The Washington Post headline read, “SPACEMAN SAVES CHILD FROM LION.” The accompanying photo showed the lioness nuzzling Larry’s hand while the unfortunate Jakey sobbed into his other shoulder. It had been shot with a telephoto lens, so Larry’s calm facial expression was as clearly visible as his sodden hair and clothing. The byline was “C. R. Manning.”
I hadn’t spotted her in the crowd, but then, I hadn’t been looking for her. The only person I’d been looking for had been Larry.
Until the morning paper appeared, Larry had been known to the local media and its audience only as a “good Samaritan.” Astonishingly, not only had no one recognized him, but no one had connected his disappearance with the disappearance of Elvis after the foiled mugging attempt. But C. R. Manning had recognized him, probably because she’d been following me, and I’d led her to the scoop that would no doubt make her week.
There was also a photograph of the melee that had followed, as well as a close-up of Jakey and his mother, she with a towel held to one temple and an expression suggesting that she’d just been given the news about the spaceman. I fully expected us to hear from her lawyer as soon as she found out about Larry’s diamonds. Or she might opt for the book contract, with the national book tour and appearances on Good Morning, America and Oprah. I wanted to bet on the latter, but I couldn’t find anyone who would take me up on it.
“Too bad there are no Calaverians here, Hank,” Elvis told me. “They will bet on anything.”
Ginger, to my surprise, was rather pleased with the publicity, even though she was still furious with Larry.
But Larry was as impervious to her approval as he was to her wrath. “It’s not working, Ginger. I have received a very gracious offer from the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science to arrange an international forum of scientists, but I fear it will be a waste of time without a demonstration of the gravity of our enterprise.”
No one spoke. Then at last Ginger said with resignation, “What do you intend to do and when do you intend to do it?”
“I can’t tell you that,” he said. “I don’t know.”
Elvis raised his hand. “I have a suggestion.”
For once, he was ignored.
She sighed. “Will you tell me when you do know?”
“Probably not,” he said, not unkindly. “I’m sorry.”
“Okay,” she said slowly, as if adjusting to this new turn of events. “Okay. You have an appointment at a video production facility at ten to film some footage for the YouTube video. Do you want me to cancel it?”
“No,” Larry said. “I have a statement to read that should air as soon as our demonstration—whatever it is—is complete. I’d like to film that.”
She studied his face. “You’re not going to hurt anyone, are you?”
“I don’t intend to,” he said. “But I can’t insure everyone’s safety, either. It will all depend upon how your people react. If they behave rationally, no one should be injured.”
“That’s a big ‘if,’” I muttered.
Larry looked at me. “I’m not optimistic,” he said.
I didn’t feel needed. In fact, I thought my little Washington adventure was drawing to a close. So I slipped out while nobody was looking, put on my wig and clip-on shades and took the Metro to the Smithsonian to check out their advertising collection. I left Elvis rolling on the floor with Getlo, while Warren and a handful of F.B.I. agents sat at the table opening the mail. Larry was in his room, Ginger and Anna were on the phone, and Jillian was out running errands.
I won’t pretend I didn’t get a kick out of reading Eskimo Pie ads from the twenties, but still, I was distracted. It was that old conundrum: what do you want to be doing when the world ends? I didn’t know. I knew that I didn’t want to be standing in front of a class of drowsy freshmen, trying to explain apostrophe use. I didn’t want to be sitting at the computer, composing a trenchant analysis of T.V. dinner boxes from the fifties. There was a time when I would have wanted to be in bed with Anita, but I found to my surprise that I was pretty much over that. I would prefer, I realized, to be in bed with Eco the cat, playing Trap-the-tail or Undercover Monster Foot.
My interest in American history flagged, and I wandered over to the Museum of Natural History. I was in the mood for contemplating evolution before it ended altogether. In fact, I grew so engrossed that I didn’t notice the time slipping away until my stomach growled loudly enough to set off giggles in a cluster of schoolgirls next to me. I found my way to the Atrium Café.
Just as I was about to bite into my burger, my cell phone rang.
“Where are you?” Ginger.
“Everything,” she said. “I’m missing two E.T.s and a P.A.—and you, of course.”
“Jesus!” I said. I knew that she wouldn’t give me details over the cell phone, so I swallowed all of my automatic responses, such as, “How did that happen?” and “How is that possible?” and other helpful questions of that ilk. “I’m at the Museum of Natural History. Where are you?”
“At the hotel. Get back here as soon as possible.” Then, as an afterthought, she added, “Please,” and disconnected.
I took a cab. It didn’t make sense. Both Larry and Elvis were missing? And the P.A.—that must be Jillian? I didn’t actually know what Howard’s and Anna’s titles were, but I was pretty sure they didn’t qualify as P.A.s. Surely, the three M.I.A.s were together somewhere. You didn’t lose three people at the same time without some connection between those disappearances. Had Larry and Elvis persuaded Jillian to help them escape?
The cab slowed, then stopped.
I looked around in confusion. This wasn’t my hotel. In fact, we were in the middle of the roundabout at Dupont Circle. The driver was cursing, turning his key, pounding the steering wheel. Then I heard something else: voices, and only voices. What I expected to hear was a cacophony of horns and curses. Instead, I heard only curses. We were stuck in gridlock. I scanned our surroundings through the cab window, making a three hundred and sixty-degree turn. No car was moving. More than that: no radio was blaring, no sirens were wailing, there were no electronic beeps or burps to litter the air. People on the sidewalk were dropping their arms to stare at their cell phones, then gaze around them in bewilderment.
I threw money at the driver, bolted from the cab, and ran. I had more than ten blocks to cover, uphill. And I was the only thing moving.
I was vaguely aware that I was creating panic in my wake. People must have thought I’d seen something to run from. Whatever was happening must be happening downtown, they thought. I heard the firestorm of hysteria ignite behind me, and then more running footsteps. I felt like the lead extra in a Godzilla movie. I kept running, head up, eyes on the distance. Adrenaline would get me there. I could die later, when it was more convenient.
At Calvert Street, I hesitated. Making the decision before the exhaustion could catch up to me, I continued jogging straight up Connecticut past the zoo and then turned toward Rock Creek Park.
I stopped at last, gasping, on a bluff overlooking the creek. I saw no pigeons sunning themselves on an invisible shelf, detected no low hum of engine noise. The spaceship was gone.