It was quiet, but emphatic. Backus glanced up from monitoring DemeCeres' internal communications: Ghost was frowning at her screen.
"Bad one. Potentially, anyway."
She fell silent, her fingers flying over the keyboard, then shook her head angrily, biting at her lower lip. Her eyes met Backus's.
"I can't do anything about it, either. Not without giving away our presence, anyway. Better get Malone."
"What's the problem?" Malone peered over Ghost's shoulder, not expecting to understand much of what was on the screen. He wasn't disappointed. The hacker swivelled her chair.
"They have some sort of video surveillance set up - something separate from their main security systems and not connected to them: the traffic's all one way, from the cameras to a discrete database behind a separate firewall. I can't get at it." She frowned. "Well, I probably could, given enough time, but it would be tricky. I'd rather not risk it. As best as I can tell, it operates throughout the complex, all the time."
Malone nodded. "Well, that's not entirely unexpected."
"Yes, I know that, but what this does - I think - is to match the faces of the DemeCeres personnel against their electronic records. So if the camera finds a face it doesn't recognise, the system alerts their internal security." She frowned, thoughtfully.
"You sound doubtful."
Ghost nodded. "That would be the most sensible way for it to work. But there's something odd about the configuration. And their records database is huge, much too big for such a small organisation..."
"Perhaps it's the other way around."
Ghost and Malone stared at Backus. She grinned.
"What if they were trying to spot faces they did recognise, rather than those they didn't?"
Ghost looked bewildered. Malone frowned for a moment - then his face split into a beaming smile.
"Miss Backus, you're brilliant."
"It would explain it, wouldn't it, sir?"
"Explain what? What the hell're you on about?" Ghost was switching her gaze irritably from one to the other. Malone patted her arm: she scowled and moved it out of his reach. He gestured to Backus.
"Would you care to explain?"
Backus smiled at the younger woman. "Eight days ago, someone hacked into our personnel database and copied all our operatives' records. And I mean all - current records as well as old ones; even those of dead agents. Photographs, retinal scans, voice files, medical records - everything."
Ghost nodded. "And you think it was DemeCeres? That would make sense if they're as paranoid as they seem to be. The kind of set up they have here, they could identify an agent within seconds. Anyone trying to infiltrate wouldn't stand a chance." She frowned. "But that means..."
"That our Mr Curtis and Mr Keel will be recognised, yes. Fortunately, we have a secret weapon."
"Someone whose records weren't on our database."
Ghost raised an eyebrow, but Malone didn't elaborate. She frowned.
"So we're still going ahead with the plan?"
"I see no alternative."
"What if my first guess is right, as well? What if they scan their own personnel, too?"
"That's a risk we'll have to take. Is there any way you could confirm it for us?"
She frowned to herself for a moment. "I could try." She looked up at Backus and grinned. "And if they do, maybe I could disable it."
"Let's not try to be too clever." Malone smiled, nevertheless. The hacker's enthusiasm was infectious. She nodded and turned back to her keyboard.
"Do you need Miss Backus for a few minutes?"
"No." Ghost didn't raise her eyes from the screen.
"In that case, if you wouldn't mind, Miss Backus..?"
Moments later, in Malone's temporary office, the controller gestured Backus into a chair and seated himself behind his desk.
"How are things?"
"Good, sir. I don't foresee any problems here."
"Unless the guys run into something unexpected."
"They're professionals. Trained to expect the unexpected."
She nodded. "I know Curtis and Keel will be fine. But what about Bodie and Doyle, sir?"
He sighed. "I have every confidence in Bodie. Doyle, however, is something of an unknown quantity at present."
"But the whole exercise depends on him. Especially now."
"Indeed." If Malone was worried - and Backus couldn't see any reason he shouldn't be very worried indeed - he wasn't letting it show.
At that moment the phone trilled. It was Curtis.
"We're all here, sir."
"Good. Anything to report?"
"Not yet, sir. Bodie and Mr Doyle have only just arrived. We're about to start planning the exercise."
