There is a noticeable dearth of Sterling stories so I decided to write one. Or rather two. This is the first story, The Sterling Job. The second story, The Sterling Job Redux, will be posted later and is an alternate version of this story. I hope others will write Sterling stories or at least stories with Sterling in them. This story is a crossover with NCIS, an idea that grew from caffinebunny's stories. While the idea of using NCIS came from her stories, this story is not in any way related to those tales. There is also a minor crossover with Midsomer Murders. Special thanks to Sandra H and Dawn for their help in beta reading the story, as well as medical advice.
NOTE: This story contains descriptions of child abuse and nonconsensual sex/rape of a child. It also has a same-sex relationship.
It was a simple scam, or so it seemed. Builder using shoddy material, convince him that they could make him even more money in barely illegal or downright illegal ways. The mark didn't care as long as there was a lot of it and it was untraceable. So Nate and Sophie were out there near a waterfront warehouse which, if you look at the records Hardison had fiddled with, belonged to them, waiting for their mark to arrive. Get the money, leave the mark holding the bag, and split. Simple, right?
So what was it about this job that bugged him so much?
Eliot glanced around. Safely hidden in the shadows of the warehouse, he was providing support for the couple. Parker was on a nearby rooftop, doing the same and Hardison was in a van nearby, monitoring everything.
"Another twenty minutes and we'll be done," Nate murmured. "Here they come."
Eliot saw a limousine turning onto the street and looked around again, more nervous then he should be. Something's not right here, something's not right here, the mantra ran through his head. Movement caught his eye and he saw a figure come around the corner at the other end of the street, running toward the couple. Eliot recognized him immediately.
"What's he doing here?"
"What?" Nate murmured, having caught Eliot's question through the ear bud.
"What?" Nate half-turned to look. "IYS has nothing …"
Sterling's shout cut across what Nate was saying, his voice desperate. "Nate! It's a trap! Get out of there!"
Eliot jerked his head towards the limo, just in time to see the doors open and two men with guns step out. "Nate! Sophie! Take cover!"
While Nate may not have been willing to believe Sterling, he did believe Eliot. Without hesitation, he grabbed Sophie and shoved her behind a stack of crates, throwing himself over her for added protection.
"Sterling! Take cover!" Eliot yelled.
Nate couldn't see the limo or Eliot but he could see Sterling, could see the look on his face as he realized he was now the only target available for shooters who were undoubtedly pissed off at him. What followed seemed to happen in slow motion. Sterling slowing to a halt, the first bullet striking him in the lower abdomen, blood spurting onto the light blue windbreaker he wore, his body jerking with the impact. Another blood stain appeared to the right side of his chest and a third high up on his chest. He had started to fall with the second bullet; now he hit the ground hard, and time returned to normal.
There was a sudden explosion, and Nate found himself thanking Parker and her love for loud bangs. Smoke began to fill the area, and he grabbed Sophie's hand so they wouldn't get separated. He could hear Eliot yelling for Hardison, then the screech of tires.
"Get to the van!" Eliot yelled over their ear buds and the couple obeyed, running for the pick up spot.
Hardison was already there, side door open, muttering, 'come on, come on' in low tones. They scrambled into the van, getting out of the way as Parker jumped in, moving to sit in the passenger seat. Eliot … Eliot was taking too long, even if it was only a few seconds. Nate almost went back out, only to stop as the man appeared. He had Sterling in a fireman's carry across his shoulders, blood staining his clothes.
"Take him!" Nate obeyed, catching Sterling as Eliot handed him in. With Sophie's help, he pulled him into the van and then Eliot was following, slamming the door behind him. "Get us out of here!" he snarled at Hardison. "Head for the nearest emergency room."
Dropping down next to Sterling, Eliot pulled off his ruined shirt and grabbed for a nearby jacket. Parker made a protesting sound, then fell silent as Eliot pressed the bundled clothing to Sterling's chest, trying to slow the bleeding. In the front seat, Hardison was muttering as he used the navigation system to find the nearest hospital.
"Parker! Call 911!" Eliot yelled. "Let them know we're coming."
Sophie pulled off her jacket, folding it and slipping it under Sterling's head. The man's eyes opened. "Set up. All a set up." He stiffened, groaning deep in his throat.
"Don't try to talk, damn it! Looks like it mighta gotten a lung," Eliot said grimly.
"Got more than that, I think," Sterling choked, then coughed up blood. His every word was a desperate gasp. Sophie snatched the handkerchief from Nate's breast pocket and used it to gently wipe the blood away from his face. Sterling didn't seem to notice. "In me pocket." He fumbled at a front pocket in his jeans but then gave up. "Key … safe deposit box. Information in it."
Sophie hesitated, then reached for the pocket, working her fingers into it. Sterling gave a choked laugh.
"Damn. I'd enjoy this more if I weren't … well … dying." He swallowed hard, resignation mingling with the pain in his eyes.
"You ain't dying," Eliot snarled and Sterling looked at him in surprise.
"You sound ... like you care."
