Chapter 27

START WITH A MOLLUSK, WIND UP WITH AN EMPIRE.

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Sounds tricky, but the Phoenicians managed it about four thousand years ago. Their tiny sliver of a kingdom was wedged between the Mediterranean Sea and a vast desert: no gold mines, no olive trees, no amber waves of grain anywhere in sight. The only thing the Phoenicians had going for them was a certain species of shellfish, commonly found lying around down at the beach. These shellfish were tasty but had one problem - if you ate too many of them, your teeth turned purple.

Naturally, most people were annoyed by this. They probably said stuff like, "Those shellfish aren't bad, but who wants purple teeth?" and didn't think much more about it.

Then one day an ancient Innovator got this crazy idea

Okay, imagine you live in Egypt or Greece or Persia back then and you're rich. You've got all the gold, olive oil, and grain you want. But all you ever get to wear is cloth robes that come in the following colors: light beige, medium beige, dark beige. You've seen the Bible movies: everyone's totally decked out in earth tones - that's all they had, that's all they could imagine having.

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Then one day along comes a boatload of Phoenicians, and they're selling purple cloth. Purple!

Throw that beige wardrobe away!

For a while, purple is the thing, the biggest fad since that whole wheel craze. After a lifetime spent wearing sixteen shades of beige, everyone's lining up to buy the cool new cloth. The price is crazy high, partly due to demand and partly because it happens to take about 200,000 shellfish to make one ounce of dye, and pretty soon the Phoenicians are rolling in dough (actually, they're rolling in gold, olive oil, and grain, but you get the picture).

A trading empire is born. And talk about branding: Phoenicia is the ancient Greek word for "purple." You are what you sell.

After a while, however, an interesting thing happens. The people in charge decide that purple is too cool for just anyone to wear. First they tax purple cloth; then they pass a law forbidding the hoi polloi to wear purple (as if they could afford it); and finally, they make purple robes the sole property of kings and queens.

Over the centuries this dress code becomes so widespread and so ingrained that even now, four thousand years later, the color purple is still associated with royalty throughout Europe. And all this because an Innovator who lived forty centuries ago figured he could make something cool out of the purple-teeth problem. Not bad.

But why am I telling you all this?

A few days after the Hoi Aristoi launch party, as rumors about purple-headed Blue Bloods spread across New York and big chunks of the wealthiest segment of society disappeared to the Hamptons to wait out the dye in royal isolation, some concerned parent had a half-empty bottle of Poo-Sham tested to see what was in it. The shampoo was discovered to contain water, MEA-lauryl sulfate, and awesome concentrations of medically safe, environmentally sound, and righteously staining shellfish dye.

One thing about the anti-client: they knew their history.

Hillary Winston-hyphen-Smith was not receiving visitors.

We were in the lobby of an upper-Fifth Avenue building that was home to sport-star millionaires, software billionaires, and a certain recording artist who goes by only one name. (And come to think of it, that name is royalty-related, and the guy really likes purple. Go figure.) The concierge of the building was wearing a tasteful purple uniform that matched the rich purple upholstery of the chairs in the marble-and-gold-filigreed lobby, proving that things hadn't really changed that much in the last four thousand years.

"Miss Winston-Smith isn't feeling well," the concierge confided.

"Oh, that's terrible," I said. "Uh, have you seen her today, by any chance?"

He shook his head. "She hasn't been down."

"You sure you can't call up for us?" Jen asked.

"Some friends came by earlier, and she said she wouldn't be coming down today." The concierge cleared his throat. "Actually, Miss Winston-Smith said she wouldn't be down this year. You know how she gets."

I did. And if Hillary was genuinely suffering from Poo-Sham head, I was quite relieved not to be allowed into her august presence.

"Well, that's too bad...," I started, taking a polite step backward.

Then I heard the beeping of Jen making a call. The concierge and I turned to watch her, both paralyzed by astonishment. I hadn't noticed Jen getting Hillary's phone number from the mailing list, and he'd probably never heard anyone speak to Miss Winston-Smith this way.

"Hillary? This is Jen - you met me two days ago at Mandy's meeting. You better be screening this, because Hunter and I are standing at the front desk of your building, and we have a pretty good idea how to find the counteragent for the shampoo you used this morning. We just need a moment of your time and we may be able to help you with the, uh, purple issue. But we're headed out the door now, so unless you - "

The intercom behind the desk popped to life, and a scratchy and crumpled Hillary voice boomed across the lobby.

"Reginald? Would you send them up, please?"

Reginald blinked in surprise, only belatedly remembering to answer Miss Winston-Smith, and pointed toward the elevators.

"Twentieth floor," he said, his eyes full of admiration.

