Vanessa's return to town can't be good, but even in his worst nightmares, Buddy didn't imagine it could be this bad... [Sequel to The Coming Storm]
With many thanks to Ganeris, Nessa, Beth and Angel for editing, feedback and patient hand holding. Extra thanks to Jonath for specific help with one particular scene - I couldn't have done it without you; thank you!
What It Takes
When Buddy arrived at the briefing room, slightly breathless from having run the length of the hallway, he found that Matt, Alex, Bruce and a large black man who Buddy had never met before were already there. For just a moment, he wondered if this had been some kind of drill - and if it had been, had he failed it? - but then he saw the expressions on the faces of the others and he felt the bottom of his stomach drop.
"What's happened?" he asked.
"Better take a seat, Buddy," said Alex quietly, gesturing to one of the empty seats at the table.
Buddy sat, now fearing the worst. Was it Vanessa? Had she done something?
"At about half past five this afternoon," began Matt quietly, "I got a telephone call. The caller was female - I don't recognise her voice." He paused. "I'm guessing you will, Buddy."
Then, before Buddy could say anything, Matt pushed the play back button on the voice recorder on the table.
"Yes; who is this?"
"We have your wife and son. Our demands are simple. You give us five million dollars, you get them back. Do anything else and you will never see them alive again. You have six hours to decide."
The click of the recorder being switched off echoed in the briefing room and Buddy suddenly found himself the focus of attention.
"Is it her?" asked Alex. "Is it Vanessa?"
Reluctantly, Buddy nodded. "It's her."
"How sure are you?" the black man asked.
Buddy looked at him. "I've known her 'most all my life; I'm sure."
The black man smiled faintly and made a placatory gesture with his hands. "It's OK, kid; but we need to be totally sure it's VENOM before we jump in with both feet."
"Then be sure," Buddy retorted. "It's Vanessa."
"Is this to do with MASK?" Bruce asked. "Or is it something else?"
"Something else, I'd say," said Alex.
"Mayhem and I have history," said Matt. "He also figures me for an easy target."
The black man snorted. "He never did know you well."
Matt shrugged. "He knows me well enough, Hondo." He rubbed his face with his hands. "The way he'll see it, I have two choices. I can go to the cops with what I know or I can pay up, and he's going to be betting I won't risk the cops."
"You can't be seriously thinking paying him off!" The black man, Hondo, sounded incredulous.
"That's just it, Hondo old chap," said Alex. "Although Vanessa didn't come out and say it, the threat is obvious: If Matthew takes this matter to the police, Sarah and Scott are as good as dead."
"But that's where option three comes in," Hondo answered, "the option that Mayhem doesn't know you've got, Matt." Hondo grinned wolfishly. "Us."
There was a long pause. Then Matt finally nodded. "Yeah. That's option three."
"Do we know where they are being held?" Bruce enquired.
"Well we know where VENOM are based," said Buddy quietly.
"That's a pretty good place to start," Hondo mused.
"If they're there," said Alex. "I hate to be a wet blanket, but---"
"This is Miles Mayhem we're talking," Hondo cut in. "Even if Matt pays, you don't really think that he's just going to let Sarah and Scott go?"
Alex grimaced. "No," he agreed. "I don't. I also don't think that storming Mayhem's base of operations is going to get us any further forward."
"I'm not going to do anything that would jeopardise Sarah and Scott's lives," said Matt quietly. As much as option three is tempting, it won't work, Hondo."
Hondo snarled in general frustration. "Then why have you got us here?"
Matt mustered a faint smile. "I'm kinda hoping we can come up with a fourth way."
"There are more ways of storming a castle than by knocking on its front door," Bruce observed.
There was a moment of stunned silence, then Hondo said, "Is it me or did that just make no sense?"
"Nope," said Buddy, "it's not just you."
To Buddy's surprise, though, Matt actually cracked a faint smile. "Bruce just means that attacking doesn't always have to mean a full frontal assault. Right, Bruce?"
Bruce nodded. "Exactly so."
Buddy wondered why Bruce hadn't just simply said that.
"What are you suggesting?" Alex asked.
Bruce didn't answer directly. Instead he turned to look straight at Buddy. "You know the VENOM base?"
Buddy shrugged a little. "I know where it is and I know what it's like inside." At the bemused looks from Alex and Hondo, he added sheepishly, "I slept there a coupla times. Before VENOM took it over."
Matt looked as if he was revising an already low opinion of the children's home; Hondo's eyebrows seemed to have reached his hairline, while Alex simply shook his head. Buddy shrugged awkwardly. At least Bruce didn't seem to be passing judgement.
"Then," Bruce continued, "is there a way to gain entry other than the front door?"
Buddy nodded. "Loading dock out back. The yard's overlooked but full of junk, and the dock itself's blind. Unless they've done anything to the yard to secure it, it oughta be easy enough to get someone across it."
