“Well that’s a new one,” said Tony as they left the family house of their dead Staff Sergeant. “Sorry, sir, the computer did it.”
“You think this is funny, DiNozzo?” asked Gibbs as he strode back to the truck where McGee and Kate were finishing loading the evidence. Including the nefarious computer that the wife claimed was responsible.
“No, boss, I’m just saying it’s weird.”
“It’s not weird, it’s a hacker that we are going to catch.”
Or rather, Abby and McGee were going to catch. The two of them got to work as soon as they got back to headquarters. Two heads bent over two keyboards and one monitor, bouncing ideas and problems and weird things that came up out of nowhere. “I don’t understand!” Abby wailed in frustration. “This shouldn’t be happening.”
By the time Gibbs came in with a Caf-Pow!, Abby was rhythmically beating her head, gently, against the desk, and McGee was using his finger to follow along a line of what looked like gibberish to Gibbs.
“So?” he asked offering Abby the drink which she grabbed with half of her usual relish.
“It’s not looking good, boss,” said McGee without looking up.
“We found no evidence of hacking: no hidden files or Trojans, no weird access times,” said Abby. “We peeled back every layer we could think of that might have been hiding his tracks. We couldn’t find anything.”
“And things started changing with no reason,” said McGee, finally glancing up, finger holding his place. “File’s we altered changed back.”
“We thought it might be auto recovery.”
“But then it happened on changes to the program files and the operating system.”
“So we looked closer because none of our interfaces were showing anything.”
“We even went into the assembly language, but the changes kept happening, with no record of them showing up anywhere.
“It’s like they’re happening to at the machine code level. Which is impossible.”
It was all going over Gibbs’s head, so he lifted his eyebrows meaningfully. “In English?”
Abby stared back, eyes wide and serious and no trace of humor, just defeat. “I think the computer’s haunted.”
Gibbs stared back. Blinked. “That’s not an answer, Abby.”
“It’s not haunted, boss,” said McGee like he had had this conversation a dozen times already. “We just don’t know what’s going on yet. It’s making changes that only a user should be able to do without any evidence of a user doing it.”
“How long?” asked Gibbs.
Abby and McGee looked at each other, and it wasn’t hopeful. “I don’t know,” said Abby. “We’ll call you as soon as we have anything.”
Unfortunately, the next four hours of the night were spent with more nothing. Worse, the unauthorized changes kept happening, reverting files, deleting personal files and programs. Then new programs started to appear that hadn’t been there before. The first time it happened, Abby jumped out of her chair and back away from the table. McGee could only stare, shocked.
“This is not normal,” said Abby.
“It’s like it’s got a life of its own,” said McGee with no little amount of awe.
“See! Haunted!” said Abby pointing at the computer that otherwise sat on the table docilely. “All right. You keep working on it, I’m going to find out what the internet says about haunted computers.”
“The internet?” said McGee skeptically. “Abby, you know what people write on the internet?” He couldn’t believe she was taking the haunted thing that far. Though as another program – World of Warcraft, of all things – appeared, McGee was beginning to get more than a little creeped out by it, too.
While midnight bled into ungodly morning, Abby made searches and read wikis and forum posts. By the time she picked up the phone and started making calls, McGee was asleep with his head on the desk. Abby’s first attempt got her laughed at and hung up on, but the second did better. It started with a reply to comment on a “Help! Erasures!” forum thread, and led to a college student who had a friend of a friend, who had died, but his online account was still active, in use by another guy who was cagey and took an hour and generous paypal contribution to convince to give Abby the name of someone who might know someone who could help. The first someone was a women with a drawl who was even more suspicious and asked a thousand questions before finally asking for her address. Abby was still energized and awake enough to give the address of her favorite coffee shop and her phone number, figuring that whomever was coming to see her would appreciate the non-government building setting. So would Gibbs.
“You’re going to meet who?” demanded Gibbs three days later when Abby asked if she could borrow McGee for an hour.
