Chapter Twelve

Chapter Twelve
Loss

It was the middle of the following day when Sydney noticed the dissension among Mr. and Mrs. Vaughn. The conversation between the duo was stiff and perfunctory; any sort of physical contact was avoided, and they seemed to arrive and leave separately. Vaughn had talked about spending many evenings at Sydney’s place with her and their displaced trio, but Sydney figured it was because he wanted to get to know Sophie better. However, when Maria Fuentes, Isabelle’s mother, was mentioned in the context of the strange documents found inside the safe-deposit box in New York at a briefing Wednesday, Sydney saw the flicker of bitterness in Lauren’s eyes. She knew then—Vaughn had told Lauren the truth.

She knew about Isabelle…and Sophie.

Sydney felt a bit of sympathy for her…that is, until she suggested that just anyone could have planted the canister in the safe-deposit box in New York and the choice could have been random.

She didn’t hesitate to disagree.

“I disagree,” Sydney said coolly. Lauren turned green eyes just as cool upon Sydney. “Maria Fuentes was the wife of Alejandro Garza, and together they bore Isabelle. We can’t ignore the fact that Garza had Covenant connections and an affection for Rambaldi artifacts. Someone wanted these pages in Isabelle’s possession. Someone wanted her to have access to them.”

“But why?” Vaughn inquired. He addressed Dixon with his next question. “Do we have any idea what the pages say?”

“The code keys used for previous Rambaldi documents so far have proven useless in cracking the code these pages are written in,” Jack responded. He paused, then looked at his daughter. “That is, except for one of them.” Sydney’s mouth parted as if she wanted to say something, but then her father added, “This particular page…is blank.”

The room went quiet. Everyone remembered, especially Sydney, the significance of the blank page 47. Sydney could feel Vaughn looking at her but she raised her gaze from the folder in front of her to Dixon at the head of their circle. She didn’t want to see whatever lurked in Vaughn’s eyes. Pursing her lips together and exhaling smoothly, Sydney decided to break the heavy silence that had fallen upon them.

“The liquid in the ampoule we have—does it work on this blank page?” Sydney wanted to know.

“No,” Jack responded. “The page did not respond to the chemicals in the liquid.”

“Are these pages really from Rambaldi, then?” Lauren wanted to know. “If nothing has worked, perhaps they are a clever forgery.”

“The pages have the watermark,” Dixon explained. “So they are part of a real Rambaldi manuscript. We just don’t know what it could be about.”

At that, Dixon discussed other issues and missions the task force was responsible for, but Sydney only half-listened.

After the briefing, Sydney rose from her seat and walked out of the room without saying a word. She ended up at her desk and it was only then that she realized that her heart was pounding. It was déjà vu; she recalled the moment Vaughn had showed her page 47; she recalled her fear and rage when the Department of Special Research all but abducted her because of it.

She froze when she felt a hand on her shoulder. She inhaled, straightening, and turned to face Michael Vaughn.

Sydney tried to swallow whatever emotions that were threatening to rise and spoke softly. “Um, maybe we should tell Isabelle about this.”

Vaughn stared at her, his gaze searching her every cell, inside and outside. Concern lurked in his green eyes that had those raging sentiments intensifying. Among the most potent was regret.

“Yes, we will,” Vaughn agreed. “But now I’m worried about you.” She could see the flicker in his eyes as he realized that he could not touch her the way he used to. “This has to be a not-so welcome incident for you. I remember what anguish you went through when page 47 was revealed.” His hand slid down her arm and touched her wrist. “I’m sorry.”

Sydney nodded, not able to speak any words. The silence that fell between them was comfortable, sweet.

The sound of Dixon’s shoes tapping across the floor snapped Sydney and Vaughn out of their moment. Jack followed him, and understanding that something huge was happening Weiss and Lauren came from their desks to hear what Dixon had to say.

“I just got word from the homicide lieutenant with the Gracia Police Department,” Dixon began hurriedly, “that there was a shooting at a museum the other night.” He paused a beat and looked Vaughn meaningfully. “The victim was Marisol Sebastian.”

