"You want me to crack a system?"
"Because we can't."
An eyebrow lifted, sardonically. "Is that can't as in it's not part of your brief, or can't because you're not good enough?"
"Oh, the latter, naturally."
"I see. Why should I help you?"
Malone smiled. "Think of it as a challenge."
"I can find plenty of those without getting involved with you suits."
"Very well, then. Think of it as a way to expiate those many little crimes you have committed in order to finance your current lifestyle."
"And how do you know I've committed any?"
"I somehow doubt you acquired your equipment from the local computer shop - legally, at any rate. I know that you are not paying for the power you're diverting from the national grid, nor the water being piped into your 'home'. I agree, these are petty offences, taken singly. However, in conjunction with what is, effectively, squatting in public property, the fraudulent use of other people's credit accounts to feed and clothe yourself, illegal connection to the telephone network, tax evasion and, as Mr Richards has just now discovered, hacking into travel agent databases in order to obtain flights and hotel reservations for a variety of locations across Europe, I think we have enough to make life very difficult for you for a long time to come. And that's without the private charges of accessing, infiltrating and tampering with our own database."
The green eyes were suddenly wary. "And you can prove that?"
"Oh, indeed we can." Given enough time, he added silently to himself.
"And if I help you?"
"We will ensure that no charges are ever brought. Though I must warn you," he added, possibly foolishly, but something about the young woman compelled honesty. And if he didn't tell her, no doubt she'd work it out for herself anyway... "that we will need to monitor your activities to some extent, in the future. We need to be sure you aren't actually doing anything detrimental to international security."
"Figures." Ghost scowled first at Backus, then at Curtis and Keel hovering silently behind their colleague, listening to the dialogue with fascination. "I suppose I deserve it for allowing myself to get caught. I was over-confident. Complacent. Ignored the first rule."
"And what is that?"
Malone glanced at Backus, who shrugged and shook her head. Ghost smiled grimly.
"There's Always Someone Better At It Than You."
"For always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself." Backus spoke softly, and smiled, remembering where she had read the words. When she looked up, both Malone and Ghost were regarding her quizzically.
"Lines from Desiderata, sir. Bodie had it on his mantelpiece."
It seemed to Malone that Ghost flinched almost imperceptibly at the mention of the arms dealer's name, but it was impossible to be certain, and when she next spoke it was as coolly as ever.
"What do you want me to do?"
"We'd like you to break into a company called DemeCeres... You've heard of them?"
Ghost hadn't been able to conceal her recognition of the name. She nodded, smiling sourly.
"I've heard of them. I found them by accident - and nearly got myself nuked. I'll help you."
The silence in the room was pregnant with a sense of anti-climax. Malone was the first to speak.
"Just like that?"
For the first time, Ghost treated them to a genuine smile. It transformed her entire face into something almost beautiful. And she had dimples.
"Just like that. You're right - I do like challenges. I just don't like being forced to accept them." She frowned, pensively. "And there's something...unright about DemeCeres. I'd be happier knowing what they're about."
"Very well. What do you need?"
Ghost's eyes twinkled...
Eurostar and the Channel Tunnel would have been quicker, but Bodie suddenly wanted something simpler, just to feel the seawind, hear the waves, and instead took the Dover-Calais ferry. The fact that a ferry allowed some possibility for escape from danger, while the Tunnel offered none, had some bearing on his choice, of course - Bodie hadn't stayed alive this long without having developed the ability to make instinctive decisions that helped ensure his own safety. Now he stood at the bow, a cool evening breeze stroking his hair, gazing unseeingly at a misty grey-blue horizon while his thoughts turned back the years...
He'd known something was very wrong after Doyle had been released from hospital that last time. Not only physically, though that had been bad enough - never exactly well-padded to begin with, the weight seemed to have dropped from him, leaving him thin, weak and scrawny. Nothing that decent feeding and a series of Macklin's training courses wouldn't cure - except that now, of course, any such exertion would probably be deadly. And that, in itself, was making his mental state worse. No matter what had happened in the past, Doyle had always been able to rely on two things - Bodie, and his own inner resources. Knowing that one of these was no longer an option had shocked him rigid...
