Chapter 9: Courage
Author's note: Is it possible? A chapter update? I know this has taken me a ridiculously long time. But I am officially writing for Euphoria again, after having undertaken some other pieces of fanfic in the interim. During that time I've also gone back and made some slight alterations the previous chapters of this fanfiction. This is return of a leaner, meaner Euphoria. I have lots more chapters planned and this time I'm going to try and post with somewhat more efficiency. I'm so so sorry for such a long wait, but if you're still out there and still reading, I love you! :) Your reviews are continually appreciated and have always given me great courage to continue writing. So thank you, please forgive me, and this chapter is for you.
Previously! Norman and his new partner, the transferred agent Melissa Donahue, attempt to crack the case on a drug smuggling cartel. They find some heroin stashed at the docks and visit an implicated criminal, who flees. All their leads run out. Later that evening they kiss and afterwards it is Melissa who flees. Both of them are growing foolish and frustrated. And Norman has been receiving strange letters about the dangers of ARI from a mysterious character called Raine, which he has tried dangerously to ignore...
Hushed. A hush within Jayden, and a hush within the world. As he stared at the clock on the wall, saw the minute hand scraping past the digits in inconsiderate haste, he wondered how he had never before allowed the endless rush of time to properly sink in. How much have I wasted already? Emanating somewhere from deep within his consciousness was a dull and maddening sluggishness, so contradictory to the speeding hand that it was almost a mockery. Norman noted the dawdling train of his thoughts, the cogs of his brain which were rusted and becoming jammed with the slightest deliberation.
Everything was backwards. Why was everything backwards?
He was in his office, but there was no Agent Donahue tapping rhythmically at her keyboard. For once there was no rain blemishing the sky. No leads in the case, no way forward, no rain, no Melissa.
Norman had slunk into work late. He prayed that nobody had noticed, that nobody would make a fuss. Of course, at least one person must have taken note of his unpunctuality. He frowned, eyes scanning the empty room: where was Agent Donahue? He remembered there was a good reason for him to be avoiding her, but at that moment it had slipped his mind. Feeling the dull ache of panic which he could not voice, Jayden rose to his feet with the intention of kick-starting his listless brain into action via a walk around Headquarters. And perhaps find Donahue in the process.
The corridor outside was deserted. Norman followed his instinct, and his instinct was telling him to find coffee. His mind was oddly quiet now, as he patrolled the ghostly corridors which were always, at least to him, chillingly reminiscent of hospitals or asylums, even when busy with pacing bodies or whispers or rushed, covert undertakings. Only the damaged, only the insane walk these halls. He turned a corner into one of the larger meeting areas closest to the cafeteria and sighted a coffee machine. About half a dozen people were scattered about, leaning against walls or conversing in small groups, employees snatching sparse moments of respite from a frantic vocation.
People never change, thought Jayden. Even employed in one of the most demanding and respected professions in the world, they took precious minutes from their schedule to converse around the water cooler. Human nature was unavoidable.
Norman heard her before he saw her. She was talking to another woman, her distinct honeycomb voice rising and falling with the natural rhythm of discussion, somehow at the exact frequency for him to tune in whilst drowning out all the other muted exchanges. She and her partner were on the opposite side of the widened corridor, and had not noticed him. He turned his face away from their general direction as he headed for the coffee machine.
"It's different," said Melissa. "Very different. It's busier, and it feels more important, like the eyes of the world are really watching here."
"It's definitely something to get used to." The other woman was nodding with the conviction of years of experience. Norman recognised her as another Special Agent.
"I'm not sure I will. I don't expect to be here long. Just a temporary transfer, that's what they told me."
The conversation drew to a close. The agents peeled apart, taking their polite leave, heading their separate ways. Norman kept his eyes on the plastic cup in his palms as the coffee was dispensed in an unappealing brown trickle. Once it was full, he placed a hand in his pocket and walked back towards the office at a leisurely pace. There it was again, the numbing lack of mental activity, a white snowstorm in his brain. He passed by a window and saw the listless mass of grey sky without taking it in. Though Jayden could not say it then, if he had had the capacity he would have realised that this state of mind was caused by his own self-imposed silence and his dogged refusal to accept all that had happened to him in the past few days. It was as if his mind was caving in on itself, keeping up the charade by systematically shutting areas of itself down.
