“I have this strange feeling that the blueprints and my knitting instructions got switched. I may be knitting a ranch house.”
January 20, 2008. Washington DC
Tony started to summarize the victim’s background for the benefit of the team.
“Chief Petty Officer Stefan Alvarez, 46, joined the Navy at the age of 22 in 1984, two deployments – Gulf War in 91-92 and South Korea after that until he took early retirement in 98. Divorced amicably, two sons aged fourteen and sixteen, wife has full custody; he had visitation rights. Owned a modest-sized dry cleaning business in Falls Church, the proceeds of which according to his will, should go to the kids. Squeaky-clean service and civilian record, no misdemeanors, not even a parking ticket. Current relationship was with a thirty-nine year divorcee who lives across the street, Angela Cruz, nothing serious, or so she says.”
Everyone stood beside him watching the big screen where he scrolled through the victim’s profile and background history. It was nearly three in the afternoon. The team had visited the veteran’s house where he was murdered, retrieved the body and all the evidence they could find, before returning to base camp about an hour ago.
Ziva went on to describe the attack as she’d simulated it. “Two assailants broke into his home at two AM last night. No security alarm. He heard noises, woke up, and grabbed the Glock he kept by the bed. He managed to overpower one guy just outside the bedroom by hitting him in the head with the butt of the gun. He then proceeded to the living room where he took cover behind the bookshelf, must have spotted a weapon. Was taken by surprise from behind when the first assailant recovered. First bullet in the back severed the spine, Alvarez fell to the ground. They turned him over, put another through the heart, point blank. Instant death. No witnesses. Angela Cruz was first on the scene at ten AM. They had a movie date, she called – he did not answer. So she went over to the house, discovered the body in a pool of blood and called 911.”
Gibbs crossed his arms. “Local LEOs have been calling it a ‘breaking and entering’. Does this feel like ‘breaking and entering’ to you?”
“No fingerprints, hardly any DNA, shots are too clean, too professional,” Ziva noted.
Tony concurred. “Car was parked outside, they had to know Alvarez was home. Plus nothing seems missing, not that there was much in there worth stealing to begin with.”
“It was premeditated.” Gibbs turned to go back to his desk. “DiNozzo –“
“Track down Alvarez’s CO and unit to find out if he made any enemies during his time served. On it.”
Ziva added before Gibbs could call on her, “And I shall work the civilian angle, see if anyone had any motives for murder here.”
Gibbs approved then turned to McGee. “McGee, work with Abby to locate the gunmen. They couldn’t have gone too far. Someone has to have seen something.”
“Someone did!” McGee spoke at last, making everyone turn back toward him. He took the clicker from Tony, smirking at the squinty-eyed expression on his friend’s face. “Figured it was too clean to be a ‘breaking and entering’ so if it was premeditated, it had to have been planned. I hacked into traffic cam surveillance of the surrounding area for the past month. Found a gray SUV with Delaware plates, stolen, trailing Alvarez’s car on three different occasions in the last week.”
“BOLO out on the SUV?” Gibbs pressed.
“Yep. And…” McGee zoomed in on one of the surveillance videos. It was a close-up of the SUV from the front, close enough to make out the driver. “We have a face. Sent it to Abby, she’s running face recognition as we speak.”
Gibbs smiled. “Good job, McGee,” and he walked out to check in with Ducky and Abby.
Tony turned to McGee and pretended to be irked. It was, after all, what was expected of him.
“Nicely done, McGoo! Teacher’s pet who even dresses like the teacher! Why didn’t you tell us you were already two steps ahead?”
McGee scowled back haughtily and went to his desk. Coincidentally, both Gibbs and McGee were dressed in khaki pants and semi-formal checked shirts. Even their sports jackets were exactly the same cut and style, only Gibbs’ was brown and McGee’s was beige. Tony noticed these things – he loved how different everyone looked once they discarded the formalities of a regular work-week.
Ziva looked hot in a form-fitting black velvet sweat suit with orange-and-black sneakers. Her hair was slicked back into a tight pony. At least she didn’t show up with blood-spattered bandages on her hands and feet this time. Tony himself was dressed in a cashmere deep blue pullover with faded-to-white jeans hanging off his hips a little lower than usual. The first thing Ziva had done when they met that morning was throw him a couple of dirty winks. Tony had simply smirked, not bothering to tell her how very much like Kate she looked winking like that.
