Alone, in trouble and facing jail, Buddy Hawks is made an offer he can't refuse or can he?
Author Note: If you're a M.A.S.K. canon purist, you may want to look away now. I'm playing a little fast and loose with one or two canon elements. I hope you can forgive me.
With many thanks to T_non_sum, Angel, Ganeris and Freespirit127 for editing, feedback and patient hand holding.
The Coming Storm
Vanessa was going to kill him.
That was Buddy's main thought as he sat in the antiseptic interview room waiting to find out what was going to happen to him. He'd been stupid before, but never like this. This was serious. What the hell had he been thinking? Granted, robbing the convenience store had seemed like a good idea when Rax had suggested it, and it certainly wasn't outside the list of other misdemeanours he'd committed (not that his record showed that; he'd always managed to be smart enough not to be caught). But going in with a baseball bat?
Buddy shook his head. That had been a dumb move. He wasn't a naturally violent person. If anything, the idea of attacking someone just because they were there made him feel sick. And then there was the whole issue of the trouble he'd be in, if he were caught. Now, thanks to Rax, here he was. Caught and probably facing jail time.
Yep; Vanessa was going to kill him.
At this point in Buddy's thoughts, the interview room's door opened to admit a man in a suit. Buddy's first impression of him was that the man was tall and with a heavy-set build that would have made Buddy think at least twice before picking his pocket. The suit, on the other hand, would have seriously tempted Buddy to risk it anyway; it looked brand new and far too well cut to be off just any rack. Between that, the neat haircut and the unlined face, Buddy got the impression this was someone with some serious money.
Buddy frowned. Had someone actually paid for him to see a lawyer? Couldn't be. No-one he knew had the kind of money a lawyer who looked like this would cost. So who the hell was this jerk and why was he here?
"Hi," said the man. Buddy just stared at him. "Nice mess you're in."
Who was this jerk? Did he honestly think Buddy hadn't noticed he was in deep shit over this? "Look; you're not a cop, and if you're a lawyer, you should know, I can't afford you."
"I'm not a lawyer," said the man, his smile changing to a more serious expression.
"Then I guess I don't want to speak to you."
"That's a pity," said the man, taking a seat on the room's other chair, "because I very much want to speak to you."
Buddy blinked. "Me?"
"Oh, this should be good." Buddy folded his arms across his chest and glared. "Mister---"
"Matt," said the man. "Matt Trakker."
"Mister," Buddy retorted, "I don't know what messed up bullshit they've fed you, but I ain't someone people 'what to speak to'." Was this going to be the Wilkinsons all over again? Shit; he didn't need this on top of everything else.
"What makes you think 'they' have fed me bullshit?" Matt asked.
Buddy jabbed a finger in his direction. "You're here."
"Oh, I get it." Matt nodded. "You think the only reason I'd be here is if someone had lied to me about you."
"It's happened before."
And to Buddy's general surprise, Matt winced. "What would it take for you to believe they haven't lied to me? That I really do want to speak to you?"
"You tell me why you want to talk to me; I'll tell you if I believe it."
Matt nodded. "All right. I'm looking for a mechanic."
"Sorry; can't help you."
"I think you can." Matt leaned forwards in his seat. "I had a very interesting conversation with Mac Stevens yesterday."
Buddy blinked again. If this guy had been speaking to Mac he was bound to have heard a pretty unvarnished opinion. "All right, so you're serious. Why me?"
"I have a job going," said Matt. "A proper job, decent wage, place to live - the whole works."
"A mechanic's job, right?"
"Partly." Unwillingly curious, Buddy lifted an eyebrow. "About seventy-five percent of it will be regular work at a gas station. The rest's going to be experimental work. Inventive work, sometimes. Coming up with solutions to problems. Designing new vehicles."
Unwilling or not, now Buddy was interested. It almost sounded like his dream job. Of course, Mac would have told this guy that, but still, it seemed like a genuine offer. "What kind of vehicles?"
