In New York some hours later, Isabelle and Vaughn rode in a rented car driven by Weiss down the traffic-laden streets. As Weiss, dressed as a driver for an important, wealthy couple, navigated the road, Vaughn and Isabelle sat in the backseat, stonily silent.
Vaughn was clad in a dark gray suit with a white dress shirt undone at the collar. He was the picture of relaxed wealth, and his wedding ring still glinted on his left ring finger, the supposed compliment to the twinkling diamond on Isabelle’s left hand. He didn’t appear much different than he did when they left Los Angeles except for the faux wire-rimmed glasses he wore.
Isabelle, on the other hand, had taken a total one-eighty in her appearance; the sedate navy pant suit she’d wore to the briefing was traded in for a lightweight cowl-necked dress in a burnt sienna hue framed her curves coupled with pearls and a wide seal-brown belt that cinched her slim waist. The matching shoes were comfortable enough for her to walk in while enhancing her appearance and height. Makeup was slight and included subtle blush and her lips smoothly painted in a slightly darker tinge than the dress. Her dark curly hair was meticulously straightened and left to lushly cover her shoulders. Pearl earrings hung on her ears and completed the look.
Weiss flicked a glance in the rearview mirror at them then back at the road. Vaughn sat with his legs slightly apart but not touching Isabelle. Isabelle, meanwhile, had her hands in her lap. They both watched as the scenery of New York City passed them by. “I could probably hear a cockroach sneeze in this silence.”
Neither one of them said anything.
“Come on, you two. What if you never get a chance to talk like this ever again except for on Jerry Springer?”
“Michael. Isabelle. Really. Let’s be adults, okay? I know you’re pissed at each other, but you have to at least act like you’re on speaking terms. Though,” Weiss added thoughtfully, “pretending like you’ve had a married spat could be just as believable.”
“That was not a spat,” Isabelle said stiffly as she crossed her legs. “That was Michael being a macho chauvinist pig.”
“I was not being a macho chauvinist pig,” Vaughn countered. “I was trying to make sure that nothing happened to you while a known international terrorist was chasing you. And we won’t even talk about the treatment of my wife.”
“Nicole was only reacting to the vibes she was getting from your wife,” Isabelle reminded him, the phrase your wife coming out as if it tasted sour. She held her breath a second, trying to dispel the burning fury in her belly. She exhaled when she felt calmer and her words came out smoother, gentler. She didn’t like the thought of quarrelling with him like she was his wife. “Look, Michael, Eric has a point. We can’t be angry at each other like this. I know what I did was impulsive, but the truth is, I had to do something.” She turned toward him and placed her hand on his, covering the gold ring he wore. “Honestly, I don’t want to think about what could have happened if I hadn’t acted so quickly.” She softened her expression and batted her eyelashes at him, using a technique she’d employed when they were better acquainted years ago.
“Aw, Isabelle, come on,” Vaughn pleaded as he tried to look away. “Don’t pull that act. It didn’t work then, and it’s not going to work now.”
Vaughn stole a glance at her and Isabelle blinked coquettishly again. A second passed. A smile transformed Vaughn’s features and they both broke out into laughter.
“God, Isabelle. Only you could pull that off.” She did it again, and Vaughn laughed harder. “Iz, quit. You look like you have something in your eye.”
As laughter tapered off, Isabelle’s face sobered a bit. She looked at him with a bit of amazement. “Michael…you called me Iz. You have done that in years.”
“Well, I haven’t really seen you in years. How long has it been?”
“Truthfully, the last time you and I laid eyes on each other was after Sydney Bristow had been killed in a fire and my mother had succumbed to cervical cancer.” She watched him as he swallowed once, hard. “And I don’t think that qualified as a social visit.”
They locked eyes then, and silence descended upon the backseat. Weiss glanced at them in the rearview after it seemed that it was too quiet. Isabelle had her forehead nestled in the crook of his neck; her expression now was filled with anguish. Vaughn had his arms wrapped around her, but the gesture was hardly romantic. He comforted her from a demon Weiss had no knowledge of. Something had changed in the moments of their meeting of the eyes, and now tears swam in Isabelle’s eyes.
“If we find the Globe, what will that mean?” Isabelle asked in a soft whisper. She lifted her head and peered into Vaughn’s eyes again. Her next statement, along with the dread in those green depths of her eyes, was so brief that it jolted him to the core. “I’m scared.”
