AN: Well, the Tour de France is over; to alleviate my withdrawal symptoms I'm writing again. I just want to mention a couple of things in the US v UK English debate. I will continue to use English spelling, since my heritage is important to me.
Since I'm writing in an American fandom, however, I will use American expressions wherever I'm aware of a difference; for example, a saloon car with a boot and a bonnet will be a sedan car with a trunk and a hood. Where I use an English expression and there's an American one that suits better, sure, let me know. Like, the visitor we used to call the District Nurse, who is now known as the Practice Nurse; I have no idea what she's called in the USA.
But as far as I'm concerned, there really doesn't need to be a debate. We're the same, and we're different, and neither the similarity nor the difference hurts anyone. Let's enjoy both.
ESCD is a figment, although I think places like it probably exist.
Oh, and I don't own or profit from, except in good friendship, anything to do with NCIS.
Polly Hastings sang to herself, 'Scarborough Fair', as she fetched the rotary drier out from the garage, and found the hole in the lawn to slot it in. She folded the arms out, gave it a playful whack, and left it spinning as she went back into the utility room to fetch the washing basket.
She'd been a good girl, and left half the load in the machine, so as not to have too much to lift, although she thought ruefully that the more often she had to make two trips, the more tired she'd be, but she was doing what the Practice Nurse had told her when she'd called. Patch would be proud. She laughed aloud to herself as she stooped, with difficulty, to round up a stray pair of pants; a couple of years ago she'd never have imagined herself like this, a picture of domesticity; and if she had, she'd have assumed it was a nightmare, had the screaming bejabers, and woken up in a cold sweat.
"Career woman, look at yourself now," she chuckled. "Married, pregnant – very pregnant – and hanging out the washing. And happy about it!" Bang on cue, Lucy kicked her, and she rubbed her substantial bump. She was still singing as she carried the basket outside.
She had a perfectly good drier right alongside the washer, but she believed in being green and not wasting energy; anyway, it was a perfect drying day. She was as excited as blazes, and nothing could bring her down just then. She was belting out stuff from her classical repertoire by now, carried away on Saint-Saens 'Softly awakes my heart', and when her throaty mezzo got to the wheedling 'Ah, once again then say you adore me' bit, a voice from the other side of the hedge said cheerfully, "Well, I would, li'l girl, but Sylvia would kill me!"
"Oh, hello, Spence," Polly broke off her spirited performance to greet her retired neighbour.
"Someone's happy. When does Neil get back, then?"
"Tomorrow!" Polly almost shouted it.
"You must be looking forward to it so much, gal," Joe Spencer said fondly. He and Sylvia liked their younger neighbour, and were looking forward to being honorary grandparents.
"Oh, yeah," Polly said with a smile. "He's already back in the US," she went on. "But the deal was, that he'd go straight to his old posting in Norfolk, spend three days checking over things, and settling in, and then he could have open ended leave. His reward for going overseas for so long when he'd already done four tours. It's got me on pins, knowing he's that close after so long. If I weren't so uncomfy behind the wheel, and if I didn't know they wouldn't be too pleased about me going and distracting Patch, I'd have just jumped in the car and headed over to Norfolk to see him… but I've waited seven months…" She patted her unborn child gently. "Lucy and I have waited seven months… we can wait another night."
Tony smiled quietly to himself as the team car neared its destination. Tim noticed, and risked asking, since they weren't going to be in the vehicle much longer.
"Told yourself a joke, Tony?"
The SFA grinned more broadly. "Well, no, McGiggle. I was just thinking about our little drug sniffing pup friend –"
"Yeah. Would she love this place or hate it? Go into olfactory overload? Or is the stuff here packed up so tightly she couldn't smell it anyway? Now, were the thoughts of DiNozzo worth sharing?"
Now Tim grinned. "Er…quite. I'd defy even a little wizard like her to sniff through a blister pack … you're right, ending pointless conversation now."
The NCIS sedan pulled up at a robust metal gate, and all four agents showed their ID to the camera. The establishment was modest by comparison with other military premises, but the security was tight. One building, small warehouse size, with only office windows, heavily barred, on the ground floor, and none on the upper floors. Indeed from the outside it was impossible to tell whether it was one or two storeys. One tall one, Ziva decided.
One loading bay was central to the longer side of the building; there was no way that someone could suddenly appear round a corner and take a driver by surprise. The bay was currently closed by a heavy steel roller door, and a camera set into the high brick wall opposite was permanently trained on it. There were other cameras strategically placed to cover every area; the high steel fence of three walls, and the brick of the fourth were crowned with razor wire, and the automatic gate that was currently trundling open was controlled from inside the building.
"Well," Ziva said thoughtfully, observing it all, "They do not intend to be robbed."
