Top of the Food Chain
Summary: Throats are being ripped out with beastly savageness on the night before and the night after the full moon. Oz, Jarod from Pretender and NCIS each have a different reason for finding the killer.
Distribution: TtH, OzMIA
Disclaimer: None of the characters are mine, I included the Drabble 'Never Helped with a Sex Change' for fun.
Spoilers: Season Five of Buffy and after the 'Call of the Wild' book by Christopher Golden, just general knowledge for Pretender and NCIS.
Rating: for language, adult situations and gratuitous violence
AN: Writing Oz, with this much conversation, was hard. Merry Christmas FaithDaria, hopefully this will make you stop nagging about the other BtVS/Pretender x-over.
The marine ran. The monster was gaining on him. He was panicking and weaving through the trees. The monster was howling and snarling at his heels. The marine tripped in the dark woods.
His throat was torn out before he had time for regrets.
"What do we have?" Gibbs barked at his subordinates.
"Finding this one's secret wasn't as hard to find as the last two," Kate Todd said. She glanced at Gibbs' desk and was relieved that he had finally put away the crime scene photos of last month's animal killings. "Abby has definitely matched the attacker's DNA to Siler and General Roberts. She still can't find the type of animal in any database."
"The secret?" Jethro Gibbs stared at her, waiting for an answer.
Kate handed over a folder. "When I was interviewing his unit, no one was especially mournful. According to them, Sergeant Belofsky choked on the last mission and a marine ended up in a wheelchair. Belofsky and another team member were on medical leave, but expected to return to duty."
Gibbs flipped through the file. "The hearing exonerated him of fault."
Tony Dinozzo leaned forward. "But his team did not."
"Any of them have any dealings with wild animals?"
Kate shook her head. "None of them have a pet now and most of them didn't have a pet growing up. None of them have even visited the zoo since an elementary school field trip."
Gibbs dropped the folder on the desk. "So where does a civilian selling Navy secrets to Al-Qaida, a general who placed his career above the lives of soldiers, and a sergeant who choked on a mission overlap?"
"We're looking into it, boss."
Gibbs glared. "Look faster. If this guy's pattern holds, he's going to loose the killer . . . hound on someone else tomorrow night."
The marine was stretching in the park after his ten mile run. His scent, made more prevalent by his sweat, was easy to track.
Oz walked up to him. "You gotta stop."
The marine glanced up at the short musician and immediately dismissed him. "Scram, kid."
Oz set down his guitar case. "Use your nose."
The marine looked confused but then his beast finally transmitted the message to his consciousness. The marine shot to his feet. "Where were you five months ago?"
The marine growled and stalked close.
Oz rolled his eyes. "Use your nose," he said again.
The marine paused and sniffed. He could scent truth. He calmed a bit, or as calm as he could get with another beast in his territory. "When are you leaving?"
"When you stop hunting."
The marine smirked. "What are you? The monster police?" He chuckled. "The MP for the supernatural?"
Confused, the marine blinked. "Why are you here?"
"You're drawing attention."
"They don't know what they're looking for," he taunted. "There's never any evidence of a human." He spat the last word.
The marine shrugged. "I'm just culling the herd. Taking out the weak links. It makes everyone stronger in the end."
"Look kid, what I'm doing is strengthening the Marines." He grinned-wolfishly. "And there's no better hunt. You should try it sometime."
"You will stop," Oz warned.
The marine snorted at Oz's slight, unthreatening body. "Make me."
Samantha Finn glanced up at her husband. "It was remarkably easy. Only one person on the whole base has not been on duty during the three pertinent nights of the full moon. He's enlisted. Gunnery Sergeant Nicholas Trelfelger. So far he's been lucky, he's been able to slide out of duty while he's Changed." She handed the file to her husband. "He reported to the infirmary five months ago with a 'rabid dog' bite. He responded well to treatment," Sam added wryly.
Riley read through the man's folder. "He has a spotless record thus far and is well decorated. He's showing remarkable focus and intention in his Changed form for one so new," he said.
"So recruit?" Sam asked.
Riley nodded. "Those're the orders so far." Neither one voiced the SOP if the marine refused to be recruited. Another soldier walked into the room and nodded to Riley. Riley offered his wife a hopeful smile. "The plane's ready. We have priority. Hopefully we'll arrive in Virginia before nightfall."
Jarod, the Centre escapee, swung the car into the Visitor's Parking. He checked his badge and picked up his suitcase. This case had reminded him of a certain sim. The Centre had been trying to train bears and wild cats to kill when an assassination would have been too high profile. Jarod, himself, had managed to get the wild animals to obey some orders well, but had balked when he figured out that no one would be helped if the animal had been trained to kill someone specific.
Jarod's little bit of resistance was all Sydney needed to close down a project that he had disapproved of. But had the Centre continued the research? Had one of the other Pretenders figured out a way to make animals into assassins?
If so, Jarod was here to stop them.
Jarod walked into the NCIS building, every action reflecting the persona that he had adopted.
Kate Todd watched the strange NCIS man question the marine. Gibbs had sic-ed her on the newbie, leaving Tony and the rest of the team to chase other clues. At first, Kate had been suspicious that Jarod Waters was fishing in the dark, but the marine in Jarod's crosshairs was getting nervous with every new question Jarod asked.
The marine had a secret and Jarod was circling in on it. Jarod was as good as Gibbs when questioning a suspect. It was a startling revelation.
The more Jarod fished, the angrier the marine got. Kate was surprised when the marine actually snarled at Jarod.
Jarod never blinked. "So do you have anyone who can verify your whereabouts on any of the nights?"
"It's not my fault the infirmary doesn't keep an eye on every patient all night long," Gunny Trelfelger countered. He didn't even pretend to have an airtight alibi.
