Let it snow, Let it snow, Let it snowBeta:
Many thanks Alaidh for the beta.Pairing:
Continuing on from “The Loganising of Tony” – this one even has a plot!CHAPTER 10
The weather had deteriorated again while they were in the bike shop. It looked like the couple of early hours of watery sunshine were all they would get as the sky darkened. Tony backed out into the street again and turned in the direction they had come, heater on and the wipers cutting swathes across the windshield. “What’s up, Kate, cold?” he asked as Kate hugged herself, snuggling down into the seat.
“A little,” she replied dryly.
“Crap!” Tony exclaimed, sharply pushing on the control lever as a car shot out of a side street, nearly clipping the closest fender of the Mustang in the process. The sports car slewed to the side in the slippery conditions, and Kate bumped her head against the window as they came to a stop.
“Hey, you want me to drive? I mean, really…”
Tony pouted. “I’m a good driver,” he snapped childishly.
“Compared to what?” Kate couldn’t resist the opportunity to take a dig at him.
"Very funny, Kate, just like...Abbott and Abbott." He leaned forward over the steering wheel and took a couple of deep breaths, muttering almost under his breath, “I’m an excellent driver.”
“Hey, you okay?” she asked. “What’s the matter? What can I do?” Even to his ears, she sounded tense.
“Absolutely nothing...” He grinned at her. For some reason, the fact that Kate had yet again missed one of his movie references made all the frustrations of Christmas worthwhile.
“So tell me,” Kate said a moment later, “what’s with all that weird stuff in your father’s office?”
Tony’s jaw clenched and a muscle in his cheek twitched. “What stuff? I haven’t been in his office in years.” He was trying to keep it light, but wasn’t sure he had succeeded in the end. He missed the odd look Kate gave him as he concentrated on steering the car around a bend.
“The old uniforms and a bunch of antique guns and swords.”
“Oh, that stuff. That’s part of his hobby.”
“What – collecting war memorabilia?”
“No.” Tony’s voice was tight. “Civil war re-enacting.” Tony stared straight ahead out of the windscreen, only giving Kate a quick sidelong glance. He hoped she wouldn’t question him further or ask whether he had ever had a part to play in it all. “Little poo boy” – the boy who carried around the bucket for the horses to…he suppressed the shudder that threatened to erupt at the memory. He became aware that Kate was laughing and gave her an enquiring look.
“Oh, Tony, that’s just so…”
“Funny? Embarrassing?” There was a note of anger in his voice.
“No, I was going to say it was out of character. I mean, your father just seems so…”
Tony relaxed and nodded. “Ah, here we are,” he said, pulling into a parking spot in front of a modern building labeled “Cold Harbor Gym & Health Club.”
Kate waited for him at the door. They entered the building together, only to have Tony immediately distracted as a pair of attractive blondes carrying sports bags, from which a pair of racquet handles protruded, crossed in front of them. He followed them with his eyes, not moving, while Kate walked to the counter.
“Hey, Tony!” Kate called from her position behind the only customer at the desk.
Tony shook his head to clear his mind of the distraction and pushed forward to join her as she spoke to the clerk. “Special Agents Todd and DiNozzo, NCIS,” she said, flashing her shield. “We’d like to talk to the manager.”
The young staff member behind the desk pointed down the corridor to his left. “Office at the end. I’m not allowed to leave the desk unattended, but I’ll let him know you’re coming.” The staff member picked up a phone to let the manager know he had visitors, as Kate and Tony headed off down the passage.
They had only traveled about ten yards when Tony reached out a hand and touched Kate’s wrist as they passed a group of lockers lining the left hand wall – set up in rows of four numbered from 1A to 30D. Locker 27B was there, its metal door scored by countless scratches, but the newly attached number shining clear. Kate nodded and started walking again with Tony following. The corridor was filled with the all-pervading aroma of paint fumes, and there was evidence of the work that had been recently completed. The paint fumes competed with the strong smell of chlorine from the pool, the lapping water of which could be seen through a pair of glass paneled doors halfway down the corridor. An aquarobics class was in session, judging by the pounding techno pop coming from within.
The end of the passage was marked by a crinkled drop-sheet, which spanned the space between the walls, and a pile of equipment, including two ladders, some tins of paint and brushes, which lined one side. Tony kicked the front of the chair up in a small wheelie to get over the edge of the drop sheet, which had been kicked up into a ridge by the passage of feet.
