Categories > Cartoons > M.A.S.K. > Estranged


by Clutch 0 reviews

With the world on the brink of World War III, MASK face a test of fire and Buddy faces a test of courage and loyalty...

Category: M.A.S.K. - Rating: PG-13 - Genres: Action/Adventure - Published: 2007-01-25 - Updated: 2007-01-25 - 6338 words

Disclaimer: Most of the characters belong to Kenner and a bunch of animation studios. All I own is the situation, plot, backstory and some of the minor characters.

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.

Story Note: This follows on from The Coming Storm and What It Takes. If you haven't read those, I strongly recommend you do as they sets up much of the back-story for this.

With many thanks to Nessa and Angel for editing, feedback and patient hand holding.



The service bell dinged.

Lying beneath a Toyota truck with his wrench upraised, ready to work on the exhaust system, Buddy groaned. Earl had gone down to see Moses Abrahams about a part order and Cassidy had taken the morning off to go to the dentist. That meant he was on his own and, worse, he was going to have to go and serve the customer.

God but he hated that part of the job.

Dumping the wrench on the ground, he slid out from beneath the truck in time to hear the customer call, "Anyone here?"

Buddy froze midway between sitting and standing. He knew that voice. It had been seared into his brain one night, four months ago, when he'd witnessed the murder of Mac Stevens. He now had a name to go with the voice, Bruno Sheppard, and the knowledge that Sheppard was likely to kill him the moment the thug laid eyes on him.


Buddy swallowed. Earl would probably understand if he didn't go out there and serve Sheppard. On the other hand, the gas station was supposed to be open and Sheppard had a record for theft and vandalism when he didn't get his way.

"Anyone home?" Sheppard was starting to sound annoyed.

Buddy sighed. He normally liked to have a disguise prepared in advance. But sometimes, you didn't get that luxury - and thankfully, Sheppard wasn't that smart. He finally stood up and pushed his cap back from his forehead, both liberally streaking his face with grease and making himself look a little hayseed. Then, mentally thanking Dusty for teaching him a proper Texan drawl, Buddy headed out of the garage with the swinging gait of a ranch hand.

"Yessir?" he called.

Sheppard, who had been on the point of heading into the shop, stopped at the door and turned to face Buddy. "Oh. So you are open," he rumbled, sounding annoyed and looking disappointed.

Buddy offered an apologetic grin. "Gee, sir, I'm sorry; I was just out back. What can I do for you?"

Sheppard grunted. "Fill 'er up."

"You got it, sir; right away!" Making a great show of getting down to work, Buddy trotted around the orange GTO and started to fill the car's tank up with gas. At the same time, he made a mental note of everything he could see about the car, from its registration tag - which was probably a fake - to the contents of the rear and passenger seats.

It looked very much as if Sheppard was travelling alone. There was just one kit bag slung across the rear seat while the passenger side of the car was a mess of fast food wrappers and empty soda cans. From the impatient set to the thug's shoulders, Buddy suspected he was antsy to reach his destination. And since he'd been asked to fill the tank right up, Buddy guessed that destination wasn't going to be Boulder this time.

The gas pump cut out, indicating the tank was full now.

"How much?" grunted Sheppard as Buddy hung up the gas hose. Buddy named the amount. Sheppard handed over the right number of bills, climbed back into the GTO and peeled away from the gas station, even as Buddy called, "Y'all come back now?"

Once he was sure Sheppard was out of sight, Buddy sagged in relief. God, but he hated improvisation.

"Was that who I think it was?" enquired an English voice from the workshop entrance.

Someone else might have been startled, but after four months of working at Boulder Hill Gas Station, Buddy was used to people suddenly appearing. It was all part and parcel of working at a gas station that was used as cover for the headquarters of a top-secret organisation. He smiled to himself and slowly turned to face the speaker. "Depends," he said. "If you think it was VENOM's evolutionary throwback, then the answer's yes."

The man in the workshop doorway, Alex Sector, smiled faintly. "Quite a risk you took, then; serving him."

