When You Least Expect It
Summary: One of the longer days of Leroy Jethro Gibbs' life before earning a peek behind the curtain.
Author's Note: … I really wanted to write NCIS. And this scenario just would not get out of my head. And of course as soon as I put the initial idea down, I left it to rot in my hard-drive for a while.
Disclaimer: I don't own Supernatural. It belongs to Eric Kripke.
"It's like Final Destination," DiNozzo had remarked. "A bunch of people narrowly avoid certain, ugly death, and then suddenly they all start dying off because they were meant to die before."
"They've made too many of them," McGee had muttered under his breath as he tapped away at the computer. "I think the fifth one's due to come out soon."
"They have five movies, all of which have Final in their title?" Ziva had frowned. "That's a bit contradictory."
"They're good movies. Very interesting." DiNozzo said, though from the look on his face he was probably picturing the main actresses in the films rather than the actual plots.
"I'm more interested in knowing why three Marines are dead, DiNozzo." Gibbs said as he came around the corner, cup of coffee in hand. "Aren't you?"
"Couldn't agree more, boss." DiNozzo's posture was immediately straight-backed and serious.
"Names are Corporal Glenn Black, Private First Class Marshall Danvers and Private Lee Ludden. All were found dead in Corporal Black's apartment last night." McGee squinted for a moment at the screen. "This is a weird one, boss. Apparently, all three were found dead on the floor from head wounds sustained from slipping in what is believed to be… Hand soap."
Gibbs cocked an eyebrow, hand frozen halfway to his mouth as he'd been about to take a sip of coffee. "Hand soap, McGee?"
"Uh… Yeah. Black was known to be a bit of a germaphobe, kept a lot of hand sanitizer and soap around the house… Not quite sure how it happened yet, but it looks like a case of hand soap sprung a leak onto the floor, which was hard wood, and all three of them slipped in it and hit their heads pretty hard on the way down."
"Black bought the soap in bulk," DiNozzo filled in. "It had about a dozen bottles in one big box."
"And somehow all of them seemed to spring a leak large enough to create a sufficient puddle for all three grown men to slip, fall and crack their skulls open on." Gibbs asked deprecatingly. "Right. And why is DiNozzo making another movie reference?"
"Because two days ago," Ziva said, pulling a paper off her desk and handing it to him, "Lance Corporal Brian Dearborn was also killed in a rather bizarre fashion outside Bethesda. They were doing renovations above the entrance and Dearborn accidentally went out the door right under them."
"And that's bizarre because…?"
"A power drill fell, point down, and drilled through his skull and clean down through his body." DiNozzo supplied. "Get this: The guy who accidentally dropped it swears that the drill was off, but somehow it got turned on again as it fell. He figures the power button hit the edge of the scaffold."
"What was he doing at the hospital?" Gibbs asked. McGee raised a hand.
"These accidents are coming on the heels of a car accident from last week. A truck carrying a squad of Marines collided with a drunk driver on the I-95. The truck flipped; a few injuries, no fatalities. Dearborn got a knock on the head and went into the hospital for a follow-up to make sure there wasn't lasting head trauma."
"And now four of those Marines are dead." Gibbs concluded. As usual he kept his musings primarily to himself, but… This was an odd one. Drunk driving car crash, construction blunder, and slipping in hand soap? That didn't equal murder. But given the circumstances, it was enough to warrant some investigating. It had been a slow week thus far anyway. "McGee, get me the names of the other Marines in that truck."
"Already done, boss."
"Teacher's pet." DiNozzo muttered. McGee ignored him.
"There were eight Marines in the truck, all heading to the training grounds: Our three victims, Corporal Dearborn, Private Lucas Winters, Private Thomas Cawley, Private First Class Gabriel Wallace, and Sergeant Harry Travers."
"Are they on base?"
"Private Winters is; Cawley, Wallace and Travers are at home."
"DiNozzo, you're with me; we're going to see Private Winters. Ziva, McGee, go have a chat with Sergeant Travers."
The doors to the lab slid open; Abby just managed to hear it around the sound of her Caf-Pow being drained. She let out an excited hum around the straw, then pulled off and twirled around. She had been expecting Gibbs, and was surprised when she saw Ducky approaching in full scrub-gear, a plastic baggy in hand.
"Ducky! Don't see you down here too often. What can I do you for?" Abby chirped, plopping down on her chair and spinning it.
"Hello Abby- I have something- Here, for you-" The somewhat bewildered expression on his face took her off guard; Ducky had seen most everything. The occasional expression of surprise or confusion was one thing, but the one of total shock she was currently witnessing was another entirely.
