Chapter 1: three days
It takes three days before he realizes that Karen is missing.
Frank Castle has a list of things he has done—some forgivable, others not. This lapse will make the second list; yet another failing that will probably slip into his nightmares. The fear manifests itself as anger, and he embraces that. Anger is fire, and he can use that.
He breaks into her apartment first. It’s a forgivable offense; Karen has offered him a key twice and he’s turned her down both times. He doesn’t want someone to find that key, to trace it back to her. Perhaps it’s paranoia but he isn’t going to risk her.
Not that his wariness seems to protect her any, part of him thinks. First Lewis Wilson and now this. It would probably just be safer to move in and camp out on her couch. At least then, he would know when she didn’t come home.
He opens her laptop first. The password prompt appears and he tries her name first.
He sits there, trigger finger tapping against the table impatiently, his stomach roiling with some combination of simmering anxiety and fury. Three days. They’ve had her three days and he knows how badly a person can be hurt in only a few hours. In three days, there would be more than enough time to bury a body and—
He grits his teeth and types her father’s name.
(She did tell him about Kevin—over a bottle bourbon, when the night was waning into dawn, when her voice was almost whisper-soft in the tone most people use at confession.)
He leans back in the chair, rocking a little, needing to move. So much for nobody goes after her. Some protector he is.
He rises from the chair, goes to her coffee table. She has a tendency to leave her purse beneath it, and sure enough, he finds the familiar black lines of her bag.
(She bought a new one after she shot a hole through the bottom of her last purse; over take-out he joked about buying her a military-style backpack instead.)
He pulls it open; the thing is big enough to hold her gun—and he finds it. It’s loaded, the chamber full. She never got a chance to fire it. He also finds a folder full of notes—old newspaper clippings and scraps with her own handwriting on them. It’s the name of a politician, his aides, and a few scribbled thoughts. He can connect them well enough: bribes taken to ignore certain parts of the docks at certain times. Smugglers unloading—who knows what. Probably drugs, maybe guns. Maybe even people.
Frank’s jaw clenches hard. There isn’t an address, not even a dock number. He glances back at the laptop again, and returns to it.
Murdock, he types.
Finally, on a whim, he types, Castle.
It boots up.
He sits there, blinking for a few moments. Then he opens up her emails. Feels a bit like bastard doing so, but he doesn’t care. Again, it’s a forgivable offense.
(If something happens to her, that’s the only thing he can’t forgive. Not the people that hurt her, nor himself for letting it happen.)
He finds her last email: it’s with a source. They were to meet at a bar at the edge of Hell’s Kitchen. It isn’t a sketchy address, which was probably why she felt safe going alone.
Frank takes Karen’s gun. There’s something fitting in knowing he’ll kill her kidnappers with it.
Chapter 2: two days
It takes two days to track down Karen’s source at the bar.
Frank doesn’t sleep much during that time. There are a few moments in the truck—when his eyes flutter shut for a few moments before his body jerks him awake with a jolt of adrenaline. “Hey, man, you can get some sleep,” says Curtis. He sits in the passenger seat, dressed in dark clothing. He looks every inch the corpsman he used to be—hard jaw and harder eyes.
Frank didn’t ask him to come along. He didn’t have to. Curt called when Frank missed a meeting, and Frank didn’t know how to hide the rough edge to his voice when he answered.
Frank, what’s wrong?
They took her.
I don’t know—smugglers, I think. She was investigating them—fuck, I told her to be careful.
This is Karen Page we’re talking about?
Where are you?
Curt, you don’t have to—
Where are you, Frank?
Which is how they’re sitting outside a bar together. The same bar that Karen went into just before someone took her from her apartment. They must have followed her home.
Curt has Karen’s files sitting in his lap. There’s a photo of a young woman—she can’t be older than twenty-five, with hair dyed ash gray and lips in a sulky pout. Karen’s notes say that she works as runner for a city councilman, and she’s been repeatedly coming to this bar every Thursday night. Every Thursday night since a group of smugglers have managed to get their product into the city since February. She’s probably bringing the smugglers the very routes they need to avoid inspection.
