The Cold Flame Burns

January 13, 2017:

Matt Murdock's second encounter with one Jessica Jones gives him yet another dose of the incredibly weird. A tense fight, an innocent caught in the crossfire and cryptic phrases leave him feeling as though he's been pushed to his limits.

Salvatore's Deli

A fantastic hole-in-the-wall in the heart of Hell's Kitchen.

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions:

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

Mid-morning in Hell's Kitchen.

It comes with a riot of familiar smells, sounds, and even tastes…some pleasant, some not. Benny the news guy bitches about politics in his thick native accent to all who will listen as they come to buy the paper. Do ya believe that guy?!

Horns honk, because traffic sucks; the gentle hiss of stop and go traffic, the occasional grind of someone who really and truly needs to get their breaks checked, or the rattle of a car whose belts are about to go. Car doors slamming. Gasoline on the air. Coins clicking into meters as folks compete for limited parking. Voices, some familiar, some not. Feet tap-tapping on the pavement, moving quickly, always quickly. A hint of smog and the bite of impending snow on the wind, blustery this morning but warm for winter; somewhere in the 60s, with cooler and warmer spots overhead indicating an overcast day.

For one whose senses are trained to stretch past the familiar to the interesting there is still more to find. The route from Matt's apartment to his office takes him past a particular hole-in-the-wall deli owned by a man named Salvatore. Sal has had some issues with the Zoning Board in the past, and the Health Department. He's a past client of Nelson and Murdock. Sometimes he pays in cash. Sometimes he pays in sandwiches. The smell of his fantastic food hits the nose well before one gets too near the shop: hot pastrami, toasting, freshly baked bread, everything bagels, fresh coffee. Usually he's singing classic rock at this hour; breakfast traffic has slowed down, lunch traffic isn't pouring in yet, the shop is empty, so he putters around the counter keeping the place spotless. His voice is terrible but cheerful, usually punctuated by the lemon and vinegar that he uses to keep his shop clean, freshly sprayed.

This morning the smell of the lemon and vinegar are still there, but the singing is not. Instead there's a voice, heard twice now. Once at a disasterous gala. The second on a street in Gotham City. A voice with natural bite, the high end of an alto, flattened to any ears but his own as it's wielded by a personality used to concealing her emotions more than sharing them. At the moment it's tinged with urgent worry, and exchanged with one Salvatore.

"…sure you haven't seen anybody weird? Nobody's bothered you or watched you or spooked you?"

"Jessica. Honey. You gotta calm down. I'm fine."

"It's just that we had some trouble here, Sal, that night you let me have my meeting here…"

To anyone else's ears the exchange is kept low on Jessica's end, mindful that customers might walk into the shop at any second. Few would hear it.

Sal? Cheerfully uncaring as he tries to reassure the woman.

Whatever the frantic pace of the city — even after the morning rush — one figure in this city won't let himself be hurried easily in his (belated) walk to work. He's already late, and Foggy has already called to complain, but Matt has quickly discovered this is a walk that can't be rushed outside of genuine emergency. The trek from his apartment to the newly acquired offices of Nelson & Murdock has become a restorative and almost meditative act for the twenty-something who makes his deliberative way down the busy street, walking stick a-tapping. Especially after an evening of this odd double-life he is slowly and haphazardly cultivating.

And besides, what asshole, even in New York, is going to tell him to pick up the pace?

Besides, it also allows him to pick up on all sorts of color, detail, and nuance from the neighborhood. When you're running a neighborhood business — be it a law firm or a grocery store — that's a benefit. Case-in-point, a recent client having a hushed conversation with an unusual woman who apparently has a knack for getting into trouble of the strangest kind and then punching, leaping, and kicking her way out of them.

/Guess it's time for a bacon egg and cheese/, he thinks before steering himself into the deli doors, walking stick first. "Morning, Sal," Matt's saying, breezy as you please, even if it's in that soft-spoken clip of his.

The conversation of course stops as Sal cheerfully calls out, "Matt! Good to see you!" The body heat markers wave back and forth as the big man uses his arms to expressively greet the lawyer, his tone carrying another edge of good natured cheer. The smells of both people in the room mingle with the food. Sal mostly smells like said food, along with a cologne he likes that is not at all unpleasant, spicy and well suited to his individual profile.

