Chapter 1: The Four Reluctant Horsemen
He was hot, terribly, horribly hot.
Sweat pooled on his upper lip and down the sides of his head, ending up somewhere around his neck. Worse, something thick and scratchy covered his face. He tried to open his eyes, but all he found was darkness. What was on his face? And why did it feel like there was a wool scarf wrapped around his neck?
He lifted a hand to pull whatever it was off—and found he couldn’t.
They were bound.
He came awake fully then, struggling to sit up from where he was lying on his side. His hands were bound tightly, making it difficult, but he was able to use his legs. His feet were loose.
He was wearing a hood, one tied loosely around his neck to hold it in place. It was coarse, scratching his skin. He could feel the rash forming already—crap. Wool. Why did it have to be wool?
Oh God. Oh God. Oh God.
He finally righted himself, drawing himself into as small a ball as possible—instinctively trying to make a smaller target for whoever had kidnapped him. He drew in some hot, stale breaths through the hood, and tried to calm down.
Where was he?
A vehicle, obviously. He could hear the engine and could feel the road and the gentle rocking of the container. A truck? His fingers cautiously searched the walls of whatever he was in, and the rough metal confirmed the theory. He was in the back of a truck. Going somewhere.
Nice, McGee. Gibbs and Tony would have figured that out the moment they woke up. They’d also probably be loose of their bonds and ripping the hood of their heads by now.
No, scratch that. They wouldn’t even be in this fix to begin with. How the hell did this happen?
He closed his eyes inside the hood, trying to remember the last thing he had done. He remembered…. He remembered….
He remembered opening his door. It was Friday night. They’d finished the Farrelly case today, and Ziva and Tony had gone out to celebrate. He’d gone home. To sleep. They had the weekend off—they weren’t even on call this weekend. Which meant no one would be looking for him until Monday.
Don’t panic. Don’t panic!
What else do you remember?
He’d opened the door. He’d gone inside and…right. Chinese food. He’d picked up Chinese food. He’d placed it on the counter in the kitchen. Then shut the door.
There’d been someone behind the door. He’d looked right at him—big guy, black hair, white face, black eyes….Mostly, he remembered the big part. Huge. McGee wasn’t short, but this guy was Redskins Linebacker enormous.
Before he’d had a chance to shout, someone had grabbed him from behind and placed a sickly sweet cloth over his mouth. He’d tried to fight, knocked over things…. Probably not much else happened after that.
Chloroform. No wonder he felt so nauseous. ‘Course that could also be the hood, the heat and the truck swaying back and forth….
His stomach rolled, and McGee tried to breathe through it. He was not throwing up inside this thing. He was not. Keep it down. Deep breaths…deep breaths…
Okay. Inventory. What have you got on you? Anything? His fingers scrabbled at the back of his jeans, finding the belt and the empty pockets. No wallet, no knife, nothing. He doubted there was anything in his front pockets either.
He sighed softly, and tried to think of what else he could do.
He could listen. Maybe…maybe if he listened to the road, he could figure out where he was, where they were taking him. He could…
There! What was that!
A truck horn. From another truck.
Because they were on a road. In a truck. And there were other trucks around.
That really narrows it down, McGee. Nice job.
God, he sucked at this.
His head drooped, and he sprawled his feet out.
His right foot hit something. Whatever it was, it immediately drew away, even when he tried to find it again.
Then he heard the whimper.
He wasn’t alone. He’d hit someone else’s foot, maybe. Probably.
For a moment, he just listened, trying to discern the sounds.
People. There were other people here. He could hear them shuffling, shifting. Someone was breathing heavily. Probably from the same heat he felt.
He licked his lips, straightened up a little, and decided to risk it.
His call was soft, cautious, and he quickly braced himself. Either someone would hit him now, knocking him back into unconsciousness, or…
Nothing happened. No one answered him, either.
He relaxed a little. And risked calling out again.
“Hello?” he called, a little louder this time. “Anyone else there?”
“Uh,” a woman’s voice, thickly muffled, “I…I’m here.” She sounded terrified, and McGee smiled comfortingly.