A brisk, “Come in,” answered Kate’s knock at the door of the manager’s office. She held the door back to allow Tony to enter without scraping the newly painted blue door. She was well aware the damage Tony’s chair could cause to paintwork, having seen scrapes around the driver’s door area of his car. He continually lamented the damage he did to the Mustang. The manager was on the phone. He gestured for Kate to take a seat and frowned while he finalized his call.
The two agents took the opportunity to look around them as they waited. The office was small and bright – not cramped but airy owing to the presence of a large picture window overlooking the terrace outside the gym’s café, currently not in use. A couple of filing cabinets lined the wall behind the manager’s desk, and sitting on top of that, waiting to be re-suspended from its hooks, was a large whiteboard. The room was obviously newly painted in the regulation blue they’d seen elsewhere in the building. The manager himself was in keeping with his surroundings, tall, aged in his thirties with light blonde hair and blue eyes. He looked healthy, but not particularly handsome, and had a solid, muscular build although without the bulk of a body-builder.
Tony ran his eyes over the items noted on the whiteboard. There was a list of names running across the top in columns with times and duties for each day noted underneath in gym shorthand. He read across the list of names, his lips moving slightly as he concentrated on the small writing: Sharon, Brad, Mike, Lisa, Nataliya, Jackson…Nataliya
…Tony flashed back in his head to the previous day in the park, seeing clearly the card from the gym with the name scrawled on the back. Kate caught the sudden stillness in her co-worker and glanced over at him, seeing his eyes narrow as he followed down the column under Nataliya’s name. 9:45 A/R he read for that day, and nothing further until early afternoon – A/R, whatever that was, at 1:30 pm.
Tony reached into his pocket and pulled out the fax copy of the membership card and the note with the name “Nataliya” that he’d asked Nick Andrews to send through that morning. Kate looked at it curiously. She’d heard Tony talking to the detective and had rolled her eyes at some of the more juvenile references…and the whole house had heard him bellow up the stairs a few minutes later. “Probie! There’s a fax coming through! It’s for me! Can you bring it downstairs!”
The manager finally ended his phone call and hung up. “Sorry about that. Geoff Carlson,” he said, offering his hand to the nearest of the two agents – Kate as it happened.
She ignored it and flashed her ID. “Special Agents Todd and DiNozzo, NCIS,” she said.
“NCIS…” The enquiry hung in the air.
“Naval Criminal Investigative Service,” Tony filled in.
“Ah, okay. And what brings NCIS to Cold Spring Harbor Gym?”
“We’re making enquiries about one of your members,” Kate stated. “William Andrew Johnson.”
Geoff swiveled his chair to face the computer on the credenza at the side of his desk. Typing with two fingers, he keyed in the name and waited.
“We have a copy of his membership card, if that helps,” Tony said, but didn’t hand over the fax.
“Give me the number,” Geoff said.
“Ah, that’s better.” Geoff leaned back in his chair as the details appeared on his screen. “What information do you need?”
“When did he last visit the gym?” Kate held her palm pilot in her hand, ready to take down the answers.
“Two days ago.”
“And before that?” Tony asked.
“Before that, the last time was September.”
“He was at sea for a couple of months,” Kate stated, “so that makes sense.”
“Were you acquainted with Commander Johnson at all?” Tony asked.
“No,” replied the manager. “But I know he was a friend of Nataliya’s. She introduced him to the gym back in July and she mentioned him a few times. They were friends, I believe.”
Tony and Kate exchanged looks. “Can we talk to her?”
Geoff spun around to face the whiteboard. “She’s taking an aquarobics class right now.” He looked at his watch. “She should be free in about ten minutes or so – these classes are never on time,” he said. He turned back to face the two agents. “Back down the main corridor – just go left into the main pool. She should be at the far end.”
“Just one more question,” Tony said. “Who has locker 27B?”
Geoff exited the membership program and looked up what appeared to be an ordinary list of names and numbers on his computer. “William Johnson.”
Tony looked across at Kate. “Do you have a key to locker 27B?”
“I’m not sure. It was a toss-up as to whether the lockers would be replaced or not – they’re old …a lot of the spare keys are missing. As you may have gathered, the gym is under new management – lots of renovations. Normally, the lockers are in the change rooms, but at the moment, due to painting, they’re in the hallway – nowhere else to put them. Look, what’s this about anyway? What happened to Mr. Johnson?”
Kate and Tony exchanged looks. “He was murdered,” Kate said.
“Ah…in that case…” Geoff reached into his drawer and came out with a large bundle of keys all looped onto a length of blind cord. “27B…” He picked through the keys. “Doesn’t look like it’s here. Is that a problem?”
