Bending Toward Justice
The first thing that Matt registers when he wakes up is pain. The feel of rough sandpaper beneath his skin and coarse fabric over it; the booming voices of people who never seem to stop blasting their words; the smells, oh dear heaven, the smells—cloying, nauseating, overpowering; he can barely breathe without gagging. He screams and tries to get away, even though it's too dark to see where he's going, but heavy hands seize him and hold him immobile on the sandpaper. He struggles for all he's worth, trying to kick, scratch, bite... anything. Dad told him never to fight, but the other kids have gone too far this time. (Please, be the other kids and not somebody worse. If this is a prank gone wrong, he'll get over it. Don't be a gang of escaped killers on the loose. Don't be a press gang. Don't be an idiot, Matt. Press gangs were around in Mutiny on the Bounty—they don't kidnap you into the navy today!) Maybe he is being kidnapped, has been kidnapped. It would explain why they're not letting him move about. But seriously? How much money do they think Dad can come up with to get him back? Nobody nabs a kid from Hell's Kitchen for ransom.
Something stabs him in the arm then, burning cold, exploding into the muscle and he hears the thin liquid slide through the hollow tube into that muscle an instant later. And then he's floating and falling and the pain ebbs away and smells and sounds fade and he's so grateful he can almost cry, but instead, he drifts into a dreamless sleep.
Waking up is bad, but not as bad as the first time. The voices are still loud, the sounds and smells and sensations overwhelming, but if he concentrates really hard, he can sort of pick out one conversation, one fragrance, one feeling, focus on those, and the rest of the chaos seems to recede somewhat. He can make out vague outlines; an IV bag, a bed rail, a chair, a table. It's not like waking up in the middle of the night, when a street lamp shining into his window through the gaps between the shade and the pane give him enough light so he can make it to the bathroom without banging into the chair he didn't push into his desk before he went to bed. It doesn't make sense, but it doesn't seem to him as though he's seeing the shapes now. It's more as though he can touch them, even if his hands aren't anywhere near them. It's intriguing, and more than a little weird, but the more he tries to analyze this new perception, the less scared he feels and the easier it gets to think.
From far away, he recognizes his father's voice, even if it's so much louder than it needs to be. Not that Dad is shouting—he's not. But his voice carries far more than it should, considering that Dad doesn't seem to be in the same room with him. And there's another man there talking to Dad in a voice that is slow and ponderous like rolling thunder. At first, he can't really make sense out of the conversation; it's like trying to hear the lyrics to a heavy metal song over the electric guitar reverbs and the drumbeats. Gradually, though, the words become clearer.
"...can assure you, Mr. Murdock, that I will get to the bottom of this. The man driving that truck was hired by Fisk Industries. It's my responsibility to set things right for you."
"Can you give my boy back his eyes?" His father's voice is sick, tired, the way he sounds when he's quietly drunk and talking about how he's messed up his own life, but Matt's going to do better. "Can you do that, Mr. Fisk?"
Matt hears something creak. A chair, maybe? Yes, it's probably a chair. "If it were a question of money, then yes. I could arrange it. Unfortunately, it appears to be a question of current medical knowledge. I'm sorry, Mr. Murdock. Jack. Your son is blind. Nothing can change that now. However, that doesn't mean that his life is over."
"He..." Dad never sounds this choked up. "He was going to do something, be something. A doctor or a lawyer... somebody."
"He still can be, Jack." The other man—Mr. Fisk, Matt thinks—sounds so confident, so positive about things. "There've been vast strides in assistive technology in recent years. Textbook are published in Braille and on CD-ROM. Computers are becoming more accessible all the time—"
"We don't have a computer," Dad answers.
"You'll get one. I'll see to that."
"Mr. Fisk," Dad's voice is respectful, but there's a hint of pride in it, too. "I... look, I know you want to do right by us, but I don't take handouts and I haven't raised my boy to do so, either. What you're offering... it's generous and it's way better than I can do for Matt on my own, but I don't take charity."
Matt listened, a welter of thoughts and emotions roiling within him. So. He's blind, then. The knowledge doesn't shock him as much as it should; it explains why nobody else seems bothered by the darkness, though not why he can still make out shapes. It doesn't explain why everything is suddenly loud and rough and smelly. He's proud of his dad for not greedily jumping at the offer, even as a rebellious voice inside urges, Dad... this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance! What if I need what he wants to give me? What if... what if I can't finish high school without it? What happens then? Dad's always told Matt that with his brain and his grades, he won't need to beg for anything from anybody, but will being blind change things?
Mr. Fisk isn't giving up, though. "Mr. Murdock, can you afford to send your son to college?"
Dad doesn't answer for a long moment. Then, "I... I've put something by. A little. If his grades stay up, he'll be a shoe-in for a scholarship."
"Ah," Mr. Fisk pauses delicately. "And the difference between a scholarship and a handout is...?"
"It's a reward for good grades!" Dad sputters. "It's..."
"Being accepted into college is a reward for good grades. A scholarship is one way to pay for it. A student loan is another. But, at the end of the day, either can be considered a handout. Or perhaps... a hand up? Jack, your son was blinded by a radioactive waste canister that fell off of a truck belonging to a company my offices hired; a truck driven by a man my offices should have vetted more thoroughly. My company has a moral responsibility to your son. As its head, that responsibility devolves on me. I want to give Matthew a hand up. I am prepared to pay the costs of any and all rehabilitation and assistive technology that he needs to finish high school. I will also assume the full financial burden for any post-secondary tuition and reasonable living expenses for up to ten years or until your son earns his degree; whichever comes first. Think of it as a customized scholarship. Think of it as far greater compensatory damages than you could hope to win if you pursued legal action. But think of it, Mr. Murdock. Please. For Matthew's sake."
Lying on his cot, Matt is mentally pleading with his dad to say yes. He knows that college is expensive and, as hard as Dad makes him study, he's only half-believed he'll ever get that far. Hearing his father as good as admit that the money isn't there only confirms what he's expected all along. And scholarship or... or... compensatory damages—he rolls the term around in his head—it's not charity.
Jack Murdock sighs heavily. "I... could you give me a little time, Mr. Fisk?"
"Of course," Mr. Fisk allows. "I daresay you haven't slept in over two days. Here."
"My card. Please be in touch. And, regardless of your decision, as I said earlier, your son's medical bills will be fully paid."
Leaving the hospital, Wilson Fisk permits himself a small smile. Before he ever approached Jack Murdock, he'd had his people assemble a detailed file on the man and his son. He runs over the particulars now: aging boxer—competent enough, though rarely favored in matches these days, single father who wants his son to be a success; brilliant boy, something of a loner, frequently bullied... Fisk nods to himself. He'd been bullied as a child. If young Matthew is anything like the boy he once was, he has to be angry, resentful, hungry, and dreaming of a day when he will rise above his peers...
Fisk's smile widens. He's playing the long game. Don Rigoletto won't be running the city forever. One day, there will be a new Kingpin running New York's underworld.
And he will need talented young people, talented loyal young people like Matthew Murdock and the other hungry young men and women whom he is quietly grooming, to help him run it.
He's told Jack the truth. He isn't providing charity. He's making an investment—one that promises to yield tidy dividends down the road.
Jack takes the money, as Fisk knew he would. Murdock is a proud man, but his love for his son, his desire to see his son rise from the slums of Hell's Kitchen, is stronger than his pride.
Over the next three years, Fisk receives no fewer than thirty-eight letters from young Matthew, or Matt, as the boy prefers to be called. At first, the letters are stilted, scarcely more than brief thank you notes and other expressions of gratitude. They arrive at his office typed, following standard business letter format, and—except for the very first letter—completely free of errors. Fisk answers each one warmly, taking pains to show interest in every detail the boy mentions, no matter how small or mundane. It is important that the boy think of him as a friend, rather than an impersonal benefactor. He has a mental checklist that he reviews when composing his responses: thank Matt for the last letter; inquire after his health; comment on the first topic the boy wrote about; ask about his family; comment on the second topic; ask about his studies; comment on any other topics; encourage; sign; mail. The letters grow longer.
To his surprise, as the months pass, Fisk finds that he is watching for those letters. He is beginning to care about the boy as something other than a game piece to be moved into position at the right moment. He'd thought he had Matt's measure from the outset: the tormented loner, eager for revenge against those who'd wronged him in the past, grateful for the opportunity and power to one day do so. Now, Fisk sees that he's misjudged him. The boy is grateful for the opportunities afforded him, yes. But he has no wish to dwell on his past. He's moved on from that, something that Fisk realizes he admires. In his experience, such resilience, such nobility of spirit is rare.
