Damage: 1. Deception Part One


Damage: n.1. Injury or harm impairing the function or condition of a person or thing.

“DiNozzo, David, McGee – with me,” Gibbs barked, on his way to the elevator. He heard the familiar sound of his team scrabbling to grab their gear and then felt Tony breathing down his neck as he caught up with him.

“So what we got, Boss? Dead body? Terrorist threat? Break-in at a top-secret Naval installation?” Tony asked eagerly as the elevator door opened in front of them. Gibbs rolled his eyes as he stepped inside. It had been a slow few weeks, and he knew all his people were itching to get their teeth into a case, DiNozzo more than most.

“What’s the matter, DiNozzo? McGee’s new housekeeping gizmo not interesting enough for you?” he asked, as Ziva jogged into the elevator, and McGee brought up the rear.

“If I hear the words ‘document imaging’ and ‘paperless office’ one more time, then the probie is likely to suffer an unfortunate accident,” Tony said, smiling at McGee threateningly.

“It’s the future, Tony, but then I wouldn’t expect you to appreciate the benefits of a paperless working space,” McGee replied. “Besides cutting down on physical filing – something I’d have thought you would appreciate knowing your aversion to it – it also saves millions of trees from unnecessary destruction.” His eyes glowed with a kind of messianic glee as he spoke.

“Interesting,” Tony mused. “I hear the words, but it’s just meaningless mumbo jumbo. Tell me, McGeek, how are you ever gonna get laid if this is the kind of stuff that gets you excited?”

“Please tell us that we have something to investigate,” Ziva asked Gibbs in a tone of despair. “I do not know how much more of this bickering I can take.”

Gibbs thought she had a point. A bored Tony was a trial to them all, and even banishing him to the cold case storage filing room for two days hadn’t helped him cool his heels any – in fact, when he’d returned he’d been even more full of pent-up energy than usual. Gibbs had resorted to scheduling extra hand-to-hand combat classes for the entire team just to wear Tony out a little and make him bearable to have around.

“We have something to investigate,” Gibbs confirmed as the elevator door pinged open at the parking garage.

“Thank God,” McGee said, with a glare in Tony’s direction. “What is it, Boss?”

“We have a case of a stolen laptop and a camera,” Gibbs replied. He strode out of the elevator and then stopped, and turned. His team were still standing in the elevator, staring at him, unmoving.

“A stolen laptop and a camera?” Tony asked, in a tone of barely disguised disgust.

“That’s right.” Gibbs nodded. “Belonging to an Admiral Matthew Parrish. There was a break-in at his house in the early hours of the morning, and those items were reported stolen. So we are going to investigate.”

“We’re going to investigate a minor burglary?” Tony sighed. “No dead bodies?”

“Only yours if you don’t move it, DiNozzo,” Gibbs threw back over his shoulder as he turned and strode towards the van.


They were met by the admiral’s housekeeper, a plump lady in her mid-fifties.

“I am so glad you’re here. I wasn’t sure if I did the right thing phoning NCIS, but the admiral is at sea until this afternoon, and I couldn’t contact him, and I was so worried in case the laptop had top secret information on it,” she said, as she ushered them into the hallway. “You can’t be too careful these days. You read these stories about terrorists getting hold of information, and I couldn’t sleep last night for worrying that if it got into the wrong hands, and if I hadn’t called anyone, then it could all be my fault and people might die,” she said.

Gibbs saw Tony and Ziva exchange a glance. The housekeeper clearly meant well but had jumped ahead of herself a little. All the same, she had a point, and he wouldn’t be doing his job properly if he didn’t establish exactly what was on the laptop and whether it contained any sensitive material.

“You did the right thing,” he placated her, and she sighed.

“I don’t know. I wasn’t sure. I don’t want to get Justin into trouble, but the admiral is out of contact and…” She shook her head.

“Justin? I thought the admiral’s name was *Matthew* Parrish?” Ziva frowned.

“Oh it is, dear,” the housekeeper said. “That’s the admiral’s name. Matthew Parrish.”

