They fly through the air, lift entire locomotives in their hands and smash through tanks as if they were made of paper. Loved, hated, they have become part of a very different world, where superpower changed the world and the next war will be a superhuman war, fought out for dominance over the entire planet.
But now, someone has done the impossible and killed America, one of the most-loved superhumans in the world. As SDI Investigator Matt Tracker starts to investigate, he finds himself at the centre of a deadly plot…and realises that New York City might be the battleground of the First Superhuman War.
Prologue This is how it all started.
Back in 1979, there was a girl who was due to be burned for the hideous crime of being raped by a man. This would have passed unnoticed, except when they lit the bonfire, the flames somehow merged with the girl and lashed out into the village, killing every man, woman, and child. The girl had somehow gained powers over fire; after completing the destruction of her village, she vanished into darkest Africa.
Naturally, no one believed a word of the story, until the next super-powered human appeared. And then the next. And then the next…five years later, there were seven hundred known superhumans in the world, changing the very balance of power by their mere existence. Superhumans changed the world; from the streets of America to the snowstorms of Siberia, to the darkest heart of Africa to the jungles of Bangladesh, superhumans provided a challenge to the established order. Today, in 2010, there are over seven thousand superhumans in the world; some good, some bad, some trying to remain unnoticed.
Superhumans like me.
My name is Mathew Tracker.
I am an investigator for the Superhuman Defence Initiative.
This is my story.
Chapter One “America is dead,” the General said, as I was escorted up the stairs.
“Really,” I said, keeping my voice level. I don’t like teleporting at the best of times, but the General’s summons had been very firm, impossible to refuse. I took a long breath, allowing my senses to start searching for information, and allowed myself the luxury of a wisecrack. “We may have the Beckham family over here, but that hardly means that we’re about to die.”
The General regarded me with the kind of look normally reserved for particularly dense soldiers, before turning to beckon me into another room. He’s a strange figure, tall, thin and lanky in the way that many ex-infantry men are, with grey hair and very sharp blue eyes. I’ve known him for nearly twenty years, a man who was at Camp Pendleton when it was attacked during the early days of superhumanity and who has since then devoted his life to controlling, guiding and if necessary terminating superhumans. He wasn't a superhuman himself, although there are plenty of people who would have questioned that happy assumption, but he was never intimidated by men with the power to fly or shatter a tank with a single punch.
A strange man, the General. America is lucky to have him, and at the same time, America would like to pretend that he doesn’t exist and isn’t really required. He walks in the shadows and answers only to the President and the lucky person who holds the once-coveted position of Director of the Superhuman Defence Initiative; his very name is largely unknown to the public. He prefers it that way.
“This is no time for humour,” he said, as we entered the room. The sense of death grew more…pronounced as I saw the body lying on the ground. “America is dead.”
I blinked. “This is America?”
The General looked slightly – very slightly - embarrassed. “The uniform includes a hood that keeps his face concealed,” he said, reminding me. “This is one of the Americas’, if you like.”
The body on the ground was black, a dead ringer for whoever played Captain Sisko in that short-lived Star Trek series. The man had once been handsome, in a mature kind of way, but now his face was contorted in an ugly mixture of shock and pain. His body had been muscular in the way that makes other men jealous and leaves them feeling inadequate, but now, the cause of death was all-too-clear. Someone had punched a bloody hole through his chest and into his heart.
Something about it struck me as odd, but I left it for the moment; I find that my mind works better if I try to sneak up on a problem, rather than trying to solve it through brute force. Context is everything, so I glanced around the bare room, noticing the presence of a single bed and washbasin, but little else. The room seemed only fit for someone who could afford nothing better, or wanted a private little tryst with his mistress; the one element of interest was a photograph of America in full costume.
I ignored the General’s growing impatience and studied the image. America had been one of the first government-supported superhumans, according to the official news; when Fireman quit the first superteam, America stepped up and took over what became the public SDI superhuman task force. He wore an outfit designed to show the American flag, covering all of his face; I could easily believe that someone had been able to push several superhumans into the role, and no one would be any the wiser. It made me wonder just who was wearing the mask these days.
