The White Hat Sneakers

Chapter 2: The Troubling Dawn

Tony’s alarm had him out of bed at 5:00 am. Stumbling blearily around his apartment, he grabbed the workout clothes he’d put aside the night before and started pulling them on without really seeing them. With any luck, he wasn’t putting on anything inside-out.

Admittedly, he’s probably still look good even if the tag on his shirt was showing, but still…

Damn DC summers. If you didn’t run first thing in the morning, the heat and humidity would kill you. Going out running at 5:00 am was basic self-preservation, but, Christ, it sucked.

Shuffling into the kitchen in socked feet, he headed over to the door, picked up the paper sitting on the mat, and then went to find coffee.

At the start of his second cup, he finally started to feel awake.

After skimming the headlines, he flipped to the movie section, drawing his finger down the local theatres. He stopped at one, and started to smile.

A few minutes later, he was stuffing his feet into his running shoes, and fiddling with his cell phone, dialing the number from memory.

Not surprisingly, he got McGee’s voicemail, the message boring and straightforward. He needed to talk to him about that.

“Hey,” he said after he heard the beep, “I know you weren’t planning on doing anything today, but you are now. Majestic’s showing a double feature. Cary Grant. Think of it as a learning experience, McGee. You want to know anything about how to talk to women, there’s really only one man you have to emulate. Well, besides me, of course. And that’s Cary Grant. So, I’ll pick you up at noon. We’ll get food and head over. You’re coming, so don’t try to weasel out of it. Call me back so I know you got this.”

Snapping the phone shut, he stuffed it in his pocket then grabbed his hat. He was feeling pumped now. Today was going to be a good day.

The door slamming open was all the warning Tim got before he was bodily pulled from the narrow cot and tossed towards the doorway by Reams’ two goons. He wasn’t even sure what was happening for a few minutes, having forgotten where he was, until he found himself in the narrow concrete corridor looking at a shivering, terrified Tara. Then he remembered, and his stomach lurched miserably. She slid over to stand next to him, close enough so that she was almost pressing up against his side. Without really thinking about it, he put his arm around her and drew her close for warmth. She instantly grabbed onto him like a lifeline, her small hands fisting his shirt.

The two doors opposite them were slammed open, and Nick and Angela were quickly hustled out into the corridor to join them.

Angela looked horrible. A large bruise colored much of the left side of her face and she was hunched over, holding her obviously bruised ribs and also shivering from the cold. Much of the bravado she’d shown the night before was gone, and, like Tara, she drifted over to McGee and pressed herself up against his other side.

Apparently, he was acting as a heating unit. Nick just offered him a weak smile of sympathy.

“Move,” the first goon barked, and Tim wondered if he’d ever have a name to put with the face. Probably not. Tara and Angela disengaged and walked together down the hallway after the second goon, who was leading them. They linked arms after only a few steps—Tara adjusting so Angela could lean on her. Nick fell in beside Tim as they followed behind, flanked by the first goon.

The warehouse, or, Tim supposed, converted milking barn (since that was what it looked like), wasn’t wide, but it was long. It took a while to get to the door at the far end, and, once through, they found themselves in a large open room with real windows lining it—large ones. It was filled with vats and pipes of various sizes, obviously leftover from the farm’s previous purpose. McGee also took in the monitors located on a desk along one wall—they all showed black and white images of the outside. A security system of cameras was obviously set up around the property; walking them through this room was a subtle way for Reams to let them know that escaping without being seen would be next to impossible. There were also two cots set up in here—probably for the goons. Tim caught Cheevers eye, and the Homeland Security agent grimaced in return.

The first goon pushed through the metal door on the other side of the room, and then they were out in the damp, cool air of morning.

Reams hadn’t been kidding about “crack of dawn.” The sun wasn’t even visible yet, though the sky was that pale peach color it always was during the false dawn.

The goon led them up a wet, grassy slope, following a muddy track that looked like it hadn’t seen any vehicles lately. Angela slipped on the mud, forcing Tara to catch her. A barked order to hurry up had them both lurching forward again.

Cresting the rise, three more buildings came into view, one of which was a concrete box with a bunch of wires attached to it, leading to a transformer, and a number of antennae on the roof. The other two were a house and a shed.