"All kinds of vehicles," said Matt. "How about it?"
For just a second, Buddy entertained the idea of accepting the job. Then common sense reasserted itself. He was facing jail time. There was no way this could work out. "Mister---"
"Whatever. Look, it's not that I'm not grateful but it can't work. Or didn't they tell you why I'm here?" Buddy waved a hand as if to encompass the interview room.
"Attempted armed robbery of the convenience store on Valmont Road at nine o'clock last night. You were grabbed by the owner, your partner managed to escape. Did I leave anything out?"
Buddy flushed. "So they did tell you."
"They did," Matt agreed. "And part of this deal will be that you're paroled to me. It's not your first offence, but as everything else has just been small acts of vandalism, and this is the first time you've ever tried something like this, the authorities are willing to give you one last chance."
"So it's what; I go with you and do this or I do jail time?"
"Pretty much," said Matt.
"Not much of a choice."
"I suppose it isn't," Matt agreed. "Look at it this way: Do you really want to spend the rest of your life in and out of jail? That's where you're heading at the moment and you know what? I think you're smarter than that. Mac certainly thinks so."
"Aren't you afraid I'll let you down?" Buddy asked. "You've seen my record."
"You might," said Matt easily. "But I don't think you will."
Vanessa would have told him to accept the offer already. Buddy sighed. "All right; I'll do it."
So far as Buddy was concerned, the next hour was pure torture. There was paperwork to be filled out by him, paperwork to be filled out by Matt, paperwork to be filled out by the convenience store owner, more paperwork for Matt, paperwork for the social worker who'd been assigned to him by the state of Colorado (since Buddy was still, just, under eighteen), yet more paperwork for Matt - in fact, Buddy began to wonder if there was going to be paperwork for everyone including the police station janitor mopping the hallway behind him!
The longer the process took, the more antsy Buddy began to feel. It wasn't just the overwhelming nature of the paperwork. He couldn't help but remember what had happened with the Wilkinsons. They had been all hot to adopt him. Then the paperwork had come out and so had his record. They'd left so fast there'd practically been scorch marks on the floor. Since Matt had spoken to Mac and had quite clearly gotten the whole deal on exactly what he'd done, Buddy was almost positive that couldn't happen again. On the other hand, Matt could always decide this was more trouble than he was worth.
Matt's statement made Buddy jump. Looking up, he realised that Matt looked amused. "No more forms?"
"Nope," said Matt. "We can go." Buddy sighed in relief and Matt chuckled. "I feel a little like that," he admitted.
"It's not just that; my sister'll be going nuts," Buddy admitted.
"Sister?" Matt looked puzzled as he led the way out of the police station and over to a red Camaro that looked almost brand new. "I thought you didn't have any family."
Buddy shrugged, suddenly feeling vaguely embarrassed. "I don't. Not officially. Family's what you make it."
"I see." Matt nodded, unlocking the car. "What's her name?"
"Vanessa." Buddy might have said more, but at that moment, the car's gull-wing doors lifted up and he found himself admiring the mechanics and the skill that had to have gone into making the car.
There was a chuckle from beside him. "That was my reaction to it, too," Matt observed.
"It's a beauty."
"More than you know," said Matt with a grin that suggested there was much more to the car than necessarily met the eye. "But you will know." Matt gestured towards the passenger seat. "Get in; we'll go over to the home. You've probably got stuff to collect, and we'll see if your sister's there---"
"She won't be," Buddy cut in. "She---" He stopped.
"She?" prompted Matt, turning on the ignition.
"She, kinda, moved out."
"Hm." Matt frowned as they started to pull out of the parking lot. "Define moved out."
Buddy sighed. Vanessa had sworn him to secrecy over this. "She was having some, ah, problems with one of the other guys there. She's eighteen in two months. It was easier all round to just let her go."
"Then where does she live?"
Buddy grimaced. "With a friend of ours. Hers."
"Someone you don't like all that much," Matt judged.
