We all know each other," he added. "Starksville ain't that big. She inherited her folks' place up on Route 561 when they were killed in a car accident, about a year ago. She hadn't been back for a while, not since the funeral when she got emergency leave. I saw her in town, over at Jake's, when she first came in this time."
Gibbs nodded. The produce store had had a tilted and worn sign with that name. "She have anyone with her?"
"Yup. She had a friend, name of Willa Mathis, with her. Said that they served together, in the same department. Which made it all the worse when we had to arrest Ms. Mathis," Fielding said, shaking his head.
"What happened?" Gibbs prompted.
"We got a call from Ms. Mathis," Fielding said promptly. "She thought she could cover things up by calling us in after she whacked Randi, but we could tell. The murder was old, by at least an hour or two. She tried telling us that it was an emergency, but how much of an emergency is it when you don't call anyone for a couple of hours?"
"How do you know that the murder was old?" Gibbs asked.
"Liver temperature," Fielding said. "We don't have much, but we got that."
Gibbs nodded. "We'll need to see the autopsy report, Chief."
That went over the kid's head. "Autopsy report?"
Gibbs got an unhappy feeling. "By your medical examiner?"
"We don't have one, sir. Anything big, we usually send up to County."
"And you didn't consider this big?"
"It was obvious!" the kid defended himself. "I mean, there was blood all around! It wasn't like there was any question that it was murder. We found Mathis with the body, with a two by four with Randi's blood on it and Mathis's fingerprints. It couldn't have been more obvious!"
"What did Petty Officer Mathis have to say?" McGee slipped in, sensing an impending explosion.
"Which was—?" DiNozzo too was ready to jump.
"That she was innocent. It's what they all say," Fielding said, trying for an air of worldly resignation that he'd borrowed from various TV crime shows.
"How about the crime scene?" McGee asked, hoping to get something a little more factual.
"We ran it. No other fingerprints besides Randi's and the suspect's. The blood was all Randi's; Mathis didn't have a scratch on her. We took pictures. No evidence of any intruder. No, it was just the two of them in Randi's house, all alone."
"Motive?" Gibbs kept his tone under control.
"Still working on that. We think that Randi might have willed everything to Mathis. We think that Mathis expected to walk away from this, and a will from Randi would show up in a month or two."
Gibbs thought for a long moment, allowing the silent tension to build. "You have Petty Officer Mathis in custody?"
"I'd like to speak to her."
"You taking over the case?"
"Yes, Chief Fielding, I am."
"Why?" the kid demanded. "Don't you think I did a good job?"
Gibbs avoided the question. "This involves two naval petty officers, chief. That makes it NCIS jurisdiction. We have our own case files to complete. Where are you keeping Petty Officer Mathis?"
"In back," Fielding said sullenly, trying not to sound like a petulant brat.
Gibbs handed out orders. "Ziva, McGee, you two take the crime scene. Read through Chief Fielding's report, and see if you can earn the exorbitant salaries that I pay you by coming up with anything else. Bag and tag everything. I'll arrange for someone to come out here and collect what you find. Chief, where's your morgue? I'd like our own medical examiner to go over the petty officer's body."
"It's over at the funeral parlor," Fielding told him. "If you want it, you'd better hurry. I think the mayor gave orders for the body to be cremated. Our cemetery is getting a little full."
Gibbs looked up in alarm. "DiNozzo!"
"On it, boss." DiNozzo rose from his uncomfortable seat. "You know the phone number, chief?"
"Yellow pages are in the other room," Fielding told him, not budging.
"Thanks." DiNozzo didn't let the sarcasm show—much—as he went after the task.
"I'll interrogate Petty Officer Mathis with Special Agent DiNozzo," Gibbs said, moving on. "You got an interrogation room here? Or do we do it in her cell?"
"Cell will be just fine," Fielding responded. "The interrogation room got taken over by the filing cabinets. Better use for it. Not much need for interrogations until the Navy came around," he sniped.
Gibbs refused to take the bait. "Thank you, Chief Fielding. We'll meet with her now as soon as DiNozzo rescues the corpse."
Petty Officer Wilma Mathis looked a mess. There was still blood in her hair, although she'd washed her hands clean in the filthy sink in the cell and tried to do the same with her head. She was wearing a gray tee and sweats, both of which also had dried blood on them, and couldn't do much about those either. She looked up dully as Gibbs and DiNozzo entered the gray corridor in front of the bars.
Gibbs wasted no time. "Petty Officer Wilma Mathis?"
She took in his lack of uniform, and incuriously eyed DiNozzo as well. "Who wants to know?"
