"Geez, Kate, you look " Tony DiNozzo wrinkled his forehead and apparently thought better of his comment, "really good for 3 a.m."
Kate groaned, staggering to drop her laden duffle with a thud. "Where to?"
"Da Big Easy. Hurricanes, Mardi Gras, all the topless" He blinked innocently in the blast of Kates glare. "What?"
"Nouvelle Orleans," translated Ducky more eruditely, adding his own bags to the pile at the corner of DiNozzos desk. "Named in honor of the duc d'Orleans "
Looking way too alert -- probably, mused Kate enviously, because shed yet to go to bed Abby pogod on her toes in Duckys wake. "Oooo I know a guy down there that makes the best fangs."
"Fangs?" questioned Kate, digging in her purse to come up with her compact. She snapped it open, then taking a peek shut it tight again with a wince.
"You know, "Abby curled her upper lip and did her best Vladish imitation, "fangs."
"No vampires," demurred Kate.
Hands on black-clad hips, Abby considered this. "Whats wrong with vampires?"
In reply, Kate tilted her head in Tonys direction, "DiNozzos afraid of them."
"When I was five," protested Tony.
"Tony," Abby scolded, "the Nosferatu are our friends."
"Someone wasnt very good friends with Seaman Lewis." Gibbs moved Abby out of his way with a gentle push, overnight bag in hand. His other hand was wrapped around a paper cup of coffee and a stack of crime photos, which Abby snatched as he went by.
"Wow. Im just hoping he was pale to start with." She frowned at the glossy papers. "This just come in?"
Gibbs took them back. "Hot off the fax."
"Well wheres my copy?"
"Full details and photos were sent to your lab, Abs."
"Cool," murmured Abby, a finger twirling in the chain of the oversized silver cross she had hanging around her neck. "Weve never had an exsanguination."
Gibbs passed the victims photos to Ducky, gathering up the rest of the team with a sweep of his arm. "Come on, people. Weve got a plane to catch." He gestured a recalcitrant Tony toward the elevator. "You got a problem, DiNozzo?"
"Boss, did she just say exsanguination?"
"Indeed, she did," replied Ducky, shuffling the photos to find the tightest close-up. "Looks like they pierced the carotid." He reshuffled the stack. "I presume they placed the body in some sort of tableau after the fact. Otherwise there should be a considerable amount of blood."
Waiting, Gibbs took a deep swallow of his coffee. "There is no such thing as vampires, Tony."
"Historically---," began Ducky, still lingering over the photos.
"Ducky? The plane " reminded Gibbs.
"Oh, right." The ME gave a crooked smile and stooped down for his bags.
"Come on, Tony," Kate bumped the unmoving body with her purse. "If you get nervous Ill loan you my crucifix."
Having managed to herd the ME into the elevator, Gibbs released the button holding the door open. "You two get a move on or youre taking the stairs."
A suddenly motile Tony lunged for the rapidly closing doors and managed to squeeze in before they shut altogether. On the other side, Kate looked at her silver, distorted reflection and sighed.
"The stairs have no DiNozzo," she murmured at her reflected self. "Therefore, the stairs are good."
At 3 a.m., October in DC had been a chilly 44 degrees. When they stepped off the borrowed Lear, four hours later into the Louisiana dawn, it was at least a relatively balmy 62. Tony stopped and stretched in the open air, getting the kinks out from the cramped ride.
"We drop Ducky off at the lab and then we hit the crime scene," announced an already striding Gibbs. Behind him, the less energetic trio gathered up their gear and straggled after him.
"Its gotta be the caffeine," muttered Tony, earning a smirk from Kate. "Twenty-four hours a day. Seven days a week. Its like working for the damn energizer bunny."
Much louder he called after the rapidly retreating body. "You know where were going, boss?"
Gibbs stuck out a folder-filled hand. "That way."
"Oh," murmured Tony, resettling his backpack. "That way. Were going that way, Kate."
"Main terminal," supplied a slightly breathless Ducky. "Car rental."
"Itll be rush hour by the time we get it," Kate noted.
This brought a grin from Tony. "You think that will stop him?"
Ducky caught his breath and Kate squinted at her BlackBerry while Gibbs argued with the rental clerk.
"I dont care what the request said, I ordered a sedan," floated across the empty patch of terminal.
"Twenty-three minutes," reported Kate. "Ten-point-seven miles between the airport and the crime lab."
Tony balanced on his toes. "Eight a.m., give or take a few minutes. Monday morning, so everyone will be running a little late. Give me," he glanced over at Gibbs straight back, "thirty-seven minutes tops."
The ME, too, glanced toward the rental desk, assessing the situation. "Hes already irritated. I say we arrive at the door in no more than twenty-eight."
"I dont care if its clean!" The open corridor echoed the snapped retort slightly, adding depth to Gibbs voice.
"Ill go for thirty-two," decided Kate.
"Fine. Just give it to me," growled Gibbs less audibly, taking the proffered keys roughly. He made for the door to the garage, not even looking backwards. "Get your butts in gear!"
Kate could feel the rental clerk looking at them sympathetically as they trudged along with the burden of their bags.
"You are definitely buying me dinner," observed Ducky as the door Gibbs had departed through slammed back in their faces.
"Whoa," Tony admired, tossing his gear into the already open trunk. "Way to go, boss."
"I wanted a sedan," muttered Gibbs.
"But a convertible, boss, its got style."
Gibbs opened the drivers-side door distrustfully. "Dont want style."
"Wouldnt have guessed that," murmured Tony, lifting Duckys bags into the trunk as well and holding out his hands for Kates. "This is going to be a fun trip."
"If I were you," advised Kate, handing her packed duffle over, "Id put on my seatbelt."
Ducky gripped the front seat as the Sebring slammed to another halt, this one just feet short of the turn off Tulane Avenue and into the squat crime labs parking lot. He moved his left wrist unobtrusively into Kate and Tonys line of sight, the stopwatch function of the digital he wore ticking off another minute closer to twenty-eight.
"We should eat somewhere pleasant, tonight," he offered, breaking the silence that had previously been interrupted only by an occasional gasp from the back seat as Gibbs slid three-thousand pounds of Chrysler in and out of the hectic New Orleans morning traffic. "Perhaps Antoines. They invented Oysters Rockefeller, you know."
"Expensive?" asked Tony mournfully.
"A bit," admitted the ME.
Gibbs gunned the motor as if he was really considering of going through the minivan in front of them. When the traffic started its crawl, he took a sharp right, bouncing the wheels over the curb before gliding to a relatively controlled stop.
"I appreciate your alacrity, Jethro," the ME managed with due solemnity as he climbed out of the car. "I shall call you when I know something."
Gibbs waved a hand at him, barely waiting for the trunk to be shut before they were off again.
"They hose down the streets?" Kate looked at the shiny remnants of water puddling the cracks of Toulouse Street.
"Every night," said Tony.
The back alley cordoned off by yellow police tape was relatively untouched but anything theyd hoped to get from the surrounding area was now washed down the Orleans Parish gravity collection system. Gibbs ducked under the tape, offering his credentials, then giving an appraising eye to the young patrolman standing guard.
"You let them wash down the streets."
The young officers unlined forehead almost creased. "Not the crime scene, sir."
"Do you think maybe you ought to have cordoned off the entire alley?" questioned Gibbs rhetorically.
"I suppose," the patrolman began, only to cough uncomfortably under the intensity of Gibbs gaze. "I can see your point, sir."
"DiNozzo," ordered Gibbs, mentally dismissing the member of New Orleans finest, who happily moved to stand guard a little further away. "Measurements and photos."
"Yeah, boss, Im on it."
"Kate, walk the perimeter."
"Got it, Gibbs."
Gibbs paced, squinting up and down the alley, finally coming to rest toed against one of the strips of white tape that outlined the position of the body.
"Why here?" he threw the question out into the air.
Kate shrugged, her hands holding the meager items shed thought deserved to be bagged. "Its dark. Most of the foot traffic is on the main street."
"He was killed nearby," predicted Tony. "Wouldnt want to take a body far in the French Quarter."
"No blood," observed Gibbs, looking down at the cracked asphalt. "Where did it go?" He fixed Tony with a mild gaze. "And dont say vampire, Tony."
"Well, it could be a vampire," speculated Kate, looking cross when Gibbs started to open his mouth. "Im not talking about an immortal creature of the night. There are fantasy-prone personalities who adopt fantastic personas and live out carefully contrived storylines. An immortal being might be a compelling choice. "
"Okay," accepted Gibbs. "But that still doesnt tell me where the blood went." Ducking back under the tape, he moved to the alleys intersection with Toulouse, looking up and down the now neat and nearly empty street. After a few minutes, he called over his shoulder, "You two done?"
"Im good," reported Tony, scribbling a few final measurements on his pad.
"Not much to see," said Kate.
"Then we go see if Duckys turned up anything and then we find this Detective Branson."
