Frankfurt, Germany 8:15pm


Sydney Bristow sucked in her bubble gum and smacked it loudly. "Get out," she said incredulously.

"You have no faith," her companion replied. He took an swig of coffee and slammed the mug onto the small table's highly polished surface. "Give me a chance, I know I can impress you," he said lasciviously.

Sydney sat beside him in a mock huff. "You're going to have to prove it." Glancing at her watch, she said, "Ten minutes."

The young man clapped his hands with glee and opened his laptop. The internet cafe was filled with the chattering of university students and countless keyboards. Sydney idly played with her hair as she sized up her current target - a postdoctoral student in computer science, and infamous underground hacker. With unruly curly hair and incongruously sleek leather jacket, his manner evoked a felonious Marshall Flinkman.

As if that wasn't disturbing enough, Sydney reflected. He worked his computer, and she used the time to surreptitiously scan their surroundings, watching for threats.

Given how long APO had been looking for Oleg Maskerov, aka aLTburn3r and how difficult it was to arrange a 'chance' meeting, it was apparent that the expatriate Russian was paranoid. He had reason to be, with Interpol and the secret police of a dozen nations looking for him. He had run rampant through the computer networks of the western world as a teenager; and now (Marshall assured her) was a bona fide legendary 'black hat'.

But what Maskerov didn't realize was that Interpol was the least of his worries. It wasn't the break-in at NORAD, or the UN or the Swiss Banking system that put him on the map. It was his doctoral thesis on the cryptology of Rambaldi's Sun Compass that made him a wanted man. The compass was destroyed twenty years ago, and no one until Maskerov had been able to decipher the random sketchings in the only remaining grainy photo of the artifact.

The noose was tightening around him, and APO had to get to him before the Covenant, or the FBI for that matter.

Three minutes later, he swiveled the screen on his notebook computer so that Sydney could read it. "Invitation to the gala at the American Embassy in Rome," he said smugly. "Tell me how impressed you are."

"Impressed," Sydney said softly as she read through the secure directory listing on the Rome embassy server. The State Department was going to love this. She popped another bubble and said truculently, "But I don't have anything to wear."

The hacker broke into a wide smile and said, "There's this bank that I know..."

An hour later, Sydney strode out alone onto a Frankfurt sidewalk and dialed her phone.

"This could work," Michael Vaughn said after she explained the setup. "The State Department is going to love this."

Rome 5:10pm

Vaughn circled the block and pulled his van to a stop beside a dark figure beneath a lamppost. The side door opened and Jack Bristow stepped into the vehicle. "Status," the older man asked after he slammed the door shut and the van merged with traffic.

"I've contacted the Embassy," Vaughn said. "And made arrangements. We're the Military Attache and his aide. Congratulations on your promotion, Admiral."

Vaughn wasn't surprised when Jack ignored the joke; and not for the first time wished that Weiss were here. He cleared his throat. "You should know, the Embassy was not very cooperative. I don't want to make any assumptions, but -"

"In this case," Jack broke in, "Your assumption is correct. Ambassador Simpson has been disinclined to assist covert ops for over fifteen years. I'm surprised you were able to leverage entry at all."

Vaughn exhaled and forced himself to relax as he made a right turn onto the Via Veneto. He heard the unzipping of a garment bag and the rustling of clothes from the back of the van as Jack began to dress for dinner. "Can I make another assumption concerning your involvement in that previous covert operation?"

"You may," Jack replied crisply. "But it's classified. And it's also the reason I had you make contact with the Ambassador's staff."

"Understood," Vaughn replied, privately savoring the implicit compliment Jack had paid him. "We're here." He presented his newly-minted credentials to the gate guard and pulled the van into the drive, then around to park at the service entrance.

The rear of the van was cramped and dark, and Vaughn was careful to allow Jack a wide berth of personal space. He unzipped his garment bag to reveal a US Navy's Commander's uniform, full mess dress kit: dark trousers, white tuxedo shirt and tie, gold braided jacket and cummerbund.

