The incident didn’t make the ten o’clock news an hour later. I went to bed relieved but apprehensive. I’d left Elvis and Larry watching Blue Hawaii, one of the movies I’d rented for them while I’d been out walking around earlier.
Elvis had been delighted. “Where did you get these, Hank? At a video store?”
When I’d nodded, he’d said, “It’s very thoughtful of you, Hank, but after this, you won’t need to go to a video store. I got Netflix.”
You might think that with all I had on my mind, I shouldn’t have been able to sleep, but I collapsed on the bed and sleep fell on me like a lead blanket. I was still groggy as I brushed my teeth next morning, when it occurred to me to open my door and look for the newspaper. Toothbrush in one hand, I padded to the door and peeked out. I picked up the paper and unfolded it. Clearly, USA Today had bigger fish to fry than a foiled mugging in the nation’s capital. My sigh of relief was cut short by the sight of a large floral display, discreet as a politician in Iowa, parked in the hall outside the boys’ door. I checked the card. It said coyly, “In appreciation,” and was signed, “The Management.”
I swore under my breath, and, still carrying the toothbrush and newspaper, turned on the television. On the Today show, Meredith Vieira was sitting next to two middle-aged people.
“And how did you feel, Pat, when this giant of a man burst onto the scene and rescued you?” Meredith said.
“Well, how would you feel, Meredith?” the woman said. I gave her points for answering a stupid question with the obvious answer. She looked different under the television lights than she had last night, but her voice sounded familiar. She was wearing bright pink pants and a flowered pink-and-red blouse that must have given the make-up person fits. The man wore dark green slacks and a pink polo shirt. Together, they were accelerating spring by a good month.
I barely stopped to wonder how word had gotten out so quickly. It must have been a slow news night for some poor AP or UPI stringer, bored with Congressional shenanigans. There had been a time when no respectable newspaper would have been interested in a story like this. It would have been no more than a tabloid headline looming over the conveyor belt at the IGA: “D.C. Couple Saved by 8′ Elvis Impersonator!” But now that tabloid journalism had infected the whole industry, the news media at large would do anything to sell papers—probably even run a “kidnapped by aliens” story.
Meredith changed tacks. “So tell us the part about Elvis Presley again. You say he looked like Elvis, only taller. More than seven feet, I think you said?”
Pat backed down. “That could have been a slight exaggeration. There wasn’t much light, there where we were. But he was a very tall man, wasn’t he, Ed? Like a famous basketball player or something.”
Ed nodded agreement, apparently unruffled by his debut on national television. “He was tall, all right. I remember thinking, if he knocks that light fixture down, we’ll be in a pickle.”
“But he looked like Elvis Presley?” Meredith wants to know.
“Just like him,” Pat says.
“In his younger days—you know,” Ed says.
“Of course, we weren’t Elvis fans in those days,” Pat says. “We were too young. And later we were Deadheads.” She says this casually, as if clarifying a recipe ingredient: no, it was corn oil we used to use, not canola.
“What Pat means is that we aren’t experts on the young Elvis,” Ed says. “And of course the light was bad.”
“That’s true,” Pat says, before Meredith can jump in, as she obviously wants to do. “If you put that guy in a line-up with five other seven-and-a-half-foot Elvis impersonators, I might not be able to pick him out.” She says this with a straight face.
“When we come back,” Meredith says to the camera, “who is this mysterious superhero, and where is he now?”
We were living on borrowed time: that much was clear.
There was a knock on the door.
“Have you been watching television, Hank?” Elvis said. If you’d seen him, you wouldn’t have asked whether androids had emotions or not; they were waging battle on his face as he tried to read my expression. He was pleased with his notoriety, but he was also anxious, and prepared to be worried if I was.
Larry was trailing behind. “I’m concerned,” he said, “that our mission might already have been compromised. I think we’d better send him back to the ship and move to another location ourselves. Perhaps people will think he’s left town.”
“I can’t go back to the ship,” Elvis protested. “I’m going salsa dancing tonight with Pedro and George.”
Larry frowned. “Who are Pedro and George?”
A useless question, in my book. The big guy collected buddies the way dark fabric collects cat hair.
He was surprised in turn. “You don’t know Pedro and George? Yes, you do know them, Larry. They work at the concierge desk, one to nine. Pedro is the funny one, and George—.”
“I don’t think it matters,” I said. “I don’t even know how we’d smuggle him out of the hotel.”
“That’s true,” Elvis said. “I’m too big to keep over wraps.”
“Anyway, I’m surprised we haven’t heard from the press already.”
The phone rang. A female voice, speaking in a conspiratorial whisper, said that a reporter and photographer were standing in front of the reception desk, and did we want to see them.
“Give us a few minutes,” I said. “We’ll let you know.”
