There wasn't time to call in additional troops. Both the FBI and NCIS headquarters were notified, but even rapid deployment wasn't going to get a team to the dock in time.
The laptop had yielded the code, and it wasn't good. It contained an address—a dock address, to be clear, with the name of the warehouse where whatever it was had been delivered. There was also a time that had passed by several hours; Gibbs surmised that it might have been the delivery time.
There were now two teams, one FBI and one NCIS, streaking toward the site, a total of six Federal agents on a joint case, hoping against hope that the targeted container hadn't already been seized by whoever was determined to destroy the country.
It was a possibility. The delivery time had been designated as approximately ten that morning, according to the code that Charlie had deciphered. It was now just after five in the afternoon; whatever terrorist cell was eagerly awaiting might already have picked it up and was now planning an overload of terror and destruction.
"Not likely," had been Don's take on it. "They won't want to draw attention to themselves. That means that they'll either arrange delivery to a drop house, or they'll sneak in after dark to get it. How secure is the dock?"
"They try," Gibbs told him grimly. "Like the rest of us, they're understaffed—"
"—and underpaid," DiNozzo put in.
"—and don't have a lot to work with," Gibbs finished up, glaring at DiNozzo.
"Bottom line, it's pretty much open to anyone with two cents' worth of smarts." Colby summed it up, grabbing the door handle to the car. "Let's boogie."
Which was how the team of six found themselves on the dock, moving toward the warehouse that the code had identified.
Don let Gibbs take the lead; the NCIS agents had covered this ground before and knew the lay of the land. Once again, an FBI agent paired up with an NCIS agent, the better to protect each other's back and still have the advantage that familiarity with the dock conferred.
"It's early," Colby observed. "Maybe we can get the package, then set up a trap for whoever comes to get it." It was more of a prayer, not even worthy of being called a hope quite yet.
Gibbs grunted. "Let's get the package first, shall we?"
In broad daylight, a hidden approach wasn't possible. The agents got through the meager dock security without a hitch, impressing the guards with FBI and NCIS badges and locating the warehouse where the package was stored. Sinclair tossed a glance at DiNozzo: at least these guys know your agency.
There wasn't much time. The six broke into a run, noting the even numbered warehouses on one side and the odd on the other. The layout was reasonably sensible, and they located it quickly.
"Hold up." Don had spotted something suspicious. "There's a truck there."
Not just any truck. The usual type of truck that arrived at the dock to do business was large and ungainly, designed for the loading and unloading of large quantities stored in equally large boxes. Not this time: parked in front of their destination was a small black pick up, better suited to sitting in front of someone's porch ready to haul Granny's chest of drawers to her shiny new retirement home down the street. It was a truck that wouldn't arouse suspicion on the average street corner—but here it stood out like a sore thumb.
Everyone recognized the significance, and slowed. Don pursed his lips, checking his natural inclination to take charge. This was NCIS home turf. "Gibbs?"
Gibbs nodded, appreciating the gesture. "DiNozzo, Sinclair," he hesitated slightly over the unfamiliar name, "cover the back. Don't let anyone out. We'll give you a ten count to get yourselves in position, then we're going in."
"On it." DiNozzo led at a run, just barely staying ahead of Sinclair.
"Ziva, Eppes, Granger; let's take it slow," Gibbs decided. "They're not going anywhere. Not yet."
"Let's make certain of that." Don slipped over to the pick up and, easing the hood open silently, detached a couple of essential wires. Nothing that would take very long to repair, but the owners of the truck wouldn't be going anywhere until someone took a look and figured out what had happened. Nuisance value only, but that might mean the difference between apprehension and escape.
Gibbs nodded approvingly and moved to silent mode, hand gestures only. The ten count was finished well before Don had completed his own preparations, and the four Federal agents moved forward to the main entrance to the warehouse.
It was far from the largest warehouse Don had ever seen. The docks of Los Angeles had much larger, and even New Mexico, where he'd done Fugitive Recovery, had the sprawling land to allow people to spread out. This, however, was D.C., and compared to the West Coast, space was limited. This area had its share of huge warehouses, but this was not one of them. This was a space designed for importers on a budget. Considering the financial pressures being placed on terrorist organizations today, Don wasn't surprised at the small size. More important, though, was the opportunity to be overlooked. For a package like this, being hidden in plain sight made all the difference.
