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Chapter 7

“Tony, where are you?” McGee demanded as soon as he answered the phone. “Gibbs is pissed.”

Tony laughed. “On my way…d’you find anything about a vacation home?”

“Yeah, Debra Costing’s sister owns a home on small lake near Westernport. She says the Costings use it a lot.”

“Where’s that?”

“About four hours from here. Is that where you think they’ve…uh!”

“Where the hell are you, DiNozzo?” growled a new voice that could only belong to one person.

“Went dumpster diving, Boss…we need to get on the road to that address…we also need to find Costing’s brother…can you send LEOs out to his house?”

“Fine,” answered Gibbs without question. “What’s your ETA?”

“Be there in ten…” Tony began but found himself talking to a dead connection. He rolled his eyes but grinned, too, because it was just so Gibbs.

By the time Tony got to the yard, Gibbs was waiting in the driver’s seat of another government sedan. McGee barely had time to jump in Tony’s car before Gibbs peeled out. Tony hit the gas and followed before McGee had even buckled up and then laughed at McGee’s gasp.

In moments, McGee had pulled out his phone and had called Ziva. They both hit the speaker button and then Tony heard Gibbs bark, “Talk!”

While Tony drove, he outlined what he’d found.

“The crumpled picture isn’t the same type of photo as the others. There was also a date on the back…according to Costing’s duty roster, he was TAD that week…”

“That could just be the date the picture was developed…” McGee suggested.

“Yeah,” Tony agreed, “but all of these other pictures we got from both the house and his desk were printed on one of those home photo printers. I figured Costing was sent that picture by the photographer. His coworkers said he was in the breakroom when he got real agitated and then left so I figured we missed something there. When I got to Costing’s duty station I looked through all the trash cans and found this…”

“Uh, Boss…Tony just handed me an evidence bag with several documents in it,” McGee said and then remained silent as he looked through them.

“Well, what are they, McGee?” Gibbs growled over the phone and Tony chuckled.

“Oh…uh, divorce papers…it looks like Mrs. Costing filed for divorce and the other is a note…umph!” McGee huffed out when Tony took a sharp turn.

“It’s a note from a private investigator, Boss,” Tony added in helpfully. “It lists billing for surveillance.”

“What did he find, DiNozzo?” Gibbs spit out and Tony winced at the sharp sound of car horns. He wasn’t about to make the same move just yet…

“That picture isn’t of Stephen and Debra…it’s John and Debra,” Tony said as he again caught up with Gibbs. “The two brothers look almost identical.”

“Contacting the local authorities now,” Tony heard Ziva say. If he was right, LEOs would find John at home after all.

A few more phone calls later and they found out that Costing’s car was located at the lakeside home. Tony didn’t smile but his eyes narrowed in satisfaction when his hunch had been proven right. LEOs were ordered to remain on the perimeter and to wait.

“Boss,” McGee said as soon as he closed the other cell phone he was using. “John Costing was found in his home, GSW to the chest.”

