AN: I might write the story of riding on top of a truck one day…
Seren – Welsh name meaning star.
The detective with the camera stopped snapping, as he noticed four figures approaching the crime scene tape. "NCIS, Lieutenant! What the hell are they doing here?"
"I called them." Lieutenant Kath Wigg straightened up, with a scowl. If Detective Fordham had been paying attention, he'd have heard, since Kath wasn't the sort to keep her voice down.
She was a tall woman in her late forties, running to overweight, face lined by years of too little sleep, with a slight stoop if she didn't constantly remember to push herself upright, thanks to a large calibre bullet close to her lumbar spine eight years ago. She seldom bothered with make-up or her appearance, having worn out almost as many husbands as the man approaching had had wives; she was careless of how she dressed, but wore her gun with style. Her face was battered and lived in, but men were still drawn to her. If she had to repeat herself her team scuttled for cover; but if they were working under pressure she was always the one to defuse it. She was a force to be reckoned with.
"Gibbs. Glad you could make it." She stuck out a rubber gloved hand, and Gibbs took it without hesitation.
"Kath… long time. You met my team?"
The Lieutenant stuck out her hand again. "I remember DiNozzo. You ridden on the roofs of any more semis lately?" She grasped his hand and pumped it, grinning, and McGee and Ziva were astonished to see a look of almost flirty appreciation pass between them.
"That was fun, Lieutenant… we should do it again."
"Special Agents Tim McGee and Ziva David," Gibbs said almost reprovingly, and waited just long enough for the introductions to be completed before asking, "What have you got?"
"Truth is, Jethro, I'm not sure." They walked over to the man who lay dead in the shadow of a bus parked up at the end of what had been a long line, although by now other vehicles were leaving for duty one by one. "Driver found him when he came on shift, 5 am. You can see he died violently – fighting for his life, I think we'll find. Street bum by his clothes, but his body's in much better shape than that." She lifted the corpse's hand, and showed Gibbs the line of hardened skin along the heel and outer edge. "Used to hand to hand combat."
"But not so thick as if he were still on active service," Gibbs agreed. "You think he was a marine."
"Just a gut feeling, Jethro."
"Maybe more," Tony said, crouching by the man's feet. He'd already donned gloves himself, and lifted the hem of the man's right pants leg. A strap ran round his ankle, above the top of his rigger boot, and the sheath attached to it was tucked down inside the leather. It was empty, but it was exactly right for a marine K-bar.
Kath Wigg nodded her approval, then shrugged apologetically. "Not much more than that – but long hair apart… doesn't he look like a marine to you?"
"Yeah, Kath… yeah, he does. Anything else?"
"Only that I've already alibi'd the driver who found him. We took some photos, but once I got the idea, I called a halt. He's all yours if you want him. Just keep me posted, huh? And we'll take over again if I'm wrong here."
"We'll take him," Gibbs told her. She shivered in the early morning air, and rubbed her back as she stood. With a polite nod to Tim and Ziva, and a positively lascivious grin at Tony, which he returned, she wandered away and called her team. By the time the Metro cars had driven away, Tim had called Ducky, and the MCRT had begun their work.
The dead man was probably in his late thirties, with fairish hair that had grown long in no particular style. It, and the rest of him, was a little too clean for a homeless man. He was cold, as was the morning, and his thick plaid jacket had a sheen of condensation, as well as a slick of oil from the bus station asphalt. He had defensive wounds on his hands and arms, the woollen fabric being scored through and bloody in several places. His face was badly cut and bruised; the injuries looked fresh, and from underneath his back enough blood had already run to suggest what Ducky would find there.
Ziva stood back and took note of where the security cameras were, and then went to fetch the tapes, although she was pretty certain that nothing would be revealed. Either the victim or his assailant had chosen the spot for its privacy. She returned to find that Ducky had arrived, and wandered innocently to where Tony was sketching.
"So…" she murmured. "The Lieutenant… there is a history between you and her?"
Tony grunted, to suppress a laugh. "If you mean what I think you mean, Ziva, I wouldn't dare." He flicked what he hoped she'd think was an involuntary glance towards Gibbs… he really wasn't sure about Gibbs and Kath, but he knew Ziva'd never dream of asking him. "She's a fun lady to ride two miles with on the top of a truck, though." He saw that his ruse had been successful; Ziva was not interested in the story of the wild ride more than six years ago, she was looking speculatively at Gibbs….
So was he. The Boss was quiet and somewhat abstracted, standing back and not peppering the ME with impatient questions, gazing round the scene with eyes that were seeing something else. He finished the last pencil stroke and went over. "What's bugging you?"
"Ack… if I knew that it wouldn't be bugging me, DiNozzo."
Tony was unruffled. "Memory? The situation? Déjà vu? You've already made up your mind that he was a marine. But unless he was undercover, he's not any more. Maybe four months. Discharged or AWOL? All reasonable questions… but no more than we've asked before –"
"Tony, I've said," Gibbs told him quietly. "I'm not keeping anything back. I don't know. Why four months, anyway?"
