So here it is, the third and final installment in my Plague Trilogy. Let's just say that Standard Excuses Apply. But I really did start this story something like six months ago and finally decided just to crack down and write it. It's the longest and I think my favorite of the three - I really, really like writing McGee. And anything involving SWAK makes me happy.
Also, credit for the Muppet analogy at the end must go to NotARedhead, who is way more in touch with her inner Kermit than I could ever hope to be - many thanks for letting me steal your insight.
By Wednesday, people begin stopping me in the hall to ask about him. "How's Agent DiNozzo?" the secretaries would ask me, or other agents, even the guys who refill the vending machines. I'm sure it's partly due to morbid curiosity - news of the plague spread like wildfire - but honestly, a lot of them seem genuinely concerned. "He's doing better," I tell them, repeating the party line over and over and over. "His doctor says he can go home next week."
"That's great," they say, the women in the evidence garage, the guys who are always welding. "When you go see him, tell him I said hi, okay?"
Always 'when.' They never say 'if you go see him,' only 'when.'
On Friday, Gibbs storms into the bullpen and tosses me the keys. "Gas the sedan, we're going to Bethesda." I raise a quizzical eyebrow. "Interviewing Hanna Lowell. And her daughter."
Kate half rises. "What about me?"
Gibbs sinks her back in her seat with a glare. "Have you finished typing the transcripts from the biochemists' interviews? No? Then sit, Agent Todd." Gibbs has been keeping Kate on desk duty - secretarial duty, practically - ever since she came back on Wednesday morning. It's weird; I'm not used to being the one who's on his good side. She purses her lips a little but turns back to the stack of folders on her desk, and I watch her for a second before scurrying to catch up with Gibbs.
We've gone eleven miles before Gibbs breaks the silence. "You got something you want to say, McGee?"
I am, as usual, totally unnerved. "It's just that - I thought - well, she already confessed, didn't she? What do we still need to find out?"
"You're going to get Sarah Lowell to sign a statement saying she was never raped." Gibbs jerks the wheel to make a hard left and I hang on to the door, discreetly. "It always bothered Pacci that he couldn't close that case."
I hang back a little as we approach the psych ward. I'm sure Kate would have been a better choice to accompany Gibbs. But I want to see the monster for myself. And when I do, I almost feel sorry for her. No makeup, handcuffed to the bed and obviously confused. It's really hard to believe that this sad, fading woman single-handedly carried out a biological attack on a Federal agency. But she did, and Tony almost died, and I can't find any more pity.
"Sarah?" The daughter rises, walks towards me. She's dressed in a conservative navy pantsuit. Very Young Republican. I guess when your mom is an radical hippie, that's your method of rebellion. "I'm Special Agent McGee. Will you come with me, please?"
"I don't like to leave her," Sarah says with a regretful glance towards her mother. "How long will this take?"
"Special Agent Gibbs has some questions; I'm sure it will only take a few minutes." I'm totally lying. I have no idea what Gibbs is planning to do to her.
"Are the handcuffs really necessary?" Sarah asks me as she settles in the waiting room chair.. "My mother is dying, Agent McGee."
"Tim." I sit down, opposite her. "I'll see what I can do." I pull out the form the legal department has given me, smoothing out the creases. "I need you to sign this."
"What is it?" Sarah accepts the two-page document, but doesn't accept my offered pen. "My mother taught me never to sign anything without reading it first," she adds, almost apologetically.
"It's a retraction of your statement from the original case file." I look at the floor, uncomfortable with the part that comes next. "It says that you were never raped."
"What happens if I don't sign it?" Sarah asks me.
"You could be charged with making a false police report," I inform her. But her question seems more like curiosity than a threat. "You're not in any trouble so I don't think that will happen."
"I'd really like to put this behind me," Sarah says, taking the pen from between my fingers. "I thought I already had."
True to her word, Sarah is apparently planning to read the whole thing before signing. Her mother must have bred a healthy distrust for the man at a young age. As she scans the paragraphs, Sarah pushes a strand of brown hair behind her ear and suddenly she reminds me of my sister. The same name, even. And then I wonder what I would do if I thought someone had raped my little sister. It's not a tough question to answer - I do carry a gun.
