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Chapter One: A Conventional Calling
Mensa: (Latin) mind, table, month
Mensa: (Mundane) an international organization for people of all walks of life whose IQs rank in the top two percent of the population
Mensa: (Faerie Dragon) another reason to make me work without pay...
Most people expect blessings when a bishop walks into their homes, but after eight hundred years of working for the Faerie Catholic Church, I'd acquired a healthy dose of suspicion.
"Tell me you're here on a social visit, Your Excellency," I said as I bent over his ring. I didn't kiss it, of course. Dragon lips don't pucker. My partner, Sister Grace, a High Mage of the Faerie Catholic Church and a human, did those honors while I used my tail to pull up an office chair for the bishop.
"Business, I'm afraid, Vern," he said. His eyes strayed over to the television, which was playing the opening scenes of Galaxy Quest. Father Rich, our priest and a good friend here on the Mundane side of the Gap, assured us that after years of watching Star Trek DVDs, we were ready to appreciate it.
I switched off the television. Guess we'd have to wait a little longer.
Bishop Aiden smiled his thanks. "You do not have any cases currently, I hope?" As he asked, his hand slid into his pocket. At first I thought he was fingering his rosary, a habit of his, but I heard his thumb brush against paper. Slick paper. Mundane paper. Curious.
Grace and I shared a glance that answered his question. Even after years of successful work, even after saving the world--both of them--on an all-too-regular basis, we still had periods when we'd welcome a missinganimal case.
It's been a long time--well, to you humans, anyway--since the Gap opened between the Mundane world and Faerie. (Yeah, go ahead, make the joke. Somebody in advertising wept with joy when the scientists first named the phenomenon, and the clothing retailer has done its best to reap the benefits. Most of us in Los Lagos, Colorado, have heard or made every variation of the pun possible. Now it's just another border crossing.) Things have settled down for the time being--bad news for our business.
When it comes to hiring private detectives, a dragon and a mage from the Faerie world are the first ones you think of when magic is involved, but most Mundanes would rather hire one of their own kind otherwise. Guess I can't blame them. Imagine hiring a twelve-foot-long, eight-hundred-pound dragon for a discreet investigation. And of course, we're limited to morally upright cases. Try making money as a PI doing that. All in all, it can be hard paying the rent, and if it weren't for free meals at Natura's restaurant and my herd of Faerie cattle (a payment from Princess Galinda for a simple lost item that turned into a Save-The-Universes Case), we'd be dining out of the local trash bins--not that our neighborhood has much to offer.
Nonetheless, I was still an agent of the Church, and Grace, of course, was a nun. Bishop Aiden was our superior. I didn't mind him much; he respected my independence more than many of my former bosses. He'd only called upon our services a handful of times and usually with dire need.
Aiden pulled out the brochure and handed it to Grace. I peered over her shoulder. What could be so dire and still advertise itself with a glossy full-color brochure?
"Mensa World Gathering," she read. "What's Mensa?"
"It's a club for persons of high intelligence."
"You should fit right in," she told me.
"I'm not a 'person,' remember? Ask the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service," I growled.
When I'd first arrived, the Mundane American government sent a ... representative ... from the immigration service to investigate my application for a Green Card. After making my life miserable for weeks, he finally denied me because he didn't think I fit the definition of "person."
I have more brainpower in my tail than Stephen Hawking has in his entire head. I've forgotten more facts and stories than your Library of Congress holds. I can read, write, and pun in more languages than your above-average United Nations delegate. Yet I'm not humanoid enough to be considered a "person" by American law. Speciesists.
Yeah, it was still a sore point with me. So?
Both Grace and the Bishop ignored me. They'd heard it all before. Grace, of course, sympathized, but Bishop Aiden avoided taking sides as much as possible. His brother, the Duke of Peebles-on-Tweed, ruled the territory just on the Faerie side of the Gap. When the United States government tried to evict me, Duke Galen reminded your President that he (your President) had welcomed the citizens of Faerie to settle in America, and since I was a Faerie citizen, America should live up to its promise and keep me. On threat of Interdimensional Incident. I understand Duke Galen still laughs into his beer when he thinks about that communiqué; he has a warped sense of humor and a stubborn streak to match mine. Even with the power of the Church behind him, Bishop Aiden could only counsel me on patience.
I'm immortal. Don't talk to me about patience.
Grace flipped through the brochure. It had the usual exaggerated promises of fun and adventure and photos of smiling people doing, well, conventional stuff: sitting in uncomfortable chairs listening to people talk, eating, mugging it up for the camera, and playing in an amusement park that anyone--Mundane or Faerie--who has lived in this country for a while would recognize right away. I looked at the photo of what I assumed were Mensans standing by the park mascot and grinning.
Do geniuses really wear hats with buck teeth and flat tails?
Meanwhile, the Bishop explained. "You'll be attending. Both of you. Their international organization has invited a number of Faerie citizens--humans and Magicals--and we feel someone should be there to help keep order, supernaturally speaking."
Grace beamed, but I saw where this was headed. "Hold on. You want us to be chaperones?"
"Nonsense. You are welcome to enjoy the conference. Simply be available in case things get out of hand."
