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Little Pitchers

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If there is one lesson Henrietta Lange has learned in all her years in and out of the shadows, it is that the heaviest of burdens seldom come into one’s life wearing their true seeming.  Rather, at first blush, they appear completely innocuous – small favors, the sort of thing anyone would do for a friend. Tiny things, really.  Worth a phone call, a conversation, part of one’s afternoon.  It is only days or weeks or months later, after each small thing has mounted quietly, imperceptibly upon a mountain of other insignificant things, that a person might suddenly find herself holding the weight of the world on her shoulders. 

And so it begins on a balmy Friday evening, when Henrietta – better known to friends and colleagues (and to the bare handful of adversaries that have looked into the dark corners that most eyes pass over and found her lurking there) as Hetty – finds herself in Washington, D.C., enjoying (or at least that’s one word for it; her years in L.A. have taught Hetty that a night at that lovely bar with the mechanical bull and the hundred varieties of tequila is often more fun than an evening at a palatial house swimming cautiously through a deceptively pleasant sea of bejeweled and impeccably groomed sharks) a reception at the home of one Senator John Irving after a long day of testimony on the Hill. 

When she was a girl she had dreamed of this world, dreamed of the shards of light glancing off the crystals of fine chandeliers, of wooden floors gleaming with a fresh coat of polish and the strains of a string quartet (students borrowed from Georgetown for the evening, gowned and tuxedoed and a bit flushed with the honor the Senator has done them) playing Vivaldi and Bach so familiar that it fades into background noise threading over and under and through the rise and fall of the conversations of important people.  She had imagined herself, then, as a personage beautifully coiffed and richly gowned, moving among the guests with a flute of champagne in her hand, wielding power and influence with great subtlety.

Hetty thinks, somewhat ruefully, that her younger self would have been sadly disappointed to find herself face to face with the real Henrietta Lange – older, diminutive, bespectacled, and wearing not a spectacular sapphire-blue Dior gown with sequins, but an eminently practical -- if beautifully detailed and elegantly tailored -- black pantsuit (gowns, as it turns out, make her feel a bit like a little girl in a party dress, particularly these days) and holding not a flute of expensive French champagne, but a cut-crystal glass of ordinary, boring mineral water.  After a long day spent applying her influence to the thick skulls of disinterested members of the Senate Finance Committee, she is quite honestly more interested in retreating to the relative peace of the Senator’s library, or in slipping out an hour or two earlier than planned (quietly, of course) to return to her hotel for a long hot bath and an hour with a good book, than she is in rubbing elbows with the Beltway power brokers.

“Hetty – there you are.  I’ve been looking for you all evening.”  As if the thought of a strategic retreat conjured her, Jenny Sheppard – Director Jenny Sheppard these days, Hetty’s superior and She In Charge of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service – appears at Hetty’s elbow, luminous in diamonds and a full-skirted black Chanel with a tight bodice, reddish blonde hair gleaming in the soft light, everything that a young Hetty had once imagined herself becoming.  Hard to reconcile this lovely, confident, eminently powerful woman with the talented but gawky and painfully uncertain girl that Jack O’Neill had nearly refused to work with all those years ago in Russia.  Most of the time ugly ducklings merely grow into ugly ducks, but every once in awhile, a body gets lucky enough to find one that turns out to be a swan. 

“Director,” Hetty says softly, a smile touching her lips.  “It’s good to see you too.”  The quartet, blessedly, stops playing that damned clichéd Four Seasons and moves onto a bit of obscure Bach that she vastly prefers, if only for not having heard it at almost every gathering deemed worthy of a chamber group. 

“I wanted to thank you again for flying clear out here for the budget hearings.  I’m sure you’d much rather be in L.A. right now, but you’re so much better – and more tactful – at handling the Finance Committee than I am.”  The tightness of the Director’s eyes and the faint lines around her mouth hint that this is just a pleasantry, an excuse.

“You are more than welcome, Director.  I am, as always, happy to be of service,” Hetty says pleasantly enough as she sets her empty glass aside on a table, but she looks sharply up at the younger woman and waits.

Jenny, she is gratified to find, doesn’t miss the look, or the intent behind it.  “You still don’t miss much, do you?” the director sighs.  “Do you mind if we go somewhere quieter so we can talk?”   

The night is warm and the party has spilled out the French doors and into the back garden, the lawn spangled with men in black jackets and women in sequins and light reflecting off crystal, but they’re able to find some privacy in the gazebo amid the scent of jasmine and the droning buzz of cicadas.  Jenny, always so well-mannered, sinks down on a padded bench without a word so that Hetty doesn’t have to crane her neck to look up at her.  “Hetty, I need a favor.  Unofficial, off the books for now.”

Hetty clasps her hands in front of her (not as easy as it used to be, now that her knuckles are faintly swollen with arthritis -- another casualty of too many years) , turns a level gaze on her former protégé.  “What sort of favor?  I trust nothing to do with that bad business with the late, unlamented La Grenouille, since you know I never approved of your obsession with the man, regardless of what he’d done.” 

