It is a phrase used to start stories time and time again. It is, in fact, the only way to start a story if you happen to be one of the storytellers who forgets dates and places and all of the unimportant details that historians love. That is why everything a storyteller says goes into a storybook and everything a historian says goes into a history book, regardless of whether the story was completely true and the historian was lying. Stuff like that just happens, and it never gets recorded because the historians will never admit to lying and stories are, of course, just stories. When it starts doesn’t matter, only that it happened. Perhaps not in the same way a history book will say it happened, but in a way, a thousand hooves have touched under the moonlight, a thousand princesses have kissed a thousand Captains of the Guard, and a thousand princesses have summoned their most faithful students to the palace. Each one has a beginning, and each one has an end.
Once upon a time, in the magical land of Equestria, there was a beautiful city stubbornly built on the side of a mountain, and it was called Canterlot. Stories tended to start and end here, and they would until the city became a little less stubborn and loosened its grip. There was a lot of history made, too, but only the historians care about history.
We’re here for the stories.
“Is it worth anything to say ’m sorry and won’t ever ever do it again?” a light khaki, polo-wearing type of voice sputtered; the kind of voice that wears glasses and uses too much hair gel each morning. There was an oof and the uneven cobblestones sliding underneath the voice told it how much its words were worth at the moment.
The guards of Canterlot were a serious bunch, and they prided themselves on tradition and duty. It was the kind of job where you had to be stupid, insane, or hyper nationalistic to volunteer for. It was the kind of job where no one comes out the same they came in. They weren’t quiet, not exactly, but it was what they didn’t say that answered the voice being dragged beside them. It was the Unsaid Things.
Unsaid Things from the Canterlot guard typically were always along the lines of, “You are in trouble”, “This job is very boring”, and “Keep making faces at me, punk. I’ve got the best poker-face in the whole city so we’ll be sitting here all day.”
Nothing was Unsaid, here. Just a bone-chilling quiet that filled up the empty streets like freezing river water. When something goes wrong in Canterlot, the citizens know to keep off the streets, even before the news reaches them. Their mystical sense had only failed them once, and this morning it didn’t.*
“I s’pose it’s perhaps, most-likely... probably maybe alright. It, ow, was only a misunderstanding and I can’t blame you blokes for doing your job like you’re s’posed to be doing it. Gotta keep all the riffraff out, eh? Ow.”
Silence -- not the usual silence of Things Unsaid, or even the noisy silence that comes from a mid-morning walk in the park, with birds and chipmunks yelling at you from every direction and the wind trying its best to knock you down. This kind of silence was the true silence of no sound. A vacuum of sound. Anti-sound.
“Was it five hunr’d sceptres or did I listen wrong? Has Celestia ever gotten a restraining order mmm... ‘gainst anypony else? No? Really? That’s actually pretty surprising, yunno. And could you be a bit more careful with my saddlebags there? Ow. Ooh, a train compartment all for us, or just me? You guys sure have connect- ow.”
Not all stories start in Canterlot, but this one does. Some stories start with a princess summoning a few subjects to her castle, and this one is just the opposite. Stories have a beginning and an end, and this one does not begin or end with as a normal story would. It does not have any Captains of the Guard, nor does it have hooves touching in the moonlight. And it most definitely does not have indestructible hats. This story does have, however, wizards, and magic, and crime, and crime-solving.
Good stories start with a princess or two, and this one starts with a princess realizing somepony has been watching her sleep.
A red unicorn sat dejected on a wooden slat bench. He was slouched in it with his hind legs dangling off of the front and his back against the scratchy slats. Other ponies in the train station looked at him askance as they passed -- clearly, they didn’t get the joke. The position was somewhat uncomfortable at first, but once his butt went numb, he stopped caring. To tell the truth, he found it hard to care about anything at the moment.
He sighed. It was a good thing there wasn’t a nocturne passing at that moment. He, or she, would likely have caught pneumonia from the depression housed in that single sound. It was the sort of sigh that one hears when a dream has been realized, or crushed, or both in quick succession, in that order, as was the case for this particular unicorn.
