Cooper placed a hand flat down on a piece of paper and tried to read the words on the other side. If he was truly invisible, he ought to see the letters shine right through. He concentrated. There was, perhaps, an hint of translucence, a shimmer and blur by his thumbnail. But it was more opaque than he’d expected. He put his hand away.
So still visible then, at least to himself. It was a mild disappointment. By now he’d hoped he’d concur with the rest of the world. To most everybody on the street Cooper was invisible; inaudible too. There must be something inside of him that clung to corporality.
It hadn’t happened all at once. Instead it had been a slow fade to shadow, a general lack of will to assert himself, a desire to shrink in space and be courteous to others. After awhile strangers began taking what Cooper would not. He would be run into, bumped into, shouted over, talked past and walked through, blown by and spaced on, forgotten in plain sight. His claim to a sliver of the earth withered. All of this pleased him. It seemed the hallmark of virtue. When he entered a room and nobody noticed, he scored that a minor victory. He’d had a girlfriend, too, but she’d stopped seeing him.
At work it was no different. He entered the building promptly at nine and greeted no one. Then he drifted to his office, which was not on a corner but had a big window overlooking the swamps. Past seven o’ clock he stayed at his desk — Cooper did not take lunch — and quietly processed his papers and input the data. By the time he finished for the day, most of his coworkers had gone home. Occasionally it bothered him that he could not grasp the connection between the work he did and the products and services of the corporation which were presented to the public. That lasted until he got his direct deposit, which was not so hefty but more than enough for him. Then he was pleased to be a gear in a profitable machine.
Invisibility did not hamper any of his other transactions, either. Amusements came in the mail from a sharing service he’d subscribed to. He ordered his dinners from a service that shipped food pre-made in little green boxes. Usually Cooper didn’t eat very much. He was conscious of his carbon footprint and the moral crime of waste. Once he’d determined that he would consume less, it became easier and easier to skip meals. It was a matter of training the body, he believed. If it could be taught to expect less, it would pipe down and decline to bother him. That would be better for the globe.
Recycling was his only real worry. Did he do it correctly? Cooper feared that he did not separate his glass and plastic scrupulously enough, and he often mixed up what was compostable and what wasn’t. Once he mixed up the bins and emptied his banana peels into the recycling and old copies of the Sentinel into the compost. When Cooper realized what he’d done, he braced himself for the ticket. None ever came. The sanitation folks were professionals and had, evidently, sorted it all out for him.
Thus did Cooper’s days float away. Now and then he became aware that there existed a consensus that said that lives like the ones he led were incomplete: that there were spheres of human experience that he’d bypassed. Cooper was not one to disregard conventional wisdom. Yet it also occurred to him that all technological advances drove humanity in the direction of disengagement. Those blinking and fluttering devices — all these, without exception, made it easier to put distance between users and other people. These innovations were rightly celebrated; more than that, they were popular successes. They spoke to deep desires. Cooper felt vindicated by this. The innovators had gotten to the root of the species. Sales proved that. They had caught the true measure of the human heart. It was very small and very cold.
“Hold right there.”
Were they talking to him? It seemed unlikely. Cooper had stopped his bicycle just shy of Colonial Avenue, right by the big pharmacy, just as he did every morning on the way to the office. Out of habit Cooper made a turn signal, although he recognized that his bike was as invisible to motorists as he was.
But indeed it was Cooper who the two policemen wanted. He leaned his bicycle against the whitewashed wall of a Vietnamese restaurant and followed the officers into the back of a squad car. Well, of course they had seen what others had not: they were detectives. That was their training. Also, as he’d discovered, he wasn’t yet completely invisible.
They asked his name and address. Baldwin Park, said Cooper. The two policemen looked at each other and nodded. It’s really very nice, Cooper continued, there’s been a lot of new development by Baldwin Lake, stores and restaurants and the like, and a —
“Mind if we take a gander at the contents of your sack?”
“Oh! No, of course not. Be my guest.” Through the partition, Cooper handed his messenger bag to the big policeman in the front seat.