Jarod suddenly smiled. "Of course not." Jarod offered his hand. "Thank you for speaking to me."
Trelfelger glared at Jarod's hand and walked back to his unit.
Kate let out the breath she hadn't realized she had been holding. "Any way we can link him to some sort of animal? There hasn't been any sign of a human near any of the bodies."
Jarod stared after the marine. "Not yet."
Kate flipped open her cell phone. She was in a hurry to report the marine to Gibbs. She and the newbie probably got further than the other teams. Maybe Abby could find something to link Gunnery Sergeant Nicholas Trelfelger to the victims.
Gunnery Sergeant Nicholas Trelfelger took care not to snarl at his CO. The damn NCIS guy was too smart. The broad had not even been suspicious until the Waters guy had kept pushing.
Nick smirked. Oh well, no one ever outsmarted the beast.
Sam and Riley Finn were flirting with each other. A recruitment job was so much easier than their last trek through the jungle. They had a couple of hours before their meeting with Gunnery Sergeant Trelfelger and were making the most of it.
They had both craved ice cream while in the tropics and so Riley steered his wife's steps in the direction of the coffee/ice cream shop on the corner. Sam had grinned up at him appreciatively and he kissed her nose.
The first step in the door, Riley habitually scanned the interior. The slight movement of Sam's head indicated that she was doing the same. The pair noticed the number of military uniforms and business suits milling about. Some kids were skipping school, huddled in the corner.
At first glance, everyone seemed relatively harmless. Or at least these people weren't the kind that the Initiative normally worried about. Sam relaxed.
Riley spotted the server behind the ice cream bar. "Damn."
Sam stiffened and reached for her hidden weapon. Riley stilled her hand and shook his head. She looked at him questionably but trusted his judgement. She did not fully relax though.
They waited in line.
Sam was impatient. "Anyone I know?"
"An unforeseen complication."
Sam still had not spotted the problem when it became their turn to order. "I'd like two scoops of strawberry cheese-cake ice cream, please."
The unnaturally black-haired young man behind the counter nodded. He was in the middle of filling the order when he said, "You, Finn?"
"Two scoops of Rocky Road."
The young man with, now Sam noticed, haunted eyes handed her the treat. He silently went about his work, speaking only when he rang up the bill. Riley paid, stuffing the extra change into the tip jar. "Do you have a break soon?" he asked conversationally.
"Then why don't you join us," Riley offered.
The man shrugged but said neither 'yea' nor 'nea.'
Sam looked him over one last time before walking out the door. She memorized his features. If needed she could identify him at another time, or assist an artist to develop a sketch. The man met her gaze head-on.
Near the door, a group of soldiers motioned the Finns over. They had spied the couple walking in. The leader motioned to the small pile of money in the middle of the table. "Got a bet. Where'd you two start your careers? The Marines? The Navy? The Air Force?"
Riley grinned. He reached over and grabbed the money. "Sorry boys. None of the above."
The leader stilled Riley's hand. He jerked his head the server's way. "What about him?"
"A civvie," said Riley.
The soldiers looked unconvinced.
Riley smirked. "But he has a hell of a way of taking care of his own."
The soldiers accepted the explanation and allowed Riley to walk off with the pot. Sam waited until no one was around and they had laid claim to an outside table to question her husband.
"Who is that?"
She frowned and searched her memory for the name. Then it came to her, the captured werewolf that had pushed Riley into showing his true colors to a corrupt command structure.
"What is he doing here?"
Riley shrugged and started eating his ice cream. Sam sighed. They were in public and Riley knew better than to brief her outside of the Initiative just because she was impatient. She stared at her ice cream. It was starting to melt in the sun. She closed her eyes as she took her first lick. Hmmm, no need to let an unforeseen complication spoil a treat she'd been anticipating.
Sam had just finished her ice cream and was contemplating a coffee when Oz appeared beside the empty seat at their table. He set down a coffee in front of both her and Riley. Sam took a sniff. Regular and strong. Not her normal choice while off duty, but she'd been a soldier long enough to never turn down a cup of coffee. She poured in two packets of sugar. Riley was drinking it as if he did not suspect the contents, so Sam did the same.
Riley started the conversation. "It is good to see you, Oz, though I never expected to."
Oz nodded. Had Riley mentioned that Oz said a lot with very few words?
"I'm guessing you already chatted with . . . your . . . new . . . friend?"
Oz nodded again, sharply.
"We're going to try," said Riley. He waited, then continued. "If he accepts, we'd like to hire you to teach him."
"He doesn't want to learn."
Sam shivered. Those few words did not paint a pretty picture.
Riley drank the rest of his coffee. "None the less, we need to try. A solution must happen, quickly."
Oz stood. "Agreed." He looked toward the busy ice cream counter. "Gotta get back."
"It was good to see you again, Oz." Riley offered.
Oz nodded. "Glad you're still alive." He sent Sam a half-smile and intentionally glanced down at her wedding ring. "And congratulations."
Jarod watched the conversation with great interest. Like the soldiers at the door, the Pretender had immediately pegged the pair as black ops. And since they had not started in the Air Force, the Marines, or the Navy, Jarod would look for them in the Army personnel files. He had been sitting close enough to overhear that conversation and had a clear view out the window that he lip-read through.
He eyed the slight, young server for a moment. How had the two men met? And why were they so careful in what they didn't say aloud?
And what could Oz teach? What could he teach that black ops would be interested in? That someone would not want to learn?
And why did Jarod have the sneaking suspicion that it concerned the case he was working on?
"Gunnery Sergeant Nicholas Trelfelger," a voice drawled.
Nick stopped in the doorway of the unlit office. He could smell two people inside and neither one was the officer who had bought his way to his position.
