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?
She loved working in the field instead of analysis and interrogation. Ellie had to remind herself of this at least once every day. Gibbs had a sort of charisma that drew her and others in, striving to measure up to his standards. She suspected no one actually could, that the bar would just be raised repeatedly. But she kept trying, wanting one of those terse nods of approval.
It was hard to imagine working for Gibbs as long as McGee had, never mind DiNozzo. She wondered if Tony missed it, wherever he'd gone. She knew Gibbs missed him. She'd seen him turn, looking for DiNozzo, pause, waiting for a joke or movie comparison.
Well, at least they had a clue. Maybe it would distract him from the Air Force guy and the cool drink of water blonde from the DoD who had greeted McGee familiarly.
"Gibbs," she said crisply, before he could start snarling. "Abby came back with a paint color from the scraping off Commander Reinhart's car. Tim and Nick have been going through all the traffic cam footage for every intersection the road from the crime scene goes through."
Tim picked up the narrative.
"The paint is Ford factory black, but it’s a formulation they only used between 2014 and 2016, which narrowed the search. A 2015 Ford Escalade was reported stolen yesterday morning by its owner, Jeremy Geishweld, a pharmaceutical rep who had been out of town for the last week."
Up on the plasma screen, a picture of Jeremy Geishweld's driver's license was superseded by blurry black-and-white screengrab of an SUV with a crumpled passenger side fender and one broken headlight.
"The glass recovered from the roadside at the crime scene matches Ford factory parts," Tim continued. "We got this from a traffic cam." The screengrab showed a time stamp for 0113. "One-thirteen in the morning."
"I want BOLO and APB out on that vehicle," Gibbs rapped out.
"I can do something better than that, boss," Tim said. The smug jerk. He was tapping away at his keyboard. "That model has Wi-Fi and GPS. I just need to access satellite – " He typed in a fast series of commands Ellie couldn't follow and a satellite map took over the plasma screen with a red pin captioned with the stolen Escalade's license next to it. "Got a location and an address."
"Nice work," Colonel Davis murmured in approval, sparking another icy glare from Gibbs. What, did he think only he got to praise the team, or maybe that Davis would try to poach Tim? Other agencies had tried and been brushed off, but Gibbs always seemed oblivious. He'd never acknowledged the FBI's standing offer to hire Tony away either.
"Get everything – "
"On the place. On it," Torres interrupted.
Colonel Davis had his phone out to make a call. With startling speed, Gibbs snatched it out of his hands. "Who are you calling?"
Colonel Davis remained imperturbable. "I have a rapid response team trained in hostage rescue and recovery on stand-by." He plucked the phone out of Gibbs' hand. "I was calling to ask for an ETA from where they are to the address your team uncovered."
"You don't do anything I don't tell you," Gibbs said repressively.
"You've actually gotten worse," Ms. Mann commented. "You'd rather see someone killed than admit you can't do it all by yourself."
"I don't trust you."
Gibbs stalked away toward the break room and the awful coffee there.
"Sorry, Colonel – " Tim started once Gibbs was out of earshot.
"I'm retired from the Army, Tim. You can just call me Hollis," she said, looking in the direction Gibbs had gone. Ellie couldn't read her expression.
Colonel Davis made a face, though. "You worked with this guy?"
"Yes," Hollis replied and then shocked Ellie and Torres by adding, "I dated him too."
Tim must have been around for that, since he just snorted under his breath.
Torres shook his head. "There are mysteries in this world I don't want the answers to."
He got two paper cups of coffee and returned. Hollis left her hip-perch on McGee's desk and followed him to the conference room when he jerked his head in that direction.
She took the coffee with a wry smile. Even bad coffee was coffee. He'd seen Hollis drink tea, though, and who knew what habits she'd picked up in Hawaii. Nothing that had ultimately kept her there, though. It was petty, but it pleased him that she hadn't taken to retirement – or marriage – any better than he had.
"You really want Young back alive?" he asked bluntly.
"Yes, Jethro. We'd like to know if and what he told the people who took him, not to mention who they are."
"You don't know?"
"If we knew, we'd have taken this investigation away from NCIS."
"The hell you would."
"Yes, Jethro," she repeated, and the calm condescension made him grit his teeth. "You could stomp your feet and shake your fists and it wouldn't make even the tiniest difference."
She made it sound like he threw a tantrum every time he didn't get his way.
"What the hell are you into?" he demanded.
Hollis made a face at the cup still in her hand and set it on the conference table. She still carried herself with the smooth grace and straight military posture he'd admired from the first. He'd never intimidated her, never even impressed her. He'd liked that. They'd been easy together.
"I really can't tell you. The fact that you don't know is what makes your team useful."
Gibbs repeated that in his head and cursed out loud.
"Exactly," Hollis agreed.
"Who knew Young was going to meet Reinhart?"
"No one. He was in DC for his confirmation. He had some leave time and knew once he took over his new post he wouldn't be free again for months. He was scheduled to fly back today."
"And he got snatched during the only window when he wouldn't be in a public or secure area after being confirmed and read-in."
Hollis nodded. "Also before he received a subcutaneous tracker that would have let us find him as soon as we knew to look."
Gibbs kept himself from twitching at the thought of accepting a microchip and transmitter under his skin. McGee could remotely turn on a phone and use its microphone to listen in on whoever had it, if it had a battery in it. He'd bet someone could use the technology Hollis was talking about to bug them.
Zero privacy might bother him, but that wasn't pertinent to what Hollis had just revealed. Jack's people might genuinely want Young back alive, but they wanted who took him even more, so they could tug that thread until it led back to their own people.
"You've got a mole."
She nodded again and murmured, "Let's just hope it's not a snake."
Gibbs wouldn't wait, and Colonel Davis and Ms. Mann agreed with him. Instead of insisting they wait and watch the rental where the stolen Escalade had stopped, they came along with the team. Colonel Davis even came up with real-time satellite coverage of the house, including heat signatures. Ellie wasn't sure even the NSA could manage that, and they certainly couldn't re-task a satellite in under half an hour. There were things called orbits that the Air Force seemed able to just ignore.
It made her wonder what else they had that no one knew about.
Colonel Young probably knew about Air Force satellites; that would be why he was snatched. Commander Reinhart was just collateral damage.
The Escalade was inside the rental house's attached garage. The house itself was supposed to be empty, scheduled for remodeling in the next month, and far enough from the beaten path no one would notice anyone coming and going. If the kidnappers had just stolen an older vehicle it might have taken days longer to find them.
They parked far enough out no one inside would have heard the car engines and the telltale cut-off and walked in.
"Hollis, with me. Torres, you and Bishop take the back. McGee, stick with Colonel Davis and make sure they don't get out through the garage," Gibbs instructed.
Gibbs obviously trusted Ms. Mann more than Colonel Davis. Ellie still wished Reeves wasn't off handling a case that crossed interests with the British Embassy on Vance's orders.
"Let's go," Torres said in a low voice and they circled the house, keeping low and away from any sightlines from the windows, until they reached the back. "Safety off," Torres reminded her.
Ellie's face burned. She was very good about remembering to check the safety was on, but the last time they'd gone through a door together she forgotten to take it off. It had been okay; the petty officer they'd arrested had gone quietly, but Torres had spotted it and called her on it later.
At least he hadn't said anything where Gibbs would hear.
She held up her weapon where Torres could see she had it ready, finger lying alongside the trigger mechanism. She really didn't want to trip and fire accidentally. The paperwork was horrible, not to mention the ribbing she'd never live down, and whatever Gibbs would say.
Torres flashed her a grin.
They breached the door into the kitchen a second after Gibbs went through the front. Ellie heard Gibbs yelling that they were Federal agents, gunshots, running.Then a big man tore through the doorway, shoulder-checked Torres into the table and chairs in a crash and brought a pistol up with the clear intention of shooting her.
Reflex and practice had Ellie in a shooting stance, her off hand supporting the other. She aimed and fired on her inhale, absorbing the kickback the way she'd been trained, ready to fire again. Her target fired a fraction of a second later, but shock and the impact of a bullet to his chest sent his shot through the window over the sink. He staggered back into the doorway, hit a wall, and slid down it, the exit wound leaving a vivid streak of crimson blood.
Torres had scrambled free of a chair and aimed his own weapon at the man as Gibbs and Mann came down the hall.
"Okay?" Gibbs asked.
"Yeah," Torres confirmed.
Ellie set the safety on her weapon and holstered it. Her ears were ringing. Mann nudged the suspect’s pistol – a 9mm Beretta or a knock-off – away with her foot, then crouched by the man Ellie had shot and checked his neck for a pulse. She looked up and shook her head.
"Center mass," Torres commented. "Good shot."
"It would have been nice to have someone left to question," Mann said, but she glared at Gibbs, not Ellie.
Ellie cleared her throat. It felt burned and all she could smell was cordite and the sudden stink as the dead man's bowels loosed. She choked and cleared her throat again. "Colonel Young?"
Mann shook her head.
They cleared the rest of the house and found Young's naked body in the second bedroom. Newspapers had been taped over the windows. The afternoon sun glowed through them, coloring the room in a murky beige light.
Young was still zip-tied to a straight chair. Someone had dragged in a rolling toolbox, the kind usually found in garages, with drawers. A car battery and jumper cables sat on the floor next to it. Young's head lolled forward. Blood, dried and dark, covered his chest down to his groin, and had dripped down to the urine stained carpet under the chair.
The smell hit Ellie abruptly and she had to stagger back, out of the room, or contaminate the scene.
"Go get Davis and McGee. Call in Palmer," Gibbs told her. "Wait outside for him."
"Poor bastard," she heard Mann remark as she skirted through the living room, carefully not looking at the other dead man there, and out the front door.
It must have shown on her face. Tim started forward before Ellie could even say anything. "Are you okay?"
Davis looked concerned too, but his gaze moved past her to the house.
"Yes. Two suspects are down," Ellie said. "Gibbs wants Palmer here as soon as possible." She switched her attention to Davis. "Colonel Young is dead."
He pulled out his phone and walked far enough away they couldn't make out his low words.
"Gibbs wants me to wait for Palmer and you guys to join him inside," she finished.
Tim squeezed her shoulder as he headed inside. Davis gave her a sympathetic look and followed him. Ellie sucked in a deep breath, trying to fill her lungs with the smell of dry grass and clean air. The sun was warm on her cheeks. A bird squawked indignantly from the trees. One of her socks had a wrinkle in it, right under her heel. She was alive.
She dug out her phone and called Palmer. Then she sat down on the ground, took off her boot and fixed her sock.
Hollis wanted to curse, but she couldn't fault Gibbs for taking down the thug in the front room or Bishop for protecting herself and her partner. It just complicated the situation.
Louis Young hadn't been someone she knew personally. She worked out of DC mostly, digging up whatever the other guys didn't want Jack O'Neill to know about. It was satisfying; something new most days. As a civilian consultant she didn't have to kowtow to rank as much as during her CID days and O'Neill was a good boss. He gave his people their heads and backed them up, unless the planet was literally on the line.
That was something that had taken some time to settle in, working for Homeworld Security. Doing something that mattered more than national dick waving and climbing the career ladder.
She'd hoped that the fast work locating where Young was being held might mean finding him still alive. It was why she'd urged O'Neill to go along with keeping Gibbs on the case. DiNozzo and David might be gone but Gibbs' team was still one of the best out there and unhampered by politics. Yanking the case would have meant duplicating a lot of work NCIS had already done, pissing off Gibbs, and losing time.
O'Neill apparently knew Gibbs too. He'd agreed, given her Paul Davis as back-up and contact with the Program in Colorado and Nevada, and told her to do what she had to if they got a lead on who sold Young out.
They spent the rest of the afternoon sorting out the scene, getting the bodies, including Young's, back to the Navy Yard and Dr. Mallard's morgue, smoothing the local LEOs' ruffled feathers, and finally headed back to DC themselves.
McGee took the two baby investigators in his government sedan. Hollis rode with Gibbs, after cutting Paul loose with her car. He promised to leave it at her townhouse with the keys locked in the glove compartment. He'd take a taxi from there.
"Sorry about your man," Gibbs said during the drive back.
Hollis had skimmed Young's real file. Even with a lot of redactions, she knew he'd been a good officer. O'Neill would be the one writing a condolence letter to his wife. Paul would probably be the one who took her the news. It was shit all the way around.
"Will Dr. Palmer do the autopsy tonight?"
"I need to observe."
Autopsies weren't her favorite things, but it was necessary. If Goa'uld were involved, one of those bodies might still have a symbiote inside. Dead men tell no tales. But they did, to a pathologist as talented as Ducky Mallard. He'd find the signs, even if the snake had escaped, though he wouldn't know what they meant. She hoped Dr. Palmer was as talented and thorough as his mentor.
"Don't trust Palmer?" Gibbs kept it light, but she heard the tight anger in his voice.
"Dr. Mallard's reputation as a pathologist is the only reason Young's body is still in NCIS' hands," Hollis told him honestly. That, and the fact the single best pathologist the Stargate Program had employed had gone on the Atlantis Mission and, if Biro was still alive, she was still in Pegasus, gone unrepentantly native. "Now I find out he's in New York and someone else will be handling the autopsies."
"Better get something to eat then," Gibbs said, "you'll want to hang around until Palmer finishes up. Ducky trusted him to do his job."
Hollis told herself it was too late to bring in a different pathologist. Palmer would be at least as good as anyone else the Air Force could rope in.
They got take-out for the entire team,Indian instead of Thai after some debate. Bishop seemed to have recovered her equilibrium after shooting thug number two. She supposed it was a sign of getting old that Bishop looked like she should still be in high school to her. Hollis wanted to tell her to tie her hair back or braid it and dress like a field investigator and not a office analyst, but held her tongue. She typed up a quick preliminary report after they ate, emailed it to her office and Homeworld, and took a call from O'Neill, before following Gibbs down to the autopsy suite.
"Gibbs," Palmer greeted them, "and Colonel Mann. It's probably not acceptable to say it's nice to see you again when you're here because of a murder."
She considered correcting him but knew it would be futile. Palmer was a nervous babbler, but not stupid. Working with Gibbs must be hell on his nerves without Dr. Mallard to serve as a buffer.
Dr. Palmer was gowned up and Louis Young was laid out on the stainless-steel table, already past rigor mortis, sampled for forensic transfer and washed down. Palmer kicked on a digital recorder and camera with a foot switch and smiled at Hollis. She smiled back at him.
"Are you sure you wish to be present for the entire procedure?" he asked.
"I'm afraid it's necessary."
"Okay, you know what you're doing. You should both glove up and put on masks and eye protection. Splatter and bone dust can travel farther than you think."
She knew Gibbs didn't usually attend the autopsies. He trusted Ducky to provide him any useful information from them and preferred to keep moving on his investigations. Hollis found attending useful sometimes. She had always had an iron stomach, unlike many men she'd worked beside. She followed Palmer's instructions and glared until Gibbs did as well.
The autopsy went the way most of them did. Palmer worked smoothly but with an obvious respect for the battered body. He quietly narrated his every action and what it revealed to a digital recorder, pausing it to answer Gibbs questions periodically.
Hollis stayed quiet and out of the way, though closer to the table than Gibbs. She kept her hands in her pockets where she had a spray bottle of symbiont poison disguised as eau de cologne. The litany of what had been done to Young gave way to description of his internal organs, their state and weight, and Hollis tuned out when the bone saw began to hum, until Palmer hummed in interest at something.
She saw Gibbs' interest pique too.