Buddy thought of Rax and snorted. "Not much."
"Well, we could swing by there, too; if you want?" Matt offered.
"No. Thanks." Buddy could imagine all too clearly the mocking from Rax. He wasn't a violent person, but for Rax, he was beginning to think he might just make an exception. "But she'll know to look for me at Mac's shop."
"Then once we're done at the home, we'll stop there." Matt smiled. "Family's important."
"I see Mr Trakker caught up with you," Mac Stevens observed as Buddy entered the motorcycle store.
"What? Oh. Yeah." Buddy blushed again and glanced back in the direction of the Camaro, where Matt was waiting. "Uh, thanks."
Mac, an aging ex-Hell's Angel, tipped his head back and laughed. "What for, kid?"
"Well--- For whatever it was you said to him."
"I didn't do nothin' 'cept tell him the truth. That you're a good kid in a bad crowd and that you could practically build an engine outta string, duct tape and gum." Mac shrugged. "Now don't you go screwing this up." He waggled his finger at Buddy. "I don't want to see you darkening my door again. Not unless you got more good news."
Buddy smiled. "I won't." He looked around. "Is Vanessa here?"
Mac sniffed. "I ain't seen her. Or that shiftless bastard she's dating."
Buddy grimaced. "Can't say I'm big on seeing him."
Mac gave him a pointed stare. "You been in more trouble?"
"Deeper shit than usual." Buddy shrugged. "They've paroled me to, ah, Matt's care. I screw up this time, it's his ass as well as mine."
"Hmpf." Mac shook his head. "Like I said. Good kid, bad crowd."
"Would you be able to give Vanessa a message?"
"If she comes in."
"She'll come in." Buddy sighed. "She knows she can always find me here 'up to my neck in grease'."
Mac chuckled. "Guess that's a fair description."
"Besides, I was supposed to go see her last night. And---"
"And you were otherwise occupied," Mac guessed. "All right; what's this message?"
Buddy pulled a slip of paper out of his pocket and handed it over. "She can reach me here."
Mac unfolded the slip and looked at it. "Boulder Hill Gas Station. Hm. Fancy place on the road west. Cushy job, kid. When do you start?"
"All right; I'll tell her." Mac paused. "And if she goes up there to see you, you see if you can't talk some sense into her. I don't like Rax. I think he's trouble and she listens to you."
"Not over Rax," said Buddy. "Never over Rax. Last night was his fault, but she'll probably tell you it was mine."
Mac winced. "She's in over her head."
Buddy had been on the point of turning away. He now froze. "What do you mean?"
Mac shrugged. "I don't know, kid; I've only heard some vague rumours."
"Let's just say, if you were in with a bad crowd, she's gotten in with a worse one."
Buddy turned back to fully face Mac. "No, let's not just say that," he said. "This is my sister you're talking about. She's all I've got."
Mac sighed. "Then, kid, I think you're on your own." Buddy opened his mouth to say something else, but Mac just fixed him with a glare. "Look, kid, maybe I'm wrong. I hope I'm wrong. I like Vanessa; she's a nice girl. But nice girls don't hang out with Sly Rax and they sure as shit don't know folks like Bruno Sheppard."
"Hired muscle moved in from outta state some place." Mac shrugged. "I don't know him and from what I've heard, I don't care to, either." The biker shrugged again. "Like I said. Try and talk some sense into her pretty little head now, while she can still get out."
Buddy gulped. "As bad as that?"
Mac shrugged again. "You ask, I tell. You know how it works with me." He tapped the slip of paper, now lying on the shop counter. "I'll make sure she gets this."
"Any time, kid. Now you get goin'. You got a life ahead of you. Go start livin' it." Mac pointed at the shop door. "I mean it."
Buddy swallowed, trying to get rid of the sudden lump in his throat. "See ya round, Mac."
It was a mostly silent car journey away from Mac's shop. Buddy was too deeply wrapped up in his thoughts to give any of Matt's questions more than the baldest of answers. After a couple of efforts at conversation, Matt gave up on it and concentrated fully on where they were going.