“It’s all my fault,” Larry was saying as I hung up the phone. “I should have made him stay with the ship. But he’s—well, he’s just not made for solitary confinement. Is that what you call it?”
“Lighten up,” I said. I tried smiling, as if taking my own advice. “You haven’t failed yet.” I walked to the window and looked out. I couldn’t see the front of the hotel from where I was standing, but I did catch sight of a van sporting a satellite dish, speeding through the intersection below. I didn’t know how good hotel security was, but if we didn’t meet the press now, they’d find somebody to bribe and camp out on our doorstep or take the room across the hall.
There was a knock on the door.
Through the peephole, I saw a distinguished-looking dark-haired man in a business suit. I asked him to identify himself.
“Mr. Jones, it’s Alex Otaryan, the hotel manager. I want to know if I can be of assistance.”
Now, I know what you’re thinking, but “Jones” happens to be my real name. I’ll admit that I’d considered an alias when I checked in, but discarded it when I thought of the credit card they were likely to ask me for. I found myself hoping I could reach my mother before she saw my picture on television.
I opened the door. “I expect you’ve had some experience in handling situations like this,” I said, and waved him in. “We’re open to suggestions.”
I could see now that he wore a beautifully tailored suit. He was rather a slight man, with olive skin and black wavy hair. He told us he went by “Alex O.,” and invited us to call him “Alex.”
He smiled reassuringly and shook hands all around. “I do have some experience, yes—more than I would if I were managing a hotel in Chicago, say, or San Francisco. May I begin by saying that the Marriott is proud to have you, Mr. Preston, as our guest?”
We hadn’t let Elvis go all the way to “Presley”; at the time I’d still been under the misapprehension that we could exercise some control over him. Now his surname sounded idiotic.
“So,” Alex said, rubbing his palms together, “let us deal first with the immediate situation. Are you willing to meet the press, Mr. Preston?”
Larry and Elvis looked at me. “What choice do we have?” I said.
“Practically speaking, Mr. Jones, none,” the manager said. “The Washington press corps is notoriously energetic and persistent, even the ones covering local news, and you haven’t, I think, the experience necessary to outrun or outwit them. Forgive me if I’m blunt, but we are in a crisis situation here, and a certain directness is necessary.”
“Sure,” I said.
“We can dig that, Alex,” Elvis said. “Don’t sit on ceremony.”
“But please do have a seat,” I said.
Alex sat, crossed his legs, adjusted the crease in his trousers, placed his elbows on the armrest and tented his fingers. He was reassuringly calm.
“May I suggest that you call a press conference for noon? I can take care of that, if you like. We won’t have a meeting room available until then, but it will give you some time to prepare.”
He looked like a man who knew that preparation was in order.
“Okay,” I said.
“Our business facilities are at your disposal,” he said, “should you need a computer, printer, or copier. I suggest that you write a statement covering the basics—whatever you wish to reveal—and make copies to hand out. You may, of course, decide whether you want to entertain questions.”
“Okay,” I said.
“I warn you that the questions will likely be very direct and, you may think, entirely too personal,” he said. “I don’t want to frighten you. The press will be, for the most part, civil, I believe. But I want to prepare you.”
“Okay,” I said. I’d noticed that the prediction of the reporters’ civility required more qualifiers than anything else he’d said so far.
“And, of course, they will take photographs and film you.”
I didn’t say anything. I saw my mother or my sister turning on the television and spotting a grinning blond bearded guy who looked suspiciously like a near relation. Maybe I wouldn’t have to appear on camera.
“Always assuming, of course, that no congressional sex scandal or political brouhaha breaks out between now and noon.” He gave a small sigh. “That, however, is probably too much to hope for. There’s never a good scandal around when you need one.”
Something else wormed its way into my consciousness. I looked at Larry. Elvis didn’t look much like the communist spy who had visited Española, New Mexico, in 1951. But Larry looked exactly the same. What if somebody recognized him? It was an outside chance, at best; he had an entirely forgettable face, and in any case, nobody would expect him to look the same age he had looked in 1951. But what if some nutcase assumed that all commie spies looked the same, like Agent Smiths in The Matrix? And that they all came with seven-foot bodyguards?
“Is there a hair salon in the hotel?” I asked. He couldn’t grow a beard in three hours, but maybe we could do something to disguise him.
“Certainly,” Alex said, “and we’d be happy to accommodate you in what we might regard as an emergency situation.”
“It’s just that—well, Larry here shouldn’t be recognized on television,” I said, “by, um, his business competitors. They don’t know he’s in town.”
I was making it up as I went along, and it sounded lame to me, but Alex smiled at Larry and said, “I understand completely.” And by the glint in his eye, I thought he probably did. Not all of it, of course, but some of it.
