McGee didn't look any better than Charlie did, was Sinclair's first thought. Maybe a little less pale, but Sinclair had the sneaking suspicion that it was merely because McGee's hair was lighter and provided less of a contrast to point up the lack of circulating blood inside. What McGee gained in color, he lost to the remnants of a black eye. He'd gotten roughed up, Sinclair remembered Gibbs saying, early on when the kidnappers thought that he was Professor Penfield. Couple of broken ribs, couple of bruises hidden underneath the hospital gown. Gibbs's lips had tightened when he'd said that, and Sinclair remembered thinking that Dr. Levenger and her people were lucky to be in NSA hands. There would have been a few more bruises floating around if NCIS had won the tug of war.
Don was here, but only because Gibbs had all but dragged him away from his brother. It had been touch and go for over an hour, Don biting his already bitten nails to the quick, but the mathematician was still alive. They'd left Colby behind with a couple of burly Marines to guard the door from all lower forms of life including microbes and kidnappers, with the nurses' assurance that this time Charlie would continue to breathe for the next few hours. After the last episode, David Sinclair was more likely to trust them than the surgeon. They'd stabilized him for the moment, and that was the best that any of them could hope for.
There was still national security, and the very real possibility that they could all go up in a mushroom cloud if they didn't get the code. Since Charlie wasn't able to help, they turned to the next best thing: Special Agent Timothy McGee.
The Mossad officer, Ziva David, had stayed with him, and Sinclair surmised that she held a similar spot on the team that Colby did: nothing was going to get through her to the injured man lying on the hospital bed. Sinclair had had some experience with Mossad during his time in the Middle East, and he had a healthy respect for their training and skill. They weren't perfect, but getting in one's way was a quick path to a short and inglorious end to life.
McGee hadn't stirred when Sinclair and Don and Gibbs had entered, and none of the three had disturbed him until DiNozzo and the forensics woman—Abby was her name—came in bearing the laptop that they'd surreptitiously recovered from the crime scene.
"Any trouble?" Gibbs wanted to know.
DiNozzo shook his head. "Nothing, boss, although my cell phone buzzed a few times. I let it go to voice mail; it would be illegal to talk on the cell while driving, and I wouldn't want to show a bad example to the public at large."
"Agent Fornell was walking in as we were leaving," Abby explained. "I think he was looking for you, Gibbs."
"He was waving," DiNozzo confirmed. "He must like you very much, boss."
"Little thick, DiNozzo," Gibbs grunted. "Fornell knows where I am, and he'll be here soon. Where's the damn laptop?"
"Right here." DiNozzo produced the ubiquitous black canvas bag, dropping it onto the bedside table and pulling the electronic marvel from within. Not satisfied with that, Abby tapped the power button to turn the thing on.
Voices hadn't disturbed the injured man in the bed. Not even DiNozzo's inadvertent jostling at the foot had cause him to stir, but the familiar tune of the awakening computer perked McGee right up. He opened his eyes, winced, closed his eyes, and finally opened them one last time to stare blearily at his visitors. "Boss?"
"McGee." In deference to the man's condition, Gibbs kept his voice soft. "How are you feeling?"
Another wince that McGee tried and failed to cover up. "Not too bad, boss," he lied. Panic struck, and he looked around. "Professor Eppes! They went after him—"
"He's safe, McGee," Ziva told him. "He's recuperating in the room upstairs." No need to tell you that the next floor up belongs to the Intensive Care Unit.
"Good." McGee settled back onto the white linens, strength spent by merely that small activity. He stared at the laptop that Abby and DiNozzo had brought in, hungrily devouring the sight of the electronic tool.
"It's the one you were working on," Don confirmed for him, watching the NCIS agent for any sign of acknowledgment. "You and Charlie."
"Charlie." McGee was momentarily confused. "Oh. You mean Professor Eppes."
"Right." Don had always had difficulty calling his brother 'professor'. 'Tagalong' and 'twerp' always seemed to come to mind so much more easily, David recalled Don telling him once. 'Major annoyance' also figured in there.
Don kept going. "Charlie—Professor Eppes, I mean—and you worked on the code, right on this computer. This is the one we took from the room where they were keeping you."
McGee stared at the thing. Sinclair felt ice grow in the pit of his stomach. The code, he was certain, was going to stay locked inside the laptop, until Charlie woke up enough and in good enough health to be able to tell them the password. They could only hope that it would be in time.