That suited Buddy.
He had a lot to think about.
How had he not noticed Vanessa getting into trouble? Though Mac hadn't said so, Buddy got the impression that the older man thought this had been going on for some time, and the older man had said Rax was a part of that. He and Vanessa had known Rax nearly two years. That was a long time for him to not notice something this big.
Of course, there had been other things going on. Like trouble at the home. The problems Vanessa had had with Zeljko and Mikey had occupied him for the first half of that time. There'd been run-ins with the police, too. And there had been that whole argument with the organisers of the racer competition.
At the memory of that, Buddy snorted. The organisers hadn't wanted him to enter, saying his racer design was illegal when it wasn't; there was nothing in the rules that said it couldn't be built out of scrap. It had only been Mac's intervention that had managed to rescue the whole venture. Buddy felt he'd had the last laugh there, though; thanks to Vanessa's piloting skills and his innate engineering talent, they'd easily won the three race series. He'd been denied the designer's award, but that didn't matter; he'd designed it for speed, and speed it had.
So maybe he did have some excuse. It just wasn't much of one, and none of that gave him any reason not to have noticed anything wrong in the last six months. And there was another question that nagged away at him: Would Vanessa listen to what he had to say? If she hadn't taken it from Mac, would he be able to convince her? She could be as stubborn as he could when she thought she was right and Buddy knew, from previous conversations, she couldn't see anything wrong with Rax.
It felt like an attempt that was doomed to fail even before he had a chance to try it.
"Well, here we are."
Matt's comment drew Buddy out of his thoughts. Blinking, he realised that where they were was just pulling in to a large estate somewhere to the west of Boulder itself. He whistled softly. The estate matched every last assumption he'd made the moment Matt had walked into the interview room. The mansion - and there was no other word for it - was huge, with expansive grounds. Buddy wasn't sure how far they extended, but if the gardens in front of the mansion were anything to go by, miles didn't seem out of the question.
"This place is huge!" he breathed.
Matt chuckled. "My great-grandfather came to Colorado in the 1850s and made a fortune in silver," he said, by way of explanation. "Though this isn't his original house. That was somewhere higher up in the mountains. He built this for my grandparents, when they got married."
"Some wedding present!"
"You could say that."
Buddy was silent as Matt pulled the car up in front of the wide entry steps. He suddenly felt very, very intimidated and self-conscious. Anything would have been better than this; heck, jail would have been better than this! At least in jail he'd have fit in. Here, in the visibly luxurious surroundings, he felt like a fish dropped in the desert.
And then it got a whole lot worse.
Through the door came a Goddess - at least, that was Buddy's first thought when he saw her. She was beautiful and smiling and though she was dressed in pants and a loose shirt that was covered in some impressive paint splots, she still contrived to look chic and elegant. Why the hell did I think this was going to be a good idea? Buddy wondered. There's no way this is going to work.
"This is my wife, Sarah," said Matt, apparently oblivious of Buddy's discomfort.
"Wife," Buddy echoed. "Right."
"You took your time," Sarah was observing as Matt climbed out of the Camaro.
"Paperwork," Matt answered. "And there were a couple of stops to make on the way back."
Sarah rolled her eyes. "I might have known you couldn't do anything without it becoming complicated." Then she turned her attention to the car, where Buddy was still wondering if there was any way he could actually escape this. "Hi," she said. "I'm Sarah Trakker."
With little other option, Buddy got out of the car; bringing with him the duffel bag of possessions he'd collected from the children's home. "Uh, hi," he mumbled, acutely aware that his jeans were ripped, his t-shirt was stained and that his jacket had an impressive grease mark left over from trying to unclog a fuel line for Mac the day before.
As oblivious as her husband, Sarah simply smiled. "Very nice to meet you. Sorry about the mess," she added, gesturing to her shirt, which left Buddy feeling even more awkward, "I don't suppose Matt's told you, but I'm an artist."
