A/N: Hokay. Warning: this chapter is case-heavy. For those unsure, 'UA' stands for Unauthorized Absence. Any mistakes in military procedure or terminology are my own -let me know and I'll fix them.
Xander woke at 4am. It took him a moment to realise where he was, and why he had woken. His right arm throbbed, and he sighed. He had painkillers in his bag, but if he got up he probably wouldn't sleep again. If he stayed in bed, the pain would keep him awake.
He rolled out of bed and slowly dressed. Normally he would head out for a run before work, but that wasn't going to happen today. Last night Gibbs had helped him get his shirt off without moving his injured arm too much, before leaving him to finish changing himself. He figured he could do it all himself if he took it slow. It was difficult but he managed to get dressed.
Grabbing the painkillers from his bag he padded downstairs and filled a glass with tap water to take them. He spotted the coffee machine and put it on, then wandered around. Gibbs' house was sparsely furnished and the furniture was all quite old, though still serviceable. An appropriate reflection of their boss.
He found the door to the basement and remembered his teammates mentioning something about Gibbs doing woodwork down there. Curious, he made his way down the stairs. There was a half-built boat taking up most of the space. Xander looked it over, then found the plans on the workbench and compared them. Gibbs' work was exactly according to the plan.
When Gibbs came down an hour later, with two freshly poured mugs of coffee, Xander was working one-handed on one of the beams. He stopped when he saw Gibbs.
"Sorry, hope you don't mind."
Gibbs passed him one of the coffees, shaking his head with a slight smile. "Not at all. Woodwork is good for the sanity." Xander put the mug down and continued working. Gibbs watched him for a moment.
"You know what you're doing."
"I worked in construction for about 18 months before Sunnydale fell. Mostly carpentry. I liked it."
"You didn't go back to it?"
Xander shook his head. "My father worked in construction. When he worked, anyway. I didn't want to follow in his footsteps."
Gibbs picked up another sander and they worked silently for a few minutes.
"Who's Tara?" Gibbs asked.
"Last night, you told the Commander's little girl you knew another Tara."
"Oh." Xander paused in his work. "Tara was my best friend's girlfriend. She died, about a year before the town became a crater. GSW."
Gibbs stopped sanding. "I thought you told me guns were uncommon."
"Yeah, but not completely absent. Actually, it wasn't even meant for her. Guy was shooting at someone else outside. Stray bullet went through the second story window. Wrong place, wrong time."
Gibbs was watching him closely. "You were there."
"I was outside, with the friend the shooter was aiming for. I saw him coming, and I froze." He shook his head, angry with himself. "I saw the gun, and I froze! I should have stopped him before he even raised it!"
Gibbs gave Xander a moment of breathing space. Xander was surprised how much guilt he'd held onto about that.
"Your other friend survive?"
"Yeah. Was close, but she's fine now."
"They catch the guy?"
He snorted. "Yeah. They caught him." Xander didn't feel the need to add but he's dead now too. Times like this, his whole life seemed be one dead friend or acquaintance after another.
Gibbs was silent after that, and Xander wondered what he was thinking. Probably that if Sunnydale still existed, he'd have been storming in there to take care of it's problems once and for all. Xander laughed bitterly in his head. If only Gibbs had been around back then. He probably would have walked in and set the town straight, regardless of the vampires and demons. Or including them.
They worked together in quiet companionship for about half an hour before Gibbs' cell rang.
Xander couldn't hear the other end, but Gibbs hung up after a minute anyway.
"Let's go, Harris. Dead marine behind a nightclub. We'll pick up breakfast on the way."
The alley was narrow and dirty in the early morning light. The MCRT van would probably have fit, but only just, so it was parked across the entrance to the alleyway instead. Palmer would have to park behind them when he & Ducky arrived.
Gibbs flashed his badge at the local cops guarding the scene and ducked under the crime scene tape. Ziva, Tony and Xander hurried to follow, crime scene kits in hand. A man in a brown jacket approached.
"Special Agent Gibbs" he nodded.
"Detective Hurst," Gibbs responded. "I hear you found one of our boys down here."
The detective motioned towards a dumpster, sitting out from the wall at an angle. An arm could be seen sticking out from behind it.
"Gunshot wound to the temple, no other obvious injuries. Garbage truck driver found him when he came to empty the bin. When our ME found the wallet and his ID, we called you."
"Where's the truck driver now?"
"Had him move his truck around the corner, sent a uniform with him to make sure he stayed put."
"On it boss." Tony walked away to interview the driver, pulling a notepad and pen from his pocket.
"Harris, photograph & sketch; David, bag and tag. And somebody find out where Ducky is," Gibbs ordered. There was the sound of a truck pulling up outside the alley, and they all turned to see the autopsy van parking behind their own.
"Forget that," Gibbs amended. Xander grabbed the camera bag, pleased to have a job that wouldn't require too much use of his injured arm. He moved away to photograph the body but could still hear the conversation.
"I'll write up a report of what my guys have seen & done here and get it to you ASAP, then we'll stay out of your hair," Hurst said. "I'll tell the uniforms to stay until body's gone."
