"Our capture of Mr Sark and the manuscript he was seeking to purchase may well have turned the tide in our attempts to get ahead of Irina Derevko," Sloane said. He brought up an image of the manuscript on-screen, and Sydney grimaced at the familiar writing and the intricate diagrams that accompanied it. Any minor academic interest she might have had in Rambaldi's work had died when one of his so-called prophecies had resulted in her being questioned by the FBI. Now all she could feel at the sight of another was a dull wariness about how this one might be creatively interpreted.
"The manuscript depicts an artefact known as the Winter Sun," Sloane said. Sydney couldn't figure out how they got that name from the vaguely boxy device the diagrams described, but then there was a whole lot about this Rambaldi mess that made no sense to her. "It's currently in the possession of a private collector in Scotland. Most serious students of Rambaldi's work consider it a minor piece, of minimal importance." He smiled. "As did I, before I decoded the hidden message in this manuscript."
Sloane took in a deep breath, as if savouring his knowledge. "When brought together with a second piece known as the Keystone, the Winter Sun will open to reveal a secret vital to the construction of Il Dire."
Instructions to find keys to open boxes to find more instructions. Sydney rolled her eyes.
"Most importantly," Sloane said, "without the manuscript we took from Nasir Majid, Irina Derevko has no way of knowing the existence of this secret. Acquisition of the Winter Sun and the accompanying Keystone will be extremely low on her list of priorities. And with the loss of a valued operative like Mr Sark, her resources will be stretched thinner than ever." He steepled his fingers together and smiled. "We should be able to obtain both pieces without any outside interference."
Marshall couldn't help but jump at Jack's arrival, even though he'd been the one to summon him here. Which was scary enough in itself, because, really, you didn't summon Jack Bristow anywhere. You were summoned by him. Except you weren't, because Jack didn't actually want to talk to you unless he couldn't possibly avoid it. Which-
Jack raised an impatient eyebrow. "You wanted to see me?"
"Oh, yes, um, routine paperwork for Sydney's latest mission," Marshall said. "There's a bit of a mess-up with the requisitions - because, you know, we have to have everything Mr Sloane requests signed off on by a couple of people-" he gave a nervous smile, "-and I guess somebody didn't realise or didn't consider it that important, because this one went through with only Mr Sloane's signature, and okay, it's only communications equipment and, hey, I'm sure he's not going to be getting up to anything heinous with a standard fieldwork earpiece, but-"
"The paperwork, Marshall?" Jack said darkly.
"Oh! Yes." Marshall started to sort through the heaps of papers and half-built devices on his desk. "I had it right here, um- oh, wait, that's not it. I'm sure it was right- could you hold that, please?" He pushed a polished section of metal casing into Jack's hands. Jack took it with only the tiny little quirk of the lips that said his urge to kill was rapidly rising.
Marshall tugged out the right form. "Ah, here it is! If you could just initial here, and sign down the bottom where-? Well, obviously, you know how to fill out a form, I'm not suggesting..." He exchanged a pen for the metal casing. Jack bent to print his initials, managing to make even paperwork look badass. Marshall wrung his hands nervously.
"Is that all?" Jack said, as he straightened up. Marshall gave him an agitated grin.
"Yes. Thank you. You've been very helpful. Thank you. I will get right on to processing that. Thank you." He stood and watched as Jack strode away through the office.
Then he peeled a perfect copy of Jack's fingerprint off the metal casing, and stared at it for a moment.
"Oh, I am so very, very dead."
Sydney's current target, one Joseph Carlyle, didn't actually live in Scotland. He lived on a remote island off the coast of Scotland. Getting close to his property was therefore complicated by the fact that everyone on the island knew each other, and any strange boats arriving at the one accessible beach would draw a whole lot of attention.
Hence the rock-climbing equipment.
Sydney had scaled more than a few cliffs in her espionage career, but the addition of a less than calm sea directly below her was enough to add an extra edge to this ascent. It seemed like it should be a reassurance, a greater chance of surviving the fall, but even if she missed the hidden rocks the waves would quickly smash her up against the foot of the cliff. She was out of range of the spray of even the tallest waves now, but crumbling rock and patches of slick moss made her test every hold with extra care.
She was grateful to finally haul herself over the top of the cliff. She left the rope in position; the tangle of wild grass up on top of the cliff ought to hide it from anyone who didn't come too close, and she might need it for a quick getaway.
"Approaching the house," she murmured to Vaughn over the radio.
Carlyle's house was not quite a mansion, but certainly not small. She didn't have to worry about surveillance, machine or human - the remoteness of the location made it less than economical - but the house had its own security to make sure none of the villagers got too curious while Carlyle was away on his many 'business trips'.