There were nods and murmurs of agreement from the others, but there was no need for comment; they all knew what was stored here; and the morphine alone that was inside the building would have been worth a fortune on the black market. This was the Eastern Seaboard Central Distribution Centre for the US Navy and Marines, where every drug, medication, field dressing or piece of equipment, from an aspirin to an MRI, was held until its destination was decided on. There was another such centre on the west coast, and a third in Hawaii. Wounded or sick seaborne personnel all over the world depended on this place.
And now someone had died here – murdered, they'd been told, and nothing could move in or out until NCIS said so. There was a faint, but noticeable air of resentment as the MCRT entered the building; although nobody said a word, but DiNozzo's antennae went up right away when the Master Chief who greeted them didn't offer to shake hands with Gibbs. The Boss was in neutral mode, not scary, but if the MCPO was hoping to intimidate by his attitude, he was going to be disappointed.
"Master Chief Hank Sheard, Sir," he said, standing almost to attention. He was a man approaching middle age, thickset, with sandy hair and an intelligent face, currently only one step away from a scowl. Gibbs looked at him in mild puzzlement.
"At ease, Master Chief," he said reasonably. "And don't call me sir." Behind him, the whole team's lips synchronised with his. In the background, several other people hovered anxiously; each member of the team independently checked them out, without even looking as if they were interested. Gibbs introduced the others briefly. "Now, what have you got?"
The MCPO grunted, "This way." He led them through the office block, and used an iris scanner to open an inconspicuous door. Behind it, the warehouse opened out, and Ziva realised, with a brief, pleased smile that she'd been right; it had no separate floors beyond the office section. The ranks of storage racks went up the full twenty feet to the ceiling, and as well as an automatic retrieval system, there were electric platform carts for staff to access the higher shelves.
They walked at right angles to the long rows, until at the far end a different set-up came into sight. Down one side of the building, fifteen feet up, ran a balcony with a walkway and railing. Up there were stored what looked like archives. The space underneath was where the carts were stored when not in use, each with its own recharging point; but of more interest right now about that space was the cart that had been left carelessly half-way out of its slot, and the body that was draped over the basket.
Petty Officer Second Class Richard Knox had landed on his back across the basket, and lay with head, arms and legs dangling, eyes open and staring. For a moment nobody moved, taking in the sight, then Tony took a rapid series of photos, stepped forward, reached up and closed the glazed eyes. "Ducky won't mind," he said shortly, to no-one in particular.
Gibbs flicked him a sideways glance, but made no comment. They both remembered Kate. "OK, Master Chief," the Boss said calmly. "Explain to me why you're sure this was murder."
"I beg your pardon, Si- Special Agent Gibbs?"
"What makes you so certain that this wasn't an accident? As a murder method it's hit and miss. Perfectly possible to survive; he probably would have if he hadn't landed on that basket. Why murder?"
"Because Lieutenant Commander Hastings has gone missing, Agent Gibbs."
Tony frowned to himself. Why not 'has disappeared'? Or just 'is missing'? The phrase used by the MCPO implied deliberately absent.
"Has gone missing?" he asked, matching his Boss's reasonable, but mildly disbelieving tone note for note.
"He was here earlier on. He argued with PO2 Knox. Now his car's missing, and so's he," Master Chief Sheard said, his voice taking on a slightly belligerent inflection. He didn't like this team's leader very much, but he'd taken a bigger dislike to the big, smart-arse agent with the knowing green eyes.
"What time did he leave?" the tall guy asked him, totally unruffled.
"How would I know?"
"Well, I'm thinking you'd probably have checked your camera log? For the front gate?" He changed tack, since the lack of reply suggested the man was on the back foot, and keeping him there might jiggle loose some answers that might not be forthcoming otherwise. Gibbs smiled to himself; DiNozzo's gut was on to something like a ferret on a rabbit. He kept quiet and let his SFA carry on.
"This Lieutenant Commander Hastings have a work station?"
"I'll get –"
"It's OK, Special Agent McGee is good at finding his own way. You don't like the guy very much, do you?" He bored on, as Tim, after exchanging a glance with Gibbs, nodded thoughtfully and hurried away. The MCPO looked away, his face twisting. "I'll take that as a 'no', then," Tony said with an easy smile, and raised an eyebrow at Gibbs.
"Why don't you like him, Master Chief?" The Boss slid seamlessly in, his bark much harder than his SFA's.
"He was here before," Sheard said venomously.
"Before I took over. It was a good promotion for me – an enlisted man in charge of an establishment like this. He was a Lieutenant then. He was only here six months before they sent him off overseas again, and I was assigned; but seven months later he's back, I'm informed he's back in charge again, and I'm to assist him before I receive my new posting. He came swanning in here two days ago with his promotion, talking to me as if I'd done something wrong, asking a lot of questions… and now he's missing and Richie's dead."
