"YOU HAVE TO TAKE YOUR SHOES OFFI I TOLD JEN OUTSIDE Lexa's door.
"Okay." She bent to tug at a lace. "A Zen thing?"
"No, a clean thing."
Lexa Legault vacuumed her apartment every day with a small jet engine, leaving it as spotless as a biotech lab. I always felt like she should have asked her guests to wear white jumpsuits and masks, but I guess that would've been overkill. Lexa (short for Alexandra) didn't make her own microchips yet.
What she did make was her own computers, which spent their lives with their guts exposed, in a state of constantly being tinkered with. In Lexa's apartment, dust was a Very Bad Thing.
I'd already buzzed from downstairs, but it wasn't until I gave the special our-shoes-are-off knock that the door opened.
Lexa was dressed in immaculate khakis and a tight pink T-shirt, a handheld clipped to her belt. She had all the hallmarks of geek-girl beauty: a shy smile, chunky glasses, short hair framing elfin features, and the fashion sense of a Japanese teenager. Her look was as effortless and clean as those women that fashion designers draw with just a few sweeping lines.
When I'd first met Lexa, I'd spent several months cultivating a massive crush on her until the terrible moment when she'd mentioned that one of the things she liked about me was how much I reminded I her of herself - back when she was younger and not so boringly together. I never let on, of course, but ouch.
"Hi, Hunter." She hugged me, pulled back, still looking over my shoulder. "Oh, hey..."
"Jen," I supplied.
"Yeah," nodding slowly, "I liked what you said yesterday, Jen. Very cool."
That brought a sheepish smile, one I liked more every time I saw it. "Thanks."I
We slipped into the apartment, and Lexa closed the door immediately behind us to fend off any dust swirling in our wake.
I handed her the cup of coffee we'd brought as an offering. She always said her brain was nothing but a machine for turning coffee into special effects.
Jen took in the high-tech splendor, her eyes widening as they; adjusted to the darkness. Hardly any sunlight leaked in through the \ heavy curtains (like dust, sunlight was a Bad Thing), but the apartment glowed around us. All of Lexa's furniture was made out of the stainless steel used in restaurant kitchens. The metal glittered with the scattered red and green eyes of gadgets recharging: a couple of cell phones, an MP3 player, three laptops, an electric toothbrush by the kitchen sink. (Despite all the coffee, Lexa's teeth were as clean as her apartment.) And of course there were several computers running screen savers, coiling blobs of light that reflected throughout the room. Jen's Wi-Fi bracelet o joined in the sparkling, excited by the heavy wireless traffic. Lexa noticed ^ the bracelet and gave it the Nod, and I felt obscurely pleased by this sign of approval.
Steel shelves lined the walls, filled with memory chips and disk drives and cables, all of these spare parts coded with colored stickers. The top shelves were lined with about a dozen of those electric fireplaces with fake glowing embers, so that the ceiling pulsed with a rosy light.
Sometimes there is a very fine line between being cool and being a crank. Whether you're one or the other depends on the overall effect. Lexa's apartment always filled me with a sense of calm, a room full of candles but without the fire hazard. It was like being inside a huge meditating head. Maybe it was a Zen thing after all.
Making good money also helps with not being a crank. Lexa was famous for her special-effects work for a certain previously mentioned movie franchise, the one involving frozen kung fu and lots of ammunition. With plenty of income, Lexa cool-hunted as a hobby, as a calling, even. Her goal in life was to influence the manufacturers of MP3 players, cell phones, and handhelds to follow the principles of good design - clean lines, ergonomic buttons, and softly pulsing lights.
"You haven't been over in a while, Hunter." She glanced at Jen, wondering if I'd been busy.
"Yeah, you know. Summer."
"Did you get my e-mail about joining SHIFT?"
One more word about cranks: An Innovator friend of Lexa's had this theory that uppercase was coming back in. That all the Webby kids who'd never hit the shift key in their lives (except to type an @ sign) were about to start putting capitals at the beginning of their sentences, maybe even the first letter of their names and other proper nouns. Lexa didn't really believe this seismic shift was imminent, but she desperately wanted it to be. Typographical laziness was slowly destroying our culture, according to Lexa and her pals. Inexactitude was death.