"Oh, right," I said. "Supernatural hazmat. So much better. We're not getting paid for this, are we?"
"The Church and the Duchy will cover your travel expenses, convention fees, and accommodations. All Faerie citizens will be staying at the same hotel as the convention. It's near someplace called BillyBeaver(TM)'s Fantasyland; I'm told you should fit right in."
How did he say that with a straight face? Maybe he and his brother had more in common than I'd thought. Great.
He continued, "Grace, we've arranged for you to speak on the theological and stylistic differences between Faerie and Mundane liturgical music."
I suppressed a groan of defeat. Some days I hated Aiden's cunning--Grace had come to the Mundane world on sabbatical to study Mundane religious music, and circumstances had kept her here with me. He knew she'd love the chance to share her research and that I would support anything that made her happy.
Well, we certainly didn't have anything better to do.
"What about me?" I asked grudgingly.
"Actually, you'll simply accompany Sister Grace."
"I'm a sidekick?"
"We thought it best that you be free to move about the convention as needed," he said blandly, then rose. "I must be off. I promised Father Rich I'd join him for lunch before Adoration. Someone will get you the details within the week." He made the sign of the cross over us and made a quick but dignified exit from the warehouse that we'd made our office and home.
I resisted the temptation to blow a stream of fire at him. I definitely had to go to Confession now.
Once, I'd held the Knowledge of Eternity and the Wisdom of the Ages and had enjoyed respect, even reverence, from humans and Magicals alike. Now, I get to be the sidekick and a babysitter at a Smart Humans' Convention.
Chapter Two: Pixies in the Program
"Oh, Vern, why are you so hacked? This conference looks like a gas, man."
I didn't bother to answer. When Natura made up her mind about something, there was no arguing with her. Instead, I opened my mouth and poured half a bottle of Kingfisher into it. Not that beer can get me drunk. It takes about five gallons of ethanol to do that, and now that I've got my fire back, it's not the smartest idea. One wrong belch and I could make a dragon-sized hole in the pavement.
Beside Natura, Bert Logan took a pull from his beer and rolled his eyes at his wife's vocabulary. They made an odd match. Natura had never left the Sixties, while Bert had "bought into the Establishment" at an early age and served as sheriff of Los Lagos for thirty years. She'd been a believer in "free love," while he had never even dated. He'd had it bad for her, though--so bad, he'd actually come to me for advice.
Once upon a time, it had been the vogue in Faerie courtship for the man to rescue his intended from the snares of the "evil dragon." Therefore, the primary experience I had with human romance consisted of someone stealing my lunch and my treasure, and poking me in the side while he was at it, mostly in a show of over-polished armor and testosterone. I told Bert he was on his own.
Glad he finally figured it out, though.
He leaned closer to his wife to look at the program that Grace and I had brought to go over as we ate. It was Hindu Night, and Grace loves Natura's dahi wado.
"I gotta agree with Natura, Vern," he told me. "That polygraph lecture looks interesting."
"I want to go to that one," Grace said, carefully wiping a piece of fallen rice off her habit. "We have a spell for compelling the truth based on the Eighth Commandment, but detecting the truth has always been trickier. People can make themselves believe the most unlikely things."
"We've had the same problem," Bert started, but I cut him off.
"It's not the Mundane speakers I'm worried about." With one claw, I pointed to one of the Friday lectures.
"Helreið Brynhildar--Bryndhilde's ride to Hel. Faerie Valkyrie Brunhilde talks about her near-death experience in this magical multimedia event," Natura read. "Like, wow!"
Bert looked at me thoughtfully. "In our legend, she had to slay a dragon."
I shrugged. Faerie dragons are immortal. Stab us, we heal. Burn us, we rise from the ashes. Chop us to little bits and whatever's most alive will grow back into a full dragon. It's not easy, and it's often painful, but a Faerie dragon cannot die. I said, "Ours, too. He grew back. It's not the dragon slaying I'm worried about."
Grace merely shrugged. "We just have to tell her to keep the presentation to sound and visuals. She's surprisingly reasonable."
I grunted, not willing to be comforted. "And Goes-on-Verbose-Soporific of the Eternally Long-Winded? They actually list him as keynote speaker for the closing ceremony."
"That's 'Gozonvabosomofic of the House Eternal Winds of the High Elves,'" Grace chided lightly.
"Wanna bet?" Gozon was the Speaker for the Winds of one of the largest clans of Elves in Faerie, once a great warrior, now a scholar, and always a pontificating airbag. Worse, I am comparing him to other High Elves, who unlike the general elf population are long-lived, and thus, also long-winded. In their native language, it takes half an hour to ask where the bathroom is. I know from experience that Gozon's never been able to figure out Human, no matter how many human languages he's learned. Folks attending his speech risk missing their flights home, and I mean the ones scheduled for the next day.
"We'll figure something out," Grace said, though she, too, looked concerned.
"Hey," Bert said as he pointed at the program with a folded piece of flatbread. "'Elvis Meets the Dalai Lama!'"
"Not ours," Grace and I chorused. Elvis was one legend that didn't parallel in Faerie.