"Special Agent Gibbs, NCIS," Gibbs introduced himself with a flash of his credentials. "Special Agent DiNozzo."
"You here to take me back to a court-martial?"
"Only if you're guilty," Gibbs told her. "You do it?"
"Does it matter? They say I did."
"You got proof?"
"What proof?" Mathis asked bitterly. "I found her, dead on the stairs. There was blood all over the place. That was good enough for them." She jerked her thumb in the general direction of the dispatch office.
"Tell me about what happened." Gibbs folded his arms. "You say you're innocent. Convince me. Tell me your side of it. That's an order, Petty Officer Mathis," he added, before she could sink further into despair. "Talk."
Wilma Mathis sighed heavily, preparing to go over her story yet again. "We came out here a couple of days ago," she started, pushing mousy brown hair behind her ears. "Randi—Petty Officer Johnson invited me. Said she wanted me along, because going to her old house with no one in it spooked her. Her parents died in a car crash about a year ago—did you know that?"
"We have the records," Gibbs told her.
"She was thinking about whether she should sell it or not. She didn't really want to, because she loved the place, but there were a lot of memories for her. I suggested fixing it up, making it different, you know? Randi liked that idea. She had some money from an insurance policy that her parents had, so she could afford to do it right. Randi wasn't sure that she could hire people to come out to Starksville, because it's so far away from everything—"
You got that right. Gibbs heard DiNozzo's thought loud and clear.
"—but she was thinking about it."
"Had she made a decision?" Gibbs asked.
"If she did, she didn't tell me," Wilma said. "We'd only been there a couple of days, just unwinding. We'd been at sea for the past six months," she defended herself. "We got a bunch of groceries and just relaxed, cleaned up the place a bit."
"What did you talk about?"
Wilma colored, the blush stealing up from her neck. "Uh…"
"Men," DiNozzo interpreted.
The blush deepened. "Uh…yeah."
"Any in particular?"
Humiliation was uppermost. "Sir…"
Gibbs understood. "This part can stay confidential, Mathis, unless the case warrants it.
Mathis closed her eyes. "Wilson."
"Commander Wilson, in charge of your unit?"
"Yes, sir," Mathis groaned. "Sir, he's married, with a wife."
"Men are usually married to wives, Petty Officer Mathis. Anything more than talk?"
"No!" Mathis was aghast at the thought. "I mean, just the two of us, we got pretty graphic, begging your pardon—!"
"I think we can understand, Mathis. It was a conversation between two friends. Anyone else discussed?"
"Yes, sir." Barely above a whisper.
"Sir…" Almost a wail.
"Anyone the Navy would be interested in?"
Mathis gave up. "Sir, we ripped every sailor in our unit up and down! Please don't tell them! I'll never be able to show my face in the Comm Room ever again!"
"I think we can probably avoid that, Petty Officer Mathis," Gibbs said, suppressing a grin. "You two talk about anything else?"
"Lots of stuff," Mathis admitted. "We talked about getting out when our tours ended, about going back into civilian life. Randi was talking about going back to school, looking at getting her degree in civil engineering; I wanted to maybe become a cop. Pretty much ruined that idea, haven't I?" she asked bitterly. "Police departments don't hire too many murderers."
"No, but they do hire people who have been cleared of charges," Gibbs reminded her. "Tell me about finding her. When did it happen?"
"Yesterday, early morning," Mathis said promptly. "I went out for a walk. I wanted to listen to the birds chirping, before they shut up during the middle of the day. I got back around nine. I couldn't find her, so I started yelling for her."
"She didn't respond."
"Not a word. I started getting worried, and looked around. I finally found her behind the cellar door. She was already dead. There was a bunch of blood all around, but I was so scared that I started doing CPR before I realized that she was already cold. Then I stopped."
DiNozzo spoke up. "The report said that they found a two by four with your bloody prints on it. How did that happen?"
Mathis frowned. "I had to tear down the cellar door in order to get to her. It wasn't locked, but it was stuck. I finally got it open, and there she was, on the stairs."
"She hit her head?"
"I don't know. There was blood all over. I suppose so. They say that I hit her, right?" Anger gleamed dully in her eyes.
"Did you see anyone else in the area?" DiNozzo asked.
Mathis shifted her gaze to look at him, clearly debating whether or not to lie. Honor won out. "No. No, I didn't."
Gibbs was truthful with the petty officer. "I can't get you out of here, Mathis. Charges have been filed. But if you're telling the truth—"
"I am, sir."
"—if you're telling the truth, then my people will clear you. Just be patient."
Petty Officer Mathis looked at Gibbs. "Like I got any choice?"