I wasn't clear on the details of the theory. But the concept behind SHIFT was that if enough Trendsetters started using capital letters in their e-mails and posts, maybe the herd would follow.
"You haven't joined up, have you?"
I cleared my throat. "I'm sort of agnostic on the whole SHIFT agenda."
"Agnostic? You mean you aren't sure if capital letters exist?" Lexa could be literal minded at times.
"No, I believe in them. I've actually seen a few. But as far as the need for a movement goes - "
"What are you guys talking about?"
Lexa turned to Jen, eyes alight with the prospect of a conversion. "You know how no one uses capitals anymore? Just dribbles along in lowercase, like they don't know where the sentence starts?"
"Yeah, I hate that."
Lexa's well-brushed smile was blinding in the rosy gloom. "Oh, you've got to get into SHIFT, then. What's your e-mail?"
"Um, Lexa, can I interrupt?"
She stopped, her handheld already unclipped from her belt, ready to take Jen's contact information.
"We came here about something important."
"Sure, Hunter." She reluctantly returned the tiny computer to her belt. "What's up?"
Lexa crossed her arms. "Disappeared? Define."
"She was supposed to meet us in Chinatown this morning," I said. "She didn't show."
"You tried calling her?"
"We did, which is how we found this." I held up Mandy's phone.
"It's hers," Jen said. "It was in an abandoned building near where we were supposed to meet her."
"That's a little creepy," Lexa admitted.
"More than a little," Jen said. "There's a picture on the phone. It's blurry but kind of scary. Like maybe something happened to her."
Lexa held out her hand. "May I?"
"We were hoping you would."
Using Lexa's cinematographic hardware to look at a postage-stamp digital photo was like using the space shuttle to get to the end of the street. But the results were equally earthshaking.
On Lexa's giant flat screen Mandy's last picture looked a hundred times more ominous. The gash of white that cut across one corner made sense now. It was the gap between the boards of the abandoned building, sunlight pouring through. The photo had evidently been taken from inside, only a few steps from where we'd found the phone.
"It looks like it's been unlocked," Jen said, standing. Her fingers traced a dark snake in the bright patch, a chain swinging free between the boards, the blurred shape of an open padlock hanging at one end. The gap seemed wide enough for a person to squeeze through.
"So Mandy had a key," I said. "She said she was going to show us something."
Jen pointed. "But when she opened it, somebody else was in there."
I squinted at the blotchy shape in the darkest corner of the picture. Blown up this big, it seemed less like a face, the gradients of gray more jagged, like a mob informer with his identity concealed by computer.
"What do you think, Lexa? Is that a face?"
She was also squinting. "Yeah, maybe."
"Can you do anything to clear it up?" Jen asked.
Lexa crossed her arras. "Clear it up? Define."
"Well, make it look more like a face. Like on cop shows when the FBI guys do that computer stuff to pictures?"
Lexa sighed. "Let me explain something, guys: Those scenes are rigged. You can't really make a blurry picture clearer; the information's already gone. Besides, when it comes to faces, your brains are better than any computer."
"Couldn't you give our brains a hand?" I asked.
"Look, I've created ocean waves, crashing cars, whirling asteroids. I've erased boils from movie stars' hands, made it snow and rain, even added smoke to an actress's breath after she refused to put a lit cigarette in her mouth. But you know what the hardest thing to animate is?"
Jen dared a guess. "A human face?"
"Because it's so mobile?"
Lexa shook her head. "Humans aren't especially expressive. Monkeys' faces are more muscular, dogs have much bigger eyes, and cats have very emotive whiskers. Our crappy ears don't even move. What makes humans; so tough to do is the audience. We're human, and we spend our whole lives learning to read each other's faces. We can detect a glimmer of! anger on another person's face from a hundred yards through a fog bank. Our brains are machines for turning coffee into facial analysis. Take a drink and look for yourself.
I swallowed the cold dregs from my paper cup and stared at the picture. It was a face, I decided, and it was starting to look familiar.