"You just saved a couple of our lives. Means I owe you." Eliot pressed harder and Sterling coughed. "An' I don't like it when people die before I can make good on a debt."
Sterling looked at him for a moment, blood bubbling from his nose and mouth with every breath. "Guess ... I'll just ... try not to ... then."
"Got it!" Sophie pulled out a key triumphantly.
"Bank of America." Sterling paused, eyes closing as his body shuddered violently. A moment later, he reopened his eyes, looking at Sophie. "In my name with ... consent for my sister to access it. You … you remember." His voice was an urgent whisper, and her face tightened slightly before she nodded.
Nate looked at them, sensing a silent communication but before he could say anything, the injured man's body jerked and he gasped frantically for breath.
"Oh god," Sterling said thickly. "Oh god, it hurts." His hand flailed out and instinctively Nate reached out to grab it. Sterling's hand tightened almost painfully on his own, and he gulped air. "Can't … can't breathe."
"Bet his lung's collapsed. Or close to it," Eliot said. "Hardison!"
"Almost there, Sterling," Nate said. "Hang on."
"Nate? Nate. Always … always wanted to tell you …" Sterling's accent was changing, thickening his words. "Tell you … sorry …" His voice trailed off as he gasped for breath.
"For what?" Nate asked, then winced at the fierce look Eliot gave him.
Sterling's next words were a near whisper and Nate had to lean close to hear him. "For not being … a better friend." He choked, body convulsing, and Nate jerked back as blood sprayed him.
"Hardison!" Nate, Sophie, and Eliot all yelled.
"We're here!" The van skidded to a halt and Eliot cursed as he was thrown back, loosening the pressure on the makeshift bandage. Blood welled from the wounds and Eliot threw himself back into place, pressing down hard.
Parker was out of the van even before it slowed, sprinting for the emergency room doors, yelling for help. A medical team was already on their way out, pushing a gurney with them. Nate released Sterling's now limp hand and searched quickly through the man's pockets, finally finding his wallet. Pulling it free, he thrust it into Sophie's hands
"Here. Only makes sense his sister would get his wallet to keep it safe." Nate gave Sophie a meaningful look at the word 'sister' but she didn't seem to notice. "Come on. Move back."
The side door was thrown open and there was a flurry of activity directed by a serious-faced woman with long blond hair caught up in a chignon at the back of her neck. Nate caught a glimpse of her name tag ... Hathaway ... before she turned away to give curt orders to the others. Within moments they had shifted Sterling to the gurney, one small nurse swinging onto the gurney itself, hands flying as she worked.
"Pressure's dropping, people! Let's move it!" And they were gone, leaving a sudden silence in their wake.
Eliot reached over to grab his jacket, pulling it on over bare skin. "We gotta go in," he said.
Nate nodded, despite the temptation to leave. "Right. Okay. Drive by shooting, guys. We don't know anything about what happened by that warehouse. We got lost and got caught in the crossfire. You're going to need to do some work, Hardison. Get Sophie's maiden name changed to Sterling …"
"Niven," Sophie corrected. She showed Nate the wallet she was hastily scanning. "Sterling Niven."
Nate looked. "When did he start using a fake name? Why would he use one? No, not important right now. Niven. You know what to do, Hardison."
"Police are going to want to talk to all of us. And the hospital personnel saw us all." Eliot pointed out.
Nate grimaced. "Yeah, right. Park the van, Hardison, and do what you can from here, then come inside. They'll probably want to take the van in as part of the crime scene or whatever, so bring in anything you don't want them to find."
A nurse intercepted them as they entered the emergency department. "We need patient information. If you could come over here please …"
Leaving the others, Eliot drifted toward the emergency rooms, nodding to the guard at the door. He spotted the room where a team was frantically working on Sterling and eased over enough to look in. There were too many people surrounding the man for him to see clearly but he caught a glimpse of pale skin and faded tattoos as the team worked expertly together, inserting tubes and attaching various monitors.
"Get that tube in ... there it goes," someone said curtly and he saw a grim-faced dark-skinned man with graying hair inserting a tube down Sterling's throat. Hathaway stepped in the way, obscuring Eliot's view, but he could still hear the doctor's deep voice rattling off his evaluation of Sterling's injuries.
Wincing at the list, Eliot stepped away, walking back to where a nurse was asking if Sterling was on any medication. Sophie stammered and shook her head.
"Not that I know of," she finally said weakly.
The small woman with Eurasian features and a name tag that said Shan Tang smiled encouragingly."We can finish this later. I think they would want to speak to you." She nodded toward two police officers just entering the emergency room.
Ten minutes later, the members of the Leverage team, minus Hardison, were in a conference room with the two officers, cradling cups of surprisingly good coffee. The fifth member of their group was in the bathroom, Nate explained. The sight of blood made him sick.