Right at that moment, Weiss stopped at the curb in front of the bank. The engine idled in the quiet. Isabelle straightened so that she was upright.
“We’re here,” Weiss informed them unnecessarily, as if they didn’t know by the immense building to their right.
Isabelle closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, a ruse Vaughn knew she used when she wanted to get into a character. At that moment, she was preparing to play herself. Vaughn’s hands rose to her shoulders and cupped them firmly. He made sure that her eyes were locked to his before he spoke.
“Do you want to go through with this?” Vaughn inquired, searching her eyes for any sign of subterfuge. If there was any there, he’d see it. He knew her well enough.
“That’s a loaded question.”
Vaughn gripped her shoulders with urgency. Only she would make such a bullshit comment at a time like this. “Isabelle. Do you, or don’t you?” he pressed. “We can back out now. We can get on the plane and go back to Los Angeles. I can take you and Sophie and Nicole somewhere you will be safe until this is all over. Just tell me what you want to do.”
Isabelle firmed her mouth and stared back at him. Fire lurked in those olive orbs and burned away all traces of fear. “If you think I’m going to back out now, then you must be out of your mind.” She grabbed her brown bag and looked to Weiss. “Let’s start the show, Eric.”
Shrugging, Weiss complied. “Yes, ma’am.” He switched on his communications link to Sydney. “Mountaineer, this is Retriever, checking in. Boy Scout and Big Bad Mama are on their way.”
“Big Bad Mama?” Vaughn inquired. It was the first he’d heard of this.
“We came up with it while you were in the bathroom on the plane,” Sydney said in his ear. “I think it fits.”
“It figures you two would team up against me,” Vaughn remarked. “Really, really cute.”
“We women have to stick together.” She turned to him as Weiss got out of the car so that he could let them out. “You know, for the record: if we’d ever gotten married, I’d’ve kept my name.”
“Gee—did you burn your bra while I wasn’t looking? You’re more talented than I thought.” For that remark, Vaughn earned a jab in the ribs. “Ouch. Remind me to never piss you off again.”
“Duly noted.” Isabelle inhaled deeply then exhaled. When she looked at him, her eyes were calm, cool, collected. She had an uncanny knack for shielding her eyes sometimes. “Are you ready?”
Vaughn met her gaze with the same unflappable calm. “Ready.”
At that moment, Weiss opened the door and Isabelle waited a beat before sliding her slim legs out onto the sidewalk. She stepped gracefully out of the car, inciting more than a few stares as she righted herself and waited for Vaughn to exit the car as well. Weiss gazed at her and let out a low whistle.
“Knock ‘em dead, Big Bad Mama,” Weiss told her softly.
Isabelle said nothing but turned her head toward him slightly, lips curved in a smirk.
Meanwhile, Samara Lewis, now with bobbed auburn hair, watched as the duo entered the bank.
She herself was there in the guise of opening an account with the bank, and the over-eager account manager she’d encountered was currently extolling his palatial summer home in Tahiti. Pretending to be interested and knowing someplace deep inside that he was lying, she witnessed the woman stride up to the nearest bank teller and inquire about looking at the contents of her safe-deposit box. The teller stepped aside to alert the bank manager, who spied the well-dressed couple and hurried right over. Samara rolled her eyes as Isabelle charmed him with a smile and a few well-chosen words. She was such a good actress. Blah, blah, blah. Could they get on with it?
The bank manager led Isabelle and the guy to a computer nearby. She gave him the salient information, and he looked up the location of her box.
“So anyhow,” the guy (who cared to remember his name?) simpered, “I spent a week there last July and I’m telling you I have never had so much fun.” Then he leered at her as the sound of Isabelle’s laughter met her ears. “Tell me, could you imagine lying on a beach full of white sand…”
It only took a second, but it was enough for Samara to see what she wanted to see. She flicked her eyes in Isabelle’s direction and saw the bank manager leading them away to the safe deposit box. Her counterpart had placed his hand upon the small of her back in a gesture of familiarity. Well, well, well. It appeared that Isabelle knew this man. Who was he?
Maybe we can use him, Samara mused as she looked back at her innocuous, unwitting quarry. “Actually, I prefer going au naturel,” Samara drawled in the Southern accent that completed her disguise, allowing for enough heat to enter her voice to make him sweat. The funny thing was, if he had been observant enough, he would have noticed that those ice-like eyes were devoid of desire.