Fisk barely notices when he stops reviewing his checklists, but Matt does. As Fisk's letters grow less regimented, Matt begins to unbend as well. His letters convey wonder, excitement, interest. Fisk peruses them with a restrained eagerness. He finds himself cheering Matt's progress in a way that he has never been able to do for his own son, Richard, though he's never quite admitted how much he's wanted to.
Shortly before beginning his senior year, Matt asks Fisk for his advice. He's still vacillating between medicine and law. Fisk considers the question seriously. While, at this juncture, he hadn't wanted to offer unsolicited advice—many adolescents, as he knows, are quick to notice when someone is trying to dictate their lives and quicker to rebel in an ill-conceived ploy to assert independence—it's a different story if Matt is asking. And Fisk knows that a sharp lawyer will be a far better asset to the organization that he is slowly building. He words his reply carefully. While making it clear that the ultimate decision will always be Matt's, and that he will support him regardless, he plays up the advantages of the legal profession over that of the medical. And when application season rolls around, Matt does indeed choose the pre-law track.
The day Matt writes to tell him that he's been accepted to Columbia College, Fisk even goes so far as to uncork a bottle of champagne that he's been saving for a special occasion. Then he quickly writes back to congratulate Matt and assure him that, as promised long ago, he will cover all tuition and living expenses.
Matt has never told anybody about the gifts he gained when he lost his eyesight; not his father, not his best friend Foggy, not even Mr. Fisk, who has given him so much. It's his secret and it makes him feel stronger. In the years that have passed since the accident, no expert has ever suggested that he might regain his sight. Dad takes this hard, but Matt finds that he no longer cares. He hasn't given up on the possibility, but it doesn't consume his waking hours.
When he isn't in class or studying, he often goes for walks around the campus. He carries his cane with him at all times, even though he doesn't actually need it. It's easier to let people think he does. Losing the cane would probably lead to explaining about his gifts and, while there is a part of him that doesn't want to hide these things he can do, well, it wasn't so long ago that his classmates made his life a living hell because he was different. If they tormented him because he had to study when they wanted to play—something that wasn't really that abnormal in the larger scheme of things—he can only imagine the reception he'll get if people find out how different he is now. As much as he appreciates his abilities, deep down, he doesn't really want to be different from everyone else. At least... not too different.
And that's another point, Matt muses, as the sun dips behind a cloud and he feels the chill and shadow pass over him. It's a lot less frustrating, and a lot more empowering, when people assume that there's something that he can't do and he proves them wrong. Get across the street by himself? Fill his own plate at the cafeteria buffet? Know who's approaching from the sound of their footfalls or their cologne? Sure, there's a lot more he can do, too—like read print with his fingers (as long as it's not on glossy paper or under laminate), identify heartbeats, or hold his own in battle against a dozen sighted warriors at once—all things he hasn't chosen to share. Because he still can't use a touch screen without assistive technology, or drive a car, or know immediately which tie goes with which suit, or a million other little things that other people take for granted. He'd rather have people assume that there are things he can't do, and then find out that he can, then have them assuming that he can do something and need to confess that he can't, hear their embarrassed apologies, know that they will see him as less.
Besides, having a secret makes him feel special. A good kind of special. And no matter how much he might hate what Stick put him through all those years ago, he will always be grateful to the old sensei.
He hadn't been out of the hospital long when the old man sought him out. He'd called himself Stick. Matt had suspected for weeks that somebody was following him. He'd been almost positive. But it had been only a couple of months since his senses had gone into overdrive and he'd still had enough self-doubt, enough fear of ridicule if he were wrong, that he hadn't risked a confrontation. Instead, he'd gone to the gym like he had for years and attacked the heavy bag and the parallel bars, venting his frustrations. One night, it had been too much for him; he'd been trying a routine on the uneven bars, one that was partly his own creation and partly some moves he could still remember from the last televised Olympics he'd ever watched. At first, it had gone well, but then the furnace had come on, its hum sounding like a roar in his ears. He hadn't been expecting it and, concentration rattled, he'd placed his foot wrongly on the bar and tumbled to the mat.
Fury and frustration had pulsed in his ears as he'd sobbed, not with pain, but with rage over what he'd lost, what had been taken from him. He'd saved that old man. That was good, right? Then why had he gone blind because of it? It wasn't fair. It just wasn't fair. It...
"Quit feeling sorry for yourself. Get up."
Shocked out of his tears, Matt had turned toward the speaker. How had he not felt his presence, heard him, smelled him until now? "Who?"
"Call me Stick. I'm your new teacher."
A long staff tapped him in the ribs, hard enough to startle if not actually hurt. "Get up. Follow me. Your training starts now."
Curious, Matt obeyed. And in short order, he found himself in a dirty, dusty basement. That was when he found out that Stick was blind himself. He'd never have guessed it. The old man moved with confidence and purpose. He knew where Matt was at all times. More. He knew what Matt was doing at all times; whether he was performing the drills Stick set him or doing his own thing or goofing off. He knew when to correct Matt's stance. And over time, at first by chance, later through practice, Matt began to understand the lessons.
His moves grew surer, his step quicker. Now he could control the raging tide of sensory impressions instead of letting them drown him. His radar sense—he'd come to think of his ability to make out shapes and contours as such—became more focused. He could pick up more detail now: he didn't just perceive a person standing; he could tell if the stance was tense or relaxed. When he combined that knowledge with the information relayed to him by his other senses: the sounds of heartbeats and respiration, the smells of pheromones, the warmth or chill of a handshake, Matt found that he could get a fairly accurate picture of the person's state of mind; whether an attack was imminent and whether the individual was wary or at ease. He learned hand-to-hand combat and martial arts, including ways to block blows with a staff or cane.
Then Stick began to teach him archery.
Matt never mentions Stick's lessons in his letters to Mr. Fisk. At the back of his mind, he is always a little afraid of what might happen if his father were to find out about them. Ever since the accident, Dad has cracked down on him even more, warning him that college is going to be more of a challenge for him without his eyesight; that Matt can't afford to slack off, even a little.
Before he moved into the dorm at Columbia, Matt was able to get away to train in Stick's basement when Dad was at the gym or in the ring. And sometimes, when the alcohol was strong on his father's breath and Matt knew that he wouldn't be awake until morning, he had still crept off to the gym and its comforting smells of sweat and leather; its familiar mats and equipment; its nostalgia factor.
To the best of Matt's knowledge, Mr. Fisk hasn't shared any of his letters with Dad—at least, Dad's never said anything to suggest it. But if Dad should ever find out what Matt's been up to...
Matt knows how much his father has sacrificed for him. He knows what it has cost his father's pride to accept Mr. Fisk's help, no matter how much Mr. Fisk has tried to make it seem like it's not a handout. They both know that Mr. Fisk has gone far above and far beyond the call in looking after Matt. Matt can't tell Dad what he's been up to and he knows Dad will be even more hurt if he finds out about it from Mr. Fisk. So, Matt keeps quiet about this part of his life.
He's gotten to be pretty good at keeping secrets.
Time passes. Wilson Fisk's power base expands until he knows that the time is ripe to challenge Rigoletto. The old don falls to a single shot from a silenced gun. Nobody opposes New York's new Kingpin. How can they, when he has managed to win the support of prime movers and shakers on both sides of the law?
He frowns when he reads Matt's latest letter. It seems that old "Battlin' Jack" Murdock has fallen on hard times. His manager has dropped him and he hasn't been able to secure many fights on his own. Certainly none that are earning him enough to get by; he's missed two rent payments. Matt has never asked for favors before, but he's asking now if there is some discreet way in which Fisk can assist.
He smiles. This won't be a difficult favor and it will further cement the young man's loyalty. Matt graduates this spring. After all the money he's poured into the youth's education, he can't afford to have anything go wrong now. He reaches for the telephone.
"Ms Page," he tells his secretary, "get Roscoe Sweeney on the line for me, please."
It's barely five minutes later that she transfers the call. Sweeney is apprehensive. Fisk appreciates that. It's early days in the new order yet and people don't always know what to expect. Particularly people like Sweeney, who have shorted Don Rigoletto for the last few years, and aren't changing their game now that Fisk is in control. Down the road, he will have to take steps. For now, though, the man still has his uses. "I have a friend in need of a favor, Fixer," he says calmly. "Can you find room on your fight roster for one Jack Murdock?"
Roscoe Sweeney, also known as "The Fixer" laughs nervously. "It's not like I ain't tried, Kingpin, but Murdock won't give me the time of day."
Of course. Sweeney's reputation is well-known and Murdock has his pride. Ah well. He's tried. Still... He thinks of Matt's letter, of the young man's confidence that Fisk can help in this matter. He doesn't want to disillusion him. "Extend the offer again. Double the amount you were prepared to pay. And Fixer..." Fisk thinks for a moment. It won't hurt be benevolent once more. Let the old man have his glory days. At least, until Matt graduates. Then, the youth will be in a position to support his father and Jack will likely find it easier to accept aid from his son. No, Fisk doesn't need to do this; he's fairly sure he has the younger Murdock's loyalty by now. Just arranging for Sweeney to take Jack on will be enough to have Matt feeling beholden to him. Still, one day, he'll be old, too. Let Battlin' Jack have one more taste of glory before he goes out to pasture. Where's the harm? "Arrange for Murdock to win a few..."
