Backus was already in Malone's office when Ghost arrived from the guestroom the following morning and settled herself at what she had termed the primary terminal. Curtis and Keel, who had arrived earlier than usual as well, sauntered into the office carrying steaming mugs of coffee.
"How's it going?"
Backus glanced at Keel hovering - rather obviously - behind Ghost. She grinned at Curtis, who looked decidedly unamused.
"We've only just started, Chris."
Keel nodded, peering over Ghost's shoulder. She half-turned to glare at him.
"Back off." It was almost snarled, and Keel retreated a pace, eyes wide in surprise. He glanced at Backus, mouthing silently, what'd I do? Ghost caught his reflection in her screen and twisted in her seat.
"I don't like being crowded." She stared pointedly at the mug in his hands. "And I haven't had any coffee yet."
Keel promptly handed over the mug, glaring as Backus sniggered quietly.
"Why Chris - I never knew you were such a gentleman!"
"Yeah, well, there's a lot you don't know about me..."
"I think it's high time we got some work done." Sam's voice, louder than usual, cut across the room. Keel grinned at him.
"Doing what? We're still off all assignments, remember?"
"Yes, well, I'm sure we can find something useful to do."
Curtis scowled, no ready answer springing to mind. For a few minutes there was an awkward silence.
At that point Malone made his entrance.
"Hullo sir." The three voices were almost in chorus, and Malone nearly smiled.
"Good morning. And how are things going here?"
Backus glanced around the equipment-jammed office. Ghost was frowning at her monitor, ignoring the rest of them. Or possibly simply oblivious to their presence - Backus couldn't make up her mind. It was, she admitted to herself, quite difficult to make up your mind about anything to do with Ghost: the girl was something of a puzzle. An intelligent, intriguing enigma. To some extent she could understand Keel's fascination. What she couldn't understand - yet, anyway - was Curtis's reaction to it. She gave her boss a bright smile.
"Fine so far, sir."
"Good, good. Do you have any news for me yet?"
"We haven't actually started work yet, sir."
"What's the hold up?"
Ghost shoved her chair back from the desk and glowered up at them, sarcasm dripping from her voice.
"And just what sort of news were you anticipating? That I'd solved the mystery and you could all get back to normal? Does everyone who carries a gun expect instant results? Well sorry to disappoint you, but this takes a bit more time and finesse than that. And how the hell do you expect me to get anything done if you're just going to stand there and chatter? You sound like a bunch of primates... Oh, sorry, I forgot. You are a bunch of primates."
Curtis nearly dropped his coffee, and Keel bit his lip hard to stifle a laugh. Malone's face was an absolute picture... Backus could see the old man choking back a Don't be cheeky, Miss Ghost, and forced herself not to giggle.
"Do you have any idea of what you're asking me to do, here? No, of course you don't. Why do I bother asking?" Ghost snorted in disgust and pushed herself back to the desk, a somewhat sullen - "When I find anything, you'll be the first to know. Now piss off and let me concentrate..." - tossed over her shoulder. Backus faced Malone, her tone conciliatory.
"She's quite right, sir. We are asking her to do something pretty difficult, you know. I wouldn't even know where to start..."
Malone nodded. "Very well, Miss Backus. Do you have any kind of schedule, or plan of campaign? It might be useful for me to know what's going on..."
Backus was aware of the irritation building in Ghost, who had shot a quick scowl towards him, and hurriedly interrupted whatever it was she had intended to say.
"We'll let you know when we're ready to start, sir. And I'll make sure you get regular progress reports. As Ghost said, when we find anything, you'll be the first to know."
"Thank you, Miss Backus." He hesitated for a moment, then clapped his hands together silently. "Well, I'll leave you to it, shall I?"
Backus smiled. "Probably the best idea, sir..."
Malone glanced at the two men.
"Mr Curtis, Mr Keel, would you come with me, please."
The three left together, and Backus turned to Ghost.
"So, how're we gonna tackle this?"
To her surprise, Ghost flashed her a grin. The green eyes twinkled.
In the control room Malone paused at Spencer's terminal and raised his voice a little.
"Ladies, gentlemen, if I could have your attention..?" The muted sound of conversation faded: those furthest from the controller left their stations and gathered round. Malone nodded approvingly.
