This is how it starts:
"I want you to find my husband," says the woman in the client chair. She's middle-aged, but obviously what Jessica thinks of as an indoor cat: smooth skin, relatively few crow's feet around the eyes, a certain soft plumpness about the body that says she hasn't missed many meals plus a certain sinewy grace that says she hasn't skipped the gym, either. Her blonde hair is at least partly dyed to hide the beginnings of gray, but it's a good, subtle job. She's conservatively dressed in medium-blue mom jeans, a soft dark-green sweater, and slightly expensive knee-high brown boots. She reminds Jessica a little bit of her own mom, or what she might have been like if she'd lived.
The thought makes Jessica want to change the subject.
"Your husband's missing?" she asks. All business.
"For almost two years," the woman says. "He went to work one day, and just—never came home."
"And you're just looking for him now ... why?" Jessica arches an eyebrow.
"I suppose we want closure."
"For God's sake, Mom," says the skinny teenage girl in the other client chair (Jessica makes enough now to justify the occasional trip to Ikea). "Just tell her."
Jessica studies the girl. Lanky and pale, with what's probably her mom's blonde hair tied in a ratty braid. She's wearing an old, oversized MIT sweatshirt that used to belong to someone with bigger wrists; the cuffs are stretched out. Her dad's, probably. The kid's maybe fifteen, too young for normal college applications, and doesn't have that creepy child-prodigy air about her.
"Why don't you tell me?" Jessica asks her, keeping her voice neutral.
The girl scoffs. "We've been getting, like, weird phone calls. At, like, three in the morning and stuff? Asking for my dad. And asking a bunch of weird-ass questions."
"Language, Sophie," the mom murmurs, but the kid ignores her.
"What kind of questions?" Jessica asks.
"Some of it's like, where is he, when's he coming back. But the guy keeps asking something else, too. He keeps asking where he put it."
"Where who put what?" Jessica frowns.
"I don't know. The question's just, 'Where did he put it?' I guess my dad had something that belonged to the creep."
Jessica cocks her head. "So why send me after your dad? Wouldn't it be simpler to tell the cops about your mystery caller?"
The mom clears her throat.
"Well," Sophie says, drawing out the word like it's ten syllables long, "there's the way the guy knows stuff. He kinda ... babbles? And I was gonna write him off as crazy at first. But he knows Dad's a Red Sox fan, and it's not like there's a lot of those around here. He knows what kind of cologne he wears, and one time he talked about the tie I made him for Father's Day when I was six. Creeper asked if those were my handprints on it."
"So he knows your dad?" Jessica asks.
Sophie rolls her eyes. "It's so weird. Dad lost that tie, like, years ago. So Mystery Creeper, he and Dad go way back, but Dad never mentioned him. And Mystery Creeper keeps talking about seeing Dad in places where he's never been."
"Afghanistan," says the mom before Sophie can answer.
Jessica sits back in her chair. "So you think your husband had secrets."
"I know he did," the woman replies calmly. "I simply want to find out what they are before they threaten what's left of our family."
"And before Creeper finds our house," Sophie mutters.
Jessica gives them a copy of her rate sheet and a standard contract to sign. The retainer will cover her rent for a month.
The husband is, or possibly was, a button-down kind of guy named Bob McManus. MIT graduate with a specialty in neuroscience, though he ended up with a mundane office job at some kind of think tank. There are no anomalies in the family's financial records, nothing in Bob's online activity that suggests he was doing anything unsavory—no secret girlfriends or drug habits, no mystery deposits, and nothing remotely connected to the possibility that good old Bob was some kind of spook. Hell, he didn't even bet on baseball. Jessica would be dying of boredom if she weren't getting paid for this shit.
The think tank shut down around the time Bob disappeared—lost its funding, according to the paperwork Jessica digs up. But there's something funny about that, and she spots it immediately.
Bob's office in Staten Island hasn't been rented out to a new tenant. It's been sitting empty since spring of 2014.