“A guy who might be able to help us with the computer problem?” she said.
“And he can’t come here?”
“He’s going to help us dehaunt it,” said McGee, raising his chin a little. Abby beamed at him for a second before giving Gibbs a ‘see?!’ look. It had taken her hours to convince McGee that they had to go talk to this guy. The fact that the computer was still acting like a crazy person – emo music had followed the programs into loading itself. Worse, when they played the songs, they were often scrambled and with sections or words missing, or sometimes sung in gibberish.
Gibbs sighed and gave both of them a long look before rubbing his head and going back to whatever he was working on. “Tony, tail them,” he ordered.
Abby didn’t go to her coffee shop for the coffee, she went for the ambiance. It was dim inside, with wall sconces and lamps instead of fluorescent lighting. It had brick walls and tables of different shapes, sizes, and heights to go with the non matching chairs, couches and beanbags in bright colors. A mural of the ocean and Poseidon with his horses covered the wall behind the couch. For midday, it was moderately occupied, a gaggle of college kids, a couple in the darkest corner, and a pair of guys watching the door. Abby led the way to them.
“Sam?” she asked them and the one with shaggy hair smiled and nodded. He looked like a college kid too.
“Abby?” At her nod, he added, “this is Dean.” Dean smiled too, his eyes flickering to McGee who was noticeably in a suit.
“This is Tim. We’ve been trying to figure this computer out.” Abby and Tim sat down, and after a few prompting questions by Sam, told the two of them about the computer. Dean obviously checked out of the conversation early, fidgeting and looking around the rest of the coffee shop. In jeans, boots, and flannel shirts, he didn’t look like your usual urbanite. Sam, on the other hand looked quite at home. He was the one that paid attention, though didn’t write anything down, his hands instead were wrapped around his mug looking red and chapped. He nodded seriously when Abby said, “which is why we – I,” she corrected when McGee coughed, “think it’s haunted.” She waited uncertainly, nerves flitting back and forth, because while she did believe in the paranormal, Abby never really expected to encounter it herself. She was a scientist at heart, and there was a difference between believing in it and having to maybe deal with it.
Sam said, “It sounds like it.” Then he smiled a little bit. “Though I haven’t heard of one haunting a computer before.”
“We ran into a haunted truck once,” said Dean, almost out of nowhere. Both Abby and McGee looked over sharply at him when he rejoined the conversation. He had been listening. “Who owned the computer?” he asked.
“A Marine,” said McGee. “He died from blood loss when he stabbed himself with a knife while he was cooking dinner.” Dean and Sam exchanged a glance and waited. McGee swallowed but went on. “His wife wrote an email to her sister that she was worried about him stabbing himself since he was so careless with knives in the kitchen. She meant fingers of course, but . . .”
“Who owned the computer before?” asked Sam.
Abby and McGee both shook their heads. “We don’t know.”
“All right,” said Sam, as if that were perfectly normal. He reached into his bag on the floor and rummaged around for a pen and notebook. “We’ll need the name of the Marine who died, his address, and the computer. We’ll take it from there.”
“Uh,” said McGee.
“You can’t,” said Abby with an anticipatory wince.
“Can’t what?” said Dean, his gaze sharpening and all of his attention suddenly focused.
“Have the computer.”
“It’s evidence,” said McGee.
Dean’s eyes narrowed. “Then how did you – oh no!” He pushed out of his chair suddenly. “That’s it, Sammy, we’re out of here.”
“Dean.” Sam stayed seated and glared at his friend.
“Dude, they’re fucking cops,” Dean hissed.
“And they’re asking for our help,” Sam hissed back. Abby didn’t know if she should break the staring contest that went on next. Beside her, McGee tried not to fidget. Finally, Dean broke it off and grabbed both his and Sam’s mugs, taking them to the dishes counter. He stayed there, leaning back against the wall where he could see the whole room, a stormy expression on his face.