“She looks like someone’s kid niece,” says Curt, with a glance at the young woman’s photo.
“She and Karen were emailing,” says Frank. “She was Karen’s source—wanted to break the thing wide open.”
Curt snorts. “Or she’s in on it. Lured Karen here, then sent a tail after her when she left. Her apartment’s unlisted, right?”
“It’s not a bad plan,” says Curt. “Use the girl like a Trojan horse, lure Karen out, then send someone after her.” He looks at Frank, and there’s an apology in his face when he says, “Don’t know why they’d take her, though.”
Frank can feel his jaw working. “You mean, why didn’t they just kill her?”
Curt exhales heavily. “Did cross my mind. Criminals like this—I mean…”
He must be thinking of Bill. Of all the lines he was willing to cross for money.
“Karen backs up her information,” says Frank. “Some account in the cloud, or whatever they’re calling it these days. They’ll want her password to erase it.”
Which means they’re probably torturing her.
Frank’s hands clench in his lap.
“You ever think about bringing the cops into this?” asks Curt.
“They already are,” he says. “Her boss filed a missing persons report yesterday. But they—they’re not us.”
They’ll have to get warrants, to wait for some judge’s approval before going through Karen’s things, before they break into anyone’s hideouts. Frank doesn’t give a shit about any of that. And he doesn’t want to see the men who took her on trial—he wants to know they’ll never touch anyone else ever again.
“Hey,” says Curt quietly. “We’re going to find her.”
Frank has to look away. The lights of the bar blur in his eyes—exhaustion drags at him and the back of his throat burns with fear. They’re going to find her. In what condition they find her… he doesn’t know.
His gaze tracks to a young woman and he sits up so suddenly he feels his spine pop. “There.”
She has dyed gray hair and a sheath dress and looks like the kind of woman that couldn’t hurt anyone. And yeah, there’s part of him that cringes at the thought of cornering someone like that; she’s a civilian, younger than he is, and at least a foot shorter. But she might have been involved in what happened to Karen.
“How’d you want to play this?” asks Curt.
Frank takes in a few breaths. “Lieberman disabled all the street cameras on this block. You go in, keep an eye on her. See who she meets with. The moment she looks like she’s leaving, call me. I’ll make sure she doesn’t leave. Anything looks like it’s going south, call me. Got it?”
If the woman runs, Frank will have the easier time grabbing her. Which means it has to be Curt on the inside. Frank doesn’t like it, but Curt knows how to handle himself. “Got it,” Curt says. He opens the car door and walks outside. As he moves, his gait changes—he goes from soldier to civilian in the space of a few steps. He’s better at that than Frank will ever be, which is part of the reason Frank knows he can’t be the inside man. He’s too on edge right now, too much the Punisher. He would draw the attention of everyone with survival instincts if he went into that bar.
He waits for what feels like two decades. Considers turning on the radio, but he can’t take the noise right now. He imagines Karen bound to a metal chair, hands behind her back. Thinks of her alone. Or worse, not alone. He knows what it is to be tortured for information, and the thought of Karen being in that position makes his every nerve scream with the need for action. Movement. Something. He can’t sit here much longer or he’s going to lose his goddamn mind.
I’m coming, he thinks. And he wishes there was a way Karen could hear him. I’m coming.
His phone rings in his pocket and Frank snaps it open, brings it to his ear.
He can hear the sound of music and the bar in the background, then Curt’s low voice. “She’s talking with the bartender.”
“The bartender?” says Frank. Of all the things he might have expected, this wasn’t it. Not many thugs he knows also have jobs as bartenders. “Can you hear what they’re saying?”
“No,” says Curt. “But it looks like things are wrapping up.”
Frank stares hard at the bar’s front door. “Understood.”
He ends the call, fingers tight around his phone. He waits another two minutes, then the young woman slips out of the bar and onto the sidewalk.
This isn’t going to be clean. It’s too public.
Frank grits his teeth, then gets out of the truck. At least he doesn’t have to worry about cameras, and it’s late enough at night that there’s no one else on the street. He lengthens his stride as he approaches, waits for her to pass by an alleyway, then he lunges, seizes her by the arm and drags her into that dark space. His hand finds her mouth fast enough that she can’t let out more than a startled yelp.