Artist. That fit, somehow. Buddy mustered a weak smile and said nothing.
Sarah gave him an enquiring look, but her next words were directed at Matt: "Alex is here, by the way. Said it was important."
Matt grimaced. "It would be. Would you mind giving Buddy the tour? I'd better see what's up."
Sarah smiled. "No; of course." To Buddy, she said, "You'll probably meet Alex sooner or later, but for now, let me show you around." And she started to draw Buddy up the steps and into the house.
"See you at dinner," Matt called.
"We'll hold you to that," Sarah responded, then Matt was lost to Buddy's gaze as he found himself in an entry hall that fit every imagining he'd come up with for the house and then some.
A black-and-white tiled floor, polished to glass-like slipperiness, meant that Buddy spent most of his time concentrating on where he was putting his feet. One brief look up told him that there was a wide staircase that swept down both to the left and right. Another brief glimpse showed him a lavish crystal chandelier hanging from the vaulted ceiling. From the corner of his eye, he could see gilt-edged paintings hanging on the walls and he had to consciously stop himself from wondering what they'd fetch if he handed them over to Enzo.
A light tap on his arm from Sarah directed him through a doorway to the left, beyond that arm of the stairs. Here, at least, the flooring wasn't quite so treacherous; the hallway Buddy found himself walking along was carpeted with expensive looking thick red pile carpet. But that just made him conscious that his sneakers were old and filthy. And then there were the long glass fronted display cabinets filled with china and glassware. They just made Buddy nervous. What if he tripped and fell?
"Awful, isn't it," Sarah commented, apparently apropos of nothing.
"Uh, huh?" Buddy blinked.
Sarah gave him a grin and waved her hand at the display cabinets. "Matt's mother had a passion for this stuff," she explained. "Don't let it worry you. Most of it's not that expensive, and between you and me," she added conspiratorially, "I don't think Matt would be heart broken if one or two bits, ah, met with an accident."
Buddy stared for a moment. "Uh?"
Sarah giggled. "Honestly, the whole house isn't like this," she promised. "We mainly live in this wing," and she gestured vaguely towards the end of the hallway. "And that looks much less like a museum since we've got a very active eighteen month old son."
Buddy blinked again. Somehow, that was the last thing he'd been expecting Sarah to tell him.
Sarah frowned. "Matt didn't tell you?" Mutely, Buddy shook his head. "Oh, I think I'll be having words with Matthew about this. He might have warned you about Scott, at least!"
"Why?" Buddy ventured.
"You haven't lived with a baby before?" Sarah asked. Buddy shook his head again. "You'll see." Then she smiled. "Meantime, we had to move all the breakables out - which is why they're all here."
"Oh." Buddy began to feel a little more at ease.
Abruptly, Sarah took one of the many side doors and Buddy found himself at the foot of a much less ornate set of stairs. "Up here," she directed. "This set of rooms is where Matt's mother lived after Matt's father died; it's self-contained and has a small kitchen as well as a bathroom, bedroom and living room."
As they reached the top of the stairs, Sarah produced a set of keys from her pocket and held it out to Buddy.
"The silver one locks this suite," she explained, "the bronze one's for one of the mansion's side doors - I'll show you which one in a minute or two. It'll mean you can come and go as you like."
Buddy stared. "You--- Wait, you mean you're trusting me with keys?"
Sarah grinned. "Any reason we shouldn't?" Buddy just stared mutely at Sarah. Surely Matt had told his wife about Buddy's record. Hadn't he? "If you're thinking about your record," she added, obviously guessing what was running through his mind, "yes, I know about it. And yes, we're trusting you with keys."
Buddy opened and shut his mouth a couple of times, unable to find anything coherent to say.
"Let me show you round," Sarah offered, unlocking the door.
Dumbly, Buddy followed her through, into the suite of rooms. The first room they came to was obviously the living room. There was a couch and a couple of armchairs grouped around a low coffee table, while beneath the wide windows stood an equally wide desk. Though all the furniture looked good quality, he could see none of it was brand new, which made him feel a little more at ease.
