Gibbs blew through the office with a coffee in one hand and his jacket in the other, announcing, "Navel test pilot, Pax River. Let's move."
Like obedient ducklings, his team fell in behind him. Ducklings. Damn it. No. He'd been a duckling once, long ago in a land far away. He tried to ignore that he had used his own teams as mercilessly over the years as Tyotia had used Vanya and Zhenya and their Jenny Bird. It was too uncomfortable to reflect that he'd done as bad with less reason.
Since he'd left the realm of the Duchess of Deception, Gibbs had learned to lie to himself at least as well as he did anyone else.
The locals had the crime scene blocked off as much as possible. Traffic was shifted to a single lane back and forth behind a follow car. At least one jackass was using his car horn to bray.
Unless Palmer found something to contradict it, Gibbs would bet the incident occurred between midnight and four. The base received plenty of traffic and a passerby had noticed the tire marks and stopped to check the crashed vehicle shortly after dawn on his way to work there.
The morning was just heating up with the sun reflecting off the official vehicles drawn to the scene like flies. The olive-green and black cruiser blocking the second lane had its flashers lazily cycling red and blue. Gibbs slowed and showed his NCIS ID to the trooper and was waved through. McGee and the truck had caught up when Gibbs slowed down.
Torres climbed out of Gibbs’ Charger looking a little unsteady. Bishop had chosen to ride with McGee.
"McGee, laser and sketch. Torres, pictures and video. Don't just stand there, do your jobs," Gibbs snapped at them. "Bishop, with me."
He noted the heavy skids marks on the pavement, the broken railing along the mild embankment, and the place where another vehicle had parked. Glass glinted bright enough to be fresh.
"I want tire casts, and make sure Torres gets pictures of any shoe prints," he reminded Bishop. The long grass beyond the safety railing was mashed down and just beginning to straighten in places. Not good for foot prints, but they might get something down where the sky-blue sports car had rolled into the ditch if the ground was moist.
The Maryland State Police Sergeant running the scene was younger than Gibbs but lately it felt like everyone was. At least he wasn't some kid; he was a stocky six-footer with a salt-and-pepper crewcut, spit-shined shoes, and an ironed-sharp uniform.
"Arbaugh." He nodded toward the rolled car. "Kid on his way to work at the base spotted it. Manny Lopez. Parked on the other side of the road, phoned it in and then went down to check for survivors. He stayed on the phone the whole time."
"I'll want that transcript."
"You'll get it."
Arbaugh started walking them down toward the car. "Driver was shot in the head. Lopez checked for anyone else in or thrown from the car then came back up and waited. Car has a base parking sticker. First trooper to arrive ran the plate after securing the scene. It's a 1966 Mustang registered to Alan Reinhart. Call to the base confirmed that Alan Reinhart is a navy commander assigned there. That's when the captain bumped up the priority and they called your people."
"Thanks for the fast work."
Arbaugh rolled his shoulders. "It looks to me like someone else was in the car. My boys and girls are good, but my gut's telling me this one is a shitfest. We've got enough work; you're welcome to it."
"Lopez still here?"
"Yeah, we held onto him. He's been interviewed, but I knew you'd want to do it again."
"You're not wrong. Bishop. Interview. And get his prints, along with pictures and a cast of his shoes for exclusion." She gave him a nod and took off without comment or a joke.
Gibbs' fingers itched. He missed Tony's irreverent and inappropriate commentary and the opportunity it always gave him to vent his own frustrations with a slap to his head. They'd had no contact since Tony left for Paris with his daughter and Senior. Now he had a taste of what it had been like when he'd taken off to Mexico and cut ties.
Ducky and Palmer handled the body, hmming and hawing as usual over committing to cause of death, but tentatively confirming Gibbs' timeline. They also pulled out Commander Reinhart's wallet, confirming the ID that warranted NCIS involvement.
Once the body was gone Gibbs arranged with Arbaugh for the wrecker to take Reinhart's car to the Navy Yard for Abby to check. Bishop had finished with the witness, so they let him go and the Staties opened the road to two-lane traffic again.