Fortunately, Sloane had given them a lead on some financial records that had told them who Carlyle had purchased his security systems from.
She made short work of the alarm system on the outside of the house and let herself inside. The house was elegant but old, all wooden floors and panelling that creaked if you breathed too hard. Fortunately, she'd taken the time to track Carlyle with binoculars, and seen him disappear down the path towards the village. In a gossipy little place like this, she hoped, he'd be down there a while.
She picked her way through the house to a room that was clearly Carlyle's study. Marshall had given her a mini metal detector wand, but though she swept it over the walls, the floor, and all conspicuous pieces of furniture... "The safe's not here."
"Bedroom?" Vaughn suggested.
"Maybe." But Sydney eyed the rickety stairs. She wouldn't be in a hurry to install a wall safe in the upper levels of a house this old. "I'm going to check the rest of the downstairs first."
The front room had moth-eaten antique chairs with clawed feet, an impressive fireplace, and an even more impressive sound system. No TV, though. And no safe. No dice in the dining room, either.
"Syd, you've got about twenty minutes before the tide buries your ledge," Vaughn warned.
It wouldn't be impossible to get back down the cliff without the narrow strip of rock to land on at the bottom - but it wouldn't be fun to try, either. Sydney quickened her pace. She peered through the doorway into the kitchen, and was about to dismiss that as unlikely when she spotted a second door. With a lock on it. She smiled to herself. "Looks like this place has a cellar."
Joseph Carlyle clearly wasn't any more than a wannabe at the espionage game, because all this particular lock required was a good old-fashioned iron key. Which was hanging on a hook in the corner of the kitchen.
"Some days, my skills are wasted on this job," she told Vaughn as she turned the key in the lock. She could make a fortune if she ever turned to burglary. It was amazing how many people would just install an off-the-shelf alarm package and a standard issue safe, and believe that was all the security they could possibly need.
The stone stairs behind the door led down to a small shrine to Rambaldi that had amateur written all over it. There was even a stack of store-bought books with titles like The Rambaldi Enigma that wouldn't have looked out of place on a shelf between UFOs and conspiracy theories. Sydney was half tempted to steal those too and deliver them anonymously to Sloane to see if they gave him an aneurysm.
But business before pleasure. She didn't even have to take out the metal detector wand, so obvious was it that the safe would be concealed behind the red drapes with the big Rambaldi eye symbol. Twenty seconds and a Marshall Flinkman special later, and she had the Winter Sun in her hand.
As Rambaldi artefacts went, it wasn't the most awe inspiring. It was a small but deceptively heavy metal cube that cast patterned shadows as she turned it under the light, the holes cut into it functioning as some kind of intricate sundial. There were no obvious moving parts, and nothing particularly mystical about it. But if Sloane was to be believed, it was actually some kind of puzzle box holding a vital clue to Il Dire.
It was no good. She still couldn't get excited about this stuff. The best she could manage was grim satisfaction that this was one Rambaldi piece that her mother wouldn't be getting her hands on.
"I have the artefact," she said, placing it inside her bag. "Heading back to-"
She froze at the sound of distant whistling. Someone was coming up the path towards the kitchen door.
"What's your status, Mountaineer?" Vaughn asked urgently.
"Carlyle's on his way back to the house," she hissed. She lunged up the stairs and pushed the door at the top of them shut. There was no time to get out and through the kitchen without being seen. "I'm trapped in the cellar."
She heard a key turn in the lock of the outer door, and Carlyle entered, still whistling.
There were domestic sounds of things being put down on the countertop. Carlyle levered his shoes off and dropped both with thuds before moving across the room. Probably to hang the back door key on its hook. And when he did, he would see that the cellar key was missing...
The whistling cut out in mid-warble.
Carlyle had noticed something. He was probably going to turn, spot the key in the door, come over and seize the handle...
In the silence of Sydney's held breath, a phone began to ring. For one nonsensically horrified instant she was sure it was her cell, and then she realised it was coming from inside the house.
There was a pause, and then Carlyle grunted and moved off to answer it. Sydney waited for him to move through into the dining room, and then yanked the cellar door back open and darted out of the house.
"I'm out," she said into the radio.
Vaughn's voice was full of relief and humour. "Good, because really I don't think telesales is Marshall's forte."
"Thanks for the assist," Sydney said. She ran for the edge of the cliff and the rope she'd left behind.
As she lowered herself down, she couldn't help a small, satisfied smile.
She'd gotten the Winter Sun without any trouble. And best of all, without any sign her mother even knew to be looking for it.
Kendall stared at Jack Bristow in amazement. "You think Sloane should be given what?"
