Title: The Ebony Road
Summary: Tony might have to travel a dangerous dark road in order to help one of his team.
The Ebony Road
Tony's fingertips tugged slightly at the steering wheel, guiding his car to pull to the right. The vehicle's tires announced their departure from the pavement with the crunch that comes when inflated rubber meets the dirt along the side of the road. Hitting the brake and shifting into park he then switched on his hazards to alert others of his presence there. Not that the dark two lane rural route had produced a single other car in a long string of miles but better safe than sorry, or for that matter better safe than dead should someone come barreling by and clip his car. One of his fellow police academy classmates had perished that way not long after their graduation day. Tony had seen the aftermath and it was not a fate that he cared to meet especially since his demise could seal McGee's fate in turn.
Scooping up the mini flashlight and map from where he had stored them on the passenger seat he blew out the breath he had not realized he had been holding captive. A fresh inhale helped clear away some of the unwanted thoughts muddying his mind. He turned on the light and skimmed its beam over the assortment of thin, medium, and thick lines that were inked onto the paper. During an earlier look at the GPS printout he had noted that there was a turn somewhere along this road that he needed to take. He would rather spend a few seconds now consulting the map before he got there then waste too much time backtracking when he missed the turn he needed.
Tony retraced the miles of highway and rural routes he had covered. The illumination from the flashlight beam skimmed along over the northwest line of trajectory that had originated back in D.C..
Finally coming upon his present location he placed his fingertips on the map's surface and followed the line of the rural route until it turned more truly westward than northwest. It was there he relocated the faint line that indicated the road he needed to follow according to the GPS mapping. By the looks of it Old Granite Hill Road barely qualified as a road. A quick consult with the map's legend revealed that it lay only a few more miles away.
Clicking off the flashlight Tony tossed it and the map back into the seat beside him. Lifting his gaze upwards he scanned his surroundings outside the car. Not a single vehicle was in sight on the country road. Despite the headlights from his own car Tony could tell the sky was beginning to change, the shift in its hue hinted at dawn's approach. He had done his best Gibbs driving impression but still it had taken time to cover all those miles.
He looked down again and picked up his now freshly charged cell phone from the cup holder where he had stored it. He opened it and hit the button that would automatically dial McGee's number. A series of rings came from the other end of the line but the only version of his teammate's voice that followed was the recorded one.
Tony snapped the phone shut and stuffed it in his coat pocket quite a bit more roughly than was necessary. A slushy mixture of frustration and unwanted thoughts about potential outcomes swirled around inside his mind. He attempted to shove it away with movement by shifting the car back into gear and tearing off down the pavement once again.
Twenty minutes and a right turn later found him nearly on top of his destination.
Light was just beginning to seep into the sky overhead as Tony made his way on foot through the woods alongside the dirt road. He was grateful though for the cover the remaining darkness afforded him. Aware that he was getting very close and uncertain what he might encounter when he arrived Tony had stashed the car behind a cluster of bushes a few hundred yards back down the road.
The faint glow of daybreak did allow Tony to see further down the road a piece. The grayish light made the row of white rectangular buildings stand out against the still darkened forest in the background.
Covering another few yards to where he had a better line of sight Tony finally stopped moving. From his lookout spot hidden behind some overgrowth he watched and listened for a few long moments.
All the while praying he was alone as he seemed to be.
Leroy Jethro Gibbs took the stairs this particular morning. Some days were elevator days and some were stairwell days. He never thought about his course beforehand. His feet simply took him one way or another without consulting his mind and that suited him just fine. He would arrive in the squad room regards of the method.
He made the turn into his team's pod of desks and went directly to his own. It did not surprise him to see he was the first arrival. The absence of the tell tale chitter chatter of voices or keyboards had given it way long before his actual arrival.
A note taped to his monitor awaited him when he settled into his seat. He reached up and pulled it down. Before reading its contents he let his gaze shift to the bottom of the page in search of the name of the person who had authored it. He preferred knowing the who before the what when it came to notes. This one was penned by McGee, informing him that he had been in early to do some maintenance on the team's computers but just after arriving had received a call from his sister whose car had broken down. He stated that he was going to go help her out and would return once she was all set. Gibbs gave a nod of agreement to the message and crumbled up the piece of paper inside his fist.
Discarding the now balled up note into his trash can Gibbs glanced briefly in the direction of the phone on his desk, noting that the red light whose job it was to alert him when he had a new message was blinking at a sluggish but steady tempo. Deciding he had not had nearly enough coffee yet to deal with voicemail he returned his attention to his computer. He reached over and pressed the power button on it inward.
"Gibbs, you are here?" Ziva's surprised voice inquired as she arrived from the elevator.