For a moment, the director of NCIS looks a bit abashed, glances down at her shoes, but she meets the older woman’s eyes evenly and shakes her head.  “No, of course not.  No, I’d just appreciate it if you’d look into something for me.  Make a few phone calls.  Ask a few questions.  It’s about case Gibbs and his team have been working.”

Small favors.  Still, she purses her lips, curiosity growing.  Something that may have stymied the infamous – and highly tenacious – Lero Jethro Gibbs? “I might be able to do something.  Go on.”

“This all started a few months ago,” Jenny begins, fingers nervously toying with her beaded clutch, “when NCIS got a tip that someone associated with black-box research at the Pentagon was using shipments of electronic components from a supplier in Latin America as a cover to funnel large quantities of cocaine into the country.  The drugs were being passed to a couple of enlisted men with connections to a major gang here in D.C., and these men arranged for the drugs to be distributed and sold on the street, then passed some of the money back to the supplier.

“Both of these men were reported missing without leave by their commanding officer, and turned up a couple of days later floating in a reservoir.  They’d been shot at close range with a naval service revolver.   Gibbs and his team finally managed to turn up a witness who said the two had been wholesaling cocaine, and the evidence – and this anonymous tip – led them back to the Pentagon. 

“I’ll spare you the specifics of the investigation, but Gibbs finally picked up one Navy Lieutenant Lauren Hartford, who was responsible for receiving and inventory control for a highly-classified joint military-civilian project called COBRA.  Her job provided the prefect cover for drug smuggling, and the forensics – down to cocaine residue on some of her clothes and the fact that the bullets in the two dead drug dealers matched her service revolver, which one of Gibbs’s team found hidden in the cellar of her mother’s house in Bethesda – were damning.”     Jenny sighs, the lines around her mouth deepening in the dim light.

“I don’t quite see why you need my help,” Hetty says patiently.  Her feet are hurting, and she sits down next to the director, neck-craning be damned.  “It sounds like quite the open-and-shut case to me.  You should be grateful – they’re rarely that easy.”

“I haven’t gotten to the part where this whole thing gets really weird yet,” Jenny says, quirking an eyebrow.  “Jethro arrested her, but when he brought her into interrogation, she denied everything and insisted she’d been framed.”

Hetty can’t restrain the snort.  “The prisons are full of innocent men, Director.”

The other woman waves off the sarcasm and frowns.   “Yes, but here’s the thing.  Jethro and I both think we might believe her, as strange as the rest of the story is going to sound.

 “Like I said, Lieutenant Hartford was adamant that she’d never even thought about dealing drugs, and that the whole situation was set up to silence her.  I don’t know how much you know about that bizarre case Gibbs worked about six months ago, with that Marine Sergeant that went missing from Cheyenne Mountain, shot some people in Georgetown, and eventually ended up trying to kill a CIA agent at Ronald Regan?”  At Hetty’s nod of understanding, Jenny takes a breath and goes on.  “ That case had a connection to COBRA as well.  As far as we’ve been able to put together, and the CIA has been absolutely no help on this despite the fact that we saved Trent Kort’s life, McAvoy – the missing Marine – was paid to eliminate everyone that might know who had arranged for a component developed for COBRA to be sold on the black market.  One of Lieutenant Hartford’s close colleagues, a man by the name of Murphy, was picked up by the CIA in conjunction with the theft of the component.  Our accused murderer-slash-drug dealer told Gibbs that she didn’t think Murphy actually had anything to do with the theft, but that a few days before his arrest he’d confided to her that he was fairly sure that Farrow-Marshall – the civilian company jointly responsible for the project, and the holder of the patents on that particular piece of electronics – had actually arranged the disappearance of the component themselves, and that he had evidence to prove that there were some very strange things going on with the company.”

“Why sell your own component on the black market and give all of your competitors a crack at the technology?”  Curiouser and curioser, though the mantra beware of small favors is beginning to make itself heard in the back of Hetty’s mind.

“Maybe to cover up whatever ‘strange things’ Murphy supposedly discovered?  Deflect suspicion from Farrow-Marshall by making them look like the wronged party?”  The Director spreads her hands in a helpless gesture.  “Unfortunately, we can’t talk to Murphy, since he was killed shortly after the CIA picked him up.  Looked like poison, according to Ziva David’s sources at Langley.  Not only that, but the day before he was killed, one of the two colonels that McAvoy shot outside that Mediterranean restaurant in Georgetown allegedly took Lieutenant Hartford out to coffee and asked her some very strange questions about some of the people associated with Farrow-Marshall.  Stuff she says didn’t make any sense, including a question about how their eyes looked.  According to Hartford, some of the other people on the project said the colonel had talked to them, too, but we haven't  been able to get access to question them, particularly since all of the evidence points at her.