Gibbs raised an eyebrow at him. "Any reason you're being so damn helpful, Detective Hurst? Had a change of heart since we last met?"
Hurst snorted. "If I remember rightly, you weren't exactly a paragon of inter-agency co-operation yourself."
Gibbs just stared at him, waiting. Hurst shrugged.
"Honestly? We're snowed under right now. Violent crimes and murders have been up dramatically in the last week or so. Every team's working extra cases. We can only hope it's going to settle down this week."
"Not if this is any indication," Gibbs noted. Hurst shrugged again.
"Well, as I just said, I've got plenty else to be doing. See ya round."
The detective walked away, ducking under the police tape. Gibbs walked over to where Ducky and Palmer were now leaning over the body.
"Time of death, Duck?"
"Will require another moment of your patience, Jethro. This bullet wound though," Ducky peered at it. "Burn marks and tearing in the skin around the entry wound."
"Point blank range?"
"Almost definitely. And so far no other signs of injury, let alone any that might be fatal. As for the time..." he checked the temperature on the liver probe. "I'd say about midnight, give or take an hour."
Gibbs strode into the bullpen.
Ziva jumped in first as they gathered around the plasma. A photo of their dead guy -taken in happier times -came up on the screen.
"Private First Class Jonas O'Reilly, 22 years old, enlisted in the marines almost a year ago. Service record is clean, his reports and scores are also good, though not exceptional. Also tracked down his civilian file since he hasn't been in the marines long, and that was clean also. He received a speeding ticket once in high school."
Tony was next. "I spoke to the manager and one of the bouncers from the nightclub -our guy was definitely there last night, along with a mate of his, who they reckon was another marine, judging by the haircut. Bouncer says they arrived around 9pm, but neither of them saw O'Reilly leave. There were two other bouncers working last night that might have been on the door when he left. Manager will call them in if we want to speak to them."
Gibbs nodded. "Do that. Harris?"
"I spoke to O'Reilly's CO, he backed up the service record, said O'Reilly was a good kid, hard worker, solid team member. Also said he was pretty close to a Private First Class Hugo Taylor, who was probably the other marine at the club last night," Xander paused a moment to grab the remote from Ziva and bring up Taylor's picture on the screen. "This is where it gets interesting. Taylor didn't show up this morning. Their CO was going to report them both UA but was holding off since neither have been in trouble or even been late before. Now that he knows O'Reilly is dead, he's filing the UA report on Taylor as we speak."
Gibbs' eyes narrowed at the implications. Either Private Taylor was involved in his friend's death, or he was also in trouble.
"DiNozzo, Ziva, interview their unit. I want to know everything about their daily lives: what they ate, where they went, who they spoke to. Harris, with me. Let's see what Ducky's got for us."
"Ah Jethro, I was just about to call you," said Ducky. "I'm just finishing up here."
"What we got, Duck?" asked Gibbs shortly. He and Xander stopped alongside the body.
"Exactly what it looks like. GSW at point blank range to the head. Poor lad would have died instantly."
"Is that all?"
"Well, technically, yes."
"Duck." Gibbs' mood was souring.
"Well, there are no other wounds at all," Ducky explained, motioning to the hands in particular. "This is a very fit and strong young man. You would expect to see defensive wounds of some sort."
Xander glanced down. The marine's hands were clean and completely undamaged -no bruises, no scratches, nothing.
"He didn't fight back, even though the killer was close enough to shoot point blank," commented Xander. "Drunk, or drugged, maybe?"
"Maybe. I've sent Palmer to take the blood samples up to Abby for screening," agreed Ducky.
"Or the other option," growled Gibbs. "He knew his killer."
Abby confirmed that Private O'Reilly had several beers in the hours before his death, but he was just barely over the driving limit and not drunk enough to be helpless -although it might have been easier for someone to sneak up on him, especially after being in the loud nightclub for several hours. She didn't find any other drugs or unusual substances in his blood. Since Tony & Ziva were going to be some time interviewing O'Reilly and Taylor's unit, Gibbs and Xander left to search their rooms on base.
Both pairs came back to the Navy Yard empty handed. There had been nothing in the marines' shared rooms to indicate they had been planning anything but a night out. Ziva and Tony reported that all the marines in their unit said roughly the same thing: both good guys, neither ever caused trouble. O'Reilly had broken up with a girlfriend a month ago; but Ziva had made a few calls and not only had they parted on friendly terms, the girl was also holidaying in San Francisco. Phone records confirmed they hadn't had any contact in the last three weeks.
Gibbs was called up to Director Vance's office to give him an update on how the case was going. This left the team at something of a loose end, with no obvious leads to follow, so instead they were being extra thorough. Checking the all the phone records and bank statements of the two marines would keep them occupied for some time, and hopefully they would find something to give them a new direction.
Gibbs returned from Vance's office with a new determination in his stride.
"DiNozzo, pull up the case file on a Lance Corporal Stewart Lang. Case was opened by Fallon's team a week ago."
DiNozzo pulled it up on the plasma and summarised. "Lance Corporal Lang was reported UA ten days ago, NCIS opened an investigation three days later when neither his unit nor his family could reach him. He was last known to be going out to a nightclub, room mate says he never came home."
