Chapter One

The first thing Pepper notices are the weeds. The landscaping up from the Pacific Coast Highway is usually well-kept, but here at the turn-off, the straggly growths rise up and give a shabby look around the edges of the thick ornate iron fencing. She looks away from them and up to the fly-specked computer screen embedded in the brick column in the center of the drive.

A computerized voice with a British accent comes from the slightly corroded grille even though the screen stays blank. “If you are seeking Pier Beach, it lies another six miles up the Pacific Coast Highway. If you are seeking roadside assistance, please use the touch screen and a tow truck will be dispatched immediately.”

Pepper clears her throat and repeats the words given to her an hour earlier. “Jar-vis, override beta two, SI identity number one six six three.”

There is a pause, and while Pepper waits, she notices a plastic bag snagged in some of the weeds. A very faded and torn one, with a Pizza Cake logo on it.

“Override accepted. Welcome, Doctor Potts,” the voice says, and with a screech of rusty squeals, the gates in front of her Lexus begin to roll open. From the sound of it, they don’t move very often or fast, and Pepper waits until the noise stops before pulling forward. She gets a few feet inside and notices that the sound starts up again behind her as the gates close.

She feels a shiver down her spine at the thought of being trapped. It’s a sunny day, a beautiful day, but here along the cliffs overlooking the beach Pepper feels a chill that has nothing to do with the temperature. The driveway stretches out in front of her, and more weeds line the edges of the asphalt. Some are already pushing up through the cracks, blooming in the sunshine.

She drives slowly; the road is uneven under the wheels, but as she looks up, Pepper catches sight of one of the most famous mansions in the world, and she sucks in a breath, looking at it against the skyline, imposing and clean-lined, an architectural wonder.

The Stark Compound West, more familiarly known as Malibu Mansion. Pepper knows the story well; how Howard and Maria Stark commissioned famed Googie architect John Lautner to design a west coast home for them, and how he’d created the Streamline Moderne building on the cliff side, giving it an organic and balanced perfection.

They’d never had a chance to live in it.

Pepper notices that the Italian Cypress that line the drive are battered looking and untrimmed and she’s sad that such a gorgeous estate has been allowed to go to seed. Then she pushes the thought away because she’s here for a reason and it has nothing to do with the aesthetics of this place.

She’s scared, and she wishes she’d been allowed to bring someone with her. At this point, even having Lou, her fat orange tabby would be a help. Not a lot of help, but enough to quell the butterflies in her stomach, because she’s walking in to see a dead man, and that’s enough to upset anyone. But Obadiah Stane had been crystal clear on the subject: Only her.

The house looms now, and Pepper reaches the curve of the drive where it nestles up against the double sided stairs. The driveway curls off to the right, and she guesses that’s where the garage is, but she’s been instructed to go up through the main doors, so she leaves the Lexus out in front. Pepper turns off the engine and sits for a long moment, hands still on the wheel as she takes deep breaths and calms herself.

She has a job to do. She has the authorization to be here. She’s a professional.

She’s still scared.

It’s been over twenty years since anyone has seen Anthony Edward Stark. The man has avoided the public eye for two decades, and if it wasn’t for his tax returns and occasional taped messages to Stark Industries most people would assume he was dead. A lot of the American public actually believe he’s dead, and that Stane keeps the name of Stark on the business out of sentimentality.

No publicity, no outside contact, no visitors. Tony Stark is a man who prefers privacy, and the few people who have tried to break into this estate have been prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

Pepper finally picks up her bag and climbs out of her car. She looks up towards the front doors of the house. She takes the left-hand steps and begins to climb them, seeing sticks and leaves and other debris along each unswept step.

She reaches the doors; a grand pair of redwood panels with intricate carvings along the six inset squares of each. One door—the right—swings open with a tiny creak, and for a moment Pepper harbors the wild urge to run away. Her breathing is shallow now, and her mouth is dry.

Time to get professional. Pepper steps into the foyer. She expects it to be dusty; the air is certainly stale here and still, but the marble floor shines in the dim light. Then the British voice speaks again, startling her so badly that she actually jumps.

“Doctor Virginia Potts, Stark Industries employee number one thousand six hundred and sixty-three. Stand still please for biosensor scanning.”

