Avox in Arcadia (perpetual) wrote,
Avox in Arcadia
perpetual

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A Conspiracy of Ravens - Chapter Twelve

Chapter Title: No Safer Place to Be
Author: Kairos
Fandom: Netflix MCU mashup
Wordcount: This part, 3757
Rating: Teen for language and canon-typical violence
Summary: The thing about Karen being missing? It wasn't a false alarm.

It's extra long. There was nowhere to cut it. But things are getting Kastley, and this is it for now.



An unexpected benefit to the habits Karen had acquired as a reporter was that they helped her manage fear. There was no way to take any notes on what she observed about the men around her, so she had to keep every detail in her memory, and if her concentration was focused on gathering information in the moment, it had no room to wonder what was going to happen to her.

The guard changed now and then, leaving no fewer than four and no more than six in the office building where they had taken her. So far she had counted eight individual faces, and heard references in their conversation to at least three others in the gang that hadn’t been present. That didn’t leave much of an upward limit to how many there were total, but whatever their organization was, it wasn’t small.

Another observation that interested her was the way they acted toward each other. At first, she had thought the first two that she met, both young white men with local accents, were brothers -- they were familiar and friendly, threading jokes into their casual bickering. Since then, though, she had seen that all of them interacted that way, despite having no external signs of relation. It would have been heartwarming if she could be sure that none of them were planning to kill her. As it was, she just made another mental note: Close-knit team. Could be a cult.

That impression was strengthened by the way they entertained themselves while they were chaperoning her. There was an entire office suite beyond the reception room where Karen had been seated, but she didn’t know what was behind most of the doors, only that two or three men would periodically wander into one of the rooms to spar with each other. She wondered if it would have been possible to determine anything about the discipline of fighting that they practiced based solely on the sounds she heard, if she had only known more about martial arts. Matt had told her once that he used a form of kickboxing as Daredevil. The Iron Fist, according to Jessica, practiced kung fu -- although Karen wasn’t convinced that Jessica was informed about that, or if she had just been mocking him.

What was Frank’s fighting style? Karen suddenly wished she could ask him. She was sure it wasn’t the same as whatever was causing the thuds and grunts from the other room, but now she was curious. Or maybe her brain was just coming up with excuses to think about Frank.

I will come for you, he had told her once, and she had always believed in it as a lifelong promise, not just an assurance of the moment. But there had been time already to consider every possibility of rescue, and time to accept the reality that none were feasible. Frank didn’t know that she had been investigating anything dangerous, wouldn’t even know that she was missing until it was too late. She should have told him, but it wasn’t doing her any good to chastise herself now. She was just going to have to get out of this herself.

“Can I have the lip gloss out of my purse?” she asked her current attendant, an olive-skinned man in his twenties with eyes that must have caused a lot of swooning in the girls he knew. “It’s in the small inner pocket.”

He looked up from the newspaper he was reading -- today’s Bulletin, of course it had to be the Bulletin -- and nodded, then went behind the desk to rummage through her personal items while she gritted her teeth. She didn’t have a ploy in mind; she really did just want her lip gloss, but she wanted her gun and her phone more, and she knew she wasn’t getting those back any time soon. The .380 wasn’t even in the bag anymore, since they had taken it right away to stash it wherever they stashed their weapons. All of them were openly carrying, which seemed more characteristic of a gang than a cult, but she supposed there was no reason they couldn’t be both.

“Extraordinary Shine Lip Love--” said the guard, reading from a pink tube he was holding up.

“That’s it,” Karen replied, blushing, and held out her hand for it.

He smiled as if he were proud of himself. At least they were polite, though. They let her use the bathroom as often as she asked, didn’t try to peep or give her a time limit, didn’t react when she got up to pace the room, and answered her questions or deflected them in mild tones. A few hours into the day, they had asked her what kind of pizza toppings she liked before ordering, and then offered her more of it than she could have eaten.

None of that helped her figure out who they were or what they wanted, though, except that they were confident that she wouldn’t try to escape. And why wouldn’t they be? The building they were in wasn’t derelict, but it looked like this was the only suite occupied, and if she had tried screaming they could have promptly silenced her anyway. They had originally taken her without force, or chloroform, or even overt threats, just a soft request to come with them so she could finish her story with a better source. She had seen their guns, as they had intended, and that was enough.

