Something soft and wet against my cheek startled me awake. I felt a weight on my arm and a tickling as something brushed my shoulder. Warm puffs of air brought with them the odor of garlic. I opened my eyes.
My assailant yipped its approval and applied its tongue more vigorously.
In the ear that wasn’t being tongued, I heard Elvis. “Oh, look! She likes you, Hank.”
The phone rang. The dog barked at it excitedly. I reached around squirming dog and picked it up.
A woman’s voice said something.
“Hold on, I can’t hear,” I said. “Elvis! Would you come get this dog out of my face?”
“She’s just excited, Hank,” he said, scooping up the dog and tucking her under his arm. “She’s heard so much about you.”
“I bet,” I said. Into the phone, I said, “Would you repeat that?”
The woman’s voice, sounding either exasperated or amused, I couldn’t tell which, said, louder and more distinctly, “This is the White House calling. The President would like to speak to Mr. Smith.”
“How do I know it’s really you?” I said.
There was a brief silence, and then a sigh. “Mr. Jones, please. Already this morning we’ve hosted a No Child Left Behind breakfast for thirty-seven preschoolers, Barney just bit the undersecretary of State, and the Russian ambassador is coming for lunch. Don’t make my day any worse.”
“Hang on,” I said. As soon as my feet hit the floor, the dog wriggled free and tackled one ankle. I made slow progress with the dog attached, but then Larry appeared in the doorway. “The White House is on the line. The President wants to speak to you. Do you want to speak to him?”
“All right,” Larry said, unimpressed. “I suppose that’s progress.”
I followed him out into the living room. “Just remember, he’s not the same one as last time. This one is—.”
Larry paused, hand on the phone, and raised his eyebrows at me.
“Well, he’s not the same. Can I listen in?”
Elvis, behind me, bent to detach the dog from my leg. “She is really a very good dog, Hank,” he said, with an emphasis I found rather discomfiting. “She’s only excited, that’s all.”
I missed the beginning of the conversation, but when I picked up the phone again, the President was asking how the spacemen were enjoying the sights of Washington. Larry made a polite reply, and mentioned how much he appreciated re-reading Lincoln’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial.
“Oh, yes, the Emancipation Proclamation,” said the President. “That’s one of my favorites.”
Larry did not correct him, but went on to mention that they would be going to Mount Vernon that day.
“Yes, I heard that, I heard that,” the President said. “Well, listen, I know you’re busy, sightseeing and everything, but it seems to me that you and I should sit down for a little chat.”
Larry sighed. “If you think it would help,” Larry said, “I have no objection.”
The President laughed at that, but it was a nervous laugh.
“I didn’t come to Earth to speak with a single representative of a single government,” Larry continued, “but if you have advice to give me on how to approach all of the other governments on your planet, I’d be very grateful to hear it.”
I didn’t think the President had any useful advice to give on approaching members of the local opposition, much less the whole planet, and they both knew it. But he invited Larry to Camp David anyway at some unspecified time in the future, and Larry agreed to go.
“Oh, before I forget,” the President said, “I’m supposed to offer you some Secret Service agents to help out with your security.”
To my relief, Larry politely declined. I’ve never been big on crowds, and our hotel room was definitely getting crowded.
Then the President asked to speak to Elvis, so I retrieved the dog and took her into the bathroom, where she could bounce her barks off the tile to her heart’s content.
Elvis himself opened the door when the phone call was over. The dog threw herself at him in a joyful frenzy. “Hello, hello,” he said to the animated mop. “I’m back. I just had to talk to the President.” To me, he said, “Well, Hank, what do you think?”
“About the President’s call?”
“About little Getlo,” he said, doing that head-wave thing dog owners do when their chin is being tongue-washed.
“How would I know?” I said. “She doesn’t stand still long enough for me to get a good look at her. Her name’s Getlo? What kind of name is that?”
“You don’t like it?”
“I didn’t say that,” I said. Now that I’d been liberated, I was washing my face the old-fashioned way.
