The old plumber's van rattled down the dirt track and pulled up with a jerk just inside the gates. The journey had been painfully slow and arduous, with a stilted air between driver and passenger. Callen regarded the driver - who was unknown to him and had not offered introductions - with the utmost suspicion. The feeling was clearly mutual and the drive back had taken place in complete silence. Callen remained alert, constantly checking his surrounding and making note of any vehicles that stayed with them for longer than a few minutes and checking for cars dropping off and replacements appearing. In contrast the driver had been relaxed, albeit with a permanent scowl on his face. Callen opened the passenger door and jumped out, pausing to steady himself before slamming the door closed, not in temper but to make sure the door actually shut and remained so. The driver was chatting quietly to Lyneham who handed him a brown envelope which was quickly checked and tucked in a shirt pocket. Deeks seized the opportunity and broke into a jog to greet his wayward partner and brother with a bear hug.
'Jeez man, you got me worried,' he whispered in Callen's ear. 'You ok?'
He'd seen Callen more beaten up than he looked now but had noted the slight pause after Callen exited the van. He knew Callen had been knocked out momentarily after the explosion and it looked like he could be slightly concussed.
'Bit sore,' Callen returned quietly. 'Thomason or Stone must have placed the bombs. They'd both gone by the time I came out with Sam.'
'They've already had a powwow. Wouldn't tell me anything.'
They pulled away from each other and Callen switched his attention to Lyneham who was approaching him, now the van was making what looked to be a ten point turn to exit the ranch. His face was a mixture of concern and relief. Ariel hovered at a distance, her face unreadable.
'We need to talk. Now.' Callen said before Lyneham could even open his mouth.
'You read my mind.' Lyneham replied seriously. 'Be careful.' He mouthed the words so only Callen could see before asking him to follow him to the ranch.
Callen understood the warning and nodded an acknowledgement, raising his eyebrows at Deeks as he walked past and smiled tightly.
'You don't me to come with you?' Deeks called after them, partly in jest and partly out of guilt that Callen was entering the lion's den alone.
'If I get scared I'll call you for you to hold my hand.' Callen called back.
'Wow. Such a jerk.' Deeks walked away with a smile on his face. It wasn't ideal but he felt like he was spraying his territory, making sure everyone knew he would support and fight for his brother, whatever the cost.
Callen entered the ranch and followed Lyneham and Ariel through to the kitchen. Gathered around the table were Raider, Stone and Thomason. He looked each one of them in the eyes and sensed their mistrust. This was going to be an interesting debrief and he certainly had a few questions to ask as to who wanted him dead and why. Each of the men held his stare and unsurprisingly Thomason was the first to look away. A thought suddenly struck Callen. Maybe they thought he had switched out the smoke grenades for an actual explosive, that he was out to sabotage the group for some unknown reason. How would his word stack up against the others? They'd had the afternoon and evening to compare stories. Maybe they were surprised to see him back?
'So,' Ariel started. 'DuValle's dead. He was found at lunchtime with his throat slit. One of the women used to be a doctor and thinks he'd been dead between five and eight hours. You were seen outside the barn, after you were again told to stay in your lodgings.'
She stood at the head of the table, hands resting on the back of the chair. There was no glimmer of friendliness, just a steely, accusatory look.
'What?' Callen stood still, shocked by the words he was hearing. 'That wasn't me.'
'It was.' Ariel continued. 'Various rooms are wired, including the barn and we've heard the conversation you had before you killed him.'
'You're lying. It wasn't me,' he repeated.
'We know you weren't in your room.' Ariel said.
'You got that tapped too?' Callen asked, relieved his paranoia had kept their covers intact, or at least he hoped. 'Last time I saw DuValle he was being marched over to the barn. How do I know he's really dead and this isn't a trick? Where's the body?'
'Why would we lie? And that was the last time you saw him.' Ariel persisted. 'We never discussed why you broke curfew to get in here last night. You clearly have no respect for the rules. And half of us saw you almost kill DuValle in cold blood until you realised you had an audience. You broke into the ranch, and when you couldn't kill DuValle, you again snuck out, broke into the barn and finished what you started. DuValle was stabbed and his throat was cut. No one else would have done it and you wanted to shut him up. The evidence is stacked against you.'
