A/N: Hey folks. First I want to say SORRY for not updating sooner. I know it's not an excuse, but I've got a new job and it kinda took most of my time or energy with it. Thanks to all of you who are still reading and especially to those who kept sending reviews and asking about the next update, lol. I know this chapter isn't long, hopefully it will get the story back on track. I can't promise anything, but I will try and update at the start of the next week. This chapter was betaed by everybetty, so big thanks to her too BG.
Tony let out a sigh when the elevator door closed and the car started moving. He'd spent the last half hour in Autopsy, alternately listening to Ducky's muttering about Ziva's driving talents and Gibbs' stubbornness, while being on the unfortunate end of the M.E.'s focus.
Still trying to blink away the spots in his vision he'd gotten from the penlight that'd been shone at his eyes, Tony made a hasty retreat as soon as Ducky gave him a chance. His first stop was at the head, to splash some water on his face and drive away the dizziness that was still lingering from the drive. Catching his image in the mirror, he cringed and gently reached up to touch the already livid bruise that was his left cheek. Luckily, it wasn't broken but he doubted it could've hurt more even if it was. Wincing at the pain, he let his hand fall back and let out a weary sigh. He was really becoming tired of being the punching bag of the week. He could really used a break... either in the case or real life. Maybe he could take a vacation once both cases they were working on were closed.
He was still leaning against the sink when someone else entered the room. Casting a quick glance at the arrival, Tony pulled himself together and left, heading for Abby's lab.
Surprisingly, the music was down to a bearable level; that or he'd already suffered some hearing loss. He looked through the lab, using the fact that Abby didn't see him. She was turned with her back to him, studying something in her microscope. McGee was behind the glass wall, typing on the computer and looking totally immersed in his job. There was no sign of Gibbs.
Deciding it was time to face the music, Tony cleared his throat. Abby spun around with a smile that changed into a frown the moment she saw the new bruise, but she still encircled him in a bear hug that made him gasp for air. Once satisfied that he was truly alive and well, she pulled away and hit him in the arm.
"Ouch!" Tony protested, rubbing at the sore limb. "What was that for?" he frowned and got another one just for good measure. "Abs!" he protested and she settled for a scowl.
"That's for getting yourself hurt, Mister! And I'm really considering spilling all your secrets to Ziva and McGee."
"What?" Tony yelped, horrified at the prospect. "It wasn't my fault, Abs! And it isn't like I asked for Strate to meet me at my apartment, either. Just for the record, I didn't even take a look at those files you gave me, I swear," he said with his best hurt puppy look, which he had specially practiced for Abby's benefit.
The stern scowl on her face remained two more seconds, then she broke into a grin and hugged him once more.
Tony let out a relieved sigh that turned into a cough. That wasn't intentional, but seeing as it drew more sympathy points from Abby, he didn't mind too much. But he drew the line when Abby tried to push some CaffPow into his hand. It wasn't that he couldn't stand the stuff, quite the opposite, he'd kinda gotten used to the taste, but the last thing he wanted was another addict on the team. Abby and Gibbs with his coffee were quite enough. Now that he thought of it...
"Where's Gibbs?" he said once he managed to clear his throat.
"MTAC," Abby said before taking a big gulp of the CaffPow.
"Oh," Tony nodded. "And what's McGeek doing in there?" He pointed at the agent that was still working behind the glass door, seemingly unaware of Tony's presence.
"Trying to find the whereabouts of our suspect," Abby supplied with a light grin and turned back to her own work, only to look up again.
"What suspect?" Tony frowned, trying to think about both cases at the same time and getting only a mixed jumble. Pinching the bridge of his nose, he looked at Abby. "Has surveillance lost Elyse Clayton?"
Abby rolled her eyes.
"Nope, as far as I know the other team is keeping tabs on her. I'm talking about Casper's case."
"Oh," Tony mumbled. "Oh!" he added with a little more energy as he realized the implications. "You already checked the gun for fingerprints and DNA, right? You've got a match?"
"Yep!" Abby jumped and turned to the keyboard, pulling up a file on the monitor.
"Tony, meet Archibald Franklin Heaver – otherwise also known as Crispy Archie."
"Huh?" Tony stared at the photo of a rather well built white man with a shaven head and tons of tattoos on the chest and arms. "Crispy?" He repeated the nickname and looked at Abby for explanation.
"He was previously convicted in several cases of arson, the first one while he was still just a kid."
"He likes fire," Tony muttered under his breath but Abby seemed to catch it anyway.
"Yeah, but he's not your usual pyromaniac. I mean, he likes to set things on fire, but just as a means to get rid of evidence. He's a thief. His charges range from breaking and entering to robbery. The last time, he was charged with attempted murder when the owner of the house returned home early and surprised him. Unfortunately, Archie cracked his skull with a statue, then set the house on fire. Luckily the neighbors heard some commotion and called the cops, so the owner survived, and Archie was caught."
"Then why isn't he sitting behind the bars?" Tony asked, then shook his head, wincing.
"Because some hotshot cop that was at the arrest messed it up. The judge called it a 'procedural mistake', so Archie was set free. That was six years ago. But guess who the judge was at that time?"
"That would be the future Senator Leyland," Tony guessed and got a grin in reply. "So all we need is to get Archie and make him talk. Good job, Abby," he said and turned to leave, when he stopped.
"Could you print out that photo?"
"You want to show it to Strate?" Abby asked while the printer was already working and Tony nodded.
"You're a star, Abs, thanks," he said when she handed him the photo.
"Just don't forget it, Tony," she replied with a grin as he left the lab, then turned back to her own work.
