Mr. Paul from downstairs was dead at the bottom of the stairwell. Ghost Devlin had put him there.
Ghost’s head wasn’t always right these days. There was a grounding quality to the fellow trying to shoot him from upstairs. Bullets and blood and a knife between his teeth, he knew this better than his heartbeat. No time to think, but that’s how he did best.
He’d liked Mr. Paul, right up until Mr. Paul had tried to kill him. Might have still been willing to overlook it, under the right circumstances. Lots of people tried to kill Ghost. Sometimes he deserved it.
Another shot pinged the wall, but Ghost was good at finding cover, climbing stairs faster than the man trying to shoot him. Unnatural life burned through his veins, feeling more alive than he had in months.
Another shot, but this one buried itself in Ghost’s thigh; he ignored the heat and the pain blossoming outward from it. He’d already lifted one boot to the rail to launch himself from it, up and across to grab the railing mere feet from his target. In one smooth motion he pulled himself up to kick the gunman, fell back to roll to his feet. The gunman tried to hit him with the butt of the gun instead of shooting, and Ghost dodged it, cracking his fist across the gunman’s jaw instead. Fast as death he had the knife out from between his teeth, held against the stranger’s throat.
“We’re the distraction!” the young man shrieked, holding up both his hands in surrender before Ghost could say a word. Fear and panic came off him in waves, wide-eyed and stinking.
“From what?” Ghost growled, but as soon as he’d said it he was sure he knew. Someone had wanted to get him out of his apartment. Mr. Paul was never actually trying to kill him.
Waste of a good neighbor. Shouldn’t have kicked him so hard. Ghost had been acting on instinct when he’d had a pistol pulled on him.
He didn’t bother killing the henchman. Ghost vaulted over the rail, caught the one of the floor of his apartment. Anyone else, it might have wrenched his arm out of the socket. Ghost just climbed back onto the stairs, burst into the hall to run back to his door. Every rapid beat of his heart pumped blood down his thigh, brought pain in throbs.
Door open. Ghost held his knife at ready as he stalked inside, low to the ground, fixing his eyes on dark corners. He took a deep breath to smell the air.
Gone, whoever they’d been—and they had been. A stink like cheap cologne and drugstore lotion left a trail through his home. Ghost had disabled the traps in anticipation of guests. Mr. Paul. Dead now.
He flipped the switch and tried to chase away the shadows. Couldn’t dwell on death, let his head turn in circles. He focused on finding whatever they’d been looking for, this person in his home. He checked his kitchen first, bowls and jars of carefully labeled plants and detritus. Nothing opened, nothing stolen.
He opened a jar of corpse sage, dried purple leaves all orange at the edges, and jammed them between his teeth. They tasted like mold, but the pain in his thigh eased as he crushed them. He hadn’t realized he’d had a headache until it went away.
His checked the bedroom. No furniture except for shelves to hold planters and grow lights to keep them thriving. He kept the room humid, paint peeling off the walls.
No plants missing.
He touched the leaves of a grafted dwarf tree in passing, a pat of affection.
Back to the living room, where one shelf was in a disarray not his own. He knew his usual mess. Someone had disrupted a pile of old journals.
Missing one. He’d need to go through them if he wanted to find the year. He felt a fury grow against his spine, and he bit down harder on the leaves in his teeth to make it mellow.
The phone in his bag went off. He checked it automatically. Only had alerts enabled for one person, and the thought made some of the tension wrapped around his bones unwind.
She needed him, and everything else went on a backburner. Nothing else mattered; he knew where his priorities were. He stood, and looked down at himself.
He was going to need to change into less bloody pants.
The city of Midton was overrun with enormous man-eating slugs, and the superhero known as Coatimundi was staring anxiously at her phone.
“Was this your plan?” Black Knight asked, waving an armored hand at her.
“No!” she shot back, defensive. Small fluffy ears were pinned back to her hair in annoyance, her tail lashing. “This is the pre-plan. I’m setting a plan for a plan into motion.”
“We should regroup at the Plaza,” said Helen of Troy, sheathing her sword.
“Go ahead without me,” Coatimundi said, dragging her thumb over the screen to manually refresh.
“That’s not how regrouping works,” Black Knight pointed out. “If you’re trying to find someone else who had this problem, don’t bother—I already looked and it’s just one guy who marked his thread as resolved without posting what he did.”
Explanations were interrupted when someone landed beside them, having jumped off a nearby roof for maximum dramatic effect.
“You came!” Coatimundi said, ears perked up with delight.
