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The Common Thread

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 The Common Thread

PROLOGUE

April 2003

Tim McGee smiled as he stepped out of the Seattle-Tacoma airport terminal late Monday and into a shuttle for the ride to the building he'd be working in for the next week. As one of the lead techs for a critical new software system for his employer, a national bank, he would oversee final pre-production testing with a team of systems analysts, followed by quality assurance, implementation, post-production testing and overseeing the first few hours of production. If all went as expected, they'd implement on Sunday, do their post-production testing that night; once he signed off, the new system would officially be in production for the start of business Monday morning.

He was glad to be in Seattle for several reasons. First, this was his last project for the bank where he'd been working since he was still a graduate student at MIT, continuing his employment while earning his Doctorate. He'd enjoyed the work but it wasn't what he planned to do with his life. And that led to the second reason for his happiness, he'd finally been accepted to FLETC, Federal Law Enforcement Training, and his session would start the next month. And lastly, it was a lot warmer here than it was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he currently lived and worked.

Tuesday and Wednesday, his first two days there, he was swamped with the final rounds of testing before implementation. The Business Systems Analysts successfully completed their testing late Wednesday afternoon, which meant it was time for the Quality Assurance team to do their last round of testing. As he was not responsible for that, he now had Thursday, Friday and Saturday off, barring any problems.

Thursday morning, he headed for the Science Museum, enjoyed that and when he overheard someone mention the Museum of Pop Culture, he knew he had to see for himself. It sounded like fun and a great way to spend a few hours. He'd just torn himself away from the Star Trek exhibit and was approaching the Indie Game Revolution when he heard someone call his name. Not McGee, just "Tim?" in a decidedly familiar voice.

He turned and stood motionless, his mouth open in astonishment as Artemis Galanis, his former girlfriend and the love of his life, ran across the exhibit hall toward him. He caught her in his arms as she threatened to crash into him. "Artie? What…how? Wow! I never thought…"

He stopped talking when she grabbed his hand and face, first running her fingers over his face and then kissing him soundly, accompanied by spontaneous applause, whistles and catcalls from other museum visitors. When they were both breathing again, he grinned, "Wow! Of all the nerd joints in all the towns in all the world, you walk into the one I'm in!"

She grinned back, "Nice paraphrase of Bogart in Casablanca!"

He pulled her toward him, kissing her again, laughing as they parted. "Do you live here and if not, how long are you here for?"

"I don't, and I'm here through Tuesday, when I have job interviews. You?"

"I don't either, and I'm here until Monday. Have to work on Sunday."

They smiled at each other, "We have the 3 whole days!"

Arm in arm, they left the museum. Her hotel was closer and they ended up there, wrapped up in each other, only coming up for air when one or both of them realized they were starving. Saturday morning, they dragged themselves out for a walk, ending up at Tim's hotel where they spent the rest of their time together.

As Tim flew home Monday, his heart was breaking. He loved Artemis, but she believed their goals and lifestyles didn't mesh and that they didn't have a future. For one thing, Sarah and Rob, his younger sister and brother, were still minors and his responsibility. As he'd told her 3 years before, he couldn't leave them nor could he pack them up and drag them with him to follow Artie. And Tim's dream of becoming an NCIS agent was still obtainable. He hoped that if he did well at FLETC, he'd receive a job offer from the agency, fulfilling a childhood dream.

As he flew East, Tim sighed, deciding that as much as he loved Artie, he needed to once again make the break. However, this time he needed to move on. That would be tough to do, she was his first love and after a childhood of abandonment, he was loath to let anyone go.

NCIS NCIS NCIS NCIS

Months later, he started his career at NCIS, moving from the familiar comfort of their large room in Mrs. Ferguson's house, where they'd lived since arriving at MIT, to a studio apartment in Norfolk, Virginia. Sarah was a senior and Rob a junior in high school. His baby sister was excited when she won a full-ride scholarship to Waverly University; Tim was happy to see her excited about anything!

The following year, Tim was transferred to the Navy Yard in DC and Rob finished his senior year of high school in Silver Spring, Maryland, applying and being accepted to Johns Hopkins. Rob was on the road to fulfilling his own childhood dream of being a doctor, a pediatrician.

Over the months since their unexpected tryst in Seattle, there had been only brief contact between Tim and Artemis. He'd called her a couple months after they'd seen each other to make sure they're been no consequences of their passionate weekend. They'd talked a little but she hadn't yet been hired by the firms who'd interviewed her that week.