Abby took the baggy as he held it out to her. For a moment she thought it was empty, but once she squinted she could see a single, shiny thread within. "What is it?"
"I found it on the body of one Corporal Brian Dearborn, the victim of a supposed fatal accident involving a power drill that fell from a scaffold and sawed him in half." Abby made a face and Ducky nodded. "Yes, it's most unfortunate when good men die a grim and strange death."
"So… What am I looking for? Blood? Fingerprints? Because if it's fingerprints, I'm gonna warn you right now, Ducky, I don't think I'll be able to pull even a partial off of something this thin-"
"No, no, of course not," Ducky said, shaking his head. Abby continued to note the almost dazed look of wonder and bemusement on his face. "I would merely ask you to find out what it's made of. It looks almost gold under the right light."
Private Luke Winters was a good guy.
When a guy's car broke down miles from a gas station, Luke was the one that would climb out and help him push it to the nearest service station. When a woman was overloaded with groceries, he would offer to help her carry them to her car. He held open doors for people. He took the sucky jobs that no one else wanted to. He was a Good Kid, and everyone knew it.
One particularly suckish job that he had volunteered for was helping to cart in some boxes containing new training gear. The job was an unpleasant one due to the fact that the boxes were heavy, it was a process that took several hours (this had been a bulk shipment), and it would go on into the late hours of the afternoon.
It was around eight o' clock, and they were barely halfway through the task. "Damn, we're going to be here all night." Private Jim Carmichael grumbled, taking off his cover and wiping his brow.
"I hear that," Private Henry Towers agreed.
"Might go faster if the two of you quit bellyaching and dragging your feet," Luke said, good-natured as ever. Henry gave a nasally, mocking laugh.
"Don't you have an old lady to help cross the street, Boy-Scout?" The nickname was starting to pick up some speed amongst their unit. Luke laughed indulgently, nodded, and rolled his eyes.
"You know what? I'll get the next box, you two relax for a bit and regain your strength." He said sweetly. "Wouldn't want you straining your tender muscles, now would we?" He snickered as Henry and Jim 'ha-ha'ed him and he took off down the alley towards the storage room.
The alley that led down to the storage area was long and thin, which was a large part why they either all had to push the boxes down at once or wait until the others came back; the carts were too large for two to fit in the alley right next to one another. The storage room itself wasn't so much a room as it was a warehouse, about two stories high. It was filled with large metal shelves covered with boxes.
As much as Luke enjoyed poking fun at the others, the boxes they were hauling were pretty heavy, and the job was taking a while. But he had volunteered, so he didn't complain. After a minute or two, though, of hearing the cart wheels echoing off the walls of the alley and feeling his muscles beg for a break, strained under the work he'd been doing, Luke slowed the cart to a stop and took a quick rest to shake his arms out, stretching them over his head and grunting as they went limp with relaxation.
Then he heard a noise; slight, small, like a rock hitting a thin but strong piece of metal. It wasn't too uncommon of a sound, but the suddenness surprised him.
Luke turned around quickly, only to see a young, blonde woman holding a thick, old-looking book standing right behind him. She wore glasses, a blazer and sweater over her shirt, and slacks. She looked like a secretary, or maybe a librarian. Luke felt his face go slightly red; she was also very pretty.
"Hi," He said. The woman stared back at him for a moment, and she seemed a little surprised at the greeting. "Sorry. I'll get this out of your way." He tipped the cart back and rolled it awkwardly to the side as best he could. Luke, only then realizing that it was curious for a non-uniformed woman to be in this part of the base at this time of night, turned back around and went to ask her about it-
But no one was there.
Luke felt a chill run down his spine. There were no doors nearby she could have disappeared into before he turned around again. Nothing for her to hide behind. Nowhere to go where he couldn't see or hear her. She had just disappeared.
Luke's kind and persistently helpful nature often led many to believe him gullible and idealistic. Ironic, due to the fact that he was actually very down-to-earth, very sensible and incredibly realistic. Point being, he wasn't the type to believe that every strange, blinking light in the sky was a UFO. He wasn't the type to go around screaming 'Lordy, lordy I saw me a ghost!' every time the wind slammed a door shut.
But he could not, for the life of him, logically explain how that woman had just come and gone without a word, without him noticing her approach or departure.
Luke realized he was trembling, profusely, and immediately grabbed the cart and began to push it towards the storage room with a new speed. As he made a sharp, whip-crack-motioned turn to the right, something happened.
The truck that had carried the boxes was a new-old truck: New for the company, old in general. It had not originally been a truck built for shipping boxes. As such, there happened to be a small opening, a rectangular slat at the very top of the truck. It had rained that morning, all whilst the boxes were being shipped. This particular box had been directly below that window, and as a result of the rain entering that slat and hitting that box, one side of the cardboard structure was now very damp, soggy and relatively fragile.
