Chapter 0: Prologue
There was a phone ringing somewhere. Sarah Jane Smith rubbed her eyes, and felt around on the sofa for it. "Hello," she said sleepily.
"Did I get the time wrong again?" A familiar voice asked lazily.
That woke her up. "No, Turlough. It's only 10pm. I must have dozed off. Sorry. I had an emergency last night. Didn't get much sleep. Did you call for a reason?" She sat up straight on the sofa, brushing her shoulder length brown hair back, and letting the book she had been reading before she fell asleep fall to the floor.
"A bit of politics has turned nasty." Turlough might claim that Trion was more civilised than Earth, but from what Sarah Jane had seen, the political infighting best resembled Renaissance Italy in the Borgias' time. "The Caslovans and the Avenirs." There had been a period of upheaval in the government when the people in charge had sent selected political opponents to exile on Earth. Turlough had been one of those, and later he'd worked with Sarah Jane, searching the records and arranging transport home for those who wanted it. Some had chosen to stay, including Alexi Caslovan
"You think someone will see her as a target?" Sarah Jane asked needlessly. It wouldn't be the first time that alien politics had been played out on Earth and it wouldn't be the last. As long as they were subtle about it, the Shadow Proclamation would ignore it. "Where is she now? Still in the States?"
"Yeah. I've sent Mr Smith what I've got. She's been writing home to her parents semi-regularly. Do you think you can keep her safe for about a month? As the self-appointed diplomatic liaison to Earth, I'll come out as soon as I can, but I need to take care of some things here first."
"That serious, huh? It'll be good to see you in person again," Sarah Jane replied. It had been way too long, but the Trion only returned to Earth under duress.
Turlough laughed. "You're the only thing that makes a trip to Earth bearable. Well, that and proper tea."
"I'm glad I rate that highly with you," Sarah Jane said mock-sarcastically. "I don't suppose-"
"I can probably spend a few days there, after we've got that sorted," he replied. "It's not fair that I have to come there to see you. I'd love to sic you on some of the people I deal with."
"If you have some ideas to speed up the development of space flight without totally wrecking the timeline, I'd be happy to hear them." They both knew it was impossible, but somehow they always came back to this.
He had no answer for her, so they chatted for a little while longer before she reluctantly ended the call. The name Alexi Caslovan had produced a niggling feeling in the back of her brain, a feeling she recognised all too well. Crossing one's own timeline was dangerous at best, and she'd done it way too often. The feeling would be a memory that had faded to protect the timestream. But knowing that something was there, Sarah Jane knew that if she focused on the thing that had set it off, often she could get something through word association or muscle memory.
It was the latter this time. She found she'd entered a number into her phone. US country code and all. Without hesitation, she pressed dial.
"Hello?" The voice on the other end had an English accent.
Sarah Jane stared at the mobile for a long time forcing herself into the mindset she needed to do what she had to to keep Alexi Caslovan safe. He was a perfectly appropriate person to call, but she always felt guilty about lying to him. Still, Josh Townsend was the best bodyguard she knew, and he might baulk but in the end he'd do as she asked.
"I need you to do something for me." Normally she'd have couched it as a request and Josh would have humoured her need to pretend that she wasn't in control, but just the fact that she was ordering him to do anything would give him context and convey the urgency of the situation which, if her instincts were telling her to call him, was very bad indeed.
"Let me get this straight, SJ," Josh said to the woman at the other end of the trans-Atlantic call. "You are asking me to get close to Alexi Caslovan and protect her from threats without her knowing what I'm doing. As I recall, you were incredibly displeased when I did that to you." He still had some of the things she'd said ringing in his ears. "Though I also remember you weren't being anywhere near as honest with me as you expected me to be with you."
"You wouldn't have understood. Not then," Sarah Jane replied. "And don't call me SJ," she added automatically but without any force.
She'd been saying that for years, and while it was true, Josh didn't consider it a good argument. She'd never even tried to apologise, perhaps because she knew he didn't need it. He changed the subject instead. "Are you lifting your ban on guns?" Another sticking point in their relationship.
"No, but we both know you'll ignore me, so I don't know why you bothered to ask," Sarah replied. "Look, Josh, ideological issues aside, I'm asking you because I know from personal experience that you're good at this and because I know that whatever else happens, I can count on your loyalty."
Josh bit back a question. Reading between the lines, the answer was obvious. Instead he asked, "Do I need to point out that with Dad still ill, I'm running his business empire?"
"Your dad found it easy enough to get away when he needed to. I'm sure you can too. How is he doing, by the way?"
She had only played this card openly once, on the Dauntless, but her meaning was clear. Josh suspected she tried not to think about it, unless she absolutely had to. "Dad's about the same." He'd sent her regular reports; he just hadn't been sure that she'd read them until his father let it slip that he'd been corresponding with her. "I suppose it would be useless to ask why you need me to do this?
"It's complicated." She sounded more tired than she ought to be. It was only 11pm back home in England. "What happened on the Dauntless is a stone being dropped in a river and this is one of the ripples that resulted."
"More than it should," Josh said ruefully. It was useless to ask if she was asking him to do this as the Herald or as a friend. He knew her answer would be "both". But he'd known her long enough to know that she wouldn't be asking this of him without a reason, and the fact that she was willing to ask him as de facto Keeper of the White Chapter told him just how important this was to her. Nat had complained more than once that Sarah used people but as he'd discovered six years ago, Sarah had her reasons. They might argue about terminology, but he knew his faith in her had not been misplaced.
In the end they both knew he would do what she requested.
Under ordinary circumstances, Alexi Caslovan would be with her unit right now, preparing to ship out the next day. But these weren't ordinary circumstances. Her C.O. had called her into his office that morning to give her the good news. She'd made it into Annapolis. He'd then given her a week's leave and orders to report to the Navy Yard in DC for new orders. After she'd found a hotel and written to her parents with the news, she considered her options. Unexpected freedom led her to finally call the number that she'd put into her cell phone two weeks ago - the one from the cute British guy she'd tripped over in the Strand.
Josh Townsend was charming enough, but Tyler had been too, and she'd been badly burned there. But he remembered her, which was a point in his favor and when she warned him she was leaving for DC soon, that hadn't seemed to faze him.
She'd asked for something low key, but the date he'd chosen had surprised her- hot dogs from a street vendor eaten while walking down the street. "I didn't want you to feel too pressured," he'd said with a lopsided grin after he complimented her on her jeans, and she'd recalled that she'd been in uniform when they'd met.
Alexi couldn't remember when she'd had a date this relaxed. Tyler had always been so serious with her. Driven. There had been a time when that sort of drive had appealed to her- her parents certainly hadn't had it. Josh seemed more laid back, but if the way he'd talked her round was any sign, he clearly was willing to work for something he wanted.
He'd already finished his hot dog. "Tell me about yourself," he instructed.
She ate the last bite of hers and threw the wrapper and her used napkins in the trash, trying to compose her thoughts. "Mom and Dad were immigrants and the way they talked they'd been some sort of aristocrats in their homeland. They said politics drove them away, but they never admitted that they couldn't live as well here as they had back home. Meanwhile I was growing up here and going native, as it were. They spoiled me and I was pretty oblivious until shortly after I turned eighteen, the regime changed and they found that they could go back home again."
"And you didn't go with them?" Josh asked.
"It wasn't my country. I'd grown up here. And it was only a few years after 9/11. I don't know how it looked over in England, but the air was thick with patriotism and I was young and impressionable," Alexi paused. This was the most difficult part of the story. But her parents had always said she talked too much and she was tired of keeping secrets, even if she was embarrassed by her naiveté back then. "I marched over to the Naval Recruiting Office and enlisted. That was the one thing I knew they'd back down for. They respected military service. We made a deal that I'd come home when I finished my tour of duty."
"You weren't at university then? Josh prompted.
"My grades weren't that good, despite the boarding schools they persisted in sending me to. I might have attended Ohio State if they hadn't decided that it wasn't good enough for me. As I said, they lived like they had never left their home country. It wasn't until after they left that I realized that they'd managed that by racking up debt left and right and then shrugged it off. I worked out an arrangement, and I pay off part of it from each paycheck. Pay's not good in the Navy, but living expenses aren't high either, especially if you're single and living in barracks- some of the guys in my unit have families and I don't know how they manage." Alexi shrugged and swerved to avoid a group of tourists standing in the middle of the street staring at nothing. "I regretted it when I watched them leave, but once basic training started, I found I liked it. No one had ever pushed me that hard before. And this really is my home. Don't tell my parents," she added conspiratorially, "but I've committed to another tour of duty after Annapolis."
"I promise I won't," Josh replied with a twinkle in his eye. "Maybe we could sit down, if you're not going to rush off. It would be easier than having a conversation on the streets of Manhattan."
"No benches." Alexi noted.
"Bryant Park is just ahead."
The city kept surprising her like that. Blocks and blocks of tall, austere buildings and then suddenly a patch of green - or what would be green in a few weeks. She waited until they'd claimed a table before continuing the story. "After the second time, I went to my C.O. and asked if she'd recommend me for one of the officer training programs. The next thing I knew I was applying to Annapolis. I start in the summer, but since my unit's about to get shipped overseas, I've been ordered to report to Washington in the meantime." She looked at him speculatively. "Your turn. What's a nice English boy like you doing in the States?"
"Working. Mostly. Dad's ill so I've had to take over the family business," Josh replied. "I lived with my Mum and Stepdad as a kid, when I wasn't in boarding schools, but my parents had the scariest civilised divorce you ever saw so I spent a lot of time with Dad growing up." He suddenly looked very tired. "Cancer. It's been in remission for about five years but it seems to be coming back."
Alexi reached over and squeezed his hand. She wasn't sure if he was playing the sympathy card, but for now she'd give him the benefit of the doubt. She was about to say something when someone called out "Josh?"
He didn't turn, but said with a shrug, "Popular name."
"I'm not so sure," Alexi replied as she noticed a couple clearly headed their way.
"Joshua Townsend, don't you know your own name?" The man was now standing over them. Both he and the woman beside him were wearing the sort of clothes her parents had worn before they left- understated elegance of the sort only lots of money could buy. "I didn't know you were in the States."
Josh turned to look at the man and gave him a wry smile. "I was just pointing out to Alexi that it was a rather popular one. Alexi, this is Josh Long and his wife Raven. Josh, Alexi Caslovan. My date," he added pointedly.
"We're on our way to dinner and a show," Raven replied. "And I thought you were quitting." This to her Josh, who had lit a cigarette.
He gave her a sheepish look and snuffed it out. "We won't stay, but I just wanted you to know that I was having a party tomorrow night, and you should come. You too," he added, turning to Alexi.
"I'll let you know about the party. Still at the same number?" Josh replied evasively, looking a bit uncomfortable to be put on the spot like that.
"Yeah," the other Josh looked like he was going to say more, but Raven was already making motions that indicated they were going to be late. "I'll talk to you later."
"I'd hoped to slip in and out of the States without running into anyone I knew. So much for flying under the radar," Josh said to Alexi after the other two had left. "Sorry for the interruption. Don't feel obligated to go to the party. We still haven't established whether I've even earned a second date."
"You have," Alexi replied, though she hadn't realized she'd made that decision until she'd said it out loud. "We can go to your friend's party if you like. Or not."
Josh hesitated. "It's likely to be formal."
"Ten years of military training. I can manage formal," Alexi replied. She had that green silk dress in her trunk that she kept for emergencies, the only one she'd kept of the closetful her parents had bought her. It would do.
Josh was torn about this party. As much as he preferred to avoid that world, it was almost certain that Madeleine would be there and he'd have a chance to talk to her without drawing unwanted attention. He adjusted his tie. Not the clothes he would have chosen for a "date" with the lovely Ms Caslovan, but the party tonight was formal, and he'd be stuck in meetings until then.
SJ might be good at what she did, but so was he. From what Alexi had let slip in the fortnight they'd known each other, it had become clear that she had seen something, but she was afraid to speak up lest she endanger her recent acceptance to Annapolis and with it her hope of moving from enlisted ranks to officer. Or at least that was how she'd explained it to him. American Naval ranks were still a mystery to him, but he was willing to take her word for it.
Hence the party. He had every intention of following her to DC, but if he could convince Madeleine to arrange for Alexi to get in touch with Tony, perhaps they could get this sorted without Sarah's help. He just had to be subtle about it.
The green silk dress wouldn't do. Ten years of Navy physical training had toned Alexi's body more than she'd realized. The dress was loose in some places and bunched up in others. There was nothing for it but to look for a new dress.
It hadn't helped that she had Googled Joshua Long after Josh Townsend had left her at her door with a light kiss and a promise to call her tomorrow with the details. She'd assumed successful businessman, but she hadn't realized just how successful. She thought of her Josh with his well worn jeans and crooked smile and wondered how they knew each other. But that was what Google was for. Her eyes had widened as she read the first potted biography that turned up. Joshua Townsend's ailing father was Sir. Donald Wakefield.
He hadn't lied to her - it was all here, Father dying of cancer, mother living in Switzerland with her second husband. Except he had omitted mentioning that his "family business" made him one of the wealthiest men in the world.
She considered calling the date off, but decided not to. Alexi was suddenly curious about how he would act in front of his friends. That, she thought, would be the best test. Whether the charming, ordinary guy she'd met changed his spots when he changed his surroundings.
"We had that sort of status once," her parents' voices echoed through her head. She suppressed the thought. Maybe they had once, but that had been a long time ago. She didn't remember and she had less interest in digging up the past than she'd had in their stories of the old country. She supposed they were happy back home, having picked up the threads of their old lives, but reading their infrequent letters made her even more certain that world was not for her.
When Alexi left Century 21 she was empty-handed and had a headache. She had been fretting about having nothing to wear tonight, and Danforth's wife had mentioned the store as a good place to get a bargain, but hadn't thought to tell Alexi that it was so close to where the Twin Towers had stood. The wave of patriotism that had swept the country afterwards had had a big impact on the impressionable thirteen-year-old that she had been and despite the failures and missed steps that she'd watched the government make time after time, she still had some faith in the ideals they purported to represent, or she wouldn't have ended up in the Navy. Still, she was unprepared for the reality of it when she faced the gap where the towers had been. It had been several minutes before she could pull her eyes away from the beginnings of reconstruction and find the store in question.
But the store had been a disappointment. Huge and crowded, when she was in the mood for neither. She'd persevered stubbornly, but it had come down to dresses that fit but clashed with her red hair and dresses that had armholes that seemed to be designed for people with no muscle tone whatsoever and dresses looked okay on her, but that she didn't love enough to pay those prices, even with the store's deep discounts. She'd wear her dress uniform tonight and Josh would have to cope. Petty Officers didn't make the sort of money that lent itself to evening gowns and she was still coping with the financial mess her parents had left behind.
Josh had treated this party like it was no big deal. It made her wonder if dating him was such a good idea. Still this party was a once in a lifetime opportunity and she was leaving in two weeks. Might as well have a good time before she was cooped up in Annapolis for four years.
Madeleine Wheeler was bored. This didn't happen nearly as often as people thought, but so far there had been a distinct lack of interesting people to chat with. Josh Long was on the other side of the room and Raven was avoiding her, as usual. Normally this would have amused Madeleine, but lacking anyone else she wanted to speak with, Raven would have sufficed. If only in the "we've known each other all this time and you haven't figured out that Kelsey is my brother" sense. Admittedly once Raven had married Josh, it had become more of a deliberate game to see how long it took her to notice. And the other woman hadn't.
She leaned against the wall and sipped her champagne. Matt was in London, and even if he hadn't been, he'd be talking business with the group by the window. She scanned the room again, hoping to find someone whose idea of small talk wouldn't bore her to tears, and finally caught Zach Steele's eye.
He excused himself from his conversation and walked up to her. "And how is my favorite social butterfly?" Not many men towered over her, especially when she was wearing heels, but he did.
"Coming from you, that's not saying much," Madeleine replied with a smile to show that she hadn't taken offense.
Zach snorted. "You're the exception that proves the rule, and you don't need me to tell you that. Teddy said to tell you thanks if I saw you, by the way."
Raven was giving her the evil eye and Madeleine couldn't help but wonder if the other woman thought she had designs on Zach. Madeleine found this amusing- other women's husbands had never been her vice. "Tell her I'm always happy to lend a hand to my friends." The last was spoken just loud enough for their hostess to hear.
"I suppose it would be useless to ask you to try to get along with Raven," Zach said.
Madeleine didn't hold it against him. He was one of Josh's best friends. "I've known Raven a lot longer than you have. Tried for the first few years, but she has a pretty clear picture in her head of who I am, and she's just not interested." She smiled sweetly at Zach. "If the fact that you like me doesn't convince her I'm worth knowing, I can't be bothered."
Zach nodded. "I hadn't thought of that but, yeah, you may be right." His aversion to spoiled blondes was legendary. "I'd just appreciate it if you kept it civil. For all our sakes."
"We always do," Madeleine replied. "Who is that with Josh Townsend? I didn't know he was seeing someone." Unlike their host, who had, prior to his marriage to the very brunette Raven had shown up to each event or party with a brand new blonde on his arm, Josh Townsend had always traveled solo. But here he was with a good-looking redheaded Naval... she squinted trying to make out the rank, but they were too far away.
"And you want to go off and find out," Zach said easily. "Josh- our Josh- ran into them in Bryant Park last night. And on that note, I will leave you to do what you do best, and I'm going to go off and keep Rafferty out of trouble."
"Of the four of you, I'd say that Rafferty was the least likely to get into trouble," Madeleine replied. "But I could be mistaken. Say hi to your wife and hug your kids for me."
"And you do the same for Matt and your kids," he said, before turning and moving easily through the crowd.
Madeleine turned in the opposite direction and waved to catch Josh Townsend's eye. She got a smile in return. "I wasn't sure I'd see you this trip," she said as he air-kissed her cheeks.
"Last minute change of plans," Josh said with a smile. "Madeleine Wheeler, Alexi Caslovan."
"Petty Officer Caslovan. Pleased to meet you," Madeleine said with a smile.
"Just Alexi, please."
"Then I must be Madeleine," she said, absently setting her empty glass down on the tray offered by one of the catering staff, picking up two fresh ones and passing one to Alexi. Josh could get his own. The maneuver covered her quick assessment of the other woman. In another setting the other woman's dress whites might have been looked at askance- if only because they screamed enlisted rather than officer class. She still remembered what Zach had said when the Army brass had kicked him from enlisted to officer class in the reserves without so much as a by-your-leave and it hadn't been pretty. Nor was he the only person she'd known who'd objected to promotion. Besides, the uniform suited Alexi. "How's your dad?" she asked Josh. None of their parents had been around much, but Sir Donald had been the most present of the lot of them.
"One step forward, two steps back. The doctors don't know how long it will be, but they think soon," Josh replied. She could see the strain in his eyes.
"They said that five years ago." She laid a hand on his shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze.
"I know, but he won't keep beating the odds forever," Josh said. "I've got another fortnight of meetings here, then I'm off to DC before I go home, but my plans are subject to change."
"I was thinking of heading to DC myself." She hadn't been until he mentioned it, but perhaps it might break her out of her ennui. There were always interesting people to talk to in DC. If Honey and Jim weren't so happy in Sleepyside...but they were, and she knew that if she stayed in DC for very long she'd probably end up killing Hagen. She idly wondered if that might get her in Raven's good books, and then decided that her mind was wandering. "Let me know when and maybe we can get together with Tony. I might even persuade Kelsey to come up. How long has it been since the four have us have been in the same city, even?"
"That would be lovely," Josh replied a little too promptly. "It must have been before Tony and I went off to uni. And now that your brother's settled down, I never even see him in our old haunts."
"Peach farming does keep him busy," she said vaguely, catching his eye. He nodded ever so slightly. That was enough for her. Kelsey wasn't the one he was most interested in seeing. Without missing a beat she drew Alexi onto the sofa for a chat while Josh excused himself to say hello to their host. Madeleine made a mental note to speak to Tony DiNozzo. Girlfriend in the Navy and a sudden interest in getting together with an old friend who was also a NCIS agent. Whatever had inspired Josh's desire to get the old gang together, it hadn't been nostalgia.
"I'm sorry to hear about your sister, Miss Trask," Trixie Belden said the words mechanically, trying to damp down the voice inside her head asking what this would mean for their trip to Washington. Bad enough that Brian and Dan's spring vacations hadn't coincided with theirs and that Di's parents had decided to spend the week at her Uncle Monty's dude ranch, but at least the other four Bob-Whites would be together again. Or at least, that had been the plan. Trixie gave herself a mental kick. "I hope she feels better soon." The Wheelers' housekeeper had been so good to all the Bob-Whites, and the least Trixie could do was show some sympathy.
"The doctors say the operation should go smoothly," Miss Trask answered, running fingers through her steel-gray hair. "I'm just glad I was able to take some time off to be there for her. Now, let's see, have I got everything?"
Honey Wheeler patted Miss Trask's shoulder. "If you don't, we'll have Celia mail it to you. Tom's waiting to take you to the airport. You'd best be off."
"We'll miss you," Mart Belden added, scuffing the toe of his sneaker against the ground.
"Thank your parents for me, Honey," Miss Trask said, as she got into the car. She started to give them some other instructions, but Tom winked at the girls and started the car.
The three teens waved until she was out of sight, before turning and going back into the Wheeler's mansion.
"Come up to my room." Honey headed up the stairs and Trixie and Mart followed. Somehow after the other three had left for college, they'd stopped using their Clubhouse as much. It felt so empty, with almost half the Bob-Whites elsewhere.
Honey's room wasn't Trixie's idea of the perfect room. Something about the matching wood furniture, painted white and the dainty curtains and pillows made it feel unreal - like a picture out of a magazine. She much preferred her own battered, mismatched wood furniture and quilt, all passed down from various Belden ancestors, well-used and well-loved. But it seemed to suit her friend and it was closer than going to the Clubhouse which seemed so empty with three of the Bob-Whites away at college.
"So that's it then," Honey said quietly, once they had kicked off their sneakers and were sitting cross-legged on her bed. "All those plans we made to go down to Georgetown to visit Jim next week and now we don't have anyone to chaperone us."
"Unless we can convince our parents that we're mature enough to go down on our own," Trixie replied with a sigh. They both knew that would never happen. They might have managed if her brother Brian was going with them, but he was up in Boston doing a pre-med course at Harvard, but there was no way that she or Mart or Honey would be able to convince the Beldens and the Wheelers that they'd manage to stay out of trouble without supervision.
"Who else is there?" Honey asked. "What about your parents?"
"Moms has classes at SUNY all week," Mart replied. Mrs. Belden had recently started teaching art in their continuing education department. "Dad has to work. What about Regan?" The Wheeler's groom had served as just as much of a surrogate parent over the years as Miss Trask had.
"He's going up to Saratoga to see Joan and my Dad is in London on business." Honey leaned back against the fluffy pillows and said helplessly, "There isn't anyone else."
"What about me?" Madeleine Wheeler peeked into the room. "May I come in?"
"Of course, Mom." Honey abruptly sat up straight and patted her hair, though Trixie couldn't see anything wrong with it. "I didn't know you were back from the city."
Even Trixie and Mart sat up a little straighter. Mrs. Wheeler had that effect on people.
"Don't get up. You look so comfortable." Mrs. Wheeler took the chair from Honey's desk and turned it so she could face the three teens. "I heard about Miss Trask's sister, and knew you'd be looking for someone to take her place."
"Are you serious about coming down to DC with us?" Honey asked. Her mother was more inclined to expect other people to take care of her.
"And why not?" Mrs. Wheeler asked. "I'd like to see how Jim is too and I haven't been down there in ages. You might have to put up with me doing some entertaining, but I promise there won't be anything too formal."
Trixie somehow never expected Mrs. Wheeler to be accommodating, even when she was, so she this startled her into silence.
Honey had no such inhibitions. "Can we stay at the house instead of the hotel?"
Mrs. Wheeler smiled at that. "I was hoping you'd say that. I didn't want to suggest it, since it would mean you three would have to take care of the cooking, at least when we weren't going out to meals or ordering in. But it would be so much more pleasant to invite people there than to a hotel."
This was news to Trixie but she was still wary. Mrs. Wheeler came from a wealthy family, and was used to having people to wait on her. Still, the woman had never treated the Bob-Whites like servants, so it was unlikely that she'd start now.
"Cooking would be fun, but don't you have a chef?" Mart asked. As long as the Wheelers had lived next door to the Beldens on Glen Road, the Wheelers had had half a dozen servants.
To Trixie's surprise, Mrs Wheeler shook her head. "We never had any servants there. Dad was," she paused as if trying to find the right word, "estranged from his parents when he bought the place, back when they were first married and I think they only kept it for nostalgic value. But my brother and I were mostly away at boarding school and my parents rarely spent much time in Washington. My brother and I share ownership now, though he uses it more than I do. He might come up from South Carolina at some point," she added, gazing thoughtfully at her daughter. "I know it's Beth's home and he tries for her sake, but I suspect he misses the traveling he used to do."
"You'll like Uncle Kelsey, Trixie," Honey said. "Maybe he'll even convince Aunt Beth to come with him."
Trixie hadn't even known that Mrs. Wheeler had a brother. "I'm sure I will. We'll have a lovely time in DC," she answered as expected, though she wasn't sure at all. She was still surprised that Honey's spoiled débutante mother would volunteer for anything resembling responsibility, but Trixie was not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. As long as Mrs. Wheeler didn't expect them all to dance upon her every whim, they'd manage.
Alexi leaned against a pillar waiting for Josh Townsend to gather their bags. It still felt odd to have the son of one of the wealthiest men in the world waiting on her, but he never made much of it. Old money might be an old-fashioned term, but the people at Josh Long's party had it. And he hadn't appeared uncomfortable or out of place among them. Nor had he or his friends made her feel uncomfortable or out of place, which she counted as a point in his favor.
"Alexi." The voice came from behind her.
She twisted to see Tyler Jessup standing behind her. "I didn't realize you were in DC," she said, hoping Josh would be a while with the bags. There was nothing worse than introducing your brand new boyfriend to your ex. Even if you'd remained friends. Supposedly. Alexi wondered why Tyler's sudden appearance had triggered warning bells in the back of her head. She'd thought she'd left on good terms with the Avenirs.
Tyler smiled. "The Avenir Institute transferred me to the DC office. Oh, Norman Jones, Petty Officer Alexi Caslovan." He absently indicated his companion. "We worked together on a joint civilian-military project in New York and before that, we were at school together. Mr. Jones is a new employee at the Institute."
Alexi shook his hand politely. She couldn't imagine a larger contrast. Tyler Jessup, with his dark hair and Asian good looks and Mr. Jones with lank, badly cut black hair and teeth that could use the services of a good dentist. "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Jones." She might have said more, but she noticed that Josh had their bags. "If you don't mind excusing me, I'm on leave at the moment and my friend is waiting." She wasn't sure why she didn't say boyfriend, but then she had known Josh less than a month. She didn't wait for an answer but dashed off through the crowd at double-time.
"So that's her?" Jonesy asked as Alexi disappeared from view. "Not bad."
Tyler winced at the implications, but nodded. "Through her we'll be able to get to Josh Townsend, and through him, Sir Donald Wakefield's money." There was no point in telling Jonesy the whole story. He was just the hired help. Even Tyler didn't understand the Avenir Institute's interest in Ms. Caslovan yet, but he hadn't become their best operative by asking questions out of turn. "Now, I believe you were going to make contact with your stepson."
"Yeah," Jonesy dug a crumpled piece of paper out of his cheap suit. "Might even go easier here without his friends around. There's this curly-haired brat that persists in getting in between us. She's convinced him that I'm a bad apple, but I just want what's best for him. He's all I've got left of Katie."
Judging by the background check the Institute had done, that wasn't quite the case, but Tyler let it slide. "The Avenir Institute will be happy to provide you with a rental car." Tyler passed him a set of keys and a disposable phone. "Keep in touch. I'm not sure when we'll need you but we'll call."
Tyler watched the other man head for the shuttle buses before pulling out his own phone and making a short call, confirming that he'd made contact as he headed towards the short term parking lot and his own convertible.
A chill ran down Trixie Belden's spine. It couldn't have been. But she would never forget that face. What was Jonesy doing at Dulles Airport? She would have tried to hear what he was saying to the other two, but Mart and Honey had left her to watch the bags they'd already claimed and Mrs. Wheeler had gone off on some errand. She resolved to tell Honey as soon as she got her alone and to warn Jim that his stepfather was in town. It made sense though, Jim was nearly eighteen and about to inherit part of the trust that his father had left him. Trixie had no doubt that Jonesy hoped to get his hands on that money, and that he would stop at nothing- including murder- to get it.
She turned, nearly tripping over the pile of suitcases, to look for Mart and Honey, who were still waiting for Honey's suitcase by the baggage claim belt. Her friends still hadn't found Honey's suitcase, but Trixie did spot Mrs. Wheeler, talking to a young dark-haired man in a suit as if she knew him and wondered what that was about.
