Coming out of the airport is a shock of heat and light and noise, especially noise: horns and engines and shouting in four languages, no, five. Sydney blinks and smiles uncertainly like the tourist she's pretending to be and winds up five minutes later in the back of an ambassador taxi. The taxi is clean but she's already coated in a film of sweat and exhaust and frankly, is wondering why they decided to send her rather than someone not quite so tall and less obviously not Indian. The driver is taking a route which she knows is longer than it needs to be, but it isn't worth breaking her cover to save the CIA a few hundred rupees, so she leans back and stares out the window. Even through her sunglasses the colors are too bright.
They curl around a donkey-cart and scatter a cluster of black and yellow auto-rickshaws; a city bus bears down on them, honking and honking, and it's their turn to swerve out of the way, and all the time the taxi-driver is chattering at her in English with a list of sights to see and things to do. She smiles and nods and tries to look like she's paying attention and not wondering what the potholes are doing to the electronics in her luggage.
Out in front of the hotel and this time it's the heat and the smells washing over her, spices and gasoline and dust. She pays the driver and grabs her carry-on before the bellboy can get to it--he has her suitcase already but that's full of clothes she won't need anyway.
The room is clean and quiet, in the back of the hotel. Three minutes to spare: she can hear Marshall in the back of her head as she sets up the receiver, "really neat, because it piggybacks onto the Indian communication satellites, but it's totally undetectable... provided you use the precise window." When it came to the timing, Marshall had been practically vehement. Vehement for Marshall. Two minutes--she has to jam the earpiece together--and then it's her father's voice, a reassuring monotone.
"Our surveillance indicates that the cell is using an abandoned in the Matancherry district. I'll have Marshall send you the specifics."
"Got it," she answers. "When is the hit planned?"
"The targets will be in Cochin for two days. We believe that the conspirators are planning to strike on the second day, at the official opening. You should have enough time to take their operation apart before that."
"And is there any indication of who's backing them?"
There's a brief pause. "Nothing. I don't need to remind you how important secrecy is, in this operation."
"I know, Dad. Although..."
He interrupts her objection. "This is a delicate situation, Sydney, and you're the best we've got. I'm proud of you."
She can feel her nose getting red and her eyes tearing up. It's like she's still eight years old or something. "Thanks."
"I'm signing off now. The next pass will be 0300 GMT."
"I'll talk to you then," she says.
A click, and he's gone.
The satellite link packs up neatly and slides into a compartment at the bottom of her suitcase. She rinses herself off in the shower and heads out into the late afternoon. Five or six small boys start to follow her down to the ferry terminal; she ignores them until one gets to close, then turns and swears at them in Hindi. Cover be damned. They scatter, laughing and shouting in a language she doesn't know. Malayalam, probably.
She crowds into the ferry next to three women in saris with huge plastic baskets and five children between them; there are two Australians sitting across from her, "Just out of uni," one explains, taking a year or so to travel around the world before settling down to a journalism job of some kind. "He's writing a book," the other one says, jostling his friend a little.
Great. Just what she needs.
The women are no help, talking busily to each other, and she ends up letting the Australians--Bill and Keith, or is it Kevin?--cajole her into going to eat with them. They're fresh-faced and tan, impressed that she's traveling through India on her own, and almost impossible to shed. No matter how often she insists that she doesn't need to be walked back to the ferry and all the way to her hotel after dinner, she can't escape. At least she comes up with an excuse to avoid going sightseeing with them the next day. She's almost tempted to tell the truth, "Sorry, I can't go see the Chinese fishing nets tomorrow. I have to single-handedly foil a plot to derail diplomatic relations between the US and India by framing the CIA for the assassination of the Indian cricket team." She's heard that all undercover agents get that urge, but bets that it's never happened to either of her parents.
So in the end she's back where she started and has to retrace her steps. She gets to the warehouse much later than she'd hoped, but it looks like the conspirators are running late too, since the place is deserted and dark. Even so, she's careful and quiet.
The weapons are ridiculously easy to find. CIA issue, just like her father said. Top of the line, too: whoever set this up has good resources. It's too late to start disabling the weapons now, but there's a good hiding place behind a stack of crates.
It's a long wait, or it feels long; her watch says it's only an hour and forty-three minutes. Then a van drives up and she can hear people moving around and talking in one of the other rooms. They haven't come for the weapons yet.
She's concentrating on trying to hear the conversation and there it is--just a breath of air, but someone is in the room, moving around. Quietly--as quietly as she'd been moving. Damn. She can't see whether her cover has been broken unless she moves, and she can't move without breaking cover.
Fabric rustles, and she hears a step. He's coming closer; he must see the same hiding place she did. The hair on her arms prickles.
So much for secrecy. She explodes out, scattering the crates around her in a crash that should distract her stalker for a moment, and there he is. The step backward he takes in surprise means that her fist doesn't connect as hard as it should, but he still stumbles. He doesn't call for help, just rushes back at her and-- "Sark?" she says. "I should have known!"