Pepper tries not to move, and from the ceiling, a beam flares out, touching the top of her head and rolling down her body, spreading out to light up all of her for a second in a grid of neon before fading. From the wall, a touchpad lights up and extends towards her.

“Thank you. Please press all ten of your fingertips to the pad,” the voice directs. She does so, having already been briefed on this battery of verification. After a moment, the voice speaks again.

“Thank you, Doctor Potts. You have been recorded and verified. Access to primary sections of the compound is granted. Is there anything you require at the moment?”

“Um, I’m here to see Mr. Stark?” she ventures softly, clutching her bag.

“Mr. Stark is currently in the master bedroom,” the voice says quietly. “The master bedroom is one floor above us. There is a staircase beyond the foyer and to your right, or, if you prefer, there is an elevator for your convenience.”

“Th-thank you,” Pepper manages, feeling amused that the artificial intelligence includes an in-house GPS system on top of everything else. “I’ll just . . . take the stairs.”

“You’re welcome, Doctor Potts.”

Pepper finds the curving staircase and climbs it, moving quietly upwards. There is a skylight here, and it makes the immediate area in the center of the spiral brighter than the rest of the house. At the top of the stairs, Pepper looks around at the quiet hallway, and notes the fresh vacuum tracks on the carpet here. The tracks are very wide, she sees, and then starts down the hall, checking the doors.

There is an open one that reveals a room only slightly less smaller than her entire apartment, and Pepper blinks at the spaciousness. A bed is there, the mattress the equivalent of a double California King. A sort of California-sized football field, she thinks before spotting the figure balled up under the blankets on the left side. She moves into the room and calls gently. “Mr. Stark?”

No answer. Pepper hears breathing though, raspy and wet. Concerned, she comes forward, approaching the figure. She bends down and sees that it’s a man huddled up on his side. He’s incredibly shaggy, with hair to his shoulders and a beard that would look at home on a Cossack. He smells, too; a ripe unwashed mix of sweat and other odors she can’t quite identify. He seems to be sleeping though, and Pepper doesn’t want to startle him, but she sees the flush of his skin and can practically feel the heat radiating off of him.

The fever. More concerned now, she presses a hand to his cheek just under his temple, in one of the few places of bare skin. The heat frightens her. “My God you’re burning up!”

Mr. Stark’s temperature is one hundred and four point seven,” the voice announces, “And his pulse is seventy three.”

“He needs to be cooled down,” Pepper mutters. “Immediately. Water—do we have water?”

“The washroom is off to your right, Doctor Potts,” comes the voice. “There is rubbing alcohol in the medicine cabinet as well.”

“Thank you,” Pepper murmurs in distraction, and moves off in the indicated direction. She takes a washcloth and wets it under a motion-activated faucet, wrings it out and returns, folding it into a pad before laying it along Mr. Stark’s face.

He reacts, jerking and rolling to his back, and when he opens his eyes, Pepper has never seen eyes so soulful and brown. “It’s okay,” she murmurs, re-adjusting the washcloth to his forehead. “You’re hot.”

“So are you,” he blurts in a weak rasp, blinking. His gaze is unfocused though, and Pepper realizes he probably isn’t sure if he’s awake or not. Carefully she dabs the washcloth around his face and neck, practically hearing the sizzle.

He’s wearing a tee-shirt, and with fascinated horror, Pepper sees there’s a hole in the center of it; a hole cut there to accommodate what looks like some sort of . . . device.

A glowing mechanical device imbedded in his chest.

Startled, Pepper moves a hand to touch it, but out of the corner of her eye she sees Mr. Stark cough and instead, she reaches for her bag. “How long have you been sick?”

He says nothing, still blinking in a glassy-eyed way, and the voice of the Artificial Intelligence speaks up instead. “Mr. Stark’s body temperature began to rise nearly forty-eight hours ago.”

“Has he complained of any symptoms? Headache, chills, nausea?” Pepper demands, pulling out her stethoscope and pausing as she tries to figure out just where to place it on Mr. Stark’s chest.

“Mr. Stark has ingested two doses of ibuprofen, the first one thirty hours ago, and a second dose twenty-one hours ago,” the voice tells her. “He has also had me adjust the thermostat once in that time.”

