Tony hated waiting. No doubt, Hammer was purposely making him wait just to torture him.
Pepper's apartment door was fixed promptly, just as Security George promised. Tony already had a key, so after the police cleared the apartment as not part of the crime scene, he set up a makeshift command center in her living room. JARVIS had instructions to pick up any call from an unregistered phone as well as any openly from Hammer. Hammer would want to rub Tony's nose in this at some point, but he'd worn that mask, so he might try to hide for a while. Tony only hoped the idiot didn't try to use Pepper's phone to contact him, because the cops had confiscated it as "evidence". Yeah right. The only fingerprints it had were Pepper's, Happy's, and his. Anyone who saw the security tape would know the kidnappers didn't touch it.
They probably thought there was something in her phone records. If Tony hadn't already downloaded all that information hours ago, he might have protested, but he knew the only thing to be found was the fact he didn't call her as much as he should. That was a minor point of shame for him personally, but if the FBI didn't follow all the gossip rags, they wouldn't realize she was more to him than just the CEO of his company. The phone thing wasn't criminal or even mildly embarrassing, considering the mountain of other dirt the media had made public over the years.
Something in the back of his mind kept telling him he would need the Mark VI, but he couldn't bring himself to go home to Malibu to work on it. Deshpande lived in New York. Hammer had lived in New York even before taking up residence in Club Fed. And Pepper was kidnapped in New York. Hammer no longer owned an airplane. Tony had checked and double-checked to make sure of that. Deshpande didn't have a plane, or the means to buy one. Therefore, the chances were very good they were holding Pepper somewhere close.
If he traced the ransom call and pinpointed Pepper's location in this area, but he was in Malibu when the call occurred, he would never forgive himself if the distance diminished her chances of rescue. Minutes dragged into hours, but every time he got tempted again, it felt like Hammer's call would be "any minute now" and he just didn't dare.
JARVIS had the same functionality from inside the Mark V suitcase as he would have back at the house in Malibu, except he had to limit the size and scope of holographic projections he could display at any one time. Tony found it irritating not to be able to see all the parts of the puzzle simultaneously, especially when he wasn't even sure what pieces belonged to the picture he was working on, but he held his irritation in check. He wasn't going to risk Pepper's life or safety for a better data display. If space was that important, he could go rent the whole darned Waldorf Astoria. He felt closer to Pepper at her place, so her apartment served as his base of operations.
After several frustrating hours studying Deshpande's incredibly boring legal career, he had to get out. Down in the security office again, George shared all the footage he'd gathered from the whole building, but all they saw were a couple more glimpses of Pepper's unconscious body being carried by a guy in a ski mask and Hammer wearing a wig—no vehicle, no other suspects.
Tony hit up Happy next. The big guy needed to be filled in about Hammer and Tony needed a driver to take him to the theater district. New York had terrible parking conditions, so having someone to keep the engine running or circling the block was helpful. Happy took him all up and down Broadway and "off-Broadway" to talk to every make-up artist he could find, flashing pictures of both masks and asking if anyone knew anything. He found at least twelve guys who could have made them, but not a single one seemed to have any motive, much less the time. Regardless, no one had anything helpful to offer.
A few hours after most people had eaten dinner, Tony directed Happy to stop for pizza, which they took back to the apartment high rise.
"Here, you take this," Tony said as they got out in the parking garage. "I'm not hungry."
Happy shook his head. "I can't eat. My stomach's in knots."
"Why'd you get it then?"
Tony shrugged. "Habit." He grabbed the box. Maybe he'd want some later. He had a feeling this was going to be a very long night. They walked in silence.
"You need anything else?" Happy asked at the elevator. His voice was small, dejected.
"Yeah, I need Justin Hammer's head on a pike."
Happy nodded, uncheered by his lame attempt at levity. "Just get her back."
Tony laid his free hand on Happy's shoulder. "I will."
"I'm going home then. You call me if you get that call. I don't care what time it is."
