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Little Pitchers

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She’s still jetlagged on Thursday (the time difference between Los Angeles and Washington is a killer, never mind that twenty years ago, she’d given a briefing to the Joint Chiefs an hour after stepping off a transatlantic flight; that had been twenty years ago, and forget all those heartwarming soft-focus commercials about the “golden years,” because old age was really a coldhearted bitch), and there’s an unlabeled DVD in an anonymous jewelcase resting on Hetty’s blotter, but no word yet from Jack (Jack who had stars on his shoulders, Jack whose eyes still watched the shadows, Jack whose fingers had flashed, We need to talk.  I’ll come to you soon in a language only a few had known, and fewer still were still alive to remember). 

The building settles around her in the early evening, fluorescent lights hum, and underneath it all is the musty smell of shoddy government construction, forty years old and counting (she had once joked that the Americans and the Soviets had at least some common ground: neither government built particularly well.  No one had laughed then, either).  Mister Callen and Mister Hanna have gone home for the night, frustrated by their latest case but without enough evidence (which is to say without any real evidence) to justify a late evening, Kensi (pretty Kensi, Kensi with the silver tongue) is out to dinner with a contact (best not to ask), and Leon Vance (Assistant Director Vance, and best you don’t forget it) is on an early-evening flight (again) to D.C.

Seven P.M., and the Office of Special Projects is quiet (quiet save the hum of computers, quiet save the buzz of fluorescent lights, quiet save the burble and sigh of the electric kettle on Hetty’s desk), and Henrietta Lange is alone with her quarry.    

She finds Nate Getz upstairs, brown hair curling untidily at the nape of his neck (and if he were working in the field, she’d have sent him for a haircut a week ago, unless his cover called for poor grooming, though at least – unlike dear young Eric  -- he doesn’t consider those awful rubber flip-flops to be work attire), sleeves rolled up to his elbows, engrossed in the preparation of an overdue report (and this is what always happens when Hetty leaves town, not that the trip to D.C. hadn’t been educational).   Nate keeps typing, long fingers dancing over the keyboard, clickety-clack, doesn’t hear her footstep on the threshold (Sam Hanna would have turned, hand twitching toward a gun that wasn’t there; Kensi and Callen would have looked out of the corners of their eyes, bodies still, breathing even.  Sam was a SEAL before she let him think that he had come to her, unsubtle in his subtlety, and some things are graven in the bone, learned so deeply that they cannot be trained away.  Kensi and Callen, she had taught.  Nate, she had argued against, but Vance had insisted.)

“I find myself in need of your psychological expertise, Dr. Getz,” she says, and he jumps, papers rustling, a pen perched precariously on the edge of the desk clattering to the floor (Hetty wrinkles her nose.  She had not been quiet, coming in). 

He blinks at her.  “Hetty!  I didn’t know you were still here.  I didn’t hear you come in” (like Nate to state the obvious) “I was just finishing that report you wanted, but I thought tomorrow morning would be early enough –“

She shakes her head slowly (manages to restrain a disparaging “tsk”; that hadn’t worked on her deti then either, and now she’s told it's bad for morale).  “Not to worry, Dr. Getz, I’m not here for your report.  Yet.  No, Director Sheppard asked me if I might have you take a second look at a suspect’s interrogation.  She had … concerns.”

Nate is already pushing his chair in, open face interested, eager.  “Sure.  Of course.  Concerns about the suspect, or about the interrogation itself?”   He follows her down the hallway, big feet thumping on the floor.  How different some of her children are now (how different the entire world is now).  Jack had objected to Jenny Sheppard.  Hetty wonders what he’d have to say about the good Dr. Getz. 

