Closer. The damn loon was getting closer.
DiNozzo had watched a lot of escape movies, and not one of them seemed to apply to his situation. There wasn't any convenient space-going shuttlecraft to crawl into, no handy canoes on equally as convenient riverbanks. If this were a fantasy, he'd be able to hide himself in a thicket of enchanted thorn bushes. If it were a B western, good ole Clint himself would be circling up the wagons. James Bond would duck into a bar and emerge with a drop dead gorgeous model/counter-spy on his arm.
Not DiNozzo. He was staggering through the woods in sock-covered feet, hands tied, trying to keep from getting shot by a crazy man.
He could just give up. He could flop onto the ground and let Cray walk over and put a bullet between his eyes. That would save a lot of effort. Wouldn't change the ending. Cray would catch him in the end. There was no doubt about that.
Not the Gibbs-approved method of leaving this world. Gibbs didn't have to be physically present for one Tony DiNozzo to feel the whack of Gibbs's hand upside his head.
"DiNozzo!" roared the omni-present Gibbs in his mind. "Get your ass in gear and get moving!"
"Yes, boss," DiNozzo mumbled. He hauled himself to his feet once more, using both hands on a slender tree trunk for support.
"You think I want to be put to the trouble of finding a replacement for you?"
"No, boss." Three staggering steps.
Those steps brought him face to face with Teddy Cray.
Cray had a rifle in his hands, something long and cylindrical. DiNozzo had no doubt that a closer look would identify the exact make and model, but putting that off for another day would have to do. Could angels look down on Earth and figure out those sorts of things? That was assuming that Anthony DiNozzo was going to end up in heaven. He swayed, trying to keep his feet underneath him.
The life you've led? Big assumption, DiNozzo.
They were twenty yards apart, staring at each other across a large clearing. Trees surrounded them on all sides, and the moon chose this moment to illuminate the scene without any clouds to dim the lighting. A large boulder poked its way up out of the ground to one side, too far away for DiNozzo to have any chance of reaching it before Cray could plug him, even if DiNozzo had all his wits about him.
Cray stood there, watching DiNozzo watch him, a look of misery on his face. "You don't love me, Tony."
Never did, fruitcake.
Cray lifted the rifle.
A slender caress of the trigger.
A sharp crack echoed into the night.
He ran flat out, circling around as per Gibbs's urgent gestures. Gibbs was going straight in, Ziva to the south and McGee to the north. Running had never been McGee's strength; he had just barely passed the physical to be a field agent and his greatest nightmare was that someone would come across his personnel jacket and decide that Timothy McGee needed to re-qualify on the track.
Not a concern tonight. Fear for his fellow agent gave him far greater speed than he knew he possessed.
There they were: two shadows in the moonlight. He couldn't tell which was which, not through the trees. Shooting was not an option, not if he couldn't tell which one to shoot, and if he stopped to take aim he'd get there too late.
Make a decision, McGee. Which one gets taken down? What do you do so that when Abby comes home from the hospital the first place that she goes isn't to Tony DiNozzo's funeral?
Failure was not an option. Ziva sped through the trees, using her smaller size to her advantage to slide through openings that her larger cohorts couldn't manage. A branch whipped across her arm, and she staggered before righting herself. It had smacked her across the bicep, where the bullet from the killer had struck, and she lost precious seconds. She could hear Gibbs crashing through to her north, although she'd lost track of McGee further out.
She saw them, both of them. She saw DiNozzo, swaying, barely able to keep his feet, staring at his kidnapper across a large clearing in the woods. Drugged, that was clear; there was no other way that a single man could overcome her partner. There were many things that she could say about Anthony DiNozzo starting with immature and passing through self-centered and well into foolish, but incompetent was not one of them.
No matter. She needed to get there before that son of a dog shot DiNozzo. She would get there first!
Leroy Jethro Gibbs had lost men before. He had lost comrades in arms, in this skirmish and that. He had lost members of his team—Kate, with a red hole in her forehead. She never knew that she had died—and he had lost loved ones. There had been entirely too much death in Gibbs's history.
