Author's Notes: Thanks to my reviewers for their comments! I wrote this chapter in a different POV because I wanted to cover certain case information and other perceptions that I do not think Ziva would have been able to obtain or take notice at this point. Enjoy!
I arrived at NCIS just before sunrise.
Ah, Before Sunrise. The 1995 movie starring Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and Andrea Eckert – two people end up sharing a train ride and spent a romantic night in Vienna, knowing it's probably their only night together...I don't usually watch silent films, but that one was an exception. Anyway, I got to work before everyone else, even Gibbs. It was weird, walking into the bullpen and dropping my bag beside my desk, then looking around to see no one.
It was almost peaceful, really, if the recent case hadn't been heavily on my mind.
I'd come into NCIS alone before, usually around midnight to finish some paperwork without distractions or interruptions, but that's not why I was early today. Back in Baltimore, I'd worked hundreds of cases where kids were involved, though usually on a smaller scale like locking themselves in a car by accident or the average vandalism and graffiti, but at NCIS things were almost always on a bigger scale. There's been missing kids, even hurt kids, but Samantha Miles...I dunno, this case got to me more than most.
Maybe it was the way Ziva was with her.
It was hard to miss the protective stare in those usually steely eyes of the former Mossad assassin as she watched the girl, and the way she never strayed far from Samantha. It was understandable, given the circumstances of Ziva being the girl's hero and all. Still, I couldn't shake the feeling that there was more going on with those two, especially with the way Ziva reacted when she saw the dancing shoes. Ziva used to dance, I remember her telling me once.
And when she'd walked out of the bullpen holding Samantha's hand yesterday afternoon, I could see Gibbs was worried.
I booted up my computer and leaned back in the chair while the screen came on. Exhaling, I gave the room another long glance, half-expecting Gibbs to come striding in with a coffee cup in his hand and a devil-may-care expression on his face. He was always harder to live with when kids were involved.
I have a theory.
Not about the case, though that would probably be more helpful, but about people. I always thought each person was really two or three. Not in a multiple personality kind of way - that makes no sense, so let me explain. Gibbs, he's two people for sure. He's a marine and a father. Often those two sides work together or they'd clash. Right now, I think he's a worried and protective father, but when we get a suspect to confront, then he'll be the scary marine who can make a feared gang leader cry for his mother.
Abby, she's one person. One unique and enthusiastic person, but she never needs another side to herself because she's complete just as she is. Abby doesn't need to defend a part of herself or use another side to make herself stronger. She says what she means and does what she believes in or thinks is right. That's Abby. It's who she is, and it's who McGee is too. In a different way, of course, as McGee doesn't always say what he means, but he's one person too. Ducky I'd say is two, similar to Gibbs, but not as extreme. Palmer is two, I think, though maybe three.
Well, I'd like to think I'm three or four.
There's the me who lives and breathes films, like my mother had encouraged and which developed into a sort of way to cope after she'd died. Then there's the me who's a womaniser and enjoys the simpler pleasures in life. And the real me – the one who strives for justice and wants something permanent in life, with family and personal achievement. The real me wants a life that matters, filled with people who matter. And the fourth me? Well, that part of me jokes around and its his mission to protect the real me.
What's most complicated of all is Ziva. She's at least five, probably more. Crazy ninja chick, assassin, spy, and NCIS Agent - they're all obvious and make it easier to overlook the others. The creative Ziva who likes to cook, dance, and sing. The sister. The best friend. And there's the real Ziva amongst all of those. I would bet a thousand dollars that there are only a few people alive in the world who have seen the real Ziva. I've had glimpses, though small ones, but I know she's there.
The woman who led Samantha by the hand from the office yesterday, that was the real Ziva.
I was pulled from my thoughts by the ringing of my desk phone. I sat there, staring at the black object, and wondered who would be calling me at work just as the light of the sunrise was streaming into the bullpen.
'DiNozzo.' I answered.
'Tony.' It was Ziva. 'Is Gibbs in yet?'
'I haven't seen him.' I rolled my eyes.
I should have known it would be her, because who else got up at ungodly hours of the day and sounded so awake?
'Something wrong? How did you even know I was here?'
'Lucky guess.' She answered quickly, which I knew had to be a lie. Though it was hard to tell with Ziva when I couldn't see her eyes. 'Tell Gibbs to call me when he comes in.'
'You didn't answer my question, is something wrong?' I frowned, wondering why she couldn't just call Gibbs herself.
'No.' Ziva said shortly. 'She is sleeping.'
She hung up on me.
I stared at the receiver in my hand for a moment, then slowly put it back into its place. I stretched back against my chair, with my hands behind my head, and stared across the bullpen. I hadn't asked about Samantha specifically, only regarding the situation, yet Ziva's mind had gone straight to the girl.
