Chapter 4: The Restless Night
“Jethro,” Ducky called softly, walking between the rows of desks in the squad room to where Gibbs sat, staring blankly at a piece of paper on his desk.
Gibbs blinked once, slowly, then looked up as the doctor stopped in front of his desk. “Ducky.”
“It’s late,” Ducky noted. Gibbs just sighed.
“I know,” he said.
“You’re not going to help Timothy by not sleeping.”
Gibbs didn’t answer--he just stared at him.
Ducky sighed, shaking his head. “Well, seeing as Abigail is still working downstairs, and those two have not left…” He turned and waved a hand to his left, to where Tony was asleep laid back in his chair, and Ziva had her head pillowed on her hands on her desk. “Then I suppose it’s not surprising that you plan to stay. Still, I would give good odds that your mind has not been working clearly since the clock hit midnight.”
Gibbs just gave him a soft smile, not denying the diagnosis. Instead, he changed the subject. “You get any leads from the profiles of the other hackers that the other agencies sent you?”
Ducky tilted his head. “Some. Between the profiles and the photos and objects sent to me from our abductees’ various apartments, I’m beginning to put together a picture of why they took who they took. But something is bothering me about them—I just can’t put my finger on it. I’m going to go home and sleep on it. I understand the FBI has a profile team putting together something as well.”
Gibbs nodded. “Fornell’s bringing someone by tomorrow. You two can compare notes.”
Ducky just huffed, shaking his head. “I suppose I should be grateful for the aid.”
Gibbs just smiled again. “But, instead, you’ll just think they’re just there to show you up.”
Gibbs chuckled and pushed away from his desk, away from the lists of suspected kidnappers sitting on it that had been sent over by the FBI, Homeland Security and Army CID, as well as those generated by his own team. The names had been compiled by combining known cyber terrorist cells working in the area with terrorist cells that had seen an uptick in chatter. No names on it had leapt out at him.
Fact was, nothing had leapt out at him all day. They’d chased down every lead they had, from witness statements about seeing a black van at two of the kidnapped agents’ apartments, to interviewing friends (none of the four had close or immediate family, other than Tim), to Abby running every print in the apartments, to hacking all of their work and home computers. And they still had nothing.
He needed a lead.
He stood up, pushing the papers to one side and stretched out the crick in his neck.
Ducky backed up slightly as Gibbs came out from behind his desk. “Are you actually taking my advice?” he asked, looking surprised. “And going home?”
Gibbs just snorted. “I’m going down to see Abby.”
“Oh.” Ducky sounded only marginally disappointed—mostly because he had probably already guessed that’s what Gibbs was doing. “I see. Well, I suppose I shall see you in the morning?”
Ducky just nodded, and backed away some more, heading towards the exit. Gibbs gave him a nod, then headed towards the elevators.
Unusually, the music wasn’t blaring as Gibbs stepped out of the elevator and walked into forensics. Instead, Abby was staring morosely at the computer in front of her, her expression one of utter annoyance.
She didn’t react as he came up alongside her, except to sigh softly.
“You okay?” Gibbs asked quietly.
She closed her eyes for a long moment. “No.”
Gibbs rested a hand on her shoulder. “We’ll get him back.”
She nodded, and then opened her eyes again. “I think there’s something wrong with me.”
He frowned, dropping his hand. “What?”
“I’ve been an idiot all day. Slow and stupid. Missed things that should have been obvious. McGee’s been sending me clues all day, and I can’t put them together. I’m failing him. I’m failing you.” She looked down at the bench, her shoulders slumping inwards. “Without pointing out the fact that I still haven’t opened those three files…Nuts.” She closed her eyes and sighed deeply before opening them again and continuing. “It took me all day just to figure out how Tim was logging on without looking like he was logging on, and I didn’t figure it out in time to trace him. He’s logged off now, and all evidence of where he logged in from is gone. Erased.”
Gibbs grimaced. “He’ll log back on tomorrow.”
“A whole day wasted!” she moaned. “He could be home by now, if I hadn’t been so stupid!” She shook her head, black pigtails shaking with distress.
Gibbs understood the lack of music now. Abby was punishing herself.
She sniffed, and roughly wiped her sleeve across her face, getting rid of a tear. “I promised myself I wouldn’t be scared for him, that I’d believe totally that you would save him. But…when it got dark…” Her shoulders shook softly, her head bowed. Another tear slid down her face.
Gibbs leaned against the bench. “So,” he said quietly, asking to break her mood, “how was he logging on?”
She lifted a hand, as if to say, ‘it was so obvious,’ and said, “He logged on as himself.”
Gibbs considered asking what that meant, since it did seem rather obvious, but decided he was too tired. Luckily, Abby didn’t need prompting.
