Jason came around the turn that led to the entrance to the track and had to screech to halt. The entrance was blocked by more news trucks than he had ever seen in one place before.
All heads turned his way and before he knew it, his car was being swamped. Microphones were being thrust in through his open driver's window, practically cold cocking him. Some were even crawling up the hood. All were screaming at him.
Utter confusion wrapped around him as voices yelled 'Is it true?'
Jason hit the control for the window, raising it even as he put the car into reverse. One reporter's arm got caught in the window. Jason pushed it and his microphone out. He hit the gas before any of them got behind him to block him in.
Once back at his trailer, he called the track to find out what was going on. He was immediately transferred to his manager.
"It's Laurel Cantrell," Bob told him. Jason shook his head. The lead reporter for the Center City Gazette had been dogging him ever since he'd started racing.
"What's her problem this time?" he asked. "Is she still trying to blame me for every illegitimate kid on the planet?" he quipped.
"Are you sitting down?" Bob asked. A nagging concern suddenly blossomed in Jason's chest.
"She says she has proof you're the Condor of G-Force."
Jason nearly dropped his cell. It felt like someone had kicked him in the gut. He couldn’t even find enough breath to speak.
“Jason?” Bob’s voice was laced with worry. “You still there, buddy?”
“Uh, yeah,” Jason managed to force out before clearing his throat. The Chief was going to kill him. “What’s she saying?”
He started to rack his brain, going through every time he’d seen or talked to her. What had they discussed besides her constantly trying to make him look like a dog? He had no idea what she had against him.
“It was the Luck Rock Race that you won,” Bob said. “You left as soon as it was over. You didn’t even go to the winner’s circle. I told her you had developed one of your migraines during the race and only won so you could speed things up to get out of there.” Bob chuckled, but there wasn’t a lot of humor in it. “She said she followed you.”
Luck Rock Race? Good God! Jason fell into the chair at the tiny dinette. That was the race he had been in when the team was called out. He had disobeyed orders to complete and win the race. The one where he had been attacked on his way to the rendezvous point by the Spectrans with the detransmuting ray.
If she had followed him…The Chief wasn’t going to outright kill him. He was going to fillet him first, then rub salt into the wounds, then kill him. How was he going to get out of this mess?
“She says she has pictures.” Bob went on. Pictures? Jason lowered his head to the table. The Chief would be adding roasting him to a crisp before killing him. “I haven’t seen them to know what she’s got. She said she’s going to reveal them at the Press Conference.”
“What press conference?” Jason sucked in a deep breath as he raised his head, barely fighting the urge to throw up.
“She’s got one set up for tomorrow at thee PM. I suggest you stay as far away from it and the track until this blows over.”
It’s never going to blow over, Jason thought as he thanked Bob and ended the call. He buried his face in his hands. At least Bob hadn’t asked him if it was true.
What the hell was he going to do?
As he sat numbly waiting for some brilliant solution to pop into his head, there was a knock on the trailer door.
Jason froze, all of his senses going on alert. He was sure no one had followed him, but he hadn’t moved the trailer in months, although he was supposed to every few weeks to keep its location more secret. Just another thing for the Chief to add to the killing list.
It couldn’t be Spectra – they didn’t knock. He had a sudden rush of fear for who it might be.
He inched over to the small window to serendipitously look out. A bright red 5 series BMW was parked behind his Nissan. He didn’t recognize it.
“Come on, Jason. I know you’re in there!” a female voice called, a voice that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on edge.
Laurel Cantrell. The reporter bitch from hell.
Jason’s shoulders sagged. He could take her out into the wilderness, get her so lost some bear would eat her so she’d never be found, but then he’d probably get blamed for her disappearance.
He could ignore her, but had a feeling she would do something even more stupid than announcing to the world he was the Condor.
Barely resisting the urge to take out his Desert Eagle to simply shoot her and call up an ISO clean-up crew, he went to the door.
He opened it to give her his most glaring Condor stare, hoping she would follow Spectran protocol: piss her pants, mumble incoherently and either run for her life or simply pass out in terror.
Instead, she smiled her flame red Cheshire cat smile, her green eyes twinkling with smugness as she cocked her hip, her snug red form-fitting mini dress riding dangerously high on her thighs.
“I missed you at the track,” she said as if they were best friends. Jason had to shove his anger down. She had no idea just how close she was to dying a bloody, violent death.
“What. Do. You. Want?” Jason ground out each word through gritted teeth.
“An exclusive,” she purred, brushing her long, bleach blonde hair over her shoulder.
“An exclusive what?” Jason decided to play dumb: he wanted to see the pictures she claimed to have before deciding on a course of action. He could be getting upset for absolutely nothing. Spectra had tried to get pictures of the team out of uniform before, but had only managed to get all of them from the waist down as they jumped out of the way.