That was not a good sign.
It was almost eight in the morning when I was able to deliver the message to Gibbs. He gave me a look when I said it, and dialled Ziva's number. McGee was typing away at his computer doing McGee things, and I was scanning over the backgrounds on our two murder victims. Samantha's parents.
At least, that's what I made it look like I was doing, whereas I thought of Message in a Bottle. You know, the 1999 film with Kevin Costner? I don't know why, but that's what came to mind when I thought about Ziva's message. It seemed simple enough, though Gibbs did not look happy when he hung up the phone. I checked his expression when he sipped the last of his coffee, and knew he wouldn't appreciate my movie references right now. He stared at the empty cup for a moment, thinking deeply, and I only hoped it wouldn't result in a head-slap.
Why was it always me, even when I don't think I did enough to deserve it?
'DiNozzo!' Gibbs barked as though I was going deaf. 'Put up Samantha's daily schedule.'
'Sure, Boss.' I answered dutifully and straightened in my chair.
I tapped at the keyboard and looked towards the plasma screen when the timetable was viewable there. Gibbs stood in front of it and stared at the arrangement with the same expression he wore when he tried to follow Abby or McGee's geek-speak.
'What did Ziva have to say?' I asked him as I stood and joined his side.
I glanced at the schedule again and tried to work out what Gibbs was searching for that could help us with the case.
'She thinks either Samantha was an intended victim who wasn't found, or she was left alive for a reason.' Gibbs shared, which wasn't something he did often, so it caught me a little off-guard.
McGee seemed to think it was weird too, as he quickly joined us and abandoned whatever he'd been at his computer.
'What do you think?' I prompted Gibbs.
'I think she's right.' He sighed in a tired, stressed "I'm about to shoot someone" kind of way. 'Tell me about our victims.'
That was the cue McGee and I were waiting for. And, as usual, it became somewhat of a batting match between us as we both reported what we knew.
'Sergeant Gordon Miles got home from a training assignment a few weeks ago.' I answered first and pressed the button on the clickety-thing to show the service photo of our dead guy on the screen. 'Over the last five years he'd worked on a few classified Ops run by the Marine Corps. His CO said the participation was minimal, and doesn't think it was anything big enough to get him killed over.' I shrugged, knowing it wasn't a good idea to just take the man's word for it or to assume.
Gibbs made sure of it, with a few slaps to the head so I would never forget.
'According to his phone records,' McGee jumped in when I paused. 'Sergeant Miles was in contact with a former marine he'd worked with, Gavin Porter.' He accepted the clickety I passed to him. He pressed the button to show the service record of the man he was talking about. 'Apparently Sergeant Miles singled him out and was constantly keeping him in line. It drove Jacobs crazy.'
'Crazy, like literally or figuratively?' I wondered.
There was a big difference between the two, and at NCIS we've seen both scenarios a number of times in the past.
'Not literally, I don't think.' McGee frowned, and a glare from Gibbs motivated him to continue. 'Sergeant Miles also received multiple calls from a former partner, Karl Bradley.' Another click and we were looking at a third service photo. I was starting to think all marines looked the same, with the haircuts and uniforms. 'They were irregular and only lasted a couple of minutes each time.' McGee sighed and brought up another picture.
'The most common calls came from a former superior, Morgan Jones.' He said. 'I checked, and it looks like he was in regular contact with Sergeant Miles for years, though it was reported they never really got along.' McGee raised his eyebrows, which I noticed he does when he thought something was useful to the case and interesting.
'Then there's Stacy Miles.' I snatched the clickety from McGee. 'I mean, obviously she's not a suspect, since she's dead too. I meant her co-worker, Cindy Staller.' I reported, looking at the pretty blonde woman on the screen. She was nice; not gorgeous, but nice. Judging by the fullness of her lips, I'd say she's a damn good kisser too. Maybe. She has a devious look in her eyes, though.
'DiNozzo.' Gibbs warned.
'Right.' I blinked and shook those thoughts from my mind. I looked down at the papers in my hands and tried to work out what I was talking about. 'Uh, Cindy worked with Stacy Miles at the company, Steele Insurance. Their boss said Cindy had been her main competition for a promotion, guess who won.' I smirked, knowing it was Stacy.
'I thought Stacy Miles didn't work?' McGee asked.
'Apparently she doesn't, not since seven years ago.' I answered. 'She does a few things from home still, like taking calls and checking accounts. Her boss said she was one of the best. I dunno, it's a bunch of numbers and a lot of off-the-books stuff to maintain her steady income. It's not a lot, but she was doing well. Do you think we should check Cindy out, Boss?'
'No.' Gibbs said calmly, which actually meant he was being tolerant rather than calm. 'The killer probably doesn't know where Samantha is. Until we know otherwise, we're going to assume Samantha was also an intended target. Ducky thinks it was planned, so the killer had to have known Samantha would be home.'
