Private Eyeball Randy accepts an assignment to escort two harmless elves—an elderly maiden aunt and her niece— across the continent. Seems simple enough. If only.
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A reluctant Private Eyeball, Randy Aloysius, agrees to accompany an elderly elf and her attractive niece on a relaxing train trip across the continent to the Wet coast. They seem harmless enough, so what could go wrong?
Well, there’s the obvious murder of a bent politician, plus a card-playing vampire, a brownie public relations hack, and a grieving widow murder suspect, not to mention other assorted suspicious characters...and someone out of Randy’s past.
Then there is the train itself, which may be in serious need of life support. After all, it does have to cross a prairie filled with woolly mammoths and surmount treacherous mountains passes where nasty things might lurk.
I make it a rule to dislike elves as a matter of principle. They are treacherous, judgmental, stuck-up, and just plain annoying. So when Bertha opened my inner office door and interrupted my latest ritual of mint-flavored hot chocolate and the morning rag with mildly risqué pictures, I was somewhat aggrieved.
“What do you want?” I said, without raising my head. “This is my quiet time.”
“You may go right in,” she announced in her sweetest voice.
I looked up. An attractive elf was in the process of navigating a wheelchair through the doorway. The chair contained an elderly member of that same species who looked like she’d seen a century or three of hard duty. She smiled. Long, almost transparent hands rested on top of the multi-colored blanket wrapped around her. She balanced a lethal-looking cane on her knees.
Her assistant parked the chair directly across, facing me, and stood behind, all very prim and proper.
I rested my elbows on the top of the desk and formed my fingers into a professional-looking pyramid. “How may I be of assistance?” I said through clenched teeth.
“A gentleman should always stand the first time he meets a lady,” the ancient said.
I resisted my natural urge to muse out loud on the facts that I wasn’t a gentleman and lacked current information to comment on her status. Instead, I stood and extended my paw.
“Now that wasn’t difficult at all, was it, Randolf? I thought I should meet you before we set out.” Taking my hand, she examined my fingers. “Your nails are dirty.”
“And just how is this relevant?” I retrieved my fingers and sat down. “Before we set out? To where?”
“Nails speak to character.” Two bright yellow eyes examined me from beneath a mop of close-cropped and probably dyed, coal-black hair. A minor mountain range of wrinkles around those eyes spoke to a life at least partially spent outside.
“I’m afraid there has been some misunderstanding.” I started to rise and direct the pair toward the door. “I’m booked solid for the next month.”
“Oh, don’t you worry, sonny,” she said, smiling through well-reddened, thin lips. ”Your partner Miss Wildwater has confirmed all of the arrangements. I’m probably the reason you are booked up. Meeting you today is simply a pleasant formality.”
I swiveled my growing glare on my Executive Assistant sitting at her desk. She smiled at me through the window and waved. If good help wasn’t so hard to find I should have fired her years ago. I could chastise her severely, but she wouldn’t pay any attention.
“I’m afraid there has been a small gap in communications,” I said. “Do you mind bringing me up to speed? A brief outline will suffice.”
The yellow eyes twinkled. “My name is Miss Agatha Litchfield. I’m your new employer. This is my niece, Bella Annapolis. She is my ward and one of the Annapolis Royals. We are traveling to the Free Wet Coast where she will be meeting her fiancé. You are accompanying us.”
“As your bodyguard?” I frowned. Why would this pair need protection?
“No, of course not. We simply decided having a male accompany us would be useful, in case of heavy lifting.”
That made about as much sense as this pair needing a bodyguard. “Not that I’m saying I’m going on this expedition,” I said, “but I’m rather expensive for a laborer. You could hire two hobgoblins for an entire day at half my hourly price.”
The smile broadened. “I’ve been assured you are well worth it, Randolf.”
Now who is making referrals? “How are you traveling, by shuttle or dirigible?” Not that I was interested.
“We booked passage on The Trans Continental Deluxe Rapid Express.”
That aged rattletrap hadn’t crossed the entire continent in the last century. Now it was lucky to make the trip from Central City to the coast without incident. And by the sound of things, this pair could well afford to travel first class.
“The old steam train? Whatever for? That will take five to seven days depending on stops. An orbital shuttle would get you there in two hours, more or less. A dirigible might take almost as long as the train if there was a severe headwind, but with far fewer stops.”
Agatha Litchfield wagged a finger at me. “I don’t believe in flying, young’un. Besides, dear Bella has never crossed the prairies or the mountains. Best seen from the ground, not on one of those new fangles.”
Her niece laid a hand on the elderly shoulder. “Auntie was so gracious in arranging this trip. It’s the last chance for us to spend some quality time together.”
I glanced up at Bella for the first time. My initial impression of attractive was well on the mark. Tall and slim, with skin like pale polished porcelain, she had large round eyes that looked as though they could weep tons of tears on cue. Black hair was cropped to just above the shoulder, and thick enough to cover most of those pointed ears. Her outfit, calf-length with long sleeves, was almost too sensible for someone who looked barely old enough to have graduated from a finishing school.
Bertha was trying to attract my attention through the window. I glanced at her. My half-banshee assistant held up what appeared to be a substantial bag of coins, smiled wide-eyed and pointed at it, nodding eagerly. I assumed that meant the client over-paid. I supposed I could put up with a pair of harmless-looking elves for a week, and it didn’t hurt my private eyeball reputation to be known to be out of town on business once in a while. I guessed I could use some quiet time.
“All right,” I said, “but there are a few conditions I want to get straight. I am not a nursemaid. I don’t do stuff like bathing clients or changing dirty clothes. I expect proper sleeping accommodations and all meals. I do not want to spend two weeks inside those wheeled wooden coffins. You will pay for my return trip on the shuttle.”
“Agreed,” Agatha said.
I blinked. That was too easy. I should have thrown in a bar tab too. “When do we leave?”
“Tomorrow, at eight in the morning.” She held out her hand. “A pleasure doing business. We’ll meet you at the station at seven. We will have your ticket and all our necessary travel documents. Good day.”
Bella wheeled her out through the office, pausing to chat briefly with Bertha, and then they were gone.
Why did I feel as though the business had just been done to me?