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Chapter 18

THE SHOES NEXT TO HIS WERE COWBOY BOOTS. IT WAS NASCAR Man, also wearing the basic black of security guards at formal functions.

"Hunter?" the bald guy called. "We know you're in here."

I tried to make myself believe they didn't, but my heart was beating hard, my palms sweating. (I almost wiped them on my jacket before remembering the two-thousand-dollar refund I still needed for it.)

There was no getting past them. They stood shoulder to shoulder at the entrance, blocking any hope of escape.

Maybe they would move on into the gem room and I could make a break for the stairs. Maybe my black penguin suit would hide me in the darkened museum. Maybe Jen would appear and save me.

More likely I was toast.

They stood there for a few moments, then I heard the bald guy mutter, "This should do it."

A soft and irregular beeping reached my ear. A number being dialed

With about two seconds to spare I realized what he was doing. It was what I'd been set up for since they'd sent my phone back. He was dialing my number. The ring was about to give me away.

I scrambled in my pocket, digging out the phone and muting it with a swift motion practiced in many a movie theater. Then I stared in horror at it for a moment, realizing I still had another cell-phone-sized bulk in my pocket.

Was the phone in my hand mine or Mandy's? They were exactly the same size and shape, and in the darkness I couldn't see the color.

I pulled the second one out

Then the first phone lit up, happily muted, vibrating softly, and I let my breath out quietly.

I'd chosen the right one by pure chance. (Or possibly I had a psychic connection with my own phone. Discuss.)

The men were silent, listening, and Mandy's phone in my hand gave me an idea. I placed it softly on the short-haired industrial carpet and gave it a shove toward the entrance to the gem room. It slid like a hockey puck through the carpeted shadows, zooming out of sight. A soft bump came from its impact with something in the next room.

"Did you hear that?" NASCAR Man said, and the bald guy shushed him.

My practiced thumb was already in action, speed dialing Mandy's number. Seconds later a certain Swedish tune began to play from the next room.

Take a chance on me.

"He's in there."

The feet went into motion, cowboy boots striding ahead, dress shoes slow and purposeful. They walked right past the giant meteorite and stood at the entrance of the gem room, shoulder to shoulder again, confident they had me trapped.

The little tune still played with maniacal Scandinavian cheer.

"Answer your phone, kid." NASCAR Man laughed. "We want to talk to you."

I started to creep around the meteorite, realizing that I was painfully cramped from having crouched there for so long. Great.

"Hey, I see something flashing."

"Hunter, quit wasting our time."

I stepped out, taking big, silent steps across the carpeted floor. They were only about ten feet from me but facing the other way and squinting into the darkness. NASCAR Man started to move toward Mandy's phone.

I dragged my eyes away from them and focused on making my silent way through the Hall of Human Biology and Evolution. As my leg unkinked itself, protohumans passed, devolving back to the blissful state of monkeys in trees, and then the stairs were in front of me.

I bolted up them, no longer trying for stealth.

Halfway up a human form loomed in front of me, rearing out of the darkness. I crashed into it, drawing a curse as we both stumbled, hitting the floor together.

"What the?"

It was the silver-haired woman Jen and I had spotted at the abandoned building, so close to me that I could see her rocket-shaped earrings glittering in the light of an exit sign. They'd left her here to guard the stairs.

I yanked out the Poo-Sham camera and pointed it into her face, a few inches from my outstretched arm. Shut my eyes.

And popped the flash.

The flickering light pried its way through the red filter of my eyelids, powerful enough for me to feel a glimmer of its brain-scrambling effect as I leaped to my feet. She caught it full in the face but still managed to reach out, her fingers closing on my shoulder.

I tore myself away. Eyes open now, I saw her trying to blink away the flash, her hands covering her eyes like claws.

"You fiddle lucker!" she cried.

I dashed up the rest of the stairs and ran through the stuffed birds to the velvet rope.

Stepping past it, I nodded to a cluster of women in evening gowns.

"Is there more party that way?" one asked.

"Yeah, they're giving out the really good gift bags down there. Just take a right and down the stairs."

As they flowed past me in an impenetrable mass, I headed back toward the Hall of African Mammals, speed dialing Jen.

"Hunter! You okay?"

"I lost them downstairs."

"Well done."

I smiled to myself. "Yeah. I did pretty good, now that you mention it."

"I knew you'd be fine once those bangs were gone."

"Right, Jen. It was all the haircut."

She managed to miss my tone. "Thanks."

"Listen, they'll be coming up soon. Where are you?"

"On my way out. Meet me at the bottom of the front stairs, on the street. I'll gab a crab. I mean, grab a cab."

I smiled, glad to hear that Jen wasn't immune to the Poo-Sham phenomenon. I wondered if she'd visited the planetarium or whether the gift bag Poo-Sham cameras had been enough.

As I reached the thick of the party, they were flashing everywhere. It was like some crazed lightning storm on the African veldt, lights flickering every second, glinting off the glass that protected the stunned-looking stuffed animals from a drunken and overdressed humanity. The floor was sticky with spilled drinks, the layer of Noble Savage rum and champagne luminous in the flashes. Every scrap of dialog I heard in passing was garbled and incomprehensible, as if the hoi aristoi were evolving their own language right before my eyes. The crowd's tone was becoming less human, filling with grunts, screeches, and peals of insane laughter There were discarded bow ties trodden on the floor, five hundred years of neckclothitania crumpled underfoot.

My own brain began to twist under the assault, gradually losing the marbles it had regathered in the darkness downstairs. I forged ahead, jostling my way through swarming penguins and penguinettes. There seemed to be no security, no one who had realized how badly things were falling apart. Maybe the Poo-Sham effect had dazzled everyone in charge as well.

I made it to the main lobby, where the dinosaur skeletons still posed in their death struggle, unimpressed by the chaos around them. They'd seen worse. At the entrance stood a tall woman who smilied and opened the door for me. In her early thirties, elegant and striking in formal black, she was the perfect image of a hostess proud of the way her party has turned out.

"Good night," she said. "And thanks so much for coming."

"II had a tate grime," I stammered, and stepped out into a light rain.

Cool drops of water cleared my head, and halfway down the marble steps my addled brain managed to inform me that she'd been wearing sunglasses. She was protected from the flashes. She was with the anti-client.

I turned back and saw the woman staring after me. Then she glided closer, and I realized that she wasn't as tall as I'd thoughtshe was wearing roller skates. She rolled to the edge of the steps and looked down, pulling off the glasses.

She was awesome. It was nighttime and raining, and everything was wet and slick and beautiful, highlights from passing traffic gleaming onskates, supremely confident on wheels, gliding to a graceful halt.

"Hunter?" she called softly, still unsure.

" 'Don't Walk, " I murmured, realizing who she was.

With her liquid motion, her physical glamour, the woman came straight from the fantasy world of athletic gear and energy drinks. She was confidence and cool, power and grace.

She was the missing black woman from the client's ad.

"Hunter!" Jen cried from the street behind me.

A smile spread across the woman's face, and she spread her thumb and smallest finger, put the hand to her head, and mouthed the words, Call me.

I turned and ran.

* * * | So Yesterday | Chapter 19