'Yeah.' I agreed reluctantly. 'She's not home much.' I brought up the schedule again. 'I mean, my father was loaded and the most I got was after-school sports and piano lessons. The Miles' didn't have a lot of money, but they gave Samantha everything they could.'
'Everything except a moment of their time.' Gibbs said in a low voice. It was a dangerous voice, especially when he was armed – which I checked to make sure he wasn't.
'You think there was trouble in paradise?' I asked.
It was an impossible task to work out how the mind of Leroy Jethro Gibbs worked, but I always tried anyway.
'I think Ziva's right.' Gibbs said cryptically, as usual. 'This is about more than a promotion or general dispute. Samantha is the key. We're going to trace every step that little girl took every single day. Someone has to know her routine!' He said firmly. 'They'd had to be watching for while, and we need to know if they still are.'
'And if they try to finish the job?' I thought it sounded risky, and it wasn't usually Gibbs' style when a kid was involved.
'Then you better hope you're paying attention, DiNozzo.' Gibbs turned his attention to me, his face close to mine in that intimidating marine way. He used his own way of telling me I was going along with Ziva and Samantha to retrace the events of the schedule.
'So you can shoot the bastard!' Gibbs added with a growl and strode out of the office.
McGee watched him leave, then returned to his computer.
I remained where I stood, staring at the schedule on the screen and wondered when Stacy or Gordon ever got to see their child. I knew the task was risky, and there was no doubt that Ziva was going to be there as well, but looking at the schedule made me uncomfortable. Samantha Miles had so much going on for a six-year-old girl, and it didn't look like there'd been time for anything else in her life, like just being a kid.
There were only three main gaps in the timeline, where Samantha would be at home during the day. Yesterday morning had been one of them. Gibbs and Ziva were right, as they often were, and someone else definitely knew the routine better than the girl's own parents.
Ziva brought Samantha to the bullpen around nine, which was pre-arranged by Gibbs.
I escorted them back outside a short time later.
Ziva was quieter than usual, whereas the little girl never said a word until we were all in the car. She sat in the back-seat while I started the engine and Ziva stared out the passenger side window.
'Where are we going?' Samantha asked.
Ziva and I looked at each other, and neither of us knew what to say. How could we explain to Samantha that she was essentially bait? She was going about her usual daily routine, which would give us a chance to observe any suspicious attention she received from any of the instructors, supervisors, or otherwise.
'It would be a shame to miss your lessons.' Ziva said to her.
I was glad she was the one to answer Samantha instead of me. I tuned out of the conversation after we'd left the Navy Yard and tried to work out where the dance studio was. I'd been in Washington DC for years, but it wasn't as though I was familiar with where to go because it was a recreational theatre center for little kids. It wasn't anything serious, business-wise, since there were no visits from talent scouts, model agencies, or things like that. At least, not from what Ziva had told me.
I had no idea about this kind of stuff.
'We're here.' I pointed out the obvious and left the car.
I walked to the building and did my best to blend in, which was not an easy thing for me to do when one considered where we were. Ziva, however, held Samantha's hand and walked inside as though she may as well own the place.
She still amazes me sometimes.
'This way.' Ziva turned right and led us up a flight of stairs.
We entered a practise room, which had polished wooden floors and a wall with a huge mirror. I saw a beam in front of the mirror, so I could take a guess at what sort of dancing Samantha learned.
I walked towards a small group of parents standing on the right side of the room. I saw four proud-looking mothers and one couple who looked bored to death already. I wish I'd asked Ziva how long these lessons were supposed to go for, even if I dreaded the answer.
'Hi.' I said perhaps a bit too enthusiastically when the mothers each gave me a rather odd expression. I was only trying to be friendly while I kept an eye on each of them for anything that might be considered out of place or suspicious.
'Who are you?' One mother asked me rather rudely.
Honestly, I could see her point. A guy like me, who's not wearing a wedding ring or with a kid at my side, just walks into their little girl's dance room? Yeah, I'd be asking questions too.
'I'm with them.' I pointed to Ziva, who had just left the nearby changing room with Samantha.
I waited for the parents to recognise the child, and they did, but no one seemed to be very interested in her. Right away, I knew this visit was probably going to be a waste of time, since they seemed to view Samantha as just another one of the kids who happened to share the lesson with their daughter.
I doubted they even knew her name.
'You're going to watch me dance?' Samantha asked Ziva as they both seemed to ignore me entirely.
'Yes.' Ziva smiled and brushed some hair from the girl's face.
I observed their interactions with interest, though I tried not to be too obvious about it. Samantha was dressed in a pink outfit and a tutu to match, as well as the same shoes I'd seen Ziva admiring from the bag yesterday. I felt a bit awkward standing there, thinking how Samantha and Ziva exchanged words and expressions with ease, whereas I probably looked as uncomfortable as I felt.