And this particular box contained the metal poles used for volleyball and tennis nets. They were tall, they were thick, and they were heavy. And as Luke made that sharp turn towards the door, one of those heavy poles punched clean through the top of the box. It stuck there, and though it didn't prevent Luke from entering the storage area, its weight began to rest on the soggy cardboard, which slowly began to tear under the pressure.
Just as Luke was hurrying into the storage area, Gibbs and McGee pulled up.
"NCIS," Gibbs identified, flipping open his badge to the two young Marines leaning against the back of an open truck. "We're here to speak to Private Luke Winters. He still here?"
"Luke? Yes sir. He just took a box down to the storage room." McGee glanced in the direction the Marine pointed.
"Big storage room." He noted.
"Yeah. Storage facility doesn't roll off the tongue quite as well."
Gibbs was debating on whether or not to wait for Private Winters to return on his own or if he and McGee should go down and speak to him immediately when a loud, deafening crash and a bark-shout of horror echoed down the alley from the storage area.
There was one unified moment of pause, of surprise, of dread, before McGee and Gibbs ran towards the storage room, the Marines close behind. The narrow alleyway seemed to stretch on forever, noises like clanking metal echoing ominously across the walls. Gibbs hand reflexively went to the gun on his belt.
He and McGee burst through the doors first.
And for the first time in a long, long time, Gibbs froze-up.
A young man was standing, limp, his head tilted back, eyed open.
He had been impaled through the forehead and then torso by a long metal pole. The horrified attendant standing at the foot of a large forklift was shaking visibly, his eyes widened, fixated on the dead man.
"Luke- Holy fuck, Luke." One of the Marines behind Gibbs croaked.
The attendant began to stutter. "I- I was lifting the box- with the crane- and it-"
He didn't need to finish. Gibbs could see the rough, long hole torn in the box from the poles. For whatever reason, it seemed that Private Winters had chosen to stick around and watch the box being lifted from a dangerously close position.
McGee slowly pulled out his phone and dialed 911.
As McGee conversed with the 911 operator and the Marines stared in horror at their dead comrade, something caught Gibbs eye, glinting on the ground. He knelt down, gently poking at the object with the end of the gun.
It was a small, shiny piece of thread.
"Like something out of Greek mythology," Ducky had uttered in awe, and Gibbs had been compelled to ask.
"In what way, Ducky?" The M.E. held up a small plastic baggy. Inside was a small, golden thread.
"Abby tested it. It's pure gold, Jethro. I pulled it off of Corporal Dearborn's body, and three similar strands were found at Corporal Black's apartment."
"Here's your fifth." Gibbs held up the baggy with the strand he'd found at the crime scene at Quantico.
"How'd pure gold thread end up with all these dead Marines?" Palmer squawked, eyes bulging. Gibbs was intrigued as well, but as usual kept himself reined in.
"And this relates to Greek mythos how, Ducky?" Ducky set the baggy down on an unoccupied table and went into story-telling mode as seamlessly as ever.
"In Greek and later Roman mythology, there were three goddesses referred to as the Moirae, or the Fates. They were responsible for deciding how long one's life was and how they would eventually die."
"Oh! Like in Hercules!" Palmer spoke up. When both men turned and looked at him blankly, he had blushed. "I-In the Disney movie, Hercules, there were these three old women, and when they cut a person's life-thread, that person died."
"Precisely, Mr. Palmer." Ducky turned back to Gibbs. "Clotho, the youngest, spun the thread- a golden thread- of life." He twirled his finger indicatively. "Lachesis, the middle sister, measured how long the thread, and therefore a person's life, would be. And Atropos, the oldest sister, would cut the thread with her 'abhorred shears', effectively ending life."
"I don't suppose a truckload of Marines would be capable of doing anything to piss them off, would they?" The question had been sarcastic, rhetorical, but Ducky's expression remained solemn as he shook his head.
"It wasn't a matter of angering the sisters, Jethro. They were merely agents of Fate, executors of destiny. You didn't have to draw their wrath: They would kill you eventually, when your time was up."
"I'm freaking out, sir."
"Glenn, Marshall, Lee, Brian and now Luke? You think that's a coincidence? Did you see how they died? How can you not be freaking out-?"
"Wallace!" Sergeant Harry Travers glared at the younger man. "You're still in uniform. I'm still your commanding officer. So don't you lose your head at me like that. And if you start acting like a hysteric, I'm gonna knock you upside the head for acting like one too, understood?"
