2. BITCH

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CPUs for the meeting, reflected in the window of a Soho specialist in mod paraphernalia, are a fresh Fruit T-shirt, her black Buzz Rickson’s MA-1, anonymous black skirt from a Tulsa thrift, the black leggings she’d worn for Pilates, black Harajuku schoolgirl shoes. Her purse-analog is an envelope of black East German laminate, purchased on eBay—if not actual Stasi-issue then well in the ballpark.

She sees her own gray eyes, pale in the glass, and beyond them Ben Sherman shirts and fishtail parkas, cufflinks in the form of the RAF roundel that marked the wings of Spitfires.

CPUs. Cayce Pollard Units. That’s what Damien calls the clothing she wears. CPUs are either black, white, or gray, and ideally seem to have come into this world without human intervention.

What people take for relentless minimalism is a side effect of too much exposure to the reactor-cores of fashion. This has resulted in a remorseless paring-down of what she can and will wear. She is, literally, allergic to fashion. She can only tolerate things that could have been worn, to a general lack of comment, during any year between 1945 and 2000. She’s a design-free zone, a one-woman school of and whose very austerity periodically threatens to spawn its own cult.

Around her the bustle of Soho, a Friday morning building toward boozy lunches and careful chatter in all these restaurants. To one of which, Charlie Don’t Surf, she will be going for an obligatory post-meeting meal. But she feels herself tipping back down into a miles-long trough of jet lag, and knows that that is what she must surf now. her lack of serotonin, the delayed arrival of her soul.

She checks her watch and heads down the street, toward Blue Ant, whose premises until recently were those of an older, more linear sort of agency.

The sky is a bright gray bowl, crossed with raveled contrails, and as she presses the button to announce herself at Blue Ant, she wishes she’d brought her sunglasses.

SEATED now, opposite Bernard Stonestreet, familiar from Blue Ant’s New York operation, she finds him pale and freckled as ever, with carroty hair upswept in a weird Aubrey Beardsley flame motif that might be the result of his having slept on it that way, but is more likely the work of some exclusive barber. He is wearing what Cayce takes to be a Paul Smith suit, more specifically the 118 jacket and the 11T trouser, cut from something black. In London his look seems to be about wearing many thousand pounds’ worth of garments that appear to have never been worn before having been slept in, the night before. In New York he prefers to look as though he’s just been detailed by a tight scrum of specialists. Different cultural parameters.

On his left sits Dorotea Benedetti, her hair scraped back from her forehead with a haute nerd intensity that Cayce suspects means business and trouble both. Dorotea, whom Cayce knows glancingly from previous and minor business in New York, is something fairly high up in the graphics design partnership of Heinzi & Pfaff. She has flown in, this morning, from Frankfurt, to present H&P’s initial shot at a new logo for one of the world’s two largest manufacturers of athletic footwear. Bigend has defined a need for this maker to re-identify, in some profound but so far unspecified way. Sales of athletic shoes, “trainers” in the mirror-world, are tanking bigtime, and the skate shoes that had already started to push them under aren’t doing too well either. Cayce herself has been tracking the street-level emergence of what she thinks of as “urban sur-vival” footwear, and though this is so far at the level of consumer re-purposing, she has no doubt that commodification will soon follow identification.

The new logo will be this firm’s pivot into the new century, and Cayce, with her marketable allergy, has been brought over to do in person the thing that she does best. That seems odd to her, or if not odd, archaic. Why not teleconference? There may be so much at stake, she supposes, that security is an issue, but it’s been a while now since business has required her to leave New York.

Whatever, Dorotea’s looking serious about it. Serious as cancer. On the table in front of her, perhaps a millimeter too carefully aligned, is an elegant gray cardboard envelope, fifteen inches on a side, bearing the austere yet whimsical logo of Heinzi & Pfaff. It is closed with one of those expensively archaic fasteners consisting of a length of cord and two small brown cardboard buttons.

Cayce looks away from Dorotea and the envelope, noting that a great many Nineties pounds had once been lavished on this third-floor meeting room, with its convexly curving walls of wood suggesting the first-class lounge of a transatlantic zeppelin. She notices threaded anchors exposed on the pale veneer of the convex wall, where once had been displayed the logo of whichever agency previously occupied the place, and early warning signs of Blue Ant renovation are visible as well: scaffolding erected in a hallway, where someone has been examining ductwork, and rolls of new carpeting stacked like plastic-wrapped logs from a polyester forest.

