Chapter 1: An Unwelcome Walk In
I kicked my heels up on the mahogany desk and took a swig from my glass to celebrate a job well done. It had been on the tougher end for one of my cases, but I'd cracked it, like I always did. I was looking forward to something nice and easy, like chasing down some drug store cowboy and proving he'd been stepping out on his girl. It's not like I was strapped for cash, so I was free to take the type of jobs I wanted to keep myself pleasantly occupied.
The intercom buzzed, Pepper's voice materializing on the other end of the line.
"There's someone here to see you, Tony."
Pepper, she was the best secretary I could have asked for, and I knew it. She'd stuck with me through the most ill conceived of my adventures and always managed to keep her head on straight. There had been something there once, romantically that is, but I know for certain that a smart gal like her would be better off with a better guy; the kind of man who wasn't going to run off and get himself shot, or take to the bottle when things got rough. She'd even gone and gotten herself hitched, but didn't run off to play house like so many dames would. She was loyal to her core.
"I don't remember having any appointments..."
"That's because you didn't, but they say it's urgent."
I ran a hand over my neck and then pressed a finger back against the button. What could the harm be in receiving someone? I could always turn them down, after all.
"Send 'im in," I decided, much to my later regret. "Oh, and Pep? Could ya' be a doll and get me a cup of coffee?"
"No, Tony; and I'm sending him through."
The click clacking of hard soled shoes heralded my guests' arrival.
The moment he walked in, I knew that trouble had found me.
The man was tall, but no where near bulky—Well dressed in a close fitting suit and meticulously
put together—Coal black hair slicked back.
"Have a seat." I gestured to the leather chair opposite the desk, something deep in my stomach telling me that something about this was a mistake. After nearly getting shot to Hell, I needed to be taking a well earned break, not whatever it was I was doing just then.
"Thank you," the man said, voice low and airily accented. He folded pale, pink hands across each other in his lap as he sat.
"Mr. Stark," the man began deferentially, "it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance."
I wasn't sure what it was, other than experience, that had me so unnerved. This man didn't have a hair out of place. If it was anything readily visible, it was the eyes, this particular pair a deep forest green, and sharp in a way that nothing could cover.
"Thanks. Planning on introducing yourself?"
"Yes, of course." The man held out a hand. "My name is Loki Laufeyson, and I need your help."
Of course he does.
"Loki Laufeyson. That's one I haven't heard before," I said as I accepted the outstretched hand.
"What is it, Norwegian?"
The man's handshake wasn't particularly firm, but it was passable.
"I'm Icelandic, actually."
"You're an immigrant, then?"
I nodded to myself, trying to take an extra minute to size him up.
"So why exactly do you think I'm the man to help you?"
"They say you're the best at what you do." Loki answered with an earnest expression.
"Well, I can't argue with that. What's so urgent?"
"I'm afraid I've found myself in quite a bit of trouble, Mr. Stark," Loki said almost shyly as he shifted one long leg over the other, and adjusted his white sleeve cuff.
"What kind of trouble?" I took a drink and wondered whether 'trouble' was indicative of the potential client being in a bit of an embarrising pickle, or in scaldingly hot water.
"I..." He paused, thin lips slightly open, staring down at his lap, "...Saw something I shouldn't have seen."
I sat up straighter in my seat.
Sounds more like hot water.
Loki looked up to make hard eye contact and leaned forward.
"Do you know who Victor Von Doom is, Mr. Stark?"
"Ive been alive more than three seconds. I know who Victor Von Doom is."
"Good. Then you know what kind of a man he is."
"I do. He's not the kind of man I want to spend my weekend screwing with. If he's who you're in deep with, I'm going to have to stop you right there."
I didn't need to go getting involved in Doom's web of terror. I had better things to do then go searching for a chance to wind up eaten by fish.
"I have no one else to turn to," he pleaded, brow furrowed in upset.
Now, just for the record, I know I'm a sucker for a pretty face looking to in-debt themselves to me, but I am not in fact, an idiot.
"Listen kid, I'm not just turning you out to weather the storm. This is a job for the cops, not a guy who had planned on finding a pretty girl and a nice, cold, bottle of scotch and dedicating the next forty eight hours to them."
Loki shook his head fervently. "No. You must realize that the police can't be trusted. Doom has his hands in everything."
I paused, knowing the man was mostly right, then pulled a small notepad from my desk and began to scribble on it.
"I'm going to give you a number and a name.. Detective Steve Rogers. He's a good cop, and a good man. Better than me. He'll make sure nothing happens to you. He's trustworthy."
Loki looked crest fallen. He swallowed, his adams apple bobbing pronouncedly. Green eyes flitted back and forth, as if searching for words.
"Maybe so, but if the police could take him down, they would have already. But they've been after him for years, and what do they have to show for it?"
"Look, he's the head of the Latverian mob, what d--"
"Mr. Stark," Loki urged, "He wants me dead! If you don't help me, I am going to wind up just how he wants me. Please, I need your help. I can pay, of course."
I groaned and ran a hand over my beard. This 'Loki' was practically wringing his hands, leaned in as far as the desk would let him. His bright, hooded eyes were wide and glistening, and I doubted the guy just had watery eyes.
Tears were not usually a good look on a man, but much to my chagrin, I had to admit that on Loki, it was strangely endearing.
Having just received dual lectures from Pepper and Steve, it was fresh on my mind that it was not worth the danger to accept dangerous cases because thick eye lashes get batted my way.
"I'm sorry. But if you're that scared, you'll call that number."
Turning my potential client away had been more taxing than I was used to. The man was genial when he left, but clearly not at ease with going. I cursed my conscience inwardly and wished this particular man hadn't looked so very in need of rescue. I'd never met a man who wore helpless quite so well without just looking pathetic.
I shook my head. Well chiseled cheek bones and a face it would be a shame to see cut up should not make me want to steal a case like this out from under the police and put myself in harms way needlessly, but it did.
I needed a stiff drink and a pliant bird--Needed to kick back. And if I called Steve in the morning to see if the guy had called him, where was the harm in that?
I tucked my hands into my suit pockets to protect them from the slight chill that always permeated the streets down by the water.
I breathed in the salty air and directed my attention to following the familiar path to my favorite drinking hole. My shoulders dropped as I was bathed in the glow leaking from the windows of the small bar. I pushed open the wooden door beneath the large sign reading: Banner's Pub, causing the small bells on the door to jingle.
No one looked up as I entered, but the well known bartender. Banner's was the type of pub where people minded their own business, which, considering the man's real career, made a whole lot of sense.
I slid onto my usual high stool at the bar and didn't bother to flag down the bartender.
The pretty brunette finished chatting with some customer whose tongue was loose with drink, and then reached beneath the bar for two large glass bottles, mixed the contents together to form one amber concoction and slid it down the bar to me.
"Thanks Betty," I said quietly with a two fingered salute.
She gave me a small smile in return.
The night wasn't looking great in terms of potential conquests, but at least Betty knew how to mix a good drink.
As the night stretched on and the establishment began to quiet, Betty wandered over to me, leaning up against her side of the bar.
"Hey Tony, how's it going?"
"It's going. Where's Bruce tonight?" Like I even have to ask.
"Out on the job." Her limbs lost their casual lack of tension, briefly but noticeably.
"Hey, at least you're not stuck with some boring 9 to 5 suit," I said in an attempt at levity.
"Boring 9 to 5 suits don't come home with blood on their collars," Betty said in a whisper, leaning in closer.
"At least it's not lipstick?"
Betty laughed unenthusiastically.
"Sorry Ton', you don't want to hear me air our dirty laundry."
"Don't worry about it, Doll. You're too pretty to have to be polite." I smiled, probably looking awfully smarmy.
Betty looked amused as she wiped down the stained wood of the bar.
"Don't look now," she said calmly, not looking away from the movement of her hand,"and when I say don't look now, I mean don't do that thing people always do when someone tells them not to look, but someone is watching you."
"I'm guessing you don't mean the good kind of watching, huh?"
Betty just rolled her eyes.
"My 2 o'clock, in the red booth closest to the door. Wide brimmed hat, trench coat."
"Well, that's not very original of them." I downed the last sip of my drink. "You've got a weird skill set, babe."
"My husband is Bruce Banner. How would I not pick up a couple of things?" She refilled my glass.
"So, how long they been here?"
"About a minute less than you have."
I heard the bell on the door jingle and turned with a smile and a friendly wave.
The man who had just entered waved back with an uncertain smile before wandering off to find a seat.
"...You don't know that man, do you?"
"Nope. Never seen him before in my life. But I got a clear view of my secret admirer. Or the brim of his hat, at least."
I swirled my glass in self approval.
"How much would it cost me to get you to do last call now?"
"Owing me a favor of my choosing, when I choose it, no questions asked, no telling Bruce."
Much to the disappointment of the entire room, Betty, being the helpful woman she is, announced last call. One by one the patron's drifted out into the city night.
I listened to the repetition of the tintinnabulation and stared into my glass.
Eventually, Betty spoke.
"He took off."
"How likely do you think it is that he's waiting for me?"
"Pretty damn." She shrugged her thin shoulders. "Should I let you out the back?"
"That'd be great, Doll, thanks."
I finished my glass, because I don't waste good liquor, and then let Betty lead me behind the bar, through the back room, and out a door to the small alley behind the pub.
"Give my regards to Banner." I said as I stepped backwards onto the pavement.
Betty let the door fall closed as I walked out into the awaiting dark.
Everything I'd had to drink came rushing through my system with a vengeance as the cold air hit skin, an unpleasant jolt to my intoxicated system.
I made my way opposite from home, having decided to take a long detour in the interests of both avoiding my pursuer and gaining my bearings.
I buttoned my dress shirt all the way up to the neck. It was a small comfort against the sharp wind as I made my way out of the maze of back allies, crossed the empty street and made haste toward the boardwalk.
A brusque pace and the intrusive aroma of salt was good for bringing some order back to my head.
A noise tugged at the edge of my thoughts as I came to the edge of the pier that the tide didn't quite reach. I ran my hands against my legs to warm them and looked out towards the water.
My moment of silent contemplation was harshly interrupted by a loud clattering from below and a strangled yelp. I pressed my hand to the gun beneath my jacket and listened.
Chapter 2: A Late Night Encounter
Walk away I urged myself.
Nothing good happens under the boardwalk on a Friday night.
I turned away from the dark rolling eternity of the ocean, and pulled up my collar against the wind.
I took a hesitant step away but was halted by a violent sound.
Damn it. I cursed my luck. years ago I probably could have walked away, feeling assured that it was none of my business. But I wasn't that man anymore. I couldn't walk away and let God knows what happen to God knows who just because I wasn't the one doing the deed.
Developing a conscience later in life has its downsides.
I pulled my gun from its holster and surveyed the platform for a good place to get down onto the sand and rocks. A large ash colored boulder, scraggly and inhospitable, caught my eye--A good place to clamber down to first.
I walked to the edge and dropped to my knees, saying a silent apology to my clean pant legs. It was one of my favorite suits, and by the end of the night it was trashed.
The wood creaked when I lowered myself onto the boulder and tried to stare into the blackness below. Nothing?
Passing a hand against one wooden support beam, sliding down to the soft sand wasn't all that difficult.
The shadows fell heavy over the moonlight beneath the boardwalk.
"Mr. Stark?" A familiar voice asked from somewhere vaguer than I was comfortable with.
"Hello?" I projected as confidently as I could and made the gun as visible as it could be in the dark.
A hand gripped my shoulder, and it sent a jolt of, not panic, but adrenaline straight through me. I reached back blindly and acquired a bony wrist. An almost silhouetted figure followed when I yanked hard and spun to face it, making sure the barrel of my gun met their stomach.
The face, frozen in an unvoiced gasp, was instantly recognizable. He didn't struggle against my grip.
"So, you're the one who was following me. I'd like to think I'm not so unapproachable that you've got to tail me to have a little quality time."
"I haven't been following you. I'm a little busy running for my life." He answered breathily with what I assumed was nerves, but he still hadn't tried to pull back, only breathing shallowly to avoid the uncomfortable reminder of my gun against his belly.
"I don't see anyone chasing you, Mr. Laufeyson."
"You aren't one for formalities are you, Mr. Stark?"
"It's wasted on me, always has been. You would have figured that out pretty quickly if you were better at tailing me."
