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Illusions Lost

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Our experience is composed rather of illusions lost than of wisdom acquired.
Joseph Roux


“Tony. Nice to see you. Please, sit down.”

Oh God. She was going to demote him. That was the first thought that darted through Tony’s mind, but given how things were going in the MCRT, it seemed reasonable. However, DiNozzos never let people see ‘em sweat, so Tony plastered on a smile. “Thank you, Director.”

“How are you settling in as team lead?” The director sat back down in her chair, and Tony chose the one right across the desk from her and tried to project confidence.

“It’s rough, but we’ll work through it.” That was as close as Tony could get to the truth. Did everyone do their job? Yes. Did they do anything directly insubordinate? No. Did any of them act like they trusted Tony for one second? Not a chance in hell. They all acted like four years as Gibbs’ second in command meant nothing and he knew nothing.

“That’s good to hear. Do you have the final paperwork on the Grant case?”

Tony had never missed Gibbs so much in his life. Tony had never dealt with political pressure to close cases because usually those requests went to Gibbs, and Gibbs was utterly unaffected by anyone else’s requests. “Yeah, but I’d like more time to work on it. We never found the money, and Captain Grant insists he didn’t open the account used to channel the funds.”

Director Shepard leaned forward. “You have the witness, yes?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She sighed. “Tony, you’re my lead investigator on my top team. Please, call me Jenny.”

Tony gave a weak smile. “Jenny, then. We do have a witness, but Tim hasn’t found the money and I’d like a little more time.”

“I appreciate your thoroughness, but the Navy has insurance on the money and I need you on another case.” She slid a classified folder across the desk at him. “I think you’re uniquely qualified to handle this case. It’s undercover work, and Gibbs always said you were the best he’d ever seen.

Tony felt a little twinge of pride. He was damn good at undercover, and right now he needed a job that he could finish and finish well. He opened the file and started reading. “Arms dealers?”

“One arms dealer. Rene Benoit has been diverting weapons from naval installations. I want him.” Tony could hear the determination in director Shepard’s voice. When he’d first suspected that Sheppard and Gibbs had a sexual relationship in the past, he’d been surprised. But when he looked into Jenny Shepard’s eyes right now, he saw the cold and unrelenting agent who would’ve been an equal to Gibbs.

Tony whistled when he read the suspected scope of Benoit’s operation. “This is huge.”

“And I want him in my interrogation rooms. I trust you to put him there.” Again, Tony felt that rush of self-worth that been entirely too lacking lately.

“What’s the cover?” Tony started flipping through the files to find the details. As much as he hated to say it, he hoped that director Shepard was bringing in additional manpower for his backup. McGee had been distant and strange lately. Tony understood Abby’s grief. He could even sympathize with Ducky’s pain and the way he withdrew from the team. However, McGee hadn’t even been particularly close with Gibbs. Tony had no idea why Gibbs’s absence was having such an effect on Tony’s Probie. But it was. He was distracted and quick to leave the office the minute he was off the clock. It was like he was working a second job, and if Tony was undercover, he wasn’t sure he wanted McGee in charge of the surveillance. But telling Director Shepard that felt like throwing a teammate under the bus.

“You’re going in as a professor of film studies.”

Tony laughed. “That’s a cover I can get behind.”

“I thought you might enjoy it.”

Tony kept flipping through the pages. “I don’t see location listed. Where are we going to work out of?”

“This isn’t like other undercover work you’ve done. This is a long-term operation, and honestly it has a low probability of success. That means we have to minimize how much we extend ourselves. In phase I, you won’t have any contact with Benoit or his operation. You are to establish yourself.”

“So it’s not twenty-four seven?”

“No. You’ll work with your team on cases during the day, and before you go home you will spend a little time frequenting places where your secondary target has been seen. Sit. Take your laptop and play movies. Grade essays. A lot of this is going to be boring work because you need to establish that you are Tony DiNardo. Once you start to establish that cover, I will pull you from the team at random times. Record all the time you spend working on the case, and I will sign off on overtime or you can save it up as comp time and have a nice vacation after we bring La Grenouille down.”

Tony could already feel himself getting into the headspace. Tony DiNardo. Professor Tony DiNardo. There was a lot of himself in this character. DiNardo was going to be a laid-back sort of man. He was quick to smile make a joke, and he didn’t let things get to him. He worked for an online university because he didn’t like the politics that came with a brick and mortar school. He wanted to teach—not argue over funding. DiNardo was idealistic and enthusiastic. Tony wanted to be him. “Exit strategy? Surveillance?” Those pages were missing from the paperwork .

“Like I said, low risk, low expenditure. I’ve set up a cell phone for you.” Shepard opened a drawer and pushed a phone across the desk. “No matter where I am, I will answer calls from this phone. If something is going on, if you need extraction or if you spot Benoit, then you call me. I will dispatch a team to your position immediately.”

Tony couldn’t be hearing that right. She was suggesting that he wouldn’t have any surveillance. “Ma’am?”

The director sighed and leaned back in her chair. “Please, call me Jenny. I feel so old when people call me ma’am. Undercover work was my bread-and-butter; hell, Gibbs taught me. Back then we didn’t have satellite surveillance and tracking of cell phones. We set up long-term operations and sat and waited. All these other agencies have tried to bring Benoit down, but he knows our game plan. He knows how to spot electronic surveillance. He has some of the best technology people in the world on his staff. So I’m taking a play from Leroy Jethro Gibbs’ playbook. We are running this old school. No surveillance. No wiretaps. No computer forensics. And I understand how dangerous this is, because any undercover operation can go south. That is why I am promising you that I don’t care if I’m in a meeting with the President of the United States, I will take a call from that phone. I will stop everything and make sure that I always have your back. But I have one asset that none of these other agencies have. I have an undercover agent trained by Gibbs. You can do this Tony. You can go old-school and bring this bastard down.” Not only did Jenny give an impassioned speech, but Tony could tell that she meant him. She trusted him to get the job done when others couldn’t.

When she smiled, Tony smiled back. “Old school, huh?”

“Old school, just like me and Jethro in Paris. Read through the background and talk to me about your thoughts and concerns, but I want to get moving on this because developing this avenue could take years.”

“I’ll do that, Jenny.” The name felt strange. Tony stood and tucked the file under his arm.

“And Tony,” Jenny said, “this is strictly classified. Your team does not have the clearance to know any of it, so keep that under lock and key.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Tony agreed, but he had to force himself to smile. He couldn’t tell his team about a case he was on? Rule fifteen. Always work as a team. Tony wasn’t sure he wanted to leave himself out in the cold. Hell, that setup led to more than one agent getting screwed over in cold war movies. Tony could feel his heart start to pound. But he would read the file cover to cover, and then maybe Jenny could alleviate a few of his concerns.