“I’m told the physical evidence indicates the suspect is lying through her teeth.”  It’s the work of a few seconds for Hetty to bring the video up on the big screen in Ops (for something this simple, one hardly needs Eric, and if Jack and whatever is going on in Colorado that he wears like a weight on his shoulders, like a hair shirt, might be involved, the fewer eyes that see anything to do with this case before she has some answers, the better).  “Apparently Agent Gibbs and Director Sheppard think their suspect may actually be telling the truth, and our Director would like to know if she’s misread the situation.”

Jethro Gibbs, Jethro Gibbs who barely spoke, who almost never laid a hand on the person sitting across the table (or cuffed to the pipes in some cellar a world away, but that was a long time ago) had always been a master, a virtuoso, at extracting information (and the CIA could have forgone waterboarding entirely if they’d had a hundred Leroy Jethro Gibbses, but she’s sort of glad they don’t).  Even with a week of real time and a video screen between them, the look in Gibbs’s eyes (eyes I dare not meet in dreams) as he slides into the chair across from Lieutenant Hartford raises gooseflesh on Hetty’s arms. 

The Gibbs Look is unnecessary.  Macy Hartford is homely, freckled, brown-haired, and obviously exhausted, dark-circled eyes darting around the interrogation room like a trapped bird’s.  That odd, stammering Agent McGee could probably have gotten a confession from this one. 

Which is what makes it so bloody strange when Gibbs doesn’t.

“I’m telling you I don’t know anything about the drugs!”  Hartford’s face is white, desperate. 

“So you were getting shipments of drugs from Mexico and South America, from the Reynoso cartel -- which your fingerprints were all over, Lieutenant – conveniently tucked in with the electronic components you were receiving for COBRA, and you knew nothing about them.

NO,” cries Lieutenant Hartford, tears in her voice, though not yet in her eyes, hands stretching toward Gibbs (and her wrists look thin; in body and face she looks like a woman hunted). 

Fingerprints could be planted, but to do it well enough to fool a skilled forensic scientist (a forensic scientist not in on the game, and dear Miss Sciuto, for all her odd clothes and habits, almost certainly wasn’t) was nothing less than an art.  Her deti had known that art (she had taught them, twenty years and another world ago), and the First Directorate had known that art, and the CIA had known that art, and that, in conjunction with her strange conversation with Jack O’Neill three days ago (an interpolation, scrawled at the side of a tattered text) bothers the hell out of Hetty Lange.

Gibbs looks worried.  Oh, not obviously (Jethro has never done anything obviously, beyond the occasional headslap); Hetty’s not certain that even Nate, Nate with his eye for the secret human language of sighs and glances, shifts and hesitations, detects the difference, but she can sense it in the faint narrowing of Jethro’s eyes, in the way he frowns at the file open on the table, that his gut detects something amiss, a whiff of something rotten, something dangerous.  He had looked like that before Minsk, before Poland (what cause could he show why he didn’t forsee the future beyond 31 B.C., and Hetty can’t stop herself from shivering).  Nate glances at her, curious, but Gibbs’s harsh voice draws his eyes back to the screen. 

“So you didn’t know anything about the drugs with your fingerprints on them, and you don’t know anything about how Petty Officers Martinez and Reyes came to be shot with your gun.”  Gibbs shoves the photos toward Macy Hartford, and Hetty can’t see the details but she can imagine the bodies, holes in their foreheads and bloated with a week in the water.  The lieutenant recoils. 

“NO!”  the woman’s voice edges into shrillness, she looks wildly around her, trapped, trapped, fluttering against the bars of her cage.  “I’ve told you, and told you, and I know it sounds crazy, but there have been men following me ever since I went to my CO about Murphy.  I don’t know who they are, or who they work for, or how they found me, but Murphy’s dead, and now they’re trying to silence me too!” 

Nate closes his eyes, rubs his chin.  (Hetty pauses the video; all that follows is Gibbs shouting, the rehashing of the same questions, Lieutenant Hartford sobbing as she repeats the same answers.  No need to listen to it.  The silence is welcome).  “Her story does sound crazy – like something out of a Jason Bourne movie,” Nate admits,  “but I can tell you this: whether or not she’s telling the truth, Lieutenant Hartford believes every word she’s saying.”

