Frank Castle's mission was her mission.
Her name was Rachel. Sergeant Rachel Cole-Alves. She was a Marine, a widow and a fugitive. More importantly, she punished the guilty. Remembering Frank's actions. His words. Prioritizing plan of attack, order of battle, intel on the enemy. Fighting a war to atone for her unspeakable sin. One kill at a time. There were few things she knew more intimately than Hell, and there were far too many people who needed to be sent there.
The prepaid phone vibrated through Officer Maya Himura's jeans. The phone Rachel had given her a few months back. She pulled it from her pocket and observed the screen.
It was an apartment number. Maya looked up at the brick skeleton that was the abandoned complex. Rachel had summoned her there. Her former CO, whom she would've died for in Afghanistan, was waiting for her inside. There was nothing left to do but comply.
As she neared the spectral architecture, a chorus of wind kicked up dead leaves around her. It kicked up the raven threads of her hair. Memories of bedlam and gunfire danced in Maya's psyche, as if the wind had prompted them as well.
Minutes later, Maya knocked on 209's scuffed door.
"Coming in," she warned, having heard no response from the other side.
She stepped into the old apartment and took it in. The chipped paint. Decaying walls. And then she saw Rachel, in a black turtleneck and leather jacket, peering out the window with a pair of binoculars.
"I wasn't followed," Maya assured her.
Rachel acknowledged the woman, setting her binoculars down and stepping away from the glass.
"Never pictured you as a brunette," Maya exclaimed, noting Rachel's cropped and dyed hair. Alves wore green contacts as well. Necessary precautions for a convicted killer.
"How're you holding up, Sergeant?"
Rachel simply nodded. Her troubled, sleep-deprived features deceived her.
Maya retrieved papers from her wool coat and offered them to Rachel, who took them.
"It's mostly LE surplus. My guy can handle a few discrepancies in the inventory. It's dated equipment, but functional."
Rachel looked over the list of weaponry. It would do.
"Location's written down. My guy said bring a shovel."
"Well done, Marine," Rachel replied, reaching for an envelope stuffed with cash from a nearby table. "This is for you and your family."
Maya crossed her arms, denying the gift. "I don't even wanna know where that came from. This isn't about money."
Maya turned and walked out the door. She stopped somewhere on the other side. "I still have nightmares, Sergeant."
A sick feeling flared up in Rachel's stomach. "So do I."
In the weeks after Rachel dug up the weapons crates and transported them to one of her safe houses, she managed to track down a fugitive trio of armed robbers. The latest and most brazen in their string of transgressions had resulted in the shooting of a store clerk. 17 year-old girl. The trio were presently laying low in the home of a Mr. Murrieta and his wife, both of whom were gang affiliates.
Five targets in total, all with histories of violence. All worthy of Rachel's care.
It was well past midnight. Rachel parked her jeep behind the Murrieta house and checked her gear before hopping the back fence. Her entry point was a shoddy basement window, one she'd tested a couple of times while no one was around. After glimpsing what she could from outside, she wrenched the window open and dropped in.
The basement reeked of cigarettes and weed. Rachel noted the thrum of synthetic bass coming from upstairs. She simultaneously glimpsed the figure stirring from his mattress on the floor in front of her.
Damn. Her entrance had been louder than she would've liked.
As she deployed her fighting knife the figure spotted her and leapt up from his mattress. For a moment he stood in shock, fixating on the painted skull that adorned her vest. Frank had been right about the skull.
She confirmed the man's identity. Ebbin, the getaway driver. His profane hollering was likely being drowned out by the music above. As they charged each other, she honed in on the angling of his body. The communication. Like nothing she weaved his stumbling frame, intercepting his strike with the elbow of her free arm. She jabbed the knife repeatedly into an exposed area of his lower back, poking at his kidneys. Ebbin dropped to his knees and she muffled his mouth while hacking at the side of his neck. She could smell his blood. It swallowed her blade and her black gloves.
