A/N: Sorry about the late update. Had a ton of chores to do today.
Fashion Victims, Part 3
With one last shove, the would-be kidnappers made an opening to get into the aide room, but the display case got jammed against the wall, so the men could only enter one at a time. Natasha regretted the lack of her gun, because they made perfect targets.
Bull-shoulders squeezed through first, struggling for a moment to get his bulk through while keeping a grip on his shotgun. Natasha considered this a mistake. If they still hoped to take Pepper alive, they should have sent one of the men with handguns first.
All Bull could see was scattered racks of clothes shrouded in opaque white plastic. An urgent whisper came from Pepper's dictation app: "Tony. Tony. I need help. We're under attack." Plastic shifted at the far left, when Pepper tugged a linked chain of belts fastened to a coat hanger several yards from where she crouched, hidden among evening gowns.
Bull grinned to himself and, forgetting about the gruesome death of his comrade, he began to stalk his prey without waiting for back up.
The younger gunman protested, but Bull ignored him. The youngest man sidled through the gap followed by the man who killed Cherry. They hurried after Bull.
Still puffing on his cigar, the boss man came last, squeezing his bulky frame through the tight space with difficulty.
"Don't you know smoking is hazardous to your health?" Natasha appeared before him, blowing powder from her palm into his eyes. The crushed aspirin burned fiercely in his eyes and — bonus! — the cloud of loose particles was ignited by the glowing cigar. It flared brightly, mostly harmless but startling.
The boss pulled back, hand raised to protect his face, leaving his throat vulnerable.
Natasha slashed twice with the razor sharp edge of the creased brochure paper. They were just paper cuts, which aren't usually dangerous — unless they open the carotid arteries. The boss hardly felt the cuts, but the spray of warm liquid from his neck made him drop his weapon in a panic and press his hands futilely against the high-pressure spray.
"That's for Renee-Irene," Natasha hissed viciously.
The Widow didn't have time to look for the boss' fallen gun when his squawk of alarm drew the attention of his men. She tossed her paper razor aside, its edge made soft and useless by the blood.
Taking two running steps, she sprang on the back of Cherry's killer and wrapped her dental floss garrote around his neck, knotting the handles together. Choking, the killer clawed at his neck, unable to release the suffocating cord. Fury in his bloodshot eyes, he tried to bring his gun to bear on Natasha, but she took it out of his weakened hand with ease.
"That's for Cherry Wang," she snarled, booting him in the gut for emphasis.
He dropped to his knees, grasping at her foot, but she ignored him. The bull-shouldered man and the novice gunman were just beginning react to Natasha's whirlwind attack. She calmly put two bullets through the head of the man with the shotgun, then she turned to the last man, the youngster, whose grip on his assault rifle betrayed his inexperience. He was staring in horror at the death throes of man at Natasha's feet. She smirked at the young man, tossed the pistol aside and advanced on him, taking the keys from around her neck. Holding the key chain, she swung the keys back and forth like nunchuks — nunchuks with teeth. The grim, bloodstained fury made the armed man retreat until he bumped into a display case. He brought up his gun in a shaking hand. Natasha brought her flail down on his hand. The gun fell from gashed, broken fingers.
Natasha picked it up and pocketed it, then, twirling her key-flail nonchalantly at the last remaining gunman, she demanded, "Tell me who hired you to kidnap Pepper Potts."
Two days later:
The televised news program shifted from the main anchorwoman to the business reporter.
"In news that stunned the business world, Martin Anze, CEO of Hammer Industries, was found dead in his office yesterday, the apparent victim of a bizarre accident, when a paperclip was jammed through his ear hard enough to pierce his brain."
The anchorwoman winced visibly. "How does that even happen?"
"Apparently he was holding the paperclip when he tripped over a wrinkle in the rug and fell on his side," the business reporter replied.
The image switched to film of a tearful secretary. "He was always playing with paperclips," she said. "He untwisted them, making shapes."
The camera panned across the executive's desk, showing several paperclip sculptures. A voice over of the secretary continued, "I used to tell him he'd poke an eye out," she wailed. "But I never thought …" Her words cut off in sobs.
The TV image returned to the anchorwoman and the business reporter in the studio. "It's so bizarre, it sounds like a TV murder plot," the woman said.
"Who'd kill a man like that?" the man answered. "The police have ruled out foul play. Anze was alone in his 34th-floor office all afternoon. No one could have gotten in or out."
"You're good," Pepper told Natasha. They clinked wine glasses as they sat on the couch watching the news. "I can't believe you actually used the paperclip."
"I was going to use a letter opener, but when I saw the paperclip sculptures, I couldn't resist," Natasha admitted.
"What impact will this have on Hammer stock?" the anchor asked.
"It started falling as soon as the word reached Wall Street," the reporter said. "But, to be honest, it doesn't have far to fall. It's been a low end stock since the arrest of company founder Justin Hammer after the attack on the Stark Expo."
"Stark Industries won't miss Anze," the anchor commented. "I understand he was in competition with Stark CEO Pepper Potts for a big government contract."
An image of Pepper came on the screen. "I was shocked to hear about Martin's death," she said. "The business world won't be the same without him."
"You're good, too," Natasha said, raising her glass in acclamation.
"It wasn't a lie," Pepper said. "The business world won't be the same. It will be a lot cleaner."
"And so much safer," Natasha agreed.
Renee-Irene recovered from her severe concussion with no memory of the attack to traumatize her, though she mourned the loss of her protégée.
Her expanded shop was a success and her next clothing line was a major hit, though only a few people understood why a collection that featured cool blues and sea greens was named The Cherry Collection.