Pretzel lingered outside the garage for close to five minutes, but then she went in. She then sounded a little relieved as she called out, “Tommy! Didn’t think you’d be here tonight.”
“One of the other guys asked me to fill in for him,” said another voice, one which sounded like it belonged to a younger man. Then it added darkly, “I wonder if he was in league with Ashtovka, and that’s why.”
“Ashtovka?” Pretzel repeated, confused.
“What, didn’t you hear, girl?” asked a second voice. “Lubov Ashtovka the Russian tease of doom made off with the weapons! Nobody’s sure when she got them off the dock, but she must have been responsible for everything, including the gassing of the two people we were actually worried about.”
“Ashtovka’s worse,” said a third. “And the latest, at least according to Hunt, who called me just now? There are two former S.H.I.E.L.D. agents working with her, and they even know how to the use the weapons. Craig MacGregor’s dead at the hands of the artist formerly known as Karina Silver.”
“What happened?” asked Pretzel, probably not having to feign her shock. “I mean, I heard about what happened at the party…”
“It probably was her buddy Matt Murdock who knocked out Harville. Around that time was the last time anyone saw Ashtovka at the party; she must have fled the building with them. But when we found Channing and Castillo passed out at the loading dock, they found what looked like one of her cufflinks, and the weapons all gone. Meanwhile MacGregor and his boys went to where they thought Page and Murdock might be staying. They had one of those babies with them, and Page just shot him on sight, blasted him to shards, and I mean literally. Must’ve been a terrible way to die. She and Murdock then fled into the night, and as they were running the other bikers saw they had someone with them. She’d ducked behind Murdock and they hadn’t spotted her before then. Didn’t get a good look, apparently, but it had to be Ashtovka; she’s small enough, and of course she’d be trying to go unspotted.”
“So nothing more is happening tonight, then?” She didn’t conceal her relief, although Matt supposed that could’ve had a number of explanations.
“Who knows?” Tommy. “You and me, Pretzel, we should've both just stayed up in Maine and spent our lives breeding lobsters. Why did we hop on that bus again? Yeah, I know you'd had that college to go to at the time, but..."
“I’m afraid your boyfriend’s not going to have a good night,” said the second voice. “The Goldsmith wasn’t happy with him even before Ashtovka’s fallen agents crashed the party, and now…”
“Will you be all right?” Tommy asked. “Want me to take you home? I won’t stay, obviously.” That “obviously” told Matt a lot, along with the fact that he hadn’t been in her company enough for Sharon to have taken note of him. The cold, calculating agent part of him was gauging the guy’s potential usefulness, and it might be considerable.
There was a pause while Pretzel considered it, but then she said, “No, you’ll just get yourself in trouble for leaving early again. I can get a cab.” Which she could, without it even appearing for Platzer to see on her credit card statement, because they’d equipped her with enough cash for a bribe, just in case she’d needed to do that here. Matt had the feeling they wouldn’t be seeing any of that money again. Karen would probably refuse to get mad at it. He wasn’t even himself at the moment, although that might have just been because the night’s events had worn him down.
He didn’t even feel anything as he related the entire conversation to Karen, and she said, equally emotionlessly, “She and Ashtovka have similar sizes and shapes. It makes sense they got them confused.”
Nor did he have much of a reaction when he heard Pretzel mutter to herself, “I am going home, now, Mr. Murdock, and Vernon better not be there when I arrive or I’ll tell him you made a pass at me.”
“Let her go,” said Karen, when he told her that part, which he’d pretty much been inclined to do anyway. “And don’t worry. There is absolutely no way Platzer will get home before she does, even if the cab takes a long time.”
Matt let Karen shower first as he emailed Sharon using their set-up accounts. They had the impression she knew a lot more about Ashtovka than she had even told them, and they could hope she would be able to see to it that she was caught before those weapons reached their destination. He made it a long email, since he sent her more details about everything they’d learned so far. Even so, he finished it before Karen came out of the shower. He suspected she would have lingered in there a long time indeed if there hadn’t been the need to preserve some hot water for him.
When she finally did get out, he was pretty sure she hadn’t left much. Which was fine, because he didn’t linger at all, getting in and out within five minutes. Normally he showered longer, especially after a fight, but he didn’t want to leave Karen alone for too long.
She’d killed multiple people, of course, the day S.H.I.E.L.D. had fallen. But that day as a whole had been so awful for everyone that Matt wasn’t sure that in particular had had much practical effect on her when they’d cried themselves to sleep together that night. Before then, it had been eleven months. It had been on a mission where she’d been working with Irina Parkinson in Luxembourg, while he’d been on the other side of the continent in Slovakia on a different mission. Irina had texted him regularly afterwards. According to her, Karen hadn’t shown any “severe signs” of distress, but had just seemed dazed and sad for a week afterwards.
