Prologue (Before the Credits Roll)
Washington, D.C., c. 2007
When she opened her eyes, she
found herself staring at a ceiling she’d never seen before. She puzzled at it
for a moment, then slowly turned her head. It felt like the air had somehow
thickened, and she had to fight to move through it. A nightstand beside her, a
lamp, a clock radio, and a phone. And beyond that, another bed. A hotel room?
That made no sense. She hadn’t slept in a hotel since senior class trip to Florida. Since then, it had been barracks and racks and…
She sat up, biting back a moan at how much that hurt. Two realizations hit her: She was naked, and she’d been beat up. Grabbing at the bedsheet to cover herself, she looked around the room. She saw no one. She felt no one. She was alone.
Her clothes were in a pile on the chair. Civilian clothes. Dress-up clothes. The first time she’d been able to dress up since…
They’d gone to a nightclub. It wasn’t her usual thing, but her shipmates wanted to go. There’d been a man there. A Marine. He had such nice eyes. She was usually kind of shy, but he’d put her at ease, so she let him buy her a drink. And another. Then…
She slid to the edge of the bed, pulling the sheet with her. God she was hurting. A tear made its way out of one eye. She remembered being at the club. Meeting the Marine. Sharing drinks. Then? Nothing.
Glancing at the clock on the nightstand, she squinted, blinked, and her eyes widened. 4:27. Damn. Curfew for enlisted sailors was oh-two-hundred. If the clock was right, she was in so much trouble.
Biting her lip against the pain, she got up, hobbling across to her clothes. She dressed as quickly as she could. She felt dirty. The beating had made her bleed, and there was something on her thighs... her mind shied away from that. But there wasn’t time to clean up. She had to report back.
Her purse was there, her wallet and cell phone inside. She thought about calling for help. She had no idea where she was. There was an address on the bedside phone. At least she was still in Norfolk. There was a sticker with the number for a taxi company on the hand set. She called it.
Outside, the cool night air cleared her head a little. She still felt like she was too heavy: like she’d gained 50 pounds since she left her ship. She leaned against a lamp post and waited.
The taxi came, took her to Norfolk Naval Shipyard. She stumbled up the gangway of the USS Ronald Regan, headed for the checkpoint, ID in her trembling hand. The deck officer saw her lurching up the ramp and shook his head. Drunk, and almost three hours past curfew. This was one sailor who was going to regret having just one more. Then he noticed the way she was limping, the too-stiff way she moved. She wasn’t just drunk, she was hurting too. He called for a corpsman.
The ship’s physician found clear evidence of a beating. Possible signs of sexual assault. The girl was confused, claimed not to remember anything after meeting a Marine at a local bar. No, she didn’t know the Marine, couldn’t remember his name. Her blood was tested for drugs and alcohol: Drug screen negative, blood alcohol at .04. Not drunk, but still unstable and confused. A nurse documented her injuries, the shipmates she’d gone out with were woken and interviewed. Two of them said she’d left the bar around midnight with a Marine. She didn’t remember.
Not drunk, no drugs, assaulted and maybe raped, no memory of any of it. To the doctor, it added up to one thing: she’d been the victim of something nasty. Time to call the cops.
The case had been hounding the agents of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service for three weeks. Six women – four civilian, two military – had been drugged and raped after meeting men at six different bars in D.C. and Northern Virginia. There was no usable DNA left behind, precious little forensic evidence, no witness statements specific enough to create a profile. The only thing that tied the cases together was that all the victims were brunette, and there was a similar, if very general, suspect description: white, over six feet, strong build, early 30s, military appearance and bearing, claimed to be a Marine. Had nice eyes. He chatted up women at bars, bought them drinks, left with them. No one remembered any of the women appearing distressed, no one had a more specific description of the man each of the women had left with.
NCIS had been notified as a courtesy when the first victim mentioned to the DC Metro police that her rapist had said he was a Marine. When the second and third victims – both attacked in Virginia – also mentioned this fact, the Virginia State Police invited NCIS to consult. When the fourth victim, raped at a hotel in the District, turned out to be a Navy Petty Officer, the cases were consolidated and turned over to NCIS. Frankly, the local agencies were glad to give them up: there just wasn’t anything to go on. Even composite sketches from the victims weren’t in agreement on much more than skin color and brush cut. And his nice eyes.
Since NCIS took the case, two more victims had come forward, one military, one civilian. Speculation was that there could be many more who were too embarrassed or traumatized to report the rapes, or who simply didn’t remember. The date-rape drug GHB had been found in the blood of the four women who’d reported the crime immediately. Forensics had made an 89 percent match of the formulation of the drug in each of the four samples, making it a near certainty that the attacker was the same. The blood of the other two victims was clean, but one of the victims had waited two days before reporting the incident, and the other almost a week. In both cases, any drug that might have been there was long gone.