"I wasn't tailing you. You have my word. Now, please get your weapon away from my vital organs and release me." Loki flexed the fingers on his captured wrist.
I let my gun drop to my side and put a socially acceptable distance between us. Acceptable for running into each other under a boardwalk at night, at the very least.
The Icelandic man cradled his wrist and rubbed it soothingly. He looked down at it briefly before he met my eyes. The green caught the light well, and it made his expression stand out against the dark more than it should have.
"Many thanks." Loki said and turned to look towards the lapping of the waves. "We shouldn't stay here. I doubt either of us want to be bullet ridden and face down in the muck by the end of the night."
"Alright, but then we're definitely addressing the whole you following me thing." I faltered over whether or not to holster my gun. "I'm guessing since you're not panicking, who ever may or may not be pursuing you isn't down here."
"I came down here to dodge them." Loki continued to look out towards the water and then turned to survey the boulder I'd used to climb down. "Could you give me a hand up?"
"Of course, m'lady, should I lay my coat down on the rock so you don't scuff your dress?"
"I only ask because I've never been particularly athletic. But, if you're offering, I'd love to spare these shoes the injury."
"I'll give you a push up, but there is no way in Hell this jacket is taking the hit."
It was a damn nice suit. Out of all my regrets from that whole debacle, wearing that suit out of the house is right up their at the top.
I gestured to the large rock with the universal gesture for 'after you' .
Loki placed his hands on the protruding curvature and tentatively set a foot near the base. After an initial test press of his limbs, he began to pull himself upwards.
I grasped him by what turned out to be narrow hips, and tried to prevent any falling backwards onto the damp sand, that might threaten to occur. Once it became clear that climbing was truly not the man's forte, I gave as best a boost I could and discovered that, like is so often the case with tall, thin people, he was heavier than he looked.
My assistance succeeded in speeding his ascent, but to my amusement, made it no more graceful. I couldn't help but wonder if Iceland was very, very flat.
Pushing a man I'd had to turn away, because he'd gotten himself tangled up in a web I didn't want to get caught in, up a boulder from beneath the boardwalk was not anything like my plans for the night had been. I may have been farther from my bed
than I liked, with no one to take to it, but at least I wasn't bored.
Loki had stood carefully and reached to grasp the wood of the boardwalk while I moved to grab hold and climb.
"What was with all that banging and yelping if you were alone down here?" I asked, the situation not adding up right.
"I climbed down here from that ledge over there, and had to use those barrels to make it." He began to try and pull himself up by propping a foot against the support beam, "I told you I wasn't very athle--" then moved upwards with the unnatural force and speed of outside interference.
His small noise of surprise was accompanied by a voice I did not recognize.
Maybe boredom wasn't such a bad option after all.
"Heh. Got him," the voice announced smugly.
"Fuckin' finally. You know how long we been hoofin' it for the boss to get our hands on you?" a second asked with malice.
That was one of those moments when you wish you were cowardly enough to stay out of harm's way.
I knew that just jumping up there was a bad idea. I needed both hands to climb, and there was no guarantee that I'd get the drop on them and draw first. Standing there in the dark, shoes caked in sand, the more important question revealed itself to be: Do they know I'm down here?
"Get up." The first voice snapped.
"Gentleman, if we could just--" Loki was again interrupted, this time by a loud slap.
"He said move it!"
The sound was so acute that my cheek practically stung. when you've been slapped as many times as I have, the sensation is easy to bring to mind.
I made a dash for the barrel's he'd jumped down on to get under the walk and hoped the reason he went back up a different way was because he was shit at climbing, and not because the distance between the barrels and the platform above it was just too high. If it was too high for him to reach, I was screwed.
My shoes felt slick on the rim once I clambered atop one, and I ground down to wedge the edge between the heel and ball of my shoe, while trying to keep steady. The last thing I needed was to knock the damn things over.
Walking along their tops until I could align myself with the edge of the boardwalk was like walking on absurdly large, unbroken, egg shells--Like trying to sneak up on a dragon by climbing through its nest.
The horrifyingly loud smack my fingers were going to make when they met the wood successfully loomed heavy on my mind as I stared up at the ledge and jumped up to grip it.
I hoped they were occupied enough, and that I was far enough off to the right, that my emergence wasn't going to catch their attention.
The muscles in my arms protested the straining pull of my body weight, but they held fast, and I managed to snake an arm around the tower viewer and kicked a leg up over the side.
I made a note to thank Steve for dragging me along for his ridiculous workouts.
Rolling on as silently as possible, I drew my gun before I made it to my knees.
"Hold up boys, you'll be leaving him with me." I steadied myself on my feet, exceedingly glad to have solid board walk beneath them.
Both men spun to face me. The taller man tugged Loki with him, having a solid hold on the man's arm folded behind his back.
"And who the Hell are you?" the one with the second voice, who I was pretty sure had been the one to deliver that slap, practically spat.
"Listen bud," the man holding Loki began, managing to sound fractionally more civil, "why don't you just run along? You don't know who you're dealing with."
"I think I'm dealing with two mindless thugs acting as errand boys for a very bad man, who are now going to set any weapons they might have tucked away, on the ground, and let go of my friend here."
The shorter man scowled and turned to his companion, who looked more hesitant.
"We can't just let him go. The boss'll have our heads."
"I think you'll find your heads splattered across the boardwalk here and now, if you don't do what he says," Loki put in surprisingly calmly, but grimaced in pain as his arm received a sharp twist in retaliation.
"Hey," I snapped. "Still right here."
I've never understood the urge to resist the man who has a gun pointed at you, it's just stupid. What do people expect, to be able to outrun a bullet?
The two criminals made frustrated eye contact. The first swore under his breath and shoved Loki my direction.
"Good start. Guns on the ground."
"Alright, alright," the ruder of the two henchman growled. "Just don't get trigger happy."
Loki made busy smoothing himself down and moving to hover behind me, while his two assailants slowly drew out weapons, and placed them on the ground.
"Do you have a quarter?" I asked the man hovering out of sight.
"Then run across the street and call the cops," I said, volume for his ears only, while I gestured for the duo to back away from their derelict fire arms.
I felt Loki step into my personal space before he spoke.
"We can't call them."
"And why is that, exactly?"
"They'll make us come in for questioning. I can't be stuck in one place for hours, with an official record of my presence when a man like Dooms after me. I doubt I'll make it three blocks when they let me go."
His words were truer than I wanted them to be. He'd wind up full of lead in no time.
"Well, what do you suggest we do? Just run off and leave these two?"
"No." Loki worried at his bottom lip and reached out to grasp my arm not occupied with holding a loaded gun. "We can deal with them however you want, just--please," There were those glistening eyes again,"don't get me involved with the police. I don't want to die."
Honest to God, I can't tell you why I did it. It might have been guilt, maybe it was my libido; Hell, I very well might've just been tired, but against my better judgment, I listened.
"Give me your jacket."
When I make up my mind, things start to move very quickly, and for better or for worse, I'd made my decision.
"We need something to tie them up with, and we are not using mine."
Loki obediently pealed off the long garment and held it out for me.
"I'm holding the gun, you do the tying."
He nodded and began to twist it into a thick makeshift rope.
"Shall I tie them to the street lamp?"
"Might as well."
"Gentleman," Loki projected so his assailants turned captives could hear him, "Please come over here and press your backs to the post."
Gentlemen, I don't remember the last time the term applied less.
He made quick work of the odd task, and did a fine job of ignoring the two men's bitter mutterings.
I was cold. The metal of my gun was unpleasant against my palm, and the wind from the water unkind. The city's indifference was palatable.
The quiet gust ruffled Loki's downy, ink black hair, and as he bent over the two crooks, his face hidden from view, I couldn't shake the comparison to a lone dark crow. The harbinger of death--graceful and preened, even as it brings its bad tidings. It seemed fitting, maudlin as I am when drunk.
He gathered the abandoned weapons and hurled them out into the water, and came to stand by me, arms wrapped around himself.
If he'd been a broad I would have given him my coat; but he wasn't.
"We don't have to stay and wait for them, but we're calling the police."
Loki nodded, none of his previous desperation visible. The quiet air of his need of help was still thick, and the shivering was not helping.
"Shall I, or will you?"
"You can do the honors."
As I leaned against a phone booth while an Icelandic immigrant on the lamb from a Latverian crime boss extraordinaire called the cops, and I made certain to keep an eye on the two thugs tied to a lamp post across the street, I should have probably been asking myself what in the Hell I was doing, but I was already years past wondering how I got myself in situations I shouldn't.
"It's done," he said with a small thankful smile.
"Where are you going for the night?" I inquired as we walked hurriedly down a side street, and left the brighter ocean side, to the distant call of "You can't run forever, Loki. He'll find you."
"I don't know." He didn't bother to look back. "I don't have any money."
"How were you planning on paying me?"
"I have money in the bank. Just waltzing downtown mid morning isn't exactly safe."
Loki gave a little shiver, whether from fear or cold, I didn't know.
Already pink skin was rosy at the cheeks from the nip of the wind.
I couldn't fight reconsidering giving the man my suit jacket, but in the end resisted; there was no point in feeding my inexplicable urge to take responsibility for his well being.
"Where did you sleep last night?" I asked when I realized I didn't know when he'd gotten himself into trouble.
"I didn't sleep last night. No where felt secure. It's not as if I can go home."
He looked better than I do when I don't get sleep, and there was a moment of vanity where all I could think was about how it pissed me off.
"If there's one thing I know, Mr. Laufeyson, its when someone is angling to go home with me. The circumstances are certainly not the usual ones, but it applies."
"Are you offering to take me home with you, Mr. Stark?"
There was no use pretending I wasn't. The neat, shivering mass of wide green eyes, dark hair, and mannerisms I enjoyed more than I should wasn't going to wind up with a bullet in his brain on my conscience.
"I could never resist picking up strays as a kid. 'Guess I haven't changed."
"I'll see you well compensated for your trouble, of course."
"I think I might just settle for not getting shot."
Loki smiled and it wasn't demure or flattering like the smiles in my office, nor was it thankful like the smile by the phone. It was sly, and it suited him.
"So, I don't have to pay you?"
"Don't push your luck. I expect to be flattered and thanked profusely if I even bother to feed you."
"Feed me?" He cocked an eyebrow and smiled wider. "How long are you planning on letting me stay?"
"We'll see. Now, put those long gams of yours to use and pick up the pace. I wanted to be home an hour ago."
We arrived at my building in silence. It was all dark, Pepper had gone home ages ago, no doubt, because that's where smart people are in this city at one in the morning: At home, in bed, most certainly not taking in a stranger with the mob after him.
"Do you live here?" Loki asked, dragging his eyes up and down the structure.
"Yah." I pulled my keys from my pocket and let us out of the cold. "I own the building. Office on the bottom floor, everything else on the top."
He ran his fingers along the lacquered edge of Pepper's desk.
"So, where do you want me for the night?"
I bit back a salacious response.
"I've got a guest room."
Getting him settled in was as easy as bringing him to the room and pointing out the amenities. It wasn't a hotel, and I wasn't planning on providing room service.
"Thank you. You're kindness has not gone unnoticed, believe me. I understand why you wouldn't want to get yourself mixed up in all this, and I appreciate that you're even willing to open your home to me for the night." He said, from where he'd settled on the edge of the large bed.
"I can't exactly send you on to your death, now, can I?"
"You could have, but you didn't."
"In the morning, after I've gotten a decent night's sleep, I expect the whole story on this little crisis you've wandered into. Alright?"
"Get some rest. It sounds like you need it."
He smiled at me and nodded, looking probably half as tired as I felt. "I certainly plan to."
"Good." I turned to make my exit. "Gotta' get that beauty sleep after all."
"Oh- Mr. Stark?" he called out to still me.
"In Iceland nobody calls each other by their last name if they can help it, and it feels awfully strange to do so still. Could I call you Anthony instead?"
I had to admit the sound sounded good on his tongue, plus, I'd fallen into the habit of addressing him formally in the short time we'd been acquainted because that's how he addressed me, more than anything else.
"No, but you can call me Tony."
He chuckled. "Of course you can call me Loki, if you like."
"I would. Laufeyson doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, and I don't feel like saying it every time I need to get your attention."
"Every time? Does that mean you plan on helping me?"
"Yah. I think it does, Loki."
"Then, many thanks, and sleep well--Tony."
