The Punisher – By the Hands of the Angels – A Marvel Rebooted One Shot

Aug 9, 2017 by     Comments Off on The Punisher – By the Hands of the Angels – A Marvel Rebooted One Shot    Posted under: Punisher

Randy Lander presents
Marvel Rebooted One-Shot
The Punisher: By the Hands of the Angels
By S.A. Rivera

punisher_header

The street lamps had just switched on by the time Frank Castle stepped through the yellow police tape surrounding the lonely suburban house. The cops had left a few minutes ago. Collected their stories from the witnesses and headed out. The few they left on guard duty were easy enough to avoid. The night was quiet. They usually were, in the nicer parts of the city. That night was especially quiet. Fear hung in the air. Something rare in a neighborhood where the houses looked like the backgrounds of postcards. Happy families lived there. The kind with a fat spoiled dog, and a minivan parked in the drive way. The kind that sent their kids to private schools. The kind that barbecued on Sunday and went on vacation in the Summer. The lucky few able to afford a little heaven all their own. There weren’t many people being roasted alive where devils feared to tread.

Frank pulled a picture from his pocket. There was a family there. A happy one like he’d expect. A handsome father. A beautiful mother. Two healthy kids. One son. One daughter. All of them smiling and laughing. Real happiness. Real joy. None of that fake stuff, that “smile for the camera” stuff. Frank lowered the picture. The same family were all sitting in the living room. Unrecognizable. The fire had left nothing intact. Just a set of charred skeletons with empty eye-sockets tied to a set of blackened dining room chairs. Each one had been soaked in gasoline and set on fire. They had been alive until the very end. All except one.

Four people in the picture. Only three corpses. No sign of a fourth. That’s when Frank heard a pistol being drawn. Its hammer clicked into place.

“Come back to finish the job?”

It was a girl’s voice. Young. High school age. About the same age as Stacy Philips, the missing daughter. Frank raised his hands.

“I didn’t kill your parents,” Frank said. His voice was calm.

“Bullshit,” she said. Frank could almost feel the anger in her voice. She was seething with rage. Frank knew the feeling. “You’ve got guns, a bullet proof vest.”

“Could be a cop,” Frank said.

“I’ve never seen a cop carry a Desert Eagle with custom grips before,” she said. “At least not while he’s on duty.”

“You’re right,” Frank said. “I’m not a cop. And I’m not the one who killed your parents and brother.”

“Yeah? Then what are you doing here?” She asked.

“Making sure I get the people who did,” Frank said.

“Okay,” she said. “You say it wasn’t you. Who the fuck else could’ve burned my family alive…besides the big guy standing in my living room armed to the teeth…”

“Look down,” Frank said.

“No way,” the girl said.

“There’s something written,” Frank said.

He looked down to where a short message was scrawled out on the floor in black chalk: “No country for New Nazis.”

“Wh-who wrote that?” The girl asked.

“Something new,” Frank said. “Something dangerous.”

“Th-then…,” the girl said. The rage had begun to subside. The fear had begun to take over. “…who are you?”

Frank turned, hands still up.

“Frank Castle,” he said.

“The Punisher?!”

* * *

The girl looked like she did in the picture, only a little older. Silky chestnut hair and bright blue eyes. Beautiful. Cheerleader type. Not usually the type to use a gun, or to know a Desert Eagle by sight. She was wearing a blue letterman jacket and fitted blue jeans. A typical high school girl except for the peacemaker revolver in her hands.

“Are you Stacy Philips?” Frank asked.

It took her a moment. Her eyes were fixed on the burned bodies of her family and the 6ft, two-hundred-pound man standing there armed to the teeth. Finally, she nodded.

“Yes,” she said.

Frank could tell, she wasn’t used to being this way. She was used to being in control, used to confidence. Fear, sadness, rage, and loss all coming together at once. It must have been overwhelming.

“Wh-who wrote those words?” Stacy asked.

“Was your father part of any radical groups?” Frank asked.

“What? No, of course not,” Stacy said. “He was just a banker.”

“Are you sure?” Frank asked.

“Of course, I am,” Stacy said. “He definitely wasn’t a Nazi. He even helped families in need get around red tape at the bank so they could get loans.”

“No enemies?” Frank asked.

“No! Now can you please tell me who fucking did this to my family?”

“It was a political hit,” Frank said.

Stacy furrowed her brow.

“But my dad never had anything to do with politics,” Stacy said. “Not even locally.”

Frank paused for a moment.

“It started with the last Presidential election. A Republican outsider clawed his way to the top. Caused a huge mess up in Washington. Caught the old establishment by surprise, so they cranked up the propaganda machine. Media agencies started vilifying the president and his supporters. The rats made political violence acceptable, so long as it’s against the right people. Made the country a playground for political crazies,” he said. “A lot of radical left-wing extremists banded together to fight for some better future.”

Left-wing extremists?” Stacy asked.

“Most groups started off as some dumb kids with signs wanting to look special.”

Frank put his hands down. He walked over to a nearby window and checked outside. Stacy made sure her revolver was aimed straight.

“Hey! What’re you doing?’ Stacey said.

Frank didn’t answer. The guards outside were chatting. They hadn’t taken notice yet.

