Alias: Old Friends (APO Series #10)

Alias: Old Friends (APO Series #10)

by J. J. Abrams, Steven Hanna

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A terrorist cell based in China called Dark Cloud has devised a plan to release a deadly poison on entire nations using rocket technology. In true six degrees-of-separation style, Agent Sydney Bristow's friend from graduate school, Keiko Terajima, happens to be the daughter of a prominent Japanese physicist, and Dark Cloud needs his top-secret knowledge to carry out its devious plan. What's more, Keiko's married to Franklin, the son of an old colleague Jack Bristow killed years ago to protect Sydney. When APO learns that Franklin is part of an elite group of agents who marry women to gain access to information, Sydney begins to question his true intentions with Keiko.

Tracing the connections leads deeper and deeper into the terrorists' plot -- with Keiko's father and husband at the centre. Suddenly, Sydney finds herself on a mission not only to prevent the poisonous rain from devastating a country, but to save her loved ones as well.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781416937913
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: 09/01/2006
Series: Alias Series
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
File size: 316 KB

About the Author

Jeffrey Jacob “J. J.” Abrams is a director, producer, writer, author, and composer, best known for his work in the genres of action, drama, and science fiction. Abrams wrote and/or produced feature films such as Regarding Harry, Forever Young, Armageddon, and Cloverfield. He created or cocreated a number of TV drama series, including Felicity, Alias, Lost, and Fringe. He has also directed Star Trek (2009), Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and several others.

Read an Excerpt

New OrleansSix Years Ago

A high-pitched squeal of female laughter contrasted sharply with the low grinding of ineptly shifted gears. The rental car lurched forward, and for a moment it seemed like it was about to burst into a determined spurt of speed before it shuddered pathetically to a stop, its transmission emitting a pained groan as the driver slumped giggling over the steering wheel.

"You have to be the worst driver I've ever seen!" Sydney Bristow marveled, leaning back in the passenger seat. She was amazed that the airbags hadn't been triggered by that last abrupt stop. "You do understand the point is to make the car go forward, right?"

Keiko Terajima turned her head slightly and peered out at Sydney from the crook of her elbow. Her eyes were all that Sydney could see, and they seemed to be smiling. "You're going to be mad," Keiko began, feigning embarrassment, "but could you remind me which one's the clutch again? They shouldn't put it so close to the other pedals. It makes everything more confusing."

Sydney sighed a very loud sigh, playing the part of the exasperated driving instructor even though she was having more fun than she'd had in a long time. Keiko was in one of her graduate classes at UCLA, and they'd bonded when a late-night study session in the library turned into a caffeine-fueled who-likes-who gossip exchange that still hadn't ended at sunrise. They both botched the next day's exam, but they'd been close ever since, and for Sydney it was a real pleasure to have a school pal. Her best friend would always be Francie, of course, but she couldn't talk to Francie about how bad the critical essay was that she had to read for Lit. 47, or about whata kiss-up that tattooed girl had been in lecture the other day. And Keiko never asked questions about Sydney's job at Credit Dauphine -- to Keiko, it was just the way Sydney was paying for tuition, an uninteresting means to an end -- which meant that Sydney never had to lie to her. There were advantages to having more casual friends when one was leading a double life.

And now here they were in New Orleans, where they were both giving papers at the national meeting of the Scholars of American Literature. The SAL conference was a welcome departure for Sydney from the world of shadowy intrigue and muscle-straining roundhouse kicks. Ever since she'd learned that SD-6, the organization she worked for, was in fact not at all a government agency but a rogue operation headed by the loathsome Arvin Sloane, her life as a spy had been even more of a drain on her mental energies. Playing the part of a loyal SD-6 agent while actually working for the CIA under the stewardship of an attractive handler named Michael Vaughn was taking its toll on her ability to concentrate in her classes, and getting away for a few days to a gorgeous Southern city to give a paper on F. Scott Fitzgerald was exactly the break from spying that she needed. It was nice to pretend, if only for a little while, that she was just a typical grad student, nothing more. Sydney had been overjoyed to hear that Keiko was attending the conference as well, and since Keiko had been in the market for a new car and was considering a model that only came in stick shift, they figured taking Sydney's rental car out for a spin would be a perfect opportunity for Keiko to practice. "I warn you, I'm a newbie when it comes to driving stick," Keiko had said, and she hadn't been kidding. Keiko was really putting this poor little jalopy through its paces. If Sydney hadn't paid for rental insurance, she would actually be a little worried, but as it was, every grinding lurch of their rented red coupe was positively hilarious.

