"One Wrong Step"
Shenandoah National Forest was beautiful this time of year. Red, gold, and orange leaves painted a brilliant canopy high above the forest floor. The air was crisp and cool and clean. The whole place seemed insulated from the outside world, and stood in silent contrast to the noisy city they had left two hours before. It would be a beautiful place for a long walk, with someone special.
Someone besides Tony.
"Oh, Shenandoah, I long to hear you….Away, you rolling river…." Tony sang, as he had been ever since they pulled into the park. They had been sent back to a crime scene they had investigated a couple of days before. A park ranger had discovered the body of a young man off the trail, noticed the dog tags, and called NCIS.
McGee gritted his teeth. Maybe conversation would keep Tony from singing. "What exactly are we looking for again?"
"Anything we missed the first time around," Tony replied. It had been almost dark and difficult to see the first time they visited the crime scene.
So far, no one had been able to figure out what the young Marine was doing in the forest. His commanding officer had confirmed that Corporal Brandon Taylor had been granted two days leave. He was due to return the day his body was found. He had apparently been killed by a single gunshot wound the day before.
"It could just be a hunting accident."
"Or it could have been murder. Or a sniper. We have to be open to all possibilities, Probie."
McGee rolled his eyes. Like I didn't know that. He had merely been thinking out loud.
"Finding the bullet would be the best thing we could do. Gibbs said to expand the search radius this time, and to check the trails closest to where the body was found."
"Lots of people use those trails. It's going to be hard to figure out what's important and what's just trash."
"Pick it all up, and we'll sort it out later," Tony replied. "And make it quick."
"Why?" McGee asked. "You have plans tonight?"
Tony turned around and grinned. "It's Friday night, McGee. I always have plans."
McGee sighed and pushed ahead of him. I'll be glad when this is over.
They walked in silence for a few moments. The camera around his neck was beginning to feel like a lead weight. McGee was desperately trying to think of something to say before Tony broke into song again. He turned around when he realized he heard the crunching of leaves behind him. Tony had left the trail.
"Where are you going?" he asked.
Tony looked at him pointedly. "To the crime scene."
"It's farther up that way."
"It's to the right. I remember this twisted oak tree." Tony tapped his forehead. "My mind is like a steel trap, you know."
"More like a sieve," McGee thought. "That's not it, Tony. I know it's farther ahead."
"And just how do you know that?"
"Because," McGee explained, pointing towards a large tree several hundred feet down the trail, "I marked the tree."
Tony frowned. "Oh."
Just a bit further, and the yellow "X" McGee had wrapped around the tree with crime scene tape was clearly visible. Leaves crunched and swished softly beneath their feet as they left the trail and entered the heart of the forest.
The body had been found well off of the trail, where tourists and hikers were advised not to go. Bears and mountain lions were common in this area of Virginia. The forest itself stretched out for miles, and it was very easy start walking in circles and get lost. It could take days to find one of the main trails again.
"Corporal Taylor would have had survival training," McGee thought out loud. "But he didn't have any camping or survival gear with him, except for his knife."
"Shhhh," Tony shushed him.
"What is it?" McGee asked, annoyed.
Just ahead of him, Tony had stopped walking. He held up a hand, motioning for McGee to do the same. "You hear that?"
McGee listened. Over the insistent chittering of squirrels and the chirping of birds, he could hear the definite sound of leaves crunching.
Something, or someone, was just ahead of them.
They hiked a few more yards, over a rise in the land, trying to make as little noise as possible. About fifteen yards ahead of them, they could make out the form of a man in a dark-colored jacket, walking around the place where the body had been discovered. He appeared to be looking for something.
Tony looked back at McGee, who nodded and placed his hand on his gun.
"NCIS," Tony had called in a friendly voice. "Can we ask you a few questions?"
The man whirled around. His eyes grew wide at the site of the agents, and he promptly turned and fled. Tony grabbed his gun and took off after the stranger, with McGee not far behind.
"Federal agent! Stop!" Tony shouted as they ran through the forest. "Don't you hate it when they run, Probie?"
McGee was too out of breath to respond. He focused instead on keeping the fleeing man in his sights while at the same trying not to run into any trees, shrubs, or low-hanging branches.
The camera was still around his neck, bouncing around off his chest and stomach. McGee pulled it over his head and dropped it. Hopefully I can find it later. Recent budget cuts meant the department would undoubtedly make him shell out for the camera himself if it were lost.
They plowed through the dense underbrush that grew here, off of the main paths. McGee felt briars tearing at his clothes and branches slapping his face, but he kept on. Tony was about 30 feet ahead of him. The running man was even farther ahead. He wound in and out, around trees and fallen logs, trying to lose them. Tony ducked around a tree and for a moment, McGee was confused. His teammate and the fugitive both seemed to disappear, swallowed up by the forest.
Suddenly, the late afternoon quiet of the forest was shattered by the sound of gunfire. The fugitive had apparently remembered he had a weapon. McGee saw Tony duck back, behind a tree, and return fire of his own. McGee drew his weapon, but he had lost them again.
He kept running towards the sounds of crashing underbrush and Tony's shouts. His right foot landed on something that didn't feel like the ground. There was no time for McGee to process this before he heard a peculiar snap. Suddenly, his right foot was immobile and he was thrown face-first to the ground, landing so hard he saw stars.
Something was caught around his ankle. Before he could investigate, pain like he had never experienced shot up his leg. From the bottom of his foot to the tip of his head, agony raced through him. He heard a strange, guttural scream. It took him a moment to realize it was coming from his own mouth.
Ahead of him, Tony heard the scream and paused. Probie. He wavered, seeing the runner get farther away from him, then sighed and turned back around. It better not be something stupid, like a snake.
The screams continued as Tony sprinted back, using them as an indicator of McGee's position. Deep inside, he was worried; he knew McGee wouldn't be screaming like that over a snake. No one screamed like that unless something was really, really wrong.
He finally found him, lying face-down on the ground. McGee had stopped screaming, but was clenching his fists and breathing in short gasps. At first, Tony could see nothing wrong. Had he been shot? Surely that guy couldn't have hit him from so far away, and while running. Even Gibbs wasn't that good.
"McGee, what the hell is the mat- oh." Tony's eyes went wide as he finally found the damage.
The bottom of McGee's right pant leg was stained with small patches of blood that were growing larger by the second. Tony gingerly bent down for a closer look, almost afraid of what he might find.
"Oh, man, Timothy," he breathed, his eyes wide.
END CHAPTER ONE