Norman entered the office. He saw her then, and was able to take all of her in, standing directly ahead, with her back turned and her long neck visible, as she heard the door close, as she spun around to face him. Surprise was registered briefly in her eyes - then quelled. It was only a knee-jerk reaction to being snuck up behind like so. She had been waiting for him of course, knowing his arrival was assured in time, wondering what could have caused such a delay.
"You're here," she said, pointlessly.
"Sorry I'm late," he said, just as pointlessly.
There was a twitch in her jaw, and then she nodded. Something had passed between them in an infinitesimal instant, a pact of the mind, which was stronger than any spoken contract by its undeclared nature, and simply sensible, simply logical in mutual benefit. They wouldn't mention what had happened in the apartment three nights ago. Even if he could still taste her on his lips; even if she remembered the precise press of his skin against hers. Neither of them wanted that unabashed sensation dredged up from the deep. If it was acknowledged it would grow, and they had no idea how they could handle that. But the moment was powerful precisely because it had been done so subtly, because without speaking both had known exactly what the other was thinking, and because for both of them the wordless agreement was more binding than a legal contract.
"Now you're here, Agent Jayden, we should get back to the case file." Her voice was like glass, trying to deflect the undertones of emotion.
He knew what she meant. Right, back to the file. Because their leads had run out and the drawing board was the only place left for them.
Norman sat down at his desk as she gathered an assortment of papers. She spun her chair around to face him so they were a reserved and professional distance apart, and sat down also, her face stern, plain, whatever gold he had once imagined glittering in her eyes now extinguished, blank, gone. "Let's go over the file again, from the start. We can clear our heads and get a fresh view on things."
He sat while she talked. Sometimes she would pass him papers and he would look stiffly at them, a compulsory glance. Donahue covered everything, every possible lead or clue, every piece of information she could dredge up from the bloated FBI database, right from the very start, right from the moment Forrester had passed the case file into Norman's expectant hands. He closed his eyes and tried to focus. What had the case been about again? It had all been days ago, like a lifetime ago. Drug smugglers and heroin. A tanker from China. His mind was dulled by his own internal blockades.
A voice rose up through the haze of drowning thoughts. "Agent Jayden, are you listening?" He opened his eyes again and focused upon her, sitting across from him, her gaze piercing him like bullets, seeing through all of his lies, knowing more than it should.
"I'm sorry. I think I need some water." He made to stand up.
"No. Wait just a minute." Suddenly she was in front of him, above him, surrounding him on all sides. There was a razor-sharp edge to her voice as she looked down at what must have been a pathetic sight: this fallen agent, this grey ghost, weary-eyed and twitching, fingering his pocket, his mind floating away from him even as she looked on. "We've spent a few days together now, and I've had time to learn things about you, as you've no doubt done with me." The sky was so grey that no light came in through the window, and her eyes were not illuminated, and Norman could not tell what she was thinking. She seemed to be trying to build up to something, choosing her words with slight hesitation. "No, let me speak. I've noticed your nervousness. You're having difficulty concentrating. You're not fully committed to this case. Neither of us are fools, Norman, and I can read signs just as well as you. If you're having problems for whatever reason - if something is stopping you from being at your best - then I think you need to let somebody know and get help. You owe that much to the Bureau and to yourself. Do you hear what I'm saying, Norman? I think you need help."
The first thought breaking over the sea of his mind was a spine-chilling fear. She knows! Christ, how could she know? Had somebody told her? Could she have worked it out? Would she tell others? There was sweat pooling at his temples, but he had to remain calm and deny the impossible. Nobody must ever know. "Is that an accusation? Are you accusing me? There's absolutely nothing wrong with me," he blurted, his tongue a dead weight in his mouth.
"Norman, calm down. I've tried to be reasonable, I really have, but this is ridiculous." She was staring down into his eyes, filling his vision so there was nowhere for him look except at her. "I'm trying to help you."