“So who is this Justin then?” Ziva asked.

The housekeeper gave another sad sigh. “Oh dear. I feel just terrible about this…you see, Justin is the person who stole the laptop and camera.”

Gibbs gazed at his team, and they gazed back at him blankly.

“So – let me get this straight – you’re saying that not only were only two items taken, but you know exactly who took them?” Tony asked. “Not a lot of investigating required around here then, Boss!” he added in a cheerfully sarcastic tone of voice.

Gibbs ignored him. “Could you tell us exactly who Justin is, and why you think he stole the items?”

“Justin Merrells,” she said, as if that explained everything. “And I know it was him because I saw him.”

“You saw him?” Gibbs asked impatiently. He was beginning to sympathise with Tony’s view of this case.

“Yes, dear. I live in you see – the admiral is often away and someone has to be here to take care of the place. I’d fallen asleep in front of the television and…”

“Time?” Gibbs asked tersely.

“Around 1.30 a.m. I’d fallen asleep, as I said, and then I heard a noise – like breaking glass – and I don’t mind saying I was scared. I tiptoed out here and saw Justin coming out of the admiral’s study with the laptop and camera – he was pushing them into a bag as he ran away, and he didn’t see me. There’s a small bathroom window in here which must be where he got in and out…”

She opened a door along the hallway, and Gibbs surveyed the broken glass scattered around the toilet. It was a small window but just about big enough for someone to climb through.

“I tried to contact the admiral but he’s away overseeing a war exercise at the moment and is on radio silence, so I spent the rest of the night worrying about what to do. Justin is a dear boy, but he’s very mixed up, and while I don’t think he’s involved with any terrorists I didn’t want to take the chance and…”

“Exactly who is this Justin person?” Gibbs interrupted. “And where can we find him?”


“Justin Merrells,” McGee said, pulling up a screen on his laptop as Gibbs drove. “Age 18, son of Melissa and Tom Merrells.”

“His father used to be Parrish’s XO,” Tony said, peering over McGee’s shoulder.

“That’s right – they served together for years until Lieutenant-Commander Merrells was killed on active duty four years ago,” McGee said. “Justin was fourteen at the time.”

“He also went off the rails if this is anything to go by.” Tony pointed at the screen. “Two convictions for shoplifting, one DUI, a couple of minor drug busts.”

“All dating from after his father died?” Gibbs asked, his jaw tightening. This whole thing sounded like a kid crying out for help more than anything else. He’d seen it happen before in military families, and it was something that always touched him on a personal level. He understood the pressures of military life and how easily families could fall apart when a parent was killed in combat.

“Yes.” McGee nodded. “It’s like he went to pieces after his dad died.”

“And from what the housekeeper said, it seems as if the admiral stepped in and took his dead friend’s son under his wing,” Tony added. “Tried to straighten him out.”

“So if the admiral was so good to him, why did Justin break into his house and steal from him?” Ziva asked, with a frown.

“He’s a kid,” Tony shrugged. “A mixed-up kid. Kids do stuff like that – they don’t need a reason.”

“Yes, they do,” McGee objected, glancing at Tony over his shoulder.

“I mean a reason beyond the fact that his dad died, and he’s a teenager – probably just a case of rampaging hormones combined with grief,” Tony said.

“We’ll see,” Gibbs said, bringing the van to a screeching halt outside the Merrells family home. Privately, he thought Tony probably had it about right, but something about this whole case felt off to him, and he wasn’t sure what it was.

Gibbs knocked on the door, and a few seconds later a tall, skinny, blond kid opened it and blinked at them.

“Yeah?” he muttered.

“Agent Gibbs – NCIS. You Justin Merrells?”

The kid blinked at him again. “Yeah,” he shrugged. “So?”

“We have a report of a burglary at Admiral Parrish’s house last night,” Gibbs said. “You know anything about that, Justin?”

