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Neighborly

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There are two kids living next door. Boys.  One is seventeen, maybe sixteen; the other one twelve, no older. Both scrawny.  Brown-haired.  Neither of them as dark-haired as Frankie had been.  Their dad had split almost three weeks ago, after dumping a bunch of groceries off.  Frank's seen the older kid come back with more, smaller bags only a few times.  They gotta be living off ramen noodles over there. 

 

Dean, the older one's called. The younger one's Sammy.  Sam.  Frank hears them through the thin walls of the apartment. Sometimes they bicker, but sometimes Dean gets Sammy laughing real hard. 

 

Dean walks Sammy to school every morning and goes to pick him up in the afternoon.  Frank hears Sammy talking about homework while they're in the hall, waiting for Dean to open the door. 

 

Frank has a routine.  He cleans his guns, he listens to the police scanner, he makes a list.  The list is on a yellow Steno pad he keeps by the scanner, on which he writes the addresses and names that warrant further looks.  The apartment is shitty, but it makes a decent base.  It's well outside Murdock's usual radius, and he isn't likely to casually run into Karen, either.  He brought part of the arsenal in slowly, supplemented it with things he took from scum he’s cleaned up.  It's organized and neat and well-kept.   

 

He is cleaning a Desert Eagle when he hears two sets of footsteps coming up the stairs.  One is Dean's—the other is heavier.  Adult. Frank wonders if the dad is back. That'd be good.  Yesterday the kids were arguing about money.  Rent's due. 

 

The door shuts, and Frank doesn't hear anything for a few minutes, but then he does hear, and he gets to his feet calm, casual, and takes the very clean, assembled Desert Eagle with him. 

 

The doors are flimsy.  He kicks it in and takes in what's in front of him in a blink.  It confirms what he'd heard:  man, pants down, the kid bent over the coffee table.   

 

Fuck you if you think you ain't using a rubber, pal, the kid had yelled, voice high pitched and panicky. 

 

Frank raises the gun and looks along the sight. 

 

"Get your dick in your pants and get the fuck out of here," he tells the scum. 

 

"Who the hell do you think you are—" 

 

"I'm the man with a gun," Frank says, and he feels his own lip curling, knows his anger's coming out, that this is the face scum sees before he ends it. 

 

On the floor, the kid looks pissed off.  Frank wonders how often he's had to do this to take care of his kid brother. 

 

The scum seems convinced by Frank's threat, by his face.  He pulls his pants on and shoves his little dick inside, and tries to walk by Frank without touching him. Frank flips the gun in his hand, uses his arm like a shield to batter him against the wall.  He takes the scum's wallet from his back pocket, empties the forty bucks in cash and throws it at the kid.  The bastard's license, Frank takes for himself. 

 

Then he lets the scum go. For now. 

 

The kid's still on the floor when Frank turns to look at him again, but the money's disappeared. "Pull your pants up," Frank tells him. "I'll be back with a door." 

 

"I had it under control," the kid snaps, red-faced, but hurrying to pull his pants up like Frank said.  Jesus wept, he's got tighty-whities on under his Wal-mart jeans.  His face is red under his freckles, red and hurt.   

 

"Sure," Frank says.  Then he turns and leaves. The apartment is so cheap that the bathrooms and the front doors are the same, except for the deadbolts, but Frank's got tools.  It's the work of minutes to take the door off his bathroom, put it up on the kid's open front door.  Changing out the knobs is easy.   

 

The kid watches him the whole time.  It makes Frank uneasy. He is not used to hero shit.  But like hell he could sit there and do nothing. 

 

"You gonna bring another john back?"  Frank asks the kid once he's tested that the deadbolt works and he's got the chain at the right height.   

 

"You gonna rough 'em up if I do?  You my guardian angel or something?"

 

“Pretty far from that, kid,” Frank says. “Place like this, lucky he didn’t stick you with something else.  Then where would your kid brother be?”

 

That screws the kid’s open mouth shut into a scowl, and he looks off—but not far.  Frank ignores his gaze and instead notices the twitch of his hands, where he’s got his arms folded across his chest, defensive.  Sees the fingertips that seem to stretch towards the pocket knife clipped in his front pocket, the one that had been there when Frank came back with the tools.  Sees the little scars and the rough knuckles on the kid’s hands, and how even though his arms are folded, they’re not locked together.

 

“Okay.”  Time to go.  Frank picks up his shit and leaves, thinking this better be the end of it.  But just in case, before he closes the door on the way out: “Find another way.  Don’t steal it.”

 

“I’m not a fucking thief.” The kid spits the words at him.  “I’m not going to get arrested, and no one’s going to get the drop on me.  You think I didn’t see if that asshole was armed?  Thanks for the door, but I already got a dad.”

 

Frank decides not to ask where the hell that asshole is, because that really is none of Frank’s damned business.  Instead he just closes the door and goes back to his own place.  The kid’s deadbolt snaps shut before Frank even had his own unlocked again.

 

“Thanks for the door,” the kid says.  Angry, grudging, but he says it.

 

Frank heads inside and put his shit away.  He goes back to listening to his scanner, taking notes.  He’s hearing a pattern emerging, somewhere he can go and do a lot of clean up.  He hears Dean leave a little early that afternoon, then come home with Sammy.  Hears the sounds of dinner starting before he gears up, hears the quiet clunk of a pan filling with water, Sammy’s voice rattling off the day.  Strange thing to hear while he straps up.  Abnormal normalcy.

 

Sun’s still setting when Frank slips out the alley door, chill setting in.  His day routine is good, but leaving, getting out, that could not be allowed to develop into routine.  No timing, no pattern.  Someone like Murdock, going out at night, well that’s what happens when you’re some kind of ninja. 

