"Tell me you have something," Gibbs demanded as he marched into Autopsy to find the Medical Examiners bent over James Keenan's remains.
"That depends on what you mean by something, Jethro," Ducky replied. "I have a great many somethings from Mr. Keenan here, only a few of which will make any sense to you now."
"Ducky," Gibbs growled.
"Yes, Jethro, of course. I am aware time is of the essence."
The elderly ME cleared his throat before beginning. "Mister Keenan here was the recipient of two gunshot wounds: one to the left shoulder that entered the aortic chamber as young Anthony's report so clearly states. The bullet pierced his aortic valve, leaving our victim with only a few minutes to live—"
"It's a wonder he held on for as long as he did," Jimmy interjected, blushing as Gibbs fixed him with a sharp glare. "I'm going to go…take these samples to Abby," he decided quickly and scurried from the room.
"Young Mister Palmer is correct. The lad should have lost consciousness within a minute, let alone speaking to Anthony for that length of time."
"Not in the least," Ducky motioned Gibbs over so he had a clear look at the small hole between Keenan's sightless eyes. "The lack of bruising or bleeding around this wound indicates that Mr. Keenan had expired long before this bullet was administered. The lack of fluid in his lungs also suggests that he had passed before he was so cruelly tossed into the Potomac."
Ducky fell silent for a moment. "If I may be so bold as to prognosticate, I am reminded of the similarities between this case and Miss Carson's death."
"Someone's killing the witnesses from the Iniguez' case."
"My sentiments exactly."
Both men looked up as the Autopsy doors whooshed open and McGee and Ziva walked in.
"You need to see this, Gibbs," Ziva stated, not bothering with formalities, handing two large evidence baggies to the Lead Agent.
Gibbs squinted at the objects in the bag: one was a red and cream-colored letterman's jacket with eight large varsity patches crudely stitched to the front and an enormous OSU patch that dominated the upper breast pocket, and the other was a dark brown leather belt.
"Tony's," he breathed. The jacket was obviously the former varsity athlete's, but the hand-sewn belt had been a gift from Jackson last Christmas after Gibbs' father discovered that Tony had worn the white sweater he had given him for two weeks straight without a single wash. From that point on, he had sent small gifts to Jethro's entire team during each holiday season.
"Metro found these in a Dumpster about a mile from where the body was dumped. Keenan's wallet was there as well," Ziva explained, holding up the bag containing the witness' money clip.
"Tony was telling the truth," McGee declared with an affirmative nod.
"You doubted him?" Gibbs looked up from the evidence bags and stared expectantly at the young agent.
The smile slipped from McGee's face. "Uh…no, boss, never. It's just now we have concrete evidence that someone is after our witnesses."
Gibbs nodded once and handed the bags back to Ziva. "That's good work, both of you. Get those to Abby, then find what Metro missed. I want a full sit-rep within the hour."
"Yes, boss," the two replied as they hurried up to the bullpen.
Half an hour later, Ziva was at her wits' end. She had been uploading the photos from the newest scene onto her desktop but her progress was retarded by a rather nasty virus had been circulating through all NCIS computers. The few working servers were overloaded and even this simple act was taking hours.
It did not help that Tony's phone had not stopped ringing all morning. Actually, it had not stopped ringing for the last two days. She knew her partner was a walking contradiction, yet could not help being surprised by the fact that the man who had difficulties checking his email had managed to change his landline's ringtone to the Magnum, P.I. theme song.
"McGee," Ziva hissed to her partner, who was just as irritated with the tinny melody. "I cannot concentrate while his phone is going off every few minutes!"
"What do you want me to do about it?" Tim asked without looking up from his monitor.
"I do not know! Answer the phone, maybe, so we can get some work accomplished before Gibbs returns."
"Oh no, no, Ziva. I'm not going to answer it—the last time I answered Tony's phone, he harassed me about it for weeks because I didn't ask why she called."
"And he will not do the same to me?" Ziva questioned as the phone blessedly stopped ringing. She breathed a sigh of relief and returned to uploading the photos, taking full advantage of the silence.
