The temperature outside was ready to hit an all time low. The wind howled for all it was worth, hitting everyone it could with the worst chill imaginable, leaving most huddling indoors while an intrepid few told the weather to shove it. This was business as usual for Philadelphia on this half of the year, snowing by the bucket where it would rain otherwise.
Madison had more than a few solutions to this annual problem, which really wasn't all that bad, but layers did jack shit when she had to go from clinging to her motorcycle to sitting in a packed room. She pulled out her notepad and tried to avoid being elbowed by the group slowly pressing in on her.
This press conference was originally scheduled for last week, something Sam had reminded her to make a note of while she was polishing up her drafts on the crime, but it had been abruptly canceled hours before it was supposed to start. That made more than few eyebrows rise, causing general interest in the case to double. The robberies were already catching the eye of most news stations by targeting the smaller offices of a few of the more notorious companies present, but when an attempt to take hostages resulted in their deaths, there was nowhere you could turn without hearing someone comment on it.
Which really makes me wish I was a fly on any of the walls in this department after a discussion to postpone the conference like that. Something must've happened, but Sam would've at least given me the heads up first. Or one of my other contacts. This is just getting stranger and stranger.
The cops present were huddled together around various sections of the station when Madison was let inside with her fellow reporters and journalists, but Perry was very absent. Still Captain after the mess which tried to flare up after the aftermath of the Origami Killer case he was likely inside his office, putting the last finishing touches on his statement.
Madison pulled off her scarf and unzipped her jacket, feeling more than a little crowded as the small room housing everyone started to resemble a sardine can. She had managed to snag a seat early, but that meant little when every reporter wanted to get a word in edgewise. And not too kindly at that. Everyone would be jumping to cut in on another's time, and she had to make sure she had her timing down right. At least she was only a few rows from the front instead of being shoved to the back of the room like last time. The entourage that had camped in front of her at that conference had blocked her out completely, leaving her peeking around them to catch the odd phrase from Perry.
She didn't see the group this time around, but kept an eye out anyway just in case they decided to try the same stunt twice. Sure, what all reporters did was get information to the public as soon as possible, but it was just as much a competition as a public service. And while she didn't enjoy the idea of stabbing anyone in the back, her back was free game for anyone around her to jab at instead. Something she was unfortunately starting to become quite familiar with after the infamy granted from the Origami Killer case.
Perry made his appearance as two people sidled up beside her, questions already spilling out as he took his place at the podium. He waited for a few minutes as the room settled down, though whether he was doing so to bask in the attention or give them time to quiet down was debatable. It never got completely quiet, but the minute the scattered comments turned into whispers he cleared his throat.
"Thank you all for coming here today. I apologize for the abrupt cancellation of the conference scheduled before, because as you are all surely aware we have those responsible for the robberies committed at CompuLabs and OKC Corporation, along with the murders of Johanna Dawson, Bruce Adams, and Owen Loeb in our custody. However," Perry paused and raised his hand, "we have recently been made aware of another individual which was the mastermind behind these crimes. We already have critical information about their whereabouts, and are working day and night to ensure that they are apprehended. Since this is a matter of extreme importance, I'll take a few brief questions."
The room exploded, half of the crowd shocked dumb while the others fired questions left and right. Madison nearly dropped her pen, coming back to reality when the camera next to her went off.
What? Three sources told me that there was no chance that there was anyone working behind the scenes, but... Shit. They either left something out or lied.
A male reporter near the front stood up, getting Perry's attention. "Could the leader possibly be working at one of these companies as we speak? That could explain why they were able to operate off of what should've been insider information."
"It is a possibility. However, we don't have enough information at this time to either confirm or deny such a claim." He pointed to another reporter in the back. "Yes?"
"If this person isn't caught, other software companies and their employees might be in danger. Have they been made aware of the activity of this group?"
"We've already had several discussions on the matter about possible precautions that could be taken to avoid problems like this in the future. Companies are aware and are paying attention."
Madison shot her hand up, feeling her window of opportunity closing up fast. Perry luckily didn't seem to recognize her from this distance, and gave her the go ahead. "The case seemed like it was ready to wrap up without any knowledge of this so-called leader a week ago. Is there any chance that this is an attempt to throw you off further in the hopes of keeping you from convicting them?"
Perry sighed. "We have credible sources ready to back up the information given. No tricks are being played, and I want to reassure the public that we have this situation under control. Everything will be resolved as soon as possible, and the leader will indeed be apprehended. Now, are there any other questions?"
A couple other reporters got their questions in, each receiving a vague answer in turn, while Madison sat back and sighed. Like a couple of other conferences before this, this just felt like it was built to feed them just enough information to keep them distracted. Whatever was going wrong behind the scenes, if there was something going wrong, had to be wrapped up fast.
And I need to get Sam on the phone before anything else comes up. We've only got a couple of days left at the most before this gets finished and shoved into a filing cabinet.
She placed her notepad back inside her jacket before zipping it up and began the process of getting ready to face winter again. Perry disappeared, likely running back to his office before he could get overrun by some of her more overzealous peers. She slipped her gloves on as she followed the train of people outside the double-doors at the entrance to the station and broke off from the group a few steps out to dial Sam.
It was not the best spot at all. The cold was already creeping through her layers, and she had to wrap an arm around herself to stay warm.
"Come on, Sam! Pick up!" Her phone told her it was 7:23 PM, so there was no way that Sam was asleep yet. The ringing ended up cutting straight to voicemail, and she fidgeted in place as she listened for the beep. "Hey, Sam it's Madison. We need to talk. I just hit the conference and we need to clear a few details up ASAP. Get back to me as soon as you can."
She turned back around as a spark by the entrance caught her eye. One of the officers on break was lighting up a cigarette, seemingly unfazed by the weather.
Hey, isn't that Blake's partner? The man put away his lighter as she wandered over, weighing her options. Maybe he might know a thing or two. ...Or maybe he might just tell you to fuck off due to getting Blake slapped with a demotion? Remember that wonderful little detail?
Ash looked up as she stopped, exhaling a thin stream of smoke. "You really don't want to talk to me."
"I...can think of a few reasons why I probably shouldn't." Madison replied, channeling her nervous energy into rubbing her hands together. "But I can also think of a couple that might work."
"...Right." He didn't eye her with distrust, but he barely seemed to be paying her much attention either. "And that won't get my name dragged through enough shit to bury me."
She bit her tongue to keep from replying to that. Then changed her mind. "You only get buried if you give me a damn good reason to do so. Look, I'm just trying to get a clear idea of what's going on with the corporate robberies going on right now. The only person I want to hang is the one who's apparently still on the run from you."
He glanced at his watch and took another drag off of his cigarette. "As much as I love using my smoke breaks to entertain reporters, you'll have to talk to Blake about that one. I can't help you."
"Don't you work with him?"
Ash shrugged. "I do." Madison's increasingly frustrated posture did little to move him beyond what could've been a look of faint interest. "But you're wasting your time here. You really want to figure out what's going on? Collaborate with one of your reporter friends. Maybe you can share notes."
The cigarette fell to the ground, the embers blinking briefly before being stomped out. "You should probably start heading home. Supposed to ice up tonight."
She forced a smile, her words barely escaping her gritted teeth. "Thank you, officer."
Well, that went well! Sure, just walk right on up to Blake's partner. He'll have information, right? Shit.
She pulled her arms closer to her as she trekked back to her bike, her footsteps echoing as they hit the concrete. What if Blake had shown up during that? Even if I had managed to get something, the last thing I want to do is get dragged into a mess like that again. *sigh* ...Things were a hell of a lot easier before they actually knew what I looked like.
The group she had originally walked out with was long gone. The fact that she could hear her footsteps, along with the occasional skittering of a kicked rock told her that she was one of the only people left, and that paired with the cold made her walk a little faster. By the time her bike came into sight she was lightly jogging, building up some excess heat for the trip back. Only a couple other people were in the immediate area starting up their cars for the ride home.
Maybe it was the black sky hanging overhead, or the brief chill that got to her while she fiddled with her scarf, but pinpricks began to travel slowly down her spine.
Relax. It's one of those nights where you won't see a lot of people, and you are in the Police Department's parking lot. Unless they're all ready to come back from their patrols just this instant, you're going to be all by your lonesome. Still...
Madison glanced over her shoulder before slipping her helmet on, making sure to start the engine as quickly as she could. The sooner she was out of here the better.
Besides, I've got a few papers over at the Tribune that I want to have on hand when Sam calls, and I do have one killer comforter to curl up in back at home...
The roar of the engine started and she sped away, running off into the night. The silent figure watching from a distance lowered their camera, tenderly touching the display screen on its opposite side.
One Madison Paige. Photojournalist. Completely unaware of what was going to happen next.
There was such a thing as too much bass. If it's able to reach a certain pitch or frequency that makes you wonder if your head's about to explode, it might be wise to dial it back a notch or three. Or four, especially if your sternum was joining in the party.
Jayden did his best to ignore the pounding running through his ears, but it was damn near impossible. It was like a migraine that refused to go away, made worse by the neon green lights cutting through the club's foggy interior. He wanted to stop where he was and press his hands to his temples to counteract some of the pressure, but he had no time. This was a case, an important one at that, and he needed to be at one hundred percent...or at least as close to one hundred percent as he could get.
His partner, Matt, walked a few steps ahead of him, cutting through the dancing crowd with ease.
Shit, he may as well be parting the goddamn Red Sea. Way too many people here. He ducked by one group, only to narrowly avoid getting crushed by another. Nobody seemed to be paying any attention to the pair cutting across the dance floor and Jayden idly wondered if he could count the number of sober people present on one hand.
A drink flew by him, missing him by inches. Well, you can't ignore concrete evidence.
On the other side they met up with a rather large bodyguard posted at the doorway to what was supposed to be the lower level of the club. Jayden did his best not to grimace as the strobe light overhead tried to drop kick his senses, but he wasn't the one who needed to smooth talk the guard. That duty was Matt's this time around.
"Hey, how's it going? My buddy Dan and I have an appointment with one of your lovely ladies tonight! " Matt clapped Jayden on the shoulder while giving the guard his best grin. "Miss Clary, in fact!"
The guard at the front did nothing, but the one beside him opened the giant red door and disappeared. That left the two of them with one rather imposing obstacle. The large man had more than a few inches on the two of them, reminding Jayden more than a little of Mad Jack and the resulting brawl which left him crawling around in the mud for a good ten minutes. He raised a hand to his forehead as it began to throb and the guard gestured towards him. "What's his problem?"
Jayden snapped to attention, his hand freezing in place. His partner, however, reacted much more gracefully. "Oh, him? Long work day. I think he's nervous because well, you know."
The guard laughed and Jayden dragged his hand down his face in annoyance. He may have not felt much like talking, but the finger he gave McGinnis said more than enough.
Soon enough the door opened again, and the man who came back nodded his approval. With this last confirmation given the guard in charge stepped back and allowed them to enter the dark hallway themselves, closing the door behind them. Black-lights ran through the ceiling and stairs, replacing the rapid-fire movements of the strobe light outside. The walls themselves were left bare, but a large spiraling design curled around them, bright white against the black floor.
Matt groped for the walls beside him, feeling slightly disoriented by the twisting of the lights around them, but made it down to the final step in one piece. Jayden kept a hand on the wall and focused on putting one foot in front of the other, closing his eyes briefly to get rid of the phantom pulling sensation that kept trying to throw them off. The eerie glow was bit more difficult to ignore, the patches of white winding around them more than a little reminiscent of a certain device.
Once at the bottom the guard ushered them into a hallway lined with undecorated white doors. Here the only lights were the fluorescent bulbs hanging from the ceiling, giving their eyes time to adjust to something borderline normal. The burgundy carpet stared up at them as they walked along, its deep red a little too reminiscent of blood. The three took a turn before stopping at a door marked with the numbers 906.
"Stick to the deal." the man with them ordered, crossing his arms. "Break anything, and we'll fucking break you."
Jayden smiled weakly, noting the glint of the brass knuckles just daring him to slip up. "No problem. I'm pretty good at following instructions." Money exchanged hands quickly then, from one lightly shaking pair to another much more steady one. As he reached for the door handle Matt gave him a thumbs up, and Jayden wondered if he would ever get a normal case for once.
Probably not, because murders are hardly ever normal cases. You picked your poison, Norman. Live with it. Fucking strobe lights or no strobe lights. Now go in there and get the ball rolling. The last thing we need is for someone to figure out we're not exactly the typical clientele.
The door clicked shut behind him, leaving him in a dimly lit room mostly occupied by a large circular bed. The woman lying down on top of it looked up at him, a slow smile spreading across her red lips.
A couple of weeks ago two women vanished completely.
One had been taken between 8:15-8:45 PM outside of her apartment, while the other had vanished in the middle of a crowded nightclub a few minutes after having a conversation with its owner. On the surface both victims appeared to have nothing in common with the other. One was a college student up to her ears in debt who worked part-time at one of the local supermarkets. The other took employment where she could find it, completing a series of odd jobs as they were made available to her. The space in time between each disappearance varied, but the two women had some interesting things in common.
One, they both regularly frequented nightclubs in the area. Two, both happened to be prostitutes.
That fact was the link needed to tie those disappearances to at least three others, all prostitutes, and all found dead. It'd been a crap shoot after that trying to find anyone who was willing to offer information. Matt had volunteered to be the face while Jayden worked behind the scenes, digging up the old case files.
The killer frequented clubs, often picking ones that generated a decent amount of business but did not openly broadcast any alternative services that they could offer. Most of the women disappeared at some point after entering the club with no warning given. Witnesses would only mention seeing them one minute, and then failing to find them the next. Jessica Stewart was able to leave the nightclub she frequented, go home, and then go about most of her business that day. It wasn't until later that evening when she began to head over the club that she was taken. It was reckless, with little consideration given to the fact that she was out in the open and any witnesses could've been present.
The nightclub she lived within walking distance of, however, was no stranger to disappearances.
During the day no one would've been able to separate it from any of the other abandoned buildings clustered around it. Formerly a factory, its original owner had managed to pick it up through a high-stakes gambling match, turning the place into a hot spot for drinking, dancing, and drugs. Its location was given through word of mouth only, but everyone had to have an established connection before being let in.
It was the worst kept secret in the area, with a lot of locals vying for a chance to get in. Snagging an invite from anyone was like trying to steal dinner from a pack of rabid hyenas. Not easy. And not worth losing an arm over.
Matt said to give him two days and a list of known customers. A day and a half later he threw a handful of papers onto Jayden's desk and told him to get cracking on those names and their connections in particular. They had an in. All they needed was one willing contact.
"Ms. Clarissa Jones, I presume?"
The woman raised herself up, her every movement carefully choreographed to present the textbook image of the seductress. Her outfit only served to cement it. "That is my given name." She looped a finger through the curls framing her face and arched her back. "Won't you call me by my preferred one?"
Jayden folded his arms in front of him. "I actually think I flatter your name less by going with that one, but if you'd like then all right. ...Ms. Clary." Doesn't exactly roll off the tongue there, or at least mine. "Anyway, you should already have an idea of why I'm here."
"Not until you flash that fancy badge of yours. And I'd rather not interrupt our time together by inviting our little chaperone to the party. We won't have any problems, will we?"
"No, not unless you've changed your mind about the information you're offering. You are still willing to work with us, correct?"
"Perhaps." She leaned back, considering the cigarette holder in her hand. "Though there are many different ways that we can go about exchanging information..."
Jayden sighed and resisted the urge to roll his eyes. "Lady, I don't know what's worse. Your expectations of me, or the probability that whatever little act this is will work and actually get me wrapped around your pretty little finger."
Clary sat up straight, the smile still firmly stuck in place, but the cold edge of it told him she was no longer amused. "An act is only as good as its actress. You deal with enough shit every day, you just get used to giving it. Now, any chance of showing me that badge today before I decide to get your ass thrown out?"
"Yes, as long as you realize that I'm here to help you find out who killed your friends and coworkers. Jessica didn't deserve what happened to her. Neither did Denise."
He showed her his badge, pulling it back when she reached out to take it. She frowned, but looked it over. "...Seems like your friend was being truthful. He told me that a Jayden would meet me, but only gave a time. Not a single hint of what to look for."
"With the killer focusing on this area, we didn't want to give out any more information than necessary. Any negative attention brought to us would unintentionally bring attention to those working with us. I think you can understand why we'd want to avoid that."
She studied Jayden for a minute as he slipped his badge back inside his pocket, her expression calm, but showing hints of stress around the edges. "I do." Her legs slid to the edge of the bed and she stood up to walk over to a nearby vanity table. Taking a seat on the small stool there, she kept her eyes on the mirror in front of her. "...Anything I say will only be between you and me?"
"Not a word will get out to anyone. I promise."
She glanced over her shoulder. "You'll still be able to get me out of here?"
Jayden nodded, keeping his tone as steady and reassuring as possible. "One phone call and it's done."
Her eyes returned to the mirror as she pulled a white robe on, her hands shaking as they tied the knot. "It's weird. It's the kind of thing you see on TV, you know those Law and Order shows? I mean, with what we do it's about as far from what you would call safe as possible, but...it's what we have to do. A lot of us need the money to pay for more important things. School, bills, children."
Jayden took a couple careful steps forward, making sure to keep his distance. The last thing he wanted to do was spook her. "No glitz and glamor there, that's for sure."
Clary pulled out a cigarette and lit it, completely ignoring the other resting in front of her. "You're a fucking cop. Of course it's all bullshit to you. You probably can't wait to get the hell out of here to go back home to your perfect wife, family, whatever." She glanced at him in the mirror, noticing the way he avoided catching her eye. "...Or, maybe not. Hmm."
This is going nowhere. We need to get back on track or the goddamn guard's going to intervene. "We're running on a tight schedule, Ms. Jones. If we could get back on topic..."
"Right, right. It's not always fun when you're the one being poked at, Agent. Just a little reminder." she replied, nervously tapping her nails. "I guess I'll start with Denise. She's-um, she was one of the more experienced girls here. She'd been here as long as I could remember. They hired her not too long after the place opened. She had this way with people, probably why she had such a large group of clients. They could feel comfortable around her. Talk to her. Jess...was another story."
The blonde took a long drag off her cigarette and let the smoke out in a large plume. "She'd just started a few months ago. Lovely girl. Didn't really have much of a personality to go with that, but it's tough to put on a happy face when you have no choice but to do something you absolutely hate."
"What was the connection between Denise and Jessica?"
"When Denise vanished, the owner worried that we wouldn't be able to bring in the money like we used to. We managed to keep most of Denise's regulars happy, but there were a few that didn't like the change. They wanted Denise and Denise only. Jess didn't have Denise's personality, but after being dolled up a bit could almost pass for her. From there, I guess fate took over."
Jayden began to pace around the small room, his chin in his hand. "Denise disappeared roughly a month before Jessica did. If the killer happened to be Denise's client then it makes sense that he would take interest in another woman made to appear like her."
Which could possibly help us to keep an eye on other women with similar appearances, and uh, formal work wear. We need to get pictures of the others in and out of costume to do a cross-analysis, but that could be tricky with the smoke and mirrors they keep on throwing up around these places. What I really need right now, though, are those client lists.
"You have to make a record of the clients and each individual appointment time before you receive them, right?" Clary nodded and Jayden came to a stop. "That information could be exactly what we need in order to find who targeted the others. Do you know where it's kept?"
"New girls always meet with the owner in his office when they first arrive. It wasn't at his desk, but I do remember someone off to the side working off of a computer. I'd try there." She stubbed out her cigarette and turned around. "You'd better deliver that son of bitch up on a platter, Mr. FBI. If he walks or finds his way out of here-"
Three sharp knocks cut across her comment, and Jayden's hand went immediately to the handle of the gun hidden inside his coat.
Both of them refused to move as silence settled over the room, their eyes locked onto the door. When the knocks started again, Clary broke out of her self-imposed daze and glanced at the small clock sitting behind her. "Shit. Time's almost up. We've still got a few more minutes, so I don't know what their problem is. Wait here."
She got up and walked past him to the door, her hand already reaching for the handle. The handle that was already turning.
The first shot went off somewhere in the direction of the vanity table, the sound barely rising above the blood now rushing in Jayden's ears. The second had no chance of hitting him at all.
Blood splattered onto the bed as Clary half-collapsed onto it before falling onto the floor. By this time his own gun was out, and Jayden fired two shots at the dark figure lingering in the doorway, fear and adrenaline somehow working together to keep him firing straight. The shadow fell back, hitting the wall briefly before ducking out of the door back into the hallway.
Jayden lowered his gun, a string of obscenities already making their way out his mouth. That's when he heard the choking noise by his feet.
He shoved his gun haphazardly into his pocket and fell to his knees, dragging a corner of the blanket of the bed to hold to Clary's neck. It soaked through in seconds, warm red staining his hands.
She looked up at him, confused, panicked, unwilling. He pressed down on the wound, willing the bleeding to stop. "Christ- Stay with me, Ms. Jones. Everything will be okay. We'll get an ambulance and we'll get you out of here just like we promised." The blanket was red, too red. "Ms. Jones?"
Her body twitched briefly, her limbs unsure of what to do. She was no longer looking at him, her head lolling to the side.
"Clary!" The amount of pressure he was applying now was nearly painful, but there was no response. She remained where she was, her eyes aimed in the direction of the doorway. Jayden let go, the wet fabric sticking to his palms. There was red everywhere. His hands, the sleeves of his coat, the floor-
His stomach lurched and he fell back, tearing his eyes away from the scene which had played out to its conclusion right in front of him.
"Shit. Shit, shit, shit..." He wiped his hands off on his coat, not caring that it was only getting more blood on him in the process. He just wanted to see his hands clean.
Something moved in the direction of the doorway and he yanked the gun out again, finger already on the trigger. Matt held up a hand, the motion throwing off his balance as he swayed to lean against the wall. A large bruise was forming on his forehead, visible even in the low light. Jayden scrambled to his feet and helped him steady himself.
"No, stop it, I'm all right!" Matt objected, trying to push Jayden away. He pointed down the direction they had come from before. "The fucker took off down there after getting through us. I took a hit to the head, but got off luckier than the guard. What happened? Oh, shit..." Jayden refused to look back behind him, even as the dried blood on his hands burned. "I'll call for back up. Let them know that we're screwed. ...God, just forget me and get him before we lose him completely! "
Jayden let him go, watching as Matt let himself sink down to the floor. Hefting the gun, he glanced back briefly before taking off. The killer already had too much time on him. Precious seconds flushed down the goddamn toilet because he failed to-
"You'll still be able to get me out of here?"
"One phone call and it's done."
He lurched to a stop, his body on fire and his hands shaking like crazy. The door directly to his right led back upstairs to the main level of the club. If they'd taken that way they were lost. There would be no way for them to track them down before they exited the club. His hand began to grope for the glasses resting over his heart, needing something, anything to go off of.
I won't lose them. It's not over. It will not fucking end like this!
A red smear jumped out at him at the end of the hall ahead, standing out against the stark white paint. There was no door to speak of there, but the way the blood was stamped on the wall implied that a) one of his shots managed to hit them, and b) the killer had to lean against the wall for support.
Jayden moved in closer, examining the area right by the smear. You wouldn't have noticed it on the other end of the hall, but there was a slight indention that two fingers could hook under and pull out. He raised it and felt the wall in front of him shift to the left. Putting his weight into it, he dragged the fake wall as far as it could go, revealing a steel door.
Un-fucking-believable. A hidden entrance here all along? People could be leaning next to it and not even notice. He yanked down on the handle and pulled it open, exposing a dimly lit corridor. Raising his gun, he moved forward as the door slid shut behind him.
The temperature was markedly colder here, no care taken to keep the winter chill from getting in. It was likely that this was one of the older areas left unrestored when the club was bought, judging by the concrete and rebar running up the walls surrounding him. He wasn't stealthy by any means of the word, but he needed to be right now. Without the carpet his footsteps could easily alert anyone to his presence.
He rounded a corner and was faced with a set of stairs leading down. It was the only way out of this area, and seemed to lead further into the older parts of the factory. Jayden inhaled and exhaled slowly, trying to mentally prepare himself for anything, but his thoughts became increasingly scattered. The burning fever he'd been plagued with earlier had been replaced with a cold sweat, the extra drop in temperature only serving to amplify it. His aim began to waver, even through his white-knuckled grip, tracing a shaky line through the abandoned work area.
Where are you? Show your goddamn face-
A noise sounded off to his left and he swung around spotting only scattered pieces of metal and concrete. Nothing of interest.
He slowly turned back around, and that's when he noticed it. The large metal rod swinging down at him. It slammed into his back, bringing him to his knees as his gun clattered away. The pain traveled white hot through him, making him freeze long enough to notice the large figure prepping a second swing.
He kicked at their legs, his aim even worse off than before, but got in a lucky hit on their right knee. The bar clattered to the ground as they yelled in pain, and Jayden took that moment to crawl as far away from them as possible. The nerves in his back screamed for all they were worth, but he had to move. He grabbed at a nearby desk, using it to pull himself to his feet, and jumped away from it seconds later as the suspect crashed into it.
They followed him, swinging wildly with their left arm while avoiding their damaged right. Jayden fell back against another desk and grabbed for anything of use. He grabbed a hammer just as they closed in and he aimed for the damaged arm, self-preservation easily overriding any need to fight fair. The yell was closer to a roar this time and he swung the hammer again, moving while he was still able. Its direction was too far off base, however, giving them enough space to move around and punch him right in the face.
Blood filled his mouth as he stumbled to the ground, his head spinning. He couldn't keep up with this. Not at the rate this fight was going. He needed his gun. He needed something to keep them back. Anything.
"Hey, fucknuts! Forget about something?"
What- Matt swung like he was going for a home run in the ninth inning stretch, and the beam of wood split completely upon impact with the killer. They rocked back with the hit, knocking over a desk as they went. Matt waited for a few seconds, ready to swing, but the figure fell to the ground and stayed there. "...Geez, what's this guy on, PCP?"
Spitting blood out onto the floor, Jayden dragged himself up again in spite of his body's protests. "Took you long enough."
"You let a short guy with a head injury save you, man." Matt shot, the broken beam slipping out of his hands. "Jesus. You can only put your dignity to rest so many times."
Jayden raised a hand to his back and grimaced. "...Just stop talking. For five goddamn seconds."
Pressure was building up behind his eyes again, and he pressed the heels of his hands against his head to get rid of it. Why was it doing this now? He breathed in and out, trying to ease some of the tension out of his body, but it refused to fade. Too much had happened, there was too much to process.
Something crashed next to them, and Jayden ripped his hands away in time to see the killer lumber to his feet and charge towards him. Something glinted in their hand, and they swung-
-claws extended, the bear's mouth a frothing maw-
"Fuck!" Jayden felt claws slice into his coat, heard the roar as it bore down on him, and he panicked as a forest floor attempted to stretch out before him. He cut and ran, watching the trees go by before the factory came rushing back, slamming him into a group of barrels.
His eyes were squeezed shut. Even as he heard footsteps come closer he refused to open them, unwilling to see-
-the sky hanging overhead, the sunlight pleasantly poking through the branches surrounding him-
Something flipped him over onto his back, and he hissed in pain, unable to do anything else. The vice that closed around his throat was unavoidable as well.
Sunlight poked through the edges of his vision and he couldn't have hated anything more.
"I'm telling you the truth! Not once did I lie before, and I'm not going to start now!"
Madison raised her hand in a gesture to stay quiet. "I'm not accusing you of anything! I'm just telling you that there's something both of us aren't catching. You told me who all the major players are, but the police are trying to tell us something different. I want to go over everything one last time so we can figure things out!"
The other woman pulled her coat closer to her, turning away. Their meeting place was one that Madison herself would never have chosen, but the cemetery was guaranteed at this hour to be as close to deserted as possible. Something both of them had to be sure of to make sure nothing got out. Still, with only the dead as their audience it didn't get rid of that prickling sensation that went with being watched.
"Everything was supposed to be clear. In fact, everything was clear!" the woman explained, lowering her volume. "The one who worked for OKC and the other who worked for us got the rest in. They helped set up the cash transfer and then hostages were taken when that money wasn't enough. That's what happened at my location when things finally went bad."
Madison kept her hands in her pockets, trying to ignore the cold. "There were five of them total, right?" Her contact nodded. "Two insiders plus four others. They seemed to go through the first few robberies easily enough, keeping everything limited to hours where everyone would be absent. Why change that?"
"I don't know. I already gave you the information on Alexander, and records of his activity. He seemed to be going along with the others just fine up until the end, but..." She paused, causing Madison to look up. "No. That wouldn't..."
"He did start contacting someone on our security team towards the end. I thought it was because they wanted to discuss any potentially strange activity, but..."
"That could be a missing connection."
"Exactly. I need to look into this. Damn." Her contact sighed and turned to walk off. "I'll get back to you as soon as I get this. Same contact method as before?"
Madison nodded. "You got it." As long I get to choose the place next time. This isn't working out. "Thanks for the info."
"Thanks for the tip! Keep your head down and I'll do the same."
She disappeared off into the white and Madison glanced around, taking in how neatly the snow covered everything. The headstones themselves still stood out, but everything else was almost untouched. At peace. She walked past a few rows, wondering if she still remembered which one it was. Which one she'd always meant to acknowledge once and then avoid.
It came up faster than she expected it to. She exhaled, the white of her breath floating by. "Scott Shelby."
His hands closed around her neck, squeezing as hard as possible. She struggled to get him to loosen his grip, digging her nails into his skin-
She shuddered, wrapping her arms around herself. Over a year had passed and he still found a way to get to her. Her eyes closed and she raised her face to the sky as she went over it again. How she broke free. How she ran, leaving Shaun alone. The guilt that sank in every time she thought about it hurt just as much as her choice did. There really had been no guarantee that Jayden would've been able to get back up and get that grate open in time. Or for that matter, get to her. Not like he did.
"Hey, uh... This doesn't seem like the good idea it was a few seconds back. Maybe we should wait..."
Jayden took one step down the ladder, making sure to keep his eyes on her rather than the height separating them from the ground. "Relax. I'm not the biggest fan of heights either, believe me, but I won't let you fall."
"Even if I suddenly develop a case of butterfingers?" Madison found herself leaning forward, looking past him at the shipping containers below. "Or my other knee gives out?"
"Madison." Her eyes moved back to him. "I won't let you fall. I promise."
She kicked at the snow in front of her, looking back down at the grave one last time before making her way to the exit. She checked the time on her phone, the numbers 11:38 PM blinking back at her.
How much in bad taste do you think it'd be if you called and happened to wake him up? Better yet, what would you even say?
Madison had no clue. But maybe right now she didn't really need to say much to him. She just wanted to hear something, anything from someone who went through what she did. Who was right there beside her and even went the little extra mile to keep her from dying there.
She found the number and dialed it before she could change her mind, holding the phone up to her ear as she moved through the snow. It rang a few times before cutting to voicemail, asking her to leave a message.
"...Um, hey, it's Madison. Probably should've guessed you'd be asleep by now, but I figured I'd give it a shot anyway. It's been a while since I've heard from you and I thought we could talk a bit. Don't worry. I'm sure you've got something highly classified going on, so just...if you're looking for a break, you're welcome to complain at me. I'll try not to take too many notes. Take care."
She hung up and stared at the phone in her hand for a few seconds. She was being silly again and she knew it. Sighing, she slid it into her pocket and continued on her way out. This really was no place to be left alone at this time of night.
It's exposition time. At least it is for a bit in the first half of this.
"Let me just get this last thing pinned up, just a second... Okay, got it. You can hear me too, right? Sure you don't want to try this over Skype?"
"I can hear you loud and clear. That would probably make this a lot easier, but I'm not in the best spot right now to use it. We'll have to wing it like we always do."
"All right, Sam. Let's take it from the top."
"You've got most of it set up?" Sam asked over the speaker in her ear. "It's probably going to look like a jumbled mess. I don't see how you can keep anything organized with the way you keep track of things. You sure this is easier than buying a whiteboard?"
Madison rolled her eyes and adjusted her Bluetooth headset. Sure, the string and push pin method was extremely outdated, but it worked great when the string didn't tie itself into a giant knot. Like it was trying to do now. "No, I'm not, but it was what I had on hand at the time, especially after the quick move I had to do last week. I was lucky they even had a place left over to stuff me into. Cubicles just weren't cutting it anymore." When the knot refused to give she just snagged a pair of scissors from one of the drawers on her desk and chopped it off.
Losing a reference or two can be chalked up to bad luck. When that continues for two weeks straight after changes have been made, then I think more than my messy organizational skills can be blamed for that.
Rather than name names, she decided to take the jump and ask her boss if there was an empty spot anywhere in the building she could get shuffled into to minimize any tensions. The tiny office, which had been recently cleared of old equipment, was the first thing they brought up and she took it in a heartbeat, because a room with an actual door trumped everything else in her mind. Its position right by the stairs to the reference stacks wasn't too bad either. The fact that it happened to be little more than a crawl space for dustbunnies to hide in worked against it, but she did have a window. And enough room for a desk as long as she kept it facing a certain direction.
