The hall outside the elevator was incredibly boring but for one detail. Up in the corner, well-hidden by an elaborate cornice, was the crown jewel: a security camera. Tony waved at it. Just as he turned back, he noticed Happy rolling his eyes. Okay, so it did look narcissistic, but he was thinking he'd be viewing the footage and his wave would provide a reference point. But as touchy as Happy was right now, Tony didn't want to explain himself.
“We should watch that,” Happy said, pointing to the camera now himself.
“Good idea. I'll go talk to the manager. Why don't you wait here and if anyone comes by, ask them which apartment they live in. We may need fingerprints.” In reality, he just wanted to ramp up the Tony Stark charm on whoever held the security footage and that would be more difficult with “Mr. Sunshine” here tagging along.
Happy nodded. Tony wasn't sure if it was leftover deference from when he was Tony's employee or the realization he wouldn't be helping, but it didn't really matter. Happy would do anything for Pepper.
Tony took the elevator down to the lobby. The desk clerk was male, which was a little unfortunate. Tony did better with women. However, Iron Man was popular with both genders and if Iron Man devotion didn't cut it, there was always dead presidents. He patted his back pocket. Crap. He'd left his wallet at home in the rush. No dead presidents. Summoning his most charming smile, he stepped up to the desk.
“Mr. Stark. How can I help you?”
Tony breathed a sigh of relief. It was better when he didn't have to try to convince people he really was Tony Stark, especially when he'd left his driver's license at home. He lowered his voice to a conspiratorial tone. “I need to speak to someone about security. Can you hook me up?”
The man nodded. “Right away, Mr. Stark.”
Being the genius he was, Tony was marginally aware that ordinary schmucks (i.e. anyone who wasn't Tony Stark) didn't get quite the same level of courtesy he did, but he was so used to it, it didn't really register on the wow-o-meter. This guy could be hoping to be hired at Stark Tower when it was ready. And for recognizing him and being helpful and polite, Tony would put in a good word if he asked. He glanced at the name-tag and filed away the name, Kyle.
Kyle must have pressed a panic button or something, because he didn't even have to make a call before a guy who was built like Happy came through a door behind him. Kyle turned and addressed him. “Hey, George. Mr. Stark asked to speak with you.” Kyle emphasized 'Stark', like he thought George might not know who he was and he didn't want an embarrassing moment.
George didn't look surprised or wowed. He smiled politely at Tony. “Please don't tell me your lovely CEO has a clogged drain we've overlooked.”
Ah, so he knew the connection. So much the better. “No, no, nothing like that. Can we go somewhere private?” He didn't want to discuss even a hypothetical mugging where other residents might hear and he was pretty sure George would appreciate that once he started talking. George motioned for him to come back behind the desk and through the door where he'd just emerged.
He led Tony to a small office, swept his hand over the chairs, and waited for Tony to sit first. George took the chair behind the desk.
Tony got right to the point. “Miss Potts called her driver this morning and said she was on her way down, but she never made it. Mr. Hogan found her phone outside the elevator on the eighteenth floor, but she's missing. I was wondering if I could look at your security camera footage.”
George frowned. He didn't like the sound of this any more than Tony did. “Have you called the police yet?”
Tony shook his head. “I've got nothing to give them. She's only been missing a few hours. But if there's something on your security tape that can show foul play, then they'll listen.” Actually, Tony didn't think the police would help much. They were overworked and underpaid and New York was too full of crime already. He'd hire a private investigator if he needed to, and he'd suit up personally if force was called for.
“Eighteenth floor, right? What time do you need?”
Tony did a quick calculation from 3:35 in California to 6:35 New York time, then back twenty minutes that Happy mentioned and added little leeway on either side for good measure. “6 A.M. to 6:45.”
George wrote it down and then rolled his chair toward the computer and started typing. Tony tried to be patient, but it was hard when this guy had to type so much and mouse-click through so many stupid screens just to give the command to do the search. How could people stand this inefficiency? JARVIS would have the recording cued up and be two minutes in already.
However, what the computer lacked in efficiency, George made up for with his practiced eye. He turned the monitor to an angle Tony could see just as Pepper was locking her apartment door.