“What I mean,” she said, turning around to face him, “is that he messed with the internal clock of his computer. He logged on at about 5:00 am Saturday morning, and then adjusted the date stamp so that it looked like it was his logon from Friday. I never saw it, because, obviously, he had been logged on on Friday—so it didn’t look unusual. Until I looked at the times—5:12 am to 11:57 pm, way outside his normal hours.” She shook her head. “Such a simple ruse, I never expected it. I mean, you have to give McGee credit,” she said, looking at her computer again, “he’s really clever when he wants to be. I can’t believe I forgot KISS.”
That perked Gibbs’ eyebrows. “Kiss?” he repeated, keeping his tone carefully neutral.
Abby smiled softly, giving him a sad look. “Not that kind of kiss, Gibbs,” she said teasingly. “It means Keep It Simple, Stupid. Though…" She gave a small shrug, looking down at her hands. “Right now, knowing that he may never—“
“Hey,” Gibbs said, stopping her. “Don’t. We’ll get him back.”
She nodded again, still not looking up.
Gibbs sighed. “So,” he asked finally, “now you know how he got in, can you trace him next time he logs in?”
She grimaced, and shrugged, turning to look at her computer monitor again. “I think so. Now that I know what I’m looking for.”
Gibbs looked down at his watch. It was 1:00 in the morning. If McGee logged on at about 5:00 am yesterday, he’d probably be doing that again today.
“Okay,” he said, nodding. “He’ll be on in about four hours. Why don’t you go get some sleep?”
She nodded unhappily, shoulders still slumped, and turned to walk towards the far back room.
“You could go home, you know,” Gibbs called after her.
“I won’t sleep at home,” she answered, and Gibbs saw her kneel down to pull out the futon from under the table.
“Abbs,” he said then, getting her turn around and look at him. Her eyebrows lifted.
“We’ll get him back, Abbs.”
She grimaced. “You said that already,” she said. “Twice.”
“I figured you wouldn’t mind hearing it again.”
She met his gaze for a long moment, then smiled softly. “You’re right, Gibbs.” She smiled more. “You’re always right.”
He smiled in return, then walked out of the lab to the elevators—heading to the couch in Cynthia’s office to catch a few hours himself.
Tim sat with his back against the concrete wall, his arms wrapped around his legs, and the blanket wrapped around his shoulders.
He was freezing, and shaking too much to even consider getting any sleep on the hard cot. He knew, because he’d already tried.
Meanwhile, part of his mind was crowing with pride, for having cracked two of the most secure networks on the planet.
And part of his mind was utterly sick about the same thing.
He’d cracked Interpol and the CIA, and, of course, NCIS. Tomorrow, he’d go for the others. And there was really nothing stopping him from succeeding—well, except that the NSA was next to impregnable. He’d leave that to last. Tara was doing just as well. She’d hacked the DOJ by mid-afternoon, and, apparently, hacking into the local and regional police departments hadn’t been much of a problem for her. Nick and Angela hadn’t done as well, but who knew what tomorrow would bring? To be honest, he was a bit surprised by Nick. Homeland Security was stocked with the most elite cyber crackers in the country—so why was Nick taking so long?
Then again, Nick did have a broken leg. That might have something to do with it.
Moonlight streamed in through the window—it was incredibly bright. If it wasn’t a full moon, it had to be almost full. The cloud cover last night must have been thick enough to hide it, because it had been almost pitch black in here. Tonight, it was like having someone flooding his room with a searchlight.
He sighed, and blinked dry, tired eyes. Two nights in a row without almost no sleep and virtually no food—he was going to be a basket-case tomorrow.
“This sucks,” he muttered.
He didn’t breathe for a second, then he looked up at the window. No one there. But he had definitely just heard…
“Tim?” Tara whispered again. “Can you hear me?”
He stood up, turning to look out the window, wincing a little when his bruised stomach muscles pulled. “Where are you?” he whispered back, staring up at the white moon through the bars. “Are you outside?”
“No,” she replied sadly. “I’m sitting on my cot. I just…I heard you. That was you, right? Saying, ‘this sucks?’”
He gave a crooked smile, and turned to look at the wall between him and Tara. “There must be a fault in this concrete,” he said, walking up to it and feeling what felt like solid, cold cement.
“A pipe, maybe,” she said. “Hidden, or plastered over.” Her voice was echoing slightly, he realized, as if being funneled through a metal pipe.
He’d done a review of the walls the night before, finding nothing but hard concrete. But a pipe was conceivable—he could have easily missed a small section of plaster among all the cement. Whatever the reason for his being able to hear her, he was glad of it.
