The Café Internet was convenient and comfortably anonymous, although Richards' face has fallen as they entered. Glancing around at the large number of younger users, he had muttered "God - I feel like a bloody dinosaur!" before heading for two free terminals close together. Backus and Spencer glanced wryly at each other and joined their colleague.
"Need a hand?" Backus leaned over Richard's shoulder and regarded the page on the screen: a web-based email account in the name of Jenkins. Richards shook his head without taking his eyes from the terminal.
"Nah, not just now. Might need you to run interference for me in a while though. Why don't you log on and surf for a bit? Make your presence known. Be less suspicious, later."
"What's the plan?"
"Goin' see if I can make contact, first. Then we just follow 'im home. With a bit of luck, that should give us 'is offline location."
"That's too simple."
"I know. I don't think it'll be anything like that easy - and I got to be sneaky about it too: don't want 'im knowing what I'm up to. But it's a good place to start. First I got to find 'im. Then try to routetrace back to 'is IP addy, and find where that ends up in the real world."
"You can't do that from here."
"No, but if we can get the addy - or addies, I bet 'e's got more than one - you can do the rest when we get back to base."
Spencer frowned. "Surely you can't trace him from a cybercafé? They don't have the capability..."
He winked, checked no one was looking, and pulled a jewel case from his inside pocket. "I do. But it's goin' to take a little while..."
As he loaded the CD, Backus seated herself at the nearest free terminal...
She didn't surf much these days - Backus generally knew exactly what she wanted to check and where to find it - so having the leisure to do so was a cross between a luxury and an annoyance. Was there anything at all she wanted to check out?
She thought for a moment, then her face cleared. That artist - LaMorte. As good a search string as any. See what was available on the 'net.
Ten minutes later she was gazing frustratedly at a screen filled with .jpgs, examples of his art... Early works, sketches, landscapes in luminous watercolours and glowing oils, like the seascape that had first caught her eye at Bodie's, and some striking photographic work. Later came portraits and architectural studies, and later still extraordinarily detailed fantasy images: while remaining obviously the work of one individual, the style moved from the purely beautiful to the distractingly powerful. (Scans of the latest works were only accessible to members of one of the more exclusive Art Societies, and for a moment or two she considered cracking their security - but given what the three of them were attempting, decided it would probably be better not to risk anything that might sound alarms.) But - aside from discovering that even his smaller, earlier works were well beyond her budget - she hadn't been able to find out anything at all about the artist...
LaMorte. He (or possibly she: the critics and dealers hadn't even been able to make up their minds on that point!) had appeared almost from nowhere eleven years ago. No one knew who or where he was: the paintings were delivered, by a different carrier each time, to a respectable French firm (who denied all personal knowledge of the artist) who then forwarded them to Duke St contemporary art dealers, who handled most of the sales. All proceeds from sales were sent back the same way - in cash. An awful lot of cash. Original LaMorte's were in very high demand.
Cash... Dammit. She couldn't trace cash. He could be using any number of bank accounts for his deposits, and she certainly couldn't spare the time to correlate names, official records and bank accounts - not without even knowing which country he was in. Backus scowled at the screen: she loathed being thwarted. Then she brightened. There was a simple answer, of course. When she got back to base, she'd ask Bodie. He had five of the things, for god's sake! And judging by what she'd seen while surfing, they spanned the first eight years of the artist's career. Bodie must know something...
A quiet "Got you!" from Richards distracted her from her musings. He threw a slip of paper in her direction; she keyed in the address and code scrawled there and found herself in the middle of what appeared to be one of the more complex and popular shoot-'em-ups.
"Join in, quick. Keep 'em all occupied..."
Backus entered the game, handing the slip to Spencer, and proceeded, effortlessly, to decimate one of the opposing teams. Spencer, who was a moment or two behind her, gazed at her with new respect.
"Where did you learn to play like that?"
"Had to do something while I was waiting for an assignment they'd let me on, back home. Would'a blown my stack otherwise."
One of the remaining players, Solar, according to the legend, was showing an unhealthy interest in cutting her to pieces, and Backus needed to give all her attention to the game for a few minutes. So much so that she didn't hear Richards the first time round. The second time his voice in her ear made her jump, and lose several points as Solar scored a direct hit.
"Dammit, Richards!" Expression grim, Backus retaliated, narrowly missing her target - but Richards laid his hand over hers.
"Let 'im kill you."
"What! Why?" She shook off his hand and continued playing.
"I think that's Ghost."
"Why would a hacker be playing games?"
"Dunno. R&R? Doesn't matter. We need to get back to base so we can trace 'im. Let 'im kill you."
"Not without a fight..."
