It had occurred to Jayden, somewhere between having his windpipe crushed on Paco's desk and hitting the fish tank with such force that he'd be picking glass out of his back for weeks to come, that he had become quite accustomed to having the shit kicked out of him.
It had also occurred to him that it was probably not a good thing.
Somewhere in the dim haze of his peripheral vision, a fish gasped miserably, drowning in air. It glistened among the broken glass like a brightly-coloured gem. One wavering hand reached out to touch it. His shoulder complained miserably at this sudden and unwelcome burst of motion. Move, Norman. Christ, you've been hurt worse than this. Just. Fucking. Move. Arms first.
He swung both arms out so they were in front of him, his palms flat against the broken glass and fishtank paraphernalia, slimy and cold and wet. Okay, good. Legs now. He drew his legs slowly in, ending up somewhere between the prayer position and a crouch, his ass sticking up in the air. The coherent part of his mind realised that he must look pretty fucking ridiculous right about now.
Palms flat. Push up. It's not hard. Except that push-ups had never been Jayden's forte. Even less so when his ribs felt like they had been bent outwards. His tie hung limply from his neck like a useless limb. Push up.
The undignified grunt that accompanied the motion only served to strengthen Jayden's sense of his own ridiculousness.
Okay, he thought, and swallowed down the rising nausea. He was reasonably sure something was broken, but in the hazy, semi-conscious jumble of thoughts and pain and feelings, he wasn't quite sure what. That would be a job for later, when he could map the topography of his bruised and lacerated body in the relative comfort of his hotel room. Assuming he ever got back to his hotel room.
Feet, meet floor. The transfer was less painful than he had anticipated. All things considered, he felt relatively okay. Like he'd only been hit by three cars instead of ten. That was okay. He could work with that.
From his new vantage point, Jayden could see the utter chaos left in the wake of the skirmish, the smashed glass and overturned tables. It was, he thought, a distinct improvement. There had been something about the zebra print and gaudy novelty furniture and the giant ocean-in-a-box that had been deeply unsettling. Like the line between reality and weird, manchild fantasy had been irretrievably blurred. Like
being lost in Ari
a particularly vivid drug trip. Not that Jayden would know about that sort of thing. Not officially.
As he gathered his scattered possessions (lucky the ARI was waterproof; good old FBI techs thought of everything) he toyed with the idea of calling Blake. Toyed with it, and discarded it within seconds. Bad idea. Blake was too caught up in catching Ethan Mars, and asserting his oh-so-obvious guilt to everyone in earshot. There was literally no way on Earth that Blake would take time out of his gloating schedule to help Jayden out. Particularly since the case was, in Blake's eyes, closed, and what the fuck did Mr 'College-Education-And-Fancy-Sunglasses' think he was doing? No, there was no good that could come of it, and he'd had his ass kicked enough times today.
He examined himself briefly. He was not exactly inconspicuous, soaking wet, dusted with bits of fishtank and glass. A horizontal bloom of bright red had soaked through the lower half of his shirt. With a little effort, he found he could walk with only the most minimal stoop, and anyway, it was pretty dark out there in the club. With any luck, they'd all be coked up to the eyeballs and completely fail to notice him.
Then the door opened.
Fuck. Not again.
It took him a second to react. He fumbled at his holster for the gun, held it in shaking hands, loosely trained on the figure who stepped into the hallway. He looked utterly unprofessional, and unconvincing, and there was a good chance any would-be assailant would die laughing at the sight of him.
The figure did not laugh. Instead, it emitted a decidedly un-murderous yelp.
"Shit, sorry." He lowered the gun. The lady standing before him, looking for all the world like Bambi in the headlights of an oncoming truck, was about as far from his assailant as it was possible to be. Short skirt, red shirt, unbuttoned almost to the navel. She must have been cold. Relief burned in his gut like a half bottle of vodka. "I thought you were someone else."
Her eyes swept the room, wide and startled. "What happened in here? What happened to Paco? Oh god, is he dead?"
Was there a diplomatic way to say 'he's had his motherfucking brains blown out, I think 'dead' is an understatement'? Jayden wasn't sure.
"That would be a fair statement, yes." Not bad. B+. The lady had noticed his ragged state, was staring at the bloodstain and the bruises with curiosity. Jayden curled a protective arm around his middle and hoped she wouldn't press the matter."Look, ma'am, do yourself a favour. Go home and forget about this. Or...go back downstairs and get wasted and then forget about this. Whichever you prefer."
"You're hurt," she said pointedly.