Vaughn sucked in a breath abruptly. His manner suddenly changed, and he thought of nothing but Isabelle. Sydney could see it in his eyes, but she could hardly blame him. She’d done the same.

However, Sydney detected the slightest frisson of resentment from Lauren.

“We have to assume that the Covenant thought of Marisol Sebastian as a danger to their acquisition of the Globe,” Jack told the younger agents around him. “Until the investigation into her death is complete, we can only speculate. Not to mention, Isabelle could be in even greater danger at this stage.”

The quiet that fell among them was brutal. Vaughn gazed at Dixon, and Dixon nodded imperceptibly. Without a backward glance, Vaughn stalked away. Sydney and Lauren, both with different purposes in mind, went after him.

“What are you doing?” Lauren demanded. “Please tell me you’re not going to see Isabelle now.”

“We have to tell her,” Vaughn remarked urgently as he strode out of the pen with his car keys in hand. “She won’t accept it from anyone else.”

Lauren grabbed his arm, tried to slow him down. She only succeeded in making him vaguely irritated. “Michael,” she implored him, “you need a moment to collect yourself. You can’t go and give Isabelle the news this way.”

A few steps behind them, Sydney disagreed. “Vaughn will hold.” Vaughn paused and turned around to face her as Lauren merely shifted to stare at him without acknowledging Sydney. “If we don’t tell her now, she’ll find out from some news report on TV and that’ll make her even more upset.”

A bit shocked that Sydney was backing him, Vaughn lost some of his fervor and merely nodded. The look he gave Sydney was some parts relief, some parts gratitude. It was almost like old times.

Because of that, Sydney said, “I’ll drive.”

[—-]

At Sydney’s apartment, cleanliness and order ruled, per usual. There were no signs that Isabelle, Nicole, and Sophie occupied Sydney’s living space except for the pictures that Sophie had drawn. A new one joined its mates on the refrigerator: a bird in flight. They saw Isabelle at the sink, clad in jeans and a long-sleeved shirt in a burnt orange hue. Her long curly mane was pulled back from her face with a clip. She was washing the dishes they had used for lunch.

“What’s going on?” Isabelle emerged from Sydney’s kitchen with a towel in her hands. She took in the solemn faces of the two CIA agents and the NSC liaison with a frown. “Has there been a new development?”

Her question was ill met with silence. Sydney and Vaughn shared a look, a look that Isabelle was too shrewd to ignore. She quirked an eyebrow at them as apprehension gnawed at her belly.

“Is there something you need to tell me?” Isabelle drew up as if to make herself look stronger, taller. “You can tell me. I’m not a weakling.”

Vaughn squeezed his eyes shut for a moment as he spoke to hold in the impending tears. “Isabelle, we do not think you’re weak. Just bear with us—”

“I wish you would just tell me what’s going on,” Isabelle interrupted him. “Stop beating around the bush. Could it be that hard—?”

“Your best friend is dead, Isabelle,” Vaughn snapped out in a manner reminiscent of ripping off a stubborn band-aid.

Blinking and shaking her head, she said, “What? My best friend…?”

“Marisol,” Vaughn clarified with his green eyes blazing, over bright with emotion. “Marisol Sebastian is dead.”

All of the blood drained from Isabelle’s face leaving it the shade of wax paper. Her hands went limp and dropped at her sides. The dish towel that had formerly been in her competent hands fluttered soundlessly to the floor.

“No,” she uttered, her voice ashen.

Vaughn’s eyes watered a little as he shook his head and came toward her. “Isabelle—”

When her fortified composure startled to crumple, the chasm began at the trembling lips and then continued at the rapidly filling eyes. “Stop it. Stop telling me lies, Michael!” She balled up her fists and pounded them against his chest. “Marisol is not…”

“She’s dead, Izzy,” Vaughn insisted firmly, his voice husky with the anguish in his throat. He grabbed her thumping fists and held them forcefully as she tried to yank them away. The nickname was what fractured Isabelle into a sobbing mess. She shook her head in denial even as the tears poured from her eyes, and Vaughn nodded his head in opposition to her tearful rebuttal. “I’m sorry. She was killed last night at her museum in Gracia. They found her there this morning.”