Hondo shook his head. "Mayhem's smart. He won't have left us a nice little back door to sneak in through. At the very least, he's gonna have someone guarding the dock."
"But why should he?" argued Alex. "He knows Matthew won't do anything to risk Sarah and Scott getting hurt and even if Matthew was prepared to try a rescue on his own, as far as Mayhem knows, Matthew has no clue where the base is."
"I'll give you that," said Hondo, nodding, "but this is Miles 'paranoid is my middle name' Mayhem we're talking about."
"We could stage a distraction," Bruce suggested. "Something that would pull the guard away from the loading dock."
Matt shook his head. "Too risky. Too much chance of Mayhem deciding to push up the schedule."
"And there is the danger that Mayhem is holding Sarah and Scott somewhere else," said Alex.
"Guard or no guard, I can get in." Once again, Buddy found himself the subject of everyone's gaze.
"Is this some other entrance you know about?" Alex asked.
Buddy shook his head. "Nope; it's through the loading dock."
"But we've just agreed there's gonna be some kind of security measures there," said Hondo. "No offence, kid, but what makes you think that you can get round them, and a guard? Without knowing what the measures are, I sure as shit couldn't, and I've had ten years in the US special forces."
Buddy smiled. "Buddy Hawks can't," he agreed. "Sly Rax can."
For several seconds, no-one said anything.
"What?" said Alex.
"Who?" said Bruce.
"How?" said Hondo.
All three questions came at once and in varying tones of confusion. It was left to Matt to manage a coherent question: "What do you mean, Buddy?"
Buddy took a deep breath. "I can impersonate Sly Rax. I can get into the VENOM base without getting caught."
"What do you mean by impersonate?" Alex asked sceptically.
In response, Buddy slouched in his seat to mimic Rax's lazy posture and drawled, "I mean I can be him so good even his own mother wouldn't tell."
Alex's jaw hinged open. "My God that is uncanny," he mumbled. "And disconcerting."
"Yeah; cut that out!" Hondo begged. "You've made your point, kid."
Buddy grinned and straightened in his seat. "Sorry," he offered, speaking in his natural voice again.
Matt shook his head. "Don't be, Buddy. That's quite some talent."
"How long can you keep it up?" Hondo asked.
Buddy shrugged. "As long as we need."
"Then," said Bruce, "perhaps we have a plan?"
Matt nodded. "It's got a few holes, but we can fill them."
Buddy slowly pushed to his feet. "If we're gonna do this, if I'm gonna do this, I need to get ready."
"What do you need?" Hondo asked.
"Just some hair dye," Buddy answered, grinning faintly. "I have everything else."
Matt looked amused. "Should I ask?"
Buddy thought about Vanessa's insistence over the make-up kit and shook his head. "It's a long story."
From Matt's expression, Buddy judged the older man had probably figured that long story out, though all he said was, "All right; let's get to work. Buddy, we'll meet you back at the mansion."
Buddy nodded. "You got it."
The hair dye proved to be harder to find than Buddy had hoped. The nearest drug store only carried permanent dyes, and the last thing he wanted was to be stuck with black hair until it had grown out. The next couple he tried had already closed for the evening, but just when he was beginning to think he was completely out of luck, He found a branch of Rite Aide that was not only open, but that carried a wide variety of hair dyes, including a couple of shelves of different colour rinses. That was more like it.
Buddy grabbed a couple of packets of black and a couple of packets that were a shade somewhere close to his natural colour as a precaution, just in case the black didn't quite wash out as the instructions promised. Sure as heck don't want to raise any questions tomorrow, he decided as he made his way to the counter.
The girl at the counter lifted a curious eyebrow at the four packets of hair dye, but didn't make a comment. Buddy simply shrugged, handed over the money and started back to the mansion.
As he drove, Buddy carefully went over every meeting he'd ever had with Rax. The voice and the posture were easy enough, but it was the little details that could trip him up. Never thought I'd ever wish for a photo of Rax, he mused as he pulled into the mansion's drive. Despite that lack, though, he was reasonably sure he had most of the relevant details down. The hardest part would be Rax's tendency to wear stubble. He'd always claimed it was a goatee beard, though Buddy had never been convinced. He shook his head as he climbed out of Firecracker. He'd have cross that bridge as he came to it.
Glancing at his watch, Buddy noted it was almost seven o'clock. The deadline for Matt's decision was just over four hours away. He swallowed. Just over four hours left. There was no time left to waste worrying about it; he just had to get on and do it. With that thought uppermost in his mind, he jogged up from the parking garage to his apartment.
He'd already looked at the colour rinse instructions when he'd picked them up in Rite Aid; he now double-checked them as he hastily shed his workday clothes. Use like shampoo. Wait five minutes. Rinse clear. It was easy enough. Picking up the two black packets, Buddy headed into the bathroom and dumped them onto the counter, then climbed into the shower. Before he even thought about using the colour rinse, he needed to make sure he'd washed off as much of the oil and gas fumes as he could.
