Chapter 18

THE SHOES NEXT TO HIS WERE COWBOY BOOTS. IT WAS NASCAR Man, also wearing the basic black of security guards at formal functions.

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"Hunter?" the bald guy called. "We know you're in here."

I tried to make myself believe they didn't, but my heart was beating hard, my palms sweating. (I almost wiped them on my jacket before remembering the two-thousand-dollar refund I still needed for it.)

There was no getting past them. They stood shoulder to shoulder at the entrance, blocking any hope of escape.

Maybe they would move on into the gem room and I could make a break for the stairs. Maybe my black penguin suit would hide me in the darkened museum. Maybe Jen would appear and save me.

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More likely I was toast.

They stood there for a few moments, then I heard the bald guy mutter, "This should do it."

A soft and irregular beeping reached my ear. A number being dialed...

With about two seconds to spare I realized what he was doing. It was what I'd been set up for since they'd sent my phone back. He was dialing my number. The ring was about to give me away.

I scrambled in my pocket, digging out the phone and muting it with a swift motion practiced in many a movie theater. Then I stared in horror at it for a moment, realizing I still had another cell-phone-sized bulk in my pocket.

Was the phone in my hand mine or Mandy's? They were exactly the same size and shape, and in the darkness I couldn't see the color.

I pulled the second one out

Then the first phone lit up, happily muted, vibrating softly, and I let my breath out quietly.

I'd chosen the right one by pure chance. (Or possibly I had a psychic connection with my own phone. Discuss.)

The men were silent, listening, and Mandy's phone in my hand gave me an idea. I placed it softly on the short-haired industrial carpet and gave it a shove toward the entrance to the gem room. It slid like a hockey puck through the carpeted shadows, zooming out of sight. A soft bump came from its impact with something in the next room.

"Did you hear that?" NASCAR Man said, and the bald guy shushed him.

My practiced thumb was already in action, speed dialing Mandy's number. Seconds later a certain Swedish tune began to play from the next room.

Take a chance on me....

"He's in there."

The feet went into motion, cowboy boots striding ahead, dress shoes slow and purposeful. They walked right past the giant meteorite and stood at the entrance of the gem room, shoulder to shoulder again, confident they had me trapped.

The little tune still played with maniacal Scandinavian cheer.

"Answer your phone, kid." NASCAR Man laughed. "We want to talk to you."

I started to creep around the meteorite, realizing that I was painfully cramped from having crouched there for so long. Great.

"Hey, I see something flashing."

"Hunter, quit wasting our time."

I stepped out, taking big, silent steps across the carpeted floor. They were only about ten feet from me but facing the other way and squinting into the darkness. NASCAR Man started to move toward Mandy's phone.

I dragged my eyes away from them and focused on making my silent way through the Hall of Human Biology and Evolution. As my leg unkinked itself, protohumans passed, devolving back to the blissful state of monkeys in trees, and then the stairs were in front of me.

I bolted up them, no longer trying for stealth.

Halfway up a human form loomed in front of me, rearing out of the darkness. I crashed into it, drawing a curse as we both stumbled, hitting the floor together.

"What the...?"

It was the silver-haired woman Jen and I had spotted at the abandoned building, so close to me that I could see her rocket-shaped earrings glittering in the light of an exit sign. They'd left her here to guard the stairs.

I yanked out the Poo-Sham camera and pointed it into her face, a few inches from my outstretched arm. Shut my eyes.

And popped the flash.

The flickering light pried its way through the red filter of my eyelids, powerful enough for me to feel a glimmer of its brain-scrambling effect as I leaped to my feet. She caught it full in the face but still managed to reach out, her fingers closing on my shoulder.

I tore myself away. Eyes open now, I saw her trying to blink away the flash, her hands covering her eyes like claws.

"You fiddle lucker!" she cried.

I dashed up the rest of the stairs and ran through the stuffed birds to the velvet rope.

Stepping past it, I nodded to a cluster of women in evening gowns.

"Is there more party that way?" one asked.

"Yeah, they're giving out the really good gift bags down there. Just take a right and down the stairs."

As they flowed past me in an impenetrable mass, I headed back toward the Hall of African Mammals, speed dialing Jen.