“‛Getlo’ was the name of Elvis Presley’s favorite dog,” he said. “This dog died tragically young, and broke her master’s heart. It is a very sad story. Elvis also had many horses and other dogs and a chimp named Scamper, but I don’t like that name.”
I was brushing my teeth and watching him in the mirror. From what I’d heard of the language he and Larry spoke, I could appreciate the appeal of ‘Getlo,’ with its hard consonants, labial el and long oh. It probably sounded beautiful in his ears.
“So.” I spat toothpaste. “She’s named for a doomed dog.” When I bent to spit, my back objected. I realized then that the pain had been pretty constant since I first got out of bed, only I hadn’t had the opportunity to notice.
He covered the dog’s ears with his hand. One hand easily covered the two tufts that marked her ears. “Don’t listen to him,” he said. “You are named for a very special and loved dog.”
I took two Advils and got dressed. Larry and Elvis were sitting at the table eating off a room service tray. Larry looked up when I appeared, and reached for the coffee pot.
“They didn’t have any Kellogg’s Pep, Hank,” Elvis said apologetically. “I was hoping for a Buffalo Bill picture ring. But we have Wheaties, Breakfast of Champions.”
The dog raced over to greet me.
“Where’d she come from, anyway?” I said. “Tell me you didn’t sign a deal to do dog food commercials.”
“She just followed us,” Elvis said. “It was chuktok.”
“It was what?”
“Is that something like fate?” I guessed.
“Yes,” Larry said.
“No,” Elvis said.
I paused in the act of spreading jam on toast, and looked at them. A brief dialogue in their native tongue ensued.
“It’s kind of like what you call ‘fate,’” Elvis said, “but it’s more like divine wishing. You know, like the Almighty Spirit causes something to happen because it wishes that something to happen. But in the end, you must also wish it to happen. So Getlo here must also wish it, and we must, and you must.”
“I don’t see where I come into it,” I said, eyeing the dog. She was kind of cute, in a ragamuffin way, as she chewed on one of the expensive sneakers that had been a gift from Anita, my ex. “Anyway, where was she, when all of this wishing came to fruition?”
“She was at Serenity Cove, Betty’s retirement complex,” Elvis said. “She was just walking around outside the building. Hank, have you ever played canasta? It is sweet.”
I put my toast down, my appetite gone. I could see the headlines: “Alien Dognappers Strike Senior Center.” There would be a photograph—two, actually. One of an elderly woman hugging little Getlo in happier times, and one of her in tears, probably leaning on her walker, with a caption that read, “I just want my baby back.”
“Did you ask if she belonged to anybody in the complex?”
“Oh, she didn’t belong to anybody, Hank,” Elvis said. He leaned over and held out a piece of bacon. The dog sniffed, then took it delicately between her teeth and retreated a few steps to lie down and eat it. “She needs a new home. Look at her. She wanted to come with us.”
I sighed. “But you didn’t ask around.” I looked at Larry, who shrugged.
“I told him we should,” Larry said.
“Look,” I said, “of course she wanted to go with you. Dogs like adventure, and friendly dogs will follow anybody.”
“Especially if they are carrying meatballs,” Larry said.
That explained the garlic breath. “Yes,” I said, “especially then. But she probably belongs to someone in the complex. They let her out to do her business—.” Elvis frowned. “To urinate and defecate. When they called her to come in, she was gone.”
“She is not wearing an identification bracelet around her neck,” Elvis pointed out. “She looked very sad.”
Elvis was right about the collar. That was a hopeful sign. But this dog didn’t look like she had a sad bone in her body.
“You have a point,” I said. “But we still need to make sure that she doesn’t belong to someone in the complex. She looks too well cared for to be a stray.”
“Do I have to take her back?” Elvis said. I hadn’t seen him this unhappy since he’d heard Elvis Presley was dead.
“I’ll call the complex and see if anyone has reported a missing dog,” I said.
