“Ah, what a beautiful morning!” Tony declared as he stepped out of the MCRT truck. “The sun is shining, the birds are singing, there’s a nice little breeze wafting through the trees…” He caught Gibbs glare and his grin faded. “Carrying with it the scent of a dead body that we’ve come to investigate. On it, Boss.”
Tim grabbed his kit and silently followed the two men as they started walking towards a small grove of trees where the local sheriff waited. He kept a weather eye out for poison ivy as he picked his way through brambles and brush, only minimally flattened by Tony and Gibbs as they preceded him to the scene.
When they finally arrived they were greeted by a grim-faced man in a khaki uniform.
“You the folks from NCIS?”
“Sorry to drag you all the way out here for this, looks pretty cut and dried to me, but the body’s got dog tags which means I had to call you.”
“How’d you find the body?”
“Well, we were already out here looking for a missing teenager, last seen in this area, and we found this guy instead. Kinda odd, finding someone out here. Usually we don’t.”
“You get missing kids out here often?” Tony asked and the sheriff winced.
“Often enough. Lot of teenage runaways, of course. Small towns tend to have that problem. Most of them head for the city, I reckon. Still, we make the effort to search locally, too.”
“Was our Marine helping with the search?”
“Kinda doubt it. It’s pretty obvious he had something else in mind when he came out here.” The sheriff motioned them to follow and soon they reached the tree where the body of a man wearing dog tags reclined. A bloody mass adorned his right temple and his right hand was spattered with dark red stains.
“See what I mean? Pretty obvious suicide.”
“If it was suicide, where’s his gun?”
A startled look crossed the sheriff’s face and he searched the area around the body. “That’s… a really good question. Maybe an animal carried it off.”
“Or maybe it was the killer.”
“Keep everyone out of this area. We’re going to need to widen the search. Show me where you’ve already been.”
The sheriff nodded and led Gibbs back they way they had came, leaving Tony and Tim alone with the body.
“Guess we better get to work while we wait for Ducky and Palmer. How much do you want to bet the Gremlin got lost again?”
“I’m not taking that bet,” McGee replied and started to unpack his kit. He and Tony decided on their search pattern and started off in opposite directions, walking the grid to look for additional evidence and marking its location before photographing it in place.
As he moved further from the body and deeper into the woods, McGee became aware of a faint sound among the normal forest noises, something he hadn’t expected to hear out in the middle of nowhere.
He stopped and listened as he tried to identify the source. After a few moments, he smiled. It was a flute, clearly being played by someone who could make the instrument speak in its true voice. Tim’s sister had aspired to become a concert ‘flautist’ when she was in elementary school and had taken up the instrument with considerable enthusiasm, but the small concerts she had given her family on the rare occasions that Tim was home from college had sounded nothing like this.
Whoever it was, they were a true virtuoso, producing a sound akin to light and laughter transfigured into notes. The music Tim was hearing was achingly beautiful, and he felt a strong urge to find who could produce such exquisite beauty. He took a few moments to discern the direction from which the sound was emanating and started to walk towards it with a contented smile on his face.
Tony saw movement out of the corner of his eye and turned to see McGee walking deeper into the forest wearing a strangely happy expression. He didn’t seem to be paying any attention at all to his search, an incongruity which set off an alarm in Tony’s head. McGee was beyond conscientious when it came to work and for him to just wander off in the middle of an investigation…
Tony headed in the direction he had seen Tim walking. It didn’t take long before he caught sight of Tim again but before he could call out to his partner Tony was startled by a weird sound whistling through the trees. He paused to listen, a puzzled expression crossing his face.
Why would someone be playing the flute out here in the middle of the woods?
Before he could come up with a reasonable answer he noticed that Tim was almost out of sight again and he hurried to catch up to him, concern for the younger man increasing. Tim seemed completely unaware of his presence, made even more worrying by the fact that Tony was making quite a bit of noise as he moved through the undergrowth.
“McGee, what are you doing?”
Tim ignored him and kept walking, forcing Tony to put on a bit more speed to finally catch up to him. As he reached Tim, Tony became much more aware of the music that seemed to be leading Tim ever deeper into the increasingly thick forest. Whoever was playing knew what they were doing, that was certain and Tony found himself starting to enjoy it, despite his concern for his partner. Maybe this person had seen something to do with their dead Marine. A possible witness would be worth the trek, right?
Tony stumbled along after Tim, feeling more and more relaxed by the music washing over him. It really was a gorgeous tune...maybe played by a beautiful woman as well? Tony grinned and walked faster. He imagined the charm he’d use to get the mysterious flautist to reveal her secrets, and maybe a few other things as well.
Suddenly he felt a strong hand on his shoulder as he was jerked backward, losing his balance and falling hard on his butt. He barely noticed that Tim had landed next to him.
