Chapter Two - Traffic on the 695
Tail lights, that's what my mornings have been filled with for the past 3 days, tail lights stretching out as far as the eye can see in all directions, and my car stuck right in the middle of it all. They're doing construction on the 695 and if there's anything that can shut DC down (besides a slight dusting of snow), it's construction on the 695.
I check my watch for the 4th time in as many minutes (even though the clock on my dashboard is working perfectly fine) and curse the cars that sit around me in the searing summer heat making me late for work. All of us are surrounded by little forcefields of heat radiating upwards, making the highway look like the inside of an oven, and my eyes keep wandering to the temperature gauge of the mustang because for the past 45 minutes it's steadily been rising towards that little brick of red proceeding the capital H on the dial (which I know stands for Hot, but today I decide it's oh HELL no instead). Gibbs has already been on my ass twice this week for being late and even though I know that he knows all about the construction on the 695, you have to know when to pick your battles with Senior Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs.
The traffic in front of me moves forward a quarter of an inch and I ease my foot off the break to coast forward, letting the inertia of my movement pull me a little too close to the back bumper of the guy ahead of me just because I can. I catch the other driver's eyes in the rearview (and normally this is the point where I'd look away) but today I'm pissed and I hold his angry gaze with my own until he's the one to look away and I get to be pleased with myself for having won the game. It's not his fault that I'm in this mess though so I actually grumble out a 'sorry' I know he'll never hear and I don't look for his eyes again.
3 hours and one side-of-the-highway breakdown later and I slam the cab door shut and thrust the cabbie a bigger tip than I intend to and don't realize it until he tears away from the curb outside of my building. I guess I really did owe it to him, and keep thinking this even when he squeals away with smoking tires and a screamed 'BASTARD!'floating out through his open windows. He had to deal with check points and one tense moment when I realized I'd left one of my badges in the glove box of the mustang and the only thing that saved us was the fact that one of the guards knew me.
The shop had said it would be a week or so to deal with the coolant leak in the mustang's engine and the other 20 people they'd plucked from the highway for the exact same thing. So to placate me the owner had offered me use of his brother's cab company to get to work and had stuffed me in the back with promises to call me as soon as my mustang was finished. Though I can't help but worry that my rather heated debate with the mechanic's brother over the best way to navigate DC streets will result in me getting my car back in a cardboard box, rather than in good condition and on all four wheels.
I think about giving the guy the finger despite of it all, certain that he's still watching me and cursing at me in the rearview mirror, but I bite down on my knuckle and don't do it.
I really am a nice person, I tell myself, this day is just hell-bent on testing me.
A far off rumble of thunder sounds in the distance and I turn my head into a western breeze that smells like water and see tall banks of clouds making their way in over the Anacostia. The air is stagnant where I stand, the temperature threatening to hit triple digits in full sun, and I silently will the storm clouds to move in faster. This bank of white tipped, grey based clouds in the distance is the long promised reprieve the weather man has been smiling at me about each morning this week as I've put on my extra deodorant to fight against this unusually hot and muggy summer we've been having. DC is a frying pan and while I appreciate the sun dresses and bikinis it inspires, I'm tired of feeling damp all the time and tired of the foul mood the weather has put everyone in (myself included). I'm promised that this storm front will bring with it cooler temperatures and, if I'm lucky, some decent thunderstorms. And that thought almost makes me forget the morning I've just hand.
Thunderstorms fascinate me, I can't help it.
Ever since I was a kid spending summers at the beach on Long Island with my mother before she died, I've had this sort of love affair with severe weather. There was nothing more amazing then sitting on the beach watching huge thunderheads race towards me like they were eager to show me what they were capable of, the lightening following soon after to chase me indoors to watch the havoc unfold from the safety of the house. Then later, after the storm had passed, I'd lose entire hours just walking up and down the beach inspecting each item that had washed up on shore like it was some sort of gift the storm had left behind just for me.
Like it knows I'm standing here waiting for it, the breeze picks up minutely to play up the back of my jacket and dry my sweat so that I'm almost shivering and thunder rumbles the ground beneath my feet in greeting. If I'm lucky, we won't catch a case today and I can watch the wonders of nature unfold through the big plate glass windows of the bullpen and try to hide my obvious glee from McGee. The kid will probably have a textbook breakdown of weather patterns for me when I get to my desk anyway, all DC can talk about right now are the 70 degree days hiding behind the cold front headed directly for us, and I'm sure he'll have something to say about it.
I leave the gathering storm to do its own thing in the sky above my head and make it through the last leg of security in record time. It probably helps that I'm 4 hours late for work and not fighting against the rest of NCIS to get through the metal detectors and up to my floor. I take my gun from its holster and put it into the bin the bored looking security guard offers me and try to coax a smile out of her with a wink. But, like everything else today, the gesture falls flat on its face and I walk away from the check point feeling more like a creep than someone who just wanted to make her day a little brighter. Even the elevator seems to be mad at me and it squawks my arrival onto the floor with an irritated ding and a flicker of lights and Gibbs is already glaring at me from his desk.