He hates this. Hates the look of fear that flashes through her eyes as he shoves her up against the brick wall.
“Five days ago,” he says, “you met up with a reporter from the Bulletin.”
Surprise chases fear out of the woman’s face. But he doesn’t remove his hand, not yet.
“You were emailing her,” he says. “She came to that bar. Then she vanished. Who knew about the meeting?”
He carefully lowers his hand a few inches; if she screams, this could get messy quick.
The woman gazes at him incredulously. “Who are you?”
“She vanished,” repeats Frank. “Who knew about the meeting? Who took her?”
The woman frowns. “Shit. We were supposed to—shit that’s why she didn’t show tonight.”
“Tonight,” says Frank quickly. “You were supposed to meet tonight?”
“Why are you looking into this?” the woman asks. “Who are you?”
Frank has to force himself to breathe through his nose. He can’t lose focus. Not when Karen’s life hangs in the balance.
“Someone who wants her back,” he says, and his voice is rough with lack of sleep and emotion.
The young woman nods. She has a tight grip on her purse, as if out of reflex. “She hasn’t been in the bar again—I asked around.”
Which was why Curt saw her talking to the bartender.
“What information did you give her?” he asks. “Who knew about it?”
The woman hesitates. “I—schedules. My boss has been giving me deliveries for months now. I thought it was just… I don’t know. I didn’t ask. My kid sister needs a college fund, all right? And he paid under the table. But a month ago, I was late and one of the inspectors at the docks was found face-down in the water the next day. I think… I think whatever I’m doing is illegal, and because I was late, they killed someone who found them. I’m not… I not the kind of person that can just go along with that, okay?”
Frank releases her, steps back. He thinks himself a pretty good judge of character, and there’s something honest in her face that he wants to trust. “So you went to a reporter.”
“Yeah,” she says. “Karen Page has made a living out of going after assholes like my boss. She’s fearless.”
His heart aches. Yes. Yes, she is.
“And so I brought her a copy of the schedules,” says the woman. “And we were supposed to meet here again tonight, but she didn’t show.”
“Someone tailed her back to her apartment,” says Frank. “She’s been missing ever since.”
“Fuck.” The woman covers her mouth. “Fuck. I didn’t meant to—I didn’t tell anyone, I swear. Someone in the office maybe…”
“These schedules,” says Frank. “Could you give them to me? Can you tell me what dock they’ve been using?”
The woman nods. “Here.” She reaches into her purse and comes up with a USB drive. “Take it.”
He tucks it into his pocket.
“I’m sorry,” the woman says helplessly. “I didn’t… I didn’t want this.”
He believes her. “Get your kid sister,” he says. “Get out of town for a week.”
She looks at him, wide-eyed.
“Get out of town for a week,” he repeats. “It’ll be over by then.”
One way or another.
The woman nods, then steps away from the wall. She looks at him, and he barely recognizes the expression. She doesn’t regard him with fear—but rather, pity. “I’m sorry about Ms. Page,” she says. “Whatever happens, I didn’t want her to get hurt.” She hurries out of the alley, and he lets her go. There’s nothing more she can give him.
Frank returns to the truck. Curt is waiting there, leaning against the side. “You got what you needed?” he says.
Frank nods, flicks the USB drive at him. Curt catches it easily. “You got a computer?” asks Frank. He doesn’t.
Curt smiles. “Of course. Back to my place?”
Frank gets into the drive’s seat, slides the key into the ignition.
I’m coming, Karen.
Chapter 3: one day
It takes one day to find her.
Twenty four hours—and it feels like two lifetimes.
There are fresh bruises on Frank’s knuckles. The docks smell of salt water and gasoline, and the cry of the gulls is a constant background noise. The boat is sleek and big enough for professional fishermen, but he knows it’s being used for much more than that. Curtis takes out two of the guards with a rifle, while Frank carves his bloody way into the cabin. He hears noises from below: a shout, then thunder.
His heart slams against his breastbone. Gunfire from below.