Helen of Troy unsheathed her sword.
Ghost shrugged, a roll of his shoulders. “I was nearby.” He was tall and broad and wearing what passed for a costume with him, which wasn’t much of a costume at all. Just tight pants and tall boots and a shirt open too low at the neck, faintly piratical with the gold rings in his ears. He kept a knife on one thigh and a saddlebag on the other, a machete at his back and a looped length of rope on his belt. His hair was long and black and tied loose at his neck, his skin tanned and scarred. He had a perpetual shadow of stubble that felt gratuitous.
Coatimundi sidestepped just enough to put herself between Black Knight and Ghost, despite being at least a foot shorter than either of them. “Did I leave my location on?” she asked, tucking her phone into a deep pocket on her thigh. She’d never actually told him where they were.
“Sure,” Ghost said noncommittally.
“Why are you here, knave?” Helen asked, pointing her sword at him.
“Former knave,” Coatimundi corrected, sidling in the opposite direction to put herself in the way again. Helen was at least two feet taller than she was. Ghost had a dangerous sort of glint in his eye, a grin that was a baring of sharp teeth. “It’s fine, he’s with me kinda.”
It really would make things much easier if people would stop picking fights with him.
“If you say so, kid,” Knight said, and reluctantly Helen lowered her blade.
“For her sake,” Helen said to Ghost, a warning.
“Of course,” said Ghost, a hint of mockery directed at no one in particular. His accent made it hard to tell, his vowels too long and his consonants cutting. A drawl with sharp edges. “What did you need?” he asked, directed at Coatimundi and no one else.
“I thought your expertise might help with the slug situation,” she said.
“What slug situation?” he asked.
They stared at him. Around them, Midton was a chaos of sirens and screams.
“I was busy,” he added.
“There are giant, man-eating slugs,” Coatimundi explained, throwing a hand over Black Knight’s face before he could make a clever comment. Since splaying her fingers over the glassy faceplate did nothing to stop him from speaking, his silence was instead a concession to her wishes.
“Giant for slugs, or for people? A regular slug is—” Ghost held his thumb and forefinger an inch or two apart.
Coatimundi pointed to the now-tallest skyscraper in the city, a sharp spiral whose silhouette was marred by a mass of slugs the approximate size of the Statue of Liberty. Helicopters were circling the building, slime trailing to the streets below. On every building between could be seen slugs the size of Saint Bernards, climbing up brickwork and crusting up windows.
Ghost squinted at the slimy trail of destruction. “I’ve been very busy,” he said eventually.
“Before you ask,” Coatimundi said, “we’ve already tried salt. They’re too big, and there’s too many of them.”
“None of the infrastructure in this city can handle that much salt,” Black Knight added.
“Nobody’s got a shrink ray?” Ghost asked.
“If you’re trying to be funny, it’s not working,” Knight said.
“What—oh.” Ghost scratched at his stubble. “Was he the only guy? Someone made them bigger, didn’t they?”
“No,” Coatimundi said, eager to change the subject. “They’re from one of those islands where big things are small and small things are huge. I thought maybe you’d have seen them before.”
“Usually it’s spiders,” he said, apologetic.
“Because if there is a god, it is a hateful one.”
“In this case it’s slugs that are big, though,” she said, choosing to ignore that statement entirely rather than suggest he tone it down.
“And carnivorous,” Ghost said.
“That’s very unusual, for slugs.”
“We are aware that this is outside the realm of normal slug behaviors,” Knight said, exasperated.
“How did they even get so far?”
“They’re also fast,” Coatimundi said. “As fast as something can be when it’s just a big foot.”
“If it were me, I would probably just try the usual things,” Ghost admitted. “Salt, beer…”
“It is not our intent to eat them,” Helen said.
“We tried salt,” Coatimundi reminded him.
“Beer?” Ghost asked.
“Later,” Knight said.
“For the slugs,” Ghost clarified.
“I don’t think we want to be rewarding this behavior.”
“Garden slugs,” Ghost said, forming the shape of a circle with his hands in vague confusion. “Have you never had garden slugs? You set a trap with beer, the slugs drown before they get to your plants.”
“That’s brilliant!” Coatimundi said, bouncing on her toes. “There’s a bunch of brewpubs downtown that like to show off their big vats of beer.”
Helen gasped. “Not the microbrews!”
“Do none of you have gardens?” Ghost persisted, his brow furrowed. “I’d think one of you would have plant powers.”
