"Good morning, Ziva," a voice said as the bell on the front door of the corner store tinkled behind her.
Ziva, whose eyes had been locked onto the cooler at the back that held the bottled Frappucinos, paused and looked over her shoulder. "Oh! Buenas días, Carlita!" she exclaimed apologetically. "I am sorry, I didn't see you there."
The older woman snorted good-naturedly. "You are not awake yet, chiquita. Do not lie to me," she added, wagging a finger at Ziva as she opened her mouth. "I know you. I see you every morning. You are not awake until you have had your cafeína, eh? Go, go." She waved a hand, dismissing Ziva, and bent down to return to inventorying the candy shelves she had been working on when the younger woman entered. "Do not let me keep you from your drug."
Ziva grinned and headed deeper into the store. Carlita Alfaro knew her too well, a side effect of Ziva's daily excursions into her market. Ziva could always be depended upon to appear there in the mornings for her caffeine infusion, and many times she made her way down the block again in the evenings for a forgotten dinner ingredient or six-pack of beer. In the course of their daily interactions, Ziva had learned that Carlita and her husband had emigrated to Washington, D.C. from El Salvador, and now the two women often slipped back into Carlita's native Spanish in their conversations. Ziva considered it good practice; Carlita considered it a welcome reminder of home.
"I am on coffee duty this morning," she called back to Carlita as she leaned into the refrigerated case that held an assortment of bottled sodas and coffee drinks. "Would you mind digging out one of those cardboard...ah..." The English word escaped her, and she switched automatically to Spanish: "un portovasos, please?"
"Claro, claro." Nodding agreeably, Carlita started to reach under the counter, then paused to talk to a young man who approached the counter. "You are going to be late, Danny!" she admonished the harried-looking twentysomething. "Your work, it starts at eight, yes?"
Danny grimaced. "I know, Mrs. Alfaro. I'm hurrying, I swear. God," he added, running a hand through his hair and leaving it sticking up, "I can't get the hang of this early-morning thing. The senator's going to fire me before long!"
"Bah." Carlita waved a dismissive hand at him. "You are too good for him to fire you. Even if you can't wake up early. If you hurry," she added, leaning forward to get a better look out the front window of the store, "you can catch the next bus. Go on, hurry, you can pay me later." She tried to refuse as he started to count out what he owed her, but he persisted and forced the money for the PowerBar and energy drink into her hand.
Rolling her eyes, Carlita accepted it and deposited it into the cash register. She was just shutting the register's drawer when the front door banged open again, admitting two men. One immediately took up a position next to the door they'd just come through, while the other advanced on Carlita, who was boxed-in behind the counter. Both men showed her handguns tucked into their waistbands under their shirts.
Carlita let out a strangled scream that cut off abruptly as the larger of the two men lunged at her and jumped the counter. Danny scrambled backwards, tripping over his own feet, and fetched up hard against a shelf of potato chip bags, which went down with him.
Ziva, who had been distracted by her struggle with the gummed-up pour spout of the sugar dispenser as she tried to prepare McGee's coffee, immediately dropped the cup and crouched down, only then leaning around a rack of Hostess cakes that separated her from the front of the store to see what had alarmed Carlita. As she watched, the man on the door, gun in one hand, pulled the shade on the door and turned the "Open" sign over, then flipped the lock. Ziva reached for the gun at the small of her back, then thought better of it. There were two of them, two guns, and two potential hostages. No, make that three hostages, she realized as she spotted a teenager in a school uniform staring open-mouthed at the action from further down the line of refrigerators.
She could surely take down one, and possibly both, before they got off a shot, but with three bystanders unable to defend themselves, that was too great a risk to take unless she had to. Ducking back behind her cover, she moved her hand away from the gun and reached instead for her phone. A voice call would give away her presence to the robbers, but a text was probably safe. Her fingers as light on the keys as she could make them, she composed a message to broadcast to Gibbs, DiNozzo, and McGee, "911 2 men robbery my store NOW", and hit send. They'd respond, she was sure of that, but there was no way of knowing whether one or all of them might miss the buzz of an arriving text message or how long a trip to her block from wherever they were might take.
Until they arrived, she was on her own. Waving, she caught the eye of the teenaged girl down the aisle. "Down," she mouthed, motioning for the girl to squat. Wide-eyed and panicked, the girl hit the deck flat on her face with an audible scrape-click of her watch against the floor tiles. Ziva winced at the noise and froze, as though her lack of sound could compensate for the girl's excess of it.
At the front of the store, Ziva could hear one of the men ordering Carlita to empty the cash register and Carlita sobbing in response. Then a scrape of a footstep coming toward her. Ziva reached for her gun again, then relaxed at the sight of Danny duck-walking toward her, glancing frequently over his shoulder. The teenaged girl looked up and squeaked in reflexive alarm before realizing who was approaching and dropping her head back to the floor. As Danny collapsed beside Ziva, she glared at him for bringing danger to them. The robbers might not have known there were any other people in the store, but they would certainly notice that one of their hostages was missing and come looking for him.
Sure enough, only seconds later, there was a shout and then the sound of approaching footsteps. They were coming. Priorities were changing. Moving quickly, Ziva shot across the floor and planted a boot against the top of the teenager's head. She gave a mighty shove and the girl slid, with almost no resistance, down the slick floor into the next aisle, putting a row of shelving between her and the approaching robber. Hoping the girl would have the good sense to stay put, Ziva scrambled back to where Danny was crouching, staring at her, and settled down next to him, one hand at the small of her back. She was ready.
The man rounded the rack of Twinkies cautiously, gun-first. "Come out, come out, wherever you are," he said in a sing-song voice, then looked down and spotted Ziva and Danny. "Well, well." He motioned with his gun to Danny. "Get away from her."
Danny did as ordered, scooting across the floor until he was clear of Ziva.
"Hey Jimmy!" the robber called, looking over his shoulder for his partner. "Look what I -"
Ziva pounced. She pulled the gun out of its holster at her back in one smooth motion and fired without giving the robber a chance to react. The bullet hit him high on the right shoulder, knocking the gun out of his hand, and she kicked it over toward Danny, who was watching in fascination. "Down," she ordered the howling robber, kicking his feet out from under him. He hit the floor hard, and she stepped deliberately on his gun hand, then pivoted, trying to keep an eye on the rest of the store for his partner. "You!" she barked at Danny, sparing him a glance. "Get his gun!" If Danny could get hold of the robber's gun, even if he didn't know how to use it, that would swing the balance of power in the customers' favor - two of them and two guns, versus the remaining robber and his gun.
Danny just stared at her.
She didn't have time for this, she thought furiously, and reached for the gun herself.
"That'll be all of that," said a cool voice, and she felt the cold metal of a gun barrel against the back of her head. The other robber had flanked them, she had time to realize, and then there was the sound of an explosion, and then darkness.
A/N: As a reminder, you can follow me on Twitter (username FluffyFanFic) for story updates and my behind-the-writing musings