THE WHITE HAT SNEAKERS
DISCLAIMER: NCIS and its characters are the property of CBS Studios, Inc. and Belisarius Productions. This story was created for entertainment purposes only. No copyright infringement is intended. The original characters, situations, and setting are the property of the author(s), not me. Thank you to the amazing writers, producers, actors, crew and directors who bring this show to life.
SPOILERS: Nothing specific, just generally through Season Five (though occurring before Judgment Day), with one definite spoiler reference for “Stakeout.”
CHARACTERS: McGee, Tony, Gibbs, Abby, Ducky and Ziva. Also, Fornell and Sacks.
GENRE: Gen. Action/Adventure. Angst. That’s pretty much all I write, just FYI.
STATUS: Complete in 14 Chapters
A/N: Hi. First time NCIS fanficcer! I’ve only seen about, oh, 2/3 of the episodes, so I’m a probably being a little pre-emptive in trying to write something, but I do hope I got the characterization down well enough. I did start with Season Five and work my way backwards, so it’s Season Five I’m working with.
DESCRIPTION: When McGee and three other agency white hats are taken, the rest of the team will do whatever it takes to find him…er…them.
CHAPTER ONE: THE FOUR RELUCTANT HORSEMEN
He was hot. Really, really hot. Sweat pooled on his upper lip and down the sides of his head, and something thick and scratchy covered his face, making it worse. He tried to open his eyes, but all he found was darkness. What was on his face? And why did it feel like there was a wool scarf wrapped around his neck?
He lifted a hand to pull whatever it was off—and found he couldn’t.
They were bound.
He came awake fully then, struggling to sit up from where he was lying on his side. His hands were bound tightly, making it difficult, but he was able to use his legs. His feet were loose.
He was wearing a hood, one tied loosely around his neck to hold it in place. It was coarse, scratching his skin. He could feel the rash forming already—crap. Wool. Why did it have to be wool?
Oh God. Oh God. Oh God.
He finally righted himself, drawing himself into as small a ball as possible—instinctively trying to make a smaller target for whoever had kidnapped him. He drew in some hot, stale breaths through the hood, and tried to calm down.
Where was he?
A vehicle, obviously. He could hear the engine and could feel the road and the gentle rocking of the container. A truck? His fingers cautiously searched the walls of whatever he was in, and the rough metal confirmed the theory. He was in the back of a truck. Going somewhere.
Nice, McGee. Gibbs and Tony would have figured that out the moment they woke up. They’d also probably be loose of their bonds and ripping the hood of their heads by now.
No, scratch that. They wouldn’t even be in this fix to begin with. How the hell did this happen?
He closed his eyes inside the hood, trying to remember the last thing he had done. He remembered…. He remembered….
He remembered opening his door. It was Friday night. They’d finished the Farrelly case today, and Ziva and Tony had gone out to celebrate. He’d gone home. To sleep. They had the weekend off—they weren’t even on call this weekend. Which meant no one would be looking for him until Monday.
Don’t panic. Don’t panic!
What else do you remember?
He’d opened the door. He’d gone inside and…right. Chinese food. He’d picked up Chinese food. He’d placed it on the counter in the kitchen. Then shut the door.
There’d been someone behind the door. He’d looked right at him—big guy, black hair, white face, black eyes….Mostly, he remembered the big part. Huge. McGee wasn’t short, but this guy was Redskins Linebacker enormous.
Before he’d had a chance to shout, someone had grabbed him from behind and placed a sickly sweet cloth over his mouth. He’d tried to fight, knocked over things…. Probably not much else happened after that.
Chloroform. No wonder he felt so nauseas. ‘Course that could also be the hood, the heat and the truck swaying back and forth….
His stomach rolled, and McGee tried to breathe through it. He was not throwing up inside this thing. He was not. Keep it down. Deep breaths…deep breaths…
Okay. Inventory. What have you got on you? Anything? His fingers scrabbled at the back of his jeans, finding the belt and the empty pockets. No wallet, no knife, nothing. He doubted there was anything in his front pockets or his jacket either.
He sighed softly, and tried to think of what else he could do.
He could listen. Maybe…maybe if he listened to the road, he could figure out where he was, where they were taking him. He could…
There! What was that!
A truck horn. From another truck.
Because they were on a road. In a truck. And there were other trucks around.
That really narrows it down, McGee. Nice job.
God, he sucked at this.
His head drooped, and he sprawled his feet out.
His right foot hit something. Whatever it was, it immediately drew away, even when he tried to find it again.
Then he heard the whimper.
He wasn’t alone. He’d hit someone else’s foot, maybe. Probably.
For a moment, he just listened, trying to discern the sounds.
People. There were other people here. He could hear them shuffling, shifting. Someone was breathing heavily. Probably from the same heat he felt.
He licked his lips, straightened up a little, and decided to risk it.
His call was soft, cautious, and he quickly braced himself. Either someone would hit him now, knocking him back into unconsciousness, or…
Nothing happened. No one answered him, either.
He relaxed a little. And risked calling out again.
“Hello?” he called, a little louder this time. “Anyone else there?”
“Uh,” a woman’s voice, thickly muffled, “I…I’m here.” She sounded terrified, and McGee smiled comfortingly.
Like she could see his smile inside his hood. He rolled his eyes a little. He really was still a “probie,” wasn’t he? Licking his lips to rid them of some of the moisture, he braved a little more information.
“I’m Tim. And um, are you…are you…uh…. See, I’m…” How does he say it without sounding ridiculous?
“Tied up?” she answered weakly. Oh, Tim thought. Like that.
“Me, too,” she said. “And..,” he heard her shift. “And there’s a hood over my head. I can’t see.” Her voice broke a little on the last part.
“Neither can I,” he said, trying to sound empathetic. Which, well, he was.
“Neither can any of us, I’m betting,” a new voice, low and deep, chimed in.
Tim turned his head to the right, even though he couldn’t see who was speaking. A third person—a guy, apparently. “Did you say, ‘us’?” he asked.
“Yeah,” the man said gruffly. “I did. There’s four of us, near as I can tell from listening to you three breathe for the last half n’ hour. I’m betting we’re all tied up and hooded.” He sounded more annoyed than scared.
“Four of us,” Tim said, wondering how good the man’s hearing was that he could tell that. “What else can you tell?”
“Not much. We’re in the back of a truck on a highway. It’s really hot. And I have to pee like a motherfu—“
“Hey!” a new voice interrupted. Another woman. She sounded older than the woman who’d first spoken—or, at least, her voice was huskier. “Please. I’m feeling ill enough without people swearing!”
There was a moment’s silence. And then the man started to chuckle. “You’re joking. If there was ever a time to swear, woman--”
“Angela. My name is Angela. And I’ve already thrown up inside this disgusting hood thing once already. I would appreciate it greatly if you would refrain from making me feel any worse than I already am.”
“Angela,” the man said. “Fine. Whatever. I’ll try to ‘refrain.’” He sneered the last word.
“Thank you,” she said, sounding only slightly mollified.
“Um,” Tim blinked a few times. “Okay. So, that confirms there are at least four of us. There’s no one else, right?”
No one answered him, so he nodded.
“Told you I only heard four,” the other man said.
“Seems like you were right,” Tim said. He sighed, already deciding he didn’t like this guy much. Still, common enemy and all that. “So, who are you?”
“Nick. Nick Cheevers.”
“This isn’t AA,” Nick snarled. “You don’t have to say ‘hi’ back.”
“Right,” Tim said hastily. “Fine. So, who is…” He reached out with his foot, trying to find her again. “Who did I talk to first?”
“Me,” the younger woman said, still sounding weak. “I’m Tara. Tara Stokes.”
“Tim McGee.” Then he frowned. Hang on. Tara Stokes? That name sounded familiar…
“Tara Stokes?” Nick Cheevers echoed. “Agent Tara Stokes? And, wait, Agent Timothy McGee?”
Tim looked to his right again. He suddenly realized he’d heard the name Nick Cheevers as well.
“And I’m Agent Angela Zelnitz,” the older woman announced miserably. “We’re all federal agents. Great. Fabulous. We are so screwed.”
“Federal agents, yes, but from different agencies,” Tim realized. “I’m—“
“NCIS,” Tara interrupted. “I know. You’re on Gibbs’ team.” She sounded oddly excited by the notion.
“And you’re FBI, right Stokes?” Cheevers asked, sounding smug. “Fornell’s new girl wonder.”
“Yes,” she admitted. “Though I wouldn’t say I was his—“
“Yeah, yeah,” Nick muttered, cutting her off. “Whatever.”
“Who are you?” Tim asked Nick. “I know I’ve heard your name, but—“
“And you, Angela?” Tara prompted.
“That’s right,” Tim said, remembering her name now. Like the others, they were names he’d seen a thousand times in emails and on server sites. People he’d worked with, worked around…
“You’re all computer hackers,” he said weakly. “Like me.”
“Get the boy a prize,” Nick said snidely.
“Not just computer hackers,” Angela said then, her voice lowering to an almost beery drawl. “The computer hackers.”
“What does that mean?” Tara asked quietly.
Angela didn’t reply. Apparently, she’d depressed herself too much to bother explaining. At least, that was what Tim assumed. He frowned. He knew what Angela meant, even if Tara didn’t, mostly because Tara didn’t know how good she was yet. Tim did—he’d nearly gotten his ass served to him by Gibbs when he discovered a piece of Tara’s signature code in his electronic files—his encrypted, password protected, firewalled to the extreme, electronic files. She’d hacked him. No one had ever hacked him before. He’d tried very hard not to show that he was impressed in front of Gibbs (from the glower he got, he didn’t succeed).
Tony had laughed that Fornell had finally gotten himself a “McGeek” of his own.
And Angela was well known over at Army CID. She had made a name for herself hacking every military intelligence agency this side of the Atlantic—she was easily the best white hat they had. Nick, Tim didn’t know as well. But he wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Nick was cleverer than the jerk he sounded like.
This was bad.
“Our bosses are going to kill us,” he muttered quietly.
No one had any response. Probably because they all agreed.
About an hour later, by Tim’s estimation, the truck rolled to a stop. He looked to his right again as what was obviously the truck door opened. A cool breeze rushed inside (thank God!), and he knew he wasn’t the only one sitting up to try to get the benefit of fresh air.
Then a lot of things happened all at once. Someone shouted orders, others climbed into the back of the truck, rocking it, and Angela screamed to be “let go!” as she was obviously grabbed. Cheevers started swearing, and someone was hit. Since Angela gasped a sob, it was probably her. Cheevers swore more softly, then Tara emitted a frightened cry. Tim shrank back against the wall of the truck, even though he knew it was pointless.
Suddenly, they were on top of him. His arms were grabbed and he was hauled to his feet. Seconds later, he was thrown out into nothingness, and his fear of heights hit full force…for the half second it took him to hit the dirt ground. He rolled, hitting something soft, and he heard Nick grunt.
Then someone grabbed him again, pushing him up onto his knees. Rocks bit into his legs—wherever this was, it was rocky. He wobbled a bit until he was stable, and waited as the others were settled by his side, probably in the same kneeling position.
A beat later, and the hood was whipped off his head.
He couldn’t see anything for a moment, blinded by the light around him. Blurry vision finally subsided, and he found himself kneeling on the dirt parking lot of a warehouse in…the middle of nowhere. Pine trees surrounded them on all sides—which meant they weren’t anywhere near downtown DC, and the cooler air meant mountains. DC was still as hot as hell at night this time of year. He also got a pretty good sense of just how far out they were because, despite the orange halogens lighting the lot, he could see the stars. If they were anywhere close to civilization, there’d be no stars visible at all.
He blinked a few more times, finally focusing on the four men standing in front of him. The bookends were clearly the muscle, one of whom he recognized as being the gorilla who’d been behind his door. The other two were less big, but, if anything, there were even scarier. Directly in front of him—and, uncomfortably, staring directly at Tim—was a tall, broad chested, gray-haired man with his arms crossed. It didn’t take a degree in psychology to tell from his stance that this was the guy in charge. A little behind him and to the left stood a skinny, younger man, younger than McGee—barely looked out of high school. Blond, with sticks for arms and legs, he kept smiling at the four people kneeling on the ground like he knew everything about them—and found them all funny.
“My name is Reams,” the man in charge said, unloosing his arms and, finally, taking his gaze off Tim to look at the others. “This,” he jerked a thumb behind him at the skinny blond, “is Duncan. We own you now.”
“Own us?” Tara asked, to Tim’s left. He glanced at her and found a petite, pretty black woman with long hair, partially pulled back in a pony tail. Most of it was sticking out in all directions—probably because of the hood. Her features were as tiny as the rest of her, except for her nose. It was snub and, even from the side, he could tell it dominated her face. She cleared her throat and straightened a little. “What does that mean,” she asked timidly, “that you own us?”
“It means, you do what I tell you now,” Reams said, smiling at her. “Or I kill you. Or, more likely,” he leaned close to her, “I’ll kill the person next to you.”
Tara shrank back, and looked to her right—catching Tim’s eye. She blinked rapidly, and focused back on Reams.
“Oh,” she whispered softly.
Reams smiled thinly and backed away from her. He crossed his arms again, and walked down the line. He stopped in front of Angela, sniffed a little, and then screwed his nose up. “Shouldn’t have thrown up in the hood, Angela.”
She flinched a little at being called by her first name, but her eyes flashed angrily. “I didn’t have much choice, now, did I?” she snarled.
He snorted. “No, I suppose you didn’t.” He looked her up and down, and so did Tim. She was much younger than she sounded, though she was still probably older than Tim. Mid-thirties, maybe. She had a shock of bright red hair, pale skin, and an overabundance of freckles. She also looked sickly—probably from the ride and the hood. She met Reams’ gaze without fear, at least on the surface.
Reams shook his head and moved on to stare down at Nick Cheevers. Nick looked almost exactly as Tim imagined him to look—like a biker bar reject. Old fashioned studded jean jacket and acid-washed jeans, a blond handlebar moustache that had seen better days, and short, army cut blond hair that stuck out like spikes off the top of his head. Like Angela, he was probably about mid-thirties. Also like Angela, Nick didn’t shy away from Reams gaze.
Reams snorted another laugh, shaking his head. “You all carry a lot of false bravado, don’t you?” he challenged. “That’ll change, Cheevers.”
Another step and Reams was standing in front of Tim.
McGee had no qualms about staring Reams down. He’d stared down plenty like him. But he also didn’t bother to show anger, like the others. He just stared.
The mocking smile on Reams’ face faded somewhat, and suddenly, Tim found Reams nearly nose to nose with him.
“You’re McGee,” Reams said. “You’re the leader.”
Tim tried not to frown at that. The leader? Of what?
“You got them talking,” Reams explained, lowering his voice to a whisper. “They were all too afraid to do that before.”
Tim did frown this time, not sure what the point was. “Okay,” he said, trying to make the word into a question.
“Don’t try leading them again,” Reams whispered. “Or I’ll kill her.” And he pointed at Tara, though he never took his eyes off McGee. “Get it?”
McGee gritted his teeth, but nodded. “Got it.”
Reams stared at him a moment longer, as if scrutinizing McGee’s honesty, and then abruptly backed off. He strode back to where Duncan was still standing, the thin man swaying a little in the breeze. McGee couldn’t help but think that a stronger one might blow the kid over.
Turning around, Reams took the same wide stance he had before and crossed his arms again.
“Here’s the thing. I heard you four talking, so you all have a pretty good idea of why you’re here. You’re all white hats—four of the best this nation’s got. But, as I’m sure you all know, none of you are unique. There are plenty of other people who could do this job. But,” he met Tim’s gaze again, “none as quickly. You’re all already ‘in’, so to speak—you have all established backdoors into not only your own agencies, but a number of others. I need you to exploit your connections for me, because what I need done, needs to be done fast.” He looked at Tara then, and winked. She shrank back a little. Reams chuckled, and walked across to Angela who was having difficulty meeting his eyes now. He stared at her a moment, enjoying watching her squirm, and then walked down the line.
“You four also have the useful characteristic of being loners,” he said, eyeing each of them in turn. “You spend your weekends alone. None of you have much in the way of friends or family, though you have a sister.” He was looking at Tim again, and McGee swallowed. “But she’s away in California for the summer, so not likely to miss you, am I right?”
Tim nodded dumbly. No point in denying it—this man had obviously done his homework.
“So, most likely,” Reams smiled slightly, “none of you will be missed until Monday, since I specifically picked a weekend when none of you are on call. And by then,” his smile broadened, stretching his thin lips into lines and revealing a truly gruesome set of yellow teeth, “the damage you four will cause for me will already be done.”
“We won’t do anything for you!” Nick snarled, sitting up off his haunches.
“Oh,” Reams said. “Really? You think so?”
“I know so,” Nick said, straightening his shoulders and doing his best John Wayne. McGee grimaced—this was not going to end well.
Reams walked up to Nick, still smiling that horrible smile as he came to a stop about a foot away. The blond Homeland Security agent gritted his teeth, clearly expecting to be hit and intending to appear unshaken when it happened. To Nick’s right, Angela watched the pair with a worried gaze.
Suddenly, quick as a snake, Reams shifted to the left and slammed a fist into the side of Angela’s face, sending her sprawling to the side with a shriek. For a moment, she just lay there on her stomach, as if afraid to move. Eventually, visibly shaking, she pushed herself up on her right elbow and looked back at Reams with wide, green eyes, a thick trickle of blood sliding down from the side of her mouth. “Bu…but…” she spluttered, “I…I didn’t…”
“Want to try that again, tough guy?” Reams asked Nick, walking up to Angela where she was still on the ground. She tried to shimmy away from him, but was having difficulty with her hands still tied.
Nick’s brow furrowed, but he attempted to stay firm. “Doesn’t matter what you do to us,” he said, though much of his confidence was gone. “We won’t—“
Reams delivered a hard kick to Angela’s side, causing her to gasp and cough violently, spitting blood and saliva on the ground. Then he kicked her again, and she started to cry, curling into a ball. She didn’t look like she was going to try moving away again.
“What was that?” Reams asked Nick again, his cold smile even more terrible under the fluorescent lights. He lifted his foot again, ready to kick Angela again.
Nick opened his mouth.
“Stop it, Nick!” Tim snapped at him, trying to keep his voice low. “Don’t!” Stop being an idiot, he thought furiously at the other man. This wasn’t the place! If they were going to get out of this, it wasn’t now.
Nick flinched at the command, and turned to stare at McGee, frowning around his moustache. Then he bowed his head, apparently accepting whatever it was Tim was silently trying to tell him.
Reams was staring at Tim, now, all mirth gone from his face. Leaving Angela alone, he walked back to Tim and knelt down in front of him on one knee.
Slowly, he pulled out the gun from the holster on his side. Almost gently, he cocked it and pointed it at Tara’s head. She emitted a tiny squeak of terror and shut her eyes tightly.
“What did I say about you being a leader, McGee?” Reams asked.
Tim swallowed. He opened his mouth slowly, his bottom lip trembling slightly. “Uh…don’t…don’t be one?” he asked weakly.
Reams smiled. And fired. Tim’s shout of “No!” was drowned out by Tara’s scream.
Reams bellowed with laughter, pulling his gun back and putting it back into the holster by his side.
He’d shot over her head.
Still laughing, Reams backed away, walking over to Duncan. The stick thin blond was really fidgeting now, clearly high on something, his fingers tapping his thighs impatiently. At a silent command from Reams, the blond took off at a run for the warehouse.
Reams turned back to his captives, smiling thinly once more. “I think you four understand me now. So, if you follow me, I’ll show you to your cells.”
He wasn’t joking. The interior of the warehouse—which, on closer examination, looked more like a commercial barn—was made almost entirely of concrete. Steel doors, painted green and flecked with rust, granted them entrance. Once through, they found themselves in a long, narrow concrete corridor lined with steel doors on both sides. About halfway down, four of the doors were open, and white fluorescent light poured out of each one. They had the aura of jail cells.
Nick was pushed into the first one on the left, and McGee was shoved into the first one on the right.
The room was a concrete box with a small barred window located about three feet above head height on the only outside wall. Cold air filtered inside through it—there was no glass. As for furniture, there was a steel folding chair, two buckets, and a folding metal cot on which a pillow and blanket had been thrown. McGee stared at the cot for a moment, then walked across to the two buckets. One of them had water in it. The other was empty. Pretty obvious was the second one was for.
He was going to be ill.
“Hey!” Reams barked, turning McGee around to look back at the doorway. Reams stared at him a moment, then smiled. “You get four hours to sleep. Take advantage of it—it’ll be the most you get.” He gave a nod. “Crack of dawn, you start working.”
McGee just stared, not saying a word as Reams shut the heavy steel door with a bang, leaving him alone. A half beat later, and the fluorescent lights lining the high ceiling were turned off, plunging the room into complete darkness.
Swallowing down his fear, McGee closed his hands into fists and closed his eyes.
Gibbs would find him.
CHAPTER TWO: THE TROUBLING DAWN
Tony’s alarm had him out of bed at 5:00 am. Stumbling blearily around his apartment, he grabbed the workout clothes he’d put aside the night before and started pulling them on without really seeing them. With any luck, he wasn’t putting on anything inside-out.
Admittedly, he’s probably still look good even if the tag on his shirt was showing, but still…
Damn DC summers. If you didn’t run first thing in the morning, the heat and humidity would kill you. Going out running at 5:00 am was basic self-preservation, but, Christ, it sucked.
Shuffling into the kitchen in socked feet, he headed over to the door, picked up the paper sitting on the mat, and then went to find coffee.
At the start of his second cup, he finally started to feel awake.
After skimming the headlines, he flipped to the movie section, drawing his finger down the local theatres. He stopped at one, and started to smile.
A few minutes later, he was stuffing his feet into his running shoes, and fiddling with his cell phone, dialing the number from memory.
Not surprisingly, he got McGee’s voicemail. Boring and straightforward. He needed to talk to him about that.
“Hey,” he said after he heard the beep, “I know you weren’t planning on doing anything today, but you are now. Majestic’s showing a double feature. Cary Grant. Think of it as a learning experience, McGee. You want to know anything about how to talk to women, there’s really only one man you have to emulate. Well, besides me, of course. And that’s Cary Grant. So, I’ll pick you up at noon. We’ll get food and head over. You’re coming, so don’t try to weasel out of it. Call me back so I know you got this.”
Snapping the phone shut, he stuffed it in his pocket then grabbed his hat. He was feeling pumped now. Today was going to be a good day.
The door slamming open was all the warning Tim got before he was bodily pulled from the narrow cot and tossed towards the doorway by Reams’ two goons. He wasn’t even sure what was happening for a few minutes, having forgotten where he was, until he found himself in the narrow concrete corridor looking at a shivering, terrified Tara. Then he remembered, and his stomach lurched miserably. She slid over to stand next to him, close enough so that she was almost pressing up against his side. Without really thinking about it, he put his arm around her and drew her close for warmth. She instantly grabbed onto him like a lifeline, her small hands fisting his shirt.
The two doors opposite them were slammed open, and Nick and Angela were quickly hustled out into the corridor to join them.
Angela looked horrible. A large bruise colored much of the left side of her face and she was hunched over, holding her obviously bruised ribs and also shivering from the cold. Much of the bravado she’d shown the night before was gone, and, like Tara, she drifted over to McGee and pressed herself up against his other side.
Apparently, he was acting as a heating unit. Nick just offered him a weak smile of sympathy.
“Move,” the first goon barked, and Tim wondered if he’d ever have a name to put with the face. Probably not. Tara and Angela disengaged and walked together down the hallway after the second goon, who was leading them. They linked arms after only a few steps—Tara adjusting so Angela could lean on her. Nick fell in beside Tim as they followed behind, flanked by the first goon.
The warehouse, or, Tim supposed, converted milking barn (since that was what it looked like), wasn’t wide, but it was long. It took a while to get to the door at the far end, and, once through, they found themselves in a large open room with real windows lining it—large ones. It was filled with vats and pipes of various sizes, obviously leftover from the farm’s previous purpose. McGee also took in the monitors located on a desk along one wall—they all showed black and white images of the outside. A security system of cameras was obviously set up around the property; walking them through this room was a subtle way for Reams to let them know that escaping without being seen would be next to impossible. There were also two cots set up in here—probably for the goons. Tim caught Cheevers eye, and the Homeland Security agent grimaced in return.
The first goon pushed through the metal door on the other side of the room, and then they were out in the damp, cool air of morning.
Reams hadn’t been kidding about “crack of dawn.” The sun wasn’t even visible yet, though the sky was that pale peach color it always was during the false dawn.
The goon led them up a wet, grassy slope, following a muddy track that looked like it hadn’t seen any vehicles lately. Or hooves.
Cresting the rise, three more buildings came into view, one of which was a concrete box with a bunch of wires attached to it, leading to a transformer. The other two were a house and a shed.
The goon led them towards the concrete box.
Tim wrapped his arms tightly around his body, feeling the cold despite the humid air. If anything, the damp made it worse. Nick, at least, had his jacket—Tim was just wearing a thin, button down shirt. He noticed Angela had the blanket wrapped around her shoulders—smart woman.
Reams was standing by the plain green metal door to the building, which had probably been a generator building once. He stared at Tim the whole time they were walking up, as if expecting him to do something. McGee met his gaze, then looked away. He learned his lesson—don’t stand up to the crazy man.
The inside of the building was warmer than the outside, and it was clear why. Four state of the art computers sat on four work stations, facing each other in a square, and all hummed with power. Even Tara looked impressed, and the FBI’s technology dwarfed most of the other agencies, including NCIS.
“Sit,” Reams ordered. They did. Tim walked around to the farthest computer, and Angela sat at the station opposite. Tara sat to Tim’s left, and Nick opposite her.
The computer monitors were blank except for command boxes in the corner seeking input.
Reams started to walk around them, keeping a tight circle. “Your job,” he said softly, “is to hack the agencies and departments I tell you to hack. I want you to access their main criminal databases, if they have one, and their communications servers. Once in to each, you will tell Duncan, and he will take over.”
“What are you looking for?” Angela asked, cringing as Reams focused his cold stare on her. But, curiously, he also answered her.
“That’s my business. After you’re in and we’ve extracted the information we want,” he smiled grimly, “we will be inserting a destructive worm into each agency’s communications servers, hidden inside a trojan, which will launch at 9:00 am on Monday morning. So,” he stopped his circle at Nick’s station, “you must have successfully hacked all of the agencies I require by then.”
“And if we can’t?” Nick asked. “If we don’t hack them all?”
Reams snorted a laugh. “Don’t you know the answer already, Cheevers?”
“Sure,” the man answered, “but you’re going to kill us anyway, right?”
Reams bent over so he was leaning over Nick’s shoulder, close enough that his breath moved Nick’s blond hair. “Depends on you, now, doesn’t it? And, of course, if you don’t…” He nodded at one of the goons, and Angela whimpered softly as a knife was pressed against her throat. “I’ll make sure you all suffer first,” Reams whispered, “painfully, so much so that you’ll want me to kill you.”
Nick’s eyes slid closed.
The goon took his knife away from Angela’s throat, leaving a nasty red line.
“Who do you want us to hack?” Tim asked, trying to draw Reams attention away. It worked—the man’s dark eyes were on him instantly. And McGee tried not to visibly wince at the craziness he could see in them.
“Well, Nick here,” Reams tapped Nick’s shoulders, “is going to hack the White House.”
Nick’s eyes widened. “What?”
“Oh, don’t give me that, Cheevers,” Reams sneered, looking down at the top of the man’s head. “After all, you have at least three black marks in your file from the three times you’ve done it successfully before.”
Nick turned in his chair, staring up at Reams with wide eyes. “How did you…? That file is—“
“How do you think we picked you four?” Reams asked. “Your records and case files were all very enlightening—a veritable laundry list of the places you’ve each hacked.”
Nick just swallowed, and turned around in his seat to stare at the computer in front of him.
“In particular, Agent Cheevers, you’ll hack the Secret Service and the NSC, and any other cabinet office I’m in the mood to hit. And, of course, your own agency.”
Nick’s eyes had bugged a little at the word “NSC”, which wasn’t surprising—he’d be performing a miracle if he managed one of those agencies, much less three, Tim thought. When Reams finished, Nick shut his eyes completely and whispered a swear. But, he didn’t try to argue with Reams. Also, not surprising.
Reams walked over to Angela, who just slumped in her chair in resignation. “You, my dear,” he said silkily, “will take care of the military intelligence agencies for me, except for NCIS, of course.” Reams’ cold eyes caught Tim’s briefly before returning to Angela. “In addition, you’ll be hacking the Pentagon and SecNav. Same databases and servers as Nick.”
She didn’t answer, just stared at her screen listlessly. Seeming pleased by this, Reams moved over to Tara.
“You, young lady, will take care of the law enforcement agencies. Your own, of course, along with every state and metro force on the east coast, starting with DC, then New York. Also, the DOJ, if you wouldn’t mind.”
Tara just gave a weak nod. Reams smiled thinly, and looked across at Tim.
“Now you, golden boy, are the best of this lot, from what I’ve read in your file. So you get the cream of the crop—the top intelligence agencies. Besides your own precious NCIS, I want you to hack the CIA, NSA, the NRO and the DOE’s intelligence agency, along with the DOE itself. ”
Tim’s eyes widened, looking up at Reams in surprise. “All of them?” he asked weakly. “In two days?”
Reams gave a nod. “And Interpol.”
Tim just blinked, feeling nauseas again. He couldn’t be serious. “But, I’ve never—“
“You’ve been inside Interpol. Are the others really so hard?”
Tim’s mouth opened, then shut when Reams rested his hand on Tara’s shoulder. Tim’s eyes met Tara’s terrified ones, and he knew he couldn’t say no.
“Fine,” he said, looking at the computer in front of him. Oh God.
“Good,” Reams said. “Now, in case any of you are thinking of using your internet connection for anything other than what you have been instructed to do—don’t. Duncan, here,” Reams nodded to where the gangly young man was standing, red-eyed and still shaking from whatever drugs he was still on, “and I will be watching over all your shoulders. And, here’s the thing…” Reams walked up to McGee, staring down at him. “I don’t really need all four of you. Personally, I think any one of you could probably hack into most of these agencies alone, given enough motivation. So, the first time any of you messes up, or tries to screw with me, I will kill the person next to you. Understand?”