“That's her. Perfect,” Tony commented.
They watched as she made the call to Happy, never stopping in her trek to the elevator. She was on the phone no more than fifteen seconds before moving it away from her ear and touching the disconnect. She reached out for the elevator call button with her other hand. She held a water bottle, but she only needed one finger to hit the button.
Then, from the stairway door, a red-haired male swooped in behind her, covering her mouth and nose with a folded white cloth. Pepper's eyes widened in sheer terror and then she slumped over, unconscious. Every muscle in Tony's body tightened, but he couldn't find his voice. Another man appeared, this one wearing a ski mask, to help carry her limp body out through the stairway door. They picked up the water bottle she had dropped, but they didn't seem to notice her fallen phone. In seconds, she was gone and the hall was empty again.
George did a rewind and slo-mo, which was almost too difficult to watch with that terrified look in Pepper's eyes. He isolated several shots out of the footage and printed them. They were all grainy, the color was terrible, and the unmasked man was mostly obscured by Pepper, but it was certainly evidence of foul play. “I'll call the cops,” the security man said solemnly. He reached for the desk phone.
“Can I get a copy of that?” Tony asked quickly, pointing to the monitor. He wanted to leave before he had to hear the crime described again.
George nodded. “Jump or flash?”
“Flash, thanks.” JARVIS would be able to analyze it, maybe clean stuff up enough to ID the guy.
George transferred the footage to the tiny square, placed it in a plastic case, and held the case out at shoulder height.
Tony had a major peeve against being handed things, but he needed this and there was no one else to take it for him. He flashed a weak smile. “Can you just set it down?” He eyed the table, hoping he didn't have to mention his peeve.
George pushed it across the tabletop to him.
Tony curled his fingers around the tiny case and stood. “Thanks for this. Oh, and you'll find her front door damaged, but that wasn't any crime. Her driver broke it in the process of looking for her. Stark Industries will pay for the damage.”
George quirked a brow. “Thanks, but we'll cover it. I'll get someone on that right away. I don't want her apartment burglarized while she's... uh... out. The cops will want to talk to Hogan. Do you know where he is?”
He chuckled. “Guarding that door he broke. Seems he doesn't want her apartment burglarized either.”
George met his eyes. “We'll take care of the door. You find her.”
“I plan to.” Tony left the security office, waved to Kyle as he passed, and headed back to the elevator.
He debated with himself how to break it to Happy, but there was no way to sugar-coat it. Both of them already knew it had to be something of this nature because Pepper wouldn't just disappear. Why did it hurt so much more now he had seen it with his own eyes? He got off on the eighteenth floor and found Happy just where he thought he'd be, guarding her door. The big guy looked up expectantly.
“She was kidnapped.”
“I should have been here. I shouldn't have let her get on the elevator alone.”
Tony shook his head. “She's not going to let you treat her like a baby any more than I did. There's a doorman here. He's supposed to stop riffraff from coming in, but it's a free country. They could have posed as plumbers or florists—anything, really.”
“Two of 'em.” He held up the fist holding the tiny case. “Got them both on camera. One's wearing a ski mask, but we may get lucky on the other. Where's the football?”
Happy stepped aside. “Living room.”
“Cops'll be here soon. They'll wanna talk to you.”
“I don't know anything.”
“They don't know that. Besides, you knew enough. You called me.” Tony hurried past him into Pepper's living room. He unlocked the Mark V and spoke into the case. “JARVIS, give me the flash memory slot.”
The hardware had a specific routine for turning into the armored suit, but without getting a foot in the boot to activate that sequence, it could function as simply a repository to house the AI. Parts shifted and the flash drive slot appeared, along with a multitude of other interfaces. Tony slipped the memory card in. “Security video of Pepper's attack happens around 6:15AM. See if you can ID the red-headed guy not wearing a mask.”
“Yes, sir. Attempting digital enhancement of the image...”
A holographic projection materialized from the Mark V, giving Tony the same kind of display he would have at home in his garage. He could now see what the AI was accomplishing with each phase of digital wizardry. Eventually, the graininess was cleaned up and the features sharpened, but it was still a complete stranger staring back at him.