Sarah Lowell signs her name at the bottom of the second page and returns the form to me. "Is there anything else you need, Tim?"
"I don't think so," I tell her, "but we'll be in touch. Thanks for your cooperation, Miss Lowell."
She rises to leave, but turns back to me. "Is your agent okay?"
I could correct her and say, My friend, but Tony didn't die so it seems unnecessary. "He will be."
I'm a little apprehensive to open the door to Hanna Lowell's room - never, ever interrupt an interrogation - but Gibbs is perfectly relaxed, leaning back in the chair like he should be reading a newspaper. "Did she sign it?"
"She did." I hand over the paper. I glance at Sarah's mother in the bed, staring into space and obviously very drugged. "She wants you to take the cuffs off."
Gibbs doesn't look at me, inspecting Sarah's signature at the bottom of the page just in case I've forged it or something. His mouth is a line. "Maybe."
"Is there anything else you need me to do, or…?"
"Isolation's in the basement," Gibbs informs me, still not looking up. "Tell Tony I said hi."
I turn back at the door. "Aren't you going to see him?"
Gibbs smiles enigmatically. "I don't need to."
I manage to get lost three times on the way to the isolation unit. It's at the end of a hall, next to the pathology lab and probably the morgue. There are big signs everywhere pronouncing "Restricted Access! Authorized Personnel Only!" but my NCIS badge gets me inside. The isolation thing looks like a greenhouse with grocery store sliding doors - but I stop just short of entering. Instead, I make my way to the nurse's station outside. "You must be McGee," the dark-haired nurse says before I can introduce myself.
I was preparing to flip my badge open again but I stop, surprised. "Um, uh - Special Agent Tim McGee?"
The nurse smiles and I wonder if Tony has flirted with her yet. "Lieutenant Emma Ingham," she says. "Tony was wondering when you'd come."
I've been subtly chastised. "The case, it - it kept us really busy. I brought him some movies."
Emma laughs. "Oh, he'll like that."
"How's Tony doing?"
"A little better every day." Her dark eyes grow serious. "He's not eating, though. I was hoping your visit would help."
"Can I see him?"
"He's asleep right now," she says, glancing at her monitors, "but you can go in and leave the movies. Please do, in fact - he's been driving us all crazy."
The doors swoosh open as I step into the space: four beds, and only one of them is occupied. I wonder what they would have done if there had been in actual outbreak. Tony is asleep in the bed nearest the door, open-mouthed and slightly glossed with sweat. I start digging through my backpack on the next bed over when his voice makes me nearly jump out of my skin. "What'd you bring me, Probie?"
I whirl around but Tony hasn't moved, hasn't even opened his eyes. That is just so creepy. "I - I'm sorry, I didn't mean to -"
Tony cracks one eye open, then the other. "Relax, McGeek, you didn't wake me up. I'm not going to tell Gibbs on you." He turns on his side more to face me, groaning a little as he does. "What did Nurse Emma say?"
"She wants you to eat your lunch."
Tony jerks his head towards the tray. "That's not lunch, that's torture by Jell-O. Bring me a pizza and we'll talk." He tries to push himself into a sitting position but falls back against the pillows. Tony's face is red and I turn away as he stabs at the button to raise the head of the bed. "Should I ask what you're doing here? I understand if you missed me, Probie."
"We had some follow up interviews," I inform him, sitting on the edge of the nearest bed. "Kate's back at NCIS doing interview transcripts. Gibbs' driving was even worse than usual today so I think actually she got off easy."
Tony smiles, but only a little. "Yeah, Kate's the lucky one."
He scratches at the crook of his right elbow. The tape securing his IV is black and fuzzy around the edges. "What was it like?" I suddenly blurt.
"What was what like?"
"Having the plague." Lots if fiction potential there, I suddenly realize. Maybe Special Agent Tommy could be stricken with a medieval disease… though to play it safe, it would have to be bubonic.
