book2 Disclaimer- Max Steel does not... oh, heck, just go read the last part, okay?

Bookends
Chapter Two: Dread's Story


John Dread looked up, hearing a knock on the door of his study. "Enter," the terrorist responded lazily, already having a fairly good idea who it was. As he had guessed, it was Jean Mairot who entered, a file folder tucked under one arm.
"Ah, Jean," Dread greeted the double agent, gesturing to one of the chairs in front of his desk. "Please, sit down. Would you care for some Scotch?"
Mairot did as he was bid, settling the folder he carried on his knees. "Yes, thank you," the Frenchman replied, with an appreciative nod. Dread allowed himself a small smile as he poured two shots from the cut-glass decanter that rested on the desk. That was one of the many things he appreciated about Jean Mairot. Skilled operatives were valuable, of course, but a man who could appreciate good Scotch was a veritable treasure.
Silence reigned for a moment as the two men sipped at their Scotch. After a moment, Dread looked up inquisitively. "I assume you've brought information on N-Tek's newest addition?"
"Everything there is to find on Max Steel," Mairot assured him, "psychiatric evaluation included." Setting his shot glass on the desk, he handed the folder across to Dread.
Dread took the folder and flipped through it quickly, then again more slowly. Suddenly he raised an eyebrow. "McGrath?" he repeated. "Josh McGrath, Jefferson Smith's adopted son?" At Mairot's nod, he burst into laughter. "Ah, how rich! Smith must be having kittens, but it was only to be expected. After all, he IS a McGrath. Like father, like son."
Sipping from his shot glass, Mairot cocked his head. "I've heard the name Jim McGrath mentioned from time to time, but nothing specific."
That brought another smile from Dread. Another talent of Mairot's was asking questions without actually asking anything. Sometimes the subject didn't even realize he was being questioned. In this case, however, Mairot was simply avoiding seeming pushy.
"Well, it was before your time," Dread agreed. "Fifteen years ago, in fact. Of course, I'd known Jim for a while before that..."


"Well done, gentlemen." Marco Nathanson tried not to grin as he regarded the two agents standing in front of his desk, dripping on his carpet. Jim McGrath and Jefferson Smith were covered in one of the most noxious substances he'd seen over the seven years of N-Tek's operation, and that was saying quite a bit. Jim, as usual, was smiling broadly, in stark contrast to his partner's heavy scowl.
"You managed to stop Vostok, recover the chemicals, and probably saved a good number of lives. You're both to be congratulated."
Jim's smile widened. "Thank you, sir," he replied.
Beside him, Jeff nodded. "Not to be rude, sir, but if that's all, can we go get disinfected now?"
"Actually, there is one other thing... I assume you two have heard that Roger Standish, the Director of Operations, is retiring?"
"Yes, sir," Jim replied. "It's been all over the agency. Chuck won the pool, as usual."
Nathanson laughed. "Somehow, this does not surprise me. Well, with Roger leaving N-Tek, a suitable replacement needs to be found. This mission only confirms my previous decision. Jeff, I'm offering you the position, should you want it."
Smith's jaw dropped. "ME? But I'm only a field agent... don't jobs like that generally go to field commanders?"
"Under normal circumstances, yes. But your organizational skills and command abilities have been noted by several field commanders in the past. You have the abilities necessary for a leader, inspiring trust and confidence in others. In short, Jeff, you're far and away the best man for the position, rank aside. There are other qualified candidates, should you refuse the position... but you're my first choice."
Jim McGrath slugged his partner in the shoulder, ignoring the 'squish' of the slime-saturated jumpsuit. "Way to go, buddy. I always knew you'd make it big."
"I haven't taken the job yet, Jim," Jeff reminded his friend.
"But you're going to, right? Come on, this is the opportunity of a lifetime! Better pay, better perks, less getting shot at..."
"And the end of our partnership."
Turning to face his friend, Jim put his hands on Jeff's shoulders, looking straight into the other man's eyes. "Jeff, the only reason you ever became a field agent was to watch my butt. I've known that for a while. You hate getting shot at, you hate getting beat up, and you absolutely hate getting dunked in stuff like we're covered in now. Yeah, being your partner has been great, and I wouldn't trade it for anything, but I don't want you to be miserable. Besides, in the Director of Ops position you'll be able to watch my butt 24-7, and chew it when I get out of line."
That got a smile from Smith. "You know, McGrath, you have a point there... you sure about this?"
"I'll miss having you around, but better this way than you coming to absolutely hate the job... and me."
"All right, then."
Nathanson cleared his throat softly, simply to remind both men of his presence. It was rather flattering, he mused, that they both trusted him to the extent that they could half a private conversation in front of him.
"Well then, Jeff," the older man broke in, as the two agents turned to face him. "Shall I put in for a pay raise for you?"
Jeff nodded. "Yeah, Marco. You've got a deal."