The main door opened. The young man who had brought Karen her lip gloss snapped to attention with another big smile. “Finally,” he said, and ambled over to clasp hands with the new arrival. They slapped each other on the back, and then the other man, clean-shaven and in his forties, turned to Karen and leaned down for a handshake.

The three other men who were currently in the room stayed, watching as Karen met the apparent boss’s eyes and kept her hands folded in her lap. “I’ve been here for six hours,” she said in an even tone.

“I’m so sorry about that, Ms. Page, believe me, I am sorry. I guess you could say I had a family emergency. I know, there’s no excuse. I hope my colleagues have kept you comfortable while you were waiting.” He reached for one of the chairs that was set against the wall like the one she was seated in, and pulled it out and turned it so they were facing each other. “Let’s not waste any more of your time, believe me, I don’t want that any more than you do. You’re a reporter, am I right? You’ve got a story you’re working on? I can help you with that.”

It didn’t escape Karen that he hadn’t introduced himself, just like the rest of them, who had mostly been calling each other as “bro” or “man in her hearing”. She also saw that he was sleepy-eyed and gentle-voiced, but heavily muscled, and, of course, armed. “I have to say,” she replied, “since this morning I’ve lost interest in the topic I was researching.”

The alacrity with which he answered surprised her. “Donovan Wake? Yeah, good idea. He’s not gonna be happy to find out anyone was trying to expose him, believe me. Far as he’s concerned, he’s got a good thing going with the fat cat life under the radar. That’s why he doesn’t do interviews.”

“You’re not with him?” She didn’t have time to properly consider that question before asking it, but it seemed safe enough. They didn’t want her to know anything, and she didn’t.

“No Ms. Page, believe me, we are not. And the last thing we want is for you to get hurt by him. So, I just want you to know, you’re safe here. There is no safer place in New York you could be than with us.” He gestured gracefully at her. “But I know, in your line of work, you’re still gonna want a story. So let’s see what we can do for you.”

A string of veiled threats, and still nothing she could use to identify them, or to puzzle her way out of here. “If it’s all the same to you, from now on I think I’ll be sticking to the kinds of stories that don’t make me need a safe place.”

She had to hand it to him, he looked genuinely saddened. So did the others, raising their eyebrows at each other as if deciding who was to blame. One lifted his arms in a shrug, and the boss cast him a stern look before saying to Karen, “You don’t want to know what you got rescued from today. I know you had a rough day, you don’t want to trust us, but believe me, I’m just glad we got there in time. Now I just have to do the right thing and make sure you stay safe after you leave this building, so I’m asking for your help so I can do that, you get me?”

“Whatever you think you know about me isn’t true, okay? I’ve never met Donovan Wake. I hadn’t even gotten as far as scheduling an interview with someone who has. Your boys grabbed me out of the lobby of a complex where he supposedly owns some subsidiary of a company I think I may have heard the name of once or twice. I am not somebody you could call…informed.”

He sat back in his chair for a moment, crossed his arms, and looked up and around at the other men before turning back to her and taking a deep breath. “Believe me--”

“Do you even realize how many times you’ve already asked me to believe you?” Karen snapped. “Cut the bullshit. I’m not your guest and I don’t need protection from anyone except you. Now if there’s something you want to squeeze out of me, say what it is, and decide what you’re going to do to me when I won’t tell you or when I can’t tell you, because believe me, those are the only two options ahead of us.”

The lip gloss guard gave a low whistle from somewhere at the edge of the room. “Damn,” he said, sounding impressed.

For a moment there was only silence from the boss. He stood up and leaned against the reception desk, and Karen fidgeted, fighting the sudden urge to get out of her chair and cause some trouble just so she could get a good stretch. Her forearm hurt where Sicily had bitten her, and she had been keeping a close eye on her sleeve all day to make sure the bruise stayed covered, which was annoying as well as being a constant reminder that she had missed her appointment at Hell’s Kittens and the dog was probably going to end up put down. She wanted to run, or exercise, or just go outside.

The boss motioned at one of the others, and they headed down the corridor together, leaving two of them to keep their eyes locked pensively on Karen.

There was a bang at the door. It wasn’t a banging knock; it was more like some heavy object had hit it near the middle. Both of the guards reached for their guns. At the second bang, they drew, and the boss returned, with two others behind him.

The third bang preceded the door flying inward, off of its hinges. Karen dove behind the reception desk just before the gunfire began.

