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"So tell me every little thing about yourself. Every secret."
Sydney Bristow tensed, swallowing back a sudden surge of suspicion and alarm. She forced herself to relax and smile at the tall, good-looking guy who had just leaned closer to her on the park bench. He's just a UCLA sophomore trying to flirt with me, she reminded herself. He's not a spy.
It was a reminder she had to give herself more and more often as she progressed as an agent-in-training for the CIA. Sometimes it seemed like just yesterday that Wilson had walked up to her on campus and offered her the opportunity of a lifetime. At other times she had trouble remembering that she had ever experienced anything resembling "real life"--a life without secret missions that could mean life or death for people all over the planet, a life without lying to everyone she met or escaping from people who were trying to kill her. The experiences she'd had so far in her short career tended to make her a little suspicious of new people.
Still, the logical part of her mind was certain that this college guy was just an ordinary student going about the ordinary business of trying to pick her up. His name was Kent, and she'd met him a few minutes before as she and her best friend and roommate, Francie Calfo, were wandering across the college green debating whether to go for sandwiches or Chinese for lunch.
Sydney glanced over at Francie, who was standing a few yards away on the grass casually kicking around a Hacky Sack with Kent's friend Carl. Carl was a huge, handsome hunk who was practically drooling all over Francie already. That was Francie--she had a natural allure, a sparkthat drew guys to her like moths to a flame. Sydney often envied her friend that easy charm and natural friendliness. Francie never seemed to overthink things like Sydney often did. She never seemed to drift off in the middle of a conversation, totally forgetting that the other person wasn't inside her head. . . .
"Well?" Kent leaned still closer, smiling at her. His hand, which had been resting on the wooden bench seat, crept a little closer to her thigh. "Are you going to answer me, or are you playing hard to get?"
Sydney shrugged and forced what she hoped was a playful little laugh. "Oh, there's not much to tell about me, really," she said, tossing her shiny brown ponytail over her shoulder and casually dropping her arm onto the bench between her leg and his hand. "I'm a sophomore, I was born in West Virginia, moved to California, grew up, went off to boarding school. . . ."
"Boarding school, eh?" Kent raised one eyebrow and grinned. "So, like, while the rest of us were stuck in public school and kicking rocks around for fun, you were off at boarding school going to tea parties and horseback riding and playing croquet, right?"
This time Sydney's laugh was real. "Not exactly," she said. "I mean, there was a stable there, so I did go horseback riding once in a while. But the tea and croquet thing? Not so much. I was a total tomboy."
Just then Francie hurried over, dragging her guy by the arm. "Hey, Syd," she blurted out, her dark eyes flashing with excitement. "Carl just invited us to this off-campus party tomorrow night--it's supposed to be totally wild and fun. What do you say? Think we should grace these guys with our fabulous pres--"
Before Francie could finish her sentence, a sharp tone pierced the air. Sydney glanced down at the pager clipped to the waistband of her shorts.
"Oops," she said, flipping the pager up long enough to read the name SLOANE on it. "Sorry."
Francie grimaced and turned away. "Uh-oh," she said in the tight, tense voice she saved for just such occasions. "Sounds like the hive is calling the worker bee again."
Kent looked from Francie back to Sydney in surprise. "You mean you're being called into work on a Saturday?" he exclaimed. "No way. Just blow them off, dude!"
"Oh, she'll never do that," Francie said with a shrug. "She's devoted to her job. Totally."
Sydney bit her lip, fingering the pager. This was the part of her job she liked the least--lying to the people she cared about. Francie and her other friends didn't know about her secret life as a spy. They all thought that Sydney was a dedicated employee of a bank called Credit Dauphine, which sent her on frequent business trips and corporate retreats. So far, that cover story seemed to do the trick whenever she was called away with only minutes to prepare for the next mission, whether it was just a few miles away in Los Angeles or halfway across the world in Moscow, Paris, or the latest political hot spot. Still, she knew that Francie really didn't understand how a boring bank job could be more important than going to parties, shopping, or just hanging out.