He's the only one behind a desk, the only one on the floor really, and I walk into the front of indignation that rolls out from his desk and wonder if I brought the storm clouds from outside into the building with me somehow. I duck my head like he's already smacked the back of it and keep my eyes pointed down at the carpet even when I round the edge of Bishop's desk and feel the inexorable pull to look for Ziva.
I've been doing this for a while now... this 'pointedly looking at the floor and not at her desk' thing and it's nothing against Bishop (though I think she thinks it is) because I like Bishop. She's smart and witty and a great addition to our team, but she's no Ziva (nor will she ever be) and I think she pays for that just a little bit more than we realize. I left my heart on the tarmac at an airport in Israel, and while there's room inside my chest for someone new, I keep that bit closed off now and there's crime scene tape where my heart should be. Not that I'm even remotely interested in Bishop, it's just that that place seems to be closed off to new friends (as well as lovers) these days.
I dump my backpack beside my desk chair and hit the button that will power up my monitor before I take my seat and risk a glance over at Gibbs. He's got the handset of his office phone captured in the space between ear and shoulder and he's looking over at me like he wants me to give him an excuse to hang up on whomever he's talking to. I don't know why though... he's good at playing the functional mute and besides, ignore anyone long enough, they're bound to hang up on you (or so I've been told). He only looks away from me when he realizes I'm not going to help him and I divert my attention to the 30+ emails sitting in my inbox, wondering when the 2 agency memos about someone's promotion I left in there last night decided to have babies in the Sent Items folder when I wasn't looking. It's all of it busy work and I try to lose myself in it even after Gibbs hangs up the phone and doesn't say a word to me, his silence conveying more in its length than he manages to speak in a week.
"Where have you been?" McGee appears at the side of my desk and I manage to catch the coffee mug filled with the congealed leftovers of Monday's breakfast before it can finish it's trip over the edge of my desk. He's startled me and I try not to let it show.
"Car trouble," I answer truthfully, "and the 695 was a parking lot this morning."
"I'm tellin' ya Tony, you should take that short cut I told you about. It'll cut your commute time in half." I can tell he's still proud of himself for having come up with a meticulous plan to get my ass into work on time while my highway is nothing but a ground up strip of the bones of its former self, but I can't bring myself to share in his enthusiasm at being such a smarty-pants.
'I like my commute time,' I want to say but Gibbs is listening in on our exchange and I know he'll read between the lines on that one.
"I'll think about it, McGee," is what comes out instead and he huffs away in the wake of my dismissal. The smirk it pulls from me dies on my face though when Gibbs and I lock eyes from across our respective desks and I can feel the moment he decides I need to be punished for my transgressions of the day.
"Tony," he starts, tearing off the top sheet of the pad of paper he's been writing on to wave in the air in my direction, "I need you to go down to Human Resources and get the personnel files on these two probies."
I smother a groan. The women in personnel hate me (Gibbs knows this) and I can't help but feel like the universe is conspiring against me today as I sit and stare at the sheet of paper clutched in Gibbs' expectant hand. The women who sit behind the desks in the basement level HR Department and I have had a love/hate relationship with each other from the beginning and right now both sides are working on constructing our own versions of the Berlin Wall. They are nothing but a bunch of crabby old paper-pushing hags who care more about procedure than if I get to keep my job or not. But, ask me again tomorrow, and I might have a different opinion of them because (while they may be crabby old paper-pushing hags who care more about procedure than if I keep my job or not) I think they still kind of like me. In our tumultuous relationship there really is a fine line between love and hate.
I head over to Gibbs' desk and take the proffered green sheet of paper torn from his steno pad and pick at the frayed edge at the top all the way down to the basement. You can't access HR from the elevator that reaches our floor. You have to go down to the main lobby and then to a separate bank of elevators that descends you down towards the Tech department and some other various administrative offices. If it were me and I had to work in a department like HR, I'd be lobbying hard for an office with windows at least, but the office I'm headed to is only a small offshoot of the bigger and better Navy HR offices located in other buildings and in other parts of the city.
I walk through the narrow smoked glass door (white block letters announcing the department's name and suite #), my eyes searching for Carol, aka arch nemesis, but find the main reception desk empty and the little office oddly quiet. I can see the top of a gray-haired head from behind one of the desks along the back wall and clear my throat to try and get the figure's attention. She looks over at me from around her monitor and it's a face I don't recognize and I think that maybe, finally, my luck has changed.
"I need to pick up a couple of personnel files for Agent Gibbs," I say, trying to get a feel for the woman who is still staring at me from across the room and around her computer screen. She sniffs then disappears behind the monitor again.