It is six weeks later to the day when Kingpin sees the obituary in the Bugle. It's on the second page of the Sports section, two columns of text above the fold and a photograph of Battlin' Jack Murdock as a younger man. He reads the article furiously and then crumples the paper.
He has his chauffeur drive him to Columbia College.
The dormitory room door is opened by a chubby young man with curly brown hair who takes a step backward when confronted by Fisk's imposing presence. "C-can I help you?" he asks.
Fisk remembers Matt's letters. This must be the roommate. "Mr. Nelson?" he asks.
"Yes." He frowns. "Do we know each other?"
Fisk shakes his head. "We've never met, but Matt writes often of you. My name is Wilson Fisk. Is Matt here?"
Nelson nods soberly, and moves aside, motioning for Fisk to follow him. "Matty?"
There are two beds in the room. Matt sits on one, his chin resting on the knees he hugs to his chest. He lifts his head at Fisk's approach.
"Mr. Fisk?" he asks, his voice hoarse. "I..." he collects himself with an effort. "Thank you for coming. This is my roommate, Franklin Nelson. Foggy, Mr. Fisk."
"We've just met," Fisk nods, forgetting too late that Matt can't see it. It occurs to him that this is the first time he's ever laid eyes on the youth. He has seen photographs, of course. But until today, there has been no face-to-face contact. "There was an article in today's paper. Matthew, I am so sorry. What happened?"
Matt lets loose with a heavy sigh. "It was the fight of Dad's career; the big one. He was so excited. He said that, for once, he was the favorite, not the long shot," his lips twitch for a moment. "And he won. He did. I was there." Matt is smiling at the memory, even as tears roll slowly down his cheeks. "We were going to go out and celebrate, him, me and Foggy. He said he'd meet us at the restaurant, only he never did. After about an hour, we went back to the arena to look for him. The police were there. There was a crowd. Someone said there'd been a murder. I... I think I knew then, but I didn't want to let myself believe. I told myself maybe he'd got the restaurants mixed up. Maybe he went home when we weren't where he thought we were going to be and he was trying to call us. Foggy and I came back here. And... the police were waiting. They needed us to," his voice breaks, "to identify the body." He slumps back down again. "Why, Mr. Fisk?" he whispers. "Why'd it happen?"
Fisk places a heavy hand on Matt's shoulder. "I don't know, Matt," he says slowly. "But I will do my best to find out."
It doesn't take long to learn what has transpired. Unable to contain his greed, the Fixer had ordered Murdock to lose the big fight, knowing that the majority of betters were favoring him to win. Murdock had agreed, but later reneged. Smarting from the lost gambling revenue, Fixer had retaliated—harshly. Kingpin files this information away for now, but arranges to have the man placed under surveillance. When the time comes, he wants to know exactly where to find him.
The Fixer is still stiffing him on payments. He's not alone in that regard, but Fisk has been looking to make an example of one of these malingerers and the Fixer has just moved to the top of his list.
Matt has never been to the offices of Fisk International before. He feels more than a little guilty being here now. Ever since his father's death, he has thrown himself into his law books with more intensity than Jack Murdock ever demanded of him. It's as though Dad is pushing him from beyond the grave. Matt never let him down before and he's damned if he'll start now. Still, Fisk asked him to come around today and it seems a small favor after everything that the man has done for him.
The office smells of lemon oil and floor wax, of cedar chips and linseed oil. Matt's shoes sink into a pile carpet. When the receptionist (five-foot-four with lavender perfume, lightly applied) leads him down a long hallway to Mr. Fisk's office, his eyebrows shoot up when he hears water rushing over rocks. There is a fountain against one wall. Everything speaks of comfort, wealth, and taste.
Fisk greets him heartily at the door, inquiring gently after his health and his plans for after graduation.
"Foggy and I are planning to set up our own firm," Matt says.
"Ah," Fisk replies. "Ambitious. A bit risky, though."
Matt frowns. "It's a calculated risk in my opinion, sir. Foggy has the capital. We're both finishing at the top of our class. We've researched the market and I'm fairly sure we'll do well."
"No doubt," Fisk replies.
Matt smiles. "Mr. Fisk, I can't thank you enough for everything you've done for me over the last few years. I wouldn't have made it this far without you."
"And you're determined on this course of action?" Fisk asks.
"I think so," Matt replies. "It's a lot easier to attract clients in the digital age. Setting up on our own means we'll work with the cases we want to, rather than the ones nobody else in the firm wants to handle. Foggy's got a head for business; I'm good with people; we balance each other."
"I can certainly understand your thinking," Fisk says sagely. "I'd actually invited you down here to offer you a position within my legal department. I can extend that same offer to Mr. Nelson, as well. It would mean steady pay, full benefits, and greater security. There are other advantages, as well."
Matt takes a deep breath. "Please understand, Mr. Fisk. You've done so much for me already. I just... I don't feel right about taking more."
"Quite the contrary, Matt. You should know that I've kept abreast of your progress over the years and I've been quite impressed. You owe me nothing. As I told your father years ago, helping you has been my way of making amends for the accident that robbed you of your sight. However, I do understand that your perception may be different." He isn't sure why Matt flinches at these words. "The fact is, I need talented people working for me. If you feel a need to repay me—though you shouldn't—you would actually be doing me the favor, were you to accept my offer."
Matt nods. "I'll discuss it with Foggy, but I'm pretty sure we've made up our minds on this one."
"Of course. My offer stands."
After Matt leaves, Fisk sighs. He genuinely likes the young man, but he hasn't gotten to where he is by being sentimental. He waits until Matt graduates (magna cum laude, as expected) before he has the young man followed. He waits until he and his friend have found their office space and signed the lease. Then he makes a few pertinent telephone calls.
The telephone calls ensure that Nelson and Murdock's law practice never really gets off the ground. Clients walk through the door for an initial consultation but never sign on. And, after the second month, they don't even walk through the door.
Fisk reads over the weekly reports. Nelson and Murdock's would-be clients are ordinary people. They want no trouble and are more than happy to work with other attorneys—particularly when those attorneys are willing to charge ten per cent less per hour than whatever rate Nelson and Murdock quote. Fisk waits.
At the end of the third month, he receives a telephone call from Matt, inquiring hesitantly and with some embarrassment, as to whether the positions are still open.
Fisk waits another three months before he invites the Fixer to his waterfront office—the one he uses to attend to his other business dealings—ostensibly for a routine matter. Once the man arrives, Fisk professes dismay at Murdock's death and demands an explanation. To Fixer's credit, he is candid about his reasons.
"I'm sorry, Kingpin," Fixer concludes. "If I'd known it mattered to youse, of course I wouldn't'a done it, but all youse said was that you wanted me to let him win a few—an' he did. Then he wouldn't take the dive like I told him to and I hadda do something so's not to lose face, right?"
From across his desk, Fisk regards the wiry old man, his fingers locked together, his face impassive. "Murder, Sweeney?" he rumbles. "Was that truly necessary?"
Fixer shrugs. "Never been a problem for you before, eh?" He sighs. "Okay, whose toes did I step on and what do I gotta do to make it right?"
Fisk presses a button beneath his desk and, on cue, two solidly-built younger men enter. He inclines his head toward the Fixer and the two immediately seize his arms. Fisk pushes a manila envelope across his desk. One of the men takes it. "Murdock's autopsy report," Fisk says evenly. "Take Mr. Sweeney someplace secluded. There, I want you to inflict as many of the injuries described therein on his person as possible, stopping short of killing him. If necessary, err on the side of caution. I want him alive for the time being."
The Fixer's eyes nearly pop. "What? No! Y-you can't..."
Fisk leans forward. "You wanted to know whose toes you stepped on?" His voice lowers to a near whisper. "Mine." He nearly smiles when the little man shrinks in his enforcers' grip. "And now," he continues, "I have to do something so as not to lose face."
He nods to the two men and they hustle Fixer out, ignoring his cries. Only then does he allow himself to smile, as he walks over to the carafe on the credenza and pours himself a fresh cup of coffee.
"Do you have a moment, Matt?" Fisk asks him a few days later, stepping into the younger man's office.
Matt nods, surprise evident. He hasn't had any contact with Fisk since that telephone call three months ago.
"How are you managing?"
Matt hesitates. "Fine," he says. "I guess..."