Like she could see his smile inside his hood. He rolled his eyes a little. He really was still a “probie,” wasn’t he? Licking his lips to rid them of some of the moisture, he braved a little more information.
“I’m Tim. And um, are you…are you…uh…. See, I’m…” How does he say it without sounding ridiculous?
“Tied up?” she answered weakly. Oh, Tim thought. Like that.
“Me, too,” she said. “And..,” he heard her shift. “And there’s a hood over my head. I can’t see.” Her voice broke a little on the last part.
“Neither can I,” he said, trying to sound empathetic. Which, well, he was.
“Neither can any of us, I’m betting,” a new voice, low and deep, chimed in.
Tim turned his head to the right, even though he couldn’t see who was speaking. A third person—a guy, apparently. “Did you say, ‘us’?” he asked.
“Yeah,” the man said gruffly. “I did. There’s four of us, near as I can tell from listening to you three breathe for the last half n’ hour. I’m betting we’re all tied up and hooded.” He sounded more annoyed than scared.
“Four of us,” Tim said, wondering how good the man’s hearing was that he could tell that. “What else can you tell?”
“Not much. We’re in the back of a truck on a highway. It’s really hot. And I have to pee like a motherfu—“
“Hey!” a new voice interrupted. Another woman. She sounded older than the woman who’d first spoken—or, at least, her voice was huskier. “Please. I’m feeling ill enough without people swearing!”
There was a moment’s silence. And then the man started to chuckle. “You’re joking. If there was ever a time to swear, woman--”
“Angela. My name is Angela. And I’ve already thrown up inside this disgusting hood thing once already. I would appreciate it greatly if you would refrain from making me feel any worse than I already am.”
“Angela,” the man said. “Fine. Whatever. I’ll try to ‘refrain.’” He sneered the last word.
“Thank you,” she said, sounding only slightly mollified.
“Um,” Tim blinked a few times. “Okay. So, that confirms there are at least four of us. There’s no one else, right?”
No one answered him, so he nodded.
“Told you I only heard four,” the other man said.
“Seems like you were right,” Tim said. He sighed, already deciding he didn’t like this guy much. Still, common enemy and all that. “So, who are you?”
“Nick. Nick Cheevers.”
“This isn’t AA,” Nick snarled. “You don’t have to say ‘hi’ back.”
“Right,” Tim said hastily. “Fine. So, who is…” He reached out with his foot, trying to find her again. “Who did I talk to first?”
“Me,” the younger woman said, still sounding weak. “I’m Tara. Tara Stokes.”
“Tim McGee.” Then he frowned. Hang on. Tara Stokes? That name sounded familiar…
“Tara Stokes?” Nick Cheevers echoed. “Agent Tara Stokes? And, wait, Agent Timothy McGee?”
Tim looked to his right again. He suddenly realized he’d heard the name Nick Cheevers as well.
“And I’m Agent Angela Zelnitz,” the older woman announced miserably. “We’re all federal agents. Great. Fabulous. We are so screwed.”
“Federal agents, yes, but from different agencies,” Tim realized. “I’m—“
“NCIS,” Tara interrupted. “I know. You’re on Gibbs’ team.” She sounded oddly excited by the notion.
“And you’re FBI, right Stokes?” Cheevers asked, sounding smug. “Fornell’s new girl wonder.”
“Yes,” she admitted. “Though I wouldn’t say I was his—“
“Yeah, yeah,” Nick muttered, cutting her off. “Whatever.”
“Who are you?” Tim asked Nick. “I know I’ve heard your name, but—“
“And you, Angela?” Tara prompted.
“That’s right,” Tim said, remembering her name now. Like the others, they were names he’d seen a thousand times in emails and on server sites. People he’d worked with, worked around…
“You’re all computer hackers,” he said weakly. “Like me.”
“Get the boy a prize,” Nick said snidely.
“Not just computer hackers,” Angela said then, her voice lowering to an almost beery drawl. “The computer hackers.”
“What does that mean?” Tara asked quietly.
