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: 2007-03-20 - Updated: 2007-03-20 - 5637 words



The distant buzzing sound was what pulled Duane out of an uneasy sleep. It took him a few moments to recall where he was, namely his office, and a few moments more before he was awake enough to recognise that the buzzing sound was his pager going off. That realisation had him upright and off the couch in a second. He didn't need to look at his watch to know that it was early, which meant something big had happened - and if he was being paged, whatever it was couldn't be good.

Duane picked up the electronic device from his desk, where he'd dumped it the night before, checked the number and felt his fear crystallised in his stomach. Definitely not good: The number belonged to President Strauch's chief of staff, Elizabeth Bennington.

He picked up the phone and dialled her number. He wasn't surprised when the call was answered barely a second later by an efficient female voice: "Chief of Staff's office."

"Elizabeth? You wanted me?"

"Duane? Where are you?" In those four words, the efficiency melted away, leaving her sounding so agitated that for a moment, Duane almost didn't recognise her voice. Elizabeth Bennington was never anything other cool, calm and collected.

"In my office," Duane answered, resting a hip against the desk. "What's going on?"

"The President needs to see you, Duane; now, if not sooner."

"I'll be there in five minutes."

"Make that a short five minutes."

The line went dead as Elizabeth hung up. Duane, for his part, dropped his receiver back onto its cradle and rubbed his face. He had a feeling this was going to be the start of a very, very bad day.

Buddy lay in bed and stared up at the ceiling. It was nearly twenty after five in the morning, he would be getting up in less than two hours, and yet here he was; wide awake.

What was Vanessa doing in Colorado Springs?

The question had been buzzing around his mind all night and he was still no nearer an answer. He couldn't believe she'd be dumb enough to help Mayhem get into an Air Force base, no matter what he'd said to Duane. The trouble was, he couldn't think of another plausible suggestion.

Not for the first time, Buddy wished he could wrap his hands around Rax's throat and squeeze, hard. The biker had a lot to answer for - fraud, murder, brainwashing, kidnapping...the list seemed endless. Someday, Buddy promised himself, he was going to pay Rax back for everything. Someday.

He rolled over, onto his stomach and buried his head in his pillows. As tempting as thoughts of revenge against Rax were, they weren't going to help him sleep - and that was what he really needed just then.

Maybe he'd get lucky and the day ahead would be as dull and quiet as the day before.

Quietly, Matt slipped out of the side door and into the darkness. The early morning cold easily bit through his flimsy running gear and he supposed he ought to be thankful that at least there was no snow on the ground.

He started off on his run. Since he was going to be getting back to business, it made sense to get back in shape, and he'd always found running a lap or two good for that. The darkness didn't bother him; he knew the path well and even though it had probably been nearer six months since his last run, it seemed as if his feet still remembered the course. It was also surprisingly therapeutic. Just for a time, at least, there was just him and the sound of his feet hitting the ground.

As Matt passed along the terrace at the back of the mansion, he noticed a light on in one of the upper rooms. A moment of quick thought told him it was one of Buddy's rooms. That was a realisation that made him shake his head and smile ruefully. Sarah would have probably told him that Buddy was working too hard again. The trouble was, it took someone like Sarah to see that kind of thing.

Well he was just going to have to try and do his best.

Resolved to have a word with Buddy later, Matt turned and headed into the main gardens. He wouldn't do the whole lap today, just along the back of the tennis court and back to the house, just to ease back into it.

No sense in getting injured by pushing to far too fast.

From the way Elizabeth wrinkled her nose in general disgust, Duane got the feeling she wasn't all that impressed with how he looked as he walked in through the door.

"You look like hell," she hissed, falling into step with him.

"Get here quick, or look civilised. Pick one," Duane retorted.

Elizabeth made no comment, but her look said it all.

Duane chose to ignore her. "So what is going on? You didn't say a great deal over the phone."

"Short form: The shit's hit the fan in a big way," she replied, pushing a door open and ushering Duane through. "As soon as the President gets off the phone with Prime Minister Trench, you'll get a full briefing."