"Very well. Now, since Ghost isn't to know that Mr Doyle is with you, I want you to use codes to identify yourselves. I'd suggest A, B, C and D. Or K, B, C and D if you prefer. Miss Backus has arranged for a vocal distortion at this end, so your voices will be unrecognisable." He glanced at Backus. "One moment, Mr Curtis. Miss Backus, could you ask Ghost to determine the best time for the infiltration attempt? Check if there is a particular time of day or night when such an attempt stands the best chance of success?"
Backus nodded and hastened from the room, and Malone turned his attention back to the phone.
"We have some news for you. It would appear - although we have yet to confirm the fact - that DemeCeres was indeed the organisation which accessed our personnel records. It is likely, then, that the success of the mission will depend upon Mr Doyle." Malone frowned. "Which of necessity means that you and Mr Keel will need to give him as much assistance and backup as possible. I think we can assume that Bodie will do the same."
"I understand, sir."
"Good. How is Mr Keel reacting to Mr Doyle?"
In Geneva, Curtis turned to his partner, who was gazing at the original 4.5 with a puzzled but not hostile expression.
"So far so good, sir."
"Good, good. Try to keep it that way. Is there anything more you need to know?"
"Other than the best time for the break in, at the moment nothing comes to mind, sir. We'll know more when we've had a chance to discuss the operation."
"Very well. I'll get back to you once we have a result from Ghost. Keep me advised of events your end. Malone out."
Curtis pocketed the mobile and gazed at Keel, frowning slightly.
For his part, Keel had watched the older men approach with a strange breathlessness. He didn't like Bodie - no, strictly speaking he didn't like what Bodie was: under other circumstances he would admire the man, respect him, although he could never envisage feeling friendship for him. But Doyle...
He knew Doyle, he was sure of it. But he also knew they'd never met. But the eyes, the hair, the way he moved, lithe, unconsciously graceful... It was all so familiar...
He stood, instinctively, as Bodie and Doyle reached the table. Physically, Doyle was smaller than he'd expected, but the man positively crackled with energy. With life. And with a vibrant sensuality... He'd regarded Keel silently for a moment, then grinned and extended a hand.
"So you're my replacement."
Keel took the proffered hand, surprised at the strength in the slim fingers. He smiled back, feeling almost shy.
"No sir. Not replacement. But my operational code is 4.5. I'm Chris Keel. It's an honour to meet you."
Doyle raised an eyebrow and glanced at Bodie. The arms dealer had watched the exchange with an amused smile on his face, arms crossed and leaning back against a table.
"I thought you said he was..."
"House on fire - remember?" Bodie had interrupted his partner before he could get any further. Doyle chuckled.
"Pleased to meet you, too." He turned to Curtis. "And you must be Bodie Mk 2."
Keel grinned at his partner's expression of distaste, hastily fought down.
"Sam Curtis, Mr Doyle."
"Call me Ray. Or Doyle. 'Mr' makes me feel old."
Curtis refrained from commenting - with some difficulty, Keel thought - and smiled tightly.
"Well, now we're all here, shall we get down to business?"
Ghost was frowning, fingers tapping out a rhythm on the desk. She inclined her head and glanced at Backus.
"Well, as far as I can tell they don't run identity video checks on their staff. Which is a bit of an oversight on their part. Lucky for us, though."
Backus shrugged. "Maybe they get a lot of visitors?"
"Perhaps - but still, it doesn't take much time to create a record. It's not like they're short on computer storage space. Then again, their security is so tight they probably vet everyone really thoroughly before letting them in." She shook her head. "Your agents should still be careful, even so. Try not to be seen if possible. As for the other thing - I can't make up my mind. They seem to work all the time..."
Backus checked her own screen. Ghost was right: the DemeCeres organisation seemed to run at the same pace day and night, with no quiet times at all. She sighed.
"So I guess we leave it to the guys to choose the time they think best, then."
"Probably. Oh, hang on a minute..."
Ghost peered at the screen, watching intently, then grinned.
"Well there's convenient! They've scheduled a series of security checks for tonight. In preparation for the big event, I suppose."