By the time he transferred from Norfolk to the DC Navy Yard, he was using a Blackberry, eventually purchasing an iPhone when they debuted. With his jumps from PDA to cell phone to smart phone, Artemis' contact information was eventually left behind.


Chapter 1

October, 2014

Looking at the list of cases that still needed reports, Tim felt like his eyeballs, and quite possibly his brains, were about to fall out. With back-to-back cases over the past 2 months, before and after the trip to Russia, the team was woefully behind in their reports and Vance took the MCRT off rotation with orders to get them done. Now, three days into their 5-day report-a-thon, Tim huffed to himself, no need to call attention to his restlessness, as he noted the time on his monitor, nowhere close to quitting time. Maybe for other teams, but not the MCRT.

He swallowed a sigh of relief as his cell chimed with a call. Then he frowned as he glanced at the caller ID, this was a personal call. A questioning look at his boss won him a head tilt to take the call, which was from his friend, Ms. Lu.

"Lu, what's wrong?"

"I couldn't decide whether to call you or Barry but there's a Navy connection, her husband. Have you met Greg Hart yet?"

"Yes, last week. I met him before his after-school program. How did you know about that? Is he all right?" Tim thought about his first glance at the youngster, his emotions had been completely out of left field; it was all he could do not to gasp.

"His mother told me you're his new 'Big Brother'. I'm glad, I know you missed that after Adam Tepper's mother took the job transfer to Chicago. And yes, Greg is all right, for now."

"Lu?" There was just a touch of impatience in Tim's voice, he had about 5 seconds before Gibbs would expect a disconnect.

"They're regulars here and she's missing." Tim set the phone to record and pushed the speaker icon with a low volume that only his team would hear.

"They're regular guests at the shelter and Greg's mother is missing? How long? What's her name? And Lu, I'm now recording this and you're on speaker."

"That's fine. And yes, she's missing. She walks the kids to school and day care in the morning and then takes the bus to work. Her name is Kathy Hart, same surname as the boys."

Tim turned toward DiNozzo and Bishop as he spoke, knowing Boss could hear him perfectly, "Do you know her husband's rank?"

"He's a commander."

"A Navy commander, thanks. Is he a patient at Bethesda or Walter Reed?"

"Bethesda, she takes the kids every Sunday."

"Good to know. Did she follow her routine this morning?"

"I saw her leave with the kids. Greg is at still at school now and Kyle is at the day care. Greg has an after-school class that finishes at 4:00. His teacher had to leave at 4:15 and took him to the office. Thank heavens our old friend Marla Hoover is there today. She called me to see if I knew anything and I told her I would call you or Barry."

"Where does Mrs. Hart work?"

"At a dry cleaners on Mason called Ayers' Dry Cleaners. She works the front desk from 9 till 3."

"How does she get to and from work?"

"She sold her car, couldn't afford the insurance or to buy gas. She takes the #12 and #15 buses in to work and the reverse in the afternoon."

"Did she mention anything different or strange going on? Anyone bothering her? Anyone at the shelter that's been paying her unwanted attention?"

In his peripheral vision, he noted the team was already involved, taking notes and Ellie was recording with her phone. All 3 agents raised an eyebrow at another mention of the shelter.

"No, the opposite. Her boss gave her a big bonus yesterday, she told me about it last night. Means she can pay for the clothes and shoes she has on layaway for the boys, get some warmer clothes for all of them."

"Did she get paid by check or cash?"

"I don't know."

"Do you have the number for the cleaners and the name of her supervisor?"

Lu gave it to him and he read it back to her, noting that Tony was also writing it down.

"We'll need a physical description of Mrs. Hart."

"She's 34 years old, about 5'8", her hair color is honey blond and with as little money as she has, it's her natural color. Her eyes are hazel, she weighs about 110 pounds, too thin, she's lost weight since they've been here."

"How long have they been staying there? And does she have any distinguishing marks, tattoos, anything like that?"

"Let's see, school was out, both boys went to day care once she found a job. Early June, they've been coming here since early June. She has a mole at the top of her jaw, partially hidden by the bottom of her right ear."

Tim repeated the physical description aloud as Ellie input the information to a BOLO.

"How late is the school open?"

"Until 6 and so is the day care."

Tim looked at his watch, it was 4:45, they needed to notify Child Protective Services as soon as possible for the boys.

"All right. Do you know of any other family or friends?"