"Where next, boss?" Torres asked as they finished up.
"You and McGee head back with the evidence and log it in, and then I want everything you can uncover about our Navy commander. Bishop and I will talk to his co-workers at the base."
"Do we get lunch in there somewhere?" Torres asked.
"Depends on if you get me a lead."
Commander Reinhart, USN, was a test pilot at the Air Station attached to Pax River. By the end of the day Gibbs knew the officer had been considered a first-rate pilot, a decent officer, and most of those serving or working with him liked or at worst were indifferent to him. His greatest vice had been his restored Mustang. Like most pilots, he collected speeding tickets.
The previous day he'd been visited by an old friend and fellow test pilot, named Col. Louis Young, USAF. Young had hung around while Reinhart finished some paperwork and they'd left to go to dinner. A plan to return and pick up Reinhart's Mustang and let Young get behind the wheel later had been mentioned.
Commander Reinhart was unmarried, no dependents, no debt, no trouble that McGee could dig up or anyone on base mentioned. No enemies, no secrets. But he'd been run off the road shortly after midnight and a bullet put through his head.
Reinhart's life might have been an open book but the missing Air Force colonel was another story.
Colonel Louis Young was a goddamn mystery in addition to being missing. Abby had lifted his fingerprints from the passenger side of the Mustang. McGee had obtained the video record of the Commander and the Colonel both in the Mustang leaving the base shortly after midnight.
According the Air Force, Young had gone from hotshot test pilot to pushing papers for the 10th Space Warning Squadron based out of Grand Forks AFB. Which made it a little strange he was paying rent on a condo in Nevada and attempts to contact his commanding officer were diverted through Groom Lake AFB and pinging people at NORAD and the Pentagon. Young was receiving combat and hazardous duty pay while 'stationed' in Grand Forks too.
Gibbs found himself glaring at the picture of the missing colonel on the plasma screen. He needed more coffee. Young was an Air Force spook or he'd take up decaf. Arbaugh had been right: this case stunk of a shitfest.
Nothing pissed him off more than a good officer dying as collateral damage to black ops. Reinhart had been murdered because he was inconvenient to the kidnapping of Young.
If he wanted Reinhart's murderers, they were going to have to find out why Young had been taken.
That wouldn't be impossible, but he knew it wouldn't be easy either. NCIS had a strong case to keep investigating Reinhart's death, but the Air Force would have an equally strong one to take over the search for Young.
"Find out what Young was really doing," he ordered McGee. He turned to head for the elevator and a trip to the cart where he could get coffee and one of Abby's abominable Caff-Pows. A little bribery would keep his team's tests at the top of the forensic expert's to-do lists.
The elevator opened before he could reach the control and Gibbs stopped cold. Better and fucking better.
"Gibbs," Jack O'Neill greeted him, before his gaze moved past Gibbs to the second level overlooking the bullpen, where Vance was waiting.
Jesus fucking Christ wept. Major General Jonathan O'Neill, two stars shining on his shoulders, a major and colonel trailing him like the train on a wedding gown. The Air Force had to be hard up to promote Batshit Jack and send him to the Pentagon. And now he was in Gibbs' territory, no doubt about to try to horn in on Gibbs' investigation.
He hadn't seen Jack since Jenny's funeral. He'd already been a general then, to Gibbs' disgust. They hadn't spoken. He hadn't missed that Jack walked Hetty Lange back to her car, though. Thick as thieves, those two. He'd never shaken the hunch one or both had known more about how Jenny died than they should have, either, but Jenny's fuck-up in Paris meant everything was swept under the rug.
Jack had always played hardball. Necessary sacrifices. Sophia's blood had run red in the snow and Jack's brown eyes were colder than the permafrost.
The worst part was knowing Jack wouldn't have trusted Jenny's word in Paris and that maybe if Gibbs hadn't, she'd still be here.
Vance was expressionless. He nodded to O'Neill, then his gaze drifted past Gibbs to his team at their desks. Dig. Looking at Young hadn't told them anything, but O'Neill showing up gave them another lead to explore. Young was more important than he looked on paper. They were connected and that might be enough to crack open the truth.