"It was really morbid of you, Sydney, to suggest we come out to this old cemetery for me to practice," laughed Keiko as she gamely turned the key in the ignition once again. "I mean, by the time I'm through with it, this car is going to be ready for a funeral of its own."

"I wanted someplace quiet and deserted, and with some hills so you could get used to the other gears. But I don't think you're going to get out of first." Keiko gave it too much gas and came to a

sudden stop. Sydney felt her stomach rise a little as she was thrown back into the seat. She remembered the time she'd been in an airplane whose wings were sheared off by two skyscrapers. She'd crashed the aircraft into the raging water off a Caribbean island, using a jacket she'd stripped off a K-Directorate flunkie for a braking parachute. And yet Keiko's driving struck her as a pretty rough ride. Perhaps Keiko shouldn't be investing in an expensive new car -- that money might be better spent on a million bus tokens. The city of Los Angeles would be a safer place without Keiko Terajima on its streets, Sydney thought to herself, then giggled. Keiko smiled too, letting the contagious laughing fit overcome her as well.

For this one weekend in New Orleans, Sydney's greatest fear would be that her grad school friend might flood the engine of her rental car. What a welcome change from worrying about the security of the world!

A man knelt before a mausoleum, hands folded in his lap, head bowed. He did not pray. Praying wasn't really his style. His unclosed eyes, ever alert, passed quickly over the epitaph on the grave, which apparently contained a "loyal soldier in the army of Andrew Jackson." This soldier's bones had been resting here, a few feet away, for close to two hundred years. That struck the man as an awfully long time to have been dead.

The man had been responsible for the laying to rest of many bones, much more recently than the nineteenth century, in wars much more brutal and much more covert than the War of 1812. He wondered idly if the spirits of the men, women, and children he killed ever chatted with those who'd died before them. Did the soldier buried here, who probably passed on bravely in open warfare, protecting America from British invasion, sit openmouthed and stunned in the afterlife as he listened to the souls of the family of four the man had butchered last month in Boston? The man shook his head. The idea of a powwow among the souls of the dead was ridiculous. Of course that sort of thing doesn't happen, the man thought, putting the notion aside. There is no afterlife. Each person I kill simply ceases to exist the moment I terminate his life. Just as I will cease to exist as well, someday. The hint of a grin played across the man's face as he thought the words he always added when philosophical ruminations like these came to him: Perhaps it will happen today.

The knife felt heavy on his hip. Other men in his profession used guns, but he knew there was an asterisk next to his name in the Rolodexes of the rich and ruthless because he had style. There's nothing more stylish than dispatching someone with a perfectly sharpened blade, the man reflected as he heard yet another annoying tittering come from the abused rental car nearby. The sound grated on his ears, but it pleased him to think that his target remained so unaware that the end was near.

They want me to kill a student, he thought with a smile, picturing a meek little thing with her hair in a bun, a pencil tucked behind her ear, and spectacles perched on her plain little face. Her skin's probably pale and pasty from endless hours poring over books in a library carrel, he thought. My knife will look so nice slicing through it! This job would be a pleasure.

"I think she's starting to get the hang of it, don't you?" muttered Michael Vaughn, not really expecting a response. The noncommittal grunt that came from Jack Bristow could have been a yes or a no, or it could have been an indication that Jack thought anything Vaughn could possibly say would not be worthy of consideration. Vaughn knew Jack didn't care much for him. He probably thinks I have inappropriate feelings for his daughter, feelings that a handler shouldn't have for his charge, Vaughn reckoned. And he's right. I do.