The victims themselves remembered being at clubs or bars, meeting a man who claimed to be a Marine, having drinks with him. It was from them that the general description of their suspect had come. Three of the six remembered leaving with him: two of them admitted they were headed to motels, the third just said they were going somewhere more private. The other three victims’ memories of the night stopped while they were still at the bar and didn’t resume until they woke up at motels, usually hours later.
NCIS was the Navy’s law enforcement arm. Unlike the Army and Air Force equivalents, NCIS was made up of civilian agents under a civilian director who answered directly to the Secretary of the Navy. The agency’s Major Case Response Teams were made up of three to five agents who specialized in investigating felonies committed by and against members of the Navy and Marine Corps and their families. Along with a medical examiner and a forensic scientist, they handled every aspect of the case starting with witness interviews, evidence gathering and crime scene analysis, through case-building, suspect interrogation and arrest. Their jurisdiction was based on identity of the parties rather than geography or nature of the crime, making them unique among armed federal agencies. Only one Major Case team worked out of agency headquarters aboard the Washington Navy Yard. Most agents assigned there were in supervisory or analysis roles, helping to oversee the entire spectrum of NCIS’s mission.
The squadroom consisted of three loosely divided work areas. At one end were the desks of the intelligence analysts and other staff that supported NCIS's worldwide operations. The opposite end contained the desks of the half-dozen or so field response agents not assigned to one of NCIS's 16 field offices, 140 other permanent locations, or aboard ships afloat. The center of the room was reserved for the agents of Major Case, lead by senior ranking field agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs, a retired Marine Gunnery Sergeant and 16-year veteran of the agency. Together with his team of three agents, he had the best clearance rate in modern NCIS history. Which is why, when the serial rape case was turned over the NCIS, it landed on Gibbs’ desk.
The most recent attack had been two nights earlier. A young Petty Officer on an evening’s liberty had reported back to her ship several hours past curfew, bloodied and dazed. She told the corpsman on board that she’d gone out with a few shipmates to a nightclub in Norfolk, met a man who said he was a Marine, had a few drinks with him, then woken up in a motel room a few miles from the shipyard, naked and battered. She claimed to remember nothing more about the night’s events. The corpsman treated her injuries and gave her a blood test, which came up negative for controlled substances. He’d forwarded the sample to NCIS, where Forensic Scientist Abby Sciuto found a traceable quantity of GHB that matched their suspect formulation. Gibbs had taken the sailor’s statement himself, but it offered nothing new. If this was the same guy, this was the first time he’d been physically violent, and that was worrisome. Once he crossed that line, he wasn’t likely to go back.
Abby had spent Tuesday going over the Petty’s Officer’s clothes and the other assorted samples they’d collected, and Gibbs hoped she’d found something. God knew witnesses weren’t going to solve this one.
A 40-ounce plastic cup of Caf-Pow in one hand, coffee in the other, Gibbs stepped off the elevator outside Abby’s lab in the first basement of headquarters. He frowned. Something was wrong. Abby was a strange girl who ran her lab in her own strange way. There was always music playing in the background, sometimes at ear-splitting levels. She tended toward death metal, punk, head-banger stuff that Gibbs couldn’t stand, but went well with her Goth-like lifestyle.
He’d gotten used to wishing for ear plugs on arrival outside Abby’s lab, which is why he was first surprised, and then concerned, when he heard no music at all. He moved into the room and his eyes widened. Abby was nowhere in sight, but a redhead in a lab coat was crouched in front of one of the tall cupboards, pulling things out seemingly at random.
“Can I help you with something?” he said firmly. The woman spun on her heel while trying to stand, nearly losing her balance in the process. Making no move to steady her, Gibbs looked her up and down. Navy, in uniform blouse and skirt, First Lieutenant, long red hair tied in a bun, pretty. No, gorgeous. He mentally smacked himself in the back of the head and refocused.
“Who are you and where’s Abby?” he demanded.
“Sorry, sir. First Lieutenant Claire Hanson. I’m filling in for a couple of days, from Norfolk.”
“I don’t know, sir.” She cringed at his glare. “I got a call early this morning telling me to report here. I’ve been TOD’d to run your forensics lab for a few days.” Gibbs frowned. This was wrong. Abby had never, in all the time Gibbs had known her, called in sick. She would never trust her lab to a stranger.
“From who?” Gibbs asked.
“Sir?” Hanson asked, puzzled.