The youth stared at him for a second, and then, without warning, he suddenly took off. He ran back into the house, grabbed something from the table, and exited out of the back door. Gibbs sighed. Tony and Ziva took off after the youth, and Gibbs followed on behind at a more leisurely pace. It looked as if Tony was right – this was just a simple burglary committed by a sullen, mixed-up teenager.

Justin almost made it to the back fence before Tony caught up with him and leapt on him, bringing him crashing down. The boy lay face down in the grass, panting, as Tony pulled his arms behind him and fastened handcuffs around his wrists.

“Justin Merrells, you’re, you know, under arrest,” Tony said, in a bored tone of voice that suggested he was just going through the motions.

“The laptop is here,” Ziva said, picking up the computer which Justin had dropped when Tony had tackled him to the ground. “It seems unharmed.”

“Where’s the camera?” Tony asked, standing up and dragging Justin to his feet.

“Here,” McGee said, following them out of the house, holding up a digital camera. “It was just lying on the table, Boss.”

“You know, Justin, you must be about the worst burglar I’ve ever had to arrest,” Tony told the kid. “Couldn’t you have at least *tried* to make this interesting?”

Gibbs looked at the youth, taking in the ripped, paint-stained jeans, and baggy, faded blue tee shirt. He looked scruffy and neglected, but young people these days seemed to cultivate that look, so Gibbs wasn’t reading anything into it. Justin stared up at him from under a thick wad of blond hair, and Gibbs looked straight at him, surprised. He’d expected to see defiance in the kid’s blue eyes, but instead he saw something closer to fear. Justin looked like a scared animal caught in a trap.

“Justin – did you break into Admiral Parrish’s house last night and steal his laptop and camera?” Gibbs asked quietly. The youth bit on his lip.

“Yeah,” he muttered.

“Why?” Gibbs asked. Justin shrugged.

“I dunno,” he whispered, his teenage bravado faltering under Gibbs’s hard stare. He dropped his gaze to the ground.

“Uh-uh – wrong answer,” Tony said, shaking the youth slightly as he shoved him towards the van. He pushed Justin into the vehicle and then took his seat behind Gibbs. “Ten bucks says you break him within two minutes, Boss,” he murmured in Gibbs’s ear. Then he turned and glanced at the youth who was staring sightlessly out of the window, his blue eyes empty and weary, all the fight gone out of him. “He’s hardly a hardened criminal.”

Gibbs gazed at the kid, feeling troubled. Justin looked younger than his eighteen years, and there was something strangely vulnerable about him that Gibbs couldn’t put his finger on. Tony was right though – he definitely wasn’t a hardened criminal. Gibbs couldn’t help feeling sympathy for him; he was just a kid who’d lost his dad – and his way.


Justin sat across from Gibbs in the interrogation room, arms resting on the table, looking down, that thick curtain of blond hair covering his eyes. So far he’d refused to say a word. He just sat there, staring at his own hands.

“So…” Tony said, flicking through the file McGee had provided for them. “You’re going to college next month, Justin. Did you think you’d steal a few things to take with you? Is that it? You took a look around the admiral’s house last time you were there, saw he had a high end laptop and a classy new digital camera, and you decided you wanted them?” His tone was forceful, and Gibbs noticed Justin’s shoulders hunch tightly as he shrugged in response.

Gibbs put his head on one side and gazed at the kid thoughtfully. He’d told Tony to play ‘bad cop’. His senior field agent could be pretty hard-edged when he put his mind to it, and Gibbs wanted to play ‘good cop’ himself in this particular interrogation – not least because he felt some sympathy for this kid sitting opposite him. He hoped that between the two of them they could drag the truth out of Justin as quickly as possible.

“What are you going to study at college, Justin?” he asked quietly. Justin glanced up at him, and Gibbs could see him responding to his softer tone of voice.

“Art,” Justin whispered. It was the first thing they’d managed to get out of him since they’d brought him in. Gibbs shot Tony a fleeting glance and knew Tony had got the message to keep going in hard.

