"So I'm having this fight with myself," Sydney said, trying not to laugh and thereby spoil the setup to her own joke. God, it had been too long since she'd laughed like this. "Either the scratchy sound is a burglar, or the rats are back. Not that either one of those outcomes is great, right? But this means I actually have to HOPE for rats."
Emily rolled her eyes as she poured herself more wine, then refilled Sydney's glass. "Oh, my God. Rats. Arvin, remember that terrible place I had in D.C. - but no, no, that story can wait. Sydney, you finish." Mr. Sloane, smiling around a mouthful of Emily's delicious mint lamb, nodded in agreement.
Sydney knew that only Mr. Sloane would really understand just how funny the next part of the story was, but Emily would probably still enjoy it. "I'm thinking, what works against a rat and a burglar? I own a handgun, but for a rat? Serious overkill. And you could just shoo away a rat, but a burglar, no telling."
"I can't believe you were so calm," Emily said. The candlelight had turned her curly hair honey-gold; even in blue jeans and a T-shirt, she looked elegant. Sometimes Sydney thought of her as a china doll, fragile but still ready for play. "Just the thought of a burglar, oh. I would have fainted!"
"Sydney knows how to handle herself, I'm sure," Mr. Sloane said, patting her arm. He touched her an awful lot, Sydney thought; if it were anybody else, it would have made her uncomfortable.
"Okay, for whatever reason, I decide the ideal thing to use is - get ready - a frying pan." Both Emily and Mr. Sloane burst into laughter. "Perfect against burglars! Perfect against rats! I've got it together now. There I am, stalking down the hallway toward the laundry room, still in my pajamas with Noxema all over my face - VERY scary - and I'm ready to make my move. I raise the frying pan, kick in the door - and there are Francie and Will on the washing machine!"
Emily covered her mouth, but not quickly enough to stifle ribald laughter. Mr. Sloane put his forehead in his hand, clearly trying and failing to control his own reaction. Thank God, Sydney thought; she'd thought that might be a little too risqué to tell, but at least they got the joke without any more explanation.
"The WASHING machine?" Emily shook her head. "Oh, to be young again."
Mr. Sloane suddenly looked completely serious, so much so that Sydney wondered if she shouldn't have told the story after all. But then he leaned forward, his face grave. "So how did they end up using the frying pan?"
By the time they stopped laughing, Sydney's ribs hurt and Emily had tears running down her face. Mr. Sloane used two fingers to wipe them away, and Sydney thought, as she always did, what a perfect marriage they had: loving, warm and supportive. Not like -
Her parents as young people flashed briefly in her mind, their happiness and security quickly erased by Sydney's knowledge of the hard, bitter people they'd become. If only her parents had ended up like the Sloanes -- if only she could see them carefree and in love again.
Sydney glanced down at her plate, hoping to disguise her own change of mood; it was easier to stare at the silver plating that rimmed the china than to ruin the evening by letting her melancholy show. And she'd actually managed to be in a good mood all evening, for the first time in far too long. So much for that.
Just then Mr. Sloane's phone rang; he answered it, frowned, then said, "I should take this. You two talk."
He wandered from the room, leaving her alone with Emily. "Sydney, I have some raspberries and cream for dessert, but right now, I don't think I could take another bite. Let's wait, don't you think?"
"Absolutely. Can I help you clear?"
Emily rested her head against the back of her chair and groaned. "Ugh. I can't think about it yet." Then she fixed Sydney in an unexpectedly sharp stare. "You're not upset about Will and Francie?"
"That I saw them? Upset's not the word. Kinda freaked out, because there are certain things you just - that should only be seen in context, if you know what I mean."
"I know what you mean, but I wasn't talking about that. You and Will - I guess I always thought there was something more there."
"Oh." Sydney hoped Emily would believe the flush in her cheeks was only caused by the wine. "No. I mean, not on my part. He always wanted more, but I didn't, and now he's found someone who does."
Emily nodded. After a moment, she added, more quietly, "Something's bothering you, though. And it has been for a long time. You're not yourself lately, Sydney. I know you wish I didn't notice, but I do."
Maybe she could hide her emotions from anybody else in the world, but not from Emily. She couldn't tell Emily about her mother; she had no idea if Sloane had revealed the truth to her or not, and couldn't risk finding out. And talking about the depression - only word for it - that had consumed her during the past few months would only make it worse. So she said only, "You and Mr. Sloane - your relationship - I guess I can't help wishing for that."
"It'll happen for you." Emily smiled. "I'm as sure of it as I am of anything in the world."
"Excuse me," Mr. Sloane said, leaning back in the room. "Emily, I need to borrow Sydney for a while. It's work."