“Don’t call me sir. Who called you?” he reiterated.
“Cynthia. She’s Director Shepard’s…”
“I know who she is. Stand there. Don’t move.” He set the Caf-Pow on the counter and flipped open his cell, speed-dialing Jenny Shepard’s office. The Director’s assistant put him through immediately.
“Why is there a Navy First Lieutenant making herself at home in Abby’s lab?” he asked when Jenny answered.
“Good morning to you too, Special Agent Gibbs. Abby’s down with the flu, she’ll be out a few days. I didn’t think you’d want your forensics sent to the FBI lab for the rest of the week, so I called over to Norfolk for a substitute. She came very highly recommended.”
“I’m sure. Abby called you?”
“She sent me an e-mail. She sent you one, too. Didn’t you get it?” Gibbs ignored the smug grin he could hear over the cell. He had a well-known tendency to not check email unless he was expecting something. He hated computers. Hated most technology, truth be told. If people needed him, they’d call.
“So you haven’t talked to her yourself?” he asked.
“Yes, I have, Jethro. When I got the e-mail, I called her at home, to be sure she was alright. She sounded terrible. I offered to bring her some soup, which she declined. I explained all this in the e-mail I sent you. I don’t suppose you got that one either?” He could hear grin bordering on a laugh and snapped the phone shut.
“Don’t get comfortable,” he told the Lieutenant. “Did Abby leave anything about what she found on the rape victim’s clothes?”
The woman took a few steps across the room, picked up a file folder and held it out to him. He set his coffee down next to the Caf-Pow and flipped it open. He couldn’t read it. He patted his breast pocket for his reading glasses. Negative. Tucking the folder under his arm, he grabbed both drinks and turned away without another word. As he passed the trash, he dumped the Caf-Pow. He’d brought it for Abby, long ago discovering that a little bribe went a long way with her, and the super-caffeinated beverage was her favorite. The lieutenant didn’t look like the Caf-Pow type.
The other three agents on Gibbs’ team all had something to say as he got off the elevator on the third floor, but Gibbs waved them off. He handed the case file to his second-in-charge Anthony DiNozzo. “Read this. See what Abby found.”
“Abby didn’t tell you?” asked Tim McGee, the newest agent on their team.
“Abby’s out sick.” Gibbs sat at his desk and opened his e-mail. There, among the 129 unopened messages, was one from Jenny, and one from Abby. He opened Abby’s. It was as Jenny had said: She had the flu, wouldn’t be in today, maybe not for the rest of the week.
Gibbs opened his phone again, dialing Abby at home. It rang five times, then voicemail.
“Hey Abby, Gibbs. Call me when you can. I’m worried about you.” He shut his phone, then looked up to see his team staring at him.
“What?” he said, reviewing what he’d said. He was worried about her. “Don’t you have something to do?” They snapped to, and Gibbs smothered a smile. Nice to be in charge.
The phone rang in his hand and he answered. Another woman had called 9-1-1 reporting being raped by someone matching their M.O. Metro DC Police had responded and found her in a motel room, the scene of the crime. There might be forensics. He got the details and hung up.
“Gear up, we’ve got another victim,” he said. “And a fresh crime scene.”
The crime scene, witness interviews, and what was supposed to be a new lead on an old case but turned out to be nothing, kept Gibbs and his team hopping the rest of the day. He didn’t get back to his desk until well after business hours. There had been no call from Abby on his cell, and as he settled into his desk chair, he wondered why. He checked his office voicemail. Nothing from her. He checked his e-mail: there was something. “Hi Gibbs, thanks for calling. I’m sick, sick, sick, but it’s just the flu. Hope to see you Monday. Be nice to the temp. Love, Abs.”
Odd, but then so was Abby. She was probably just sick, like she said. But it bothered him that she hadn’t called back. He flexed his shoulders forward, stretching his back, and reached under his desk to surreptitiously rub at the worst of his two bad knees. He was older than he’d like to be, and some days he felt every minute of it. Though he was in great physical shape for a man of his age – something over 40 and under 60, and no one dared ask him to be more specific – sometimes he just got tired. He leaned back in his chair and folded his hands together behind his head, stretching. As he relaxed, he ran his hands over his silver-gray hair, thinking it was about time for a cut. He was getting a bit shaggy. By Marine standards, anyway.
“Anything else for today, Boss?” Gibbs looked at DiNozzo over the top of his glasses. His second was looking a little ragged, and eager to go home. At least Gibbs wasn’t the only one who wished the day was over.
“You hear anything from Abby since this morning?” he asked.
“Not a word, Boss,” DiNozzo said.
