Many thanks to everyone who followed this story and especially to those who reviewed. I've never had such a strong response to a first chapter like that! It truly helps motivate me to write more and I appreciate it.
"Thanks for coming out here Boss," Agent Burley said as Gibbs, DiNozzo, and McGee climbed single file onto what passed for a deck on a submarine. "These men have been through hell and back. Congo, the Gulf, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sydney, Panama. All in nine months." He finished just as he helped McGee onto the Helena.
"Let's get them home," Gibbs said, grinning.
"Well," Burley said. "The innocent ones at least."
McGee flashed his twentieth photo of the freezer before finally pulling the camera from his face, betraying the puzzled expression that had been fixed on it for nearly ten minutes. "Did you think it would be alive, McGee?" Gibbs asked.
"Well I kinda…you didn't…won't happen again Boss."
"If the koala was alive you would have grabbed your bags for a trip to Australia; not your gear for a trip to Norfolk," Gibbs replied.
"Right," McGee said, nodding.
"Lions and tigers and koalas, oh my!" DiNozzo said, walking into the kitchen's back room, just outside the freezer.
"Actually, Anthony, the koala is a marsupial, not a bear," Dr. Mallard said, forcing his way past DiNozzo and into the back room. He was carrying a small duffle bag in his left hand and a baby stretcher in his right. Jimmy Palmer followed in behind him. "It's a common mistake, Anthony. You know I once read a dissertation on the subject by a young woman named – "
"Ducky!" Burley interrupted as he emerged from the freezer. "Didn't expect to see you here. There's no body."
"Director's orders, Jethro," Ducky replied. "I've been told to find a time of death."
"Of the koala?" McGee asked from the freezer.
"Indeed," Ducky replied. "It's extremely important to know when that animal died."
"Why?" McGee asked.
"Because," Gibbs interjected, "moving a live koala is a very different crime than moving a dead one."
"Mr. Palmer, since you have the expertise in the veterinary field, perhaps you should take the lead," Ducky said, motioning Palmer into the freezer after placing his baggage on the floor.
"They didn't cover koalas in school, Doctor," Palmer said.
"Came closer than they did in mine," Ducky replied. Palmer entered the freezer, followed closely by Ducky. McGee walked out to give them space, which made Gibbs walk into the door frame to watch.
"So," DiNozzo said, using just the one word for a sentence. "Stan. Stan the Great. Weren't you on a carrier last time I saw you? Seems a sub is a bit of a demotion."
"I lost the Admiral's prize beagle," Stan replied, returning DiNozzo's characteristic stare. DiNozzo broke the staring contest, blinking with a puzzled expression.
"Which one?" he asked.
"Archer," McGee replied. "Admiral Archer's prized beagle was lost during a beaming experiment by Montgomery Scott in Star Trek. It's a movie reference DiNozzo."
"I watch movies, McKlingon, not whatever that is," DiNozzo replied through gritted teeth.
"That's the third movie reference you've missed this week," McGee said.
"So?" DiNozzo asked, stepping into McGee's face.
"Are you doing okay?" McGee asked.
"What did you do to get in Vance's doghouse?" DiNozzo asked, ignoring McGee and turning back to
"Never said it was this Director, DiNozzo," Burley said.
"Shepherd?" DiNozzo asked.
Burley nodded. "She had me trailing an arms dealer in Southern France. Cover got blown and I lost him somewhere near Paris."
"The Frog?" Gibbs asked knowingly, raising his chin from the freezer's doorway and looking directly at DiNozzo.
Burley shrugged. "She put me as the first Agent Afloat on a transport ship in the South Pacific and set someone else on the dealer. I think she would have put me as Agent Afloat on a dingy if she could have. She was pissed. Director Vance promoted me to this sub when he took the chair."
"Interesting story," DiNozzo said, keenly aware of everyone's eyes staring at him.
"The scene is yours Gentlemen," Ducky said, carrying the koala strapped tightly on the stretcher. "When we find something, you'll be the first to know."
"I have a feeling I'll be the second," Gibbs said. Ducky sighed and followed Palmer out of the kitchen.
"Burley, DiNozzo, process the scene," Gibbs said without turning his gaze from the door Ducky had just left. "I want to know every person who has been in that freezer. And don't let anyone off this ship. McGee, you're with me."
