I bent over, hands on my knees, eyes squeezed shut, doubled over as much by a sense of overwhelming loss as by exhaustion. I let my knees buckle and knelt on the soft loam. I could hear the twittering of birds, an animal cry from the zoo, and a faint drone that might have been human.
When I finally hauled my leaden body upright, my wig slipped. In frustration I yanked it off and sent it sailing over the bluff. Immediately, I regretted the desecration, but then reassured myself that it would make a warm, comfortable home—or an exotic mate—for some small furry creature.
“Okay, okay,” I said to myself under my breath. “Larry wanted to scare us and he’s succeeded. It doesn’t mean they’re gone for good. And it doesn’t mean that the planet is doomed. As for Jillian, she’s probably up there with them, enjoying the view.”
Slowly, I walked back to the hotel, conserving my energy for the long climb up to our suite. My perceptions had a dreamy, underwater quality to them.
Yet gradually I realized that I wasn’t the only one moving in slow motion. When I emerged onto Connecticut, no one was running anymore. I saw a few weepers, including women hugging their children to their breasts, but mostly I saw knots of people, standing together or sitting on stoops or on top of stalled cars, talking. I heard snatches of their conversations as I passed.
“Ain’t never seen nothing like this,” one man said.
“Seems like I saw it in a movie once,” another said. “Can’t recollect which one, though.”
“You don’t think it’s permanent?” someone said anxiously.
“Naw,” said the second man. “They tryin’ to save Earth, not destroy it.”
“If we can believe them,” a cynic put in.
I found it both gratifying and worrying that nobody questioned the source of the current state of affairs.
“Well, I don’t care,” a woman said. “Don’t know why the boss was in such a rush for these papers anyway. He can just cool his heels.”
Someone drawled, “No skin off your buttocks, huh?” And everyone laughed.
“People I feel sorry for is the ones down in the Metro,” said an elderly man. “Wouldn’t want to be caught down there, no, sir!”
“Yeah, I bet it’s stuffy,” said a mother with a child on one hip. “But what about the folks in the hospitals? What about the babies?”
“And the planes in the air?” someone added.
As if on cue, we heard the rhythmic thwap of helicopter rotor blades and a police helicopter passed overhead. In the distance we could see a plane headed for Reagan. I hoped that the control tower was operational, but then I supposed that planes had been landed before control towers were invented.
“I wonder how they do that,” a young man said. “How they pull the plug on some things, and not others.”
“They smart, that’s how,” someone said.
“You’d better believe they’re smart!” someone else said.
“Ain’t me got to do the believing,” retorted the first person. “It’s the damn gov’ment better be paying attention.”
““You think this is happening all over, or just in Washington?” a woman asked. “Or just in America? You s’pose over there in Iraq and Korea and Africa and places like that they standing around talking right now, just like us?”
A man snorted. “Sure, that’s exactly what they’re doing. And I’ll bet they’re wishing they didn’t have nincompoops in charge of the planet’s future, just like we are.”
“’Cept in some of those places, they didn’t vote the nincompoops in, like we did,” a woman said softly.
“Well, long as the world’s ending, I’m glad I didn’t file my income tax yet.” A Hispanic accent, male.
“Not me. I’m getting a refund this year, and I want everything the government owes me.” A woman’s voice.
“You shouldn’t be joking about taxes at a time like this,” a young woman said, her voice shaking with emotion. “You should be down on your knees—we all should—asking God to forgive us poor sinners, telling him we’re sorry for all our sins.”
“Honey, the Lord know me well enough by now to know what I’m sorry for and what I’m not,” said an older woman.
“Where they at, right now, those spacemen, I wonder,” said a woman.
“I wonder if they feel sorry for us,” said another.
“I wish I knew where they were. If I knew, I’d go home and get my gun and shove it up in their faces. Then we see who’s sorry.” A young male voice, angry.
“Aww, dog, what you think?” Another young male voice. “You think them spacemen scared of your sorry ass and that little popgun you carry? Man, you point that thing at them, Elvis going to disintegrate it right out your hand.”
So it went.
