A/N: All characters and settings in this story belong to the persons/companies who created them. None of them are mine.

No copyright infringement is intended or should be implied.

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Three things happened nearly simultaneously that year.

The racing underworld's kingpins were falling like dominoes, one after the other. Cruncher Block. Tongue Blackguard. Royalton. Too many, and too prominent for the CIB to ignore. And it wasn't as if they were merely being brought to justice. All were found dead. Autopsies revealed that the bodies had been drained of blood, just as their financial empires had been drained of their assets.

Further investigation revealed a tremendous influx of wealth into many major charities, donations made anonymously.

And a hot new talent was burning up the West Coast's racetracks and trashing every record on the books.

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Breakfast at the Racers was the usual relaxed affair, provided one discounted the squabbling between Spritle and Chim-Chim. But on a Sunday morning, that was as much background noise as the sizzle of hot batter and sausages.

Sparky was avidly following the exploits of the WRL's newest driver in the racing section of the sports page.

"Yesterday, the mystery driver alternately named 'The next Speed Racer' and 'the Demon on Wheels', demolished the Olympic Raceway's standing record held by Rex Racer since 1973, beating Racer's time by an unbelievable--some would say unholy-- margin. The winner, who is listed with the WRL only as "EC," did not remain to accept the million-dollar prize."

"He never does." Spritle interjected. "He just races and disappears. Pfft! Like he doesn't need the money."

"Well, there is more to life than money, Spritle." Mom reminded him. "Maybe he loves to race, like Speed."

"I bet Speed could beat him! How much you wanna bet?"

"You're too young to gamble." Pops growled.

"How come you've never raced him, Speed?" Spritle asked.

"Never had the chance. He doesn't enter the same races I do."

"There's lots of spooky stories about him. Lots of crashes he just walks away from. No one's ever seen his face....Some people say he must have gotten mangled...disfigured..."

Chim-Chim put his hands over his eyes.

"Nice topic for a Sunday breakfast, don't you think?" Speed said sarcastically. "Mom, have Spritle's results from the Asperger's screening come in yet?"

But Spritle wasn't finished speculating."and that's why he hides his face. Or..maybe he's a cyborg...."

Speed knew the hype and was, in fact, quite tired of it. Particularly the moniker "the next Speed Racer." He might have just recently made a name for himself winning the 91st WRL Grand Prix, but for the press to already be crowning a successor? That pissed him off. Twenty was hardly obsolete!

And then, as if someone had read his mind, Speed found the heavy white envelope on the driver's seat of the Mach 5, addressed to him in an elegant script. An invitation.

The honor of your presence is requested at Thunderhead Racetrack.

at midnight on 23rd November

for the purpose of one race between the two of us.

A car will be provided for you.

Tell no one.

Bring no spectators.

EC

That Trixie had not been pleased to pay the hefty cancellation fee for their reservation at Cosmopolis' fanciest restaurant, and even less pleased when Speed refused to tell her why, where he was going, what he was doing or anything at all. for that matter--was the understatement of the year.

Nor were Spritle and Chim-Chim exactly happy campers when he hauled them out of the Mach 5's trunk and frog-marched them into the house before heading off to the racetrack. Spritle must have raided his room for some bedtime reading material-- his little brother always seemed to know more than was good for him. "No means no." Speed growled at them and closed the door, shutting them in the house.

"So you ARE going to race the "Demon on Wheels" tonight!" Speed heard the muffled exclamation fade as he dashed for the Mach 5.

Speed arrived at Thunderhead with a minute to spare and found EC waiting for him, leaning indolently against a shrouded vehicle. A twin shape was parked nearby, equally hidden.

"You know, I might have had other plans for tonight." Speed grumbled, annoyed with the other's air of casual and amused ease.

Being that it's your birthday, you mean."

"Yeah. Something like that."

"Well, you could consider this your birthday present." Speed heard the amusement in the other's voice and suspected the man was grinning behind the black helmet and visor that was as much EC's trademark as the "X" on Racer X's mask.

"The race?" Speed asked. "I mean, yeah, you've got my curiosity up...but all you have to do to race me is enter the same races I do. Or maybe you're afraid of the competition?"