"Right back 'atcha."
I shut the door behind me and considered if I should lock him in. It's one thing to try to help a pretty stranger avoid death, another to trust him. I couldn't imagine the teary eyed, upright man who could barely scale a boulder pulling anything over on anybody. But hey, you know what they say about assumptions.
Because of the genre its based on, when I'm writing this, its pretty much all black and white with a few splashes of color here and there in my head. I'm curious as to whether people reading it imagine it all in color, or not.
Chapter 3: What's In a Wheeldex?
"Detective Rogers, what can I do for you?” the amiable voice on the other end of the line asked.
“Hey. It's me.”
“Tony, how're those ribs?”
“They were better before I jumped off the Boardwalk.”
“You jumped off th--” Steve was interrupted by the sound of a voice in the background, “Barton, hold up a second,” More mumblings, and what sounded like the shuffling of papers prolonged the intermission. “No, no, its—There was an issue with the paperwork, didn't match up with the evidence... Hey, just hold your horses for a minute... You still there, Tony?”
Poor guy, that work ethic of his is going to drive him into the ground.
“Did you say you jumped off the Boardwalk?” the detective asked, disbelief thick in his tone.
I'm not sure how he still musters the surprise. I've done worse.
“Oh, Tony. You're going to get yourself killed, and—Wait, don't tell me you had something to do with that call that came in last night, with the lamp post?”
“Actually, it would almost be a funny story if I didn't feel like I got hit by a truck, I--”
“When I say don't tell me, I mean it. I don't want to hear about it every time you risk your neck, and I doubt you want me to send somebody to drag you down here and take your statement.”
“A client was in danger.”
“You mean you were grandstanding. There was a dame involved wasn't there? You can't run around the way you do, just 'cause you're doll dizzy.”
“My client is a man, Steve.”
A very attractive man, but Steve didn't need to know that. The man understood me better than most, but there are things he'd probably never be able to wrap that straight-laced head of his around.
“Still, you should be more careful, regardless of your motivations,” he said, only half conceding his point. “I'm sorry to be rude, but if you just called to gab, I've got to go. Things are crazy down here.”
“As much as I love to chat with you, I did actually call for a reason.”
“Okay, just give me a second then.”
I heard the muffled scraping sound of Steve covering the receiver, poorly it seemed, since I could still make out the voices at the station.
“No. He doesn't know if it was on purpose, that's the whole issue. I.A.'s sniffing around though, so he snapped his cap...No, I can't...Because this call is important...It's Tony...Yes, that Tony...I'm not going to tell him that...Why—Because it's vulgar. Listen, I'm being rude, I'll take a look at the new evidence later...Okay, good, thanks. Tony? Sorry. I'm back, you have my full attention.”
“Who was that? Detective Barton? And what's the scene with IA? Anything scandalous going on?"
It’s always worth knowing when something big is going down with the local law enforcement.
"Yes, it was; and no, there's not. At least I really don't think there is. The people up top think there's a mole in the department."
"Why do they think that?" I asked, fiddling absently with the papers on my desk. I'm a curious man, and in my line of work, that pays.
"You know I can't tell you that. Tony, I'm busy. If you called for a reason, now would be the time to get to it," he said, not actually sounding exasperated with me. I've never known how he manages.
"I've got a new client."
"So you said. Who are they?"
"Icelandic guy, says his name is Loki Laufeyson. He's in a whole lot of trouble. Found out something he shouldn't have, I guess. If I'm going to help him I need information. I was hoping you'd be a pal and get me the file on the guy who has it out for him."
"I can't just hand you police records on demand, Tony."
"My client's life depends on it. The guy’s in over his head. I'm not asking for anything top secret. I'm not even actually asking for the files. I just need to know exactly what I'm up against."
Steve sighed loudly.
"I'm assuming there's some reason your client didn't come to us instead of you."
"Yah, Victor Von Doom wants him dead."
"What?!" Steve sounded absolutely appalled. "Tony, you can't handle that all on your own! I want you to bring this guy in so he can tell us what he knows."
"You must know I'm not doing that."
"Wh--" He stopped and lowered his voice, ever diplomatic, "Why?"
"It would be a death sentence. You just said there was a mole in the department."
"No. I said the Commissioner thinks there's a mole in the department. There's a difference. I know these cops, Tony, and they're good ones, honorable."
"You cannot know that about all of them. I could name two off the top of my head that I could prove aren't. If you're willing to put that naiveté on the shelf for just a second, you'll realize I'm right. Plus, in all your years on the force, how often has Commissioner Fury been wrong, especially when he was sure enough to share his doubts like that?"
Silence. When you're trying to talk someone into something, that moment of silence is always a good sign.
"Steve, come one, do me the favor. It's not against regulations to tell me what I want to know, and, whether you help me or not, I'm taking this case."
"How did this client of yours get all caught up with Doom?" Steve asked, sounding tired. Seemingly sudden fatigue is also usually a favorable sign.
"I plan on getting answers when he wakes up. I'm not as up on the specifics as I'd like to be, as of yet."
"You don't want to fight the mob."
"I promise you, I have no intention of fighting the mob."
"I'll look up his file, but I do not approve of this."
"I know. Thank you. I owe you one."
"Tony?" he spoke up again, after a lingering silence.
"Just...be careful." Steve said it with gentle resignation.
I would have told him I was always careful, but Steve Rogers is a more loyal friend than I probably deserve, and it didn't feel right to lie so glibly.
"I'll do my best."
"I know you said you were busy, so, talk to you later?"
"Yes. I'll call you when I can."
"Iceland’s a pretty funny place and the people there can be... oddballs sometimes." His tone was careful, and he spoke slowly.
With all the things he could have been warning me about, I will never understand why he chose to make a note of the character of the Icelandic people.
"You've never even been to Iceland." I couldn't resist pointing out.
"I know, but I had a buddy who was stationed there at the end of the war. I have to go, I was just saying. Don't worry about it."
"Wasn't planning to."
I hung up the phone and was confident about only one thing: that this was going to be a hard one.
The hardest part of any case is finding the beginning of the thread, because once you've got a firm hold on it, all you have to do is wind it and remember not to let go.
I couldn't start without my strange new client, and although I do try, I am certainly not a man known for my patience.
I pressed the button to talk to Pepper.
"Do you have any idea whether Loki's awake yet? I was hoping to get down to business sooner rather than later."
"He is. In fact, he's right here."
"Good morning, Tony," he chimed in, voice quieter from distance.
"Morning. Any special reason you're hovering in my waiting room?"
"Pepper said you were on the phone, and was kind enough to entertain me."
"Well, come on in, we need to talk."
The second time he walked into my office put me on edge less than the first; having resigned myself to play a part in whatever fate had tossed my way.
"I must thank you again for helping me," Loki said as he sat. "I owe you my life."
"Save the sentiment for when I succeed, you're no where near in the clear, yet."
I looked him up and down, seeing him in the light of day for the first time. It didn't make much of a difference, still pretty, still bringing me trouble.
"So, from the beginning. How'd you wind up in all this?"
"The story is not a long one. It all happened very quickly." He took a breath and drew in his limbs. "I've been working for a company involved in shipping, you see. The night before last, I had to go down to the warehouse to drop off some papers, nothing at all that urgent, really. Usually I just drop it off with a colleague, but he wasn't there. Naturally, I didn't want to be irresponsible, but I had to go, so I went into the back office to leave I there. There was already paperwork strewn all over the desk. It was all names and numbers." He was an active story teller, expression changing and body shifting as he went on. "I should have kept my eyes to myself, I know, but it was right there, where I needed to leave my own work. Once I saw the names on it, and the notes, I couldn't help myself." Loki looked properly ashamed of himself and gazed at me with regretful eyes. "I did not understand all of it, but it was absolutely clear that it was all very, very illegal. Not only illegal, but incriminating."
"Who caught you?"
Never read the evidence in someone else’s office. On the job I learned damn quickly that if you need to see something someone doesn't want you to, you'd better take it and peek later. Criminals always have the best (or worse, rather) timing, when it comes to interrupting investigation.
"I heard talking. I was quite startled, and wasn't sure what to do. So, I went to the door to listen for who it was. I was hoping I could just slip out, unnoticed. It was Doom, talking to some button man. I had seen the thug around before, but of course never realized who he had worked for..." He paused and ceased to meet my eyes. "...Never realized who I'd worked for..."
This city's lost too many innocents to being at the wrong place at the wrong time. I'd decided the night before that he wasn't going to be one of them, not on my watch.
"Don't beat yourself up. What happened next?"
"Doom left. I thought the other man had left to, but he hadn't, and he walked back into the office. He yelled at me, asked me what the Hell I was doing. Then he pulled a gun, told me to stay where I was and left. I heard him close the doors, they’re the mechanical sort, that comes down from the top. I don't know your word for it. I panicked, grabbed a book end and broke the window. He heard it, obviously, and gave chase. I barely made it." He looked shaken when he stopped.
"Those files, he could get pinched for them?"
"They could certainly put someone away, but whether it would be him or some fall guy, I don't know."
Once you're that high up, passing the buck gets a hell of a lot easier and there was no escaping that.
"What we need is information, which it sounds like you know where to find,"
"Then all I need to do is find out what we want, and how to get in to get it unnoticed."
It didn't sound convincing to my own ears in the least, but it was what had to be done.
Loki nodded. He looked like he had far more confidence in me than I did. I'd disappointed too many people for it to have been comforting.
"How shall we start, then?" he asked.
"We start with getting your things."
"My things, how? My apartment cannot be safe."
I may not have faith in many things, but I have faith in the skills of my contacts.
"I've got a guy. This kid can get in and out of anywhere without getting noticed."
"That would be appreciated then. How much can he carry?"
"If you make a list of your favorite clothes, and any small items that you need, he'll manage."
"No time like the present," I said, and passed him a sheet of note paper and a pen.
He accepted it with a small nod and began to write.
"Pepper," I said to the intercom, "I need you to call Peter and get him down here."
"Should I tell him it's time sensitive?"
"Yes, but tell him it's a short job, and he should be here in about an hour. It'll just be an in and out retrieval."
Loki had yet to look up from his growing list.
I slid closed my desk drawer and locked it, before pulling my jacket from the back of my chair.
"I'm going out. Obviously, you need to stay inside." I stood and collected my wallet. "If you need anything, Pep's your girl. She knows where everything is, upstairs and down. Eat whatever you want from the kitchen fridge, leave the compact fridge alone."
"You shall return within the hour?"
"I'll be in and out all day. I've got some people to see. While you're at your list, I want you to scribble down everything you saw on those papers that you can remember. After, if you get bored there's a radio in my room, and books floating around."
"I'm sure I'll be able to keep myself entertained."
"Good." I pulled my hat from the rack, and, jacket over my arm, left Loki in my office.
I told Pepper to tell Steve I'd call him a.s.a.p. if he rang while I was out, and stepped into the morning sun.
I tipped down my hat to save my eyes the trouble. I'm not a morning person. Any work I can do at night, I do. The ins and outs of this city make more sense to me after the sun sets. Daylight has its advantages, but they're fewer and farther between.
First things first, I needed coffee.
When Tony rang, I probably wasn't as bothered by what he told me as I should have been.
If I worried myself silly every time Tony was up to something he shouldn't be, I'd never stop.
Tony Stark is a stand up guy, once you get to know him. He has his faults, but we all do, if we're brave enough to admit it. That's one of the things that's easy to admire about him. For all that ego, he doesn't lie to himself about who he is.
I was busy that day, but it's always busy down at the station, and I made time for Tony. When I had needed it most, he'd always made time for me, day or night; I could take twenty minutes out for him.
I set my coffee down on my desk and flagged down Barton so he'd know I was leaving for a few.
The file room was always a nice detour from the hectic hustle and bustle of casework. Back when I was still walking the beat, I savored the trips down there I got sent on. When I was new and unsure, Elizabeth's small talk was a real comfort.
"Morning Detective, how goes it?" she asked with a pleasant smile from behind her counter.
"Well, ma'am. How are things back here?"
"Oh, you know how it is. Same old, same old."
She's a real sharp girl, not all khaki wacky like so many are these days.
"So, what can I do for you?"
"I was hoping to take out some records," I informed her, as she reached for her wheeldex, and stared up at me expectantly. "Everything you can find under Doom, Victor V."