"Would you mind"--block that kick, riposte--"not making quite so much noise?"
This time she hits him hard and he falls back with a gasp. Sark always talks too much. "Why not? My cover's blown."
He doesn't stay down. Too bad. "Yes well, mine isn't. Unless you're in charge here? Although it doesn't seem quite your usual style."
She doesn't waste time wondering what he's talking about--she needs him down before the rest of them get there--but the door bursts open and she has to dodge and then somehow he's had time to get out a gun and "Duck!" he's saying although she can't figure out why.
He fires and misses her, fires again, misses--she's got her own gun out now and her back against the wall, using what cover there is--but there are bodies in the doorway and she looks back at Sark just in time to see him shoot the third man who came in.
Between the eyes. He hadn't missed her.
He takes advantage of the moment of confusion--she would have done the same--to slam the door and slide into the same cover she's using.
"I take it that this isn't your operation, then?" he asks. He isn't even breathing hard.
"Damn it, Sark, this is not a CIA operation."
"No, of course not."
This time she shoots the man who comes in the door. She ought to shoot Sark, too.
The room is dark and crowded. There's some kind of muttered conversation going on outside, in the hall. It's an interior room, for security, no way out. "At least we won't run out of ammunition," Sark comments.
Now, that's a thought. She puts a finger to her lips, then nods at the door. He nods back.
It's no easy feat, moving silently among the wreckage of crates and bits of scattered metal. She concentrates on that to avoid thinking about what she's doing. Sark, with a gun, guarding the door while she works. Insane. He'll attack her any second now--he's obviously behind this whole thing, somehow, even though he appears to have turned against his co-conspirators. Typical Sark. Couldn't be trusted. This is a mistake, thinking she can trust him to watch her back, just because it looks like the same people are shooting at both of them. Any second he'll turn--and there it is. She recognizes the markings on the crate.
The lid starts to slide off, then sticks. Damn. She pushes gingerly: it doesn't budge. And then Sark's on the other end, pulling, and between the two of them they inch it off and place the lid on the floor.
The argument outside is getting louder. She hurries--their voices will cover any small noises she makes as she fits the gun together. A mounted anti-tank gun ought to take out the men plotting in the hallway. Now for the ammunition...
When it's ready, she gestures Sark back, but he shakes his hear, holds up five fingers. Five minutes? She shakes her head. They don't have that much time, but he's already turned away and opened one of the boxes they'd been using for cover. She stays by the big gun and keeps an eye on the door as he works.
He's quick, she has to admit that. The explosives are out and placed around the room in a minute, and it's only a little longer for him to set the detonator. "The back wall first," he suggests in a whisper.
She's already wrenched the gun around and fires just as he finishes. The recoil knocks her back and she clings to the gun to stay upright as the wall collapses into smoke and rubble. Not time to lose, though--she can hear shouts from the hall and twists around again and fires into the smoke. She hears the destruction rather than feels it, then someone--it had better be Sark and that's one hell of a thought--grabs her arm and drags her back through the hole in the wall, through the dark, burning warehouse. They stumble out onto the street and stare at each other--his teeth look very white against all the soot on his face--then run to the end of the block. The warehouse is burning, but Sark must have pressed the detonator just as the reach the corner, because she hears the explosion and feels the shockwave pushing them both out and down.
Her report is going to have to be very creative. Although at least she'll be able to state with some certainty that the assassination plot was foiled. Sark might be a soulless bastard, but he is an efficient soulless bastard.
"What are you smiling about?" He sounds irritated, too.
She looks back to the warehouse, or rather, where the warehouse used to be. There are sirens getting closer, and a crowd forming. "We'd better get out of here."
He glances back--the rat-tat-tat of ammunition exploding--and nods in an almost courtly gesture. "We do make an excellent team, you know."
"Get lost, Sa-- oh, no." Of course. The Australians. There must have been strings of grenades in one of those boxes: she can hear them start to go, one by one. It keeps Bill and Kevin's (Keith's? Why can't she remember this?) attention away from her; she grabs Sark's arm and pulls him away from the crowd.
A flash of light--the tank-gun shells are starting to go off like fireworks back there--did they see her, just then?
"Agent Bristow?" Sark just sounds amused, damn him.
"Don't even ask."
Of course he doesn't take her advice. "Who are you running from?"
"No one. Let's get out of here." There's an alley. It will do for the moment, but they couldn't be more conspicuous: dressed all in black, covered in soot and ash... at least neither of them is wounded. But they can't just hail an auto-rickshaw and run away from the explosion looking like this. She never thought she's actually miss having a stupid disguise.
Still, it isn't completely hopeless. She can see the dim black-and-yellow shape at the end of the alley--an auto-rickshaw. If she had any luck, the driver would have... yes. He was probably out in the street with the rest of the crowd, watching the show.