"See this burn on Colonel Young's forehead?" Palmer pointed to it. "I recorded it earlier during the superficial examination."
"So?" Gibbs was always impatient, but Palmer was too interested in Young to be bothered now. He pulled a lighted magnifying glass over the burn and peered at it. Gibbs snorted under his breath. "We already know he was tortured."
"Yes, but look at this. There is damage to the prefrontal cortex of the anterior frontal lobes, directly in line with the burn to the epidermis and the dermis that I already observed. I need to take a sample of the underlying bone there for further examination. Upon preliminary visual examination it appears almost cooked." Palmer sounded intrigued and looked up. His normally amiable face was bright with enthusiasm behind the shiny plexiglass face shield he wore. "It's like it's been microwaved!"
Hollis kept her expression placid. Palmer was as good as Ducky Mallard, though.
"That seems unlikely, Dr. Palmer," she told him.
"More things on heaven and earth," Palmer replied.
Hollis had to swallow a snort. If he only knew. Several Goa'uld interrogation tools did basically microwave flesh if applied too long. If someone had used one and been sloppy, they could have damaged Young's brain enough he couldn't give up anything. As a human being, Hollis couldn't wish that pain on anyone, but as an agent of Homeworld, she had to hope just that had happened.
"Your super-secret operation have any fancy doodads that could do that?" Gibbs asked.
"DARPA has experimented with microwave weapons, I believe," Hollis replied.
"Not what I asked."
She didn't want to get into another test of how long Gibbs could harass her while she stonewalled.
Young's brain was sitting on a scale. Palmer probed at the discolored portion, which seemed stiff and rubbery compared to the rest of the organ. Hollis eyed it with a pinch of sympathetic horror. Just because they'd killed Young didn't mean they hadn't put a Goa'uld in his head to rape every bit of knowledge from him before pulling it back out. The visible, unmistakable evidence of exterior interrogation might have been meant to divert attention from the more successful method.
Hollis hated having to think about things like that, but it was what O'Neill paid her to do. It was counter-intelligence, not criminal investigation, and that was why Gibbs hated it so much. If she figured out who was behind this, they were just as likely to leave them alone and feed them dezinformatsiya meant to poison enemy ops and reveal their entire network rather than arrest anyone.
"Dr. Palmer, is there any sign of trauma to the esophagus or the spine?" She didn’t bother asking about cuts to the mouth; most of Young's teeth had been pulled with pliers, obscuring any damage that might have been done by a Goa'uld's spiny fins.
"No, not that has shown up. You can call me Jimmy, you know. Anyway, is there some reason you would expect it? I can take another look."
"Just covering all the bases."
"Should I look for such trauma on the other two?"
Hollis glanced to where the two thugs waited their turns under the knife. "If you would, please." They'd acted like low-level low-lives when they'd realized they were about to be arrested, not Goa'uld, but she couldn't assume.
"No problem," Palmer agreed happily, despite her not offering any explanation. "You want to stick around for their posts too?"
Gibbs' eyebrows went up.
It was morning before the final autopsy was concluded and they went back upstairs. Either Gibbs' team had gone home at some point or they kept changes of clothes at the Navy Yard – which seemed likely – but they were at their desks. Bishop even had coffee for Gibbs and a tall tea for Hollis, along with a pastry.
"IDs on the suspects?" Gibbs asked.
"Robert 'Bobby' Gemmel and Johnny Norman," Torres said. He was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and Hollis kind of wanted to slap the back of his head, if only for getting the sleep she hadn't.
Pictures on the plasma screen matched their two dead thugs.
"These two were local losers for hire. They acted as muscle for protection rackets and debt collectors of the more 'organized' elements but were not actually members of any gang. It looks like they were hired to grab Colonel Young and deliver him to the rental house." McGee dragged credit card records and still frames from CCTV onto the screen. "They boosted the Escalade for the job and spent yesterday morning tooling around in it, using Young's credit cards."
"Amateurs," Hollis said in disgust.
"Means they have no connection to the people really behind this, even if they're caught and talk," Gibbs pointed out.
She nodded because he was right.
"They never even saw the interrogators, I'd bet," Torres said.
"Sending them off with the credit cards was just another diversion tactic," Hollis agreed. "I want every fingerprint, stray hair, shoe scuff, and transfer from that house catalogued. Anything, anything, out of the ordinary, I want to know about it."
"Like what?" Gibbs waited with his 'do tell' face.
Hollis tossed her hands up. "I don't know? If I knew I'd tell you to look for that! Rare biologicals, bizarre chemicals or minerals, a tie-pin linked to a nefarious secret society, whatever magic Ms. Sciuto can use to turn into a lead."
Torres snort-laughed and Gibbs glared at him. "Whaaaat?" Torres protested.
"Go talk to Abby."
"Why did they come back?" McGee wondered of Norman and Gemmel.
"Second half of their pay, curiosity, maybe they were supposed to clean up and dispose of Young's body if we hadn't found them?" Bishop speculated.
"Doesn't matter. Find out everything you can about those two. Someone knows something about who hired them. They weren't in the yellow pages under 'thug'. There's always a connection."
"On it, boss," McGee said immediately.
Bishop picked up her phone and began work too, calling the local PD.
Hollis smoothed her hopelessly wrinkled skirt. "I'm going home to get a shower, Jethro, and catch some sleep before I go into my office."
"I'll call you a cab."
"Call me if anything breaks."
"Sure," he promised, and she knew he was lying. "You, too."
"Of course," she lied back.
"All right, Arkady, you're the one who sicced us on these people. Tell us what you picked up."
Arkady gave Callen a wounded look. "It isn't enough that I go out of my way to alert you to these people, now you want me to do your work for you?"
"Yes," Sam said.
Callen smiled at the Russian. "We just appreciate your perspicacity and want to take advantage of it."
Sam's dead-eyed look told him he would be hearing about perspicacity later.
Arkady preened a little, though, and sat back in his chair. Callen had to admit meeting pool-side in sunny LA, with chilled drinks and a fruit plate, beat the hell out of chasing Solntsevskaya bratva and rendezvousing in grimy bar back rooms and empty Moscow warehouses. He'd rather worry about sunstroke than frostbite.
"You've met with the four primaries?" Sam clarified. "Sato, Lindsay, Peters and Greene?"
"Yes." Arkady sipped his drink and gestured to the fruit plate. "They are… deceptive."
"You think they were lying to you?"
Callen picked up a piece of kiwi.
"Undoubtedly," Arkady confirmed, but then shrugged. "Their identities are false. Mio Sato is the equivalent of Jane Smith. The others are barely better. But that is not what I mean."
Callen stifled his impatience, sensing that Arkady wasn't playing a game this time but trying to nail down an impression in words. He wondered if it wouldn't be easier if they shifted the conversation into Russian. Sometimes nuances were difficult to convey.
"They are not operators," Arkady said slowly. "Not military."
"Not intelligence?" Sam asked.
"No," Arkady confirmed more confidently. "Intellectuals. Scientists."
"Okay." Callen tried the melon. Sam glared at him. What? It was good, and it was there. Not partaking would insult Arkady's hospitality. He ventured, "Something about them bugged you, though."
"Very intelligent but out of step," Arkady said. "Adept with technology, but ignorant of culture here. Like I am when I first arrive here in California." He snapped his fingers. "Out of date!"
Sam sighed loudly. "Geeks live in their own worlds."
"Geeks don't have hundreds of millions to spend," Callen pointed out mildly.
"Silicon Valley ones do," Sam pointed out. He was just playing Devil's advocate, though.
"Or carry guns and knives," Arkady added. "They were all… very aware. Looking for threats, in the way of habit though, not specifically. It was incongruous."
Hypervigilant, Callen thought.
"They were carrying?" Sam finally sounded interested.
Arkady shrugged open-handed. "Did I search them?"
"And you took their job."
"Their money is good and there was nothing illegal. Background checks and vetting. It is not a crime to act like you come from a war zone."
"But you called G," Sam said.
"Yes," Arkady agreed. "Mr. Greene made me curious."
"So, you looked into him." Callen smiled. Once a spy… His smile faded. If they were smart enough to hire Arkady to run backgrounds and sketchy enough to use false identities themselves, then they would have expected Arkady to look at them too. But they might not know of the ex-KGB officer's connection to Callen and American intelligence.
"What did you find out?"
Arkady's English slipped, losing the article, and his expression turned grim. "He is dead man." He met Callen's gaze. "Your government says so."
"Give us what you have." Sam's patience hadn't been the same since Michelle.
Arkady plucked a flash drive from his pocket and slid it across the table Callen.
"Smart man," Arkady told them.
"Dangerous smart?" Sam asked.
Arkady shrugged again. "What do I know?"
Hollis and O’Neill showed up in the afternoon much to Gibbs' surprise. He'd expected the Air Force and whatever black ops program O'Neill was masterminding would drop NCIS like a red-hot hockey puck the minute they didn't need anything more from them.
Guess that meant the Air Force still needed something from them.
O'Neill headed up toward Vance's office. Hollis veered off toward the bullpen, looking put-together and fresh, not like a woman who pulled an all-nighter and then likely spent her morning briefing her boss.
"What's he doing here again?" he demanded.
"Don't be an ass," she replied. Up close he noted the tight lines around her mouth and eyes that make-up couldn't conceal. He'd caught a nap at home before coming back in to the Navy Yard. He doubted Hollis had gotten even that much.
Before he could reply, Abby clomped in at full speed on her platform-heeled boots, smiling, pigtails bouncing, exclaiming, "Gibbs, Gibbs, Gibbs!"
"What have you got for me?" he asked, trying not to smile too much. He'd never known why Abby had decided to adore him beyond that first, randomly delivered Caff-Pow, but it had certainly paid off. She was stranger than a fish trying to get a suntan, but she was brilliant and loyal.
"Gunshot residue on Johnny Norman's hands, his fingerprints on a 9mm Llama handgun recovered at the Blue Creek house rental yesterday, and the 9mm slug recovered from Commander Reinhart, which is a perfect ballistic match to Norman's gun," Abby announced.
"So, you have the answer to who shot Commander Reinhart. Case closed," Hollis said. "Hi, Abby."
"Hi, wow, it's been, like, ages, but you're back and kicking butt like old times," Abby greeted her.
"Not like old times," Gibbs grumbled.
"Let's take this upstairs," Hollis suggested. "Our respective superiors will want to know this before they make any decisions."
Vance's dragon of a secretary wouldn't let Gibbs past until Hollis charmed her and then they were inside. O'Neill raised an eyebrow at Hollis.
Since she'd wanted to tell them, Gibbs let Hollis explain Abby's findings.
"That means the Reinhart case is finished," Vance stated.
"Not until we have whoever paid those two."
"That's our problem," O'Neill said. "We'll be arranging for Colonel Young's body to be sent home and continuing the investigation into his kidnapping and death."
"They could be helpful." Hollis didn't sound overly committed to the argument, but she'd made it.
"I'm not reading more people in when I'm busy trying to ride herd on the ones that already are in the know," Jack snapped, abruptly a tired, stressed, middle-aged man with the weight of the world on his shoulders and not the fake-cheery dimwit he'd been pretending to be with Vance. "Caldwell's due back in a week; that is if our friends 'over there' didn't add him to their collection."
"At least Young didn't know about that."
Gibbs opened his mouth to interrupt them, but Vance signaled him to stay quiet. He was leaning forward in his chair, watching Jack and Hollis intently. Gathering intelligence.
"Be nice if we knew what he did tell them."
"Or who 'they' is. He didn't have a hitchhiker and they didn't have long enough to squeeze him for everything." Hollis cocked her head thoughtfully. "But they did have access to at least some of the old bad guy's stuff and used it."
Jack grunted. "Guess that rules out the religious element."
Hollis and Jack weren't going to give away anything useful and Gibbs' patience had hit its limits.
"Hey," he said, "you want to explain why a good officer got killed just to get to Young? What the hell did he know that's so important?"
"You aren't cleared for that," Jack said.
"Then get me clearance. Tell me what's really going on. Your man was there target. That means you have a leak!"
"You think I don't know that?" Jack replied wearily. His phone bleeped a sound that was almost an expletive and he jerked it out and answered with the sort of dire exhaustion Gibbs remembered from an unheated apartment in Poland, when Jack was his spotter while he watched through his scope as Sophia staggered in the snow, trying to run as the KGB closed in. He remembered Jack watching it through the binoculars as he said take the shot.
He never forgave Jack. He never forgave Hetty. Back in the wood-paneled offices with the leather club chairs Sophia was just another burned asset. She didn't know enough to hurt them. No one was going to trade for her. Blood on the snow, blood on everyone's hands.
"What?" Jack barked at the phone.
Gibbs listened, but couldn't pick up much; age and gunfire hadn't done his hearing any favors. Something something Daedalus something something two packages.
Jack's eyebrows shot up. "Two? Under our control?" He listened. "No. I have a rich fantasy life, Hank. Of course, we're taking the deal. We'll hem and haw and lie and offer them a bunch of beads and blankets, and we'll take the deal. Get the suites set up and try not to sulk where they can see you." He ended the call.
"Good news?" Hollis asked.
"No one started another war. These days I call that a win." His mind was already far away from Vance's office and the case he was taking away. "Mann, you have this. I've got to fly back and hold everyone's hands, so no one shits their pants and ruins this great no war streak we've got going."
"We're not done here," Gibbs said when Jack headed for the door.
"Gibbs!" Vance snapped. "You are done here. Commander Reinhart's murder case will be closed out. Everything else belongs to Homeland and the Air Force." He switched his attention to Jack. "General, you and Ms. Mann know the way out."
Jack and Hollis left. Gibbs knew in his bones he wouldn't see either of them again unless something blew up so ugly and public that ZNN plastered it all over the news. Maybe Jack would fuck up and start another war. But that wasn't Jack. Take the shot. Jack would do whatever he had to do and leave the snow stained red.
He spared a glare for Vance and stomped his own way downstairs and out for coffee and a Caff-Pow for Abby.
He did reach out and call in a few favors over the next few days, trying to find a crack he could use to pry out the truth, but he kept his team out of it. All he got was cover story: after his son died and his divorce, Jack had been running black ops, then he 'retired' briefly, before being assigned Cheyenne Mountain and a deep space telemetry project.
Batshit Jack knew about as much about deep space anything as a ground squirrel knew about the general relativity theory. It was cover, but no one was willing to talk about what was really going on at the Mountain.
His best hope of finding out anything more called him back and told him to stay away or leave him out of whatever crusade he was on this time.
"Cheyenne Mountain is a meat grinder and O'Neill's the one who feeds the hopper," the man said over bourbon flavored with nail rust and sawdust. He gulped down the last of it and headed for the stairs. "Keep clear, Jethro. Too many people have already disappeared down that hole."
Owen contemplated the surveillance photos on display and Hetty contemplated Owen. Finally, he faced her and gave her a sardonic look. Since the NID took custody of Jennifer Kim, tension had run high between them. Owen knew Hetty knew something he didn't, but he wasn't willing to ask any questions he thought she'd answer. Hetty stared back, unwilling to engage.
"What do you think?" he asked. "Put someone in undercover?"
On what excuse? She wanted to ask. Making money, spending it, and not having drawn the attention of law enforcement previously weren't crimes yet. For all that she agreed QE, Unlimited was more than it seemed – and what it seemed was enigmatic enough – to rate their interest, the bean counters in Budget would want something more concrete. Despite Arkady's identification, they had no proof R.P. Greene was in fact Radek Zelenka.
