Chapter 14

I OPENED THE DOOR TO MY PARENTS' APARTMENT NERVOUSLY.

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How was I nervous? Let me count the ways. There was the two thousand dollars' worth of clothing on the hangers in my hand - one false move and I wouldn't be getting a refund. There was the mysterious anti-client pursuing me, who might already have this address. And there was my head, which was an entirely new color. Every reflective surface between Jen's apartment and mine had brought me up short. The peroxide stranger stared back at me all the way home, as perplexed as I was by the situation.

"Hello?" I called.

And of course there were my parents, who were going to freak when they saw my hair cropped and dyed. Not that they'd mind - they might even like it - but they were going to ask a lot of questions. And when they found out that Jen-the-new-girl had done it...

I shuddered.

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"Hello?"

No answer. No sounds except passing sirens, water running through the pipes, and the ambient buzz of the neighbors' air-conditioning. I closed the door, deciding I was probably safe. My parents' apartment building is more than a century old. Made of stone, it's cool even in summer and always feels secure.

Besides, there's a reason why slasher movies are always set in suburbia or out in the country. New York City dwellings have hardwood doors with metal jackets and dead-bolt locks and bars on the window. You pretty much notice if someone has broken in. Checking under the bed is not required.

I checked the time. It was two hours before I was supposed to arrive at the party. Jen was showing up earlier, separately, to help maintain our anonymity. She hadn't even told me what her disguise was going to be. I had a feeling she didn't know yet.

I hung the clothes in my room, then went to the bathroom and took another long look at myself, watching in amazement as the peroxide stranger mirrored every movement.

As I said, most Logo Exiles cut their own hair, but that's not a skill that always translates to cutting someone else's. Jen had done a good job on me, though. The cut was short and severe, and the acid had left my hair almost white. My still-black eyebrows stood out in lone contrast against my skin, exaggerating every expression. I looked a little like a gangster in a too-hip French movie, but definitely a self-assured one. Maybe Jen was right, and I had been hiding behind my bangs.

Strange. With my entire face at long last showing, I was in disguise, marveling at the sense of dislocation as I played mirror mime with the peroxide stranger. If I didn't recognize me, why should anyone else?

One shower later, I got dressed.

In the interest of actually getting my two-thousand-dollar refund, I decided to leave the tags on the clothes. This was to prove a painful mistake, but at first I hardly noticed the tiny plastic twigs. Everything fit perfectly, with the sumptuous well madeness of expensive clothing. The black pants were classically pleated, the gleaming white tuxedo shirt battened down with onyx cuff links. Argyle-patterned suspenders defined my shoulders. It all slid on so easily, each garment transforming me a little more into the non-Hunter, increasing my confidence that I would be unrecognizable tonight. Not to mention my confidence that I looked pretty damn good.

Until I reached the confidence-shattering bow tie. Which, of course, I didn't have the first idea how to tie.

The bulbous little flap of black and shiny cloth drooped lifelessly around my neck, offering no clues as to how it might work. I was long on historical knowledge about neckwear but very short on the practical. Bow ties just weren't a part of my world of baggy pants and T-shirts, skater labels and the latest cross-trainer. When it came to bow ties, I was still from Minnesota.

Looking at the clock, I discovered that I had thirty minutes to reverse-engineer five hundred years of necktie technology. Not for the first time, I cursed the Little Ice Age,,,,,,,,

The next time you're forced to wind a tie around your neck, blame the sun.

As any corporate drone or private-school kid knows, ties are basically uniforms - most of us wear them because we have to, not because we want to. Not surprisingly, the earliest-known neckwear is found on men who didn't have a choice, Chinese soldiers in about 250 BC. Roman soldiers started wearing ties about four centuries later. (Apparently noodles weren't the only thing the Italians had delivered from the Chinese.) History teaches us that people who wore ties were all pretty much forced to - until about five hundred years ago.

Then it got cold everywhere.

The sun began to sputter, putting out less and less heat. Slowly but surely the Little Ice Age arrived, with serious consequences. Glaciers ate towns in France, an ice-skating craze swept Holland, and all the Vikings in Greenland died. That's right, Vikings didn't make it through the winters. That's pretty cold.

And everyone started wearing scarves, indoors and out.

At some point, of course, some Innovator became bored with this ice-age dress code and started playing with his scarf, making it thinner and easier to tie and coming up with new ways to tie it. The craze caught on, giving people something to do during those long winters, I guess. Neckwear exploded. The cravat, the stock, and the Steenkirk were all invented, to be tied in complicated knots called the "philosophical," the nineteenth century, Neckclothitania, lists seventy-two ways to tie a tie. Talk about mathematical.

Fortunately for you and me, the sun came back, and things got warmer and simpler.

