Her mother liked science fiction—time travel and alien races, men playing god and dying planets. She had liked parallel worlds the best, the idea of branching probabilities, everything happening somewhere. The coin comes down heads, comes down tails, but maybe not here, or now.
Somewhere, Karen Page doesn’t race down the stairs after the man in the black mask, only to find him lying beneath her apartment window, bleeding out onto the concrete. Somewhere, she doesn’t strip off her half—sodden shirt and ball it up against his bleeding side, applying pressure because that’s what they do in the movies, right? “Hold on, hold on, it’s okay, hold on—”
And somewhere, the man in the mask does, instead of pressing the flash drive into her hand and rasping, “Find Ben Urich.” Somewhere, he doesn’t smile (she can’t see his eyes, she can’t—) and reach up with a shaking hand to trace the contours of her face.
“Oh,” he doesn’t say. “Oh. I wondered.”
Somewhere he doesn’t die. It’s not here.
She runs to Hell’s Kitchen to be anonymous, finds an anonymous job where no one looks twice at her—she’s a pretty face behind a desk, like the case of awards in the lobby, or the letterhead. Set decoration. The only thing she keeps is her name, because the woman in HR assured her that Union Allied didn’t do background checks.
That probably should have been a warning sign, one of those bright yellow ones they put up to warn drivers of unsafe conditions. Instead, Karen opens the pensions file, and finds herself careening off a cliff.
She’s soaked to the skin by the time she screws up the courage to peel away the mask. “Oh god,” she breathes, too stunned to even cry. “What am I going to do?”
(God does not answer. Given precedent, she wasn’t really expecting him to.)
Karen’s first kiss is Mickey Pallas in the third grade. He gives her half his sandwich when it’s turkey and they talk about Pokemon and their teachers. She thinks she loves him until fourth grade, when he tells her girls can’t be good at long division, and so she holds him down and rubs dirt in his hair.
Karen’s other first kiss is Jessica Campbell, the two of them ducking their curfew to spend another hour on the beach. Her probation officer will be pissed later, but right then she doesn’t care, Jessica’s palm warm through her shirt. (She is probably still a little in love with Jessica.)
Daniel Fisher is the first one at Union Allied to be more than distantly polite. He’s the one who always asks how she’s settling in and shows her half a dozen pictures of his kids, his wife. He promises to take her out and buy her a drink every week; she never takes him at his word and he never pushes it.
He is dropping off a couple briefs for the CFO when he stops, gives her a considering look. “Are you okay, Karen? You look a little peaky.”
There’s a thumb drive hidden in my air duct with information that makes my boss nervous, that makes him lie. Instead, finds herself saying, “Hey Daniel, are you free tonight? Because I could—I mean I could really use a drink.”
(The next morning, she wakes up with a knife in her hand.)
“This is insane.”
“I know how it sounds.”
“No, I don’t think you do,” Foggy Nelson laughs, a hysterical edge to his voice. “You’re saying my friend—who is blind, by the way—crashed into your place wearing a mask, and fought off your attacker? That’s—okay, that’s just insane, that’s impossible. Why were you back at your place, anyway?”
Karen crosses her arms uneasily over her chest, takes a deep breath. “I had to—I copied the UA pension file onto a flash drive. I was waiting until—until he fell asleep so I could go and grab it. That’s when the guy attacked me.”
Foggy stares at her for a long, long minute, doubt and anger warring on his face. “How do you even know it was Matt, okay?” he finally asks, his voice breaking. “You said he wore a mask, how did you know—”
Karen lets out a shuddering breath. “Foggy, I’m so sorry, I’m sorry, I am so, so sorry.”
She’d laid him out as best she could in the bedroom without disturbing the wounds; crossed his arms over his chest and shut his unblinking eyes. At the sight of him, Foggy makes a noise like someone has kicked him in the gut, and crumples slowly to his knees.
He cries. Karen kneels down beside him on her carpet and rubs circles on his back, in absence of anything else to do. They stay like that for a long, long time, until dawn creeps into the grey apartment, carving into the raw lines of Foggy’s face, showing the blood underneath Karen’s nails.
“What do we do now?” Foggy asks, his voice hoarse.
“I don’t know,” Karen says. “I don’t know.”
(“How, um,” Foggy said, scrubbing a hand across his face. “How did you get him back here?”
“I called a cab, said my boyfriend had passed out drunk. It took some navigating, but as long as I kept his face hidden in my hair…the black and the rain hid most of the blood. It was a bit of a struggle up the stairs, but. I didn’t want to leave him in the alley.”