The photographs showed the four owners of QE, two women and two men. Mio Sato, Jane Lindsay, Gordon Peters, and R.P. Greene, who Hetty privately agreed was Zelenka. They ranged from late thirties to possibly late forties and were all unremarkable in appearance. They did not look like operators, though they maintained cyber security that had thwarted both Mr. Beale and Miss Jones along with remarkable forensic discipline. They left no garbage to be analyzed, no finger prints, and jammed both audio and digital video surveillance. The photographs presently displayed had been obtained with a film camera from Hetty's own collection.
Hetty considered the screen displays again. "I believe we would find that much more difficult than one would initially believe." Whoever they really were and whatever their genuine purposes, everyone working for QE was cautious and capable. They were on the look-out for either corporate or national espionage efforts at penetrating their business.
"I'm sure Kolcheck would be willing to slip Callen or Hanna in," Owen suggested. "He's still vetting people for them."
"QE provided all the names they wanted Arkady to vet." Hetty narrowed her eyes as she considered the implications. According to Arkady, they'd begun with a single, short list, then provided a longer one, with additional names being appended periodically. Perhaps as they conducted their own interviews with the people who passed the background check they were offered the names of others who would fit with QE?
They were using academic networking rather than a headhunting operation. Subtle. She wanted to study those lists again.
"We could send Callen or Hanna in under one of those names. At least some of them have been ex-military. A couple of them are flat out mercenaries."
"Much too likely to blow up in our faces," Hetty said. She pursed her lips. At least some of the ex-military and law enforcement people QE had hired early on were acting as their security now, replacing or augmenting the security contractors they'd initially hired.
"They're acquiring materials, chemicals, and equipment with no stated business plan or end use," Granger pointed out. "They're looking for and hiring scientists."
"Yes, well, they've also recruited several agricultural specialists, biologists and botanists," Hetty pointed out. "That doesn't fit the profile of a terrorist or national intelligence operation. Perhaps they really are a venture NGO." Their corporate non-disclosure agreements were air-tight even regarding their interviews. Everyone they'd hired post interview had received signing bonuses large enough to handle closing their lives where they currently lived. Jobs were quit, debts were paid off, leases broken, cars either sold or even given away and then, between one day and the next, QE's new hires, along with their belongings and even their pets, vanished.
Hetty didn't like it. She didn't like it at all.
Granger hmphed. Arkady had brought QE to their attention. If that old KGB operator thought there was something more to the company, Hetty knew better than to dismiss him.
QE had sprung out of nothing and nowhere, it seemed, and one of its directors was a man who had been declared dead over three years before. The official death certificate claimed he'd died of injuries incurred in a car accident in Colorado.
The new identity had not been manufactured by an intelligence apparatus. They'd never have provided an alias with a connection to his name. What they would have done was backstop the new identity, something that no one had bothered to do for him or his three companions. Like Athena, they had sprung fully formed into the world.
Hetty wondered who they really were and why they had created and were running an international company with enigmatic aims and unknown sources of extraordinary capitol.
The money trail led back through off-shore banks, shell corporations, and false-front businesses. It disappeared in a cats' cradle of transactions in Panama and Aruba amid whispers of gold, platinum, and diamonds. QE also had quietly sold new, advanced microchip designs to GlobalFoundries for a sum that raised her eyebrows. But who had created the designs, where had the work had been done and how remained a quiet mystery.
Mr. Beale had one of the purchase orders NCIS had intercepted open in front of him.
"You know," he said, "if it weren't for the farmers and actual stuff like seed stock they've bought, I'd think they were going to construct their own fab."
"Their own what?" Owen demanded.
"Fab. Fabrication plant for making microchips," Mr. Beale explained. "Like Intel, Samsung, GlobalFoundries, and, uh, the other one."
"TSMC," Miss Jones supplied. "Those are the four largest suppliers of microchips in the world." She frowned at the screen, brows drawn together beneath her straight bangs. "I don't think this company has the capitol to build a fab on their scale, even with the amounts we've managed to document."
"Maybe not, but who says they want to make enough to market to the whole world?" Mr. Beale was becoming more enthusiastic. "Look, they obviously have a very advanced R & D lab somewhere. That design didn't come out of nowhere. Maybe they sold to leverage enough money to build a facility to make something even more advanced. Something revolutionary."
"Interesting theory," Owen said. Hetty could see him dismissing it. It might be exciting for the computer geeks, but if it wasn't a crime and it wasn't a threat to US national interests, it didn't rate the OSP's interest in Owen's opinion. Hetty believed in taking the long view. Revolutionary technology, like classified technology, could be very detrimental to US interests if it fell into the wrong hands.
Whether QE was antithetical or not, it was a mystery she wanted plumbed.
"Scientists and mercenaries almost makes sense," Miss Jones opined, "but where do the farmers and botanists fit in? They interviewed three people who raise goats last week."
Owen nodded though. "Vertically integrated drug manufacture possibly. Plants, farming, compounding facilities, pharmacists, they all fit."
"So, QE is really a drug cartel?" Mr. Beale exclaimed.
"Not, I think, in the sense of an illegal one," Hetty said. "But you and Owen may both be onto something."
Miss Jones was watching her. Hetty held back a smile. Of all her proteges, Miss Jones showed the most promise. She paid attention to the small things along with the obvious. She had the knack of soft power, too: she knew how to make people want to do what she wanted rather than using force or authority.
Hetty nodded to herself. "We should dedicate more eyes-on surveillance to QE's warehouses and learn where the materials they're purchasing ultimately go. Follow the bulldozers and other large equipment."
A great deal of material had gone into that warehouse complex and nothing had yet come out. A perplexing list of items that Hetty hadn't been able to parse. Industrial sewing machines. Looms. Cloth. Chemicals. Carpentry tools. Construction machinery. Construction materials: steel beams, rebar, cement, sealants, electrical and plumbing supplies. Kilns. Agricultural tools and supplies. Medical supplies, anything with a shelf life beyond a week or two, they were acquiring hospitals' worth of it.
She'd begun to wonder how it was all fitting into the vast industrial complex of warehouses QE had purchased outright.
Maybe QE was a proprietary operation of Jack's, something set up to generate off-budget funds and purchase items without GAO overview. If so, it would be best to watch and not interfere. The less said, the better. She didn't fool herself that Jack would let her know. A secret was a secret only so long as only one person knew it. The west coast was Hetty's domain, but QE was international in scope. Certainly, it was in its hiring practices.
She'd mention Quindozum Enterprises discreetly the next time she was in DC, unless Jack showed up on her doorstep first. If he didn't blink, it would be enough to point him at them.
Eventually, Caldwell convinced whoever was in charge at the SGC to talk to them. First it was a general - not O'Neill - who Vala dubbed Brushy Eyebrows, but he didn't have the authority to negotiate. Eventually, after another day, it was a woman named Elizabeth Weir and O'Neill, telling Vala that as a representative of Pegasus, the IOA would negotiate with her.
They invited her to stay at Stargate Command.
"Locked up like rabid dogs," Mer described it. "They're going to treat you like a retarded cousin, because they're convinced they're smarter and more advanced than anyone else."
"Don't say retard," Jehan admonished Mer. Mer grumbled and mumbled at 'politically correct mealy-mouthed censors', then sighed. "Fine. They'll treat you like a mushroom, kept in the dark and fed shit."
"You're serious?" Vala asked. "Do they understand that I was a host to a Goa'uld?"
"Don't try to comprehend how politicians think," Jehan advised. They were all in Vala's cabin while she debated over what to take with her planet-side. Jehan was lounging on her bed, though he kept his boots on the deck. Mer was pacing and getting in her way.
Vala held up a silver gown that was more cutaway than fabric. It went with a box full of diamond-encrusted platinum jewelry. A snotty family of refugees from a world with a name she'd already forgotten had thought they could trade it and some other pieces and make themselves aristocrats in Atlantis. One of the younger sons wasn't utterly stupid, though, and Vala had accepted the jewelry as a crew share buy-in since he had no pre-existing skills. Serving on one of Atlantis' ships earned him a citizenship and let the rest of his family live in the city. But Atlantis didn't have royalty and since they had no skills they were on mop and scrub duty.
"What do you think?" she asked with a shake of the gown. The fabric appeared to be pouring from her fingers.
"Really Goa'uld," Jehan said.
Vala grimaced. It really was. She'd look incredible in it, of course. But she'd picked it up in case she needed to fake being Qetesh. She doubted playing the Goa'uld or even the ex-Goa'uld card would play well on Earth.
"Eh," Mer said, "it's better than a lot of the stuff on the Paris catwalks."
"How would you know?" Jehan asked, turning his head to look at Mer.
Mer looked unsettled. "There were magazines. In the house." He swallowed. "When I was married to Sam."
Jehan lifted his eyebrows. "Doesn't sound like Sam."
Mer shrugged. "I think her sister-in-law subscribed to them for her. They had a very passive-aggressive thing."
"Doesn't explain why you know what was in them."
"You know I'll read anything if I'm desperate enough. Sam left them in the bathroom."
"Maybe Zelenka can pick up some new issues for you while we're on Earth," Jehan teased.
"Jackass." Mer looked at the dress Vala was about to toss in the no-go pile. "Take it. Wear it. It'll remind the IOA that they can't push you around like they do the SGC."
"Are you sure?" Considering the Tau'ri were the ones who had done more damage to the Goa'uld, breaking the power of the System Lords, reminding them of one seemed a less than rewarding plan.
"Mmm. They're going to freak out anyway. Own it."
Jehan stretched on the bed, wriggling his shoulders into the mattress. "Mer's right. The only way to do this is get right into their faces."
They were speaking English. Vala picked it up from Jehan and expanded her vocabulary and fluency with Mer and many of the expedition members. The gate translator let her understand most of it, but a phrase like that would have puzzled her without native speakers to give it context. She thought how odd the expression would sound in Goa'uld or any of the Jaffa dialects.
English was ridiculous. Its complexity made it easy to play games with its multiple levels of meaning. She loved innuendo and sarcasm. Goa'uld had little use for nuance. The flowery sort of sycophancy the Goa'uld demanded sounded fake in English even if it was said truly.
She knew Jehan didn't want to be here, on Earth. Returning to the Via Stella didn't bother him. But his home planet, where she suspected he had family, and the Tau'ri military that had abandoned him had him uneasy, unsure of himself and his place.
O'Neill swore the Tau'ri authorities had believed John Sheppard was dead. The sholva swore on his honor that he had believed so and told them so. How much honor could a sholva have, though?
Vala shook herself. He had more than the Goa'uld had. Teal'c had betrayed his 'god' and seen the Goa'uld torn down. If the prim'ta in his gut didn't make her skin crawl she might even like him.
Jehan didn't want to come back to Earth, but he would still be ringing down to the SGC with her and Mer and the rest of their small diplomatic party, because his knowledge of the Tau'ri and their military and politics would be invaluable. Ronon and Teyla would round out the initial party. Ronon was included as security, and Teyla because as Ambassador Emmagan she represented all of Atlantis and for the purposes of these negotiations, Pegasus.
Teyla laughed so hard she snorted when everyone agreed she would lead, but she was a natural for it. She led the Athosians, ran trade missions, and was basically a diplomat well known throughout the Pegasus worlds before she ended up as a runner. She was harder and more ruthless and most loyal to Jehan and the Revenge now, but she still had all her skills.
She was going to eat the Tau'ri for breakfast.
And if they gave them enough trouble, there was always the raiding option. What had Jehan called it?
They could be Space Vikings.
Mer had choked on his coffee, while pointing a finger at Jehan and finally snarling, "There will be no Fuzzies. Oh my God. H. Beam Piper."
Vala assumed it was some Tau'ri thing. She didn't want to know. They had so many little in-jokes and cultural touchstones, it was insane.
Jehan had grinned for hours.
He knew how smart Vala was. Not the smart Mer was, but like Jehan, she had a brain that worked in different ways than his did. They both could keep up with him if he explained things piece by piece. Jehan could sometimes follow the jumps Mer's mind made, once he knew where Mer had landed. Metaphorically. Vala's talent, among many, lay in the cheerful manipulation of human beings.
He knew Vala could handle the IOA.
He hadn't anticipated just how Teyla outclassed them all. Appointing her Ambassador had been inspired.
Jehan was as silent as Ronon. They were all, except Teyla, wearing the version of a uniform which Vala, Sam and Haemi had designed with contributions from Bates, of all people. Turned out Eugene not only knew how to sew, but to tailor, and had strong and useful opinions on how to create something that would look 'strack' and still provide both protection and ease of movement in a combat situation.
The uniform was mostly black and mostly leather along with a ribbed Satedan fabric that dispersed impacts better than Kevlar. There were buckles made from a bronze-colored alloy in what Mer thought were slightly ridiculous numbers, but they hid several secret pockets. After multiple arguments Vala had forgone the skull-and-crossbones that graced Revenge's hull, and their shoulders held a patch with a stylized, bloodred dagger over the silver snowflake outline of Atlantis' piers.
Mer had to admit they all looked awesome in uniform.
As Ambassador, Teyla dressed in bronze and copper silks; a heavy ornately-embroidered open coat over a tunic, trousers, and boots. The coat was lined with Satedan body armor.
Too bad they were buried under Cheyenne Mountain, spending their days in windowless conference rooms punctuated by 'escorted' trips to the mess hall, and their nights in the SGC's diplomatic suites. Suites which were only one step up from the BOQ, in that the awful mattresses were for beds rather than bunks. If Jolinar hadn't fixed his back, he would have been half crippled after the last week.
"Tell me," Teyla said with a sweet smile, "exactly what you believe you gain by treating us in this fashion?"
"What fashion?" the German IOA representative replied. The way his lips thinned and his eyelid twitched gave away that he knew exactly what Teyla meant.
"As threats to your world," Teyla said. "You keep us here, under guard in a military facility." Her tone grew harder. "If not as threats, then perhaps as prisoners, not allowed even to stray from the 'quarters' you so generously have provided after your curfew."
"It's best, for everyone's safety."
"You are threats," Shen said after Germany fumbled it. She was the smartest of the IOA people, crippled only by her political ambitions and whatever orders she had from the Chinese government.
Vala had kicked back her chair so she could cross one leg over the other and kick her booted foot. The kicks slowed down, into something more like the slow lash of a cat's tail before a pounce.
"We could be," Vala said while staring straight at Shen, "If you want to play it that way."
Someone on the other side of the table sucked in a loud breath.
"Let me be clear," Teyla said and the steel under the pretty silk started to slice through, "I am not a naïve child. I do not believe technology is magic or the work of gods. I understand your International Oversight Agency encompasses only a few of your planet's nations and that the Stargate Program is primarily a tool of what your world refers to as either the First World or the West." She swept her gaze past Weir, who had opened her mouth but said nothing, to Shen again. "Even your China seeks to accrue power over the rest of your planet through what you gain through trade in technology."
Shen returned a look just as steely. Mer had to admit Shen had bigger balls than all the men in the room.
"You have been insulting me, my companions and all of the people of Pegasus since our arrival."
"You must understand, our actions impact our entire world," Weir said. "We have to take precautions."
"Mer," Vala remarked, "what's that phrase the Atlantis marines use?"
"No, it's a colloquialism."
He shrugged. Jehan coughed.
"Oh!" Vala smiled brightly. "I remember!"
Mer braced himself.
"Don’t piss on me and tell me it's raining."
Ronon snorted, the sound he made to hide laughter. Everyone on the other side of the conference table stiffened. Weir flushed.
"Indeed," Teyla agreed. "My own people have a similar saying. We know you would not treat a diplomatic envoy from one of your great nations in the manner you have ours."