Tim didn’t blink. He just gave a nod. “Understood,” he said softly.
Reams gave him a nod back. “Good. So…” he waved a hand at the computers, “get to work.”
The phone ringing woke Tony from his first nap of the day—the one he’d succumbed to right after breakfast—and he groaned when he realized he’d fallen asleep in his sweaty running clothes.
Grimacing, trying to get rid of the sensation of sandpaper inside his mouth, he fumbled for the phone by his bed. Somehow, despite some seriously poor coordination, he managed to get it to his ear.
“’Lo?” he croaked.
“Tony?” Ziva asked, sounding wide awake. “Why are you still asleep! Get up!”
He frowned, shifting so that he was lying on his back and closed his eyes again. “Why are you bothering me, Ziva?”
“I am bored. I think this may be the first weekend I have off with nothing to do, so I am bored. What are you doing?”
Tony sighed, rubbing his hand across his eyes. “Well, I was sleeping.”
“Yes, yes,” she snapped impatiently. “I mean, after the sleeping, what were you planning to do?”
“Well…” He finally sat up, deciding he wasn’t going to be going back to sleep anytime soon. “McGee and I are going to go to the movies this afternoon.”
“The movies?” Ziva didn’t sound excited by the prospect, not surprisingly. “Why? It is a beautiful day.”
“It’s supposed to be in the nineties today, Ziva.”
“So? It is sunny. You should be outside. We should go for a hike.”
Tony smiled. “McGee? Hiking?”
“He is getting fitter. It will be good for him. And you. Have you gotten up yet?”
“Get up! I will call McGee. I hear the Cumberland Gap is a nice place. Shall we go there?”
Tony pursed his lips. “No.”
“Because McGee and I are going to the movies. You can come if you like.”
“I do not want to go to the movies.”
“These are good movies.”
“These? You are going to more than one?”
“A double feature. Cary Grant.”
There was a pause, then: “I do like Cary Grant.”
“Every woman likes Cary Grant. I’m taking McGee so that he can continue his education.”
“Education,” she repeated tentatively. Then, “Ah. You mean, you teaching him how to pick up women, yes?”
“I see. Still,” he could almost see her shrugging on the other side of the line, “it is a waste of a beautiful day. I will call McGee. We are going hiking. I will call you back.”
“No, Ziva, wai—“
Too late. She’d already hung up. Tony rested his head on his hand. He just prayed McGee had more luck than he did—but he doubted it. When Ziva made her mind up about something, she was more unshakeable than Fort Knox.
Resigned to finally beginning the day—his bedside clocked mocked him by reading only 8:10 am—he forced himself up off his bed.
He had just peeled off his running shirt when the phone rang again. This time he looked at who was calling first. And sighed, bringing it to his ear almost reluctantly.
“McGee is not answering. Did you warn him, somehow?” She sounded annoyed.
Tony frowned. “He’s not answering?”
“No. What did you do? Use that Immediate Message thing?”
“Instant Messenger. And no.”
“Then why isn’t he answering?”
Tony frowned more, and reached for his cell phone, which was resting next to the cradle for his landline. No messages. Maybe Probie just wasn’t awake yet? Or in the shower?
“Maybe he’s in the shower?” he suggested out loud.
“Oh,” Ziva said. “Yes, that’s possible. I will try him again.”
“Fine, fine,” she said. “I will wait a little while. But if we are going to the Cumberland Gap, we should really head off soon. I will get my things ready.”
She’d already hung up. She was picking up way too many of Gibbs’ bad habits.
Tony sighed again, and looked again at his cell phone.
Something churned in his stomach, and he found himself dialing McGee’s number on his landline. Again, he got McGee’s voicemail. And again, it was boring. But this time, Tony didn’t care.
“McGee,” he said, “it’s me. Call me. And beware Ziva—she wants us to go hiking. Tell her you want to go to the movies. Trust me. And…” he frowned, “And just call me, okay?”
As he hung up, he found his fingers curling around the phone tightly. It was silly—why was he worried?
Gritting his teeth, he stripped the rest of the way and headed towards the shower. If there wasn’t a message on his machine when he came out…
He was going over there.
McGee was typing quickly, rapidly cutting through the walls preventing him from accessing Interpol and getting control of their root server. As he worked, he considered all the ways he could prevent himself from succeeding.
Truth was—Reams was right. All four agents had established, if not sanctioned backdoor programs, which made them invaluable to someone who wanted to hack a lot of agencies all at once in a very short period of time. Tim had his saved inside his own network at NCIS, in a unique account that he kept hidden inside a stego file on his computer hard drive. All he’d really had to do was hack his own work computer, copy its hard drive onto this computer and fool NCIS into thinking he was logging in from work, and then jump from his network to hack all the others. He imagined the others were doing something similar. And Reams knew they could do this.
But just having backdoors didn’t immediately give you access, much less enough control to upload a malware worm that could do the type of damage Reams probably wanted to do. There were roadblocks.
He thought of all the ways he and Abby had been slowed down over the years: password encryptions, server lockdowns, firewalls…. Any of them could work here. But if he made them up too soon, starting inventing barriers too early on, Reams might—
“I have a problem here,” Nick said suddenly.
McGee looked up at Nick, saw the man squinting at his monitor as if he were having trouble seeing it. He was pecking away at the keyboard, as if lost.
Reams stood up slowly, walking across to stand at Nick’s back, his arms crossed over his chest.
“What sort of problem,” he asked quietly.
“I’ve hit a firewall that’s automatically renewing itself. Each time I bypass it, it pops up again on the next step, forcing me to find a new way to bypass it. And it’s getting harder to bypass. Too many more times, and I’ll be locked out.”
Reams looked over at Duncan, and raised an eyebrow. Duncan just gave a single nod. He’d heard of this sort of problem, which meant it might be valid. Reams growled, then shook his head.
“Get up,” he said, shoving Nick’s shoulder. “McGee, get over here.”
Tim froze, mid-type. Why? He wanted to ask.
“Now!” Reams barked.
McGee sighed and stood up. He glanced at Tara and Angela, both of whom were watching him and Nick with worried eyes.
McGee took the half dozen steps necessary to reach Nick’s station, then sat down when Reams pointed at the chair Nick had vacated. Cheevers was standing just behind the chair, frowning at McGee.
“Fix it,” Reams commanded, pointing at the screen.
McGee closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them again to look more clearly at what Nick had been doing. Sure enough, a firewall program was staring him in the face.
But, he also recognized that it wasn’t one used by the Secret Service, whom Nick was supposed to be hacking. It looked like one he’d seen used at Homeland Security. Somehow, Nick had managed to put his own firewall up into the Service’s server—seeking a way to slow himself down as Tim had been trying to do. Pretty clever.
“I said, fix it!” Reams shouted, delivering a hard blow to the back of Tim’s head. McGee blinked away the water in his eyes and looked again at the screen.
After a short pause, he typed in a few commands, tested the firewalls defenses, and frowned slightly. He could break through it. But…
“What’s the matter?” Reams asked. “Can’t do it?”
“I…” McGee swallowed, his mind racing for an excuse, “Nick’s right, it—“
The sound of crunching bone and Nick screaming filled his ears, and McGee twisted in the chair. Nick was on the ground, whimpering, holding his leg. Tim was out of his chair instantly, reaching for him, but Reams grabbed him by the back of his shirt and tossed him back against the work station.
“What the hell did you do that for?” McGee demanded, standing up again and preparing once more to help Nick. Reams got in his way, and this time, he had a gun pressed against Tim’s sternum.
“I warned you all what would happen if you tried to mess with me,” Reams threatened softly. He stepped backwards, cocked the gun, and pointed it at Nick’s head—but his eyes stayed on McGee. “I told you,” Reams said, his voice barely above a whisper, “I don’t need all four of you. I just need one of you.”
He didn’t finish the threat, well aware that he didn’t have to. The gun to Nick’s head was enough.
Tim looked down at Nick, still on the floor, still holding onto what was undoubtedly a broken femur. The agent’s pain-filled eyes stared up at McGee, and, for the life of him, McGee couldn’t tell if Nick was begging him to save his life, or begging him not to break through his firewall.
“So,” Reams said, his eyes still on McGee, “I’ll ask you again. Can you fix it?”
Tim blinked blurrily once, then turned around and sat down at the station. “It’ll take some time,” he said quietly, “but, yes.”
“Good. You have half an hour. If you’re not through by then, Cheevers dies.”
McGee didn’t turn around again, he just started typing. It wouldn’t take him thirty minutes. It would probably take him half that, since Nick had only thrown this firewall up as a smoke screen. It wasn’t really anchored to anything. But he would take the full thirty, if he could.
He caught Tara’s eyes sitting across from Nick’s station. Tears were running down her face. When she saw him looking at her, she ducked her head and got back to her own work.
Tony stood in front of McGee’s door, tapping his fingers against his thigh impatiently. He’d called twice, and, while he could find an excuse for McGee not calling him back the first time (hell, 5:00 am was sort of early), it was downright odd that McGee hadn’t called him back the second time. Sure, a double feature wasn’t exactly work related, and hiking the Cumberland Gap wasn’t pressing national business, but it wasn’t like the Probie to just ignore him and Ziva.
It made Tony’s gut turn. And Tony trusted his gut.
He knocked on McGee’s door, and waited a moment. When nothing happened, he reached for his cell phone and dialed the younger agent’s number. As it rang, he pressed his head against the wood and listened.
R&B, tinny and soft. McGee’s iPhone was inside. Which meant McGee was inside, because he didn’t go anywhere without it.
It was enough to decide him. Tony had the picks out and was working on McGee’s door within seconds. The lock released with a soft thunk, and he straightened, rested his hand on the gun at his waist…and pushed the door open.
“Probie?” he called.
The small apartment was quiet. No typing, no awful jazz music, no nothing. Tony opened the door wider and took a few steps inside.
First thing he spotted was the Chinese food container on the counter, knocked over. Sauce had leaked out the corner of the little white box and had dribbled across the counter top, eventually ending up in a small, brown puddle on the floor of the kitchen. A bar stool was knocked over as well. Other than that, nothing was visibly wrong, except that McGee’s gun, badge, PDA and phone had been tossed on the kitchen floor.
Tony stared at them a moment, then, at a much faster pace, he walked through the rest of the one-bedroom apartment, just to make sure. Before he was even back by the front door, he had his cell phone to his ear again, hitting the speed dial.
It was answered immediately. “Gibbs. What do you want, Tony?”
“I’m standing in McGee’s apartment, Boss.”
“So,” Tony was looking around the kitchen now for clues, “McGee’s not here.”
“Then why are you in his apartment?”
“Because his phone, PDA, gun and badge are here. On the floor. Next to a small puddle of cold soy sauce and a knocked over bar stool and…” He spotted the imprint of what looked like the toe of a sneaker. “Part of some other guy’s footprint.”
There was a moment of silence, then: “Call Ziva. I’ll be there in ten minutes.”
CHAPTER THREE: PUZZLE PIECES
“None of McGee’s neighbors saw or heard anything unusual Friday night,” Ziva reported, putting down the phone on her desk. “Although his immediate neighbor did say it was the first night in a long time he didn’t have to blare music to drown out McGee’s shredder.”
“Suggests he got nabbed as soon as he got home, Boss,” Tony said, leaning back in his own chair. “Which explains the knocked over box of uneaten Chinese food.”
“Ya think, Tony?” Gibbs replied, standing up and walking over to McGee’s desk. He frowned briefly at how neat it was—never a paper out of place. The cleanliness was only augmented by the fact that Tim’s computer was missing—currently downstairs with Abby. He looked across at his senior field agent. “You get anything from Metro or any of your other contacts?”
“Nothing yet,” Tony said, putting his hands behind his head. At Gibbs’ glare, he brought his hands forward and reached for his phone. “But I’m going to check again.”
Gibbs just nodded, looking down at his watch. It was now 2:00 in the afternoon. Assuming McGee had been grabbed at 9:00 pm the night before, which was about when his doorman remembered letting Tim through the door, that meant he’d been missing 17 hours. He gritted his teeth and looked across at Ziva, who was on the phone again, this time with Tim’s publisher, looking to see if there were any new, real stalkers they needed to be checking up on.
Gibbs had also already called Tim’s sister, just in case she’d heard anything. She was out in California at some sort of budding writer’s convention, and she swore to him that she hadn’t heard from him. She’d then asked if she should come back to DC, but he’d told her no. He wondered if she would listen to him. Unlike her brother, Sarah McGee was not very good at following other people’s orders.
Feeling momentarily at a loss, Gibbs turned in the direction of the elevators, planning on going to check on Abby, when his cell phone rang.
He frowned at the name, the put the phone to his ear. “What can I do for you, Tobias?”
“Off the record,” Agent Fornell replied, “I need your help.”
Gibbs gave a quick smile at that. “My help? Well, you know I’m always willing to help the FBI, Tobias, but unfortunately I—“
“Technically,” Tobias interrupted, before Gibbs could continue, “I don’t need your help, Gibbs. I want to borrow your man, McGee.”
Gibbs’ gut went stone cold. “McGee,” he repeated, turning to look at Tony, who was watching him now. A glance a little more to the right saw Ziva had her eyes on him as well. “Why do you need McGee?”
There was a long sigh on the other side of the line before Fornell replied. “Because one of my agents is missing. My computer expert, Tara Stokes. Looks like she might have been taken last night. I need someone to break into her files on her computer. She has some sort of password thing that my people can’t break, and I don’t want to send it to the Cyber Security Division since I have no real proof that this was a kidnapping yet. But I’m betting your man can get in. So…,” Fornell drew in a deep breath, “Can I have him? I won’t break him, Jethro, I promise. If he helps me find Tara, I’ll be in your debt, and his.”
Gibbs’ eyes shut briefly at the statement, then opened his eyes again. “How quickly can you get here, Tobias?”
“What? No, actually, if you could send—“
“McGee’s missing as well. He was kidnapped the same day as your agent.”
There was silence on the line, then: “That doesn’t sound like a coincidence,” Tobias said quietly.
“Boss,” Tony called suddenly, straightening in his chair, his phone still to his ear.
“Hang on, Tobias,” Gibbs said, holding the phone away from his ear and covering it. He looked at Tony. “What?”
“Army CID just told me that their resident top computer geek—a woman named Angela Zelnitz—isn’t answering her phone. They’ve been trying to reach her to ask if she’s had any contact with McGee lately. Apparently,” Tony grimaced, “she always answers her phone.”
Gibbs stared at him a moment, then gave a nod. He put the cell back to his ear. “Tobias, we have a problem.”
McGee was back at his own station, though he couldn’t stop his eyes from checking on Nick every so often. His fellow agent was working again, despite the fact that Reams had done nothing to alleviate the pain Nick was in from having his leg fractured. At least it wasn’t a bad break—Reams had given McGee the go-ahead to check on the injury before returning to work. Basic first aid training had allowed Tim to tell that the bone wasn’t misaligned—cracked, sure, but not out of place. It needed to be splinted, though, because it had to hurt like a son of a bitch.
But Reams wouldn’t let McGee waste the time.
Nick had been sat down and told to continue hacking the White House. Cheever’s jaw was so tense, it looked like it might shatter.
Tim was so intent on making sure Nick was alright, he forgot that he wasn’t supposed to succeed in what he was doing. So it was a bit of a surprise when the Interpol mainframe popped up on his screen, asking for a command.
He swallowed, staring at the blinking cursor for a moment. Then looked up. Reams was watching over Angela’s shoulder, directly across from Tim, so he caught the gaze.
“Something wrong?” Reams asked coolly.
“No,” Tim said, looking down. “I’m…” He grimaced, swallowed, then shrugged before looking up again. “I’m in.”
Reams straightened up, and, slowly, he smiled. Tim had to look away. By the time he looked up again, Reams had walked around Tara to Tim’s station and was leaning over his shoulder.
“How long can you stay logged on?” Reams asked, peering at the screen almost hungrily.
“I don’t know,” Tim admitted. “It’s the weekend, so they may not be monitoring their servers that closely. But I wouldn’t think it would be long.”
“Mmm,” Reams nodded. “We thought that might be the case. Duncan?”
McGee looked up as the so-called computer expert sidled over, all limbs and arms and pasty white skin. The boy leaned over his shoulder, smelling strongly of b.o. and too much Old Spice. McGee tried not to react to the noxious combination, backing up a little to the left.
Duncan tapped a few keys, moving him around Interpol’s system, then nodded. “He really did it, Chief,” he said, his voice as high and as reedy as ever. “I can install the malware right into their main communications server—it’ll spread to the entire network from here.”
Reams nodded, and looked down at his watch. “Looks like we’re right on schedule, if the others are as quick as our star here.” He tapped Tim on the shoulder. “Out of the chair, McGee.”
Tim did as he was told, backing up to get out of the way as Duncan sat down and closed down all of McGee’s windows to pull up something else from the computer’s hard-drive.
As the new window popped open, revealing the virus coding Duncan was going to send, McGee had to grit his teeth in order not to smile. He read down what he could see in the open window, trying to get a grasp on Duncan’s malware. It looked huge—probably a metamorphic virus. Duncan then called up another program, and this one looked like a worm, designed to deliver the virus across networks. Huh. Impressive. And, of course, packaging it all inside a trojan so no one would know it was there until too late. It must have taken them a long, long time to develop this. But seeing work like that wasn’t why Tim had to fight not to smile.
The malware was on the hard drive.
Reams had just made his first mistake. If the malware was on the hard drive—was on everyone’s hard drives—then Tim could potentially find a way to stop it. If he could open it long enough to study it, he might be able to find a weakness in the code, a way of blocking it or neutralizing it before it launched.
Duncan glanced back at him, eyes narrowing slightly, and Tim looked away, meeting Tara’s eyes over the top of her monitor.
Who was he kidding? When could he study the malware? If Reams wasn’t looking over his shoulder, Duncan was. They’d spot the malware on his screen the moment he called it up.
But maybe he could find a way to send the malware to someone outside of this room who could work on it for him.
He was already inside his own network…. If he sent the malware to one of his shared files, and someone found it, it would at least warn them of the threat, and if they knew what the malware looked like, they might be able to locate it and purge it before it spread. They might even be able to counter it.
Which, really, meant he could only send it to one particular person—the only person he trusted enough to access his personal network’s shared files. And the only one smart enough to open the malware without infecting NCIS at the same time.
Problem was, how was he going to alert her to the fact that it was there? Second, how did he tell her which agencies were being infected? And third…
Third, how did he send the file so that she would know it was a virus, and not to be opened except on a unique computer? Because if she opened it up on her lab computer…she would kill him.
Abby had the music blaring, her head bopping along with the heavy guitar riff, following the rise and fall of the notes. Her eyes, though, were glued on her computer screen, pouring through McGee’s emails, notes and messages as quickly as she could. Behind her on the table were a bunch of items from McGee’s apartment, separated into piles and neatly arranged. Everything was bagged and tagged, and nothing had provided any leads to where he was. There weren’t even any fingerprints, other than of people she already knew.
This was her second review of his computer. The first time she’d been through it, she’d dismissed all emails and messages from people she recognized. In this second, she was parceling out agency requests and work requests from personal emails.
She also had a computer diagnostic skimming through Tim’s files, searching for anyone who might have accessed them over the last month. She found a few trails of people who’d tried to hack him and failed, and the trail of the one person who had successfully hacked him—Tara Stokes (and they all knew about that. Poor McGee)—but other than that, it looked pretty clean.
All in all, she hadn’t spotted anything really hinky so far, but that didn’t mean anything. If there was a lead to McGee’s whereabouts in his computer, she’d find it. And then she’d hand everything over to Gibbs to track down.
And he’d get McGee back.
He would. Of that, Abby had no doubt. McGee would be fine, and Gibbs and Tony and Ziva would bring down the bastard who had taken him, hopefully with a baseball bat. And maybe a bulldozer. And then a Zamboni.
Some might call her trust in McGee’s return a refusal to face facts, but Abby would argue that the only fact they had right now was that someone had taken Tim. No other facts were known yet. So, the only fact she had to face was that he was missing and they needed to work to get him back. Hence, her utter belief that they would get him back. And until provided another fact telling her otherwise, that was all she was going to focus on. Getting her Timothy back.
So, when her computer beeped, telling her that someone had sent her a game request alert, she almost missed it. She got several of those a day, and when she was really busy, she didn’t even bother replying. But something had her opening the request, ready to shoot off a “rain check” note.
But the message she opened was blank. It also had no return address, because it hadn’t been emailed, and no particular game was named. A game request from no one. Just a link to a file on someone else’s network.
She frowned, then quickly did a search for the file.
Her eyes widened, and her hands scrambled for the phone.
Director Jenny Sheppard stood very still in MTAC, looking up at the Directors of the FBI, Homeland Security and Army CID. Gibbs stood on her left, and Agent Fornell on her right.
And she was trying very hard not to lose her temper.
“I understand, gentlemen, why each of you believes your respective agencies to be the most qualified in finding our missing agents, and I also understand why each of you believes your agency has the best jurisdictional case to be made, however, my agency was the first to notice that one of its agents was missing, and—“
“Just because you were first, Director Sheppard,” interrupted the FBI Director, “does not mean you have any greater knowledge of this case than the rest of us. Frankly, the FBI’s expertise and experience on this matter, not to mention its resources, far outstrip—“
“Agent Gibbs and Agent Fornell have a long standing relationship,” Jenny snapped in return. “And Agent Fornell has already agreed that, as my team has the head start on—“
“Face it, Director Sheppard, you are out of your element here,” said the head of Homeland Security. “Since what we are looking at here is clearly a threat to national security via the taking of each of our top cyber experts, and since Homeland Security has the farthest reach when it comes to cyber crimes—“
“Farthest reach?” the three star general scoffed. “Army CID is already in places Homeland Security can’t even dream of going, and if this cyber threat ends up coming from abroad, then—“
“Then the FBI is still the best equipped to handle it!” yelled the FBI Director. “And if you think—“
“Stop it!” Jenny barked furiously. “This is not the time for a pissing match! Our people are out there, gentlemen, and my best and your best,” she glared at the FBI’s Director, “are already working side by side on this! I have already told you that I welcome all the assistance the FBI, Army CID and Homeland Security can provide, but NCIS is leading this case. We were first, and we intend to stay first, and absent a directive to the contrary, NCIS will be the lead, and you will follow.” She turned and slashed her hand across her neck, before any of the men on her screen could say a word, and turned to glare at Gibbs and Fornell. “Any questions?” she demanded of Fornell.
“No,” he replied, shaking his head somberly. “I just want find our people.” Jenny nodded, then pointed to the door.
“Then go do it. Now.”
Fornell wheeled around and marched out. Gibbs stayed long enough to throw a small, proud smile at Jenny before turning to follow. As he did so, his phone rang, and he answered it as he was pushing through the doors.
Jenny watched them leave, then closed her eyes and sighed. Under her breath, she whispered a short prayer that they got McGee back safe. And the others too, but for Gibbs’ sake—McGee first.
Gibbs stared at the plasma, brow furrowed. Next to him, Tony had his arms crossed, looking even more puzzled. Fornell stood a little behind them, head tilted at an angle, his lips pressed tightly together. Ziva leaned against the side of the table behind Abby’s workbench, as if looking at the screen from a distance might help.
Gibbs sighed and turned to look at the woman working behind the lab bench.
“Why am I looking at three zipped files on a screen, Abbs?” he asked.
“Because those files weren’t there before, and a lot of other stuff was,” she answered. She was typing away quickly as she spoke, trying to find a way to get a message back to Tim, but not sure how. She’d dropped a file in the same shared drive, but he hadn’t opened it. Maybe he couldn’t.
“Meaning?” Gibbs prompted.
“So impatient, Gibbs!” She stopped typing and walked around the end of the bench to point up at the screen. “This was McGee’s game file on his shared drive. He gave me access a long time ago, and it’s always been filled with…,” she smiled softly, waggling her fingers, “what you might call unusual games.” The way she emphasized the word “unusual” was not lost on the older man.
Gibbs sighed, looking up again at the three innocuous looking folders. “So?”
“So…” she rested her hands on her hips, “I know for a fact that those three files were not on this drive a week ago, and, I know for a fact that they’re not game files.”
He grunted in annoyance, and Abby smiled innocently.
“My point,” she said, “is that someone deleted all the other files from McGee’s shared drive and put just these three in there, in their place. And only one person has the ability to do that.”
“McGee,” Gibbs said.
“McGee!” Abby agreed, grinning. “See? I knew you’d get it.”
“Get what, Abby?” He walked back towards her, stopping near her table. Tobias and the other two just continued to stare up at the screen, as if something magic would happen now. “McGee put new games in his shared drive this week?”
“No,” she said, resting her hands on her hips, “McGee put these files, which aren’t games, into his shared folder on his network and erased all the others today.”
Gibbs stared at her a moment, then lifted his eyebrows. “Are you sure?” he asked softly.
“I’m sure,” she said. “I get an automatic message anytime McGee puts something new in the folder. I only just got it. Which means he had to have made the change today.” She turned around and tapped a few keys on her keyboard.
“How do you know they’re not games?” Tony asked, looking at her between the computer monitors.
“Ah,” Abby held up two fingers. “Two reasons. First,” she made it one finger, “they’re too small. These files couldn’t hold a game, not the way they’re made these days. Millions of lines of code—typically, that’s at least megabytes of space. I mean, they can reduce the size if they use binary instead of measuring by LOC, but—“
“Abby,” Gibbs warned softly.
She smiled sweetly at him. “Right, sorry. Anyway, my point is, there’s no way something this small could be a game.”
“What’s the second reason?” Ziva asked.
And for the first time, Abby looked mildly chagrinned, glancing at the Mossad agent sheepishly. “Yeah, the second reason…” She grimaced, and tapped away on her computer. After a moment, she clicked her tongue in annoyance.
“Abbs?” Gibbs called quietly.
“The second reason,” she said, finally looking at Gibbs, “is that I can’t open them. He’s got them password locked.” She grimaced.
Fornell frowned. “Why?” He came around the side of the bench. “If McGee was trying to send us a message, why would he lock these files so we couldn’t see what was in them?”
Abby shook her head. “I’m not sure. But I’ve tried all of the username and passwords that McGee’s told me, or that I figured out on my own, and none of them are working. He’s deliberately made this hard for me. I even think each file has a different lock on it.” She started typing again, pouting a little.
“Would that take long to do?” Gibbs asked, his tone thoughtful as he looked up at the plasma again. “Password lock these files before dropping them in here?”
Abby paused in her typing, recognizing the “I have an idea” tone in his voice. She gave a headshake.
“No,” she said, her tone just as thoughtful. “Actually, he could do it very quickly.” She began to nod. “If he’s being watched, which he probably is, and his activity monitored, he probably can’t send a real message. Someone could find it. But just dropping these files into his shared drive probably wouldn’t raise any flags—they probably wouldn’t even notice, if they know he’s using his network. Which means,” her eyes brightened, “that he password locked them to tell us something about them.”
“More likely to warn us about them,” Gibbs amended, meeting her gaze.
Abby’s eyes widened, and she looked at the three files. “Oh, Gibbs…” she shook her head. “You’re right. All three of these could contain malware. They’re the right size!”
“What is malware?” Ziva asked, rolling her tongue around the clearly unknown word. “Is that the same as spyware?”
“Spyware is a kind of malware,” Abby frowned distastefully, “but it is not the only kind. Computer viruses, worms, adware, and others—they’re all malware. That big one,” she pointed up at the central file, “is probably a virus, based on its size.”
Fornell’s eyebrows shot up. “Agent McGee sent you a virus?”
“No, of course not,” Abby said quickly, bristling defensively on behalf of her Timmy. “He was alerting me to three files that may or may not contain malware, and password locked them so I couldn’t open them and thus infect not only my lab but potentially the entire NCIS network.”
Gibbs’ eyes squinted slightly, still staring at the files. “Abby,” he said slowly, “if you could open these on a remote computer, not connected to anything,” he looked at her, “could you find a way to stop the viruses that they might contain?”
She frowned slightly. “I don’t know. Maybe.” She gave a small nod. “It’s probably why he alerted me to them. McGee wants me to find a way to block the malware, or neutralize it, or something. But, even if I did put them onto their own computer…” She sighed.
“You can’t open them.”
“No,” she frowned again. “Not unless I can figure out the passwords he used.”
“What do the files’ names mean?” Tobias asked then, from where he’d returned to looking up at the plasma, and the titles under each files. “Aren’t these movie actors? Redford, Poitier and Kingsley?” He looked at Abby and Gibbs.
“Sneakers,” Tony said automatically.
“What?” Gibbs asked, turning around.
“Sneakers,” Tony repeated. Then he grinned. “Oh come on, Boss! Sneakers! The movie? Redford, Poitier, Kingsley, Ackroyd, River Phoenix…it was a classic! A group of security experts, whose job it is to hack companies to show them the weaknesses in their computer security systems, get blackmailed into hacking the NSA to steal…” He trailed off, his whole face paling. “Oh wow.”
“He sent these not knowing we’re already looking for him,” Abby noted quietly, showing she’d already guessed the reason behind the file names. “He called them that so that I would figure out he’d been kidnapped, and that he’s not the only one.” She gave a soft shrug. “That several white hats have been taken.”
“White hats?” Fornell repeated.
“It’s the term used for good guy hackers, like McGee,” Abby explained.
“In other words,” Tony said, nodding in understanding, “besides a cry for help, he sent us these as a warning—he and the three others been taken in order to drop this malware into as many agency networks as they can.”
“I’m sure that’s not all of it,” Fornell said quietly.
“Probably not,” Gibbs agreed, crossing his arms. “But you know it’s the coup de grace. Four skilled government hackers, trained and able to break into almost every agency this country has, and a computer virus that’s probably the cyber equivalent of a sleeper cell. Upload this thing to the servers of all those agencies, and set it to go off inside all of them at the same time…”
“Boom,” Abby said softly. When she saw them look at her worriedly, she gave a crooked smile and twisted her hand around. “Figuratively speaking,” she added quickly. “It’ll bring down most of the intelligence network, at least for a day or two.”
