Cleansed and Set in Gold
I’m on the ground, trying to breathe through a chest full of broken ribs. The only reason I’m still alive is because I happen to be invisible at the moment. Verlaine is dead. His body is twitching, trying to patch itself up, but the thing that killed him is chewing on his heart, its long tongue flicking. I can hear Verlaine’s fingernails scratching against the rocks.
We all thought Verlaine was immortal. He wasn’t.
Some low-level administrative assistant from the League of Heroes is trying to take a statement from me in my hospital bed. I’m sort of trying to comply, but each time I breathe it’s like someone’s sticking a giant fork in my chest. So I’m not as cooperative as I could be.
“How big was this thing?” he asks.
“Biggest one I’ve ever seen,” I whisper, carefully mouthing the words.
“But still a Ghoul? Same physiognomy?”
“His ‘physiognomy’ is his face. You mean ‘morphology.’”
The lackey scowls at me. “Sorry,” he says.
“If you don’t know what a word means,” I say, “don’t use it. Then you won’t have to apologize.”
He shifts uncomfortably in his seat, looking around the ICU ward, maybe hoping that there’s some more desirable Leaguer that he can pester. But there isn’t.
“Anyway, to answer your question, no. He wasn’t like the others. He was bigger. He. . . his fist was like. . .” I hold up my fist and five needles of pain lace across my chest. I notice that the nail on my left index finger is bent backward, nearly disconnected. They’ve put a bandage on it. This bothers me more than the ribs for some reason.
“His fist was the size of your head,” I finally say. “He put it through Verlaine’s chest like Verlaine was as mortal as you.”
The lackey puts his minirecorder on the table by my bed. His hand is shaking. “How many of them were there? This new variety.”
“I just saw the one. He was leading the others, though. Can you imagine that? A leader. A Ghoul King.”
The next day, the headlines read GHOUL KING KILLS RUSSELL VERLAINE. I can imagine the League’s PR people going back and forth on this. “Is it worse if we admit that there’s some kind of new mutant giant Ghoul running around, or if we imply that Russell Fucking Verlaine was murdered by some regular Ghoul?” I don’t envy them.
After I leave the hospital—against medical advice; which, whatever— I take a taxi back to my apartment. A few unpleasant bites choked down and a potent healing factor kicks in, spreading warmth throughout my battered bones and knitting everything together in seconds. Oh, God. Yes.
I decide that it’s best not to appear too healthy at Verlaine’s funeral, so I take care to walk slowly and gasp for breath every few paces. I’ve even gone so far as to put on fresh bandages around my chest. In case someone uses their X-ray vision to look under my shirt, I guess. Although if they could do that, they could see that my bones aren’t actually broken anymore. It doesn’t matter, though, because all of the people who’re capable of doing so wouldn’t care. And anyway, one of them is lying dead in a box in front of me.
I’m sitting on a cold metal folding chair, pretending to be hurt, watching them lower Verlaine into the ground. It turns out that they need a special crane and a steel-reinforced casket for all of this, because Verlaine’s body is so dense that he weighs just over three tons. The news media are fascinated. Jesus, Russell Verlaine makes good TV, even dead.
When you think “hero,” you think Russell Verlaine. You don’t think of me. I’m not particularly good-looking, I don’t have a fascinating origin story, and I don’t even have a constant set of powers that you can put on a trading card. “David Caulfield, The Wildcard. Powers: variable” is what the League Reserves card they did for me reads. You can buy it for a penny on eBay. Shit, I don’t even wear a costume. I go around fighting criminals and monsters in jeans and an AC/DC concert tee. I am nobody’s favorite hero.
I don’t mind, really. The last thing I need is intense media scrutiny. The less they know about me, the better.
I stay until the coffin is in the ground and the bulldozers have filled in the earth. I’m the only one left except for Jeanie Verlaine, who’s sitting on the ground in front of her husband’s grave. The last thing I’m going to do is go try to comfort her or something, so I whisper my last respects to Russell from my seat and then I get up and try to walk away without Jeanie hearing me.