"Honestly, Tim, yours is the only name she's mentioned aside from her husband, kids and Mr. Ayers, her boss."

"Need to contact CPS pretty quick."

"Should I do that?"

"No, sorry Lu, thinking aloud. We'll do that. Do you have Mrs. H's, uh, Mrs. Hoover's, number handy?"

She gave it to him and he hung up, sending a questioning look toward his boss. Gibbs nodded, "Rule 38, your case, your lead. Missing woman?"

Tim quickly updated them and then looked at his teammates, "Navy dependent, husband's in a coma at Bethesda. She hasn't showed up at her kids' school or day care this afternoon, there's been no call and this is the first time she's failed to collect them. Social Services needs to be contacted. Two minors, Gregory Hart, age 6, who is waiting in the office at his school, that's Lafayette Public Elementary at 479 Willow St., Baltimore, phone, 667-555-1212. Mrs. Hoover, the school's secretary, is with him. His brother Kyle Hart, age 2, is at the day care next door to the school. It's called…"

Tony interrupted, "I know it…got it, McGee."

"Bishop, call Hart's boss at the dry cleaners, Mr. Ayers. See if she showed up for work and also if the bonus he gave her yesterday was in cash or check and how much it was. And see if he knows if she has a checking account."

"Got it. Why wouldn't she?"

"Homeless people don't normally have bank accounts. She and her kids are regulars at a homeless shelter. She walks the kids to school and day care, takes two buses to work. No car, tight schedule and very little money. Oh and see if Ayers has a photo of her we can use."

Tony gave him a look but Tim was running a search on his computer and put the information up on the plasma. He frowned at the photo that displayed.

"Commander David Hart, blurriest military ID I've ever seen. Also the sparsest SRB, not much on it. His last Commanding Officer before the explosion that landed him in a coma was Captain Alex Sheridan, now stationed in Singapore, aboard Sembawang Naval Base. Boss…?"

"Got it, McGee."

While Tim waited for his teammates to gather information about Kathy Hart, he went online to look for social media accounts in her name. With computer time still free at many libraries, he hoped Mrs. Hart had a social media account that would give him more information. Finding several Facebook listings for various Kathy Harts, he looked through them, stopping when he saw the photo of Kathy Hart #5. He decided that the physical description was very close to the photo he saw. Printing the profile photo, Kathy Hart in a hospital bed with a newborn, he made several copies of the photo before standing up.

"Ok, what do we have?"

Bishop shook her head, "She didn't show up for work this morning, nor did she call. Mr. Ayers was afraid her husband died, thought he'd wait until tomorrow to contact the 'shelter lady', is that the woman who called you? He pays her in cash as she doesn't have a bank account. And the bonus was $150. He's an older man, said she's devoted to her kids and angry with the Navy."

"Because?"

"He said her husband's Navy pay has been stopped. He also mentioned she's not an American citizen and has a green card."

DiNozzo and McGee grimaced while Gibbs bit back a sigh, that could be troublesome.

"Know where she's from?"

"Singapore. Said she grew up in an orphanage there."

"Huh."

Tony was next up, "I spoke with a caseworker who will pick up Greg and Kyle Hart at Lafayette school and Little People's Day Care. I also called the school and spoke with Mrs. Hoover, who seems to know you very well, Tim, to give her a heads up about CPS."

McGee ignored DiNozzo's comment while Boss reported that he'd scheduled an MTAC interview with Captain Sheridan in 15 minutes.

Tim nodded his appreciation as Bishop cleared her throat, "Mr. Ayers also said she was excited about the extra money yesterday. That she gave him a hug and, in his words, "twirled" around the cleaners, talking about buying shoes and clothes for the boys, a new sleeping bag and shoes for her."

They frowned at that and Tim asked, "Were there other people around, employees or customers?"

"No customers, but there were 3 other employees there, they all got bonuses yesterday. Ayers said they were happy."

"Huh, I wonder if any of them take the same bus. Bishop…"

"Get the names and addresses of the employees, run backgrounds, check on their routes to and from work."

Tim nodded before picking up his phone to call an old friend. He had a bad feeling about this.

"Hey, Tim, what's up? You at work?"

"Yeah, I am, Barry. Are you on duty?"

"For another 20 minutes, yeah, I'm at the precinct writing reports."

"Hoping you can help, at least eliminate a couple of scenarios. We have a missing Navy dependent, female, age 34. She never made it to work today, she and her kids stay at Lu's. She takes the #12 and #15 buses to work."

