"You understand that if the... activity... is traced back to you, we shall deny all knowledge of your existence?"
The dark figure nodded curtly. "Of course. I would expect nothing less."
"Then we are agreed. When?"
"Leave that to me."
"But how will we know when..."
The other raised a hand. "You will know. Believe me, you will know."
"And then we can arrange delivery of the balance of your fee..."/
London, early May, mid-week, mid-afternoon.
Outside, the weather was warm and sunny - for the time of year. Inside, the control room was humming with purposeful activity. Various operatives in various countries were doing what they usually did - indulging in a little counter-espionage here, trying to prevent a war there, babysitting a prominent VIP elsewhere, fighting terrorism somewhere else...
There were times, thought Backus, hiding a tiny frown behind a yawn, when Curtis and Keel's 'brotherly' treatment could be a little annoying. Most of the time it was OK - she was fully cognisant of her own worth, and sufficiently self-confident that the occasional sexist lapse could be laughed off. In any case, it wasn't sensible to be too sensitive, not in this job. And in a way it was kind of nice to be looked after. It took the heat off, too, when Malone was in one of his lately-far-too-frequent foul moods. (When the pair of them were there, anyway. Which, let's face it, wasn't all that often these days...) At other times...
Today was one of those times. Curtis and Keel were back from a successful assignment, bouncy, pleased with themselves - she refused to think 'smug', even to herself. It had been a difficult assignment. They had every right to feel satisfied.
And it had been a very simple little job. Since things were about as quiet as they ever got at HQ, Backus had decided to take a few minutes to install a couple of simms in her backup system. Nothing complex, and she could (in fact, should) have got one of the techs to do it for her - but Backus much preferred handling her own equipment. She had the cover off the stack, and was removing the motherboard, when Keel had peered over the desk to see what she was doing - and patted her on the top of the head, causing her to score across the board with the small screwdriver she was holding. Scratch one chip - literally. She frowned up at him.
"You're welcome." He grinned. He could look quite amazingly boyish when he wanted to. "Anything to help a friend."
Backus glared at the board, then back at Keel. She sighed, put the cover back on the stack and resignedly filled in a requisition for a new motherboard. At least it was only the backup. And fortunately Malone was not interested in how often his operatives' equipment needed to be replaced, just as long as it (and they) operated at peak efficiency at all times. It was a sign of how much he was respected that no one was ever tempted to abuse his trust...
"So," said Curtis, perching a hip on the corner of the nearest desk. "Coming for a drink tonight? Help us celebrate?"
"Celebrate what?" Backus was still frowning at Keel. He shrugged.
"Our safe return? Another assignment completed with skill and daring and only minor damage to Sam's hair..."
"My...?" Curtis ran a hand over the silky dark mass. "At least I have hair, not that... scrubbing brush you wear on top of your head!"
Backus swallowed a smile and swatted at them both before Keel could retort.
"Get outta here, both of you! Some of us are still at work!"
"Is that a 'yes' or a 'no'?" Keel muttered to Curtis.
Curtis shrugged. "A definite 'maybe', I'd say."
Backus sighed. "Ring me later and I'll let you know. And try not to get into any trouble in the meantime!"
They chuckled and headed for debriefing, and then home for a well-deserved rest. Backus went back to work.
"What the hell..?" Richards' sharp exclamation recalled Backus from a minor lapse of concentration. She heard Spencer gasp, and focussed on her own monitor - feeling that sudden yawning emptiness in the pit of her stomach as she recognised the messages on the screen. Somehow, someone had hacked into the CI5 database. It took just seconds for a number of their own files to be accessed - and then a brief message appeared on the screen before her horrified eyes.
"Spencer? What did they get?"
Spencer's dark fingers were already dancing across his keyboard. He glanced across at her, a strangely helpless look on his face.
"Personnel records? Why would anyone.... Oh god...."
There was a stunned silence as everyone in the control room digested the ramifications.
"I think..." said Backus slowly, unwillingly, "we'd better go see Malone..."
"ALL of them?!"
Spencer and Backus nodded in unison, trying not to flinch as Malone's face gradually turned an interesting shade of puce.
"That's not possible!"
"I know that sir..."
"Yes, sir, but..."
Spencer backed hurriedly out of the office. Backus hesitated - but the mounting fury on Malone's face persuaded her that discretion might be better than the wrath of god right now...
The atmosphere in the control room crackled with tension. Spencer was sweating, his fingers pounding his keys, desperately hoping he'd arrive at a different answer. Backus shook her head and turned to her own terminal, already knowing the result but unwilling to give Malone any reason for further ire. After twenty minutes she exchanged glances with Spencer and they returned, reluctantly, to Malone's office.
