[Part of a larger project I am working on, but it can stand on its own.]
Ed Clevermann leaned against the gleaming bar in the “medicinal therapy” room of the Old Proprietor's Club in Stratford City. It had been built a bit over two centuries ago, and wood and stone had come from the planets of forty different solar systems to contribute to its construction. The folks on Planet Stratford took a dim theological view of certain kinds of elaborate decoration, of portraiture, of painting or stained glass. But at geometric marquetry work in wood or stone, Stratford craftsmen had excelled when the planet was first settled, and that was the decorative art of choice in this, the lair of the younger members of the local elite, and, when they visited the local university, of the older members as well.
Ed was in no mood to consider decorative arts at that moment, no matter how much he might have enjoyed it at other times. Instead he glared across the room, ignoring any number of familiar friends, patrons at any number of tables, until his eyes rested upon an elaborate hair-do attached to a face, resting, face down, in a plate of eggplant and asparagus salad. Clevermann turned his gaze back to the bar, and tapped his empty wine glass and looked up at the bar man, polishing mugs in front of him.
"Another of the Halconic Roshii, Conyers, if you please. It is incredible, isn't it; they'll let anyone into the Old Props' these days, won't they. Whose guest is she, anyway?"
"Abso-fu.." Conyers turned his head, and saw the severe eye of the club manager upon him. He paused, considering the cold of winter coming on, and the even harsher chill winds that unemployment would waft across him if he agreed too forcefully.
"As you say, Mr. Proprietor Clevermann, sir. As for who she is with, I have no idea. Does a member of the Imperial Family need a sponsoring patron?"
"Of course she does, Conyers." Both Clevermann and Conyers turned their attention to the young lady in the gray Imperial Fleet uniform, who had walked up and stood by Clevermann's side. "An Antique Fashion, if you please, Conyers. If I can't get in here without Clevermann signing me in on that book every single time, then Her Imperial Highness, the Arch-Princess Imperial Beatta can go stump it outside with the commoners as well."
Ed leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. "I hadn't had you tagged for a radical. Stratford's attitudes getting to you, Iva? I thought you said she was your friend."
Iva returned his kiss quickly. "Not at all. I'm as loyal as they come, happy to drink a toast to the Ancient and Sacred Pan-Galactic Emperor and King of Halcon." She raised up the glass which Conyers had just set before her. Ed smiled and nodded, but left his hand off his own. He wasn't in uniform at the moment and so under no obligation to drink the loyal toast. "She is my friend, I went to school with her, you know. But when I see her like that, well, I just make an exception for that aspect of Beatta. But what's your problem, Ed. She can't be the first person in this room to get stinking and drink herself under the table. You told me yourself Stratford would vote to stay dry as long as it could stagger to the polling place on election day and and see well enough to mark the ballot. Not that the red wine you have there is going to do much to pull you off the Path of Virtue. Clearly I have to work harder."
"It isn't that, Iva, you can feel free to work harder, by the way, on my corruption. We have our own problems, true, but she's so far gone out of it. See that fellow in the dark coat there? He's her body guard. He's been trying to get her attention for about fifteen minutes now. Keeps muttering on. Something about her car stolen. She simply doesn't get it. Then just now she passed out in the salad course. Fell right into it."
Iva walked over to the man in the dark suit.
“I have to ask you not to come too close to the Despotisa, Commander.”
“Actually, It's you, I really want to talk to you, Inspector. It's all right. I was one of the ladies-in-waiting at the Investiture a few years back, Iva Boddeigh-Watson-ffyre.” She handed the man in the dark suit her Identi-disk.
He looked and handed it back. “We've been briefed that you were on the planet, ma'am. You're expected to have dinner with Her Imperial Highness in a little bit here...”
“That's the robotic security dummy, isn't it, broken down again?” Iva barely whispered this.
People were beginning to stare.
The man in the dark suit grimaced, and nodded. “Of all the times, Imperial visit, election coming on. The public image will be catastrophic, of course. Her Imperial Highness is actually tucked away in her room at the Fleet Club, sober and dry as a Predestinarian church meeting.”
Iva scoffed. She had been on Stratford for some weeks already, and thanks to Ed, knew all about Predestinarians by now. The Old Proprietors' medicinal room was but one of many illegal bottle clubs in the city catering to the Elect.