She managed to take her purse down with her, but her phone had apparently been taken out along with the gun. There was nothing else in there that could help. She waited until the shots and the shouting were centered at the corridor where the boss had come from, and then ran the other way, keeping low, not trying to sneak a peek at anything going on around her. There was an empty office to her right, and she rushed in, slammed the door behind her, and pushed the shabby loveseat in front of it.

Now she was back to waiting, just like she had done all day. The immediate danger of a nearby gunfight, she reflected, could really make a person nostalgic for the implied danger of a polite kidnapping. I’m sorry, Frank, she caught herself thinking, and angrily banished it from her head. She was not going to die. Not like this.

After a few minutes that felt like hours, the shots began to space out like popcorn in the microwave. Karen counted three of her own long breaths as the only sound outside of the ringing in her ears, and then there was a voice outside the door. A woman’s voice.

“Hey, Page? You want to snoop through some files before we get out of here, or just leave it for the cops?”

Jessica’s voice.

//////////\\\\\\\\\\//////////\\\\\\\\\\//////////\\\\\\\\\\


At the sound of the doorbell, Trish got up from the table, leaving Jessica poring over the documents she had brought home, and Karen dozing on the couch. She wasn’t sure who to expect, but she wasn’t alarmed until she took a look at the door camera. A tough-looking man was standing in the corridor, swaying slightly, his eyes grim under the shadow of a black hoodie. She had never met him, but she felt she would be sensing danger from him even if she didn’t recognize him from the news.

Without touching the intercom, she called back into the apartment, “Jess, could you come here for a second?”

Jessica looked up, then came to the door. Trish gestured at the face on the monitor.

“Holy shit,” said Jessica, quietly enough to keep Karen from waking. “Which one of us is a crime lord?”

“All the work we put into finding the fake Punisher, and the real one shows up on my doorstep,” Trish whispered back. “Does he want something from Karen, do you think?”

“Forget that. How did he know to come here? This is her first time at your place and it’s only been like an hour. Trish, this might not have anything to do Karen. Why don’t you let me talk to him?”

Trish gave her the look that meant she wasn’t impressed. She didn’t know why she bothered; that look never impressed Jessica. The doorbell rang again, and they both looked at the monitor to see the man’s expression getting harder and his movements more agitated. “I’ll do the talking,” said Trish. “Don’t wake up Karen.”

She pushed the intercom button. “Can I help you?”

“Karen in there?” he asked immediately. So much for Jessica’s theory.

They shared a silent look, and then Trish turned back to the screen and said, “Mr. Castle, I’m sure you can understand why your sudden appearance here is surprising, not to mention unnerving. I haven’t called the police yet, but I’d like you to at least offer a compelling reason that I shouldn’t.”

“Because I ain’t bothering anyone.” His voice was rough and gravelly, not far from what she had imagined. Briefly she wondered what it would be like to have him as a guest on her show. “If Karen’s in there, I want to hear her voice telling me she’s alright, and I’ll be on my way.”

“And if she’s not here?” Trish replied.

“Then I’ll be on my way after I get an explanation on where she went after texting me from here ten minutes ago.”

Trish took her finger off the button, and Jessica leaned back against the door, arms crossed, hissing out a breath in Karen’s direction. “We should ask her,” Trish said reluctantly.

Jessica shook her head. “There’s still a buttload of missing pieces. I don’t know what Thug Life here knows, but I don’t want him saying hi and then disappearing before we find out. Let him in and we can trap him here long enough to shake him down.” She gestured impatiently at the look Trish was giving her. “I know who I can handle, Trish. This guy, I can handle.”

Castle was ringing the doorbell again. It seemed he was as adept at annoying people as he was at terrorizing them. She spoke through the intercom: “Can you show that you’re unarmed, Mr. Castle?”

“I am not unarmed, ma’am.” he growled. “And I don’t plan on leaving any loaded weapons outside your door, so if you want me to come in with my hands up, let’s get moving.”

Trish raised an eyebrow at Jessica, who gestured impatiently. A few seconds later the door was swinging inward and Castle was stepping inside, hands behind his head. Jessica began to pat him down, but before she had removed the first gun she found from its holster at his waist, Karen’s voice rang out from the living room. “Frank?”

To the casual observer it might have appeared that he slipped out of Jessica’s grasp, but Trish could see that as soon as his hands dropped and he turned away from her, she had grabbed his arm and only released it when she saw that Karen was rushing across the room toward him. Freed from Jessica, he met her halfway, and Trish blinked repeatedly at the sight of the Bulletin reporter falling into the Punisher’s arms.

