Somewhere in the haze of sleep, Tony heard the phone indicator chime, but he couldn't quite wake up enough to answer it. JARVIS would take a message.
“Sir, Miss Potts is calling,” JARVIS said.
“Uh huh,” Tony mumbled incoherently.
“Sir, you asked her number to be put on priority. If you wish to disregard—”
You must give the override code. He had programmed the AI so he would have to be awake and sober enough to refuse on purpose. He glanced at the clock. 3:35 AM. Pepper was always good about remembering the time difference. She wouldn't call if it wasn't important. He propped up on an elbow. “Answer call, JARVIS.” He didn't have to use a receiver as there were microphones and computer terminals all over his house to relay calls.
“Boss, it's me,” said a voice that was clearly not Pepper.
“Happy, do you have any idea what time it is?” he groaned, letting his head flop back down on the pillow.
“Pepper called me twenty minutes ago to say she was on her way down. I waited in the garage with the engine running. She never arrived. I found her phone next to the elevator on the eighteenth floor. She wouldn't answer her door, so I broke it down to check on her. She wasn't there. I don't like this. Something's wrong. Thought you'd want to know.”
Tony bolted upright. “Have you called the police yet?”
“That would be my next call after Iron Man.” The smirk was detectable without needing a visual. Happy never quite caught on to using the video call function. He had used voice-only.
“Good thinking, Hap. But hold off on that a couple hours. I can be there in ninety-seven minutes.” Tony leapt from the bed and yanked on the dresser pull of his shirt drawer.
“I can't just not call the cops! She's been mugged or something!”
“Do you have any evidence of that? If anyone is around, ask if they heard a scream or saw anything suspicious. Otherwise, it's just a missing persons report and they'll make you wait 24 hours anyway.”
“So if I find someone who heard a scream, then I can call the cops?” Happy was not the kind to sit around for 24 hours and wait patiently.
Tony didn't like to wait either, which was why he would be blasting out of here as soon as he got some clothes on and made it down to the Mark V. The ex-boxer was fiercely loyal to him, as evidenced by the fact he called. But if it ever came down to it, he'd probably choose Pepper over him, which was why Tony approved of Happy being her driver/bodyguard in the first place. However, chances were, it would take a while for Happy to find a witness, if one could be found at all, and then it would take the NYPD a while to send out an investigator. Tony could still beat them. Much as he wanted to be first on the scene, he wasn't going to ask Happy to hold back. “Yeah, go ahead. But don't let anyone else into her apartment. I'm on my way.”
“Ninety-seven minutes. I'm holding you to that.”
Tony disconnected the call. It wasn't like he planned to stop at Starbucks along the way, but sheesh. It would take at least five and a half hours by jet and there could be storms and headwinds and all kinds of things in his way. He wanted to be there in thirty seconds, but he had to live with what was possible, not what he wanted. But it was no use taking out frustrations on Happy. He was worried about Pepper, just as he was. Tony hurriedly threw a shirt over his head and pulled on a pair of pants.
“JARVIS, call Bambi at SI and have Pepper put on sick leave. Cancel all her appointments. We don't need anyone else getting suspicious.”
“Then find out what course and altitude will give us the fastest time to New York.” Pants zipped, he slipped into a pair of loafers. He would normally wear socks, but he didn't want to take the time right now. He started down the stairs, taking them two at a time.
“Coordinating with NOAA and FAA databases now, sir. Your flight plan will be ready when you reach the basement.”
He dashed through the kitchen and down another set of stairs, then he keyed in his password on the glass touchpad at the entrance to his personal workshop. The War Machine suit was back in the Mark II bay. He'd finished all the modifications on it last night. He'd put those repairs ahead of the Mark VI, since he had Mark V to use in the meantime. He was a little sorry now that he did. Mark VI was the strongest and most technically advanced suit he had. If Pepper was really in trouble, he would want the best. However, Mark V was built for portability. He wouldn't have his garage in New York, so folding down into a suitcase would be convenient. Not to mention, the lighter weight would probably make it faster in the sky since the thrusters for Mark V and VI were both the same. He was relieved the state of repairs was making the choice easy.
He pulled the suitcase down from its storage pedestal, unlocked it, and set it on the floor. One foot activated the armoring sequence that soon had Tony covered in red and gold metal. The ceiling exit tube opened like an iris.