"Are you after that creep?"
I felt a rumble of disquiet in my chest.
"No, unfortunately. I'm just helping somebody else out."
"Ah." She nodded with a faint, business as usual, smile. "Here we are, Doom," she said in staid triumph. Her fingers landed on the proper card and pulled it free.
Elizabeth wore a professionally cut red dress that widened by the time it reached her calves. She's always been a spiffy dresser, and that Saturday was no different. Tony had met her once, said she was 'stacked'. It was true, but she's a good girl, and certainly not the kind who would go with Tony.
"Ahh,.." I spoke up vaguely as she turned to head back into the stacks of the file room, "...and anything you can find under Laufeyson." I tacked it on for good measure. You can never be too careful, and getting in with a guy as big as Doom wasn't as easy as bumping into him on the street. At second thought, it was worrisome in itself that Tony hadn't asked me to check if his client had a record.
"Sure thing." The blond flipped quickly through the cards, fingers adept from repetition. "Looks like we don't have anything under that name, sorry."
"Don't be." That was good, at the very least.
"'Alrighty, I'll be back in a jiff." She spun on her heel and disappeared into the stacks.
I listened to the gentle tapping of her heels on the tile and waited. When she reemerged, it was with empty hands.
"I'm sorry, Detective, but it looks like they've all been checked out already." She rifled through the papers on her clipboard and then made a path down one with her finger tip. "Ah!" She pointed to a line on the page. "Late last night, most recently."
I didn't know why anybody would have needed them. We hadn't gotten a lead on him in ages.
Her pretty, normally smooth forehead, crinkled.
"I don't know."
"It doesn't say?"
"No. Time, case numbers, and incident report numbers are all filled out, where applicable, but no name." She continued to stare as if with due diligence, the missing information might reveal itself.
"Who was on last night?"
"I was… I'm sorry. I just don't know what to tell you." Guilt swam into her expression, to sit beside the confusion.
"It's alright. Just, I would appreciate a heads up when they come back."
"Absolutely. I'll see if I can figure out who checked them out, too. We need that for our records."
"I'd imagine so. Thanks for the effort."
She gave a perky nod as she settled back into her chair.
I made a friendly exit, but my heart wasn't in it. My head was too busy being off kilter.
Elizabeth is actually a character from canon, although she hasn't been in canon a lot in a long time. Does anybody know who she is?
Chapter 4: Gardeners and Drunks
Coffee at the little diner on the corner had turned into coffee and pie, when the pretty thing of a waitress had recommended it. Sweet girl, I'd done a job for her old man once.
My reprieve in the blue seating booth was an opportunity to think over who might be willing to sing about what Doom had been up to as of late. I had a few acquaintances who owed me one (or more) in mind, but the picture would get clearer once Steve came through, which knowing Steve, I didn't doubt he would.
The caffeine wasn't doing as much as I would have preferred to combat my sleep deprivation, but I was used to that.
I had vaguely known (as I got into bed the night before) the gravity of what I'd volunteered to do only minutes previous. I was regret-less, as most people assume I always am, but the danger ahead wasn't as abstract to me as I would have liked.
The soft, silent presence of someone in the other room was soothing, but the reason for it kept my wheels turning.
The absence of someone beside me was paled by thoughts of what was to come.
I widdled away more time than I should have in my seat, but the coffee was strong, the pie was sweet, and the view was cute and blond.
I tore myself away from the comfort of my booth once I'd finished my second cup, and made off to be back in relative time for Peter's arrival. There wasn't much harm if he arrived before I did, I had Pepper around for a reason.
I hoped Loki's memory was better than his timing, and that he'd have something worthwhile to tell me when I returned, but I knew getting cornered in a warehouse and shot at weren't the prime conditions for memorization.
Upon returning to my waiting room, I found Pepper typing silently away at her Underwood type writer, Loki across from her on the L-backed couch, simply lounging, eyes closed. I wondered if he had fallen asleep. The click clacking of Pep's work is surprisingly soothing.
"Welcome back, Tony," Pepper said without dragging her eyes up to meet mine. "Mr. Parker isn't here yet, and Detective Rogers didn't ring."
Loki righted himself at the sound with a pleasant expression.
"I made both the lists you asked for. I left them on your desk."
I deposited my hat on the rack and slipped into my office.
"Heya, boss man," said the young man perched on my desk, with a tip of his hat.
It wasn't worth wondering exactly how he ended up in my office without Pepper taking notice. That was why I needed him, after all.
"Peter," I answered as I closed the door behind me.
"Who wants all this stuff?" Peter asked as he peered at the paper he'd picked up and swung his legs off my desk.
"Really? You didn't even write it."
I settled into my chair and shoved him the rest of the way into the proper piece of furniture.
"That doesn't mean I don't want it."
"Mm. All I know is, you don't usually send me to upscale apartment buildings to nab sweaters and button downs. I don't mean to pry, it's just curious."
We all know what curiosity does.
"Don't be. I'm not paying you to be curious."
Peter frowned, but didn't appear legitimately deterred. The buoyancy of youth can grate on a man's nerves in the morning.
"Sorry." He rubbed the back of his head. "But, I'd kill to know why you need a book called Andvӧkur. Sounds Germanic, but that's all I've got."
"Let's just say I'm bettering myself, and leave it at that, Pete."
"Whatever you say, Tony," he said with a capitulating shrug.
"I expect I'll just come home and it'll all be here?"
"You bet. Unless there was anything you needed to know about this place."
"Nothing specific, but if you see something that doesn't seem right, then I need to know about it."
Peter nodded obediently.
"I'll keep an eye out."
I retrieved the envelope encasing his payment and slid it to him, same amount as always. His fees depend on the matter of the job, but I've been known to pay up more than it's worth. Peter needs the money, needed it even more back then, and he's a good kid. Smart like you wouldn't believe, and sweet in a way that avoided being too irritating. He would make a terrible PI though; he often can't seem to slow his tongue when he should.
"Thanks. It's always a pleasure. Except for that time with the guard dogs, of course," the young man joked.
I'd seen him well reimbursed for that incident.
"It's mutual. Now, I expect to let you out the front door. No shimmying out a window."
"Oh, right, of course."
I showed him out of my office, and settled back in at my desk with Loki's mnemonic scribblings, except, as it turned out, they weren't really scribblings. It was no wonder Peter had immediately realized that list wasn't in my hand. His rememberings, which I assumed were to be the normal chicken scratch of jottings down, were meticulous. The penmanship was neat, although uncommon, and abnormally small. A few of the names rang a bell right off the bat—Nobody I was overly familiar with, but it gave me a starting point, something to ask about.
I knew just who I wanted to see.
I parked the car across the street from the brick building. I didn't bother finding somewhere out of sight. There wasn't much reason for these particular contacts to be wary of me. At least, I hoped they knew better than to try and avoid me, because if they did they were Hellishly hard to catch up to.
The building was nicer on the inside than on the out, upscale once you crossed the thresh hold.
The elevator seemed a far more pleasant choice than the stairs, seeing as the skin stretched around my sternum had been tenderized.
I was prompted to ponder the handiness of elevator operators as we ascended. They're immensely grateful for keeping track of somebody's comings and goings.
When I rapped my knuckles against the wood of their door, I was treated to the muffled sound of familial mumblings. I leaned against the frame and waited. A shadow crossed the strip of light beneath the door, and then the door swung open to reveal a woman, statuesque and togged to the bricks. I couldn't help but start from the bottom up.
One hand was braced against the door frame, and the other on a well accentuated hip.
"Pietro," She called without breaking eye contact, "Tony Stark is here."
A man practically hurled himself into their sitting room, sliding briefly on a heel.
"Tony? What's going on? What're you doing here?"
"A guy can't visit?"
"I supposed that is my cue to invite you in?" the woman asked, brushing a loose lock of scarlet hair behind her ear, with perturbed resignation.
"I would sincerely hope so, Wanda."
She answered by turning and walking in, and I followed close behind.
Wanda dropped herself onto the arm of an aqua leather chair, while Pietro remained standing, watching me with restless countenance.
"What's going on, Tony?" he asked, face in a curious half-frown. The benign expression was sharpened on the jagged angles of his face.
"This place is awfully ritzy. I wonder how you manage to keep up with the cost." It was all chrome, leather, and color. If I was honest with myself, I had certainly payed more for what was in mine, but that wasn't the point.
"It's not that much," Pietro insisted.
"Now, six months ago, when daddy was still willing to pay the bills, I would have agreed with you." Despite the glass house, sometimes stones need to be thrown.
The comment made Pietro clench his jaw, and Wanda crossed her arms defensively.
"I work now. A normal job."
"It's not as if we have forgotten how to survive without him," Wanda added.
"Well, what do you do?"
"That's none of your business."
"Fine." I held up my hands in mock surrender. "Then, lets get down to what my business is."
Wanda cocked an eyebrow in question.
"We've never had anything to do with him," Pietro snapped.
"Did I suggest otherwise?"
"What about Doom?" Wanda asked.
"A small noise of frustration died in Pietro's throat.
"What do you mean, anything?"
"I mean, I want to know everything you know about him, in case somewhere in that head of yours, is something I don't know already."
"Alright," Wanda acquiesced. "But I think you will be disappointed to find we don't know much."
"I'm a big boy, I can handle a little disappointment. Try me."
I yawned into my fist and signed the paper in front of me. It had been a long day. We'd been told to double back on all our paper work to check for mistakes from then on out.
They never talk about how much paperwork is involved in being a detective. It had been an adjustment, to say the least. The task was easier with help, but Barton had long since tipped his hat over his eyes and leaned back at his desk. I was doing my darnedest not to be overly resentful.
Effectively lost between stacks of bureaucracy at its most frustrating, I didn't hear anyone approach until they spoke.
I looked up to find Elizabeth standing across from my desk, pale arms burdened with bursting folders. He grip on the load seemed tenuous.
"Miss Ross, do you need help with that?" I stood and she let me heft them out of her grasp. "Where are we taking these?"
"Nowhere. These are for you, actually. It's everything we've got on Doom."
My mood brightened at the information.
"Oh, thanks. You shouldn't have had to lug it all up here, I would have come and gotten it."
"I know." She smiled. "But it really wasn't any trouble."
"Well, I appreciate it."
I not so gracefully deposited my load onto the desk top, while Barton straightened in his chair, and got busy joining the living.
"Who had them?"
"Detective Hill checked it all in about an hour ago."
My mind stuttered on the information. Why would she need them? She was a good detective, I knew that well enough, and I knew how hard a worker she had to be, but she was a nice woman, and I really hoped she wasn't being put to work on anything too dangerous. If there's one thing Doom was, heck, if there's one thing Doom is, it's dangerous.
"I'd better go back. Not really supposed to wander off," she told me amicably. I couldn't resist smiling back at her.
"Of course. Thanks for your trouble."
Barton's smirk was practically a physical sensation as she turned to leave with a small wave, and a nod that bobbed her blond hair.
"She's not rationed, you know."
I gave him a discouraging frown.
"First of all, you have no reason to know that. Second, what does it matter?"
"I gave her a ride home once, she's chatty. And it matters, because she's a real bright young thing, and she'd go with you if you asked. Getting laid would do you good."
I dropped the top most folder in front of me and flipped it open. Spending time with Tony had me well trained that the best way to dissuade someone's interest in your personal life, was not to deny anything scandalous, but to ignore it completely.
My partner stood and came to peer over my shoulder intrusively.
"What is that, anyway?"
"Just informing myself." It was the truth.
"About Victor Von Doom?"
"...Why? This is what Stark called about, am I right?"
"You're being nosy."
He gave me an infuriatingly knowing look, but returned to his desk.
Seeing as there was so much to cover, and I didn't want any more inquiries about my research, I went about packing them below my desk, for later consumption.
It looked like my day would be longer than I'd thought.
Pietro and Wanda hadn't had much to tell me that I hadn't gleaned from my years on the job, in that, they were right. But I wasn't going to admit that to them, and I didn't leave discouraged. I had kept them talking for a good while, and there were a few tid bits of information worth pursuing. I had the names of three minor associates, and the address of a Genoshan smuggler in my pocket.
I drove for home, figuring it would be best to know if Steve had called, then I planned to pop back out for lunch. Maybe I would call someone, and make it a date. Loki would manage fine back at the house. There was food, and entertainment, and Pepper could handle any urgent questions.