“Not really,” Tony said cheerfully, looking forward to some lock-picking. “I think we should go and speak with Nataliya now, Kate.” He looked at his watch and noted that it was nearly time for the class to finish.
The Manager reached out to shake Kate’s hand.
They retraced their steps down the corridor to the main pool entrance. Nataliya
. The name conjured up in Tony’s head the image if a petite, seemingly delicate, Russian gymnast. The reality was somewhat different. Nataliya was certainly petite – barely five feet tall in her running shoes - but well-muscled and with ramrod straight posture. Her light brown hair was tied back in a severe ponytail and the lack of make-up merely emphasized the sallowness of her complexion and the darkness of her brown eyes. She projected the no-nonsense air of a drill sergeant as she conducted the class, grim and unsmiling, to the tune of the pounding music from a karaoke machine. There was a faint Slavic tinge to her speech, “Sceessorrs, turrn…that’s it, ladieesss…” as she put the class of middle-aged matrons through their paces. She noted the presence of the two NCIS agents, but continued with the cool down process at the end of the class without interruption.
“Thanks, ladieesss, I’ll see you next time.” Nataliya turned away to pack up the karaoke machine, a signal that the class was over. The two NCIS agents took this as their signal to approach. As they did, two other gym employees open the door of a storage locker and rolled out a large mobile storage reel around which were wound a number of lane markers. The obstacle blocked their path for a moment, as the two employees pushed it in the direction of the end of the pool. The awkward passage of the reluctantly rolling reel forced them to take evasive action.
Kate stepped back quickly, almost colliding with her co-worker. “Hey, easy, Kate.”
“Sorry,” she said.
“Hey, cutie,” the woman on the nearer side of the reel said as she pushed past. Tony caught a glimpse of the name on her shirt, Sharon, as they passed him by. She gave him a grin and raised an eyebrow, to which he responded with a grin of his own, before Kate tapped him on the shoulder to get his attention. Even then he still looked back at her; at five-eight and about one hundred and fifty pounds, the short-haired green-eyed brunette was very much to his taste.
With Tony’s attention still diverted, Kate caught up with the instructor. “Excuse me, are you Nataliya?”
“Yes, I’m Nataliya Petrovska,” she replied, setting the karaoke machine back on the ground. “Are you from the police?”
“Special Agents Todd and DiNozzo, NCIS.” Kate flashed her ID. “We’d like to ask you a few questions.
Nataliya nodded. “I wass expecting the police,” she said. “NCIS. This is good, I think.”
“Is there somewhere more private we can talk?” Kate asked.
“We can use the staff room.” CHAPTER 11
Nataliya led the two NCIS agents to a small staff room overlooking the pool. Kate shoved a badly placed chair out of the way to let Tony into the room and then shut the door before taking a seat herself. While she booted up her palm pilot, Nataliya fetched a bottle of water from the refrigerator and took a seat opposite the two NCIS agents. She took a long draw from the bottle then waited expectantly. Tony pulled out a notepad and pen, tapping the point in a dotted line along the top of the page.
“Miss Petrovska,” he started.
“Nataliya, please,” she interrupted. “Miss Petrovska is just so…”
“Formal?” Kate asked when Nataliya was unable to find the right word.
Tony raised an eyebrow and continued. “Are you acquainted with William Andrew Johnson?” he asked.
“Yes, I know him,” she smiled. “We are engaged.”
Kate and Tony exchanged glances. “When was the last time you heard from him?” Kate asked.
“Two days ago. He called me. He was supposed to come to dinner at my place. He called to cancel because…he said there was something he have to do. I-I think he was in trouble of some sort.” She stopped and looked uncertainly at the two agents. “Has something happened to him? I have been very worried. I have not heard from him. I called the police this morning. I think they knew something but they would not tell me.”
Kate hesitated and looked across at her co-worker, who wore a pensive expression.
“Please, you must tell me! Has something happened to him?” She looked at each of the NCIS agents in turn and read their expressions then took a deep breath and closed her eyes. She took a moment to gather herself, taking a couple of ragged breaths.
Kate looked at Tony and started to speak. “His body was found on Christmas Day in a park in Huntington.”
Nataliya blanched and nodded, taking a deeper breath as she retracted into herself, eyes closed. When her eyes opened again, they glittered with moisture but she managed to hold back the threatening tears. The only other outward sign of her grief was the agitated movement of her hands as she shredded a paper napkin picked up off the tabletop. Tony was thankful that Kate had been the one to break the news. It was one aspect of his job…and jobs of the past…that he’d always avoided – a fact of which Kate was well aware.