'Line up, girls!' A woman walked into the room and took control of the class with only her tone and stare.
She was the instructor, obviously, and looked like she knew her stuff, but was rather stern with her teaching methods. I wasn't one of those people who thought dancing was just about grace and balance. No, it should be considered an Olympic sport with how brutal it can get. In Baltimore, I put away a woman who had killed her best friend with the heel of a shoe, just to get the leading spotlight in a performance because there was a slight chance a talent scout might be in the audience.
'Go on.' Ziva encouraged. 'We will be here the entire time.'
'Okay.' Samantha nodded.
She hurried across the floor to join her class and was easily one of the smaller girls there. The eldest was about eight or nine.
'You're not her mother.' The only other man in the room, other than myself, pointed out to Ziva.
We turned to look at him, while his bored wife muttered something about going for a cigarette and left.
'Excuse me?' Ziva frowned at him. 'And who are you?'
'James.' He answered without giving us a last name. 'I've see her mother once before, and you're not her.'
'Who I am is none of your business.' Ziva did not state she was not Samantha's mother, though Gibbs had ordered us not to reveal what we felt shouldn't be said.
Personally, I'd have told James I was a guardian or standing in for a parent, but Ziva didn't. It concerned me, because she seemed to be rather attached to the girl already and I hoped it wouldn't escalate.
'You've met Stacy?' I asked him. 'When?'
'A year ago.' James shrugged. 'She only came in once, when the girl started here.'
'You met her once, a year ago, and you just happen to remember her?' Ziva scoffed.
'Hard to forget.' He frowned back, clearly not liking the attitude he was getting. 'She went crazy at Angela.' James indicated to the instructor, who was tapping Samantha's leg with a thin rod to indicate a posture she needed to correct. 'They argued for a while and caused a scene. Then she left and we never saw her again. The girl kept coming in twice a week, though.'
'Do you know what they argued about?' I asked.
'No.' James crossed his arms. 'Like I said, it was a year ago.'
I judged the interest of the other mothers nearby, but they only had eyes for their own daughters who were practising in front of the mirror. I wanted to talk to Angela, but knew it would be too suspicious if we didn't wait until the class was over.
And it was a boring wait.
I leaned against the wall for most of it, trying to stay awake and fight the urge to play Tetris on my phone. James actually did fall asleep, slouched in the corner of the room while his wife read a book beside him. I don't know why they bothered to stay if it was clearly dull for them, and I don't remember seeing them look at their child amongst the twenty or so girls.
I whispered this to Ziva, but I shut up quickly when she gave me a reply.
'At least they came.'
I remembered Ziva once saying how she'd spent a lot of her childhood on stage, searching for her father's face in the crowd, but he was never there. Not even when he'd promised to be there for her. I supposed she was right, because even if the parents were bored, at least they came to endure it for their child. If I wasn't working, I guess I might have done the same if I had a kid. I'd be playing Tetris during that time, of course, though at the moment I was supposed to be keeping an eye on Samantha to make sure no one hurt her.
The situation was very different, but I suppose the sentiment was the same.
Yawning, I wasn't sure I could take much more of the boredom, until I noticed Angela was once again circling Samantha. I hadn't paid much attention to the actual dancing part of the lesson, and Ziva seemed to have that aspect covered, so mostly I'd watched the parents for any reactions or signs. Until then, all I'd learned from the entire event was how much I hoped I'd end up with a son instead of a daughter.
'Stand up straight!' Angela was getting frustrated with Samantha, even if she six-year-old seemed to be trying.
I didn't think much of it at first, since the girl had been through a lot recently and might not be concentrating as much, except it happened multiple times. Either Samantha wasn't paying much attention, or Angela had purposefully singled her out.
Ziva, with her vulture gaze on the instructing woman, had clearly noticed it as well.
And finally, I was saved, as the lesson ended. It had lasted an hour, but the time had felt like the longest hour I had ever lived through.
The other girls either headed to the change room or their waiting parents. The bored couple instantly greeted their daughter and praised her, so my opinions of them increased a little. Ziva was right; at least they'd stayed to support their child even if the lesson itself bored them.
Samantha was the only girl left by the mirror. She'd sat down on the smooth floor when the lesson had finished, and stared sadly at her shoes. Angela stood over her with a scowl on her face. In a flash of movement, Ziva was at their sides while I hurried to keep up.
That Mossad chick was too fast sometimes.
'Is there a problem?' Ziva asked the woman with obvious, controlled distrust.
'Who are you?' Angela retorted. 'I haven't see you before. You're not Samantha's mother.'
'You seem to be particularly hard on her.' Ziva commented. 'Why is that?'