Who the hell can afford to let New York real estate sit empty for more than a year?
The building is an anonymous gray box in a Staten Island industrial park. Jessica is ready to break the padlock on the gate, except that when she gets there she discovers it's already been crushed like a Coke can.
Well. That's not a worrying sign at all.
She lets herself inside, pushing the gate back into place as if it were locked and being careful not to leave any prints. The way her luck runs, she figures, she'll probably find a mutilated corpse on the reception desk or something.
But there isn't a mutilated corpse on the reception desk. There's something Jessica can't help finding just a little bit creepier.
There's a pink cardboard box full of—she flips back the lid—yup, donuts. She pokes a sprinkled one. It's rock-hard.
Donuts from 2014. No, not creepy at all.
Jessica walks silently through the building, studying the place like it's a crime scene, or the home of a missing person. Except for the fine film of dust everywhere, the place doesn't look abandoned. It hasn't been cleared out, certainly. The computers are still on the desks, cubicles littered with employees' personal crap. Pictures of dogs and children pinned to gray fabric walls. Bobbleheads and desk toys. Novelty coffee mugs saying things like World's Best Mom or Fantasy Football MVP. Some of them have dead clots of mold in the bottoms, as if they were left sitting with coffee too long and the fungus died when the moisture evaporated.
Some of the chairs still have coats draped over them, as if the owners have just stepped away for a moment.
Obviously Bob wasn't the only think-tank employee who vanished abruptly.
Jessica creeps through the office building, floor by floor, snapping pictures with her phone. There's no blood, no overturned furniture, no sign of struggle or distress.
A fire drill, she thinks on the third floor she checks. Like in elementary school. You go outside, you line up on the playground, and then they let you go back in for your backpack and shit. Except nobody came back. Didn't even have time to eat the donuts.
So where's the fire?
She's just heading up to the fourth floor when she hears the blood-curdling scream coming from the basement.
She knows it's coming from a basement. Nothing else has quite that muffled echo, plus there was one time Kilgrave—
Stop. We're not doing this today.
Anyway—basement. Definitely. Someone is screaming in the basement. Except this building doesn't have a basement. Today just keeps getting better.
She heads down to the ground floor and prowls through the offices until she finds the spot where the screaming—and other noises, she can hear lots of crashing and thumping now that she's close enough—is loudest. There's probably a secret door somewhere. Secret door to a secret basement. In the creepy deserted office with its abandoned donuts. Of course there's a secret door.
Jessica stomps hard, and punches right through the floor tiles. Because screw secret.
It takes her about ninety seconds to batter her way through the floor into the basement and drop down through the hole. The screaming never falters.
She lands in a big, dark room, lit only by the crazy flickering of a fluorescent light fixture that —in the occasional instants it's lit—looks like it's been punched. Just like everything else in the place. There are banks of computers with smashed screens and ripped-out wiring and circuit boards. Filing cabinets torn asunder. The floor is littered with pieces of machinery and electronics, plus a lot of paper and file folders and what looks like—
Is that a tray of scalpels?
Oh, and there's a burly guy with a gleaming metal arm screaming and punching the hell out of what looks like a dentist's chair. Because of course there is.
Metal Arm screams like he's having a root canal done without anesthetic (which might be what the chair was for, now that Jessica thinks about it). He whirls around, throwing aside what looks like a chair arm with his metal hand, and his non-metal hand snaps up with a nine-millimeter leveled at Jessica's face.
He snarls something in Russian.
"Whoa, whoa!" Jessica yelps, raising both hands and taking a step back. "Chill!"
The big guy repeats his sentence, his voice quieter but no less rough.
"I don't speak that," Jessica says, enunciating clearly. "You got any English? English?" God, why did it have to be guns? Bad enough Metal Arm was obviously big and strong. She could handle big and strong. But she wasn't bulletproof.
Note to self: next time Luke wants to tag along on a job, let him!
