I entered through a side door, so no one had a chance to warn me.
There was a commotion in the lobby. I went over to see what was going on. By now, I’d replaced my dark glasses with my regular glasses, and as I’d come through the door, I’d absentmindedly pulled off the wig.
A small crowd of people was kneeling in the middle of the lobby. At the center stood a thin, stoop-shouldered, middle-aged man with a receding hairline and a beard like an overused Brillo pad. He was holding a large open Bible in one hand, pointing at the page with the other, and reading from the Book of Revelations. A knot of hotel employees stood off to the side, looking on, and I spotted Alex O. on the other side of the kneeling congregation. I sidled up to one of the bellboys.
“Are you guys holding church services now, or is this some kind of protest?” I said.
He glanced at me, then his expression changed to one of alarm. “Don’t let them see you!” he hissed.
Too late. The finger lifted from the Bible and pointed straight at me. “There’s one of Satan’s henchmen now!” the thin man bellowed. The crowd gasped, and the kneelers leaned away from me. A few of the women, horror-struck, raised crossed index fingers in my direction. It would have made more sense to me somehow if they hadn’t been wearing pastel polyester pantsuits and enough make-up to re-coat the Sistine Chapel.
I felt my eyebrows rise. I looked around to see who was behind me, then pointed at my chest and mouthed, “Me?”
“Do not try to deceive us, you wily demon,” the thin man shouted, “with your tricks and disguises.”
He’d spotted the wig in my hand.
He strode toward me, just as I caught a glimpse of blue uniform on Alex’s side of the circle. The cavalry had arrived.
The thin man stood in front of me. Several of the male kneelers had gotten up from the floor and closed in behind him. I felt the bellboy sliding away from me.
“We are not deceived,” the thin man raged. “We cannot be deceived. We are God’s people, the warriors of the Almighty.”
“As long as you don’t carry weapons,” I said, “that’s fine with me. You can be warriors of the Great Shazam for all I care.”
This seemed to stir him up more, not calm him down. “Blasphemy! Anathema!” he roared. “You are aiding and abetting the Antichrist!”
Past the thin man’s fellow warriors, I saw the blue uniforms making their way toward us.
“We have no need of weapons,” the thin man said. “All we need is God’s holy word.” And with that, he slammed me upside the head with his mammoth Bible.
Somebody yelled “Ow!” It was probably me. My mind flew out of my mouth and my eyes watched the whole scene tilt until something hard struck me on the other side of the head and I went under. Later, I would conclude from the bruises that sprouted in various locations that God’s warriors got in a few licks before the cops pulled them off me. I would also have this theory confirmed by a news photograph showing a mob of men attacking someone on the ground who was wearing my sneakers—someone near whose limp hand was something brown and hairy like a long-haired guinea pig that had given up the ghost.
I came to just in time to see that brick of a Bible sailing through the air, pages flapping, until it landed on my outstretched hand. “Ow,” I said again, but dreamily. Someone in a dark suit and wearing an ear bud was wrestling with the thin man. How I registered, much less remembered, the ear bud is one of the mysteries of the human brain.
There was still a lot of shouting and scuffling going on and in the distance I could hear sirens. I wondered hazily if flashing lights were a symptom of concussion but then realized that I was surrounded by news photographers. I closed my eyes against the light but Alex’s voice in my ear said firmly, “Open your eyes, Hank. Wake up.”
Another familiar voice spoke in my other ear, the one that had caught the full force of the Bible belt. I couldn’t understand it, but after a minute I identified it as Charlotte’s.
By the time the medics arrived, I was alert enough to contemplate the gurney with distaste. I’d already given the press enough photographic fodder for one night. I didn’t want my mother to open the paper and see me strapped in and surrounded by white uniforms, like a mental patient. With help, I stood up. The onlookers, the ones who had not been arrested and carted away, clapped, as if I’d been decked by an inside fast ball. Alex, Charlotte, and the medics kept trying to head me toward the exit—presumably toward an ambulance. But I refused to go.
“Look, I’m fine,” I said. “A little wobbly is all.”
“Hank, you could have a concussion,” Charlotte said, now speaking loudly in my good ear, or rather, the ear that had made contact with the floor rather than the Bible.
“I’m fine,” I said again. “Look, let them give me their tests. I’ll prove it.”
I won’t say that I aced the tests, but I didn’t fail them, either, so they finally made me sign a release and let me go. I refused to let Charlotte help me upstairs. “Alex will take me,” I said. “Thanks just the same. Really.”
I could see well enough, even through my cracked glasses, to know that she was disappointed.
On the elevator, Alex continued to lobby for a visit to the hospital, or at the very least, a house call from the hotel physician.
I finally agreed to the latter, but added, “I’m not going to sue you, okay, Alex?”
“I know lawyers who say that’s the first sign of concussion—the reluctance to sue,” he said.
“I’m sorry you got called out on your night off,” I said. “Especially with your prime minister dead and all.”
“Thanks, Hank,” he said. “It comes with the territory.”
He told me that nobody had called up to the room to let them know what was going on in the lobby.
Max opened the door and glared at me.
“Hi, Dad, I’m home,” I said.
I got no sympathy from Max. “Whatever happened to you,” he said, “you had it coming.”
“Fair enough,” I muttered as I limped past him.
They had all been watching a movie. A new bodyguard, Germaine, brought me some ice for my head, while Elvis plied me with questions. What had I been hit with? And why? Who were these people? And why did they think that Larry was Satan?