"Nice to see you too," Jack sniped in response to Gibbs' stony silence as he walked by. The major and the colonel, both a little too fit to have been riding Pentagon desks exclusively, side-eyed him as they followed Jack toward Vance's office.
Gibbs marched back to his people and started giving orders.
"General Jonathan O'Neill. I want everything. He's tied up to Young somehow."
"Boss," McGee started tentatively. "Are you sure?"
Gibbs narrowed his eyes. "Batshit Jack was one of Hetty Lange's darlings. He might have gone back to the Air Force, but if he's here, Young was deep in dirt. Find out what!" He managed to keep his voice low, but the anger cracked through it.
The way they scrambled to appease him, wide-eyed and cowed, soothed some of Gibbs' temper, even while he felt a little sick at the way he treated them. He knew there were better leadership styles. He told himself this worked for him and anyone who didn't like it, who couldn't take it, could transfer. My way or the highway. A headache twinged behind his eyes, reminding him he hadn't got that coffee.
The annoying beep of his phone let him dismiss any self-reflection. It was Vance, terse and hiding annoyance. "Gibbs, my office, now."
He didn't bother answering, just cut the call, and pocketed the phone.
"Keep working," he snapped at the team. "I want answers when I'm back."
"Sir, yes sir," Torres replied sarcastically. Gibbs gritted his teeth. He'd recruited Torres to fill the hole in the team Tony left. Someone cocky and experienced with more than a computer screen, who could handle undercover if necessary, but Torres wasn't the investigator Tony had been, and most irritating of all Gibbs had to reign himself in with him. Torres wouldn't tolerate the treatment that Tony, who craved even borderline abusive attention, had.
Thinking about Tony led him to thinking of Tony's kid and Ziva and that feeling of betrayal that they'd broken Rule 12 so damn thoroughly they ended up choosing each other over the team. Gibbs was seething when he stepped into Vance's office.
Jack had the gall to grin at him.
"Gibbs, this General O'Neill, Colonel Davis, and Major Garley. They're here about the disappearance of Colonel Young when Commander Reinhart was killed."
"Sorry about Reinhart."
O'Neill even meant it. He didn't flinch at necessary sacrifice but unless the general's stars had changed him, he'd never wasted lives. Don't waste good. They'd both learned at their tyotia's knee, back when they served in the court of smoke and mirrors. Gibbs had made it one of his rules.
He thought O'Neill had got out after Poland, gone back to the Air Force, though still special ops. But maybe not, or O'Neill had been drawn back after what happened to his kid and the divorce the way Gibbs had ended up working that op in Paris with Jenny after he lost Shannon and Kelly.
But Gibbs had come back investigating for NCIS and O'Neill must have plunged deeper down the rabbit hole.
"Colonel Young was about to take over a classified operation. He'd been confirmed for the position and read-in," O'Neill said. "He has a lot of high level information that an enemy could use."
"That's above your pay grade." O'Neill sounded tired, not gloating, but maybe he'd gotten better at the political game while climbing the promotional ladder. Gibbs had never been able to read him or Hetty reliably.
"So, what was he doing in Pax River?" he demanded.
"He was taking some leave before starting his new job," came the wry reply from Jack. "Visiting an old friend. Some people do stay in touch."
Gibbs ignored the gibe. Jack and he had never been friends beyond what it took to work together. They hadn't been rivals either; Hetty never let that shit fly. Jack hadn't exactly reached out to him either, but in the way of things he'd heard what happened to Jack's son and it had cut close enough that Gibbs had preferred to pretend he didn't know.
Shannon and Kelly… At least it hadn't been his own gun. If it had been, Gibbs would have eaten his afterward.
"The Air Force – " Vance began.
"And the Joint Chiefs and the President," Jack added.
Vance swallowed his ire and nodded. "…Are concerned with recovering Col. Young and uncovering any security breaches resulting from his abduction."
"What he knows is that hot?"
"Hot enough the President has just told your Director to play nice with me and mine," Jack replied.