Of course, she literally hadn’t been able gauge Karen the way Matt did. Listening to her lie still on the bed as he dried off, he thought that to those who just looked with their eyes, she might well appear very placid. But even from the other room, her body was screaming at him. Her heart hadn’t been at rest the entire evening, and while it was slower than had been, it was still quickening its speed at irregular intervals, along with her breathing. She was also developing a cold sweat, and she’d definitely cried in the shower; the smell still filled the bathroom.
Outside the bathroom, Matt put his briefs back on, but didn’t bother with the rest yet. He’d probably put his black shirt back on before sleeping, if only because it felt much better against his skin than the sheets were likely to, but it could wait until then. When Karen shifted to look at him, he could hear only her panties moving against her skin. No arousal yet, though he wouldn’t have expected that this early in the crash. Nights like this she might later be either desperate for sex or cringe at the thought of it; there was no predicting which beforehand. He tried not to judge her over it.
For now, she just shifted up to him, close enough he could feel the change in air against his face when she blinked, but not touching. That usually meant she was feeling shame, which he actually wouldn’t have expected.
“I recognized one of the bikers,” she said. “Guy I always knew as Aaron. He was in the Goldsmith’s inner circle at one point, enough so that the Goldsmith once rewarded him with me off-camera. And he was a common partner in front of it.”
“I see,” said Matt, his heart trying to ride out the surge of rage without anything showing on the surface. No matter how many times Karen talked about such things to him, it was never absent.
Especially when she continued, “I thought I wouldn’t feel any of that pain anymore. And just being here in Burlington was fine. I didn’t feel anything about it, until I first saw that girl. And even then, it was fine, I knew I could handle it. Until I saw him. He wasn’t with them in DC. He’s gotten along in years enough I suppose maybe he doesn’t always travel with them. But he was there, when we left the building, and the way he looked at me. It felt like I’d never been anything but a…a…although he should’ve known I knew how to shoot a gun, even one that fires crazy blue lasers. I did that in front of him too.”
“Do you want to…” Matt started. No judgement on that either; he hoped she realized that. To be tempted was only human, after all.
“Oh, not now,” she said, with a pained little laugh. “Not for a while, so we’ll be fine so long as this mission doesn’t last for months. Which it can’t now anyway, can it? We’re never going to elude all these people for that long, and we don’t have backup anymore. I had to do it. We should know what that means, that it got to that point so quickly.”
There was much to talk about there, but this wasn’t the time for that kind of after action analysis. For now, Matt then, “Then don’t worry about him. He’s just another thug now, and sounds like one of their weaker ones at that.”
“So many of them,” Karen sighed. “So many…” She seemed lost in her thoughts, then, though her heart seemed to have become a little bit steadier. Matt focused in on it, a comfortingly loud thrum that reminds him that, at the very least, she was eventually going to be all right.
Even if, right now, the next words she said were, “There's still so much I've never told you, things I mostly told the psychologist about before I was worried she would blab-but there’s nothing about them in my leaked profile, so I guess she actually didn’t.”
“I’ve never read that profile,” said Matt. “I don’t ever intend to.” He kind of wished, for that reason alone, that Steve Rogers and his people had been just a little more selective on what they’d dumped into the public eye. He knew there were things in his own profile, things that had nothing to do with his superpowers, that it was hard to handle the world knowing.
Which was a large reason of why he said, “And if you’re ready to tell me those things, Karen, I’ll hear them and I won’t tell a soul. But don’t go telling me out of some belief that you’re wronging me by not doing so. I don’t care about that. Your mental health is more important, and I don’t want you to push yourself to do something you’re not ready for, for my sake.”
“What if it turns out to be mission critical? I mean, the things I’m talking about probably won’t, honestly, but…”
“We can worry about that bridge if we think we’re getting near it,” said Matt, because now wasn’t the time for that conversation either.
“I know, I know,” she said. “I’ve heard the drill before. Irina…” A pause, a heave of breath as she tried not to cry. “She repeated it to me. Twice. And I’m so tired, Matt. Since we started this, I’ve spent half the time being so tired and wanting to just drop the whole thing and walk away. Problem is, I’ve spent the other half terrified of the question of what I’m going to do when this is over. I don’t know if I’m even good for anything besides this.”