“Come on, Jason. You know as well as I do what my exclusive is.” She batted her ridiculously enhanced long eyelashes at him.
He crossed his arms over his chest. “Enlighten me,” he requested.
“We both know you’re the Condor.”
Now it was his turn to smirk. “Prove it.”
She sighed dramatically, pulling her purse close to reach into it. Jason watched her closely, ready to move fast depending on what she pulled out. What she pulled out was a handful of pictures. She extended them to him.
“I have the digital hidden just in case you decide to destroy these,” she threatened as he took them.
Jason flipped through the pictures, his heart starting to race. Each picture was time and date stamped by the camera.
She had pictures of his car taking the ‘first snake’ turn on route 15. The next picture of the other side of the turn showed the G-2, not his car. He’d had no idea he was being followed. When she came around the ‘second snake’ turn, it was to find the G-2 surrounded by Spectran vehicles, including the vehicle carrying the detransmuting ray weapon. She had shots of his confrontation in Birdstyle with the goons, of the ray hitting the G-2, with his car suddenly there instead.
He held his breath as he looked at the last few pictures, then felt relief flood his system. She had no shot of him after he’d been hit by the ray and detransmuted.
“You’ve got nothing,” he told her as he handed the pictures back. “You could have photo shopped the shots of my car.” He shrugged. “But you do have great shots of the Condor facing off Spectran troopers.”
Laurel’s eyes bugged and her mouth gaped open. Jason was about to comment that she looked ugly when she was mad, but didn’t get the chance. She punched the flat of her hand into his chest to drive him back into the trailer, almost knocking the wind out of him she was so forceful. She followed him in, slamming the trailer door behind her with such force, the whole trailer shook.
“How dare you!” she shrieked. It wasn’t bad enough that the center of his chest was radiating pain; now his ears were ready to plead for mercy. “I am a professional reporter! I would ever lower myself to that level--”
“You created that picture,” Jason accused, trying to turn the tables on her by becoming the accuser.
“And I suppose you have an explanation for this, too,” she said, pulling out another picture from her purse, thrusting it at him. Jason tensed. Was this the coup de grace? Did she really have a shot of him transmuting?
It was a picture of him sitting in the car prior to the race, helmet on. “That helmet even mimics the Condor’s helmet,” she muttered with indignation.
Jason suddenly wanted to laugh with relief.
On that one she had a point – the helmet had been designed to mimic the Condor helmet, but not by him.
“That helmet’s a joke from my main sponsor,” he told her, which was the truth. “You know, Sierra Outfitters out in California? Their mascot is the California Condor so Rich Masters, their CEO, thought it would be a hoot if I wore a helmet like the G-Force Condor.”
The Chief had actually had a fit about it until Mark pointed out even Spectra wouldn’t think the G-Force Condor would wear a version of his own helmet in a race, if he really was, in fact, a race car driver as many thought. It would be too obvious. It would be like throwing him into the Lion’s Den.
Jason used the same logic Mark had to calm the Chief on Laurel Cantrell, but it wasn’t working.
“That still doesn’t explain how your car replaced the Condor’s car,” she insisted stubbornly. “And we both know this was not photo shopped!”
Jason took a deep, calming breath, deciding to take a different tactic.
“What did I ever do to you to make you go to this extreme?” he asked, trying to put a wounded look on his face. “You’re constantly criticizing me about my driving, about my racing team and sponsors. You even criticize who I date. What are you, jealous?” When he saw the look on her face, he went on. “Are you trying to get back at me for Dubai?”
He had first met her at the Dubai Rally three years earlier. They’d had drinks and the drinks had led them to her hotel room, but nothing had happened because Mark had interrupted them claiming a family emergency to disguise why he really had to leave.
The next time they met, he had avoided her, denying questions from other reporters who had also been in Dubai about their ‘relationship’. Many had seen them leave the bar together. He’d denied any relationship. She’d been trying to drag him through the mud ever since, apparently targeting him with her wrath at being ignored.
“Contrary to popular belief, I’m not a hound. I don’t screw every woman I meet.” He threw some real indignation in. It was a rumor that he was actually getting very sick of. “But its reporters like you who keep throwing it out there. You get pictures of me talking to a woman, but never ask me if I initiated the contact. Half the women you have pictures of me with are fangirls I had to drive off before I got accused of being a pedophile.”
She didn’t say anything. She stared at him for a long time. Had he changed her mind?
“And I suppose you can explain away the fact the Condor has a cleft chin and so do you?” she asked with renewed smug.
How could she know that? His and Mark’s visors’ beak were angled to specifically cover up that identifying feature. Only those he was in specific close contact with would be able to catch a glimpse of his chin to identify the Condor had a cleft chin. Ninety-nine percent of those who’d had such a chance were Spectran and were dead.