Hardison sat uncomfortably in the bathroom, fingers flying over the keyboard as he shifted records to match what Nate was saying. Tom and Sarah Jane Baker traveling with a niece (hers) and a nephew (his) and the niece's boyfriend (him). Sarah Jane's brother was an unexpected, but welcome addition. No, they hadn't known he was coming, but he knew their itinerary and had shown up. He had flown in early this morning and hadn't gotten a hotel room as yet (information supplied by Hardison after a quick look at Sterling's credit card activity and flight plan). They had driven out in two vehicles but had left their car behind when the shooting started (true, actually). Eliot had served two tours in the Army (Quick adjustment to Eliot's cover. He had been listed as being in the Marines. Oh, well.) and gotten practical combat first aide experience there.
Hardison finished up what needed to be done and closed his laptop, shoving it in his backpack before going out to join the others.
"That should do it for now. We'll need more detailed statements later." Sergeant Ryan, the older of the two officers, closed his notebook and reached into a pocket to pull out a card. "Here. Here's my card if you need to contact me. How can we reach you?"
Nate gave them his cell phone number. "We're in a hotel way across the city. We're going to try to get closer ..."
"The hotel across the street is good. They give a discount if you have a relative in the hospital."
"Thanks." Nate shook the man's hand and nodded at Madison, the younger officer and an obvious rookie. "Thanks a lot.."
"Man, I need to get a new ride," Hardison said. "They're towing the van, and your car's still at that mess in at the waterfront, so I don't think we'll get it anytime soon. Where's a rental place?"
"Closest is the airport," Ryan said regretfully. "But if you explain the situation to the hotel, they'll probably let you hitch a lift on the shuttle."
"Thanks." He waited for the officers to leave. "How about me, Parker, and Eliot go get a couple cars? Get our stuff and move over to this hotel?"
"Yeah. Yeah, do that. Give Eliot a chance to clean up. Get the rooms, then come over and let us know what they are. For now, we'll stick around." Nate looked at Sophie, who nodded agreement.
"What about the safety deposit box?" Parker asked, curiosity in her voice.
Nate took a deep breath and let it out. "We'll head out that way when we can. What?"
Parker was standing still, looking uncharacteristically uncertain. "Why was Sterling trying to warn us? What is he doing here?"
"I don't know," Nate said quietly. "But we will find out."
"Hopefully, he'll live long enough to tell us," Eliot said bluntly. "Let's go."
Nate watched the others walk away before gently taking Sophie's elbow. "Come on. Let's see what we can find out."
"Which way?" Sophie paused outside the door. Anticipating Sterling being taken into surgery, Nurse Tang had directed them to an empty conference room near the OR. Now they followed the signs to the nurses' station there.
"I'm sorry. We don't have any information yet." One of the nurses on duty, a young man named Shawn, looked regretful. "He's still in surgery. That's all I know at this time. If you would like to wait ..." He directed them to a spacious waiting room near the operating rooms, and they settled near some windows, nodding at the others already in the room. The young couple in the corner didn't seem to notice, obviously caught up in their own misery but the elderly woman surrounded by several others smiled at them pleasantly.
Sophie looked at Nate, noting his tenseness. "Are you all right?" she asked.
"Not really. I've been here before. Remember?"
"So am I. And now I'm here again. For Sterling, of all people." He almost laughed. "I can't believe I'm here for Sterling."
"He did save our lives. Without his warning, we would have never gotten to cover in time."
"Does he have any family, do you know? Someone we should contact?"
Nate shook his head. "He told once that his parents were dead and he had no siblings. Never married, as far as I know, and I don't know who he might be involved with."
"IYS? Never mind. Stupid suggestion."
Nate grinned. "Yeah. Him here under a fake name ... I doubt they know anything about this." He leaned back, hands clasped behind his head, and fell silent. Sophie looked at him for a moment then leaned back as well, clasping her hands on her knee
An hour crept by and the couple watched as the elderly woman, whose name they found to be Stella Bates, quietly coaxed the young couple into her group. She sent one of the middle-aged men with her out to get coffee and tea for the entire room. He came back with pastries as well, which were passed around to all. By the time Eliot returned, cleaned up and with a new shirt on, they had found that the young couple, the Jacksons, had a three-year-old in surgery to correct birth defects while Stella's husband was having a triple-bypass.
"We got rooms together. Yours is 506." Eliot offered the a pair of key cards.
"Thanks." Sophie took the card with a sigh. "Listen. I'd like to clean up." She gestured toward the blood stains on her pants. "And I think you do, too. Let's check how things first."
"Okay. Let's do that." Nate stood with a sigh. "We'll need to get something more to eat as well."
Saying good-bye to the Bates and the Jacksons, they made their way to the nurses' station. There was still no news so they left their cell phones numbers and room numbers with one of the nurses at the OR nurses' station and left the hospital, Sophie almost stumbling in the brightness of the afternoon sun.
"I can't believe it's not even noon." Sophie blinked, finally slipping on her sunglasses. "It seems like so much longer."
"Yeah." Nate said quietly. "Sitting in a hospital waiting room does that to you. Come on. Let's go."
Freshly showered and dressed in clean clothes, Sophie searched her suitcase, trying to sort out the mess that Parker's hasty repacking had caused.
