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Little Pitchers

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Speak the name of the devil.  Look in a mirror and whisper, “Bloody Mary” three times on the stroke of midnight.  Have a phone conversation about Trent Kort when it’s two in the morning in Washington, D.C.   Certainly, this must account for how Hetty ends up spending her Sunday morning (she’d planned to spend it in the garden, dividing the irises before they launched a covert – underground, as it were – assault on the rest of the flower bed) at the Westin, having brunch with the man.

Kort is English, flinty-eyed, the barest hint of stubble on his scalp, his jaw.  English, but not in the cultured, faintly snobbish upper-class sort of way; no, he’s English in the scrappy, hard, back-alleys-of-Liverpool gangster sort of way, and now she can see why Jethro Gibbs’s reports (if one can read between the lines; between the idea and the reality, and she has been able to since that first time in Leningrad; when we were children staying at the Archduke’s) imply that being in the same room as the man has a rough equivalence to sitting down to tea and crumpets with Lucifer or Herod.  She smiles, makes pleasantries, but the way he studies her when he thinks her attention is on her eggs Benedict makes Hetty feel like something small caught in amber, something trapped against a corkboard with bright silver pins thrust through its wings.  The water is moving, the earth is rumbling (she can feel it), and Jack still hasn’t called.

Kort had phoned last night, “Just passing through,” as he’d told her, “on the way up to Seattle to take care of some business,” but he was going to be in L.A. until Sunday evening, and he wanted to meet with her.  Hadn’t said what it was about, but she could guess.  That Hetty and Jenny Sheppard shared an old connection was no secret; that she and the director of NCIS still talked even less so (and anyone who had been at that stuffy reception in D.C. could have told him that, though she’s sure he’s known for years and just never had reason to take advantage of it).

Kort had come into the game twelve or thirteen years ago, after the Gulf and the Air Force and the irresistible pull of that illusory creature called “a normal life” had stolen her ducklings, her deti, from Hetty’s arms, and she herself had begun to turn her attentions toward matters more domestic (the Soviets were crumbling from within; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.  They hardly needed her help for that anymore).  She hadn’t paid much attention to him (just another spook, for all he was fortunate to have a job in the New World Order), but she heard things sometimes, mostly from Jenny (Jethro had barely spoken to Hetty but for birthdays and Christmas in the years since that bastard Mike Franks had taken him in hand).  Apparently Kort’d had a bad reputation at MI-5, but one man’s trash and all that, because his rise in the Agency had been meteoric.

They eat their eggs, and nibble toast.  Kort drinks coffee, black, no sugar; she orders a pot of Irish Breakfast (and at least here it’s made properly, water fresh off the boil and an extra bag for the pot).  He plies her with compliments (just another agent, cut his milk teeth on tales of the Duchess of Deception, and surely not all of those stories can be true).  The tablecloths here are always brilliant white, the napkins perfectly folded.  Kort doesn’t ask – at least not directly – about the case.  He cuts his food with neat, precise strokes, eats carefully measured bites, and he’s still so appreciative, he says, for the rescue that NCIS had provided last winter.  If she were anyone else (even Callen, even Kensi), she might have been taken in by the gratitude, but something in the set of his mouth, in his eyes, hints that it’s just a mask for what’s squirming underneath (there will be time to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet, and the hair on the back of her neck prickles).

Hetty waits.  This is a familiar game (she played this game with Namarov when Trent Kort was a boy with a cap gun pretending to be a cop, or more likely, a robber, and won).  Kort stares at her with those flat eyes (snake eyes, viper eyes), a smile playing across his lips.  Kort may have lobbed the ball to her, but if he wants it back, he’s going to have to climb over the damn net to get it.   She asks him about Washington, what he thinks of the man President Hayes just appointed as intelligence czar, smiles sweetly.

Kort sips more coffee, the lines around his mouth hardening.  The waitress, slim and red-haired with carefully manicured nails and a tasteful, delicate gold chain around her neck stops by, “just to see if they’re doing all right,” asks if they might like some dessert. A busboy clears their empty plates.  The couple at the table beside them put aside their napkins and stand.

Finally Kort sets his coffee cup down, clinking against the saucer.  Sighs.  “I suppose this means you know what I’m here about.”

Hetty pushes her teacup aside, folds her hands on the table. 

When he speaks again, Kort’s voice is measured, the voice of a man who’s used to having the upper hand and has suddenly discovered it’s not an unalienable right accorded by his sex or his status or his roguish good looks.  “I have a lot of respect for Director Sheppard, and I know she’s been through a lot recently,” (like hell; here we go round the prickly pear and she almost scoffs, but that’s a violation of the rules, worth a few minutes in the penalty box and information about her she’d rather Kort not have, so Hetty smiles patiently instead).  “And I’m sure,” he says (pleasantly, so pleasantly), “that she’s frustrated at never having been read in on the McAvoy case, but that couldn’t be helped.  National security.  I’m sure you understand.”