Sam checked his position, over his shoulder, and Abby waved a hand to get his attention. “I’m not a cop,” she told him.
“Forensic specialist.” Abby could feel Sam’s eyes hit the highlights of hair, makeup, and tattoos, the corners crinkling a bit as he smiled ruefully.
“And you?” he asked McGee.
“I’m not a cop either,” said McGee. “Not technically. I’m, uh, a Special Agent. Probational Field Agent.” He squirmed under the level stared Sam fixed him with, the smile leaving his face and his eyes flickering back to his friend.
“NCIS,” said Abby quickly. “And we really need your help.”
“What’s NCIS?” asked Sam.
“Naval Criminal Investigative Service,” said McGee.
Sam regarded them both for another moment, then said, “Okay. First, we need to know who originally owned it. We’re still going to need the computer but that can wait. It’d be nice if we could verify that it’s haunted, but it’s a computer.”
“How do you do that?” asked McGee.
“Normally with EMF,” said Sam.
“Really?” said Abby unable to contain her curiosity. “Ghosts really emit that?”
“Yeah.” Sam nodded. “But the computer will emit it’s own that will screw up any signal. It’s not connected to the internet, is it?
“No,” Abby responded, a little offended that he would think she would do something so amateurish.
“Good. Are you sure there’s no way I can see it without going to your forensics lab?”
“We could ask,” said McGee tentatively, his tone making it clear that it was a long shot. “What do you need from it? Is there anything we can do?”
Sam sighed. “You need to get some salt and put it in a solid ring around it, no gaps. It should keep the ghost contained so it won’t hurt anyone else. You said it was adding programs that hadn’t been there before? And you’ve been the only ones to work on it?” They both nodded, and Sam said, “Then you two will probably be its next targets. You have to stay outside the salt.”
“It wants things the way they were. Ghosts can be particular about things like that,” said Sam. “And it killed the last person who made changes to it.”
Put that way, there was a whole new dimension of creepy added to the case.
“I’ll call you when we have the information,” said McGee after Sam explained exactly what they were looking for in their previous owner.
“I’ll call you,” said Sam, pulling his phone out.
“But –” McGee stopped and they watched Sam pry out his SIM card before repocketing the phone. He would bet that the phone would disappear into a dumpster minutes after they left. They weren’t kidding about not trusting cops. Sam gave them a terse smile then went out the back with Dean.
Abby and McGee – and Tony – took a detour to the grocery store before going back to the office. Tony mouthed off the whole way about how stupid and crazy pouring salt all around the computer would be.
“You’re doing what?” said Gibbs when they tromped through the bull pen still arguing.
“Ring of salt to keep the ghost from killing me and McGee,” said Abby who really wanted to get it done because who knew what could happen in the next ten minutes. There were guns in the room. She left McGee to fill in Gibbs on what Sam wanted and how paranoid Dean was.
“Do they have last names?” asked Kate at one point. To which the answer was no.
“They are helping us out,” said McGee meaningfully.
“With a ghost,” said Gibbs slowly as if speaking to a child. He still wasn’t on board with the idea even though he had heard one of the spontaneously appearing songs.
“Yes, a ghost. That’s living in a computer. I know it sounds crazy, boss, but there’s not a rational explanation for the things it’s doing,” McGee stammered.
“So your first explanation when things went strange was ‘ghost’.”
“No. My first response was a, a program, that we weren’t seeing, and then . . . Abby thought it was a ghost. After a few other theories . . .” he trailed off. “It can’t hurt to do what they say?” he tried.
Gibbs still had that flat, unamused, going-to-kick-ass-without-breaking-a-sweat glare going, but he finally waved McGee off. The real problem was there were too few other leads. Sadly even to him, the ghost explanation was looking better and better, if for no other reason than they were doing something about it. Load of crap that it was. The rest of the investigation was turning up bunk. There were no other hidden agendas popping up in unexpected places. No money, no drugs, no torrid love affair. Just a happy soldier who had quietly stabbed himself in the chest five times while his wife was in the next room.