"No defensive wounds. No sign of a struggle of any kind." Ducky paced around the unfamiliar autopsy table, occasionally laying a gloved hand gently on the pale, translucent flesh of the victim. "Looks like he bled out naturally, so, somewhere, theres one hell of a mess. Theres over five-and-a-half liters of blood in the human body."
"You got an uplink with Abby yet?" questioned Gibbs.
"Havent had the time," admitted the ME.
"You got anything you want to send her?"
"Not at the moment, no." Ducky turned back to the body. "I was just about to spread the ribs. The police tox reports are supposed to be imminent, but I havent gotten them yet."
"I need to check in and see if shes found out anything useful about Seaman Lewis." Gibbs gestured his other agents toward the morgue exit. "You get anything, you let me know."
The reply, a mumbled "always, Jethro," was lost in the whirring of Duckys saw.
"The world," reported the miniaturized Abby on the video screen, "is just full of interesting people."
"Our Seaman Lewis?" surmised Gibbs.
"Well, it seems the Seaman was AWOL."
"Actually, its the reason why hes AWOL thats so interesting." She paused for dramatic effect.
"Give it to me, Abs," prodded Gibbs, crossing his arms.
"See, hes a big fan."
On the smaller screen Abby was viewing, Gibbs shut his eyes, attempting patience. "A big fan of what exactly?"
Gibbs frowned. "Who?"
"Thats the culturally-astute bossman we all know and love," grinned Abby.
"Interview with a Vampire," offered Kate.
"Kirsten Dunst," Tony added.
The frown remained.
"The dude was a huge vampire fanatic," clarified Abby. "Im talking major Vlad freak here. He had an e-mail addy under the name Strigoi Viu."
"Meaning? snapped Gibbs crisply.
"A Strigoi Viu is a living vampire. As compared to your usual undead one. Sort of like a vampire-in-waiting. Its a Romanian thing your kid gets born with a tail or some interesting body parts and they think hes destined to be undead. The Strigoi Viu dont drink blood but they do practice psychic vampirism." Abby paused. She looked disappointed when Gibbs remained silent on this last fact. "Youre not going to ask?"
"Dont think I want to know, Abs."
"Well, moving on then," said Abby. "I tracked down his blog. He was looking for a vampire experience."
Tony raised a hand to the side of his neck. "This guy wanted to get bitten?"
"If he did, he picked the right place." Abbys pale hand twisted a hank of jet black hair. "Two days before Halloween in New Orleans? You cant get more vampirish than that."
"Where would he go to get bitten?" inquired Gibbs.
Abby sighed under the interrogation. "I should be down there. But given the givens, Ill just have to impart some of my wealth of cultural knowledge to you three. Tomorrow night, a few blocks from where youre standing, there will be the Halloween bash to end all Halloween bashes the Vampyre Ball. Thats with a y, Gibbs."
"It makes a difference?"
"It makes a difference," confirmed Abby. "According to his LJ, Seaman Lewis was planning on attending."
Gibbs put a hand to the tense muscles at the back of his skull. "LJ?"
"Live journal," put in Tony, shrugging under the resulting stares. "So, I read a few."
"Frat Girls from Naked U?" Kate grinned evilly. "The journal of Topless in Seattle?"
Gibbs gave them both a stern look before turning back to the camera. "Wheres this ball, Abby? How do we get there?"
"You, Gibbs " Abby hesitated, " dont. Honestly, theres no way youd fit in."
"Abby," Gibbs warned.
"Youre supposed to go in costume, Gibbs." She reached over and flipped a page in her scrawled notes. "The choices are: Dark Fetish, Goth, Arthurian, Edwardian, Vampire, Rubber or Victorian." She squinted at the screen, looking past Gibbs to Tony. "Im thinking Tony goes Victorian retro. Maybe dark pants with a white poets shirt. If hes the stand-in for Seaman Lewis, you want him to look like an enticing victim. Whites a standout color at one of these dos."
"What about me?" asked Kate.
"Definitely leather. Go as a dom, that way you get away with being visibly armed."
As Tony burst out laughing, Kate delivered a sharp kick to his ankle. With a hurt look, he bent down to massage the bruised flesh. "What was that for?"
Glancing up at a smirking Abby, Kate smiled. "Just practicing."
"I think you should trawl some bars tonight, get a feel for the whole vampire thing." Abby looked shyly toward Gibbs. "Well, at least thats what Id do "
"Its good, Abby," admitted the senior agent. "Get a plane ticket."
Abbys face lit with a luminous smile. "Youre kidding."
"No, youre our vampire expert and apparently we need one." He watched Abby bounce on her toes. "Todd and DiNozzo will do the undercover work, though. You are strictly here as support personnel."
"No ball," returned Gibbs flatly. "Get back with me with an ETA and Ill pick you up at the airport."
"Um, guys?" Abby still jittered with excitement. "Tonight -- black only, okay? A little
Victorian if you can find it. Rubber is always good if you cant."
Kate grimaced at the rubberized cat suit Tony held out. "One outfit at a time, Tony. She said Victorian."
"Or rubber," offered DiNozzo.
"God," groaned Kate, squinting at the size on an intricately corseted black dress in the reddish overhead lighting, "how does Abby shop like this?" She pulled the low-cut and long-skirted dress off the rack, holding it up under the dimly lit mirror. "I look like Elvira."
"Try it on," urged Tony, fingering a black and darkly emerald brocade vest.
"Leave me alone, Tony."
"Im not kidding, Kate. Try it on." Tony plucked the vest from the hanger and added it to dark pants dangling over his arm. "Trust me."
Tony pressed up against her back, reaching over to hold the dress at her shoulders. "I know what looks good on women. Just this once -- trust me."
"Fine," Kate shrugged out of his grasp. "Anything to get this over with."
Tony pointed her to the curtained dressing rooms. "You show me yours and Ill show you mine." The strangled groan he got in reply caused the grin to widen. "Come on, Kate, have some fun."
"All right. Fine. Ill meet you at the mirror."
"Need help lacing that puppy up?" he asked sweetly.
"Dont push it, Tony."
Kate put her hands on the hard corset stays and pressed, huffing slightly when she managed to get the last hook fastened. She pushed her hair up, moving back to take in the delineated curves of her waist and sighed down at her suddenly surprisingly ample cleavage. When a familiar hand snaked around her hips she looked up, blinking at the couple in the mirror. "We look like the cover of one of those tawdry romance novels."
"Cool, huh?" replied Tony, turning to admire the cut of the tight pants and the shimmer of the vest above the satin black silk of his shirt.
"That wasnt exactly my reaction," said Kate.
"Were buying them," decided Tony authoritatively.
"We are," she returned, unconvinced.
"Unless you want to try on that rubber suit."
Defeated, Kate sighed again. "Were buying them."
Kate slapped away the hand that tried to place the wire. "I can do it."
"Hold still, Kate," ordered Gibbs, taking the wire from the offended crime lab tech. "We want it somewhere that no one will see."
"No ones going to see there," countered Kate, removing the device from Gibbs fingers, "including you."
He watched her haul up the silk skirt in one hand and stalk to the bathroom.
"What about you?" he asked DiNozzo.
The younger mans blue eyes looked worriedly toward the bathroom door. "Were going to do this solo, right?"
"Hows it going, Duck?" Having closed the door to the van and taken a quick look at the video monitor, Gibbs picked up the abandoned headset.
"You get Abby?"
"Dropped her at the hotel. Thought it might calm her down." He fiddled with the gain on the receiver. "DiNozzos wire is going in and out."
"I noticed," acknowledged the ME. "But I thought I better keep an ear to Kate."
"Seems to be. Had a few ardent admirers but they all seem to be interested in her biting them, rather than the other way around."
"What about DiNozzo?"
"Cant really make a lot of it out. He had a rather odd conversation with a man with a strangely affected accent. Seems he knew young Anthony in a previous life. He said hed visited him when he had a canopy bed."
"He offer to bite him?"
"No, not in the least. Just wanted to talk about Louis XV furniture, it seemed."
Gibbs pressed a couple fingers to the ache at his temple. "Tell me, Duck. Are we really sitting here hoping to get a vampire on tape?"
Exiting the last bar, Tony nodded toward a waiting Gibbs, grinning in approval over the now-topless car. "You put the top down."
"Abby put the top down." Gibbs frowned at the plastic cup in Tonys hand. "That better be ginger ale, DiNozzo."
"Off duty, boss," retorted the younger agent, leaning against the fender of the convertible in the early-hour dark, sipping the potent rum and fruit juice blend through a neon straw.
Gibbs twisted out of the way of a pack of drunken, beaded office workers, mainly women. Most of whom did an almost choreographed pirouette to keep a darkly costumed Tony in their sights. Gibbs rolled his eyes as Tony preened under the alcohol-lubricated giggling.
"Wheres Kate?" Gibbs snapped impatiently.
Tony chewed on the tip of the straw. "Ladies room."
"You feel like you got anything?"