"You got on well with PO2 Knox?"
The look that slid harmlessly off DiNozzo's shoulders would have fried him if he'd been the frying type. "Sure I did. Not enough to falsely accuse someone of murdering him though. Hastings is missing. Do the math."
Gibbs hmphed. "Nothing's to go through that gate in either direction, unless it's our truck, without my say so," he ordered.
"That won't be a problem, Jethro, we're already here." Ducky and Jimmy were trundling a gurney with them as they approached. Gibbs stood aside to let them pass, and went on speaking to the MCPO.
"I can't stop your people from talking to each other; they'll have done all that before we got here. But no traffic between the warehouse and the office area, nobody's to go out to their cars without one of us to escort them."He turned to the youngest agent. "Ziva…. DiNozzo and I'll work the scene." Tony had already started. "Go find yourself a computer –"
"Pull up all possible information on Commander Hastings, check the gate if McGee has not already done so… and any other relevant information," Ziva said, shooting her own sideways look at Sheard as she did so. There was no harm in doing her bit to add to the MCPO's uncertainty. She caught Tony's glance of amused approval, and smiled slightly, then went back towards the office area.
"Better go back, see to your people, Master Chief… oh, and get me some coffee."
Master Chief Sheard's face was a picture of suppressed rage, as he walked away.
"So, what was your gut telling you?"
Tony grinned. "Same as yours, Boss. He knows more than he's letting on."
Gibbs allowed himself half a smile, and turned to Ducky, who forestalled his question.
"Jethro, I've just got here, as you well know. I haven't even taken my liver probe out of its case yet." He looked at the basket with its grisly load, and went on, "However, the likely cause of death would seem, judging by the rather gruesome way the unfortunate victim's back is bent over the guard rails, to be a spine fractured at both points of impact; the small of the back, and the neck. I believe the weight of the lower body would have been sufficient to pull him off the basket and down onto the floor, if his arm had not become wedged between the control mechanism and the rail here. Anthony, have you completed what you need to do before I remove the body to the ground?"
"I'm done, Ducky. Go ahead."
Two hours later they all stopped around the coffee machine to pool information.
"No signs of a struggle," Tony said. "Jumble of fingerprints on the balcony rail, many hands, many times, nothing clear. Smears above the point where the body fell, suggest he leaned against the rail."
"Is that it for two hours work?" McGee's question came with a sympathetic wince; he knew Tony had done all the sketch and a lot of the shoot part of the job before going on his fingerprint hunt. Sketching was not Gibbs' strong point.
"Not entirely," Tony said, "Although I don't know if it'll come to anything or not. Riddle me this: I found two clear sets of fresh palm prints on the right-hand rail of the stair up to the balcony, and just one set on the left."
The others didn't need to think for long. Ziva said, "Could you tell if the one on the left was the reverse of one of the ones on the right?"
"Give that probie a coconut!" Tony said delightedly, and wasn't at all surprised when he got a head slap from Gibbs and an elbow in the ribs from Ziva simultaneously. The staff members who'd been watching the goings on all morning with varying degrees of trepidation, were amazed to see, although they couldn't hear the conversation, that the result of the violence done to the tall agent by his colleagues was simply to increase the power output of his smile.
"I couldn't tell for certain, Ziva, not even using a lens, but I suspect that Abby will find it's so. Which means that we might find that the print that didn't come down again was PO2 Knox holding on with his right hand as he went up."
"And the other print was his assailant, holding on as he went up, and again with his right hand on the left rail as he came down," Ziva added, momentarily excited, before she slumped again. "Of course they may not have happened at the same time…"
"And someone else may have been up there," Tony added.
"But it might give us a name as a starting point," Tim said positively.
Gibbs said, "I found nothing but a few coins that probably came from the victim's pockets, and absolutely nothing we could raise trace from. The platform cart's battery was fully charged, no reason for it to be where it was. But I have to say, even if it had been left there with the deliberate idea of making someone fall on it, as a method of premeditated murder… well, it doesn't do it for me."
"I have taken statements from every member of staff here," Ziva said. "They all concur, as you would expect them to do when everyone has had a chance to talk to everyone else." She fell silent, and everyone looked at McGee.
"I've had a look at Commander Hastings' hard drive as well as getting his background," Tim said seriously. "Boss, I know this has to be cleared up quickly, but I'd seriously recommend holding all the staff for questioning, and take their records and just about everything else away for examination. We have a can of worms here. And somebody really ought to go and see the Commander's wife."
AN: It's taken me a while to round up my powers of concentration enough to write again. A review would be very encouraging.