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Chapter 5

2225 Zulu (1725 Local)
2812 M Street, Apartment 4
Washington, D.C.

 

Harm was pulling a casserole out of the oven when a knock on the door signaled Mac's arrival.

"Mattie…"

"I'm on it, Harm."

A few seconds later, Mac joined him in the kitchen. She put a half gallon of ice cream in the freezer before turning to him with a smile.

"Hi."

"Hi." He tried hard to look nonchalant, but apparently failed miserably, because Mac shook a warning finger at him.

"Remember?" she said, sotto voce. "It was your idea to keep things quiet for a while."

He groaned.

"Don't remind me," he said in a frustrated undertone.

Mac brushed against him as she reached for a water glass, and Harm had to struggle not to react. He turned away from her and opened the fridge, ostensibly to get out the makings for a salad, but in reality hoping the cool air would settle his frayed nerves. Mac's low laugh did nothing to help, and as she sauntered past him to join the girls in the living room, she dared to run a finger up his spine, obviously delighting in making his life difficult. He threw a halfhearted glare in her direction, but she was already gone, and he heard her making lively conversation in the other room. He thanked whatever gods had rescued him from the danger of her close presence, and devoted himself to chopping vegetables and tearing lettuce with a vengeance that would have made a warrior proud.

In record time, they were sitting down to eat. As a precaution, he'd put Mac across from himself, with Mattie and Jennifer on either side in between. Mac was feeling mischievous tonight, rarely missing an opportunity to torment him; a fact that was fast raising both his body temperature and blood pressure to dangerous levels. Twice she'd managed to make contact on the pretense of taking this or that to the table, and now that they were seated, they seemed to need the same condiments at the same time. He sent her a suspicious glare, but her response was an innocent smile.

Thankfully, Mattie and Jen were oblivious to all of it, too busy debating the movie they'd rented last weekend. Harm was aware enough to know that it had something to do with a big family, but he wasn't exactly focused on the details.

"What do you think, Harm?"

Mattie's question jarred him back to the present and Mac's triumphant grin. She knew exactly what she was doing to him, the little minx, and after Jen and Mattie left he intended to exact a very sweet revenge.

"What do I think about what?"

"Do you think you could handle twelve kids?" Mattie repeated her question in that patient tone of voice peculiar to teenagers with not so bright parents.

"Good question, Mattie," said Mac. Then, cocking her head to one side with the evaluative expression she usually reserved for a potential juror, she targeted Harm. "Could you do it?"

That flustered him. He wasn't sure what she was getting at, so he couldn't decide whether to take the question seriously or not. An idea occurred to him, an opportunity to turn the tables, and he leaped at it.

"I don't know. I guess that would depend on who the mother was."

He watched the shot hit home. Bull’s-eye! He had to hold back a chortle at the flustered way she started collecting dishes in a futile attempt to hide her sudden confusion.

Unaware of the hidden undercurrents, Mattie and Jennifer went back to discussing the movie. Apparently, Mattie had read the book in her English class and was disgusted with how far the film departed from the text. Jennifer was trying to explain about creative license and movie rights, but Mattie wasn't buying any of it. They were still debating while Harm and Mac cleaned up the kitchen, though now they'd pulled out the newspaper to see what other movies they could pick apart.

Mac was elbow deep in sudsy water when Harm saw another opportunity for payback. He checked on Mattie and Jennifer first, pleased to see they had their backs to the kitchen while they hunted for the entertainment section. Mac had turned toward the dishwasher, a sudsy glass in her hands, when Harm snuck an arm around her waist, his thumb brushing the underside of her breast, and nibbled a spot on her neck that he knew was guaranteed to get a reaction.

He was right. She gasped and stiffened, the glass slipping from suddenly nerveless fingers to shatter into hundreds of pieces on the kitchen floor. He straightened quickly, and by the time the girls scrambled to their feet to see what had happened he was already busy sweeping up the pieces while Mac turned back to the sink, faint traces of pink around her neck and ears the only indication that he had gotten to her.

"What happened?" asked Jennifer, concern edging her words.

"My hand slipped," Mac answered. "The glass was soapy. No worries, though. Nobody got hurt."

Harm thought she did an admirable job of sounding normal under the circumstances, and he mentally congratulated her on her acting abilities.

"Oh. O.K., then."

The girls disappeared again, and Mac shot him a glare that would have withered a lesser man, but Harm merely grinned and emptied the dustpan into the trash.

"That'll teach you to mess with the master," he whispered on his way past her to put the broom away.

"You haven't seen anything yet," she answered, just as softly.

"It's going to be a long week, isn't it."

"Yeah." The single word carried a wealth of longing and frustration with it, and by mutual agreement they finished their chores with a minimum of teasing.

Shortly after dinner, Mattie and Jennifer left. Mattie had some homework to finish, and Jennifer had laundry to do before bed. They took the ice cream with them, and somehow Harm knew he'd never see the carton again. When the door closed behind the two girls, Harm leaned against it, unable to believe that he and Mac were finally alone. He caught her eye and slowly, deliberately, clicked the deadbolt into place.

"Harm…"

He was moving toward her, and the sensible side of her backed away while the passionate side pushed her forward. The end result was that she remained frozen in place, unable to move in either direction.

"Harm…" she tried again.

"Yes?" He was three steps away, and still moving.

"I really should go." Her voice faltered as he reached to trace her ear with a gentle finger, tucking a strand of hair out of the way in the process.

"Do you have to?" He laced his fingers through her hair, then lifted them, allowing the silky strands to slide through and drift back into place.

"What if Mattie comes back?" Her voice was barely a whisper.

His hand left her hair. Now one finger traced her jaw line, and she shivered in response.

"She won't."

He continued his tactile tour, now trailing lightly down the column of her throat.

"How do you know?" It was getting harder to speak with each passing moment.

"I just know."

Across her collarbone now, his touch, ever so gentle, ever so slow, was raising goose bumps in its wake.

"Did you tell her about us?" She couldn't seem to work up any indignation at the prospect, her thoughts having taken a turn in a different direction.

"No…"

He smoothed his hand down her arm, finally lacing his fingers with hers

"Then how can you be sure she won't come back?" She struggled to remember her point as he lifted his other hand, starting the process all over again.