"Uh, Boss, what will we be doing?" McGee asked.
"Finding out who has lost their prized beagle." Gibbs replied, already following in Ducky's footsteps.
Gibbs burst through the closed door of the Director's office without knocking or even slowing down. The director, Leon Vance, raised his eyebrow as Gibbs walked across his office, but he didn't bother getting up from his chair. "Usually a shut door implies a desire of privacy Agent Gibbs," Vance said, pulling the badly chewed toothpick out of the side of his mouth.
"Thought I'd return the favor, Director," Gibbs replied, standing at attention right in front of the desk but locking eye contact with Vance.
"What does that mean exactly?" Vance replied.
"Blindsiding," Gibbs replied.
"I don't appreciate it," Vance said.
"I don't either, sir," Gibbs said.
"Good, we're in agreement then," Vance said.
"And yet I wasn't notified Ducky was coming," Gibbs said, moving his gaze up momentarily before returning to the Director's gaze.
"I wasn't aware I needed approval to run my agency," Vance said.
"You don't," Gibbs replied. "I'm just wondering why the Director is taking such an interest in a simple smuggling case."
"The Koala's numbers are diminishing rapidly. Australia is considering making them an endangered species. Smuggling a dead Koala a sailor found is very different from smuggling a live one, or killing a live one. I just had an international incident with one of our greatest allies in the Middle East. I don't want another incident with one of the few nations that still have troops in Iraq," Vance said, standing to meet Gibbs' unending glare.
Gibbs looked hard into Vance's eyes without saying anything. "Are we done here?" Vance asked. Gibbs gave a characteristic tilt of his head before turning and walking toward the door. "Keep me informed Gibbs," Vance said as the agent reached the door.
"I have a feeling you'll know before I do," Gibbs replied as he left.
"Give me something Duck," Gibbs said as soon as the autopsy doors opened and he got his foot inside them.
"Jethro, Mr. Palmer has the expertise on this one, I am merely assisting," Dr. Mallard said as Gibbs walked right up to the head of a long, steel body table. He stood there, but much less threatening than he had in the Director's office.
Gibbs and Ducky both looked up at Palmer standing on the left side of the table with a scalpel and an oblivious smile on his face. "Well," Gibbs led.
"Well," Palmer said. They waited about two seconds before realization dawned on Palmer's face. "Oh, right. Well, we don't have a time of death for the Koala, and we won't."
"Why not?" Gibbs asked almost before Palmer finished.
"Well, because, um, this marsupial has…well,"
"Palmer!" Gibbs interrupted.
"Jethro," Ducky said before Palmer could stammer through the rest. "This koala has been taxidermied. It's insides have been taken out and replaced with stuffing." Ducky moved from the table to an x-ray of the marsupial displayed on the wall. "We'll know more when we cut it open, but I for one am curious about this small, black dot on the x-rays."
"Do you have anything of value for me Duck?" Gibbs asked.
"We've spent most of our time trying to thaw it out," Palmer said from the table.
"Unless they put taxidermy facilities upon a submarine without informing me, I think we can definitively say that the koala was dead when it was brought onto the sub." Ducky said.
"That'll make Vance happy," Gibbs said offhandedly.
"We were able to pull several prints from the fur. I took them up to Abby," Ducky said.
"And I have results for you," Abby's voice said from the desk in the corner.
"On my way," Gibbs said.
"What you got Abbs?" Gibbs asked almost before he even entered Abby's lab. A fingerprint database search was running on her computer and she was watching it intensely.
"Enough prints to cover a horse," Abby said. "Amazing how many people can touch a small animal like that. I mean I know that a finger isn't that large, but still I"
"Abbs," Gibbs led.
"Sorry. I've spent the last few hours running all the prints through AFIS. Haven't had much luck, but I did finally get a hit." Abby hit a key on her computer and a profile popped onto the screen. The man was young, and Navy. The man was white in complexion with deep blue eyes and a military haircut in black hair. "Meet Petty Officer John Snow." Gibbs walked around Abby's desk and closer to the big screen. "He's spent the last year and a half assigned to the U.S.S. Helena."