Only a few seconds later, the phone shrilled again.
She slammed the mouse down. "Answer the phone, McGee! It's clearly important."
"Which is why I shouldn't answer it. Tony would never yell at you for answering his phone!"
"We will Rock, Paper, Scissors for it," Ziva decided, "that is fair, no?"
"Fine." McGee shook out his hand and stood in the center of the room, staring down his partner.
Ziva sauntered over from her desk, blowing once on her right hand before resting it in her left. "You may count."
"Rock…paper…scissors!" McGee counted, bringing his fist down one final time and splaying his hand.
He looked up to see Ziva holding her two fingers in "scissors".
"Best two out of three."
"No, you lost, fair and square. Now please answer the phone."
McGee grumbled something unintelligible as he lifted Tony's phone.
"Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo's desk….No, he's currently out of the office…I am Special Agent Timothy McGee…"
Suddenly, he waved wildly with his hand, motioning Ziva over to Tony's desk. He punched the Hands-Free button and dropped the handset back into the cradle as the two of them huddled over the speakerphone.
"This is Warden Johnson from the United States Penitentiary here in Leavenworth. I'm glad I finally got a hold of one of you—I've been calling for days. Here's the deal: one Anthony DiNozzo was the Lead Agent responsible for convicting Mark Sheldon give years ago on three accounts of drug dealing and one account of attempted murder. Sheldon here's asking for an appeal, citing that his arresting officers mishandled evidence and berated a confession out of him. He coughed up enough dough for a big-city lawyer, and she is rumored to have positive evidence that states her client was wrongfully convicted. Me, I think it's a load of crap, but them's the breaks. On account that you two were the arresting officers, the judge is requesting your presence at the hearing which is tentatively scheduled for the 10th of November at 2:00 here in Kansas. We still have your depositions on trial, but the judge is asking that you appear so we can close this case once and for all."
"Did you say Sheldon?" Ziva asked.
"That is a large coincidence," she said.
"Gibbs doesn't believe in coincidences."
McGee and Ziva exchanged a quick glance before Ziva dashed over to her computer and pulled Mark Sheldon's information on the plasma.
"Shall I tell the judge you'll be testifying?" Warden Johnson asked.
"We'll get back to you on that one," McGee promised as he disconnected the call.
"Sheldon has one brother Nathaniel, who is suspected to be Iniguez' second in command," McGee read from the family history. "All we know for sure is that he handles the legal portion of Iniguez' estate."
"The man in the bar said that Fries and Talbot were complaining about their boss," Ziva recalled, "His name was something like Neal, and it definitely started with an N."
"Sheldon is trying to discredit the both of us so his brother will walk at his appeal."
"Was I not also an arresting officer? If so, why was I not targeted."
"We arrested Mark in July of '05 after he was caught selling to the Naval Academy students. It was one of Tony's first weeks as Lead Agent after Gibbs…well, you know. I may be mistaken, but didn't Director Sheppard send you to Israel with important documents for your father's eyes only?"
"Yes, McGee, I do believe you are correct. I spent an additional week working on Israel's threat assessments for Jenny before my return."
"His appeal is this weekend," Tim said, flipping through his desk calendar.
McGee looked up and caught Ziva's gaze.
"Tony's in trouble," they said in unison.
Tim bent down and grabbed his keys and SIG Sauer from his desk drawer. It would do no good to call DiNozzo since his phone was lying in at least ten pieces on his nightstand. "Tony's phone's broken. I'm going to go stay with him while you find Gibbs and meet us there."
Ziva stuck out her arm, keeping McGee from leaving. "I am the faster driver and this way, the two of you will remain separated, assuming Talbot and Fries are still after the both of you."
McGee brushed by her. "That is exactly why you need to find Gibbs. The way the two of you drive, you'll probably beat me there."
"McGee, I do not think—"
Tim spun around and fixed her with a deadly glare. "With DiNozzo and Gibbs out of the office, I am the highest ranking agent in this room. I am ordering you to go find Gibbs and meet me at Tony's apartment."