Bodie had expected Doyle to resist his convalescence, to fight back against his body's betrayal the same way he fought everything that offended his sense of justice. What he hadn't expected was the listless apathy with which his partner ignored the world and everyone in it. It wasn't so much that he pushed Bodie away - it was more as though he was no longer even aware of the man who had been the other half of himself for ten years.
Cowley had arranged for Doyle to spend some time convalescing at a private nursing home on the south coast. Bodie spent his days on solo assignments, mostly, occasionally working with Murphy, missing his team-mate more than he would ever have believed possible. The fact that this time the separation might be permanent made it worse - was almost a physical pain, when he allowed himself to think of it. He got away to see Doyle when he could - which wasn't as often as he would have liked. Not that it really mattered. His partner seemed to be sunk in some kind of static nightmare from which he couldn't - or, Bodie sometimes suspected, didn't want to - awaken.
Eight weeks later Cowley called him into the office - and presented him with Doyle's resignation...
The flat was small, unheated, gloomy; the sound of a screaming child filtered easily through the thin walls, and there was an omnipresent and unappetising smell of overcooked cabbage. But Bodie noticed none of it, intent as he was on forcing a reaction - any reaction - from the skinny figure standing gazing out of the grimy, cracked window.
"Will you for god's sake just talk to me, Ray!"
Silence. Bodie tried again.
"Look, OK, you can't ever be a field agent again. But that's no reason to quit. We need you!"
"You mean you need me." Doyle turned to regard his erstwhile partner. Bodie flinched, the words almost forgotten as he saw Doyle for the first time in a month. The chartreuse eyes were huge and haunted in his newly-thin face, pale skin stretched tight over prominent, mismatched cheekbones, the hollows below them shadowed.
"You look bloody awful." The words were out before he had a chance to snatch them back, but Doyle simply stared at Bodie, his face expressionless. For a fleeting moment Bodie was reminded of his partner's depression after Paul Coogan's death - but this was something far deeper. Ray looked as though he'd died inside. Without thinking he gripped Doyle's shoulders, feeling the bones distinct and somehow fragile under their thin covering of flesh.
"Why are you giving up? You never give up..."
Doyle's face was still blank, without feeling. "Go away."
Bodie's hands slid, reluctantly, from his partner's shoulders.
"What d'you mean?"
For half a second he thought he saw a minute flash of anger far down in Doyle's eyes. Then it was gone - if it had ever been - and Doyle stepped backwards half a pace.
"I want you to go away."
"Now." He turned back to stare unseeingly out of the window.
Bodie stared at his back, a sense of dread heavy in the pit of his stomach. This, this was new. He didn't know how to handle it. Anger, frustration, hostility, even outright violence he could have taken - had taken in the past. But not this. Not this cold emptiness. Uncertainly he reached for Doyle's shoulder again, pausing before his hand quite touched the shabby sweatshirt.
"Ray..?" It was a whisper. "Let me in. Let me help. Please..."
"Go away. Stay away." A flat monotone. A stranger's voice. Disinterested, cold, and final.
Bodie backed away. At the door he paused, every protective instinct urging him to return, to force Doyle to communicate with him. For the first time since they had met, he simply didn't dare.
Never much of a man for introspection, it had taken Bodie nearly half a year before he was able to face the hurt of Doyle's outright rejection, and another six months to finally accept that he really wasn't coming back. At which point he had himself resigned from CI5.
There seemed little point in staying. Bodie was a pragmatist. Without Doyle's idealism, his integrity, his belief that despite appearances the organisation did make a difference, was of some worth in a society that valued property over lives, Bodie felt himself to be little more than a paid killer. A poorly paid killer, at that...
For a while he drifted, trying to find some focus. Finally he'd begun to deal with his sense of loss - if only by shoving it to the back of his mind - and look towards the future. Quite a lot of his thinking had been done in pubs, and it was there that a familiar face, one from his less than savoury distant past, had found him. Harvey had been looking to buy some guns...