“We should—we should report this to the police, we should—”
“Foggy, Foggy. We can’t go to the police with this. You know we can’t.” She touches the circle of bruises at her neck, still livid from her encounter in the cell. His eyes widen. “I called in an anonymous tip from a pay phone down the street, that should…be enough.”
Foggy is silent.)
Foggy calls the cops six hours later, when his buddy doesn’t show up for work and he swings by the apartment, only to find him dead on the floor. (That’s the story they tell, anyway.) There are lots of unanswered questions—where’s the blood? what was a blind man doing outside in the rain, long enough to still be wet the next morning? who left the injuries? —but Karen isn’t surprised when it gets written up as a home invasion and buried.
The bruises around her neck are healing slowly. Foggy can barely look at her.
Matthew M. Murdock, 27, beloved son of Jonathan Murdock and Margaret Murdock, passed away on March 18, 2015…
Ben Urich is easy enough to find—she pays a courier who smells overwhelmingly of weed twenty bucks to drop a manila folder on his desk at the Bulletin. ‘Thought you might want to take a look at this,’ the note reads in nondescript Times New Roman, wrapped around a thumb drive.
Union Allied folds like a cardboard box after Urich’s article hits the newsstands, and Foggy smiles for the first time in weeks. (It doesn’t last, when they hear UA was bought out, but it’s enough to know there’s at least two good men in New York. Eight more to save Sodom, Karen thinks, and then wonders when she started narrating like a bad noir film.)
She keeps the black mask, hidden at the very back of her underwear drawer. She’s not sure why.
Foggy never actually hires her, but she shows up every morning with food and coffee, and answers the phones when he won’t, so she figures she’s got the job. Neither of them take “Murdock” off the sign.
It’s strange, living with a ghost of a man she barely knew. She finds herself scouring the internet for him in her spare time—his profile on LinkedIn, press releases from Columbia where his name is mentioned, his facebook, which is overrun with memorial messages from his law school classmates and pictures of him from graduation.
One day she searches “masked man” and “hell’s kitchen” just to see if anything turns up. She has to fiddle with the search terms a little, but she spends the rest of the afternoon reading about pimps and child molesters beaten up in back alleys, conspiracy theories and gun runners dropped at the steps of the police station, tied up with a bow.
“What are you reading?” Foggy asks, coming out to refill his cup of coffee. “Must be interesting, your mouth is half-open.”
“Hm?” Karen says, snapping her mouth shut. “Oh, it’s nothing. Looking at a summer wardrobe I could only afford by selling a kidney.”
She’s a little disappointed when he accepts it without question, but then, she’s never given him any reason to think otherwise.
She does try to bring it up once, tries to ask about that night—but Foggy turns the color of sour milk and says in a gutted voice, “Don’t.” So she doesn’t.
When Karen is seven years old, she pretends to be a superhero. Her mother hasn’t started drinking yet, and sews her a cape from an old set of sheets, a big ‘S’ done in blocky white. It’s one of the things Karen lost, shuffled between shitty apartments and group homes, but she misses it sometimes.
When Karen is twenty-three, she watches destruction rain down on her city. (It’s not really hers, until that. What’s it they say about common enemies?) An alien invasion stopped in its tracks by spandex and metal and the sheer stubborn will to endure. She walks through the rubble the next morning, watching her neighbors hug each other in the street, kids on bikes passing out water bottles and granola bars, and thinks—
(The black mask is still in her drawer.)
A man in an immaculate suit and a pocket square folded just so knocks on their door one morning, and Karen feels uneasy just looking in his direction. There’s something about him that reminds her of the men who came and went through UA, something about his eyes—they’re flat and cold, opaque. A snake’s eyes.
“This isn’t what Matt would have wanted,” she tells Foggy once Mr. Confederate Global leaves. It’s a dirty move, digging her nails into his still-open wounds, but it’s all she’s got. “You know it isn’t, Foggy. Don’t do this. We’ll—we’ll figure out the money, just. Don’t do this.”
She wonders what it says about her that the guilt doesn’t arrive until later and softly, an afterthought.
Jennifer Fisher signs the nondisclosure agreement, and Karen feels as though the ground has opened up under her, swallowed something down, into the darkness. Still, she lets Jennifer spill her bitterness, her grief, because she can see Daniel’s son peering at her through the glass doors. He looks very small.
Karen walks ten blocks blindly, before stumbling on an uneven paving stone and catching herself on a wall. It feels like she’s walking over that open hole, the gaping hungry black maw that keeps devouring the people in her life. Hell’s Kitchen must be feeding something, right? she thinks, biting her lip to keep the hysterical laughter from bubbling to the surface.