“The old establishment kept on going,” Frank said. “They wanted blood. The radicals were allowed to grow more and more extreme. Now we’re staring down a new breed of domestic terrorist. The most dangerous kind the country has ever known. Not because they’re smarter or braver than the rest. Far from. It’s because they have the one thing no other terrorist organization has.”

“Wh-what’s that?” Stacy asked.

Frank turned from the window and looked back at Stacy.

“Protection from America’s ruling class,” Frank said.

“What?”

“An underworld boss gets arrested, he gets out. He’s got the money and the influence,” Frank said. “One of these boys gets caught, he gets a slap on the wrist and a free ticket home.”

“Why are you telling me all this?” Stacy asked.

“Your family was the work of a left-wing extremist group I’ve been chasing for a while now,” Frank said. “I’m telling you this because jail cells can’t hold’em. I’m telling you because even if they catch the people responsible, there’s not going to be a trial. No sentencing. No justice.”

“So…the people who murdered my entire family…they’re, just what, going to get away with it?” Stacy asked. “All because they have the right politics?”

“Unless I stop them,” Frank said.

“Who are these people exactly?” Stacy asked.

“They call themselves The Last Crusade,” Frank said.

Stacy lowered her gun.

“Okay,” she said. “Let’s say I believe you. Why answer all my questions like this? I mean, aren’t lone hero types supposed to say something like ‘just go somewhere safe’ or ‘I’m handling this one my own?’”

“I’m telling you because you deserve to know,” Frank said. “And because you have a choice to make.”

“What choice?”

“The same one I made a long time ago,” Frank said.

He walked past Stacy and towards the front door, then stopped.

“But you don’t have to make it now,” he said. “You’ve got time.”

“So…what happens now?” Stacy asked. “You’re just going to leave me?”

“Now comes the part where I usually say, ‘go somewhere safe’…‘I’ll handle this one my own,” Frank said. “But I need you.”

“Why?” Stacy asked. “What can I do?”

“Your family wasn’t an accident,” Frank said. “This has hints of planning all over it. Which leaves one question.”

“What’s that?”

“Why are you still alive?”

“I got lucky,” Stacy said.

“I believe in luck,” Frank said. “But this isn’t it. And if they kept you alive for a reason…they might be coming back for you. And if they planned this murder as well as I think they have…“

Stacy felt her heart skip.

“Then there’s a good chance they knew I’d come back.”

The windows shattered. Small white canisters clattered on the ground. Smoke began hissing out from each end. It only took seconds. The house was filled. Zero visibility. The sound of splintering wood followed. Someone had kicked open the door. A train of footsteps rushed through the door. Frank couldn’t see Stacy. He couldn’t hear her either. Wherever she was, whatever she was doing, she wasn’t making a sound. The smoke would be out in a few seconds. Frank guessed they weren’t there to kill. The smoke was a distraction. A way to get the men in place while making sure she couldn’t run. Frank knelt down. The Last Crusade wanted to send a message. Frank thought it’d only be good manners to send one back, something personal.

Frank closed his eyes. He listened to the footsteps. There were quite a few. Maybe five. Maybe seven. He reached for his Desert Eagle, then stopped. He reached for the knife sheathed in his belt, then stopped. He cracked his knuckles. The attackers thought they were tough, strong. Thought themselves a group of modern revolutionaries. Cousins to the old boys like Stalin or Castro. Thought themselves a band of professionals. Frank clenched his fists. The boys of The Last Crusade were a bunch of amateurs playing a professional’s game.

Frank stood up. He reached out and pulled one of the attackers from the smoke. They were sloppy. No caution. No precision. They weren’t soldiers. They never had to push a friend’s guts back in his stomach while deafened by gunfire. Never had to wipe their faces clean after the guy next to them took a 7.62mm round to the head. Never had to wade into the darkness to hunt a vicious enemy who knew the darkness better than they did. After a few minutes of listening, the smoke was useless.

A quick twist. The neck snapped. Frank let the body drop. Dead before he realized someone had even grabbed him. Another intruder brushed passed him by chance. They stared at one another for a brief second. Same uniform. Black pants, black hoodie, red bandanna covering the lower half of the face. Rifle in hand. The man’s eyes widened. He froze. Only a second or two. Just long enough.

A punch to the throat caved his larynx. Another to the face sent his nose shooting through his brain. Only two down, and the smoke was starting to clear. Things were going to get messy.

Frank took a long breath. He drew his knife and pistol. The next guy took the knifepoint right in the jugular. He fell, holding his throat as the blood flowed from his neck like a drainpipe. Frank watched him bleed out. He watched the life leave his eyes. Then he looked up. The smoke was gone, and he’d already caught the attention of the four survivors.

Frank could see the fear in their eyes. It gripped them for one second too long. Frank took aim. He pulled the trigger. The Desert Eagle boomed through the house. Probably woke the neighbors. Suddenly three of them found themselves spattered in skull fragments and bits of brain as the fourth fell back, head completely gone.

The last three had rifles. Frank was outnumbered. Outgunned. Any good soldier wouldn’t waste a second. They’d fire back. But these weren’t soldiers. They dropped their rifles and ran screaming. Normally Frank might’ve gone after them. Not tonight. Tonight, he had bigger concerns.

Stacy was sitting on the stairway, hugging her knees. Left alone in all that smoke with the men who burned her family alive coming in to take her who knows where. A lot to take in. Heavy stuff. Especially for a high school kid.

Frank stepped over the bodies and made his way toward Stacy.