He was in videoconference with his opposite number in the FBI. Backus and Spencer hovered in the doorway until Malone impatiently beckoned them in. A moment later he cut the connection and turned to them.
"It appears you are correct."
The operatives relaxed, just a little, but at Malone's next words they tensed again. The situation was worse than they'd thought. Much worse.
"It's not just CI5."
Backus swallowed hard. The feeling that she'd just stepped off a cliff and was plummeting towards a very messy demise at its foot returned with a vengeance.
"Every single agency in the world - well, at least those with whom we are in communication - has suffered the same loss. And it may well be that those with whom we are not in communication are in the same predicament."
Backus fought down a nervous smile. Only Malone would describe the ultimate security breach as a 'predicament'.
"Effective immediately, I am suspending all operations."
Backus and Spencer glanced at each other. Malone's mouth tightened.
"What would you have me do? The records of the names, faces, fingerprints - even the retinal scans, for god's sake - of all of our operatives are now the property of an unknown enemy. I am not prepared to prodigally risk the lives of our own people - and, by extension, the lives of those they are supposed to be protecting. At least until we have some idea of what we are dealing with, and therefore what to expect."
Malone was silent for a moment, staring at his terminal, his face unreadable. Then he turned decisively to his operatives.
"Very well - our worst nightmare has come true. We can't turn back time - so let's assess the full extent of the damage. And try to find out how the hell it happened, and who's responsible. Start immediately. Use anything and anyone you think might help. Report to me as soon as you find anything, no matter how small, how insignificant."
They hesitated for a moment, and he scowled. "Well, get to it!"
Twin "Yes sir"s trailed their fast exit from his office.
Backus took the list through to Malone. He looked, she thought with a sudden start, somehow older, and a lot more tired. He reached a hand wearily to the slim green file and motioned her to sit.
"This is all of them?"
"Yes sir. A complete listing of all operatives, past and present, who have ever been a part of CI5 - printed just last month. The others are trying to find out how whoever it was was able to override our security systems. And Spencer is finishing up the list of possible suspects. It's - quite big, sir." she added, trusting he'd forgive the understatement.
"I'm sure it is," he muttered, glancing up at her over his glasses.
"Shall I get back to work, sir?"
"In a moment." He nodded as Ellison knocked and entered, plunked a heavy batch of computer printouts down before him, and left as inconspicuously as he could.
Malone ran his eyes down the list of field agents, muttering names under his breath. Backus watched him, only able to make out perhaps one name in five.
"Adams...Alcock... Anson... Berry... Bodie... Burroughs... Castle... Cowley... Davies... Dorset...Dover... Evans..." He paused for a second, continued to the end of the file, then ran a finger back up the list. Seconds later he frowned up into Backus's face.
"There's a name missing."
"There's a name missing. Doyle. The original 4-5. Bodie's partner. His name isn't here."
"But... That's not possible, sir. This is a complete listing!"
Malone was swiftly skimming through the first pile of printouts on the desk: he spoke without looking up. "I don't doubt it. Nevertheless, his record is missing. And given what we've experienced over this last three hours, saying that anything is impossible is somewhat... untimely - wouldn't you agree, Miss Backus?"
She frowned. "Could this have anything to do with the security breach?"
"I wouldn't have thought so. Doyle was a good operative. One of the best."
He fell silent, pensive, then sighed.
"But things have a nasty habit of changing, in this business. And the fact that his record appears to have been wiped from the system is certainly cause for concern. Check it thoroughly, Miss Backus. Check through the back files, his old cases. Check everything you can possibly find to check. I want to know how, why and when his records disappeared."
"Has the old man got some sort of photographic memory? How could he remember that one name out of the hundreds in that file?" Richards' eyes were still on his screen, still trying to find a way - any way - to trace the hackers. As time passed it seemed increasingly unlikely he would succeed. Whoever they were, they were good - dammit...
Backus took a sip of coffee and shrugged. "He's the best. If he wasn't, he wouldn't be the controller of CI5. Anyway, the original 3-7 and 4-5 were something special - according to everything I've heard, anyway."
"Legends in their own lifetime, huh? They'd be well past it now, though."
"Maybe." She moved back to her own terminal, settled herself, thought for a moment and began to call up details of old cases. It seemed a logical place to start...
An hour later, tired and frustrated, she ran a hand over her eyes and knocked wearily at Malone's door. The old man was still at his desk, splitting his attention between the pile of files that now threatened to overwhelm his desk, and his computer screen. He glanced up.
"Come in, come in. I trust you have some good news for me? No, apparently not..." he continued before she could open her mouth. "I assume from your expression you have been unsuccessful, Miss Backus."
"What - if anything - have you found?"