"I need to teach Parker how to pack properly," she said to Nate as he left the bathroom, pulling on a clean shirt. Keeping their cover as a married couple, they were sharing the room.
Nate gave the suitcases a passing glance, grimacing at the mess Parker's unique packing style had made of their clothes. "Did you call the hospital for an update?"
"Yes. Still in surgery. They believe it will be awhile yet."
Nate nodded. "Where is everyone?"
"The guys' room is next door. Parker has a connecting room with them."
Nate had to grin at that, remembering some of the situations that had occurred before when those three had been thrown together in a hotel room. "Listen, let's order room service. We can take it over there ... what?"
A banging on the door drew their attention, and Nate opened the door to see Eliot. "We've ordered pizza and Hardison's been doing some research. He's got some things to report. So far, he's only given us the highlights ... you know how he is. Grand unveiling and everything, but ..."
"But what?" Sophie asked.
Eliot hesitated before speaking in a clipped tone. "We do not know Sterling at all. Come on."
"What? What do you mean?" Nate asked sharply but Eliot had already turned and walked away. Nate and Sophie exchanged puzzled looks and followed, the door closing behind them.
"Pizza'll be here in about forty minutes." Eliot pushed the door open.
"Yeah, okay. Fine." Nate ran an eye over the room. Parker was stretched out on the bed, her face set in a fierce look; Hardison was at the desk, at an angle that kept anyone from seeing what was on the screen of his laptop. He looked thoughtful as his fingers flew over the keyboard. "Okay, what's going on? What's Eliot mean? We don't know Sterling at all?"
"You asked how long he'd been using a fake name." Eliot walked past them and collapsed into one of the chairs, looking at Hardison and jerking his head at the couple. "Go ahead. Tell them."
Hardison looked up. "Oh, about twenty-five years or so."
"What? Wait. What are you talking about?" Nate took the other chair, Sophie sat on the edge of the bed, staring at Hardison in silent shock.
"Jim Sterling is the false name. Sterling's real name is Sterling Niven," Hardison explained. "Jim Sterling ... well, let me start from the beginning. Sterling was born May 30th, 1964 in the East End of London. Real bad area. Eighteen months later, his parents were murdered; apparently in a drug deal gone wrong. The only reason Sterling survived is because the killer couldn't bring himself to kill a toddler."
"Rough," Eliot grunted.
"Yeah. Well, his father's family ... who were apparently well-off ... didn't want him. Apparently his old man was the black sheep of the family and was cut off completely. Simply put, no one wanted him. Mother's family ... who are a text book case of dysfunctional ... ended up with him. Apparently, they didn't want him either but they took him. Over the next eleven years, Sterling ended up in the emergency room a total of thirty-one times."
"What!" Sophie and Nate said together.
"Yeah. Mysteriously broken bones. Burns. Muscle-deep bruises. You know. Clumsy kid." Sarcasm dripped from his voice.
"And no one said anything," Nate said quietly.
"Or did anything." There was no disguising the anger in Eliot's voice.
"At age thirteen, Sterling falls off the map. Completely. When an inquiry came from his school, they were told he had gone to live with his father's family. Total lie. No record of him for three years then ..." He turned his monitor so the others could see it. A picture of a jovial-looking, middle-aged priest on the screen. "Meet Father Andrew. One of those priests who does the right thing for the right reason. He inherited a large amount of money from a benefactor and used it to help kids get off the street. Sterling was rescued kid number twenty-seven. He became James Sterling. Finished school in three years; remarkable considering his lousy attendance before he disappeared, and the fact that he hadn't been in three years."
"He remade himself," Nate murmured.
"Where was he for those three years?" Sophie asked.
"My guess? On the streets." Hardison gestured at his laptop. "I checked for any police record. Nothing, but he could have used a false name."
"Or been very lucky," Sophie sighed.
"From there you know James Sterling's history. But!" Hardison held up a finger. "But, you don't know what's been happening with him the last year." He paused for effect, and Nate glared at him.
"Yeah, right, okay." He paused again. "It's just so weird."
"We haven't heard it yet, either." Eliot offered Sophie and Nate mugs of tea, which they took gratefully. "But Hardison's been making a lot of disbelieving noises."
"Hardison," Nate said in a low, forceful voice.
Hardison threw up his hands. "Okay, okay. About eleven months ago, Sterling took an extended leave of absence from IYS. He changed his name legally to Sterling Niven, or changed it back. Whatever. Then, he went to London." Hardison paused then, shaking his finger at them, and started to speak. He paused again before giving up with a hard sigh. "Look. Read for yourself." He brought up a web page and Sophie moved closer to read out loud the segment he was pointing at. It was just a short blurb.
"A thirty-one year old cold case was finally closed today when 44-year-old Sterling Niven confessed to the murder ..." Her voice faltered and she looked at the equally shocked Nate before continuing. "... to the murder of Patrick O'Hare."
"He was what?" Nate said in disbelief. "Thirteen?"
"Yeah. That's all the public information. Very old case. The victim was a low-life scumbag of the highest order. Or rather, lowest order. Now the original records weren't even in the system but ..." Hardison hesitated, looking uncertain.