“There were plenty of things I’ve seen you excel at you weren’t good at when you started at the Academy. We’ve both of us got a lot to learn.” He had a vision, then, of Karen in law school with him, or maybe a little later, if it took her longer to get there. They could start up their own firm together. Maybe when this was over he’d suggest it. For now, he limited himself to, “I know you’ve never thought beyond a S.H.I.E.L.D. career. Life hasn’t suggested much else to you, has it? But there you just need time, and a chance to catch your breath. You’ll have that. I’ll help you however I can.”
“I know,” she said, but she sounded so sad. “I don’t know if I’ll sleep tonight or not.” He heard her turn away from him; she didn’t want to talk anymore.
She drifted off after about half an hour, maybe more out of exhaustion than anything else. When he was sure of that, Matt carefully pulled himself off the bed without a sound, not even letting the beads rattle as he picked his rosary off the bedside table. He kept one hand on the bed, just to be absolutely sure he wouldn’t bump into it, as he knelt to pray. He mouthed the words instead of speaking them. Half of them, after all, were for the woman who needed them, but also would need all the sleep she could get the next few days.
It didn’t make him feel much better, but at least Karen was still asleep when he crawled back into bed beside her, the sheets as uncomfortable as he’d feared, but he was now tired enough he was confident of his ability to fall asleep anyway.
“We could try anyway,” said Matt. “Take a quick walk past. Or I could alone. Buy a new shirt and a broad-rimmed hat and different sunglasses, and since we don’t have my cane anyway...” They’d had to leave it back in the apartment. At least those motorcyclists weren’t likely to bother doing anything to it. But it actually was harder to walk about without it, requiring a lot more concentration on his part.
“The earlier you do it, the better,” said Karen. “It’s a little past 7:30 right now. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of our friends from last night are only just now getting to bed, but if they know about Ashtovka’s apartment, someone will try to sneak into the place today.”
She stopped typing, and was still for a moment. Then she said, “She also wants to take the laser gun off of our hands, if we can get it to a certain location by about 5 PM on Monday. It’s in a box in an alleyway, so we should probably do that drop-off as close to the pickup time as possible. And she says she might be able to provide us with a bit more information about Platzer some time today, but she can’t promise anything. And that’s about it. You really want to stalk the apartment?”
“It’s probably not safe to go anywhere near our own for a few hours yet. Surely they won’t just assume that quickly that we *must* have left town.”
“No, they won’t, but I wish we had a better idea of their numbers. I could provide a guess as to when they’ll start to move people out of our apartment. They’ll take a lot of things, but hopefully they won’t view your sheets as worth the bother.” Matt thought briefly of everything they’d left behind, from his cane to practically all of the clothes she owned.
“Can you form any estimates at all?” he asked her. “If we can get in touch with Pretzel I suppose you could ask her.”
“I don’t want to put her in more danger than necessary,” said Karen, then paused for a long meant, before saying, “At the very least, I don’t think the Goldsmith can have fifty of his people in the city, and that includes the biker gang. That makes it unlikely they’ll keep more than a handful of people in the apartment at a time past today. We could get another hotel for the night.
Meanwhile,” she continued, after another pause, “I’m pretty sure the Goldsmith must be putting the motorcyclists up somewhere cheap. Those guys certainly aren’t native to Burlington, and, Aaron,” a painful hint of fear in her voice as she said his name, “he told me some things once. Said the gang had always liked to stay under the same roof when they were traveling, and always made sure everyone knew exactly where everyone else was. Of course the guy who was in charge at the time was a control freak.”
“Any ideas where in the city they might be?” Matt asked. “I can try to track them.”
“There are some possible candidates, at least if they haven’t been torn down since. I thought I might do a little investigation this morning, at least see which ones are still there. I don’t even need to go too near anywhere, certainly shouldn’t have to engage anyone.”
“Sounds like a plan.” If she could figure out exactly where they were, there would be plenty of opportunities for Matt to do further spying. “Pity this place doesn’t serve breakfast; guess we’re going to have to go out and into the open as soon as we want to eat.”
As he got closer, he was able to get more certain of the exact count: eleven heartbeats crowded into one of the building’s biggest set of rooms, the set that was in the right part of the building, and also, the voices in it were familiar. Six of them were ones he’d heard last night in his and Karen’s own apartment. A seventh sounded vaguely familiar; he thought he might have heard it at the party. The other four were new.
The apartment was in the back half of the building, and there weren’t very many people outside on the street at all. But it wasn’t always easy to tell who might be looking out the windows, so while Matt dragged his feet, he kept moving, trying to tell from the variations of temperature around him where he might at least be in the shadows. This wasn’t the best neighborhood for that, unfortunately.