“Yeah,” came the short response from Gibbs and Tony knew that the information wasn’t exactly good. If Stephen had gone off the deep edge enough to kill his own brother, it didn’t bode well for Debra or Nathan.

~~~~

It was after one Thursday morning when Tony looked over the vehicle he was using as a barricade. The small vacation home was well-maintained, sitting prettily at the side of a picturesque lake. It was a peaceful night. Well, with the exception of the occasional gunshot that rang out at odd intervals.

“Wonderful,” he muttered to himself. The enraged man remained inside holding his wife and child hostage. The fact that Costing was still taking potshots at them made Tony believe that the hostages were still alive. Always a good thing. Tony peeked out again and saw Gibbs trying in vain to talk to the man inside. He was refusing to talk or to let anyone come inside. The phone was off the hook so they couldn’t call him. Gibbs turned and looked at Tony but he shook his head. McGee hadn’t gotten through yet.

“What’s taking so long, McGee?” he demanded of the man next to him who was working with the phone company to break into the landline and interrupt the busy signal. A sniper in a tree behind the house reported that Nathan was secured in the kitchen. No visual on Mrs. Costing. He could also see the phone lying on the floor. They could just see through some slivers in the windows that the husband had left as lookouts that he was moving between the front room and the dining area that comprised the right side of the house. It looked like the left side of the house was cut off by a dining table shoved up against the hallway. Except for those small openings, they were blind as to what was going on inside.

While McGee worked, Tony glanced over to Ziva who was stationed with a sniper rifle on top of a law enforcement van. Always the wife, he told himself. And families…who needed them? Especially if they were capable of doing this to one another. Merry freakin’ Christmas.

“Got it!” McGee called out and Gibbs pulled back to get on the line he had connected.

Tony saw Gibbs listen in and then frown fiercely. With his own sharp hearing he could just make out the sound of a high-pitched keening. Gibbs handed him the phone.

“Think it’s Nathan, I’m gonna talk to Costing,” he whispered. Nobody wanted Costing to know they were going to try to talk to Nathan. Gibbs moved forward again and called out to Costing. Costing made an appearance and Gibbs started but Tony blocked him out as he tried to get Nathan’s attention. McGee held the radio so Tony could monitor what the sniper at the rear of the house saw.

“Hey, Nathan? Is that you making that noise?” He started but got no response. He tried again but still got no response. Gibbs still had Costing’s attention so Tony spoke up a little. It worked.

“Who are you?” came a tremulous voice.

“My name’s Tony and I’m outside. We’re trying to talk to your Dad but I need to know if you or your Mom are hurt. Can you tell me that?”

Tony grimaced when the keening began again. “Nathan, buddy…come on and talk to me…”

The keening stopped abruptly. “Mom’s got blood all over her,” Nathan said in a suddenly quiet voice. “She’s not moving. My father beat her up and then choked her…it’s my fault! She’s dead! Mommy’s dead!” Nathan suddenly screamed and kept on screaming.

“Nathan!” Tony yelled into the phone as he damned himself for setting the kid off.

“Costing! Stephen!” Gibbs yelled into the house. He started running as soon as he saw Costing run back towards the kitchen. Tony jumped up and was on Gibbs’ heels in a heartbeat and soon outpaced him.

Tony heard Gibbs order the sniper to take the shot. A single rifle shot rang out through the night just before they reached the door and then everything was quiet. Even Nathan had ceased screaming.

Tony and Gibbs reached the door first with Tony doing a running kick that slammed the wood inward. Gibbs moved in immediately, his gun up as he swept the room with Tony right behind him and McGee following third.

“Suspect is down, repeat, suspect is down,” was heard over the radio just as they swept the room and then Tony heard the kitchen door being kicked open. Gibbs, Tony and the officers at the kitchen door all stepping in at the same moment to find their suspect face-down on the floor, his head blown open by the sniper’s shot. Gibbs moved over to kick away the rifle and knelt to verify he was dead even though it was plainly obvious. One of the local officers covered him nevertheless. Ignoring the body of Debra Costing that lay in an untidy heap next to the refrigerator, Tony moved straight to Nathan who sat unmoving against the wall, his head hanging down. Peripherally, he noted McGee officially verifying Debra Costing’s status.

Tony reached out with gentle fingers to touch Nathan’s chin and was rewarded when Nathan lifted his head except that then Tony saw the boy’s eyes. Wide, horror-filled brown eyes stared blindly ahead and Tony knew the boy was in shock.

“Need a medic!” he called as he moved to untie the boy who remained mute. “Nathan, hey…I’m Tony. Everything’s safe, now. No one’s going to hurt you, buddy…”

Tony’s soft assurances seem to get through to him because Nathan turned at the sound of Tony’s voice and looked at him. Once he was untied he simply put his arms around Tony’s neck and buried his face. With one intense look at Gibbs, Tony turned and carried the boy out of the kitchen.

Tony sat next to Nathan while the paramedics checked him out. He leaned back with one arm just behind Nathan, not exactly hugging the boy, but close enough for the boy to lean back every now and then and know he was there. Nathan told his story in quiet words, told how he’d tried to help his mother when his father started hitting her but he’d been too angry. He couldn’t stop him. He blamed himself for getting his father angry over breaking the window at his friend’s house. Tony tried to tell him that his father was angry before he’d gone over to pick Nathan up, but Nathan just stared at him and Tony knew he refused to believe him. McGee hovered nearby recording everything he said.

Every now and then Tony would feel eyes on him and he knew it was Gibbs but he couldn’t bring himself to look at him. He wasn’t angry with Gibbs…well, not exactly. But he was questioning himself, wondering what he could have said differently that would have kept Nathan from screaming. He wished Gibbs hadn’t handed him the phone because Gibbs knew…he knew Tony was shit with kids.