"Thank you. Now, as you know we are exploring one possible avenue in an attempt to resolve the current situation. At the moment we don't know if it's the correct one, but it seems hopeful. Nevertheless I'd like all of you to continue your customary monitoring of global activity, and I want to be alerted immediately if anyone finds anything suspicious. Yes, Mr Evans?"
Evans had only been with CI5 for a couple of months. And it showed. "What do you mean by suspicious, sir?"
"Mr Evans, if I have to tell you that, perhaps you should be somewhere other than CI5."
Abashed, the young man tried to blend in with the background. Malone sighed, silently, regretting his asperity. But he was quietly worried. It wasn't too bad for the technical specialists - their work remained pretty much unchanged - but his field agents were already becoming twitchy. They were unused to enforced inactivity - other than time out to recover from injuries. And this situation was doing nothing to improve morale... He really didn't know what to do with them. He closed his eyes momentarily and came to a decision, fully aware that it could be the wrong decision. However, if it was DemeCeres who were responsible for this mess... He had to take the gamble. Certain highly explosive situations were escalating out of control without CI5 involvement, even in this short space of time. His operatives were very highly trained. They knew what they were doing. And they knew the risks.
"Please advise all agents in the field they may resume operations - but to do so carefully. Any sign of unusual danger and they are to withdraw immediately. And anyone involved in cases involving either the general public or VIPs of any sort are to check with me before returning to duty."
There was a quiet sigh of relief from the room. Curtis and Keel exchanged grins, and turned towards the door. Malone called them back.
"Mr Curtis, Mr Keel, you will remain here."
Keel's face fell.
"My office, please, both of you. Now."
Keel took the mug from his partner, disgust clear on his face. Curtis patted his shoulder sympathetically.
"C'mon Chris. It's not like we were in the middle of a case when this all blew up."
"So? We're supposed to be out there, in the field, not babysitting a couple of old guys!"
Curtis sighed. "You've seen Bodie. He's not exactly what I'd call an 'old guy'. And being assigned to assist ol... previous CI5 operatives doesn't really qualify as babysitting."
"Does as far as I'm concerned. And anyway, they're not with CI5 any more."
"And that's why Malone wants them on the case."
"Yeah, thanks Sam, I think I can just about remember what this whole mess is about."
"Then cheer up. Just think - you get to meet two legends!"
Keel had a number of very colourful opinions on that point, but luckily nobody but Curtis was around to hear them...
Backus stretched and sat back for a moment. Ghost was frowning ferociously at her screen, absently rubbing at her eyes.
"Like another coffee?"
"Please." The younger woman answered absently, and, grateful for the opportunity to get away from the screen, if only for a few moments, Backus went to collect a mug of Perugia. It was Ghost's sixth large mug in the space of four and a half hours: she should have been thoroughly wired by now, but to Backus's surprise the caffeine seemed to be having the opposite effect. At any rate, Ghost had become almost civil in the last couple of hours. Can't see it lasting, though... Backus handed her the mug.
"Thanks." She took a long swallow and sat back for a moment, running her hand across her head as if trying to grab a handful of hair. With an apparently unconscious sigh of exasperation she dropped her hand: her hair was too short, but Backus got the distinct impression it had been longer in the past. She wondered how long ago it had been cut - and what it had looked like before...
Ghost rested an elbow on the desk, propped her chin on her hand, and regarded her companion, a pensive frown on her face.
"It shouldn't be this difficult. And it shouldn't be taking this long."
Backus recognised the frustration in the younger woman's voice, and sympathised. She'd been there herself.
"Why don't we take a break? Spencer or Richards can cover for us for an hour. Let's get some lunch."
Ghost hesitated, obviously considering the prospect - then shook her head.
"Wouldn't enjoy it. Not while this is bugging me..."
"But you need to eat something."
"Later." Ghost turned her attention back to her monitor, and Backus sighed. And Curtis accused her of being chained to her computer!
The hours went past. Twenty four of them, then thirty six. Ghost stayed at her terminal for most of them, only sleeping when she simply couldn't stay awake any longer, even with interminable mugs of coffee. Perhaps I should fix her up with an intravenous caffeine drip, Backus thought to herself - realising how much she herself was feeling the strain when she found herself giggling hysterically, though silently, at the thought.