"Hunter! You okay?"

"I lost them downstairs."

"Well done."

I smiled to myself. "Yeah. I did pretty good, now that you mention it."

"I knew you'd be fine once those bangs were gone."

"Right, Jen. It was all the haircut."

She managed to miss my tone. "Thanks."

"Listen, they'll be coming up soon. Where are you?"

"On my way out. Meet me at the bottom of the front stairs, on the street. I'll gab a crab. I mean, grab a cab."

I smiled, glad to hear that Jen wasn't immune to the Poo-Sham phenomenon. I wondered if she'd visited the planetarium or whether the gift bag Poo-Sham cameras had been enough.

As I reached the thick of the party, they were flashing everywhere. It was like some crazed lightning storm on the African veldt, lights flickering every second, glinting off the glass that protected the stunned-looking stuffed animals from a drunken and overdressed humanity. The floor was sticky with spilled drinks, the layer of Noble Savage rum and champagne luminous in the flashes. Every scrap of dialog I heard in passing was garbled and incomprehensible, as if the hoi aristoi were evolving their own language right before my eyes. The crowd's tone was becoming less human, filling with grunts, screeches, and peals of insane laughter There were discarded bow ties trodden on the floor, five hundred years of neckclothitania crumpled underfoot.

My own brain began to twist under the assault, gradually losing the marbles it had regathered in the darkness downstairs. I forged ahead, jostling my way through swarming penguins and penguinettes. There seemed to be no security, no one who had realized how badly things were falling apart. Maybe the Poo-Sham effect had dazzled everyone in charge as well.

I made it to the main lobby, where the dinosaur skeletons still posed in their death struggle, unimpressed by the chaos around them. They'd seen worse. At the entrance stood a tall woman who smilied and opened the door for me. In her early thirties, elegant and striking in formal black, she was the perfect image of a hostess proud of the way her party has turned out.

"Good night," she said. "And thanks so much for coming."

"I¨CI had a tate grime," I stammered, and stepped out into a light rain.

Cool drops of water cleared my head, and halfway down the marble steps my addled brain managed to inform me that she'd been wearing sunglasses. She was protected from the flashes. She was with the anti-client.

I turned back and saw the woman staring after me. Then she glided closer, and I realized that she wasn't as tall as I'd thought - she was wearing roller skates. She rolled to the edge of the steps and looked down, pulling off the glasses.

She was awesome. It was nighttime and raining, and everything was wet and slick and beautiful, highlights from passing traffic gleaming onskates, supremely confident on wheels, gliding to a graceful halt.

"Hunter?" she called softly, still unsure.

" 'Don't Walk, " I murmured, realizing who she was.

With her liquid motion, her physical glamour, the woman came straight from the fantasy world of athletic gear and energy drinks. She was confidence and cool, power and grace.

She was the missing black woman from the client's ad.

"Hunter!" Jen cried from the street behind me.

A smile spread across the woman's face, and she spread her thumb and smallest finger, put the hand to her head, and mouthed the words, Call me.

I turned and ran.

Chapter 19

"ARE YOU OKAY?"

"Did you see her?"

"See who?"

I fell into the cab's seat, still stunned from everything, unsure of what I had known positively only a few seconds before.

"Her," was all I could manage, and a look back up at the woman atop the museum steps. Then I noticed the cab wasn't moving, the meter ticking along in hold mode. "Why aren't we - ?"

I looked at Jen and found myself silenced by her transformation.

She smiled. "Like the dress?"

I know now that it was ankle length and scarlet, lacy and billowing, old-fashioned and extraordinary. But at that moment I hadn't noticed it yet.

"Your hair.

She scratched her head. "Yeah, I've been meaning to do this. Summer, you know."

Her hair was almost gone, cut down to a half inch.

"Makes me look different, doesn't it?"

I managed to nod.

"Jeez, Hunter." She scratched again. "Haven't you ever seen a buzz cut before?"

"Uh, sure." I smiled, shaking my head. 'You don't mess around on the disguise front, do you?"

She laughed. "I walked up to our bald friend and asked him where the bathroom was. He didn't bat an eye."