This last seemed to be the biggest puzzle to Elvis. For one thing, nobody where he came from believed in a figure of evil incarnate, as Larry explained. But even once Elvis had accepted that some Earth people believed in such a figure, he couldn’t understand why they would confuse Larry with an evil being. “But Larry is a very good person,” he said. “Larry has come all this way to warn the Earth people, to save them from destruction.”
I couldn’t explain it, except to say, “They don’t know Larry. They know that he’s powerful, and because he’s warned them about destruction, they think he’s the destroyer. They don’t get it that Earth people are the ones who will destroy Earth.”
“This guy—the Reverend Barnaby Pippin, as he calls himself—he’s a well known crackpot in the D. C. area,” Alex put in. Seeing Elvis’s frown, he added, “A crackpot—you know, a lunatic, a crazy person.”
“But why did he strike Hank with this book of holy scriptures?” Elvis asked.
“Because it was handy,” I said, “and it weighed a ton. Even with apocrypha and a concordance, you wouldn’t think a Bible could be so damned heavy.”
“It’s good that you remember that much,” Alex said. “Maybe you don’t have a concussion.”
The doctor, a heavyset woman with a cheerful disposition, showed up and gave me some of the same tests the medics had, and some different. She asked questions about my medical history, my medications, and how long I’d been unconscious.
“Congratulations,” she said at last. “You have a very hard head.” She handed me some extra-strength Tylenol and gave me some instructions about icing both sides of my head.
“Do we have to keep him awake?” Germaine asked.
“No, but if he develops nausea or dizziness, take him to the hospital.” She snapped her bag shut, and departed with Alex.
In the meantime, a businesslike young woman in hotel livery had retrieved my glasses, promising to have them repaired by morning.
Ten minutes later, the phone rang, and I got an earful from Ginger about security. She clearly didn’t know about the evening’s festivities, and I wasn’t going to be the one to tell her.
“Come on, Ginger,” I said. “I’m just—.”
“You’re just the guy whose face has appeared in almost every photo published,” she snapped. “You’re known, Hank. And if you don’t like that, I’m sorry, but it can’t be undone. Someone could get to them through you.
“You just don’t think, Hank. But you don’t have to think. That’s what you pay me for. And I pay the best security firm in Washington to think about your security, twenty-four seven. Because that’s when the loonies are active, Hank. Twenty-four seven.”
“I was wearing my disguise,” I said sulkily. Well, most of the time.
“I don’t care. You compromised security, Hank, and not just yours, theirs.”
“Who were you with, anyway?”
“This girl I know.” If I hadn’t just been dressed down for endangering Larry and Elvis and potentially undermining their mission, I probably would have told her that it wasn’t any of her business. But I now had an uncomfortable sense that it was her business, and she was about to tell me why. Besides, my head was throbbing.
“A girl. When did you meet her?”
“A few days ago.”
“Christ, Ginger, I wasn’t looking at my watch! I’m not planning to record the event for posterity.”
“Let’s see. Um, I think it was Friday.”
“Friday. After the press conference.”
“And you met her where?”
“In the park.”
“In the park.”
“You don’t have to repeat everything I say, you know. I know what I said.”
“Yes, but you don’t hear yourself,” she said. “You meet a girl in a park on the very day you appear on television screens all across America, and you don’t suspect anything. Jesus, Hank, this is D.C., not fucking Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. You have to suspect everybody.”
“I’d just had my beard shaved off, and I was wearing a wig and dark glasses. Give me some credit, Ginger.”
“Okay, fair enough. I’ll give you some credit. Who spoke first?”
“And why was that?”
I felt like I was in the witness box. “Well, she was reading, and I asked her what she was reading.”
“And what was she reading?”
“Well, let’s see. I think it was Douglas Adams.”
“Never heard of him. So, what’s her last name, this girl?”
“Actually, she’s not a girl, she’s a woman. I misspoke.”
“Don’t try to distract me with gender politics. What’s her last name?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think she’s mentioned it.”
Silence. Then she said, “She gave you her phone number, didn’t she?”
“Well, yeah, but she just wrote ‘Charlotte.’”
“So what does Charlotte do?”
“She’s a writer.”
“Not like a reporter. She’s free-lance. She writes about things like scrapbooking and papier maché art, stuff like that.”
“Okay, give me the phone number. I’ll get Howard on it.”
I gave her the number.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, bright and early,” she said. “In the meantime, don’t you dare set foot outside your suite without a minder.”
I sat down on my bed and contemplated my fate. Maybe I should go home after all. Maybe Ginger was right and I was jeopardizing the mission. Maybe I couldn’t be trusted. Shortly afterward, I heard whispering outside the door, and then the pad of little dog paws, and Getlo appeared with her leash in her mouth.
“You’re barking up the wrong tree, kid,” I told her. “My leash is shorter than yours.”
In the middle of the night I got up to pee and then wandered out into the sitting room to find Elvis engrossed in that night’s Creature Feature, It Came from Outer Space. I went and stood behind him.
“I like this one, Hank,” he said. “The spacemen are the good guys.”
It occurred to me that he would have absorbed the concept of good guys and bad guys from hanging out with ten-year-olds in the early fifties.
“Yeah,” I said ruefully. “And the Earth people are still out to get them.”
“Except for the heroes,” he said, then added, “Like you, Hank. You’re a hero.”
I shook my head and patted his shoulder. “No, big guy, I’m just a hitchhiker from another galaxy.”
“What Earth needs,” he said soberly, “is more heroes.”
I couldn’t argue with that.