Tony stared at the small, broken body on Ducky's morgue table. Katie Cohen had, until yesterday, been a shy, bookish girl with a handful of friends and a two year old puppy named "Bosco." Yesterday, someone had laid her open with a fillet knife and left her underneath the crab-apple tree in the park nearby. There were still bits of apple on her body from the half-eaten apples the squirrels had thrown down.
Gibbs had taken one look at the body and stopped talking except to bark out orders. Ziva seemed fine, but she was too still. Tony recognized the killer in her. It made him want to give her a hug, but he was sure he'd get slapped for it. McGee had looked faintly green. Gibbs had sent him to the lab with Abby.
Gibbs and Tony were in autopsy waiting for Ducky's assessments. Tony felt the coldness in his chest. He felt the numbness creep into his features. Sometimes, he just couldn't keep the mask up. Seeing dead children was one of the reasons he was getting ready to leave Homicide when Gibbs snapped him up. He was going to work Missing Persons in Atlanta or at least that's what he had been planning on. He liked having a variety of crimes to work. It was one of the reasons he stayed at NCIS.
"Ducky?" Gibbs voice was soft. The doctor looked up sadly.
"She was awake and aware, Jethro. She went into shock and died while the killer was taking his time with her. The first cut was to her vagina, then up the front until the knife caught on the bottom of her ribs. I sent the cloth that was in her mouth up to Abby for analysis. It was a pair of men's briefs. The duct tape that held it in is also in her lab awaiting printing."
"You said the first cut. How many cuts were there?"
"The main cut opened her from here to here. The second cut ran across her nipples. Our killer then literally filleted the muscle from the bone as if he were cutting a chicken breast. The last cut was here across her hips. Then, her ovaries were removed. They weren't at the scene?"
"No," Tony confirmed.
"They aren't here."
Tony closed his eyes. It didn't help. "I'll help Ziva with the backgrounds." Katie had been found on base in Quantico. She was the daughter of a young Marine who was currently in Iraq. She had been snatched from her front yard two days prior to her body being found.
"Wait. How long was she there, Duck?"
"At least thirty-six hours."
"Go back to base. I want tapes and records."
"On it, boss."
"DiNozzo, do not go back to the scene alone."
"Right, boss," he said more quietly. "When we catch this son-of-a-bitch, I vote we let Ducky measure his liver."
Gibbs answering chuckle was dark. "I was thinking general population."
Tony looked over his shoulder with a cruel smile. "Only if we get to watch." Then, he left.
"Gibbs," Abby said quietly, "take Tony out tonight." Her make-up was scrubbed off and her pig-tails were raveling. She looked more tired than he'd ever seen her.
The grey-haired man frowned at her. "This is hardly the time. There's a dead kid up there. Someone needs justice for their daughter. No one's going anywhere tonight."
"He's shutting down," she hissed. "Like he did that first year. You can't let it happen again." She poked him in the chest.
Gibbs' frown softened. He chucked the lab tech under her chin. "He won't accept it until we catch this asshole. I'll take care of him."
"Because if you don't. . . He's my best friend, Gibbs. I can't lose another one of those."
Gibbs let her hug him, patting the back of her neck. "You won't lose Tony. Even if he walks away from the job, he won't walk away from you."
She pulled back, to look up at him. "If he walks away from us, he won't be staying here. He'll disappear. He knows how to do it."
"Abs, trust me."
Gibbs left her in her lab. He waited in the hall until her music kicked on. One crisis handled.
McGee looked green around the gills. Tony didn't smirk at the sight. "You need some club soda or something?" he asked. He put a gentle hand on McGee's shoulder.
"How do you handle it?" the younger agent asked. "I thought the acid bodies were the worst thing I'd see. But every time I close my eyes. . ."