Nataliya placed her trembling hands flat on the table. “Okay, what do you want to know,” she said slowly, a slight waver in her voice.
“What made you think he was in trouble?” Tony asked after a slight hesitation.
“He was very worried. I ask him what’s the problem, but he would not tell me. This was maybe three months ago – before he was back at sea.” She waited as Tony scribbled this on his notepad. “I think his father is also worried about something, but he won’t tell me, too. They both just tell me not to worry – they will fix it.” She gave a sigh. “Bill’s parents – has anyone told them yet?”
“Another agent was going to see them this morning. They weren’t home last night,” Kate answered.
“They are not home. They went to see Bill’s sister in California – she had a baby just before Christmas.”
Tony exchanged a look with Kate. Gibbs wouldn’t be amused at all.
“What do you think?” Tony asked. “What sort of trouble do you think it was?”
“I think…Bill’s dad is a cop. I think maybe he make a mistake and maybe Bill was trying to fix it, like a good son.”
Tony put his pen down, wanting a moment to think. He put his hands down to his wheels and pushed, lifting himself to change position in a movement that had almost become automatic. Nataliya had resumed her shredding, taking up another napkin, placing the pieces in a neat pile on the table. Troubled, she looked between the two agents, still barely keeping herself under control.
“What do you think was happening?”
“He – Bill’s dad – he was having problem with this guy – bad cop. This bad cop – he knew something about Bill’s dad. I think he was threatening to make big trouble. Maybe it was something from long time ago. I don’t know. Sometimes things are not what they seem.” She caught Tony’s eye and gave a watery smile. “Understand me, Bill’s dad is good man – good cop. But maybe mistake was made and Bill try to maybe buy off bad cop and it backfire.” Nataliya’s grasp of English was steadily deteriorating, as she had to work increasingly hard to keep herself together. A moment later, Kate was taking down her contact details, interview over for now.
Tony found himself saying, “Thank you, Nataliya. We know where to find you if we need to speak to you again.”
Then they were in the corridor outside the pool staring up at locker 27B. The lockers themselves were old and bore the scars of many years’ use. Only the number gleamed bright. The lock itself was basic, meant more for courtesy than security, the faceplate badly scratched by many openings and closings. Tony looked up at Kate speculatively. “You game?” he asked.
Kate looked each way down the corridor and followed Nataliya’s progress out of the building with her eyes. She thought briefly and frowned as Tony reached behind him to pull out a pair of gloves from his backpack. “Got a hairpin?” he asked.
Kate looked at him, a slightly exasperated look on her face. “Tony…shouldn’t forensics look at this first? We could be contaminating the evidence.”
“Don’t you wanna know what’s inside?”
“Just as much as you…” She cut the sentence short as her phone started to ring. “Gibbs,” she said into the phone. “We’re done here. We’re gonna head back to the house.”
Tony picked up a few muffled words then a more clear, “Put DiNozzo on,” came from the phone speaker. Kate handed the phone over and he came out with a cheerful, “Hey, boss.” He listened as Gibbs said something then responded, “Yeah, we’re done here. Just one thing, the locker’s here.”
“Have you opened it?”
“No, boss, we…that is, Kate thought…”
Even Kate heard Gibbs’ exclamation. “Open it, DiNozzo! I wanna know what’s inside.”
“Yes, Gibbs.” Tony sounded remarkably happy at that instruction. He gave Kate a triumphant look. He handed Kate back her phone and as she dug in her bag for a hairpin, a paperclip, anything he could use to open the lock, Tony pulled on the gloves he’d already gotten out of the backpack.
Kate eventually came up with a paperclip and was on the receiving end of a cock-eyed grin as Tony worked it into shape. “You don’t have to say it,” she said.
“I told you so.”
“I wasn’t going to.”
“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?”
Tony’s grin broadened into a wide smile. “Sure.” He stuck the bent piece of wire in his mouth for a moment as he moved into position in front of the locker. It was a slightly awkward stretch from below, but it only took a moment or two of careful manipulation for the lock to click open. He pushed back out of the way to let Kate look into the interior of the locker, which was out of his line of sight, a hopeful look on his face. “Well?”
“Nothing. It’s empty. Zip. Nada. Not even dust.”
“Hmmm.” Tony was fumbling for the backpack again. This time he came up with a flashlight, which he handed to Kate with a flourish.
Kate shone the flashlight into the interior of the locker, shining it at an angle to the floor and grimacing at the stale odor. “Yuck, he must have stored thousand year old sweat-socks in here,” she commented. “I can’t see a fiber or anything else. Can we get someone down here now to check it out properly?” Kate asked.