It turned out that someone had reported a missing dog, so I was right about that. But Elvis appeared to be right about her needing a home. The dog’s owner had recently been hospitalized, and then transferred to a nursing home, and would not be returning to Serenity Cove. A neighbor had been looking after the dog since that time, and was distraught when she’d disappeared, but the neighbor didn’t want to keep the dog.
“Marge will be so pleased that she’s found a good home,” said the woman on the other end of the line.
“I don’t think you should leap to any conclusions,” I said. “It depends on whether she likes space travel.”
“Oh, I’m sure she can handle it,” the woman said. “She’s a very easygoing dog. In fact, her name is ‘Sweetie.’”
Elvis didn’t have that annoying human habit of saying, “I told you so.” When I told him the dog’s story, he just nodded, and said, “I thought she needed a home. Hank, we must take her to visit Marge at the nursing home.”
Then he said, “When are we leaving for Mount Wernon?”
“At eleven,” I said.
“What time is it now?” he asked.
“Use your watch,” Larry and I chorused. Elvis tended to forget about the watch, and when he remembered, he thought it was his cell phone.
“Oh,” he said, and grinned sheepishly. He looked at his watch, and jumped to his feet. “Come on, Hank! We don’t have much time.”
“For what?” I said.
“Shopping,” he said. “Put your shoes on.”
“Shopping for what?” I said. I put down the corner crust and, standing, took one last sip of coffee.
“For dog things,” he said. “She can’t keep eating meatballs and bacon.”
He bustled me out the door. Our current bodyguard, Simon, rushed to catch up with us at the elevator. As we crossed the hotel lobby, Dave accosted us.
“I was just coming to check in with you, Hank,” Dave said. “Need my services today?”
“I’m sorry, but we’re in a hurry,” Elvis said. Then he grabbed Dave by the wrist—the one with the briefcase attached. “Come with me. I want you to meet somebody.”
He dragged Dave over to a bank of couches where a middle-aged man was sitting, talking on his cell phone, laptop open on the coffee table in front of him. The man wore jeans that looked like they’d been starched and pressed, and a blue Izod shirt. He looked up in surprise.
“Hi, I’m Elvis,” Elvis said, and held out a hand.
The surprised man shook it. “Curt,” he said, caught off guard.
Elvis turned to Dave. “This is Curt. He’s with the Central Intelligence Agency.” To Curt he said, “This is Dave. He’s with the F.B.I. Why don’t you two stay here and talk while we go to the pet store? The dark-haired man over there, the one who is pretending to read a newspaper—he’s with the Secret Service. He would probably enjoy talking to you, too.” He scanned the lobby. Everybody else looked just as normal as these guys looked, except for a handful of reporters and photographers bearing down on us. “We’ll take the press with us.” He waved at the two men. “Later, gator.”
I didn’t bother to ask him how he knew not only who the spies were, but which agency they represented, but I made a note to ask later. If he could read minds, I was going to have to start censoring my thoughts.
The two clerks in the pet store were thrilled by our visit, even though the reporters and photographers took up all the available space. As we stood in front of the leash display, Elvis holding his hands up to indicate the approximate size of the dog, lights flashed and cameras whirred. They whirred again when he stopped to pet the resident cat, who didn’t seem to register his size but only arched her back and stretched her toes in response to his stroke. When we arrived at the dog food aisle, the two clerks took their time pointing out the advantages and disadvantages of every type and brand of food. Elvis frowned in concentration and asked questions. The reporters, who at first had bombarded him with questions about pets where he came from, had fallen silent when he had turned a glinty eye on a nearby pen in motion and made it disappear. “Please, be quiet,” he’d told them. “I have to talk to Jarod and Angie now.”
Simon stood at his shoulder and glared at them, too, just for good measure, though he looked less menacing than he might have looked without a dayglo leash draped around his neck and a stuffed bear under his arm.
When we reached the toy aisle, Jarod asked what kind of a dog Getlo was. Elvis turned to me. I shrugged. “Yappy and energetic,” I said. “Short.”
“She’s a Shih Tzu,” Simon the bodyguard volunteered. “Maybe a mix, but she’s definitely got Shih Tzu in her.”