"What you know is irrelevant," Germany snapped. "We can't allow aliens and – " he sneered at Mer, " – traitors to wander around loose."
"You can bend over and spread your legs when they have something that could save your asses from the Ori or the Wraith, though," Mer said.
"Meredith," Teyla chided.
"Politicians are all whores," he said in Goa'uld.
The corner of Jehan's mouth quirked up while Vala let out a peal of laughter.
"How dare you, you – "
"Enough," Weir interrupted Germany. "Perhaps we should suspend this meeting for the day and return to it tomorrow when we might accomplish something."
"We're not going to accomplish anything while you keep making demands you haven't got a chance of enforcing," Mer said. "Ugh. I want coffee. And not that hideous swill you serve in the mess. That's an insult to the water you make it with."
He watched Weir take in a deep breath and close her eyes longer than a normal blink. She was probably counting silently to keep from screaming and shoving a pen through someone's eye.
"We can send out for something," she said when she exhaled.
"Oh, don't bother," Vala said. She tapped the modified radio headset masquerading as fancy earrings and added, "Well get it ourselves. – Signe. Beam Jehan and Meredith up please. They'll tell you where they want to go once they're on-board."
Mer sneered at Germany and Shen as he left his seat.
"Get me something with chocolate!" Vala called as the Asgard beam enveloped them. On Revenge, Jehan put on a green button-up and Mer opened his own jacket to show the Iron Man graphic T-shirt underneath. They kept the leather pants. They hooked their radio communicators around their ears and could pass as a couple of upscale bikers.
"Starbucks," Jehan told Signe. "Los Angeles."
"Starbucks, really? There's so much better coffee out there," Mer whined.
The Asgard beam dissolved them and reintegrated them down in an empty alley behind one of the ubiquitous coffee houses. They walked around the front to go in, with Jehan digging a wallet out of his jacket. They had IDs and cash, debit, and credit cards thanks to the work Radek, Lindsay, Miko and Peter had already done. Aurora had arrived, cloaked and unnoticed by anyone on Earth, well before Revenge followed Daedalus back to Sol. Their op would remain clandestine, while the IOA and SGC were focused on the official Pegasus delegation.
Tempestas was currently raiding Praxyon and would arrive soon. They’d decided if one of their ships was going to be shot up, it might as well be the one they were considering trading.
Teyla, Vala, and everyone with Revenge were here mostly as a diversion. Radek had a head for covert ops and accomplishing any number of things under government radar. Lindsay, Miko and Peter were all au courant enough to blend in. With Aurora's processing power and the hacking algorithms Mer and Radek and the other programmers from the expedition had put together, they could slide through any connected information network on the planet.
Just because they were a diversion didn't mean they had to put up with being jerked around by the IOA, though.
Thus, the coffee run.
Teyla didn't like coffee, so they debated and got her a bubble tea, and a caramel macchiato for Ronon. He would happily drink anything with caramel. They ordered peppermint hot chocolate for Vala. Being purists, or in Jehan's case a military heathen, he and Mer got theirs black. They picked up pastries too, including some for the bridge crew, and took their carriers and bags back to the alley.
Then they were up to the ship again, handing over goods to the bridge crew, then zapped back down to the conference room deep under Cheyenne Mountain. The one that was supposed to be beyond the reach of Asgard beams or Goa'uld rings. It would have been if Mer hadn't tucked a location beacon under his chair before they left.
Germany and Great Britain were both on their feet when the brightness of the beam faded. Shen had her stone-face on. Weir had gone pale, because of all of them she was the smartest and had already put together the implication of the green mermaid logo on the cups Mer and Jehan passed around.
Vala made a happy noise as she inhaled over her cup. "Perfect."
Teyla smiled at the bubble tea, while Ronon slurped his macchiato.
"That – " Germany started and then ran out of words.
"That," Vala agreed.
"There's a shield," he said. He swung his attention to Weir. "The shield is in place, yes?"
"Yes," she replied tiredly.
"It is," Mer agreed. "We understand how it works. We punch through Goa'uld and Wraith shielding and after the Asgard visited, I figured out how to get through theirs as well."
"The Ori penetrated our ship's shielding," the Russian representative spoke for the first time. "They destroyed Korolev. Only a few from our crew were ringed away by the Tok'ra before their ship retreated."
"The Tok'ra are great at retreating," Mer muttered. He was surprised they'd gotten close enough to the fighting to rescue anyone. They were masters at cutting their losses.
Some people might say he was biased. He said he had inside knowledge.
"You're missing the point, anyway," Vala said. She sipped her chocolate, then held up the cup, turning it ostentatiously.
"And that is?" Weir asked, poised and calm and careful, because she already understood it. This was for the rest of the IOA.
Maybe not the Russian. He'd been quiet all along, listening to his confederates, and watching all the Pegasus delegation thoughtfully. Mer narrowed his eyes. How had he been introduced?
Shit, that was General Chekov. He'd been in command of Korolev according to the reports they'd hacked from the Daedalus' servers. Promoted to General when he'd made it back. No wonder he'd fixated on the shields.
"We could take our existence and our presence here to your United Nations," Teyla explained. "We were originally inclined to do so, since we came to negotiate with Earth as a planet, not your few privileged nations."
"But our nations are in charge of the stargate," Chapman said.
"Big deal," Vala replied.
"The Ring of the Ancestors is irrelevant to trade between galaxies, Mr. Chapman," Teyla pointed out. "We have ships, just as you do. And it is the ships, along with Atlantean technology and any weapons you might obtain from us, that interest you."
"Of course," LaPierre said.
Teyla inclined her head, not so much it was a bow, but an acknowledgement.
"It was decided it would be faster and easier to negotiate with you, because you are already aware of these matters," Teyla said, "but if you insist on treating us like prisoners and enemies, it is a simple matter for us land Revenge outside Canberra or Johannesburg or Dubai. Perhaps Buenos Aires or Lima or Mexico City or Singapore. I do not believe you could 'hush' that up."
"We could make them," Germany snarled.
"Strom!" Weir snapped at him.
"If we did business with a country, they would be our ally," Teyla said.
"Do you really want to know how Revenge could measure up in a fight with your military?" Vala asked. "Along with Tempestas? Which should be arriving tomorrow."
"I suspect all those countries that haven't been invited into your organization would be happy to unite against it, given the prospect of advanced technology and allies against the enemies whose interest you have drawn to Earth," Teyla finished.
"You have the gall to threaten us?" Strom demanded.
"Facts are facts," Mer stated. "You can't make them go away by puffing your chest like a pouter pigeon."
"Earth isn't ready for Disclosure," Weir said.
Vala shrugged. "Guess you better play ball then."
Ronon finished his macchiato, crumpled the cup, and lofted it carelessly to drop in the garbage can in the corner.
"Nothing but net!" Vala congratulated him. Basketball, as played by marines, had caught on in Atlantis. Impromptu games were played in the 302 bays on Revenge as well.
Shen curled her lip.
Weir folded her hands over each other on the table. "Very well. What are your demands?"
"Requests, please," Teyla said. "We come to you as equals, with great admiration for your triumphs over your Goa'uld enemies, and in the hope of friendship and cooperation between us."
Teyla continued seriously. "We have come very far, very fast. But not far enough to forget that your world sent the Atlantis Expedition to our galaxy to steal it from us, with no care to any damage you did consequently. I have read a great deal of your histories thanks to the libraries aboard Revenge and brought by the Expedition members themselves. Pegasus will not play the part of the New World to Tau'ri Imperialism."
"Of course," Weir said. "We have learned a great deal since the times you were reading about."
"Yeah, I don't think so," Mer muttered.
"Meredith," Teyla murmured and touched his forearm lightly.
Jehan coughed, probably as a distraction. He'd been deliberately silent in the presence of anyone who wasn't crew. There was no pretending Meredith hadn't been born on Earth or hiding his history with the SGC and the Tok'ra. But O'Neill obviously hadn't reported his suspicions about who Jehan was. That let them keep him as a dark horse, someone the Tau'ri might talk in front of, not realizing he would understand the nuances and cultural specifics that an outsider wouldn't.
His presence was comfort to Meredith too: a reminder that he wasn't alone in his exile, that they hadn't just betrayed him, these people in this place that had hated him. Jehan understood more than anyone else ever could.
"Now," Teyla said, "shall we begin again?"
"You told me they were smart," Elizabeth said ruefully.
"And you thought I just meant Sam and Rodney," Jack replied just as ruefully.
"So, now you’re down to the brass tacks." The Pegasus delegation's Ancient warship had dropped out of hyperspace, running dark, and established an orbit beyond Jupiter neatly plotted to avoid anyone noticing it that wasn't looking for it. Tempestas, they called it. The SGC and the IOA wanted it very badly.
Elizabeth was a little more cautious. She wanted to know why the Pegasans were willing to part with such a prize. The possibilities reduced to two. Either Tempestas was a lemon, or the Pegasans had enough ships they could afford to give up one.
She found herself grimly hoping for the latter. It meant having to make nice, but they'd done worse – supplied hosts – for the Tok'ra. The Pegasans would be better allies, even if they had their own war to fight. She couldn't imagine Vala Mal Doran bowing to the Ori. That woman didn't respect anything except money and fire power.
"Do we still have a planet?" Jack asked lightly.
"Yes." Elizabeth knew she sounded tart, but really? Negotiations and diplomacy were her wheelhouse. Ambassador Emmagan was just alien enough to keep her on her toes, but the woman was intelligent, practical, and once she had the IOA convinced they couldn't jerk her people around, cooperative. Elizabeth had dealt with far worse; egomaniacs so insecure they had to use their power even when it made matters worse for them, and greedy politicians so intent on gathering power they were blind to the harm they were doing. Or the ones who weren't blind and didn't care.
Oh, the IOA had gnashed its teeth, but the Pegasans didn't really want anything extraordinary. Some refined ores that were rare or difficult to mine, medical supplies and equipment enough to equip a modern hospital, manufactured goods like cloth, tools, replacement parts for some of the equipment the Expedition had taken with them. Delicacies the Tau'ri among them missed; plants, seeds, cuttings, and whatever it took to run greenhouses. Libraries worth of books, digital and paper, movies, and music.
Ammunition and small arms; that request was still a stumbling block. The IOA did not want to trade weapons.
Vala Mal Doran had laughed like a crow at that. "You want us to turn over a Goa'uld-damned warship, but don't want to trade a few bullets and missiles. Puling, pox-tongued pissbabies."
Elizabeth had to cover her mouth at that. It was clear Mal Doran had picked up a lot of insults from the Expedition marines, enough that she didn't need to resort to Goa'uld to make her opinions clear. But occasionally, they came out just a little odd.
The munitions were going to take longer, but the deal would go through. Elizabeth didn't even feel badly over it: the weapons would be used on the Wraith in Pegasus. She might not trust Mal Doran not to deal arms to factions in Pegasus or the Milky Way, but Ambassador Emmagan radiated integrity. Elizabeth knew her word would be good, and despite being a rogue otherwise, Mal Doran acknowledged Emmagan's authority without resentment.
"Well, that's good," Jack commented. She could hear the humor in his voice and imagine the way it sharpened his brown eyes. Age was having its inevitable way with Jack, but only a fool would think he was less dangerous now than in his youth. "What are we giving up?"
"That's why I called you."
Jack groaned, and Elizabeth smiled.
"The IOA will be providing the Pegasus delegation with special United Nations identification," she explained. "The delegation intends on establishing a consulate in New York along with an embassy in DC. They've agreed to accept a security escort rather than using their own, in the interests of discretion."
"An embassy?" Jack squeaked. "You're serious?"
"And they want the security escort, so they can…?"
"They don't but agreed after Dr. McKay brought up the possibilities of Trust agents or even common criminals."
"But why do they need to be somewhere besides the Mountain?" Jack whined.
"Ambassador Emmagan expressed an interest in exploring our various cultures," Elizabeth said primly.
"Plus, she wants to remind us that we have to treat them with the same respect we would a delegation from an Earth nation, not lock them up under a mountain."
Jack sighed audibly. "I get it. Don't like it, but I get it."
"In a fashion, the Pegasans are more sophisticated than our other allies," Elizabeth admitted.
"Seems weird to think that about the Tok'ra or the Tollan or the Nox."
"Sophisticated and advanced aren't necessarily the same."
"So, the Expedition folks have clued them in and they want to do some shopping and touristy shit while they're here?"
"Something like that," Elizabeth agreed.
"And this involves me, how?"
"I would appreciate if Homeworld provided security and vetted anyone the delegation hires, along with providing a liaison."
"A liaison," Jack said wearily.
"Who will spy on them for us, of course," Elizabeth joked.
"You goddamn betcha." He paused before asking with a frown in his voice, "Who is paying for everything? Am I going to have bury this in my budget?"
Elizabeth finally laughed.
"Don't worry about that, Jack. They traded us a prototype Ancient generator that can run a city the size of New York for six months between refueling and enough diamonds and gold to buy a small country. The Russians and Chinese were kind enough to turn them into funds that the delegation can access without raising any questions."
He dug out his Asgard bug zapper and started turning it on and off randomly while he discussed the nuts and bolts of the Pegasus delegation's travel plans. They'd been convinced to at least fake using normal travel methods. They'd beam up to their ship and then down to a plane after it made the journey, so they could go through customs and get those handy UN passports stamped that they'd entered the countries legally.
Because, of course, they wanted to poke around Europe and every other damn continent.
Once he'd established enough outages that it would pass for an equipment failure, he turned the zapper on and left it. By now all the snoops were used to their bugs cutting out at his office. He used the zapper at arbitrary times and not just when he wanted some privacy; he even turned it on sometimes and left it on when he was elsewhere. Thor had been kind enough to come up with one that worked on communications as well as immediate surroundings, and Jack didn't have a frigging clue how that worked, but it was useful for talking on the phone or radio.
"So, this is going to be handy," he interrupted Elizabeth. "Also, kind of a shitshow."
"What do you mean?" she asked cautiously.
"This line is Asgard secured for the moment. No one, not SGC, NID, CIA, NSA, Russians, Chinese or even the Pegasus folks can eavesdrop thanks to Thor."
"I just know you're going to say something I don't want to hear."
"All right, go ahead, ruin my day."
"We've got a mole."
Elizabeth was silent for a long moment. Finally, she asked, "A mole or a leak?"
Jack pulled out his favorite yoyo and began playing with it. "I'm going with mole."
"And that's enough to ruin my day, but I feel like you're going go ahead and ruin my week too."
"Aw, Lizzy," Jack teased. Sometimes, he really did like her.
"Go ahead, Jack, I'd like to get a drink after this. It's important to hydrate before you cry in your pillow all night."
"I'm going to use the Pegasus delegation as bait to flush the bastard out."
"You owe me so many drinks. You can't think this is a good idea? If something happens to one of the delegation it could throw the entire alliance in the garbage. No, worse, it could result in them attacking Earth. Jack, they have two warships in our solar system!"
"So do we," he offered. He lost control of the yoyo though and it slumped to the end of its string.
"They know how to go through our shields, just like the Ori. You're the military man, you know what happened at P3Y-229!"
"You really think they'd get in a shooting war with us?" It wasn't how he'd read the Atlantis people. But it wasn't Sam in charge. Emmagan was steady though, he thought, and Mal Doran preferred profit to slaughter. McKay would probably put in a good word; he might despise the SGC, but he had a sister and a niece. He'd at least understand how things could go sideways. Jehan, well, he probably didn't want Earth destroyed; he hadn't even wanted Teal'c dead once he’d accepted Teal'c wasn't in Goa'uld service any longer.
