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
There had to be some mistake.
That was Buddy's first thought. For Rax to be mixed up in VENOM was one thing; it even made a kind of sense. But Vanessa? His little sister? It couldn't be true.
A note of sick doubt sounded in Buddy's mind. Mac had talked about Rax being trouble, and about Bruno Sheppard, and Vanessa had been oddly reluctant to talk about this job of hers.
Buddy wrapped his arms around himself as if cold. Could it be true?
"Thanks Duane," Matt said, breaking Buddy from his thoughts. Inside the room, he could hear the sounds of people standing up.
He couldn't let them find him here.
Without thinking about it, Buddy turned and ran, his feet automatically taking him not up to the apartment but down to the parking garage. The first germ of an idea came to him: Mac had known about this. He climbed into Firecracker and started her up.
Mac had helped him before, maybe he could help now.
Buddy parked Firecracker in the alley at the back of Mac's yard. Though it was late, he knew Mac would still be here, just in case any of his kids needed him. He'd saved Buddy trouble at the home times without number, thanks to that. Vanessa, too. He just hoped that Mac would tell him the truth this time. Whatever it was, he deserved to know.
As he got to the front of the shop, though, he saw Rax's motorcycle parked up and he felt his heart drop. He hadn't seen Rax since the failed robbery and this was the last place Buddy wanted to renew that acquaintance; for one thing, Buddy was fairly sure that Mac wouldn't take too kindly to Buddy slugging the other man. No matter how much Mac might dislike Rax, Buddy knew he disliked violence even more.
For a moment or two, Buddy hesitated. Should he just turn round, go back to the mansion and talk to Matt instead?
Then he heard the sound of breaking glass.
Fear and concern drove Buddy the last couple of yards to the door into Mac's shop. But once he was there, pure and undiluted terror froze him rigid to the spot: The whole glass front of the store had been shattered and through the gaping hole he could see four people in the shop. Mac and Rax he recognised. The other two, both big, mean-looking men, were unfamiliar. One of them had a bright red mohawk haircut, the other an eye patch. They were holding Mac in place while Rax stood in front of him; taunting him.
"Not so tough, now," Rax sneered, his voice carrying through the smashed shop window. "You shouldn't have messed in affairs that didn't concern you, old man."
Mac sneered right back. "You know your trouble, Sylvester?" he asked, emphasising Rax's full given name. "You're just dumb enough to get yourself in over your head. And you are way over your head this time."
One of the men holding Mac, the one with the eye patch, drove a big, meaty fist into Mac's gut. Mac doubled over, gasping for breath and wincing in pain.
"Wrong, old man," Rax replied. "You're the one who doesn't know who he's messing with. Now for the last time, where are we gonna find that puke Hawks?"
For a couple of seconds, Buddy found himself unable to breathe. They were looking for him? Why?
Mac coughed. "I ain't tellin' you, an' I ain't gonna tell your boss." Mac coughed again. "So maybe you'd better just get on and kill me."
Buddy hadn't intended to speak, but the name came out all the same.
There was one long, horrible moment of silence. Rax turned and looked straight at him, an expression of complete and total disbelief on the other man's face. Buddy gulped as Rax's expression changed from disbelief to savage satisfaction.
"Lookie, lookie, lookie," he drawled. Then, as his two pet thugs didn't move, he added, "Well don't just stand there! Grab the kid!"
Over the top of the command, Mac yelled, "Run kid; get outta here!"
"But what about---" rumbled Mohawk.
"Forget him," said Rax, pulling a gun from an unseen holster. "He's not important; it's the kid Mayhem wants, though Christ only knows why." He aimed the gun at Mac's head. "You've messed with the wrong folks, Mac; and now it's time to pay."
Buddy wasn't sure, later, quite what it was that got his feet finally moving; whether it was the sight of Eye-patch starting to lumber towards him or whether it was the sound of Rax firing his gun. Either way, as the gun's retort echoed through the shop, Buddy turned and ran.
He didn't know where he was going, he just ran. Anything to get away from the shop and Rax and the two goons. Through alleys, down back lanes, across highways, deliberately choosing turnings at random so as to ditch any pursuit, Buddy ran until his lungs were burning and his legs couldn't carry him any further. It was only then that he realised he was in a part of Boulder he didn't know too well, where the dark and forbidding looking buildings were all cramped together and covered in graffiti.
It was the part of town where Buddy had first met Mac.
The reality of what had just happened slowly sank in: Mac was either dead or seriously hurt, all because Rax was looking for him. Reaction hit. Bile splashed against the back of his throat and it was all Buddy could do not to throw up on the spot. It was his fault.
Why was Rax looking for him? But the answer came in an unwilling rush. Rax had said Mayhem wanted him. That meant VENOM.
Another round of bile hit the back of his throat.