The revelation, when it came, was very quiet.
They'd worked through most of the night, again. Backus had managed to catch a little sleep, dozing on and off: every time she'd woken, Ghost had been there, awake if no longer particularly alert, her eyes still focussed, albeit blearily, on her screen. A good hour before sunrise on the third morning, the younger woman had stiffened in her seat.
"What is it?"
Ghost regarded Backus through heavy eyes, and smiled slowly and with satisfaction.
Backus scrambled out of her seat and hovered behind Ghost's chair. There, at the top of the screen, was a cheerful, sunny yellow ear of grain. Beside it, in jewel-bright golden lettering, was one word - DemeCeres.
Backus was almost afraid to breathe.
"Can they trace us?"
"No. No iron box - and I was very careful to get lost in the noise."
Backus reached for the phone. Minutes later Malone arrived - unshaven and dressed with somewhat less than his usual care, but alert for all that. He gazed at the screen, then turned to Ghost.
"Very well done indeed."
She nodded wearily, yawning. Malone hid a smile.
"I know you're very tired, but could you tell me what happens next?"
"I'm in - now have to stay in. Have to appear as though I belong there. Need to explore - find out more about them, especially their security systems. May be able to deadlock 'em, if necessary." Her eyes flickered to Backus. "Gonna try and find a back door and plant a logic bomb."
Backus nodded. Malone - wisely - stayed silent. He could always ask Backus what that meant later.
"Think you can do it?"
"Yeah. Need some sleep first." She rubbed her eyes and gazed up at Malone. "Oh - any chance you could get me a satellite uplink? Or two, if you can."
Malone glanced questioningly at Backus, who nodded.
"We may not need them, sir. But they could come in handy. We don't fully know what we're dealing with, yet."
"I'll see what I can do."
"Great..." Ghost yawned again. "OK - just leave things as they are for now. Nobody touch anything, OK? They don't know we're there, and I want to keep it that way. I'll go hunting later." She leaned back, eyes closed. "Need to sleep."
Backus dragged her upright.
"C'mon - I'll get you to your bed."
Twenty minutes later Ghost was deeply asleep, and dreaming - dreaming of years ago...
She remembered the other kids talking about their fathers. It hadn't taken her long to realise hers was missing...
For several years she'd ignored the fact, assuming that perhaps he was dead or in prison or something. Her mother tended to change the subject every time the topic came up. Then Ghost was nine, and after one of the more unpleasant school bullies had taunted her with a particularly nasty - and untrue - jibe about her mother's line of work, she determined to find out the truth.
"Mum? Do I have a dad?"
Her mother hesitated for a moment, then nodded. "Yes love. Of course you do."
"Why've I never met him? Where is he?" She paused, watching the indecision on her mother's face. "Is he dead?"
To her amazement, her mother's eyes filled with tears and she pulled her daughter into her arms, hugging tightly.
"No, love. He's not dead."
"Then where is he?"
Paula sighed. She'd known the day would finally come. She hadn't figured on it happening so soon, though.
"As far as I know, he's in London."
"Can I go and see him?"
"Why not? Doesn't he love me?"
She stroked the girl's hair, wondering how to explain, then decided the simple truth would be best. It always had been with her daughter.
"He doesn't know about you, love."
She pulled away and frowned at her mother.
Paula sighed. "Let's go and sit down, and I'll tell you all about it..."
Half an hour later Paula had gone into the kitchen to make tea, leaving her daughter to try and assimilate what she'd learned.
A youthful affair. Her mother, so very deeply in love. Her father, passionate, temperamental, exciting. An unplanned pregnancy... Paula had broken off their relationship.
"Because... oh love, this is hard to explain. Because he needed to be free. Because to tie him down, to make him marry me, would have killed him."
Her daughter's face was blank, uncomprehending, and Paula stroked her cheek, smiling through her tears.
"Not his body. But he would have died, inside. He couldn't be owned - not ever."
"So you let him go? Like we let the blackbird go, once its wing was mended?"