Duane blinked. "Is the---" But he couldn't finish his question as Elizabeth ushered him into the Oval Office.

The President was, as Elizabeth had said, on the phone, but even as Duane entered the room, President Strauch said, "Believe me, Prime Minister, we're working on this with all available resources and from every possible angle."

That seemed to be the end of the conversation, and President Strauch put his phone receiver down.

"You wanted to see me, Mr President?" Duane began.

Strauch looked up. "It's not a case of 'want', so much as 'need', Duane. We have a major crisis on our hands and by we, I don't just mean the United States, I mean the whole damn world."

Duane felt the fear in his gut turn to ice. "Something's happened; in Colorado," he said softly.

Strauch blinked slowly. "Something all right," he agreed. "At seven o'clock, Eastern Standard Time, the Pentagon lost contact with Command Control at Cheyenne Mountain. At ten after seven, Eastern, the ransom demand came in."

"From VENOM?" Duane asked.

Again, Strauch blinked slowly. "Ye-es." He shook his head. "OK; Grant had no idea there was anything in the wind. Palmer was also caught napping. How in the blue hell do you know about this?"

There was an unspoken question there: Why did you do nothing and let this happen? Duane took a moment to order his thoughts. "You remember Matt Trakker?" Strauch nodded. "Well one of his task force members uncovered something yesterday. It was vague and unspecific, but it centred on Colorado Springs. I got the heads up at eleven o'clock last night. To be perfectly truthful, I didn't put a great deal of stock in the information, but I phoned it through to General Tucker's office and requested that base security be tightened, pending further information."

"And did Tucker's office do that?"

Duane was half way through the shrug before it occurred to him it probably wasn't protocol to shrug at the President. On the other hand, this was clearly a situation that went well beyond the demands of protocol. "I don't know, sir."

Strauch waved the comment off. "Not a fair question, Duane; I know you have no way of knowing the answer to that." He leaned forwards, until his elbows were resting on his desk. "Their demands are, on the face of it, simple: Pay them off or they'll nuke Washington. Except that it's not just Washington they've set their sights on. They're aiming missiles at London, Paris, Moscow and Beijing. As you might imagine, the leaders of those countries are not happy. The most reasonable of the bunch is Prime Minister Trench - and he was really pretty creative with his description of how American military security looks right now."

Duane had met the British Prime Minister on the latter's last visit to the US. He could well imagine how the forthright statesman would have put matters.

"We need to do something and we need to be doing it now," Strauch continued. "The trouble is, Cheyenne Mountain was designed to be impregnable. We can't even smoke them out. I've already asked General Vasquez for a plan from Special Forces; but neither he nor I can see how a Special Forces strike can end up as anything other than a blood bath for all sides. So if you have any other ideas, now would be the time to air them."

"Trakker's task force," Duane replied, without hesitation. "This is what they've been assembled for; this is what they're trained for and they've got the added advantage that they're based in Boulder which is only a hundred miles away from Colorado Springs."

Strauch ran his fingers through his hair. "The team's complete?"

"As near as makes no odds. They've been technically operational for the past four months, although with VENOM having been quiet in that time, they haven't really had much to do."

For a response, Strauch pushed a button on his phone. A moment later and Elizabeth reappeared. "Liz, I need you to arrange the fastest transport to get Duane to Boulder. And this needs to be done quietly." Strauch smiled faintly. "I don't want to give Mayhem any more information than I have to."

"Yes, Mr President." Elizabeth departed again.

Strauch pushed the phone across the desk. "Call Trakker. Let's get this under way."

Matt climbed the hill slowly, heading back towards the mansion. His lungs were burning, he had a stitch and several of his muscles were complaining, but it was a good set of aches. A few more sessions like this and he'd probably be back to his best.

He reached the terrace and glanced up. Buddy's light was off again, which made Matt smile faintly. Maybe Buddy hadn't been burning the midnight oil, after all. There was, however, a light on in one of the ground floor rooms; the one that he used as an office.