"Habits and routines. I won't hear from either of them until breakfast time, when one or the other will show up at the door looking for milk." The practical words didn't match the sensuous pitch of his voice, which caused her to moisten her lips with the tip of her tongue.

"I should probably be gone by then, shouldn't I."

"Probably."

His touch moved down her throat again, across her collarbone, and down her other arm, knitting his fingers with hers so that now he held both of her hands, his body mere inches from her own, her every nerve singing with his nearness. Her voice abandoned her completely then, chased away by the intensity of his gaze and the electricity that arced through the air between them.

"Sarah."

Maybe it was because he used it so rarely, or maybe it was because she loved him so much. Whatever the reason, her name, spoken so casually by so many others, sounded different when he said it, the syllables imbued with so much tenderness and warmth that they always brought a lump to her throat.

"I love you."

He'd said it often over the past few days. They both had. Yet the simple phrase still had the power to move her to tears, and she felt them well up in her eyes again now.

"I love you too," she said, her voice a mere whisper of sound.

He kissed her tears away, and his hands tightened around hers.

"A man tells you he loves you and you cry? What's that about?" But his voice was gently teasing, and when his lips descended over hers, they tasted of salt.

His kiss worked its magic, and the room, the soft music playing on the stereo, the sound of the dishwasher, all of it faded away until she was left with the feel of his lips upon hers, the sound of their mingled breath, and the touch of his hands on her skin. She had been concerned that Mattie might come back, might have a question about her homework or something she wanted to talk about, but her hesitation evaporated in the face of their mutual need, and when he led her to his bedroom, she followed willingly. She could no more have stopped herself from loving him than she could have stopped herself from breathing.

 

1317 Zulu (0817 Local)
JAG Headquarters
Falls Church, Virginia

 

Staff call was nearly over. The admiral had assigned two new cases, one to Sturgis, and one to Bud. Now he leaned back in his seat and contemplated the assembled group in silence.

"This past year has been…difficult. We've all had some tough things to deal with. I'm not exactly a touchy feely kind of officer…"

He waited for the grins and nods to subside before he went on.

"…but it occurs to me that our survival, reasonably intact, calls for some type of celebration. So, I'm inviting all of you to my place Saturday afternoon for an informal spring barbeque."

"Sir?" asked Bud.

"Yes, Lieutenant?"

"I just want to make sure. Does informal in this case mean tie, or no tie?"

The admiral had to wait for laughter to die down before he could answer.

"Bud, in your honor, I think we'll make this a truly casual event – no tie."

"Thank you, Sir." Bud's relief was almost palpable, and Harm resisted another chuckle.

"All right everybody. I'll see you at my place at 1500 Saturday afternoon. Now let's get to work. Dismissed."

A few minutes later, Harm was back in his office, ready to start the day's work. He had forty-eight hours to come up with a defense for Lieutenant Mercer, and he still wasn't quite sure what tactic to use. He'd spoken with Breanna the previous afternoon, giving her flight and hotel suggestions, but when she'd asked about the case, he'd been deliberately vague. She was already upset enough. It wouldn't help to alarm her further.

Mercer's C.O. would be coming for the trial, as would a couple of Mercer's crewmates, more as character witnesses than anything else. His hope was that, based on the witness statements and the fact that this was a first offense, he could at least get the lieutenant a reduced sentence. He'd approached Mac about a plea bargain yesterday afternoon, but she'd turned it down – a sure sign that she knew her case was strong. He sighed and bent his head to the papers in front of him, resigning himself to several hours of reading and note taking.

"Commander?" Jennifer Coates stood in his doorway.

"What can I do for you, Petty Officer?

"Are you…having any problems with your computer this morning?"

"I haven't even turned it on yet. Why?"

"Would you mind turning it on?"

Puzzled, he did as she asked, then looked at her inquiringly.

"Is something supposed to happen?"

"Try checking your e-mail."

He did as she asked, sliding the mouse across the pad so that he could click the appropriate icon.

Nothing happened.

The cursor didn't move.

He ran the mouse back and forth across the pad several times, but the little arrow sat stubbornly right in the middle of his screen.

"What in the…?"

"No luck?"

She stepped inside his office then and walked over to the desk.

"Pick it up and check the bottom of it, Sir."

Harm flipped the gadget over and rolled his eyes. Somebody had taped over the mouse ball, locking it into position.

"Who?"

"I don't know, Commander, but it seems to have happened to everybody."

"Everybody?"

"Everybody but the admiral. All the mice on the floor appear to have been trapped. "

"Somebody's idea of a prank?"

"Looks that way, Sir."

"So now we have the elevator, rubber ducks, Mac's confetti…"

"Confetti, Sir?"

He grinned.

"You'll have to ask her about that one, Petty Officer." He peeled the tape from the back of his mouse, slid it experimentally across the mouse pad, and then went on. "And now we have mouse traps. Gotta wonder what's going on, huh Jen?"

"Yes, Sir."

"Well, thanks for the heads up. Looks like I'm good to go now."

"You're welcome, Sir."

With that, she was gone, and he resolutely turned his attention back to the papers spread before him.

He spent the entire day going through documents, making notes, and organizing his defense. He'd eaten lunch in his office, and aside from staff call this morning and a few short e-mails, he'd not heard from Mac. They were both too busy with last minute preparations to even take time out to flirt. In a way, he supposed that was a good thing. Her presence was a distraction he couldn't afford right now.

He was reading over a final document when something caught his eye. He shuffled files around, looking for his notes from the trip to Whidbey. When he finally found them, he scanned the pages quickly, hoping his memory had been accurate. The note he'd made jumped out at him from the page, and he compared it to the documents Mac had given him, then picked up the phone to make a call, drumming his fingers impatiently on the desk while he waited for the line to be picked up at the other end.

Five minutes later, he had an answer to his question, and he leaned back in his chair, a thoughtful expression on his face. What he'd found wouldn't win the case, but it might save Mercer a few years of hard time. He jotted a reminder to himself to write up the documents he needed and then glanced at his watch, surprised at the lateness of the hour. He had one more day to prepare his case, one more day to come up with a convincing opening argument. He knew he could do it, but the thought of doing it for a guilty defendant made the task particularly unpleasant.