They pulled into the garage of Tony’s parents’ house at just after 11:30 am. As the garage door lowered behind them, Kate was already out of the car and peering out the back door to see if the path had been cleared. “You’re good to go,” she commented. She waited patiently by the door as Tony assembled the chair and transferred then retrieved the backpack from the trunk along with a grayish-looking, threadbare towel that he draped across his knee. Her eyes flared curiously for a moment before she stepped back, allowing him to pass out the door, holding it back against a gusting wind that threatened to slam it in both their faces.
She followed up the path to the patio, again holding the door back until he entered and having to awkwardly crib around him when he stopped just inside. She looked at him again, curiosity satisfied as he shifted his weight onto one wheel and proceeded to wipe down the other with the towel.
“Abs, this isn’t much better than the original.”
“I’ve done what I can with it, Gibbs. I’ve sent a copy to the Naval photo lab to see if they can clean it up more.”
“Okay, Abby. Thanks.”
“What’s up, boss?” Tony asked, watching as McGee reran the cleaned up video on his laptop. He squinted at it curiously, looking for anything that would help identify the two people in the scene. “Stop it there, McGee.”
“What is it, Tony?”
“The guy with his back to the camera…does he have a ring or something – left hand?”
McGee zoomed in on the left hand, caught mid-gesture, losing all clarity in the process, then backed it up to the previous magnification level, which was clearer but a lot smaller. “Can’t really tell. Could be...”
Gibbs leaned over McGee’s shoulder, peering closely at the screen. He gave a non-committal shrug before turning away. “Guess we’ll have to wait on the photo lab,” he said. “Now, what have you got for me?”
“Just a minute,” Tony said, reversing away from the table. He headed into the hall where he’d just heard his grandmother’s measured steps passing the doorway. “Hey, Gran. Can I borrow your glasses for a minute?”
“My glasses?” She looked at him doubtfully even as she slipped them off, unlooping the chain from around her neck.
“Thanks, Gran.” Tony hooked them into the neck of his shirt and spun around to go back into the temporary NCIS office.
Kate, McGee and Gibbs stepped aside from where they’d been peering at the slightly fuzzy frozen image on the computer screen to allow Tony better access, one of them also dragging McGee’s chair out of the way. McGee tittered slightly as Tony donned his grandmother’s steel-framed glasses, earning himself a glare before Tony turned his attention to the blurred hand on the screen. He looked at it closely. The tip of his tongue ran over his lips once, and then he clenched and released his jaws and released of puff of breath as his posture relaxed.
“Well?” Kate finally asked when Tony still didn’t speak.
“He’s definitely wearing a ring. Gold, with some sort of blue stone, I think.”
“You got that, Abs?” Gibbs asked.
“Sure, Gibbs. We’ll see what the photo lab can do with it.”
“Best, I can do, Gibbs,” she responded.
“Gee, dunno, Gibbs. I should have something by tomorrow.”
“Soon as you can, Abby.”
The webcam window blacked out as Abby shut down the program from her end.
Something tickled at the back of Tony’s memory – something half-forgotten – but he just couldn’t bring it out. He made an impatient movement to clear the gathered bodies from around the wheelchair. The glasses were again hooked into the neck of his shirt as he spun around and pushed himself back out to the hallway where his grandmother still waited.
“Thanks for that, Gran,” he said, handing them over.
“You’re welcome, dear,” she said, putting them back on. “Did they help?”
“Sure.” Tony grinned, “We’ll be giving you a badge soon if you keep this up.”
“Don’t be silly, boy. I’m far too old to join the N-C-I-S,” she said, although it was easy to see she was tickled pink at the idea.
Kate was already giving the report of their morning activities to Gibbs as he re-entered the makeshift office. “Well,” she said, “We spoke to the manager at the gym. He didn’t know the victim well but told us he was introduced by one of his staff, Nataliya.”
“She’s the decedent’s girlfriend,” Tony supplied. “Thought he was in some sort of trouble or maybe his father was and he was trying to fix it. She didn’t have any specifics, though.”
“The locker was empty,” Kate continued, “although the ALS picked up something. Could just have easily been traces of sweat from a gym bag, but we called in the local guys to check it out.”
“Any luck with the parents, boss?” Tony asked guilelessly.
McGee raised his eyebrows in warning.
“No, DiNozzo, we didn’t have any luck with the parents.”
“The house was locked up. Neighbor said they’re away for a few days,” McGee added. “Didn’t know where.”