"You two and your work," Emily groaned, but she smiled as she said it. Sydney, already back at full attention, quickly followed Mr. Sloane to his study, mentally preparing herself for what might come next. At least she was dressed for traveling: khaki pants, go-anywhere white shirt, ponytail. Wonderful, she thought with a touch of weariness. I just shook off the last round of jet lag.
Mr. Sloane beckoned her to sit beside him on the tan-leather couch, and he fixed her with that curiously intent stare of his. "Sydney, tell me - are you talking with your parents much?" When she stared at him, surprised, he gave her a reassuring smile. "That's not the work part. That's just me asking."
Okay, Sydney thought, that was weird. "Not much," she admitted. "I keep telling myself I'm going to try harder. And they both try sometimes, too - but -"
It was painful to remember, how badly her parents both wanted to talk to her, and how patently obvious it was that none of the three of them knew what to say.
"Do they share much of how they're feeling with you? About, oh, life, work, each other?"
Sydney felt herself going still, knew the swift and sure change in the flow of her thoughts. Mr. Sloane was asking about work and trying not to seem like he was asking about work. And whatever he was asking about involved her parents. Mr. Sloane probably had really good reason, both for asking about them and for not letting Sydney in on it, but it still made her worried. "Not much. Not enough, I guess. I haven't had a heart-to-heart with either of them since - well, it's been a few years with my dad, and my mom - not since the night she returned."
This was the truth, and it apparently pleased Mr. Sloane. But now, after a night of laughter and comfort, Sydney couldn't deny that she felt profoundly ill at ease.
"I'm sorry to bring up subjects you find hurtful. I know how unhappy you've been, lately. It's been hard to bear, knowing how difficult all this has been for you."
"Don't feel bad. My happiness - I'm so grateful you care, but it's not your responsibility."
"Taking care of you is always my responsibility." He squeezed her shoulder. "And I'm gonna do a better job of it, in the future."
"Maybe I should do a better job of it." Instead, Sydney thought, of sitting around wishing for my parents to be - well - people they're not.
"Sydney, I need you to take a trip tonight." Just as she opened her mouth to ask where, Mr. Sloane continued, "I need you to come somewhere with me. Not a long trip, I promise; you'll be home before you know it."
"With you?" That was strange enough on its own. "What are we going to do?"
"Wonderful things." Mr. Sloane held out his hands for her to take; she did so, returning the smile he gave her. "This is what we've been waiting for, Sydney. We have our opportunity to finally, for once and for all, understand the work of Milo Rambaldi."
Rambaldi. The name itself was something golden or jeweled -- brilliant and precious and all too rare. "The prophecy. You finally know what it means."
"We can find out tonight." He studied her intently, the light from his green-shaded banker's lamp reflecting from the lenses of his glasses. "And maybe we can undo some of the frightening things Rambaldi spoke about. Tonight, we have a chance to activate The Telling."
"You mean it? We can?" Sydney didn't know how you went about undoing a prophecy, anyway - wasn't that against the whole idea of a prophecy? - but she was willing to give anything a try. Anything, if it meant that the words Sloane had told her might not come to pass. From what he'd told her during the past months, The Telling was their only hope.
"I know how heavily the burden of knowledge has weighed on you." His eyes met hers, steady and intent. "I've regretted even telling you about the prophecy. But it's like we always dreamed: The Telling is our way out. We're going to save you. We're going to perform miracles, Sydney. We're going to make this world a better place."
"That sounds good." Tears pricked at her eyes. "Better than good."
"We can leave very soon. I need to go into the office briefly -"
"Okay, the office." Sydney ran her hands down over her slacks, trying to reassemble herself into something approaching professional calm. "That works. I wanted to double-check a couple of things before the weekend, anyway."
"No, no. You stay here." Mr. Sloane patted her shoulder.
"It's all right. Honestly. I'd like to go in."
"Sydney, humor me, all right? Stay here. Have some dessert with Emily. I'd feel much better knowing you were rested and at your best before we set out on this trip. It's important."
She smiled at him, hoping like hell that the smile reached her eyes. In her heart, she knew only one thing:
Mr. Sloane was lying to her.
He didn't want her to come into the office. He didn't want her to know something, something very important. And she had the strong suspicion that this had a lot to do with her parents.
Sydney nearly said as much. If one of her parents had done wrong, that was no more than she expected, or so she told herself. If Mr. Sloane would only explain to her, just tell her why, then she'd understand. Maybe.
But the way he kept smiling at her - the way he was certain, absolutely certain, that she'd believe him - held her back.
Sydney had never liked being taken for granted.
"Ohhh-kay." She rolled her eyes. "I guess if you INSIST that I spend a couple hours consuming calories and gossiping with Emily instead of doing work -"
Laughing, he rose from the couch. "That's my girl. I'll head on over now, so we can get an early start. Let's head back to Emily."