Buddy shrugged as he walked back towards the workshop. "Earl's not here and Cassidy's got the morning off. Besides, Sheppard's only met me twice, once when it was dark and once when I was pretending to be Rax."

"All the same..." Alex trailed off.

Buddy sat back down on the board and prepared to slide back beneath the Toyota. "It isn't like I had much of a choice." He slid under the truck, picked up the wrench he'd been using and started to wrestle with the brackets holding the muffler in place.

"I wonder what he wanted," Alex mused.

"Gas," said Buddy dryly, glaring at the bracket.

"That wasn't what I meant."

"Sorry." He attacked the bracket and it finally began to loosen. "What do you want to know?"

"What can you tell me?"

The muffler came free of the rest of the exhaust system and Buddy slid out from beneath the truck. "Not a whole lot," he admitted. "I got the tag number, but---"

"But that's almost certainly going to be fake," Alex finished.

"Yeah." Buddy dropped the old muffler into the trash and picked up the new one, ready to fit it. "I don't think he's headed for Boulder, though."

"What makes you say that?"

Buddy smiled tightly as he slid back beneath the truck. "He was too antsy to get going again. Like he'd still got a long ass drive ahead of him." He started to fit the new muffler. "The amount of gas I sold him; you're looking at him doing at least another hundred miles."

"Hm." Alex sounded as though he was shaking his head. "Sometimes, good fortune proves to be entirely otherwise."

"You've been hanging out with Bruce too much," Buddy complained, tightening the bracket again. That provoked a chuckle. "Do you want me to do some digging?"

"Hm. It can't hurt, I suppose - though if you're right, and he wasn't heading for Boulder, would your sources know anything?"

Buddy slid back out from beneath the truck and offered Alex a shrug. "They might." He paused then, hesitantly, he asked, "Are you going to tell Matt?"

Alex had been on the point of turning towards the unassuming door at the back of the workshop that hid one of the entrances into MASK's secret headquarters. He now paused, his back to Buddy. "I don't know, Buddy, old chap. It seems so very little."

Buddy looked down at his hands. He knew full well what Alex actually meant. In the four months since Sarah's death Matt had been drifting, eaten up by a combination of grief and guilt. It was a combination Buddy knew all too well from his own troubles with Vanessa, except that he hadn't been left to brood for long. There had been too much going on at the time, and too many people making sure he was occupied.

The same couldn't be said for Matt.

"See what you can find out," said Alex decisively, reaching for the door. "We'll take it from there."

As the door closed behind Alex, Buddy slid back beneath the truck to finish off. He supposed Alex was right, but that didn't stop him from wondering.

Matt wanted to rub a hand over his face. He knew it was time to try and start again; he knew that Sarah would have kicked him in the rear for the mess he'd made of the last four months; he knew that Alex and Hondo were right. Unfortunately, knowing all of those things and actually acting on them were two different things, particularly when faced with the dissecting glare he was currently receiving.

Seated on the other side of his desk was a lady in her mid-fifties. She had her iron-grey hair scraped back in a tight, practical bun and her face was set in a heavy frown as if she were disappointed by anything and everything in life, and most especially by what she could see in Matt just now.

Vaguely, Matt wondered who was actually interviewing whom.

"Ms Simpson---"

"It's Mrs," she said sharply. "My husband died in 1991."

Matt actually found himself blushing. To try and regain some composure, he looked down at the resume the agency had supplied him with. "I'm sorry; Mrs Simpson. I understand, from your resume, you were an elementary school teacher?"

"That is correct."

"If you don't mind, I'm curious as to why you left that role."

"An understandable question. In part, it was because the school I was working at closed. I could have had the pick of any position in the district, but I chose to retire. I taught," she added, just a touch of pride coming into her voice, "for nearly thirty years at that school and had so many wonderful memories; I simply couldn't face beginning all over again at a new school, knowing that I couldn't be in that position for more than a handful of years. Besides," she finished, distain replacing the pride, "I don't hold with some of the new methods they're bringing in."

Matt could well imagine. "Have you ever worked with younger children? Pre-school children and kindergartners, for example?"