"It would probably take more than an accident or even an assassination, but they might change their minds about the warship."
"And we could really use an Ancient warship, not to mention everything we could learn from it and add to our ships," Jack said. He got it. He did. But the threat of a mole, whether in the SGC itself or Homeworld, was too serious to ignore. Hell, if the mole was in the right position, they could sell out Earth and the Ancient warship could end up in Lucian hands.
The Pegasus delegation made perfect bait. The mole wouldn't be able to resist sending information on it through and Jack would be waiting to pounce. He might have blown Gibbs and NCIS off, but he felt as strongly about Louis Young and Alan Reinhart as they did. Keeping the program secret and safeguarding Earth came even before justice, but that didn't mean he wouldn't get it for them eventually.
"You're sure," Elizabeth said, not as a question though. "The CIA vetted the NID and the SGC thoroughly after the last… "
"Fiasco? Sure, they did. Of course, that's assuming the CIA investigators were clean." Jack slouched in his desk chair. He had a dinner with Admiral Holliday and his wife scheduled for his evening. He wasn't looking forward to that; it wasn't going to be pot roast and potatoes and a hockey game afterwards. Holliday was angling for Secretary of Navy and kissing ass from the Norfolk to the Potomac. Dinner would be wall to wall bigwigs, big brass, and blowhards, but Jack had to play the game too. Few people in DC knew what he did, but they all knew he had pull with the President, and that either made him interesting or dangerous to ambitious people like Holliday.
"Maybe they were," he went on, "but that's no guarantee they still are."
"Okay. Just, try to play it safe as possible."
He shut the zapper off and on repeatedly as he mentioned his dinner plans and closed out the conversation with Elizabeth.
His mind drifted to the question of how compromised Area 51 might be after Young's capture and interrogation. Hollis Mann was his best investigator and she still hadn't found any clues to who was behind that.
Jack had gone over the security measures and rather than change everything he'd left some holes. Hard to find holes that he could keep an eye on. Nothing had happened so far.
Nothing he knew about, he reminded himself.
He'd told Elizabeth it could be someone who had been suborned since the last vetting, but he suspected the mole had been in place all along. Trent Kort, one of the CIA agents involved in the process, had been killed not too long ago. Hetty, tyotia, Duchess, who Jack trusted more than most, believed Kort to have ties to Farrow-Marshall and Kevin Balim. If Kort hadn't been snaked himself, he could still have been in bed with one. The CIA was infamous for its bad taste in allies.
But if Kort had been snaked, then the Goa'uld had moved on to a new host and was still out there.
He'd always known DC was a snake pit, but it sucked that that wasn't exactly a metaphor anymore.
And then there was Ba'al himself, whichever clone was still running Farrow-Marshall in the wake of using Jack's own op to wipe out his rival Ba'als.
Mal Doran had shown the IOA, but Jack had been aware for some time that there wasn't much to stop someone with a starship and a cloak from infiltrating Earth. Oh, not the Oranians or the Hebridans or Asgard, but even the Tok'ra and Jaffa looked human enough. All of them had their own agendas.
Even their allies had their own agendas.
He hated to say it, but he was damned glad Petya Chekov made it back from the Korolev. The Russian was his best ally within the Program and the IOA. He kept it quiet, of course, but sooner or later, he was going to need Chekov.
He'd joked with Weir that if he got taken out, Chekov wouldn't be a bad choice to take over Homeworld Security or the SGC.
"Move the whole god damn business to Russia. See how they like it. Besides, it might be skirting treason to say it, but their current guy is at least smarter than ours."
The thing was? Jack wasn't really joking.
He scrubbed at his face with his palms and went back to his paperwork – always, always, the damn paperwork, bureaucracy would kill him when even the Goa'uld hadn't managed it – but his thoughts kept circling.
They hadn't been able to get back inside the caverns at Glastonbury Tor. The communications console for the stones had arrived at Cheyenne Mountain fine and then Merlin's cave decided there would be no more in and out. Jack's ATA wouldn't get him in and Daniel had called earlier in the day to tell him it had locked him out too.
At least no one else could get in. Or so Jack hoped. Mystic goddamn Ancient gobbledygook gave him a migraine. If Daniel could figure it out, someone else could too and just because it wouldn't let Daniel back inside, didn't mean it wouldn't let someone new in.
He wished it hadn't let Daniel inside in the first place.
Daniel had promised to be more careful in the future. Jack believed that. He believed Santa Claus was going to bring him a lake full of fish for Christmas, too.
Daniel would try. For a while, until he got so excited about whatever he found that he plunged in feet first, more Indiana Jones than sedate academic archaeologist. Jack had come to realize Daniel's former colleagues had disliked him for more than his whacked-out theories back in the old days.
Maybe Daniel would find something from his list of artifacts Merlin had hid around the planet. Some of them had been unearthed and moved or lost. But maybe one or two would still be around. Maybe he'd find something to point to this Sangraal, whatever it turned out to be.
So, for the moment, Daniel was staying in England.
It was just a coincidence the Pegasus delegation wanted to visit England too.
Jack didn't believe in coincidence.
Everyone deserves some action from this fic, to go with the endless talking and meetings. I don't feel like I should need to warn for Goa'uld in a Stargate fic, but heads up, there's violence and death in this chapter.
"I think McKay is the weak link. Get him," Hank Landry declared. "We need to get a better handle on these 'Pegasans'." He invested a lot of scorn into his words and scowled to punctuate them.
Jack rolled his eyes.
Elizabeth pressed her hands together in her lap where the conference table hid the giveaway action. "Are you sure?" she asked. She wondered why she and Landry were even part of this meeting. What happened on Earth was the province of Homeworld and the IOA, not the SGC. They could offer advice, but they had no real authority in the negotiations with the Pegasans. (There had been a great deal of debate over how to refer to them: pirates, Atlanteans, Expedition, natives, coalition, defectors… traitors. Pegasans had been the compromise everyone settled on. The Pegasans had eased some potential difficulties by not including any former Expedition members in their diplomatic representatives.)
Landry grumbled about turncoats, but Jack nodded sharply. "Look, Elizabeth, the only one we can say for sure is even from Earth is McKay. He has a sister, who is married and has a child. Say we used them as leverage, what do you think is going to happen?"
"He might – "
"They’d snatch all three of them up to their ship – and make no mistake about it, Hank, it is their ship now. They’d get pissed off and reveal everything the IOA and the Program have been working years to keep a lid on."
"We are close to Disclosure," Elizabeth pointed out.
Jack shook his head. "Not close enough, not ready enough, not with the Ori coming. The one thing that'll keep us all from being lynched is if we can assure the world the threats are gone."
"You consider the Ori the bigger threat?" It obviously puzzled Landry.
"Origin is the threat, Hank, not the Ori."
"It's a cult," Landry dismissed it.
"We have enough people killing each other over religion already," Jack explained. "What do you think happens when one comes along that can back up its promises?"
Landry wasn't a genius, or even as gifted as O'Neill, but he had a lifetime of experience in the military and enough intelligence to grasp what had scared Elizabeth since she’d first heard of Origin. The Ori didn't want to destroy humanity. They wanted to destroy civilization, progress, and even independent thought. Too many people would rush right into that embrace of certainty and gladly turn on anyone who didn't. If Origin obtained a foothold on Earth, it could easily lead to a global war that no one could win.
Elizabeth desperately didn't want the people of Earth in the future to be sentenced to punishments, or to be burned alive as heretics for the crime of having ideas or asking questions. People could be so much more, given the opportunity. She'd worked for peace most of her life, because peace was the first step to a better life and a better human race.
The Ori could destroy all of it.
"We're drifting off subject," she said. "The question is should and can we bring the Pegasans back to the Mountain?"
"Shouldn't and can't, not without making an enemy that knows how to fuck us over," Jack said promptly. "You were there when Vala used their beaming technology to zap in and out of the Mountain to get Starbucks. Right through shields that will stop Goa'uld rings and Asgard beams." He made a face. "You know they've been sending someone down - Starbuck's isn't free. They had to get currency somewhere."
Shit, Elizabeth thought silently. She hoped they'd just pawned something, rather than going to one of the Expedition members' family. They'd all been declared dead and evidence to the contrary could blow up in the Program's face. It was the kind of back-from-the-dead story that drew the media like flies.
"So, we take her and bury all of them deeper, somewhere they don't know to beam them out," Landry suggested.
Elizabeth pinched the bridge of her nose.
"You think the rest of her crew doesn't have a plan for that?" Jack asked. He made a face at Landry. "Hank. Rodney McKay is the smartest sonovabitch in two galaxies, and the pilot, Abd-Ba'al, can make Ancient tech sit up, roll over and whistle Yankee Doodle. The rest of the crew are professionals who made their living preying on the Goa'uld and the Lucian Alliance and fighting Wraith. And they are all loyal to the death to Mal Doran. If you think they don't have a plan for if something happens to her or to any of them, you need to turn in those stars."
"We can’t afford to make an ally into an enemy," Elizabeth said.
"They sent people who weren't from Earth," she added, "but their approach and offers all indicate their strategy is based on knowing the SGC, the IOA, and Earth as insiders. They know our secrecy from the general population is our weakness."
"We'd survive it," Landry said stubbornly.
"Yes," Elizabeth agreed, "we would. But there would be chaos and loss of life that we could avoid."
"And Mal Doran is a spiteful bitch," Jack added. "She'd go through with the threat of giving the Wraith our galaxy and Earth's address. We've got the Ori to worry about, we don't need to face off with the space vampires. The Goa'uld are still hanging around, Ba'al is still a threat, and the Lucian Alliance hates our guts. If we slip, one of them will be on us like a starved dog on a Philly cheesesteak."
"Can't we just tell them to get out?"
"They're offering naquadah and Ancient technology in exchange for not much, really," Elizabeth said.
"They're fucking with us," Jack grumbled. "Hank's right about that, but the Tok'ra have been doing that for years. At least they aren't snakeheads."
"The question we should be asking is why they're playing this game," Elizabeth said. She did wonder, but she also thought that the Expedition members were lonely for Earth, for a connection, even if they no longer considered it home or their first loyalty. They longed for that sense of contact and not being alone. They wanted to help but without sacrificing their independence. Jack took a more jaundiced view of their reasons.
She had discussed it all with Jack in private, but it would be too telling if she didn't say something at this meeting. Hank Landry didn't just run the military side of the SGC. He reported to people above Elizabeth, the same way she did on him. Checks and balances.
Spying, as Jack put it.
She was far better at it than Hank Landry and he reported exactly what she wanted him to report, but she had to bear in mind that someone among the people reading those reports was smarter than Hank Landry. They wouldn't just read what was there but look for what wasn't. It was a delicate dance, much like coaching a blindfolded bear to perform a Japanese tea ceremony.
"Could be there just aren't any societies advanced enough to trade for what they want in Pegasus," Jack said with a shrug. "Daniel said the Wraith had been knocking down anyone that got past the industrial revolution. Basically, the same shit the Goa'uld do to keep everyone ignorant and scared, but with the added nightmare bonus of eating them."
Elizabeth nodded and glanced down at the file she hadn't bothered to open since bringing it in with her. She already knew the contents. The files were simply props to remind Landry who was in charge and that she wasn't there to fetch his coffee.
She wondered how much spit men like Landry swallowed over their lifetimes, never knowing. It helped sometimes.
"Speaking of Daniel – "
"We weren't," Jack interrupted.
"We are now," Elizabeth continued with a tight smile. "The President wants him at the briefing, along with you and I."
Jehan sprawled on a sofa, looking out the penthouse windows at the London skyline. Mer was flipping through one of his stacks of physics journals. Little noises of outrage periodically escaped him like steam from a bubbling pot, prompting furious scribbles with his red pen.
Vala and Haemi were debating whether it would be worthwhile to buy some edged weapons. You can never have too many knives was a credo both women embraced. But Pegasus had amazing bladesmiths and buying weapons made their Tau'ri watchers nervous.
They were trying to relax.
They had tickets to the opera in the evening thanks to O'Neill. Jehan wasn't sure thanks was the word for it, but the non-Tau'ri were thrilled. Since their first exposure, they'd insisted on acquiring recordings of every opera possible.
Mer had retaliated by purchasing a grand piano and an orchestra's worth of other fine musical instruments, along with a library of scores. Again, Jehan was unsure how this constituted fair punishment for making him listen to Rigoletto ten times.
He had acquired the complete discography of Johnny Cash, however. MP3 and vinyl, along with a superior turn table and sound system. It was already aboard Revenge.
Once the IOA had accepted they weren't going to stay locked under the Mountain, Colonel Paul Davis was assigned as their Homeworld liaison. Jehan had been skeptical, but Davis proved an efficient facilitator. Forty-eight hours after being introduced to them, Davis had IDs, passports, the UN Laissez Passers, and bank accounts set up for everyone.
Russia had been happy to launder the diamonds and other materials they'd brought, just as Radek had predicted. Davis had subtly tried to find out where they'd got their American currency before and been sent on a wild goose chase through every pawn shop in the country. That had been Jehan's idea and he still found it amusing.
They were dealing in sums that normally only governments handled, but that only made sense: they were on Earth as representatives of Atlantis and Pegasus, not pirates.
Davis arranged the purchase of a building in DC to serve as the Pegasus embassy. No doubt he would also make sure it was properly bugged before anyone moved in. The Russians would have been happy to provide pointers.
Of course, they didn't give a damn about the embassy in DC – it was merely a point to beam down to and use as an address. When they left Earth they would abandon it.
They went to New York instead and acquired a floor on a newish skyscraper that had already been quietly purchased through one of Quindozum's shell companies. Several programmers and security people also already hired through Quindozum did a clandestine install of physical and cybernetic security measures for the entire building.
Ronon didn't like New York and Vala was restless so they had moved on to London, hiring the two top floors of the Dorchester on Davis' recommendation. The hotel was experienced in dealing discreetly with security issues.
And rich weirdos, as Mer had put it.
Jehan wasn't too thrilled with it. The fussy décor made him miss Atlantis' spare, elegant lines and even the plain efficiency of Revenge's corridors and quarters. The Dorchester made him think of Goa'uld and their taste for opulence.
They ended up visiting a lot of museums. Haemi and Teyla and Dushka and Signe were all fascinated to see the history of Tau'ri civilization and how it had developed without the withering interference of either Wraith or Goa'uld. They also shopped. Vala shopped at least, while Mer approached shopping as an annoyance mitigated only by his lack of a budget. The scientific equipment and larger items went to an address Davis had arranged, where it was beamed up to Revenge. They ate out, sampling every cuisine available. Teyla struck up conversations with random people because she enjoyed learning about everyone. They went to movies and live shows – everyone enjoyed theatre and Vala loved musicals.
Out of courtesy they mostly stayed together so the Marines and British security assigned to shadow them weren't over-stretched. The Marines, at least, were read in and knew the score. It made them more comfortable to be around. Haemi and Ronon even persuaded several of them to hang around after their shifts and talk about the differences and similarities in militaries on Earth and elsewhere.
They were having a flamboyantly good time and being just reckless enough to keep all attention focused on them.
Melena wanted to tour hospitals and universities and said so over a lunch they shared with Davis.
Davis had come back this morning with an offer for Melena to get a private tour of a medical museum outside London. A security escort was already arranged. Ronon hadn't been interested, but several others had gone with her.
Teyla paced into the room and over to Jehan. She gazed out the windows in the direction he had been. "What do you see that I don't?" she asked quizzically.