"It's just a lot of coughing, mostly." As punctuation, Tony starts hacking and spits something into a Kleenex from the bedside table. He balls up the tissue and tosses it at the garbage can - missing wildly. There are already six or seven similarly disgusting wads littering the floor. His aim could use a little work. "If you really want to know, I'm sure Abby still has some of the powder left."
"That's all right," I mumble. "Hey, I brought you stuff."
"Yeah?" He watches me eagerly as I unzip my backpack, like a kid on Christmas. I take it he's been bored.
"Here," I say, tugging out one of my spare laptops. "It needs a new processor but it works okay for watching DVDs. And Abby sent you these." Six or seven movies from her collection, each affixed with the bookplates I gave her for Christmas. 'Property of Abigail Sciuto' engraved in Gothic script, with a skull and crossbones. Underneath that she's written, 'That means you have to give them back, Tony! XOXO' in red Sharpie.
This time, the smile lights all the tired corners of his face. "That's really great. Thanks." Tony fans out the collection on the mattress in front of him. It's a typically eclectic collection - North by Northwest, Oklahoma!, Sleepless in Seattle - but Tony picks one right away. "The Muppet Movie," he says, cracking open the case. "Nineteen seventy-nine. Great movie. Did you know this was the last movie Edgar Bergen was in before he died?"
"Never mind." Tony slides the disk in and expertly navigates past the previews to the main menu. "I think I lost count of how many times I watched this when I was a kid."
"Me too." Sarah actually used to pretend she was Miss Piggy and make me be Kermit - the beauty pageant scene was her favorite, she'd wear her swimsuit right over her clothes - but I'm not telling Tony that. "I think everyone did, actually."
Tony angles the laptop so that we both can see the screen. It's a tacit invitation to stay and watch it, although I doubt Gibbs' goodwill extends to an entire afternoon off. "The thing about Kermit is" - he coughs four times, tightly - "he was on Sesame Street too, right?"
"What?" But he's right, and as soon as he says it my mind calls up the image of Kermit doing 'Muppet News Flash' on Sesame Street, with the trench coat and extra-long microphone. It's amazing how you remember things like that.
"But he was the only one who crossed over." Tony stops for breath, and continues what surely must be the most bizarre conversation I've ever had. "I mean, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Grover, Bert and Ernie… they were all pretty much limited to one or the other." Tony's eyes are bright now and he looks a little less dead. "Except for the episode of The Muppet Show when Bert sang 'Some Enchanted Evening' to Connie Stevens but he was wearing a tuxedo so I don't think that really counts, do you?"
"How on earth do you know that?"
Tony waves a hand, dismissively. "I've got the box set. See, it's like he runs Sesame Street for the kids and The Muppet Show for the grown-ups, but he's the only one who really understands them both."
"Those are some pretty good drugs, huh," I remark.
"Ha ha. Shut up and watch the movie, Probie."
And that's what I do. We settle into a comfortable silence, punctuated only by the occasional cough. I'm getting into the movie more than I thought I would, and when Kermit and Fozzie hit the road in his uncle's Studebaker, I glance at Tony and he's asleep again. It's actually tempting to sit here for an hour and a half, and not think about lead lipstick and decontamination showers. About Sarah Lowell and her dead boyfriend and her dying mother. About the fact that Tony almost died and I was the one who handed him the envelope. However, I like having a job and living in D.C. is expensive, so I have to leave.
Tony flops towards me as the glass doors are sliding open. "It's not easy being green, Probie," he says with a blurry smile, and promptly falls asleep again.But as I'm waiting for the elevator I realize his drug-fueled ramblings are actually surprisingly insightful. If anyone on our team is like a frog puppet, it's Tony. Gibbs needs him: Tony's the only one he really trusts to have his back. And Kate and I need him, too, mainly to keep Gibbs from killing us. Tony is the only one who seems to exist comfortably in both worlds: he's the competent screw-up, he's the senior field agent who can't stop flirting with female suspects. And everyone seems to like Tony, from the Director to the woman who empties our trash cans at night. I've never realized it before, but that must be why he's good at what he does.
It's getting a little weird, trying to run the show without Kermit. I hope he comes back soon.