But Jack had asked him to come along. He'd found only a single line about a "New Orleans job" amid pages and pages of otherwise fairly typical terrorist chatter, but Jack had red-flagged it and funneled it to Vaughn, who quickly alerted his superiors. However, no one had deemed it a solid enough lead to merit expending manpower to investigate -- Vaughn thought sometimes that the CIA underestimated what an important asset they had in Sydney Bristow -- and Jack felt uncomfortable utilizing SD-6 personnel to thwart what could, for all he knew, be an operation funded by Sloane and his cohorts. Furthermore, Jack knew how much this time away from SD-6 meant to Sydney, so he didn't want to suggest she cancel her trip or ruin it by telling her to be on the lookout. Vaughn understood this. He too thought it would be nice if Sydney could go a weekend without worrying about someone trying to kill her. And he was flattered when Jack had asked him to come with him to New Orleans and keep covert surveillance on Sydney. "I need more eyes," Jack had said flatly. Vaughn had had to suppress a smile. "I've got two," he'd said. If Jack had had to suppress a grin in return, he showed no sign of it.

Now the two men were perched side by side behind a rather ugly-looking angel monument on a crest above the road where Sydney and her friend were chugging along in a red Ford Focus. Jack and Vaughn's dark blue sedan was parked nearby, and they peered intently through binoculars, scanning the area for signs of trouble. The cemetery was beautiful, overgrown with thick Southern foliage that hung down wetly over peacefully winding roads and paths. Green and gorgeous, it was the kind of place where, one imagined, the dead slept particularly well.

Vaughn's task was to scan the perimeter, but so far he'd spotted nothing. Occasionally tourists would admire the metalwork of the cemetery gates, and now and then someone would stroll through and meander among the graves, taking a rubbing or pausing to reflect upon a weathered monument. But Vaughn had detected nothing that set off alarm bells. It was possible that the CIA higher-ups were right, and nothing was going to happen.

"Maybe the bad guys are taking the day off," he whispered to Jack, receiving the same harrumph in response. "So do you think -- "

Before Vaughn could finish his sentence, Jack was gone. He'd leaped to his feet, moving quickly and purposefully down the hill at a brisk clip, somehow traveling at top speed without seeming like he was expending an ounce of energy to do so. Under other circumstances, Vaughn might have taken a moment to admire Jack's cool professionalism. Instead, he sprang up and bolted after Sydney's father.

"That's it, that's it, that's it!" Sydney cried, opening the passenger-side door and jumping out onto the smooth gravel of the road. "I think I'm safer outside the car. It's a good thing you're a better Faulkner scholar than you are a driver!"

"Oh, come on!" protested Keiko with a smile, brushing her long black hair back out of her face to peer out the rolled-down passenger window. "I'm gonna figure it out. I just need to keep trying. And anyway, I can't get this thing going fast enough to really crash! It's not like your life's in any danger."

"Keiko, every one of these dead people is lying there thinking they're going to have some new neighbors just as soon as you get on the road! I've got too much to live for, and I don't plan on..." Sydney trailed off. Keiko sparred back, chirping something about how she'd like to see Sydney do better, but Sydney didn't hear a word of it. She'd caught sight of something on the far side of the car, behind Keiko, and she was momentarily frozen in place. But it only took a moment before she snapped into action. Moving swiftly around the car, she opened the driver's-side door and pushed Keiko over into the passenger seat. Keiko protested laughingly.

"I was kidding!" Keiko insisted, but Sydney was already pulling the door shut and starting up the car. "Seriously, is the lesson over already?"

It's just getting started, Sydney thought. "Time to learn by watching for a bit, Keiko," Sydney said, trying to sound cheerful as she sped away and out of the cemetery, leaving the man her father was about to pummel behind them.