Private First Class Gabriel Wallace was, on average, a little tightly wound. This wasn't the first time someone had had to talk him down out of a panic, and Harry Travers did not in any way enjoy being the person who had to do so. It was bad enough on base, but Wallace had come all the way to his house to deliver this particular bit of insane paranoia.
"Sir, they're all dead. Within a week."
"And what?" Harry snapped. "You think the fucking Grim Reaper's going around, knocking them off?"
He downed the rest of his scotch. His tone and words might indicate otherwise, but he was shaken almost as badly as Wallace was. Okay: So Dearborn having an accident and getting killed a week after narrowly escaping death was darkly ironic. Okay. That was worthy of an article in the local newspaper. It was bizarre.
But five Marines, all having had a significant brush with death a week before all dying within a few days of each other? That was nuts. That defied logic. That went away from 'bizarre' and more towards 'Holy shit, let's all go to church and pray that God ends his wrath on us because clearly we have pissed him the fuck off' territory.
All Harry could do was tell Wallace to shut up and stop freaking out, because honest to God, he had no explanation for this. Nothing that would calm Wallace's unquestionably frayed nerves, anyway. The only thing he could think of at all was, again, that they had all done something pretty damn serious to piss off some kind of cosmic force. But that wasn't the kind of thing you told anyone, not even your damn wife, because the next thing you knew you'd be carted off to the nearest loony bin.
"But what do we do?" Wallace pressed, kneading his hands. "For all we know we're going to walk outside and spontaneously combust!" Harry sigh-groan-growled and glared at the younger man.
"You know what you should do, Wallace? Go sacrifice a goat over a pit and pray to the sky gods for some sanity, because you don't have any!" If Wallace was nuts, Harry was too, but if he could convince this kid that he was freaking out over nothing, the guy might talk himself down from his fever pitch.
As he kneaded his brow and contemplated ordering Wallace out of his apartment, Harry's eyes went to the ground. It was there, on the white tile of the kitchen floor, that he saw a significant puddle of water stretching almost to the window, coming from the cabinet under the skin.
"Freakin'-" Harry got up, went over and then knelt down and yanked open the cabinet directly beneath the sink, growling in frustration when he saw that the pipes were leaking. He grimaced as his knees groaned under the strain of the bend- as his wife, Bethany, teased, Harry was no spring chicken- and slapped a hand down on the counter to pull himself up, groping for something to use as leverage.
As it so happened, the Travers' had a garbage disposal. As it also happened, their counter was not a particularly large one, and as he groped, he accidentally flicked the switch, the machine jumping to life with a loud, growling whir.
Harry was surprised.
And Harry had been surprised in the precise moment when he'd let go of the counter and was trying to find his balance. He jumped, and his feet slipped in the water, sending him spinning and sliding.
The kitchen in the Travers' apartment was not wide, but long and narrow. Bethany was always bitching about it, especially when there was company to be catered to and not much room to move around in. Point being: There was the counter, a foot and a half of room, the table, which was maybe almost three feet across, and another foot to the window.
The window that was currently open, even though one of Harry's very last thoughts would involve him wondering when it had been opened and who had done it, since he certainly didn't recall doing so.
Harry fell back and out the window, his upper back slamming on the sill with a loud crack before he began to slide all the way out. Gabriel, who had been watching in mute shock, acted quickly, dodging forward and grabbing the sergeant's shirt, trying to haul him back into the room. But Harry was dead weight now, the blow to his back stunning him, and Gabriel came away with only Harry's fountain pen in hand, having unintentionally grabbed it from his pocket.
Gabriel tossed the pen away without even looking at it, his eyes fixed on the older man as he fell four stories to his death.
Harry's pen went flying into the air, sailing across the kitchen until it landed in the still churning garbage disposal, creating an ominous choking-whir that Gabriel didn't quite hear.
It was at that moment that DiNozzo and Ziva reached the door to the apartment complex.
They saw Sergeant Travers hit the ground with a loud crunch. The doorman, shell-shocked, made an odd noise.
"Holy-" DiNozzo hissed.
"Tony- It's the sergeant." Ziva recognized him instantly from the photograph. She turned to the doorman as she pulled out her badge and gun. "NCIS- Tony, which apartment is the Sergeant's?"
"404. Fourth floor?" DiNozzo asked the doorman for confirmation as Ziva rushed inside.
"Hff- I-" The doorman shook his head, still bug-eyed. "I- Maybe- Yeah?" Someone- It sounded like a woman- screamed from the parking lot.
They dashed inside and up the staircase, guns drawn; for all they knew, there was some bizarre twists behind these accidents and they would discover that someone was murdering the soldiers, and they didn't want to meet this person unarmed.