'The evidence is circumstantial at best,' Callen replied. 'Is that why you tried to kill me today? Switching the tear bombs for actual explosives? Your own form of justice?'
He looked around the table again, thinking he had to stop Ariel talking and manoeuvre the conversation away from their made-up murder. They had no evidence and he was much more interested in why he was nearly blown up. Stone had been perfectly amenable when they were undercover; competent and professional and they had worked well together. His face now was impassive. He was most definitely on Ariel's side. Raider as always was half attentive, half distracted. At a push, Callen thought he could count on Raider, if nothing else than for the bond he had forged with Deeks. Provided of course, he wasn't some rogue element sent to trick them or even another undercover agent. Callen still heeded Deeks' warning that Raider was hinky. Thomason was a write-off, and that left Lyneham. How far could he really trust the man he'd been sent undercover to monitor?
'No one's trying to kill you, man.' Stone piped up. 'They were all meant to be smoke bombs and tear gas.'
'So who switched them?' Callen asked.
'Maybe you?' Ariel answered. 'Maybe it was your plan to avoid awkward questions about DuValle.'
'Why the hell would I try to blow myself up and then come back here?' Callen said.
'Try? You did blow yourself up. In fact you look pretty healthy for someone allegedly caught in an explosion.' Ariel cast her eyes over Callen and smirked.
Callen sighed in exasperation. He was clearly on a losing streak and found himself instinctively searching for support from Lyneham, who duly obliged and spoke up.
'I looked at the bombs in the stores Ariel, I told you this. Someone has switched out at least half a dozen more for real explosives.'
'Doesn't prove anything.' Ariel retorted.
'You're right,' Callen admitted.
The conversations were going nowhere and Lyneham's half-hearted attempt at support had done little to further his cause. He was tired. He'd been awake since the early hours of the morning, lurching from one disaster to another and his adrenaline was finally ebbing.
'This is total bullshit and I'm outta here. I'll grab my stuff and Billy and me will be gone within ten minutes.'
Callen really did not care that he was about to extract both him and his partner from the operation. Gut instinct and professional experience suggested the ranch would be raided within the next twenty-four hours at most, so their leaving would have little, if any impact. He threw a dirty look at Ariel as he strode past, heading towards the door and his shared lodgings. He heard chairs scrape along the floor and he kept walking, anticipating the first pull on his arm that would prevent him from leaving.
He was spun round and came face to face with Stone who had grabbed his left arm in a vice like grip. Callen automatically balling up his right hand and swung at Stone, but his punch was anticipated and easily blocked. Stone swiftly aimed a return body blow to the solar plexus, causing Callen to instantly collapse to the floor. He lay there winded, gasping for breath and unable to move. Stone was huge, bigger than Sam in every way and if he was acting as Ariel's enforcer, he would have no chance of surviving a fight. After what seemed like minutes, the intensity of the pain eased and Callen struggled to his feet, catching his breath and trying to calm his heart which was pounding.
'What...the...f-?' He asked haltingly.
'The only place you're going is to the barn,' Ariel said. 'See if you have fond memories of the place where you finally slit DuValle's throat.'
'You hated him...Why do you...care? I...don't understand...' Callen said between shallow breaths.
'Look,' Lyneham spoke up. 'A lot has happened over the last few weeks - and these last twenty four hours. There's a perception that control is slipping and the common vector is you. I know you didn't kill DuValle.' Lyneham paused to stare at Ariel. 'And the thought that you deliberately attempted to sabotage the mission today or tried to blow yourself up is just insane.' Lyneham again paused to look at Ariel, taking his time to make sure his point was made. 'Let's walk...'
'What? You want me caged so whatever psycho who killed DuValle can kill me?'
'Y'know he has a point.' Raider now stood in front of Stone, using himself as a barrier between the walking giant and Callen.
Callen rolled his eyes and looked up at the ceiling. This day really could not get any worse. He didn't care where he was imprisoned, the threat level would be the same.
'Why don't you just drive me and Billy somewhere remote and miles away from here and we'll be gone.' Callen said.