"Okay. The station where he turned himself in, it's relatively old-fashioned. Not all the cases are in the computer, but they video tape interrogations with the finest, latest digital equipment."
"And those are stored in a computer," Nate guessed.
"Yeah. So I went in, took a look, and I gotta tell ya. Any other circumstance, I would not have even been telling you about this but ... everything that's happened? I think we may need to know. So, ahhhh ..." Hardison wavered. "Damn." He reached over to do something with the laptop and an image sprang up.
It was obviously an interrogation room, very sparse with a table and four chairs, two on each side. Sterling was in the room alone, sitting in a chair, hands fiddling with a coffee cup in front of him. Nate was shocked at his appearance. This wasn't the self-assured man he'd always known nor was it the self-centered utter bastard Sterling had proclaimed himself to be. He looked thinner then Nate remembered, and unshaven. His eyes seemed in constant motion, his face and body twitching as he waited.
"Haunted," Sophie murmured, and Nate nodded. That was it. Sterling looked haunted.
"Watch," Hardison said softly.
The door opened and Sterling jumped slightly, looking up as two men entered. A middle-aged, pleasant faced man entered first, followed by a younger man carrying a box.
"Mr. Niven. I'm DC Barnaby; you've met Sergeant Jones. I was one of the original investigators into O'Hare's death." He glanced at the empty chair next to Sterling. "You are entitled to a solicitor. Would you like ..."
Sterling shook his head. "No. No, don't need one."
"As you like. Just to let you know, this is being recorded. May I call you Sterling? Thank you." Barnaby pulled out the chair across from Sterling and sat down. Setting the box on the table, Jones took off the cover and pulled out some files, offering them to his superior before sitting down. "You, ah, caused a bit of a stir with your confession. Thirty-one year old murder case. No one ever expected a solution to it." Sterling didn't respond and Barnaby didn't seem to expect one. "I would like you to tell me what happened. In your own words."
Sterling looked at him, his hands clasping each other almost desperately. "I wrote it all out. Gave it to the Sergeant." He nodded at the man in question.
"Yes. I have it right here." Barnaby pulled a sealed envelope from an inside pocket, setting it in front of him. "Haven't opened it. I want to hear what you have to say." He clasped his hands together and looked at the younger man, waiting.
Sterling swallowed hard. It was obvious he didn't want to tell the story, but it was equally obvious that he had committed himself to doing this. "I ... ahhhh ... I was thirteen. Living with me mum's sister and her husband. My parents ... my parents had been murdered when I was just a babe and they were the ones who got stuck with me. They didn't want me. Except maybe as a punching bag. So I took off." He paused, reaching up to rub at the back of his neck. "I was stupid. Didn't know much of life out there. Ran out of money fast ... not that I had much to begin with ... couldn't get a job. Too young, compounded by the fact that I was small for my age."
Barnaby looked thoughtful at that but said nothing, and Sterling didn't seem to notice as he continued.
"Hungry, no place to live. So when this guy seemed friendly, offered me some food, place to sleep in exchange for some work around his place, I took it." He looked up at Barnaby. "Like I said, stupid."
"Desperate," Barnaby replied and Sterling nodded jerkily.
"That, too." His hand shook as he reached for the disposable cup in front of him. He stared at it as he began to pick it apart. "He took me somewhere ... cheap cafe ... got me some food, took me back to his place. Rundown old house. Creepy. He didn't waste any time. As soon as I was inside, he told me what he really wanted. Said there was only one way for me make any money on the street; said I was going to do it whether I wanted to or not." Sterling stopped, reaching up to cover his eyes, swallowing hard. "I tried to take off but he, ahhh, he hit me. Hard. I blacked out. When I came to ..." His voice faltered and his hand tightened around the cup, crushing it.
Nate wanted to tell Hardison to turn the video off, but he couldn't. His throat was too tight to say a word. He had known Sterling for years but he had never seen him like this. He knew what was coming, but Sterling's next words still made him close his eyes in sympathy.
"I was naked, face down on the bed, and he was on top of me. The pain ... I tried to scream and he shoved something into my mouth. Told me to shut up. That I'd better get used to it." He dropped his hand, staring at the table for a long moment before he looked up at Barnaby, his eyes gleaming with unshed tears. "My hands ... my hands were free. Guess he didn't expect much resistance. I just starting groping around, trying to get a hold of something. Anything. The minute I got my hand on something ... don't know what ... I just ... I just started trying to hit him." He paused, swallowing hard.
Sergeant Jones stood up and filled a glass with water, setting it front of Sterling. He gave him a grateful look and took a drink.
"He, ah ..."
Nate was just reflecting that Sterling's accent was coarsening when there was a knock at the door. Hardison hurriedly paused the video and they all stared at the door mutely.
"Oh, calm down, people." Eliot pulled himself from the chair and walked to the door. "It's just the pizza." He paid the delivery man and took the pizza, shutting the door. He stared at the two boxes for a moment before setting them on the dresser. No one made any move toward them.