“Only for a day or two?” Tony asked.
“Yeah,” Abby shrugged. “Today’s computer security is designed to protect against this sort of thing. All the really important stuff is saved into unique accounts on different networks, some not even on networks at all. At most, all this can do is take the agencies off-line for a while, so they can’t contact each other via email or access databases except those they have direct, physical access to.” She frowned. “It’s an annoyance more than a threat.”
“Unless they’re also mining for information, or can use that downtime to their advantage somehow, to break into places that shouldn’t be broken into. This creates chaos,” Gibbs arched an eyebrow at Abby, “and chaos can be a great cover.” She grimaced at his tone.
“Oh. Then, yes,” she said, blushing slightly. “It might be a little more than an annoyance.”
“So,” Gibbs’ eyebrows lifted as he returned his gaze to the plasma, “figure out a way to stop this malware thing from working.”
Abby pursed her lips, and turned back to her computer. “I’ll do my best, but until I—“ Her computer beeped, and Abby’s eyes widened as she recognized it as another blank alert from McGee’s network. “He’s dropped a new file into his shared drive.”
As one, the agents in the room looked up at the plasma, and, sure enough, a fourth file had joined the other three. They could also clearly see that there was no little lock on the file. Abby stared at it for a long moment.
“Is it from him?” Gibbs ask, moving around to look over her shoulder. Abby inclined her head slowly.
“Should I open it?” she asked.
“It’s not locked?”
“Then open it,” Gibbs said. Abby looked at him sideways, bit her bottom lip, and opened the file. There was only one thing inside—a picture file. She frowned in puzzlement, and opened it up. Her heart sank.
“Oh no,” she whispered. It was a screen shot, likely of McGee’s current desktop. There were a variety of command boxes filling it up, which were unintelligible to everyone in the room except Abby, but there was one thing they could all see clearly.
In the background was a large open window of a desktop, with the word “INTERPOL” quite clearly displayed.
“Tim hacked Interpol for them,” Abby said, her voice soft.
“What the hell?” Fornell demanded suddenly, turning an arched stare at Gibbs. “He’s helping them?”
Gibbs didn’t answer, his face with expression as he stared at the screen.
Fornell cracked his cell phone. Gibbs heard the sound and turned around.
“What are you doing?” he demanded. Fornell glanced at him, frowning slightly.
“What do you think I’m doing? I’m calling Interpol to tell them that someone is inside their net—“
“Stop!” Gibbs and Abby yelled it at the same time.
Fornell frowned. “They need to be warned! Besides being infected by this malware thing, who knows what kind of information might be being stolen from their database?”
“Abby,” Gibbs turned to her, “can they monitor McGee without alerting McGee or whoever may be looking over his shoulder that he’s being watched?”
She grimaced. “If they’re careful.”
“Why shouldn’t Interpol stop him?” Ziva asked, her tone curious. “If they kick him out, then—“
“Way too fast,” Abby replied quickly. “It might make them suspicious—think McGee alerted them somehow. They might…they could…” The words were stuck in her throat.
“Kill him,” Ziva finished. Abby’s whole face scrunched up, and she turned away to hide her face.
“And,” Gibbs added quickly, “it would take away any chance McGee has to tell us who else he’s hacking—which is clearly what he’s planning on doing by sending us screen shots. And there are three other hackers working as well, don’t forget.”
Fornell frowned deeply. “McGee should still be monitored. We need to know what these people are after, besides dropping this malware into the system.”
Gibbs sighed, glanced at Abby, and she gave a reluctant nod. So he nodded at Fornell. “But tell them to be very careful—McGee cannot know he’s being watched.”
Fornell sighed, nodded, and pressed the phone to his ear, walking to a different part of the room to make his call.
Abby sighed, turning to look at her computer again. Ridiculously, she wished she could reach through the screen and hug McGee on the other side.
“At least now we know he’s still alive,” Ziva said suddenly, pushing up off the table. When the others all turned to look at her for the morose statement, she frowned. “What?” she asked. “You were all thinking it. He could have been dead. Now we know he’s not. This is a good thing.” She waved at the screen. “Isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Tony admitted softly, his tone unhappy. Ziva frowned in confusion.
Gibbs walked over to Abby’s side, wrapping a hand around her arm, partly in comfort, and partly in encouragement. “It’ll be especially good if Abby can find a way to trace McGee through these puzzle pieces he’s sending us.”
“Oh, uh….” Abby grimaced, looking unhappily at Gibbs. “I’m trying, but he erased his login, and without that, I can’t trace the ISP he logged in from.”
Gibbs frowned, looking at Abby’s screen again. “Is there any other way?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know, maybe. If he logs in again—”
“He’s not logged in now?” Gibbs said, clearly surprised. “But he just sent you another file.”
Abby stared at him a moment, and then her eyes widened. She started typing quickly, her gaze narrowing.
“What is wrong with me today!” she snapped. “Of course, you’re right. But…,” she shook her head, her eyes skimming down the file she’d just opened. “He’s still not registering as being logged in to his own network, but he must be. So where is he?”
Gibbs’ just gave her an amused smile. “I don’t know, Abbs. You tell me.”
She pouted again, but didn’t stop working. “I’ll find him,” she promised fiercely.
“I’m sure you will,” he said, tapping her shoulder. At almost the same time, Fornell walked back towards them, closing his phone up. He was looking up again at the screenshot on the plasma, and shook his head.
“You tell them what to do?” Gibbs asked. Fornell nodded.
“As directed, lead agent Gibbs.” He was still staring at the screen, and his eyes narrowed. “What I don’t get,” he said, “is why would our people be helping them to do this? Knowing the damage it could cause…?”
“I can’t speak for the others,” Tony replied, “but I can speak for McGee. He’s biding his time. Waiting for an opening to get him and the other three out of there alive.”
Fornell lifted an eyebrow. “And will he?”
“He’s the only one of the people kidnapped that’s a trained field agent,” Tony said. “So he’s hampered if he thinks the others won’t be able to keep up with him. But he’ll try, if he thinks he can succeed.”
“And in the meantime,” Fornell said, crossing his arms, “my agency, yours, and a bunch of others are being hacked and infected. The damage this could cause…” He trailed off.
“We’ll find them before that happens,” Gibbs promised, looking at Tony, his expression suggesting that Tony had said something that bothered him.
“And if we don’t?” Fornell asked.
“McGee won’t let it happen,” Tony said firmly.
Gibbs lifted his eyebrows at that, still staring at Tony. The younger man met the gaze evenly, utterly confident in his teammate. Gibbs smiled softly, inclining his head. Fornell just sighed heavily.
“Well, okay,” the FBI agent said, sounding resigned. “So, now what?”
“Now,” Gibbs said, looking across at his old friend, “we let Abby work on finding McGee. The rest of us get back to finding out who took him.”
Tim caught Tara looking at him every so often, just out of the corner of her eye. She smiled a couple of times when he actually looked at her, blushing a little. She seemed more confident now than she had at the beginning of the day, especially since they discovered they could send each other notes.
It was purely by accident. Tim had been using one particular line of access to hack into the CIA, a redundant backup system he’d used before that was housed on the FBI’s network, and he’d somehow found himself looking right at Tara’s own work. They were using the same access point—though, for her, it wasn’t surprising, seeing as she was FBI. He wondered if she had even been the one to create the redundant system, specifically so she could use it this way.
Taking a chance, he’d interrupted her coding and sent a quick, “hi.”
He’d seen her jump a little at her station, glance at him, then at Reams, and then start typing again.
A second later, inside her own coding on his screen, was a warning. “don’t. they’ll see.”
He’d smiled softly, then, surrounding his words with a lot of nonsense coding, asked if she was okay. He saw her frown, and he sensed a little annoyance in her expression.
Taking his lead, she responded quickly with a “no.” Not surprising. Then: “won’t ask how you found this system. but get out. mine.”
McGee really had to work to hold back a smile at that. Underneath that timid exterior, she was just as competitive as he was. She’d have to be, to be as good as she was. He quickly typed a message back.
“no chance. you’re my way into cia.”
She’d shown a little puzzlement over that, and then her eyes widened. Slowly, she gave a nod. Next message he got was, “clever. i would have spotted you eventually though. i could kick you out.”
“but you won’t.”
“what’ll you give me?”
“what do you want?”
“to get away. short of that, tell fornell i am better than you.”
It took a lot not to laugh. He really, really needed a laugh right now.
Made him wish, suddenly, that he had Tony here with him.
The thought sobered him up instantly. He didn’t have Tony here. Tony didn’t even know he was in trouble—not unless Abby had received and, hopefully, deciphered the “message” he had sent.
But now he had something else that gave him hope.
Over the next couple of hours, spacing the conversation so as not to be caught, he told Tara about sending the malware to Abby, and his plan to send screenshots of each of the agencies he hacked. She’d been wary, afraid he’d be caught when he sent the next screenshot, or if Duncan found evidence of what he’d done later on tonight (because it was a certainty that Duncan would be reviewing their work). McGee told her he was almost completely certain that he’d covered his tracks, but he admitted there was a risk. Still—he was confident that this was their best chance of stopping Reams, and maybe being rescued.
Tara had said nothing for a while after that.
Until she cracked the DOJ’s server. After Duncan inserted the malware and gave her back her computer, Tara sent a note to Tim. She asked for the backdoor entry into Tim’s network.
He’d smiled, shot her the information, then held his breath.
He saw his network server accept data into the shared file. Tara had sent a screenshot of the DOJ’s server.
Tim really, really hoped that Abby was on her computer this weekend.
Especially when he successfully hacked the CIA for only the second time in his career.
CHAPTER FOUR: THE RESTLESS NIGHT
“Jethro,” Ducky called softly, walking between the rows of desks in the squad room to where Gibbs sat, staring blankly at a piece of paper on his desk.
Gibbs blinked once, slowly, then looked up as the doctor stopped in front of his desk. “Ducky.”
“It’s late,” Ducky noted. Gibbs just sighed.
“I know,” he said.
“You’re not going to help Timothy by not sleeping.”
Gibbs didn’t answer; he just stared.
Ducky sighed, shaking his head. “Well, seeing as Abigail is still working downstairs, and those two have not left,” he turned and waved a hand to his left, to where Tony was asleep laid back in his chair, and Ziva had her head pillowed on her hands on her desk, “then I suppose it’s not surprising that you plan to stay. Still, I would give good odds that your mind has not been working clearly since the clock hit midnight.”
Gibbs just gave him a soft smile, not denying the diagnosis. Instead, he changed the subject. “You get any leads from the profiles of the other hackers that the other agencies sent you?”
Ducky tilted his head. “Some. Between the profiles and the photos and objects sent to me from our abductees’ various apartments, I’m beginning to put together a picture of why they took who they took. But something is bothering me about them—I just can’t put my finger on it. I’m going to go home and sleep on it. I understand the FBI has a profile team putting together something as well.”
Gibbs nodded. “Fornell’s bringing someone by tomorrow. You two can compare notes.”
Ducky just huffed, shaking his head. “I suppose I should be grateful for the aid.”
Gibbs just smiled again. “But, instead, you’ll just think they’re just there to show you up.”
Gibbs chuckled and pushed away from his desk, away from the lists of suspected kidnappers sitting on it that had been sent over by the FBI, Homeland Security and Army CID, as well as those generated by his own team. The names had been compiled by combining known cyber terrorist cells working in the area with terrorist cells that had seen an uptick in chatter. No names on it had leapt out at him.
Fact was, nothing had leapt out at him all day. They’d chased down every lead they had, from witness statements about seeing a black van at two of the kidnapped agents’ apartments, to interviewing friends (none of the four had immediate family, other than Tim’s sister), to Abby running every print in the apartments, to hacking all of their work and home computers. And they still had nothing.
He needed a lead.
He stood up, pushing the papers to one side and stretched out the crick in his neck.
Ducky backed up slightly as Gibbs came out from behind his desk. “Are you actually taking my advice?” he asked, looking surprised. “And going home?”
Gibbs just snorted. “I’m going down to see Abby.”
“Oh.” Ducky sounded only marginally disappointed—mostly because he had probably already guessed that’s what Gibbs was doing. “I see. Well, I suppose I shall see you in the morning?”
Ducky just nodded, and backed away some more, heading towards the exit. Gibbs gave him a nod, then headed towards the elevators.
Unusually, the music wasn’t blaring as Gibbs stepped out of the elevator and walked into forensics. Instead, Abby was staring morosely at the computer in front of her, her expression one of utter annoyance.
She didn’t react as he came up alongside her, except to sigh softly.
“You okay?” Gibbs asked quietly.
She closed her eyes for a long moment. “No.”
Gibbs rested a hand on her shoulder. “We’ll get him back.”
She nodded, and then opened her eyes again. “I think there’s something wrong with me.”
He frowned, dropping his hand. “What?”
“I’ve been an idiot all day. Slow and stupid. Missed things that should have been obvious. McGee’s been sending me clues all day, and I can’t put them together. I’m failing him. I’m failing you.” She looked down at the bench, her shoulders slumping inwards. “Without pointing out the fact that I still haven’t opened those three files…except that I just did. Nuts.” She closed her eyes and sighed deeply before opening them again and continuing. “It took me all day just to figure out how Tim was logging on without looking like he was logging on, and I didn’t figure it out in time to trace him. He’s logged off now, and all evidence of where he logged in from is gone. Erased.”
Gibbs grimaced. “He’ll log back on tomorrow.”
“A whole day wasted!” she moaned. “He could be home by now, if I hadn’t been so stupid!” She shook her head, black pigtails shaking with distress.
Gibbs understood the lack of music now. Abby was punishing herself.
She sniffed, and roughly wiped her sleeve across her face, getting rid of a tear. “I promised myself I wouldn’t be scared for him, that I’d believe totally that you would save him. But…when it got dark…” Her shoulders shook softly, her head bowed. Another tear slid down her face.
Gibbs leaned against the bench. “So,” he said quietly, asking to break her mood, “how was he logging on?”
She lifted a hand, as if to say, ‘it was so obvious,’ and said, “He logged on as himself.”
Gibbs considered asking what that meant, since it did seem rather obvious, but decided he was too tired. Luckily, Abby didn’t need prompting.
“What I mean,” she said, turning around to face him, “is that he messed with the internal clock of his computer. He logged on at about 5:00 am Saturday morning, and then adjusted the date stamp so that it looked like it was his logon from Friday. I never saw it, because, obviously, he had been logged on on Friday—so it didn’t look unusual. Until I looked at the times—5:12 am to 11:57 pm, way outside his normal hours.” She shook her head. “Such a simple ruse, I never expected it. I mean, you have to give McGee credit,” she said, looking at her computer again, “he’s really clever when he wants to be. I can’t believe I forgot KISS.”
That perked Gibbs’ eyebrows. “Kiss?” he repeated, keeping his tone carefully neutral.
Abby smiled softly, giving him a sad look. “Not that kind of kiss, Gibbs,” she said teasingly. “It means Keep It Simple, Stupid. Though,” she gave a small shrug, looking down at her hands, “right now, knowing that he may never—“
“Hey,” Gibbs said, stopping her. “Don’t. We’ll get him back.”
She nodded again, still not looking up.
Gibbs sighed. “So,” he asked finally, “now you know how he got in, can you trace him next time he logs in?”
She grimaced, and shrugged, turning to look at her computer monitor again. “I think so. Now that I know what I’m looking for.”
Gibbs looked down at his watch. It was 1:00 in the morning. If McGee logged on at about 5:00 am yesterday, he’d probably be doing that again today.
“Okay,” he said, nodding. “He’ll be on in about four hours. Why don’t you go get some sleep.”
She nodded unhappily, shoulders still slumped, and turned to walk towards the far back room.
“You could go home, you know,” Gibbs called after her.
“I won’t sleep at home,” she answered, and Gibbs saw her kneel down to pull out the futon from under the table.
“Abbs,” he said then, getting her turn around and look at him. Her eyebrows lifted.
“We’ll get him back, Abbs.”
She grimaced. “You said that already,” she said. “Twice.”
“I figured you wouldn’t mind hearing it again.”
She met his gaze for a long moment, then smiled softly. “You’re right, Gibbs.” She smiled more. “You’re always right.”
He smiled in return, then walked out of the lab to the elevators—heading to the couch in Cynthia’s office to catch a few hours himself.
Tim sat with his back against the concrete wall, his arms wrapped around his legs, and the blanket wrapped around his shoulders.
He was freezing, and shaking too much to even consider getting any sleep on the hard cot. He knew, because he’d already tried.
Meanwhile, part of his mind was crowing with pride, for having cracked two of the most secure networks on the planet.
And part of his mind was utterly sick about the same thing.
At the end of the day, he’d cracked Interpol and the CIA, and, of course, NCIS. Tomorrow, he’d go for the others. And there was really nothing stopping him from succeeding—well, except that the NSA was next to impregnable. He’d leave that to last. Tara was doing just as well. She’d hacked the DOJ by mid-afternoon, and, apparently, hacking into the local and regional police departments hadn’t been much of a problem for her. Nick and Angela hadn’t done as well, but who knew what tomorrow would bring? To be honest, he was a bit surprised by Nick. Homeland Security was stocked with the most elite cyber crackers in the country—so why was Nick taking so long?
Then again, Nick did have a broken leg. That might have something to do with it.
Moonlight streamed in through the window—it was incredibly bright. If it wasn’t a full moon, it had to be almost full. The cloud cover last night must have been thick enough to hide it, because it had been almost pitch black in here. Tonight, it was like having someone flooding his room with a searchlight.
He sighed, and blinked dry, tired eyes. Two nights in a row without almost no sleep and virtually no food—he was going to be a basketcase tomorrow.
“This sucks,” he muttered.
He didn’t breathe for a second, then he looked up at the window. No one there. But he had definitely just heard…
“Tim?” Tara whispered again. “Can you hear me?”
He stood up, turning to look out the window, wincing a little when his bruised stomach muscles pulled. “Where are you?” he whispered back, staring up at the white moon through the bars. “Are you outside?”
“No,” she replied sadly. “I’m sitting on my cot. I just…I heard you. That was you, right? Saying, ‘this sucks?’”
He gave a crooked smile, and turned to look at the wall between him and Tara. “There must be a fault in this concrete,” he said, walking up to it and feeling what felt like solid, cold cement.
“A pipe, maybe,” she said. “Hidden, or plastered over.” Her voice was echoing slightly, he realized, as if being funneled through a metal pipe.
He’d done a review of the walls the night before, finding nothing but hard concrete. But a pipe was conceivable—he could have easily missed a small section of plaster among all the cement. Whatever the reason for his being able to hear her, he was glad of it.
Turning, he pressed his back to the wall and looked at the floor. “Are you okay?” he asked quietly.
“I’m as well as you are,” she replied noncommittally. “Although I didn’t get hit in the ribs like you did.”
Tim frowned ruefully, touching a hand to his sore torso. It was punishment for Angela being kicked out of the Pentagon within moments of her hacking it. She’d been spotted before Duncan could finish uploading the malware and thrown out. Reams hadn’t looked concerned about the Pentagon backtracing her (which concerned Tim slightly, since Abby being able to backtrace his logon was something he was banking on), but Reams had been furious that she had failed—because it meant that security would be doubled on the DOD’s servers. They weren’t even going to try to hack it tomorrow.
Reams had taken his frustration with Angela out on Tim’s ribs and stomach. Afterwards, Tim had thrown up the Burger King burger and fries they’d been fed for dinner, and then dry-heaved for two hours after being carried back to this little room. He could still taste the bile on his tongue.
He smiled wanly and tried not to think anymore about it. It was fine—so long as he didn’t move too much.
“I’m fine,” he said, glad she couldn’t actually see his face, though she had to know he was lying. “Been hit worse by my boss.”
Tara gave a short laugh, and the sound echoed a little more than before. “Yeah, I’ve heard about that.”
Tim perked up. “Really?”
“Agent Fornell is always threatening to send Ron Sacks to Gibbs for ‘attitude training.’” She laughed again. “Though, from what I’ve heard about Agent DiNozzo, Officer David and you, it really just makes you all worse. I think I’ve even heard you called ‘Gibbs’ brats’ by some of the other agents.”
“Worse?” Tim’s eyebrows shot up. “Hey, I take offense to that! We’re highly trained, very effective brats with nearly perfect records, thank you very much.”
She laughed again.
He smiled more, leaning more against the wall. He wished he could see her.
“So,” he said, changing the subject, “what prompted you to join Fornell’s team?”
She was quite a moment, then sighed. “Technically, I’m not a member of his team, yet. I still haven’t been made a full agent. I’m just a cyber expert.”
Tim frowned. “But…I was told you were on Fornell’s team?”
“I’m hoping to be,” she answered quickly. “Agent Fornell decided he wanted a computer expert on his team, and when he asked for applicants. I applied. He took me when I passed his test. But I won’t be a full member until I finish the rest of my FLETC training.”
Tim tilted his head back against the wall. “What was his test?”
“Breaking into your computer,” she replied, and he could almost see her smiling smugly. Tim’s jaw dropped, but before he could answer, she was talking again. “Wasn’t that hard really. Not if you went to MIT. You had Professor Barnes and Professor Tarves, yes?”
He frowned. “Uh…”
“You don’t need to say yes, I already know. I looked it up. I had them, too. You used their model algorithms for your security measures. Should really consider finding some less famous algorithms to emulate, Agent McGee. Admittedly,” she sighed, “you did have a few things in there I hadn’t seen before, but, really, if you’re going to use the same root for all your unix based security measures, then I would highly suggest—“
“Tara?” Tim had his eyes closed now.
She didn’t answer for a moment, then, timidly: “I was being arrogant, wasn’t I?”
“A little bit.”
She sighed, and the tinny quality seemed to make it sound even more pathetic. “Sorry. I do that sometimes. Been trying to break out of the habit.”
He smiled softly, then more broadly, looking down again at his feet. “Don’t worry about it. I do it all the time.”
“I have the feeling we’re cut from the same cloth, you and I. MIT, huh?”
“And Johns Hopkins. Same professors there, too.”
Tim snorted a laugh, holding his ribs again when the action hurt a little. “No wonder you hacked me.”
“Like I said,” she whispered. “You need some new moves.”
He smiled again. “I’ll take that under advisement, Not Quite Agent Stokes.”
She didn’t say anything in return for a while, and McGee’s brow furrowed. Had he offended her?
When she did speak, it was very soft. “Tim?”
He turned his head. “Hey,” he said quickly, “I’m sorry if I said anything that—“
“No, Tim…” She trailed off again. “I…. That’s not it.”
He looked up at the window. “Then what?”
“If…if we get out of this…”
He frowned again. “Yeah?”
“Would you go to dinner with me?”
He closed his eyes and nodded to the empty room, smiling. “I’d love to.”
Again, a long moment of silence, until, with a truly happy note in her voice for the first time, Tara whispered, “Okay. Good night, Tim.”
“Good night, Tara.”
He waited a moment, to see if she would speak again. When she didn’t, he levered himself up off the wall and walked back to the narrow cot. Settling down, he wrapped the blanket tightly around his body again and tried to get some sleep.
He was still awake when they came to get him at 5:00 am.
CHAPTER FIVE: BAD SUNDAY
When Gibbs returned to his desk the next morning after driving home for a shower and a clean set of clothes (something he ordered Tony and Ziva to do as well), he found someone already sitting at his desk, waiting for him—with two cups of coffee.
Tobias was going through the same lists of terrorist suspects that Gibbs had been pouring over the night before, his expression sour.
“Hey,” Gibbs said, standing in front of the desk and taking one of the cups. He frowned when he found it empty, and picked up the other one. This one was full. “You’re in my chair.”
Tobias glanced up at him, sighed, and stood up. He pointed at the coffee in Gibbs’ hand.
“Might be a little cold,” Tobias said, moving to the side so Gibbs could sit down. “Been sitting a while. I thought you’d be here all night.” He ended up leaning against the small table on which the large flat screen was sitting. “I got here at 6:00 am to find the place deserted except for your two PhDs.”
Gibbs looked up from the lists on his desk, surprised. “Ducky is here already?”
Tobias gave a nod. “Came in at the same time I did, which was a good thing, since I was able to drop off our profiler with him. They’re down in your autopsy department, pouring over our people’s records.”
Gibbs shrugged slightly as he took a sip of the lukewarm coffee, and then picked up the papers on his desk. Tobias had put checkmarks next to some of the names.
“You get anywhere with these?” Gibbs asked.
“No,” the FBI agent admitted. “There must be a way to narrow them down, but now that I know your man has hacked at least two different agencies, the DOJ, Metro PD and the Virginia State Police, it makes the possible list of suspects longer. The local LEOs are sending you and me two more sets of lists.” He shook his head. “There must be something we’re missing here.”
Gibbs frowned, his mind tripping over something Tobias said as he scanned the list they had already. It clicked a second later, and he looked up, puzzled.
“Did you say, Tim had hacked two agencies and the DOJ? And two PDs? All in one day?”
Tobias nodded. “According to your forensics specialist.”
Gibbs frowned, then stood up again, shaking his head. “McGee’s not that good.”
Tobias said nothing in return, just got out of the way and then followed right behind as Gibbs left his desk and headed towards the elevators.
Tony was already in Abby’s lab when the two senior agents arrived, leaning on Abby’s table and fiddling with a pencil, tapping it to the beat of Abby’s music. When Gibbs came in, he jumped up, dropping the pencil on the floor and looking sheepish.
Gibbs frowned at him, then frowned more at Tobias. “I thought you said Tony wasn’t here?” He looked back at Tony. “And I thought I told you to go home and shower?”
Tony just shrugged. “I showered in the building—I only just got out. Abby sent me a message, asking me to drop by, so here I am. Figured I’d see if I could help Abby before heading back upstairs, and, while I was at it, bring her that.” He pointed at her computer, next to which were two Caf-Pows.
The forensic specialist just smiled, wrapping her hand around the one closest to her keyboard in order to take a sip.
“Two, Tony?” Gibbs said, arching an eyebrow. “And how did you get them—caf’s not even open yet.”
Tony just grinned. “I have my ways, Boss.”
“And her name is Mandy,” Ziva said, coming in from the back room. Her hair, still obviously wet, was up in a high pony-tail—apparently, Tony wasn’t the only one to use the showers in the building. “And he didn’t get her two,” she continued, “just one. I bought the other one.”
“I’m loved,” Abby said, smiling happily. Then she turned and looked expectantly at Gibbs. He just narrowed his eyes.
“Not until you give me something I can use,” he said.
She sighed, and turned around, calling up a screen. A picture of the world appeared, and a red-line was currently winging its way across the Atlantic Ocean to somewhere in Europe.
“McGee’s logged on—has been for about two hours. I’m backtracing where his signal is coming from, but…” She shook her head. “It’s been bouncing since I started. Whoever set this up, planned for this contingency. They must have guessed that, if the white hats hacked a lot of agencies, at least one would catch them and try a trace.” She grimaced. “There’s no telling how many ISPs it’ll hit before landing on the origin.”
Gibbs frowned, “So, what you’re saying is—“
“It could take days, Gibbs, if they’re as good as I think they are.” She gave him an apologetic look.
“It looks like a spider-web,” Ziva noted, standing behind the table now. Like the previous day, she was clearly still of the mind that looking at the monitor from a distance would help. Abby chuckled, glancing at the screen, and nodded.
“It does. A red spider-web.”
“Just like Spidey’s,” Tony added, yawning into his hand.
Gibbs frowned at him, before returning his attention to Abby. “Fornell tells me that McGee sent you multiple screenshots last night. Are you sure they’re all his?”
“Oh,” Abby perked up. “No. They’re not. He’s given Tara Stokes access to his shared drive. She’s been dropping screenshots into it as well. I think she did the PDs.”
Fornell’s eyes widened. “You didn’t tell me that!”
Abby appeared genuinely puzzled. “You didn’t ask. You just wanted me to tell you which agencies they’ve hacked so far.”
The FBI Agent frowned at her, and crossed his arms. “And you didn’t think I might like to know that my agent is working with yours, that she’s alive?”
Abby blushed. “Oh.” She ducked her head. “I’m sorry. I didn’t—”
“FBI guys are so touchy,” Tony whispered (not so quietly) to Ziva.
Gibbs slapped the back of his head, even though he knew Tony had said that to get the heat off Abby. Tony just sighed long-sufferingly.
Gibbs returned his attention to Abby. “What else have you got, Abbs?”
“You mean,” she said, “have I cracked McGee’s passwords?” As she asked the question, she walked to a small laptop off to the side, and turned it around. A window with the three files sitting in it was clearly displayed. “No. It’s why I asked Tony to visit. I’ve tried googling everything about the movie Sneakers, but nothing has worked. Actor’s names, famous quotes, the names of the directors and producers…” She grimaced. “I then tried every hacker movie I could think of, even Hackers, but I hit a dead end. Tony has given me a few more. Thing is…” Her eyes narrowed as she peered at the laptop, as if she could will the files to open by sheer force of will. “McGee’s just not that big of a movie buff. More than that, he’s a snob. I mean,” she looked at Tony apologetically, “I just can’t see McGee using an Independence Day reference as a password.”
Tony’s hands lifted, moving to stand next to Abby. “Why not? Jeff Goldblum hacked an alien ship with a Mac, and you know how much Probie loves Apple. He lined up for six hours just to get one of the first iPhones.”
Abby just sighed again. “I still don’t think it’s right, but I’m getting desperate.” As she spoke, she typed. Nothing happened. She shook her head at Tony. “See?”
“I do not understand. The movie is called Sneakers, yes?” Ziva walked around Gibbs and Fornell to look at the same small laptop monitor as Tony and Abby, her head tilted slightly. “Now, I know, in English, not all words and phrases are used the same way by everyone, but sneakers are also shoes, are they not? At least, they are here. In the West, I believe they say tennis shoes. In England, I was told they call them trainers. But, regardless, here, they are shoes. And McGee is from here. Why would he not use something like Nike or Reebok for the password?”