She takes a slow, steadying breath, and fishes her phone out of her pocket, dials The New York Bulletin. She asks a reporter out for coffee, and doesn’t laugh when he calls her lucky.
The girls at the group home dub her ‘Lucky’ the second time she shows up, her PO’s hand at the back of her neck like she’s a disobedient dog. In and out of the system every time her mother dries out or slips back into the bottle; too old to be adopted, too angry for anyone to want to; pretty enough to be a target, naive enough to ensure it—what else could she be, but lucky?
It’s the cruelest joke told at her expense, at least until a lawyer pushes a gag order across the table, saying it’ll protect her.
Elena reminds Karen of the one foster mother she did have, that same Tz'utujil lilt to her Spanish, the warm, absent-minded way she pats Karen’s cheek. “Just what I remember from high school,” Karen tells Foggy, because it’s easier than explaining how she used to lay Mrs. Rosales’ pills out for her, stumbling through rojo para el corazón, screening calls from bill collectors.
(She’d been sent back to the group home after the third time she was caught shoplifting. Mrs. Rosales died of heart failure a few months after. Karen told herself that wasn’t her fault, but she was waiting for the reassurance to stick.)
It’s for Mrs. Rosales—for Mrs. Cardenas—that she feels the great swell of gratitude, when Foggy takes one look at the mess in the apartment and says, “Tell her we’ll help. I’m pretty good with plumbing, and…and…”
“And your cousin does drywall.”
“Exactly! Just leave it to us.”
She hasn’t seen him laugh and joke in weeks, and it’s good, when he gets rustwater in his hair and screeches bloody murder, or when he strikes a brave pose with the wrench and tells her to take a picture. Easy as breathing, and for the first time since she opened the wrong pensions file she thinks, this might be okay I might be okay.
Of course, then Mrs. Cardenas sits her down at the little table, with the candlelight and the pepián de indio negro, and Karen has to swallow her panic when Foggy says sheepishly, “This is a date, isn’t it?”
And she likes Foggy, she does, but she also owes him, or at least owes the ghost that haunts him. Maybe in a world where Matt Murdock hadn’t left his blood on her hands, where he hadn’t died protecting her…gratitude is a bad beginning. There’s an imbalance between them that can never really be righted.
And then the world dissolves into broken glass and fire.
Karen’s eyes are gritty from the effort of keeping them open, and the scrolling news ticker—already blurred by the crappy hospital tv—wavers unsteadily through her vision. She’s half drifting off when the pretty nurse comes back to check on Elena. (Her attempts to straighten up and look like a date-able human being are hampered by nearly falling off the chair, and slamming her elbow on the plastic arm.)
“You’ve been here all night,” pretty nurse says quietly, as Karen rubs her elbow and tries not to die on the spot. “Both your friends are stable, you should go home, get a few hours’ sleep.”
“Oh, I couldn’t—”
“Maybe a shower, then?”
Karen winces, then regrets it—her neck is stiff, aching. “Is it that bad?”
“Hey, eau de hospital doesn’t suit anyone. Go home, I’ll keep an eye on them.”
“Thanks. Here, um, let me give you my cell,” Karen says, rooting around in her purse for a pen and an old receipt. “If there’s an emergency, you can reach me anytime. And hey, maybe after this is all over, you’ll let me buy you a coffee. To thank you.”
“Get some rest,” pretty nurse says, but she takes the receipt. She’s smiling.
The March morning dawns warm and clear, and Karen finds she doesn’t even mind the daily breakdown of the C train. Spring is in the air, she feels at the beginning of something. Even the pathetic ‘Nelson and Murdock’ sign makes her smile. “Morning, boys,” she says breezily, but when she goes to try the lock, she finds the door already open.
Foggy is waiting for her.
“Karen…” Foggy says. He’s been crying, not long enough ago for the red to fade from his eyes. “Karen, I’m so sorry.”
Elena Cardenas is dead. (“Do we really believe it was a drug addict?“ Karen asks quietly. “I don’t know what to believe anymore,” Foggy answers.) Karen spends the rest of the day trying not to turn her head too quickly, in case she catches sight of that gaping crack running from 34th to 59th street, swallowing the buildings and people in its path.
It’s getting harder to ignore.
Matt’s apartment has been on the market for a month, despite the landlord’s aggressive efforts, and a drop or two in asking price. No one’s willing to live with the blinding artificial light out the windows, or the bloodstains on the floor. It’s too easy for Karen to get the keys from the realtor and let herself in.