'Because you know who we are, where our base is and what our plans are.' Ariel said. She was losing control of the situation quickly and was desperate to convince everyone of the threat Callen posed.
'D'you think I'll go to the cops and say I know of this group in the mountains who've launched two attacks in LA. And by the way I helped plan and set the bombs in the welfare office. Oh, and they've also accused me of murder.'
'Well, that's another good point,' Raider conceded. 'I don't think he'll go to the cops Ariel.'
If looks could kill, Raider would have shrivelled up and died on the spot. Ariel was seething with a barely contained fury which flushed her face.
'DuValle knew something about you, more than that crap about your name. You killed him before he could tell us.'
'Well Thomason is the tech wizard and DuValle's man on the inside. Maybe he can tell you coz I sure as hell can't. In fact he must've edited that recording to make me look guilty.'
Thomason was still standing in the kitchen archway, safely keeping his distance from the violence he feared would erupt at any moment. He chewed on his bottom lip and mumbled a response. Ariel narrowed her eyes further and took a threatening step towards Thomason, who took the hint and repeated himself, this time speaking clearly.
'Anton thought Rob was a fraud, that his military records were fake. I didn't agree. He's the real deal and I even spoke to his former Captain. Anton was jealous of Josh and Rob's friendship, he was paranoid and twisted.'
'So he planted the explosives?' Callen challenged Thomason. Surely the kid knew something that could help him.
The sound of the door opening caused them to turn, the conversation pausing as Deeks entered the room. He remained by the door, deliberately leaving it open and assessed the scene in front of him. There had clearly been an argument, which Deeks had partially overheard, and the men had taken an aggressive stance by surrounding Callen who still had a protective arm around his midriff.
'It doesn't look like y'all being too friendly with my brother,' he said without a hint of a smile. 'In fact looks like someone's punched him in the stomach. I'm thinking that would be you, Stone. And on Ariel's instructions. You'd better tell me what the hell is going on...'
'Anton DuValle is dead and they want to pin it on me.' Callen said.
'You've gotta be kidding me! It's one of you psychos who did it. Probably the same person who tried to blow Rob up earlier today.' Deeks remained calm and alert, aware this could be a pivotal moment in their survival.
'They were just about to let us grab our stuff and escort us off the property,' Callen took a tentative step towards Deeks. He did not want to turn his back on any of them, not just yet.
'That is not going to happen,' Ariel said. 'You -'
Ariel's words were interrupted with a distant rumbling that rapidly increased. Lyneham pushed his way past Deeks and stared up at the sky where two helicopters were approaching from the west.
'I don't like this,' he said turning back to the others. 'I think this is a raid.'
'What? How the hell..?' Ariel glared at Rob. 'You led them here.'
'Don't be so stupid. It must've been your driver.' Callen responded. 'We'd better get outta here.'
Lyneham poked his head out the door again, just as the roaring of motor vehicle engines could be heard in the distance. Blaring sirens announced the arrival of LAPD.
'Follow me, out the back and head for the woods.' Lyneham shouted. He pushed Stone and Thomason forwards and grabbed Deeks by the arm, pulling him away from the front door and closing it behind him, temporarily muting the sirens.
'Go, go, go,' Sam shouted the command through his comms.
The order released LAPD and federal vehicles to breach the ranch's perimeter and officers to storm the compound's buildings and barns. The helicopters were circling overhead, providing an aerial view of those individuals making a concerted break for freedom - which happened to be most. Many families huddled together, some retreating into the so-called safety of their homes, shielding their children from the heavily armed teams swiftly swooping through the properties.
The officers and federal agents advanced at pace. They had instructions to arrest everyone and without the use of firearms unless absolutely necessary, which was so far proving successful. Intelligence gathered by Callen and Deeks confirmed no one had been seen carrying weapons, although it was known there was an armoury on site. Arresting everyone would mean there was no risk to Callen and Deeks' aliases in case they were required to help elicit information from the main suspects. Sam and Kensi had previously been seen by Stone, Thomason and Raider, and they'd reluctantly accepted Hetty's instructions to remain in the command vehicle, monitoring events from a safe distance.
'Agent Hanna, we got seven runners from the main building, six male, one female headed towards the woods to the rear,' the tactical flight officer said over the noise of the helicopter.
