When the phone rings at two twenty am, it's never good news.
Jen Cooke, social worker, blearily reached out and grabbed the receiver before the shrill ring bore into her brain yet again.
The dark, inflection free voice woke her up real quick.
"I need you here. Young girls. Now."
Adrenaline washed away the cobwebs as she scribbled down the address.
Jen parked her boyfriend's sedan and headed towards the entrance of the abandoned factory. She wished she'd gotten her hands on some of the anti-acids in the back of the bathroom cupboard.
The door opened just as she approached the large doors. Frank Castle's dark, deep-set gaze bore back at her, just before he stepped back long enough to let her in.
"Mid-level methamphetamine operation. Recruiting runaways; mostly girls, to speed up production. Sold it to them as safer than prostitution. Didn't realise the dangers of being hands deep in the creation of meth until it was too late."
Jen saw the girls; about eight in number, huddled nearby. Might be a tight squeeze in the Ford –
- then she saw the bodies lying around. Yes, that person looked entirely too young to have half his brain leaking out of his head. And so did the rest of the bodies that were in mostly minority ethnic groups.
"What did you do?"
Castle demonstrated his commitment to resource conservation by employing his 'what the hell do you think?' expression with as little facial movement as possible.
"Di … did you have to kill them all?"
"A twelve year old with a gun is just as dangerous as a twenty-two year old with a gun."
"Where did you pick up that piece of wisdom? Talkback radio?"
"Khe Sanh. Spring of 'sixty-eight."
Cooke decided not to waste time, and started to usher the girls towards the car.
Some cramming and creative lap-sitting later, Jen faced the Punisher.
"Can I at least get you to seriously consider not killing everybody you have … issues with?"
"I don't recommend it."
Jen ran her fingers through her dark curly hair. "You do understand … there are people in … races … bad neighbourhoods … economic situations, more now than ever … who just don't see any other choice?"
"They have that choice. And they run the risks whenever they make one in particular."
Jen decided that persuading Frank Castle just might be beyond her abilities. "Well, all I can say is, statistically speaking; by this time next year you're gonna get a whole lot busier."
She got into the driver's seat and drove off. Hopefully Marcie Miller had fired up the coffee machine at the office.
Castle watched the overladen Ford drive off. Cooke was talented and committed at her job. Which was why he tolerated her lectures every time he had certain innocents to have looked after.
Then again, if he found a social worker that didn't care like Cooke did, they'd probably be happy to let girls like that slip through the cracks with as little paperwork as possible.
Although, something she said did give him pause.
He paid as little attention to current affairs as possible, but some rumblings were becoming more and more strident.
Castle checked his watch, and referred to his mental map of Manhattan, specifically locations of Internet Cafes. While he never advocated concepts like mercy towards the enemy, he could see the benefits of preventing further recruitment.
The CEO sank into the plush leather chair in his study with relief. It was the late nights that offered the quiet reflection one needed.
And a decent whiskey.
He glanced at the newspaper before rubbing his eyes. Yes, of course the bonuses were wildly unpopular, but it didn't matter, because the upper tiers in the company just below him deserved – or thought they deserved them.
If he put his foot down, the few minutes of celebrity he'd gain wouldn't make up for the fact that every last one of them would put a vote of no confidence against him, and he'd be fired without a parachute of any colour.
And then they'd vote in one of their own and they'd get the bonuses anyway.
He decided to leave the figures until the morning. Make Accounting go over them with him. After all, share the misery.
Movement made him look up. "I said I'm ..."
A man. In a leather overcoat.
And holding a pistol with a silencer.
"... wha ... there's no cash ..."
Then he saw his chest.
And the stark white skull.
"Oh no ..."
"Shut up and listen." A cold pronounced voice.
The intruder held that pistol with the casual effort of someone used to it's weight and use. Not even bothering to point it at him; didn't need to, to be honest.
He lowered himself into the chair facing the businessman, who was sweating behind his desk.
"I've heard things."
"I've never been involved in any illegal ..."
"Unsafe working practices in foreign sweatshops. Downsizing, firing or forcing employees to quit; specifically those between forty-five and fifty so that they can't claim on the company pension fund. Contributing to PACs and lobby groups to soften or eliminate environmental laws; water pollution, emission levels, because it'd cost to get your plants up to standard. Switching to a less than adequate health plan for your employees because an old buddy of yours is CFO of that insurance company."
"That's ... that's standard operating practice ..."
The man produced a piece of paper, and tossed it on the desk.
Oh God, the girl, that sick cancer eleven year old who was rejected by Skeeter's health plan and her father shot her and himself ... they'd minimised the flak by making sure the media stayed focussed on the insurance company, but this man had read past the headlines and saw who actually provided the plan ...
"... you proposed and signed off on that health plan ..."
He leaned forward. Deep set eyes that witnessed a thousand atrocities and would happy commit one more with less mental effort than deciding on either Coke or Pepsi.
"Normally, I'd have put one in your head. But you're also part of the solution."
He wasn't going to kill him?
"There's going to be changes. You're going to be the most loved CEO in America. Salary. Job Security. Environment. Health Care. I want a press statement and immediate implentmentation by tomorrow morning."
The words were out of his mouth before he realised how stupid it was. "Do ... do you have any idea what this will do to the stock price?"
His unchanging expression revealed just how little he cared.
"The board is going to flay me alive."
He got up.
"No matter what the board does to you ..." He moved towards the open door. "... at the end, you're going to survive."
"Just ... this won't change ... are you going to threaten every major CEO in the world?"
The intruder stopped, turned. The man who controlled one of the most powerful corporations in the world tried to look into the dark gaze, and failed miserably.
"Who's going to be ..."
"Statistically speaking; some of them need killing ..."