A portentous meeting.
"Good morning, sir," Jarvis says as Rick pokes his head into the kitchen. "Will you be requiring breakfast? I can whip something for you posthaste."
"Whatever won't be any trouble," Rick tells Mr. Stark's butler. "Have you got the time by any chance?" Rick takes a seat where he won't be in the way of Jarvis or any other staff Mr. Stark maintains. "By the way," he starts. "Is Mr. Stark anywhere about?"
As Jarvis gathers ingredients, he says, "It's a quarter to eight, sir. And, no, Master Stark is not here." Jarvis expertly cracks three eggs into a shiny silver bowl and begins to beat them. "His secretary did phone and instructed me to ready one of the autos for your use, assuming, of course, you are licensed to drive. I believe the Austin Healey has a full tank of petrol."
"That's very nice of Mr. Stark," Rick comments as he finishes his meal. "If you speak with him tell Mr. Stark I'll probably be by sometime this afternoon to speak with him."
Five minutes later Rick pulls away from the house in the small but powerful roadster. Lost in the moment at the wheel of the car Rick drives around the city, taking in his new home. The car handles like a dream, and the more Rick handles it the more he knows he wants, somehow, what Tony Stark has. His wanderings take him past the Stark Enterprises buildings, and Rick turns into the parking lot. He pulls to a stop and walks inside. When he gets to the front desk Rick tells the receptionist why he's come in. "Could you please tell Mr. Stark, if he isn't too busy, that the young man who borrowed his car would like to speak with him."
The secretary, a slender, slightly gray-haired woman dressed in a somber outfit, is about to push a button on the intercom when she is distracted by the entrance of an athletic, attractive red-haired woman.
"Ah, Miss Cabe," she says to the woman. "Mr. Stark would like to see you immediately. Also, this young man claims to have Mr. Stark's car and would like to speak to Mr. Stark. Do you know anything about this?"
Conscious of Mrs. Arbogast's presence, Bethany glances at Rick as if she's never seen him before and says, "Ah. You would be Mr. Jones, then; Mr. Stark mentioned you were visiting. Would you come with me, please?" She takes Rick's arm and shows him the way. "Are you enjoying New York so far?"
"The city's wonderful," Rick says. "I do have some questions though. That's what I wanted to talk to Mr. Stark about," Rick waits until they are out of earshot of the secretary before he asks his next question. "Would you mind telling me who you are, and how you know my name? I can't remember meeting you before, and I didn't say who I was in there just now?"
"I work for Mr. Stark," she replies with a cryptic smile, and leaves it at that for the moment. She knocks lightly on the office door and waits for the faintly heard acknowledgement.
There is a small crowd in the office. The first two people Bethany and Rick notice are Victor Dumas and Curtis Connors. Connors looks a bit haggard. Tony Stark sits behind his desk. Standing to the left of the desk is an Army officer. His rank and name tag identify him as Colonel DePalo.
DePalo is of medium height, thin, with a gaunt face and deep set, green eyes. His crew cut shows quite a bit of grey. He is in full dress uniform, his chest a quilt of medals and ribbons. Infantry, paratrooper, and 75th Ranger insignia stand out amongst the various devices.
Victor nods to Bethany and Rick as they enter.
"Good morning," Bethany says briskly. "I understand you wanted to see me? And this young man says he has some questions for you."
Rick stands slightly to one side if Tony wants to say something to Ms. Cabe. Suddenly he remembers Aegis taking off her helmet, and seeing a mass of red hair fall from beneath it. At the time he hadn't paid much attention, but it would account for their closeness.
"This must be Bethany Cabe and Rick Jones," the colonel says. "Very good. The more of you available for this the better."
Doctor Dumas sits back and listens to the others.
"Colonel, DePalo, is it?" Rick says as he comes into the office. "I don't know what you're talking about. Mr. Stark was kind enough to loan me his car and give me a place to stay for the night," Rick isn't sure how much the Army colonel knows, and he doesn't want to give anything away if he doesn't have to. He lays the keys of the car on Mr. Stark's desk and turns as if to walk back outside. "I wanted to have a word with Mr. Stark, but it can wait until later."
Stark stands up. "Wait, Rick," he says. "Dr. Connors's family has already been attacked. There's likely to be more trouble."
"Also, Mr. Jones," the Colonel interrupts. "No one expects you to know what I'm talking about. At least not yet. But your country needs you right now. Or, to be more specific, your country needs a young man with some rather remarkable abilities that appear to be telekinetic in nature."
DePalo reads the look on Rick's face.
"And, no, no one in this room let your cat out of the bag," he goes on. "We've had Connors, Stark, and Dumas under surveillance for sometime now. The rest has been as easy as two plus two."