"Besides a headache?" answered Tony, looking, suddenly, a little pinched and drawn in the yellow tint of the sodium streetlight.
"You okay?" The way the wire had been cutting in and out of the headset, Gibbs really didnt know what had gone on. What he had heard had, occasionally, been a little lurid, but nothing that should shake the man.
"There are some weird people on the planet, boss." Tony shook himself slightly trying to rid himself of the strange malaise that seemed to keep creeping up on him as the night went on. "Nobody offered to shish kabob my arteries, if thats what you mean."
Gibbs let him settle back against the car with just a nod. For all his loquaciousness, Tony sometimes came off of undercover assignments quiet and, almost, contemplative. Gibbs appreciated the need to take time to let everything settle without being forced to discuss it. Kate, on the other hand, he decided as the thin brunette emerged from the Olde Dungeon Bar, looked positively energized. He moved to intercept her, deciding an obviously flagging Tony might need the protection. "Give me a report, Kate."
Sweeping her rather voluminous skirt inside the car, Kate shut the door.
"Overall? Mostly young. Some of them bright. Most of them looking for peer-group acceptance. Except for the more sadistic fantasies, it just seems to be another way to fit in. I didnt get that most of them were actually looking to make their experiences real, although some of them talked a good game."
Gibbs looked her over critically. "How come you dont look like DiNozzo?"
"Two X chromosomes?" Kate grinned back. "I dont know. I found it all rather energizing. I dont usually get that much attention in bars."
"Dont usually dress like that," slurred Tony from the backseat.
Gibbs looked sharply in the rearview mirror. "How many of those drinks have you had?"
Looking slightly wounded, Tony turned the thin plastic tumbler in his hand. "One."
"One," repeated Gibbs, suspiciously.
"One. I swear." Tony frowned down at the remaining meager contents and pulled out the maraschino cherry, popping it into his mouth. "Im just tired." He met Gibbs gaze in the small rectangular mirror. "Been a 24-hour day, boss."
"All right," conceded Gibbs, "we go back to the hotel and get some sleep."
Doors between the three adjoining rooms were all swung wide open. They found Abby and Ducky ensconced in the last, Abby rapidly working the keyboard of her laptop and the ME kibitzing over her shoulder.
"Not bad, my sister-in-crime-fighting." Abby gave Kates dress two thumbs up. For Tony she had a more predatory gaze and an approving, "Yo, Tony."
Gibbs latched the door behind him. "You get a bite?"
"Cyberly-speaking," acknowledged Abby. She gestured Tony over. "Youve been a busy boy on the net."
Tony scrubbed a hand through his hair. "I have?"
"Oh, yeah. Of course, first I had to come up with a name. I thought about Bela Kiss, but thats kind of on the wrong side of things if you want to be the victim and not the biter. But I liked the way it sounded Bela Kiss, kind of like beautiful meeting of the lips."
"Abby," prodded Gibbs.
"Anyway, Bela was a serial killer and Tony just doesnt look like the serial killer type. So I tried this vampire-name generator and got Uriel de Pompadour, which was funny, but -- no. I went with Dhampir. It means vampires son. I logged into a few chat rooms, said I was in Nawlins for the next few days and that Id like someone to get my bite on."
"You got a reply?" asked Kate, taking one of the chairs, skirt settling in a silken rustle. When Ducky took a preternatural interest in the line of the corset, she self-consciously crossed her arms.
"I got replies, plural," Abby returned. "Most of them are gonna be all talk, but theres a couple that just might be who they say they are."
Gibbs looked over at Tony who was now slouched on the bed, the buttons of the brocade vest unbuttoned, the black silk shirt untucked.
Abby followed his gaze. "Youre not looking so good, Tony, my man."
"Long day," dismissed Tony, shrugging the vest off half-heartedly. "Tired."
Tilting her head, Abby looked at Kate. "You, however, look perky."
"Probably running on adrenaline." Kate shrugged at the look Gibbs gave her.
Abby turned back to Tony, causing all other eyes to fix on him as well. Tony shifted uncomfortably under the scrutiny. "You start feeling tired when you were talking to someone?"
A pale hand worried with one of the dark cloth-covered buttons. "Maybe that weird guy with the furniture-fetish."
"I think youve been bitten," deduced Abby.
Tonys hand flew to the side of his throat.
"Not physically bitten," Abby hastily amended. "Psychically bitten."
"Ill get my bag," said Ducky, retreating back into the next room.
Tony rubbed his throat again. "Youve got to be joking."
"I do not believe in psychic vampires," the physician reassured him as he returned to sink next to him on the bed. "But you do look a bit peaked."
Duckys fingers wrapped around Tonys wrist. "Pulse is nice and slow." He dragged a blood pressure cuff and a stethoscope from his leather case.
"Your bites?" Gibbs pointed a too-curious Abby back in the direction of the laptop.
"Got a couple people willing to meet Tony at the ball and help him with his lack of experience. One guys named Sergei and the other calls himself," Abby scrolled down the screen, "Goethe Drakul."
Reading the sometimes macabre dual chat Abby had going with the pair, Gibbs tuned out the murmuring between Tony and the ME -- until the physician was suddenly behind him, grasping his arm. "I sent Anthony to bed. His blood pressure is a little off, nothing to be alarmed about, probably will be back to normal in the morning."
"Normal for Tony or normal?" smirked Kate.
Gibbs ignored her. "Youre sharing with Abby. Ill take DiNozzo. Duck, you can go solo."
The ME waved a hand in thanks and made for the most distant room. Gibbs could see him stop for a moment and hold a soft conversation with an unseen DiNozzo halfway along his path.
Abby was in rhythm again at the keyboard. "Ill keep chatting for a while. If you want to go to bed, Kate, I can work in the dark. Itll be appropriate," she decided. She waved a dismissing hand in Gibbs direction "I find another biter Ill let you know in the morning."
DiNozzo was bundled under the covers, face-down and breathing deeply and slowly, by the time Gibbs re-opened the bathroom door, spilling light into the darkened room. In the shaft of illumination that struck the nearest double bed, Tonys face still looked oddly blanched. With a slight frown, Gibbs snapped the light off and waited a moment for his eyes to adjust to just the pale light seeping in off the well-lit street.
Tony muttered something unintelligible, burrowing deeper into the beds pair of pillows but didnt wake. In a moment Gibbs could see well enough to make his way to his own bed. He tossed a few minutes on the unfamiliar mattress, failing to get comfortable. Abby and Kates voices waxed and waned distractingly through the left-hand wall. Obviously not going to drop off immediately, he blanked his mind, determined to rest even if he couldnt sleep. He always needed a good hour of labor on the boat and a shot of bourbon to truly relax.
Mentally planing the hull framing, hed just about managed to cross the dividing line between nautical meditation and true sleep when Tonys voice suddenly echoed loudly in the confines of the dark room. The words were still garbled, but the tone was disturbed. Gibbs snapped on the light but Tony didnt wake; instead he twisted more into the sheets, perspiration beading on his forehead.
"DiNozzo. DiNozzo," he repeated. There was no response: just an increase in the panting breaths, a continuation of the pleading tone. "Tony!" he tried louder.
This brought the younger man bolt upright, hands scrubbing through sweat-dampened hair. "Gibbs?"
"Um," disoriented, Tony peered tiredly at his temporary roommate, "yeah, I think so. Weird dream."
"I it kept getting darker. And colder. And I thought " he trailed off, hands kneading the wrinkled sheets. "I thought I was going to die." A shudder went through him. "Guess I should have laid off the 150 proof."
"Go back to sleep, DiNozzo," ordered Gibbs. "It was just a dream." He met the still-shaken gaze. "Have a few of those myself."
At the hopeful query, Gibbs rolled over and faced the wall, drawing the covers back up around him. "Sleep, DiNozzo."
Kate emerged from the bathroom to find Abby observing her, arms crossed and a wily grin on her dark lips.
"You really got into it, didnt you?"
Kate picked up the discarded dress from where shed tossed it and hung it in the closet. "Maybe," she conceded. "Just a little."
"Just wait until tomorrow," promised Abby. "Well get you a whip."
"You need to live a little." Abby spun around a full three-sixty in the chair. "And I can tell youre gonna get off on it; you like torturing Tony way too much. Its in your blood."
Kate turned down the nearest bed. "I do not torture Tony."
"Yeah, you do," observed the lab tech.
"Well, Tony tortured me first."
"Our man Tony is not the torturing type. Its more playful than serious. Tony is teasing." She fixed Kate with an appraising look. "With you, its serious."
"God, you make me sound like a " Kate wrinkled her nose, "really bad person."
"You just need a place to express it. Get it out of your system. Release the inner bitch before she releases herself."
Kate crawled under the covers. "We are not having this conversation."
"kay," Abby capitulated, "but you gotta admit, you had a good time."
"Not having this conversation," wafted again from beneath the ornately floral bedspread.