 

Two weeks ago, Frank walked into some bistro yuppie fusion bar wearing a shirt and collar, a polite smile.  He sat down at the bar beside the two embezzling businessmen he was there for.  He heard them brag about—confirm—-their backroom deals.  Heard them harass the waitress, talk about feeling up their interns, and then he followed them outside when they stopped in an alley for a fuckin’ vape. 

 

No stray bullets that way.  Good memory. 

 

Only two days dead when their schemes fell through with no one there to tend them, and the paper said no one knew how long they’d have gone if they’d not been taken out.  Frank knew.  So did the junkie who sold them their meth, kept them going so they’d be able to pull no sick days for ten straight months.  Smart guy, hoping to buy his way out of his own bullet.  But not that smart.

 

This night though.  Frank follows his leads, the notes he took, the maps he reviewed and the routes he made sure he understood, the ways in and out again.  He does what he knows he needs to—But the signs he’d heard, the reports of disturbances, the marks of vandalism that usually marked comings and goings Frank normally followed like a game trail—nothing.  Just the dark and quiet, not even a homeless person huddled up to escape the night. 

 

The mugging he stops on the way back isn’t even worth taking out the mugger over.  Asshole doesn’t have a knife, cries, shakes, pisses himself.  Passes out when Frank gets in his face about who his dealer is.

 

By the time Frank comes back, restless and feeling the hungry hollow of his middle, no light’s coming out from under the next door over, no sound either.  Frank puts his shit away, cleans up, has a protein bar.  Day wasn’t a total waste.

 

Couple days pass, Frank listens, reconfigures.  Some activity gets reported again in the same area, cops walk the block, report nothing back.  Even they seem to notice, think it’s a prank.  Maybe it is, or maybe he just missed it.  Next door, Dean leaves for a few hours every day, then most of a day. 

 

Day after that, Frank goes out too, tac vest on with a jacket over it to hide his gear, too warm for that much cover, but there’s wind.  Shouldn’t be too noticeable.  He’s going to look at the site in the day.  It’s a warehouse, gentrified up to some apartments or some shit, then burned and rotted before the incident.  Construction post-incident gave up.  Lots of plastic blowing around at night, holes in the floors, but solid enough walls.  Skeletons waiting to get filled in.

 

Seemed strange, no one taking it up again.  Then again, maybe that was what was happening. Maybe price is too high.  He might be taking this too simple. 

 

He goes two blocks, three, doubles back, cuts an alley and around, then cuts through another that leads to a mechanic’s by a pier.  Frank knows the owner sometimes chops cars.  Frank’s waiting though, because sometimes means selection, and selection means a connection to someone he needs to meet more than the mechanic. 

 

Then he hears a voice he recognizes, and there’s Dean, wearing coveralls way too big for him, rolled up at the cuffs and explaining that—"Yeah, course I knows how to fit the clutch, which this last guy didn’t do right—Look at this oil seepage, man.  You want me to do it or what?  I can get to it without even removing the tranny.  Won’t take that long.”

 

The other guy, big belly and skeptical look, shrugs.  “Your ass if you screw it up.  Mac won’t keep you on.”

 

“Mac’s going to keep me on,” Dean says, and gets to work.

 

Frank heads on to the site, turning that one over in his head.  Good for the kid, bad if Frank ends up shooting Mac.  How the hell does a kid know how to fit a clutch at that age?  Frank’s not even sure what that means, other than vague ideas of engine schematics and general theory.

 

Maybe Frank’s been wrong, and Dean’s older than he looks.  Frank reminds himself that it’s not his fucking business. 

 

In the day, the site is nothing much to see, once again.  And yet.  His old instincts, which never really shut up anymore, they’re screaming in his ear that he should leave, itching his soles.

 

Sometimes that instinct is to take a second, lay a more careful look over at the step ahead.  Sometimes, it's the feel of something off, the signs that don’t register consciously, but the mind knows anyway: An ambush is coming, get ready.  Frank sniffs the air, shivers in a chill, and turns to duck inside one of the busted doors, still the old warehouse style.  As his eyes adjust to the dim light, he knows he's made the right choice.   

 

He knows he isn't alone.  Either it's a homeless somebody, or somebodies, or he's found something that needs cleaning up, something that, for whatever reason, is not operational in the evening.  The last time he was here, this place felt empty, abandoned. 

 

Frank takes out his most dependable handgun, puts his back to the wall, and creeps along the dirty concrete floor.  The apartment fixtures in the building burned so thoroughly that the warehouse parts are all that are left.  He found a schematic, and though it was simple, he still committed it to memory.  He knows the distance from the door he chose to the pit in the floor that once serviced conveyer belts, and he steps neatly around it—

 

Only his foot comes down on nothing, and he loses his balance, scrambles at the wall to hold himself from falling.  He snaps on the flashlight at the end of his gun to show the pit—but not where he'd expected it. 

 

Somehow, he's become completely disoriented.   

 

Frank turns off the light, puts his back to the wall again, and breathes.  He waits. 

 

The dim, dim light of the warehouse comes back slowly.  Frank waits, patient, unmoving.  He still feels unalone, but if the people in here with him heard his slip and scramble, they've made no moves of their own.   

 

It's so fucking cold, Frank's glad he wore a jacket.  Wished he'd thought to add gloves to the pockets because his fingers around the gun are going numb.

 

There's a creak.  A slight ching ching, the big chain on the door Frank came in through being jostled.

 

Frank turns his attention, focuses. 

 

A flashlight turns on, and after a half second, it's zeroed on Frank. Frank's already pointing his gun— 

 

"You've got to be fucking kidding me," the kid, Dean, says.  "Get out of here, now, you're gonna get us both killed." 

 

There's something different in the kid's tone than back at the apartment, when he'd insisted he had it under control.  He's got a crowbar in his hand and a pack of matches sticking out of his pocket.  Frank thinks, The kid means business.