"Through there is the bedroom," said Sarah, waving her hand at an open doorway off to the left. "There's extra bedding in the drawers beneath the bed, if you need it."
Curious and overwhelmed, Buddy took a look through the doorway, just in case there was anything odd about the bedroom, but there wasn't. It was a regular bed with a couple of regular looking nightstands and a couple of closets. Like the living room, all the furniture was good but not new. He set his duffel bag down beside the foot of the bed, then turned back towards Sarah, who was still smiling.
"The bathroom opens off the bedroom," she offered. Buddy nodded. "Then the kitchen," she added, "is through here." And she waved a hand in the direction of the doorway immediately opposite the bedroom door. "It isn't much, but it means you don't have to eat dinner with us every night."
Buddy finally found his voice: "Thank you."
"You're very welcome," Sarah replied. "I can give you the rest of the tour now, or would you like a chance to settle in first?"
"Uh, settle in, I think," Buddy stammered.
"All right." Sarah smiled. "I'll come back in an hour; or you can come and find me. I'll be back in my studio; which is down the stairs, then back the way we came and just beyond the entrance hall on the other side." She grinned. "I'll probably have the radio on, so you won't be able to miss it."
"OK." Buddy mustered a smile. "Thank you."
Sarah set the keys down on the coffee table, then left.
For a moment or two, Buddy looked around, shaking his head. This all seemed like a lot to take in. How had he gone from being one step away from jail to actually having a suite of rooms in a mansion like this?
It suddenly occurred to him that he hadn't had anything that even remotely resembled sleep the previous night and today was proving to be a very long and weird adventure. Maybe it would be OK to sit down, just for a while.
When, after a couple of hours, Sarah hadn't seen anything of Buddy, she headed back to the little apartment and knocked on the door. There was no response. She debated for a moment whether to check any further, then shrugged a little and quietly pushed the door open. There, in one of the armchairs, was Buddy; sound asleep.
Sarah smiled and closed the door again. Exactly what she'd suspected.
At the bottom of the stairs, she found Matt, who lifted his eyebrows.
"Fast asleep," Sarah answered. "Poor kid. He looked like he was running on fumes earlier, so I'm not surprised."
"Hm." Matt shook his head. "I should have thought of that."
"He's going to need feeding up, too," Sarah continued, leading the way towards their own rooms. "He's painfully thin."
"I know." Matt sighed. "Makes you wonder just how well the system really works."
"Or what would happen to Scott if something ever happened to us," Sarah finished.
"Nothing's going to happen to us---" Matt began.
"And Duane Kennedy's visit eighteen months ago was my imagination," said Sarah with a little sarcasm. "Matt, I'm not blind and I'm not stupid. You're involved in something to do with hunting down Miles Mayhem." She gave him a shrewd look. "And whatever it is, Buddy's going to be involved, too."
"I had hoped to keep you and Scott out of it," said Matt.
"And how are you going to do that?" Sarah demanded. "You know Mayhem. You know what he's like."
"Which is why he's not going to know who's after him," Matt finished.
"That's fine for you, and for Alex. You know what you're getting into and yeah," Sarah added, "you both have a score to settle with Mayhem for what he did four years ago. I get that." She swallowed. "But what right have you got dragging a kid like Buddy into this mess?"
Without saying a word, Matt drew Sarah into one of the unused rooms, then closed the door behind them.
"You remember Mac Stevens?" Matt asked.
Puzzled, Sarah nodded. "I remember the fuss your father made over you and Andy hanging out with him."
A brief smile crossed Matt's face. "Mac's still doing the same thing now as he was back then. He's looking out for kids who maybe can't look out for themselves. He's how I got to hear about Buddy."
"So Mac told me yesterday that someone else was looking for Buddy. A 'fat, grey-haired, pompous asshole', was how Mac put it."