"Surely not," Sark says.
"Oh, come on, Sark. Haven't you ever wanted to drive one of these things through city traffic?"
"Never. You do realize how small the engine is? No acceleration."
"I don't need to compensate," she says; that shuts him up. "You're welcome to stay here if you want."
Sark sighs. "I suppose you want to try breaking into one of these warehouses and wheeling it through to the next street?"
At least he isn't stupid. One door, then the next. The third is easy to push open. "You haven't told me what you're doing here," she says.
She can't see him rolling his eyes, but she can hear it in the tone of his voice. "Foiling the nefarious plans of the American government. I do bear a grudge, you know. Your presence is the mystery here."
She grits her teeth before she remembers that she doesn't care what Sark thinks. "I told you before, this wasn't--"
"Really, Sydney. You saw the same thing I did. That kind of technology comes from the inside."
And Sark would know. It's his business. "If that's so, then why..." Of course, it would explain her father and Dixon's insistence on secrecy.
"No doubt your superiors have their reasons."
The warehouse is nice and private. She could kill him now and hide the body. So what if he just saved her life and blew up a warehouse with her? It's Sark. It's not like anyone would miss him. "Anyway, why this plot?"
"Why this plot? I'm sure there are all kinds of evil things you could be doing, Sark. Why this one?"
He's quiet for a while. "I like cricket."
She snorts, tries to cover it up, but no use, in a second she's giggling. Shit. Sark is really going to kill her for this.
"Do you mind?" he asks.
"Help me push this damned machine," he says. They're trying to walk the rickshaw through the warehouse. It's a glorified motorbike, three wheels and a cover over the seats in back, but it's awkward and heavier than it looks. She sighs and gets to work.
Once they're out in the street she can see the glow from the fire--it's probably spreading. There's still the odd explosion; she hopes none of the crowd were injured.
The front of the auto-rickshaw only seats one, and since she spotted it, she climbs in. "What do you think you're doing?" Sark asks.
"I'll drive." No way is she letting him take control. "Get in the back or stay here."
She expects him to argue but instead he leaps into the back. "Go!" he says.
She can't see him, but she can hear him doing something--shit, there goes the safety on his gun. "Don't even think--"
"Sydney," the rickshaw tilts as he leans out and shakes as he shoots at someone, "Go!"
She manages to start the engine--it is pretty slow, Sark was right--she looks in the mirror and--surely not the Australians? They're running after the rickshaw, down the street, and at this rate Bill is going to catch them. The clutch sticks, yield, the engine makes a huge coughing noise and they start to pick up speed. Sark shoots again. She swerves--someone is shooting back at them. Keith--yes, his name was definitely Keith.
"What the hell is going on?" she shouts at Sark. They'd seemed so friendly. She should have known.
"Turn right," he shouts back. More gunfire. The left-hand mirror shatters. She's tearing down the road as fast as the rickshaw will go, scattering dust and chickens and oh, god, not a cow, woken by the noise and lumbering to its feet.
"I'm not helping you escape!" She manages the u-turn, skidding across the street and bumping into a fence. Keith is right in front of her. He looks straight at her--no way he hasn't recognized her--lifts the gun. She doesn't see the rest because she's thrown herself to the side and is reaching for her own gun--
"They aren't trying to kill me," Sark shouts. A little late, she thinks, but thanks for the warning. And where the hell is Bill?
Gunshots, then a scream--not Sark, she thinks, and is surprised by relief. But he's acting like he's on her side, which is what matters right now. She sees motion, fires, hits a chicken. Shit. Again. Keith breaks cover, takes four running steps toward the rickshaw, and crumples to the ground. Got him.
She hears Sark emerge from the back of the rickshaw. Not a scratch on him. Bastard. All she really wants to do get back to her hotel and go to sleep--she probably has gunpowder residue in her hair by now. A bath would be nice, too. Now she can see Bill, too, stretched out on the street.
"What do you think?" Sark asks. "Run, or hide the bodies and then run?"
"Too late now," she answers. Here come the police. The battle hadn't exactly been subtle. And hey, at least Sark will be in custody again.
At least, that's what she supposes. What happens involves a long explanation, delivered by Sark to some high-up official in a very nice office. It has something to do with match-fixing and rogue Australian operatives. Sydney's CIA credentials are mentioned in such a way that the official turns to her and says something about owing a great debt to the American government. The future of cricket is, apparently, secure now, and all she can do is bite her tongue. That bastard.
They end up in a cool marble lobby, having shaken hands with everyone in the building. There's a car waiting to take her back to her hotel. "Rogue Australian operatives?" she asks.
He shrugs. "The Australians take cricket very seriously."
She really should have killed him while she had the chance.
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Disclaimer: I don't own these characters. I don't know as much about cricket as I pretend to. I have misrepresented the geography of Kochi to serve my own vile purposes.