The cast-iron rooftops sound like a church bell beneath my footfalls.
Each step sends reverberations through the air in every direction, through the echo chamber of every alley, and around every object. I can see all of Soho. Gaining speed, I feel the wind rushing around my body change direction, and I know the edge of the rooftop is 9.4 feet from the edge of my boot.
I pick up the pace and leap into the air. The image that I have in my mind, the sonar picture of the iron sound, dissipates with the next breeze, and the texture of every object I perceive is totally different when it's made from the wind's noise. It's like the whole world is being scrawled with different handwriting. Like going from Van Gogh to Rembrandt.
A building made up of ten-thousand, two-hundred bricks comes out of the blackness and catches me like a caring mother. I roll across the rooftop, then spring over the edge, back into open air. I navigate through the inside of a fire escape without touching a single rung of a single ladder, until I grip the very bottom one, bringing me to a gentle stop on the pavement. The fire escape creaks and illustrates the whole street to me in pristine detail.
There's nobody here.
A street in New York, at mid-day, completely abandoned.
That's enough even to spook a man without fear.
I step across the street slowly. Beneath me, dirty water runs through sewers. Three blocks over, a car pulls up and a woman runs into her house, crying. In front of me, an apartment with no windows smells like charcoal.
The entire building was empty, and this converted penthouse was where all those men slept, ate, drank, and trained. Trained for what? There's stale sweat on the surviving floor, it smells like fried meat. The ceiling is low, and halfway through the room, it goes from smooth to warped and burned. Frank really did a number on these people.
In the door frame, there's 5 indentations where the .22 bullet casings from his Uzi struck. 100 nuances and subtler markings contributing to the 5 shapes. He fired for 10 seconds. But he didn't kill everyone in that time.
These men were Hand. They don't die easy. It's hard to piece together what happened, the damage to the room is so extensive. But The Punisher is hardly a man to destroy evidence, because evidence of cruelty brings fear. Frank loves fear.
So we can assume that some people avoided his bullets, maybe even disarmed him from a distance. I take out my billy club, it feels familiar through my glove. I give the radiator a slight tap, and it shows me every nook and cranny in the room. There's a shiruken under the cupboard in the corner.
So someone disarms Frank, moves for a bigger weapon. But he's not in the mood tonight. No time for ninjas and magic and weird crap. He throws an incendiary grenade onto the table. Table? Table. There's four pieces of wood scattered around the room. All the same wood, shaped by the same machine.
Information piles atop information as my sonar sense feeds me, and my mind arranges the facts to fit the scenario. The ninjas are eating. They've just trained. Frank comes in. Bang. Disarmed. Grenade. Everybody's dead.
So why doesn't he run? Why doesn't he just turn around and get out the door? I leave the apartment, retracing what I think would be his next steps. Down the stairs, outside. He doesn't go out the front door, not after that. According to the reports, he has about three minutes to get out of here. Even if he thought he had all the time in the world, nobody just waits around after they firebomb a building.
So he's down the stairs. I can smell him, stronger now since I filtered out the charcoal. He smells like blood and Wild Turkey. He doesn't sweat. He's calm. He shoots something.
There's nothing here to shoot. There was no other body. I snap my fingers, giving me the full layout of the hall. There's no bullet-hole, no entry point. But there's a casing by the door, and beneath the charcoal and the blood, there's gunpowder.
Frank's blood. It wasn't just old blood on his dirty clothes, its new blood. There's no carpet on these stairs, just that cheap plastic stuff that looks like marble. If you're blind. But it's easier to clean than marble. Doesn't stain the same.
Someone shot Frank on this staircase. Then cleaned it up. Who?
I walk over to the casing, and pick it up between my index finger and thumb. I can feel the curve of the brass, the kinks at the head where the bullet burst out. The thin coating of soot around the burst percussion cap, and the inscription beneath "9x19mm" most commonly used in a Glock 19 pistol. NYPD standard issue.
The police were here as soon as Frank killed those men. Maybe even before. They were waiting.
An hour later, I'm halfway across the city, in an alley off Madison Avenue, in the shadow of the Daily Bugle offices. Jonah Jameson's squinting, grimacing eye watches to whole city from here, and if you leap across these buildings in a costume, you can practically feel his gaze boring into your skull with pure, seething hatred.
It's just starting to rain when I step into the alley, and as the wind picks up and whistles ominously, I catch his scent. Sweat and tobacco, bad cologne and hot dogs. Ben Urich. I step from the shadows as he lights a cigarette.
"How you been, Urich?"
"Dammit, Matt. If Jameson sees me skulking around his turf, he'll accuse Frontline of plagiarism."
I grin a little, "One of you are going to have to write something worth plagiarising first."
The smoke smells a little different, richer, thicker. There's less chemicals in it today.
"I brought copies of all the cases I've worked recently. I wasn't really sure what it is you wanted." He paused for a moment. "Castle really got himself locked up, huh?"
He holds out the files, and I reach for them.
"Afraid so, Ben. I don't know exactly what it is I need, either. The Hand is rearing its head again."
Ben pulls the file back a little before I reach them. His heart-rate skips.
"Matt…I don't want to get mixed up in something that big."
"What's the matter, Ben? You were never one to shy away from something like this." His nerves rile up a little more, adrenaline hits his bloodstream.
"Matt, it's just… I can't be a part of this one. I can't give you this info."
He's saying something without saying it. Urich's a better liar than this. He wants me to figure out where he's going. Wants me to know, but can't say.
"New cigarettes, Urich? Little more expensive than your regular brand."