"Your team will fold in Colonel Davis and an investigator from General O'Neill's office. Both already have top clearance and will handle any classified information above yours," Vance announced. At least he didn't look any happier than Gibbs felt. Davis would spy for O'Neill and make sure the MCRT stayed away from anything the Air Force didn't want them to know. Jesus, this was already a goat fuck. Gibbs hated spooks.
They'd have to work around the Colonel and whoever this 'investigator' turned out to be. Another goddamn spook or an idiot zoomie, probably, there to put up roadblocks. Gibbs glared at O'Neill.
"Paul here's a smart guy, Gibbs. He has access you don't. Instead of wasting your time trying to keep in him the dark, use him," O'Neill said, proving he still could read Gibbs.
"If I hear you've obstructed General O'Neill's people's access to the investigation, I will pull you from this case," Vance said.
Thanks, Leon, always good to know who has your back. And who doesn't. Leon was a political animal interested in becoming more than the Director of a minor Federal agency most people had never heard of, something that bore remembering. There was a lot of leeway to be taken advantage of before Vance had to hear about anything, though.
O'Neill stood and Garley snapped to attention. Davis moved smoother, less impressed by his superior's brass. E-ring political shark, Gibbs would bet. He had that Pentagon polish. No way to guess if there was any substance under the uniform, though Jack wouldn’t trust anyone stupid with anything important.
Which would tell Gibbs whether this investigation's success was important to Jack or not. If Davis wasn't competent, then this was just Jack blowing more smoke.
"Well," Jack said and dusted his palms against each other, "I've got a thing with the Secretary of Defense, so I'll leave you all. Paul, I’m leaving you here."
"I can call for a pool car if I need one," Davis agreed placidly.
Garley stood ready to open the door. Jack eyed Gibbs. "Jethro, I'd tell you not to be too much of a bastard, but that horse left the barn years ago." He smirked. "Luckily, Paul is tougher than he looks."
"I wasn't aware you and Gibbs knew each other," Vance remarked.
"Oh, we got up to some redacted hijinks in the bad old days before the Iron Curtain rusted away," Jack replied. He glanced at his watch. "Oh, good. My investigator should be here by now." Gibbs wanted to punch the smug smile off his face. "You've worked together before."
Jack faced Vance again. "Director, if we weren't here because of a dead man, I'd say it had been a pleasure. The Air Force appreciates your cooperation."
Vance replied with something equally flowery and untrue. NCIS never cooperated if it didn't have to and was never happy or gracious about it.
Gibbs lingered in the office as Jack and Garley left. Davis gave nothing away as he nodded to Vance and headed down to the bullpen after a quiet, "Nice to meet you, Director."
When the door had snicked closed, Gibbs said, "Leon."
Vance rocked back in his desk chair. "Gibbs."
"This is bullshit," Gibbs burst out, "and you know it! They're going to spy on us so they can make sure whatever dirty business they're up to doesn't end up on the six o'clock news. That colonel is here to make sure we don't find out what's really going on."
"I know," Vance agreed. "What do you want me to do about it?"
"I got a call from the President. He told me to do what O'Neill wants or someone who will can have this office."
"Solve the case, Gibbs. Cooperate until they choke and solve the case anyway."
"Great, just great," Gibbs muttered as he slammed out of the office.
O'Neill and his flunky were gone, but Davis was standing next to Bishop's desk talking to a tall woman with her back to Gibbs.
"Who the hell are you?" he demanded before the smooth blond hair and the set of her shoulders and a thousand other unnamable things identified her to him.
Hollis Mann turned and gave him a cool smile. "Hello, Gibbs."
"You retired," he accused her.
"I did. I even got married, but it didn't stick," Hollis said easily. "I got bored."
"And now you work for O'Neill."
"Homeland. Don't look so sour. I'm a good investigator and we've worked together before."
Not when she was playing footsie with Batshit Jack. Hollis understood how an investigation worked; it would be damned hard to pull off anything behind her back. Jesus, whose Wheaties had he pissed in to get this screwed over?