ONE THING ABOUT BEING A COOL HUNTER, YOU REALIZE ONE simple fact: Everything has a beginning.
Nothing always existed. Everything had an Innovator.
We all know who invented telephones and lightbulbs, but the humbler innovations are made anonymously. But there was a first paper airplane, a first pair of jeans cut off into shorts, a first paper-clip necklace. And traveling back in time: a first back scratcher, a first birthday present, a first hole designated as the one to throw garbage in.
Once a good idea spreads, however, it's hard to believe it didn't always exist.
Take detective stories. The first was written by Edgar Allan Poe in 1841. (Spoiler alert: The monkey did it.) Over the next 163 years Poe's innovation infected countless books, films, plays, and TV shows. And like most rampant viruses, the detective character has mutated into every imaginable form: little old ladies who solve crimes, medieval monks who solve crimes, cats who solve crimes, even criminals who solve crimes.
My dad used to devour mystery novels (about epidemiologists who solve crimes, I'm sure) until one day he read an interview with a real homicide detective in Los Angeles. The guy had been on the force for over forty years, and in all that time not a single major crime had ever been solved by an amateur detective.
With that in mind, we took Mandy's phone to the cops.
"Relationship to the missing person?"
"Uh, co-worker? I mean, she gets me jobs."
"And where do you work, Hunter?"
"Nowhere in particular. I'm a... consultant. A shoe consultant. Mostly shoes."
Detective Machal Johnson looked me up and down.
"Shoe consultant? Good money in that?"
"I mostly get paid in shoes."
One eyebrow was slowly rising. "Okay. Shoe consultant." The detective typed as he talked: sleepily. I could have input the letters faster into my cell phone (if I'd had one). Johnson's ancient computer looked equally slow. The screen was all one greenish color - the glowing letters fireflies trapped in mint toothpaste. "So this Mandy Jenkins is also a... shoe consultant?"
"Yeah, I guess that's what you'd call her."
"And when do you guess you last saw her?"
"Yesterday, about five."
"Less than twenty-four hours ago?"
Jen nudged me, and Detective Johnson looked like he was about to take his hands off the keyboard, but I didn't let him. It had taken us an hour to get to this point, past desk sergeants, metal detectors, and a wide variety of unimpressed expressions.
"She was supposed to meet us this morning," I said. "At Lispenard and Church."
He sighed and typed, mouthing the street names. "Any evidence of foul play?"
"Yes. We found her phone." I placed it on the detective's desk.
He turned it over once in his hand. "That's all? No purse? No wallet?"
"Where we were supposed to meet her. It was just inside this abandoned building."
He put the phone down. "You were supposed to meet her inside an abandoned building?"
"No, on the corner. But the phone was inside, nearby. And there's a picture on it."
"A picture on the building?"
"No, on the phone. It's also a camera. That's the picture on the screen."
Putting on half-lens glasses that seemed to suddenly age him, the detective peered at the phone. "Huh. What do you know." He took in the tiny lens next to the antenna, squinted at the screen, and gave it a New York cop's version of the Nod. "And what exactly is that a picture of?"
"A face in the dark. We saw that guy."
"The guy in the picture."
"There's a guy in the picture?"
"You have to use wax paper to see it."
"He chased us," Jen said.
Detective Johnson looked at her, then his eyes swept back and forth across the space between us a few times, an alien watching a tennis match and trying to grasp the rules. "Have you tried calling your friend?"
"We can't. That's her phone."
"At her office? At her home?"
"Sure, her roommate too. But we just got machines."
"Okay." Detective Johnson pushed his glasses up higher onto his nose and settled back from the rigors of typing into the creaky comfort of his office chair. "I know you're concerned about your friend, but let me tell you this about missing people: Ninety-nine out of hundred aren't missing. They had a personal emergency, or got stuck on a train, or went out of town and forgot to tell you. With adults we don't even start looking for twenty-four hours unless there's a reason to believe foul play was involved."
I felt Jen twitching next to me. She was dying to get out of the cop shop, back to her new job as an Innovator who solves crimes.
"Now, you did find her phone, which you are sure is hers..." (I nodded like a puppy)"... but that's not really a sign of foul play. Until she's been missing for twenty-four hours, it's just a lost phone. At which point you should have her roommate or a relative or some other adult call me if she's still missing. I'll keep your information on file."
