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A Twist of the Knife

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Jack had never stopped finding the look on Arvin's face when he encountered a new Rambaldi artefact disturbing. The two of them had first bonded because they were so alike: pragmatists, realists, careful men who prized their self-control. Arvin had always been more emotionally demonstrative, true, but never without a layer of calculation guiding what he let show and to whom. To see him look so openly desperate and worshipful was something obscene.

Rambaldi was Arvin's religion and drug both; Jack had little time for the people who took refuge from life in either. But if there had been some small chance that Arvin's defection from the Alliance could be leveraged into a return to sanity, the CIA had squandered it in their determination to make use of his obsession. Arvin's madness was the kind that was corrosive to the self while doing no damage at all to the professional abilities; the CIA had no reason to give a damn about it.

Jack wasn't sure why he did, although the likelihood Arvin would eventually wriggle free of the CIA's constraints and unleash his so-called faith to deadly effect was compelling enough that he saw no need for further introspection.

Kendall watched with disdainful indifference as Arvin studied the Keystone raptly, not yet making any move to touch it. Either Kendall was unperturbed by the gleam in Arvin's eye, or he simply didn't recognise it as out of place. After all, no one else but Jack remembered what Arvin Sloane should be. Even Emily, though she recognised he'd changed, had never known enough about who he was in his professional life to have a realistic picture of what he'd changed from. She believed the best of Arvin; Jack had never done that, but he had certainly once believed better.

"Well?" Kendall said impatiently. "Do you know how it works, or should we turn it over to the tech squad?" he asked, with a challenging tilt to his head.

Arvin gave him a calm smile. "The operation of the Keystone is detailed in the manuscript - albeit in a cleverly encoded manner." Which you would not have decoded without me, he implied without stating. Arvin had always been a master of the articulate pause. "If you would allow me the Winter Sun?" The illusion of poise was spoiled by the way his gaze was magnetically locked onto the artefact.

Jack shifted his feet, as impatient as Kendall but for vastly different reasons. He cared nothing for whatever secret the Winter Sun might reveal; his interest in the supposed apocalypse machine Il Dire stretched only so far as the fact that Irina wanted it, and therefore being ahead in the quest for it allowed them to predict her movements.

Therefore he felt no particular anticipation as Arvin set the cube known as the Winter Sun down in position in front of him and picked up the Keystone with the careful fingers of an antiquarian. The metal cube was covered with intricate patterns of cutout holes, none of which seemed designed to take a key of any shape until Arvin turned the brooch to a particular angle and slotted it neatly into position.

It was quite obviously a perfect fit... but nothing else happened. Arvin did nothing to indicate disquiet, but Jack could read it in the lack of obvious satisfaction. However, Arvin made no move to press or jiggle the Keystone as anyone else might do when stymied, but instead calmly shifted his gaze to the manuscript that lay before him.

"Sloane?" Kendall said pointedly, as long moments passed.

Arvin reached out and removed the Keystone from its place... and abruptly smashed it against the desk, face contorted with anger. Kendall lurched and jerked forward as if to rescue it, but the damage was done before he could move or the guards run forward to restrain Arvin. The delicate strands of copper bent and twisted, and one of the stones fell from its setting.

Jack could almost have been amused by the way Kendall's eyes bulged, if he wasn't so dismayed by the near tantrum intensity of Arvin's rage. Arvin had always been inclined to icy cold anger, not this, this...

"That was an irreplaceable key to the construction of Il Dire!" Kendall spluttered in disbelief.

"That was a worthless forgery," Arvin said, face carved in tense, stark lines of fury. He was practically vibrating with outrage. "Rambaldi's works are not so easily destroyed. The Keystone is a fake."

Jack reached over to pick up the clear teardrop stone that had fallen free, and drew his keys from his pocket to give it an experimental scrape. The key left a visible scratch. "He's right," he reported, raising his head. "These stones aren't real."

Kendall, if possible, looked even less happy. "Take him back to his cell!" he snapped at the guards restraining Arvin. They hauled him away and he went without resistance, the evidence of his anger already carefully smoothed away. Kendall ran a hand over his bald head and grimaced. He looked up at Jack.

"Fine," he gritted finally. "Get him the damn psychiatrist." He flapped a hand at Jack and stalked out.

Jack supposed it was a victory.

He wasn't sure he liked the way he'd won it.

"The Keystone you retrieved was a fake?" Dixon tilted his head quizzically. "I thought nobody at the museum was aware of its value?"

"That's what Sloane said." Sydney frowned unhappily. Much as she was willing to pin just about anything on Sloane, it didn't make much sense for him to send them chasing off after an artefact he knew wasn't real. "Marshall's been checking into the history of the museum to see if there's any word of a break-in."