But Honey had her suitcase now, and she and Mart were heading back towards Trixie and Mrs. Wheeler must have noticed because she was waving good-bye to the man in the suit, who had been joined by a redhead in a bright white Navy uniform- the same one she'd seen talking to Jonesy earlier. Trixie frowned. This wasn't good at all.
"Was that Josh Townsend?" Honey asked her mother as they both reached Trixie. "He should have come over to say hello. I haven't seen him in ages."
"It was." Mrs. Wheeler smiled. "And his new girlfriend, apparently. I've invited them for dinner, so you'll have your chance then. Maybe Tony too, if I can persuade him to join us. We can get take-out," she added quickly. "Then we'll go out to breakfast tomorrow and see about filling up the fridge and the cupboards."
"Sounds like a plan," Mart said.
It was the sort of plan the Bob-Whites would have come up with if Miss Trask were with them, but Trixie couldn't picture Mrs. Wheeler serving guests take-out food on paper plates. Still, Trixie shouldered her backpack and grabbed her suitcase, following the others to the taxi stand. She hadn't mentioned Jonesy to anyone yet, but that could wait.
Under Sarah Jane's guidance the group had cleared customs surprisingly quickly, collected their suitcases and the rental car and were on their way. Luke Smith couldn't help wondering whether it was a wise move to allow his Mum to drive in a country where they drove on the wrong side of the road but as neither he nor his friends were old enough to have driving licences, it was a moot point. Thankfully, the car was equipped with a GPS and they were able to find the Jackson's new home quickly. Equally thankfully, they got stuck behind a taxi for the last mile or so of their trip and his mum wasn't able to drive at her usual hair-raising pace.
"We're not hunting aliens, Mum. The world won't end because we're five minutes later than we expected," he teased her when he caught her muttering at the car in front of them under her breath.
"He's not even going the speed limit," Sarah said, just as the taxi pulled over to park at the kerb and the GPS announced, "You have reached your destination." Sarah indicated and drove around the taxi, not without a glare at the SUV parked in front of the building, and into a spot about fifteen metres away.
Of course, by the time they'd all got out of the car and retrieved their bags from the boot, the taxi had pulled away, leaving four assorted teenagers standing on the pavement while a woman with honey blonde hair unlocked the door.
"That's not Maria's house?" Clyde asked.
"The next one. 3328," Luke replied helpfully. And sure enough the door to the terraced house next door swung open and several people emerged.
Luke didn't recognise the tall young man who emerged first. "Perfect timing," he said loud enough to be heard clearly. "Aunt Madeleine. Honey." The man waved at the group that had just emerged from the taxi and they turned to look at him. "Be right there," he called.
By this time Maria Jackson had spotted them and she ran over. "You made it. Come in. Marshall just stopped by to drop something off for Dad since he was going to his Aunt's for dinner."
"What a lovely American accent you've acquired," Clyde teased and when Maria glared at him, he recanted, "Sorry, sorry. Couldn't resist."
"You must be Rani. I'm glad to finally meet you in person." Maria smiled at the girl before hugging Luke, Clyde and Sarah Jane in that order. After a moment's hesitation, she hugged Rani too before noticing that Marshall was still standing there. "Oh, Marshall, before you go, these are my friends from England. Sarah Jane Smith, Clyde Langer, Luke Smith and Rani Chandra. Marshall Wheeler is a student at the University of Maryland and he also does some freelance work for Pearadyne."
The man, who reminded Luke of the Doctor because of his tousled hair and mad-scientist look, smiled and shook their hands. "Ms Smith, you wouldn't be the Sarah Jane Smith who writes for Science Today? I'd love to talk to you about your article on temporal theory at some point. And I know Victor would too."
"I'm sure we can find the time," Sarah Jane said cheerfully. "Pun intended. I've been trying to get an interview with Victor Pearson for years, but it's just never worked out."
Marshall looked slightly confused by this. "I hadn't realized. He's never said anything about it. Not that he would. But I didn't know his work was that famous."
"He's a very private person, I gather. Dedicated to his work," Sarah Jane replied cryptically. "And still working to restore Pearadyne to its former glories, despite major setbacks. You have to admire that."
"He's not that bad once you get to know him," Marshall said as though he wasn't quite sure of that himself. He looked over at the crowd next door. "I'd better go before Aunt Madeleine sends out a search party. Have a good evening all of you." With a wave, he strode down the road.
Before the group had all crammed into the entryway, Luke saw his mum's face light up.
"Nat! Nat Redfern? What are you doing here? I almost didn't see you there." Indeed the clutter in the corridor had all but hidden a young woman sitting in a wheelchair.
"Sarah Jane Smith." For a moment Luke thought he saw a shadow pass over Ms. Redfern's face, but then she was smiling at his mum. "I work with Alan at Pearadyne too."
"Do you two know each other?" Alan asked, looking slightly alarmed.
"Nat used to be my research assistant. A long time ago," Sarah Jane explained. "This was before I adopted Luke."
Alan still looked wary, but he opened the door. "Nat's staying for dinner, so why don't we move this reunion indoors? We're supposed to have a storm tonight." Indeed, storm clouds were gathering and the seven of them lost no time in piling into the Jacksons' entryway.
"Maria, why don't you show them their rooms?" Alan said as he hung their jackets in the hall closet. "Nat, you and Sarah Jane can catch up in the kitchen while I finish making dinner. Or the lounge if you prefer."
"The kitchen, I think," Nat said with shrug. "I should check on those potatoes." With a quiet whirr, she turned her wheelchair toward the kitchen, leaving the other adults to follow, while the teens picked up their bags and headed up the narrow staircase trying to catch each other up on everything that had happened since they last spoke.
"Is there anything I can do?" Sarah Jane asked as they entered the Jacksons' kitchen, but Nat waved her off.
"Nope, it's all under control," Nat said as she easily manoeuvred her wheelchair around the room. She wasn't sure what message she was trying to send her old friend, but to her relief, Sarah backed off. She'd known, of course she'd known, when Maria and Alan had spoken of their friend Sarah Jane, the journalist. There couldn't be two of them. But she'd kept silent as she'd tried to figure out how she felt about it.
Sarah Jane came over and leaned against the counter. "Are you still in touch with Josh?" The question was a little too casual, but that was Sarah Jane Smith for you.
Nat shrugged. "He's been busy, I think. Ever since he took over for Sir Donald, he's had his hands full." She gave the potatoes another stir, then turned her wheelchair so that she could look at Sarah Jane. "We've barely talked since the Dauntless. I miss those days sometimes. The three of us." Even if she was still angry about the lies and manipulation from both sides.
"I do too, sometimes," Sarah Jane replied. "But you were the one who wanted out. And Josh, well-"
"He never told me what happened on the Dauntless," Nat said, "and neither did you." Sarah Jane had packed up and left without a word to either of them- at least not to Nat. If she'd spoken to Josh he hadn't confided in Nat. Josh had been silent and withdrawn- at least until he found out that his father had faked his death for purposes that had never been clear to Nat.
"It wasn't something I could talk about." Sarah Jane moved out of the way so Nat could reach the sink before Nat had a chance to ask. "It still isn't. I- I wasn't the only person who could have done what I had to do, but I was one of a handful and the easiest piece on the chessboard to get there."
"So you're saying there was some truth to that nonsense," Nat snapped. "Some reason for everything that happened. I thought you didn't believe in destiny." Or coincidence. So how had Alan Jackson ended up working with Nat at Peardyne? More importantly, if she asked Sarah, could she trust the answer she was given?
"I don't. But I do believe in the universe trying to prevent temporal paradoxes. And cryptic messages from time travellers who are too clever for their own good. And that sometimes the path you're being pointed in is the right way to go," Sarah Jane replied cryptically. "And Josh- on the Dauntless, Josh came face to face with the other side of the coin- when I started treating the Book of Tomorrows like an instruction manual rather than a religious text. I don't blame him for needing some space afterwards. Or you, for that matter. When I told you that the world-savers were gone, and that I had moved up a rung, I was more right than I knew at the time."
Nat glanced at the door to the dining room to make sure Alan hadn't heard. Trust Sarah Jane to come up up with an answer that sounded like it made perfect sense when it made no sense at all. "I wondered after, if the reason Josh had walked away had been due to a crisis of faith," she offered. She hadn't heard from him much since they'd parted. A few emails, an overgenerous housewarming gift, all very superficial.
"Maybe." Once again Sarah Jane was taking refuge in vagueness. "I know he's taken up his father's role as Keeper of the White Chapter. He's stopped pushing, I've stopped arguing. In the end we were both right. And maybe it was easier for us, stepping into the roles that were already there."
Which told Nat more perhaps than she'd wanted to know. "I thought this was supposed to end on the Dauntless. I still haven't completely forgiven either of you for what happened. Luca's death," Nat added softly. Josh had killed Luca to save Sarah Jane. "Even now that I have Alan." She hadn't meant for that to slip out, though judging by Sarah Jane's actions, she seemed to have figured it out.
Sarah Jane looked at her thoughtfully. "Alan worked with me too. He knows the risks. And you're both on the wrong side of the pond. I'll be gone in a week and you can go back to your lives." My life is dangerous. I told you that when we first met and it hasn't got any safer- if anything, it's got worse." Exactly what Nat hadn't wanted to hear.
"I don't- I'm glad to see you, Sarah, really," Nat looked warily at the dining room door and changed the subject. "I can't believe you adopted a son if the Crimson Chapter is still lurking about." Especially if your life is so damned dangerous.
"The Crimson Chapter is gone, but there are other people who see me as a threat. It's a long story and we've got a week to catch up," Sarah Jane said evasively. "Luke didn't have anyone else."
Alan chose that moment to peer through the door. "The kids have come back down. Is dinner almost ready?"
Nat gave the potatoes a final stir, just as the oven timer buzzed. "I'd say yes." At least with Alan and the kids around, she and Sarah Jane would have to stay away from dangerous topics for now.
"I don't remember them predicting a storm," Honey said as her mother let the Bob-Whites into the house. "Uncle Kelsey, when did you get here?"
So this was Honey's uncle. He was as tall as his sister, with reddish-brown hair, and a friendly smile that made him seem more accessible than Honey's Mom.
"About 15 minutes ago," he gave Honey a quick hug and then did the same to her mother. "I was just about to call-"
"The plane was delayed." Madeleine shrugged. "Matt took the jet to London, so we flew commercial. I'm glad you came up, though. I can't remember the last time the four of us were in the same room. And you, too." This to the woman with silver blonde hair who had just emerged from the kitchen. "How did Kelsey lure you out of Pinnacle, Beth?" She punctuated the question with a hug. "And did you bring my nephew?"
"Steven and Ami too. Meg decided to spend Spring break with her friends, we thought we'd bring Ami up like you suggested. She's in the kitchen," Beth added with a smile.
The row house was a little less ornate than the Manor House and yet it still bespoke generations of understated wealth and once Honey had finished hanging up their jackets she led them into a kitchen of the sort that Trixie's Moms would have described as more for show than for cooking. There they found a younger version of Beth sipping from a glass of lemonade. Honey introduced her as Ami, Beth's sister, and Mart immediately started pushing a little too enthusiastically for Ami to be included in their future plans. Not that Trixie objected but her brother's obvious crush amused her.
"We were trying to decide what to make for dinner tonight," Beth explained as she poured fresh lemonade for the rest of them. "So far all we'd agreed on was the lemonade."
"It's a good thing you didn't. Mom's invited a ton of people over," Jim said. "I think she said something about ordering in."
"Hello. Anyone home? I know you're in here."
"Marshall!" Honey gave the tall young man a big hug, as he came into the kitchen. "Trixie, Mart, this is my cousin Marshall. My favorite cousin, except maybe for Steven."
"You expect me to compete with a baby?" Marshall teased. "But why don't we just say I'm your favorite Wheeler cousin and leave it at that. As long as I outrank Ben and Grant, I'm happy. Hi, Ami." He waved at the other girl, who gave him a shy smile.
"And so modest too. Marshall, these are the Beldens, well, two of them. Brian's in Boston," Honey said cheerfully.
"We've met, remember?" Mart replied good-naturedly. "At Juliana's wedding. And I already know you outrank Ben Riker in my esteem. It would be hard not to."
"I'll second that," Trixie added. Ben had a taste for practical jokes that he didn't seem to be growing out of and during his last visit to the Wheelers, he'd shown a decidedly malicious turn that hadn't been there during his previous visits. This had cumulated with Trixie having to rescue him from a group of teens who had been running a little shoplifting ring on Main Street. The visit had ended with Honey's dad having words with his sister about Ben's upbringing, and while Ben seemed to have learned his lesson, even Honey had admitted that she was glad to see him go.
Mart shook Marshall's hand. "Honey said you're staying for dinner?"
"Of course he is," Mrs. Wheeler replied with a smile. "I don't want a large crowd tonight, but he's family." She reached for a container full of menus sitting on the counter. "Chinese or pizza?"
"Chinese," Trixie voted.
"Pizza," Mart insisted, glaring at his sister. But when the rest all voted for Chinese, Mart shrugged. "We can have pizza next time."
Trixie looked at him suspiciously. Usually he would have deliberately started an argument, but then usually they would have had Miss. Trask around. Who knew how Mrs. Wheeler would react to normal sibling rivalry? Even if she did have a brother, Trixie couldn't see her degenerating into anything as undignified as bickering.
"Oh. I forgot to grab the phone. I never remember there isn't one in the kitchen here." Mrs. Wheeler selected a menu from the container, and headed back out into the hallway.
Beth excused herself at the same time to go check on Steven, who was apparently asleep upstairs.
"Your brother's coming for dinner, isn't he?" Marshall asked Honey. "He's the one who told me you guys were coming in tonight. We've been hanging out a bit. He's not bad for an undergrad."
"So you mean it wasn't a coincidence that you were next door?" Honey teased.
"My boss lives next door. He's got a daughter about your age." Marshall smiled. "Don't worry. I'm not going to suggest you have a play-date. But it makes it convenient to have drop things off if I'm having lunch with Jim. Our lab isn't that far away either."
"You'd better not," Honey said, reminding Trixie of all the altercations she'd had with her own brothers. "Jim." She bolted out of her seat to hug the tall redhead who followed her mother into the room.
Trixie and Mart followed suit.
"College agrees with you," Mart said, looking Jim up and down.
Trixie didn't see much of a difference, but then they had seen him at Christmas. "I can't believe we're here. So when do we get the tour of campus?"
"I've got classes tomorrow. How about Thursday?" Jim said. "Hi Ami, Uncle Kelsey. Mom didn't say you were coming up too."
"I vote yes." Matt clapped Jim on the back. "We can find something else to do tomorrow." He turned to Mrs. Wheeler. "I thought you said something about dinner?"
"I told everyone to come around 7pm, and the food should be here around 7:30," Mrs. Wheeler replied.
Mart looked at his watch. "It's 6:30 now. Plenty of time to catch up before they get here."
"Great," Jim replied. "I've got plenty of time to hear about Trixie's latest scrapes."
Trixie glared at him, but when Honey started telling Jim about their latest case, she was quick to jump in with corrections and additions. She'd tell Jim about his stepfather just as soon as the four Bob-Whites had a minute alone.
The dishes were stoneware, not the china Trixie had expected, but the glasses were crystal, the napkins were fabric and Mrs. Wheeler had put a bottle of wine in the ice bucket to chill before she answered the door. All more than the Beldens ever bothered doing on the rare occasions they got take-out. Beth appeared with Steven just as they were putting the finishing touches on setting the table, and Honey and Mart dropped everything to coo over him. Trixie didn't quite see the attraction of babies, but she made the appropriate noises as she put out the glasses.
Mrs. Wheeler had disappeared towards the front of the house at the sound of the doorbell, and quickly returned with a man in tow.
"Tony." Honey jumped out of her chair and hugged the newcomer before making introductions.
Tony gravely shook their hands. "Ah, Trixie. I've heard some interesting things about you," he said with a twinkle in his eye.
Trixie studied him suspiciously noting the brown wavy hair and casual yet expensive clothing. Wealth and privilege. She'd had her doubts about this arrangement before, but this was worse than she'd expected. "Pleased to meet you," she replied dubiously, almost missing the glare Mrs. Wheeler gave Tony, before he headed over to shake Kelsey's hand in a show of manly comradery. She wouldn't have thought that Honey's friends would have been something that Mrs. Wheeler discussed with hers.
"Josie says hi. Or she would have if she'd known I was going to see you tonight," Tony said to Marshall as, at Mrs. Wheeler's request, he opened the wine to let it breathe, whatever that meant.
"I've been meaning to stop by." Whatever else Marshall said was drowned out when Josh and his girlfriend arrived.
Honey repeated her earlier greeting to the newcomer, causing Trixie a moment's pause. She'd never thought much about Mrs. Wheeler's friends, but clearly Honey knew them well. "Am I that oblivious?" she thought, before deciding that Honey had just had more chances to interact with her parents' friends. And on the rare occasions the Wheeler parents were in Sleepyside their parties seemed mostly directed at Honey's Dad's business associates rather than Mrs. Wheeler's friends.
Josh's girlfriend was introduced as Alexi Caslovan. She'd exchanged her uniform for a pretty blue cotton dress that set off her red curls, but now that Trixie got a good look at her, she could confirm that Alexi was the woman she'd seen talking to Jonesy. She remembered the fake Juliana and shuddered. Jonesy didn't have another niece he could use to do his dirty work, did he? She was going to have to talk to Jim the moment she could pull him away.
"I'd say Josh has told me so much about you, but he hasn't really." Alexi said cheerfully. "But he did follow me to DC, though I'm not sure if that's romantic or the sign of a stalker."
"Oi," Josh said. "Standing right here."
"And being quite quite English again," his girlfriend teased.
Tony laughed at this. "Trust me, Alexi, if Josh were going to lose that accent, he would have done it by now."
Josh pretended to throw something at him.
More teasing between Tony and Josh followed but Trixie didn't pay much attention, as she was trying to pull Jim away from the conversation he was having with Marshall about some professor. Finally she gave up and sat down next to Honey but just as she was about to say something, the doorbell rang again, and Mrs. Wheeler left to pay the delivery person, tapping Mart and Jim to help carry. Before long they were back. Trixie had a vague thought that unpacking the order right on to the table as if they were going to eat out of the cartons instead of using serving dishes was some sort of a faux pas given that they weren't eating off of paper plates, but it didn't seem to bother Mrs. Wheeler.
Beth had already settled Steven in his high chair, but Kelsey was the one who was feeding him.
Mart made a show of taking a big whiff. "Ah, Chinese food. The food of the gods. I'm so glad I picked it."
"You voted for pizza," Trixie pointed out, forgetting for a moment that she was trying to be on her best behavior.
"The sounds of sibling rivalry. I remember them well," Tony commented as he pulled out a chair to sit down.
Mrs. Wheeler arched an eyebrow. "You were an only child, as I recall."
Tony gave her an innocent look. "I meant you and Kelsey. I'm not sure which was worse," he confided to the rest of the table, "when they were working together or when they were at cross-purposes."
"I think I preferred it when they were at cross-purposes," Josh opined. "It was much safer. Unless one got caught in the crossfire." He'd held Alexi's chair for her and got her settled before sitting down himself. "Together- well, it's a good thing those two were on the side of good. Otherwise, they'd be ruling the world right now."
"You did not just call me a megalomaniac," Mrs. Wheeler said, a little too sweetly.
Kelsey just smiled serenely and rolled his eyes at his friends.
Mart was looking at Mrs. Wheeler incredulously. "Honey," he asked in a low voice, "is your mom feeling alright?" Trixie had been just about to ask the same question.
"Oh, this is typical. Just wait until she and Kelsey get into it. She's always treated Josh and Tony like her little brothers," Honey replied under the banter that was still going on. "I think it was just- her family wasn't around, so she made a family, like we made the Bob-Whites." After a moment she caught her mom's eye and said, quite clearly, "Children! Don't you think it's time you stopped fussing at each other so we can eat?"
"You're no fun," Tony retorted and then subsided.
"Now that the entertainment is finished," Mrs. Wheeler said, without losing a beat, "perhaps you could serve the drinks, Jim?" She, herself picked up the bottle of wine and poured glasses for the adults. "Jim, would you like some wine?"
"I think I'll stick to coke," Jim replied as he busied himself with the soft drinks.
"And what about the rest of you?" Mrs. Wheeler asked.
Mart looked wistful. "We're underage."
"Private party, the offer is limited to one glass each and I've never known a group with better heads on their shoulders." Mrs. Wheeler smiled at him.
"Well, then, don't mind if I do." Mart smiled back.
Trixie did note that their glasses only got filled halfway, but she didn't object. Just having alcohol was novelty enough. Her own parents rarely drank, even casually.
There was the usual flurry of passing dishes around as everyone filled their plates, but soon it subsided into eating some of the best Chinese food that Trixie had ever tasted.
"So how's the peach farming business?" Tony asked Kelsey. There seemed to be an undertone to that, that Trixie didn't understand.
"We're doing well enough," Kelsey answered with a twinkle in his eye and a smile for his wife.
But she didn't let it go. "Except for the bit where he finds living in small-town South Carolina a bit limiting. No, I know you like to claim you love it there, but I also know you miss your friends and the traveling you used to do." Beth leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. "As long as he's willing to tell me when he needs to get out of there, we do fine."
"See, Madeleine. She's never going to believe I like it down there. It's peaceful. I've had time to read. Learned the difference between a peach tree and a magnolia. Found a recipe for the perfect mint julep."
"You learned to knit," Madeleine pointed out unkindly. "And you bait the sheriff whenever you get bored. Sleepyside may also be country, but at least I can get into the city easily enough when I want to."
Trixie thought this was unfair, given how little time Madeleine spent in Sleepyside, but she didn't say anything.
Honey, however, was not so reserved. "Mum, you and Kelsey have been fighting over the merits of your small-town existences ever since you moved. Don't you think it's time to let it go?"
"No!" they replied in unison, before breaking into laughter. It took them a moment to calm down, and then they stared at each other ruefully.
"Truce." Kelsey said, and Madeleine nodded her agreement.
There was a moment's silence as everyone regrouped, but finally, Josh broke it with a question. "Okay, I have to ask. What is the story with Kelsey and Raven Long? I've been working with her husband on some projects and when I mentioned his name in passing I got this look from Josh. Like that one." Indicating the look on both Kelsey and Mrs. Wheeler's face.
They looked like they were fighting down laughter. Finally Madeleine recovered and with a glance at her brother, replied a little too carelessly, "Oh, that. Kelsey and Raven used to work together. I'm sure you know that bit of it, Tony."
He nodded. "Oh, yes. Very small world, DC"
Kelsey took up the story. "Raven met Josh Long on an assignment." He seemed to linger on that word, and Trixie wondered why. "They fell in love. They got married. You know that bit."
"The whole world knows that bit. The famous rake caught in doting matrimony," Tony said cheerfully. "Better him than me."
Kelsey ignored that swipe. "But before they got married, she introduced us. Given the circumstances, it would have been dangerous to enlighten her at the time. Mind you, I've always just been Kelsey to her and somehow she got it into her head that there was a huge mystery surrounding my other name...and whether Kelsey was my first name or my last."
Something about his tone of voice made Trixie snort.
"And I don't imagine her manipulative habits had anything to do with that?" Tony said. "Or the fact that she and Madeleine never got along get along?"
Mrs. Wheeler pursed her lips. "We coexist. I've got nothing against her. But she'd already spent years hopelessly oblivious to the fact that I was Kelsey's sister. And I imagine if I'd been in Kelsey's place when she cornered him and asked him his other name I'd have been tempted by the same impulse and given her my middle name too."
"He didn't. He would," Josh burst out laughing.
"That is so typically Kelsey," Tony said at the exact same time.
Trixie found herself laughing too, even though she'd never met the man.
Even Alexi had giggled at the tale. "You're not going to pull that sort of trick on me, are you?"
"You already know I'm Sir Donald Wakefield's son. There isn't anything more to it. Though I must admit that once or twice I haven't bothered to enlighten people who didn't know," Josh added ruefully. "Nearly lost a friend that way- it was more complicated than that but that was a part of it. Still, she seems to have forgiven me."
Mart eyed Tony. "That leaves you. Any secrets of identity you'd like to share with the table?"
"I'm Tony DiNozzo Junior, if that's what you mean. Son of Tony DiNozzo Senior," he replied a little too easily. "No secrets there. What are you planning to do tomorrow?"
If the change in subject was abrupt, it was also effective and the teenagers started listing sights they planned to see. Trixie, however, filed the conversation away in her mind to consider later.
Sarah Jane seemed preoccupied during dinner, and Nat was almost happy about that. The kids monopolised the conversation, talking about school and all the normal things Nat thought they they would have exhausted in their weekly marathon Skype sessions.
Towards the end of the main course, Alan made a brief effort to get Sarah Jane and Nat talking. "I'm sure you have some great stories."
"They're not my stories to tell," Sarah Jane replied tersely, effectively closing down the subject, glancing at her watch. "I have some phone calls to make. I'll be right back."
Alan caught Nat's eye and she just shook her head. She still wasn't ready to talk about what had happened with Luca. Or any of the other lies and betrayals. She did wonder whose story Sarah Jane thought it was if it wasn't her's. Nat's? Josh's? Sometimes she wondered if it was worth even trying to figure out how her friend thought.
The number on the monitor wasn't familiar, but there were only a few people who would know how to contact him en route, and only one from Earth. Sarah Jane believed in taking no chances, even if the call was sonic boosted and couldn't be traced. Turlough approved of that mindset; it was why they'd always got on so well. He'd been waiting for the call, but he was distracted tracking down a sensor malfunction, and automatically answered in Trion.
After a short silence, she answered in the same language. "Hello, Turlough. I gather from the minimal lag, you're nearing Earth." He idly wondered why; usually she stuck to English in case she was overheard. But then there were disadvantages to that too.
"Is everything going as planned?" he asked. "I don't like the looks of the political situation back home. Alexi may have renounced Trion but her death would send shock waves through an already unstable situation." The fact that he was acting, when he preferred to sit back and watch from behind the scenes would tell her everything she needed to know about the seriousness of the situation.
"Trion won't break the Shadow Proclamation." It wasn't a question. They might have dumped their political exiles on Earth but they'd never shown any sign of direct hostility.
"Of course not. We're civilised." That was better. He much preferred bantering with Sarah Jane than plotting strategy. "But that doesn't mean that Alexi isn't in danger."
Sarah Jane clearly thought they had no time for the old familiar argument. "Josh slipped a note in my pocket at the airport. Georgetown Waterfront Park. It's in the Georgetown district of Washington, DC. We're to meet Alexi there at ten a.m. Eastern Daylight Savings Time." She paused and checked her watch. "It's currently 20:46."
"I shall synchronise my chronometer," Turlough said dryly, matching his actions to his words. "And I'll see you tomorrow."
"Tomorrow," Sarah Jane repeated. She still sounded too tired, which was unusual for her. "I've missed you."
"There is a solution to that. Move to Trion." It wasn't the first time he'd suggested that. Even knowing why she couldn't.
"You know that's not possible. I've got responsibilities here. You could always move to Earth." Sarah Jane teased.
"Never." Turlough sighed. "I used to find star-crossed lovers horribly amusing." Where had that come from? They'd kept their relationship strictly casual, lest they start expecting too much. Wanting the wrong things.
"As did I. See you tomorrow, Turlough." She broke the connection and just he just sat for a moment, wishing there was someone else to take up the burden of defending the Earth. But he knew that even if there were, as much as she'd loved travelling among the stars, she would no more leave Earth for Trion than he'd leave Trion for Earth.
He turned his mind back to replacing the malfunctioning sensor. Having come so far, it seemed a pity to go right back home after this crisis was over. A short holiday would probably do him good.
When his cell phone rang, Gibbs was sanding a piece of wood and considering his next project. He stopped working just long enough to check the caller ID, and once he established that it wasn't showing a number, he let it go to voicemail.
Josh Townsend's mobile rang halfway through the story Tony was telling about Jules and Robin Cassidy's wedding. He glanced at the number, which he didn't recognise. "Sorry, I have to take this." It had to be Sarah Jane. "Just a minute," he answered, giving a gesture that they should go on without him and absently placing the stack of plates he was holding on the nearest flat surface. He crossed the hall to the library and shut the door. "Okay, I'm here. What's up?"
"I've set the wheels in motion. Can you get Alexi to the park as planned?" Sarah Jane said tersely.
"Yeah," Josh confirmed. He'd picked out the park based on her criteria and past visits to the area. A quiet, open space where they should be able to see anyone coming. "What should I expect?"
"I wish I knew. We don't even know who's threatening her or why or what direction the attack is coming from. I'm just trying to-" she broke off.
"Cover your bases? At least that's what my American colleagues would say," Josh replied helpfully.
"That sounds about right. I've even called my contact at NCIS, just in case. If something happens to Alexi, they're the ones who'll be investigating." Worst case scenario. He hated worst case scenarios.
He was silent for a moment. "I've got a contact at NCIS too. I set the wheels in motion a fortnight ago to arrange to see him. Mutual friend's house and he doesn't look like a cop. I think Alexi might have noticed something, so I thought I'd give her a safe opportunity to meet him."