“How are my flight systems, JARVIS?”
“All systems charged to full capacity, sir. Projected arrival at Park Avenue, New York: 95 minutes, 27 seconds. Would you care to—”
Tony shot out the exit tube and into the sky. “Take off manually? Yes, I would, but engage auto-pilot once we hit altitude.” The head's up display gave him two different visuals, one showing the linear course from Malibu to New York, the other showing a graph of the altitude changes to be taken at various points, presumably to avoid bad weather or crashing into a 747. He had way too much on his mind to worry about adhering to a complex flight plan and he didn't have time to waste by deviating.
“Taking flight control now, sir,” the AI said.
Tony felt the minute changes signaling the release of manual control, so smooth, it was hardly noticeable. Only his intimate harmony with the suit made him attuned to it. He hadn't been lying to Congress when he testified that the suit was a prosthetic. It was a part of him and he of it. He had programmed JARVIS personally and therefore he trusted it to get him where he needed to be as fast as the suit's capabilities allowed.
For the first time since the jarring phone call, Tony allowed himself to relax. A little. He couldn't just go back to sleep like nothing ever happened. The suit was comfortable enough—temperature controlled and ergonomically designed so the thrusters didn't need some convoluted pose to operate correctly. There was just no way he could get his mind to relax enough to allow actual sleep.
“JARVIS, get me Pepper's phone records and anything she did on Stark Industries' computers.”
The HUD listed the phone records immediately. Evidently, JARVIS had taken the liberty of downloading when Happy called.“Accessing Oracle network now, sir.”
A retinal beam passed over his eyeball to scan for authorization. He'd never told Pepper he could do this, but after Obadiah Stane's betrayal, she should have known he would have programmed the system so something like that could never happen again. Not that he had even the slightest worry Pepper was doing anything underhanded. No, if anything, Pepper was the one double-checking everyone else. But diligence like that could get her in trouble. Perhaps it already had.
He wished he could convince himself she was just playing hooky from work—purposely ditch the phone to be unreachable so she could enjoy a day at the spa or shopping on Fifth Avenue. Wasn't that what most women did? Pepper wasn't 'most women'. He couldn't perform the mental gymnastics to even imagine her acting like that. She was a workaholic to the point of obsession, and even if she wanted to take a break, she'd never lie to Happy or intentionally leave her phone anywhere but a locked briefcase or inside her apartment. It was conceivable she dropped the phone and didn't notice, but then she still would have turned up at the car. A lost phone would have been infinitely preferable to a lost Pepper.
He finished going through her phone records. Tony recognized 90% as business contacts, and all the rest were calls to carry-out food joints, dry cleaners, and him. Everything was routine. However, he did feel a pang of guilt when he noticed the total amount of time he'd spent talking to her versus just about anyone else but the dry cleaner. Bambi, her secretary, talked to her more than he did and she saw Pepper in person five days a week.
What if he never saw her again? Was he really so busy that he couldn't just listen to her rant about the cold or get on his case for ignoring his own R&D guys? Or heaven forbid, maybe he could tell her how much he loved hearing her voice or seeing her smile, or what an amazing job she was doing as CEO. Then again, maybe he should start small and work up to the big things.
“JARVIS, if we find Pepper and she doesn't resign in writing after this, you will remind me whenever we haven't spoken for more than three consecutive days.”
“Shall I count the voicemails you listen to but never answer?”
“No. Only actual conversations lasting more than five minutes.”
“Very well, sir. Are you ready for the computer data you requested?”
“Yes. Close phone records and show me what you got.”
The computer records were no more helpful than the phone. The Stark Tower project was ahead of schedule and on budget. Judging from the amount of screen time she spent reviewing things, nothing was sneaking in under her scrutiny. Pepper spent 15 minutes or less per day playing solitaire, and that was always at lunch time. She hadn't been on YouTube in at least six months and her Twitter account hadn't been updated since she was promoted to CEO. Tony whispered, “All work and no play, honey?”
JARVIS replied, “Perhaps you would care to see Miss Potts' personal calendar, sir.” The AI didn't wait for Tony's reaction, but displayed it simultaneous to the offer. None of her corporate appointments were listed, but he'd already seen the business appointment book, which had been saved on the SI network, so both she and Bambi could make changes to it at any time.