Nowadays some lucky men manage to wear ties only for weddings, funerals, and job interviews. The last knots standing are the Windsor, the half Windsor, and the four-in-hand. And only three varieties of neckwear remain: the bow tie, string ties for cowboys, and the regular kind. And with global warming ratcheting up the heat, it may only be a matter of time before we get rid of those.

Until that fine day comes, however, there's always the information desk of the New York Public Library.

"Hello? I need to know how to tie a bow tie."

"Yes, we have books on etiquette and grooming."

"Actually, I don't have time for a book. I need to know now." I checked the kitchen clock. "I have to be out the door in twenty-six minutes."

"Uh, hold, please."

While she went to get a copy of Neckclothitania or, I hoped, Bow Ties for Dummies, I pulled the landline phone to the bathroom mirror. Mandy's cell phone would have been easier, but it didn't feel right to use up her minutes. The squiggly landline cord stretched the distance reluctantly, shivering with the quiet fury of massive potential energy. If it slipped from my grasp, it was going to shoot back into the kitchen at a speed that would shatter linoleum.

I secured it carefully between neck and shoulder, preparing to do battle.

Don't try this at home.

"Okay, sir. Post or Vanderbilt?"

"Excuse me?"

"Emily Post's book of etiquette or Amy Vanderbilt's?"

"Post, I guess."

"Okay, the first thing to remember is that it's just like tying your shoes."

"But around your neck."

"Right. First, the tie should be hanging loose, one end longer than the other. From now on I will refer to this as 'the long end. "

"Done." This wasn't so hard.

"Now cross the long end over the short end, then pass it back and up through the loop. Tighten the knot loosely around your neck. It'll be much easier if you imagine you're tying a shoe."

"Uh..." The awesome complexity of Jen's rising-sun laces swam before my eyes. I banished all thoughts of shoes from my mind. "Okay, done."

"Now fold the lower hanging end up and to the left. Make sure the unfolded end is hanging down over the front of the bow. Okay?"

"Er,yes."

"Now form an angle loop with the short end of the tie, which should be crossing left. Then drop the long end that's up by your neck over this horizontal loop. Still with me?"

"Nnnyes."

"Now place right forefinger, pointing up, on bottom half of hanging part. Pull the bow ends forward and gently squeeze them together, forming an opening behind them."

"Erf?"

"Now pass up behind the front loop and poke the resulting loop through knot behind the front loop."

"Wait, how many loops are there now?"

She paused, presumably to count. "Two, plus the one around your neck. You should be ready to tighten the knot by adjusting the ends of both of them."

"I think it's - "

"Emily says, 'Remember to express your individuality. It shouldn't be too perfect. "

"Oh, I wish you'd told me that earlier. We may have to start over."

"Well, maybe perfect is okay."

"Not this kind of perfect."

"All right." Rustle of pages. "First, the bow tie should be hanging loose around your neck, one end longer than the other. From now on I will refer to this as 'the long end"

And so on, for the most arduous seventeen minutes of my life, which from now on I will refer to as "bow tie hell." Eventually, however, and mostly of its own volition, the bow tie became tied, displaying a degree of imperfection that exaggerated my individuality only slightly.

I was ready to go, but in my post-bow-tie exhaustion, I realized that I hadn't eaten since breakfast. Whether or not the anti-client would see through my disguise and kidnap me tonight, I wouldn't make it very far without blood sugar.

In the kitchen my hand paused a few inches from the refrigerator door. Atop the fridge the message light on my parents' answering machine was blinking. I swore at myself for not having checked earlier. Normally no one ever called me on the landline, but with my cell phone missing in action, someone might have tried the parental number.

When I pushed the button, my mom's voice declaimed this chirpy, chilling message:

"I hope you check this, Hunter. Good news: Some guy called me and said he found your phone. I didn't know you'd lost it. Anyway, he was really nice. He said he was going to be up in Midtown this afternoon, so he's dropping it by my office. See you tonight."

Beep.

I grabbed the phone and dialed her office, one of the few numbers I knew by heart. Her assistant answered.

"She's already left."

"Did a man come by, a strange man, to leave something?"

He laughed. "Relax, Hunter, he showed up. Really nice guy. Your mother's got your phone and she's bringing it home. I swear - you kids and your phones."

"When did he come by?"

"Uh, right after lunch?"

"And she's okay? She didn't go anywhere with him, did she?"

"Sure, she's okay. Go anywhere? What are you talking about?"

"Nothing. It's just that..." He must have dropped by the office to get a look at her. Then he would wait outside until she left and headed for home. He'd bump into her, strike up a conversation, get her somewhere alone. Plenty of chances for that. Mom always took the subway home. Or they could have staged a purse snatching to gather more information.

"It's nothing. Thanks." I hung up.

They might already have my mother as well as Mandy. And even if they'd only gone for her purse, they would definitely have this address now, not to mention the -

I heard keys jangling in the door.

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