The man in the dark suit went on, “Of course, we have to deal with this.”
“Want some help carrying it out to the limousine? It won't be the first time I've stuffed Robo-Beatta in the back seat of a grav car. Won't even be the first time I made the front page of the tabloids while doing it. First time in uniform, though. It really does get tiresome after a while. You should stop having it made by the low-bidder. How many paparazzi do you think are out front anyway?”
“Probably about forty, small turnout today. But that's the other problem. The limousine is missing. She went out for a drive earlier, stopped off in a pub, incognito, or as incognito as you can get while driving a big Neo-Nash Legate with an Imperial license plate...”
Iva finished the sentence with him, “...and left the keys on the floor by the driver's seat.”
“And it was gone when she came back. We can't find it. She took a taxi to the Fleet Club.”
“I can fix this for you, Inspector. Do you object to tidying away Robo-Beatta here for a few hours?”
“I wish we could, at least until we can arrange transport.”
Iva nodded. “Leave it to me.”
She returned to her friends.
At the bar, Iva pulled her communication disk out of her small black purse. "Battery dead. Be a dear, Ed, lend us yours."
Ed reached into his pocket, and pulled out the small round disk. He handed it to her.
"Thanks, Ed. What number do you have for Perkins?"
"Contact number three on the list."
"Call number three, disk." Iva said decisively. The disk clicked and chirruped and another voice could soon be dimly heard through the device.
"Timmy? Ivalotta Boddeigh-Watson-ffyre, borrowing Ed's disk for a moment. Now look here, Timmy, I can't talk too long, I just wanted to say something that might be of interest to your family down in Stratford City South. Some genius, who ought to know better, left some keys on a car seat and some other genius, who also ought to know better, thus has stolen a top of the line, fully tricked out, Legate gravity limousine with Imperial Family license plates...."
There was an outburst through the disk, which could be heard by all nearby. It appeared to involve unkind things being done to a duck.
"Don't yell, Timmy and don't carry on so. I can hear you perfectly fine through the disk without your yelling. I know it isn't your family involved in it. I don't want anything bad to happen to them, though, and by my guess you have about fifteen minutes before Stratford City South is over-run with high ranking police officials looking to close a case."
Ed leaned over to Conyers. "I wouldn't mind if something happened to Perkins' family. I could sleep the sleep of the just and dream of all the foode-beestes that have gone missing from the farm over the years."
Conyers nodded but continued polishing glasses. Ed Clevermann was a well-known figure at the Old Props, and his farm misfortunes were something of a legend. Many of those misfortunes involved the larcenous older members of the Perkins family.
"Hush it, boys, I'm trying to talk to Timmy here. Never mind Ed, Timmy, he's still sore about some things in the past. He needs you, though, for his project. I need you in the Space Cadet Reserve Program. I'll tell you what, after you deal with this, change into your Space Cadet uniform, the dress uniform, and get down to the Fleet Club. I'll get you into the dinner for Beatta as one of the guests.”
Iva glowered at Ed, the sort of look that hinted that silence would be golden, and in its absence, couches might be occupied that night. Ed subsided. Conyers snickered.
"Anyway, Perkins, I think you might look into it; if you can find anything it would keep a lot of people happy with you for a very long time. You might even be able to buy Ed a foode-beeste, you know how much he misses them. Ten minutes, you say? Great! I'll hang onto Ed's disk for a few minutes."
Iva leaned over the bar. Conyers leaned over, as did Ed, three conspirators in mischief.
"Now, boys, the people of Stratford can sit in their Predestinarian meeting houses for ever and refuse to pray for the health of the Emperor and all his family until the foode-beestes come home. If Perkins makes good, I'll show you how to really stick it to a member of the Imperial family."
Perkins made good; the disk chirped within five minutes.
"Parked outside the chapel where? I'm not from this town, Timmy. Oh, I know that place after all. And the two who tried to sell the grav limo for parts are tied up and stashed in the trunk, only slightly battered. Perfect. I'll be sure to mention they are from off-planet and that it was public spirited local citizens. Right, well, get moving, we'll meet you down at the Fleet Club in an hour."
Iva closed off the commo disk, and handed it back to Ed. "Now, boys, I thought I saw a photographer or two lurking outside the club earlier. Free-lancers, probably."