"Ill turn off the lights," offered Abby, padding across to the switch. "Then Ill just get back to offering Tonys sweet neck to the masses."
Tony groaned and plunked the pillow over his head when Gibbs snapped the light on at seven.
"You can stay there," Gibbs informed him. "Ive got a meeting with Detective Branson."
"Need me to come, boss?" mumbled Tony, clearly hoping the answer was no.
"Nope." Gibbs made his way over to the door they shared with Ducky, knocking twice. "Duck?"
The door opened, the sound of the morning news drifting through. "In a minute, Jethro."
"Ive got to get dressed myself." Gibbs leaned in to find the ME shuffling through his case.
"I thought Id check Anthonys blood pressure."
"Good luck," muttered Gibbs, passing by the body tightly wound in the hotels sheeting as he made his way to the bathroom. Inside he could hear snatches of conversation between DiNozzo and the ME. The words "not to worry" and "just take it easy" traveled through the closed door.
"Duck?" inquired Gibbs when hed shaved and dressed. Hed exited the bath to find Tony once again oblivious to the waking world. "DiNozzo okay?"
"Hes got a headache and his blood pressure is still a little low. Nothing to worry about. Could be anything. Perhaps hes simply coming down with a virus."
"No psychic vampires?"
"Very doubtful," said Ducky.
"Hope hes up for shopping." Abby bore a drink holder and a large paper bag which she plunked down on the end of Duckys empty bed.
Gibbs gratefully took the coffee Abby pushed in his direction, taking a deeper sip when he realized it wasnt the usual weak hotel mix. He brought the cup up to eye-level.
"Café du Mondes French Roast," explained Abby. "I went for a walk. Didnt think youd go for the chicory. Youve got that no additives thing going on."
"You been asleep, Abs?"
The glossy ponytails swirled in negation. "Nope, but Ill catch a nap later. Beignet?" She fished into the bag and handed one of the still warm, white-sugared pastries to Ducky, smirking at Duckys "Une bien jolie petite marchande de beignets!"
"Les marchandes de beignets ont les lèvres roses," she pointed out smartly.
"So they do," acknowledged Ducky with a laugh.
"French doughnut," she translated for Gibbs. Digging out one of the doughy delicacies for herself, she sat down in the floor, back against the bottom of the bed. "Got Tony two dates. Same pair I told you about last night. Other than that, hell just have to stand there and look edible and see if anybody "
"Dont say bites, Abby," cautioned Gibbs, ignoring the pastries in favor of snagging a second coffee.
"Makes a move," she finished. "You guys going to see the homicide dude?"
"The homicide dude," reported Ducky, "seems quite happy to leave this particular homicide in our hands."
"Too little manpower. Too many murders." Gibbs popped the lid off the cardboard cup. "Not all of them hang on to a case like DiNozzo."
"Yes, well, we can do without repeating that particular tug-of-war in the New Orleans Harbor as well." Ducky grinned slyly. "Although fishing both of you out of the Baltimore Inner Harbor was rather" The ME stopped, enjoying the uncomfortable tension in the shoulders of the senior agent. "Im sure Abbys heard that story enough."
Gibbs snagged the keys to the rental off the rooms desk. "Well be back. Were going to pick up another van for tonight, then you can have the car to get what you need."
"And the credit card?" asked Abby, blinking with studied winsomeness at his feet.
"And, though I may regret it," acknowledged Gibbs, "the credit card."
"Get some sleep, Abs." Gibbs pointed toward the rooms unused bed. "Consider it an order."
"Hey, DiNozzo, rise and shine." Gibbs slapped lightly at the blanketed lump. "Its almost one."
A thoroughly tousled head rose from out of the floral depths. "One?"
"One oclock," confirmed Gibbs. "Youve got a shopping trip."
"Oh, yeah." Tony pushed his way up to sit cross-legged on the bedding. He rubbed at his stiff neck. "Cant Abby just buy something?"
"No," Gibbs replied. "Now get up and get moving."
"Easy for you to say," muttered Tony, swinging his legs down and planting his bare feet on the carpet. He gestured toward the shower, "Gotta go"
"So, go," ordered Gibbs. "Ill be next door. Kate and Abby are waiting, so get a move on."
"This is not your fathers shopping mall," explained a gleeful Abby as she ushered her charges down the brick sidewalks and wrought-iron balconies of Bourbon Street. She stopped to reach back and roust Tony from the posters at Big Daddys.
Kate opened her mouth to make a comment, but decided against it. DiNozzo looked like he was dragging, despite his half-hearted attempts at feigning interest in the swinging mannequin legs. "Does Tony seem off?" she whispered to Abby when theyd easily outpaced him again.
They both looked back at the figure behind them. Tony had his hands stuffed in his khakis and was barely lifting his feet enough to shuffle along.
Abby grimaced thoughtfully. "Did you see who all he talked to last night?"
"Sometimes," said Kate. "Sometimes we were working different parts of the room."
"You meet anybody draining?"
"Youre kidding with this psychic vampire stuff, right?"
"Hey, weve all met them," retorted Abby. "Even if we didnt call them that people who just seem to suck the energy right out of you. Think about Proffitt down in accounting. Even talking to her just sucks the pleasure from your bones."
"Some personality types are tiring," Kate admitted. "But Im not going to go around calling them vampires."
"Why not?" Abby stopped, allowing their straggler to catch up with them. She took Tonys hand in hers, automatically rubbing a little warmth into the cool skin. "Perk up, Tony. Ill let you pick out Kates accoutrements."
At least this got a smirk, even if a slightly wan one.
"You wouldnt dare," muttered Kate.
"Im thinking -- riding crop and a spider whip." Abby kept Tonys hand in hers.
"How bout a studded spanker?" Tony added after a moments thought.
"Oooo, good one," approved Abby, feeling the fingers in hers start to warm.
"One more word and Im walking over there," proclaimed Kate, pointing to the other side of the car-less street.
"Gotta cross anyway," said Abby suddenly, heading them straight for an almost hidden black and blood-red alcove. "We dont find what we want here, theres a toy shop down the street."
"Toy shop?" frowned Kate, not too happy with the near pitch-black interior of the open door.
"Sex-toys, Kate." Tonys grin was a little stronger. "You know: your inflatable man and that little pump"
Kate reached out and smacked him none-too-gently on the bicep.
"Im not putting that on."
"Trust me," said Abby, holding up a shiny PVC lace-up top. "Youre going to look fabulous."
"Im not putting that on," Kate declined again.
"I still like the rubber cop outfit," added Tony helpfully.
"Then we do the leather cat suit," said Abby. "No matter what it does to the bossmans credit card." She reluctantly put the top back on the rack. "Come on, back to the leather section. You can go try it on while Tony and I accessorize." She glanced down at Kates sensible shoes. "What size shoe do you wear?"
Kate made her way back to the rack of cat suits. "Why does this not encourage me?"
Abby took down a size four and sighed at the price tag. "All good things must have a price," she repeated, stealing herself. She handed the $300 suit over. "Go forth and try on. Shoes?" she called after Kate, huffing when her query was ignored her. "Fine. Well do the shoes last. Come on Tony." Abby gathered up her other wayward charge. "We gotta get you some Vic duds."
"Perfect!" Abby nearly squealed, hauling a ruffled and laced, gauzy, white shirt down from the wall rack. "I had such a thing for Shelley as a kid. I mean, he died sailing the Don Juan. Like anything could be more romantic?"
"What is it with women that they get off on dead poets?"
"Its an ethereal thing." Abby quickly turned to her left and started rummaging through hangers of black pants. "Here," she handed over a pair of velvet jeans.
"I think I draw the line at velvet, Abs."
"Vampires are sensual creatures." Abby rubbed a hand up and down the nap of the cloth. "Touch is the most responsive sense." She pushed him toward the curtained changing rooms. "Go on. If youre out quick Ill let you help pick out the whip," she wheedled.
"You really should have had Gibbs down here," mused Tony through the thin cloth that served as the dressing rooms doors. "Now that would be something to see."
"Id like to remain employed, Tony."
"Hey, I think he was a little hurt when you said he wouldnt fit in at the ball."
"Bossman? I dont think it would work but he would look delish in a cape, maybe thigh boots, let his hair grow out some. Oh yeah, it could be good." Abby considered this, still hanging outside DiNozzos curtained alcove. "Kate?" She called up the line of curtains. "You coming out?"
"Okay, fine. Then Im coming in. Stick your hand out so I know where to go."
To her surprise, three hands stuck out of the closed drapes. Fortunately the other two were male.
"Hey, I wanted to see," protested Tony, when Kate emerged back in her jeans and sweater, cat suit thrown over her arm.
"You see tonight, Tony," promised Abby. "And weve got accessorizing to do."
Kate fingered the lace at the collar of Tonys shirt. "My grandmother had a bedskirt just like that."
"Snarky, Kate," said Tony. "Just snarky."
"Its the truth," Kate protested. "I recognize that lace."