The code hadn't mentioned how large the package would be, only that it would be deadly. Yeah, genetically altered smallpox has a damn good chance of killing a few million people before it escapes US borders and goes on to destroy the world, Don thought. Proof positive that terrorists are crazy: the terrorists themselves had just as good a chance of dying as everyone else. The package, he decided, was just as likely to be something easy to pick up. Bacteria tended to come in size small.
That could work in their favor. There might be as few as two terrorists to deal with. Six Federal agents, two terrorists: surround and arrest. Even if one or both tried to suicide and blow up the package, six different angles of fire would surely take them down before either could do any real damage. This wasn't a situation where anyone had planned ahead with a suicide bomb strapped to their chest.
On the other hand, there could be several of the little buggers inside. Someone with a mind as suspicious as Don's might have decided to park their car in the lot down the road, just to avoid arousing the sorts of ideas that were even now flitting through Don's head.
Gibbs's cell phone buzzed at him, and the NCIS leader held up his hand: hold. He listened for a moment to the whispers coming over the call, frowning. More hand signals: a vehicle out back, capable of carting another six people back and forth from a terrorist operation.
The NCIS and FBI agents worked as well as a seasoned team, spreading out to either side of the warehouse front door, listening intently. Don could hear voices inside, identified the words as something Middle Eastern but the actual language was beyond his skill level.
Not so Ziva David. She listened, her own hands giving whatever information she could: at least four people inside. Still hunting for the correct box. Don wondered which language it was, decided that factoid could wait.
She kept them holding on the outside of the warehouse. Don had no doubt that she was letting the people inside do the hard work of locating the exact package, and he approved. It made it all the easier for the Federal agents outside, with the added bonus of identification. Just the thought of someone trying to tell a judge that they were innocent after being caught with a load of smallpox in their arms was laughable. Don himself texted the intel to Sinclair in back, having figured out that Gibbs tended to leave the technology end of things to others.
Then Ziva stiffened: the people inside had located the package. Even without the translation, Don would have been able to tell that something had happened simply by the increase in excitement from the voices within.
It was time. Gibbs held up three fingers in a silent countdown, knowing that the pair in back would come in as soon as they heard the shouting.
Colby kicked in the door and dropped to the floor, handgun positioned in two fists. Gibbs was next, darting to the side to allow Don to enter, both shouting "Federal Agents," at the top of their lungs.
Not an easy take down. The place wasn't large, but it had a lot of crates to dodge behind and the terrorists did just that. Not one thought that putting up their arms in the classic surrender pose was a good idea and, since Don suspected that doing so would earn them a bullet in the back from their 'friends', he really couldn't blame them for trying to stay alive for another few minutes. A glorious martyrdom would have to wait for a more opportune moment.
Don himself dove behind a crate just inside the door in time to avoid the bullet that came buzzing in his direction. The small chunk of lead buried itself in the crate, and a piece of packing material puffed out through the hole that it had made.
Warfare: Don caught sight of Gibbs behind another crate. The NCIS team leader calmly stood up and put a shot toward the terrorist across the way. A sudden yelp demonstrated that Gibbs was a good shot. A body scuttled backward; hit, then, but not dead. Mixed blessing, Don thought.
Time to do his share. Don gave a quick bob upward to better locate the next suspect: three boxes over and one down. That one was already being stalked by Ziva from this end and, though Ziva couldn't see it, Sinclair was approaching from the back. No need to concentrate on that one; Don set his sights on the one further to the left who had a very real chance at nailing both Ziva and Sinclair.
Shoulder roll to the next crate, come up and look. Still on target; his man was oblivious to Don's approach, still looking to get a shot at either Sinclair or Ziva next time they raised a head. Not much time. Don chanced a quick scan to make sure that no one had him dead in their sites, and advanced. He put the hot metal of his handgun right behind the man's ear. "Freeze. Federal Agents."
The man stiffened in dismay. Don carefully handcuffed the man, making certain to loop the chain around something solid to prevent the man from escaping. One down and completely out of the fight. Don looked to move in on the next.
Another was already out; Gibbs, not satisfied with merely winging his man, had pursued and now was applying his own set of handcuffs, ignoring the howls that the suspect was emitting. The howls were in a mixture of English, French, and some Middle Eastern tongue but they all seemed to be telling Gibbs that it was inappropriate to handcuff a man with a bullet in his arm and that Gibbs's mother had done something highly unlikely with a camel.
The third took a shot at Ziva, only to find David Sinclair's handgun at this back. The Israeli officer made a moue, gave a thumbs up to Sinclair and slipped off in pursuit of another suspect.