"It's that obvious is it, David?"
"That is not what I am meaning."
The only response given her came in the form of a classic Gibbs style I'm verging of being annoyed expression.
"It is just that I was surprised because this is not our usual order I have come to know. It is normally McGee I find when I arrive."
"Expectation will surprise you if you let it," Gibbs commented and went about logging onto his computer. Ziva set her bag down beside her desk and then settled in her chair. She did not stay silent for long though.
"Did McGee have a day off I was not aware of?" she asked. She did not care for being outside the scoop-no-outside the loop.
"Did you send him on an errand then?"
"Then where is he?"
"Not here!" her team lead stated flatly as he shifted his attention from his computer to a stack of folders on his desk without so much as looking up at her.
"I do not understand. If he does not have the day off and you did not send him on an errand is he not late?"
"But he is not here."
To this Gibbs simply rose from his desk, nearly empty coffee in hand, and headed towards the elevator.
"Sister's car broke down. He went to get her!" he informed his agent as he breezed past her desk.
"Oh. Now this makes more sense," he heard her say, mostly to herself.
Gibbs went casually about his tasks. He acquired a refill on his coffee, touched base with the director, journeyed down to autopsy where he followed up on an old case and endured not one but two of Ducky's epic length tales before setting out back in the direction of the squad room.
Ziva's fingers typing furiously on her keyboard was the sole sound that came out of the team's pod as he approached. Before he was within Ziva's sight he glanced at the time. Quite a lengthy period had elapsed since he had left his desk and still McGee had not returned. Not to mention DiNozzo was now verging upon being late-even for him.
"Call McGee. Get his ETA!" he demanded from Ziva as he passed her desk on the way to his own.
Gibbs plopped down into his desk chair and swiveled in the direction of the landline on his desk. He took a long sip of his coffee and then picked up the handset of the phone. Reluctantly he pressed the button for voicemail, punched in his access code, and waited for the recorded voice. He hated voice mail. McGee had incessantly bugged him to record a greeting of some kind so that when people called and got his voice mail he could greet them more kindly. What had McGee called it? A voicemail greeting? No. A personal message. That had been it. Gibbs preferred to call it a pointless message. McGee had even provided him with a script and detailed written instructions on how to go about recording it on the phone. If Gibbs recalled correctly he had used both sheets of paper as napkins to sop up spilt coffee one day. McGee had offered new copies. Gibbs had declined by sending him a piercing glare. Interestingly, McGee had not mentioned it since.
Finally the recorded voice arrived.
"You have one new message. To listen to the message press one."
Gibbs slammed his fingertip into the button marked one on his phone.
"Hey boss! It's DiNozzo. I'm going to be just a tad late. Got an appointment I forgot about. Be in as soon as humanly possible. DiNozzo out."
Oh but you won't forget the head slap I'm going to give you when you do get here. Gibbs responded inside his head.
"David!" he demanded out loud as he hung up the phone.
"I was not able to reach McGee. I have left him a message."
"I did not call Tony. Should I have?"
"Do you see him here?"
"Gibbs, you know that I do not."
"There's your answer then."
Ziva scrambled to pick up her phone and punch in Tony's cell number. After a few seconds she hit a button on the collection of buttons on her phone then dialed another number into the number keypad. A handful of seconds after that she hung up the phone.
"He is not answering on his cell or at home."
"Keep trying. Check places they may have stopped on their way here and anywhere else you can think of," he instructed in a now more gentle tone.
"Should I call McGee's sister? Perhaps he is still with her?" Ziva asked, not quite concerned but with piqued curious clearly playing in her face expression. She could tell the gears in her boss' head were working on something.
"Not necessary," he responded as casual as possible. It was enough to get Ziva to return her attention to her phone and computer.
The sense that something was off was slowly creeping up inside Gibbs. He wasn't sure exactly what though. DiNozzo's voicemail had not been unlike many of his others over the years. His voice had been calm and casual, lacking any red flags. McGee had left a note explaining his whereabouts. The reason for his absence was logical and the behavior noted was consistent with McGee's personality.
But there was something, a wisp of something askew, that made Gibbs glance over at the two empty desks across from him. Shifting his gaze downward he stared into the trash can underneath his desk for a moment of ponder. Then finally reached now and scooped up the crumbled up note and slipped it into his pocket.
"Back in a few!" he called over his shoulder to Ziva as he headed for the elevator. And true to his word he returned to his desk a few short moments late.