He'd be damned if he let it be one more!
Cray was there, in the clearing, taking a bead on DiNozzo. The bastard had a rifle in his hands—Gibbs couldn't make out the model through the moonlit night, and it didn't matter. What did matter was that the thing could spit bullets. Cray stood tall, skinny against the trees, easy to miss. Fat man: like hitting the broad side of a barn. Taking aim at Cray was akin to going for the barn door that was open with just a slender side sliver to shoot at.
DiNozzo stood there, silver-coated in moonshine, swaying as though the barely noticeable breeze was pushing him over. If this was one of DiNozzo's damn movies, he'd be able to dodge the bullet in Cray's rifle that had his name on it. Another movie, and DiNozzo would come through surgery with Abby nursing him back to health, happily ever after.
Neither of those scenarios was likely to happen. DiNozzo stood there like a drunkard, unable to move, and Abby herself was lying in a hospital bed with the medical examiner, a man better known for autopsies than helping keep people alive, holding her hand.
Gibbs saw Cray raise the rifle. He saw Cray's lips move.
No more time. Not another second for forward progress. Gibbs's body knew the drill even before his brain ordered it: Halt. Aim. Fire.
Was he fast enough?
This was it. Tony DiNozzo knew it as clearly as his name, and there wasn't a chance in hell that he could stop what was about to happen. 'Deer in the headlights', he thought. Paralyzed by fear.
It wasn't fear, but it might as well be. Every muscle in his body told him that enough was enough, that they were tired of all the crap drugs he'd inhaled and that a nice long siesta was required. Didn't matter that all the crap had been administered by the crazy dude standing in front of him with a loaded gun.
That siesta might be longer than you think, muscles.
You think we care?
Cray spoke. "You don't love me, Tony."
DiNozzo ordered his mouth to say something witty. It would intolerable if he left this life without some sort of sarcastic remark. Nothing came out.
Cray lifted his rifle to his shoulder, taking careful aim. The heart, DiNozzo thought wildly. How trite. The heart.
Cray's finger caressed the trigger. It was the same finger that had caressed DiNozzo's chest just an hour ago. A gentle pressure, just enough to fire the bullet that would end DiNozzo's life.
The crack was louder than any bullet DiNozzo had ever heard, the sound blasting through his skull. Something smashed into him, bowling him over and helping him to crash to the ground. The crack was followed by more.
Jilted lovers didn't usually go for the double tap execution.
Cray staggered with the last two reports, someone else's bullets smacking into him with all the fury that he'd tried to unleash on DiNozzo. Blood sprang to his lips, and the heavy rifle slipped from his suddenly nerveless fingers. With a groan, DiNozzo's assailant dropped to his knees and from there to the forest floor.
DiNozzo himself was on the ground. He blinked; he'd expected to feel more pain. He felt nothing.
No, not quite accurate. He felt a heavy weight on top of him. It was, he realized, a heavy weight that had knocked him out of the path of Cray's bullet.
A heavy weight that wasn't moving: McGee.
"Don't move!" Gibbs roared, his gun between two hands, aimed at Cray's head. "Don't move!"
Cray's hand inched toward the fallen rifle. One NCIS bullet had gone through his shoulder and the other into his gut. Blood was spilling out, and still he was reaching for his gun.
"Don't move!" Gibbs snarled, moving in. Go for it. Go for it. Give me an excuse.
Ziva darted in, kicking the rifle out of reach.
Gibbs growled wordlessly, deprived of legitimate prey. "Stay with him," he ordered harshly. He raised his voice. "McGee? DiNozzo?"
DiNozzo tried to respond. He really did; Gibbs could hear the effort in his agent's voice. "Boss?"
Had Cray's bullet found its mark?
"Stay with him," Gibbs repeated to Ziva, holstering his weapon and pulling out his cell. He dialed a very familiar number en route to the pile of bodies.
Rapid sit-rep. McGee: breathing. Gibbs rolled him off of the body underneath. McGee came alive at that, grabbing for his leg and hissing. Body number two: DiNozzo, also breathing, staring at Gibbs as though he were a ghost. DiNozzo worked his lips and, for a change, nothing came out.