All he'd seen was the gleam of a knife, but that was enough. Jack had moved entirely on reflex. He hadn't said a word to Vaughn before leaping to his feet, because Vaughn wasn't worth wasting any attention on. Vaughn had already failed to recognize the threat when the man with the knife had entered the cemetery, and if he wasn't keeping his eyes open, then what had been the point of bringing him along? This boy thinks he's worthy of my daughter, Jack thought, but he's not even worthy of being a government agent. The thought disappeared as quickly as it had come. Jack's focus did not waver. He had to stop the assassin before Sydney was hurt.

The man didn't even know what hit him. Jack moved up behind him so silently and quickly that his fist connected with the man's head and decked him in what felt like a continuous motion that began at the top of the hill and ended at the bottom. With practiced swiftness Jack removed the knife from the man's grip and tossed it aside, then pinned the man down, bending his arm back until he could feel that familiar ready-to-snap stiffness in the shoulder. "Who are you working for?" Jack asked tersely, hearing a soft crunch as he pressed the man's cheek into gravel.

"I don't know," the man seethed, feeling his tendons stretch like taffy. "Some college kid pissed at his TA, I guess. Who else would want to off a grad student?"

"That student," hissed Jack, lifting the man and flipping him over onto his back, "happens to be my daughter." It was as this last word escaped his lips that Jack's gaze locked onto the man's eyes. The glimmer he was met with would have been recognizable even if the eyes themselves hadn't been familiar: The man was a consummate pro. He clearly felt no fear, and he was looking for the tiniest opening to free himself, evade his captor, and return to his mission. This single-minded dedication to pursuing a target was something Jack knew well. After all, he'd learned it from the same people as the man he was pinning down. Jack's eyes had scanned for similar opportunities countless times in the past, and he had always found one.

"I'm sorry, Jack," came Vaughn's out-of-breath voice from behind him. "I fell as I was coming down the hill...."

Jack had barely turned to look at Vaughn, shifting his eyes only for a fraction of a second from those of the man in his grip, but for a highly trained assassin, it had been opening enough. Suddenly Jack's hands were empty, and the man was gone. Jack's anger didn't manifest itself in any visible way, though his fists clenched involuntarily on empty air. A sigh of frustrated annoyance escaped his lips, and a quick look around revealed that the man had vanished. The assassin was probably mere meters away, but a man with his training could turn meters into miles in the blink of an eye. Jack pushed past Vaughn and started heading back to their car.

"Who was that, Jack?" Vaughn asked. But no answer was forthcoming. Jack was already hurrying away, once again leaving Vaughn behind.

Decades of experience in covert ops don't teach one what to think in crisis situations. They teach one what not to. Paramount among the things the man did not think as he zigzagged from tombstone to tombstone was I should abandon the mission. There were no circumstances, not even the fading away of consciousness that precedes death, that would have caused a seasoned veteran like him to consider failure as an option. Nor did he think, I wonder if I'm being followed. Even a pursuer familiar with his evasion protocols couldn't track him, so versed was he in the art of concealing his movements, and besides, he knew that any expenditure of mental energy on worry about what was behind him would reduce the amount of thought he could give to what lay ahead, namely his target. Perhaps curiously, he was so focused on carrying out the assassination he'd agreed to perform that he didn't even think about how this particular girl had protection. Which means my job is going to get a lot more complicated.

In fact, although professionalism dictated that he allow no stray thoughts whatsoever to crowd in upon his narrow focus, the man indulged himself with exactly two moments of personal reflection.

In the first, as he opened the door to his brown Mustang and fished for a revolver in the glove compartment, he thought to himself, It's a terrible shame I've lost my knife. That was a fine one, one of my favorites. The whole thing will be so much messier with a bullet than it would have been with a blade. The girl might actually be disappointed that she has to die so inelegantly.

And in the second, as he floored the gas pedal and began the cat-and-mouse game of finding his quarry on the city streets, he thought, with the most fleeting moment of regret he'd ever felt in his entire life, If I'd known it was Jack Bristow's kid, I'd never have taken the job.