Abby and Tony had both gone completely still.
Ziva’s eyebrows lifted. “What? Too obvious?”
“KISS, Abby?” Gibbs asked cheekily.
Tony and Ziva’s eyes both widened at that one, but Abby just smiled wryly. Narrowing her gaze, she started typing.
“Do you want us to leave, Boss?” Tony asked, coughing politely. Gibbs huffed a quick laugh, shaking his head.
“Nike,” Abby said out loud, her fingers flying. “Reebok. Adidas. Uh…”
“New Balance.” Tony prompted. “Converse.”
“Saucony,” Gibbs said. “Brooks.”
“Asics,” Ziva added. “Fila.”
“Asics,” Abby repeated softly as she typed, then she jumped and grinned. “Yes! Ziva!” she said, whipping around and hugging the startled Mossad officer tightly. “I take back everything bad I’ve ever said about you!”
“You’ve said bad things about me?” Ziva asked innocently, her breathing obviously constricted.
Abby just hugged her tighter. “Not anymore!” she promised, letting Ziva go and returning her attention to the laptop. “Oh, wow! Look at this thing go!”
Gibbs walked around to look at the laptop, frowning at the sight of lines and lines of code spooling down the screen.
“Yeah,” Tony said, obviously as much at a loss as his boss, “Pretty cool. Sort of like the Matrix except…not so green or vertical or numerical.” He tilted his head. “There’re words in coding?”
“Are you kidding?” Abby asked, her eyes positively glowing. “This is so much cooler than the Matrix! I don’t even know half of what I’m reading! This must have taken months, years even, to develop. Wow!” She tried typing something, paused, and then tried again. “Oh shoot.” Her smile fell as she tried a third time. “Whoops.”
“Whoops?” Gibbs asked. “What whoops?”
“I might have infected the laptop.” She was typing more, faster, but nothing looked like it was changing on the screen. “I thought I’d effectively isolated the files so they couldn’t infect the computer, but…wow. It just cut right through the firewalls like they weren’t there. This thing is…good.” She pulled her hands away from the keyboard and curled them into fists. She bit her lip. “I can’t get it to stop.”
“Find a way.”
She looked up, giving him a stricken look, “But—“
“Don’t tell me you can’t do it.”
“Abby, I’m guessing that, come Monday morning, what you’re looking at will be spread to half of this country’s agencies in a matter of minutes. You need to find a way to stop it before it does. Or, at the very least, stop it immediately after it does.”
Abby shook her head. “Gibbs, you don’t understand. This program is seriously sophisticated. Even if McGee were here with me—“
“Well, he’s not here, is he? But he sent this to you because he believed you could stop it. Are you telling me you’re going to let him down?”
She gave him a dark look. “Oh, that’s dirty pool, Gibbs.” When he said nothing in reply, she set her jaw and snapped backwards, giving him a salute. “You can count on me, sir!”
Gibbs nodded at her, then turned and walked out. Fornell blinked once, looking a little like he’d just witnessed a play he didn’t wholly comprehend, before turning to follow Gibbs. After the two senior agents were gone, Abby slumped and buried her face in her hands. Tony patted her shoulder.
“That bad,” she confirmed.
Ziva handed her the other Caf-Pow.
Ducky called Gibbs before he even hit the elevator, turning him around, Fornell still at his side.
When they walked through the doors into Autopsy a few minutes later, they found Ducky listening with his head down and a hand to his chin to a tall, dark suited man next to one of the autopsy tables. The man, who was obviously the profiler Fornell had brought with him, was chattering away about “typical behavior for these sorts of people.”
It took Gibbs’ seasoned eyes only a moment to see that Ducky was not, in fact, listening. He was looking at something on the table.
Gibbs’ eyes narrowed slightly—the table was covered in objects from Tim’s desk and from his home. The other three tables in Autopsy were similarly strewn with objects and papers—each representing one of the white hats taken—but seeing Tim’s things with the others…. It was one of the reasons he’d been avoiding coming down here. Gritting his teeth slightly, he returned his gaze to his old friend.
“What have you got for me, Ducky?”
Ducky came to life immediately, turning and smiling up at Gibbs and leaving the FBI profiler in mid-sentence. “Ah, Jethro, there you are! Thank you for coming so promptly.”
“I always come promptly when you call, Ducky,” Gibbs replied. He glanced over Ducky’s head at the FBI profiler. “This guy help you figure out what was bothering you last night?”
“Indeed he has,” Ducky said, “though not in the way he thinks.” He turned and gazed up at the now confused profiler, and patted him on the arm. “Not your fault, young man. You’re quite intelligent for someone so limited in his thinking.” Gibbs ducked his head to hide the smile at Ducky’s patronizing tone, while Fornell just gave the doctor a dark look.
Missing both, Ducky had reached down and picked up Tim’s framed FLETC diploma, tucking it against his chest before walking over to Gibbs. “What this gentlemen did was kindly remind me that I was focusing too much on what our four kidnappees have in common and not enough on what makes them different. Obviously,” he waved a hand at the four tables, “as he just got through telling me, one could type all four as being introverts and loners, as well as being highly skilled and highly intelligent. They are all also protective personalities, which is why they all ended up in the service of their country. One can also assume that the fact that it is boy, girl, boy, girl is not a coincidence, nor that both women taken were young and pretty, and the men themselves not unattractive.”
“They can use the threat of harming the women over the men,” Fornell said.
“And vice versa,” Ducky said, inclining his head. “Furthermore, these three,” he walked away to indicate the three tables other than Tim’s, “have very limited or no family contact, and no established friends in the area.”
“But McGee has friends,” Gibbs said automatically, his brow furrowing. Ducky turned around, pointing a finger at Gibbs.
“Precisely! And that’s what has been bothering me. Our Agent McGee does not fit in with these other three. Oh, certainly, he is young and intelligent and clearly a genius with computers, but, unlike these others, he has family close by—his sister, whom we all know he adores—and his friends at NCIS. So, if, as my profiler friend here assumes, all four were taken because they would not be immediately missed, then something is, as Abby would say, hinky. Tim would be missed. And was missed rather quickly, as we know.”
“That doesn’t mean the kidnappers knew he had such contacts,” the profiler said, a touch sullenly. “On paper, Agent McGee appears very similar to these others.”
“Oh, he most certainly does not,” Ducky said, shaking his head. “And even if he did, do you really think that these four were chosen purely based on how they were described on paper?”
“You really should think these things through before you speak, young man,” Ducky said, still holding Tim’s diploma under his arm, turned back to Gibbs. “It is not a simple thing to organize the taking of four agents, studying their habits to know precisely when to strike, and finding a weekend when none of the four were slated to be on call …” He shook his head. “No, these four were deliberately chosen, and their movements watched and timed, probably while they were developing the computer virus that Abigail is attempting to crack. It would not have taken them long to discover that Timothy has friends, that he often spends time with both Tony and Abby on the weekends, among others. He is no loner, not matter what his profile says. And yet…” Ducky trailed off, raising a hand in a shrug.
Gibbs frowned. He already knew where this was going. It had been in the back of his mind ever since Tony had inadvertently brought it to his attention yesterday morning, but he hadn’t wanted to believe it. Ducky caught his eye, and smiled sadly. But before saying anything, he looked past Gibbs to Fornell. Tobias was staring across to the table with Tara Stokes picture on it.
Ducky cleared his throat. “Can I ask you a question about Agent Stokes, Tobias? I just want to verify something.”
The FBI Agent jumped slightly, as if he had just been somewhere else entirely. He focused on Ducky and gave a nod. “Of course, Doctor.”
“Agent Stokes, she wasn’t actually apart of your team yet, was she?”
Fornell shook his head slowly. “No. She was still in training.” He gave a shrug, looking across at the table with her things on it. “That’s actually how we discovered she was missing. Sacks and I were going to take her to the gun range on Saturday, see if we couldn’t give her a head start on becoming an agent. When she didn’t answer her door at our knock, and didn’t answer her phone, and her doorman insisted she was not seen leaving…” He frowned, looking down at the floor.
Ducky sighed. “I thought so.” He returned his gaze to Gibbs, and, if possible, his expression grew even more sympathetic.
Because Gibbs was furious with himself, and it showed on his face. He didn’t hide it. Ducky sighed.
“You already know what I’m going to say, don’t you?” the older man asked quietly.
Gibbs frowned angrily. “The government employs computer security experts in almost all of its divisions, people who are just as qualified and expert as McGee, but they still took McGee. They took a trained field agent, top of his class at FLETC,” he gestured to the diploma under Ducky’s arm, “instead of just another geek like those three.” He walked across to Tim’s table, picking up the copy of Deep Six sitting there. “And they took him despite knowing that it was likely he would be missed within a day.”
Ducky nodded. “Yes.” He put the diploma down on a side table, obviously not needing it anymore.
Gibbs gripped the book harder, feeling the rage growing inside him. “Damn it!” he shouted, throwing the book violently across the room, hitting the metal doors with a massive clang. “I should have seen it!”
“Wait, hang on,” the profiler interrupted, raising a hand, his expression showing his confusion. “Do not forget that timing could be a reason here. It’s likely that these kidnappers had a slate of people they could choose from, but, if what they needed done had to be done this weekend, they were forced to pick the four who—“
“They still wouldn’t have picked McGee,” Fornell said morosely, shaking his head. “He’s too dangerous.”
The profiler opened his mouth as if he was going to argue again, and then he closed it again. He shifted his gaze to Tim’s table, taking in the objects on it, then looked to the diploma Ducky had put down. You could see the moment he got it.
The moment he finally understood what the other three already knew.
That taking McGee had been personal.
“Damn,” he said quietly, looking up to meet Gibbs’ eyes. “I’m sorry, sir.”
Ducky grimaced, nodding. “As am I, Jethro.”
“Does Agent McGee have many enemies?” the profiler asked.
“No,” Gibbs replied, his jaw tense. “But I do.”
“Compare the list of everyone I’ve sent to jail, or whose family members I’ve sent to jail or killed, against the lists sent over by the other agencies,” Gibbs commanded Tony as he swept into the squad room.
“What?” Tony was up out of his chair. “Why?”
“McGee was targeted deliberately,” Gibbs replied, already sitting down at his desk. He pushed aside the empty coffee cup Tobias had left there—the FBI Agent had left with his profiler to do his own search back at his own office.
“McGee? Are you sure?” Ziva asked, standing up as well. A split second after she said it, her eyes widened, and she nodded. “Of course, he was,” she muttered. “I should have seen it. A trained field agent—he should have been too big of a risk.” Her gaze locked again on Gibbs. “So, are we assuming McGee was chosen first?”
“It’d be a good bet,” Gibbs said, already running a finger down a list of people he’d put away who were released from jail this year.
“Then that would suggest the other three were picked to balance his skills out,” Ziva said thoughtfully, walking over to his desk. “Abby has shown us that McGee has really only hacked those agencies he’s hacked before. So the others are probably hacking the others, yes? And were probably chosen specifically because they could do so quickly, like McGee has.”
Gibbs stopped reading the list, surprised by the thought, and, after a moment, he looked up. Damn, Ziva was clever. “That’d be a good bet as well,” he said.
She didn’t notice, still working her idea out in her head. “It means someone had to have access to not just their personnel records, but to the list of agencies they’ve hacked. Is that information with their personnel records, or is it kept separate?” She looked over her shoulder at Tony.
“It’s separate,” Tony said. “Every time McGee hacks something for us, a record is made for legal purposes, to protect him. It’s put into the case file, for evidentiary reasons. To find it, you’d have to not only hack the personnel files, but the case files a certain agent has worked on. That’d be one hell of a hard thing to do—it could take months.”
“So they have another hacker,” Gibbs said. “But one who isn’t as fast.” He looked at Ziva, “Call the other agencies, and have them do a search for—“
“—evidence that someone has hacked into the case files of the agents who are missing, and see if they have a name or any information on the hacker.” She nodded again, already walking quickly back to her desk.
“Boss,” Tony said, his eyes thoughtful, “how did they know McGee was off this weekend?”
Gibbs looked up. “We finished a case.”
“But we didn’t know we were going to finish that case Friday, until about mid-day. So, how did they know?”
Gibbs frowned, letting Tony answer the question himself.
“If our boy really was the lynchpin, then his availability would be paramount,” Tony continued. “And you wouldn’t have known that he was free this weekend just by hacking a computer….”
“You’d have to have someone physically here, who could alert them that the plan would work,” Gibbs finished, his eyes flashing with anger. “Get on it. If someone at NCIS is a mole, I want to know who that person is.”
Tony was way ahead of him, already tucking his phone against his ear in order to call security for tapes from Friday.
Gibbs was almost rigid with rage now, focused once more on his known list of enemies. As his eyes scrolled down the list, he found himself instinctively picking out certain names.
The ones who had families he’d hurt.
Tim stood a few feet away from his chair, watching as Duncan worked to integrate his malware with DOE’s systems. Reams was walking around, as usual, watching the other three work, keeping an eye on them.
McGee wondered if Reams really knew what he was looking at, or whether it was a bluff. He’d begun to suspect the latter when Reams didn’t react when McGee had carelessly kept his network file open in one corner of his screen about an hour ago—which was when Tim had successfully hacked the DOE’s server and taken a screen shot before turning his computer over to Duncan. Either way, it had taken a while for Tim’s heart to stop trying to beat its way out of his chest.
Reaching up, he wiped a trickle of sweat from the side of his face. It wasn’t hot in here, and, in fact, the pouring rain now bucketing down outside had guaranteed cold temperatures, but Tim still felt like he was burning up. Exposure, he guessed. Maybe the beating. Not eating enough. Not sleeping. He wasn’t even going to think about the bucket in his cell. He hadn’t the strongest constitution at the best of times.
Reams looked at him over Tara’s shoulder, just in time to see Tim wipe some more sweat from his face. McGee saw the other man’s eyes narrow, and he looked away, not wanting to draw any more attention to himself.
The large man sidled up next to McGee, standing shoulder to shoulder with him, and imitated Tim’s focused gaze on the computer screen.
“I’m impressed, Agent McGee,” Reams said conversationally. “Hacking the DOE in only…” he trailed off, glancing at the large black watch on his wrist. “Seven hours. Considering you’ve never hacked the DOE before, that’s quite a feat. Did you know, when I had Duncan hack into the various government servers in order to get each of your personnel files, it took him weeks to hack just one? They kept kicking him out before he could establish a foothold. Needless to say, that is why he’s not part of this final phase.”
Tim didn’t answer. He didn’t lift his eyes from Duncan’s work. The shaky blond, however, glanced over his shoulder to shoot a glare at Reams from behind bloodshot eyes. Reams paid no attention as he continued.
“Of course, that means it’s now almost 1:00 in the afternoon, and you still have two more agencies to hack before midnight, one of which is the NSA. Took you almost the entire day yesterday to hack the CIA. Will it take you that long, do you think?”
Still Tim didn’t answer. Inside, though, he was thinking about telling Reams the truth—that he didn’t think he could hack the NSA. At least, with the CIA, he’d had some backdoors in. He had nothing with the NSA, not even an idea of where to start.
“I can hack the NRO,” Tara said suddenly, her eyes worried. “That way Tim can focus just on the NSA.”
Reams smiled at her almost kindly, and shook his head. “I’m sorry, my dear, but no. That’s not your job. It’s Agent McGee’s.”
“But if I can do it…,” Tara insisted. “Please.”
Reams furrowed his brow, letting his smile falter. “Are you telling me you’ve already hacked all the PD’s on the eastern seaboard, Agent Stokes?”
“No,” she admitted. “But surely the NSA is a bigger prize. And—“
“How would you know, little girl?”Reams headed back to her side, his hands behind his back. He leaned down to stare at her profile, his nose almost against her cheek, and Tara shrank away slightly. “How do you know,” Reams pressed, “that the PDs aren’t the organizations I need to take down the most? And you’ve only hacked three of them.” Quick as a lightning strike, he slammed the desk next to her keyboard, causing her to jump. “Three is not good enough!” he shouted in her ear. “Why haven’t you hacked the NYPD yet? You’ve had all morning, and all I’ve seen you do is whine about needing more water!”
Tara nodded softly. “I’m almost in.”
“Then finish it! I want New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio before my watch hits 9:00 pm, you understand?”
She nodded quickly.
“I can hack the NRO.”
Reams’ surprise appeared more genuine this time, and he straightened up to look across at Angela. She didn’t look up from her computer, and for a moment, Tim wondered if she’d even spoken.
“They’re connected to Army CID.” The red-headed woman finally looked up, her green eyes hollow inside her almost translucently pale face. From colorless lips, she added, “I have a back way in. I could do it.”
Tim huffed in surprised—it was the first string of sentences he’d heard her put together since being beaten that first night. The lack of inflection was a little creepy—she spoke like a ghost.
Reams’ eyes narrowed again, his lips pursing. “You couldn’t hack the Pentagon, Agent Zelnitz, but you can hack the NRO?”
“The NRO is pure military. I can hack it. The DOD is a different sort of animal.” She lowered her eyes again to her monitor. “I also have SecNav on line for you.” She leaned back in her chair. “Whenever you are ready.”
Duncan’s head popped up, and Tim saw him frown in annoyance, his hands trembling over the keyboard. “Don’t let them kick you off this time,” the kid sneered. “I’m almost done here.” He was back to typing, this time more quickly.
Angela just nodded. Her gaze drifting now to the floor. The bruising on her face had faded, but it was still livid. More yellow and purple now rather that red and purple.
Reams studied Angela for a long moment, before turning to look at McGee. “Why are they protecting you?”
Surprised, Tim lifted his head, and turned to meet Reams’ gaze. “What?”
Ignoring the response, Reams turned to Nick. The blond agent was ashen, not as pale as Angela, but still very pale. He hadn’t looked up.
“What about you, Cheevers. You going to volunteer to help McGee as well?”
Nick blinked slowly, then gave a slow head shake. “No.”
“Because I’m not helping you anymore than I need to.”
It was simple, cold, and it made Reams laugh.
Not a good thing. Tim, Angela and Tara watched the large, gray-haired man warily, waiting for the laugh to end. Waiting, because Reams was certain to take Nick’s flippant answer out on one of them. Nick still didn’t look up.
Finally, Reams’ laughter faded to a chuckle, and he wiped a tear from his eye. Sighing, he walked over to Nick’s station, barely registering as Duncan jumped up from Tim’s and jogged over to Angela’s at the same time, to upload his virus into SecNav’s server. She got up out of his way.
“Problem is, Nick,” Reams said, leaning over Nick’s chair, “you haven’t really been much help to me, have you?”
Nick shrugged. “I got you the Secret Service and the State Department,” he said.
“Actually, I think McGee got me the Secret Service, and Angela showed you how to get to the State Department, which, admittedly, is surprising since she completely failed at breaking us into the Pentagon.” He glanced at her. Angela was standing now, watching as Duncan attacked her computer with a spastic energy.
“Took me days to crack the White House before,” Nick answered quietly. “You couldn’t have expected me to—“ He broke off with a yelp as Reams pressed down on his broken leg. The yelp turned into a choked scream as Reams pressed even harder.
“Once you’re done with the NSC,” Reams nodded at Nick’s screen, “You’re going to hack the NRO for me, Cheevers. If you don’t do it…well,” Reams smiled ruefully, “you know.”
He released Nick’s leg, and Nick panted heavily, blinking like a drunk.
Straightening, Reams turned to look at McGee, who was trying very hard not to react in anger. It was taking everything he had not to tell Reams exactly what he thought of him. Reams must have sensed the tension in him, because he smiled that sickly smile again.
“You have a reprieve, Agent McGee. I expect you to break into the NSA before 8:00 pm. If you don’t, I’ll kill Cheevers here, and you’ll still have the NRO to hack. Understand?”
Nick’s eyes met Tim’s briefly, and there was no denying the dark look he gave him—Nick was blaming Tim for what just happened. McGee frowned, returned his attention to his computer, and started typing again.
CHAPTER SIX: GETTING DOWN TO THE WIRE
“Who’s that?” Gibbs asked, peering up at the black and white security footage on the squad room LCD. He was watching a young kid with a baseball hat leaning against the wall next to the bathroom, drinking water he’d taken from the water cooler.
“Name’s Jarvis Trent,” Tony replied, standing on Gibbs right. “Been coming here every night for the last three months.”
Gibbs frowned more. He watched as the kid studied everyone in the room, listening to conversations as he drank the water. After a while, he threw the cup away and walked once around the room before leaving. He’d hadn’t stayed for more than five minutes. Gibbs shook his head.
“I don’t know him.”
“You wouldn’t, Boss. He doesn’t work here.”
Gibbs turned to look at Tony, his eyebrows lifted, waiting for an explanation. It was Ziva who supplied it.
“He is let in past the guard every evening at 5:00 pm,” Ziva said from where she stood on Gibbs’ other side, “because he is a courier. He drops off and picks up packages. Guard knows him as ‘JT’. Assumed he was just another kid with an after school job.”
Gibbs turned to face her now. “What’s he doing up here? Couriers are supposed to go to the mail room and leave. Why is he in the squad room?”
“Exactly, Boss,” Tony agreed. “ He has no reason to be up here. But you know the squad room isn’t off limits to the public. After he was inside the building, he just came upstairs. Hung around for a bit, got some water, then left. Every day, for three months. He’s good—we never even noticed him up here.”
“This is from two weeks ago,” Ziva said. “We used it because whoever was on guard duty that night focused on him long enough to get shot of his face, despite the hat. The other nights, he was more ghostlike. But…” She stopped the tape, popped it out, and put in another. “This is from Friday.”
Gibbs’ eyes zeroed in immediately on the kid as he hung out near the water cooler in the back again. The boy was watching McGee, who was laughing and joking with Tony and Ziva. They’d broken the case earlier that day, and were just doing paperwork now. Hence the lack of decorum. Tony and Ziva fidgeted slightly, but Gibbs didn’t care, not right now.
Especially when the kid put a phone to his ear.
“We can’t see what he is saying,” Ziva pointed out, “but we can—“
“Get him in here. Now.”
They needed no further prompting.
Finding Jarvis was easy. Getting Jarvis to talk was even easier. He was a punk, the kind Gibbs ate for breakfast. The courier job was his real job—he’d been approached after making one of his daily delivery and pick-ups at NCIS a few months before, and had taken the “side job” of watching McGee for extra cash. He didn’t know why McGee had been important. He’d just been asked to watch him—and keep track of when he was working weekends and any vacations he might be considering. He also was asked to give his impressions of the team as a whole. He hadn’t know the reason for that either. Gibbs did.
The only difficulty had come when the name Jarvis told them turned out to be false. The man who’d hired the kid had called himself Mr. Gray—a pretty obvious pseudonym. All Jarvis could really tell them was that Mr. Gray had no accent—that he sounded American to Jarvis—was white and big, maybe 6’3, and had gray hair.
Gibbs stared at the list of names on his computer again, and his mind clicked over the possibilities. He was no longer looking just at the lists of named terrorists, but at the criminals. Plain, ugly, vengeful criminals.
A lot of them—men he’d put away when he was still pretty young—would have gray hair now. And prison tended to make a man seem larger than life when he came out.
Tony was downstairs showing Jarvis pictures now, flipping through several books of men Gibbs had put away or had ID’d as dangerous.
Meanwhile, Abby had finally managed to isolate the virus on the laptop after working on it solidly for almost 10 hours. In a few more, she believed she would have enough information to warn the various agencies of what to look for, so they could locate the trojan and purge it before the worm and virus programs were launched. She was working with Homeland Security and someone from the Cyber Security Division of the FBI on that.
Ziva had confirmed that there had been someone inside the personnel and case file databases of all four white hats at different times in the last six months. She also discovered that the hacker had left a signature, a calling card of sorts—an executable program that was triggered when someone tried to delete it. Once opened, it hijacked your desktop, turning it bright pink and covering it with pictures of naked women. (The sneer with which Ziva had delivered this information was almost comical; Gibbs was actually grateful Tony had been with Jarvis when she reported). The hijack program had been easy to get rid of, but the various agency security experts Ziva had talked to remembered it because…well, the naked women had had the faces of the female cabinet secretaries pasted on them.
The security experts had dismissed it, since nothing important had been taken, and since it was obviously something a kid would do, to show off. Hacks like that happened more often than not, and resources were such that they couldn’t go after every black hat unless it was more serious. As such, it didn’t provide much useful information to Ziva in and of itself.
Ziva was currently trying to track down other places where this “calling card” had shown up. Abby had helped by supplying the names of well known hackers around the country. Turned out, they had organized themselves and had cons—just like Star Trek.
The world was a strange place.
Gibbs rubbed at his forehead and looked up at the clock. Almost 6:00 pm. He didn’t know when everything was supposed to happen for these people who had McGee, but a good guess would be tomorrow morning, as soon as everyone booted up for the day.
He didn’t put much stock in any of the four white hats being kept alive much longer than that.
His phone rang, and Gibbs picked it up.
“What is it, Tony?”
“Gotta name, Boss.” He didn’t sound happy.
“What is it?”
Gibbs’ eyes narrowed. “He’s dead.” Gibbs had killed Viktor almost seven years ago.
“I know. But Jarvis says this Gray guy looks a lot like him, though a lot older.”
Gibbs frowned. Quickly, he scrolled down his list of names on his computer, found Reams, and called him up.
Viktor Reams. Older brother of Aleksey Reams. Eldest son of Andrei Reams.
Viktor looked a lot like his father.
They were all former Russian Mafia (Reams was an Ellis Island concoction). If Andrei, looking for a way to get back at Gibbs, wanted to make connections with terrorist cells from out Russia’s way to finance his plan, it wouldn’t be hard.
“I’ll be right there.”
Hanging up, he printed out pictures of Andrei and Aleksey, and headed off to Interrogation.
Ziva saw him leave, but she was still talking on the phone regarding the hacker. She had been given the name of Duncan Matthews, and she was trying to locate the boy….
Reams had stepped out the room after getting a call from someone he called Lensky, answering in rapid Russian. It was the first time Tim had heard that name. Each time the phone had rung in the past two days, the person on the other side was named Onegin. Either way—Russian names, if his memory of reading Pushkin in college was worth anything.
Of course, it might not be Russian that Reams was speaking. If Tim admitted it to himself, it could just as likely be Czech or Polish or Romanian or Chechen. All her really knew was that it was definitely Slavic.
Ziva would have known.
Just another reminder that, had any of his other teammates been in this situation, they likely wouldn’t still be in this situation.
He breathed heavily, and refocused his attention on his computer.
The knife slicing open his upper left arm was, thus, a shock.
He gasped, immediately jumping out of his chair, his hand covering the bleeding wound. Duncan was grinning at him, eyes gleaming with madness, waving the now blood-stained knife.
“What the hell did you do that for?” Tim demanded, backing away even further when Duncan moved towards him, the boy giggling. “I wasn’t doing anything!”
Duncan just shook his head in warning, still giggling. “Sit back down, McGee.”
“Help him sit down, Ed.”
The man Tim had called the “first goon” in his head for most of yesterday grabbed him tightly around both arms and shoved him forward. He was shoved hard into the metal chair, then abruptly let go, so that he almost fell out of it again.
Letting out a pained breath, Tim looked at his left upper arm. The knife slice was bleeding quickly, staining his shirt sleeve, but it didn’t look deep; it’d stop bleeding if he could get a bandage on it. He wrapped his right hand around it again, trying to lessen the dull throbbing. He looked up at Duncan, still hovering over him.
“Why did you do that?” he asked hoarsely.
“I could say,” Duncan began, wiping the knife off on Tim’s left shoulder, ignoring the way Tim flinched, “that I was trying to motivate you to work faster.” He leaned closer, letting the light from the monitor reflect off the wicked edge of the knife. “But that’d be a lie.” He shrugged. “I was bored. None of you have done anything in a while. You, for example…” Duncan got closer, indicating the screen with the blade. “You haven’t gotten past this firewall, despite the fact that you’ve been trying for the last six hours.”
Tim tried to ignore the way Duncan shook, his jaw tense. “I know,” he said. “The NSA is—“
“Hard. I know. I couldn’t hack it either.” Duncan leaned away from him. “But that doesn’t mean much.” He eyed Tim with a hateful stare. “I’m not you.” He looked at the other three in the room, who were all staring at him. “I’m not any of you. Though, you—“ He pointed the knife at Nick. “I might be better than you. You’ve done almost nothing since you’ve been here. So much for being the famous White House hacker.”
Nick’s eyes narrowed slightly.
“’Course,” Duncan shrugged, “you were a lot younger when you did it, right? Computers were a lot easier to hack ten years ago, before you got recruited to start hacking for the government that tried to put you away.”
Nick’s eyes narrowed more, and he looked away, back to his monitor.
Duncan snorted, and returned his attention to Tim. He placed the knife against Tim’s upper right arm, .
“Should I slice this arm, too? Give you a matching scar.”
Tim had no doubt that the kid would do it if he didn’t think of something quickly. “It…it’ll make it harder for me to type,” he tried.
“So,” Tim looked at his monitor, “you said yourself, I haven’t gotten very far with the NSA. And,” he looked at the clock hanging to one side in the room, “Reams only gave me ‘til eight to hack it. That only leaves me an hour.”
Duncan laughed. “Don’t matter if you hack the NSA, McGee. He don’t care if you do or not.”
Tim frowned. Huh?
“Why not?” Tara asked timidly. “Why wouldn’t he care?”
“You people already hacked the two agencies he really wanted. The rest is frosting.” Duncan grinned.
Tim glanced at the blade still resting on his arm out of the corner of his eye. He was afraid to speak. Luckily, Tara wasn’t.
“Then why are we doing this?” she asked, still timid. Good for her—Fornell was going to get a good agent in her. If they got out of this, they’d need to give as much information to Gibbs and the others as possible. Plus, Tim had been wondering about that even before Duncan admitted to only two agencies being important—because, no matter how good Duncan’s malware was, it wasn’t going to keep any of the agencies off line for long. A day, two tops. Less if Abby got his message. What were they really trying to gain?
Duncan pressed the blade deeper into Tim’s arm, but didn’t break the fabric of his shirt, and Tim hissed, all questions leaving his mind.