He tugged at his collar and loosened his tie. Yes, easy as pie. “You’re quite…brave, Ms. Carlyle.”
Samara chuckled at the statement. “Brave? Believe me, sugar, that’s something I can never be.” You actually have to be afraid to be brave. And Samara, so far, was incapable of any vestiges of fear.
Was it cocky of her to think so? Perhaps, or maybe she had overcome the shackles of apprehension in the realization that she owed no one any allegiance, even the smooth Julian Sark, with whom she had parted several hours before. Sark had cited an important bit of business he had to take care of. Despite the severity of his injuries, he had healed well, and she admired his diligence. But there had been something underneath his cool exterior, something hinting at a deeper problem. She hadn’t asked even when he’d only told her that he was seeing an associate and that he would let her—and only her—know when he returned.
She didn’t have the time to think about it at the moment, even though she was intrigued—and more than she liked to admit. She was on a mission now, and she was after whatever was in the box.
Forget dressing up and pretending to be that simpering idiot Isabelle Flannery. She was going to wait for the treasure to come to her. And Isabelle would be the one bringing it.
“So how long have we been in wedded bliss?” Mr. Arnold asked Isabelle and Vaughn as they walked down the corridor that led to the safe deposit boxes.
It had seemed, as Isabelle and Vaughn had had the dubious pleasure of finding out, that Lucas Arnold was a bona fide romantic. He had been married himself for sixteen years, and didn’t hesitate to tell them so. Now he was grilling the couple like he was Chuck Woolery on Love Connection. It was disconcerting because they knew Sydney and Weiss could hear the whole exchange and would probably tease them about it later.
Behind his back, Isabelle and Vaughn shared a harried glance. In it, Isabelle designated Vaughn to respond to the question. Rolling his eyes, he replied in the voice of a happily married husband, “Oh, the two of us have been married for about eight years. It’s been eight wonderful, glorious years.” As Mr. Arnold glanced back, Vaughn sent Isabelle an adoring look. “She always said it was my boyish good looks and sensitivity that bowled her over. Wasn’t it darling?”
Isabelle met his gaze with a twinkle in her eye. Vaughn recognized it; it usually appeared when she intended to cause some mischief. Aw hell. “Oh no, dear. It was the sex I came for.” When Mr. Arnold’s face blanched with shock, Isabelle executed a false head laugh and waved a hand at him. It seemed he was a romantic—in a Leave It to Beaver, sleep-in-separate-beds kind of way. “My love—he’s such a kidder.” She leaned in and added softly with a conspiratorial wink, “And a real animal in bed, if you must know.”
Vaughn, sensing that Mr. Arnold was getting uncomfortable, nudged Isabelle. “Darling!” he admonished. “I don’t think the nice man wants to know about the kinky stuff you like to do.” He shifted to Mr. Arnold and managed to look exasperated. “I had to get her to leave the whips and chains at home.”
“Me?” Isabelle exclaimed hotly, arms crossed over her chest. “I’m not the one who has the shipment from Hustler every month. I’d think by now Hugh Hefner would be jealous.”
Mr. Arnold, expression pinched, looked at his watch. “Ah yes, I have an appointment I have to keep.” He turned and quickly found the box he was looking for. He inserted the key into the lock and then turned to the duo with a bit less finesse than before. “I will leave you two to…” He took in their faces, remembered what he had just learned about the sharply-dressed gentleman and the beautiful, classy-looking woman. “To do.” He waved a hand in dismissal, then left.
After a few beats, Vaughn and Isabelle shared a look. Then they succumbed to giggles.
When they were recovering from their mirth, Isabelle sighed heavily and shook her head. “I thought we’d never get rid of him.”
“You’re telling me.” He quirked an eyebrow at her. “Oh no, dear. It was the sex I came for?”
“I don’t think the man wants to know about the kinky stuff you like to do?” Isabelle shot back, mimicking his tone exactly. “Yeah, really nice. He’s going to go tell all of his puritanical friends that I’m a superfreak and I’m going to get phone calls to do porno movies.”
“If she does one, tell her I’ll be first in line to buy it,” Weiss quipped in Vaughn’s ear. “I support all kinds of artistic endeavors.”
“I bet you do,” Vaughn muttered wryly. Vaughn nodded at the box in front of them when Isabelle tilted her head at him. “So let’s see what’s inside.” When he spoke again, he addressed Sydney and Weiss while Isabelle moved to extract the box. “How are we looking, guys?”