"Truce," Abby separated them. "Shoes are over there. That means heels, Kate. Heels. Tony go find some boots." She looked down at Tonys shoes as well. "Heels are good there, too."
"The spikier the better, DiNozzo," put in Kate.
In his retreat, he waved a dismissing palm toward them.
"Think our boys feeling better," decided Abby. "I was a little worried."
"I feel just like Dr. Frankenstein. Or," considered Abby, "maybe Dr. Frank N Furter."
Gibbs looked up from the communal laptop and frowned slightly as Abby sang softly: In just seven days I can make you a man.
Ducky exchanged an amused gaze with her over Gibbs head as she warbled the final note. "Its just a jump to the left," he said with a small, sly grin.
"If you two are planning to do the Time Warp," Gibbs typed a few more letters on the keyboard, "Im leaving."
"Gibbs! You know your Horror? Maybe I was wrong about the whole uptight thing."
"You werent wrong, Abs," Gibbs reassured. "Now, about your creations "
Abby rapped on the adjoining door. "You guys ready?"
The mumbling from inside the other room didnt sound too enthusiastic.
"Ta da!" crowed the lab tech, despite this, swinging the door back to reveal a somewhat bemused DiNozzo. Abby cut around him into the room. "Wheres my dom?" Grabbing Kates hand she pulled her into view and gave another "ta da!"
"This was not my idea," said Kate, tugging at the tight leather.
Gibbs tilted his head. "Whered you put the gun?"
"Ive got it, "assured Kate, doing her best not to squirm.
"Nice whip," observed Gibbs laconically.
"The spiked paddle was my idea," put in Tony, leaning a ruffled wrist the doorframe.
"You got a wire under there, too?" Gibbs inquired, looking her up and down with a technical eye.
"Shes wired," Abby reassured. "Already tested. Tony, too."
Gibbs gaze moved down to the stiletto heels of Kates boots. "Can you walk in those things?"
"Better than DiNozzo." Kate nodded down toward Tonys almost equally high stacked heels.
"So? Cool?" inquired an impatient Abby.
Gibbs held up his hands. "Youre the expert."
"Well, I think they look gorgeous." She tweaked the lacing on Tonys shirt. "I mean who could resist that?"
"We hope not Seaman Lewis killer," observed Gibbs, bringing the silliness to a halt. "We all on the same playbook?"
"Were good," said Abby. "Tonys supposed to meet Sergei by the front door and Goethe, later, in the brick courtyard." She did some final arranging of the belt circling low on Tonys hips. "Sergei is going to be wearing a red cape and Goethe says hes a got a scalp tatt an ankh. Shouldnt be too many of those. Well be in the van. Kate will be roaming the halls with her whip. Should be everything we need."
"Then lets go," Gibbs ushered Abby and Tony out the door, but his hand held Kate back. Ducky shrugged past them into the hall, while Kate looked at him quizzically, finding herself nearly at eye-level with Gibbs thanks to the spiked heels of the boots.
"I want you to keep an eye on DiNozzo."
Kate frowned at the worry she saw in the blue eyes. "Something wrong?"
Uncharacteristically Gibbs tilted his head back, breathing deeply, finding something apparently fascinating about the hotels ceiling. "You ever get these feelings? Like somethings about to go wrong you just dont know what it is?"
"No." Kate shook her head. "Not really."
"Me either," said Gibbs. "But Ive got one now."
Kate found herself looking toward the hallway and she lowered her voice. "So, how do you know its DiNozzo and not one of the rest of us?"
"I dont," Gibbs admitted. "But hes the one in the spotlight tonight. So "
"Ill watch him." Kate assured him, stepping back and stumbling, her ankle turning. Gibbs hand bit hard under her arm, holding her up. "Just hope I dont have to run," she mumbled, straightening.
Hard, slashing guitar licks resounded off the flat black walls and the press of bodies reminded Kate of nothing so much as a mosh pit. A nineteenth-century mosh pit of black ball gowns and walking sticks, the vintage feel only broken by the occasional shine of black PVC. Conversational shouts of recognition broke through the din. By bodyslamming her way out something apparently expected from her costume, the rudeness being met with knowing smiles -- she managed to settle near the bar beside a sign offering appropriately-named drinks: The Necrophile, The Autoerotic Asphyxiation.
She surveyed the lay of the room, the party taking up what were originally two or three old Creole townhouses, darkened rooms branching off to lead into even more darkened rooms. At least Tony was easy to spot in the gloomy masses: the white shirt standing out like a beacon, his light brown hair looking almost blond among the dyed tresses.
He dipped his head to answer some question and Kate strained to see his conversational partner a petite Goth in a flowing medieval dress. Then another black-clad body blocked her view. A metallic tapping on the bar drew her distracted attention. She followed the silver claw-tipped finger up to the ruby red cabochon coiled in the odd pieces metal threads then to a solid wrist banded by delicate lace.
"It is a good night for prey." As far as accents went, Kate had heard better, but his smile was disarming. The silver finger moved to thread through the leather strands of the whip. "Both the kinds we seek."
Kate managed to cover her gulp with a toss of her hair. "And what kind do you seek?"
He laid a ten on the bartop, a pedestrian motion except for the tap of the sharpened silver point, and received a glass of merlot in return. "Why the kind that seek me." He lifted the clawed finger, watching Kates eyes move with the motion. "You should get one. It would add to your " he lifted the braided strands again, " pleasure."
Then with a practiced turn, one that swirled the black cape he wore, he was gone.
And, Kate realized, scanning the room again so was Tony.
Which a succinctly whispered "fuck," Kate pushed her way back through the entranceway crowd.
Tony looked longingly at the hurricane glass full of light rum, contreau and cream his latest fanged admirer was waving in his face with drunken aplomb. With the heat of heavily clothed bodies making the tiled foyer cloyingly warm, he felt drained. Without anybody taking so much as a nibble at his neck, he already felt desiccated.
"That is not the appropriate aphrodisiac. You can do much better." The voice in his ear was sinuous, lilting, and, unlike that of his drink-bearing admirer, very, very male. That hed jumped like a startled McGee only added, Tony reassured himself, to his virginal performance.
"Sergei?" Tony forced his lips to curve into a smile.
"Quite a beautiful neck."
"Um, yeah," Tony found his hand moving of its own accord, upward, toward his carotid. He fisted it, bringing it down to his waist.
A strong grip circled his clenched hand. "Come."
Trusting Kate had his six, he went.
"Hes with Sergei," reported Gibbs, his hand moving to steady the earpiece against his ear. He glanced at Abby. "Tell me Kates got them."
"Uh," Abby bent her head trying to make out the individual words against the white noise of the house band. "The receiver keeps cutting in and out."
One-handed, Gibbs spun the black box around, "I thought you switched them."
"I did. There could be something in the area thats interfering with the wavelength." She thumped at the plastic casing. "Kates talking to someone. I cant make out exactly what shes saying."
"Does she have him or doesnt she?" snapped Gibbs.
A distinctly muttered "fuck" rang clearly through the earpiece.
"Id say," Abby swallowed uncomfortably, "thats a no, Gibbs."
Kate jumped in place, trying to see over the heads of the crowd stalled in the narrowing hallway. Finally she put a hand over the whip and pulled it out off the tightly cinched belt. Stepping back to give herself a tiny margin of free space, she cracked it. Hard. "Move!" she ordered, aware of the bemused stares she was receiving. "Now!"
Amazingly, they moved.
It took a couple of well-placed snaps of the braided thongs but in a minute or two she was finally at the stairwell. She stopped for a moment, looking for privacy and finding a small unoccupied corner she could lean into and speak distinctly in the direction of the wire.
"I lost him. Im in the stairwell to the left off the entranceway. Im going to try the second floor."
Gibbs slammed the door of the van open. "Ill cover the back." He nodded toward the glow of the artificial torches lighting the front door. "Abby, go in there. See if you can find them. Duck?"
The ME was already seated at the bench, an earpiece in each hand. "Ill keep an ear to them." He tilted his head toward the video feed of the brickwork front of the building. "And an eye out."
Gibbs caught the first headset slung toward him in a one-handed catch and handed it to Abby who pocketed it for the time being. He put the second one on.
"Tach 1," instructed Ducky.
Abby waved her ticket under the nose of the tattd bouncer guarding the door, holding the back of her other hand out for inking. She glanced briefly at the slight smearing of the red pentagram then dove into the semi-controlled chaos inside.
She headed to the right, glancing in crowded rooms as she passed them, looking for the telltale white of Tonys shirt. Having made the right-hand circuit she circled back; then, having passed the stairwell and a closed door on the left, she spotted a smidgen of white in the reflected light of the grate in one of the quieter rooms. Heart pounding loud enough to wake the undead, she slid in against the wall.
"I still have him."
Gibbs settled into the skinny shadows afforded by the lights in the back alley and whispered into the headsets mike. "He sound okay?"
Gibbs didnt like the MEs hesitant tone. "Do I need to break it up?"