Bodie had quietly kept an eye on Doyle in the months, then years, that followed, at first shamelessly using his friendship with Murphy to persuade the big man to keep him advised of anything he discovered. Somehow it hadn't come as too much of a surprise that Doyle had started painting again - it had always been a favoured way of helping him to deal with the inevitable ugliness of his previous line of work. Perhaps it would help him exorcise whatever demons still lurked within. Although Bodie wasn't too sure about the moniker his partner had chosen. After the kind of life they'd led, LaMorte was just a little too ironic for his liking.
They had run across each other, just once, a year later, at an art gallery where Bodie had arranged to meet a contact. Doyle was still thin, a strange hungry expression in his eyes: he'd responded to Bodie's cautious greeting coolly, but without hostility. Bodie had hoped for a chance to really talk to him - if nothing else, he felt he deserved some explanation as to why his old partner had so suddenly and completely cast away ten years of shared danger and deep friendship. But Doyle had kept their encounter short and casual, refusing to agree to another, and Bodie came away disappointed.
But as their new careers had taken off, Bodie had done what he could to carry on looking out for his partner - using his various contacts to arrange for Doyle's early artistic works to be shown and, a little later, promoted; ensuring there was always someone within reach should he ever find himself in any trouble; and a couple of years later, just as Doyle was beginning to become well known, starting to buy some of his favourite pieces for himself, paying well above the asking price for each. Oh, it was all done very circumspectly, of course. Bodie was sure Doyle had never realised what was happening. And it hadn't taken long before the assistance was no longer needed: once allowed to give his creativity full rein, Doyle had proven himself extraordinarily talented. He no longer needed any kind of financial help, of course, hadn't done for years. But Bodie still kept a couple of men near him, watching over him; guard dogs, just in case any of his old enemies found out where he was and were tempted to try their luck. And, he admitted to himself, to be certain that Doyle was well and, if not exactly happy, then at least lacking for nothing. It made him feel a little closer to the man. And helped overshadow the Doyle-shaped emptiness that was still there, hidden away, deep inside.
According to his guard dogs, Doyle had appeared to enjoy his success. No - Bodie frowned to himself - enjoy wasn't quite the right word. He had seemed contented, perhaps more at peace with himself now that he was caught up in creating beauty rather than destroying ugliness. His work had gained public recognition, and then public demand. Newfound wealth notwithstanding, he seemed to be enjoying the simpler lifestyle he'd chosen. Certainly he looked a lot healthier, and fitter; he'd started running again, swimming, and riding in the hills behind his home. A regular procession of attractive women had come and gone - although his guardians couldn't be certain whether they were anything more than models, a goodly number of them had been known to spend several nights at the house. Bodie had felt a warm glow of satisfaction and relief as Doyle came back to life...
And then, five years ago, Doyle had disappeared.
The first Bodie had known about it was an anxious communication from one of the watchers. The artist had somehow given them the slip and simply vanished. As he listened to the report, Bodie smiled grimly. Apparently Doyle hadn't entirely forgotten the skills he'd learned in CI5...
He'd stayed missing for a month. Then one morning, he was back, just like that, with no indication of where he had been or what he had done. His life resumed its previous tenor - with one exception. His paintings were now darker, filled with a strange tension, a sense of unquiet. They sold even better than before.
But Bodie was uneasy...
Bodie's eyes jerked open, hand automatically reaching inside his jacket for his Beretta, stopping as he saw the young woman at his side. She gazed at him, a little warily.
"Sorry to bother you, but have you got the time?"
He nearly said it - but bit back the outdated response before it reached his lips, and smiled thinly at her instead. The sky had darkened while he'd been musing.
She bit her lip, then smiled nervously and shook her head.
"Doesn't matter. Sorry I bothered you." She hurried off, not looking back. Bodie frowned suspiciously, then made his way swiftly down to the bar. He suddenly felt just a little too conspicuous, a little too exposed, standing alone on the deserted deck...