 

And then something grabs Frank, something impossibly strong grabs him around the whole torso in a bear hug, and only his trigger discipline keeps him from shooting the kid.  Frank is lifted and thrown back into the pit he'd barely avoided falling in before.  It's a five foot drop onto concrete, flat onto his back.  It winds him, but he holds on to his gun, despite the cold quaking his bones.

 

Then there’s a weight on his chest, the feeling of legs compressing and squeezing his ribs.  A man, dusty and in black has yanked him down and is crushing him, completely ignoring the gun in favor of pressing as much air out of him as possible—and if Frank weren’t so well trained, he’d be panicking.  He barely manages to get his weapon up—

 

The flashlight snaps on, the beam flashes, stabs through the face above him before the beam of light just dies—

 

Frank shoots anyway, the crack of the shot painful and shattering the quiet, right on target.  Right through the forehead of the man. 

 

Frank lets out a huff in shock, the last gasp he had left, and it steams the air.  The man is grinning at him, squeezing harder.  There’s not even a hole where the shot went.  He hit, he knows he hit— 

 

Mistake.  The man wheezes out a laugh, and the edges of Frank’s vision start to narrow before he bares his teeth and tries to surge up again—and fails—

 

But just in time to see the kid jump down into the pit and swing the crowbar right at the man’s head.  To see the crowbar not connect.  To see it pass right through, scatter him like he was made of fucking ashes. 

 

The pressure on Frank’s chest disappears in the same instant, and Frank sucks in air like he’s drinking it, tastes soot. 

 

Dean’s eyes are roving in the dark, not bothering with a flashlight.  “Can you get up yet?”

 

What the fuck.  Frank gets up.  “I shot it.”

 

“Must’ve missed,” Dean says.  “Come on, maybe it took off.”

 

Kid wishes he was a better liar, probably.  Not the time. 

 

Frank sucks in another breath, holds it and feels a burn, then measures it out by counts.  “Probably not.”

 

“Whatever, let’s go,” Dean says.  “I can’t boost you and hold the crowbar.”

 

Frank goes, pulling himself up easily, glad to feel the pull of life in his diaphragm, but still hating to holster his weapon, even if it was useless. 

 

Up top, he keeps one knee down at the pit edge, then looks around quick.  More light here, somehow, like the pit’s eating it up.  He braces with one hand, extends the other downward.  “Come on.”

 

Dean looks at him, eyes narrowed a little, head swiveling just a bit left, right.  Then he nods, takes Frank’s wrist and swings the crowbar behind him in a wide arc before hopping up, taking the help in a scramble.  The kid’s light though, and Frank just stands and hauls him the rest of the way up. 

 

Nothing follows him, nothing comes out of the pit, and Franks wonders why he’s surprised by that.  Dean doesn’t actually stop moving and keeps them headed towards the door.  They’re out in the alley, sunlight, and—

 

Something’s off.  He went in during the morning, but—Frank checks his watch, finds it dead.  “What time is it?”

 

Dean hisses.  "Shit," then takes off at a jog, in the direction of what Frank assumes is Sammy's school.  Frank bites back on an order for the kid to get back and give him intel—but he knows where the kid is going to be in about thirty minutes anyway

 

Annoyed though, Frank goes to a pawnshop to replace his watch and the burner phone he keeps on him.  He also finds Dean's john from a few days ago on his way home, and leaves the fucker's body in a dumpster.   

 

He can hear Sammy yelling at Dean before he's even at his own door. 

 

"—can't just say you're going to be somewhere and then not, you broke a promise and yeah I walked home with a friend—" 

 

"You don't have friends, Sammy!" 

 

"I have friends!" Sammy yelled back, angry, high-pitched.  Somebody upstairs bangs on the floor, and the kids' volume lowers. 

 

Frank doesn't hear anything else from the boys' apartment.  He tries to imagine what might be going on, but his own children died before teenage angst and moodiness, and he finds himself unable to authentically conjure up what they might be doing.  His ideas of teenagers are informed from his own memories and half-remembered tv shows, pop culture.  He knows his own kids would've gone through things, but Frankie and Lisa are never going to get that chance.   

 

He drinks his soup straight from a thermos, follows it up with a protein mix, and listens to the scanner. Hears about the devil of Hell's Kitchen, out and about, and some kid in Queens giving the cops a hard time by doing their job.  He thinks about going to Queens and following the Spiderman and just shooting the scum he leaves webbed up and helpless.  He's weighing how practical that would be when he hears a quiet knocking at his own door. 

 

It's Dean.  Frank puts his pistol back in its holster.  "Ready to talk about whatever the fuck that was?" 

 

"You're the kind of crazy that'd just go back if I didn't," Dean tells him.  "Let me in." 

 

Frank weighs his options.  Inventories what's currently out and observable.  Decides it's fine.  He opens the door and lets the kid in. Watches the kid's eyes get a little wide taking in the weapons, the ones left out and in easy reach, the stacks of MREs, the tac gear stored neatly. 

 

"Uh," the kid says, and there's something a little gratifying about making the kid speechless.   

 

Frank leans against the kitchen counter.  "You wanted to tell me something." 

 

"You a vigilante or something?"  the kid asks, standing loose. Frank gives him props for that.  Whoever brought the kid up brought him up to have balls. 

 

"Or something," Frank answers.  "What was that, in the warehouse.  I shot it." 

 

"You missed," the kid says, but he isn’t even trying to lie convincingly anymore. 

 

"No," Frank says. "I didn't.  The bullet went through it.  So did your crowbar. But the crowbar hurt it."

 

"It's the iron," the kid admits.   "It was a ghost."

 

He waits for Frank to take that in, which Frank does.  He was never a superstitious guy—enough shit went on in the here and now to worry about the hereafter—but.  The loss of time, the crowbar, the cold—it hadn't been normal. Or natural.  Or good.  The next question was obvious. 

 

"How do we end it?"  Frank asks. 

 

"Salt and burn the remains.  They're in that pit but—I can't get that much accelerant." 