"I was the eldest of thirteen children, Mr Trakker," Mrs Simpson answered, just a hint of a smile on her face now. "I learned from a very young age just how to take care of a small child. You will also find that my last position was that of nanny to triplets who were aged eighteen months when I began. The Eisenburgs will be happy to give you references."

Matt didn't have to ask the Eisenburg family for references; it had been Jim Eisenburg who had recommended Clara Simpson to him several months ago. Jim had said, "She helped Margie so much when the triplets were babies; she can help you with Scott now." He hadn't acted on the recommendation at the time. He'd been too intent on clinging to Scott as if it were somehow a way to bring Sarah back. But it wasn't and reality was slowly reasserting itself.

"Mrs Simpson, you know why I'm looking for a nanny?"

"The agency told me you were a widower," Mrs Simpson replied. "I assume that you feel that you cannot cope, looking after your son alone."

"I can't," Matt admitted.

Mrs Simpson gave him another long, sharp glare, but her next words were surprisingly gentle. "Admitting you need help is not a bad thing, Mr Trakker."

"I know." Strangely, her kindness was more unsettling than her drill-sergeant demeanour. Matt swallowed. "It would be a live-in position; Scott will be two in a little over a month's time. The hours will also be a little irregular. I don't want to just hand him over to you, or to anyone, but---" Matt stopped.

"You're a business man," said Mrs Simpson in a tone of voice that implied that was some kind of crime. "I understand. Should you choose to hire me, we can come to an arrangement regarding that." She smiled again, properly this time, and all at once looked far less forbidding. "I am, however, glad to know you don't wish to lose touch with your son."

"I lost my wife; I'm not about to do the same thing with my son."


Vaguely, Matt wondered just who was interviewing who here. He paused and tried to regain his train of thought. "Perhaps, the next thing is for you to meet Scott?" he suggested.

"Excellent idea, Mr Trakker." Mrs Simpson got to her feet. "Shall we?"

Vanessa waited in the shadow of the boarded up storefront and scanned the passing traffic keenly. Where the hell was Bruno? The longer she was standing here, the more chance there was of someone recognising her. Of course, it had been her idea to meet Bruno in Boulder - she'd had some personal business to deal with and it was more convenient all ways round - but the fact remained, there was a danger of someone recognising her.

Or worse, someone spotting her and telling Buddy.

Vanessa shuddered at that thought. Considering what they were going to do, the last thing she wanted was to see Buddy. She didn't like the plan as it was; seeing Buddy would just ram that home and she wasn't sure she'd be able to go through with it.

Better to just avoid Buddy and get going.

Except that she couldn't, because Bruno was late.

Vanessa was just debating whether to find another way to get where she was supposed to be when the bright orange GTO that Bruno prided himself on turned the corner and pulled up to a halt just in front of her.

"Huh, uh, sorry," the thug mumbled as Vanessa glared at him. "Hadta get gas."

"Had to get gas," Vanessa repeated. "What the hell were you doing? Refining it?" She didn't bother waiting for a response, knowing the remark would fly right by Bruno, instead, she opened the door and stopped dead at the empty fast food wrappers littering the seat. "Bruno you're a slob."

Bruno smiled. "Thanks."

Vanessa groaned. Of course he'd take that as a compliment. "Well move them, you dumb jerk; I'm not sitting on top of greasy fry bags."

Hastily, Bruno did as she asked and shovelled the assorted garbage onto the back seat and Vanessa finally climbed into the GTO.

"So what kept you?" she persisted as Bruno pulled away from the pick up point.

"I told you; hadta get gas." Bruno shrugged.

"It took you forty minutes to get gas?" Vanessa asked, sceptically.

Bruno shrugged again and cut into the traffic, ignoring the angry honks behind them. "The place'd only got one attendant and he was out back," he said defensively. "Not like I had a whole bunch of choice, coming in through the canyon road."

Vanessa suddenly felt chilled. "You bought gas from Boulder Hill Gas Station?"

"What of it?"