Bert shrugged and wiped sauce off his chin. "You know, Vern, it's a shame they aren't letting you talk. If nothing else, you could talk about life in an alternate universe."
"Title's been taken."
"Oh, look! One of the Muses is going to be at the poetry workshop." Natura's delight dissolved into confusion at the look on Grace's face. "What?"
Grace shrugged. "It's just that Kaliope is a notoriously finicky editor. Lots of 'happy' to 'glad.' And of course, she's always right. Compose a poem or a song with a Muse and it'll be perfect, but, well, it's not yours anymore."
"Like the individual voice is lost..." Natura's eyes glazed a moment. Then she shook herself. "Bummer. But--wow! Look at this. 'Erotic Photography--A Practical Guide.'"
Her husband almost choked on his flatbread.
"Oh, Bert, don't be so conventional. It's art."
"Yeah," he managed to gasp. "Amazing how many teenage boys discover art."
Natura elbowed him. "C'mon Grace, go and take notes for me? It's a celebration of the beauty of the human body."
Grace held up her hands. "The only body I celebrate is Corpus Christi."
"Forget it. To me a human without clothes is like an apple without skin."
Bert looked confused, but both ladies groaned and explained: "They both lack appeal!"
Bert made a show of banging his head on the table, then raised his beer in a toast. "St. George! His curse is our blessing ... except perhaps when you pun like that."
"St. George!" Natura said.
"God bless him," Grace added.
"God bless him," I said, "the magically overpowered pain in the tail."
The Faerie St. George and I have a history. Since dragons can't be killed, he got the brilliant idea to trap one in a holy spell, and, lucky me, he happened to be in my territory at the time. He worked magic on me until I was not much more than a good-looking Gila monster and then laid a geis on me, a real doozy. If I ever wanted to regain my former glory, I had to earn it back through service to God and His creatures through the Faerie Catholic Church.
I've been a faithful employee ever since.
I've done it all, from Pope's pet, to agent of the Inquisition (ours, not yours), to scribe, to plow horse for the monks, which was my assignment when the Gap between our worlds opened. Don't ask how--the short version sounds like a comic book plot; the long version would require doctorates in subquantum physics and High Magic to understand. The point is, for the first time, I felt a Calling, and it led me here--where I'm underpaid and generally underappreciated and stuck solving STUCs.
Guess I'm needed here. Scratch that--I'm definitely needed here. Most of our STUCs (Save-The-Universes Cases) began with a--pardon the pun--mundane investigation.
Plus, all those good works go a long way to working off my curse--or whatever you call it when a saint takes away all your abilities and makes you earn them back a bit at a time. Eight hundred years of "faithful service to God and His creatures through the Faerie Catholic Church," and I'd gotten back about a fourth of my size, a third of my healing abilities, a fair proficiency of languages, and a genius-level IQ--by human standards, of course. A couple of years as a PI, and I'd doubled my healing and got my fire back. Damsels and Knights, how I'd missed my fire, too. I've made some good friends. And I get paid, mostly. It's not a bad deal, overall.
The door to the restaurant swung open, setting Natura's meditation chimes to making their sonorous sounds. Natura looked up. She may seem as flakey as pie crust at times, but she had a shrewd business mind and genuinely cared about her customers. She was one of the first people in Los Lagos to accept me. In fact, she and Bert had had a huge fight about it once. Bert was still sheriff and had been ordered by the Immigration and Naturalization Service guy to have me removed from the restaurant.
Come to think of it, Bert had stopped her tirade by kissing her right in front of the entire restaurant. She won the argument--and he won her. Humans.
Natura's hostess immediately headed to her station, menu in hand, but the man waved her off and headed to our corner. He wore the livery of a herald of the Duchy of Peebles-on-Tweed: a large, green, blousy shirt that hung to mid-calf over orange-and green-striped tights and ankle-high boots of tanned leather. The matching belt worn snug on the waist held an honorary (but sharp) knife and a pouch for message scrolls. The pouch was traditional more than practical; he also had a large book bag slung diagonally shoulder-to-waist. His orange tabard bore the crest of Duchy of Peebles-on-Tweed: a particularly ugly boar's head with overlarge tusks that had been messily severed from its body and spiked onto a spear. The Duke's family has never been known for good taste--Bishop Aiden excepted, of course.
I'd never given the outfit a second thought until I'd moved to the Mundane side. Now I'd gotten used to the drabber dress of your species, and I have to suppress a snicker whenever I see the official uniform of the Duke's men. It's even funnier when you consider that a herald's oath as a new pursuivant says they promise to be "sober in dress."
At least the Duke hadn't decided to put them all in tweed suits. His sense of humor does have its limits.
You might think a herald would have trouble on the Mundane side dressed in a medieval monkey-suit like that, but actually, he takes surprisingly little heat. At first, everything from Faerie was too new and exciting, and the heralds who ventured across the Gap did so with the dignity of being the voice of authority. By the time the newness wore off, enough stranger things had been seen in Los Lagos that most natives didn't give them a second glance. There were exceptions, of course, but they soon learned that heralds have diplomatic immunity, a strong sense of honor, and very sharp daggers.