I turned back to the General. “Do we know what he’s doing here?”
“No,” the General said, his voice showing the faintest tinge of suspicion. He might as well have shouted his suspicions from the rooftop; I can read a person’s mood just by being near them. “What do you think?”
I shrugged. “I dare say he wasn’t mugged,” I said. I wasn’t trying to annoy the General, but I wanted time to think. “What do you think?”
The General eyed me suspiciously. “This man – Marvin Lofting – was rated at Level Seven,” he said, a droll note running through his voice. “Do you think an ordinary mugger could have killed him?”
I shook my head. The superhuman power scale is somewhat subjective, being a combination of raw power, endurance, and – more practically – how difficult any given superhuman is to kill. I rate out as a Level Two, despite my own nature; Level Seven suggested some degree of invulnerability and certainly immense physical strength. If I recalled correctly – and perfect memory is one of my gifts – America had also possessed some degree of laser vision and super-senses. A mugger might have tried to pick on him, but it would have been the last mistake that poor bastard ever made.
“There’s already some interest from outside,” the General continued. “I need you to tell me, as quickly as possible, who killed him and why.”
I leaned down and scowled. America might have had almost all of the powers in the Superman-class, but I didn’t; my powers were much stranger. I have a…well, a super-awareness of the area around me, a sense that lets me know every last detail of my surroundings. What’s the point of that, you might ask; why would that be useful? Think about it; I can look at someone – anyone – and tell if they are lying to me. I can touch an object and learn much more about it than anyone else could, at least without a full scientific examination. I could sniff someone and tell them, right down to the minute, when they last had sex. If a girl is interested in me…believe me, I’ll know it. More practically, if I get into a fight, my opponent can’t help telegraphing their attacks to me.
It took me several months to learn to control my powers. The sudden burst of sensory information left me in a coma and it took a week before my brain adapted enough to allow me to wake up. I can still remember the shock of looking at the pretty nurses and seeing, at a level I cannot really describe, their innermost secrets. I spend most of my time alone, well away from anyone else; I don’t have a permanent girlfriend or wife. All couples sometimes have a moment when they think that they’re making a mistake…and I’ll know it when someone thinks that about me. I prefer prostitutes; they, at least, are honest about being in it for the money.
“I guessed that much,” I said, as I started to concentrate and open up my senses. I’m more dangerous than most superhumans would guess; I can look at one of them and see their weaknesses. Most superhumans have at least one weakness; America, at a rough guess, had still needed to breathe. “Give me a moment to think.”
The General backed off as I forced my mind to concentrate. The sudden torrent of information surprised me, in a way; I never fully understand how my powers work. It’s the same with almost every superhuman; you ask a flyer how he or she flies and they won’t be able to tell you. I know things without actually knowing how I know them; America came here, he wasn't alone, the sense of the other is almost…
I can’t believe it. There is plenty of nonsense being written about the origin of superpowers, including the claim that they’re caused by an alien virus or genetic modification programs started by little grey aliens, but no one has produced a single piece of proof of alien life. I know that there are some people, Pure Humanity for one, who claim that superhumans are aliens, but its nonsense. The…sense refuses to fade; something happened here that was well out of the ordinary.
The General didn’t believe it either. “Impossible,” he said. The scorn in his voice didn’t surprise me in the slightest. “How many other people were here when he died?”
I concentrated, grimly, trying to peer through the unknown sense. Whoever did this to America – this America – was clever; whatever they had used was fouling up my senses, at least at some level. I had the definite sense of at least two other people, apart from America himself, but I couldn’t even tell if they were male or female. What had America been doing in this place anyway? He wouldn’t be the first superhuman to have groupies – female groupies – who were prepared to sleep with him, but even so, this was an unlikely place for such trysts. The groupies normally insisted on their target wearing their outfits…and America, lying there, was wearing normal civilian clothes.
“I think there were two people,” I said. I stood up and wandered over to the bed; it practically reeked, but not of America. The substance that had been used to cover their tracks was weaker here, but I wasn’t convinced that the people who had used the bed – the hundreds of people who had used the bed, unless my senses were deceiving me – were actually connected to the murder. “Jumper brought me right here, so where exactly are we?”