“Not any more,” Tony said flatly. “You committed a burglary last night, Justin. You broke a window, forced your way into someone’s house, and you stole property that didn’t belong to you. You’ll be looking at a jail term for that.”

Justin’s shoulders hunched even more, and he glanced up at Gibbs from helpless eyes.

“Why did you do it, Justin?” Gibbs asked gently. “I thought the admiral had been good to you.”

Justin’s eyes flashed. “He was. He is,” he whispered.

“After your father died, he looked out for you, didn’t he?” Tony said forcefully. “When you got arrested for shoplifting, it was Admiral Parrish who came and picked you up. He spoke up for you.”

“Yes.” Justin bit on his lip.

“According to the admiral’s housekeeper, you regularly visited his house. He took you to see ball games and to the movies. He even bought you materials for your art classes,” Tony said.

Justin nodded. “Yes,” he said again, almost inaudibly.

“And you repay him by breaking into his house and stealing his stuff?” Tony snapped the file shut with his hand and threw it onto the table. “You’re a piece of work, Justin,” he said, in a disgusted tone of voice, placing one hand on the back of Justin’s chair and leaning over him. Tony was a big guy, and Justin was a skinny kid, so the movement, although slow and controlled, was inevitably intimidating.

“Why the laptop, Justin?” Gibbs asked softly. “Did you think the admiral had important Naval material on it? Were you going to sell it to buy drugs?”

“No!” Justin said in such an outraged tone that Gibbs was sure he was telling the truth. “I was going to put it back,” he added pathetically.

“Oh, so you broke into the admiral’s house, stole his stuff, and then ran off when we tried to question you – and now you say that you intended to put it back?” Tony demanded, still looming over Justin threateningly. “I don’t believe a word of that crap, Justin.”

“I was.”

“So why steal the laptop in the first place?” Gibbs asked, in a curious, encouraging tone of voice.

“There was something on it that belonged to me,” Justin muttered.

Gibbs frowned. “What do you mean, Justin?”

Justin shook his head, biting on his lip. “I was just going to delete it, and then I was going to give it back.”

“What do you mean ‘belonged’ to you?” Gibbs asked, in that same quiet tone of voice. “What did the admiral have that you felt was yours?”

“Nothing. It doesn’t matter,” Justin said sullenly. He crossed his arms over his chest and glared at Gibbs through his hair.

“What about the camera – did you steal the laptop and then think you might as well take the camera too as you’d gone to all that effort to break in?” Tony demanded.

“Does my mom need to know I’m here?” Justin asked, ignoring Tony’s question. “I don’t want my mom to know about this.”

“You should have thought of that before you committed a burglary,” Tony snapped.

“You’re over eighteen, Justin, so we won’t be calling your mom. I suggest you call her though,” Gibbs said. “Because you won’t be able to keep this quiet. Agent DiNozzo is right, Justin. You’ll be going to jail for this.”

Justin gazed at him from helpless blue eyes, and Gibbs had that sensation again of a trapped animal. There was such a sense of empty resignation in the kid’s expression.

“Does the admiral know I’m here?” Justin whispered. “I don’t think he’d want me to go to jail.”

“After you broke into his house and stole from him?” Tony asked, in an incredulous tone. “This isn’t the same as the shoplifting, Justin. This is much more serious.”

Justin wrapped his arms around his body and gazed at Gibbs.

“Talk to the admiral for me, Agent Gibbs. Please,” he asked, in a desperate tone of voice.

Gibbs sat back in his chair and looked at the boy for a long while. Then, finally, he nodded.

“Okay, Justin. I’ll talk to him. I’m sure you know that he’s at sea at the moment, but I’ll talk to him just as soon as I can reach him.”

Gibbs got up, and, with another puzzled glance at Justin, he left the room, with Tony on his heels.

“I thought he’d be easier to break than that, Boss,” Tony said. Gibbs didn’t reply. “What do you think?” Tony asked persistently as they returned to the squad room.

“I think we should find out what’s on the laptop.” Gibbs picked up the stolen laptop lying on his desk and handed it to McGee. “Check it out,” he ordered tersely.