Rax was working for VENOM. Duane had been right about that. And if he was right about that, did that mean he was right about Vanessa?
"Well, well, well - look what we have here."
For a second, Buddy thought that the Pitbulls had once again found him on their turf. Then the tone of the words - both amused and pleased - penetrated. He was reasonably sure neither sentiment would apply to any member of the Pitbulls who found him. Looking round, he tried to detect the speaker, and finally spotted him, standing in one of the darkened doorways of the alley.
Presumably seeing he had Buddy's attention, the man stepped forwards, into the light of the one working streetlamp in the alley. He was a middle-aged man, a little paunchy but with enough sharpness to his movements to suggest he was still fit and capable of giving chase, should Buddy try to run.
"I guess it really is true; if you wait long enough, good things come to you," the man observed. "I've been looking for you m'boy. I have a business proposition for you."
"Uh---" Buddy swallowed. "Who--- Who are you?"
The man stuck out a hand in a very stiff gesture. "Myles Mayhem."
Mayhem. Leader of VENOM. International terrorist. The man who'd set Rax looking for him. The reason Mac was probably dead. Buddy felt sick once more.
"I want you to come and work for me," Mayhem continued, oblivious to Buddy's discomfort. "I'm told you're quite the mechanical genius."
"Work for you." Buddy swallowed, nausea turning to anger. He knew who'd probably have told Mayhem where his talents lay. Duane was right; Vanessa was working for VENOM. "Work for a lying, cheating piece of scum?" Work for the man who's taken my family away from me? "No."
For a second, Mayhem looked taken aback. Then his expression turned apoplectic. "What do you mean no?"
"What does no usually mean?" Buddy retorted. "I don't want your job, I don't want to work for you and I don't want anything to do with you."
"That's too bad," Mayhem snarled. "I was prepared to make you a very rich man. As it is; all you're going to be is very, very dead."
As Mayhem drew a gun from the holster at his waist, Buddy vaguely thought he ought to be afraid, but all he felt was a sense of resignation. It didn't seem as if there was anything left for him to lose; he'd lost Vanessa, he'd lost Mac. What else was there?
Buddy closed his eyes.
"You know, he's not worth it." Vanessa's voice sounded sudden and harsh against the silence that had been building in the alley. "He's just a nobody and if that's what he wants to be, let him."
"No-one says no to me and gets away with it," snorted Mayhem.
"And he won't," Vanessa promised. "With you, he could have been great. Without you--- I bet he won't ever make it outta this one-horse town."
Buddy risked opening his eyes and saw Vanessa's hand on Mayhem's arm, forcing the gun to point down, at the ground. He wondered where she'd come from, or why she'd even bothered intervening.
"Shit," she added, not looking in his direction, "if we just leave now, he'll be in trouble with the Pitbulls inside of thirty seconds. Why get blood on your hands when there's other folks just as willing to do it?"
And to Buddy's surprise, a smile started to appear on Mayhem's face. "I like the way you think," he announced. "You're right." He reholstered the gun and then gave Buddy a pittying shake of the head. "You could have been rich."
He stalked past Buddy and out of the alley. To Buddy's general surprise, Vanessa remained where she was.
"You what?" Buddy snapped, anger forcing its way through the numb sense of shock.
She winced. "I'm sorry."
"Mac's dead, because of that asshole looking for me and you're sorry?" Buddy slowly shook his head. "If that's all you've got to say to me you can just go."
"Buddy---" She took a step forwards, hand out as if she was going to hug him.
"Stay away from me, Vanessa," Buddy snapped, drawing backwards. "I mean it. If you're serious about hooking up with that piece of slime then we have nothing else to say."
For a second she hesitated, hand still out stretched. Then she let it drop. "I guess we don't," she murmured.
Without another word, she rushed past him and out of the alley, following in Mayhem's footsteps.
Buddy walked back to the mansion.
It was a distance of nearly ten miles and it took most of the night, but Buddy didn't care. He knew he wasn't in a fit state to drive back and he wasn't sure he wanted to risk returning to Mac's shop, just in case Rax and his two friends were still there. And at least the pain and exhaustion of the walk let him feel something other than the soul-burning numbness that the evening's events had left him with.
As the first fingers of dawn started to steal across the sky, Buddy finally reached the beginning of the mansion's drive. Vague practicalities crossed his mind. In a couple of hours, he would have to go to work. Sooner or later, he was going to have to collect Firecracker.
Somehow, none of that seemed important.
He was alone.
Distantly, Buddy thought he ought to actually feel something about that, but all he could dredge up was a tired sense of disappointment.
Dull surprise made Buddy look up at the hail. Sitting on the steps of the main entrance, with a blanket wrapped around his shoulders, was Matt. Had he been waiting there all night? Why?
"Buddy, what happened?"