Turning, he pressed his back to the wall and looked at the floor. “Are you okay?” he asked quietly.
“I’m as well as you are,” she replied noncommittally. “Although I didn’t get hit in the ribs like you did.”
Tim frowned ruefully, touching a hand to his sore torso. It was punishment for Angela being kicked out of the Pentagon within moments of her hacking it. She’d been spotted before Duncan could finish uploading the malware and thrown out. Reams hadn’t looked concerned about the Pentagon backtracing her (which concerned Tim slightly, since Abby being able to backtrace his logon was something he was banking on), but Reams had been furious that she had failed—because it meant that security would be doubled on the DOD’s servers. They weren’t even going to try to hack it tomorrow.
Reams had taken his frustration with Angela out on Tim’s ribs and stomach. Afterwards, Tim had thrown up the burger and fries they’d been fed for dinner, and then dry-heaved for two hours after being carried back to this little room. He could still taste the bile on his tongue.
He smiled wanly and tried not to think anymore about it. It was fine—so long as he didn’t move too much.
“I’m fine,” he said, glad she couldn’t actually see his face, though she had to know he was lying. “Been hit worse by my boss.”
Tara gave a short laugh, and the sound echoed a little more than before. “Yeah, I’ve heard about that.”
Tim perked up. “Really?”
“Agent Fornell is always threatening to send Ron Sacks to Gibbs for ‘attitude training.’” She laughed again. “Though, from what I’ve heard about Agent DiNozzo, Officer David and you, it really just makes you all worse. I think I’ve even heard you called ‘Gibbs’ brats’ by some of the other agents.”
“Worse?” Tim’s eyebrows shot up. “Hey, I take offense to that! We’re highly trained, very effective brats with nearly perfect records, thank you very much.”
She laughed again.
He smiled more, leaning more against the wall. He wished he could see her.
“So,” he said, changing the subject, “what prompted you to join Fornell’s team?”
She was quite a moment, then sighed. “Technically, I’m not a member of his team, yet. I still haven’t been made a full agent. I’m just a cyber expert.”
Tim frowned. “But I was told you were on Fornell’s team?”
“I’m hoping to be,” she answered quickly. “Agent Fornell decided he wanted a computer expert on his team, and when he asked for applicants. I applied. He took me when I passed his test. But I won’t be a full member until I finish the rest of my FLETC training.”
Tim tilted his head back against the wall. “What was his test?”
“Breaking into your computer,” she replied, and he could almost see her smiling smugly. Tim’s jaw dropped, but before he could answer, she was talking again. “Wasn’t that hard really. Not if you went to MIT. You had Professor Barnes and Professor Tarves, yes?”
He frowned. “Uh…”
“You don’t need to say yes, I already know. I looked it up. I had them, too. You used their model algorithms for your security measures. Should really consider finding some less famous algorithms to emulate, Agent McGee. Admittedly,” she sighed, “you did have a few things in there I hadn’t seen before, but, really, if you’re going to use the same root for all your unix based security measures, then I would highly suggest—“
“Tara?” Tim had his eyes closed now.
She didn’t answer for a moment, then, timidly: “I was being arrogant, wasn’t I?”
“A little bit.”
She sighed, and the tinny quality seemed to make it sound even more pathetic. “Sorry. I do that sometimes. Been trying to break out of the habit.”
He smiled softly, then more broadly, looking down again at his feet. “Don’t worry about it. I do it all the time.”
“I have the feeling we’re cut from the same cloth, you and I. MIT, huh?”
“And Johns Hopkins. Same professors there, too.”
Tim snorted a laugh, holding his ribs again when the action hurt a little. “No wonder you hacked me.”
“Like I said,” she whispered. “You need some new moves.”
He smiled again. “I’ll take that under advisement, Not Quite Agent Stokes.”
She didn’t say anything in return for a while, and McGee’s brow furrowed. Had he offended her?
When she did speak, it was very soft. “Tim?”
He turned his head. “Hey,” he said quickly, “I’m sorry if I said anything that—“
“No, Tim…” She trailed off again. “I…. That’s not it.”
He looked up at the window. “Then what?”
“If…if we get out of this…”
He frowned again. “Yeah?”
“Would you go to dinner with me?”
He closed his eyes and nodded to the empty room, smiling. “I’d love to.”
Again, a long moment of silence, until, with a truly happy note in her voice for the first time, Tara whispered, “Okay. Good night, Tim.”
“Good night, Tara.”
He waited a moment, to see if she would speak again. When she didn’t, he levered himself up off the wall and walked back to the narrow cot. Settling down, he wrapped the blanket tightly around his body again and tried to get some sleep.
He was still awake when they came to get him at 5:00 am.