God; Buddy'll probably think I sent Bruno there on purpose. Vanessa swallowed. "Everyone knows that place is the worst for service."

Bruno snorted. "That's their fault for hiring some dumb hick Texan."

Vanessa choked. She wasn't sure what was worse; Bruno's rank hypocrisy or the fact that she was almost positive she knew who the 'Texan' was. Yep; Buddy'll think it was something I did. She sighed. It could have been worse, she supposed; at least Bruno hadn't actually recognised Buddy. She was just going to have to try that much harder to make sure Bruno, and especially Rax, kept away from there.

Maybe Buddy would be sensible and lie low from now on.

"Any way," Bruno continued, oblivious of her discomfort. "I don't know what you're worried about. We'll be there before Mayhem gets antsy."

"We'd better," Vanessa warned.

Bruno sniggered. "Just relax and enjoy the ride, Red. We'll be there in plenty of time."

Vanessa closed her eyes and groaned softly. It was going to be a long hundred miles.

"We might as well close up," Cassidy observed as Buddy flipped idly through one of the elderly magazines in the waiting area.

Apart from Bruno and the Toyota, the gas station had been quieter than the average grave. Not long after returning from Moses Abrahams' place, Earl had decided they didn't need two mechanics on hand and had taken off for the day, leaving Buddy to handle anything that came up.

If it came up.

And it hadn't so far.

Buddy dropped the magazine, which was weeks old, back onto the table. "Yeah; it doesn't look---"

Before he could finish his sentence, a car pulled onto the garage's forecourt, ringing the service bell.

Cassidy snorted. "Ain't that always the way."

Buddy stood up. "You said it." He glanced out of the window and blinked. There weren't too many Ferrari owners in Boulder. "Might as well start closing up anyhow. We'll definitely---" But for the second time in as many minutes, Buddy stopped half way through his sentence.

Getting out of the Ferrari was Enzo diFontana.

"What?" asked Cassidy.

"I don't know, but I'm betting he's not here for a tune up." Buddy headed for the door.

"Is this going to be violent?" Cassidy called.

Buddy paused and offered her a sheepish smile. "Enzo's an old friend, Cassidy. It's gonna mean trouble, but not the kinda thing you need to call the cops for." Then he stepped out onto into the late-afternoon sunlight.

Enzo had walked across the forecourt and was sticking his head into the workshop, clearly looking for someone, as Buddy exited the shop.

Buddy smiled faintly. "Looking for me?" he called.

Enzo jumped and span round, an accusing look on his face. "Hawks I oughta---"

Buddy held his hands up in a placatory gesture. "I promised Cassidy this wasn't going to come to a fight."

Enzo grinned. "And it won't; but sneaking up on your old friend like that's a good way to become an ex-friend."

Buddy grinned and shrugged. "It's not often I get the chance." His smile faded. "What's up?"

"Should anything be up?" Enzo enquired, coming to lean against his car.

"You're here," said Buddy. "I know for a fact you aren't here to get a tune up; as if you'd trust me with your baby." And he waved his hand at the Ferrari.

"Maybe I've changed my mind about your skills."

Buddy snorted. "Only if the devil needs snowshoes."

Enzo held up his hands in a placatory gesture. "All right, yes. There is something up. Though," he added, "for the record, I would let you touch my baby - now you're a real mechanic as opposed to some kid who thought he was good with cars."

Buddy wasn't sure whether to be mildly offended or gratified by Enzo's words. "So what's wrong?"

Enzo looked around. "Are we alone right now?"

"Cassidy's in the shop," Buddy answered, inclining his head in that direction. "Other than that and passing wildlife, we're good."

After another glance left and right, as if to check they really were alone, Enzo asked, "Have you seen Vanessa?"

Buddy felt his heart give that little clench it always did whenever his adoptive sister's name came up. He shook his head. "Haven't seen her in four months and it wasn't exactly social then. Why?"

Enzo ducked his head, clearly avoiding Buddy's gaze. "Damn."

"OK; spill, Enzo. What's going on?"