“You did good,” he said.

Stacy didn’t move.

“Shut up,” she said. She looked up. She still had the peacemaker in her hand. The fear was gone, masked by a burning rage.

“I’ll go with you,” she said. “I’ll answer every question you ask. One condition.”

“What’s that?” Frank asked.

“When we find them…we kill them all.”

* * *

The two cops stationed to guard the place were handcuffed outside. They got a glimpse of Frank and Stacy as they walked out. They stayed quiet. Smart move, not that Frank would’ve done anything anyway. Frank headed down the road. The van was parked about half a mile back. Sirens screeched in the distance. An ambulance was on its way to pick up what was left of Stacy’s family. They were going to earn their keep tonight.

“So where are we going?” Stacy asked.

“Back to the hideout,” Frank said.

“Do you know who these Crusader guys are?” She asked. “I mean do you at least know where to look?”

“No,” Frank said.

“Are you going to find out?”

“That’s the plan,” Frank said. “Here’s the first question. Why weren’t you home?”

Stacy looked down.

“You mean…why was I gone when my family was being killed…”

“Yeah,” Frank said.

“I’d gone to the movies with some friends,” she said.

“Tell me about your family,” Frank said.

Stacy raised a brow.

“What do you mean?”

“Tell me about them,” Frank said.

“Like what?”

“Jobs, hobbies, friends,” Frank said. “Your family was targeted. If we’re going to get these terrorists off your back, we’re going to have to figure out why.”

Stacy looked down. She thought a moment.

“Well my dad, uh, Rodger Philips. He’s a banker. Like I said before. My mom, Doris Philips, mostly stays home. Cleans and gets dinner ready. Stuff like that,” Stacy said. “Michael Philips, that’s my brother, he’s actually in college. He just stopped by for a visit. Wrong time to visit I guess…”

“Yeah,” Frank said.

“And me…I’m on the cheerleading team at my high school,” Stacy said. “And before you ask…yes. I get good grades. They kick you off the team if your grades drop.”

“What’s the story behind the gun?” Frank asked. “I assume that’s why you went back to the house.”

Stacy looked at the revolver in her hands.

“Yeah, it’s dad’s,” she said. “It was his dad’s too before that. He grew up in a military family. Grandpa fought in World War Two. Dad always said Grandpa was kinda no non-sense. Dad said the most important lesson he taught him…when you do a job do it right the first time…because sometimes you don’t get a second chance. I guess that included killing people.”

“Man after my own heart,” Frank said.

“Dad is really into guns,” Stacy said. “He’s also pretty protective. That’s why he wants me to learn how to shoot. We go shooting almost every weekend. I didn’t like it at first. Then I got pretty good at it. And it’s kind of hard to hate something you’re good at.”

“He started you off with the revolver?” Frank asked.

“No way,” Stacy said. “I just knew how special this one was. In a way, it’s become the heart of our family. I didn’t want it to get locked away in some evidence locker for God knows how long.”

They finally reached the van. It looked old. Dented with rust spots in places. Stacy wasn’t sure the engine would turn on. Frank unlocked the passenger door.

“Get in,” he said.

Stacy climbed into the passenger seat. The van creaked the second she stepped foot on it. She closed the door. Frank sat in the driver’s seat. He turned the key and the lazy engine choked to life. Stacy looked in the back. It was full. She wasn’t surprised that The Punisher drove around with an entire armory.

Rifles, full auto to bolt action. Pistols of every flavor. Stacy even spotted an RPG next to a box of warheads cushioned in hay.

“Jesus…are you thinking about going to war with someone?” She asked.

“Always…,” Frank said.

Stacy didn’t know how long they drove, or to where. Her mind was racing. She thought about her family. She thought about her grandfather. She wondered how he would handle it, if he were there instead. She also thought about The Punisher and the promise of revenge he represented. She thought about the choice. The same one he’d made. After all, his family had been murdered by criminals, just like hers was. He was the only survivor, just like she was. Decades ago, there was a younger Frank Castle who faced a choice just like the one she was facing now. Just like she was.

The van stopped. The engine switched off. Frank opened the door and stepped out. The back doors swung open. Frank began sifting through the weaponry he’d stashed in the back. He holstered another pistol in his belt, along with the knife and Desert Eagle. A bandoleer of extra clips. Finally, the pièce de résistance, a drum fed SAIGA 12 Gauge shotgun set to semi-automatic fire.

Frank walked around to the passenger side of the van and opened the door.

“Get out,” he said.

Stacy slid off the seat and landed on the ground.

“Come on,” Frank said.

They had parked in an alleyway. Frank lead Stacy down a set of stairs into what looked like a basement. Frank unlocked what looked like a big metal door. Then Stacy followed Frank into what looked more like a prison than a hide out. Grey concrete floor. Grey concrete walls topped with a grey concrete ceiling. A simple mattress on the floor for the bed. Empty cans of food were left sitting on top a cheap metal table. The only decoration were the city maps and pictures of criminals scattered over the walls.

“This is where you live?” Stacy asked.

“Been renting the room from the landlord for a few weeks. Doesn’t know who I am. Don’t ask, don’t tell,” Frank said. “Still, can’t risk cops or some curious passerby dropping in and finding an armory. That’s why I rented the van. Limits my arsenal. But it’s necessary, especially for this set up.”