This was different. It was filled in haphazardly with names, most of them unfamiliar. There were no times or meeting places mentioned, just the word 'email' followed by a check-mark. About 5% of the names had 'card' and a check mark beside them instead. He saw the Potts surname on several of the card variety. The check marks ended in the present and all the names in the future had none.
Tony would have assumed this was nothing more than her birthday reminder list except that every weekend she had spent in Malibu had HOME in oversized red capitals that were also double-underlined and bolded. The weekends he had come to New York were marked TONY in the same manner.
He felt his eyes stinging. “How much farther, JARVIS?”
“Twenty-three minutes, seventeen seconds.”
He couldn't sleep and he couldn't just do nothing. “Get me crime activity reports for Pepper's neighborhood. NYPD, FBI, everything. List by degree, murders first.”
“Search radius, sir?”
“Start with five miles.”
And so began the brain-numbing stream of information, most of it senseless, all of it making him feel like he should add some kind of bathing function to the next suit upgrade. He let JARVIS run it by like a bad slide show, taking in only the barest of details so he could eliminate each entry from having any discernible connection. However, it was quickly becoming apparent that plenty of suffering in New York had no reason or logic connected to it at all. All the research in the world would be useless if Pepper was a victim of some drug-crazed junkie or random psychopath.
He extended the radius to seven miles and went through half of the new material before he felt the suit descending. “Call Pepper's phone,” he said.
Her smiling avatar appeared next to the number on the HUD and Tony resisted the urge to wince. The first ring didn't complete before the call connected. “There were no witnesses,” Happy barked defensively. “And where are you?”
“Hello to you too. I'm about a thousand feet above your head. Meet me on the roof.”
“Yeah? Okay.” Happy hung up.
Tony landed and had the Mark V all folded down into its suitcase and locked up tight before the door opened and Happy glared at him with that it's-about-time-you-got-here look on his face. He was sorry it had taken so long, but he couldn't have made it any faster and he certainly didn't have to apologize to Happy for living in Malibu. Still, he felt kind of sorry for the big guy, standing around, not having anything to do but pace the hall all this time. He handed him the Mark V. “Don't lose that.”
Happy nodded, his irritation finally dissolving into what looked like relief. Both of them hurried down the stairs.
Pepper's front door looked nearly normal, except for the broken wood around the knob. Still, Tony wouldn't have wanted to try to break it without having a crow bar or battering ram or a nice repulsor to help. He gripped both sides of the door and lifted it to move so he and Happy could get in. The place wasn't quite as clean as it was when she knew he was coming, but it was ten times better than anything he could ever maintain without the help of three full-time maids. No dirty dishes. No clothes on the floor. No takeout boxes in the living room. He was almost sorry it looked so nice. “No signs of struggle here.”
“Nope,” Happy affirmed as if this was a point of pride for him. “Like I said, I found the phone by the elevator. Whatever happened, happened out there.” He hooked a thumb over his shoulder.
Tony still wanted to be sure he didn't miss a clue, so he checked her bedroom and then the bathroom. There on the counter was something he didn't expect. A pregnancy test with a positive result. He froze in shock and stared at it. For a split second, he thought, Whose? because he had been careful.
But then he remembered how his was the only name in bold red caps and the fact Pepper didn't have any free time to cheat on him anyway. She was so head over heels for him that she was practically a virgin. She admitted she had been pining away for years, swearing off all men because none could compare to Tony Stark. This was just so... unexpected. Why hadn't she said anything? He looked down beside the toilet to find a brand new Iron Man waste can—the kind they made for 8-year-old boys to put in their bedroom. It only held a toothpaste box and a thin strip of paper. He reached in and pulled out the paper. It was a drugstore receipt for toothpaste, alka-seltzer, and a pregnancy test. It was less than twelve hours old.
His mind went into backpedal mode. Maybe the test wasn't even hers. Maybe she had a girlfriend sleep over. Maybe...?
“You find something?” Happy called from the living room.
“No,” he said immediately, tucking the test and receipt in his pocket. If the cops came in here, he didn't want them finding that and possibly leaking it to the media. He carried the novelty waste bin out with him. “Just checking out the new décor. Classic.”
Happy chuckled. “She figured you'd get a kick out of that.”
He set the bin down and gave the apartment one last scan. There was nothing in here that would help. He tapped Happy on the shoulder. “Show me where you found her phone.