The goon led them towards the concrete box.

Tim wrapped his arms tightly around his body, feeling the cold despite the humid air. If anything, the damp made it worse. Nick, at least, had his jacket—Tim was just wearing a thin, button down shirt. He noticed Angela had the blanket wrapped around her shoulders—smart woman.

Reams was standing by the plain green metal door to the building, which had probably been a generator building once. He stared at Tim the whole time they were walking up, as if expecting him to do something. McGee met his gaze, then looked away. He learned his lesson—don’t stand up to the crazy man.

The inside of the building was warmer than the outside, and it was clear why. Four state of the art computers sat on four work stations, facing each other in a square, and all hummed with power. Even Tara looked impressed, and the FBI’s technology dwarfed most of the other agencies, including NCIS.

“Sit,” Reams ordered. They did. Tim walked around to the farthest computer, and Angela sat at the station opposite. Tara sat to Tim’s left, and Nick opposite her.

The computer monitors were blank except for command boxes in the corner seeking input.

Reams started to walk around them, keeping a tight circle. “Your job,” he said softly, “is to hack the agencies and departments I tell you to hack. I want you to access their main criminal databases, if they have one, and their communications servers. Once in to each, you will tell Duncan, and he will take over.”

“What are you looking for?” Angela asked, cringing as Reams focused his cold stare on her. But, curiously, he also answered her.

“That’s my business. After you’re in and we’ve extracted the information we want…” He smiled grimly. “…we will be inserting a destructive worm into each agency’s communications servers, hidden inside a trojan, which will launch at 9:00 am on Monday morning. So.” He stopped his circle at Nick’s station. “You must have successfully hacked all of the agencies I require by then.”

“And if we can’t?” Nick asked. “If we don’t hack them all?”

Reams snorted a laugh. “Don’t you know the answer already, Cheevers?”

“Sure,” the man answered, “but you’re going to kill us anyway, right?”

Reams bent over so he was leaning over Nick’s shoulder, close enough that his breath moved Nick’s blond hair. “Depends on you, now, doesn’t it? And, of course, if you don’t…” He nodded at one of the goons, and Angela whimpered softly as a knife was pressed against her throat. “I’ll make sure you all suffer first,” Reams whispered, “painfully, so much so that you’ll want me to kill you.”

Nick’s eyes slid closed.

The goon took his knife away from Angela’s throat, leaving a nasty red line.

“Who do you want us to hack?” Tim asked, trying to draw Reams attention away. It worked—the man’s dark eyes were on him instantly. And McGee tried not to visibly wince at the craziness he could see in them.

“Well, Nick here…” Reams tapped Nick’s shoulders. “…is going to hack the White House.”

Nick’s eyes widened. “What?”

“Oh, don’t give me that, Cheevers,” Reams sneered, looking down at the top of the man’s head. “After all, you have at least three black marks in your file from the three times you’ve done it successfully before.”

Nick turned in his chair, staring up at Reams with wide eyes. “How did you…? That file is—“

“How do you think we picked you four?” Reams asked. “Your records and case files were all very enlightening—a veritable laundry list of the places you’ve each hacked.”

Nick just swallowed, and turned around in his seat to stare at the computer in front of him.

“In particular, Agent Cheevers, you’ll hack the Secret Service and the NSC, and any other cabinet office I’m in the mood to hit. And, of course, your own agency.”

Nick’s eyes had bugged a little at the word “NSC”, which wasn’t surprising—he’d be performing a miracle if he managed one of those agencies, much less three, Tim thought. When Reams finished, Nick shut his eyes completely. But, he didn’t try to argue with Reams. Also, not surprising.

Reams walked over to Angela, who just slumped in her chair in resignation. “You, my dear,” he said silkily, “will take care of the military intelligence agencies for me, except for NCIS, of course.” Reams’ cold eyes caught Tim’s briefly before returning to Angela. “In addition, you’ll be hacking the Pentagon. Same databases and servers as Nick.”

She didn’t answer, just stared at her screen listlessly. Seeming pleased by this, Reams moved over to Tara.

“You, young lady, will take care of the law enforcement agencies. Your own, of course, along with every major state and metro force on the east coast, starting with DC, then New York, the Boston. Also, the DOJ, if you wouldn’t mind.”

