Tony was bleary-eyed from studying all the data on Deshpande's mutual connections with the “probably” deceased Raza. He was exhausted both mentally and physically, but even when he gave himself permission to sleep, he couldn't do it. Why didn't this mountain of information lead him to Pepper? Why was there no ransom demand? If Hammer didn't want anything from him, then why had he kidnapped Pepper at all? That was the question that wouldn't let him sleep. He was Tony Stark. He was Iron Man. He had been absolutely convinced this was all about him, but his certitude was wavering. Never before had he wished so hard that he wasn't so damned intelligent. Someone with a lesser mind could overlook disturbing facts and be content with delusions.
His cell rang, sending his heart-rate into the stratosphere. However, the ID said it was NYPD. Tony couldn't think of any reason Hammer would relay a ransom call through the police. Didn't kidnappers usually tell their victims to keep the police out of the loop?
He lifted the phone to his ear. “Stark.”
“Mr. Stark, this is Officer Jacobs. We met yesterday. Have you heard anything from Miss Potts or her apparent attackers?”
Apparent? Somebody grabbed her from behind, knocked her out, and then dragged her unconscious body away. What part of that was ambiguous? He was too tired to argue over poor word choices. “No, but I'm pretty sure that apparent attacker was Justin Hammer wearing a mask and wig.” News about Hammer not being in Club Fed should have been released by now. Besides, the cops couldn't do any worse than he was doing on finding Pepper, so why not give them a hand?
“The idiot who terrorized the Expo? I thought he got sent up for 12 years.”
Tony suppressed a sigh. They could do worse than he was doing. “Someone broke him out. Maybe you can go talk to the guy who took his place.” He didn't mention he had already tried that over 20 hours ago. He had sort of been withholding evidence, although he didn't feel too badly about it when they seemed to be incapable of handling a clue when they had one.
“I'll have someone get on that. You let us know if you hear anything.”
“Yeah.” Maybe. Eventually. Like after he'd made the ransom drop and rescued her. He hit the disconnect. If he didn't have a computerized phone system managed by JARVIS, he would have been miffed that the NYPD tied up his line for such trivia.
A knock sounded on Pepper's door.
“Who is it?” Tony called. If it was more cops, he planned to tell them he was stepping into the shower.
“It's me,” Happy's voice said.
The door opened and Happy's face appeared. “You really shouldn't do that in New York.”
“Leave the door unlocked overnight.”
What idiot would try to break in on Iron Man? He produced a weak smile. “Just didn't want you busting the new one.”
“Ha, ha.” Happy looked like he hadn't slept much either. “Anything?” he asked with a tone of desperation.
Tony decided not to tell him about the Ten Rings connection. It would only worry him more and he didn't need that, especially when it wasn't helping them find Pepper. He threw his hands in the air. “Not a thing.”
A sigh and a nod. “Can I get you breakfast or anything?”
Tony's stomach still felt tied in knots, but unfortunately, the arc reactor in his chest didn't power anything biological. “Yeah, espresso—lots of it, and donuts. You know what I like.”
“No, I know where to drive and where to park. Pepper knows what you like.”
Why did that statement sting so much? Tony opened his mouth to rattle off his preferences, but Happy wasn't Pepper. He didn't have her incredible memory and this kind of thing had never been part of his job. Hell, he didn't even work for Tony anymore. This was a favor. Tony amended his intentions before it became obvious he'd planned otherwise. “Doesn't matter. Get whatever.”
“Sorry, that was—”
“No, it's fine. I miss her too.”
“You should tell her that.”
A flood of emotions prevented his usual snappy comeback.
“When you find her,” Happy added in the gap.
The big guy turned and left, the door snicking shut behind him.
Another ringtone sounded. Tony didn't let himself get excited before he glanced at the display. Caller ID said it was Pepper's secretary, Bambi. She would still be operating under the assumption Pepper was sick. Tony didn't want to deal with her. “Transfer to voicemail, JARVIS.”
The ringtone stopped immediately. Tony stood and stretched, then took a quick trip to the bathroom. Upon re-entry to the living room, JARVIS said, “Sir, you might want to listen to Miss Arbogast's message.”
Tony quirked a brow. “You think so? Okay, play it.”
A static picture of the woman appeared on holographic display along with all her pertinent personal data, but the message was voice-only. “Mr. Stark? It's Bambi. Sorry to bother you on the weekend. A package arrived here for you. Return address says Hammer Industries but I thought they were out of business. Do you want me to forward it to you in Los Angeles? I'll forward it unless I hear from you by Monday.”