 

1230 Zulu (0730 Local)
JAG Headquarters
Falls Church, Virginia

 

Mac sat down at her desk and took a sip of the steaming cup of coffee she'd brought from the break room. There were certain advantages to being the first one in, and fresh coffee was one of them. She knew a few people had drifted in – Jen, the admiral, but most wouldn't be in until closer to 0800 and she always enjoyed this opportunity to get her thoughts in order before the day resumed its normal frantic pace.

Rapid fire gunshots shattered the calm. It sounded like automatic weapons fire, and Mac was on the floor, crawling toward the doorway even as she wondered how somebody had gotten such a weapon past security. Cautiously, she peered around the corner, careful not to expose herself to whatever maniac had taken over JAG Ops. Nothing. All appeared quiet. She scooted out of her office, careful to keep something solid between herself and the direction the sounds had come from. The burst of noise sounded again, and now that she was in the bullpen, she knew for a fact that it had come from the direction of the admiral's office.

A light touch on her back startled her, and she turned, ready to defend herself, but it was only Harm, crouched down protectively between her and the open hallway.

"What's going on?" he whispered.

"I don't know. I heard weapons fire."

"I heard it too. You go that way," he gestured around the other side of JAG ops. "Signal me when you're ready. We'll go in together."

"All right. Be safe, Harm."

"You, too." He squeezed her arm gently, then gave her a gentle push.

She inched her way along the wall, careful to keep a solid object between her body and the admiral's office. She was in position, ready to signal Harm, when the gunfire sounded again.

"Damn!" Jen's voice.

Then…

"I'm sorry, Sir. I don't understand it."

"I don't care if you understand it! Just fix it!"

"Working on it, Sir."

"Work faster."

Mac exchanged a puzzled look with Harm before carefully rounding the corner. What she saw made her bite back a laugh.

The admiral hovered over Jen's head, scowling at the computer monitor, while the petty officer's fingers danced over her keyboard, a panicked expression on her face.

"What's going on?" Harm asked. He'd rounded the corner right behind her, and now stood close enough to her that she could sense the heat of his body, smell the spicy scent of his aftershave. She struggled to maintain her equilibrium while Jen replied.

"Looks like somebody reprogrammed my startup sounds, Sir."

"Isn't your system secure?"

"Parts of it are, Sir, but I guess it never occurred to the techs that wave files could be dangerous." The expression on her face was pure Jennifer; humor that somebody had set her up; determination to get even, and desperation to fix the problem before the admiral took drastic action.

"There. That's got it, Sir."

They all waited while she rebooted the computer, and when the only sounds were the familiar Windows start up chimes, they breathed a collective sigh of relief.

"Well…that was exciting," Now that the initial crisis had passed, the admiral seemed to see the humor in the situation.

"You could say that," Mac said, grinning as the adrenalin rush subsided, but still wishing that Harm wouldn't stand quite so close behind her.

He either heard her, or decided for himself that some distance between them would be a good thing, because he moved to lean against the doorjamb, a mischievous grin on his face.

"We seem to have gremlins," he said.

"Gremlins?" The admiral looked puzzled.

"Cute little furry creatures that like to get into mischief," explained Mac.

They waited for him to explode into a rant about workplace behavior, but he just shook his head and went back into his office, closing the door behind him.

The three who were left exchanged bewildered looks.

Mac shrugged. She wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth. If the admiral chose to take this latest prank in stride, the least she could do was to follow his lead. She left Jen and Harm and walked back to her office. They were down to twenty four hours before trial, and she had a lot to do.

 

1530 Zulu (1030 Local)
JAG Headquarters
Falls Church, Virginia

 

Harm faced Lieutenant Mercer across the scarred wooden table.

"You lied to me," Harm said, not bothering with a polite greeting.

"What do you mean?"

"You and two of your crew tested positive for MDMA. You told me you never used it."

Mercer sighed.

"Look. It's not a big deal. It just makes you feel good for a while. Makes it easier to get the job done, you know?"

"No. I don't know. And I really don't care to know. And the members aren't going to care either. All they're going to care about is that; one, you disgraced your uniform; two, you took advantage of your military status to transport illegal drugs across an international border; and three, you sold those drugs, at a profit, to American dealers."

"I did not!" Mercer was out of his seat, pacing the floor like a caged lion.

"Oh?" Harm folded his arms across his chest and stared a challenge at his client. "Your financial records seem to indicate otherwise."

"That money didn't come from sales. It was strictly a transportation reimbursement."

"Do tell."

Mercer shot him a glare. "Look. I'm telling you. With the exception of a few select clients, I didn't sell the drugs." He sounded almost desperate, and Harm had to wonder if he was actually telling the truth this time.

"Then what did you do with them once you got them into the country?"

"I can't tell you that."

"Why not?"

"I just can't, ok? Now can we drop it?"

Harm leaned forward in his seat.

"Look, if you come forward with what you know, I might be able to get you a reduced sentence."

"It doesn't matter. If the members find me guilty, I'll do my time." Mercer sounded resigned now, his tones flat and without emotion.

"If?" Harm was incredulous. "The prosecution has surveillance records, chemical analyses, financial records, drug tests on you and those other two officers…" He ticked the items off on his fingers as he listed them. "They can back it all up with flight schedules and eyewitness reports. Now, do you want to rethink your position?"

"No." Mercer stopped in front of Harm and leaned his hands on the table. "Isn't there anything you can do for me?" He was plaintive now, his arrogance slipping away as he finally took in the mountain of facts lined up against him.

Harm sighed. Too little, too late. The man was doomed by his arrogance and stupidity, and not only was Harm not certain there was much he could do, he wasn't even certain he wanted to try.

"Look, I'll do what I can. At the very least, we'll try to convince the members to give you a lighter sentence. You'll never fly again, though. You're looking at a dishonorable discharge and several years hard labor if you're lucky."

"And if I'm not?"

"I'm not going to lie to you. Worst case scenario, the sentences run consecutively. You'd have the dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of pay and allowances, and at least thirty years hard labor."

Mercer tried not to show his shock, but it was there in the slight widening of the eyes, the quick intake of breath. Harm might have almost felt sorry for the man, if he wasn't so angry every time he thought about what he'd done. Instead, he packed up his things and prepared to leave.

"Panel selection is at 0830 tomorrow. Opening remarks at 1000. Somebody will see that you get where you need to go."

"Yes, Sir."

"Your wife is coming in tonight. Do you have a message you'd like me to deliver?"

"Just tell her…" He paused, then turned his head away. "Tell her I love her."

