Howard's 11: A Matter of Mistrust

February 07, 2015:

The Black Widow follows RoboStark out onto the dark streets of the French Quarter

St. Louis Cemetery #1

Characters

NPCs: Manny DiMarco

Mentions:

Mood Music: None.


Fade In…

The house is quiet. It's about 3 AM and most everyone is asleep. Except for maybe the nerds who are potentially back on the Bus doing Nerd Stuff. It's not particularly unusual that Howard is awake, seeing as he doesn't technically need to sleep. It may be unusual though, that he's shrugging on a jacket and making his way out of the French Quarter house.

The night is clear and cool, though not nearly as cold as New York. He walks down the narrow streets, towards the far end of the Quarter, up towards Basin Street. Given it's The Big Easy, the streets are not completely deserted. There's a fair number of drunken revellers trying to remember which Spanish balconied hotel is actually theirs while they try desperately not to puke up their Hurricanes.

*

It's possibly unnecessary to ask how Natasha knows that Howard is leaving. Maybe she suspected something all along. Maybe she just never sleeps — certainly that's one prevailing theory. She has a bed, its sheets get rumpled, but who's actually seen her sleep? Mostly they've seen her polishing weapons or doing some other fiddly thing with her hands. Sometimes even knitting.

But whatever she was doing half an hour ago, she's on the street now. New Orleans is made of shadows at night, and she's in them. Above when she can be, but generally it's unnecessary. The buildings have enough shadows and enough crowds to make really hiding often unnecessary.

*

Howard is a brilliant man. His intellect and capacity for creative thinking is nearly unrivalled in the history of modern America. He is a sharp businessman and a talented inventor. He can fly aircraft over enemy airspace without breaking a sweat.

What he's not good at is sensing a tail. He hires people for that 'security' thing. Which he really should have with him. He is a very likely candidate for kidnapping, after all.

The elder Stark seems to know exactly where he's going. He wends his way through the narrow French Quarter street, then crosses the much wider lanes of Canal Street. They're edging out of touristy areas now, though there's Louis Armstrong Park and various old cemeteries that will still draw visitors. Not at this time of night though, and certainly not down the dodgy looking side-street that borders on a crumbling cemetery wall. Cover is a little harder to come by here, though there are a few parked cars. There's a figure waiting by a gate.

*

In fairness, even people good at sensing a tail often can't sense Natasha's tails. She's done it so many times that she has an uncanny notion of when people will turn around and what they will and won't see.

It comes to mind, unsurprisingly, that Howard doesn't exactly trust SHIELD. Nor does he like them overmuch. To be fair, they're all pretty dreadful people. Still, Natasha trusts no one. Particularly not anyone's robot double, no matter how much like him it may look. Cover is bad, but she can play the ultimate in nonchalance: perhaps thirty yards from the gate, she leans against the wall and starts fiddling with her phone. Just another pedestrian, if anyone sees her at all.

Naturally, she's really just putting in an earplug and setting up the directional mic. She can even hop the wall when she's done with that, assuming no one is looking her way.

*

It's said that the Voodoo Queen Marie Leveau is buried in St. Louis Cemetary, whose wall they now stand in the shadow of. It is appropriate then, that this is a scene of dark dealings. The streetlight directly overhead has burned out, leaving only the main street light leading on to Canal to cast illumination down the narrow street.

Howard zips his jacket a little higher and casts a paranoid look around him. Natasha would note even at a distance that he's standing like a man who has a hidden gun. "I don't like getting my hands dirty. That's why I hired you," mumbles the inventor to the man across from him.

The man lights a cigarette, which briefly illuminates his face. It's Manny DiMarco. "Do you think I like this? You're too goddamn high profile. You're a blinding light flooding out my comfy shadows." Poetic little bastard, isn't he?

"Look. Can you get my property back from Virgil or not? Because SHIELD is going to take you all out soon and I am really tempted to let them."

*

So. Howard knew his stuff was gone. And Howard chose to get a crook to get them back. Says volumes about his feelings on SHIELD. Natasha would shake her head and click her tongue, but that's unnecessary sound and movement. Howard's in trouble.

But she carries on listening. She might learn something. She's already learned a fair bit.

*

"Virgil keeps changing the price. And the terms. I think he smells somethin'. Maybe your friends in black body armor are getting too close. Or he's getting close to cracking your toys and exploiting them," says Manny as he gestures towards the inventor with the lit cigarette.