I could tell from his tone it was useless arguing. "Oh. Thanks."
"So, do you want to turn in this phone as lost property, or would you like to save your friend some paperwork when she reappears and hold on to it?" He held out the phone, making it clear who was being saved from paperwork.
"Sure," Jen said eagerly. "We can give it to her. No trouble."
Detective Machal Johnson nodded slowly, ceremoniously handing the phone back to me.
"Your public-spiritedness is appreciated, I assure you."
OUTSIDE THE COP SHOP:
"There's only one place to go. Back."
We approached the abandoned building cautiously, coming up Lispenard, urban commandos dodging from cover to cover - mounds of trash bags buzzing with midday flies, the half concealment of a phone booth, crouching behind doorways and stoops.
Actually, it was fun.
Until we spotted them.
The plywood doors were wide open, the padlock swinging on its chain. A rental truck sat blocking half the street, its elevator ascending with a whine, stacked high with boxes of the shoes.
"They're moving," Jen said.
We were hidden behind a steel-clad loading dock that thrust into the street, hot under our fingertips from the noon sun. We spoke in short bursts, as if on radios.
"Bald guy, by the door," I said.
"I count two more."
SoHo tourists walked by, casting puzzled looks in our directions. Hadn't they ever seen a stakeout before?
Our bald friend watched the work with a foreman's lazy disinterest while a woman stacked boxes on the curb. She was arrayed in a style commonly known as Future Sarcastic: a T-shirt emblazoned with a big-eyed alien, flight-suit trousers with dozens of gadget-shaped pockets, silver hair shining in the sun. Everything but the jet pack.
The guy riding the truck's elevator was muscular and lean, very dark. He was wearing a trucker cap and cowboy boots, jeans and a mesh shirt that showed off his muscles. In a friendlier context I would have pegged him as a gay bodybuilder doing an ironic take on NASCAR fandom. But alongside the other two, he looked more like one of many hopefuls sent down by central casting to try out for the part of Thug #3 in a hip new thriller.
Of which we were the unlikely heroes, I reminded myself.
"What do we do?" I asked, trying not to catch the eye of a curious young mother pushing a double-wide stroller past our position.
Jen pulled out her cell phone, starting thumbing. "Well, I'm inputting the license number of that truck."
"It's a rental."
"And rental places keep records."
"Oh, yeah." Maybe if I'd read more books about shoe consultants who solved crimes, I would've figured that out myself.
"And you should be taking pictures."
"Good idea. I mean, roger that."
I pulled out Mandy's phone and started to shoot. Between the five-millimeter lens and lack of zoom, they'd be pretty useless pictures, I was sure. But it was better than just standing there and being gawked at by passersby.
"Excuse me, is Broadway and Ninety-eighth Street around here?"
I looked up from my crouch at the two girls in their Jersey glitter shirts and floppy shoes, white capri pants tied at the calf with drawstrings, so last summer. I had to take pity on them - plus they were giving away our position.
"Yeah, it's about two blocks east" - hooking my thumb over my shoulder - "and about a hundred and ten blocks north."
"A hundred and ten blocks? That's far, right?"
I told them where to catch the 1 train.
"Your public-spiritedness is appreciated, I assure you," Jen drawled after the two had left, uncertainly repeating my directions to each other as they passed out of earshot.
"After when are you not supposed to wear white pants?" I asked.
I pointed. "They're leaving."
The truck was loaded, the bald guy scraping shut the building's doors. The shoes were going away. I thought of rising and dashing after the truck, jumping on just as it exceeded running speed, concealing myself behind boxes until I reached their evil lair, sneaking out and stealing a henchman's uniform, and, after a few captures and escapes, pulling the levers that made the whole place explode. And I realized why no crimes were ever solved by amateurs.
"There's nothing we can do, right?"
"Nope," said Jen as the truck pulled away.
The ground floor was empty.
"This sucks," I said.
We'd squeezed our way in through the wooden doors, which the bald guy hadn't bothered to chain together very tightly. There was no point. Every last box was gone.
I checked Mandy's phone for the time. It was coming up on two o'clock, only two and a half hours since we'd been here.
Jen surveyed the empty cavern of the building, her eyes scanning the floor inch by inch, finding nothing but spotless concrete.
"We should have come back earlier," Jen said quietly. "The shoes were right here."
"Did you forget the running-for-our-lives thing?"