"So are you going to be home for dinner?" Francie asked. "I was going to make something from that cookbook you got me, remember?"
"I--I don't know," Sydney said apologetically, gathering her things from the bench as the lies formed automatically on her tongue. She glanced at Francie. "This page probably has to do with that big project I mentioned the other day. So I'm not sure exactly when I'll be home. I'll let you know, okay?"
"Whatever." Francie shrugged and turned away. "I guess I'll see you later."
Sydney sighed, slinging her bag over her shoulder. She wished she could just ignore the call for once, turn off her pager and enjoy the rest of the pleasant October morning with Francie and the guys like any other college student. She'd been hoping for some downtime from her job ever since returning from the second of two international missions in a row just a couple of weeks earlier. As much as she loved what she did--loved almost everything about it, from the idea of serving her country in such an important way to the rush of adrenaline she got whenever she donned a new disguise and memorized a new alias for a mission--she was really looking forward to catching up on the rest of her life.
But things in the spy business didn't always work that way. There was no way of telling when she would be called away again. Sydney knew that. That didn't mean she had to like it.
"Sorry," Sydney muttered again, lowering her eyes to avoid the all-too-familiar expression of disappointment, resentment, and resignation on Francie's face. "I've really got to go."
As she hurried into the cool, marble-floored lobby of the Credit Dauphine building, Sydney pushed Francie out of her mind and focused on what was to come. Maybe they're finally calling me in for debriefing, she thought, ignoring the usual echoing chatter and commotion going on around her. Maybe I'm finally going to get some answers about all that Calistrano stuff.
Her last mission had taken her to England with her frequent partner, a more experienced agent named Noah Hicks. There, she had eventually found herself retrieving mysterious materials from the crypt of a sixteenth-century magician named Calistrano.
Sydney flashed a quick smile at the receptionist as she strode past on her way to the special elevator bank that would take her to sublevel six, where the secret branch of the CIA known as SD-6 had its headquarters. She stared at the doors in front of her as the elevator descended, tapping one foot with barely controlled impatience.
But she wasn't really seeing the smooth metal doors. She was remembering that dank, spooky crypt and thinking about the materials she had found there--information that, according to SD-6's research, could reveal the source of incredible power discovered by Calistrano. But after turning over the material, Sydney had heard nothing more about it. Maybe now she would finally find out if the mission had been as successful as they'd all hoped.
As usual, she felt a brief shiver of anticipation as she stepped out of the elevator and stood in the small, plain entrance room waiting for the retinal scan to identify her. When the door slid open, she hurried through and down the hall, gathering speed as she rounded the corner.
"Heads up!" a male voice warned.
"Oh!" Sydney said breathlessly, skidding to a stop just in time. Her face grew hot as she realized she'd almost crashed right into Noah. She peered up into his ruggedly handsome face, meeting his intense gaze. "Um, hi?"
Though her spy training was helping Sydney become more confident and self-assured by the day, just being around Noah generally made her feel flustered and confused, like a little girl caught at a grown-up party. Noah was only six or seven years older than she was, but sometimes the two of them seemed to come from totally different planets. She was never sure how he would act toward her from one day to the next--sometimes it seemed as though he was as hopelessly attracted to her as she was to him, while at other times he barely seemed to remember she existed. All Sydney knew was that despite it all, she liked being around him. Really liked it. She tried not to think too much about it beyond that.
Noah gazed at her with an expression she couldn't quite read. Was he in a good mood? Distracted? Maybe even happy to see her?
"Long time no see," he commented at last, with the smallest hint of a smile. "What's new?"
Sydney laughed, relieved that for once he wasn't putting on a gruff and distant act, as he often did when he saw her at the office. "Not much," she said. "I haven't saved any handcuffed SD-6 agents from secret French tunnels in the past couple of days, if that's what you're wondering."
It was a pretty weak joke--she knew it as soon as the words left her mouth. She also soon realized it was a big mistake. Noah's eyes narrowed, and any hint of a smile faded from his face.