The cop extracted a book; one of the titles Cooper had gotten through the exchange. At The Mountains Of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft. I know about this, said the small cop, this is Devil worship stuff. Cooper was surprised by this critical assessment, and suggest that this was perhaps not the best way to look at Lovecraft’s project, which was, he explained, more about indeterminacy, the fringes of consciousness and the exact parameters of science and what could be apprehended, stuff like that. The big policeman cut him off in the middle of his sentence again. You a Devil worshipper, son? Cooper had to laugh. The policeman did not see what was so funny.
“You wait right here. Don’t go anywhere.”
Alone in the backseat of the locked squad car, Cooper waited patiently for the return of the two policemen. They had his bag. But as long as it was with the police, he wasn’t worried he’d lose it. They understood theft prevention. His bicycle, though, that was another matter. He had been hustled so quickly into the cop car that he hadn’t had any time to lock it up. There it leaned, thin and vulnerable, against the blank wall of the Vietnamese restaurant. Anybody could come along and pinch it. From the backseat of the car, Cooper watched pedestrians on Colonial Avenue and patrons of the pharmacy — many of whom, he thought, were desperate-looking characters — as they approached the bicycle. With each passerby, his heart skipped and his stomach tightened and sweat erupted from the back of his neck. But nobody swiped the bicycle. Perhaps it remained invisible even when he wasn’t on it.
Time passed and the cop car began to steam up. Cooper wondered if he’d been forgotten: if he’d been left alone in the backseat like a dog in a supermarket lot. The pace of his observations quickened and he started to taste something like panic. Head turned to the right to see if the cops were on their way back, then to the left to check on the bicycle, then right, then left, then down at his lap and the dots of sweat that had appeared on his khaki office pants. His head felt light and his eyes crossed and a crazy thought came over him. What if he’d managed to achieve total invisibility, right here, in the squad car, and the officers had looked back, as officers do, seen the seat empty, and assumed that Cooper had run away? They’d be chasing a fugitive through the hot Orlando streets, and all the while here he was, obedient, fully cooperative with the law, exactly where he’d been left. Invisibility, then, had its disadvantages: it made him suspicious. He closed his eyes.
A rap on the window. It was the small cop. He unlocked the door and tossed Cooper his bag. Thought we’d lost you there for a second. You looked well out of it buddy.
“It’s hot,” Cooper apologized.
“You’re free to go. You checked out.”
“We’re looking for somebody else,” added the big cop, an electronic directory in his hands.
I’m late, Cooper realized, as he pedaled to work. Yes, the police had to do their jobs, but what about his? But nobody noticed his arrival at work. Nobody noticed him at all. He drifted, as he always did, to his desk and dug in to the pile.
Yet something was different. Even during the walk from the reception area to his small office, Cooper had a sense that he was causing an unusual optical disturbance. Eyes followed him for a step or two, an extra blink, and then snapped back to their scheduled preoccupations. This was very new. Even when Cooper was completely visible — which was so long ago that he barely remembered it now — he’d never been the site of any interest. He was conscious of a spike in traffic in the hallway by his office; colleagues lingering a second or two longer at the door than they’d ever loitered there before. Snippets of hushed conversation as he walked to the photocopier, a whisper and an excited giggle at his back as he turned with his stack of papers and returned to his desk.
Finally he put down his pen and his stamp and went to see Marisol. She was the last person at the corporation to whom he’d appeared before he’d gone invisible — she was large and loud and brightly colored and had spread tentacles all over the space. Yet even she hadn’t seen him for at least a year. He might have to jog her memory, move some stuff around, haunt the corners of her cubicle.
Instead she greeted him with a wide smile and merriment on her face.
“Soja do it?”
“Just kidding, Coop. I think.”
Cooper was annoyed. In ten years at the corporation he’d been exceedingly punctual. It did not seem fair that his co-workers would make him a figure of fun on the first day he was late. People were just like that: they seized on any mark of frailty. They loved nothing more than a spot on an otherwise impeccable record. It was why people were so insufferable; such musts to avoid. And it was just then, as Cooper slipped into his own quiet version of high dudgeon, that he noticed something odd on Marisol’s desk: something snub-nosed and short-barreled, with a hair-trigger and a fully loaded cartridge.
“Is that… is that a gun?”