The place is eerily untouched since that night, sparse furniture and little artwork on the walls. She’d think that Matt was about to walk out of his bedroom any minute, if she hadn’t—
“Okay. Okay. How did you do this?” she sighs, looking around the empty apartment. “Why did you—you were a blind guy playing Batman, there must have been some method to the madness. Some reason. Did you leave notes? Should I be searching your computer? Help me out here, Murdock.”
She gives up waiting for a sign after about five minutes, and spends the next half-hour tossing the apartment, looking for a hidden—anything. All she finds is a tape recorder with what sounds like bar review notes, a trunk with old boxing paraphernalia and knives. No files, no record of why or what agenda had driven this vendetta against the creeping disease of Hell’s Kitchen.
“Did you just…go out and beat up bad guys?” she asks the empty apartment. “Was that it? This thing, with Union Allied and Tully and Confederated Global and the police, Landman and Zack….you were a smart guy, Matt, you must have noticed something bigger was going on.”
The sudden beep of her phone scares her half to death.
Got a minute? the text reads, from a number she doesn’t recognize. Mt me at diner.
Ben Urich is there, looking like a thoroughly unimpressive guardian angel in a wilted collared shirt and a four ‘o’clock shadow. “You look like shit,” he says, pushing a coffee in her direction. Karen accepts it gratefully. “What do you know about the Russians?”
Such an angry girl, her father had liked to say, before he stopped speaking to her entirely. (Then he was dead. It was almost better.) You can’t ever just be content, can you? Everything is always a battle, you aren’t happy with something until you’ve pick-pick-picked away at it.
“Fine,” Karen says, dragging open her underwear drawer and fishing out the mask from its hiding place. She’s still in black from Elena’s funeral, and the mask fits with her look. She thinks of Elena, and Mrs. Rosales, and Matt, Union Allied and Confederated Global, the mysterious bombings that took out half of Hell’s Kitchen.
She thinks about superheroes.
“Fine, then. I’m angry.”
She took ballet and taekwondo half a lifetime ago, like the good little suburban girl she used to be. The muscle memory returns slow, tempered by a decade of disuse and a few dirty tricks she picked up from the girls in and out of juvie. Still, there’s only so much she can get from youtube videos.
When she walks into the worn-down gym a few blocks over, asks for a membership, what she gets she gets a blank stare. The heavyset man (Mikey, she learns, though everyone in the gym calls him Hoss) looks her up and down, his expression blank. “If you’re looking for cardio classes or yoga, we don’t have that sort of thing,” he says.
“Okay,” she tells him. “Show me how to hurt someone.”
There’s an old poster on the wall of the gym—a man in a red boxing robe, his fists raised. FIGHT OF THE YEAR it reads in faded titling, but his name has peeled away. The regulars call him Mad Jack, devil Jack, and nail their scorecards to the wall around his poster like an offering to some perverse patron saint.
After her first match—purely amateur, advertised as ‘come watch some schmuck realize a girl’s going kick his ass’—she borrows one of the guys’ pencils, writes ‘10-8′ on an empty square of paint.
“Thanks, Jack,” she says, raising her knuckles to the wall, bumping them against his raised gloves.
The mask smells of old sweat and blood, thick in her nose. “Very Dread Pirate Roberts, Matt,” Karen says quietly, eyeing herself in the mirror. The bullet proof vest—bought online with the last of the Union Allied payout—makes her look bulkier, flattens her chest. At night, with no one looking very closely, she could even pass for a man in a mask.
She’s been going after low-level pickpockets and burglars for two weeks, monitoring police chatter with a scanner she bought off a guy in an alley. “How illegal is this?” she had asked as they made the swap. “Just so I’m ready when the police come through my door.”
He’d just cast her a withering look, counting out the bills.
She and Ben have been scrambling to gather what evidence is left of the Russians—who they were working with, who wanted them in lots of burnt pieces. It’s hard going, tenuous connections running through Confederated Global to Tully and Union Allied, the mysterious king of clubs at the top of Ben’s corkboard—
But Karen’s been listening to the police scanner, and lately she’s heard a couple codes she doesn’t recognize. It’s specific badge numbers, pursuing on foot without backup. The perps they’re chasing always try and pull a gun. They never survive the attempt.
Karen opens her window and climbs out onto the fire escape. The night is clear and calm, and whoever had Elena Cardenas killed is hunting down the last of the Russians. Maybe one of them would rather talk to her instead.
She swings herself down from the metal grid and heads off into the night.
In hindsight, this is a mistake.