"If I get a fix on her, I'll be flying out in the Mark V. Nothing you need to do."
"I need to know you found her."
"Fair enough." He thrust the pizza box out. "Sure you don't want any?"
"Yeah, I'm sure." Happy pressed the button for the sixteenth floor and then the eighteenth for Tony.
They said nothing on the elevator ride. There was no point telling Happy this wasn't his fault. He was going to think it anyway. Tony wanted to tell him Hammer wouldn't dare hurt Pepper, but he wasn't convinced himself and Happy was one of the few people he didn't like to lie to.
The deflated bodyguard got off at the sixteenth floor and they both merely nodded in farewell.
Tony unlocked Pepper's door, deposited the untouched pizza in her refrigerator, and flung himself on the couch. "JARVIS, you got anything new?"
"Six hundred seventeen megabytes of information on Deshpande and Brennan, all the way back to Kindergarten, as you requested, sir. Where would you like to start?"
"Reverse chronological." He hoped with all his might he'd find a clue before he had to drudge through juvenile delinquency. Tony was about as far from goody-two-shoes as one could get, but at least his discrepancies were fun.
One screen of text after another, he sifted the information and then swiped at the holographic display to "turn the page". It was mind-numbingly boring, but he couldn't just shut it off and do nothing. Yet again, he considered a quick trip to California for the Mark VI. It would only be a little over three hours round trip. Working on his armor would be infinitely more interesting and occupy his hands better, but was that what Pepper really needed from him?
He had the Mark V and it was more than capable of dealing with Hammer or anything he could cobble together, short of bringing Vanko back from the dead to help him. Tony had no idea where Pepper was. She needed him to find her, not to fix his backup suit.
Why didn't Hammer just CALL, dammit? Why was he playing all coy? He should be on the phone, playing Mr. Swaggering Bigshot: Ha, ha, I got your girl. I win. Give me twenty million in Kruggerands and I'll give her back. Tony would pay and then Hammer would dump Pepper and run off to retire in some third world...
"JARVIS, go back to the list of Deshpande's business associates." His law clients had been pitifully unambitious in nature, but he had dabbled in investments here and there. Nothing had profited nearly as well as Stark Industries stock, but he did well enough that he didn't have to take on big, important law cases. Maybe he was one of those people who never really wanted to be a lawyer, but used a law degree as a stepping stone to politics or some other goal.
The list of names and corporations felt like an old-fashioned phone book. Names with no faces, no notations that would indicate good or bad, just a meaningless list. A few were in red, meaning the person was now deceased, but that was the only real information. But something was here, something his subconscious mind knew intuitively, but wasn't sharing with his conscious.
"What am I missing here, J? Why is this list screaming for my attention?"
"Sir, perhaps it is suggesting you should get some sleep. You have been up for—"
"I know. That's not it. There's something here." Tony stood and started pacing. "Close all other pages and magnify this one," he instructed, pointing at the holographic projection of the name list. "How many names?"
"Do they have anything in common?"
JARVIS paused for a second, which, in computer terms, was like a million calculations. The holographic display morphed into a ridiculously complex graphic with flow-chart-like connections criss-crossing all over it. Most of the lines were dashed, indicating they didn't even have money pass between them, just common suppliers or common customers. Okay, so everyone in the whole business world was connected to everyone else. Wait, maybe that was it.
"JARVIS, cross reference with Stark Industries. Are any of these people connected to Pepper or me?"
The holographic display changed again, not quite as convoluted this time, and not as much data, but all reported "relationships" were innocuous. SI supplied software to the same company as one of Deshpande's investors bought paper from. Nothing shock-worthy.
"Sir, I think you should see this."
"The database still contains all under-the-table records from Obadiah Stane," the AI reported even as the visual projection changed again, this time showing five names in common between Stane and Deshpande, but those five names all had direct lines—solid, huge cash-changing-hands lines—to one red-lettered name: Raza.