Sydney and Lauren both witnessed Isabelle’s knees giving out from under her, and she collapsed into Vaughn’s waiting arms. There she quietly wept against his chest, her shoulders shaking with the force of her grief. He closed his eyes as he held her against him, caressing her hair and telling her it would be all right as his dress shirt soaked up her tears. It was a familiar tableau for them, but not a comfortable one.

Sydney remembered Isabelle sitting on her couch with a throw pillow in her lap the other night. She remembered the affection in her eyes when she mentioned her mother and her best friend from childhood who had traveled the world. A friend who was a close second to the two most important people in her life at the moment. A friend who was now dead due to the machinations of an international terrorist organization that cared nothing for innocents like Marisol Sebastian. So the loss was not something that could be ignored; it was akin to losing a limb. And damned if Sydney Bristow didn’t know how that felt.

Sydney stepped forward and placed her hand on Isabelle’s quaking shoulder for moral support. But it didn’t feel like enough; she wanted to offer more. So she stepped even closer and wrapped her arms around Isabelle. Sydney rested her cheek on the back of her curly head and took in her misery, presented warmth where it was slowly slipping away.

Vaughn opened his eyes a crack as if he had scented Sydney near. When he did, he found a pair of hazel eyes staring back at him. It had seemed that Isabelle had unknowingly bridged some gap between them while also become closer to each of them herself. For a moment, the union seemed out of the ordinary, almost outlandish. Especially with Lauren nearby.

Vaughn slid the hand that he’d had on Isabelle’s arm down a fraction so that it was touching Sydney’s. They stood as one.

And in the doorway, Nicole, amid her grief for Isabelle, watched Lauren Reed with a growing sense of suspicion.

[—-]

Several miles away, thirty-two-year-old Jessica Thomas, in the middle of the dinner rush at the restaurant of which she was part owner, broke down into tears.

Detective Mick O’Lara, who was accompanied by his friend and counterpart for this expedition, Detective Kelvin Danner, relinquished professional stoicism and placed a comforting hand upon Jessica’s quaking shoulder. He was relieved that Kelvin, who had known Jessica since high school, had had the foresight to take their exchange to the restaurant’s cramped but efficient office away from prying eyes. From what Mick had heard about the fierce Jessica Kathleen Thomas, the happening of her bursting into such anguished tears was a rare sight indeed.

“You were the last person who had any contact with Ms. Sebastian, Jess,” Kelvin said as Jessica seemed to be winding down. Mick hoped that his presence would soften Jessica enough to open up to them. “Did she seem to be in any danger when you last spoke?”

“She was at the museum alone,” Jessica told Kelvin, swiping the back of her hand under her wet nose. “I told her she should be at home.” Her mouth tightened. “While we were talking she said she thought she had heard something. Maybe…” Jessica shook her head and swallowed back anymore tears. Mick had to admire that in her; she had spine. “That sonofabitch who killed her was probably there when she talked to me. If she hadn’t been distracted…”

“Did she routinely call you while at the museum alone, Ms. Thomas?” Mick asked.

Jessica raised her eyes to his, and those deep aqua pools were cool. “Marisol and I spoke routinely, Detective O’Lara, but she rarely called me from the museum unless she had something on her mind.” As if listening to her own words, Jessica paused thoughtfully and stared off into space.

“What is it, Jess?” Kelvin inquired. “Do you remember something?”

Marisol, what does Isabelle Flannery’s father have to do with my grandmother?

“Grandmaman,” Jessica murmured idly.

Mick and Kelvin shared a glance. Before either one of them could speak, the door to the office opened and Cassandra Strattford appeared, flanked by three others. Seeing her cousin, Jessica went on alert, and Kelvin and Mick straightened when faced with their homicide lieutenant.

“Lieutenant Richardson-Cain,” Kelvin said, sounding like he wanted to salute. In another situation, it would have been comical.

Jessica’s face slackened. “Dawn,” she managed.