Karen jolts awake in a strange apartment, immediately attempting to sit up, to flee, Vladimir, she has to—
“Woah, woah, easy there,” a feminine voice says, and Karen goes still, waiting for her eyes adjust to the half-light. “Try not to move, okay? You’ve got some major bruising and a few fractures, let’s not add organ damage to that list. You’re lucky you were wearing that vest, a GSW is much harder to recover from..”
Karen squints. “Where am I?”
“My apartment. Your friend left you in the dumpster behind my building.”
“Wait, I remember you,” Karen croaks, though every word hurts, everything hurts, she was not aware she had this many nerve endings that could hurt so much. “The pretty nurse from the hospital. You took care of my friends.”
Pretty nurse shifts on the coffee table, almost-smiling. “Yeah, though I think I preferred your outfit last time. Let me call you an ambulance—”
Karen feels a thrill of genuine panic. The police cell rushes back to her in vivid detail. “No! No, please, c’mon, what are you going to tell them? ‘I found a woman in a mask in my dumpster’? Please, no hospitals. No doctors.”
“You could be bleeding internally—”
“No hospitals. No doctors.”
Pretty nurse radiates irritation, and Karen attempts to look innocent. (Probably not helped by the damage to her face.) Still, she’s surprised when the next question is: “So what were you and blondie doing out there, anyway?”
“Trust me, the less you know about it, the better.”
“If you are determined to die on my couch, I think I deserve an explanation.”
Karen thinks about it for a minute then says, slowly “He was—I think that the exploding gas pipe wasn’t a gas pipe at all. They were bombings, targeting the Russian mob. That man was one of the survivors, I wanted to know who he thought was behind the bombing. Who wanted to take out their operation.”
“And your—uh, argument?”
Karen winces and raises a hand to her chest. She touches her breastbone lightly, still feeling the phantom impact of the bullet, the very real bruising. “He mistook me for a friend of mine. There’s some…bad blood between them.”
“Well, that’s what you get for wearing a mask,” the nurse said, smiling when Karen feigned outrage. “Why are you playing Iron Man anyway?”
She makes a cautionary noise, and Karen swallows her protest. “Um, it was…sort of left to me, by a friend of mine. A weird inheritance. The defense of Hell’s Kitchen.”
Pretty nurse’s eyes are very dark, and Karen shivers under their gaze. “That’s really stupid,” she finally says. “Stupid and dangerous.”
“Yeah, I know. But hey, some people get haunted mansions left to them by mysterious uncles, so I suppose it could be worse.”
“I’m Claire, by the way,” pretty nurse says after a long moment. She is almost-smiling. “Claire Temple. No point in not telling you, since I already know your secret identity.”
Her whole right side hurts when she moves her arm, but Karen makes an effort. “Officially, then, I’m Karen Page.”
Claire’s hand is small and warm and clean, and Karen hopes there’s too much bruising on her face for Claire to see her blush.
She calls off Friday, but she’s bruised and stiff on Monday, moving arthritically to make the coffee. Foggy notices, and asks very casually if she’s seeing anyone right now. “What? Oh, no, Foggy, no, it’s not that,” she laughs, relieved that that’s where his mind goes, and not to men in masks. “Just a rough night—I lost my MMA bout to some asshole. He got in a few good blows, that’s all.”
Foggy’s eyebrows jump. “Wait, that’s your ‘self-defense class’? Full-contact martial arts with extra punching?”
Karen grins flexes a bicep, laughing at Foggy’s expression when he sees the definition. He calls her ‘Xena’ all morning, until she threatens to give him a personal demonstration.
They go for drinks after work and Foggy tells her about his siblings, she tells him about her gym buddies, and for a minute it’s almost like—
“Can I give you some constructive criticism?” Claire asks.
Karen smiles thinly, trying not reopen her split lip. It’s only been a few weeks since she was last here. The new bruises interlock with the older ones like mottled tattoos across her shoulders. When Claire runs her fingertips across them, Karen shivers. “Sure. Critique away.”
“You seem kind of shit at this.”
That startles a laugh out of her, and she feels the sharp ache, the bruising to her ribs sending a fresh wave of pain through her side. “Yeah, well, I’m new on the job.”
“Keep it up, and you’re not going to make retirement.”
Karen smiles ruefully. “How is this constructive? If you wanted to kick a girl when she’s down, you should have done it when I was in the dumpster.”
“I want you to be okay, Karen.”
Her voice is quiet and a little sad, it startles Karen into silence. She wished suddenly that Claire wasn’t applying butterfly stitches to her shoulder, so that Karen could see her face. “Oh, I’m always okay,” Karen says with a forced smile. “Did you know, they used to call me Lucky?”