"Mayhem?" Sarah wasn't surprised when Matt nodded. "So you got to him first."
"Buddy's a special talent," said Matt. "And he's a nice kid, too. I want to give him a shot at a decent life."
"And stop Mayhem from 'having' him," Sarah finished dryly. "Matt, I hope you know what you're doing."
Buddy woke with a start. How long had he been asleep? The rapidly gathering gloom suggested that afternoon was nearly over which meant several hours. Way to make an impression, he berated himself as he stiffly uncurled himself from the chair. What was he supposed to do now? Should he see if Sarah was still in her studio? Or---
There was a knock on the door.
"Uh, yeah?" Buddy found himself oddly surprised by the formality. Privacy had never been a big thing at the home.
The door opened and Sarah's head appeared. "Hi," she said. "Feel better for the sleep?"
Buddy blinked owlishly. "Uh, yeah. Sorry."
Sarah grinned. "Don't be; you looked like you could use it." And to Buddy's annoyance, he found himself blushing. He hoped Sarah couldn't tell. "We're going to have dinner. You're welcome to join us."
At the mention of dinner, Buddy's stomach growled, loudly. He blushed even harder and mumbled, "Um, sure."
"I'll come back in about fifteen minutes," Sarah offered. "Give you a chance to wake up a bit more."
And before Buddy could say anything, she'd withdrawn again.
For a second or two, he felt panic stricken. What the hell had he let himself in for now? Then he gave himself a mental shake. This was just dinner. Not some extended intelligence test or form of torture. Dinner. Food. It should be easy enough.
Self-consciously, he glanced down at his clothing. Maybe he should see if he had anything a little less like a grease monkey's uniform, though.
Fifteen minutes, a very hasty shower and a change of clothes later, Buddy felt no better about the idea of sharing a meal with Sarah and Matt, but, as his stomach growled again, he reflected that no matter what the embarrassment factor might be, he needed to eat.
The entire dilemma was finally laid to rest by another knock on the door. This time it was Matt who appeared.
"I don't know about you," he said, "but I'm ready for dinner."
Buddy mustered a smile. "Guess I am kinda hungry."
He followed Matt out of the suite, down the stairs and further along the hallway Sarah had been showing him. About ten yards along, Matt led him through an open doorway and into a surprisingly normal looking dining room. Already seated at the table were Sarah and a man with a bushy red beard that appeared to be trying to make up for the lack of hair on the top of his head.
"Alex, Buddy Hawks. Buddy, this is Alex Sector."
Alex smiled. "Hello," he said, accent immediately marking him as English. That was a fact that, for some reason, surprised Buddy.
"Uh, hi," he answered, trying to muster a smile.
"Have a seat, Buddy," Sarah directed. "Potatoes?"
As Buddy slid into the nearest seat, he nodded. "Su---please," he amended consciously trying to remember manners.
"All right." Sarah placed a full plate loaded with potatoes, ham and peas in front of Buddy. "Dig in before it gets cold. Alex?"
Buddy needed no further instruction. The food looked far better than anything he'd ever been given in the home - or anywhere else, for that matter - and the looks didn't lie. It might have been the nicest meal he'd ever had.
It was only when Alex said, "Careful, or you'll eat the pattern off the plate," that he realised he'd more or less inhaled the entire plateful.
"You must really like my cooking," Sarah offered.
"There's more, if you want it," said Matt, smiling.
In a stage whisper, Alex added, "Take the chance now. Sarah only makes potatoes like this once in a blue moon!"
In spite of feeling awkward, Buddy found himself grinning. Particularly when Sarah turned a mock-scolding look on Alex and said, "And for that, Alex, you get to do the dishes tonight." To Buddy, she just said, "Don't mind them. If you want more, just say so."
"Please?" Buddy hadn't realised just how hungry he was.
The rest of the meal passed off harmlessly. There was conversation, but Buddy paid little attention to it, preferring to concentrate on eating the second, then third, helping of food. As Sarah cleared the plates, however, he stopped having anything to hide behind.