Three minutes later Solar did manage to 'kill' Backus - but not until suffering severe losses himself. Backus wasn't exactly pleased with her defeat. But at least you gave as good as you got. Malone would say you acquitted yourself honourably. And, she consoled herself, if it was Ghost and he was as good as they thought, she'd done OK...
The entire operation had only taken them an hour and a half: Bodie was still in conference with Malone when they returned to base. Richards handed her the precious disk with the information he'd saved while she'd kept Ghost - if it was Ghost - busy, and left her to it. Fifteen minutes later she had a location. The only problem was that, according to every record she could access, the only thing there was a multi-storey car park...
Spencer had appeared at her shoulder, his frown mirroring her own.
"Are you sure that's the right place?"
"Yeah. Everything leads to here. Do we have an overhead view of that area on file? The satellite's out of range."
A four-month-old aerial photograph confirmed that it was, indeed, a car park. Backus and Spencer looked at each other.
"A car park. Unlikely, isn't it?"
Backus nodded. "Guess someone'll have to go check it out."
"You're very keen to get out of the office today..."
"I wasn't volunteering."
Spencer smiled, about to reply - when the lights suddenly dimmed fractionally. There was a moment's tense silence, then everyone dived for their terminals.
"Trace it!" yelled Backus to everyone in general as every screen turned black. Long seconds later a small image appeared in the centre of the darkness. An ear of grain, a cheerful, sunny yellow in colour. Underneath it, picked out in jewel-bright golden lettering was one word -
"What the devil is going on?" Malone was standing in his office doorway, Bodie beside him.
"I think it's our first contact, sir."
"And did anyone manage to trace it?"
He nodded, unsurprised. "Does anyone recognise the symbol? Does it mean anything to anyone?"
Backus glanced around at her colleagues' blank faces, and shook her head. "I guess not, sir."
Malone sighed. "Well, check it out. If anyone has any sudden inspirations, please let me know."
He turned back to his desk, but Bodie moved out into the room. He paused at Backus's terminal, frowning thoughtfully.
"Check. Check what? Checkmate? Check our security? Check them before they go any further? Czechoslovakia? Check it out? Check in? Hounds-tooth check?" He shook his head, and glanced at Backus. "It could be almost anything. A clue, a challenge, a warning, a red herring... And why grain?"
Backus shrugged. "Bread?"
"Staff of life?"
Backus stared at Stevenson. "Demeter?"
She nodded. "Greek myth. Demeter was the corn goddess. Her daughter was kidnapped by the god of the underworld - he'd fallen in love with her. Demeter mourned for her daughter, and while she was mourning nothing would grow. Demeter got her back in the end, but only for six months of each year: the girl had eaten six pomegranate seeds while she was in the underworld, and had to spend half the year there." She shrugged. "It's supposed to explain why we have summer and winter."
Bodie inclined his head. "What would happen if there was no grain?"
Stevenson shook her head. "A lot of people would get hungry. But it would be much more serious if something happened to the rice harvests. Rice is the staple food for about half the world's people!"
"Very well." Malone was decisive - and his gaze covered the whole room. "Check first that it isn't some obscure corporate insignia and logo. Then I want to know everything that's been happening in the agricultural sphere in the last two years - research projects, new discoveries, droughts, famines, genetic engineering..."
"Sir, that's goin' to take forever!"
"Then the sooner you start the better, Mr Richards."
Backus followed Bodie into Malone's office. The controller looked up enquiringly, and sat back in his chair as she recounted how she and Spencer and Richards had spent their afternoon. Bodie smiled when she reached the part about the game.
"Dear me. Playing games at CI5's expense. Cowley would have had kittens."
Malone stifled a smile of his own. "And you think this could be important?"
"Maybe, sir. We all think it needs to be checked out. Richards is pretty impressed with what Ghost can do. And if it was Ghost who deleted Doyle's files, then he's real good."
Malone nodded slowly. "I suppose we'd better bring him in anyway. If he is as skilful as you believe, we ought to know a little more about him. In the interests of national security if nothing else." He frowned as a thought struck him. "I don't suppose he could be the originator of our current situation, could he? If I find out this is all just some teenager's idea of a practical joke I shall not be amused..."
Bodie chuckled. "You'll have to let me know the outcome. And if I have any brainwaves about 'check' I'll get back to you."
Malone looked slightly troubled. "I do wish you'd let me send a couple of men with you."
Bodie shook his head. "I'll be safer alone. And I can't see Doyle agreeing to anything with CI5 operatives around."
"Very well. But you will keep me advised..?"
Bodie nodded. "Anything your people come up with, tell me. You know the codes." He held out a hand, and Malone rose to shake it.