"Go ahead, Trelfelger," a female taunted. "Turn on the light and close the door. You might not need the light but we prefer it."
Nick thought it through and did as he was told. A man stood on Nick's left, his modified shotgun pointed at the floor. The woman's weapon was pointed at Nick. They had placed themselves in such a way that they couldn't hurt each other if Nick tried to create a crossfire. They had experience. They had picked an exterior office with no windows and far from the beaten path.
"I'm Agent Finn," said the male and he nodded to his partner. "And she's Agent Finn."
Nick blinked. Same name and they smelled of sex; since when did any military branch let married couples work together? Why the hell did anyone let married couples work together? It was like giving the enemy a bright red target, 'Here is our weakness!' And Nick thought that women in the military were bad.
"We're here to offer you a job," She-Finn said.
"Got a job," Nick snapped.
He-Finn chuckled, "You also have NCIS sniffing around."
"They'll never find any proof," challenged Nick.
"All they need is an excuse to get your DNA and you'll be sunk," reminded Mrs. Finn.
Nick snorted, "And then they'll have to convince a judge that I was responsible for the attacks of a beast."
"That is an idea that we can't let anyone contemplate for long," warned Mr. Finn. "We can make those problems go away."
"Thanks but no thanks," Nick reached for the door. "I'd never work for someone who disregards the normal rules of warfare. I can take care of myself." He walked out and closed the door behind him.
"Chauvinist," Sam muttered.
Riley shook his head and started to clean up any evidence of them in the office.
"What do you think," Sam asked her husband.
"I think he's already picked his next victim."
"So we're going hunting?" Even black operations couldn't just apprehend a guy for no apparent reason. Especially since NCIS was swarming all over the guy.
Riley shook his head. "We'll try but the Gunny has no set hunting grounds for when he's Changed. In fact, his previous three victims were all killed in different states. We don't have a enough personnel near-by to cover all our bases."
"We did put a tracer on his car," Sam reminded.
"Five bucks says that the car doesn't move in the next twenty-four hours," countered Riley.
Sam grimaced but refrained from taking up the bet. Unfortunately, Riley was probably correct. "So Mr. Agent-in-Charge, what do you think is going to happen."
"Oz is going to get him."
Sam blinked. "A marine? Versus a civvie?"
Riley offered a sad smile. "A Sunnydale werewolf with training versus a new were? Oz can track the Gunny by scent. He's already killed one werewolf that we know of. Oz will find him faster than we will. And the mages all agree that anything coming out of the 'Dale is stronger than otherwise. Hell, even our soldiers who were stationed on the Hellmouth have a little more . . . survival sense than those who weren't."
"So we follow Oz," suggested Sam.
"We can try." Riley was not hopeful of the outcome.
Jarod typed into his computer with a furious rate. Where was the connection? There was nothing on the ice cream server; he was being paid under the table. The owner of the coffee shop did not even keep any employment records. Jarod could not find anything on the two undercover soldiers that had chatted with Oz. Everything was hidden way too well and none of it, for once, led back to the Centre. Where were the answers?
Jarod was running out of time. The sun was starting its descent in the west.
He picked up his leather coat and started for the door. The computer wasn't giving him any answers so Jarod decided to follow Gunnery Sergeant Nicholas Trelfelger. He, at least, Jarod knew was involved with the mysterious slayings.
Gunnery Sergeant Nicholas Trelfelger smirked in the shadows. The shadows were long in the late evening. His shift was done and he had weekend leave. He was being followed but had always been good at hide-n-seek.
Who was tracking whom now?
That stupid NCIS agent was near, the one Nicholas was planning on killing tonight. And try as he might, Nicholas couldn't see him. But he could smell him above the stank of the city. Nicholas accidentally had seen the two black ops agents that had met with him that very afternoon. They had warned him that they would not allow him to kill again and they had also warned him that they were fully capable of killing him.
But they wouldn't do it out in the open.
Nicholas had an hour until dusk and his beast rolled under his skin. The marine took two sharp turns, darted into a deli and out the back. He took the long way back-tracking his trail.
Then he waited. The two soldiers were nowhere around but the NCIS agent was still close. Nicholas licked his lips. The man's blood would run down his throat tonight.
Nicholas had it easy. All he had to do was lure the agent into the nearby wilderness.
This was easy, but not too easy.
The thrill of the hunt excited his senses.
Oz watched it all unfold from above and downwind. The roof of this building coupled with a powerful set of binoculars made for a perfect perspective.
He watched as Sam and Riley talked angrily into their phones, but no one knew where the other werewolf had disappeared to. Once Oz had identified their other soldiers, he had hurried out of their path.
Later Oz would mention the werewolf's sense of smell to Riley, maybe.
Oz turned his attention back to the other werewolf and his human prey. Oz worried as he recognized the kind man but put it to the back of his mind. For some reason Oz and his beast both trusted the dark-haired stranger. Oz would deal with Jarod afterwards.
Now, the werewolf struck out toward the nearby park. Jarod was hot on his heels. Now Oz too had a destination and could find the werewolf by smell once he got close enough. He put down his binoculars and hurried to the street-level.
Things were going to get wild tonight.
Gibbs looked around the office, his temper barely in check. "Where's Waters?" he demanded.
Kate and Tony looked up and around in confusion.
"He was just here, boss," Tony said.
"Maybe check with Abby?" offered Kate.
"I haven't seen him," the tech in question popped up from behind Gibbs.
Just then Kate's cell phone beeped.
Kate opened the cell phone and the text message there made her eyes pop. "Boss, you'll want to see this."
Gibbs grabbed the phone and read the message. "Damnit. He went after the suspect without any back up. I'll bust him down to private before I'm done with him."