“What in the Hell are you two doing?”
He looked up to see Gibbs glaring down at him, then glanced over at Tim who looked like he’d just awoken from a rather disturbing dream. Tony shook his head to clear the fuzziness from his mind.
“Uh...I’m not really sure, Boss.”
Tim looked around, clearly disoriented. “I don’t know. Where...where are we?”
“Almost a mile from the crime scene.”
“What? How? I don’t even remember… I was walking the grid, wasn’t I?”
“That would be one hell of a grid, McGee. What happened?”
Tim met Tony’s gaze, his eyes narrowing in confusion. “I think I remember… Music? I must have… I was following it. I don’t remember why. I’m sorry, Boss.”
“Did you hear music, DiNozzo?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I did. I noticed Tim first, though. He had started to wander away from the scene and I followed him.” Tony shook his head again. “It’s all kind of...fuzzy.”
“So both of you decided to go wandering off, and…” Gibbs took a step in the direction they’d been walking, looked down, and froze.
“Boss?” The two men struggled to their feet and stepped up next to Gibbs before following his gaze down to…
Tony felt his gorge rise as he took in the sight below them. They were standing on the edge of a deep ravine, a sharp drop-off of about thirty feet, with a scattering of rocks below. Rocks strewn with the broken remains of well over a dozen people.
“Oh my god…” The blood drained from Tim’s face as he surged backward, turned and fell to his knees, gasping for breath. Tony backed away from the edge as well and crouched down next to Tim before putting a steadying hand on his shoulder. Tim just shook his head and after a few moments managed to control his breathing. Finally he turned to Gibbs.
“Boss? What…What happened here?”
“Guess we better call the sheriff,” Gibbs replied softly, his voice strained. “I think we just found all those missing teenagers.”
Gibbs watched as the recovery team brought the last of the remains out of the ravine. A rough estimate had put the number of unfortunate victims at twenty, but Ducky informed him that they’d know more once they had all the individual bones sorted and examined.
Tony and Tim had quietly assisted in the removal, after they had finished with the search of the initial crime scene around their dead Marine. The gun had been recovered and the spatter on it indicated it had been in the victim’s hand when the fatal shot was fired, supporting the initial assessment of suicide. Once again, Ducky had assured him they’d know more back at autopsy.
The two younger men hadn’t said much at all since Gibbs had found them but he knew they were deeply disturbed by what had happened. Gibbs had no reason to doubt their stories, as implausible as they seemed, because his gut told him they were telling the truth. Most would have scoffed at the idea of something so strange, but Gibbs knew better. He had seen things that were much stranger, a fact he hadn’t shared with anyone.
Once the last of the crew had headed for their trucks, Gibbs turned to his agents.
“Once we get everything back to the Yard, go home. Get some sleep.”
They glanced at each other in surprise before Tony responded. “You sure, Boss?” Gibbs just glared. “Right. We’ll take the truck back.”
“You do that.”
“Are you heading back, too, or…?”
“Got a few things to take care of first. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“OK. See you tomorrow, Boss.” They headed for the truck, sticking closer together than normal, and Gibbs watched them until they disappeared from sight. He sighed and pulled out his phone to check his messages, noticing one from a number he had dialed just a few hours ago. He listened to the accompanying message and pulled out his notebook to quickly jot down the address he had just been given. He knew it well enough, and also knew he could make it there in plenty of time to arrive before the time suggested by his contact.
As Gibbs drove back towards the city, he went over the strange events in his mind. He really hadn’t expected to see something like this, not after the last time. After all, the chances of two random encounters with something...well, not exactly natural, were pretty slim in his mind.
Maybe it was just bad luck.
His first encounter had been over twenty years ago, back before he had joined NCIS but after his whole world had shattered. During those dark days, when he cared less about himself than any sane man should, he had run across something even more horrifying than the dark depression that had clouded his mind. He’d almost come out on the losing side of that encounter but had been saved by a stranger, a man who understood loss as well as Gibbs himself.
After the initial shock and protests about the impossibility of what he had seen, Gibbs had found a sympathetic ear in his savior, and oddly enough, a friend. The two former Marines had shared stories and misery, and Gibbs had gotten a hint that it was possible to cope without drowning his anger in alcohol or eating his gun. He understood the other man’s need for vengeance and, after facing his own--thankfully not literal--demons, had taken the first steps towards serving up retribution on those who had taken everything from him.
The two men had kept in contact over the years, and Gibbs had kept an eye out for anything that might fall in his strange friend’s wheelhouse, but he had never seen anything that fit that bill.
Unfortunately, his friend was gone. The official version--a heart attack--had never set right with Gibbs, and he suspected the entity that had taken so much from the man had finally caught up with him, leaving his sons to carry on the ‘family business’. He only hoped they were as good as their father.