"Someone's been very, very clever. Doyle's records, both with CI5 and with the police before he joined us, have been erased from our database. So have all the cases he worked on by himself. And so have all external records: I can't find any references to him in any of the official databases - even the Inland Revenue - more recent than twenty years ago!"
"How is that possible?" Malone looked exhausted, and Backus shook her head.
"I don't know, sir. It should be impossible. But it gets better - I mean, worse. The details of his activities and involvement in joint cases have also been erased."
Malone pulled off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. "You mean the original 3-7's records are missing as well?"
"No sir. That's the clever bit. Those files are still in the database. It's just that Doyle's name has been - cut - from them. A bit like doing a 'find and replace' with a word-processing package and taking out any reference to Doyle." she added helpfully, noting Malone's slightly puzzled air.
"Thank you Miss Backus - I do know how such things are accomplished."
"Of course sir."
"What I want to know is whether such a thing can be achieved from outside CI5 - or whether we have what is known, in common parlance, as a 'leak'. On top of everything else."
Backus shook her head. "I don't know, sir."
"Then find out, Miss Backus."
An hour later Malone called them all together.
"Have any of you managed to discover anything which might have a bearing on the matter?"
A chorus of shaken heads and muttered "no"s answered him. He nodded.
"I suspected as much. Very well. Miss Backus, Mr Spencer, in my office please.
Backus glanced at Spencer. "We don't think there's been a leak, sir. We think Doyle's records were accessed from outside."
"As you've said yourself, sir, no security is absolutely watertight. But we can't see any reason why anyone in CI5 would want to erase the old 4-5's files." Spencer frowned. "Unless it was 4-5 himself..."
"I think someone might have noticed if he'd tried it." Backus smiled briefly. "We haven't been able to find any obvious breakins - other than those we know about, like Dane's, for example."
Spencer nodded. "But we did find an anomaly. Five years ago we experienced a tiny power outage."
Malone regarded him patiently. When it became obvious that Spencer had finished, the controller huffed, "And that's it?"
"Well, you did say the most insignificant thing, sir. It only lasted about half a second and didn't seem to have any repercussions. But as far as we can tell, that's the only possible time this could have happened. Someone would have picked up on it otherwise."
Malone rested his elbows on the desk, steepling his fingers before his mouth. "So it would appear that the disappearance of Doyle's records and the theft of our personnel files are not related."
"If we're right about the outage, yes, sir."
"I have every confidence in your talents, Mr Spencer, Miss Backus." He fell silent for a moment. "If this is the case, and for the moment we will assume it is, then we have one operative whose existence is unknown to whichever agency has possession of our files - Doyle himself."
Backus's mouth dropped open, and she glanced at Spencer, who looked equally aghast. Malone smiled swiftly at them.
"Of course, this is all hypothetical at present. But we must assume that the records were stolen for a purpose. Given their nature, it would appear that whoever stole them wishes to be able to recognise our - all - security agency operatives. Which suggests that whatever they have planned, it will involve at least one operative. However, Doyle cannot be recognised, because they do not possess his file."
Spencer frowned. "You want to call him back into service? Can you actually do that? And isn't it a bit of a long shot, sir? I mean, Doyle left CI5 - how long ago? It must be at least ten years..."
"Thirteen years. It's a long time. Why did he leave in the first place? Is it likely he'd want anything more to do with CI5?"
"It's very unlikely, Mr Spencer. However, at this precise moment, he may be the only human resource we can safely use. If only to provide ourselves with some sort of contingency plan, I think we must make the attempt."
"But how do we contact him? All his records have been erased!"
"I'm fully aware of that, Mr Spencer. There is, however, one person who might know his location."
Backus and Spencer gazed at him blankly, and he sighed.
"His old partner? After all this time?"
"As you say, Mr Spencer - a long shot." He pulled a bulky file from the pile before him. "Miss Backus."
"I want you to familiarise yourself with the contents of this file and prepare yourself for a trip."
Backus glanced at the photograph on the front of the file. Smouldering dark eyes half-smiled back up at her. "Uh, yes sir. May I ask where?"
Malone told her...
Still ploughing through the details in the file, she answered the incoming personal call almost absent-mindedly.
"Backup? Are you still there?"
"Where else would I be? Didn't you hear what happened?"
"About the files going walkies? Yeah, we heard."
"Backup," interrupted Curtis, "isn't it time you took a break? How long have you been there?"
She sighed. "Too long. And you're right, I do need a break. Only I'm not going to get one. I'm on assignment."
"I thought we were all off-duty until this thing is over."
"Yeah. But this isn't the usual sort of assignment."
"What is it, then?"
"I have to go sweet-talk a legend...."
Seeds Contents and Intro