"No, I think it's better this way." EC replied quietly. All the media hype is a distraction I can live without."

"Or maybe you're afraid to go up against the Mach 5?" Speed challenged.

"Certainly not." EC replied dismissively. "As I'm sure you'll agree when you've inspected the cars I've provided for our race."

The twin cars were sleek and silver, like drops of mercury on wheels. Speed lifted the hood and examined the engine for several long moments. "Masterpiece" didn't even begin to describe it. It was as if someone had brought this engine back in time from the distant future, bankrupted several medium-sized nations to finance its building....

"Oh, my God." Speed said in a reverent whisper.

"Do you want to race it or make love to it, Speed?"

"I'm thinking..." he replied weakly.

EC laughed and tossed him the keys. "The terms, then: 50 laps. I win, you retire. You win, I'll reveal my identity to you and neither you nor the racing community will ever see or hear from me again."

"What's in this for you?" Speed demanded.

"I want the challenge." Suddenly, the nonchalant attitude disappeared. "I want you to race as if your life depends on it."

By the tenth lap, Speed knew firsthand why they called this mystery racer a demon on wheels. He mastered the car as if it were an extension of himself, and he shadowed Speed's every move as if he knew what Speed would do before he did it. It was inhuman.

Maybe Spritle's cyborg comment wasn't so far off the mark, after all.

The next twenty five laps were a stalemate in motion at several hundred miles per hour.

Fifteen laps to go. In one corner of his mind, Speed saw his entire racing life pass before his eyes.

He was eight. Sitting in his brother's lap behind the wheel of the Mach 4, as they slalomed around the curves of this very track....

"A car's a living, breathing thing."Rex had told him. "She's alive....You can feel her talking, telling you what she wants—what she needs. All you have to do is listen."

He listened. And then... he knew.

In the space of a few slow deep breaths...hewas engine-song, tire-whisper, a flow of wind, streaming over sleekness...

He felt the other car beside him like a chill on the back of his neck. Pacing him, a dance of predator and prey...

He lifted his foot from the accelerator, slowing slightly, letting the other car pass by.

Then he hit the accelerator hard, pitching the car on the right side wheels, slipping around EC on the outside of the curve at a 90-degree angle to the other car and blew past him as if he wasn't even there. And it wasn't only the tires that screamed in triumph as Speed completed the final lap.

When Speed leapt out of the car, EC was waiting, leaning against his own car, and laughing.

"Wow. That was--amazing. Absolutely amazing. You took me completely by surprise. And no one -ever- does that."

"You're not Racer X under another identity, are you?" Speed asked. "He's the only one who's ever raced me like that."

"Last year. At this same track." EC replied, deliberately not answering the question.

"How would you--- Oh. Now I know.." Speed declared. "That's it, isn't it?

"That's what?"

"Rex?" Speed asked, his voice tight with sudden tears and desperate hope.

"Sorry." And Speed could hear sincere regret in the other's voice, even slightly muffled behind the face-length visor. "No. Rex Racer died to protect his family."

"Then, if you're not Rex, I know your secret."

"One, perhaps. Certainly not all."

"You win races because you read the minds of the other drivers. And I won---because you couldn't read mine."

"I did, at first. But then you ---disappeared. You were thinking of your brother, when you raced with him. And then I couldn't hear you."

"So who are you? And why did you want to challenge me?"

"Consider me a fan. I'd been following your brother's career, and I hoped to race him someday, but I never got the chance. I've been following your career ever since you started racing. And I wanted to race you."

"You could have just asked me." Speed snapped. His temper was getting the best of him. "You didn't have to wager my career."

"I wanted to make the stakes interesting."

"Well, I won. I'm not retiring. I think it's time you paid up--with the answers to my questions. Who are you? What are you? Why the all the secrecy? Are you a CIB agent, like Racer X?"

"No, I'm not an agent. As for the secrecy, that should be more than a little obvious, given what I am."

"What you are? Are you really a demon? A monster?"

Silence. Then--"As you said--a telepath."

"You still haven't told me your name, you know. Last I heard, the WRL requires racers to register with their legal names."

"I -- persuaded--- them to list me only by my initials. Like your brother, I also have a family to protect. My name--is Edward Cullen."