Not a weapon with lethal bullets, though, a paintball gun. A marker, she called it. Marisol was, she said proudly, the captain of the corporation’s paintball team; hadn’t he seen the fliers all over the hall? As a team-building exercise — Marisol was big on team-building exercises — the corporation’s squad was set to take on a side fielded by their main competition. Orlando Paintball Complex, eight fields of non-stop paint-splattering action, run run run but you cannot hide from Marisol’s deadly sight.
“Isn’t that a funny thing for a girl to do?”
“I really resent that,” said Marisol, not angrily. She spread out further. She was like a great colorful kite, all streamers a-quiver in the wind as her spirits lifted and she slipped into the current of conversation.
“No, I mean, don’t you get overwhelmed by your male opponents. Who are bigger and more aggressive.”
Goes to show what you know, Marisol answered. Bigger size means a bigger target. Get them before they get you, that’s the whole game. The best players are little slips like you, Coop. We could use you on the strike force, you’d be perfect for it. Nobody had ever been better designed by the Creator for hiding behind obstacles. Cooper demurred.
“Aw, c’mon, be a sport. You’d be great. Especially if… well, you know.” She laughed and raised an eyebrow.
But he didn’t know. There was a joke hovering over the day, and he wasn’t getting it. On his bike ride home the skies opened: thunder clapped and a great torrent of water plummeted from the gray clouds. Cooper pedaled straight through it, dress shoes squelching on the rubber pedals, moisture beading on the lenses of his horn-rimmed glasses, rain slapping on the pavement like a handclap. A Florida baptism, a moving bath, hair plastered to his forehead and the salty taste of the marshes in his mouth. What must he look like to a bystander: a hole in the water, a man-shaped blackness. Five minutes later it was all over. The sun sprung right back as it always did. Ninety degrees and humid on a September evening.
Considering the irregular day he’d had, Cooper thought he’d feel relieved to be home. Instead he felt unusually restless. He tried the H.P. Lovecraft book that had alarmed the authorities but couldn’t get into it; after reading a paragraph three times in a row, he set it aside. His choice platformer didn’t do it for him, either — no matter how much he jiggled the game controller, he kept falling into the same hole. He closed his eyes but wasn’t tired, toasted himself an English muffin but wasn’t hungry. Finally Cooper flicked on the local news, and there he saw the last thing he expected to see: himself.
Or a picture of someone who looked very much like him — enough that he thought for a second that he was staring in a mirror. He read the chyron beneath the charcoal sketch: Baldwin Park Butcher, it said. Still at large and dangerous. There had been a series of stabbings by the lake. The story carried a mild connotation of sexual assault, too, but Cooper couldn’t piece it together exactly. He’d turned it on in the middle of the segment.
So that was it. They’d caught the picture in the news. His co-workers weren’t tittering at him because he was late. They were laughing because of his facial resemblance to a killer. Cooper felt a rush of indignation. The implication, from people like Marisol and others, was that he was ineffectual, inert, too emasculated to properly knife a stranger. It was the same principle as the one he’d articulated to himself earlier in the day. Only instead of amusement at the prospect of his unlikely tardiness, they cast mild-mannered Cooper in the role of a people slicer. Crazed, a maniac. From the flat panel screen the Baldwin Park Butcher peered back at Cooper with deep-set eyes. It was an elegant rendering, rich with expressive detail. He marveled at the talent it took to conjure a face from the fleeting details of witnesses. No one had properly seen the Butcher but the cops had generated a composite anyway. He had to hand it to the police artist.
The next day at work the staring was worse. His invisibility had burned away completely; now he pulled eyes like a magnet gathered iron shavings. Marisol grinned at him from the ping-pong table. She pantomimed a paintball shot. Then she jerked her fist forward twice as if she was shanking someone. Cooper streaked to his office.
There on the desk: a note from the principal. She wanted to see him immediately. Cooper gulped. He’d only been on the headquarters floor of the tower once, and that was to deliver a message during a shortage of inter-office envelopes. This was different. This was a proper summoning. Best to get it over with, he felt; no profit in delay. Moments later the elevator doors closed in front of his nose and hoisted him to the top of the tower.
The principal was not alone. Two other executives flanked her desk. Pull up a chair, she said, sit down, don’t worry. Look at him, he’s worried. Shaking. No one is coming for your job.
“Kay,” his voice broke. “I’m here.”