"Yeah, I found a few dollars behind my couch." He smiles. I got it.
I start scanning for noises I lost before. There's traffic outside, echoing in the alley. There's vents and air conditioners and rats scuttling around. There's two men breathing, and there's something electrical on one man's belt.
He's wearing a wire.
They paid him to stay out of this.
But he's still in it.
Of course, he's Ben Urich.
"I understand, Ben. I won't force you into something you don't want. I say we just go our separate ways, if there's nothing we can do for each other."
He sets the files on a trashcan, and my radar tells me he's looking into my eyes, knowingly. He takes a copy, a fake file, from under his coat, and moves to walk out of the alley.
Then the air shifts. The cool breeze splinters like thin ice as a foreign object enters into it.
"Ben, look out!" I yell, throwing my billy club through the air. It intersects with the object; a dart, I see in the sound-waves of the impact, inches away from Urich's neck. Ben breaks into a sprint, his smoker's lungs taking him as quickly as he can down East 52nd Street.
Something overhead leaps across the open top of the alley, moving parallel to Urich. I don't have the time to get on the level with it before it reaches him, so I do the dumbest thing you can do when you're trying to lay low: I shove the folder into a trashcan and run out onto the open street in a bright red costume.
I burst through a crowd of NYC hustle-and-bustle, leaping directly into traffic. I feel the vibrations of the asphalt and the fumes in the air, telling me where each and every vehicle on the road is. The fastest moving car within a hundred yards crosses my path in 2.4 seconds, and I leap onto the roof, riding on the top of it despite the driver's muffled yells of complaint. I can't find the assailant on the rooftop. I have no idea where he's coming from, but I've caught up with Ben, and that's all I needed.
The air in the alley he's about to pass puckers and shifts with movement, and I leap over his head, colliding boot-first with a Hand ninja.
The ninja, clad in red wrappings with a katana strapped to his back, goes sprawling into a deep puddle of waste water, and I'm behind him before he's got his bearings. I've lost one billy club, so I only have my grappling hook left, but it's worth sacrificing, because I've taken on Hand assassins before, and you want to neutralize them as quick as possible.
I fire the hook at a window, smashing it. I press the button to reel the cable in, and clout the ninja across the back of the head with the club before he turns. Despite his doubtless loss of balance, he swings a mean kick into my side, and starts moving in on me, while I feign defence.
He swings a fist, and I catch him by his wrist, wrapping the rapidly-receding cable around it. He reaches for his sword, but before he gets it out he's been pulled, full force, into broken glass and hard brick, and I hear his arm break in two places.
He lands, now holding my club in one hand and his sword in the other. The club hand is useless. He's just threatening me with my own weapon, intimidation tactic. He knows it, and lets me make the first move. I leap, swinging a kick for his head, but he ducks beneath it, trying to stab upwards at me.
I knew exactly what he was doing, and I kick off the wall, back over him again. He spins, bringing his sword in an arc that would normally take my head off, but a well-timed duck and swift kick to his thigh ruins that plan.
A ninja is a perfect symphony of muscle and discipline. They move as they need to move, eliminating obstacles to achieve results as directly and efficiently as possible. But for a ninja to come up against someone like me, someone who can hear an off-tune string in a hundred-piece orchestra? It's disastrous. It becomes less about the goal, and more about the method, which is an almost complete reversal of the ninja's way.
The guy mulls on this as he shrinks back, rethinking tactics as we face each other again.
He throws my billy club by at my head, faster than I've ever thrown it. But that arm is still injured, so the throw has no finesse, no intent behind it. I snatch the thing out of the air and use it to block his real attack, the sword that was going for my chest. He whips his limp, broken arm at me and I block easily, then he hops into the air, bringing a strong, well-aimed foot directly into my throat. Occupied with two other attacks, I've got no hands to block it, and I end up choking. I wrap my hand around his sword and pull it away from him, losing my billy club as well as I back up, on defence for real this time.
He jumps, slamming both feet into my chest with a double front kick, winding me even further and cracking a few ribs. He doesn't waste the opportunity he's got, and starts raining blows and kicks down on me, pushing me back until I hit the wall, which then starts attacking me from the opposite side as his impacts slam me into it over and over. His seventh kick is to the head, and I black out for a second, before he brings the foot back from the other side and wakes me up again.
I can't get my bearings; his strikes are all goal-oriented now. There's nothing to stop them. I block as many as I can, but as I get weaker and weaker they get less effective. Before what I think might be the final strike, a good Samaritan steps off the street and slams the ninja with a devastating right cross to his jaw.
My first instinct is to get between them, protect the innocent from the deadly assassin. But then a human-shaped heap of red robes falls unconscious beside me, and it doesn't take me long to figure out why. Very few people stay awake after a direct hit from Luke Cage.
I grin through bloody lips, and he helps me to my feet.
"I thought our meeting wasn't until 4?" I breathe.
"Cute." He smiles warmly, "I was in this part of town, and I heard someone spotted Daredevil surfing traffic. Thought I'd check it out."
I look out of the alley and see little Danielle, all chirpy and wide-eyed, in the car seat of the Soccer-mom-mobile parked on the curb. She gives me a little wave and I wave back.
"Fastest way to travel."
"Uh-huh. So what's the story here?"
"No, agh." I grunt, pain shooting through my side. "No story here, the story's in the next alley. If you can give me a lift."
Luke pats me on the back with such strength that I nearly collapse, and while I collect my billy club, he wraps a discarded pipe around the Hand agent's wrists, before throwing him in the passenger seat.
"Whoosat, Daddy?" Danielle asks.
"A bad man, baby."