“Uh…what am I looking for, Boss?” McGee asked as he opened up the laptop.

“I don’t know, McGee – that’s why I asked you to check it out,” Gibbs replied irritably. “And the camera.” He grabbed that and handed it to McGee, who took it with the usual look of wide-eyed alarm that he got whenever Gibbs growled at him.

“Tony – get me the admiral on the phone,” Gibbs ordered, turning back to his desk.

“He’s still overseeing that war game exercise, Boss,” Tony reminded him. “They’re maintaining radio silence at the moment.”

“I know that, DiNozzo. Get him on the phone as soon as the damn exercise is over!” Gibbs snapped. “McGee – what is it?”

McGee was holding the camera in his hand with a blank expression on his face. “Oh…uh, it’s the camera, Boss. There’s nothing on it.”

Gibbs glared at him.

“There’s nothing on the memory card or the camera’s own memory. It’s completely clean,” McGee said with a shrug.

“Wiped?” Gibbs asked.

“Or never used in the first place,” McGee replied. “It’s pretty new.”

“And the laptop?” Gibbs demanded.

“I’ve only just booted it up, Boss,” McGee said hurriedly, his fingers zipping over the keyboard in their usual blur of motion. “But at first glance there doesn’t seem to be anything on it. Just the usual stuff; office programmes, couple of spreadsheets, word documents – they look like letters…” He brought them up onscreen and then shrugged. “Nothing hinky, Boss; just, you know, stuff. Like everyone has on their computers.” He glanced up and caught Gibbs’s raised eyebrow. “Well, most people. I mean those people who, uh, have computers…which isn’t everyone, or even most people, and there’s nothing wrong with not having one…”

“McGee!” Gibbs snapped. “Just take a good look at the damn thing.”

“On it, Boss!” McGee nodded promptly.

“Boss – I’ve got the admiral for you,” Tony interrupted. “They’ve just come out of radio silence – but only for a few minutes, so you don’t have long.”

Gibbs grabbed his phone and put it on speaker so he wouldn’t have to repeat the conversation to his team afterwards. “Admiral Parrish? I’m Agent Gibbs.”

“Agent Gibbs – hell, I’m sorry about all this,” a firm, intelligent voice said, in clipped, precise tones. Gibbs knew from their files that the admiral was in his early sixties and a well-respected officer, as his high rank implied. “Agent DiNozzo just filled me in. Look, this isn’t anything for NCIS to get involved in – you guys have your hands full doing important work. I don’t want you wasting your time on a couple of items stolen from my house.”

“We need to check if there’s anything sensitive on the laptop, Sir,” Gibbs said. “Any Naval material?”

“Hell no!” the admiral laughed. “That laptop is just for my own personal use, Gibbs – I use it to write my many letters of complaint to the various newspapers that have pissed me off with their inaccurate and biased reporting!” He chuckled, a deep, bass sound. “Look, I understand that Justin’s behind this. Did he say why he stole it?”

Gibbs hesitated. “No,” he said finally.

“He say anything at all?” the admiral asked.

“Not really. He’s been pretty quiet.”

There was a pause, and then the admiral gave a deep, heartfelt sigh. “Agent Gibbs, go easy on that boy. He’s had a rough time of it.”

“Yeah – I can see that.”

“His father was a fine man – and a good friend. I’ve tried my best to look out for Justin since his death, but the kid took it hard. His mom had a breakdown after Tom died, and Justin doesn’t have any other family. I’ve done what I can for the boy, Agent Gibbs. He’s not a bad kid – he’s just going through a bad time, that’s all.”

“That’s what I thought,” Gibbs agreed. “Will you be pressing charges, Admiral?”

“Absolutely not!” the admiral replied. “That kid’s been through enough. Look, just let him go, Agent Gibbs. I finish up here in an hour or so. I’ll be home late this afternoon, and I’ll drop by and see him. We’ll talk it through. I expect he just wants some attention. I’ve been busy lately and haven’t seen him as much as I used to. I’m sure that’s what all this is about.”

