New York seethes. If Captain Frank Castle ever viewed the city as anything other than an oozing hive of crime and death, the memory of that day is long out of his reach.
Now, every shadowed alley is a potential thief in the dark, every screech of tyres is a possible hit and run and a resulting four hours of paperwork.
On autopilot, he buys his usual order from the local diner- large black coffee, chicken sandwich- and leaves again, feet taking him back to the office as they always do when it's too much. Not enough. All roads lead back to the office.
The case board swims behind his eyes, he has the thing memorised. A new drug trafficking network that nobody can pin down. Of course, they passed the case to him. He has a reputation for being thorough.
Only, he's missing something. All the usual leads are coming up blank. But, it's what he does , he's determined to have this untangled by Monday, it's just, he can't seem to find the tangles to tease.
And, there’s that nagging suspicion that his unrelenting rhythm that he hammers against crime after crime and case after case, the fight and force he throws at the job day to day, might be unsustainable. That he might have finally driven himself into a dead end. You can't hide from it forever, Frank. Whatever it is you're working yourself into the ground to keep away, whatever demons you brought back with you, you can't outrun them. You need to face them or they’ll catch up to you, one way or another. Maria’s words rattle around in his mind. More and more often he finds them coming back to him these days, vivid with his lack of sleep. Try as he might, he can't make himself hate her for leaving when he never paid the truth in them any mind.
His feet take him through his usual alleyway shortcut where less than a week ago he reflexively caved in the face of a would-be mugger.
Sometimes he feels as if the skull he once wore to war, strapped across his chest, has sunk itself into his heart, scrawled itself across his bones. Drags his limbs into action before he knows what he's doing. Mechanical violence. Automated motions. Steered by that wraith he still carries, deeper than skin.
So when the voice comes from the darkness and Frank Castle freezes, when his hands don't snap to his firearm before his conscious mind can so much as register a threat, his breath catches.
"I do commend a man of routine, Mr Castle." The sense of the words registers after the sound of the voice itself. Soft, dark, full of cold, effortless malice.
A sense of wrongness creeps up on him. Winds around his throat.
The hair on the back of his neck is prickling to attention. It's an effort to turn towards the voice.
“Who's there?” He barks at the patch of darkness. There's a chuckle that doesn't sound quite tied to that one spot, but his eyes adjust and he can just make out the outline of a man standing in a gated turning.
“It's better that you don't know who I am.” The voice says smoothly. Frank takes a deliberate step in his direction, needing to show he's not intimidated.
“Better for who?” Frank lets a bit of growl to slip into his voice. It allows a little of the unnerved jangling in his shoulders to retreat somewhat.
“It will simply make it easier for you to benefit from what I have to say.”
“And if I'm not interested?” He says, eyes narrowing.
“I am confident that you will be interested.” The man says. His voice is full of grinning teeth and Frank flexes his shoulders to shake off the shiver it gives him.
“I don't have time for games.” Frank turns to move away.
“They call him Mr Blue.” There is no increased sense of urgency in his tone despite Frank’s threat to leave. He stops despite himself.
“What.” He snaps, but he knows. A scanned and printed image of tiny cyan coloured packages of heroin is burned onto the inside of his sleepless eyelids.
“You’ll find his people at the east docks at 11pm tomorrow evening.” The man seems to know instinctively that Frank understands. How he knows exactly what Frank needs to hear is another matter.
Frank narrows his eyes further. Can just make out the glint of grinning teeth, a flash of glasses.
“You expect me to trust you?” Frank says.
“ Trust me?” The laughter is sharp, cruel, all of the pleasant lilt vanishing abruptly. The teeth and glasses flash dangerously through the darkness. “Don't do that .” He says, sharp as a knife.
There's a crackle, a smell of ozone, Frank blinks and the shape of the man is gone.
“Neat trick. I meant to be impressed?” He rolls his eyes and continues on his way, not, he tells himself, any more swiftly than he would have done otherwise.
Frank tries, he really does, to disregard the words of the mystery man with a flare for the dramatic.
A few hours of itching eyes and his body feeling more caffeine than blood, and he finds himself staring into space with the words ‘Mr Blue’ spinning around and around in his mind. He shakes it off and pours over another page of interview statements.
Another half a page and he drifts again, frowning into space and catching himself wondering… wondering what he has to lose.
Highlighter pen tapping at the desk top, the words stopped making sense some time ago.