Dorotea may have attempted to out-minimalize her this morning, Cayce decides. If so, it hasn’t worked. Dorotea’s black dress, for all its apparent simplicity, is still trying to say several things at once, probably in at least three languages. Cayce has hung her Buzz Rickson’s over the back of her chair, and now she catches Dorotea looking at it.

The Rickson’s is a fanatical museum-grade replica of a U.S. MA-1flying jacket, as purely functional and iconic a garment as the previous century produced. Dorotea’s slow burn is being accelerated, Cayce suspects, by her perception that Cayce’s MA-1 trumps any attempt at minimalism, the Rickson’s having been created by Japanese obsessives driven by passions having nothing at all to do with anything remotely like fashion.

Cayce knows, for instance, that the characteristically wrinkled seams down either arm were originally the result of sewing with pre-war industrial machines that rebelled against the slippery new material, nylon. The makers of the Rickson’s have exaggerated this, but only very slightly, and done a hundred other things, tiny things, as well, so that their product has become, in some very Japanese way, the result of an act of worship. It is an imitation more real somehow than that which it emulates. It is easily the most expensive garment Cayce owns, and would be virtually impossible to replace.

“You don’t mind?” Stonestreet producing a pack of cigarettes called Silk Cut, which Cayce, never a smoker, thinks of as somehow being the British equivalent of the Japanese Mild Seven. Two default brands of creatives. .’

“No,” says Cayce. “Please do.”

There is actually an ashtray on the table, a small one, round and perfectly white. As archaic a fixture in America, in the context of a business meeting, as would be one of those flat and filigreed absinthe trowels. (But in London, she knew, you might encounter those as well, though she’d not yet seen one at a meeting.) “Dorotear1” Offering the pack, but not to Cayce. Dorotea declining. Stonestreet puts a filter tip between his tidily mobile lips and takes out a box of matches that Cayce assumes were acquired in some restaurant the night before. The matchbox looks very nearly as expensive as Dorotea’s gray envelope. He lights up. “Sorry we had to haul you over for this, Cayce,” he says. The spent match makes a tiny ceramic sound when he drops it into the ashtray.

“It’s what I do, Bernard,” Cayce says. ” ‘&

“You look tired,” says Dorotea.

“Four hours difference.” Smiling with only the corners of her mouth.

“Have you tried those pills from New Zealand?” Stonestreet asks. Cayce remembers that his American wife, once the ingenue in a shortlived X-Files clone, is the creator of an apparently successful line of vaguely homeopathic beauty products.

“Jacques Cousteau said that jet lag was his favorite drug.”

“Well?” Dorotea looks pointedly at the H&P envelope.

Stonestreet blows a stream of smoke. “Well yes, I suppose we should.”

They both look at Cayce. Cayce looks Dorotea in the eye. “Ready when you are.”

Dorotea unwinds the cord from beneath the cardboard button nearest Cayce. Lifts the flap. Reaches in with thumb and forefinger.

There is a silence.

“Well then,” Stonestreet says, and stubs out his Silk Cut.

Dorotea removes an eleven-inch square of art board from the envelope. Holding it at the upper corners, between the tips of perfectly manicured forefingers, she displays it to Cayce.

There is a drawing there, a sort of scribble in thick black Japanese brush, a medium she knows to be the in-house hallmark of Herr Heinzi himself. To Cayce, it most resembles a syncopated sperm, as rendered by the American underground cartoonist Rick Griffin, circa 1967. She knows immediately that it does not, by the opaque standards of her inner radar, work. She has no way of knowing how she knows.

Briefly, though, she imagines the countless Asian workers who might, should she say yes, spend years of their lives applying versions of this symbol to an endless and unyielding flood of footwear. What would it mean to them, this bouncing sperm? Would it work its way into their dreams, eventually? Would their children chalk it in doorways before they knew its meaning as a trademark?

“No,” she says.

Stonestreet sighs. Not a deep sigh. Dorotea returns the drawing to its envelope but doesn’t bother to reseal it.

Cayce’s contract for a consultation of this sort specifies that she absolutely not be asked to critique anything, or provide creative input of any sort. She is only there to serve as a very specialized piece of human litmus paper.

Dorotea takes one of Stonestreet’s cigarettes and lights it, dropping the wooden match on the table beside the ashtray. “How was the winter, then, in New York?”

“Cold,” Cayce says.

“And sad? It is still sad?”

Cayce says nothing.

“You are available to stay here,” Dorotea asks, “while we go back to the drawing board?”

Cayce wonders if Dorotea knows the cliche. “I’m here for two weeks,” she says. “Flat-sitting for a friend.”

“A vacation, then.”