DiNozzo had already located one, and it was the one with the package in his hands. "Put it down," DiNozzo invited, sighting down the barrel of his handgun.
The man raised it high above his head. "Shoot me!" he taunted. "I drop this box; everything breaks! You are a dead man!"
DiNozzo snickered. "You think I'm crazy? Buddy, that box has traveled half way around the world, gotten tossed up and down and thrown against the side of a ship a few times. If it hasn't broken by now, it sure as heck isn't going to." He sighted again. "Put it down, and save us both the hassle of me shooting you."
Don came up behind the man and neatly plucked the package out of his upraised arms. "Let me help you."
"You—!" the man whirled around.
"Thank you." DiNozzo took the opportunity that the man's back presented and grabbed one wrist, snapping a handcuff onto it. "Special Agent Eppes, shall we get that box to some place where we can take a closer look at it?"
"Sounds good to me." Don looked around. "Where's Colby?"
Colby had come up against the largest of the terrorists, a man easily taller than any of them there and weighing in at some three hundred pounds of muscle. Colby himself was a one man tank, but this man out-weighed him and had another six inches of reach.
Fortunately, Colby had speed and the training to use it. While the suspect expected a fist, Colby used a kick to the mid-section to double the man over. A feinted sweep turned into a set of knuckles to the head.
Not enough; the man simply soaked up the punishment and came back for more. Colby tried a wrestling hold and quickly gave that up as a bad job. His suspect broke Colby's lock as though it was made from a strand of over-cooked spaghetti.
"Keep it up, Colby," Don called out, marching his own suspect toward the door, keeping the package safe in his arms. "You're wearing him down."
"Right," Colby gasped, staggering. "I'm winning. Right."
"He's weaker on the right," Gibbs advised, eyeballing the contest. "No, his other right. Your left."
Colby, encouraged, socked the man in the eye. The terrorist staggered back, then recovered.
"Nice," DiNozzo said admiringly. "Only fifteen or twenty more like that, and you'll have him."
"I could use a little help," Colby growled. His next kick was a little lower to the groin, and only half of that was due to aim.
"I'm impressed," Ziva confided to Sinclair. "Does Granger do that all the time?"
"Usually it's a flying tackle," Sinclair told her, taking a better hold of their own suspect. "The guy rabbits, and it's Colby who runs 'im down."
"Speed and strength. A wonderful combination." Ziva's eyes shone, but she was a well-trained agent and too good to let the scene in front of her distract her from the mission. "Did we get them all?"
"Four plus Colby's," DiNozzo said. "I didn't see anyone else; did you?"
"I only heard four people talking," Ziva admitted, glancing again at Colby and his match. The giant had just slammed Colby to the ground, and she winced. She was almost ready to go to his rescue when Colby redeemed himself by rolling to the side to avoid being flattened to paste by an over-sized shoe. "We have already arrested five."
"Almost five," DiNozzo pointed out. "Granger is still working on Number Five. You can't actually call him arrested. He's still moving around pretty good."
"Still, Agent Granger will bring him down," Ziva predicted. "Ah, look, there it goes: the final hold."
Colby proved the Mossad officer correct. A last feint turned into a swift sweep that knocked the giant off of his feet. Colby summoned up one last burst of energy and leaped onto the man, throwing his arms around the man's neck in a choke hold. He hung up with all of his might.
In a normal match, played for paying customers, the fighter would tap out. There might be a few struggles to make it look good, make it look as though the referee didn't really have to stop the match.
This was not a normal match, and the giant was not giving up, and the closest thing to a referee was NCIS team leader Gibbs. "Somebody get some cuffs for this guy," he growled. "We've got a box of bacteria to secure."
"Don't think we've got any cuffs big enough, boss," DiNozzo replied.
"Then get some rope, DiNozzo." Gibbs glanced at the package nestled in Don's arms. "I haven't got all day."
"I've…almost… got 'im…out…cold…" Colby puffed. "Just…another…moment…"
A shot rang out. Colby yelped and fell back, his hold lost. The giant sprung to his feet and delivered a massive kick to his opponent, lifting Colby up into the air and sending him flying into a pile of wooden crates.
There was a sixth suspect, one perched on top of several more crates. He fired again, aiming for the package in Don's hands, shouting something that Ziva would later translate as, "get the box!"
As one, the NCIS and FBI agents turned and fired back. The terrorist staggered back, bullets striking him in the chest, and toppled off from the crates. All of the Federal agents rushed to secure the weapon, to make sure that the suspect was incapable of any more harm.