"Same nightclub we found O'Reilly at. Think it's related?" asked Xander.
"Vance thinks so," said Gibbs. "Find me a connection between them."
"Gibbs. I believe there may be more involved," said Ziva. She had been tapping away busily at her keyboard. She stood and brought up a list on the screen.
"This is a list of all the open cases of UA marines NCIS has investigated in the last three months. The ones I have highlighted are those which clearly state that the last place the person was seen or known to be going was a bar or nightclub here in D.C. There may be of course be more where that detail wasn't mentioned in the case summary."
Xander whistled at the list. "Is it normal for so many marines to be reported UA?"
"To be reported UA, yes," answered Tony. "To remain UA long enough to be investigated by us? No. And for this many cases to remain open after an initial investigation? Definitely not."
Gibbs grunted in agreement. "Ziva, refine that list. I want to know exactly how many we're looking at and how long this has been happening. And why the hell nobody else has picked this up!" He strode off towards the stairs again. Even Gibbs wouldn't keep Vance in the dark about a development this big.
The team set to work. Xander and Tony started getting details on the other nightclub-related cases, whilst Ziva narrowed down the list of other UA marines to just those that might be involved. Eventually she had a list of eleven missing marines.
"What did Vance say, Boss?" asked Tony, as Gibbs re-entered the bullpen.
"What have we got?" Gibbs asked Ziva, ignoring the question.
"Ten enlisted marines confirmed missing over the last seven weeks, all of whom had mentioned going to a bar or club, or were last seen at one. And one more which I think might be involved -he fits the profile, but he hadn't mentioned his plans to anyone, so we don't know if he went out for drinks that night."
"What's the profile?"
Xander jumped up, bringing up a screen with photos of the eleven marines, including Private Taylor. "They are all junior marines: three Privates, four Private First Class, four Lance Corporals. But that's about where the similarities end."
"Did they all go to the nightclub where we found O'Reilly?"
"No," answered Xander. "For those where we know where they were headed, we've got five different bars and clubs, none of them connected. There's a few where we're not sure where they were headed the night before they went UA."
Tony took over. "Two of the marines had been reported UA before, one for only a morning, the other a full day. Two others had formal reprimands in their files for different offences. The other seven all had excellent reports from their CO's. Two of the Lance Corporals had very good composite scores and were expected to be promoted to Corporal soon."
Ziva spoke up, not to be left out. "Ten lived in standard on-base housing, one lived off-base with a long-term girlfriend. Four are Caucasian, three African-American, three Hispanic, one Asian-American."
"What about their units?" asked Gibbs. "Did they work together? Know each other?"
"Not as far as we can tell," she replied. "Two of the Private First Class marines were from the same unit, but went missing five weeks apart and apparently from different clubs. Three of the Lance Corporals went through basic training together but were placed in different units later."
"We're still cross-referencing their phone records, Boss," said Tony. "But so far we haven't found any indication that they were in contact with each other, with the exception of the two that were in the same unit."
"And there's nothing in any of their bank accounts to suggest unusual income or transactions," Xander finished.
Gibbs was glaring at the screen. "There has to be a connection. Find it. Eleven junior marines don't go missing one by one for no reason. And find out why O'Reilly turned up dead instead of missing!"
The team looked at each other blankly. They had no answers.
"Why are you all still standing here? Pull up everything from those cases and go over it again!" Gibbs ordered. They dashed back to their desks and put their heads down.
Gibbs grunted. "Better get Abby to go through all the physical evidence again," he muttered, leaving the bullpen. His three team members breathed a sigh of relief when the elevator doors closed.
"This is a little weird," Tony commented.
"What is?" asked Ziva.
"The whole thing." Tony leaned back, hands behind his head, apparently deep in thought. "When people go missing suddenly, without any sign of having planned to leave permanently, and are never heard from again, it usually means they've either been murdered, or abducted. But if they've been murdered, why have we not found any of their bodies?"
"Maybe they hid them too well, or disposed of the bodies thoroughly," said Ziva.
"Sure, but then why kill O'Reilly and leave him behind?"
"But it's not abduction," said Xander. "If they were abducted there would be a ransom or something, right?"
"Right," agreed Tony. "You don't abduct someone unless there's a decent benefit of some sort, usually financial. Why would you abduct a bunch of junior marines?"
"Why would you kill a bunch of junior marines, who apparently had no connections to each other?" returned Ziva.
The three looked at each other, all clueless. Xander sighed.
"Guess we better start going over these cases."
They kept their heads down for the next few hours, going over everything they could find. Phone records, bank records, forensics reports, statements and interview transcriptions from the earlier investigations.
Nobody noticed the dark-haired man approaching the bullpen until he was there, clearing his throat.
"Excuse me, I'm looking for Special Agent Gibbs?"
Tony jumped and even Ziva looked startled for a brief moment. Ziva recovered first.
"That would be our boss, he will be back shortly. Maybe I can help you?" Ziva asked with a smile, as if she had never been startled. She obviously thought the stranger was attractive.
"Angel?" Xander asked in surprise.
Angel looked over at him. "Xander?"
Both spoke in unison. "What are you doing here?"