“Initiating facial recognition and cross-matching criminal records,” JARVIS said. A split screen showed the finished picture with neon green lines connecting the pertinent points on the face and to the right, a screen blitzed through the database, flashing photographs too fast to see, while the AI compared each one to the sample.
Tony watched a few seconds. “How long, J?”
“If the perpetrator has a criminal record, four hours maximum.”
“And if not?”
“Accessing driver's licenses and passports worldwide could take up to three days, sir.”
“Pepper may not have three days.”
JARVIS had no answer for that. He was a very smart computer, but he wasn't God.
“Okay, just keep working,” he said, mostly to convince himself this was 'doing something'. What he really wanted was to suit up, swoop in and rescue Pepper, and then bust some heads. He stared at the face of the man who had grabbed the woman he loved, the woman who was carrying his child. Something about the eyes behind those Ozzy Osbourne glasses niggled at his brain, but he couldn't put his finger on it. Why did the other guy wear a ski mask, when all he did was help carry, while this s.o.b. who obviously drugged her into unconsciousness, didn't even wear dark shades or a hat or anything?
“Sir, I have an 87% match,” JARVIS reported. The blur of portraits on the right stopped and focused on just one picture.
Tony squinted at the two photographs. “Remove facial recognition aids,” he ordered.
The green lines disappeared. The almost-match had straight blonde hair instead of red and wavy, and he wasn't wearing any glasses in the mug shot.
“Add glasses and a wig to match our perp.”
“That's him. One hundred percent.”
“The match is still 87%, sir. Hair and accessories are not part of the recognition protocol.”
“Eighty-seven? Come on. They look exactly the same.”
JARVIS zoomed in and redrew the analysis lines, showing the discrepancies. The line between the eyes blinked red, as well as the forehead height and something about the cheek.
“Maybe he went on a diet, you know, lost weight.”
“One cannot cause one's eyes to grow further apart by diet, sir. It is a skeletal feature and—”
“Mute.” Tony understood how facial recognition worked. He didn't want to argue, but he was ready to swear in court that the two faces from the holographic projection were the same guy whether the software said they were or not. He wanted this guy and he wanted him badly. With JARVIS silenced, he started reading the rap sheet that went with the identity: Sean Brennan, long list of aliases, did time in the New York state pen for grand theft, but had successfully completed parole and was off the radar. Last job was a bike messenger for Amar Deshpande, Esq., attorney-at-law.
Tony memorized the employer's address as well as the last known residence. All the dates were several years ago, so he didn't hold out too much hope they'd be valid, but it was a start. He reached out and swiped his hand over the holographic display to get the next page of information. He studied everything in the file, memorizing as much as he could because he wanted nothing more than to turn this guy into toast. But only after he led him to Pepper. Her safety came first.
A red rectangular box containing the word 'ALERT' started flashing in his peripheral. This was JARVIS's way of begging to be allowed to talk again.
“What is it, J?”
“I expanded the search to recent live feeds. Facial recognition found another match, this one 100%.” A third portrait was added to the two already up. This one looked just like the other two.
“What am I looking at then? Twins?”
JARVIS zoomed out on the newest picture and showed the background. It had been taken just outside the minimum security prison in upstate New York, more popularly known as Club Fed. The prison records labeled him Mark O'Dell, and he stood next to a man labeled Amar Deshpande. The footage was time-stamped only two days ago.
Tony had a really bad feeling at the pit of his stomach. No. It couldn't be.
Before he could articulate his doubts, JARVIS displayed a fourth photograph, this one showing Deshpande and O'Dell again, headed into the building. “Sir, this one was taken thirty minutes prior. This face is a 100% match to Sean Brennan, but only an 87% match to the kidnap suspect.”
Tony drew a deep breath. “A lawyer and his office assistant made a prison visit.” Then someone else came out, wearing Sean Brennan's face. And that someone committed Pepper's kidnapping, wearing a mask after all.
“Who did they visit, JARVIS?” Tony closed his eyes and hoped he was wrong.
“Justin Hammer, sir.”