As I waited for a light to change, drumming my fingers against the wheel, I meditated on the familiarity of the smuggler's name. I had heard it before. Where, I wasn't sure, but I knew it would come to me.
I meant to stick my head into the office only briefly. Steve had yet to call, as it turned out, and Peter yet to do his drop off. I had tucked myself in at my desk to see if I could find the name in papers from old cases, but I made the mistake of resting my head on my arms.
The room had grown in shadows when I opened my eyes. The loss of time unnerved me. The feeling that valuable hours had been stolen (although I knew I had only planned to spend the lunch hour, and probably the afternoon frivolously) permeated the air. As I felt the unpleasant tang of sleep fade from my tongue, I realized I had no patience for rifling through papers that I had probably never laid eyes on before (Pep, always better at keeping records than I). Upon jerking open my button drawer by its metallic handle, I discovered an empty bottle, much to my disappointment. I needed a drink, one where I didn't spend the time wondering about being watched. A new lounge, only 20 minutes away, had opened up, and I'd only been once.
I returned late, though to my credit, earlier than the night before (although that hadn't really been my fault, had it). The clarity of the night allowed for the moon to illuminate the streets, and it didn't suit me well.
The lights were on, and the door left unlocked. I made a not to remind Pepper to not leave it so when she was alone working after dark. I knew she probably wouldn't listen.
"Rogers called," my faithful secretary informed me when I entered.
"What did he have to say?"
"He'll be visiting in the morning." She had stood and begun to gather her purse.
I stood away from her station, knowing I smelled of booze and perfume.
"You should go home to your husband."
"I plan to. he's picking me up. Unless you think I should just walk home," she said with an end of the work day smile. "You should go upstairs. Sleep."
"I plan to."
A car horn sounded, and she looked to the window.
"Goodnight tony." Pepper slid her purse over her shoulder and stepped through the door when I pulled it open.
I didn't watch her walk to the car.
I gladly climbed the stairs, eye lids heavy. I needed some quality shut eye.
An unexpectedly pleasant sight greeted me once I made my way to the sitting room. Loki was stretched out on my sofa, once knee bent up to help support a book.
I hadn't heard that one in a while.
"Hey. What have you gotten up to? Staying out of trouble?" I dropped down into an adjacent arm chair, leather smooth against my palms.
"I read your books, mostly. It is hard to get in to trouble when one reads. Then, that Peter of yours brought my things, so I put them away."
My eyes were captured by his fluffy patterned sweater. It didn't look quite right on him.
"I trust he got everything you needed."
"Mm." I let my head fall against the chair's back.
"Tony?" The questioning tone held subtle amusement.
"I think .you are, 'sauced', as they say."
"No." I turned my head to meet his eyes.
"No?" He looked genuinely surprised at the denial. "You smell like gin."
"I also smell like lilacs."
"That doesn't make me a gardener."
"Ah. So you are saying you aren't a drunk."
"Not when it counts." I smirked.
My client's lips turned up in response. They were nice lips, still are as a matter of fact.
"Did you eat?"
"Like the food here?"
"Here, in your house," He cocked his head in question, "or, here in America?"
"Either." I shrugged. I'm a man who only puts so much effort into small talk.
"It is satisfactory. There are certainly dishes I miss." He paused. "Although, you have very fine cakes."
"Cakes? You don't look like a guy who eats a lot of cake."
"My height does my a great service, as do my clothes. It's a slimming effect."
"Your giant sweater makes you look less slim, and more like an abnormally lengthy sheep."
Loki gave a short laugh.
"Should I be insulted?"
"That really depends how you feel about sheep."
"Actually, Tony, you said it, not I. I would suggest that it therefore really depends how you feel about sheep."
"I was always a fan."
"well then, I shall not be insulted," he said with a vaguely playful expression.
"Tomorrow morning, a friend of mine is coming over." I figured that was best information given ahead of time, especially with his professed aversion to police involvement.
"The friend whose perfume does not make you a gardener?" he asked, face innocent.
"Hah. No." Wouldn't Steve love that comparison. "Steve Rogers, I'd mentioned him. He has access to information that'll hurry this right along."
"Don't worry, that is as far as involvement with the cops will go."
"I believe you. Should you go to bed?"
"That's not a very subtle way to tell me to scram."
"That was not what was intended. You look tired. You need your rest.""
Ain't that the truth.
"You planning on burning the midnight oil?" Somehow, I could imagine him hovering in my living room all night with whatever book of interest he'd managed to find amongst my shelves.
"No. I will probably just finish my chapter, then go to bed."
"Alright," I said, pushing off the chair to rise, "I'd say make yourself at home, but it looks like you've already done that."
"Your home is very comfortable."
I doubted that. I've often chosen form over function.
"Night. Don't pass out on my couch, I won't tiptoe around you in the morning."
"I won't. Good night."
I stretched my sore spine before crossing the room, then paused at the doorway to the hall.
"How do you say that in your language?"
I nodded to myself and left the room.
Slipping into my silk night clothes was heavenly.
I must have fallen asleep quickly, because the last thing I remember was thinking it wasn't so bad to come home to someone.
For the record, traditional Icelandic sweaters are pretty fabulous.
Comments are always appreciated.
Chapter 5: Antiquing
Sorry it's been so long. Things got busy and I got sort of artistically side tracked. The next chapter will not take so long to be posted.
The first thing I was consciously aware of was a warm hand on my shoulder- the second was the way my face had sunk into my pillow as I slept. It took me a second longer to feel the hands gentle rocking, and a few more to comprehend the soft sound of “Tony. Tony, wake up.”
I grumbled something in response that even I probably couldn’t translate. My sleep addled brain had no trouble identifying the man trying to (gently) jostle me awake.
“C’mon, Tony, it’s time to wake up, buddy.”
“Steve. What time is it?”
I let out a petulant groan.
“Then it’s not time to wake up.”
Steve chuckled, and I couldn’t bring myself to resent it. “You knew I was coming over.”
“That doesn’t mean I can’t be grumpy about it.” I felt the bed sink under Steve’s shifting weight.
“That is, in fact, what that means. Now come on.” He patted me on a blanket covered leg. “Up and at ‘em, unless you want me to confiscate your comforter.”
I pushed myself up onto my elbows, much to my own chagrin, adjusted to the brightness of the room. “I have a gun in my bedside table. I will shoot you if you so much as reach for my blankets.”
“You can barely open your eyes, I’m pretty sure I could take you.” I propped myself begrudgingly against my pillows, because I would rather be warm and upright than cold and flat. “Good man,” Steve said with a supportive pat to my shoulder.
Steve repositioned himself beside me, leaning against the head board, while I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and ran my fingers through my disheveled hair. Our years of friendship were the only thing that prevented my vanity from kicking into gear.
“I had expected him to be blond.”
“What?” I asked through a yawn.
“That client of yours, I thought he would be blond.”
“Oh.” I snickered. “And why did you assume that?”
“Well, you said Icelandic. They’re usually blond, right?”
I was far too groggy to care about the likelihood of raven haired Icelanders. “I assure you, I wouldn’t know.”
Steve remained quiet, looking oddly displeased.
“Look,” I started, confused as to his stern face, “maybe it’s bottle black, what does it matter?”
“It doesn’t, really. I was just saying, because it surprised me when we met.”
I chose to move on, not all that interested in Steve’s ruminations on hair color. “So, you’ve been properly introduced?”
“Yes. Miss Potts was kind enough to handle that, since you couldn’t be bothered.”
“Good,” I ignored the jibe because I wasn’t in the least bit ashamed of catching a little shut eye.
“He calls her Pepper, you know. They’re already on a first name basis.”
“And don’t you think that’s taking some unearned liberties?” Steve urged, clearly disapproving.
“He wants to be on a first name basis with everyone. It’s a cultural thing.” I dismissed the observation with a wave of my hand. “And you could call her Pepper, too, if that’s what this is about.”
“It’s not. I’m just saying it’s odd.”
“Fine. Pass me my clothes, will you?” I gestured vaguely to the dresser. Steve graciously stood and went to work rifling through my drawers.
“Apperently, you’ve also decided to let him live with you,” he said inquisitively as he held up a pair of slacks.
“Not those. Yes, he’s staying here for a bit.”
“You just met him, and now he lives here?”
“No, I just met him, and now he’s my guest, because otherwise he’s going to get himself shot to Hell.”
“Things just seem to have gotten awfully familiar, very quickly.”
“Aww, is somebody suffering from the green-eyed monster?” I teased. “Don’t worry, Stevie, you’ll always be my best girl.”
Steve held up a shirt with a glare, but it was softer than it could have been. I threw back the creamy blankets and slipped out, away from the comfort of bed.
“So, do you have something for me, or are we just going to chit chat about how much you dislike Loki?”
Steve looked genuinely offended while I dug through my clothes. “I don’t dislike him. I’ve got no reason to hold this situation against him. He seemed very friendly. It’s you being irresponsible I’m worried about.”
“Well, that aside, what did you find out?” I urged him away from the current topic as I began to dress.
“Plenty, but it’s all pretty, ah, vague. If it wasn’t, the guy would be behind bars already,” Steve said, returning to sit on the edge of my bed.
“Spill it then.”
“Well, for starters, we’re pretty sure he’s got the harbors all wrapped around his finger. He can get whatever he wants in or out. He probably gets paid to let shipping businesses go about theirs in peace.”
That explained the warehouse down by the dock. That Genoshan smuggler was sure to come in handy.
“What’s he bringing in, drugs?”
“No. At least, we’re pretty sure it’s not drugs. Contraband, we think his ties with the black market are strong. It’s probably mostly Latverian wares, I mean, he practically owns the place. More than just the crime there, it would seem. The government is probably in his pocket.”
“America. I need to know about what he’s up to here.”
“All the usual unpleasantness: extortion, money laundering most likely. The man has a legitimate business, how he uses it, we don’t know for sure.”
I nodded as I finished buttoning my shirt.
“What else? No- don’t care about what. Who, who would sell him out?”
“That’s harder to say. He’s not a man you cross. Your best bet is going to be people he’s crossed, and have nothing to lose but an enemy. Wilson Fisk would be a good place to start.”
“He’s not really the type I’d like to get acquainted with. An underling, though, that might work well. What did Doom do to Fisk?”
“Don’t know.” Steve shrugged. “Like I said, if we had specifics, we would have busted up his operations already, or passed up what we’ve got to the people who could, at the very least.”
I decided to try for an option I doubted he’d be open to, but it would have been useful to make my own assessment of the facts. “So, can I see those files?”
“I’m not bringing you official records.”
“You’ve already given me official information.”
“You know full well that it’s different.”
“Fine,” I sighed. “What else?”
“You might head over to the Baxter Building, see if Mr. Richards will see you. Have you met?”
“We have, actually. Smart man, nice looking wife.” The Storms have very attractive genes.
“When did you meet?”
“We used to run in the same circles.”
Steve nodded, allowing the conversation’s turn to pass on without incident.
“If Fisk and Richards are dead ends, I’d suggest you get down to the loading docks and do some first hand sniffing around.”
“Not a bad idea. I’m going to have to go down there no matter what, either way.”
“Two birds then,” Steve added pleasantly. Steve almost always says things pleasantly.
“That’s how I’ll always have it, if I can help it.” I wiped the last bit of sleep from my eye. “I’m going to wash up real quick. Do you want to grab breakfast?”
“I’d love to, but I probably shouldn’t. I’ve already taken extra time out this morning. Things are insane right now, but most nights I’d be happy to grab a bite, or a beer.”
“You know I’m busy nights if I can help it. But sure, if you can’t skip out for a simple lunch anytime soon, we can try for after work.”
“Pepper took down some more specific information for you,” he told me as he stood.
“Good. It’s not fair to tell me things early in the morning.”
Steve laughed and shook his head. “We’re like three hours past early morning.”
“This is my house, and if I say it’s early, it’s early.”
“Whatever you say, Tony. I’ll leave you to powder your nose,” Steve teased, I imagined probably in retaliation for earlier.
“Hey, I have to look my best.” I would have objected, had I been more unaware of my vanity, but I wasn’t.
“Stay out of trouble.”
“I’ll do my best. Thanks, by the way, for the information.”
“I would say ‘anytime’, but, well, you know.”