Drags a hand across his itching eyes and squints down at the page.
The next time his mind wanders, it's to his bed and the bottle of whiskey in the bedside cabinet…
And that's when he coughs and stands, pulls himself together and goes to retrieve his laptop from across the room.
There's no harm in looking into it. Or, at least, if there is, what does it matter?
Of course, the information checks out. Frank and a lackey sit and listen to the men on the docks give them enough to move up the chain of command, a location, a name, and Frank fabricates some informant or another made insignificant by the new information.
And that's it.
Only, Frank knows it isn't.
He doesn't even jump, when, just under two weeks later, there's a little cough from that same dark shadow in that same dark alleyway.
“Wondered when I'd be seeing you again.” He says.
“Confident that you would be seeing me again, Mr Castle?” The man says. He sounds amused.
“Just Castle.” Frank says.
And then it's routine.
Whenever Frank needs a nudge in the right direction, there he is. Lurking just on the edge of sight, leaving with a dramatic little show.
Sometimes during their meetings, Frank catches movement in the corner of his eye, or high up on a fire escape. As quick and as difficult to get a fix on as a black cat.
“What do I call you?” He asks him, the third time.
“It's better if you don't.” The man replies, and that is that.
There is a pattern to the information. Everything he gives him tends to be small. Most commonly new start-ups, feeding them to Frank to snuff them out before they get off the ground.
“You know, Castle.” Jean reclines in the passenger seat of the surveillance van. It's been another long night, but a fruitful one.
“Your informants are smart guys.” Jean has this trick of mildly bunching her face into an expression that in its ambiguity is unreadable. She could be anywhere between thoughtful and suspicious. It should be unnerving, but not knowing where he stands with her is a staple of their relationship. It would almost be a shame if he ever figured her out.
“How d’you figure?” He says around a mouthful of doughnut.
“No interference with the major players.” She says. As usual, he can't tell if she's bouncing off him or downright suspicious. He chews the doughnut thoughtfully and opts to proceed with the former option.
“Had occurred to me.” He swallows and tips the paper bag in her direction. She shakes her head.
“And if someone is playing us?” She raises an eyebrow.
“We’ll still have taken down, what is it now? Six operations?” He takes another doughnut from the bag and shrugs. “We take down the little guys? Major plays remain unmoved. We start ignoring my tips? Major players remain unmoved, only there's all these little guys getting bigger.” He motions with the doughnut, building little imaginary walls.
“You know, I never had you down as the type to attract whistleblowers.” Jean says, frown deepening. Frank snorts.
“What's that s’posed to mean?”
“I mean you're all grizzled and ex… military…” Jean strays through a rare moment of awkwardness behind her stoic face and Frank all but winces.
“Just say mercenary, Jean.” He sighs. “I ain't gonna blow my top.” She blinks at him for a second, brought out of rhythm by that.
“Anyway I hope you don't mind me saying but, you're not the least intimidating cop in the precinct.”
Frank just chews his doughnut and mulls that over. No acting required, she has a point though she may not know exactly how. He's been wondering why him for some time now. Why him and why the dramatic approach. Flat out faking a snitch and running to one of his more sympathetically inclined colleagues wouldn't have raised so many alarm bells. As it is, this guy strode right in, gleefully making himself as suspicious as possible.
He doesn't think about Lisa and how she never did find him intimidating enough to stop her from eating all of the marshmallow pieces out of the Lucky Charms when nobody was looking.
Eventually, Frank just shrugs.
“I can be cuddly.”
“Uh huh.” Jean says, and reaches to take a doughnut from the bag. “If we are being played, can't fault whoever it is for improving your mood.”
“You're onto me.” Frank freezes, a reaction to that voice that he had trained himself out of for their usual meetings. Not so much for broad daylight at his favourite diner. He makes a mental note to sort out his reliance on routine. One of these days, it's going to get him into real trouble.
“I was enjoying my lunch, Murdock.” He sighs. “Couldn't you have left me to wrestle with my denial for just, I don't know, the remaining…” he glances at his watch. “half hour of lunch break?”
Murdock chuckles and Frank hears him stand. He moves, light and casual and exactly as Frank imagined he would.
“Mind if I join you?” He settles in a chair opposite him without waiting for a response.
Frank squints at him, sitting there all straight backed and clean cut, ostentatious cherry-red suit clashing with his obnoxiously red hair. Also, Frank notes with an unnerving interest, he does appear to be genuinely blind.