The glass doors to the hotel lobby were propped open and the lobby was thick with reporters and civilians. What I’d expected was an angry mob. To my amazement, though, the atmosphere that predominated was almost festive. There were pockets of rage and outrage, with spokespeople vying for the reporters’ attention. But the reporters were too busy chatting amiably with each other, and the angriest rants were drowned out by snatches of communal song, including “We Are the World” and, for a humorous encore, “It’s a Small World After All,” and that perennial favorite, “We Shall Overcome,” before morphing into a medley of Elvis Presley songs. Several balloons bounced from hand to hand above the heads of the crowd. I caught a whiff of marijuana. From the edge of the crowd, I spotted the bored reporter from the back row of the Smithsonian press conference, but he didn’t look bored now.
I was wondering how I was going to penetrate the mass of people in order to cross the lobby to the stairs when I felt a hand on my elbow.
I turned and saw Robbie grinning at me. He was wearing some kind of pale green polyester medical uniform jacket over flowered drawstring trousers and Birkies. “Wait here,” he said.
When he returned he was pushing a long, flat cart, a piece of catering equipment, if I could judge by the tablecloths it was draped in. He lifted a tablecloth and nodded his head at it. “Hop on,” he said.
So I lay down on the cart, which was just a little short for me, and he covered me up to my eyes with the tablecloth. My sneakered feet hung off the edge like a cowcatcher on a backward engine. I heard a clang as he dropped something on the bottom shelf. He took hold of the cart near my head and began to shout, “Coming through! Medical emergency! Coming through, there!”
I couldn’t see what was happening from where I lay, but the cart rolled forward and we threaded our way through the crowd. I closed my eyes. It felt good to get off my feet. And it was just possible that any second now, I’d have a heart attack, and we really would have a medical emergency. At last I felt the tablecloth lifted off my face, and I opened my eyes to see two cops standing over me, studying my face as if in a morgue identification.
“Yeah, that’s him, all right,” one said. “Let him through.”
The other one opened the door they were guarding, and we began to ascend the stairs.
“Where’d you get the jacket?” I asked.
“Got a neighbor who’s a dental hygienist. She left it hanging in the laundry room, so it’s still a little damp, but I thought it might come in handy.”
“How’d you get here so fast?”
“Borrowed roller blades from my other neighbor.”
“Don’t suppose you know where the boys are,” I gasped. I could have used a longer rest after my sprint up Connecticut to Rock Creek.
He shook his head. “But don’t worry. They’ll be back.”
The door to the suite stood open, and the hall and living room were crowded with short-haired suits wearing ear buds. Robbie nudged me, grinning. “Part of the uniform, when you’re a G-man. Don’t matter that the suckers don’t work.” Then he dropped his voice still lower. “Would have loved to catch sight of them, a whole platoon of G-men on bicycles, pedaling up Connecticut.”
It was odd to see them standing around, talking to each other instead of into cell phones or hidden microphones or walkie-talkies.
“Hank, finally! Thank god.”
Getlo’s joyous greeting I’d come to expect, but Ginger’s surprised me a little. I hadn’t honestly felt like I was all that important to the team effort; I was more of a bench warmer.
I looked around. “I went to the spaceship first. It isn’t there, as far as I can tell. Isn’t Jillian back?” I said.
“Come sit down, Hank,” Ginger said. “You, too, Robbie. I have bad news.”
She perched on the coffee table, flanked by Anna and Howard, standing. We sat on the couch, Getlo between us, belly up.
“Jillian has been kidnapped,” Ginger said.
I looked from Ginger to Anna to Howard, and finally to Robbie. He was frowning in concentration.
“Kidnapped by whom?” I said at last. “Why?”
“We don’t know who,” Ginger said. “As for why, they’ve made certain demands of Larry.”
“They want a particular Afghani prison opened, and all of the prisoners freed,” she said. “They’re apparently trying to rescue their leader.”
“What does Larry have to do with that?”
Ginger shrugged. Anna said, “They obviously think he’s all-powerful. They think he can do anything.”
“The F.B.I. profiler thinks that there will be additional demands if the first one is met,” Howard said.
“I thought she was with the guys,” I said. A stupid thing to say, I knew, but I couldn’t think of anything better.
“The guys disappeared from a men’s room at the television studio,” Anna said. “They locked Cisco in a janitor’s closet.”
“Cisco said they were really sorry,” Howard said. “They were probably sorry about the wall, too.”
“Wait, you let Elvis go to the men’s room?” I said. I wasn’t really sure what happened to all the food and drink he put away, but I didn’t think it came out through the usual human channels.
Ginger raised a palm. “Don’t start with me, Hank. Just don’t even go there.”
“And what happened to Jillian?” I asked.