Tony clenched his teeth when Nathan came to the part where his father beat the crap out of and then killed his mother. He could feel the boy’s guilt but he had no words to make it better. Why did Gibbs hand him the phone?

Nathan finished his story and it seemed that the adrenaline the boy was no doubt operating under evaporated at that moment. Tony felt Nathan lean more heavily against him and he had to move quickly to hold him upright as the boy closed his eyes. Tony looked at the paramedic with wide eyes.

“He’s just sleeping,” the paramedic said and Tony nodded. Sleep was good. He could use some himself…eventually.

With the paramedic’s help they laid Nathan on the gurney and covered him up with a blanket. Social Services had arrived on scene and they’d see to the boy until his aunt arrived.

Tony turned to see Ziva reporting something to Gibbs. She had the camera in her hand so he knew that she’d finished shooting the scene inside. He should be helping secure the site but he had no interest at the moment. He stepped away and watched as the local coroner moved the bodies out to the waiting van.

“Best outcome possible,” came a low voice behind him and Tony knew that Gibbs could read exactly what was going on in his head.

“McGee…”

“Nope…handed the phone to the best person here. Not your fault how he reacted…”

Tony turned and looked at the confident face before him and knew that Gibbs believed he’d done the best job possible. Tony just wished he could believe that, too.

“We’re done here, bodies will be sent to Ducky,” Gibbs said closing the subject and then moved to their sedans.

Tony moved to follow but then looked back at the ambulance and saw a weeping woman holding Nathan in her arms. Nathan was awake and was staring at Tony expressionlessly. Tony walked over and stuck his hand out. Nathan tentatively put his hand in Tony’s without leaving his aunt’s embrace.

“You did all that you could, Nathan. What happened between your Dad and Mom wasn’t on you. Please believe me…it was not your fault. Don’t ever forget that,” he said softly, his eyes never leaving Nathan’s. “Take care,” he finished and, with a final look at them both, he turned to follow Gibbs.

Everyone was quiet on the way home. McGee offered to drive but Tony waved him off saying he was still too wired to sleep.

“Well, I’m not,” McGee said and then leaned his seat back for some shuteye. Tony turned some music on low as he drove, his mind still in turmoil over how the events had unfolded.

They’d gotten a statement from Debra Costing’s sister that detailed how unhappy she’d been in her marriage. Unfortunately, her brother-in-law seemed all too willing to commiserate with her which was how their affair began. Tony shook his head. Sure, he always said it was the wife but there were cases like this when every member of your family seemed to turn on you. He thought again about the card pinned behind his desk and again shook his head, silently thinking about seven- and twelve-year-old boys. Divorce isn’t the end of a family he thought thinking of the card. Divorced Dads were usually still in the picture. He just wished that Stephen Costing hadn’t thrown that all away. But in the long run, in his opinion, having a father wasn’t always what it was cracked up to be. He winced at the bitter thought.

Unbidden came memories of his father and mother reenacting the inevitable arguments over money and what it took to make it which inevitably led to words about his mother’s drinking, and all of it amidst the detritus of yet another costly holiday party thrown for the sole purposes of showing off, networking and forgetting about reality. Ugly words and the sound of slaps on both sides had more than once chased Tony back to his room.

Tony rolled the muscles in his neck that had tightened up and forcibly pushed the memories away. From all accounts, Nathan had a good life with his folks before it all blew up so spectacularly in one night. When he’d look back on this mess, he’d have that at least.

“That’s gotta be better,” he said quietly as he drove on into the night.

They returned to NCIS, arriving late in the morning on Thursday. The office Christmas party was scheduled for that afternoon but Tony had no interest in it. Gibbs freed everyone to go home to rest up and to report back on Friday morning. Despite their exhaustion, they took the time to walk around and convey their holiday wishes. After a few short conversations, McGee and Ziva wasted no time in gathering whatever they needed before they left.

Tony took his time making sure that everything would be where he’d need it the next day. While tired, he knew he couldn’t go home to sleep just yet but staying at the office party held no appeal. He was considering a movie and maybe just a short visit to his favorite bar when Gibbs walked by and said, “With me, DiNozzo.”

“What? I thought we were free to go home…?”

“We are,” Gibbs said as he paused to look at Tony. “You’re with me.”

Tony’s eyes narrowed and he felt a rush of anger. “Your turn again?” he growled in a fine imitation of Gibbs. “I don’t need a babysitter.” It pissed him off to think that Gibbs, of all people, had conspired with the rest of the team. Had Carl been in on it, too?

Gibbs just rolled his eyes and Tony realized then that babysitting hadn’t been the reason. It was this case…this type of case. He recalled the case where Navy Captain Mike Watson had staged the kidnapping of his wife and daughter, and absolutely terrorizing them in the process, just to score some money. Gibbs had taken that case just as hard as he did any case involving kids. Gibbs had hauled him home with him that night, too. He’d spent that night talking about some of the greatest con-artist movies of all time like The Sting, Matchstick Men and Catch Me if You Can. He’d sipped bourbon that entire night all the while telling himself that he was going to get a bottle of decent scotch to stash alongside Gibbs’ bourbon. Well, he did and then kept one there ever since for nights like this.

“So, Boss, have you ever seen Mrs. Doubtfire? It’s a divorce movie which I’m sure you’d appreciate because you probably have the market cornered on divorce experience (next to my father, of course) but it’s probably one of my favorites…” he began as he grabbed his gear and followed Gibbs out.