Five columns, five rows. Twenty-five desks, all facing in the same direction, all occupied by fillies and colts.
Except for one.
In the front row, three desks from the left, a vacant chair was neatly pushed beneath the clean desk. It both attracted and escaped attention. As the odd one out, eyes would flicker to it for a moment before moving away, never given a second thought.
Only when the teacher was forced to acknowledge it did the little ponies all truly look toward the empty space.
“Does anypony know where Whippy is?” she asked, bringing the murmurs of conversation to a halt.
They looked around at each other, each as clueless as the next, shrugging and muttering excuses in a group effort to relinquish responsibility.
“I don’t hang out with him.”
“We’re not really friends.”
“I’ve said five words to him in my whole life.”
A colt with long black hair raised his head from where it had rested on his hooves and looked around. The colt in the desk next to him returned the look, and together they spoke to the teacher.
“Last time we saw Whip was after school yesterday. He was walking home,” said the dark-haired pony.
“Yeah, it was raining pretty hard so we didn’t stick around very long,” added his friend.
The teacher’s natural smile faltered slightly, not that any of the students noticed.
Only the slightest tremble in the wrinkles at the corners of her mouth gave any indication that something might be wrong.
A brightly lit office room. White fluorescent bulbs covered everything in a sickly pale glow. Even the strong wooden desk that dominated the centre seemed to absorb the uncaring light. The window behind the desk was streaked with the aftermath of heavy rain.
Phones rang in the background, neighbouring offices and hallways, always busy, never sleeping. Even the tears that splashed against the floor were simply another part of the atmosphere.
“I’m sorry, Mrs Lash, but it’s important that I have as much information as possible,” said the stallion behind the desk. He wore an office coat and was well built, but his eyes were soft and his words comforting.
“I know,” sniffed the mare, “I’m sorry, please continue.”
He pushed forward a box of tissues with one hoof and pulled a sheet of paper towards himself with the other. Picking up a pen with his teeth with practiced ease, he prepared to write. “So the last time you saw your son was when he left for school on Monday morning, is that correct?”
She nodded, gratefully seizing a tissue.
“You called his teacher, Lemon Seed, and she told you that he was at school all day, correct?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Now, does your son often return late or not at all?”
“No, never. Sometimes he will be a bit late, but he always comes home.”
The stallion leaned forward on the desk and placed the pen down. His narrow face and strong jaw gave him the look of a very serious pony, but his light golden hair helped make him more approachable. “I think, based on what you’ve told me, it’s safe to assume your son went missing just after school as he was walking home.” At the mother’s startled squeak, he quickly continued, “Now I must stress how important it is to not jump to conclusions. Young ponies are always running off or getting lost. It’s possible the storm ruined his sense of direction and he ended up somewhere else. We’ll follow the standard missing pony procedure and see what turns up.”
She nodded, her worries slightly assuaged by his confident words. She held out a hoof and he took it quickly. “Thank you, Detective. You’ve been so patient with me.” A shaky smile graced her lips.
“That’s Inspector, ma’am. Inspector Lestrade.”
A dark alley, framed by tall buildings. Wet shadows slithered along the ground, trying to venture out into the bright street.
An old mare shuffled down the footpath to the mouth of the alley, her broom held in wispy grey magic. Puffs of dust and dirt arose as she swept. Little round glasses were perched upon her nose and she squinted in the morning light.
Every now and then a carriage would rumble past and she would raise a hoof in greeting. Sometimes the ponies waved back, other times they didn’t. She didn’t mind though. A busy pony is a good pony.
The dirt she had gathered was slowly swept toward the alley. Carefully avoiding a puddle so she didn’t splash her knitted sweater, the mare pushed her load further into the alley.
A cool feeling trickled down her spine as the shadows overtook her. This place always unnerved her in the morning, before the sun was high enough to vanquish the dark gap beside her house.
But she was old and experienced in dealing with the terrors that darkness brought. Namely: nothing. So she whistled as she swept and walked further down the narrow path, stepping around large garbage bins and discarded trash that had been there for as long as she had.
The first sense to realise something was wrong was smell.
“Oh my, there’s somethin’ awful rotten around here,” she muttered to herself, wrinkling her nose in distaste.
The second sense was touch.
Her left hoof recoiled from the ground and she scraped it on the concrete furiously. The floor was sticky, and in a place like this that could mean anything from gum to urine. Swallowing her nausea at the thought, the old mare stepped around the little dark stain and ventured past a very large stack of waste bins.
Her hearing was failing, so that was no use.
The only taste on her tongue was medicated denture gum, which contributed nothing.
In that moment of revelation, the only sense that provided useful data was sight.
And it was not a pretty sight.
Lying there, crumpled against the alley wall and slicked in dark crimson, a young colt stared blankly at her. One of his eyes was half closed due to the post mortem twitch of a muscle, and resting on that eyelid was an odd, insect like shape, devoid of colour. His muzzle was crumpled and showing specks of white: shattered bone peeking through the flesh.
Her broom clattered against the ground, the sound echoing loudly even to her old ears.
The old mare’s throat was hoarse from screaming, a noise that only now registered in her brain.
She screamed and screamed, and soon other voices joined her, at first in question and then in alarm. Other ponies rushed down the alley and there were voices everywhere, talking and crying, trying to find out what happened.
Above it all, the old mare shouted with all of her fear and shock.
“Somepony call the police!”