“If I may, I’d also like to suggest that you move to a suite on one of our secure floors,” he continued. “Frankly, our staff is probably susceptible to bribes where information is concerned, but access to key cards is limited, and I don’t believe they’d go so far as to provide one to a reporter. We would charge you the same as we’re charging for your current rooms to show our appreciation for your cooperation. We would be better able to guarantee your security, you see.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Well, if you’re agreeable, I’ll leave you to make arrangements for the noon press conference,” Alex said, and stood up. He adjusted his cuffs, which might have been his equivalent of rolling up his sleeves. “Shall I send you one of our stylists?”
The phone rang. It was the front desk again, for Alex.
“The police have arrived,” he told us. “They’re on their way up, so we’ll delay the stylist for a while, shall we? They’ll want your statements about last night. My advice is to keep things simple and truthful, but of course, you’ll follow your own inclinations.”
In the brief time we had, I devised a new back-story for Larry and Elvis. They were businessmen from the Solomon Islands who represented a conglomerate of foreign investors wanting to market a highly competitive product to the United States.
Elvis frowned. “What product?”
As we talked, I was Googling Solomon Islands addresses.
“Uh, I don’t know—a special device that improves the stability of fighter jets at high altitudes.”
“All right,” Larry said. “We can do that.”
“I can’t be a Georgetown recruit anymore?” Elvis asked.
“Too risky,” I said. “The Hoyas never heard of you.” I scribbled an address on a note pad. “I’m showing you around as a favor to my cousin, uh, my cousin Mary. Memorize this address. You know where the Solomons are, don’t you?”
“Near New Guinea,” Larry said. “Northeast of Australia.”
“They export palm oil and copra,” Elvis said. “And they fish.”
“Good. We’re going to hope they know less about the place than you do. And remember—we don’t know what happened to the gun.”
There were two D.C. detectives—a pony-tailed brunette named Murphy and an older bald man named Shoenfeld. They expressed a desire to interview us all separately, and asked if I could wait in the hall for a few minutes. Murphy took Larry back to his room, and Shoenfeld settled in my room with Elvis. When it was my turn, they excused Larry and Elvis to their room, and the two detectives settled down in the two available armchairs in my room, leaving me to sit on the unmade bed.
They asked me politely for my name, address, and occupation, and then asked about my relationship to Larry and Elvis. I gave them my line about Cousin Mary, and Shoenfeld made a note without comment. They asked me to tell them what had happened the night before, and I said that I’d arrived on the scene last, and couldn’t see very well in the dim light. I gave them a streamlined version of what I’d seen. They asked me if I’d seen a gun. I said that I’d heard a gun, but hadn’t actually seen one. That part was certainly true. They asked if I knew what had happened to the gun, and I said that I didn’t. They asked me why we’d left the scene, and I said that Larry had some concerns about being identified either by his competitors or by agents of another government that might want to obtain this technology for themselves. I hoped that Larry and Elvis had explained stabilizers in a sufficiently arcane and confusing way to ward off further questions.
“These stabilizers,” the woman detective said, “you understand what they are?”
“Not me,” I said. “I’m just a grad student in American studies. My field is semiotics.”
They chose not to pursue that, and invited me down to the station some time in the next forty-eight hours to make an official statement and sign it.
“The guy we captured,” I said, “does he have a record?”
“Oh, yeah,” the male detective said. “We know him well. My guess is he’ll plea-bargain, and we won’t need your testimony. But it’s always a possibility. We won’t drag your friends back here from the Solomons unless we need to.”
“That’s a relief,” I said, and we all shook hands.
When they’d gone, Larry and Elvis rejoined me.
“We think they believed our story, Hank,” Larry said.
I grinned at him and raised a hand in his direction, but he didn’t know what to do with it. “Raise your hand, palm out,” I told him. He did, and I slapped it. “That’s known as a ‘high five.’ It’s, like, a celebratory gesture. Like a congratulations. You might see basketball players and other athletes use it after one of them makes a really good move—sinks a basket or blocks a shot. Somebody might say to you, ‘Give me five,’ and then you slap their hand.”
“Give me five,” Elvis said to Larry, and held up his hand. When Larry reciprocated, he gave it a whack that made Larry wince.
“Not quite so hard, big guy,” I said.
“I’m sorry,” he said, contrite.
“Now, bring me the laptop and call down to the desk to let them know we’re ready for the stylist.”
“But why do we need a stylist, Hank? Are you going to get a haircut, too?”
“We need to change Larry’s appearance, so that nobody who knew him in New Mexico will recognize him.”
“He is going to get a makeover?” he asked, clearly thrilled. “Will it be an extreme makeover? We could use a queer eye, couldn’t we?”
I shook my head. “We don’t have time for that.” I was already typing.
“You’re wrong, Hank,” Elvis said. “On television I saw a team do a makeover in less than three hours, including a manicure!”