Sarah Jane didn't seem surprised that he knew someone at the agency, but then there were times when he wondered if anything surprised her. "Good. Tell him to pass on whatever information he gets to Jethro Gibbs. He'll know who that is, if he works at NCIS. And tell him to tell Gibbs 'rule 39'."
Josh didn't ask why. He understood more about her role in the grand scheme of things than he had when they met and the rest he would continue to take on trust. She had her responsibilities and he had his. It was enough that she accepted him as both an ally and a friend.
After Josh had left the room to take his call, the rest of them had finished loading the dishwasher.
"So who wants some ice cream?" Tony asked.
"It's storming out there," Mart said, peering out the window at the rain. "I, for one, would rather stay here where it's dry."
Madeleine smiled. "Tony brought some with him. It's in the freezer."
"We've got chocolate and vanilla," Tony added. He took a notepad and a pen out of his inner jacket pocket and started taking orders.
Alexi stood and glanced quickly at the door that Josh had left through and Tony's eyes followed hers, noting that the door was closed. She hesitated for a moment, then stood. "Let me help you." This prompted several other offers of help, but Tony waved them all away except for Alexi.
The rest of the group fell back into a heated discussion about baseball, even Mrs. Wheeler and Trixie leaned back and listened to them debate the merits of the Yankees vs the Mets vs the Nationals, with Marshall pulling for the Toronto Blue Jays. Trixie's eyes and her mind drifted and she suddenly noticed a stack of plates on the sideboard. Remembering that Josh had put them down when his phone rang, she stood, picked them up and carried them into the kitchen. She stopped right inside the door.
"Meet me at Georgetown Waterfront Park at ten a.m.," she overheard Tony saying to Alexi.
That was weird. Trixie distinctly remembered Josh introducing Alexi to Tony earlier. Why would they be making plans to meet behind his back?
But Alexi was talking now. "Thanks, I really appreciate it. You don't know how much-"
"I do. I've done this before," Tony broke off as he caught sight of Trixie.
She held up the stack of dishes. "We missed a few." Trixie walked over to the dishwasher and started loading it, while Tony and Alexi's conversation turned to the innocuous question of who had wanted what. By the time Trixie had finished her task, the bowls were all lined up, so she helped them carry the ice cream into the other room.
"Alexi and I went to the same boarding school," Marshall was telling Josh. "We just now realised this. Or rather I did. Apparently she remembered me."
"I was a year behind Marshall and his friends. They were a bit notorious for being at the center of whatever was going on," Alexi explained.
Marshall winced. "We weren't- well, maybe we were. I blame Josie."
Josh just smiled at this. "I could tell some tales-"
"But you won't," Madeleine finished for him, catching Tony's eye. "Perhaps we should be focusing on the ice cream before it melts, instead of on past sins."
"Sit, eat." Tony said expansively to the crowd which had scattered from their seats during the interlude. "Josh, do you want chocolate or vanilla?"
"Vanilla's fine," Josh replied. "Tony, do you remember Jethro Gibbs?" Alexi coughed, and Josh reached over and patted her on the back. "You okay?"
"Just had a bite go down the wrong way." Alexi shrugged it off.
Josh looked back at Tony, who replied, "I do. Hard to forget him."
"He is somewhat of a character," Mrs. Wheeler added easily.
Trixie turned back to her ice cream. Clearly this was another old friend, and when the conversation turned to Daniel Stuart and Max Bhagat, Trixie glanced at Honey, hoping Mrs. Wheeler wasn't planning to spend the entire evening going through a catalog of people she'd never met.
She did wonder what Tony and Alexi were discussing in the kitchen and made a mental note to look up the beach in question after they left. Something weird was going on here and she was determined to get to the bottom of it.
The four teenagers were still chattering energetically when Sarah Jane returned to the dining room. They were also, with the exception of Maria, fighting off yawns.
"I think perhaps it's time for bed," Sarah Jane rumpled Luke's hair and he protested ineffectually. It had taken him a while to realise that people his age didn't let their Mums do things like that.
"But it's only 9. I never go to bed this early." Clyde's protest was derailed by a huge yawn.
"It's 2am back home, Clyde. And you've had a long day of it. Get a good night's sleep and you'll be all the better for it in the morning," was Sarah's response as she shooed them up the stairs, despite their protests. "You've got an entire week to catch up with Maria." She pressed the puzzle box into Luke's hand as he passed. He glanced at her and frowned, but she'd effectively prevented any conversation so he just shoved it in a cargo pocket. He'd tell his friends about it in the morning.
Maria followed them up. "I think I'll get Rani settled and then read for a bit, if she doesn't mind the light."
"I can sleep through just about anything short of an alien invasion," Rani replied with a smile, as she waited for the other girl to catch up.
After they'd disappeared, Alan asked. "Are you going up too?"
Sarah Jane shrugged. "I'm not particularly tired." She caught Nat's eye and obeying an unspoken thought added, "But I do have some work I should do."
"Oh, yes. Here." He passed her a slip of paper. "Password for the network. Unlimited bandwidth, so do what you need to."
Nat didn't say anything. She'd accused Sarah Jane once of underplaying her computer skills to give Nat something to do, and the other woman had pointed out that the point of hiring Nat was so that Sarah Jane didn't have to spend the time digging through databases. "Good night, Sarah." Nat hoped she didn't sound too pointed.
"Thanks. Night." Sarah started up the stairs, but paused on the first step, and turned back. "Look. You could both tell some very strange stories about me. I'd imagine the conversation you're about to have will go a lot better if you're not tiptoeing around the subject." Without waiting for a reaction, she turned and walked up the stairs.
Nat just stared after her, wondering what that was supposed to mean.
The evening went on as it had begun. The grown-ups would start a conversation, digress and then pull up short periodically as if they'd realized they'd gone too far. There seemed to Trixie to be a slight uneasiness in the relationship between Mrs. Wheeler, her brother and her friends, as though there were things they knew better than to bring up and yet whenever they started a new topic sooner or later one of the three would touch on unsafe ground. Trixie couldn't see a pattern to the danger zones. Finally, they'd landed on the seemingly safe topic of Trixie and Honey's exploits as detectives. She'd made a point to bring up Jonesy, but hadn't been able to get Jim alone to tell him what she'd seen at the airport and she was worried that if she said something to Mrs. Wheeler, Honey's mother would panic and insist on decamping back to Sleepyside.
The wine hadn't been bad, but she didn't understand why people made such a big deal about it. Though even the adults seemed to be drinking sparingly and there was still a quarter of a bottle left when they finished their desserts. Mrs. Wheeler didn't seem bothered. She just put a stopper in and stuck it in the fridge.
"It's been lovely, mom, but I should be getting back now," Jim said, once the last of the dishes were stowed in the dishwasher. "I've got an 8 o'clock class in the morning." He kissed Mrs. Wheeler on the cheek, tousled Honey's and Ami's hair and headed to the hall closet to get his jacket. "Say goodnight to Aunt Beth for me."
Honey's aunt had disappeared upstairs to put Steven to bed, waving away any offers of help.
The rest of the crowd followed Marshall and Jim into the entryway.
"And I've got to get to work. Jim, would you like a ride? I know you're in walking distance, but it is rather wet out there," Marshall added. "And Alexi, I'll give you a call. There are some other Blake Holsey escapees scattered around DC. We should get together."
"Love one. Thanks," Jim replied. Trixie was gratified to see that the jacket he pulled on was his old battered BWG one - the one Honey had cross-stitched when they first started the Bob-Whites three years before.
"The rain's stopped," Mart said, peering out the window into the dark. "I hope tomorrow is nicer."
"We should be going too," Josh said, passing Alexi her coat and then taking his own. "Didn't you say you had to report in tomorrow?"
"I don't have to head to the Navy Yard till afternoon, but I'm sure I can find something to do if you have business to attend to," Alexi said cheerfully. "It shouldn't last too long, though. I just need to find out what they're doing with me until I start at Annapolis this summer."
"I thought you were already in the Navy," Mart said. "Isn't Annapolis sort of like college to get into the Navy?"
Alexi looked startled, then laughed. "I am. I enlisted and then I applied to Annapolis because I wanted to be an officer. The Navy doesn't let enlisted men and women become officers without jumping through hoops. I didn't know this when I graduated from high school, or I would have applied to Annapolis then, but I didn't really have the connections or the grades to get in back then."
"Well, good for you," Tony said. "And good luck." He was also reaching for his coat.
"Thank you," Alexi said with a smile as she tucked her hair into her hood. "It was lovely to meet you all. And seeing you again, Marshall."
"It was good seeing you again, Tony, Kelsey. We should do this more often." After a moment, Josh added. "And Tony- rule 39."
Mrs. Wheeler laughed. "Really, I would have said rule 40 was more appropriate." She did not bother to explain what the rules were, to Trixie's disappointment, but it was clearly an in-joke. Somehow she'd never expected Madeleine Wheeler to have the sort of friendships that would develop private jokes.
"Got it. It was good seeing you too. And you, Madeleine." Tony air kissed her cheeks and followed Marshall and Jim out the door in a flurry of goodbyes.
Josh was the last one out the door, but he paused when Mrs. Wheeler touched him on the sleeve. "I like your new girlfriend."
"I do too," he gave her an odd half smile. "Let's see if I can keep this one." And then he was gone.
"I think I'm going to go up and read," Mrs. Wheeler said. "Stay up as long as you want. I'll be heading to breakfast around 7:30 with whomever is awake. Otherwise you get to scrounge whatever leftovers there are in the fridge." There hadn't been much.
Trixie thought that was rather effective. If they stayed up too late they were the ones who would suffer.
"We'll be there," Kelsey said. "You learn to get up early on the farm."
"To milk the- peaches," Madeleine replied with a twinkle in her eye.
"Don't worry. Madeleine. We'll be up." Mart winced as he realized what he'd called her. "Mrs. Wheeler, I mean."
She was halfway up the stairs but she turned to look at him. "Don't worry about it. Honey calls all my friends by their first names, so I don't mind if you use mine." She didn't wait for a reply but turned and headed up the stairs.
"Goodnight kids. Ami, don't stay up too late. Your sister will blame me." Kelsey followed his sister up.
"Maybe we should do the same," Honey said when her mother had disappeared from view.
"Just a minute. I need to tell you guys something." This was the first chance since the airport that Trixie had had to talk to Mart and Honey alone. Almost alone. She looked at Ami and shrugged. She seemed nice enough, though she'd been quiet at dinner. But then the adults had pretty much dominated the conversation.
"Come in here," Honey said, leading them into the cozy library.
"If it rains again, I know where I'm hiding out," Mart replied, as he sank down on to the sofa by the fireplace. Except for the doors and windows, the room was lined in overflowing bookcases.
"Me too," Trixie chimed in. This room felt lived in, unlike what she'd seen of the rest of the house.
Once Honey and Trixie had claimed the two overstuffed armchairs and Ami had settled down on the sofa beside Mart, Trixie told them about seeing Alexi and Jonesy, at the airport and what she'd overheard.
"Jonesy's Jim's stepfather, right?" Ami asked. "The one who was so horrible to him. Honey's told me the story of how you saved him."
"Yeah, that's the one. Grade-A number one creep," Mart answered. "I suppose you've got some sort of plan in your head, Trixie."
"I want to be at Georgetown Waterfront Park at 10am. Don't look at me like that. You know Jonesy pulled a stunt like this before, and it's only a few months until Jim turns 18 and get access to part of the trust his father left him," Trixie insisted.
"Trixie, I think you're imagining things, but I remember Jim talking about that park in one of his letters. It's not far from here. Just on the other side of the Georgetown campus. I suppose it wouldn't hurt to take a look," Mart said dubiously. "But I think we should call Jim in the morning and have him meet us there. Just in case."
"Doesn't he have a class?" Trixie asked.
"He told me it finished around 9:30 while you were in the kitchen. He can meet us there. If it is Jonesy, he should be involved." Mart sounded a bit dubious, but Trixie had a history of out-stubborning him.
"I can't believe Tony of all people would do something like that," Honey said, frowning. "It's not like he needs the money."
"Maybe Alexi's being blackmailed or something or she's blackmailing him. Though, Tony looks like the sort of guy who'd be good in a fight. Josh too, for that matter. I don't know what this is all about. I think we need more information," Trixie jumped out of her chair and started pacing.
"What if Tony or Josh is the target?" Honey looked worried. "Josh has lots more money than Jim will, even when he has access to his entire trust fund. I'm in."
"Good. Do you think we'll be able to get away from your mother?" Trixie asked. She stopped pacing and collapsed in her chair again.
Honey nodded. "She said something about Robin and Jules being in town, and asked if we'd be okay doing the shopping on our own. The park's only a few blocks away, so transportation won't be a problem."
"I do believe we have a plan," Mart said. "And now bed for me, where I shall dream of pancakes rather than Trixie's schemes."
The girls duly laughed and the three of them headed up the stairs to bed.
It wasn't until much later that it occurred to Gibbs that there were only a handful of people who had the number besides his team, and any one of those might have chosen to use an untraceable line for some reason. He mentally cursed his way though the voicemail menu that he only used to delete messages when his staff started berating him for not listening to them.
He recognized the voice immediately. Sarah Jane Smith. He allowed himself a slight smile. The message was typically terse.
"Have one of your people at Georgetown Waterfront Park at ten. I don't care which one. I'm trying to prevent a murder in your jurisdiction, of Petty Officer Alexi Caslovan. You can reach me at this number." She reeled off a string of digits, that he automatically memorized. "Also it would help if you remembered your own rules occasionally. Especially number three."
The voicemail ended there, but it was enough.
The phone rang again and this time Gibbs answered it. "DiNozzo, I was just about to call you."
"Before you say anything, boss, I think I've made a break in the Avenir investigation. The contact I told you about came through. I just finished having dinner with Petty Officer Caslovan. We're meeting up tomorrow at Georgetown Waterfront Park."
The timing of the two calls couldn't be coincidence. "Good job. Take Ziva. I just got info from my source who thinks someone might stop her from speaking to us. Permanently. Where is she tonight?"
"Staying at a hotel with her boyfriend. Josh Townsend," Tony supplied.
"First impression of him?"
There was a pause at the other end of the line. Then Tony said slowly, "I didn't think you two knew each other. He dropped your name into a conversation we were having about old friends - I'd say he knows there's something going on. I've known him most of my life, he knows how to handle himself, if there should be trouble, and honestly, I don't think they'll try anything before morning. But she's scared. There's something about her ex-boyfriend. The one she worked with at the Institute."
Gibbs fell silent himself. "Coincidences," he said it like it was a curse.
"Yeah. If I'd been able to speak to Josh alone, my mind would be easier, but there were other people at dinner so the only contact we had besides that was him slipping a note in my pocket with the time and location. It's just- just as I was leaving he said something about rule 39, acting like it was an in joke between the three of us. It was hard enough to arrange a private conversation with Alexi, and even that-" he broke off guiltily.
"We were just firming up our plans when Trixie Belden walked into the kitchen." Tony left that hanging. There wasn't anything else to say.
Gibbs frowned. Trixie had developed a reputation in the intelligence community. She'd have half a dozen job offers the moment she was old enough, and he knew Madeleine Wheeler had put her daintily shod foot down on a few instances of premature attempts at recruitment. It couldn't be a coincidence that Hagen had been forced into retirement the previous year. "Keep an eye on her. Keep her out of the crossfire. Does she know who you are?"
"I didn't go over there in there in my NCIS windbreaker, if that's what you're asking, boss. I had dinner with old friends, and by that I mean three people I've known since I was eight - I didn't even know that Alexi would be there until she showed up on Josh's arm. Strictly civvies."
If Gibbs hadn't figured out that the other 'old friends' were Madeleine Wheeler and her brother, that would have confirmed it. He stopped worrying about leaks; she was the soul of discretion. "Good. You can flash your badge at Trixie if necessary, but don't if you don't have to. Just be aware that she might show up at the meeting and act accordingly." He thought for a moment. "I think the person who told Josh to reference rule 39 must have been the same person who left me a message earlier. Making sure I knew that this wasn't a separate contact, though the location would have tipped that off. I don't suppose your friend ever mentioned Sarah Jane Smith?"
"The journalist?" Tony paused. "He's never spoken of her, but it's a matter of public record. The Dauntless."
Gibbs nodded before he realized that Tony wouldn't see it over the phone. "Yeah. I knew that name sounded familiar. I'll have Tim pull files in the morning. Call Ziva, then get some sleep. And keep me posted."
"Will do, boss."
Tony hung up and Gibbs considered his next move. Alexi's appointment to Annapolis had been a godsend. He'd pulled a few strings and now all the people involved in the Avenir case were in DC He'd planned on showing up at her debriefing tomorrow morning but this was both better and worse. Things were moving much faster than he'd expected, but hopefully by evening they'd have enough evidence to find out what the Institute hoped to gain from their partnership with the Navy.
He could do nothing more tonight, so he shut off the phone and returned to his sanding.
Corrine waited until Alan and Nat had left the lab after their morning meeting before closing the door.
"What's up?" Vaughn asked. "And why didn't you want them to know about it?"
"Lucas' gravity sensor suddenly started working again," Corrine said grimly.
"I thought we were done with that." Marshall frowned at her. He got up to look at the machine, which they'd tucked into a corner of the room obscured by other equipment. Sure enough the machine was detecting a steady low wave of energy. "But there's no wormhole here. And we closed the one at Blake Holsey when we defeated Josie's- when we defeated Avenir."
"Well, something's happening," Vaughn said. "Have you called Lucas?"
"Not yet, but I think we should," Corrine replied. "But I think we need more information before we contact him and Josie. They've both got jobs elsewhere-"
"-And their bosses aren't likely to be anywhere near as understanding as Mom and Dad," Vaughn finished. Marshall knew he was remembering the long period when it looked like Victor Pearson was responsible for all the odd happenings at their school. But that had been before they'd crossed paths with Avenir and Sarah Pearson had helped identify and defeat the real villain of the piece. The sensor gave a sudden jump before settling down at a slightly higher rate than before. "Whatever is going on, it looks like it's getting worse." he reported. "Corrine, call Josie, I'll call Lucas. Vaughn, you should probably tell your parents."
"And once I call Josie, I'll look in on Alan and Nat. Just in case they've noticed anything weird," Corrine finished.
Cell phone coverage was bad in the lab so the group scattered and there was no one in the room to notice when the gravity sensor's arm started vibrating rapidly before overloading in a shower of sparks.
"A disappearing man. Trixie you've flipped," Mart said. "And that goes for this whole business with Alexi Caslovan. You just met the woman last night. There's not mystery there, just your overactive imagination."
"I told you! I saw her at the airport talking to Jonesy," Trixie said for what felt like the hundredth time. Grownups claimed the two siblings looked alike, with their sandy blond curls and blue eyes, but they certainly didn't think alike, Trixie thought furiously.
Jim Frayne's calm voice cut into her anger. "But you can't have seen Jonesy. He went to prison after that scheme of his with Snipe Thompson to steal Juliana's inheritance. We'd know if he'd been released."
Never had Trixie wished more that Jim's red-headed temper would burst out than now. It would be so much better than this calm logic. "Would we? Who would have told us? We're not even in Sleepyside right now."
"No, we're not," Honey Wheeler replied, just as reasonably as her brother Jim had. "Trixie, you need to stop thinking that the whole world exists to provide you with mysteries to solve."
Trixie frowned at her friend. Normally, she thought, Honey would have been on her side, but Trixie's visible letdown that Honey's mother had offered to chaperone the group in place of Miss Trask, had caused a rift between them that Trixie still didn't understand. She hadn't even realized there was a rift until last night when they were getting ready for bed and the normally placid Honey had snapped at her. All Trixie had said was something to the effect that Kelsey, Tony and Josh weren't what she would have expected Honey's mother's friends to be like.
Finally she said a little too rapidly, "Honey, I'm sorry I wasn't thrilled that your mother was in charge of the trip. It hasn't been nearly as bad as I expected. And I didn't mean what I said last night in a bad way." She realized after that last sentence slipped out of her mouth that that had perhaps not been the best way to put it, but it was true nonetheless. Somehow, Mrs. Wheeler had managed to get things done in such a way to ensure her own comfort but without some of the frills that would have made Trixie uncomfortable.
"Trixie, I don't- when we first met, you told me that my mother probably felt as shy of me as I was of her and that I should give her a chance. I did but you never have. Maybe someday you'll realize that just because she's not like your perfect, precious Moms, doesn't mean that she's a horrible person." Honey was near to tears.
Ami placed a protective arm around Honey and glared fiercely at Trixie.
Mart had started bristling in defense of their mother, but Trixie caught at the sleeve of his jacket. "Don't," she muttered urgently. "Honey, I'm sorry. Last night was kind of cool. When your Mom said she was having people over for dinner, I dreaded it, but it didn't turn out to be anything like what I expected. Maybe I haven't given your Mom a chance in the past, but I will, I promise." She turned to the boys. "Don't look at me like that. I am capable of admitting when I was wrong."
"You're just saying that because you think there's some sort of mystery going on and you want our help," Mart teased.
Honey gave a small smile at that and Trixie knew she'd been forgiven.
"Well, there is, remember? I overheard Alexi planning to meet Tony on the beach this morning. Why would she be doing that if she were dating Josh and why act so mysterious about it?" Trixie returned to her earlier rant.
"I'm sure there is a perfectly logical explanation for it, Trixie. Mom said she and Josh and Tony knew each other as kids," Jim replied.
"But they didn't know Alexi. Josh said that he and Alexi had only started dating recently," Trixie pointed out. "And Jonesy has a history of trying to steal people's inheritances. Or have you forgotten?"
"But what would Tony have to do with that?" Jim asked. The other four might have been in agreement last night, but Jim hadn't been there.
Not much had been said about Tony DiNozzo, Senior last night, but Trixie assumed he was in the same class of wealth as Mrs. Wheeler's father had been before he died. Josh's father- well, even Trixie had heard of Sir Donald Wakefield. He was supposed to be right up there with Richard Branson and Donald Trump, though he seemed less of a show-off. "You may have a point there. Maybe she spotted another opportunity. I still think something fishy is going on."
Mart patted her on the arm. "Deprivation of mysterious occurrences has caused you to hallucinate, Beatrix. There's no mystery here except why we're here when we could be in Washington sightseeing. According to our guidebook the FBI does tours," he wheedled. "That should be right up your alley, Trix."
"I'm with Mart," Ami said, shivering a little as she pulled her jacket a little closer. "It's decidedly chilly out here. I vote we head to the FBI building."
Jim had already started walking towards the entrance to the beach. "Come on. If we drive, it won't take too long."
That was too much for Trixie. They might want to desert her, but she was determined to find out what was going on here. "If you won't take me seriously, I'll find someone who will," she snapped and turned, blindly running away from the other Bob-Whites. Hadn't she solved enough cases yet? Why couldn't they trust her instincts?
She ignored the voices trying to call her back and ran stumbling over the uneven grass, not paying attention to where she was going until she slammed into something- someone, her feet trying to find purchase on grass and soil still wet from the rain of the previous night, but ultimately slipping out from under her as she fell, the impact knocking her breath out of her. For a moment she was staring straight at the bright sun overhead, before she realized that she was lying on top of a stranger, or several strangers all of whom were talking at once. She finally found her footing and stood, offering a hand to the brown-haired boy who had the misfortune of being right underneath her.
The boy blinked at her. "You're not Maria or Rani." But he took Trixie's hand anyway.
The other boy was also standing by now, dusting the dirt off his clothing. Trixie saw the one she had helped up grab something from the sand and put it in his pocket. She made a mental note- she never knew what would be important. The impact had knocked her out of her crying jag and she was starting to feel like she had overreacted.
"Who're you and what happened to Maria and Rani?" The second boy was dark-skinned and short.
"You're British," Trixie blurted out, then gave herself a mental kick for stating the obvious. She remembered seeing the group out of the corner of her eye- hadn't there been four of them?- during the argument but they hadn't seemed relevant to the mystery. The mystery. Why had her friends stopped calling? And more importantly, why hadn't anyone caught up with her? Their voices hadn't been that far behind. She spun around so she could see where the Bob-Whites had been standing and blinked. "Where are my friends? They were right behind me."
"They must not have touched the box, or maybe she knocked their hands away. What do we do now?" The second boy had kept talking while she was getting her bearings. "We're stuck in a strange country. No adults, and I don't see Sarah Jane."
"Well, if the Trickster is involved..." the brown-haired boy broke off as though the implied end to that sentence was enough for his friends.
"What are we going to do about her? We can't leave her," the second boy said, a worried look in her dark brown eyes. "She's probably as stranded as we are. Hi, I'm Clyde Langer, my friend is Luke Smith." He gave Trixie a bright grin.
"Trixie Belden," she replied automatically, wondering if they were all mad. "Didn't I see you on P Street last night?"
"I knew you looked familiar." Luke was wearing a National Museum t-shirt and he reminded Trixie a little of her brother Brian, the sensible one, and she found that reassuring. "Sorry about my friend's rudeness. You gave us a shock."
"Oi," Clyde glared at Luke and then shrugged. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have been so rude."
"It's okay," Trixie said. "I was the one who ran into you." After a moment's thought, she added, "I'm sorry too." It didn't hurt to be polite especially when there was something mysterious going on. No point in alienating people who seemed to know more than she did. She ran a hand through her curls. "My friends couldn't have just vanished!" She thought about all those movies in which a wish did just that, and a chill ran down her spine.
Her two new friends looked at each other. "It's a long story," Luke finally said. "There's this being called the Trickster-" he broke off as an odd groaning sound filled the air and he and his friends started looking around wildly.
"There." Clyde pointed at a blue something at the other end of the park. "Come on. He might disappear again."
Luke grabbed Trixie's hand as though he were afraid of losing her, and Trixie had no choice but to break into a run with the others. She still didn't know what was going on, but Luke and Clyde did, and they'd clearly decided she should stick close to them. As this was probably the best way to solve the mystery, Trixie didn't object, but concentrated on keeping up to the others.
"Where is she?" Maria demanded. There was a mystery to solve and the Jackson-Wheeler detective agency was on the case. The storm of last night had departed, but there was a distinct chill in the air as they'd walked to the park. They'd found a good vantage point and sat down to wait.
"I don't know," Honey replied sensibly. "I overheard Alexi telling mum she was going to be here to meet someone, but I don't know who. All I know is that it wasn't Josh." Josh Townsend had always been somewhat mysterious. Still, Maria knew that Honey had known him since she was little, drifting in and out of her life as her mother's friends were prone to do and therefore her loyalties lay with him.
Ami looked from one to the other a little shyly. "Do you think she's seeing someone else?" She'd shared in several Jackson-Wheeler adventures, both at the peach farm in South Carolina and visiting Honey in DC, so they both considered her an honorary member of the team.
"I hope she's not going to break up with him. Nat says he had a rough time of it a few years ago and he deserves some happiness," Maria said. "I know she's glad he came out to DC to be with Alexi. Nat won't talk about it but I gather that she and Josh been through a lot together."
"It's always 'Nat says' with you," Honey teased. "Do you think she and your dad...?"
Maria laughed, but her brown eyes brightened at the prospect. "They're dating. I don't know, but I really like her- more than Ivan. I hope so. Dad's been happier with her than I've seen him since mum left him. And you should hear them. They spend all day at work messing with computers then they come home and do it some more." She hoped her dad would get his act together soon and propose, but she wasn't willing to say that aloud just yet.
"I just think it's romantic, the way Josh followed her from New York when she was transferred," Ami said softly. "Alexi, I mean, not Nat."
"He claims it was just to see my mom, but I'm not sure I believe him. It's so weird seeing Josh with my mother. Mom never talks about her childhood. I think I've learned more about what she was like at my age last night than I ever knew before." Honey stood and stared down the length of the park before sitting back down with a disappointed look on her face. "Nothing."
"Nat said the same thing about Josh," Maria said and then giggled. "Did you say Josh knows Tony too?"
"I don't remember who said that. It makes sense though. It's a very small world," Honey replied.
"I don't think I'll ever get used to your mother knowing a NCIS agent." The elegant and spoilt Madeleine Wheeler made an odd contrast to the two men, both of whom looked like they could handle themselves in a fight, and had done once or twice.
"Mum has some very strange friends," Honey replied vaguely. "What's that?" She pointed at a blob of dusty blue right by the water's edge.
Ami squinted, shielding her eyes with one hand. "A boat perhaps? I can't tell from here." After a moment she added, "Maybe we should walk down to the other end of the park. See if we missed her."
"I think so. Better than just sitting here, waiting for something to happen."
As one they stood and started walking towards the blue blur. They had a pretty clear view of the entire park. If Alexi showed up, they'd see her.
"So we don't know what Petty Officer Caslovan wanted to talk to us about. Or why she chose this beach. Did you find out anything from your contact, DiNozzo?" Ziva's voice dripped with sarcasm.