The whiskey-and-vanilla soap and shampoo smell follows Jess again, though the whiskey is older, as if it lingers but hasn't been refreshed in a few days. Today it's wool and not leather, and her body temperature show she's a little warm. Most people would just…ditch the coat, but for whatever reason, hers stays firmly on. Her jeans are on their second day of use, but have not picked up enough grime to make them ridiculously offensive yet.

"Matt, have you met Jessica yet? Jessica, this is Matt. He's a local lawyer and he's good people. He's /my/ lawyer. Matt, this is Jessica. Private Investigator, also good people."

Here there's a slight exhalation of breath from Jessica as if she feels inclined to dispute her status as 'good people' but isn't rude enough to do so…

Sal barrels right on, oblivious. "I gotta go in the back and get some mustard. Talk amongst yourselves, I'll be right out to take your order."

It may be he's just trying to keep Jessica from continuing to do her peculiar version of…mother henning? Detective henning? at him, using Matt's entry as an excuse to switch things up.

Jess turns to Matt and says, "Lawyer, huh?" That, at least, has piqued her interest, and there's no mystery there, given lawyers make up the bulk of the book of business for most PIs. "It's nice to meet you, Matt." She extends a hand to him, stepping closer to him but making no real effort to help him find it. Not in a way that suggests she thinks he has any peculiar abilities to do so, but in a way that suggests she just figures he can and won't insult him by suggesting otherwise unless it becomes clear that he can't.

Matt puts up a hand in Sal’s direction as the man exits, all client-ready smiles. It’s not until she says, “Lawyer, huh?” that he turns in the general direction of that voice and offers her something a little more muted but eminently cordial.

“Nice to meet you too, Jessica,” he answers her introduction, finding her hand with only a little bit of searching and taking it with a short, brisk shake. Little details – the ones nearly anyone else would miss – are taken in and neatly filed away. “Matt Murdock. And yeah, my partner and I just set up a shingle down the street. Mostly criminal defense.” A beat, a passing, wry smile. “That’s short-hand, by the way. Foggy tells me the actual signs are kind of a work in progress.”

He’s hardly ignorant of the symbiotic relationship between detectives and PIs. Hence: “You work around here?” /And not Gotham?/

Little details say that she likes his smile. The slight physical reactions to it are probably nothing he hasn't experienced before when smiling around those who are attracted to men. But where some women might seek to hold on to his hand longer or otherwise start giving subtle hints of that particular enjoyment, Jessica does not. When the handshake ends, it ends. She's wearing gloves, too, frayed fingerless things that keep a little more skin tightly under wraps.

Now, that comment about the signs makes something relax in Jessica; she actually releases a short chuff, the slightest hint of amusement at that comment about the sign being a work-in-progress. "I've been there," she says, the wry strains in her tone making it clear the laugh (such as it is) is a laugh of understanding, rather than a laugh given at his expense. Slamming her door too hard when drunk and shattering the glass window has resulted in a cardboard box window-sign more than once.

After that tiny bit of levity her tone returns to something polite and businesslike. "But yeah. I own Alias Investigations. It's actually just around the corner." She names the street as well. "I've only been up and running for about half a year myself." And with that, the not-Gotham is confirmed.

Footfalls say that Sal is back; the slightest of under-the-breath strains of 'Bad Moon Rising' say he's happily getting to work on perhaps a sandwhich order that Jessica made, or, just as likely, one he has determined she needs. The sharp scent of stone-ground mustard says yes, he actually did go get some of that; the conversation is punctuated by the pop-slop of a cap opening and the mustard going into one of the deli bins behind the counter. This is not enough to divert Jessica, though her firey form shifts slightly towards his direction as she notes him coming in again. But Matt has her attention for the moment, and besides…

"Foggy?" It's an unusual name, after all.