“Okay, Admiral.”

“And if you could return the stuff he stole, I’d appreciate it!” the admiral laughed. “That camera cost me a fortune!”

“I’ll return them myself,” Gibbs said, and then he hung up the phone. That all made total sense, and it was all exactly as he’d suspected. Why then, did his gut still feel so uneasy about this case?

“McGee – you find anything?” he asked. McGee looked up.

“I’m not sure,” he frowned. “There seem to be some encrypted files that I can’t access. It’s good encryption too…I mean, really good, because usually I can get around most encryptions pretty easily, but this one is…well, it’s not just layman level, Boss. It’s much more professional than that.”

“Should we keep looking?” Tony asked. “I mean, this is the admiral’s personal property and if he isn’t pressing charges…”

Gibbs thought about it for a moment. Technically Tony was right, but some instinct made him reluctant to give up on this just yet. Everything the admiral had said and everything they knew about Justin suggested that this had just been an attention-seeking cry for help by a lonely, mixed up boy who missed his father. The one thing that didn’t tie in was Justin saying there was something on the laptop that belonged to him. The boy could have been lying, but it was the one thing that didn’t fit.

“Keep looking, McGee,” Gibbs ordered. “You’ve got an hour. I’m going to speak to Justin, and if you haven’t cracked those files by the time I’ve done the paperwork and released him then I’ll take the laptop back to the admiral’s house myself and draw a line under the case.”

He strode off back in the direction of the interrogation room, Tony on his heels as usual.


McGee picked up the laptop and took it down to Abby’s lab.

“Hey, McGee! You bored? I am!” Abby gave a heartfelt sigh. “It’s not like I want anyone to be murdered or anything, but it’s a lot more fun around here when there are dead bodies. That’s all I’m saying!”

“I think Tony would agree with you,” McGee grinned. “He’s been driving us all crazy. At least now there’s this kid – Justin – to question but no dead bodies. Sorry, Abby.”

“What’s that?” Abby nodded in the direction of the laptop.

“Oh – it’s the laptop Justin stole. Gibbs is making me look through it, just in case. Actually I think he’s as bored as Tony, and just trying to find something to do,” McGee grinned, sitting down at Abby’s desk and opening up the laptop. “I just brought it down because there’s some weird encryption code – I wondered if you’d seen anything like it.”

He pointed at the screen, and Abby glanced at it over his shoulder. “Wow…that’s really sophisticated. Does the laptop have any top secret info on it?”

“Nope.” McGee shook his head. “Not according to the admiral anyway.”

“Hmmm…something smells hinky!” she said, her eyes lighting up at the thought.

McGee grinned at her and settled down to see if he could crack the encryption codes before Gibbs got back.


Justin looked up when Gibbs entered the room, his blue eyes hopeful.

“Did you speak to Uncle Matthew?” he asked. “Uh…I mean Admiral Parrish.”

“Yup.” Gibbs nodded, taking his seat across the table from the boy. Tony went to lean against the far wall. “He isn’t pressing charges,” Gibbs said. The boy’s eyes flashed with relief. “What’s on the laptop, Justin?” Gibbs asked. The boy shrugged evasively.

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Did you even find what was on it? Did you find what you were looking for?” Gibbs pressed. “You any good with computers, Justin? I’m not. Hell, I don’t understand the first thing about them. And you’re an artist, not a computer geek, so I figure they’re not your thing, either.”

Justin glanced up at him through that curtain of blond hair. “If he’s not pressing charges, can I go home?” he asked quietly. “Only…my mom will be home soon and she’ll be worried about me. She gets worried really easily,” he added, working away at his chapped bottom lip with his teeth, making it bleed slightly.

“I hear she had a breakdown after your dad died,” Gibbs said quietly. “That must have been tough.”

“It was. She couldn’t leave the house. She cried a lot.” Justin shrugged.