“McGee?” Gibbs called. The team’s junior agent had his head down on his desk and jumped up.
“Nothing,” McGee said, looking guilty. After several years as a computer tech at the Norfolk office, McGee had become a field agent less than two years before. He hated to be caught seeming weak or not up to the task. It seemed like he was in a constant state of fear that he might be sent back.
“I have not heard from her either,” Ziva David – an Israeli Mossad officer on loan to the agency and the final member of Gibbs’ team – piped up without being asked. “Is something wrong, Gibbs?”
“Probably nothing. You guys go on home. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“You sure, Boss?” DiNozzo asked.
“Get out of here before I change my mind.” Almost as one, the three of them hustled to gather their gear and get out.
Gibbs called up to the Director’s office. Cynthia was long gone, but Jenny was still at her desk. He told her he’d be up.
“How bad was the latest victim?” Jenny asked when he pushed through her door. The first female director of an armed federal agency was sitting behind her large desk, glasses on, papers spread out around her. She and Gibbs had been partners a long time ago, and for awhile, lovers. He still sometimes got a funny feeling in his solar plexus on seeing her like this: her short red hair styled professionally but not severely, her clothes expensive, feminine yet business-like, an air of authority hanging around her thick enough to cut with a knife. She had come so far since he’d taken her on as a probationary agent so many years ago. It didn’t bother him that she was now his boss, but sometimes he liked to try and forget.
“Beaten pretty badly. Couple of broken bones. She’s at Bethesda. Doctor says she’ll physically recover. Emotionally will be harder.”
“Anything more on the suspect?”
“Maybe. Some fibers that didn’t match anything on her or in the room. But they might have come from anywhere. It was a motel room. The temp worked them up.” He shook his head, clearly indicating what he thought about that. Jenny stepped over to her sidebar and offered Gibbs some bourbon. He nodded. She poured two fingers worth into each of two tumblers and brought them over.
“Give her a chance, Jethro. I’m told she’s very good.” She handed him one of the glasses.
“I’m sure she’s a wonder. Did you hear from Abby again today?” He sat in one of Jenny’s guest chairs. She took another facing him.
“She called around 4:00. Said she was keeping down fluids, but still felt bad. Still didn’t want visitors.”
“She sound strange?” he asked. Jenny frowned.
“I don’t know. I left her a message, she didn’t call back. Sent me an e-mail instead.” He sipped the bourbon. It was smooth, high quality, as always.
“She probably didn’t feel up to talking,” Jenny said. “But no matter how sick she is, she’s still likely to be near her computer.” When Gibbs didn’t go on, Jenny prompted him.
“What’s wrong, Jethro?”
“Something feels wrong.”
“Your gut?” Gibbs smiled ruefully. The reliability of his gut feelings had reached near-mythical status at NCIS over the years. He certainly trusted his gut, but it amazed him sometimes that so many of his colleagues did too.
“Maybe. It’s not like her, to call in sick. And then not returning my call. Something feels wrong,” he repeated.
Jenny looked at her watch, then picked up her phone. She dialed, waited, then smiled.
“Hi Abby, it’s Jenny Shepard. How are you feeling?” She listened for a moment. Gibbs motioned for the phone, and Jenny held up a finger. Wait.
“Gibbs called you earlier.” Pause. “He’d really like to talk to you. He’s here now, if you’re up to it.” Another pause while Jenny rolled her eyes.
“He’s not going to like it if you don’t talk to him, Abby. Just give him a minute, okay?” She waited, nodded, then handed the phone over.
“Hey Abs, you alright?” he asked.
“Sick, Gibbs. Light headed, dizzy, throwing up, and out the back…”
“I get it, Abby,” Gibbs cut her off. “Can I bring you anything?”
“No, I’m okay. I’m sure I’ll be fine in a day or two.”
“Alright. You need anything, you know where to find me.”
“Yup. Talk to you later.” She hung up, and Gibbs handed the phone back. He took another sip of bourbon.
“Well?” Jenny asked. Gibbs shrugged.
“She says she’s sick. She sounds sick.”
“But?” Jenny prompted again.
Gibbs shook his head. “It’s probably nothing. I’ll see you tomorrow.” He drained the rest of the glass and set it on Jenny’s desk before shoving his six-foot frame upright. His knee gave a twinge. He was going to have to ice it tonight if he planned on walking without a limp tomorrow.
“You alright, Jethro?” Jenny called.
“Just getting old, I guess. Have a good night.” He left, Jenny staring after him.
Downstairs, Gibbs packed up his briefcase and headed out. He reviewed the short conversation with Abby, looking for… what? Something wasn’t right, he could feel it. But what?