I'm posting this in two parts, because, like so many of my stories, this one turned out to be a lot longer than I expected The story takes place about 17BBY, several months before the events of "Everyone Comes to Doran's Place." ******************* The Case of the Missing Mushrooms "Ah, there you are, Vice Prefect!" Raissa Baiard looked up from the theft reports she was reading to see her boss, Prefect Ari Renau, leaning jauntily in her doorway. She refrained from pointing out the obvious; this was her office, where else did he expect her to be? She forced up a smile and stuffed down a sigh. "What can I do for you, Prefect?" Whatever it was, she knew she wasn't going to like it. Renau had the diabolical twinkle in his eyes that meant he thought he was too clever by half. Renau plopped down in the chair across from her and propped his feet up on her desk, heedless of the flimsies she was reading. "I have new assignment for you, my dear," he said, giving her his "I'm so charming" smile. "One that ought to warm the cockles of your regimental little heart." She bit down another sigh. "I'm still working on the last 'special assignment' you gave me," Raissa reminded him, indicating the reports under his feet. The last case he had foisted off on her, rather: The Case of the Missing Mushrooms. One of Renau's gambling buddies, a belligerent Chagrian named Dar Amas, had stormed his office daily for the last six weeks complaining that someone was stealing the mushrooms that grew around his vaporators. The Prefect had finally grown tired of fielding Amas's complaints, and shunted him off to Raissa. It was her opinion that someone's rogue eopie was to blame, but the stubborn Chagrian was demanding proof. So here she was, second in command of the Merkesh garrison, looking for mushrooms, while Lt. "Useless" Eusclaes had been assigned to investigate the sudden influx of death sticks in Merkesh City. Not that she was bitter or anything. Renau put a melodramatic hand over his heart. "Ah, but this really is a special case, Vice Prefect! A sweet little old lady, bereft of her dearest companion, needs your help." "Missing person?" Raissa perked up; that sounded interesting. "Actually, no," the Prefect answered diffidently. "I believe he's a pygmy roba." "You want me to look for a missing pig-dog." Native to Talus, robas were singularly unattractive creatures. With pendulous ears and broad snouts, they were a curious mix of porcine and canine. She couldn't imagine that miniature version would be much cuter--or why anyone would want to keep one as a pet. "Tsk, tsk, Vice-Prefect," Renau admonished. "I thought all you Imperial Youth Scouts just lived to help sweet old grannies." He smiled wickedly. "Or is that only when they're crossing the street?" Raissa dropped her head to her desk. There was no arguing with Renau; there was never any arguing with him. "Fine," she muttered into her flimsies. "I'll look into it." The Porcine Problem Gertris Magrivray lived on Tanje Road in the Old Quarter, one of Merkesh City's worst neighborhoods, in a disreputable tenement built in what had once been a row of middle class trader's homes. The ornate lattice work that decorated many old Merkeshian houses had broken away or been boarded over, and graffiti marred the stucco walls. When the owner had decided to chop the row houses up into small apartments, he'd replaced the graceful arched windows and brass bound wooden doors with tiny, barred portals and blast-proof safety doors. Raissa stood on the stoop and tapped on a door that looked like it was trying to put "blast proof" to the test. She grimaced to herself, imaging an old woman living here with only a pygmy roba for companionship. The door slid open halfway, and a wizened gnome with the face of cranky worry peered out. Her skin was the color and texture of jerked bantha, and her sparse white hair straggled out of a tight knot atop her head. Flinty gray eyes regarded Raissa suspiciously. "What do you want?" she demanded, leaning forward on a metal cane that looked like it would be quite handy for knee-capping Hutt thugs. Raissa took half a step back. This was Renau's sweet old granny? She looked more like the outrider for a swoop gang! Don't be silly, she chided herself. You can't go by appearances. She's probably a perfectly nice old lady. Raissa put on a helpful smile. "Good afternoon, Mistress Magrivray! I'm Vice-Prefect Raissa Baiard. I'm here from the garrison about your missing roba." "The garrison? They're supposed to send an officer." "Yes, ma'am." Was she senile or just hard of hearing? Raissa smiled again and spoke a little louder. "That's me: Vice-Prefect Raissa Baiard. May I come in?" Mistress Magrivray looked her up and down, scowling. "You're a girl." "Yes, ma'am," Raissa