“I’ve got no strange frequencies over here, Boy Scout,” Sydney responded. “What about you, Retriever? Or are you stuck imagining Big Bad Mama in garters with a whip?”
“Very funny. Got nothing but friendlies in my vision. And by the way,” Weiss added after a pause, “we are so going to get some meatball subs after this. Tell me, does you-know-who know about your Hustler fetish?”
Vaughn chuckled and said, “I’m not going to live that down aren’t I?” Isabelle looked at him inquisitively. “How do you feel about eating a meatball sub after all of this is over?” he asked her.
One side of Isabelle’s coral-hued mouth twitched. “Put extra marinara and Swiss on mine.” She pursed her lips as she eased the box from the compartment. “All right. Here she comes.” Isabelle held the box gingerly as if she were afraid she was going to drop it, and if she did, it would shatter into a million pieces. Vaughn found himself holding his breath in anticipation as Isabelle moved the box to the table nearby.
They locked eyes for a couple of beats, green on green. Vaughn could see that some of Isabelle’s shield had slipped and he could see the blend of fear and curiosity in her eyes. He firmed his mouth and tried to send her some reassurance through his own. She bit her lip and looked down at her hand. Vaughn followed her gaze as she moved her hands from the box slowly.
Isabelle asked softly in a voice that reminded him of Sophie for some reason, “You wanna open it?”
“What the hell?!” Vaughn uttered in disbelief. “Iz, you open it. It’s your box, dammit.”
Isabelle blew out a breath through her lips. “Okay, okay. Fine.” With a furrow of her eyebrows, Isabelle lifted the lid on the metal box. Vaughn noticed that she’d breathed in sharply right before as if she were diving into the ocean. Honestly, he didn’t blame her. If there was something inside that box of any importance, it would change her life forever. And his, too.
The first thing they spied was a framed photograph of Isabelle and her siblings, taken when her stepsiblings were teens. Softness came into her eyes then as she took in the faces of her family and picked the picture up. She allowed herself to linger on it briefly before moving to the other contents of the box. She fingered a string of diamonds as Vaughn moved aside various belongings and touched a strange steel canister that Isabelle had never seen before. It was about six inches long and about the circumference of a flashlight.
“What is that?” Isabelle wanted to know. “I’ve never…” She raised her eyes to Vaughn’s as the agent in him surfaced. “Could that be…?”
Vaughn contacted his fellow agents then. “It looks like we’ve got something here.” He lifted the canister, twisted the cap open with his gaze on Isabelle. When he upended it, yellowed paper slid out, weakened by time. Hands trembling slightly, Vaughn extracted one of the aged sheets and gently unrolled it. He perused the paper, looking for something that was familiar to him. It was written in a jumble of words and letters that made no sense to him, but the fact that it didn’t make sense to him had a strange feeling snaking up his spine. When it dawned on him what the paper and its mates resembled, he paled and his face went slack.
“What is it, man?” Weiss pressed. “What’s going on?”
Spying the look in his eyes, Isabelle’s lips parted as if she wanted to speak, but she couldn’t force the words from her lips. And he didn’t have to speak; his stare told her all she needed to know.
“Boy Scout?” Sydney’s voice came through this time, and she sounded very concerned. “Tell us what you’ve got.”
“It’s a canister,” Vaughn finally said. “It has old and yellowed papers inside. And the writing…” Isabelle’s head tilted in confusion as silence lapsed for a moment. “The handwriting looks like Rambaldi’s. But I can’t be too sure.”
“Rambaldi?” Isabelle repeated, head straight. Vaughn didn’t address her but spoke to his co-workers instead, turning away a bit. Isabelle’s eyes fell to the box again as her mind raced, and her thoughts stopped dead in their tracks when she spied the corner of a worn envelope sticking out of the frame of the photo she’d been looking at. Wondering what it meant, Isabelle pulled it from its hiding place and placed it in her purse. She would show it to Vaughn later.
Sydney sat in the van parked across the street from the bank, monitoring the screens in front of her and listening to the voices of her co-workers in her ear.