Before he could stop himself he had sprung to his feet, so they stood face to face, their eyes only inches apart, icy blue battling to overcome the gold. The shouting voice was his own. "Who are you exactly, Melissa Donahue? Who are you to walk in here and say things like that to me! I don't give a fuck where you came from or what you think you know about being an agent, but here in D.C. we don't turn on each other. Goddamn!"
"Norman, would you just listen to me?"
He could hear the rising exasperation in her voice, the fracturing of forced patience. He pushed past her. He had to drive the reminder of the feel of her flesh from his mind. Jayden headed for the coat slung across the top of his desk, taking a hold of the material with gratifying ease. I need to get outta here.
Melissa made a quiet noise in the back of her throat. "So this is the famous agent they all speak of." Her tone of voice said things Norman hoped he was imagining.
Of course it's not. I'm just Norman Jayden, a drug addict, a lost cause, and it seems that's all I can ever be.
There was something small and rectangular sitting on his desk. Norman froze. It reminded him of a very similar object in his recent memory, something he had chosen to wipe away, something that shouldn't exist.
He span around. "Who put this here? Who put it there, Donahue, was it you? Is this all a game?" He was waving his arm frantically over the surface of his cluttered desk, speaking far too fast.
"Who put what where?" said Agent Donahue slowly.
He had picked up a thin white sheet and was waving it in front of her face. "This piece of paper! This note! Did you see? Did you see who put it on my desk?"
"What are you talking about? I didn't see anything -"
Norman was no longer listening. No, it wasn't here when I arrived. I would have noticed. That means somebody placed it here - this was hand-delivered - just minutes ago! They could still be in the building! Oh God, who? Who is doing this?
Jayden ran a hand heavily over his face. His eyes were as black as sin, hidden behind his fingers, and then his hand moved and the reluctant blue returned. He crumpled the note and shoved it into his jacket pocket. He touched the vial of Triptocaine for strength.
"I have something to attend to," he said, stiffly, formally.
Melissa had stopped talking. She watched him place his black glasses on the table and then leave the room in a cloud of inelegance and anxiety. Something was wrong with the man, terribly wrong, and she could not say what.
The note in Agent Jayden's pocket read as follows: Norman, meet me at HQ's underground parking as soon as you find this. Leave ARI behind. Raine.
The garage was well-lit but deserted. Norman couldn't help but recall every bad detective movie he'd ever seen as he paced down an aisle of parked cars. Bad things happened in underground garages, maybe even ones belonging to the FBI. He'd made sure his gun was in his inside jacket pocket.
He did not know what he was supposed to be looking for. Presumably Raine, if here at all, would come for him. So many things could go wrong. This seemed rushed and risky - the note conveyed as much. Why ask to meet, after so much secrecy? Why had this mysterious informant kept their distance only to reveal themselves now? Norman didn't know what to expect and he was not looking forward to finding out. If Raine could be here, in HQ, then they must be as closely tied to the FBI as he had dreaded. It was all just too dangerous, too suspicious. Jayden felt a cold sweat break out on his back and realised that he did not want to be here. He was about to turn and head straight for the elevator when a voice emerged from his left.
The agent spun on his heels, drawing his weapon. The sound had come from behind a tall concrete pillar.
"Who's there?" yelled Jayden, louder than was strictly necessary. Seconds passed. Just as Norman was about to advance, a tall figure stepped out from behind cover into the dazzling focus of the harsh garage lights.
"It's me, Norman. It's Raine. Just as promised."
Jayden kept his aim levelled at the stanger's head. He did not recognise his face. He was well-dressed, youngish, with black hair and rectangular glasses. Norman wasn't entirely sure what he had been anticipating, but he had a feeling it wasn't this.
The man opened his suit jacket, slowly enough to prove that he wasn't posing a threat, and showed the empty pockets. "I assure you I'm not armed. I don't have the clearance even if I did want a weapon. No tricks."
Norman Jayden lowered his gun warily. The stranger buttoned his jacket back up and smiled.
"Thank you. I must admit that guns make me rather nervous." He adjusted his spectacles and blinked several times. "I'm glad you came, Norman. Part of me was worried that you might not. Did you leave the glasses in your office?"