Shivering, though; going into shock. Pupils wider than the Grand Canyon. Just as Gibbs had thought: drugged. Nothing less would shut up DiNozzo. Gibbs shrugged out of his jacket, slinging it around DiNozzo's shoulders.
Crap; how long would it take help to get here? Able-bodied persons were in short supply at the moment, and it wasn't as if this place was on the main drag. Hell, there wasn't even a road where they were.
"Need a hand, Gibbs?"
The voice came out of the blue, and it belonged to Special Agent Fornell, and it sounded a hell of a lot better than Leroy Jethro Gibbs would ever admit. Not only that, but Fornell had arrived with a couple of his big brawny types to help.
"Took you enough time, Fornell," he responded, as if he'd been expecting the FBI agent to show up. He raised his voice. "Ziva?"
"Not good, Gibbs. He's losing a lot of blood."
So what's not good about that? The man harmed four of my people. None of that showed in Gibbs's words. "Fornell, have your people get Cray back to the house where it's warm, and you give Ziva a hand with DiNozzo."
Gibbs turned back to McGee, still clutching at his leg. Blood oozed out from between his fingers, looking dark in the inadequate moonlight. "You gonna be able to walk, McGee?"
"Yes, boss," McGee gasped, not that he could admit to anything else. Not to Gibbs.
"Good. Let's get you and DiNozzo inside." Gibbs slid his hand under McGee's arm, hoisting the man to his feet. McGee balanced on one foot, trying not to go back down. Gibbs hauled McGee's arm over his shoulder, supporting most of his weight, and started the far too long trek to the small house in the distance. Fornell's men had already picked up the suspect and were carrying the unconscious body between them, dripping blood to mark their path.
DiNozzo's turn. Ziva took a moment to turn his wide eyes to hers. "Tony," she said urgently, "look at me."
DiNozzo blinked, trying to marshal muzzy thoughts.
"Time to go home," she told him.
The medics at the scene made the determination to chopper Cray to the nearest trauma unit; one confided to Fornell that he thought that one of the bullets might be close to a major vessel, with the very real possibility of the suspect hemorrhaging to death en route to any facility farther out. Fornell's men went with them, to guard the suspect. Gibbs felt grim relief; it wouldn't take much to 'help' the man out of his troubles, and Gibbs didn't want to expose himself to the temptation. He wouldn't do it—but it would be hard.
"I'm okay," McGee protested, resisting the medics' efforts to conduct him to a stretcher. "It's just a scratch."
Time to take a hand. Gibbs turned a steely eye on the cyber-geek. "McGee, you almost passed out three times walking back here. I'm not toting you any farther. Get your ass on the stretcher."
McGee deflated. "Yes, boss."
Gibbs leaned over. "Besides, you're a damn hero. If you hadn't pushed him out of the way, that bullet in your leg would have gone through DiNozzo's heart and I'd be promoting you into his spot."
"Oh." From the expression on his face, McGee didn't know what to make of that.
Next: DiNozzo. There was a little color coming back in to the senior NCIS agent's face, but not much, and he was still shivering despite the blankets that Ziva had found to wrap around him. Fornell himself had taken a few shots of the crime scene: DiNozzo's shirt that he found on the upstairs bedroom floor in tatters, and the ropes that had been around his ankles. Fornell mouthed silently to Gibbs, "what the hell happened here, Gibbs?"
Gibbs shook his head warningly at Fornell. A discussion of what could have happened had they not gotten here as quickly as they did was not something that DiNozzo needed to hear. His eyes were closed, and only the shaking told Gibbs that McGee would have to wait for his promotion. Gibbs helped the medics to lift DiNozzo onto his own stretcher, taking the man under the shoulders and feeling the shivers refused to quit.
"Blankets," he told the medics, even though they had already dumped three on top of DiNozzo. "Keep him warm."
"So, there I was, running out into the cold, this crazy guy after me—hey, boss," DiNozzo broke off at Gibbs's entrance into the hospital room. "Abby!"