 

"Ah." Frank grins.  "So that's why you've come to visit.  You want me to hook you up with some gasoline." 

 

"Yeah," the kid says, drawing his skinny shoulders back. 

 

"Kid, you got balls," Frank tells him, still grinning.  "Especially if you think you're gonna walk in that neighborhood with your hands full and not get mugged.  What about your kid brother?" 

 

"He's asleep," Dean says. "Or faking it at least, because he's pissed at me."

"He'll get over it," Frank tells him.  He straightens up, crosses the room to open one of the trunks stacked against one wall.  He takes out a big hammer, lays it on the table beside his guns, then reaches for his tac vest.  Unrolling it, the white paint is clear. 

 

The kid takes a step back. 

 

Frank pulls the vest on. "You still want my help?"  he asks. 

 

"Yeah," the kid says with a swallow.   "What'd you do to the guy you—you—" 

 

"Kept from giving you AIDS or a knife in the ribs?"  Frank looks square at him, starts strapping weapons to his back and thighs.  He tucks the hammer into the small of his back, and pulls a jacket on over top of it.  Then, he hands the kid an emergency flare and a zippo, pockets one of each for himself.  "What do you think I did to him, kid?" 

 

The kid licks his lips, looks down.  Looks guilty

 

"Nuh-uh," Frank says, reaching out to tilt his head up.  If his son had looked like that because some scumbag got what was coming to him, Frank woulda done the same.  "Don't you do that.  He made his choice. He paid the price for it.  No way you were his first. You know that, right?" 

 

The kid's wide green eyes meet Frank's, and he jerks his chin away. His eyes are damp, but credit where it's due—the kid isn't backing off anymore.  "Let's go," the kid says.  "Kill a ghost." 

 

"Sure," Frank says.  "Who you gonna call?" 

 

He waits for Dean to crack a grin, to laugh a little, before laughing himself, just quietly, and leading the kid out of the apartment, and out the alley exit.

 

It’s full dark by now, but that’s not a bother.  Dean keeps up just fine, doesn’t question the route they take, and when Frank checks their six, a couple times he catches the kid’s head already turning to do the same, like he’s been trained.  Their route bypasses the alley next to Mac’s garage, and that reminds Franks—

 

“You on your break, or were you off when you came by?”

 

“Huh?” Dean glances over, then follows Franks nod in the direction of Mac’s.  “Oh, I was off.  I come in for long morning shifts.  Works out.”

 

“Good,” Frank tells him.  Better he thinks it’s—

 

“I did see you pass by earlier, just didn’t see you come back.  I didn’t think you were going to this haunted ass warehouse.  Did you think it was some kind of drug dealer’s place or something?” Dean keeps his voice down, speaking with is head turned a little down too, so it doesn’t echo.

 

Again, like he’s been trained.  He’s a fucking kid.  Something smells, and it’s not the dumpster full of cat shit they’re passing by. 

 

“Patterns tend to emerge,” Frank offers.  “You showed up with iron.  So if you weren’t there for me, were you just there for it?”

 

“I was checking it out to see what I’d need, if I’d need anything.  But there you were, like two hours later.  Pretty obvious what was going on, then shit went down, then it was really obvious.”  Dean says.

 

“If you know what to look for.” Frank adds, for him.

 

Dean looks up at him, seeming to catch himself, then nods like he’s deciding something.  “Yeah.”

 

They stop at the mouth of their alley, and this time of night, even though it’s not that late, it feels bleak and deep and miles away from earlier today.  The black windows seem darker than they did the night before, and the street doesn’t even have cars parked on it.  Streetlights are even half out.  Jesus, like it’s ready and waiting.

 

Frank is not entirely sure he’s ready to head back in, but then remembers the soot-colored grin on the thing’s ugly face, and naw.  He’s ready.

 

“How many times you done this?” Frank asks.

 

Dean puffs out an annoyed, huffy sigh.  Pure teenager.  “More times than you.”

 

“No doubt about it,” Frank agrees.  Keeps his tone mild.  “You’re the veteran here.  Doesn’t seem like a hobby, as much as a vocation.”

 

“What’s a vocation?” Dean asks.  He shuffles foot to foot.

 

“A calling,” Frank says.

 

The kid steadies himself and looks square at Frank.  “That what you call what you do?”

 

“I call what I do necessary.” Frank looks right back, calm.

 

“Sounds like the same thing.” Dean keeps his gaze, then nods after a second, towards the warehouse. “If your light dies, it’s close.  Priority is burn the remains, that’ll cut its tie to here.  Iron breaks it up if it tries to get cute.  Don’t have to even swing hard.  Salt can be a barrier, but what’s the point when we just burn the whole pit?”

 

“You sure it’s the pit?”

 

“Yeah, looked it up.  Accident when they were renovating the place into apartments.  He was crushed around the ribs, sort of splattered down there.  I mean, unless he got on the conveyer belt, then we’re just S-O-L, cause who knows where that went.” Dean shrugs.  “It might go for you again.  You fit the uh, victim profile more than me.”

 

Frank goes cold, feels the weight of his tac vest.  “It kills?”

 

“Patterns, right?  If you look at the construction history, dark-haired men, thirties or a little older, authority figures.  A foreman, engineer, drafter.  It was spread out, but.  Last month, a surveyor bought it.”  Dean says this, looking at the warehouse, and then he looks at Frank like he’s not sure he should’ve said it.

 

Frank isn’t sure either.  He’s having a little trouble.  Earlier, this was a fuckin’ ghost that tried to kill him.  Now it’s ghost that’s also some murdering scum.  “Why the hell would it do that?”

 

“They get stuck.  This—it’s not the whole guy.  Maybe he blames his old boss or whatever.  The burning unsticks what’s left.  You ready?”  Dean asks.  The kid’s hand is twitching, flexing on the crowbar he’s got in hand, since they’d been keeping mostly to dark alleys and the kid’s not an idiot. 