"Just that she's dating a- a mutual friend. A guy I haven't seen since I was a kid. I've been trying to contact him, but no answer so far." And that was disturbing. Josh had seemed the best adjusted of the three of them. Even if they had drifted apart, he should have returned Tony's call by now. "She confirmed that she'd seen them together about two weeks ago- before Petty Officer Caslovan was reassigned down here. And that the Petty Officer told her that she was accepted into the Naval Academy for the coming year. I was supposed to have dinner with them last night, but that meeting with Vance last night ruined that plan. I had to arrange this meeting through my contact, so I still haven't met her myself."
The beach was almost empty. Not surprising given the chill in the air and the gathering clouds off to the southwest. There were a handful of brave sunbathers scattered across the park and a few people more appropriately dressed for the unusually cool summer weather walking along the promenade in the distance. Not knowing where they were supposed to meet Petty Officer Caslovan, they had started at the far end of the park and were slowly walking back.
They fell silent as they reached the end of the park, until something caught Ziva's eye. "Over there." She pointed at several figures pulling another figure from the water. From this distance, it was hard to make out details but they both automatically fell into a run.
Sarah leaned against the TARDIS and breathed the fresh air. "What a difference after that sulphur stench. Chilly, though. When are we?" She studied her two companions thoughtfully. "More importantly, where are we? Earth is a big place."
"And for some reason we keep coming back," Turlough said mournfully, though Sarah had never been sure he was quite as anti-Earth as he claimed. He leaned against the TARDIS and watched the other two survey their surroundings. They had landed on a a small grassy area near steps leading down to the river. He couldn't help glaring at the cars passing by and the morning joggers and dog-walkers.
The Doctor shrugged. "It's difficult to tell precisely, but I don't think we've travelled back more than six months." He peered down into the water.
"Six months." Turlough frowned at him. "How can we go from this to that in only six months. And more importantly, how do we fix it?" That being the scorched, devastated Earth they had just left.
"Have you given up your reluctant hero schtick then?" Sarah teased. Usually Turlough claimed that the best plan- or at least the safest was to walk away.
He glared at her. "Just being realistic. He's not going to leave Earth until this is sorted and neither will you. Therefore, the best plan is to get this sorted quickly so that we can leave. Perfectly logical."
"Hold that thought." The Doctor set off at a run, down the stairs leading to the water. Sarah and Turlough followed automatically.
A flash of white caught Sarah's eye, and she sped up, suddenly realising what he had seen in the water. The Doctor reached the edge first but she and Turlough were right behind him, helping him pull the body out of the water. He rolled her over and started trying to get the water out of the woman's lungs, and Sarah fumbled for a pulse, noting the blood quickly staining the white uniform. The Doctor gave her a querulous look and she shook her head. They were too late.
Turlough who had moved back to give them room to work, moved forward now to get a closer look. "What now?"
The Doctor sat back on his haunches and asked Sarah, "Do you recognise the uniform?"
"U.S. Navy." Sarah replied, starting to stand. "I've got a contact in their investigative division. We need to find a phone."
A woman's voice cut her short. "Ziva David. NCIS," the woman said crisply, flashing a badge. "Care to explain this?" She gestured at the dead body in front of them.
At least the scenery was better this time around, though if Sarah Jane looked out the window, she saw only the white emptiness of the Trickster's domain. A location she remembered- NCIS headquarters. She'd last visited here ten years ago, perhaps, before her fall from grace at Planet Three when there had been the budget to send her overseas for a story as big as the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon and she'd been able to talk Gibbs into an interview and a press pass.
She tried the computers, and was unsurprised when all they showed was a looping log-in screen. Instead she found a deck of cards in the desk marked McGee, Tim. He hadn't been here when she'd visited, but she remembered that name from the investigation after the Dauntless had crash landed. She put them aside. If the Trickster ran true to form, she'd have some time on her hands.
But that didn't mean she had to adhere to his timetable. Sarah Jane had had enough. "Trickster, don't you think it's time you showed yourself? What are you playing at this time?"
A cool voice came from the top of the staircase. "This is not a game, Sarah Jane Smith."
She turned to face the faceless figure dressed all in black. "It's always a game with you. You've made a bargain, but you know I won't consent, and each time I don't you raise the stakes a little higher. So who is it this time? Who did you grant life to, to ensure my death?" She heard the lift door open but ignored it, all her attention was focused on the Trickster.
An eerie laugh filled the room. "That is the question isn't it? The question is whether it is someone your earlier self will recognise in time."
"My earlier-" She stopped. Taken from a time before she had met some of the players. Sarah had crossed her own timeline again, which would explain a lot. "Is that allowed in the rules?" she asked needlessly.
He just smiled his gruesome smile and disappeared.
She took that as a yes. As long as her other self had all the pieces to the puzzle, it would be acceptable as a sporting challenge. Sarah went over events, considering what she had spoken aloud and when she had chosen silence to protect the timestream. She knew nothing about the world her untimely death had plunged her son into this time, or who he had been able to pull through with him. If the safeguards she'd put in place held... but there was no telling about that now. If they failed, all was lost anyway.
She was getting blasé about this which was worrying, but there was no point in having hysterics. The waiting was always the hardest part, but at least the Trickster had provided props and scenery this time. She dealt herself a hand of patience and settled down to wait.
Marshall felt all the hairs on the back of his neck stand up halfway through the conversation with Lucas, but he ignored it. The important thing was to bring Lucas up to speed.
"I'm not sure I can get away," Lucas was saying. "Commodore Sullivan is a great boss, but he believes in going by the book."
"Lucas, you work with an organization that claims to deal with life on other planets," Marshall said sharply, "How by the book can this guy be?"
"I work for a military organization that deals with invasions from other planets. So the answer to your question is yes," Lucas replied. "I'll be there as soon as I can. Bye." He ended the call.
Marshall automatically walked back down to the lab, his mind on other things, but a voice down the hall caught his attention and he paused rather than walk past and interrupt.
"Corrine, do you have the results of the experiment I gave you earlier?" Alan was asking.
"Didn't you give that to Vaughn?" she replied.
Marshall remembered that Vaughn had spent a good twenty minutes of yesterday's lunch break complaining about computer programmers who never did any practical research. For someone who had only joined the Science Club because his dad made him, Vaughn had discovered somewhere between high school and college that his dyslexia wasn't quite as much of a handicap when he was doing lab work or brainstorming.
"To whom?" Alan looked bewildered. "No one named Vaughn works here."
Marshall froze. Biting back his initial reaction, he listened to Corrine give a non-committal reply.
He tried to walk at a normal pace back to the lab, but by the time Marshall reached it, he was running. He slammed through the door and collapsed into a chair breathing heavily and found himself staring at Corrine and Victor Pearson.
"Were you able to get in touch with Lucas?" Corrine spoke way too carefully. "Alan doesn't remember Vaughn, which can't be good. And the phone just went dead about halfway through my call. I tried redial and got a message that the number wasn't in service."
"I know about Alan. I heard you from down the hall," Marshall replied. "All I could think was 'not again'."
Victor grasped the edge of the lab table tightly. "I was working with Sarah and then I wasn't. I cannot lose her again or Vaughn."
"We'll find them. We'll get them back. We've done it before." Marshall hoped he was speaking the truth.
Martha Jones still wasn't sure what she thought of this assignment. But the General in charge had felt the need to reprimand her for refusing to enable the Osterhagen Key, and she'd been sent here. But she didn't see it as a punishment and once she'd got to know Commodore Harry Sullivan, she started to suspect that he'd been manoeuvring to get her reassigned to him for a while.
She wasn't even sure this department had a name. What it did have was an office and a lab on the third floor of UNIT's DC building and a total of four employees. It would have only had three, but she'd brought Mickey along with her and Commodore Sullivan had arranged for the correct paperwork to be filed, with an approving look in his eye.
They'd never been given a mission statement, and for the first fortnight both Martha and Mickey had been convinced that its sole purpose was to track information about the Doctor. But it turned out that that was just what they did in their down time. Their job was to liaise with the various alphabet soup of law enforcement agencies in this town and to help out when needed, especially when their murder victims weren't human.
"Police procedural involving aliens," Mickey had mused at the time. "I can live with that."
Martha had just finished her report on the Cerran murder when Lucas walked in. It had been a messy case, not literally, but in the sense that Cerra was one of five planets that had diplomatic delegations on Earth- on a hush-hush basis, of course. There were other governments that had various levels of contact with the US (and in some cases the UK) and she'd never figured out if this was a loophole in the Shadow Proclamation or step one in moving up out of their level five status. Interplanetary politics was not her speciality, but she was learning.
"Is Harry around?" Lucas Randall was the fourth member of the team, and Martha still wasn't sure how he'd got the job. Sure he functioned as team geek and gadgeteer, but unlike the other three of them, he had never travelled with the Doctor. However he did have both the skills and previous experience with abnormal occurrences to fit in well with their mandate.
"He had a breakfast meeting with Max Bhagat to tie up some loose ends in the Cerran case. Wasn't sure when he'd be in." Martha answered. "Mickey took the train up to NYC this morning."
Lucas was leaning back in his chair with his keyboard in his lap, but Martha couldn't see the screen. He could be working on one of their cold cases or playing a game of solitaire for all she knew. Not that she had a problem with that. Their job involved a lot of down time. He nodded half to himself, then pushed his glasses back up on his nose. "I've got to run out for a few. Family emergency so to speak."
Martha interpreted that to mean that he was either headed to Pearadyne Research or NCIS. Lucas' family, at least in DC seemed to consist of four friends from high school and their former science teacher. Given the stories he'd told at the pub of some of the strange things they'd dealt with together, she wasn't at all surprised.
"I don't think he'll mind if you slip out for a few minutes," she answered. "Seems to be a slow day."
"It's not urgent. I'd like to finish this first." he gestured at the screen. "I think I'm almost through the Avenir Institute's firewall."
Martha nodded. Investigating the Institute was his pet project, but what he'd discovered had left them all worried. "That might be more important than-" she peered over Lucas' shoulder. "Hmm, 2056-bit encryption. Have you tried the Cahill equation?"
"Not yet. That's a good idea." He set to work.
The Doctor flashed his psychic paper and a big grin at Agent David. "Doctor John Smith and she's Sarah Jane Smith and he's Vislor Turlough." We were walking along the promenade and saw something white in the water so we came down the steps to investigate."
"What are you playing at? This is blank." The agent glared at him, and Turlough frowned. Psychic paper usually showed whatever the person viewing it expected to see- not something that worked well with people who were already suspicious.
Sarah Jane dug own wallet out of her bag but as she found her driving licence and started to pull it out to show the woman a handful of other IDs fell out onto the beach. She went to gather them up, but Agent David beat her to it. "Marie Samuels, Sarah Bland, Felicity Barnes," she read out and Sarah winced. This couldn't possibly be good.
Meanwhile the woman's partner had knelt by the body. "You're not going to like this, David."
She looked at him with an inquiring expression. "There is already much about this I don't like, Tony." Then she glanced at the body and Sarah saw her face change. "Petty Officer Casolvan. This is not good."
Turlough froze. He knew that name. He carefully rearranged his face in its customary bored mask and hoped no one had noticed. If he was right, this wasn't necessarily a matter for local law enforcement. Hopefully he'd be able to speak to Sarah Jane and the Doctor alone about it, before things went too far.
Tony already had his mobile out, and was requesting a team to investigate the scene of the crime. Once he'd finished his phone call he arched an eyebrow at his partner. "Is there a problem, Ziva?"
"He has no ID and she has too many. I have not inquired of the redhead," Ziva replied.
Turlough just shrugged and gestured that he had nothing. He'd never needed Earth ID, being sequestered at St Brendan's School during the time he'd spent on this planet.
Agent David looked back at the threesome. "I think you had best come with us for questioning."
Turlough stared at the three teenagers bearing down on them and was rather startled when the boy who had called out gathered Sarah Jane in a massive hug. "We thought we'd lost you."
"I'm right here," she said mildly meeting the Doctor's eyes and then Turlough's and willing them to play along. They'd all had enough experience with temporal paradoxes not to dismiss this out of hand, and the only way to get to the bottom of this would be to talk to the boy. Turlough caught her surreptitiously saying something in the boy's ear and moved so that the agents wouldn't notice, but he heard neither the question nor the response.
"Oi, don't you have a hug for your dad too?" Now that was going a little too far, but when had that ever stopped the Doctor. But Luke seemed amused, if a little bewildered, as he quickly hugged the Doctor.
Turlough was relieved to be out of this.
"What's going on?" the other boy asked as he came up behind. Then he stopped as he saw the dead body. "Oh."
"These two lovely agents seem to think we're involved," Sarah Jane said. She looked at them thoughtfully. "Now if they'd call Gibbs, I'm sure he'd vouch for me. We go way back," she added almost carelessly.
"Gibbs died three years ago in the line of duty," Tony said tersely, clearly trying to forestall further questions. "What, Ziva?"
"Trouble times three." She pointed at two teenaged girls making their way past the TARDIS towards the group.
"Just what we didn't need," Tony said ruefully. "Okay, everyone off the steps." He herded them all back upstairs.
"Maria Jackson, Honey Wheeler. Ami Conner". Tony was glaring at them, as was Ziva. The rest of the crowd was merely staring.
"Tony DiNozzo," Honey replied with an impish grin. "Mom was wondering if you'd like to join us for dinner tonight."
"I imagine your mother didn't expect you to deliver the message in person in the middle of an NCIS investigation." Tony reconsidered, "or perhaps, knowing Madeleine, she did." He must have realized that he'd dropped his stern expression, because suddenly it was back. "And what are you doing here?" It sounded like the start of a lecture, but instead Tony suddenly took two steps past her. Honey barely glimpsed his expression, but he didn't look happy. "Josh Townsend," Tony said softly.
Honey half-turned to see that Josh was about ten feet behind them and that Tony was rapidly closing the distance. Remembering the look on Tony's face she decided that following was not the best idea.
"Why don't you go on home?" Ziva said. It came off as slightly patronizing, but Honey figured Ziva thought she was protecting them.
"We can't. Josh is our ride," Maria answered cheerfully. Honey thought that was clever of her, but she wasn't sure Josh would go along with it or that Ziva wouldn't remember that they were close enough to walk home.
Honey glanced at Josh and Tony who had moved far enough away that there was no way of hearing their conversation over the traffic and wind, so she turned to study the crowd as they were herded up on the beach by one of the agents while being exhorted not to leave the scene of the crime.
She focused first on the girl who looked to be about her own age, automatically cataloging their appearances for future reference. She was short with blonde curls and blue eyes and a shirt that looked like it had started the day tucked into her jeans and now was pulling out of the waistband. The short black boy was whispering furiously in her ear. The other boy was white and clearly following the conversation, though he didn't seem to be contributing much. He reminded Honey of her cousin, Marshall, though she wasn't sure why. Maybe it was the shirt.
He was looking warily at Ziva while he chatted with the three adults, who were all dressed oddly to Honey's eyes. The blond man was dressed in a sweater and beige suit that her father would be horrified by. The redhead wore a more conventional suit, but it came off as ill-fitting, even though it seemed tailored to his body. The woman merely looked like she had got lost on the way to an eighties themed costume party in her big top, miniskirt and tights.
She suddenly realized that the first boy had broken off his conversation and taken a few steps towards them. "Maria? Maria Jackson?" he asked hesitantly.
Maria stared at him for a moment. "Clyde Langer. I thought it was you. What are you doing in America?"
"It's a long story." Clyde gave her a goofy grin. "Who're your mates?"
Honey thought she saw the other boy's expression change, but put it down to a trick of the light.
"These are Honey and Ami, Honey Wheeler and Ami Conner. Clyde Langer." Maria looked at him thoughtfully. "I wouldn't have thought you even knew my name. I was only at Park Vale about a year."
"Never forget a face, that's me," Clyde replied lightly. "These are Trixie Belden and Luke Smith."
"Honey?" Trixie exclaimed as though she knew her.
"Do I know you? Did we meet at boarding school or camp?" She'd been to so many of both that it was hard to remember sometimes.
Trixie started to reply and then stopped, as though Honey's response had bewildered her. Finally she asked awkwardly, "Did you live in Sleepyside, New York? Maybe three years ago?"
Honey shook her head. She would have remembered something like that.
Trixie frowned, a worried look in her blue eyes. "I must have you confused with somebody else." She didn't sound like she meant it.
"I'm Luke's mum," the woman introduced herself. "Sarah Jane Smith. Doctor John Smith." She indicated the man in the beige suit. "And Vislor Turlough. Do you normally get mixed up in murder investigations?"
Maria's eyes widened. "Murder? Someone was killed?" she blurted out.
Honey just froze. None of their previous cases had involved deaths. She couldn't help wondering if they were in over their heads. Judging by the looks on the other teens' faces, they were probably thinking the same thing.
"A naval officer," Sarah Jane explained, she might have said more, but Honey spotted Josh and Tony coming back towards them with grim faces and a chill slid down her spine.
"Who was it?" She asked urgently, hoping against hope that it wasn't-.
"The name tag said Alexi Caslovan," Doctor Smith offered, an odd look in his eyes.
"No," Honey whispered. She barely knew the woman, but Josh.... She half-turned to look at her mother's friend.
"You knew her?" Ms. Smith asked.
"She was a friend of a friend," Maria started to answer, but by then Josh and Tony had reached them.
"Sarah. What are you doing here? I saw you die," Josh said brittlely, a haunted look in his eyes. "I find one good thing and then you appear and it all crumbles into dust. Nat was right about you." This made no sense to Honey, but Josh was clearly grieving and not terribly coherent at the moment.
Ms. Smith started to say something and then stopped, a look passing between her and Doctor Smith that Honey guessed was significant. "Would it help if I said I was sorry for your loss?" Ms. Smith sounded dubious.
Josh just glared at her for a moment and then turned on his heel and walked down the stairs to kneel beside Alexi's body. Honey hesitated before walking over to place a hand on his shoulder, as she was sure her mother would have done, if she'd been there. For once neither Tony nor Ziva reprimanded her.
For a minute or two the entire group fell silent, respecting Josh's grief, and then all of a sudden, Ducky was there and Tim and everyone was being herded into cars to be taken to NCIS headquarters- Tony driving Josh, Honey and Trixie, while the strangers were piled into the van with Ziva and Tim. Given the way Josh had reacted to the woman, Honey thought separating them was a wise idea.
Gibbs was not happy. He'd been talking to McGee when the entire staff of NCIS had abruptly vanished, leaving him alone in the office area with a tall redheaded man who looked vaguely familiar and equally bewildered. "Gibbs." He held out a hand, trying to look more self-assured than he thought as he headed to his desk.
"Matt Wheeler." The man studied him slightly. "Aren't you one of Madeleine's friends?"
That was it, of course. Madeleine's husband. "Afraid so."
Matt gave a pointed look at the NCIS logo clearly marked on the wall and then at Gibbs' own ID, and said carefully, "I generally leave Madeleine to her own devices. Best not to know." He leaned casually against Tony's desk and studied the other man with shrewd eyes before continuing, "but given that I was in London just a moment ago, I don't suppose you know what's happened to the rest of the world?"
Gibbs shrugged, his blue eyes sharp under his shock of white hair. "I deal with the strictly mundane threats. Usually. This," he gave the room a sweeping gesture, "is beyond me." No, this was Sarah Jane Smith's bailiwick. He grabbed his gear and his gun and headed to the elevator before pausing at Tim's desk. "Can I offer you a gun?"
The other man looked slightly horrified and shook his head. "The only guns I've ever used were for hunting. Best not." He didn't ask whether Gibbs would have offered a gun to Madeleine under the same conditions.
He would have.
Tyler Jessup waited until they had all gone before he faded back into view. He'd stuck around thinking he could eavesdrop, but the constantly shifting crowd had made him wary of getting too close and the sound of the traffic on the road behind the park had drowned out the voices.
It occurred to him that with all the confusion, he could have made his way into NCIS with no problem, but he had another goal in mind. He strode easily across the pier towards the TARDIS. He hadn't thought it would be this simple. He was barely ten feet from the time machine when the grinding sound started.
A curse escaped his lips as the blue box disappeared.
He stood there for a moment staring at the square pressed in the damp grass where it had been. Finally he closed the gap and checked to make sure it hadn't just faded into invisibility. He knew all too well how deceptive that could be. He was going to have to call the Institute.
"Norman, it's Tyler. Everything went as planned. But the Doctor's here." He glared at the empty space where the TARDIS had been.
"Good. I'll let Ben know. As to the other, I'm sure we can work around him," Norman replied absently.
Tyler didn't bother arguing. Norman Jones might be funding the Avenir Institute's current project but he regarded time travel as a pipe dream. Tyler knew better. "What's next on the agenda?"
"Head over to NCIS. Get into the building, if you can get past security, and see what you can find out." Norman hung up the phone.
Tyler smiled. Norman didn't know about his special talent. He regretted not just blending into the crowd of suspects and agents, but the TARDIS was high on the list of Institute priorities, even if it wasn't on Norman's.
He turned and headed towards the parking lot, thinking all the while about how best to disrupt the investigation.
Trixie stared into space and wished she knew what was going on. With the agent sitting right there, there was no chance of asking questions, and the quick synopsis Clyde had given her at the scene of the crime had left her more confused than ever.
"There's this entity- I'm not sure what you'd call it- the Trickster. It keeps trying to alter Sarah Jane's past because that would throw the world into chaos," Clyde had said. "We have this gadget that, well, it keeps us tied to the right timeline and you were touching it when it happened. So we all remember the timeline from before the Trickster's plan went into effect, but the rest of the world doesn't. And I don't think Sarah Jane recognised us- she was just playing along because she- she understands about time travel."
"Why her? And more importantly what happened to my friends? Honey looked right through me at the crime scene." Trixie had frowned. It had been so weird, watching Honey, Ami and Maria greet the NCIS agents like they were old friends and the debonair Tony DiNozzo commanding the team, as if he wasn't the wealthy businessman she'd met last night. She'd even heard a reference to the 'Jackson-Wheeler' Detective Agency from the agent who was currently talking to Clyde about guns. What had happened to the Belden-Wheeler Detective Agency, and more importantly what was Honey doing wearing jeans and solving mysteries if Trixie hadn't been there to prod her along? She didn't like this world at all.
"Nobody's sure," Luke had said ruefully. "Mum might have some idea but she's not talking. She used to work with this time traveller called the Doctor..." he'd stopped there, watching Clyde doing his best James Bond impression.
It had been a lot to take in and Trixie was surprised at how quickly she accepted the idea. History had changed, somehow. But Clyde's explanation had raised more questions than it answered. She saw a chance to ask a few as they were waiting to get into the van. "If Honey and I never met, why is she here now?"
"I don't really understand this part myself, but Sarah Jane says that time wants to go back to the way it was, and will try to pull things back on track. The last time this happened to us, the world was a barren wreck with only a few people surviving, but Rani and I met her mum." Clyde shrugged. "We've beaten him before and we can do it again. But each time it gets more difficult."
Trixie had squeezed her new friend's hand. "Maybe I can help." She was already regretting the harsh words she'd said to her friends back on the beach. And that had reminded her of something. "Clyde, I don't suppose you've ever heard of someone who could blend into the scenery? Because I saw this guy headed down towards where the body was found, but when I turned to point him out to my friends, the guy was gone. Disappeared. The beach is empty and flat so he couldn't have just moved out of sight that quickly."
Clyde had stared at her. "We've seen other strange things. But Sarah Jane would be better at answering your questions than I would. Try to remember exactly what you saw and we'll try to find a way to reach Sarah Jane when we get where we're going." He fell silent and Trixie did the same. With that agent sitting right next to them, there would be no chance to talk during the trip.
Luke settled down between his mum and Dr Smith in the van. He didn't know why the Doctor, assuming this was the Doctor, was using an alias, but it was best to go along. There was little hope of privacy here, not with a trained government agent sitting on the bench across from them but he thought they could share a little information somehow.
It had hit him halfway through Josh's tirade that his mum looked younger than he'd ever seen her and it wasn't too difficult to follow that thought to its logical conclusion. This Sarah Jane was from a time before she'd rescued him from the Bane and from before she'd met that Josh fellow. He remembered how hard it had been for the Doctor to break through the Trickster's defences the last time and wondered how this one had managed it.
"Are we murder suspects?" Clyde asked. Luke could tell he was trying to retain some levity but failing. Seeing that body on the beach had chilled them all.
Agent McGee frowned. "Witnesses at the very least. We need to take their statements," he gestured at the three adults. The Doctor looked restless, his mum worried and Turlough somehow managed to slouch on the bench and look bored. "So, since we couldn't just leave you on the beach, you're stuck with us for a while."
Luke wondered if McGee was being evasive because he didn't want to tell a teenager that his mum was about to be charged with murder, but he didn't say a word. Clyde was already asking questions about what it was like to be an agent and carry a gun, and he could see the frown on his mum's face. She didn't like guns. He gave her hand a squeeze. "Everything will be alright, Mum. You'll see."
Sarah Jane managed a shaky grin and squeezed his hand back. She might not remember him, but she was still Sarah Jane Smith.
The new girl, Trixie, seemed subdued but not alarmed by the circumstances. She reminded him of his Mum in some ways. Too busy asking questions and formulating plans to look scared. Luke wished they'd had more time to explain, though judging by the whispered conversation earlier, she seemed to be accepting what had happened.
Which was what he should be doing for his mum. Clyde had involved the agent in discussion and Turlough and the Doctor were periodically interjecting comments, clearly meant to distract from the conversation right in front of him.
"Mum." He kept his voice low, one eye trained on the front of the van.
"Luke." She gave him a small smile.
"Um, short version." Luke hesitated, not sure how to start.
Sarah Jane shrugged. "We found a body. The authorities showed up. There was a misunderstanding about our identification." Luke could have sworn she winked at him, but it was so quick he might have mistaken it. She put her arm around him and said in a louder voice, "It will be okay, Luke. We'll get this sorted out soon."
Luke did his best to look worried. "I'm sure we will." He paused a moment, but McGee's eyes were trained on Clyde who was doing his best imitation of an American agent as seen in popular films. It was clear Sarah Jane didn't think it was safe to talk in the van, and he hoped Trixie had caught the hint. "Mum, do we need to call a lawyer?"
"I don't think so." Sarah Jane patted his knee.
Luke gave up and joined in the one conversation about the life of an NCIS agent. He felt a gentle hand ruffle his hair and smiled at the woman who one day would be his mum. They'd get out of this scrape. Somehow.
"Is it okay for me to make a call?" Josh's voice broke the silence of the car causing the three girls in the back seat to sit up straight. They'd been in the car for ten minutes already and no one had made a sound, each caught up in their own thoughts.
"Go ahead," Tony said easily, giving his friend a worried look. He still didn't know the reason for Josh's outburst at Ms. Smith earlier, but he hadn't forgotten about it. It didn't seem likely that Ms. Smith and her friends would have stood around and waited to be taken into custody if they were responsible for Petty Officer Caslovan's death, but there was something mysterious going on.
Josh pressed a button on his phone and waited for someone to answer on the other end.
Tony was suddenly suspicious of the silence from the back seat, but when he stopped at a traffic light and glanced back, he saw that Ami and Maria were staring out their respective windows and Honey was looking straight ahead. But then he shouldn't be surprised. Honey was too tactful to start asking questions with Josh right there, Ami was too shy, and Honey would keep Maria in line.
"Hello, Nat? It's Josh." He waited a moment before adding, "I've got some bad news." Josh explained in terse terms about Petty Officer- no, Alexi's death.
There was silence once again in the car as he listened to the response on the other end. "Meet me at NCIS headquarters. And you'd best bring Madeleine and Maria's dad. Honey and Maria were on the beach when the body was found." His voice faltered on the last bit, but then he added in almost normal speech, "They need to give statements, and I thought it would be easier to have us all in one place."
Another long silence. Josh's expression didn't change. Tony wondered how Josh knew Nat Redfern, and why she was the first person he'd called. He wouldn't have expected the other man to call Madeleine, the three of them weren't that close any more, but how did Josh know a computer programmer who just happened to work with Maria's dad?
"Listen, Nat, there's something else." Josh looked like this was even harder to relate than the death of his girlfriend.
"I saw her. At the park." He listened for a moment. "I know she's dead. I was there, remember."
Tony bit down an exclamation. That name had been niggling at him and now he had context. Sarah Jane Smith, journalist. One of three people who had died at the Green Point Power Plant explosion. Gibbs had been another and the third had been Matt Wheeler- Honey's dad. He'd gone over those reports a thousand times afterwards, trying to figure out what had happened, but the blast had eliminated most of the evidence. He'd never even found out why Gibbs had gone alone to investigate- well, whatever it was that he was investigating. Or why there had been no one else in the building at the time. No witnesses or at least they'd found none at the time.
"No, I'm not going to tell Dad just yet. I don't know what's going on, but this woman was using her name and looked exactly like her." Josh was upset, and after the day he'd been having, Tony didn't blame him in the slightest.
Tony made a mental note. So this wasn't just a case of stolen identity.
"I don't know what to think, Nat. There's no way she could have survived the explosion. I saw her body."