Buddy was just finishing the final rinse process when there was a knock on the apartment door.
"It's open," he called.
"How's it going?" Hondo answered.
Buddy blinked. He'd expected his visitor to be Matt. "About half done," he replied. "Give me a second."
He finished rinsing his hair and roughly towelled it dry, then, wrapping a second towel around his waist, he padded out of the bathroom and pulled out a pair of jeans that Vanessa had picked out for him on their joint shopping expedition. They were one of the few items of clothing he'd bought that day that he hadn't worn since, in large part because they felt as if they'd been spray painted on. Vanessa had insisted they'd looked good, though, and had snuck them back into the pile of clothing to be bought when he hadn't been looking.
He now thanked his stars she'd done that. They weren't his style, but they were Rax to perfection.
He pulled them on and pitched the towel in the direction of the bathroom then, collecting the makeup kit and his comb, he headed into the apartment's main room, where Hondo had made himself comfortable in one of the armchairs.
"Jesus!" Hondo exclaimed. "That's creepy."
Buddy grinned. "You ain't seen nothing yet." He set the makeup kit and comb down on the desk and turned back to the bedroom. "So what's the plan?"
Hondo's voice followed him: "How soon can you be ready?"
"Half an hour or so."
"Good. Plan is, you and me are gonna go to VENOM's hideout as soon as you're ready. Matt wasn't hot on the idea of you going alone. He figured some backup was a good idea."
Buddy pulled on a dark coloured t-shirt. "Backup's good."
"Meantime, Alex and Bruce are figuring out some kind of distraction, in case it's needed."
Grabbing a small shaving mirror from the bathroom, Buddy headed back to the living area. "What's Matt gonna do?"
"Wait here," Hondo replied. "We figured VENOM would smell a rat if he wasn't here the next time they called."
"I guess." Buddy sat down at the desk and positioned the mirror so that he could easily see what he was doing. "That's gotta hurt, though." He combed his hair, slicking most of it straight back but leaving enough to form a fringe.
"Yeah," Hondo agreed. "But he trusts you, and me."
From one of the desk drawers, Buddy extracted a pair of scissors and trimmed the ends of the fringe until they were no longer in his eyes. "That's kinda scary."
"You get used to it, kid." Hondo paused. "That ain't gonna be straight when your hair dries."
"That's the idea." Buddy grinned. "Trust me."
"OK." Hondo shrugged. "I guess you know what you're doing."
Satisfied with his efforts, he turned his attention to the make up kit. From it he extracted the bottle of spirit gum, the scar wax and the basic foundation. He pinched off a small piece of wax and shaped it into a thin, lengthy scar. Once that was ready, he applied the foundation makeup to his face, covering up the various minor blemishes that he'd acquired, and then painted a narrow strip of spirit gum down the left hand side of his face. He brushed the back of the wax piece with spirit gum and fixed the scar to his face.
"Evil looking scar," Hondo observed.
"Rax's face met a window," Buddy answered, brushing down the edges of the ersatz scar with more spirit gum. "Fifty-fifty about which got off worst."
Hondo winced. "Messy."
"Yeah." Buddy put the spirit gum and wax back into the kit and took out the face powder and a brush. "He was kinda lucky."
"Vanessa and I were with him and got him to the ER." Buddy lightly dabbed the edges of the fake scar with powder, blending them in better. "Sorta wish I hadn't bothered now."
Hondo made no comment.
Putting the powder and brush back, Buddy removed the black cake makeup and a wire sponge. Catching Hondo's startled look in the mirror, Buddy said, "Rax wears stubble." He dabbed the sponge onto the makeup and then applied it to his throat and chin. "If I'd know about this when I got up---" He stopped. "Shit, if I'd known what they were planning, I'd have stopped Sarah from going into town."
"Youda had to beat Matt to it," said Hondo.
"Yeah." Buddy looked at himself in the mirror. Rax stared back in all but expression - Rax never looked quite this worried or nervous. He swallowed and schooled his expression into something that matched Rax's normal sneer, then turned to face Hondo. "Ready when you are."
Hondo pursed his lips in a silent whistle. "Yeah, I'd say you are." He shook his head and smiled predatorily. "All right, kid; let's go ruin Miles Mayhem's day."
Buddy parked Firecracker a couple of blocks away from the office building VENOM were using as their base.
"Kid, you drive like my grandma," Hondo observed, amused.
"So I drive slow." Buddy shrugged. "Beats arriving in pieces."
Hondo tipped his head back and laughed. "TouchÃ©."
"Besides, Firecracker still needs some work. Right now, she's got a whole lotta quirks."
"Guess it's true, huh?"