At the entrance to the cemetery is a woman I vaguely recognize as a reporter for one of the wire services. She’s standing by the gate, smoking, trying to look casual.
“Hey,” I say. “If you’re waiting for Jeanie to come out so you can ambush her, forget it. That’s the last thing she needs right now.”
“Hi, David,” she says, as if I hadn’t spoken. “I’m Toni Evins, from Reuters.”
She intercepts me before I can cross the street. “I’m not here to ambush Jeanie Verlaine,” she says. “Give me some credit.”
“I don’t care what you do,” I say. Why am I being such an asshole? This right here is why they don’t like me.
Toni pretends not to be annoyed. “I’m actually here to talk to you. I heard you were there when it happened.”
“Yeah,” I say. I try to come up with something to follow that with, but I have nothing.
“If you’re interested, I’d like to do an interview with you—get your first-hand impressions, that sort of thing.” She smiles gamely.
I close my eyes, shrug. “I don’t know. I don’t do very well with interviews. I always say the wrong thing. I’ll have to pass.”
The smile fades. Toni levels her gaze at me. Kate Frost looks at things the same way just before she shreds them with her eye-beams.
“Actually, there’s something else I wanted to talk to you about,” she says. “Aside from the Verlaine article, I mean.”
“I really don’t think I’d be interested,” I say, and go to push past her.
She puts her hand on my arm, and her grip is surprisingly strong, however mortal. “Terri Day had invisibility powers, correct?”
“Yeah? So? Terri’s dead.”
“And when you and Verlaine were fighting the Ghoul King, you were invisible. Also correct?”
“I have all kinds of powers. You know: variable.”
Toni’s grip tightens on my arm. “And King Stryker had those green energy blasts. He died, too. About six months ago.”
I swallow, trying not to look nervous. “It’s been a tough year for the League.”
“You were sporting some very similar-looking green energy blasts when you and the League were taking out that Ghoul redoubt north of Chicago. I’ve seen video.”
“So, I guess I’m wondering exactly how you got their powers.”
I shrug, a practiced shrug if ever there was one. “A guy at UNC did his doctoral thesis on my powers,” I say. “His conclusion was that I absorb them through etheric proximity or something. It’s way too technical for me, to be honest.”
Toni nods. “Yeah, I read that. Chad Lowenstein. The physics are. . . speculative. And he completely ignores what to me is the most fascinating thing about your powers.”
“And what’s that?”
“That you only get them from dead people.”
There’s a pause as Toni and I size each other up.
“You want the interview about Russell, come to my apartment tomorrow and I’ll tell you all about it. Whatever sordid little details you want. Fair enough?”
She smiles, and I do not like that smile even a little.
“Sounds good,” she says. She turns to go.
“Don’t you want to know where I live?” I ask.
“I already know,” she says.
At home there are a few messages. One from League HQ asking me how I’m doing, which is code for when am I coming back to work. One from Jeanie Verlaine, thanking me for coming to the funeral, asking me to return her call. Surprising, that. The last is from Captain Salem, who wants to go over every second of the battle with the Ghoul King. With Verlaine gone, Salem is probably the only Leaguer that I actually get along with. He understands why we do what we do. He also understands that this is not a perfect world. I think Captain Salem has his secrets, just like Verlaine probably did. Maybe not secrets like mine, but still.
At least Verlaine got to take whatever dirty little secrets he had to his grave. I think about Toni Evins and there’s a ball of dread in my stomach telling me that I won’t be so lucky.
The League communicator bleeps and out of nowhere all sorts of tactical information starts pouring directly into my visual cortex. The Ghoul King and his. . . minions, I guess you’d call them. . . are attacking Chicago.
We’re lined up on an el track overlooking Grant Park. It’s apparently cold outside. I can see Captain Salem shivering a little, even with his big blue-and-white cape wrapped around him. I, however, have come prepared; I have the Human Shield’s invulnerability crackling around me, keeping everything in the world at a remove. At home I wavered between Human Shield and the Rock, whose skin is even tougher. But the Rock’s appearance is distinctive, to say the least, and with Toni Evins poking around, the last thing I need is for people to draw any...