“Not if I’m working on this.” ”

Dorotea says nothing.

“It must be difficult,” Stonestreet says, between steepled, freckled fingers, his red thatch rising above them like flames from a burning cathedral, “when you don’t like something. Emotionally, I mean.”

Cayce watches Dorotea rise and, carrying her Silk Cut, cross to a sideboard, where she pours Perrier into a tumbler.

“It isn’t about liking anything, Bernard,” Cayce says, turning back to Stonestreet, “it’s like that roll of carpet, there; it’s either blue or it’s not. Whether or not it’s blue isn’t something I have an emotional investment in.”

She feels bad energy brush past her as Dorotea returns to her seat.

Dorotea puts her water down beside the H&P envelope and does a rather inexpert job of stubbing out her cigarette. “I will speak with Heinzi this afternoon. I would call him now but I know that he is in Stockholm, meeting with Volvo.”

The air seems very thick with smoke now and Cayce feels like coughing.

“There’s no rush, Dorotea,” Stonestreet says, and Cayce hopes that this means that there really, really is.

CHARLIE Don’t Surf is full, the food California-inflected Vietnamese fusion with more than the usual leavening of colonial Frenchness. The white walls are decorated with enormous prints of close-up black-and-white photographs of ‘Nam-era Zippo lighters, engraved with crudely drawn American military symbols, still cruder sexual motifs, and stenciled slogans. These remind Cayce of photographs of tombstones in Confederate graveyards, except for the graphic content and the nature of the slogans, and the ‘Nam theme suggests to her that the place has been here for a while.

IF I HAD A FARM IN HELL AND A HOUSE IN VIETNAM I’D SELL THEM BOTH

The lighters in the photographs are so worn, so dented and sweat-corroded, that Cayce may well be the first diner to ever have deciphered these actual texts.

BURY ME FACE DOWN SO THE WORLD CAN KISS MY ASS

“His surname actually is ‘Heinzi,’ you know,” Stonestreet is saying, pouring a second glass of the Californian cabernet that Cayce, though she knows better, is drinking. “It only sounds like a nickname. Any given names, though, have long since gone south.”

“Ibiza,” Cayce suggests.

“Er?”

“Sorry, Bernard, I’m tired.”

“Those pills. From New Zealand.”

THERE IS NO GRAVITY THE WORLD SUCKS

“I’ll be fine.” A sip of wine. “She’s a piece of work, isn’t she?”

“Dorotea?”

Stonestreet rolls his eyes, which are a peculiar brown, inflected as with Mercurochrome; something iridescent, greenly copper-tinged.

173 AIRBORNE

She asks after the American wife. Stonestreet dutifully recounts the launch of a cucumber-based mask, the thin end of a fresh wedge of product, touching on the politics involved in retail placement. Lunch arrives. Cayce concentrates on tiny fried spring rolls, setting herself for auto-nod and periodically but sympathetically raised eyebrows, grateful that he’s carrying the conversational ball. She’s way down deep in that trough now, with the half-glass of cabernet starting to exert its own lateral influence, and she knows that her best course here is to make nice, get some food in her stomach, and be gone.

But the Zippo tombstones, with their existential elegies, tug at her.

PHU CAT

Restaurant art that diners actually notice is a dubious idea, particularly to one with Cayce’s peculiar, visceral, but still somewhat undefined sensitivities.

“So when it looked as though Harvey Knickers weren’t going to come aboard…

Nod, raise eyebrows, chew spring roll. This is working. She covers her glass when he starts to pour her more wine.

And so she makes it easily enough through lunch with Bernard Stonestreet, blipped occasionally by these emblematic place-names from the Zippo graveyard (cu CHI, QUI NHON ) lining the walls, and at last he has paid and they are standing up to leave.

Reaching for her Rickson’s, where she’d hung it on the back of her chair, she sees a round, freshly made hole, left shoulder, rear, the size of the lit tip of a cigarette. Its edges are minutely beaded, brown, with melted nylon. Through this is visible a gray interlining, no doubt to some particular Cold War mil-spec pored over by the jacket’s otaku makers.

“Is something wrong?”

“No,” Cayce says, “nothing.” Putting on her ruined Rickson’s.

Near the door, on their way out, she numbly registers a shallow Lu-cite cabinet displaying an array of those actual Vietnam Zippos, perhaps a dozen of them, and automatically leans closer.

SHIT ON MY DICK OR BLOOD ON MY BLADE

Which is very much her attitude toward Dorotea, right now, though she doubts she’ll be able to do anything about it, and will only turn the anger against herself.

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