“Flight time, JARVIS. Suit me up.”
The interface panel that had the holographic projector slid smoothly away and the opening for his foot appeared. Tony stepped into the boot, shoved his hands inside the gauntlets, and let the armor form around him. It didn't remove all his anxiety, but it energized him and pumped his spirits. He walked toward Happy, clunking and clanking with every step. There wasn't any kind of stealth mode on the ground and he didn't really care.
“Did you find her?” Happy asked.
“Not yet, but I think I know who took her.”
If Happy told the cops, they might alert Club Fed before he got there. It was better he didn't know, so he wouldn't have to lie. “Tell ya later.”
Happy scowled, but to his credit, he didn't argue. He gave Tony a thumb's up as he passed and called, “Go get 'em,” as Iron Man tromped down the hall.
Tony clanked his way up the stairs to the roof. The skies were cloudy and the wind whistled around the rooftops. His HUD displayed the outside temperature as 42 degrees Fahrenheit, but he didn't feel cold. Burning determination aside, the suit was perfectly temperature controlled. He fired his thrusters and shot off into the sky. “Flight time to the prison, J?”
“Eight minutes at maximum thrust, sir.”
“Eight? I didn't think it was that far.”
“I'm routing you around a blizzard.” A live satellite image appeared on the HUD with a diagram of the flight plan JARVIS had programmed.
“I can go through that,” Tony insisted.
“Sir, you'd be fighting a headwind that would make the trip longer than going around.”
“Fine, let's go over it then.” He used manual control to gain altitude until he was above the clouds. It was odd to go from storm to calm in a matter of seconds. It was bright, sunny, and peaceful up here. He wished he could escape the emotional blizzard as easily. Some part of his mind had been chewing on the possibilities since he had been so rudely awakened.
Kidnapping was a new fear. Before Pepper, there had never been anyone he cared about enough to be in danger. He had no family and he'd never spent more than one night with any woman, and the press made sure everyone knew it. He'd taken it slow with Pepper, but he didn't hide like it was something to be ashamed of. Most people probably didn't know the depth of his feelings, but they'd been seen together in public and there had been gossip.
He was ready to pay anything to ensure Pepper's safe return, but knowing Hammer was involved took the threat to a whole new level. Hammer wasn't just out for money, although he probably felt Tony owed him what his lawyers had soaked him for. No, Justin Hammer wanted revenge, not just revenge on him for defending his own Expo, but on Pepper for interrupting his stupid presentation. Never mind it was Vanko who hijacked all his hardware right under his nose. Never mind it was Agent Romanoff who strong-armed him into spilling his guts, or so Pepper had told him.
Pepper had so little to do with Hammer's demise that she hadn't even been called as a witness in his trial. But that sucker-slurping pansy would blame the most vulnerable female he could, just for calling 911 in the middle of a crisis. This kidnapping was undoubtedly designed to hurt Tony, but he couldn't help but worry she was more than just a means to get to him. Hammer had escaped from prison to do this. He had nothing to lose and plenty of reasons to kill her. Above all, Tony would not accept that outcome. He hated Hammer with a passion, but he'd let him get away if it meant saving Pepper.
And as troubling as it was to think about Hammer after he'd written him off to oblivion for the next twelve years, he now had to face the fact the mega-wuss wasn't in this alone. He had help. Who would go to such lengths to break his sorry butt out of the slammer? Money bought a lot in this world, as Tony knew well, but Hammer wasn't supposed to have enough money left to his name to pay anyone the kind of cash it should cost to actually take his place in prison. So who was this Sean Brennan/Mark O'Dell character? What did Hammer offer him?
JARVIS nudged the Mark V to descend below the clouds again. Tony fought the urge to allow his emotions to mirror the dark clouds that cast a depressing pall of gloom over everything.
The prison below was surrounded by grass and trees, looking more inviting to Tony than most of the Bronx. From above, he saw the tennis courts and swimming pool that earned the place its nickname of Club Fed. Tall, razor-wired fence shattered any illusion this was any resort.
He used the repulsors in his palms to maneuver his landing so he was outside the fence. He wasn't here to cause a stir. He would leave the suit in a locker and have a chat as Tony Stark. Hammer had pretended they were friendly rivals. Maybe Mark O'Dell would slip up and say something that would help him make sense of all this.