The older man sighed deeply, his shoulders sagging. "I was kinda hoping she'da seen some sense by now." He looked up again. "You'd better tell the folks you're working with that something's gonna go down."

"Something?" Buddy echoed. "That's not a whole lot to go on."

"Straight goods, Buddy. I don't know exactly what's being planned. Vanessa was in town today and yesterday. She hooked up with a dumb lug---"

"Bruno Sheppard?" Buddy suggested.

"You know him?"

"Unfortunately." Buddy smiled briefly. "He's tried to kill me, twice."

Enzo blinked at that information. Then shrugged. "Anyway. They headed out and last I heard, they'd pulled into Colorado Springs."

"Colorado Springs?" Buddy echoed.

Enzo shrugged again. "Like I said, I don't know what they're planning, but grapevine says there's a couple of other members of the same bunch there too, possibly including Mayhem himself."

"They're meeting up."

"Whatever's gonna go down, it's gotta be something in or near Colorado Springs." Enzo shrugged a third time. "That'd be my guess." He hesitated a beat, then added, "I think Juan knows a bit more this time, but you know he don't exactly like to give me the time of day."

"Then I guess I'm heading for the Sundown when I get off work." Buddy folded his arms across his chest. "Thanks for the heads up, Enzo."

Enzo smiled faintly. "Any time, Buddy." He turned and opened his car door. "Oh, there was one other thing."

Buddy lifted an eyebrow. "Oh?"

"Linda was wondering if you'd like to stop by sometime, for dinner."

The unexpected invitation brought a grin to Buddy's face. "Sure. That'd be fun."

Enzo nodded and a couple of moments later, he drove away. Buddy watched as the bright red car rapidly disappeared around the bend, heading back into Boulder.

"What was that all about?" Cassidy asked from the shop doorway.

"A dinner invite." Buddy turned to face Cassidy and offered her a smile. "Like I said; Enzo's an old friend."

"And did he bring trouble?"

Buddy's smile faded. "Good question." He headed for the workshop. "If you want to head off, I can finish closing."

"Don't change the subject," Cassidy retorted. "Buddy, what's going on?"

Buddy paused at the workshop's doorway and looked back at her. "I don't know."

"You know, I think that scares me more than it should."

Buddy just turned and headed into the workshop. The faster he packed the tools away and got the place closed up for the evening the sooner he could be in the Sundown Bar and the quicker he could start putting some meat on the bare bones Enzo had given him.

Vanessa sat down in front of the mirror in her room and propped up the ID card she'd been given just in front of her. The girl in the picture was a few years older than she was, but that wasn't something that bothered her much. She'd once spent an entire day pretending to be a woman in her sixties and only Buddy'd been able to recognise her.

No, what bothered her was the fact that she had the ID card at all.

What she was going to do in twelve hours time.

Absently, Vanessa played with her hair, matching the strictly military hairstyle the girl in the ID photo was wearing.

Was she really going to go through with this? Could she really do it? Should she do it?

Life had been so much simpler back in Boulder.

"Smile," drawled Rax from the room's doorway. "It's gonna be perfect."

Vanessa glanced at him in the mirror. He was smirking. Fleetingly, she wondered where the kind smile he'd once shown her had gone. "You're sure about that?"

"Nothing's ever sure, babe, but that's half the fun." He stepped into the room. "Boss wants to know if you need anything else."

She looked back at the ID photograph. The girl had the olive skin tone and dark hair of an Italian heritage. "Hair dye."

"You'll have it," Rax promised. "You're gonna be perfect."

Matt stood in the doorway of the nursery and watched. Scott was lying, fast asleep, in his crib, one podgy arm wrapped around a tawny coloured teddy bear, the other flung out as if reaching for something.

"You're doing the right thing, Matt." The soft voice belonged to his mother-in-law, Carol Petty, who had been staying with him since Sarah's funeral.

"Am I?"

"Of course you are." Carol gently put her hand on his arm and tugged him away from the door. "Matt, you're not someone who sits back and does nothing---"

"I haven't been doing nothing," Matt cut in, frowning.

