"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."