So we selected a few of the toys Shih Tzus favored.
At the checkout stand, Angie offered Elvis a refrigerator magnet, and when he stuck it to his forehead, the crowd went wild. Fortunately, I thought, the day was young, and the prospective photo-ops were many, so I was optimistic they’d find better pictures to print on the front page and run during the evening news. I wasn’t sure that any of them had yet figured out why the refrigerator magnet had stuck, and I wasn’t sure what difference if any it would make when they did figure it out. I found that I was most worried not about any political or military ramifications, but about Elvis’s feelings.
As we re-crossed the hotel lobby, Elvis made a point of waving at Dave, Curt, and the blond guy from the Secret Service. Simon stepped into the path of a man who was advancing on Elvis. He was a droopy-jowled, gray-haired guy in a stained pair of chinos and a tired sportscoat.
“I have something for Mr. Preston,” he said, holding up an envelope. It had the crisp, formal look of something legal.
“I’ll take it,” Simon said and made a grab for it.
“No can do,” the man said, holding it out of Simon’s reach. “I only get paid for delivery to Mr. Preston.”
Elvis reached over Simon and took the envelope. He frowned at it as we walked to the elevator.
“Hank, what does ‘es-queer’ mean?” he asked.
“Esquire,” I corrected. “It means an attorney. What is it?”
“What does ‘vee ess period’ mean?”
“Short for ‘versus.’ Usually refers to lawsuits.”
“So if it says, ‘Harney vee-ess Preston,’ that means someone is suing me?”
“Yes,” I said. “Who’s suing you?”
“Someone who says I caused grave bodily harm to them.” He looked up at me. “I don’t remember causing grave bodily harm to anyone. Did I?”
“Harney,” Simon said. “That was the mugger you caught.”
“Do you mean the thief?” Elvis asked.
“His name was Harney?” I leaned back hard against the elevator, an expression of annoyance that my back did not appreciate. “Son of a bitch!”
“I didn’t cause grave bodily harm to him,” Elvis said in bewilderment. “I was very careful.”
“I’m sure you were,” I said. “Look, the guy’s probably just trying to take advantage. He thinks because you’re famous he’ll get a lot of money out of you, one way or another.”
“You were very careful, too, weren’t you, Hank?” Elvis said. “He says you caused him grave bodily harm, too.”
“Oh, shit,” I said.
The trip to Mount Vernon was uneventful, or as uneventful as a trip can be when fifty members of the Washington press corps are trailing you, watching for your clumsiest move and goofiest expression. Larry made a creditable statement about Washington’s greatness in rejecting absolute power when it had been offered to him. I happened to know that Ginger had helped to craft this statement, because I’d helped out again with the subjunctive mood (“If Washington were alive today . . .”), but I also knew that it represented Larry’s own sentiments. Elvis left a few new dents in the lintels, and I hoped we wouldn’t be receiving another legal document tomorrow from the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. Larry left a generous donation, Elvis bought the 2007 holiday ornament, and we seemed to depart on good terms.
Larry, Warren the bodyguard, and I took the service elevator up to our floor. Elvis and Simon went to the lobby because Elvis wanted to talk to Pedro and George. Elvis returned with the droopy-jowled process server we’d encountered in the lobby previously. Getlo threw herself at Elvis.
“You already gave us the papers,” I protested.
“He says he has something for Larry,” Elvis said. He picked up the dog and let her slobber all over his face.
Larry looked up from the desk, where he was checking phonemail messages. “For me?” he said.
“You Lawrence Smith?” the man said. When Larry said he was, the man handed him three envelopes. “You’re a popular guy.”
“What the hell?” I said.
The man left, and Larry and I sat down on the couch to read the documents. All three informed us that the plaintiff named therein was suing Lawrence Smith for an establishment of paternity. One of the plaintiffs was suing on behalf of her 56-year old son. The other two, a woman and a man, were suing on behalf of themselves.
“Can they do this?” I said.
Warren the bodyguard said, “No, man, they can’t. Paternity laws apply to minors. I think you can only sue up until two years after a kid reaches adulthood. But I can ask my torts prof, if you want me to.”
