Operation 'invite Syd to dinner' was somewhat complicated by the fact that now she had a boyfriend, Syd was home less often than ever. Plus, Francie wanted the invitation to come from her and Will together; it couldn't hurt to lay a few clues so the whole couple thing so it didn't come as quite such a shock.
She hoped it didn't come as a shock. She would have felt awful landing this on Sydney back when she was still dealing with the loss of Danny, but hopefully now that she had Michael she wouldn't feel so left out by the news of her two best friends getting together.
Finally, random chance brought all three of them together in the apartment as Syd made a flying visit to change clothes before work. Francie was half surprised the clue bus didn't strike when she saw Will sitting at their table eating breakfast with bare feet, but then to be fair it wasn't totally out of character for him to have been doing that even before he was dating Francie.
"Hey, guys," Sydney said with a distracted grin as she headed out.
"Syd," Will called out to her. "Um, hey, we were thinking..." He faltered, probably trying to figure out how to frame the invitation so it didn't seem like he was trying to ask her out on a date. So much for all his planning. Francie jumped in.
"We should all have dinner at the restaurant on Friday," she said. "Us and you and Michael." She gestured to encompass herself and Will as she said 'us', and wondered if that was enough of a hint. "We can get to know your guy and I can show off my mad restaurant management skills."
"Friday." Francie could practically see the wheels turning behind Syd's eyes, and braced herself for yet another bout of scheduling chaos. But then Sydney brightened. "Friday," she said, smiling. "That'd be great."
"You can make it?" Will said, sounding a little more surprised than was probably polite.
"We'll meet there at seven?" Francie suggested.
"Sounds great," Sydney said, nodding. She looked sincerely pleased, and that was why Francie could never be mad at her when she blew off plans again and again. She always wanted to be there, and was so thrilled when she could be. "I'll tell Vaughn," she said. "We'll both be there for seven," she hesitated fractionally, "just as long as nothing unexpected comes up. Which it won't! I'm sure."
"Great. Friday." Francie smiled at her and they both waved Syd out the door.
Will turned and looked at her. "Something unexpected's going to come up, isn't it?"
"It might not," she said, with less than perfect optimism.
Will resumed digging into his bowl of cereal. "Why does she call her boyfriend Vaughn, anyway?" he wondered.
"I think it's cute," Francie said. She punched Will lightly on the shoulder. "Tippin." He coughed round his mouthful of breakfast cereal and stood up, clutching the bowl protectively.
"Hey. Enough with the domestic violence. I have to get to work."
"How soon?" she asked.
He dumped the mostly finished bowl on the countertop and smiled at her. "Not that soon."
Another day, another briefing from Sloane. It was almost like being back at SD-6, except that she didn't have to pretend to like him, and she had Vaughn sitting next to her. That was progress, Sydney supposed. Just not much of it.
"The manuscript was last known to be in the possession of a man named Nasir Abdul Majid," Sloane said. He brought up an ID photo of a hollow-faced man with heavy eyebrows. "He disappeared off the radar six years ago. However, the CIA's surveillance of a suspected weapons deal in Turkmenistan two days ago produced this image."
It was fuzzy and poor quality, but Sydney was willing to believe that the thickly-bearded man on the left was indeed an older Majid.
The second man in the picture needed no introduction. "Sark," she said grimly.
"Majid is apparently running low on funds and has agreed to sell the manuscript to Sark for a fortune in rare diamonds." Sloane's mouth twisted a fraction, as if he was disgusted by the thought of selling a genuine Rambaldi for any reason. "He's notoriously cautious - the meeting the CIA surveilled was only the first part of the exchange. Sark provided half of the diamonds for Majid to assess; the rest will be exchanged for the manuscript at a second meet in a day's time."
"Do we know where that's going down?" Dixon asked, folding his arms on the tabletop.
"At a market in Istanbul," Sloane said. "Majid won't be carrying the manuscript himself - the exchange will be made by intermediaries. Sark will have a man in the crowd, and once the diamonds are handed over the manuscript will be delivered to him inside of a boobytrapped case, to which Sark will be given the key. The case will explode if Sark fails to reach it within three minutes, or if Majid's failsafe is triggered."