“Find out who these ghost hunters are and why they don’t like cops,” Gibbs told Tony and Kate. “Then track them down.”
“No problem, boss,” said Tony. He waggled his phone with a huge, face splitting grin. “I got pictures.”
McGee and Kate ended up tracking down the information Sam wanted while Abby and Tony worked on tracking down Sam and Dean. The pictures were really dark, and by the time they had the photos lightened, somewhat recognizable, and uploaded to the database, McGee and Kate had found out that Staff Sergeant Nygren had indeed purchased the computer second hand, and that the retailer had been donated the computer by a woman whose brother had died a year ago from tripping and banging his head on a coffee table in his living room, not five feet from the computer. He’d been getting a snack during a pause in World of Warcraft. Gary Linburg had been a total computer geek.
“Worse than you, McGee,” said Kate when they were telling Gibbs.
“What’s that’s supposed to mean?” McGee immediately had his back up.
“Nothing,” said Kate sweetly. “You are after all redeemed by the fact that you use your powers for good.”
McGee frowned, not quite following. “She means you use them for me,” said Gibbs.
The frown didn’t go away. “I’m not sure that would count as using them for good,” he said. When Gibbs tilted his head just so, he added, suddenly remembering he was actually talking to Gibbs, “I mean, you don’t always have me follow procedure, or, stay exactly inside . . . legal . . . I mean, yes, absolutely good, boss.”
“Our computer geek?” Gibbs prompted Kate.
“That’s pretty much it,” Kate picked up the story. “He was an online presence, had friends who were also into gaming. In real life, he worked for the Department of Agriculture in IT. No problems at work. His death was a clear cut accident, according to the police report.”
“That’s our ghost?”
“That’s out ghost,” said McGee. “Now we just have to wait for Sam to call Abby.”
Sam didn’t call for another hour, and by that time the whole team was gathered around Thai take-out and the plasma screens with the mug shots of Sam and Dean Winchester displayed along with a rather impressive list of crimes they were wanted for by the FBI.
“They had to have been ghosts. Or things,” said Abby as they stared at one grisly crime scene.
“Why d’you think that?” said Tony. “It’s probably some scam that lets them get away with murder.”
“My gut,” said Abby, rounding on him. “Why go to the trouble of listening to us? Why keep helping after they figured out this was a NCIS case?”
Abby had a point that they all mulled over during the three seconds before the phone interrupted. They all jumped up, but Abby won the scramble for the phone, while McGee picked up the other line to get the trace started. Gibbs leaned over and hit the button for speaker, nodding to her to go on.
“Abby, hey,” said Sam. “How’s it going?”
“Hi, Sam!” said Abby cheerfully. “We think we have the ghost.”
“That’s great!” The smile in Sam’s voice was audible. “Who is it?”
“Gary Linburg,” sad Abby. She spelled the name for him when he asked, and answered the few questions he had about where, when, and how he died.
“So, uh, we’re still gonna need the computer,” he said when she was finished. “We have a way to take care of most of the ghost, but if he was that attached to his computer, he might have left part of himself there permanently.”
Gibbs handed her a pad with what he wanted her to ask. “I though the ghost was in the computer already. How are you going to get rid of most of it without the computer?”
“Uh . . . “ Sam paused. “No offence, but you work for the government.”
“Grave desecration?” Abby read off Gibbs’s pad. The silence on the other end was long and heavy.
“You looked us up,” Sam finally said.
Abby didn’t feel that bad about it. “As you said, we work for the government.”
“So? Grave desecration?” Abby repeated, this time like a little kid way to excited about digging up dead people.
“You know where he’s buried?” Sam asked instead of answering. Abby looked at Gibbs for his approval, and when he nodded, took the file Kate handed over. “Oak Hill Cemetery,” she told him.
“There gonna be a SWAT team waiting for us?”