“It’s an apartment block,” the General said, unhelpfully. I scowled; the presence of the SDI would have told any newsmen that whatever had happened, a superhuman was involved. “No one saw anything, no one heard anything, no one so much as guessed that there was a dead body in here…you know the drill.”
“You didn’t see me, you didn’t hear me and you can’t prove it anyway,” I agreed. A thought struck me. “Wait a moment; no one saw anything?”
“No,” the General said.
It was obvious, in hindsight; superhuman conflicts are not quiet. A guy with the comparative strength of a steam locomotive, capable of breaking a tank with his bare hands, able to fly faster than a speeding jet fighter…that guy isn’t going to go quietly. If I had hit him, I would have broken my hand on his chin; someone with the power to hurt him would have sent an invulnerable body smashing through the apartment and crashing through walls. I had attended a clean-up at a university following a particularly nasty sparking and the damage had been awesome, as if someone had set off an entire series of bombs, rather than one maddened superhuman.
“How did they manage to hurt him without bringing down the ceiling?” I asked, returning to the dead body. On a hunch, I clenched my fist and held it over the gaping wound; it was just a little smaller than the murder weapon. A superhuman can be a weapon in his or her own right, a living weapon of mass destruction. Ever since Slaughter was unleashed on Central America, for reasons that looked good at the time, people have feared insane superhumans. No wonder Pure Humanity is so popular.
“Good question,” the General said. “Do you have an answer?”
I stroked the wound thoughtfully. The fist – and I was convinced now that it had been a fist – had punched right through invulnerable skin. It didn’t add up; the force required to inflict such damage would have sent the body flying through the wall, except it hadn’t done anything of the sort. Hit a normal person with that sort of force and their body would literally disintegrate.
“No,” I admitted, grudgingly. I hated failure, particularly when it was my failure. “Tell me something; what’s this guy’s life story?”
“He used to be a policeman for the NYPD, but he got thrown off the Twin Towers by a superhuman and just sparked then rather than hitting the ground,” the General said, thoughtfully. “He registered almost at once and was rapidly recruited into the covert team and then, when the first America started talking about resigning, took on the cape and cowl. Five years later, he stepped down himself, returned to his home with his wife and two kids, and then…well, we only heard from him from time to time.”
I smiled. “When you needed him for a mission?”
“Yes,” the General said. A superhuman can normally write their own ticket; someone with America’s power levels would be much in demand right across the world. “He was actually doing some work with black kids from the poorer parts of the city, helping to convince them that there might be a life for them that didn’t include gangs and random sudden death at a young age; all in all, I would have said he was a model hero.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time that someone we considered above suspicion caused problems,” I reminded him dryly. Something was nagging at my brain, but what? “Did he have any enemies?”
“America has lots of enemies,” the General said grimly. I thought about it; if the murderer had known that he was targeting America, why not go for whoever was currently wearing the cape and cowl? Did the murderer know whom he was targeting? I couldn’t believe that it was just a random hit that had included someone with the power to actually hurt a Level Seven superhuman. That would be stretching probability too far. “I don’t know if he actually had enemies in his civilian life.”
“Someone hated him enough to inflict such injuries on him,” I said. It made me wonder; what was I missing? “Was he having any problems with his powers?”
“Good thought,” the General said. “He didn’t report any problems when we last spoke to him, and I must say that there is very little evidence of superpowers fading, but that might be one reason why he was injured so badly. Are there any inhibitor drugs running through his bloodstream?”
I leaned closer and allowed my senses to creep over the body. The South Africans, under the Apartheid regime, had been the leaders in ethically-questionable experiments to produce, control and terminate superhumans. Years after the Apartheid regime had fallen apart in civil war, we’re still dealing with the results, from several superhumans who were the victims of various experiments to sterilisation drugs that somehow ‘accidentally’ got into the water supply. Doctor Death, as he had been known, had actually succeeded in producing a drug that reduced superpowers for a short period, but there were no traces of any such drugs running through America’s body.