The whole team hurried to SUV and the NCIS agent walking headlong into trouble.
He had been hunted ever since he had left the Centre or so he had thought. But this was different; he now knew that he had only been chased. Currently the . . . thing hunting him had fangs and claws and was determined to eat Jarod. It was a wolf but not. It was a very feral species that Jarod had never come across before in his reading, or encountered. But this was definitely the animal that had been killing all the sailors and eating them, if the coroner could be trusted, alive. And Jarod was next on the menu. Where had he gone wrong? And to where had Gunnery Sergeant Nicholas Trelfelger disappeared?
He had no answers.
So Jarod ran.
Intellectually, he knew that his fear was only encouraging the animal behind him, but Jarod knew that he was in the middle of a forest. By his best estimates, Jarod was three miles from any human habitation. It was the middle of the night, and the full moon above barely lit his path but he kept his eyes open for anything that could help him.
And Jarod ran.
Jarod searched the terrain constantly. After all, he was one of the smartest men on planet Earth; he should be able to outsmart an animal, right?
Still, Jarod ran.
At this point Jarod would have been thrilled for assistance from just about anyone, including Miss Parker. She would have been guaranteed to be carrying a gun.
Jarod caught sight of a form in front of him and skidded to a stop.
Damn. The phrase 'be careful what you wish for' flitted through his mind. For there, in front of him was a second creature of the same species as the one crashing in the bush behind him.
Jarod was still.
Jarod was careful not to be afraid. The task was not too hard, since the second creature barely acknowledged him and his curiosity was killing him. Mentally, Jarod rephrased the thought. His curiosity was great, very great. From what he had observed from the other wolf-like creature, he would have assumed that the species was extremely territorial, constantly aggressive, carnivores, opportunists and loners.
This creature in front of him just stared at Jarod and waited.
The original creature of the investigation stumbled into the clearing with a roar of rage. The second creature did not bother to return the challenge, he just charged. A mere minute later, the first creature was dead on the forest floor and the second creature was staring at Jarod like he didn't know what to do with him. Jarod would have cursed himself for acting like a blithering idiot. He had just had a minute to escape and he had wasted it gawking like an imbecile. Where was his vaulted intelligence now?
Then the first creature caught his attention. It was surely dead, with its own throat ripped out, but suddenly its shaggy hair was disappearing. And skin- human skin- was being revealed.
Jarod's jaw dropped.
The remaining creature saw where he was looking and lumbered in between, blocking Jarod's line of sight with his huge body. It shook its head and blood, skin and fur flung away from its mouth. Both were very purposeful moves.
Jarod took a cautionary step back.
The creature wandered forward until the point where Jarod could feel the light brush of the fur of the creature through his jeans. Its eyes were intelligent and questioning. Jarod was pulled into their dark depths. Then the creature did the most amazing thing, it head-butted Jarod's thighs.
Jarod stumbled back.
The creature head-butted Jarod's thighs again and again Jarod stumbled back. This time, Jarod could take a hint. He turned around and started walking. His mind whirled with possibilities. Was the creature exhibiting sentience or was it a wild creature that someone had taken the time to train?
Jarod looked over his shoulder at the dead creature and apparently took a step in the wrong direction. The giant wolf-like creature head butted him in the 'correct' direction. Jarod had once trained border collies for herding sheep. It amused him that the same tricks were being used on him.
Jarod walked where the wolf-creature pointed, always looking for a way to escape. Suddenly the landscape was very familiar. Could it be possible?
Jarod strode forward and the creature made no move to redirect Jarod's path.
Sure enough, the creature had led Jarod straight back to his motel. Jarod turned back to stared, aghast, at the strange creature lying on the forest floor behind him. The creature stared back silently.
Once again, Jarod questioned the possibility of sentience.
Then a familiar voice rang through the evening air. Jarod whipped his head about. Sure enough, that was Miss Parker coming out of his motel room, Jarod's DSA case in hand.
Jarod ducked down.
When he peeked again he saw the contingent of sweepers, Broots and Sydney. It looked like the gang was all there. Miss Parker was predictably lighting up a cigarette and complaining about losing her luggage on the public flight that the group had been forced to take.
Jarod smirked in spite of himself. It had taken a great deal of planning to ground all of the Centre planes simultaneously. Well worth the effort. Hiding Miss Parker's bags in a locker in the airport was just a bonus.
The creature shifted.
Jarod felt the need to speak to it.
"Thank-you for not eating me and for preventing that other . . . of your species from eating me. Thank-you for leading me back to my motel room, but Miss Parker and those people want to put me back into a cage. You, out of anyone, might understand why that is not a preferred action, if you could understand a word I was saying."
The creature snuffed, and walked away.
Then the creature looked back at Jarod, then into the forest and then back at Jarod.
Jarod shook his head. "You want me to follow you?"
Jarod was eternally surprised when the creature nodded. Now this was a mystery. He might have a chance to communicate with a sentient non-human! Jarod followed the creature as silently as he could and the strange being led the Pretender away from the Centre personnel.
Sam watched her husband stalk out of the ice cream shop. The full moon above highlighted the tension in his body. He slammed the car door with far too much force.
Riley shook his head. "No. The owner doesn't have a clue where Oz lives and frankly, doesn't care."
"How did we manage to lose sight of both of them?" asked Sam.
"They're hunters," Riley offered. "They know when they are being tracked."
"There's going to be a body, either way."
"And you're betting on Oz rather than the Gunny."
Riley nodded again, staring out of the windshield.
"NCIS can't find that body."
"I know that," snapped Riley.
"So what will we do?"