Tara’s eyes softened in worry, and she turned pleading eyes to Duncan. “Please don’t,” she whispered.
Duncan let up with the knife, to Tim’s surprise. But he didn’t back away. Tim could smell him standing behind him, still too close for comfort.
Duncan stared at her, then laughed again. “You’re all such wusses!” he chortled. “It’s just a little cut! He’s tough.” He tapped the back of Tim’s head. “Ain’t ya, McGee?”
Tim breathed out heavily. “Whatever you say, Duncan.”
“There,” Duncan said happily. “See?”
Tara shook her head. “I don’t understand you. I don’t understand any of—“
Duncan sliced open Tim’s other arm before she could finish, causing him to yelp in pain. He had both hands on his arms now, blood seeping through his fingers, his head bowed against the pain.
“Stop it!” Tara demanded. “You didn’t have to do that! Why are you doing this?"
Duncan wiped the knife on the back of his shirt, and walked over to Tara.
“I do whatever I want,” he sneered, waving the blade in front of her. “And how are you doing?” He pressed the blade to her arm. “You need any motivation, girl?”
Tara’s eyes narrowed angrily despite the tears in them. She shook her head. “I’m…I’m doing fine,” she answered quickly. “I’m almost inside the New Jersey State Police, like Reams wanted. See for yourself.” She waved a hand at the screen.
“Duncan!” Reams boomed, walking back into the room. He stared hard at McGee, taking in the bleeding cuts, then back at the blond kid. Duncan straightened up from his lean over Tara, and smiled wanly.
“Something wrong, Chief?” Duncan asked, as if he weren’t holding a still blood smeared blade close to Tara’s head.
Reams’ eyes narrowed, then he pointed at McGee. “Check his computer! Now!”
Duncan blinked, he hadn’t expected that. Neither had McGee. For a half second, Tim had actually thought Reams was mad at Duncan for the knife cuts.
The goon—Ed—pulled Tim out of his chair roughly and pulled him to the side, as Duncan came around and started going through Tim’s open windows. Then the kid was delving deeper—checking Tim’s network connections.
Tim closed his eyes. Please…please let him not find anything. Tim knew he was good, but no one was perfect.
“What am I looking for, Chief?” Duncan asked, still searching the hard drive.
“Something. He tipped his people off somehow.”
Tim smiled slightly; he couldn’t help it. Abby had received his message! Gibbs was looking for him!
“How do you know?” Duncan asked, looking over his shoulder at Reams. The gray haired man was boring his eyes into Tim, as if he could see right through McGee’s eyes into his mind.
“Lensky called. NCIS picked Jarvis up a few hours ago. By now, the kid’s likely spilled his guts about us.” Reams stepped closer to McGee. “How did they know, McGee?”
He gave a headshake. “I don’t—“
The backhanded slap was vicious, and it took a while for Tim to get his sight back. He only stayed standing because the goon was still holding onto him by his arms.
“Try again, Agent McGee!” Reams barked.
He shook his head. “I really don’t—“
This time, it was a punch to the gut, which was still sore from yesterday. Tim hacked, his stomach feeling like it was on fire. He couldn’t catch his breath.
“One more time, McGee. Lie to me one more time.”
Tim sucked in a heady breath, and looked up. He was partially bent over, so Reams literally loomed over him, his face in shadow—like a demon. Tim shook his head; there was no way he could answer and come out on the top. What was the point in even trying?
“What’s the point?” he asked out loud, his voice coarse from lack of air. “If I say I don’t know, you’ll kill me. If I say I do know, you’ll kill me. But, if you know so much about me, you know I have friends, a team. They must have noticed I was gone. And they’re more than good enough to find you without my help.”
The other man’s eyes narrowed. “That your final answer?” Reams asked.
Tim stared at him, then gave a single nod. Reams bellowed in anger and slapped him hard across the face, enough that Tim actually blacked out for a second. When he came to, he was still being held up by the goon, and Reams was still standing over him. The older man’s eyes, though, were on Duncan.
“Anything?” Reams asked.
Duncan was frowning, his fingers flying over the keys as he searched for hidden files and subdirectories.
“Damn it, Duncan!” Reams snapped. “Find me something!”
“There ain’t nothing obvious, Chief.”
“Of course it’s not obvious. But it’s there. Find it! I want to know how much they know!”
Duncan just shook his head. “I’m lookin’! Give me a minute.”
Reams curled his hands into fists, returning his gaze to McGee. His eyes narrowed at seeing the bleeding cuts. He looked over McGee’s head at the goon.
“Bandage those. I don’t want him bleeding to death or dying of infection before I kill him.”
Ed reacted by letting him go, and Tim fell to his hands and knees. Apparently, his legs had decided they didn’t want to work anymore—they must have been connected to his stomach, which was radiating an enormous amount of pain through him. He still couldn’t pull in a whole breath. He pressed a shaking hand to his chest, which was beginning to burn as well. Roughly, he was pulled back to a sitting position on his haunches, and Ed was grabbing his right arm, roughly wrapping cloth around the cut.
Tim blinked drowsily, barely registering anything now beyond how much his stomach hurt.
“Duncan!” Reams barked.
“There’s nothing here!” Duncan shouted back. “He’s on his network, but there’s no messages, no nothing. No evidence at all that he’s contacted anyone. It’s all…” the kid leaned back from the computer, “normal. If he did something, he must’ve erased it.”
Reams stared at Tim’s monitor for a moment, and then looked over at Tara. When she ducked her head (she’d been watching the whole thing as if frozen, as had Nick and Angela), the gray haired man pointed at her. “Check her computer.”
Tara’s eyes widened, and she typed something.
Tim’s eyes closed. He didn’t know exactly what she’d just typed—but she’d just given them away.
The second goon was already pulling her from the chair, and Duncan was at her computer. It didn’t take him long to find it.
“She took a screen shot,” he said, “of the New Jersey State Police website.”
“Why?” Reams demanded.
Duncan shook his head, and started typing again.
Tara bit her lip, looking across at Tim. In the background, Tim could see that Angela was only haphazardly typing. Nick watched them both, his brow furrowed.
Ed had pulled McGee back to his feet by now, and was basically holding him up. Reams sneered at him, and then walked across to Duncan. The blond man was frowning.
“That’s weird,” Duncan muttered. A moment later, he leaned back in his chair, looking very puzzled.
“What’s weird?” Reams asked.
“She’s got a link here to McGee’s network at NCIS.” Duncan frowned more, before turning to look up at Tara. “Why are you linked to McGee’s network?”
Tara started to visibly shake, her eyes shifting from Duncan’s to Reams’ and back again. She had no answer. Tim’s heart beat faster.
“Answer me!” Duncan snapped, and Tara pressed back into the second goon’s hold. He squeezed her arms and she gasped in pain.
“Stop!” Tim called out. “Don’t! It was me,” he threw out. “I did it. I gave her access.”
Reams turned his cold gaze on Tim, while Duncan just looked at him in interest.
“Why?” Duncan asked.
“I…she…she was having trouble hacking the…the NYPD,” Tim said, breathing more and more shallowly. “I’ve done it before, had a backdoor program hidden on my computer. I gave her access.”
“How did you know she was having trouble?” Reams asked then, taking a step towards McGee. “When did you talk to her?”
Oh crap. “Uh…we….” Think! Think! “We…there’s a flaw…,” he glanced at Nick and Angela, but they just answered him with helpless gazes. He turned back to Reams, shaking his head. “There’s a flaw in the wall between our cells. We…we were able to talk last night. She told me then.”
“She told you last night,” Reams repeated, his eyes narrowing, “that she was having trouble hacking the NYPD?”
Tim’s heart sank. Too late, he remembered that…
“She didn’t start trying to hack the NYPD until this morning,” Reams said coolly. “Want to try that again, Agent McGee?”
“I…I was…She…she just anticipated having problems. I don’t mean…. I didn’t mean—”
“You are a bad liar, Agent McGee,” Reams said, shaking his head. “Why did you give her access to your network? What was she going to do with that screen shot?”
Tim swallowed, his mind working furiously to come up with something.
“We hoped,” he said finally, speaking softly, “that we’d be able to email the screenshots to someone before tomorrow morning. Warn them.”
Reams gave a nod. “Through your network?”
“Why yours. Why not Stokes?”
Tim closed his eyes, and then opened them again to stare at the floor. “Because it was my idea. I…I told Tara through the wall last night. She agreed to help.” He looked up at Reams. “It’s all me.”
“Tim,” Tara whispered sadly.
Reams shook his head softly. Duncan stood up and walked away from Tara’s computer towards McGee. As he did so, the second goon deposited Tara back onto her chair, though he still held onto her shoulders.
Duncan stopped a couple feet from Tim. “How were you going to send it?” he asked.
“At the last second,” Tim said. “A last gasp, so to speak.”
“I would have seen it,” Duncan said. “Did you really think I wouldn’t?”
Tim didn’t answer; he didn’t even look up.
“So,” Reams said, “You used her. Even knowing what would happen, you got her to help you. Involved her in this plan of yours. Made her your stooge.”
“I’m no one’s stooge,” Tara said, her voice shaking despite the bravado.
Reams ignored her. “You know you must be punished, don’t you, Agent McGee?”
Tim finally looked up at that. Reams was staring at him, his expression dark. Without another word, Reams pulled his gun from his waist and held it up, pointing it at Tim’s skull. Ed let Tim go, backing up to get out of range. Duncan moved back a couple of steps as well, a crooked smile on the kid’s face.
Tim drew in as deep a breath as he could manage and held his ground. He straightened, meeting Reams’ stare with one of his own.
“No one to blame but yourself,” Reams said quietly, releasing the safety on the gun with a loud click. “You did this.”
Tara tried to stand, but the goon held her down. “No!” she cried, raising a hand to Reams’ back. “Please! Don’t kill him!”
Reams snorted a laugh, his eyes still on McGee’s. “I wasn’t planning to,” he said.
He turned around and shot her through the side of her head.
CHAPTER SEVEN: PUNISHMENT
Angela’s screaming and Nick’s shouting echoed inside Tim’s ears, drowning his hearing. Reams was yelling at him, and at someone next to him, but he couldn’t hear it. It all just became a dull roar as his ability to comprehend seemed to short circuit. Roughly, he was grabbed from behind and shoved forward. Reams grabbed him by his forearm and threw him down on the floor next to where Tara was lying on her side, a pool of blood spreading out from the underside of her head.
He pulled himself closer to her, touching her still warm arm, hoping it wasn’t true even though there was no doubt. Her long black hair was loose, spread around like Ophelia’s in the river; the only thing that marred it was the bullet sized hole about an inch behind her right temple. Her eyes were open and unseeing, pupils fixed.
Oh God. What had he done?
Reams grabbed him by his hair and viciously pulled his head up. “I said, pick her up!” Reams shouted, close enough that it finally broke through the cotton in his ears. Tim blinked back tears as he was let go, and he turned to look up at Reams.
“Pick her up, now, McGee! Over your shoulder!”
“Why?” Tim asked, confused. Why pick her up? Why do this? What was the point of all of this? But he couldn’t seem to manage to ask the questions out loud.
“Pick her up,” Reams snarled, raising his gun and pointing it off to the side, “or so help me, Zelnitz is next!”
Tim nodded submissively, too terrified by that threat to even think, and gently took hold of Tara’s still warm hands. As he pulled her upper body up off the concrete, her head released with a liquidy squelch…and Tim dropped her, his body heaving. It was a good thing there was no food in his stomach.
Reams punched him in the back, bringing him back to his senses, and Tim once more tried to pick Tara up. This time, he was ready for the sound, and managed to get her up and over his shoulder without actually looking at the left side of her head or at the mess on the floor where it had been.
Someone helped him get his feet under him, and he lifted his gaze to meet that of the second goon. Doug? For the first time, there was something akin to an emotion on the gorilla’s face—it almost looked like sympathy. It was erased quickly, however, as Doug backed off allowing Reams to take his place in front of Tim.
“We’re heading back to the cells now, McGee. Hold on tight to her—wouldn’t want her to fall in the mud.” He was back to cool and calm now, which matched the room. Nick wasn’t shouting anymore, and Angela’s screaming had dissolved into sobbing. Reams shoved Tim forward, and he had to adjust his step so Tara wouldn’t slide off his shoulder.
“Where are you taking them?” Nick asked, breaking the moment.
Tim stuttered to a stop, keeping his eyes on the floor as Reams answered.
“I’m taking them back to McGee’s cell. Our reckless NCIS agent is going to spend the night chatting with Agent Stokes, with a little help from Duncan’s favorite pharmaceutical aid.”
“Ecstasy,” Duncan answered, giggling maniacally. “What else does a growing boy need?”
Tim closed his eyes in resignation.
“Ecstasy?” Angela repeated. “But…in Tim’s current state, that could…” She trailed off, not finishing the sentence. Not needing to. “You don’t care,” she whispered.
“Quite true, Agent Zelnitz. But I promise he won’t die, not tonight. Not until I’m finished with him.”
“What about us?” Nick demanded. “What are you going to do to us?”
“You still have work to do. Including theirs, now.”
He was interrupted by the sound of Reams’ gun cocking. Angela emitted a soft whimper.
“Any more questions, Agent Cheevers?” Reams asked coldly.
“Good. Get back to work. Duncan, Ed, you watch them. Doug, you’re with me. Get me the rope from the truck. As for you…” Tim was shoved forward, forcing him to open his eyes again. “Move.”
“Andrei Reams,” Ziva said, leaning against the edge of Tony’s desk, “was paroled last year, and promptly disappeared off the radar.” She clicked the remote to flash Reams’ face up on the plasma. “It is assumed he made contact with some of his old former mafia friends, and they put him in contact with this man.” She clicked the remote again, and a blond, 18 year old kid appeared on the screen. “Duncan Matthews, black hat hacker and junkie, according to the people who knew him. He was arrested last year for running a Meth lab in his basement in Baltimore, but he skipped town before the hearing. Baltimore PD is certain he had help.” She tilted her head. “Homeland Security and the FBI are working together to try and connect them to some of the Russian and former Eastern European terrorist cells.”
“Any leads on where he might be hiding?” Gibbs asked.
“No, Boss,” Tony replied, sitting at his desk and typing something into his computer. “Neither we, nor any of our agency helpers on this case, have any current addresses for Reams or Matthews. Fornell says he has every available agent tracking down known associates and family members, but, so far, nothing.”
“What about Aleksey?” Gibbs said, turning to look at Ziva. “The other son?”
She shook her head. “He has had no contact from either,” she said.
“Well,” Gibbs said, stepping forward to look more closely at Reams, “they’re here somewhere. There must be something, some mistake he made.” He looked at Tony. “Anything from Abby?”
“She says no point of origin for IPS yet, Boss. It’s still bouncing.”
Gibbs’ eyes narrowed slightly, and he crossed his arms. Ziva sighed softly and put the remote down.
“Abby did say that, from what she’s been told, the other agencies are having success locating and purging the trojan she isolated for them,” she said. “Whatever Reams planned, it will not come to pass tomorrow.”
Gibbs just nodded. “Was there any evidence that other information was taken from any of them?”
“Yeah, I don’t get that, Boss,” Tony said, bouncing up from his chair. “They got into all those agencies and PDs, and they didn’t mine for information?”
Gibbs didn’t answer.
“I mean,” Tony shook his head, “why didn’t they root around for things? Names, places, passwords—things they could sell. It doesn’t make sense that this was all about just causing a day or two of chaos.”
Gibbs frowned. “That’s because it wasn’t,” he replied, turning away to walk back to his desk. “This was about me and Reams and his son.”
“Viktor,” Ziva stated, looking up at the screen again. “The one you killed.”
“No.” Gibbs shook his head. “Aleksey.”
It was still bucketing down with rain as Tim was pushed down the muddy hill to the barn; it was a miracle he didn’t fall. He certainly slipped enough, his legs shaking from the exertion of staying upright and not losing hold of Tara.
Reams pushed him inside, and continued to push Tim all the way down the corridor to the centrally located cells. When they finally got there, Reams shoved him inside. Tim staggered under Tara’s weight, blinking through the water streaming down his face. Reams sidled around him, grabbing the metal fold up chair and slamming it down in place at the end of the cot, facing it.
“Put her down.”
Tim couldn’t help but feel grateful, trying to be as gentle as he could as he lowered her into the seat. She slumped forward. At the same time, Doug appeared with the rope Reams wanted.
“Tie her to the chair,” Reams ordered the goon. “I want her to be looking at him.”
Tim didn’t wholly understand, watching as Tara was pushed upright and her body bound to the chair. Doug had a little trouble with her head, but he eventually got it balanced, tilted slightly to the side, so that she was staring at the head of the cot. Blood matted the entire left side of her head, and Tim almost heaved again.
“Take this,” Reams ordered, opened his hand up and presenting a pill to Tim. It was a dark pink color, with a stamp on the face. He stared at it, but didn’t take it. Reams sighed, and called for Doug.
Next thing Tim knew, Doug had bound his hands and forced him down on his knees. Reams forced the pill into his mouth, then closed his mouth. The tablet immediately started to dissolve—Tim didn’t even need to swallow it.
The rush was almost instantaneous, throwing his entire world out of whack. The cold and wet went away, replaced by an almost surreal sense of euphoria, and he started to shake. He could make out Reams laughing at him, and Doug pulling him back to his feet, practically carrying him over to the cot.
The rush started to fade as he was forced to sit at the head of the cot—his body just couldn’t sustain it with all it had been through. But he was still shaking as Reams took over from Doug, tying Tim’s bound wrists to the metal bar—it meant he couldn’t lie down, and he couldn’t turn away. And with the Ecstasy coursing through his system, he’d never get to sleep. He’d have to look at Tara’s staring, dead eyes every time he looked up.
Some semblance of his mind came back to him, then. If he was going to die, he wanted to know the reason, he needed to understand….
“Why are you doing this?” he whispered.
“To punish you,” Reams replied, pulling the rope tight, so that it burned into Tim’s skin. Tim flinched a little; he couldn’t help it.
“No,” he hissed, breathing through the pain. “I mean, why are you doing this? The whole thing. Why are you hacking these agencies?”
“I’m being paid,” Reams replied.
“But it won’t last,” Tim replied. “At most, they’ll be down for a day or two, and all of these agencies have back up servers—redundant systems designed to power up in the event something exactly like this happens. You must know that.”
Reams didn’t answer, pulling again on the ropes. Tim didn’t flinch this time.
“They’re separate from the main servers,” Tim pressed. “Off-line until they’re brought online in the event of a crash. You know we can’t hack them as well. So this, what you’re doing, it’s only going to affect them for a short time.”
Reams finally finished and backed off, still looking at Tim’s wrists, admiring his work. Tim looked up at him, trying to fight back the tears in his eyes.
“If you’d really been looking for information, like you said you were, you could have had a ton by now. But you haven’t asked. I’ve been watching—not once have you mined the sites I hacked for information. Why? What are you really after?”
Reams lifted his gaze from Tim’s wrists to his eyes. And he smiled.
“You really want to know, McGee?”
Tim just nodded.
Reams moved closer, sitting on the edge of Tim’s cot. “Get out of here, Doug.” The goon nodded and disappeared out of the open door. Reams smiled even wider as he looked back at Tim, showing those horrible teeth.
“The people who hired me,” Reams began, “only wanted me to hack one department. The DOE. Take down their servers for a couple days, that’s enough to get my employers access to a half dozen locations where uranium is stored. It was my idea to hack the others at the same time. By bringing down all the agencies and local police departments at the same time, not only do I distract them all, giving my clients the best chance of getting away with their theft, but my clients get the satisfaction of watching this country’s intelligence agencies being brought to their knees by their own technology, even if only for a day or two.”
Tim’s brow furrowed. After a moment, he shook his head. “Then why tell us you were also looking for information?”
Reams’ smile grew downright ugly, and he leaned closer to McGee, close enough for Tim to smell his aftershave. “Because I do want information, Timothy. For me.”
Tim swallowed, trying to back away, his shoulders hitting the cement wall behind him. “For you,” he repeated. “What information?”
“Information about where my son is.”
“Information,” Reams continued, “that is hidden somewhere inside NCIS.”
Tim’s eyes widened. “NCIS has your son?”
“No,” Reams said, his voice low and dangerous. “NCIS hid my son. After he betrayed his own family, betrayed his own brother. Your boss, Special Agent Gibbs, used information my youngest son Aleksey gave him to track down and kill my eldest boy. Nearly killed me as well, but I got lucky—I just got sent to jail.” He smiled again. “So when this is all done, Agent McGee, you’re going to help me find where they hid Aleksey. Then we’re going to teach your Gibbs and my Aleksey a lesson.”
Tim blinked rapidly, wishing his jaw wasn’t trembling, but he couldn’t stop it. “What kind of lesson?”
“Simple, really. First, we find Anthony DiNozzo and we kill him. Figure that’ll make me even with Gibbs. Then we find Aleksey, and you and I are going to introduce my boy to the neat concept of a murder-suicide pact. Two betrayers—one of his family, one of his country and his team—unable to live with their guilt, take their own lives.”
Tim felt sick, really, honestly sick. He looked away from Reams, unable to meet the other man’s gaze any longer, his mouth filling with saliva. He swallowed thickly, trying to force the bile to stay down.
Reams stood up, still smiling at Tim. Turning, he walked over to where Tara’s body was sitting and lifted her head slightly. Rigor mortis had started to set in, so it was easier to make it seem like Tara was looking directly down at McGee. Chuckling now, Reams patted her shoulder.
“Keep him company, my lovely.”
Turning, he walked casually over to the door. Once there, he grabbed the handle and looked back one more time at Tim.
“Sweet dreams, Agent Timothy McGee. It’s a full moon tonight. I’m sure you and Agent Stokes will have a lot to talk about.” And then he winked.
As soon as the door shut, and the lights went off, Tim turned and threw up over the side of the cot.
Abby stared at the screenshots Tim and Tara had sent. All those agencies had been warned, along with a bunch of others, and the trojan’s signature was being searched for. She just hoped the malware could be purged in time.
But why hadn’t they sent more? There were so many other agencies that could have been hacked, but he’d sent nothing since this afternoon. It was near midnight now.
A tear slid down her cheek, and she wiped it away.
No. No! She wasn’t going to think that way. There had to be another reason. There had to be!
Closing the window down with the trojan’s coding on the laptop, she slid to the left, back to her own computer, and checked on the progress of the trace. It was still bouncing around the map—how many places did this thing route through? Ziva was right—it looked like she was encasing the world into a spider-web of red lines.
But, as she promised Gibbs, it would stop eventually. Just not in time, apparently.
For a minute, she just watched as it hit a server in Berlin, then Madrid, then Lisbon, then flew back across the ocean. It aimed for DC, but she guessed it wouldn’t land. It never did.
Sure enough, it hit a server in DC, then Maryland, and then West Virginia before bouncing away, heading up to Montreal again.
Hang on, why did she just think, “again?”
She blinked once, then backed up away from the computer.
“Abby?” Ziva poked her head into the room. “Gibbs sent me down to see how you were doing.”
Abby barely acknowledged her, walking around to the far side of the table in order to move even farther away from the computer monitor—just like Ziva had been doing all day. She felt the Israeli move to stand alongside her, and could feel her puzzlement.
“Abby?” Ziva asked, stopping Abby from backing into her mass spectrometer with a touch to her arm. “Are you okay?”
“Ziva,” Abby said, pointing at her computer monitor, “What does that look like to you?”
Ziva stared at it for a moment, “it looks exactly the same as when you showed it to me this morning. I told you—it looks like a spider-web.”
“And by spider-web, you mean…?”
“A recurring pattern.”
“Oh God! Why didn’t you say that? No, no, more to the point,” Abby was already headed back to her computer, “why didn’t I see it!”
Ziva just blinked. “I’m sorry? I don’t under--”
“It is a recurring pattern! Every time it hits the server it started from, it starts again. I am such an idiot! McGee is never going to let me live this down.” She whipped around, pointing at Ziva. “You can’t tell him!”
Ziva just lifted her hands up. “I don’t even know what you’re talking about, Abby.”
“I’ve been looking at the server from which McGee’s file originated this whole time, but, because the trace didn’t stop there, it bounced away, I didn’t see it.” She was typing away furiously now. “Now, since we can assume that he’s still in the country, and since it’s doubtful he’s that far from DC, then it’s got to be one of these…” She brought up five locations in the DC area. “And one of them…” she typed faster, and the map she was looking at zoomed in even more, “will have a bounce…” the map zoomed in on West Virginia, “that lasts just a little longer than the rest....” the map zeroed in on Doherty, West Virginia.
Ziva had walked around the table by now, and was peering at Abby’s screen.
“He’s there?” she asked softly.
“Yes,” Abby whispered. She was afraid stating it loudly would jinx the discovery.
“Where is that?”
“West of Spruce Knob State Park,” Abby replied, not even blinking. Her eyes started to sting. “West Virginia.”
Ziva straightened, her entire body turning rigid. “Do you know where exactly he is in that area?”
“No,” Abby said, finally blinking and moving to the other computer. She quickly pulled up the towns’ stats. “Doherty is a muni. Its internet connectivity is routed through one central server in the town—but I know he’s within its town limits somewhere—but it’s a big town land-wise, covers a large area.”
Ziva nodded, and pulled out her cell phone. “Keep trying to narrow it down. I’ll tell Gibbs.” She pulled out her phone and smiled at Abby. “Good job, Abby.”
Abby just nodded absently in return as Ziva called upstairs, already seeking some sort of way to narrow down the source even more.
“I want a search on all recent land purchases in that area,” Gibbs ordered Tony as Ziva came out of the elevator and bee-lined for her desk. “And any new leases or licenses on record. Check for all of Reams’ known aliases.”
“Leases and licenses aren’t likely to be on record unless they’re long term,” Tony noted, searching for the emergency contact for the county clerk online. “Not to mention it’s almost 1:00 in the morning, Boss. No one’s going to be awake out there.”
“Then wake them up, Tony,” Gibbs snapped. He turned and zeroed in on Ziva. “Abby said it was a muni?”
“Then,” Gibbs said, “call them, find out who’s been using more power than normal in their area. Four high powered computers working round the clock is going to be a drain in a place that’s made up mostly of campgrounds and farms.”
Ziva nodded, quickly searching for the number of the town’s municipal light department.
“Four high powered computers would need a specialized building,” Tony said thoughtfully. Gibbs nodded at him.
“So?” he challenged, his heart beating faster.
“So, maybe we should be searching for recent building permits,” Tony said, his phone on his ear and his hands looking up the town clerk’s information. “I’m on it.”
“No,” Gibbs said suddenly. “You’re not. Call Homeland Security. They want to help? Then they get this information for us. Ziva, you too.”
Tony frowned, hanging up the phone. “But—“
“No buts,” Gibbs snapped. “Grab your gear. We’ll call from the car. We’re heading out to Doherty, now.”
Tim was shaking violently, partly from the cold, partly from coming down off the drug high.
The moon streaked in through the high window, casting strange shifting shadows around the room. It was bright enough that he could see Tara clearly, the white of her eyes glittering in the half light where she stared at him. Blaming him. Hating him. Accusing him.
It was his fault she was dead. He’d failed her. He’d failed everyone.
The last few hours, he’d drifted between a dazed awareness and an almost fugue state. He knew he hadn’t slept, could feel it by how much his eyes burned with exhaustion, but he couldn’t really remember much of what he’d seen or felt in that time. The way his face burned, he knew he’d been crying. His throat felt sore as well, probably from talking or screaming. He just didn’t know.
It was all so wrong. Had gone so horribly, horribly wrong.
He should have known this was personal. The way Reams had kept coming back to him over the last two days, torturing him, coming up with this “punishment.”
Tomorrow…today?...was Monday. In a few hours, the virus would launch and the agencies, the local and state LEOs would all go down. Some sick bastards would steal the materials to make dirty bombs in the melee, and it was all his fault! He’d let it happen, and Tara was dead for his failure!
He started rocking on the cot, his legs bent and pressed against his chest, his head pressed against his knees.
He couldn’t help Reams find his son. He wouldn’t. Reams would kill him, of course. Probably kill Nick and Angela first, but then he’d kill Tim. But Tim couldn’t let him succeed. And after Angela and Nick were dead—Tim wouldn’t want to live anyway.
He just wished he could find a way to warn Tony.
He’d gone out with them more. Told them how much he…how much they all meant to him.
He looked up at Tara. She just stared back. Still blaming him. Still hating him. Still accusing him.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered to her. “I’m so, so sorry.”
It should have been me.
“Yes,” she agreed from behind her lifeless eyes. “It should have been you.”
CHAPTER EIGHT: PINNED DOWN
It was a four hour drive to Doherty, West Virginia in the dark. The town wasn’t on any major highways. It wasn’t even on a small highway. Winding, mountain roads slowed them down, despite Gibbs’ single-minded driving.
Behind them, another car careened close enough to almost kiss Gibbs’ bumper and had been the only other car they’d seen on the road since hitting the state line. It carried Fornell, Sacks and two other FBI Agents—they hadn’t been about to stay behind. Gibbs didn’t know how they’d caught up to him so quickly after they left D.C., but he guessed it was because Fornell was driving. Something else the two of them had in common.
“What are they saying?” Gibbs asked, turning up yet another minor road through the mountains.
Ziva was in the passenger seat, the phone to her ear. She didn’t answer immediately, nodding at whatever she as being told by the Department of Homeland Security. When she hung up a moment later, she was typing coordinates into the GPS.
“According to DHS, Doherty’s Town Clerk did not even have to check her files—a permit for increased power and a building permit for a technical warehouse were filed about six months ago, the only one like it in the town.” She finished, and the GPS quickly mapped the route—they were only an hour out. “And the muni confirmed the increased voltage requirements.”
“They sure it’s our man?”
“Yes,” Ziva nodded, leaning back as directions appeared on the small screen, “because the name of the applicant was Leroy Jethro Gibbs.”
Gibbs snorted a laugh.
“What’s the place like?”