"Just saying. You know I only mean the best, Mad. Anyway, we've got these two heavyweights, CompuLabs and OKC Corporation. Huge in technology, but also huge in computer security. With everyone's son and daughter deciding to take up hacking as a hobby you can imagine the general paranoia that's been springing up when the question of whether or not your information is safe is asked. OKC made a killing when it came to cashing in on that fear, while CompuLabs has a much smaller department devoted to it."
The ball of red string went from one hand to the other as Madison looked up at her crude chart. A red line between the two companies marked with 'info protection' stared back at her. "I remember an OKC commercial or two asking me if I knew what was happening to my personal information while I was sleeping at night. It was more than a little overdramatic, but it got the job done."
"Lots of people were pushing to get the protection they promised and bought up the software they were marketing along with their services. This gave them a pretty sizable data pool to work with and manage on a regular basis. So, you can imagine that their security department was up to their ears with the stuff, and paid a good deal to keep their mouths shut about it."
"Until someone else decided to get greedy." Madison gestured towards the group of men split apart by their association with their inside links. "The two companies have done a couple of collaborations over the years, nothing too big according to the reports I've dug up, but Johns and Alexander," she pointed to each of the insiders, even though Sam couldn't see it, "worked on more than one of these projects. Maybe even close together. They had to have exchanged info at some point and stayed in touch after that, but...they're not the ones running this."
"That's what they keep on saying. Right now, at least. I could've sworn we had the two pegged."
All arrows were pointing at them. They brought in the others, knew their workplaces and had access to the information which had been stolen and sold. "...Even my source was thrown for a loop when it came to them. The information they gave me about Alexander's activity told us exactly what we wanted to know. He was hiding plans through communication with Johns, he contacted an excellent hacker to slice through any security systems they weren't already exposed to, and I haven't even gotten to the footage yet! When they couldn't get the money they were asking for, he personally spearheaded the plan to use his coworkers as a last-ditch effort to get the company to give in."
Madison put a hand on her hip and sighed. "Everything's straightforward, but wrong. For whatever reason, the leader's not him, Johns, or the others. My contact and I both found that out the hard way, but I managed to get an idea of the next lead I wanted to cover."
"What did they suggest?"
Madison walked back over to her desk and tried to ignore the giant question mark hovering out of her line of vision. "Even a company specializing in security needs security. Alexander was working with someone on CompuLab's security team." She opened up one of the files on her desk and flipped through more than a few of the articles present until she found the one she was looking for. "Maybe it's a coincidence, but a few months ago the company ran an article in the business pages talking about a security re-haul after a minor information leak. Stocks were suffering, so they tried to cover their asses by fixing the issue. The number of staff was cut by half and I wouldn't be surprised if those that were left were replaced. Anyone who survived a cut after that was either too valuable to lose, or an expert in covering his tracks."
Sam didn't say anything for a few seconds, but she could hear him hum a bit through the speakers. "I could try to see if anyone would be willing to pull those employee records. That'll give us someone to focus on, though there's still a chance that one of the newer employees could've heard about the leak and scaled it up. You never know. I can get on that right now, unless you think your friend has that covered."
"That's the thing, I haven't heard back from them yet." She leaned on her elbow and flicked at the ball of string, watching it as it rolled forward and bounced off of the wall. "They must be digging deep for this stuff, or running into some serious problems along the way. If you think you'll have better luck with it go right ahead! I've got most of my write up on this section done, but I'm not sending this anywhere until we're sure that we're looking in the right place."
"I'll start looking then. I'll shoot you a call or a message if things look good. Keep me posted if they decide to get back to you first, though."
"Sounds good. Happy hunting, Sam. Try not to stick your neck out too far."
"I've played the 'do as I say and not as I do' game with you before, girl. You know I'm a lot more likely to listen if I don't have to worry about you getting in too deep as well."
"I'm keeping my distance." And doing a lot of reading when I'm not trying to meet inside sources in cemeteries in the dead of night.
"...Mostly." Madison shook her head. "We've known each other way too long. Keep an eye out Sam, and I'll do the same, okay? Talk to you later."
"Take care, Mad, and be careful."
She pulled off the headset and exhaled, trying to blow some of her bangs out of her face. The attempt failed, but she wasn't expecting much to begin with. Instead she looked down at the files sitting in front of her, filled with more bits and pieces to add to the garish puzzle on her office wall.
Well, staring at it is not going to get me anywhere.
She closed the file in front of her and opened her laptop so she could get to the word processor file. Just as she began to enter in her password a harsh buzzing went off by her elbow, making her jump in her seat. Her eyes went to that spot only to find her cell phone, stuck on vibrate. "I really need to stop doing that." Madison muttered, glancing at the screen.
Ethan? Afternoon calls were usually rare, but most of them belonged to the architect who worked on a much different schedule than she did. She ignored the headset and answered the phone directly. "Hello?"
"Hi, I'm not calling you at a bad time, am I?"
"No, I actually just got off the phone with someone not too long ago, so you've got perfect timing." She pushed the files aside and flipped through a few of the papers underneath them, ignoring any of the words on them. "I've been doing nothing but looking at articles and hoping the junk I'm typing up will make sense to my editors. How about you?"
"Do you remember those schematics I was working on last month? I was dragging my feet a little because I couldn't figure out how to make the rooms compensate for the type of roof I was fitting on it. It just wasn't working right."
"You were getting a little close to violating some laws of physics, Ethan." she teased, thinking about the elaborate building and the odd angles it was made of.
He laughed. "Yeah, Shaun was giving me trouble over it too. Well, I pulled some of those designs back a little and pitched the idea last week to the people who commissioned me to see if it was still something that they were looking for. I just got a call back, and they want to go with it! It'll be in a residential area that's on the edge of the city, but construction probably won't start until spring. That'll give me time to review the drafts and make sure that everything's in working order."
"Really? That's great Ethan! I think congratulations are in order!"
The excitement in his voice was infectious and incredibly welcome, especially after the last few months. It'd been difficult seeing Ethan and Shaun react differently to fall and the rain that came with it. They had been inseparable, with Ethan refusing to relax even if Shaun had been in Grace's company. That Shaun was even able to go to school was a miracle, but Ethan tried to reassure her that the counseling the two of them were going through would help them face that. Would help them to continue to heal and move on.
Someday, she hoped, someday.
"But that's not the only thing I've got to tell you," Ethan began, "Shaun's had a...few absences during this half of the year, so Grace and I met with his teacher a few times to talk about it and check on his progress. As it turns out he's doing even better than we hoped he would, even at the new school. With winter break coming up, I can't even tell you what a relief it is to hear that."
"I can only imagine." she replied, thinking of the quiet little boy. "Hey, I've got an idea. Since I've got two sets of congratulations to give, why don't we try to plan a movie night? I can order pizza, we can throw on Jurassic Park and we can kick off Shaun's winter vacation right. My treat."
"I'll have to see what's going on with Grace, but I think Shaun would love that." He was silent for a few seconds and Madison flipped through a few more papers to distract herself. She was just starting to pick the back of a plain white envelope marked with the letters M.P. when Ethan spoke up again. "...I'm happy that we're still able to see each other from time to time."
The adhesive wasn't putting up much of a fight, so Madison put it down before she ruined it further. "I don't see any reason why we shouldn't. I love hearing about how Shaun's doing, but I like hearing from you too, Ethan. I get busy sometimes, but you can always give me a call if you need to talk to someone."
"I know, it's just that-"
"Ethan. It's okay. Take Shaun out for a messy burger tonight and let me know what time would work for you two this weekend. Once the movie's on, we can see how long it'll take Shaun to decide he wants to become an archaeologist, and just get away from things for a little while. Sound good?"
"Yeah... That sounds great, actually. I'll be in touch as soon as we can figure something out."
"Great. Take care, Ethan."
"You too, Madison."
She ended the call and found herself grabbing the envelope again, idly twirling it between her hands.
Where did this come from, anyway? No address, no stamp...
She ripped the back of the envelope open and pulled out its contents. A lone photograph stared back at her, dark and monochrome, but that wasn't the reason she let it fall from her grasp. It was the subject.
He'd never been comfortable in hospitals. He'd learned that at an early age and did whatever he could to avoid them after that. Sometimes it was unavoidable; he had to go check on a witness or suspect, or talk directly to the medical staff about records, but when that wasn't happening, he gave them a wide berth. They were too bleached, too plain. And no one with even the briefest of flirtations with drug use had any business going to one.
Which leads to our current predicament. He cracked open an eye, noting how bright it was all around him. How white. Jayden groaned and closed his eyes. "...You are such a dumbass."
This was not good. This was also the last place that he wanted to be. Surrounded by humming machines with a needle in his hand. He shifted, bracing for the inevitable rush of pain, but only felt stiff and sluggish. Eyeballing the IV needle again, he left it alone and touched his other hand to his neck. Judging from the way the muscles let him slowly move his head, he knew he was going to be in a world of agony come tomorrow, or whenever they were going to let him get out of there. For now, though, the drugs running through him had him covered whether he liked it or not.
The nurse assigned to him came in during his mini-examination and before she could even get a word out he asked the only question that mattered. "Am I free to go?"
One irritated visit from his doctor later, the answer was no. Nothing was broken, but the prominent bruises he had went deep. They would take more than a few days to go away, and the doctor filled him out a proper prescription for something that thankfully wasn't Vicodin. They wanted to keep him there until tomorrow to be sure that there was nothing they had missed and Jayden resisted the urge to pull the IV out and try to make a break for it. Considering how heavy his arms felt at times, his first step probably would've left him slumped on the floor and exposed to the world thanks to the shit job the hospital gowns did at covering people.
Matt showed up during his third mental escape attempt, cutting into the sequence that required him to steal a janitor's clothes and exit through a back door. The other agent smiled, sporting a wicked bruise of his own. "God, you look like hell."
Jayden snorted. "And I guess you haven't looked in a mirror today." He felt incredibly mellow now that he was wide awake and aware of the painkillers flowing through his system. It wasn't at all close to the point where he'd try to wave a hand in front of his face to time the delay between the movement and the image, but he did consider it. Briefly.
Matt shuffled on his feet, his hands going right into his pockets. "Do you remember what happened?"
"Yeah. It's all present in brilliant technicolor. All of it." Jayden took in a deep breath, and exhaled. "Well, what I was conscious for. You'll have to run me through what happened after the killer tried to wring my neck like a wet towel."
The empty chair by the door was dragged over to sit by his bedside and Matt dropped down onto it. "It's not good."
"What do you mean by that?"
Matt wrung his hands, popping a knuckle or two. He probably would've lit up and chain-smoked an entire pack of cigarettes if the hospital wouldn't have thrown him out for it. "We kinda fucked up. Or, I kinda fucked up. I don't know." He rubbed the back of his neck and leaned back in his chair. "Well, up until the point where I saved your ass things were messy, but...salvageable. What happened to Clarissa shouldn't have happened, but at least we had the guy who did that to her. We could at least have tried to slap every applicable sentence on him, and then tried to see if the others fit."
"...Tried?" Jayden blinked a few times, not liking where any of this was going. The tension had yet to cut through the medicated calm, however. "Tried? We had him. He should be going through processing right now. Initial statement, fingerprinting, the whole sheban-"
Everything came screeching to a halt. "What?"
Matt kept his eyes on the door and began tapping his foot. "He's dead. I had to shoot him."
I don't know what kind of chemical cocktail I'm being fed right now, but I must be high to hear you say what I think you did. "You shot him?"
"Yeah, I shot him." Matt turned back to Jayden and crossed his arms.
The two sat in silence for a few seconds after that. One simply too dumbstruck to say much while the other simply waited for a response.
Jayden went over many different answers, each one progressively worse than the last. He finally sighed, smiling bitterly. "Well, that's fan-fucking-tastic. Now try to explain how that even happened."
"How?" Matt looked at him as if he'd grown a second head. "Did you just suddenly forget the fact that he was trying to kill you? After having a toolbox thrown at my face and watching him run after you I pulled my weapon and tried to make the best choice I could at the time."
"Our contact and our main suspect are dead. Fucked up doesn't even begin to describe it." Jayden pressed a hand to his forehead. There was no pain, only a dull throb. "We needed them alive. Both of them. No one was supposed to die that night."
Clary glanced at him over her shoulder. Picture perfect in white.
He tried to keep his hands steady, but they continued to shake even after he tried folding them in front of his face. It was damn near impossible as long as he closed his eyes only to see images of white and red. "We've lost it. We needed him alive to tie him to the other murders. Tell me there was no chance to disable him. Wound him more than he already was. Wear him down. Something!"
"He wasn't going to stop." Matt sounded off each word clearly and slowly. "If I'd kept my finger off of the trigger, you would've died too. Has it even occurred to you that that could've happened?"
Jayden pursed his lips, confused by the openly worried look on Matt's face. "I could technically die from any trip into the field. Every day there's a chance that I could die in my sleep! I'm not seeing how this is an exception-"
"What did you see?" The worried look Matt gave him was now undercut with suspicion. "When you looked at the guy, I mean. I came in while you were fighting him, and you didn't seem worried at all about facing him one on one. You were swinging around a hammer like an idiot for God's sake. The next minute you couldn't wait to be further away from him. It was like the devil was on your heels, I haven't seen anyone tear ass across a room faster."
Jayden blanched, cold nervousness running up his spine.
"Look," Matt started, leaning forward to rest his arms on his knees, "I can ignore some things. Hell, I can pretend to be the biggest idiot you'll ever come across. ...But I've come to the point where I'm getting tired of it. Something's been wrong with you for a while now."
"Something? That's a bit vague with half the shit that's flown about the office." Jayden chuckled, wishing the mellow calm would just come back already. At least then he wouldn't have to think about the panic that was creeping up on him.
Matt rubbed his eyes and put his hands down, looking every bit like he hadn't slept in days. "Just answer the damn question."
"It's nothing. ...I'm handling it."
"Everything. Though I should probably narrow things down a bit since we're actually trying to have a serious conversation here." One that I wanted to avoid entirely, but we don't always get what we want now, do we? "Do you remember what it was like the first week or two after I got back from working with the ARI reps?"
Matt tilted his head to the side. "...Yeah, because it seemed like every day was Christmas to you. You barely took it off."
"How often do you see me wear it now?"
The blonde had to think for a couple of seconds. His brow creased and he shook his head. "Not much. I'd forget you had them if you didn't use them for presentations or the odd case now and then."
"There's...a reason for that." This was like pulling teeth, except this time they chose to skip the anesthesia. "You ever get that feeling behind your eyes whenever you stare a computer too long? Spend more than a few hours in front of it and you'll be courting a massive headache on top of that. ARI puts that computer screen right in front of your eyes and makes you feel like you're a part of it. Time slows down and you just forget how long you've been wearing it. If you're running from case to case you think about it even less."
"So, the headaches start. Nothing major at first. Could be lack of sleep, could be caffeine withdrawal, could be stress from the office. Maybe the odd migraine's kicking in for old time's sake. You don't think twice about it, you just pop a few painkillers and go." He recalled trying to count the number of pills he'd taken on one of his worse days, and the minute he had ran past twenty he had quickly screwed the top back on and shoved it to the back of his desk drawer. "It was business as usual, sitting down with a cup of coffee, ARI, and whatever worked best that week."
Matt leaned his head to the side in the corner of Jayden's vision, before turning to look at the wall as well. "Was that the case for everyone?"
"Everyone I heard from. Well, at least those that were actually around and not running a backlog of cases to take care of. We spent more time with the reps than each other."
The vial of blue offered to him after a consultation session almost glowed under the bright lights.
"...Some were luckier than others."
Jayden could hear the confusion in Matt's voice return. "How?"
"ARI can cause a...bleeding effect." Jayden paused, making sure to choose his words carefully. "You're spending hours in a VR system which also lets you organize your files, examine clues, and run everything through the database at HQ. When you 'sign out' sometimes those elements can fail to shut off as well. They'll follow you, making you see things out here that you're only supposed to see when it's on."
They had had conversations about the virtual office before, but nothing much beyond Matt nodding at every comment and jokingly asking him where he was going on vacation today.
"...The Grand Canyon, Timbuktu, Vegas?"
"Oh. Shit, could've sworn it was Tuesday."
Matt seemed like he trying to recall those times himself. It was difficult to put a lot of stock in something you never saw for yourself, but he tried. "What, like trees popping up everywhere if you had a forest set up? Water coming in from the ocean? Tumbleweeds?"
Jayden looked over at Matt and couldn't help but nod. "Yeah, pretty much."
Disbelief continued to war with Matt's better reasoning, the results written all over his face. "You're telling me that in the middle of that fight you were hallucinating?"
"Only for a few seconds, but the odds of that happening are slim to none." Jayden asserted, in spite of the fact that this was his third strike. "The newer model's taken care of it, and I've been better with my use. I'm handling it."
"How many times have you been on since you've received it?"
Jayden hesitated. "...Once."
Matt was really looking at him now, his close attention starting to grate on Jayden's nerves. "You've had that thing for almost a month now. For something that's supposed to be 'safe' or improved, you're sure treating it as if it's anything but."
"You're making assumptions about something you know nothing about. It's not a problem, it's only a matter of necessity." snapped Jayden. "We didn't need it before, so I left it alone. End of story."
"...Sure. Right. I obviously know nothing about any of this." Matt shrugged, getting up and holding his arms out at his sides. "Not a single damn thing. I mean, my partner could've said something at any point, but it's obviously not my problem, and he obviously doesn't think it should be any of my business. Even if the whole damn thing's done nothing but make guinea pigs out of the lot of you. Right? Do I win a prize?"
Matt waited a few seconds for Jayden to say something, maybe try to prove or disprove his statement. Anything.
All he did was slowly turn his attention back to the wall in front of him.
Matt lowered his arms. "I guess I do." He left through the open door, not looking back once.
The next day as Jayden was pulling on his suit coat, his nurse knocked on the door to his room and entered. She was holding a plastic basket containing what appeared to be a bunch of loose ends. "Here you go. The other man who visited you earlier said that they belonged to you."
He took the basket and the items were indeed on his person that night in the club. Even ARI was there, glinting under the white light. "Thanks."
Everything took up its usual spot, even the glasses he gingerly slipped into his pocket. Tripto's absence was noted, but it didn't sting as much as it had before, something which was a miracle in and of itself. He made his way outside, feeling dead on his feet in spite of the prolonged hospital stay, and dragged himself over to where a taxi cab was left waiting for him. The hospital had made a call for one after he told them he had no one to take him, and he let himself slump back in the seat after giving the driver his destination. He knew Matt would've picked him up if he'd asked, but right now he didn't want to deal with that. He just wanted to get away from that place as quickly as possible.
The minute the lights faded away he breathed a sigh of relief and fished around in his pockets for his phone. Matt deserved a text at the very least, even if it was going to be a plain, "Left the hospital. Be back at work tomorrow." His brow creased as he noticed one missed call pop up, along with a message notification.
"...Um, hey, it's Madison-"
The call was dated two days ago, the time fitting neatly into the slot they used to hit the club. He closed his eyes and chuckled quietly to himself. "Figures."
"Can you switch it back to the ball game for a few minutes?"
"What the hell for?" Blake asked, one hand on the steering wheel the other resting by his side. "They always choke at the last minute so you're only wasting your time."
Lieutenant Larry Cartwright, still fucking green as far as Blake was concerned, frowned and reached for the radio. "They can bring it back! Twenty bucks says this'll be the day they get it."
Blake kept his eyes on the road. "...Forty. They manage to pull it off and I'll even let you drive for once."
"For the next month. And I'm covered on take-out days during that too."
"Shit, why not?"
Larry turned the dial to find the station, looking triumphant. "Luck is on my side tonight..."
Blake probably would've felt worse about taking the poor sap for a ride, if not for the four previous bets they had made on games like this. He'd won cash, one of Larry's so-called lucky Lotto tickets, and even his brand new watch. The gold watch he'd held onto for longer than necessary, half tempted to keep it or break it into as many pieces as possible. In the end it was given back to Larry once Perry starting raising an eyebrow over the matter, and he decided never to bet for it again. He'd earned the damn thing once before, and now he'd have to earn it back again.
The idea almost made his blood boil, but getting angry about it was pointless. Figuring out what was going on with their current clusterfuck of a case was a much better plan.
The minute they were brought in, the five men they had back at the station had wasted no time in pointing fingers at each other. Interrogations were almost a joke, because while two of the men broke down within ten minutes of being brought in, the other broke as soon as the door slammed shut behind him.
Ryan Alexander and Everett Johns were practically hung out to dry. The three rattled off every bit of information implicating the two, in the hopes of earning the smallest charge possible. Dangling that fact in front of Johns had worn him down within days, but Alexander? The amount of sheer fucking indifference he'd displayed had almost put Ash to shame.
"Look through my messages. Check my call records." he told them. "I might have gone through with it, but I wasn't the one who came up with the idea."
But who did? Blake had ransacked his apartment, turning up next to nothing, and would've walked away empty-handed if not for the hidden hard drive Larry had dug up. Alexander had been talking to a guy called NUL. For all that Alexander had known, NUL had even more to tell, and everything fell into line from there.
The issue was that the guy was a ghost. Nothing could be traced from the messages or data back to its sender, and no amount of threats implied or otherwise, could get Alexander to change his position. This left them running around in a circle, leaving Perry to twist what they had into their last joke of a conference. They'd been screwed in every sense of the word, willing to check out any possible lead with a chance of pointing them in the direction of this guy.
That made the phone call Ash got not even half an hour ago seem pretty damn convenient. He'd waved Blake over before scribbling the information down on the corner of an old newspaper. The voice was scrambled, giving no identifying details away, and they hung up the phone immediately after giving the address of a woman named Alyssa Jameson.
The same Alyssa Jameson who happened to work at CompuLabs as a security consultant. They were out the door in an instant.
"You think this woman's tied to any of this?" Larry asked, the lull in the game making him switch his attention back to the reason they were even out to begin with.
Blake shrugged. "Hell if I know, but I'm sick of sitting on my ass while a fucking ghost tries to give us the run around. If this is a joke we'll deal with it now. If it leads somewhere then we'll have something over the scumbag."
"Damn straight it's progress." Because someone needs the shit kicked out of them, and I won't stop until I find out who.
They pulled into an empty spot by her house, noting the car left in the driveway. Snow had already begun to fill in the spaces left by the tire tracks, and it crunched under their feet as they walked up to her door. The porch light was still on, blinking faintly.
Larry pressed the doorbell and stood back. He tapped his foot while Blake leaned against the nearby wall, counting down the seconds. The doorbell was pressed two more times before Larry knocked on the door, and this time Blake held a hand to the gun kept by his side.
"...Nothing." Larry eyed the door in confusion and tried the handle. It twisted with no resistance, causing the other officer to look back at Blake.
He withdrew the weapon and focused it squarely on the door. "Open it."
Nudging the door open with his foot, Larry stood aside as Blake entered the single-story house. All the signs that someone should've been home were present. Shoes were by the door, a lamp in the living room was switched on, and music could be heard nearby. He moved slowly, scanning from right to left and left to right. There weren't many places to hide. Larry gestured towards the hallway leading to the bedroom in the back and they both closed in on it, trying to stay out of sight.
The music was coming from behind the closed door.
Blake raised a hand, telling Larry to cover him. It wasn't clear who had the advantage at this point, the perp or them, but he'd be damned if he gave up a chance like this to turn the tables. He rushed forward and kicked the door open, nearly sending it off of its hinges.
The gun darted around, seeking out its target. The empty room did not supply one. Blake proceeded to barge into the bathroom, not giving a shit if Larry followed. Nothing. He pulled back the shower curtain only to menace an empty bathtub. There was no perp. There was no Alyssa.
"Shit!" The rings clanged against the bar as he shoved the curtain back into place. Nothing. Not a fucking thing.
Larry poked his head in, his weapon still raised. "Anything?"
"No." He put his gun away and turned towards the broken mirror on his left. "...Get Ash on the line. We need people down here. Now."
Jayden turned over the bottle of pills in his hand, the prescribed dose written clearly on its front. One pill every six hours. The bottle looked to hold twenty-twenty five pills at most. He cracked it open and downed two along with the last of his coffee. After the shower from hell this morning, he was doing himself a favor. Especially if he was looking to spend the rest of the day parked behind his desk.
He stepped into the elevator and hit the number for his floor, finally beginning to feel like a functioning human being again. Sure, he had the crap beaten out of him, but it wasn't any worse than what he'd been through before. Not after leaving that little place; a city that began with P and ended with a. He rubbed his hands together while watching the numbers tick by, edging out of the way as people stepped in and out.
First stop's got to be the office. Gotta sort through those files to see what's been changed. Second stop? Face to face time with Charles. Gotta let him know that that mini-hiatus just when the shit hit the fan wasn't my choice. Third? McGinnis.
The doors opened and he made a beeline right for his office. Everyone was busy going about their day as per usual, so all he had to do was walk fast and draw as little attention to himself as possible. It was impossible to dodge every agent, however, and a few gave him odd looks after he returned their greetings. He knew what the problem was. He'd gotten an eyeful of it this morning as soon as he managed to get a good look at himself. The split lip wasn't a big deal, but the ring around his neck was ugly as hell. Even thinking about it now made him tug on his collar as he opened the door and ducked inside.
Hearing it shut behind him was music to his ears. He fell back to lean against the surface only to leap away as if he'd been hit. "Okay, got it." he muttered, touching his back lightly. "Leaning on the door's a bad idea. Right..."
He tossed his briefcase onto the only unoccupied area of his desk left and peered at the files resting there. They hadn't moved an inch since he had left them there, or so he thought. A few had been picked up, likely by Matt, but he still let himself flip one open to stare at as the pages flew by. Paragraphs of text. The odd evidence photo or mugshot. Every page was filled with the same, all picked over and organized as neatly as he could manage.
Jayden had just reached the section on Clary and the other women when the door at the front creaked open, revealing Matt. He didn't even bother to look up. "I was thinking of giving you at least another ten minutes before hunting you down. Looks like you beat me to the punch." Jayden said, flipping another page.
The door clicked shut. Five more pages went by before Jayden realized that the only sound being made in the office was by him. He raised his eyes and he didn't think he'd ever see such a grave expression on Matt's face. "Have you talked to the A.D. yet?"
Jayden shook his head. "No, I was just going to head over there. ...Why?"
"This last case wasn't-" He paused, holding a hand to his mouth. "Jesus, how do I put this? I talked to Charles."
The cover of the file slipped out of his hand as Jayden stood up straight. Very straight. "And?"
"You've been putting yourself out there a lot. Maybe it'd be a good idea to take it easy for a little while?"
A cold, familiar sensation traveled down to his fingertips. Forget panic. This was something he didn't even want to begin to think about. "You told him." He chuckled and shook his head. "Of course you told him."
Jayden raised his hand and waved him off. He grabbed the files, stacking them on the desk loudly as shakes quaked through his arms.
"Norman, just listen for a second! I told him what I saw, and what the doctor had listed, nothing el-"
The files hit the desk, cutting him off. "And what did you see, huh?" The shakes were so bad now he could barely stand it. "Your nutcase of a partner fucking up a case because of something the goddamn government gave to him? Trusted him to handle and instead watched him flush down the goddamn toilet?"
They stared each other down. One stone-cold calm while with every breath the other fell apart.
"You know I wouldn't do that to you." Matt watched him carefully, not moving any closer or further away. "You know that's not what I told him."
"Then what did you say?" Jayden asked through clenched teeth.
"That the case could be wrapped up while you were on medical leave. That you were injured and in need of a fucking break. That you should be more careful and not act so much like a fucking moron! That of all the things I could probably blame, the most obvious one was the one I deliberately left out! What do you think?"
"I-" That in another time, this shouldn't have happened. Wouldn't have happened. "I don't even know anymore."
Matt covered his face with his hands, taking in a deep breath and exhaling it slowly. After doing this twice he lowered his hands. "You're on leave. Charles gave you two weeks, but with all vacation time you've saved you could take three."
Turning away, he put a hand on the door. "...Please don't make me regret this."
The minute he left Jayden was left alone again. Cut off from everyone else. He dropped his gaze to the work resting by his trembling fists. Everything he'd built. He shoved it all off, scattering papers everywhere.
He wanted tripto. He wanted it badly. One hit. Just one.
That need caused him to rip his apartment apart in a mad rush to find anything to quell the urge and send it packing. Even an empty vial would've worked at this point, because it had to have something left over, right?
Geez. Back to this again? I thought we were done doing this dance.
"...Shut up." Jayden stretched his arm under the couch in his 'living room', groping wildly for anything tube-shaped. Pain was felt, but it ranked much lower on the totem pole than this. Tripto would fix everything. He just had to find it.
Eh, guess not. Seriously, you'll have better luck finding stale cheetos than anything of substance there, but don't mind me! Go ahead and knock yourself out.
Not even a quarter was scrounged up. He crawled to his feet feeling clammy and miserable, and nearly tripped over the coffee table.
Besides, you got rid of it all after that grand declaration to quit, remember?
He held a hand to his mouth and barely made it to the trash can in the kitchen.
...You've really got to find a way to get it together, man.
After he finished puking his guts out, he made his way to the bathroom and tossed himself into the shower to wait out the rest of the symptoms. It was hell sitting there under a cascade of ice water, but it had to be done. At least for a little while.
That's where he woke up later, managing to pass out even then. It was dark at this point, the hour not even registering to him, and he shivered as he shut the water off. Pulling the warmest clothes he owned out of his drawers, he dressed quickly and settled himself on his bed.
Okay, now what?
He blew a stream of air between his lips in annoyance. Everything was still too clear in his mind. Too present. With the panic gone, he was left with nothing but the truth of what actually happened. ARI had made him a liability. He had tried to ignore it and push through it, but it wasn't that simple. The damage was done. Further damage had been prevented the minute he cut off his use, but what happened after that? Could the problems correct themselves? Did he need treatment? Did any of the other agents push ARI as far as he did, only to find out that doing so meant they couldn't come back again?
He sure as hell didn't know the answer to any of those questions. ARI would always be a mystery; their little version of Pandora's Box. It was given to them and made their responsibility, along with the consequences that came with it. He'd run from it before, tripto more than enabling this, but he was done. Maybe it wasn't true, but he wanted to believe that maybe he could get through this. Somehow find a way to get to a point where he didn't have to do a double-take on a windy autumn day.
But right now, he just wanted to forget. Just for a little while. Tripto helped him before, but that was not an option, not anymore. No, the next best thing would have to do.
The television came to life, showing a man in a rubber suit chasing a group of teenagers across what appeared to be a campsite. The bottle of vodka was already being tipped back by the time one of them met a rather messy end.
Yes, this would have to do.
A drink was taken every time the group split up, someone went to go check on something strange, and if any of them did anything mindblowingly stupid. He took two when a couple snuck out into the woods, and then took two more when the killer appeared and showed them exactly how he felt about dumb teens fucking around in the dead of night. One more followed when someone woke up and had to go investigate. When that attempt was cut short, he sighed, giving the screen a mock salute before downing two more drinks.
Almost half of the bottle was gone and so was half of the cast. Jayden screwed the top back on and fumbled for the remote on his nightstand.
Shit. You'd think a group of kids would actually try not to get maimed in the woods. I'll get alcohol poisoning at this rate.
Something hit the floor. He looked over the edge of the bed and reached down to grab everything he'd managed to knock off. Well, he tried at least. He wasn't seeing double, but his arms refused to go where he was directing them.
The remote made it off the floor just as the movie remembered it had something called a 'plot' going on . One of the teenagers was revealed to be a reporter looking into the disappearances at that particular campsite. Her 'cover' was blown when one of the leads found her notepad, causing a giant dramatic mess to occur.
"But the world has to know!" she declared, taking her gear and running off. Everyone tried to look torn at this turn of events, but it came off so forced he almost cracked open the bottle again.
Later, when the reporter tried to climb a tree to get away from the killer, he wondered what exactly it was that drove them to do crazy shit like this. Madison had tried to explain it a bit before, but it wasn't helping his comprehension of this at all. As the actress kicked at the man's hands, he found himself wondering how Madison would fare in the same situation. Pitting a woman who survived an exploding apartment, for starters, against a guy covered in duct tape and saran wrap seemed like a no-brainer. ...But he was curious about this now.
Jayden fished his cellphone off the floor, pulling her contact information up and dialing it before the rest of his brain caught up with his idea. It took a few rings, but before long a tired voice gave a half-muffled, "...Hello?"
"Question. Is it conscious choice or instinct that puts reporters in some of the most dangerous situations possible?"
"I mean, hear me out. You hear about an urban legend which involves a cursed campsite and a bunch of missing teenagers. They've gone missing for years around this spot, and since it's got a lot of bad press people usually avoid it. However, it's getting a little ridiculous and you want to investigate. Maybe even get a good story going off of that. Does the fact that running around in an area with a psychopath nearby might not be...great for job security even kick in?"
"Um, it's...one of the pitfalls. Comes with the work. ...I think there's a waiver."
"I don't think this one read the fine print. Also, what would be the best strategy for dealing with a killer whatever-it-is while stuck in a tree?"
"Dumb question, but is that you, Norman?"
The reporter ended up throwing her camera at the guy, but it didn't do much to distract him. It only got worse when she slipped on a branch two seconds later. He winced. "Scratch that, avoid the tree if possible. ...And yeah, it's me. Did I call at a bad time?"
Madison yawned and he heard her shift around a bit. "Not really...? Though I have no idea why you're talking about curses and trees. And teenagers?"
