AN: In the period late season 3, while Ziva was still quite new to the team, before Jeanne, when Paula was back on land, and during the on-off relationship with Tony.
Flying to Die
Gibbs' phone was ringing, and Gibbs was nowhere to be seen. As Tony gave up waiting and headed to answer it, it stopped, and his own desk phone rang instead. He did a neat body-swerve, slid back into his chair and picked it up. He wrote urgently for a few minutes, with only a few affirmative grunts, and gradually both Tim and Ziva began to listen in. As he put the phone down, they both raised eyebrows.
"Lieutenant Commander Isabella Starling," he told them, and Tim began to type immediately. "Friendly neighbour saw her leaving home, wearing -" air quotes - "'usual flying gear', in tears. She left the front door ajar, neighbour thought things didn't seem right, called the police. They found what they call a rather garbled note, which seemed to suggest the Lieutenant Commander may be suicidal. Talk of a 'devil plane'. LEOs called us."
By the time he'd finished speaking, Tim had pulled up the Commander's information, and Gibbs had returned, coffee in hand, to join them silently at the plasma screen.
Isabella Moreno Starling was currently an instructor of Student Naval Aviators at NAS Whiting Field in Florida, and had only fifteen weeks of service left before returning to civilian life after a distinguished career. She was home on administrative leave for a week. Her husband, Ken Starling, had also been a Naval Aviator, but had retired four years ago, and was now a flying instructor at a very up-market Flying Club in the DC area.
Both spouses owned light aircraft, for recreational flying, and McGee had the location of the rather less upmarket and more serious airfield where their machines were hangared. "McGee, with me. Let Abby know, tell her to start pulling background. DiNozzo –"
"Go to the house, talk to the neighbour, see what sort of a mess the locals have made. On it, Boss."
"Take Ziva. Join us at the airfield soon as you can."
The friendly neighbour had waited, and was standing outside talking to a young police officer. The neighbour herself was a pleasant, intelligent black woman of about fifty, who still looked strained and anxious. Tony introduced himself and Ziva.
"Thanks for waiting, Miz - ?"
"Sophie Howard. And this is Dan Robinson… he's kind of our local cop."
"Sure am. I patrol this neighbourhood often, know most people."
"That's good. So, what can you tell us?
The young officer deferred politely to Mrs. Howard. "My kitchen faces towards the street, it's lovely for a nosy thing like me. I count Isabella as a friend, even though I don't see her so often. I was looking forward to having her around a bit more when she retires – she leads such an interesting life, I'm sure she'd have tales to tell… Yes, well, I was going to invite her over for coffee later on, she hasn't really got anyone else to talk to… so I was keeping an eye out for her, and I saw her going out to her car. I was going to run out, but I saw she was wearing her flying clothes… she has an all in one suit she wears with a high neck sweater underneath… so I didn't go out."
She paused, and pointed across the street. "That's my kitchen window. You can see, if someone drives off Izzy's parking space, for a moment they're heading straight towards me. I could see plainly; her face was very sad, and she was crying. She drove off erratically, and faster than she should have done down these roads. I wondered what to do, and decided to keep an eye out again for when she came home, to see how she was."
She turned back towards the Starling residence, and pointed again. "Well, then I noticed she'd left her front door ajar, and that was odd. It's a nice house… they've got some very nice things - well this is a good neighbourhood, but even so… I went across to see if I should close it… I mean, what if she hadn't taken her key… I went in, and absolutely the first thing I saw was the notebook."
"The notebook, Mrs. Howard?" The neighbour's tendency to fill in all the details would have tested the agents' patience a little, but she tended to speak quickly, and Tony didn't have any wish to chivvy someone as well meaning as she was.
"Yes. Blue… It looked as if it had fallen from off the telephone table; it has a hard back, and it was standing spine upwards, half open in the middle of the woodblock." She steepled her hands to demonstrate. "I didn't think… I picked it up, and I looked to see what it was. Most of it was about flying… dates, and times, and words like altitude… but the last page frightened me. I put it down and I didn't even use Izzy's phone. I ran back to my house to call the police, and before long, Dan arrived."
The patrolman's story was briefer. "We went back in together… I used a handkerchief to pick up the book, and when I'd read what Sophie showed me, I called my boss, and said he should call you."
Tony nodded thoughtfully. "Does anyone know where Mr. Starling might be?"
"His car isn't here, and he's normally at work at this time of day."