Metal Arm blinks, shakes his head, and growls for several seconds before gritting his teeth and grinding out, "Who ... are ... you?"
No point in lying without knowing what kind of lie would work. Somehow you've won the lottery and I'm with the government both seem like nonstarters. Besides, she's just come through the ceiling.
Although that does give her an idea. Something better than a lone PI nobody would miss.
"I'm ... with the Avengers," she says.
That earns her four seconds of staring, followed by a snort of contempt. "You ain't even," he says, with a surprisingly sharp New York accent. It's so strong it almost sounds fake.
"I just punched through a floor," Jessica points out. "And I had breakfast with Captain America this morning."
Something changes in Metal Arm's face. For a moment, Jessica recognizes his expression—it's the one she sees in the mirror, some days, when she's cleaning herself up, getting ready for the day, and talking to Trish on speakerphone. It's a face she'd never actually show to Trish, of course, but it's there all the same.
"Can't kid a kidder," he says finally. "Who are you really, and what the hell are you doin' in a mothballed Hydra facility?"
Hydra? Well, shit. Suddenly Bob McManus's timeline starts to make sense. And the state of the office, too. Nobody grabs the donut box when they're running from the SHIELD-Hydra apocalypse.
"Jessica Jones," she says grudgingly. "Private investigator. I'm looking into the disappearance of a guy who worked here. His wife and daughter sent me." Technically, it's only Mrs. McManus who hired her, but it's best to make this guy as sympathetic as possible. Kids are good for that, if they're not actually around.
"McManus?" Metal Arm says. "Shit. Shit. He had a kid?"
Jessica notes the past tense. "You knew him?"
Metal Arm's face darkens. "Yeah. You for hire?"
"As a rule. You know where McManus is?"
"'Course." Metal Arm lowers the gun, but keeps eyeing her. "You mind if I try a little word association here?"
Jessica arches an eyebrow. "Why not?"
"If I was to say, 'Cut off one head,' you'd say—?"
"Put it on a cop's desk."
They stare at each other for several seconds, until Metal Arm scoffs again. "What-the-hell-ever. I knew you wasn't Hydra anyway."
"Yeah," he says nastily. "Hydra knows where the goddamn door is." He shakes his head. "You know what? I ain't in the mood now. I tell you what. I'll get you what you need on McManus if you do me a favor."
"What's the favor?"
"I gotta job for you. A pretty goddamn weird one. But I figure, you're smart enough to find this place an' you're gonna be out of a case when I give you the info, so you won't be too busy to take my gig." He rattles off an address. "I'll be there in twenty-four hours, with everything I got on McManus. You take it off my hands, you take my job, we're square."
"I'm not taking anything until I'm done with this case," Jessica lies. "After that, I'll listen."
"Fair enough." He holsters the gun. "Get outta here. Building's gonna blow in about ten minutes."
He locks eyes with her. "'Cause whoever you think McManus is, I can goddamn guarantee you're wrong."
Jessica gets there half an hour before the appointed time and finds Metal Arm already ensconced in a back booth, taking swigs from a half-empty bottle of Four Roses. She orders Jack Daniels as she sits down.
Metal Arm pushes a small cardboard box across the table to her. It looks like a gift box. Cautiously, she opens it, keeping her face carefully impassive.
Inside is an employee ID for Bob McManus. And a bloody molar.
"McManus," says Metal Arm quietly, "worked for Hydra. The files are online, in the Black Widow dump. Go ahead and check me. But yeah, I knew him. He used to strap me into that chair, shove a rubber guard between my teeth, and throw a switch to send a million volts through my brain." He spits the words, almost like a challenge.
"You seem awfully alive for that," Jessica observes.
"I'm tougher than I look."
"Say I believe you. Why would McManus do that?"
Metal Arm starts to chuckle darkly. "I looked you up, Jones. I read about you. So I'm gonna make your day. That chair? That was Hydra's mind-control system. Just like your asshole Kilgrave, except, y'know, nobody had to say please."
"Neither did Kilgrave," Jessica says coldly.