Bethany retains her usual pleasant demeanor, sizing up this colonel as she would any potential opponent. She doesn't have much call to like what she's seeing -- or hearing. There had better be a national emergency to justify this kind of high-handed dealing.
Dumas stands and makes himself a drink over at the bar while they are talking. Then he comments on the colonel's words.
"Yes and your men have been quite a nuisance skulking around my estate. Its not like I've kept it a secret that Doctor Victor Dumas is in fact the Specter!"
Dumas stands there in his three piece suit. Chiseled facial structure and puffed out chest.
"I imagine you'll be getting to the reason why you are interested in us colonel?" Dumas says.
_As if we can't guess._ Beth shifts to a position where she can see everyone else's face and waits for more information, her own expression and stance neutral.
Rick also pauses, then turns around and looks for a place to sit down, if there is one left in the room. "Who's attacking Dr. Connors family?" There is a hint of anger in Rick's voice, both at the outrage of being watched by the government and at the thought of Curt's family suffering because of their activities. He turns his gaze to the army colonel and waits for an answer. "Mr. Stark, do you know anything about any of this?"
Stark shakes his head. "I don't know much more than you do, Rick. But I assume the Colonel will be forthcoming with the details."
Colonel DePalo nods, picking up a slim, black remote control from Stark's desk. The pushes a button and the lights dim while a screen and projector lower from the ceiling.
"Everything you're about to hear is classified," DePalo begins. "That means that right off the bat I'm going out on a limb here, since none of you have been cleared for this information." The projector throws a square of light on the screen. "Dr. Connors family was attacked by this man." A push of a button reveals a grainy, black and white photo of a man. He is running from the front door, dressed in a black costume with black skull cap and face mask. His right arm bears a circular shield, also black, decorated with a large white skull. "This is the only photo we have of him. He broke into Dr. Connors's home, probably searching for research notes on the formula Connors developed that regenerated his missing arm. A similar break-in occurred at Connors's labs at Empire State. Other than this picture and my agents' accounts of the home invasion, we have no intelligence on him."
The projector whirs as a new photo appears on the screen. It is a head shot of a man, probably in his mid-30s, with short black hair and a thick moustache. Dumas breathes in sharply. "This is Sergei Kravinoff, code name the KGBeast. Last we heard, he was operating in Latveria about the same time Dr. Dumas sought asylum in the U.S.A. Kravinoff is a Soviet operative with the ability to take on the physical forms of animals." The picture switches again. It shows Kravinoff, dressed in a dark suit, sunglasses, and fedora, lifting a suitcase from a luggage carousel. "Kravinoff arrived in New York City three days ago. His current whereabouts are unknown."
Another head shot appears. This one is an older man, maybe mid- to late-40s, bald, with sunken features. "This is Dr. Ivan Kragoff, code named Cosmonaut. He was one of the early pioneers in the Soviet space program. In an incident similar to that suffered by Dr. Dumas, Kragoff was exposed to cosmic radiation while in orbit. He developed superhuman powers relating to the control of magnetism as a result. If the KGBeast is in the city, odds are good the Cosmonaut isn't far away."
A blurry, black and white photo is next, showing a slim woman, her features obscured by the poor quality of the shot. "And this is the only photograph we have of a third Soviet agent under Kragoff's command. She is known only as the Voice. Intelligence reports last placed her in Vietnam, but that was over a month ago."
The lights come back up and the projector switches off.
"The confirmed presence of one Soviet super-soldier on U.S. soil is alarming enough. It is very likely Kragoff and the Voice are in country as well. Though we have no proof, we cannot overlook the possibility that the man who broke in to Dr. Connors's home is also a Soviet agent. The timing of all this comes too close to the impending joint Chinese-Soviet-Vietnamese presentation on American activities in Vietnam. Two years ago, when the Soviets and the French backed Red China's admission to the U.N., my agency was created to keep an eye out for just the sorts of coincidences we're seeing now."
DePalo pauses, looking for some response from the assembled heroes.
Dumas looks left and right at the faces around the room. He wasn't about to give up any information until he knew what this military man wanted.
Bethany's reply is a somewhat laconic, "I hope I'm not too forward in assuming that you'd like us to help you do something about it?" She wonders how much he knows about her, what he's expecting. No doubt they've all been investigated quite thoroughly.
Bethany asks the question that was on his mind as well. He waited for him to answer it until the boy spoke up.