"Although frankly, this might help." Lexa stood but didn't reach for ^ the mouse. She went to the kitchen drawer and pulled out a long, thin box. With a swish and a tearing sound, she extracted a large sheet of wax paper, the kind you wrap sandwiches in. She held the translucent paper over the screen.
"Don't ever tell anyone I said this, but sometimes blurry is better than clear."
Jen and I gasped. Through the haze of the paper something recognizable had resolved.
It was the face of the man who'd come after us in the darkness. The bald head was obvious now, the heavy brow and childish lips all somehow cohering in the blur. And Lexa was right: we could read the expression perfectly, right through the wax paper and pixelization and darkness. The guy was eager, determined, totally in control.
He was coming to get Mandy, like he'd tried to get us.
We sat there for a moment in silence, paralyzed, as if he'd stepped through the screen into the room. Then a bouncy Swedish tune started to play.
Take a chance on me....
Mandy's phone had come to life, its lights blinking away. Lexa took a step, lifted it to look at its little screen.
"Who's calling?" I asked.
Lexa lifted an eyebrow.
"You are, Hunter."
LEXA HANDED ME THE PHONE. THE SWEDISH TUNE KEPT PLAYING, insistent and diabolical.
The readout glowed in the darkness. Incoming call: Hunter.
"It really is me," I said to Jen. "It's my phone calling."
"Maybe you should answer."
"Oh, yeah." I swallowed and lifted the phone to my ear. "Hello?"
"Hi, uh, I'm just calling because I found this phone. And I wanted to return it to the owner."
"Really?" My foolish heart lifted.
"Yeah, and this number was in the incoming call memory, so I figured the phone must belong to a friend of yours. Maybe you could give me the guy's name. Or his address?"
"Yeah, actually that's..."
My voice trailed off as I came to my senses: why did this person assume the phone's owner was a he?
"Uh, actually..." I looked up at the face on the screen, at arm's length now. The voice on the phone was male and sounded like a big guy
Maybe that guy.
I cleared my throat. "Actually, I don't recognize this number."
"Are you sure? You just called it an hour ago. Like four times in a row."
"Uh, yeah, that was a wrong number," I said, trying to keep the tremor out of my voice. "I have no idea whose number this is."
"Oh, okay. Well, sorry to bother you... Shoe Girl."
The phone went dead.
Shoe Girl, he'd said. That was the name in my phone for Mandy: shugrrl, her instant-message handle. He knew I'd been lying.
"It was him, wasn't it?" Jen said.
I nodded, looking at the grim face on the screen. "He's calling the numbers in my memory, saying he wants to return a lost phone. He's trying to find someone who'll give him my address."
"Oh, crap," said Jen. "But no one would do that, would they?"
"I've got about a hundred numbers in that phone. Eventually someone will give him what he wants. Probably my aunt Macy in Minnesota."
"You could call your aunt," Jen said, "and all your close friends, the ones who know your address, and tell them what's going on."
"That might work if I could call them." I shook my head. "I don't actually keep anyone's number in my head. Without that phone, I'm toast."
"You don't back up?" asked Lexa, scandalized.
"Sure, at home." I tried to remember the last time I'd actually backed up the phone onto my computer. A boring day during Christmas vacation? "But by the time I get there and call everyone..."
"Okay, guys, I was just trying to help with this and not be too nosy. But this is getting weird." Lexa pointed at the screen. "How did that guy get your phone? And why does he care what your address is?"
"Well, after Mandy didn't show up, he did. You see, we were in this old building, and there were these... shoes."
"Shoes." Lexa sighed. "Why is it always shoes with you guys?"
"They were amazing," Jen said softly.
"Can you keep a secret?" I said.
"I mean, really keep a secret."
"Hunter, I got the script for..." (she named the third movie of a franchise in which a certain weight-lifting governor plays an unsmiling robot who shoots things)"... a year before it came out. And I didn't leak a single plot point."
"That's because there weren't any," I said. "Just don't tell anyone about this, okay? Go one picture back."