"Will do. I'll see you tomorrow morning."

He picked up his case and signaled the guard that he was through. A few minutes later, he'd left the lieutenant behind in the small two celled brig that served as a sort of holding tank for prisoners awaiting trial. As he walked back to his office, he was already assembling his opening remarks in his head. He'd recognized something human in the choked words of affection for Breanna, something that reminded him that, criminal or not, Steven Mercer was still a human being, entitled to the best defense Harm could put together.

A few minutes later, he knocked on Mac's door frame, ready with a warm smile when she looked up from her computer.

"Do you have time to grab some lunch?"

"I wish. I'll probably just order a sandwich and eat at my desk. Sorry."

"No problem. I should probably eat in, too." He started to back out, changed his mind, and stepped back inside. "Any chance I can convince you to reconsider the plea I offered yesterday?"

"Dishonorable with forfeiture and ten years? That plea?"

"That'd be the one."

She grinned at him. "You're joking, right?"

"Not a bit."

"I'll see you in court, Harm."

She collected a sheaf of papers from her printer, and reached for a paperclip. The clips were stored in a small plastic box with a magnetic lid, and she selected one at random and pulled it toward her, paying more attention to Harm then to what she was doing.

Her first clue that something wasn't quite right was in the fact that the clip didn't seem to want to slide all the way down over the top edge of the papers. The second clue was in the wide grin that spread over Harm's face.

"What…?"

She looked down, only to discover that the paperclip she had chosen was connected to another one, which was, in turn, connected to another, and another, and yet another. She pulled at the chain, lifting it out of its small plastic box, the links twisting and turning like a long metal snake.

"Did you…?"

"Nope." Harm was quick to defend himself. "I've been meeting with my client, remember?"

"Then who…?

Just then, Harriet knocked lightly on the doorjamb.

"Colonel?"

She spied the chain of paperclips and grinned.

"Never mind."

Mac untangled a single clip, attached it to her papers, and looked up at Harriet.

"You too?"

"Me, too. In fact, near as I can tell, the gremlin hit everybody but the admiral again."

Mac began untangling the clips, but Harriet hurried over and took the mess from her, replacing it with a fresh box of fasteners.

"I'll take care of this for you, Ma'am."

Mac smiled gratefully.

"Thanks, Harriet."

"No problem."

With an over the shoulder smile, Harriet was away again, and Mac turned her attention to a still grinning Harm.

"What's so funny?"

"The look on your face."

She rolled her eyes at him in mock exasperation, but he was chuckling as he left her office.

 

0030 Zulu (1930 Local)
Dulles International Airport
Washington D.C.

 

Harm checked his watch for the third time. Breanna Mercer's flight was already an hour late, and it looked like he was going to miss dinner with Mattie. He sighed and pulled out his cell phone, hitting the speed dial as he looked up at the arrivals board for what felt like the twentieth time.

"Mattie? It's Harm. Listen, Mrs. Mercer's flight hasn't arrived yet…"

"Wasn't it supposed to land an hour ago?" Mattie sounded annoyed.

"Yes. Looks like they got delayed. I'm expecting her any minute, but you and Jennifer should go ahead and eat."

"We can wait."

"No. After she gets here we still have to collect her bags, and then I need to see her to her hotel. You eat. I should be home in time to check your homework before you go to bed."

"I hate this."

"What?"

"I hate never knowing whether you're going to be here or not."

"Mattie…"

"I know. This isn't the time."

"No. It isn't."

"Will there ever be a time, Harm?" Her voice, just a tad on the whiny side, irritated him, and it was with a certain amount of relief that he saw Breanna Mercer enter the baggage claim area.

"She's here, Mattie. We'll talk later."

"Sure we will."

There was a click, and she was gone. With a deep sigh, he pocketed the phone and went to meet his client's wife.

Breanna looked up from the luggage turnstile with a tired smile when he approached.

"I wish I could say it was good to see you again, Commander."

"I understand, Ma'am. Can I help you with your luggage?"

"It's just the one bag. That blue one over there." She indicated a dark blue soft sided suitcase and he lifted it easily off the conveyor belt, then led the way back to his car. In a few minutes, they were on the way to her hotel. While he drove, he told her what he could about the case, which, unfortunately, wasn't much.

"The prosecuting attorney won't accept a plea?"

"I've tried twice. She's not interested. I have to admit. If I were in her place, I'd feel the same way. She's got a strong case."

"How many witnesses is she putting on the stand?"

"Five."

"And how many do you have?"

"Only three, unless I decide to put your husband on the stand."

"You don't know yet?"

"I haven't made up my mind." He didn't tell her that he considered her husband to be his own worst enemy. "I'll decide after I see how the prosecution's case plays out."

"I see."

"I'll be honest with you, Mrs. Mercer…"

She interrupted him with a small smile. "Breanna, remember?"

"Breanna. It doesn't look good for your husband."

"So you said last week."

"I know. I just want you to be prepared."

"What do you think his sentence will be?"

"Best guess?"

"Yes." Her voice was firm, but tense.

"Dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of pay and allowances, and …" He hesitated.

"And?"

"He could get thirty years, Breanna." He said it softy, and saw her cringe. He instinctively wanted to protect her, to keep her from having to go through the trial, but he knew there was nothing he could do.

A few minutes later, they arrived at the hotel, and Harm waited while Breanna handled the paperwork, then escorted her to her room, leaving her at her door with a reassuring smile and a soft "goodnight."

 

Chapter 6

1300 Local
JAG Headquarters
Falls Church, Virginia

 

Mac approached the witness stand where Agent Gibbs sat waiting. Somehow the man looked relaxed and yet absolutely alert at the same time, making her think of a wary panther.

"Please state your full name and position."

"Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs. Naval Criminal Investigative Service."

"You led the team that investigated Lieutenant Steven Mercer?"

"Yes, I did."

"Please tell the court how you proceeded."

"On January 15, we received a tip that the lieutenant was engaged in drug trafficking. Based on that information, we initiated two separate undercover operations during which Special Agent Caitlin Todd purchased Ecstasy from the suspect. We also monitored two of the lieutenant's flights, one to Vancouver, British Columbia, during the first week of February, and a second one to Copenhagen, Denmark at the end of February. Based on the results of our investigation, we obtained search and arrest warrants which we executed when Lieutenant Mercer returned from Copenhagen on the evening of March first."