"Yes," said Norman.
"Good. I've come to the conclusion that ARI must be have the ability to be accessed remotely, so the FBI can keep an eye on you. They're not just glasses - they're a camera and tracking device permanently trained on any agent who wears them. That's why I can no longer correspond with you, Norman. The Bureau knows too much now and they're growing suspicious. I'm afraid that from hereon we go it alone."
Norman shifted on his feet. "You make a lot of assumptions. Who says I want anything to do with this? Or that I think anything you've told me so far has been the truth?"
"I've shown you evidence that would stand up in court. Even the people here aren't capable of producing fake MP4 files yet. I have access to FBI cameras, to their CCTV footage. How else would I know that you've received my letters?"
"You've been spying on me?"
"No more than the Bureau has been." The man called Raine sighed and clasped his hands in a strange display of patience. "It's more than evidence and plausibility at this point, Norman, and we both know it. You know something is deeply wrong with ARI and with Tripto and you need to fix it or it will devour you whole."
Jayden swallowed the saliva that was stuck in the back of his throat. He felt a network of carefully structured lies collapsing upon him, and now the weight of the responsibility he was faced with was dragging him down with it.
"I have so many questions," he blurted.
"I may not be able to answer them all. But those that I can, I will."
"Do you work for the FBI?"
"Yes." Before Norman could say anything else, Raine cut him off. "But I can't tell you anything more specific than that, I'm afraid. I have my own safety to consider. I'd rather not reveal my identity, even though you probably already have more than enough data to find me in the database. I'll just have to trust your good nature to respect my privacy."
"Why are you doing this? Why are you revealing all these secrets?"
"Let's just say that I don't believe the FBI have been the best employer they could be."
"You're putting yourself in great danger. And me."
The stranger cast his eyes downwards. "The Bureau hurt somebody very close to me, very badly. They've hurt so many more people than just you, Norman. The ARI project has caused so much damage, and the deeper I dig, the more and more destruction I find. I think it's about time the FBI was made accountable for what it's done."
"Why did you come after me?"
"I'll be honest, I didn't know who else to turn to. I couldn't go to the press. I don't think they'd ever believe such a sensational story, even with concrete evidence, and my involvement was too likely to get back to the FBI somehow. So I had to stay inside the Bureau itself. I needed somebody who already knew about ARI, who had seen its dangers firsthand, and who might just be able to do something about it. You showed the most promise."
"Well then - why not you? You seem to know an awful lot about ARI. Why do you need my help?"
The young man laughed. "Norman, I'm not a special agent. I don't hold any real power in the FBI. I couldn't do anything to stop ARI even if I did know everything were was to know about it. Only you can find and hand out justice to those who have wronged us."
"Are you asking me to purge the FBI of its evils?"
Raine watched Jayden closely. "No. I'm asking you to do what you think is right." After a moment the stranger glanced at his watch. "We can't talk for much longer. I'm sorry to leave you like this. This will be the last time I can communicate with you for the foreseeable future, so listen closely. You know all that I know: so far two Executive Assistant Directors have been involved in the ARI project, at least. Maybe it stops with them, but I doubt it somehow. You must find the root. You must find out how deep this corruption goes, and you must stop it."
Norman found himself nodding. He felt like a year-long headache was slowly lifting. He felt like he had finally come to recognise something that he should have recognised long ago, some duty that had always been needed of him and which it was finally time to fulfil.
"Please be careful, Norman. I wish I did not have to put you in such a dangerous position. The Bureau knows that you know too much, and the Bureau is not pretty when riled." The stranger made to turn away, to the opposite side of the garage from which Norman had entered, to return to wherever in the FBI had come from.
"Thank you," said Jayden suddenly.
Raine turned back. He smiled. "You're welcome. Good luck, Norman Jayden."
The agent watched Raine pace away until he had vanished behind a row of parked cars. Jayden took some time to steady his breathing, to control the energetic speeding of his thoughts and the blessed brightness he could sense opening in his mind. Once he felt that he had gathered his strength, Norman walked back to the elevator. And for the first time in a long time, Norman walked tall.