Jarod awoke to the smell of frying bacon. It took a moment to recognize his surrounding. He was under the scratchy blanket on the lone lumpy bed in a dilapidated log cabin in the middle of the Virginia forests.
This was place where the sentient wolf-creature had led Jarod last night.
Jarod bounded out of bed. He would learn so much today!
He skidded to a stop outside the bedroom door with surprise.
"Sorry Jarod, no ice cream today."
Barefoot and shirtless, Oz stood in a pair of raggedy jeans in front of the stove. Oz, the quiet, thoughtful young man that worked at the coffee shop where Jarod had been buying his breakfast ice cream for the last two days. The self-contained civilian with acquaintances in the black ops.
Jarod blinked. "Where's the creature?"
Oz smiled sadly. "Gone."
"But it'll be back soon?" Jarod asked hopefully.
Oz nodded once. He motioned to the frying pan in front of him, "Over-easy?"
Jarod grinned. "I'll try whatever you're having."
Oz served up the eggs on two plates. Then he piled on the bacon and the toast. Jarod gratefully accepted his plate and sat down at the rough-hewn table in the big room.
Jarod ate as much of the food as would be polite before starting to question the man of very few words. "How did you train the creature to obey you?"
Jarod's gaze slid to the guitar in the corner. Oz was rather gifted; the answer was not much of a surprise. "What is the creature?"
Jarod shook his head. "It's not like any other wolf I've seen before."
Oz smiled grimly. "Except the one that was hunting you last night?"
"How did you know that?" asked Jarod.
Oz shrugged and put another forkful of eggs into his mouth.
Jarod tried another tact. "Why did your," Jarod would accept Oz's word choice for now, "wolf protect me and the other wolf try to eat me? Why did your wolf act more sentient than the other?"
"Is it sentient?"
"If you don't run."
Jarod pondered that answer for a moment. So by standing still when instinct would have demanded that he run, Jarod's life had been saved twice the previous night. The first time was when the two wolves fought. The second time was when Jarod had stood at the edge of the forest trying to comprehend the wolf. The pause kept him from revealing his position to Miss Parker and the sweepers.
"Is there any way I can thank the wolf, what is its name?"
Oz shook his head. "Not advised. The Beast isn't what you'd call into the social graces."
Jared was not pleased. "'The Beast' is a rather insulting name for a creature of such intelligence."
Oz smirked. "How 'bout 'Daniel'?"
"Much better." Jarod looked around the old cabin curiously. "Where is Daniel now?"
"When will he wake up?"
"When will I see him again?"
Jarod was growing frustrated with the short answers. He had never met anyone 'good' and 'not fleeing for their life' who was so brief.
"Are you going to retrieve your belongings from Miss Parker?" Oz asked.
Jarod jerked his head up with surprise. "How do you know that name?"
Oz met his eyes and shrugged.
Jarod tried to stare the younger man down but was amazed to blink first. It was odd. Oz was not challenging him, Oz just was. "I don't know."
"You're offering," Jarod said incredulously.
"Why?" Even he had a motivation for helping perfect strangers.
"Don't like cages."
Jarod's jaw dropped. "How do you talk with Daniel?"
Oz shrugged again.
"So you are offering your assistance because someone might someday put Daniel in a cage?" Jarod clarified.
"Don't like dog catchers either."
Jarod winced. "Will you still offer to help if I confessed that I once was a dog catcher?"
"Then this is what I need you to do . . ."
Oz looked over the Centre sweepers in town. Oz was good at being ignored and overlooked as he traversed the town. There seemed to be a sweeper at every street corner. Gibbs of NCIS was arguing with Miss Parker. He was not going to take the escape of the imposter lightly. Oz scanned the layout, mentally taking notes of the places Jarod had emphasized.
He breathed in the salty air and stopped.
The footsteps behind him grew louder as the man approached, but they were still too soft for a human's ear.
The soldier stopped at his side. "Busy night."
"I'm guessing that the Gunny was unsuccessful in his mission."
"We'd like to take the body off your hands," Riley broached the subject.
Oz did not answer.
"You don't want it found. Not with all the DNA testing that's been going on for this 'serial killer.' We don't want it found. NCIS has been searching with cadaver dogs, not to mention regular hounds. And they know where to start their search, Jarod Waters texted one of them before he entered the park. How sure are you that the body is hidden well enough? Any hint that the body was moved or buried will raise red flags for NCIS. They might think that they still have a killer on the loose." Riley paused. "We have more resources to cover our tracks and I'll see to it that your tracks are covered as well."
Oz thought about it.
Riley struggled to come up with a more convincing argument. "I wish I could promise that our researchers won't do anything stupid with it but I can't. I can try and keep tabs on it, but I can't promise anything."
Riley blinked, surprised. "Okay?"
"You'll tell us where it is?"
"You'll owe me."
Riley readily agreed. "What do you need?"
"I'll let you know."
Jarod scanned over the tiny representation of town that he and Oz had constructed. He reached over and picked up the Matchbox car that had been painted with black fingernail polish. That, of course, was for the Centre vehicles.
The NCIS cars were marked in blue. Jarod had spent enough time with the agents there that he was sure that he could manipulate the situation. Jethro Gibbs might become suspicious afterwards, but the most he could do in a surprising situation was react.
Oz stood off to one side, silently watching Jarod plan.
"I just need my DSA's," Jarod offered softly. "My entire life, from the time I was kidnapped to the time I escaped, was recorded on those disks."
"Reference?" asked Oz.
Jarod shook his head. "They know that the disks are my goal. They know I'm near. They'll have a trap set up."
"Steal the cheese."
Jarod smiled and tossed the 'Centre car' back on the reconstructed road. "With what you've told me, Miss Parker is taking no chances. The only way that I'd get close was if I was Miss Parker."