“Cooper,” said the corporation principal, “I suppose you know that the police have asked after you. Because of your physical similarity to a certain criminal.”
“I didn’t know,” he said. “Well, I didn’t know why.”
“We vouched for you. And in so doing, we pulled your file and reviewed your work. Cooper, we’re amazed by this. Your productivity is more than twice that of any other employee in your department. You’re a wonder. Why has no one brought this to the attention of the company? Why hasn’t your supervisor flagged you for commendation?”
“I’m not sure,” he admitted. “I suppose I blend in.”
She didn’t want him to blend in. She needed him to take a leadership role. You are an asset to this corporation, she said, a diamond in the rough, and you need to be polished and set. We pride ourselves for our talent evaluation and cannot understand how you have slipped through our spreadsheets unnoticed. Well, that would all change. They had their eyes on him now. He’d be upgraded: corner office facing the heron preserve, a personal assistant, a seat at planning sessions, you name it. No really, Cooper, you name it.
By the end of the meeting Cooper had been buoyed by the enthusiasm of the principal and impressed by her command of the details of the work he’d done. She’d crowed about specific operations that he’d accomplished and long forgotten. He felt apprehended, recognized; there were real benefits, he’d decided, to visibility. He even promised he’d participate in the upcoming paintball tournament. He’d cooperate, he’d even cheer, he’d be part of the team.
Only later, when he’d returned to his office floor, did the odd feeling set in. In exchange for a little praise from a powerful person, he’d dropped his studied anonymity and displaced his urge to disappear. Popularity, he knew, was an addictive intoxicant. How seductive they were, those words of commendation, sweet enough that he would drop his project and plunge himself into strange activities. Well, it would make Marisol happy. The prospect of pleasing her satisfied him. And he wouldn’t mind the raise, or the respect, or the morning views of the marsh birds as he processed his papers. Yes, it had to be said: on balance, the Baldwin Park Butcher had been good to him.
Two nights later the killer struck again. He slashed the throat of a young man of Cooper’s size and general build and deposited the body in a grove. A jogger found it. Again there was a hint of sexual coercion but it was not elaborated in the press. Locals could not believe that this horror could be happening in an affluent area designed according to New Urbanist principles. It was all so illogical: the walkable neighborhood center and the human-scale architecture were meant to be expressions of basic dignity. Slashers belonged out in the sprawl.
At the corporation it was now taken on faith that Cooper was the murderer. He had terrified the principal into his promotion; he’d wagged his weapon in her direction and she’d acquiesced. Good going, Cooper, knife your way to the top. Just don’t get left alone in the lift with that guy ha ha. Anodyne objects from the Staples catalog were enchanted with lethal properties the moment Cooper picked them up: a hole punch, a staple gun, the cutting edge of a stack of post-it notes. Never had office supplies seemed so thrilling. They’d even taken to calling him the B.P.B., a punchy little acronym, hung loose around his neck.
At first this annoyed him. But soon he learned that he could delight his colleagues by playing along. A leer or a menacing stare, or a quick reach for an invisible weapon was usually enough to do it. Marisol, in particular, responded well to villainous playacting. Like those of the rest of his colleagues, her squeals were only partially ironic. It was indeed all a game, gallows humor, a hiss of pressure released from frightened citizens of a place proud of its landscaping — people still shaken from the horror stories in the newsfeeds. But many whispered that Cooper fit the popular profile of a sociopath: mild-mannered, introspective, ignored, unsearched, private. The more passive and gentle he behaved, the more suspicious he became.
“John Wayne Gacy was really good at business, too,” said Marisol, as she leveled the barrel of her weapon at the target. Pop pop pop went the balls of paint. Purple and gold splatter all over the outlined torso. You’re a lot like him, she said, her eyes wide under the protective glasses. To everyone he seemed so normal. Too normal.
She’d summoned him to the facility. He’d expected a team practice. Instead she was the only one there. Cooper was confused: was this a date? If so, was it incumbent on him to be entertaining? Because there was only so far the B.P.B. schtick could carry him. Cooper had always been terrible at repartee. As it turned out, he needn’t have worried: his co-worker was even more garrulous outside the office than she was when she was at her desk. The mind of the murderer, she told him, fascinated her. She’d immersed herself in the literature. Mostly it was true crime, police blotters and jailhouse confessions, but some of it shot higher, like Truman Capote and the talented Mr. Ripley. Pop pop pop. She knew he liked books. Marisol wanted Cooper to handle her marker and feel how easily the pellets came out of the barrel. Fifteen balls per second. Pop pop pop. That’s why the matches end so fast. One side loses the initiative and collapses.