At first the conversation he heard was almost entirely about Ashtovka, and a couple of other people Sharon had already mentioned as known associates of hers. But then, when one of the motorcyclists and one of the newcomers were in the middle of an argument about whether Orrick Stathos, whom she’d asked so many questions about at the party, was likely to be involved in this or not, an older sounding voice broke in: “Enough of this! We already know who helped her steal those weapons. We just don’t want to admit that those two people got the better of us.”
“Is it that shameful a thing?” asked one another one of the newcomers. “They are former agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., after all, their leaked records are pretty impressive, and they both have experience with the Goldsmith.”
“Experience isn’t exactly what I’d call it, boy,” growled the old man, and somehow, Matt knew immediately this was Aaron, even before he continued, “The Goldsmith owned Page back when I knew her; she’d spread her legs for whoever he wanted before he could even nod. Hardly surprising she’s doing it for Murdock now. Of course he’s kept her; she always was a useful pet. But if it was her who threw those grenades while he was otherwise occupied...we've had enough of being shown up by that little bitch.”
Matt had kept on walking, but now he nearly stumbled over his own feet, and it was suddenly harder to keep track of where everything around him was. This kind of rage always made him focus on the objects of it, even in moments where there was absolutely nothing he could do to them. The lack of his cane became a serious problem as he lurched forward, hoping absolutely no one was looking out their windows right now, or if they were, they wouldn’t bother about the drunk-looking guy about.
Meanwhile, another one of the bikers was saying, “Well, we won’t be anymore, will we? You think Ashtovka will send them back here, after they’ve been seen? They’ll stay out of our hair.”
“If,” said the second newcomer, “they’ve just become her henchmen. But reading both their profiles? I don’t believe that. They’re not the type to just do that, either of them. Murdock especially. One of my associates worked with him once. He described him as an idealistic man, how if he heard one heartbeat still in the area, however faint, even if he admitted they couldn’t get there in time, he’d still insist on trying to save them. But he was willing to get his hands dirty in certain ways, especially in the name of saving lives. And from what I have read about Page? I could see the two of them forming a temporary alliance with a woman like Ashtovka for their own supposedly justifying ends.
Also, they will be back. The other thing my associate said about Murdock is he’s a man who can’t leave anything alone.”
That man was probably Hydra, Matt thought. The associate…he didn’t even want to think about who the associate may have been; there were certainly multiple candidates.
“I suppose you have an idea about what to do about him,” sneered the second biker, clearly unimpressed.
“Considering his psychological profile, or at least what you can get about it from the leaked record? I think he’d be easy to lure into a trap. We just need bait. I suppose you’ll think Page, and if we could get her, she’d certainly be ideal. But remember she is a trained S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, with a very respectable record when it comes to combat. Whatever you think,” and Matt was pretty sure he was aiming those words at a skeptical-looking Aaron, “I would recommend we find someone else. Doesn’t even have to be someone Murdock’s even heard of up until now, if his history’s any indication. Could just be someone he can be brought to see as a victim that he has the opportunity to rescue.”
“Give that suggestion to the higher-ups, then,” said someone else, vaguely familiar.
“Oh, I will,” said the Hydra agent, with that tone of voice that indicated he was very confident his suggestion would be taken up. Matt suspected he was right about that, too.
That was situation they could turn to their advantage, of course. A trap could be sprung, if one knew it was a trap, and was willing to work with that situation. Although it was a little more dangerous in this case, because a Hydra agent was likely to make his own plans concerning the both of them, ones that no one would even learn the exact nature of until it was possibly too late. But really, a chance to potentially ensnare the Goldsmith and his minions in the act of committing a crime, depending on the nature of the baiting, of course, was a chance he and Karen were willing to take their risks for.
Especially, of course, if they had the bait secretly working with them. Pretzel would look to them like ideal bait, if she could just get herself noticed by them. They would especially hope Karen would want to save her.
If Pretzel was willing to cooperate with that. She would be putting herself at much greater risk, and she might balk. Matt was not willing to outright bully her into it, and was not sure Karen could even bear it if they did. But perhaps she might be willing to go through with it on the grounds that, if all went well, it would end with her going into federal hands and out of her current situation immediately.
The conversation had shifted; they were nearly done inspecting the apartment and would likely soon depart. Listening to their further conversation was no longer worth the risk of discovery. Matt went on his way.
When he turned the phone back on, it was to the news that Karen had checked another place out, which was still there, but she’d seen no sign of the men or their bikes anywhere, and it was a place where she would’ve expected that. Matt considered texting her, then decided this was a conversation they should have face to face.