“Wilson Fisk,” Ben reads after she steps away. The name looks real suddenly, scrawled across the king of clubs card in sharpie. “Huh. And where did we get that name?”
“Our friend in the black mask,” Karen says, and Ben looks surprised.
“I thought he fell off the grid?”
“I guess you can’t keep a good man down,” Karen says with a shrug, studying Ben’s profile from the corner of her eye. He looks tired.
“In this city?” he laughs. “Down’s the only direction we got.”
She and Foggy duck into her place to escape the rain, which suddenly decided to materialize as they were making their way back from a client’s. She shrugs off her wet jacket, telling him to borrow the umbrella in the hall closet for his own trip home. “Do you want tea, Foggy?” she asks, filling the kettle. “Foggy, do you want—”
When she turns around, Foggy is holding the black mask, the question written plainly on his face.
“I—kept it,” Karen says in a rush. “I didn’t want the police finding it in Matt’s stuff, and then it…seemed wrong to just throw it out.”
“And the bulletproof vest with bullet?” Foggy asks quietly, and Karen’s blood runs cold.
“I didn’t give you permission to go snooping in my stuff, Foggy.”
He prickles. “You told me the umbrella was in the hall closet. Apparently, you keep your bad weather wear all together.”
“And you know the funny thing? You’ll laugh because the really hilarious thing is that I’m so—I’m so mad at him, and I can’t even—because he’s dead. I can’t shout at him and tell him how stupid he was, how idiotic to go out looking to protect the whole fucking city, because—I needed my friend! I needed him! And now he’s gone, he’s dead, and I can’t even be mad at him!”
He throws the mask at her, and it lands at her feet, crumpled in a ball. “No, shut up. Shut up. Because I have already lost one friend to that—stupid fucking mask, I’m not losing you too. I can be mad at you. I’m not—you can’t do this, Karen, you can’t.”
“Foggy,” Karen repeats quietly. Her heart is breaking, watching the splintering of Foggy’s. “Foggy, I’m sorry. But this is something I have to do. Matt, he—died protecting me. I have to protect this for him. So you don’t get to make this decision. Not for us.”
Foggy goes white. Then he just goes.
The umbrella sits, untouched, next to the door.
(”Karen, it’s 2:30 in the morning, I can’t—”
“Did you know they used to call me ‘Lucky’?” Karen interrupts, startling Claire into silence. It’s 2:30 in the morning and Karen’s voice is rough with crying and vodka, she can hear it crackling in the phone. “First in the group home, and then—again. Later. I’ll tell you about it sometime. Ben says it makes me an unreliable source, which is fun and exciting.”
“Karen, are you…you okay?”
“Not really,” Karen breathes, refusing to let herself cry. “Do you think this hero crap is solitary by nature? Maybe—maybe you’re supposed to keep secrets and drive everyone way. Maybe that’s the only way it works.”
“I’m still here,” Claire says quietly after a long moment of silence. “If you’re counting.”
“Yeah,” Karen says, choking on a laugh—or a sob, it’s hard to tell. “You are.”
Claire listens to her babble, making reassuring and absent noises. In the background, Karen hears the distant sound of an infomercial, and somehow this is comforting, to be the only person awake in the world, except for Claire Temple, and some man selling tupperware for five easy payments.)
“You’ve reached Foggy Nelson. I’m not able to take your call right now, but leave your name, number and a brief message, and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.”
“Foggy, please, it’s been three days. Call me.”
There’s a gaping maw running the length of Hell’s Kitchen and sometimes Karen jerks awake in the middle of the night, feeling its teeth at her soles.
She’s having a hard time remembering whether she’s protecting the city or protecting people from it.
“Stunning, isn’t it?” the curator asks, startling Karen out of her reverie. “It’s always been one of my favorite pieces, the way the shading drags you in and down. Do you know what the artist titled this work? ‘That Sinking Feeling’. Perhaps too literal for the pretentious among us, but apt, certainly. Art is permitted to be a little brutalist, if it can make us feel that weight. What does it make you feel?”
“Numb,” Karen found herself saying. She couldn’t quite drag her gaze away from the gradations of brown and grey darkening into almost—black, like one slipping down into a hole. “There’s a sense of…numbed dread. Hopelessness.”
“You have a good eye. I’m Vanessa Marianna, the owner of this gallery. What brings you here, Miss…?”
She tore her gaze away, straightened her smile. Vanessa Marianna is just as sleek and elegant in life as she is in her online bio, although there’s a predatory gleam in her eye that makes Karen think of snakes, or hawks. Something swift and sharp. “Karen, please. I’m here to purchase some pieces for the law firm I work at—they wanted something cheap, but I keep insisting that the type of client we want knows the difference.”