"We dont even know quite where he is, Jethro," Ducky cautioned. "Let Kate and Abby spot him."
"Tell me what theyre saying." He pressed further back into the shadows as a couple walked by.
"He offered Tony a knife," confessed the ME.
It was not a reassuring answer. "For what?"
"He wants Tony to cut himself."
Gibbs gritted his teeth. "The idiots not going to do it, is he?"
Duckys reply came in precise, British-accented tones. "I believe its a test of whether he will yield control. The milieu of vampiric encounters is usually one of submission to an overwhelming dominance."
"I got him." Abbys whispered report hissed through the earpiece.
"Where?" questioned Gibbs sharply.
"One of the first-floor rooms near the stairwell."
"Ducky still has him on wire but keep an eye out." Gibbs drew in a deep breath. "Hes got a knife."
Abbys gaze fixed darkly on the back of the red cape. "Sergei?"
"He wants Anthony to practice a little self-bloodletting," muttered Ducky.
Abbys eyes widened. "Hes not going to do it, is he? I can go over there."
"No." Gibbs order was firm. "Let DiNozzo do his job. He can handle it. You just keep an eye on things. If it starts to go bad, I can be there in under a minute."
Tonys hand trembled ever so slightly as he took the knife but, embarrassingly, he couldnt quell either the faint shaking or the disbelief he could actually do this, even in pursuit of a murder suspect.
A cold hand turned his free one. The pad of a thumb caressed his inner wrist. "The beat of life may be felt in many places in the body." The silver spike he wore on his index finger pressed lightly on the radial artery. "Here." The other hand pressed Tonys thigh. "Here." The light pressure left a kind of tingling behind even after it had moved to his temple. "Even here."
Pupiless eyes appraised him. "But I promised you an aphrodisiac first, didnt I? One shouldnt make promises he cant keep."
The cool, metal point resting on his wrist dug deeper and Tony pulled out of the clasp, looking numbly at the drop of blood that welled deep red from the pricking. He was still standing, as if his knees were locked in place, but he felt he was receding across some vast darkened plain, the firelit room speeding its light away in retreat.
He swallowed, his throat suddenly irritated and dry, and managed to get one last word out of his increasingly numb tongue. "Gibbs."
"Abby, Tonys in trouble. Move!"
Abby shot upright from her slouch against the wall and rushed toward the bit of white she could see retreating, now, toward the far door offset from the fireplace. She zigzagged through the rooms crowd, one hand on the earpiece, the other pushing the recalcitrant out of her way. She pushed by one tattd bicep only to find her wrist caught in a strong unmoving grasp. She looked up in surprise and gasped at the smooth-skulled owner of the hand that gripped her. The ankh tattoo moved slightly with the rise of his shaven eyebrows.
"Goethe!" she gasped.
"I know you?"
Tonys white shirt disappeared into the press of the corridor.
"I gotta go." She tried futilely to twist out of the restraining grasp.
"Let her go."
Abby stilled at the familiar voice.
"Its small, but it shoots." Kate reported, revealing the palm-sized weapon. "So let her go."
Abby rubbed her released wrist. Kate snapped the shiny handcuff from where they hung at her hip. "Why dont you try wearing these?" She nodded at Abby. "Go find DiNozzo."
"You got him?"
"Oh yeah, I got him. Ill take him out to the van." Kate glared at the curious audience theyd acquired. "He has this bad-cop fantasy." She kicked at the booted heels. "Move it."
Tony staggered numbly along, feet seeming to do the bidding of someone else besides him, as he was quite sure, even in this oddly inebriated state, that this was no one he wanted to be following down a dark corridor. His wrist burned where the sharp metal had pricked it and his vision was starting to stretch and bend in unnatural, stomach-turning ways.
Dream. He mentally reassured himself. Just a dream.
One of his vampire dreams, the ones hed had as a kid in the big, canopied bed. Rococo. He tried to wrap his tongue around the word. Thats what you called it, the gilt monstrosities of his youth: rococo. His mother would roll the word around, make him laugh.
Just a nightmare.
Gibbs had them too.
And if Gibbs had them, it was okay.
He stumbled and hands slammed him into the sharp corner of a doorframe. A face too close too his, sharp teeth gleaming in the low light.
He didnt like this dream. Not at all.
Gibbs barreled his way through the back door, his tweed jacket incongruous among the monotonous black of the celebrants. Halfway through, he met a breathless Abby.
"Hes not that way," panted Abby. "Kates got Goethe."
"Tonys other vampire. He tried to stop me." She drew a couple more deep breaths. "They might be working together. She took him to the van."
"Keep looking," he ordered. "Ill go see this Goethe."
"Hes not talking."
Gibbs gave Kates report a curt nod. "Maybe not to you. Get back in there and find DiNozzo."
"Gibbs, I" she went silent under the unforgiving gaze.
"You lost him, Kate. Least you can do is make sure you find him."
The muscles along her jaw spasmed. "Yes, sir."
Tony landed, hard, on his knees. It seemed colder now. And darker. Everything too distorted to make out. He tried to turn his head against the fetid breath huffing against his cheek. Maybe he didnt need to stay alert. If it were just a dream, he decided, Gibbs couldnt expect a report. Hed understand and wouldnt blame him. Even Gibbs would blame him for that.
His arms were pulled harshly over his head. The meager warmth afforded by the thin shirt was stripped away and Tony whimpered. He heard the sounds leak from his throat and he flushed, humiliated, despite the chill shaking him. Pain ripped across his chest but he held this cry in his throat.
His attempt to focus better on the thin strip being dangled in front of him failed. He watched a fuzzy fist crumple the object.
"Many wish to find me, to be led to me, but only the chosen may come."
Tony closed his eyes. Maybe hed wake up soon.
Abbys frantic dartings made little breaks in the packed corridors that Kate easily followed. She could see the twin black ponytails bobbing as Abbys gaze swiveled from left to right and back again.
"Anything?" she asked when she caught up to her.
"Uh uh." Abby pinched her bottom lip between her teeth. "Ducky see anything?"
"Nothing out the front," reported Kate, "and Gibbs had the back."
Abby pushed her way out of the hall and stopped to study the staircase. "Roof or basement?"
"Neither. Youre not armed."
"Then I wont shoot anybody. If I see something, I can call for help." Abby tapped the headset.
Kate looked up and down the stairs. "Okay," she acquiesced, "make sure someones on the other end of the line, then take the roof." Kate re-firmed her grip around the small pistol. "Ill take the basement."
"Im here, Abby. I can hear both you and Kate." Duckys voice cut in. "Ill be here. Do as Kate says. If you find them, dont try to interfere. The city police are on the way."
"What about Tonys wire?"
"Theres been nothing for a while. I have it open, just in case."
"Mmm, okay, Im going up the stairs."
"Be careful, Abby," admonished the ME.
The reply was a quietly murmured "yep."
It was still cold.
Tony tried to writhe against the damp feel of the concrete underneath his bare back but his muscles wouldnt cooperate. He could feel the silver fingertip rub along the line of sticky adhesive left by the wire and he shivered under the metallic touch. There was a low buzzing in his ears now, surreal words ebbing and swelling on its noisy tide.
"Just an appetizer while we wait. A small indulgence. Goethe surely will not mind."
Again, an instinctive whimper rose from Tonys throat before he could stop it.
"Never to have been taken." The sharp touch moved to the hollow of his throat and stroked there a moment. "The joy of pure essence."
The buzzing returned and then cleared again. The metal dragged a chilling line across his throat before it stopped to stroke again, directly beneath the jaw.
"Just a prick to pierce the life waters."
It didnt hurt as Tony had expected.
It was still dark.
Except where the warmth trickled, liquid and molten.
The chain hanging against the wrought iron grillwork of the door blocking the basement hallway was unlatched, and Kate took the heavy lock swinging from the bottom link in her hand, turning it over to rub a finger along the keyhole. She couldnt tell if it had been picked, but it seemed unlikely youd leave the wine cellar, as proclaimed by the Gothic-lettered sign on the door, open with a party of hundreds raging overhead.
"The door to the wine cellar is unlocked," she whispered, bending in the direction of the wire. "Gibbs might want to get down here."
A gentle metallic tinkling, like metal falling from some small height, came clearly from beyond the gate, through the wall-shaking bass of the band.
Gibbs pointed the two pairs of officers toward the front entrance, following them into the heated crush of moving bodies. Hed just branched off, in search of the staircase when Duckys "Jethro!" hissed through the headset.
"Theres a wine cellar. Kate thinks"
Gibbs cut him off. "Wheres the damn staircase?"
"According to Abby theres a pair of them, on either side of the entrance, about halfway down the hallway."
"Got it. Get those cops down here."
Gibbs took the risers two at a time, stumbling but not falling when he jumped the last four; his clattering landing not even disturbing the intertwined couple nestled in the corner.
The basement hallway was empty.