"I thought this movie would make more sense as time went on. It didn't. I also wanted your professional opinion on a few of these things." Jayden paused and rubbed his eyes, suddenly feeling a bit stupid. "...And I might be mildly intoxicated?"
It got really quiet on her end, to the point where he wondered if she'd just hung up. Instead, she began...giggling? "Oh, wow. I haven't been drunk-dialed in ages. Makes a girl feel special."
"I, well..." Christ. You're a regular smooth-talker. "Um, yeah. I wanted to call you back, but work wasn't making it easy to."
"Relax. I'm always happy to hear from you. Even at three in the morning."
"Three?" He turned and sure enough, 2:59 AM blinked right back at him. "Shit. I'm really sorry, I don't know what I was thinking. I just...ugh."
"Don't apologize. I'm actually kind of flattered that out of everyone you had to talk to about well, this, you ended up picking me." she replied, sounding a hell of a lot more amused than he expected. "Also, it's all instinct. Can't be a good reporter without instincts. They just go off whenever a good story's nearby."
"Okay, maybe I'm just nosy. But at least it makes more sense than claiming I've got amazing clue-finding abilities. I can't tell you how many times I've had to stop from rolling my eyes whenever I've heard that one."
"True. I'll give you that." He started trying to balance the bottle of vodka by tipping it on its side, ignoring the flashes of light playing off of the TV screen. "...How's everything going over there?"
"Pretty good. Ethan's got some good work going on that he's really excited about. I'll see if there's any way that he can send you a picture, because it's really tough to describe without using the term geometrically impossible. Shaun's doing better too. He's gearing up for winter break, and ready to tackle it like any boy his age should."
Jayden kept the phone close to his ear, her soft tone helping him to unwind bit by bit. "Good. If it snows a bunch, tell him to give an igloo a shot. If that fails, then...I guess he can convert it into a fort. Construction's never been my forte."
"You know," her voice lowered in volume and he eyed the phone warily, "I think he might have a higher chance of success if he had some help with it. You could consider lifting your ban on all Philly-based travel to make this happen..."
"Sure, if he'd be happy being the only kid with a bunch of donut-shaped failures on his front lawn. I'll even toss in a couple of snow angels, because it'll take me all of a minute to find a way to fall on my ass." His back hurt just thinking about it, though that could've been the lack of medication talking.
"That would take some serious talent, but I'd have your back out there. I promise there would be no unnecessary ice skating on my watch. It'd be fun." Madison insisted, probably with a wink. "I know this won't ever be your top vacation spot, but maybe we can show you some of the good things about this city. All we ever focus on is the dirt and the lowest of the low. Give it a chance. Maybe I can help you find something to like."
"Besides," she yawned, "if you went anywhere else you wouldn't exactly have me to fuss at."
"No. I suppose I wouldn't. Are you sure you're twisting my arm hard enough, Ms. Paige? I think I might still have a little wiggle-room left."
She had to be glaring at the phone now, and he couldn't help but grin. "...Maybe getting away for a little while isn't such a bad idea after all."
"...Hello? Is there someone there?" Her voice crackled over the line. "Hello? I know I'm not alone on the line right now. ...I can hear you. This number was written on the back of that photograph and given to me for a reason. Why?"
She went silent, but not even the static could cover up her shaky intake of breath.
"It was the least I could leave." The machine distorted the pitch, causing the sound to reverb as each word began and ended. "You made quite the impression on me."
"I, is that where you saw me? One of my book signings? Did we meet?"
"Yes and no. Others demanded your attention, which ended up working in my favor."
"How?" she asked, steadying her voice.
"I wanted to admire you. I still do. Don't you like my picture?"
"...What do you want?"
"What do you want?"
The inhuman noise that filtered through barely resembled the chuckle it had originated as. "To admire you. Keep up the good work, Ms. Paige."
She had been much more direct at the end of the conversation. Challenging. Questioning. Good.
The phone was placed off to the side of the small desk, no longer needed for now. Instead, the camera sitting nearby was picked up and carried down the carefully lit hallway, each light generating just the right amount of brightness to balance out the dark.
The room ahead, however, was still shrouded in black. A switch was flipped, allowing the large spotlight to shine down and fully illuminate its subject. Alyssa Jameson shifted in her seat, the sound and flash jolting her awake. Even with the blindfold the light still had to cut through. She struggled against the binds briefly, jerking and shivering. When she stopped the shadows settled into place as well.
There it was. The camera was raised and adjusted so that the image came through, crisp and clear.
The perfect picture.
"Whaddya got? I've got-"
"We need extra information about the type of secu-"
"-it, stop trampling all over-"
"What are you even talking abou-"
"Can you all just shut your goddamn faces for two seconds?" Blake roared, causing everyone in the crowded bedroom to stand still. "This is important, and none of the shit I'm hearing is contributing to this case! If you've got something to say, say it, but unless it's fucking gold keep it to yourself. Got it?"
Everyone gave him a wide berth after that, which wasn't easy with the amount of people stuck in the cramped space. He turned back to Ash and shoved some papers on the floor aside with his boot. Most of them had been trampled, gathered, trampled again, and then forgotten. With nothing of use actually printed on them, they may as well had been dumped in a trash can. "Anything?"
"The place is covered in cameras, inside and out." Ash handed one over, no bigger than an eraser. "They're all wireless, but the footage isn't stored in them. Think they could've been hooked up to her computer?"
"Maybe." He turned over the camera, and noted the OKC logo on the front. "Though if I was working as a consultant, don't you think it'd make sense for me to actually use the shit I'm working with? She worked for CompuLabs. Are they all from OKC?"
"They're still digging them up, but all but two of the cameras outside were from OKC. Inside they've got three and counting."
He tossed it back to Ash and surveyed the wreck that used to be Alyssa Jameson's bedroom. Her computer desk had been ripped apart, wires hanging over where the monitor and CPU used to be. Others went to electronic equipment he could've cared less about, but every piece that was missing was one fewer lead to check out.
One of the guys by the desk, Joe, was sorting through a bunch of disks, but it looked like nothing but useless software. Another two just to his right argued over whether or not they should move the broken monitor. The bed had been stripped, flipped, and moved off to the side, while the nightstand was still a work in progress. Someone had held up a sheet of paper with the scuffed remains of a footprint earlier, but it could just as easily be tied to one of the men there, if not him or Larry.
Blake had half a mind to turn and spit at the floor in disgust. "Got any guesses, or are you stuck wandering around with your thumb up your ass like the rest of us?"
"We've got a bunch of useless cameras and messy prints. It's all bullshit, but the cameras at least point us somewhere." Ash threw the bagged and tagged camera up and caught it, watching it out of the corner of his eye. "We could pull up a list of customers who've had home security installations and check for her name. Maybe even check with OKC as well to see if dates or names cross."
It was something. The whole thing reeked of a set up, though as of now they had no way to tell how long Jameson had been monitored. Or what NUL might've wanted with her. Did the anonymous caller know Alyssa was being targeted? Hell, did Alyssa herself suspect anything?
The sound of shattering glass came from the living room, followed by exasperated yells. Blake and Ash walked towards the doorway, but stopped when Larry appeared, his back to them. "Seriously guys, I thought the extra effort would help! I promise not to touch anything else, scout's honor!" He glanced back over his shoulder and spotted them, his hands still held protectively in front of him. "A camera was stuck. I thought it just needed a little extra elbow grease..."
"Just shut up and get in here." Blake grabbed his coat and dragged him into the bedroom, parking him in a spot out of the way of everyone else. "This is supposed to be your damn show, remember? I'm not here to be your fucking babysitter! Have you picked up anything from the others screwing around in there?"
"Shit, Carter! Chill the hell out for a couple of seconds! They found a few footprints by the entrance and some stains on the carpet in the living room. Could be blood, but they won't know until it's done at the lab." He pulled away and Blake let him go, the two exchanging dirty looks. "Jesus, what's with you?"
"We've got a woman who's missing or dead, suspects in our custody who think we've got shit for brains, and some glorified puppet-master working behind the scenes who thinks we're just going to sit back and take whatever he'll throw our way. I don't know about you, but I'm getting a little sick of being told I'm something I'm not. What do you think?"
Blake and Larry turned in the direction of the shout, both at attention. "What?"
One of the guys from forensics stood at the entrance to the master bathroom and glanced between the two, unsure who to address directly. Glaring at the ceiling for a good minute before directing it towards Larry, Blake waited for him to react. When Cartwright did nothing but scratch the back of his head awkwardly, he jabbed a finger towards the bathroom. "Well?"
Larry adjusted his coat and kept his eyes on the ground. "Okay, okay I got it. What is it, George?"
"Um, well, the broken mirror in the bathroom appeared clean the first time we went over it, but after taking a closer look it seems that there's blood at the point of impact."
Blood in two places? I'll be damned. "Pack that up and get it out of here. We need that tested against Jameson's blood to see if we've got something on the kidnapper. Right?" Blake asked, scowling at his 'superior'.
The other officer let out a nervous laugh. "Right! You hit the nail on the head there, Lieuten-er, Sergeant. One of those spots has to tell us something. The guy could even be in the system already! Sure would make this easier for everyone. You got that, George?"
George nodded and immediately retreated back into the bathroom, their implied message to work fast not lost on him one bit. With that settled, Blake once again began to feel restless. The two new leads needed to be checked out, and he wasn't getting anything done by standing around here. Forensics had the blood covered for now. He could at least head back to the department to get to work on the second lead, put the screws to Johns and Alexander, and give Perry an update.
"Think you can handle the rest of this?"
Larry glanced around the room, looking thoughtful, but eventually gave Blake and Ash the okay to leave. "Can't really think of anything else that could come up at this rate. The whole place's been picked clean. Are you going to talk to the Captain?"
"That's the plan. He's been gearing up for another conference, though I don't think this is the news he's been hoping for. It sure as hell isn't what I wanted to find." Turning to Ash, he gestured towards the hallway which led back to the front of the house. "Ready to go?"
The camera was tossed into the air for a final time, caught, and then placed in the pocket of Ash's coat. "Yeah. I've been itching for a smoke for the last ten minutes."
Mock saluting the two, Larry made a move to join the forensics team in the bathroom. "Meet you back at the office later, Sarge!"
He didn't know what he hated more. The title, or the way everyone else just sounded like an asshole using it. Or maybe it was just Larry. Fuming slightly, he gave Cartwright the finger and strode out of the room, scattering everyone who had the misfortune of getting in his way.
"Maybe we should skip this part..."
"Dad~!" Shaun rolled his eyes, letting his head hit the pillow behind him. "It's not even a real goat. I've seen this movie a million times already!"
"I guess, but..."
"I'm not scared! Relax, dad, the dinosaurs don't even look real anymore."
"Back when this came out it was tough to find another movie with graphics that good." Madison said, reaching over to grab a handful of popcorn from the bowl Shaun was guarding. "It was pretty scary. My brothers wouldn't stop yelling." And neither would I, but they don't need to know that.
Lightning flashed on the screen, temporarily lighting up her dark apartment, and she knew exactly what was going to happen next. Metal creaked and groaned, shifting due to the wind. Vibrations were felt. A growl traveled above the noise and everyone who was stranded out in the open was left frozen in fear. Shaun's attention was now glued to the screen, eating popcorn on autopilot while the infamous T-Rex made its appearance. It crashed through, the fence doing little to stop it now that it was disabled, and roared. It didn't matter how old this movie got; it was still a hell of an entrance.
Shaun had stopped chewing momentarily, but continued once the predator started moving around again. Trying to speak around the popcorn in his mouth, he muffled out a response that sounded suspiciously like, 'I don't believe you'.
She raised an eyebrow and glanced over at Ethan, who was trying hard not to smile. "Well, they're no slouches when it comes to being tough guys, but if something scared them I never let them hear the end of it. They could probably stand to take a couple of lessons from you!" He tried to escape, but Madison still managed to ruffle Shaun's hair. The threat of being covered in kernels and salt was more than worth the risk, especially if she caught a smile like the one he was wearing now.
Like his father, he had moments where he looked too serious for his own good, so she'd made it her unofficial mission to try and coax a grin out of him every time she saw him. Some days were easier than others, but on those difficult days she still tried. She saw a lot of her brothers in him, and couldn't stand the idea of letting him down. And Ethan often mirrored Shaun's own moods, so a smile from his son usually earned a smile from him. She always grinned wider when that happened.
The characters were just getting to a point of safety up in an absurdly tall tree when her pocket buzzed. Glad that she had the foresight to keep her phone on vibrate, she pulled it out and tried to shield the light with her hand. It turned out to be a new message from Sam.
Hey, Mad. Check your e-mail! I need your opinion on a couple of things. I've also got something I think you'd like to see.
"Shoot. Sorry guys, I'm going to run to my computer for a couple of minutes." She removed the corner of the blanket spared by the cocooned Shaun and got to her feet. "Do you want me to grab you anything while I'm up?"
Ethan shook his head and nudged Shaun to see what he thought. Still caught up in the movie, it took another gentle tap on the shoulder to get his son's attention. "Shaun? Madison wants to know if you need anything."
He swallowed down the popcorn and wiped his face with the back of his hand. "I'm okay. Thanks!"
"Did you want us to wait?" Ethan asked, holding up the remote.
"Nah, don't worry. It should only be a few minutes, max. Besides, it'd be cruel for me to deprive you two of fun while I have to take care of business."
Shaun stuck his tongue out at the mention of work and she couldn't help but agree with him. She had gotten a little too comfortable on the couch in the living room, and leaving that spot now seemed almost criminal. Still, she had to figure out what on earth Sam had for her. Normal e-mails usually didn't come with an accompanying message, and she had to tell herself to slow down as she plopped down in her seat and opened up her laptop. The glowing sign right outside her window gave her just enough light to work with, highlighting everything in shades of orange and pink, before both were replaced with the calming blue of her screen.
One of the messages had to do with an interview involving the family of one of the hostages, Bruce Adams. The editor had just finished their run through it, and it was ready to be published. It had taken some time, but his wife had agreed to talk in the hopes of bringing her husband's killers to justice. Visiting those left behind after such events was never easy. All it took was one question, one photograph to bring the memories and emotions flooding back, and she had to witness it. Record it. Make it known. Mrs. Adams had been no different, crying silently after the second photograph, but when Madison was about to leave she begged her not to let any of the people who did this go free. In that moment she would've done almost anything to see them behind bars.
But now, even with them locked up, there was still someone else. Her silent promise to Mrs. Adams didn't mean anything as long as they were on the loose. She sighed and typed out a quick response, thanking them for their help.
The next two messages were quickly added to the spam folder, since they did little more than ask for her contact information. The one after that was deleted immediately once the insult began to register. Sometimes she seriously regretted making her e-mail known to the public.
Sam's was after that. Clicking it twice, she took one look at the attachment and nearly clapped.
Bingo. Employee records for CompuLabs. I love you, Sam. Hmm...looks like they weren't kidding when they said that the company nearly dropped everyone in the security department after that leak. But what's this...?
Three names showed up amidst the flood of new employees. Alyssa Jameson, Steven Blondt, and Lucille Carey. Sam's addendum at the end showed that Carey had quit shortly after the crime had been committed, while Jameson and Blondt had remained.
But which one was Alexander working with? AJ had mentioned someone on her team, but...
She quickly searched through the document for any photos that could be matched to the names. Pages and pages of texts flew by until she struck gold. Each employee had to have a photo taken for both their records and an assigned key card and as she went down the list she kept an eye out for a familiar face.
Shoulder-length blonde hair, green eyes, somewhere in her thirties, and neatly dressed. Her jaw dropped. There she was. Alyssa Jameson. In hindsight it made her feel like an idiot for not making the connection sooner, but she had only skimmed the names of the consultants before. Alyssa had only volunteered the initials on their first meeting and used them at every point after, but never made any effort to cover her face. She had to have been confident that it would take Madison this long to identify her, but why?
And she still hasn't gotten back to me. I'm missing too many things here. Well, with a name to go with a face I can try to drop off a message at her address. Maybe first thing tomorrow.
She pulled over her little notepad and jotted down a reminder to visit tomorrow. The earlier the better. Then a message was shot right back at Sam, expressing her gratitude while asking for the addresses of the three employees in question. Maybe she could get in a few questions before the police got to her.
She glanced up and spotted Shaun, the blanket pulled around him like an oversized cape. "What's up?"
"Could I get some water?"
"Hon, you know you don't have to ask."
"I know, but dad would want me to." He rubbed his eyes and pointed at her desk. "Was that a bad photo?"
Shit. Madison covered the torn photograph by her elbow and shrugged. "...Yeah, the quality just didn't print out right. I've been meaning to get it to the shredder, but things just keep on coming up."
"Is it bad that we're over here right now?"
"Not at all." She turned to face him, and made sure they were on exactly the same level. "Everyone needs a little break every now and then, otherwise we'd all go nuts. And you've got winter break to look forward to! You have no idea how jealous I am."
"I'm hoping it'll snow more! I wanted to finish a giant snowman earlier, but dad got tired. He's always going to bed early now. I think he's sleeping right now." Madison rolled her chair away from her desk so she could see past the TV, and sure enough, Ethan was out. "He tried to fall asleep when they were in the kitchen!"
"It's one of the perils of becoming an adult! Random nap attacks are killer. Though I've got to admire anyone who can sleep through that raptor fight." she replied, trying hard not to snicker. "Now, let's get you some water and wake your dear ol' dad up. It really is getting way too late for you."
Shaun groaned, but Madison shooed him into the kitchen and got him a glass.
She wished he hadn't have noticed it.
The halves of the torn photograph were tossed back onto her desk, and Madison fought the urge to check her locks a second time. She never did notice how empty her apartment was until she was alone, and now the silence was almost unbearable.
What was the purpose of the photograph? What did the caller want?
Remembering it made her skin crawl, and she fought the urge to rip the photo up further. No one had been able to trace the number so far, and no one down in the mailroom had had any clue about where the envelope holding it had come from.
All she had was an...admirer. Someone who enjoyed watching her, and possibly saw her every day without her even noticing.
She got up from the chair and wandered over to her windows, the buildings outside barely lit by the blinking streetlights. Even with snow littered everywhere, nothing could fully blot out the gray. The dark.
The glass was cool against her forehead and hands, refreshing almost. But later when she curled up in bed, the chill remained. No matter how tightly she pulled the blanket around her it refused to let her go.
Jayden vs. Philadelphia Round 2! Madison's there to tag in this time around, though. ;)
I'm not coming here on vacation, that's for goddamn sure.
In hindsight, he really should've known that simply stating that, even to himself, was issuing an open challenge to the universe. The place that you never want to be is always the place that you find yourself wandering into, and fate usually had a way of making everyone eat their metaphorical hat if given the opportunity.
Which led to the subject of the challenge. His 'vacation'. His typical modus operandi had been to allow the leave to expire, or failing that, read up on extra casework at home. Leaving town had never been an option, so the idea of having a clear cut break and a place to go was an anomaly in and of itself.
Therefore when he'd gone to Matt's office to drop off his closing remarks on his share of the casework, he had completely understood Matt's reaction to him leaving town. He had invited him to dinner with Gillian at their place sometime the following week, extending the olive branch as always.
It had already been awkward as hell, but seeing Matt work around it, only to have to reject it made him feel even more like shit than he already did.
"I, uh, have to decline."
"Oh." Matt's face fell, but only for a moment. "Shoot. The missus was looking forward to seeing you and everything. You keep her on her toes, you know?"
Jayden raised an eyebrow. "Right... Careful, because if she says any more I might get the impression she likes me."
"You tried to insult her cooking and she didn't kill you. Hell, I didn't kill you. I probably should've thrown you out on principle, but what do you know? She keeps on inviting you back." He shook his head, grinning all the while. "Honestly, I don't think I'm supposed to get it."
"You're telling me. Puzzle wrapped in an enigma, much?" Jayden snorted. "Anyway, tell Jill I'll have to take a raincheck on that, because I won't exactly be around here."
"Yeah. I'll be out of town for a while. You've got my number, e-mail, etc, so if you need anything all you've got to do is try one of those." he said, ticking off each one while he backed towards the door. "Change of scenery might help, right?"
Matt's stunned surprise had lasted from the minute Jayden's hand had touched the handle up until the door had nearly closed behind him. From there, all Jayden wanted to do was reach the elevator, but the other agent caught up to him quickly, confusion written all over him.
"Whoa, hey. Wait. Hey! Jesus, Jayden, wait a second!"
Jayden didn't stop until he had reached the elevators and hit the button to go down. "I've got a couple of extra things that I want to look at, papers and notes, nothing much, but I'll send them over to you as soon as I'm able." Hitting the button again, he folded his arms and started rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet. "It'll be like I never left. Trust me."
The elevator reached their floor, and Matt's what-the-hell expression only intensified. "Aren't you at least going to tell me where you're going?"
"Lovely place." Jayden stepped into the elevator and pressed the button for the first floor. "Though why they call it the 'City of Brotherly Love', I'll never understand."
Matt's look of realization as the doors had closed on him had said it all.
But now, here he was. Standing at the front of the airport, staring blankly at the snow-covered streets of a city he could've sworn he'd hated.
He held the bridge of his nose and sighed. "What the hell am I doing?" Moving off to the side, he dropped himself on the nearest bench and rubbed his gloved hands together.
Well, what are you doing? Aside from waiting for the ground to drop out from under you, turn to lava, etc, etc?
It was late and only a few other people had exited the airport behind him. They wandered off into the black, leaving him with the sounds of tires on the road and the snow lazily drifting down from above. The city was asleep, or at least as close as it could be over in the airport's isolated corner. This particular area was a familiar sight, because over a year ago it had represented little more than his entrance and exit to the most depressing place on earth.
Storm clouds had poured 24/7, and little boys were being used as bargaining chips to test the strength of a father's love. Every drop of rain had been a reminder since then, and even back in DC a light rain had him compulsively checking the rainfall count via ARI or his computer. There was nothing benign about it after that, and Philadelphia had no choice but to carry all the baggage that came with such a case.
Now, though? The city was clearer, calmer. Peaceful. The stark contrast almost disturbed him, but the rain he didn't miss one bit.
Maybe this was a part of the city Madison wanted him to see; the part that could almost pass for normal. The part that allowed Shaun, Ethan, and her to remain here, even with all that had happened before. He didn't think he would ever truly comprehend their reasoning behind their attachment, but he was willing to try. He owed them that much.
Slipping his hand into his pocket, Jayden pulled out his phone to check the time. His hotel allowed late check-ins, but he wasn't helping his case by blatantly taking advantage of it. Not when he also had a rental car to go pick up.
And it's goddamn cold out. Shit. His trenchcoat may have kept most of the chill out, but he could already feel it creeping into his hands and traveling up his arms.
He got to his feet, paced in a small circle to get rid of the worst of his shivering, and then headed off in the direction of the rental agency. From there it hadn't been difficult to get to the hotel. It was a lot more modest than the previous one, but as long as he didn't have to worry about break-ins or shootouts in the dead of night, he was willing to settle for almost anything.
Scrawling his name down on the paperwork handed to him, he thanked the woman at the front and wheeled his squeaking suitcase over to the nearest elevator. At least he didn't have to go far. The damn thing grated on him the whole way to the rental lot, and the sound only grew sharper with every spin. After the fifth squeak, however, he was ready to pry the wheel off with his bare hands, tools be damned. Opting for something more productive and slightly less dramatic, he grabbed the case and threw it under his arm, hefting it with as little grace as possible until he spotted his room. One card swipe later, he roughly deposited his cargo on the floor, and fell face-first onto the bed.
He remained still for a few seconds before turning his head to the side, wincing slightly. Yep. This was it. His home for the next undetermined period of time. Neutral walls, beige carpet, one bed, one TV, and a lone desk nestled by the currently hidden window; it was nothing but the typical hotel fare. But in some ways it wasn't too far off the mark from his own apartment. He pushed himself up and walked over to the far side of the room to push the curtains aside.
"Bright lights, big city..."
He let the curtains swing back into place, blotting out the lights across the street. This was the side of the city that he knew well, the part that slept as little as he did. The flight should've wiped him out, but he felt wired, twitchy even. It was always like this on the first night. Unfamiliar places and the variables that came with them made his head buzz, asking questions about the case, or what the city itself could be hiding. The files had most of the answers, but once he was on roll it didn't make a difference. It was just extra data thrown into the jumble that was running by at a hundred miles an hour.
And it usually took one of two things to stop him. A bottle of something strong - didn't matter what - or a dose of tripto.
Right now he was lacking one, and doing his damndest to forget the other. And I'm not desperate enough to crack open the minibar, if there is one. I guess I could start looking over those new psych articles. Work can keep you going, but it can just as easily put you to sleep.
He unbuttoned his coat, tossed his phone on the desk, and hit the switch on the small lamp resting there. His night vision wasn't half bad, but he wasn't going to sit alone in the dark while he squinted at paperwork. He had some standards. Papers hit the desk not too long after, and as he swallowed down his medication, he pulled his phone over to check for any messages. One from Matt popped up.
Hey, hope the plane ride wasn't too rocky. Also, about your vacation, it's about damn time. I don't know if I would've picked that place, but relaxing is relaxing. Try to remember to do that. Shouldn't need instructions for that, right? See you back at work.
Rolling his eyes, he switched to his camera, took a picture of his raised middle finger, and sent it to him. It'd probably earn little more than a laugh, but it got his message across better than words ever would. While on the subject of messages, he leaned his head on his hand, and considered sending another out.
You could just call her tomorrow. Or send the message then. She'd probably appreciate hearing from you at a reasonable time of day when you aren't blitzed out of your mind. He rubbed his temples and sighed. Or you could just get it over with now. You'll probably sound just as much like a dumbass tomorrow as you would right now.
He typed out 'The eagle has landed', stared at it for a few seconds, and then quickly erased it. Instead he typed out, 'Just landed. Haven't been punched yet, but I'm giving it time'. That one really wasn't much better, but he sent it anyway. Now, it was time to work. He opened the file on top and began scanning over the front page of the article, running over each sentence carefully.
-behavior is a model. It provides a means of examining and predicting such tendencies towards violence, but the model does not always account for every variable. For example-
-The previous study was deemed inconclusive. The methods in their unrefined state proved useful, but ultimately did little to provide any useful data. However-
His phone buzzed. He'd begun circling the end of a paragraph on the second page, so the interruption unintentionally set him straight. He dropped the page he was holding and answered the message.
I think I can help you avoid that. Dinner?
Mouthing the word 'What?', he had to stop himself from making that his initial response. Instead, he stared a hole in his phone for a few minutes, actually tried to remember when it was the last time he ate something, and came up short.
"Huh. Looks like you've got me there."
Shooting back a quick 'Sure', she replied not even a minute later.
Where are you staying at? I'll see if I can find something close by.
He sent the address off, and tried not to think about how ARI could've already had five places on hand.
This place is pretty good, and not too far. Could walk or drive there if you wanted to. Meet you there in 15?
The name of the place came with a set of simple directions, and he picked it out pretty easily once he pulled out a map.
Sounds good. If I get lost it's your fault, you know. he replied, as he folded up the map and tried to find a suitable pocket for it. It ended up sticking out of his coat's side pocket, which he was in the process of shoving down for the third time when his phone went off again.
Well, you know where to find me. ;)
She guessed it'd be colder out. Snow was floating down all around, and more than a few flakes were beginning to fill the small area on the sidewalk she'd cleared with her foot. Madison leaned back from her perch on the back of a bench and exhaled, blowing the air out in a steady stream. It trailed like smoke before fading, and she went back to rocking her head from side to side. Tapping her gloved fingers against the metal helped to distract her further, especially since the phone call she'd received earlier really had killed any chance of a good night's sleep.
That and my love of windows. ...Former love of windows. Creepy phone calls from guys who claim to be keeping an eye on you definitely make you want to find a decent place to hide. But if that place is open to half of the world, then there's really no place to escape to, is there?
Her grip tightened on the bench, but she let go before long. They only win if you let them, Mad. All you've got to do is hold onto that photo, ask around, and see if they'll contact you again. If they do, then I'll find a way to nail the bastard. Until then I'll just be careful, and maybe go curtain shopping. That'll show 'em, right?
"Yeah. It's a foolproof plan, girl." She closed her eyes, thinking of some of the worst fabrics known to man. "They won't even know what to do with it."
Something heavy hit the ground and she jumped, her head snapping to the left. Someone had taken a pretty nasty spill on the sidewalk, leaving them lying motionless on their back.
She pushed away from the bench and ran over, getting to their side as quickly as possible. "Jesus! Are you okay?"
"Just...having a moment of silence for my dignity. Nothing major." She blinked down at the sprawled figure of one Norman Jayden, his face caught in a pained grimace. "I hate this place."
"I'm starting to see why. Can you move? Did you hit your head?"
Her hand brushed against his cheek and he waved her off, slowly pulling himself into a sitting position. "I'm fine, really-" She reached an arm around him, and his breath left in a hiss. "...Please be careful with that."
"Shit, sorry." Adjusting her arm, she helped him climb to his feet and held him steady. "Take as long as you need."
Jayden nodded and followed her as they moved out of the way of the few people who were out, leaning on her for support. As soon as they were no longer in danger of being stepped on or shoved aside, he took the rest of his weight off of her.
"Better?" He raised his hand and waved it back and forth, looking unsure. "Okay, not a hundred percent, but a few notches closer to okay?"
"Yeah, I think that's a better fit."
"Good." She carefully wrapped her arms around his shoulders in what had to be the lightest hug possible. "Because it's great to see you."
He went still, but eventually laid a hand on her back. The other remained by his side, but as she withdrew it rose up almost reflexively, grazing her arm. This left her partly in his embrace, wondering what on earth to make of his current expression. For some people it was easy to spell things out, but for him it was just as confusing as ever. ...Doubly so when she was object of his attention.
Dusting some snow off of his sleeve, she tilted her head towards the entrance to the diner. "So, dinner?"
Jayden's focus eased back a bit as he turned towards the doors, but when he glanced back at her there was still a hint of that...something there. "That's the plan. Care to lead the way, Ms. Paige?"
"Sure, but don't tell me I need to guide you less than 15 feet."
He shrugged, looking a hell of a lot more innocent than she wanted to give him credit for. "Well..."
Her arm hooked around his and she dragged him through the doors before he could say another word.
It was a small, well-lit place, catering to the early birds just as easily as it did the night owls. She had Sam to thank for picking this place out when she was getting some of her earlier articles finished and needed a late pick-me-up. It was also one of the places she could run to when sleep wasn't an option, but it wasn't as close to her place as she would've preferred. They settled into a booth by a window, the bright red seats sinking a lot more than she remembered, and Jayden used a gloved finger to peek through the blinds.
The waitress who came to their table, Kim, wasn't one that Madison had had before, but it'd been months since she'd last been there with Sam or Emmy, one of her friends back at the Tribune.
Pancakes had been on her mind all day, so she relayed that to her and proceeded to peer-pressure Jayden into ordering a cheesesteak. He tried to argue against it, claiming that doing so stamped tourist on his forehead, but gave up the minute she started to aim puppy dog eyes at him. Kim nodded, hiding a smile of her own, and promised to bring over coffee as soon as possible.
With coffee and food on the way, it was now time to take advantage of the wonderful heat the diner provided. Madison's gloves were already on the table, but her coat had yet to go. Jayden was too busy glaring at her to take his own coat off, so she stuck her tongue out at him as she pulled the zipper down, wondering briefly if he'd wear it throughout dinner if he wanted to.
He did begin unbuttoning his coat, though. Shrugging it off, he revealed yet another grey suit; his little trademark. She grinned, ready to poke fun at him about it, but-
Are those bruises? Faint purple marks stained his skin, much more visible under the fluorescent lights in the diner than the streetlights. Still pale as ever, they easily stood out, and her face fell as she took them in.
"It looks worse than it is, trust me."
She continued to pull off her coat, but couldn't ignore the way the bruises ran along his jaw. "If you say so, but that's no love tap."
"Does it count if it's work-related?" he asked, keeping his eyes on his gloves as he pulled them off.
"Yeah, I didn't think so." He looked up and folded his hands on the table. "But it is work-related. Ever have one of those weeks?"
"Where it quickly goes from bad to worse?" she asked, leaning forward. "All the time. Do I even need to go over how many times I've been shot at, threatened, or nearly thrown in jail?" His eyebrow went up, and she backpedaled a bit. "Due to legal means of investigation, of course."
"...Mostly." Madison bit her lip as he tilted his head to the side. Kim dropped by at that point, left two steaming cups of coffee, and disappeared just as quickly. They did manage to thank her without breaking up their impromptu staring contest, but Madison did eventually give him the victory. They probably would've been there for hours at any rate, and staring at him, even under the pretense of a game, wasn't putting her attention in a safe place at all. "So, yeah I've had bad weeks. Tell me about yours?"
It was a simple little opening, but he closed off even more. Not even the good humor generated by the conversation leading into it helped any. When it became painfully obvious that he had no desire to continue, she wiped the careful smile off of her face and did her best to ignore the pang of disappointment following it. She began to fix her coffee, tossing in sweetener and creamer, and stirred it together as noisily as possible. It may have been annoying as hell, but she'd take anything over the silence hanging between them.
"I...don't really know how to put this."
The spoon stilled.