Ziva pulled her hand back, causing McGee to flinch. "Please," he amended as the look in her eyes darkened.
The Israeli considered for quick second before relaxing her hand. "You are correct. I will also call Sacks and alert him to the new situation."
"Be careful, McGee," she added as the elevator doors slid closed, even though she knew he could no longer hear her.
There was no time to wait for the elevator. She dashed down the stairs into Abby's lab in record time, knowing it would be faster to check both Autopsy and Abby's lab than to try to reach Gibbs on his cell phone.
"Where is…Gibbs?" she panted as she arrived at Abby's lab. She slowed her pace as the Goth remained silent, clutching Bert tightly against her chest, all the while rocking quickly back and forth on her platform boots.
Ziva's heart skipped a beat. "What is wrong?"
"Oh, Ziva, this is not good. Not good at all—"
"Abby, we do not have time for this right now. Please tell me what you have found as quickly as you can."
The Goth took a deep breath. "I ran the samples from the storefront and found traces of hyoscyamine. At first I thought it was Keenan's, but I was wrong. I found a larger amount on Tony's jacket, in the areas untouched by Keenan's blood. This drug is pretty serious stuff, Ziva: its side effects include irrational behavior, uncontrollable rage, the shakes, extreme bouts of dizziness and dry mouth."
Something clicked in Ziva's mind. "So, he may have said things that he may or may not have meant while under this drug's influence?"
"If was being dosed at the time, which I suspect he was, he wasn't thinking clearly and probably said a lot of things he didn't mean…" Abby narrowed her eyes at the Israeli. "What exactly did he say?"
"Another time, Abs," Gibbs' voice came from behind the two women, starting both of them.
"We caught a break in the case," Ziva informed her boss. "We need to get to Tony's house now. I will fill you in on the way."
"Where is McGee now?"
"He is en route to Tony's," Ziva related as she and Gibbs headed out of Abby's lab.
"Wait!" Abby demanded, sprinting into the elevator at the last second, Bert still pressed tightly against her. "There's more. I've been studying the pictures of the first crime scene, you know, the safe house?" She swiped her finger across her iPad and brought the pictures onto the screen. "I thought it was unusual that the two men would injure Tony and Timmy, but leave them to burn in the fire so I took a second look—you're going to love what I've found."
She was talking as fast as humanly possible with words barely understandable by Ziva or Gibbs.
"A little slower, Abs?" Gibbs asked.
The Goth took a deep breath and began again, a fraction slower than before. "Okay, so, Tony and Timmy were meant to live. The fire was only supposed to burn Carson's remains. You can see from the deeper ashes where the gasoline was poured more liberally. Now look at this," she pointed to a darker line that traced from the bathroom to the back exit. "Their container was leaking. Without knowing it, they dripped gasoline all the way to the back of the house, where the fire spread to the curtains, and then to the rest of the house. World's smartest villains, I think not, but then again, we wouldn't be able to catch them if they didn't screw up."
Gibbs leaned over and gently kissed Abby's forehead as the elevator screeched to a stop. "That's good work, Abby."
"Now you need to hear this," Ziva drew Gibbs' attention to herself as they collected the gear from the squad room and called a second elevator. Abby trailed behind, listening intently to their conversation. "Mark Sheldon was a drug dealer Tony and McGee busted five years ago during your hiatus. His brother, Nathaniel Sheldon, is Iniguez' business associate. Mark is up for appeal in seven days and his lawyer is certain he had concrete evidence that the conviction was coerced."
"Why are we just hearing about this now?" the Lead Agent growled.
"When Tony and McGee investigated the case, Nathaniel had not yet publically joined Iniguez' operations, though he was thought to have been manipulating events long before his brother was arrested."
"So this is some elaborate plan to discredit Tony and Timmy?" Abby asked, a look of abject horror on her face.
"It appears that way, Abby," Ziva confirmed.