They took maybe two minutes on the stairs, and once they reached the top they could see apartment 404 not so far down the way. Ziva went to the left of the door, DiNozzo to the right. Right before they moved to kick in the door, a horrible noise- something like a cross between a chainsaw and a chain-smoker- sounded from inside, followed by a more constant, softer grinding noise.
Ziva kicked down the door, DiNozzo slipping inside right after, looking left and right. To the left, a hallway with more rooms; bedrooms and bathrooms, probably. They were standing in a sitting area, which was directly across from the kitchen.
A young man both he and Ziva recognized as one Private First Class Gabriel Wallace was standing, facing them, eyes wide, hands down at his sides.
"NCIS, let me see your hands!" DiNozzo barked.
Gabriel just stared at him, blank.
Ziva made a small, strangled noise at the back of her throat.
Private First Class Wallace had turned away from them and the window, revealing Sergeant Travers' fountain pen sticking out, right about where his spine would have connected to his skull, a fatal wound to the lower part of the cerebellum and, most importantly, the medulla oblongata.
He fell over, right onto his face, dead.
DiNozzo and Ziva exchanged looks, but did not know what to say.
"You're kidding me, right?"
"We're really not."
"Please tell me you're kidding."
"We're not, McGee."
"At the risk of sounding like a little baby Probie, guys, I am seriously freaked out."
"Can't say I disagree with you, McGee."
"But if you tell anyone I said that, I'll deny it. And then I'll hurt you."
"Get up. Let's go."
"Where to, boss?"
"The only Marine from that truck that's still kicking, and we're going to keep him that way. Move!"
Private Tom Cawley was new to the world of the Marine Corps.
He was twenty-four, with an ex-wife, a four year-old son and a fourteen year-old nephew from his wife's sister that was living with her on a temporary basis. Their relationship was not a volatile one, they merely had irreconcilable differences, and the boys often came over to visit when he was available to take them.
He had joined the Marines after the divorce just over a year ago, had found it to be a healthy way to deal with his sadness and frustration over not being able to make the marriage work. He was well-liked, a nice guy, fun, if not a little rowdy once you got a few beers into him.
The past two weeks had been a living hell.
First the accident. No one had died, only gotten banged up, but that didn't make the almost dying part any less terrifying. It was one thing to go over seas and fight and be on your guard while you were there; that kind of terror Tom felt he was prepared for when they called him to action. But here, in the U.S.A., in his home state on a highway because some super-ass couldn't hold off on the booze? That he had trouble coping with.
Cherrie had freaked out, had called to make sure he was okay, offered to come down, and did he want Nathan and Aaron to come too, because school was out and they'd love to see him, and she could downplay the accident part a bit-
No, he'd said. It's fine. I'm fine. Just a little check-over and I'm good to go, Tom had said, smiling at her concern. It was times like these when he'd wondered how they hadn't been able to make it together.
For a full week, it had been almost fine.
And then the shit-storm started.
Brian had left with a grin and a wave, saying he was off to the hospital for a quick follow-up and he'd be back in time to put them all to shame in the shooting range later on. It was just before they left for the range that they'd heard the news, that a drill that fell of a construction scaffold had killed him.
It was a terrible, ironic tragedy. They kept it together and started to move on.
And then this morning it started again and kept its momentum going.
Glenn, Marshall and Lee all dying in that freaky fucking piece of crap straight out of 100 Ways to Die, slipping in soap and cracking their skulls open. Luke getting impaled by a metal volleyball pole. Sergeant Travers falling out the window. Gabriel getting a pen lodged in his skull.
It was fucking insane.
Tom jumped, bumping into the cabinet and wincing when his back smacked against the wood.
Idiot. He cursed himself, shutting his eyes as he heard stuff starting to fall from the cabinet and onto the floor. It's just Orm's truck backfiring again. That idiot really needed to get a new car. I'm losing my damn mind.
Unseen by Tom, however, one of the things that had fallen out of the cabinet was a 12 oz. bottle of Dr. Pepper, his soda of choice; the soda frothed and bubbled inside the bottle as it rolled along the kitchen floor and into the living room. It was stopped by one of his stereo speakers; this particular one had a tall CD rack on top of it, which was barely an inch below a spider plant in a plastic pot that hung from the ceiling.
If one were to observe the small, brass hook that the cheap planter hung from for several seconds at that moment, they would have noticed something odd: One minute, the hook would be solidly screwed into the ceiling, immovable and reliably strong.
And then that person might blink.