"You know what I mean, Matt," said Carol firmly, guiding him into the dining room. "You're someone who goes out and does 'things'. I know you can't tell me what those 'things' are, but I also know that those 'things' are things that make my life a little safe. My life, Scott's life - Sarah's life."

"I'm not employed by the DoD any more," he answered.

Carol favoured him with a look that suggested she didn't believe a single word of that statement, though all she said was, "I'll be heading home tomorrow."

Matt blinked. "As soon as that?"

She chuckled. "You don't think I've left Steve to muddle through by himself for long enough? You'll be fine, Matt. You said yourself that Mrs Simpson was perfect for the job, she's going to start on Monday; you don't need me to hold your hand over the weekend. Particularly," she added, "seeing as you've more or less been looking after Scott yourself anyway."

When she put it like that, Matt could see her point. "You know I don't think I said thanks---"

"You don't have to, Matt. I would have come to stay anyway; Scott is my grandson, after all. But," she added, "when you married Sarah, you became my son. And that means when you need help, all you need to do is ask."

Buddy pushed open the door of the Sundown Bar and stepped into the dim interior. This wasn't a place he liked to come. The bar itself was a low-class dive and the clientele were of dubious merit. But, it was the only place where certain elements of the Boulder underworld could be found. So, sometimes, visits were necessary.

Behind the bar, a bald man stood, polishing a glass. He scowled in Buddy's direction as the door closed, blocking out the last vestiges of sunlight.

"Hawks, you ain't welcome here."

"Easy Frank." Buddy held his hands out in a gesture of surrender. "I'm just lookin' for Juan. That's all."

"That's more'n enough," Frank growled. "You're underage and I don't like you."

"Then tell me where I can find Juan and I can get out of the way."

"Why should I?"

Buddy sighed. "Look, Frank, I know me being here pisses you the hell off and you know what? I wouldn't be here if I didn't need to see Juan. Now are you gonna tell me where that son of bitch is hiding his ass or---"

"Buddy, Buddy, Buddy, when will you figure out that Frank's just kiddin' wid ya?"

Out of the gloom a figure emerged. A tall, gangling man with long, greasy dark hair, a hooked nose and a face pockmarked and pitted by scars, Juan Gomez was not a man Buddy appreciated spending much time with. He was into various lines of business that even at the height of Buddy's wild days, Buddy hadn't wanted to touch. But, like Enzo, Juan had a wide web of contacts and an ability to weasel out information from even the tightest of security.

"You know," Juan continued, coming to lean on the bar right in front of Frank, "I kinda figured you'd be by."


"diFontana was sniffin' around here earlier," said Juan. "Figure he went and told you I knew something I wasn't tellin' and lookie here. Here you are. Right on schedule."

Buddy narrowed his eyes and glared at the mobster. "Cut the crap Juan. Do you know anything about what the hell my 'sister' is doing or don't you?"


Buddy lunged across the space between them and grabbed the older man by his lapels, driving him backwards into the edge of the bar. "I'm not in the mood, Juan," he snarled. "So either talk now or the cops might just get to hear about a little something that's waiting in one of your warehouses."

Juan blanched. "You wouldn't dare."

"Try me," Buddy retorted. "Now what do you know?"

Before Juan could say anything, Frank vaulted over the bar and grabbed Buddy by the shoulders, dragging him away from Juan. "I told you, Hawks; I don't like you. You're a punk and a trouble maker and I---"

"Frank, leave it," Juan ordered, fastidiously straightening his jacket. "Buddy's no trouble maker; just desperate for information." He snorted. "Though you won't be so keen when I tell you."

Buddy shrugged out of the burly barman's grip. "If you're gonna tell me Vanessa's hanging out with scum who make you look like Citizen of the Year, that's old news."

Juan sneered. "Insults won't get you what you want, Hawks. Play nice, or Frank really will cut loose on ya."

"All right; I'm listening."

Juan regarded his fingernails. "I got an order two weeks ago," he began. "Guy by the name of Nash Gorey wanted a set of valid military ID docs and the right Air Force uniforms for a party of six."

"What's that got to do with Vanessa?"