'She needs to learn to listen properly.' The woman frowned. 'Her mother insists this girl is to be in my class. I would have kept her in the beginner's class where she belongs. This is for dancers who actually want to dance.' She said bitterly and didn't care that the little girl was sitting on the floor in front of her, overhearing everything she said.
'And why did she insist?' I questioned, glancing sideways at Ziva. I hoped she wasn't about to go crazy on us and take out the woman. I knew the glare on her face, and very few have escaped it without some sort of consequence.
'It's not mandatory for a parent to be present during my lessons.' Angela said bluntly. 'Mrs Miles preferred it that way.'
'Is that what the argument was about a year ago?' I asked for clarification.
'Yes.' Angela nodded hesitantly. 'Now who are you?'
'It does not matter.' Ziva answered. 'We are taking care of Samantha for now. Did you ever meet Mr Miles?'
'No.' Angela said. 'I only see his name on the checks.'
'Checks?' I wanted to know. Money was always a good motivation for anything crime-related, which I knew from experience.
'They come every Friday.' Angela gave the information easily, looking us over as though she knew the information was necessary without seeing our badges or knowing who we are.
I wish all interviews went this well.
'The tuition money goes to the studio, but he pays me extra to keep Samantha in my class. I once danced on Broadway in Paris, so my dancers know style and coordination under my teaching. Both which Samantha does not have. The extra money was all I would accept to keep her in my class, and it's perfectly legal.'
'Did you get the check last Friday?' I wrote down some notes while Ziva crouched towards the little girl sitting on the floor beside us.
'Yes.' Angela frowned. 'Why?'
'They'll probably stop now.' I told her, but didn't give a reason. Gibbs was very strict when he'd told us not to tell anyone what had happened.
Angela didn't look overly happy, but still seemed relieved in assuming the girl wasn't going to be taking her lessons anymore. From what I'd noticed, apparently Samantha just wasn't a very good dancer.
I said nothing, however, as Ziva led her back to the changing room.
I headed to the door and waited, thinking how wrong I'd been about Samantha's parents, who didn't seem to want to give their daughter everything, after all. Or maybe they'd been like my own father and thought money bought a child everything?
It was just after eleven when we got to the school where the rest of the daily events took place.
According to the schedule composed by Stacy Miles, Samantha was dropped off to attend a crafting activity, then went to the music room for violin practise, and afterwards headed to the field outside for soccer training. Her parents hadn't been there for any of it, providing the girl only with a sandwich to eat if she got hungry and a bottle of water. After her soccer, Samantha was due in town for martial arts sessions, which would last longer than the other events, and then headed home.
'This is ridiculous.' Ziva ranted in low tones as we headed for the crafts room. 'It is too much for six-year-old child to do in one day!' There was an underlining sentence I knew she wanted to say, but wasn't going to with Samantha walking between us and holding her hand.
I was thinking it as well, because it was a lot of effort for a mother to go through so she only saw her child when it was absolutely necessary.
Stacy drove Samantha around each day and dropped her off at one place or another. Meanwhile, Gordon paid the teachers money to keep her there or not to complain when Samantha wasn't doing very well, whereas the other children advanced along with time and practise. It was clear Samantha wasn't happy and that was probably why she didn't do so well, especially with so much to do in a single day. She may be six, but Samantha wasn't stupid. I don't know how she coped for the two years she'd been doing this, without going insane trying to keep up with everything. Really, all I think she wanted was some time with her mother and father.
I could relate to her in that way.
The instructor teaching the children how to make masks, friendship bracelets, and clay models barely gave us any notice when we sat at a too-small table with Samantha. A lot of other parents were there, with children aged from five through to ten.
'That is very pretty, Samantha.' Ziva praised the wonky-shaped thing the girl made of clay. I spent most of the hour trying to work out what it was, until Ziva hissed it was a star.
I rejected the crafting lady's offer for me to make something as well, and was glad when the lesson was finally over. This had already been a really dull day for me and at this point I thought it was a complete waste of time.
Next we headed down the hallway to a room nearby, where we met Mark the music teacher. He watched Samantha with dread as the little girl headed onto the stage with the other kids and sat in front of the violin. He too didn't care much for our presence.
With the way Mark kept an eye on Samantha and a seven-year-old chubby boy who played a trumpet, I expected her to lacking in talent or skill for music as the situation was similar to the dance studio. However, Samantha turned out to be rather decent at playing the violin, for a six-year-old.
Even so, I was glad to have a chair to sit on while the off-key music numbed my ears for an hour. Ziva didn't look bothered by it all and I envied her for it.
We'd talked to the craft lady and then Mark the music man, but since Angela from the dance studio, there was no reason for concern or interest case-wise.