"You wanted to see me, sir?"
Nathanson looked up from the paperwork on his desk to see Jim McGrath standing in the doorway, looking exhausted. The younger man's black hair was still damp and slicked to his head, indicating a recent and probably very rushed shower. That, in addition to the fresh uniform and Jim's exhausted posture, told Nathanson that it had definitely been one of those days for Jim.
Shaking his head at the poor timing of terrorists everywhere, Nathanson nodded, setting aside his pen. "As a matter of fact, I did, Jim. Come in, sit down before you fall over."
"No arguments here," Jim replied, sinking into one of the chairs in front of Nathanson's desk. "Where's Jeff? Isn't he usually on hand for a briefing?"
"This isn't a briefing, Jim. And Jefferson is currently at Del Oro Memorial hospital, which is why I called you in." The older man raised a hand to cut off Jim's startled exclamation.
"Calm down, Jim, he's not injured. Far from it, actually. About four hours ago, Molly called... apparently she's gone into labor. Since you were unavailable, Jeff volunteered to run her to the hospital."
Jim stared at his boss like a trout out of water. "Labor," he said, dazedly. "The baby's coming... I've got to get to the hospital!" He bounced out of his chair, only to be cut off as Nathanson rose as well.
"You're in no condition to drive right now, Jim," the older man informed him. "Come on, we'll take my car."
Marco Nathanson's one major expenditure of his CEO's salary was a 1965 Jaguar, candy-apple red. The car easily zoomed towards Del Oro Bay at speeds considered unsafe by most normal people. They slowed down somewhat while in the city, but still managed to reach the hospital in record time.
Jim set a land speed record up to the maternity ward, while Nathanson followed along in his wake at a more sedate pace. As a result, by the time he reached the appropriate area, Jim was already gowned, scrubbed, and had been escorted into the delivery room. Taking out the novel he'd brought, Nathanson settled down for a long wait.
Several hours later, a nurse came by. "Mr. Nathanson?"
"Yes?" he replied, sliding a bookmark between the pages as he did so.
"Mrs. McGrath and her son have been moved into a room," the petite blonde informed him. "Mr. McGrath asked that I come and get you."
Marco smiled, standing up. "Excellent. Lead the way, my dear."
For a woman who had just undergone the experience of childbirth, Molly McGrath seemed positively radiant, beaming down at the small bundle nestled in her arms. Jeff and Jim stood on either side of the bed, grinning fit to crack their faces. _It would be hard to guess from those smiles which one was actually the father,_ Nathanson thought, amused.
"Congratulations," the older man said lightly, moving to shake Jim's hand. "The nurse said you had a boy?"
Molly nodded. "Mmhmm. Joshua Andrew McGrath. Isn't he beautiful?" She handed the small, blanket-wrapped child to her husband's boss, who took him awkwardly.
Shifting his arms into a more secure position, Nathanson looked down at the rosy-cheeked, surprisingly blond baby, then up at the very black-haired parents.
"Believe it or not, Marco, there are blondes in both mine and Molly's families," Jim replied, grinning. "Besides, with the lungs he's got, there's no way he's anything but a McGrath." Molly smacked his leg lightly, but his grin didn't even flicker.
"A handsome child indeed," Marco agreed, meaning it. Wrapped in the bundle, baby Josh yawned and stretched, and then a pair of large blue eyes blinked open, staring directly into those of the man holding him.
"We figure the eyes'll turn brown as he gets older," Jim was saying, but Nathanson barely heard him. He was struck by a sense of dislocation staring into the vivid blue eyes of Jim's son. There was something... odd about those eyes, like a chill down his spine, a hint of mortality to come.
Shaking it off, he handed the baby back to his mother. "You have a lovely son, Molly," he told her. "I'm sure he'll make you both very proud."
Molly smiled. "Thank you, Mr. Nathanson. I'm sure he will, too."