"It looks worse than it is." Her raised eyebrow confirmed it was every bit as lame as it sounded. Christ, he must have looked like hell. "Believe me. Nothing a few Excedrin and a good night's sleep won't fix. I don't mean to intrude, ma'am, but what exactly are you doing here?"
She smiled. It was a guilty smile, shot through with trepidation, and although she looked vulnerable as hell, all exposed flesh and slender limbs, he was suddenly very glad of his gun.
"I'm here for the same reason you are," she said, settling herself on the edge of Paco's desk. "My name is Madison Paige. I came here for information. Judging by the state of you, I think you may have found what I was looking for."
You were looking for a katana-wielding maniac the size of a tank? Holy shit, lady. The puzzle pieces were beginning to fit now; anomalous DNA profiles, bright spots in a room filled with the predictable and obvious. The discarded lamp. The duct tape. Jayden slid the gun back into its holster.
"You," he said, regarding her blankly, "are a journalist."
If she was surprised, she didn't show it. "Yes," she agreed, resting her hands on her knees. "I am. And you look like you really need to sit down. So please, before my mother hen complex gets any worse." Madison gestured towards the sofa. "Sit."
It was all the invitation he needed. He practically collapsed backwards, swallowed up by a sofa that seemed, to his aching body, to have the consistency of marshmallows. His bruised limbs seemed to sigh in relief. "Hell of a place to come looking for a story," he said, and wondered how harshly she'd judge him if he fell asleep right here, ensconced in cushions that smelled – not unpleasantly - of cigarette smoke and expensive perfume. "You could've ended up hurt."
"But I didn't." Well, shit, Norman. Can't argue with that logic. "Which is more than I can say for you. And anyway, I didn't come here looking for a story. I certainly didn't come here looking for a half-dead FBI agent. What can I call you?"
A low, insistent throb had settled in the space behind his eyes. The woman was slipping in and out of focus, a mirage cast in the fishtank's azure glow. "Jayden. I mean Agent Jayden. I mean Norman. Do I look that bad?"
"You look awful. Sorry, that sounded rude."
He raised a dismissive hand, dropped it back when he realised it was trembling. "It's okay. I probably do."
"Do you mind if I ask what happened?"
He was dimly aware that the sofa was now patterned with his own bloody handprints, a delicate constellation of dark red. "No offence, Ms Paige, but you'll understand if I'm reluctant to share with a journalist. It's an unwritten rule of my profession."
"We're lower than cockroaches. I get it." She smiled at that. It seemed genuine. "I promise you, Agent Jayden, nothing you say to me will end up in print. You can have me killed if it does. Deal?"
How much harm can it do? She's got you figured out already. "I'm holding you to that, Ms Paige. All right. You say you already know why I'm here, so that saves a little time. I found Paco dead in that chair. Gunshot wound to the head. I'd been in here maybe ten seconds when I met the guy who killed him. And when I say 'met', I mean he tried to skewer me with a katana."
Madison flinched visibly. "Is that how..." she gestured across her own abdomen, a half-hearted slicing motion. "Oh god. You can't possibly be okay."
"Just a flesh wound. It's fine."
"I hate to tell you this, Agent, but 'flesh wounds' don't bleed like you're bleeding. You need a doctor."
"What I need," Jayden said, pulling himself back into a seated position (bad idea; the pain in his ribs flared in intensity, sending slivers of pain dancing up his spinal column and into the base of his skull) "is for people to stop telling me what I need. Your turn, Ms Paige. What did you want from Paco?"
His vision was beginning to swim at the edges. He wasn't sure if it was the blood loss, or the fatigue, or something else. Shit. He'd been hoping to stave off the withdrawal pains, ride them out until he was safely behind closed doors. He folded his hands in his lap, fidgeting uneasily, trying to ignore the tremors.
"...found a business card for this place," Madison was saying. She seemed to be looking past him, her gaze distant. "It had his name on it. So I came looking for him. I wanted to know who was using the Marble Street apartment, and why."
"Did you get anything?"
The ghost of a smirk flitted across her lips for a moment. "What's it worth to you, Agent Jayden? If I tell you what I know, I get to ask you a question in return. Fair deal?"
Oh no. No, we're not doing this. Any lingering traces of vulnerability had long fled. Those dark Bambi eyes seemed predatory now. Threatening, in a way they had no right to be. He knotted his fingers, scratched absently at his palms. She's probably got a gun in her purse, and you can barely walk, let alone run. Good work, Norman, you're at the mercy of a crazy lady – wait, no, a crazy journalist.
Wait. Wait a minute.
She didn't specify that the answer had to be truthful.
"Okay," he said, after a time. "Okay, I'll play."