Though, even I had to admit that letting a six-year-old make her way around the school alone on a weekend, and then outside to the sports field, was reckless. If she'd been my kid, I'd have given her two armed bodyguards. Actually, no, I'd be her dad and be there for her, not at home doing whatever Stacy did when she was avoiding the company of her only child.
'I am glad they are dead.' Ziva said to me as she watched Samantha running around after the wayward soccer ball. 'Otherwise, I would have shot them myself.'
She was angry, which I could relate to because Samantha seemed like a good kid who didn't deserve to be ignored by her own parents, but something in Ziva's eyes showed it was more than that.
'Maybe something was going on at the house she didn't want Samantha to be there for.' I shrugged and slid sunglasses over my eyes. It was a theory I'd been considering all day, but Ziva did not appear to listen.
I was beginning to wonder what was more important to her in regards to the case.
After a day I would rather have avoided, finally we were going somewhere interesting. We took Samantha to lunch, then headed for the final location listed on the most insane schedule created for a six-year-old.
It was the only event Samantha actually looked forward to.
We arrived at the building around two in the afternoon, and knew we would be there until almost five. It caught my attention instantly because I noticed it was the most publicly accessible location we had seen all day, as it was a rented store space in the middle of a main street. We passed a crowd of shoppers, workers from officers or nearby constructions, and mischievous teenagers.
And once we stepped inside, I instantly recognised someone from this morning in the bullpen when we'd been going over the four main suspects in front of the plasma screen.
'Cindy Staller.' I whispered quickly to Ziva. 'She worked with Stacy Miles. They battled for a promotion and Cindy lost. I'm guessing she won now that Stacy's out of the picture.'
'Stacy didn't work.' Ziva frowned.
'It's off the books.' I shrugged, since I didn't really understand it either.
Samantha hurried towards the group of kids waiting for the lesson to start, while Ziva and I went to sit in the chairs provided by one side of the room. Ziva kept her gaze trained on Cindy, while many other parents joined us at the benches. Samantha was doing stretches with two other girls her age and was far more relaxed than usual, compared to the other places we'd endured today.
Cindy never joined the parents. Instead, she kept to herself near the door and talked on her phone a lot, watching a boy who looked to be about seven. I assumed it was her son, Benjamin.
Hardly ten minutes into the lesson, Ziva stood and marched towards Cindy. I was tempted to follow her, but didn't want to draw too much attention to ourselves. The women talked and Ziva didn't look happy. I was nervous because Ziva was unpredictable (more than usual) when Samantha was involved. I didn't know if she was going to glare at someone she thought might be involved, or full-on attack the person until they needed a paramedic.
I knew she could handle Cindy either way, so I kept an eye on Samantha, since we were supposed to be protecting her. And it looked like the girl had finally found something she was good at. Samantha looked like a mini-Ziva out there, kicking and moving with practised ease and effectiveness. None of the other kids stood a chance against her, to the point that the Japanese instructor was constantly praising her.
Samantha showed her keen concentration that Angela at the dance studio didn't see, the grace and creativity the craft lady never noticed, the skill Mark the music man never knew of, and the strength her soccer coach wouldn't believe. During her martial arts lessons, Samantha could be herself and she was very good at it.
'I do not like that woman.' Ziva told me when she finally sat to my left half an hour later.
'Did she do it?' I asked casually, though I doubted it because Cindy was still breathing.
'I do not believe so.' Ziva frowned. 'She is too stupid.' She looked over to observe the scene and smiled. 'Samantha is really good.'
'Yeah.' I nodded. 'She reminds me of you, actually. I bet you were like that at her age.'
Ziva didn't answer me, but when I glanced sideways at her, I saw there was a sly smile on her face.
When we finally got back to NCIS around six, I could not be happier as I headed to my desk and collapsed into the chair. Exhaling loudly, I closed my eyes and wished the day had never happened.
Yawning, I looked across the bullpen and felt sympathetic for Samantha. She sat in Ziva's chair, while the Mossad woman herself headed to MTAC where McGee said Gibbs were. The girl just sat there, staring at the desk in front of her. I hesitated for a moment, then crossed the room to sit on the edge of the desk. She looked up at me, which was the first time our eyes had actually met, and I saw the innocent blueness of her focused gaze. She was a sweet kid, and never complained or gave us any trouble.
'Are you okay?' I asked her.
Samantha nodded her head in reply, though her eyes said otherwise. She didn't look away, and before I could comment on her lack of chatter, she spoke to me.
'For what?' I wondered, confused, and tried to work out what I could have done to earn her gratitude.
I never received an answer, as Ziva returned and basically shoo'ed me from her desk.
'We are going to see a friend of mine.' Ziva said and held her hand to the girl, who accepted it willingly. 'Her name is Abby.'