'Copy that,' Sam replied.
The two NCIS agents viewed the chase on one of the many screens which lined the surveillance van. Various LAPD officers body cameras could be enlarged from a minor image to the main monitor and they watched the pursuit intensely, both wishing they could be there to ensure the safety of their respective partners. The slowest runner was also the youngest, Thomason and he was quickly tackled to the ground by one of the supporting Special Agents. Ariel and Stone were next, the large man exerted his strength, fighting off two agents until a third managed to train his gun on him. The remaining four, Callen, Deeks, Lyneham and Raider were drawing closer to the tree line which, although not dense enough for hiding, would mean their passage as well as that of their pursuers would be slowed. Aerial shots from the helicopter provided an overview and three LAPD vehicles veered around the side of a barn, rapidly gaining on the fugitives. The cars skidded to a halt across the scrub land, pulling level with the sprinting men. Eight officers leaped from the vehicles and gave chase, covering the distance with fresh legs, giving them the advantage. An officer successfully brought one of the men to the ground. Sam squinted at the screen, the helicopter's camera feed clear enough for him to recognise it was neither Callen or Deeks who had been caught. The remaining three men continued their bid for freedom with four officers circling round in an effort to cut them off. They drew their weapons, desperate to bring the chase to a close.
'LAPD. Stop or you will be Tased. This is your only warning.' The officer's voice was clear and authoritative through the communications system in the van.
Sam and Kensi glanced at each other, knowing the men would not stop. The warning was duly ignored and seconds later Tasers were fired into the men. Each fell to the ground; the barbs pierced the skin and unleashed the electric current into their bodies. The men twitched uncontrollably as their muscles spasmed, the contractions were relentless.
'We need EMTs. Now,' Kensi said, almost jumping when the sirens immediately blared from the paramedic van parked close by.
They switched their attention to another screen, where an LAPD officer trained his gun on the prone men. There seemed to be slight movement and the officers approached with caution aware of the varying effects Tasers had on individuals. Slowly they extracted the barbs and once clear, proceeded to roughly pull the suspects arms behind their backs and slapped on the handcuffs.
'We got a body,' a new voice came over the comms.
Kensi scanned the monitors and the top right screen showed the body of a man lying on the floor in a darkened area. The officer leaned forward, the black area around the neck was blood. She manoeuvred her body camera so the victim's face was in shot.
'You got that Agent Blye?' she asked.
'Yes, it looks like Anton DuValle,' Kensi turned to Sam. 'Well there's no disputing that he's been killed.'
'No. No there is not,' he said grimly. 'We need to rip this place apart and then rip apart those men.'
They watched as the remaining inhabitants of the ranch were rounded up and called in to ops, briefing Hetty with an update. Processing the scene would continue throughout the evening and well in to the next day. The FBI were being called in to assist. The key members of the terrorist group were to be separated and transported to LAPD to be booked and interviewed. It had already been agreed that the two main players, Lyneham and Ariel would later be taken to the boatshed for interrogation. Callen and Deeks too would be separated with the appearance of being transferred to LAPD. Instead their vehicles would be diverted to the boatshed were they would be debriefed. The plan had been agreed by the NCIS team and the only unexpected event was the Tasering of the four men, two of whom were their own undercover agents. The paramedics arrived on the scene and Sam and Kensi observed their assessments of the four men. Deeks had recovered quickly. He was now seated in handcuffs and talking to the medics in an animated fashion. He was clearly not happy and kept turning towards Callen and gesturing with his head. Another medic beckoned to his colleague and the two helped Callen walk to the ambulance.
'This is Agent Hanna, give me a sit-rep on those men now.'
The LAPD officer following raised his radio to his face and spoke. 'One of the suspects needs to be checked out. He fell hard with the Taser. Looks like he's taken a beating in the last few hours. Head injury, possible concussion and bruised, maybe broken ribs.'
Sam could already hear Callen through the police officer's comms, loudly stating he was fine and did not need to be checked out or go to hospital. He smiled broadly and looked at Kensi in relief. Callen was going to be fine. The team was nearly back together and it was time to put this case to bed.