“No,” I said finally, grimly. If there was a superhuman murderer out there, he or she had to be odd indeed. “I don’t know how they did it.”
The General nodded. “I want you to find the person who did this,” he said. I had rather guessed that, although I suspected that he had hoped I would sense something that would lead us directly to the killer. “There are worrying diplomatic problems involved.”
I lifted an eyebrow. “The United Nations is going to be holding a conference on superpower within the next month,” the General admitted, when pressed. He knew better than to try to lie to me. “There are more superhumans in New York than ever before and the last thing we need is for them to start lashing out in panic. The city might not recover from such a battle.”
He paused. “And they’re going to know pretty quickly that a superhuman was killed,” he continued. “I bet you dinner at the place of your choice that the Mayor will start using it soon, if he hasn’t already, to score points for the forthcoming election. Mayor Hathaway has ambitions to become the President and intends to run as soon as he gets the nomination.”
“If he gets the nomination,” I said. Politics were chancy things in a world of superpowers and superhumans. Mayor Hathaway’s grand plan, to turn New York into the superhuman capital of the world – as if it wasn't that already – would upset a lot of applecarts. I pushed that matter to one side and started to concentrate on coming up with a plan. “I’ll start by interviewing as many people as possible and seeing if I pick up any traces of that smell anywhere near them.”
The General nodded, his mind clearly elsewhere. “We need a solution quickly,” he said, simply. “Whoever did this harmed one of us, a person who worked for the SDI, and they cannot be allowed to get away with it. Find him, Matt, find him so that the covert team can deal with him and then we can put the bastard on trial.”
“After finding out how he did it, I suppose,” I said. Superpowers bring out the best and the worst in us; for everyone like America, or myself for that matter, there’s some bastard out to cause trouble or terror, or merely profit himself. If there were a way of removing powers, or even limiting them, without the inhibitor drugs, the SDI would sell its collective soul to get it.
“Of course,” the General agreed. He had to control some of the superhuman population and it was never an easy job. Many of them refused even to admit that the SDI had any authority over them that couldn’t be enforced, daring the SDI to take direct action that might leave thousands of people dead as collateral damage. Something like this would be a godsend.
That led to another thought. The SDI wasn’t the only group that would have an interest in developing something that could inhibit powers. “I think I’ll talk to the Humanists as well, just to see if they know anything.”
The General beckoned Jumper over. “Take Matt somewhere away from the eyes of the press,” he said. Jumper, a young man with teleporting powers, nodded once. “Matt, find this bastard; we need to send a message.”
As Jumper took my hand, I nodded. There was no questioning the message the General wanted to send.
You don’t fuck with the SDI.
Chapter Two Central Park, I had often felt, had been spoilt by the introduction of a platform for political speeches. Mayor Joe Hathaway had visited London during one of his frequent trips away from his constituency and had been impressed by Speaker’s Corner, or so the story went. It wasn't the only story surrounding the Mayor of New York; he is, according to his supporters, a natural leader and a great war hero. The latter is all the more remarkable as there was no war going on at the time. Mudslingers had been pointing out this little discrepancy for years, only to discover that Hathaway himself had never claimed to be a great hero, or at least nowhere in public.
And New York loved him. Hathaway – a short fat man with an enormous voice – satisfied their demands for spectacle. Hathaway had been a junior politician when the first superhumans appeared and he had rapidly turned them into his personal cause. He had taken the lead in the condemnation of the CIA and Vice President Bush when it was revealed that they had used a superhuman serial killer as a living weapon of terror and had actually worked hard to encourage other superhumans to immigrate to New York. The NYPD, under his insistent prodding, had handed out licences to more superhumans than any other city; I had heard that at least twenty-seven superhumans had been officially deputised in New York. New York, in fact, is perhaps the only place in the world where you can expect to run into a superhuman on a daily basis.
“And I pledge that this foul hate crime against an innocent superhuman will not go unavenged,” Hathaway was proclaiming, in full Yosemite Sam mode. He really needed a Bugs Bunny to put the wind up his kilt. “I promise you that I will do everything in my power to bring the person responsible to justice!”