Suddenly, the aches and pains he'd picked up during the run seemed secondary. If there was a light on in the office, his work phone line had rung. And if that had happened at five of six in the morning, it probably meant it was someone in Washington.

And that couldn't mean anything good.

Ignoring his aches and tiredness, Matt picked up his pace once more and reached the door, just as it swung open. Carol was standing in the doorway, her bathrobe pulled tightly around her.

"I saw you coming," she murmured.


Carol hesitated a beat. "Duane Kennedy's just called."

Matt entered the house, closing the door behind him. "Did he leave a message?"

"He's going to call back in five minutes." But pat on Carol's words came the sound of the telephone ringing.

Without saying anything, Matt hurried through to his office and picked up the phone. "Duane?"

"Matt; thank God."

"What's going on?"

There was a long pause. "I need you to assemble your team."

Matt closed his eyes. "Why?"

"Too long to explain and I have a helicopter standing by to take me to Andrews Air Force Base. I'm going to be in Boulder by nine thirty, Mountain; I'll give you a full briefing then. Just---" Duane paused again. "Tell Hawks he was right."

There was a click and the line went dead. Matt opened his eyes again. Carol was standing in the office doorway, regarding him with a mixture of curiosity and concern.

"Should I be worried?" she asked.

"Probably," Matt answered, putting the receiver down.

"Do you need me to stay?"

Duane had been vague but the sheer fact that he hadn't waited for 'office hours' to call and the fact that he was coming to give the briefing in person told Matt this wasn't going to be something Scott should be around. "Please."

"All right." Carol nodded. "I'll go and put the coffee on."

Matt smiled faintly. "Thanks, Carol." As she left the office doorway, Matt turned back to the phone. Time to call in a couple of reinforcements.

Hondo lay in bed, his head buried beneath his pillow, trying to muffle out the sound of the ringing telephone. When that didn't work, he thrust one arm out of bed, lifted the receiver up and dropped it back onto its cradle. He didn't need to know the time to know it was far too early for anyone to be calling him, particularly seeing as this was his one day off from his job at the university and therefore he didn't actually have to be awake any time before noon.

"That could be important," his wife pointed out.

Hondo just grunted. "If it was important---"

The phone started to ring again.

"---they'll ring back," he finished, groaning. He stuck his arm out of bed again and picked up the receiver. "This had better be good," he grumbled.

"It's Matt," came the answer. "And it's not good at all."

The serious tone in his friend's voice cut through the sleep still fogging Hondo's brain. "Matt?" He rolled over and struggled into a sitting position. "What's up? And what time is it, any way?"

"It's a quarter after six," Matt replied. "As for what's up, Duane wasn't saying."

That cleared the rest of the fog from Hondo's brain. "What do you need?"

"What you specialise in. Tactics. Ours - and theirs."

Hondo swung his legs out of bed. "Where?"

"Just up at the mansion; for now. Duane'll be here at nine-thirty to give us the full briefing." Matt sounded grim.

Hondo swallowed. "I'll be there in twenty minutes." He hung up the receiver and stood up.

"Something wrong?" his wife asked.

Hondo paused in the bathroom doorway and looked back at her. "I don't know."

"And you couldn't tell me if you did," she realised. She shook her head. "I guess this means you won't be painting the kitchen today?"

Hondo just entered the bathroom and closed the door behind him. If Duane was coming for the briefing, whatever it was had to be about as bad as it could get.

Vanessa entered the control room, grateful to be out of the Air Force uniform and back into her VENOM one. For one thing, it meant her expression was now hidden by Whip, which meant no-one else was going to suspect just how disturbed she was by this whole thing.

The first thing her gaze fell on was the far corner, where the command staff had been corralled together, under the guard of Rax. One of them, a lieutenant to judge by his rank insignia, was pinned to the wall by a series of small stiletto darts that Rax had fired at him when the lieutenant had tried to be a hero. It was his predicament - and Rax's chilling promise that the next person to try anything would end up pinned to the wall through their heart - that was keeping the rest of the staff silent and compliant more than Rax's actual presence.