Everyone got on with their individual assignments. Tony didn’t move from his seat until his worst, okay, one of his worst nightmares walked into the squad room.
Gibbs hated it when kids were involved. He loved kids, sure, but he hated that so many were orphaned or left without loved ones and he especially hated having to be the one to explain why someone’s daddy wasn’t coming home.
Around five, the Alvarez boys showed up in the squad room, unescorted. They wanted to speak to the lead agent on their dad’s case.
Gibbs sighed and took off his glasses. “Does your mother know you’re here?” He asked, as calmly as he could. He wasn’t angry at the kids, just the men who’d done this to these kids, now more than ever before.
The older one, Leo, had his arm around his younger brother, Adrian, and he nodded too quickly, clearly lying. “We just want to know what happened, Sir."
The younger one had obviously been crying his eyes out. But the older one was the type who’d wait until he was all alone before he let it out.
Ziva was busy interrogating Sebastian Cruz, Angela Cruz’s not so ex-husband. Turned out her divorce wasn’t exactly complete, and the husband was borderline psychotic and crazy-jealous of everyone Angela had ever dated since they separated. McGee was down in Abby’s lab still chasing his digital leads. And DiNozzo had stood up and walked out the second the kids arrived. That was his MO. He hated it when kids were involved too.
“Would you like a tour?”
By the time he had assured the kids enough and sent them off with their mother, it was seven PM and dark out. He waved goodbye and headed down to the lab.
“Abs, what do you got?” He asked, fully expecting the very enthusiastic squealing of his name in return.
“Gibbs! You are, as always, right on time. I got a hit on our traffic cam mug-shot in the FBI database.” Abby hit a key to bring up the profile of their platinum blond, highly ordinary looking, suspected gunman. “Meet Vittorio Trask. Standard sized rap sheet for a gun-for-hire suspected of two murders but never convicted due to insufficient evidence. You can actually find him on craigslist.”
“Last known whereabouts?”
“Delaware, three years ago. Fell off the grid after that. No known associates.”
“How do you know there’s something else?”
Gibbs just hiked an eyebrow at her. She smiled and gracefully trotted over to another workstation. “So we’ve already established this was a professional hit. But then, how come only one of the guys policed their brass?”
Gibbs had thought about that. “To leave a message. A signature.”
“And a unique one at that.” Abby held up a finger for emphasis, then turned back to her computer and pulled up images of a bullet and the recovered cartridge casings.
“According to Ducky, this .45 ACP bullet was lodged in the right ventricle, kill-shot. The striated action marks are quite unique, in fact this is only the second time I’ve come across them. The gun this bullet was fired from has what’s called a very unconventional fast-action trigger mechanism with a delayed blowback. It’s a patented action where you hinge the hammer and it reduces trigger pressure from the standard double action 5.44 kilos to about 2.27 kilos, making it lighter and smoother than any other–”
Gibbs interrupted, latching onto the one thing he thought was important. “Patented to who?”
Abby pulled up another picture, this time of a small semi-automatic pistol. “I give you, the elusive DH45. Designed and patented by Daewoo, it’s banned for import to the US of A, but continues to be the sidearm of choice for the proud officers of the R.O.K.”
Gibbs did not need to be told. “The Republic of Korea.”
“Uh-huh. Someone went to a lot of trouble to smuggle this handgun into the country, just to make a statement.”
“Gun might not be the only thing smuggled in.” Gibbs walked out, leaving Abby to ponder his parting words.
Alvarez’s service record was starting to look a little too clean. Gibbs wondered what he could have done to merit a contract on his life from across two continents. Maybe even have an assassin flown in especially to kill him.
Ziva stood staring at the big screen waiting for Tony to get off the phone.
“I cleaned out on the civilian angle.”
“Washed out,” Tony corrected.
“Sorry. That.” Ziva muttered and turned to him. “The ex-wife had nothing to gain and she seemed suitably torn up, but not too much. The Cruz husband is clearly zonkers–”
“Whatever! But he has a watertight alibi for the time of death Ducky estimated.”
