“Agent Gibbs?” Jethro glanced up at the middle-aged woman standing before him, wearing a neat, plain black dress on which was displayed a visitor’s badge.
“Yes, ma’am,” he rose, sensing the tension radiating from her. “I’m Special Agent Gibbs. Is there something I can do for you?”
“I certainly hope so,” she pulled a photograph from her purse, handing it to him. “Find out who killed my son.”
“Marine Corporal Joseph Charles Hutchinson. Assigned to Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado Springs.” Gibbs flicked the remote to put the victim’s picture on the plasma.
“There’s a war in Colorado?” Tony yawned. “Let’s alert the press.”
Gibbs glared at him. “There’s a dead Marine. And a family who wants to know why. I take that very seriously, DiNozzo.”
Tony mouthed a silent “sorry” and looked suitably chastised.
“The body is on its way; Palmer’s going to pick it up at Andrews.” McGee flipped through the papers. “No initial autopsy done, that’s gonna make Ducky happy. Cause of death is listed as extensive burns from an unknown source.”
“Military euphemism for ‘we don’t know what the hell killed him.’” Tony provided for a puzzled looking Ziva.
“Why do we not just ask these people what happened?” Ziva asked sensibly.
“The project Hutchinson was assigned to is top secret. As in the highest of the high security clearance. We’re getting stonewalled all over the place. Even the SecNav has asked us to tread lightly on this one.”
“So are we gonna?” Tony sat straighter, suddenly interested.
“Oh, hell, no. Grab your gear, we’re going to Colorado.”
“I understand your concern, Colonel O’Neill, but the Pentagon is firm on this. We are to cooperate with this investigation as fully as possible.”
Jack paced the general’s office. “And that includes letting these guys question Carter and Daniel? General, you saw him at the debriefing yesterday; he was a walking-talking zombie. They ask him the wrong question and he’s liable to just….splatter. At least, let me…”
“I’m sorry, Colonel, but we’ve been over this. You cannot be in the room. Major Davis’s presence while Dr. Jackson and Captain Carter are questioned will simply be a precaution. You know the Pentagon has ordered us to retrieve the bodies of soldiers killed off world and, when possible, return the remains to the family for a proper burial.” His voice softened. “He’s not a suspect, Jack, the family just needs to know what happened.”
“And we can’t tell them that he was shot by some kind of cannon while running from snakehead aliens on a planet far, far away.”
“And Dr. Jackson was right there when it happened. I know this is hard for him but think about the family. They’ve lost a son. They just want to know how.”
“So you’re letting them into the mountain?”
“We will be housing our guests on Level 15, but they will not be allowed any further access than that. Base housing will be provided for the length of their stay and a conference room will be adapted for questioning. Jack, the sooner they come and get some answers, the sooner they’ll be out of here.”
“Agent Gibbs? Major Paul Davis from the Pentagon.” He extended his hand. “I will be your official liaison as long as you’re on this base.”
Gibbs wasn’t the only one looking at the cold concrete walls. “Mind telling me what the Air Force is doing in what used to be a missile silo?”
“I’m sorry, sir, that would be classified.” He indicated where Gibbs was to sign and submit for photographing and fingerprint matching.
“Why do I think we’re going to be hearing that quite a lot?” He stood back as the rest of his team signed in, were photographed, fingerprinted and each given a visitor’s badge.
“If you’d come this way, I’ll show you to your quarters. There are three suites being made available for your team. Agent David has the single, 1539 and the rest of your team will be in the adjoining rooms 1537 and 38 if that’s acceptable.”
“I’m sure that it’s more than acceptable.” Gibbs drawled as he followed the rat’s nest of halls. “Ever lose anyone in here?” He asked casually.
“Not for long, sir.” Davis just as casually indicated the cameras in the corner.
“You know what that means, Ziva.” Tony grinned. “No sneaking in to my room after curfew. Big Daddy’s watching.”
“Cameras in the rooms?” Gibbs inquired as Davis stopped in front of a door, opening it with a card he then handed to Gibbs.
“No cameras in your rooms at this time,” came the enigmatic reply.
“Meaning there was at one time and can be again?” Gibbs tossed his bag onto the double bed in the spartanly furnished room.
Davis distributed cards to the rest of the team. “These will allow you access to this floor and the ones above. The mess is on Level 4 but you will still need to be accompanied at all times.”
“So up but not down?” Gibbs speculated.
“Any attempts to circumvent implemented security will result in your immediate expulsion from the mountain. Your interview room is across the hall, 1542A. All your questioning will be done on this level; at no time and for no reason, will you be allowed to question Dr. Jackson or Captain Carter in their labs. Is that understood?”
“Perfectly, Major. And when can we expect the good doctor to grace us with his presence?”
“Dr. Jackson is currently working on a project with an ally, which came up quite unexpectedly. If he completes the task as quickly as he expects to, he should be available this afternoon.”