Ghost nodded. "It'll mean a slight disruption to their security systems. I can use that to get your 'secret weapon' through the complex without having to bother with trying to fake ID codes: if I get the timing right they won't notice a thing. Check the floor plans for me, would you?"
Backus called them onto the screen, checking off locations as Ghost threw numbers at her. As they traced the path the checks would take, Ghost chuckled.
"I do so love the orderly scientific mind!"
Backus couldn't help but agree. It would still take some doing - and a lot of very precise timing - but if the team could get Doyle into the complex, he should be able to make his way to the main lab without too much difficulty: and without appearing to hurry, which would raise suspicions if he were seen. Which he was bound to be, she realised with a sinking feeling. There was no way into the labs and storage areas without using the main corridors. He'd have to pretend to be a member of staff. How good an actor was he?
She glanced at Ghost, who was still grinning. To some extent this was all a game, an intellectual exercise for the young woman, and Backus sighed silently, almost envious. At Ghost's age she'd already killed several times, to save her own life and that of others. Ghost's experience of killing was confined to computer games and the virtual world of the internet...
Ghost caught the look and raised an eyebrow questioningly. Backus smiled sadly and shook her head. Better, perhaps, not to say anything. At this stage, anyway. No point in spooking the hacker. She'd have enough to worry about when the action started for real. In the meantime, better let Malone know what they'd discovered. But first...
Bodie had listened to Curtis with unspoken dismay, watching his partner closely. Ray's face had remained impassive as Curtis broke the news that he would be entirely responsible for the success of the operation - but Bodie sensed the sudden tension in his partner. Keel was switching his gaze between the two older men, sensitive to the atmosphere. Bodie caught Doyle's eye.
"You OK with this?"
"S'why I'm here."
Unhappy with the situation, but admitting to himself that it was, after all, no more or less than they'd bargained for, Bodie nodded. The thought that Ray would have to pull this off by himself, without his partner to watch his back, was enough to scare him rigid - but that wouldn't accomplish anything. Might even prove dangerous. What was required was positive action. Decisively, Bodie pushed himself up from the table.
"I suggest we continue this upstairs. We need to decide how we're going to handle the op. And I want to check that our equipment's in working order." He glanced at the younger operatives. "My room. I know it's safe."
"What does he mean, 'safe'?" Keel murmured to Doyle as they left the restaurant.
"Means no bugs. Values his privacy, does Bodie."
It was a large suite, overlooking the lake. Curtis gazed around himself, impressed, and glanced at Keel.
"Perhaps we're in the wrong business."
Keel's face froze, and Curtis could have kicked himself. He laid a hand on his partner's shoulder.
Keel swallowed, and forced himself to relax.
"It's OK. D'you wanna go get our stuff?"
Curtis nodded. "Be right back..."
On his return five minutes later he found Bodie on the phone, while the other two, their heads close together, were poring over the floor plans. They looked up as he re-entered the suite, equipment case in hand.
"Ah, good. Let's see what we've got." Bodie watched intently as Curtis unloaded the case, nodding his approval at the quality of the gear. As the headsets came to light he reached for one, settling it comfortably against his ear, then made contact with HQ.
As the others arranged their own sets, Malone came online.
"Well gentlemen - is everything satisfactory?"
"As much as could be expected." Bodie nevertheless sounded pleased.
"Very well. I'm going to hand you over to Ghost, who will advise you as to recent developments..."
Ghost! Of course! That's why Doyle felt so familiar - he reminded Keel of Ghost... Bodie and Curtis had their eyes on Bodie's laptop, so only Keel saw the tremor that ran through Doyle, the slight narrowing of his eyes and mouth, at the mention of the hacker's name...
He frowned. Nah, she couldn't be... could she?
He swallowed hard and filed the thought away for later consideration.
Bodie listened carefully to everything Ghost had to impart, then turned to the others.
"Right. Let's take a look at those plans..."
Bodie groaned, glancing down at his clothes, and Keel grinned. The arms dealer definitely went in for expensive gear...
"Sewers. Why does it always have to be sewers?"
