I knew it had to be her by the way there was nobody there. I see a lot of people in my line of work, including people I can’t actually see, but Lily is the only natural Invisible I know of. Everybody else uses tech, and seems to think that being invisible is the same thing as being undetectable. Wrong! One of my clients paid me with a gadget that renders the best invisi-tech useless, which comes in handy on stakeouts.
“Lily,” I said to the empty air. “Long time no see.”
A gentle snort confirmed my suspicions: it was her. “I might have known you’d realize it was me. How do you do it?” One of my guest chairs moved away from the desk as she took a seat.
“You know I never give away my secrets,” I said in a friendly, relaxed tone. Putting people at ease is an important skill for detectives, so I’ve gotten good at acting casual and friendly. For Lily, it’s no act. “Need anything in particular?”
I could hear the smile in her voice. Apparently, she didn’t need to act around me, either. “Is that your way of asking me which side I’m on today? If so, the answer is that I have no fucking clue.”
“It doesn’t matter to me,” I said, and it didn’t. In a world of heroes and supervillains, I’m Switzerland, which is where I’ve stashed most of my dough. I realized I’d never be either a hero or a supervillain the first time someone at Peterson called me “Horse-Dick Harry”. You never live down a moniker like that, and it’s hard to imagine a newscaster saying, “Horse-Dick Harry saves the world!” or, “Fate of the planet hangs in the balance. Can Horse-Dick Harry be defeated?”
I don’t mind, really. Sorting out the kind of low-scale messes that never make the papers is more my speed. I’m mostly okay with being known as Horse-Dick Harry, too, although you’d think at least a few people would stare at my hooves when they meet me for the first time. Nope; eyes always go straight to the crotch. I enjoy saying, “my hooves are down there,” and watching people try to pretend they haven’t been checking me out.
The money I make from divorces and missing person cases easily covers the rent for a modest office located in a strip mall between a dry cleaners and a show de bikini. It isn’t classy, and it isn’t meant to be. My ordinary clients take a look at the place and decide they’re getting a good P.I. on the cheap. My special clients like the location because it’s forgettable and has a rear exit if they need to make a quick getaway.
My special clients are mostly Peterson graduates, and they usually come to me looking for other people. Sometimes they want to use me as a go-between. Sometimes they’re tracking down old friends or old enemies. If I take the case, there are always two fees: one for the actual work and the other for keeping my mouth shut. The second fee is optional, but you’d be surprised how often people pay it and how much they’re willing to pay. I actually make more money for doing nothing than I do for detecting. I figure I’ve got another five years of this gig, tops, before I can take my wife Francine somewhere sunny to enjoy the good life.
People pay the hush fee because they know my word is good. Funny how the rep you build as a kid can follow you through life. Maybe that “permanent record” nonsense the teachers talked about wasn’t complete bullshit after all. Everybody knows I’m a straight dealer. They also know I have sharp hooves and a devoted wife who could kill someone with a thought. Once, some asshole tried to strong-arm me into giving up the location of a client I’d been paid to forget. I kept my word, and the asshole disappeared mysteriously. Since then, nobody’s bothered me.
I’d been waiting for Lily to tell me what she wanted, but she’d gone quiet on me. Maybe she was already regretting her decision to come. “Are you in trouble, Lily?”
“No more than usual.” After a pause, she added, “I’ve got a job for you, Harry. I’m looking for background info on someone.”
“Enemy? Friend? Potential business partner?”
“I’m not sure,” she said, and sounded a little sad about it. “We worked together for a while. It’s Fatale. She’s one of the New Champions. She doesn’t remember who she was before she became a cyborg.”
“And you want me to find out?” I asked, wishing I could read her facial expression. It sounded like Fatale had really gotten under Lily’s skin.
“Yes. It’s not that unusual a job for you,” she said, which was true.
“I can tell you for nothing that Dr. Impossible is behind the company that did the conversion job on her.”
Lily seemed surprised. “You’ve already done some work? Do you have another client?”
“No,” I said. “This was on my own initiative. It pays to have intel on major players. I told my assistant to start doing research on Fatale as soon as she became a New Champion.”
“You have an assistant now?”
“Sure do.” I didn’t tell her it was Brian the Bear, a Peterson alum six years my junior. I’d met him when he was working at the show de bikini, right before he lost his day job as a cop. Turns out the police commissioner didn’t mind it when he thought Brian was only moonlighting as a bouncer, but when he discovered he was also one of the acts, it was all over. “He’s good at tracing people. He’ll find out what you need to know.”
“The NSA may have tried to erase her history.”
“I love a challenge. If this one’s out of my league, I have contacts who can crack anything, for a price. If we have to go that route, I’ll get back to you with an estimate so you can decide how much you really want this.”
“I’ll want it. She’s a nice kid who deserves some answers.”
“She may not want the answers I’ll find.”
“I’ll decide how much to tell her when I know what there is to tell. Whatever you find goes only to me. I’m willing to offer this much for a hush fee.”
A piece of paper appeared out of nowhere and slid across the desk. I’d asked Lily once how things went from being invisible to visible around her, since I could tell by the sound of her footsteps that she wears shoes. She’d told me she didn’t understand it herself; apparently wanting an object she was touching to become visible was enough to make it visible.
I opened the piece of paper and read a figure big enough to mean I could retire as soon as I finished this case. What was Fatale to her? Love interest? And then I got it.
“She’s the opposite of you,” I said softly.
“She doesn’t have a past and maybe wants one. You have one and don’t want it… Erica.”
I heard a sharp gasp. “How long have you known?”
“Since the first time I saw you after you disappeared. I thought by now you’d realized that I know. What happened to you?”
She told me the story of her transformation, which was more or less what I’d guessed. She surprised me when she said, “I’ve wondered why the accident made me transparent. I’ve decided it’s because that’s what I already was in my mind: invisible. Back at Peterson, we were all freaks of one kind or another and we were obsessed with identifying and developing our gifts. I felt like I didn’t have one, so I became a bystander, an observer. Being invisible became my gift, and when the accident happened, I truly erased myself. The sad part is that you’re the only person who’s ever realized that Lily and Erica are the same person.”
I shrugged. “I was a bystander, too. Maybe I’ll go transparent someday.”
“I doubt it. You were an observer at Peterson, but that wasn’t your gift. You had one of the best gifts—not caring about being different.”
I snorted in disbelief. “Now you’re going to tell me you’d trade it for invisibility.”
“Of course I would. Does anyone ever have the gift they truly want? Or want the gift they have? I don’t know; maybe you do. I always thought you didn’t care what people said about you because it was so obvious your parents loved you. You were one of the few kids who went home during breaks and your parents visited the school and sent lots of packages. The other kids were jealous. That’s why they teased you so much.”
Brian knocked on my office door and stuck his head in before I could reply. “Boss? I’ve got a hot lead that could close the Rogalski case, but I’ll need to go to California. Okay if I head out there tomorrow? I should be back by Friday.”
“Of course, and I’ll have a new case for you when you get back.”
“One of us?” he said hopefully. “It would make for a nice change from chasing down embezzlers.”
“One of us. I’ll fill you in on Friday.”
Brian nodded, and closed the door.
There was an awkward silence before Lily said, “Does he know? About me?”
I shook my head. “The only person I’ve told is Francine and she never gossips.”
“And how much would it cost for things to stay that way?”
Erica had been one of my first friends at Peterson, and one of the few people who’d never even cracked a smile when Jason used to sing, “Horse-Dick Harry: his dick is made of horse.”
I did my best Sam Spade impression. “For you, doll, it’s on the house.”