"Good hunting. And perhaps you'll allow us to show you our appreciation for your assistance, on your return."
"We'll see..." Bodie turned to Backus and raised her hand to his lips, kissing her palm softly. As a shiver ran through her body he winked, then made his way to the exit. Backus gazed after him longingly.
"Where's he going, sir?"
"I'm afraid that's classified."
"Oh..." She was silent for a moment, then sighed and shook herself. "So, what do you want to do about Ghost, sir?"
"I'd like someone to go and pick him up. Curtis and Keel are on standby. Perhaps you could ring them and let them know."
"May I go with them, sir?"
Malone considered the request for a moment, and nodded. "As long as you're not involved with something right now, I see no reason why not."
"Thank you, sir." As Backus left the office, she remembered she hadn't asked Bodie about LaMorte. Oh well. Perhaps when he got back...
"I've only had three hours sleep!"
"That's plenty. Get with it, Sam."
Curtis still looked haggard. And he wasn't happy.
"What the hell is Malone thinking of? It doesn't take two top operatives to pick up one bloody kid..."
Backus deliberately took the next corner too fast, tumbling the two men together in the back of the car. The language as they untangled themselves was decidedly colourful.
"What was that for?"
"You said two operatives. What d'you think I am, your driver?"
Curtis smiled wryly. "Sorry, Backup. No offence. I'm not awake yet."
"OK. Just don't do it again. And you're on the case because you were the only field agents on standby in London."
Curtis grimaced, but couldn't wholly disagree. After all, they didn't really know what was awaiting them at the end of the ride. "But why both of us?"
"No idea. Maybe he wants you for something else afterwards. Maybe he thinks we'll be safer in a bunch. Maybe he thinks you'd be miserable if one of you was left behind..."
"How much further?" Keel was frowning out of the window. The area through which they were driving had a run-down, edgy feel to it.
"Couple of minutes... There it is."
A perfectly ordinary car park. Five floors, not many cars, and most of those small, old, and battered. Backus drove slowly to the top, the others checking the interior of each car as closely as possible on the way. All were empty.
"So what now?"
"I suppose there's only one place he could be."
"And where's that?"
Curtis pointed downwards. "Underground."
"Underground. That's where the power cables and water pipes will be. If he's here, he's going to need power, isn't he?"
Keel shoved open the door. "Well, let's go find out..."
They found and opened the door to the basement easily enough. They also found a door that did not open easily at all. Keel glanced at his partner.
"You up for a little B&E?"
Curtis gestured to the door. "Be my guest..."
The electronic lockpick made fairly short work of the seven assorted locks on the door. Behind it was a narrow corridor half filled with snaking cables and bulky ducting, lit only by the occasional dim and flickering fluorescent tube. It was going to be a tight squeeze. Keel glanced at Backus.
"You gonna stay here? Watch our backs?"
"No way, guys! I found him." Backus continued before either of them could object. "Look, the guy's a wizard. You two don't know the first thing about computers. You need me there."
"I wouldn't say we're that incompetent..."
"Forget it, Sam. She's right." Keel had already started along the corridor, gun drawn. Curtis gestured to Backus to precede him, and all three moved swiftly and silently through the gloom. In the semidarkness they almost didn't see the door...
They had to admit that it blended in well with the concrete of the wall. Someone had gone to a lot of trouble to make it inconspicuous, and several large cables cut straight across its centre, adding to the camouflage. Nevertheless, it was a door. And the only reason for a door to be disguised with such care would be to try to stop people getting in. Keel smiled grimly and ran his hands over its surface, searching for a lock - he found it tucked away in the shadow of the grimiest-looking conduit. He sat back on his heels and beckoned his partners closer, almost whispering.
"Probably alarmed. We'll have to go in fast."
Curtis nodded to show he understood. Backus frowned for a moment, wondering why it was such a big deal. But he might have a back door, whispered that little voice. And you won't get a second chance to catch him...
They freed the door of as much of the cabling as possible, and held themselves ready as Keel picked the lock. The door swung soundlessly open... No alarm. No audible alarm, at any rate.
"Probably visual. We'd better move." Curtis slipped silently through the entrance: Keel dived after him. Backus took one last look around and followed...
It was like stepping off the world... The room - it's GOT to be a room! her brain insisted, while her eyes denied it outright - seemed endless, the deepest blue-black in colour, no corners, no edges, no walls, just sparkling, blue-white galaxies seemingly hanging in space some unknown distance away. The effect was completely disorientating - and fabulously beautiful.
"Thank god we're not agoraphobic!" Curtis was nevertheless gripping his colleagues' shoulders tightly, one hand to each, as though trying to remain anchored. Backus couldn't blame him. She was almost ready to swear that gravity had switched off as they came through the door....
