Alex could only manage to look at his father for a moment before dropping his gaze to safer territory. Pops Racer had paused beside the door, taking in the sight of his three sons alive and well in the same room where the last conversation he'd knowingly had with Rex had ended with such terrible finality. There was still a kind of awed joy about his face, and none of the anger that Alex had expected.
No. That was wrong. The anger Pops hadn't yet shown was what Alex still believed he deserved; having spent too many years attempting to train himself out of thinking about the Racer family, Alex wasn't sure he could say he'd expected anything at all.
In an abundance of joy, his mother embraced him tightly again, though it was only a brief hug this time instead of the disbelieving cling of the first few hours. Then she moved on, still smiling as though her heart would break, and flung her arms around Elena as well. Alex had to blink and look away as his wife laughed and hugged his mother back just as joyfully.
"All right then," Mom Racer said after a moment, wiping her eyes discreetly as she pulled away, "past time for a proper meal. Sparky, Spritle, come and help me."
The two named looked up with near-identical dismay. The matriarch of the Racer family folded her arms immovably and aimed a stern look at them, which ended the argument before it began. Then she looked at her husband, and tipped her head meaningfully toward their eldest.
Alex made the mistake of looking over at Elena, who was giving him a very similar stare, eyebrows lifted. It only lasted a moment, but that was long enough. "I'll check the perimeter again," Elena said. "Speed, if you need anything I'm sure Trixie will be happy to help you." She slipped quietly away.
Pops cleared his throat, a low, uncomfortable rumble. "Ah...Alex," he began, the choice of name startling for a moment, "I suppose we should...clear up a few things...in the workshop."
Clear up a few things--as though the mess he'd made of his life and his family could be solved with enough application of the elbow grease his mother encouraged.
Alex thought seriously about following Elena instead, but that look had been much closer to a command than a hint. She was right, anyway, there was only so long he could delay this conversation. It had been too long already.
They entered the workshop in silence. Alex watched with increasing bemusement as Pops searched under and inside every half-finished car with a paranoid thoroughness that rivaled Minx on a bad day. "I'm sure no one got past the guard," Alex said at last. "It's safe to talk."
His father looked up, still frowning. "I don't think there's anyone in this house who trusts me not to screw this up again," he admitted. "Including me."
Alex dragged a stool closer to his father's drafting table. He ought to say something, but somehow the words wouldn't come.
Pops smiled, only a little awkwardly, as he settled into his chair. "Everyone from your mother to the monkey was hiding in the kitchen when I tried to have a talk with Speed. I really have learned my lesson, though."
Guilt pressed down heavily, and Alex ducked his head. "That night--it was my fault, not yours." By now surely Pops had realized that there was nothing in that last argument, either said or left unsaid, that would have kept Rex from leaving. "I knew you wouldn't have--I pushed you into saying those things." If his family had realized how very unwilling he was to leave, they would have insisted that he stay, fought Benelli right alongside him, and every one of them would have died. All these years later, he was still certain of that.
"I know," Pops agreed, a soft rumble. "It doesn't change the fact that I shouldn't have said what I did. I let my pride get in the way of making sure you knew how much I loved you, and I will always regret that."
How was it, Alex wondered irritably, that all his well-trained secret agent eloquence deserted him completely when he needed it most? "I didn't want to leave," he murmured, the simple words harsh in his throat. "Not for money, not for anything. But I had to."
His father's hand landed gently on his shoulder and squeezed, the approval that had never been quite enough from anyone else, even from the Inspector. "I can see that now. And I'm proud of you, Rex." The hand fell away, too soon.
Alex shook his head, feeling numb and oddly light. "When I left, like that, I made you all think I hated you, or that you didn't mean enough to me, at least." His breath was shakier than it should have been. "I'm sorry. For that. And for--I was at the funeral, I saw--I know how I would have felt, how I did feel, and I can never make up for putting you all through that."
His father blinked, startled. "You were at the funeral?"
The bitter memories were too close to dwell over. "It was Ryder's funeral too," Alex said, too curt for politeness. "I wasn't the only agent who came." They hadn't come for Rex's sake, or for Ryder; most of the C.I.B. agents who had found some excuse to be nearby during the ceremony or the burial didn't even know who had really died. Only that the fight against corruption had taken another ally's life.
Pops hesitated a moment, nodded. "You mentioned him before, in the hospital. What was he like?"
Ryder. Alex's lips twitched, involuntarily. Even after everything, it was impossible to remember the man without smiling, which was just the way he would have wanted it. "I think you'd have liked him," he said. "I met him for the first time in Kinshasa..."
Rex turned the glass bottle of Coca-Cola on the table, looking meditatively at the ring of condensation. He took a good deal of care not to look directly toward the man at the next table. A dark-haired, muscular man about Rex's own height, pale skin and sunburned face marking him either a tourist or a mercenary, and from the way he'd been following Rex...
The main event hadn't even begun yet, but already Rex had decided privately that he never wanted to race in Central Africa again if he could help it. The air was like soup, thick with humidity and dust, but Rex could have dealt with that. The streets were crowded with people who assumed that he would want to give them money, but he didn't mind that.