Remembering him and realizing the cab still hadn't moved, I looked back up at the museum entrance. The woman was still up there, gliding across the stairs, effortlessly switching from forward to backward on the slick wet stone.

"Did you see her?" I said. "With the sunglasses..."

"Yeah. I took a picture. Of all four of them."

"Oh." That brilliant idea hadn't crossed my mind, although I had accidentally gotten a close-up of Future Woman. "Shouldn't we be leaving now?"

"There's something I wanted you to see before we get out of range." She pulled out one of the Poo-Sham cameras.

"Ah!" I said, squinting. "I know all about those."

"You think you do. But watch this." She covered the flash" with one hand and took a picture. The red glimmer through her fingers reinforced my headache.

Then Jen held up one hand in front of my face. Her Wi-Fi bracelet was flickering wildly. The little diodes sputtered insanely for a few seconds, then calmed down to a normal level.

"I don't get it," I said.

"The cameras are networked. They're wireless."

"What?"

"We can go now," Jen called to the driver, then settled back as the cab pulled away. I stared through the back window for a moment, but the woman on the marble steps had disappeared. A few smokers huddled out of the rain.

"These cameras have Wi-Fi cards in them," Jen said. "When you take a picture, they transmit it to a hub somewhere near here. Whoever was in control of that party was collecting every picture taken."

I rubbed my temples. "As far as I could tell, no one was in control. It was chaos."

"Very carefully organized chaos. The free rum, the camera flashes."

"The Poo-Sham ad."

"What?"

I told her about the advertisement running in the planetarium, the weird pseudo-feel of it, the flashing screen at the end.

"Interesting," she said, still studying the camera. "We need to do some research on how this thing works. Maybe a Google search on 'mind control with party favors'?"

"That would be a start. Or maybe 'visually induced... uh, some-thing-phasia. " I rubbed my temples. For some reason, I couldn't remember the word for not being able to remember words. "My head hurts."

"Yeah, mine too." She ran her hands across the planes of her shorn head again, and I couldn't resist reaching across to touch her. The newly buzzed hair was soft beneath my fingers.

"That feels nice," she said, her eyes closed. "I'm beat. One more flashing light and I'm going into a coma."

I remembered the urban legend.

"Jen, have you ever heard that old story about a TV show that caused seizures? It was a Japanese cartoon or something."

"You're kidding. Sounds like that stupid movie, where the videotape kills you?"

"Yeah, but it was based on an urban legend. And like most legends, that was based on something real."

She shrugged. "We can Google it."

"Actually, I've got a friend who knows more than Google, at least when it comes to Japanese pop culture." I pulled out my phone, checking the time. "If she's awake."

I started to dial, but Jen pulled at my wrist, eyes still closed. "Just chill out until we get back downtown, okay?" She pulled herself closer, the dress rustling as her legs curled up under its yards of scarlet. Passing neon and streetlights swept across her as the cab descended Broadway. With her long hair Jen had been pretty, cute, attractive.

Buzzed, she was beautiful.

"No problem," I said, my heart fluttering pleasantly.

She held my hand. "We did good tonight. I feel like we actually learned something about the anti-client."

"Too bad none of it makes any sense."

"It will." Her eyes opened, her face close enough that I smelled Noble Savage on her breath. "I have to ask two very important questions, Hunter."

I swallowed. "Sure."

"One: Why are your hands purple?"

"Oh, that." I looked at them. "In addition to not being shampoo, Poo-Sham happens to be a very persistent skin dye."

"Ah. That's nasty of them." Her fingertips trailed across my open palm, sending a shudder through me.

"What was the other question?" I said softly.

"Well, uh." She bit her lip, and I found my gaze stuck on her mouth. "Did you know...?"

"Know what?"

"Did you know you ripped your jacket?"

I was paralyzed for a second, then followed Jen's gaze to my shoulder, where the sleeve had become disconnected in a long, uneven tear. I remembered Future Woman grabbing my arm on the stairs as I pulled violently away. My stomach sank.

"Oh, shit."

"Well"  -  she sat up and checked me over carefully - "at least everything else looks okay."

"This jacket was a thousand bucks!"

"Yeah, ouch. Still... your bow tie looks really sharp. Did you tie it yourself?"

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