Malone stood in the doorway of what had been his office and stared at the activity within. Two extra desks had been squeezed into the room, and neither could be seen under various pieces of electronic apparatus, a spaghetti tangle of cables, and assorted switches. As Backus crawled out from under his desk, two tiny screwdrivers in one hand and a pair of minute snips in the other, he caught her attention.
"Miss Backus, is all of this really necessary?"
"Well, she's playing extra safe, sir. She's asked for a backup system, in case the primary gets nuked. And she's making sure nothing can get traced back to us - CI5, I mean. None of this" she waved a hand at the equipment, "is connected to our own intranet. We've even brought in a dozen new discrete phonelines. It's pretty much what I would have done myself, only more so. She knows what she's doing."
The controller's gaze roved somewhat doubtfully over the equipment. "No keyboards?"
"She's gonna use her own. And her own software. Curtis and Keel have taken her home to collect it."
Malone harrumphed. "Well, I only hope this is all worth it."
He disappeared back to his much smaller and more spartan temporary office and Backus grinned to herself. Convincing him that his office was in the right place and almost the right size to serve as Ghost's operations centre had been hard enough. The old man was not going to be very happy if this all turned out to be a red herring.
Ghost sprawled in the front seat of the Mondeo, one Doc Marten-booted foot up on the dash, and glowered out of the rain-speckled window. Thus far she had resisted all of Keel's attempts at conversation. Curtis hadn't even bothered to try...
His eyes on the road ahead, Keel asked, "So what's your real name?"
He smiled. "Ah, c'mon, you can tell me..."
Silence accompanied by a suspicious glance. Keel sighed.
"OK. Where are you from?"
"Parents names? Boyfriend? Girlfriend? Pet goldfish?"
The very faintest twitch of the lips that might just possibly have been the beginning of a smile. Encouraged, Keel flashed her a quick grin.
"I'm Chris. You can probably tell I'm not from around here."
Well, it was something... The car pulled up to an intersection - the lights were against them, and Keel took a moment to glance at their passenger. In the neon-lit gloom of a drizzling evening in the city, the small figure with the big eyes and almost-shaved head was androgynous, intriguing, quite unlike anything he'd ever come across before. And he had no idea of how to cope with it.
The lights changed and he pulled smoothly away. He tried a different tack.
"Did'ya ever hear the one about the systems analyst and the headless chicken?"
This time the glance was positively withering, and Keel's voice faltered to a stop. There was silence for a few moments. Then he sighed.
"Would you like me to just shut up?"
Ghost inclined her head.
"Oh, I don't know. It's quite amusing, listening to you making a fool of yourself."
In the back seat, Curtis chuckled quietly. Blushing faintly, lips tightly compressed, Keel drove on in silence.
Curtis hovered by the door of Ghost's hideaway, keeping a wary eye on the corridor outside. Keel stood in front of the workstation as Ghost unplugged and disconnected various peripherals and piled them into his extended arms.
"Quite a set up you got here."
"Mmm. Took me a while to get everything I wanted. There are still a few things I could do with."
For a moment Keel was too surprised to respond. Then it occurred to him he'd pressed the right button. He grinned to himself.
"Well, y'know, Malone might be able to help you out, there. If you let him know what you're looking for..."
She flashed him a suspicious look. "I don't like being beholden to anyone."
Keel nodded understandingly. "Yeah, I guessed. But this'd be more like payment for... what's the term? 'Services rendered'."
"And if I can't crack their system?"
"You'll have tried. That might be enough."
She frowned at him for a moment, pensively, unconsciously chewing her lower lip, then turned back to the station. Shoving a handful of CDs into a pocket, she stepped back, ran her eyes across the pile of equipment Keel held, then nodded to herself.
"That's everything I need. We can go now."
Lights were still blinking quietly on stacks and monitors.
"Aren't you going to switch everything off?"
The stare she gave Keel was compounded of equal parts pity and disbelief. She inclined her head towards the door.
"Just make sure you don't drop anything, OK?"
Keel grinned. "I think I can manage that."