I glanced at my watch as Jumper vanished again. I’d been with the General, at the crime scene, for nearly an hour; the news had spread rapidly. Hathaway wasn't telling anyone very much, to be fair; he might know that a superhuman had been killed, but not much about who that superhuman had been. The SDI would keep quiet about the identity of America – perhaps flying the third America around New York – but the odds were that Hathaway would find out in the end. He had been Mayor long enough to have his cronies scattered right through the NYPD. One of them would have told him everything the NYPD knew about the case.
“God help us all if he becomes President,” I muttered, and turned to leave. Hathaway’s voice echoed in my ears as I left the park and kept walking, drawing in my senses as much as possible; New York might also be the home of the electric car, but the streets still smelt pretty unpleasant to me. As I walked, I pulled a mobile phone out of my pocket and made a single call, before killing time in a small café. It would take some time for my friend to get ready to meet me and I knew better than to surprise her.
I skimmed through the New York Times as I drank a cup of dubious tea. I had developed a taste for tea while in England, but it’s difficult to get a good cup of tea in America, even in New York. I have a friend in England who posts me tealeaves from time to time, but even that doesn’t quite satisfy. I have to be careful what I eat and drink, these days; even the blandest dish is a flavourful feast for me. A good vindaloo curry has been known to come close to putting me back in my coma. From time to time, I experiment, but mostly I just have to keep my food bland. The newspaper didn’t have anything interesting to offer, mainly comments about the UN’s plan for a discussion of superpower and remarks about how it might boost Hathaway’s chance to park his oversized arse in the White House.
“Interesting,” I muttered, trying to read between the lines. The UN has never been capable of controlling superpower; the more unstable a state is, the more likely it is that superhumans will affect it badly. We’ve been lucky; the worst that happened is that two people who were hotly tipped to become President, George HW Bush and William Clinton, lost any chance of an election victory. Russia – the former Soviet Union – suffered badly from rogue superhumans and their fury at how they were treated; many other states, such as Iraq and Bangladesh, have superhumans controlling them directly. Africa is being torn apart by superhuman-led war.
It made me wonder just what the UN thought it was doing. There were plenty of proposed resolutions against superhuman activity, none of which had done a blind bit of good; it wasn’t easy to regulate superhumans at the best of times. Secretary-General Clinton might have had something in mind, or maybe he just wanted to talk endlessly about the issue in hopes it would vanish; there was no way to know. The paper was completely uninformative.
My phone buzzed once and I started to walk again, heading into Yonkers. A lot of rich people lived in the area, including several superhuman celebrities, but the person I had come to visit was unknown to the general public. As far as I knew, only myself, the General, and a couple of others even knew of her existence. She lived by herself in a small townhouse that was part of a gated compound; Yonkers had something of an issue with racial tension and groupies coming to see their superheroes. I was buzzed through the gate, walked through a small garden that was almost a park, and then finally tapped on her door. The door opened automatically – I sensed the sudden shift in the electromagnetic field that indicated that several dozen sensors had been activated, allowing her to get a look at me – and then I walked into the main room.
She sat there, sitting with her legs crossed on a sofa, surrounded by her toys. The room was a nerd’s paradise; computers and computing equipment lay everywhere, linked together through network cables and her own remarkable mind. The room had heavy air conditioning, but even so, it was surprisingly warm; the heat from the computers provided all the heating anyone could want, or need.
Her brown eyes lifted up reluctantly to meet mine. She was short and slight, an Arabic girl wearing a headscarf and a long shapeless dress that hid almost all of her form. She was pretty, in a way, but I knew that she had been through a traumatic period when she sparked and her powers developed. Even now, she didn’t talk to many people directly, choosing to use her affinity with computers to chat online; her powers, the ability to somehow talk directly to computers, made her one of the most formidable information-hunters in the business. There’s no secret on a computer hard drive that can be kept from her.
Layla Ibrahim, otherwise known as the Nerdette.
“Welcome,” she said. Her voice was soft and warm, but I know that she didn’t mean it; company of any kind is actively distressing to her. If I made a move towards her, whatever my intentions, she would almost certainly panic completely. Whatever happened to her – and even I don’t know – it was clearly bad. “It’s about America, I take it?”