Buddy turned a puzzled gaze on Hondo. "What is?"
"Mechanics never get round to fixing their own cars."
Buddy rolled his eyes. "You wanna walk?" Wisely, Hondo didn't answer that. Instead, he reached for his bag and opened it. Curiosity got the better of Buddy. "What's in there?"
Hondo pulled out a weird helmet-thing and exhibited it to Buddy. "Backup," he said.
Buddy looked at it for a moment. "Backup's normally a gun."
Hondo grinned wolfishly. "Trust me, kid, this is better than a gun." He pulled the thing on. "Ready?"
Buddy sighed. It was worrying, he decided, that he seemed to be the sanest person he knew. "As I'll ever be."
"You'll be fine, kid," Hondo answered. "C'mon."
Buddy climbed out of Firecracker and followed Hondo through the shadowed streets to an alley way just opposite the entry to the vehicle yard of the VENOM base. From there, they had a good view across to the loading dock.
"No guard," Hondo murmured. "That's good. There's so much junk in that yard though. Wait---" Hondo paused. "There's someone coming out of the building."
Buddy looked and a slow smile spread across his face. "Whaddya know."
Rax vaulted down from the loading dock and started out across the vehicle yard, cursing Vanessa and Mayhem blind. Why was he the one who had to get supplies? Surely it should have been Vanessa's job as the newest member of the team; instead, in two short weeks, she'd become Mayhem's favourite who could do no wrong. Rax curled his lip in disgust. Bitch, he decided. She'll learn her place though, if I have to teach her it myself.
He started to plan just exactly how he was going to teach Vanessa the lesson she needed and became wrapped up in his thoughts. So much so that when another Rax stepped out of an alley way just beyond the entry to the vehicle yard, it took him several seconds to comprehend what he was seeing.
"Hi," said the other Rax.
Rax stared, disconcerted. Not only did the other Rax look like him; he sounded like him too. "What is this? Some kinda joke?"
The other Rax smirked. "No joke; you're just gonna take a nice little sleep. Right about--- Now."
Rax opened his mouth to argue the point, only to feel something solid hitting the back of his head. There was a brief moment of pain, then everything went dark and weird doppelgangers ceased to be his problem.
"Guess that's what you call a happy accident," Hondo murmured.
"Not for him," Buddy answered, an unfriendly grin on his face. He crouched over the felled Rax and started to undo the biker's boots. "Give me a hand a second."
"What are you doing?" Hondo asked.
"Completing the disguise," Buddy answered. "And probably pissing him off too, but that's just a bonus."
"You don't like him a whole bunch," Hondo observed.
Buddy snorted. "Not much." He tugged the boots off, removed his own ratty sneakers and pulled the stolen boots on in their place. "Now the jacket."
Hondo helped him to remove the jacket. "What do you want me to do with him?"
Buddy shrugged into the jacket. "Don't suppose you'd figure dropping him in the river was a good plan?" Despite the fact that Buddy couldn't see Hondo's eyes behind the helmet-thing, he got the impression the black man was rolling his eyes. "Thought not."
"There a police station down here?" Hondo asked.
Buddy shook his head. "Nearest one's six blocks north of here."
"Then I'll figure something out. You'd better get goin' kid." Hondo hesitated. "Good luck."
Buddy smiled. "Thanks."
He took a deep breath and set out for the loading dock, taking care to emulate Rax's lazy swagger. This was the first challenge: Would he trigger any security devices? In amongst the junk, he saw the flashing red diodes that indicated working security cameras, but nothing else indicated he'd even been seen and he reached the dock without any problem.
That was the first hurdle crossed. He vaulted up onto the dock and made his way into the building. Not far from the entry he ran across the first of the VENOM operatives staffing the base, but she took no notice of him. Inwardly, at least, Buddy smiled. Good. That meant she'd bought it. Feeling a little more confident, he continued into the building.
If I was Mayhem, where would I keep two prisoners? Buddy wondered. Probably nowhere it'd be easy to get to. Given Scott's lively personality, too, Buddy also doubted it would be anywhere that passers by might be able to hear the child's cries. He felt his heart sink. That surely meant one of the upper levels, but he knew he couldn't bank on that. Mayhem might not care about passers by overhearing and could well be arrogant enough to figure Matt wouldn't try to find some way of freeing his wife and child.
Guess that means I'm gonna have to look all round this place until I find them. Buddy wanted to grimace at the prospect, but Rax would have no reason to scowl.
And then things took a turn for the worse: Buddy rounded a corner and found himself face to face with Vanessa. The one person in the whole building who might just recognise him anyway. Oh crap.
"What too you so long, Rax?" Vanessa demanded. "We had some unfinished business."
And before Buddy could do or say anything, she had grabbed him by the lapels of his jacket, had driven him up against the wall and had started to kiss him.
TO BE CONTINUED