"So; you're the young man who shook up the racer competition a couple of years ago," Alex mused, slight smile on his face.
Almost instinctively, Buddy blushed, though he managed to hold his head up. "Guess that's me."
"Impressive machine," said Alex. "I saw it win the street race. Though," he added, "unless I very much miss my guess, you weren't driving it."
"I wasn't," Buddy admitted. "I just build 'em; I don't race 'em."
"Probably wise," said Alex.
"So who did drive?" Matt asked.
"Vanessa," Buddy answered. At Alex's slightly puzzled look, he added, "She's sorta my sister."
"Sort of?" Alex looked mystified.
"Uh," Buddy blushed, "well, we grew up together, in the home, and---"
"And I see," said Alex, smiling. "Family is what you make it."
At that moment, Sarah returned baring a chocolate cake and some plates. "Help yourselves, boys," she said, setting the cake and plates down on the table. "I've got the dishes to take care of and Scott's just woken up, so you'll have to excuse me."
As she departed again, Matt levered the first slice of cake onto a plate and handed it to Buddy. "We should probably get down to business," he said.
Buddy looked from Matt to Alex and back. Both suddenly looked serious. "Business?" he echoed.
"Does the name VENOM mean anything to you?" Matt asked.
Buddy frowned, slice of cake forgotten for the time being. "Uh, kinda." Where had he heard the name before? Hadn't Mac said something about it a couple of days ago? "Not sure," he finally admitted. "It sorta rings a bell."
"VENOM is, what can best be described as, a terrorist organisation," said Alex. "They're backed by several, ah, rogue nations."
"Rogue nations?" Buddy echoed.
"They're not exactly places you'd go for a vacation," said Matt. "They're also rich, thanks to natural resources, which is how they can fund a network like VENOM."
Buddy slowly nodded. What did any of this have to do with him?
"For a while now," Alex continued, "there's been some talk of trying to tackle the problem of VENOM. The difficulty is doing it without causing an international incident."
"Which is where MASK is going to come in," said Matt.
Buddy blinked. "Who?"
"Officially," said Matt with a grin, "we don't know either. Unofficially; well, let's just say we're using some of VENOM's methods against them."
Buddy stared. "You're---" But the phrase "You're nuts," seemed wrong. If anything, "nuts" seemed like a gross understatement.
"I can assure you," said Alex, "neither Matthew nor myself is insane." Then he smiled ruefully. "At least, not yet."
Buddy just looked at Alex. I've only got your word on that! "Then what do you mean?" he asked.
"Eighteen months ago, Duane Kennedy decided he'd had enough of dancing to VENOM's tune," said Matt. "He authorised me to put together a task force versatile enough to take on VENOM any time, any place, any where. The why me is a bit more complicated, but trust me, there's good reasons."
That had been going to be Buddy's next question, but the expression on Matt's face suggested that maybe that information could wait. Besides, Buddy was still not sure what all this had to do with him.
"To do all that," said Alex, taking up the explanations once more, "we need vehicles. Fast. Adaptable. Robust. Well armed."
"And you need a mechanic to fix 'em," Buddy guessed.
"And design them," said Matt with a small smile.
Buddy looked from Matt to Alex and back again. This either had to be the most elaborate joke in history, or they were serious. Buddy wasn't sure what he wanted to hope for at this point. "Lemme see if I've got this straight," he said finally. "You're unofficially setting up a task force to take on a bunch of terrorists. And you want me to design your transportation."
"That's about the size of it," said Matt.
"This is the dumbest bunch of bullshit I've been fed. Period."
"It's a little strange," Alex agreed, "but it's not bullshit."
"It's not that," said Buddy. "I think I can sorta believe all that stuff about terrorists."
"You want a seventeen year old kid with no qualifications and a criminal record that probably runs from here to New York to design your transportation?"
Matt smiled. "Buddy, I hire the best. You're it."
To Be Continued