Angela didn’t reply. Apparently, she’d depressed herself too much to bother explaining. At least, that was what Tim assumed. He frowned. He knew what Angela meant, even if Tara didn’t, mostly because Tara didn’t know how good she was yet. Tim did—he’d nearly gotten his ass served to him by Gibbs when he discovered a piece of Tara’s signature code in his electronic files—his encrypted, password protected, firewalled to the extreme, electronic files. She’d hacked him. No one had ever hacked him before. He’d tried very hard not to show that he was impressed in front of Gibbs (from the glower he got, he didn’t succeed).
Tony had laughed that Fornell had finally gotten himself a “McGeek” of his own.
And Angela was well known over at Army CID. She had made a name for herself hacking every military intelligence agency this side of the Atlantic—she was easily the best white hat they had. Nick, Tim didn’t know as well. But he wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Nick was cleverer than the jerk he sounded like.
This was bad.
“Our bosses are going to kill us,” he muttered quietly.
No one had any response. Probably because they all agreed.
About an hour later, by Tim’s estimation, the truck rolled to a stop. He looked to his right as what was obviously the truck door opened. A cool breeze rushed inside (thank God!), and he knew he wasn’t the only one sitting up to try to get the benefit of fresh air.
Then a lot of things happened all at once. Someone shouted orders, others climbed into the back of the truck, rocking it, and Angela screamed to be “let go!” as she was obviously grabbed. Cheevers started swearing, and someone was hit. Since Angela gasped a sob, it was probably her. Cheevers swore more softly, then Tara emitted a frightened cry. Tim shrank back against the wall of the truck, even though he knew it was pointless.
Suddenly, they were on top of him. His arms were grabbed and he was hauled to his feet. Seconds later, he was thrown out into nothingness, and his fear of heights hit full force…for the half second it took him to hit the dirt ground. He rolled, hitting something soft, and he heard Nick grunt.
Then someone grabbed him again, pushing him up onto his knees. Rocks bit into his legs—wherever this was, it was rocky. He wobbled a bit until he was stable, and waited as the others were settled by his side, probably in the same kneeling position.
A beat later, and the hood was whipped off his head.
He couldn’t see anything for a moment, blinded by the light around him. Blurry vision finally subsided, and he found himself kneeling on the dirt parking lot of a warehouse in the middle of nowhere. Pine trees surrounded them on all sides—which meant they weren’t anywhere near downtown DC, and the cooler air meant mountains. DC was still as hot as hell at night this time of year. He also got a pretty good sense of just how far out they were because, despite the orange halogens lighting the lot, he could see the stars. If they were anywhere close to civilization, there’d be no stars visible at all.
He blinked a few more times, finally focusing on the four men standing in front of him. The bookends were clearly the muscle, one of whom he recognized as the gorilla who’d been behind his door. The other two were less big, but, if anything, there were even scarier. Directly in front of him—and, uncomfortably, staring directly at Tim—was a tall, broad chested, gray-haired man with his arms crossed. It didn’t take a degree in psychology to tell from his stance that this was the guy in charge. A little behind him and to the left stood a skinny, younger man, younger than McGee—barely looked out of high school. Blond, with sticks for arms and legs, he kept smiling at the four people kneeling on the ground like he knew everything about them—and found them all funny.
“My name is Reams,” the man in charge said, unloosing his arms and, finally, taking his gaze off Tim to look at the others. “This,” he jerked a thumb behind him at the skinny blond, “is Duncan. We own you now.”
“Own us?” Tara asked, to Tim’s left. He glanced at her and found a petite, pretty black woman with long hair, partially pulled back in a pony tail. Most of it was sticking out in all directions—probably because of the hood. Her features were as tiny as the rest of her, except for her nose. It was snub and, even from the side, he could tell it dominated her face. She cleared her throat and straightened a little. “What does that mean,” she asked timidly, “that you own us?”
“It means, you do what I tell you now,” Reams said, smiling at her. “Or I kill you. Or, more likely,” he leaned close to her, “I’ll kill the person next to you.”
Tara shrank back, and looked to her right—catching Tim’s eye. She blinked rapidly, and focused back on Reams.