"You didn't see him leave, Mrs. Howard?"
"No…" The good neighbour seemed to hold herself more stiffly at the mention of the husband. Tony thought he might come back to that later. He glanced at Ziva and could see that the Mossad officer had noticed too. Good; she was new to the business of investigating, but her instincts were good.
"Thank you, Ma'am, you've been a great help. Officer Robinson, would you take Mrs. Howard home, and maybe make her a cup of tea? We'll keep you posted."
"Sure will," the cop said, reading between the lines. "OK to update my superiors?"
"Yeah, fine. Like you to stick around if you can?"
The obliging young cop said his favourite word. "Sure…"
As the two agents entered the house, they saw the ring-bound notebook back on the telephone table, but they methodically cleared the one storey house before going back to see the contents for themselves. They snapped on latex gloves, and Ziva picked it up. The majority of the contents were as Mrs. Howard had described, as well as addition sums that could have been fuel loads, but the last page was different. The handwriting was different, and the page was blotched by still damp water marks. "Tears?" Ziva wondered.
As the agents read, they became more and more certain that she was right.
It was paid for with pain, Isabella had written. You bought it with suffering to cause more suffering the plane has the devils mark it does no good no good comes from it you want me to be marked by the devil you want me to join the hell and make the hell for others I found you again but you dont want us to be complete you want me to make hell and spread hell and now I am in hell with no escape I found where it hides I will not make hell for other people I will not let the devils mark spread and I wont live with the devils mark I will die I will fly to die
"This lady is a highly educated Naval Officer," Ziva said. "Yet there is not a period or a comma… or indeed a defined sentence. Sometimes there are contractions and sometimes not. She was simply writing as she thought; clearly her frame of mind when she wrote this was very disturbed."
The SFA nodded slowly. "She talking about her husband, d'you think?"
"It seems so. You saw what the neighbour thought of him?"
"Why did you not ask further?"
"She seemed a decent woman who wouldn't bad-mouth someone for nothing. And I wanted to know more first…"
"Ah. But if we were to ask, it would not be…bad-mouth, then?"
Tony grinned. "See… you're thinking like an investigator. D'you want to go ask?"
"Without you?" Ziva was surprised.
"Sure." The grin grew wider. "Go on, investigate! I'd like to snoop here a bit more."
Ziva thought again. "I will see if we can stay in the kitchen, so if Mr Starling returns I can warn you."
"Now you're cookin'."
Ziva looked puzzled; she would never understand American parlance, and certainly not DiNozzo's. Bad mouth was toothache, or maybe a punch on the jaw… and what was she supposed to be cooking? She went anyway.
"I didn't want to say anything," Sophie Howard confided, confirming Tony's earlier suspicions. "I haven't really liked Ken much since he moved here. He bought the house two years before he came out of the Navy, four years ago, but of course he wasn't here much until he retired. He renovated the house after he bought it."
"Really?" Ziva glanced out of the window. "These houses are not old."
"You're right, dear. But he had contractors in, I remember."
"Why did you not like him?"
"Well, he was stand-offish to the point of being abrupt, but some people are reserved, I know – but it was when he married Isabella, three years ago that… well, she was such a happy, bubbly girl, but she isn't these days… I don't think he's physical with her… I've never seen evidence of that, but he seems to suck all the fun out of her. You'd think when she comes home on leave that he'd be glad to see her…"
Ziva waited, but when she saw that although Mrs. Howard had more to say she was hesitating, she said gently, "And…?"
The black lady cast an anxious look sideways at the police officer, and realisation crossed the young man's face.
"Sophie, we know about Sam. It's done, it's no problem." Sophie looked gratefully at him, and her eyes said 'you tell', so he went on. "Sam's Sophie's youngest. He got a bit of a hero worship on an older lad at school. This kid wanted to buy stuff, but his father had taken his car off him. So he got Sam to take him to his fixer. They ran into a sting, and got arrested. Sam hadn't actually done anything wrong, so we scared the shit out of him, and brought him home. He's away at college now, and doing fine. Point is, he said that he saw Ken Starling cruising down, but as soon as he saw the sting going on, he drove off. No cameras in the area, that's why the pushers use it… we couldn't check on it."
"But Isabella spoke of spreading hell. Thank you both, very much. I will return to my partner, and tell him what you have said."