“So what do they want from me, these people?” Larry asked.
“Who knows?” Warren said. “Money, for sure. Maybe they’re publicity junkies. One of them just might be off their rocker, and hoping you’ll take them for a ride in a spaceship to wherever you came from.”
“These are probably nuisance lawsuits,” I said. “These people think that if they make you uncomfortable, you’ll give them a diamond to go away.”
Larry shrugged. “I don’t mind giving diamonds to people who need them, but if this happens a lot, I won’t have enough to go around.”
“No, no, no, Larry,” Simon, the other bodyguard, said. He held up a restraining hand. It happened to be holding a fluorescent pink squeak toy. “You don’t give these losers nothing, man. They’re just running a game on you. You don’t want to reward bad behavior, or you’ll see an epidemic.”
“He’s right,” Warren said. “If you want to stop this kind of thing, you should counter-sue.”
“You mean, in a court of law?” Larry frowned. “I don’t have time for this nonsense.”
“Doesn’t have to take much time,” Warren said. “Not your time, anyway. You hire the right lawyer and pay him enough to make the problem go away. If you didn’t have the money, I wouldn’t give you that advice. I’d tell you to ignore them all, make them drag your ass to court. By the time the court date rolls around, you’ll be long gone anyway, right?”
“I certainly hope so,” Larry said with a sigh.
“Warren’s right,” Simon said. “You get yourself a bad-ass attorney—a real mean son-of-a-bitch. He doesn’t have to offer these people nothing. He just writes ’em all letters, threatening to throw the book at ’em if they don’t back down.” His eyes drifted to where Elvis was rolling on the floor with the dog, play-growling back at her. “Or, you don’t want to spend any money on lawyers, you just send your boy Elvis here to pay those people a visit. You let him disappear their home entertainment centers or their Jacuzzis or their SUVs, you won’t have any more trouble.”
I shifted uneasily. “Then they’ll sue for damages.”
“What damages? You think they can prove in a court of law that Elvis here sent their flatscreen TV into orbit around Jupiter?”
“He has a point,” Warren said, smiling. “I like it.”
“What about Harney?”
“He’d be first on my list,” Simon said.
“Mine, too,” Warren said. “Pretty soon somebody’s going to talk him into filing criminal assault charges, and then the cops are involved.”
“You think a D.A. would let him?” I asked.
“I don’t know, man,” Warren said, shaking his head. “You never can tell. This is a political town. Everything depends on which way the wind is blowing. Let’s say Homeland Security wants Elvis locked up, but they don’t want to arrest him as a potential enemy combatant and send him to Guantanamo because they know he’s got a couple hundred friends on Facebook, not to mention the gigs on Letterman and Oprah. So they, like, encourage the D.A. to file assault charges, and let the local cops take the heat.”
“Earth sounds a lot like Rodabarb, Larry,” Elvis said. To us, he said, “It is a planet in the ring galaxy you call ‘Hoag’s object.’ The most common occupation of the people on that planet is a legal occupation—lawyers, judges, court clerks, other court officials, and delivery people like Gus, the man who delivered our lawsuit papers. Those people are not happy unless they are involved in litigation. They have even attempted to take other planets to the intragalactic court, but after the first time or two, they were not permitted to file charges.”
“Yes,” Larry said, “it’s gotten out of hand there. The life expectancy is quite low because they have no doctors. Everyone wants to work in the courts, and besides, practicing medicine would only attract lawsuits. Every Rodabarber is insured against lawsuits, of course, the way Earth people insure their cars. But no one could afford what you call medical malpractice insurance.”
“Sounds like my idea of hell,” I said.
“Oh!” Elvis said suddenly, sitting up. “What time is it?”
“Check your watch,” Larry and I said.
He did. “Hank, you have to get ready.”
He smiled slyly. “For your date.”
“The one I made for you. Don’t worry. I’m coming, too.”
I started to protest, but he cut me off. “Hank, you have to get out and meet some chicks.”