Author's Note: I'm figuring this happens just a few months after the events of the first movie. So the Fantastic Four have been celebrities for a little while, but Reed and Sue are not yet frantically preparing for the wedding. The narrator is a typical tough-talking private eye of my own creation (but obviously inspired by various other literary characters in the same tradition).

The Case of the Vanishing Storm

Chapter One: The Concerned Sister

It had been a slow couple of weeks. I wasn't worried about making the rent on my office because four months earlier, after I collared a guy who turned out to be a bail jumper, I'd collected the bounty on him and used it to pay up my lease for the rest of the year in advance. That got the landlord off my back for a long time, which made a nice change of pace. So all I had to worry about right now was next month's rent on my apartment and little incidentals like power bills and water bills and insurance premiums and all that fun stuff. It was almost enough to make me wish I handled divorce cases, but I've never been that hungry.

Then she walked in. Wind and rain had been rattling my windows all morning, so it wasn't surprising that the lady was wearing a London Fog coat and a floppy hat that covered most of her blond hair. What I could see of her face—in that first glimpse before she turned around to carefully ease the door shut behind her and start shucking her rain gear—looked nice, but I told myself that the law of averages said when she took off the coat and the hat and faced me again, the package deal wouldn't add up to anything nearly as good as I was hoping.

I was right . . . in a way. When she had hung up her coat and hat on hooks near the door and turned around to regard me carefully, she didn't look as good as I'd hoped. She looked a lot better. This dame had all the right things in all the right places. Now don't get me wrong! I don't mean she strutted to flaunt what she had, and I don't mean she dressed like some floozy. She was just the kind of doll who'd make heads turn even if she were wearing a potato sack. The jumpsuit she was wearing looked a lot better on her than a potato sack, but it was perfectly decent and probably fashionable (not that I ever understood women's fashions in the first place).

One look in her eyes and you could see that this was a woman who knew where it was at. A woman who had probably turned down more propositions than I had scarfed down cheeseburgers. And you could see that when she found the right man, she'd never let him go. I could just picture the kind of guy who'd be able to make her settle down. About six four, two hundred and twenty, square jaw, military background, rough-and-tumble fighter in a pinch . . . someone who could wrap his brawny arms around her and make her feel really safe. (Darn shame that I didn't fit much of that profile.)

I settled for a standard opening. "Can I help you?"

"I hope so, Mister Mallet," she said in a cultured voice that was a good match for the rest of her. "I asked my friend Tony Stark if he knew a discreet private investigator in San Francisco, and he referred me to Pepper Potts, who keeps track of all the little details for him, and she said you once did a very nice job of tracking someone down for them, quickly and quietly. Most importantly, she never heard anything to suggest you'd gossiped to the tabloids after the job was done. Apparently you could have made a pretty penny that way, on top of what Tony had already paid you."

"Reckon I remember that case," I said. "Wasn't really much to it, for an experienced gumshoe. Routine legwork." I didn't mention any details, of course—that's no way for a PI to stay in business, and she could've been bluffing about being all buddy-buddy with that playboy Stark.

I saw her nod slightly, and knew she'd been testing to see if I could be halfway polite without spilling the beans about another client's troubles at the drop of a hat. With that settled, she got down to business. "Then I hope this case will be just as easy for a professional detective. I'm looking for my brother."

"If he's in the Bay Area, I can probably help," I said agreeably. "For a missing-person job, I charge a flat hundred an hour."

"That's fine," she said. "And I don't want you distracted by any worries about whether or not I will settle my tab promptly when the time comes, so we'll do it differently. This approach should let you concentrate on your work."

Her hand popped into her purse. A moment later, she had fanned out a sheaf of crisp hundred-dollar bills and set them delicately on my desk. A fast look told me there was precisely two grand under my nose.

"That retainer should cover the first twenty hours' worth," she said, showing she had a good head for figures as well as that dynamite figure of her own. "If it gets used up and we haven't found my brother yet, we'll talk. Either we'll call it off with no hard feelings or else I'll pay you some more to keep going, depending on how it looks. But we deal strictly on a cash basis, okay? No publicity; no electronic transactions; no paper trail; I don't even want a receipt!"

The dough looked awfully good, but it never pays to be too eager. I like the terms to be nice and clear before I commit. "And if I find your brother in, say, the first five hours, I guess you'll expect the other fifteen hundred back?"

"No. I don't care about pinching pennies on this one. I just want to motivate you to get the job done fast. If you find him before you've put twenty hours on the clock, then you can keep whatever's left of the retainer as a bonus for rapid performance."