The Duke's herald stopped at our table and drew himself to full attention. In a booming voice, he started, "Vern d'Wyvern and Sister Grace of Our Lady of the Miracles, I bring you greeting from His Grace, Galen, Duke of Peeble-on-Tweed ... yadda, yadda. You know the drill." Herald Charlie Wilmot relaxed into a smile. and we smiled back.
Charlie's father had delivered the Duke's message that condemned me to life on the Mundane side, but I'd never held that against him. I'm not the kind to shoot the messenger--though I had eaten a few back in my pre-George days. But that was only when I was desperately hungry--or if they were especially annoying.
Still, I'd had to admire Charlie Senior for taking on the President of the United States, the local police, and a really ticked-off dragon, all in the name of his Duke, and all without soiling himself. Even more, I liked Charlie Junior's style. Charlie wasn't especially thrilled about succeeding to his father's old job, but he did enjoy when it brought him to the Mundane side, which was quite often, and he found ways to turn things to his advantage. Mundane automobiles especially fascinated him. He'd scrimped and saved his herald's pay and the tips the Mundanes gave him, and had bought himself a VW bug just this side of scrap metal. He drove it around on business, a pitiful sight, until someone mentioned it to the Duke. Now he drives a vintage 1964 Ford AC Cobra with a V8 engine. Yeah, it's in the Duke's colors, but it's a sweet machine--and totally paid for from Galen's coffers.
Now that's my kind of humor.
"Yadda-yadda, and don't call me 'd'Wyvern'," I said, thus dispensing with the honorifics. "So, Charlie, what's Duke Galen want?"
We scrunched our chairs a little closer together, and the hostess brought a chair for Charlie. Natura excused herself to get him a plateful of food from the buffet. (She charged it to the Duke's account, of course.) Charlie bowed his thanks to both ladies then settled into the chair. He pulled out some documents from the book bag and passed them to us, careful of the food that crowded the table.
"Travel arrangements from the Ministry. You'll be joining the other Faerie conventioneers at the Los Lagos Airship Field to take the Cloudskater to Citrus City. Lucky sods--beggin' your pardon, Sister!"
Grace smiled sympathetically. "That's all right, Charlie. I'm looking forward to being a passenger on Cloudskater this time."
Airship construction was one of the first Faerie/Mundane industries. Despite the legends of your world, most Faerie cannot fly--not even the Magicals, and certainly not the humans. A few folks have flying carpets--set one on fire myself, back in the day--but let's face facts: Do you really want to soar up to thirty feet--much less 30,000--on something flimsy enough to roll up? Then there's the weather, flocks of birds, flying insects ... Aladdin notwithstanding, there's nothing fun about a magic carpet ride, in either universe. And brooms? Please--I don't know where you Mundanes came up with that. A washtub makes more sense. It'd be more comfortable.
However, your legends about iron and silver do contain some truth. Not only are elves and some Magicals allergic to iron, but they have a special sense about it. Kind of like a shark's ability to sense electrical impulses or my ability to sense magic. Being around certain metals irritates elves like too much static in the air or a high-pitched buzzing might irritate a human. They can tolerate it for a short time--"short time" meaning several hours to an elf--and will, if necessary in order to travel about the Mundane world. Naturally, however, they'd prefer to avoid such unpleasantness. So a whole slew of industries geared toward non-metallic items have developed. Fiberglass cars, for example, reinforced by Faerie ironwood or the recently discovered material Faerimet, are taking over the market, as are airships--airplane/dirigible hybrids that allow folks to cruise in metal-free comfort.
Grace and I were familiar with the airships from a precious case. Someone hadn't liked Dayton-Sybal Industries making it easier for the Faerie to travel around the great U.S. of A., and they'd employed magic to make trouble. Naturally, D-S then hired Dragon Eye, PI, to stop them, and that included foiling a case of sabotage on Cloudskater's maiden voyage. Cloudskater was one of the bigger airships in the LagosLines fleet and had accommodations for us large four-legged Magicals to travel in comfort. I had to admit, I was pleased about the travel arrangements. Someone was thinking, and thinking of me for once. About time.
"There's also a complete list of everyone attending, your hotel reservations, and a prepaid debit card. His Grace said what's on the card is all ye get, so don't go crazy at the markets. Oh, thank ye kindly, Natura." His grin widened as she set the plate in front of him, and he immediately dug in. I watched him enviously. A human eats like an animal and people chuckle and say, "He's still a growing boy." If I ate like that, those same people would be edging slowly toward the door while calling animal control on their cell phones.
Charlie asked, "Hey, Natura, got any Ping Extra?"
Natura wrinkled her nose at Charlie. "I will not allow that commercially made poison disguised as beverage in my restaurant. I mean, like, it causes cancer and obesity in lab rats, you know."
Bert huffed. "Feed anything four hundred times its body weight in something and it'll contract obesity and cancer, too. Lab conditions cause cancer in lab rats."
Natura rolled her eyes. "Okay, like, there simply hasn't been enough testing by neutral parties, all right, man? Big businesses like totally control the FDA--you can't trust their studies. Want an Organacola? Or a beer?"
Charlie sighed. "I'll just have water; I'm on duty."