"Overrated." Jen sighed. "There must be something we missed before."
She wandered off again, leaving me in the shaft of light by the doors, where I silently listed the reasons amateurs didn't solve crimes in the real world. Professional detectives would have sealed off the building with yellow tape from the start, dusting for fingerprints, searching for records of ownership and work permits. Actual police would have arrested the big guy in black and intimidated him into talking. Real cops wouldn't have run to the nearest coffee shop and then their friend's house to make expert use of wax paper. (Okay, maybe a coffee shop would have come into play, but they would have sent the rookie for doughnuts, leaving plenty of manpower for stretching out the yellow tape.) Non-amateurs might have the first clue how to take the license number of a rental truck and turn it into an address. I sure didn't.
And most importantly, a genuine crime solver wouldn't be terrified by the idea that the bad guys had his cell phone and were trying to find him. Real police were machines for turning coffee into solved crimes. I was a machine for turning coffee into jangled nerves.
"Hunter?" Jen's voice came out of the gloom, jangling my nerves.
"Looks like someone left you a message."
She emerged, squinting and holding an envelope. A gray square of duct tape curled from it, the envelope glowing white in the gloom, carrying the letters H-U-N-T-E-R in red marker.
Her green eyes were wide, pupils huge in the dim light. "This was taped to the wall back there. Right where the shoes were."
I swallowed, holding out my hand. I'd seen Mandy scrawling notes during focus groups, her handwriting slanted, impatient, and unreadable. But my name stretched across the envelope in controlled and implacable letters.
"Aren't you going to open it?"
I took a slow breath and tore gingerly at the paper, not sure what I was nervous about. A letter bomb? Contact poison? The ace of spades?
It was two tickets.
I stared at them dumbly until Jen pulled one from my hand and read aloud.
'"You are invited to the launch party of Hoi Aristoi, the magazine for those with discriminating incomes. Huh. It's tonight."
I cleared my throat. "That isn't Mandy's handwriting."
"Didn't think so."
"They know my name."
"Of course they do. They called a friend of yours, who saw the ID and answered, 'Hi, Hunter. And the next number they call, they say, 'Hey, I'm a friend of Hunter's, and maybe ask for your home number, and so on."
I nodded. Piece by piece, my identity would be sucked out of the phone. Those Finns had done such a terribly good design job, making it the center of my life, filled with my friends' names and numbers, my favorite MP3s, pictures of my sock drawer.
I handed the tickets back. "So what are these about?"
"Search me. Have you ever heard of Hoi Aristoi?"
A vague memory of prelaunch buzz trickled into my mind. "I think it's the latest magazine for trendies with too much money. A waste of trees. I think that Hillary Winston-hyphen-Smith did PR for them."
Jen plucked one from my hand, turned it over, and nodded.
"I guess they're exactly what they say they are."
"An invitation. And I suppose we should go."
"We've got to, Hunter."
I stared at Jen in bewilderment.
"Look, they already know your name; they could probably find out a lot more if they tried."
"Gee, that makes me feel better."
"But these tickets show they haven't yet. Because what they really want to know is how far you're willing to go to find them."
"What are you talking about?"
Jen pulled me deeper into the empty building, pointing to a spot my unadjusted eyes couldn't see.
"They left the envelope there, right where the boxes were. They knew that if you really gave a damn about all this, you'd come back here, looking for Mandy and the shoes. So they left you a message: 'Want to know more? Show up tonight. "
"And save them the trouble of finding me."
She nodded. "Very clever of them. Because it's the best way to find out who they are."
"It's the best way to wind up missing, like Mandy."
Jen crossed her arms, staring at the blank expanse of wall. "True, which would suck. So we have to do this in some way they don't expect."
"How about not at all? They won't expect that, I bet."
"Or maybe..." Jen turned and touched my hair, pulling a strand of my longer right-side bangs aside. She touched my cheek, and I felt my own heartbeat there beneath her fingertips.
"That guy only saw you for a few seconds," she said. "Do you think he'd recognize you if he saw you again?"
I tried to ignore what Jen's touch was doing to me. "Yes. Didn't we just learn that human beings are machines for turning coffee into facial recognition?"
"Yeah, but it was pretty dark in here."
"He also saw us upstairs in the sunlight."
"But it was blinding up there, and you didn't have your new haircut."
"My new what?"