“Suitcase mode, JARVIS.”
“Good luck, sir,” the AI said in parting as the Mark V reversed the armoring routine.
He carried the red and gold metal case with him and walked in through the visitor's entrance. A male receptionist sat at the desk. Tony was starting to question his luck until he remembered this was a men's prison. He could understand why it might be hard to recruit female office help. He stepped up and put on the charm smile.
Recognition and some wow-factor registered on the desk jockey's face. “You're Tony Stark!”
“Yes, I am.” He could see the awkward fan-gushing coming and he didn't want to go there. He rushed on toward business. “I'd like to visit Justin Hammer.”
Brows arched in surprise. “Doesn't he, like, hate your guts?”
“Probably. But how many visitors does he get?”
“None besides his lawyer. Have a seat. We'll ask him.”
Crap. He didn't really want Brennan to have any choice in the matter. Tony had to admit, if he was locked up, he wouldn't want to see Hammer come rub his nose in it. Someone pretending to be Hammer probably wouldn't want to answer questions either. He started planning his next move, which was to go to the warden and show him the evidence Hammer wasn't even in custody. He could only hope he'd be allowed to question the imposter.
Tony sat, keeping the Mark V between his feet. He noticed there were others in the foyer and he wasn't in the mood to sign autographs or chat right now. He had half a mind to announce his girlfriend had been kidnapped and he was sick with worry, so leave him the hell alone, but worry was new territory and he wasn't comfortable with the vulnerability gnawing at him, certainly not enough to tell strangers. He snatched up the nearest magazine and hid behind it. Ironically, he found himself in the “Special Stark Expo Edition” printed over a year ago.
He skimmed over the articles, marveling at how differently the Expo sounded without him being consumed over palladium poisoning and without the knowledge of its untimely demise. Hope for the future. Innovation and optimism. It was a good idea. Give the world a little time to forget, and he could try it again someday.
“Mr. Hammer agreed to see you, but you can't take that back there,” the guard said, indicating the suitcase with a nod.
“Ah, saw me in Monaco, did you?” Tony said conversationally. “Do you have a safe place for me to put it?”
The guard took him into an anteroom where it looked like all the visitors stashed their valuables and restricted items. Tony employed a locker, and took the locker key and the suitcase key with him, shoving both deep in his pocket. He didn't feel as secure as he would have liked, but no one else had enough knowledge of the suit to use it without his voice command, and it would take an awful lot to remove JARVIS's security subroutines. Only the guard knew where he put it and prison guards were fairly incorruptible, he hoped.
The visitation room was being used by two other inmates, but there was room for at least ten to use the room at the same time. Too bad Tony couldn't be alone with him, like he had been with Vanko. At least it was minimum security, so they didn't have to talk through glass.
Tony slipped into a chair behind a spartan table across from a man who was the spitting image of Justin Hammer. He had to force himself not to stare at the copycat, but he was in no mood to play games.“How much are they paying you?”
“Huh?” The man certainly had Hammer's idiot look down pat, and his voice was rather good too. No wonder they hadn't caught him yet.
“Hammer. Deshpande. Whoever paid you to take his place. How much?”
The Hammer clone stared at Tony for a moment, probably longer than the real Hammer was capable of without saying something stupid. He dropped the fake voice and spoke in a low tone, “Not everyone can be bought. I serve a higher cause.”
“Nope. Kidnapping innocent women is no high cause. Care to try again?”
The man bored into Tony with his gaze, like it was some epic staring contest.
Tony lifted his hand to his ear. “Can't hear you, O'Dell. Or is it Brennan?”
Nothing. Not even a reaction.
“Well, if you're not going to say anything, we're done.” He stood.
The man scoffed.
“Look, the jig is up. If Deshpande told you he'd get you out, you've been had. Breaking someone out of prison is a felony. Whatever payment you were supposed to get is gonna be useless where you're going.” He paused, studying his prey. It was too bad this wasn't the real Hammer. The wuss wouldn't have this kind of steely determination in the face of defeat. However, Tony realized his guy wasn't the enemy. He was the enemy's tool—the pawn, the fall guy. Tony leaned over and spoke in a whisper he hoped sounded compassionate. “Help me find Pepper and I'll help you. I've got connections.”
