William Franklin watched the hotel television with the eye of a dedicated researcher long attuned to the fascinating possibilities of early twenty-first-century American filmmaking. The surprisingly large-busted heroines of Project Hot Bod: Bimbos of the Kyoto Protocol had reacted to the threat of global warming with laudable ingenuity by removing their bikini tops and joining the hunky surfers in an impressive effort to construct a formidable array of sandcastles as a first line of defense against the rising sea level. Judging by the bulges in the dudes' Speedos, some additional hard information regarding the unforeseen consequences of widespread climatological change would be emerging shortly.
The bedside telephone rang with an insistent purr. Franklin looked at his counterfeit Rolex with annoyance. It was 1:30 A.M, give or take half an hour. Probably a wrong number. Why do publishers always stick me in these cheesy chain hotels?
Franklin paused the videotape and grabbed the handset. "Yes?"
"Professor Franklin," said a chirpy voice, "this is Todd at the front desk. There are some, uh, policemen here looking for you."
Franklin instinctively punched the rewind button and switched the channel to PBS. When you are Professor of American Popular History, Urban Mythology, and Supermarket Tabloid Science at Howard Hughes College in Rancho Melanoma, California, as well as Director of the Harding Institute of Paranoid Studies and Chairman of the Tricoastal Center for Lowbrow Culture, Folklore, and Taproom Wagers, a sense of the dignity of one's position requires constant attention to appearances.
"There must be some mistake," said Franklin. "I had merely inquired of the young lady in your handsomely appointed cocktail lounge if she would like to join me in a simple experiment I am conducting for a paper to be entitled 'Casual Intergender Social Interaction in Hotel Cocktail Lounges on Business Trips' -- no harm intended."
The voice on the phone changed. "Professor, this is Agent Dan Fine of the Department of Homeland Security. We need your immediate assistance in a matter of the utmost urgency."
"Agent Fine," Franklin stammered, "there must be some mistake. I'm just a college professor."
"You can come right down, or we can come up," said Fine in a tone that Franklin remembered from the drill sergeants in his basic training unit at Fort Dix, where for some unknown reason he had been selected to receive special training in Chemical, Biological, and Radiological Warfare. Strange that he would recall that odd fact at this particular moment, but then he did hold a degree in Explanatory Dialogue and Story Advancement from UCLA.
Franklin looked around the room at some of the materials he had been examining for his paper on Sexually Stimulating Miscellanea. The life-size bimbo doll was not going to be easy to deflate.
"I'll be right down," he said.
The Georgetown Ambassador Suites Hotel had a tacky if grandiose lobby designed to hold long lines of people waiting to check in behind zigzagging rows of velvet ropes. At this hour of the morning, it was deserted, save for the slightly incongruous sight of four uniformed agents of the Transportation Security Agency setting up what looked like a typical airport screening barrier, complete with walk-through metal detector, carry-on-luggage X-ray device, collapsible metal picnic tables with a stack of large square gray rubber trays, and a couple of folding chairs.
Two classic government-issue agents in plain clothes stepped forward. "Dan Fine," said the taller of the pair. He showed a badge. "FBI, now with Homeland Security." He held out a hand, which Franklin shook gingerly.
His partner produced a large automatic pistol, aimed it to one side, and pulled the trigger. A short, cigarette-lighter-sized flame shot out of the muzzle and a combination bottle opener and corkscrew sprang out of the butt with a loud click. "Jim Dandy, Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms," he said.
"I'm William Franklin. Can you tell me what this is all about?"
"We'll get to that later," said Fine, motioning Franklin toward the security line. One of the uniformed agents held out a tray. "Laptop, cell phone, electronic devices? Jewelry, keys, coins, metal objects, gimmicks, plot devices?"
Dazed, Franklin emptied his pockets, took off his jacket, and put everything into the container.
"Shoes?" he asked.
"Up to you, sir," said the bored inspector.
Franklin took off his shoes and stepped through the metal detector. It chimed loudly. "Ring?" said the inspector accusingly as he gave Franklin a thorough wanding.
Franklin looked sheepishly at the heavy gold colonial-era signet ring on the third finger of his right hand. He'd worn the Franklin family heirloom for so long, he always forgot to remove it. For the umpteenth time, he examined the intaglio image of a printer's devil composed of cleverly aligned punctuation marks from an old letterpress. Two hundred years before the Internet, an ingenious ancestor of his had created the first emoticon:
< : )
"Have you accepted any gifts from strangers? Were your possessions in your possession at all times? What is the purpose of your visit?"
"No, yes, I don't know," said Franklin, collecting his things.
"Okay, he's clean," said Fine. He looked at Franklin pointedly. "We've gone to Threat Level Purple -- we don't plan to take any chances."
"You know, I think it's more of a magenta or a lavender color," said Agent Dandy.
"Well, you might be right, Jim," said Fine. "I've certainly always seen some lilac, even mauve, in there. Not a full fuchsia, mind you, but a lot less blue."
As the security team dismantled the portable inspection apparatus, Fine steered Franklin out the front door. At the curb sat an anonymous-looking black Ford festooned with crepe paper. Cans and shoes were tied to the rear bumper with string, and large soaped-on letters read JUST MARRIED.
"We're doing our part to support the President's Marriage Initiative," said Fine. He motioned Franklin to take a seat in back, got behind the wheel, and turned on a dashboard-mounted police warning light. Agent Dandy climbed in the passenger side, and they headed east down M Street at high speed.
Copyright © 2001 by Henry Beard