He curses and runs even faster, punching the next smuggler he sees so hard he feels one of his knuckles crack. He’ll splint the finger later; right now, his own injuries are of little consequence. He barrels down the narrow stairs, into the lower decks. It isn’t unheard of for criminals to kill hostages when they think they’re dead anyways—and the thought of coming this far and still losing her—
He rounds a corner and nearly runs right into her.
Karen stands in the tiny hallway—a broken handcuff dangling from one wrist, her arm pressed protectively against her stomach. Blood trickles down her fingers. In her other hand, she carries a black sidearm. Her hair is dirty and the soft lines of her face are a little gaunt. But she is upright and walking under her own power. He notes all of this in a glance, the soldier part of his brain working on reflex.
Alive. Alive and armed.
And it feels like the wall he has managed to erect between himself and his heart cracks at the sight of her.
“Hey,” she says, her voice scratchy.
She is wearing one of her work dresses: a gray sleeveless thing. He yanks off his coat and drapes it around her, mindful of her injured arm. “Sorry I’m late,” he says. Seven days—seven days they had her, and they never should have had one.
“I knew it’d be you,” she says. And there is so much to unpack in that single sentence, but Frank has neither the time nor the energy. He’ll unravel it later, when they’re both safe and she isn’t bleeding and his body isn’t thrumming with violence.
They are both stripped raw, and there’s too much truth in this narrow hallway for him to speak. If he does, he’ll utter something he cannot take back.
He wraps an arm around her, and together, they ascend the stairs.
It turns out she took a gun off of one of the men guarding her when Frank and Curtis opened fire. Her guard was distracted by the noise, so Karen snatched his weapon and shot him in the knee before shooting off her own handcuff. Some of the metal ricocheted, embedded in her forearm. She stays in the hospital for seven hours—a doctor removing the shards of metal before stitching closed two of the wounds. She is put on a IV for dehydration and the police question her.
Frank knows all of this because Curt stays with her. He texts hourly updates, and Frank sits in a car in the hospital parking lot, drinking tepid water from a bottle and glancing at his phone. He doesn’t dare stay in the room with her, not with cops milling in and out, not to mention her editor, Nelson, and finally, Red.
Frank catches a glimpse of Murdock as he walks into the hospital. His cane is between his fingers, and he hesitates at the curb. Ear slightly cocked, head tilted toward Frank’s car. He smiles a bit, then walks through the automatic doors.
For all that he can be a sanctimonious prick, this is one thing Murdock can do that Frank can’t—be there when the cops are questioning her. Frank looks at himself in the rearview mirror—all shadowed eyes and hollow cheeks. He looks like a ghost that hasn’t died all the way yet, and he knows he needs sleep and food. He’s going to crash soon.
After about five hours, Curtis walks out of the hospital and raps a knuckle against the car window. Frank rolls it down. Curt leans against the door, looks at Frank and shakes his head. “I think Karen looks better than you do,” he says. “You need sleep, man.”
“I’m fine.” He isn’t leaving. And Curtis knows that, for all of his gentle barbs.
“They’re probably going to release her in a few hours,” says Curt. “She’s awake and irritated. Says she’ll drive herself home if she has to.”
“Two of her friends offered, but I said she already had a ride waiting outside,” Curt says. “Nurses looked a little happier about that. I told her to call your number when she was ready.”
Frank knows when something is owed and this is one of those moments. “Curt,” he begins to say, but Curtis just waves him off.
“You’d have done the same for me,” he says. Which is true. “You get her home, and get some sleep. I’ll see you on Thursday, all right?”
“Thank you,” Frank says quietly, because it does need to be said. Curtis nods, then gets out of the car and walks away.
A call Frank jerks awake, eyes blinking in the harsh sunlight. He picks up his phone on reflex. “Yeah?”
Karen’s voice is a little ragged. “Hey.”
He sits up in his seat. “They letting you out?”
“Either that or I’m staging a jailbreak,” she says dryly. “Meet me by the curb in five minutes?”