As luck would have it, Vaughn had just stripped down to his underwear when the rear door of the van opened unceremoniously and a female embassy staffer in a violet power suit climbed in. Vaughn glanced at Jack and, of course, the older man had just slipped on his own dinner jacket, the golden shoulderboards glinting in the dim lights.

"I'm your liaison," she said curtly.

"Hi," Vaughn said, and did his best to maintain dignity while being the only one in his underwear. "I'm Michael Vaughn, this is Jack Bristow." They shook hands and Vaughn continued, "We're currently tracking a hacker wanted by Interpol, Oleg Maskerov. He'll be attending the gala tonight with another agent, and our intention is to..."

"Can't hear you," the woman broke in, "Don't want to hear you. Don't need to know. I'm here to give you the rules. Rule one - don't kill anyone on embassy grounds. Rule two - you may not pursue your objective outside of embassy grounds while using your embassy cover. Rule three - plausible deniability - if it's a choice between plausible deniability and you gentlemen in a Carabinieri lockup, well I hope Langley can post bail. Understood?"

"Yeah, got it," Vaughn replied.

"Now hurry up, the receiving line begins in five minutes."

Sydney strode through the grand doors of the Embassy on Oleg Maskerov's somewhat gangly arm. She admired his gate-crashing skills, as he didn't appear the slightest bit ruffled by the standard security check or the looks his rumpled tuxedo earned him passing up the grand staircase. They reached the piano nobile without incident and joined in the receiving line. Appropriate to her cover, she greeted each official with an awkward blush, and Oleg marched forward with the total self-confidence of the truly socially inept. Sydney cringed internally as Oleg tried to bruise the hand of every man he greeted.

Near the end of the line, she saw Vaughn and her father in full Navy regalia, receiving guests with the ambassador. You've got to love a man in uniform, she thought, and took just a moment to admire her boyfriend in his crisp white and gold jacket. He looked good, and Sydney suppressed a pang of regret at not being able to waltz with Vaughn at the party. No, tonight she would waltz with a spindly computer geek who had no idea he was on the hit list of the most dangerous people in the world.

She sighed. The things I do for my country.

She reached Vaughn in the lineup and he clasped her hand in his white-gloved one. "Oh Captain, it's a pleasure to meet you," she tittered.

"It's an honor to meet you, Miss," Vaughn replied smoothly. "Welcome to the Embassy. Just for the record, he said with a conspiratorial whisper, I'm a Commander, though I thank you for the promotion," he winked.

She giggled and withdrew her hand reluctantly.

"An honor, sir," Vaughn said to Oleg. The Russian grabbed his hand robustly. Vaughn's expression of polite greeting did not change, but a bead of sweat appeared on Oleg's forehead. Vaughn heartily shook his hand several times before releasing him. Sydney suppressed a smile.

Then it was her father's turn - and Sydney was pulled up short by his appearance. She had concentrated on Vaughn and didn't realize how impressive her Dad looked in his kit. Jack was too patrician for some covers, Sydney knew, but seeing him here made her wonder why he didn't play the military man more often - he was good at it.

"A pleasure to meet you, Miss," Jack said in a gentlemanly southern drawl, taking her hand. "I hope you enjoy our Embassy tonight."

"Oh I'm looking forward to it, sir," Sydney said as she curtsied.

"And you sir, welcome," Jack said to Oleg, who seemed suddenly disinclined to shake hands.

"Welcome, yes, Admiral," Oleg said. "Tell me, is that real?" He indicated Jack's ceremonial sword. "Off with the head and all that?"

"Oh this," Jack said. "Yes, it's quite real. No sense in giving a soldier a toy weapon, is there? But not to worry, sir, we reserve the harshest measures for pirates and ruffians," he said with a grin that was both jovial and menacing.

Oleg laughed nervously and pushed Sydney forward through the receiving line.

The gala melted into the soaring refrains of Strauss waltzes and a kaleidoscope of color as ladies in evening gowns danced with gentlemen in tuxedos and the occasional military uniform. Sydney taught Oleg how to waltz at the expense of several bruised toes.