Gibbs pulled his phone out of his pocket as he returned around the table towards Abby. "That's good work Abbs," Gibbs said, planting a CafPow on her desk.
"Just one Gibbs?" Abby asked.
"Finish scanning all those prints and we'll talk," Gibbs said, beginning to walk back to the elevator. He put the phone up to his ear. "DiNozzo, bring in Petty Officer Snow. Make sure everyone else stays in town, but let them off the ship." Gibbs hung up just as he was getting into the elevator.
"Do you hate me?" Ziva Divid asked. She was leaning on the front of Gibb's desk wearing jeans and a professional, but fluid shirt. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail and she was wearing an NCIS hat like she was headed into the field.
"I can't talk right now," McGee said from behind his computer screens. "I've got to get something for Gibbs before he shows up."
"Then why did you call me?" Ziva asked. "I am in your head after all."
"Ziva, not now," McGee said. Ziva stood up and walked around McGee's desk.
"When are you going to have time?" Ziva asked. "You have been ignoring me ever since you discovered the Damocles went down."
"I moved on," McGee said, getting up and walking through Ziva to the printer. He walked back through her to sit back down and begin typing away on his computer again.
"You did not move on from her," Ziva said. McGee looked up from his computer and looked right at the hallucination. Suddenly Ziva was sitting behind the desk across the bullpen from McGee's, with McGee walking around the corner. Her hair was unkempt and she was wearing a tan, cargo outfit. It was the day Ziva had first joined NCIS. "That's Kate's desk," McGee said to her.
"That was different," McGee said, returning his vision to the present day.
"What was different?" Gibbs asked walking past McGee's desk and behind his own. Ziva vanished.
"Nothing boss," McGee said getting up from behind his desk. "I got the travel log from the Helena. Sub's been around the world in the past nine months, running patrols everywhere from the middle east to Australia and Panama. I'd expect a koala to have come from Australia, but I'm not taking anything for granted. I put in a phone call with all the zoos in Sydney, so far no luck."
"Koala was stuffed. See if anyone reported their mounted koala stolen," Gibbs replied, standing next to McGee in front of the plasma.
"Searching the Sydney police reports," McGee said, returning to behind his desk.
"Search faster McGee," DiNozzo said, walking into the bullpen and throwing his gear down on his desk and hitting a couple keys on his computer. "You've got a hundred very angry sailors who don't want to stay in Washington Boss," he said, joining Gibbs at the plasma. Burley had followed him in and was standing at the plasma still holding his gear. "McGee, clicker," he said. McGee threw the clicker to DiNozzo who handed it to Burley.
"Petty Officer John Snow," Burley said, clicking the mouse once. The service profile appeared on the plasma. "Joined the crew about three months before I did. College dropout, but one of the best sailors we had. Never heard one complaint from the C.O. He did like to stay to himself though."
"Any reason to suspect he had smuggled something onto the sub?" Gibbs asked.
"None. But I'd say that for each of the men," Burley said. "There's a reason we didn't have an agent on the subs before my test Gibbs. You have to trust each and every man on that sub with your life. It's a way closer knit community than the average carrier."
"You going to be able to be objective here Stan?" Gibbs asked.
"I'm a professional Boss," Burley replied.
"I've got something," McGee said, hitting a key on his keyboard and flashing a police report onto the plasma. "Two months ago the Australian Museum, which specializes in national history, reported a break in."
"That's two weeks before the Helena made port in Sydney," Burley said, walking back and putting his gear down on the unoccupied desk.
"That's Zi-" McGee said right as Burley's gear hit the desk, but stopping suddenly.
"I'm sorry?" Burley asked. Gibbs had turned and was leveling a penetrating stare at McGee. Even DiNozzo was studying the agent.
"Nothing," McGee said.
"That's Ziva's desk," DiNozzo said without taking his gaze from McGee.
"It doesn't appear occupied," Burley said. Gibbs finally took his gaze from McGee and pointed to a small desk behind McGee's. "DiNozzo's at my desk Boss," Burley said as he carried his gear to the tiny space.
"McGee, the break in?" Gibbs asked.
"Right. They say the only thing taken were two stuffed koalas from their indigenous species display. I've downloaded the inventory description of the animals."
"Two," Gibbs said.
"Yup," McGee said. "Which means there's more to come."