“The admiral said he hadn’t spent as much time with you lately as he used to,” Gibbs said. “Is that why you broke into his house? Were you trying to get his attention?”

Justin’s eyes flashed. “No! I just…it doesn’t matter. I’m going to college next month, and then…I’ll be gone then,” he finished up lamely. “Can I go home now, Agent Gibbs?”

“Not yet. I have some paperwork to finish up – then you can go home,” Gibbs said, with a sigh. He sat back in his chair and gazed at the kid thoughtfully, wondering if there was any other way he could get him to talk.


McGee liked working in Abby’s lab. By preference he chose to work in silence but there was something soothing about the crash and boom of the loud music she liked. It sort of helped him zone out and allowed his brain to worry away at a problem while he worked.

Abby looked over his shoulder every so often, offering suggestions. Her ideas were always good, so he followed them up, adding them to his own, fingers working ceaselessly. Just when he thought he’d have to admit defeat the first layer of encryption fell away, leaving him with one accessible file. He clicked on it, and then instantly wished he hadn’t.

“Oh shit,” he said.

“What?” Abby came over and looked at his screen. Her hands came to rest on his shoulders, her fingers digging in a little too hard, making him wince. “Oh shit,” she echoed. “Gibbs isn’t going to like this,” she added grimly. He glanced up to see that her eyes were wide and sad. “You know how he gets about stuff like this. He’s really not going to like it.”

“Yeah. I know.” McGee took a deep breath and then reached for his cell phone. “He’s going to go ballistic – I just hope he doesn’t shoot the messenger.”

“He won’t,” Abby said, still gazing sadly at the screen. “But he’ll definitely want to shoot someone.”

“Uh…Boss, I’ve found something,” McGee said into his cell as soon as Gibbs picked up. He knew his boss hated being interrupted when he was in interrogation, but he figured he’d be forgiven on this occasion.

“Well – what is it, McGee?” Gibbs demanded irritably.

“Um…I’d prefer not to tell you over the phone. You really need to come down here and see it,” McGee told him.


Gibbs strode into Abby’s lab a few minutes later, feeling annoyed by the whole cloak and dagger approach McGee was taking. He’d left Ziva upstairs watching over Justin and brought Tony with him.

“What?” he asked tersely as he reached Abby’s central workstation.

“I managed to crack one of the encryption keys,” McGee said. “Only one – there are dozens of others, each of them different. If the others are anything like this one, then they’ve been encrypted to protect just one file each, which is a lot of effort to go to. Although having seen the contents of the file I can see why someone would make that effort. I just clicked on the top file, so I’m presuming it’s the most recent, but I won’t know without cracking the other files. I thought you should see this one before I go any further though, because I’m not sure how long it’ll take to…”

“You said you’d found something?” Gibbs interrupted, knowing that McGee’s explanations could go on interminably otherwise – and they were always especially long and convoluted when he was nervous, which he clearly was right now.

“Yeah – spit it out, McGeek,” Tony said, peering over McGee’s shoulder. “What have you found?”

“This.” McGee clicked on a file and brought up a screen full of photographs. Gibbs felt his gut clench in response. In the first photo, Justin’s vacant eyes peered out at them from behind that block of blond hair; he was completely naked, and the torso of a man was visible behind him.

“Several of the photos are clearly from the same photo session,” McGee said hurriedly. “But…and this is where I think you’re not going to be happy, Boss, um, well even less happy than you are right now…but there are hundreds of photos, all of Justin, all of him in uh…this kind of position, and some of them go back years.”

“Years?” Gibbs frowned. “How many years, McGee?”

“I can’t tell for sure…but…look at this one.”

McGee clicked on a photograph, and Gibbs found himself looking at a Justin with much shorter hair, sticking up in spiky points. He looked much younger in this photograph, his face devoid of any facial hair.

“I think…he’s probably about fourteen in this one,” McGee said quietly. “The date stamp on the photograph supports that, but it might not be accurate.”

Gibbs felt an old, familiar wave of anger rise up inside. Cases involving children always got to him – always had. “Can you ID the man in the photographs, McGee?”