Special Agent Tony DiNozzo darted swiftly across the exposed gap between the side of the building and the next object that might offer some level of protection. Covering the distance at a dead run he arrived safely and dropped to a squat behind the pile of tires that stood halfway between the two warehouses. He listened for a moment and upon hearing nothing harmful peeked cautiously around the tower of Goodyears. After a visual survey of the area he rose from a crouched position and took off running again. A few seconds later he had covered the distance and was leaned up the wall at the corner of the next warehouse. He took in a few greed breaths and then continued on to the doorway.
After entering the third building much in the same manner he had the first two, silently and with his weapon drawn, Tony stuck close to the wall as he searched. He had discovered nothing of real interest in the previous two warehouses and there were still two more to go after this one.
Tony's eyes finally fully adjusted to the dimness of the room. Most of the windows in the building were either boarded up or were caked with so many layers of dirt that little in the way of daylight managed to filter in through them.
Shadows played amongst the mountains of clutter strewn about the first room. Tony fingertips curled a little more snugly around his weapon each time they shifted his way.
The other buildings had been in the same abandoned state of disarray. It made for endless places for someone to hide and not be seen until you were practically right on top of them. If someone was laying in wait there would be only slim opportunity to react.
Reaching the far end of the room Tony picked his way around a pile of scrap engine parts that filled the corner and took up position against the wall once again. Three quarters of the way down towards to the next corner a door stood partially open. Tony inched along the wall, eyes trained on the doorway and weapon at the ready.
He moved painstakingly forward, making certain to place each footfall with great care as not to make a sound that would alert anyone to his approach. Spare the wind creating a faint whistling as it tussled with the old walls and windows of the building the stillness went undisturbed.
Finally reaching within arm's length of the door Tony stopped and prepared himself. He had been through this in the other buildings without incident but it only took one instant of complacency to meet the end of your life.
He took a breath in and released it slowly. Before the next inhale he was in motion, making entry into the room. It was smaller and even dimmer than the outer one. Tony's brain struggled frantically to convince his vision to adjust to the darkness. A few feet inside the threshold stood a tall pile of boxes. Tony ducked quickly behind the slight cover they provided just as a sound came from deeper inside the room.
He listened for a few seconds. There was definitely movement in the opposite back corner of the room. His vision seemed to be resolving its issues with the dimness which Tony was grateful for, but he had a decision to make. Stay hidden a while longer hedging that he had not been discovered and gather more information or announce himself as law enforcement and deal with whatever that brought down upon him. Tony had stashed the mini flashlight in his coat pocket before abandoning his car and he retrieved it now. He held it in his left hand with his finger rested on the power button but not applying any pressure to it just yet. With the light securely grasped in his left and his firearm gripped tightly in the right Tony went with option number two.
"Federal agent!" he called out as he moved clear of the boxes. Immediately he switched the flashlight on sending a harsh light out towards the back of the room. The beam's brightness would work double fold, destroying the night vision of anyone on the receiving end of the beam and masking Tony's movements and form at the same time.
A heartbeat of silence followed.
Then from the far corner of the room another slight noise and the shifting of a shadow.
"Federal agent! Come out now! And I want to see hands up!" he commanded loudly.
Then the stillness filled back in.
Short of options Tony made his way briskly through a maze of boxes and debris towards the back corner of the room. With the flashlight beam he investigated every shadow and searched the darkness as he went along.
Tony had made it nearly to the far back corner when the beam from his flashlight landed on an item that halted his progress. With a slight shift of the beam to the right he realized what he had found.
"Oh my god McGee!"
"What do you have for me Abs?" Gibbs inquired as he entered her lab trailed closely by Ziva. In response the scientist lowered the volume of her music a few thousand notches, accepted a Caf Pow from Gibbs, and then gestured a hand in the direction of the large screen on the wall. Both Gibbs and Ziva's gaze followed her navigation. A greatly magnified image of McGee's message to Gibbs was displayed there.
"A note that is not what it appears to be!" she announced.
"What is it then?" Ziva inquired.
"It's a really good fake!"
"A fake?" Gibbs snapped. His tone was laced with irritation. When he read the note it had certainly looked like McGee's familiar neat penmanship. When he had given it to Abby earlier that was not the result he had expected to hear.
"Yes. It would appear that Tony has mad skills we were completely unaware of!" Abby informed them.
"So he keeps insisting!" Ziva commented.
"No I'm serious. This note may look like it was written by McGee but it wasn't. Tony wrote it. Fingerprints and a few other neat tricks confirm it."
"Tony wrote that?" Gibbs questioned in disbelief. The note was easily readable. Tony's usual scrawl, on the other hand, was not. Abby nodded her head in the positive at him then explained further.
"Yep. Tony forged McGee's handwriting and did a really good job. He even wrote it left handed like McGee. That took like mucho practice to be able do."
