Palmer swallowed hard and straightened his checkered tie, staring at his reflection in the men's room mirror as though it might tell him something deep and profound about himself, perhaps that he was capable of handling this career change—and all that came with it. He remembered Dr. Mallard's words: "You are capable of anything you wish, young man. Never be afraid to change your mind." Well, he sure felt like he should change his mind right now. Before he went into that bullpen and made a fool of himself. What had he been thinking?

This morning, his first morning as an NCIS probational agent, Director Vance had told him he'd been assigned to Agent Gibbs. At that moment, his throat had constricted and his knees had locked, and he'd had to focus on not keeling over until after he'd exited the director's office.

Gibbs was going to eat him alive.

Director Sheppard had just died. Dinozzo, McGee and David had all just been shipped off to various places around the world. Gibbs was not a happy man, and Palmer was fresh meat for the slaughter.

He'd put in a request for this transfer months ago. Hadn't told anyone but Dr. Mallard about it. He'd always held a secret wish to be out there, at the forefront of the investigations, solving crimes with everything he'd learned as an M.E. and everything he was going to learn on the job. And he knew he could do it. He'd scored high on all the aptitude tests, made it through the required firearms and handbook training, all while continuing on as Dr. Mallard's assistant with no one the wiser.

And he'd been thrown to the wolves. Or the wolf. The big, scary Gibbs with teeth as long as Abby's shoe size and mental claws that were sure to catch him in a trap. Oh, how he wished he'd never even thought of this idea.

The bullpen was silent. The events of the past week had cast an anxious, grieving fog over the entire building. It was early, but agents were there, the constant clicking of keyboard keys underscoring a weighty sadness. No one talked, they all whispered. No one passed through the area of the room where the three reassigned agents had once sat.

Gibbs was there, however, sipping some coffee—black, Palmer remembered—and reading through a file at his desk. His file, most likely. He wondered who else would be assigned as part of the new team. Who would share his misery?

When Gibbs saw him, he stood and crooked a finger over his shoulder as he walked over to the elevator. "My office," he grunted.

Palmer gulped audibly, physically rooted to the carpet for a moment. He really didn't want to go in there.

Later in the day, as he sat at Dinozzo's old desk browsing over old reports and open cases, he sighed. Gibbs was right. He could do this, one day at a time.

Hour Nineteen.

Abby watched McGee through tear-swollen eyelids, doing her best not to sob every time he shifted in his chair and let loose a strained breath. It was her fault he was hurting, her fault that Jones had used him to make a point. She understood now why McGee was going along with this. Poor McGee. Poor, poor Timmy. She couldn't do anything else that would put him under Newman's brutal hands. She was going to have to trust him.

She hoped beyond anything she'd ever hoped for that he had a plan. Or she had no doubt that London was...was going to be extinct within the next thirty hours. Those people deserved more than that. They all deserved to live and do wonderful things with their lives, not to be wiped out with only seconds' tragic warning.

Newman had used a baseball bat on Tim's knees, both of them. He'd swung that bat and showed his yellowed teeth in a feral, ecstatic grin, laughing louder as Timmy had cried out and she had screamed. Jones had allowed her to be there, and she found small comfort in the fact that he hadn't grinned, had cursed as he held her back, tried to keep her from breaking his shin in her panic to get to McGee, to help him. As soon as Tim figured out a way to trick these hell-spawned cockroaches, she was going to make sure that everything they'd dished out was returned to them tenfold, threats, baseball bats and all.

Tim saw the tears that threatened to spill down her face, the way she was breathing hard to prevent a telltale attack of weaping, and reached under the table with his good arm. He took her hand in his and rubbed his thumb across its back, never letting his eyes leave his terminal, but not really looking at it either.

She swallowed hard. Didn't he know that was only going to make her cry harder? Still, she squeezed his hand and allowed herself a small smile, for his sake. She was going to buy him one heck of a large teddy hog when they got out of this.

"Damn it! I can't find anything!" Gretry groused, causing Keith to jump. The room had been utterly silent for the past two hours. "Nothing. I'm beginning to think we've got it wrong. McGee's not messing with anything."

Murdock looked up from her work and frowned. "He's good, Di. Real good. He could rewrite CNN's codes so that they were playing South Park during the news, and no one would know he'd done it until Kenny died. So we keep on with this. We need to know if he's hacking."

"The good news is that he probably wants us to know he's hacking," Aeckers interjected.

"Which is why I think we're barking up the wrong damn tree," Gretry hit back.

"Well," Murdock said, "It's the only tree we've got in this room, so keep trying to catch the cat."

"Even if it's not there?"