"Ok, it'll take me a few minutes, electronic records might not be updated yet. Her kids ok? Call you on your work phone?"

"Kids are accounted for, yes. And my work phone is fine, thanks, Sergeant."

"No problem, Special Agent."

He could see that Tony was gearing up to ask him questions he didn't want to answer and might be wondering about the call to his own source, Sgt. Rudd, in the Baltimore PD rather than asking DiNozzo to check in with his old department.

Tim caught DiNozzo's eye. "Sergeant Barry Rudd, Baltimore PD. Old friend, grew up together, works in the 7th precinct, closest to the shelter."

DiNozzo gave him a nod. "You trust him."

"I've trusted him with…" Tim stumbled, he'd been about to say he'd trusted him with his kids but his team didn't know about his past. At least DiNozzo and Bishop didn't, Gibbs would if he'd ever read his whole file and he was pretty sure he hadn't. Tim finished the sentence, "my life as well as my family's."

There, he hoped that was enough for now.

Bishop was off the phone again and typing madly on her keyboard, likely running background checks on the 3 employees.

"Bishop, while you run backgrounds, send me their addresses and I'll start checking their routes to work."

Nodding without looking up, she copied and clicked, sending the information to Tim.

He looked at the addresses and then up at DiNozzo, "Could use your help with this, Tony."

DiNozzo scooted his chair over to his desk and looked at the addresses and the maps of the bus routes Tim had up. "Ok…this one…" he pointed to the second address, "is on the Metro line that corresponds to the #15 bus route. Why wouldn't she take the Metro?"

Tim replied automatically, without having to think about it, "Tight schedule, bad weather. Bus stop is 3 blocks from the boys' school, 4 from the shelter, Metro station is 7 blocks from school, 8 from the shelter. The transfer between lines is easier by bus, there's a covered waiting area; it's the same stop for both the #12 and #15 buses. At the Metro station, you'd have to walk upstairs and down again, carrying or rolling your suitcase, for the transfer."

Tony looked at him but didn't say anything. McGee looked at his watch just as Boss said, "McGee, time."

"All right. DiNozzo, Bishop, answer my phone if it rings, please. DiNozzo, Barry knows who you are."

DiNozzo nodded, "Ok. His last name is?"

"Rudd."

"Oh, yeah, you said. Like Paul Rudd, the actor."

Tim shrugged, "Sure…oh the guy in…yes."

He joined Gibbs and they headed up to MTAC. Captain Sheridan was prompt and curious. "How can I help NCIS?"

"We have a missing Navy dependent. Her husband is Commander David Hart, his SRB has a lot of empty spaces and you are shown as his last CO. Can you shed any light on him?"

"You think something he did or was involved in could have caused his wife's disappearance?"

McGee replied, "We're investigators, Captain, we look at everything."

The captain sighed. "Commander Hart, then a Lt. Commander, was a fine officer. That's about all I can say."

McGee opened his mouth before giving an abrupt nod, "How high?"

"White House." The captain paused, "Is the baby, I suppose he's not a baby anymore, the little boy, is he all right?"

"He and his baby brother are fine, Captain, although they're in foster care until we find his mother or other relatives."

"I can help with that, there aren't any. Kathy and David are both orphans, although David grew up with a parent."

"No siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins?"

"No."

"Thank you for your time."

"Good luck…and will you let me know when you find Kathy or what happened to her? If the worst has happened, well, my wife and I are too old to raise the boys but I'd like to keep in touch and maybe tell them a few stories about their parents."

"Will do, Captain."

When the screen went dark, Gibbs turned to leave, then turned back when he noticed McGee deep in thought.

"Gut?"

"Yeah. I'm not feeling this is anything directly connected to the commander. It's that bonus money. $150 is a lot of money for a homeless person and a nice chunk of change for someone making minimum wage. I wonder if the others got the same amount."

When Gibbs gave him a look, Tim answered it, "It's all in my file, Boss."

"Then I have some reading to do, Tim."

"Probably gonna have to tell DiNozzo and Bishop, may as well listen in."

"What about the others?"

"Just Abby. Ducky and Jimmy have known for years. Might ask them to referee."

Gibbs opened his mouth to ask why he needed a referee when the door to the Center opened and DiNozzo peeked in. He gestured to them and with a sigh, McGee led the way up the stairs, afraid he knew what was coming.