“How right you are. Although this piece might not be what you’re looking for, unless you plan to instill a sense of hopelessness in your clients.”
Karen is suddenly aware of heavy footfalls approaching, a sudden presence at her back. Vanessa’s face lights, and that dread Karen mentioned unspools in her gut.
“Wilson, come meet Miss—I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your surname.”
Karen’s heart is stuttering, panicked, but she still turns, smiles. “Page. Karen Page,” she says, offering out her hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Fisk. Miss Marianna was just showing me some pieces that might suit the firm I work for. But maybe your discerning eye is needed.”
“Words rarely spoken,” Fisk says, and Karen catches the flicker of a smile from Vanessa. “Ah, which firm? My work takes me through many legal channels, I might be familiar.”
“Nelson and Murdock,” Karen offers innocently, watches the faintest trace of a furrow carves across his brow, then smooth out again. He recognizes the name, it’s enough.
“I can’t say I’m familiar, a new firm?”
“Yes,” Karen says, looking up at Wilson Fisk, measuring him with her eyes. He is twice her size and a head taller, a brawler with hands like dinner plates. Karen finds she isn’t afraid, watching him like this. He’s just a man, behind the smoke and blood. And she knows men. “Young, but hungry.”
“You’ve reached Foggy Nelson. I’m not able to take your call right now, but leave your name, number and a brief message, and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.”
“Foggy, it’s been over a week. I know you’re at your family’s but—are you coming back to the office? Please, call me, let’s talk about this.”
“You into anything dangerous?” Ben asks, eying her latest round of bruises and lacerations. He’s showed up at the Nelson and Murdock offices with a box and a complaint about their lack of creamer. “Those aren’t ‘whoops I tripped’ style bruises.”
“What if I am?” Karen says.
“As long as you know what you’re getting into,” Ben answers with a shrug.
She thinks about that painting hanging in Vanessa Marianna’s gallery. She’s probably slipped off the canvas by now, down and down, where the greys and browns darken into to black.
Who could tell the difference down there?
She hasn’t actually shot anyone before. She lied.
It’s easier than she expected.
Claire wakes up one morning to find Karen dozing on her couch. Surprisingly, the mask is nowhere to be seen. “Breaking and entering is a crime you know,” she says with a yawn, turning on the coffee maker. “Maybe vigilante superheroes don’t care about that sort of thing, but—”
When Claire turns around, Karen is standing there behind her, with a strange searching expression on her face. “It’s not the worst crime I committed in the past twenty-four hours,” Karen says idly, like it’s easy, like it’s nothing.
Claire swallows. “That’s really not something I want to know this early in the morning, Karen.”
The coffee machine gurgles into life behind her, and Claire wishes she could step away from Karen, turn her back—she doesn’t feel threatened, but it’s something urgent, undeniable. Karen is taller than her, and close enough for Claire can see the muscles shifting in her arms; Karen could probably lift Claire up onto the counter and—
“You never called me you know,” Karen says, and Claire stiffens. “After the hospital. I gave you my number and everything.”
“Yeah, Grey’s Anatomy lied about how much ass your average medical professional gets. They definitely don’t cover ‘how to hit on your patients’ gorgeous girlfriends’ in nursing school.”
Karen smiles, and it makes her look even younger than she is, suddenly innocent and unburdened. “You thought I was gorgeous?”
She’s pale as dawn in the light filtering through the blinds, looking like an angel on one of the old prayer cards. And it’s a lie, it’s a lie, Claire knows the bruised and bloody swathe Karen has cut through the city, the grim necessity with which she talks about it.
Then again, that angel always did have a sword. “What did you do last night, Karen?”
Karen blinks, her smile fading. “You really want to know?”
“I think I’m owed that much.”
Karen is quiet for a long moment before saying. “I killed someone.”
For a moment, Claire can’t breathe. She wants to stumble backwards, but the edge of the counter is already digging into her back “Oh,” she says faintly. “A bad someone?”
“Yes. Does it bother you?”
“Doesn’t it bother you?”
Karen smiles, but it’s bitter. “Not as much as I thought it would,” she says, stepping away. “Probably something fucked up about that. But I’ve put people in the hospital before, I’ve—some have died from complications. People have died defending me. So maybe it’s just a matter of degree. Are you pulling the trigger, or rupturing the blood vessel that could—? How directly do you have to kill someone before you’re morally culpable?”
“He did threaten to hurt everyone in my life. Maybe it’s justified.”