“Oh,” she whispered softly.
Reams smiled thinly and backed away from her. He crossed his arms again, and walked down the line. He stopped in front of Angela, sniffed a little, and then screwed his nose up. “Shouldn’t have thrown up in the hood, Angela.”
She flinched a little at being called by her first name, but her eyes flashed angrily. “I didn’t have much choice, now, did I?” she snarled.
He snorted. “No, I suppose you didn’t.” He looked her up and down, and so did Tim. She was much younger than she sounded, though she was still probably older than Tim. Mid-thirties, maybe. She had a shock of bright red hair, pale skin, and an overabundance of freckles. She also looked sickly—probably from the ride and the hood. She met Reams’ gaze without fear, at least on the surface.
Reams shook his head and moved on to stare down at Nick Cheevers. Nick looked almost exactly as Tim imagined him to look—like a biker bar reject. Old fashioned studded jean jacket and acid-washed jeans, a blond handlebar moustache that had seen better days, and short, army cut blond hair that stuck out like spikes off the top of his head. Like Angela, he was probably about mid-thirties. Also like Angela, Nick didn’t shy away from Reams gaze.
Reams snorted another laugh, shaking his head. “You all carry a lot of false bravado, don’t you?” he challenged. “That’ll change, Cheevers.”
Another step and Reams was standing in front of Tim.
McGee had no qualms about staring Reams down. He’d stared down plenty like him. But he also didn’t bother to show anger, like the others. He just stared.
The mocking smile on Reams’ face faded somewhat, and suddenly, Tim found Reams nearly nose to nose with him.
“You’re McGee,” Reams said. “You’re the leader.”
Tim tried not to frown at that. The leader? Of what?
“You got them talking,” Reams explained, lowering his voice to a whisper. “They were all too afraid to do that before.”
Tim did frown this time, not sure what the point was. “Okay,” he said, trying to make the word into a question.
“Don’t try leading them again,” Reams whispered. “Or I’ll kill her.” And he pointed at Tara, though he never took his eyes off McGee. “Get it?”
McGee gritted his teeth, but nodded. “Got it.”
Reams stared at him a moment longer, as if scrutinizing McGee’s honesty, and then abruptly backed off. He strode back to where Duncan was still standing, the thin man swaying a little in the breeze. McGee couldn’t help but think that a stronger one might blow the kid over.
Turning around, Reams took the same wide stance he had before and crossed his arms again.
“Here’s the thing. I heard you four talking, so you all have a pretty good idea of why you’re here. You’re all white hats—four of the best this nation’s got. But, as I’m sure you all know, none of you are unique. There are plenty of other people who could do this job. But,” he met Tim’s gaze again, “none as quickly. You’re all already ‘in’, so to speak—you have all established backdoors into not only your own agencies, but a number of others. I need you to exploit your connections for me, because what I need done, needs to be done fast.” He looked at Tara then, and winked. She shrank back a little. Reams chuckled, and walked across to Angela who was having difficulty meeting his eyes now. He stared at her a moment, enjoying watching her squirm, and then walked down the line.
“You four also have the useful characteristic of being loners,” he said, eyeing each of them in turn. “You spend your weekends alone. None of you have much in the way of friends or family, though you have a sister.” He was looking at Tim again, and McGee swallowed. “But she’s away in California for the summer, so not likely to miss you, am I right?”
Tim nodded dumbly. No point in denying it—this man had obviously done his homework.
“So, most likely,” Reams smiled slightly, “none of you will be missed until Monday, since I specifically picked a weekend when none of you are on call. And by then,” his smile broadened, stretching his thin lips into lines and revealing a truly gruesome set of yellow teeth, “the damage you four will cause for me will already be done.”
“We won’t do anything for you!” Nick snarled, sitting up off his haunches.
“Oh,” Reams said. “Really? You think so?”
“I know so,” Nick said, straightening his shoulders and doing his best John Wayne. McGee grimaced—this was not going to end well.
Reams walked up to Nick, still smiling that horrible smile as he came to a stop about a foot away. The blond Homeland Security agent gritted his teeth, clearly expecting to be hit and intending to appear unshaken when it happened. To Nick’s right, Angela watched the pair with a worried gaze.