Fisk nods automatically. "It can't be an easy transition," he says, sounding sympathetic. "A failed business is a loss and it can feel every bit as painful as..." He lets his voice trail off. "Forgive me. That would have been insensitive."
But Matt has seized the opening, as Fisk had hoped. "Maybe the timing was wrong. I don't know if I've really dealt with losing my father and it could be that my head wasn't in the firm. I don't know."
"The police had no leads?"
Matt shakes his head. "They didn't. I do. Dad told me that he'd signed up with a guy calling himself 'the Fixer'. He's as crooked as they come. I remember he tried to get Dad to sign up with him years ago, when I first lost my sight. Dad sent him packing. But this last year..." He sighs. "Times were hard. He couldn't find any other work. He didn't have a choice." Matt is silent and Fisk wonders whether he's seeing parallels between his father's situation and his own. "Anyway, the Fixer got that nickname for a reason. He fixes fights. I can't prove anything, but if I had to guess, I'd say he tried to fix Dad's last fight and Dad wouldn't play his game, so..."
Lack of eyesight does not equal lack of perception. This detail, Fisk tells himself, must never be forgotten. He is glad now that he never told Matt about his involvement. He'd meant to at some later date, when the revelation would be most beneficial to him. As it turns out, it is now most beneficial that Matt never learn of it at all. "You believe that this... Fixer had him killed."
"I know he did," Matt says fiercely. "Only... I can't prove it. Not beyond a reasonable doubt. Not so it would stand up in court. There's no evidence I could bring forth to support me, but I know he did it."
Now. If he wants to make use of the situation, there will never be a better time than now. Fisk places a (dare he think it?) fatherly hand on Matt's shoulder. "As do I," he says.
Matt tenses. "Excuse me? Mr. Fisk," he adds belatedly.
"I'm not without resources, Matt. Or power." He gives the young man the barest shove toward the office door. "Come with me."
Matt is all but oblivious to the comforts of the stretch limousine. He's leaning back into the leather upholstery, while his thoughts are in turmoil. He doesn't know where they're going; his radar sense is useless inside a vehicle and, while nothing is truly soundproof to him, the noise of the world outside is muffled enough that he can't get his bearings. In its own way, it's as bad as the subways. In the tunnels, the echoes overwhelm his hearing. Here, the silence is nearly as deafening.
He doesn't know what Fisk meant when he spoke of power. Many wealthy men do have power, but that doesn't set them above the law. It can't. It shouldn't. And it's possible that Fisk meant something completely different and Matt has simply jumped to the wrong conclusion. He doesn't think so. He's never seen this side of Fisk before. This isn't the benefactor trying to make amends for a tragic error. Fisk exudes power and purpose and Matt finds himself thinking that anything or anybody unfortunate enough to get in his way will be promptly flattened.
He tries to make himself believe he's imagining things, but if there's one thing Stick has taught him—and he's taught him more than one—it's been to trust his instincts. With his senses, he's able to pick up on physiological responses that ordinary people cannot. He can smell the adrenaline of a fear-based response, hear the spike of a heart-rate, feel a hand gone clammy, but he can also, at times, clue into subtler messages. Call it instinct, call it intuition, call it a gut feeling, call it something that probably is backed up by his amplified senses, even if he can't pinpoint the specific tipoff, but it's there and he's learned to trust it.
It occurs to Matt that not only does he not know where he is; nobody else does either. He does his best to appear calm.
Finally, the limo halts and Fisk tells him to unfasten his safety belt. When he steps out of the car, he realizes that they are on the waterfront. He can smell the river, hear the boats before him and the cars above and to his left as they drive over a bridge close by. He can taste a faint salt tang in the air. There's a large... shape in the middle of the water that he knows must be the Statue of Liberty, though at this distance, his radar can't give him more than the general sense of something solid and taller than it is wide. If he hadn't known from the other clues that this was Lower Manhattan, he would have been hard-put to tell whether it was a statue or a building.
"The ground's a bit uneven," Fisk tells him. "Be aware."
Matt nods, glad that Fisk isn't pulling at his arm or otherwise trying to lead him. He understands what the cane is for. (Not that Matt actually needs the cane, but it helps to protect him from well-meaning individuals who find it hard to believe that he can walk down the street unaided.) On a signal from Mr. Fisk, the chauffeur follows.
They stop before one of many warehouses lining the wharf. "You were correct earlier, Matt," Fisk rumbles as Matt hears the jangle of keys and a click as one is inserted into the lock. "Without evidence, the DA's office has no case worth pursuing. Sometimes," he says, pushing the door open, "one must look outside the law to find justice."
At first, Matt isn't sure what he's facing. The room is empty, except for a straight-backed chair. There are rank odors here: blood and urine and something worse. He takes a few deep breaths, even though they nearly make him gag, knowing that he'll get used to the smells faster. He realizes that there is something in the chair, like a potato sack, or a life-sized ragdoll. Then Matt realizes what he's smelling and knows that it's no potato sack. It's a person—or at least, it was. He detects no heartbeat, no breath. Matt recalls a detail gleaned from a case he had to study last year, in which a coroner's testimony stated that a corpse begins to putrefy, on average, approximately 36 hours after death. Comparatively speaking, the smell isn't really bad, yet, so he guesses that the man hasn't been dead for more than a day or two. Three at the outside. (Unfortunately, growing up in his neighborhood, this isn't the first dead body he's encountered.)
Fisk walks up to the chair and rests his fingers on the body for a moment, feeling for the pulse Matt already knows isn't there. He bends down to pick something up off of the floor, studies it, and sighs. "Nitroglycerin," he says softly. "It's often prescribed for people with heart conditions. It appears to have fallen from his pocket. Forgive me, Matthew. I'd thought that allowing you to confront him might give you some closure, but it would appear that fate had other plans."
It takes a moment for Matt to find his voice, but in that moment, he remembers that he shouldn't be able to tell what's going on. "Confront who?" he asks and he doesn't have to feign nervousness. "What's going on? What's that stink?"
Fisk sighs again. "I keep forgetting you can't see this. Matt... when your father was taken from you, I conducted my own investigation. I came to the same conclusions you did: that the man you know as 'The Fixer' was responsible, and that the law would do nothing. So, I took justice into my own hands."
"You mean you killed him."
"He killed your father. And he would have gotten away with it, Matt. Mark my words. Without a full confession, he would have gone free. And if you had somehow managed to obtain that confession, I doubt very much whether you would have survived long enough to turn it over to the DA's office. Even if you had, in all likelihood, it would have disappeared before the trial." He walks away from the chair and back to Matt. "Unfortunately, there are a number of individuals in this city who have sufficient money and connections to render them untouchable. Invisible." His tone darkens. "Or so they think. I have been doing my best to pursue them where legal means would fail."
Matt's mind is spinning. He is a lawyer. He has come to love the justice system. He knows that it isn't perfect, but it still usually works and he is bound to uphold it. On the other hand, he knows that, in practice, verdicts can be swayed by prestige and power. Killers can walk free on technicalities. And, a small voice pipes up at the back of his mind, demanding to know why exactly he was searching for The Fixer, knowing all the while that there was little he could do to bring him to justice. Before he starts arguing morality with Mr. Fisk, maybe he should ask himself whether he is really just feeling cheated that Fisk has gotten to Fixer before him.
"I debated bringing you into this part of my world," Fisk continues. "I realize that, if I've tipped my hand too far, you may choose to notify the police of my activities. I'm well aware that vigilante justice is illegal. However, there are times when I firmly believe that it is right and that it would be immoral to choose otherwise." He takes another breath. "Well, Matt," he says gently, "will you turn me in?"
Fisk takes Matt's hand then and wraps it around something flat and slightly bigger than his palm. It only takes a moment to for Matt to recognize that he's been handed a cell phone.
"You can make the call here. I won't stop you. And the law will be upheld. But will justice be done?"
For a moment, Matt holds the phone. Then he takes a deep breath, shakes his head, and hands it back. "No, Mr. Fisk," he says, not sure whether he's betraying everything he thought he stood for. "I don't think it will."
He hears Fisk place the phone back in his pocket, hears the light clink as it knocks against some loose change. And then Fisk drapes an arm across his shoulders and the two walk slowly back to the limo.
The Kingpin smiles. The phone, of course, was uncharged. It was a test of Matt's loyalty and, as expected, the young man has passed with flying colors.
If he hadn't... well, that was why he'd had the chauffeur accompany them. The armed chauffeur. An unused warehouse, a rough neighborhood... Who knows how long it would have taken for a body to surface?
But he is glad that the gun hasn't been necessary.
Over the next five years, Matt rises steadily in Kingpin's organization. He proves himself adept at finding and exploiting loopholes in various pieces of legislation that allow Fisk Industries to expand its holdings. This sort of thing is really more Foggy's area of expertise, but the more Matt becomes aware of Fisk's business operations, the less he wants to involve Foggy.