"Actually, can I use your phone for just a second?" Sydney gave him her best grin. "I ought to call Francie. She's expecting me tonight, and if I don't come in, she'll worry. Besides, we have some Will gossip to catch up on."
"Far be it from me to stand in the way." Mr. Sloane motioned toward the phone. "I'll be back in an hour, hour and a half tops."
"I'll be here," Sydney said, wondering if that would be true.
Once he went out the door, Syd did three things. First, she called Francie on the Sloanes' phone. It was best to fulfill her word and cover her tracks; besides, when Sydney didn't come home, her roommate really would worry.
Then she used her own cell phone to call her father. After that, she called her mother. Neither one answered. Sydney had been too distant from them in recent months, but she knew enough to know that it was extremely unlikely that both of them would be out on any given weeknight.
For a few long minutes, Sydney simply stood in Mr. Sloane's study, cradling the cell phone against her chest. She knew that she had to do something, but she didn't know what. Was her duty exactly what Mr. Sloane said it was: to go on this trip with him and discover the truth about the Rambaldi prophecy for once and for all? Or was it something else, part of the greater truth that she knew he was trying to hide from her? Something that had to do with whatever it was her parents - who, she realized with an electric jolt of surprise, must have been working together - were up to?
Rambaldi's work is important. So is my role in that work. I've always tried to push that away - but only because we didn't have answers. Now, maybe, we do. And Mr. Sloane's been so good to me, she thought. He's been my friend. He believed that I could be a secret agent; he believed in me, even after we learned about the prophecy and the horrible things I might do. On the other hand, my parents never even bothered to tell me the most basic truths about my life. Dad was worse, but Mama lied too.
But even as she thought these words - and knew them to be true - Sydney was caught up in other memories: playing in Gorky Park as her father knelt beneath the footbridge to talk to her. Begging her mother to explain tarot cards to her, every meaning they could possibly have. Dad's proud smile as she gave her valedictorian's speech. Mama's arms around her as she sang her to sleep at night. Dinners at the Jade Dragon, and an embrace no less precious because of the red wine splashed all over her white satin pajamas.
I don't know how much I owe Mama and Dad, Syd thought. But I know that I owe it to them to find out.
When she'd stalled as long as she possibly could, Sydney went back outside and made small talk with Emily, who had cleared the table and set out the raspberries and cream. All the while, as they joked about Francie and Will, and talked about Emily's first apartment, Sydney was quickly calculating the probabilities of what was happening, and what she ought to do.
Her mother and father were both not at home. Mr. Sloane had asked her about both. Therefore, they were working together, and they had done so tonight.
Mr. Sloane had been contacted at his house. Something was urgent enough to call him into the office on a night when he hoped to discover Milo Rambaldi's ultimate purpose, for once and for all. Therefore, that something impacted directly on SD-6's work with Rambaldi artifacts, possibly on The Telling itself.
Who would know about Rambaldi's work? Who else might possibly have cause to interfere?
Her mother. And, because her father was apparently working with Mama, her father as well.
It all added up to one simple, horrifying conclusion: Mr. Sloane had gone to SD-6 to interrogate her mother and father.
Am I going to let him do that? Sydney wondered. For the first time, she realized that she had power over Mr. Sloane; if she was the woman in the prophecy, and Sloane cared so deeply about the prophecy, then - then she had a measure of control over this situation that he didn't. How much remained to be seen. But maybe it was time to see. She'd never thought about having power over him before; she'd never even imagined that she might need such a thing. But the hour was on her now.
Sydney stared across the table at Emily, her gaze so fixed that Emily instantly silenced her chatter about Mr. Sloane's hatred for her first apartment. For a few long seconds, they simply stood there; then Sydney mouthed the words, "I have to go."
Emily didn't ask her why she wasn't speaking aloud. That, in and of itself, told Sydney that she knew a lot more about SD-6 than Mr. Sloane had ever let on. After a second's hesitation, Emily mouthed back, "You're not supposed to leave."
Although the words were startling, they didn't shock her as much as what Emily said next. "You know what? We ought to run out."
"Out?" Sydney said, still off-balance.
"Yeah. Get out of the house for a bit, before Arvin gets home. I don't know about you, but after all that food and all that ice cream, I could use a coffee. Otherwise, I'll probably pass out."
The Sloanes' kitchen contained a coffeemaker and about eight different varieties of bean. But Sydney simply gulped and accepted the gift. The suggestion would give her both a chance and an excuse to leave the house; Emily was, for the moment, siding with Sydney against her own husband, a sign of loyalty and love and Syd didn't even know how to begin to repay. She said only, "You know what? A coffee sounds great."
Emily's eyes were sad as she said, "Anything you want, Sydney. Anything you need."
Sydney simply held out her hand for the car keys. "I'll drive."
Go back to the last chapter.