"Be Miss Parker."
Jarod laughed. "I'm good, Oz, but I'm not that good. Even I can't become an existing person overnight, especially Miss Parker."
Oz offered a half-smile. "You can if I help."
Jarod followed Oz out of the room.
Gibb's cell phone rang. He walked away from Miss Parker and her goons to take the call.
"What did you find?"
"Jarod really is Jarod. At least all the aliases that I've found so far use the name Jarod. Kate thinks that he must have a major identity crisis to be holding on to his first name so hard. He's been all through the military, all five branches. McGee and me haven't managed to see if he has actually gone through any boot camps or if it's just something he made up each time. But we are making all of the phone calls. It's taking time. We have to verify each piece of computer data with a person to make sure that it's real. All the computer files are flawless. He's good, Gibbs, real good. This is the man I'd come to to make up a new background for me instead of Witness Protection if I ever needed it."
"Tell me something I can use, Abby."
"He likes to expose conspiracies. The ones where someone innocent was hurt or took the fall for someone corrupt. And he's good. In every case that we've found so far, someone landed in the brig or jail, most times due to anonymous information or some sort of taped or overheard confession."
"Anything on a Miss Parker? No first name?"
"It's not in any of the reports," answered Abby. "But several of the people we've talked to mentioned a dark-haired woman with an attitude just a step behind Jarod."
Gibbs waited a moment. "Anything else?"
"Not yet. Like I said Gibbs, it's slow going because Jarod did an excellent job coming up with a background for himself in every case."
"Then put Kate on."
"Sure thing, boss."
Gibbs waited impatiently as he heard the phone being passed over.
"Profile Jarod for me," he ordered.
Kate paused. "Abby told you about the identity crisis. I can't think of how it could have come about, but it's definitely there. It probably happened at a very young age. He's driven, determined and extremely intelligent. The difficulties that we are having in tracking him down are more than just luck and bureaucratic red tape on his side. He's versatile and doesn't have the pride that would keep him from a lowly position. He's been in JAG, Seal Training and Naval Intelligence thus far. In nearly every case, Jarod's CO was considering a commendation and a promotion before it was revealed that he was an imposter. He makes friends quite easily with all types and those friends are loyal. We've talked to quite a few. Even those who don't like him, grudgingly admire him."
Gibbs thought through every hint that Kate offered. Then he put trust in her instincts. "What did you see in his eyes, Kate?"
"Sadness," was her instantaneous response. Then she thought about it. "Intelligence. Curiosity. Passion, so much passion for life."
Gibbs growled. "Describe Jarod in a word, Kate."
Kate considered all her choices. "A crusader."
"A crusader?" That was not the word that Jethro Gibbs was expecting.
"Yes," Kate affirmed. "That's why his presence here was so odd and out of character for him. The people dying weren't innocent by any stretch of the imagination. They were the people that he normally exposed. Something else was going on here and I don't know what yet."
"I think it's about time we found out."
"We're trying. Oh, and Gibbs?"
"Jarod is big on confession. Bringing sins into the open. I think there's something that he'd dearly love to expose but for some reason can't. That frustration is egging him on. And seeing what the man can accomplish, his secret has got to be huge and dangerous to everyone it comes in contact with."
Gibbs heard the warning for what it was.
"Magic?" Jarod stared at Oz in disbelief. "Oz, there's no such thing as real magic. It's all illusion. I'm pretty decent at illusion but illusion can't make you into another person."
Oz settled himself on the cold hardwood floor, Indian-style. "It's called glamour." Oz set a guitar pick on the ground between his knees. Jarod waited and waited. More than ten minutes passed and Oz was sweating profusely.
Then the pick started to float.
Jarod's jaw dropped. He waved his hands on all sides of the pick. He didn't feel any strings, and since it was plastic, magnets were out of the question. Jarod gently plucked at the pick. He felt resistance, neither from above nor from below, but resistance horizontally. It was as if someone had tied a string to two corners of the pick and two people standing in the opposite corners of the room were pulling on the string.
The guitar pick was suspended in the air, wobbled and then it fell into Jarod's palm.
"How did you do that?" breathed Jarod.
Oz was breathing heavily. "Need the concentration to deal with Daniel."
Jarod looked so hopeful. "Teach me?" he pleaded.
Oz shook his head. "I only know a little."
"For Daniel?" Jarod was sensing a familiar theme.
"What do we have to do?"
Jarod's grin slipped. "You're sure this will work?"
Jarod struggled with his disbelief. "But it's magic. How does it work? Why does it work? I don't understand. It can't be measured."
"It's tough," said Oz.
Jarod looked a little worried. "You're sure this is going to work?"
"Yes." Oz flipped through the ancient book until he found the correct page. He handed Jarod the book and a glass filled to the brim.
Jarod read the Latin perfectly and drank the foul liquid. "How do I look?"
Oz titled his head. "Miss Parker would never wear those pants."
Jarod grinned. "Then it's a good thing that Miss Parker lost her luggage."
"Hear you're offering money."
Miss Parker turned and drew her gun in one smooth motion. She had been out for a smoke and hadn't felt anyone come up behind her. No one should have been able to come up behind her. The young male punk facing the barrel of her gun never blinked. He was staring into her eyes.
"You know where Jarod is?" Miss Parker did not lower her gun.
The man nodded.
Miss Parker was suspicious. "Did Jarod put you up to this?"
The man shook his head, 'no.'
"Than why are you just now coming forward?"
He motioned to the coffee shop across the street. "Shift starts in ten minutes."
Miss Parker slowly put her gun away. "How do you know Jarod?"
"Comes in for ice cream."
Miss Parker offered a brilliant smile. The young man's expression never changed. "Really? And why are you doing this?"