Steve left me with a few words of encouragement and a few more of warning, but those words weren’t the ones on my mind as I brushed my teeth, and washed my face. Frankly, I had more to go on than I do in a lot of my cases, so I felt silly steeling myself so thoroughly for difficulty, but then again, it wasn’t the information that made that one difficult, it was what the repercussions of getting it might be.
I spent even longer making myself presentable than usual before I exited the bathroom.
I found Loki sitting quietly on the edge of my bed, fiddling absently with the embroidered edge of my comforter.
“Good morning, Tony,” he greeted me, looking up with a small smile. “I hope you don’t mind the intrusion, but I was hoping to talk to you, and you left the house rather quickly yesterday morning, so I wanted to make sure I would catch you.”
“Don’t worry about it. As a rule, I don’t leave anything out that I wouldn’t want seen by whoever cares to look. Uh, what did you want to talk about?”
“Well, I was hoping you would include me in this process,” he explained. “Not only for my own peace of mind, of course, but also because I am sure I could be of use. I’m smarter than my current situation might lead you to believe.”
“You want to help?” Clients taking part in their own cases is, as a general rule, a bad idea.
“I do.” He nodded. “I understand that it would be unwise for me to just go gallivanting around, but, I can be put to better use doing.. pretty much anything other than sitting around here all day. Not that I don’t appreciate your hospitality. Providing me with all that you have is truly lovely; I just thought you could use me.”
“Fine, but you’re going to stay in today. I’ll make you a list of names. See if any of them jog your memory, if your job ever brought you in contact with them.”
“I’d be happy to.”
I probably would have asked him to anyhow, and if it kept him out of my (and harm’s) way, it would be a good thing. “Good.” I moved to grab my wallet from the bedside and gun from the drawer, but he stayed seated, bent with his elbows on his knees. “Is there something else you need?”
“Then don’t get too cozy. I’m heading out.”
“Ah, of course,” he said politely, but did not seem in the least abashed as he stood. He followed fast on my heels as I left my bedroom, and he shut the door gently behind us. “Who are you seeing?”
“A few people. Haven’t made up my mind on the specifics just yet,” I answered noncommittally as my feet hit the stairs.
“How long do you think you’ll be?”
“Long as it takes. Earlier than last night if I can swing it that way.”
“I see.” He took my evasiveness better than most do when getting to know me.
When we reached the waiting room, I fished what I had gotten from Pietro (well, Wanda gave me much more straightforward answers than her brother did, but he didn’t actively work against progress and that was both a positive and a recent development).
“Here.” I handed it to Pep. “Just consolidate this with any names Steve gave you, and make a copy for Loki. I just want the originals.”
“Good morning to you too, and I’ll get right on that.”
It didn’t take much time for her to bang out copy of the names, and I used the time to gather a few things from my office, coffee among the most important.
Loki’s last few questions delayed me on my way put the door, and stepping out onto the street, I was reminded of why I’d never gotten hitched,
I spread out all the papers I’d so far acquired in the passenger seat of my Cadillac. I had a packed day ahead of me. I needed to talk to as many people as possible (before it got around that somebody was asking questions), and find out if the list Loki made from memory had anything in common with what Steve had given to Pepper. Not being a man made to do paperwork, I decided maybe I’d come back for lunch and do that part a little later.
First things first: I needed a word with a certain scientist across town.
I pulled in down the street from the Baxter Building, bemoaning the last sip of my coffee. I swept my papers together and piled them lazily into the glove compartment before I got out. As I entered, I mentally prepared myself for the arbitrary dance of ‘No, I don’t have an appointment, Yes, you should send me up anyway. No, I’m sure he’ll want to see me,” that I was about to do with Richards’ secretary.
“How can I help you?” she asked politely as I approached her station.
“I’m here to see Reed Richards.”
“Oh,” she said with a frown. “I don’t believe Mr. Richards has any appointments this morning.”
“I know. I didn’t make one, but he’ll see me.”
Her expression turned from half heartedly apologetic to wary and put off surprisingly quickly.
“Just tell him that Tony Stark is here to see him,” I said with a convincing smile.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Stark,” she replied, not looking sorry at all, “but like I said, no appointments today. He’s not here.”
“When will he be back?”
“He should be home tomorrow. Would you like to make an appointment?”
“No. Is Ben Grimm here?”
“No.” I sighed, Coming back the next day wasn’t appealing, and it didn’t fit into my plans in the least.
“Mr. Storm is here. I could find out if he’ll see you.”
As fun as Johnny is, I knew he wouldn’t have the information I wanted. Trying to get useful information out of that guy that’s time sensitive feels a whole lot like beating your head against a wall. “No, but give him a message. Tell him I was here, and that his brother-in-law needs to call me as soon as he can, do you understand?”
She gave a small nod and jotted something down.
“Now, if you wouldn’t mind, doll face.”
“I want you to tell him now,” I reasserted.
“I’m supposed to stay here.”
“If I’m not mistaken, you aren’t a guard. Relaying messages is your job.” She pursed her lips and testily stood. “Thank you.” I received a petulant glare in response.
I waited to see her get on the elevator before I left. I clambered into my car, not particularly discouraged, but with a definite lack of enthusiasm. I rifled through my glove compartment until I pulled free the (now crumpled) sheet of paper with the names and addresses I’d gotten from the Maximoff twins. If Doom made a lot of his business out of the ship yards, smugglers were a great place to start. The address I had been given was in a neighborhood that, although I was not overly familiar with it, wasn’t too far from the Baxter Building. Walking seemed easier than driving.
It was on a sweet little side street I hadn’t previously realized was non-residential. Both sides were lined with shops and a few restaurants (which would come in handy for my purpose). The address I was looking for turned out to be an antique shop set between a bookstore and a pharmacy. It had a quaint look about it, not the sort of place I would have looked twice at. I was able to take the time to examine the place more closely, since it apparently didn’t open before one on Sundays.
There was no way I was making the walk back to my car just for the wait. I decided to settle in at the little place across the street for an early lunch to pass the time. It looked like it might have something I enjoyed, and more importantly, it had a large pane of glass that overlooked the antique store. The restaurant was wholesome and brightly colored- not my kind of place, but good for my purposes. I hunkered down by the convenient window and waited to order. If the Genoshan’s name was familiar to me for a reason, like I’d thought, the vantage point would give me the opportunity to make sure our acquaintance hadn’t been an overly negative one, before he saw me.
A gangly young man took my order of some long sandwich they supposedly specialized in, and I returned my attention (what I had of it for staring at an empty street) back outside. I stared semi-absently at the road while I waited, trying to let my mind stay away from the more fatalistic ideas about my current case. The sidewalk was mostly clear of people. Most people were probably at church.
My eyes lazily followed a tan car that drove leisurely past. I glanced to my watch. Time was moving too slowly. I’m not a sit around and wait type of guy.
The stringy teen brought me my food with a smile. The smile did his face a great service.
I continued to stare half heartedly across the street when the tan car passed— again? That didn’t sit well with me. I leaned towards the window and tried to peer down the street see what it did. The car pulled up in front of a store that looked very, very closed. I waited to see who would step out, but no one did.
I tried to tell myself not to jump to conclusions, but I’d already had somebody watching me two nights before, and although I had initially suspected Loki, he hadn’t been wearing what they had been wearing. I waited.
Ten minutes, I told myself. Ten minutes, and if they don’t either drive away or get out of the car, I’m getting out of here.
The ten minutes dragged and I kept a near constant eye on my watch. At the five minute mark, I had my sandwich wrapped and paid the check. When ten minutes passed, and nothing had changed, I stood as casually as I could, slipped on my jacket, and picked up my uneaten lunch. I stepped out of the restaurant purposefully not looking in the car’s direction, and in doing so, nearly collided with some big, tall, blond fella’. He looked like I’d surprised him, so I muttered an apology and an ‘excuse me’ as I walked back the way I had come. The smuggler would have to wait.
I found myself wishing I had driven, or was at the least, somewhere more crowded. I walked the first few blocks without looking back. Eventually, I rounded a corner and settled onto the bottom of a stoop. If the car was following me, it would wait long enough so I wouldn’t be aware of it, then come. Maybe it I waited I’d get a better view of the driver when the car rounded the corner. I spent a solid fifteen waiting, but it didn’t come.
Maybe it’s paranoia after all? Either way, I knew I should head back to the car to be safe. I could go over the notes back home, grill Loki while I was there, and then head back to the antique place after one when it would actually be open.
I was grateful to reach my car, despite my lock of evidence of danger. To my own embarrassment, I sighed in relief as I pressed the key into the ignition.
Chapter 6: Andvokur
Sorry about the long wait. My wifi kicked the bucket. This chapter is longer than usual, hope that makes up for it a bit.
I returned to the station later than I should have and found a pile of paperwork on my desk that needed to be reworked. I was gladder than I had been in a long time for the bureaucratic pencil pushing. I was worried about Tony, and he’s never been a man who made worrying about him easy on a guy.
Barton wandered over to his desk around 11:00, although he’d clearly come in a great deal earlier.
“Where have you been?” I asked, half bothered by his lack of productivity.
“Don’t give me that look.” He settled in behind his desk, slipping something into the top drawer. “I’m not the one who came in late; I’m allowed to get chatty at the coffee machine.”
“Sorry,” I relented, “you’re right.”
“I know,” he said with a smirk. “So,” he began again, clearly having completely moved on, “do you have any idea who the big guy was?”
“What ‘big guy’?”
“The one who came in earlier, asking about your favorite private eye.”
“I wasn’t here earlier,” I said with a frown. “He was asking about Tony?”
“Right, I just figured you would’ve heard. The girls out front can’t stop giggling about him.” Clint shrugged and stapled.
“And he was asking about Tony?” I repeated the question.
“So,” I waved him on to expand, displeased by the needless drawing on, “what was he asking about? Did you talk to him?”
“Yah, I talked to him. It was kind of a queer conversation.”
“How? Was it suspicious, or just strange?”
“It was just weird. Odd. Seemed like he was trying to background check him, find out who he ran with.”
I rubbed the bridge of my nose, hoping Tony hadn’t already gotten himself into trouble. “Why was the conversation odd?”
Clint hesitated. “…It was more that he was odd. He was foreign, maybe something got lost in translation.”
“Oh. What was he like? Where was he from?”
“Tall, like, weirdly tall. Very blond. I don’t know where he was from, didn’t ask him.”
“I’m assuming you got his name.”
“Yah.” He fished in his pocket for a moment and pulled out a small, white business card. “Thor Odinson.”
I took it and flipped the small item over. It said ‘Viking Industries’ in clean, black print and a phone number beneath it that clearly wasn’t American. “Did he leave you a means to reach him?”
“No reason to. I think he just gave it to me out of politeness or for credibility. He probably just realized what he was doing would seem odd.”
“What kind of man did he strike you as?”
“Look, I don’t think you should worry,” Clint cut to the chase. “Other than having long hair and a bit of a beard, he came off very clean cut-- certainly wasn’t some low-life. I think he was just trying to discern whether Tony was on the right side of the law. He was probably a potential client.”
“Could be…” I stared at the small card as if it might eventually lose its vaguery.
“Have you heard of this?”
“Viking Industries?” He leaned back in his chair. “No, not that I can remember, have you?”
“No.” I picked up the phone and dialed for the operator.
“Are you calling Stark? Take a breath, Rogers, the guy was harmless.”
“No. The library.”
He laughed. “You’re calling the library? Why would you call the library?”
“I’m going to ask their reference librarian a question.” He continued to smirk at me as I got connected.
“You know, I’m not sure if this makes you the laziest or most resourceful detective I know.”
I shushed him as the librarian answered.
“Hello, ma’am. I was hoping to find out about something sort of obscure.”
“Well, sir, that is what we’re here for,” she said amiably.
I told her all I could infer about Viking Industries and she told me she’d have to do a little research. I gave her my number so she could call me back when she had information.
Barton was still watching me when I hung up, and I smiled back at his smirk, but deep in my heart I was less than amused.
Pepper didn’t have any messages for me when I returned, and for that, I was actually glad. I told her to keep an eye out for a tan Ford on her way in and out of work for the next few days and went upstairs.
I dropped my papers and absurdly large sandwich on the kitchen table and then crossed the sitting room to go down the hall towards the guest room. The door had been left open.
Loki sat on the bed, cross legged, plainly looking at something laid out in his lap (though I couldn’t see what).
