Message In A Bottle
The woman in the cantina noticed the tall, brown-haired man the second he came into view. He walked along the beach with a comfortable ease – the walk of someone who was relaxed and content and was there because he wanted to be, not because he needed to be.
He was much better-looking than he was in the pictures she'd seen the day that Mike had talked Jethro into dumping out his duffel to use as a grocery bag. That afternoon, she'd seen a dozen photographs – pictures of a boat out on the open water, pictures of Jethro's family, a picture of Jethro's unit in the Marines, and two or three pictures of the team Jethro had just left behind. There was a lovely dark-complexioned woman with thick, curly hair; another paler woman with jet-black pigtails and tattoos; there was a thin young man with a shy smile and a studious face; and there was this man – tall, lean, and impeccably dressed, with a high-wattage grin that seemed to indicate a gleeful, playful nature. She looked at the man now, still approaching, and thought again that he was more handsome in person than he was in the photo. And better looking in shorts and a t-shirt than he was in the expensive suit he wore in the official team portrait.
The tall, tanned man smiled at her as he walked by, his sunglasses hiding what she knew were beautiful eyes, and his hand holding a small bag of what she assumed were beach essentials – sun block, an iPod, maybe some 'supplies' for later, should he meet a senorita of his own on the beach. She sighed as he walked by, just a little bit annoyed with herself for not calling out his name … for not offering him a drink … for not flirting at least a little bit. But then she went back to dropping bottles of beer into the ice, hoping he might stop by on his way back.
As he continued past the cantina, the man looked out at the beach and the ocean. It was better than the overused beaches at Miami or on Jamaica, not quite as nice as his favorite spots on Puerto Rico. But he could understand how it could be an attractive place to spend a few months. Or the rest of his life. He could see the appeal. The heat of the sun and the feel of the sand beneath his bare feet relaxed him in a way that he couldn't put into words. He was glad he'd made the trip.
As he rounded the corner of the street that passed for the town's main thoroughfare, he saw, a bit farther in the distance, what had to be the shack. Mike's shack. There was a wooden boat in disrepair up on some hand-made sawhorses set in the sand in front of the house, and there were new boards tacked onto the roof, obviously put there by the last guest to visit. He smiled, then slowed his pace, carefully watching for the place's owner. There, sitting on a faded beach chair on the ramshackle porch, was Mike Franks, finishing what looked to be the fifth beer of the sixpack – not bad for 11 a.m.
Mike sat forward on the chair to plant the empty bottle in the sand among the others, and the taller, younger man sneaking up from behind knew that this was his time to strike. He reached into his bag, pulled out a gun – having a badge had its perks when you were trying to get through airport security – and quickly whipped it against the back of Franks' head, causing the older man to tumble forward unconscious into the sand, lying haphazardly among his Corona bottle castle.
When Mike Franks woke up twenty minutes later, he was dizzy and disoriented. He had a headache, a mouth full of sand, and a knot at the base of his skull that was growing into a pretty decent bruise. He stood up as quickly as his senses would allow, and swiftly searched the entire perimeter of his world. All he saw were two sets of footprints – one coming, and one going. Whoever had hit him was long gone.
Franks sat back down on his beach chair, rubbing the back of his head and trying to piece together what had happened. Then he saw the bottle.
It was an empty Corona bottle … the last of the six that he'd had. Rolled up in the neck of the bottle was a piece of paper. Franks reached over and fished the paper out of the bottle and flattened it out. And then he chuckled. And the chuckle turned into a laugh. It was a laugh that held within it a hint of respect and more than a bit of admiration. He had to give the kid credit – Franks wasn't sure that he'd have gone this far to settle such a minor score. But Mike also knew, at that moment, that his Probie was in good hands – that Gibbs had nothing to worry about.
As Franks walked back into the shack to grab a cold beer and some ice for his neck, he dropped the piece of paper on the table full of shells and beach glass that was sitting by the door. He was going to hang onto this. The business card of Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo might look out of place against the sand dollars and driftwood piled there, but Franks couldn't help but think that the small piece of paper was its very own bit of treasure.