Marshall stood up. "It's actually quite clever: it's a literal dead man's switch. Well, not literal, it's not actually a switch, but, you know. It's wired to his heartbeat," he said hastily. "Constantly transmitting a signal. If his heart stops for too long, or he pulls the plug, then," he clenched his hands together and spread them apart, "boom! Which would not be good, obviously." He smiled. "But! Here I come to save the day." He paused to reflect. "Mighty Mouse - anyone remember that? No? Okay."
He pulled out what looked like an ordinary phone and displayed it. "It's a cell phone, right? Fiddle with your buttons, as you do - 'oh, hey, I got a text'." He mimed pressing buttons. "But actually, it scans for electronic signals. It'll pick up the signal from the dead man's switch, record it, and when you press this button here, start looping it back. So, even if Majid pulls the plug - or, you know, somebody pulls the plug on him-" he made a rifle-shooting motion, "the case won't explode."
"Thank you, Marshall," Sloane said with a nod. He turned to look at the rest of them. "It's vital that we intercept both case and key before Sark can bring them together. This manuscript is believed to contain a diagram important to the construction of Il Dire. If Sark is able to reproduce it from memory, then any advantage we might have won over Irina will be lost."
Sydney listened as Sloane laid out the details of the plan, straightforward enough that even she couldn't find any obvious angle where he could be screwing them over. When the briefing broke up she followed Marshall, in the guise of asking a few more questions about the op-tech.
"So did you find anything?" she asked, when they were alone.
His eyes widened. "Oh, right, Project-" He made the symbol for zipped lips. "Yes, actually... and no." He wilted a little. "There was a CIA project of that name in the seventies and eighties, but the files are locked up tight. I can't get in without higher authorisation."
She frowned. "Authorisation from whom?"
Marshall gave a wry grimace. "Yeah, that was... kind of the other thing." He tapped a few keys, and turned his screen round to face her.
One line on the page jumped out at her immediately.
Project Coordinator: Jonathan D. Bristow.
There was little information in the CIA's files on any operative called 'the Black Sparrow'. No photo, no linked names, not even confirmation of gender - only a collection of second-hand references that might not even all be the same person. Either his mysterious assailant was very good, fairly inactive, or using an alias that she'd rarely touched before.
Jack was betting it wasn't option B.
Cross-referencing with Irina Derevko's known operations might be more enlightening, but that would bring it into the purview of Kendall's taskforce, and require an explanation of how he'd come by the name and why he suspected a connection. Crediting it to 'a source' was always a possibility, but it was an unnecessary risk for little potential reward.
The hotel's security footage proved to have been wiped clean; he'd intended to do it himself, but by getting there first the Black Sparrow had stolen any chance he might have of any identifying photo. He still had the feeds he'd been recording onto his laptop, but they covered the ground floor only. The Black Sparrow was nowhere on them. No doubt she'd been inside the hotel before he even arrived; Jack did her the courtesy of not bothering to check out the names on the room register. She was too good to have left a clue there.
So he was reduced to reviewing photographs of Irina's known associates, a largely pointless exercise since he'd done it before and there was no chance at all that a face like the Black Sparrow's could have slipped from his memory.
Although, bizarrely, he had felt there was something familiar about her. But what was it? He couldn't quite...
He lost his elusive train of thought as his office door opened. "Sydney." Jack sat up to greet her. Her flight was wheels up in less than an hour, and she should be preparing to get on it. "What's going on?"
She closed the door behind her and folded her arms, a posture somewhere between defensive and suspicious. "Dad... what's Project Christmas?" she demanded, eyebrows furrowing.
He felt his stomach go cold, as abruptly as if he'd just swallowed a great gulp of ice water. "Where did you hear that name?" he asked curtly, afraid to risk any sort of denial before he knew how much she knew.
"Mom told me it was something I should investigate. Your name came up as project coordinator." The words were a challenge, but not as disgusted as they would be if Sydney knew all of the truth.
Irina. He should have known. Jack's eyes narrowed. "You should know better than to trust any information provided by your mother."
"I'm not trusting her," she said sharply. "I'm investigating. Which should be entirely harmless - unless there's something you don't want me to find." She cocked her head, her gaze coolly defiant. He had to fight the urge to look away from it. One guilty blink now could betray everything.