“Call her back.”
“Connecting to her extension now, sir.”
It only rang once. “Virginia Potts' office, how may I help you?”
“Bambi, it's me. Where's that package? I need it.”
“I've got it right here.”
Blowing up the New York branch of Stark Industries might give Hammer a sick satisfaction. Better be safe. “Leave it on Pepper's desk and evacuate the building. Use drill protocol so the fire department doesn't show up. I'll be there in less than five.”
“Why, what is it? Shouldn't I notify Miss Potts first?”
“She's been kidnapped. Hammer busted out of jail. Now, don't panic, but the package could be dangerous, so just do it, all right?”
“Yes, Mr. Stark. Evacuation drill. But there's hardly anyone here. It's Saturday.”
Tony didn't waste any more time talking. He hit disconnect. “Armoring sequence, JARVIS.”
The holographic display vanished and the suitcase offered the initial boot. Tony slipped his bare foot inside and reached down to grab the gauntlets. The Mark V armor formed around him. He walked as fast as the armor allowed up to the roof. He arrived at the office complex in three minutes, twenty-seven seconds. A handful of SI employees stood out on the lawn and pointed when he swooped to land at the front entrance. He didn't visit the New York office much, especially since the Expo ended, but even when he did, it was in a business suit, not his armor, so Iron Man was still a bit of a novelty for them.
He hurried through the building to Pepper's office and found the padded envelope. He left it on the desk and said, “Scan contents, JARVIS.”
The HUD showed radioactive readouts, biotoxic and chemical analysis, infrared scans and finally an x-ray which showed it was a thumb drive.
“All scans appear normal, sir. It appears to be a SanDisk USB drive, Cruzer model. Current sales figures indicate over seventeen million units in use.”
Dammit. That bastard was smarter than Tony thought. No call to trace and the thumb drive was mass-produced. He tore open the envelope and removed the drive. “Give me the USB slot.”
The armor shrank off his skin, but it didn't completely become a suitcase. Tony slipped the drive into the receptacle. “Copy that and start to analyze. I'm going to wrap up here, then I'll suit back up.”
“Yes, sir. Analyzing now.” The thumb drive disappeared as the suit morphed into its case form.
Tony was barefoot, but he could move faster without the armor. He stuffed the torn envelope under his sweatshirt, grabbed the suitcase Mark V, and walked out to the lawn, where about 30 SI employees waited impatiently. “All clear,” he announced to the group. “Sorry to disrupt everyone's work. See Miss Arbogast to get validated for a three-hour bonus on your next paycheck.” He turned to Bambi. “I'll cover it. Make sure you give yourself one too.”
“Thank you, Mr. Stark. Was it about Miss Potts? The package, I mean.”
“Yep. Pretty sure. Analyzing it now.”
She nodded and turned to follow the others back inside.
Tony set the suitcase in front of him on the wet grass. “My feet are cold, JARVIS. Open up.” In seconds, he was inside his second skin and igniting the thrusters.
“Would you like me to play the message now, sir?” JARVIS asked.
He was aching to hear it, but he wouldn't want to stop in the middle and he didn't have far to go. “How long is it?”
“Hammer speaks for two minutes, thirteen seconds, followed by twenty-two seconds of footage with Miss Potts, and then another eighty-seven seconds of Hammer.”
Tony's heart sank a little more. He'd wanted to talk to her so badly. Now he not only wasn't going to get the opportunity, but she was only afforded 22 seconds to speak to him.
Anxious though he was, he wanted to give this his full attention. “Let's wait until we're back in the apartment. New York doesn't need another 9-11.” Not that his one-man suit was capable of bringing down a skyscraper or that JARVIS couldn't handle auto-pilot while playing a recording. It was a lame attempt at levity.
“Your wit knows no end, sir.”
He smiled despite himself. The very short flight back to Park Avenue seemed to take forever, but he tried to tell himself this was good. There would be clues. He would find her.
Back in Pepper's apartment, he snatched up his socks and set the Mark V down in the living room. JARVIS prudently said nothing as Tony sat, took several deep breaths, and mentally braced himself. “Okay, J, play it.”
The video file played on a holographic screen at Tony's eye level. Hammer looked just like the mask he'd seen on Brennan, except that the black eye and bandaged cut looked like they'd had several more days of healing. Tony had never liked the idiot, but now that Hammer was smirking back with that sickly smug grin on his face, Tony felt the hatred swell in his chest like a water balloon about to burst.