"Nothing," he replied. "You probably notice stuff I take for granted."
She patted his shoulder. "We'll go home soon enough." She looked out again. "It is beautiful."
"Yeah, I guess," Jehan agreed.
"Oh my God, Tunney!" Mer exclaimed and threw a journal to the floor. "How is he even alive? He's too stupid to breathe!"
Everyone had looked at Mer and Vala began laughing only to cut it off abruptly.
Mer had snapped his attention toward the doors. Jehan felt it, the bone-crawling buzz of naquadah that signaled a Goa'uld or Jaffa were close.
They all heard the sharp shout, cut off, and the distinct sound of a zat firing then the whining cycle as it powered back up.
"Goa'uld," Vala said.
They all dived for their weapons, the ones they had refused to be without. The IOA disarmed them before they left the Mountain. They'd simply re-armed from Revenge once they were alone again. O'Neill had to know they would, but the IOA were oblivious to what you could do with Asgard beaming. No imagination, as Mer had condemned them.
They hadn't expected an attack, but they were ready.
"Jaffa, kree!" the Goa'uld commanded. The Jaffa shoved through the last set of doors.
They'd taken what cover they could in the room. None of it was very good, but zat fire dissipated against whatever it hit instead of punching through like a bullet.
Jehan and Ronon fired their blasters. Mer joined them, while Teyla used a zat and Haemi had a Wraith hand stunner.
Vala had a blaster like Mer and Jehan's, along with a zat, but she took the time to yank the kara'kesh onto her hand while crouching behind a heavy white sofa. The stuffing had begun to smolder; another shot and it might catch on fire. The hot reek filled the air.
Jehan cursed and wished for his Kull armor. The blaster fire sizzled futilely against the Goa'uld's shield. He crab-crawled to the other end of the sofa he was behind. A little distraction would help… He snagged the journal Mer had tossed, rolled it tight and launched it toward the Jaffa. It came open in a flutter. Jehan bopped out the end of the sofa, down as low as he could get on his belly and elbows and fired. He didn't bother with torso or head shots. The blaster took out the Jaffa's knees and ankles, tumbling them down.
Then he shot them in the head.
The Jaffa were outmatched. They weren't any good at improvising or fast reactions the way the pirates were. Jaffa were rewarded for unthinking obedience, not quick wits, though they weren't necessarily stupid. They just didn't use their brains. Independent thinking wasn't encouraged, and it had cost them and their Goa'uld masters. The Tau'ri had changed the game, but the Jaffa hadn't changed with it. They weren't used to operating without their armor, or against anyone who wasn't panicked and or another Jaffa. Jaffa didn't take cover. Jaffa didn't snipe. These weren't exactly the cream of Jaffa warriors, either. The last one went down and only the Goa'uld was left.
Goa'uld never expected anyone to have anything that would match their technology, either.
Vala opened her hand so the gold on the kara'kesh glinted and caught Jehan's attention. She mimed a stabbing motion. He nodded and switched his blaster for a sleek dagger.
"Your weapons cannot harm a god," the Goa'uld laughed. It was the Dorchester's assistant manager; he'd been handling everything for their group. He stepped over his fallen Jaffa carelessly and walked deeper into the room. "Fools. I am a Am-heh! I will devour you."
This again, Jehan thought, mentally rolling his eyes. Like anyone, even the Jaffa, bought that clunker anymore. Now the new bunch of evil Ascended, the Ori, they seemed alarmingly god-like. The Goa'uld, though, were practically passé. And Am-heh had never been more than server at Ba'al's table. Jehan ought to know; he'd listened to Ba'al mock the minor Goa'uld serving in his court more than once. Not that Am-heh would remember a mere slave, even a lo'taur.
Am-heh laughed and fired at Haemi as she tried the Wraith stunner on him.
Teyla snarled as Haemi fell. She fired her zat and rolled into another position before Am-heh could target her.
Mer popped up and fired his blaster. Am-heh's shield flared white and yellow. Mer dived out of the way of return fire and Ronon popped up on the far side of the room, blasting at Am-heh's flank.
Jehan belly-crawled toward Am-heh in the center on the room. Teyla reached around the corner of a chair and blind-fired toward the Goa'uld. Ronon used the opportunity to surge into the open, catch Haemi's collar, and yank her behind an up-ended table.
"One shot," Mer yelled, "she should be okay!" That was for Teyla and Ronon's sake; Jehan and Mer were more than familiar with how zats worked.
Am-heh had reached the center of the room. That put Jehan at his flank, huddled low beside the cracked coffee table. The stuffing in the sofa finally fully caught fire, sending up a puff of black smoke that set off the smoke detector's wail.
Vala jumped to her feet and extended her arm, palm open, using the kara'kesh. The power sizzled against the shield.
"Pitiful," Am-heh declared in that deep vibrating voice they affected. It looked at Vala, eyes flared white, so sure it was safe from everyone else in the room. Jehan knew that was her plan. "You are but a hollow remnant, a false vessel, do you think that you can match Am-heh?"
Vala didn't, but she was the distraction. Jehan moved with deceptive stealth, slowed and just beyond Am-heh's peripheral vision. Goa'uld shields responded to energy and impacts, not the motion of a body, otherwise every movement would lock one up. Jehan came to his feet and thrust the dagger through the shield and the back of the host's neck.
When Jehan had fled Ba'al with Vala, one of the first things she'd taught him was where to knife a host to kill or at least wound the Goa'uld within. He knew he'd succeeded when Am-heh screamed. It collapsed to the floor and the shield flickered out.
In the next second the host seized, bleeding and thrashing across the rug beneath it. Jehan danced back away from it. The man's throat bulged and rippled.
"Shit," Mer exclaimed, "get away from it, it's coming out!"
The host's jaw jacked open farther than it should have and the Goa'uld writhed out in a gush of scarlet blood. It shrieked and spread its spiny fins as it reached the floor. Jehan had wounded it with the dagger; bright blue blood gushed in pulses from a puncture a hand's span below its head.
"Watch the blood!" Vala said. "It's poisonous."
Am-heh screeched in fury. It slithered across the rug toward where Haemi still lay on the floor, intent on acquiring a new host. Ronon pulled a knife and threw it. It sunk into Am-heh and pinned it to the floor.
Vala appeared frozen, staring at the Goa'uld. Jehan went to her side.
"I remember," she said. "I remember what it felt like."
Jehan sent a panicked look to Mer. Mer looked nearly as mesmerized as Vala did.
"The Jaffa held me down. One of them pried my mouth open for Qetesh."
"Vala, don't – "
"I remember the feel of Qetesh sliding into my throat and choking me before she ripped through to my spine. I knew when the pain was gone I was gone too," Vala whispered.
"You're not gone. You never were. But Qetesh is," Jehan told her.
Vala gave him a haunted smile. "Gone but not forgotten," she quipped weakly.
"That's a Goa'uld?" Ronon asked. It clearly was, but he was trying to distract Vala. He had to raise his voice over the smoke detector and screeching parasite.
Jehan still held his own dagger. Red and blue blood from the host and the symbiote streaked the blade. "Yes," he answered.
"Want me to kill it?"
Teyla crouched next to Haemi and checked for a pulse while keeping a wary eye on the wriggling Goa'uld. It was a strong one. It would tear itself and the knife free from the rug and floor soon.
"Do it," Jehan said. "We haven't got long before someone shows up to check out the alarm." They needed to clean up and figure out a cover before someone showed up. At least Am-heh had been a typical over-confident Goa'uld and had no back-up.
Vala pulled her zat she from the back of her waist. She methodically fired it three times at Am-heh.
"Zat the bodies too," Mer said. He was white-faced, but functioning. He activated the comm to Revenge. "We need a beam up on my mark. - The best way to handle this is to not be here."
Vala used the zat to get rid of the Jaffa. Ronon picked up Haemi over his shoulder.
"Ronon, Teyla and Haemi," Mer said into his comm. "Now."
The modified Asgard beam surrounded them, shining whiter and brighter until Jehan couldn't make out their figures, then winked out.
Jehan policed up the weapons. Mer snatched up his laptop and tablet where they'd ended spilled on the floor. "Come on," he urged.
They could hear people in the far hall.
"No time," Jehan said before Vala could zat the dead body of the host. He crowded close to her and Mer joined him.
"Now," Mer said into his comm.
The beam snatched them and deposited them on their bridge. Teyla was already accompanying Haemi to medical. Ronon swung around. "I need to check on Melena."
Mer pulled out a cell phone. Melena and everyone else had one. Mer had equipped them with Alteran based encryption. "Call her," he said. "Filan, boost the signal so it seems to come from the nearest London cell tower."
Filan waved Ronon to join her at the comm station.
"Okay, what next?" Mer asked.
Jehan glanced at Vala, but she was still off, not in any state to run things. That left him. But for once he felt competent to do that.
"Yeah, we're going to take advantage of the fact beaming technology isn't widely known on Earth," he said. "You, me, and Vala will beam back down to London, but not the hotel. We will very visibly arrive at the front, proving we couldn't have been inside when the Jaffa attacked. When we're questioned, we just won't know anything."
"The Laissez Passers from the UN mean the cops won't be able to mess with us," Mer said.
"Better to have an alibi anyway," Jehan insisted.
Ronon re-joined them. "Melena and the others are fine."
Jehan took a breath and remembered he still had a knife in his hand. He set it aside and checked his clothes, then Mer's and Vala's. They looked all right. No blood or damage.
"Ronon, you and Teyla and Haemi will beam down to your suite on the seventh floor as soon as she comes around – you brief her and Teyla. Just like us, you don't know anything about anything that happened," he said. "You were there the whole time."
"I'm just muscle," Ronon agreed. "Got it."
Okay. They didn't have a lot of time to establish their alibi. Time to go.
"Nakez, we need to be beamed somewhere within walking distance of the Dorchester."
Nakez pulled up a map display. It had several locations highlighted – locations they'd scouted while pretending to just be strolling around London – where they could beam without being spotted. "How about this one?"
Jehan nodded. "That works." They could walk to the Dorchester's front entrance and get themselves on CCTV and traffic cams with time stamps.
"Vala?" he asked.
She drew herself up and took a deep breath. "Ready, darlings."
"If I have to."
Jehan nodded to Nakez. "Ronon – "
"I've got it," Ronon assured him.
The beam took them again.
AN: I plotted and drafted this before the end of NCIS latest season and its events. So there are characters present that canonically no longer are. I'm mincing my words because I don't wish to spoil the episodes for anyone who hasn't and wants to see them unclued in. I won't be as careful in comments though, fair warning.
Ellie had been to London before. She'd honeymooned there, although the memory wasn't so sweet now that she'd divorced Jake. She watched out the window of the cab, feeling sour and grubby from the flight. She'd managed to catch some sleep over the Atlantic, but military transports were never comfortable.
Of course, Gibbs couldn't let them check in to their own hotel and clean up. They were headed straight for the Dorchester Hotel.
She wondered what US Marines had been doing at the Dorchester. She and Jake hadn't been able to afford anything that expensive. They'd find out soon enough, she supposed. The NCIS team that handled investigations in NATO territories would have the preliminaries covered by now.
Clayton and Gibbs both looked crisp and unbothered by the rain sheeting down. They waved away an offer to take their coats once they were inside. Nick was shivering because he never remembered a decent coat to check. Ellie and McGee both looked like drained rats by the time they reached the lobby with its mirror-polished marble and warm light gleaming from gilt and fresh flowers even long past midnight local time. The air held the scent of real flowers, delicate and better than anything artificial. The contrast of antiques and ornate interior made the heavy security presence at the front entrance and inside stand out even greater.
The concierge was on the left and the front desk was straight ahead. A central hall lavishly decorated with a sofas and chairs in conversation groups stretched through the hotel behind the front desk. Five men were obviously waiting for them; two in unprepossessing American-tailored suits and three who looked more comfortable in their surroundings.
The two Americans reached the NCIS team first. "Agent Gibbs?" They flashed their own NCIS IDs. Clayton peeled off from Gibbs and headed for his countrymen.
"Preliminary findings," Special Agent Bremer, a buff blond wearing hipster spectacles, said as he handed over a flash drive and printed file. Gibbs tossed the flash drive to Tim. "The Metropolitan Police handled the scene, but they've shared nicely. Don't ask me why; it isn't normal."
Bremer's partner, who was almost as tall with heavier muscles and tired gray eyes, sighed and introduced himself, "Tom Benjamin." Ellie liked his handshake: warm hand, gun-callused, a firm hold that didn't linger over long. Even better, he looked at her face and not her chest. "You're Bishop, right?"
"Yes, and this is Nick Torres and Tim McGee," Ellie introduced them. "That's Clayton Reeves over there."
"One of our people is going to meet Dr. Palmer when he arrives and take him straight to the morgue. He's been cleared to go over the marine dead." He grimaced. "We're working on access to the other casualty."
Gibbs was paging through the paper file and quizzing Bremer. He didn't give a damn that were all standing in the middle of the floor, dripping like they'd been fished out of a river. "Where's the fourth marine?" he demanded.
"Hospital," Bremer answered. "The Met has a guard on him, so do we."
"Who's talked to him?"
"No one," Bremer replied. "He's in a coma or something. They've got him on life support. It didn't sound good."
"Not shot?" Gibbs demanded.
"None of them were." Bremer scrubbed his hand over his eyes. He and Benjamin would have been working on this case since the victims were identified as Marines over thirty-six hours before. "The cops already had a hazmat team in and out to check for NBC trace. Everyone was shitting bricks in case it was bioterror incident or the Russians and their fucking polonium again."
Gibbs nodded at that. NCIS had had their own eyes opened to that sort of threat years ago. Guests at the Navy Yard were now scanned for more than guns, knives, and explosives, though no one talked about the Geiger counters that were installed at all the entrances.
Benjamin nodded to Clayton and the others. "Brace yourselves. The ginger is a Chief Inspector. If he's not Special Branch, I'll eat my shorts. The other two are from MI5 and 6. Brown and White. Or maybe it's Smith and Jones."
No real names and not even an attempt to pretend they were anything but anonymous spooks, Ellie understood. She stared and tried to memorize their faces. They were both average, with mild expressions, brown hair, nice suits, and chilly eyes.
"Why would British Intelligence be interested in dead Marines?" Tim asked.
Nick chuckled and slapped Tim's shoulder. His jacket squished; Nick made a face.
"Timmy, Timmy, Timmy. They're dead in this fancy as fu – high class place. It's all about money. They don't care about the marines; they want to know about whoever they were guarding." Ellie considered and agreed Nick had a point. The Dorchester was the sort of place where if crimes happened they were hushed up, because the people who stayed there had pull. Whatever had happened here had been so messy it couldn't be brushed under the rug. That kind of mess drew spooks like flies. When the powerful got upset, they complained and called in favors, and all kinds of secrets came spilling out.
No doubt someone at the NSA as well as the CIA would be going over all the telecom intercepts from the Dorchester and everyone involved in the investigation, like miners panning for gold. They'd be lucky if they got a speck of dust, but sometimes there would be a nugget.
Thinking about the NSA reminded her of her ex-husband, though, and soured Ellie's mood further.
Gibbs would hate the Dorchester. He had no respect for the rich and powerful. Not that their team would be staying in the Dorchester. NCIS per diem for travel accommodations ran more to the sort of hotel where you were lucky if the room had its own bathroom.
Clayton was leading the three Englishman over to them.
Gibbs looked up from the file and glared. "Who the hell are you?"
"Detective Chief Inspector Martindale." He held out his hand. After a long pause, Gibbs freed one hand to shake it. "My colleagues, Mr. White and Mr. Brown from MI5 and MI6, will be observing."