“The Commander has a sister in Southern California. His parents are there.” Tony gave a slightly triumphant grin, only to be smacked on the back of the head by Gibbs.
“Why didn’t you tell us?”
“Didn’t know until we spoke to the girlfriend.”
“On it, boss.” McGee was furiously typing. “Hang on, just a minute,” he said as the keyboard started to spit out the relevant information. “Bethany Anne Smith…”
Gibbs was already dialing the listed phone number.
“Hey, Tony, wake up!” Kate barged into the room without knocking.
The blankets heaved as he reared up on his hands from a facedown position on the bed, his hair mussed with sleep and looking more than a little bleary. “Wha-what?!”
“Abby just sent through the video again.”
Tony collapsed on his chest again. “You woke me up for that? I was in the middle of a dream about…”
“Tony, I don’t want to know about your…fantasies.” The word “sexual” hung in the air between them, but Kate didn’t actually say it.
Tony looked hurt as he rolled on to his side, pushed up into a sitting position and dragged his legs over and off the side of the bed in preparation for a transfer. “That wasn’t what I was dreaming about,” he said, sounding a little hurt, even grumpy. He sat on the edge of the bed for a moment, wearing only a pair of red boxers decorated with reindeer and a white t-shirt, pulled somewhat askew in his sleep. Kate gave a quirky grin. “How festive,” she commented.
Tony looked up her briefly, not sure if she was serious or teasing. “What time is it, anyway?” He leaned forward, elbows on knees, and scrubbed at his face to wake himself up, noting the scratchiness of day-old beard with some distaste.
“It’s nearly 7:30.”
While he stretched and groaned, rolling his shoulders to ease the kinks, he said, “I’ll be there in a minute,” and when she didn’t move, “Kate? I’ll be there in a minute.” He made a shooing gesture with one hand. “Well, maybe more than a minute,” he amended ruefully, thinking about how long it normally took him to dress.
“Oh, okay, sure.” Kate turned away and left the room, shutting the door after her. CHAPTER 12
The complete team were again gathered around McGee’s computer when Tony entered the room, concentrating on the detailed still image Abby had sent them as an addition to the cleaned up video. Tony announced his presence by clearing his throat noisily. It had taken him a while to get dressed and it was obvious they’d proceeded to examine the recording without him, despite the fact that it had been his observation that sent Abby scrambling to the Navy photo lab to work on the image.
Kate looked over her shoulder as she heard the noise and automatically stepped back out of the way, allowing him to slide in beside McGee. As she leaned in over Tony, resting a hand on his shoulder lightly, to get a closer look, she felt him flinch at the touch. He looked back at her curiously for a second. He gave her a hesitant grin then turned his face back to concentrate on the screen. Kate felt him tense again as recognition dawned. “You recognise the ring, don’t you?” she said, straightening up.
He stared out the window for a moment, straightening his back. His voice was grim as he spoke. “It’s familiar…but…,” he acknowledged. “I don’t know, I just can’t quite place it.” He sighed heavily, something niggling at the back of his brain.
Gibbs nodded. “McGee, with me.”
“Where are you going, boss?” Tony asked.
“The victim’s parents fly in shortly.”
Tony waited until Gibbs and McGee had gone before pulling out his phone and flicking through the display to the number he wanted.
“Who you calling?” Kate asked, curiously.
“Nick Andrews,” he said.
“Ah,” Kate replied. “The homicide guy.”
“Yeah. I knew him back in Baltimore. Thought he might remember.” He hit the button to dial the number and waited while it rang. “I can’t take your call right now. Leave a message after the beep.” He left his name and number before hanging up.
“We wait,” he said, nodding.
“DiNozzo.” Tony answered his phone without checking the caller ID, fully anticipating that it would be Nick Andrews returning his call. He’d left a few more messages after the first, and was yet to receive a reply.
“Hello, is that Agent DiNozzo?” a heavily accented female voice said. “This is Nataliya Petrovska.”
“That’s me,” Tony replied, somewhat flippantly. “How can I help you?”
“No, no, you can’t help me,” she said. “I have found some information for you.”
“Okay, shoot,” he replied, reaching for a pen and notepad.
“No, no, you do not understand me. I need you to come here.”
“Here.” His heart sank as he attempted to look out the window at the darkened, threatening skies.
“Yes, here. To my home. This is possible?”
“I guess so. Let me have the address again.” He scribbled on a notepad as she dictated the address.
“How soon can you be here? Twenty minutes?”