“You thought it would be fun to ruin my life, didn't you? You got the whole damned world to blame me for what that crazy Russian did and then you laughed when I took the heat for it. Don't think I don't remember, Anthony. Don't think I didn't suffer every single day I was locked up like an animal—humiliated, abused, and fed slop not even fit for pigs.”
The slimeball shook a bandaged index finger and it blurred from proximity to the camera. “You had your day in the sun. You were everybody's favorite Golden Boy. Now it's my turn. You're going to listen to me and you're going to do everything I say. Then maybe—just maybe—if you beg me real nice, I'll let that girl friday whore of yours go on living.”
Hammer tented his fingers together in a patently fake pose reminiscent of some James Bond villain from the 80s. “Then again, that bitch hurt me real bad and I'm a fugitive, living on the lam. I've got nothing to lose, so if you screw me over again, she ends up at the bottom of the Atlantic, followed shortly by you.”
Hammer's lips curled into a semblance of a smile or another smirk; it was hard to tell which. He stared as if his silence meant something profound, like he was daring Tony to look in his eyes and read the sincerity with which he made his threats. Tony had no doubt whatsoever Hammer was dead serious. He wasn't sure the man would murder Pepper with his own two hands, but he would order some thug to do it without hesitation or remorse.
“I'm going to let you see her—just a short peek to prove she's still alive, for now. If you want to keep her that way, then you'd better do exactly what I tell you at the end.”
The scene switched abruptly. The lighting was different and the camera was no longer stationary. It looked like someone recording with a phone. The new room was dark and windowless. Lying helpless on the floor, Pepper was bound with her hands behind her back and her legs together, a blindfold over her eyes and white tape across her mouth. He recognized her by the overcoat she wore and the strawberry blonde hair which spilled both over and under the blindfold. Tony clenched his fists unconsciously. The microphone used for this shot was not as good as the one Hammer had used for his little monologue, but he could pick up most of the sounds.
“Are you rolling?” Hammer's back was turned, but he stood towering over Pepper, accentuating her vulnerability. Tony's fists tightened enough to send his fingernails into his palms.
“Yeah,” came the reply from the cameraman.
Hammer leaned over and said something to her with a voice like saccharine, but it wasn't loud and his back was turned, so Tony didn't catch it all. The camera guy repositioned so the next words were clearer.
“Here, honey, let me take that nasty tape off your mouth.” Hammer stepped on her hair and yanked the tape off.
Tony couldn't help but wince, squeezing his eyes shut. Pepper didn't cry out. Instead, she tried to spit on him! Tony whooped, but his celebration was cut short when Hammer hauled off and smacked her, sending her reeling across the floor.
Tony's jaw clenched as tight as his fists, he growled through his teeth, “Why you little...”
“Sir,” JARVIS's voice interrupted as the picture froze, “I am reading abnormally high blood pressure and heartbeat. Should I pause to give you time to recover?”
“No, JARVIS. Resume.”
“Listen, you feisty little bitch,” Hammer sneered, looking more at the camera than at Pepper, “don't give us any trouble, or you may get hurt.” He then reached out and squeezed her cheeks together hard, distorting her lips in a way that had to hurt. The camera zoomed in on her forced pucker and then the picture cut off.
There were several seconds of electronic snow before the picture returned to the first format, with Hammer seated in front of him, like he was using a webcam. Tony tried to concentrate on what was happening, but all he could think about was Pepper hadn't been allowed to say anything. Was it possible she was already dead and this was an imposter wearing her coat and another wig?
Hammer's self-important voice intruded on his thoughts. “You will bring the suitcase armor to Central Park North. There's a hot dog stand run by a guy who wears an orange chef hat. Twenty-nine paces east of the hot dog stand, behind a big maple tree, is a wastebasket. Drop the suitcase in the wastebasket and leave the area. The sooner you do this, the sooner we can talk about what happens next.”
Hammer looked left and right, and then leaned in with an air of secrecy. His voice lowered to a confidential tone. “Personally, Anthony, I don't want your damned suit anymore. I got to work on the War Machine and frankly, I wasn't impressed. But the people who busted me out of that hellhole asked for this in return. I have to get them off my back before you and I can settle the score. Don't mess with them, Stark. They'll kill your precious Pepper if you try anything, so don't.”
The screen went black.
“Would you like my analysis now, sir?” JARVIS asked.
“I think I need that blood pressure break first, J. Give me a couple minutes.”