“Sounds like this Dr. Jackson is a man of many talents.” DiNozzo frowned as he tested the state of the mattress on his bed.
Davis unexpectedly smiled. “Agent DiNozzo, you have no idea.”
“Well,” Tony sighed with relief once they’d returned to check the set up of the conference room, “at least the food’s pretty good. But all these guys following us around with guns is just creeping me out.” He checked that the camera was in the right place, that the feed would be recorded and would be live-streamed to the laptop across the hall.
“Especially since we had to relinquish ours at the first checkpoint?” McGee opened his laptop and slid it around to face him.
“Yeah,” Tony sat on the table. “What’s up with all that? I mean, I’ve seen less security at the Pentagon.”
“Whatever they’re doing here, it must be big.” Ziva agreed, peering over McGee’s shoulder as he fired up his laptop.
“Trying to get some more background on Dr. Jackson. He really is fascinating.”
“McGee’s got a man crush!” Tony crowed.
“Just because I happen to have some respect for someone with an IQ higher than mine?”
“Whoa! Did you say he was smarter than the McGeek?”
“Tony, his IQ is probably higher than mine and yours combined. The man speaks over two dozen languages and was enrolled at UCLA at fifteen. His family is the first family of archaeology. His grandfather, both of his parents. And he went into linguistics instead.”
“So he’s like the prince of the geekdom?”
McGee started to reply when there was a tentative knock on the door. “Yeah?” Tony shouted.
The door opened and a head poked around the edge. “Um…I’m looking for Agent Gibbs.”
McGee recognized him instantly. Dr. Daniel Jackson slowly entered the room, a look on his face that couldn’t be anything but extreme trepidation. “Dr. Jackson,” McGee offered his hand. “I’m Agent McGee, this is Agent DiNozzo and Agent David. Agent Gibbs is just across the hall; he’ll be here in a moment. Can we get you anything?”
Jackson lingered by the door. “Maybe I should just wait outside?”
“We don’t bite,” DiNozzo offered, trying to draw him further into the room despite his reluctance.
“I…Major Davis said I wasn’t to say anything until he gets here. He was supposed to meet me here.”
DiNozzo donned his most harmless face. “Relax, we’re not taping or anything yet.”
Jackson started to sit when the door was flung completely open. “Daniel, what in the hell are you doing here?”
Even Tony stiffened at the tone. “Jack, I’m waiting for Major Davis. He’s going to meet me here.”
“Exactly what are you three up to?” The stranger, Jack, eyed them with blatant suspicion.
“We’re just setting the room up, we weren’t questioning him or anything.” Ziva spoke into the heavy silence.
“Nothing happens until Davis gets here.”
A voice came from the doorway, “Colonel, I’m here now so you can go. I asked Dr. Jackson to meet me here, but I was delayed.”
O’Neill scowled at everyone in the room, including Daniel, before he slammed his way back out. Daniel smiled momentarily. “My commanding officer, he’s a bit…”
“Air Force,” Gibbs growled as he walked in. “Is that his normal expression? Tony, you and McGee are set up across the hall.”
“The camera?” Tony queried.
“Ziva’s gonna man the camera, DiNozzo. Out. Now.”
DiNozzo backed out reluctantly to join McGee across the hall. “Damn, I so wanted to stay in there.”
“Why? You can see it all from here.” McGee deftly brought the camera online on the laptop.
“Did you see that guy? Looked like my high-school biology teacher. Gibbs is not only gonna eat him up, there won’t be enough pieces left to spit out.”
McGee sighed. He’d taken one look at those wounded eyes and reached pretty much the same conclusion.
Ziva made sure the camera was trained squarely on Jackson’s face then nodded at Gibbs. “Major Davis, Dr. Jackson, let me start by telling you, we’re not on a witch hunt. We just want to know the truth, I think Corporal Hutchinson’s family deserves at least that much. Don’t you agree?”
Jackson shuddered visibly but it was Davis who answered. “And you can have the truth, Agent Gibbs. Up to a certain point. Dr. Jackson signed a non-disclosure statement when he accepted this assignment. Although he isn’t technically a member of the Air Force, he is subject to punishment from the Air Force if he violates that agreement. I won’t let that happen.”
“Fair enough.” Gibbs swiveled so that he was face to face with Daniel. “Dr. Jackson, can you tell me what it is you do for the Air Force?”
“I’m a linguist, a translator. I serve as an interpreter between my team and other people we encounter.” Gibbs noted he stumbled a bit, seemed a bit forced. Probably rehearsed as to what he could – and could not – say.
“What were the circumstances leading up to Corporal Hutchinson’s death?”
“I...I’m not sure what you’re asking,” Daniel stalled.
“Why were you there?”
“We’d been captured by…the enemy. Hutchinson was on one of the teams assigned to extract us.”