"Thank you, Agent Gibbs. No further questions."

Mac submitted several documents into evidence and then sat down.

Harm approached the witness stand, struck by the change of circumstance. Once, he had been the witness, Gibbs the interrogator. Now the tables were turned.

"Just one question, Agent Gibbs. Who arranged the search warrants?"

Gibbs raised a curious eyebrow but answered the question.

"Special Agent Anthony Dinozzo."

"Thank you." Harm looked at the judge. "No further questions."

"Agent Gibbs, you may step down."

Mac called Caitlin Todd to the stand, and after dispensing with the preliminaries, began to flesh out the testimony she'd elicited from Gibbs.

"Your first meeting with Lieutenant Mercer was on…" She checked a note, even though Harm was fairly certain she had every detail of the case memorized. "January 22?"

"Yes, Ma'am. In Tukwila, Washington."

"Please tell the court what happened."

"I met the defendant at 23:30 hours at Stanford's Restaurant and bar. I wore a wire and a recording device. During our meeting, I purchased one ounce of Ecstasy from the defendant for one thousand, five hundred dollars."

"Is this the Ecstasy you purchased that night?"

Mac held up an evidence bag with a small bottle inside. Kate took it from her, examined it briefly, and handed it back.

"That looks like it, yes."

Mac entered the vial into evidence and then played the recording of the drug buy.

"Was there another occasion on which you interacted with the defendant?"

"Yes. On February twelfth."

"Tell the court what happened."

"It was another buy. This time we'd agreed on a pound, and I was to handle the further distribution."

"How much did Lieutenant Mercer charge you for the drugs?"

"Twenty one thousand, five hundred dollars."

"Cash?"

No. He gave me the routing number for his bank and insisted on a wire transfer."

"Is this a copy of the wire transfer, Agent Todd?" Mac showed her a document.

The agent nodded, then spoke. "Yes. It is."

"Tell me, Agent Todd. Why didn't you arrest the lieutenant after the first buy?"

"We suspected he was trafficking in large amounts of the drug. We wanted to test that suspicion. Also, until the second buy, we were unable to determine where Lieutenant Mercer was putting the money he made on his deals."

"And where did that turn out to be, Agent Todd?"

"An offshore account. In the Cayman Islands."

"Thank you, Agent Todd. No further questions."

The judge looked inquiringly at Harm, who stood up.

"I have no questions for this witness, Your Honor."

Mac saw Lieutenant Mercer lean over and whisper something to Harm, who shook his head, and whispered a short reply. The lieutenant sat back in his seat, a sullen expression on his face.

Mac called the forensics specialist next, and was somewhat relieved to note that Abby had attempted to dress professionally, even though Mac hadn't specifically brought it up. She had Abby state her name and position for the record, and began her questions.

"Miss Sciuto, what is Ecstasy?"

"Methylenedioxy-N-methamphetamine or MDMA is a synthetic chemical that's derived from an essential oil of the sassafras tree. Mostly comes in tablet form. Y'know, like you've seen on the news. They come with little logos - cartoon characters, happy faces, stuff like that printed on them. That's why kids like them so much."

Harm stood.

"Objection, Your Honor, speculation. The witness can't possibly know for sure why 'kids like them so much.'"

"Sustained. The witness will refrain from interjecting personal opinions into her testimony."

"Yes, Your Honor." Abby looked mildly embarrassed, but focused her attention back on Mac for the next question.

"How does it enter the system?"

"You mean how do they take it?"

"Yes."

“Pop and trip.”

"Pop and trip?" Mac looked puzzled, and Abby hurried to explain.

“It’s a pill. You swallow it. Pop it. Then you get high. Tripping.”

"I see. And how does it affect the user?"

“Free love, totally. You’re at one with humanity. Peace, love, and joy, man. You feel warm and happy and linked to the hive mind. Like the Borg, only with smiles.”

There were chuckles in the courtroom, and Mac waited for them to subside before she went on.

"Who uses it?"

“Teens at parties, raves, clubs. Sometimes shrinks with really whacked out patients.”

Harm was on his feet again.

"Your Honor… Whacked out?"

The judge turned to Abby again.

"Miss Sciuto, please try to keep your responses a little less…casual."

"Yes, Sir."

Mac went on.

"Please explain for the members what a rave is."

"A rave is a loud, crowded party, usually geared towards teens and young adults, for music and dancing and meeting up. Kinda like an old fashioned barn dance on crack. Or Ecstasy, as the case may be."

"I object, Your Honor," Harm again, beginning to sound exasperated. "Raves, and the types of drugs that may or may not be used there, are beyond the scope of Miss Sciuto's expertise."

Mac suppressed a grin. Abby was definitely keeping Harm busy. Judge Sebring sighed.

"Miss Sciuto. I caution you again. Please maintain a proper level of decorum in my courtroom or I will have you removed."

"I'm trying, Your Honor." She fidgeted nervously in her chair and Mac decided to shorten her list of questions before her witness jumped out of her own skin.

"Is Ecstasy addictive?"

"Kinda."

"Would you clarify your response, please?"

"It's not physically addictive, no. Not like crack or heroin. It's more that the user gets addicted to the feelings induced by the drug. It feels good, so they keep doing it because they want to, not because they have to."

"Just one more question. Did any members of Lieutenant Mercer's flight crew test positive for MDMA?"

"Yeah. They were flying the friendly skies that night."

"Objection!" Mac had to give him credit. He was fast.

"Objection sustained." The judge sighed with exaggerated patience. "The members will disregard Miss Sciuto's last remark."

Mac tried again.

"In addition to Lieutenant Mercer, which members of the flight crew tested positive for Ecstasy?"

"Petty Officer First Class Randy Long, and Ensign Michael Fremont."

"Thank you, Miss Sciuto."

Mac returned to her seat and waited for Harm's cross examination. He took his time flipping through papers and checking his notes, ostensibly to make sure he didn't forget anything, but Mac knew that he was trying to give the nervous witness some time to settle down.

"Miss Sciuto, does Ecstasy have any negative side effects?"

" If it’s impure, sure. Puking, tweaking, overheating, dizziness, that kind of thing."

"And by tweaking you mean…"

"Twitching."