“Yes,” I said. Layla would have read the files as quickly as the General imputed them into the SDI’s computers. I have a suspicion that the General has someone else like Layla on his staff permanently, otherwise he would have had to shut her down before she did something really dangerous. “I need to know everything you can tell me about him and who might want him dead.”
Layla’s eyes seemed to fade slightly as she communed with her computers. I could see the electromagnetic fields surrounding her, the humming field of information streams flowing from the Internet, but I couldn’t read them for myself. I couldn’t handle that sort of superpower, even if it seems to leave Layla as a mere Level One; her insight into how a computer works made her the greatest hacker in the world.
“America II, born Marvin Lofting, 1970,” Layla said, concentrating. Like me, she draws vast amounts of data from her power; she had to learn to control it and sift through the input as well. “Good education, father in business, mother apparently a police dispatcher, a jock with a string of basketball trophies, declined a scholarship for some unknown reason and joined the NYPD in 1990. Sparked four years later, registered himself, but insisted on keeping his identity a secret; he joined the SDI soon afterwards and took on the role of America.”
“There’s little new there,” I protested. “Is there any reason why he might have been killed?”
Layla smiled. It was a cute, little-sister-like smile. “He has several superhuman enemies, if that’s what you mean,” she said. “He fought that gang of superhuman thugs in Chicago and waged war against drug smugglers and Pure Humanity. He’s credited with capturing one of their masterminds, although judging from the reports here, it was actually the covert term that did most of the work.”
“As always,” I said. The SDI operated two superhuman teams; the overt team and the covert team. The overt team got all the limelight, the babes and the quickie movie deals; the covert team did most of the actual work. “What happened after he left?”
“There’s no sign of him leaving under a cloud, or any blacklisting,” Layla said, after a moment. “Apparently, he met and married Jackie Tyler, who became Jackie Lofting; they had two kids fairly quickly. They’re both registered as superhumans, but no clues as to their actual powers” – she laughed – “and get this; they’re named Jane and Jack.”
“I would have thought that Rose was a better name,” I deadpanned. “What about his life out of bed?”
“That’s the interesting part,” Layla said. “He’s recorded as doing some teaching and education work on the side – coaching a sports team and generally providing young African-Americans with a father figure – but very little else. I ran a spending analysis and he doesn’t spend that much on drinking, smoking, or anything illegal that I can find, but he has two large batches of cash that were paid into his account.”
“Interesting,” I said, after a moment. Still waters tend to run deep in my line of business. “Do you know who paid him?”
“The SDI paid him one large cash payment; five hundred thousand dollars,” Layla said, after a moment. “It wasn’t taxed or anything, so…that’s odd.”
“He never touched it,” Layla said. “It’s just sitting in his account collecting interest.”
I considered it. “Does he – did he - know it’s there?”
“I can’t say for sure,” Layla said, “but given that the money was paid into a fairly basic government account, like many other superheroes use, I’d guess that he did know that it was there. His other payments from the SDI, as America, were paid into that account and he took those and invested it for his children. I can give you a full credit rundown if you like.”
I listened as she outlined details that shouldn’t have been known to anyone outside America himself and his bankers. “Interesting,” I said, finally. “What about the other payment?”
“I don’t know,” Layla admitted, and I could tell from a thousand cues just how much she hated admitting that. “The money was paid into his name through a prominent Swiss bank, apparently from one of the accounts that are permanently left without any accessible data on who actually owns them.” Her lips twitched. “They’re paranoid about people like me, with good reason.”
“I can see that,” I said, dryly. “How many people wanted him dead?”
“Several dozen supervillain-class superhumans,” Layla said. “The problem is that most of them are definitely locked up and under heavy guard. There are a couple of his villains, from his time as America, still running around, but I don’t think that any of them had the power to actually kill him in such a manner. If he had personal enemies from his time as a policeman, one of them might have planned to drug him and then kill him, but you apparently didn’t find any traces of drugs in his system.”