When Tony entered the interrogation cell he found it empty. Blinking in surprise, Tony backpedaled and was already pulling out his cell to call Gibbs and tell him that their prisoner had escaped, when something occurred to him and he changed direction, walking to the holding cells that were one floor down. Sure enough, Strate was laid down on the cot in one of the cells; he appeared to be sleeping.
Tony entered the cell, clearing his throat.
The PI languidly opened his eyes and turned his head to look at him. Seeing who it was, he closed them again.
"I see you have all the comfort you need," Tony started, his voice dripping with sarcasm. In truth, however uncomfortable the cot might've looked, Tony envied the man the chance to lay down, knowing that it wouldn't be sooner than several long hours before Tony himself would see a bed, and only if he was lucky enough that Gibbs didn't decide that the safest place for him would be the office.
Strate let out a sigh and tried to ignore the NCIS agent. He was partly successful for the first two minutes that Tony stood silently in the corner, waiting for him to acknowledge his presence, but he quickly lost his patience after Tony started humming some stupid commercial jingle, and quite out of tune, too.
"Oh for god's sake, shut up!" he shouted after five minutes of continuing torture.
Tony came to a stuttering stop. "Ready to talk to me now?" he asked, voice raspy from all the humming.
Strate shot him a murderous look and shook his head.
"I don't have anything to talk about, and definitely not with you!" he spat out and Tony shrugged, making himself comfortable in a chair, the only other furniture in the room.
"Don't get all pissed with me just because we busted you, Strate," Tony growled, getting impatient. "I didn't ask for you to barge into Gibbs' house and hold me at gunpoint."
"I thought I could trust you," Strate replied with a frustrated sigh .
Tony tilted his head, fingers brushing against his tender cheek and Strate grimaced, giving him a half shrug in reply.
"Not like you didn't deserve it," he muttered.
Tony snorted. "You're one to talk. Anyway, I didn't come just to chat. Do you recognize this man?" he asked, showing Strate the photo. He didn't even need to hear the rasped reply; the red flush on the pale cheeks and the gritted teeth were a good enough reply.
"That's the bastard that killed Nate. Did you get him?"
"We're working on it," Tony assured him and stood up to leave, then stopped. "You know, it would really help us to know what happened to the CD. Is it safe?"
"Safer than you or me, Agent DiNozzo," Strate replied with a grin that sent chills down Tony's spine. "Trust me on that. There's no way Leyland will get to it before it's too late."
Tony wanted to ask what he meant by that, he wanted to stay there until Strate told him the truth, but he knew that it would be useless. The man had the same glint in his eyes that Tony often saw in Gibbs' eyes when he set his mind on something.
By the time Tony walked into the bullpen, McGee was already there, along with Ziva. They were both engrossed in the research so Tony sat down, rubbing the back of his neck as he started idly dabbing at the keyboard, only half listening to Ziva's voice speaking with someone on the phone. He was almost dozing off when a sudden noise broke through the background.
"Shit!" McGee cursed and kicked into the table, then instantly looked up into two surprised faces. Tony's mouth was half open and Ziva's hand was clutching the phone cradle in the air, having stopped in mid-motion.
"What the hell, probie?" Tony asked, blinking as the sleepiness left him as suddenly as it came.
"Sorry," McGee offered sheepishly. "I was just..." He shrugged and sighed.
"What's the problem, McGee?" Ziva asked, putting the phone back in its cradle and walking over to McGee's desk. In all the time she'd known him, he wasn't the one to get angry with a computer.
McGee took another calming sigh and with a typical grimace pointed at the monitor.
"Someone's deleting all the files concerning Archibald Heaver!"
"Can you stop them?" Ziva asked and McGee shook his head, his fingers flying over the keyboard frantically.
"Or better, can you trace them?" asked Gibbs from behind them and both Tony and Ziva looked at him, startled.
Only McGee's eyes stayed on the monitor, his face pulled in a scowl. "I'll need to get to Abby's lab for that," he said and, barely waiting for the nod from Gibbs, he ran away.
"Why the hell would someone try to delete Heaver's records now?" Tony asked, puzzled.
"Maybe they'd just realized that Heaver didn't succeed and that he was expose," Ziva replied, thinking.
"But that means that Leyland knows someone's after him and that someone probably knows about his little assassin," Tony mused. "Wouldn't that make Heaver a highly uncomfortable person to Leyland?" He turned to Gibbs and the Marine nodded, taking a sip from his coffee then throwing the empty cup into the bin.
"Which means that we should find Heaver before Leyland does, if he hasn't already. So, any traces?"
"Well, I've printed out Heaver's file from six years ago. There are some names we could check out. There were two men he used to partner up with. I've also got his last address and his car's plate number. The car was sold three years ago, but that's three years after the last address we have, so we could still get some info out of the buyer," Ziva reported and Gibbs gave her a nod while looking at DiNozzo.
"Uhm, I was a little sidetracked, boss, sorry. But on the plus side, Strate gave a positive ID on the Heaver guy. And I was just about to check the hospitals, see if there wasn't any sign of Heaver now that we know who we're looking for.
"Work on it. I'll be at the lab. Hopefully McGee will have more luck."
Gibbs left and Tony sagged back in the chair, exchanging a rueful look with Ziva. As one, they reached for the phones and got back to work. It was only few minutes later as Tony was just trying to ply some information out of a busy receptionist that he heard a familiar voice.
Frowning, he looked up just in time to see the doors to MTAC close and FBI Agent Fornell walk out in a heated debate with Director Sheppard.
Tony blinked, not sure he could trust his eyes. It looked like Strate was right after all.
The Feds had arrived.