Marshall spun in his computer chair to face them as they approached. "And Marshall has found it," he said, with a smug grin. They joined him at either side of the screen.

"Mom got there before us?" Sydney said with a grimace.

"Er, not unless she started collecting really far in advance-" he raised his hands, fingers pointing, "which, okay, with your mom? Possible. But..." Marshall shrugged, then turned back to the computer and punched a single key. It brought up a scan of an old French newspaper article, unillustrated. "The museum was robbed in 1983. But the circumstances of the theft were... weird."

"Weird how?" Dixon asked, flattening his hands on the desktop to peer at the article.

"The article doesn't specify which pieces were stolen, except that they were all unique. Not the most expensive pieces in the place, but the one-of-a-kind curiosities."

"Collector," Sydney said, with a nod. Marshall frowned.

"Yeah, well, the odd thing is that he- or she... not that I'm implying that it was your mom, but, equal opportunities in all things... um, he or she replaced all the pieces with perfect visual replicas."

"That's not that unusual," Dixon said with a shrug. In fact, it was generally the preferred method, if you knew enough about your target to reproduce it.

"Ah." Marshall grinned. "But this thief didn't just replace the jewellery - they left a note explaining exactly what had been taken... and the estimated cash value of the original pieces, less the cost of creating the replicas."

Sydney raised her eyebrows at him. "They left the money?" she said incredulously.

"Yeah." Marshall tilted his head to smile up at her. "So, you know, not so much stealing as... buying without permission."

"Who would do that?" Dixon said, shaking his head.

"Someone who's not in it for the money," Sydney said slowly. Someone who, like her, loved the thrill of the retrieval - and obviously wasn't hurting for funds.

"Yeah." Marshall tapped at the keyboard. "So, I figured that this guy - or girl - had probably struck more than once, right? So I set up a search for all robberies with similar traits across the last fifty years, focused on museums, art houses, private collections... one-of-a-kind sort of places. The information's still rolling in, but we've got several hits across Europe, the latest so far 1987."

"Find the thief, trace the Keystone," Dixon said with a nod.

"Assuming the thief's still alive," Sydney said. A lot of time had passed since 1987. If the thief had hidden or sold the Keystone and died without leaving a record, their chances of relocating the thing had pretty much gone up smoke.

Judy couldn't help but feel a little nervous at the prospect of her first - and depending on how it went, possibly only - therapy session with Arvin Sloane. She'd done her post-doctorate dissertation on the matter of formerly patriotic agents turning rogue and how it happened, and Sloane had been her most high-profile case study. The SD-6 files she'd been granted access to had revealed a genius for manipulation that she couldn't help but admire even as she analysed the ends that it was turned to. The near-contradictory snippets Jack Bristow revealed and Sloane's surprise defection had only stoked her interest higher.

Arvin Sloane was an enigma - and, much as the people who sat opposite her liked to imagine themselves unique and complex, the truth was that it was rare indeed to meet someone who was hard to figure out. Most of her tough cases were like Jack Bristow, not so much puzzles as endurance tests. She had very little difficulty assessing what Jack's issues were; the bulk of the challenge lay in finding a way to through his defences to get to him to address them.

Sloane, by all accounts, was far more emotionally open, which paradoxically made him much harder to read. With a man as repressed as Jack, you could be sure that anything that surfaced without a struggle was purely a performance, whereas with Sloane she would have to discern the truths between the lies.

But then, she wouldn't have joined the CIA if she didn't like a challenge.

Sloane smiled at her as she entered the room; a gentlemanly smile, nothing so outré as flirtation, but nonetheless a subtle acknowledgement she was a woman. Judy knew better than to be charmed, and yet still couldn't help finding it a refreshing change from the usual brusque defensiveness or outright contempt. "Doctor Barnett," he said, with a dip of a nod.

"Mr Sloane," she said politely, matching the level of formality. Uninvited intimacy always got things off on the wrong foot, and she could see Sloane was a man who placed great stock in appearances. He'd negotiated for the right to wear a suit when he was allowed out of his cell to assist the task force, where most prisoners would have chosen to bargain for greater freedoms or more creature comforts. He was a long-term planner, focused on future goals above immediate gratification.

Which meant that whatever face he chose to show her could tell her as much about his plans as his state of mind. It was an uncomfortable truth of her position with the CIA that her analysis was as much a means gathering intelligence as providing aid and support. In the outside world, acting as a therapist to both Bristows at once would be an unacceptable conflict of interest, and either one would disqualify her from seeing Sloane. In the CIA, such insider knowledge was considered a valuable bonus.