The bodies had been burned almost beyond DNA testing. It had taken one of Abby's miracles to make identifications and he still remembered her face when she reported that she'd found Gibbs. The whole team had been devastated and then determined, but investigations had hit dead end after dead end. He made a mental note to have Tim pull up the cold case file.
"Look, just come to the NCIS building. And do me a favor and call Madeleine Wheeler too, or have Marshall do it. I don't think I can do this again." Josh closed the phone with a snap, shut his eyes and leaned back against the seat with a look of 'do not disturb' written across his face.
Tony didn't ask the questions he wanted to ask. Instead he said to the girls, "So that's your parents notified. Anything you want to tell me about what you saw? Off the record of course." He shouldn't do this. It went against all protocols and he didn't want to make a habit of this, but Josh was an old friend and he was hurting so Tony was determined to sort this case out as soon as possible.
Honey replied quietly, "We knew Alexi was having a mysterious meeting on the beach, so we got Marshall to drop us off. If we'd been earlier maybe we could have-"
"Got yourselves killed too?" Tony asked angrily. "You're not trained agents; you're teenage girls. If you must carry on with this hobby of yours, at least do it from a safe distance, or someday that will be your body that someone finds." He took a deep breath. Perhaps he'd been too harsh on them, but this wasn't a game. If they'd been his agents, he'd have slapped them upside the head. "The person she was supposed to meet was me. We arranged it last night. Navy business."
Maria said, "But-" only to be interrupted by Honey's subdued, "He's right, isn't he?" and with a simple "Yeah, I suppose," she let Honey finish the story.
"We got to the beach at 9:35am. We sat on the beach watching for Alexi until we spotted some movement on the pier and decided that investigating that might be more productive. As we were walking over, we saw you guys and came over. That would have been at about 10:30am. Do you know when...?" Honey stopped, realizing she was on dangerous ground before Tony had to stop her.
"Not yet. Ducky will establish that." Tony replied. There would be more but that could be discussed in a proper witness interview. Both girls had been through that before and they had an uncanny knack for knowing what was relevant.
He focused on the road and allowed silence to fall again in the car. Josh wasn't the only person close to shock; none of the girls had ever had to deal with a violent death up close before and certainly not of anyone they knew.
Sarah Pearson looked around the sprawling mass of desks warily.
"NCIS headquarters? Why is it deserted? And why am I up here instead of in the lab with Abby?" Josie Trent asked. "I was just talking to Corrine when the call was dropped. And now I can't even get a signal."
"If I knew that I'd tell you. What happened?" Vaughn asked his mom as if she would have all the answers. "Where's Dad? He was right- in the lab." He faltered as it sunk in that they weren't now.
"I don't know," Sarah replied, peering out the high window at a featureless white world. She was unused to being able to explain herself. Finally she said, "I'm guessing that someone is attempting to rewrite history but they haven't succeeded completely yet."
Another voice broke in. "And what does that mean for us, Ms. Pearson? Are you suggesting that we've been written out of it somehow?"
"Um, hi. Where are we?" The shorter of the two women walked over and perched on the desk marked David, Ziva and studied the pair of men who had just come down the stairs. "And more importantly, why?"
"Josie!" The young man interrupted her. "What if they're the ones who trapped us here?"
"If they were, they wouldn't be just standing there; they'd be threatening us melodramatically." The girl grinned conspiratorially at Sarah. "Ignore Vaughn, he tends to panic. I'm Josie. Josie Trent, and this is Vaughn Pearson and his mom, Sarah."
Sarah looked thoughtful. "It's Gibbs, isn't it? You came around to Peardyne when Josie's application was accepted. I remember. To do the background checks. And please call me Sarah."
He didn't bother answering her first question. "I'm rather picky about who I allow to join my team. Matt Wheeler, Sarah Pearson."
"We've met," Matt shook her hand anyway.
"Oh, yes, Marshall's your nephew, of course." Gibbs threw his gear back under his desk, but didn't remove his gun.
"I gather you've been exploring. What have you found?" Josie asked. She'd faced down Victor at his worst and after that Sarah doubted that even Corrine's boss could intimidate her.
"Not much. We were able to reach the conference rooms but going any further just brought us back here. Attempting to use the elevator brings us up there." Gibbs pointed up the stairs. "You haven't answered my earlier question."
Sarah studied him for a moment. "I'm afraid so. Someone's altered time and we're stuck here until it's fixed or they make the changes permanent."
Matt moved restlessly before saying to Gibbs. "Looks like it's your bailiwick after all."
Gibbs nodded and dropped back into his chair with a frown. "I suppose the first question is why someone would want us dead, or more precisely what they would gain from our deaths." He looked at each of the other four in turn.
Vaughn slouched into Agent DiNozzo's chair and glared at the world. "This isn't the timeline you were trapped in last time?" he asked Josie.
"Can't be. There's someone else here. Besides we broke out of that time loop." But Josie looked worried nonetheless. "Long and convoluted story. It might be better to concentrate on why the five of us are here. What's so significant about us? And why here?" She dug around on Agent David's desk and came up with a notepad and a pen. "What would Professor Z say to do?"
"List what we know and then try to come up with a conclusion." Vaughn looked resigned. "And here I thought we'd graduated."
"Your Professor Z had the right idea," Gibbs said. "The fact that the five of us are here might tell us more about whatever is happening out there." He waved vaguely but Sarah understood what he meant. "Let's get to work."
Martha was considering stretching her legs and getting a cup of coffee when Lucas' mobile rang again.
He glanced at the number. "Hold that thought, I need to take this. Hello." He listened for a moment. "What happened? What do we know?" He had a worried look on his face now. "All three of them?" He buried his free hand in his light brown hair, disordering it. "Keep me posted. There has to be something. Look, I know we don't normally go to outsiders, but I'll talk to my team. They might have some ideas."
"That would be my team," Commodore Sullivan strode into the room carrying four cups of coffee which he quickly distributed. He didn't bother with his Royal Navy uniform except for special occasions these days, so he was dressed in an immaculate blue suit. Martha suspected Jethro Gibbs had been a good influence on him in that respect. Technically, any branch of UNIT was a military operation. On a practical level, this department wasn't.
"Yes sir, but I thought you might let me borrow them," Lucas replied.
Mickey had teased him once about how American he sounded when he said that only to have Lucas inform him that the preferred term was Canadian. Martha still hadn't let him live that one down.
"Explain," Harry leaned against his desk and sipped his coffee.
"Back when I was in school," Lucas said, "I built a gravity sensor to alert us when the wormhole was about to open." Blake Holsey High had had a temporal rift in their science office, similar to the one in Cardiff but much smaller. Still from what Lucas had told them, equally weird things had happened there until he and his friends had found a way to close it. "We installed it in Peardyne's lab just in case we could find another use for it. It suddenly started working this morning."
"Go on," Harry said.
By this time Martha was listening carefully. "A rift in DC?" she asked no one in particular. "That could be a disaster."
"I don't think so. It's just- that was Marshall. Josie Trent and Vaughn and Sarah Pearson have disappeared and Alan Jackson didn't even remember knowing them." He broke off there and looked at them inquiringly.
"I remember Josie and the others," Martha said automatically, though she was frowning. She looked at the other two. "But then I lived through an entire year in an alternate reality."
"It sounds like someone's decided to rewrite history," Harry said. "I- the memories are faint, but they're there. When I focus on them they get stronger."
Lucas looked relieved. "I wonder why?"
"Time travel. The Doctor tried to explain it to me once, but I'm afraid it all went over my head," Harry replied. He was already tapping out a number on his phone. He pressed the speaker button and instantly a voice came over the line. "This phone is not in service." He cursed mildly before trying a call on his mobile. He frowned and closed it almost immediately. "Same message."
"Who were you trying to call?" Martha asked. "Maybe they're just out of range of a tower. I can try." Her mobile had been fixed by the Doctor. It always had a signal.
"Sarah Jane Smith. And she's never out of range any more than your mobile is. Same trick." Harry frowned. "Try the Doctor."
She did and listened to the message on the other end repeating it to the team. "This call cannot be completed at the present time." She dropped the mobile on the desk. "I think we're on our own."
"Why did you call Ms. Smith?" Lucas asked.
"Because she told me to, years ago. Any time I was aware of time being overwritten. She never told me why," Harry replied.
Martha didn't know Sarah Jane well, having only met her in passing, but she'd read the other woman's file. At least what she had security clearance for. She'd also noticed that, like the Doctor and Jack Harkness, Ms. Smith's file in their department was much more complete than the one accessible by the rest of UNIT, which is to say there were gaps the size of lorries rather than planets.
"So that makes four people written out of the time stream," Lucas frowned. "Sarah Jane Smith isn't from the future, is she?"
Harry considered this. "No. Modern day Earth. Unless someone didn't tell me something. But I do remember that she described herself as a complex temporal object, whatever that means, though nowhere near as complex as the Doctor."
"Josie and Vaughn." Lucas paused then rushed ahead. "They both have one parent who came from the future. In Vaughn's case-"
"Sarah Pearson, I take it," Martha finished. "So whatever is happening has altered the future to the point where none of them were born. Not good." She rubbed her temples and hoped what was coming wasn't as bad as the year the Master had ruled the Earth. But she feared it might be worse.
Nat shut her mobile and said tersely, "The girls have got themselves into a little scrape."
Alan looked at her for a second. "That didn't sound like a little scrape," he said, trying to remain calm. She'd been guarded on the mobile, so he didn't even know who she had spoken to. Or why they had called her. All he knew was that she had gone white during the call and he didn't think that was a good sign. "We need to collect Marshall and let Victor know." Their boss was unpredictable, but he hadn't had an issue when Honey and Maria had got into trouble before. "Marshall was headed to the lab when I saw him earlier."
"Then that's where you're headed," Nat did a 180° turn and headed for the lift. "I'll get the van."
The door to the lab was closed, and yet the 'do not disturb, experiment in progress' sign was not up. That was rare enough to be alarming. Alan rapped on the door.
"Come in." A moment later, Marshall opened the door a crack. "What's up?"
"The girls are in hot water again," Alan replied. "Is something wrong?" Marshall's hair looked more disordered than usual and he looked slightly stunned. And Alan had clearly heard him unlock the door - a door that was never locked when there was someone inside.
"Nothing you need to worry about," Victor appeared at Marshall's shoulder. "Go, see to your cousin. We'll let you know what we find out."
Marshall looked like he was going to protest, but then did as he was told. "I'll be back. And I'll talk to Abby when I get there. Josie might not-" he broke off.
Alan frowned. Corrine had mentioned a Josie in the corridor. It was probably nothing, though.
Neither man spoke until they were settled in Nat's car and headed to NCIS HQ. Alan would have offered to drive, but the van was specially adapted for Nat, and he himself still wasn't completely comfortable driving on the right.
After a moment, Alan glanced at Nat, before returning his eyes to the road. "What's wrong? And don't tell me nothing."
"That was Josh- Josh Townsend who called with the news. His girlfriend's dead. I don't know the details," she trailed off. "He doesn't deserve this. After what happened on the Dauntless, he doesn't..." she fell silent and he didn't prod her.
He'd never got the full details of that. Hadn't even known much more than Josh's name until dinner the previous night, but Maria had insisted on looking it up when they got home. The Dauntless had been Josh's father's pet project, a privately funded space shuttle that had failed its major flight tests. Sir Donald Wakefield had retired afterwards, ailing and despondent, his dream in ruins, leaving Josh to take up the reins of his company.
It had been clear last night that the failure of his father's dream still weighed heavily on his mind. Nat had said that they hadn't spoken since then, and it was only a coincidence that had brought them together last night in the form of a dinner invitation from Madeleine Wheeler. Alan could tell that Nat had liked Alexi and had been happy for her friend, but there were still odd gaps, awkwardness and silences between the two old friends.
Alan reached over and gave Nat's hand a quick squeeze..
After a moment Alan answered, "They've been taken into custody at NCIS. The only trouble they got into was being found at a crime scene with no way home."
Shifting out of park, she signalled and pulled back into traffic."I should be with Josh. He needs someone," Nat added softly, and Alan rubbed her hand again.
Marshall reached over the seat and patted her on the shoulder. "It shouldn't take long to get there."
Alan turned to look over the seat at Marshall. "Is something wrong with Victor? He looked rather shaken earlier."
"He- no, it's nothing major," Marshall said vaguely.
"Was he different back when you first knew him?" Alan asked. Both of his part-time staff had got their jobs by knowing the boss; he and Nat were the newcomers here. "I know he'd lost all his money. But he always seemed to look upon you as the son he never had."
Marshall flinched at that, and Alan wondered what he'd said. It had been clear from the start that Corrine and Marshall were Victor's protégés.
"Yeah, he was different," Marshall said. "Which was good and bad. But his heart was in the right place. Do you mind if I run down and talk to Abby while I'm there? And I'd better call Aunt Madeleine now."
"I'm sure you can. I think Nat is going to want to stay with her friend, so we won't be leaving immediately." He glanced at Nat who was focused on driving to the exclusion of anything else. "Don't worry, Nat. We'll be there soon."
Turlough had fallen silent by the time the van pulled into what he assumed was the car park, there being no windows in the back of the van. This was confirmed when the agents opened the back door, and encouraged them all to exit and led them into the lift. He noticed that they pressed two buttons and when the lift door opened, Agent David gestured for the three adults to stay back while Agent McGee exited with the four teenagers.
"Where are you taking my son?" Turlough thought Sarah Jane was overdoing the concerned mother bit, but he also understood the need to keep track of the kid who might be able to fill them in. "I understand you need to question us, but he didn't do anything."
Agent McGee seemed to think it was a reasonable question. "He'll be safe. He's not a suspect, so we'll find a place to tuck him away until we get you three sorted out." He led the teenagers down the hallway, the lift doors closing before they were out of sight.
Sarah Jane, Turlough and the Doctor were fingerprinted and then deposited in what the agent in charge referred to as a conference room, but which they all recognised as an interrogation room. "I believe we're being watched."
"I wouldn't have expected any less." Turlough sat down in one of the chairs and propped his long legs up on the table. They'd been stuck in worse places, though. This was almost pleasant.
Sarah Jane perched on the table and watched the Doctor pace. Finally she said, "We have two choices. We go over what we've learnt so far and confuse whomever is watching in the process or we play it safe and chance not having all the pieces."
"When do we ever play things safe?" Turlough replied sarcastically.
The Doctor just looked worried. "If you're here, in this time period, then you'll have to be careful."
"I know, I know, Blinovitch Limitation effect. I touch myself, I go boom." Sarah Jane shrugged. "I think that's the least of our worries at the moment. Especially since there's at least one person who seemed to think I was dead."
"That Josh Townsend fellow said he'd seen you die, so I'm guessing yes," Turlough said callously. "I wonder what else has changed."
Sarah Jane slid off the table and started pacing. "We won't know that until I can have a proper conversation with Luke, and I suspect that whoever is responsible will be doing everything in their power to keep us apart. And who says whatever changed has already happened?"
"Sarah, don't-" the Doctor snapped.
"Don't what? Don't face the fact that I might be dead at the ripe old age of- what year is it anyway? I live a dangerous life, Doctor, even when you're not around." Sarah Jane abruptly slumped down on a chair.
"But we've got two conflicting realities here, Sarah. That kid seems to think you're his mother." Turlough smirked at her. "And he didn't seem surprised that you were alive."
"I suppose." She didn't sound convinced.
Turlough suddenly remembered what he had wanted to tell the other two at the park. "This may be more complicated than a simple murder."
The Doctor frowned at him. "How do you mean?"
"Caslovan is the name of one of the families that would have been exiled from Trion when I was. I don't remember there being an Alexi, but I'm not sure how long ago that would have been either. She might have been born on Earth." Hard to tell with the information they had. "We were scattered across the globe, to reduce the possibility of fomenting rebellion. I've had no contact with any Trions except my watchdog since I got here."
"Well, in a way that's good," Sarah Jane said. "An autopsy will bring up questions, and someone will come and talk to us and then you can lay on the charm." This last bit was directed at the Doctor.
The Doctor gave her his best 'who, me?' look and they settled down to wait.
Harry and his team were still contemplating their next step when the phone rang. Lucas answered it and spoke to the person on the other end for a minute before hanging up. "That was Ducky. They've got a body that isn't human." He paused. "Stupid question. Did Jethro Gibbs die three years ago?"
The room was divided on that one.
Martha turned to Lucas. "We'd better hold our tongues if we don't know what's changed-"
He nodded. "Stick to people we can see and events we can trust and try to figure out where history went wrong."
"Add that to the list and bring the list with you. NCIS. Everyone got their gear?" Harry was already halfway out the door, and the rest followed without question.
Taking the van always felt silly, given that they were less than a mile away, but they'd had to bring back corpses often enough that it was necessary. Harry showed his ID at the car park, but they were called in often enough that the guard recognised them and waved them through.
Martha made sure her badge was visible and picked up her bag. Time to see what Gibbs had for them this time.
"Abby-" the agent started. "Ah, I see you've already got some of your visitors."
"Don't tell me there are more, McGee. I mean, I know Tony said there would be more but I was hoping. Oh, alright. Stay out of the way and don't touch anything and we'll get along just fine." Abby glared at Tim.
"What, no hug?" He grinned impishly at her.
"Not if I'm stuck being a glorified babysitter again. Go." She pushed him out the door before studying the newcomers, who seemed a bit nonplussed by her. Good. That always made things easier.
"Hello, I'm Abby Sciuto and I'll be your glorified babysitter for this afternoon." She set the DNA sample that she'd just prepped into the machine and turned to the group. "Names," she demanded crisply.
"You guys are cute. Just like little ducklings." That got a few glares. "Okay, ground rules. You don't touch anything and you don't distract me and I won't bother you." An annoying beep sounded and she tuned to discover that the machine was registering an error. She hated when that happened. "Hold that thought." Abby tapped a few keys on the keyboard and frowned at the results. She nodded at the area where Honey, Ami, and Maria were standing, her black pigtails swinging at the sharp movement of her head. Once they'd joined the others, she turned back to her computer, absently ordering, "Sit. Stay." She was vaguely aware that they obeyed, even though the only place to sit was the floor. She peered at the results. Not an error then. Abby picked up the phone and called autopsy, absently using her remote to turn down the heavy metal music blasting through the lab.
"Ducky, how are you doing on the autopsy? I seem to have got a questionable sample." They'd been through this before, once or twice, so he'd understand precisely what she meant.
"I've already called in UNIT. Internal anatomy confirms that the deceased is under their jurisdiction, though close enough to human that she wouldn't have a problem with a Navy physical," Ducky replied smoothly. "Commodore Harry Sullivan and his team should be arriving shortly. Do you want to break this news to Tony or shall I?" There was a pause on the other end of the line, and Abby was unsurprised when his next words were, "Never mind, he was standing right behind me." Tony had picked up a lot of bad habits from Gibbs.
"Good, let's hope he brings someone who can get me into the UNIT databases." A needless worry. Lucas always traveled with the team. "The sooner we identify the species, the better. I imagine Tony will want to debrief you, so I'll let you go." She hung up the phone Something stirred beyond her field of vision and she turned to see that this last sentence had caught the attention of Luke and Clyde who had dropped all pretense of desultory conversation to pay attention to her phone call. She threw her hands up, grabbed her Cafpow, and wandered over. Best to know now.
"Okay, who here knows what UNIT is?" Two hands went up besides her own, but she didn't call on any of them. "They're an organization that deals with extraterrestrial life forms. I'm not really sure of their mandate, but they have a team that comes in when we find we're dealing with an alien. An alien from outer space," she clarified. "Mostly, it's like calling in any other specialist. They help us identify the species and try to sort out any aspects of the case that involve other planets' governments, or cultural or physiological differences."
The two teens who had their hands up were looking at each other oddly as though this didn't quite make sense to them. Finally Clyde spoke, "UNIT's a military organisation that was created to deal with alien threats. I never heard of them having an investigative division."
"Mum doesn't like them much," Luke added, his brown eyes thoughtful. "Too many guns."
Abby studied them. This was new. "So you've met aliens before?"
"Yup. Saved some, defeated others. Crack team of alien fighters, us," Clyde replied with a brash grin.
"Wait. There are aliens now?" Trixie was looking at her friends like they had betrayed her in some way.
"Clyde, you've completely flipped," Maria added. "Are you suggesting that there are aliens in Ealing?"
"Well, perhaps not at this moment, but there have been," Luke answered. "I'd say this murder case just got a lot more complicated."
Their little group had grown to eight but no one had identified a pattern and Sarah found herself wishing that this was another of those situations when she had future knowledge that she couldn't share for fear of disrupting the timeline. She hated not knowing.
"He has a thing against redheads," Josie joked. "Aw, come on, isn't it a little bit funny?"
"No," Jim Frayne snapped. He hadn't stopped glaring since he'd arrived. "So, we're stuck in this limbo. Why?"
Sarah patiently repeated the explanation for about the tenth time.
"I think you're all bonkers, honestly. I'm getting out of here. Anyone coming with me?" Jim headed for the elevator and Alexi Caslovan followed him. The rest didn't have the heart to tell her they'd tried that already.
Matt stared after his adopted son with a worried look.
"So what do we have?" Gibbs asked. There was a neat chart now, listing dates and times- potential targets for their unknown adversary's plot. They'd tried a variety of patterns and formulas but nothing had worked. They'd gone over what they'd done that morning and who they knew in common and still there was no solution. There was no criteria that applied to all of them. Not even being from the same century, thanks to Sarah Pearson.
"We're all human," Josie noted helpfully. This got several glares, but Sarah wrote it down. "It could be relevant. We're also all from 2010, whenever we started out."
Sarah started to reply but she was distracted by a swirl of motion on the stairs and froze. A figure out of nightmare. Humanoid, faceless except for a twisted, sharp-toothed mouth and sunken places where his eyes would have been and clad in a mockery of her Order's traditional black dress and hood. She'd seen drawings among the Order's papers, but never expected to see the Trickster herself. Silence was the Observer's stock in trade but this was beyond her.
Gibbs took up the slack. "I gather you're the one who trapped us here. Care to explain why?"
"I have a score to settle. You were in the way," the Trickster walked past him to stand in front of Sarah. "Sarah Pearson. Almost as legendary as her namesake."
"Trickster. Exactly as vile as the legends say." Sarah was almost proud of that retort.
"Do they?" He didn't seem terribly interested. "I have an offer to make."
"No, you don't," Sarah faced him with a glare that even worked on Victor sometimes. "No deals, Trickster."
"I didn't expect you to accept my bargain," he replied savoring each syllable. "The offer is this, I'll return you to life in exchange for Sarah Jane Smith. Any one of you."
"You heard the lady." Gibbs folded his arms across his chest. "Did you really think anyone here would play your game?"
Sarah grinned a thanks for the backup, just as the party that had left to explore returned.
"Is that the guy who's responsible for this?" Jim came barrelling up the aisle and took a swing at the Trickster, but hit only empty air, though the laugh still echoed through the room.
"That's the guy," Gibbs replied, just a little too late. "Did we learn anything from that?"
Jim answered, "We just ended up back where we started."
Sarah thought for a moment. "We know his target. Sarah Jane Smith."
"I've figured out one thing we all have in common." That was Josie, still trying to remain upbeat. "None of us is very good at sitting around waiting to be rescued."
No one laughed.
Tony studied his friend thoughtfully. "We've sent Ms. Smith's fingerprints off to be identified, Josh. If-."
"There is no if," Josh broke in tiredly. "She looks exactly like Sarah. And those IDs you mentioned were names Sarah used to use. But I was there when she died. There is no way she could have recovered before the explosion, even if she didn't have a bullet through her chest." He hadn't meant to say that, but it just slipped out. Josh rubbed his temples wondering if this day could get any worse.
"Josh, we were among the teams called in to deal with the investigation and the aftermath. Our team leader died in that explosion, giving us jurisdiction. I saw the reports, read the witness statements, Ms. Smith's body had barely enough usable DNA left for identification and there was no sign of a bullet." At the time everyone had been thankful that the Green Point Power Plant's experimental energy source had burned clean and that they hadn't had to deal with a nuclear clean up, but it had still caused a blackout over much of the East Coast. "Clearly, the reports weren't very complete. They certainly didn't mention your name and we never turned it up. What happened?" At least that was curiosity in Tony's face and not blame. Josh carried enough guilt from that flight to last a lifetime. "Josh, in case you hadn't noticed, Madeleine's husband died in that blast. As did my team leader and your Ms. Smith. What's going on?"
"It's a long story. There just didn't seem to be any point in telling it afterwards. Sarah was dead." The prophecies of the Orbus Postremo were proved wrong. Nothing had made any sense after that. If he hadn't believed in the prophecies, hadn't pulled Sarah into his world, this never would have happened. His father had survived cancer to see his life's work fall apart. And he blamed himself for his best friend's death, because he hadn't realised that the Crimson Chapter was still active until it was too late.
An agent came by and handed Tony a stack of reports, which he flipped through. "Fingerprints. Vislor Turlough, no record, which doesn't necessarily mean anything. Doctor John Smith. Hmmm." Tony stared at the report.
"What?" Josh asked. "Is something wrong?"
"No," Tony was quick to reply. "It's just there's not much here." He brought up a program and tapped a password into the computer. And frowned. "The record's locked. High level British security clearance." He gave Josh an inquiring look.
It was now Josh's turn to frown. "Before I met her, Sarah had ties to UNIT. I never got all the details. She used to joke that her records had a higher security clearance than she did." He'd never understood why she found that so funny, but when she found out about his ties to the White Chapter, he'd known he'd lost any chance of finding out.
Tony looked over the last report. "Sarah Jane Smith, journalist." He looked over the file at Josh. "You were right about the security clearance. But the report does mention the Dauntless- and her death. So why is there a woman in our holding cell with the fingerprints of a dead woman and what connection does she have to the death of your girlfriend?"
And what does this mean for the prophecies, Josh thought but did not say aloud. He was trying to come up with something he could say, when the lift doors opened, and he heard rather than saw Nat's wheelchair. With a quick glance at Tony, he closed the gap between them and dropped down to hug her tightly.
"I'm so sorry, Josh." At least she wasn't saying he deserved it. Even if she still hadn't forgiven him for Luca's death, she wasn't throwing it in his face.
He heard movement behind him and then Tony's voice. "They're downstairs in Abby's lab. You might as well go down and see what they're up to."
Josh recovered himself and stood, to see Alan Jackson standing off to the side. "Nat, will you be okay? I'd best see what my daughter has got herself into this time."
Nat nodded. "We'll be fine. I'll let you know when we're ready to go." They wouldn't all fit in the SUV, but Marshall had called his aunt on the way, and she'd said she'd be here soon. She turned to Tony. "Is there a quiet place where Josh and I can talk?"
Tony led them down the hall to a conference room. "I'll keep you informed about what I find out."
"Thanks," Josh managed before following Nat into the room and shutting the door.
"Ms. Stokes, didn't you just leave?" the guard asked.
"Forgot my phone. I shouldn't be too long." The pretty blonde smiled at him flirtatiously over her shoulder and headed for the elevator. To her relief, it was empty. Tyler let the disguise slip away for a moment, considering his options.
The man who walked out of the elevator towards the conference rooms was tall, square-jawed and attired in a classically styled suit- the stereotypical image of a government agent. Tyler admired himself in a window. The gray at the temples was a nice touch, he thought.
He hadn't been able to get a good enough look at any of the crowd at the beach to imitate them, but that would change soon.
When Tony reached his desk and found Commodore Harry Sullivan, UNIT standing there, he sighed. Sullivan and Gibbs had had too much in common to work well together, but he knew Gibbs had respected the British Naval officer. Tony saw any cases that involved calling in UNIT as a headache and a half, but Sullivan's team was better than some of the others he'd been forced to work with from other agencies.
"So what have you got?" Harry asked.
"Not much yet. Dead Petty Officer turns out to be- not human. I haven't told her boyfriend yet. He arrived shortly after we found the body. In fact it's too early to even have a proper report to give you." Tony paused. "You came alone?"
"We ran into Ziva in the car park, so I sent Martha off with her. They might spot something your team doesn't know to look for. Lucas went straight to the lab. For now we'll treat this as a case in your jurisdiction that we have an interest in. At least until proven otherwise. It may still be that it was the Petty Officer that got killed, not the alien."
Tony nodded. That was Harry's usual procedure. "Walk with me." He stood and headed towards the elevators. "We've got the people that found the body in a conference room. We just ran their fingerprints, because they were lacking proper IDs." Tony passed him the reports. "Apparently one of them used to work for UNIT."
"The Doctor." Harry looked like he wasn't sure whether this was a good thing or a bad thing. "Vislor Turlough. The name sounds familiar." He shook his head as if to dislodge the thought. "It will come to me. Sarah Jane Smith." At this the Commodore stopped dead in his tracks.
"You knew her?" Tony asked. "The report and Josh Townsend both claim she's dead and I was there when Abby did the autopsy. She wouldn't have made a mistake."