"I thought I was being careful during the case, covering all my bases, but things got...complicated." Both of his hands were on his coffee cup, his fingers occasionally tapping its sides. "You know how in math you've always got variables to identify and account for? I thought I had them all figured out down to the smallest decimal place. Cut and dry. Simple. Well, variables have a way of sneaking into every scenario, even carefully planned ones. I tried to correct for it. Matt did too, but it wasn't..."
Jayden closed his eyes, sighing deeply. "It wasn't ideal, but we tried to salvage it. And given the amount of paperwork dealing with it, we'll have to see just how much damage control will be needed down the line." The cup went up and didn't go back down until it was empty. "...Probably a shit-ton of it. Who knows."
"Did you catch the guy that did that to you?"
He adjusted his collar, unintentionally exposing a hint of purple there as well. Once he was done he nodded. "He's no longer a problem, not for me or any of his victims. Though he certainly tried to be. As far as variables go he was one of the more violent ones. Underestimating that was...a huge mistake."
His gaze dropped to his cup, moved to the tables in the back, stayed with the blinds briefly, and then settled on her. It left shortly after, drifting down to his clasped hands. Every hinted detail only painted a darker picture for her, and she didn't know where to begin. "But you did stop him."
"Yeah, we did." He pursed his lips and tried to twirl his spoon on the table. "That does count for something right?"
"If I'm to go off of what you've implied, and what he's done to you, then that counts for more than a little something." The spoon continued to spin, completing jerky half-revolutions. "...Look, I don't know what exactly happened, but I don't need to. When things go bad, there is no perfect choice. You did what you could."
"But doing what you can doesn't matter if the end result is still the same. Saying it's good enough only trusses it up so we can find a way to sleep at night. Something which I'm also failing miserably at, by the way. I guess once you're on a roll..."
Giving her a bitter look, he held his ground. "Stop what? Taking my guilt trip all the way to Albuquerque? It's not that easy."
Madison leaned forward and placed her hand on his arm. "I know. But you're refusing to acknowledge what you did do. The good things that you allow to happen every day you're at your job and doing it right. Shit happens. Awful, awful things happen on our watch, anyone's watch all the time. You know that. But don't let it kill you. As cliche as it is, it's not about what you could've done. It's about what you did do. And if you're trying to claim that what you did was any less than what you could've done, then I won't accept that."
"I won't believe you for a second."
Guilt turned to frustration, and he jabbed the spoon in her direction. "Why do you do that?"
"Hm? Do what?"
"Just...I don't know. Blindly believe in human decency when all evidence points to the contrary?" he asked, the spoon wavering in mid-air as he floundered.
"I'm just being honest, but I wasn't talking about people in general." She lightly squeezed his arm, inclining her head. "And I've got proper evidence to back up my claim, so that answer won't work here."
"Goddamn it. You are the most bull-headed woman I've ever met. ...But thanks." The exasperation softened, and he looked almost sheepish. "I mean it."
She winked at him. "Don't mention it."
And just like that the ease between them settled back in. She had worried that it'd been too long for them to pick it back up again, but now, as he shook his head at her ruined cup of coffee, she knew better. Taking a long sip, she waggled her eyebrows and felt glad that she could be silly around him again. It was becoming one of her favorite things to do.
Their food finally came by, plate after plate of it, and they dug in. Well, Jayden dug in while Madison poked at hers with her fork. The cheesesteak was not a sandwich to eat in polite company, and after a few minutes she put her fork down to marvel at the absolute mess being made.
"I can't tell if you're disgusted or impressed." He took another bite, failing to keep cheese from getting everywhere.
She leaned forward on her hand, feigning seriousness. "It's a spectacle and a train wreck all in one. I'm in total awe. ...And kinda turned on, actually." A wad of napkins flew to his face as he coughed, and remained there as he screwed his eyes shut. "You okay?"
His muffled response was lost behind his hands.
"I said, that's not even fair." he replied, clearing his throat. "Picking that moment to pull a fast one. I've seen weird COD's before, but I don't even want to entertain the idea of having 'death by diner' on mine."
Lovely. Make him choke to death on his first night here. Keep right on going, Mad. "Dammit. I'm sorry, that wasn't even funny."
She sank back into her seat, looking miserable. Jayden, on the other hand, started to chuckle. "Eh, it kinda was. Also could've sworn that Cheez Whiz was a natural repellant, but you learn something new every day. Should probably tell Matt about that one."
His lips quirked up and she felt like sinking into the couch further. If her face wasn't red before, it certainly was now. "...I really didn't mean to do that."
He raised his eyebrows. "Right..."
Kim dropped by right as Madison's eyes narrowed, looking cheerful. "Hi, can I get you two anything else? More coffee?"
Jayden raised a hand and slid his cup over, the same little smile still in place. "Thanks."
"Don't mention it, hon."
Hon? Oh, don't buy into the innocent act. That man is nothing but- Her pocket buzzed, then rang, catching her off guard. She dug it out of her pocket and scanned the display, but only the word 'Private' appeared.
Ignoring the chill settling over her, she sat up straight and took the dive. "Hello?"
Madison tensed when a click went off, but no voice or recording followed. Only dead air. "Hello?" No response. But whoever it was dropped the call seconds after she picked up, leaving nothing behind. No name, no number, nothing.
"Wrong number?" Jayden asked, watching her over his coffee. Her discomfort hadn't registered to him yet, but he'd noticed something odd. All she had to do was casually bring up the weird photo and the number, and maybe he could...
No. It's nothing but paranoia sneaking up on you again, Mad. Don't bring it up.
Looking between him and the screen, she sighed and put it away. "Seems like it."
Matt had been trying to give up smoking for a while now. Years, if he wanted to be honest. But whenever he happened to break its hold, stress drove him back to it over and over again. There was nothing like the first drag of a cigarette after a shitty day, so having to pull out Nicorette as a substitute killed his mood even more.
After a day of nothing but paperwork, running across half the building, and more paperwork, he was ready to hit the cubicles outside to see anyone would be willing to give him one.
And this is after Jill found the other packs at home too. Shit. She never got mad when she did, but they went straight in the trash without another word, and no amount of begging on his end made her change her mind. 'It's just a rough patch,' she'd say. 'I know it's difficult, but you can do without it. You've done it before, and you'll do it again. Just like always.' And she had a way of knowing when he did choose to bum one or two, eying him silently whenever both of them made it home.
So, Nicorette it was. He popped a piece into his mouth and fished out the rubber band ball he kept in the drawer to his left, choosing to briefly ignore the three files staring up at him from his desk. Spinning his chair around to bounce it off of the wall behind him, he hoped that this wouldn't be the day they'd go over the surveillance footage. At least he'd stopped using the door to his office after Jayden had become an unwitting target, but he still didn't want to get called into the boss's office for tooling around on duty.
The ball had hit the wall a grand total of four times when the phone on his desk rang, making panic shoot right through him. He picked up the phone with one hand while the other slipped the ball back into his desk, closing the drawer as quickly as possible.
"Matt! I was hoping I would catch you." Charles. Shit. "Could you come by my office? There's something important we need to discuss."
Shit, shit, shit... "Yes, sir! I'll be right there." He hung up the phone, basked briefly in the calm he was faking, and grabbed another piece of gum to go. Charles' office wasn't far, so seconds after he'd burst out of his office he was knocking on the A.D.'s, praying all the while.
The door crept open, revealing Assistant Director Charles, Special Agent Cooper, and another agent Matt didn't recognize at first. She turned, leveling her dark stare right at him, and his memory finally kicked in. He'd seen Jayden talking to her a few times, and had actually passed a message on to him from her as well.
But what's she doing here? This isn't about Norman, is it? Of all the times for him to voluntarily skip town...
Letting the door close behind him, he stepped in and cleared his throat. "Sir, you needed to see me?"
"Yes. It's about your most recent case. You and Norman did an excellent job gathering the information needed to reach a satisfactory conclusion, but on second glance there was something missing."
"Sir?" He was going to start sweating bullets any second now.
"ARI. Agent Jayden is still affiliated with the program, but there's no mention of its use here at all. I understand that certain complications can arise with extended use, but the newer models, so I've been told, should be well on their way to fixing these problems. A case like this could provide some excellent results, and while I would normally ask him to gather them, I'm afraid that we have to look elsewhere while he's still recovering."
Charles gestured towards the deathly pale woman to his left. "Which brings us to Special Agent Anita Wolinski. Agent Wolinski is with the ARI Program as well, and has volunteered to gather the data in Agent Jayden's absence. Have you two had a chance to meet?"
"No, uh, not formally."
"Well, now's the time to get acquainted. The program is very interested to see what could be determined, so the sooner you two are able to get those results the better."
Anita rose to her feet and extended her hand, both motions carefully coordinated. "We are on a time limit, Agent McGinnis."
Shaking her hand, Matt wondered just how long that limit was.
Of all the times to be slow on the uptake, now was not it. After saying good night to Jayden back at the diner, Madison had sped off in the dark without a set destination, the thought of sleep as far from her mind as it could possibly get. With her body wired from the potent combination of the coffee, the call, and the photo, she doubted she'd even get one hour of rest that night.
So, what was a girl to do?
Bringing her bike to a stop, she glanced at the nearby street signs and wondered just how far she was from Alyssa's place. The address given to her by Sam put Alyssa a few blocks from where she currently was. It was too late for any actual conversation, but maybe she could get a feel for the area. Scope it out before dropping in unexpectedly the next day.
Revving the engine, she took a sharp turn and mentally crossed her fingers. The early bird did get the worm most days, and she wasn't going to let any of this information go to waste in her hands.
Or at least she was until the sight of uniformed men and yellow crime scene tape sent her hopes flying down the drain. She let her bike slow down to a crawl as she came onto the scene, bringing it to a careful stop with as little noise as possible. Her hands shook as she pried off her helmet, nearly losing it to the snow-covered streets.
The air was too cold, her throat too dry, and the way she was trying not to shiver now had little to do with the weather. Something was wrong. Horribly wrong.
A couple of cops were keeping watch outside - neither of them Blake or Ash - and she forced herself to move in closer. She kept herself bundled up, thankful that she'd fallen into the habit of changing her clothes often to keep from being recognized, and clamped down on any and all urges to run over and demand an explanation.
"Fucking Cartwright." Cop #1 shuffled in place, rubbing her hands together. "Wouldn't know a proper clue if it ran up and bit him on the ass. We're wasting our time combing the area while the sicko's still running around doing God-knows-what."
Standing to her left was Cop #2, just as irritated as she was. He spat on the ground and folded his arms. "You're telling me. Next thing you know we'll be digging through every couch in the house, picking out loose change and any speck of dirt that looks wrong. He'll nickel and dime us to death, literally. You gotta wonder what his major malfunction is-"
Both turned to face her, and Madison stopped, her fingers biting into her arms.
The two exchanged a look and Cop #1 held up her hand to keep her from getting any closer. "Everything is under control here, ma'am. This is a closed crime scene, and it'd be best if you returned to your home."
"What happened? Is Ms. Jameson okay?" she asked.
"She went missing earlier this evening." Cop #2 stated, scanning the area for any other civilians. "Did you know her well?"
"No, but...I still find this hard to believe. I just saw her last week." She stood on her toes, trying to glance around the two, but the front door was practically taped shut.
"We're doing everything we can right now. Please understand that." the female cop insisted, holding her ground. "Unless you have any information that can be used to help us, it's best to leave it to us, Miss...?"
"Linda. Just call me Linda. I'm sorry for barging in like this." she replied, withdrawing. "I, uh, I should go."
They called after her as she walked away, but didn't follow. Grateful for that small favor, she climbed onto her bike and ran out of there as fast as it could take her. Sam. She had to call Sam. Parking at a nearby 24-hour diner she pulled her phone out, begging for Sam to pick up.
"Hi, you've reached-"
"Dammit. You picked a hell of a time to discover sleep, Sam." She took in a deep breath and forced herself to talk at an even pace. "I just stopped by Jameson's place. The cops are all over it. Call me as soon as you can."
Shoving the phone back into her pocket she rubbed her hands over her arms to try to keep herself from shaking. When that failed, she pulled open the diner's doors and sat down at one of the available tables, ordering something warm as she pulled her notepad out.
It was out of her hands. At least for now.
Anita was what one would call, focused.
Matt had met a variety of task-oriented people throughout his life, but she was the first that he'd label extreme. They left the office together, Matt in front while she shadowed him, but her eyes bored into his back the entire trip, never letting up once. He stopped in front of his office to ask when Anita wanted to start working, but she pushed right by him, yanking the door open without a word.
Having his own door slammed in his face was a first. The flat look she gave him once he was inside wasn't so much, but he thought he was done with the days of puzzling his way through teammates.
Guess not. Let's see if she's closer to a game of Jenga rather than a Rubik's Cube. "I was going to ask when you were available-"
"Take me to the body."
He blinked a few times, the sentence dying completely. Battleship. Definitely Battleship. "Okay... I'll set up an appointment with the coroner."
He reached for the phone on his desk, but she intercepted him. "It's done. Grab your things. We need to be there in 20 minutes. When I mentioned a time limit, I meant it."
"Look, the body's not going anywhere. Shouldn't we at least look over Norman and I's report to see what you want to focus on?"
"I already did."
"We are now down to 17 minutes and counting. We can talk about those details later at the coroner." She glanced down at her watch, then aimed her stare right back at him. "16 minutes."
Backing away from her without breaking eye contact, he grabbed his coat and a few of their files, and hoped to God that her head wasn't capable of spinning 360 degrees a la the Exorcist.
As they marched into the elevator, he waved at a few of his coworkers, almost saying hi and bye within one breath. They gave him a smile, but Anita earned a wide berth. Her brisk pace left little time for pleasantries, reminding him more than a little of his own partner.
Hell, a lot of this was bringing him back to his initial meeting with Jayden. Especially the weird looks from more than a couple of people as they passed by.
"Hey, wait! Jayden!"
The other agent came to a stop, his arms full of papers, and turned towards him with a slightly bemused look. He was just as pale as his photo suggested, but the neutral expression displayed there had nothing on his harried expression now. And with his height it was a miracle he was able to even catch the guy at all.
"Matt McGinnis." He held out his hand. "I know this might be a little out of the blue, but the A.D.'s assigned me to you as your partner. Just transferred here not too long ago. We've been dealing with all the red tape that comes with that, but it's great to meet you. Er, finally meet you."
Jayden glanced down at his proffered hand, shook it briefly, and then dumped the files in his possession into Matt's arms. "Likewise. These casefiles could use a look, especially since I'm now formally working with someone else. My preliminary work's already done, so all we need to begin are your thoughts on them as well. We're burning time, so the faster the work's done, the quicker we can get started."
Matt scrambled to keep all them in his grip, convinced that if something fell he'd have to spend hours putting it all back together again. "...Uh, yeah-"
Jayden was already walking away, calling back to Matt without even looking back. "Get those back to me when you're done, or send them on to Special Agent Cooper."
"Sure, but where'll you be?"
He came to a stop and turned back. "My office. Where else would I be?"
"Hell if I know." Matt muttered as the doors closed on them. It almost felt like he was walking the gauntlet all over again.
That was before they dropped down to the lower levels, however. And before Anita proceeded to 'suit up' and examine their deceased suspect. People he could deal with. Any issues he had with shyness he got over a long time ago. Dead people? He couldn't get on the other side of the glass soon enough. In this line of work any hardened cop would roll their eyes at his squeamishness, but he never got used to it. This time around was no different, except that he was the one that personally put the body here. Put him here.
So he had to be there. Had to face that metal slab. The chill of the room sank into him slowly, making him fidget, and he tried to ignore the way the lights above highlighted the damage done.
Anita circled the body, ARI glove on one hand, surgical glove on the other, and with a snap of her fingers was lost in the process.
Jayden had never gone over the finer details of how ARI operated – for reasons Matt was now aware of, for better or for worse – but one flick of the wrist was usually all it took to highlight areas of interest in the environment. The residue left behind by perfumes or cigarettes. That odd smear left behind by a footprint tracking mud. Blood. All of it was subjected to a trip through ARI's databases; the FBI's databases. And as far as he knew, the search could fly by in a matter of seconds.
However, processing did not occur until ARI was able to come into contact with the item in question. The glasses were the interface, but the glove was the tool that did all the dirty work, literally and figuratively speaking. Jayden had traced every inch of every crime scene once he was able to bring ARI. With every nook and cranny possibly holding a clue hidden to the naked eye, he'd stressed the need to be thorough with the device with an almost obsessive determination.
Wolinski was no different. She ran her hands carefully over the body, poking occasionally at areas that as far as he could see told nothing. The crease of her mouth, however, was the only signal he was able to go off of. With the majority of their previous interactions limited to short comments and orders, he was almost glad to see an expression not made of pure indifference.
The frown left her face as she examined the perp's right side. "I'm running a scan to identify what was already submitted by the coroner in your report. Before any extra evidence is collected, the older evidence must be properly cataloged and confirmed."
He scratched the back of his neck. "Confirmed?"
"Shouldn't it?" She ran a finger along the dark line of a bruise. "We can't afford the luxury of mistakes, Agent McGinnis, if you don't mind me being dramatic. We knew the information was legitimate, but isn't it always better to be sure?"
She reached up and tapped at the air, her hand nudging empty space after empty space past her eyes. That never got old. For a device that was meant to be kept discreet, its application did little to keep negative attention off of its user. With agents regularly swinging their arms around in the pursuit of chemical spills and lost DNA strands, it looked more like the lot was tripping on acid than dissecting a crime scene; something which wasn't sitting well with him at all in the face of Jayden's confession.
Anita appeared to be nothing but calm and collected. The ARI she wielded moved like an extension of herself, offering no evidence that it was anything but a tool to be utilized.
Did she see things too? Imagine skies printed on the ceiling when it should be nothing but peeling wallpaper?
His examination of her was anything but subtle, but she didn't acknowledge it. She was another piece of the puzzle that was ARI, but so far he'd only scratched the surface of it. ...And he wasn't sure how much further he wanted to go. The whole thing was starting to resemble a dark tunnel, and the dark always had a habit of biting back at anyone who dared disturb it.
He leaned back against the wall and chewed on his toothpick, feeling a headache coming on. "Yeah, I get that. You want to do the honors of rattling off every recorded detail, or should I?"
The hand covered in the surgical glove nudged the head of the body to the side, while the other gestured for him to proceed.
"You're too kind. All right, this is Thomas Coullahan, 36, single. He's an auto mechanic at a local repair shop, kind of came and went when he was able, but kept to himself. His coworkers could sum up everything they knew about him in less than ten words. One did spot him in the area of the club we were investigating, but didn't think much about it at the time."
Anita stood up and reached for the container by the body which held Coullahan's clothes. Gingerly picking through each article, she ran her glove down every available surface. "The chemical residue on his person is faint, but matches those identified by the lab." She tapped at the air twice. "Most of the compounds are commonly used in automobile maintenance."
"They said that he'd gone into work earlier that day, so that end was neatly tied up. As for the club, once we had his prints we checked for any mention of his name. It popped up exactly where we expected it to, tying him to Jessica and Denise. A couple other women had crossed paths with him there, but...didn't catch his eye."
"Blondes. Classical beauties. All were variations on the same theme."
"Er, yeah." Matt shoved his hands in his pockets, remembering the array of photos spread across his desk. The smiling faces of women who could've been sisters. It had been eerie matching up all the details, and even Clarissa Jones fit the pattern to a degree. "The motive was a bit more difficult to divine, especially with my better half out of commission at the time, but-"
"The mother." Black lenses glinted under the stark white lights. "She was a former actress who tried to raise him alone. When he was young she turned to prostitution. One of her clients murdered her and he was put into foster care. He traveled through the system since, and did not appear again until now."
"Two guesses as to what her hair color was." Anita frowned, and Matt threw the battered toothpick into a nearby trash can. "The photos we were able to get our hands on fit the victim profile perfectly."
"And yet the list is still considered incomplete?"
"You mean of the victims? I ran his name through every available database we've got, and tried to get records from the other clubs that were hit. He popped up there, visited the women who were targeted and stopped dropping by there shortly before the women went missing. One of the owners even claimed that he dropped by to ask about one of the women he'd killed." Shaking his head, he couldn't help but chuckle. "Somehow the son-of-a-bitch stayed off of everyone's radar, but as for how long, we still don't have a damn clue."
The surgical glove snapped as Anita yanked it off, making him jump. "Not even Agent Jayden?"
"Well..." He tapped his foot as he went over the info Jayden had included in his closing remarks, the facts jumbling together. "Some of the places Coullahan frequented had better books and records than others. Some of those places he could've easily dropped a fake alias, and no one would've been the wiser. The first girl connected to him was killed nearly five years ago. The next came three years later. Norman was convinced that something had to have been going on behind the scenes, but we'd need more time to develop that lead."
"Indeed." She slid ARI off of her nose and into her pocket, a pair of steel frames taking their place shortly after. "Take that time. I will go over what ARI and your data has provided and report back to you as soon as possible. Contact me if you find anything."
Matt's eyes followed her as she neared the exit and he held out his arm to stop her. "Hey, Wolinski. ...Or can I call you Anita?"
"I have no preference."
"Okay, Anita." It was a small concession, but he appreciated it. "It's probably none of my business, but you've worked with Norman before, haven't you?"
She turned to him and nodded. "As members of the program we were required to."
"I'm...a little surprised by that. He gave me the impression that you were all practically trapped in bubbles the entire time, cut off from each other."
"No. At first we were, but we were encouraged to work with other users before being returned to our partners. Any unexpected outcomes could be dealt with more efficiently with someone who was familiar with the system."
He pushed away from the wall, making sure he was facing her completely. "Like what?"
"Isn't that something you should be asking him?"
He fell silent, seconds ticking by as they stared at the other. Pursing her lips, her dark eyes raked over him, questioning him and dismissing him all at once. When he offered nothing more she turned towards the door and exited. "McGinnis."
"Anita." He slumped back against the wall as her footsteps faded, and blew out the breath he was holding.
"With the conflict surrounding OKC Corporation and CompuLabs on the way to resolution, both companies have stated that their security is now quote, 'at an unprecedented level of strength'. A representative from CompuLabs, Steven Blondt, even went so far as to state that the new defenses in place were impenetrable. This challenge will hopefully go unanswered with the conviction of those responsible for the initial security breach and the deaths of three hostages, but a harsher stance towards cybercrimes is being considered as other companies have banded together to address this situation."
"However, in a recent development, Alyssa Jameson, a current employee of OKC Corporation has vanished from her home. It has not been determined yet if this event is connected to the current investigation being undertaken, but as events continue to develop we will keep you informed. Captain Leighton Perry is also expected to comment on this tomorrow night at a scheduled press conference. More details on that topic will follow later on this evening."
Madison ended up getting a grand total of three hours of sleep. Scraped together between bouts of dreams involving men abducting Alyssa, abducting her, or abducting the two of them mid-conversation, she eventually said 'screw it', and dragged herself out of bed. Sam called her a few hours later while she was clicking through new articles covering the case and both came to the conclusion that she needed to get to those other addresses. Now.
It was still early, around 5:40 AM by her watch, but she got her things together and decided to hit the next address on her list. Steven Blondt was well on the other side of town, tucked neatly into one of the pricier gated communities. She snapped a picture as soon as she reached his place, the small house reminding her more of a small mansion, and went straight for the doorbell.
The stained glass colored everything in shades of green and blue from where she was standing, showing nothing but an empty hallway which turned off into another area of the house. She punched the bell two more times before ducking around the side to scout the rest of the area out.
A large privacy fence cut the back of the house off from the public, roughly about 8 feet tall. It looked sturdy enough to be climbed, but there was no guarantee that she'd be able to get back out.
I'm also trying to keep the breaking and entering down a minimum. I can't exactly help anyone from a jail cell now, can I?
Making a note to come by later, she pulled out her list and looked up Lucille Carey's address. The trip took her about twenty minutes, not too bad considering the way the falling snow had a tendency to slow people down. She pulled up in front of the two-story house, closer to Alyssa's in appearance than Steven's, and took another picture for future reference. Taking in a deep breath, she crossed her fingers and approached the door. No bell was present, so she rapped on the door three times.
A deadbolt turned and a tall, red-headed woman pulled the door open just enough to see who was bothering to knock. She appeared as if she hadn't slept in days, her wary expression telling Madison that no matter who it was, all visitors were to be treated with equal degrees of suspicion. This didn't bode well for her next few words, but there was no turning back now.
"Mrs. Carey? I was wondering if I might be able to have a word with you."
"Quite a few people have been asking me that lately." Lucille rasped, sounding as if she were recovering from an extended cold. "Let's cut things to the chase, shall we? Reporter, undercover cop, or misplaced citizen?"
Looks like I'd better keep the bullshit to a minimum. "I'm Madison Paige from The American Tribune."
"Ah, reporter it is. I've already been over everything that's been said concerning my departure. Anything else is just a waste of my time and yours, so if I may..."
The door began to close and Madison intercepted it. "What about Alyssa Jameson?"
Her eyes narrowed. "What about Alyssa? We used to work together. I don't have any more to say about that."
"You haven't heard? She's missing." Lucille inhaled sharply and Madison let go of the door, certain that she had her attention. "Was anything bothering her at work? Were there problems that she was trying to keep to herself?"
"I, I don't know. We haven't been in contact much, but she just seemed busy. Not worried." Lucille tugged at her necklace, the nervous tic adding to her already unsettled appearance.
"Can you think of anyone who would target her? Anyone she might've mentioned following her?"
"No, I..." Her gaze had dropped to her feet, and it shot up suddenly as the air of distrust returned. "Typical. If you're trying to trick me into giving you ammunition for your next big article, then I really do have to commend you for trying."
"Mrs. Carey, I'm here because I genuinely want to know what happened to Ms. Jameson." Madison insisted. "If you know anything at all-"
"-Then I'll let the police know and leave the matter to them. Good day, Miss."
"Mrs. Carey!" She pulled the door shut, and Madison let her arms drop to her sides. That went well. Five minutes of conversation and I'm still stuck at square one. ...Square one take two? Oh, who knows.
Shoving her hands into her pockets, she turned around and started the short trek back to her bike. She was halfway across the lawn when a strained voice called out to her.
"Miss...Paige, was it?" Lucille was standing on her front porch, wrapped in a wool coat.
Madison swung around. "Yes?"
She held out an envelope, the dark type on the front blinding against the white."I found this in my mailbox this morning, and was going to send it back. I suppose now I won't have to."
Upon closer inspection, Madison could make out two words on the front. Ms. Paige.
"Thanks..." she replied, taking it. Lucille nodded, adjusting her coat before retreating back indoors. Madison turned the letter over in her hands to see if it had an address listed anywhere. Nothing was present, not even Lucille's address. Only the neat stamp of her name was present. It almost made her think of Shelby's typewriter, but it could've just as easily been printed out from a computer.
Relax, girl. Relax. Just open it up and get it over with.
She pulled off one of her gloves with her teeth and used her free hand to carefully open the envelope. Inside she found two photos, both printed on different types of photo paper. Both appeared to be of locations, but one one she could recognize immediately.
Carey's house. Weird. I can't quite put a finger on the other one, though.
She flipped over the picture of Lucille's house and saw one word scrawled out in red.
"Emmy! Em, do you have a minute?"
Emmy Stevens poked her head out from behind her two-monitor set up and pulled one of her earbuds out. "Huh? Oh, hey Mad! Are you here to save me from the hell that's legal documentation?"
Madison walked around her desk to get a better look at the mess covering her computer screen and felt her jaw drop. "No, but...now I wish I was. Shit. How'd you get stuck with that mess?"
"I saw an opportunity and fell for it, hook, line, and sinker. I really should stop doing that, but a story's-"
"-a story. I definitely feel your pain there." Madison said, picking through the pieces of jargon only to tear her eyes away at the mention of a non-disclosure agreement.
"Anyway, what'd you need?" Emmy asked, spinning her chair around. "I've been looking for excuses to procrastinate."
"This has been driving me nuts all morning." She slid a photo onto her desk, hesitating before removing her hand. "I feel like I should know this area, but I can't put my finger on it."
Emmy picked it up and tapped her fingers on its sides. Crumbling buildings stretched off into the distance, hinting at a neighborhood that had seen its time come and go. No people were present, not even passers-by, their presence deliberately removed from the image. She didn't like admitting it, but as a photo it struck her. The sense of loneliness and lost history of sorts. A photo like that could've come from her own camera, a fact that bothered her the more she looked at it.
One thing stood out like a sore thumb amongst the more weather-worn buildings and vehicles, however. A gleaming Corvette, the tint of the image suggesting it was a darker shade, like red or blue.
"Weird. I'm not seeing anything familiar, but that car's something else. They don't build classics like that anymore, and in that condition?" Emmy whistled before turning the picture over, her brow furrowing. "'Just what I needed'? What's that supposed to mean? Where'd you find this?"
"It kind of found me..."
Emmy looked up at her, the gears in her head turning the longer the silence went on. "You're not in trouble, are you Mad?"
"No." She shook her head firmly, the relaxed smile on her lips coming to her a bit too easily. "But I think this is hiding something important. I'm not sure yet, but I figured I'd let you have a look since another pair of eyes never hurts."
"Okay, if you say so. But the minute this shows any signs of getting bad, please punch out." Emmy sighed. "Hmm. The sign on this building's a little blocked, but you see this right here?" Emmy adjusted her glasses and pointed to the place the Corvette was parked in front of. "I think that's supposed to be a pawn shop. See the faded letters right there? A-W? Can't think any other things that could line up with that."
"And here I thought that the cash for gold poster was too much of a gimme to take seriously. Is it bad that I got blinded by the car and went straight for dealers instead?"
"Nah, it is a pretty gorgeous car. Shame the plates don't make any sense, though. I can't think of a reason anyone would want a vanity plate with zeros or ones, unless they're trying to make a binary joke."
Binary, eh? Madison took the photo back, and stole a blue post it note to jot the idea down before it disappeared. "I really should remember to pick your brain more often."
It took most of the day, but she narrowed down the number of pawn shops to four possible places. They resided in the older areas of the city, which was key to narrowing down which location it could possibly be. Coincidentally, one of those locations was close to where her old apartment had been. Rented on impulse when she'd first moved here, it had been old and in need of serious repairs, not to mention drafty when the colder weather settled in. That particular location was high on her priority list, and come tomorrow she'd hit it first thing.
The car would take longer, as she had to get into contact with any and all dealers that sold older Corvette models. She had a few already knocked off of the list, but the search would continue tomorrow after the pawn shop lead was dealt with.
Jumping onto her bike, she sped off to her apartment, parking in her usual spot across the street. She adjusted the bag slung across her shoulder and exhaled, catching sight of the convenience store not even ten feet away from her.
Long day? Check. Odd problem that I have yet to solve? Check. Wine to help me deal with said problem? It's a bit early, but I'll give that a check.
Getting drunk off her ass had lost its allure years ago, but some days she just needed a little something extra to help her unwind. That's where the store usually came in, offering her something that was decent but didn't break the bank. The bell on the door jangled as she wandered in, three simple notes, and she made her way down the row housing the liquor and wine. Only one other person was in it, but she paid him little notice as she perused the available bottles for her regular.
The prickle that ran up her back was a bit more difficult to ignore. Ready to roll her eyes at her hyperactive nerves, she stopped when she noticed her row-mate hadn't moved an inch since she'd shown up. Willing herself to stay calm and casual, she plucked the bottle off of the shelf and went right for the front of the store. The owner greeted her with a warm smile, used to her visits at random hours of the day, and she did her best to return it.
"You're such an enabler, you know that?" she joked, swiping her card at the register. So far, so good. The man was nowhere in sight.
"I treat my customers well, and they treat me well. Is that so bad?" He handed her her receipt, and she bid him goodnight as she pushed open the door with her shoulder.
Okay, now you can move a little faster. "No shit!" she muttered back to herself as she double-timed it.
A bell went off in the distance, causing her heart to skip. Glancing back, she saw only a blur, a dark figure standing out against the white. Panicking, she spun back around and collided directly with someone standing on her front steps.
"What the- Madison?"
Her hand was halfway to the taser in her pocket when she registered Jayden looking back at her, equal parts confused and concerned. "God, you have no idea how close I was to shocking the crap out of you."
He held his hands up in a gesture of surrender. "I'm really sorry, I should've called first! I just thought-"
"Never mind." She grabbed his arm and dragged him towards the door. "I'm cold, aren't you? Let's go somewhere a bit warmer that's not here."
The key in her trembling hand couldn't be turned fast enough.
Madison's fingers tapped along to no real rhythm from their place on his arm. No longer digging into him, they half-followed the tune she was humming, providing the only sounds on their strange elevator ride.
Jayden kept his eyes on the doors in front of him, concentrating on their faded metallic surface instead of the way her shoulder pressed into his side.
Tap, tap, tap. Tap, tap. Tap, tap, tap. Tap t-tap.
He looked over at her, his posture stiff as a board. Nothing even close to the distress he'd seen earlier was present. She was watching the floors pass by, her fingers continuing to tap when her humming stopped.
Opening his mouth to say, well, anything, he was cut off by the loud ding that signaled their arrival at her floor. The doors slid open, and she gave him a single look of relief before slipping her arm out of his to head down the hall.