Hillary was in the garden, a large balcony overlooking Central Park, swaddled in a bathrobe and a towel turban, her skin wrinkly and fingertips puckered from what had evidently been a day of showers and baths, her eyes puffy from crying. Her face, hands, forearms up to the elbow, and the few stray locks of hair that emerged from her turban were all extraordinarily, vibrantly, royally purple.

It was a good look for her. The dye had settled evenly across her skin and looked unexpectedly stunning against her blue eyes. Hillary had achieved her cool status as an eye-candy interviewer for a certain music-video cable channel. Her features were as blue-blooded as her social connections, and although she'd always looked way too commercial for my liking, turning purple had lent her a certain downtown credibility.

"How come you're normal, Hunter?" she said as Jen and I stepped out into the sun. I heard the servant who'd ushered us through the immense, many-floored apartment retreat quickly behind us.

"Normal how?" I asked.

"Not purple!"

I held up my hands, which still bore the stain of my brief exposure to Poo-Sham.

"Wait, that's right...." Her purple brow furrowed, as if she was through a thick hangover to remember the night before. "I asked you about your hands last night."

"Right," I agreed, wondering what her point was.

"Hunter! You already had that crap on your hands when I saw you last night. Why didn't you warn me?"

I opened my mouth, then closed it. Good question. I suppose I'd been more worried about joining Mandy in captivity than saving a bunch of Blue Bloods from purple heads. (But frankly, the concept of raising an alarm hadn't crossed my mind.)

"Well, things were kind of complicated last night, and - "

"We were working undercover," Jen said. "Trying to figure out who's behind all this."

"Undercover?" Hillary raised a purple eyebrow. "What the hell are you talking about? Who are you, anyway?"

"You met me the other - "

"I know where we met, but where did you come from? And why is everything so weird since you showed up?"

Hillary's violet fury brought me up short. Things had been odd since I'd known Jen - I'd already noticed that myself once or twice. But in a moment of mental clarity, I realized that this would all be happening far away from my little world if I'd never met her. I never would have gone to) the launch party or snuck into Movable Hype. For that matter, if Jen I hadn't brought up the missing-black-woman formation at the meeting, Mandy wouldn't have taken us to the abandoned building. Maybe Mandy [wouldn't even have gone herself that particular morning and might still: be around, running focus groups and taking pictures of guys in berets instead of... being gone.

But Hillary's purple features weren't actually Jen's fault. The Hoi Aristoi party had been planned for months. Jen wasn't a bad-luck charm making all this stuff happen; she was more like a compass, unerringly guiding me toward the weird. Or something like that.

I decided to work it out later. "Like Jen said, we were working undercover. Mandy disappeared yesterday, and we've been trying to find her."

"Mandy?" Hillary lifted a Bloody Mary from the table beside her lounge chair and emptied it. Hair of the dog. Even dyed purple, Hillary was looking a little green around the gills, probably the result of too much Noble Savage, "what's this got to do with her?"

"We're not quite sure," I said. "In fact, we're completely not sure."

Hillary rolled her eyes. "Gee, Hunter. I'm so thrilled you guys are on the case."

"Like I said, it's complicated. But we think we can track down the people behind Poo-Sham. We just need some information from you."

"But you didn't even..." She blinked, and for a moment I thought she was going to cry. I looked away, past exotic plants and potted trees, across the park to the jagged Midtown skyline, looking like broken teeth rising out of a forest.

Hillary sobbed once. "You just walked away from me, Hunter. You must have known it was dye."

"Well, yeah, I guess. But I really didn't have any idea what was going on. I mean, all those flashing lights were freaking me out - "

"Let me ask you one question, Hillary," Jen said. "When you stepped out of the shower and saw yourself, did you immediately sit down and call all your friends to warn them?"

"I - ," she started, but her words dissolved into purple bemusement. "Maybe not right away. But that was this morning. Hunter knew there was something up last night at the party."

"And your point is...?"

She waved away Jen's question as though it were an annoying mosquito. "You wouldn't think this was so funny if you were purple."

"I don't think it's...," Jen started, then spread her hands. "Well, aspects of it are funny."

Hillary groaned. "This has been fun, Hunter. But I think you two are leaving." She stabbed at a wireless intercom next to the empty Bloody Mary glass, and a distant buzzer sounded from within the apartment.

"Listen," I said, "I'm sorry I didn't warn you about the dye, Hillary. But we can find the people who did this to you."

She glared at me. "Too late to help."

"But if we find these guys," Jen said, "we might find the antidote."

The servant returned, hovering at the door to the garden while Hillary's narrowed eyes tried to burn a hole through Jen.

"Antidote?"

Jen shrugged. "Maybe there's a way to wash it off."

"Another Bloody," Hillary commanded, shaking the ice in the empty glass, her gaze still locked on Jen. The servant evaporated.