She clicked, and Mandy's picture of the shoe filled the screen, Lexa blinked, uncrossed her arms, and took a drink of her coffee. Stoking the machine.
It was grainy, jagged, the colors blotchy, but it was still the shoe.
"Wow, the client did that? Didn't know they had it in them."
"We're not sure," Jen said. "It's either a bootleg or some radical new marketing concept. You can't tell from this picture, but the logo has a bar sinister through it."
"It's the anti-client," I said.
Lexa smiled and gave a slow nod. The Nod. "Cool."
"Cool enough to kidnap someone over?" I asked.
"Sure, Hunter." Lexa stepped back, squinting now, blurring the jagged picture with her eyelashes. "Cool is money, and money can be worth anything. That's money's job."
It was a way that only computer geeks talked, but it made sense. Jen gave Lexa the Nod.
We sucked the memory out of Mandy's phone and made some calls.
Her office phone went to a machine, and we left the obvious "Where are you?" message. Cassandra's cell phone did likewise, and I explained that Mandy had missed a meeting and could Cassandra please call Lexa. When Mandy's home machine answered, I just hung up, not wanting to leave multiple messages all smelling of fear. Until we had something more solid, I didn't see the point in worrying Cassandra about her missing roommate/girlfriend.
Then we looked at Mandy's outgoing numbers. The last place Mandy had called was a car service, which was how she traveled since going full-time. The other outgoing calls led to the client's massive switchboards, nonspecific numbers that ended in three zeros - probably Mandy conferring with her bosses about "Don't Walk." The only other call in memory was one to her home the night before. There were no clues that she had arranged to meet anyone else besides us this morning.
But someone had told Mandy about the building and its mysterious contents. At least one of the client's countless execs knew more than we did.
I looked at the phone. Having just had my cell phone ripped from my life, I knew how much information was trapped inside in the tiny plastic wafer of circuitry, but there was no easy way to get it out. Machines don't give up their secrets easily.
Human beings, on the other hand, love to spill the beans. One by one, I went through the client's numbers that Mandy had stored, skipping straight past phone trees to human receptionists. Eventually one made the connection for me.
"Hello, I'm making a call on behalf of Mandy Wilkins."
"Oh, do you want Mr. Harper?"
"Uh, yes. Please."
"I'll connect you."
I waited for a moment on hold, listening to custom rap-Muzak exalting the latest big sports name who'd signed on the client's dotted line. It sucked me in just far enough that my brain got a jolt when the exec came on.
"Greg Harper. Who is this?"
"My name is Hunter Braque. I work with Mandy Wilkins. I was supposed to meet her this morning at Lispenard and Church... about the shoes."
"The shoes, yeah." His voice was slow, cautious. "I think she told me about bringing you in. Outside consultant, right?"
"Right, I remember now. Hunter." His voice changed, sharpened by recognition. "You focused on 'Don't Walk, didn't you? Caused all that trouble?"
"Uh, I guess that was me. Anyway, she didn't make the meeting - "
"Maybe she had second thoughts."
"Actually, I'm a bit worried. She didn't show for our meeting, but we found her phone. She's missing, sort of, and we were wondering what this was all about. The shoes, I mean."
"I can't comment about the shoes. We do a lot of shoes. This is a shoe company. I don't even know what shoes you mean."
"Listen, Mr. Harper, I saw them - "
"Saw what? You should have Mandy call me."
"But I don't know where she - "
"Have Mandy call me."
The line went dead. No Muzak, nothing. Somewhere during the call Jen and Lexa had stopped playing with the photo of the shoe to listen.
When I dropped the phone from my ear, Jen said, "What was that about?"
I'd heard many forms of corporate desperation before, the frantic tones of lost market share, crumbling stock prices, multimillion-dollar contracts with college hoop stars who weren't cutting it in the pros, the horrifying realization of not knowing what those damn kids wanted anymore. But nothing quite as panicked as Greg Harper's last words.
"I think the client is in a state of denial," I said. "But one thing's for certain: The shoes didn't come from them."
"So where did they come from?" Lexa asked.
I looked at Jen; she looked at me.