Juan smirked. "Gorey works for the same company Vanessa does. And the ID? Female."

"There," said Bruce. "It is done."

Alex looked up from his work and eyed his colleague with scepticism. "Are you sure this time?"

Bruce looked suitably sheepish. "Well, it is done bar the testing."

Alex smiled. "I see. We'll start the tests in the morning--- I say, a visitor?" He had good reason to ask. All three entrances to the underground headquarters for MASK were fitted with sensors to warn those working there whenever anyone entered and right now, the warning for the entry from the garage was buzzing.

"I thought," said Bruce meditatively, "that Buddy had already left."

"He had," said Alex grimly, standing up.

"It is an ill wind that blows in unexpected visitors," Bruce murmured, beginning to pack up his work for the day.

Alex ignored him and opened the lab doors, just in time to see Buddy sprint past. "Buddy? Old chap, what's wrong?"

Buddy skidded to a halt on the slippery floor and turned. "Duane," he gasped. "Need to speak to Duane. Now."

Alex felt a knot in his shoulders begin to develop. "Why?"

Buddy swallowed, clearly trying to regain his breath. "It's complicated."

Alex glanced at his watch. "And given that it's nearly eleven o'clock in the evening on the East Coast, I think it had better be."

"Short form: VENOM are in Colorado Springs; they have military ID and air force uniforms. What does that add up to for you?"

"Bad news," said Alex. "Do you know what they're planning?"

Buddy shook his head. "I can guess, but..." He shrugged.

"Why Duane?"

"Because he can get security tightened, right?"

Alex nodded slowly. "You think they're actually stupid enough to try hitting a military base?"

"I think they can do more than that," Buddy answered.

Duane slowly swilled the Scotch around his glass and stared thoughtfully into the amber liquid. Perhaps, if he stared hard enough, he might find the answers to his questions. Perhaps.

VENOM had been suspiciously quiet ever since the failed ransom attempt on Sarah Trakker and if there was one thing Duane had learned, the longer VENOM were quiet, the more outrageous their next stunt was.

He sipped the whiskey and frowned. It didn't help that Adams, Palmer and Grant were still stonewalling him on intelligence.

"Not a high priority my ass," he muttered. "They wouldn't find a high priority if it was stapled to their rears and they were handed maps."

He ought to head home, rather than sleeping in his office for the third night this week, but since Katherine had left, going home held no appeal. The place seemed cold and, above all, empty since her departure. And the couch here wasn't that uncomfortable.

He set the glass of Scotch down on the table and started to loosen off his tie. A few minutes more and he'd turn the light down and stretch out on the couch.

Then came the one sound he dreaded hearing above everything. The phone started to ring.

Duane groaned. At this time of night, it couldn't be good.

He stood up, crossed to his desk and pushed the speakerphone button. "Duane Kennedy."

"Duane, it's Alex Sector, in Colorado," came the unexpected answer. "Can you put this call on video?"

Duane picked up a remote from beside the phone, aimed it at the blank video screen in the corner of his office and turned it on. "There you go," he answered. Then he blinked as the picture feed from Colorado came in. Not only was Matt not present, standing beside Alex was comfortably his least favourite member of Matt's team. "Alex? What's going on?"

"Sorry to call you so late, Duane," Alex answered, "but Buddy's been doing a little intelligence gathering and he's found something he thinks you need to know now."

Duane just about restrained his groan. "Intelligence gathering?" he echoed. "And what do you mean 'he thinks I need to know'?"

The youth folded his arms across his chest and glared levelly at him. "You don't like me. I know that. Believe me, the feeling's mutual. So you can take it from me that I wouldn't be here if this wasn't important."

"Where is Matt in all this?" Duane asked, ignoring Buddy's declaration for the moment.

"Still on compassionate leave," Alex answered.

So this hadn't even been approved by Matt. Great. Duane didn't bother to restrain the roll of his eyes at that discovery. "It's late and I'm not in the mood for jokes, Hawks, so this had better be good."

"Bruno Sheppard came through town today," came the answer.