After a moment of purple calculation she said, "What do you need?"

"To learn the names of everyone who paid for the Hoi Aristoi subscriber list," I said.

"The mailing list? Okay, I'll make some calls." She leaned forward, removing the straw from her empty drink and pointing it at me threateningly. "But this time around you better keep me in the loop, Hunter. Or you're going to wake up with something worse than a purple head."

Chapter 28

WE WAITED FOR THE CALL DOWNTOWN, BACK AT OUR FAVORITE

coffee shop, sitting on our musty couch, shoulders touching. It should have felt wonderful.

"What's bumming you out?"

I looked down at my purple hands. "Hillary being right. I should have told someone about the shampoo last night after I found out it was dye. The whole party was a trap, and we just let everybody walk into it."

Jen leaned her weight into me comfortingly. "Come on. We were too busy not getting caught. And I mean really caught, not dyed purple or photographed behaving badly. Didn't you have to run for your life?"

"Yeah, twice in one day. But I still wish I'd said something to Hillary."

"You feel guilty about Hillary's purple head? News update, Hunter: She'll live. We went to that party to investigate a kidnapping, not rescue a bunch of spoiled rich kids."

I pulled away to get a better look at the smirk just visible on Jen's lips. "You like these guys, don't you?" I said. "The anti-client."

"Well, I wouldn't say I like them." She leaned back into the musty couch and sighed. "I think they're probably dangerous, and I'm worried about Mandy. And I definitely don't want to get caught by them."

"But...?"

"But I do like their style," she said, then smiled. "Don't you?"

I opened my mouth, then closed it. It was true: the anti-client did have style. They were cool, and they were using cool in a strange new way. I'd spent years studying how Innovators changed the world, and the process was always indirect, suggestive, filtered through cool hunters and Trendsetters and ultimately giant companies while the Innovators remained invisible. As in an epidemic, Patient Zero was always the hardest guy to find. So there was something fascinating about an Innovator taking direct action. The anti-client was shooting advertisements, taking over launch parties, creating their own weird marketing campaign.

I wanted to see what they would do next.

"Maybe," I admitted. "But what do you think they want?"

"In the long run?" Jen sipped some coffee. "I think you were right about the cobblestones."

"The anti-client wants to throw rocks?"

"No. Well, maybe a few, now and then. But I think mostly they want to loosen the mortar, the glue that holds the street down."

I frowned; this line of thinking was bringing on a paka-paka headache. "Could you maybe unmix this metaphor a little?"

Jen took my hand. "You know what glue I mean. The stuff that controls how everyone thinks, how they see the world."

"Advertising?"

"Not just advertising, but the whole system: marketing categories, tribal boundaries, all the formations that people get trapped in. Or locked out of."

I shook my head. "I don't know. Issue zero of Hoi Aristoi takes on a pretty easy target. And I mean, what are they saying? Rich, spoiled kids are laughable? Not exactly a revolutionary concept."

"So you're going to tell Hillary Hyphen about what you saw at Movable Hype? With her connections, she could probably stop the whole thing before it ever hits a printing press."

I laughed. "Hell, no."

"Exactly. Because you want to see it get mailed out. You want to see what happens. Everyone who gets their hands on a copy will devour every page, even the unlucky people in those pictures. Because it's information from outside the system. And we're all starving for it."

"But what good does it do?" I asked.

"Like I said, it loosens the mortar that holds the cobblestones down."

"So they can throw more rocks?"

"No, Hunter. Don't you get it? The anti-client doesn't just want to throw rocks. They want the whole street to come up. They want to make it so everyone starts throwing rocks."

A few minutes later a horn sounded outside; a stretch limo waited on the street in the lengthening shadows of early evening. As we approached, a darkened rear window opened a few inches and a purple hand reached out, clutching a single sheet of paper. I felt the cold breath of the car's air-conditioning and glimpsed an even colder stare: a young and purple hoi aristoi glaring out at me from the backseat.

He disappeared as the window slid closed. Jen scanned the paper as I watched the car easing into traffic, taking its occupant back to the well-guarded precincts of the Upper East Side.

"Well, this is a no-brainer," Jen announced, handing over our prize.

The short list was on Hoi Aristoi stationery, apple-green paper embossed with gold, printed in rich purple ink. It included all the usual suspects: a certain maker of overpriced handbags, a bank in a certain tropical country known for its absence of tax laws, the national committee of a certain political party. But one stood out from among the rest, as inconspicuous as a black widow spider on a piece of Wonder Bread.

"Two-by-Two Productions."

"Sound familiar?" Jen said.

I remembered Hiro's words when he'd recounted the in-line-skating split with Mwadi Wickersham: Two-by-two or death.

I had to laugh. "Maybe this is all about the wheels."

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