“No.” Abby didn’t even wait for a prompt.
“Right.” He didn’t sound like he believed her. “Look, I’m gonna have to call you back.”
“But –” He hung up on them. “Gibbs!” Abby turned on her boss. “Why did you have me ask that? Now they’re never going to trust us and we’ll be stuck with a creepy, murdering computer.”
“They were never going to trust us once they found out we were federal agents,” Gibbs countered, gesturing to the screen where Sam stared back sullen and Dean was making kissy faces. “Tony, take McGee and stake out the cemetery. Let’s bring them in for questioning.”
Tony and McGee shared an unhappy sigh, taking their dinners as they went. Kate followed Abby back to her lab where Abby grumbled as she pulled out the futon and crashed out.
“They’ve done some pretty horrific things,” said Kate, trying to soothe her rumpled feathers.
“I looked at one of those cases,” Abby replied. “And, all things considered, I don’t think they did it.”
That made Kate frown – all things considered was probably a hoax – and she said, “Which case were you looking at?”
Abby scrambled up and back to her computer. She pulled up the San Francisco murder and pointed out the first deaths with the same MO had happened before anyone saw any sign of Sam and Dean Winchester. “And they all occur on the full moon,” she pointed at the dates.
“How do you know that?”
“Dog maulings that occur once a month? I looked it up,” said Abby.
“Werewolves?” Kate looked over at the computer sitting innocently in the center of a thick ring of salt. She looked back at the file. “I know I’m going to regret this,” she said, going back into the bull pen. When she came back a few minutes later, she had the hard copy of the Winchester file and a new pad of paper. It was like a slumber party, camped out with Abby on the futon as they tried to remember every ghost story they’d ever heard of and read between the lines of an FBI file.
At sunrise, they shook Gibbs awake. “Look at this.” Kate shove her notes in his face, wild eyed and grinning, like she was about to eat him for breakfast if he didn’t hurry up. Gibbs squinted, sleep still in his eyes and a crick in his neck. When he was taking too long trying to find a good distance to read it from Abby blurted, “It means they didn’t do it.”
“Do what?” asked Gibbs, blinking hard.
“Any of it! They were fighting ghosts and werewolves and stuff.”
“The Winchesters?” It took a little while for Gibbs to go through their notes, and as he was finishing up, Tony and McGee rolled in looking much the worse for a night spent at a graveyard.
“They didn’t show up,” said Gibbs before either one of them could say anything.
“No,” said Tony. “The rat bastards.”
“But they did leave us something,” said McGee holding up a plastic grocery bag. “Lighter fluid, rock salt and step-by-step instructions for getting rid of the ghost.”
“Instructions,” Kate snatched the sheaf of papers out of Tony’s hand. They were stick figure cartoons ‘so easy, even cops can do it’ the bubble above the shorter of the two figures said. Even his line-smile looked sarcastic.
“Ha!” Abby grinned, reading over Kate’s shoulder.
“How’d they get past you?” was Gibb’s response making both McGee and Tony squirm.
“It’s a big cemetery, boss,” said McGee.
“We think they hiked in and hopped the back fence,” said Tony.
“Look! That’s me!” Abby exclaimed. “I’m bossing everyone around!”
“Think you can do it?” Gibbs looked back at Tony and McGee.
They eyed each other, puzzled. “Do what?”
“Get rid of the ghost,” said Gibbs completely serious, even when Tony laughed thinking he was joking until he realized, that no, Gibbs wasn’t.
“Um,” he swallowed hard. “Yes?”
“The instructions are pretty clear,” McGee added a little more confidently. “They say to burn the computer, too.”
“What are you still doing here then?”
“It’s just, boss, that it’s the electronics and they‘re made of plastics and have mercury and heavy metals . . . burning is not really very environmentally . . . friendly. Or we could get the hazmat suits and do it in a closed . . .” he looked at Abby for help.
