So we return to my coverage of Garth Ennis's acclaimed run on The Punisher for Marvel's mature readers MAX imprint. The last book I covered was number four, I've had to skip books five and six as they are out of print and insanely expensive on Amazon, although they have been released on the Kindle. Fortunately these two are probably the best ones to have been skipped, the fifth book deals with Frank's nemesis the gangster assassin Barracuda and when he returns in book nine the details of their prior entanglement is filled in then. Book six, "The Slavers" is a standalone and annoyingly many see it as the best book in the series. I'm sure I shall read it one day, alas I don't have a Kindle. Anyway, the important thing to understand is that with those two books taken into account, the in-story gap between books four and seven is roughly one year. This becomes very important later in the series. This book features characters from several previous volumes. The female ex-CIA agent O'Brien who slept with the Frank in Book four and helped him take down the mafia goons after him. Her slimeball ex-husband Rawlins who had arranged a terrorist attack on Russia on the orders of some US generals in Book three when they needed to distract the Russian government from a retrieval mission they sent Frank on, and who Frank tortured that information out of before he managed to make an escape from him. Also from book three is the titular "Man Of Stone" Zakharov, a Russian general who realised it was the US who was responsible for the terrorist attack not Islamists. Finally from book two is a British S.A.S officer called Yorkie who is a sort of friend of Frank from back in his Vietnam days. Mix all these characters together in the hellhole that is Afghanistan in the mid-noughties and you have the recipe for another harrowing and deadly serious story.
|Meeting John James Toomey.|
Back with Rawlins, he is naked and hanging upsidedown. He says he has information for Zakharov who enquires as to what that might be. A panicked Rawlins says the incident at Sudhek wasn't terrorists... "It was the Americans" responds Zakharov, "castrate this imbecile and leave him in the street to bleed out." Captain Dolnovich, his aide, starts cutting Rawlin's balls off, but Rawlins yells that he can help them get proof of the US involvement.
|Zaharov, Dolnovich and an upside down Rawlins.|
Rawlins throws a pity party over being cut loose by the US generals who ordered both the hijacking and the retrieval of the girl after this information was tortured out of him by The Punisher. Zakharov says if Rawlins wants to stay alive he needs to find a way to deliver them Frank Castle. Rawlins says if they have someone he cares about they can lure him out. He has a list of six ex-Taliban his ex-wife O'Brien is after. If they watch them, they'll find her and Frank will come and help her if she gets in trouble.
|O'Brien enacting some righteous vengeance.|
In a crowded marketplace in Afghanistan, two S.A.S members are monitoring one of the ex-Taliban on O'Brien's list. When they spot her in a burka approaching her target they walk her up an alley at gunpoint. The yanks want to know who's been killing these ex-Taliban so they are surprised to find out she is a yank herself. "Fuck. Old Yorkie's gonna love this." says one of them.
Frank is trying to track O'Brien down via his military contacts but is getting nowhere. So he tries a longshot and calls Yorkie and asks if he has seen her:
Yorkie: "Well that is a coincidence, I was just about to shoot her through the head."
The rest of the chapter is told in flashback. After slapping the cuffs on O'Brien, two S.U.V.s filled with Russians, including Rawlins and Dolnovich, turn into the alley. A massive firefight ensues and Rawlins and Dolnovich have to beat a hasty retreat.
|Just another day in Kabul.|
Zakharov: "This puts us back where we started. New ideas Rawlins. Think quickly".
At the S.A.S camp Yorkie gets the message from Washington that O'Brien is to be executed. Also the name she was yelling - "Rawlins" - has Washington shitting itself and their orders are to "obliterate the cunt". When he asks for volunteers to execute O'Brien, his men all look anywhere but him.
Yorkie: "I've no idea why you lot are getting so sentimental. One look at that lass and you can tell she knows the score. She's one of us."
He then goes to her and tells her to put on a uniform, then she is to come with him "for a little drive".
|The S.A.S showing their sensitive side.|
Rawlins: "He'll come to you, general. I know this fuck, he doesn't like loose ends."
Dolnovich says Moscow will see this press report too and they are not supposed to be in Kabul. But Zakharov believes making the true events surrounding Sudhek known is worth the risk.
Then we are back to the start of the chapter with Yorkie about to shoot O'Brien and on the phone to Frank. After a one-sided conversation he tells O'Brien there has been a change of plans. He is going to drive her back to Kabul, give her the keys to the landrover, hit himself over the head with a rock so "it looks like you twatted me one and then we're going our seperate ways."
|Luring out Frank.|
Frank: "You go to war in Afghanistan... And everyone dies."
The next chapter also starts with a flash forward to O'Brien and Frank sat together out in the desert. They kiss and intend to do a lot more. We go back to the last leg of his journey on a plane into Kabul talking with a journalist who wants to cover the resurgence of Zakharov. He wrote a book on the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and says to Frank he'll tell him a "horror story".
|Sexy time in the desert.|
Yorkie: "He's not planning on growing old with anyone. He's not the type to sit by your deathbed and hold you when you go."
He stops the vehicle and gets out, leaving a note for Frank with her. He says that now, "I walk home and win arsehole of the year award...be sure and tell him I called him a cunt."
|Yorkie does Frank a favour.|
Back with Frank and the journalist, he tells Frank his horror story about Zakharov. During the Soviet occupation there were seven villages north of Kandahar that were a big nuisence to the supply lines. But the fighters would always leave the village before the Russians could get to them. They would watch from the surrounding mountains "but that suited Zakharov down to the ground".