Gibbs's team was a sorry looking lot: DiNozzo himself had pinked up, but the bandages around his hands and feet belied his apparent good health. There were lines in the man's face that didn't belong, and a weariness that said jumping out of the sterile white linens on the uncomfortable hospital bed wasn't going to happen for the next several days.
McGee looked little better, relaxing in the window bed. Dangling plastic tubes told a story of intravenous antibiotics dripped in over time. The rest of the damage was mercifully covered by bandages and blankets.
Gibbs had brought in the rest of his broken bunch: Ziva, with her arm back in its sling where it belonged, and Abby—having escaped the clutches of the nursing staff on the floor above—was enjoying a lovely ensemble of two hospital gowns (one front and one back) with a utilitarian yet completely unlovely matching blanket across her legs as she stayed seated in her wheelchair. She tried to get up.
"Ah, ah, my dear." Dr. Mallard put his hand upon the forensic scientist's shoulder in gentle protest. "Remember what we promised the nurses: they have allowed you to accompany us to visit Anthony and Timothy, provided that you remain in this wheelchair throughout the jaunt."
"Ducky…!" she tried to wail.
"You wouldn't want me to go back on my word, would you, Abigail?"
"Well…" The end was a foregone conclusion. Abby wasn't about to disappoint the medical examiner.
Ducky turned to the two men. "I had a word with your respective physicians, gentlemen. They assure me that the three of you can expect to be discharged by tomorrow."
"After which," Gibbs added, "you'll all be on medical leave for a week." He crossed his arms, a satisfied smile on his face, daring them to ask for the whole story.
McGee ventured the question. "Boss?"
"I heard from Fornell," Gibbs told the group. "Captain Black had a very interesting story behind him. It seems the good captain wasn't the good captain."
"There's a tale to be told," Ducky observed.
"There is, indeed, Ducky." Gibbs continued the recitation. "Captain Black, upon returning from his overseas tour some six months ago, was scheduled to take command of Warehouse 352."
"Which he did," Ziva put in.
"Not exactly, Officer David." Gibbs was enjoying himself. "It seems the man that we know as Captain Black is not Captain Black. Our captain waylaid the real Captain Black somewhere between Germany and here, and took his place. Switched all the identification he could find. For all intents, he became Captain Black."
McGee could add one plus one to come up with a nefarious scheme. "So the fake Captain Black took the real Captain Black's place in order to perpetrate the warehouse scheme that we uncovered."
"Right, McGee. It was all a set up. In fact, if you hadn't noticed the discrepancies with the inventory, the fake Captain Black would have continued to steal weapons from the Navy. 'Black' hired Jennifer Rose, aka 'the Rose of Glory' to 'entertain' the guard in the evening so that Black could make the barcode switches. Seaman McDonough apparently heard something during his post-coital leisure, discovered Black in the act, whereupon Black killed him. Black could bluff that through, but he got nervous when we questioned Jennifer Rose. He didn't think she would withstand the interrogation no matter how much he paid her, so she became his next victim."
"So he thought he was safe at that point," DiNozzo realized.
"Exactly. Then somebody took aim at Abby." Gibbs tightened his hand on her shoulder. It had been so close! Gibbs refused to contemplate what his career—no, what his life—would have been like without her. "It wasn't Black, but it was enough to keep us all searching for the answer. Black panicked, and tried to skedaddle."
"So who was he?" McGee asked. "I mean, who was he really?"
Gibbs tightened his lips. "Does the name 'Konietska' ring any bells?"
Ziva sucked in a breath. "The arms dealer?"
"One and the same, Officer David. Homeland Security, in the person of Special Agent Fornell, was something less than pleased to learn that the FBI had been sponsoring 'Captain Black'." Gibbs grinned wryly. "They thought that they'd stumbled onto the plot that would destroy Konietska's network. They thought that they had discovered the inroad that would lead to unraveling the scheme. Little did they know that they were supporting Konietska's efforts. Gonna be a few red faces in Washington for a while," Gibbs added with satisfaction, "at least, until the trial."
