Tony finished talking with Bob Keckle, the submarine owner Cameron introduced him to. The guy was excited to be helping out Iron Man, but he kept his groupie-gushing to a minimum. He refused to let Tony rent his four-man sub and also refused payment for piloting, but insisted on making Tony his guest. He only agreed to let him buy the fuel. Having someone else drive was not a problem for Tony. He had a pilot for his private jet and Happy had been his chauffeur for years. But it felt slightly awkward to be a guest in someone else’s vehicle and to have a pilot who would not be his employee. Still, what choice did he have? He was lucky Cameron knew someone closeby with a sub in good order and willing to help him.
Someone knocked. “Food’s here,” Happy called through the door. He didn’t wait to be invited but came right through. He set down a box of donuts on the coffee table in the living room. A large thermos hung from a strap on his shoulder. He pulled it off and held it up. “Here’s your espresso. You want a cup, or you gonna guzzle from the jug?”
Tony grinned. “What is that, a gallon?”
“You said ‘lots’,” Happy reminded him.
“Yes, I did.” He reached for the thermos and Happy gave it up. Tony unscrewed the cap and took a swig. It was not unlike cheap booze. You didn’t drink it for the taste. This much espresso was sure to keep him hyped for days. He stuffed the thermos down between his leg and the couch cushion and grabbed a donut. It was then he noticed Happy staring at him.
“You tell me. You’re not the same guy I left forty-five minutes ago.”
“I got a ransom demand. They want the Mark V.” Please don’t ask to see the recording. I can’t watch it again and you don’t want to see it either.
Happy kept his eyes on the floor and spoke in a guarded, low tone. “You gonna give it to them?”
“Wait. Just like that?”
“Just like that. Hoping once they have it, I can track them to where they’re holding Pepper.”
“What if he kills her anyway?”
“Hammer doesn’t want the suit. He’s using that to pay off his jailbreak accomplices. He’s too greedy not to exploit this for everything it’s worth. He’ll keep her alive.” He had better.
“When’s the drop?”
“Whenever I want. I have to do a few things first.” He knew Happy would offer to drive next and while Tony didn’t mind his driving (he’d proven more than capable in Monaco) he didn’t want Happy to try to come along when he boarded the sub. “I’ll need the Rolls.” Not for the drop, which was close enough to walk, but for the trip to Newport. He didn’t really want to tell Happy about that part.
“I should come with you.”
“Iron Man doesn’t need a bodyguard. You said so yourself.”
“You’re giving up the suit. That means you’re just Tony Stark.”
Just Tony Stark? Did Happy need a boxing lesson right here? Tony might have obliged, except this was Pepper’s apartment and the last thing she needed was to come home to a mess. “I’ve got more than one suit. Rhodey’s bringing me the Mark VI. Besides, even if I needed a bodyguard, you’re Pepper’s employee now.”
The big guy rolled his eyes. “I don’t think she would object.”
Tony laid a hand on Happy’s shoulder. “I got this, okay?”
He shrugged, defeated. “Okay, boss.”
“Pepper’s employee, not mine.”
Tony swiped at the holographic display a couple of times until the echo-location algorithm formula filled the screen in all its convoluted scientific glory. Tony understood the numbers and operations completely, but he stared at them, feigning a calculative state.
Predictably, Happy was even more intimidated with mathematics than he had been by Agent Romanoff. He dropped the keys to the Rolls Royce on the coffee table and grabbed two donuts. “I’ll just leave you to your...uh...” he gestured widely at the holo-screen, “...work then.”
“Thanks for breakfast, Hap.” Tony waved at the retreating chauffeur.
The door clicked shut.
A swipe of his hand cleared the ‘scary’ number screen away. “JARVIS, call Col. Rhodes.”
The call connected on the first ring. “Tony, I’m sorry.”
Tony was taken aback, but not unnerved. “You’re supposed to let me lecture you about your tardiness first.”
“I tried to get there. I swear I did. But I can’t just go AWOL, you know. I have superior officers. I had to tell them something.”
Tony listened without interrupting. This was bound to be entertaining.