“It’s an old cattle farm,” Ziva replied. “A company leased it a year ago month to month, called,” Ziva smirked slightly, “Viktor Enterprises. DHS is contacting the property owner now for more information on who exactly they talked with. They’re also going to email us satellite pictures of the area. What we know right now is that there are three main structures off the main road—a long cement milking barn, a house and the technical building. The barn is at a lower elevation from the other two, and it’s what you see first when you enter by the main drive.”
“How many access points?”
“DHS is still working on that,” Ziva replied. “They have promised to call us back as soon as they know.”
“Have they contacted the local LEOs?”
“Yes. Both local and state will meet us there, with an ambulance.”
“What are you expecting, Boss?” Tony asked from the backseat. “A lot or a little?”
“I don’t know, DiNozzo,” Gibbs replied, glancing up at the rear view mirror at his senior agent. “But I do know we’re not leaving without McGee.”
Reams was packing up, putting his bags together and checking his watch for the time. As soon as first light hit—because he wasn’t crazy enough to drive these hillbilly dirt roads in the dark—they were getting out of here. Stokes, Zelnitz and Cheevers would end up buried at the bottom of the compost heap, and the rest of them would disappear to watch their plan bring down the police network of the eastern United States.
Reams smiled. That amused him. He’d thought of it at the last second, and how quickly it had been done! Truly, it was almost a shame to destroy someone as clever as McGee—especially since, after tonight, Reams knew the boy would be broken. But history taught that you did not let the children live, no matter how useful they were.
Sighing, he put the cases on the floor of the small bedroom and headed out into the hall, to go downstairs. The first floor of the house was basically one large living room, with only the kitchen and a small office separate from the main. As he walked down the steps, he spotted Duncan sprawled out in front of the TV, asleep. Kid couldn’t live without some sort of media on—even asleep, the TV had to be on. It was currently trying to get the sleeping boy to purchase anti-acne skin products. Over the last year, Reams had tried a few times to turn it off during the night, but then Duncan didn’t sleep. Strange, strange kid.
To the left of the TV were the monitors from the security system, showing nothing moving outside. They showed mud, trees and more mud. Reams sneered—he’d be glad to leave this hole in the middle of nowhere. He missed the city.
Walking past the couch, he pushed out the screen door and onto the porch, shivering a little at the cold. At least it had stopped raining. The world appeared almost shiny under the full moon, as water dripped off leaves and ran in glistening rivulets down the muddy track to the barn.
Only one light was on down there, the one in the room with his two guards—and he could see the flickering of the security monitor screens down there as well. One of the men would be sleeping, the other on watch. Though what they were guarding at this point wasn’t much—three broken shells and one dead body. It really hadn’t taken long to bring down those geeks—not even a field agent had stood up for long.
He shook his head and turned around, headed back into the house, planning on catching a few hours of sleep before dawn hit.
Four police cars, an ambulance and a coroner’s van met them at the foot of the hill leading up to the farm. This wasn’t the driveway—that was still a couple of miles further up the dirt road. Gibbs glided the Charger to a stop and parked next to the coroner van, thinking vaguely about the message he’d left for Ducky. Knowing the doctor, he and Palmer were probably not that far behind him. Nor, he guessed were a lot of other agents. Ziva had already confirmed that DHS and CID had several vehicles on the road, on their way here.
Sighing, he got out of the car, looping his earpiece around his ear as he did so, and walked towards the man who was, fairly obviously, the chief of police. He was older, with nearly white hair and the worn look of a man who spent far too much time raiding meth labs. Satisfied the radio was in his ear, Gibbs reached into his jacket and raised his badge.
“Special Agent Gibbs,” he announced. “NCIS.”
“Chief Spencer Riley,” the man replied, nodding once. He jerked his head to the left. “And this is First Lieutenant Anwar Abrahams of the State Police.”
Gibbs tried not to look surprised as the young man next to the Chief lifted his hat to him in greeting. Anwar was young, not much older than Tony.
“Colonel is on his way, sir,” the lieutenant explained, “but asked me to act as liaison until he got here.”
Gibbs inclined his head, accepting that. “What’ve you got for me, Lieutenant?”
“Twenty Troopers at your disposal, sir, and a helicopter a town away—which can be called in if we need it.” The lieutenant had a proud gleam in his eye, and Gibbs didn’t doubt it was deserved. That was a hell of a call out with only a few hours notice and in the middle of a Sunday night. The lieutenant saw the approval on Gibbs face and smiled more. “And as you requested, sir, my men have formed a perimeter around the property, locking it down. No one will be getting out. West Virginia State Troopers are the best in the country, sir; we won’t let you down.” Gibbs’ smile broadened a little at the boast.
“And I’ve got my five men, with two vehicles,” the Chief of Police added with less swagger, but no less pride. He gave a small shrug. “’Fraid that’s all we got for Doherty. They’re here with me.” He waved behind him to where two local police vehicles were parked—three men and two women in khaki watched them with interest.
Gibbs inclined his head in a hello, and got mostly hat tips in return. By this time, Fornell had joined them. He flashed his badge. “Agent Fornell,” he said in greeting. “FBI.”
Chief Riley and Lieutenant Abraham nodded back.
“Chief,” Gibbs said, “why are we parked down here and not closer to the farm? It’s still about a couple of miles up to the main driveway, right?” He nodded up the dark hill—covered in trees, it was basically just a big black lump under the night sky.
“Surely,” Chief Riley replied, “but the foot of the drive’s got a camera on it.”
Gibbs’ eyebrows lifted. “You sure?”
“We regularly patrol. We saw the cameras go up about a month ago—and they made the mistake of putting one on the main road. They need a permit for that kind of thing, so we drove in and talked to the man there. Reams, he called himself.” Gibbs’ eyes narrowed slightly at the confirmation. “He said he didn’t know that the camera was on the public road, so agreed to move it back. We don’t know how far back he set it, but I’m betting it’s still close by, covering the driveway entrance. Officer Stein back there,” he nodded to one of the women, a slim brunette with her hair in a tight ponytail, “has a real good eye. She spotted about a dozen more on the property, looking in all directions. We made a note of it, since that’s pretty odd for a place that still mostly resembles a cattle farm. Fair guess, the other two access roads leading to the farm are covered as well as the drive.”
“Well, that sucks,” Tony said from behind Gibbs. Gibbs glanced at him over his shoulder—Tony and Ziva and Agent Ron Sacks were flanking the two senior agents. Gibbs sighed, and, looking back at the local LEOs, pointed at them over his shoulder.
“Agent DiNozzo, Officer David, and Agent Sacks,” he introduced. Chief Riley nodded, and Lieutenant Abraham raised a hand in a wave, smiling a bit more at Ziva.
“Any guess as to the number of men with Reams, Chief?” Fornell asked.
“Not sure, but I don’t think that many, based on the amount of food they’ve bought over the last few days. I’d wager no more than eight people, tops.”
“You know how much food they’ve bought?” Tony asked, surprised. The Chief nodded at him.
“Not many places to buy food and supplies up here, Agent DiNozzo. Truth is, this community is right small, and the strangers up at the farm have been a source for gossip. Soon as we were called, we were calling around for information. It didn’t take us long to find out where they’d been and what they’d bought in the last couple of days.”
Gibbs eyebrows were raised, and he glanced at Fornell. The FBI Agent was smiling.
“That’s good work, Chief.”
Riley just shrugged, as if this were perfectly normal for them. Next to him, the lieutenant cleared his throat—he’d been looking behind the agents at the dark highway, as if looking for more cars.
“Uh, will you be waiting for additional backup, Agent Gibbs?”
Gibbs frowned, not understanding. Luckily, Fornell answered.
“More agents are coming,” the FBI agent noted, “but I think we have the backup we need.” He nodded at them, which made Lieutenant Abrahams smile. “This will be a covert op, as they have hostages. We don’t want these guys to be awake when we hit them.” He glanced up at the sky—looking for signs of lightening. The night was their best defense right now—which made the full moon a bit of a problem.
“Where do you want us?” the Chief asked.
“Actually, based on what you just told us…,” Gibbs frowned, contemplating the female officer Riley had said had the ‘good eye’—the one who knew where the cameras were. She looked fit, though the khaki outfit made her stick out in the dark. Even so…. He sighed, catching Fornell’s eye. The FBI Agent nodded, agreeing with Gibbs’ silent question about whether they should use her. Gibbs looked at the Chief.
“We’re going to go in small and tight and on foot,” he said. “The five of us, plus…” he looked to the other FBI agents Fornell had brought with him. One was a very tall black woman and the other a young bearded man that looked a little like a young Robert Redford.
“Agent Royce,” Fornell said, to which the woman reacted with a nod, “and Agent Redford.” The young man nodded, and even Gibbs looked again, surprised to hear his thought ironically echoed like that.
“Redford?” Tony repeated, smiling. “Really?”
“I know,” Sacks whispered, a hint of a smile on his face. “Cool, eh? Claims no relation but, come on, look at him.”
Tony feigned disinterest, but he kept an eye on Redford for a little while longer. Gibbs frowned, turning back to the two local officers. They were both still looking at Redford speculatively. Gibbs cleared his throat.
“And, we’d like to borrow your Officer Stein,” he told the Chief. The young woman heard and straightened up.
Riley’s eyes narrowed—uncertainty on his face for the first time. “You sure?”
“If she knows where the cameras are, she’ll be invaluable. We’re not going to see them all in the dark.”
Riley studied him a moment, then turned back to look at her. “You willing, Cassie?”
“Definitely, Chief. You know I know that farm. I’ll get ‘em in with no one seeing.”
“Cassie grew up on the other side of the hill,” Riley told Gibbs. He grimaced then, as if still measuring the man in front of him, then stepped a little closer, his gaze locked on the NCIS agent. “You’ll take care of her?”
“Yes,” Gibbs answered without hesitation.
Riley waited a moment longer, and then nodded. “Fine. Right then,” he waved a hand at the road, “we’ll seal off the road behind you. If your other agents come…?”
“Keep them with you. If we need help, we’ll radio.”
“Right,” Riley said. He hesitated, then held out a hand. “Good luck.”
Gibbs took it. Not that they needed luck—but it never hurt.
Twenty minutes later, the group followed Officer Stein, who was now wearing Ziva’s black NCIS jacket, on foot through the woods. She’d already steered them around two cameras—her eyesight really was good, but it was her knowledge of the area that gave her a real edge.
Before long, they came to the edge of a massive, fenced clearing, about fifty yards from the edge of a long, cement barn. A handful of orange halogen lights flooded areas of the building and the clearing—the latter of which resembled a dirt parking lot. A black, small moving truck was parked near the end of the barn.
“No wonder the ‘van’ lead never got us anywhere,” Tony muttered upon seeing it. “They used a truck.”
Gibbs didn’t answer, peering up the hill towards the house and small concrete structure. The house was a traditional two story farmhouse with a wrap-around porch, pretty looking. There was flickering light shining through the windows on the first floor—probably from a living room. About twenty feet away, the concrete structure was a box with wires attached to it leading to a transformer—that was probably where the computers were. The house had a black sedan in front of it, but not much else. Only two vehicles—a good sign.
There was a lot of open ground to cover.
“Where are the cameras?” he asked Stein.
“There are several,” she answered. “There,” she pointed towards the end of the barn, then to other places around the compound, “there, there, there and there. And more on the other side of the barn.”
Gibbs’ squinted, his poorer eyesight not helping in the dark. “You got that Tony?”
“Got it, Boss.”
“Okay. You take Sacks and Royce and hit the barn—make sure those cameras don’t see you. You see that light?” Gibbs nodded at the one window with light shining through it at the end of the barn—something flickered inside. Monitors, most likely, showing the camera feeds.
“Guards are probably in there. Officer,” Gibbs glanced at Stein, “do you know the set up of the interior of the barn?”
“Somewhat,” she answered. “But they’ve changed it since last I physically saw it. I only know what our fire chief told us after they inspected it for the occupancy permit six months ago. Basically, it was a milking barn. The inside was open, with low half-walls separating the milking stalls and a single separate room at the end filled with equipment. That’s the room the light is coming from. Anyway, from what I was told, Reams constructed rooms where the milking stalls used to be, separated by a corridor down the center. Of the windows, most were sealed except for the ones in that main equipment room, and the high ones you can see in the center of the structure that they installed bars in.”
“Bars,” Ziva whispered, her eyes shining in the moonlight. “Like cells.”
Gibbs did not respond, though Stein’s eyes widened slightly at the implication.
“How many ways in?” Gibbs asked.
Stein drew her shocked gaze away from Ziva, and looked again at the barn. “Um…just two, the doors at each end. Though…I guess the windows are large enough that you could climb through them if you had to.”
Gibbs nodded. “Got that, Tony?”
“Got it, Boss.”
“Good. Okay, so tell me about the house.”
“Um,” Stein frowned, “the, uh, the bottom floor is a…,” She opened her hands up. “It’s a big open living room, with one wall that’s just a big stone fireplace with lots of dead animal heads hanging off of it. There’s also a kitchen round back and a small office. The stairs to the second floor climb up the wall opposite the fireplace, and the kitchen and office are behind that wall. Second floor is just a hallway with bedrooms. Four of them.”
“Some of our people might be in the house, then,” Fornell said then, his focus on Gibbs. “He might have split them up.”
“Potential hostages in both locations,” Sacks agreed. “That’s what I’d do.”
“Here’s hoping he was too overconfident to have thought of it,” Tony said then.
Gibbs was frowning now, gaze shifting between the house and the barn. Finally, he gave a headshake. “We’ll go with the assumption they are in two places.” He looked at Stein again, “Are there backstairs, or is there another way to the second floor?”
“No, but,” she gave a shrug, “It’d be pretty easy for someone fit to climb up onto the porch roof and get inside.”
Gibbs nodded. “Fine. Fornell,” he looked at the FBI agent, “you, me and Ziva will take the house. Redford,” he glanced at the actor lookalike, “you get the small concrete technical building. I doubt anyone’s in it, but better safe than sorry. If no one’s there, join us at the house.” Redford nodded.
“What about me?” Officer Stein asked.
“You lead us up through the woods closer to the house and the cement structure, but you stay hidden in the trees after you point out the rest of the cameras for us. If something goes wrong, radio for back up.”
She grimaced, clearly disappointed, but didn’t say anything more.
“Tony,” Gibbs said, shifting to meet his senior agent’s eyes. “Wait ten minutes, then go ahead. Radio silence until you’ve established whether McGee and the others are in that barn or not. We’ll wait on you before hitting the house.”
At Tony’s nod, Gibbs indicated for Officer Stein to lead the way through the woods up the hill.
“You see ‘em all?” Sacks asked.
Tony tried not to bridle at the question, or its underlying sneer. Sacks didn’t like playing second fiddle on the op, but he’d have to suck it up.
“I see them all,” Tony replied, watching the way the cameras turned. There really wasn’t a time when a camera wasn’t watching an area, and it’d be foolish to assume they weren’t motion sensitive.
“Even that one?” Sacks asked, pointed across the way at some trees, where a camera was looking almost directly at them. Tony rolled his eyes.
“Yes, even that one.”
“What about that one?”
Tony frowned at Sacks. “Yes, that one too.”
“I’m just saying,” Sacks began, “It’s still night, and if you’ve missed one because of the dark….“ He lifted his eyebrows.
“Thanks for the warning, Agent Sacks,” Tony sneered. “But I happen to have amazing eyesi—“
“What’s the plan?” Agent Royce interrupted, her voice tense due to obvious annoyance with the men’s one-upmanship. She had a quiet, husky voice—attractive—that fit her exterior appearance. She reminded Tony a little of a young Grace Jones, though not as tall or as ridiculously thin. Her pale brown eyes met his in question.
He favored her with a wry look, and turned his attention once more to the cameras. He nodded at the one opposite them. “That’s the hardest one. It’s going to spot us the moment we leave the trees.”
“No, duh,” Sacks muttered.
“So,” Tony said, stressing the word as he glared at Sacks, “my plan is for us to split up and attack from three different directions. Confuse the cameras as much as possible. Royce, you see those two cameras over there? The ones near the truck?” He gestured at the building, and Royce squinted her eyes. After a moment, she nodded.
“They’re countering each other, but if you time it right…there? See that?” The cameras, for a brief moment, were pointed at each other. “Next time they do that, you come from there,” he pointed to a dark bush a few feet away, “and run to the truck before they split again. I’m hoping they’ll be too interested in each other’s movements to sense yours before you get to the truck. Then it’s just a matter of you doing it again to get to the front door.” Royce had been studying the cameras as Tony spoke. When he finished, she nodded in understanding.
“What about us?” Sacks asked.
“There’s four cameras on the other end of the barn. You and I will come from two directions, staying as low as possible. We move fast enough, we should be able to ghost past the edge of the cameras’ ranges.”
“You’re betting a lot on that,” Sacks said with a frown.
“There’s no other way, not without some way to interrupt the cameras.” Tony tried not to consider that, if McGee had he been here with them, he’d have thought of some geeky way to loop the cameras, like Jonathon Chow had done when they’d been guarding that radar system. Shaking off the thought, he peered up at the generator next to the house. Cutting off the power might have worked as well, if they’d been able to get to the generator. Basically, they were out of luck.
“It’s been ten minutes,” Royce noted, checking her watch. She looked up at Tony. “We a go?”
“We’re a go,” he answered, already up and moving to a better spot to approach the other end of the barn from where Royce was going to enter. Sacks followed him, until Tony stopped him and told him where to start running from. Sacks nodded, moving to where he was ordered to go. Whatever tension they’d had melted away, turning them into a team as they prepared to take the barn.
Tony watched the cameras, eyeing their movements carefully. The boast about his eyesight hadn’t been an empty one—Sacks would just have to trust him.
He lifted a hand, signaling the hold position. As the cameras all reached the limits of their turns, he flashed a “go” and took off running. Sacks was right with him, running about twenty feet away on his right.
The cameras turned swiftly back, sensing the movements. They weren’t going to make it….
Tony and Sacks hit the cement wall of the barn at the same time, and Tony closed his eyes, waiting for the alarm.
A moment later, someone tapped his shoulder and Tony peeked to his right. Sacks gave him the OK sign, along with a crooked smile—they’d avoided detection. Tony smiled back just as crookedly, and nodded. Leaning out a little, he peered down the wall towards the distant truck, trying to see Royce. He couldn’t see her, but he trusted she was there, covering the other exit to the long structure.
He nodded once more at Sacks, and started inching around the side to the front, to where the door was. The lit window was at this end—so presumably, someone was here.
They reached the door and took up position on either side. Tony glanced at Sacks, got a nod to proceed, and tried the door.
It wasn’t locked. Tony frowned slightly. He understood why as soon as he started to pull it open…the metal squealed and groaned, as loud as if the door hadn’t been opened in years.
And then the alarm went off, blaring through the entire farm like a tornado warning siren.
After that, everything happened extremely quickly.
Shots hit the doorway from the inside from an automatic weapon, and Tony shut it quickly. He glanced at Sacks, but the FBI Agent was already moving, running to the side—to find another way in through the window or, at least, provide cover fire through it.
Tony waited, counting inside his head. The automatic fire stopped. Tony was still counting. When he reached “eleven” in his head, glass shattered and the automatic fire was back, this time aimed at something else. A 9MM replied, and Tony took his cue, pulling the door open in one big swoop and diving inside, shouting “Federal Agents!” at the same time—just in case it hadn’t been obvious.
Bullets tore into the floor around him, but he kept rolling until he was behind cover—which turned out to be a large metal vat—a pasteurizer, from the looks of it. Bullets pinged off the container, and he backed to a more covered position, his back to the vat. Damn it! He hadn’t even seen enough of the room to know what to aim at.
Judging based purely on noise, he leaned around the edge of the vat, gun first.
A hail of bullets had him backing up fast. Damn it!
Reams was awake upstairs and at the window the instant that the alarm went off, his gaze narrowing as he spotted the flash of gunfire erupting inside the equipment room in the barn down the hill. Damn, how the hell did they find them!
Everything he’d worked for! All his plans!
Moving quickly, he stuffed his 9MM into his waistband, grabbed his rifle, wallet and his PDA, and headed for the stairs.
Gibbs swore as the alarm went off, followed swiftly by the report of gunfire from the barn—both machine gun and, after a few moments, 9MM. He was going to kill Tony.
“Go,” he snapped into the radio to Ziva and Fornell, and ran up the porch steps he’d been crouched next to, the ones leading to the main door. Fornell jogged up onto the porch from the steps at the end, stopping at the first open window. Gibbs stopped at the open screen door and looked inside—and nearly had his head taken off when someone started firing something powerful at the door. Fornell immediately started firing from his angle.
“It’s Matthews! He’s got a…Jesus Christ!” Fornell called as he ducked away from the window, the glass shattering outwards as the same someone inside obviously fired at him now. Fornell’s expression was almost comical as he looked at Gibbs. “He’s got an AK-47 in there!”
Gibbs just arched an eyebrow. “Anyone else?”
Fornell shook his head, risking another look inside when the firing stopped briefly. “No.”
Gibbs nodded, pressing his shoulder against the edge of the door frame.
“NCIS!” he shouted into the interior. “You’re under arrest!”
Reams froze on the landing, recognizing that voice. He’d know it anywhere.
The downstairs had erupted in gunfire—Duncan wasn’t about to go quietly. Sounds like he’d finally get to use those precious AK-47s he’d gotten as part of his deal with Lensky. Eyes narrowing, Reams turned around, headed back to his room.
“Drop your weapons!” Gibbs shouted.
“Fuck you!” Duncan Matthews replied, the kid not letting up on his firing, alternating between the window where Fornell was and the front door. “Come and get me, cop! I got bullets to spare!” To prove his point, he really let loose on the door, sending the screen flying off its hinges and down the porch steps.
From somewhere else in the house, he heard a door being kicked in. Ziva, entering via the back door into the kitchen.
“Drop it!” she shouted. “We’ve got you surrounded!”
The gunfire changed direction and Gibbs managed his first real look inside—to where an AK-47 rifle was being fired over the back of a brown leather couch at a location on the other side of the room, behind a set of stairs—likely the entrance to the kitchen. Matthews wasn’t actually visible, except for a tuft of blond hair—Gibbs had no shot. The kid, meanwhile, had a great position—there was nothing behind him but the fireplace, a large plasma TV, and a solid wall of stone, just as Stein described. Depending on how much ammunition the boy had, he could hold them off for a long time from there, and, meanwhile, they still had no idea where Reams or the hostages were.
Matthews must have spotted him, because the rifle suddenly switched its aim, once more pulverizing the now empty doorframe with bullets, forcing Gibbs to duck back.
Reams’ eyes scoured the landscape outside his bedroom window, looking for vehicles, for evidence of just how many agents there were on the ground, but he didn’t see anything. Not yet. They hadn’t brought in their full back up.
But it wouldn’t be long. They’d wait until they had the hostages secure, he imagined.
It left him with only a small window to get out, but it was a window he’d take.
He threw open his window. From the sounds of it, Duncan had them pinned down downstairs. His only option was to find another way to the ground below. Question then would be, did he try to escape? Or did he find a way to finish this?
Frowning, his head a muddle of rage and frustration, he threw a leg over the sill and climbed out onto the porch roof.
He already knew the answer.
CHAPTER NINE: FINDING MCGEE
“Where’s Reams, Matthews?” Gibbs shouted into the interior.
“Did you not get the meaning of the ‘Fuck You’, cop?” Matthews yelled back, firing again at the door.
“That’s Agent Gibbs to you, now where’s your boss?”
“Gone!” Matthews started to laugh. “Gone, gone, gone, gone, gone!” He was firing again.
Gibbs frowned. “Where’s he gone, Matthews?”
Fornell shot again into the interior through the window, and then quickly ducked back, throwing Gibbs a wry frown when Duncan blew out the rest of the window’s glass. He shook his head, then threw a thumb over his shoulder—he was going to find another location to fire from. Gibbs nodded at him, and the FBI Agent turned to follow the wrap-around porch around the corner. Gibbs covered him when Matthews started shooting at the windows that Fornell went past.
Duncan stopped firing when Fornell was gone—with nothing to aim at, it was a waste of ammunition, which he obviously knew.
“I got two more of these rifles sitting on the floor next to me and lots more bullets,” Duncan warned. “So, any of you try to get in here, I’ll cut you in half!”
“You can’t stay there forever, Matthews!” Gibbs yelled.
“Neither can you! Especially since Reams is probably on his way down to the barn to kill those geeks—starting with yours! He wants McGee dead, Gibbs, more than anything, he wants him dead! Since you’re not getting the better of me anytime soon, maybe you should focus on that!”
“I am,” Gibbs muttered softly, his gaze switching to the barn down the hill. The room on the end was still flashing with explosive gunfire.
Tony winced at all the noise surrounding him. On top of the drowning amount of the gunfire, the metal vats were echoing everything and creating a painful amount of tintinnabulation. Having his back pressed to this empty metal vat was akin to having his head trapped inside a ringing church bell.
Growling, he shifted away from it a little and looked up at the massive object he’d taken cover behind. There was a ladder, leading to the top about a dozen feet up.
Slowly, he smiled.
Fornell rounded the side of the house, frowning up at the solid wall behind which he knew Duncan Matthews was positioned as he jogged past. No way in from this side. He backed up, looking up at the porch roof. Maybe he could climb up onto the…
“Agent Fornell!” Redford’s sharp call over the radio in his ear had Fornell turning to look towards the cement structure. Redford was in the open between it and the house about twenty yards away, his gun pointed up at the roof.
“Man on the roof right above your head,” he said into the radio. “I think he’s casing you.” Then, louder, he shouted. “You on the roof! Freeze! Federal Agent! Don’t move!”
The crack of a rifle split the air, and Fornell watched as Redford flinched when something kicked up the dirt at his feet. With no cover, all Redford could do was start firing up at the roof. Fornell spun around, pointing his gun upwards at the wooden slats overhead—then lowered it with a swear; there was no way he was piercing it with a gun.
He heard something hit the roof hard, followed by increased gunfire.
Redford cried out again, this time in pain, and Fornell saw his agent go down. No!
The person on the porch roof moved again, and Fornell followed the footsteps.
Then he saw a foot dangle over the edge. Redford had been wrong; clearly whoever it was didn’t know Fornell was there. He didn’t even think. He holstered his gun and waited. As soon as more of the lower body of the man appeared, he reached up and grabbed, yanking hard.
Reams fell off the roof, crashing into the mud below. Fornell quickly pulled his gun again, pointing it over the railing at the prone figure. “Don’t move!”
Reams blinked up at him, a little dazedly at first, then with more clarity. At seeing the gun in Fornell’s hand, he rolled on his side to look at where his rifle had hit the ground a couple feet away. Fornell shook his head.
“Don’t even think about it, Reams.”
Reams rolled back turned back to him, and smiled thinly. “You’re not Gibbs.”
“I’m not. The name’s Fornell.”
“Fornell?” Reams repeated, his eyes brightening. “Of the FBI. You’re Stokes’ boss.”
“I am. Where is she?”
Reams’ thin smile perked a little at the corners, and he sat up a little. “Funny you should ask, Fornell. I just left her. She upstairs, tied naked to a bed, with one of my partners. He’s supposed to kill her and come after me. If you hurry,” he tilted his head, “you might stop him in time.”
Fornell’s eyes narrowed, the urge to look upwards at the porch roof powerful. “You’re lying.”
“I’m not. Actually,” Reams’ smile grew downright mean, “looks like I was wrong. You wouldn’t have made it in time.” Reams suddenly looked up, as if yelling at someone. “Shoot him!”
Fornell did look up at that, switching his aim to the edge of the roof, expecting to see another shooter.
Reams pulled the gun hidden in his waistband and fired, hitting Fornell squarely in the chest with at least two rounds and throwing him backwards a step. Reams shot again when Fornell tried to fire back, this time catching him in the FBI Agent in the shoulder. The first two shots had hit the vest, stinging but not immediately life threatening. The second burned through his shoulder like a hot poker, and Fornell hit the side of the house.
Gasping for air from the first two shots, he watched through blurring eyes as Reams smiled at him before turning and running around to the back of the house.
He hit the radio in his ear. “Ziva,” he said breathlessly, “Reams coming round back.”
As his vision began to gray, his legs crumpling below him, Fornell turned his gaze to Redford. His agent hadn’t moved.
It was the last thing he saw before he blacked out.
Ziva’s eyes widened, and she moved quickly through the kitchen to the back door. Reams was already around the corner on the ground, aiming in her direction. She didn’t even have time to get a round off before she was forced to duck back inside. Shots shattered the windows and splintered the door frame.
“Gibbs,” she hissed. “Reams is outside—he’s back here.”
At a gap in the firing, she got up and managed to get a few rounds off herself—enough to get Reams ducking under the porch.
She backed off, needing to reload, and she risked looking towards the doorway into the living room. She couldn’t cover both. Reams shot another hail of bullets into the kitchen from the outside, and Ziva backed up further, using the kitchen cabinets as cover.
When he finally stopped, she straightened and pointed her gun outside again.
She crept out further, checking the porch in both directions, then risked stepping out ever further.
Reams was gone.
Tony splayed himself across the top of the metal vat, inching around the tilted cap, his gun raised. From up here, he had a good view of the large room and its contents. There were four large vats, numerous smaller ones and a bunch of pipes filling the space. Presumably, Reams didn’t bother to clear this room when he made his other renovations. Opposite the entrance was another wall, a newer one based on the coloring, with another metal door in it that presumably led to the rest of the barn. It was open and, from the looks of it, Agent Royce was using the door as cover, firing into the room. There was red blood on the white concrete near her—she might have been hit. Tony could also see Sacks through one of the large windows, firing into the room in spats.
Two men were pinned down in the room, each behind a smaller vat, and they were focusing their aim on the three locations of the agents. Tony was pleased to see one of them kept checking his vat, but not the top of it. They were expecting Tony to come out from the side or from the bottom.
He shimmied forward a little more, then pointed his gun at both men—from up here he had the drop on both.
“Drop your weapons!” he shouted. “Or you’re both dead!”
The two men looked up in surprise…and the one on the left aimed his gun up at Tony.