"Right. Certain things need to happen. Conyers, can the kitchen make up about forty little bag lunches and I mean right now? Nothing elaborate, just an artificial Bite-of-Beeste sandwich, a can of Fizzy Pop, and some Snacky Chips. Step one is to feed the reporters.”
"We usually make up bag lunches for student members of the club during the university term, Miss, so not a problem. It won't take long.”
“Splendid. Add that to Ed's bar tab. Oh and one of the upstairs rooms for visiting members. Book that under Ed's name and add it to his tab as well.”
Clevermann started to rear back. “Iva, I don't expect to...”
She quieted him. “I'll settle with you when we get home, Ed. Don't worry.” She gave him another quick kiss. “Unless you want to say publicly in front of all your friends that I'm not money-good here.”
Ed still managed a pained expression, for this was becoming a very expensive date, but he managed to screw the phrase out of the depths of his soul for the benefit of Conyers, and the club manager, who had materialized with the Old Props' account book.
“The Most Honorable Ivalotta Boddeigh-Watson-ffyre is money-good in every branch of the Old Proprietors' Club, and I and the Clevermann Old Farm will stand behind her charges here as though they were my own.”
He took his pen, wrote a line in the book, and signed it. He earned another little kiss for his effort, which didn't entirely take the financial sting away.
The little sack lunches were quickly ready, and Iva drafted a couple of the waiters to help her take them away. She said, as she went, “I'm going to go give the reporters a little head start to this chapel place. You two get ready to improve your education."
She was gone and back in a trice, "C'mon, boys, follow me. You need a break, Conyers, and Ed, frankly, you need some help with your demeanor. Just smile, that's right, nice winning smiles."
Iva led the pair over to the table where the security officer was trying to maintain the pretense of reality and explain to the Arch-Princess Imperial Beatta that her car had just been stolen and that it was never wise to leave keys lying around.
Iva marched boldly up to the table, as though she had every right to approach.
"Beatta, darling, how many years has it been?"
The security officer moved as though to intervene. "Oh, it's all right officer, I've known Beatta here for years; I'm the daughter of the Count and Countess of New Passaic. We went to school together. Now what's this about a Legate missing?"
The artificial intelligence circuits of the security robot managed a little groan and rolled its head back and forth in the salad.
"Nonsense, Beatta. It isn't stolen. You remember, you called me about an hour before you got here, you mentioned you had gone slumming, left the car out in front of the Chapel of the Most Holy Aedolm, and taken a taxi and, that you had two slum rats from Stratford City South in the back for later, how did you put it, delectation. I found it so inspirational, I went out and found two of the local talent for my own. Anyway, I have to dash, Beatta, can't keep the help waiting. You'll find that there is a little room the club has for visiting members. You can use it to rest. Here is the key. I'll catch up with you later at the Fleet Club dinner. C'mon boys. The dinner isn't for a while yet, and I have ways to keep both of you busy."
She took Conyers by one arm, and Ed by the other, and towed both bodily to the door of the saloon. She did a little kick with one leg and looked back, "Bye bye Beatta, look forward to seeing you soon."
The man in the dark suit already had Robo-Beatta grasped under the arms, and was telling a waiter to turn the chair and take hold of the legs.
Iva swept her two surprised beaus out into the central entrance of the club, and immediately dropped the arms of both.
"Excuse me, Miss Ivalotta, I can't help asking. Did you really talk with Her Imperial Highness an hour ago?"
"What, Conyers? Most certainly not! Haven't spoken with her since school; that's one reason I'm looking forward to the dinner. We were pretty close then, and we still write each other. Sorry to borrow you like that, Conyers, I needed two props and I only had the one. Ed will find you a bit more cash than usual for a tip when he settles the bill."
"I will? I guess I will." Ed dug into his pocket and produced some money.
"C'mon Ed, we need to go, right now. You look fine, you don't need to change into uniform, and we don't have the opportunity. If we hurry, we can just beat the security detail to Most Holy Aedolm's to see the fun. We'll go on to the Fleet Club from there. The security detail will let Perkins in when he's in uniform and I'll take care of the rest. I don't think we want to hang around here for a day or two until the talk settles. Good night, Conyers."