"I wonder when he learned how to do that?" Ziva pondered out loud. Gibbs jumped on the question quickly, responding with a bite to his tone.
"No! The question, David, is why in the hell is Tony writing fake notes to make it look like McGee wrote them?"
"That is the million dollar question. Color me impressed though!" Abby commented.
"Impressed? Why?" Ziva asked her.
"When I first began comparing this to a verified sample from McGee I was a little lost as to why you gave it to me to look at in the first place. It looked like McGee's normal handwriting even after I studied it. So I thought maybe there might be an additional set of prints to McGee's, some other trace evidence, DNA maybe, and that that might unlock the mystery. So I ran every test I could think of. Only prints on the paper are Tony's. Which was odd but then it occurred to me maybe if McGee was wearing latex gloves when he wrote it and Tony handled the paper at some point that would cover that angle. Couldn't find any trace of latex and anything else from gloves though. So I went back to the handwriting. I noticed one or two things that looked a little hinky. Just to be certain I sent it to a friend of mine who is a handwriting guru and he compared it to the verified sample from McGee as well as one from Tony. It was close but a few barely perceivable right handed tendencies and personal idiosyncrasies gave Tony away even though he wrote it with his left hand."
"Good catch Abby," Gibbs offered quietly.
"So I passed, right?" Abby asked, a proud grin filling her face.
"Passed what, Abs?"
"Wait! This isn't a test?"
"What do you mean Abby?" Ziva jumped in with in an attempt to help. A confused looked washed over the Goth's face as she looked from Ziva over to Gibbs. He remained silently so she spoke instead.
"I thought you gave me this as a test. Ya know to keep my forensic super powers sharp. By the way where is Tony? I really want to discuss his forgery skills with him. Get all the juicy details of how that came to be."
"Unfortunately, this is not a test Abby." Gibbs answered in a hushed voice.
"That's not really what I wanted to hear."
"Wish I could tell you different."
"What's going on?" Abby demanded, placing her hands on her hips and adopting a stern expression. Ziva was the one to break the news.
"Tony and McGee did not arrive this morning. Gibbs told me Tony left a voice mail saying he had an appointment he forgot about and would be in as soon as possible. And that note was left taped to Gibbs' computer monitor. We cannot reach either Tony or McGee by phone."
"GPS on both of them Abby," Gibbs requested, leaving no time for the information to be taken to heart by Abby.
"Right! On it!" she replied and began working her keyboard feverishly.
"Uh oh." Abby muttered after a moment of intense effort at the computer.
'That's not what I want to hear Abby."
"What?" Gibbs asked rather mechanically.
"McGee's phone. It isn't coming up."
"What would cause it to not come up?" Ziva questioned.
"Removal of the GPS chip or complete destruction of the phone."
"What about Tony's?" Gibbs inquired.
"A little more luck there. I think I have a signal on his."
"I don't need luck Abby. I need to know where my agents are!"
"I'm working on it."
Gibbs let his gaze drift from the flustered face of the forensics expert to the screen on the wall. That feeling that had been creeping up inside his body was now racing flat out through his mind. Tony going to the lengths of forging a note from McGee and now McGee's phone no longer had GPS capability, if any capability at all. Not to even the mention the two desks upstairs that had remained empty the entire morning.
"Got it!" Abby's voice announced as a flashing arrow appeared overlaid on the map that was displayed on the screen.
"Abby, can this be correct? That he is way over there?" Ziva asked.
"Yep. That's where his phone says his is!" Abby confirmed without turning away from her computer. Her voice was immediately followed by the team leader's instructions.
"Print the map Abby. Ziva get the gear. I'll meet you at the car."
Ziva nodded in understanding and departed the lab. The map was feeding out of the printer but Abby had not moved from her position in front of the computer. Her gaze stared intently at the screen that showed the map. Her eyes held a hint of moisture and her facial features were strained with an attempt not to let fear show up there.
A moment of silence passed between them. Then without turning around to face Gibbs Abby spoke softly.
"This is bad isn't it? I mean Tony is faking notes to you. McGee's phone has no GPS. And they aren't here like they are supposed to be."
"No Gibbs. You find them and bring them back here."
"I plan on it. But I need your help to do it."
"What can I do?" she begged and finally turned to face him.
"Well for starters. In order for DiNozzo to leave me that forgery he actually had to be in the building after I left here last night."
"Security cameras!" Abby spat out gleefully.
"Let me know what you find as soon as you find it."
"The instant I have it. I promise."
Abby dove into her work and Gibbs slipped out of the lab doorway. In the empty hallway outside he stopped just for a moment and hung his head.
His gut cried out a warning to him, one that his mind refused to accept.
Find them fast or you might not find them at all.
To Be Continued…