And when they opened their eyes again, they would see that the screws holding the base of the hook into the ceiling had been loosened considerably, sticking out in a way that they hadn't before. But if someone had observed this, they would have had a moment of confusion, and then done what comes naturally to humans: Explained it away, made it into something understandable. I wasn't looking closely enough. They would question their memory. Now that I think of it, they may have been a little loose a second ago. God my memory sucks.
Because there is no other explanation acceptable for the average human.
The planter hung half-over the speaker and half over the side, above Tom's nephew's skateboard that he'd left during his last trip over. Balanced on the very end of that skateboard was a small, squeaky rubber dog toy; Tom's Rottweiler had died last year, and he had only recently found one of her toys buried in a box. If he had seen in on the skateboard, he would have taken a moment and wondered how it had gotten there, and then eventually credited his son with the action, because he certainly hadn't been the one that put it there.
The sound of car doors slamming shut brought him over to the floor-length window, where he looked down and saw four people climbing out of a car in the parking lot almost directly below his apartment. Tom squinted; they looked like Feds. And they were coming inside.
As he watched them, Tom was oblivious to what was happening to his right.
The soda bottle had bumped the speaker, causing it to wobble a little, which cause the tall and top-heavy CD rack on top of it to wobble a lot. The CD rack hit the planter, which began to sway; the motion began to pull dangerously on the hook that attached it to the ceiling, and the screws slowly began to slide out of their own accord. With every sway, the planter went from being bumped by the CD rack to swinging right over the skateboard.
This went on for maybe half a minute until the screws fell loose and the planter fell.
Tom turned his head sharply in the direction of the sound, the last mistake he would ever make.
The planter fell whilst it was in mid-swing over the skateboard, landing on the far end; as it did, the dog toy on the other end was launched into the air, flying in a single, true arc, and Tom was surprised and he opened his mouth-
And the dog toy flew in.
It was small enough to get into his mouth, but large enough to become tightly lodged in his throat. Tom dropped to the ground, clutching his neck and tearing at his chest as his air supply quickly vanished. He began to flail.
A minute ticked by. Then two.
Then the knock came at his door, and he tried frantically to scream, to shout, to make any noise at all, but he could barely get his bearings because the lack of oxygen was making him dizzy and his world was starting to go dark.
As it so happened, though, in his flailing Tom managed to kick the speaker, knocking over the CD case. Given the way that things had gone that day, Agent Gibbs and his team outside took that as enough cause to break down the door, and once they had, another minute had gone by and Tom wasn't moving so much anymore, and darkness was occluding the last of his vision.
Ziva and DiNozzo secured the house while Gibbs and McGee knelt down beside Private Cawley and assessed him. For the second time that day McGee was on his phone calling for an ambulance. Gibbs forced Cawley's mouth open enough to see down his throat and though he couldn't make out what it was, he knew he couldn't get it out. And judging from the bulge in the young man's throat, whatever it was happened to be long enough to obstruct the bulk of his neck; no airway could be made.
Private Cawley, the last of the eight Marines, was dead.
The ride back to NCIS in the car was silent for a good, long while.
DiNozzo, though, eventually spoke up.
"Are we seriously just going to not talk about how freakish and nightmarish this day's been?"
"That's what I was going for, DiNozzo." Gibbs responded quietly.
There was no explanation for this.
There was no murderer, no suspects, no plausible way to explain how eight Marines had all died in freak accidents within a span of three days. DiNozzo had cautiously, after what happened to Sergeant Travers and Private Wallace, avoided any and all mentions of the Final Destination series. In fact, he'd barely made a joke since. Ziva had been solemn. McGee had been absolutely silent.
Gibbs was thinking.
Maybe there was something they were missing.
Maybe there wasn't.
The second one, the possibility and in fact likelihood of that, made a chill run down Gibbs' spine.
"It reminds me of a story I once heard," Ziva said quietly. "A long time ago, in Baghdad, a merchant sent his servant into the market for supplies. A while later, the servant returns home in a panic, saying that he met Death in the market place, and that Death made a threatening gesture at him."
"How did he know it was Death?" DiNozzo inquired, though his voice seemed to lack the Tony-DiNozzo-spark it usually carried. Ziva shrugged.
"It's not made clear. But the servant asks his master for a horse so that he can ride from Baghdad to Samarra so that he might escape Death. The merchant agreed, and the servant fled. The merchant went to the market place and found Death, and asked why she had threatened his servant."
For a moment there was silence. DiNozzo didn't even inquire into the fact that Death was, in this story, apparently female.
Gibbs broke it.
"And what did Death say, Ziva?"
"She said," She began, "That she hadn't threatened the servant at all. She had merely been surprised to see the servant in Baghdad, when she knew that she had an appointment with him later on that night in Samarra."
There was silence after that.
Fate followed Gibbs home that night.