Tony felt all the blood drain from his face. "Get me Colonel Rhodes."
"Sir, it's 1 AM at Edwards, where the colonel is currently stationed."
"He's military. He's not allowed to turn off his phone."
The ring indicator sounded twice. "Rhodes." Tony couldn't detect irritation or any sleepy befuddlement, but he didn't sound 100% awake either.
"Sorry about the time, buddy, but I gotta talk to you."
"Yeah. Pepper's been kidnapped. Justin Hammer did it. He broke out of prison with the help of some guys connected to Raza."
"That Afghani psychopath who kidnapped you? Are you sure?"
"I just saw the connections in Obie's old records. How sure are we that Raza's dead?"
"Why are you asking me? I thought you flew over and saw for yourself."
"I did, but the remains were charred beyond recognition. I thought the army was gonna check the DNA."
A short pause. "There was some resistance with the locals."
"Resistance? The guy's a major terrorist and nobody thought it was important to make sure he was dead?"
"Stane wouldn't have let him live. He was a liability. Witnesses saw Stane use that paralyzer thing of his. Raza didn't stand a chance."
There was no time to debate this and no time for regrets. "Well, dead or alive, it really doesn't matter. It looks like his Ten Rings buddies are still quite active."
"That's not good."
No kidding. Tony didn't say it aloud. It was 1AM and Rhodey wasn't a night owl. "Why do you think they busted Hammer out of prison?"
"They think he can get them weapons."
"Can he?" Tony really hadn't dug into Hammer's post-arrest data beyond making sure he didn't have a house where he could be holding Pepper or a plane to get her very far away. The news said Hammer Industries was liquidated and Hammer was broke, but Tony knew better than to trust the media.
"I don't see how," Rhodey said. "Senator Stern went on a shopping spree when his surplus went up for auction. There's nothing left in Hammer's factories."
"They think he can make it himself, like I did, when I was their prisoner." It took considerable control not to laugh at this notion. About the only thing Hammer was good for was bullets. Anything more sophisticated was bound to be a flop. But now he understood why Hammer didn't just flee the country. He was being pressured just like Tony had been in that cave.
But instead of working against them, like Tony did, Hammer was cooperating. Tony would bet Hammer didn't feel an ounce of guilt over it either. Why would he? Ten Rings gave him the means to get out of jail, get revenge on his most-hated enemy, and get back in the arms business, just selling to a different customer. Hammer had nothing to lose and everything to gain.
"If he makes them stuff like that Ex-Wife Missile of his, he'll be dead in no time," Rhodey said with a chuckle in his voice.
"Yeah, but they didn't take Pepper for nothing. They want my money or my armor."
"How about you drive out to my house, pick up War Machine and the damaged Mark VI and fly an X-99 or something out here for a little party."
"X-99? What's that?"
"Oh don't play top secret games with me. How long was I in weapons development?"
There was a pause, probably Rhodey deciding how far to argue in order to keep a military secret Tony already knew about. Short of taking a space shuttle out of mothballs, the X-99 was the fastest thing the Air Force had. Tony only guessed that Rhodey was cleared to fly it. He was one of their top pilots. He also wasn't sure they had one parked in a hangar at Edwards, but surely they had something fast he could use.
"Look, Tony, the last time I 'partied' with you in New York, a lot of people got hurt."
"No Ivan Vanko this time. War Machine is ready to go. I fixed her all up for you."
"Come on, sidekick. I need you."
"Let me see what I can do. Don't do anything without me."
"No promises. Get here fast."
Tony felt both better and worse after he hung up. If he'd been worried about Pepper being under Hammer's control, he was doubly worried about Ten Rings being involved. Those guys didn't mess around. The only reason Tony hadn't ended up dead was because he built the armor and because Yinson sacrificed himself so Tony could get away. Pepper would have neither of those advantages.
Where the hell are they holding her and why haven't they called yet?