Ghost had a tendency to lump all superheroes into a group that didn’t include him, some newfangled fad he didn’t understand.
“Red Orchid does,” Coatimundi said, “but I think their plants can usually just eat any slugs.”
“I found a brewery a little south of the city,” Black Knight said, his faceplate displaying a map in green lines. “Big, corporate, should have plenty—the microbrews are safe.”
Helen pressed a hand to her breastplate. “Hera’s Blessings.”
“Did you contact them about using their products?” Coatimundi asked.
“I bought the company,” Knight said, and Ghost snorted. Black Knight ignored the derision as a favor to Coatimundi. “It’s mine now, I’m sending out orders to gather up inflatable pools and as many beer vats as we can carry.”
Coatimundi and Helen’s phones pinged.
Coatimundi grabbed Ghost’s forearm. “Come on,” she said, before realizing he was looking toward a faraway building.
“Go ahead without me,” he said. “I want to get a closer look at one of these.”
“I don’t think you can taxidermy slugs,” Knight said, to which Ghost responded with a middle finger that Coatimundi tried to cover with her hand. “What? It’s true.”
“I’ll catch up with you later,” Coatimundi assured him before things could escalate.
“Thank you, Pizote,” Ghost said, and she squeezed his arm a little before letting him stalk away.
When the slug situation had someone abated, Coatimundi found Ghost with a glut of gutted gastropods. He was sitting on what should have been an inaccessible rooftop, and he had a journal open on his knees, bent over it with a pencil.
“Hello,” she said, leaning sideways into the edges of his vision.
“Hello, Pizote,” he said, with more warmth than before. He said it differently when they were alone, the little nickname he’d assigned her. She couldn’t pinpoint how. She inched closer, trying to get a better look at the pages.
His drawings were much more coherent than the reality, which just looked like a pile of slime to her. He’d diagrammed different organs with tentative labels, separated them out for more individual detail. They reminded her of drawings in an old encyclopedia.
Some of his drawings were in old encyclopedias.
“Figure anything out?” she asked.
“I’m not a scientist,” he said dismissively. “Maybe someone can use it.”
“Thank you for your help.”
“I did nothing.”
“You did a lot,” she insisted. “And… it means a lot that you came to help me.” The slow sway of her tail became a little faster.
Ghost looked up from his journal, green eyes locking fiercely onto hers. “Always,” he said, which made her stomach somersault. “I owe you my life.”
She shifted uncomfortably where she stood, ears lowering against her hair. “You don’t owe me anything.”
He shut his journal, tucked his pencil behind his ear, and stood. “You don’t like to hold my life in your hands?” he teased.
He chuckled as his journal slid into the bag on his thigh. “Would you prefer I be left to my own devices?”
She hesitated, her tail lashing.
“No,” he agreed, reaching out to take her hands in his. She froze, her ears standing up and alert. “Call, and I will answer; lead, and I will follow.”
She blinked. “I… if you needed help, I’d also. Answer. Because that’s what friends do.”
“Because you are you,” he corrected. “Even if we were not friends.”
She couldn’t really deny that. She hadn’t become a superhero to only help her friends. Still, she didn’t care for the imbalance he’d introduced to the equation, as if his friendship weren’t important to her.
“A lot of heroes are meeting up later,” she began.
“I think it would help if they had a chance to get to know you better.”
He released her hands gently, and she realized he’d been holding them the entire time. “I know enough.”
“You might be surprised.”
“I have tried this before,” he said, pulling from his bag a case filled with hand-rolled cigarettes. He struck a match against the case, and she watched the flickering flame as he lit up. He turned his head as he shook it out, exhaling smoke away from her. “It doesn’t end well.”
She frowned. “You have? When?” She thought she would have heard about it, Ghost Devlin trying to make friendly overtures toward anyone but her.
“Hmm.” His brow furrowed. “Maybe not anymore.”
“… I don’t know what that means.”
He flicked his thumb impatiently against the cigarette. “They won’t remember,” he said. “It never happened, now. You’d know if it had.”
She reached out to touch his arm, pull him back from his thousand-yard stare at the skyline. He wasn’t always stable, but he’d been doing well lately, she thought.
Ghost Devlin, The Devil Death Fears, Last King of Atlantis. Immortal, his adopted country swallowed by a rift in space-time. She wasn’t convinced he’d been particularly stable even before all that, based on what she’d heard. He’d inhaled and ingested a lot of things he probably shouldn’t have.