“Hey.” I rapped my knuckles against the door frame because yes, it was already open and he was clearly decent, but there was no reason to startle him. He looked up at the sound and there was a brief, although odd, pause before he smiled and responded.
“I’ve got lunch. Let’s talk.”
“Oh,” he said, folding up the paper on his thighs, and slid off the bed. “That was kind of you.”
“Not really,” I admitted, opening the door wider to let him pass through. “I need to pump you for more information and I was already buying lunch.”
Loki seemed amused by the admittance. “It would be more to your advantage if you left that part out. You don’t even have to lie and say you’ve gone out of your way, just stay silent, let me think what is pleasant to think. When we sit down you could have asked me about myself, feigned a genuine interest, then naturally bring the conversation around to how my day was, you tell me about yours, then tell me how much easier your job would be of you had more information. I would, by my own accord, want to really rack my brain for anything I’d ever seen or heard that could help you. You wouldn’t have even had to ask; and just like that, you’ve developed quite the rapport.”
“You volunteered to help; I don’t need to butter you up, do I?” I couldn’t help but smile at his little discourse on manipulation.
“Well, it never hurts, does it?”
“No, it doesn’t, but I suppose it’s too late to tell you of all the hardships I endured to get back here,” I conjectured as we crossed through the living room to the kitchen, “unless you’re willing to play pretend.”
“Hmm, I guess I could to my best to act impressed as you regale me with tales of your adventures. Maybe if whatever you brought is good, I could even manage some convincing praise and thanks.”
“I get thanks either way, I’m saving your life,” I reminded him and sat down at the table. Loki smiled at that, and the way it lit up his face was endearing. I thought that maybe he was in the process of emerging from some mild state of shock. I have had to learn to remind myself that not everyone has been shot at as many times as I have.
“That is an unnecessarily large sandwich,” Loki noticed aloud as he joined me at the table.
“That’s why we’re sharing it.” I unwrapped it and took two plates from the cupboard, placing a half on each. “Do you want something to drink?” I asked, pulling open my fridge. I was running out of food, it seemed. I’d have to see Pep about that.
I stifled a chuckle at the request, but supposed that not all men were quite as keen to opt for a beer with lunch. I figured I probably shouldn’t either and grabbed a soda for myself, set the cold bottle on the counter, and poured Loki his milk.
I handed the glass over wordlessly and returned to the table.
“How did everything go while you were out?” Loki tidily ripped a small strip out of the thick roll of his sandwich and popped it into his well formed mouth.
“Fine. Both far more and far less eventful than I was hoping for. Did you look at Steve’s little write up?”
“I did, yes.”
I took a bite of my lunch and spread out the papers that’d been brought in from the car. “Well, anything ring a bell?” I hadn’t yet gotten the chance to compare what Loki and Steve had given me.
“Not much,” he said apologetically. “It all makes sense, though, why he would have been down at the warehouse.” I nodded. “There was a company name I know of. We did business with them.” Loki reached out to point to The Liv Company.
“Okay. That’s a start. Specifics?”
“LIV is a design company that would give us requests for the types of pieces they were looking for.”
“What kind of pieces did they want?”
“It varied. Old valuable hand crafted furniture, ceramics. Nothing scandalous.”
“Where? Eastern Europe?”
“On occasion and fairly often, respectively.”
“How much of it do you think is stolen?”
“I can’t say, really. Now, I think maybe all of it could be.”
“You kept the books, why didn’t you suspect that?”
“I said I helped to keep them. I don’t handle all of it. What I do concerns our dealings with distributors, not with acquisition.”
It made sense. Their “distributors” were probably owned by Doom too, I thought, that way he could make things look as legal as possible. If Doom wanted to smuggle contraband in, it would be to his benefit to have it look legal at first glance. I figured I’d find evidence of wrong doing in the acquisition of the product, and how the ‘distributors’ dealt with it all after the handover. If an item was valuable or unique enough, it would have had to be sold through illegal channels. My Genoshan smuggler was looking more and more useful.
“Anything else? Anything at all that could be relevant?” Loki shook his head. “Not that I can think of, but I’ll continue to ponder it.”
“Know anyone who drives a tan Ford?” It was a long shot. “Ever seen one parked down by the warehouse?”
Loki stared thoughtfully into his milk before saying, “No. Why?”
“Don’t worry about it. Unless you see one, that is. Then, still don’t worry, actually, just tell me.”
“I doubt I’ll have to worry, then, since I am not to leave the house.”
“Not yet. Maybe tomorrow or the next day if we can do it safely, which I think we can. Don’t want you getting too stir crazy and becoming useless.”
“That would be appreciated. Thank you.”
I nodded and hoped he realized I wouldn’t be letting him wander around on his own.
A silence fell over as us we ate, and I used it to finally get a good comparative look at everything I’d gathered. The smuggler’s name wasn’t on anything from the police records or on Loki’s list. Out of the three other names Pietro had given me, one was also in the official records; I circled it in pen.
“What’s that?” Loki asked, and I realized he’d been watching me.
“Someone I need to put priority on checking out.”
“Who? Anyone I’d know of?”
“I don’t know. Ever heard of Leroy Wesley?”
Another idea occurred to me. “Speaking of people you know, who’d you work with?
Did you have a lot of coworkers?”
Loki shook his head. “Not that I interacted with often. I usually just saw the man I worked for, he managed all the accounts. I was often present when appraisers came by, sometimes when everything was picked up.”
“And how did that all work? What was the process? And I’d like the name of your boss.”
“It’s not too complicated,” Loki began to explain, “The shipment comes in, it gets moved to the warehouse. Then it’s all checked for injury, and inventory is taken. Appraisers from whoever we imported it for come, and then over the next few weeks it’s all picked up. The man directly above me was Walter Declun.”
That was a name I was almost positive I knew and I wrote it down. “How much does most of it go for?”
“That really depends on what it is. A vase doesn’t go for the same price as a bureau. But the prices are always high. When do you have to go out again?” he tacked on.
“Uh,” I looked down at my watch, “I was planning to go back out to get back there by one.”
I continued to work my way through the papers. The rest of lunch was mostly a silent affair, finally giving me a chance to do my reading.
Having learned a valuable lesson about staying close to the car, I drove all the way the second time. I pulled in next to the little place I had gotten lunch and set about waiting.
“Viking Industries,” the librarian told me when she rang a few hours later, “started out as a small fishing company, then moved into shipping, and then mining as its success grew. It was founded by Borr Búrason quite a ways back. His son runs it now.”
“Mhm. Odin Borsson.”
I looked back to the business card. Thor Odinson. Odin Borrson. Borr Búrason. The names relation to each other did not escape me, but I didn’t get to inquire further. Clint was tugging on my arm and telling me for the second time that we “really, really have to go. Someone else is going to take it if we don’t go. C’mon, I’m bored out of my mind, Stark’s a big boy, he survived before you were there to waste the city’s resources watching his back; on the other hand, there are two dead men that really need our undivided attention.”
Waiting was a tedious game, but a man grows used to it. The place wasn’t yet open when I got there, but soon enough, a car pulled into its driveway. I was glad when a little blond gal was the one who stepped out and unlocked the front door. It’s much easier to get information out of employees who probably think they’re holding down an honest job.
I checked myself in the mirror before hopping out and took a long look up and down the street before crossing. I pulled my hat off as I opened the door. “Good afternoon?”
“Good afternoon,” said the girl’s disembodied voice. A few seconds later, she popped up from where she’d apparently been bending down behind the nick-nack covered counter.
“Hi there,” I said with a winning smile, moving to look at the nearest shelf of bowls and vases.
“Hello, sir. Is there anything I can help you with today?”
“You could tell me about these. They’re lovely.”
“Oh,” she said, coming to join me at the display, “I’m not an expert when it comes to East Asian ceramics, but this is all Chinese Hard-paste porcelain. Early 19th century. Are you a collector?”
“Of sorts. I’m no expert either, but I appreciate beautiful things. Tony,” I introduced myself, holding out a hand.
“Stella,” she informed me as she accepted my hand and shook it lightly.
“So, is this a family place?”
She shook her head. “No. It’s a very friendly place, though.”
“Care to show me your European porcelain? Nothing so old that I’ll be too afraid to bring it home.”
The question as to whether I was looking for Hard-paste, Soft-paste, or Bone porcelain meant absolutely nothing to me. I chose Bone. Stella the shop girl treated me to a bland tour of their newer European Bone porcelain. I smiled and nodded, flirted, and chose one at almost random.
“This is very nice. I’ll take this one.”
“Oh, great. It’s funny how a silly little misunderstanding could be responsible for such a beautiful new kind of pottery.” I didn’t have a clue as to what that meant, although I assumed she was referring to something in the history of ceramics. “Did you want to take it with you now?”
“Any reason it shouldn’t be now?”
“Just in case you wanted it delivered, since it’s delicate.”
“Oh, no, thank you,” I assured her, “I’m sure I can manage to get it home in one piece.”
She pulled it down exceedingly carefully and I followed her back to the counter where she began an intensive and complicated wrapping process. I made conversation as she packed and then as she showed me the forms to fill out. Apparently it was common practice to keep track of where their pieces ended up. I felt like I was buying a gat.
Expressing awe at their varied selection, and the difficulty of acquiring it all, I was rewarded with a little ramble about how I “would be surprised with what manner of valuables you find people selling, none the wiser to its value”, and how they had “an amazing dealer firm” that supplied them with a lot of their wares. Orion, it was called. I was hoping that by some stretch of luck she was going to name the design company Loki had talked about. When she didn’t, I asked her if she would recommend them. Stella said she hadn’t heard of Liv. Never the less, it was information I could use.
It was a fairly pricey buy, but not so pricey that anyone in their right mind would have bothered to smuggle it into the country. I thought maybe there could have been a grander operation going on behind closed doors, that the customers who knew what to ask for and who exactly to ask for It would be shown a more private collection. If it was really owned by a Genoshan smuggler, it had to be more than a cute antique store.
I wondered what in the world I was going to do with my vase as I set it on the passenger seat. Maybe Pepper would want it for herself.
My next stop was the place of business of the man who I’d heard about through Steve and the Maximoff twins. All Steve’s files had said was that he was an errand boy for Doom, but Pietro had said he was actually a button man for the associate of a man who was Doom’s--better, for my purposes. No one, no matter how far down the ladder, who I could trace straight up to Doom, would spill their guts to anybody. I would probably just have to be straightforward with the guy, I thought. Promise him no one would know, make it worth his while, or threaten to get him arrested, all that jazz. As it turned out, I wouldn’t get the chance to see it through.
The guy, Leroy Wesley, did business out of an office in the same building as a butcher shop, and I figured that was probably fitting.
It seemed a far better idea to wait until he stepped out then to rush into his secluded office full of questions. I struck it lucky a bit longer than a half hour in when he saw someone out. I hastily grappled a pack of cigarettes from where it had fallen under the seat and into my pocket, and then left my car behind. I pulled one out on my way as if to go into the butcher’s, then padded myself down and stopped.
“Hey fella’, got a light?”
“Yah,” he said, as he produced a match and swiped it.
I’d been given a description by Pietro, but “sort of short, dark hair, blue eyes, a bit chubby” was not a unique set of features amongst average men. I needed to make sure I had the right guy before I launched into questioning him.
“This a good butchery?” I asked, trying for friendly nonchalance, “my old place just closed down.”
“Wouldn’t know.” He shrugged. “Gets enough business at least.”
“Oh. Not a customer then?”
“Nah. I’ve got a place in the building, that’s all.” It looked like he was my man.
“Great. You and I need to have a little talk, then.”
The man stiffened and eyed me guardedly. “Do we?”
“And what do we need to talk about?” His voice had hardened.
He snorted, “And what would a man like me know about a big time player like him?”
“That’s what I’m here to find out. I hear that your boss has a buddy who answers to Doom. I don’t expect you to know where the man sleeps, but I expect you to know something.”
“Me?” he asked, looking a mix of nervous and seriously ticked. “I’m nobody.”
“Yes,” I agreed, “You’re too low to be on his radar, which means that talking to me isn’t likely to put you at risk. Not talking to me, on the other hand… I know how to draw attention to a guy.”
“Nothing to draw attention to. I don’t know him, I’ve never crossed him--Don’t plan on trying to start now.” He turned around to go back inside.