Shift smoothly, stay calm. Scan rearview: No pursuer visible. Don't use turn signals, but turn frequently. Who could it have been? And why is Dad here? No time to consider that. Keep focus: Escape, regroup, take initiative. Don't get killed. Oh, and I need to be at Tulane in time for that meet and greet with Dr. Fraleigh. His work on Tender is the Night really is groundbreaking, and I've heard he hates to be kept waiting.

"You really do make it look easy, Sydney. But it's like a juggling act, isn't it? Thinking about all those different things at once?"

Oh, right. Keiko. Can't forget she's here. Slow down: She mustn't realize anything's going on. The last time someone learned something about my extracurriculars, he wound up dead in my bathtub. Danny. Gosh, I can't think about him right now. No time for crying. I have to focus, concentrate. That brown convertible two or three cars back -- it's made the same last three turns I have. Check it: Slow a little, cut the space, then make an abrupt left. Will he follow? No! Drove right on by. Either he's not the guy, or he's too much of a pro to give himself away like that. Mental note: brown sports car.

"But you juggle it all so well! The way you work your feet in time with the gearshift, it's like a little ballet you're performing there, Syd. And here I thought your only skills were in close readings and poststructuralist analysis!"

I have to make a joke back. She can't catch on that something's amiss.

"Uh, well, you seemed so intent on deconstructing my rental car, Keiko, I felt like I had to step in...."

Laughter. She's being charitable, chuckling even at bad jokes like that one. That's good. Make Keiko laugh, keep her happy, don't let her -- wait! That was a flash of brown in the side mirror, wasn't it? If it comes to it, what do I have in the way of defense? Scan the car interior, assess the surroundings. Book bags, full of purchases from that used bookstore this morning. Why didn't we get more hardcovers, besides those first editions Keiko bought? They'd be more useful in hand-to-hand combat. What else do I have? An umbrella, which has possibilities. Those spirit beads that Keiko, uh, "earned" on Bourbon Street last night might make a decent garrote. And there's always my laptop, which could easily crush a skull, but it's got all my notes from the entire semester....

"Suddenly you seem so tense, Sydney. What, did it finally occur to you that we actually have to get up in front of that crowd today and give our talks? I get a little antsy before public speaking too, but you're gonna be great. You'll slay 'em, Syd. Seriously."

I can't let her catch me biting my lip. I have to put her at ease. Force a little giggle in response or something, keep the atmosphere in here light. But that definitely is the same brown Mustang. Well, it's time to face the hard truth.

I'm probably going to be late for the meet and greet.

As Jack weaved his blue Taurus delicately through traffic, he tried to remember when he had last seen Roger.

Time and regret had obscured many of the details of his covert ops days, and efforts to reclaim those memories by combing through old personnel files would, he knew, be stymied by the thick layers of black ink that had been applied years before, when certain activities of his had been deemed classified.

The two men had trained together, spied together, fought and nearly died together. One particularly ugly mission in Venezuela decades earlier had ended with Jack and Roger holed up, just the two of them, in a secluded cabin for more than two weeks, detoxing in tandem from a bad batch of drugs they'd been injected with by jagged-toothed captors just before a lucky break allowed them to escape through a carelessly unlatched laundry chute. Jack had nearly gone insane by the time the drugs worked their way out of his system, but Roger had crossed that line and, some might say, never quite come back. Jack could still remember lying on the floor, hallucinating. God only knows what Roger had thought he was seeing at the time, or if he ever realized that whatever it was wasn't real. Both of them had slashed furiously at thin air with razor-sharp machetes, and pummeled the empty floor with cut-up and bruised fists, and fired more than a few bullets into the walls, aiming their pistols at imaginary creatures. It was a miracle they hadn't killed each other.

Officially speaking, however, those two weeks had never happened. The black ink had seen to it that they were erased. Officially speaking, Roger did not even exist. His loyalty, after those grueling weeks in South America, had begun to wobble like a loose wheel on a shopping cart, and people in high positions had decided that Roger himself would be black-markered away. Jack had never expected to see him again, but here he was, his brown car circling Sydney's red one, and he was definitely real.