He watched her leave, rooted to the spot as he waited for the rest of his brain to catch up. Not eager to wait itself, the elevator began to close, and he wedged his arms into the space between the doors to keep it open long enough to escape.
When he caught up to Madison she was back to humming again, and she raised her eyebrow as she fiddled with the lock to her door. "There you are. I thought I'd scared you off for a second there."
"What? No, not at all." he replied, shaking his head.
She snorted, giving him a look before pushing open the door with her foot. "Oh? I guess strange women inviting you into their apartments is part of the status quo?"
"Never did get that talk from my mother. And I was going to give you the benefit of the doubt and call you normal-" Even with her hands full, she still managed to deliver a sound punch to his arm. "Which you are. Ow."
"Damn straight." Madison called back, leaping off of the elevated floor the entrance/living room was on to the lower level that contained the dining room.
Eying the level, he put a gloved hand on his chin and wondered what mixture of chemicals could've inspired that idea. Yeah. Architectural ingenuity at its best. That's just asking for a lawsuit.
Making a mental note to avoid it completely lest he add more bruises to his bruises, he turned away from the safety hazard mocking him to take in the rest of the apartment. It was every bit the non-traditional type that one would expect for someone with an eye for art or design. Or hell, someone who was looking to shake things up, and stick it to tradition and conformity in general.
He'd never seen so many windows in a place, certainly not in an apartment, and not even in most houses. Looking through the windows lined above the couch in the living room, he spotted a few street lights blinking below. Madison could literally see almost anything from up here, giving her an interesting viewpoint to work with. He remembered the way she tried to photograph everything in DC, and wondered if she tried doing the same here. Hanging halfway out of a window, trying to maximize the angle for a great shot? He had no trouble picturing it at all.
*sigh* Danger-prone reporters. But what do we have here...?
Leaning back, he removed his hand from where it had rested on the glass and shifted his attention to the picture frames surrounding every inch of space around the couch.
Skyscrapers stretched high against stark white backgrounds in a few, while others focused on factories, older schools, landmarks, and even the odd fire station or two. It was an eclectic set, striking even, but something about it confused him.
Family. Where's her family? I could've sworn she'd have at least one picture of them up here.
He found one with Shaun, Ethan, and Ethan's wife, Grace, but frowned when the only others he could find showed men and women relaxing within the scene she was shooting. No father and sons, and no mother.
Huh. Guess not.
Jayden jerked away from the photos and almost tripped on her coffee table. When he managed to right himself, he adjusted his coat and pointed at the frames. "I was wondering how many of these I'd recognize. Grand Canyon, the Statue of Liberty...old family church?"
"That's my dad's old schoolhouse."
"Ah." He paused, shuffling on his feet while she kept her hands on her hips. The look in her eye, however, told him she was having fun with this. "You've been around."
"You could say that." Madison stepped forward to stand beside him, stretching her arms above her head. "Have you found the ones from DC yet?"
Moving his eyes from her back to the photos, he glanced around until one stood out. "Well, well. I don't think I'd ever be able to forget that building."
Even with what others would describe as a 'jaunty' angle, the J. Edgar Hoover building remained grim and imposing. Compared to other buildings, it was obvious that whoever designed it had purpose rather than appearance in mind.
"Eh, it has its charms." Madison offered, tilting her head to the side. "Strong, enduring?"
"Stubborn's more like it. I've seen blown-out concrete bunkers with more charm than that."
She winced. "Ouch, Norman. That's a little harsh."
Maybe, Maybe not. He'd spent enough nights wondering if he'd left work or was just imagining it to never really let the place earn any sympathy from him. "Sorry, the jaded paper-pusher wanted to get his two cents in. Anyway, I'm impressed. You've really got an eye for this."
"Flatterer. Though I will say that having a hobby that doubles as a career does help to keep food on the table." She grinned and started to head back to the lower level. "Feel free to toss your coat anywhere! I know it's cold out, but you shouldn't have to stay all bundled up like that in here."
"I'll keep that in mind." he said, pulling off his gloves while he opted for the stairs. "I wasn't planning on staying for long, though, since you do seem to have plans."
She switched on a nearby lamp as she crouched down by her bag, her hand reaching for it through instinct alone. Not long after, papers hit the table and Madison pushed them aside to make room for more. "I do, but I'm flexible," The second stack was shoved to her right, and she stood up straight, blowing her bangs out of her face. "and sometimes it's nice to be distracted. Coffee?"
"Uh, no, no thanks."
Her relaxed expression shifted into one of pure disbelief, her eyebrows scrunching together. "...No?"
Yeah, yeah, I know. Pigs are probably doing barrel rolls right as we speak. "Haven't been sleeping too well lately. Just too much on my mind, you know?"
"Yeah. I get that feeling." She lowered her eyes, but couldn't quite hide her uneasiness. "Sleep hasn't exactly been easy to come by over the last few years for me either."
Not after any of the shit we've seen, that's for sure.
The chair skidded across her floor when Jayden pulled it out, and he took a seat, clasping his hands in front of him out of reflex. "I've been meaning to ask you about something."
Grabbing the wine bottle by the neck, she dragged it over to the kitchen to open it. "Shoot."
"It's something I've been thinking about since this morning, actually. Had to take some time to turn it over, flip it around, see if it made any sense." The cork popped in the other room, and she turned around to gesture towards the bottle. "Nah, I'm good. Anyway, I picked up a newspaper and found it pretty difficult to ignore the ominous headline on the front page . 'Criminals still being questioned over theft.' 'Woman missing in connection to crime.'"
Madison had been walking back over the table, wine glass in hand, but stopped. She took a large drink and pulled out the chair opposite him, dropping down into it. "And you want to know if I'm looking into it?"
"I was going to get to that point eventually."
She rolled her eyes. "Of course I'm looking into it. It's one giant complicated mess, but I'm making my way through it. Why the interest? Missing work already?"
Yes. No. Little of A, little of B. "When something's plastered on every other channel, I just have to ask. And you'd try to be in the middle of the action, so..."
"You'd ask the nosiest person you know." She took another drink and set the glass down. "I'd have a hard time not doing the same if it was you doing the investigating, but it's a bit different when most of the information's classified or worse. Wouldn't want to find men in suits at my doorway late at night due to an indiscretion or two. Well, men who aren't you, that is."
He redirected his attention to his hands as she stood up to search through her bag again, this time extracting one lone object. A photograph. "I've been keeping my ear to the ground for a while now, which has mostly paid off. The men who hurt the hostages are locked up, and the two who were manipulating them are well on their way to joining them. There's just one giant problem. Someone else might be involved."
She handed it right to him, not even bothering to take her seat again. "And that someone might be connected to this photo."
Good ol' monochrome. Smart car, smartass plate. A store...wait, no, that's a pawn shop.
He tapped the sides of the photo while Madison looked on from where she was leaning against the side of the table. Glancing over her shoulder, she waited patiently for him to finish picking the picture apart, but he couldn't find much to go on. At least not from an initial go over.
"Someone's a Cars fan. The license plate seems to be the ticket, though."
"Does it say anything?"
He shook his head. "It's been a while since my brain's been given the run around by coding lingo. Those were not fond memories. But I think here it just adds up to fifty-three. At least it's not another sixty-nine reference..." Madison raised both of her eyebrows and he shut his mouth fast, offering the photo back to her. "But it's still unique. Should be pretty easy to track down."
His face was more than a little red when she slipped the photo away from him, twirling it between her fingers.
"Did you know Jameson?"
"Not well, but well enough if it makes any sense. ...I'd been talking to her about the case. She was my contact, and had been for a few weeks now."
Madison let her hands fall, keeping them in her lap. "We were careful. We had to be. Meetings were always short and at weird times and places that no one would bother to check. I'd just met with her a few days ago, so I don't know if what happened is a result of her giving out information in general, her giving out information to the media, or her being connected to the crime itself. I'm still trying to figure that out."
"What if someone did know about your meetings with her?"
She chewed on her lip. "Then I'm probably screwed."
"Okay, mostly." The wry smile she gave him didn't do anything to get rid of his deepening frown. "I've got enough eyes on me to begin with. This set's even worse, but I can and will work around it. Alyssa needs my help. This photo's either my link to her, or the asshole who took her. I won't be able to help anyone if I just give up and sit this out."
"I'm not saying you should! I'm just-" wondering if you're even remotely aware of how much trouble you could already be in. "I'm just saying that you need to watch your back, especially if you think you're being followed."
That wiped the smile right off of her face. "Is this what being psychoanalyzed feels like?"
Jayden pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. "I'm not psychoanalyzing you. Trust me on that one. ...But whether you like it or not, I can see that you're nervous. I know I got the drop on you by showing up here, but the look on your face wasn't just due to surprise. Did someone follow you here?"
"No. I thought someone was watching me, but I left before he could get any ideas." she replied, picking at the hem of her shirt. "People have followed me to work. Found my address. Vandalized the front door of my apartment building. That was fun to explain to my landlord. When anything like that happens all I do is make myself scarce for a few days. Send them off on a while goose chase until they lose interest in that reporter chick who wrote a book about a serial killer."
She hopped up. "And if someone does decide to be stupid, I'll just whip out my taser, get 'em good and run. If I get stuck in a bad situation, I'll find a way to dig myself out of it. I can handle this."
"Did you report any of that?"
"Some of it, yes. Others, no. If this does get out of hand? They'll be the first ones I call."
"I mean it, Madison."
"So do I." she replied, turning to him. "I promise."
There was red everywhere. His hands, the sleeves of his coat, the floor-
His mouth went dry. Closing his eyes, he took a couple of seconds to collect himself, doing anything to keep his thoughts from shifting back to memories of red and white.
"Norman?" He slowly let his eyes open, tracing over the papers scattered across the table before daring to look up. "Everything okay?"
"Yeah. I just...I should go." He stood up and shoved his shaking hands into his pockets. "You're busy, and all I'm good for here is nagging you to death. It's also fucking freezing out, and the sooner I get that walk back to my car done, the better."
"...You sure?" she asked, looking equal parts confused and disappointed. "It's not that late out, and you're welcome to stay as long as you'd like."
"I'm sure. Besides, I'd rather kick myself out now, than have you kick me out later for being lousy company." he muttered to himself.
Her stance told him she was ready to argue, almost poised to, but she relented. He silently thanked her, considering all he wanted to do right now was drag himself back to his hotel room and put his head in his hands until the shaking stopped. The headache creeping up around the edges wasn't helping much either.
"All right. Just give me a chance to grab something before you go." she said, holding her hand up.
He opened his mouth to respond, but just like in the elevator she gave him no chance to object. Within a minute she had ducked over to the area hidden off to their right behind the glass pane, and returned, a long white scarf with thin red stripes in tow.
"You said it yourself! It does get freakishly cold here and I'm not using this, so..."
Between the temperature and her earnest expression, there was no way he could say no. She raised it up, indicating that he should lower his head, and he leaned forward just enough to allow her to loop it around the back of his neck. It went around twice, and she tugged it lightly to ensure that it wasn't too loose.
"I've got some pawn shops to hit tomorrow; five or six, I think." she said, smoothing the scarf down. "It's up to you, but if you're bored I wouldn't mind the company."
He watched her hands as they fussed around with the material, doing anything to keep them occupied. "Even if the advice is bad?"
The corners of her mouth curled up. "Even if it's bad. I'll even give you bonus points for staying on topic."
"Just don't do anything you'll regret."
She pulled back, a rueful look on her face. "It's a little late for that, Mr. Profiler, but what can you do?"
"It's-I don't... I don't know!" Everett Johns' hands were balled in his hair, his face white. "I wish I could even begin to explain why Alyssa's gone missing-"
Blake's hand slammed against the table. "Well, give it a fucking shot, because you're wasting our time and hers! You see his watch over there?" Larry held up his wrist, flashing the face of the gold watch at them. "That's a countdown. With all the time you've spent dicking around we're more likely to find her six feet under than alive!"
Johns' face twisted, each comment hitting harder than Blake predicted. He cared about Jameson. They needed that. But the information that could come from this fact just wasn't coming. Blake threw it at him over, and over, and over again, but Johns refused to budge beyond what he'd offered after Alyssa's disappearance was dropped on him.
So, he'd kept him locked up; with no one left to deal with but himself, he'd expected him to crack sooner than this. Johns was no longer putting up the resistance Alexander was, but they weren't getting anywhere.
"You talk to me now, and we can get her back." Blake stated, crouching down beside him. "Spare her from whatever asshole you decided to work with. You give me nothing, and she gets nothing. No help. Nothing."
Johns remained where he was, his head still down. He let himself inhale and exhale, regaining his composure bit by bit, and refused to look up or say anything until he did. Blake ticked off the seconds one by one, his pacing well on its way to wearing a hole in the floor. His fingers twitched as he clenched and unclenched his hands, keeping them by his sides instead of opting for one of the darker alternatives.
The other man eventually sat up, but still refused to look him the eye. "We'd worked together often. If I had to rely on anyone to get through the data and find any holes that could be exploited, it was her. She...didn't know about my collaboration with Alexander. She knew I'd talked with him and worked with him previously, but anything after that I kept to myself. We had actually started dating around the time the planning had started. ...He'd asked if she had any idea what was going on."
Johns nodded. "Yeah, though it was Ryan that passed this on. I told him exactly what I told you, but I didn't... I didn't want to take any chances, so I ended things with Alyssa as well."
Blake approached the table and leaned forward, planting both of his hands on the surface. "What did she do after that?"
"She went back to what she was doing, but I don't think she believed what I told her." he replied, chuckling. "Alyssa's always told me I was shit at lying, and she wasn't too bad at finding answers to her own questions herself."
"So you wouldn't put it past her to go digging around a bit?" Larry asked, his arms folded in front of him.
"I don't think I'd be surprised, but Ryan would've said-"
"Said what? That you needed to keep your girlfriend on a tighter leash if you didn't want to land your asses in jail? He was the one who talked to your little 'friend' the most, wasn't he?"
"Watch your fucking mouth!" Johns stabbed a finger in Larry's direction, unease giving way to fury within an instant.
"Please. Is that why her whole house was covered in cameras from your company? Was that Alexander's idea?"
"What? I have no idea what you're talking about-"
"You think Alexander gives a shit about what happens to you?" Blake cut in. "You were cut out of the plan the minute he decided to deal with NUL alone. How do you know he didn't cut a deal to dispose of Alyssa after she sifted through the mess you two left behind?"
"He didn't! We had everything planned out perfectly!"
"So, you both planned to take the hostages, is that it?"
"No, I-wait. Wait!"
Blake grabbed him by the collar of his jumpsuit and shoved him facedown against the table, the sound echoing throughout the room. "No? No? So that's another thing you'll leave Alexander to fess up to, eh?" He struggled against Blake's grip, but Blake forced him to stay down, ignoring both the camera on the other side of the glass and Larry's hesitant expression. "You fucking piece of shit! I don't give a flying fuck if Alexander was in charge! A woman is missing, and three people are dead because of you two, and there's no way in hell I'm going to let you slip by!"
A loud rapping caused him to freeze, his grip on Johns tightening by the second. Larry's eyes flicked between the door and Blake, and whoever was on the other side of the door began knocking again, just as insistently as before. Cartwright gestured for Blake to let Johns go as he went to answer it, not willing to let whatever was going on here bleed out into the rest of the station. Blake grit his teeth, counted to ten slowly, and backed off.
Ash opened the door, ducking in only far enough to stick his head in. Blake circled Johns as Ash relayed his message to Larry, and when the two were done talking Larry waved him over as well. Already on edge, their somber expressions did little to help him settle down. "The hell's with you two?"
"Perry wants to speak with you. He'll probably get to Cartwright in a minute, but it's about the case."
"What about it?"
"If I had to guess, I'd say we're screwed." Ash stated, holding the door open. "Haven't seen him in a mood this bad in a while."
"Fuck it." Blake pushed past Larry and Ash, irritated that the bullshit concerning this case was only continuing to pile up. With every new hint came another obstacle, and mountains of red tape to go along with it. Better to deal with whatever problems Perry was having now while they were still manageable. He pushed open the door without a thought, almost flinging it shut behind him.
Perry looked up from where he sat and sighed. "In case you weren't aware, we have a press conference tomorrow night. I was going to give the press enough of an update to placate them, but from what I've heard we barely even have that."
"Johns is telling me that Alyssa Jameson could've been targeted by NUL due to his connection to her. He thinks Alexander may have given her up once it looked like she could possibly pin everything on them. Give me more time with both of them. What they know could point to a place where she's being held. And if she's as valuable as they think she is, I'll serve this wannabe mastermind up on a silver platter."
"I hope so, because if this stretches on I'll have to pass the case on to someone else." Reaching over to the far side of his desk, Perry held up one of the local newspapers, its headline accusing the police of dragging their feet. "I'm sure you understand, Carter. After that fiasco with the Origami Killer, the public has become impatient and distrusting. We need results. We need to find the perpetrator, because without them the people will find another outlet for their anger and we can't afford to be that target. Not after the mess that happened last year. Is that clear?"
His face twitched once, then twice, remaining blank. "Crystal."
Heads were going to roll. If not Johns', Alexander's, or NUL's, then his. That fact was the clearest of them all.
An electronic sensor went off as the door swung open, announcing Madison's presence to the entire shop. It wasn't any different from the bell that had chimed last night, but right now it felt closer to a siren than a harmless ding.
She let the door to the pawn shop close behind her, moving away from it as quickly as possible. Only two other people were present, the shop's employee, and a customer, animatedly moving his hands in front of his face. While they were occupied she took her time looking around, moving from case to case. Assorted valuables stared up at her, rings, watches, necklaces and the like. One ring in particular reminded her for a moment of her mother's old wedding ring, and she bit down on the wave of nostalgia fast.
Funny how even though they say time heals all wounds, some still hurt.
"Can I help you find anything?"
Madison stopped in front of the glass case housing old phones and handheld game systems, and looked up. With no one else in sight she had their full attention now. "Yeah, I've got a quick question for you." She walked over to the employee and pulled out the photo. "Do you remember seeing a car like this?"
The man across the counter yawned, raising a hand to cover his mouth. "Kinda hard to forget that one. Half the cars in this area are half a ride away from falling apart."
"When did it come by?"
"A couple of days ago?" He scratched his head and thought for a couple of seconds. "Some bigwig stopped by and asked if anything had been brought in lately. Don't know why."
"Bigwig? Did you recognize him?"
He waved his hand back and forth dismissively. "Eh, one of those guys on TV. Left after I told him that what he sees is what I've got. Didn't take that too well."
Time is money. ...But hearing that does narrow down the list a bit. "I'd probably get the same answer if I asked, right?"
"'Fraid so, lady. Don't know why you're asking, but as long as you're willing to pay for whatever you find, go right ahead."
"Don't worry. I'll make sure to let you know." Madison replied, continuing her search.
Half an hour later she left the shop, ready to throw her arms up in the air.
Nothing stood out as Alyssa's, though as she was looking she wasn't sure if she'd be able to point out anything out if it was. Her coat and gloves had covered up any jewelry she could've worn, and since she had never got a clear look at her phone that was a dead end as well. The employee's dismissive attitude had worked well to keep Mr. Big Spender from picking up any clues about Alyssa, but it also worked against her as well. With no clear list of what had been turned in, she wouldn't be able to narrow down any items that could've been purposely brought there from Alyssa's.
The car's the obvious lead, but so much for hoping the shop would turn something up too. She wrapped her arms around herself and made her way towards her bike, glad that she hadn't bothered to extend an early morning invite to Jayden after all. Then again, if he'd shown up we'd probably be heading out for coffee as a consolation prize. *sigh* Great, now I want coffee.
She pulled her helmet off of the back of her bike as she climbed on, sliding it onto her head. The chill that came with the morning still tried to cut through, but as she started the engine, she let it go, zipping off down the street. With nowhere to go at the moment she found herself retracing an old path, taking in how different everything looked with a layer of snow covering it. The old lot where she used to park the junker she owned before her bike had been resurfaced, and she pulled into one of the empty spots off to the side.
Her old apartment was only a brief jog away, and she used it to get her blood running as her trip down memory lane continued. How long had it been since she'd been here? Madison trailed a hand along the wall as she approached the front door, noticing bars had been placed across most of the windows now. The brick showed cracks around the edges, and she still bet that the place couldn't stay heated to save its life.
She still couldn't knock it too much. After leaving Ohio, she had been left with next to nothing in a place that she was clueless about. The job offer had felt like her only chance to get out, something she had been desperate to do, so when she had to pick a place to live beggars couldn't be choosers.
Patting the wall affectionately, she gave the place one last lookover, and wondered briefly what path her life would've taken if she'd stayed; maybe even taken her dad up on his offer to work more closely with the fire department and their town's newspaper. It would've been safe. No Leland, no Shelby, no-
She pulled her hand back. No. Not even that. But thinking about alternate paths won't change the fact that it happened, and it's real. Pull it together, girl. I thought the point of this little trip was to summon up a few happy memories?
With one last look up at her old window, she started to wander back to the parking lot, swiping her boots over the snow-covered ground. Staring up at the overcast sky, she didn't pay any attention to her path as she wove back and forth on the sidewalk with her hands in her pockets. Something collided with her boot, skidding across the concrete, and she looked down to find an abandoned cell phone. Half-hidden under a bush, she had wandered too far into its space, unintentionally pushing it out of hiding.
She crouched down and picked it up, checking to see if it still had power. The screen lit up, giving her the prompt to unlock it. She did so easily enough, and hoped to find a way to contact its owner, or someone on their contacts list.
"Let's see if this trick still works..."
She dialed the last number on its list and waited. It took a few seconds, but someone picked up. "...Alyssa? Alyssa, is that you?" Madison stilled. The voice on the other side of the phone asked the same question again, urgency creeping into his voice with every word. "Alyssa, are you there?"
She hung up.
Ethan unfurled the large schematic, holding it out proudly. "There."
"There." He grinned widely, and the sight nearly took Jayden by surprise. "This plot of land's already been reserved, and all we need to do is have the contractors come in and-"
Jayden held up a gloved hand. "Wait."
Ethan paused, most of his enthusiasm still intact. "Okay...?"
"If you don't mind humoring me for a minute, can you hold that up?" He raised the schematic again, angling it so that it was placed over the snow-covered lot. Jayden squinted at it, resting his chin in his hand while keeping his other arm tightly curled around him. "Yeah, that's exactly what it looks like. When that's done you'll probably start fielding offers from dark wizards and ren fair enthusiasts."
Ethan was confused for a few seconds, but took a second look at his plans. "Ah."
He started to chuckle a bit, and Jayden wasn't sure what to make of it. "Maybe dark wizard was a bit much. I know there are a lot of people who'd love to live in an-"
"It's okay. This is probably what I get for reading Harry Potter to the kids back in the day."
Ethan didn't look insulted or even put off by the comparison, but that didn't stop Jayden from feeling like an ass for running his mouth off like that. "Really, though, I didn't mean anything by it."
He shook his head. "Don't worry. Honest opinions keep us in business. It does look pretty close, doesn't it?"
"Yeah." Jayden let himself smile, then jumped when something hard hit him in the back.
The two spun around to spot a giggling Shaun, who promptly ran off down the snow-covered hill. He promptly crammed the rising obscenity back down his throat, wincing at Ethan as the other man gave him an apologetic look. "I think that's his way of telling me he's bored."
"I'm used to being collateral damage, so no big deal. Kid's got a hell of an arm, though." he noted, rubbing the fading bruise.
"I'll get him. Shaun!"
He rolled up the plans and picked his steps as carefully as a concerned dad running off after his son could, and Jayden did have a good laugh at that. Over a year later, and the two were tossing snowballs like any normal father and son would. It was enough to give even the most cold-hearted grinch cavities.
And by the grace of God it was what he got to see when faced with this impromptu invitation by Ethan to come out here. Unlike Madison, he hadn't seen the two ever since he had left years ago, and the sheer gratitude that Ethan had given off right before he had left still seemed to echo even now. It left him wanting to smile and nod awkwardly until Ethan turned his attention elsewhere, and it only got worse when he asked if he'd seen Madison lately. Surely she'd understand if he ended up accidentally choking himself on the scarf wrapped around his neck, right?
Loosening it for posterity, he started down the hill to join them, and kept his fingers crossed that he wouldn't catch up to them the hard way. The snow was almost blinding under the sunshine pouring down from the sky, so it took him a few steps before he was able to get a clear look at the two again. Shaun had the upper hand on his dad judging by the amount of snow he'd managed to get in Ethan's hair, and both of them were completely oblivious to everything else.
Jayden shoved his hands into his coat pockets and walked around them, trying not to smirk too much at Ethan's expense. It faded when a dark figure caught his eye. Staring out at them in the distance, it stood stock still by their cars, covered from head to toe.
There was intent behind an act like that. Enough of it to make his hair stand on end.
"Mr. Jayden!" Shaun tugged on his elbow and the sudden motion broke whatever strange spell had frozen him. "Mr. Jayden? Are you okay?"
He looked down at Shaun, then back out over the snow. The figure was nowhere to be found. His fingers itched for two things, but there was no way in hell he'd pull either of them out in front of Shaun right now. "I'm a few degrees short of becoming a human popsicle, kid. How do you guys manage this every winter?"
"Practice! Doesn't it snow over there too?"
"Sure, but we're going from the odd snowflake here and there to buckets. Want to cut me some slack?"
Shaun thought about it for a minute, scrunching his face up.
Jayden sighed. "Nope?"
"Not even a little?"
Shaun grinned. "Not even a little."
He whistled. "Looks like we've got a tough guy! I would say that I need to watch my back from now on, but I think you've already got me beat. Anyway, let's get back to your dad. I think he's ready to get out of here."
He shooed him back towards his father, eyeballing the cars again, but nothing moved. Later when they left, Jayden wasn't even sure there was an extra set of footprints left behind.
Madison slammed the door shut behind her, flinching a little at how rough she threw it, but ignored it as she pulled her boots off and ran over to her laptop. Her bag was dumped onto her desk as she fought her way out of her jacket, and the minute it was off she booted up her computer and pulled out everything she needed to pull this stunt off. There was only one last thing to do for tradition's sake, and her phone was already calling Sam up.
"You're sure about this?"
Madison pulled up her e-mail on her computer, and flipped open her notepad, going over the phone numbers listed one more time. Focusing on the first ten numbers, she typed them up in a neat little message to forward over to Sam. "You bet I am. I don't know how many of these numbers I have to go through, but if one even gets me two words about Alyssa it'll be worth the trouble. The one's I'm trying are on their way to you right now."
"Gotcha." Sam replied over her speakerphone.
It would take Sam some time to try to trace them back to their owners, but it was a good back up plan just in case her own fell through. She guessed she could also try to look the numbers up on her computer, but she had to do something. Cold calling most if not all of the numbers on the phone would be the most straightforward approach, and that would get her some answers if not the right ones. However, using her phone to call every number on her list would paint a giant target on her back, something she didn't want or need. So to cover that base she picked up a cheap cell phone on the way home, providing the buffer she needed for this to work.
"I'll get back to you as soon as one of these pans out, but if you find anyone in my notes popping up on the call list, let me know ASAP."
"Will do, Mad. Don't go crazy with the calls now."
"Don't worry. I'm watching my step, Sam." Every single one.
She let Sam go and dialed the first number. Her fake sales pitch went over about as well as she expected it to, but she did manage to extract a first name of Tamara before they hung up abruptly. It was a different person than the man who had picked up last time on Alyssa's phone, so she made a note and filed it away for further use later. For the second she tried to be more creative, offering up a free photography session so she could decorate her 'new' business's website. That did get her a first and last name, so she jotted them down quickly and winced at how easily she was able to get their home address.
Sorry, Colin. I'm sure your place is lovely, but the only thing that will get me out there is either not there or hidden really, really well.
She selected the third number and readied her next pitch.
"Hi! I'm Susan Lewis with the Philadelphia Home and Gardening Show. We're doing a free giveaway and you've been selected as one of the recipients!" She heard breathing on the other end, tired breathing that shuddered. "...All I need is your mailing address and-"
"Please." The voice broke, coughing as if speaking for the first time in days. "Help. Please."
"Alyssa?" She leaned forward in her seat, both hands cupped around the phone. "Alyssa, don't hang up! Where are you? Are you able to get free? Everything's going to be okay, just please stay with me!"
There was a gasp and a click, followed by silence. "Hello? Alyssa?" Her hand began to shake as nothing but dead noise answered her.
Then there was another click. "Time's up."
The phone went dead.
"We're running out of breaks."
Blake and Ash were leaning against the glass walls at the front of the station, one with his usual grimace and the other with his cigarette. "I'm serious," Ash muttered. "This is the fourth time we've been outside today. Aren't there limits to those things?"
"Since when did that ever bother you? I don't remember hearing a word out of you last week when half of your time was spent glued to this fucking wall." Blake spat. Ash held up his hands in a gesture of peace, but Blake wasn't having any of it. "Johns is talking circles around himself and the entire place is bursting with reporters yapping their asses off! I'm this close to putting my head through a damn wall just to get a moment of fucking peace. If I need to get some air, I'll get some goddamn air!"
Ash held out his pack of cigarettes and Blake pushed them back. "Keep that shit to yourself. I'm pissed off, not desperate."
"Suit yourself." he replied with a shrug.
Blake stewed in silence for one agonizing minute, then two. On the third, he was about to stomp his way out of the station entirely when Ash spoke up. "I think we should try Johns again."
"Why? He'd spit out almost anything at this point to save Jameson." And as much as he would've loved to see him hang Alexander out to dry, it wouldn't have done anything to find Alyssa or catch NUL. Perry reluctantly agreed with him on this point, but kept on pushing him and Cartwright further and further.
He had all but thrown the recovered camera at Alexander's head when he had stepped into to confront him about it, but his repeated statement of, "No, it wasn't my call," made him want to string him up by his cuffs. On the upside, when he had cooled down, it seemed that the cameras had come from a third party. His gut told him it had to be NUL, but even so he still couldn't prove it.
So after relaying this to Perry, Cartwright, and Ash - half of the whole damn department as far as he was concerned– he made up his mind to go straight to OKC Corporation himself. It was the only thing he could do at this point. Or it would be once he was able to leave the station. Perry had told him to wait until after the conference so they could get a strategy down, but the waiting was only putting another obstacle in his way.
And Blake knew that talking to either Johns or Alexander would be a massive waste of his time and Ash's without anything new. Even if he would have the chance to make them piss their pants by throwing the camera again.
He crossed his arms and leaned back against the glass. "Think the damn thing's done yet?"
"Don't know." Ash craned his neck around as a few people began to file out of the double-doors beside them. "Things look like they're wrapping up, though."
"Let's get this over with." He pushed himself off of the wall as Ash extinguished his cigarette, aiming to go straight for Perry's office.
His path was intercepted, however, as someone crashed right into him. He took a step back, and was faced with one flustered reporter. He narrowed his eyes.
Wait a minute.
Madison Paige looked ready to bolt, and he almost had to laugh at her timing. "Well, what do we have here? Paige, of all people. Figures with the smell of blood in the water every one of you would come running!"
"I think you're overestimating our viciousness, but if I pick around that comment a bit I could almost get a compliment out of it. I don't know what to say about that, officer! Besides, what kind of journalist would I be to avoid the station at a time like this?" she deflected, putting a hand on her hip.
"A smarter one than you're being right now," Blake challenged, stepping forward. Ash didn't follow him, splitting his focus between them and the line of people starting to come out of the press conference. Blake would've done the same, but seeing her again at a time like this made his temper flare against his better judgment. Old wounds might've started to heal a bit, but in the end they were still what they were. Wounds.
She didn't budge. "You're not the only person who's told me that, and you probably won't be the last either. I know we've both got plenty of work to do and I didn't come here on purpose to make your day any worse than it seems to be already. If you'll just let me by I promise to do a better job of making myself scarce."
"You promise?" This woman's got a pair of brass balls on her! "I think you've forgotten a little thing called my job. Which doesn't require me to do much of anything in terms of making yours easier. So whatever illusions you're entertaining about that right now? Forget them. Fast."
"Of course." Her eyes started glancing around him, probably looking for an out. "That would be a bit too easy, wouldn't it?"
His remained dead set on her. "Yeah. I think so."
Blake's focus shot up at the two figures pushing forward, and Madison took that opportunity to dart around him. She was already out the door by the time he spun around, leaving him with a partially lit fuse, a nonplussed Ash, and a confused Lopez and Brewster to deal with. He turned to them more than a little confused by their behavior himself. "Who the hell are you two yelling at?"
"That woman!" Lopez pointed directly along the same path Madison had taken. "She was right outside of Jameson's house the other night asking questions about what went down."
Blake couldn't believe his ears. "Linda? She's a goddamn journalist! Were both of your heads stuck in the fucking sand last year? Why the hell would you either of you let her within sniffing distance of the crime scene?"
Brewster took a step back, trying to hide behind the much smaller Lopez. "She said that she knew Jameson! How were we supposed to know she was scouting the scene? I don't grill every woman that waltzes up to me looking vulnerable as hell, you know."
"Wait a minute." Blake held up his hand, Brewster's words sinking in. "She knew Jameson?"
"That's what she told us."