Frank walked across the room to the door on the opposite end.

“What set up?” Stacy asked.

“There’s a reason I’m willing to do work arounds for this place,” Frank said. “Stay here. No matter what happens. Stay here. Got it?”

Stacy nodded.

“Got it?” Frank asked again.

“I got it,” Stacy said.

Frank opened the door. He closed it behind him. There was a steep stairway up to the top. Step by step Frank climbed. Eventually he started to hear sound coming from the floor above. As he climbed higher and higher the sound got louder and louder. A few steps more he could make it out. Music. Heavy base and hard electronic notes. He reached the top, then he kicked open the door. A guard in a black shirt turned to see Frank standing there. The whole club was a front. Frank had spent days learning every worker. Top to bottom. Boss to door man. The place was run by a man named Nick Lorca. Smart boss. Only hired guys he could trust. They were all dirty. Dumb guys.

“Move,” Frank said.

The guard put his hands up and nodded. The club was full. A dense crowd of civilians filled the dance floor. Too many innocents.

“Take me to your boss,” Frank said.

“Shit! Whatever you say, man,” the guard said.

Frank was led around the main dance floor. Passed the bar where a few skinny guys in leather pants were drinking topical colored drinks. Passed the dance floor. Out of the room. Down a quiet hallway. They stopped at a plain wooden door.

“Open it,” Frank said.

The guard knocked.

“Hey, Mr. Lorca? We got company,” he said. Then he opened the door.

Nick Lorca was a weasel. Pencil thin. Wearing a teal green suit. White button up shirt. Brown hair. Still wore a ponytail like he used to in the 80’s. He was top dog on a short food chain. Frank walked in and Lorca stood up and pressed himself against the wall.

“The Punisher?! Shit! I knew you’d come back for me!” He said. “Oh Je…oh Jesus. Look man, you don’t gotta do this.”

Frank met Lorca a few years back. He left him hanging upside down over a pool of molten metal. Frank let Lorca live after he spilled information about a dozen high ranking wise guys. He was always good at making connections. Lorca was a grade-A boot licker. Easy to crack. Frank figured a guy like that might have been worth keeping around…if someone else didn’t kill him first.

“Give me a reason,” Frank said.

“L-look I-I know a lot of people okay?” He said. “I’ll tell you whatever you want…just name’em.”

“The leader of The Last Crusade,” Frank said. “I’m looking for him.”

Lorca went pale.

“Oh shit, man,” he said. “He’s the one guy I can’t give you,”

Frank raised his shotgun and took aim. Lorca put up his hands.

“W-wait wait wait!” He said. “It’s just, I mean, I’d thought you’d know.”

“What?”

“I always thought you ran with those hero types,” Lorca said.

Frank lowered his gun.

“Hero types?”

“The Captain, man,” Lorca said. “I-it’s the Captain. He’s the guy who leads those Last Crusader guys.”

“Captain who?” Frank asked.

“America, man,” Lorca said. “It’s Captain America!”

Frank felt shock grip his heart. He almost didn’t notice when the boom of a shotgun turned off the sound. He hardly felt it when the slug blasted him to the ground.

* * *

Muffled voices. Muffled shouting. Frank could barely make out a word. The vest had stopped the buck shot. The impact still hit his back at full force. His spine was jelly. His whole body was numb. Frank could feel the vibrations of footsteps. There were five people now, including Lorca. Frank moved his eyes to his right hand. Somehow, he’d managed to keep hold of the SAIGA. If only he could move.

The pawns had done their job. They were soft boys playing hard revolutionaries. Heads filled with dreams of glory like the heroes in the movies. But they weren’t soldiers. Skill didn’t make them dangerous. Frank had known that since the beginning. Their leader made them dangerous. A leader good enough to turn a bunch of unemployed mama’s boys into an effective terrorist operation. And as Frank laid there face down on the floor of Lorca’s office in some seedy nightclub waiting for a ninety-pound Starbucks goer to put a bullet through his head, suddenly the thought of Captain America being The Last Crusade’s grand war-master didn’t seem so far-fetched.

The muffled voiced started getting clearer.

“Just kill’em already!” Lorca said.

“The Captain wants him alive,” said another voice. “If we can take him, we’re taking him.”

“Fuckin’ little shits,” Lorca said. “You do that, you die.”

“Dude, the Captain’s no ordinary guy, okay?” said the other. “If anyone can handle the Punisher, he can.”

“Yeah,” Lorca said. “When you boys find yourselves staring down the wrong end of a gun barrel don’t come crying to me.”

“You think the girl is here somewhere?” the other said.

“Punisher usually travels alone,” Lorca said. “But if the son of a bitch did take the girl with him…he’d have her nearby.”

Frank felt his heart skip.

“No,” he coughed.

“What the fuck?”

The image of a little girl lying alone in middle of a grassy green park assaulted his mind. Shot to pieces. Her guts oozing out of her belly. Her eyes, blank. Passed pain. Passed fear. Trapped in a living hell. And Frank found himself up on one knee. His hand gripped the handle of the SAIGA tight. He felt two pistol shots fire into his chest at point blank range. They should’ve hurt. They should’ve put the fight out of him for good. But his mind focused. He shut everything else away. Passed pain. Passed fear. All rage.