Then Vanessa found her gaze being drawn to Gorey, who was frantically hammering away at the keyboard. She couldn't begin to guess what he was doing, seeing as the base was already locked down and secured against reprisals, with Sheppard and Dagger standing watch at either end of the main entry tunnel. A moment later, as a map of the world flashed up on the computer screen that dominated one side of the command centre, complete with red dots indicating their prospective targets, Vanessa had her answer.

"All targets logged and locked, Mayhem," Gorey reported.

"Good," Mayhem answered. "Twenty-four hours, and if they haven't paid, those targets become smoking ruins."

Vanessa shuddered.

Alex waved as he watched Hondo parking his car in Matt's parking garage.

"Good morning, Hondo old chap," he called.

Hondo just offered him a sour look. "You're disgustingly cheerful."

"Part of my charm," Alex answered. "Do you know what Matthew's called us here to discuss?"

The ex-special forces operative shrugged his shoulders. "I figure Mayhem's finally made his move."

They started to climb the steps that led from the garage to the mansion proper. "That would seem to be logical," Alex agreed. "I suppose the question is, what move is it?"

Hondo just grunted.

Matt was waiting for them at the top of the stairs. He looked freshly showered but his smile was strained. "Thanks for coming."

"Just so's you know, Lydia's pretty pissed at you right now," Hondo warned. "I was supposed to be painting the kitchen."

Matt ushered them towards his office. "For what it's worth, I'm sorry, but---"

"But this is what we signed on for, when we agreed to be part of MASK," Alex completed.

Matt spread his hands in a wide shrug and led them into the office.

"So what's going on?" Hondo asked.

"I'm not sure," Matt answered. "And Duane didn't have the time to fill me in before he left DC."

"Whatever it is, it can't be good if Duane's calling you before breakfast," Hondo observed.

"No," Matt agreed.

Alex felt acid beginning to bubble unpleasantly in the pit of his stomach as he recalled his conversation with Duane the previous day. "You say Duane is coming here to give us a briefing?" At Matt's answering nod, Alex swallowed. It was the one thing he hadn't let himself think on the way over to the mansion. "Buddy was right; wasn't he?"

Matt leaned against his desk and folded his arms. "Duane's exact words were 'Tell Hawks he was right'. My question is, right about what?"

With very little to do, except sit and wait, Vanessa found herself taking up a seat in the command centre not far from where the hostages were being kept. Idly, she noted that they weren't all Americans, which surprised her. She recognised the maple leaf insignia as being Canadian, but the other uniforms were unfamiliar and she vaguely wondered what the other countries represented were.

As Vanessa's gaze reached the prisoner closest to her, a young woman wearing the rank of captain from the US Air Force, one of the other prisoners, a tousle-headed blond man in one of the unfamiliar uniforms looked up at her.

"They won't let you get away with this," he said laconically, announcing his nationality as Australian. "They can't."

"And what can they do to us in here?" Rax drawled.

The man shrugged. "They'll find a way and then you can kiss your sweet little deal good bye. Of course," he added, "you could always have a backup plan."

"Malloy, shut your damn mouth," snarled the imprisoned lieutenant.

Malloy just looked over his shoulder at the lieutenant. "And you're gonna make me how?"

"Who needs a backup plan," sneered Rax.

"Having one never hurts," Vanessa retorted, joining the conversation for the first time. To the mop-headed Malloy, she simply said, "I'm listening."

"A woman of intelligence. I like that in someone who's just taken me hostage." Malloy's grin was lascivious. "There's an emergency exit---"

"Malloy, shut up; that's an order," snapped the lieutenant, straining against the stilettos holding him in place.

Feigning casual disinterest, Vanessa took aim at the lieutenant and said, "Whip - on." The electric whip arced out from her mask and wrapped itself around the lieutenant's neck. "Now," she said, "how about you take your own advice, or I shut you up, permanently."