"I wasn't wondering that, actually." His voice was cool and deliberate, as though he were giving his order to a particularly slow clerk at a drive-in window. "When you've been doing this as long as I have, perhaps you won't hold on to every little detail of a mission."
Sydney was pretty good at controlling her emotions--that was part of her training--but she felt herself blushing deeply at Noah's words. Good one, Syd, she told herself sharply. Way to ruin the moment, as usual.
Noah was so tough and seasoned as a spy, not to mention competitive by nature. She should have known he wouldn't be amused by her joking reference to their first mission in Paris, when she had found him handcuffed to a steel ring on the floor in an underground room. She'd been reminiscing about that mission as she realized she had marked a full year at SD-6, and somehow her recent thoughts had slipped from her lips.
"You're probably right," she muttered, not sure whether to feel more annoyed with Noah or herself. "Anyway, I was just paying you back for saving me before that. Now if you'll excuse me, I have someplace to be right now."
"Me too," Noah muttered back, stepping aside to let her pass. "In fact, I'm late for a very important meeting."
"Fine. See you later, then."
Sydney hurried off down the hall. She was painfully aware of Noah's footsteps directly behind her, and waited impatiently for them to peel off through a doorway or down a different hall.
Instead, he stayed right behind her as she turned corners and passed through doorways. Sydney was hyperaware of his footsteps and even his breathing, which she could hear even over the soft whir of computers and other equipment as she passed office cubicles and computer labs. She felt her muscles tensing and an anxious twitch starting somewhere in her throat. Was he messing with her?
Finally she whirled around. "Why are you following me?" she exclaimed. "Can't you find a different way to get wherever you're going?"
Noah scowled at her. "Not really," he said, gesturing toward the other end of the hall. "Sloane's office is right down there."
"Sloane's office?" Sydney blinked. "But that's where I'm going." She belatedly realized what that meant. Of course--if this was a debriefing, Noah would have to be there, too. "So maybe we're finally going to find out what all that Calistrano business was all about," she commented, hoping to make amends for her outburst.
"Maybe." Noah brushed past her. "And maybe if we don't stand around here yapping, we won't both be late."
Sydney sighed. She followed him into the spa-cious, well-appointed office of Arvin Sloane, Sydney's handler and a very important person at SD-6.
Several people were already seated at a conference table at one end of the room. Sydney nodded a greeting to the other agents, most of whom she had met previously. Then she took a seat beside Graham Flinkman, the resident SD-6 techie.
"Hey, Sydney," Graham greeted her. As usual he sounded so eager and enthusiastic that his voice almost trembled, as if relieved to escape safely from his throat. "How's it going?"
"Great," Sydney replied distractedly with a sidelong glance at Noah, who had just sat down at the other end of the table. "Just great."
Before Graham could say anything else, an interior door opened and a man stepped through. Immediately, the entire room fell silent.
Arvin Sloane wasn't a big man--in fact he was rather slight, with soft features and silver hair that made him look older than he was. But his presence filled any room he entered.
"Good morning," he greeted the others, taking a seat in the large leather chair at the head of the table. "I'm glad you're all here; we have some important business to discuss."
Sydney smiled and leaned forward. This is it, she thought. This is when we find out what that last crazy mission was all about. What we risked our lives for.
Sloane turned to meet her gaze. "Sydney," he said abruptly. "You know how to ride a horse, right?"
Sydney blinked, startled by the unexpected question. "Well--well, sure, I guess," she said, slightly unnerved by having Sloane's cool, intelligent gaze focused so intently on her. "I mean, I rode some at boarding school. I wouldn't say I was great at it or anything--I probably only rode once a week at the most--but I didn't usually fall off or anything, and, um . . ."
She knew she was babbling. Taking a deep breath, she forced herself to stop. She nodded briskly to clarify her answer to the question.
"Good," Sloane said, as if he hadn't noticed her long-winded response. He glanced around the room. "We have an important new mission," he said. "And Sydney will be going undercover."