All but Don. The terrorist's aim had been true: he'd been aiming for the box of smallpox bacteria that Don was carrying, and a bullet had pierced the side of the box.
The contents couldn't get out. If the bullet had shattered anything inside this box, then the contents could leak out and drift into the air. It wouldn't be just the terrorists and the Federal agents who had captured them who would be exposed, but everyone within a fifty mile radius along the path that any stray breeze chose to take. Smallpox had been eradicated from the earth decades ago, and this would cause the next epidemic to spring forth. The human race on Earth would be decimated.
The contents couldn't get out. Don stuck his finger into the hole, plugging it like the little Dutch boy with the dyke.
Two people noticed his action. One was the giant. Freed from Colby's attack, he knew that the only way to accomplish his goal was to release the smallpox into the air, and only Don was in his way. With a roar, he barreled ahead.
Gibbs was the other person. He was not a small man, but neither was he the size of the giant bearing down on them.
Gibbs stepped into harm's way. The giant roared again, reaching out to sweep away the obstruction with one mighty blow.
Fist curled, Gibbs aimed for the chin. He put his back into it; he would have only one chance. He let his fist fly. He connected.
The giant's eyes rolled back up into his head, and he went down.
Don stood where he was, hunched over the box, finger plugging the hole.
"Don!" Sinclair started toward him.
"Get everyone out of here!" Don ordered tersely. "Gibbs, get the suspects out of here. David, see to Colby."
Colby staggered to his feet, fingers clutched to his arm and blood seeping out. "I'm okay, Don. The package—"
"Something's opened inside," Don informed them grimly, indicating the package. "I don't dare let go."
Gibbs took over. "DiNozzo, call it in. Get HazMat out here; tell 'em we've got a possible situation here. The rest of you: secure the prisoners outside. Get an ambulance here for Granger."
"I'm okay," Colby protested, teeth gritted.
Gibbs ignored him. "Tell the ambulance people to have bio-hazard suits on. We can't afford to let this contamination go anywhere."
"You get out of here, too, Gibbs," Don said, reading the other like a book. "Seal off the area, and don't let anyone into this warehouse."
"DiNozzo, I'm counting on you to keep people away from here," Gibbs continued as if Don hadn't spoken. "Go."
"Going, boss." DiNozzo herded everyone out, agents and suspects alike.
"Let's get you sitting down." Gibbs gentled his voice. "You think you can walk?"
It was only then that Don realized that the package in his hands wasn't the only thing that the final terrorist had hit. Fire licked at his leg, and something wet leaked onto his skin: blood.
Nausea tickled his belly, and blackness edged around his vision, trying to close him down. Don swallowed hard; he couldn't allow himself to pass out. If that happened, his finger would come out of the hole and the smallpox bacteria would leak out. One small action, and the world was doomed.
"I'm going to get you onto the floor, Eppes," Gibbs told him, taking Don by the arms. "You can't fall off of the floor."
Crap, there went his vision. Don swallowed again, willing himself to stay conscious. When had he been hit? Obviously when the sixth terrorist had opened fire, but exactly when? Don hadn't felt himself being hit, had been too concerned with keeping the package safe and out of the hands of the terrorist. Gibbs's grasp felt strong, and Don realized that falling wasn't an option, not with Gibbs at his back. All Don had to do was to keep his finger in the dam, preventing the smallpox from emerging. Gibbs would take care of the rest.
Then he was down on the dusty floor of the warehouse, his leg stuck awkwardly out in front of him. Gibbs lifted Don's head, stuffed something under it in lieu of a pillow, and Don realized that it was Gibbs's jacket. Something else covered his chest—good thing. Starting to get cold—and since he didn't recognize the scent, Don guessed that it belonged to one of Gibbs's people. Probably DiNozzo, he thought. The Mossad officer's jacket wouldn't be this big, and Sinclair was undoubtedly hustling Colby toward medical care ASAP.
Something pressed on his leg, and he cried out in pain before he was able to clamp down on himself.
"Just a pressure dressing, Eppes." Gibbs kept his voice soothing. "We need to keep you from bleeding out."
"Thanks," Don managed to say. There was something else: "You need to get out of here. You could be contaminated if you stay. I'm not sure I can keep this under wraps."
"I've had the same shots as you, Eppes," Gibbs told him. "Same vaccinations. Right after nine eleven." He slid his own hand along Don's arm, making sure that Don's hand wasn't going anywhere. "We'll do this together."