Abby squirmed in her seat, and Mac had to resist a grin. She'd never had an expert witness like Abby before, and she was finding the experience highly entertaining. Harm was less amused, and when he asked his next question, his voice had a stern note to it that would have cowed a more observant person, but which Abby apparently missed altogether.

"Can an Ecstasy trip cause death?"

"It can, sure, but most of the cases of death from Ecstasy use come from impure hits. Ecstasy pills can be packed with caffeine, ephedrine, amphetamines, and a load of other garbage in addition to or instead of MDMA."

"Did you perform a chemical analysis on the ounce of Ecstasy that Special Agent Todd allegedly purchased from Lieutenant Mercer?"

"Of course."

"What were your findings?"

"Almost 100% pure."

"And the Ecstasy found on the Orion?"

"Also pure."

"Is it safe to say, then, that if a teenager was going to buy Ecstasy, he'd be better off purchasing that Ecstasy than something off the street?"

"Safer, anyway. And they'd get the trip of their lives."

"And the flight crew – Petty Officer Long and Ensign Fremont – did taking a single Ecstasy pill from Lieutenant Mercer endanger their lives?"

"Doubtful. I imagine it made the flight home a lot more pleasant, though."

"Thank you, Miss. Sciuto." Harm turned to the judge. "I have no further questions for this witness."

Judge Sebring turned toward a very relieved Abby, who was already stepping out of the witness box.

"You are dismissed." The note of relief in his voice had Mac holding back another grin.

Mac called the enthusiastic master chief next, fully intending to regale the members with a lengthy and detailed appraisal of the P-3C's attributes. Unfortunately, Harm knew exactly what she was up to and stood before she could get in the first question.

"Your Honor, in the interest of brevity the defense will stipulate to the configuration of the aircraft."

"So noted." Judge Sebring looked at Mac. "Do you have any other questions for this witness?"

"Just one, Your Honor." Mac turned back to her witness. "Master Chief, how much does a P-3C Orion cost?"

"Well, Ma'am, Lockheed doesn't make them anymore, so it'd be hard to say."

"Best guess."

"The last one came off the assembly line in 1990, and it cost thirty-six million then. I imagine it'd be several million more today."

Mac whistled, long and low.

"So Mercer risked the safety of a twelve man crew and a forty million dollar aircraft for an Ecstasy high."

"Objection! Defense is testifying." Harm was on his feet, looking appropriately outraged, but before the judge could say anything, Mac spoke up.

"I apologize, Your Honor." She turned back to the master chief. "Thank you for your time."

"No further questions," she said, and returned to her seat, intercepting a slight nod of competitive acknowledgement from Harm on the way.

And so another witness was released. By this time, it was late afternoon, and the judge looked at Mac.

"Colonel. You have one more witness on your list. Do you think we can finish the prosecution this afternoon?"

"Yes, Your Honor. I only have a few questions for this witness."

"Let's do it, then."

"The prosecution calls Special Agent Anthony Dinozzo."

Mac saw Harm sit forward a little in his chair, and wondered what he was up to as she started her questioning.

"Agent Dinozzo, you tracked Mercer's movements from the time NCIS received the tip until his arrest, is that correct?"

"Yes, Ma'am."

"During that two month time period, how often did he leave the country?"

"Twice. On February second, he made an overnight trip to Vancouver as part of a training mission. The second flight, to Copenhagen, departed on February twenty-third and returned on the evening of March first."

"In addition to tracking his flights, did you also track his movements on land?"

"Yes. We obtained authorization to install a hidden GPS in his car. During the month of February, we observed three trips to the Seattle area and two more to Tukwila."

"Do you know what he did on those trips?"

"With the exception of the trips to Tukwila to meet with Agent Todd, I can't be sure."

"But you could guess?"

"Yes, Ma'am. If I had to guess, I'd say they were all drug deals."

"Objection," said Harm, not even bothering to get up. "Lack of evidence. You can't convict a man based on guesses and suppositions."

"Withdrawn," said Mac. "That's all I have for this witness."

Harm stood and selected two documents from a folder on the table in front of him. He approached the witness stand and handed one of them to Dinozzo.

"Do you recognize this?"

The agent scanned the document before answering.

"It's the search warrant for the Orion aircraft that Lieutenant Mercer flew to Copenhagen."

"What is the tail number listed on the warrant?"

"160258."

"Thank you."

Harm took the search warrant from Tony and handed him a photograph.

"This is a crime scene photo taken the night Lieutenant Mercer was arrested. Please tell the court the tail number of the pictured aircraft."

Clearly puzzled, Dinozzo glanced at the photograph he held in his hand…and paled.

"Agent Dinozzo?" Harm prompted.

"It's 160285."

Harm turned to the judge.

"Your Honor, it's obvious that somebody made a mistake, but I wouldn't venture to guess who. The fact of the matter is that the aircraft identified in the search warrant is not the aircraft that was searched. I move that all evidence obtained from aircraft number 160285 be ruled inadmissible."

Harm handed the photograph and the search warrant to the judge, who looked both over carefully before calling a sidebar.

"Colonel?" The judge spoke softly, one hand covering the microphone.

"Your Honor, this was obviously just a typographical error. In both cases, the squadron is clearly identified as VP-46." Mac, angry at the mistake, fought to keep her voice low.

"Mac, typo or not, the search warrant is wrong. That invalidates both the warrant and the search."

The judge sighed.

"Much as I hate to admit it, Colonel, the commander has a point. If I let this pass, it's grounds for a reversal. I'm afraid I have to disallow the search."

Mac glared at Harm before returning to her seat.

"Commander? Do you have any further questions for this witness?"

"No, Your Honor."

The judge turned to Dinozzo, who looked for all the world as though he wished he could disappear.

"Court is adjourned until 1000 hours tomorrow morning."

Judge Sebring left the room, and Mac began shoving papers into her case, her mind churning with the choice words she was preparing to unleash on the NCIS team.

"Agent Gibbs."

She spoke without looking up from what she was doing, somehow absolutely certain that the agent was about to walk out the door. Her voice, cold as liquid nitrogen, effectively stopped his forward motion, and he turned back to her.

"Yes?"

"I'd like to see you and Agent Dinozzo in the conference room in five minutes."

"Yes, Ma'am."

She glanced around suspiciously at the note of sarcasm that laced Gibbs' tone, but he'd already left, and she went back to gathering her things as Harm stopped beside her.

