“I’m happy to fly you out here to Vegas, Ray, or anywhere else…” Agent Thirteen—”Lucky” Lucy Ryan—told me as we walked through the half-finished Nevada resort, looking for our contact, “…but why is Agent Two off testing the bureau’s new P-51 while I’m here pounding the pavement? I was the one that encountered that souped up thunderbird, after all, which is what convinced the Teragons we needed armed aircraft in the first place.”
I nodded, because when a lady is right, she’s right. “All true, Agent Thirteen… But rank has its privileges, and one of those is getting first crack at the ‘new toys.’”
She frowned. “I’d have a higher rank if thirteen wasn’t my lucky number, Agent One.”
“Also true, but still not higher than Agent Two. Besides, from what I hear, Agent Zero is requisitioning more than just one Mustang for the agency.”
“They’ll probably saddle me with a Flying Boxcar—or support missions, like in the war,” she grumbled.
“This isn’t the Air Force, Lucy,” I reassured her. “You’ll be up in the clouds, shooting down mutant birds, before you know it.”
“And maybe a flying saucer or two, I hope.” She grinned. “Hey, that must be the guy we’re looking for up ahead.”
Sure enough, Thirteen’s keen eyes had picked out the figure of a short, wiry man with curly black hair prowling the greenspace between the little cabins of Tule Springs Hacienda. He was wearing jeans and a white T-shirt and carrying a switched-off flashlight, like us, in preparation against the gathering darkness.
“Matches the description.” I raised my voice and called, “Mr. Margolin…?”
The man turned toward us, and a broad smile broke across his tanned face. He extended a slim-fingered hand. “That’s my name, don’t wear it out. Angel Margolin, pleased to make your acquaintance.”
The three of us shook. “I’m Agent Raymond, and this is Agent Lucille, with the US Science Bureau. We’re here because you reported a number of pets had gone missing?”
“You bet. Strangest thing. I’m glad somebody’s here to help. Police are too busy to take the time, I guess. And me a taxpayer and everything. Stuff like this can ruin a man’s cash flow; you dig?”
“And you are… the developer of this subdivision?” I asked.
“Subdivision?” Margolin scoffed. “This here is a ranch… a hacienda, I call it, ’cause there’s already a Tule Springs Ranch; you get me? And I own every blessed acre. This here is a place where folks can come and establish residency—so they can get divorced. You know it’s easy to get divorced in Nevada; right?”
“I’d have to get married first,” Thirteen said with a wink. “Which I’m not planning any time soon.”
Margolin grinned and pretended to slug her in the arm. “Playing the field, eh? I get it. But some people aren’t so smart. They dive in over their heads, if you get what I mean, and then ol’ Angel is here to help them out—at a third less than the ranch across the street. Tell your friends.”
“I will if it comes up,” I replied. “So, people staying at your… hacienda are losing their pets?”
“Exactly!” Margolin nodded vigorously. “Little Spot is out waterin’ our finely cultivated bushes one minute and the next—” He clapped his hands. “—Vanished into thin air! Like I said… Bad for business.”
“Have you seen anything unusual? Any lights in the sky?” Thirteen asked.
Margolin’s eyes narrowed. “You’re not one of those radio-cult wackadoos, are you—that Starlight broad on the AM band…? I used to like her when she talked about those Space Brothers but now…!”
“We’re strictly science,” I assured him through clenched teeth. I’d forgotten that Sister Starlight had somehow gotten out of jail and re-started her flimflam on Las Vegas radio. “So, you haven’t seen anything?”
“How can you see something disappear? But I’ll tell you what, a lot of dogs and cats are gone—and not just from my pigeons… er… residents. It’s hurtin’ my sales pitch. You find out what’s up, you’ll be doing me a good turn. I’ll give you half off on your first stay here!” His toothy smile beamed at us in the Nevada twilight.
“Better look around before it gets too dark, Ray,” Thirteen suggested.
I nodded my agreement. “Give a shout if you need us, Mr. Margolin.”
“Oh, I will. Gotta do the rounds myself, tonight. Security guard called in sick.”
He turned on his flashlight and meandered off into the gathering darkness.
I took a breath of the warm late-September air. It should have been dry—Vegas being in the Mojave Desert—but the resinous odor of palm trees, the soft scent of aloe, the sweet of out-of-place honeysuckle, and even the earthy green of freshly mown grass filled the air.
“How can they keep all this watered?” Thirteen wondered, her gaze lingering on the parched grass.
I shrugged. “Too much money and not enough sense.”
As night fell, we scouted the small resort’s outskirts, keeping our eyes on the surrounding hills and the dark shadows clinging to the native bracken growing there.
“We may be wasting our time here, Ray,” Thirteen opined. “This guy’s problem is probably coyotes—or maybe a mountain lion—snatching up vacationers’ animals. What do you think?”
“Could be. Though some visitors… I mean hacienda residents… claimed their pets vanished right before their eyes.”
“A lot of magic acts in Vegas, Ray. A lot of drinking, too.”
“Yeah. Maybe.” I paused between two adobe-walled cabins. “Do you hear that?”
Thirteen stopped and listened, then nodded. A strange twittering chirp echoed through the still nighttime air.
“Not those damn ants of yours, is it?”
I shook my head, suppressing a shiver at the thought.
“Night bird of some kind? Weird crickets? Not frogs in the desert, surely.”