“It’s really bad,” she told Gibbs.
“Get rid of the ghost,” Gibbs told them. “It wasn’t a suggestion.”
In the end they decided to first see if just salting and burning the bones would do the trick. Tony and McGee went back to the cemetery, dug up Gary Linburg, salted, burned, and complained a whole lot about the back breaking labor digging – ‘Then fill in the hole back in before someone (you) falls in. It looks like less of a crime that way.’ said the cartoon – and filling holes was.
Back in Abby’s lab, she, Kate, and Gibbs watched the computer go crazy. It was amazing really – “This would be so cool if it weren’t really happening in front of us!” said Abby – and if it hadn’t been Abby’s lab or evidence that his team had collected, Gibbs would never have believed it.
Kate even said, “I don’t believe this,” soft and a bit awed by the violently rocking desktop and the small whirlwind of papers and pens within the ring of salt.
“If I didn’t see it with my own eyes,” Gibbs agreed, equally soft. When it stopped, it was a shock; the sudden silence after the final bang of the desktop on the counter was deafening. Tony called a second later.
Kate drew the short straw for who had to turn the computer on. It booted up fine, and she followed Abby and McGee’s shouted directions for finding the files that had appeared before. They were all gone. But when the computer jumped in one last death rattle, she screamed.
“Salt! Salt!” Abby tossed while Kate retreated, Gibbs and McGee helping steady her over the line.
“So now what?” said Tony. Everyone looked at him expectedly. “Oh no. No, no, no.”
But he went, armed with a screw driver, and followed Abby and McGee’s shouted directions for turning off and dismantling the, quite literally, damned thing. The computer tried to electrocute him.
That was when Gibbs shot it.
After that it was practically a cake walk to dismantle. Abby and McGee took charge of the pieces, including the motherboard with a hole through the processor for later salting and burning. Gibbs sent everyone home for a much needed rest.
The next day, after falsifying reports and officially putting the case on the back burner until it could get cold, Abby came over to Gibbs’s desk and pressed a button on his phone. “Hi, Sam,” she said. “You still there?”
“Yeah,” said Sam Winchester with the sound of wind in the background.
“I can hear you much better now. What’s up?”
“I was actually going to ask you that,” said Sam with genuine concern. “You okay?”
“Yeah, we’re good. Thanks for the presents. It was so cool when I was in the cartoon.”
“Dean’s idea. I think he likes you – ow.” There were a garble of sounds then Sam was back. “So did it work?”
“Exactly like you said. Even the imprinting on the computer after the bones were burned, but we had it covered. It was kind of exciting.” Gibbs glanced at Abby, amused by her enthusiasm.
“Well, I don’t recommend making a regular practice of it,” said Sam. “I’m sorry we couldn’t do it ourselves. It’s not that we don’t trust you, just . . .”
“You don’t trust us. It’s okay. I read through your file and I wouldn’t either. The FBI’s doing a pretty crappy job with your case.”
That got a laugh and a resigned, “Yeah. Hendrickson’s a piece of work.”
“Hey, Sam? Thanks,” said Abby seriously. Their asses would have been toast without the Winchesters.
“You’re welcome,” said Sam. “Take care.”
“We will. Bye.”
He hung up. Gibbs sat back in his chair and smiled a bit. Abby returned it with interest. Tony and Kate came around the corner, lunch in hand and McGee trailing.
“Kate, you screamed like a little girl.”
“Tony, I am a girl. I can scream however the hell I want. You, on the other hand, screamed at least a register above your normal range. I though only boy sopranos could do that?”
“Or eunuchs,” McGee piped in with his own grin at Tony’s flapping jaw and hot protests.
“So,” Abby leaned in close over Gibbs’s desk and said quietly, “You think we can help them?”
It was an FBI case, so there wasn’t much Gibbs could do. Through normal channels. If there was one thing Gibbs had learned from this case, was that normal had very little to do with anything.
“I’ll see what I can do.”