At first, he tells himself that Foggy wouldn't understand. He really means that Foggy wouldn't stand for half of the things that Matt has convinced himself are warranted. He's learned more about Fisk's activities than he's ever wanted to, but it's happened so gradually that Matt never noticed how deep he'd gotten until he was completely enmeshed. For all that Fisk handled him with velvet gloves at first, Matt has come to know the steel claws beneath. It would be more than his life is worth to try to extricate himself now. He knows too much; Fisk will never let him go.
He wants to spare Foggy from being roped in with him. Perhaps he suspects that if the FBI were to ask Foggy to secure evidence on Fisk's operations, Foggy might actually do it. Then, Fisk would find out; he has spies everywhere. Matt wouldn't be able to protect Foggy then. He shouldn't want to. If Fisk falls, Matt knows full well that he'll go down with him. It's too late for him, though even now, he's positive that he would sooner face federal prison than step aside and allow his best friend to be... silenced. At least, he tells himself that he's positive. But sometimes, late at night, when he can't lie to himself anymore, he has his doubts.
Then he finds his way to Fogwell's Gym where he pounds away at punching bags for all they're worth, pummeling them when what he really wants is to punch himself in the face. He's glad that it's been years since he's heard from Stick. He's afraid of finding out just how removed he's become from the scared kid he used to be—or worse, how similar.
Maybe that's why he chooses to walk home alone from the gym each night, even if his route does take him through one of the worst neighborhoods in Manhattan, often after two in the morning. Maybe he's hoping that someone else will show some initiative and put him out of his misery. Nobody ever does, though. Whether he's been fortunate thus far, whether Fisk has let it be known that Matt is untouchable, or whether it's simply a matter of even hardened thugs not wanting to beat up on a blind man, Matt invariably makes it back to his brownstone unmolested...
...Until the night when it all changes.
He hears their approach long before the confrontation, but it's been so long since anyone has tried anything that he's legitimately not expecting their attack. There are four men: two in front of him, one small and wiry with a stiletto knife, one big and beefy—no apparent weaponry; two behind him, one lean with what's probably a lead pipe, and the other his own height but solid muscle, holding a doubled length of chain.
Time was when he could have trounced them all without effort, but he hasn't gone up against live opponents for a while. Still, he does well at first, using pressure point strikes to disable the knife and chain-wielders, hapkido on the pipe-man. He knows that the big man is now behind him, moving fast with his fist clenched and Matt spins and blocks with his shoulder.
The joint explodes with pain and he reels back, stumbling over one of the other thugs. Brass knuckles. He'd noticed the fist, but missed the brass knuckles. He still has his cane and he thrusts its tip, hard, into his assailant's throat. The man falls back with a gasp, but then he lunges, wrenches the cane away, and breaks it over his knee.
Matt regains his footing, but almost immediately staggers, as a lead pipe smashes down on his collar bone, sending a new bolt of agony into that same shoulder. For the first time, it occurs to him that he's in real danger.
And then, someone leaps down from above, flips to his—no her—hands, and kicks out with both feet. The two thugs go flying. Matt hears a 'thwip' followed almost immediately by another and two streams shoot out of the newcomer's wrists, expanding as they extend, appearing to his radar as nets... or webs. Each engulfs one of his assailants, securing them to the walls. As he processes this, she fires two more, taking care of the others, still groaning on the ground.
"Are you all right?" she asks, bending over him. She looks around. "Those glasses, that cane... you're blind, aren't you, Mister?" Matt nods, trying to catch his breath. "Bastards," she mutters in an undertone. "Can you get up?"
For answer, Matt rises to his feet, using his good arm to push himself off the pavement. "Thanks," he says. "Who are you?" Whoever she is, she smells of rubber—probably something to do with the adhesive in her webs—and furniture polish, combined with vanilla and tuberose. J'adore by Christian Dior. A youthful fragrance, a youthful voice... Matt doubts she's out of her twenties, if that old.
She hesitates. "I guess you might as well call me 'Spider-woman,'" she says with some measure of embarrassment. It's a name he's been hearing with increasing frequency lately. "That's the name I took when I was just doing the entertainment gig, anyway." She looks around. "Uh... they broke your cane. Can I... drop you somewhere? A hospital?"
Matt tests his shoulder. It hurts like hell, but nothing seems broken. "No," he shakes his head. "I'll ice it when I get home. I don't live far."
"Want a lift?"
There's concern in her voice, but no pity. Matt hesitates.
"That is... you don't have a problem with heights, do you?"
Wait. That's right. The Bugle's been calling her a 'web-slinger'. Apparently, those sticky nets are good for more than securing criminals. "You mean...?" He smiles. It's the first time in a long time. "It's not like I get dizzy if I look down."
"Oh good," Spider-Woman says. "That makes one of us."
She laughs. "I only look down to find a place to land. Rest of the time, it's straight ahead and into the night."
It's probably as close to flying as Matt is likely to come and he loves every minute of the trip—at least, once he gets used to the idea that a young woman a head shorter than he is can pick him up as if he were a toddler. He hasn't done anything like this since his days with Stick and he's forgotten how much quieter it is up here. True, the winds are strong, but the city sounds of traffic, music leaking out from nightclubs, and constant conversation die down to murmurs at eight hundred feet up. Spider-woman maneuvers with impressive ease and confidence, making it easy for Matt to forget what might happen, were her webbing to miss its target. Time was when he could be confident of landing safely on his own, but he's out of practice, and it won't be easy to pull off the way his shoulder is throbbing.
"Why are you doing this?" he asks, shouting a bit to be heard over the winds.
"You ever try to find a cab after midnight?" she yells back. "Because, trust me, they don't usually cruise through Hell's Kitchen."
It feels like he's been smiling more in the last five minutes than he has in the last five years. "No," he shakes his head, still grinning. "This whole... Spider-Woman... business."
She laughs. "Why not?"
"Well," Matt banters back, "it is illegal."
"So's hanging clothes on a clothesline without a license. At least, in this state. Oh, and if you're in Staten Island, it's also illegal to water your lawn unless you're physically holding the hose in your hand."
He can't remember the last time he's laughed, either. "Seriously," he manages.
"Seriously? Let's not. I'm serious during the day. Nights are when I get to cut loose."
He wants to continue the conversation, but they're already nearly at his building. Spider-Woman drops him off at the front door.
Matt's steps are measurably lighter as he lets himself in and walks into the kitchen, in search of an ice pack for his shoulder. He hasn't felt this... good in a long time. A daring thought comes to him.
He knows that it's too late for him to walk away from Wilson Fisk now, though he's thought about it. He knows far too much and he's in far too deep. That hasn't changed. But now, he perceives that there may be a way to balance the scales. Fisk has him circumventing laws and causing untold harm to untold numbers of people. Spider-woman appears to be circumventing laws and achieving the opposite. Maybe... just maybe... he can do something along those lines. He needs to think...
By the time he's ready to turn in for what's left of the night, he has a plan.
The gym equipment arrives within the week. It's new, state-of-the-art and vastly superior to anything Fogwell's can offer. He starts with the moves that Stick taught him, then moves to improvisation, building on what went before, surpassing it.
He reserves one corner of the gym he's set up in his basement for boxing. Now, when he attacks the bag, there is less anger and more purpose in his blows. He's not just fighting to shake something off, he's working toward a goal.
And, as the weeks go by, he starts to feel a little of that exhilaration that he felt on that near-flight with Spider-Woman. He ponders. He has no idea how to go about creating a web. Besides, he's not planning to use a spider-motif, so a web probably isn't the best idea. On the other hand, a grappling line might just fit the bill. He pauses. The bill... the bill...what if the line were retractable and emerged from a billy-club? The more Matt thinks about it, the more possibilities he can see. He can modify his cane; make it out of something stronger that can stand up to more punishment. If it can be split into two pieces, one a plain club and one a combination club and grappling hook... and maybe make at least one of the pieces hollow for small essentials. He smiles. His enhanced senses put him on equal footing with most sighted opponents. Smoke pellets will tilt the playing field in his favor. A full first aid kit won't fit in the narrow space available, but surely some bandages and painkillers will.
He starts to think about a disguise. Spider-Woman's voice had been slightly muffled, he recalls, meaning that she had probably been wearing a mask. He's hardly an expert on fashion, but he hasn't noticed many other women sporting loose, hooded cloaks. Even without his radar sense, the way that thing had flapped in the wind had been one more reason they'd needed to shout their conversation. No, in all likelihood, she's wearing a costume to conceal her identity. A smart ploy. With a bit of thought, Matt can probably come up with something appropriate, too.
He barely has time to read the paper these days, so he doesn't hear the story until he arrives at the office. When he does, it feels like he's taken a sucker punch to the gut. According to the Bugle, the laughing young woman who saved his life, possibly twice in one night, is a murderer.