/I'll bet you have/ Matt thinks, but doesn't say, to her having 'been there' with the lack of signs. A feeling of nascent kinship that stretches across both his wildly divergent lives aside, it's likely that, given all he's been able to glean from her in just these few minutes cobbled over a few days, he can even take a guess at a drunken, overpowered whys for lack of signage that might differ from his own. The thought is passing, betrayed only by a thoughtful crinkle at the corners of useless eyes. Outside of those rare and all-too-brief smiles his features are subtle, as careful and precise as his words and steps.

"Yeah, that's my partner. Foggy Nelson, esquire," Matt says dryly, acknowledging the humor in the name. But even if his tone is almost perpetually muted, it would be hard for even without super-senses to detect the undercurrent of fondness the man. "Foggy and I came up through school together, and we both ditched the same big firm to strike out on our own. Good lawyer."

Matt looks towards Sal, and even if the man hasn't made himself known verbally yet will still offer a little smile of re-welcoming before returning his attention to Jessica. "Well, look, maybe the three of us should sit down, talk about business. Our practice will mostly be criminal defense, neighborhood based, and we're just too small a shop to handle the legwork of discovery on our own."

"Matt, you want anything?" Sal asks cheerfully, in that tone that assumes Matt wants something. That cut of the lawyer's eyes towards him gives him the opening he needs to butt in and ask the question, and Jessica doesn't seem to mind.

"I'd like that," She says, her tone sincere. She starts digging out her phone. "I doubt you want to do it over breakfast. What's your number so we can set something up? I'm in the middle of a crazy case right now, but I've still got blocks of time here and there. And I'll give you my number too, when you're ready."

"She'll cut you a good deal," Salvatore booms cheerfully. "She knows what it's like, just starting out, don't you Jess?"

The scowl reaches all the way down to her voice. "Jesus, Sal." But…the subtle timbre of her voice says…he's not wrong.

"She didn't even charge me for that thing."

"Sal. /Jesus,/" she says, exasperation cutting into her tone like a knife.

Defensively, "I put it on his tab. There /is/ a tab, Sal." Someone with a great deal of investment in pretending she doesn't give a damn about anybody or anything other than herself, when nothing could be further from the truth. There is no tab, not one she has any intention of collecting in anything other than the occasional favor, and only then when she's in desperate need herself; that's there in her voice too, and the happy ka-thunk of Sal's knife through the sandwich against the cutting board, slicing it in half. Paper rustles as he starts wrapping it up.

Then, cheerfully again from Sal: "Whatcha want, Matt?"

"Uh, yeah," Matt says, drawing his attention from Jessica and looking back towards Sal. It's learned behavior, that fixing of one's attention on the position of the person you're speaking to, a matter of courtesy rather than the act of necessity it is for people who rely on their eyes to make sense of things. "The usual, thanks. Egg and cheese on a roll, salt and pepper." Always breakfast, always late; the law student who never grew into a grown-up's schedule.

And then he's fixing his attention back on Jessica, smile returning as Sal lets slip he didn't charge her. "Hey, look, I'll try not to hold it over you as we're talking hourly rates," he says with a little chuckle, suddenly a touch warmer than his cool remove usually imposes. Sal's endorsement likely accounts for that. Matt loves this neighborhood fiercely, so much so that he seems cheerfully willing to bankrupt himself by accepting from its residents cold-cuts as payment for services. Another person willing to do the same or better will fairly well easily fall into his esteem.

And then he's saying his number, slowly to start, to make sure she's ready for it.

The smile seems to mollify her if the change in her heartbeat is any indication; there's a smirk in her voice as she says, "I'll hold you to that."

Sal moves behind the counter; the egg cracks against the bowl. It's a good, fresh egg, farm sourced; the yolk will burst with flavor as it always does. There's a comforting scrape-scrape of the whisk on the side of a ceramic bowl as he gets to work, singing a bit out loud now, though mostly still under his breath: "…~Trouble on the way…~"

The faint sound of phone-key sounds as Jessica keys in the number. When he's ready, she gives hers equally slowly, though 212-555-2000 isn't exactly a tough number to remember. Numbers exchanged, she finally says, "Okay. My next feat this morning is going to be to stand in a really long line in a government office…I'd best get to it." Heartbeat indicates this is nothing but truth, and not polite fiction. There's a rustle as she picks up the sandwich; clinks as she leaves money for it on the counter, mostly change, but the subtle scritch of paper on Formica says there's a little crumpled cash as well.