"Are you ok?" he asked.

"You mean aside from the fact that I'm about to unleash the hounds of Hell?"

He grinned. "Yeah."

"I'm fine." Her return smile didn't quite reach her eyes, but he let it pass, wondering absently if Gibbs and company knew what was about to hit them. He suspected not.

"Good. When you're done annihilating NCIS, do you want to come to a volleyball game with me? Mattie's playing. I'll even spring for a pizza afterwards."

"Sure. That sounds like fun. I'll find you after I've finished this meeting.”

"See you then." He took advantage of the empty courtroom to squeeze her shoulder lightly before picking up his case and making his way back to his office.

 

1712 Local
JAG Headquarters
Falls Church, Virginia

 

Mac heard raised voices as she approached the conference room, but when she opened the door, she was greeted by stony faces and dead silence. She held her peace while she set her case on the table, her gaze settling first on one face, and then the other. Years of training and experience made her decide to remain standing, giving her a slight height advantage over the seated men. She allowed the silence to stretch, fully aware that Gibbs was a master at the game of cat and mouse, and determined to maintain the upper hand. When she finally did speak, her voice was low, each word knife edged and clearly enunciated.

"I would like an explanation."

Gibbs made a mistake then, one he never would have made had he known her better. He dared to condescend to her, to talk to her as though she were an overtired three year old. And to say that Mac was unimpressed would be like saying that it gets cold at the North Pole.

"Calm down, Colonel."

"I'll calm down when I'm satisfied that you and yours…" She paused and turned her glare on Dinozzo for a heartbeat before looking back at Gibbs, "have acquired a proper degree of respect for this office."

"Excuse me? How does a typographical error equate to disrespect?"

"That slip of the fingers was symptomatic of bigger issues. You know it, and I know it."

"How do you figure?" Gibbs, angry now, leaned forward in his chair.

"You delight in twisting the regs to suit your needs, don't you." The question was a rhetorical one, and she didn't wait for him to answer. "You barreled through here like a hurricane last year, dead certain you knew everything there was to know about Lieutenant Singer's death."

"The two cases have nothing to do with each other."

"Oh really…" Mac's voice dripped sarcasm. "As I recall, your determination to pin the crime on Commander Rabb was nearly successful."

Gibbs was on his feet, his face inches from hers, but Mac didn't back down. It wasn't in her nature to back down from a fight, and the stakes were high on this one.

"As you will recall, my team proved his innocence."

"Not until after your sloppy investigative techniques landed him in the brig!"

Dinozzo shifted nervously in his chair, but neither combatant spared him a glance.

"Your attitude when we met at Norfolk last week was just shy of rude. You were condescending, and disdainful, and about as forthcoming as a brick. I don't consider that to be conducive to a good working relationship." She glared at him, undaunted by his growing anger. "You followed that up by behaving as though JAG officers aren't to be trusted with custody of trial evidence."

She took a deep breath, consciously bringing her anger under control. When she spoke again, her words were slow, measured, and razor sharp. "I don't know what your problem is, Agent Gibbs, but you'd better knock that chip off your shoulder when you work with this office or you will live to regret it."

A heavy silence took up residence in the room then, its presence almost a living breathing thing. Mac knew Gibbs was playing mind games, trying to unnerve her into speaking, but the tactic had no impact on her except to make her even angrier. She decided to call him on it, waiting in frigid silence until he finally spoke.

"I resent your implication."

"And I resent your high handed, holier than thou attitude."

Gibbs sighed and sat down.

"Look. I'll agree that we were a bit…overzealous in our pursuit of Commander Rabb last year. Hell, I'll even agree that Agent Dinozzo should have been more careful when he prepared the search warrant for Mercer's plane." He spared a glare for the younger man, who attempted to disappear into the joints of his chair.

Mac allowed herself to relax, but only slightly. "And I will agree that if it hadn't been for you and Agent Dinozzo, the commander would probably be in Leavenworth right now." She picked up her case and moved to leave the room, then turned at the door for a parting shot. "But in the future, I expect you to pay more attention to the details."

She didn't wait for his response, but turned on her heel and left the room, not sparing a glance for the two men who still stared at her from their seats at the table.

 

2015 Local
2812 M Street, Apartment 4
Washington, D.C.

 

Mac slowly lifted a piece of pizza out of the box, pulling ever so gently straight up. Harm and Mattie watched in tense silence. So far, Mattie held the record for pulling a slice the furthest away without breaking the string of melted Mozzarella. Could Mac do better? Only time would tell. Inch by careful inch, she lifted the slice higher while Harm kept up with the tape measure. She grinned suddenly, fully aware that this was probably the silliest contest she'd ever participated in.

She neared Mattie's seven and a half inch record, and was just about to edge past it, when a sneak attack in her rib cage made her jerk her arm down to her side, abruptly snapping the string, and nearly causing the pizza slice to end up on the floor. Mattie broke into delighted giggles at Mac's halfhearted glare.

"You cheated!" Mac accused.

Mattie shrugged unapologetically. "War's hell, Mac."

"Mattie, watch your language." Harm's rebuke was half-hearted, its power significantly lessened by his wide grin.

"Is she always this sassy when she wins a game?" Mac asked him, fighting a grin of her own.

"Forget when she wins a game. She's always this sassy…period."

"Hey!" Mattie's indignation lacked sincerity, but Harm was unrepentant.

"My turn," he said, "I'll bet I can double the record."

"You're pretty confident for somebody who barely made three inches on the first round," Mac remarked.

"That was just a practice run. This one's for real."

He eyed the remaining slices of pizza, and Mac suspected that if he could have, he'd have weighed each piece to the microgram. As it was, she and Mattie were both getting impatient by the time he finally made his selection. He'd barely lifted it out of the box when the pale yellow strands separated, and he slumped back into his chair, the undisputed loser.

"Needs a woman's touch to do it right, I guess," suggested Mattie, her tone falsely sympathetic.

"Men are just too heavy-handed for their own good," agreed Mac.

"Remind me sometime to show you just how light-handed I can be, Mac." Harm's voice slid across the table and up her spine, raising goose bumps in its wake.

"Anybody need more soda?" Mattie stood suddenly and grabbed her glass, her movements jerky.

"No, thanks." Harm and Mac answered simultaneously, but Mattie was already gone. Obviously, the teenager hadn't liked their interchange and wanted to make sure they knew it.