“Probably not that bunny, either,” I said, indicating a black-tailed jackrabbit, sneaking out of a nearby bush.
We smiled as the cottontail scooted toward another copse of honeysuckle and then—THWIP!—vanished!
Thirteen’s jaw dropped. “What the…?”
“I think something around the corner of that cabin snatched it. C’mon!” I led the way at a sprint with Thirteen right behind.
“That was so quick, I barely saw it.”
“Me, too,” I agreed. “What can move that fast and grab a jackrabbit in mid-stride?”
Thirteen shook her head as we rounded the corner. She played her flashlight everywhere, but… “Nothing!”
“Lucy… On the roof!”
My warning came too late, as something I could barely see snaked around Thirteen’s neck and lifted her off the ground.
“Help…!” she managed to gasp, clutching at her throat, her feet kicking the air.
Twin Colt 45s instantly sprang into my hands, and I fired at an indistinct shape lurking on the rooftop above her.
My first shot shattered a piece of the cabin’s Spanish tile, but the second must have hit home, because something gave a chittering squeal, and Lucy fell to the ground.
Thirteen cursed, but drew her weapons and fired, even as I got off another couple of rounds. “What the hell..?! Blasted thing’s invisible!”
“Just well camouflaged,” I noted.
Both of us let loose another volley, as the thing scrambled across the lawn and ran up the side of the next cabin over.
“Lucy, did you get it?”
“I don’t know.”
A sudden scream from the next building over told us that we hadn’t finished the job.
We dashed to the source of the clamor and found Angel Margolin struggling against an adobe-and-tile-colored man-sized lizard. As we brought our automatics to bear, the creature sank its teeth into the hacienda owner’s shoulder.
Margolin screamed again and passed out, but even as he did, the monster’s pigment began to shift, adapting to its surroundings. It turned its glowing goggle eyes toward Thirteen and me and hissed.
That toothy display didn’t stop Lucy and me from blowing it to hell. We’d both had close-quarters combat training, and knew how to hit an enemy in melee with a friend.
As I pulled the carcass off of Margolin, Lucy stooped to check his vitals.
“He’ll be okay. But we need to get him to a hospital.” She eyed the huge lizard’s remains. “What are we gonna say attacked him?”
“Big monitor lizard or alligator,” I replied. “Must have escaped from a local collector or something.”
“And what do you think it really is?”
“Some kind of mutant gecko. Crawls up walls like a spider; blends in like a chameleon; snags its prey in the blink of an eye with a long, sticky tongue, like a giant frog. All things considered, a deadly piece of work.”
“The Teragons are gonna wanna have a look at this.”
I nodded. “At least it’s not disintegrating. We’ll stash the body and come back for it after we drop Margolin at the Emergency Room. Help me get him to the Studebaker.”
As we bent to carry the victim to our agency car, that strange chirping trill filled the night air once more. Both of us froze.
“We better call for backup,” I said.
“Spider Squadron nearby?”
“I think they’re still busy with the ants—national guard or regular army will have to do.”
Agent Thirteen grinned. “Geckos eat insects, don’t they? Maybe if the agency can snare a couple of these beauts, they can help us with our bug problem.”
About “Invisible Invader”
I needed a story with a monster.
I’d been mulling over the entire arc of Atomic Tales in my head, and I had a couple of problems… One was that the guy playing Agent Two in the audios, an old buddy of mine, had to step aside from recording. Because of that, I’d already rewritten one story, “Thunderbirds Are Glow,” and had to re-think my story order while Christopher R. Mihm and I re-cast the part for our audio series.
In that rewrite, I’d created Agent Thirteen, “Lucky” Lucy Ryan, to take over where Agent Two left off. But I also needed new stories for Thirteen to participate in. (Because Agent Two will be back—soon, I hope!)
And as I said at the top, I needed a story with a monster in it for between “Chased by UFOs” and a number of things that come later.
Somewhere in there—May 25th, 2022, to be precise (I know this because I dated the idea in my commonplace book)—the notion of a giant, invisible gecko popped into my head. I’m not really sure why. But I imagined the thing lurking on rooftops, using its sticky tongue to poach pets from the lawns below, and eventually moving up to human beings. All of which would bring our ever-curious USSB agents into the fray.
I also needed a location for this story, which meant discovering where geckos live in the US. That line of inquiry coincided with my deciding to make an official map of all the Atomic Tales adventures—because it’s important that I know where the stories take place in relationship to each other, which that may be important to future tales. (Maybe I’ll share it with you in the future, if I haven’t already.)
Las Vegas came up as within the clever little lizard’s range of habitat, plus it was a site that I hadn’t used before.
Researching for outer suburbs of Vegas in the 1950s led me to the Tule Springs Ranch. Yes, divorce resorts were a real thing in Nevada, and Tule Springs had one (though how well that scheme worked remains unclear to me).
Knowing all that, I invented a low-rent next-door-neighbor resort, the Hacienda, and then came up with a slightly skeezy landlord to go with it, Angel Margolin.
As some of you probably figured out, Angel is based on a character in The Rockford Files—probably the best TV private eye show ever—and he’s also named for the actor who played that character.
And with that, our setting, cast of characters, and monster were complete, and all I had to do was write the story.
Though I did end up writing it in two parts…
But we’ll save that tale for our next About the Story…