There was concern in Matt's voice. Genuine concern. It cracked the hard shell of numbness and suddenly, Buddy found himself barely a moment away from tears. "Mac's dead," he whispered. "Vanessa's gone."
Matt was up and off the step in an instant. "I'm sorry."
For a second, Buddy stared. "You're sorry?" he echoed. Anger suddenly swamped him and it was all he could do not to lash out. "You're sorry," he spat. "So was Vanessa; but you know what? That doesn't help. That doesn't make it right. That doesn't make any of this feel better." He went to step around Matt, but the older man stopped him.
"Buddy, listen to me. I am sorry. I'm sorry that this has all happened. I'm sorry that Vanessa's let you down. I'm more sorry than you can know about Mac. Above all, I'm sorry that I haven't handled this right."
Buddy stared at Matt again. "What?"
"I knew Mayhem was looking for you two weeks ago," Matt admitted quietly. "And I knew his methods. I knew he'd probably try to get to you through your friends, your family. He's done it before."
Buddy was on the point of snapping off another retort, but Matt's final sentence brought him up short. "What do you mean?"
Gently, Matt led Buddy to the steps and guided him into sitting down. "I had a brother," he began. "Andy. He was a lot like you, actually. Mac used to say he could build an engine out of gum, string and duct tape and have it run better than anything that came out of Detroit."
Despite himself, Buddy smiled faintly at the description. Mac had said it of him, too, on more than one occasion.
"Andy went to MIT," Matt continued, "because that was what Dad wanted him to do, but he dropped out half way through his first year. He hated it there and got an apprenticeship with Ford instead. Dad was heartbroken, but it was what Andy wanted to do and it suited Andy a lot more than a bunch of dry classes."
"So what happened?"
"VENOM happened." Matt smiled bleakly. "Five years ago, I was working in Washington as a civilian analyst for the Department of Defence, when a bomb went off in the Canadian Embassy in Moscow. Two people died, another thirty were hurt. No-one knew who'd done it, or why. What little information we knew hit my desk, and I was asked to try and find out anything I could."
"And you found VENOM," Buddy guessed.
"Not right away. The Russian bomb was claimed by a section of the Russian Mafia as punishment for a Canadian court jailing half a dozen high profile members of their syndicate." Matt sighed. "None of the evidence bore that out, but most people were willing to accept it as an answer because it was neat, and my immediate superior, an Air Force colonel called Miles Mayhem, pushed for me to just drop the matter. But it didn't make sense to me, so I kept working on it, in my spare time."
Buddy nodded; he could understand that.
"Over the next six months or so, various things happened. There was a bomb threat against Amtrak here in the US, a couple of very high profile thefts in Europe, a few other things. And each time, someone local would claim responsibility. And then they slipped up. There was an attempted heist in London - they were trying to hit a gold warehouse and found the security had been strengthened significantly. They got caught on surveillance camera as they made their empty-handed escape, and while most of the pictures were blurred and unrecognisable, one was clear. It showed Miles Mayhem."
Buddy whistled. "Messy."
Matt smiled faintly. "One word for it."
"Was it really him?"
"Oh yeah," said Matt. "He didn't even deny it when he came back from 'vacation' - not to me, at least. To the guy in charge of our section, he claimed I was framing him." Buddy winced. "He'd stacked up a bunch of faked and forged evidence against me and, well." Matt shrugged. "I didn't get a chance to clear my desk."
Buddy winced again. "Wow." He shook his head. "People believed him?"
"The man's good," Matt replied. "Sneaky. Manipulative. Smart. Not afraid to lie and cheat to get what he wants." He shrugged. "Not everyone believed him, though. In particular, one of the Secretary of Defence's aides, Duane Kennedy. He came round to see me a couple of days later, asked me if I was interested in continuing to track Mayhem and his friends. I said yes."
Buddy nodded slowly. "MASK, right?"
"Eventually," Matt agreed. "Five years ago, we didn't know what we were facing and Duane wanted me to find out. So I packed up from Washington, came home, started digging and found stuff that I should have found months before that pretty much tied Mayhem into it all, big time. I passed it on to Duane who came back to me and asked me what I thought the best way of going after VENOM would be.
"Given everything I'd uncovered suggested that VENOM were highly mobile, I said some sort of light, mobile and independent task force; Duane gave me the go a-head to form it."
"So what happened?" asked Buddy. "What happened to Andy?"
"Andy came home," Matt answered. "Someone'd been hassling him and threatening him - my name came up and he wanted to know just what the heck I was dragging him into."
"Can't say I blame him."
"Me either." Matt sighed. "I hated the idea of involving him, but Mayhem had dragged him in. I thought the best way of protecting him was to bring him into the task force. So I told him the truth. About Mayhem, about VENOM, about what was going on. Andy just said 'where do I join?'"