Setting his jaw with determination, Jack nosed forward through a few slow-moving vehicles. The tourists, cruising casually and pointing with excitement at various historical landmarks in the French Quarter, did not realize the life-and-death pas de deux that was taking place on the streets between the blue and the brown cars. Even the occupants of the red Focus the two men were dancing around couldn't possibly know the years of history that were informing the dance.

As he drove, Jack found himself thinking that he couldn't look down on Roger's becoming a hired assassin. For most of their careers, the only difference between Jack and Roger had been that the money that paid them had originated in different banks. Are we really so far apart, even now? Jack wondered uneasily. His lip twitched apprehensively. Sadly, it seemed unlikely that today would end with the two of them talking over old times in a darkened bar down on Decatur Street. He wasn't the sort to indulge in these kinds of feelings, but truth be told, given a couple of Scotches and a fellow traveler down memory lane, Jack could probably find it in himself to enjoy, in his own way, the company of an old friend.

He'd identified Roger's car. There were few tailing patterns that allowed you to follow one car while remaining undetected by a second whose driver was aware of your pursuit, and although Roger was shadowing Sydney and Keiko with considerable skill, he'd shown his hand on St. Charles Avenue. Jack had lost track of him as they'd passed Canal and entered the Quarter, but as long as Jack stuck close to Sydney, he didn't have to find Roger. Roger would eventually find them. I could flush him out if we weren't in such a crowded area, Jack thought, gritting his teeth, but there's no way to draw him away from Sydney. Given the relative safety of broad daylight, Sydney was wise to be sticking to the crowded streets of the city's tourist sector, though Jack silently disapproved of her turn south toward the waterfront.

"Hey, J.B.!" came an unexpected shout from nearby. Idling at a stoplight with Sydney stopped three car lengths ahead in traffic, Jack snapped his gaze away from Sydney's car and turned to look to his side, where Roger had pulled up beside him undetected. Roger had a bright, unworried smile on his face. "I'm gonna ask you to back off, buddy. There's work to be done." Jack tensed for a moment as he thought Roger was pulling a gun, but instead Roger's hand lifted to his lips: He was simply lighting a cigarette.

"Maybe I didn't make it clear, Roger, but that's my daughter. You're not going to touch her."

"That's your daughter? Doesn't look a bit like you. Plus I wouldn't have pegged the child of a Bristow for a bookworm, my man. She must be into some serious rebelling-against-Daddy."

Jack drew in a deep breath. "Turn your car around and drive away. If you don't, I'm going to have to -- "

"It's a job, Jack," Roger intoned sharply, sounding suddenly tired of talking. The cigarette smoke flowed out of his mouth as he frowned. "I took it, now it has to be done. It's a shame your progeny doesn't have more fans in high places, or the job would never have been ordered. I admit, in retrospect, I wish I'd taken that other gig knifing some suit in Stockholm instead, but what's done's, you's done."

A loud honk sounded behind them. Roger's stare didn't move from Jack's.

"Light's green, Jack."

"Drive away. Don't move an inch closer to her."

Two more honks. Roger eyed Jack warily. "I answer to people, J.B., and they want this done. I gave my word it would be. You'd do the same thing in my -- "

"I would never harm your child, Roger," Jack interrupted. "No matter who ordered the hit. No matter what justification I had."

Roger's head tilted to one side. His eyes flitted forward to the stoplight. It had turned yellow. Two horns blared now, one of them in a long, sustained bleat. Then Roger laughed, a big, jovial bellow, and he pressed the gas pedal hard. His sports car sped out into the intersection long after the light had gone red, and cars screeched around him as he sped to the other side of the street. Jack gunned the gas as well and tore off after his daughter and the man bent on killing her.

I take it back, he thought grimly. We are pretty far apart.

¿ ¿ ¿

When Keiko screamed, Sydney jammed on the brakes reflexively and reached over to see where her friend had been hit. After Danny's death, she'd sworn to herself that her work would never affect the people she cared about again, much less hurt them, and the idea that her carelessness in coming to New Orleans and letting her guard down had put Keiko in jeopardy made her feel terrible. Now she searched for the wound frantically, hoping to staunch the bleeding before it was too late. She was not going to let Keiko die.