Madison was busted in the worst way possible, by the worst person possible. Then again, keeping her involvement secret for this long while attending each and every conference given was no small feat, if not an incredibly dumb one. Now that her advantage was gone, she was going to have to figure out an alternative course of action, because she did not want to be dragged into the investigation only to be used and thrown away.
And if they managed to connect the dots between Alyssa and I, then I might have to kiss any future chances of stepping into the department goodbye.
The night had once again gained some bite, and as she sped down the roads it cut through the layers she had built up against it. More snow had started raining down around her, and the cars that were on the road barely even paid it a thought as they went on their way. Much like the rain in fall, the snow was just another thing people had grown numb to.
Her bike weaved in and out of the lines of traffic, keeping a careful distance from any cars just in case they got a little too complacent on the road. It happened all too often during this time of year, and the icing on the cake for her right now would be one hell of an awful motorcycle accident. It was hard not to let the rush of adrenaline impact her, though. The need to escape which hit her back at the station had just told her to run. It didn't matter how fast she went, or where she was going as long as there was a good amount of distance between her and Blake.
With that accomplished she could breathe a little easier, but now she had some major planning to do, preferably as far away from her place as possible.
I'll drop by, grab what's important and hit a hotel for the next few days. Just stop by one of the usual ones and settle in while things die down a bit. It's happened before, and now's no different. Besides, the change in scenery might give me a few extra ideas.
She pulled into her usual spot, mentally cheering that no one had showed up yet, and ran for the door with her keys in her hand. Someone was leaving as she got there, so she let them pass before slipping inside. Half tempted to just take the stairs to burn off her energy, she spent the entire elevator ride rocking back and forth on her feet, unable to keep still.
The electronic bell went off and she stepped through the doors, moving from a quick walk to a jog. She slowed down as she got closer to her door, however, eventually coming to a full stop.
Her laptop sat right outside of her door, closed and without a scratch. The door on the other hand, was kicked in, the lock smashed beyond repair. Her eyes drifted in a daze as they moved from one item to another, registering what each meant, and came to rest on the final item nailed right to the front of her door.
It was a picture of her and Alyssa talking outside at the cemetery. Glossy and in full color.
Back in one of his early psych classes they brought up the concept of the shadow. Representing repressed qualities in an individual, it could take on a positive or a negative presence, depending entirely on its relationship with the person it originated from.
The appearance changed along with the meaning, leaving it a complex and non-concrete item to pin down. His professor spent many lectures trying to get them to recognize its importance, but to a bunch of college kids this was little more than some subconscious boogeyman.
Shadow figures and manifestations of guilt? It was all another form of mumbo jumbo that they had to learn to interpret through their eyes, and spit it out neatly on the next essay test.
So, he had more than one passing thought on the shadow man he had seen earlier. And while most of them did consist of the term, 'bullshit', a few others did entertain the thought that his guilt had finally decided to take form. As absurd as that sounded it was better than the other that suggested he could be slipping again, letting ARI project items and figures that had no business being there.
Yeah, option two became a lot more attractive in the face of that.
Jayden stopped in front of a set of televisions flashing the latest news headlines, images of Alyssa Jameson trading places with that of two other men, and thought about his own case in DC. Well, not his case. Not any more. He had managed to keep his mind off of it for a little while, but there was only so much coffee to drink and so many streets to wander down.
Matt hadn't called - and neither had Madison for that matter - leaving him out of the loop, albeit unintentionally. It was enough to drive him nuts. But he wouldn't call, not yet. It wasn't any of his business as much as he wanted to dig into it, and he figured that if either of them wanted his opinion, they'd ask about it.
...But maybe it wouldn't hurt if he poked around a little. Madison's photo and the questions it raised tempted him. Was there something special left at that location? Was there something special about the car, aside from the obnoxious plate? With no real knowledge of the area, hunting down shops seemed like a waste of time on his end, especially since Madison already had that covered.
The car on the other hand, was something worth pursuing. He'd filed the type away for later, and now that the future had turned into the present it was time to check that lead out. After grabbing another coffee from the place by the hotel, he went back to his room and pulled out his laptop, popping open at least ten tabs seconds after booting.
Okay, let's go down the line.
Older model of vehicle, maybe 1960's?
Location also factored into the search, but he had to pin down the make and model first. The clock was ticking, and he didn't want to waste it tooling around on the internet.
So, no, there'll be no keyboard cat tonight. As disappointing as that is, I've only got room for business right now. Business and...one gorgeous 1950's Chevrolet Corvette.
As much as the internet was a gaping maw just lying in wait, it was also incredibly helpful if you knew where to look. Car enthusiasts kept almost extensive records of the models made year after year, so the mystery car was no longer a mystery. With that solved, he switched his focus to the vanity plate. If he could get the place that made it to admit the car had been there...
Then what? You'd go in there flashing your conveniently missing badge? He sat up straight, then fell back in his chair. Great. This must be the part where you start lying about the permissions given to you as a member of the FB-fucking-I.
No, even if he did have it with him he wouldn't be flashing it, but it sure as hell would have made things a lot easier. Being a federal employee wasn't always a picnic, but the general privileges he got to use on the job every day were sorely missed now. He had no choice but to get his hands dirty, but what little he did find, he figured Madison could pull something out of it.
And he'd do almost anything to keep that fearful look from showing up on her face ever again.
His phone rang as he was sorting through the jumbled search results, and Matt's name popped up on the screen. He clicked the third term while answering the phone, his usual greeting already on the tip of his tongue.
"You've got to do something."
He pulled the phone away from his ear and stared at it for a few seconds. He then put it back. "What?"
"She called me at 2 in the morning to go over notes and theories. I think if I'd told her yes, she would've been at my door in ten to fifteen minutes. Maybe she has the phone bugged. Maybe the apartment's bugged?"
There was a level of desperate that only a select few could pull off, but Matt? Not even on a muggy day in hell. Hearing this tone from him was nothing short of surreal. "You're babbling like a lunatic. Calm down and tell me more about this shadow lady you're apparently being stalked by."
"Sure, sure. I was getting to that, but I'm used to getting more than 4 hours of sleep on a regular basis. Anita Wolinski. Familiar, right?"
"Wait." His brain hit the brakes. "Wolinski?"
"Yeah. The ARI unit tagged the case and decided to throw another agent in since you were out of action. You worked with her, right?"
"Uh..." She pulled the glasses off of his face and shoved a sheet of paper forward. The agreement. "Yeah. Sort of. We were both given the same objective during training and worked our way through it."
"Well, I appreciate her diligence. ...But I don't know how you did it, man."
Tripto, mostly. He bit the inside of his cheek so he wouldn't blurt it out. "We were all in an odd situation, so seeing someone else who wanted to dissect ARI as much as me was" -a relief- "helpful. The amount of paperwork we shoveled through could've wallpapered a small house. And if she's still using it, then she'll definitely have something to add."
Matt laughed. "Oh, she does. There's chemical residue all over the body, and we're actually going to check out our burly friend's address tomorrow. She actually called right before I called you, and I had to convince her to wait until the sun's up."
You would be the only one to pull that off, Jayden thought with a frown.
But ARI did have a way of pushing you to find the answers. It insisted. Anita never had to tell him twice about a location or a new lead. He was already jumping in his car, or pulling up profiles to check. ...So, it was probably for the best that they were never actually assigned to each other on a long term basis. ARI was a balancing act, one that the reps knew well. Pairing off two ARI users was just asking for them to end up the hospital. Or the morgue.
"You need to use it." She held the vial out to him, and he shook his head. "There is a limit. I know, I've been keeping track. But there's a limit on your time spent in ARI as well, and you've broken that twice without remorse. Why object now?"
His head pounded, in need of sweet relief. Cool, blue relief. "I, I don't know."
"You need to keep it together." Wolinski stated, her tone firm but supportive. "We can't complete this task without the other. You know this. You volunteered for this."
"You're preaching to the goddamned choir, already. Of course I did!"
"Then commit to it. Or don't. You can't have both."
"Hey. ...Hey, Norman? Are you still there?"
Jayden loosened his grip on the phone, ignoring the slow pounding in his head that had crept up on him. "Sorry, just got distracted for a minute. What's your plan again?"
"We're going on down there tomorrow to see if we can trace those chemicals to their source, which ideally would be his house, but nothing's ever cut and dry. I'm seeing a bit more legwork before we can officially call this one-hundred percent complete."
"The sooner the better. I don't want this hanging over us, or the families. They need to know that we've done all that we've could to pick this thing apart, and I don't want anything left behind."
"I hear ya." A familiar weariness was there, and he knew that Matt would rather lose sleep than let anything slip by.
Something occurred to him, and as much as he hated to ask he figured he'd give it a shot. "Speaking of scattered details, I'd like you to look something up for me."
"Hm? Like in the database?" He made a tsking noise, one that was dangerously close to what he imagined Madison would do. "Have you even spent a day doing nothing over there?"
"No, because I could've easily spent two weeks back in my apartment sitting around in my underwear. Instead I decided to come here. What do you think?"
"Relax. I'm not trying to harass you. I was just...never mind." Matt sighed, and Jayden let his eyes drift to the floor. "What do you want me to check out?"
"It's a license plate number. One of those vanity ones done in binary. Do you have a pen or pencil nearby?"
"Sure, let me dig one up real quick..." Some noises floated over, some of which he associated with the opening and closing of a drawer, and Matt came back on the line as quickly as he left. "Got it. Hit me."
He plucked the number from where he had filed it away and rattled it off. It wasn't long; it had to be on a license plate after all, but he went though it again one more time just in case. "You could probably run it through a basic search engine, but don't do anything stupid to get the information."
"Don't worry. I think I can pull some strings with the techs, or at least see if I can play them off of each other with a promise to buy drinks later. Small potatoes, big rewards! I hope your friend appreciates this."
"It's a lark, not a favor." Jayden replied, sounding remarkably neutral. "Some people bring books on vacation, I bring case files. If something looks interesting, you look into it."
"Great," Matt grumbled. "Next thing you know, you'll start claiming to be a crime magnet. The new McGruff. I think we call that train-wreck syndrome, Norm."
"A hobby's a hobby."
Matt had to have rolled his eyes at that. "Sure thing, Jayden. Anyway, I'll get right on that after I fix my sleeping problem."
Good man. "Thanks. Good luck with Anita."
"No problem. And you'll be the first to hear about that later."
The minute Matt hung up, he considered giving Madison a call. He wanted to know more about the plate. Hell, he wanted to know more about the photo and the evidence she was gathering, but this wasn't his. As much as he wanted to pry, he had to work with what he had and then wait to see if she offered more.
Tapping his fingers on the desk, he decided to leave the phone alone for now, and pulled up another license plate location.
She could hear him.
Papers were shuffled around on a flat surface, close, but not too close to her. His focus was elsewhere, something that didn't happen too often, but made her grateful when it did.
Alyssa turned her head slowly, lining up the small space in her blindfold with the sound. No face was seen, only a back clad in a non-descript gray shirt. He continued to shift for a few more minutes as she heard paper scrape against paper, but eventually he came to a stop. Both of his hands were placed flat on the table as he leaned forward, something on the surface of the wooden table catching his eye.
He was so still.
Do it. Do. It. Her hands shook as she pulled at the loosening tie around her wrists.
His chair screeched against the floor and she snapped back into the rigid posture she had forced herself to maintain. Even with her muscles screaming, she did not allow herself to relax. Especially when he came in closer, waving something in front of her face. She squeezed her eyes shut, desperate not to give any of her advantages away.
"I think our friend has turned into a little cheat."
She didn't move an inch.
"Do you agree?"
Her hands began to shake.
It was strange, but he was starting to get used to these mornings. Clear skies, bright sunshine, and a temperature brisk enough to remind him that it was winter. In some ways it was a little too close to home, but for once the idea didn't bother him. Figures this city would grow on him like a fungus.
He grabbed coffee from the same place he had stopped by yesterday, deciding after a few minutes to grab one for Madison as well. It wouldn't hurt to see what she had pieced together by now, right?
Sure. Though that does make this one of the shorter periods of time you've gone back on a set of rules set for yourself.
"Loopholes. It's called a loophole," he grumbled. And Ethan did mention wanting to invite her to lunch at some point, so he had another set of answers to work with just in case the work angle went sour. Yeah, he could do this as long as he kept on telling himself that.
He pulled the car onto the road leading to Madison's apartment, and nearly choked on his coffee when he spotted the cop car parked across the street. No one was inside of it, but seeing it that close to where Madison lived, to where he was sure they knew she lived, made him uneasy.
His car crawled down the road, trying to spot any officers walking around and was met with nothing. If there were any of them walking around, they were either inside the building, or wandering around the immediate area. As he slipped into the parking lot, he hoped that they were doing the latter, because he did not need to announce himself to local police force again. Once was more than enough, and that was when they were on the same side.
And any opportunities to dodge Blake were taken without question. He did not need to get the shit beaten out of him as a courtesy gift.
A couple was unlocking the door as he made his way there and he grabbed the door as they went inside. Pulling his scarf up did nothing to hide his appearance, but he did keep a hand on it as he adopted a brisk walk on his way to the elevator. The doors opened and he stepped inside, catching a glimpse of an officer entering the building just as the elevator closed.
Well, that route's a no-go. I'll just have to take the stairs back down. He was relieved that they didn't look familiar to him, but he wouldn't always be this lucky.
He took in a calming breath as the doors opened, and sucked it back in when he saw the group gathered further down the hallway. The group that had two uniformed officers and Carter Blake heading it. Punching the button for the next floor up, he took in the yellow crime scene tape covering Madison's doorway, his mind completely blank. When the doors opened again at the next floor, he stepped out and fumbled for his phone while also trying to find the nearest staircase.
The glowing exit sign at the end of the hallway caught his eye and he headed straight for it. His shaking hands couldn't get her damn number in fast enough, and he nearly dropped it when he held it up to his ear. It rang once, twice, three times, then clicked.
The two-ton weight on his shoulders fell away instantly. "Madison. Christ, what happened?"
"I-well, good morning to you too! I'd ask what you're talking about, but I have a feeling I'm about to find out." The natural ease that her voice typically carried was gone. In its place was a nervous thing pretending to be something it wasn't, and he knew for a fact now that she was hiding something.
"I'm sure there's a logical reason why your apartment's a goddamn mess, but I don't think now's the time to be cute about it, Ms. Paige."
"I'm not hurt, if that's what you're worried about," she replied. "It was...everything was left like this by the time I got back, so there wasn't a chance that we could've crossed paths."
Jayden pulled open the door to the stairwell and hoped she wouldn't try to drop the call. "Sure, this time. What if there's a next time? What's going on?" She went silent, making the hesitation lining her voice before even more apparent. "Madison. I'm asking because if there's any way that I can help-"
"I can handle this. Remember what I told you before? I've been on worse cases, and this isn't the first time someone's tried to freak me out using scare tactics."
"Were they suspected of kidnapping one of your sources as well?"
"Discounting threats as scare tactics gets people killed! I've been there, and I've seen what happens when the shit that's been rolling downhill finally hits the bottom. There's stubborn, there's bull-headed, and then there's-"
"Stupid?" she cut in. "Yeah, I probably am. But any messes I make, are mine to take care of. And if something does happen, I'll do what I've always done. Deal with it and move on. ...We probably won't be able to talk for a bit, but don't worry. I'll call you."
She hung up. Jayden's hand ached from its crushing perch on the metal railing, but he took in a deep breath in an attempt to regroup. Then, a thought struck him. Holding back up the phone he had nearly chucked down the stairwell, he called Matt.
He picked up not too long after the first ring. "Matt McGinnis?"
Here goes. "If this is a bad time, I'm sorry and I'll make it up to you later. But I need you to look up something for me, ASAP..."
She didn't go back to any of her regulars.
She might've picked out the new hotel on impulse, and she might've filled out her info on autopilot, but Madison did not want to acknowledge the fear building up in her. ...And she did not want to admit that whoever was after her knew exactly how to get under her skin and fill her with enough doubt to make her cut and run. She would not let that son-of-a-bitch win. Not on her life.
But for a few hours she let herself give in to the urge to hide under the covers with her taser nearby. It didn't help her sleep much, but it did give her nerves some peace. After willingly entering her apartment to scrape together some clothes and files, it was something she desperately needed.
Once the sun had come up, she went down the road to a tiny grocery store to get some food, and decided to dedicate the rest of the day to figuring out what exactly had went down at her place. Her papers had been scattered around, but most of the things that had been strewn about were photographs and old newspaper clippings. Anything related to the OKC and CompuLabs mess had remained in its file on her desk, which didn't sit well with her at all.
She hadn't had any time to check any of the photos in her room, but her clothes were mostly undisturbed, and her jewelry thrown across her bed. It looked like it was supposed to be a typical robbery, but her laptop and television were untouched. The former was even left in front of her door like a crude gift.
That really bothered her, but as she went through her files nothing was missing. She couldn't even check the recent documents for anything strange, because the files listed were ones that she had opened on and off over the last few days. Her 'friend' was quite good at covering his tracks, or at least good enough to throw off a journalist that was alternating between agitated, exhausted, determined, and infuriated.
If only I'd checked. He could've let something slip, taken something he shouldn't have. Now I'll never know with Blake stomping around.
"Dammit!" She slapped her hand on the bed and got up to pace around. They had to have known that she would run. The amount of confidence in such an assumption scared her. With all of the media focus after the Origami Killer and her book, she had quickly learned to ignore or avoid such attention, but this wasn't some reporter like her, or a set of teenagers with something to prove. What it was, though, she had yet to figure out.
"And what are you trying to tell me, exactly?" she asked out loud, picking up one of the photographs sitting on the bed.
The writing on the back matched when she put the messages side by side, but was done in some of the plainest script she had ever seen. The words themselves were hints she supposed, but neither made much sense without a subject to consider.
Wait. Jayden did say something about The Cars, didn't he? The car's almost too obvious of a clue, but maybe that was exactly what it was supposed to be. A clue.
She sat the photograph in front of her as she sat on the bed in front of her laptop, and looked up available Corvette models. It wasn't recent, so someone had to have a collection of them online somewhere...
Three loud knocks echoed in the small room and she went still.
Eying her taser out of the corner of her eye, her fingers began inching towards it. She looked back at the door and waited, her lungs beginning to burn. Two more knocks this time, not as confident as before.
Madison got up and cautiously approached the door, the safety on her taser switched off. All she had to do was stick him with it and hit the button. Easy enough, right? She laid a hand on the door for support and took one look through the peephole. Her jaw dropped.
Standing back, she pulled it open and gaped at one Norman Jayden. The smile he gave her almost looked guilty. "I'm starting to think you have a type."
Madison blinked once, then twice. Jayden was still there, her scarf wrapped snugly around his neck. Still looking caught, still tapping his fingers together in front of him.
Then his words sunk in. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
He gestured towards their surroundings by twirling his wrist. "Small outdoor hotel just like the other one, pretty low-key. Mid to low price range, so it's probably more about convenience than comfort. Easy to get into, and easy to get out if necessary. And I wouldn't be surprised if you've already plotted a few choice exits."
"I have." She frowned and thought about shutting the door in his face. Only his expression kept her from doing it. "You need to talk and fast."
"Fine," he conceded, folding his arms. "I had a favor called in to see where you might've gone after finding the police at your apartment. I, uh...might've gone a bit overboard."
"Overboard? That bastard, or bastards went through what, my billing history? Recent purchases?"
He looked more and more displeased as she went on, and she did her best not to care. "A few, but just enough to find you here. I...panicked."
The word slipped out, and he pursed his lips immediately. She let go of the door and put both of her hands on her hips. "You are... I don't even...know what name to call you actually. I've gone down the list and want to pick at least five of them."
"...I'm sorry. I didn't come here to invade your privacy or impose myself on you."
"But you've already done one, and I haven't made up my mind on the other! What is your problem, Norman?"
The pale, shaky man in front of her shrugged once, letting his arms fall to his sides. He didn't even try to answer her question, not even to deflect it. He just stood there, waiting. Whether for her to lob more accusations, she wasn't sure, but as time crept on the answer slowly began to sink in.
"You really thought I was hurt, didn't you?" She watched as he turned away and placed a wavering hand on the railing lining the walkway. The amount of sympathy that earned made her chest hurt. "You idiot."
He chuckled, the sound coming more exhausted than amused. "Tell me about it. You should've seen me earlier when I was trying to finesse a room number out of the receptionist. That didn't go too well."
"I could've told you myself how that would go."
A breeze blew past them, and her arms flew up to cover herself. Jayden on the other hand, didn't respond to the drop in temperature for once. He just remained still, staring at nothing, tugging at her heartstrings in the worst way possible. It was a fight that she wasn't meant to win, and the longer she drew it out the more miserable the two of them would be.
"Come on." She grabbed his arm and gently pulled him inside. It was too damn cold, and there was no way she could muster the necessary anger to kick him out. Besides, he had once again chosen a time when she needed company the most, and she wasn't going to squander it.
Both locks were secured once the door was closed, and she breathed a little easier knowing that there was something between her and the world. It was like that before with Leyland, it was like that before when she first got back in town, and now was no exception. Well, aside from the federal agent examining the faded blue walls of her room with mild interest. She kept careful track of her brushes with the law, and Jayden was an exception of his own.
He stood awkwardly in the middle of her room until she gave him the go ahead to make himself comfortable. Like before he kept his coat on, but he did sit down in one of the chairs left by the window. The curtains kept the room carefully closed off to the outside world, and she peeked through them while he watched her over his shoulder.
"How bad is it?"
Turning back around to make himself comfortable, he sighed. "Blake's got the place trussed up, so by now everyone's probably picked the crime scene apart. Or at least tried to. Three cops were outside the entrance, so who knows how many were actually inside your apartment."
"Lovely." She let the curtains go and walked over to the bed, waiting for a second before falling face-first onto it. "Don't think they'd give it up without much of a fight either."
Madison rolled over onto her back. "I don't think I'm going to get that back without starting a small war. Blake's out for my blood anyway after running into him at the station. Smart move, I know."
Jayden covered his face with his hand and groaned. "And this is just the icing on the cake."
"Exactly." She raised herself up on her elbow and flicked away a nearby picture. "I knew they were going to try to find me at home after that, but I figured I'd be able to grab what I needed and run. Not come home to...you know."
He looked up and rested his chin on his hand. "You told me before that you weren't being followed."
"I wasn't. Not that I was aware of at least, and I'm starting to wonder what else I've conveniently missed lately."
"You've got to be honest with me."
She sat up straight. "I am. I've never caught anyone intentionally following me back to my place or anywhere else during this case-"
"And before that?"
Madison slouched forward, turning her eyes elsewhere. "I already answered that, but there were a few people who did try to tail me. They didn't get far."
"But were they the only ones?" Jayden asked, watching her closely.
She turned back to him. "No, but none of it ever amounted to anything. I had a woman claim that her husband was leaving her for me, then try to strangle me across the table at a signing. I had a man talk about wanting to give me a better 'adversary' to deal with, then vanish into thin air. Other reporters have had weirder stories, but it was all just part of the job. People hear about you, hear about what you're doing, then trail off as they lose interest. That's how it was, and nothing ever felt off until now. Honestly that's what's bothering me."
He pressed a finger against his lips in thought, while Madison slowly dug her nails into her hands. "Did you learn anything at the press conference?"
"What? Um, Perry actually didn't give us a lot to work with. I had a feeling that he was reaching a bit, but all he did was mention a possible link between one of the corporations and their suspect, but as far as I know of they haven't officially named a suspect for their mastermind."
She got up and walked over to the desk on the other side of the room just to move around. Going over the events that led to this had made her jittery again, and with no real way to burn it off this would have to do. Jayden stayed where he was, but had leaned forward to place his elbows on his knees.
"So what's the next step?"
"One, I need to get Blake off of my back. Two, I need to get into my apartment." she stated, ticking off both goals. "I'm the only one who would be able to tell them if anything was moved or taken. I'm also the last person that Alyssa might have seen before being kidnapped."
"And you want to strike a deal with Blake?" Jayden asked, raising an eyebrow. "I could go through the entire National Geographic's publication of issues with that idea, but go on."
"I can give them information. Nothing I have incriminates me, and I haven't done anything wrong. What I have could help them find her, or at least open up a few more options on their end."
"True. It does make things a bit easier when you're not helping a suspected criminal escape questioning." She shot him a dirty look and he smirked. "No offense meant, Ms. Paige. You weren't the only one who was courting some serious jail time, but you do have to keep in mind a few things when dealing with Blake. For starters, I don't even think he counts reporters in the same tier as he would a normal person. You're closer to invertebrates, which already starts you off on unequal footing. Then, if he does by some miracle decide to work with you, you need to make sure that he never suspects that you're hiding something from him."
That's going to be the problem. "Sounds easy enough. I think with what I have I can point them in the right direction."
"And that would be...?"
"The former employees. I probably won't be able to cover my ass if they ask them if I've been there, but of the three, I've only visited Lucille Carey. Alyssa's missing, and Steven's too high-profile to visit traditionally." Madison tilted her head to the side. "Though, I did consider jumping over his fence..."
Jayden steepled his hands together and leaned back in his chair. "Okay, that's an interesting angle. The employees, not the fence jumping. What if it makes them go into hiding?"
"Then you might as well stamp guilty on their foreheads. At least until they're willing to give up anything to keep their reputations intact."
"And if that doesn't work?" he asked, continuing to play devil's advocate.
"It'll at least get the cops out of the way long enough for us to find her ourselves."
"Well, I'm sure that between my expertise and your excellent clue-finding abilities we'll be just fine." Madison laughed, but he shook his head. "I'm trying to be serious here, but maybe I should've chosen my words better. You've got a lot of good groundwork. We just need to follow up on what seem like the best leads, and I'm thinking the car's one of them."
"Me too, actually. I was trying to see what was up with the plate, but got...interrupted."
"And you already know how sorry I am about that. But, the same 'bastard' that found you, is now looking into both the car and the plate. I've also managed to narrow down a few places that could've sold the car, so all we need to do is check them out and see what turns up."
"But the plate remains a bust?"
"Yeah." He didn't seem too pleased about that, and she wasn't either. "Do you think he could've custom-made it himself?"
"Maybe, but he wouldn't be able to get far. All it would take is one curious cop to check that against other registered custom plates."
She pushed herself off of the desk and walked over to the bed. "Sure, but that cop would have to call it in, right? Your curious cop might not be as curious if Mr. Big Spender flashes some green their way."
"Which would give him pretty much the lay of the town. Do you just deliberately pick the most complicated and convoluted cases to get involved in?"
"It's a giant mess, but it's my giant mess. Yours too if you want it." she replied, gesturing to him after gesturing to herself.
It was strange, but even as subdued as he was being, she could tell that this had caught his interest and caught it bad. The more she was around him, the more she could tell that he hated not having something to mentally chew on or solve.
The curse of the investigator. Don't I know it. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad having someone else to bounce ideas off of.
And as far as someones went, she had a profiler that wasn't too shabby at his job either. It was almost a win-win situation for the two of them, but he had to agree to it first. Something that she was sure wouldn't require too much convincing on his part, because he wouldn't have worked so hard to find her otherwise.
He did try to put in some extra effort into considering it, though, by clearing his throat and pretending to be deep in thought. She decided to take it a step further. "I mean, I've got what could be the best profiler around sitting right in front of me. I can't think of anything else he'd rather be doing right now."
Jayden snorted. "Might as well bat your eyes next, lady, because you're laying it on a bit thick."
"Only if you ask nicely." she said, doing it anyway. "Besides, I don't know how this turned into convincing you to work with me. You're the one who went snooping for my address to begin with. You should be begging me to work with you!"
"Would you?" he asked, looking serious again. "Let me work with you, that is?"
She stood in front of him, not sure how to react. "...Why wouldn't I?"
"That settles it then!" The excited look in his eyes was back and he quickly got to his feet. "I'm at your disposal."
That easy, huh? You'd think I'd given him a prize. "Okay, I'm one profiler richer. They definitely don't go over this in training. Now to decide what to do with you."
He held up a hand. "I've got a suggestion for that. I want to check out some of those dealerships until I get a call back about the plate."
"And I want to check in with Sa-er, one of my contacts. He's checking a few numbers that I've pulled from Alyssa's phone. Before I deal with Blake, though, I need to get those numbers so for now the apartment's going to have to wait."
"What else do you have?"
She grinned. "Now that's the magic question. Do you want the long version or the short one?"
"Your call. I don't have anywhere else I'd rather be." he replied, smiling back.
"We don't have anything on record about Alyssa Jameson personally approaching us for the installation."
"But you told me that you had someone at her house a few months back." Blake said, standing in front of the standing CEO of OKC Corporation. "I don't see your company making house calls to the competition unless there's a good reason for it. Oh wait, I mean former employees who now work for the competition. I think you can see why I'd be curious about a thing like that."
Susan Smith gave both Blake and Larry an apologetic look, something that actually seemed genuine. "Yes, I can. Mrs. Jameson was a very valuable employee to us, and the work she did to improve the security and management of information has yet to be beat by anyone else. The benefits that we offer are in some cases, for life, and she might have made a call for some routine maintenance on her systems."
Larry examined the pictures lining her office, doing his best to look distracted. One had her shaking hands with a few other executives, while another had her standing with a man and woman in front of the metal framework for what Blake assumed was the fountain in the lobby downstairs. None of the people looked familiar at first glance, but he did give Larry credit for having the right idea.
Cartwright cleared his throat. "You would have a record of that, right?"
"Yes, we would. I would have had that on hand had you let me know that you were coming by, but I'll get someone to tend to that right now."
Let you know? The sheer passive-aggressiveness of it all made him sneer. There was an advantage to keeping your suspects and their employers on their toes. If you announced your activities on a bullhorn then everyone and their damn grandmother would be able to track you down. They would also be able to carefully pick and choose what information to give, and he didn't want to give them a chance to do that. Not again after their first brush with this place.
She reached for the phone, watching Blake as she did so, but he only crossed his arms. As long as things kept on moving forward there was no reason for him to throw his weight around. He did, however, watch her closely as she put in the request and didn't let up until the phone was put back down.
"It shouldn't take long for them to get back to us."
"Good, but until then I've got a way we can pass the time. Why did Jameson decide to leave your company?"
"For...some employees there comes a point in time when they feel ready to move on." she told them, resting her arms on the desk in front of her. "Ten years is a long time, and as much as it we hated to see Alyssa go, we made sure that she left us on good terms."
"I'm sure that meant a lot when she was filling out the application to CompuLabs, and they weren't about to turn down an employee with first-hand knowledge of their rival's security system. I think I'd be upset if that's what my support earned. Wouldn't you, Cartwright?"
"I think I'd be through the roof."
Smith bristled at the idea, but didn't take the bait. Damn. "Our loyalty comes with a sense of respect. Once you leave our doors, your business ceases to be ours. In a business that values privacy, wouldn't we be hypocrites if we didn't allow our employees the same benefit?"
Blake really had to try hard not to chuckle at that. "You'd think that."
He was ready to begin round two when someone started knocking on the door behind them. Smith got to her feet to let them in, but the person on the other side pushed past the door like they were meant to be there. So, what Blake saw once the door had closed, threw him off only a little; one suit with slicked-back hair who barely made it up to Blake's shoulder.
"Sorry for barging in, Susan. Are you busy?"
It only took seconds for his temper to flare and Blake cracked his knuckles one at a time to keep it in check. "She is. Police business. Do you have a name and a reason for being here, because we were in the middle of something."
"Yes, actually." He straightened his tie and raised himself up another inch. It didn't do shit. "I'm Steven Blondt, and I currently work for CompuLabs as a security consultant. I'm also one of the employees that personally helped to fix the mess that was this company's security systems."
"You're throwing that around like you expect us to give you a medal for it. Unless the other employee happened to be Alyssa Jameson, then you can make your way back outside-"
"She was." Blake had hoped that his dismissal would get something out Blondt, but this was gold. "When I said that I was one of the employees that fixed the system, the other was her. She built the skeleton, and I took it from there. Why do you think she chose to move when she did? I didn't need anyone's help over at CompuLabs. I needed hers."
Glancing back at Smith to gauge her reaction, Blake noticed nothing but resignation. That was something strange to see from a working CEO when an ex-employee was in the room, but Blondt wasn't focused on her anymore. He was focused on them, and Blake wasn't going to back down.
"Then maybe we should be asking you about Alyssa Jameson. You worked together with her on the systems over at CompuLabs, right?"
"Have you seen her over the last week or so?"
"Maybe you could tell us why you're here then?"
"Of course. I had a meeting today with Susan to discuss the troubles both companies had faced over the last few weeks. As you could imagine, we had a lot to talk about, especially in the wake of Alyssa's disappearance. Her secretary mentioned visitors and the files she was looking up for them, so I decided to step in and make things a bit easier for everyone. You were wondering if Alyssa's residence had any cameras installed that would be on record here, am I right?"
Blake turned his head to the side, but did not break eye contact. "And?"
"The cameras were my idea." Blondt said, a smug smile stretching across his face. "In order to do my job properly, I had them installed in the house of every member of the security team."
Larry shuddered. "That sounds like an ethics violation waiting to happen."
Blake, however, didn't give a shit. "We need that footage. All of it."
Blondt opened his arms wide and gestured towards the door. "Follow me and you will."