"Why'd you do it, Marco?" The voice behind him was quiet, but the disillusionment, sadness, and anger in it were quite clear.
Marco Nathanson turned lazily towards the door, pulling his gun as he did so. As he had suspected, Jim McGrath stood behind him in the doorway to the mainframe center.
Nathanson shook his head. "Jim, Jim. I was so hoping it wouldn't be you."
"John Dread, I presume," Jim asked sarcastically, his eyes never leaving the gun that was aimed at him.
"You always were an intuitive man… It's what made you so good at this job."
Jim clenched his fists, but managed to catch himself before he stepped forward. "WHY? You built N-Tek. It was your dream…"
Nathanson nodded. Even with the black sunglasses, he somehow managed to look reflective. "My legacy. I wanted to build a better world to leave behind." His laugh was bitter. "I've come to realize, that the only way to do that is to smash the old one… and build from the ground up. A new world, free from the crime and sickness that plagues this one."
"Ruled by a dictatorship with an iron hand? That's just what N-Tek is against."
"You're an idealist, Jim. It's a charming trait, but not necessarily one suited to survival. Nothing in life is that easy."
Black eyes flashed, even in the dimness. "So now what? You've used N-Tek as a shelter over the past few years to build DREAD up into the most formidable terrorist organization in the world, you've erased all the files off the mainframe…now what? Just disappear?"
"Something like that. I'm afraid N-Tek is going to have a little accident-- I've wired this room with enough explosives to take out the mainframe and the file room, one floor up. Any and all information N-Tek has on DREAD will vanish, without a trace."
Jim's jaw dropped. "But… there are still agents in the building! Who knows how many people you'll kill?"
The older man nodded, smiling slightly. "Oh yes, exactly. Including myself. The best escape in the world is one where everyone thinks you're dead."
"You know," Nathanson sighed, "I didn't want things to end up like this. You really should have taken the promotion. I suppose I should have known better than to hope it would keep you home tonight. You're tenacious… one of the many things I've admired about you." He cocked his head to one side.
"Actually… I could use an operative with your skills in my organization, Jim. Your knowledge of N-Tek would be ideal. Jeff will no doubt be overjoyed to find that you've survived the blast-- he won't ask too many questions. What do you say, Jim? A little something to supplement a field commander's salary?"
The younger agent's voice was as flat as his gaze. "You want me to be a mole," he translated, his tone dripping in disgust. "Not a chance. My soul's not for sale at any price."
"Jim, please reconsider. I really don't want to kill you, but I will, if I must." Nathanson raised his gun.
Jim shook his head. "Go to hell, Marco."
The other man sighed. "You first." There was a soft sound, no louder than a cough, as the silenced gun fired. The bullet caught Jim high on the right side of the chest, dropping him the ground. Nathanson strode over to where the younger man had fallen.
"And you came down here without any backup, without telling anyone what you'd discovered, didn't you?" The CEO shook his head. "Jim, Jim… I told you that lone wolf streak of yours would get you killed someday. And now no one will know why you died… and your son will grow up without a father."
Clutching at his chest, Jim shut his eyes. "Josh…" he groaned.
"Last chance." Nathanson's voice was quiet, almost pitying. Jim simply shook his head. Raising his gun, the older man fired two more times. This time, the shots went true.


"The explosion, of course, easily hid the bullet wounds to Jim's body. I'd already planted an appropriate surrogate for myself, and altered the dental records accordingly. Marco Nathanson died, and John Dread was born."
Dread laughed reflectively. "It's only fitting, I suppose, that the son should be so much like his father. You'd best step carefully around young Steel, Jean. He's smarter than he looks, and Smith will fight to the death to keep from losing another one. If your allegiances are uncovered, your life will not be enjoyable… and it may well be quite short."
Knowing a dismissal when he heard one, Mairot knocked back the last of his Scotch and rose to his feet. "Then I'd best be getting back to N-Tek before anyone misses me," the Frenchman agreed. "Steel's trouble-finding talent is growing at an exponential rate." With that, Mairot showed himself out.
John Dread sipped slowly at his Scotch, staring at nothing in particular. Jim's son… shaking his head, he laughed to himself. How perfect it all was. Jim's death was one of the few things he truly regretted in his career. It had been necessary, of course, but oh, how often he wished things had been different. That Jim had taken the promotion, or stayed home that night for some other reason. Even as an adversary, he would have been marvelous.
He'd long since realized, of course, that Jim McGrath would never have turned mole. It simply wasn't in the man's nature to betray his friends and coworkers that way. And the son was, it seemed, a carbon copy of his father. With a sigh, Dread bid farewell to the idea of having Max Steel as an operative. While it would have been nice to have Jim's son as a member of his command, it would also cause too much trouble with Psycho, and the cyborg wasn't expendable… yet.
Almost idly, Dread reached out and picked a piece off of the chess board that stood to his right. Looking down, he was not surprised to see an alabaster knight staring back at him, eyes wild, mane flaring in an imaginary wind. "White knights," he murmured, setting the piece on the desk before him.
"To an excellent countermove, Jim." Dread toasted the empty air. "It's a pity that your son will be joining you so shortly."
And as Dread finished the last of his scotch, he thought he could hear, very faint, laughter from somewhere far away.

The End