She started to pace and continued to talk with Tony still on the phone, trusting his multi-tasking multi-listening capabilities to keep up with her. “No bad blood with any neighbors, colleagues or clients, no signs of illicit behavior, no debts. He did have in his possession a diamond solitaire ring that once belonged to his wife, worth six thousand dollars. That is not enough to warrant a motive for murder, is it?”
Tony put the phone down at last and stood up. “Doubt it. I finally got a hold of his ex-CO – he’s an instructor in Annapolis now. You wanna come with me to talk to him?”
“Are we going to Annapolis now?” Ziva asked, looking at her watch.
“MTAC, Ziva!” Tony rolled his eyes and ran up the stairs.
“That makes sense,” Ziva followed.
They were patched through to Lieutenant Commander Nathan Portman, who seemed rather inconvenienced at being pulled out of whatever social engagement he had planned for a Sunday night. Tony introduced himself and Ziva, who stood back and simply observed, while Tony led the conversation and got right down to the point.
“Commander, I have some bad news. Chief Petty Officer Stefan Alvarez is dead.”
There was a brief silence. “What happened?”
The man on the monitor was clearly taken aback, but was trying his best to not let it show. At least Tony had his full attention now.
“He was murdered by unidentified gunmen who broke into his house last night and shot him. We’d like your cooperation with the murder investigation.”
“Y-yes, whatever you need.”
“Thanks Commander. Alvarez was part of your unit for almost a decade. You served in the Gulf War and in South Korea together, is that correct?”
“Yes it is.”
“But you weren’t just colleagues, you were friends too. Your wives were friends before the Alvarezes got divorced. You guys even took family vacations together.”
“Well, yeah, we were good friends. About the same age, both from Texas…”
“So it’s safe to say you two were close?”
“It was a decade ago, Agent DiNozzo. What bearing does it have on your investigation?”
“Just trying to plug some gaps, Commander. Alvarez led a good clean life after the Navy. I’m guessing there’s something about his time during, that led to his violent demise.”
“Alvarez was a good officer. I doubt you will find anything untoward in his service record.”
“See, I’m curious about that, considering his best friend was in a position to doctor his records?”
Commander Portman was expectedly displeased. “You better have a damn good reason to be making that allegation, boy.”
And now he’d done it. Ziva knew how much Tony hated being called ‘boy’ by military men who looked down their noses at civilians like Tony. The fact that Tony was dressed in faded, tattered jeans wasn’t doing him any favors either.
Tony kept his cool and held up his clipboard. “February 1998. Alvarez’s record says he applied for a week’s leave which you approved. But there is no record of Alvarez taking any commercial flight or military transporter out of South Korea in that month. Now I am not a military man, Commander, but I’d expect someone who’s been cooped up on a secluded base in Chinhae, would long to get out of the country for some R&R. A loving husband and father to two little boys, yet there’s no record of him having entered the States either. How do you explain that?”
Portman’s jaw hardened but his face remained blank otherwise. “What my men did or did not do in their free time was none of my concern.”
“But Alvarez was different, right, Commander?” Tony continued almost cheerfully. “You guys were like best buds!”
“You’re making a big assumption here, Agent DiNozzo. We were friends, sure, but –”
“So would you ask just about anyone to be your best man, then?”
Portman looked annoyed. “Look, I married my Korean girlfriend in Korea. And Stefan was the closest friend I had at the base.”
“How about godfather to your first daughter?”
Ziva smiled as the Commander was rendered speechless. Tony had obviously perused the photo albums and stack of Christmas cards in Alvarez’s closet very closely.
Portman shifted in his chair. “Stefan never told me where he went, what he did with that week off. Maybe he just wanted to get away for awhile.”
“Whatever it was must have been serious, because six weeks later, Alvarez resigned and was back in the States in March ‘98, just months before his next promotion. And it clearly soured your friendship because we couldn’t find any Christmas cards from the Portmans to the Alvarezes for that year or any other year after that.”
“Look, I’m sorry but I don’t know what you want from me.”