“According to our suspect, when she heard that Murphy was dead – a few weeks after the fact, since we all know the Agency is so free with information – she became concerned that his death and the colonel’s might be connected, since both supposedly were nursing suspicions about Farrow-Marshall.  She was worried enough that she says she went to her commanding officer with her concerns.  Hartford says her CO basically blew her off and told her to mind her own business, and she insists that a week or so later she became fairly sure she was being followed, though she wasn’t sure by whom.

“Now normally either Gibbs or I would have just dismissed this as a paranoid delusion or an elaborate attempt to set up an insanity defense for the murders, but the McAvoy case was so goddamn strange – and associated with something so Top Secret that SecNav has refused to even read me in on the bare outlines of the thing – that I was willing to keep an open mind about Hartford’s story.  I sent Gibbs to talk to the CO.”

“Naturally,” Hetty says, intrigued in spite of herself and the sheer improbability of the story, “the Lieutenant’s CO denied any such conversation ever took place.”

“Naturally.  However, without getting into details as to how, one of the members of Gibbs’s team managed to get a look at the CO’s outgoing calls on the day that Hartford says she talked to him, and those records show that he made a thirty-minute phone call to Trent Kort – the CIA agent in charge of investigating the COBRA thefts – an hour after the alleged conversation between Hartford and her CO took place.”

“That’s an awful lot of coincidences,” Hetty agrees, trying to surreptitiously stretch her left leg, which has fallen asleep from too long sitting on a too-tall bench.  “And it’s not like some people we both know didn’t once go to similar lengths to discredit certain nosy sorts on the other side of the Iron Curtain.” 

“That’s exactly what Jethro said.  Particularly after our suspect confided to him that after her CO blew her off she’d done some digging through the shipping and receiving records and found a pattern that might absolve Murphy of the thefts and place the blame squarely on someone associated with Farrow-Marshall.  Supposedly, Hartford copied the relevant files to a flash drive, but – of course – the drive disappeared a couple of days before Gibbs picked her up for the murders and the drug dealing.

“You know, Hetty, as positively insane as her story sounds, and as clear as the forensics are, neither Jethro nor I can shake the feeling that Lieutenant Hartford is telling the truth.  Conveniently, the two men that might be able to clear her in conjunction with the drug case – simply by saying she wasn’t the one supplying them – are dead.  Of course, so is pretty much everyone who can corroborate her suspicions about Farrow-Marshall – assuming they’re more than just paranoid delusions or a big fabrication to dodge a murder rap – so we’re in a bit of a bind.”

It’s a tingle of excitement.  Subtle, insidious, the barest hint of that addictive combination of adrenaline and intellectual challenge that Hetty hasn’t felt often since the Berlin Wall fell.  Assuming there’s any truth to it, Director Sheppard’s wild story has the feeling of intrigue – real intrigue, layers within layers, and a subtle opponent waiting on the other side like a spider in the web, not this quotidian business of chasing militias and drug dealers and terrorists domestic and foreign, which is admittedly challenging and a vital service to her country, but not the same.  She knows she should ignore it, listen to that inner voice that warns of the road to hell and the consequences of small favors, but the wheels are turning and the sounds of cicadas and the low rumble of the party have fallen away, and the words are out before she’s even noticed.  “What can I do to help you with your conundrum, Director?”

“Let me send you the recording of the interrogation.  Have Nate take a look at it, see what he thinks.  If he agrees that Hartford isn’t lying her pants off, maybe you wouldn’t mind asking around quietly, finding out what some of your contacts might know?”  Jenny looks away, takes a deep breath, bites her lip.  Here comes the real favor, at last.  “Maybe,” the Director says hesitantly, for a moment that uncertain young agent again, “you might be willing to talk to Jack O’Neill for me?  I know he never thought much of me, but he respected the hell out of you and I know that you two have kept in touch over the years.  Both McAvoy and one of the colonels that he shot outside that café in Georgetown were Jack’s people, and I’m under the distinct impression that he knows a hell of a lot more about COBRA than SecNav’s been willing to tell me.  If there is a connection between the cases, he’d be the place to start.”

“I will,” Hetty says in what she hopes is a noncommittal tone (while inwardly her mind is already turning over the pieces of a bright new puzzle, looking for the corners), “see what I can do.  No promises, Jenny, other than that I’ll keep an open mind.”

Impulsively, Director Sheppard takes both of Hetty’s hands in hers (Jenny’s hands are freezing, and for a moment Hetty thinks she feels the barest hint of a tremor in the other woman’s grasp, but it’s gone before she has a chance to give it more than a passing thought) and smiles for an instant, a few ounces of tension falling away from her face.  “Thank you Hetty.  That’s all I ask.”   She shakes out her skirt, the fabric rustling sharply, straightens her back resolutely.  “I’m afraid I have to get back to the party.  I promised Barbara Ulrich a few moments of my time, and I’ll never hear the end of it if I stand her up.”