When the orchestra took its first break, they were ready to make their move. Sydney caught the eyes of Jack and Vaughn at opposite end of the hall. It was time.

But before Sydney could begin the op, Oleg grabbed a champagne that a passing waiter offered him. He grinned, raised his glass to Sydney and tossed his head back, consuming the drink in one gulp. He froze for a moment and his face went pale, and then coughed. Sydney clapped him on the back several times and other party goers eyed them nervously.

"Just a minute," Oleg gasped. "I'll be right back." He dashed into the men's room.

Sydney frowned at his retreating back. Something wasn't right here... she searched the room for Vaughn. Their eyes met, and she tilted her head to the men's room. Sensing her meaning, Vaughn nodded and followed Oleg.

His polished shoes clicked on the white tile of the men's room floor, and Vaughn nodded amicably to the attendant in the vestibule. He paused to wash his hands, taking a moment to identify which stall Oleg was in.

Vaughn frowned when he saw in the mirror that the far stall had three sets of legs. He reached out, ready to pull the door open, but was blindsided by the attendant shoving him against the wall and wrapping a towel around his head.

As he struggled to his feet, Vaughn saw a semi-conscious Oleg being dragged out of the restroom by the bathroom attendant and two men dressed as waiters. He ran after them, and was met by Sydney, who joined the pursuit.

The men skidded into a quick turn, and raced into the kitchens. Staff members stumbled in every direction and trays of champagne and caviar rocketed into the air, accompanied by a flurry of curses in Italian and English. The chase careened out of the kitchens and crashed into an unused banquet hall.

Vaughn saw Oleg being dragged through another doorway, but two of the operatives stopped to fight, covering the retreat. The room decor included crossed rapiers and shields, and they pulled weapons from the wall and brandished them menacingly.

Vaughn drew his sword, and offered it to Syd.

"No, thanks, I've got it," she said.

"You sure?"

"Yeah, no problem," she winked at him and charged the closest opponent, planting a decisive kick to his chest, sending him staggering.

The other man rushed at Vaughn, rapier and shield in hand.

Jack saw the chase begin and bolt into the kitchens, but before he gathered himself up to pursue, a fourth man caught his eye. He was dressed in workman's overalls, and carried a toolbox. Jack watched as he nonchalantly walked past the men's room and ducked into another exit.

Jack made a rapid mental calculation and followed him.

Grateful for his fencing lessons, Vaughn steadily pushed his opponent backwards, on the defensive. He was peripherally aware of the sounds of Sydney's own battle. As long as she was fighting, he reasoned, she was fine.

His opponent backpedaled against the wall and had nowhere else to go. Vaughn sliced at the man's shield, intending to push it away. But a shiver of force drove up his arm as he realized his sword was stuck in the shield and useless. He released his weapon and grabbed the other man's sword arm, as the blade passed a hairsbreadth from his neck.

They both struggled for control of the remaining sword, and finally Vaughn used his leg to send the other man tumbling backwards. He quickly brought the sword around and, remembering rule number one, punched the man in the face with the pommel. He fell back to the floor, motionless.

Sydney, likewise, was standing over her fallen opponent. She gave him a quick grin before Vaughn retrieved his sword and they continued the chase. The corridor was empty, and stretched out bleakly in four directions. Sydney put her finger to her lips and they both stood still, listening.

The old palace walls and tile floors magnified sounds, and momentarily they heard a shout and clattering footsteps. Vaughn and Sydney broke into a run, following the commotion.

They burst though the solid double doors of library and found Oleg fighting off the bathroom attendant with every weapon available to him: chairs, stepladders and books.

"Get away!" the Russian said frantically as he hefted a dictionary at the knife-wielding man. "What the hell are you people trying to do!"

"Oleg," Sydney said placatingly, "We're trying to help."

Vaughn, his sword drawn, squared off against the operative.