"I'm broke," he shrugged.
Miss Parker's grin widened. "I'm sure we can help with that."
The man nodded and walked away.
"Hey!" she called after him.
The man was not walking fast but his stride covered the distance in a remarkably short time.
"Damnit," she muttered. This stank of a Jarod trap, so she drew her gun. She followed the punk around the corner . . . where she was grabbed. The punk threw her against the brick wall and a dark-haired female disarmed her.
A gag was stuffed in her mouth, cutting off her stream of curses, and her hands were cuffed. She was thrown into a dumpster. Miss Parker was rolled onto her back. Her eyes went wide with shock when she focused on her captors. The punk, she dismissed out of hand, but the woman . . .
Miss Parker's first thought was that she had another twin floating about that Daddy hadn't mentioned. The woman looked exactly liked her, the woman walked like her, the woman dressed like her. Her eyes narrowed. Damnit! Those were her clothes that the airline had lost!
The woman pirouetted awkwardly on the stilettos. "So Miss Parker, what do you think? How do I look?"
Miss Parker lowered her eyebrows, confused. It sounded like her, but the cadence was wrong.
The punk handed the other Miss Parker her gun, which 'she' placed in the small of her back. The woman searched the real Miss Parker's pockets and retrieved her cigarettes and lighter.
'She' closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
"Miss Parker!" the trio heard Sam yell.
'Miss Parker' rounded the corner in full fury. "What!" she yelled.
The sweeper was instantly repentant. "Sorry. You said that everyone had to keep in sight of the motel room."
"Did you think I included myself with the rest of you?" the pretender snarled. "I have someone here that will lead us to Jarod."
Miss Parker watched as the faux Miss Parker and the punk kid walked out of her line of sight without looking back. That damned pretender. Miss Parker paused in her thinking. Jarod had to be behind this one but how?
That damned Pretender!
Riley snapped the cell phone closed with a sense of purpose.
"Done?" asked Sam.
"Done," Riley confirmed. "The Gunny's body is on its way to a research facility and the mage and the men cleaned up any trace of the fight and the chase. Nobody will find any evidence of the body. The Army already has paperwork for a training exercise in the area to explain away all the footprints. Gunnery Sergeant Trelfelger will be declared AWOL and will never be heard from again. It's a satisfactory conclusion to the mission."
Sam shook her head. "What do you owe Oz?"
Riley grinned. "What you really mean is, what do we owe Oz?"
She frowned. "Both of us? Why did you drag me into the mess?"
Riley waggled his eyebrows. "I promise you'll enjoy how we get to pay this one."
Sam was instantly suspicious. "Oh?"
"You and I are going on a little romantic get-away."
"Like a second honeymoon?" Sam asked.
Riley nodded, still grinning.
"What are we going to kill?"
"Probably nothing, hopefully."
Sam's unease went up a notch. "So exactly how are we going to pay this little debt?"
Jarod placed every step purposefully. He was Miss Parker, for now. He knew how she thought and how she acted; one of the reasons that he had been free for so long. But now he was her. Everyone of the Centre team believed his acting skills. Tripping in Miss Parker's three-inch heels would make the sweepers wonder. It was a good thing Jarod was a quick learner. Next time, Jarod would send Miss Parker some tennis shoes. Bright, white tennis shoes that she'd never wear. With sparkles, hot pink sparkles. The thought made him smirk. Jarod had caught Sidney gazing at the glamour once or twice, but the psychologist had remained quiet. Oz had warned that for the most part, people believe solely what they see, even the most trained of personnel.
Speaking of the most trained of personnel, the Navy NCIS team had insinuated themselves on the retrieval of 'Jarod Waters.' Jethro was keeping his team near the action. He was eyeing Miss Parker closely.
Then there was Tony.
Jarod delighted in sending the poor man mixed signals. The Pretender barked at the man one moment, and then he dropped Miss Parker's hotel room key in Tony's lap the next. Jarod was relatively sure that Tony wouldn't lose anything important if the NCIS agent visited later that night. Jarod kept his DSA case always at hand, 'So that damn lab rat can't nab it.'
Jarod made Sydney and Broots lead the caravan of cars to Oz's cabin in the swamp.
Riley was tasting the underside of his wife's chin when he heard the outer door open with a crash. "Showtime," he muttered.
Sam giggled. "This was definitely not what our CO had in mind when he gave us those civvie ID's."
Then the tiny bedroom of the Oz's cabin was filled with officials. Sam and Riley jolted to a sitting position in a reasonable facsimile to shock.
"Hey!" Riley shouted. "What's going on here?" Sam fumbled with the blanket.
Some of the intruders dropped their eyes only to see Riley and Sam's clothes strewn across the room. Others chuckled but the ones in charge glared.
"What are you doing here," a man demanded. Riley recognized him as the NCIS Agent-in-Charge.
Riley grinned, "What does it look like? I'm enjoying the quiet woods with my wife."
An elderly gentleman stepped forward. "May I ask how you found this cabin."
Riley shrugged, "Some guy gave us the keys and told us that we deserved to go someplace for our honeymoon."
Jarod, as Miss Parker, snarled. He grabbed Oz by the arm and hauled him out of the cabin. "We'll be right back," she/he warned everyone. "Just going to have a little chit-chat." The others stayed to question the naked couple.
As soon as the two were out of the house, they hurried for the car parked last in the driveway. "No one was supposed to be here," muttered Jarod.
Oz shrugged as he climbed into the passenger's seat. "Ri and Sam will keep them busy."
Jarod started the car and shoved the gear-stick into reverse. Gravel flew as he gunned it.
Oz saw the rest of the Centre and the NCIS teams come running out at the sound. "Will they catch us?" he worried.