“Twenty minutes?” he grimaced. “I don’t know. I’ll try.” He snapped his phone shut, ripped the sheet off the notepad and wrote a quick note to Kate.
The path to the garage was still relatively clear but, with fat, wet flakes of snow again starting to fall, that wouldn’t be the case for long. He pulled the collar of his jacket up close around his neck as something cold and wet made it’s way underneath. “Damn crappy weather. Why’d I have to drag my ass out on such a crappy day.”
Tony pulled the Mustang out of the garage and onto the quiet street. The wet snow was making the roads feel greasy and not pleasant to drive on. Tony grumbled but turned the radio up high, hoping to raise his spirits.
The highway wasn’t much better than the side streets, the salt trucks not having made their way around yet. While Tony was sporting a set of snow tires, the Mustang was not really meant for winter driving – with the powerful engine in the front, the rear wheels had very little weight to give them traction. And, while he was well aware of this, he was still fairly new to driving with the hand controls.
He was having a little trouble keeping the car out of a skid and was concentrating so hard on the road ahead he almost missed his exit.
The exit was approaching a little too quickly. As Tony hit the brakes, the Mustang rebelled, its back end swinging to the left. The entire car swung around into the path of an oncoming tractor-trailer. Tony began to see his life flash before his eyes, but shook it off and quickly reversed the vehicle. Unfortunately the exit came right before an overpass – Tony was on a bridge with no shoulders on which to pull over. Holding his breath, he sped in reverse, praying that the tires would hold the road until he could pull to a stop on the other side.
No luck, the car began a slow skid sideways. The truck was quickly approaching, and Tony was near panicking. He accelerated, turning out of the skid just as he reached the other side of the overpass. He quickly pulled the car over onto the shoulder as the big truck rumbled past. An icy patch caused him to hit the concrete barrier slightly. He winced as he heard it scrape along the passenger side door. He sat there breathing heavily, his heart threatening to pound through his chest.
Up ahead, the truck had slowed to a stop and was shining his big spotlight in Tony’s direction. Tony waved his hand out the window to let the driver know he was okay. The truck’s lights flashed once, and it was on its way once more.
When Tony had ceased trembling enough to continue on, he was able to take the exit on this side of the overpass – he was supposed to be heading north, this one would take him south, but he would be able to turn around on the slower street that passed below the highway.
The rest of the trip to Nataliya’s was fairly uneventful; other than a minor slide at a traffic light, he made it to her apartment in one piece.
Tony boarded the rickety elevator and pressed the button for the fifth floor. Water pooled underneath the wheelchair, running into dips in the cracked linoleum floor as the elevator started its creaking journey up. The single working light flickered and buzzed alarmingly. The interior of the elevator was adorned with graffiti, including an anatomically correct representation of a naked woman artistically scrawled across the back of the door, her lip curled in a “come hither” expression, a long scrape across one shoulder where a piece of protruding metal scraped the door as it opened and closed.
The elevator jerked to a stop on the third floor and a harassed-looking elderly woman clutching the hand of a child with huge solemn eyes boarded the car and pressed the button for the seventh floor. The woman exchanged smiles with Tony, then fussed with something in her handbag while the child fixed him with a stare that he steadfastly refused to meet.
“Mrs. DiNozzo, do you know where Tony went?” Kate asked from the doorway of the vacant temporary office.
“No, dear, I don’t. He left about 30 minutes ago, but he didn’t tell me where he was going. He said he wouldn’t be long. Is something wrong?”
“No, no, it’s fine,” Kate replied with a slight hesitation. “I just tried to call him. Guess he can’t answer his phone or something right now.”
Kate turned back into the “office” and saw the hastily scribbled note Tony had left her on McGee’s computer keyboard, cryptic in the extreme even without the chicken-scratch handwriting. Kate tried Tony’s phone number one last time and let it go to voicemail. She frowned at the note, holding it at an angle to the light, finally realising that she could see the shadow of something that had been written on the previous sheet of paper. She grabbed a pencil and, holding it at an angle, softly shaded over the first few lines on the page to reveal what was written underneath. A sense of foreboding overtook her as she recognised the address she’d recorded the previous day. She grabbed her coat, purse, the backpack they’d taken with them the previous day and snatched up the keys to the car McGee had driven down from Albany and headed out onto the road.
Tony’s car was parked in a handicapped spot in front of the building. Kate noticed, with concern, the large scrape along the door. As she pulled alongside, another car drove off from further up the road. She quickly nosed into the vacated spot. She took the time to look up at the old apartment building framed by a glowering sky and tried Tony’s phone one last time.