Elvis went to answer the door and ushered in a very cosmopolitan, very stylish young man carrying a case.
“This is Jeremy,” he announced. “Jeremy, are you going to do the makeover by yourself? Do you have queer eyes?”
Whatever he had, Jeremy couldn’t take his eyes off of Elvis. “You are so good,” he said. “You look just like him. I’d love to know who your surgeon was.”
Elvis raised the curtain of his lip in an appreciative smile, and I explained what we needed.
“So, you don’t need Larry here to look like somebody else in particular,” he said, “because I could do him as a congressman I know from Arizona, or maybe this reporter I know in the Times Washington bureau.”
“No, we just need for him not to look like himself,” I said.
“Incognito,” Jeremy said, and winked at Larry. “Gotcha. This will be fun.”
So I worked on the statement while Jeremy and Larry retired to the bathroom. Elvis chose to follow them, expecting a better show than I was providing. At one point, I heard Jeremy on the phone, and at several points he went to answer the door, but I was absorbed in the tale I was spinning.
Jeremy made us late for the press conference because he couldn’t decide whether to add a display handkerchief or not. Larry was by now a graying blond with styled hair, tortoiseshell glasses, a pale gray Hermés suit, and a collarless white shirt, buttoned up. To my astonishment, he’d also dressed Elvis in a black suit with a narrow lapel and a black shirt, open at the collar. How he’d come up with something that fit on such short notice I couldn’t imagine. Elves?
“Stop worrying, Hank,” Jeremy told me. “You never want to be on time to your own press conference. It just isn’t done.” He looked over Larry’s shoulder at the image in the mirror. “No handkerchief,” he said. “You’re perfect the way you are. Well, we could improve on the shoes, of course, if we had more time.
“And you,” he said, looking me over, “you could definitely use a new outfit.”
I looked down at my rumpled chinos and knit pullover. “This is my new outfit.”
Elvis was enthusiastic. “You look swell!” he said to Larry. “Give me six.”
We’d drawn a respectable crowd, but I was relieved that it was no larger than it was. If we seemed dull enough, they’d all go away with nothing to report.
Elvis read the statement I’d prepared, and the reporters followed along. He made it all sound perfectly plausible, I thought. I would have preferred to stand in the back, but Larry thought it best that I sit with Elvis, in case he needed translation or restraint. Larry stood in the back with Alex O. and Jeremy and watched the reporters with an experienced eye.
“He’ll take a few questions,” I said when he’d finished, on Alex’s advice. “But I’m sure you can appreciate that the delicate nature of his business negotiations make some topics off-limits.” I felt my phone vibrate inside my pocket. I imagined that the angry buzz signaled a call from my sister.
The first question was innocuous enough. “Mr. Preston—Elvis—I understand that the mugger had a gun. Weren’t you afraid of it?”
“The light was bad, ma’am,” Elvis said, as I’d instructed him. “I didn’t actually see the gun at first, when I made the scene.” I breathed a sigh of relief. But the woman reporter was still looking at him expectantly, so he expanded. “Besides, in my country, I have some experience with law enforcement.” I poked him under the table, and he shut up.
“Mr. Preston!” called a weasel-faced young man. “Surely you don’t expect us to believe that your real name is ‘Elvis Preston.’”
“I don’t expect you to believe anything,” Elvis said. He gave the man a disarming smile. “In your country, the press is supposed to question everything, isn’t that right?”
This sally was greeted with good-natured laughter, and I hoped we’d put the matter to rest.
But one of the weasel’s colleagues pressed the point. “But apart from your height, you look and sound like Elvis Presley,” he said. “Is Elvis that big where you come from?”
“Not as big as I am,” Elvis admitted, which brought him another laugh. “But in the world of rock and roll, he is the King. Everyone knows this.”
A friendlier question followed. “Is this your first trip to Washington, Mr. Preston?”
“Yes,” he said, “but I have always wanted to visit.”
“Are you surprised by the street crime here?” someone asked.
“I am always surprised by crime,” Elvis said, “even though—.”
I poked him and he stopped short.
“Even though what?” the weasel’s friend demanded.
“Even though crime is a natural product of an immature mind,” he said smoothly. “Isn’t that right?”
Nobody seemed inclined to disagree, especially since they didn’t know what he was talking about.
“Are you doing any sightseeing while you’re in town, Mr. Preston?” This from a tall, attractive brunette whose coy expression suggested that she wouldn’t mind showing him around.
“Oh, yes,” he said. “We were just returning from the Lincoln Memorial last night when—when the trouble occurred.” He paused. “I was reading the Gettysburg Address. It is a swell speech.”
“No more questions,” I announced then. “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.”
I raised my hand to stem the tide, and Elvis slapped it.