"Agent Gibbs couldn't come down and get them himself?" I hear from somewhere far off and I suddenly wonder if this new addition to HR is the person Gibbs was talking to on the phone earlier and sense that I should choose my next words carefully.
"He wanted to but he got called up to the Director's office." I lie. Saying this makes me feel like I'm one step closer to being redeemed in Gibbs' eyes, like his patented Gibbs Gut will sense that I defended him somehow. I even put these words behind a cheesy grin but my new gray haired friend isn't buying it and she stalks to the back room where they keep the antiquated paper files no one has bothered to put onto computers yet and smacks the manila folders down on the counter in front of me. I move to sweep up the stack but she keeps her hand planted firmly on top and we stare each other down for another immeasurable moment.
She's new here. She doesn't know me and I don't know her and there are a few different ways that this could play out.
1. She could decide that I'm the enemy by association (if the one sided conversation she was having with Gibbs this morning is anything to go by), or
2. she could ask me my name and, having heard all there is to hear from the other crabby old hags in the office, still come to the same conclusion that I'm the enemy. Or,
3. I could amend my earlier loyalty to Gibbs, throw him under the bus, and perhaps gain an ally who will defend me the next time I do battle down here.
Gray hair makes the decision for us and lets up on her grip so that I have to stumble backwards a few steps to avoid falling over when the folders come free. She turns on her heels without so much as a goodbye and heads back to her desk. I've been dismissed but I'm not really sure what's just happened and who's just won our little tête-à-tête.
"Thanks," I mumble without much truth behind the word and walk back out into the hall just in time to see a group of HR employees (probably returning from lunch) round the corner.
I meet Carol's eyes almost instantly and she gives me a coy smile and a curt nod which the other woman surrounding her pick up on right away and their collective opinion of me seems to soften a bit. It's a wonder I'm acknowledged at all and it would seem that the women of HR and I are back to being friends again. I want to tell them I take back the 'crabby old hag' comments from earlier, chalk the lack in decorum up to my miserable morning stuck on the 695 in traffic, but I just smile back and salute her with the personnel folders when we meet in the middle of the hall.
"Agent DiNozzo," she says, heading to the front of the pack and to the invisible line that is drawn in the hallway between me and them.
"Carol," I say, equally as aloof and she studies me for a moment, the women flanking her looking back and forth between us.
"We missed you at Bunco this week," Every instinct in me screams to check around the hallway and make sure that no one else is down here to hear what she's just said. Not even Gibbs knows (or has ever let on that he knows) that I have been invited into this little inner sanctum of women to play dice with them.
I resist the urge to sweep the hall and keep my eyes trained on Carol.
"I didn't think I'd be welcome after that snafu with the paperwork on Monday," Carol cocks her head to one side and laughs a little at that then crosses the line that divided us only moments ago to put her hand on my arm.
"Oh Tony," she sighs, just shy of belittlingly, "You are too cute."
She sidesteps me then with a cute little move and her little band of HR employees follows, their ranks parting around me only to close the breech again after they pass. Carol stops with her hand on the door and everyone turns to look at me again.
"We'll see you next week then," she says with a twinkle in her eye then disappears into the office to leave me standing confused in the hallway. This is turning out to be, by far, the strangest day I've had in a while and I make my way back up to the main lobby still trying to figure out why I even bothered to get out of bed this morning.
When the elevator doors open onto the lobby the room is dark. The natural light that usually gives keeps the space bright is muted due to the steel grey clouds that have taken over the sun. There are still blue skies above NCIS but that won't last for long and I make my way back up to our floor to get a better look at the incoming storm front from our big picture windows.
Gibbs and McGee aren't at their desks when I get off at the bullpen and I see that the light over MTAC is lit. I set the personnel folders on the spot on Gibbs' desk I know he'll look for them first and then make my way over to the bank of windows near my desk. The view from our windows is pretty spectacular and I watch as the banks of clouds scurry in our direction. The front swings out ahead of itself in places, saucer like clouds racing against their larger thunderhead brothers to see who can douse DC with the rain they carry first and every now and then lightning sends fingers of white down to touch the earth. All of this happens slightly off to the east of me and the grey of the clouds against the vibrant blue of the summer sky to my left makes the front look all that more imposing. We're going to get a wallop of a storm and part of me can't help but wish I had become a weather man instead of an NCIS agent. How cool would it have been to be Jim Cantore, battered by hurricanes and cyclones and sideways rain and get paid for doing it? But then I remember what it is I do, the lives I save on a daily basis, and know that no amount of notoriety or celebrity status could ever take the place of what I do.
I fold my arms across my chest and watch the storm continue its path across the sky and don't hear Gibbs when he approaches and for the 2nd time that morning, someone manages to startle me.