Tony’s shot was true—straight through the man’s head, no hesitation. He switched his aim to goon number two.
“I said drop it!”
“Do it!” Sacks said, more visible now. The door to the rest of the barn was pushed open, and Royce pointed her weapon into the interior. Her left hand was holding a bleeding right shoulder, but the aim of the glock in her right hand did not waver.
“No way out, mister,” she informed the man quietly.
Goon number two passed his gaze from Royce, to Sacks, to Tony. He closed his eyes, swore in Russian, and dropped his gun to the floor.
Sacks jumped into the room through the window, and, with Royce and Tony still covering the goon, made his way over to the man, pulling his handcuffs as he did so.
“On the ground, on your stomach, hands on your head,” Sacks ordered. As soon as the man was down, Sacks was on him, putting the cuffs on. “Royce,” Sacks called as he worked, “you okay?”
“Just a graze, Ron,” she replied. “Hurts like a son of a bitch, though,” she admitted.
Sacks just smiled thinly, twisting the goon’s arms a little more roughly than was needed to get them into the cuffs.
Tony slid backwards off the vat, and slid down the ladder. In seconds he was over by Sacks. Royce was still in the doorway, still covering the windows and doors with her weapon. Tony knelt down next to the man’s head so he could see his face.
“How many of you are there?” he demanded. The goon said nothing. Sacks whacked the back of his head.
“How many?!” Sacks shouted.
“Four,” the goon replied sourly, his accent thick. “Two down here, two up at the house.”
“Andrei Reams and Duncan Matthews up at the house?” Tony asked.
The goon looked mildly surprised, then sighed. “Yes.”
“Where’s our people?” Tony asked then.
“Down the hall. Rooms marked with numbers 1, 2 and 3.”
Tony’s gut turned. “Only three rooms?” he asked softly.
The goon looked up at him, his gaze cold. “Yes.”
Tony looked at Sacks. Sacks frowned, and nodded.
“Go,” he said. “I’ll call Gibbs and keep an eye on him.”
Tony took off at a jog, brushing past Royce. He heard her start to follow him, despite her arm.
“They called to me as I passed by the doors, and I turned the lights on for them,” she called to his back. “They’re still alive!”
At least three of them are, Tony thought miserably.
Gibbs gritted his teeth when Duncan Matthews shot up the doorway he was hiding next to again, the bullets shattering pieces of the porch. This was getting monotonous! To make matters worse, Ziva had radioed that Reams had vanished, which frustrated her and worried Gibbs. In the dark, she couldn’t see where he had gone—which meant he could be anywhere, forcing Gibbs to keep an eye on the other side of the house in case Reams found a way around the front. Meanwhile, what the hell had happened to Fornell? He hadn’t said a word since warning Ziva about Reams.
He winced as more bullets hit the doorframe.
“Getting tired of the standoff, Agents?” Matthews jeered. “Cause you could always back off and let me go!”
“I’m getting tired, alright,” Gibbs answered. “But mostly of your mouth.”
“If you let me go, you won’t hear my voice anymore,” Matthews called gaily. “How ‘bout that?”
“Not happening,” Gibbs replied. “But if you gave up, you’d have the right to remain silent, one I’d hope you’d take full advantage of.”
“Ha!” Matthews punctuated the laugh with more gunfire, this time aimed to where Ziva was positioned in the kitchen, now that she was focused again on holding him down.
At almost the same moment, the
radio chirped in his ear, and Gibbs quickly hit the earpiece. “Talk to me,
“This is Sacks. We’re in control of the barn, captured one prisoner, killed another. Prisoner says Stokes and the others are here in the barn, and DiNozzo’s gone to find them. Prisoner also informed us that there are two others up in the house—one is probably Reams and the other—“
“Duncan Matthews,” Gibbs finished tightly as more bullets tried to pierce through the wall behind him. “Yeah, we know about him. Anything else?”
“Call me when you find McGee and the others,” he ordered.
Will do, Agent Gibbs. Sacks out.”
Gibbs nodded and lowered the radio. Bullets hit the wall anew, and he swore again.
Where the hell was Fornell?
Tony slammed the first metal door he came to open with a number on it, moving inside gun first. He checked the corners even as he kept an eye on the motionless figure sitting on the cot against the far wall. Despite all the noise, the figure hadn’t moved. Neither had the woman sitting on the chair at the end of the bed, facing him.
McGee was sitting with his back to the wall and his legs bent so he could rest his head on his knees, his face hidden. His hands were behind him – tied? From his view of McGee’s profile, he could also spotted the bandage wrapped around Tim’s upper arm; both it and McGee’s shirtsleeve were stained with dried blood. He grimaced.
Tim didn’t look up. He didn’t even twitch. If it weren’t for the fact that he could see him breathing, Tony would think he was dead. Moving closer to the cot, Tony glanced at Agent Tara Stokes, about to ask if she was alright.
The words died in his throat. The gunshot wound on the side of her head sort of answered the question. But from the way she was sitting, it was if she were looking right at McGee. What the hell?
Ignoring the body and its macabre set up, Tony sat on the bed in front of the sitting figure. There was a matching bandage on McGee’s other arm, and more bloodstains. He frowned.
“McGee. McGee, wake up.”
When there was still no reply, Tony hastily put his gun away and rested a hand on McGee’s left knee and gave it a light shake. “McGee?”
The knees closed more tightly together, but that was it. Tony frowned in puzzlement, then frowned in anger.
Quick as a snake, he whacked the back of McGee’s head. “Probie! Wake up!”
The body jerked instantly, and the breathing grew more labored, as if he was waking up from a nightmare. McGee’s head lifted, blinking rapidly against the fluorescent light. He swallowed, covering his shallow breathing, and when the red-rimmed, green eyes focused on Tony, they widened slightly.
It was so weak, Tony almost wanted to cry. Instead he smiled, brash as he could.
“About time you noticed me, Probie. Thought I was impossible to ignore!”
McGee just blinked at him a few more times, then looked over Tony’s shoulder. The senior agent shifted, trying to block the view, but McGee clearly knew what was there. His eyes scrunched closed, and his shuddered.
“Tony, please,” he begged, “please close her eyes. Please.”
Tony frowned. “Why haven’t you already—“
“Hands are tied. Please.” McGee’s head was back inside his knees, hiding his face again. Tony grimaced, and his whole body shook with suppressed anger—not at his friend, but at the monster who had done this to him. Standing, he quickly walked over to the body and closed her eyes. Then he pulled out a knife and returned to McGee, intending to cut the ropes tying his friend’s hands.
Twine wire, partially frayed until it reached the metal cord in the center, held McGee’s wrists tight. Blood and scraped skin showed how hard the man had tried to get away.
It took everything Tony had not to run and help Gibbs and Fornell take the bastard down. He wanted to kill Reams so badly right now, it hurt.
Instead, he hit his radio, hard enough that he actually hurt his ear.
“Yeah, Tony?” came the tinny reply.
“McGee’s alive. I’ve got him. Tara Stokes is dead.”
Gibbs released a pent up breath, bowing his head where he was kneeling next to the door. Thank God. After a long moment, he nodded to himself.
“Okay. What about the other two?”
“I heard them yelling. They’re alive.”
“Good. Go ahead and call in the cavalry. We need backup.” He looked up again. His relief at hearing McGee was alive faded under the recognition that Tara Stokes wasn’t, and that Fornell was not going to take that well. “Fornell, you get that?” he asked over the radio.
No one answered. Gibbs’ shoulders tensed up.
“Fornell?” He tried again. “Fornell, what’s your status?” He made to stand, though he didn’t know where Fornell might have gone. His movement was answered by a renewed attack on the doorframe from Duncan, forcing him to duck down again.
Damn this kid!
“Nearly got you that time, didn’t I, Gibbs?” Duncan shouted. “I warned you! I’ll cut you in half, you try that again!”
Gibbs rolled his eyes slightly, listening as Ziva tried to take advantage of Duncan’s attention on him by shooting at the TV—she was probably trying to knock it over, but it was too damn heavy. The AK-47 was aimed away from him again and at the kitchen, forcing her back. At some point, that gun was going to cut through these walls—it was powerful enough. They needed Fornell.
Duncan took that moment to start terrorizing the doorway again, and Gibbs tightened his grip on his weapon.
“Agent DiNozzo?” Agent Royce’s call from the doorway was tentative, as if unsure she should come in. He turned to look at her, and his face obviously spoke volumes, because her own expression went completely blank, especially when she saw Tara. It was obviously her defense mechanism. “Is he alive?”
“He’s alive,” Tony replied brusquely. He nodded at Tara. “But she’s—”
“Dead,” Royce finished quietly. “I know. I heard.” Tony just nodded, not trusting himself to speak. Royce continued, keeping her voice even, “Angela Zelnitz and Nick Cheevers are in the rooms opposite this one, both alive. Cheevers has a broken leg, and they both have some ugly bruising, but, otherwise, they seem to be okay.” She took a breath, looking at the sitting woman. “They told me that Agent Stokes was murdered last night. She was placed in here to....” She frowned slightly instead of finishing, betraying a break in her walls, but she quickly had them up again. “She was placed in here to punish McGee, after they found out about the messages they were sending to your forensic scientist.”
Tony just nodded again. He’d freed McGee’s hands, finally. The metal cord had really needed a wire cutter, but Tony was too determined to get him free to wait. McGee had said nothing, even though the knife cutting through the cord had to have hurt his sore wrists like hell.
Royce cleared her throat. “Have you called for backup yet?”
“Not yet.” Tony glanced at her again as he sat down on the cot, resting a hand on McGee’s still bowed back. Damn, the kid was cold. “Can you—?”
She nodded, and backed out of the room, tapping the radio in her ear.
Tony didn’t listen, trusting Royce to tell them everything she knew. “Hey,” he called, rubbing his hand across his friend’s shoulders, not liking the icy temperature he could feel through the thin shirt. “Hey,” he tried again, “you okay?”
“No,” came the soft answer.
Tony just nodded. At least it was an answer. “Okay, I get that.” He grimaced and looked towards the door. Royce had gone—presumably to go back to Zelnitz and Cheevers. He turned back to McGee. “Look, we need to get you out of here, okay? We don’t know how many people are in on this—“
“Seven, at least,” McGee interjected. He lifted his head and spoke in a monotone, as if reading a report. “There are four people here, including the leader, a guy named—“
“Andrei Reams. Yeah, we know.”
McGee turned his head to look at him, showing his puzzlement. “How?”
“We figured out how and why they picked you, and put the pieces together, just like we always do.”
“Oh,” McGee just nodded. “Good.” He blinked dazedly, and rested his head on his knees again. His hands were now loose by his sides, as if he were too tired to lift them up.
Tony prodded him in the back. “You said there were seven?”
McGee lifted his head. He looked confused. “What?”
“You said there were seven,” Tony repeated. “Name ‘em.”
McGee frowned slightly, before focusing once more on Tony. “Seven, that I know of,” he said. “There may be more.” He seemed to get some energy back then, and, blowing out a breath, he straightened up slightly. “There’s four here. Reams, this kid Duncan—he’s crazy—and two big guys who never spoke but were good at hurting people. Ed and Doug. They’re just hired muscle.” He blinked slowly. “Reams also talked to a couple of others on the phone. Called them Onegin and Lensky. And there’s also someone named Jarvis, but,” McGee blinked slowly again, “I think…I think you may have Jarvis already?” McGee pinched his eyes shut, and then opened them again. He looked like he was having trouble thinking. Tony just nodded at him.
“We’ll get them all, Probie,” Tony promised. “We already have the goons. In the meantime, while the rest of said bad guys are still on the loose, it’s my job to get you and your two fellow geeks to someplace defensible until the cavalry gets here.” He stood up and held out a hand. “You got any injuries I should know about? And can you walk?”
Tim raised his head, stared at Tony for a moment, then nodded slowly. “I can walk.” Slowly, almost lethargically, he stretched out his legs and let them fall to the floor. When that seemed as far as he was able to go, Tony quietly reached down and got his arm underneath Tim’s shoulders. He hadn’t missed the failure to answer the question about injuries, though he couldn’t see anything obviously wrong.
Still, as he wrapped his arm around him, the cold was more obvious—Probie was practically frozen.
“I said I could walk,” Tim said suddenly, bristling at the touch and weakly trying to push Tony off. Frowning a little, Tony backed off, raising his hands. Tim frowned slightly, as if surprised that Tony gave up so easily, and put his hands on the cot. Then he made to push off…
He made it about halfway up before his legs collapsed under him. Tony was there, grabbing him tightly and holding on, preventing McGee from pitching forward onto the floor. He set him back down on the cot to sit.
“Sure you can walk, McStumbles,” he muttered. “Want to try that again with my help?”
Tim gave a short laugh at the nickname, and looked up at him, eyes appearing truly open for the first time.
“Tony?” he asked quietly. “You’re real?”
“Yeah, kid,” Tony replied with a smile. “I’m real.”
Tim’s eyes widened, and he reached out, grabbing Tony’s wrist. “Tony, you have to be careful. He’s after you.” He gripped tighter. “Run, Tony. Get away. Please.”
Tony’s eyebrows lifted. “Uh, what? And,” he snorted, “No. Not leaving without you, Probie.”
“DiNozzo,” Royce called from the entrance, getting Tony’s attention. She was standing in the entrance. Behind her, he saw a red-headed woman with scraggly hair half carrying a blond man in a jean jacket—Zelnitz and Cheevers. Both looked exhausted and strained to their breaking points; Zelnitz’s face was a mass of bruises, while Cheevers was balanced on one leg. Royce still had her gun out, and was as much watching the corridor as him as she spoke. “They’re on their way. Also,” she tilted her head at the two geeks. “These two wanted to talk to you. I told them that Reams was missing, likely on the run. They don’t think he is. They’re pretty sure he’ll come down here.”
“He will,” Zelnitz said, coughing a little, her eyes rimmed with shadows. “Reams really doesn’t like Tim. He doesn’t like any of us, but he really had a hatred for McGee.”
“Understatement,” Cheevers added. He frowned when he saw Tim still sitting on the cot. “He’s been drugged, you know.”
Tony’s eyes widened. “What?”
“Part of his punishment,” Cheevers explained, snarling a little. “Ecstasy and Tara at the end of his bed. Staring at him. Reams knew Tim would blame himself for her being killed.”
Tony’s gut twisted, and he looked down at his friend’s bowed head. Tim’s glazed eyes were locked on the ground. Tony frowned, his anger returning, and he looked again at Cheevers.
“Reams do anything else to him?” he asked quietly.
Cheevers nodded. “Gave his stomach a real working over, and you can see the cuts on his arms. Oh, and Tim was having trouble breathing.”
Tony’s jaw set, and he looked at Royce.
“Let’s get them to the room with Sacks and the vats until help comes.”
They weren’t out of this yet.
CHAPTER TEN: LAST STANDS
“Fornell!” Gibbs barked again, trying not to worry. “Status!”
“He’s alive,” Redford’s voice answered over the line, his voice tense and weak at the same time. “We’re coming. Hang on.”
Gibbs’ eyes narrowed. Alive? What the hell did that mean?
As if on cue, two agents staggered into view around the end of the porch, from the direction Fornell had gone earlier, clearly leaning on each other. The struggling men only made it a few steps before they stopped.
Redford eased Fornell against the side of the house and sat him down, before leaning back to rest a hand on his own forehead. Even in the dark, Gibbs could see the blood coating it—Redford’s blond hair looked like someone had tipped ink over it.
“What the hell happened?” he demanded.
Redford looked up, and then stood up again, swaying only slightly. He headed towards the NCIS agent, keeping low until he was kneeling next to Gibbs. Duncan was focused on Ziva again, peppering the walls inside the house almost spastically—they could hear him laughing. Redford frowned at the raucous noise, before focusing his gaze on Gibbs.
“Reams shot us. He was on the porch roof. He…” Redford touched his blood covered forehead again, wincing a little, “creased my forehead, I guess. I only came to a little while ago. He hit Fornell in the chest and shoulder—I’m not sure how.” Gibbs’ eyes must have betrayed his worry because Redford grimaced, giving a slight headshake. “He’s okay. Go talk to him. I can keep Matthews covered.”
The look Gibbs favored him with this time was disbelief, but Redford just smiled. “No, I’m alright, really. No blurred vision or anything. I got lucky.”
“Real lucky,” Gibbs said. Redford inclined his head, and, wiping away some of the blood threatening to pool around his left eye below the cut, he raised his gun.
Gibbs frowned, but nodded, moving out of the way so he could go and speak to Fornell.
Keeping low, as Redford had, to stay out of sight of the windows, Gibbs headed over to his old friend, kneeling down next to him and quickly going over the man’s wounds. Fornell was breathing heavily, blinking drowsily as Gibbs shifted into his line of sight. Redford had slapped a field dressing on his shoulder, but, based on the amount of blood staining Fornell’s shirt, he was bleeding only sluggishly, which was a good sign. Gibbs frowned more at the two bullet-sized puncture wounds in the black kevlar—the vest had done its job, but, considering the way Fornell was breathing, they had still caused a lot of pain, possibly even broken some ribs.
In that brief time, Fornell’s eyes had closed.
“Fornell,” he said, grabbing the agent’s unhurt shoulder. “Fornell!”
The FBI agent groaned, and Gibbs sighed in relief. He gripped the man’s good shoulder even more tightly.
Fornell’s blue eyes blinked open. “Gibbs?” he called weakly.
“Hey. What happened?”
Fornell blinked a few times, his brow furrowing. He groaned then, a hand drifting up to his chest. “Got hit,” he managed.
“I can see that. Reams do this?”
Fornell grunted. “Yeah. He was on the roof, and I pulled…” His eyes widened then, and his worried gaze met Gibbs’. “Wait. Reams, he said…he said…Tara was upstairs.” He pointed upwards.
Gibbs shook his head. “She’s not. DiNozzo said she’s down at the barn, with the others. He’s looking over them.”
Fornell frowned. He must not have heard Sacks’ call. “You sure?” At Gibbs’ nod, he asked softly, “She okay?”
Gibbs’ eyes squinted slightly, not answering. He didn’t need to. Fornell closed his eyes in pain, and then jumped then as more AK-47 fire erupted from the house. The FBI Agent focused blue eyes on Redford, who was ducking away from the door, and then back at his old friend.
“I want these bastards to go down,” he snarled.
Gibbs just held out a hand in response. “Come on, get up.” The look Fornell gave him was initially one of uncertainty, and then, when he actually took the hand he was offered, one of determination.
Once Gibbs had him standing, Fornell seemed to get some energy back. He blinked at Gibbs, and nodded, indicating that he could fight.
“Can you stay here with Redford?” Gibbs asked him. “Help keep Matthews occupied and keep an eye out for Reams?”
Fornell nodded again. “What about you?”
Gibbs frowned, and looked up at the porch roof. “I’m going to take Matthews down.”
Sitting under the porch, Reams smiled, pleased to finally hear confirmation of DiNozzo’s whereabouts. Down at the barn, eh? He might have guessed as much, but it was good to hear.
He still might be able to win this.
Crawling on his hands and knees, he made his way to the other side of the house, opposite where he’d come down.
It was where the entrance to the basement was.
Holding tightly to McGee’s arm around his shoulders, Tony half carried his teammate into the room with the vats, where Sacks, Royce and the other two were already waiting. At least it was warmer in here—the “cells” had been freezing.
Sacks had barred the outside
door, and was watching the trees out the broken window. Zelnitz was bandaging Royce’s shoulder while Royce kept a
gun on the goon, the three of them sitting on chairs near the security
monitors. Cheevers was lying on one of the
cots, his swollen leg raised and an arm throw across his eyes.
Tony sat McGee on the other cot and pulled off his NCIS jacket, handing it to Tim. McGee didn’t seem to see it, not until Tony actually put it on his lap. Then Tim looked down, blinked at the jacket for a moment, and finally turned a questioning gaze to Tony.
“What’s this for?”
“You’re freezing. Take it.”
McGee frowned more, but he accepted the jacket and, with shaking hands, pulled it on. Once he had it zipped up, he gave Tony a nod.
“Sure thing, Probie,” he said, patting McGee’s shoulder. He was trying very hard not to react to how subdued Tim seemed. That brief moment where he’d shown fear for Tony (and what the hell was that all about?) was the most significant emotion Tim had shown. Otherwise, he seemed barely conscious. It’d be freaking Tony out more, but he knew the effect Ecstasy could have on a dehydrated and hurting body, especially one not used to the drug. He’d seen enough of that when he worked for the Baltimore PD. Combined with what he guessed was probably borderline hypothermia…
He bent over, so that he’d be eye level with Tim. Tim didn’t meet the other man’s gaze until Tony deliberately shifted into his line of sight. McGee frowned slightly when he finally focused on him.
“What?” McGee asked, sounding a little annoyed.
“Nothing, just...,” Tony ducked his head a little, “you okay?”
McGee frowned more, looking away.
“McGee, come on. Talk to me. I need to know if—”
“Wait.” McGee straightened suddenly, looking again at Tony with a worried gaze. “Did I tell you the seven names? There are seven names.”
Tony tried not to frown, resulting in a sort of grimace. “Yes, you did. You did good.”
McGee shook his head. “No. I know more. I need to tell you more. I’m having trouble…” his eyes narrowed slightly. “Trouble thinking. I can’t—”
“It’s not okay,” Tim stressed suddenly, with a flare of anger. “Don’t tell me it’s okay. I know more! I just…” he shut his eyes, frowning. “Reams, he…. There’s more. I can’t…why can’t I…?” he let out a harsh breath, and rubbed a hand over his face. When he lowered it, his eyes opened, focusing on his hand. His expression grew troubled. “What happened to my wrist?” He brought his other hand forward then, and blinked at the damaged mess of that one as well.
Tony didn’t know how to answer, and when McGee looked at him, eyes scared now, all he could do was shake his head.
Tim frowned, and looked away again, letting his hands fall to his lap.
Tony sighed. He’d wanted more emotion for Tim, and, for a moment, he saw his friend in there, in that flash of determined anger, that need to get the answers he knew out, but, as quickly as it had come, it had gone again. There was no easy way to fix this, was there?
He stood up and patted McGee’s shoulder through the jacket. “I’m going to talk to Sacks a minute. You going to be okay?”
Tim didn’t answer, staring off to
the side now. He’d slipped back to
wherever his mind had been before.
Burying his frustration at how little he could do for his friend, Tony forced himself to focus on what he could do and walked over to Sacks. The FBI Agent glanced back at him, glanced at McGee, then returned his attention to the outside.
“He okay?” Sacks asked.
“Least he’s alive,” the FBI Agent
said darkly. Tony tried not to react
angrily to that, knowing Sacks didn’t mean it the way it sounded—like he
thought it should have been McGee, not Tara they’d lost. Instead, he changed the subject.
“What’s the ETA on the backup?” Tony asked.
“Five minutes.” Sacks winced then as more automatic gunfire peppered the air from up by the house. “Damn it. Why can’t they get that guy?”
Tony shook his head. “Any sign of Reams?”
“No. I’ve been watching both the trees and the monitors from the security feeds. I haven’t seen anything.”
Tony frowned. “Think he’s gone?”
“I would be.”
Tony gave a nod. “Except that this isn’t personal for you.”
“I know, but Reams isn’t stupid—he must know your boss will have called the world down on this place with four agencies affected. He should lick his wounds and go into hiding—come back to attack Gibbs another day. He waited this long…” He trailed off, licking his lips slightly.
“Yeah, but when his grand plan to trigger that virus tomorrow doesn’t work, he’ll have more than good guys looking for him—the people who hired him will be wanting to punish him for his failure.” Tony shook his head. “Reams might come back for his revenge sooner rather than later, because he may think he has nothing left to lose.”
Sacks grunted. “Maybe. Still,” his eyes narrowed, “we don’t see him before the EMTs and the others get here, you have to assume he isn’t coming. At least not tonight. That’d be too many people to get through.”
Tony nodded. He couldn’t fault that logic.
He winced again as more gunfire cut through the night.
“Come on, Boss,” he whispered. “Finish it already.”
“Tony?” McGee called then, his voice worried. Tony turned, eyebrows raised.
McGee’s expression was worried again. “Did I tell you about the uranium?”
After climbing up onto the porch
roof, Gibbs had found an unlocked window on the second floor of the house,
which he’d climbed through without any trouble. Only problem he
encountered was needing to suppress a sneeze at all the dust he kicked up—no
one had really lived up here in months.
Grimacing, he crept forward, his eyes on the floorboards, keeping his weight even and on the sides of his feet—walking silently was an art in a house like this one.
Of course, every time Duncan Matthews let loose with that AK-47, Gibbs moved a little faster—no one was going to hear him up here with all that noise.
It didn’t take him long to reach the top of the stairs, and he settled down on his stomach on the landing. Pulling himself forward, he leaned over the edge, lowering his head to see under the ceiling of the room below.
He smiled—from up here, he could see the whole room, including most of Duncan. The boy was kneeling in front of the couch, and was currently firing towards the front door. Gibbs could see Redford cringing from the impact on the wall as the bearded agent attempted to reload his gun. Gibbs couldn’t see Ziva, as the kitchen was to the left and under the stairs, but he knew she was still there—he could hear her muttering curses in Hebrew.
Gibbs withdrew his head, and settled on the landing, checking his gun to make sure it was locked and loaded.
The angle he had on the kid wasn’t great, but it would do. He drew in a deep breath, then tapped the radio in his ear.
“Ziva.” He kept his voice to a whisper.
A short pause, then: “Yes?”
“Yell to him. Tell him he has one last chance to give up. If he doesn’t, he’ll be dead before he can fire again.”
There was a longer pause, then…
“Matthews!” Ziva shouted. “This is your last chance! Give up now, or we’ll take you down!”
Matthews just laughed. “Then take me down, woman! Because I ain’t giving up! I’d rather die!” More firing, this time at Ziva’s position. The staircase shivered at the impact on the wall it shared with the kitchen.
Gibbs sighed. Okay then, so be it. He tapped his earpiece again.
“Get his attention, Redford,” he whispered.
“Hey, punk!” Redford shouted, and the report of a glock punctuated the air for a few seconds, until the AK-47’s attention was shifted away from the kitchen and back to Redford.
Gibbs counted to three…then leaned out into the stairwell, gun pointed at the kid’s head.
Duncan saw him at the last second, and he tried to switch the aim of the rifle. Too late.
Gibbs shot three rounds. Each one hit their mark. Duncan kept his finger on the trigger of the rifle even as he fell back, and Gibbs pulled himself up as bullets sprayed the stairwell and ceiling…until they stopped.
Releasing a pent up breath, Gibbs risked ducking his head below the ceiling again.
The banister was mostly gone, as were any pictures that had been on the wall of the stairwell. Gibbs grimaced, returning his attention to the rest of the room.
Duncan was sprawled on his side next to the rifle, collapsed on the couch. Blood pooled around his head and shoulders, soaking the pale brown leather. Unseeing blue eyes stared upwards, and his mouth was gaping open, as if from shock.
“He’s down,” Gibbs said, sliding around so he could walk down the stairs. “Ziva, check him.”
She was out of the kitchen like a shot, keeping low just in case, while Redford stood up and covered her from the doorway. Quickly, she was around the edge of the couch and verifying the kill. She nodded once, and met Gibbs’ gaze as he came down.
Gibbs nodded, navigating around bits of shattered wood and chunks of banister. “That just leaves one.”
As he hit the ground floor,
kicking some extra pieces of wall out of his way, flashing lights drew his
attention to the doorway. In the distance, he saw the two Doherty squad
vehicles pulling into the lot next to the barn, along with a state trooper vehicle,
the ambulance and the local coroner van.
In addition, a sleek, black SUV pulled in with them—likely carrying more
He raised his radio to his lips again. “DiNozzo.”
“Yeah, Boss.” Tony’s response was strained. Gibbs didn’t want to know why, right now.
“Matthews is taken care of. The EMTs are down at the other end of your barn, along with the rest of our local backup. Any sign of Reams?”
“No. Can we take our people out to them? They could really use those paramedics.”
“Should be more than enough cover—just tell Riley and Abrahams to circle the wagons and watch the woods. There’s also another agency vehicle down there; whoever it is will need to be briefed. Can you handle all that?”
“Sure. What you are you going to do?”
“We’re going after Reams.” Gibbs looked across the room at Ziva. She nodded, already heading towards the back door to where she’d last seen him. Redford leaned heavily against what remained of the front door area, as Tobias walked fully inside. The FBI Agent was much more alert than he was before, his eyes sharper. He looked at Duncan, then at Gibbs.
“I’m coming with you.”
“No,” Gibbs replied. “You and Redford are staying here with the body. I’ll send the EMTs up here with backup as soon as I can.”
Fornell just smiled. Gibbs’ eyes narrowed. When he turned to follow Ziva, he wasn’t surprised to hear Fornell stomping across the floorboards after him.
It’s what he would do.
The sky was a bright peach color as two paramedics, led by Royce, wheeled Cheevers outside on the stretcher, followed by Angela, who was now wrapped so tightly inside three blankets that all you could really see was the red hair sticking out the top. She followed Cheevers all the way into the ambulance, settling herself on a bench inside next to him. Royce chose to settle herself in the back of the Coroner’s Van next to the ambulance, to allow the local coroner to check her shoulder.
Not long after, one of the paramedics jogged back to the barn to help Tony with McGee.
Tony thanked the woman as she got under McGee’s other arm—the kid was really dragging now. With the ambulance full, the paramedic steered them towards one of the local LEO’s vehicles parked opposite Reams’ black moving truck—a Jeep with its back open. She told McGee to sit on the back, and then started checking him over as Tony watched. He heard her hiss when she pulled up his shirt to see his bruised stomach. After an uncomfortable minute of worrying too much about what he couldn’t control, he turned his attention to the woods surrounding them.
If Reams was going to attack, he’d have to cover a lot of distance in the open. He’d be spotted long before he got here. From within the semi-circular formation made by the cars around the end of the barn, the local LEOs were watching the perimeter in all directions, just like guards watching from a circle of wagons in the old west. They were about as safe as they were going to be.