Alyssa Jameson sat at her desk drinking her coffee while she looked over her paperwork. Minutes later she had moved to her living room to watch some television. Not too long after she went to the kitchen to eat lunch. Later she went back to her desk. The cycle repeated itself as Blondt went over the footage, some of it changing as she went in to work, or left on the weekends. The few nights she came home late stood out since she was asleep by nine or ten the rest of the week.
Those nights she didn't come back until midnight, and she usually spent more time at her computer following that. They couldn't follow up on the data checked at those times since they were still without her computer, but soon enough they'd have an idea where those things went. Larry tapped his foot nervously as the date of her disappearance came closer, and when a figure appeared off to the side of a tree outside of her house, Blake held up his hand.
Blondt did, and the dark blot froze. The footage wasn't that blurry, but the dark clothes made it impossible to see anything distinguishing about the figure aside from a general height or weight. He gestured for Blondt to continue and the figure only stuck around for a few minutes more before walking away.
"I noticed that too." Steven said, stopping the footage when the figure showed up again a few days later. "They popped up twice over this time span, but Alyssa never saw them. They picked the same general time frame, and didn't approach the house or try to look in the windows."
The footage started up again once Blake gave the okay, and the next time the figure appeared was the day of the break in. "Did Alyssa have any enemies, or anyone who was taking an interest in her activities?"
"I could give you a list and it would easily touch the floor. Leaving this place could have killed her career, and I don't think I'll ever be able to repay her for doing it."
"Then why leave? It seems like she had a good thing going on, so it doesn't make a lot of sense for her to just leave it all behind."
The figure approached the door and picked at the lock, not caring that the lights were still on inside the house. They opened it within seconds, slipping inside, and all three of them looked over at the screen where Alyssa was sitting in her room, completely unaware. She got up and walked over past her bed, pausing to glance down her hallway. Black flickered on more than one screen, and she ran for the bathroom, unable to close the door behind her.
The mirror broke, cutting one or the the both of them, and Alyssa eventually crashed to the floor.
"That's a question better left for her, I suppose."
Madison was a lot more organized than he expected. Even though there were three piles forming between the desk, her bed, and the top of the nightstand, all were very distinct piles of information, and anything he named she could find and hand over within seconds. Matt worked this way as well, claiming that while it was chaos, it was organized chaos, and it took Jayden months to rid himself of the urge to properly catalogue everything.
With no filing cabinets, or house for that matter, Madison was working as if none of it had fazed her. She refused to sit still, however, and she frequently got up to grab more papers, or pace around the room. Half of the papers he had found he'd just handed to her when she completed a circuit around his chair, and he watched her as she kept on going without running into a single obstacle.
If he had to break everything down into its simplest form, he would say that they were after two things: NUL, the man behind the robbery and subsequent hostage situation, and Alyssa. They still had no clue if NUL had been the one to have Alyssa kidnapped, but she had to have been valuable enough to remove from the picture.
The fact that she was acting as Madison's source also put Madison uncomfortably close to the action, a fact that likely didn't sink in until the photographs began showing up. She had handed them over without much hesitation, but he could tell that she wasn't completely open to discussing them; at least not yet. Still, he couldn't stop thinking about the hidden meaning behind them. With random locations, subjects, and phrases it was starting to resemble a crude game of sorts.
Head to the right place? Get a clue. In need of guidance? Get another clue.
All would lead to the grand prize, but was that Alyssa or Mr. Spent-too-much-time-in-comp-sci? It was too soon to tell. She was being toyed with, and he wondered if the break in was a result of her violating their rules in some way. If that was the case, then her next few steps would be crucial.
Three strikes. Is this her first?
As the evening wore on, she finally settled down into her seat opposite him. With nothing in his way to block his view of her, it became clear that any energy she had left was almost gone. In fact, it looked like she hadn't slept in a while, and with the break in he could understand why. Her eyes drooped and swung from one item on the desk to another, seeing them but not 'seeing them'.
He waved his hand in front of her a few times, but not once did she try to slap his hand away. She wasn't the only one feeling the hour, but even he would've reacted to that.
Clearing his throat, he stacked his share of the papers on the table and watched her jump. "Maybe you should get some rest."
"It's nothing, just a little bit of insomnia."
He watched her rub her eyes, then pick up her notepad. She stared at it for at least a minute before blinking and shaking her head. "A little?"
"Okay, a lot." She yawned, and set everything down. "It's something that comes and goes. Usually staying in places like this helps, but I can't sleep. There's too much to think about and look over."
"I've been there before. Sleep was almost optional the last time I was here, and we had a clear window to work with. However, I don't think you're able to do a lot of thinking right now."
"Trust me, I'm able." she shot, though her sleepy expression dulled any bite.
"Look," he got up and walked over to her chair. "some of this stuff might be easier to sift through if you take a break. Get one, maybe two hours of sleep and it'll make things clearer. Or at least try to. When you get up I'll tell you about anything I find."
Her head rolled to the side to glare at him, but he could see her relaxing already. "You better."
Dragging herself up from the chair, Madison made her way over to her bed and flopped down on it, not even bothering to grab the blanket gathered under her feet. Jayden sighed and walked over to adjust it, spotting the small smile on her face as he helped her get comfortable. The oddity of it kicked in right as he considered draping the blanket over her, but he shoved it down and did it anyway, because it seemed like something he should do. He knew for a fact that she would've done the same in a heartbeat, so this shouldn't be a big deal at all, right?
As she drifted off to sleep, he ran a hand through his hair and considered the pile of scattered papers waiting behind him. He turned around and picked up a photo of Alyssa and Madison, zoomed in close enough to see both of their faces.
Something was closing in on them, but what?
He tapped the edge of the photo, then took his seat again, picking up the last part of Madison's stack of papers. They were missing something here, something obvious. Maybe if he took another look he'd be able to find it...
Matt handed Anita the cup, then held up three different types of tea bags. "This is me telling you I've given up, but would like to take one last shot at it."
He placed them on the edge of her desk, as she set the cup down and went back to her computer. "I told you not to waste your time."
"But three tries gives me a better probability of success than one." Matt said, putting his hands in his pockets. After the failures before, he'd all but given up on finding a coffee she liked. Tea was safer, and as long they were stuck with each other, he figured he'd try to do something nice. Judging from her lack of response, however, his odds weren't looking too good. "I struck out again, didn't I?"
She looked over at the teas, not visibly moved by any of them. "They're acceptable."
Not exactly what he was hoping for, but he'd take it. "I wanted to talk more about Coullahan's house. Do you have a minute?"
"Take a seat," she said while keeping her eyes on the monitor.
He grabbed the chair on the other side of her desk and sat down, turning it so that he could place an arm along the back of it. For the next few minutes all he got from her was typing and the scattered clicks of a mouse. If this was a waiting contest to see who would crack first, he'd cave every time, but not knowing if he was a contestant or not was more than a little unfair.
"Did you want me to start, or wait for you?"
Picking up the cup of hot water, she turned her attention to him. "After you."
"The residue we picked up at his house was the same as on him, right?"
Anita ripped open one of the packets, and dropped the tea bag into the cup. "Correct, but I already told you this. The chemicals are commonly used in any occupation involving automobiles, and if we're being specific, changing and replacing worn brakes."
"So, nothing really special about it then."
The chair he was in twisted back and forth as he thought about what they had found the other day. Maybe it was a bit much for him to hope that Wolinski's ARI would lead them straight to what they were looking for, but Coullahan's house was just that, a house. One small, empty, and dusty house. Anita predicted that the amount of dust present in his room meant that he hadn't touched it in weeks, and anything left in the fridge had gone bad months ago.
"Where do you think he slept? At the factory?"
Anita shook her head. "They said nothing about him sleeping there, though he did keep strange hours. I suspect if we went by there right now we could get more concrete answers about his activities."
"Any purchases made have been limited to vehicles and rent payments."
Scratching his chin, Matt frowned, but then realized what Anita actually said. "Wait, vehicles? Has he bought more than one?"
"Yes." The sides of her mouth quirked up. "That's what I've been looking into, and I can tell you right now that he has purchased five cars in the last two years."
He sat up and tried to peek at her screen. "Did they say what happened to them?"
"One ran into a ditch, one broke down, one was sold, one disappeared, and the last one was impounded shortly after they recovered it from the club's parking lot." She reached for the phone and began dialing. "This is Agent Wolinski with the ARI unit. A vehicle was picked up recently in association with Agent Jayden and Agent McGinnis's case. Yes, that one."
He couldn't hear half of the words being said, and settled for studying Anita's reaction. Cora, the agent dealing with the impounds downstairs, could've been talking to her about the weather for all he could see.
Still a statue, Anita put the phone down, clicked the mouse a few times, and got to her feet. "They should have it ready by the time we get downstairs."
Matt hopped to his feet and opened the door. "Better get down there before they mothball it then."
Cora Allen had already had a go at the car by the time they got there. Everything of immediate interest was catalogued and marked, ready to be entered into the databanks. She gave them a brief wave before going back to her sorting, leaving them to examine what was there.
Matt picked up one of the bagged items, noticing it was Coullahan's expired registration. After taking a look back at the car, it didn't even match. "Hey, Anita?"
He turned and saw her slip on the ARI glove, the glasses already in place. Reciting her agent identification number, she tapped the air a few times, then walked over to him. "Yes?"
"What do you bet this registration belongs to the car before this one?"
She scanned it, her fingers lingering over the text. "It does. This has also been expired for over a year now. Coullahan lived close to the factory where he worked so if he was careful he could avoid any questions about his registration. According to his record he did not have any traffic violations aside from one parking ticket back in 2006."
Moving to the next evidence bag, she picked it up with her glove and turned it over to examine it from all angles. "And this set of keys was kept separately in his car. There were no locked cabinets or doors in his house to check." Transferring the keys to her other hand, she flexed the glove and began interacting with the air again. "Both of these keys are custom-made. The manufacturers appear to be based in Arlington, and if we gave them Coullahan's name they could narrow down any locations where these keys could be used."
Matt was ready to clap his hands together, when he noticed the stiff way Anita was holding her hand. Her fingers were outstretched, laying flat in the air, before being clenched into a tight fist. The action was repeated once, then twice, before she reached up to remove the dark glasses.
"So, the headaches start. Nothing major at first. Could be lack of sleep, could be caffeine withdrawal, could be stress from the office. Maybe the odd migraine's kicking in for old time's sake. You don't think twice about it, you just pop a few painkillers and go. It was business as usual, sitting down with a cup of coffee, ARI, and whatever worked best that week."
Her dark eyes watched him as she slipped ARI into the inner pocket of her suitcoat, and then put on her real glasses. "McGinnis."
He leaned against the evidence table and tried to ask this as casually as possible. "Feeling okay?"
Her hands dusted off the bottom of her black coat – it was about as clean as clean could get – and came to rest behind her back. "Yes. Though I believe that isn't the only question you want to ask me."
"Jayden mentioned headaches every once in a while after using ARI," he offered, gesturing towards his head. "You ever get those too?"
Anita tilted her head a fraction of an angle to the side, her mouth a thin line. "No more than any other human being would. I remember Agent Jayden having some...issues in that regard. It did not seem to hinder his work, however."
Nah, of course it didn't. Norman's too stubborn to let it get to him. "Not at all. I was just curious if that was a common thing."
She shook her head and placed the evidence bag with the keys back on the table. "I do not have the ARI statistics at my disposal, so I cannot give you an accurate answer." Then she turned and tried to pin him just like before. "I will tell you to focus your concern elsewhere, Agent. ARI is no threat to me, or any other user. Now, if you'll excuse me..."
"Anita." That actually stopped her. He swallowed the lump in his throat and continued. "I'm trying to help. I don't know a lot about ARI, so I'm depending on you to let me know when you need time to yourself, or even a small break."
"Very well," she replied, with her back still facing him. "If we are going by common courtesies, then I will keep you informed. I want time alone to consider the information we've gathered. Is that acceptable?"
Matt gave a reluctant nod, but spoke up when he remembered she wasn't facing him. "Yeah, absolutely. You'll let me know if you find anything?"
Glancing at him over her shoulder, he saw her lift her chin. "As soon as I do."
The floor was dark, any and all light sinking into it as if it were nothing, and every step forward was a test to see if it would suck her in too. Madison's hands trailed along the gray walls, anchoring her, supporting her, and she only had eyes for the door at the end of the hall.
It was the only exit. With nothing behind her it was the only way she could go.
One step forward. Two steps forward. She rocked on her feet and felt the walls move under her hands.
The light curling around the edges of the door winked and dimmed as it stretched further and further out of view, but she couldn't do it. She couldn't run.
One step forward. Two steps. Three.
The door was nothing but a dot of light in the distance. One that shone brilliantly before it blinked out of existence.
Madison opened her eyes to a dark room, and the panic threading through her dream held on for a few seconds until she recalled exactly where she was. Her feet were tangled in the blanket put over her, and she tugged it off of her to get some air.
That was new. New, and unwelcome, even if she didn't have her shadow men hunting her down.
She sat up and rubbed her arms to get rid of the goosebumps covering her, noticing that she was still wearing the same clothes from earlier. Part of her paperwork had drifted a little too close for comfort as well, and she pushed it back so it wouldn't get crushed. Jayden had told her to try and get some sleep while he continued, but she didn't think she would actually get any. The glowing numbers on the clock told her that she had been out for almost six hours too.
I think he'd try to give you a gold star for that. Wonder if he managed to get any himself...?
Over at the desk they had been sitting at earlier was one passed out agent, his head flat on the desk. She quickly covered her mouth, because the laugh that was bubbling up would've woken the dead. They were quite the pair, weren't they? Both passed out on scattered bits of casework in the hopes that something would pop up before the exhaustion kicked in.
Madison blew her bangs out of her face and dragged herself out of bed to poke at him. His head wasn't pillowed on his arms so the only cushion he had was the newspaper article resting under him. The rest of the desk was covered in everything from magazine clippings to scrawled notes on notebook paper.
Do I shake him? Poke him? Her head was a little fuzzy from sleep, so she put a hand on his shoulder and settled for saying his name.
"Norman? Hey, wake up." He mumbled something under his breath, but continued to sleep like a log. Interesting. He always struck her as a light sleeper. "Norman?" She shook him gently this time, and his eyes finally opened.
"Huh? Oh, break's over." He started to lift his head up and the newspaper came with it.
The giggling was definitely the insomnia's fault. "Did you find anything?"
He peeled the paper off of his cheek and made a face. "Nope, nada. I don't have any words there now, do I?"
"If by words, you mean anything vaguely insulting, then no." Resting her elbows on the desk, she reached over and lightly touched his face, wrinkling her eyebrows when her finger ran over a faint raised scar. "What's this?"
Jayden pulled back, shaking his head. "Nothing major. Just a little parting gift from a godawful case. I forget it's there most days."
Why hadn't she noticed it before? Sure, she hadn't had a lot of opportunities to get close to him, but it was the sort of thing that should have stood out before now. "You sure about that? I bet there's an interesting story there."
"Perhaps." He scratched the bridge of his nose and started organizing the papers around him, separating them into neat piles. "It's all in how you spin it. You're a reporter, you know the drill."
"I do? That doesn't mean-"
A loud buzzing got both of their attention, and Madison picked her phone up off of the desk. Sam's name lit up the screen and she immediately began looking for her small notepad. "Hey, Sam. Talk to me." Jayden mouthed the phrase 'Sam?', and she gestured for him to keep quiet.
"Looked into those numbers for you, and I was hoping you'd be awake to check them out."
"On a case like this? You know how I get, Sam." she replied, taking a seat at the desk. Jayden watched as she flipped open her book and marked dashes next to the list of numbers she'd sent Sam earlier. "Ready when you are."
"I'll save number one for last, but number two was a Colin Marbury, number four a Colette Dietz, and number five was Lucille Carey."
A star was placed next to Lucille's number, and she mentally kicked herself for forgetting Lucille's link to this mess. "How about number three?"
"That one was strange. It couldn't be traced to any particular location, and it was probably disconnected shortly after you called. Could've been a separate cell phone purchase that they were using to keep their place of operations off of the map."
"So, nothing there?"
"Sorry, Mad, nothing there."
"Shit. And the first number?"
Now, that was interesting. "Bingo. I think you've given me something huge to work with, Sam. You're amazing."
"You know what to do with it, Mad. Good luck."
She hung up and held her notepad in front of Jayden. "I think I know what I'm checking out next."
"Steven Blondt," he read, narrowing his eyes. "He was fielding some questions on the news the other day. In a high profile case like this you don't want any bad publicity, so if they had him speaking for them he's got to hold some sway."
"My thoughts exactly. I've been putting off a question and answer session with him, because of the attention he's been getting. But now I'm thinking I should move that up."
She nodded. "Yeah. If I do anything today it's going to be that."
"You sure? This Sam of yours isn't trying to pull your leg or anything, right?" he asked, playing the skeptic.
"You don't know Sam, but I'd trust him with my life." she asserted, feeling offended on Sam's behalf. Jayden had no reason to trust Sam, so his question was valid, but it still wasn't something she wanted to hear. "I've worked with him for years now, and he was the one who saved my sorry ass on the Leland White case. I owe him a lot more than I'll ever be able to repay, so please don't imply that again."
Studying her closely, Jayden eventually let a small smile onto his face. "He's certainly earned your loyalty. I'm sorry, but old habits are hard to break. I've got to ask the ugly questions whether we like them or not. So, while you talk to Blondt, I'll check on the car. Should be relatively danger-free, right?"
"It seems innocent enough, but I wouldn't take my word for it."
Jayden sighed and folded his arms. "Noted. Also, good point. However, seeing as Blondt could stand to lose a lot from this, I would suggest you take him seriously as a threat. Don't let him box you in, and don't stick around any longer than necessary. There's something strange about this case that I'll need more time to pin down, and the last thing I want is to inadvertently send you into the lion's den."
"I know, I know." Grabbing her notebook, she went over to her bed and picked up her jacket. "I know the evidence says otherwise, but I don't have a nose for danger, Mr. Profiler. It's just a chronic case of bad luck. How about this? I'll send you a text once I'm done, and once you're finished with the dealer we can get together for coffee?"
"Sure, but...wait, I'm getting kicked out, aren't I?"
Madison turned around and gestured towards the bathroom. "Yes, because I'm in need of a shower, and I don't know if you want to stick around for that."
His eyes flicked between the shower and her, eventually settling somewhere just to her right. "Uh, yeah. I should probably leave."
Probably? She bit her tongue to keep from teasing him about his word choice, but grinned as he quickly put his coat and gloves back on. "Need any help with that?"
He froze with both ends of the scarf dangling from his hands. Wrapping it around his neck a few times, he let it go with one end still noticeably longer than the other. "No, I've got it. I'll be...around. Call me if you need anything."
Leaning against the desk, Madison winked at him as he ducked out her door. "Right back at you."
Blondt's place was a bit of a drive from her location, but with the early hour traffic wasn't half as bad as it could've been. Her bike chugged along at an easy pace, giving her plenty of time to figure out her plan of attack. Blondt would be on the defensive, and would also likely now exactly who she was. Other reporters would've also tried to get answers from him at this point, so she had to think carefully about her approach or risk losing her only chance to talk to him.
Pulling up to a light, she reached back to check her bag and noticed the blue truck stopped directly behind her. At first glance it was nothing special, but the tinted glass of the windshield didn't give her a good look at the driver, a fact that wanted to make her hair stand on end, but she let it go for now.
So, when she looked behind her at the next couple of lights she didn't expect to see the same truck behind her. And she certainly didn't expect it to keep on making many of the same turns she was. Turning her panic into action, she kicked her bike into gear and sped up in an attempt to lose him. A parking garage down the line caught her eye, but the line of cars didn't give her much of an in to work with.
An alley was coming up ahead on her right, and she took it without looking back, hoping that she had put enough distance between them to lose him. Holding her breath, she turned her bike around to face the road, grateful for the small amount of cover the space provided. Seconds ticked by while she waited, until a familiar blue truck sped by.
Once it had cleared her, another idea struck. Giving him another thirty seconds of time, she crossed her fingers and re-entered traffic. He was a few cars in front of her, but the height of his truck made him easy to spot amongst the sedans.
Okay, I think this counts as a situation where phone calls might be a good idea, but I'm just following him. I'm not going to confront him. I'm just following him.
She continued to chant this to herself as the truck took her far off her intended path towards an older part of town. The space between them increased as the cars dropped off, and she had her fingers crossed up until the point she saw him pull out of the lane to park on the side of the road. She ducked around a corner before reaching him and scanned the area for a good place to park. With his truck parked there, he had to be running in and out of that place, so she wanted to get as good a look at it as possible before he ran off.
She stayed close to the wall as she moved up to the intersection, and took in the sight of the boarded up shop on the other side of the street. Half of the windows were barred, and those that weren't were sealed with plywood or cracked. The sign across the top was the only thing that held any sense of color, but the words had begun to fade, and would continue to do so until not a single letter remained.
Photo Pha-natic. Oh, I have to share that with Jayden later. Some puns she could appreciate, but a pun like that just hurt everyone within earshot of it. She snapped a quick photo of the front, and stuffed her small camera back into her pocket.
Soon enough, a dark figure emerged from the glass doors and walked around the truck to get in. During that time she kept her face turned away, and did her best to blend in with the other people at the light. The figure didn't even spare a glance around him. He just got in, started the engine, and sped off.
Once he was out of sight she crossed the road, and tried to relax as she approached the door. It rattled as she tried the handle, and as her hands went to her lockpick, it gave. Not about to lose this chance, she pulled the door open and went inside.
The clouds outside kept the shop from being fully-lit, leaving it shrouded and dusty. Reaching into her pocket, Madison pulled out a small flashlight and swept it around the room, silently hoping that the only living thing left in this place was her. For an abandoned shop things were kept tidy, so it wasn't a stretch for her to assume that the man in the blue truck came here often.
The cashier's counter was clear of any items, but there was a path to the back that she had yet to take. Keeping her other hand close to where her taser was, Madison crept forward, keeping an eye out for any movement. She took a right down the short hallway which opened up into the main employee area. Copy machines and printers lined the walls, while a large table sat in the middle of the room covered in scattered papers. Her light hit them, showing most of the typical print jargon used to display the general format for a layout, rather than the actual content. She opened the copy machine and found nothing there, either.
Aside from the main room there were three doors, one for the darkroom, one for employees only, and one for the bathroom. The darkroom intrigued her, but she figured she'd better hit the employees' office first. Her gloved hand tested the handle and found it locked. She fished out her lockpick and went to work on the lock, finding it more difficult than the one on Shelby's door.
"Dammit, give!" She shook it a couple of times, but it didn't want to go.
Giving up on it for now, she turned towards the darkroom and saw the door was cracked open. Using one hand to nudge it open, she let her flashlight draw a line across the floor before traveling up the wall. Photos of families were arranged side by side as a simple wallpaper for the room, leaving her feeling as if she were intruding as she stepped into the space.
Papers were also scattered on the top of the small table sitting off to the side, but resting beside them was a small black tube. She picked it up and gasped. A roll of film! It wasn't much, but she pocketed it and decided to head to the Tribune right after this to check it out.
Shining her light around again, she noticed a few photos dangling from a line of string suspended above the ground. All of them had had time to develop and were now left to dry. Holding up her light, it didn't bring any comfort to her to see Alyssa on one, herself on the other, and...Norman on the third.
She fumbled with her camera as she took pictures of all three of them, then headed straight for the exit.
The suit that the specialty car owner was sporting looked like it belonged to a 70's porn star. With that image forever tattooed on his retinas, Jayden knew that his morning was only going to get stranger from here.
After already being given the run around at another dealership, he was pointed here when he kept on insisting that no other car but a 50's Corvette would do. "This guy will get you your dream car, guaranteed!" the other man had promised, but now he was wondering what hoops the owner would jump through in order to make sure a deal would go through.
Dozens of photos of old and retired cars covered the walls of the small warehouse, and while the owner approached him, Jayden tried to see if he could find Madison's car in one of them. There was one that he suspected could be it, but he'd have to shake the owner first. And with the way the man was twirling his mustache at a customer, he suspected that doing so was easier said than done.
"Welcome! What can I do for you?"
Jayden forced what he hoped was a smile onto his face. "Hi, I was actually referred to you from Kenneth at another dealership. He said that you'd be able to help me."
"Kenneth did? Ah, then you're looking for something special." He said, walking by Jayden towards a gleaming convertible. "Most of these cars up here get the attention of a casual collector, but I haven't seen any of these catch your eye. That means that you've already got a specific car in mind, eh?"
Sliding the photo out of his pocket, Jayden held it up to 'Fred' – his gold nametag stated as such – and made sure he got a good look at it. "Seen anything like this one?"
Fred's face fell. This wasn't looking much like a sale anymore, and the other man ran through all his available responses as Jayden kept the photo right in front of him. "Ah, that's...uh, that's a special case. I'm afraid that I can't tell you much more without asking what your interest in this car is, Mr...?"
Jayden's mouth twisted as he realized that as much as he'd like to lie, he probably shouldn't. "Jayden. Let's just say that I'm a concerned party and any information on this car would be helpful."
Fred frowned at the mention of his name, possibly due to it being uncommon, he guessed, and crossed his arms. "Concerned party? Reporter, maybe? Unless some kid's life is in danger like that mess last year, I don't see any reason why I should violate the privacy of my customers. Or maybe you're a cop. Why don't you flash that badge of yours and see if maybe that'll help me remember something."
He had to concentrate to keep from grinding his teeth together. Maybe this was why Blake was always a step away from kicking everyone's shit in. And why didn't he just try to put this through ARI again? Oh yeah, because it might trick him into thinking he was about to be mauled by grizzly bears again. Always a plus. As much as they wanted to tout its newfound stability, it remained unpredictable as hell, and he wasn't sure he wanted to deal with that right now.
...The idea was tempting, though. If they did manage to dial back any of the symptoms that required triptocaine then ARI really would be closer to the ideal they had aspired to. He could go back to using it like he did back when he started, solving cases in days rather than weeks. But before he could do that he had to learn to trust it again, and that was still a long way off. Until then, it would stay in his hotel room buried safely away in his suitcase. Temptation could easily give way to desperation, and he was not about to relapse on a case where Madison needed his help.
Wait a minute there. Case? Might I remind you that you're on vacation? Only masochists keep on coming back to this on their time off.
I can't help it if I'm a repeat offender. "Sure. It is within your rights to keep that information private, but I will say that a woman's life is at stake right now, and anything you hold back could mean the difference between finding her alive today, or finding her dead tomorrow. If you know anything, I'd appreciate your cooperation, sir."
Taking in a deep breath, Jayden was ready to continue, but the way Fred was scratching his chin and staring at him made him pause. "Wait." Fred pointed at him, and Jayden felt dread slowly sink into his stomach. "Cop. You ARE a cop! You're that FBI guy that solved that other case with that paper animal guy!"
"Origami," he ground out between his teeth. "They were fancy paper animals, so let's at least aim somewhat close to the terminology. Agent Jayden at your service, Mr...?"
Going straight from animosity to awe was no small feat, and Jayden wasn't sure if things were getting better or worse. "Holy shit! I can't believe it, here in my shop even! Price! My name's Fred Price. You were being serious then. I thought you were trying to feed me a line so you could rob me blind!"
"No, Mr. Price, sorry to give that impression." Because nothing would ever get past your keen powers of observation. Mine are still desperately trying to recover from that thing you call formal wear. "And I'm not trying to broadcast my involvement, but I wasn't kidding when I said that woman's life was at stake. This car has been tied to her, so if you could tell me anything about who bought it, it'd mean a lot to the victim and the bureau."
Making sure that Fred could see the picture without taking it, Jayden didn't relax until the owner started to walk towards a back room. "It would, eh? I think I've got an idea of what you're looking for back in my office."
Times like this made him miss his service pistol, but he didn't come here to get his answers on the other end of a gun. Price was self-serving and difficult, but didn't strike him as violent. Up until the point that he lost the upper hand the other man's body language told him that he wanted to dig a hole and hide. However, a coward would be willing to do almost anything to avoid harm, physical or otherwise, so he kept his guard up as he followed him towards his office.
It didn't take long for Fred to pull up the documentation on the purchase, and Jayden kept his back to the wall as he read over Fred's shoulder. Cars like the one he'd sold were rare for this area, actually. And the only one on his records that had been sold within the last five years went to Steven Blondt.
"What about the plates?"
"Plates?" Fred shrugged. "We don't do custom plates here, so whatever he decided to do after buying the car's on him. Hey, if this helps you catch your guy, do you think-"
Jayden held up his hand and began to walk towards the door. "I think we can give recognition where it's due, Mr. Price. No doubt about it."
Blake ducked under the crime scene tape and knocked loudly on the door frame leading into Madison Paige's apartment. The whole place was still a mess, but with Perry riding his ass and Blondt dropping a bomb on them, he had no choice but to prioritize certain leads. If Paige really was missing, however, then the asshole leading them through this circus was only looking to scatter them more, and having that fact made public would give Perry nothing short of a coronary.
No, he was going to find that whack-job, and not even a cell would keep him from exacting the type of justice he liked best.
"You find anything?"
The two cops standing by her desk, Lopez and Brewster, turned towards him and guided him over. "Yeah, sorry we couldn't say more over the phone."
"Well? Are you two waiting for a fanfare or something?" Blake said while Larry fought to get around the tape. "Did Paige come back?"
"Nah, we haven't seen her at all. We checked for cameras like you asked, and there wasn't a single one in the place. No computers either, so we can at least match that with what happened at Jameson's."
"That's not why we called you, though." Lopez tapped the answering machine left on Madison's desk. "We cleared this thing out yesterday. It had the usual messages from friends, mom, etc. Nothing strange. When we came back tonight it had something different."
She pressed the playback button and the first message started up. "Mad? Hey, this is Emmy. Is everything okay? You sure were acting strange earlier when you dropped off the film, and you haven't answered your cell. I've got a couple of questions about the film I'd like to run by you so give me a call when you're feeling up to it, okay? Bye."
Earlier? Could've been today or yesterday, but that might mean that Paige is still roaming around. "The film could be something, but I'm not hearing anything worth listening to yet."
"Yeah, that was kinda the appetizer before the main course," Brewster cracked, sitting on the edge of the desk. "It's the next one you need to hear."
The machine continued to play the messages, reciting the time and date. It was left today, but the time put it at a little over an hour ago. A beep went off followed by a crackling silence. The four of them circled the machine, waiting. The quiet went on for nearly a minute, making Blake tense enough to pop a few of his knuckles.
There was a sharp intake of breath and a slow exhale. After a moment, they inhaled again and spoke as if reciting from a script. "I know you're there. You should be. This is what you earn when you bend things that should be better left alone." The woman on the other end coughed, then whimpered. "P-play by my rules and I'll respect yours."
Larry gave him a bewildered look. Even Blake had to stop and think about this for a minute. "I think that bastard's named his next target if he hasn't picked her up already. Get that written up and keep your car outside. We need to make sure she doesn't sneak back when we aren't looking."
"What about her newspaper?" Larry asked, keeping up with him as they both started towards the door. "Calling them could give us an edge on finding her."
"Get that number from Charlene and set that up. We need her found."
Twenty minutes. It had been a long time since he'd had a time span like that stretch on and on. He tapped his watch as he waited by the entrance to his hotel and tried not to think of the cold. Madison had agreed to meet him here once he'd gotten a hold of her, but as time ticked on, and the seconds hand continued its path, he found himself listening for her motorcycle.
It was nothing. At least it should be nothing, but with uncertainty came anxiety, and he was no stranger to that feeling lately. Even standing outdoors like this was starting to pick at him. He'd spotted at least three cameras so far, and any of them could've been a match.
Pinching the bridge of his nose, he forced himself to stop thinking for a few seconds. This was what they wanted, fear and confusion. With nothing solid to run off of he had no choice but to throw everything at the wall in the hopes that something would stick. But was Blondt the person they were looking for? Jayden had information on him, but even his basic profile didn't fit the person behind those photographs.
A voyeur was detached, better suited for study than direct participation. Blondt thrived on attention. He almost demanded that the public keep their eye on him, and the article he read in the newspaper earlier today only served to reinforce that fact. If this was an attempt to shift the blame to him then he had to hand it to the person trying to pull the wool over their eyes. With Alyssa still missing, the authorities were desperate to pin the blame on the person with the reddest hands, and while Blondt's hands weren't dirty they weren't exactly looking clean.
However, it wasn't that simple. It never was, and he hoped he could make Madison see that too if she wasn't suspecting foul play already.
Another flash went off down the street and he turned away just so he could put it out of his mind. The cold didn't seem to be repelling anyone except for him, and the blinking lights only seemed to draw out more people.
Tis the season, he groused, but he perked up when the revving of an engine started to come his way. He held up his hand as Madison's bike came into view and she pulled up onto the sidewalk before coming to a stop.
"Hey!" she said once her helmet was off. "Traffic was murder-"
"We need to talk."
Her easy smile faltered then disappeared. "Okay. I was going to ask how things went at the dealership, but now I'm not so sure."
Jayden pointed towards the doors. "My eyes are scarred for life, but that's not important. Can we talk inside?"
He waited for her to set the kickstand before going in, and ushered her over to a spot that wasn't dead in the center of the lobby. She tugged on his arm once they rounded a corner, and he let her turn him around.