Mick could not manage to put a clamp on his exasperation before it spewed out. “Aw hell, boss. What the hell is it now?” When Dawn laid blazing brown eyes on him, he only dug himself in deeper trouble by saying, “This had better be good.”

“This is not a good time to be on my shit list, O’Lara,” Dawn Richardson-Cain warned in a low, dangerous voice that was her trademark in the bullpen. Not wanting to go a round with the lieutenant in front of guests, Mick remained silent. Dawn gave a brisk nod to her detectives and they stepped back. She moved to allow a tall black man and a slim brunette access to the room—and Jessica.

“They needed to talk to you, Jess,” Cassandra told her cousin calmly, but worry swam in her ice-blue eyes. “Is everything—?”

“We’ve got it from here, Cassandra,” Dawn said gently. “You’d better go back out there before they start burning the tablecloths.” Hearing the quiet dismissal in Dawn’s voice, Cassandra sent her cousin a look before going back out into the melee. When the door was closed behind them, Dawn turned to address the three pairs of inquisitive eyes.

“I’m sorry for the interruption, Detectives, but it came to my attention that we might need assistance on this case.” She gestured to the man and woman beside her. “These are Marcus Dixon, the Director of the Joint Task Force on Intelligence for the CIA, and one of the agents in his division, Sydney Bristow. It appears that Marisol Sebastian’s death might be related to a case they are working on.” She paused to allow for the detectives to exchanged acknowledgments with the two CIA agents then turned to Jessica. “I know all of this is overwhelming for you, Jessica, but you have to come with us.”

Jessica’s eyes widened. “You don’t think I—”

“Jessica,” Dawn interrupted, “I can’t go into detail here. It’s not safe.” She lowered her tone, softened it for a friend. “You just have to trust me on this one.”

Jessica’s gaze flickered over Kelvin and Mick, then on Sydney and Dixon opposite them. After a humming moment, she lowered her chin and acquiesced to Dawn leading her out. The detectives and the two CIA agents followed.

[—-]

Sometime later, the questioning resumed at CIA headquarters conference room. Dawn and Dixon were not in the conference room; they were trying to hack through the red tape that came with Gracia P.D.’s cooperation with the CIA. Kelvin had returned to the police station since he was not officially part of the case.

“Ms. Thomas, you have to tell us everything you remember about the conversation you had with Ms. Sebastian,” Sydney began when they were settled in. “It is very important.”

“Ms. Thomas was just telling us that Ms. Sebastian had something on her mind before you walked in,” Mick told Sydney. He had decided that he was slightly annoyed with the CIA butting in on a homicide in which he was primary. But experience had taught him that jumping to conclusions were for dumbasses. So he would wait and see how things would turn out.

“I don’t think it matters much,” Jessica remarked archly. “I don’t think it’s going to help you find her killer to press me on the subject.”

“We’ll be the judge of that,” Sydney countered. She crossed her arms and waited patiently for Jessica to speak.

Jessica stared at Sydney unflinchingly. “She called because she wanted to know if I could do something for her. She was probably going to ask me to look up someone. I have contacts in various areas as well as resources in most of North America and Europe.”

Ah, Mick thought as he straightened. There’s a bit of defensiveness in her tone… “Was it a friend? An old lover?”

“No,” Jessica replied succinctly.

“So who was it?”

Jessica gazed warily at Mick as if sizing him up. She took in his tall, muscular frame, the curling dark brown hair that flirted with his collar. She assessed the sharpness in his gray-green eyes. She then lifted her water cup and took a long drink from it. As she lowered the cup, Sydney noticed her hand trembled and wondered if Jessica was scared. What could she be afraid of?

“Ms. Thomas?” Sydney prompted.

Jessica set the cup aside, addressed her inquisitors. “I had gotten a call from Marisol about a week ago. She was bemused, which was uncommon for her. She’d said she’d gotten a call from her best friend who had donated the new artifacts to her museum, and her friend had asked her if a certain thing was among the collection.”

At this point, Mick looked sidelong at Sydney. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the invisible antenna on her head was vibrating. But he was fully aware that there was something beyond his comprehension was happening here. His resentment of the stunning CIA agent rose a few notches.