"I understand that Jack Bristow recommended that we speak?" Sloane said. His body language was relaxed; though he laced his fingers together, it was too slow and precise a movement to be nervous or defensive. He was an elegant man, attractive in a way that didn't come across well in stark file photos that showed nothing of graceful movements or the attentive tilt of a head.

"He felt it would be useful for you to have an outlet," she said. Neutral statements. It was her job to make them; if Sloane preferred to fish with the same technique, they could be in for a frustrating session.

He gave a faint huff of amusement, the curve of his smile inviting her in on the joke. "You must be a miracle-worker if you have Jack extolling the virtues of letting things out," he said.

The fondness in the way he said the name intrigued her. Jack himself had deemed Sloane capable of genuine affection, but seemed to believe it reserved for Emily and Sydney. Learning more about Sloane's side might help her to gauge how much of that was Jack's trust issues talking... but she knew she couldn't allow Sloane to start digging from this angle. "I'm afraid I can't discuss other patients," she said calmly.

"Then what would you have me discuss?" he said. The tone was pleasantly conversational... but she could tell that this, in its own way, was sure to be every bit as much an uphill struggle as talking with Jack Bristow. Sloane might allow more of his emotions to show, but only in calm, carefully measured ways that revealed nothing of any turmoil beneath.

If Judy wanted to discover anything, she was going to have to find a crack and start prying.

"Tell me about the circumstances of your defection from the Alliance," she said. "You saved Sydney Bristow's life - and then, while you were in the hospital, your superiors put a hit out on your terminally ill wife. Why don't we begin by talking about that?"

"Did you find the thief?" Sydney asked, as she and Vaughn arrived at Marshall's desk in answer to his summons.

"Thieves," Marshall corrected. He brought up an old black and white photo of two young men posed like fifties movie stars, one fair-haired and grinning, the other sombre-faced with a thin moustache and dark wavy hair. "Arthur Pearce-Hamilton and Bertram de Saint Aubin. They're partners. In, er, more ways than one, if you get my meaning," he said, wiggling his eyebrows. Sydney would have been surprised if anyone in the world could have possibly missed his meaning.

"How old is this photo?" Vaughn asked, leaning forward.

"Pretty old," Marshall admitted, with an apologetic grimace. "They both got kind of camera shy in their old age. They'd be in their eighties by now."

"Retired?" Sydney presumed.

"To a piano bar in Switzerland," he confirmed.

"Living the dream," Vaughn said with a small sideways grin at her.

"Pretty much," Marshall said. "It took me some time to track them down - they've more or less fallen off the international radar in the last fifteen years, but before that they used to be well known black market traders. They specialised in acquiring one-of-a-kind items - they'd steal them, compensate the original owners, and make their money by gouging the people they sold them on to."

"Gentlemen thieves?" Sydney said, raising her eyebrows.

Marshall twitched a smile. "It actually makes surprisingly good business sense," he said. "The original owner gets a convincing replica and the cash value - 'have your cake and eat it', kind of thing - so most of them are fairly happy to keep schtum." He mimed zipping his lips. "Convenient insurance fire, and hey, you've got double the profit."

"And meanwhile, Arthur and Bertram have sold the real thing on to another collector," Vaughn said. "If they were black marketeers instead of just opportunists, they probably kept records of who they sold the pieces to."

"Yeah, but these guys are oldschool," Marshall said. "No computers. Back in the day they were famous for keeping it all in their heads."

"Heads which are now eighty years old," Sydney said with a grimace. There were ways to extract information from other people's heads, but she wasn't thrilled at the idea of practising any of them on a pair of men old enough to be her grandfathers.

"Any chance we can make a deal for the information?" Vaughn said, obviously similarly unhappy at the idea of issuing threats.

Marshall gave a shrug and an awkward grin. "They're rich, they're old, and they're not on the wanted list in any country anymore - they've announced themselves out of the business and they're sticking by that. But-" he raised a finger, "-while I was going through the files I discovered we caught a break. A pair of CIA agents were sent to infiltrate their circle in the seventies by posing as another couple, and by all accounts got pretty buddy-buddy with them."

Taking an assignment impersonating a gay couple in the CIA of the seventies? Brave men.

Vaughn folded his arms. "Is either of them still with the agency?"

Marshall twisted his chair round to face them, a contorted expression on his face. "Um, yeah," he said. "This is the part where it gets weird."

He tapped a key, and Arthur and Bertram were replaced by a picture of another pair of young men. These two were in colour and in open-necked shirts, posed in front of a wall with smiles that squinted a little against the sun and their arms slung comfortably about each other's shoulders. It was a gesture that read more friendly than overtly romantic.

Something that Sydney was very, very glad about, because the two men in the photo were her father and Arvin Sloane.