The news that Cooper lived in Baldwin Park made Marisol radiant. She wanted to know everything. Had he toured the crime scene? Was the community on edge? It was all mystifying to him. Cooper found murder deadly dull. Blunt and brainless, inefficient, inane, messy, an act that required closer physical contact with a victim than he found it comfortable to imagine. Slipping a knife into the ribcage or the neck of a stranger: how grotesque, how pointless. A killer’s motivations were not worth speculating about. Assault of any kind betrayed a childish need for aggressive interpersonal interaction that had been, he felt, successfully obviated by technological advances. Yet it could not be denied: his colleagues were intrigued by it. It must be a vestige, Cooper decided, residue from a prior and inferior version of human experience that hadn’t been adequately squashed. The day would come.
About one thing, though, Marisol had been absolutely right. The word was out and there was great activity in Baldwin Park. People had come from all over Orlando — and beyond — to tiptoe in the tracks of the dead men and their stalker. A boon, thought Cooper, for the businesses in the small pedestrian zone. Right near the lake, planners and community organizers had designed an antiseptic version of an urban downtown. Yet they’d found it hard to get people to walk. Quite a few of the restaurants and shops struggled to attract a regular clientele. This irked Cooper, who felt that the allocation of retail space had been properly blueprinted. Flaws in the formula; he hated that.
Cooper nosed his bicycle tire between two groups of gawkers. Well, tonight on his ride, he’d just have to dodge obstructions. The going was slow: visitors stood in the path with their cameras out, even as the late summer sun set over the treetops and the darkness encroached. The days were getting shorter. That was a good thing: it had been another brutally hot summer in Florida. The water level kept rising, too; policy inaction endangered everybody. One morning after a downpour, Cooper had gone to retrieve his bicycle and found a large dead fish in the basement of the complex. It was something nobody wanted to discuss, this slow slippage of the city below the water level, the instability of the porous ground, hotels leaning, buildings disappearing into sinkholes, the waterlogged state of Florida, tipping like a soaked sponge into the warm basin of the Gulf of Mexico.
Closer to the Veterans’ Memorial the crowds thinned out. Here the trails disappeared into the underbrush; both the lake and the ring road on the far side of the park were hard to see. Cooper sped into the trees. Now nothing but a thin line of blue twilight colored the horizon: the rest of the sky was dark. Branches overhead blocked the moonlight and muffled the chatter of the visitors. No illumination on the trail but Cooper’s bike light; no sound but his breathing.
A jerk, a skid, a sudden twist, as if a hand from the weeds had seized his back wheel. Cooper grabbed the handlebars and steadied his bicycle. He braked and came to a full stop. In that moment the killer became absolutely real to him a supernatural force, a specter in a small stand of trees on the suburban fringe of a flat city. He waited for the glint of the knife, the satin glimmer of a bandit’s mask. He prepared his throat. But when he swung around to receive his attacker, nobody was there.
Perhaps he’d hit a groove in the pavement. Perhaps like a fool he’d been swept up in the mania. Or, he realized with an intake of breath, the murderer might have perfected the technique that had eluded Cooper before he’d abandoned it in exchange for office notoriety. He might be fully invisible. In a sweat Cooper turned the bicycle around and pedaled for the lake.
The Orlando police announced the capture of the Baldwin Park Butcher the following morning. He’d been nowhere near the neighborhood, or Cooper’s bicycle; in fact, he’d been in police custody, making a full confession. The photo in the news looked a great deal less like Cooper than the sketch had. The killer was a small man, wiry and wicked-eyed, clearly in possession of no special powers beyond those bestowed upon him by his knife. He was not a mystical force, or an illegal immigrant, or part of a terrorist cell. He was just deranged and stupidly dangerous. Cooper felt embarrassed to be associated with him. He was, he had to admit, more than a little let down.