“I take it you're doing all this on orders from your boss Fisk, huh?” Frank says. He just doesn't have the patience for this, really. But, the sheer wickedness to the smile that lights up Murdock’s face at his words stirs something in his tired chest.
“Talk of any links between my client and any criminal activity will be treated as slander , Captain. He is serving his sentence quite honourably.” Frank hates him.
“Right.” He says flatly. “Well, all that crime you're not instigating in behalf of Wilson Fisk? It means we ain't friends.”
“But haven't all my helpful nudges in the right been somewhat… critical to you recent success?” The smile is playing around his mouth now, twisting his lips back from his teeth in a terrible combination of smirk and snarl. Frank’s mouth hardens with distaste.
“I don't need you.” He spits out, disgusted. Murdock’s smile widens as if he knows something he certainly shouldn't.
“Me? Or my information? I think thou doth protest too much.” And then, like something out of Frank's nightmare list of situations he does not know how to deal with, he leans forward, and licks his lips.
Frank stares. Blinks, frozen again. How does he get his reaction from him, consistently? Fuck.
“You took my leads, you benefited from them. Does it matter where they came from?” Murdock doesn't even bother to argue the concept of needing . He doesn't have to. Maybe he can smell that Frank is bristling, knowing full well that he was flailing out of step before Murdock crept into his life to throw him a poisoned lifeline.
“What do you want from me?” Frank tries to keep the frustration from leaking into his voice. He's caught, he did it himself, and he knows it.
“ Want from you?” Murdock giggles, horribly delighted. “I would rather not fight you over this in court, for starters.”
“Just lay it out for me Murdock.” Frank sighs. “I don't have time for games.” Murdock… doesn't exactly give him as accessing look because he can't, but he tilts his head in a sharp little motion that makes it perfectly clear.
“I would like to continue to benefit from our little dance.” He shrugs. The smile is gone, he's just being straightforward, or, as straightforward as the most corrupt lawyer in New York can get. It feels like a victory, though, not nearly enough of one for Frank to let his guard down.
“You what? Wanna keep informing me so I can take out your competitors? No honour among thieves, huh?”
“You seem awfully calm about it.”
“Look.” Frank leans forward in his seat. “You knew I had enough on you to do something about it, or you wouldn't be here. However you get your information, you've been shifty enough that I don't have a handle on how you do it.”
“I appreciate your honesty.”
“Cut the bullshit , Murdock.” Frank snaps. “You know you've got me in a corner.”
“Be that as it may, Captain.” And this time, Frank’s shoulders almost physically twitch with the shiver he gets down his spine at the sound of the word and at the sight of Murdock’s glinting white teeth. “You are benefiting from my help, like it or not. As you said to your partner, the little guys still get taken down either way…” Frank keeps his face impassive, but it’s getting difficult to hang onto. He wants to shout at him, punch that smug fucking smile off his face, wants to overturn the table and send his coffee splashing all over that loud red suit. Instead he just allows his eyes to narrow a little. It's a meagre translation of the way his heartbeat is hammering an agitated rhythm on the inside of his rib cage, of his blood pressure pounding his ear drums. Bugged car? Hacked surveillance gear? Jean compromised? No, no, Jean isn't the type…
“Get out of here.” Frank says. “You know I have nothing on you. Do that magic disappearing act you do and come haunt me when you have something I can use.” To Frank’s immense surprise, Murdock stands, lazily, managing to somehow be immensely frustrating purely through body language alone, and nods in his direction.
“Hey, well. I know where I'm not wanted.” He smiles maddeningly and swaggers away into the crowd, hardly appearing as if he's even using that cane of his to see.
Frank sits until his coffee turns cold, throws his money down, and leaves in the opposite direction.
It is some time later, weeks, Frank thinks, he isn't counting, when he unlocks his office, turns on the light, and his office chair spins around to reveal yet another ugly red suit. It isn't the same one. Frank feels oddly uncomfortable that he even noticed that. This one, though, is a rather offensive shade of scarlet and has lapels that look sharp enough to cut glass. Murdock’s hair is as usual sort of neat and ruffled at the same time. Frank finds himself running his hand through his own, genuinely untidy greasy tangled mop, before scowling and dropping his hand when he remembers that Murdock can't see him.
And why does he care what he looks like compared to this slimy lawyer anyway?
Frank just stands up straight and sucks it up. It isn't the first time he's had to go through with an unpleasant situation he got himself into.