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Chapter 17

"THAT IS YOU!" HILLARY SHRIEKED. HER CLUSTER OF FRIENDS turned toward me, perhaps expecting some minor celebrity or long-lost cousin of the Winston-hyphen-Smith clan.

"Uh, hi, Hillary," I said mildly, thinking, Not the name! Not the name!

"My God, Hunter! You look completely different!"

The bald guy was facing me, only yards away, and here was Hillary shouting my name.

"Oh, not really that different." Don't mention the hair!

"Yeah, right. What did you do to your hair, Hunter?"

I could feel the bald guy's eyes on me, adding up my height and build, the frequently mentioned name (currently number thirty-two in popularity), and finally the hair.

"You should really dress up more often," Hillary said, her expression adding one more terrifying thought to all the others going through my head: the possibility that Hillary Hyphen was undergoing a revelation that dorky little skater kid Hunter was growing up into a real cutie.

Then she frowned. "But what's with the purple hands? Is that supposed to be retro punk or something?"

There are times when all you can think to say is:

"I have to go now."

I ignored her surprise and walked away, some anti-starvation autopilot in my brain stuffing the last of the salmon sandwich into my face. I didn't have to look back as I walked into the Hall of African Mammals, the glassy eyes of dead animals tracking me, knowing me for a marked man.

There was no doubt in my mind: the bald guy was following me.

My phone rang. Still on autopilot, I answered.

"Yeah?"

A deep voice sent a chill through me: "Hi, Hunter. Like the hair."

Weaving through the throng still circling the elephants, I glanced backward. He was close, making his slow, powerful way through the crowd.

"We want to talk to you."

"Uh, call me tomorrow?"

"In person. Tonight."

I decided to go on the offensive, even as I cowered behind a passel of penguins comparing cummerbunds. "Where's Mandy?"

"She's with us now, Hunter." He paused. "Wait a second, I didn't mean that to sound all creepy."

"Well, it did."

I kept moving, bumped into a woman from behind, and waved an apologetic purple hand when she glared at me.

"Sorry," I said, pulling away.

"Sorry for what?" the bald guy's voice said.

"Not you." I looked around, trying to find him again.

He had disappeared.

My eyes darted from gazelles to lions to gorillas, trying to spot the guy again, but his bulky frame and bald head had completely vanished.

"Hunter, this isn't about Mandy; it's about the shoes."

I backed up, trying to look in all directions at once. The guy couldn't do anything to me in the middle of the party, but I didn't want him getting any closer. Dressed like a security guard, he could always drag me off, pretending to be throwing an unruly guest out.

"What about the shoes?" I said.

"We're trying to do a deal. But we have to keep it quiet."

Still no sign of him among the swirling mass of penguins. The cold glass of a diorama window pressed against my back. I felt pinned.

"So you want to keep me quiet? That sounds pretty creepy too."

"It's not like that, Hunter. We wanted you here to show you what we're trying to do. This is about more than just shoes."

"I can see that."

A beeping sound screamed in my ear, demanding my attention. I glanced at the phone's screen.

Jen.

"Uh, could you hang on? Call waiting."

"Hunter, don't"

I switched over. "Jen! I'm so glad"

"Turn left, walk."

"Where are you?"

"Go! He's closing in."

I went. Through the door and then down a passage lined with photographs of Antarctica. Then I found myself in a hall of huts and costumes, weapons and tools.

"I seem to be in Africa."

"Go all the way through, then take a right and down the stairs."

Could she see me? There wasn't time to ask.

I came to a red velvet rope at the edge of the party. I looked back.

"Jen?" I called out.

Unless she was disguised as a motionless Yoruba shaman, she wasn't in this room. But the bald guy was still in sight, following with measured steps and the annoyed expression of an ignored authority figure.

"Just keep going," Jen said from my phone. "I'm looking at a map. Run."

I ducked under the velvet rope and turned right, dashing through a darkened room full of stuffed birds behind glass. A wide flight of marble steps appeared on my right.

I didn't bother glancing back, knowing the bald guy was right behind me, and plunged down the unlit steps. My hard-soled shoes sent echoes off the marble, pattering like disappointed tongue clicks from every direction.

I would have killed for some sneakers about then. Or clothes without plastic tags sticking into me.

At the bottom of the stairs I whispered, "Where now?"

"Turn right again. Through the monkey skeletons."

I entered a long hall that ran through the entire course of human evolutionfrom slothlike primates in trees to a slothlike Homo remote controllus watching television in his living roomall in about thirty seconds. Among the darkened exhibits I suddenly felt how alone I was (except for the other monkeys) and began to wonder why I'd left the relative safety of the party.

"See any meteorites yet?" Jen asked.

"Meteorites? Hang on."

The next archway opened into a large square room filled with jagged rocks on pedestals.

"Yes," I whispered. "But why am I looking at meteorites?"

"I'm trying to get you out of his sight so we can leave without being followed."

"But I was safe! They're not going to do anything while the party's going."

"Parties don't last forever, Hunter."

I looked back through the darkness and thought I heard slow, deliberate footsteps descending the marble stairs.

"Jen, where are you, anyway?"

"Two floors above you, in a gallery overlooking the elephants. You are hiding now, aren't you?"

I looked back through the monkeys but still couldn't see anyone. There'd been no sign of other human beings since I'd come down the stairs.

Still, hidden was better.

Near the center of the room was a meteorite the size of a car. Big enough to crouch behind. I peeked my head out, training an eye on the approach from the hall of monkey skeletons.

"Okay, hidden now."

"You think he followed you?"

"Definitely," I whispered. "But he doesn't seem to be in a huge hurry to find me. Maybe he's calling up reinforcements."

"Perfect. Just stay hidden. I've got a few more things to check out up here now that they're out of the way."

"Uh, hang on, Jen. Are you using me as a diversion?"

"You can outrun him, can't you?"

"What is it with you and running?"

"Listen, call me if you need me, Hunter. If you get bored of the meteorites, there're some really cool gems next door. I love this place."

"I'm thrilled."

"But you should probably stay put. The gems room is a dead end."

"You mean the only way out of here is back the way I came?"

"Yeah. So stay hidden. See you later."


* * * | So Yesterday | * * *



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