Shaking her head with disgust, she ushered the two men out and turned to lock the door.
Curtis raised an eyebrow. "Interesting chat up line."
Keel grinned at his partner. "Let's see you do better, pal!"
"I heard that." Ghost's voice echoed down the corridor. To their surprise she didn't sound annoyed. Well, not much, anyway...
Backus decided it had been a long day. A quick glance at her watch confirmed it - 3 am. She'd been awake since 5 the previous morning...
She stood and stretched, yawning widely. Across the desk, Ghost was still configuring software - surreptitiously watched, she noted with some surprise, by Keel. He was frowning very slightly, as though trying to figure out the clues to a crossword puzzle. Through the office door Backus could see Curtis, dozing at a desk. She shook her head. It really was time they all got some sleep.
"Let's call it a night, guys."
Curtis jerked more-or-less awake, silvery green eyes half-open, and made his way into the office.
"How's it going?"
Ghost rubbed a hand across her eyes and flexed tired fingers. "I've done all I need to for now. And I'd like to rest. I think the next few days may be busy." She frowned up at Backus. "One of you going to drive me home?"
Backus shook her head. "You're in protective custody, now, sort of. We don't want to risk anything happening to you. We have guest rooms here - they're pretty comfortable."
"Nobody told me I'd have to stay here!"
Curtis and Keel glanced at each other - a little guiltily, Backus thought.
"We forgot." Curtis confessed. "Sorry."
"Great." Ghost did not look happy. "All I picked up was equipment."
"Ah." Backus sighed. "OK - I guess it won't take long to go collect some things for you." She glared at her colleagues. "Which one of you's coming with me?"
"I'll drive." Keel volunteered. "We can drop Sam off on the way. He's dead beat."
Curtis would have objected, but, as he admitted to himself, Keel was right. Exhaustion caused by just 5 hours broken sleep in the last 60 - and coming right after a tough assignment - was a pretty good way to commit suicide, should there be a crisis.
"In that case," Ghost turned back to the monitors, "I'll carry on until you get back."
"We'll be as quick as we can. Anything special you want?"
Already engrossed and frowning, she shook her head. "Just the usual..."
Backus and Keel were back within the hour - traffic was blessedly light at that time of the morning - and shortly thereafter Ghost was inspecting her temporary home.
"It'll do. Think I'll get some sleep now." She pulled a towel from the bag Keel had dumped on the bed.
"Uh, we got you a change of clothes, but..."
Keel swallowed as Ghost turned her back to him and peeled off her tee-shirt. Underneath she was naked. She glanced at him enquiringly over one slim shoulder.
"But, uh, we couldn't find any underwear..."
"No, you wouldn't. I don't wear any."
Backus would have been prepared to swear that those bright green eyes were twinkling with mischief as Ghost turned and disappeared into the bathroom. Fighting not to giggle, Backus grinned at her discomfited team-mate. His face was tinged a delicate pink. Keel, blushing?
Keel scowled, grabbed her arm and marched them both out of the room...
Bodie had driven swiftly down from Calais, skirting major towns where possible, unconsciously enjoying the early summer warmth and bright rural colour as the car ate up the kilometres. By the time he pulled into Torri del Benaco the evening sun was gilding the placid waters of the lake, and it was really a little too late to venture uninvited into Doyle's territory. There was plenty of time. Malone hadn't contacted him, so he knew the situation back at CI5 HQ hadn't changed, significantly, at any rate. And he was tired, and hungry, and knew of a little trattoria where the Barolo was good, the tortellini homemade and abundant, and piped music non-existent. He would spend a couple of hours there before retiring for the night, get a few hours sleep and tackle his old partner tomorrow. Doyle used to be able to run rings round him, effortlessly it had always seemed, and he doubted that had changed much - it would be best to be fresh and alert, ready for anything. No, tomorrow was soon enough.
Besides, if he were absolutely honest with himself, Bodie would confess to feeling thoroughly nervous. The first time he would see Doyle in ten years, and it was to try to persuade him back into an organisation he never wanted to even hear of again...
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