Tony stood in the Starlings' kitchen, smelling biscuits and seeing the evidence of baking. Why would a woman bake cookies and then want to die? He noiced a floury handprint on the door that led to the garage, and wandered over. There were photographs on the corkboard by the door. Some of them were similar to others he'd seen in the hallway, pictures of the couple, alone, or together, standing beside aircraft. There were military planes, trainers, both civilian and naval, and two that seemed to recur a lot, which he assumed were their own machines.
He had to peer a little, as the light wasn't good in that part of the room; the recess where the garage door was, and where the corkboard hung, was about three feet deep. There didn't seem to be any need for it; at first Tony thought there might be a shower room in the garage, but it would have to be tiny, and all the water supplies were at the other end of the kitchen
So was the oven, and the SFA began to wonder even more. Why did Isabella bake cookies, come down to this end of the kitchen, and become suicidal? He found the door was unlocked, and went out into the garage. There was shelving along that wall, the top rank very high, and no sign of a door, so he stepped out into the garden. No door into a garden shed… yep, boys own comic, secret room, no doubt about it. I found where it hides… He went back into the garage, and simply stood looking.
There was something behind those rows of shelves… and he was going to find out what. How would his childhood comic book heroes have gone about it? It wasn't long before his eyes fell on the set of kitchen steps which lay on their side nearby. Buttercup yellow, with bright pink-flowered PVC padded steps. They didn't belong out here. He recalled that the Lieutenant Commander was five foot six, and visualised her climbing up, reaching up… On the edge of the highest shelf, was a patch of flour. Tony pulled the steps over, and was just looking down at himself to try and estimate where five foot six was on him, when, bang on cue, he heard Ziva calling.
He called back "I'm in the garage", and waited for her to appear.
"Tony, what are you doing?"
"I'm looking for a secret room. But you're going to find it, Zeevah!"
He stood back for a moment, and silently invited her to make the connections.
She looked at the steps, and up at the floury mark. Tony took a photo of it with his cell phone held high. "The Commander's five foot six. You're five seven, right? You're her. You don't know the room's there, but you suspect."
Ziva nodded. "I think, however he opens it, it must be where I would not notice…"
"He? The husband, right? Did the neighbour say anything about drugs?"
"Oh, yes," Ziva said, climbing up on the steps. "Nothing provable, but a possibility. Now… I hold the shelf because I have to reach out… " She swung her arm in a wide arc, but nothing seemed unusual, so she turned the other way, to where an electrical junction box sat high on the wall. It was a fairly standard piece of equipment, for providing a garden's electricity supply, but Ziva stiffened suddenly. "There is a switch here that cannot be seen from ground level."
She pushed it enthusiastically as Tony warned, "Wait!" A moment later he had to catch her as the wall swung open and nudged her off the steps. He stood with his arms around her, and looked down at her with a teasing grin. "I had a buddy at college who used to press buttons to see what they'd do," he said cheerfully. "He got arrested for blacking out half of Cleveland. Now in your country, you might have started something really big!"
Ziva glowered at him, more because it was expected of her than anything else, but said nothing; he let her go gently and they looked into the secret room. It was maybe seven feet high, four feet wide, and two and a half feet deep, with one shelf, and it was empty. Going by the exterior dimensions that they already knew, and the thickness of the door, it was intended to be unbreachable. The door was beautifully balanced, despite its thickness, and moved with ease. They noticed another floury handprint, but fainter, where Isabella must have pushed it closed again. Tidy nature? Couldn't bear to look at it? Tony sighed. They had to save the poor woman, or they'd never be able to ask her. They had to save her, period.
Ziva said quietly, "Mr. Starling has some explaining to do. Apparently he never gets home before five-thirty, but I have asked Officer Robinson to alert us if he does."
"Good girl," Tony said, his eyes still on the empty room. "I have no idea what triggered the Commander to hunt for this… but we need to know for certain what was in it. D'you want to keep Gibbs up to date?" Ziva nodded thoughtfully, and took out her phone; Tony was already keying in on his.
While they waited, they fetched a camera from the car and photographed everything, but didn't treat it as a crime scene. Not yet, anyway. They heard a vehicle arriving, and went back to the front door, where a DEA canine unit had come to a halt. Out of it jumped a very attractive Springer Spaniel, and a not so very attractive man of about thirty, with sandy hair, pale blue eyes and maybe fifteen pounds too much weight.
"Whoah," he said without preamble, not even trying to disguise how he was eyeing up Ziva. "NCIS is sure prettier than it used to be!"
AN: I promised myself a month off…