“I tried hemming and hawing around, but it was no good. They weren’t buying the ‘help out a friend’ line or the personal leave requests. So I told them about Raza and they flipped out. Tony, I...” Rhodey swallowed audibly. “They sent me to Afghanistan.”
If he didn’t need the Mark VI so badly at the moment, Tony would have laughed. “With the armor?”
“War Machine, yeah. Yours is still back in Malibu.” At least he had the decency to sound apologetic about it.
“So what’s the scoop in Raza’s sandbox?”
“Hell if I know. Half our intel is bad.”
“And the other half?”
“Ten Rings is alive and kicking, Tony.”
“I could have told you that from here. Oh, wait. I did tell you that from here.”
“Nothing definitive on Raza himself, but that doesn’t mean much. Look how long it took us to find Bin Laden. How’s Pepper?”
“I got a ransom demand, well, partial one anyway. They want the suitcase armor first.”
“You’re busy. I got it.”
“Hey, tell your superiors I’m about to hand over an Iron Man suit to terrorists. Maybe then they’ll let you come help me.”
“What? No, Tony! You can’t.”
“I can and I will. Hammer has Pepper in a private submarine, but I don’t know where. Even the most kickass sonar can’t scan the whole Atlantic. If I give them the Mark V, I can track it to her.”
“Give me a chance to get there then.”
“Gave you a chance, buddy. Not waiting any longer. Have fun in the sandbox.” Tony ended the call. Stupid military. This was what happened when he tried to play nice. Let Rhodey have the suit to promote goodwill and cooperation—except their idea of cooperation was pretty damned one-sided.
He couldn’t spare the three hour round-trip to go get the Mark VI himself. Time was important now, and he might not even need the armor to rescue Pepper anyway. It wasn’t like he could bust into a submarine with a repulsor blast. Submarines tended to sink when you did that. And if Pepper didn’t have the suitcase armor on when he breached the hull, she’d drown. Scratch that plan.
According to the specs on the U.S. Submarine website, the Phoenix-class could only carry enough fuel, fresh water, and air to last a week. Unless “Ashley Hammer” had done modifications after-factory, The Villa wouldn’t have torpedo tubes. So, hopefully, Hammer and his minions would be powerless to stop Tony and Bob from just following them around until they had to surface. That would be the time to strike. And if they were going to surface anyway...
He pulled out his phone and called Happy. He was probably still in the building. He couldn’t go far without the car and Tony had the keys.
“Yeah,” Happy said on the other end.
“Rhodey got shanghaied by the Air Force. I need you to go get the Mark VI.”
“What, me? I can’t even get into your basement without Pepper or you there.”
Happy had always had access to the cars Tony bought for driving, but since Tony beefed up security on the garage, Happy didn’t have access to the area where the collectible cars and armor were kept. Not that Tony wouldn’t give him the same code he gave Pepper and Rhodey. Happy just never wanted it. Tony suspected it was more of his numbers phobia.
“JARVIS will open up on your voice command, won’t you, JARVIS?” Tony took the phone off his ear and held it in the air, pointed at the Mark V console.
JARVIS said, “Yes, sir. Mr. Hogan’s voiceprint now authorized to unlock security in Malibu.”
He brought the phone back to his ear. “See? Done deal.”
“I can’t get in that thing and fly.” Tony wasn’t sure if Happy realized how form-fitting the suit was or if he was afraid of the idea of flying without a plane.
“I know. Take the jet both ways.”
“That’s gonna take all day.” It would be 10-12 hours round trip, more if the weather was nasty.
“You got something else to do?”
“No. I just don’t want you all impatient because I can’t go as fast as your fancy rocket boots.”
“I know how fast the jet is.”
“I’ll be in a cab in five.”
“Thanks, Hap.” Tony hung up.
“Okay, JARVIS, time to modify the Mark V with a tracking device and security measures.”
“I’m waiting on tenterhooks, sir.”
“It can’t all be about you, J. You may have to vacate rather than let the bad guys appropriate you for their nefarious plans.” It wouldn’t be ‘death’, even by computer standards, for JARVIS to purge himself. The artificial intelligence was still in Tony’s home computer system and all the other suits.