Matt doesn't want to believe it. He can't believe he's misjudged her that badly. He really can't believe it. On his lunch break, he seeks out Foggy.
"When it comes to Spider-Woman," Foggy says slowly, after he's heard the story and reread his morning paper, "the Bugle might as well be the tabloid press. The DA's office could make a convincing case, though."
"Was there an autopsy?" Matt asks. "Did they determine the cause of death?"
Foggy lets out a long breath. "The cause of death was Spider-Woman pushing a building over on the Lizard and not knowing—or caring—whether Parker was underneath. Criminal law's not my thing, but I'm guessing the DA would try for murder one, at least initially. Unintentional killing that occurs in the commission of an inherently dangerous felony—like bringing down a fricking science building on someone's head can go that route, especially if the public is out for blood. The defense would probably try to get it knocked down to reckless endangerment, mind you. My guess? Everyone ends up agreeing on involuntary manslaughter and, depending on how dangerous this Lizard was—which the Bugle doesn't mention—it could go either way. Meanwhile, Spider-Woman hasn't even been arrested, much less charged. Why the interest?" He chuckles. "Not thinking of chucking all this to defend a costumed vigilante, are you?"
Matt smiles. "No."
And then Foggy hesitates. "Good. Because I guess there's a chance I might. I... had an offer from GLKH. I interviewed a couple of months back, never heard anything. At least, until yesterday..."
Matt claps a hand to Foggy's shoulder. "You never said anything about that. Foggy, that's great!"
"Yeah, well... I didn't want to mention it if it didn't work out. And," he lowers his voice, "I kind of thought you might try to talk me out of it. I know you're happy here, but me? I'm still getting scut work after almost six years. I know I can do more than that."
He can, but it's to his advantage that Fisk doesn't realize this. Matt has experienced how Fisk operates first-hand. Take the best lawyers and give them straightforward cases, at least initially. Then, little by little, push other things at them. Things that require signatures and initials and aren't really pertinent to the cases that they're working on, but sometimes a person is too tired to read every single word they're asked to sign, particularly if it's handed to them by their supervisor or secretary. And then one day, they realize that their name is attached to something that could have them serving time in a federal penitentiary and they're stuck. And even if they try to alert the authorities, Kingpin will have matters arranged so that the only thing they accomplish is confessing to their own sins.
Matt knows he's been a lousy friend and a lousier person, but at least, he's managed to keep Foggy out of this trap. And if it's been by quietly sabotaging his best friend's career, then fine. If Foggy finds out and hates him for it, let him—but let him at least walk out of this unscathed.
And he's going to. Matt smiles. "I know you can, too, Foggy."
"What I said before about being glad you're not angling for Spider-Woman's defense team?" Foggy ventures. "Maybe you should be. Angling. Superhuman law is a new field and GLKH is trying to corner that market. They might still be hiring."
Matt sighs. "It's an idea," he admits. "Maybe down the road." Not that he believes that Fisk would let him leave at this point, but it's a nice thought.
"Don't be a stranger, Matt. And... whatever the Bugle says about Spider-Woman, I don't think anyone has the whole story about what happened. I wouldn't jump to too many conclusions."
"Spoken like someone who believes in his potential client."
There's an email waiting for him when he returns to his desk, reminding him about the mayor's inauguration ball that night. Fisk wants him in attendance; it's a prime networking opportunity, and there are people he wants Matt to meet. Matt isn't looking forward to it.
He has to admit that the news about Spider-Woman has him rethinking his future plans. As much as he wants to believe her innocence, he hadn't guessed the depth of Wilson Fisk's activities until it was too late. Blindness is one thing. Willful blindness is another. In other words, is he so caught up in admiration and gratitude that he's missing the danger signals?
It wouldn't be the first time.
He could tell Fisk that he isn't feeling well and beg off. On second thought, though, maybe he needs something to take his mind off his worries. If it doesn't work, he can always go home early.
He wants to go home. There are too many people, too many heavy perfumes and hairsprays and aftershaves and colognes, mingling with the aromas from the buffet table and the platters that the servers are circulating. Alcohol fumes from the bar mix with sweat and the cigar and cigarette smoke that wafts in every time the doors to the outer terrace open. Too many conversations and footsteps. A few people (people who probably want to be here even less than he does) have brought their MP3 players and Matt can hear an unholy blend of jazz, heavy metal, classical, hip-hop, and techno-pop music leaking out of their headphones, clashing with each other and with the sprightly waltz that the live entertainment is currently playing.
Well, since he legitimately does feel ill now, perhaps the best thing to do is locate Mr. Fisk, make his apologies, and call for a cab...
"Ah, Matthew!" Fisk emerges from a knot in the crowd to at his side and throw an arm across his shoulders. "I'd like you to meet our chief of police, George Stacy and his daughter—"
Matt fights to keep his expression neutral as he hears a familiar heartbeat and smells a familiar blend of J'adore, furniture polish and rubber. The J'adore is more prominent tonight; she's evidently put it on only a short while earlier.
"—Gwendolyn. This is Matthew Murdock, a rising young star in my company's legal department."
Stacy shakes his hand. "Murdock." His tone is carefully neutral.
Gwendolyn Stacy's grasp is as firm as her father's. "It's just Gwen, Mr. Murdock."
"Please," he smiles, "Matt."
She repeats it and he hears an answering smile in her own voice, a voice no longer muffled or distorted by a face mask.
"I understand that Captain Stacy has made it his personal mission to bring in that Spider vigilante," Fisk rumbles.
Gwen's heart-rate spikes. Interesting. Clearly, Captain Stacy isn't just putting on a show of tracking the vigilante. He doesn't seem aware of his daughter's activities.
"Peter Parker was a friend of my daughter's," Stacy says tersely. "Spider-Woman's a reckless thrill-seeker and an innocent young man is now dead because of her."
Matt hesitates. "Actually, Captain," he says, "I've met her. And, while I can't speak to her motives, I find it hard to believe she's just doing what she does for cheap thrills."
"You've met her?" Fisk and Stacy ask in near unison. "When? Where?"
Matt relates the bare facts of the encounter, saying only that he'd lost track of time and hadn't realized how late it was. As he expected, they take him at his word; it's not as though he could see how dark it had got. When he's finished, Stacy sighs.
"And you haven't seen... er... sorry, I mean, you haven't run into her in that neighborhood since?"
Matt shakes his head.
"Pity. If we knew her base of operations, it would make things easier. If you remember anything else, please, be in touch."
"We certainly admire your commitment, Captain," Fisk replies. "Although I daresay Matt has a point, as well. Spider-Woman has done a great deal of good in a very short time."
"She may have," Captain Stacy allows, "but she's still wanted for questioning. And as I'm sure you can appreciate, nobody is above the law."
From the way Fisk's body tightens and the acceleration of his heartbeat, Matt knows that he's picked up Stacy's not-so-subtle emphasis. Stacy is warning the Kingpin that, at the very least, he suspects some of Fisk's other activities.
Matt isn't sure whether he's more worried or relieved that somebody finally does.
He's sitting in the lobby, taking a break from the sensory overload and trying to steel himself to go back inside, when Gwen approaches. "Uh... I just wanted to say thanks. For sticking up for Spider-Woman."
Matt smiles. "Under the law, everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty, Miss Stacy."
"Gwen." His smile widens for an instant. "In all of the media fury that's erupted since the Parker death, I think that's something that may be getting overlooked."
The couch cushion sinks as she sits down next to him. "If they did catch her, or if she surrendered, what do you think might happen? I mean, in court?"
She's trying to sound casual about it, but Matt hears the undertone of fear in her voice. He remembers his conversation with Foggy earlier and frowns slightly. "A friend and I were just discussing this earlier today, and we both agreed that, while the DA's office might try to make Murder One stick, by the time it were to get to trial, she'd likely be looking at something more like involuntary manslaughter. Mind you, it's hard to say without having all the facts—again, something the media is overlooking."
Gwen is silent for a long moment. "Thank you," she says finally. "I... look, you're not the only person Spider-Woman has helped. Not that I can tell my dad. I mean, he grilled you. I live with him. But I agree with you. Spider-Woman didn't kill Peter Parker. Maybe it would be easier if she had. Peter was one of my best friends. It would be... good to have someone to blame, you know? But she isn't a killer."
Heart rate and breath rate check out. She's a bit nervous, watching her words carefully, but she isn't lying.
"Well," Matt says, "let's hope she isn't caught then. If she is, I do know a good lawyer, mind you."
"You?" she laughs.
Matt shakes his head, smiling easily. "Not my field and not what my office handles. But that friend of mine just signed on with Goodman, Lieber, Kurtzberg, and Holliway. If I run into Spider-Woman again, that's who I'd recommend she contact."