For a second, she wondered if he'd call her bluff. Then he swallowed and nodded as best he could.

"Good." She muttered the 'off' command and the electric whip dissipated. The lieutenant swallowed, hard. "Malloy; you were saying?"

Malloy chuckled. "You realise, I'll have to come with you now? One word from jerkface over there and I'm looking at a real nice long stay in one of your prisons."

"If your plan's any good, you've got yourself a deal."

"Oh, it's good," said Malloy. "It's damn good."

Matt wanted to hit something in general frustration. "So what you're saying is it could be any one out of four bases in the Colorado Springs area."

"You can rule one of them out," said Hondo. "There's nothing at the Air Force academy that would interest Mayhem."

"That still leaves Peterson, Falcon and Cheyenne Mountain," Matt pointed out. "Each one of them would be a good target."

Alex frowned, then shook his head. "For Mayhem to be so bold, he has to have decided he has a good chance of succeeding. Hondo, which of those bases would be the easiest to defend?"

Hondo flashed a brief smile. "You do remember I was in the army, right?"

"I do, old boy, but as our resident military expert---"

"I know." Hondo sighed. "I don't know much about Falcon. That's still kinda new. Peterson, though, isn't too contained or easily defended by a small team. Too much open space and runways."

"That leaves Cheyenne Mountain," Matt finished.

"That's the one I'd pick," said Hondo with a shrug. "It's inside a mountain. You can't get much more self-contained."

Matt ran his fingers through his hair and shook his head. "That sounds like our best candidate but, until Duane gets here, we won't know for sure." He rubbed his face. What to do next? "All right. Here's what I think we need to do to be ready for Duane. Hondo, could you let Buddy know we're going to need the vehicles?"

"You got it," Hondo agreed. He headed for the office door. "Are you heading over to the command centre?"

Matt nodded briefly. "Yeah."

"All right; I'll meet you over there." And with that, Hondo vanished.

Matt turned to Alex. "How is your project doing?"

Alex smiled faintly. "We should be ready for testing."

Matt pushed away from his desk. "Good. 'Cause I get the feeling it's going to get a real test, real soon."

Buddy was just leaving the bathroom when the knocking started. Hastily pulling on his sweat pants, he called, "Just a minute!"

The knocking ceased and Buddy glanced at his clock. It was twenty after seven; under normal circumstances, his alarm would have only just gone off. Definitely too early for visitors. That meant there was something wrong. Even with that realisation, though, he was more than a little surprised to see Hondo standing outside the apartment when he opened the door.

"Sorry to wake you, kid," said Hondo.

Buddy shook his head. "I was up already." He paused, taking in Hondo's heavy-set frown. "What's going on?"

"We need you to go over Firecracker, Rhino, Condor and Thunderhawk," came the startling answer.

Buddy blinked. "Why?"

"Because we're gonna need 'em," said Hondo.

And Hondo's tone of voice suggested that probably didn't mean for just a road trip. Buddy swallowed. "I'm on it."

Hondo smiled faintly. "See you over at the base."

Hondo turned and headed down the stairs while Buddy headed back into the apartment, a sinking feeling in his gut: Did this mean VENOM had made their move in Colorado Springs? Vanessa, what have you done?

The plane wasn't Air Force One, Duane decided, but it was certainly a cut above a regular passenger plane. They'd been in the air for nearly two hours, he'd been able to wash, change his clothes and choke down something that resembled breakfast.

Not that he really felt like eating.

Elizabeth was sending him regular updates on the situation via the onboard fax machine and the situation was going from bad to worse. The last fax was the most chilling of the lot. Russia and China had both promised that if the situation wasn't dealt with inside of twelve hours, they would take matters into their own hands.

And all he could do was sit and wait for the next update.

Duane crumpled the fax into a little ball and tossed it in the direction of the garbage can. Couldn't this plane go any faster?