Gibbs wasn't giving up. He pulled the chipped wooden hospital chair over to the side of the bed, sitting down beside McGee. "McGee," he said. "McGee," he repeated, carefully pulling the man's befuddled attention to him. "McGee, the laptop. You used it, right? Back at the mansion, when they thought that you were Professor Penfield."
"Penfield," McGee agreed, struggling to keep his eyelids open.
"You helped Professor Eppes crack the code," Gibbs prodded. "Right?"
"Right." The words were definitely slurred. Sinclair could barely hear them. McGee tried to wake himself with an effort. "Right," he repeated, this time with more energy.
"You put a password onto the laptop, so that they couldn't get in. That was your safety net. Your protection."
"Right." But this answer held more doubt.
"Did you, McGee?" Under normal circumstances, it would have been a growl, followed by a whack to the back of the head. Not this time.
"Password." No question about it; McGee wasn't remembering it.
Don slid into the process. "Maybe Charlie—Professor Eppes—set up the password?"
That seemed to sit better. "Yeah. I think so." McGee thought for a long moment, so long that at first Sinclair thought that he'd drifted off again. "Yeah. Professor Eppes set up the password. I told him to. Told him to escape, that I'd cover him. More important for him to get away."
Sinclair saw Don's fists clench. The FBI team leader had known that he owed his brother's life to this agent's bravery, but this confirmed it beyond any possible doubt. Sinclair wondered if the FBI could bestow any medals onto an NCIS agent? If it could be done, Don would make it happen.
Gibbs went back to the issue at hand, the one that would keep the world from immolation. "What was the password, McGee? Did he give it to you?"
"No." McGee's face fell, then turned to puzzlement. "Said that I could figure it out, if I thought about it."
"Then he must have given you a clue," Gibbs prodded. "The password meant something to you."
"If Dr. Levenger and her gang thought that McGee was the key to the password and the code, they'd be more likely to keep him alive," Colby muttered in an aside to Sinclair.
"It was a number that meant something to you," Gibbs guessed. "What number did you give him? Your social security number? Driver's license? Badge number?"
"Maybe a word," Ziva suggested from behind Gibbs.
"A name," Abby chimed in. "That would mean something to you, McGee, like he said. Try 'McGee'," she offered, swiveling the laptop around to tap in the potential password.
Beep. Snidely. Sinclair found it amazing that a single beep could encompass so much emotion.
"That's not it," Ziva murmured. "Timothy?"
"Maybe Gibbs?" Abby guessed. "DiNozzo?"
DiNozzo shook his head. "Professor Eppes didn't know any of us; probably didn't have the opportunity to ask about our names. How about 'Levenger'?"
That too didn't get them into the files.
Then it hit Don like a tsunami. "It was a name that meant something to both Charlie and McGee. Who would that have been? Who did they both know?" At the blank looks, he hurried on. "Penfield!"
"That's it." McGee didn't have enough strength to warrant an exclamation point, but he tried. "It was Professor Penfield. He didn't tell me, but he knew that I'd guess that. And that Ms. Marple wouldn't think of him."
"Ms. Marple?" DiNozzo looked confused.
"That must have been Dr. Levenger's name for herself," Ziva decided, and, at DiNozzo's look of disbelief, added, "Agatha Christie's novels have been translated into many languages, Tony. You should try reading one. English will do. That was the language they were originally written in."
"Let's try it." Don grabbed the laptop and tapped in the name before the two NCIS agents could spar any further.
"With a number? The number one?"
"The number two," Don said, desperation uppermost. "Charlie always thought that Penfield was second best."
"Dammit." Don refused to raise his voice, but it was a close thing. "I was so sure!"
"It was Penfield." McGee too was puzzled. "It…was…Professor…Pen…"
The second tsunami hit, only this time it aimed for the other team leader in the room. Gibbs turned from McGee to Don Eppes. "Eppes, your brother; what was his relationship with Professor Penfield?"
"Marshall Penfield? Dislike is one way to put it. 'Despise' would also qualify." Don couldn't see where Gibbs was going, but hope was there.
"No love lost?"
"None whatsoever." Don was willing to play along.
Gibbs went straight for the throat. "Upstairs, with your brother, he said one word. 'Class', maybe?"
"Could be. Penfield class."
"But he didn't like Penfield. Not 'class'. He said—"
"Ass!" Don jumped back at the laptop.
"That's it!" McGee opened his eyes. He had little time and he knew it, so he used it to say the one phrase that the room needed to hear.
"Penfield underscore ass."