Before his wife could continue her tirade, Bert asked me if I'd remembered the recipe for Egyptian beer yet. He had started a microbrewery.
I shook my head. "Not yet. Guess God hasn't decided that's knowledge I need."
"Maybe we can get Grace to pray a novena?"
On occasion when we needed specific knowledge, she has prayed a novena for me to remember it. Now, however, Grace frowned. "I don't think that knowledge will serve God or Man."
"It'll serve me good," Bert teased.
Grace didn't answer, but turned her attention to the pile of papers Charlie had given us. My own smile faded, and I turned my attention to the last of my Indian beer. She didn't laugh as much as she used to.
"Oh, that's the latest intel," Charlie said through a mouth full of food as Grace pulled out a newsletter.
Heralds do carry secrets, but in this case, "intel" consisted more of news and gossip. Still, we'd found it useful to keep track of rumors on both sides of the Gap. Grace and I put out our own weekly report; we get paid a pittance for it, naturally. Maybe I ought to look into getting it published, hiring some local boys to hawk it...
Grace interrupted my publishing fantasy with a loud sigh. "Tensions within House Eternal Winds are rising."
"Oh, I was there for that!" In his excitement, Charlie set down his fork and leaned away from his plate. He'd pretty much cleaned it, anyway. Natura rose to get him another. "It was at a trade meeting with some of the Mundane industries and the representatives of the Faerie territories. Gozonvabosomofic and Pampaserrbahgh bumped into each other in the hall--and all they said was 'Excuse me, sir.'"
Grace crossed herself, but Bert snorted. "What's wrong with that?"
"Elves have ritualistic responses for everything," I said. "It's kind of like the Japanese tradition of bowing--how low and how long you bow depends on the person's age or rank above or below you. Only Elves apply it to language; plus they also consider family, tribe, and house--and the relationships between those. 'Excuse me' in Elvish consists of a fifteen-minute exchange of recognition, obeisance, and compliments. They usually dispense with it when dealing with humans, but to ignore it with their own kind..." I twitched my tail. "Funny Bishop Aiden didn't mention any of this."
"Oh, the bishop's tried to talk to them, he has," Charlie said, "but they won't discuss it. They said, 'It's within the House.' I think he's contacting Cardinal Greystone."
Bert understood enough about the Faerie Catholic Church to know what that meant. "Are we talking about a war?"
Behind him, Natura almost dropped Charlie's plate. He leapt to rescue it from her and help her into her seat.
"Don't worry," I said. "Elves don't operate on human timetables. About the only thing they do fast is fall in love, and that's only with humans. Even then, it took my friend Galendor an entire weekend to propose to Princess Galinda--and he can speak Human."
"A whole weekend?" Bert exclaimed. His proposal had been, "So, uh, wanna get hitched?" It had taken him longer to convince Natura to have a wedding rather than just "shack up."
I answered, "Sunup Saturday to sundown Sunday. Anyway, there's been something brewing in the House Eternal Winds for seventy-five years or so, and they're just now getting to rudeness. You'll probably be six feet under before they get to yelling at each other. Still, I'd like to know what this is all about."
"Well, we can satisfy your curiosity after the conference," Grace said, reading on. "For now, I'm just glad Gozon is the only Elf from House Eternal Winds we have to worry about. Looks like he's been a busy boy, too. London, Paris, a couple of places in Australia, Norway, Egypt--ours, of course. What could he want there?"
Charlie swallowed the food he'd started chewing. "If you ask me, I think the Elves want to corner the Faerimet market, and that's what they're fighting about."
"Faerimet?" Natura asked, "Is that really, like, environmentally friendly?"
Bert rolled his eyes.
"It's like a Faerie non-metal metal," I said. "Elves and other iron-sensitive Magicals can tolerate it. Nothing volatile or toxic about it, but it's not the easiest of substances to mine or work with, so no one thought much about it really, until we met you Mundanes and got a taste for technology."
"It's good for us, too," Bert said. "It works better than metals for some things, like temperature extremes. Supposed to increase engine efficiency by ten percent. Ford's incorporating faerimet components into the new Kobold." Bert had been trying to get Natura to let him buy that SUV since he saw the billboard on I-25.
She handled it like she had for the past three months--by changing the subject. "War over metals? Like, major downer. We've got to take action." Bert and I grimaced, remembering the last time she'd tried to stage a protest over a Faerie-Mundane issue.
Grace's mouth turned down with doubt. "Faerimet's only become important in the last fifteen years. More likely, as Speaker for the Winds, he went to visit the Houses in those territories before the conference to get the discussions started; after all, they could never make a decision during the conference otherwise." She had a point: Elves would consider a decision made in two weeks rash.
Charlie shrugged and returned his full attention to devouring his food. He was making me hungry again. I've got a competitive stomach.
"And what's this?" Grace pulled out a scroll from the stack and broke the seal. Although narrow, the scroll unrolled down to her lap.
"Oh, that," Charlie gulped down his food and followed it with a quick drink of water. "Well, some of us were hoping, seeing as ye were going there and all..."
"You gave us a shopping list?" I exclaimed.
"We've all pitched in some money to yer bank card--"
"We're on assignment. We're not going to shop!"