He had to give her something. "Project Christmas was the project your mother was assigned to me to steal," he said icily. "The KGB had her marry me and report back information so they could assemble their own version of it. Whatever she hopes to gain by having you look into old classified files, it's nothing that will benefit you."
That was the simple truth. The revelation of what he'd done to protect her would only bring Sydney pain. It was decades in the past and impossible to change; no good at all could come from her learning about it.
But Sydney frowned, plainly unconvinced. "Why would she bring it up now?" she said, tucking her hair back.
To attempt to turn Sydney against him - but he couldn't warn Sydney of that without alerting her that there was a reason she might be turned.
"Irina Derevko reveals nothing unless it furthers her plans. You saw what playing into her hands brings yesterday," he said. "No matter how harmless her instructions may seem, following them will only lead you into a trap."
Sydney scowled, but let the subject drop. "I have to catch my plane."
She turned and left. Jack rose to his feet as soon as she was gone. Hopefully his words would sway her - but just in case they didn't, a word in Devlin's ear that Derevko was showing renewed interest in Project Christmas ought to be enough to get the files removed to a more secure location.
Istanbul. The market was a distracting jumble of sights and smells, sacks of spices, baskets of exotic produce. Everything was bright, bold, eye-catching colours, trying to lure her attention away from her objective.
Sydney moved through the crowd in a curly black wig and a brightly patterned dress of her own, assessing everyone that she passed. Majid's courier could be anyone; everyone had baggage, bags full of market wares that could easily disguise the booby-trapped manuscript case.
"Anything?" she murmured into the radio.
"Not yet," Dixon said.
"I have Sark," Vaughn told her. He'd been given the job of surveilling Sark's end of the meet, since the two of them had never met.
Of course, the reason Vaughn had never met Sark was that he was only freshly qualified as a field agent, much more accustomed to pursuing ops from the back of a surveillance van than up close and personal. She couldn't help but worry for him around an operative as dangerous as Sark.
But she was a professional, and she had to trust Vaughn to be one too. "Any sign of Majid?" she asked.
"Not so far." There was a faint twist of humour in his voice. "Sark is haggling for bananas."
She circulated among the crowd. A man in front of one of the spice stalls caught her eye. White, late thirties, business suit, apparently alone. Not a typical profile for a market-goer. She watched him surreptitiously in the guise of examining a length of gauzy fabric, and noted that while he was dutifully studying the stalls, he was giving each equal attention rather than gravitating to particular products.
She would have smirked if her own persona had allowed it. There was a certain type of man who just couldn't fake interest in shopping.
"I think I have Sark's backup," she told the others as she set the fabric down and drifted away from the hopeful stallholder.
"I see Majid," Vaughn announced suddenly.
"I'm headed your way," Dixon said. It was his job to intercept Sark and acquire the key. Vaughn would use Marshall's modified phone to keep transmitting the failsafe signal, and then Sydney would grab the case. Easy.
"Boy Scout, do you have the signal?" she asked Vaughn.
"Not yet. I'm in range; I don't think he's activated it yet. Sark's showing him the diamonds."
Sark's man was on the move. Sydney followed him around a corner, letting him get ahead as she examined strings of hanging beads.
"Majid's just spoken to his courier," Vaughn said abruptly. "Should be coming your way."
Sydney scanned the crowds, looking for... there. A skinny young man who looked like he could be Majid's relative, what looked like a laptop case held in his hand. "I see him," she said.
So did Sark's man. He hastened forward, pretence at stall-browsing forgotten.
"They've made the exchange. Signal is live, and Sark has the key and is on his way," Vaughn reported.
"Moving to intercept," Dixon said.
"Mountaineer, the signal loop is in place," Vaughn said. "You're free to liberate the case."
Sydney's hand slid naturally into her bag to close around the dart gun as she watched the two men approach each other to make the handoff. The courier held the case out at waist level, gripping the handle tightly. Sark's man reached out to take it, placing his hand close to the courier's so that for a moment they were both clutching the handle together. Only when the courier was sure the other man had it did he let go.
Alarm bells went off in Sydney's mind. Exercising caution with a boobytrapped case was one thing, but that degree of care...
"We have a problem," she murmured into the mike. "Majid has more than one failsafe. There's a pressure sensor built into the handle of the case."
If she shot the guy and he dropped it... game over.