"This isn't your patch, Agent Gibbs, and you have a reputation for riding roughshod." Martindale had a Yorkshire accent.
"I'm afraid that won't be tolerated in this case," White said. Homogenized BBC anonymous voice, Ellie made a note: anything identifiable about him had been stripped away. She would have to remember him as the taller of the two. "Your marines were part of a security detail for a group of visiting diplomats."
Gibbs said nothing, but his expression grew stonier. Diplomatic immunity was one of the myriad things that infuriated him.
He ignored White. "McGee," he snapped, "I want everything on the marines. Find out who they were guarding and why and when we can talk to the survivor. Bremer, get him wherever he needs to go." He marched past the desk and turned right toward the elevators. Ellie and Nick gave Benjamin an apologetic look and they all trailed after Gibbs.
Gibbs was a good boss in many ways: he cared about getting the job done and respected competency more than anything else. He couldn't be bought, beaten or blackmailed into giving less than his best to every case. He let his team do things however they liked so long as the job was done. But he was also unreasonable, had impossibly high standards, and demanded everyone on the team give up any other priorities. Someday, Ellie knew she would have enough of that and likely end up quitting or fired.
For now, she was still learning from him, especially how far sheer balls could take you if you just pushed hard enough. It was an utterly different way of operating than the calm ‘mediate and cooperate’ method she'd learned growing up. Ellie was aware utilizing Gibbs' style would get her dubbed a bitch, but it was a tool. She didn't have to use it, but it wouldn't hurt that she could.
Another roadblock appeared on their way to the crime scene. Met police constables in uniform and armed British Special Forces commandos were guarding the elevators. Ellie figured more would be stationed in the stair wells at the sixth and seventh floor. The elevator to the eighth floor required a special key card. Martindale caught up with them, cleared Gibbs' team through and produced the keycard. "Normally, only the guests, their security, and hotel staff have one these."
"Well, yeah," Gibbs replied with a roll of his eyes. "I didn't think they were giving them out like candy."
Martindale started the elevator up. "In this case," he said, "Only the manager and assistant manager had access. Staff and maintenance were cleared up and accompanied by the clients' security. The clients took the Royal Penthouse and two suites on the seventh."
Who are the clients? Ellie wondered. They had to be rolling in it to hire the Dorchester's penthouse and command US Marines as security outside the US. She would have thought they might be State Department, but that would have come out by now. They had been able to strong arm the Dorchester into restricting even its own staff's access, though. Or maybe it had been the British Government applying to pressure. Even oil sheikhs and Russian oligarchs couldn't manage that.
Martindale cleared the team through the mixture of military and police guarding the first scene. Needing someone else's authority to get through just added to Gibbs' perpetual ire. The elevator opened on a wide corridor. "Right," Benjamin murmured. "Corporals Inouye and Baker were guarding the doors." The doors were mahogany that separated the public portion of the hall from the penthouse portion.
The scene began in front of them.
Two marines had died there. The bodies were already gone; it had been almost twelve hours since the attack. Instead there were two outlines where Inouye and Baker had fallen. There was a burn on one silk-covered wall, black at the center and blistered at the edges, but no bullet holes. The two marines hadn't had time to fire back.
Ellie picked her way closer and peered at the carpet. Okay, that was weird. She frowned at what wasn't there. Nick leaned over her shoulder. "What do you see?"
Keeping her voice low, she said, "I don't see any blood."
Nick scowled and pointed at a dark stain on the expensive beige carpet. "Then what's that?"
"Sniff," Gibbs told him, looming up to make them jolt in surprise. It was one of his favorite tricks.
Nick made a face, but Ellie did as Gibbs suggested and immediately got a whiff of ammonia and feces. The stain in the carpet corresponded to where the body let loose of its sphincters.
"Ewww," Nick muttered.
"Come on," Gibbs said. "The local guys have everything on this scene. Palmer will go over the bodies."
They'd shed Tim and Bremer, but Benjamin was still with them. Martindale and Gibbs walked side by side and he fell in with Nick and Ellie. "You notice?" he asked. He gestured with his hand low to his side at the wall.
Ellie wondered if he meant the lack of blood or something else. "What?"
Benjamin side-eyed her. "The burn on the wall. I can't figure out what made it. You?"
"Nope," Nick answered. Ellie nodded. It was another mystery to add to the list. Flame thrower? Gas torch? It looked more like something electrical. Taser? No, it was much too big.
Beyond the double doors the hall stretched past a kitchen and other rooms into the penthouse itself. There, it finally looked more like a crime scene: bullet holes, furniture tipped for cover and leaking tufts of stuffing, the glass shattered in one window, wet cold air leaking in from the night time view of Hyde Park. Two more body outlines, more blood smears and pools than those outlines could account for and more of those strange burn marks.
Gibbs stalked around the wreckage of the once lovely room. He didn't say anything, but every detail he took in made him visibly angrier.
"Where the hell are the other bodies?" he demanded abruptly.
Martindale glowered at him. "Your other marine was there." He pointed to the doorway. "The marine who survived was there." There was the floor beside a tipped over sofa that probably cost more than a month's rent for Ellie's apartment in DC. "The assistant manager was here." Martindale stepped up to the middle of the room. Blood had ruined the beautiful rug.
"What about all these blood stains?" Gibbs pointed to them. Ellie counted nine. "Look at the damned spray patterns. Look at the bullet holes. There were more people in here."
"I'm not a blind man," Martindale snarled. "But all I can tell you is that there were no other bodies when the first officer arrived on scene."
"And how long did that take?" Gibbs' tone clearly implied the responding officer must have stopped for tea and crumpets downstairs.
"Six minutes from the first call."
"Christ," Gibbs muttered. "Witnesses? These goddamn 'guests'? Where are they? Why the hell don't I have names yet?"
"The 'guests' are in the Oliver Messel suite – "
"And where the hell is that?"
"One floor down," Clayton supplied.
Tom Benjamin joined Ellie and Nick going over the crime scene and the rest of the rooms in the penthouse. Nick kept up a patter of smart-ass remarks about the luxurious, very 'English' décor. Ellie looked for personal items that would tell her more about the people staying there, because this attack must have targeted them.
She found surprisingly little. Either they travelled light or they'd cleared out everything they deemed important.
"The Sultan of Brunei used to stay here," Benjamin mentioned as they went through the bathroom.
Nick stopped and looked around. "Wow. Who's the Sultan of Brunei? Is that like the Sultan of Swing?"
"God, you're weird," Ellie told him. "No. The Sultan of Brunei is… rich. Real rich. Owns his own country rich."
She poked around the dressers and closets, finding a mixture of men's and women's clothes. Two different sizes in the men's wear. All of it was new and expensive. The women's wear veered to the wild and edgy, but it was almost all couture items. All of it of was handmade, nothing off a rack. Whoever she was she preferred boots. Ellie found only two pairs of heels, nude and black. The clothes were significantly smaller than the men's sizes, so they didn't belong to one of them.
She glanced back at the bed and blinked. One king size bed, three people. Oh. She wished Tony was still around. He would have had something funny and borderline crass to say about that.
There were books and magazines everywhere. She checked them. Most were in English, with fraction in French, German, and Russian. Several of them had slips of paper, even a napkin, tucked between the pages. She picked one up and flipped through the pages.
"What've you got?" Nick asked.
"Acta Numerica, Communications on Pure and Applied Mathematics, Journal d'Analyse Mathematiques," Ellie passed them over and flipped through the rest of the stacks. "Journal of the American Mathematical Society, Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics."
"There's piles more in the dining and living room too," Benjamin said. "Geophysical and Astrophysical Fluid Dynamics."
Nick picked up another journal and glanced at it. "Astronomy and Astrophysics."
More titles. Icarus, Advances in Theoretical and Mathematical Physics, Asian Journal of Mathematics, Annales Scientifiques de l'Ecole Normale Superieure, Publications mathématiques de l'IHES, Inventiones.
Ellie flipped open Icarus. It was written and printed in English, but so densely packed with formulae it could have been Klingon for all she could get from it. Someone had scratched out notes in the margins though, crossed out formulae and written different versions beneath or next to them. The math was just as impenetrable as the articles, but the notes were hilarious.
Imbecile! Beamer, you fatuous jackass. What is this, the Dark Ages! Einstein did not say that. That leech, that was my work!!! THIEF. Pinhead. Huh. SLOPPY! They're still publishing this fatheaded ninny's crap? Did all progress stop when I left?
In less emphatic and outraged writing, the commenter had written, Markova's wasted on the Russians. We should steal her.
In a different hand, someone else had written below that, We don’t steal people.
A third chicken scratch was barely legible. Stole you. Ellie frowned at it until she realized the writing looked like someone who had learned the English alphabet after learning something utterly different like kanji.
Can we at least offer her a job?
Gibbs raised his eyebrows.
"Someone here is either a mathematician or a physicist, I think," Ellie told him. She held up the magazine. "And doesn't think much of the articles in these."
"Bombs?" Gibbs asked immediately.
"No," she said. "You can have Tim look at this, but it's all freely available."
Gibbs dismissed the journals with a shrug. "All right, I want to talk to the witnesses."
Clayton sidled closer to Gibbs and spoke in a voice meant just for them. "You can't go in there throwing your weight around."
That earned him an icy, narrow-eyed look.
"These people are untouchable – "
"No one is untouchable."
Clayton grimaced but went on, "Maybe not, but you have no authority here beyond courtesy. No one wants to ignore the dead marines, but – " He swallowed hard. " – if one of these people killed them? They're going to walk."
"That what your spook buddies were telling you?" Contempt dripped from Gibbs' words.
"Not your country or your rules," Clayton reminded him with admirable cool. Sometimes, the team bought into the Gibbs mystique too much, but this case would be a reminder that it didn't count for that much outside NCIS, never mind outside the US.
Gibbs let out an inarticulate, angry hmph. He said nothing as they went down a floor and headed for another set of rooms.
Sotto voce, Benjamin plead, "Tell me he's this charming because of jet lag."
"This is Gibbs being charming," Nick replied.
"Quit yammering and do your jobs," Gibbs snapped at them. He had remarkable hearing for someone who had been in the military and used firearms for so many years.
He was seething. Everything about this case infuriated him, from the moment Vance called him into MTAC and gave it to him along with a warning to tread lightly. Three good marines had died. Diplomatic repercussions or not, if these people weren't helpful, he was going to rip them all new ones.
Someone knew why. They were going to tell him.
He wished he had McGee to get him backgrounds on all of them. He needed leverage.
Bishop would have to do, but unlike McGee, she wouldn't bend the rules or hack classified information for him. Torres was fine with doing whatever it took, he was pragmatic, but Bishop wasn't fully on board yet. That was why he'd had to send Quinn back to FLETC; she kept backing up Bishop and questioning Gibbs' methods. Bishop would never be as blindly loyal to him as Abby or as ruthless as Ziva, but she was coming along. He'd have her molded into one of his agents in another year or so. He couldn't trust Reeves with anything; that one had his own agendas. It might be best to leave him behind here when they closed the case.
He wouldn't have anyone on his team with divided loyalties. God knows, he should have learned that lesson with Ziva. He'd thought the personal would translate to political and it hadn't; she'd never completely shaken off her ties to Mossad and her father.
The local NCIS man had names for him at least.
"Valaria Doran, Jehan Shepherd, Meredith McKay, Ronon and Melena Dexter, Haemi Dell and Teyla Magen. Signe Saarinen, Dushinka Saarinen and Tilden Farnes checked in with them, but aren't here."
"Bishop, find out everything you can on them. Get McGee on it."
Gibbs stared at the group sprawled around the frou-frou penthouse living room. Everything was carved or gilded or over-stuffed and colorful. It was still raining outside, but the view onto the terrace showed the dull gray dawn creeping in from the east. Most of the interior lights were off; it leached the color from their faces. Or maybe it was room. Gibbs wasn't a clumsy man, but the decorations made him feel awkward and about to break something.
Which made him want to break something.
One of the women walked over. She smiled at Reeves, then eyed Bishop, sharp as a hawk. "Call me Vala."
"What exactly do you do?"
"Oh, I'm in transport," she replied airily, "and… acquisitions."
The stocky man sitting in an over-stuffed loveseat, with a magazine and pen in hand, snorted. His companion sharing the loveseat kicked him in the shin.
"We need to talk to each of you about what happened."
"Didn't we already do this once?" rumbled the big one with the dreadlocks. Bored and annoyed and coiled up like panther on the love seat with a pretty, curly-headed woman asleep against his shoulder.
"Afraid you'll need to do it again, buddy," Torres announced. Bishop handed him her phone and he looked down then up. "Mr. Dexter?"
"Call me Dex." Dexter grinned, all white-teeth and alarming glee, as he stood and stretched. He managed it without waking the woman, who curled up with a protesting noise. He loomed over Torres.
Like the Doran woman, Gibbs couldn't place his accent, but he recognized the way they moved. They were combat vets and still vigilant with adrenaline a day and a half after the shooting.
They weren't what he'd been expecting. It threw him off-stride, but only a little.
"And what do you do?" Gibbs asked him.
Dexter offered another of those terrifying grins. "Security."
"Then what the hell were four marines doing here?" Gibbs let how pissed off he was leak into his voice.
Dexter shrugged dismissively. "Ask their bosses."
"Spying," the stocky man commented.
His friend punched him the shoulder while shaking his head. "Mer – " Gibbs put that together into Meredith. So that was McKay. The sleeping woman was probably Dexter's wife. Which made the man sitting beside McKay Jehan Shepherd since the other two were both women.
"What? We didn't want them."
"They were doing their job." That from the tallest woman. Magen or Dell? She looked like she could snap The Rock in two like a toothpick. She was watching them, measuring them and whatever threat they might pose. Security like Dexter, Gibbs speculated, but not the contract-hire sort. Everyone in the room oriented to each other, constantly aware without working at it. They'd have worked together a long time to aquire that team sync.
"Well, if their job was getting killed," McKay sniped.
Gibbs wanted to punch the arrogant piece of shit for that disrespect.
McKay threw the magazine onto a coffee table. "Since no one told them what they could be facing," he snapped, "that must have been their job."
"That's the way their military works," Shepherd commented. He sounded bitter. McKay grabbed his hand. Gibbs paid attention to that. Relationships were always a good lever. "It's all lies and secrets."
McKay picked up another magazine. "We can at least explode some scientists' brains."
"Hush," Doran ordered. She smirked at Gibbs, before a flicker of what might have been honest emotion crossed her features. "They were lovely boys."
"They died well," Dexter agreed.
"They're still dead," Gibbs said flatly. "I want to know why."
The tiny woman who had been silent, sitting poised and still and watching them all, stood. She'd been evaluating them while Gibbs had been trying to do the same. Bronze hair, skin that was a warmer, darker shade like the beautiful golden oak stain he'd used when he made Kelly's crib. She had dark, dark calm eyes that caught his gaze and held it.
"Special Agent Gibbs," she said. "Please accept our heartfelt regret and sorrow for their loss. Such pain is known to us and though we had not known Milo, Paul, Graham and David long, we knew them as brave, good men. Our ways are not yours, but we would very much like to honor them. If there is help we could offer their families, we would offer that too."
"You can't throw money at it and make it all better," Gibbs snapped at her and immediately felt like an asshole. She hadn't meant it that way.
Possibly an asshole who was going to get his ass kicked, if the way her eyes narrowed meant anything, aside from the sudden tension throughout the room. The Rock's worst nightmare looked poised to become Gibbs' by the curl of her lip. These people were close-knit and wouldn't put up with anyone messing with one of theirs.