The conversation that Isabelle and Vaughn had carried on with the bank manager made her want to retch. Not because she was jealous at any implied closeness between the two; she, hearing the exchange through Vaughn, had caught every nauseating cadence of Lucas Arnold’s voice. She could understand why it had made Isabelle and Vaughn uncomfortable with its over-cloying quality. However, the easy tones of her allies indicated that they’d had some sort of reconciliation in the car before the communication links were switched on, and that made Sydney a little less tense—and a bit envious, too. She hadn’t had a moment to be alone with Vaughn since Valladolid, and neither one of them had brought up the accident that had occurred before their trek to Isabelle’s house since.
Sydney was brought back to Earth when she heard Isabelle say, “Oh no, dear—it was the sex I came for.” She felt a bit of impish enjoyment when they had cleverly dispatched the busybody Arnold and got down to business. She imagined Lauren would be quite shocked at hearing her husband being talked about that way.
Sydney listened in anticipation as Isabelle and Vaughn opened the box and perused its contents. Her heart dropped into her stomach when she heard the dreaded word come across Vaughn’s lips: Rambaldi.
Not her, too.
Sydney cursed silently as Vaughn spoke to her and Weiss. She heard Isabelle putting the box back into its compartment in the background and wondered how she was taking this. From the sounds of it, she was concealing whatever emotions were coursing through her at the moment, talking politely to everyone and even stopping to sign an autograph. Sydney checked her equipment again to make sure that their communications weren’t being eavesdropped upon. So far so good.
That is, until a loud crash came through and angry shouts followed. There was quite a bit of shuffling, and Sydney got no reply from either agent when she asked what was going on.
“Iz, are you all right?” Vaughn inquired.
“She took my purse!” Isabelle exclaimed breathlessly. “It has—” Suddenly Isabelle’s voice grew faint and the sounds of background noise and Vaughn’s heavy breathing intensified. “Michael! Michael, come back!”
“Retriever, do you copy?” Sydney inquired hurriedly into her mouthpiece. “Retriever!”
Weiss finally clicked in. “Mountaineer—the artifact has been swiped by an unknown woman. Boy Scout is tracking her now.”
Her heart leapt in her throat, and before she could stop herself, Sydney had her weapon and was darting out into the melee of traffic toward the chase.
She carefully dodged oncoming traffic, gauging her path by the rapid string of words in her ear. She spotted Vaughn first, his blazer flapping out behind him. He was on the heels of a svelte redhead in stilettos. The woman ran rather skillfully for a person wearing stilts.
The pursuit led into a deserted alley. When Sydney arrived on the scene side-by-side with Weiss and Isabelle, who had managed to keep up despite her own heels, Vaughn was grappling with the woman. Isabelle’s seal-brown purse was on the ground. The woman pushed Vaughn off of her and whipped out a gun. Without hesitation, she shot him as he tried to scramble to his feet.
Vaughn went down, hard, as the sound of the gunshot echoed through the alley. More shocked than hurt, Vaughn stumbled to his knees. The mysterious woman came toward him, ready to reclaim her treasure, but fled as Sydney, Weiss, and Isabelle came running onto the scene and to the aid of the fallen Michael Vaughn. As she hurried away with Weiss on her heels, Vaughn noticed the blood gleaming on her skinned knee.
“My God—Michael!” Isabelle cried.
“Vaughn, where are you shot?” Sydney inquired briskly, trying to put a clamp on the concern that threatened to shatter her calm.
Vaughn, breathing heavily and green eyes glassy with pain, held up Isabelle’s purse which contained the canister. “I got it.”
“That wasn’t the right answer, you idiot!” Isabelle exclaimed angrily, looking like she wanted to hit him despite his existing injuries. She took the purse from him as Sydney helped him to his feet. “You could have gotten yourself killed going after that person. Is this really that important?”
Vaughn didn’t get to answer, which was probably a good thing; Isabelle would have probably lopped his head off in her current mood. Weiss, panting heavily, returned and shifted their attention. He was alone, and judging from the rumpled state of his clothes, he hadn’t caught up with Vaughn’s assailant.
“I didn’t catch her,” Weiss told the group. He inhaled deeply to try to calm his breathing, then exhaled slowly after a few moments. “She hopped into some car and sped off. I got the plates and hopefully that’ll help when we get back to HQ.” He nodded at Vaughn. “How’s he doing?”
“Apparently, he’s just hard-headed enough to pass,” Isabelle retorted.
“I can speak for myself, thank you,” Vaughn snapped.
“We’d better get back to Los Angeles before Isabelle and Vaughn maim each other,” Sydney suggested to Weiss as Isabelle and Vaughn temporarily abandoned their truce. The other agent tiredly agreed.