The officer turned looked as though something suddenly made sense. "She is dead." Somehow that sounded odd, but Tony couldn't put his finger on why. "But that doesn't mean she can't be sitting in your conference room. We just might want to avoid telling her that she's dead."
Tony tried to parse his cryptic comments, and wished that he could have traded places with McGee. The Elf Lord was always better at this sort of thing. Finally, he replied, "I think we're past that. Josh said something to her on the pier." At the other man's curious look, he felt obliged to add, "Josh's a friend from way back, and he was nowhere near Petty Officer Caslovan when she died." He knew that there were always ways, but he preferred to keep faith in his friend.
Harry nodded, not bothering to reply as the elevator opened and they walked down the corridor. "Lucas will take a look at the DNA. See what race we're dealing with."
"Good." Tony stopped and unlocked the door. "You've got company," he said to the trio lounging about the room.
"Harry." The woman slid off the table and enveloped the Commodore in a big bear hug. "What year is it?"
He didn't seem to think this was a strange question. "2010, old girl."
"Given that I'm neither don't you think it's time you stopped calling me that?" Sarah Jane slapped him playfully, a move Tony would never have dared, any more than he would have slapped Gibbs back under normal circumstances.
The blond man had already moved in to shake Sullivan's hand energetically. "Harry Sullivan, you imbecile. And I mean that in the nicest of ways. I see you made Commodore, congratulations. Oh, I don't think you've met. Vislor Turlough, Harry Sullivan. Harry used to travel with Sarah and me."
Tony saw Sarah Jane and Turlough roll their eyes at each other behind the Doctor's back. Clearly that impulse wasn't limited to his own team.
"That was a long time ago." Harry finally extricated himself from this warm welcome. "It's good to see you again, Doctor. And you, Sarah. So what's going on?"
"I could ask you the same question," the Doctor replied. "What about the death made them call in MI5? And aren't you supposed to be operating in the UK?"
Harry stared. "I'm not MI5 now. I'm currently head of a UNIT division in the DC Metro area." Silence. "You didn't know."
"We barely had a chance to look at the body before the NCIS team arrived," Sarah Jane explained. "What's going on? And where have you taken my son? If you're not going to interrogate me, I'd like to see him," Sarah Jane snapped at Tony.
"He's fine. Currently he's down in the forensics lab. I'll arrange for you to see him once we're done with you." Tony hoped that was tactful enough. Having read the report that came back with Ms. Smith's fingerprints, he didn't really believe she was the murderer, but procedure needed to be followed. At least until he had a better idea.
"Ah. Yes. The body wasn't human," Harry explained. "So we were called in. At the moment we're assuming this isn't related to her death, but we don't know for sure yet."
"We're investigating a time anomaly, not an alien invasion, Harry," the Doctor said. "Whilst there is a possibility that the two are related, you may be right about the murder."
"So if we solve the murder we solve the time anomaly?" Sarah Jane asked curiously. "Or the other way around?"
"Precisely," the Doctor replied. "Now what species are we dealing with?"
"We've got people in the lab trying to figure that out. And a team checking out her quarters. My own people and people from UNIT. If there's anything there to be found, we'll find it," Tony replied. Gibbs had always shared information freely with Sullivan, and if Gibbs thought it was a good practice that was enough for him.
Turlough broke in,"We're pretty sure she's a Trion. Like me."
"You may be right, but perhaps we should check the DNA to be sure." Tony replied "Not a close friend, I gather?"
"If she's in her early twenties now, she would have been born on Earth. We were scattered. I had no contact with my own people." Turlough paused and Sarah laid a hand on his shoulder. "I don't know what the situation would be like on Trion now. It's about thirty years after I left. Governments can topple in less time. She just- deserved better."
Harry turned to Tony. "I'd appreciate it if these three were released."
"There's no reason to keep them, not if you vouch for them. But I would appreciate it if they didn't leave the building." Tony hadn't figured out what was going on with Sarah Jane Smith yet, but he was determined to solve that mystery. "And Ms. Smith, I'd appreciate it if you stayed away from Josh Townsend for the moment."
"My presence did seem to upset him on the pier." She nodded at him. "Fair enough. Can we go down to the lab, then? So I can see my son and we can double check the DNA?"
He'd hear about the crowd that had ended up in the lab from Abby later, but he didn't have any reason to refuse. "Fine. Harry, we need to talk." He spotted McGee hovering outside the door and waved him in.
The Commodore nodded.
"Good. McGee, what do you have for me?"
"Not much, boss. We've located her former commanding officer and he's coming in. Lieutenant Ben Kimmel. She was reassigned to Washington for a short term assignment, as her ship was about to, well, ship out. Kimmel was also reassigned from New York to DC He's currently working on a military-civilian joint project with the Avenir Institute." Tim replied. "No friends- at least not here, and no close family. She was close to the guys in her unit, but the ship left port four days ago and are all accounted for. She hasn't been reassigned yet. She's not been assigned a space in on base housing yet nor does she have an apartment in town. Apparently she and her boyfriend, that would be Josh Townsend, got into town last night and shared a hotel room. I haven't checked her whereabouts for last night."
Tony nodded absently, suddenly remembering what he wanted McGee to do. "McGee bring these three down to the lab, then get out the Green Point casefile."
"Tony," Tim started to say and then stopped.
Tony slapped him upside the head just in case. "Figured it out then, McGee. Maybe we'll finally get some answers." He could ask Josh, but he wasn't sure he could trust the other man's answers if he gave any. "Oh, and don't worry about where Petty Officer Caslovan was last night. She and Josh were at a party that I would have been at if Vance hadn't kept me late. Marshall Wheeler's coming in. You can get the details from him. Or Maria and Honey."
"Sure, boss." Tony watched as he led the three former prisoners away.
He did not want them wandering unescorted, however much Sullivan vouched for them. They were still ostensibly suspects in a murder case. "Wait, McGee, use one of the computers in the lab. I might need Ms. Smith back up here at some point. Or take her with you if you leave the lab."
"Got it. I'll stick to her like glue. This way, please." It took about two seconds for Dr. Smith to engage McGee in conversation, so Tony tuned them out. He didn't need to understand geek, that's what he had McGeek for.
Once they'd gone Tony turned to Harry. "I think I deserve an explanation. To start with, what did happen at Green Point?" Not that he expected an answer, but there was always a chance that UNIT knew, and he'd never have a better chance to ask.
Tyler had blended into the wall the moment he'd heard the agents coming, and then had taken advantage of the open door to eavesdrop. It hadn't taken him long to realize he'd found the Doctor. The man was a myth at the Institute, and until today, Tyler hadn't been sure he believed in him, but if he was real, the stories told about him were enough to make Tyler cautious.
At least all was going according to plan. They'd linked Ms. Caslovan to Ben and were bringing him in for questioning. It was only a matter of time before the stuff they'd planted in her apartment lead them to Norman Jones, respectable businessman and philanthropist. And then the fun would begin.
The other conference room was locked and none of his usual tricks for disabling locks worked. Deciding it might be safer to skip the conference room, he headed downstairs to the autopsy room. A little interference with the evidence wouldn't be amiss.
Norman Jones considered himself a lucky man. None of the people from his old life would even recognize him as Jonesy, petty crook and good-for-nothing. He'd thought, once, about going straight, but that was when Katje was alive. After she died, leaving him with that brat of a stepson, he didn't see the point. Nothing was given, you either took what you wanted or you lost out.
When Jim had run away, he'd followed, not out of any sense of fatherly duty but because the boy was due to inherit a fortune when he came of age. The fire at the old Frayne place hadn't been his fault, but he'd benefited, nonetheless. First when Jim had died in the fire, and then when he'd discovered the mattress, stuffed with cash. Who did that these days?
There had been enough money for him to cut his losses. Besides if he'd tried to claim Jim's fortune, there was too much danger of being blamed for the boy's death.
Instead he'd headed South, trading his cheap suits for bespoke tailoring and getting his teeth fixed before he settled in DC and set himself up as a businessman. Meeting Mr. Avenir in a restaurant had been an unexpected plus. He might think some of the other man's goals were no more than fairy tales, but he understood the mindset behind them and the desire for control.
Up until now, he'd only been involved on the business end of things, as a benefactor, but Avenir had put this team together specifically and the promised rewards were great enough that he had been unwilling to say no. He'd regretted it this morning- Tyler Jessup was a wild card, and he doubted the boy's commitment to the cause, but Avenir had wanted him and Jonesy was willing to trust the other man's judgment, up to a point.
The doorbell rang, and he took his time answering it. Peering through the peephole, he saw a black woman holding up a badge. Ziva David, he assumed. He straightened his tie and checked his hair in the mirror by the umbrella stand before leisurely answering the door. "What can I do for you?"
"I'm Martha Jones and this is Ziva David. We're from UNIT and we'd like to ask you a few questions." That was a new one on him, but then new agencies seemed to pop up every day down here and some of them even hired foreigners, women and minorities. He'd never had much respect for the law, and this had lowered it even more.
"Come in. I'll be glad to help in any way I can," he said as he waved them in. He'd learned the value of pretending to be civil. Everything was going according to plan.
Except it didn't. "We'd like you to come with us, please." Ms. Jones stood with her arms folded, making it clear that it was a polite order. There was a time when his first instinct would have been to run, but he reminded himself he wasn't that man now.
Several retorts came to mind, but Jonesy bit them off. "Whatever you say. I'm not under arrest, am I?"
"No, of course not," Ms. David said with an edge in her voice.
"Then you won't mind if I call my lawyer before I go." That was what he was supposed to do if things went south. Call Ben and trust the Avenir Institute would take care of him.
"Not a problem, Mr. Jones," Ms. Jones said. "You can do it on the way."
It was such an effort not to say the things he was thinking but while he might be able to take out one of the girls, they probably had backup in the van. If he annoyed them, he might find himself sitting in a jail cell on some trumped up charge indefinitely. And that was the last thing he wanted. He'd been to prison before and had sworn that he'd never go back.
Abby had given up any pretense that this was a secure faculty. She used her remote to turn off the music, shocking the crowd into sudden silence. "Okay, everyone sit down now!" She used her best Gibbs voice. Sipping from a fresh Cafpow, courtesy of Lucas Randall, she addressed the room. "I'm not sure why you've all ended up here instead of going home, but some of you are going to have to leave so I can get some work done. She glanced up as the door opened again. "Tell me Tony didn't send you down too."
Tim nodded before replying, "Don't shoot the messenger. I've been told to babysit Ms. Smith. Mind if I use one of your computers? I brought you a Cafpow."
Abby accepted the bribe, even though she already had one. This was going to be at least a two Cafpow crisis. She'd save her rage for Tony. Gibbs would never have done this to her, she thought, conveniently forgetting the times he had, and she would get her revenge. "I do mind, yes. We're already breaking the fire code in here." She slapped the back of his head and then glared at the crowd and the conversations that had started up while she was distracted subsided. "Whomever has an essential reason for being in this room can stay. Everyone else needs to get out."
Tim gestured at his companions. "This is the Doctor, he's here to help with the DNA identification."
Abby expected Lucas to protest, but instead he blurted out "you're the Doctor." Abby didn't think she'd ever seen Lucas in awe of anything before. "Whatever you need, sir, just let me know. I'll let Commodore Sullivan know you're here."
"We just came from talking to him," the woman offered.
By process of elimination, Abby identified her as Ms. Smith. "Okay, Doctor, you can stay and one of your associates. The redhead. And Lucas. Tim if you must watch over Ms. Smith, do it at your own desk. Maria, Honey, you know I love you, but you'll need to take Ami and the rest of your entourage elsewhere." She waved to indicate the other teens, not caring if they were all together or not. "Now go."
Trixie was even more confused than she had been before. This whole business with Alexi being an alien. She surreptitiously pinched herself, just in case she was having a bad dream but it hurt too much to be the product of a nightmare. At least Honey and her new friend seemed to be just as lost.
They took the elevator up in silence. As they emerged on what was clearly the office level, Trixie saw something that absolutely convinced her that this wasn't a dream. Jonesy, but not the Jonesy she knew. This man had his hair neatly cut and somewhere along the way he'd got his teeth fixed. He walked past with Ziva as if he didn't even recognize her. But if Honey didn't recognize her- Trixie's stomach knotted. If Jonesy was here, looking like he had money, then what had happened to Jim Frayne? She wasn't sure she wanted to know the answer but- she caught McGee's eye and said in a rush, "The man who just went past with Ziva- do you know who he is?"
McGee didn't seem to think this was an unreasonable question. "Norman Jones, I think. He works for the Avenir Institute. That was Petty Officer Caslovan's last assignment."
That got Marshall's attention. "Avenir Institute?"
"We've had some suspicions that they're using their Navy ties for something underhanded, but we haven't been able to establish what. We were hoping Alexi might be able to help us there."
Marshall started to say something else but stopped.
Trixie jumped into the breach. She'd had a moment to think about how to present this without saying too much. I think he may have been responsible for a fire that claimed the life of a boy in Sleepyside- his stepson Jim Frayne would be too much, but "Can you look into what happened to his stepson? I think he might have been in Sleepyside three years ago but then he just disappeared? His name" she bit down hard on the word was- she didn't know that he'd got the money that way, "is Jim- James Winthrop Frayne. Jim's mom's name was Katje but Jonesy called her Katie." She expected him to dismiss this as folly.
But to her surprise he was writing this down. "Got it." He caught her eye. "We're grasping at straws here. Anything's a possible lead."
"I've got another one for you," Marshall said finally. "Last night Alexi and I realized we went to the same school. So did another guy, Tyler Jessup, who got a scholarship to the Institute and didn't come back to Blake Holsey. If he's still working for them..."
"Good to know. I'll pass all of this on to Ziva." He studied them for a moment. "I'll be right back."
Trixie watched him cross the room to get something out of what she assumed was his desk, make a quick call to someone and leave a message on one of the other desks.
"Okay, we're getting you out of here. I don't think you can help at the moment. I'm sending the lot of you back to Honey's where you should have lunch, compare notes, brainstorm and most importantly, stay put until we need you again. Marshall, that goes for you too. You're in charge, until one of their parents is available. And yes, you're all staying together," he added in response to Clyde's and Maria's protests. "Tony thinks that if I dump you all in a room and let you at the problem, you might come up with something useful and I'm inclined to agree with him." He glanced at each one of them in turn.
Marshall nodded. "I'll call Victor from the car."
Trixie found herself wondering why the cops she'd met had never treated her like that. She might have got along better with Sergeant Molinson if he had.
"We don't know much about the explosion," Harry leaned against the table. "It wasn't us. As far as we can tell, it wasn't Torchwood either. They don't usually operate outside the UK. We've been trying to find out, but Sarah would have been our only possible informant." He shrugged. "She tends to work on her own when the Doctor isn't around, and we don't know what she was working on that would have led her to a power plant in New York three years ago."
"Let's backtrack a moment. You acknowledge that Ms Smith died three years ago, but you don't seem surprised to see her here." Tony was sure there was a simple explanation and Harry obliged him.
"Okay, I can accept aliens. I've dealt with some strange things during my time here, but you are not telling me time travel works." Tony knew he should have let McGeek handle this.
"Sorry, old chap. I've travelled with the Doctor myself. That blue box of his is a time ship. And the Sarah who you've got in custody, must be from before the explosion." Harry grinned at Tony. "I know it's hard to accept, but when you ran those prints it triggered a notification on our server. I'm just glad we were already on our way. I'm sure you didn't want a troop of soldiers coming in for a murder investigation. You've seen the evidence. And she would have been in her fifties at the time of the explosion."
"The woman downstairs is in her thirties." Harry was making a surprisingly persuasive argument. "That's why you didn't want her to know that she's dead."
"Yeah. Though if anyone can handle the details of her own death, it would be Sarah." Harry replied.
Tony hesitated a moment before revealing what Josh had let slip earlier, but Harry had been straight with him and now it was Tony's turn. "Josh told me earlier- Sarah wasn't killed in the explosion, she was shot. And he was there, at Green Point when she died."
"I think perhaps, we'd better talk to Josh Townsend," Harry said. "Sarah won't know anything. She hasn't lived through it yet. And there's something else I'm curious about. Do you know anything about the Dauntless?"
"I followed the news reports." Tony hesitated. "I've known Josh and his dad since I was a kid, so of course I paid attention." He'd told McGee that he was interested because it was like a sports car, powerful and fast, but wasn't sure his friend had believed him. Still the entire team had sat glued to the news reports during the space shuttle's maiden flight. "Three people went up: Josh, Ms. Smith and the pilot, Ben Kimmel. And three people made it down alive, but just barely. There were enough problems to scrap the program." He'd nearly gone down to Nevada, to visit Josh in the hospital, but there had been a case, and then another, and before he knew it, Josh had gone back to England. He suddenly realized what he'd said. "Ben Kimmel. We're three for three."
"And I stopped believing in coincidences a long time ago." Harry folded his hands and the two men stared at each other in silence.
When Tim had said he was sending them home for lunch, Trixie hadn't expected him to pack the six teenagers and Marshall in NCIS's van and drive them himself. But Alan didn't want to leave Nat who was comforting Josh and Honey's Mum hadn't turned up yet.
"Have a seat," Honey said as she opened the refrigerator and pulled out a pitcher, while Maria filled the tea kettle as though they'd been doing this all their lives. "Ami made the lemonade, but there's tea if you want it. No soda, though."
Memories of Honey helping her fix dinner at Crabapple Farm bubbled up and Trixie had to bite her lip to keep from saying something.
An awkward silence filled the room. As much as Trixie liked the idea that the six of them might come up with something the professionals had missed, their shared experiences this afternoon hadn't made them friends, at least not yet.
It might have gone on longer but it was broken by a musical voice out in the hallway, Mrs. Wheeler. Trixie couldn't help but wonder what Honey's mother would make of all of this.
"Oh, hello. Jules, they're here. I've got to go. See you in a couple of hours? I'll call if I need to postpone. Give my love to that husband of yours." Mrs. Wheeler listened to the answer, then closed the phone and dropped it on the table, studying the crowd. "Welcome. So, shall I attempt domesticity and make you some lunch or let the girls do it? I warn you, my culinary skills are chancy at best." She gave her daughter a one-armed hug and an air-kiss on the cheek, before pulling out a chair to sit with them.
Trixie blinked. Mrs. Wheeler looked every inch like the spoiled socialite Trixie remembered, perfectly coiffed hair, the same blue silk dress with matching shoes that she'd been wearing at breakfast, but something was different. The Mrs. Wheeler she'd known would never have deigned to even suggest she might cook.
Clyde poked her under the table and Trixie was about to glare at him when she realized that Honey's mother had asked for her name. "Trixie Belden."
"Welsh rabbit," Maria said suddenly. It took Trixie a moment to realize that she wasn't saying her name, but what they should have for a snack. "I think I've got a recipe. Oh, wait, it's at home." Maria's face fell.
"Let Clyde cook," Luke said suddenly.
"Oi." Clyde glared at him.
"Now that's a disaster waiting to happen," Maria said, but her face brightened.
"He's quite a good cook," Luke insisted.
Clyde turned to glare at him. "I suppose we're all forgetting what happened at dinner last night."
"I wasn't there," Trixie found herself saying. "What happened?"
"No one warned me that American measurements were different," Clyde glared at them again. "Or that you don't have self-raising flour."
"If you ever paid attention in lessons." Luke was fighting back laughter. "We covered that in maths last year. Imperial measurements."
"Well, I think that's just silly." But Clyde was laughing too by this time. "That cake was rather flat, wasn't it?"
"Reminds me of the first time I tried to make pancakes," Honey said. "The recipe called for oil, and I just used what we had- rosemary infused olive oil. The pancakes tasted strange."
"Oh, that was awful," Ami blurted out, startling everyone including herself. She'd been so quiet, that Trixie had almost forgotten she was there. "It was the first time we came up to visit, just before Beth married Kelsey. And I tried to choke them down like a good guest, but combined with the maple syrup..."
"And the burned bits," Honey added.
"I wasn't going to say." Ami gave Honey a smile. "Inedible is putting it mildly." She bit her lip and fell silent, causing Trixie to decide that Ami was just shy around strangers.
"I was so embarrassed. I wanted to make a good impression." Honey winced at the memory.
Mrs. Wheeler smiled at this. "You've improved since then. I, on the other hand, can just about boil water for pasta when it's my turn to make dinner."
Honey patted her mom on the shoulder. "Those chicken cutlets you made the night before last were yummy. One of these days you're going to have to admit you can cook. Clyde, why don't you see if there's something you can whip up? We can help you with the measurements. I helped Maria's dad convert his recipes when they first moved here."
"Oh, all right. The great Clydalicious is in the kitchen." He stood and with an elaborate gesture took a chef's coat off a hook on the wall behind him and then made a show of buttoning it up, despite the total lack of reaction from the crowd, before giving up on his schtick and starting to rummage in the fridge.
After a moment, Trixie got up to help him. As awkward as it felt to be rummaging in the Wheelers' kitchen, she was equally ill at ease with Luke and Clyde, having glommed on to them by chance as it were. Keeping busy helped.
As did Clyde's interjections about the contents of the Wheelers' fridge.
"Leftovers from last night," Mrs. Wheeler explained. "Unfortunately, Honey's lamb chops were so good that they were all eaten," she added proudly.
"You don't have a chef?" Trixie asked. She had understood it last night, when she'd gathered that the house was just used for short visits to the city, but it was clear that they were living here. "I'm sorry. That was tactless." She studied the package of fresh pasta Clyde had passed her rather than looking at Mrs. Wheeler.
But Mrs. Wheeler just smiled at her sadly. "I lost my husband a few years ago and I decided I needed to be closer to Honey. This was my parents' home when they were in DC so we moved in and set up housekeeping. I'm not very good at it, but Honey's close and that's all that matters."
Mr. Wheeler was dead? Trixie froze. When the others had talked about multiple timelines she hadn't imagined anything like that.
But Honey had taken up her mother's explanation, "It's been fun. Even the failures. And if we hadn't moved here, and you hadn't sent me to Pembroke, I never would have met Maria. And Ami wouldn't be able to come up for vacations." She gave both girls shaky smiles.
You would have met me, Trixie thought fiercely, but she had the sense not to say it out loud.
"Josh, are you sure you want to do this?" Nat asked as they entered the lift. Josh had pulled out of his grief long enough to ask one of the office workers where Sarah Jane was. She was all too aware of Alan's presence in the lift and the need to be careful about what she said.
"I have to. I have to know how she can be here," Josh replied tightly.
Nat pressed the lift button, wishing they were done with this already and understanding too well for her own peace of mind. She'd almost forgiven him for lying to her and Sarah. Almost. Even if he'd only been obeying his father, Sir Donald Wakefield, the Keeper of the White Chapter of the Orbus Postremo. There was nothing like having one of your friends consider another friend a religious figure to put a strain on your relationship, but she wasn't about to say that to Josh. It wasn't his fault he'd been brought up as an acolyte. "Your dad?"
"He doesn't know yet. He's not strong enough and I need to know how she got here and why before I say anything to him. The cancer's been in remission, but we don't know how long he's got." Josh sighed. "He seemed so happy when I brought Alexi to meet him. I didn't think I'd ever see him smile again after the- after Sarah's death." After the woman they'd believed to be their Herald had died, leaving the prophecies unfulfilled.
The door opened and Josh and Alan followed Nat's wheelchair down the corridor.
Tyler turned a corner and grinned. He'd been almost to the elevator when he'd been hailed by the pair. Not that he had any idea where Ms. Smith was at the moment or where he'd directed Mr. Townsend. Hopefully he'd get lost on the way. His current instructions were simple- create as much confusion as he could. All it took was a thought.
None of them were of the temperament to stay idle long, so they'd one by one drifted back to the bulletin board they'd ended up using for their brainstorming when it no longer fit on a notepad.
"Wait, if we're all dead in that other reality, who's to say that we're all important? Some of us might have just been caught in the crossfire," Vaughn offered.
Sarah frowned at this. "If everyone who'd died because of whatever the Trickster did was here, I think it would be a lot more crowded than this."
"What haven't we tried, then?" Jim asked impatiently. "We've done everything from country of origin to hair color and still haven't come up with anything to tie us all together- except in a very tangential way."
"Maybe we're starting from the wrong end," Josie said, absently twisting one of her pigtails around her finger. "We're trying to stop some event, yes? And the Trickster's got us out of the way for a reason. Everything happens for a reason," she repeated to Vaughn, with an amused look on her face. "Maybe it isn't where we've been but where we're going. Where would we be, if we weren't here?"
Gibbs already had a fresh sheet of paper at the ready. "Last memory of what you were doing before you showed up here." He aimed a pencil at Matt.
"At a meeting in London. I was hoping to get things done so that I could come to DC to be with Madeleine and the kids this weekend." Matt shrugged.
Jim was next. "At Georgetown Waterfront Park, arguing with Trixie over her tendency to read mysteries into everything, as usual." He thought for a moment, then added, "In case it's relevant, since we do seem to have a mystery on our hands. She thought she saw my stepfather in the airport talking to Alexi, then she overheard Tony making plans to meet her. Trixie thought that was mysterious," he said with an air of resignation.
Gibbs nodded. "Alexi Caslovan's transfer to DC before she entered Annapolis was engineered so that we could debrief her about the Avenir Institute. We have reason to believe that they're using a partnership with the Navy for goals we wouldn't condone. Tony had a tip from someone that she might be a target."
Sarah glanced at Gibbs, then Jim and said slowly, "That's it then. It's not a single point of reference, it's a Venn diagram. All centered around Alexi Caslovan and the Avenir Instititute for some reason."
"Wait a moment." Gibbs grabbed his pen. "Name recognition? Sarah Jane Smith? Anyone?"
The result was disappointing. Only three people raised their hands, Gibbs, Sarah and Alexi.
"Okay. I met her in Afghanistan. She and a Professor Bernice Summerfield cleared a problem up for me at that dig in Afghanistan. She also left a message on my answering machine that Alexi might be in danger," he added.
"Bernice Summerfield?" Sarah asked. "Archaeologist?" Temporally, this didn't make any sense.
"Yeah." He looked at her. "Problem?"
"Aside from the fact that she's rather famous- as a 27th century scientist. Before Earth developed time technology." In for a penny, in for a pound. "Sarah Jane Smith has a certain reputation in certain circles, even in my time, though she's not well known outside them. I had a chance to meet her once, last year."
Gibbs shook his head. "Somehow that doesn't surprise me. Either of them."
Alexi had been staring at Gibbs since he'd mentioned her name. "Sarah Jane thought I was in danger? But - this had nothing to do with -," she broke off.
Gibbs frowned at her. "Petty Officer Caslovan-"
She took a deep breath. "Let's start at the beginning. With the Avenir Institute thing."
The second mention of that name caused Josie to blurt out, "But we defeated Avenir." She looked at Sarah appealing for backup.
"We did. But there were Avenirs in this century too. That name has a history." Sarah decided that was enough and nodded at Alexi to continue her story.
"I was working on a joint project with the Avenir Institute. I'm not really sure what we were doing; the science was beyond me. Then I got the word that I'd been accepted into the Naval Academy. I thought I'd be continuing there until I had to report to Annapolis, but my C.O. called me into his office and told me that I was being reassigned. And Tyler- Tyler Jessup, one of the civilians on the project who I'd been dating, broke things off. It was all very plausible and I didn't think much of it at the time. Then I returned to my unit and discovered they'd got their orders to be shipped overseas."
Gibbs held up his hand to silence her and arched an eyebrow at Vaughn. "Does the name Tyler Jessup mean anything to you?"
"He was a student at our school." Vaughn indicated himself and Josie. "Not a nice guy."
"Didn't he get some sort of scholarship to the Avenir Institute?" Josie asked, frowning.
Gibbs wrote that down. "Go on, Caslovan."
"He did." She bit her lip. "I went to Blake Holsey too, I was a couple of years behind you- a sophomore when the school closed. I had a bit of a crush on Tyler back then." She gave them a rueful look and returned to her narrative. "I started feeling isolated right after the ship left. I didn't have any reason for it, but I got nervous. I think that's when I finally decided to agree to a date with Josh Townsend."
"Stop for a moment." Gibbs wrote on the chart again. "Anyone?"
"Josh is a friend of Madeleine's from when they were kids," Matt said. "She told me that he and Tony DiNozzo were having dinner with her last night." He looked at his son for confirmation.
"Both of them were there last night. And Alexi." Jim thought for a moment. "And he mentioned Gibbs."
"That's what Tony said. Interesting thing is that I've never met Josh Townsend. Which Tony must have known when he brought it to my attention." Gibbs drew a big circle around Josh and Sarah Jane's names "Even more interesting is that Tony had no hesitation in connecting the two of them."
Vaughn stared. "The Dauntless. We watched the launch in science class," he said to his mother. "Would Dad have known Sarah Jane's name? He was more temperamental than usual when things didn't go according to plan with the launch."
But Sarah didn't get a chance to answer because Alexi jumped in. "Wait, are you suggesting that this Sarah Jane Smith asked a multi-billionaire to chat me up, just to keep an eye on me? That makes even less sense than... the only way I know her is because she tracked my family down four years ago and said that my parents could go home. I'd been born here and I didn't want to leave so I enlisted."