Fate showed up in his basement.
Fate looked like a librarian.
Late twenties, long blonde hair, bright blue eyes behind glasses, professional clothing and demeanor- and very pretty. Gibbs could easily picture DiNozzo flirting shamelessly with her and McGee getting all sweaty-palmed and bumbling in her presence.
It wasn't the look he was picturing for the woman- the goddess- that had killed a Marine with a dog toy.
"So which one are you: Clotho, Lachesis or Atropos?" If she was surprised that he knew about her, she hid it well.
Gibbs eyed her levelly, and she returned the stare unflinchingly. "I was under the impression that you were supposed to look older." Atropos shrugged.
"Artistic license has allowed people to portray me in a number of different ways over the past few millennia. Disney in particular has screwed a lot of us over in that respect. Pluto has banned all discussion of that movie in the Underworld." She stated that so matter-of-factly, and he sensed that she wasn't accustomed to dealing with, at least at length, beings with a shorter life span than she.
Atropos turned and glanced at the boat but did not comment, and it suddenly occurred to Gibbs that she probably knew about Kelly, about Shannon, about Jenny and Kate and Tony and Tim and Abby and Ziva and Ducky- He had never felt so exposed, especially not around someone he'd never met before and, after this day, would presumably never meet again.
"So," He said, voice hardened with that knowledge. "What brings you here? You going to stab a pen through my spinal cord too?" She looked like she'd come very close to rolling her eyes, but stopped herself.
"Of course not. It's not your time."
"And when is my time?"
"Not for a good long while, Agent. But I'll warn you that people are very much capable of dying before they're meant to, so don't take that as a license to go wild." Nothing in Atropos' expression betrayed such emotion, but Gibbs could tell that she was joking. Or trying to.
"You mean like how Lance Corporal Brian Dearborn died before his time, because a drill fell on his head?" Gibbs asked darkly, only just then noticing that the book in Atropos' arms had a bookmarker in it: A bookmarker consisting of long, golden threads not unlike the ones he'd been finding all day today. "Or Private Tom Cawley, who got a squeaky-toy lodged in his throat?"
Atropos' gaze never wavered as she sat down beside him. "It was their time last week. They should be thankful for the extra time they got."
"Well aren't you beneficent." Gibbs snipped.
"Look," Atropos said, a slight edge to her voice. "I'm not a sadist. I don't enjoy killing good people."
"You killed a man with a dog toy!"
Atropos glared at him and huffed. "I had to kill him somehow, Agent Gibbs. While I have a number of abilities, the power to create a heart attack or a fatal illness out of the blue continues to escape me, and stabbing him in the heart with a butcher knife for a possibly instant kill would have been less than subtle."
"And getting a squeaky toy lodged in his throat was totally unnoticeable." Gibbs shook his head and downed a shot. With any luck he'd already downed more than the safe limit of alcohol and was hallucinating.
"I don't know what to tell you. It had to happen."
"But why?" Gibbs pressed, staring her down. "Why him? Why them? They survived. They had a second chance at life, and you took that away from them." But Atropos shook her head.
"Take it from someone who's been around even longer than your race, Agent Gibbs: There is no such thing as second chances. You are either meant to live or you are meant to die. When your time comes, your time comes, and you have to accept it. It's not pleasant, but that's life."
"For someone who claims not to be a sadist, you don't seem so bothered by that." Gibbs growled. Atropos' stare was flat.
"Again," She said dryly. "I have been around longer than your race has existed, Agent. There is not a sob-story that I haven't heard. Everyone has one. Everyone has a reason why they can't go yet. If I made an exception for one, I'd have to make an exception for all of them, and I can't do that. It would upset the natural order."
"And what's so wrong with living beyond the time given to you?" Gibbs pressed. "What's so wrong with upsetting the natural order?"
Atropos put a finger to her lip in thought. "All right. Let me lay out a scenario for you. Hank is a bank teller. Every day at eight o' lock his alarm goes off, he gets up, does his morning routine and then catches a bus to work. He does that just about every day without fail. Only one day, there's an armed robbery at the bank." Her eyes bored into Gibbs'. "Hank is supposed to die. He is meant to die. But for whatever reason, he doesn't: Somebody interferes, something goes wrong, and he lives."
"And that would be where you come in." Gibbs quipped. Atropos nodded.
"It is. But, for the sake of example, let's say I didn't. Hank is shaken from the encounter. He stays home from work for the next week. On Monday, though, he plans to go back. On Sunday, though, he forgets to set his alarm for eight, and by the time he wakes up and gets his morning routine done the next morning, the bus he usually takes is already gone. Hank calls in a favor to his neighbor, and the neighbor lends him his car.