"This is not help!" Oleg shouted hoarsely, "You were my date! You played me! Some crazy American conspiracy!"

"Think about it, Oleg," Sydney said. "Logically. If I was going to hurt you, I would have done it in Frankfurt why wait until now?""

Put the knife down," Vaughn said severely, his focus entirely on the enemy agent. The man wavered, then tossed his knife onto a table and held out his empty hands.

"Because now you're in the embassy!" Oleg slowly maneuvered towards the door, walking sideways away from Sydney and Vaughn. "You can arrest me here and no one will ever know. I'll wind up on some sandy island with coconut palms and marines everywhere!"

"We're not going to arrest you," Vaughn said. "We want to put you in protective custody."

"What's the difference?" Oleg demanded. The operative Vaughn held at bay took advantage of his momentary distraction and reached into his pocket and pulled a pistol. He squeezed off a shot that narrowly missed Oleg's head and splintered the rich wooden panels behind him. The Russian shrieked and ran.

Sydney kicked the gun from the man's hand, and Vaughn knocked him out with the pommel of his sword. He caught Sydney's eye and they exchanged an exasperated look before running out to find Oleg again.

Jack followed the plumber down a service hall, the pace of the chase ever-increasing until his quarry broke into a run and bolted into the basement. If that wasn't enough to cement his guilt, he lunged at Jack with a pipe wrench, narrowly missing his temple and blasting through the plaster of the wall.

Jack ducked beneath the blow and plowed forward, driving his shoulder into the man's midsection. He bent backwards over a steam heating pipe and howled in pain. Jack grabbed his collar and threw him on the ground, capturing him in a neat headlock. He applied pressure on the cervical vertebrae just short of the breaking point.

"What is your exit strategy," Jack hissed.

The man gulped.

"Oleg!" Sydney called after the fleeing man. "Just stop and talk to us!"

"Are you joking?" he yelled back. "If I stop you'll - oh no, please don't hurt me. Help!"

His cries were cut off, and Vaughn's heart sank. A dozen more frantic paces, and he and Sydney came upon Oleg held hostage by a man in a chef's uniform, a six-inch kitchen knife at his neck.

"Stop right there," the captor said. "I know that this guy," he tightened his grip on Oleg. "Is more valuable to you alive than he is to me. So, Sailor, drop the sword."

Vaughn exchanged a brief glance with Sydney, then laid the sword onto the floor.

"Nice. Now I'm going to leave, and you're going to back off. You wouldn't want me to get nervous and make any sudden moves."

Frustrated, Sydney and Vaughn did as instructed. The assailant walked backwards, using Oleg as a shield. They followed at a distance, staying just outside the man's field of vision, waiting to spring at the first opportunity. He led them down another corridor, a service stair and finally through the laundry facilities in the basement.

The lights were out, and they navigated by feel and hearing rather than sight; the steady clicks of footsteps in the corridor, the glint of light from exit signs and beneath doors. As they neared street level, the constant hum of Rome's congested roads rumbled closer. Cool night air breezed down the hall, and Sydney and Vaughn knew that they were a matter of footsteps away from losing Maskerov forever.

The double steel doors of the service entrance were open. Light filtered in from nearby street lamps and buildings. The misshapen silhouette of Oleg and his attacker filled the doorway, and Sydney and Vaughn broke into a run, determined not to lose them into the night.

And then, a shadow moved in the doorway, lightning quick. A flash of gold and white, and then the sound of bone breaking and cry of pain.

Lights flooded the room, and Jack stood over the attacker, who was at his feet in a vicious wrist lock. A squad of marines in full dress uniform guarded the entrance. Half a dozen bayonets pointed at the enemy agent.

Jack plucked the knife from his hand and glowered at him. "Secure the prisoner."

"Sir, yes sir!" chorused the marines, who efficiently handcuffed the intruder and hauled him to his feet.

From the outside yard, a gunnery sergeant approached Jack and saluted. "Two intruders found on embassy grounds, Admiral."