“The General filed his report, then,” I guessed. It still refused to make any sense; policemen did tend to pick up enemies, particularly the good ones, but how could a common or garden criminal have hurt a Level Seven superhuman? The Soviets, back in the early days, had faced a Polish superhuman on a similar level…and had had to destroy Warsaw with a tactical nuclear weapon to kill him. I was fairly sure that no one had done that to New York; after all, the city was still intact. “Speaking of which, did he have any enemies in the SDI?”
“None that I’m aware of,” Layla said. “There’s some mention of his risking his life unnecessary, but the General clearly didn’t feel the urge to boot him out of the overt team; on the whole, it looks as if he was a genuine hero. There are a handful of references to a trip overseas, to Africa, and another to the Middle East as part of a deployment to Kuwait, but it doesn’t look as if the overt team ever engaged anyone during the covert struggles. He was offered a position in Africa on a permanent basis, when he left the overt team, but declined it.”
She snickered. “Apparently, he had little patience with the kind of thinking that suggested that racism was the source of all of our problems,” she said. “He fought Jim Crow once, and Black Panther.”
I smiled back. The Black Panther had been sued by Marvel Comics afterwards, even though he claimed that the name had really come from the terrorist group from the sixties, rather than the comics character; it had been something of a pointless exercise, not least because the bastard had been executed after he had been caught, tried, and sentenced to death. He’d also been penniless, but I guess that Marvel had wanted to make a point; if you were a superhuman and wanted to dress up as a comic book character, you had to pay them for the use of their character. There are at least four Superman-impersonators out there and only one of them, as far as I know, pays any royalties to DC.
“But the only other possibility is Pure Humanity,” Layla said, after a long moment. I could have basked in her smile for hours. “America – this America – was involved with foiling some of their terrorist plots, so they certainly have a motive for getting rid of him. The Humanists have a large presence in New York, so maybe you should take your portable lie detector and go ask them.”
“That portable lie detector is in here,” I said, tapping my head. The SDI hasn’t told anyone about what I can do – hell, there are people who don’t think I’m a superhuman at all – and that’s a good thing; there are laws against using telepaths to interrogate people. I’m not a telepath, but some sly bastard of a lawyer might just try to convince people that I’m close enough to a telepath to actually throw out my testimony. “Has the forensic team turned up any clues as to how he died?”
Layla touched the side of her cheek with one finger. “Nothing,” she said, her voice puzzled. I shared her puzzlement; there are only three ways to beat a superhuman, particularly one of that power level, and none of them seemed to have been used. Cheating…well, if it had been done, I couldn’t see how it had been done. Brute force…would have left the entire block in ruins. Nuclear attack…would have left a chunk of the city as radioactive ruins. “They’ve told his family that he was killed, but the General has apparently ordered them taken into protective custody; the official reason is that whoever killed their husband and father might come for them as well.”
“I think it’s more a case of keeping them away from the press,” I said. The General wouldn’t want publicity that might imperil the secret of America. Whoever was wearing the cape and cowl now would have to be protected as well. “I’d better chat to them before they start selling their stories to the press.”
Layla printed off the address and passed it over to me. “That would be a wise move,” she agreed, dryly. She was coming to the end of her tolerance for company, even through her voice hadn’t changed at all; I knew it and she knew that I knew it. “Who else are you going to see?”
“There’s too much going on here,” I admitted. If there was a link to Pure Humanity, that would be a worthwhile investigation, but I didn’t like the possibility of an international angle. There are several nations run by superhumans these days and some of them know as much about superhuman powers as we do. The General might have set me up to take the fall if something went badly wrong. “Can you do me a favour?”
Layla quirked her eyebrow. “I need a list of the main superhumans and superhuman groups here,” I said, thinking ahead. That smell, that sense, from the apartment might be the only clue I had. “Can you forward that to me after I interview his family and the Humanists?”
“Of course,” Layla said. She leaned forward. “Was there anything else?”
Someone else would have been fooled; I knew better. “No,” I said, and stood up. I could trust her to keep digging for possible information that had been left in deep cover. “I’ll see you again once I have run out of leads to follow up.”
I didn’t glance back as I left.
It would only have upset her.