"And the party invite says, 'Dress for success - black tie preferred. I bet you look completely different in a tuxedo."
"I bet I look completely different with my face caved in."
"Come on, Hunter. Don't you want a makeover?"
Jen's fingers moved to my jaw, gently turning my head so that she could see my profile. Her gaze lingered, so intent 1 could almost feel it. I turned and looked into her eyes, and something sparked between us in the darkness.
"I think shorter and blond," she said, holding my gaze. "I do a mean dye job, you know."
I nodded slowly, so that her fingertips brushed along my cheek. She dropped her hand and looked up at my bangs again. Like any serious Logo Exile, Jen no doubt cut and colored her own hair. I imagined her fingers massaging my wet scalp and knew the argument was over.
"Well," I said, "if they want to, they'll find me sooner or later anyway."
Jen smiled. "Might as well look sharp when they do."
"What would you usually wear to a formal party?"
"Formal? Anything without a tie. I've got this Nehru collar shirt. That and a black jacket, I guess."
"Right, sounds very you. So for the non-you we'll go for a bow tie."
"They're over here, I think."
We were in a certain well-known store associated with Thanksgiving Day parades and Santa Claus movies. It was not a place Jen or I usually shopped. But that was the point, I was learning. We were shopping for the non-Hunter.
The non-Hunter wore bow ties. He preferred crisply laundered white shirts and tasteful silk vests. The non-Hunter seemed not to know it was summer outside; I suppose he went from one air-conditioned place to another in an air-conditioned limousine. He was going to blend right in at a party for Hoi Aristoi.
And hopefully, the non-Hunter would fly in the face of all the evidence one might collect from the real Hunter's cell phone. To pursue the anti-client, I would become the anti-me.
The real me checked out a random price tag. "These jackets are like a thousand bucks!"
"Yeah, but we can return everything Monday and get a refund. Fashion shoots do it all the time. You've got a credit card, right?"
"Uh, yeah." The refund plan seemed like a risky proposition to me, but Innovators generally lack the risk-assessment gene. Jen wandered the aisles in a kind of trance, her fingers trailing in the textures of overpriced fabrics, sucking up the ambience of this entirely different set of New York tribal costumes.
She stopped to spin a rack of cripplingly expensive bow ties, and my nerves blipped her radar. "Relax, Hunter. We've got four hours before the party officially starts. Which means five before anyone will show. All day to get you dressed."
"What about getting you dressed, Jen?"
She nodded, sighing. "I've been giving that some thought. It'll be too easy to recognize us if we're together. So I'll probably look for some alternate mode of disguise."
"Wait. We're not going together?"
"Hey, this isn't too bad."
She pulled out a jacket, a jet black synthetic that sucked the light from the room, double-breasted and textured like rough and supple paper.
"Yeah, you're right. Too you." She put it back. "We need something that doesn't make a statement. Something that's not trying very hard."
"What? You think I'm trying too hard?"
Jen laughed, turning from the racks to catch my eye. "Just hard enough."
She spun away and headed off toward more jackets, leaving me to contemplate these words. I wound up hanging out in front of a triple mirror, wallowing in the discomfort of seeing what I looked like from unfamiliar directions. Did my ears really stick out like that? Surely that was not my profile. And when had my shirt gotten half tucked in at the back?
Then I noticed what I was wearing. When cool hunting, I usually disappear into corduroys, sportswear, and laundry-day splendor, turning invisible. But this morning I'd unconsciously slipped into my real clothes. Generic corduroy had resolved into baggy black painters, the usual oversized chewing-gum-colored tee replaced by a light gray wife beater under an open black shirt with a collar. No wonder my parents had noticed, somehow reading the signs, resulting in the unexpected psychic leap when Mom had asked whether I liked Jen.
Maybe it was obvious to everyone. Maybe I was trying too hard.
"I think we're all set." Jen appeared behind me, the mirrors splitting her into multiple views, full hangers swinging from one hand. I took them from her, regressing to when Mom used to take me shopping, and equally unsure of the result.
"Are you sure we couldn't just disguise ourselves as waiters or something?"
"Yeah, right. That is so Mission Impossible." (By which she meant the original TV show and not the movie franchise, so I'll allow it.)
She reached up to ruffle my hair, checking out the angles in the mirror, and smiled. "Take one last look, Hunter. By tonight you won't recognize yourself."