Grace intervened. "We'll see what we can do." She started to roll up the list.
"You can order this stuff online," I griped. The Interdimensional Internet, or InterdimNet, had launched about a year ago, but other than nobility and merchants, few people could afford a computer, much less the shipping costs for couriering something across the Gap. Of course, such displays of wealth should be, well, displayed where the common folk could get an eyeful. As a result, many Faerie were treated to lovely images of flashy drek they could ill afford. There were trade restrictions to consider, too. Was the Duke planning on turning a blind eye, or was Charlie hoping to get fired in a big way for smuggling this stuff over in the trunk of his Cobra?
Something caught my eye. I stopped Grace by using a claw to pin the list to the table. "Wait a minute. Rhoda Dakota's autograph?"
Charlie blushed. "Well, you know, if you can find her. She might be in disguise."
I rolled my eyes. Television shows. "Charlie, she's--"
Grace kicked me under the table. "She's probably very busy--but we'll see what we can do," Grace finished.
Once Charlie had left, I turned to Grace. "So now we're babysitters, damage control--and you know there'll be damage to control--and we're hunting down autographs?"
She just shook her head at me. "Oh, lighten up, Vern. It'll be a gas."
Chapter Three: High Flight
Well, Grace was right: The trip was a gas. About 250,000 cubic meters of it.
As we approached the airport, we could see Cloudskater looming large and majestic against the prairie sunrise. Longer and flatter than your typical Goodyear Blimp, she also boasted four wings--two tiny ones in the front and two longer ones in the back--and twin tails. The oblong gondola beneath held an observation deck with room enough for forty sightseers at a time. The back also lowered to drive cargo in--or push something out, as I'd learned the hard way. But that was an old case. I wasn't expecting any scuffles now.
Cloudskater was built for domestic flights, so she only had ten private cabins, a restaurant/lounge and train-style seating for ninety. She was quite a beauty, too, with the pink light of the sunrise reflecting off her hull.
"Vern!" Bert called from the driver's seat. "Would you please put your head in? I hate it when you do that."
"I wanted a good look," I said as I slunk my neck back through the front window and into his SUV, carefully avoiding bumping Grace in the front seat.
"Don't give me that. You stick your head out the window every time I take you somewhere. I thought only dogs did that."
"Dogs?" I harrumphed with exaggerated dignity. "I keep my tongue in my mouth, thank you very much. It's just easier for me to see."
"Vern likes the double takes from the other drivers," Grace teased. She knows me too well.
"Well, someday, someone's going to double take himself right into oncoming traffic, and it'll be your fault."
"Yes, Bert," I said. I tried to sound chagrined, but I didn't fool anybody. I did keep my head in the rest of the way to the airport, though. After all, Bert got up early to get us here before the rest of the Faerie travelers boarded so we'd have time to go over Cloudskater personally. Grace and I knew from experience just how much trouble can hide in an airship.
The security guard greeted us with a smile and waved us right onto the runway area. Bert parked as near Cloudskater as allowed, so we'd only have a short walk. He opened up the back to grab Grace's and my bags so I could climb out. We pack light; most of our luggage held tools of the trade: religious items and magical supplies, fingerprint kit, lockpick tools, and my flying harness in case I needed to take on a passenger. A spare set of robes for Grace and an extra vest for me, and we were set.
Grace also brought her harp, which she slung across her back while Bert took her bag. I threaded my neck through the strap of my pack and adjusted it on my back with my tail. Even though I can walk upright, I don't really have shoulders to hold a bag; besides, a dragon walking upright and carrying a suitcase looks even sillier than a dragon sticking his head out the car window.
We were heading to the ship when we heard someone shout our names. Grace winced. I glowered. Bert audibly groaned. Figures we wouldn't be able to leave without being harassed by the Los Lagos Gazette's own "investigative" reporter, Kitty McGrue. Kitty's got great investigative skills but no reasoning ability, and she makes up for that lack by sensationalizing everything to meet her own personal slant. She probably jumped a fence somewhere and has been lying in wait to ambush us.
Not that I have anything against her. Really.
We didn't even slow down, but she caught up with us, anyway. "So off to hobnob with the self-proclaimed elite? Or does Aiden expect trouble?"
"No comment," we chorused. One day, we'll get Grace to teach us how to really chorus that and won't Kitty be amused.
She was learning, though. She tried a new tactic: changing the subject instead of clinging to the original like a gluttonous dog with a bone. "Fine. What about the talk of war between the Elves? Will it spread across the Gap? Will Galendor of the House Eternal Winds of the Forests get his human in-laws involved?"
Elf war in this generation? Ri-ight. Gotta get her a copy of Uncle Vern's Guide to Faerie. 'Course I'll need to write it first. "No comment."
"Dammit, Vern!" Kitty rushed ahead and stopped in front of me. "This is important! I know you don't like what I do--"
"Wrong. I just don't like how you do it." Fewmets. Should have stuck to "no comment."
But she just huffed. "It might help if you give me something to work with."
Right. I tried not to laugh. Like anything I'd ever "given her to work with" didn't end up warped beyond its original meaning. Work with? Or twist?