One day he had his men round up the civilians and marched them slowly off the edge of a nearby cliff. When one woman gave him her baby and begged him not to kill it, he took it and hurled it over the edge. Horrified the mujahadeen fighters broke cover and fired upon the Russians and so were wiped out by them.
|The Man Of Stone.|
Zakharov meanwhile turns Rawlins' offer down flat, saying he does not trust him and if he is lucky and Frank is brought in with minimal complication "I will allow you to leave here with your life."
Frank meets with O'Brien in a Kabul hotel bar. He gave the journalist some advice before they parted which was to go home and let someone else who could do the job deal with Zakharov. O'Brien and Frank travel out to a U.S army weapons cache and drive out into the wilderness where they can face Zakharov without incurring civilian casualties. Then they make camp and we're back to where the chapter started, with sex about to happen.
|Not a believer in the freedom of the press.|
O'Brien fills Frank in on Rawlins' backstory as they set up their ambush. His father was a field agent in Cairo, his mother a local girl. He inherited most of his contacts from his dad, including those in the heroin trade. Right after they got married, ten years ago, they were sent on a mission to reclaim some unused stinger missiles from the mujahadeen. But the shipment was smack and when their helicopter came under fire and needed to lose some weight he kicked her out the back rather than dump the drugs and she was captured and raped by the men she's been hunting.
By the time she made it back home, Rawlins was in deep cover elsewhere so she shut her mouth knowing "one day I'd get my shot". She says she has a thing for bad boys:
O'Brien: "It's mostly guys like Rawlins. Or idiots. Or drunks. Or the truly, irrevocably doomed. That stupid bastard Tommy..."
OK, she definitely is the C.I.A agent Tommy gets involved with in the final arc of Ennis' series for DC, Hitman. Frank says to be clear he's there because "I owed you. I repaid the debt. Now we're finishing off a mutual problem. Nothing more." And he walks off.
Zakharov: "He knows Castle and the woman. If the fight goes badly for us, that knowledge may prove useful. After that I do not care."
Then they spot Frank standing out in the open near a rockfall along the bottom of a cliff. He runs and lures the helicopter gunship into the sights of O'Brien who blows it to bits with a stinger missile, while Frank mows down the soldiers on the ground.
|I like a woman with access to heavy ordinance.|
Zakharov sends Rawlins out to cuff Frank. Rawlins notes Frank has a bandaged wound on his arm, Zakharov tells him to take the dressing off and check it. Rawlins finds nothing but a "shrapnel injury". O'Brien watches from inside a nearby foxhole. As the chopper takes off she grabs the struts under the body of the chopper and hangs on as it takes off.
Inside, Rawlins holds a knife to Frank's eye and demands to know "where's the cunt?" But Dolnovich yanks him away so Zakharov can question Frank himself. As Zakharov starts to talk about Sudhek, O'Brien fiddles with the underside of the chopper and Frank slides a piece of sharp metal he had concealed deep inside the arm wound and cuts the cuffs with it.
|Ow, Ow, Ow, Ouch!|
Frank runs to O'Brien and braces against her as the chopper spirals into a nearby mountainside and goes up in a HUGE explosion. Rawlins stands over Zakharov who is lying immobile on the ground, his neck broken. Zakharov says "finish it".
But Rawlins says "hell no", he wants Zakharov to die a slow death in the Afghan desert sun. Dolnovich comes up with his blade drawn but Rawlins lashes out and cuts Dolnovich's throat with a small pocket knife, leaving Dolnovich bleeding out, gasping for air.
|Rawlins is such a dickhead.|
O'Brien: "With hubby gone I'll have no one left to want to kill. No battles left to fight... It's like, what does that leave in my life you know? What am I going to do with myself now?"
Frank says whatever she does, it can't be anything to do with him. Then O'Brien steps on a landmine. Horrendously injured, Frank checks her over and says in what looks like some distress that "there's not a thing I can do for you." She says he can do two things. One of them is kill Rawlins, who is gloating over Dolnovich saying he plans on going to Moscow and raping and killing Dolnovich's teenage son whose address he has found on the ID he's taken from him.
Zakharov: "Be strong captain. What is there to be afraid of? He is only death."
Zakharov says Frank has a week before the flight to Moscow. So if he is to kill Rawlins, it must be in a week. Dolnovich finally expires and Zakharov says of Rawlins:
Zakharov: "Our world is bad. But we are soldiers. He is a parasite: he would make the world this way forever".
|Frank is a true Angel of Death.|
He also says if he was still in charge he couldn't "give you the names and locations of the last two bastards your friend O'Brien was after." He'll also be giving their security details the night off, "most improper" of course. Frank says he appreciates it. Yorkie says if he is ever tied to a stake being used as Vietcong bayonnet practice "you be sure and show up with an M60".
|Yorkie and Frank chat.|
Yorkie: "There was a time I would have been one of them. Best job in the bloody world, that's what I'd've told you. Now... It's as if everywhere I look I see dead civvies covered in dust."
He doesn't know what they are doing in Afghanistan any more. Frank wishes him well and leaves. He kills the final two ex-Taliban on O'Brien's list then tracks Rawlins to the airport.
Frank: "Two things you can do for me she said. One was be there, so she didn't take her last breath alone. The other was a thing I'm good at."
He confronts Rawlins in the toilets, Rawlins starts trying to talk his way out of certain death while getting Frank to come close enough to slash with his pocket knife. Frank cuts the knifehand clean off. Bleeding out on the floor he says he knows stuff "she'll want to hear".
Frank: "She's dead... Right when I was starting to like her."
|Couldn't happen to a more deserving guy.|