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Manhattan Double Bluff

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The post-war years had been very good for Tony Stark. Unbelievably good. Every division of Stark Industries was doing gangbuster business from spiffy washing machines and efficient refrigerators for the American consumer to workhorse jet engines and innovative airplane designs for aerospace industry. And Stark was building his own personal empire of a Fifth Avenue mansion, a cottage in the Hamptons, and a new modern beach home in Malibu, a fleet of fast American and European cars, and all the women he could handle and then some. No complaints for Tony. No complaints at all.

But there was one cloud in his blue skies. When he arrived at work one Tuesday morning, he found a grizzled Nick Fury, with eye-patch, lit cigar and cheap suit, taking up space in his office. Fury waved his cigar at Tony as he set down his briefcase on the black leather and chrome couch set against the wall. Tony finally acknowledged him and immediately stepped out of the office.

“What’s going on here, Bambi?” Tony demanded.

Seated at her typewriter, Tony’s long suffering appointment secretary, Bambi Arbogast, sighed. “Colonel Fury was here this morning, Mr. Stark, before we opened. Miss Potts tried to get him to schedule an appointment and leave, but he’s a rather insistent man.”

“Fine,” Tony replied through gritted teeth. He set his shoulders, drew a deep breath, and headed in for the inevitable battle.

This time, he took his time hanging up his hat, checking his stack of mail and settling in at his large Italian-designed desk. The desk and his office furniture were expensive, cool, and so modern that it made people’s heads hurt. Which was the intention.

Fury watched him carefully. “Satisfied, Stark?” he growled around his cigar.

“Not until you’re gone.” Stark had never trusted the master spy Nick Fury, especially after seeing the man in action during the war. And now the man was back in his life, older, even more grizzled, greyer around the temples, the wear and tear of the years making their mark, and stinking up his office with his cigar. Stark pushed an ashtray across his desk towards Fury.

“I’ll get to the point then. Remember HYDRA?”

“Too well,” Tony replied. Of course he remembered HYDRA, the über Nazis that had made the war pure hell for him as he tried desperately to out think and out match their fanatical scientists weapon for weapon.

“Someone is shipping American technology to some new organization calling themselves HYDRA.” Fury flicked some ashes into the ashtray. His one deep brown eye coolly appraised Stark for his reaction.

“HYDRA? Weren’t they wiped out?”

“One would think, right? My intel tells me that it’s HYDRA all right. Zemo and Strucker apparently escaped the fall of Berlin and are putting the band back together again. SHIELD is working on it. But we found this doohickey on a recent mission.” He tossed a small piece of twisted metal onto the desk.

Tony didn’t want to admit that he was intrigued so he played at being reluctant to examine the evidence. His sharp blue eyes immediately picked out the Stark Industries stamp on the metal.”What is that?”

Fury huffed. “You tell me, bright eyes. What is Stark tech doing in the hands of the enemy?”

“I’m going to find out,” Tony replied darkly. “We’ve been out of the weapons business for the last year now and I mean to keep it that way.” Ever since that disastrous trip to Korea he thought bitterly, that had nearly cost him his life.

“Counting on it.” Fury stood up. “See you tonight.”

“Wait, no. I have plans.” Plans including a shapely French model and lots of alcohol.

“You do – you’re joining me and a special friend for dinner at the Havana. 7:00 sharp.”