Howard rubs his forehead and wipes a hand down over his face. "If SHIELD raids Virgil, they get my babies. I almost trust him with my inventions more than I trust SHIELD. I don't even want them to know my inventory, let alone get their hands on it. At least your average criminal is too short-sighted to realize what they have."

"Look. I'm going to the gala to have a meet with Virgil and his girl. I have the fake EMP bomb thing you rigged up. If that fools them, we should be able to make a trade for at least a couple of the items."

*

The thing is? Howard's not wrong. Natasha frowns a little in the dark. Not that she knows the depths of some of SHIELD, but she knows that she doesn't implicitly trust everyone who runs every compound. If even one of the keepers of their toys is corrupt… of course, they do shoot most of the stuff into the sun, but she DOES know that's mostly just a story.

She carries on listening, though. Interrupting's not on the menu tonight.

*

"They know you're here. I hope you have an exit plan," says Howard. He holds up a hand. "Don't enlighten me. I don't need to know. Just don't get your ass captured, all right?"

"Aww, Stark. You startin' to feel for me?" says Manny with a hoarse chuckle.

Howard just levels an unimpressed gaze at the other man. "Listen to me. If SHIELD gets their hands on you, you will talk. And not just about me. About everyone you ever worked for. And then they might just let the fact that you spilled all your secrets out onto the street. And then they'll open the door and let you walk away. Let nature take its course. That's the kind of people you're dealing with."

Manny just inhales a drag from his cigarette and arches an eyebrow. "Look. You hired me to deal with this, and I'm dealing with this. We can't do nothing about the stuff he's already working on. That metal formula and that glass grenade thing. But as far as I know, he hasn't cracked the Blue Box yet."

Howard looks suddenly relieved. "Good. If you have a chance, you destroy it. Submerge it in water. That's all it will take. Ideally I'd like it back, but I'd rather it was gone."

"Got it," says Manny. You don't ask a lot of questions in his line of work. He tosses out his cigarette and crushes it on the ground. "You better get back, little king. Your bodyguards are gonna miss you." There's certainly a note of disdain in Manny's voice. He horks on the ground (charming) then moves past Howard towards the alley exit.

*

Most likely, Howard's going to have to come back the way he came. That's how many alleys work. Natasha's already neatly out of sight; waiting for Manny to pass, she lets him depart entirely before tailing Howard again. She'd prefer to be alone when she confronts him.

*

Howard lingers long enough in the alleyway to allow Manny to wind his way through the Quarter. Then he takes a deep breath and starts out of the alley, hands still jammed in the pocket of his jacket. He looks left and right, then trots across Basin Street, back towards the outer border of the French Quarter, with all its twisty, dark streets. Away from Bourbon at this time of night, it's relatively quiet.

*

Light footsteps aren't even audible by the average person's ears, but Howard's robo-ears are probably keener than most. Still, apparently the woman was on the top of a building or clinging to a wall ahead of Howard, because she's alighting in a heart-attack-inducing instant in front of him. Straightening, the small woman raises her eyebrows and folds her arms.

"Nice night," she says.

*

There are muggers around here this late at night, so Howard's attuned to them more than possible SHIELD tails. It says something about his time in active battle situations that the gun is out and pointed at Natasha in one smooth, practiced motion. It doesn't immediately lower when he sees who it is, either.

"What do you want?"

There's a sinking feeling in his gut, but he's not giving in to it.

*

"Put it down, Howard. You're hardly the first person in the world not to trust SHIELD. At least you get points for brains."

Natasha's no idiot, though. She may look relaxed and casual, but she's poised on the balls of her feet. She can leap forward or backward or to the side. She can climb up the wall, run away, or kick Howard in the head if his fingertip twitches wrong.

*

Howard pauses a moment. Not because he's really thinking of shooting her, but just to make the point that it's his own choice. The weapon lowers and the safety is slipped back on. "You followed me. Of course you did." He sounds quite unhappy about that.

*

"Of course I did," Natasha replies. It sounds like the most obvious thing in the world when she says it. "I didn't think you were just taking your evening constitutional at three in the morning. Let's walk back together, shall we?" She cocks her head and nods down the street. "Everyone else is asleep. Probably. I didn't leave a note."

*

Howard grunts soflty and tucks the gun away. He is a very smart man - smart enough to know that if Natasha wanted to hurt him, he'd be bleeding nanobots already. "So what's your play on this?" Straight to it. This is why he was never much into the 'spy' part of SHIELD.