“I will,” he says. He puts the car in drive, pulls on a baseball cap and tugs it low over his eyes, then drives out of the hospital parking lot. There are other people being picked up: he sees a woman with a swaddled newborn, an elderly man in a wheel chair, and then—
Karen is wearing what looks to be awkwardly fitting clothing, probably from the gift shop. And over it all—a heavy black coat. His. He almost forgot he draped it over her. Her own clothes would be taken for evidence, of course. She opens the door and heaves herself into the passenger side with a small exhalation of effort. She snaps her seatbelt into place and leans back in her seat. Frank gives the nurse a nod, then drives carefully away from the curb.
Frank considers all the things he wants to say, but can’t find the words for any of them.
“So Curtis is nice,” says Karen.
It’s such an offhand statement that a startled laugh bursts out of him. Kidnapped, held hostage, just released from a hospital, and that’s the first thing she says to him.
“Yeah,” he says, when he can speak. “He really is.” He glances at her, then back at traffic. “You feeling all right?” Her arm is bandaged and she looks a little pale, but she seems more exhausted than in pain.
She rubs at her forehead. “Honestly, I just want a shower and my own bed.”
“You sure you want to go back to your place?” His isn’t exactly accommodating, but he’d understand if she doesn’t want to go home. “Could drop you at a friend’s house.” He would offer her his place, but they both know it’s a shithole.
She hesitates, then says, “Avoiding my apartment won’t make things any easier. Just take me home.”
“You could move.”
She is the one to laugh this time. “Where? In case you hadn’t noticed, there isn’t exactly a wealth of affordable, nice apartments for people with journalist salaries.”
He keeps his jaw carefully shut. Or else he’s going to do something stupid like offer her the money from Lieberman. Which he would, in a heartbeat, but he knows she’d never take it. Or maybe he could just rent a two-bedroom place. Preferably a place with a reinforced front door and bulletproof windows. He could tell Karen he needs a roommate to help with the rent.
Not an entirely bad idea. He’ll look into it later.
Now he says, “What’d the doctors say?”
She sighs. “Rest. Fluids. Those men didn’t really feed me, so I should stick to bland foods for a few days. I need to keep my bandages dry and go back in a week to get my arm looked at again.”
He forces his fingers to unclench, then he reaches out and takes her hand. Her fingers are cold—her wrist is cold. He wraps his hand around hers as if he can warm her with will alone.
“What happened?” he says. He needs to know. He’s been imagining worst case scenarios for seven days.
Karen doesn’t pull away from him. Rather, she merely adjusts their hands so that her wrist is at a more comfortable angle. “Met my source, which you seem to know about. Went home—but they were waiting for me at the building. Two men. One had a gun on me before I could pull mine, and they made me go up to my apartment, throw my things in so no one could track my phone. Then they took me to a car out back and blindfolded me.” She glances out the window. “All in all, it actually wasn’t the worst kidnapping I’ve had. They didn’t hurt me.”
“You sure?” It isn’t that he doesn’t trust her, but he knows how closely she holds her cards to her chest. Karen Page doesn’t like to show weakness. He glances at her, making sure she sees his face.
“Yeah,” she says. “I’m sure.”
Another bit of fear ebbs away. “What were they smuggling?”
Karen laughs. It sounds odd in the car. “You didn’t see it in my notes?”
“I was trying to find you. Details kind of fell by the wayside.”
Her smile softens. “Cheese.”
He has to force himself to look at the road, not her. “What?”
“Unpasteurized cheese,” she says. “From some European seller. They were trying to get around the American Dairy Association. Illegally imported cheeses are worth a fortune.”
Frank glares at the car in front of him. “You nearly died for cheese?”
“Actually I nearly died because a city councilman was willing to sell information about inspections to the highest bidder,” she says. “Including to some drug runners. The cheese smugglers were those I deemed least dangerous, so if I could get the politician on those charges, then the rest might come falling apart.”
He nods. He understands that, at least. “Still,” he says. “Please tell me next time.”
“You planning on helping?”
“How’d you find me?” she asks.
He tells her everything. About how he realized something was wrong when she wasn’t replying to his texts, about finding her apartment door slightly ajar, and the realization that she’d been taken by someone. Looking through her emails, finding the meeting with the city councilman’s runner. Getting the USB drive from her, then looking at the schedules. He and Curt found the dock that wouldn’t be inspected that day, hoping that it would be the one—and it had.