"Psychological support," Jack said, unruffled.
"To what purpose?" he demanded. Sloane was already cooperating, and if he was holding anything back, he was far too smart to let the details slip just because he was talking to a psychiatrist. He would know as well as anyone that patient confidentiality came a distant second to the goals of the CIA.
"To support him. Psychologically."
The sarcasm. How come none of the many and varied assessments of Jack Bristow that he'd read had ever mentioned the damn sarcasm?
"I don't give too much of a damn about holding Sloane's hand through his troubles," Kendall said flatly. "He's in prison, doing penance, and if he's unhappy then somebody's doing their job right."
"I'm not concerned with his happiness, rather his mental state," Jack said, raising a cool eyebrow. "Sloane is already obsessed with Rambaldi to a dangerous degree. Incarcerating him with nothing else to think of is liable to push him even closer to the edge."
"That's not our problem," he said. "So far as I'm concerned, we want him to be Rambaldi obsessed. The more focused he is, the faster he'll bring us results. I don't care if he's making tin foil hats if it helps us get ahead of Derevko."
Jack managed to make a face of contempt without any obvious shift in his facial muscles. "It's foolish to burn Sloane's usefulness out on pursuit of this one goal. He has valuable intelligence on any number of terrorist groups, and his strategic skills could be a powerful tool for good if turned to the right ends."
Wise advice, under ordinary circumstances... but Rambaldi wasn't a goal, it was the goal. Jack Bristow's problem - the Bristows' mutual problem, in fact - was a stubbornly persistent refusal to believe that anything as mystical as Rambaldi's work could possibly be worth pursuing. Kendall would once have thought like that himself, but his time attached to Project Black Hole had made him a believer.
You didn't have to like the thought of Rambaldi being the real thing to believe it.
"His skills are being turned to the right ends," he said. "If Irina Derevko is able to complete the construction of Il Dire, the effects could be catastrophic on a global scale. If Sloane is burning out his last braincell trying to keep ahead of her, then frankly that's a much nobler use of it than anything he could put it to given his own devices." He sat back and folded his arms. "Request denied."
Vaughn pulled his headset off and gave Marshall an acknowledging nod. "She's clear."
"Great." Marshall was sincerely relieved, but he couldn't manage more than a nervous tic of a smile. He pointed vaguely towards the door. "Um, I have to go retrieve some files now, so..."
"Sure." Vaughn dismissed him without interest.
Today, that was a good thing.
Marshall made his way over to records with the copy of Jack's fingerprint burning a hole in his pocket. Well, not literally, it was preserved in a specially designed casing that would protect it from heat damage, tearing, and just about anything else shy of a direct meteor strike, because he did not want to try and take Jack Bristow's print again. No.
By contrast, this should be much less scary, only not, because he couldn't escape the feeling that Jack was going to come swooping up behind him, like... something that swooped... and then there would be pain and misery and... more pain... and-
Oh. He was here.
Despite his best efforts, he'd been unable to retrieve any more details on Project Christmas from the CIA's computer network. And if Marshall J. Flinkman couldn't find them, that was a solid gold guarantee that they weren't actually there to find. It was possible they never had been: if the project had been discontinued in the early eighties, then the bare bones listing of dates, project ID and the link with Jack Bristow's name might truly be all that had ever been entered into the system.
But the hardcopy files still had to exist. And a little digging around in search of that project ID had eventually brought him here: a particularly secure branch of records.
Marshall glanced around nervously before slipping the duplicate fingerprint over his own and pressing it to the scanner. He trusted his inventions in the field, one hundred percent, but, well... that also included trust in the operative using them. And right now he was sweating so badly that he half expected the adhesive to fail and the fake print to right slide off his finger - huh. Did fingertips sweat? It was weird how you could live with biological functions all your life and yet never really take note of them. It was like when you were walking along, and then found yourself suddenly thinking about the mechanical process of walking, and then it was goodbye, coordination-
The light turned green and Marshall jumped. He pushed the door open and tiptoed gingerly into the records office. There was no one around. A camera stared down, but Marshall wasn't fazed by security cameras. Erasing himself from the feeds was the easy part.
He scurried through the rows of file cabinets to the right section and pulled out the Project Christmas folders. A miniature camera in his tie clip - a rather jazzy tie clip, if he said so himself; he'd been wearing them all week to avoid causing suspicion, but no one had actually noticed - would allow him to copy all the pages without needing to take the file out with him.
As he flipped through the pages, he couldn't help speed-reading some of it. The bits that he did catch were fascinating, and he couldn't wait to read the rest.
But on reflection, Marshall had an uneasy feeling that Syd might not think it was quite so cool when he showed her.