"We continue?" Hardison asked.
After a moment, Nate nodded. "Yeah, we continue."
"... he just swore. Hit me some more then ..." He gestured toward his throat. "Started to choke me. I just kept hitting out ... finally he fell on me, didn't move. I got him off me, don't know how ... dropped whatever it was I'd hit him with, got off the bed. Spit out the gag, threw up. Grabbed my stuff and ran."
"You didn't look at him?" Barnaby asked. "You didn't see the blood?"
"No. I didn't want to look at him. All I knew was that there was something wet and warm on me legs and ..." He faltered and swallowed. "And I didn't really want to think about what it was. I just ran. Got outside in a dark corner of the yard where I could see the door. In case he followed. The clothes I'd been wearing were all cut up so I used them to clean ... whatever was on me. Got some clothes out of me pack. Got dressed. Ran. Didn't find out he was dead for days. Heard about it on the streets."
"You didn't think to call the police?"
Sterling laughed, a hoarse, slightly crazed sound. "The last time I tried to tell a cop anything, I was eight. In hospital, with broken ribs. Broken arm. Concussion. Told him my uncle had thrown me down the stairs and kicked me across the room a couple times. What does he do? He tells my uncle what I said. I get home from hospital, and he beats the shit out of me again. He told the hospital that I'd re-broken me own bones by being clumsy. Learned real quick not to ever to tell the cops anything."
Sterling's accent was definitely thickening, shifting more and more to low-end Cockney. The accent, Nate realized, of his youth.
"What happened then?" Barnaby asked.
"Lived on the streets, didn't I? Not much choice. Nicked things to sell. Picked pockets. Got real good at it." His lips quirked into a mirthless smile. "Never got caught."
"Yes. I saw that you had no form. Unless it was under a different name."
"Nope. Just never got caught. Never ..." He paused and swallowed, looking down. "Never had to resort to selling myself, either. Close thing, a couple times. Surprising, the things you consider when you're desperate. Then one day, I heard about this priest helping kids. Kids like me." He faltered and looked around the room, biting at his lip before he looked back at Barnaby. "I was sick of it, you know. The constant fear. Hunger. Cold. Never knowing where I was going to sleep that night."
"That would have been Father Andrew," Barnaby said and Sterling paused, looking at him.
"Yeah. You knew him?"
"I'd met him. Good man."
Sterling nodded. "I took a chance. Went to meet him. Talked with him. Told him my name was Jim Sterling. My parents were dead. Had no relatives. He didn't believe me,but that ... that didn't stop him from helping me. Found me a place to live. Got me into school. Got off the streets and became someone."
"Went to America." Barnaby's voice was quiet. "Became an insurance investigator. Made your way up through the ranks very nicely indeed. Yes, we checked you out. We also found that every year you send a very sizable check to the Father Andrew Rescued Children's Fund."
Sterling was silent for a long moment. "Saved me life, didn't he? I don't forget my debts."
Barnaby nodded slowly. "So why now? Why turn yourself in now? No one knew you were involved. It was forgotten."
Sterling looked down, picking at the remains of the cup. It was obvious he hadn't forgotten. "Got me reasons."
Barnaby shook his head slowly. "That isn't going to do it. You've left a good life, a good job to come here and turn yourself in for the murder of some low-life no one cares about. I'd like to know why."
Sterling gave a snorting laugh that turned into something like a sob. "Got someone," He said finally. "Someone I want a life with. Only me life, it's all lies. Name, life, everything. We can't build a relationship on that. So I've been trying to set things right."
"Even if it means you end up in prison?"
Sergeant Jones gave his boss a sharp look but neither of the other men noticed.
Sterling met the older man's eyes unflinchingly. "Yeah. Yeah, even if it means I end up in prison."
Barnaby took up one of the folders in front of him, pulling out a series of photos and laying them out in front of Sterling, turned so he was seeing them right side up. Sterling took one look and abruptly looked away.
"These are the crime scene photos. This one." Barnaby's voice was low and compelling as he pointed toward the first one to Sterling's left, and waited until the man finally looked. "That's the bed. The body's gone but you can see where it was by the blood. This is the knife he used to cut off your clothes. And what you grabbed to try and fend him off. You hit an artery and he bled out. This mess is his blood. All around here. But here and here. That ..." He pointed at Sterling. "That is your blood."
Sterling looked up at him abruptly, then down at what he was pointing at. "He injured you when he raped you." Sterling flinched as the inspector gave a cruel name to what had been done to him. "That's that blood there, mixed with ... other bodily fluids. But this blood ... you grabbed the knife and thrust back behind you." He demonstrated. "There were two different blood types on that blade. Eventually you stabbed him but before you struck him, you struck yourself. And you bled there."
Sterling stared at him, his face working. After a moment he rose, turning to lift the left side of his t-shirt and ease the waistband of his jeans down enough for them to see part of a ugly puckered scar.