“Lots of guys have cleft chins,” he countered, his mind racing again to figure out how she could have gotten that close to him in Birdstyle to notice.
Her smugness flipped to anger again. She actually stamped her foot like a petulant child. “You can’t just explain away everything as a coincidence!”
“I think I have,” he countered, crossing his arms over his chest. Where the hell had she seen him?
Something suddenly registered with his peripheral hearing as she started into a tirade. It was a sound he was very familiar with.
“Shut up,” he said, straining his enhanced hearing to confirm the sound, but she kept right on going. “I said shut up!” he barked in command. She stared at him as if he’d slapped her.
Jason clapped his hand over her mouth as he yanked her down, his mind confirming the sound was that of an attack helicopter, just before the trailer became riddled with bullets.
Training took over. Jason covered Laurel’s body with his own when they hit the floor. She was screaming at the top of her lungs as bullets slammed through the trailer, shattering the two kitchenette cabinets into splinters, breaking the few dishes he had, shattering the window. Next they hit the table, the chairs, sending more debris onto them.
Laurel’s screaming turned to blubbering that absolutely disgusted Jason.
“Shut up, you big baby!” he yelled at her over the cacophony of the shots as scenarios ran through his head at top speed.
He could change to Birdstyle, use the trap door to get out of the trailer to take out the goons, but then she would have the proof she needed he was the Condor. Then she’d have to spend the rest of the war, if not her life, in the confines of the Galaxy Security prison’s most secure location. Her disappearance would be noticed and he’d probably get blamed for it.
If he did nothing but cower with her, their fate would be sealed. The goons would get tired of turning the trailer into Swiss cheese. They’d break in to take them prisoner. Once Zoltar realized Laurel couldn’t produce the Condor for him, he’d probably have them both executed. Then the Chief would have to figure out a way to explain the disappearance of the Condor. No doubt fingers would point back to Jason Anderson, since the Condor’s disappeared the same time he died.
He was caught between a rock and a hard place. In the meantime, what little he owned that was in the trailer was being destroyed.
Now he was really mad.
“Did the thought ever cross that pea sized brain of yours Spectra would take your claim seriously enough to come and try to kill me?” he yelled into her face. “I think its just poetic justice you’re here to die, too!”
Laurel squeezed her eyes closed, her hands over her ears as she let out a wail that could have been heard as far away as Riga.
All of the stuffing was flying out of his pillow and mattress as bullets turned them into confetti. It was a no win situation.
Suddenly there were yells and more gunfire, but little of it was now hitting the trailer. Jason could hear grunts, clangs and curses. Then it was quiet.
Jason’s ears were ringing from the gunfire, so he waited to make sure he hadn’t gone deaf. Laurel was whimpering and shaking under him.
He heard the creak of the wooden steps he’d made to the door as someone stepped up onto them.
“Anderson, you in there?” a voice shouted. It took Jason a moment to realize he recognized the voice. He didn’t let it show on his face. “You better be alive considering I had to bust ass to get over here when we heard the news report.”
Laurel was stirring, pulling her hands back from her ears. She slowly lifted her head. “Wha…what happened?” she asked.
“Come on, Anderson! If I let the goons kill you, I’ll never live it down!”
Jason slowly rose to his feet. Dust was floating in the air, making him cough. He waved it out of his face as he approached the door to open it.
Standing on the stoop in the rain that Jason hadn’t even noticed was falling was the Condor.
Jason couldn’t hide his shock. How had the team known he was in trouble? How had Mark gotten into his Birdstyle? Mark was two inches shorter, but the Birdstyle was fitting him like a glove. That was good because Laurel was rousing, getting up her hands and knees, her short dress gathered at an indecent location. It was obvious she wasn’t wearing any kind of slip. She looked their way warily and then gasped, twisting round in shock to fall on her butt, giving them an even more indecent view.
“Move,” Mark ordered, pushing him back so he could step in. He dripped on the tile floor.
Mark looked past Jason to sneer at the woman. He’d been wise enough to darken the violet visor to hide a good deal of his face. They didn’t need for Laurel to realize he didn’t have a cleft chin.
“Don’t tell me,” he drawled in a very Condor-like manner. “This is the bitch reporter?”
Jason swallowed hard. The only time he’d ever heard Mark say the word ‘bitch’ was in reference to Zoltar’s sister, Mala. He was playing the Condor rather well.
He was grateful for Mark’s intervention, but could he fool Laurel into really believing he was the Condor rather than Jason?
Laurel could only stare, her mouth hanging open. Mark cocked his head, pulling a shuriken from the sheath hidden in the small of the back of the Birdstyle to chew on it. There were plenty of pictures of the Condor in the media doing just that.