"Norman, wait. I think we're about as hidden as we can get short of going into the staff areas or your hotel room. What is it?"
"Did you get to talk to Steven Blondt?"
"Blondt?" She let go of his arm. "No, I didn't get a chance to yet. Something came up."
Something, or someone? "What happened?"
"I think someone was following me." she admitted, putting her hands on her hips. "I caught them early enough to get out of their way, and...tried to use that to my advantage. I followed them to this place."
She fished her camera out of her bag and handed it to him. "Ph- Oh, what the hell. Did you get their plates?"
"Not exactly. I can remember the first three numbers, but the last four are a jumble."
"Are you doing this on purpose?"
She stepped forward and he expected her to slap the shit out of him. With that coming he rushed to explain himself. "You know you're being followed. You know you need to be careful, but you still manage to tail this guy to check out a potential lead. It's almost like dangling meat in front of a predator. You're good, but you're not invincible. You know better than to test them."
"I've had more than my share of reminders over the last few years, trust me," she sighed. "But I'm not going to find Alyssa by playing it safe. I don't know if the police are any closer to finding her than we are, and hiding myself in a safe room won't help me sleep at night. Finding her will."
"I get it. I'd throw the same argument at any asshole that would try to discourage me too, but something's not right here."
He handed her back the camera and reached into his inner coat pocket for the small notepad he'd borrowed off of Madison. His fingers itched for something else, however. If he'd had ARI they would've already pulled up a set of possible license plates with cars to match, compiled a list of owners connected to said plates, and picked apart the photo center she found down to the smallest fleck of paint.
That familiar need burned hot then cold, causing him to ball his hand into a fist. Now was not the time. He needed to do without it. He had to do without it. Just for a little while longer. Steeling himself to resist the urge to run upstairs, he pulled out the notepad and handed it right to her.
"Now I see why you asked." Frowning, she closed it and handed him back the camera. "There's a few more there that I think you should see."
Jayden opened his mouth to ask about Blondt, but stopped when he saw what she was talking about. He was standing outside of a coffee shop, one that he'd gone to for the last couple of days. Flashes came to mind, along with the image of a dark figure standing against the snow. The photo of a photo told him exactly what he didn't want to hear. The shadow man was real, and a lot more harmful than a digital construct.
"...Are there more?"
She gave him a small nod. "Yeah."
Pulling up the next one, he saw Alyssa, bound and left to the mercy of the camera. Her eyes were kept covered, and he could see tension and terror in every inch of her body. The last was of Madison herself, standing outside of her apartment building.
When he found his voice again, he was surprised at how quiet he was. "You said that you wanted to question Blondt?"
"Yeah. I've been wanting to for a while now, but I keep on getting sidetracked."
"I think I know why. Blondt's the answer, but to what? Whoever's been giving you those photos wants us to believe that everything leads back to him, but why? Is he NUL, or is he something else entirely?"
Madison chuckled and covered her eyes with her hands. "You think I'm going in circles."
"We are going in circles. Hate to say it, but every new detail keeps on looping back to him, and I don't think I buy it yet."
"It doesn't matter if you buy it or not if it's right!"
"It does if it's not true. We need evidence. Hard evidence, none of this speculative crap we keep on kicking around. So far all we've got is a car attached to his name, and phone calls to Alyssa. They used to work together, so any calls could be entirely coincidental, and the photos themselves were given to you with nothing but vague messages scribbled all over them. They don't tell us-" A shrill ringing came from his pocket and he swore as he dug it out. "What?"
"Shit. Bad time? Bad time." Matt replied, speaking quickly. "I'll cut to the chase, because you'll want to hear this. The car belongs to Steven Blondt, but the plate isn't what was assigned to him. It's supposed to be QIC-0694. He isn't currently registered to any particular vanity plate and the one you mentioned isn't in the system. Since the car's registration hasn't been renewed for almost a year now, I'd say it was stolen and the new plate put on. Or something weirder's going on, and you'll have to draw your own conclusions from that."
"Fan-fucking-tastic. Though that does clear up a few things I've been wondering about. He didn't file a report?"
"No, he didn't, hence the 'weirder' comment. That's a gray area that I'll leave you to have fun with. Anyway, I'm trying to be as ignorant as possible, but don't push it. Time off is supposed to be time off, Jayden."
Matt hung up and Madison looked at Jayden expectantly. "Well?"
"Blondt didn't get those plates. He also hasn't bothered to renew the registration even though it's almost a year past its expiration date. My gut wants to say that it was stolen, but there hasn't been a formal police report filed."
"I'd agree, but one of the pawn shops I went to saw that car within the last week, and Blondt could've been driving it."
"They didn't say it was Blondt?"
"No. They said that it was someone who looked rich and important, but didn't name names. We won't know for sure unless we talk to them again." She bit her lip as she mulled over something, and dug her boot into the carpet. "You really do think I'm being played, don't you?"
Honestly? He wasn't one-hundred percent sure yet, but the idea had taken root and he couldn't shake it. "I think someone is trying to."
Her gloved hand covered her mouth for a couple of seconds, then fell away as she shook the doubt off, standing up straighter than ever. "Well, they're going to have to do a better job than that. Steven's still on the list, but I have part of a plate to work with and a bunch of photos developing at the Tribune. I also have you, but so much for saving you as my secret weapon."
"Yeah, yeah, real dangerous weapon here," he groaned, rubbing his temples. A headache was starting to press at him and he really regretted skipping the painkillers. "Just think about what I've said, okay? You know what you're doing, but it's good to have another set of eyes sometimes."
She smiled. "Right. Hey, I've got an idea. Do you think your friend could check out the plates to see if there could be a match? The partial, that is. I'll send it along to Sam too to see if he can make any sense of it."
The ball was rolling now and he didn't have the heart to stop it, not with that determined look in her eye. "Sure, why not?"
She scribbled it down on his notepad and traded it back for her camera. "I included the address to Photo Pha-natic in there too as a bonus. Second opinions and all that, you know. If you find anything weird or out of the ordinary, call me and I'll head right over ASAP."
"Call me when you check out those photographs and we've got a deal."
"Deal. Just don't forget that I'm not the only one with an unwanted tail now."
The regretful look on her face mirrored his own. "Couldn't if I tried."
"Come on, come on!" Lopez nearly threw her gloves at the radio, and Brewster leaned as far away from her as possible in the passenger seat. "You had the fucking ball! What the hell was that?"
"Jesus, Shel. It's just ten points."
Her gloves went at him instead. "They're choking, and I've seen this exact same thing play out over and over again! You would think they'd have a damn clue by now, but instead it's the same thing over and over again."
Brewster held up a hand and grabbed his coffee before she went for it too. "I have no idea what you or Larry see in them. Every time they win an angel must get their wings."
"Screw you, Brew. There's still some time left. Maybe they'll get their act together." She looked at her car's clock and then across the street at Madison Paige's apartment building. Still no sign of her. The day was hardly old, so she doubted that Paige would even try to come by right now.
Brewster drank more of his coffee then shook the cup. "Empty. Want a refill?"
"That's your third one. You think I want to sit in a car for another four or five hours while you're high on caffeine?"
"No, but you might as well grab one too. There's a place across the street, so I'll be back before your boys have the chance to get the ball back."
"Get out!" she mock-yelled as Brewster slipped out of the car with a grin. "You'd better grab me a double!"
Lopez watched his back until the game came back with a vengeance. Cranking the volume up she followed every play, not caring if anyone noticed. Blake had gotten on her back before for acting out too much during the playoff season, but she'd seen him get just as bad on a slow day. Today wasn't slow, but she wasn't going to sit here and listen to smooth jazz on a stake out. No, she would listen to the game, dammit, and tackle work when it came a-knocking.
"Score!" She threw her hands up as high as they could go in the patrol car, and yelped when a smiling Madison waved at her through her window. The reporter pointed at the glass and gestured for her to lower it.
Pressing the button, she eyed her warily. "Yeah?"
"Hi. I really hate to ask, but could you call Sergeant Blake for me? We need to have a little chat."
"Reaching destination in thirty seconds."
The electronic voice of the GPS made him twitch, and Jayden wondered again why he didn't mute it. He slowed his car down and checked out the older buildings on his right side, looking for anything distinctive. It was supposed to be close to his position, so he didn't have much further to go. Soon enough he spotted the photo center's faded sign, along with others labeling the place 'a hot-spot for photo-enthusiasts!'.
"Gotcha." He drove further up and pulled off of the road into the small amount of parking space available. The spot put his car in front of a nail parlor, so if anyone did see his car they wouldn't immediately be able to tell that he was in the center instead. Locking his car behind him, he walked briskly as he made sure that a) no one was in front of the center, and b) no one was actually in there. He didn't get to check for the second until he approached the door and knocked on it, figuring that he could excuse himself with a comment about the lopsided sign on the front in things went awry.
No one replied or opened the door, so he tried the handle to see if it was locked. It wasn't, and he frowned as he went inside.
The entire place was shrouded in darkness, making him wish he could wipe it all away with the flick of his wrist. Instead he searched around for a light switch and flicked it on. One small light above the main desk came to life, and he walked over to the space to check it out. He guessed that a register used to sit in this spot, and was removed when the place closed. Nothing was left behind except for a worn indention in the wood, so he moved on towards the back.
There were no clear signs of footprints or scuff marks on the floor, and when another switch came up he turned it on too. More lights came to life in the back and he backtracked to the front to shut off the light there. The backroom had a table covered in papers and he spent a few minutes sifting through every 'lorem' and 'ipsum' left behind. There were no scattered notes, no stamps, or fingerprints. His gloved hands made sure he didn't leave any behind in turn, but whoever they were hunting was just as careful as them if not more so.
He glanced at the other doors, trying to figure out which ones to tackle first and picked the one labeled the darkroom first. It was already open, so he let more light in so he could get a better look around. The pictures that bombarded him as he walked in made him want to march right out. "Fuck. Way too many eyes in this room."
Taking in a deep breath to calm down, he stepped inside and touched the line of photos dangling above his head. The photos that Madison had taken had been of these, and a few more down the line focused on Madison alone. Talking, riding her motorcycle, standing by her building, and going about her usual business. He turned away in disgust, wishing he could tear them off of the line while well aware that he couldn't.
Shaking it off in a bid to center himself, he left the darkroom and approached the bathroom, shoving open the door with more force than necessary. The small room didn't offer anything out of the ordinary, but as he hit the bottom of his fist against the tiled wall, he spotted wet paper towels on the side of the sink.
What were you washing away? He didn't see anything like blood, but this was clearly from today.
Backing out of the room, he turned towards the door labeled for employees only and tried to open it. Locked. Any keys to secret hideaways like this were always kept close, so he doubted he'd find anything here. But that didn't mean he couldn't try other methods. He pulled out his wallet and took out a points card for a restaurant he went to with Matt and Gillian once or twice.
Taking a moment to let the decision sink in, he exhaled and tried to jimmy the lock. On his fourth try it opened and he let out a low whistle. Fortune did favor the bold and today was one of those rare days where it seemed to be working in his favor.
The door squeaked as it revealed a steep staircase, something that made his eyebrows go up. "Two floors, eh?" The stairs creaked when he placed his foot on them, causing him to tense. He adjusted his weight and then took another step, letting his breath out as the wood stayed silent. Anything could be up there. Announcing himself early like this would just be embarrassing, so he had to make every move count.
When the door at the top finally came within reach his shaky hand slipped on the handle, missing it once before grabbing it properly. Once it was open he nudged it forward and waited. Nothing but a dark room sat before him. His hand groped for a light switch, and found one right inside the doorway.
There was a flash of light overhead and Jayden raised a hand to cover his eyes. Peering through his fingers he saw a large spotlight aimed down at a single spot in the center of the room. In that spot sat an empty chair, worn with use.
He took a few steps closer to it, squinting at pieces of what looked like cloth on the floor. That's when he saw it. Black metal flying right for his head. He ducked to the side as the crowbar smashed against the seat, and when he righted himself he faced one livid and petrified Alyssa Jameson.
He hesitated and she almost took advantage of it, swinging again only to hit air. "Whoa, wait!" he yelled, raising both of his arms. "I'm not going to hurt you, Ms. Jameson! I'm here to help!"
"Bull. I won't hear any more of it!" she rasped, the bar wavering in her hands. Her clothes were torn and dirty, as if they hadn't been washed in days. Dark stains ran along her sleeves, and he faintly wondered if that was her blood or her assailant's.
"I mean it. Madison's been scouring the entire city for you, and the last thing I'd do to you now is try to bullshit you."
The crowbar dipped at the mention of Madison's name, but when he tried to approach her the rage came back again in a wave. She was scared, he was without his badge. There was no easy way for him to try to calm her right now, short of summoning Madison herself.
Actually... "I'm going to reach for my phone so I can call Madison. Is that okay?"
She shook her head, her eyes darting between him and the surrounding room. Her back was to the stairs now, and he held his hands up again in an attempt to calm her. "Okay. No phones. Just relax. Relax."
Her hands loosened their grip on the crowbar a bit, and he wanted to sigh in relief. However, she raised it again immediately as she stared almost through him. "Don't follow me."
The bar clanged off of the floor as she shot down the stairs and he scrambled to keep up with her without breaking his neck on the incline. She was out the front before he could blink, and as he yelled for her he heard nothing but the loud honk of a car and screeching brakes.
Yellow tape was still stretched across the entrance to her apartment, warning her not to cross it even though that was exactly her intent. Madison rocked back and forth on her feet as Blake talked to the cop he had stationed outside, and each second that ticked by only made her question her decision more.
Jayden was going to call. He sure as hell was going to ask questions, but that didn't matter right now. She had to hope that whatever he found over at the center wasn't important enough to interrupt this.
When Blake had pulled up to her building she had expected him to shove her into the back of his squad car. The peeved expression on his face told her her guess wasn't too far off, but all he did was approach her and cross his arms. "Give me one good reason why I shouldn't just cart you off to the station."
"Sure. Whatever you want to ask I'll do my best to answer. I've got information I think you've been looking for for a while now, and I'll see what I can do. However, I want just one favor."
"Favor?" That was the trick. She could see him grinding his teeth as he tried to stay 'cordial'. "I don't do favors. If you're going to ask for something, spit it out already."
"Fine." She pointed at her apartment. "I want access to my home. Whoever broke in did it for a reason and I want to see why. My guess is that you couldn't tell if something was missing or not. With me there I could give you a list. Just let me look around. That's it."
It wasn't a difficult concept to grasp, but there was still one huge problem with it. A journalist would be poking around a crime scene. His crime scene. If this was going to work he had to get comfortable with that idea, and stay comfortable.
Blake had looked between her and the building, refusing to let his eyes off of her for too long, and turned to spit on the pavement. "Fucking hell. I want to personally shoot whoever came up with the phrase 'public servant', because the police force does not exist to work at the beck and call of any idiot with information. Especially if the person on the other line happens to be a reporter. But," he took in a breath and let it out, "in spite of my gut telling me you'll lynch me again at the nearest opportunity, it's trying to tell me that you might have something important to say. Something worth my fucking time even. Do you?"
She nodded, keeping both of her hands behind her back; one of them was crossing its fingers so hard it hurt. "Yes."
"Then we'd better get this over with, because nothing would make me happier than answers to my goddamn questions."
One cop had stayed outside, while the other she had talked to, Lopez, had followed them inside to talk to Blake. As their conversation finished up, Lopez took a position a few feet down the hallway and kept an eye on both Madison's apartment and the elevator. Blake on the other hand, walked right over to Madison and jerked the tape at the entrance up. He didn't say anything, just gestured towards it with his head.
Swallowing the lump in her throat, she put a hand on the frame and stepped inside.
Before she had moved quickly around the items that had been moved, thrown aside, or pushed onto the ground. She didn't want to think about the break in or focus on what it meant to her. There hadn't been any time for that. Now, as she stepped around the mess that used to be the bookshelves in her living room, she had no choice but to acknowledge it for what it was. An invasion. It was an empty feeling, one that sank deep into her bones and should have made her furious and disgusted. Right now, however, she was too worn to fight it, too shocked.
She jumped off of the upper level and walked into her bedroom, avoiding shredded papers and scattered clothes. Whoever had been here had gone through everything. Her jewelry was littered on the floor around her dresser, and older notebooks she had left under her bed were strewn across the comforter. She shuddered and made a silent vow to wash everything two or three times before wearing it. Underwear would either follow the same rule or just be burned on the spot.
Blake entered her room as she laid a hand on the board hanging above her bed, checking for all of the photos that mattered the most. Her dad, and brothers were still hanging in the same spot, and another photo of her mother remained as well. Ethan, Shaun, and Grace were still over on the right, but she felt a spike of panic when she couldn't find the one of Jayden she had taken in DC.
"Shit." she muttered, stepping back. Others were missing too, making her stomach turn. A picture of Shaun and Ethan was absent. A few others of her family were too. In fact, all of the photos which had her present in the shot were gone. All of them.
"So?" She jumped when Blake addressed her, spinning in her spot to face him. "Any of this mean anything to you?"
"Yeah, actually." Her arms curled around herself as she walked away from the photos, trying to ignore the gross violation of her privacy. "I can tell you right now that they've taken photos of my family and myself, so if I pissed this guy off, I pissed him off bad."
She went down the small corridor peppered with papers and stopped by her computer desk, recalling how her laptop had been placed outside of her apartment like a gift. "My laptop was with me so they didn't steal that, but..." She pulled open the drawers on the side only to confirm what she suspected. Most of her work and printed notes were on the floor, or possibly on the dining room table. "They did go through almost everything that I've stored here. Papers, notes, articles. Basically everything that I didn't keep at work. I think there might even be a CD or two missing, but I can't remember what would be on it right now."
"Can't or won't?"
It was an honest question. Blake watched her closely from the passage to her bedroom and she frowned as she backed away from the mess in front of her. "I can't. I just...it's still a lot to process."
"Maybe I can jump-start it then." he said, following her into the dining room. "Have you spoken to your family recently?"
"No. If I knew about this sooner I would've, but they live in Ohio. I don't know if this creep's aware of it, but I don't want to take any chances."
Blake nodded, all right with the answer, but still not done yet. "Any others?"
Ethan and Shaun came to mind, and it hurt to even include them after everything that had happened before. "Yes. There was a picture of Ethan and Shaun Mars there, and that's gone too."
"Fucking hell." Blake scowled and kept on going. "Have you seen them within the last couple of days?"
"It's been a few days, so I need to follow up with them too." She was half tempted to start dialing up everyone right now, but didn't want Blake to slap the phone out of her hands. "I can't give a better answer than that."
"Did you have cameras hooked up in your apartment, or does this building have its own security system?" Blake asked.
She chewed on her lip as she tried to recall the spiel they told her when she had first moved in. "The place itself doesn't, but the hallways should have a few cameras set up. You've got to go to the owners for that."
"Ronald and Margie Wilson. Sorry, I don't exactly have a card on hand."
"Cute. Guess I'll have to go directly to them with you as a reference. Now are you going to keep on trying to sass me, or are you going to actually do something useful?"
Useful? I called you, asshole. Bite me.
Searching the rest of her place didn't take long, and didn't turn up much else. No valuables were missing, only mementos, and that struck too close to home for comfort. Any pills or medicine she kept on hand were also intact, but when she checked her sleeping pills three were missing. She remembered taking one or two recently, but had no real clue where the other could be. Waiting until Blake's back was turned, she slipped them into her pocket for safe keeping, and resumed her search.
It eventually led her back to her computer desk. Her answering machine wasn't blinking, and when Blake noticed her checking it, he walked right up and pressed the playback button.
"Ah, this damn thing." He turned to her. "I'd listen carefully if I were you."
The answering machine beeped and she sighed when a message from Emmy came on. Of course she'd be worried after she dropped the film and ran. She would give her a call later once she was done at the department-
Alyssa's choked words made everything come to a stop. Blake saw it all. The way her eyes opened wide in shock, and the way her hands shook as she covered her mouth. It was impossible to hide. Madison didn't move an inch while the message played.
Play by my rules and I'll play by yours.
She squeezed her eyes shut, and when she opened them again, Blake was standing right in front of her.
"What was that?"
"...A message." she replied, her tone flat.
"I got that. From who?"
"I don't know. I..."
A phone started ringing and she jumped, startled by the unfamiliar ringtone. Blake on the other hand was pissed, and made sure the person on the other end knew it. "This had better be fucking important!"
Seconds later, the anger was gone. What replaced it was shock. "What?"
How does the saying go? Lightning never strikes twice? That whatever awful luck a person has isn't so bad that the same event won't be repeated?
Well, it's bullshit. All of it is bullshit.
Jayden's held his head in his hands as he sat in the hospital waiting room, flashes of red coming and going behind his eyelids. The Christmas lights, the flashing of the ambulance, the bits of it dotting Alyssa. As he replayed the events that led them both there, he was always too late, always a step behind.
The car skidded and whatever force was behind it was still enough to knock Alyssa right off of her feet.
Clary had dominated his mind then. His hands were covered in her blood as he watched her choke to death in front of him, and as he fell to his knees beside Alyssa he was ready to see the same thing repeat itself over and over again.
Red. It dotted her face, but wasn't spilling out. He yelled for an ambulance as he tried to make sure she was breathing.
He had already washed his hands three times since entering the hospital, but it didn't matter. He could still see it, almost smell it if he concentrated long enough, and it lingered. It always lingered.
Jayden pushed his hands through his hair and sat back up, clasping his hands in front of him. He stayed like that, still as a statue, his mind completely blank for as long as he was able. It was supposed to be easier that way, but like any problem it wasn't meant to be ignored. Not when every blink brought it back piece by piece, emphasizing the shot, the crash, or the aftermath.
Loud voices began to spill into the empty waiting room, and he glanced up only to be wrenched out of his seat and slammed against the nearest wall. His brain kickstarted back into motion, focusing every bit of attention on Carter Blake.
"You fucking son-of-a-bitch!" he snarled, his hands inches from Jayden's neck. "You killed her! You waltz in here with no jurisdiction whatsoever and the first thing you do is get her killed? I should send you back in a fucking body bag, you goddamn waste of space!"
The pressure around his neck increased as he stayed silent, but still managed to return the ire, not caring about any of the shouting happening around them. Hands curled around Blake's arms, and it took more than one person to wrench him away, putting a good amount of space between the two. That's all it did, however, as Jayden continued to stare him down, nearly snarling himself.
"Jayden!" A hand reached for his chin and forced it to the side, bringing to his attention the woman standing in front of him. Worry came off of her in waves, and she was directing it all at him. Madison. She kept a hand on the side of his face as she looked him over and he'd never seen her so pale. Her eyes met his and he blinked back at her in confusion as he tried to connect the dots, but then it hit him. They were here. All of them.
He removed Madison's hand and backed away as the hospital staff finally stepped in, but it was too late. There had been a very clear line drawn between the two, one that he didn't want made clear in front of anyone in the local police force, let alone Blake.
He let himself be pulled aside by Ash as Blake and another officer followed the doctor, and Madison drifted after them, her eyes going between the doctors and them. He kept his on anything but her. It wasn't hard to tell that she wanted to reach for him again, but she stayed put. Instead she tried to grill Ash for answers, but he knew as much as they did. Brushing off every question thrown at him, he waited until she was done to give a non-committal answer and she stopped bothering him after that. They all had no choice but to wait until Blake got back, for all the good that would do.
However, Blake didn't show up again. The other officer came over, eying the two of them closely. "I'm Lieutenant Larry Cartwright, and I'd like to apologize for the Sergeant's behavior. I do want to know exactly why you'd be here and involved with this investigation, Agent Jayden."
He pursed his lips together and shook his head. "It's complicated."
"Lieutenant?" Madison stepped forward. "I can explain. I was about to talk to Sergeant Blake when-"
"Hey, hold it. Just hold it." Cartwright interrupted, holding his hands up. "Whatever we're about to do, we're not doing here. Both of you have some serious questions to answer, and you're heading down to the station right now whether you like it or not, capiche?"
"Fine, I already agreed to do that, but how's Alyssa? Is she okay?"
"About as okay as someone who got hit by a car can be, I guess. Er, that didn't come out right. The doctor says she'll be fine, but the rest is between her and them." He motioned to Ash. "If you could take these two down we'll be there once this is wrapped up."
Ash pointed them towards the doors, not even bothering to acknowledge Cartwright, and Jayden dragged himself down the brightly lit hall with Madison by his side.
"I'm glad you're okay," she said, her arms wrapped around her. "When Blake mentioned what happened, I thought that maybe... God, I should've gone with you. I should've been there for everything."
"Yeah, actually you should've. You scrub the place for clues top to bottom, and then leave a large problem like that unsolved? Did you even test it?" She gave him a confused look and he ignored it. "I'm no genius with locks, but I'm still trying to figure out why walking out of that place without opening that door would be a good idea."
"Test it? Of course I tested it..." Her face went blank and that was the only warning he had before she slapped him. Almost full-force, if he had to guess through the sharp flare of pain.
Ash pulled her back just in case she wanted to add another layer of pain on top of that, but she didn't fight him. She just wiped a hand over her face and walked as fast as possible towards the doors.
"State your name."
Jayden signed and kept his hands folded in front of him on the desk. "Norman Jayden."
"Special Agent with the FBI. I'm a criminal profiler."
Cartwright made a note and continued down the list. "Relationship to the Ms. Alyssa Jameson?"
"None. How is she?"
"Injured, but sleeping comfortably. Doctors say she might be ready to answer questions in a few days, but that's our business, not yours. Relationship to Ms. Madison Paige?"
He had been tapping his fingers, but stopped. "Close acquaintance. I kept in contact with her after we met during the Origami Killer case as a way to see how Shaun Mars was doing." he answered carefully, trying to ignore the way the side of his face still burned.
Cartwright raised an eyebrow, but wrote it down. "We were going to make a call to Washington to check with your superiors, but I figured I'd at least give you a chance to explain yourself first. Why are you here, Agent Jayden?"
"I was on medical leave. I haven't been here in a while, so I figured a change in scenery would be nice."
"Nice. Okay, I guess I can understand that. And?"
"...And Madison Paige was looking into the case. I offered to look into the photo center to save her some time and found Ms. Jameson while I was there."
"You offered?" Cartwright chuckled and Jayden didn't even try to look amused. "In normal circumstances I'd say that's great, but part-time heroes get people killed on criminal investigations."
"I'm aware of that." Jayden replied, his mouth a thin line.
"I'm sure you are. And I'm sure you're also aware that it wouldn't take much to charge you with criminal trespass or hell, obstruction of justice. You've cost us an important lead here, and though I think you've earned a C in effort for saving Alyssa, I think things could've gone a lot better."
The small, smug smile on his face made Jayden want to punch him. Repeatedly. "Of course."
"So...I think you need to watch your step, both you and your reporter friend. You've cracked serial killers, so this should all be old hat to you, but whoever was keeping Alyssa there is someone not to be messed with. A lot of planning was involved here, and he probably would've kept her indefinitely if you hadn't stumbled onto her location." He moved his notepad to the side and pulled out a small folder. "And judging from these photos, this psycho's been active for a long time."
He spread a few of the photos over the table, and Jayden tried to take in as much as possible. Old photos and new were scattered in front of him, some large, some small; a few were even taken with a Polaroid camera. Not a single photo was of a murder, but every photo had a subject that could've been involved in one. "Are these all victims?"
"We're still going over them, but I figured I'd poke your brain while you were here. All off the record of course. Any of these people look familiar to you?"
Men and women of all walks of life stared back at him, and he didn't recognize anyone. "Sorry, no dice."
Cartwright sighed. "Figures. Not even this one?" He held up a photo of a brunette woman searching through the grocery section. "She was pretty famous for a while. Ever see Captive Audience?"
Captive Audience? Captive... Wait a minute. "That was a show a while back, wasn't it?"
"Yeah, though I'd call it more of a soap opera. She was the lead and the main hook was that the cases done on the show were based on the actress's previous police work. Neat idea, not the greatest execution, but it wasn't all that bad. What's weird about finding this here is that the actress went missing shortly after the show was cancelled." He tossed the photo down and shrugged. "No one was able to figure out what went down, but I think we have a much better idea where she could've ended up now."
Jayden leaned forward to get a better look at the photo. He had to agree with Cartwright, but the new picture wasn't one he wanted to see at all.
"Are we going to go through the usual questions? Name, occupation, etc?"
Blake paced around the small room - smaller than the other interrogation room if it was possible – and Madison didn't want to take her eyes off of him. Her nerves were frayed, his temper was one second away from exploding, and neither of them wanted to be there, but she had information to give, and she wanted to end this as quickly as possible so she could get out of this cramped box.
Blake grinned, showing his teeth. "What, you think those are a waste of time? Too bad. Everything's going on the record right now, so you might as well just get it over with."
She rolled her eyes. "Fine. I'm Madison Paige. I'm a journalist. I work for the American Tribune and I currently have an interest in this case."
"And that would be?"
"I wanted to find out who had arranged the robbery and the killing of the hostages. I also wanted to find the ass that did that to Alyssa, because he has no right to run free."
"When did you start working with her?" Blake asked as he took a spot against the wall to her right. "Or was she feeding you information before this?"
"No, I had no idea who she was, though she did know of me. You were still hunting down Johns and Alexander, so it was pretty early in the investigation. I bumped into her outside of my apartment when I was on my way home one night and she told me she wanted to talk. She never told me who she was, and always agreed to meet in quiet, isolated places. The facts that she gave me pinned everything on Johns and Alexander, but not once did she ever mention anyone else."
"No mention of NUL?"
She shook her head. "No. She seemed just as confused when I tried to confront her about it, but she said that she was going to look into it and disappeared soon after."
"So that's when you decided to get your hands dirty."
"If you want to look at it that way, yes." she conceded, knowing she wouldn't be able to convince him otherwise. "Though all I did was go to former employees for their views on what was happening."
"And the odd break in was just a fluke, right?" he asked, walking closer to lean on the table edge.
She tensed, and wished for the first time in her life that she had her crutches nearby. "I don't make a habit of it."
"Really? So you'd rather send in some pathetic bastard instead, right? They get to hang while you slither off scot-free."
"Do you want me to say it, because I'm not afraid to. It's my fault. I gave him the means to go there, and I don't want any of this to come back to him. Not one bit." Blake started laughing, and she flinched. "I'm being serious."
"And where do you come off thinking you actually have a say in this?" Blake stood up again and resumed his pacing. "Sending an off-duty desk jockey like him on an errand? Yeah, I think we can all agree that the major fuck-up was on your end. But that's only one reason why we're here."
He slammed a hand down on the table and leaned in. "You haven't told me what's going on here yet, and after that mess you owe me."
I don't owe you anything! her subconscious tried to argue, but she didn't have time for that. Instead, she aimed for the obvious link, one that would catch Blake and hold his attention. "Steven Blondt. He used to work for OKC Corporation."
"We've already got that."
"His car might be used in the crimes! There's a possibility it's either being used by him or stolen. He also maintained contact with Alyssa after both of them went to the same company. Don't you find that strange? That they would both work at one company for years and then suddenly pack everything up to leave?"
Blake thought it over for a second. "Are you saying she might be involved?"
"I don't know, but it fits together too well to ignore." She started to reach for her jacket, but hesitated, not wanting to have Blake confiscate her notes. "I also managed to tail a blue truck to the photo center, but I didn't get their plates. It was a blue Ford, but it looked like one of the older models with tinted windows."
He stood back up as someone knocked on the door, and Lieutenant Cartwright popped his head in. "May I?" Blake waved him in and he walked over with a manila file folder. "Thought she should have a look at these."
The file hit the surface of the table and Blake talked to the Lieutenant. The other officer must have been talking to Jayden while she was in here with Blake. Smart move on everyone's part, especially after what happened at the hospital. ...And even though she hated to admit it, she was glad that they hadn't shoved both of them into the room at the same time. What he said had dug deep and hurt. Hurt in a way that she was familiar with, but hoped would never come her way again. The feeling was going away, but until it did she wanted some space; even if it was in a cramped little box with Blake.
She picked up the folder and let it fall open. Photos of all kinds were inside and she felt her stomach drop. There were more photos of women than men, but no teenagers or children. A few were familiar enough to tug at her memory, but in the end she could only identify two. One was a soap opera actress and the other was a reporter that had gone missing in California three or four years ago. She remembered reading the article on his disappearance and sharing it with her coworkers at the Tribune.
"I know these two." She pointed at the actress first, then the reporter. "I think that's Diane Connors, and the other is Louis Kripke. He was a reporter in California, and she was an actress on that crime show..."
She snapped her fingers as she tried to remember, but Cartwright filled in the blanks. "Captive Audience."
"That's right! I think they both disappeared. No one ever found their bodies, so both of their cases were looked into and then forgotten."
The details seemed to pique Blake's interest. "Any reason why you'd know about either of them?"
"I used to watch the show, and as for Louis, well...we watch out for our own. We always have." She sat back in her chair, and when they turned away she knew the conversation was over. They gathered up the photos, and Blake turned towards the glass wall, drawing his thumb across his throat.
The feed was cut, but she didn't bother to look up. "She'll be okay, won't she?"
Blake turned back towards her and folded his arms. "Depends on what you mean by okay. She's alive, if that counts for something."
Madison let a tired smile make its way onto her face. "It certainly does."