Bruce hummed softly to himself as he pulled into the vehicle bay of the Boulder Hill underground complex. Most of his mind was occupied by plotting a series of rigorous tests for the project he'd completed the day before. It was vital that the project was well tested; someone's life could depend on it.

As he parked, however, he noticed that there was something different about the vehicle bay this morning. For a few seconds, as he juggled an oversized cup of coffee, his notes and his car keys, he couldn't work out what it was; then it hit him: There was someone already in the bay. As if the clang of metal on metal wasn't a big enough clue, Bruce finally spotted a pair of feet sticking out from beneath the shapely bright red front end of Thunderhawk.

"Good morning?" he called.

There was a dull thump, then a curse, then Buddy appeared from beneath the car, rubbing his head. "I'm not sure it's all that good," he muttered.

Bruce smiled apologetically. "I am sorry; I did not realise you had not heard me arrive."

Buddy waved the apology off. "It's not that. There's something going on."

"Something?" Bruce echoed.

Buddy shrugged. "I don't know." He prepared to slide back under the Camaro. "All I know is, I've got to get everything checked over and as quickly as I can." He slid under the car. "Figure I'll see you later."

Disquieted, Bruce hurried into the main complex and along to his lab. Having spoken to Buddy, he was not surprised to find Alex was already there, and looking grim.

"We need to work quickly," Alex warned. "And pray that everything works as it should."

"What is wrong?" Bruce asked.

"At this point, we're not sure," Alex admitted, "so we're preparing for anything."

Bruce nodded. "In uncertain weather a wise man hopes for the best but assumes the worst." He set his coffee and notes down on the closest of the workbenches. "Where should we begin?"

"What have we got?" Hondo asked as the last sheet of paper finished feeding out of the command centre's printer.

"Building plans for the three bases," Matt answered. "I wish Duane had given us a hint as to which one it was," he added. "Without knowing which one, we've got to figure we need at least some thoughts about re-taking any of them."

"If it's as bad as we think, Duane probably couldn't say over an open line," Hondo pointed out. "Besides, the more I think about this, the less likely I think either Peterson or Falcon are. Think about it, Matt; if it was either of them that VENOM had taken over, why wouldn't they just send the Rangers in? Or Delta Force? Or, heck, even the SEALS, though I know they prefer ops that feature some water somewhere. They're the guys with the experience, and the numbers, to re-take an airbase."

Matt sighed as he started to spread out the pages that made up the Falcon Air Base plan. "I know. But---"

"But we have to figure out three plans anyway," Hondo finished. "I know." He leaned over and started to study the layout of Falcon Air Base. "This ain't gonna be easy."

"No," Matt agreed.

"How many agents can we field, maximum?"

For an answer, Matt turned to the computer and said, "How many active MASK agents are currently located within fifteen miles of this location?"

A moment later, the monotone computer voice came back: "Seven."

Hondo winced. "I was wrong. It's not just gonna be difficult, it's gonna be damn nearly impossible."

"I thought impossible was your trick - or was Bill Jenkins lying about how El-Haurian got retaken?"

"I hate to say this, Matt, but El-Haurian was part luck and part training."

"Then we'll just have to hope we get lucky," Matt answered. "Let's get down to work."

Thunderhawk hadn't required much more than a quick check over. Nor had Condor - the motorbike had only just completed its final batch of testing and been declared ready so it was just a case of double checking that Dusty hadn't shaken anything loose. That meant, so far as Buddy was concerned, he had much more time to go over Rhino.

The big rig, like Thunderhawk, had been designed and put together by Andy Trakker. Unlike Thunderhawk, it had been mothballed shortly after Andy's murder, four years earlier and part of Buddy wished it had stayed that way. His experience with diesel engines had been limited and his experience with rigs like Rhino had been nil.

When Rhino had refused to start up after being retrieved from storage, it had finally taken Earl - who had, in his younger days, worked as a mechanic for one of the long distance trucking firms based in Denver - and nearly two days punctuated by a wide variety of profanity before the big rig's engine was running right. And that had just been the start of the problems, from Buddy's point of view.