She stopped and backtracked. "My parents were political exiles." She paused to look warily at the group. "From a planet called Trion. The new government at the time decided that the best way to deal with potential rebel factions was to exile them to a galactic backwater, no offense intended. Sarah Jane has contacts. Apparently there had been a political upheaval and the exile was lifted but no one could find us. Paperwork," she said pointedly. "So one of the former exiles had her looking for us."
Josie broke the silence. "So I was wrong about the whole 'we're all human' thing," she said ruefully. "Another theory shot to pieces."
Alexi smiled. "I can't think why Sarah Jane would think I was in danger unless it involved politics on Trion, and there was nothing in my parents' last letter." But would they have told her? "It just doesn't make any sense. Unless- I'm not the only Trion who chose to stay behind. Davin Avenir was another. She hinted at one point that she'd asked for me specifically because she knew my parents. And my parents confirmed that she was a friend. Not that I understand all the undercurrents of Trion politics. Mostly it just confused me."
"Everything happens for a reason," Sarah said like a mantra.
"We just need to figure out what it is," added Gibbs as he made a few more notes.
In the end, Clyde and Trixie had settled on macaroni and cheese which was now baking in the oven and filling the kitchen with a wonderful scent, while Ami made fresh lemonade. "About twenty minutes?" Clyde looked to Trixie for confirmation. They'd collaborated on the recipe, improvising from the ingredients they found.
Trixie nodded, thinking that given the quality of the cheese and breadcrumbs their lunch wouldn't have been out of place in a fancy restaurant.
The conversation had remained light while they were preparing the dish, but the moment they sat down at the dining room table to wait, Mrs. Wheeler asked, "What happened?" She gave Honey, Marshall and Maria a look that Trixie would have loved to know the meaning of. "I've heard from Tony. Now it's your turn."
Tim found Sarah Jane a chair and settled her by his desk, making sure that there wasn't a computer in her reach. She was a reporter after all, or claimed to be, and he didn't trust her not to be tempted to try to sneak a peek at whatever she could find on the harddrive or network.
It was short work to bring up the thick file on the Green Point explosion. He'd written a script during the original investigation to keep it updated and to ping him if anything new was uncovered. Searching for information on the trial flight of the Dauntless was more difficult. He paged through press releases and publicity photos. No photos of Sir Donald Wakefield, the reclusive billionaire who had bought the first two passenger tickets- the only ones for the maiden voyage- or of his son, Josh Townsend and Sarah Jane Smith who had taken those seats when his cancer had flared up, leaving him too weak to fly. Only a press photograph of Ben Kimmel, ex-Navy Pilot, who had chosen to return to the Navy after the failed flight. Mindful of his instructions not to discuss the Dauntless with Ms. Smith, he didn't ask her why there was so little documentation beyond the fluff for the press. He glanced up at her. "Ms. Smith, are you reading classified documents off of my screen?"
"Those don't look very classified to me, given that they're clearly newspaper clippings," Sarah Jane replied easily, but she did lean back in her chair. "But judging by the date, it's twenty years after I left home, so perhaps I'd better not look any further now. It's not a good idea to know one's own future."
"If you say so," Tim replied dubiously. Harry had tried to tempt him away from NCIS once or twice, but he'd decided that despite his interest in the subject matter, he preferred more straightforward cases.
He was just about to turn back to his work when he heard gunfire. Instinct took over and he took cover, gratified to see that Ms. Smith had the sense to do the same on the other side of the desk. He already had his gun in his hand and he gestured that Ms. Smith should stay under his desk while he investigated.
As much as it shocked Trixie to see Mrs. Wheeler so interested in her daughter's activities and so calm about her involvement in a murder investigation, she had to admit her friend's mother asked pertinent questions. Before long the six teens were actively comparing notes accompanied by the macaroni and cheese which turned out to be just as good as it smelled.
Trixie tried to think about it as a normal mystery. How many times had she done this before? But it wasn't normal. Nothing was normal. And yet, everyone was trying to pretend it was. There had been no mention of UNIT or aliens, and she didn't bring up the Asian guy from the beach who had disappeared. "Mrs. Wheeler, could I get a pencil and a piece of paper? Maybe we should be writing this all down."
"Just a moment." Mrs. Wheeler stood and headed for the door. "There should be a pad of paper in the telephone stand in the entryway."
After she left, silence fell, broken only by the sound of the phone ringing and Mrs. Wheeler answering it. Trixie couldn't hear what was said, but she wasn't trying very hard.
But when Mrs. Wheeler walked back into the room sans paper, a slightly worried look on her face, she immediately got the attention of the group. "That was Tony. We need to head back to NCIS now."
The kids immediately responded with a flurry of questions about what was going on, talking over each other. "What happened?" "Did they find the killer?" "Do they think someone's coming after us?"
Mrs. Wheeler held up her hand for silence. No, I didn't get any details. They're sending a car to pick us up. No, I don't know why." She sat back down at the table and moved food around on her plate. "I don't know when they'll be here either, but we'd best eat up."
Trixie didn't have much of an appetite after that and from the looks of things neither did any of the others. Mrs. Wheeler seemed fidgety and it spread to the rest of them. Trixie wondered if she knew what had happened and been instructed not to tell them or if something in the other woman's manner had communicated that it was bad.
Thankfully it was only a few minutes before the doorbell rang. The group hurried into the entryway, leaving the dishes as they were.
"I'll do them later," Honey promised, as her mother peered through the peephole before opening the door to Agent David, who entered the house with a sharp glance around. "You haven't had any problems? Anything unusual happening?"
"No," Mrs. Wheeler answered. "We came home and had lunch."
Trixie grew impatient. "What happened?"
"There's been an incident. No proof yet that it was related, but we're not taking any chances with our witnesses. When I say the word, I want you to walk one by one to the van and get in. Martha and I will cover you."
"Do you think we'll get shot at?" Clyde asked. Honey looked slightly alarmed at this.
Ziva opened the door a crack and scanned the area. "Nothing of the sort- we hope." She hustled them out of the door and into the back of the van before getting in herself and slamming the doors shut. Martha was already belting herself in to the driver's seat and starting the car.
Meanwhile, Ziva had got out her phone. "Tony, I've got them. What's the status there?" A pause. "That's not good. I trust you've got him in custody now."
"We should be there in twenty." Ziva closed the phone. "You were right about Norman Jones," she said to Trixie. "He lost his head when Tony started questioning him about his stepson. The records were there, but if we didn't know to look, it might have taken us longer to finger him." She took a deep breath before continuing. "He managed to keep cool during the interview, but when they reached the elevator he somehow grabbed a gun from an agent returning from a case and started shooting."
"And you think it's safer for us to be there?" Maria asked with a slightly incredulous air.
"He revealed some things when Tony questioned him. Apparently he blamed his partners for mousing him out."
"Ratting," Clyde corrected absently. "So he gave them up?"
"That sounds like the Jonesy I know and hate," Trixie said, ignoring the twisting in her stomach. Punishing Jonesy wouldn't get Jim back.
Ami folded her hands and considered them. "I gather they don't know he's confessed."
"Not confessed, precisely. We still don't know what the plan is, but we have the names of his associates- one of whom turns out to be Ms. Caslovan's former commanding officer. We're going to have to tread carefully for now. There's a chance there might be more than three people involved. He mentioned a boss, but he didn't have a name, just an organisation. The Avenir Institute. I don't suppose any of you have heard of it besides Marshall?"
The six teens shook their heads, but Mrs. Wheeler frowned. "The name sounds familiar." She suddenly went white. "They were the ones behind the technology at Green Point. I thought they'd gone out of business after the disaster, but Kelsey, Josh Long and Tony were the ones who dealt with the aftermath. I was in no shape to, and I didn't want Matt's sister swooping in to deal with it. Business is not my strong suit, so I called in my brother and friends to handle things."
"Josh Long- Raven Long's husband? You have interesting friends Mrs. Wheeler." Ziva looked at her sharply. "And I gather you were Tony's contact last night."
The other woman nodded. "I don't know why Tony felt he had to keep it a secret."
Judging by the look the two women gave each other, Trixie knew Mrs. Wheeler was lying and that Ziva knew she was lying. She wondered why.
Ziva looked a little wary. "We're not going to have to deal with Hagen during this investigation, are we?"
Mrs. Wheeler looked affronted. "I should hope not. Unlike my brother, I had the sense to cut those ties years ago. And if he comes within 250 miles of Honey, I call my friends in." There was an edge to those words that Ziva seemed to understand even if Trixie didn't.
Even Honey looked bewildered by the turn this conversation had taken. "Mom? Are you saying this has something to do with Dad's death?"
Trixie would have wrapped an arm around her friend's shoulder, but Maria got there first.
"I don't know, but it is a connection." She studied her daughter across the aisle of the van. "Three people died in that fire. Your dad, Tony's boss and a reporter- Sarah Jane Smith." This caused a ripple through the van.
"My mum," Luke said, "but-"
"But Sarah Jane Smith is alive and well at Headquarters," Ziva pointed out. She pulled out her phone. "I should make sure Tony is aware of this."
"He already knows," Maria blurted out. "When we were on the way to NCIS, Josh said something on the phone about Green Point. And about the cause of death not being the explosion."
"Josh? Josh wasn't there," Mrs. Wheeler said sharply. "What would he know about what happened? Even Abby said she'd died in the explosion, why would he think differently?"
Honey bit her lip. "Mom, he said he was. When he called Nat Redfern. He said he knew Ms. Smith was dead because he'd seen her body. I was thinking about Alexi and didn't make the connection at the time."
"Mrs. Wheeler, perhaps it is time you considered how well you know Josh Townsend," Ziva said as Martha parked the van. "And I must let Tony know that the woman who claims to be Ms. Smith is an imposter."
"Except she isn't," Martha spoke for the first time from the front seat. "She's probably a time traveller. And given what a tangled mess this has turned into, I wouldn't be surprised if the Doctor wasn't far behind. It's becoming his sort of case."
Clyde laughed for some reason. "The Doctor was with her at the beach. Along with a fellow named Tylow."
"Turlough," several voices corrected him including Trixie's. Names could be important.
"Whatever. He's here, we're all here, perhaps it's time to compare notes and figure out what's going on and how it could possibly relate to something that happened three years ago," Clyde finished as Ziva threw open the door and encouraged them to exit in a semi-orderly fashion.
"McGee!" Tony walked into the room. "What have you got for me?" He scanned the room, taking in the damage caused by Jonesy's shooting spree and stepping carefully around the medical team treating Alan Jackson and two of the office staff for injuries and the crew collecting evidence. The thought that he should have escorted Mr. Jones to the elevator himself crossed his mind, but he banished it. No one had known the man would try something that desperate.
"Alan had just exited the elevator when Jones got his hand on his guard's gun somehow and started shooting randomly. He's in custody now. Agent Flynn got hit with two bullets to the chest- thankfully she was wearing a vest. Alan Jackson took one in the shoulder and Agent Parker was just grazed. I've sent Ziva to bring back the kids. This incident aside, I think NCIS is the safest place for them at the moment," Tim answered in rapid fire fashion.
"You may be right, Probie," Tony replied, absently falling back into old habits.
"We've got a team working on the DNA in the lab and here are the files you wanted," Tim continued, passing him a flash drive. "I was reading the case files. Josh and Nat were in the lab for some reason, but I've let them know about Alan."
Corrine Baxter was sitting at Gibbs' desk, Tony noted. They'd never gone back to a four person team, so the desk had remained empty, but Tony still felt a twinge when he saw someone sitting there. Still he kept his voice calm as he instructed Corrine, "Don't touch anything. I suppose Victor sent you in search of his stray employees."
She nodded "I'll be good. Is it okay if I call Victor to tell him what happened?"
"I'll believe that when I see it," Tony said, as if Corrine were Honey or Maria. The young woman- all of Marshall's friends for that matter- had gotten involved in more than one of his cousin's investigations. "Go ahead, but be discreet."
Tim started to say something, but Tony spotted Josh Townsend walking past the elevators towards his desk and waved to his old friend. "Hold that thought, McGee. Are you feeling any better, Josh?"
"A little. I can't believe that she's gone."
"Ms. Redfern?" Tim asked. "Wasn't she with you?"
"Bathroom," Josh said tersely, before walking over to Ms. Smith. "I wanted to apologise for my outburst earlier. It was uncalled for."
Tony caught Tim's eye and frowned indicating that something was wrong. He trusted the other agent to be ready when he moved.
"Not a problem," Sarah replied lightly. "You were upset. Don't worry about it. I'm sure they'll find her killer."
Tony was distracted from this byplay by the opening of the elevator. He caught Tim's eye and gave a brief nod. Keep him here. Keep him talking. Tony excused himself and walked over to catch Madeleine and the teenagers. Thankfully, Mr. Jackson had been moved to the infirmary, but that could wait. He really didn't have any time for subterfuge. "Madeleine, I think there's something amiss over there," he gave a brief nod to where Tim, Sarah and Josh were sitting. "Walk over with me. I want to see something."
Madeleine nodded. "Stay here with Ziva. Just for a moment," she instructed her daughter. Something about the request made the entire group obey her.
She was in full socialite mode as she walked over to Tim's desk, and Tony had to admire it. Hearing the sound of the elevator he glanced back to see another Josh exit along with Nat Redfern. He pointedly caught Ziva's eye before doing the same with Tim. Not that he needed to. His team was well picked and well trained.
"Hello, Corrine," Madeleine said in her most innocent voice. "Perhaps you can explain what I'm doing here." Somehow the graceful socialite contrived to trip over Josh's feet on her way to Gibbs' desk.
"Sorry, ma'am," Josh grinned and moved to help her up.
"Oh, don't mention it," she said in her snootiest voice as she managed to right herself on her own. Tony wasn't quite sure how she did it, but she managed to give the impression that she found the concept of touching Josh somehow distasteful.
Not that it mattered, he'd heard enough. Tony moved in a smooth motion, perfected through years of practice, catching the false Josh in an armlock, and plucking the cuffs Tim had waiting for him out of the air. It wasn't until the fake Josh was handcuffed, that Tony realized that Sarah Jane had reacted just as quickly, by moving out of the way at just the right moment. "I don't know who you are but you're not Josh Townsend," Tony said with a glare. He couldn't quite manage the levels of glare that Gibbs had mastered, but he came close enough.
The man at the desk protested, claiming the other Josh was the fake one.
"Tyler Jessup," Corrine snapped. "What are you doing here?"
The man didn't react to this.
"Are you sure we've got the right one, boss?" Tim asked.
Ms. Wheeler was leaning against Ziva's desk at her most serene. "Josh would never have called me ma'am." As though it were the most obvious thing in the world.
"And the real Josh would have never have said bathroom." Tony's voice was dripping with scorn. "You got the accent right, but you should have thought about your choice of words."
"Problem, Tony?" A voice asked from behind him.
Tony flinched. "Don't do that, Ziva."
"And what would that be, Tony?"
Tim did his best not to laugh.
"Oh, forget it. What do you have for me?" He'd left her at the elevator with the kids, but whatever she had was important enough to make her leave her post. A quick look showed that the kids were still there, and he gestured to Mickey and Martha to bring them over. "Wait, let's get Mr. Jessup taken care of first."
"I believe this is your jurisdiction," Tony told the UNIT agents with a smile. Better them than him.
Martha nodded. "Could we borrow a holding cell for the moment? And arrange for fingerprints? Two guards at all times. He seems to have a little talent for disappearing into the woodwork, which might work a little better if he were actually intangible," she finished on a sarcastic note.
Tyler had indeed tried to blend in with his surroundings to no avail. "You might as well drop the illusion. Ziva take Marshall Wheeler with you and get as much information as you can about Mr. Jessup and his talent. Wait. What do you have for me?" Tony asked.
"Mr. Kimmel is in conference room two. I thought you might like to know." Ziva suddenly noticed Madeleine leaning against her desk and glared at the other woman, who gave her the best 'who, me?' expression Tim had ever seen and stayed right where she was.
"I'll see Mr. Kimmel in just a moment. Martha, find your boss and have him meet me there."
"Got it, boss," Ziva grabbed his shoulder and gave him a push in the right direction, gesturing to Marshall. "This way, please." It took him a moment to untangle himself from the crowd of teens, but he did as she asked and as Tony watched, Martha joined the queue, talking rapidly on the phone.
"Tim, finish what you were doing. Josh, could I speak to you for a minute? Madeleine, you too?" He looked at the kids thoughtfully. "No wait. This is getting way too tangled." Tony reached for the phone.
Turlough wasn't quite sure why he'd been picked to stay. It wasn't as though he was doing anything beyond standing around and making sarcastic comments. They'd successfully identified the DNA as Trion and then he'd been directed to stand in a corner whilst Abby dealt with the rest of the evidence. He'd been given the option to go down to autopsy and identify the body, but he couldn't see the point. The Navy had confirmed that she'd been born on Earth, in Ohio. His grasp of Earth geography beyond England was rather shaky, but apparently it was one of the United States.
"What have you got for me, Ducky?" Abby asked the man who had just entered.
Turlough idly wondered if he'd got that unfortunate appellation at Public School, but more importantly why he hadn't discarded it immediately after.
"Two things. First of all, I've confirmed our victim was dead before she ever hit the water. Not enough water in her lungs for that. And second of all, she fought back." He handed her several plastic bags. "I was able to extract this from under her nails and more importantly, from her mouth. The blood traces were compromised by sea water, but there should be enough hair and skin to make a positive DNA match."
"You're brilliant. She's brilliant." Abby's exuberance was interrupted by the familiar sound of the TARDIS engines materialising, though they sounded intermittent and off-key.
Turlough glanced at the Doctor, but the other man just looked bewildered.
"I left it parked on the beach." He started towards it as it began to appear in fits and starts, fading, then becoming more solid. "I think something's wrong. I better take a look." He already had the key out and the moment it landed properly, he unlocked the door and dashed inside.
"Doctor, wait." It was no use. The TARDIS immediately started up again and was gone before Turlough or any of the others could stop it.
Lucas stared. "I take it, it's not supposed to do that."
"Not at all. I think we're in bigger trouble than we realised," Turlough replied with a grimace. He had hoped this would be an easy one, but clearly it wouldn't be. "I don't think the Doctor meant to leave so abruptly."
"So we have Sarah Jane contacting me and Josh contacting Tony," Gibbs said. He'd never called her that, but with another Sarah in the room it was a useful shorthand.
Jim stared at them all. "Mom said Tony and Josh were old friends who she hadn't seen in a while. I wonder if the other two arranged this without her knowledge."
Matt sighed. "Your mother, well, somehow she makes it all sound so reasonable how she knows some of these people from boarding school or Aspen or the Riviera, but she does have some very odd connections. The only time we've ever spoken of it directly was after the gun-running business in Missouri. I asked if I should be worried about them crossing paths with the FBI and she said she'd taken care of it."
Gibbs finished writing on the board. "Tony might have met her in any of those places. He had a rather privileged upbringing himself." He paused then added, "She did take care of it, Matt. Made it quite clear that attempting to recruit any of the Bob-Whites before they finished college was a good way to wreck one's career. And she arranged for a demonstration." He didn't bother elaborating.
"Ah," was Matt's only reply.
"As did Josh- he's Sir Donald Wakefield's son," Alexi said, attempting to pull the discussion back on target.. "Or at least that's what everyone says.
"I guess we're next," Josie said, indicating Vaughn. "We were at Pearadyne- Pearadyne Reasearch. We work for Vaughn's parents part time. Sarah was there too."
Vaughn continued. "Corrine stopped us to tell us that the gravity sensor was working again, so Corrine went to call Josie and I went to find my parents to let them know."
"A friend of ours built the gravity sensor to detect when the wormhole at our school was about to open," Josie added. "It was a tunnel through time. But that was closed five years ago."
"A temporal fault, then," Sarah stood and started pacing. "This can't possibly be good."
Tony sent the teenagers off with Tim. Madeleine had followed after, giving her friend a look that Trixie would have dearly loved to know the meaning of.
"What do we know so far? Beyond the fact that Alexi Caslovan died this morning at the park?" Tim studied the six of them thoughtfully.
"She was supposed to meet someone there," Honey said. "Maria and I overheard her on the phone. She sounded worried, so we followed her."
"We didn't see her go past us, so she must have already been there when we got there. But it's not a large park and we didn't see her," Maria added.
Trixie thought for a moment. "Maybe she came off a boat and the tide carried her to shore."
"Is there a tide in the Potomic?" Clyde asked Luke as though he were accustomed to the other boy knowing the answers.
"Probably not a strong one." Luke replied. "But we're getting into questions we can't answer. We'll have to leave that side of things to the professionals. Whoever is doing the autopsy will figure that out. Let's focus on what we saw on the beach."
"Good idea." Tim looked thoughtfully at Mrs. Wheeler before he asked, "Marshall told me that while you were in Abby's lab you said something about knowing about UNIT?"
Trixie had to admire this turn, as it carefully shifted the topic onto the bit they'd been avoiding talking about in front of Mrs. Wheeler.
"Yes, we do," Luke replied with a glance at Clyde. "And perhaps this case won't be solved if we don't list everything, including the less believable aspects."
"How d'you know about this stuff anyway?" Clyde asked.
Corrine smiled grimly. "Our school- Blake Holsey High, was a weirdness magnet. We saw some very strange things over the years."
"So have we," Luke said, tapping his fingers on the table. "I wish Mum were here. And Mr Smith. Her computer," he explained.
"Well, we don't have them so we'll have to solve this ourselves. Clyde Langer and Co. on the case." Clyde ducked as Trixie attempted to swat him.
It had seemed like a good idea at the time.
"So, starting from when you got up yesterday morning," Tim said, attempting to drag the conversation back on topic. "Did anything weird happen?"
There was this dusty blue object on the pier. Seemed to appear out of nowhere," Honey said. "Maria, Ami and I were going over to investigate, but we ran into Tony and Ziva. But it might have been a trick of the eye. And we'd been there since the beach opened, but I don't remember any of you passing us. Or Luke's parents and their friend."
The door opened while Honey was speaking and Marshall entered silently and took a place at the table.
Luke, Clyde and Trixie looked at each other.
"Don't look at me," Trixie said. "I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time."
"Time being the operative word," Luke said. "Someone- this being called the Trickster messed with the timeline. We know because we have this." He pulled something out of his pocket and laid it on the table.
Marshall gave a start but didn't say anything.
"A puzzle box," Tim said, examining it. "And how is that significant?"
"If you're touching the box when the Trickster changes- whatever he's going to change, you're not shifted with the rest of the world," Clyde replied, "so we ended up in the altered timeline right where we were standing in the real one."
"Altered timelines. We've dealt with those before," Lucas appeared in the door of the room. Adjusting his glasses, he gave Marshall a light punch as he passed.
"But we know the timeline has been changed- Josie and Vaughn-" Marshall didn't finish his sentence but Corrine picked up his thought.
"If the future has been altered dramatically," Corrine said as she paced up and down the length of the conference room, "then Josie and Vaughn wouldn't even exist. They couldn't exist."
"But Avenir exists," Marshall said sharply. "The Avenir Institute. We've been keeping an eye on them."
"Something is wrong with the fabric of time," Luke said suddenly. "I think- the last time the Doctor tried to get the TARDIS to land so that he could warn mum, he couldn't get in. This time he could, but it wasn't the Doctor we've met before. There have been too many coincidences, like the Trickster bit off more than he could chew."
"He's got the teeth for it," Clyde blurted out. He snickered at this, and even Ami covered her mouth with her hand to hold back a laugh.
Luke glared at his friends. "Maybe what we need to do is track the coincidences. Figure out who's supposed to be here and who's not."
Corrine started writing. "Josie and Vaughn. Sarah Pearson."
"Mum- Sarah Jane Smith."
Trixie stared at him. "We saw her. Both on the beach and at NCIS."
"You saw a younger version of her," Luke explained. "The woman at NCIS is from at least twenty years ago. Who else? We've seen the Jacksons and we don't know what's happening back in England. Mum went off to meet someone this morning before everything fell apart, but she didn't say who it was."
Maria looked startled.
"There's a coincidence," Trixie blurted out. "That your friend and mine are best friends with each other. And I don't know what happened to the rest of my family." She frowned. "I just assumed they were at home. We came down with Mrs. Wheeler and Honey, yesterday. My brother Mart and I." A chill ran down her spine. "Jim Frayne, Honey's adopted brother. I saw his step-father twice. Once at the airport last night, looking as shabby as usual, and then this morning as we left NCIS, with a good suit, a new haircut and quite a bit of dental work. Jim must have died and Jonesy got his hands on Jim's inheritance."
"I don't have a brother." Honey looked upset. "I don't remember any of this. You're just making this up. She pushed her chair away and turned to leave, but her mother who had been sitting quietly in the corner, caught her and wrapped her arms around her.
"I don't remember it either, but let's work this through. I've seen a lot of strange things over the years," Mrs. Wheeler said gently. Honey wrapped her arms around her mother and stayed where she was.
Tim added Jim's name to the list. "No one else?" he asked Trixie.
"I don't know," Trixie said, trying to think. There were so many people the Bob-Whites had helped over the years.
Maria had clearly been thinking too. "Nat and Josh knew each other. And Mrs. Wheeler and Tony and Josh."
"And mum and Josh and Nat," Luke chimed in. "Or at least both Nat and Josh acted like they knew her."
They continued on in this mode and after a few minutes they had a mess- or it looked like one to Trixie.
"Six degrees of separation," Clyde said cheerfully, reminding her of her brother Mart. It was the sort of joke that he'd have come up with. "Only in this case, everyone seems to be caught in the web, rather than working from a single point." He frowned at the tangle of lines on Trixie's pad. "Who has the greatest number of connections?"
Mrs. Wheeler studied it for a moment. "Sarah Jane Smith. Maybe."
"Maybe you," Trixie found herself saying.
"This isn't my web of friends except peripherally," Mrs. Wheeler responded. "Or maybe- maybe you're right. Tony and Josh were the closest friends Kelsey and I had in a rather solitary childhood. Now one's accused of murder and the other is leading the investigation. My husband and Luke's mother died in an explosion three years ago that also claimed the life of Tony's boss. And Trixie claims the adopted son I never had is dead at the hands of his stepfather. But we could play that game with just about anyone here."
Marshall nodded. "There was someone we knew at school who always told us that 'everything happens for a reason'. There has to be a reason for this mess."
"Mum knew something was going to happen," Luke said suddenly. "She gave me the puzzle box last night. But she didn't tell me why. She didn't tell me anything, like she was afraid that saying too much would alert The Trickster that she'd seen him coming."
"Maybe she didn't know," Trixie said. "Maybe- this is going to sound strange, but maybe she saw what we're seeing now. That there's some sort of pattern that we haven't grasped yet."
Lucas abruptly reached over and ripped the page off. "Let's start again. Blake Holsey is connected to the Avenir Institute is connected to the Bob-Whites is connected to NCIS and so on. But there's something missing."
"Sarah Jane," Mrs. Wheeler said with a wry smile. "She's got people in all of the groups on the board but all the links are broken except for Harry Sullivan. If she traveled here from a different time, either she hasn't met people yet or they're dead. I've had a lot of practice at orchestrating things without appearing aware of what was going on. But I'm usually linking two or three people who don't want it to be known that they know each other. This is much more complex."
Trixie looked askance at this, but didn't comment. Instead she said,"It isn't that everyone's linked together, it's that you have to dig for the links. There are some obvious ones, but then we discover that Alexi went to Blake Holsey-"
"And Nat and Josh knew Sarah Jane-" Honey chimed in.
"And your Mum knew Josh and Tony-" Maria added.
"Everything in layers," Corrine said. "Someone set the wheels in motion but didn't want it to seem obvious. They couldn't give us all the pieces, but they could make sure we had them if we compared notes, building redundancy in because they weren't sure how things would change."
"I think we better talk to Tony," Madeleine said, and headed for the door, leaving the rest to travel in her wake.
Just as they arrived in the office area, the light in the room brightened suddenly and there was a sudden blast of wind from nowhere and everywhere. Everyone froze for a moment not knowing quite what had happened.
"The Trickster," Luke muttered to his friends, "I think he's started his endgame. We're back in his domain." The colours in the room were oversaturated and the lights were way too bright.
"With all of them?" Clyde pointed an elbow to the crowd. "Wasn't he more selective last time?"
Luke started to reply but was interrupted when Tony let out a sharp whistle.
"Quiet," he snapped. "Does anyone know what just happened?"
"We've been trapped in a time loop," Luke said, pointing at one of the monitors, which just kept displaying the same scene over and over again.
"Am I to gather that this has happened to you before?" Tony looked torn between incredulous and angry.
"Yup, but the person you really need to talk to is the Doctor," Clyde answered cheerfully. He might have said more, but the door to the elevator slid open, revealing the group from the lab, minus the Doctor.
"Tony, what is going on? We came up to bring you the results and everything looks way too bright, like a really bad dream." Abby ran over to Tony in distress and gave him a big hug. "The Doctor disappeared."