 

Frank hefts the gas can, and it’s an easy carry.  “Good to know what I’m getting into.”  Then he steps forward, takes point.

 

Dean huffs, but falls in, used to covering somebody's six.  His dad's?  Frank's starting to wonder, to think so.  He'd have words for somebody that goes off and leaves his kids like this, and not nice ones.  If Lisa and Frankie were alive . . . 

 

But they aren't.  And now Frank's easing into the dark warehouse, hammer in his hand.  The cold seeps in immediately.  The blackness is profound.  Frank eases towards the pit, mindful of how he'd lost his way before.  His light flickers out a second before the attack. 

 

It's enough time to get his hammer ready.  It's big iron head sweeps through the air in front of him, but doesn't make contact. Behind him, he hears Dean's crowbar swing—and then Dean shouts, goes flying.  Frank throws down one of the emergency flares; the only advantage in the dark goes to the ghost, and fuck that.   

 

He sees Dean getting dragged towards the pit. 

 

Frank roars, seeing red, and goes with his rage.  He throws himself after the scumbag ghost, brings the hammer down like he was gonna hammer in his skull, and the ghost vanishes. Making contact with the hammer is a bit like brushing against a live wire, in a sense. It doesn't shock, but he definitely feels a tingle go up his arm.  He hauls Dean to his feet with one hand, shoves the gas can in his hands. 

 

"Get down there and light it up," he tells the kid, putting authority in his voice. 

 

The kid knows what he's doing.  Jerks his head once— "Yes, sir!" He hops down, unquestioning, and starts pouring. The scent of gasoline rises rank, and there's splashing as the kid throws it around liberally.  Frank feels the cold on the back of his neck and swings the hammer backwards, catching something. He yells at the kid, intentionally rough—

 

"Don't you fucking mess up!  You hear me!  You need to work harder, boy!" 

 

"Yes, sir!"  The kid calls up, and there's a bit of an amused note in his voice, lets Frank know that the kid knows he's playing along. 

 

Ghosts aren't that smart.  The thing rushes at him, visible but translucent in the red flicker of the emergency flare, roaring, its crushed ribcage obscene, like a man Frank'd run over with a truck once.  His lip curls in a sneer.  The living fucker, the guy who died in the pit, might not've had it coming, but this part of him does, and Frank swipes with his hammer—

 

Just in time to be dodged.  Something hits him hard, knocks him into the pit, into a puddle of gasoline.  Frank grimaces, pushes up to his hands and knees—

 

And that weight settles on him again, starts to crush him—

 

The kid yells, "Back off scumbag!"  There's a whoosh, the crowbar flying over him, dissipating the ghost.  Frank hurls himself to his feet, sucking in air, and bodily throws Dean out of the pit.  He jumps up after.  His feet have barely made it when Dean's dropping the lit zippo down, into the pit, and the whole thing goes up in flames.   

 

There's a wail, and the cold vanishes suddenly, giving way to a muggy night. 

 

Frank sits down, stinking, looks at the flaming pit.

 

Dean crouches beside him, after a moment, and grins.  Holds out one hand to the heat, fingers splayed.  “Should die out soon.  Nothing down there to burn but the gas, right?”  It’s not really a question.

 

Frank grunts.  “It’ll last long enough to draw attention.”  In the backwash of the orange flickers, he can see some of the gas definitely splashed the kid, all over really.  Frank hauls up to his feet, and scoots them both back farther from the flames with a hand on Dean’s shoulder.  “Best be going, if the job’s done.”

 

“It is.” Dean confirms.  He doesn’t get a chance to shake the hand off, but does settle his clothes, pick at the gas.  “Oh great, gotta buy vinegar tomorrow.”

 

It doesn’t surprise Frank that the kid knows how to get the stink of gasoline out of clothes.  Instead, he wonders how many times the kid’s done it.

 

“That’s tomorrow.”  Frank says though, turns towards the way out, snagging the gas can that Dean apparently chucked back out of the pit.  He waits though until Dean’s with him to start out, pausing at the side door and checking, in case, before taking to the alley.

 

The route back’s different, and Frank finds a rank alley to ditch the gas can in.  He doesn’t need it that bad.  Dean shifts from foot to foot, playing look out while he does it, without even having to be told.

 

 “Bring me your gear tomorrow.  I got vinegar,” Frank says when they’re on the way up the stairs in the apartment building, and he knows they’re deserted.  “Save you the trip.”

 

“You do laundry?” Dean huffs a quiet laugh.  His voice doesn’t carry.

 

“Laundry don’t do itself,” Frank tells him.  “Smart ass.”

 

“Hey, at least some part of me’s got to be,” Dean fires back, clearly testing his limits, eyes darting sideways.

 

Frank gives him a look, almost at their landing, and wonders if it’s a teenager thing.  Or if it’s a this-teenager thing.  Christ, what a weird thought.  “Don’t give yourself shit, kid.”

 

“Yeah, okay.”  Dean shrugs. 

 

It don’t sit right, but there’s a lot that don’t sit right lately.  “Good taking out the trash with you.”  They’re at the landing.  Last thing to say before the hallway.

 

“You too.”  Dean says. 

 

Frank opens his own door, stands just inside until he hears Dean's click shut, hears the locks slide home.  He closes and bolts his own door and sets about changing, showering, getting the stink of gasoline out of his clothes.  Frank sleeps through the boys leaving, for the most part, save a brief stir to consciousness because Sammy's stomping down the hallway. 

 

Around lunchtime, Frank's had the scanner on, made some more notes leading him back, back, and back to Mac and the chop shop.  Frank gets up to make some lunch—fried bologna sandwiches and macaroni and cheese.  They are indulgent comfort foods and he only eats them before he plans to burn a lot of calories—and he'll be doing that tonight.   