"And Mayhem killed him," Buddy realised.
"Mayhem, Bruno Sheppard and Cliff Dagger raided our headquarters. They stole plans and weaponry. Andy and Alex were there and tried to stop them. They shot Alex and left him for dead, then they set fire to the lab. I arrived too late to do more than rescue Alex. Andy and the rest of the research, was gone. There wasn't even a body for me to bury."
In Matt's words, Buddy could hear the echo of old pain, pain that matched the hard knot of emotion resting heavily on his own heart. But at least Vanessa was still alive. At least there was the chance that she might come round and realise that Mayhem wasn't a good person to be with.
"When Mac came to me and told me Mayhem was back in town and looking for this eighteen year old kid who'd got all the same kind of talent as Andy, I thought I'd been given a chance to do it right this time, and instead, I've probably screwed up worse."
"No, you haven't," said Buddy. "Vanessa made her own choice." He swallowed. "Just like I made mine."
The day passed in a blur as far as Buddy was concerned.
There was a videoconference between himself, Matt and Duane Kennedy. Every last second of the night before was dissected and picked over in minute detail. It was clear, to Buddy at least, that Duane didn't believe him when he said he'd turned Mayhem's offer down flat. Buddy wasn't sure he cared all that much; Matt believed him, and when Duane tried to press harder, Matt simply said,
"Duane, he's already answered you. He turned Mayhem down. End of story."
Duane had backed off after that, but Buddy knew the politician didn't trust him.
When Duane had finished, there had been a police interview. Once more, Buddy found himself having to go over events for a disbelieving audience. The detective conducting the interview was clearly well acquainted with the highlights of Buddy's record, and in particular, the last thing he'd been charged with - namely the attempted armed robbery. He proved to be almost a sceptical about Buddy's activities the night before as Duane had been.
It was only when Matt asked if the detective was actually going to charge Buddy with something that the man let up. And even then, the man's parting shot had been a threatening, "We'll be in touch."
Then it had been Sarah's turn. Her kindness, however, was even harder to take than the constant questioning. She produced a meal of hot chicken soup and crackers, then gently saw him into bed and that, more than any of the previous treatment, brought him close to tears. The questioning and suspicions were normal. Compassion, especially in the face of Vanessa's betrayal, was unexpected, and it just seemed to underline what Vanessa had done.
The weekend followed much the same pattern of care and concern from the Trakkers and suspicion from just about everyone else. So much so that Buddy was actually relieved to return to work on the Monday morning, particularly when Earl greeted him with the news that his first job was figuring out which spark plugs were cross-wired in the Ford that had been brought in over the weekend.
Tracing wiring wasn't a job Buddy normally looked on with fondness because of its tedious and frequently frustrating nature, but this was one time when the tediousness was something he relished. It gave him something else to think about, something else to concentrate on.
So instead of complaining about it, he just nodded and got on with it. And for a while, at least, all he needed to think about was the spark plugs and which wire was going where.
Cassidy's voice was an unwelcome interruption. Buddy grimaced at the Ford's engine, then turned to see the administrator standing behind him, silhouetted in the garage doorway. "'Sup?"
"This came for you today, in the mail," Cassidy answered, stepping into the garage and holding out a plain brown envelope.
The writing on the envelope was Vanessa's. Everything that he'd been so successfully avoiding came crashing back and he suddenly felt faint. Why was she sending him a letter? Hadn't she made everything clear enough already?
"Buddy?" It was possibly the first time Cassidy had ever used his name; it made her sounded concerned. "You OK?"
He swallowed. "Fine," he lied. "Thanks." He waved a hand towards one of the workbenches. "Just stick it down there; I'll look at it later. It's not important."
Cassidy gave him a long, dissecting look, then shook her head. "If you say so." She set the envelope down where Buddy had indicated. "Y'know, if you want to talk---"
"I don't." Buddy turned back to the car and made a show of returning to work.
"All right," said Cassidy quietly. "If you say so."
Buddy listened to her retreating footsteps, waiting until he heard the door of the shop slam shut before turning his attention to the letter. Part of him was tempted to just toss it straight into the trash; she'd shown just how little she actually cared about him in the alley that night. Except that wasn't true. She'd stopped Mayhem from just shooting him; she could have told Mayhem where to find him, and she hadn't. She did care; she just didn't care enough. Maybe that was what hurt the most.
He should just pitch the letter into the trash. There was no point in pressing on the wound. Better to just forget about it - forget about her.
He picked up the envelope and went to throw it out. Then he stopped. Maybe it was going to explain. Maybe it was going to tell him that it hadn't been how it looked. Maybe---
Buddy flipped the envelope over and ripped it open. But there was no letter. No note. No words. No explanation.
Just the bracelet he'd bought for her.