It was the harsh breaths she heard first: the hard, rasping pants that she came to realize were not distress, but a kind of excitement. The sound alone turned her blood cold.
And the vision of the hulking form kneeling over an unconscious Tony, the moon-face pressed into Tonys exposed neck, the reddened tongue Kate swallowed back her gasp before it could materialize. She measured the weight of the Glock 26 in her hand, mentally putting the meager power of the 9 mm shells against the possible danger he could inflict to his helpless victim. Against the flow of red from which he was suckling.
And she stepped from the cover of the wine racks and fired until the small gun went silent.
"Get those EMTs down here!" Gibbs bypassed a shaking Kate to kick the bloody form away from DiNozzo. He knelt in the small triangle of available space now washed with blood both Tonys and his attackers. Wiping away blood with his bare hands, he located the wound: a tiny triangular incision. Nothing like the severance that had bled Chris Pacci out in less than a minute but dangerous enough on its own, Tonys heart pumping out a little more of his lifes blood at each slow, arrhythmic beat. Gibbs grabbed the tattered remains of the white shirt and pressed gently against the flow, too aware that little could be done to stop the blood loss without causing more harm.
"Hang in there, DiNozzo."
When the lights were snapped on, Gibbs could see too clearly the translucence of his skin, the waxy, pale look of his face.
A hand took over from his and someone elses hands helped haul him up. Ducky, he identified dully. He stumbled back to give the physician room and Ducky knelt, steady hands moving in concert with those of the EMTs. Duckys quiet, sure "I am a physician" accepted without question.
The limp body was quickly and competently lifted, blankets piled deep and buckled down, IVs pierced with large bore needles into each arm.
The ME shook his head as the EMTs and patrol officers carefully lifted the gurney up the stairs. "I know much more about what can go wrong with a body, Jethro, than what can go right. Hes been heavily drugged with an unknown substance. His heartbeat is slowed and a little erratic. Hes lost some blood."
Kate was pale, Abby paler than you could rightfully be and still remain standing. Ducky managed a wan smile of reassurance for their benefit. "If they get him into the ER quickly, everything should be fine."
"Come on," ordered Gibbs. "Well follow the ambulance."
Kate didnt move.
She wouldnt meet his eyes. "I lost him."
"Yes, you did," acknowledged Gibbs. "But you, also, found him."
"What if it was too late?"
It wasnt a question Gibbs was ready to answer. "Dont give up yet, Kate. DiNozzo wont."
It was dark.
Tonys nose wrinkled faintly at the sharp scent of disinfectant and for a moment consciousness teased but the drugs sent him deeper into sleep again.
It was dark.
But at least it was warm.
Ducky leaned over the railings of the ICU bed and patted the arm of the figure lying flat there, noting the oxygen cannula and the small square of gauze at his neck. He checked the monitors, clucking a little at the blood pressure reading.
Abby was looking at him worriedly. "Its all right, Abby. You can touch him. Hell be glad to know hes not alone anymore."
"I hate hospitals," admitted the lab tech, her fingers shyly brushing Tonys. She wrapped them in hers cautiously. "Hey, Tony. Gibbs is on his forty-fourth cup of coffee and Kates taking this really, really bad, so we need you to kind of wake up and straighten us out, you know?" She rolled a thumb along the still knuckles. "Not right now, huh? Thats okay. Theyre gonna kick us anyway, Gibbs and Kate used up most of the time."
Braver now, she dipped a quick kiss to the bare skin of his forehead. "Were just outside, okay? Everybody."
"I I screwed up." Kate fastened her gaze on the rooftops visible in the pale morning light. "Again."
"You looked away for a few minutes and lost the target." Gibbs joined her at the window. "It happened. Next time youll take more care."
"The target was Tony." Kates voice was flat.
"Hes going to be okay."
"Matters to Tony." Gibbs put a hand on her shoulder. "Matters to us."
"I meant it doesnt negate"
"I know what you meant, Kate. And I know what guilt does to an agent. You can have your moment, but after that, you leave it lay."
He watched Kate draw an exceptionally deep breath. "Tony might have a say in that."
"No." Gibbs shook his head. "He wont. DiNozzo is a lot of things. Judgmental isnt one of them."
In the windows reflection Kate saw the waiting room doors open to reveal the rest of their pensive foursome.
Gibbs attention immediately moved to Ducky. "You talk to the doc? They get the tox report back?"
"Rohypnol and GHB, with just a bit of neurotoxin thrown in for good measure. Were lucky he didnt go into respiratory arrest. His system should clear out in a few more hours." Ducky stuffed his hands into his pockets and shrugged. "If its any consolation, with that chemical mix, its unlikely hell remember any of it."
The ME didnt know quite what to make of the mix of emotions this news brought to Kates face. "Caitlyn, are you all right?"
"Yeah," she returned. "Im fine."
The teenage girl whod answered the waiting room phone called out, "DiNozzo family?"
After a nod from Gibbs, Ducky accepted the receiver, listening for a few seconds before placing it back with a "thank you."
"Tonys awake. Hes asking for you, Jethro. They said you could go back."
"This is good, right?" said Abby. "Tell me its good."
"Should be," said Gibbs, rising from the chair. "Well see what he remembers."
Tony blinked fitfully as his heavy eyelids continued to shut against his will.
Dazed blue eyes opened again to regard Gibbs skeptically, as if he still wasnt sure what was real. "Boss?" Tonys voice was dry and wispy.
"Its me, Tony." Gibbs reached over the railing to clasp Tonys hand in his, fingers moving carefully around the pulse-ox monitor. "Im here."
"Hospital," identified Tony.
"Yeah." Gibbs nodded his approval. "You know how you got here?"
"You remember or you guess that?"
"Guess." Tony admitted, the word slurring sibilantly.
Gibbs smiled a little. "Good guess. You were drugged. Youll be fine, you just need to sleep it off."
Tonys forehead wrinkled. "drugged me?"
"Who drugged you?" clarified Gibbs. "The bad guys, Tony."
This received a weak chuckle. "You get em?"
Gibbs gave the hand in his a little squeeze. "Kate did."
"Tell her thanks." Tony blinked rapidly, trying to hold on to awareness.
"Go back to sleep, DiNozzo. Were right outside. Everything is fine."
The blue eyes closed and this time didnt open. A silent "okay" formed on Tonys lips, but then it, too, was lost to the pull of the darkness.
"Hey." Kate started awake to find Tony peering at her worriedly from the distance of the hospital bed. "What are you still doing here?"
"Um," she drew a hand up to swipe at the corner of her mouth, "sleeping, apparently."
"What time is it?"
The numerals on her watch face were blurry. "Six twenty."
Tony groaned at the information, his hands a bit clumsy as they tried to pull the rolling tray toward him.
Kate got up. "Need some water?"
"Need the whole pitcher. feel like I swallowed the desert."
She filled the Styrofoam cup with melted ice. "You lost some blood."
"Thought Gibbs said I was drugged." Taking the offered cup, Tony downed half of it with a thankful sigh.
"You were drugged so they could ..." Kates explanation trailed off to silence.
Frowning, his still sluggish mind finally putting two and two together, Tony brought his hand to the square of gauze. "He really bit me?"
"No, but I remember why we were here." His eyes widened. "He bit me?"
"Not exactly. He stabbed you. Luckily, he was waiting for his partner before he got down to serious dining, so you didnt lose enough for it to be fatal."
"You okay?" The still-dilated eyes gave her a once-over.
"You dont look fine."
"Im fine, Tony," she reiterated.
Gibbs shut the trunk on the convertible, bending to retrieve both his bags and Tonys. "No, DiNozzo." He waved a finger in Tonys direction as the younger man stooped down. "You are not carrying anything. Doctors orders."
"Im fine, boss."
Shuffling bags, Gibbs balanced the load of luggage. "Youve got stitches in your damn artery, Tony."
Tony gingerly fingered the square of tape and gauze. "Right."
Ducky gave a passing pat to his back and Abby handed him a bag of pralines. "You can carry this. Dont eat em," she warned. "Theyre for McGee."
"Gee, thanks, Abby." He waited for a straggling Kate. "I just dont get the whole McGee appeal."
"Love is blind."
"With McGee, it better be," grinned Tony. As they ambled toward the terminal, he frowned at the tight-lipped expression on Kates face. "What is it with you lately?"
When she stopped, abruptly, it took a few steps before Tony realized hed passed her. He turned back, raising his hands, one of them still dangling Abbys pralines, in a kind of what-the-hell-is-up expression.
"All right," confessed Kate, "I need to tell you something."
"So," shrugged Tony, "tell me and get it out of your system. Youre turning into Gibbs on one of his bad days."
"I lost you." The words came out fast, as if she had to get them all out at once or lose the opportunity. "At the ball. I got distracted and I lost track of you. Ducky still had you on the wire, at least for a while, and Abby managed to find track you down but she ran into Goethe and "
"That Sergei got as far as he did is my fault."