“God,” Claire breathes. “Fuck, Karen, what do you want me to say?”
“Whatever you want to say,” Karen says, crossing her arms over her chest and hunching her shoulders defensively. “I can stop coming here, if it makes you uncomfortable.”
“And what, scotch-tape yourself back together after a fight? No.”
“That was one time,” Karen protested, but she was smiling. “Office buildings are short on medical supplies, it was just meant to stop the bleeding until I could get to you.”
Claire snorts. “So I’ll just ignore your insistence that medical and scotch tape are ‘basically the same thing’.”
Karen laughs softly, ducking her head, and Claire breathes out. It’d be different, she thinks, if Karen were apologetic, if she hated what she did in the mask, who it was turning her into—or loved it, the thrill of blood. If she was anything but this, pale in the dawnlight and honest.
Their teeth click together when they kiss, and it takes a minute to adjust from the dizziness of it. Karen is insistent and unyielding, pushing her back against the counter, kissing like she’s trying to lose something in it. Claire pushes back, scraping her nails across the nape of Karen’s neck to feel her body shiver and curve towards her.
“I haven’t brushed my teeth yet,” Claire mumbles after a minute, breathing in the smell of Karen, the flesh and sour sweat; neither of them have showered, they’re just here, standing in her kitchen in their bare feet.
“Yeah, I know, you taste disgusting,” Karen says, and kisses her again.
Karen is selfish and hard to kill. She wonders sometimes if Matt would have approved, if he would have wanted her to be someone better than this, to wear the mask and not deserve the ‘Devil of Hell’s Kitchen’ title. To not have Wesley in her dreams, smiling and smiling, then opening his mouth and swallowing the city whole. To tell Claire to run. To understand Foggy’s anger.
But Karen is selfish and hard to kill and she wonders if Matt would have been as effective.
Ben is found dead in his living room the way Elena was found dead in an alley, computer scrubbed and drawers tossed. The only thing Karen has is the box he left at the office, a few disjointed files. She has nothing. She is nothing—an unreliable source, with no information to even put her blackened name to.
She calls Foggy and leaves him a three minute voicemail that’s half plea and half grief and mostly rambling. “Come back,” she says, even after the robovoice announces ‘this voice mailbox is full’‘ and the dial tone hums in her ear. “Please, just come back. You’re one of the things I meant to be protecting, you’ve got to…”
She hangs up.
Ben Urich is the third person to die because of her in as many months. Karen is too numb to even cry at his funeral, when his wife pats her hand and says “he thought you were something else.”
She walks until she can’t feel the soles of her feet anymore, the pain grounding her in the vicinity of reality. Then she keeps walking—a perverse sort of penance, atoning for her sins, for her pride (the sin of Lucifer, right?) and the tears she can’t seem to shed for the man who believed her when almost no one else would.
When she gets back to the office, the door is open. She slips off her heels and braces to attack—
Only to see Foggy standing in front of her desk.
“I’m still pissed at you,” Foggy says, hugging her hard. She’s probably giving him some bruising of his own, so she figures it’s fair. “I mean, really pissed. And I don’t forgive you, that’ll probably take some time. But also I talked to Marci, and she snuck—sneaked? whatever—a bunch of files on that guy you a few voicemails ago. Owlsley. Let’s take Fisk down the right way, Karen, the legal way. Nobody’s smart enough to cover their tracks all the time. This—this can’t be what Matt would have wanted, what Ben would have wanted. Let’s do it right, okay?”
“Okay,” Karen breathes into his shoulder. “Okay.”
They’re at Josie’s, watching the Fisk coverage on the grainy bar television and passing a bottle of what Foggy claims is the finest whiskey in New York. It doesn’t taste like it, but Karen’s willing to pretend for Foggy’s sake.
“To Ben,” Karen says, smiling and lifting her drink.
“To Elena,” Foggy says, clinking their glasses together.
“And to Matt,“ Karen adds softly, despite the sudden flash of pain on Foggy’s face. “For being the beginning of it all.”
“Then—to us too,” Foggy says. “For being the end.”
(Almost. There’s just—)
“We’re a lot alike, you know,” Wilson Fisk says to her in that dark alley. He’s evaded his FBI handlers and fled across half the city—but Karen brought her brass knuckles, and she’s got his blood on the bright metal. “Children of a broken system, driven by our dead to do in their name…you and I are very alike, Miss Page.”
“I know,” she says. “But it’s my city.”
The mask smells of new blood, now.
‘there’s a hole in my neighborhood down which of late I cannot help but fall…’ the radio croons, into the empty office.
Karen switches it off, crossing the room.