I watched her leave and knew Gibbs had rejoined us. When the elevator closed, he gave me one of his marine stares he usually reserved for when I was in trouble. I didn't have to ask what I'd done, as I knew it wasn't what the stare was about this time. I remembered the first year I'd spent with Gibbs and how hard it had been to adapt, but now I knew what signs to look for and could interpret them accordingly.
Well, most of the time.
'You were right, boss.' I said, even if Gibbs never commented on what I was confirming. 'Ziva's getting attached. Samantha too.'
'How can you tell?' McGee wondered obliviously.
'There were a lot of comments that Ziva wasn't Samantha's mother. She never denied it, or made an excuse. Samantha latched onto her any chance she got. I'm surprised Ziva didn't shoot Cindy when we saw her at the martial arts place.' I looked to Gibbs with a serious expression, trying to show confidence in what I was saying. 'There was nothing out of the ordinary. Sure, we saw one of the suspects there, but mostly people ignored us and Samantha. I don't think the killer was a parent or an instructor.'
'Unless Cindy got the schedule off Stacy's computer.' McGee added. 'They often shared a hard-drive.'
'She can't have been too guilty.' I remarked. 'Ziva let her live.'
'We're missing something.' Gibbs said in the same tired way he had that morning. 'Find it!' He snapped and marched out of the room.
'Find what?' McGee frowned to me.
'I don't know.' I was grumpy, having followed a little kid around all day to boring events where I endured hours of nothing. 'Let me know when you figure it out.'
I sat at my desk and stared at the schedule on my computer screen, trying to work out why there were three gaps on it. If Stacy Miles didn't want to see her child until she had to, then why were there several hours on three days where Samantha was at home where she belonged? And who else could have known?
Gibbs knew we were missing something, that much was obvious, but what?
Sighing, I leaned back in my chair and stared upwards, letting my mind wander. I was curious as to why Ziva was taking Samantha to see Abby, but I wasn't sure how much I cared.
Today had numbed my brain, I'm convinced of it.
There were probably things I should be doing to help the case, but until Gibbs told me to do something, I was taking a break. It had been a long day and I was moody. I listed categories in my head to occupy the time, such as my favourite action films or the best lines said in a particular film. As I moved on to amuse myself of picking which movies my co-workers would be the main lead in, Ziva came back to the bullpen. Samantha was with her, but not for long.
'DiNozzo, with me.' Gibbs said.
'Where are we going, Boss?' I asked and stood up, retrieving my gun from the draw in my desk.
'Samantha's had a long day. We're taking to a park to play.' He said in a weird voice, one that meant he was saying it more for Samantha's benefit than ours. And it was clearly an attempt to give her a nicer surrounding as we talked to her. I could see what he was up to, as Samantha was our key witness in the case, and unfortunately Ziva knew that as well.
'Gibbs!' She objected to the clear lack of invitation.
'Stay.' Gibbs told her firmly, setting a glare on his face to let her know it was an order she could not negotiate with.
'Ziva.' Samantha grasped a handhold of Ziva's jacket and didn't like the idea of parting from her hero. She was reassured and encouraged when Ziva crouched towards the child and promised she was going to be okay.
Once the girl was convinced enough that everything was okay and she would enjoy playing at the park, she very reluctantly walked to my side.
It was strange to have a kid choose me over Gibbs, since he was the one kids seemed to trust, but I could understand why Samantha sought me out. I'd been following her around all day, whereas she'd only glimpsed at Gibbs a few times before. It didn't make me feel any less awkward, however, when she grabbed my hand and allowed me to lead her behind Gibbs and into the elevator.
It was a nice day outside, which I'd noticed while Samantha had been played soccer earlier.
Gibbs picked a park with green grass, a basic playground, and almost no company. I chuckled to myself at the thought of Gibbs knowing which parks to avoid and how far away the best ones were from the Navy Yard. I guessed he'd spent most of the day working out which one would be suitable for our non-interrogation, and had likely consulted some of the agents at NCIS who were parents and therefore likely used this park as well.
We let Samantha play for a while, then Gibbs called her over to the wooden bench and sat beside her. I stood nearby, looking around the area as a precaution.
'Samantha, I thought we should talk.' Gibbs said in his more fatherly voice, rather than the marine/boss one he often used. 'We're looking for the person who hurt your mum and dad.' He said, being as sympathetic as he could despite the topic of discussion. 'Can you help us?'
Samantha looked at the ground below her feet, which were swinging over it because she wasn't tall enough to reach the grass with her shoes. She was unhappy by the reminder of her parents deaths, yet her posture was more sad than reluctant and it was probably what encouraged Gibbs to continue.
'You could hear your mum and dad's voices?' He asked, starting it slow and easing her into the questions. When Samantha nodded her head, Gibbs proceeded. 'Did you hear anyone else?'
'Have you heard the voice before?'