"Hair growth rate – assuming, as of course I shouldn't, that he came out of the Corps and never got his hair cut. Which may mean that whatever he was up to, he wanted to look different, or couldn't afford to get his hair cut, or -"
"Wanted to stay low and not be noticed… Too many questions. Need the answers. We done here?" He made the last remark more loudly, and both Ziva and Tim shook their heads.
"It's a pretty sparse crime scene, Boss," McGee told him, "We'll be done soon, but I don't want to miss anything."
"Like this, perhaps," Ducky said quietly, handing something small up to Gibbs. "He died some time before midnight, Jethro, from a stab wound which punctured the dorsal aorta from behind. It would have been almost instantaneous. He has no dogtags, or other identification that I can find on first inspection; apart from a few coins, that was all that was in his pocket."
Gibbs peered at the ten or so small rectangular cards, kept together by an elastic band. Tony took them, politely, and read, "Valley House, refuge for endangered women and children. New Hampshire Avenue. Number suggests Chillum area. And the fact that he's got a bundle of them…"
"Suggests that he's been giving them out. McGee, Ziva. When you've finished up, take the truck back. Get me an ID, asap. DiNozzo and I are going to check out this place."
The 'place' was unremarkable from the front; it seemed to have been a shop at one time. The window was of toughened, frosted glass with a wire grid incorporated into it and vertical blinds behind it, and the double door was designed so that when one half was open, only one person at a time could pass through. Inside, to one side of the room was a dark oak stained floor, with a cheerful rug in shades of peaceful green, a small electric coal effect stove, beat-up, comfortable armchairs and a sofa.
On the other side, opposite the door, was a counter, with shelves, files and a computer desk behind it, and a cork-board with cards, postcards, photos, and memo notes. There was also a bubbling coffee machine which didn't escape Gibbs' notice. Between the two halves of the room was a sturdy door with a combination lock. Above it, the two agents noted, was an equally sturdy camera.
A youngish woman stood up from behind the counter as they stood looking round, and surveyed them without much warmth. "NCIS," she said wearily. "Well, that's new."
Gibbs kept back, knowing instantly that this was a job for DiNozzo. The SFA took up the task straight away, toning his easy grin down to a gentle, puzzled smile. "Ma'am?"
"Doctor. Humphries. Seren Humphries. I help to run this centre." She offered no other information, waiting warily.
"So, Dr. Humphries…" Tony went for polite and respectful, even though the doctor had given her first name; more because he felt he wanted to be polite than that he ought to. At first impressions, the place had a good feel to it. "Special Agent Gibbs, Special Agent DiNozzo. Tony. Why… 'that's new'?"
The doctor shook her curly dark hair, and returned his slight smile, with an explosive huff of breath. "Well… FBI… DEA…ICE… every other acronym's been through here," she growled as she came from behind the counter, "To say nothing of Maryland State Police, local PD… the reasoning goes –"
"I get it," Tony said gently. "Some of the women you're protecting are likely addicts. If they're addicts, you've got stuff on the premises. If you've got stuff, you're dealing. Or you know dealers…"
Cool grey eyes looked at him in surprise. "You were a cop," she said.
"I was. And I'm not interested in making life difficult for you or your refugees."
"Good. Even the local police believe now that we are who we are. So… never NCIS before. We've even had a visit from the CIA… but what do Navy cops want with us?"
And even as she spoke her face crumpled into realisation and grief. Tony had already spotted one photo among the many on the cork-board, and was sad and unsurprised.
"No!" she burst out, her head twisting in denial. "Damn it to hell, no!" She looked from the cop to his impassive partner and back, her shoulders slumping. "Something's happened to Raggy." She leaned back against the counter with tears on her cheeks.
Tony pointed to the photo he'd seen; the man standing with one arm round the doctor, and the other round an equally smiling woman with lighter brown hair, was certainly their victim. "Is that Raggy, doctor?"
"Seren," she said shortly. She went back round the counter and brought them the snapshot. "Yes… he's dead, then?" When nobody answered, she said fiercely, "Well?"
Gibbs nodded. "We're sorry, doctor – Seren… clearly he was a friend of yours. Who was he?"
"I don't know."
"You –" Gibbs could see it was a genuine answer, and restrained himself. His eyes slid longingly to the coffee pot, and he looked guilty when he knew she'd seen his glance. She smiled wanly, and pointed to the armchairs.
"Go sit down," she said, and handed him the coffee pot to take with him. She brought mugs, milk and sugar, and they sat by the stove.
When the mugs were full, Tony asked, "You don't know who he is, but something made you make a connection between him and us. What was it?"
Seren frowned. "Well, I'm certain he was a marine."
"What made you think that?" Gibbs rumbled. She watched him take a long swig of the strong black brew that had been gurgling on the machine a few moments ago.