"What if anything, can you tell us about Cosmonaught and the Voice's powers?" Rick asks. He is both impressed that he was in on this meeting, and a little overawed by it at the same time. A water pitcher sitting on a stand near one corner of the room rises slowly, wrapped in green tendrils of energy. It pours water into one of the whiskey glasses on the same table and then floats over to the young man. He takes a sip of water before going on.
"Dr. Dumas, you reacted when Kravinoff's name was mentioned. Have you ever met him?"
Dumas looked at Rick and raised an eyebrow. This whole meeting had dug up bad memories. Kravinoff, the man who Dumas had sworn vengeance against. The man who the United States would not assist him in getting that revenge against. Now this colonel comes and is no doubt asking for his aid in stopping Agent Kravinoff now that he is on U.S. soil, threatening U.S. 'interests.'
Dumas nearly scoffed. He was astonished at the colonel. He looked at Rick but didn't answer. Instead he turned his attention to the colonel looking for an explanation.
"You come in here and expect our help, as if by showing us 'classified' information, it will draw us into your bureaucratic web? Is that what you want? Our help colonel?" Dumas was easily the most upset and emotional the others had seen him. In the brief encounter they had had with him earlier at Stark and in Asgard, he had remained cool under all circumstances even in the face of the gods and the All Father, Odin. But this seemed to stir his emotions for some reason.
"Please good sir, explain your intentions towards us." Dumas quickly swallowed the remaining liquor in his glass and moved to get a refill. He seemed to start to get a grip on his brief outburst of emotions after taking the drink.
Rick watches the man carefully, now more sure than ever that the older man is not telling them something. Idly he wonders just who Victor Dumas really was. He makes a mental note to do some more research on the man after this is all over. Taking another sip of his water Rick speaks again.
"I think it's obvious what the Colonel wants from us," he begins. "He isn't sure his people can handle the situation, and probably wants us to look into it," he waits for a moment to see if the Colonel will answer him.
"What I'd like to know is, what's in this for me?" Rick asks a moment later.
A faint smile on her face, Bethany waits for the colonel's reply, wondering what the stick is going to look like. She's fascinated by all the byplay going on, and by the apparent breach in Dumas' armor of self-assurance; for the moment she is content to observe and listen. Glancing back at dePaolo, she allows her gaze to slide over Tony's face to see what he might be thinking about all of this.
_Probably annoyed about all the wasted time and disruption,_ she thinks, somewhat amused, though she has no illusions that the situation is not deadly serious. _And I don't think this is quite what he had in mind for the armor, but...._ She can't help herself from turning over the few details they now have about the Soviet agents, a fragment of her attention on possible strategies.
Bethany frowns. Tony hasn't been in the best of health lately, and the wear and tear is starting to show as a pallor and dark circles under his eyes. But Tony's expression, normally blase', seems worried.
Dumas looks left and right at the faces around the room. He wasn't about to give up any information until he knew what this military man wanted. Bethany asks the question that was on his mind as well. He waited for him to answer it until the boy spoke up.
DePalo clears his throat. "You've been in the 'bureacratic web' since the day you entered this country, Dr. Dumas. You got deeper into that web the day you started working on federally funded projects with Mr. Stark. We not only want your help, we expect it." He looks at Rick. "As for what's in it for you, the answer's nothing. But what's in it for Mr. Stark might interest all of you."
Tony takes the pause as his cue to speak.
"There's a possibility I've been targeted for assassination," he says bluntly. "U.S. intelligence sources believe that part of the Chinese-Vietnamese presentation before the General Assembly will include charges against Stark Industries that relate to armaments and other tactical products being used in Vietnam. I've been asked to give part of the U.S.'s response to the charges. Apparently, the Chinese ambassador put my name on the list of respondents. It could be to lure me out, make me an easier target." Tony looks to Bethany. "So, no matter what, you're involved, Bethany."
Tony takes a drink from his glass, the warm gold whiskey shaking in his hand.
"Despite DePalo's bluster," he continues. "None of the rest of you owe us anything. Not even you, Victor. I might not even be a target. There might not be any targets at all. But there are a dozen influential businessmen and military officials, all involved in the war effort, due to appear before the General Assembly. There could be a dozen targets."
DePalo frowns but nods in agreement. "Security at the U.N. is excellent, but it won't be more than a fart to the likes of the Cosmonaut, KGBeast, and the Voice. If they want in, they'll get in, and God only knows how many good people will die trying to stop them."
Then, with jarring audacity, the intercom of Tony's desk buzzes. Tony jams his thumb down on the speak button.
"Damn it," he says. "We're not to be disturbed."
"I know, Mr. Stark," Mrs. Arbogast's voice says calmly. "But there's a 'Mr. Tristan' on line one."
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© 1999 Mark L. Chance et al