Doyle scowled. "Oi, think yourself lucky you don't have to go in there in person."
Bodie frowned. "Don't rub it in."
It had already been decided that Doyle would have to pass himself off as a member of the scientific staff. Though looking at the artist Curtis couldn't conceive how he could pull it off. Anyone who looked less like the archetypal scientist would be hard to imagine.
"You'd be surprised." Curtis glanced up quickly to find Bodie smiling at him. Damn, were his feelings so obvious? Or was the arms dealer reading his mind?
"Trust me. I know what these places are like. Ray won't attract any attention. And he's pretty good undercover."
At Curtis's sceptical look, Bodie glanced at his partner.
"I think Curtis doubts your acting ability."
Doyle looked startled for a moment, then pulled a pair of spectacles from his jacket pocket. Perching them on his nose, he assumed a slightly sour expression.
"Of course, the dangers of genetically modified foodstuffs are greatly over-rated. We all know that the world simply won't be able to grow enough food to nourish the continually increasing population..."
The tone was clipped and slightly patronising, all trace of accent gone. And the attitude was spot on. Put him in a lab coat and he could get away with it. Keel grinned and applauded silently. Curtis nodded.
"But what if someone asks you to explain something?"
Doyle pulled off the glasses. "Just have to hope nobody does, won't I?"
"Seriously," Bodie interrupted, "unless they're actually discussing projects, these people tend not to talk to each other that much while they're working. Get Ray into a lab coat and glasses and give him a clipboard and pen, and he could probably wander anywhere he liked in there, frowning and muttering and making notes on the board. He'll just blend into the background."
Privately Keel doubted that very much, but it wasn't worth making an issue of, not right before the operation. Curtis wasn't happy, however. He shook his head, frowning.
"It's too haphazard. What if the lab is full of people when you get there, and you can't lift the pollen? There are too many things that could go wrong."
Doyle's expression hardened.
"We know. You got a better suggestion?"
Curtis shook his head in defeat.
"Much as I hate to say it, no, I haven't."
"Then let's hope for the best and just try not to balls it up, shall we?" Doyle reached for the tiny earpiece he was to wear while inside the complex, settling it in his right ear and clipping the minute microphone to the front of his tee-shirt.
"Can you hear me, Ghost?" His voice wasn't much above a murmur.
Her voice came through all the headsets, crystal clear. "I can. Who'm I speaking to?"
"I'm... D. I'll be going into the complex."
"OK. Now, here's what I plan to do from this end..."
Bodie, Doyle and Keel, clad in black combat fatigues, paused at the entrance to the outlet pipe: Curtis was already in position, overlooking DemeCeres main entrance, night binoculars at the ready. Keel was to guard the entrance to the pipe, while Bodie accompanied his partner as far as the pumping station in the guts of the complex, and wait there until he returned. They'd synchronised their watches back at the hotel.
Bodie clasped Doyle's shoulder.
"Yeah." Doyle took a deep breath and checked the P228 he'd selected from Bodie's portable armoury, slipping it into the inconspicuous shoulder holster. "Hope I don't need it."
"Me too. But if you do, you use it, OK? You don't think twice."
"'Shoot first - he will', eh?"
Bodie shook his head. "Probably not, under these circumstances. But you can't afford to let anyone stop you."
"Savin' the world again, are we?"
"First time, sunshine. Just get in there, get the pollen, set the incendiary and get out again, OK? Without getting hurt, preferably."
"Bodie, I know what I'm supposed to do. Will you stop nurse-maiding me?"
"...of a lifetime, yeah, I know." Doyle grinned. Bodie grinned back and, for the first time, dared to ruffle his partner's curls. Doyle's retort was cut short by Keel's quiet cough.
"Sorry to break this up, but you two gotta get."
Bodie nodded and switched on the headset.
"OK Ghost. We're ready to go."
In answer, the grille across the pipe clicked open as Ghost released the electronic lock, and Doyle, closely followed by Bodie, made their way into the darkness within.
© May 2000 Joules Taylor
© 2000 WordWrights.