Two people who'd placed high in the preliminaries were dead already, and three more had dropped out. He did mind that.
The local independent drivers, with their African-built cars, reminded Rex a good deal of the drivers he used to race at Thunderhead--there was the same excitement about them, families coming trackside to cheer them on. Not many of them had qualified. Which was just as well, because the competition between Benelli's people and the African racing powers had become very violent very quickly.
Apparently Benelli's mob had gotten a few wires crossed dealing with the local mob, which had strong governmental ties and even fewer scruples than Benelli. Rex was not entirely clear on why the outcome of the race was so important to Uniron, but he was fairly certain his sponsor didn't much care whether Rex Racer died, as long as they still had someone to drive the stupid car. It was not a comfortable feeling, since he'd won his heat easily.
And the man now seated at the next table had followed him here from the track. He wasn't African, but he might easily be working with the locals--Africa made a good place to disappear for men who'd gotten in trouble with their home country.
Even with his attention fixed on the problem, it took a shocked moment for Rex to respond when the man actually launched himself out of the flimsy wicker chair, straight toward him. Rex shoved his own chair back, but the impact sent him to the ground with a bruising thud as a loud series of cracks broke the air--he lashed out instinctively, one foot smashing into the man's chest.
"Stay...down," wheezed the man, managing to sound urgent in spite of lingering breathlessness from the solid kick.
Brain at last catching up with his instincts, Rex noticed the spray of bullets that had just ripped through the air overhead and buried themselves in the wall of the little café.
"I'm C.I.B.," the stranger hissed. "Please--I need you to trust me."
Since at the moment Rex's choices seemed limited to the people shooting at him or the one who'd saved him, he nodded sharply at the dark-haired young man.
Relief poured over the sunburnt face. "Wonderful. Quick, through the alley before they try again."
Rex didn't fail to notice that as they got up and hurried, crouching, toward the indicated alley, the self-identified C.I.B. agent stayed immediately behind him and in the line of fire. Even so, he kept an eye out for any sign of sudden betrayal.
The alley stank of human refuse, but it offered swift access to the busy street on the other side of the block, with buildings irregular enough that the outlet wasn't predictable. African architecture was not well standardized.
"You're Rex Racer, of course," the man said quietly as they ran, nothing but friendly good humor in his tone. "I'm Ryder. You've got quite a kick. I told Minx it should've been her on close duty, you'd've trusted her."
"Minx?" Rex demanded, a girl's face springing to mind. He had only ever met one C.I.B. agent, and the only name he had for her was Helen, though it was almost certainly not the one she ordinarily used.
Ryder pulled him swiftly from the alley toward a bright yellow taxi with rust all down the side. "Minx has our ride," he said, opening the door. The engine roared, sounding healthy enough but completely unmuffled.
A glimpse of the driver was enough to confirm Rex's suspicion. He slid across the ripped fabric of the back seat, avoiding an uncovered spring, and dredged up a smile to offer the dark-skinned girl. She smiled back briefly as Ryder climbed in and shut the door. Thankfully, cold air poured from the vents, making the temperature almost tolerable.
"Hello, Rex," Helen said. There was a strong African flavor to her accent today, and in her cap she looked just like any other taxi driver, all trace of her femininity buried in ill-fitting clothes. "How many times does this make? You should be more careful."
Rex grinned. Helen had warned him of danger on four separate occasions, engineered a secret meeting with Sparky, and once, at his frantic request, kept a young driver from dying in a crash Rex had to cause. He'd become more paranoid the longer he worked for Benelli, but he trusted Helen. Even if he didn't know her real name.
"Come on, Minx," Ryder called over the engine's noise, "Rex wants to know what we're doing here besides saving his life--eh, Rex?" It was a very strong Canadian accent, Rex realized, and since there was no reason for the man to fake it, probably genuine.
By contrast, Helen-or-Minx's accent slipped and shaded gradually back into standard American tones. "Don't worry, Rex, talking's safe enough in the car. Stay down, though, we don't want anyone to see you."
Rex slumped a bit lower in the prickly seat. "Right. What's going on?"
"Benelli thought he had a deal with the local mob," Minx said, "but it fell through. Seems he underestimated how attached President Mobutu is to his pet racetrack. Uniron won't win this one--they're cutting their losses and pulling out of the race."
"We just have to keep you out of sight until everyone gets the message," Ryder contributed.
That seemed simple enough. Still-- "Why are you here at all?" Rex asked, curious.
Ryder offered a comradely slap to the shoulder. It didn't sting too badly. "Looking out for you, of course! Inspector Detector said when you testify, it'll be the best chance we've ever had of bringing down Blackjack Benelli."
The statement struck Rex as very interesting indeed, given that he had never actually agreed to do anything for the C.I.B., least of all testify publicly. He looked up and met his C.I.B. contact's gaze through the rear-view mirror. There was a shadow of guilty acknowledgment in her dark eyes, but an iron resolve.
For most of a year now, Helen had been the only person he could actually trust, a lifeline for him no matter what appearance she used to hide. She'd never asked for anything in return, but he had known what she really wanted since that first meeting. Benelli had killed her mother, and she was doing this to find justice.