“She didn’t find it straight out, but she’d examined all of the donated artifacts for anything.” Jessica paused then and swallowed. “She’d said she found something strange. A piece of paper. With a name on it.”

“A name?” Sydney leaned forward. “Did she tell you the name?”

Jessica chuckled sardonically. “Oh yeah. I dropped a plate when she did.” Sydney arched a brow in question. To that, Jessica responded rather reluctantly, “Evangeline Gosselin. The name on the piece of paper was Evangeline Gosselin.”

Sydney straightened, brow furrowed thoughtfully; this time, Mick leaned in. “Do you know this Evangeline Gosselin? After all, the mere mention of her induced you to drop a plate.”

“Of course I know her. I’ve only known her for—oh—all my life.” When Mick and Sydney looked perplexed, she clarified, “Evangeline Gosselin is my biological father’s mother.”

Mick remembered Jessica’s expression in the office before Dawn had entered with the CIA at her heels. Grandmaman. In the silence that ensued after Jessica’s statement, Sydney’s mouth firmed. She issued Jessica a brisk thank you before rushing from the room.

Mick also excused himself and went after Sydney. Questions whizzing around in his mind, he caught up with the determined brunette and whirled her around. He figured a smart man would be burned by the searing glare that shot out of Sydney’s eyes, but he could be pretty stupid sometimes. So he bore it and spoke.

“Now before you open your mouth and start snarling about CIA superiority,” Mick began as Sydney’s eyes narrowed and cooled, “I would like to remind you that Marisol Sebastian is one of mine. I will not just hand you my investigation to you on a silver platter. I promised her family I would find her killer and I always keep my promises.”

When Sydney spoke again, her voice was low, even, and terse. “I am very sorry, Detective O’Lara, but Marisol Sebastian’s death is possibly indicative of a problem you wouldn’t have any idea how to handle so if you would excuse me”—she wrenched her arm out of his tight grip—“I have a job to do.”

Mick crossed his arms over his chest. “How would you know I couldn’t handle it?”

“This is not simple breaking and entering, Detective,” Sydney told him. “This is an issue international in scope.”

“So then I’ll widen my scope.” Sydney’s mouth tightened but she said nothing. “I will not sit idly by as you usurp my homicide from me.” Pausing for a bit and taking in the insolent gleam in Sydney’s hazel-green eyes, he decided to try a different tack. A little reversal wouldn’t hurt at this point. “At least let me help. I’m pretty sure you could use another head. Especially one that isn’t thinking international in scope.”

Sydney tilted her head slightly. “Do you think I wouldn’t do right by Marisol Sebastian, Detective O’Lara?”

“You’re thinking too big,” Mick responded. “Marisol Sebastian and Gracia are just small specks on your map, Agent Bristow. So yes, I think you wouldn’t do right by Marisol Sebastian.”

Sydney took a good, long look at Mick O’Lara. He seemed the rough-and-tumble type, and a five-o’clock shadow shaded his jawline. He was your proverbial rough-edged man, but, if you looked into his eyes, there lied hints of a deeper determination and caring. Marisol Sebastian was not fodder for a filing cabinet for him; she was a real person who’d had her life snuffed out mercilessly, and he sought justice for her.

“I understand your reasoning, Detective O’Lara,” Sydney finally said. “And what’s even more, I don’t resent you for it.”

“Good to know. So why’s this Evangeline Gosselin so important? Is she some sort of mob mama with terrorist connections?”

“There’s no telling.” She looked over Mick’s shoulder and saw Lieutenant Cain walking down the hallway accompanied by Dixon. From the looks of it, they were deep in conversation, and she saw her name come from Dixon’s lips a couple of times. Yeah, there was probably going to be no avoiding it now. When her eyes shifted, Mick frowned then followed her gaze.

“It looks like you’re gonna have to play nice after all, Agent Bristow,” Mick remarked. He looked back to her. “You don’t bite do you?”

“Don’t worry,” Sydney quipped dryly as she crossed her arms over her chest. “I’ve got my shots.”

 

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