Samantha didn't react. No head nodding or shaking, and no words. Gibbs glanced at me and I could tell he assumed what I did: it was someone Samantha had at least heard before. That meant whoever had killed them, the girl knew him or her, or met them at some point in the past.
Gibbs asked a few more questions, but Samantha wasn't giving us anything. She tried to ignore Gibbs, and had lifted her legs onto the seat so she could wrap her arms around her knees.
She was scared and defensive.
We had a living witness to a murder case, and yet there was barely anything we could get from her. I know she's just a kid, but her life was in danger until we caught whoever killed her parents. If Gibbs couldn't get answers, I doubt anyone else could. Except maybe Ziva, though I am sure she was compromising our case by trying to protect the girl further. Her pretesting to us talking to Samantha, without being there herself, was telling enough.
When Gibbs' phone rang, he sighed and walked away to answer it. I watched him for a moment and thought about what we knew of Samantha's life. Her parents hadn't really been there, though they gave the impression of caring enough for her. She wasn't abused or mistreated, just not given the attention she deserved. With that in mind, I checked Gibbs was busy before I moved and sat beside the girl. I removed the sunglasses from my face and looked down at Samantha. She hesitantly stared back at me.
It was a risk, and a long shot, as I was working on pure guesswork, but I had to give it a try.
'People make promises a lot, don't they?' I asked, looking across the park as though it was a casual statement rather than a question to engage her in conversation. 'After my mum died, my dad made a lot of promises he couldn't keep. He promised to take me fishing one Christmas, but he didn't.' I tried to form a commonality with Samantha, though nothing I said was a lie.
'Did your mum or dad make any promises like that?'
'Yes.' Samantha spoke very softly. 'My mother promised to help me dance better, but she was always busy.'
'Yeah, I hear you.' I sighed. 'My dad was like that too. There was always a reason. An excuse. I know my dad loves me, but sometimes I forget because he was never around much.' I glanced at Samantha, who watched me with rapt attention. 'When someone keeps breaking promises like that, it's hard to believe new ones, right?' I asked, and she nodded.
'So when Ziva promised you're safe now, did you believe her?'
Samantha looked away with an expression of guilt on her face. She dropped her knees and avoided my gaze, which I still took as a good sign in regards to where I was heading with the conversation.
'Parents break promises sometimes, sure, but NCIS Special Agents don't. If Ziva promised you're safe, then you are.' I told her. 'See Agent Gibbs over there? The bad guys are scared of him. He doesn't let innocent people get hurt. He teaches us to never break a promise, no matter what. You can trust us, Samantha. I know you're scared, but if you help us find who hurt your parents, we promise you'll be safe.'
She looked at me again. Her eyes were wide and hesitant, but she seemed to be thinking about what I said as she watched Gibbs listen to whoever was talking to him on the phone. I hadn't expected Samantha to shift along the seat until she was right beside me. She stared at me in a way I had seen her stare at Ziva, waiting and watching for a reaction or confirmation of trust.
I looked back at her, hoping to encourage her to trust me and tell us something, anything, that could help us find whoever wanted to hurt her.
'He was mad at father.' She finally whispered. 'He wanted something, but didn't get it. He yelled a lot until...' Samantha resolved to tears and buried her face against my arm.
I tried my best not to cringe, and was relieved she had told us a bit more information. It wasn't much, but at least it gave us a place to start.
Gibbs joined us a minute or so later. He indicated we were leaving, but Samantha wouldn't get off the seat until I extended my hand for her to hold. I blamed Ziva blame for the hand-holding safety reassurance. I led her back to the car and watched as Gibbs told her to stay there for a moment, then shut the door.
'Boss?' I asked, thinking whoever had been on the phone told him something important to the case that he didn't want Samantha to overhear.
'Abby called.' He said. 'About the bloody band-aide collected from the crime scene; Abby was checking everything so she tested it.' He reported, which I thought just sounded like Abby was being thorough as always.
I remembered the item, and it had been a flowery little-girl kind of band aide so it could only have belonged to Samantha. Ziva confirmed earlier that the girl had a small cut on her elbow and the marks from a band-aide covering it.
'Samantha's blood type doesn't match the parents.' Gibbs continued. 'Abby did a DNA test anyway, and Samantha Miles is not their biological daughter.'
'She was adopted?' I was surprised as I looked through the car window at the sleepy child, who stared back at me with uncertainty.
'There's no evidence they'd ever adopted a child.' Gibbs added in a bothered tone.
He got into the driver's side of the car and I moved around it to occupy the passenger seat, thinking of how complicated the case was becoming right when Samantha finally decided to trust us long enough to give us a few small details.
Author's Notes: Hopefully most chapters will not be at least around this length. Thanks for reading. Please review and share your comments or thoughts as I find them to be very useful and motivating.