"Yes," Rex said, slowly, "I think it will be."
The smile that broke across her face was like a sunrise.
Ryder took no notice of this byplay at all, exclaiming, "Can't you speed it up a little, Minx? You're in a taxi--you're supposed to be reckless!"
"You may be as reckless as you like when you're the one who has to explain the crash to the Inspector, Alexander," she said tartly. "Haven't I asked you not to call me that when we're in the field?"
The man grinned, unabashed. "How many times do I have to ask you to call me Ryder, then, eh? And is it possible for you to drive any slower?" He turned to Rex, face very stern but his blue eyes twinkling merrily. "Get that seatbelt on, Racer. I can just see the headlines--Race driver injured in tragic collision: taxi run over by speeding tortoise."
A snort of laughter escaped Rex, startling him with its unrestrained joy; he couldn't remember the last time anything had prompted an honest laugh.
"Alexander," Minx chided, sounding more amused than irritated herself. "All the paperwork in the world is useless if I can't get you to answer to your own first name."
The man spread his hands, looking much too earnest to take seriously. "So call me Ryder, and all's well!" He leaned over to confide to Rex, "Ryder's my real name. The Alexander bit's what the Inspector thought up."
"Honestly!" Minx/Helen spared an exasperated look. "Can't you show a little discretion, Alexander?"
"It's my own name, I'll say it if I want to," Ryder said cheerfully. "Rex is on our side. You know I think the world of you, Minx. But you're awfully paranoid."
Rex's own feelings were more in accordance with Minx, but he knew better than to say so. "If I can ask," he put in, diffidently, "I only know you as Helen. What should I call you?"
Helen shrugged. "My passport says it's Nora Penley right now--mind you that's the British passport. My local paperwork says I'm Neema Ndayambaje, from South Kivu province."
The mechanics of keeping four or five identities straight all at once rather boggled Rex. "Right," he said faintly, suspecting he'd go right on thinking of her as Helen. In spite of the security issues, he didn't blame Ryder for wanting to keep it simple.
"I know," Ryder said with tremendous sympathy, grinning at Rex. "Someday our poor Minx is going to wake up and realize how crazy she is."
"The point is for us to go on waking up," Helen said, a low, deadly serious tone that stripped the humor out of the car. "All of us." Her eyes met Rex's through the mirror once more.
Ryder made an abortive movement, then went quiet, hunching a little as though silence was deeply unnatural to him. "It'll be all right, Minx," he blurted at last. "We'll get Benelli. Honest we will."
Hope was something Rex had left behind for his family; he'd never expected to find it again. So it surprised him as much as the others to hear himself say, "We'll bring Benelli down," and realize that he had actually started to believe it.
Pops was chuckling at the vivid description of Ryder, as Alex had hoped, and the thick press of tension had faded to something he could breathe under. The smile of bittersweet memory grew a little stronger. Minx had guarded his heart, but Ryder was the only reason either of them had kept any sense of humor. "He was a good friend," Alex said, "loyal as family." He shook his head slightly. "To be honest, he always reminded me a little of Sparky."
"I'm very grateful that you had such good friends," Pops said. Alex could see guilt flicker again in his father's face, as it turned away. "I always--before the crash, I hoped you weren't alone out there."
Guilt, always the guilt, burying both of them. Ryder never did have any patience for guilt.
Alex drew a breath, tasting old oil and the static fizz of discharging fuel cells, the familiar scents of home. If Pops needed to hear this, then it didn't matter that Alex had done worse himself and had no right to say it. "About what you said, before I left," he began, and hesitated. The angry words had hurt, more than he ever wanted to admit, echoing in his head right up to the moment in the hospital when his father's embrace had banished them. So maybe this wasn't just for his father's sake, after all. He swallowed, and let his father's admission of regret sink into the old pain. "I forgive you, Pops. And I hope you'll forgive me," his own guilt forced him to add. "For--everything."
His father cleared his throat, a sharp noise that did nothing to disguise the glitter of tears unshed in his eyes, and nodded. "Let's just work on doing better from now on," he offered. "I know you were trying to protect us, but you have more resources now, what with the C.I.B. behind you, and we have more experience. It might not be safe for us to know everything, but don't lie to us. Deal?"
Alex ducked his head, the implicit reprimand-and-forgiveness sending him back to the days of his youth when his greatest misdeed had been messing with the cars without permission. "Deal," he agreed.
"Well," Pops said gruffly, "I guess we've got some cars we should be working on."
Racer Motors was well behind schedule, after the time spent at the hospital, and Speed's injury would keep him from working at his normal pace. It was a useful excuse. "Right," Alex said, pushing himself off the stool, and felt a wide, uncomplicated smile spring uncontrollably to his face.
The years between mattered, they would never go away, but he still belonged here. With his family.
end part five
Note: Still not entirely happy with this, but people seem to want more (hi, KamikazePanda!) so here it is. Still writing, sorry I'm so slow. Issues, you know.
This is not meant to be a realistic portrayal of the economy in Zaire, even when Mobutu was alive; it's Speed Racer, so everyone is much more car-obsessed than in real life.