The man smiled. Tony saw Hammer's smirky lips, but Brennan's haughty eyes said 'you can't touch me and I know it.'
Without warning, Tony lunged with both hands splayed and fingers curled, aiming for as much face as he could get his hands on.
A prison guard rushed over, looking like he was about to beat Tony with his night stick or something, but Tony had what he wanted and backed off. He wiggled the torn and deflated Hammer face in front of the guard, both for shock value and to vindicate the “attack” he'd made on the poor, defenseless prisoner. When the guard lowered his stick, Tony threw the mask on the table with a rubbery splat, turned, and walked away. Behind him, he heard the slight scuffle of Brennan's arrest.
He waited until he was behind a closed door to speak again. “Tell the warden I want to be involved when he's moved. Call Stark Industries, extension 1.”
He collected the Mark V and went back outside to suit up. “JARVIS, route any Stark Industries calls from this location straight to me.”
“Yes, sir. Will we be going to Mr. Deshpande's office next?”
“You read my mind.”
“I do try, sir.”
“Take me around the blizzard this time.” He was feeling too stormy inside to tolerate the sunny view from above. JARVIS displayed the flight plan on the HUD but Tony didn't pay it much attention. Brennan had only been available for questioning because he was locked up. If Deshpande had any brains at all, he would be long gone. “Give me everything you have on Deshpande, J.”
“How far back would you like me to look, sir?”
“His cub scout leader. His Kindergarten teacher. The kid who stole his lunch money. Everything.”
“Public data displaying now.” The HUD showed the results from five internet search engines. “Comprehensive report estimated in one hundred seventy-two minutes.”
“I can fly from Malibu to New York in less than two hours, yet it takes almost three for a simple profile?”
“No, sir. A simple profile would require nineteen point four minutes. You asked for 'everything'.”
A smile tugged at his lips but refused to form. “That's right. You start on 'everything' and in the meanwhile, feed me what we've already got.” The HUD tracked his eye movements and JARVIS was already programmed to turn pages when his eye reached the end and pause if he nodded off. He filled his flight time with the incredibly boring details of Amar Deshpande's law career, his uneventful law school stint, and his (mostly losing) bowling league.
Tony arrived at the Manhattan office space just as he finished up on Amar's days in college fraternity. UCLA pre-law students certainly had a different path than what he'd experienced at MIT, but so far, he'd found no clues to how some relatively mundane lawyer became involved in breaking Justin Hammer out of prison.
The lawyer's office was empty, but the rent was paid for another two months. Tony asked around. No one knew Amar Deshpande by name, but when they were shown his picture, everyone said he was courteous and polite, but not particularly talkative. No one in the building had seen him in weeks.
Frustrated, Tony returned to the apartment building on Park Avenue. The police were there, dusting for fingerprints and questioning residents. They asked him when he arrived and how he found out, obviously checking Happy's statement.
“Have you been contacted with a ransom demand yet?” some FBI agent asked.
“Are you sure no one else would be contacted—parents, a rich brother, maybe?”
Tony was one hundred percent certain Justin Hammer didn't give a damn whether she had any family he might possibly exploit. But the cops didn't know Hammer was the kidnapper and Tony wasn't going to tell them unless they asked. Pepper once told him she had no one else besides him. She had never talked about family or mentioned visiting them. “She sends birthday cards to some cousins, I think, but she's not close to any of them.”
“We'll set up a phone tap.”
Tony resisted the urge to laugh. “I think I can handle tracing a call, officer. I'll let you know when the drop is.”
“You're not seriously considering giving in to their demands, are you?” The agent looked like he wanted to perform a blood alcohol test right there. Either that, or run his prints. Evidently, he thought Iron Man was too tough to cave to something as petty as some girl held hostage.
“Not considering. Decided. I give them whatever they want.”
The agent didn't say it, but the look in his eyes screamed, Tony Stark is a pushover.
Well, maybe he was when it came to Pepper. But these bozos didn't even know Hammer had been roaming free for two days and they certainly didn't know Hammer like he did. He didn't care what they thought. He had two goals: Get Pepper safe. Then, and only then, make damned sure Hammer couldn't do this again. Ever.
He didn't need their help and he didn't need their approval.