As Elvis emerged from the invisible ship, he was already talking.
“Larry wants to know if his YouTube video has been shown yet,” he said. “We were in a hurry at the studio, and all the time we’ve been gone, he’s been thinking of things he should have said.”
“Not yet,” I said. “But the priority now is to find Jillian before anything happens to her.”
Waiting in the Spartan Security van were Joe and Paul, the Samoan brothers, and Robbie. I’d managed to take Ginger aside and speak to her quietly, and although she’d protested vehemently that two bodyguards were inadequate security for two spacemen who had just deprived the greater D.C. area, not to mention the planet, of more than an hour of computer, cell phone, and television use, she’d finally given in.
“You’ve got to let them run their game, Ginger,” I’d said. “They’re going to do it anyway. We can either get in their way or stand back and let them do their jobs.”
In the van on the way to the studio, we filled in Larry and Elvis on the kidnapping.
“The F.B.I. thinks there will be more demands,” I concluded.
“We cannot do as they wish, Hank,” Larry said. “I’m sorry.”
“We are not permitted to interfere in the internal politics or disputes of the planets we visit, Hank,” Elvis said somberly.
I had expected them to say this, but the words still spiked my anxiety for Jillian.
“But don’t worry,” Elvis said. “We will find her. We are very, very good at our jobs.”
We began at the studio, where a cop had been and gone. Nobody seemed to know anything. Nobody had seen Jillian leave the studio.
“Where was she going, Hank?” Elvis asked. He seemed to be taking the lead now, and I noticed that Larry was hanging back. They were both, as Elvis had affirmed, good at their jobs, but diplomacy wasn’t needed right now. Police work was.
“City Lights on Dupont Circle,” Robbie said.
I looked at him, impressed. Under his mellow exterior, I was beginning to realize, he had a good head in a crisis. Whatever drugs he’d done in his lifetime hadn’t addled his brain.
“Which direction is that, Robbie?” Elvis asked. When Robbie pointed, Elvis asked a passing studio tech if the building had a back door.
The back door led to an alley. Elvis walked the alley, studying the ground. Larry stood against the building wall and watched him. When Elvis reached the sidewalk along 21st Street, he called Larry, and we followed.
Elvis said something to Larry in their language, and Larry looked down the sidewalk. A tree stood in a small plot carved out of the easement, and a squirrel was busy burying something in the dirt. Larry approached the squirrel alone, and squatted down. Elvis signaled us to stay back. We couldn’t see what was happening from where we stood at the entrance to the alley. Then, to our amazement, the squirrel came hopping along the sidewalk in our direction, and we stepped back in unison to give it some space. The squirrel passed the alley, continued for a yard or two, and hopped over the curb. Larry, who was behind the squirrel, squatted down again. Once the squirrel had scampered off to the next tree, Larry waved us over.
“Not too close,” Elvis cautioned, and we stopped. He moved forward alone.
What we saw was a white take-out bag, crushed by tire marks, its contents smashed and scattered. There was an intact packet of soy sauce a foot from the epicenter, but the squirrels and birds had clearly removed most of the edibles.
Elvis and Larry crouched over the spill and conversed in their language, turning their heads to look up and down the street. Larry pointed, and we all followed his finger, though most of us didn’t know what we were looking for.
They both stood and Elvis approached us. “What we need are sniffer dogs,” he said.
“What?” I said. He turned to Larry.
“Body hounds,” Larry said. “He means we need body hounds.” He was reaching for his translator when I got it.
“You mean bloodhounds?” I asked.
“They are called bloodhounds?” Elvis said. You wouldn’t think an extraterrestrial Robocop would be squeamish, but his face registered mild disgust.
“Yeah, ’cause that’s what we usually give them to smell,” Paul put in.
“But actually,” Joe said, “Elvis is right. There’s a whole category of dogs called ‘sniffer dogs,’ and they’re not all bloodhounds. Some of them sniff drugs and bombs and stuff like that.”
Paul said, “But if Jillian got into the car with them, they won’t be able to track her scent.”