"Whoa there, Bristow! Quit pawing me!" Keiko shouted, obviously unhurt and a bit shocked at Sydney's familiarity. "I'm not that kind of girl!" Sydney pulled her hands back, confused. "I just felt your phone ringing from somewhere on the floor, and it startled me. What's with you?"

Sydney had set her cell on vibrate, and Keiko must have felt the telltale whirr. As Sydney stammered an apology for the well-intentioned but unexplainable manhandling, Keiko shrugged the moment off and bent down to rummage for the phone among all the packages and bags at her feet. "Just leave it, K," Sydney said, relief flooding over her until, through the passenger window suddenly revealed by Keiko's lowering her head, she saw the grim face of a man staring at her from the next car. He exhaled a long plume of smoke that curled menacingly in the heavy New Orleans air.

Sydney accelerated quickly, and Keiko was thrown back in the seat, surprised that they weren't done experimenting with the car's stop-and-start limits today. "Got it!" she cried, holding Sydney's phone up in triumph.

"Whoever it is," Sydney said as she made a sudden turn, "I'll call back later."

"Ooh, no! It's that cute reporter friend of yours!" Keiko exclaimed, peering at the caller ID in the phone's front window. "I'm gonna answer it."

"No, not now. . ." Sydney began, but Keiko had already snapped the phone open and begun chattering away.

"Hello?" she said playfully. "No, it's not Sydney, silly! Well, why don't you guess who it is?" Sydney couldn't help shaking her head a little. Keiko was an inveterate flirt, and Sydney never ceased to be amazed by the cooing girlishness she fell into whenever she spoke to a member of the opposite sex. Generally speaking, she'd found it best to keep Keiko away from her male friends. "No, guess again," Keiko said sweetly, before suddenly turning indignant. "Absolutely not! Why would you guess her? I don't sound a thing like her!"

Sydney's fingers tensed on the wheel as she glimpsed brown metal at the head of a street she was turning down, then relaxed as she realized it was just another similarly shaded sedan. Keiko's distracted. That's good. Now focus on getting her to safety.

"You're the investigative journalist. You should be good at asking questions and getting people to reveal their true identities. Isn't that what you do for a living?" There was a pause, during which Keiko began to giggle. "Well, that doesn't seem like a very perceptive question, but yes, I do have long black hair and a stunning smile. See, I knew you knew who it was all along! You should have been calling me anyway, 'cause Sydney's not the only one giving a paper today. I need to be wished good luck too."

A small explosion in the brick wall next to their car signaled a silenced bullet missing its target, but Sydney, used to the sound, barely flinched. The brown car's tires screeched as it fell into line close behind hers. Her eyes moved over to Keiko as she spun the wheel sharply, hoping her friend hadn't noticed the gunshot or the uptick in their speed as Sydney fled. Sure enough, she hadn't: Keiko just hunched down in the seat a little, plugging her left ear with a finger as she raised her voice to be heard.

"No, we're just in a loud part of town, I guess. So tell me what you're working on these days!"

Clenching her teeth nervously, Sydney spun around a corner and saw an opportunity. Pulling into a tiny Starbucks parking lot, she tucked her car into a handicapped space for a moment. She watched with satisfaction as the brown Mustang sped past behind her.

"You're searching for a mystery woman? How very cloak-and-dagger of you!" Keiko was saying, before putting her hand over the receiver and whispering, "Stopping for coffee? Great idea. I'll take, like, a double latte with -- "

"Changed my mind," faked Sydney, pulling out and heading back the way they'd come. "We really ought to get to the conference." Keiko just shrugged, the look in her eyes suggesting that they'd both regret it later on when the academic droning reached full swing.

"No, no, I'm listening," Keiko insisted, turning back to her phone conversation. "Well, I could give you to Sydney, but she's driving, and you know what they

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