"Come on," she wheedled when I didn't answer. She posed and pouted. "For old time's sake?"
Wrong words. The last thing I ever wanted was to be reminded of "old times" with her. I slunk around her on all fours, careful to keep my tail from touching her, though I really wanted to swat her like the pest she was. The others followed quickly.
She yelled at my retreating back. "You were a lot more fun as a human! You know that?"
I saw Grace clutch her cross.
"No comment!" I hollered back. I wanted to tell her to shut up, but that would egg her on and bother Grace. Instead, I slid my tail onto Grace's shoulder and just kept walking.
Halfway to the boarding ramp, we passed some security guards heading the other way. I looked behind me as they grabbed Kitty McGrue by the shoulders and hauled her to the gate. Guess they knew her pretty well, too. The porter hurried to meet us and took Grace's harp and her bag from Bert. The Captain waited for us at the top of the ramp. He made quite an impression in his ascot and leather bomber jacket with the company logo emblazoned on the pocket. He stood about five-foot-ten with wavy blond hair and a strong jaw to make the girls sigh. I know 'cause I'd seen that before, too. The cheesy oversized mustache just seemed to add to his charm. Just what you'd expect from an airship pilot with the name of Zepplin.
Yeah, that's right: Zepplin. His family is related to the original airship creator through some cousins who emigrated in the 1920s. He liked to say they lost an E at Ellis Island. When he heard about the airship project, he left the U.S. Air Force where he flew C-130s and joined LagosLines.
"I had a parachute made just for you," he called as we climbed the ramp.
"Funny," I called back. "Stay up all night thinking of that one, Led?"
He just laughed and slapped my flank as I got aboard, then took Grace's hand as she stepped onto the deck. Led--not his real name, but the call sign he'd picked up as an Air Force pilot--was an all-right guy. He'd taken a bullet trying to stop the baddies from dumping me overboard on that sabotage case.
"I'll just make sure Grace checks my food before I eat it," I added. I meant it, too. No one was going to catch me like that again. Slipping me a Mickey. I'm still embarrassed.
Led chuckled. "We haven't had a problem since you two put those jackasses away. How's your wing?"
I unfurled them. "Good as new. How's your shoulder?"
His grin turned rueful. "Aches in the altitude and humidity. I tell people I can sense the weather with it. Adds to the image. So, where do you want to start and what can we do to help?"
I jerked my head to the scene of Kitty struggling against the security guards as they dragged her away backward. "That's a good start, right there."
"And we can continue right here," Grace said, and I twisted so she could reach into my pack. She pulled out a smaller bag while she explained. "I'm going to make this entrance sensitive to malignant magic--kind of like a metal detector. Anyone carrying an item of dark magic or who has been dabbling with it or is under the influence of an evil spell will set it off. Can we make sure everyone enters through here?"
"Not a problem," Led said. "We got told that the one Troll canceled."
I nodded. "Yeah. When he found out the Bridge Special Interest Group had to do with cards and not construction, he decided it wasn't worth the trouble."
We left Grace alone to do her thing--which involved a lot of concentration, prayer, and song--while Led and I did a walk-around of the ship and did our thing--which involved a lot of careful looking, listening, and sniffing for anything that might indicate sabotage or pre-staging for magical mayhem. I also set out various talismans that Grace had prepared over the past week. Like her threshold detector, these would alert us to any evil magic or malign intent. We really didn't expect anything on the flight, but after our last experience on an airship, we weren't taking any chances.
We finished our inspection just as the bus from Faerie drove up. Led and I went to the bridge. I was surprised he didn't want to watch. Elves and dwarves, Valkyrie, Greek demigods ... it looked like Brothers Grimm on parade--or the opening scene of just about any BillyBeaver(TM) Animations film.
Those passengers who'd sprung for First Class tickets got private rooms; everyone else settled themselves into the compartments. Airship compartments are styled more like those of a sleeper cabin of a train, with room for six to eight. Cloudskater also hosted a half-dozen special compartments for those Faerie of non-humanoid form: two room-sized tanks--one for fresh water, one for salt water--deluxe stables, and some oversized cabins. Grace should have already claimed one that had only one row of seats and a large floor cushion for me. I had something to do before I could join her.
On the bridge, the flight attendant smiled nervously at me as she grabbed the microphone to deliver her FAA-required message. "Hello, ladies and gentlemen, creatures of all races and species. On behalf of Captain Theodore Zepplin and all the crew of the Cloudskater, I'd like to welcome you to this specially-chartered flight from Los Lagos, Colorado, to Citrus City, Florida. As the Captain and bridge crew prepare us for takeoff, I'd like to direct your attention to the video screens in your cabins for some important safety announcements." She keyed off the mic and ran the film, leaving it on for me to watch as well.
It contained the usual stuff. First the features of the DS-7: the cafeteria and lounge, where the cuisine more closely resembled a cruise line's than an airline's, observation port complete with telescopes, etc. You know the drill. I let the infomercial slide over me.
Then it moved to the safety information: Exits are located here, here and here ... in the event of loss of cabin pressure, air masks of varying sizes will be released from the compartments around the passenger areas ... the entire airship is a floatation device, so in the event of a water landing, make your way to the interior of the ship ... passengers are prohibited from entering restricted areas...