"Goodman... Lee... Lieber?" she tries to repeat the firm's name.
"Most people refer to them as GLKH. I think that's their domain name too, but don't ask me if it's a dot-com or a dot-net."
Gwen laughs. "For what?"
Putting my mind at ease about Spider-Woman. "The opportunity to appreciate your voice without any background interference," he smiles.
Gwen laughs again. "Flirting with the police chief's daughter? Mr. Murdock, you are truly a man without fear."
The next day, when Matt presents himself in Fisk's office as instructed, he can practically feel the big man's anger from across the room. "Your friend Nelson has just resigned, effective immediately," he snaps. "Did you know about this?"
Matt flinches. "Foggy mentioned that he was accepting a position with a different firm to me yesterday, but he didn't tell me that he was leaving so fast, no."
"Are you sure?" Fisk demands. "Did anything happen to set him off?"
Matt considers and decides on a half-truth. "I may have miscalculated in keeping him away from some of the more delicate cases," he admits. "I know Foggy felt that he wasn't advancing as quickly as he'd have liked, but he always had a tendency to freeze under pressure. I might have wanted to spare him the embarrassment and, in the process, held him back."
Fisk mulls his words over. Then, Matt hears the sounds of a computer mouse moving on its pad and two-fingered typing on a keyboard. Finally, Fisk's breathing rate slows. "A pity," he sighs. "But it doesn't look as though he was working on anything that can't be reapportioned; you're right about that. I wouldn't worry about your error. Next time, you'll know better."
Matt nods. "I'll take full responsibility, of course." Now that he knows that Fisk isn't concerned about what Foggy might know, it's a safe thing to say.
"There's no need to fall on your sword, Matt," Fisk says with mild irritation. "You take things far too much to heart."
"I suppose you're right, sir. Is that all?"
Fisk pauses. "Actually, Matt, when I asked you to stop by, it was before I found out about Nelson. I wanted to talk to you about another matter entirely..."
Matt doesn't call a cab to take him home at the end of the day. When he's this upset, he needs to walk. This is another loyalty test. It has to be. Bit by bit, Kingpin has broken him down, led him to compromise his ideals, but always allowed him the illusion that he was still, at his core, a moral person being forced into committing amoral acts. Apparently, he wants to strip away this last veneer.
Matt doesn't know what to do. He only knows that he can't order a hit on Captain Stacy. He can't refuse, either. Kingpin has destroyed others for less. He won't let Matt turn this assignment down without repercussions.
Matt wonders how much Kingpin knows about the pains he's taken to keep Foggy out of the crosshairs. It's as if the crime boss has stuck a knife into Matt and is twisting it for all he's worth. "So," Matt imagines him saying, "you've rescued your friend, have you? Spared him your life of compromise? Saved him from knowing how low you've sunk? And now you think that you can pat yourself on the back, go home, and call yourself a decent person? Not so fast."
No good deed goes unpunished. Matt has understood this since he was fifteen and saved a man from being run over by a truck. Evidently, though, he needed to review that particular lesson today.
He can't wait to get home. He needs to pound on a punching bag. There has to be a way out of this. There has to.
He stumbles on a bit of uneven pavement and his hand reaches out automatically to grab a lamppost. Instead of cool metal, his palm slaps down on paper. Someone's pasted up a flyer. His hand moves along its surface as he slowly straightens back up. His fingertips freeze on a name. Gwen Stacy. Prudence reminds him that passersby probably shouldn't see a blind man 'reading' a flyer with his fingertips and he hastily rips off the paper and shoves it into his pocket.
Once home, he unfolds it. The banner at the top is in nice large type and easy to read: One Night Only! The Mary Janes—Live at Club...
Interesting. Gwen Stacy is part of a rock band. He'd never have guessed.
And then, an idea strikes him. It's risky. It's dangerous. If something should go wrong...
Matt's jaw hardens. He'll just have to make sure that nothing does. Dad always said, there's a time when you need to decide to fish or cut bait. Actually, Dad had a cruder way of phrasing it, but Matt tries not to use that kind of language these days. Fine. If he's going to do this, then he'd better get ready. He gives the matter another moment's thought. Then he walks over to a low chest of drawers and pulls out the four yards of leather he purchased the other day. Red leather. The clerk had tried to stick him with yellow, but another customer had spoken up on Matt's behalf, much to the other man's chagrin...
Aleksei Sytsevich is a pig. Well, actually, going by his size and his handshake, he's more like a rhinoceros. However, anyone who tears a hunk out of a T-bone steak with his teeth and sets it down half-eaten, only to grab another, qualifies as a pig in Matt's book. Still, he can't resist deadpanning, "You should order something, Aleksei. You're going to shrivel up and blow away."
The giant takes the gibe in good humor as they settle down to business. The business of planning a murder. "...His daughter will be performing at the club on Saturday night. I'm told that there are flyers all over town. Stacy's devoted to his little girl. Our intel suggests he never misses one of her events. He's certain to be in the audience. Large crowds, low lighting, noisy. You should have plenty of cover."
Aleksei mulls this over. "So Kingpin wants I kill Big Bacon? Answer me why, Murdock? And try resisting penchant for Baroque language and making lies through shark-like lawyer teeth, please."
He's been expecting the question and smiles easily, glad that Aleksei can't hear his heart or smell the sweat on his hands, resting on his lap, under the table. This has to work. It's Stacy's best chance. "Simple, Aleksei," he replies glibly. "It's two birds with one stone. One, it takes that pain in the butt, George Stacy, off the street. And two... well... Spider-Woman looks like she could use a few friends, don't you think?"
Aleksei laughs boisterously and agrees. Matt leaves him to his meal. He has a costume to complete in less than four days time, if Spider-Woman is to have at least one friend in the crowd on Saturday night.
Stitching leather is more complicated than he'd thought, but it's the best option he can come up with on short notice. He took a sewing workshop ages ago, thinking that it would be cheaper to repair his clothes himself than buy new ones or take them to a tailor. He's competent enough to sew a straight hem or replace a button. He even learned to make his own pants, although for the time and effort it requires, he prefers to buy off the rack. Working with leather requires special equipment beyond the sewing machine he's rented for the month: special needles, alligator clips to hold the pieces together—since pins leave holes—baby powder to keep them from sliding... there've been a few moments when he's thought about scrapping the idea and using fabric, or even just street clothes and a mask. No. Leather will afford him the best protection for now, until he can figure out where to find a bullet-proof suit. And even though he can't be sure of the final effect, he wants to dress in a way that others will remember.
He takes out the cellophane package he bought at the dollar store that contains two plastic devil horns. He hopes that they won't look ridiculous, when he glues them into his face mask. Years ago, the kids in his neighborhood had mockingly called him 'Daredevil'. At the time, he'd hated it. Lately, though, it's occurred to him that the name Daredevil has a lot less shame attached to it than the name Murdock does, these days. Maybe it's time to embrace it. So be it, then. On Saturday night, he will be Daredevil.
The plan nearly works like a charm. There are two points when Matt thinks that he'll need to step in after all. Gwen isn't on stage when the curtain comes up, although Matt can hear her calling from somewhere in the building that she's on her way. He perceives Aleksei's bulk creeping up on Stacy and he ducks down a hallway and into a supply closet he'd scouted out earlier to shed his street clothes. (He's worn the costume underneath, perhaps not the best idea in a large crowd at a venue with an overtaxed cooling system, but he's not sure he could have done it differently.)
By the time he emerges, less than three minutes later, Spider-Woman is on the scene, protecting her father, spouting quips, and seemingly having the situation well in hand.
Then Aleksei grabs hold of her and she struggles to break free. Matt observes her, attending not only to the intensity of her struggles, but to the smell of adrenaline and the thumping of her heart. He realizes that he's not eager to interfere. Not because he's afraid. Because he's rooting for her to win. And she does.
That's when Matt hears a snatch of conversation in a familiar voice and four familiar heartbeats, on the street outside.
"Right. We're up. Better pour that sugar in his gas tank. Pig won't get far in that."
"Man-oh-man, I love this job."
"Wonder what went wrong with Plan A."
"Yeah, well we're not getting paid to wonder; we're getting paid to keep our mouths shut and get the job done so put your ski mask on and keep your eyes peeled for anyone passing by."
There's no doubt in Matt's mind. These are the same thugs who accosted him that night. Kingpin must have had a backup plan in case Aleksei failed. He frowns. Could the men have been working for Kingpin that first time, too? He wouldn't put it past Fisk to stage something like that to remind Matt that without Kingpin's protection, he'd be vulnerable to many more such attacks. He shakes his head. He can't worry about it now.
