Just after the efficient hotel staff person returned my glasses the next morning, good as new, Ginger swept in, trailed by Howard, Anna, and Jillian. Jillian made eye contact with me and drew her finger across her throat, but I wasn’t sure whether she was signaling me to keep quiet or commit hara-kiri.
Ginger threw a pile of paper in the middle of the breakfast table, causing a piece of bagel to go skittering off the edge, where Getlo caught it. On top of the pile was a glossy headshot of Charlotte, my Charlotte, looking very professional.
“That your girl?” Ginger asked.
“Yes,” I said, although I had leaned away from the photo when it landed. I wasn’t exactly cringing, but my whole body was on cringe alert.
“Charlotte,” she said, “writes as ‘C. R. Manning.’ At one time she wrote about scrapbooking and papier maché art, but she’s moved on from that. She is, as you said, free-lance, but her biggest customers are the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the newsweeklies. Word on the street is, the President is afraid of her. The President’s cabinet is afraid of her. In fact, the whole fucking Congress is afraid of her.” She threw her hands in the air. “God, send me one man who doesn’t think with his dick.”
“I don’t think with my dick, Ginger,” Elvis said, and gave her his lopsided grin.
It blew her anger away in one gust. She started to laugh. She folded one arm across her stomach, dropped her head on her free hand, and laughed. Everyone else’s laughter was tentative, except for Elvis’s.
“Thank God for that,” she said. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say it’s a miracle. Now, somebody bring me a chair. I have to talk to this dickhead here about which of our secrets he spilled.”
I’d spent much of the night lying on my bed and replaying my conversation with Charlotte with this very question in mind. I thought the only thing of any significance that I’d told her concerned the prospective trade in refrigerator magnets. I really had been pretty circumspect, and I told Ginger that.
“Okay, let’s hope so. We’ll know soon enough. In the meantime, I want it clearly understood that nobody leaves this room without a bodyguard, not even the dog.” To my astonishment, she leaned down, took Getlo’s head in both her hands, and shook it playfully. “Especially not the dog.” The dog woofed.
Elvis raised his hand.
“No, Elvis, you don’t count as a bodyguard, not for our purposes,” she said. “I’m sure you’re a terrific cop, but you don’t know the neighborhood, and these guys do.” She gestured in the direction of the couch, where Simon was reading the paper and Pete was reading a management textbook. “As a cop, you know how important that is. Besides, if someone comes after you, we want these guys to deal with it, not you. Let them shoot the guy and take the heat. We’ve been over this.”
Elvis put his hand down.
“Now, Oprah’s advance people should be here any minute, so we need to clean this place up a little. Larry, how does the spaceship look? She wants a tour.”
“It’s fine,” Larry said.
“There are some empty Dr. Pepper bottles on top of the disaggregator, and maybe some Twinkies wrappers on the floor by the hovercraft port,” Elvis volunteered.
“We’ll need to send somebody over to pick up. Jillian? Larry, can Jillian get into the ship?”
“I can get her in, if she can find it,” Larry said.
“I’ll go with her,” I said.
“Oprah will be here by noon, you’ll have lunch with her in a room downstairs, come back up here for an interview, then on to the ship. They leave at three-thirty, which is when the NBC crew arrives with Tim Russert.” She looked at Larry. “They leave at five. Are you absolutely sure that you can make it to Larry King Live by eight-thirty, L.A. time? That’s eleven-thirty our time.”
“Drive-by food for dinner?” Elvis asked. “Or Chinese take-out?”
I was wondering when I was going to get my nap.
I overheard Elvis say to Jillian, “IMHO, that outfit is really flippy, Jillian.” He pronounced “IMHO” as if it were a word.
“That outfit is really flippy,” he repeated, with less certainty.
“Gee, thanks, big guy,” she said, and then added under her breath as she turned away, “I think.”
Jillian and I left for the ship with our officially designated bodyguard, Simon, who had won the coin toss. Later, when Oprah visited the ship, Pete would get to see it as well.