 

Dean knocks when the mac and cheese is just about done, and Frank lets him in to add his laundry to what Frank's got ready to go.  Tells the kid to get it started after looking at the hang-dog expression hiding behind the stoic mask. He isn't old enough or jaded enough to keep everything off his face, but he's doing good trying. 

 

Frank fries up a couple extra slices of bologna, dishes the mac and cheese into two bowls.  Dean sits down in front of the food and looks for a minute like he's gonna protest, then his stomach roars, and Dean tucks in.  Frank grunts his approval, eats his own meal.  Figures, if Dean's gonna talk about what's on his mind, he's more likely to do it if Frank just lets him be. 

 

Turns out he's right.  Halfway done with the pasta, Dean says, "Sammy was waiting up for me.  He doesn't know, about ghosts and stuff." 

 

"Why's that?"  Frank asks. 

 

"He's too young, too smart. I—we—we protect him from it.  So he can just.  Do his thing." 

 

"Seems like it's you doing a lot of the protecting," Frank tells him. 

 

"He's my little brother," Dean says in answer, like that explains everything, and to Dean, maybe it does.  Maybe that's Dean's definition, the same way Frank defined his life as "They're my children" and "She's my wife."   

 

"So you do what you gotta do.  I can respect that," Frank says.  "Ain't easy though, taking care of somebody." 

 

Dean snorts.  "We get by." 

 

"How many meals you skipped?"  Frank asks, and his aim's always been good. 

 

Dean stabs his fork into his mac and cheese, eats the next bite a bit sullenly. 

 

Frank chows down, too.  "When you expecting your dad?"  Frank finally asks him.

 

The question earns a look and a long time chewing from Dean before he swallows and answers. “He’ll call or come back soon.  Said he had a strong lead, and I’m good to take care of Sammy for a while.”  There’s warning in the kid’s tone.

 

There’s a lot in that to warn about, and apparently the kid knows it, but probably not how much.  Frank just nods a little, lets most of it lie.  Makes himself just gaze across the top of the truth that’s started worming its way up into the light.  Gotta see the whole picture, sometimes. 

 

After another bite: “He’s taught you a lot.  How to watch your six.  Watched my six too.  Caught on fast to the bossing around I was doing, trying to goad that scum last night onto me.  Kept your head in the right place.  You’re the one who did the job.” 

 

It isn’t high praise, just the facts in a rundown, but the way Dean ducks his head and clearly tried not to show the shine of pride in his eyes—Frank has to wonder what the hell the kid’s dad does when he’s actually around.  Teach one to take care of the other, keep the other ignorant—shit.  Smart kids figure out when they’re missing something.  If Sammy is as smart as Dean thinks, it’s not going to last.  Dean probably knows it, too.

 

Hell, maybe Sammy already suspected, might be one of the reasons they fought all the time.  On that, Dean was clearing his throat.  “Yeah, well.  I’ve been learning for a while.  I got to keep an eye out, just in case.”

 

“Part of your job?”  He treats it like one, so Frank doesn’t feel like he’s mislabeling here. 

 

“Yeah.  I’m not supposed to hunt on my own—good policy.  But if something’s around, if it’s a threat, I keep an eye out.  Dad doesn’t leave us somewhere he knows is going to be a problem, but this is a big, big city.  There’s got to be problems everywhere, just getting missed,” Dean says.

 

Frank nods a little.  Thinks about that.  “There’s problems.”

 

Dean seems to realize what he’s said, and glances around at the crates in Frank’s apartment.  “. . . Guess you get it.”

 

There’s more to it than that.  Frank waits a few, then, “You said a lead.  That means something happened.  And this don’t seem like a thing that a man pulls his kids into unless that something was damned bad.”

 

“No one gets into killing shit like this without a something bad.  Guess—” Dean looks around again.  “Oh shit, that’s why you do it.”

 

“Close enough,” Frank confirms.  Thanks to the trial, it’s public record anyway.  “Took my family right in front of me.  My wife, both kids.”

 

“You get the ones who did it?” Dean asks, direct, straight heat in his voice.

 

“I got them.” Frank don’t feel much saying it.  It doesn’t feel . . . good.  Maybe like satisfaction.  Like something that needed done though.  Relief.  But not much, and it didn’t last.  The yawning now what just wouldn’t shut up after, either.

 

Dean nods though, and looks like he’s trying to figure out how it could feel.

 

Frank goes on, “But that doesn’t stop the problem.  Your dad going to stop when he gets yours?” 

 

“I don’t know if he will,” Dean says.  “Stop, or get ours.  He gets a lot of leads.  He thinks he’s close a lot—maybe he is.  He won’t tell me that kind of thing, just—pieces.  And sometimes he’s just on a hunt to get information from someone else, make a connection.”  He adds a shrug at the end there, and sucks the last of the cheese off his fork.

 

“How long have you been at it?” Frank gets a bad feeling, asking that.

 

“It killed Mom when I was four and Sammy was a baby.  It set the house on fire, and so there wasn’t even any evidence later to find, just what we saw,” Dean says.

 

We saw.  In his head, Frank sees Lisa, at four, with little Frankie, trying to manage to hold him right in her skinny little lap.  “You saw it?”  he manages.

 

“No—neither did Dad.  Or we’d have ganked it by now.  I saw—her.  That’s all,” Dean says.  He shrugs again, tight and uncomfortable.  “Dad tried to get her down, sent me out of the house with Sammy.  So he saw a lot more, what it did.”

 

Frank decides he doesn’t want more details, thinks that’s more than enough to get the picture of what matters now: “So you take your job serious.”

 

“Hell yes, I do,” Dean agrees.

 

“You really think your brother doesn’t know something’s going on?”