He pulls apart his cane—or staff, now, he supposes—and launches the grappling hook half. It sails up two stories to hook around the flagpole over the hotel entrance across the street. He retracts the cable and rises into the air. How about that? It actually works!
He lands on Stacy's car (he assumes!), startling the four men. "Evening, boys," he greets them. "Lose your keys?"
It's not much of a fight, but Matt does better against them the second time around. He can see that he's going to need more grappling line if he's going to keep using up his extra spools to secure the crooks long enough for the police to pick them up. Fortunately, that stuff isn't too expensive. He tenses when he realizes that he's being observed. Then he relaxes. He knows who it is.
Smiling, he leaps to the rooftop where she is waiting. And she's angry.
"No," she says harshly. "No, no, no. You can't do this."
"I don't know," Matt replies. "I think I did pretty well for my first night out."
She's not quipping now. "Don't you get it? One boy is already dead because he wanted to do what I do! I have to live with that now for the rest of my life! I can't be responsible for you, too. I can't! I can't!"
Matt takes a deep breath. "I'm not asking you to be," he says quietly. "I've been... running from my own responsibilities for far too long. This?" He gestures down at his costume. "This is me turning things around. Starting to, anyway. And believe me, I have a lot to turn around."
"This is dangerous," she protests.
His lips twitch. While she has a point, she also has no idea of the tightrope he's been walking for the last few years. "You should have my day job," he shoots back. "Or better yet, thank your lucky stars that you don't."
She stands still for a moment, probably trying to come up with a rejoinder. When a moment passes in silence, Matt readies his grappling hook. "I guess I'll see you around."
"Wait." She takes a step toward him. "Why are you doing this?"
Matt turns his head, first toward her, then toward the grappling hook. "Well," he says with a smile, "I don't think I'm going to find a cabbie willing to drive to Hell's Kitchen at this hour of the night." He takes another breath, knowing that he's already said enough, but he has gotten so sick of secrets. And in this case, he already knows hers. It's only fair to return the favor. "I knew you weren't just doing this for cheap thrills."
Daredevil hooks a flagpole and swings off. Spider-Woman doesn't try to follow. But from five blocks away, his smile grows bigger when he hears her shocked exclamation.
He's going to have to play this hand very carefully, Matt realizes. He has to assume that Kingpin is having him watched. That means no corporate espionage, no stealing files from the office and mailing them anonymously to the DA's office. Nothing to arouse suspicion, nothing to make the Kingpin think that he's anything other than one of his stooges, body and soul.
But he's still going to keep his ears open, and he has no doubt that they're going to pick up a lot of information. And if Matt Murdock should happen to overhear certain plans and schemes, well, Daredevil will probably step in to keep them from coming to fruition.
He's out of costume and getting ready to turn in for the night when he hears a knock on his window. Surprising, or... he thinks as he opens it and recognizes the heartbeat and bouquet of fragrances... perhaps not. "Spider-Woman?" He opens the window wider and she slides in.
"I guess you really are blind," Gwen says, "or you'd have noticed I took my mask off. I didn't think anyone would notice from two stories up. How did you... do all that? Tonight. I mean, if you can't see?"
Matt sighs. "That's... kind of a long story." He doesn't mind sharing it, though. They say confession is good for the soul. "If you'd like to come downstairs, I can put some coffee on, if you want to hear it."
He hears the smile in her voice when she responds. "I'd love to. Actually," her heartbeat spikes, "I... I need a favor. I don't want you to think I make a habit of knocking on cute guys' windows in the dead of night—not that your being cute has anything to do with... I mean... I..." She groans. "Can I start over?"
It's the first time in a long time that he's had to force himself not to laugh. "Go ahead." He heads for the stairs and she follows.
"Okay. Long story short, tonight, my father found out what I'm doing with my life. He let me go, but I don't know what's going to happen if our paths cross again. I don't think I can go home. At least, not tonight. I'll keep an eye on the police station for the next few days. When I know for a fact he's at his desk, I'll go back and get some clothes and stuff, but for now..." she sighs, "well, 'broke and homeless' pretty much sums up my situation. And since you obviously know who I am, in and out of costume—and how did you know that anyway?" Without waiting for an answer, she continues, "Um... do you think I could crash on your couch tonight?"
"Well," Matt smiles, "I really think you'll be more comfortable in the spare bedroom. Just let me change the sheets; I don't believe I've had occasion to in almost six years." They're at the top of the staircase now.
Matt takes a deep breath. "To answer both your questions, when I was fifteen, I got splashed in the eyes by radioactive waste. It... changed me."
"Radioactive?" Gwen echoes. "We really do have to talk."
It's been nearly two hours and they've flown by like minutes. Gwen is smothering a yawn and Matt is debating whether to put on another pot of coffee or go to make up the spare bed, when Gwen asks another question, one that he's been dreading.
"Matt? How did you know to be at the club tonight? Or was it just a coincidence? I mean... no offense, but if loud noises are a big deal for you, you kind of picked a lousy spot to hang out."
Coffee. He's going to put the coffee on. "I..." He pushes away from the table. "I'd rather not answer that."
He's not finished. "I'd rather not, but I think I have to. First, because it's something you should know. But second... If I don't tell you, there's a strong chance that someone else will." He takes a deep breath. "Based on my brief encounter with your father, it's pretty obvious he doesn't... care for my employer. He's an astute judge of character. Wilson Fisk is... well, he's ruthless. Manipulative. Not someone to cross lightly."
"Which is why you're planning to bring him down by operating as Daredevil."
"Yes. But it's very possible that he'll put two and two together and figure out either that Daredevil and I are the same person, or alternatively, that I'm passing information along to Daredevil. If that happens, I wouldn't put it past him to tell you this next part, hoping that you'll solve his problem for him."
Gwen leans forward and rests her elbows on the table. "You think I'd help him? Thanks so much."
"I think you might with the right stimulus," Matt says heavily. He holds up a hand to still her retort. "Hear me out. Working for Fisk, I've had to do a lot of things that I've had to rationalize away. Convince myself that it wasn't really that bad when, most of the time, it was. For example, not long ago, he... he ordered me to hire a contract killer. And no, I couldn't rationalize that. I also couldn't walk away, because if I did... first, he'd find someone else to arrange matters, and second, he'd start looking for a way to remove me from his organization—and I don't mean he'd fire me. So," he takes another breath, spills the remains of the coffee pot into the sink, and lets the water run to rinse it out, "I decided to arrange for the hit to take place at a venue where there was a very good chance that someone else would be on-hand to stop it. And since I couldn't leave something that serious to chance, but I also couldn't let word get back to Fisk that one of his own people had spoiled the hit, I decided to hang around in costume, in case I was needed." Standing this close to the running water, he can't read her heartbeat, can't be sure that she's connected all the dots yet. Matt hesitates. Then he turns off the water.
"Like I said earlier, tonight was my first outing in costume." His voice is almost a whisper. "So," he takes another breath. "I think that answers your question." He pauses. "I understand if you want to leave now."
She pushes her chair away from the table, gets up, and walks slowly toward him. He turns to face her.
"You know I mentioned that... sixth sense I get about danger?" she says softly.
"I got it when I met your boss. I got it when Dad pulled a gun on me tonight, though it stopped tingling when I took my mask off and let him see it was me. Believe me when I say I got it in spades from that Russian giant guy. But it didn't react to you, Matt. Not at all." She puts a hand on his shoulder. "I'm still trying to get a handle on how this stuff works. It just seems to let me know when someone or something means trouble. I don't know how great it is at telling good guys from bad guys. But maybe... maybe knowing when to trust someone isn't all about senses. Maybe," and she's definitely smiling now, "maybe it's about instincts, too. And my instincts are telling me you're probably a better person than you think you are right now."
Matt realizes suddenly that he's been holding his breath. He exhales, relief flooding through him. "I thought you should hear it from me, before you heard it from Fisk."
"I understand. And I appreciate it. You'll understand why I can't thank you for siccing that creep on my dad, but I'm glad you were out there tonight." She takes another breath. "Forget the coffee. I'll just finish what I've got. It's... really been a long night. I'm about ready to turn in."
Matt nods. "I'll make up that bed then. And I'm sure I can find you a nightshirt."
"Thanks. And Matt? You know you're not the only one with something in your past to make up for, right?"
He nods again, remembering their earlier conversation. "Peter."
"Peter," she sighs. "Maybe we should sort of... look out for each other, too. In case it gets to be too much. Because I don't know about you, but talking about this tonight really helped—and there aren't that many people I can do that with. Not stuff like this."
Matt smiles. "I'd like that. I'd like that a lot."
He's still smiling as he heads back up the stairs. He's not sure how long Daredevil will be able to operate before someone catches on, but he's still going to do what he can. For as long as he can. He can't say for sure what's on his horizon, but after tonight, his future feels a little bit brighter and a lot less scary.