*

"Believe it or not," Natasha says, falling in alongside Howard and ushering him down the road, "my angle is ensuring people don't get killed by your toy collection. When did the warehouse get boosted? Before or after you got found?"

*

"That's the embarrassing part," Howard mutters bitterly. "I hired the wrong goons to liquidate another one of my labs and bring me the stock. One of them was Virgil." Rookie mistake for a newly-awoken roboStark. "I wasn't yet on good terms with Tony. SHIELD had me locked up and only released me into their custody. Like I was a child. Like I was property."

*

"Like you were a prototype invention created by a genius with unknown powers, possibilities, and programming?" Natasha's head tilts slightly. "Not nice, I admit. Not very humane. SHIELD isn't very nice, by and large. So you know who has your stuff and where it is, and you're lying to the people who can help you… because you don't like the way they treated you."

*

Howard levels a look at Natasha. It's the kind of look that would have his underlings shirking. He doesn't expect her to do that, but the look accurately portrays how he's feeling. "I'm not throwing a goddamn tantrum, Romanoff. I don't trust SHIELD. I founded the science division, remember? I know what goes on. And I backed away in the 70s for a reason."

*

The woman seems immune. She's been glared at by nastier people. People holding nastier guns. "So you, waking up after… what, forty years asleep? Decided you could find some criminals to hire to get your stuff out. You're supposed to be a genius, Stark. Not telling SHIELD, that's one thing. In your shoes, I wouldn't have, either. But you've screwed the pooch here, Howard. Who is Virgil? How did you meet him?"

*

"I trusted someone I used to know. What I didn't realize is that he'd gone crooked in the 90s." Howard rubs his forehead. "I don't need you to tell me that it was a shit-stupid move, all right? I know it was." He's walking a bit more briskly now. "I don't know who Virgil is. He's someone my contact brought in. A contact who is now dead, presumably because he tried to stop Virgil from taking my stuff." At least, that's the way he'd rather remember him.

*

"You're in a hurry to get back?" Natasha's tone is heavily ironic. "That's a surprise."

She does smirk, too, when he says that she doesn't need to tell him what a fool he's been. The smirk says enough. She shrugs and considers this, eyes flicking over the man's face. "So you plan on just getting this stuff back and keeping it. It is yours. SHIELD can try to force the issue if there's anything massively dangerous in there, but you're Howard Stark. You helped found the organization."

She hesitates a moment before going on: "I can help you hold on to your property. But I'm going to need you to cooperate."

*

"No, I'm just in a hurry to get around people, considering I'm walking beside a master assassin who might have good reason to take me out," drawls Howard. He clearly doesn't think she's actually going to kill him, but it's as good of an excuse as any. "I'm worried that if any of my stuff gets loaded on to a Quinjet, I won't see it again. No asking permission. Just confiscated." Which has totally happened before. "Which is, you realize, government-sanctioned theft. If that happened, there wouldn't be a damned thing I could do about it." He pauses and stops in front of a shuttered up pink French Quarter house. "Are you going to tell Hill?"

*

"Mmm. Not yet." Natasha gazes up at the house with evident appreciation before her eyes fall to Howard's face. "I need to know from you what the actually dangerous stuff is. What could kill if it's in the wrong hands. And when we do get it, if we don't blow up wherever it is, which we're SHIELD, it may happen… I want to know if anything's missing from it. You don't have to tell Hill. But you have to tell me."

She takes a half-step away from Howard then. "I believe in a few things," Natasha says. "Not many, you might not be surprised to know. But I believe in keeping people safe from other people's fuckups. And from their own. I believe in stopping a problem before it starts, whenever possible. And I believe in second chances. Make yours count, Stark."

With that, she turns and leaves him there. He can hope he doesn't get mugged. He can hope no one else has woken up at home. That's his problem. But perhaps Natasha won't be another one… or perhaps she'll be one of the worst yet.

*

"Nothing that's going to level a city block. But there's a lot that could make a mess if they figure out how to work it. Which is why time is a factor. Virgil is not an idiot. He's either a scientist himself or he's hired the right people. They've made a scary amount of progress." Which irks Howard mightily. And worries him. "The lab was mostly for chemistry work and, well…experimental physics. A lot of it was too high-level for more than a handful of minds to decipher. But some of the other stuff can be cracked." That's not ego. That's statement of fact.

Well, okay. Some of it is ego.

He watches her as she goes. He stays put for a moment and watches the redhead go. His jaw sets and his eyes darken. Hm. That's the problem with spies. You never know what their play is.

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