Tara just gave a weak nod. Reams smiled thinly, and looked across at Tim.

“Now you, golden boy, are the best of this lot, from what I’ve read in your file. So you get the cream of the crop—the top intelligence agencies. Besides your own precious NCIS, I want you to hack the CIA, NSA, the NRO and the DOE’s intelligence agency, along with the DOE itself. ”

Tim’s eyes widened, looking up at Reams in surprise. “All of them?” he asked weakly. “In two days?”

Reams gave a nod. “And Interpol.”

Tim just blinked, feeling nauseas again. He couldn’t be serious. “But, I’ve never—“

“You’ve been inside Interpol. Are the others really so hard?”

Tim’s mouth opened, then shut when Reams rested his hand on Tara’s shoulder. Tim’s eyes met Tara’s terrified ones, and he knew he couldn’t say no.

“I can do it,” he said, looking at the computer in front of him. When pigs fly, he added mentally.

“Good,” Reams said. “Now, in case any of you are thinking of using your internet connection for anything other than what you have been instructed to do—don’t. Duncan, here…” Reams nodded to where the gangly young man was standing, red-eyed and still shaking from whatever drugs he was still on. “…and I will be watching over all your shoulders. And, here’s the thing…” Reams walked up to McGee, staring down at him. “I don’t really need all four of you. Personally, I think any one of you could probably hack into most of these agencies alone, given enough motivation. So, the first time any of you messes up, or tries to screw with me, I will kill the person next to you. Understand?”

Tim didn’t blink. He just gave a nod. “Understood,” he said softly.

Reams gave him a nod back. “Good. So…” He waved a hand at the computers. “Get to work.”

The phone ringing woke Tony from his first nap of the day—the one he’d succumbed to right after breakfast—and he groaned when he realized he’d fallen asleep in his sweaty running clothes.

Grimacing, trying to get rid of the sensation of sandpaper inside his mouth, he fumbled for the phone by his bed. Somehow, despite some seriously poor coordination, he managed to get it to his ear.

“’Lo?” he croaked.

“Tony?” Ziva asked, sounding wide awake. “Why are you still asleep! Get up!”

He frowned, shifting so that he was lying on his back and closed his eyes again. “Why are you bothering me, Ziva?”

“I am bored. I think this may be the first weekend I have off with nothing to do, so I am bored. What are you doing?”

Tony sighed, rubbing his hand across his eyes. “Well, I was sleeping.”

“Yes, yes,” she snapped impatiently. “I mean, after the sleeping, what were you planning to do?”

“Well…” He finally sat up, deciding he wasn’t going to be going back to sleep anytime soon. “McGee and I are going to go to the movies this afternoon.”

“The movies?” Ziva didn’t sound excited by the prospect, not surprisingly. “Why? It is a beautiful day.”

“It’s supposed to be in the nineties today, Ziva.”

“So? It is sunny. You should be outside. We should go for a hike.”

Tony smiled. “McGee? Hiking?”

“He is getting fitter. It will be good for him. And you. Have you gotten up yet?”


“Get up! I will call McGee. I hear the Cumberland Gap is a nice place. Shall we go there?”

Tony pursed his lips. “No.”

“Why not?”

“Because McGee and I are going to the movies. You can come if you like.”

“I do not want to go to the movies.”

“These are good movies.”

“These? You are going to more than one?”

“A double feature. Cary Grant.”

There was a pause, then: “I do like Cary Grant.”

“Every woman likes Cary Grant. I’m taking McGee so that he can continue his education.”

“Education,” she repeated tentatively. Then, “Ah. You mean, you teaching him how to pick up women, yes?”


“I see. Still…” He could almost see her shrugging on the other side of the line. “It is a waste of a beautiful day. I will call McGee. We are going hiking. I will call you back.”

“No, Ziva, wai—“

Too late. She’d already hung up. Tony rested his head on his hand. He just prayed McGee had more luck than he did—but he doubted it. When Ziva made her mind up about something, she was more unshakeable than Fort Knox.

Resigned to finally beginning the day—his bedside clocked mocked him by reading only 8:10 am—he forced himself up off his bed.

He had just peeled off his running shirt when the phone rang again. This time he looked at who was calling first. And sighed, bringing it to his ear almost reluctantly.