There had been a whole host of other issues he'd uncovered. Some were the result of four years of no use; some were places where the truck's construction had been incomplete; some were just flat out incomprehensible. The net result was that four and a half months on from its return from mothballs and Buddy was no fonder of working on Rhino, if rather more practiced. He kept promising himself that, when he had the time, he was going to completely gut the truck's main systems and start over, but the time was never available.

"Let's see what's broken today," he muttered, opening up the engine casing. "Maybe I'll get lucky."

He hauled himself up into the cab and tried the ignition. Nothing happened.

Buddy groaned. He hoped they weren't going to need Rhino in the next hour; it was probably going to take him that long to figure out which part of the starter sequence had failed this time.


Duane looked up from the most recent fax from Elizabeth, which detailed the last resort plan from General Vasquez, and found a member of the flight crew standing next to him. "Yes?"

The woman smiled. "I thought you'd appreciate knowing that we're on our final approach to Boulder Municipal Airport, and we've had confirmation that there's a car ready and waiting to take you where you need to go."

Duane mustered a smile. "Thank you."

She smiled again and took her own seat as the plane began its descent into Boulder.

As far as Duane was concerned, landing was always the worst bit of the flight and this one was no different. By the time he felt the plane touch down on the runway, he felt as if he'd been bounced around like a squash ball, but at least he had reached Boulder and the Third World War hadn't broken out. Yet.

He thanked the flight crew as he disembarked and headed rapidly across the small airport's tarmac to the waiting governmental limo.

"Where to?" the driver asked.

Duane debated for a moment. Where would Matt be right now? "Boulder Hill Gas Station," he said finally.

If the driver was remotely surprised by the destination, he didn't show it. Instead, he simply nodded and the moment Duane had taken his seat in the limo's passenger compartment, the final leg of his journey began.

Cassidy frowned heavily at the balance sheet. Somewhere on it, she'd mislaid two measly cents and unless she could spot the error quickly, she was going to have to redo all her totals. At the back of her mind, she was curious as to where Buddy was; it was a little after nine-thirty and she hadn't seen hide nor hair of him. It certainly wasn't like him to be this late in starting.

Then again, he had been acting strangely the night before.

Maybe he'd gotten himself into trouble again. She snorted. If that was the case, he'd probably got bigger problems than being late for work.

The shop door opened, jingling the bell in an annoyingly cheery fashion. Without bothering to look up from the balance sheet, she said, "How much?"

"I'm here to see Matt Trakker," came the answer.

Cassidy's head jerked up in surprise and found herself looking at a man dressed in an expensive, dark suit and wearing the air of someone who usually gets their own way. She snorted again. "He's not here," she said.

The man smiled faintly. "He'll want to see me."

"And I've just told you, he ain't here," Cassidy retorted. "I ain't seen him all morning and I've been here since eight o'clock."

There was more that Cassidy wanted to say, but before she could, the bell jangled again, heralding another arrival in the shop and Cassidy felt her mouth drop open as no lesser person than Matt himself walked through the open door.

The man in the suit, who'd turned to see who the new arrival was, greeted Matt with a smile. "Matt."

"Duane." Matt smiled.

The man in the suit, Duane, inclined his head in Cassidy's direction. "She doesn't know?"

"Not yet. And now's probably not the time."

"Don't mind me," Cassidy muttered, rolling her eyes.

"Sorry; I will explain later," Matt promised.

And before Cassidy could ask for any further clarification, both Matt and Duane exited the shop and headed in the direction of the workshop.

"Some days," she muttered, returning her attention to the balance sheet, "it just don't pay to get outta bed."

"How bad is it?" Matt asked as he led Duane into the MASK headquarters.

"Take whatever worst case you've come up with, multiply it by ten and add a few," Duane answered. "Mayhem's trying to provoke World War Three. And what's worse is he's nearly succeeded."
Sign up to rate and review this story