After Fury left, Tony had Bambi call his date to say that he’d meet her at nine, glad that Fury believed in early hours. No reason to let Fury ruin his day.

~~~~~

Everybody who was anybody and then some knew the famous Tony Stark, CEO of Stark Industries, soon to be Stark Enterprises, an updated modern name for the old firm. His legend had only grown over the years since he graduated at 20 from MIT with a Ph.D. and was immediately shipped off to Europe in the fall of ’43 to fight the Nazis for good ol’ Uncle Sam with science and technology. Back from the war, he built weapons for the military and wined and dined his way through nearly all the heiresses, starlets and models on the East Coast while amassing the biggest fortune among the rising technocrat class.

He had met Fury and his Howling Commandos in some rundown café in a tiny war-ravaged town in France on his way to the front. Fury shook his hand and said he expected big things from the Baby Stark being sent to the front lines. As they left the café, Stark looked up and saw the Human Torch and Toro blaze past them, followed by Captain America on a motorcycle in hot pursuit and Bucky taking up the rear. Fury clapped Tony hard on the back, nearly knocking the wind out of him. “That’s a real sight there, ain’t it, lab boy?” Tony never forgot his first glimpse of Captain America.

Ever since then his life had been tangled up with Fury, and Tony couldn’t really say no to the man. Even if Fury’s super-secret spy agency failed Tony when he was kidnapped on a routine Department of Defense tour in Korea back in ‘50.

When Tony arrived at the club, there was already a small crowd outside waiting to be allowed inside. He immediately attracted attention. Besides being Tony Stark – an attraction in itself – he had dressed for maximum impact with the bespoke dark suit showing off his tall, lean body to best affect and a rich red silk tie highlighting his olive skin and blue eyes. He sensed the flash of a camera bulb when he kissed a giggling Broadway starlet on the cheek. Pepper would not be pleased when the photo appeared in the papers.

Fury was already seated at a table. Unfortunately he was in the back of the dining room, far from the stage featuring a jazz act and farther still from the actors, singers and New York elites that Tony usually would be sitting with. The red-haired hostess who looked like she had been poured into her low-cut black dress left Tony and menus at the table.

“You’re late,” Fury pointed out as he lit up a cigar.

“Busy man here. I was barely able to squeeze this meeting in,” Tony said as he reviewed the wine list. “Speaking of busy, where’s your special guest?”

“He’ll be here,” Fury grumbled. Tony didn’t know Fury particularly well, but he could tell that Fury was concerned that his friend had not joined them yet.

They had exhausted what little baseball knowledge Tony had and were on their second round of drinks by the time Fury’s friend joined them. A golden god with guarded blue eyes walked up confidently to their table. Tony sat up a little straighter, not knowing at all what to expect now. He had never seen a man like that outside movies and artwork. Neither had the women at the tables around them, based on the very appreciative looks aimed at the man.

Fury barely looked up from his drink. “You’re late, Steve,” he growled.

Steve sat down at the table and unfolded his napkin. Both Fury and Tony noticed that his hands were scraped and bloodied. “What happened?” Tony asked.

The man shrugged. “Sorry about that, Nick. I was interrupted on my way over. Would’ve been here sooner but I ran into a HYDRA agent.”

“Guess we’re telling the world now,” Fury said with an edge to his voice.

Steve glanced over at Tony. “You told me that was why we were meeting with Mr. Stark here. That you told him about why we are meeting.”

“Right. Well, Tony, meet Steve Rogers, your new bodyguard.” Fury waved the drink in his hand towards Steve.

“I have a bodyguard, already. No offense, Rogers,” Tony replied.

“Maybe I didn’t tell you the whole story in your office,” Fury conceded. “Let’s order dinner before going over the gory details.”

Even after a careful study of the newest addition to their table, Tony couldn’t figure Rogers out. He carried himself like a military man, sitting ramrod straight at the table with a polite but firm manner as if he was rarely, if ever, contradicted. But there were lots of former soldiers around due to the War, nothing particularly unusual there. He likely bought his grey suit and bland tie off the rack at a department store, so he didn’t have money. Rogers also seemed a little lost, a bit uncomfortable in the club, like he’d never really been to a big-city nightclub. He didn’t act like the usual rabble who worked for Fury, so maybe he was a new recruit. But Fury wasn’t exactly treating Rogers like one of his SHIELD agents. Something wasn’t adding up here and Tony didn’t like it.

Tony managed to be polite during the appetizers. But his patience wore thin by the time the steaks arrived. “So, what’s all this about?” he asked.

Fury narrowed his eye, annoyed with Tony’s impertinence. “What did you find out about that piece of junk I gave you?”

“It’s ours all right. I’m having Pepper trace the paperwork and serial numbers. I think the parts were stolen or repurposed surplus. Got my attention though.”

“Good,” Fury replied. “Because things have changed since this morning. And you’re a target – that’s why I’m bringing in Rogers here.”

Tony snorted. “Hogan does all right.”

Ignoring him, Fury continued, “You have that charity shindig on Friday night, right, at the mansion. Lots of the high and mighty of New York. Perfect cover for a kidnapping.”

“What are you saying now, Fury? That I’m the target? Like that’s going to work.” Tony glanced over at Rogers who was listening intently to them. The man had an unexpected intelligence in those baby blues.

“Right. And I’m dead certain that HYDRA is going to do it during your party. So that’s why I’m bringing in Steve. Hogan is a good man, but he’s not up to this on his own.”

Tony spent the rest of dinner protesting Fury’s plans, but Fury was not a man who backed down easily, if ever. Eventually Tony gave up when Fury finally conceded that the Rogers’ detail would only last until the party and that was all Fury was expecting. Tony could work with that.

At the hat check, Tony turned to Steve. “So, Rogers, when do you want to come by the mansion? Friday morning?”

Rogers cocked his head to the side, as if sizing up Tony. “I should come by Wednesday or Thursday, in case we find security problems.”

“My bodyguard Happy Hogan handles all that.” Tony did not like Rogers’ implications. And Rogers had a way of putting him on edge.

“I could talk with your man if you prefer that,” Rogers offered.

A blessed solution to the problem of having to deal with the unwelcome and unsettling Rogers. Tony jumped on the offer. “Call my executive secretary Pepper Potts tomorrow morning. She can make the arrangements for you.” He handed Rogers an embossed business card.

As he put on his grey fedora, Rogers said with sincerity, “I look forward to working with you, Mister Stark.”

“Same here,” Tony replied, without the sincerity. He shook Rogers’ hand and noticed that strangely, the scrapes from earlier now looked healed over. Tony could not have imagined the damage he’d seen earlier.

He watched Fury and Rogers leave the club. Then Tony stalked over to the lobby phone booth and called Pepper. “Find me everything you can find on a Steve Rogers,” he ordered. “And as soon as you can.”

Fury might trust Rogers, but that didn’t mean that Tony had to. He had at least learned caution in his old age of twenty-nine.