They weren't what he'd expected, and they still hadn't given him any goddamn answers.
"Torres, take Mr. Dexter to another room. Interview him, then his wife," Gibbs ordered. The wife had woken, and sat blinking drowsily, with her legs curled under her.
"My wife wasn't here," Dexter objected.
"I don't care."
He went on, "Bishop, interview Mr. McKay." He let his lip curl. He'd still like to punch the guy, so this was him playing nice and pawning him off on Bishop. "Reeves, Ms. Magen." He turned back to the Doran woman, who was watching, arms crossed under her breasts, hipshot and radiating amusement. "I'll start with Ms. Doran, then Mr. Shepherd."
Shepherd waved a hand at him, like this wasn't serious. Gibbs hated slackers like that.
"We'll move on from there."
"I'll be sitting in with you," White said.
The spooks had been quiet, so Gibbs had been ignoring them. The reminder that he couldn't ignore them completely, couldn't throw them out, couldn't drag anyone into an interrogation room and hold them there until they panicked enough to spill their guts, left a foul taste in his mouth.
He had to bite back the rising fury and it fleetingly occurred to him that he was always angry now. Since the coma and the amnesia and the aborted retirement to Mexico, everything had been tinged with anger. It surged against his control and his grip on the reins was slipping more and more often.
Gibbs pushed the thought away. He had his job to do. Nothing else mattered and anyone who didn't like how he did it could get out of the way or get run over.
Doran rolled her eyes but followed him into another room. White followed silently. She seated herself without waiting on them and proceeded to examine her manicure. The interview went to hell from there.
He couldn't shift her, couldn't get past the mocking, over the top sex-kitten persona she projected. She wasn't even trying to make him believe it, either. It was a taunt. Gibbs decided to dial himself back, cozy up instead, since he couldn't threaten or intimidate her; White's presence made sure of that. But Gibbs sensed that even an actual beat down wouldn't impress this woman. She was hard the way Ziva had only dreamed of being.
That set off Gibbs' alarms.
"I'm afraid we can't tell you much," Doran told him. "None of us were in at the time." She was lying without even trying to pretend otherwise, daring him to do anything about it.
"Where were you then?"
"Oh, in the other suites or out. Walking. Window shopping. I love shopping. It's almost as good as – " She stopped and laughed. "Never mind. London is marvelous." She softened a little. "Melena loves the museums."
"You've never been here before?"
She tipped her head back and laughed. "Your next question is where I'm from, isn't it? Someplace very, very different from your London." She added something in a guttural language Gibbs didn't recognize. White flinched hard enough that Gibbs noticed.
"Madam Doran, please, I must remind you of one of the agreements with our governments," White said. "No mention of certain parties to those who haven't been cleared for it."
Doran sneered at White. She wasn't any more impressed by him than by Gibbs, at least.
"What exactly do you do?" Gibbs asked.
"I work for the World Bank," Doran answered, a hint of laughter in her voice again.
"Telling them how I would rob them."
Security. Bullshit. Monetary security contractors couldn't afford the Dorchester, didn't rate marine guards, or have government intelligence bigwigs shitting their pants to keep them happy. It was a black op. It had to be. The Marines would have been in place to guard her, but also to make sure she didn't connect with the wrong people. This reeked of Hetty's games, games Gibbs swore he'd never play again after Poland.
"So that earns you a pass on murder?"
"I didn't kill your marines," she snapped. "I didn't want them here."
"Because you knew this would happen?"
Doran sneered at him. "If gods could see the future, they wouldn't die."
What the hell did that mean? Gibbs studied her, but Doran wasn't giving anything else away. He'd caught her on a raw spot but couldn't figure it out. Step back, he told himself, come at her from a different angle.
Tony would have teased and flirted and quoted stupid movies and had her eating out of his hand. Gibbs reminded himself a good man would be happier that Tony and Ziva were raising their daughter together somewhere safe. He resented their new life, though. Not to mention that now he had to do the paperwork Tony had always done for him. McGee just gaped at him like a goldfish when Gibbs tried to shove it off on him.
"And the rest of your group, do they work for the World Bank too."
"Special Security," Doran replied. "It's classified." She said it like was a huge joke. Maybe it was to her. White took it seriously though: he'd gone slack-faced and pale. Whatever Doran did or knew, the prospect of her spilling it frightened White. White and his government and the US government too.
"We're done here," White declared. Doran strolled out with a switch to her hips.
"If you're going to cut my damned interviews short, you can go get my next one," Gibbs snapped at White. "Get this Jehan Shepherd in here."
Ellie wasn't sure if she wanted to shoot McKay or just run for her life. She couldn't keep him on track, couldn't get any straight answers from him, and couldn't understand half of what he did say. One more physics lecture, complete with math so far over her head it may as well been in orbit, and she might end up catatonic.
In between showing off how smart he was, McKay managed to insult her personally, women in general, men, the US government, the Nobel Committee, dogs, body builders, one of the hotel's restaurants, the fashion industry, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Brian Greene. He reserved his greatest vitriol for someone named Malcom Tunney. If Tunney had been one of their victims, Ellie would have put McKay at the top of the suspect list.
McKay seemed utterly oblivious to her reactions, but his mouth, which drooped a little on one side, twitched like he wanted to laugh at her. He would spin into a new rant whenever that happened, flailing his hands, and illustrating esoteric math on a tablet he shoved under her nose repeatedly.
Ellie had learned, more from Tony than Gibbs, who demanded rather than explained, to pay attention to body language.
McKay kept dropping his hands to a belt that wasn't there. His right hand tried to rest where a holstered pistol would have been.
His hands themselves told a story too. McKay's hands were scarred, callused, and stained from using them hard. Three fingernails on his left hand were deformed the way McGee's were after Paraguay.
When he noticed her interest, McKay remarked, "I used to be married to a smart blonde."
"So, what happened?" Ellie asked.
"I said she was smart. She divorced me."
"And she took your fingernails in the divorce?"
McKay laughed at that. His divorce must not have been as nasty as her and Jake's. "No. I pissed off some people. It's a habit." His hand drifted to his forearm and traced a spiral over his sleeve. His blue eyes focused on Ellie again. "I can keep quiet when I have to."
That was it. She wasn't getting anything more from him.
McKay was no soft academic, Ellie realized, and he'd been talking circles around her through the entire interview. She hoped Nick or Gibbs had more luck.
White left without speaking.
Gibbs pulled out his phone and set up a quick conference call with McGee, Bishop, Reeves, and Palmer. Face to face would be better, but he needed to get this done before White came back. His instincts screamed that the clock was ticking on this case and they'd lost irreplaceable time crossing the Atlantic.
"Boss?" McGee asked.
"Tell me what you got."
"The marines are squeaky clean, but they were all TDY to Homeland Security, the Office of Space Security, under the command of General O'Neill – "
"That sonovabitch," Gibbs said. The Office of Space Security? OSS. That had Batshit Jack's dumbass sense of humor all over like a kid's sticky fingerprints. OSS meant exactly nothing useful. In some ways, Gibbs admired that dedication to not giving anything away, but adding O'Neill to this mess was just what it didn't need.
Gibbs kept poking, but he'd failed to unearth anything on O'Neill's program. Whatever it was, it was big enough O'Neill had been set up at the Pentagon and given title at Homeland, to watch over it.
DC normally leaked like a shower head turned on full, but O'Neill's people weren't the normal DC or even Pentagon climbers. The only clue Gibbs had dug up was an acronym, SGC, and the same advice: stay out of it.
"And I ran into a brick wall there," McGee continued apologetically. "So, I took a look at the people they were assigned to guard." Reading between the lines, McGee had tried hacking through their security and failed.
"I checked with Customs here, and they flew into Mildenhall from Hanscom last week on an Air Force C-38 with a stop to refuel. Except for McKay, they're all Maltese citizens, but they're travelling on red D-2 UNLPs that say they work for the World Bank."
United Nations Laissez-Passers worked much the same as a diplomatic passport and provided the same protections for those carrying them. Fucking no wonder Doran was laughing at him and taunting White. She knew Gibbs couldn't touch her. God damn it, Reeves had been right. Un-fucking-touchables.
And it tied back into O'Neill's Special Access Program. Gibbs despised SAPs and the goddamn Special Access Required markings that went on everything related to them along with the NDAs that grew around them like kudzu. Nothing should be excluded from investigations.
"How are they all from Malta?" Torres asked.
"My guess?" McGee speculated, "They bought themselves citizenships."
"You can do that?"
"€650,000 will buy a Maltese citizenship, no residency required."
"Jesus," Torres said.
"That's almost six million euro," Bishop whispered.
"Five million, eight hundred fifty thousand," Reeves provided. And citizenship got them European Union passports with visa-free travel through most of the West. The interesting aspect was that they or someone had shelled out the money to obtain legitimate papers. "Teyla Magen is not Maltese, but I could not ascertain where she is from. Her English is fluent and includes American and English slang, along with some German and French phrases."
"Did you get anything useful?"
"I'm afraid she may have learned more from me than I did from her," Reeves admitted. "But I did catch Mr. Grey addressing her as Ambassador."
"Well, she isn't the Ambassador of Malta!"
"No, but it’s not the sort of title that gets used as a nickname, either," Bishop pointed out. "They may be part of a classified diplomatic negotiation. It would explain the Marine guards if they've been targeted."
Gibbs bit back a groan. It sounded possible, but targeted by who, targeted why? If they were undercover, then how had they been found? If they were undercover -
"Where's McKay from?" Gibbs asked.
"Meredith Rodney Ingram McKay has a new Canadian passport," McGee reported before Bishop could answer. "He was born there, but he went to school in the US and was immediately recruited by a military think-tank when he graduated. Physics and astrophysics. He left the think-tank to work for the DoD. Whatever he did for them is classified. Wherever he did it too, he doesn't change his official address or the state he pays his taxes for seven years, until moving to Colorado to work at NORAD on deep space radar telemetry. A year later, he's declared dead. The paperwork to amend that went through last month. Married and divorced from former Major Samantha Carter, USAF. Who is also dead."
Round and round, they went. McKay's history led them back to the Air Force. McKay wasn't undercover and if he wasn't, then there was no point to the rest of them using false identities.
McKay’s interests explained the journals Bishop had noticed in the penthouse, at least. McKay didn't fit the image Gibbs had of a think-tank egghead, though. He had a stocky build that should have gone soft if he spent his time writing equations. Instead he had moved too much like someone trained to defend himself, if not actually military.
"Did Carter die the same time McKay supposedly did?"
"No, her date of death is eighteen months ago. Cause of death and everything else is redacted."
Schriever, Peterson, the Air Force Academy and NORAD;there was a buffet of military, particularly Air Force, to choose from in Colorado Springs. Unless the connection was a red herring and whatever ops were being run from there had nothing to do with what had happened in London.
Gibbs didn't believe in coincidence. "Find out where our four marines were before their current assignments."
O'Neill had been in Colorado Springs until his promotion and move to DC. Gibbs fingers itched. There was a thread. If he could just catch hold of it and pull, everything would unravel, and he'd have all his answers.
"Bishop, what did McKay have to say?" he asked.
"That he decided to quit," she said. "He's been travelling the world and had no idea he'd been declared dead until recently, but that the Canadian government is much smarter than the US and cleared up the problem and issued him a new passport recently." She paused and then added, "And then he made some very disparaging remarks about Steven Harper, before declaring Malcolm Tunney was a threat to the scientific community that should be barred from publishing."
"He and Doran and Shepherd were sight-seeing when the Marines and the assistant manager were killed. Dexter and Magen weren't with them and he couldn't say where they were. Melena Dexter and Dell were touring some medical museum."
"Dexter says he and Magen were downstairs when they heard shooting. They went up, found the bodies and were there when the police and hotel staff arrived. His wife and the Saarinans were in Lambeth, touring the Royal Pharmaceutical Society's museum by special appointment." Torres coughed. "It's a good alibi: they had a private car and driver and two plain clothes cops shadowing them. The big cop here, he confirmed."
What the god damn hell? The time lines made no sense, but Doran and her crew weren't stupid. Why would they lie? And if they weren't lying, what the hell had happened?
"McGee, get me every bit of CCTV and surveillance from the hotel and surroundings."
If McKay and Doran were telling the truth, there should be video of them returning to the hotel.
"On it," McGee said.
What else did he have to cover? Autopsies. Du – Palmer. He had to deal with Palmer while Ducky was in New York teaching and writing his damn book. He was sure he'd included Palmer in the conference call, but Palmer hadn't said anything.
"You there, Palmer?"
"Yes, sir," Palmer piped right up.
Gibbs squeezed his eyes shut. The enthusiasm and terrorized fumbling got old. A year. An entire year of dealing with Palmer instead of Ducky. He wondered if he could stand it.
"Do you have anything useful to add?" Gibbs asked with strained patience.
"Yes. Yes, I do. I attended the examination of Mr. Paul Bowditch – that was the – "
"The assistant manager who was killed along with the Marines." Gibbs still hadn't made sense of the way the dead had fallen. Bowditch might have been coerced into disabling the hotel's internal security and taking attackers up to the private suites, but Gibbs' instincts were insisting he'd been part of the attack.
"Mr. Bowditch died of a through and through burn, cause unknown," Palmer said. Excitement and worry blended in his description. "The closest I've seen to whatever did it were the burns on Col. Young in the Reinhart case."
Another case Gibbs had lost to the spooks. The thugs who pulled the trigger on Reinhart were dead, but he'd never have a chance at whoever hired them and killed Young. O'Neill and his damned SAP and Homeland with its high hand… He had an ugly feeling in his gut about this case. It felt like the same shit.
"While I wasn't conducting the autopsy myself, Dr. Channerjee invited me to consult while he worked," Palmer went on. "He found evidence of a knife wound at the back of Mr. Bowditch's neck. It severed the spine but was not the cause of death. Mr. Bowditch succumbed to anaphylaxis because of a toxin or poison. Dr. Channerjee speculated the knife might have been coated with it. He shared a sample of the toxin – Abby is analyzing it now."
"Yes! Yes, I remembered Col. Mann's request that we examine Col. Young's esophagus and spine closely – "
"Get to the damn point."
He could hear Palmer gulp. "Mr. Bowditch had unexplained damage at the cervical spine at C1 through C7, including holes in the vertebrae. The nerve tissue was swollen from irritation and the Semispinalis Capitus was shredded, along with – "
"The muscles that move the neck," Palmer simplified for Gibbs. "The back of his esophagus had a hole in it the size of a cola can, and his throat and mouth showed recent, even post-mortem, cuts and abrasions. I've never seen anything like it." He paused. "Honestly, it looked more like something pushed out of his throat from his spine than anything was pushed in and retrieved, but that's impossible."
Would Hollis answer him if he called her? Gibbs wasn't sure. She might have answers, but would she offer them? Because Hollis obviously knew something. She'd been looking for whatever happened to Bowditch with Young. Or would he just be alerting her and whoever she really worked for – O'Neill and whoever pulled his strings these days – sooner instead of later?
How did the assistant manager of the Dorchester play into what looked more and more like a US black op?
"Thank you," Gibbs remembered to say. "Get me whatever you can on the Marines as soon as possible."
"I'm starting the first examination as soon as you're done with me, sir."
"Good. Go. Call me as soon as you have more."
He ended the call and shoved his phone in his pocket. A moment later Shepherd sauntered in ahead of White and smirked at him. "Is it my turn in the hot seat?"