“My team. Colonel O’Neill, Captain Carter and myself.”
“It’s my understanding that Corporal Hutchinson volunteered for this duty?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Daniel answered in complete honesty. “What with the being captured and all.”
Gibbs felt a frisson of what he was afraid might be sympathy and deliberately neutralized his voice. “How long were you in enemy hands before you were rescued, Dr. Jackson?”
“Three weeks,” Daniel whispered softly, eyes downcast.
Davis jumped in. “I can speak to what occurred here on base. Once it was ascertained where the team was being held, General Hammond asked for volunteers. Corporal Hutchinson’s team was one of those selected to complete the mission.”
“More than half the teams under this command volunteered. Dr. Jackson, along with Captain Carter, Colonel O’Neill and another member comprise our flagship team.”
“Dr. Jackson, just tell us, in your own words, what happened.”
“Colonel Makepeace and his team rescued me and Captain Carter…”
“Where was Colonel O’Neill?”
“She…” Daniel stuttered. “She…she was still holding him, they were taking us…to be held in a different location when Colonel Makepeace gained entry. They, his team, overpowered the guards and we prepared to evacuate the structure.”
Gibbs frowned at the sudden change into clearly military language. “In your own words, Dr. Jackson.”
“We got outside and were on the way to the…our transport when they started shooting at us. We were out in the open, pretty much sitting ducks. Colonel Makepeace ordered us to fall back. We were running, heading for the tree line. Corporal Hutchinson was beside me and then…”
“Take your time, Daniel.” Davis leaned forward.
“I just want to get this over with, okay?” His eyes were firmly locked on his clenched hands. “They, the enemy, shot at us and Corporal Hutchinson fell right,” Daniel drew a ragged breath, “he fell right beside me. I didn’t think, I just reached over to try to help him. I didn’t know he was dead, I tried to get him up, then Sam – Captain Carter – grabbed my arm and dragged me off and they were still shooting at us and we had to just…just leave him there.”
“That’s not your fault, Dr. Jackson.” Gibbs knew it was faint comfort.
“They were only there because of us and he got killed because of us, so it does feel like my fault!”
“Dr. Jackson,” Davis warned.
“And if the enemy hadn’t captured you, none of you would have been there. It happens in war, more often than any of us like to admit.”
“I know that,” Daniel replied sharply.
“So then what happened?”
“Captain Carter volunteered to go back for Colonel O’Neill and by that time, reinforcements had arrived and we were rescued. We brought the…the bodies home with us. Those we could retrieve.” The last words were barely audible.
“I think we’re done here,” Davis stood up before Gibbs could protest. “Daniel, I just want to have a word with Agent Gibbs then I’ll meet you in the general’s office, okay?”
“Dr. Jackson,” Gibbs caught his arm before he made it to the door. “Thank you for your cooperation. I’m sure this will help Corporal Hutchinson’s family.”
Daniel’s eyes met his for the first time. “Please tell them he died saving lives, that he was a hero.”
Davis waited until Daniel was gone before turning back to Gibbs. “Turn that damn thing off.”
“Why?” Gibbs stood his ground.
“Because I’ve got something to say and it’s totally off the record. And just between the two of us.”
Gibbs nodded at Ziva, who flipped the camera off, showing Davis that the lights were off. “Now, what did you want to say that I can’t use?”
Davis waited until Ziva had closed the door behind her. “First I want to thank you for being gentle with Dr. Jackson. He’d had…dealings with this particular enemy before so it was somewhat personal between them. There isn’t a person under this command who wouldn’t have moved Heaven and Earth, who wouldn’t have given their own life, to get that team away from her.”
“Exactly what happened between this nameless woman and Jackson?” Gibbs hiked himself up on the table.
“She brutalized both him and Colonel O’Neill and that’s all I’m going to say on the matter. These soldiers knew what they were up against, knew what she was capable of, and they volunteered anyway. That’s what I want you to tell the corporal’s family. That he stood up in the face of a cruel, vicious enemy and saved some lives. What he lived for, what he died for, makes a difference every single day. And no one here takes that for granted. Ever.”
Gibbs massaged his neck while he waited for Ducky to come to his computer. What a long day. He realized now that keeping Ziva in the room hadn’t worked the way he’d planned, hadn’t softened Jackson at all. But he’d had no way of knowing the kidnapper had been a woman. Instead of putting Jackson at ease, he’d been tense and hyper-aware of her presence.
After Jackson, they’d interviewed Captain Carter, who’d basically said the same thing and was nearly as fiercely protective of Jackson as O’Neill and Davis had been.
O’Neill. Now, that had been an adventure. Gibbs and his team hadn’t been in the mess five minutes when O’Neill and a very large, very imposing black guy had sauntered in. Even though Gibbs had seen the ‘no salute zone’ signs posted around, it bothered him to see the guy wearing a lid indoors.