It was raining, so I held the umbrella. Jillian had her hands in her jacket pockets, shoulders hunched against the damp cold.
“Sorry you got yelled at,” she said, as if she were my kid sister. Then, strengthening the impression, she began to berate me. “But honestly, Hank, how could you be so naïve? She was reading Douglas Adams, for crissakes. You thought that was just a coincidence?”
“Lots of people read Douglas Adams,” I said.
She glanced at me. “On the same fucking park bench as a guy who hangs out with extraterrestrials?”
“Well, I’m sure some people read Adams on park benches,” I said.
“You do remember that in the book the woman who goes off with what’s his face—.”
“Right, him. You do remember that the woman who leaves the other guy and goes off with him is a broadcast journalist?”
“You think Charlotte is trying to hitch a ride to deep space? You think she’s planning to break my heart or something? We only went out one time, for crying out loud. It wasn’t even a date.”
“I’m just saying.”
“Elvis told me about your girlfriend. You’re vulnerable.”
“Yeah, well. Give me some credit.”
We found the place where, even in the rain, pigeons were roosting in mid-air. Jillian had to call Larry on the cell, and he opened up the ship. The ramp descended, and then, from the top, a Slinky—the old-fashioned, all-metal kind—began its rhythmic progress down the ramp.
“Doodoo, doodoo, doodoo, doodoo,” Jillian chanted as she watched it. “Is it alive?”
“Nah, it probably just got dislodged the last time the ramp closed. This place is pretty neat for a bachelor pad, but it is a bachelor pad,” I said.
We went in. Jillian pulled a trash bag out of her pocket and we picked up. Simon and Jillian tried all the seats, but when Jillian extended a hand to the instrument panel, I warned her off.
“There are all these touch sensors,” I said. “If you touch the one that tells it to fly, we’re in big trouble.”
As we got ready to leave, I held the Slinky in my hands. “Should we re-set the Slinky for Oprah?”
We grinned at each other. I found something to prop it up with, but the others had plenty of advice about placement, positioning, angle of tilt, and so on.
As the ramp disappeared, I said, “I have to admit, I don’t really get the Oprah gig. I like Oprah, though I can’t say I’ve seen her show very much. But isn’t it targeted at a female audience? And isn’t it mostly feel-good stories about love and romance and happy families and miracles? What’s the connection with saving the planet? You’d think Barbara Walters would be able to discuss foreign policy more knowledgeably.”
“We’re still negotiating with ABC,” Jillian said. “The point about Oprah is that she’s got millions of fans. People respect her. If she gives this mission her stamp of approval, that will count for something, at least with Americans. And she makes her guests look good. She doesn’t ask embarrassing personal questions, the way Walters does. She’ll humanize the boys, and make them seem like they’re trying to help us and not just threaten us.”
“They are trying to help us,” I said. “It would probably be easier just to wipe out the planet than to keep sending emissaries to tell us to behave. Cheaper too, I’ll bet, unless the clean-up is expensive.”
A little later, I said, “But I still think Ginger is over the top on this security business. I mean, Elvis is indestructible, as far as I can figure out, and he’s got Larry’s back. So what’s the problem?”
Jillian and Simon exchanged looks of exasperation.
“The problem is their gonzo sidekick, who’s going to wander off by himself and get himself kidnapped by some terrorist group who wants to hold him hostage until our spacemen destroy the United States,” Jillian said.
“They’d never do that,” I said.
Simon smiled. “That’s good, Hank. That’s very good. Say it just like that to the terrorist assholes, and see where it gets you.”
“I still don’t see why anybody would want to kill them,” I grumbled.
“Why does anybody want to kill John Lennon?” Jillian said.
“Why does anybody want to kill Gianni Versace?” Simon said.
And since I didn’t have any answers, I shut up. Which was a good thing, because, as we’d later discover, we’d already received the first death threat. And Jillian, as it turned out, was a frigging Cassandra.