“I fuckin’ told you! You dumb fucks!” Lorca shouted. “I fuckin’-“

The SAIGA fired. Lorca’s torso turned to pulp. Frank flicked the setting to full auto.

“Oh sh-shit!” The others said.

Frank recognized them. The skinny guys at the bar. The same ones he’d passed when the bouncer lead him to Lorca’s office. Speaking of which.

“Muthafucka!”

Frank felt the force of the bouncer’s punch strike the side of his head. His vision doubled. He fell. His head cracked against the floor. Another bullet pounded his chest like sledgehammer. His body ached. His head throbbed. He couldn’t catch his balance. He had a pain behind the eyes that made him want to puke his guts out. Frank should’ve lost consciousness. He didn’t. Lying on the floor, dazed and battered, he took aim at the bouncer and snapped the trigger back. The SAIGA barked out three rounds. The bouncer was nothing but red paste on the wall.

“Get help! Quick!” one of the skinny boys shouted.

Dumb. They should’ve taken another shot. They missed their chance. Frank didn’t miss his. He rolled onto his stomach, took aim, and fired. One crusader caught all three. His legs were a mangled mess. He didn’t have time to suffer. The third hit his chest, shredded his heart like wood through a chipper.

The others had already run for reinforcements. Frank took a breath. Then another. He was still seeing double. He pushed himself to his feet. He staggered a few steps. Every move was like a knife cutting through his nerves. He could taste blood in his mouth. Bitter and salty. Footsteps echoed down the hall. The reinforcements were coming sooner than he’d thought.

Frank staggered to the open door. He closed it shut as soon as the crusaders rounded the corner. One managed to get a shot off. Frank felt the heat of the bullet as it grazed his head. A quick twist allowed Frank to lock the door. Blood from the new head wound ran over his eye. Half a second later, the crusaders were trying to kick the door down. Frank took another breath. He waited a few more seconds. He waited to make sure every member could catch up.

Knock knock.

The SAIGA emptied its drum. The slugs ate through the door as if it weren’t there at all. Frank felt blood splash his face. He heard the screams and the agony. He didn’t stop. He just kept going until every slug was spent. The drum dropped, and clanged on the floor. Frank stepped through the hole in the door. His boot splashed into a puddle of teeth and brain. The SAIGA had left a mess. Overkill. Nearly twelve bodies. A lot of trust funds left unspent.

The SAIGA clattered on the ground. Frank limped through the hallway. The music was still playing, pulsing like a heartbeat. The people were in panic. No one noticed him. The gunfire had put the fear into them. Frank knew this could happen, even before the Philips family murder. When he walked up those steps, gun in hand, he knew this could happen. He’d plan to wait until he’d found a stronger connection between Lorca and The Last Crusade. Once he learned the crusaders were targeting Stacy Philips, time was up. All things considered, a chest full of broken ribs and a possible concussion weren’t too bad.

Frank reached the door to the safe house. He heard Stacy screaming inside. She was threatening someone. Frank kicked the door open. Two crusaders had snuck in through the back. Frank didn’t know whether Lorca’s Captain America line was real or another trick, but someone had maneuvered their pawns to perfection.

Stacy and the two crusaders were at a standoff. The crusaders with their baggy black hoodies and rifles they barely knew how to use. Stacy with her grandfather’s revolver and years of practice. The two boys were already quaking in their boots. They saw Frank and ran. That’s when it became clear, there had been three.

The two crusaders made it out. Ten seconds later Frank heard tires screeching. He ran to the door in time to see the van speed down the road, along with almost his entire armory. Take the girl and the weapons. An obvious plan. They didn’t plan on the girl packing a high caliber revolver. Their leader was talented, but the cracks were beginning to show.

“Where did you go?!” Stacy said. “What the hell is happening out there?”

Frank looked both ways down the ally. All clear.

“Let’s go,” Frank said.

The parking lot was close. Slim pickings by the time Stacy and Frank arrived. Frank wasn’t too choosy. He smashed in the driver-side window of an old Crown Victoria.

“Why did they call my family Nazis?” Stacy asked as Frank worked. “I mean they aren’t. Not even close.”

“It’s a trick,” Frank said. “Using labels like Nazi to justify their violence. To absolve them of their sins. Nazi, heretic, infidel. Old trick. Makes it easy.”

Stacy averted her eyes. The rage was still burning strong.

“Get in,” Frank said.

“Where are we going?” Stacy asked.

“Doesn’t matter,” Frank said. “The crusaders will be back. We need to get someplace-“

“Safe?” Stacy asked.

“Defensible,” Frank said.

Frank hotwired the car. The engine started to hum. Five seconds later they were speeding down main street. Frank looked in the rearview mirror. His eyes narrowed.

“Tell me about your family,” he said.

“What?”

“Eyes on me,” Frank said.

“W-well what do you want to know?” Stacy said.

She could hear the high-pitched sound of high octane engines rev up in the distance.

“Anything,” Frank said. “Eyes on me. Talk about anything.”

Two cars. One drove up alongside the Crown Vic, driver’s side. The other stayed behind. Stacy could see the one next to them was filled with soldiers of the Last Crusade.

“Dad graduated military school a year before he was supposed to,” Stacy said. “He met mom on his last summer vacation. They met in Hawaii.”

The crusader in the passenger’s seat aimed an AK-47 out the window. He fired. Bullets hit the door. Frank winced as they bit clean through his leg.

“Are you alright?!”