The arrest occasioned one final round of B.P.B. jokes. Yet now that it had been conclusively proven that Cooper was not the culprit, he’d lost his purchase on the eyes of his co-workers. By the end of the day, the laughter had become half-hearted, automatic; even Marisol began to look straight through his face and toward fresher opportunities. In his corner office Cooper stared at the drop ceiling. What he’d feared had come to pass. He’d developed a taste for social relevance. As his fingers faded and the edges of his arms blurred into the blotter, he schemed for a second act and came up empty. He wasn’t good at things like that. If conditions were different, Marisol might be able to help. But that seemed hopeless now.
That entire week his appetite for the contents of his inbox waned. It struck him that even after his elevation, he had no clearer idea about the relationship between his work and the end product of the corporation. Nobody had contacted him about planning sessions either; after the initial conversation with the principal, he had not heard from her again. He feared that his promotion meant nothing more than a small salary spike and extra papers to process. He wasn’t angry — just dispirited, and saddened by how easily he’d been led astray from his quest. It had been police action that had made him appear, and another police action that had tucked him back into the shadows. Was visibility only conferred by the authorities? That seemed a horrible proposition. Well, at least he had the herons; that and the upcoming paintball game, the last trace of his brief moment of interpersonal recognition. He was still signed up for it. He was determined to win it.
Because athletic achievement, he knew, was another means by which a person could make himself the talk of the office. He wasn’t exactly sure whether paintball qualified as a sport, but it didn’t matter. Cooper visualized himself in full fatigues, emerging from behind the obstacle at the desperate hour, and, with a rebel yell, leading a successful assault on the lines of the competition. They would crumple like a piece of computer paper. Marisol’s faith in him would be justified by the facts on the ground.
The morning of the match was one of the hottest of the summer. In their cartridges the paintballs cooked and stank. Business Accounts Welcome read the plastic banner on the chain link fence; well, that was us. The size of the battlefield surprised Cooper: he’d expected something bigger. About a hundred feet from sideline to sideline and not more than that separating the corporation’s goal from the end line of the competition. Once he’d taken his place behind his inflatable bunker, he’d be one mad dash from glory.
The company men and women took their places. A whistle sounded and the war was on. Overhead he heard the buzz and thwack of paintballs as they splashed into the bunkers, some with a pop and a splatter, others, inert, rolling to the grass with their skins unpunctured. A constant thrumming, vibrations in the membrane in front of him, a feeling of siege. Cooper did not dare to peek over the top. Instead he swept a glance to the right, and there was Marisol, one leg splayed, rifle cradled on her left arm. She did not look back at him. Instead she kept her eyes on the enemy bunkers, and methodically fired. Pop pop pop.
Cooper looked down at his own lap and realized, with a start, that he had not pulled the trigger once. There he squatted, with the battle roaring around him; how had it not occurred to him to discharge his weapon? At once he was overcome by shame. He’d let them all down. They’d asked for a Baldwin Park Butcher. He’d searched himself and had nothing to supply.
Head bent and shoulders hunched, Cooper stood up and shouted: for Marisol, for his other colleagues, for the competition to hear. Come on! Come on let’s do this. Yet his voice, underdeveloped from so many evenings alone, did not carry. With all the savagery he could muster he charged into the flat, gun raised like a guerrilla, his left hand beckoning the team to join him.
Immediately he realized he’d made a tactical misstep. Because no one followed; not Marisol, not any of them. He swerved to face his side. But he was too far advanced now, and all he could see was the front of their obstacles and the snouts of their guns. From across the field the rifles were leveled. Sights peeked over the tops of the barriers. At the center of the field, Cooper stood alone in full view, with all the barrels aimed his way.
Then the volley came, and Cooper felt the peck of the paintballs, on his shoulders, his thighs, smack in the middle of his solar plexus. Fifteen balls per second. They stung as they exploded. Then he was a patchwork: a blot of crimson, a streak of green, glitter copper across his back, mustard yellow and nail-polish black, and then a vicious spritz of hot orange splattered his visor. On they came in a torrent, staining him from top to bottom until he was soaked, and stung, and doused in bright color — a glowing thing, a nightstick snapped, incandescent, gooey and dripping as a hot wax candle. And right there, seen by everyone, but with no one he could see, Cooper was eliminated.