"Hank drives to work. But again, recall that he's still shaken from nearly being killed. He's stressed. Distracted. And so when the light turns red, Hank doesn't see it, and he plows into another car crossing the intersection, killing the driver of the other car, a man named Steve. Steve," She looked at Gibbs pointedly, "Was not meant to die. At least not right then. And if Hank hadn't survived that robbery, he would be alive. The effects of his continued life ripple out and affect countless other people through his interactions with the world. People whose lives aren't meant to be affected. People who aren't supposed to die, die before their time. And that, Agent Gibbs, is not fair: For people to have their natural time cut short because someone else couldn't follow the script."
Gibbs was silent. Atropos stood up.
"I'm not saying you have to like it, Gibbs. I'm just saying you have to live with it." He looked up at her.
"Something tells me you don't have chats like these every day."
"That's because I don't."
"Then why bother with me?"
Atropos gave another small, slight shrug. "Honestly? I caught on that you were really starting to believe that something unusual was going on. Most humans go into denial mode and start explaining everything to themselves in a way that makes them feel safe. They'll do anything to avoid a truth that bodes bad things for them. Serial killers are human, can be caught and jailed and killed. Me?" Her lips twitched. "Not so much."
"Anyone ever tried?"
"You have no idea."
She turned, was about to leave, he could sense it, but Gibbs had one more question.
"Why did you decide that the Marines had to die? What made you think it was their time?"
Atropos froze. Every muscle in her body seemed to go taut, and from the spasm that went across her face that displayed a moment of cold fury, he wondered if maybe he hadn't touched some kind of nerve, however unintentionally.
"It wasn't my choice."
Atropos turned her head back just enough so that he could see her eyes. They were dark.
"I," Her voice held a bite that hadn't been present before. "Am an agent of fate. There have been times when different pantheons have enlisted me to help enforce certain acts of fate to help them achieve a certain goal. Predominantly, though, for the last several thousands of years I've been enforcing the destiny for the Judeo-Christian pantheon and their God."
"You mean… God."
"Yes. Allah, the Father, Yahweh, Elohim, the Almighty, whichever name you happen to call him by. He gave me a script; I enforced it up until early 2010."
Atropos jaw tightened, and her lip curled ever so slightly. "Someone," She said, "Tore up the script and decided to stop the Apocalypse, buying humanity God-knows how much more time as a whole. I didn't have a script to follow anymore."
There was no way, Gibbs thought, that she would give him a speech on when it's someone's time to go and then deliberately undermine what she'd just said by saying she'd lost her job and didn't know what was supposed to happen anymore. "And so now whose marching orders are you taking?"
Atropos sniffed. "Well, thankfully he's a lot more concrete with his assignments: I work for Death now." She sighed. "The future can be altered in many ways, but when Death says your time is up, believe me: Your time is up. And yes, Gibbs, Death is a… Living, breathing entity." She had to think about that for a moment. "Anymore questions?"
Gibbs thought. He could think of one. "Why kill the Marines the way you did? You couldn't have just made them crash their cars or have an accident on the shooting range?" His thought was that those kinds of deaths would be faster, with less suffering than falling out a window, getting a pole through your body or, damn it, a squeaky-toy lodged in your throat.
"The ways I chose were convenient. It put them and only them in danger; a car crash might cause someone else a distraction and make them run off the road." She thought for a moment. "And bizarre deaths are always remembered. Humans are content to waste their lives away when death is a distant date in the future, but they're far more inclined to make it worth something when they see how close it can be."
Gibbs huffed a slight sigh. He couldn't argue with that. He couldn't argue with anything she said, really, without sounding like a pissy child that kept asking their parents why they had to follow rules and eat their vegetables: The answer being 'we're your parents and we say so'. Atropos was the old, experienced parent here; Gibbs was just a child.
"Do yourself a favor, agent," Atropos said. "Don't turn into a wrecked drunk over this. Learn from it. You seem to have a healthy appreciation for life as it is, so don't drive yourself insane trying to figure out how much time is left on yours or someone else's clock."
Gibbs opened his mouth, though he wasn't quite sure what he intended to say to her, only Atropos had disappeared. Not a single trace remained. His mouth fell shut, and he shut his eyes before rubbing his fingers over them.
Gibbs would work on the boat for another few hours, and then he would go upstairs and actively exercise the look he was going to be wearing on his face tomorrow morning when he went in and met up with his team.
Because there was no damn way he was going to let them know about this.
That one was LONG.
I take pride in this one. : )
Also: SPN fans may have noticed the fable Ziva tells in here as being the one that gave the title to Supernatural 6.12, "Appointment in Samarra".