“Mm,” Hetty says.  She’d enjoy watching his face stiffen further, if whatever was lurking behind Trent Kort’s eyes didn’t suddenly touch something atavistic deep down inside her, deep as serpent fear, deep as the memory of the smell of the tiger’s breath, if something (ruthlessly squelched; I’ll deal with you later) wasn’t begging her to climb a tree, to hide somewhere those eyes would never find her. (Clearly, whatever she knows about this man, whatever snippets she’s pieced together, it isn’t enough).

Kort closes his eyes for a long moment, lets out a controlled breath before he looks at her again (she’d think it’s heaven grant me patience but the mouse in her hindbrain, trapped in the long slow gaze of an owl, assures Hetty that it’s something else entirely).  “So I genuinely hate going behind your director’s back like this, but the truth is, I think she’s been slipping ever since that unfortunate business with La Grenouille, and I know you have some pull with her.”

“What do you want, Kort?” Hetty snaps finally (and thank the hundred little gods that her voice is steady; come in under the shadow of this red rock).

He shakes his head, a little stern, a little sad (the schoolmaster, the minister, the doctor with bad news.  The eagle or the cobra hunting, underneath).  “I’d really appreciate it if you’d speak to her, Ms. Lange.  She’s letting her dislike of me – not that I blame her for it, really – get in the way of her judgment.  NCIS has a Navy lieutenant in custody who was involved in a Top Secret project at the Pentagon, which I’m sure you’ve heard about, and while I’m sympathetic to the Navy’s interest in pressing charges with regard to the drug smuggling ring that Lieutenant Hartford was involved in, Hartford is a person of interest to CIA,” and (Hetty is mindful of the old question about why those out at Langley never say “the CIA” – would you put “the” in front of the word “God”?), “with regard to a matter of national security.  Director Sheppard’s interest in getting an injunction to keep this suspect in NCIS custody until after the end of her court martial represents a serious impediment to our work.”

Hetty inclines her head, looks at him levelly (cringes inwardly at meeting his eyes, but her smile still stays on).  “I’ll speak to her, Mr. Kort, but I can’t guarantee anything.” 

When she finally reaches home an hour later, Hetty locks the bathroom door, leans against the wall, and shakes for half an hour.

Jenny calls on Monday (Hetty’s just gotten to work; Jenny is off at lunch somewhere with glasses or expensive dishes clinking in the background, and the number on the caller I.D. is the director’s private cell).  The ruling has gone her way; NCIS can keep Lieutenant Hartford until she’s either convicted or cleared, and if the (emphasis on “the”) CIA wants to talk to her, they can do it at Leavenworth, under the eyes of the M.P.s.

Hetty tells her that Kort came to see her; Jenny says nothing about it, but her voice after that is brittle. 

The director has found a way to get Hetty into the game officially, she says.  The Office of Special projects will work with the prosecutor at JAG – he should be calling tomorrow – to check Hartford’s story, which means she – they – can ask whatever she wants about COBRA, about Farrow-Marshall. 

Hetty sets her tea down on her desk, blots up the little spill with a napkin, chews her lip, remembering Stalingrad, remembering the duckling that hadn’t flown home in the wind that first winter (between the motion and the act falls the shadow, and if he’d been a little more ready, he might have seen it falling, but time waits for no man and the world was moving).  Of all of them, only Callen has ever tested his strength in these waters, and he has not yet spent enough time swimming to sense what circles beneath.  “I’m not sure I want my people involved in this, Jenny.”

“I’m sorry, Hetty, but I need your help.”  The Director’s voice is hard (and the dry stone no sound of water).  She does not call her tyotia.

On Wednesday, Hetty unlocks her front door (and the sky has not fallen yet, but she is waiting, waiting, and the woods are utterly still) to find Jack O’Neill, in rumpled jeans and tennis shoes, a battered Air Force cap pulled down over his eyes, sprawled gracelessly on her couch in the shadows.

(You could have called.  You could have written.  Ten years ago I might have shot you where you stood).  She says none of it, just locks the door behind her, slides the deadbolt home, sets her purse on the side table.  Crosses her arms across her chest.

Jack reaches in a pocket, produces something round, something silvery.  Places it carefully on the coffee table.  Frowns (and there’s a million words in that frown, a million words in a language they both know how to read, a vast image out of Spritus Mundi, and Hetty abruptly wishes she could unknow all that she is about to learn).

“This may not be the first thing you need to know, but it’s one of them,” Jack says, and his voice is rough.  “When Jasper Sheppard – yes, Jenny’s father, Jasper Sheppard, and we doubt it was a suicide, but we can’t prove it either way – died, he was working on something called Project Bluebook.  Which is to say, he was working for us.”