"THIS IS THE CR`EME BR^UL'EE DISTRICT."
"My sister identifies neighborhoods by the dominant dessert served there," Jen said. "We're west of green tea ice cream and south of tiramisu."
It was true. The first restaurant we passed was a tiny bistro tucked between an art gallery and a flat-tire fix-it place. Checking the menu, we saw that they indeed served cr`eme br^ul'ee, which is a small bowl of custard, the top layer cooked crunchy with a blowtorch. Pyromania is so often the handmaiden of innovation.
"How is your sister?"
"Less annoyed with me now that the borrowed dress has passed inspection and been found to have no rips or tears."
I may have flinched.
"Oh, sorry, Hunter. Forgot about your jacket for a second." She pulled me to a stop. "Listen, given that the whole disguise thing was my idea, I should go halfway with you on the refund disaster."
"You don't have to do that, Jen."
"You can't stop me."
I laughed. "Actually, I can. Where are you going to do, tie me up and pay my credit-card bill?"
"Only half of it."
"Still, that's five hundred bucks." I shook my head. "Forget it. I'll just make the minimum payment until I come up with something. Even more motivation to find Mandy. I hear that when people rescue her, she gets them more work."
"Well," Jen sighed, "it's not like I have the money anyway. Not after paying Emily's phone and cable. But I'll see what I can do with that jacket."
"I think it's DOA."
"No, I mean do something interesting with it. You might as well get a jacket out of this. AJen original."
I smiled and took her hand. "I'm already doing better than that."
She smiled back but stepped away, pulling me into forward motion again. When we passed a few steps later into the shadow of a long stretch of scaffolding, she halted, kissing me in the sudden darkness.
It was cool in the shelter of the scaffolding, the streets of the cr`eme br^ul'ee district almost empty on a summer Saturday afternoon. A cab passed, rumbling across a patch of cobblestones; no matter how many times they're paved over, the cars wear the asphalt away, and the ancient stones emerge again, like curious turtles out of black water.
"French Revolution," I said. My voice was slightly breathless.
Jen leaned against me. "Go on."
I smiled—she was getting used to my wandering brain—and pointed at the bumpy surface. "The hoi polloi were pissed off everywhere back in the old days, but the revolution succeeded only in France, because the cobblestones in Paris weren't stuck down very well. An angry mob could take on the king's soldiers just by pulling up the street. Imagine a hundred peasants lobbing those at you."
"Exactly," I said. "Your fancy uniform, your musket, none of it's worth much in a hail of rocks the size of a fist. But in cities where the cobblestones were stuck down better, the angry mob couldn't do anything. No revolution."
Jen thought for a few seconds, then gave cobblestones the Nod. "So the hoi polloi could get rid of the aristocrats just because of a flaw in the glue, one that was right under their feet."
"Yeah," I said. "All it took was some Innovator to say, 'Yo, let's pick up these cobblestones and throw them. And that was the end of society."
We left the shade, and I looked back up at the aging building. The scaffolding clung to the front all the way up, six stories of metal pipes and wooden planks. A faded, decades-old advertisement adorned this side, the pattern of the brick showing through the crumbling paint. I could see where another building had once rested against it, nothing left now but a change in color in the bricks.
"Hunter, do you ever feel like there's some problem with the glue these days? Like maybe if anyone figured out what to throw and who to throw it at, everything would fall apart pretty quickly?"
"All the time."
"Me too." We were crossing a worn patch of Hudson Street, and Jen swung a shoe at the top of a cobblestone. It was solidly submerged in sunbaked tar and didn't budge. "So, that's the anti-client's mission, isn't it? Ungluing things? Maybe they've figured out what to throw."
"Maybe." I shaded my eyes with one hand and squinted at the next street sign, then at the numbers. Movable Hype was halfway down the block, in an old and towering iron-frame building. "But more likely they're just throwing everything they can."