“Did the thought cross your bleached blonde brain cells that your article would catch Spectra’s notice? That they’d come after you for your proof?” he asked, leaning back against what was left of the kitchenette sink. When she continued to just stare, he snorted. “You’re pitiful. Maybe I should have just given you to them.”
That perked her up. She got to her knees, fixing her skirt, using what was left of the furniture to get to her feet.
“I…I have pictures…” She was looking around for them.
Mark gave him a half amused look that said ‘Oh, do you owe me’.
“Of what? Selfies?” he asked with mock hope.
“Of Jason and his…your…” She glanced over her shoulder at him, at a loss for words. That alone should have been funny, since she was a reporter, but somehow it wasn’t.
“She has pictures of me running into your Spectran party after the Luck Rock Race,” Jason supplied, trying to speed things up to get her out of the way so they could get a clean-up crew in before anyone decided to investigate the weird noises the fight had created.
“Luck Rock?” Mark asked with a frown and then nodded in sudden recognition. “Oh yeah. I was having some fun with the goons when you came tearing around the corner, almost hitting us. Freaked them out.” He chuckled.
“Freaked me out, too” Jason added deadpan, just wishing for the day to end.
“But my pictures…” Laurel was bent over, picking the scattered pictures from the floor, giving them another indecent view of her shapely bottom. Once she had all of them, she straightened.
“Let me see.” Mark grabbed them out of her hand to look through them. Jason wanted to groan. It couldn’t get much worse.
Jason waited as Mark looked through the pictures Laurel had taken. He didn’t make any comments; Jason wasn’t sure if that was good or bad. Mark finally looked up.
“You’re lucky to be alive,” he told her. “If those Spectrans goons had noticed you, you’d have been the pin-up in their locker room. Literally.”
“So you’re telling me-”
“You followed Anderson right into our stake out.” Mark shoved the pictures into a compartment on his belt, then crossed his arms over his chest. “I’m not going to tell you anything else. You don’t have a security clearance.”
“But-” He cut her off with a slash of his hand.
“You’re going to go to that press conference of yours this afternoon to tell them you made a mistake,” he ordered in his usual command tone. She started to sputter, but he cut her off again. “Anderson and I will be there to prove it.”
She finally stopped sputtering to glare at him. “If I do that, it’ll ruin my career!” she spat.
Now Jason glared at her. “You were perfectly willing to ruin mine!” he snapped.
“Enough!” Mark barked at both of them. “I could care less about your career, Ms. Cantrell. Reporters aren’t my favorite people. You don’t have a choice in the matter. If you don’t cooperate, I’ll arrest you for interfering in a Galaxy Security investigation by taking unauthorized pictures of me during a Spectran altercation and for slander against Mr. Anderson, or we keep things as they stand so you can be Spectran cannon fodder.” She was sputtering again, her hands fisted at her sides. “Or for your own protection, you can spend the rest of the war in a cell at the new Alcatraz.”
Her eyes nearly popped out of her head. Jason wanted to laugh but suspected once she was gone, Mark was going to have words for him.
“Now be a good little reporter and go write your new speech.” Mark started to shoo her towards the open door. “Don’t trip over the bodies and sorry about the bullet holes in your car. Maybe next time you’ll be wise enough to stay out of the line of fire.” He practically pushed her out the door into the rain, then closed the door.
Jason waited until he heard a car start and the telltale sound of tires crunching over gravel before looking at Mark.
“How’d you know I was in trouble?” he asked, falling into his destroyed couch, getting a jab in the butt from an exposed spring. He shifted position with a grimace.
“I didn’t.” Mark leaned back against what was left of the kitchenette’s two foot by two foot counter, crossing his arms over his chest. “We were alerted to Cantrell’s claim and impending press conference. We brainstormed and decided I’d show up at the press conference in your Birdstyle to shake things up, but I needed to talk to you to find out what proof she had so I could argue against it.” He pointed a finger at Jason. “You’re just lucky.” Then Mark smiled evilly. “But your luck won’t last. The Chief is pissed and I mean pissed. When he finds out it was the incident with that race that she witnessed…” Mark made a face. “Don’t be surprised if the Chief restricts you to base for the rest of the war.”
Jason groaned, covering his face with his hands. “This sucks. I don’t know why she hates me so much, but she’s succeeding in making my life Hell.”
“It could be worse.” Mark’s evil grin was back. “The headlines could say you married her.” Jason slowly pulled his hands away to give Mark a scathing look. “You’re covered in dust. I suggest you find a working shower and change for the press conference. I’ll see you there.”
Mark pushed off the counter, his action making part of it fall away.
Jason watched him go, wondering if any of his clothes had survived to wear. He looked about, seeing nothing but destruction. He sneered. That bitch was going to pay. He could sue her for defamation. That was it! He’d make her pay.
With that brighter thought, he started going through what was left.