Barnaby nodded and waited for him to sit back down before turning back to the photos. "Here." He tapped the second photo. "You spit the gag out here. A sock. Probably one of yours. And there, you threw up." Sterling watched silently, only his eyes moving as Barnaby moved from one photo to the next. "The bloody clothes you used to wipe the blood off of you and left there, under the bushes. Quite a bit of blood." Barnaby watched Sterling closely. "But you thought it was from you, didn't you? At thirteen, you wouldn't have known that that was way too much blood to have come from you, even from that gash in your back. Or from the rape."
Sterling shuddered and he dropped his head, his fingers clenching his hair as he finally broke, rocking as he wept helplessly.
Sophie's hand groped out, clutching at Nate's almost desperately. He squeezed it reassuringly,
Barnaby watched him for a long moment before standing and moving to rest his hand on Sterling's shoulder, squeezing it gently. He caught Jones' eyes and nodded toward the door. As the sergeant obeyed, Barnaby leaned forward, speaking softly into Sterling's ear. "You were attempting to defend yourself, Sterling. O'Hare was wounded and he did nothing to save himself. You could do nothing. Even if you were aware of how badly he was hurt, you could have done nothing. Do you understand?"
After a moment, Sterling nodded.
"Not so easy to believe, is it?"
Sterling shook his head.
"Thought not." Barnaby looked up as a uniformed woman stepped in. "This is PC Jenson. She's going to take you somewhere where you can get cleaned up, and then you'll need to wait while I discuss this with my superiors and a few others. See what we need to do. Come on. Up." Barnaby gently helped Sterling to his feet. The man looked numb, his face streaked with tears. "Put him in an empty consultation room. Get him some food, something to drink." He turned back to Sterling. "It won't be for long. I promise."
Sterling nodded and started toward the door, pausing briefly before turning to look back at Barnaby. "I didn't mean to kill him, you know. Really, I didn't. I just ... I just wanted him off of me."
Barnaby nodded. "Yes. I know. Go on."
Jones wanted for the door to close before turning to his boss. "You believe him?"
"Hmmmm." Barnaby gathered up the photos before looking at the younger man. "The detective I worked with back when this happened was very good at what he did. After the body had been removed and most of the officers gone, he turned to me and he said, 'Tom, me lad. We have to find the poor bastard who did this, because this is the clearest case of self defense I've ever seen'."
"Oh yes. He started at the bed and walked through what happened. Everything that I just said, about those photos, he said back then. The blood, the knife, the gag, the clothes. Everything. And something more. There were hand prints on the headboard and on the handle of the knife. From the size of them, we figured that the killer ... victim rather ... could have been as young as eight, but Sterling said he was small for his age so ..." He shrugged.
"But if he knew it was self-defense, why turn himself in?"
"Oh, he knew. He knew. He just needed someone else to tell him that. Someone in authority, and in the know." He looked at the photos he still held, tapping them against his hand before slipping them into the folder and handing it to the sergeant. "This ... this, Jones, was not a murder. This was a very tragic incident that killed one man and has tormented another for thirty-one years." Picking up the still sealed envelope, he slipped it back into his pocket. "Let's go see if we can do something to bring that torment to an end."
The video ended but no one said anything for a long moment.
Sophie spoke first, shaking her head slowly. "That Inspector. He did that deliberately. He picked and picked at Sterling until he broke." She sounded upset.
"Yeah. Yeah, he did." Eliot pushed himself to his feet and retrieved a pizza box, bringing it over. "Hate to say it but he needed to. Sterling was on the edge. He was wound up way too tightly and he needed that release before he exploded. Better tears than violence." He set the now open box on a bed and pulled out a slice.
"I guess. It just seemed very cruel." She shook herself. "So what happened? Was he released or what?"
"I don't understand English law, and I didn't feel like taking a crash course," Hardison said. "Sterling was in England for about two months. Never taken into formal custody. In fact, for most of that time, he stayed with the Inspector and his wife."
"So the Inspector really did believe he was innocent," Nate said.
"Guess so. Anyway, they declined to press charges. Between Sterling's age when it happened, the circumstances, the fact that he hadn't had any problems with the law since, him turning himself in, yadda, yadda, yadda. Some folks apparently wanted to make a fuss but it didn't pan out. He left England, went home to LA, requested a transfer to another office, and moved ... lock, stock, and barrel ... to Washington."
"Washington? As in DC?" Nate asked, and Hardison nodded.
"Yep." Hardison's lips quirked. "Remember what he said in the video. That he's got someone? Well, he certainly does." Hardison turned the laptop toward him, searching for something then grinned and looked up, turning the laptop back around. "Seven months ago, one Sterling James Niven entered into a legal domestic partnership with one Michael William Dayton."
Nate choked on his drink, coughing as tea sprayed everywhere, and Eliot jumped up to slap his back as he choked.
"Sterling's gay?" Sophie said in shocked surprise, seemingly unaware of tea spraying her. "I mean, I never suspected ... he's flirted with me more than once."
"He has?" Nate looked at her. "When?"