While Mattie banged about the kitchen, making her irritation known to the entire building, Harm and Mac held one of those silent conversations that lovers are so good at. They'd talked about her on the way to the game and decided it was time to let her know about the change in their relationship. Now seemed like as good a time as any to get that over with. Mattie finally sat back down at the table and reached for a piece of the rapidly cooling pizza.

"Mattie," Harm said, a nervous tone to his voice that Mac found somehow endearing. "We need to talk."

"About?" The girl wasn't going to make this easy on them, and Mac felt a twinge of annoyance.

"About Mac and I."

Mattie looked from one to the other of them and took a bite of pizza. They waited patiently while she chewed and swallowed. They were lawyers. They could outwait the most obstinate of witnesses.

"What about you?" Stubborn inflexibility. The definition of teenager.

"Things have…changed between us."

"Changed how?" Denial. The second definition of teenager.

Mac wanted to speak up, but she knew it wasn't her place. Harm had to handle this one on his own. All she could offer was silent support.

"Changed as in we've decided we want more than friendship." Harm's voice was firm now, the trace of nervousness gone.

Mattie stopped chewing and looked from one to the other of them. Harm took Mac's hand, and Mattie watched the movement, then dropped her slice of pizza and stood.

"I guess it's time for me to go back to my dad, then, huh?"

"Why would you say that?"

"Harm, you barely have time for me as it is. Now you'll be wanting to spend what little of it there is with her." She indicated Mac with a dismissive wave of the hand.

"I thought you liked Mac."

"I do. I just like her better as your friend."

Mac felt it necessary to speak up, tired of being talked about in the third person.

"Hey, folks. Remember me? I'm right here. You can talk to me rather than about me."

"Fine," said Mattie, turning to her angrily. "From what I've heard, you two worked together for years without anything ever happening between you. Why now? You had your chance and didn't do anything about it. Now it's supposed to be my turn."

Harm spoke again, his voice angry.

"Mattie, your tone of voice is inappropriate and disrespectful. Mac and I are adults, and our relationship is our business. Now, I think you owe Mac an apology."

Mac could have told him if he'd asked that it was probably just about the worst thing you could say to an adolescent. She knew Mattie was at that point in her life when she would insist upon a certain amount of control in their dealings with other people – adults or otherwise. Pointing out her lack of power in an area of her life that was close to her heart was tantamount to committing heresy.

Mattie glared from one adult to the other, then stormed to the door.

"I can't believe this is happening. Just when I thought my life was settling down, you turn it on end again. It's not fair!"

"Mattie…"

The door slammed behind her before he could finish the thought, and he turned to Mac, a helpless expression on his face.

"What just happened?" he asked her.

"An angry teenager just happened."

"Wow."

"Yeah. Not a pretty sight."

"Or sound either. I think the windows are still rattling." He sighed. "I'll have to go talk to her later, but I'd better get this mess cleaned up first." He gestured to the remains of their dinner. "Give me a hand?"

"You bet."

The worked companionably for a while, putting the leftovers away and rinsing the few dishes before loading them into the dishwasher.

"You know," Mac said, as she closed the door and latched it, "Out of three at bats, we've already struck out twice. Not good odds."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, the admiral seems ok with the idea of an 'us,' but Mattie and Clay sure aren't too impressed."

"Speaking of Webb, have you heard from him?"

"Not since he stormed out of here that day." She hung up the towel to dry and turned to look at Harm, allowing the worry that had been building all week to show on her face. "I've tried to call him several times since we've been back. He doesn't answer the phone. His answering machine doesn't even pick up."

"Did you call his mother? She always seems to know where he is."

"Tried it. No answer."

"That's odd. She's got servants. You'd think somebody would be there." He pulled her into a hug. "I'm sure he's fine, Mac. The guy's made of rubber. He always bounces back."

Mac pushed out of his arms.

"What do you mean by that?"

"Come on, Mac. You know what I mean. We've known Webb for years. Nothing gets him down for long."

"You didn't see him in Paraguay, Harm. I did."

"Yes I did. I saw him kissing you."

Mac sighed in exasperation. "Can't you let that go?"

He sighed. "I'm sorry. That was out of line."

"You're right. It was."

It was Harm's turn to get angry.

"Mac, he had no business dragging you down there. I'm sure the CIA has plenty of highly trained agents who could have handled the job just fine, but Webb had to have you. Why do you suppose that is?"

"I don't know. Maybe because he thought I was the best person for the job?"

"I don't think so."

"Tell me then, Harm. Why do you think he did it?"

"You honestly don't know?" He leaned against the counter, folding his arms across his chest in a manner that Mac, even angry, found distracting.

"No."

"Do you remember the party at the Sudanese Embassy all those years ago?"

"The one that started out as an intelligence mission and turned into a hostage situation? That party?"

"Yeah. As I recall, it was another one of Webb's brilliant ideas."

Mac sighed. "Enough with the sarcasm already. What about the party?"

"Didn't it strike you as odd that Webb knew your measurements?"

"He's CIA, Harm. It stuck me as odd for all of five seconds."

"I'm telling you, Mac, the man's had a thing for you for a long time."

"You're implying that he requested me for the Paraguay mission because he 'had a thing for me'?"

"Maybe not consciously, but yeah. I think it was at the back of his mind."

"That's sick, Harm."

"Maybe, but I think it's true."

"Even if that were the case, what does it have to do with the fact that I can't find him now?"

"He's licking his wounds, Mac. He'll come back when he's ready."

"You know what? I think it's time for me to go."

She picked up her purse and jacket.

"Wait. Don't leave mad. We've both done that too many times."

"I'm not mad. I just need some time to think."

"I'll walk you out."

"Harm. I'm a Marine." Exasperation laced her voice. She hated it when men felt like they had to protect her.

"I know. Humor me."

She gave in, too tired and frustrated at this point to fight him on it.

"Let's go then."

A few minutes later, they stood by her car in the dark parking lot. He kissed her gently.

"Goodnight, Mac. I'll see you in the morning. Call if you need anything."

"You know I will. Goodnight."

She squeezed his shoulder before climbing into the car and closing the door. When she glanced in her rearview mirror just before turning the corner, he was still standing where she'd left him, his body a lonely outline in the deserted lot.

 

 

 

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