Suddenly, quick as a snake, Reams shifted to the left and slammed a fist into the side of Angela’s face, sending her sprawling to the side with a gasp. For a moment, she just lay there on her stomach, as if afraid to move. Eventually, visibly shaking, she pushed herself up on her right elbow and looked back at Reams with wide, green eyes, a thick trickle of blood sliding down from the side of her mouth. “Bu…but…” she spluttered, “I…I didn’t…”
“Want to try that again, tough guy?” Reams asked Nick, walking up to Angela where she was still on the ground. She tried to shimmy away from him, but was having difficulty with her hands still tied.
Nick’s brow furrowed, but he attempted to stay firm. “Doesn’t matter what you do to us,” he said, though much of his confidence was gone. “We won’t—“
Reams delivered a hard kick to Angela’s side, causing her to gasp and cough violently, spitting blood and saliva on the ground. Then he kicked her again, and she started to cry, curling into a ball. She didn’t look like she was going to try moving away again.
“What was that?” Reams asked Nick again, his cold smile even more terrible under the fluorescent lights. He lifted his foot again, ready to kick Angela again.
Nick opened his mouth.
“Stop it, Nick!” Tim snapped at him, trying to keep his voice low. “Don’t!” Stop being an idiot, he thought furiously at the other man. This wasn’t the place! If they were going to get out of this, it wasn’t now.
Nick flinched at the command, and turned to stare at McGee, frowning around his moustache. Then he bowed his head, apparently accepting whatever it was Tim was silently trying to tell him.
Reams was staring at Tim, now, all mirth gone from his face. Leaving Angela alone, he walked back to Tim and knelt down in front of him on one knee.
Slowly, he pulled out the gun from the holster on his side. Almost gently, he cocked it and pointed it at Tara’s head. She emitted a tiny squeak of terror and shut her eyes tightly.
“What did I say about you being a leader, McGee?” Reams asked.
Tim swallowed. He opened his mouth slowly, his bottom lip trembling slightly. “Uh…don’t…don’t be one?” he asked weakly.
Reams smiled. And fired. Tim’s shout of “No!” was drowned out by Tara’s scream.
Reams bellowed with laughter, pulling his gun back and putting it back into the holster by his side.
He’d shot over her head.
Still laughing, Reams backed away, walking over to Duncan. The stick thin blond was really fidgeting now, clearly high on something, his fingers tapping his thighs impatiently. At a silent command from Reams, the blond took off at a run for the warehouse.
Reams turned back to his captives, smiling thinly once more. “I think you four understand me now. So, if you follow me, I’ll show you to your cells.”
He wasn’t joking. The interior of the warehouse—which, on closer examination, looked more like a commercial barn—was made almost entirely of concrete. Steel doors, painted green and flecked with rust, granted them entrance. Once through, they found themselves in a long, narrow concrete corridor lined with steel doors on both sides. About halfway down, four of the doors were open, and white fluorescent light poured out of each one. They had the aura of jail cells.
Nick was pushed into the first one on the left, and McGee was shoved into the first one on the right.
The room was a concrete box with a small barred window located about three feet above head height on the only outside wall. Cold air filtered inside through it—there was no glass. As for furniture, there was a steel folding chair, two buckets, and a folding metal cot on which a pillow and blanket had been thrown. McGee stared at the cot for a moment, then walked across to the two buckets. One of them had water in it. The other was empty. Pretty obvious was the second one was for.
He was going to be ill.
“Hey!” Reams barked, turning McGee around to look back at the doorway. Reams stared at him a moment, then smiled. “You get four hours to sleep. Take advantage of it—it’ll be the most you get.” He gave a nod. “Crack of dawn, you start working.”
McGee just stared, not saying a word as Reams shut the heavy steel door with a bang, leaving him alone. A half beat later, and the fluorescent lights lining the high ceiling were turned off, plunging the room into complete darkness.
Swallowing down his fear, McGee closed his hands into fists and closed his eyes.
Gibbs would find him.