"That's not important." She waved him off, leaning forward to look at the photo. Sterling looked surprisingly happy as he stood next to a tall bald man with pleasant features. Neither was looking at the camera; they were looking at each other, and Sophie's throat tightened at their expressions. "Good for you, Sterling," she whispered so softly that no one else heard. She said in sudden shock. "Oh, god. He doesn't know Sterling's here. Or that he's injured so badly." She looked at Nate, who paused from wiping tea from his pants, looking thoughtful.
"Damn," he said finally. "How are we supposed to contact him?"
"Look, I just found out about this as you came in. Let me do some searching." Hardison reached for the laptop but Sophie waved him back. She had been scrolling through the photos in the album and paused at one.
"Wait. Wait a minute. Eliot, isn't that ..." She pointed at a woman in the photo. She was dressed in black with perky pigtails, various tattoos, and wearing a dog collar. Eliot looked and growled.
"Who?" Nate demanded.
"My cousin. Abby."
"Abby?" Parker spoke up in Eliot's ear, and he jumped, glaring at her for sneaking up on him.
"Yes." Sophie nodded. "She visited once when we were still in LA. You three were gone." She looked at Eliot. "Can you contact her?"
Before Eliot could answer, Hardison interrupted. He had reclaimed his laptop and was typing quickly. "We may have a problem, guys. Your cousin works for NCIS."
"What's NCIS?" Parker asked.
"Naval Criminal Investigative Service. In other words, the law."
"Only where the Navy is concerned," Eliot pointed out.
"Yeah, well. Turns out that Dayton works for them, too. As a special agent."
"Wait a minute. Military? Openly gay? Something does not scan here," Nate said.
Eliot shook his head. "Personnel in NCIS ain't military. They're civilian, many of them ex-military. From the look of Dayton, I'd say that's what he is."
"Yep." Hardison nodded, scanning the monitor. "Left the Marines seven months ago, went into NCIS a month later, after the ceremony and a nice long trip to Europe. They bought a house, nice little fixer-upper. Sterling transferred to the New York division of IYS ... took a demotion back to investigator ... and commutes."
"So what do we do?" Sophie interrupted. "We have to let him know."
"She's right," Eliot spoke up. "This job is blown. The smart thing to do is run, but we can't. We owe Sterling."
"I'm not arguing." Nate stood up. "Sophie, call the hospital. Check on his condition. Once we have that information, Eliot, you call your cousin. I'm going to change and I suggest you do too, Sophie."
"What? Oh." Sophie looked at the tea stains on her blouse. "Right."
Nate left, stopping to grab a couple slices of pizza on his way. When he returned, Sophie was just closing her phone, her expression serious.
"Still in surgery. It just ... no detailed information yet." She gestured helplessly.
Nate sighed and looked at Eliot. "Call your cousin."
His words were redundant, since Eliot already had his phone open and was hitting speed dial.
"Hey, Abby! It's Eliot." A stream of happy chatter came from the phone, though the others couldn't understand a word. "Yeah, yeah. Me too. Abby. Abby!" He raised his voice, finally cutting her off. "Abby, do you know a Sterling Niven? What? Who's this?" Eliot closed his eyes and bit his lip, grimacing. "Yeah ... ahhhhh ... just a minute." He pulled the phone from his ear and hit the speaker phone button.
"... sorry, Eliot. I had the phone on speaker phone." A woman's voice came over the phone. "This is Gibbs. My boss."
"And I'd like to know what you know about Sterling." A man's voice followed hard on hers. "His partner's been trying to get a hold of him the past few days, and so have I!"
"He's ... uhm ... he's in a hospital in Seattle. He's been shot."
There was an audible gasp from Abby.
"Abby, go get Ducky," Gibbs said curtly.
"Go! Now." There was the sound of footsteps fading. Gibbs waited until there was silence for several seconds before speaking. "This have anything to do with you and your friends?"
The five of them looked at each other, uncertain what to say.
"Sterling told me about all of you. Just me and Mike. And Ducky knows, too. He figured we should know, just in case. Well?"
Eliot looked at Nate and the older man sighed, "This is Nathan Ford. And, yeah. It does. Someone tried to kill us, and Sterling got in the way."
"Got in the way deliberately." It wasn't a question.
"Yeah. We ... uh ... we're trying to find his partner."
"He's in Iraq, doing an investigation. I'll contact him. How bad is it?"
Eliot spoke up before Nate could. "He took three bullets to the torso. At least one lung was hit. He's currently in surgery."
"Damn. I'm going to get a couple of people and come out. Just in case this doesn't have anything to do with you. Maybe it has something to do with one of Mike's cases."
Nathan started to protest but caught Eliot's head shake. It was the latter who spoke, "We're at the hotel across the street." He rattled off his cell phone number. "Oh, and Sophie is passing as Sterling's sister. By his request."
"Got you. Keep me updated on Sterling's condition. I'll contact you when we get there." The phone snapped off.
Nate looked at Eliot. "This ..."
"He wanted a reason to come out. The possibility that this is related to a NCIS case gives him that reason."
"Right." Nate glanced at Sophie. "We better head back to the hospital. But first, let's go to the bank."