Coatimundi didn’t know how old he was, now. He’d be closer to two-hundred than one, but something had happened in Atlantis to make the math all wrong. Now he did this, sometimes, remembered things that never were or forgot the way things had always been.
“Things might be different with me there,” she suggested, and he softened.
“The weight of my past is not your burden to bear,” he said. It was an obtuse way to say he didn’t want to put her to trouble.
“Everyone needs friends.”
“I have one,” he reminded her, which was both flattering and horribly sad. Her phone chimed from her pocket. “And you have many.”
“Just give me one second,” she said, pulling it from her pocket to check the screen.
Carrie: Is it safe for me to leave this tree yet?
They’d been in the park when the danger started, and her roommate had been forced to take refuge in a tree with a thick circle of road salt around the trunk.
“Oh, heck. I have to go get Carrie.”
“Miss Davenport isn’t in danger?” he asked, an unspoken offer of assistance.
“I don’t think so. She just, you know…”
“Needs you,” he finished for her.
“I’m sorry I can’t stick around,” she said, sliding her phone away. “You should think about what I said—what I was trying to say. About meeting people, and making friends.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“I still don’t get where the slugs came from,” Carrie said, walking along the park paths beside Andi. Andi had transformed back into her civvies, no more ears or tail or band of black across her eyes and down her nose. The lack of them was an annoyance, but she made do.
The sun was setting, and the park lights had all turned on. The evidence of the day’s events was mostly disappearing, scattered ambulances and teenagers trying to steal drinks from kiddie pools swimming with dead slugs.
“I guess a couple ended up on a shipping freighter,” Andi said, scrolling through articles. “From there they multiplied, and once it docked it was a free-for-all.”
“That was a lot of slugs for one boat,” Carrie said suspiciously. As a former teen detective, now twenty-something busybody, it was how she said most things. “And it seemed like the city was full of them all at once. That’s pretty sudden, for a slug.”
“I’m seeing a couple places saying they might have ended up in the sewers first.”
“Wouldn’t the Gators have noticed?”
“Yeah, a lot of this is still speculation.” She switched apps into her social media feed. “Oh my gosh, there are slug memes.”
“Obviously there are slug memes.”
“There are so many slug memes.”
“Don’t meme and walk at the same time,” Carrie warned.
“Memes aren’t that distracting,” Andi said. “I don’t understand this one with the snake.”
“There are a bunch of those, I think some show had a finale today.”
“I’ll check if anyone tagged it in the replies.”
Andi failed to heed Carrie’s verbal warning in time, face still buried in her phone, and walked directly into what seemed to be a wall. She over-corrected backward into a stumble, eyes wide as she struggled to catch the device now bouncing between her hands. Her balance was thrown off without her tail, her focus on keeping her phone from breaking.
Then the wall swept her halfway off her feet, much the way she might be dipped for a kiss. She snatched her phone from the air and clutched it to her chest.
“Ghost!” she said automatically, surprised.
He smiled, all crooked and rakish. Charm laid on obnoxiously thick in ways she wasn’t used to seeing directed at her. “You’ve heard of me,” he said—nearly purred.
She looked at Carrie, whose expression offered no useful information. She looked back at Ghost. He still hadn’t let her go. “Yes. Yes!” Was her voice usually that high? She felt like it wasn’t. “We haven’t met. I don’t know you. I know of you. I’m very normal.”
“Miss Davenport,” he said, still not taking his eyes off of Andi, “you never mentioned you were acquainted with such a ravishing creature.”
Andi’s face felt hot.
Carrie squinted at Ghost. She looked at Andi. She looked at Ghost again. “Seriously? Seriously.”
Andi considered Carrie’s ability to recognize secret identities to be a power honed through years of detective work. Carrie considered it ‘common fucking sense’ and ‘basic observation’.
“I have never been more serious,” Ghost said, apparently closer to Andi than Carrie on the observation spectrum. “May I have your name?”
“N—yes.” Andi held out her hand in the minimal space between them, still held mid-swoon and unsure how to escape. Her grip on her phone was white-knuckled. “Andi Bravo it is very nice to meet you for the first time ever in my life Mr. Devlin sir.”
Carrie covered her face with her hand.
“Miss Bravo,” he said, taking her hand to kiss the backs of her fingers. Her face grew hotter. He smelled like smoke, cigars and cigarettes and some kind of liquor and none of that should have been comforting but together it was. He smelled like summer nights at her grandfather’s house, cookouts full of old men and helping them cheat at card games. Cold winters with her uncle, who never married so there was no one to stop them from smoking indoors, and no one ever said that was why they liked his house best but everyone always knew.