"And you've called me to tell me that?"

"No," Buddy shot back, "I've called to tell you where he was going, who he was going to meet up with and, probably, what they're gonna do."

Duane snorted. "You'll forgive my scepticism, but how do you know that?"

Buddy smiled coldly. "I have contacts."

"All right; I'm listening."

"VENOM are in Colorado Springs. It's a group that includes Bruno Sheppard, Nash Gorey and Vanessa Warfield." Duane heard the youth trip over that last name and just about bit back another snort. "Gorey's got military ID for a female Air Force captain and the uniforms for a six-person team."

"You don't seriously expect me to believe," Duane began, "that Miles Mayhem is going to try and get into a military base?"

"No, I don't," Buddy retorted. "Vanessa will."

For a full minute, Duane was speechless. "Excuse me?"

"You know the part that young Buddy here played in Sarah's rescue," said Alex.

Duane nodded unwillingly. The report of that affair had long since crossed his desk. "I fail to see what that's got to do with---"

"Who do you think taught me how to do that?" Buddy asked, cutting him off mid-sentence.

Duane blinked slowly. "You're saying Vanessa is as good a mimic as you are?"

"I'm saying she's better," said Buddy.

That gave Duane a moment's pause. As much as he disliked and mistrusted Buddy, he couldn't argue with the assessment from both Hondo McLean and Matt that Buddy had a great deal of talent at mimicry. That meant, by extension, if Buddy said someone else was as good or better, he was probably right. "You're sure about all this? The military ID, the uniforms?"

"About as sure as I can be without going to Colorado Springs and looking," Buddy answered.

Duane rubbed his finger across his moustache in an effort to try and conceal his discomfort. "All right," he said. "What do you think they're planning to do?"

"There are several Air Force bases in the Colorado Springs area," said Alex. "All with reasons for Mayhem's interest."

"Your contacts don't have any suggestions?" Duane asked, not quite managing to keep the sarcasm from his voice.

Buddy, for his part, glared. "I've told you everything I know."

"All right." Duane sighed. "I'll get onto the bases and tell them to be on the look out for anything suspicious. And god help you, Hawks, if I find out this has been a wild goose chase."

Buddy opened his mouth to reply, but Duane cut the connection. He really didn't need to hear any more from the youth. Besides, as much as he was dubious about the tip, he did have to call across to the DoD and register it. Maybe it was nothing, but with Mayhem, he couldn't take the chance.

The lights of the guard post loomed out of the darkness. Vanessa gripped the steering wheel of the stolen air force jeep a little bit tighter. This was going to be the test. Her uniform was right, her hair and make-up matched the picture on the ID card; the question was, would the guards buy it?

As she reached the barrier, she tried not to glance off into the darkness. She knew that somewhere, not far from the guard post, Mayhem and the others were lurking, aiming to use her arrival to cover their entry into the base. Looking for them would give the game away, but it was hard not to.

"Ma'am," said the guard on duty, approaching the jeep. "Would you mind coming into the post for a moment?"

Vanessa swallowed and hoped he wouldn't see the nervous gesture. "Is there a problem?"

The reply was unexpectedly sheepish. "Orders are we have to double check everyone; sorry, ma'am. I know you're coming back from leave, but---"

"But orders are orders." Vanessa mustered a smile. "Of course."

She got out of the jeep and followed him into the brightly lit hut where she discovered, to her surprise, that the guard was as young as she was. She'd expected him to be older.

"Did you have a good vacation, ma'am?" he asked, even has he held his hand out for her ID.

"Can't complain," Vanessa replied. She was going to have to be careful; the guard clearly knew the real owner of the ID.

He scanned the ID and then glanced at her. Vanessa felt her heart skip a beat. Then he smiled. "All right, Captain, welcome back." He handed back the ID card.

Vanessa smiled back. "Thank you."

"Just park in the usual place," he advised.

"Will do." Vanessa had no idea where the 'usual place' was, but guessed it would be easy enough to figure out.

She got back into the jeep and he raised the barrier, allowing her into the base. Stage one was complete.

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