“Not necessarily true, dude,” Robbie put in. “I read an article about it. A good bloodhound can track a scent coming through the ventilation system on a car.”
“It’s not just Jillian he wants the dogs to smell,” I said, smiling as realization dawned. “It’s the car. Or rather, one of the tires on the car.” I was beginning to realize that I hadn’t taken Elvis seriously up to this point. He was a trained intergalactic peace officer, after all, and presumably experienced or they wouldn’t have sent him, not even to save an insignificant little planet like Earth.
“Can they do that?” Paul asked.
“Only one way to find out,” I said, and dialed my cell phone.
Two uniforms were first on the scene, followed by a grumpy detective who supervised the cordoning off of the crime scene. We mollified him by confirming the boys’ account that they hadn’t touched anything. By now, Elvis had been recognized, and a few more uniforms showed up for crowd control. The press with their satellite-dish vans weren’t far behind, but nobody answered their questions about what was going on.
The grumpy detective had scoffed at the idea of dogs, but he had been overruled by someone higher up. Ginger had also pulled strings to get two dogs and their trainers to the site. By the time the dogs showed up, it was almost six. We had six hours until midnight, and maybe an hour of daylight left.
Larry studied the dogs. One was a bloodhound and one was a beagle. By now, I suspected that he was communicating with the dogs. But I couldn’t tell because they weren’t looking at him necessarily. I saw him point to one and speak to the trainer. By this time more suits had shown up, and another squad car or two. Ginger had also been escorted through the police barricade. She was carrying a plastic food bag with something navy blue inside: an article of Jillian’s clothing. With her were reinforcements from Spartan Security, Cisco, Warren, and Max.
The trainer that Larry had indicated ducked under the crime-scene tape and walked the beagle to the curb to smell the contents of the takeout bag. The other trainer took the bag from Ginger and was offering a blue sweatshirt to the bloodhound’s nose.
“We will follow in our own van,” Elvis said. “If we are lucky, we will only have to go to Arlington, Virginia.”
Joe said, “I’ll walk with these guys.” He gestured toward the other guards, who were surrounding the van. I noticed that a few short-haired ear-budded suits had also shown up, and they joined the security circle.
It would have been the friendly thing to do to offer to walk with them. But my legs were still complaining about the earlier sprint up Connecticut, and I consoled myself that our bodyguards probably wouldn’t have let any of us walk, especially not now, when our space visitors had stirred up so much anger. Still, it was going to be hard to see my endurance outstripped by a beagle.
The dogs were preceded by a police car, light flashing, inching along and using blasts from its siren to clear the busy street. Behind us was another police car, with the grumpy detective riding shotgun. I had no doubt that behind that was a parade of news vans.
“The chief asked them not to broadcast anything at this point,” Paul said to the rearview mirror. He was driving.
“Do you think they’ll comply?” I asked, twisting my neck around to see if any cameras were pointed in our direction.
“Well, our timing was right,” Paul said, checking his watch. “Too late, really, for the six o’clock news on a big news day like this one. They don’t like to violate a direct request from the chief. Could shut down their sources in the future.”
“Why do you think we’re going to Arlington?” I said to Elvis.
“Because that is where there was a white van stolen this morning, and also a license plate,” he said.
I looked at him. “I can see why you think they used a van, but surely more than one van and one license plate have been stolen in the metro area today,” I said.
“We have the first two letters,” Elvis said.
“How?” Paul asked.
When Elvis hesitated, I said, “From the squirrel?”
Elvis nodded, his eyes on the dogs. Larry made no comment, but he smiled to himself. Humans had so little imagination.
“Far out,” Robbie said from the rear seat.
“The squirrel can read?” I pressed.
“No, he can only show Larry what he saw,” Elvis said. “That’s why we only have two letters. That’s all he could see through the branches. And I think he was distracted by the smell of the food. But Hank, that doesn’t mean that Jillian was taken to Arlington.”
“We’re headed in the right direction, though,” Paul observed.
“Man, I wish I could talk to animals,” Robbie said.