He hugged her back absently.
"The Trickster didn't want him helping us," Luke said instantly.
"No, it was before that." Turlough frowned. "The TARDIS appeared, but it sounded like it was having problems. When he went in to check the readings, it dematerialised."
"Not good." Clyde shook his head gravely.
"Okay, first question. Who is here? Second question. Is there any way out?" Tony caught Luke's eye and let Abby go. "Do you have any other questions we should be thinking about?"
"There's no way out. Not until we defeat the Trickster," Luke replied thoughtfully. "Who isn't here might be relevant too. No Doctor, because the Trickster doesn't want him helping us, even if I was wrong about how he did it. Who else isn't here and why not? Next step is to figure out when history went wrong and set it right." He could tell this wasn't making much sense to the NCIS agent, but that didn't seem to matter to Tony, because he was already barking out orders as if this were a regular investigation.
"McGee, make a sweep of the building," he started. He stopped when he saw Marshall standing by the elevator. "What happened?"
"Everyone disappeared," Marshall said. "Except for me." He walked over and took Corrine's hand in his. "At first I thought Tyler had found a way to escape."
"Tyler," Lucas blurted out. "He was here?"
Marshall nodded. "Tried to pretend he was Josh Townsend, but made a few mistakes. I've never seen anyone move as fast as Tony did."
"I wasn't sure if he had any other tricks up his sleeve," Tony replied. "Figured it was best to contain him as quickly as possible." He noted that McGee had already left to do as he had asked. He started moving through the crowd, trying to get people sorted out.
"Mum, are you okay?" Luke knelt down beside her and Clyde and Rani crowded around.
Sarah Jane shook her head as if to clear it. "You said something about alternate realities. I think the memories might be trying to seep through." She rubbed her temples. "I think my older self might also be trapped here." Before they could ask any more questions, she added, "It's just a niggle at the back of my skull right now. If I come up with anything, I'll let you know."
Turlough arched an eyebrow at Tony who seemed to have taken charge. "What do you think?"
"He's experienced at sorting through the facts of murder cases," Sarah Jane replied, as she watched Tony speak to one group and then another with practised ease. "And people know him. If the Doctor were here, I'd be following him, but Tony might be as good as we're going to get, if we want people to pool information to get this thing sorted out." She looked up at Rani, Luke and Clyde. "That means you too. Don't worry about spoiling my future- the Trickster might be counting on us to hold things back."
"There's always been a way out, Mum," Luke reassured her. "We just need to find it."
Trixie perched on one of the desks and watched Tony take charge. Or rather people seemed to sort themselves out, and Tony moved around acting like he was responsible for it. Marshall, Lucas and Corrine stood in one small clump in the front of the room. Josh Townsend was sitting at Ziva's desk and Nat had pulled her wheelchair up beside him. Trixie herself was sitting on an empty desk with Honey, Maria, Ami and Mrs. Wheeler on one side of her and Luke and his friends across the aisle. The hug seemed to have calmed Abby down and she was now hovering by Tony in case he needed anything. Clyde had referred to this as a crowd, and she found she agreed with him.
Tony let loose another whistle and the chatter died down again. "McGee, report. That was a very quick sweep."
"No one else in the building, except Kimmel. He hadn't noticed anything strange, so I've left him cooling his heels in conference room one for the moment. There's not much to the building at this point. The elevator just brought me back to this floor and climbing the stairs did the same," Tim replied. "I couldn't even get to a door leading outside. The farthest I got was the conference rooms. No Ziva, no Martha or Commander Sullivan. No Doctor Smith."
"There is no outside," Clyde said, "just white nothingness." He pointed to the picture windows, which showed just that. "We've been here before."
Tony nodded and tried to get a response from his computer. Nothing. He wasn't surprised.
Tim passed him a bulletin board and a batch of thumbtacks "Figured we might want this. The power doesn't seem to be out, but the computers are doing a one second video loop, like the TVs."
"Good job, Probie." Tony grabbed a stack of paper from his desk and started pinning it to the board. "We've got the where. Next step, the who. And I don't mean the rock band. Around the room. Name and whatever else you think might be useful," he paused. "We don't know that this is connected to the murder of Alexi Caslovan, but I think it's safe to assume that the two are related. And I think we need to start with last night, which was the last time anyone saw her alive." He glanced at Josh and then turned to Madeleine. "Who was there last night?"
"Myself, Marshall, Honey, Maria, Ami, Alan, Nat, Josh and Alexi," she listed.
Tony wrote those names on the board. "Marshall, you can confirm this."
"No, I can't." That caused a stir and protests from his friends. He turned to Lucas and Corrine and forestalled them. "No. I think the fact that someone's been messing with the timeline must be significant. Given that we're dealing with a murder case involving an alien, a man who can fade into the woodwork and being trapped in an Escher nightmare, I don't think the rest is too far of a stretch."
"I think he has a point, boss," Tim said.
"I think that comparing the two timelines could tell us more than either one could alone," Sarah Jane added.
Tony nodded. "I'm with Sarah Jane. Okay, Marshall. Who do you remember being at Madeleine's last night?"
"Aunt Madeleine, myself, Honey, Jim Frayne, Uncle Kelsey, Aunt Beth, Steven, Ami, Trixie Belden, Mart Belden, Josh Townsend, Alexi Caslovan, and you." He put extra emphasis on the last word.
Tony considered this. "I had to work late last night but I was supposed to be there."
Honey just stared. "Trixie said something about knowing me from somewhere at the park, but I've never seen her before in my life. And I have no idea who Jim Frayne is."
At Tony's glance, Madeleine shook her head. He looked at Trixie. "Mart is a relative, I take it? No wait, before you answer that." He turned and addressed the room. "Who here remembers Marshall's alternate timeline? Anyone who does, go to the front of the room. The rest of you." He paused. "Whoever remembers Madeleine's version by Ziva and Gibbs desks. Anyone who wasn't involved and therefore wouldn't remember either, Tim's desk."
There was a bit of shifting but not as much as Tony had expected. Trixie and her new friends had moved en masse to join Lucas, Corrine and Marshall while Abby, Sarah Jane and Turlough grouped together at Tim's desk and Tim joined Madeleine's group.
"Good, now Trixie, Mart Belden?"
"My brother," Trixie said. "I imagine he's at home right now. We wouldn't have come to DC without the Wheelers and I- accidentally jumped tracks, I think." She paused taking a deep breath. She didn't want to ask this but, "Jim's Jonesy's stepson. His whereabouts might be in the records, but I think he may have died in Sleepyside three years ago."
"In a fire on the old Frayne place according to newspaper reports," Tim confirmed. "His grandfather had died a few days before in the hospital, and it was assumed the boy was visiting."
Tony frowned and made a mark next to Jim's name, studying the list while he considered where to go next with this line of questioning.
"What about going the opposite way?" Sarah Jane asked. "Maria, Alan and Nat aren't on the second list."
"Good thought. I don't suppose any of you know the answer to that one?" he asked.
"The Wheelers didn't live in DC in my timeline," Trixie answered. "They own the same house, but I don't think they knew their neighbors."
"We spent the night with the Jacksons," Clyde added. "Me, Luke, Rani, Sarah Jane and Nat."
Tony made another list. It couldn't hurt. "Everyone from the first list is here, except for Alexi. Abby, what do you have for me?"
"The killer wore gloves, but Ms. Caslovan managed to pull out a few strands of hair as she fell and she got a rather nice bite in too. Perfect DNA match to Tyler Jessup. That's what I was coming up to tell you. We've caught our killer," Abby reported. "Mostly because he pushed his luck. I wouldn't have had the DNA on file, but when you guys captured him, Ziva sent a sample down to me."
Sarah Jane frowned. "So that leaves my murder and the sabotage at Green Point. Funny how all roads keep leading back there."
"We meet again Ms. Smith, though, of course, you don't remember our previous meetings." The voice cut through the background chatter and everyone fell silent as the black-clad faceless entity glided through the room to stand in front of Sarah Jane.
"Trickster," Clyde said, raising a hand threateningly. "We've defeated you before and we will again."
"I wouldn't bother, Clyde," the Trickster replied without turning. "That burst of artron energy will have dissipated from your body by now. I won't be caught the same way again." Clyde's face fell, but the Trickster continued without acknowledging him further. "Ms. Smith. I'd advise you not to take what these children say seriously."
"They're just kids. What would they know?" Sarah replied carelessly. "Let me guess. You're the one who rewrote the timeline. And now what? Some sort of denouement at the point of no return? Do I have to guess your name or something?"
Tony noticed several of the kids bristling, but he'd spent too many years around Madeleine not to know this particular move.
"Something like that," The Trickster said. "But I think I won't tell you yet." He disappeared.
Tony smiled. "So, kids," he gave the word a twist filled with meaning, "tell me what you know of the Trickster."
"He's got a grudge against Sarah Jane," Rani offered.
Luke added. "He's what mum refers to as a pandimensional being. He approaches people at the moment of their death and gets them to work for him. So far his goal has been to get mum to stop saving the world so that it falls into chaos."
Nat made a very odd sound at that and when he turned to look, Tony noticed that Josh had gone white.
"I know things are strange in here, but is her backpack supposed to be doing that?" Matt asked the room at large.
Josie swung around to where she'd dropped her backpack, when they'd first arrived. "No, but-"
"We've seen that before." Vaughn's eyes met Josie's.
"But I don't have that ball anymore. I left it behind when- when the school closed." Josie turned to Sarah.
"Don't look at me. I was told to leave it behind. I think the Janitor collected it," Sarah said. "But the ball was part of a set of two that I gave to your mother when she first worked with us. Open the bag gently, Josie."
Josie gave her a sharp look, but did as she was told, pulling away the bag in a practised motion to reveal a qi gong ball floating in mid air. "The other ball. Of course. I only had one in my backpack when I went through the wormhole, but they were identical except for the markings, weren't they? So it wouldn't matter which one I chose. What are they?"
"Qi gong balls." Sarah smiled. "Made of palladium rather than one of the more common materials. Palladium has the happy property of being able to absorb and store a form of temporal energy called artron energy. Humans do too to some extent. But if what I've read is true..." She walked over and expertly palmed the ball.
Vaughn frowned at her. "Mom, you're not planning anything risky, are you? I don't want to lose you again."
"I don't think we have as much time as we think we do." As Sarah said the last word the Trickster appeared in a swirl of tattered fabric.
"It won't help you. Whatever you think you've done. She will never piece this puzzle together in time."
"Who me?" Sarah asked easily. "All I've done is reconsider. I think I'm going to take you up on your offer." She walked gracefully and steadily towards the hooded figure, who merely laughed.
"A life for a life, then. Yours for Sarah Jane Smith's?"
"Why should I care what happens to her?" Sarah asked, ignoring the protests behind her. Another step and she was close enough. "Shake on it?" She didn't wait for an answer but grasped the Trickster's hand in hers, sleight of hand hiding the ball until it was too late.
"Noooo." The Trickster's scream echoed through the building.
Sarah's last thought before she lost consciousness, was that it had worked, and perhaps she had given her namesake a chance.
After all the time Josh had put in trying to convince Sarah Jane that she had a destiny to fulfill, it was odd to hear it from someone else's lips. And especially from a boy who claimed to be Sarah Jane's son.
Tony had pulled Tim aside to give him an order and the other man disappeared towards the conference rooms. Someone had said something earlier about Ben Kimmel being involved. Josh wished he had his gun on him. But what would that help? This Sarah Jane didn't know him- or anything about the Orbus Postremo. And she certainly wouldn't know that she would die- had died at Kimmel's hands.
In his anger and his grief, he'd already said too much. Josh had placed himself at the scene of the catastrophe and had told Tony that Sarah Jane had been shot. Kimmel would have better sense than to implicate himself and certainly wouldn't attempt to harm Sarah Jane here in the middle of this crowd.
Still, when Josh spotted Tim leading Kimmel towards the group, he carefully shifted so that he was in between Sarah Jane and the other man. The prophecies might be false, but he was not about to let his friend die again.
Josh suddenly realised that he'd been so lost in thought that he hadn't been paying attention to the conversation and turned his attention back to Tony, who seemed to be trying to reconstruct the events of the previous night, focusing on the dinner at Madeleine's- not the one he remembered, but the one that Trixie and Marshall claimed to remember.
"I offered Jim a ride back to his dorm at Georgetown and everyone else left at the same time- except the people who spent the night there. I think that's it," Marshall was saying. He looked at Trixie.
Trixie thought for a moment, before saying triumphantly, "Rule 39. That's what Josh told you last night. And then Mrs. Wheeler gave this odd little laugh and said she thought Rule 40 would be more appropriate to the situation. I remember wishing I knew what the rules were, but no one elaborated, so I assumed it was some reference to something in your mutual pasts."
Josh stared at her. "I have no idea what you're talking about." He looked from Madeleine to Tony bewildered.
Madeleine had opened her mouth to answer when Lucas yelped, "Sarah."
Josh turned to see a blonde woman lying on the floor. She looked almost familiar, though he couldn't see her face.
But Sarah Jane supplied the name he was trying to dredge up. "Sarah Pearson," Sarah Jane said. "Of course. It all makes sense now." She made no move to check on the woman - it was clear that the Pearadyne group had that under control.
Tony looked at her. "Have you figured something out?"
"There are a lot of things I shouldn't know yet. Her name is one of them," Sarah Jane said softly. "The Doctor always told me that knowing one's own future was dangerous. But her presence tells me all I need to know. Rule 39," she added cryptically.
"Ms. Smith, I believe it is time. Do you know what you need to do?" the Trickster glided in like a ghost.
Sarah Jane focused on the Trickster, "I do. I have to persuade someone I don't know to choose death over your bargain and agreeing to play your game is a deal of sorts. Clever loophole you found. But if you're here, that means I must have all the pieces."
Her eyes flicked over Josh and he couldn't help thinking, "She believes you killed her and possibly Alexi," She hadn't had a chance to speak to him, let alone to even try to explain. But instead she was walking up the aisle, her hands clasped behind her back, her eyes skimming over the crowd. There was no doubt in her now.
With a sudden spin, she stopped in front of him. "Josh, it's sweet of you to try to protect me, but you don't need to." She gave him a glance that was pure Herald, and he moved out of the way to allow her to face Ben Kimmel, with a sudden understanding though he didn't know how she had figured it out.
Sarah Jane smiled at the pilot. "Ben Kimmel. It was a very bad bargain, you know."
"You're dead," Ben seemed spooked and Josh hoped Sarah knew what she was doing.
"The thing is, Ben, I don't understand what you got from this. I'm still standing and so is the Earth. He tricked you into believing he could make the prophecy a reality, but it looks to me like you gained less than your sacrifice would have." That future that the Crimson Chapter promised you; he can't give it to you. He hasn't given it to you." Sarah Jane said this so reasonably that Josh almost believed again. "Oh, the Trickster might be able to trap me for a while, but destroy the Earth? I don't think so."
"Alexi's death," Ben started.
"Did nothing. It's fallout from the political manipulations of a planet in another galaxy." Sarah Jane replied. "They're civilised, as Turlough keeps telling me. They'd never attack a populated planet."
Ben stared into her eyes, and Josh couldn't help wondering what he saw. Abruptly he spun and threw something at the Trickster with a curse. "Our deal is off. You promised me!"
A long "Nooooooooooo," escaped the Trickster and he was gone.
"Hold on," Clyde yelled, as another big wind swirled through the room.
"Report," Gibbs voice broke the shocked silence. He glanced around the room, noting the blue sky shining through the windows and the people working in the background. "I take it the problem is solved," he asked Sarah Jane.
"We've defeated the Trickster. We still don't know what he hoped to accomplish here, beyond irrevocably messing up the timeline," she answered promptly. "But I was tucked safely out of the way. So I wasn't involved and I don't know the details."
Around them people were starting to chatter. Gibbs blew a sharp whistle. "I know everyone's probably been over this several times, but we're going to do it one more time." He was about to start when the elevator doors swung open.
"Alexi," Josh abandoned the group and met her halfway. "Are you-?"
"Just a flesh wound. If I hadn't let Tyler get that close," she looked at him slightly warily. Her arm was in a sling but she seemed otherwise unharmed.
Gibbs whistled again. "Tony call MTac. Have them lock down anything sensitive. He gestured to the crowd. "Follow me." Vance wouldn't be happy, but this wasn't a conversation he wanted to have in front of people who hadn't been involved.
The crowd had changed. This was the first thing Trixie noticed. Mart and Jim were back along with an Indian girl who must be Rani. Honey and Maria were looking at each other awkwardly. A man with silver hair was conversing with Tony, and both Sarah Jane Smith and Turlough seemed older. She glanced at Mrs. Wheeler who had just answered her cell phone and looked reassuringly the same.
"He's saying we should follow him," Luke said, with a nod at Tony's boss. "Good to have you back, Maria," she added with a smile.
Mart just looked bewildered. "Do I know you?"
Trixie suddenly remembered he hadn't been there but safely home in Sleepyside during everything that had happened. "Mart, Jim, these are Luke, Maria, Clyde and Rani," she said helpfully. "Everyone, my brother, Mart and Honey's brother Jim. We seem to have solved a murder that didn't actually happen. And Tony doesn't look happy right now, so I think we should probably follow him. We can talk later."
She took off after the NCIS agent leaving the others to follow in her wake.
"SJ." Josh walked over intending to wait patiently for her to finish her conversation with Turlough, but the other man caught his eye and excused himself.
Sarah Jane looked at Josh. "I'd apologise, but I'm not sorry. Time travel, if you do it enough, will make a liar out of you eventually. Sometimes, if you aren't too compromised you won't retain the memory, but I am long past that stage. There's a reason the Observers call me the first of their kind."
"I know. I've known since the Dauntless."
She smiled at him. "I didn't expect to see the beginning of the future of the order in my lifetime." She glanced over at Alexi who was talking to Ziva and Turlough. "Go back over."
"But-" Josh wasn't sure what to ask first.
"You knew not to leave her alone. Tony was there on time and not a half an hour late. Turlough came back to Earth and I wasn't dead." Sarah Jane said crisply. "Everything went like clockwork- the way it was intended."
"She's an alien," Josh said awkwardly.
"She's chosen Earth. And I think she'll choose you if you give her a chance. Or maybe not, but she might be worth the attempt," Sarah Jane replied. "Josh, my life's a bit one-sided, because of the choices I've made. I don't want to see you losing sight of the bigger picture. The other one. Don't forget there's joy in the world. You and Nat were the ones who reminded me of that."
"You say that like-"
"I've got the ultimate long distance relationship. But I'm too tied to Earth's timeline to leave, and I have other duties besides. There was a time when I might have chosen another path, but it's a combination of the choices I made and being in the right place at the wrong time or the wrong place in the right time and it's all just a tangled mess right now."
"Will the other Sarah be all right?" Josh gave her a worried look. "I tried to let her know that she was welcome in the Order, but she tends to ignore my calls."
"She'll be fine. Clyde pulled the same stunt not all that long ago and he recovered. And as for the other." Sarah Jane shrugged. "She's probably afraid of letting something slip that might affect the future. It isn't supposed to be that way. I'll talk to her. I need to see Victor anyway."
Josh took a deep breath, and said carefully, "She did let something slip last time that the Orbus Postremo wouldn't always have two rival chapters."
"The schism ended six years ago on the Dauntless when the last of the Crimson Chapter died," Sarah Jane replied. "I didn't want to tell you over the phone and I've only recently been able to confirm it. But this doesn't mean that it's going to be smooth sailing from here. Just that there's one less threat we need to worry about."
Josh felt like someone had punched him in the stomach. "But you told Ben-."
"I lied. Six months after the Trickster would have won, the Earth would have been dead and barren," Sarah Jane replied tiredly. "A series of catastrophes, each worse than the last. Pick your apocalypse. Killing Alexi set off all sorts of chain reactions. Time travel made a liar of me," she repeated, tiredly. "What would you have done in my shoes? If I'd tried to reason with him, he wouldn't have listened." She gave him a brittle smile. "Somehow the Trickster's plans always end with me talking someone into their own deaths instead of mine. At least this one was an intellectual puzzle rather than an emotional one. That doesn't make it any easier." She suddenly shifted, saying, "I think Gibbs is trying to get our attention." She wandered over to speak to him for a minute before returning. "He's gathering everyone in MTac to figure out what he can put in the report. And what, if anything, he can charge the Institute with." Laying a hand lightly on his shoulder, she continued. "This is something you need to know. The next threat, once they've recovered from this setback."
Josh just nodded and followed as she led him up the stairs.
As they settled into the theater seating, Trixie looked at Mrs. Wheeler suspiciously. "So the whole thing last night was a setup?"
The others looked at her, bewildered.
"What are you on about?" Mart asked.
"Mrs. Wheeler invited Tony over so that he could make contact with Alexi without anyone noticing," Trixie explained with a glance at Madeleine.
"Well, that was part of it. We have known each other forever, and don't see each other as much as we used to," Mrs. Wheeler answered easily, absently checking her manicure rather than looking at Trixie. "What do you want me to say? Yes, I've got a friend in NCIS. I've got others in the FBI and- and elsewhere."
Honey wrapped an arm around her mother's shoulder. "Mom," she said softly.
"I know you want Trixie to appreciate me as is, but our hobbies were bound to clash at some point." Madeleine told her daughter. "And it could have been much worse."
"Good thing Hagen retired," Tony said from the side aisle.
Madeleine gave him a look that spoke volumes. "Right. As if I were willing to let him anywhere near my daughter after the nonsense he pulled with Kelsey and me. A few words in the right ear and problem solved. Everyone else is being perfectly reasonable." Something about the way she said that made Trixie almost glad she didn't know what would happen if they weren't reasonable.
Tony nodded, with a glance at his boss. "I can't see Gibbs pulling that sort of crap."
"Or Max, even if Daniel would stand for it. The others might not be quite so ethical, but they saw what happened with Hagen."
Jim stared at his mother. "So let me get this straight. Last night, the stuff Trixie overheard in the kitchen. You arranged that meeting because-"
"Josh indicated that Alexi was in trouble. As a Naval Officer, Tony was the person to go to. I nearly invited Jules too- he's one of my contacts at the FBI, but figured that was overkill and besides Tony, Josh, Kelsey and I have a lot of history together. And I believe Gibbs is ready to begin, so you'll have to save this round of questioning for later."
As Trixie settled back to listen, she found herself wondering who Hagen was and what had happened to him. But perhaps it was better not to know.
The NCIS team had gathered at the front of the room at Gibbs' request, with the exception of Abby and Josie who were distributing bags of popcorn to the group. Gibbs decided that on a need to know basis, he didn't need to know where the popcorn had come from. "If you're quite done."
"We are, thanks." Josie gave him a cheeky grin as the two of them settled down in the front row, each with popcorn and a large Cafpow. Her hair might be red to Abby's black, but Tony had dubbed her Abby Junior the first time he'd met her and it fit all too well.
Gibbs glanced over the crowd. Normal investigations didn't involve this number of witnesses, but then this investigation had been anything but normal. "I've just got one problem. How am I supposed to prosecute the murder of a Petty Officer when she's not dead?" Perhaps it wasn't the best way to start the debriefing, but it certainly got people's attention. "No offense, Petty Officer Caslovan. The fact that you and Josh were able to disarm and contain Tyler Jessup before help arrived made our job so much easier, especially when Jonesy tried to finish the job." He hadn't done a good job of it.
"We've got more than we had before," Tony replied. "Tyler Jessup's blood on the blade, not to mention him being caught in the act. Amazing what not being dumped in seawater can do for evidence. You can also tie him to a known criminal- Jonesy, who I'm willing to bet got him the weapon and was also caught in the act. Ben Kimmel is dead, but I'd explore that avenue anyway."
"He was associated with the Institute five years ago," Josh said helpfully. "We just didn't realise at the time that they were a threat."
Gibbs didn't ask what sort of threat he meant. After all, there were certain things one couldn't put into a report. "Alexi, we'll do a separate debriefing later. With any luck you've seen something that could help once we've put it into context."
"We still haven't sorted out why my death was so important to them, either." Alexi turned to look at Sarah Jane and Turlough. "You asked Josh to keep an eye on me because of political trouble on Trion, but both my parents and Davin Avenir told me our families are friends and I've never even been to Trion."
Before either of them could answer, Josie blurted out, "Wait, the Avenirs aren't human?"
"Alexi," Turlough was saying. "On Trion your death would be as much of a political disaster as the assassination of Earth's Archduke of Sarajevo. And no, never having lived there doesn't change this." He turned to the rest of the crowd. "There's been some political trouble on Trion. Even though Alexi has shown no interest in coming home, we had reason to believe that she might be targeted." Turlough shifted restlessly. "I contacted Sarah and asked her to see what she could do to keep Alexi safe until things were sorted on Trion. And yes, the Avenirs were involved."
"Trion has a history of political machinations that would rival the Medicis, and unfortunately, the major families have been known to use similar methods to advance their plans," Sarah Jane added helpfully.
"So, we've got a political assassination attempt that-" Gibbs broke off and just looked at Harry for a moment before continuing, "that goes straight into a security clearance that most of the people in this room do not have. We'll have to see about that after we're done here. What we need is everything everyone figured out about how things were related in one place. It might give us the key we need to figure out what's going on at the Avenir Institute- I don't think it's just intergalactic politics."
"Temporal politics, perhaps. But I don't think there are laws on the books against that yet," Sarah said tiredly. "I can't speak to their ultimate goals, but they've got an agenda regarding Earth's, and possibly Trion's future."
"Correct me if I'm wrong, boss," Tony said with a grin, "but isn't that outside our jurisdiction?"
"Outside ours too." Harry frowned. "But that hasn't stopped us from investigating. We know they're out to cause trouble and sooner or later we'll catch them out."
"They got Capone on tax evasion." Tim looked at his boss. "And before this all started we suspected them of appropriating government property. Between that and the attempted murder, we should be able to get a search warrant. We might not find anything, but it will be a step in the right direction."
"Perhaps a joint task force?" Harry studied Gibbs. "Lucas is close to breaking through their firewall. If we could borrow McGee for this, the two of them might get somewhere."
Turlough glanced at Sarah Jane. "I'll be around for a few days, but when I get back, I'll look into Avenir interests at home. A little scrutiny might do them some good."
Gibbs scanned the room. "A joint operation works for me. Harry, I'll be in touch. Harry, I'd like you and your team to stick around long enough so that we can get statements from everyone involved." He neatly avoided the popcorn being thrown at him. "Josie, Abby, you will clean up the floor before you go back to work." He ignored the identical pouts as he encouraged people to leave in an orderly fashion. The mystery might be over, but the investigation had just begun.
They'd been unable to steal Jim away from his conversation with Marshall, but the rest of the Bob-Whites, Ami, Luke and his friends had absconded with three pizzas from the towering stack that Mrs. Wheeler had ordered for dinner, and retreated to the library to talk. At first the conversation focused on the events of the day, with Honey, Maria and Ami trying to remember the details of their life in the alternate universe. To Trixie's surprise, she found it easier to accept that Maria and Honey were well on their way to becoming friends, now that the world was back in its proper order.
"Mom says that Dad's going to cut short his trip to London and join us for a few days," Honey said finally.
Trixie grinned at her. "I'm glad to hear it. Is she okay?"
"Not much fazes my mother. Haven't you noticed that?" Honey grinned at her friend. "So how long will you guys be in DC?"
"I live here," Maria replied sweetly. "But the others are staying for the rest of the week. We should do something together."
"Didn't you say something this morning about touring FBI headquarters?" Ami asked. "I'd sort of like to do that. Kelsey doesn't talk much about what he used to do for a living."
"They really give tours?" Clyde blurted out. "That would be cool. Maybe we could all go together."
This suggestion was greeted with approval from everyone.
"They'd probably run in the opposite direction when they saw us coming," Mart joked. "Or maybe not."
"We should probably talk to your Mom first," Trixie surprised herself by saying as bits of conversation fell into place in her head. "Didn't several people say that she'd been warning people away from us?"
"Like my Mum and the Doctor. When he offered to take us on a trip, she was incredibly quick to put her foot down." Luke gave her a reassuring grin. "The problem with parents who've had adventures is that they worry."
"But this isn't an adventure. We're just going on the tour like anyone else," Rani protested.
Honey smiled. "I suspect the worst that will happen is that she'll contact one of her friends there and we might even get to see some stuff the general public doesn't. So it might be a good thing to ask her first."
"Well, when you put it that way, you might be right," Trixie said with a bright glint in her eye. "We've got the entire week to explore."
"And knowing Trixie, probably at least one more mystery to stumble upon." Mart looked at his sister ruefully.
"That's not important," Trixie said dismissively, though she hoped it was true. "What's important is figuring out where else we want to go. We still need to visit Jim at Georgetown."
"I want to see the White House. And the Washington Monument," Rani said.
"The Smithsonian," Luke added and to Trixie's surprise, Mart seconded this.
The eight of them set to making plans, bickering amicably about the merits of the various sites they wanted to see. And Trixie wondered if Mart was right and if there was another mystery waiting for her in DC.