"It was Cray who tried to run Abby down," DiNozzo prodded. "Did he give any kind of statement? Any reason why he picked on me, and not McGeek over there?"
Gibbs's face hardened. "We're never going to know for certain, DiNozzo. Theodore Cray died early this morning of his wounds. He never woke up, never gave a deathbed statement."
"Discussions with Seaman Lapini, conducted with the greatest confidentiality, suggests that Mr. Cray was not a stable individual," Ducky put in. "He had a fixation on men in uniform, in positions of authority as he perceived them. His mental health was deteriorating and his behavior became demanding and erratic, leading Seaman Lapini to terminate the relationship. Mr. Cray found this intolerable. I surmise, based on his behavior, that he focused his attentions on you, Mr. DiNozzo."
"I don't wear a uniform, Ducky. This hospital excuse for a gown is as close as I get to looking like everyone else."
No one laughed. In other circumstances, they would have.
Ducky continued. "It was less the uniform, and more the thought of pursuing a relationship with an authority figure such as you represented, Tony. He apparently witnessed you with our Abigail, and mistakenly thought her to be a rival. The same occurred with Officer David. The final straw came when he chose to kidnap you, believing that he could win your affections through closer contact."
"Kind of a caveman mentality," Gibbs told him. "Clubbed you over the head and dragged you off to his cave in the country."
"Could've lived without the experience," DiNozzo grumbled.
"You're lucky to be living at all," Ziva said. "You owe your life to McGee."
"I do?" DiNozzo raised his eyebrows and looked at McGee. Agent McGee, for his part, turned red to his hairline and tried to sink in the bed under the weight of all the scrutiny.
"You do," Gibbs confirmed. "That bullet was meant for your heart, DiNozzo."
"That means no more jokes on McGee, Tony," Abby announced. "No more taking things from his desk, no more giving him the dirty jobs. No more talking about old movies. Treat him right."
"No more old movies?" DiNozzo was aghast. "Who am I going to torment, then? Ziva?"
Ziva fixed him with an eye.
DiNozzo quickly turned back. "Nah. Wouldn't be right. I'd never dare get onto the elevator alone with her, Abby. Nope, it'll have to be McHero over there. It's my duty to lighten the atmosphere of the office. After all, we deal with murder and heartache on a daily basis; it's my responsibility to keep everyone's spirits up, including McCyberGeek over there."
"How 'bout you, boss?" DiNozzo quickly changed the subject before Abby could try to talk him into anything. "Your team is on medical leave. You can catch up on all the paperwork."
"Paperwork, DiNozzo?" Gibbs shook his head. "The reason I keep you around is so that I can delegate the paperwork to you. It'll be waiting for you when you get back to the office. I'm taking the week off to work on the boat."
"Me, boss? What about McGee—"
"You wouldn't expect a hero to do paperwork, would you, DiNozzo?"
Losing argument. DiNozzo tried the next. "How about Ziva? She could—"
"Officer David's command of the English language is not up to the standards that this case deserves," Gibbs lied.
DiNozzo sighed. "Just my luck: Fatal Attraction, NCIS style." He fixed his hospital roommate with a determined eye. "Never thought I'd be saying this, McGroupie, but the next would be lover is yours."
He sighed again, watching as Gibbs shepherded the group out of the room. McGee, worn out, had already fallen asleep.
Yeah, this had been a tough one, but they made a great team.
Not that he'd ever tell them that.
Especially not McGee.
DiNozzo pulled out his cell phone, turning it on despite all the admonitions against cell phone use in the hospital. He surfed the net, locking onto a flower delivery website. He cast a thoughtful glance toward McGee: the man would be back at his desk first thing next week. DiNozzo set the date for the delivery.
One red rose, one slender bud vase, to be placed on Special Agent McGee's desk. No card.
Anthony DiNozzo leaned back against his pillows, enjoying the comfortable support they offered. One bullet: one rose. Seemed fair to him.
DiNozzo drifted off to sleep, a satisfied smirk on his face.