Pepper settles for placing the stethoscope along the left side of the . . . thing . . . in his chest and listening carefully for a moment. Reassured by the strong beat, she shifts it to listen to his lungs. They’re clear, but slightly wheezy, and her initial diagnosis comes into sharper focus. “Flu.”

“Influenza would require exposure to other persons,” the voice comments. “Mr. Stark does not make contact with other beings.”

There is a pause.

“Mr. Stark sends out for pizza,” Pepper deduces. “And pizzas are created and handled by other beings.”

The voice is silent and Pepper, feeling a little smug at being able to find a probable chain of contamination, turns to her bag again. She fishes out a tongue depressor and catches Mr. Stark’s furry chin, opening his mouth and inserting the depressor to peer deep into his throat. No pus or swollen tonsils; some redness consistent with coughing.

He stirs sluggishly, one hand coming up, reaching for her. “Who . . ?”

“I’m Doctor Potts. We need to get some analgesics into you. Hang on and I’ll get some wa--”

There’s a whirring noise, and Pepper looks to see a thing—a rolling robot—with a large claw coming in the doorway of the bedroom. She tries not to scream, especially when she sees that it’s carrying a plastic bottle of water. The robot stops at the foot of the enormous bed—and really, Pepper can’t get over how much acreage there is to this mattress—and the arm extends, the hissing pneumatics loud in the silent room.

“You required water?” the voice from above asks softly, breaking the quiet. Pepper swallows hard and timidly reaches for the bottle.

“Um, yes. Thank you,” she murmurs towards the ceiling.

“You are welcome, Doctor Potts. Will there be anything else required immediately?”

Slightly flustered, Pepper tries to think as she unscrews the top of the water bottle. “Some crushed ice and a few more towels would help . . . how long has it been since Mr. Stark bathed?”

“Mr. Stark’s last ablutions were fifty-three hours ago,” the voice recites and Pepper hears a hint of chide in it that makes her smile. Clearly the AI does not approve of smelliness either. She finds some Motrin in her bag and slips an arm around Mr. Stark to get him to sit up.

“All right, you need to take some pills . . . can you do that for me?”

“Doctor Hotts,” he murmurs agreeably. Smirking, Pepper knows that he’s delirious. She hands him the Motrin and water; Mr. Stark manages to swallow them and drink the water, but he slobbers, and some of the water leaks at the corners of his mouth, trickling through his beard and onto his tee-shirt.

More whirring; this time the robot has a friend, and both of them are carrying things. One has a plastic bag of ice and the other has a stack of towels.

Pepper helps Mr. Stark down to the mattress again and gets to work rolling ice in the towels and resting them on his shoulders and forehead. He flops a bit, and she notices that although he’s pale, he’s in fairly good shape. A little thin, in fact.

“Shhhh,” she soothes him. “Just rest and let the medicine do its work.”

“Water,” Mr. Stark mumbles, and she gives him a little more. Already he looks better, and when he closes his eyes, Pepper notes how incredibly long his eyelashes are.

She looks around for a chair, but there isn’t one, not in this massive acre of a bedroom. “Um, computer . . . person?”

“My appellation is Jarvis, Doctor Potts; it is an acronym for Justified Articulately Responding Voice-Interactive Servbot,” he informs her with the faintest trace of pride.

“Jarvis,” she repeats, smiling a bit, because he’s been incredibly helpful so far, “is there a . . . chair around here?”

One of the ‘bots rolls out the bedroom door and returns a moment later pushing an upholstered computer chair. Pepper takes it with a murmur of thanks and sits at Mr. Stark’s bedside, shifting the ice packs every ten minutes.

She finds herself staring at the circular disk on his chest.

*** *** ***

An hour later, Pepper has wandered all through the silent museum of a house. Mr. Stark is still sleeping, so she feels safe in leaving him for a while. The entire place is quiet and still, but scrupulously clean, and she can’t help but feel as if it’s still brand-new; untouched. The huge windows are tinted, and she knows that from the outside, no-one has ever gotten a glimpse inside even though Pepper herself has a magnificent view of the Pacific.