“But Robbie, you can,” Elvis said. “You are also an animal, so of course you can talk to them. But if you want to hear them talking back to you, you have to be very still and listen. Humans are not very good at listening.”
“You got that right,” Robbie said.
“I cannot talk to animals because I am not an animal,” Elvis said, a little sadly.
“Yeah, but dude, you can make stuff disappear,” Robbie said. “Plus, you got a killer Elvis imitation.”
From 21st Street, after a long pause while the dogs covered much of the intersection and then seemed to reach a consensus with regard to their findings, the procession turned right onto Constitution in the direction of the Arlington Memorial Bridge.
“So the bloodhound is really tracking Jillian’s scent?” I said.
“Pretty fucking amazing,” Robbie agreed.
“This dog has tracked people in cars before,” Larry said. “As long as the air is relatively still, he can do it.”
“His name is Rudy,” Elvis put in, ever the social lubricator. “The other one’s name is Pearl.”
“I’m surprised not to hear more horns blaring,” I said. “Washingtonians must be a really mellow breed.”
“Nah,” Paul said. “You just get used to it is all. Every time the president goes some place, or even the vice president or first lady, all the traffic stops for the whole entourage.”
“Yeah,” Robbie said. “The dogs are kind of a novelty. Most people are probably sitting there thinking, ‘At least it’s not that asshole Cheney.’”
“Yeah,” Paul added. “Plus the dogs are cuter than the veep. Nobody’s going to cuss out a dog.”
Ginger had been unusually quiet since she’d arrived with the sweatshirt, and I suddenly realized in the silence what I’d been missing.
I turned around to look at her, sitting next to Robbie. “Ginger,” I said, “is your cell phone turned off?” When she nodded, I persisted, “As in, completely off? Not on vibrate?” She nodded again. “Maybe you should turn it back on, in case Jillian somehow manages to call,” I said. I reached a hand over the backrest and gently touched her shoulder. “It’ll be okay. It will. We’ll find her.” Her eyes teared up.
I hoped I was right. Man, did I hope I was right. I was working hard to repress images of Jillian, bound, gagged, and blindfolded, locked in a car trunk or an underground bunker somewhere.
“Elvis is very good at his job,” Larry said. This was a new role for him: Larry the consoler.
“That is true,” Elvis acknowledged, “but Ginger is still worried about what is happening to Jillian, Larry.”
I tried focusing on the dogs again so I wouldn’t catch Ginger’s weepiness.
“Are they really going to walk all the way to Arlington or wherever?” I said, still conscious of my own physical limitations. “Even the beagle?”
“Oh, yeah,” Paul said. “Joe says they’ll walk to hell and back if they’re following a scent. I guess it’s what they train for.”
“How come they’re so quiet?” I said. “The dogs, I mean. Aren’t they supposed to bay when they’re tracking?”
“Dude, you’re thinking of hunting dogs,” Robbie said. “Or Shawshank Redemption.”
“Yeah, I guess it would be hard to sneak up on a perp if you could hear the dogs coming a mile away,” Paul said.
“Have they worked together before?” I said. “I mean, it doesn’t seem like it’d be all that common to have a bloodhound and a beagle work together.”
“These two have worked together once before,” Larry said, “about five years ago.”
But Elvis was grinning at me.
“What?” I said.
“Hank, you should be a reporter,” he said. “You ask so many questions. And you are a good writer because you’re writing a book. Maybe you would like to write about something besides old cereal boxes.”
I was momentarily stunned, not by his suggestion but by this confirmation that he’d paid so much attention when I had described my dissertation that he could remember my topic. My own mother couldn’t remember my topic.
“There must be other things that you can use semenotics on,” Elvis said.
The rest of us contained ourselves, but I saw Paul’s shoulders start to quake and even Ginger smiled. Robbie exploded in laughter.
“Robbie, what is so funny?” Elvis asked, looking a little hurt.
Robbie leaned forward and threw his arms around Elvis’s shoulders, which cleared the backrest by a good foot. “I love ya, big guy,” was all he said.