"That would explain why Keenan wanted to talk to Tony. He had been set-up to witness the murder of Petty Officer Jackson."
"But why not just kill them?" Ziva questioned. "Dead men say no words."
Neither Gibbs nor Abby found this an appropriate time to correct her jumbled idiom.
"They'd already been deposed so their sworn statements would still be used in court," Gibbs explained. "Sheldon needed to discredit them and build reasonable doubt in the jurors."
There was silence as the agents stepped into the second elevator.
"Bring them back, Gibbs," Abby pleaded.
"Always do, Abs," Gibbs looked her straight in the eyes, his gaze giving her all the reassurance she needed that he would not stop until his agents were safe.
McGee pulled up to Tony's apartment and parked just behind the FBI sedan, noticing how unusually quiet the entire block was. Granted, it was a Monday night, but still, the college neighborhood was not known for its silent retirement home-atmosphere.
He exited the vehicle in a quick motion and hurried over to the FBI sedan. As he approached, he noticed flecks of safety glass littering the area around the driver's door. His pulse quickened and his heart pounded even harder than before as he drew his weapon from its holster and clicked off the safety.
He pulled away from the car and aimed his weapon at the front seat of the sedan. Sacks' partner sat in the driver's seat, his head resting listlessly against the steering wheel. McGee spun around and checked the surrounding area for any signs of the assailant, but the street was quiet and still. His gun still raised, Tim reached through the door frame, reaching for the agent's carotid artery. The pulse was faint, but present—the agent would live for now, until Gibbs caught up with him…
This was so very bad. McGee knew it was proper protocol to wait for backup, but the unconscious FBI agent signified Talbot, Fries, or Sheldon's presence. This was up to him now, and Tim needed to act fast if he was going to protect his partner.
McGee assumed the Weaver stance and entered the apartment complex. Thankfully, there was no one present at the front desk so he crept slowly for the staircase, straining his ears to hear the smallest noises in the empty complex.
He encountered no one on the stairs and turned the corner onto Tony's floor to find the hallway as barren as the rest of the building. He approached DiNozzo's room number, his stomach sinking as he found the door slightly ajar.
Tim crouched by the entrance and peered through the crack between the door and the jamb. He saw Sacks slouched over on the couch, blood trickling from a wound in his right shoulder, but was unable to see anyone else in the front room.
He took a deep breath to gather his courage before poking his SIG into the crack and throwing open the door while pressing himself against the wall in case someone decided to open fire.
When no shots came, he burst through the doorway, gun moving from side to side as he cleared the front room. McGee spared a quick second to ensure the FBI agent was still breathing before heading off to check the guest bedroom and master bath. Though there were two unconscious FBI agents, there were no signs that anyone else had been in the small apartment, other than Tony and Sacks.
McGee paused outside Tony's bedroom door, turning the knob gently and grimacing as it refused to rotate. He pressed his ear to the door, listening for any signs of life, but could only hear the blood racing through his ears.
After a few long seconds, he kicked the door down.
He surged into the room, his heart practically stopping as he caught sight of Tony lying facedown on the ground, bleeding from a deep gash above his temple.
He forced himself to remain calm, knowing he was more likely to make an error when he let his emotions guide his actions. He shot one last look at DiNozzo and breathed a deep sigh of relief as he saw Tony's chest rise and fall slightly.
"Tony?" McGee whispered as began systematically clearing every section of the large master bedroom but there was no response from the Senior Field Agent.
After determining the master bedroom was indeed free of any additional assailants, McGee turned his attention to his injured partner.
A small voice in the back of his head told him that this was too easy, that he was being set-up, but he didn't listen, knowing he had followed protocol and cleared every room in the apartment: no one else was there.
Tim crouched beside DiNozzo and gently flipped him over, quickly determining that the head wound was the only injury the Italian had received.
Suddenly, McGee heard a slight creaking noise and he saw a heavy object racing toward his head.
He tried to pull back, but he had reacted too late. The object smashed into the side of his head, rendering McGee unconscious before his body hit the floor.