“We sent her for take-out. She left the studio maybe half an hour before the boys disappeared.”
“We kind of forgot about her after that,” Anna said. “I mean, this time we lost both spacemen. And then a half hour after that, the power went off.”
“So, wait, how do you know she’s been kidnapped?”
“One of the F.B.I. agents found a note in his pocket about twenty minutes ago,” Ginger said. “He’d been down in the lobby—well, I guess you’ve seen the crowd. We don’t think the note could have been there very long. We’re lucky he found it so quickly.”
“There’s a deadline,” Howard said.
Ginger stood suddenly and crossed the room to the window. We watched her, then turned back to Howard.
In a low voice, he said, “If the leader’s not free by midnight, there will be consequences.”
“So the thing to do now is to find Jillian,” Robbie said.
“The F.B.I. has dispatched a couple of their agents and a D.C. cop to canvas the area where she disappeared,” Anna said. “But it will take them a while to get there, even if they manage to commandeer bikes or something. They said they couldn’t afford to take too many people away from here, because even if Larry and Elvis aren’t here, they’re afraid of a riot. The cops are short-handed because they’re dealing with the power outage. They have to guard the hospitals because those are the only places that have power. And maybe Larry and Elvis could help if they were here, but they’re not. I’m scared, Hank.”
“How long has the power been off?” I asked, looking at my watch. My watch had stopped at 1:07.
“It’s been more than an hour, Hank,” she said. “Who knows how long they intend to keep it off.” She gestured toward the window. “The weather’s mild. They won’t have to worry about the elderly and the kids.”
“The weather’s fine here, Anna,” Robbie said. “But what we have to remember is that what they’ve done probably affects the whole planet. Remember, they’re not interested in local politics, so they probably wouldn’t target New York City, or even the whole U.S. Australia’s in the middle of a severe drought, and there’s a tropical depression forming in the North Atlantic. I don’t think they’ll want to endanger anybody in cold or hot places, so it probably won’t be much longer.”
Ginger was back. “Hank, do you have any idea where they could be?”
I shook my head. “They could be in another dimension. You’ve tried their cells again, right?”
“Dude, if they’re in another dimension, you think they took a cell tower with them?” Robbie said.
“Anyway, I’ve tried—like, every five minutes,” Ginger said. “And—.”
The lights came on. The air conditioner started to hum. Something beeped. And, after the briefest of pauses, the air was filled with the music of cell phone ringtones, including my own.
I didn’t recognize the number.
“Hank, it’s Charlotte,” the voice said. “Don’t—.”
I hung up.
Everyone else in the room was talking on their cells. I wanted to turn mine off, but I didn’t think I could do that in the middle of a crisis. When it started to ring again, I glanced at the display, and ignored it.
“I’m going to ask the agent in charge if he’s going to dispatch more agents to search the area where Jillian disappeared,” Ginger said, and turned on her heel. I hoped she could get someone to stop talking on the phone long enough to listen to her.
My phone rang. This time I glanced at the display, and answered.
“Where the hell are you?” I said in spite of myself. It was hardly the critical question of the moment.
“Hi, Hank,” Elvis said. “What’s up, dude? We are just laying doggo until the excitement blows under. The power failure was my idea—from the movie. Do you think it will work?”
I stuck a finger in my other ear. “Laying what?” I said.
Uncertainty leaked into his voice. “Laying doggo. Isn’t that right? It means what you said before—laying slow. Doesn’t it?”
I palmed my forehead. “Yeah, I guess, in some neighborhoods. Look, we have a crisis here. Jillian’s been kidnapped.” I couldn’t afford to be overly scrupulous about cell phone security right now. And with Elvis, I had to be direct.
“Kidnapped?” I heard him say something to Larry in their own language, and then the soft rumble of Larry’s voice in reply. Into the phone, he said, “No! But why? Who would do such a thing?”
“Someone who wants something from you and Larry,” I said. “Someone who’s threatened to kill her if they don’t get what they want. But we can’t talk about it over the phone. The line’s not secure, understand?”
“Yes, I understand. We will come right back.” I heard Larry’s voice in the background again. “Do you know where this happened, Hank?”
“Around the place where you disappeared,” I said.
“You must bring the car and meet us at the ship, Hank. That will save time.”
I didn’t argue, or ask what they had in mind. No point in wasting time. If they had any kind of a plan, they were two legs up on me.