He only let the embrace last a second before stepping back and upbraiding her, “What the hell were you thinking?”

“Frank, I told you, I’m okay.” Karen sounded both exasperated and guilty. And tired. Trish didn’t think she had been pretending to sleep just now.

He shook his head violently, shifting his weight and clenching his fists. “You’re okay, you’re okay, yeah, twenty-four goddamn hours just went by, me not knowing you’re okay. Why you gotta pull this shit all the time, Karen? What did you do?”

As she and Jessica edged closer, Trish flinched; Castle had been ignoring them since he saw Karen, but the anger in his voice, combined with his reputation, should have frightened anyone. Except Jessica, of course, but she was giving Trish a look that said she was ready to act at the slightest signal. Whatever was going on, it was in Trish’s apartment, so she supposed she was the one who had to make the call.

What really fascinated Trish, and what made up her mind in the end, was that Karen wasn’t frightened at all. She couldn’t be shrugging off the Punisher’s fury on the basis that it wasn’t directed at her; it clearly was. Something in their history must have informed her that this didn’t translate to danger for herself or anyone there.

“I’ll explain everything, but--” Karen’s voice lowered, although not enough to keep anyone from hearing-- “why are you here? How did you even find me?”

It was a relief to hear that she hadn’t deliberately invited him. Trish liked Karen, and she understood when lines had to be crossed, but if Karen thought it was time to cross this particular line, one of them was holding a dangerous misconception.

“You said you were with Jessica, I connected the dots.” Castle was still punctuating his words with short, hard breaths. “You think I was gonna, what? Sit around waiting for a column on it?”

“I told you I was with Jessica so you would know I was safe!” She dropped her head into her hand. “Please, everything is okay. I was just resting here for a little while and I was going to let you know as soon as I was home so we could fill each other in.”

Trish cleared her throat, and they both looked at her as if she had walked into their bedroom. “I was going to say, Karen, that it might be a good idea for you to stay here for a night or two.”

Karen shot her a look that was definitely not gratitude. Castle just kept staring at Karen. After a few more seconds of nobody saying anything, she slowly reached forward and took the zipper tab of his hoodie, and he didn’t stop her. She only had to lower it an inch to see what she was looking for, but it was enough for Trish and Jessica to see it too: a curve of white paint that could only be the top of a skull.

“Jesus,” breathed Karen, zipping it back up and dropping her eyes to the floor. “Tell me you didn’t...”

“I didn’t do shit,” he told her. “Do I need to?”

She shook her head. “We’ve got a lot of work left to do, but none of us are in danger for now.”

Castle gestured toward Trish. “So why’s your friend want you to stay here?”

Before Karen could answer, Trish took a step forward and said, “Hello, I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure. My name is Trish Walker. I live here.”

Jessica guffawed. “He doesn’t know who you are. Refreshing?”

Castle was giving her a bemused smile. “Yeah, uh, nice to meet you, Miss Walker. Frank.”

“Sorry,” said Karen wearily to Trish. “This all probably would have gone better if I hadn’t fallen asleep on your couch. Um, Jessica, this is Frank, Frank, Jessica.”

“You were there?” Castle said to Jessica. “For whatever it was happened today?” Jessica nodded, her arms crossed. He held her gaze for a moment and then said gravely, “Thank you.”

Jessica looked torn between suspicion and embarrassment. “Yeah,” she said.

Karen yawned, hiding it behind a hand. “We really just need to get out of your hair,” she told Trish. “Frank can take me home, I’ll be fine.” She leaned into him to steady herself, and he wrapped an arm around her waist.

Everyone saw it happen: Karen winced when his hand settled on her forearm. It couldn’t be an emotional reaction, since she had initiated the touch, but she made an obvious effort to smooth her face over immediately. Trish thought back to when she had come in with Jessica, and recalled that she hadn’t bared her arms at any point.

Slowly, just as Karen had checked under his hoodie for the skull, Castle pushed her sleeve up her arm, and she let him do it. Underneath, a large purple bruise had blossomed. His hand dropped, and the two of them stood eye-to-eye, silent except for the increasing volume of Castle’s heaving breath.

Karen broke eye contact first. “Could we have a minute?” she asked in a measured voice.

Trish sighed. “The bedroom is that door.”

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Tags: conspiracy of ravens
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