"It was really nice to meet you, Matt." Well, her voice is a little warmer too, maybe in spite of itself, coupled with another quick physical reaction that says she really /does/ like that smile of his, despite doing absolutely nothing that anyone without Matt's senses would notice to betray that fact.

Hiss-pop as the egg hits the pan. The scent hits the air, not as strong as, say, bacon, but distinct. Jessica's heavy tread makes its way to the door. "Sal. If you see or hear anything that bothers you…" She apparently feels this is innocuous enough to say in front of Matt, and Sal just snorts, his tone faintly chiding. "Nobody's going to /bother/ me, Jessica, go, go, do your thing."

Jessica huffs a sigh that says she doesn't think he's taking her concerns nearly seriously enough, but…the bell tinkles as she pushes her way out the door. Then her heavy tread is heading down the street, taking a right.

Up until the wind blasts through the door, it might seem like this is the end of it…a cordial and perhaps mutually profitable interaction, but normal enough despite the things that drew him into the shop in the first place. But the wind brings a smell that mingles with the eggs and curdles the good things about them.

Two smells, in fact, emerging from right outside the shop, but similar enough to say the men that carry the smells are together: sandalwood and wormwood, and the smell of stale blood spilled in great quantities, the reek of it clinging to clothes and even faintly to skin as surely as old whiskey clung to Jessica's, like Lady MacBeth's proverbial spot multiplied, then multiplied again, despite the somewhat banal anti-bacterial soap (Lysol brand) that must have been used to scrub themselves clean enough for public consumption…sinful men who think their evidence has all gone washed down the drain.

The smells split off. One heads right, down the street. The other is making its purposeful way towards the building, attached to clap-clapping shoes with expensive soles, and a fitfully ticking watch that will cross the threshold in mere seconds.

"Yeah, likewise," Matt says of meeting her, and with equal sincerity, even if he's already met her once. "Good luck, Jessica. Catch you later." And then, of course, she's repeating her caution to Sal, now in front of him, before she makes her exit. It gives him the exact opening he needs to ask the question that brought him to the deli to begin with. 'Hey, Sal, what kind of trouble is that super-powered lady talking about…'

But then it, or some other kind of trouble, seems ready to make itself known anyway. The new bevy of sensations has his hackles rising, puts him on edge. Normally when confronted with danger, most of us engage in fight or flight. Matt has constraints, and powers, most of us don't. It allows him the space to be a little more cautious, a little more watchful, and to allow this situation the space to play out, observed. He tap-taps a little distance away, positioned close to the door but with his back to the wall, so that whoever comes in must pass by him and stand between him and the deli counter — and all with a veneer of affable calm. "Everything alright, Sal?" he asks, an obvious but subtle reference to Jessica's parting line. Perhaps it's to make conversation and fill the scant space of time before those doors open, and perhaps to keep Sal thinking about danger as the chances of it start to imperceptibly rise.

Sal's heartbeat doesn't change as the man glides through the door, carrying the scent with him, his own heartbeat calm and slow, focused, cold.

In fact, he has tilted his head quizzically at Matt. The attempt to warn the man does little…Sal is a big man who has been known to chase "trouble" down the street with his meat tenderizer (generating still more legal problems for Matt's new law firm to tackle, but keeping the protection rackets off his back), and whatever he sees, it's apparently nothing that screams 'threat' to him. The new fellow is slight in comparison to the larger Sal, and he isn't reaching for anything, like someone who is about to go for a gun might. So, oblivious, he says, "Yeah, Matt, everything's fine," rather as if he's starting to wonder whether half of Hell's Kitchen's residents have eaten some bad mushrooms this morning.

Then, he greets his customer. "Hi there, welcome to Salvatore's. What can I…"

"Eie Neheiz."

The words come out in a sharp whisper. The man flings his arm out towards Salvatore, obviously deciding he needs to be subdued before a blind man does. Salvatore goes stock still, then hits the floor, his heavy bulk crashing through various kitchen equipment. Only the rise and fall of his breathing says that he's still alive.