Shoving him to the floor, Rachel lanced through the dark room. She sighted a second mattress across from her. It was empty. After stowing her knife, she unholstered a semi-automatic Beretta and disengaged its safety. She knew the weapon as the M9, and had used it more than once in Afghanistan to defend her life.
Rachel proceeded up the stairs, the thrumming tune growing louder. She reached a door at the top and gently coaxed it open before clearing the adjoining hallway. A lit room in the distance beckoned her. She glided towards it with time enough to notice her own quickening pulse.
She trained her weapon on the kitchen as it entered view on her left. Murrieta sat hunched over a table littered with drugs and alcohol, frozen in a toxin-induced blackout. Swinging to her right, Rachel discovered something of a scene in the living room. Lopez, one of the trio's gunmen, sank into a couch with his pants around his ankles. He was getting a blowjob from Mrs. Murrieta, who was coming out of her bra and too hard at work to regard Rachel's entrance.
Lopez jumped after catching Rachel in his periphery. He pulled the wife off of his cock, flinging her damn near across the room. Before he could manage anything else, Rachel fixed her front sight on his sternum and drilled him with rounds of nine millimeter. The hollow point ammunition struck at his vital organs and left him paralyzed in all of his glory.
The wife yelped, trying to get up but tripping over her own panic before literally backing herself into a corner. She was no more innocent than the rest of them. Rachel lined up on the woman's face and fired.
At the kitchen table, Murrieta did little more than mumble incoherently. Rachel advanced towards him before catching it. Movement in the corner of her eye. She whipped around to meet it just as a pair of projectiles pummeled her chest.
Despite saving her life, the kevlar vest she wore didn't spare her the profound pain and shock. She cried out, realizing in that shrill moment her failure upon seeing him. Nash, the second gunman, charging down the hallway she'd come from with a polymer pistol. She remembered the basement's corner bathroom, the one she should've checked before coming upstairs. Adrenaline and a thousand relentless thoughts had had other plans.
Stupid. She could almost hear Frank's voice. She'd been sloppy. Imprecise. She was still so very unlike him.
Rachel shook the thoughts loose and came up with a new one. Fight or die. As Nash continued firing she plunged backwards, landing supine on the carpet. The instant her sights found something worthwhile she returned the favor, scoring at least three hits on his lower torso. One of her pistol rounds fractured a pelvic bone, turning Nash into a howling, tumbling mass of forward momentum. He thudded against the hallway floor and she sat up, targetting her enemy's head. Two shots. They each hit their mark.
And then an austere quiet hung over the room. Rachel might've been able to appreciate it if not for her ringing ears and heavy breathing. She winced as she stood up, reminded of the ache in her breast. Having nearly depleted her pistol magazine she inserted a new one, and for a few seconds she experienced something that resembled clarity.
Murrieta remained unconscious at the kitchen table. He'd missed everything. The betrayal. The violence. The pooling blood on his carpet. Rachel holstered the Beretta and retrieved her knife. She wasn't one to waste ammunition.
"You were in my dream last night."
Rachel keyed in on the frailty in Maya's voice. The shaking. "I'm not your psychiatrist."
"But you were a friend once."
Rachel bit the inside of her cheek. War did not suffer fools, and it rarely suffered friendship. She wanted desperately to walk away, but she also needed the intel Himura possessed.
"No girl wants to feel used," Maya muttered after tossing a pair of file folders onto a crate inside of the forsaken train car.
Opening one, Rachel eyed the collection of news articles and police documents.
"Some of this you've seen already, I'm sure."
"Yes." There was a difference between seeing and wanting to believe.
"If the Exchange really has resurfaced Sergeant, what are you gonna do?"
Stephanie Gerard's smug features materialized in Rachel's head. The Exchange's former queen. Spectacled bitch. Rachel envisioned her lifeless body. Her neck, purple and streaming red. It had all happened too quickly.
Now it appeared that Stephanie's associates were climbing out of the grave Rachel and Frank had shoved them in. That was unacceptable. Rachel recalled her wedding, the indescribable happiness that had been replaced with astounding heartbreak and terror.
The memories sent a shudder through Rachel's being and delivered her the answer to Himura's question.
I'm going to punish them.