The foyer was empty and cold. She shoved her hands deep in her pockets as she waited for the elevator to descend, impatiently tapping one foot as she waited. As she stood there, the lights dimmed and then went out completely, leaving her in the dark, in more ways than one. “Damn,” she muttered. She swung the backpack to the ground and rummaged inside, feeling for the flashlight she’d used to examine the gym locker. Flicking it on, she headed for the fire stairs.
Tony exited the elevator into a dimly lit corridor leaving the other occupants to bump and grind their way up. He took a moment to orient himself in the dim glow of the flickering overhead lights before setting off down the hallway. He peered up at the number on the first door as the light bulb above dulled to a mere glow. “Damn,” he muttered. As he reached up to knock, the lights finally fizzled out completely to the accompaniment of a loud bang from elsewhere in the building. “Great, can this day get any worse?” he asked himself as he sat there in the dark. He heard a couple of doors open, as two or three tenants looked out into the hallway. “Okay, Anthony, get a grip.” He rapped authoritatively on the scratched and peeling door. “Nataliya, it’s Special Agent DiNozzo,” he called out, hearing a noise from within. He waited, and when there was no response, he knocked again and called out more loudly. “Nataliya! It’s Tony! Let me in!”
There was a faint click and the door popped open.
Tony pushed the door open cautiously. This was definitely not what he expected. He pushed through the doorway, using the narrow frame for leverage.
“Nataliya? Nataliya, you really should get a proper dead…” The door closed with a click and he felt something cold pressed against the side of his neck. He stiffened perceptibly.
“Hello, Tony,” a voice whispered – a voice Tony found vaguely familiar, but could not quite place. “Just keep your hands where I can see them.”
Tony raised his hands from the wheelrims and held them up, flinching as he felt fingers moving over his body. Tony felt him remove the phone from his pocket. He stared straight ahead, his eyes adjusting to the gloom. Nataliya was on the opposite side of the room, apparently duct taped to a kitchen chair, flanked on one side by a large pile of boxes. Moving? he wondered. “I’m not armed,” he said, his eyes flicking down as he sensed his captor’s attention had moved to his legs.
“I want you to give me everything you have on this case,” the husky voice whispered.
“I really don’t have much of any-,” Tony was rewarded with a smack on the back of his head as he tried to turn around to take a look at his captor. “Hey! I can’t give you what I don’t have! Geez, I get smacked around enough at work, I don’t need this crap from you.” Tony heard a quiet chuckle coming from his captor. From the sound of it, he was wearing some sort of mask that muffled the whisper, making it almost impossible for Tony to identify the voice.
“Look, you give me nothing, the Russian chick dies.”
Even in the darkness, Tony could see Nataliya’s eyes widen. He hoped what he was giving her was a reassuring look, though he didn’t feel all that reassured himself. “I’m not sure what you want from me,” he said quietly.
“Neither am I,” said the whisper, seemingly resigned.
Tony heard the pistol cock and didn’t think, just acted. He reached up over his head for the arm pointed at Nataliya and pulled it down hard against his shoulder. The gun fired, but the bullet was wide. The gun clattered to the floor.
Rather than grab the gun, the gunman spun around and headed out the door, Tony close behind.
The hallway was much darker than the small apartment, and Tony was wheeling blindly, following the sound of footsteps. There was a dim exit light at the end of the hallway. In its light, Tony could see the entrance to the stairwell. If the gunman reached the stairs, Tony would have very little chance of catching him.
The opening of the heavy fire door slowed him down just enough for Tony to close the gap. He reached up and grabbed the man by the arm, getting an elbow in the face in return. Caught off guard, Tony almost lost his balance, but didn’t let go of the arm.
They were both in the stairwell now, Tony having been pulled in as a result of his tenacious grip as he desperately tried to drag the man off his feet.
The stairwell was pitch black once the fire door had slowly closed behind them. Tony had no idea how big the landing was and hoped desperately that he was far enough from the stairs themselves.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Tony felt a big fist glance off his chin. Still not wanting to let go his grip on the gunman’s right arm, Tony swung madly with his own fist, hoping to land a good punch.
Unfortunately for Tony, the perp had been pulling him closer and closer to the edge of the stairs. He let go of the man’s arm, but was unable to save himself. One wheel caught on the top stair and he toppled over sideways, hitting his head hard against the wall as he fell. Through the fog, he heard the fire door open, followed by running footsteps down the length of the hallway.Chapters 1-3Chapters 4-6Chapters 7-9Chapters 13-14