Gibbs made it to the small diner well after midnight but still with time to spare and found a booth in the back which promised privacy if nothing else. The coffee he ordered was not the worst he’d ever tasted, but would at least show in that particular race. He was halfway through his first cup when two men entered the diner. He recognized them, not from anything their father had shared, but from their own brushes with the law. Gibbs chuckled softly to himself as he imagined the reaction his agents would have if they saw the two men he had come to meet.
The shorter of the two, who reminded him strongly of Tony when he had first started at NCIS, scanned the room quickly as he stepped through the door, his gaze soon alighting on Gibbs. He cautiously approached, his body language indicating he preferred fight to flight, an attitude Gibbs understood all too well. The taller man, two steps behind the first, gave the impression that he was much more relaxed, but Gibbs wasn’t fooled. He was just as prepared as his brother to tackle anything head on.
“You John’s boys?” Gibbs asked as he studied the approaching hunters.
“Yes, sir,” the first man -- Dean, Gibbs knew-- replied and Gibbs snorted softly.
“Don’t call me sir, I work for a living.”
Dean grinned. “Does that mean you have to call me ‘sir’ since I don’t?” His brother gave him a dirty look, and expression that strongly reminded Gibbs of the look Tim often wore when dealing with Tony’s antics.
“Don’t count on it.”
“Yup. And you’re Sam and Dean. Have a seat. Coffee’s on me.”
“We’ll pass, we’ve eaten here before.” They slid into the booth opposite Gibbs, remaining silent as they studied the older man.
“So,” Sam began, “I understand you have a...case that might fall under our area of expertise.”
“And I take it we don’t need to give you the ‘truth is out there’ speech,” Dean quipped, earning him another dirty look from his brother.
“Nope. Your father already filled me in. After he saved me from some of that ‘truth’.”
“Wraith, right?” Sam asked, lowering his voice, and Gibbs nodded, an unpleasant memory flashing through his mind.
“And this time?”
Gibbs related what had happened the previous morning, or as much as he had been able to get out of Tony and Tim. Sam and Dean listened while he talked, occasionally shooting glances at each other. When Gibbs finished the two shared a silent conversation before returning their attention to Gibbs.
“So your agents, they both heard flute music, and that lead them to, well, almost to their death?”
“Good thing you got to them in time, then.”
“So what is this thing?”
“Not sure yet, but I suspect some sort of spirit,” Sam replied. “There are multiple references in the lore to entities that lure their victims away with some sort of illusion or enticement. Music is certainly something that has been mentioned as a device for leading people away...”
“Dude,” Dean scoffed. “It sounds like the freakin’ Pied Piper.”
“That’s not too far off, actually.”
“Yeah, but this isn’t some guy who’s pissed because he didn’t get paid.”
“No, but it’s probably something that wants revenge...or a sacrifice.”
“Great. More Pagan gods. I hate those bastards.”
“Or, as I said before, it could be a spirit. Someone who died in that ravine originally and wants--”
“Company?” asked Gibbs.
“Maybe. Other than your agents, were all of the victims children? Or teenagers?”
“Our M.E. said there were a few adults there, too.”
“So probably not a sacrifice.”
“Why didn’t I hear it?”
“Good question. I guess that will be part of our research.” They shared another silent conversation. “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of it.”
“What about the victims?”
“Well, once we take out what killed them, they should rest easy...if they’re not already.”
Dean grinned again. “Don’t worry, we’ve done this before. Piece of cake.” Sam rolled his eyes. “Anything else you can tell us?”
“If there is, I know where to reach you.”
“Yep, you do.” Dean paused to study Gibbs again. “And you don’t have a problem with...stuff people think we did? You are a Fed, after all.”
“I know sometimes the law can’t cover everything. Just stay out of trouble. I don’t want to have to explain this to my director.”
“Understood.” Dean nodded to his brother and they slid out of the booth. “We’ll let you know when its taken care of.”
“You do that.” He gave them a rare smile. “Good luck.”
Dean sent Gibbs a salute that had Sam rolling his eyes yet again and headed out of the diner, followed a moment later by his brother. Gibbs watched them leave before he leaned back in his seat and sighed. He hated the thought of so many parents not ever knowing what had happened to their children, and even more the fact that there was no way he could tell them. He also hoped that he’d never need the services of John’s boys again. Once was more than enough.
Gibbs finished his coffee and quietly rose from his seat, tossing a couple of bills on the table before he walked out of the diner and returned to his car. He stopped to listen to the night sounds, wondering once again why he had escaped the trap that had nearly ensnared his agents, and decided that maybe his luck wasn’t all bad after all.
As he drove back to the Yard, he briefly wondered if the phantom flutist was already luring its next victim to certain death...and if it knew that its siren song was soon--hopefully-- to be silenced forever.