“No.” McGee shook his head. “There are no facial shots. Also…” he hesitated. “I’m not sure it’s the same man in all the shots, Boss. This man here – his skin seems to be considerably lighter,” he pointed out, bringing up one of the pictures. “Also – this one has more chest hair, and this one…well…uh…he’s less well-endowed,” he muttered, his face flushing bright red. “The rooms are different as well – I think these photos were taken in several different sessions, over several years, each time with different men.”

“Christ, that’s sick,” Gibbs hissed. He forced himself to survey the photographs with an objective eye, but it was hard. Justin didn’t look as if he was in any pain, or as if he was struggling – there was just a sense of weary, numb acceptance about him that somehow was just as poignant as if he’d shown any more visible signs of distress.

“Pedophile ring,” Tony said, with a dismissive shrug. “Someone groomed Justin, and I think we’ve all got a pretty good idea who that must have been, and then he got passed around to the other men in the ring. Photos were taken to be shared and passed on too – just within the ring. If the admiral is anything to go by, the men in this ring are all intelligent professionals – they don’t take any more risks than they have to, so they keep the ring closed and only admit new members if they’re really sure about them. New recruits to the ring gain entry by bringing a child along for the others to use for sex.”

McGee and Abby stared at Tony, and Gibbs glanced at him, one eyebrow raised. Tony gazed back at the three of them, looking completely unconcerned.

“What? I worked vice in Baltimore. That’s how these things work,” he said, with a grin.

“You just sound so matter of fact about it, Tony,” Abby said. “I mean, that poor kid. First his dad dies, then his mom has a breakdown, and then the one person who befriends him turns out to be a total pervert.”

Tony shrugged again. “So the kid’s had some tough breaks – so what? I’m just saying I’ve seen this kind of stuff before, and this is how it works.” He looked totally unfazed by it. “What?” he said again, when Gibbs, Abby and McGee all gazed at him. “Look, you guys have all seen more dead bodies than I bet you can even remember. Don’t tell me you still get affected by each new one that shows up. I’m just saying – maybe this kind of stuff loses its ability to shock after awhile.”

“I hope stuff like this never loses its ability to shock me,” Abby murmured. “Just what kind of cases did you work in Baltimore anyway, Tony?”

Tony grinned. “You don’t wanna know,” he told her with a lascivious wink.

Gibbs frowned. Tony’s reaction was very Tony – in fact it was almost stereotypically Tony – but somehow that made it all the more surprising. Tony was nosy, attention-seeking, and at times highly annoying, but over the years Gibbs had always found him to be the most empathetic of his agents. Maybe he was right, and the things he’d seen during the course of his job had dulled his reaction to them. If so, he was the only one who felt that way, judging by the expressions on the faces of the other people in the room when they looked at those photos.

“Look, there’s a kid upstairs who has probably been sexually abused since he was fourteen years old. I want to catch the bastard who did that, and I want to catch every single last bastard in that ring who touched him – or any other kid – and nobody leaves this building until we’ve figured out how to do that. Understood?” Gibbs thundered.

“Yes, Boss,” they all replied in unison.

“McGee – get those other files open. I want to know if Justin is the only kid who has been abused, or whether DiNozzo is right, and we’ve stumbled across a ring of pedophiles.”

“On it, Boss!” McGee said, turning back to his screen.

“Abby – print out three of those photos for me,” Gibbs ordered.

“Which three?”

“Oh for God’s sake, Abby – I don’t care. They’re all equally sickening. Just do it!”

She looked at him with wide eyes but scuttled to obey all the same and a few seconds later handed him the pictures.

“DiNozzo – you’re with me.” Gibbs turned, photos in his hand, and strode out of Abby’s lab.

“Now what, Boss?” Tony asked quietly as they got into the elevator.

“Now we go back and speak to Justin again,” Gibbs replied tersely. “And this time he’s a witness – and a victim – and not a suspect, Tony, so we go easy on him.”







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