He brought her up to stand straight and let her go, which felt anti-climactic and she didn’t know why. She was still holding her phone against her heart, and thought the force of her pulse might trigger the pedometer.
“We should get going,” Carrie said, putting her hands on Andi’s shoulders to herd her away. Andi was as responsive as a cupboard, and her shoes dragged along the pavement accordingly.
“You’re going to the same place?” Ghost asked, following along instead of taking the hint. Andi was, she realized, staring at him. His grin was cocky, a swagger in his step instead of his usual intensity of purpose. A different kind of prowl altogether.
“We’re roommates,” Carrie said with an edge to her tongue.
“Oh? But I’ve never seen you before.”
Andi looked at Carrie with alarm. “I’m shy,” she blurted, before Carrie could craft a better explanation. Carrie rolled her eyes.
“I see,” he said seriously, lending undue gravity to her declaration. “Not many dates,” he suggested. Andi shook her head mutely as Carrie tried to convey something with her eyes that wasn’t making it to her target. “No Saturday plans,” he added, and Andi shook her head again. “Around seven, say.”
“Nope,” Carrie said.
Andi was completely lost.
“I wasn’t asking you, Miss Davenport,” Ghost reminded her.
“Her answer is no,” Carrie said.
“My answer to what?” Andi asked, looking between the two of them.
“You,” he said, pointing to her, “and me,” he said, pointing to his chest, “getting dinner on Saturday.”
“Oh. Oh!” Andi planted her feet completely, standing straighter. Carrie’s pushing came to an immediate halt, unable to move Andi at all when she put up resistance. “You’re asking me out?” Andi asked, stunned.
“I am,” Ghost said, rocking back on his heels and looking pleased with himself.
“Andi Bravo?” Not Coatimundi. Not Pizote.
“That is your name.”
“Right. Yes.” There was a giggle forming at the bottom of her stomach that she refused to let out. “We could do that. If you want.”
“I do want,” he said, and part of a giggle hiccuped out of her. Carrie made a sound of disgust. “Where shall I pick you up?”
“You’re not telling him where we live,” Carrie said before Andi could respond.
Andi had the foresight not to point out that he could find it if he really wanted. Reminders of his stalking abilities would do no one any good.
“We could meet at the Plaza?” Andi suggested.
“The waterfront,” he countered.
Her ears would have perked up, at that. “We can do carnival things!” she said, almost bouncing at the thought.
“We can,” he agreed. His grin seemed to curl.
“Right, that’s settled, so—” Carrie tried and failed to push Andi again.
“It’s a date,” Ghost said, and then he winked and Andi’s insides all fluttered in that giggly way she didn’t want them to. He sauntered away, really sauntered, and it took her too long to relax enough that Carrie could herd her successfully.
“I have a date,” Andi said, awestruck.
“With a supervillain,” Carrie reminded her.
“Reformed.” Andi shoved her phone in her pocket as they walked, her feed forgotten.
“You’re the only one who seems to think so,” Carrie pointed out, “and it’s just as likely that he only behaves himself when you’re around. We don’t know what he’s up to the rest of the time.”
Andi frowned. “I thought you two were getting along.”
“Professionally, sure. That doesn’t mean I want him dating my best human friend. I’d be just as suspicious if it were Black Knight.”
“Ew.” Andi stuck out her tongue. “He’s old.”
“And Ghost isn’t?”
“Ghost is like a bajillion,” Andi said with confidence. “That’s different. It’s like vampire rules.”
“He can’t come inside unless he’s invited?”
“That’s just common courtesy. Vampire rules means that once someone’s a million years old they can’t date people their own age. Because they’re dead. They have to date people whose age they look like, instead.”
“That’s a dumb rule. High schoolers shouldn’t date the undead.”
“Okay, agreed, but I’m not a high schooler. I’m a grown adult woman.”
“Debatable,” Carrie said, deliberately tousling Andi’s hair. “And I’m not giving the guy points just for not creeping on teens. He still looks older than you, and he’s still creeping. Why did you say yes?”
It had seemed like the obvious thing to do, at the time. This was not the correct answer. “It… felt like what a normal person would do.”
“Normal people don’t agree to dates with strange men who manhandle them in parks.”
Andi turned pink. “Maybe I was curious,” she said. “What he’s like with people who aren’t Coatimundi.”
“It’s like a fact-finding mission!” Andi insisted. “Besides. It’s just Ghost. It’s not a big deal.”