"You're a marine, Special Agent Gibbs. Like Special Agent DiNozzo's a cop. It never wears off."
"Tony," the SFA insisted. "And the Boss is just Gibbs. And you're right. It really doesn't ever wear off."
Dr. Humphries nodded. "I asked him, in a roundabout way, once, by mentioning 'semper fi'. He just smiled. He said, 'You're fishing, li'l gal. What you don't know can't hurt you.' Did… did he die violently? Was he murdered?"
"Yes, and yes." Gibbs was as gentle as he could manage. "Seren, what can you tell us?"
"I'll start at the beginning. But… one thing… you must know… whatever you've learned, whatever you know, or whatever people may tell you, I'm telling you he was a good person. Whatever he was involved in, he wasn't a bad man. That's the truth. He first came here four months ago…"
It was gone midnight, and Seren was just going to go into the refuge to check all was well, before locking the front door and settling down to doze in a chair until Matt came at seven to take over, when the door in question opened a crack, and a man eased his way swiftly in then closed it quickly.
"Please… don't press the alarm…" His breathing was laboured, and his face was bruised and bloody. He had one arm wrapped round his ribs. "I'm not going to hurt anyone…"
"I didn't think you were. Come, sit down. There. But why did you come here? You know this is a refuge for women? There's no way you can go through that door…"
"I know. I just… need a bit of first aid… then I'll be on my way. It's… it's OK if you want me to just go…"
"I'm a dermatologist… my clinic up in Glen Echo helps to support this place… but I did my stint in the Emergency Room like everyone else… He had cracked ribs, which I strapped up, I checked his lungs were OK, gave him an antibiotic shot, bathed and stitched up his cuts. I couldn't turf him out, his stomach was growling like a Kodiak Bear, so I fed him, gave him some painkillers, and let him sleep on the sofa. 'Call me Raggy', he said. When Matt came in, in the morning, I explained, and then went off to work."
Her mouth twisted sadly. "I missed all the fun. You can see our security. We get husbands and boyfriends coming here, drunk, high, or just plain mad, demanding to see their wives… they don't. But they can make a hell of a mess. Young Matt pressed the alarm, it sounds in the local Police HQ, but in the meantime this guy was in a fair way to damaging him, until Raggy took him out. Matt said he was so quick and smooth about it, that he didn't even see what he did. He stayed through Matt's shift, although when the LEOs arrived he just vanished, and came back when they'd gone. He stayed through Martina's duty, and he was still here when I came back for the evening. After that, he was always here… except when he wasn't…"
"When he wasn't?"
"He became one of only four men who are allowed on the other side of that door. He became our protector… sometimes he'd disappear for a day or two… or three… when he came back he usually had some bruises… but he was good to us, and we didn't pry. Well… I did. I asked him about his name, and he said his people were Danish, the blood of Vikings and all that, and his name could be Ragnar, or maybe not… and I was sure he was a marine, but he wasn't saying. For all that he was such a help to us, I wouldn't have let him stay if I hadn't been sure in my heart that he was a good person; that he wasn't using us for anything other than shelter, while he helped us. It wasn't long before we all loved him…"
Gibbs phone shrilled. "Yeah, McGee. Yeah… my unit? Yeah… sure I do. He was what… nineteen? Twenty? But the guy I knew would never have gone AWOL… no, we're coming in, tell me when we get there." He looked at Tony. "You know something was bugging me? They matched his fingerprints - I knew the guy. He was just a kid when he was in my unit. Nils Ragnar Frandsen. Age twenty-two then. Came back from Afghanistan four months ago and went UA. McGee's digging further. We need –"
The front door crashed open, and two men jammed themselves in the gap trying to both get in at once. "My wife's supposed to be here," one yelled without preamble. Where the hell is she? I want to talk to her!"
Seren flashed the two agents a 'see what I mean' sort of look. "If you'll tell me her name, I'll find out if she's here, and ask if she wants to talk to you, Mr…?"
"Never mind that," the other man shouted just as loudly. "My friend says he wants to talk to his wife. You fetch her out, girlie. You get the silly b- " He broke off to see who was tapping him on the shoulder.
"Friend," Tony said, "That's no way to talk to a lady about a lady…"
The two men had clearly spent some time in the nearest bar, fuelling themselves up with liquid courage in order to face unarmed women, so they were messy fighters, crashing into walls and furniture before the two agents got them down. But by the time the LEOs arrived, they were both on their faces and cuffed, while Seren straightened out the furniture. Relieved of their charges, Gibbs and Tony began to climb to their feet. The SFA put his left hand up to the counter to pull himself up, and let go with an anguished yelp. Gibbs raised an enquiring eyebrow, then registered that his partner had actually gone a bit pale.
Tony prodded his wrist gingerly, and hissed. Seren took it gently and touched a slightly puffy area with far more finesse than its owner had done. "Yes," she said ruefully. "Broken."
AN: I've been gone for a while… please remember I love reviews!