I liked the way she negotiated. I just wished more of my clients would throw C-notes at me to make sure we started off on the right foot. And since she insisted on no records, whatever I reported to the IRS about my income for this week would be entirely up to me. They didn't really need to know about an untraceable little bonus, did they?

"Deal!" I said, scooping up the hundreds. "Now I need to know who I'm looking for. What's your brother's monicker?"

"Johnny Storm," she said, and paused. I didn't know why. After a moment she added, with an odd note in her voice, "I'm his sister . . . Susan Storm."

She seemed tense all of a sudden. I wondered if she was terrified of some scandal on the family name. Maybe she thought I'd recognize the Storms from the society pages? If so, she was barking up the wrong tree. I didn't even bother to carry a newspaper subscription any more.

"Johnny Storm," I repeated. "Got a picture of him, so I'll know him if I see him?"

She gave me the funniest look. Almost as if she were waiting for a punch line. I didn't have one handy, though, so I just left the ball in her court. If she wanted to listen to witty banter all day, she should've tried the old "Road To" movies with Hope and Crosby.

My new client finally said in a doubtful tone, "You don't watch much television, do you?"

"Sure I do! Mostly the old movies with Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne and Alan Ladd and those other great guys. Sometimes reruns of Dragnet or Rockford Files."

"That wasn't quite what I meant."

I leaned back in my chair and gave her the once-over. Still no bells ringing in my head. "Sorry, was I supposed to recognize you from something on TV? Maybe you do shampoo commercials, cosmetics, stuff like that? I work odd hours, so I usually videotape what I want and then skip the ad breaks when I play it back."

I think the doll finally figured out I wasn't pulling her leg. She smiled a warm smile and said, "Then don't worry about it right now. Besides, I suspect Johnny won't be using his real name. I think he's trying to hide from us, but I don't know why."


"Reed, Ben, and I. Reed is the man I'm going to marry. Ben is Reed's best friend—some would take one look at him and think he had a heart of stone, but he's really a softie. We all live in the same building in Manhattan, but Johnny seems to have walked out unexpectedly. Caught a plane from La Guardia to right here, according to his credit card records. Soon as he landed, he drew out a few thousand in cold cash . . . and then the electronic trail goes cold. That's where I'm hoping you will come in."

She reached into her purse and came out with a snapshot. A very good-looking young man, dark hair cut short, with a wide grin that made me think he was a real rascal.

"He looks over eighteen," I commented.

"Yes, well over, even if he doesn't act like it," she said, sounding a trifle puzzled. "Why?"

"I'm just thinking that if he's a legal adult, then he doesn't have to fly back to New York with you if he doesn't want to. Unless there's a warrant or something?"

"No warrants. But let me worry about the persuasion," she said firmly. "Once I get face-to-face with him, I'll find out what's on his mind and take it from there. You don't need to drag him to the airport to earn your fee! He isn't that easy to drag, anyway, but I know how to handle him."

I imagined she did. But I wondered if she were making a mountain out of a molehill. Why not wait a while for her brother to come home on his own, if there was no reason he'd be hiding from the law? I decided to point out an obvious possibility. "It could be something very simple. Such as spending a few days with a new girlfriend he didn't want to tell you about?"

She wasn't shocked at the idea; she just shook her head. "Johnny never has any trouble finding feminine companionship closer to home. And he doesn't even try to hide them from me. I may question his taste, but I usually keep those doubts to myself. I don't expect to have veto power over his social life. No, whatever he came here for, it won't just be a hot date."

As an afterthought, she added: "One thing I forgot to clarify, Mister Mallet. It's been eight days since he flew to this city. I really don't panic every time my brother stays out overnight. As you suggested, he's a grown man, free to come and go as he pleases. But a week without so much as a phone call to his sister is atypical."

I had to admit that "eight days" put the thing in a different light. "Okay, Ms. Storm, the clock is now ticking on this case. Before I start running around showing that photo to people I know, are you ready to answer a bunch of questions to help me figure out which spots in this fair city would be likeliest to catch your brother's eye?"

She nodded. "Fire away!"

Author's Note: The other night I was working on another fanfic project and then I suddenly felt the urge to type something in hard-boiled private eye dialogue instead, for a change of pace. I thought about how I'd always meant to post something in this fandom . . . and then I thought it would be funny if the macho detective didn't have a clue who his beautiful new client was and what she could do . . . and then I thought about the rest of the plot (something I haven't always bothered to do in advance) . . . and then I wrote what you just read. Let me know if you like this approach!