"Please do not inhale the helium," Led's First Officer Sam Nix quipped to the bridge crew, then changed his voice, "because it makes you sound really stupid!"
Then came the Faerie-specific rules: "The DS-7 hybrids like Cloudskater not only combine the best aspects of airplanes and dirigibles," the beaming model in the video said brightly, "but also combine Mundane know-how with Faerie materials. Our engines were some of the first to be built with Faerimet, enabling LagosLines airships to travel at greater speeds and efficiency than those with engines of Mundane steel. The entire framework is constructed from specially grown cedar-ironwood from the forests of Faerie Lebanon. While lighter, tougher and less flammable than Mundane nonmetallic materials, Cloudskater is nonetheless potentially magic-sensitive. Therefore, for safety reasons, the practice of magic, except in specific approved situations, is prohibited. Please refer to the card tucked into your door pocket for a list of approved spells and occasions. Elementals are asked to stay in their designated areas at all times, and nymphs of all categories are asked to refrain from communing with the ship."
I rolled my eyes. Nymphs aren't interested in dead wood, but some Mundane in the FAA must have seen a movie or something and decided it was a possible danger. No one consults Uncle Vern.
"Finally, our passengers, both Mundane and Faerie, human and nonhuman, are reminded to please keep their heads, hands, feet, tails, wings, and other extremities within the passenger areas at all times. Thank you and enjoy your flight."
The video faded, and the flight attendant handed the mic to me.
"This is Vern from the Dragon Eye Private Investigation Agency. As I'm sure most of you know, we've been hired by the Duchy of Peebles-on-Tweed and the Church to ensure your safety at this conference. However, you've probably not been told that we are not getting paid for this. Now, Sister Grace may not mind, but not getting paid makes the dragon cranky. Therefore, to make our job and your lives easier, I'd like to remind you of a few facts.
"Most Mundanes have not seen a Faerie except on the news or in the movies--probably BillyBeaver(TM) films. The people at the convention supposedly rank in the top two percent of the Mundane population as far as intelligence, but intelligence does not always equal common sense, especially in humans. Further, you will encounter other Mundanes, and since they don't teach from Uncle Vern's Book of Faerie Safety, you're going to have to exercise prudence.
"If you venture outside the convention area, do so in groups. If you should find yourself in a confrontation with a Mundane, exercise restraint. You are dealing with an ignorant race that grew up with stories in which captured fairies give treasure. Cut them some slack. Do not use harmful force--physical or magical--unless your life is in danger. Even then, I suggest flight before fight. Think hard about what you do, or I guarantee: If your life wasn't endangered and I find out you used magic on a Mundane, it will be.
"If someone asks you to grant a wish, do not do so, even if it's in your power. You'll just make more trouble for the rest of us. Don't try to sell anyone magic beans or old oil lamps. It's been done on eBay. And do not use this as an opportunity for practical jokes. I do not want to find any parents dunking their children in the Withlacoochee River because some Faerie joker told them it'd make their child invulnerable. And if you get the bright idea to send a Mundane on a stupid quest, it'd better be for an asbestos suit because you'll need it.
"Most importantly for you demigods and minor 'deities' who are thinking the Mundane world offers a golden opportunity for new worship: Don't Go There. America may have its own laws and ideas about the practice of religion, but Faerie follow the authority of the One True God and the Faerie Church. Both Grace and I have been officers of the Inquisition, and if you try to set up religious housekeeping on this side of the Gap, we will hunt you down.
"To summarize: If you have any doubts about something, don't do it. If you think I might get mildly annoyed by your behavior,"--I snapped my teeth and the sound echoed across the ship--"don't do it. You want the dragon to be your friend."
As I handed back the mic, Led asked, "Think that'll work?"
"I think it depends on the Mundanes."
He laughed. "Well, unless you want to be here for takeoff, you've got about five minutes to find your cabin and strap in."
"Sure you don't need me to get out and push?"
"Get to your cabin or I'll give you a push!"
I found Grace in our cabin and settled in. They'd improved the pad, covering a large area of the floor with that special playground rubber. Comfy and easy to clean. I had to be a little more careful with my claws, but it was at least as comfortable as the pile of pillows and blankets that I made my nest with back home.
"Nice speech. Sure you didn't just give them ideas?" she asked without looking up from her lecture notes.
"Why do you think I didn't mention that I didn't want any humans carting around doggie doo because some leprechaunic comedian said he'd turn it into gold?"
She snorted. "Aye, that would hae' been too great a temptation, indeed."
"For the humans or the leprechauns?"
Led's voice came over the intercom. "Good morning, gentle creatures, and welcome to Cloudskater's chartered flight to beautiful Citrus City. I'm Captain Theodore Zepplin, and my crew and I'll be getting you safely to your destination. The weather looks calm and clear for the entire trip, so once we've reached cruising altitude, you are welcome to move freely about the passenger areas of the ship. Please take advantage of the view."
"No thanks," I muttered aloud. Beside me, Grace nodded. We'd both had enough of views our last time on an airship. They say it's a view to die for, but take it from one who knows: No view is that good.