Paula remembered the occasion. The young bird had been mauled by a cat - they'd nursed it back to health. She remembered her daughter, crying as the bird flew off, missing the wild thing already but, young as she was, understanding that it had to be free. She nodded.
"So you never told him about me, ever?"
"Don't you miss him?"
"Every day. But there's a bit of him still with me."
Her daughter looked puzzled, and Paula smiled.
"In you, love. You have his eyes, and his hair. And sometimes, when you smile, I can see him shining through."
"What's his name?"
But Paula wouldn't tell her. Not for years. Not until Ghost was eighteen, and her mother was dying of cancer...
She woke gasping, with tears on her face, and it was some minutes before she could pull herself together sufficiently to face the world. And she wondered, as she had every day for as long as she could remember, what her father was doing now...
"I'm coming with you." Doyle repeated, since Bodie didn't seem to have taken it in the first time.
"You are?" Bodie's voice rose half an octave in surprise.
Doyle stared at him for a moment, then nodded. Bodie frowned.
"Like to tell me why?"
"Aw, c'mon Ray! If we're going to be working together it might help me to know what's going on in that convoluted mind of yours!"
"I didn't say I was going to work with you - just that I'm comin' with you. I haven't made up my mind, yet."
Bodie raised his hands in surrender. The last thing he wanted to do at this point was to antagonise his old partner - that was the quickest way to have him change his mind back again. He nodded.
"OK. I'll wait here while you get ready."
It had taken Doyle all of twenty minutes to pack a bag and lock up the villa. He and Bodie had walked down the hill to Bodie's car in silence, Doyle frowning slightly, Bodie almost afraid to speak to him...
The artist seemed to relax once in the car, but Bodie thought it wiser to hold his peace until they were moving. Then he reached for the mobile. Doyle raised a hand.
"If you're ringin' Malone, don't mention me."
Bodie frowned. "He's got to know you're with me, Ray."
"Yeah, I know. I'll tell him myself."
Bodie nodded and entered the number. It was answered on the third buzz.
"Bodie. Any progress?"
"Not yet - but things are looking extremely hopeful. At the moment, Ghost is resting."
"Good..." Subliminally, Bodie was aware of the movement at his side, and without looking he placed the mobile directly into Doyle's waiting hand - only realising afterwards, with a kind of delightful nostalgic shock, exactly what he'd done. But Ray was speaking.
"Mr Doyle! You're joining us? I thought..."
"No I am not joinin' you." Doyle interrupted impatiently.
"But you are accompanying Bodie?"
Both men noticed the lack of honorific. They exchanged a small smile.
"Yeah, I'm with Bodie. And I may help you. If it's possible. One condition, though."
"You breathe one word to Ghost about my involvement in this, and I'm out. Understand? You don't even mention my name."
There was a startled pause, then: "Certainly, Mr Doyle - if that's what you want. May I ask why?"
"No, you may not." Doyle handed the mobile back to Bodie.
"How soon would you like us back there?"
"There's no hurry. We don't have any other information just yet - I'll keep you advised. Do you need anything else just now?"
Bodie glanced at Doyle, who inclined his head, then shook it.
"Can't think of anythin'."
Bodie returned to the mobile. "Nothing right now. Will let you know if the situation changes. Bodie out."
He drove in silence for a while, until his curiosity got the better of him.
"Why don't you want this Ghost to know you're involved - assuming you are, of course?"
"None of your business."
Bodie left it. The atmosphere between them may be thawing, but it wasn't anywhere near amicable enough, just yet, for him to push his luck. It might never be.
But the day was beautiful, the roads almost clear, and the car purring comfortably as they travelled. Bodie drove at an unusually sedate pace, unable to resist little sideways glances. Beside him, Doyle sprawled in the seat, one foot up on the dash, cheek resting on his fist as he gazed unseeingly out of the window, lost in introspection. Bodie found himself having to try very hard not to grin, suddenly feeling twenty years younger, his blood singing and his skin tingling.
God, but he felt good! Even knowing how fragile the situation was, he couldn't help but be happy. You never really know how important something is to you until you lose it. So enjoy it while you can. Because it can't possibly last...
© 2000 (Feb) Joules Taylor
© 2000 WordWrights.