The newcomer turns, an intake of breath warning that he's about to try to incapacitate Matt next, blind guy or no blind guy.

Of all the constraints of his secret life, how to grapple with bona fide danger as the supposedly Matt Murdock is one of the most confounding. So much pretense, and when the stakes are so incredibly high. "Sal?" Matt shouts into thin air when there's that thud and Sal's voice comes to a sudden halt. "What…?"

Artistry, at least perceived artistry, won't serve here; not unless he means to kill the man before him and silence him forever. There's not going to be any elegant forms, no ballet of Muay Thai and Kung Fu that he might adopt as the man in black. The only thing that will serve is the /appearance/ of brute strength, adrenaline, and sheer dumb luck; the fundamentals of wrestling without any of the seeming practice of it. And so, as soon as those first rounding steps come towards him, he offers another… "Sal..?!" before making a roaring charge forward with all the strength and speed he can muster and attempting to bowl his adversary into the deli counter with enough force to break a rib.

It may not be the dance of perfectly executed martial arts technique, but the element of surprises is a powerful thing. The soft intake of breath that had heralded the onset of another set of incapacitating words becomes a sharper intake of breath as he's suddenly slammed into the counter. The crack of the rib is audible, shattering the focus needed to pull the trick he pulled before; for the moment no second attempt is forthcoming. Instead, the man does his best to wrap his hands around Matt's throat so that he might start squeezing despite his sudden pain, adrenaline giving him the strength. His heartbeat is thundering; the sound of fury and sudden suspicion.

"The girl," he snaps. "Where is she?" It's got the faintest of German accents, though it is /not/ the voice of the evil sorcerer from the Gala. Someone who has been in America for awhile, perhaps a well-seasoned immigrant who is starting to pick up more New York than motherland. And for whatever reason, he's now decided that the blind man who just blindsided him might know where 'the girl' is, probably because he roared and charged instead of falling over like Sal or trying to run away like someone else might.

"Who?!" Matt says, voice tight, willed into desperation and confusion as the hands closed around him mid-grapple. "What are you talking about?! What did you… /do/… to Sal?!" He's feels the palms close around him, feels the risk and threat of genuine death. Worse yet, he's all too aware that these physical threats are the least of the dangers the man he faces poses to him; someone who could knock Sal out with a few whispered words may be beyond his skills all together.

It requires a quick end. He's all wild strength, flailing, still playing dumber than he is, but intent on finding the right pressure in the right place to cut this short. The first blind, seemingly desperate strike misses the mark, a grasping motion that goes right of the man's ear. Then a hard punch to the chest, then the nose, each knowingly in vain, but that's all just set up, little love taps to the open-palmed slam he drives towards his assailants Adam's Apple.

He doesn't answer the questions anymore than Matt does, of course. As Matt asks them he squeezes a bit more tightly, snarling cryptic words like a prayer.

"The cold flame burns."

And then the lawyer is surprising him again; demonstrating for one split second that his initial charge was not all the courage he had in him. His eyes widen, his hands fly away from Matt's throat as the punches land. He doubles over at the strike to the chest, turns his head as blood spills down his nose to wet Matt's fist. The strike hits his Adam's apple and he gasps, going down, hitting the floor much like Sal did, but for different reasons. Some strange energy ripples through the air seconds later and…

He vanishes.

His heartbeat is just gone. His body temperature only leaves its faint impression in the air. There's an electric buzz that remains, a bit like the aura that comes off a transformer but bearing none of the taste of electricity. It's some /other/ form of energy, tasting and smelling strongly of copper, of blood.

Well, that doesn't happen every day. And had he not just lived through the nightmarish auction in Gotham, and had he not just been punching space aliens in the face a few nights after that, the disappearing act might have thrown Matt for more of a loop than it does. So he rolls with it: jumping in to combat stance despite having no one to fight, listening again for Sal's heartbeat, and upon finding it, moving to what's next.