“Is she crazy, then?”  Hetty folds her arms across her chest, feeling chilled (and it had been a cold business back in Russia, too, when they had arranged for a certain zampolit to be collected by the First Directorate.  Vatuin had also protested his innocence, but he had ended with a bullet between his eyes).

Nate shrugs, inclines his head, purses his lips.  Cautious (but that is all right, at least he has caution for her to admire).  “It’s hard to tell without actually interviewing her myself,” he admits, “but her affect is normal.  As weird as what she’s saying sounds, there’s no external sign that she’s delusional.  She’s exhausted and absolutely terrified – and I can hardly blame her for it if what she’s saying’s true – but not, as far as I can tell, insane.  There is a possibility that she’s a very well-controlled schizophrenic, but that seems unlikely given her security clearance.” 

“Thank you, Dr. Getz.  I appreciate your input on this situation” (and she doesn’t miss the look in his eye, the naked curiosity, the intake of breath before he asks her if this is a new case, and should they brief the others in the morning), “and I would very much appreciate it if you would keep this, as you young people say, ‘on the down low’ for now.  This was merely an informal inquiry for the Director – a second opinion, if you will.” 

She can feel Nate’s eyes on her back as she turns to go back to her office, back to break the DVD, then put it through the shredder (as usual, Jim, this message will self-destruct in five seconds), and she wonders if he’ll say anything tomorrow morning, but it can’t be helped.  She has felt them studying her out of the corners of her eyes when they think she’s not looking, especially Callen (Callen with his hard and quiet gaze), knows she’s been brittle since she came back from Washington (since she sat under a tree with Jack O’Neill who wore the stars on his shoulders as if they had their own gravity, and watched the crowds with sharp wary eyes), but she feels it singing in her bones (something wicked this way comes, and it does not so much slouch or shamble as run). 

Hetty is not really surprised when her phone rings that evening as she’s drawing her bath, and with a sigh of regret and a last longing look at the steaming water, she goes to answer it.  She’s half-expecting Jack, but it’s Jenny’s tight voice on the end of the line (and it’s two A.M. in Washington D.C.  No good ever comes of phone calls made at two A.M.)  “Nate Getz also thinks your suspect is telling the truth,” Hetty says, once the pleasantries are over.  “I was planning to call you in the morning and let you know.”

Jenny sighs and she sounds shaky, depleted.  “Yeah, I figured.  The CIA – via Trent Kort – is pressuring me to turn Lieutenant Hartford over to them because the drug smuggling angle might mean that COBRA’s been further compromised.  Fortunately he doesn’t have a goddamn case and we do, because – and Hetty, this honestly doesn’t have a thing to do with my father, or with – with La Grenouille – I just don’t trust the little shit.  I’ve pulled some strings at JAG to push this thing to trial.” 

“I thought,” Hetty says (and God, Jenny sounds like she did after Paris and that doesn’t even bear thinking about), “that you were sure Lieutenant Hartford was innocent.”

“I do.  But this will buy us some time, keep Lieutenant Hartford out of Kort's hands for awhile longer."  Jenny pauses, breathes, and when she starts speaking again, she sounds tired and alone and fragile.  " And I know Assistant Director Vance will say that I am, I don’t know, that I’ve traded my obsession with La Grenouille for an obsession with Trent Kort now that the Frog is dead and he’s my last link to those people, but I’m telling you tyotia, that this case has to be somehow connected to that business with Farrow-Marshall and Sergeant MacAvoy, and Trent Kort keeps turning up wherever I look.”  Jenny’s voice cracks, and it’s not the connection.

I'm telling you, tyotia.  (Words from a past none of them want to invoke, but perhaps there is no choice left; and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned).  Hetty hugs the bathrobe tighter around herself.

If only Jack would call.