“Sir, without computer guidance, the Mark V is no more than—”
“At best, a really large brick, at worst, a prop for a medieval joust.” Tony grinned. “That’s the idea.”
He allowed himself two hours for modifications. He could have done more if he had a couple of days, but unless the Ten Rings guys had someone smarter than Hammer, it would be adequate. Probably. He also took twenty minutes to design an app for his smartphone to contain a linked version of JARVIS, so he could stay in contact after the drop. It might also, with an insane amount of luck, give him a way to talk to Pepper. They would have to put the suitcase in the same room with her, which admittedly, wasn’t likely.
It was about 2 PM when Tony took the suitcase in hand and walked to Central Park. He found the hot dog stand with the orange-hatted chef easily, and the maple tree with the trashcan. This time of day, there was practically no one around. He would have given Hammer mental props for that, but Hammer hadn’t chosen the time of day. Tony did.
He did a full visual sweep of the area, but saw no one else besides the hot dog dude. Whether Mr. Orange Hat was Ten Rings or not was anyone’s guess. Deshpande had been a nice, quiet lawyer, taking small-time cases for years without even a blip on the radar. There could be ‘sleepers’ anywhere.
The trashcan was empty, save for what looked like a folded-up pillow in the bottom. It didn’t look old or dirty, so he figured Hammer’s people must have put it in there to cushion the suitcase. Did these people not see the show in Monaco? Pepper threw the suitcase out of a car window and slid it across the asphalt. But they thought it couldn’t take a six-inch drop in a quiet park?
Tony spoke under his breath. “Well, JARVIS, looks like they’re coddling you. I’m setting the suit down in the can now. Switch to the phone link.”
His hip pocket vibrated the text-received signal in response. Tony had programmed the app so JARVIS could communicate while keeping the phone inconspicuous. They could talk freely, but only if Tony answered a call or initiated one.
He looked down at the hand holding the case, hesitating. Was he doing the right thing? He’d been beyond furious when he discovered Stark tech in Afghanistan, killing Americans and terrorizing innocent Afghani children. How much worse could this be, if they somehow defeated all the security and reverse-engineered the Mark V? Would he be no better than Obadiah Stane, putting dangerous weapons in the hands of terrorists? Tony drew a deep breath and let go.
There was no sound when the suitcase left his hand, thanks to the pillow in the can, no doubt. He straightened, adjusted his sunglasses, and walked away, keeping Orange Hat Guy in his peripheral vision as long as possible. He slipped into the trees and found a vantage point that allowed him to see a little of both the trashcan and the hot dog stand. It was far enough away he had to pull out his binoculars. He didn’t want to disrupt the pickup, just observe. It wouldn’t hurt to know what some of his enemies, besides Hammer, looked like.
Ten minutes passed and nothing happened. How long would they wait? Surely, the kidnappers couldn’t feel good about priceless tech sitting in a public garbage with nothing to stop a passer-by from just casually picking it up and walking off. It wasn’t even heavy.
On a whim, Tony pulled out his phone. He cleared the earlier text from JARVIS that only said, “Yes sir,” and checked to make sure the tracking device was transmitting.
It was, but something was wrong. Unless the calibration was completely off, the suitcase was no longer in the can. How could that be, when no one had gone near it? He punched in the phone number to reach JARVIS, but he kept his voice low. “Hey, why didn’t you tell me someone picked you up?”
“I thought that was the idea, sir. Is the transmitter not working?”
“I don’t know.” He looked at his phone screen to watch the blinking light move further away. “I see you’re moving, but I don’t have a visual.”
Then, from behind him, a hand reached around and put a chloroform-soaked cloth over his nose and mouth. Three thoughts flashed through his mind at lightning speed: Sheesh, Tony, how stupid can you get? Followed by, I can handle this, just... But whatever he was ‘just’ going to do was lost when he felt dizzy. His vision narrowed and the final thought raced through: You’re going down. Leave a clue. And with the last ounce of muscle control he had, Tony dropped his phone into the grass.