I followed the elf for the better part of the afternoon. Half of me was anticipating finally meeting Bilbo Baggins and having everything solved at long last, and the other half was bracing for the next disaster. All of me was exhausted.

Finally, the elf led me into the valley of Rivendell. My work usually takes me to ugly places, the kind that leave you feeling like you've been bathed in slime. This was exactly the opposite. Rivendell was paradise. It was the kind of beauty that makes a man feel unworthy, like he might stain it because he's not good enough to be there. I'm a bold-as-brass kind of guy, but I just about couldn't go on.

I guess the elf caught me hesitating, because he looked at me and said, "You have entered Imladris, Man of the South. You will speak to Lord Elrond and give an accounting of yourself."

Those elves can be pretty persuasive even without pointing arrows at you. I followed him into the valley.

When we got to the House of Elrond, the elf led me to a room and told me to eat and bathe, and someone would be there soon to take me to meet Elrond. Figuring I stank to high heaven, I followed his advice to wash up. By the time I was finished, someone had left supper in my room. I've never been one for fancy food, couldn't even identify what was on my plate, but whatever it was, it was good, and the wine tasted like it had been aged in Valinor itself.

Just as soon as I'd finished eating, another elf showed up. She was a tall, red-haired beauty who reminded me a little of a girl from Rohan who slapped me once. "Follow me," she said. She didn't need to tell me twice.

Rivendell's as pretty by night as it is by day. It felt peaceful, like the world's worries couldn't touch it. The elf girl took me to another building in the compound and waited by the door.

"Enter, stranger," she said. "Lord Elrond awaits."

I walked in, not knowing what to expect. I sure didn't expect five people to be waiting to see me. I sure as Mordor didn't expect to recognize three of them.

There were two elves. One was a tall elf man with dark hair and a face that would've scared my old schoolmaster. I guessed he must be Lord Elrond, and from the look he was giving me, I guessed I'd better have a damn good explanation for being there. The other elf was a woman, and as beautiful as Rivendell was, it couldn't compare to her face. She redefined the word. I got so lost staring at her that it took me a minute to realize Strider was there, too.

He was standing right beside the beauty, wearing clothes that would've suited a lord and looking perfectly comfortable in them. To this day, I wonder what the guy's story is. There's a lot more to him than meets the eye, no doubt about it.

'Course, he was giving me the same look I was giving him: What in Mordor is this guy doing here? Things got even stranger when I realized the other two people present were Gandalf the wizard and, yes, Bilbo Baggins. I checked the miniature I'd stolen from Bag End just to be sure. There was no doubt. It was him.

"I have been informed that you are a spy," said Lord Elrond. "Is this the truth?"

"No," I said, and added, "sir" as an afterthought. Respect seemed to be in order. "I came here with a message for Bilbo Baggins."

"Forgive me, Lord Elrond," said Strider. "I perhaps didn't make myself clear: this man is hired to investigate matters for pay."

"That seems to me the definition of 'spy,'" said Elrond. He looked at me hard, and I could feel his eyes drilling through to my backbone. "And he is not telling the truth about having a message for Master Baggins."

A wise man knows when it's time to suck it up and tell the truth. I never claimed to be wise, but even I could tell bluffing wasn't going to get me any further with this guy.

"You're right," I said. "There's no message. I was hired to find out what happened to Bilbo Baggins by some relatives of his."

"Confound it all, not my relatives!" said Bilbo. "I came here to get away from them."

"Can't say I blame you," I said. "They told me they were afraid you'd come to a bad end and that Gandalf here and maybe your nephew Frodo were in on it. Lobelia and Otho Sackville-Baggins--"

"Oh, Eru, not them!" Bilbo moaned, interrupting me. "Don't let him leave, Elrond; he'll only tell them where I am, and then I'll never have another moment's peace."

That worried me. Rivendell was a nice place to visit, but I wasn't sure I wanted to live there.

"Rivendell is warded against all kinds of evil, Bilbo," said Gandalf. "I'm certain your relations could not pass its borders." I looked at him hard, but I couldn't tell if he was joking or not.

"I don't have to tell them, anyway," I told Bilbo. "Finding you completed the terms of our agreement."

"The question still remains as to whether you can be trusted," said Elrond. "Men of the South have been welcome here in the past, but times are not what they were. Evil is afoot in the world of men, and I would not have Imladris compromised."

For whatever reason, that set off my temper. "I'm not evil. I'm untrustworthy, unreliable, unrefined, and occasionally un-smart, but I'm not evil. I do my job to make a living. I never signed on for getting involved with wizardry, elves, and hobbit politics, being chased by nightmares on black horses, or having Scruffy here throw me around and warn me off. I should probably have taken his advice, but the only problem with that is that I've got more curiosity than is healthy for a man my age, and I want to know just what in Mordor is going on!"

I don't think Elrond was impressed. Neither was Strider. Just as I was expecting the Elf Constabulary to drop in and drag me off at arrow-point, though, Bilbo started laughing. Everyone turned to look at him.

"I think, Lord Elrond," he chuckled, "that this young man and I should have a talk. I don't believe any harm has been done."

Elrond gave me a look that said he wasn't convinced, but he nodded to Gandalf and Strider and walked out. Strider walked up to me.

"You were right," he said. "You should have listened to me." The gorgeous elf woman took his hand and led him away. Some guys have all the luck.

Gandalf was the last to leave. He and Bilbo had a hushed conversation before he finally left, eyeing me like I was some kind of bug.

"Have a seat," said Bilbo, pointing with his cane. "So, you were hired to find me, eh? How did you like my relatives?"

"I think drowning them in the mill pond is a good idea," I said, sitting down and lighting my pipe. He laughed and pulled out his own pipe, and I spent the better portion of the next hour telling him about how much work it was to find him. When I was done, he heaved a great sigh.

"Amazing what lengths those people will go to," he said. "Even accusing Frodo of my murder! I suppose I should've seen that one coming, poor lad. He's here, you know; recovering from a wound dealt to him by one of the Black Riders."

One piece of the puzzle had fallen into place. "So they were just trying to get the house. They figured I wouldn't be able to find you, so they could accuse Frodo of anything they wanted and he'd never be able to prove them wrong. That explains the case. Doesn't explain everything else, though." I took a drag on my pipe. "Why did Frodo leave in the middle of the night? What's Gandalf got to do with it? And who is Strider, anyway?"

"I'm afraid those questions must remain unanswered, my good man," said Bilbo. "Rest here in Rivendell, and then go home, Digger. Go back to Bree. I wish you good luck in extracting payment from the Sackville- Bagginses, and in forgetting the events you've witnessed. Think no more on them. Eru willing, you won't have to."

He stood up carefully, using his cane, and headed for the door. I had one last question for him, though.

"That ring," I said. "It makes you invisible, doesn't it?"

Bilbo stopped. He didn't say anything, and the seconds stretched on. Finally, he said, "It does. Among other things." He looked at me, and I felt like there was a story written in the lines on his face. "Forget it, too. You, at least, can."

That was the last time I ever saw Bilbo Baggins. I stayed in Rivendell for another two days, letting my horse rest and soaking up some peace and quiet. Then I left. On the road away from Rivendell, I passed a contingent of Gondorian lords, a whole group of blond elves, and a brace of dwarves. It all added to the feeling I had that something big was going down, and that those little hobbits I'd followed were somehow going to be in the thick of it.

Not me, though. I'm just a simple investigator, a man for hire, and even though the mystery went on, my job was done.

THE END