“Someone wanted Alvarez dead, Commander. This was a professional hit, premeditated and clean, no prints, no DNA, no eyewitnesses. We know it was planned for weeks in advance. Now the longer I look at you on this giant screen the more I’m convinced you know something, and you aren’t telling.”
The big vein in the Commander’s neck twitched a little.
Tony sighed audibly, “Come on, Commander. Do it for the kids. Leo and Adrian are sixteen and fourteen now. They came to NCIS headquarters today, on their own, looking for answers.”
Ziva shook her head amusedly. Tony’s interrogation style always befuddled her. He led with the slightly lost puppy dog-eyed amateur, morphed into an obnoxious douche bag somewhere in the middle to turn the screws, but softened the very last blow with his sympathetic ‘I don’t want to do this anymore than you do’ face. It was very effective.
Portman looked away for a second then back. “It was Friday night. Alvarez and a couple others took the ferry to Kojedo Island for a night out. It was, back then, and still is, a thriving tourist spot full of beach resorts and night clubs and such.”
Ziva stood holding her breath. She always felt the urge to turn to stone when the subject under interrogation started to sing (so to speak), wary of somehow making him or her retreat to silence. Tony, from what she could see from the corner of her eye, was standing just as still.
“As I heard it later,” the Commander shifted in his seat. “Alvarez got into an altercation with a Korean gentleman, over a lady.”
So much for a loving husband.
“An hour later, the guy cornered Stefan when he was alone and pulled out a gun. There was a struggle, the gun went off; the Korean took a bullet in the heart and died. Stefan fled the scene, came back and told me what’d happened and I shared it with the base commander. We were worried it’d turn into an international crisis with severe implications to the base. We were taking constant fire already for still existing in South Korea. So we kept it quiet, didn’t do anything.”
Portman lowered his head for awhile, and Tony politely urged him to go on.
“The dead guy was on the news the next day. Cops claimed they had a couple of eyewitnesses to the very public altercation. Fortunately for Stefan, he was dressed in civvies, it was dark and dimly lit inside the club and the place was thronging with white people so he didn’t exactly stand out. The sketch they had for him was far from accurate but might have been enough to get him into a line-up.”
“So that’s when you fudged his leave dates, and instructed Alvarez to not leave his quarters or show his face in the city during that time?”
“Something like that.”
“And he was never suspected?”
Portman shook his head. “The US navy base enjoyed a few privileges that I think in this case kept us off the cops’ radars. But we couldn’t take any chances. Base commander ordered Stefan to apply for early retirement and get out of there ASAP. After that he and I, we couldn’t look each other in the eye. I felt like he’d betrayed my trust and his wife’s too, she was a good friend. But Stefan maintained he did nothing wrong, and believed I didn’t do enough to help save his career.”
Tony gave the Commander a moment, who looked clearly disturbed and at the same time, a little relieved to finally have this off his chest.
“What can you tell us about the man who was killed?”
“Next to nothing. The papers claimed he was a small-time thug originally from Busan. I don’t think anyone paid too much attention to his death, even the cops.”
Tony and Ziva looked at each other. It wasn’t much, but it was the closest thing they’d found to a motive.
“Thanks for your time, Commander.”
After they signed out, she turned to Tony, “This could still be nothing, you know.”
“Maybe, but my gut’s telling me we’re on the right track here.”
That was good enough for Ziva, “So now what?”
Tony pulled off his communication headset and handed it back to the MTAC technician, “Now we find someone who knows someone on the South Korean police force.”
“KNPA,” Ziva corrected, “Korean National Police Agency.”
“Whatever, I don’t care what they’re called so long as they have a damn good filing archive!” He grinned excitedly and ran up the stairs towards the exit. Ziva shook her head fondly at her partner so rampantly abuzz with energy.
“He gets like that when he knows he’s had a breakthrough,” someone remarked, coming up on her other side, emerging from the shadows.
“Gibbs! How long have you been standing there?”
“Long enough. How did you two find out so quickly about the gun?”
Ziva blinked in confusion. “What gun?”
Gibbs squinted in thought for a second, and then smiled. Ziva saw pride on his face but she wasn’t entirely sure what it was for.
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