Jarod grinned at his friend. "Nope. Yesterday, I took the GPS for this car off-line. And I last drove the car that's blocking all the other cars in. It's going to have a little problem starting, or even being put into neutral so that they can push it out of the way."
Oz nodded, relieved.
Abby shook her head, disappointed. Her face distorted on the plasma screen. "Sorry Gibbs. There's nothing out there about the Centre. They have a flawless, if shady, reputation and a lot of governmental contracts. They call themselves a think tank. And they haven't done anything that I can find." McGee mumbled something to the side and Abby piped up. "Oh, I finally got through the wicked-cool computer maze Jarod left me to turn the GPS back on for the NCIS car. You'll never guess where he left it."
Gibbs growled. "Let's hear it, Abby."
Abby grinned, disappeared off screen for a moment, then returned. "It's in Tony's driveway."
Tony's head shot up. "What?"
Abby nodded. "It is. And Kate will find this interesting . . . every secret word that I had to type in to advance through the maze was a kind of junk food. You know, like 'Ho-Ho's' or 'Twinkies' and the last one was my favorite kind of beverage."
"Caff-Pow," Kate filled in the blank.
"Got it in one, Kate." Abby waited for a moment. "Need anything else, Gibbs?"
"No, Abby." He turned off the screen to the lab and waited.
"But why is the Centre chasing Jarod?" asked Gibbs after a moment.
"Runaway employee? He'd fit right in with a think tank." Kate offered.
"Could they be the conspiracy that Jarod can't expose?" Gibbs questioned.
Kate stilled. She nodded her head. "It makes sense. But that makes the Centre extremely dangerous. An unknown danger." Her eyes widened. "And Abby's done a lot of searching about them."
"She'll stop," Gibbs promised. "She'll stop right now." He was not about to put a member of his crew into untold danger. Gibbs might not stop looking, but Abby would.
"Are we sure Miss Parker did not help Jarod escape?" the bald old man wheezed.
The taller man stood up straight. "Yes. My daughter would not drive off with a witness and the DSA's. She knows those are her only hope for ever leaving the Centre. The woman who impersonated her stole my daughter's luggage from the airport."
Raines sniffed. "A likely story."
"A pathetic story," Mr. Parker retorted. "My daughter would never tie herself up and lie willingly in a dumpster for hours. Jarod called and told Sydney where to find her. Both Sydney and Broots agree that somehow Angel was in the dumpster during the time she said she was."
Mr. Parker stepped closer to Raines. "A person might wonder in such a situation. A person might remember that a son was taken from my family."
"Sometimes, memories should be short-lived."
"Sometimes, so should careers. Raines, I don't like Jarod finding out Centre secrets before I do."
Tony stared around the hotel room in shock. The wine he had brought was forgotten in his hand. The woman's room was beyond spotless and the cleaning staff hadn't gotten to this part of the building yet. Tony would bet that if he dusted for prints, there wouldn't be a single one to be found.
Who would be that thorough? Why had Miss Parker given him her room key if she wasn't planning on sticking around? What was the point? Unless to make a total idiot of Tony.
Tony would keep this little foray to himself.
"You are Daniel, aren't you? Daniel isn't a beast you trained. Daniel is you, the beast inside you. A . . ." Jarod searched for the right mythological term, "Were-wolf?"
Oz just stared at the on-coming bus. This was his ride to who-knew-where. Did it matter where he was going? No place out there would be home.
The musician still did not reply.
"I think I understand why you killed Gunnery Sergeant Trelfelger. You were the only one who could stop him and somebody needed to stop him. Jail would not have stopped him. He was in your territory and he was killing people and your animal instinct just . . . cut loose."
Oz finally looked at Jarod. "What do you know of animal instinct?"
Jarod tried to chuckle. Instead it sounded like a gurgle. "About as much as I know of magic, but I want to learn. Oz, you are my friend."
Jarod smirked back. "Honest, you are a friend, not just a subject to study."
"Though I admit that I wouldn't mind if you traveled with me for a little bit . . . and answered some questions."
Jarod flipped open a little red book to a newspaper clipping inside. "How about Tennessee? A girl was killed there and the paper mentions that she thought she was a witch. I'll need help to know if magic really was involved."
Oz thought. "Was she a red-head?"
Jarod reviewed the case. "Ah, no. I don't believe so."
Oz picked up his guitar case and walked toward Jarod's car. "Works for me."
Miss Parker walked into her house, slammed the door behind her and swore. She would kill Jarod the next time she saw him. It had to be his fault that she had spent seven hours in that stupid dumpster before Broots and Sydney had found her.
Where had the 'Miss Parker Double' come from? And why had she helped Jarod? How had she escaped the Centre? How would Miss Parker find out about the mysterious relative without consigning her to the hell of the Centre?
A knock sounded on her door and Miss Parker snarled as she open the door. "What do you want?" she demanded of the delivery guy.
The mousy man ducked his head. "Sorry ma'am," he held out his clipboard. "If you would please sign here, I'll let you get back to your evening."
Miss Parker signed the paper, grabbed the package and slammed the door shut on the man. There in the entryway, she ripped open the package.
The white tennis shoes inside were a surprise. What kind of clue was this? They were her size. Miss Parker looked them over and there was no note, no gloating, no nothing. She threw them in the trash with the packaging and walked into her bedroom to change into something more comfortable.
She turned on the light in her walk-in closet and picked out a sleepwear set. Then she looked down and glared. Seven pairs of white tennis shoes were neatly lined up and every pair of her many stiletto heels were no where to be found.
The tennis shoes even had sparkles on them.
"Damn you, Jarod."
THE END, so ABSOLUTELY NO SEQUEL, understood?
Any other comments are welcome.