 

“No.  He knows that, just not what.  But I tell him, and he can’t not know ever again.  I can’t even imagine what that’s like, but I figure it must be pretty nice,” Dean says.  “He could go on one day and make something with his life.  He’s really smart, works hard.  People like him.  He’s got a chance, but not if he gets caught up in this.”

 

Frank isn’t sure if this is brainwashing, or if it’s just the actual, 100% of what the kid believes is true coming out his mouth.  Because it sure sounds like if little brother hung the sun and moon, it’s Dean’s job here to stoop down and give him a boost up to do it. 

 

“What about you?” Frank decides, fuck it, and asks.

 

“I’m a hunter.  Dad doesn’t think I can on my own—even though I have and I’ve backed him up.  But once Sammy gets to college, that’s what I’ll be doing.  He’ll probably have me covering more ground he can’t get to, that kind of thing.” Dean either doesn’t understand the question, or pretends he doesn’t. 

 

Frank thinks it’s the latter.  “You get your GED?”

 

Dean groans, but grins.  “That was pure luck.”

 

“Naw,” Frank says.  “Not buying it.”

 

“Okay, okay.  I worked my ass off because I missed two years of three things with all our moves, and then sweated so much the mouse kept slipping, since it was expensive as hell to take,” Dean admits.  “But no more school was pretty sweet.”

 

“Yeah, everybody says that, even people who go on and do more right after,” Frank tells him, grinning a little back. 

 

It’s almost enough.  Now that light’s been shed, Frank’s got a bead on the father, a clear sightline, but he still doesn’t know what he’s going to do with it.  And he wonders, seriously wonders, how much of a mirror he’s going to see when he meets the guy.  And possibly shoots him in the face.  It’s not a decision Frank finds himself wanting to make, and yet.

 

“What’d you do after high school?  Military or something?” Dean asks, tentative.  And then, hell.  The kid gets up and takes the dishes to the sink, sneaking a look like he’s wondering if he’s doing the right thing, squirrelly in a way that makes Frank uncomfortable. 

 

Dean starts to wash up, and Frank gets up and brings his own dishes over to lend a hand.  Dean seems surprised to be joined, but then he relaxes a little.  The dryer makes a noise, done, and Frank goes to empty it, separate Dean's clothes from his own.  Dean leans against a wall, watches.  Frank folds the clothes out of reflex.  Finds himself saying, "I'm going to talk to your boss tonight." 

 

"Mac?  What for?" 

 

"He runs a chop shop.” 

 

The kid keeps washing dishes for a second, then turns to look at Frank.  "Are you gonna kill him?" 

 

"Depends," Frank tells him, and it's honest.  "You really wanna know?  You want me to say it?"  Frank's tone is even, but he knows there's conviction in his voice.  Knows it because it's there, because he's seen people piss themselves when he says, I'm gonna kill you.  They believe him.  It isn't a matter of faith.

 

They know. 

 

"I don't want to know," Dean tells him, and his voice is real serious.  It's a tone Frank can respect.  He is not surprised when Dean adds, "But I don't think it's right to not know." 

 

"Okay," Frank says.  He leans back against the counter, drying his hands.  "Mac only takes cars sometimes.  Means he's got somebody specific he's working with.  Now—it's one thing to just take cars 'cause you got a buddy lifting cars.  It's another thing if you're the chop shop for organized crime.  So.  Depends on how dirty Mac is, whether he's having his last meal right now or not." 

 

"That's all there is to it?  What if he gives you information?  Or goes to the cops, like on TV, you know?  To give evidence?" 

 

"I'm not going to the cops," Frank tells Dean.  "The fuckers I go after don't deserve to clog up the justice system.  They don't deserve a second chance."  He straightens. "I'm not out there gunning down drug addicts and graffiti artists, Dean.  I'm going after the scum that poisons our city, our world.  Wipe out enough of them, others'll start making different decisions." 

 

Dean looks at him a long minute. Shakes his head.  "You're pretty fucked up, man."

 

Frank smiles with half his mouth, wry.  "Yeah, I know." 

 

Dean heads out soon after that, taking his laundry with him.  Frank hears him leave to go pick up Sammy a little later.  Frank eats some eggs for dinner.  Packs a protein bar into his pocket, a bottle of water, too.  Always good to have on hand.  As the sun sets, he's strapping on his gear, pulling his jacket on over it.  By ten p.m., he's watching Mac's Auto Body from a vantage two roofs away.  He waits until Mac's alone, working the car crusher by himself, before heading down.  The crunch and squeal of metal covers Frank's approach, though he moves cautiously anyway.  He is not worried about the security cameras he saw.  Let the scum of the earth know he's coming; let them know what it means to do their trade while he's still breathing.   They won’t turn over the footage.

 

He thinks about Lisa, Frankie, and hits Mac on the back of the head.  He's only out long enough for Frank to get him where he wants him.  When Mac comes to, he's duct taped to himself, head hanging off the edge of the crusher, legs tucked neatly under the van that was in there, waiting to get demolished.  Frank's taken off his jacket. 

 

"Tell me who you're chopping cars for," Frank says from a distance away, where he's holding the switch that'll lower the press.  He hits it.  Mac screams, even though the van isn't squashed enough to touch his legs yet.  Just a second or two, and Frank stops it. 

 

Mac squeals everything. 

 

He'd told Dean—Mac's life depends on how dirty he was. Turns out, Mac is plenty dirty.  He's been doing work for filthy fucking scum, and he gave Frank names, addresses. Frank writes them down, makes Mac tell him twice. 

 

Then he turns on the crusher, and watches.  He’s never flinched or hid from the deaths he doles out.  Mac is enabling the worst kind of scum, and Frank cannot abide his continued existence. 

 

"Stop!"  Dean's voice. 

 

Frank turns, sidearm raised.

 

Dean stops where he'd been hurrying towards Frank, his eyes wide and panicky.  "Please, stop, please!" 