It’s all very . . . stark, she can’t help but think with an inner wince at the terrible pun. The main living room is the size of a hotel lobby, and could accommodate one of Stane’s fancy parties with space to spare. The only personal touch is a gleaming ebony baby grand piano, and when she comes closer to look at it, she notes a few grubby finger marks on some of the white keys. Somehow the thought of Tony Stark sitting there playing music all by himself sends a pang through her, and Pepper moves away to look around the other rooms on the main floor.

There’s a kitchen that would make a professional chef weep with envy, full of stainless steel appliances and black marble countertops. It looks a bit like an operating room, and Pepper moves quickly to the refrigerator, pulling it open to inspect the contents.

Her guess is correct: two old Pizza Cake boxes are there, along with a Won Ton Williams carryout container and a collection of wines and beers. The vegetable cooler is completely empty and Pepper shakes her head ruefully. “Jarvis, who prepares Mr. Stark’s meals? Besides the pre-prepared delivery stuff?”

“Mr. Stark has programmed the house ‘bots for simplified food preparation, Doctor Potts. They are capable of producing sandwiches, a few simple pasta dishes and pancakes.”

She looks up towards the ceiling, her astonishment giving way to concern. “What about fresh fruits and vegetables? Salads? Soups?”

“Regrettably, Mr. Stark rarely varies his diet.”

“I’m going to guess he’s undernourished and anemic,” Pepper growls. “That would explain in part why the flu has hit him so hard. We need food here, Jarvis, real food and not just items in cans or containers.”

“Do you wish me to place an order with the nearest retail grocer who delivers, Doctor Potts?” Jarvis asks, and she blinks, because it’s a damned good idea.

“Yes,” she says firmly. “Milk, eggs, an assortment of whatever fruit is in season, some cruciferous vegetables, cheese—does he eat cheese?”

“He has been known to eat grilled cheese sandwiches,” Jarvis admits, and Pepper gives a sigh.

“And juices—fruit and nectars. How much . . .” Pepper waves at the beers and wine bottles.

“Two bottles a week,” Jarvis responds, “interspersed with varying amounts of beer.”

“Not the best,” Pepper sighs again and closes the refrigerator. “How about exercise?”

“Mr. Stark follows a regime of an hour of running on the treadmill and an hour of free weights three times a week.”

“Better,” Pepper admits, glad that at least Mr. Stark is an active little hamster in his habitrail. “Oh and a few potassium enriched sports drinks to the order, please.”

“Noted. Do you require anything from the delicatessen or meat departments?”

Pepper thinks for a moment. She’s not a chef by any means, but she does have a few cooking skills. “Some chicken legs, and a nice chuck roast I suppose.”

“I will place the order immediately,” Jarvis assures her, and Pepper nods.

“Thank you.”

“You are welcome, Doctor Potts.”

“Jarvis . . .” Pepper hesitates, then continues, feeling a little reckless now. “Earlier you gave me Mr. Stark’s vitals . . . are you monitoring him medically? Do you have some sort of diagnostic capability?”

“One of my primary functions is to monitor Mr. Stark continuously,” the AI responds. “I keep detailed data on his physical status at all times.”

Pepper finds that to be . . . creepy. She looks around the huge kitchen once more and crosses her arms, rubbing her hands from elbows to shoulders. “Okay. And about that . . . device in his chest?”

“You do not have the authorization for that information at this time,” Jarvis tells her, and this time Pepper swears she can hear an undertone of regret in the voice. She gives a sigh and steps out of the kitchen.

Pepper peeks into a few other rooms, finding a vast library, complete from first editions to e-Books, a gymnasium with boxing ring, running track, indoor pool and every high-tech piece of exercise equipment yet made, a genuine Swedish sauna, a thermostatically chilled walk-in wine cellar and a medical care room. This latter pleases her; gives her a sense of purpose and Pepper steps in, noting the examination table and array of cabinets and devices with approval. “This looks familiar.”

“The Medical suite,” Jarvis intones, “More vulgarly referred to by Mr. Stark as the ‘Boo-boo Room’.”

Pepper laughs softly. “I take it he doesn’t like this place?”

“Mr. Stark does not,” Jarvis replies, adding, “This is a fully functional medical facility with on-line access to Mr. Stark’s records if you wish to review them.”

“I do,” Pepper replies, looking around more urgently now. “Records of everything but the, ah . . ?” she waves at her chest.

“Yes,” Jarvis agrees.  

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