"Excellent," Jack replied. "Take them into custody and report to the Ambassador -"

"What the hell do you people think you're doing? You have no authority, no jurisdiction here." The Violet Power Suit marched down the hall, on the verge of apoplexy. "This is a State Department matter. There will be no arresting of anyone without the Ambassador's concurrence. You have overstepped your bounds and the operation is canceled."

Seeing Oleg, she pointed at the open door and said, "Mr. - Whomever. You're free to go."

"No!" Oleg jumped behind Sydney. "I'm not going out there. They'll kill me!"

Sydney did a double-take at Oleg's sudden change of heart, then straightened her shoulders and faced the staffer. "Surely the ambassador wouldn't want to put this gentleman into a life-threatening situation? When the embassy represents a safe haven -"

"As your buddy pointed out, this gentleman," the staffer glared at Oleg. "Is a considered a fugitive in Italy, Germany, and Switzerland, not to mention the United States."

"I thought you didn't want to know," Vaughn said.

"I looked it up," she replied. "The Ambassador's goal is to avoid messy circumstances that will spoil the party. You people don't have the authority to arrest him, because hey, you don't even exist. So if he won't leave quietly by the back door on his own, then he'll leave through the front door with the police. His choice."

"You said the Ambassador doesn't want to be inconvenienced by a ... mess," Sydney said slowly.

"Not exactly what I said, but yes, it's the general idea," the bureaucrat snapped.

"Then what would the ambassador think about the major security breach we've uncovered here tonight," Sydney continued, laying her trap.


Jack sniffed and plucked the captive's ID card from around his neck. A reasonable facsimile of an Embassy-issued security pass. "There are three other individuals who bypassed your security screening."

"Four," Vaughn corrected.

"Four," Jack repeated with calculated surprise. "Indeed. Messy."

"So I propose that in the interest of ...housecleaning," Sydney said. "Mr. Maskerov, do you wish to accompany us?"

"Absolutely!" Oleg said. "I wish to stay with the kickboxer and the sailors. For safe haven, protection -"

"Immunity," Vaughn prompted.

"That's right, immunity," Oleg pronounced smugly. "Witness protection."

"And if that mess is cleaned up," Sydney suggested. "Then we'll allow the ambassador to clean up her own mess. Quietly."

The staffer frowned, glared at everyone in turn, then excused herself abruptly. "I'll make the call."

Oleg whooped in triumph, and the marines dispersed, taking the prisoner with them. Jack strode over to Sydney, the corner of his mouth quirked into a faint smirk. "Excellent work."

Sydney smiled back at her father, knowing that for any other man, the understated compliment was the equivalent of beaming paternal pride. "What you really mean is, 'nice extortion'" she said.

Jack nodded. "Yes. Well played."

All three agents took a moment to catch their breath. Sydney's hand, almost unconsciously, found the crook of Vaughn's arm. Jack noticed the subtle motion and frowned deeply. After considering for a moment his countenance relaxed and he said, "I'll process Maskerov and report -"

"Excuse me," Oleg tugged Jack's sleeve. "Process? What is this 'process'?"

Jack looked down at the spindly Russian. "It's painless."

"Oleg," Sydney broke in. "We'll transport you out of the country, debrief you on your Sun Compass research -"

"The Sun Compass?" Oleg said incredulously. "This wasn't about the Swiss Bank? All this over the only honest piece of work I've done in my entire life?"

"Come with me," Jack led Oleg down the hall. "I'll explain the protocol."

"Tell me, Admiral," the Russian chattered happily as he walked away. "On this Caribbean Island I'm going to will there be the little umbrella drinks?"

Syd and Vaughn suppressed their laughter until Jack was out of earshot. "Well," Syd began.

"Well," Vaughn echoed. "Looks like we've been given the night off."

"Looks like it," Sydney fingered the buttons on his jacket. "This agrees with you, by the way. An officer and a gentleman."

Vaughn beamed and offered Sydney his arm. "Would you care to dance?"

"As long as we start with a waltz." She took his arm and they rejoined the party.

The End