“Keep talking,” Frank said.

The speedometer was fixed on the right. Signs and buildings were simple vague blurs. The old engine whined, strained to keep pace. Gun fire rattled. Bullets hit the metal of the car. Stacy closed her eyes and kept talking.

“Mom always said it was love at first sight,” Stacy said. “She was the daughter of the mayor in her home town. She also said…the only real fight she ever had with dad was about my brother, Michael.”

Frank un-holstered the Colt .45 from his belt. He looked out the window and took aim. Even with a head full of fog, one shot was all it took. The pistol fired. The crusader in the passenger seat suddenly found himself with half his throat missing. The driver panicked. He slammed on the breaks. The tires screeched. Their sports car began pulling back. Frank took aim again. In the brief second the driver was in sight of the gun, Frank fired. The windshield cracked. Blood spattered the glass. The car slammed into a light post, almost cutting it in half. A twisted mess of blood and metal.

“It was tradition for the men in our family to go to this one military school,” Stacy said. “The one dad graduated from. My grandfather went there too. So did his dad. But mom didn’t want Michael to get involved with the military.”

Another car drove up on Frank’s side. Another high-performance sports car. White with black tinted windows. Stacy listened. She shut her eyes tighter and kept talking.

“They fought a lot,” Stacy said. “It ended when my brother earned a chess scholarship. He wanted to follow in dad’s footsteps. He only stayed on year before transferring.”

The colt fired. The tinted glass of the sports car shattered. The crusader in the passenger seat pushed the red bandanna over his mouth and pointed a pistol of his own. Frank took a bullet in the shoulder and the Colt fell from his hands, clattering on the road.

The Crown Vic swerved. Frank un-holstered the Desert Eagle from his belt. He aimed the pistol out the window and winced. Moving his arm was painful. He could raise the weapon high enough. He chose another target and fired.

The recoil forced Frank to drop the Desert Eagle. The white sports car flipped. The bullet had torn the front tire to shreds. For over half a mile the car flipped until it skittered to a stop.

Everything went quiet. The hum of the Crown Vic was suddenly all alone. Stacy let out a breath, a sigh of relief. That’s when Frank slammed the breaks. There was a man standing in the middle of the road. Shadow obscured his face, but it wasn’t his face that concerned Frank. A blue uniform. Red boots. A round shield colored in red, white and blue topped with a white star. Frank felt the same paralyzing feeling that had struck him back in Lorca’s office. Captain America was standing there, holding an RPG, the same one Stacy had noticed earlier in the van. Frank turned the wheel. Captain America took aim. Tires screeched. The RPG fired. Everything went dark.

* * *

Frank woke up. Something splashed his face. Gasoline. He tried to move. He couldn’t. He was tied to a chair. Thick rope burned against his bare chest. They’d removed his armor.

“Punisher!” Stacy said.

Frank looked up. The room was mostly dark. There was one dull florescent light. Stacy was in a chair too, sitting across from him. She wasn’t bound. The peacemaker revolver was gone. Another splash of gasoline hit his face. Frank looked to his left. A fat boy in the signature black hoodie and red bandanna was heaving a red gas can back and forth. Frank could hear his labored breath. Obvious why he wasn’t on the front lines. He was a good clue. It meant they were down to the reserves. Their crusade was running out of soldiers.

“Glad you’re awake Mr. Castle,” came a voice from the dark. “You’re probably wondering…why you’re still alive.”

Frank stayed silent. The voice sounded young. Male. College age, like the rest of the crusaders.

“We’re on the same side, Mr. Castle,” the voice said. “That is…we share the same goals.”

Frank stayed silent. He could read arrogance in the voice. Arrogance mixed with anger.

“To see the scum of the Earth wiped out…so the innocent will never have to suffer again,” the voice said. “I’ll admit, you’re one tough opponent, Mr. Castle. By far the toughest we’ve ever faced. You put a serious dent in our numbers. It’ll take a long time for us to recover. We should just kill you.”

Stacy didn’t move. She was scared. Frank couldn’t blame her. Even he wasn’t sure if they could survive.

“You’re alive Mr. Castle because we needed to present you with the choice,” the voice said. “Lead us Mr. Castle. The Last Crusade will be at your disposal. Your own loyal team of vigilantes ready to follow every command, take on any scum that needs to be punished. Or…you can say no. And your life ends here, purified in fire.”

Footsteps echoed through the room. Someone walked into the light. There it was again, the old familiar blue uniform and round metal shield. The uniform of Captain America, but not his voice.

“Our country is in danger, Mr. Castle,” he said. “It’s been taken over by fascists and dictators. Bigots and greedy men. Men who prey on the weak. Men who hate and use fear to amass power. Now they control the white house. Now it’s up to people like us to take a stand and resist the rise of a new Nazi regime. Right wing fascists. Bankers. Police. The military. Traditionalists. Gun toting monsters feeding on the agony of the poor. Inconsiderate of suffering. Inconsiderate of their sins. Allowed to spew their poisonous words with impunity. All of them…getting fat and rich off the sweat and misfortune of normal people. Holding back society for their own selfish ends.”

He fit the picture of Captain America almost perfectly. Tall and toned by training. It took the eye of a hardened soldier to see his stance had the unearned confidence of a boy. Not of a hero. Not of a veteran. Not like a soldier. Not like Captain America.