The answer the vanishing man gave was unsatisfactory, to say the least. The cold flame /burns/? What the fuck does that even mean? "That… was so unhelpful," the thoroughly disheveled lawyer says to empty air. Right before he's fumbling — this time really, authentically fumbling — for his phone. He's not sure who 'the girl is', but he has a guess, or a guess as to who might know. "Siri, call Jessica," he says as he gets to his feet, because of course he uses Siri. He never got her last name, and as the phone rings he hopes to God he really and truly deleted that fling from his 2L year by the same name…

He gets lucky, because Siri chooses the right Jessica. There's an answer on the first ring.

The uneven sound of traffic and wind. She's running with the phone, running back to the shop. "Matt?"

It's not a surprised-friendly 'oh, hey, you're calling already?'

It's a whole paragraph of questions wrapped up in a single word; it says that she's already had her own encounter and has already thought to worry about the people she just left behind in the shop, it says she's almost there, though the fact that she's not there already says for whatever reason her encounter ended up a little farther away than would be required for her to just burst into the shop in an instant. It says she's terrified they're not okay, she's relieved he's calling, which means he's alive; it's followed by a quick, "Sal??" which asks the other paragraph of questions in another single, succinct word.

It's two words she gives him, the most succinct and frantic of shorthand, but there's a lot to unpack. "Yeah!" Matt answers to the call of his name. There, that was the easy one to answer. The second question is more complicated, for ever multiplying reasons. His voice registers confusion and distress that is only the slightest bit exaggerated as he haltingly explains: "Uh, I don't know… some guy came in and did… something… to him…? I don't even know what," Matt is saying into the phone.

Then he's reaching out with his senses, looking for heartbeats, hunting for copper and blood and bleach amidst the smells of cured meats and fish or assorted flavors of cream cheese. Finding none, adds: "The guy's gone, and I think Sal's OK. But he's out /cold/, and I need to call 911 to get an ambulance over here for him. Anyway, this guy was just ranting about looking for a /girl/, and since you'd just left, I thought I'd call. Are you OK?"

There's brief double speak as Jessica barrels through the door, a little vigorously, but not vigorously enough to damage it. "Shit," she says, then she hangs up and her footfalls thunder-tap across the store to skid to a halt beside Sal.

"I'm fine. I noticed the other one tailing me. He and I had a conversation he didn't expect to have in the alley."

Kind of like the conversations Matt has with criminals in dark allies too. "Mine disappeared when I knocked him out though, so I didn't get any damned answers. On the bright side, he didn't get to cast any spells." She hardly seems aware she's said something that most people would find terribly ludicrous, and there is nothing in her heartbeat to indicate she's lying. It's pounding, but no differently than it was pounding before, when she raced in here.

She realizes what he might have been asking with 'are you OK' and hastens to reassure him. "They're not after me directly. They were hoping Sal or I would know where my client is. This is what I was trying to tell him…damn it. /Damn it/. We were here for 15 minutes, but these bastards…"

She seems to realize none of this is helping Sal. "What did he do exactly? It might be important. No, wait, let's call 911 first. I…really suggest we go with 'he just fell over we don't know what happened' though. Are you okay? Did he hurt you? You look like he tried to grab you or something."

She hasn't inferred 'you beat the crap out of yours too' from Matt's disheveled state, but it's obvious he wasn't left to just stand there either.

Sorcery, vanishing assailants, pledge to lie to the police. As strange as Matt Murdock's life has become over the last month, the events of the last hour are pushing at least some of his limits. He seems to visibly balk at the prospect of fudging with the authorities, but it's a short-lived reaction that can't survive in the face of a host of questions and urgent to-dos. "I'm fine, really," he assures her with a quick shake of his head. "Just a little shaken up. I don't know -what- he did to Sal, though. I didn't —"

You know, /see/.

"It just sounded like he just said some weird words and then I just heard Sal hit the ground," Matt is saying as he brings the phone up to his ear.

"Siri, call 911." One beat, two, and then: "Hi, yes, we need an ambulance here. The owner of the deli I'm in just keeled over out of nowhere! Come quick." He leaves the address and then closes it out before rounding back on Jessica.

"This is totally insane, you know," Matt says, raking a hand through his already disheveled hair. "What the hell are you mixed up in?"

To Be Continued…

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