"Even if it's not there."

"Right. Nab the non-existent kitty."

Keith's computer screen continued flashing through the coding that controlled the NCIS file server as they argued. After a moment, Richards noticed, through the large window in front of him, that the bullpen fell almost completely silent. Everyone stopped bustling in their tracks. It took a moment for the CCU team to notice the change.

"My Lord, that's Ziva David!" Murdock exclamed under her breath, raising herself slightly from her seat in alarm.

Keith's eyes widened, and he looked back out the window. So this was Ziva David. The woman who, through the stories of so many agents, had risen to almost the status of legend over the past year...and whom his boss never, ever mentioned.

She wasn't tall, but she held herself with the kind of confidence that Anaar possessed, sure that she could handle any situation that was thrown at her. Long, dark hair and a lithe frame—with a set of sunglasses and an ear wig, she'd look exactly like the assassin they'd described to him. And sexy as hell.

He'd also been told she was a little obsessive. Which nixed any errant thoughts he might have had. Obsession and the knowledge of forty-two different ways to kill a person with a turnip weren't really on his "She's definitely hot" list. They were right up there with "Her canines are strong enough to rip the rubber off my tires."

He watched as David crossed the room, walking a little too properly, evidently aware of the change in atmosphere. Dinozzo followed behind her, just as stiff if not more bothered. Keith stood and gathered the files he'd been given. His boss didn't look like he was in the mood to wait for any news on the McGee/Sciuto case.

Ziva didn't have to wait to enter Vance's office; she was ushered in without preamble, and Tony followed close. He noticed Richards running after him, but didn't say anything when Cynthia barred his entry.

Palmer let loose a gut-weary sigh, careful not to let Gibbs see him. The Old Man, as Palmer, Linderman and Tyler called him in private, was thrusting his badge and gun back in his desk on his way down to badger the tech guy from the CIA. What was his name? Grodin. Right. Poor guy. Gibbs was intimidating on good days.

And today was not a good day.

They'd found nothing in their midnight search of the downtown Baltimore area. Palmer's team, plus a contingent of the local BPD, equaled absolutely no luck. Nothing was suspicious, nothing was out of place. That in itself was odd for a busy, overcrowded downtown area, but it was unfortunately true. They found no evidence that could help them track down Tim and Abby.

They were grumpy.

As Linderman pulled out a list of phone numbers, rubbing his neck fitfully, and as Tyler sat down to type up her report on their most recent non-findings, Palmer pulled the cap off his head and plopped into his deskchair. He was tired, he was dirty, and he was worried. Abby was more than a beautiful foot, after all. She was his friend. And he really didn't want to have to help Dr. Mallard place her in her final coffin.

With morbid, unsettlingly humorous thoughts ambling between his ears, he pushed the little blue button that whirred his computer to life.

In their frustration and need of some legal form of caffeine, neither Gibbs, Palmer, Tyler nor Linderman noticed the abnormal quiet in the bullpen as anything out of the ordinary, given the tragic situation, nor the undercurrent of shocked whispers that laced through the floor.

"Ziva David," Vance greeted her with a small tooth-pick-studded grin, standing from his desk and offering his hand to shake. "It's good to see you back on this side of the Atlantic. I suppose you're..." He faded away mid-sentence with an odd look in his eye. "Pleasantries will wait. To what do we owe the pleasure?"

"I have information regarding the disappearance of Abby and McGee."

Her words were as clipped as her handshake, as burden-weary as Tony felt. He tapped his pantleg with his fingers in impatience. Couldn't she just get down to it? They had little over a day before the ransom pickup at the Inner Harbor, and Tony wanted to get to them before that little transaction went down.

"While I'm glad you're here to share it," Vance answered, "why couldn't you simply call us with this information?"

"I didn't receive permission to brief you on the file until fifteen minutes ago."

Vance regarded her frankly for a minute, then took out his toothpick and sat down. "I assume you mean a Mossad file. What do you know?"

"They were abducted by an anarchic group we call Situation 35347." At Vance's questioning look she added, "As far as we know, they don't have a name for themselves. That is their Mossad designation."

"And how does the Mossad have knowledge of working in America?" Tony asked, suddenly suspicious.

Ziva threw him an irritated glance and answered shortly, "The same reason we knew about McGee and Abby. The CIA spies on happenings in other countries. So does Mossad."

"While that doesn't make me entirely happy, Ziva," Vance cut in, frowning, "we're very interested to know everything you can tell us about this group."