“I didn’t mean from Doom.” He took a long moment just to glare at me so I continued. “It sounds like Doom has a lucrative smuggling thing going on. How about I say a name, and you just tell me if you know of them. Just point me in the right direction.”
“You’re a cop?”
“No. I’m an interested third party. I don’t care what you or anyone connected to you, or to him, does. I just need to know about Doom.” He continued to eye me. “Listen, I may not be a cop, but I’ve got friends on both sides of the law, which you realize must be true because I know that you, Leroy Wesley, works for Roland Scott, who used to run a racket with Donnie Morris, who answers to Doom. I know enough about you to round off what the cops already have and I will happily give it to them.”
“Fine,” Leroy grit out followed by an angry breath. “Where?”
“How’s my car sound?”
He shrugged. I took it as a yes. Pointing to my car, I gestured for him to go first. Everything he had to say, for the most part, was truly trivial. It was all little things Roland Scott had mentioned, people he knew Donnie Morris knew, rumors. I’d driven us a ways away for his perception of security more than anything else. He was right about being a nobody, but I took what I could get. He spent the majority of the conversation staring out the window. He got half way through a story about a delivery that a “friend” had done for Morris. It was the first thing I had actually wanted to hear, but just my luck, it never got finished. He had to turned to look at me, one of only a few times he did, before he stopped talking, instead staring oddly over my shoulder. His face was frozen in an unnerving expression of curiosity laced with fear.
“If you are a cop, now would be a fine time to tell me.”
“Still not,” I said, turning a bit to try to look where he was looking.
“Then you’re in trouble that I want no part of. Watch yourself,” he told me, pointing beyond my window as he abruptly popped the door open and climbed out.
“Wait,” I ordered, but was more interested in looking where he’d pointed than getting out to wrangle him back to my car.
Much to my own chagrin, I did not see what he had. I kept staring, searching everything I could with my eyes, but nothing stood out. Sliding into the passenger seat to look from where he’d been sitting, I still saw absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. It was all just the average city afternoon movement, the people milling about in the soon to be failing light. I got out, but yielded no more results. I turned back around to see that Leroy was long gone. I groaned, running my hands through my hair before I clambered into the car with unnecessary roughness. I’m a curious man by nature and I’ve never liked being in the dark about anything. I turned the key in the ignition and took off. If Doom knew I was out for him, I was in some serious trouble, but if this was the same person who had followed me to Banner’s, then they’d been tailing me since the first night Loki had come to me for help. If it was someone of Doom’s, and he’d been following Loki, Loki would never have made it to my door. But who else had a reason to be following me, I didn’t know. I’ve always been good at pissing people off, but I hadn’t stepped on any new toes as of late, and the timing was certainly suspicious.
The look on his face stuck in my mind.
I had briefly considered checking in with the Maximoff twins, but realized if I was being followed at that very moment, it wasn’t fair to lead my pursuer to anyone I could get in serious trouble. Those two have always been a little left of center, and it was especially so back then, but despite some of their more unsavory past actions and associations, they’ve also always been good at heart. It wouldn’t have felt good putting them at unnecessary risk.
Despite what I’d planned to get done, I turned towards home preemptively for the second time that day. There were a couple of facts I wanted to ask Steve about anyway.
It could be hard getting a hold of Steve down at the station, and by some weird luck, I’ve always managed to catch him right when he should be on his way out.
“Sorry, I don’t know about that,” Steve said to my inquiry concerning LIV, “I just wrote the name down in case. I didn’t think it would actually be important.”
“Do you still have it all checked out?”
“Of course I don’t. I checked it all back in when I was done, and before you ask, no, I’m not getting it out again,” he told me firmly. “I have my own work to get done, most of which will keep me out of here today. You just caught me back dropping off evidence.”
I conceded the point for the moment after a little unsuccessful needling. I’d been lucky to get as much help from him as I already had (although it usually doesn’t hurt to push for more when you can).
“Feel like getting a beer later?” I asked instead. “Banner’s isn’t too far from the station.”
“Banner’s?” The disapproval was heavy in his voice. “Tony, I can’t believe you still go there.”
“Why shouldn’t I?”
“Because you know who runs it.”
“What’s your problem with Betty?”
“You know I don’t have a problem with Mrs. Banner, and you know I’m not talking about her.”
“Okay, fine, but have you ever met Bruce? The guy’s got his quirks, sure, but he’s harmless.”
Steve made a small skeptical harrumphing noise. “The man is a dangerous criminal. Violent. Probably clinically insane. Banner may come off meek, but there’s a whole other side to him. You know that.”
“Betty’s related to that girl you’ve got it so bad for. The blond one, with the curls and the figure.”
“If you’re talking about Miss Ross, they’re cousins. I don’t see how that’s relevant though, Tony.”
“You ever wonder what their folks were thinking?” I asked him, not in the mood to bicker about my choice in bars.
“I don’t follow.”
“They’re both named Elizabeth. Betty and Betsy. One of them just needs to go by Elizabeth.”
“Betsy does sometimes.”
I was almost positive that Steve was the only one who ever called her Elizabeth. In fact, he probably only did that when he felt bold enough to momentarily graduate from calling her Miss Ross. Steve may have been a tall, dapper mass of well toned muscle with a 100 Watt smile, but he’d yet to completely grow into everything that came with that. He certainly hadn’t mastered dealing with women.
“Well, your strange contentment with mooning over the less fun of the Ross girls aside, are you free tonight?”
“I wish. Raincheck?”
“Hey. Have you ever run into Thor Odinson?” Steve asked after a strange quiet.
There had been a message waiting for me when I got back to the office from the man Steve mentioned. He had asked Pepper about me and my services--about how trustworthy a man I was. She had only spoken to him over the phone, but from what she said, it sounded like having him as a client would be an interesting ride. Apparently he was looking to discuss “a very private matter of the utmost importance” with me.
“No, but Pep talked to him just earlier today. Is he trouble? I probably don’t have time for a new case right now regardless, but do I need to worry about taking it later if he feels like waiting?”
“No. I was just curious. He was asking about you, and I just wanted to make sure he wasn’t some one you’d gotten yourself in trouble with.”
I wasn’t sure whether to be warmed that he bothered to worry, or wonder what it meant that he just assumed I’d gotten myself in trouble. I decided on the former, since I am no stranger to trouble.
I spent more time than I wanted to reading the mail that Pep had left unopened. She had a knack for knowing exactly which letters were private enough that I would bother reading them myself.
Upon going upstairs, I realized I really was out of convenient food. Everything in the cupboards would have made fine ingredients for someone who knew their way around an oven (which I certainly did not). At first glance, it might appear otherwise, what with one cupboard being entirely devoted to spices. They were actually a remnant of the long past days when Pepper had a reason to cook for me.
“Loki,” I called out. When there was no response, I decided to opt for a tactic other than the Italian intercom. Knocking on the guest room he was occupying turned out to do no better. “Loki?” I rapped a few more times and then pushed open the door to find an empty room. “Hello?” I tried again, turning to look in the other unoccupied rooms. “Pepper,” I yelled from the top of the stairs immediately before realizing where he must be.
“What?” She yelled back, voice strained.
“Never mind.” I knew where I hadn’t checked. I found Loki in my bedroom, eyes firmly affixed to my book shelf. “There you are,” I said as his head snapped to look at me.
“Sorry. Were you looking for me?”
“Yah. Popping in here seems to be becoming a habit for you.”
“Sorry.” His small smile was rueful. “You said I should feel free to look through your books,” he explained, holding up two small books I didn’t realize he had been holding.
“Feel free to tell me if anything I do over steps,” he told me, and for a second there, I was sure the look in his eyes was flirtatious.
“If you step on my toes, you’ll know.” There was a moment of heavy but not uncomfortable silence which I took upon myself to interrupt. “Hey, do you know how to cook, by any chance?”
“Not really. I can boil water as well as any man.” It looked like dinner would be coming courtesy of the deli a block over.
With the odd occurrences of the day and darkness falling, I didn’t feel comfortable sending Pep out to buy groceries or pick up dinner. The short drive was thankfully uninterrupted by anything suspicious.
Loki had donned his patterned sweater for dinner and I couldn’t help but comment.
“So, is someone in the family a knitter, or what?”
“I don’t have family.”
“Oh. Sorry.” I didn’t delve deeper. Swapping stories about our folks, or lack thereof, was not my idea of a good time.
“Don’t be,” was all he said, because it wasn’t his either.
I locked up after dinner and Loki retreated to his room. I settled into my own room with old case files and a bottle of scotch. It’s surprising how often people overlap in cases and it’s always wise (although tedious) to take a shot at finding any connections. The radio played unobtrusively in the background.
I eventually found myself staring out at the city night wondering if there was someone out there whose job it was to be keeping their thoughts and eyes on me. I hit the sheets, but I remained sleepless. I don’t know how long I spent staring at my darkened ceiling feeling restless. I’ve spent many a night up and working, but I was tired and unmotivated. The air in the room was heavy so I cracked the window to let the night in. It did very little to help.
When the hour grew later and later but sleep came no closer, I pulled my robe over my pajama pants (my shirt having been discarded earlier in the squirmings of sleeplessness.
I was vaguely surprised by the light that emanated from down the hall when I stepped out of my room. The house was otherwise dark and quiet, excepting the occasional noise that slipped in from outside.
If there’s one thing that loves company more than misery, it’s insomnia.
“Hello?” Loki called out when I neared.
“Hey. You slept yet?” I asked through the door. I heard the padding of bare feet on the floor.
“No. I’m still up,” he admitted as he opened the door. “And yourself?”
“I’ve been known to be a night owl.” His night wear was forest green, and his hair, although clearly still oiled, turned out to be longer than I’d thought when it had been completely slicked back. “Can’t sleep, or just a bookworm?” I gestured to the book his finger was tucked into as a placeholder.
“Do they have to be mutually exclusive?”
“I suppose not. They probably compliment each other. It’s certainly better than staring at the wall or counting sheep.”
“Is that what you do?” he asked me, letting himself lean against the door frame.
“Only when I’m feeling too lazy to do anything else.”
He looked at me thoughtfully for a moment. “Are you feeling too lazy to join me for a cup of tea?”
“Sorry to disappoint, but it’s not something I keep in stock.” Loki looked amused by my answer.
“Actually, you have quite the collection.”
“Then I’m not feeling too lazy to join you. As long as you’re making it, that is.”
He nodded in agreement.
I let the guest room's light remain the only illumination for the hall, but turned on the green lamp in the living room. I dropped onto the couch and pulled his book from where he set it on the coffee table en route to my kitchen. Seeing as I didn’t own any Icelandic books, I figured that it was the one Pete had picked up from Loki’s apartment.
I placed it back on the low table and watched Loki move in the warm light of the kitchen. He pulled open a drawer I had been sure was empty. That explains the tea.
The only sound was the quiet hiss of water heating. His lithesome form was made obvious by the clinginess of his silk pajamas. I let myself wonder if he had been making eyes at me earlier. It wasn’t the sort of thing to be acted on with such tenuous evidence, despite my usual willingness to act on my suspicions. For all I knew, any sort of overture from me could be met with shock and horror, but I’ve always had a good eye for that sort of thing, and I didn’t think shock or horror would be the response I received. But, if I was wrong it would put him in one Hell of an awkward situation, all that stood in between him and an unfortunate end being me.
My musings were interrupted by the whistling of the kettle. Soon enough, there was a cup of tea in front of me (something I’d never particularly cared for, although it tasted better than late night worries) and Loki was beside me on the couch.
“What’s the book about?” I asked, for lack of a better topic (and one that didn’t involve a proposition to commit an act illegal in every state in the union).
“It’s poetry,” he told me, blowing on his tea.
“I might tease you if I wasn’t so tired. Remind me in the morning?”
He shook his head, but smirked all the same. “It’s not the flowery American sort. And you must remember that I’ve seen your bookshelf.”
“Fair enough. Feel free to not remind me, then.” I let my head loll back and closed my eyes. It wasn’t exactly a formal get together, after all.
I still hadn’t touched the tea. In the morning the cup would be where he’d set it, full and cold. The room’s silence was interrupted briefly by the sound of a siren in the distance and then a second time by the rustling of pages. As it turned out, I was quite fed up with silence. My nights were usually finished on the town. “Read aloud?”
“You do realize it’s not in Enlgish?”
“Yah. Humor me.”