"Well," Tony pointed out, "you put ten nine-mil slugs in the bastard. Id say he got what he deserved." When this didnt get a reply he continued. "What distracted you?"
Kate blushed. "A man."
"Ah." Tony grinned. "So the professional Agent Todd succumbed to the charms of the opposite sex and got distracted."
"Yeah," said Kate tightly, moving again towards their destination.
"And this is disturbing because youve always thought you were better than me."
Kate stiffened. "Its not a question of better, DiNozzo."
"More professional, then," substituted Tony.
"All right." Kate halted again. "Yes. Ive always thought I was beyond that sort of thing."
"I, uh, thought so."
Kate peered at him, surprised by the quiet tone.
"I dont know what to tell you, Kate. Ive lived with being a screw-up all my life. Actually, most of the time Im surprised that stuff comes out right."
"Youre not a screw-up, Tony."
Tonys free hand combed through his hair. "Ill debate that, but heres not the place to be listing examples. Just trust me on this one."
"I didnt used to make these kinds of mistakes, but then I got too close to Major Kerry," Kate shook her head, "I got way too close to Suzane."
"And now you got too close to some what -- Goth vampire-wannabe?"
"You could have died, Tony."
"I didnt." Tony held out his arms and turned a full three-sixty on the asphalt. "Im still here. So, youre human. Hate to tell you this Kate, but the club of screw-ups is pretty big -- just me and all the rest of the population. So youre just like the rest of us? Suck it up. Youll live."
"Yeah," Kate agreed glumly. "I suppose I will."
"So, what was this distracting vampire-guy like?"
"I dont know. Tall. Black cloak. Kind of an odd accent. Had this weird armored jewelry on his finger. Kind of like the one Sergei had, but more like a claw with some kind of red stone."
"Dragons claw," murmured Tony.
"The other night, the guy with the furniture-fetish who said he knew me in another life He had this weird, armored claw-thing on his index finger. Theres only so long I can talk about scrolled toes on chairs, so I asked him about it. Even tried it on. He called it a dragons claw."
"The psychic vampire?"
Tony self-consciously cupped a palm to the wound at his neck. "If you believe Abby."
"No," said Kate, shaking her head. "There may be a few weirdos out there getting off on sucking down erhythrocytes, but I draw the line at believing some guy is sucking at my aura. Not," she considered, "that I believe I have an aura."
They started walking again, Kate frowning in thought. "He knew about your moms furniture?"
"No," corrected Tony, "he said hed visited me in another incarnation and there was a canopy bed."
"And then he wanted to talk about Madame Pompadours dining chairs?"
"Kate, I really dont want to relive the whole furniture thing again."
"Right," agreed Kate. She slipped through the terminal door Tony held open.
Gibbs had been waiting for them. "About time."
"We had a few things to talk out," explained Kate.
"Figured." Gibbs gathered the bags from the floor.
"Uh, wait," said Kate, dropping the ones she carried to the tile, for once ignoring Gibbs impatient glare. I need to " her fingers deftly skimmed the length of the gold chain around her neck, fixing on the clasp. The plain gold cross glinted beneath the bright artificial lighting. "I havent had it off since I graduated." She transferred it to Tonys neck, tucking it under his shirt. "But, somehow, I think you need it more."
She expected Tony to laugh, but instead, he settled the small crucifix comfortably against his skin. "Thanks, Kate."
Gibbs knocked one of the bags noisily against a nearby pillar, "Can we go now?"
"Yeah," said Kate, "were good."
"Im ready, boss. What are we standing around for?"
Gibbs sighed dramatically, "DiNozzo "
"Get your butt in the plane."
Sleeping on planes was something of a specialty with Gibbs. Hed learned to nap wherever he could, whenever he could, and the tension that often haunted him at night oddly didnt seem to keep him from dropping off during a flight. Still, he was a light sleeper. Some part of him always on guard duty.
And something had woken him now.
He rolled his head to release the stiffness in his neck and took in the plush interior of the Lear that Morrow had borrowed from departments unknown. Nothing felt off. The vibrations from the engines were steady. The interior of the plane was filled only with the echo of their sleeping breaths. Still, he felt compelled to make a quick headcheck.
Kate was bedded down in the seat directly across from him, deep in quiet sleep. Across the aisle, Ducky was likewise oblivious: head tipped back, snoring softly. Abby was curled like a sleeping black cat on the two conjoined seats that stretched against the bulkhead behind the cabin door.
DiNozzo just looked -- uncomfortable, his long legs were stretched out across the space that separated him and Ducky, but his hands were fisted, even in sleep. As Gibbs watched him, he stiffened against the leather seat as if he was trying to back away from whatever vision was playing out for his closed eyes.
Unbuckling the seatbelt, Gibbs got up.
"Yo, DiNozzo." He shook Tonys arm. "Tony."
The action had more effect on Ducky, who snorted and mumbled something about liver probes before falling back into his slumbers, than it did on the object of the ministrations.
"Tony," Gibbs said, more urgently this time.
Blue eyes sprang open and Gibbs had to quickly clasp the hand that Tony automatically reached for his weapon. "Not a good idea on a plane," said Gibbs, shaking his head.
"Oh. Wow." Tony disentangled himself from Gibbs grip. "Sorry." He pulled back, his hands worrying each other. "Bad dream. Bad, bad dream."
"Vampires?" Gibbs tried to add a touch of humor to it but Tony winced anyway.
"Nah." Tony quickly banished the pained expression, replacing it with what turned out to be a pitifully fake smile. "Nothing to worry about, boss."
"Come here." Gibbs motioned him over to the other small sofa in the back of the cabin. "Sit down." When Tony didnt sit, he repeated the order.
"The mind can conjure up our best fantasies and our worst nightmares."
DiNozzo threw an envious look in the direction of Kate. "Kates doesnt."
"Well, mine does," said Gibbs. He looked at Tony squarely. "Mainly, at the moment, theyre all Ari. His victim is in a body bag on one of the autopsy tables. I reach to unzip it. Sometimes the body I find is Kates. Sometimes its Abbys. And sometimes its yours, DiNozzo."
Tony peered up at him, surprised by the personal disclosure. "What do you do?"
"In the dream?" The muscles along Gibbs jaw tightened and released. "In the dream I dont do anything. Havent done anything. Thats the problem."
"You wouldnt let us be hurt," stated Tony.
"Like I didnt let Gerald be hurt?"
Tony blinked at the self-contempt poorly hidden in Gibbs voice. "If this is meant to reassure me, Gibbs--"
"Its not. Its just meant to show you that you can go on. That its not as big a weakness as you might think. If Kates sleep is peaceful," he glanced over at Kates tranquil face, "then Im thankful. She fights her demons some other way. Some of us dont get that choice."
Tony nodded toward the medical examiner. "What do you think Ducky dreams about?"
"Things we dont want to contemplate," responded Gibbs with the tiniest bit of a smile. "Trust me, you dont want to know."
Tony rubbed a hand over the soft leather of the seat. "So, this was a pep talk, huh, boss?"
"Best I can do," admitted Gibbs.
Tony smiled genuinely. "Thanks. Ill try to remember it when things go bump in the night."
"This isnt funny, McGee."
"Tony, how many times do I have to tell you? It wasnt me." McGee twitched the bobble-head and watched the fanged face jitter up and down. "How many does that make now anyway?"
"Twenty-two," sighed Tony.
McGee lined up the bobbing Dracula with the others guarding the edge of the desk. He glanced over further into DiNozzos cube. "Whoever found that Fauteuil a la Reine must have really"
Tony looked suspiciously at the silk-upholstered armchair that had mysteriously replaced his desk chair that morning. "You know about French period furniture, McGee?"
"What? No. Of course not I mean, I know"
"McGee." Tony advanced on the younger agent. "You will switch my chair back, McGee. And you will do it now."
"I didnt do it. I swear."
"Hey, Tony." DiNozzos shoulders slumped slightly as Kate came into view. "You decide to redecorate?" She leaned over the desk for a better look. "Nice Fauteuil a la Reine."
"Boss?" Tony looked imploringly toward Gibbs as he made his way from the elevator.
"I tell you that you could redecorate, DiNozzo?" asked Gibbs, surveying the situation.
"No, boss. But I didnt redecorate."
Gibbs came around the desk to see the offending piece of furniture more clearly. "Cabriole legs." He rubbed a hand along the walnut arms. "Nice carving. Doesnt really go with the desk, though."
"If I just kill you all, will it put me out of my misery?"
"I doubt it," said Kate. "Emersons guys have a copy of the case report."
Tony sank down into the carved arms of the chair and put his head on his arms and Gibbs scattered the remainder of the audience with few well-placed looks.
"Hows the nightmares?" inquired Gibbs taking a sip of his coffee.
Tony raised up cautiously. "Well, lately," he gestured toward his current seating arrangement, "its only been the kind you get in the daylight hours."
"Good," said Gibbs, patting his shoulder. "Thats the way it should be."