 

"You heard what he does?  Who he does it for?"  The wrath and the rage are right there, boiling under the surface of Frank's skin.  Mac is screaming, crying. The crusher is slow, so slow.  A high-pitched scream tells Frank that it's started his work.   

 

"At least do it clean!"  Dean yells at him. 

 

Frank holds his ground, looks at the kid.  Draws in a frustrated breath—

 

Dean turns and plugs two bullets right in Mac's forehead, ending his screams abruptly.

 

“Fuck!” Frank grinds the word out, spitting it, because—“The hell—”  He can’t move, and it’s stupid.  His instincts scream at him to react, but he’s staring, because all he can think is that he should’ve shot Mac first.

 

“Do—do you always do it like that?  What the hell is the point of it?  That’s—that’s not wiping out.  That’s—that’s splattering them.  You know what splatter does?”  Dean spits right back.

 

“It does the job, it makes them pay.” Frank says.  The words feel whole and wide coming out of his mouth, his jaw cracking.

 

“Dying bad is exactly how that asshole in the pit ended up murdering people—You’re making monsters.  And I don’t mean the ones who are going to be gunning for you, maybe not caring about stray bullets.  Oh yeah, I looked you up,” Dean says.

 

Frank sees red, real red, roaring.  He realizes he never lowered his gun, because he’s staring down the top of it at Dean. 

 

Who lifts his chin, breathes deep and rapid through his nose, mouth wired shut.  He’s got his gun lowered, has had since he shot Mac.  Frank sees it, outside the narrow view down the barrel of his pistol at Dean, who he—

 

Is not going to shoot.  What the fuck.   Frank slowly, carefully bends his wrist so the muzzle’s skyward before he eases poundage off the trigger.  His finger feels like it needs oiling, like it creaks.  “Jesus, kid.  I don’t—I don’t want to shoot you.  I didn’t.”

 

Dean swallows so loud that Frank can actually hear it.  Then the kid goes on and clears his throat for good measure.  “You sure?”

 

“Yeah, I’m sure.”  What was he playing at?

 

“I just shot a guy.” Dean points out.  Literally, he points at Mac’s body.  He doesn’t look at it though.

 

“He was dead anyway.” Frank tells him.

 

“Did it help to make him hurt?  Does it actually help?  I mean, seriously, I read you’ve got a thing, with your head.  But you don’t look like you were feeling good.  We wasted that ghost, you were way different,” Dean says.  He gestures again, but still avoids looking.

 

“You shot a guy before?” Frank asks, not planning it, but it happens anyway.

 

“I’ve shot a few guys, you think every monster is missing a body?” Dean looks down, and off.  “First time I shot anybody, they were after us.  I had to.  Let’s just leave it there.”

 

That—now is not the time.  “Yeah.  You said splatter, but ending it quick.  What kind of guarantee is that?”

 

“It’s not, but it’s a lot better.  Seems like quick—it cuts someone off faster.  Usually we see someone with part of themselves left over, they suffered.  They were ripped away.  As a rule, we cremate anyway.  Just in case.”  Dean finally looks at the body.  Blood’s leaked out on the ground, there’s splatter, despite all the words about a clean kill.

 

No kills are clean.

 

“So, we cremate.” Frank says.  “Your prints on that bullet?”

 

“Naw, I was careful loading.  You—going to burn the shop down?” Dean asks.  He just sounds curious, not like he’s worried about his job. 

 

Frank thinks he probably isn’t.  Might have a compartment in his head between those two thoughts. 

 

“No,” Frank just says.

 

Dean plays lookout, own gun shoved in the back of his pants in a way that makes Frank’s eyebrow twitch, and Frank goes about the burning.  He gets the splatter, and thinks about Mexican cartel pulling themselves off meat hooks, Kitchen Irish mobsters full of holes standing up, about his little girl and boy, his Maria—he hopes they’re at peace.  The idea of little bits of them stuck here, splatter—That don’t piss him off, that makes his bones ache. 

 

Mac has enough accelerant around and matches, it’s no trouble to see him flame up.  Frank realizes he’s not going to finish his job tonight, though. 

 

“You not got a holster?” he asks Dean, walking up to where the kid’s leaning in a shadow, slouched but feet even, ready to move.

 

“Naw, Dad takes those.  Usually if I need something, it’s a shotgun or—whatever.” Dean looks back, past him, at the dwindling flames and the greasy smell.  Pulls a face—“Barbeque.”

 

“The hell, kid,” Frank says. 

“That’s what barbeque smells like.  Go down south sometime, it’s nuts.  I mean, without the weird plastic and the fabric smells.”  Dean shrugs.  “Now what?”

 

“Now we go back, you’re done.”

 

“What about you?”

 

“I’m done tonight,” Frank admits.

 

“Tomorrow, going to finish it?”  Dean presses, his gaze gone steady again.

 

“Might,” Frank says.  “I’ll remember what you said, so get it out of your head—don’t you follow me again.”

 

“Yeah, okay.  I can’t keep leaving Sammy at night anyway.  He’s got the shotgun, but he’s never had to shoot it at anything but targets,” Dean says.  He shrugs, again.

 

Frank realizes he’s going to have to make his hit in broad daylight, while Dean’s at work or getting his brother, because damned if that don’t sound like avoidance.  And then he can’t help picking up again—shot anything but targets at that age.  What’s that mean in comparison?

 

He already knows. 

 

When they walk up the stairs, quiet except for the creaking of boots and the echo of footsteps, Frank knows damn well that if either of his babies had survived, he’d not be here now, doing this shit like a hollow man, no matter what scrambling his brain had gone through.  He doesn’t get it.  It’s a whole different kind of fucked up, and Frank knows fucked up.  He kills it twice a week if he can manage.

 

In the hallway, he gives Dean a nod, a pat on the shoulder before heading on past to his own door.  As usual, he waits to latch his own door, to hear all the kids’ latch closed before locking up himself.

 

He might have to decide a few things.