A muttered slew of incompressible swears drew Tony’s attention back to the barn, where Sacks was muscling the still living goon out the door and towards the black SUV, where five other agents were waiting. Turned out they were all FBI, and one of them was a computer expert here to quiz McGee and the others about what they’d hacked.
Sacks had already filled them in on the information McGee had just supplied using a different radio frequency, so there wasn’t much to brief them on. As they congealed together in a mass of black to confer with Sacks, one of them, a woman, disengaged from the others and headed over to the Jeep. Tony watched her approach, frowning a little at the sharp way she was moving—she had the air of someone with a score to settle.
“You’re Agent DiNozzo?” she asked, pulling out a notebook from inside her coat.
“I am,” he replied. “And you are?”
“Agent Sparks. I work in the Computer Security Division. Do you think I could talk to Agent McGee?”
Tony smiled softly—impressed that she had the courtesy to ask him first. He stepped back to show her that Tim was back to being looked over by the paramedic.
“When the medic’s done and says he’s okay.”
The paramedic looked up at him, her expression chagrined. She shook her head.
“There’s not much I can do for him here, Agent. Like the others, he really needs to get to a hospital.” The paramedic switched her gaze to the FBI Agent. “If it were up to me, I wouldn’t let you talk to him while he’s like this.”
Sparks’ eyes narrowed. “I understand, ma’am,” she said. “But this is a matter of national security. If he can talk to me now…?”
Tony frowned. “You know what, he’s already told me everything he knows. Why don’t I just—“
“Are you a computer hacker, Agent DiNozzo?” Sparks asked snippily.
“Then you can’t help me. Agent McGee can. He can also explain to me what happened to Agent Stokes. So if you don’t—“
At Tara’s name, Tony had the woman’s arm and was dragging her away from McGee. Tim watched them go, but there wasn’t much comprehension on his face—he’d lost his focus after telling them about the Department of Energy being the main target and had yet to get it back.
“Let me go,” Sparks snarled, trying to get her arm free from Tony’s grip.
When they were far enough out of earshot, Tony did so, roughly. She straightened her jacket and put her hands on her hips.
“What the hell—?“
“Agent Sparks,” Tony snapped, cutting her off, “I’m lead agent until Gibbs returns, do you understand that?”
Her eyes narrowed again. “So?”
“So,” he said, lowering her voice so she’d have to strain to hear him, “that means you do exactly what I tell you to do. I’m going to let you interview Agent McGee about the agencies he hacked, but you will not, I repeat, will not talk to him about what happened to Agent Stokes. Do you understand?”
“Why?” she demanded, her hands still on his hips.
“Because he’s not up to it, right now.”
“Not up to it?” she challenged. She looked back to where McGee was sitting. “He looks fine to me. A couple of bandages on his arms and sore wrists, what’s the big deal?” She looked up at Tony again. “It’s not like he’s dead.” She dropped the last word like a bomb.
Tony’s eyes narrowed. He thought so. He could see it in her face.
“Back off, Agent. I won’t tell you again.”
Sparks lips twitched, as if she were holding back her temper. She stepped closer to Tony. “Tara was a friend of mine,” she hissed.
“I don’t care,” Tony replied harshly. “Right now, your job is to make sure our systems are protected, correct? That’s why you’re here.”
She looked away, then back again, her jaw muscled flexing. With obvious reluctance, she nodded quickly. “Technically. But—“
“No buts, Agent. You do your job, and that’s it. Do not do mine, understand?”
Her jaw muscles worked again, but, eventually, she bowed her head. “Fine.” She looked up. “Sir.” She managed to twist the “sir” into a sneer, but not enough that he felt it necessary to call her on it.
“Okay,” Tony said. “Go on then. I’m going to go talk to Sacks and the rest of your buddies over there for a minute. But I’ll be watching—I see you form the word ‘Stokes’ on your lips, and you’re out of here.”
She grimaced, but nodded once more. “Fine.” Whipping around, she strode back over to the paramedic and McGee. Tim looked up as she approached, the puzzlement on his face evident even from here. Tony felt like a heel leaving him alone even for a moment. Pursing his lips, he noticed Chief Riley talking quietly to one of his men, and he headed over to join them. Riley looked up, nodding at Tony.
“Agent DiNozzo. I understand you’re running this while Gibbs it out?”
Tony nodded. “So they tell me. Look,” he frowned slightly, “can you do me a favor?”
“Sure thing. What do you need?”
“Can you send a man to stand guard over Agent McGee, over there? He’s the one with the paramedic in the back of the SUV. Just until I get back over there. And, if that FBI Agent with them mentions Tara Stokes, if he could signal me…,” he smiled thinly, “that’d be good.”
Riley arched a bushy eyebrow, but nodded. “No problem. Meyers here will do it.” The officer standing with Riley, a young man, gave a nod and headed over to McGee’s Jeep.
Tony watched until the officer was standing just to the left of the group, leaning on the side of the Jeep, his eyes on the trees. The Chihuahua of an FBI Agent wasn’t fooled; she turned and shot Tony a dark look. He just smiled and waved in return, waggling his fingers.
“So, you boys nearly done here, do you think?” Riley asked Tony then, drawing his attention back. Tony pursed his lips, but gave a nod.
“Hope so.” He smiled at Riley. “Thank you again for all your help.”
“Whatever we can do,” Riley replied.
Nodding, Tony thanked him again with a smile before heading over to talk to Sacks. Being done “here” was only half the battle—they still needed to figure out who hired Reams and Matthews. He also needed to send some agents up the hill to help Redford.
He had to admit—he got a bit of a kick out of ordering around the FBI.
Ziva was studying the muddy ground, looking for any evidence that Reams had run away. Tobias was still on the porch, watching her, while Gibbs knelt down, shining a flashlight under it.
“See anything?” Gibbs called.
“No,” Ziva replied, trying not to feel frustrated at the lack of definitive signs. “I do not think he ran away.”
“Well, if he had,” Gibbs replied, “I have a feeling you would have seen him.” He released a sigh. “Or Officer Stein would have.”
They’d called her on the radio, to confirm that she hadn’t seen anyone run away from the house. She didn’t have the right angle to see the back, but, as far as she could tell from where she was positioned in the woods, no one had left. Of course, she’d missed what happened to Redford and Fornell as well—the cement house had been in her line of sight. She was extremely upset about that. To forestall her apologies, Gibbs has asked her to come and join them.
“So where did he go?” Ziva asked, turning around.
“Under here,” Gibbs replied. “He crawled under the house and…” He shook his head. “It’s too muddy to tell. Looks like Reams wasn’t the only animal crawling under here.” Standing, he clicked off the flashlight and looked to the left, which was the direction of the cement house, and where Redford and Fornell had been hit. Pursing his lips, he then looked to the right. To the one side of the house none of them had been to.
He nodded at Ziva, and, with her gun drawn, she moved quickly around to that side, peeking around the edge of the porch.
She stepped out a little further when she found no one there.
Gibbs and Tobias followed, Tobias still on the porch and Gibbs on the ground with Ziva. The porch was interrupted in the middle, not wrapping around fully, broken up by a set of open, horizontally placed doors leading down into a basement storage. It was difficult to tell how big it was, but it smelled strongly of earth and mildew.
Ziva frowned, looking at Gibbs. He nodded at her, and she turned on her flashlight and pointed it down the steps.
“Officer Stein,” Tobias called, over the radio. “Do you read me?”
“Yes, sir. I’m nearly to the house, sir. Where are you?”
“Round the side. This house have a basement?”
“Uh, well, yes, sir. All the old houses ‘round here do. It’s probably more of a root cellar, though. Just dirt—doubt it’s finished anyway. If you wait a moment, I’ll show you where it is. I’m almost….” She appeared suddenly around the back of the house, a big smile on her face. “I’m here! Let me just….Oh, you’ve already found it.” She smiled crookedly at Ziva and looked up. Her smile fell instantly when she saw Tobias’s bloodied arm for the first time. “Sir, should you be standing?”
Tobias just frowned at her. “Is there another way out of it?” he asked.
She frowned, switching her gaze to where Ziva was. She looked up at Tobias again.
“Uh…I don’t know.” She gave an apologetic grimace. “I’ve never been down there.”
Ziva was part way down the stairs by this time, shining her light into the depths. Gibbs was on her heels, kneeling on the steps and trying to see into the places she wasn’t.
When she reached the bottom, Gibbs still watching her back, she swung her flashlight around, picking out bits and pieces of old farm equipment, most of it rusted into useless scrap metal. Mostly, though, the room was empty and featureless.
Except for the door.
Ziva walked up to it, pressing her hand against the dark, rusted metal. “What is this?” she asked out loud.
“Tobias,” Gibbs called up the stairs. “Ask Stein why there might be another door down here. These things often have multiple rooms?”
Stein answered, kneeling by the entrance so she could see down into the room. “I don’t know, Agent Gibbs. It’s possible. Lots of these old houses have real interesting paths. Some of them were used for stockpiling moonshine during Prohibition, others were converted into fallout shelters for when the bomb was supposed to hit, and then there’s the ones that have storm tunnels, you know, for tornadoes and such? And some even have ties back to the old underground railroad. We’re on the border here with Penn, and a lot of folks round here were sympathetic to the slaves, and—“
“Wait, tunnels?” Gibbs rounded on her, pointing up his flashlight at her face. “Did you say tunnels?”
She blinked at the bright light, holding up a hand to ward it off. “Oh. Well, yes, but…I mean, they’re so old. Most of them are caved in. I mean, there’s no point in even thinking about ‘em these days unless—“
“Someone deliberately excavated one to use as an alternate escape route?”
She paled. “Yeah,” she agreed weakly.
Gibbs’ jaw tensed, and he looked back at Ziva. They positioned themselves on either side of the door, did a silent count to three, and then Ziva threw the door open, going low as Gibbs went high.
Before them, a pitch black tunnel stretched away from them. It was so dark, even the flashlights didn’t penetrate far into the gloom.
“Damn,” Gibbs swore. Ziva stepped inside, adjusting her flashlight to its strongest range. Gibbs did the same, but he didn’t follow her. Instead, he looked back at the entrance.
“Where might this lead?”
“I don’t know.”
“Make a guess!” he snapped. “You know about these things! Where do they normally lead?”
She hesitated, then answered, her voice soft. “Well, if it’s a underground railroad tunnel, it could lead just about anywhere, though, likely somewhere northerly. But,” she sniffed, “if it’s a storm tunnel…it was probably the way for the people down in the barn to get back up to the house to join the rest of the family if a calamity hit.”
Gibbs went cold. Ziva’s eyes had widened, and her worried gaze mirrored his furious one.
“Stein,” he snarled, “where would it come up under the barn?”
“Not under it. Probably on the side of it. Just like this one.”
“Tobias,” Gibbs shouted, “Warn DiNozzo. Ziva, go!”
She was already running down the passageway, Gibbs following close behind.
Tim was shivering. He couldn’t stop. Even with Tony’s jacket and a blanket around his shoulders, it seemed like he couldn’t get warm. Combined with the hazy fog filling his brain, he wasn’t totally sure he was even awake. Maybe he was still in that room, tied to that cot, shivering, Tara’s dead eyes still staring at him. Everything was seen through a film—was he really outside? Had they really been rescued? Was Tony really here?
There were times when he was sure it was real. And times, like now, when he felt it must still be a dream. That he’d just reported everything he’d knew and learned to figments of his imagination. Maybe he was just talking to Tara’s body still, thinking her dead eyes were the eyes of his friends.
But it was bright. Wasn’t it? The sun was coming up. Right?
He shivered violently again—it had really begun to hurt. He didn’t know shivering could be this painful.
His fingers gripped the nylon jacket. It felt real. But then, Tara talking to him when he knew she was dead had also seemed real.
He looked across at Tony, who was talking to Agent Sacks next to a Black SUV with FBI plates. A little further, he saw Angela sitting with Nick in the back of an ambulance, and someone else sitting up in the back of a black coroner’s van. And other people wandered around in dark green and khaki.
Where were Ziva and Gibbs? Did he know? He couldn’t hear gunfire anymore. It had been gunfire…hadn’t it?
He blinked again, and looked across at the barn. In the gray light of the false dawn, it looked even more depressing. Like something out of a horror movie.
Something moved in the shadows of the doorway.
He blinked slowly, frowning.
Had he just seen that? The shadow just looked like a shadow now.
He glanced to his left, at the FBI agent who had been interviewing him. She was writing in her notebook, not paying attention. And on his right was an officer. He was looking the wrong way—facing the trees. And he looked at Tony, who was tapping the radio in his ear to listen to something. No one was watching the barn.
He looked again at the structure, focusing on the shadow.
It moved again. Gray light glinted off the metal of a rifle barrel.
It was pointed directly at Tony.
“Tony!” he shouted, all fog gone from his mind, “Get down!” Trained reflexes had him pulling the berretta out of the holster of the officer on his right and jumping off the back of the Jeep, running towards the barn. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Tony had acted in total trust, getting down and pulling down Sacks just as the rifle shots rang out—they bounced harmlessly off the doors of the black SUV Tony had just been standing in front of.
Tim stopped and fired at the doorway as Reams suddenly appeared around the side of the barn, screaming bloody murder as he burst out of cover, throwing down the now empty rifle and drawing a gun. He still had it pointed at Tony, but Tim’s first shot got him in the shoulder, jerking him sideways. Reams turned then, staring at Tim with wide, hate-filled eyes, and brought the gun to bear, aiming straight at Tim’s head.
Shots rang out all around the gravel lot, Tim’s included, deafening the young agent. Reams jerked and twisted, the gun flying from his hand, puffs of blood and black cloth and skin enveloping the man like a black mist. The bullets came from everywhere, and Tim vaguely wondered how he wasn’t also being hit.
Reams collapsed to the ground like a puppet when the firing finally stopped, the abrupt lack of gunfire leaving Tim feeling strangely disconnected from the world around him.
He swayed, dropping the weapon he’d borrowed to the ground, and slowly became aware that people were calling his name. Blinking through the mental haze dampening his brain, Tim saw Gibbs and Ziva striding swiftly towards Reams’ body from the direction of the barn, both agents guns still raised. Turning to his left, he saw Tony running towards him, the senior field agent’s own gun in hand and pointed towards Reams.
As Gibbs and Ziva reached Reams, both agents obviously checking to make sure the man was dead (how could he not be?), Tony reached him, putting his gun away as his other hand reached out.
The moment he touched Tim’s arm, the world—all of its sights, sounds, smells and the horrible, horrible cold—rushed back in.
And Tim collapsed.
CHAPTER ELEVEN: A NEW MORNING
“Whoa!” Tony’s concerned shout had Gibbs looking up from Reams, just in time to see Tony catch McGee before the younger agent hit the dirt. Tim had sprawled, long legs loose, his upper body totally limp. Tony was on the ground with him, half kneeling, both arms wrapped around McGee’s arms, holding him upright. As Gibbs watched, Tony shifted, getting more of McGee upright and twisting himself to take more of McGee’s weight against his chest. The two paramedics jogged up, one heading towards Reams, the other towards McGee.
Gibbs breathed out heavily when he didn’t see any blood on either Tim or Tony, and returned his attention to Reams.
Ziva backed up out of the way as the EMT bent down, the slim man touching a hand to Reams neck. It really didn’t need to be verified—Reams had more bullets in him than a range target. Between Gibbs, McGee, Ziva and Tony, Reams was dead long before he hit the ground.
Fornell reached them then, moving slowly because of his injuries, but his face no less determined than it had been up at the house. The FBI Agent gritted his teeth at seeing Reams dead, and Gibbs could understand why—Fornell had wanted to do it himself.
The FBI Agent shook his head, then looked up at Gibbs. “Anyone else hurt?”
Gibbs’ brow furrowed briefly, and he turned to look at Tony and McGee. The EMT stood up, brushing her hands against her slacks. She saw the two lead agents looking at her, and gave a small smile.
“No bullet wounds,” she promised. “But he and the others need to get to a hospital now. I’d like to call in the chopper.” Gibbs gave a nod, and she jogged away, heading back to the ambulance to make the call.
With her out of the way, Gibbs could see that Tim was actually awake, staring listlessly towards Reams’ body with glazed eyes. Tony still had his arms around the kid, still holding him upright—which told Gibbs more than anything exactly how Tim was. The younger agent was not one for touching, rarely initiating contact himself. But McGee wasn’t even trying to get away right now. He didn’t even seem conscious of the fact that Tony was there.
Gibbs turned back to Fornell, but the FBI Agent had already gone, headed at a slow walk across the lot to talk to the rest of his team. The paramedic that had checked on Reams was following him now, looking a little annoyed that Fornell wasn’t stopping to get checked over. Ziva glanced at Gibbs, and he lifted his eyebrows. At the silent order, she jogged after Fornell as well.
With a soft sigh, Gibbs stepped around Reams and headed over to Tony and McGee. Tony watched him come, but McGee’s gaze didn’t shift from the body.
“Hey.” Gibbs knelt down next to them. This close up, he could clearly see how dazed Tim was and how tightly Tony was holding him around his shoulders, as if he were afraid the kid might break. “Hey,” Gibbs called again, keeping his voice soft, touching a hand to McGee’s knee. “Tim, you okay?”
Tim gave a nervous jump at the touch, blinking rapidly as if awaking from a stupor. It took a long moment before those green eyes finally met Gibbs’, appearing both too young and too old at the same time.
Swallowing, Tim gave a single nod.
“Yeah, Boss,” he said quietly. “I’m…” he swallowed again, and his gaze fell away, “I’m fine. But, um…,” he closed his eyes. “I’m a little tired.” He opened his eyes again when he was finished speaking, blinking drowsily, and returned his gaze to Gibbs. “Boss?”
Tim’s eyes drifted away—he was obviously having trouble staying focused. “We going home now?”
Gibbs didn’t answer immediately, just patted McGee’s knee, but his gaze shifted meaningfully to Tony. His senior agent nodded.
He would look after him.
“Sure, McGee,” Gibbs said, shifting his gaze back to Tim. “We’ll get you home.”
But Tim had already lowered his head, eyes struggling to stay open. It was clearly a losing battle.
Gibbs stood up and turned his gaze once more to Reams’ body a few feet away. Frowning, he walked over to the body and studied the limp form for a moment. He wasn’t stupid—Reams last premeditated act hadn’t been to kill McGee. He’d been aiming for Tony. McGee had saved Tony’s life by drawing Reams’ attention.
He’d nearly lost them both.
“Gibbs,” Ziva called, jogging back over to his side. She stopped about a couple of feet from him, her skin wan in the half light, darkening the shadows under her eyes. Ziva hid her emotions better than any of them, but even she looked at the end of her tether. When she saw that she had his gaze, she lifted her chin slightly.
“The FBI believe they have found evidence revealing who hired Reams to break into the DOE. They got a hit on the names McGee supplied.” She frowned slightly. “They want to know how you want to proceed.”
Gibbs stared at her for a long moment, and then looked over at Fornell. His friend had walked over to the coroner’s van, watching as they loaded Tara Stokes into the back. He knew the tension in those shoulders, the anger still present in his friend’s attitude. Gibbs nodded.
“Tell Agent Fornell that NCIS is relinquishing the lead on this case. It’s his now, to go after those bastards as he pleases.”
Ziva’s brow furrowed. “But…”
“We got our man,” Gibbs said quietly, glancing briefly at Reams. “I’m willing to let Fornell go and get the rest of them on his own terms. FBI is better equipped anyway.”
Ziva assessed him for a moment, knowing he really didn’t mean that last statement, but she nodded. Fornell still had demons to slay. She turned and walked away, heading towards the FBI Agent.
Gibbs lowered his gaze to the gravel lot, and then towards the east, in the direction of the Shenandoah Valley. The sun had finally cleared the horizon, and the peach sky was darkening to a healthy, beautiful blue. It was going to be a gorgeous day.
It was at that moment that a familiar NCIS truck pulled into the lot, sliding in between the barn and the black moving truck. Ducky behind the wheel and Palmer by his side. Gibbs just smiled. About time they got here.
“Boss,” Tony called quietly.
Gibbs shifted to look down at his two agents again. His smile broadened. Tim’s eyes were finally closed; he had succumbed to sleep, looking almost like he’d melted against Tony’s chest. Even from here, Gibbs could tell Tony was awkwardly positioned, half crouched, with Tim leaning heavily against him. The older agent looked about to fall over, but was clearly afraid to move for fear of waking the kid. Tony’s eyebrow lifted in plea as he looked up at his Boss.
Fornell, Redford, McGee, Angela and Cheevers, accompanied by Ducky, rode in the helicopter to a large hospital located down in the valley, while Gibbs, Tony and Ziva and Fornell’s team followed by car. Not happily, Jimmy was forced to take the bodies of Reams, Matthews and the dead goon back to NCIS by himself. He’d been vying to meet Ducky at the hospital, but Ducky insisted the bodies needed to be transported back sooner rather than later.
The doctors took good care of the three computer experts and the FBI Agents, whisking them away with confident smiles and promises that everyone would be fine. Ducky went in with them—it turned out that Tim had designated Ducky as his PCP, giving him better access. That was the only thing that gave the team from NCIS comfort during the first few hours of the morning.
Zelnitz’s commanding officer and Cheevers’ manager showed up not long after they’d arrived at the hospital. No one else came for the two hurt agents—which sadly corroborated why those two had been chosen.
Ducky’s face was grim but not unhappy when he returned after about an hour. He helped translate as the doctors ran through the various ills and issues of the three white hats. Unsurprisingly, each was suffering from various degrees of hypothermia and exhaustion, complicated by the injuries they’d sustained. Cheevers suffered from a hairline fracture of his leg—with a cast it would heal fairly quickly. Angela suffered from bruised ribs and various other bruises, mostly superficial. McGee had two broken ribs, infected cuts on his arms, and a small amount of internal bleeding from being hit in the stomach, the last of which they felt would probably heal on its own without surgery. The biggest concern for both Angela and McGee was that both had contracted a nasty cold—which, in their weakened states, could easily develop into pneumonia if not carefully monitored. It meant they were both going to need to be hospitalized for a while, until the doctors were confident they could be released.
As for transferring them, it was tentatively decided that they could probably be transported by Wednesday. Earlier for Cheevers, if he wanted to leave before the others.
Fornell refused to stay longer than it took them to stitch and bandage him up and get him back on his feet. He, Redford and Royce left with Sacks a few hours after arriving at the hospital, Fornell promising Gibbs quietly that he would not “push it” when he got back to D.C.
Gibbs didn’t believe him. But he also knew how strong his old friend was. Fornell would be fine. Plus, he had Sacks to look after him.
When nine o’clock Monday morning came and went without hide or hair of a computer virus, Abby put in for two days leave and drove out to the hospital, getting there just before noon. She essentially traded places with Gibbs, Ziva and Ducky. Against their personal desires, the three had to return to NCIS to brief the Director and formally hand the case over to the FBI. Jenny was reluctant to do so, despite what Gibbs had already done, but, when she learned that Gibbs had left Tony at the hospital as well—she gave in.
Not that it really mattered that Tony had stayed. McGee didn’t wake up during that first day. He first cracked his eyelids at about mid-morning on Wednesday, but they didn’t stay open long. He woke up a few more times that day, when he was poked and prodded, but, generally, he stayed down.
The doctors assured that it was normal after the trauma he’d been subjected to.
Tony paced, wrote reports, and watched daytime TV in Tim’s room. Abby slept, oftentimes on the same bed with McGee. Neither left.
By Wednesday evening, the doctors agreed that McGee could be transported back to a D.C. hospital. He was bustled into an ambulance that night. Tim did wake when they were prepping him, but he wasn’t very coherent. If he heard Abby and Tony promising they’d be following in Abby’s car right behind him, he didn’t make it obvious. He just gave them a tiny, delirious smile and closed his eyes again—and slept for the whole drive.
And so it was that Tim finally made it home.
CHAPTER TWELVE: NO EASY FIX
He woke slowly, almost lethargically, feeling strangely warm and safe. Someone slept by his side, and he found himself smiling softly, because he recognized the smell of her shampoo.
His eyes opened to mere squints, not really recognizing his surroundings in the blue light of night, but recognizing the feel of her sleeping with her head on his shoulder and the sight of her face relaxed in sleep. She was holding on to him, one arm around his waist and one foot wedged between his, making it almost impossible for him to move.
Abby sighed and held on tighter to him, and he let her.
He didn’t really wake long enough to question why she was there, or even where he was, or why she was holding on to him so tightly. He just drifted back to sleep, content with her presence.
The sun woke him up this time, and a dull throb that emanated from a location behind his left eyebrow. Lesser pain, more an ache, radiated from his chest and abdomen, and the skin on his upper arms felt uncomfortably tight.
He released a huff, and frowned. He didn’t really want to wake up. But he knew he had to. Wasn’t there something…something he was supposed to be doing? Someplace he…
His eyes snapped open with realization, panic and fear filling him as he remembered the barn, the computers, the others….Tara!
“Hey,” a familiar voice called from his left. “It’s okay, McGee. You’re okay.”
Tim searched the room for something he knew, examining the white walls, the pale peach blanket, the metal bars and the IV in his arm. He tried to form a word, but his mouth felt like it was filled with chalk. Hospital. He was in a hospital.
“You want some water?”
He tilted his head to the left, to where Tony was sitting in a plastic chair by his bed, his friend’s eyes shadowed as if he hadn’t slept. Tony’s smile grew, lighting up his face. He stood up and grabbed a cup and a pitcher from a bedside table, pouring water into the cup.
“Tony?” he whispered.
The other agent smirked crookedly, handing McGee the cup. “Yup. That’s me.”
Tim tried to sit up to take the water, and gasped as his stomach protested. “Ow,” he croaked, hand resting against his ribs.
“Yeah.” Tony grimaced. “Got some broken ribs, Probie. Told you that before, but you keep forgetting.” Tony still held out the cup.
Tim breathed through the pain, and frowned in puzzlement; and then more fully in annoyance. Actually, now that he thought about it, he did recall being told about his ribs before…and about some other things, like stitches in his arms and being on antibiotics. There was more, but it was muddled. It didn’t seem that important right now.
“You found us,” he said, looking over at Tony again.
“We did. You don’t remember?”
He didn’t. Or maybe he did. He remembered gunfire. And firing a gun. Flashing lights. A rifle barrel aimed at Tony. The sun coming up.
He blinked slowly, then more quickly. Reams had tried to kill Tony.
“Is…are you okay?” He could see that Tony was, but you couldn’t trust him. Tony was an expert at hiding things.
He got a flash of a smile in response. “I’m fine. Thanks to you.”
Tim just gave a headshake at that. “The others? Are they okay? Nick and Angela? Gibbs? Ziva?”
“Everyone’s okay. Banged up a bit, but okay. Gibbs and Ziva are totally fine—not even a scratch.” Tony’s smile was honest, and Tim relaxed. Tony looked down at the cup he was still holding, which was now by his side, and held it out again. “You sound like a growling Muppet. Drink this.”
Tim reached for it and hissed in pain again, squishing his eyes shut.
“Yeah, ribs, remember? I feel like a broken record here, Probie. Look, the bed’s your standard hospital bed—make it do the work for you. Here.” Tony put the cup down on the bedside and grabbed a set of bed controls sitting by Tim’s hand. Tim made to take the remote once he saw it, but Tony was already making the bed tilt upwards.
“I’ve always wanted one of these beds,” Tony mused as he adjusted Tim to a sitting position. “Except when I’m in a hospital. Then I want my own bed.” He frowned. “But then I get home, forget about the hospital, and I want an adjustable bed again. It’s a conundrum.” He shrugged, finally putting the controls down. “Now, Probie,” Tony grabbed the cup again, but lifted it up out of Tim’s fingers when he reached for it, “try to remember the ribs, would you? I don’t want to have to tell you again.”
Okay. The teasing was beginning to grate.
Frowning, Tim took the cup of water when Tony finally gave it to him, but when he drew it to his lips, his gaze caught the scars on his wrists.
And suddenly he forgot where he was. Memories of being tied up, of being so cold his head spun, of concrete walls and wet and damp and blood and Tara’s eyes.…
His hand shook.
Tony reached for the cup—obviously afraid Tim would drop it. The movement was enough to break Tim out of it.
He gritted his teeth and forced his hand to still. When he glared at Tony, Tony dropped his hand, the other man’s expression uncertain.
“I’m fine,” Tim snarled, his voice still low and rough. “I don’t need help.” He wasn’t a child.
“Okay then,” Tony said airily. “Whatever you say.” He plunked back down in the chair, propping his feet up on the bed, and he smiled again. “So, you’re really awake this time, aren’t you? You’re usually already asleep again by now, or blinking like an owl.” He mimicked blinking really slowly, his eyes rolling like an idiot, and Tim gave him a dark look.
Tony’s smile broadened even further at Tim’s expression, and he laughed. “No, really! I have been so bored with all the sleeping. Do you know how dull it is to watch you sleep?”
Tim frowned again. “You’ve been watching me sleep?” His eyes widened slightly and he shrank back a little. “Why?” he asked nervously. “For how long?”
Tony shook his head. “Man, you really are odd about some things, aren’t you?”
Tim pursed his lips, frowning. “I’m not odd,” he said defensively.
Tony just shook his head slightly. “Look, I’m here because we didn’t want you to wake up without someone around, okay? Me, Ziva, Abby and Ducky have been trading off since Monday. Your sister came yesterday, though, and she’s been helping.”
Tim stiffened slightly. “My sister? She’s here? But she’s supposed to be in California. She’d been looking forward to going there all year! Why is she here?” He tried to sit up again, wincing again at the pain. He frowned and fell back against the bed again, breathing through the soreness.
“Shut up, Tony,” Tim hissed through gritted teeth. “I know.”
Tony huffed. “I was only—“
“Why did you call my sister back, Tony? You should have told her to stay in California.”
Tony’s eyes narrowed. “I didn’t call her back, Probie—she came on her own. She’s here because she’s worried about you. You’re in the hospital. Have been for over three days. You picked up a nasty cold, and they were worried about pneumonia.”
McGee shook his head angrily. “I’m fine.” He looked at Tony again. “Tell her she can go.”