He parks the car behind her building, and goes around to open her door. She lets out a sigh, but accepts his arm when he offers it, using him to steady herself as she steps down. She’s still shaky—from the experience or the dehydration, he doesn’t know. Once they reach her apartment door, Karen reaches down and tries the knob. It’s unlocked. Frank steps in front of her, but Karen puts a hand on his arm. “It’s fine. The cops said they’d leave it unlocked after they searched it.”
Still, he goes in first. The cops were at least decent enough not to ransack the place for evidence. Karen’s purse is on the coffee table, her laptop closed on the counter, and whoever conducted the search even moved watered the roses sitting on her bookshelf. Karen steps into the apartment with visible relief. Her shoulders slump and she goes at once to her purse, digging around inside. She pulls out her phone. “I can’t imagine how many emails I have. Work is going to be a nightmare.”
“You should rest,” he says.
She shakes her head. “I need a shower. Mind handing me a plastic bag out of the cupboard? I need to cover my bandages.”
“If there’s anything edible in the kitchen, you’re welcome to it,” she says over her shoulder. There is the sound of a door shutting behind her, and then the squeak of a faucet being turned on. He listens to the thrum of the shower.
There isn’t anything edible in the fridge. Frank grimaces—not for his sake, but for hers. At least living in the city means there are a number of delivery options. He orders in lunch, barely knowing what he asks for, because all that matters is that they have food.
About half an hour later, a young woman chatting into a pair of earbuds drops off two bags of food. When Karen emerges from the bedroom, she is wearing a loose shirt and sweatpants, and her hair damp down her back. Frank is unpacking the food. Karen wordlessly takes a container of plain white rice and eats a few bites of it, standing there in the kitchen. It doesn’t seem like the kind of day to sit down at a table, he has to admit. His own belly rumbles hollowly at the smell of food, and he digs into a carton of pad thai with a fork he finds in the rack.
They eat in companionable silence for a few minutes. Then Karen says, “I have about two hundred text messages. I just glanced at them.”
Frank looks up sharply.
“You texted me complaining about the diner near your apartment?” she says, smiling a little. “That was how you knew I was missing?”
“Yeah,” he says. “Shitty bacon. Overcooked it so much it was like ash.”
“So that’s what my rescue hinged on. Your terrible breakfast?”
“Because you didn’t reply,” he says. “You always reply.”
She looks down at her food.
He knows that there were a few texts from him after that initial one—him asking if she was okay. When she didn’t reply to that second text, he sent a third.
It was the last message he sent.
“Should’ve figured it out sooner,” he says quietly. “Took me three fucking days to realize you were gone.”
“You got me out,” she says.
“You got yourself out.”
“Only because you distracted them.” Her fingers lightly touch her bandaged arm.
He doesn’t reply. There isn’t a whole lot else to say; they’re both stumbling with exhaustion. Which is probably why he doesn’t realize what Karen is doing until she has taken his hand is leading him toward the bedroom.
He doesn’t pull away.
It feels intimate to watch her slide beneath the covers. To strip off his own shirt and socks—he keeps his pants on, because he’s here to sleep, just to sleep. They’re friends and they haven’t slept properly in a week, and—
“Take your pants off,” she says, when he begins to get into bed. “You can’t be comfortable like that.”
“Don’t tell me you go commando,” she says, and the smile that breaks across her face makes the breath seize in his lungs.
“I have boxers,” he says. “But—”
She settles her hands on his chest, and there’s a weight to her gaze, a look on her face that is strangely certain. She has enough certainty for both of them.
“I knew it’d be you,” she says again, echoing the words she said on the boat.
He understands. He has always know it would be her, as well. If it were going to be anyone. If he could let it be anyone.
He wants to let it be her.
So he unbuttons his jeans and gets beneath the covers. To sleep, only to sleep, because she needs sleep far more than she needs anything else. Even so, their mouths meet and it’s not like any first kiss he’s ever had—it’s sweet and achingly slow. It lasts only a few moments, then her head sinks against the pillows and she exhales.
It takes only a few moments for both of them to fall asleep.