"I know." Tony squeezed. They were standing at the scene looking up at the crab-apple tree. There was still a stain of blood on the grass. There were too many flowers and teddy bears surrounding the tree to make any evidence they picked up worth anything. But Tony had to come back. He had to see. Had to find the fucker if he returned to the scene. "My partner, Sarah, back in Philly, she taught me a lot of things. Taught me how not to get lost when I went undercover. Taught me how to distance myself from the things I had to do when I was undercover. She told me to close my eyes and see the thing that was keeping me up at night. To really see it. Then to slowly leach the color out of it until it was black and white. Then, move the picture away from you like a piece of paper until it's nothing more than a speck."
"Does it work?"
"Sometimes better than others, but it never hurts."
"When was the last time you needed to do it?"
Tony searched McGee's face. He was really asking, is that how you're dealing with this. "When I was standing on the roof at NCIS and thought I was going to lose all of you at once." He took a breath, then released it. "We're family, McGee. Dysfunctional and screwed-up, but uniquely screwed up like any family. You're not alone. If you need it, I have a couch. If you really need it, so does Gibbs."
"I heard he had a guest room." There was a weak smile with that.
"Nah, if you're on the couch, the guest room is mine, Probie." Tony grinned at him. "If you need his couch, the pipes in my building are going to bust."
McGee really smiled at that. "Abby keeps saying you should just move in with her."
Tony shivered. "I love her to pieces. I've crashed on her couch. But honestly, McGee, we'd probably kill each other by the end of the night." He jerked his head toward the impromptu memorial. "Let's go see if our pet-psycho left us a love note." He walked toward the tree. One crisis down, he thought.
"Tapes are with Abby, boss. We have front gate, commissary, and officer's club." Tony flopped into his chair and picked out his login with a single finger. "I want to do a door to door canvass."
"We'll get the MP's to do it."
"I don't trust them." Tony's voice was surprisingly flat. It fit his expression. His face was emotionless. Even his eyes seemed dead. "One of them could have done it."
"Find me the thread," Gibbs ordered. His voice was as calm and flat and final as he could make it. "Pull it apart."
"Left my rabbit in my other pants." The grumbled complaint was low.
"Hmm?" the older man prompted.
"On it, boss." Tony stared at his computer screen for a moment. "McGee, did you run the school lists?"
"They're running against the visitors' log."
"No, the other way around."
Gibbs couldn't find his smile, but he turned to his own work, satisfied.
"Come on, Ziva. Let's go pick up dinner." Tony stood in front of his partner's desk. She looked up. Her eyes were calculating. "I need extra hands for the coffee."
She nodded sharply at him. She slipped on her jacket and he led the way down to his car. She slipped into the seat as gracefully as a cat. She hadn't spoken a word since he'd been back from Quantico and that worried Tony a bit. He didn't want her to close off. It was bad enough that he and Gibbs were starting to do it.
"First dead child I ever saw was in Peoria. We responded to a domestic dispute. The mother was bleeding from the mouth. The father was on the floor with a cracked skull and the kid was dead in the crib with a man's tie around his neck. Joey threw up everything he'd eaten for the day in the bushes. I drank myself to sleep for two weeks. The day I responded to the same house for a domestic, was the day I figured out it was the mother who killed the baby. I transferred to Philly as soon as possible to work on the bunco squad for awhile as a detective," he told her. They should have walked to the shop, but every muscle in Tony's body ached with tension.
Ziva was quiet for a long moment. "My cousin was killed by shelling. We were there to play with the rest of the family, but the rockets came down and Isaac didn't hear them and run like the rest of us. He was cut up by the shrapnel. I see his body when I look at the pictures of Katie."
Tony nodded. He let his hand rest on her knee. "You're not alone. This case will give us all nightmares. Drinks on me when we solve it."
"You will regret it," she warned him, but something had loosened in her. "I plan to get mudded." There, she was trying to use her humor again. There was no way that an undercover operative as good as she was would mangle idioms quite so badly.
"Plastered," he corrected with a smile. Crisis resolved. You so owe me lunch, boss, he thought.