“Hi Ziva.”

“McGee is not answering. Did you warn him somehow?” She sounded annoyed.

Tony frowned. “He’s not answering?”

“No. What did you do? Use that Immediate Message thing?”

“Instant Messenger. And no.”

“Then why isn’t he answering?”

Tony frowned more, and reached for his cell phone, which was resting next to the cradle for his landline. No messages. Maybe Probie just wasn’t awake yet? Or in the shower?

“Maybe he’s in the shower?” he suggested out loud.

“Oh,” Ziva said. “Yes, that’s possible. I will try him again.”


“Fine, fine,” she said. “I will wait a little while. But if we are going to the Cumberland Gap, we should really head off soon. I will get my things ready.”

“Ziva, I—“

She’d already hung up. She was picking up way too many of Gibbs’ bad habits.

Tony sighed again and looked again at his cell phone.

Something churned in his stomach, and he found himself dialing McGee’s number on his landline. Again, he got McGee’s voicemail. And again, it was boring. But this time, Tony didn’t care.

“McGee,” he said, “it’s me. Call me. And beware Ziva—she wants us to go hiking. Tell her you want to go to the movies. Trust me. And…” he frowned, “And just call me, okay?”

As he hung up, he found his fingers curling around the phone tightly. It was silly—why was he worried?

Gritting his teeth, he stripped the rest of the way and headed towards the shower. If there wasn’t a message on his machine when he came out…

He was going over there.

McGee was typing quickly, rapidly cutting through the walls preventing him from accessing Interpol and getting control of their root server. As he worked, he considered all the ways he could prevent himself from succeeding.

Truth was—Reams was right. All four agents had established, if not sanctioned backdoor programs, which made them invaluable to someone who wanted to hack a lot of agencies all at once in a very short period of time. Tim had his saved inside his own network at NCIS, in a unique account that he kept hidden inside a stego file on his computer hard drive. All he’d really had to do was hack his own work computer, copy its hard drive onto this computer and fool NCIS into thinking he was logging in from work, and then jump from his network to hack all the others. He imagined the others were doing something similar. And Reams knew they could do this.

But just having backdoors didn’t immediately give you access, much less enough control to upload a malware worm that could do the type of damage Reams probably wanted to do. There were roadblocks.

He thought of all the ways he and Abby had been slowed down over the years: password encryptions, server lockdowns, firewalls….Any of them could work here. But if he made them up too soon, starting inventing barriers too early on, Reams might­—

“I have a problem here,” Nick said suddenly.

McGee looked up at Nick, saw the man squinting at his monitor as if he were having trouble seeing it. He was pecking away at the keyboard as if lost.

Reams stood up slowly, walking across to stand at Nick’s back, his arms crossed over his chest.

“What sort of problem,” he asked quietly.

“I’ve hit a firewall that’s automatically renewing itself. Each time I bypass it, it pops up again on the next step, forcing me to find a new way to bypass it. And it’s getting harder to bypass. Too many more times, and I’ll be locked out.”

Reams looked over at Duncan, and raised an eyebrow. Duncan just gave a single nod. He’d heard of this sort of problem, which meant it might be valid. Reams growled, then shook his head.

“Get up,” he said, shoving Nick’s shoulder. “McGee, get over here.”

Tim froze, mid-type. Why? He wanted to ask.

“Now!” Reams barked.

McGee sighed and stood up. He glanced at Tara and Angela, both of whom were watching him and Nick with worried eyes.

McGee took the half dozen steps necessary to reach Nick’s station, then sat down when Reams pointed at the chair Nick had vacated. Cheevers was standing just behind the chair, frowning at McGee.

“Fix it,” Reams commanded, pointing at the screen.

McGee closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them again to look more clearly at what Nick had been doing. Sure enough, a firewall program was staring him in the face.

But, he also recognized that it wasn’t one used by the Secret Service, whom Nick was supposed to be hacking. It looked like one he’d seen used at Homeland Security. Somehow, Nick had managed to put his own firewall up into the Service’s server—seeking a way to slow himself down as Tim had been trying to do. Pretty clever.

“I said, fix it!” Reams shouted, delivering a hard blow to the back of Tim’s head. McGee blinked away the water in his eyes and looked again at the screen.