The Captain took another step and removed his cowl, revealing his face. Suddenly everything made sense. Why they targeted the Philips family. Why they wanted Stacy so badly.

“Michael!?” Stacy shouted. “How the hell?”

The blue eyes of Michael Philips had been behind the cowl. The same Michael who’d followed in his father’s footsteps. The same one who’d spent a year at military school and who’d been an older brother to Stacy. And the one who’d burned his own family alive.

“Did my sister tell you our grandfather fought in the second World War?” Michael asked. “Did she also tell you…he’d fought with Captain Steve Rodgers, the real Captain America, on no less than two occasions?”

Frank kept an eye on Stacy. She’d just found out her own brother had killed her family. People handle that kind of shock differently. He wasn’t sure was she would do.

“Two times he saw the glory of America’s greatest soldier in action,” Michael said. “Grandfather idolized him. My father idolized him. Captain America…the personification of American romanticism. I too was in their shoes. I too…was right there alongside them…burning with patriotic fire in my heart. It felt good, Mr. Castle. It was scintillating…intoxicating.”

Stacy wasn’t moving. Her eyes were blank. She was gone, lost in another world. Her mind must have been racing a thousand miles per hour.

“Then I went to military school. Ready to serve my country like dad and grandpa,” Michael said. “That’s where I learned the truth about America. Our greed. Our ready willingness to stamp all over weaker countries. To lie and manipulate. To throw innocent lives into the grinder of war just to appease the fat pigs sitting on top of it all.”

The kid was good. Talented. Frank knew that. Michael was confident. But Frank being alive, Stacy left unbound, the whole speech he was spilling right then. It all betrayed one fatal flaw.

“I may have left military school, but I didn’t leave its lessons,” Michael said. “I brought them with me. I studied wars and tactics. I studied to successes and the blunders of the greatest strategists in history. I learned how to read moves. Find patterns. Eventually, it became second nature. And that’s how you ended up here, Mr. Castle. At my mercy and bound to a chair ready to be set alight at my command.”

Frank refocused on Michael. His eyes were steel.

“So much evil around me, what else could I do?” Michael asked. “As the latest generation in a family of patriots, it was my duty to make my country the way it should be. Wasn’t it? Dad was a banker. A willing cog in the engine of evil that currently runs this country. Mom supported him. She was just as guilty. So I gave them what they deserved. I burned them in the same hellfire they helped spread all across the world. I took the image of Captain America…so I could become the change America needs. A new hero for a new era.”

“Who did you kill?” Frank asked.

Michael laughed. “What?”

“You burned three bodies,” Frank said. “Your mother. Your father. One other in place of yourself. Who was it?”

“Who cares?” Michael said. “Some nobody. But don’t worry. I made sure he was part of the same fascist system.”

“Why not kill your sister?” Frank asked.

“Because she’s an innocent,” Michael said. “Same as I was. I wanted to give her a choice. The same one I’m giving you now. Join me…or die.”

Michael pulled the peacemaker revolver from behind his back.

“You first, Mr. Castle,” Michael said. “What’s it going to-“

“Shut up,” Frank said.

“What?” Michael said, almost in disbelief.

“You knew there was no way in hell I’d ever take your deal,” Frank said.

“You’d rather burn to death than work with us to build a better future?” Michael asked.

“Stop kidding yourself,” Frank said. “You’re not heroes. You’re boys playing with guns. A group of two-bit political nut jobs who crossed the line. You’ve taken innocent life.”

“We’ve taken the lives of the enemy,” Michael said.

“What makes them the enemy? Thinking differently than you do?” Frank asked.

“Because they are corrupted by evil,” Michael said.

“You killed three innocent people,” Frank said. “And your parents weren’t the first.”  

“This is war,” Michael said. “Every war has a quota of acceptable collateral damage. Every war requires sacrifice.”

“There’s no such thing as acceptable collateral damage,” Frank said. “The guilty deserve to die. The innocent deserve to live.”

“Enough,” Michael said. “You disappoint me Mr. Castle.”

He nodded to the fat boy holding the gas can. He set the can down and pulled a book of matches from his pocket.

“Coward,” Frank said.

“Excuse me?” Michael asked.

“You wanted to give your sister a choice,” Frank said. “So give her one. Put your grandfather’s revolver in her hands. Let her choose.”

Michael raised a brow.

“Interesting idea,” he said.

Frank watched Michael turn toward Stacy. Michael was smarter than the rest, more talented that the rest, more fit than the rest. He’d read history. He seen battles on television screens. He was still no soldier. Tactics and techniques perfected over centuries of warfare. A soldier’s tactics. He left that all behind. His arrogance told him he didn’t need them. The same arrogance that told him he could beat the world on his own. The same arrogance that told him to keep a man like the Punisher alive.

Michael held out the revolver. Stacy looked up. She was still half gone.

“Here,” Michael said. “Make your choice little sis. Which will it be. The Punisher and the vile and corrupted people he protects. Or do you choose us…me. I’m the only family you have left, after all. Let’s change the world together…for the better.”

“Change the world?” Stacy asked.

“The people of this country must be made to see the evils all around us,” Michael said. “Not just the thugs and criminals, but the greed ridden pigs those criminals strive to become. Out of all the people in the world, you and Mr. Castle are the only ones who could possibly understand with absolute purity.”