The pair had seated themselves at a nearby table, hadn’t eaten a thing. They just sat there, silent. Gibbs was faintly amused; he’d been the intimidator more times than he been the intimdatee. He gave O’Neill high marks for sheer outrageousness.
“Ducky, finally. What have you got?” Gibbs adjusted the laptop so he could see and be seen.
“Not much, I’m afraid, Jethro. Yes, the victim died of some sort of a burn to the back. That jives with what your witnesses tell you, that they were fleeing while under attack. I cannot, however, tell you with what the poor fellow was burned. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Abigail has a theory…”
“Not that spontaneous combustion thing again?”
“No, I believe her theory is that the enemy was trying to invent some type of energy weapon and the good guys, as Abby has deemed them, were trying to steal the prototype.”
“That makes about as much sense as anything else I’ve heard.”
“So when are you heading home?”
“I’m talking to this Dr…” Gibbs flipped through his notes, “Fraiser about Corporal Hutchinson. And I’m going to see if I can talk to the base commander. Thanks, Ducky.”
“Dr. Jackson’s injuries were incurred from shrapnel from a nearby explosion.” Dr. Fraiser was neat, concise and had the kind of eyes Tony could willingly drown in.
“So,” he gave her his most engaging smile. “How does a nice girl like you end up in a joint like this?” She struck him as an old movie kind of woman.
Her facial expression never so much as twitched. “I’ve provided you with copies of the pertinent parts of Dr. Jackson’s medical file, plus photographs of his injuries. If that’s all, I do have a job to get back to.” She ignored Tony and addressed her remark to Gibbs.
Gibbs figured DiNozzo stood a better chance of piercing that shell; which was why he’d let the other agent lead the questioning. “You did the preliminary examination on Corporal Hutchinson’s body?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Why didn’t you conduct an autopsy? I would think that was pretty much standard procedure.”
“Standard procedure in this command, Agent DiNozzo, varies greatly from that of most other commands.” She rose to stand stiffly before him. “Now, if there’s nothing else…?”
“No, Dr. Fraiser. Thank you for your time.” She nodded and left without another word.
“Tough chick.” Tony remarked.
“In my day, DiNozzo, we would have called a woman like that a ‘broad.’ And that would have been a compliment.”
Tony sighed deeply. “I just wish she didn’t have those big brown eyes.”
Gibbs echoed the sentiment. “I just wish she wasn’t a redhead.”
They were all relaxing in their quarters after dinner when there was a knock on the door. Being the closest, Tony jumped up. “Agent Gibbs?” The older gentleman inquired.
“That would be me, sir.” Gibbs recognized the authority, even if he didn’t recognize the man.
“I’m Major General George Hammond. Let’s take a walk, shall we?”
Clever, Gibbs thought, as he followed him out into the hall. Cameras in the hall, but no recorded sound and none of his team to act as witnesses. “I hope you know that we are as saddened as anyone by Corporal Hutchinson’s death.”
“I believe so, sir.”
“In the military, that’s something that you just don’t get used to. Nor do you want to.”
Gibbs glanced over. “Vietnam, sir?”
“You’ve done your homework, son.”
“Always pays to know what you’re up against.”
“I think we can agree on that. Can you talk about your investigation? Or am I sticking my nose in where it doesn’t belong?”
“No, sir. You guys have got a stake in this, too. I didn’t find anything to substantially change what we were told. I think I can give the corporal’s family some type of closure. That he died a hero, defending the lives of fellow Marines and rescuing a civilian hostage.”
“I hope so.” General Hammond stopped to give Gibbs an intense state. “We don’t forget these men and women who have given the ultimate sacrifice. I think that’s one place where the Marines and the Air Force can agree.”
“Buy you a cup of coffee?”
Gibbs winced. “The commissary stuff?”
General Hammond chuckled as he slid his key card to open the elevator door. “You’re in luck, son. I know someone who keeps a stash of the good stuff.”
“So?” Tony leaped up as soon as Gibbs returned. “What’d you find out?”
“I found out that Major General George Hammond is a much craftier bird than I originally took him for.”
“You didn’t answer the question.” Tony nudged.
“I have been spending some quality time with Dr. Jackson and his team; General Hammond thought I should meet the folks Hutchinson died saving.”
“Humanizing them, in attempt to soften you up.” Ziva theorized. “It is a good strategy.”
“A damned good one. And on that note, I’m turning in. We’re pulling out at oh-seven-hundred in the morning. Goodnight, kids.”
Phone tucked under his chin, Gibbs looked down at the copy of General Hammond’s condolence letter for Hutchinson’s family. It was brief, well-written and sincere. “Yes, Mrs. Hutchinson, I am satisfied with the investigation. Joseph truly was a hero, truly did die in service to his country. You should be proud of him, I know I am.”