It took them a few moments to re-orient themselves enough to be able to make sense of what they were seeing. Then they spotted what they had come to find. Three computers, with twice that many monitors, sitting on an elaborate workstation - everything in matt black and tucked away into a far corner well away from the door. In front of the station a customised chair, light, comfortable and fast-moving on silent castors. And on the chair, watching them with an expression of annoyance mixed with unwilling admiration....
They slowly put their guns away, and Backus approached, warily.
"Ghost?" The figure's head nodded reluctantly...
Back at base, Stevenson had come up with a possible lead. It was tenuous, but promising - over the past couple of years a number of top geneticists and agrobiologists, as well as researchers in other disciplines, had been recruited (or poached, as their original employers would have it) from their posts in high profile agribusiness and agrochemical concerns. The new company for which they were to work was small, but obviously very well funded: their recruits had been offered extremely tempting inducements, and salaries well above their previous level. But the company itself had been deliberately low-profile, so much so that Stevenson had had enormous difficulty just finding its name. Her persistence had paid off, though. And then she had grinned. DemeCeres. A combination of Demeter and Ceres, the Greek and Roman names for the same goddess. Bingo!
It was even less easy finding out what they were involved in...
They'd thought CI5 security was tight. DemeCeres made it look like a sieve. No one had security that impenetrable unless they were up to no good. Stevenson took her misgivings to Malone, who handed them to Richards and Spencer...
An hour later Richards tapped at the controller's office door. Malone watched impassively as the younger men entered: Richards was frowning, irritation at his own failure clear on his face.
"And there's no way you can hack into their system?"
Richards glanced at Spencer then back at Malone. He shook his head.
"I'm afraid to even try! They've got every security system and mode I've ever heard of - and quite a few I haven't! If I try and do anything, they'll trace it back 'ere - probably before I've had time to offline. Then we'll really be in the shi... trouble..."
Malone tapped his fingers on his desk. "Any suggestions, Mr Richards? Mr Spencer?"
"You want a sneaker, sir. A really, really good one. Preferably an icebreaker wizard."
"In English, please, Mr Richards."
"Hire a hacker who knows intruder countermeasure programs - someone who can crack their security systems without getting 'imself nuked."
"And who would you suggest, Mr Richards?"
Richards shrugged. "Nobody official, sir."
He suddenly grinned. "Well, it's just as well you've got Backup and Co. chasing Ghost! If anyone can crack it, 'e can..."
Malone nodded. "Very well. Please ask them to come in here as soon as they arrive back."
When Backus, Curtis and Keel returned with their quarry, Malone was checking lists of agent mortalities, always a depressing task. There were always far too many. He'd been unable, thus far, to find any that could be attributed to anything other than normal activity, however. He was distracted by a knock on his opened door.
Malone glanced up. The expression on Backus' face was definitely odd - a mix of confusion, annoyance and awe.
"Come in, Miss Backus."
She approached the desk, then half-turned back to the door.
"Sir, we found the hacker. This is Ghost."
Malone looked up sharply, eyebrows climbing.
The figure in the doorway was hardly prepossessing. The hair looked to be a light reddish-brown, but had been cropped so short it was difficult to be certain. The frame was skinny - no, wiry, he amended silently. Thin, but there was a steely strength there, though much of it was hidden by the baggy combat pants and oversized leather jacket. (The jacket had been a good one, once, he noted absently, before it had had hell knocked out of it...) The hands, one resting on an uptilted hip, the other curled around the doorframe, were very small, but with long, elegant fingers. The mouth - what could be seen of it, tightened as it was into a thin, angry line - looked as though it might be attractive when not scowling. But the eyes - ridiculously big in the small, finely boned face - were riveting, a bright leafy green, almost glowing against the pale skin.
The inspection had taken just a couple of seconds, and now Malone rose and indicated the chair before his desk.
"Miss Ghost. Thank you for joining us."
The girl ignored his welcoming gesture and stared angrily into his face, jerking a thumb in Backus' direction.
"I wasn't given much choice."
Strange - the voice was deeper than he'd expected, and educated. There was only the faintest trace of an accent, and he couldn't place it. The newcomer scowled even more intently.
"And the name's Ghost. I've no patience with honorifics."
Malone raised his hands. "Ghost, then. Please, do be seated."
Ghost remained where she was, glaring at the CI5 controller.
"Why am I here?"
Straight to the point. Fearless too. Malone smiled appreciatively.
"We're rather hoping you can answer some questions for us. And maybe even help us solve a problem..."
Seeds part 5
Seeds Index and Intro