"Look me up. There ain't as much about me, but it's there. The Winter Soldier. Anyway, yeah, I killed McManus. Tracked him down 'bout a year ago. Kept the tooth so I could look at it sometimes, when I get nightmares about him. I've been taking out everybody who still knows how to do that shit to me." He hefts his bottle in salute. "Just like you."
Jessica scowls at him. "So why give me the tooth? Nightmares all gone now?"
The Winter Soldier snorts. "Hell no. But ..." He bites his lower lip. "I didn't know the sonofabitch had a kid, you know? Not a kid who cared. He had that stupid tie once, yeah, but that don't mean nothin'. But if she's still lookin' for him ..." He shrugs. "I got no problem with her. She never did anything to me. I figure she needs this stuff more'n I do."
The penny dropped, belatedly. "You're the guy who's been calling their house?"
The Winter Soldier nods. "Thought they'd know where he put something I need."
Jessica tilts her head and looks at the molar. "Well, if Daddy was Hydra, they probably won't want his stuff anymore. Mostly they just want you to go away. I'll bet they'd give up whatever it is. What're you looking for?"
The Winter Soldier takes a swallow of whiskey. "My memories."
Jessica gives him a flat look.
"They had me hooked into this machine," he says, looking down at the stained tabletop. "They could put things into my head. False memories, y'know? So suddenly I can speak Russian or some shit, or I remember growing up on a farm when it turns out I'm from friggin' New York. And I thought—maybe they kept my real memories somewhere, like a backup. I guess it's kinda stupid. They sure as hell didn't have much use for the old me. Probably 'cause I fought 'em so much."
"What, Hydra kidnapped you and turned you into a crazy Nazi superhero?" One of these days, Jessica reflects, her mouth will get her into trouble she can't get out of.
The Winter Soldier glowers at her. "You got your goddamn answers. Go check my story, talk to your clients. An' if you want that job after, I'll pay double your rate for basic PI shit. Nothin' illegal, even. And I'm paying cash." He slides a slip of paper across the table. There's a phone number written on it in a slightly shaky hand.
Jessica takes the box and the paper both.
"Why would Dad do that?" she whispers, finally.
Jessica shakes her head. She's spent a nasty, sleepless night reading everything the file dump had on the Winter Soldier. "Nobody thought he was a person. When somebody does everything you say, it's ... pretty easy to forget there's somebody in there."
Sophie looks sick. She goes upstairs and comes down ten minutes later with a banker's box.
"Take it," she says. "That's everything from his office. Just make him stop calling."
The box is full of electronic crap. CDs and DVDs. Flash drives. An external hard drive. An internal hard drive that looks like it's been ripped out.
"This should do it," Jessica tells her. "He seems pretty focused on getting his memories back. I'll give him this, and he'll probably move on. No point in harassing you if you don't have anything he wants."
"I hope it's there," Sophie murmurs.
"Sophie!" her mother snaps. "How can you say that?"
Sophie whirls. "Because it's true!" she snarls. "You saw the proof! Dad was a rotten bastard, and he tortured somebody, and all the guy wants is his memories back!"
"That man killed your father!"
"And it sounds like Dad deserved it!"
The shouting goes on for a few minutes. Jessica waits patiently until everyone runs out of words. She leaves half an hour later with her final check and a box of digital garbage.
The Winter Soldier's words echo in her ears. I didn't know the sonofabitch had a kid, you know? Not a kid who cared.
There's a long pause on the other end of the line. If Jessica were a friendlier person, she'd ask if the Winter Soldier is still there. Maybe he's had an aneurysm or something. The guy's brain really should be pudding, if the file dump is anything to go by.
"You wanna get a drink sometime?"
Jessica blinks. Wasn't expecting that one. "I'm kinda in a relationship right now," she says, thinking of Luke. "Friends with no benefits."
"Not like that. I wanna hire you, like I said. I need information about somebody."
"Oh, yeah? Who?"