After a short pause, he typed in a few commands, tested the firewalls defenses, and frowned slightly. He could break through it. But…

“What’s the matter?” Reams asked. “Can’t do it?”

“I…” McGee swallowed, his mind racing for an excuse, “Nick’s right, it—“

The sound of crunching bone and Nick screaming filled his ears, and McGee twisted in the chair. Nick was on the ground, whimpering, holding his leg. Tim was out of his chair instantly, reaching for him, but Reams grabbed him by the back of his shirt and tossed him back against the work station.

“What the hell did you do that for?” McGee demanded, standing up again and preparing once more to help Nick. Reams got in his way, and this time, he had a gun pressed against Tim’s sternum.

“I warned you all what would happen if you tried to mess with me,” Reams threatened softly. He stepped backwards, cocked the gun, and pointed it at Nick’s head—but his eyes stayed on McGee. “I told you,” Reams said, his voice barely above a whisper, “I don’t need all four of you. I just need one of you.”

He didn’t finish the threat, well aware that he didn’t have to. The gun to Nick’s head was enough.

Tim looked down at Nick, still on the floor, still holding onto what was undoubtedly a broken femur. The agent’s pain-filled eyes stared up at McGee, and, for the life of him, McGee couldn’t tell if Nick was begging him to save his life, or begging him not to break through his firewall.

“So,” Reams said, his eyes still on McGee, “I’ll ask you again. Can you fix it?”

Tim blinked blurrily once, then turned around and sat down at the station. “It’ll take some time,” he said quietly, “but, yes.”

“Good. You have half an hour. If you’re not through by then, Cheevers dies.”

McGee didn’t turn around again, he just started typing. It wouldn’t take him thirty minutes. It would probably take him half that, since Nick had only thrown this firewall up as a smoke screen. It wasn’t really anchored to anything. But he would take the full thirty, if he could.

He caught Tara’s eyes sitting across from Nick’s station. Tears were running down her face. When she saw him looking at her, she ducked her head and got back to her own work.

Tony stood in front of McGee’s door, tapping his fingers against his thigh impatiently. He’d called twice, texted a few times, and, while he could find an excuse for McGee not calling him back the first time (hell, 5:00 am was sort of early), it was downright odd that McGee hadn’t called him back the second time or replied to his texts. Sure, a double feature wasn’t exactly work related, and hiking the Cumberland Gap wasn’t pressing national business, but it wasn’t like the Probie to just ignore him and Ziva.

It made Tony’s gut turn. And Tony trusted his gut.

He knocked on McGee’s door, and waited a moment. When nothing happened, he reached for his cell phone and dialed the younger agent’s number. As it rang, he pressed his head against the wood and listened.

R&B, tinny and soft. McGee’s iPhone was inside. Which meant McGee was inside, because he didn’t go anywhere without it.

It was enough to decide him. Tony had the picks out and was working on McGee’s door within seconds. The lock released with a soft thunk, and he straightened, rested his hand on the gun at his waist and pushed the door open.

“Probie?” he called.

The small apartment was quiet. No typing, no awful jazz music, no nothing. Tony opened the door wider and took a few steps inside.

First thing he spotted was the Chinese food container on the counter, knocked over. Sauce had leaked out the corner of the little white box and had dribbled across the counter top, eventually ending up in a small, brown puddle on the floor of the kitchen. A bar stool was knocked over as well. Other than that, nothing was visibly wrong, except that McGee’s gun, badge, PDA and phone had been tossed on the kitchen floor.

Tony stared at them a moment, then, at a much faster pace, he walked through the rest of the one-bedroom apartment, just to make sure. Before he was even back by the front door, he had his cell phone to his ear again, hitting the speed dial.

It was answered immediately. “What do you want, Tony?”

“I’m standing in McGee’s apartment, Boss.”


“So…” Tony was looking around the kitchen now for clues. “McGee’s not here.”

“Then why are you in his apartment?”

“Because his phone, PDA, gun and badge are here. On the floor. Next to a small puddle of cold soy sauce and a knocked over bar stool and…” He spotted the imprint of what looked like the toe of a sneaker. “Part of some other guy’s footprint.”

There was a moment of silence, then: “Call Ziva. I’ll be there in ten minutes.”
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