agreed through clenched teeth. "Prefect Renau sent me to help you." The old woman's wiry brows straggled upwards. "Renau? Well, why didn't you say so!" She hobbled back into her apartment, indicating with a wave and a grunt that Raissa should follow. It was like walking into a womp rat's den. A sweet, musty-- and somehow familiar-- smell permeated the gloom, and something crunched underfoot as Raissa stepped inside. She couldn't tell what, since only a few brave shafts of sunlight peered through the shuttered windows. She could just make out that they were in a tiny sitting area, with two sides curtained off with heavy canvas drapes; Raissa assumed they were the kitchen and bedroom. She eased herself gingerly into a sagging chair. Something poked her in the seat of her pants; she hoped it was a spring. Mistress Magrivray plopped down in the other chair with a grunt. She propped her evil looking walking stick next to her and squinted at Raissa. "So you're the one Renau sent about Frugly." "Yes," Raissa answered, pulling out her data pad. "He's your pet?" "No," Mistress Magrivray retorted. "He's my Life Day dinner." Raissa tapped her stylus against the data pad, took a deep breath and counted to five. "Can you describe him to me?" "Looks like a roba." Raissa counted higher this time. "Any idea where he might have gone?" "You're the detective, girlie!" the old crone snapped. "You tell me." "All right." Raissa stood up. "Why don't you show me where you keep Frugly." Mistress Magrivray shot her a blaster-bolt look as she hauled herself to her feet and stomped back out to the porch. "That's where he sleeps," she said, pointing her cane to one corner. There was no bed there, not even a blanket, just a length of frayed cord attached to a bolt screwed into the wall. Raissa knelt down to examine it, and found that the rope was a tough braided jerba-hide cord. The frayed end was sticky-- gnawed through rather than cut. So Frugly hadn't been stolen; he'd chewed through his leash and run off. Can't imagine why. The porch was otherwise bare, and the yard was just a plot of powdery sand dotted with a few scraggly tufts of grass-- not very good for holding a track, especially in the shifting autumn winds. Raissa found nothing more interesting there than a pile of dried roba droppings, but she noticed that one corner of the building's foundation was cracked and beginning to bow out. On closer inspection, she saw that the bowed area was actually a plaster covered access panel that was hanging by a single rusty fastener. It swung aside easily, creating an opening big enough for a pygmy roba or even a small person. "Hey!" Mistress Magrivray scurried down the stairs as Raissa removed the broken panel. Apparently, she was spry enough when she wanted to be. "What do you think you're doing?" she demanded, prodding Raissa in the small of her back with her cane. "Don't worry; I'll put it right back after I've checked for Frugly," Raissa assured her. She unclipped her mini glowrod from her belt and shined it into the hole. It looked like there was something back there, but it was had to tell in the glowrod's narrow beam. She laid down and stuck her head in for a better look, when she felt another sharp poke. "Don't go in there!" Mistress Magrivray's voice was sharp and panicky. She was fairly dancing with frustration. "There's...probably sand scorpions in there!" "I'll be careful." Raissa didn't believe for one minute that Mistress Magrivray cared if she was stung. Maybe she was just worried that she'd die wedged under there and stink up her porch. Which already smelled pretty bad. The same sweet-musty smell from inside permeated the stuffy air in the access shaft, along with something rank and sickly. Perhaps something had already died under there. With that cheery thought, Raisaa crawled forward, sweeping the glowrod in front of her. Something glittered in the darkness; she trained the light on it. A pair of beady eyes blinked at her from beneath a heavy brow ridge, and the shadowy form shifted, tossing floppy ears. "Frugly," Raissa said. Well, that wasn't too hard. She wondered if Mistress Magrivray bothered to look anywhere before she called the garrison. "Let's get you out of here, eh, Frugly?" The pygmy roba picked up his head at the sound of his name, wide nostrils snuffling rapidly. He gave a huff, dropped his head back to his paws, and turned away in apparent disinterest. Raissa frowned; she had no idea how one called a roba. She resorted to clicking her tongue like she was calling a pittin. She inched closer, one hand outstretched. "Come here, boy," she crooned. "Who's a good pig...dog...thing?" Frugly gave her a baleful look. He snorted and jerked away when her fingers brushed one toe-toed paw.