Stacy took the gun. She set it in her lap and stared.

“Take your time,” Frank said.

Stacy looked at Frank. That’s when it clicked. She was out of time. Decades ago, a younger Frank made the exact same choice she was being forced to make now.

“Okay,” Stacy said.

She grabbed the revolver and slid one finger over the trigger.

“This is something you’re going to live with forever,” Frank said. “Once you make the choice, there’s no turning back. It’s your decision. Not mine. Not Michael’s. Yours.”

Stacy looked between Frank and her brother. The Punisher, who’d promised to avenge her parents without a second thought. Michael, who she still remembered playing with as a kid. A lifetime of memories. A lifetime of love. She took the revolver in both hands and raised it up.

Frank didn’t flinch when he found himself staring down the barrel of the peacemaker. Stacy was trembling. Her heart was racing. Michael was smiling. As Stacy squeezed the trigger a single thought ran through her mind. This wasn’t a choice at all. Kill The Punisher. Kill Michael. Both roads led to the same place. Both forced her to cross the threshold into the same dark and ugly world they both had come from. No bright future. She’d never be able to return to her old life. No more paradise.

The trigger clicked back. The revolver fired. Michael’s arm landed on the ground, a shredded mess of meat and bone and blood.

Frank stood up. Blood gushed from the bullet wounds in his leg. The ropes fell to the ground. The same arrogance that had told Michael to spare The Punisher’s life; the same arrogance that told him he didn’t need to apply the lessons of his forefathers; the same arrogance that told Michael that he didn’t need to search Frank for the knife.

The fat boy hurried to strike a match. He was trembling. Nervous. Scared. Frank’s knife gashed open his throat. The fat guy landed on the ground with a heavy thud. Michael’s screams echoed through the room. Ear piercing cries of agony.

Stacy was on her feet. The revolver was still in her hands. Her eyes were blank again. Frank slowly walked toward her. Her face was dotted with her brother’s blood. Frank took another step. Then he took another. Stacy looked up.

“Did I…make the right choice?” Stacy asked.

Frank paused a moment.

“Yeah,” he said.

He held out his hand. Stacy looked at his open palm, then to the revolver. She placed the gun in his hand. Frank looked her in the eyes.

“You won’t need this anymore,” he said. “Not as a weapon. But…it still represents the best parts of your family. Cherish that. Everything this gun symbolizes is worth keeping.”

Frank held out the revolver. Stacy nodded. She reached for the gun. A quick snap of a gunshot echoed through the room. Blood splattered Frank’s face. Stacy looked down. A red stain was forming on her shirt. There was a hole in her chest.

“Fucking bitch!” Michael shouted.

Two more shots followed. Two more bullets blasted two more holes into Stacy’s back. Frank looked over to Michael. He’d had another gun and was pointing it at Stacy with the only hand he had left. Frank flipped the revolver in his hand. In less than a second his palm was wrapped around the grip and his finger was over the trigger. Stacy hit the ground. The revolver fired.

* * * 

Frank stood over Michael. He was still alive. The peacemaker had eaten a hole in his gut. Michael had faded, his mind desperately running from the pain. Frank looked at the gas can sitting beside the body of the fat guy. It would only be appropriate to send Michael off the same way he’d sent his own family. Then Frank thought about Stacy. She’d been through enough. She didn’t deserve to hear her brother burn alive. Frank stepped on Michael’s neck. A quick twist. A loud snap. Michael was gone.

The room was quiet. Frank knelt beside Stacy and held her in his arms. Her eyes were closed. Her face was pale. Blood bubbled from her mouth.

“I’m sorry,” Stacy whispered.

“For what?” Frank asked.

“You fight evil every day,” Stacy said. “You probably see so many terrible things. Things worse than what happened…to my family. But…nothing is worse than seeing your family slaughtered. Nothing is worse than seeing everyone you love die in terrible pain…thinking this has to be a nightmare. It can’t be real.”

Frank closed his eyes.

“When you made that choice…all those years ago. You entered a dark…ugly world,” Stacy said. “You probably saw things, learned things…did things that would crush anyone else. But you can take it. It doesn’t hurt you. It can’t hurt you.”

Stacy frowned.

“But this, this hurts you doesn’t it?” She asked. “Watching me die. This hurts you.”

Frank opened his eyes.

“So I’m sorry,” Stacy said. “The last thing I wanted to do…was hurt you.”

Frank held her close. There were a lot of things he could say, mostly things he shouldn’t say. He could tell her it was going to be fine. He could tell her she was going to make it. He could say he’d kill them all, just like she wanted to before. He could say watching her die didn’t hurt him at all.

Frank said nothing. And the tragedy played out like it always did. Like it had done countless times before. Another battle. Another innocent life bleeding out in his arms.

I’m not a hero.

The words ran through the mind like they had always done. Frank had spoken those words countless times before. He wasn’t a hero. But it wasn’t because he didn’t want to be and it wasn’t because he didn’t care. He wasn’t a hero because he couldn’t be one. Because even after everything that had happened. Even after all the effort, he’d saved no one.

He wasn’t a hero. He was a soldier fighting a war no one else could fight. A war no one else would fight, not the way he fought it. The way it needed to be done. Kneeling there, watching Stacy Philips take her last shallow breaths and feeling the warmth of her blood as it ran down his arms, he knew; it would never be his hands that saved the world.

END

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