"They are based in the Mojave Desert, at the edge of Arizona and California, and are not large. Their leader is a man who goes by the name of Herbert Jones, a fairly intelligent and dangerous anti-government personality. He has large dreams and the ability to carry them out. "

Ziva went on to tell them about the various small and not-so-small operations this group had run under the oblivious noses of the FBI, the CIA, and any other law enforcement agency that ignorantly ambled across their paths. It was beginning to look like Roscoe Fredericks was justified in his relentless paranoia—this was unfortunately much more serious than a simple ransom.

"The ultimate goal of Situation 35347 is to discredit the United States government and throw America into a forced anarchy. They wish to flush out what they believe is a system broken beyond repair."

Tony swallowed, feeling a bit woozy. Sure, the government had problems, but he had a feeling that Herbert Jones's solution was going to be a bit more dramatic than necessary. There was an uneasy silence when Ziva finished.

"So the ransom is a ploy," Vance finally stated. "A play for money, a play for time. Probably a play to keep us off the real trail. Damn it."

Tony and Vance shared a significant glance, and Tony sat down with a loud and troubled sigh. "Richards is waiting outside with that list. I guess we'll probably want to look at it now."

Hour twenty-three.

McGee was trying desperately not to sweat. One small change in one line, some extra letters sprinkled in odd places in the command code...nothing to change the actual commands, but enough to convince Jones that his quick and effective programming method was somewhat hinky.

Tim was fine with hinky. As long as Jones just thought he had an irritating personal coding style. Abby was certainly starting to twitch—with honest frustration this time.

The thing was, the program that received commands regarding missile preparation was named PALMER.

All he had to do was hope nobody—at least on this side of the terminal—caught on in time.

Palmer was busy kicking his foot on the inside back of his desk while waiting for his email to boot up. It never took as long as it was taking this morning, the little harddrive light on the front of his computer tower blinking on and off in fluttery patterns, the whirling blue circle "I'm thinking" icon continuing to whirl indefinitely. If this kept up any longer, he was going to have to go pull Richards or someone off "track McGee's mousesteps" duty to fix it, and he didn't want to do that. He put his head down on his desk. He just wanted his computer to work.

He was daydreaming about coffee and breakfast pastries when Gibbs zoomed back up from the basement, throwing his arms out in anger when he reached the bullpen, letting out a frustrated growl of a question. "Is there some reason no one thought to tell me that Agent David is here?"

The agents in the room hunkered down in their cubicles, hoping he wouldn't pounce on them. To their relief, he didn't. He just kept zooming past his desk, past Tyler, Linderman and Palmer, and up to Director Vance's office.

With wide eyes, Palmer watched him go, having to remind himself to breathe after a moment. Ziva was here? That was, that was... Well, that was good. That was really good, right? He heard the outer door to the director's office slam open and closed.

His email program dinged, pulling him from the shock that was numbing his already wrung-dry brain. Ah. There was the problem. A very, very large email. Probably spam. But how could spam get into his inbox? NCIS had a strict filter. He looked a bit more closely at the recipient.

With energy he hadn't thought he still possessed, Palmer reached for his phone, knocking it good and causing it to fly from his desk. Clumsily, he shot up, kicked his chair over, and gathered the phone and receiver from the floor, dialing even before he was standing fully up.

"Cynthia, yeah it's Palmer. I need you to put me through to the director's office right now."

Jones stood so quickly that his knees hit the bottom of the table, but he didn't feel that. Anger and, though he wouldn't admit it—fear—ran through him like a rabid hotdog, turning his insides in furious circles. McGee had...he'd...

"You slimy bastard!" He yelled. "Did you think I wouldn't notice? Did you think I wouldn't figure it out?"

He walked around the table, screaming up the stairs for Turgin and Newman, forgetting about their radios entirely. These two were in such deep shit...

"Did you think I'd spare her, McGee? Timmy? Do you think I'm an idiot?"

Tim McGee gave a startled yelp as Jones shoved him backwards and onto the floor in a heap. In two steps he had manhandled Abby Sciuto, frightened even beyond crying out, into a standing position, holding her up by the collar of her shirt.

"We'll see who the idiot is, won't we," he snarled.

Well, guys, I just realized that I royally screwed up. I forgot about this little thing called the passing of the sun into night. Whoops. Based on what's been going on, Tony would have left to pick up Ziva in the middle of the night (no sunglasses), would have had to wait a few hours for her, and would have brought her back to the office before the sun had risen. Whoops. I'll have to go back and fix that eventually. sigh

And, have I said this before? I'm not good at programming. I took a class in Java a few years ago...and got a C. I know just enough to know that I'm really stringing a load of computer bull. It's more fun that way, though, right?

Thanks again for all your comments! I really do like them. Cheers! mh