Saddlebags, made from a material never before seen in Equestria until recently, sat half-discarded, half-guarded, next to the unicorn. They contained very little. He regretted not giving himself enough time to gather a better assortment of useful things, then again, he had a hard time caring. Things left behind in Canterlot didn’t hurt quite so much as who he left behind in Canterlot. The red unicorn was so preoccupied with his daydreaming and self-pity that he didn't even notice the other pony sitting next to him, in exactly the same fashion as he.
“Well, this is awkward,” came the khaki voice from a similarly colored unicorn.
“F’GAH!” was the unconventional reply of the original occupier of the bench, who suddenly found himself deprived of his seat.
“Hahahaaa,” chuckled the intruder. “Fancy meetin’ you here, huh Laich?”
Laichonious, for that was the red unicorn’s name, picked himself up from off of the coarse concrete. “Sonofamotherlessgoat, Rets. Don’t you know better than to interrupt a pony while he’s brooding?”
“Pfft. Brooding,” Retsamoreh scoffed. “What do you have to brood about? Moreover, what are yah doin’ here?” The bedraggled tan pony scowled at the ornate structure in which the bench was bolted.
Laich barely gave the train station and its elaborate, artistic stone a second look. It really was a shame. If he had paid more attention to the artistry in the architecture, the pleasing lines of the hoof-carved columns, the fanciful representation of the city’s founding in sculptures around the platforms, the way the light of the morning sun filtered through the amber glass of the roof, bathing the interior in soft gold, he likely would have forgotten about his posterior complaining about being awoken so abruptly.
Instead, all he did was shake his head. “I could ask you the same thing,” he grumbled. Laich decided not to try and resume his position on the bench, the joke was getting old anyway.
“Hhm-umm. I asked you first. Pony up, dude.” Rets shook his head as well, still scowling at the station and its attempts to distract him from his disgruntlement.
Laich sighed. He found himself doing that a lot as of late. “I... got in trouble....”
At this point, the Grand Central Station of Manehattan gave up on trying to pull the two unicorns out of their obvious depression and instead concentrated its efforts on the other ponies, either arriving or leaving. Rets also gave up on silently berating the building for being so cheerful and focused all of his attention on the distracted runemaster. “Whad’daya mean you got in trouble? You never get in trouble, Laich. Pff, I remember when you stressed yourself out about how many books you had stuffed in your cart. ‘Cuz, yknow, none of the other brainy ones were, and you were the only one engaged in the illegal act of smuggling human knowledge into Equestria, and you were going to, wait, how’d you put it? ‘Most certainly would be caught and expelled from the exodus’ yeah, that’s what you said. You can’t handle being in trouble or even the concept of it.”
“I like how you being here isn’t a big surprise. What’d you do?” Laich thought himself quite clever for avoiding the question once again, a tiny smirk on his face.
The tan unicorn pushed himself from the bench with a grunt and surreptitiously rubbed at his sleepy rump with a hoof. “How long were you sitting here like that? It couldn’t have been too long but still, how’d you stand it?” Rets asked, wincing at the sight of the wooden slats.
Laich narrowed his eyes at the other unicorn. He couldn’t tell if the evasion was deliberate or not. “That’s the point, Rets. I didn’t. I was sitting.”
Rets gave him a flat look.
Laich rolled his eyes.
“Celestia filed an instant restraining order against me. Heh, I guess the paperwork would have been done by now, so it’s an official restraining order,” Rets said with a smirk.
The smirk wasn’t the result of what he actually said, rather, it was a response to Laich’s near inability to keep his jaw attached to his head. “Wh-wh-whaa...” It was at this moment that he noticed the grandeur of the station, albeit subconsciously. His brain simply needed something else to notice, one of the many fail-safes installed in the system. The station was gratified to have been noticed, even if in a small way.
The fail-safes did the trick, and soon Laich’s brain had returned to a functioning state. “Okay, we need to have a pow-wow, but not here.”
Rets screwed up his face in a way that should not have been possible for a pony but he did it anyway. “What do you mean ‘pow-wow’?”
“I mean,” Laich said, levitating his saddlebags to his back, “that you are gonna hit me with something amazing. How many bits do you have on yah?”
The other unicorn adopted a well-practiced expression that seemed to say ‘It must be a wizard thing’ and fished out his bag of golden bits from his own saddlebags. Laichonious waited for his buddy in banishment to finish counting his coins. In the meantime, he wondered why the station was so set on cheering him up.
"Fifty-eight, fifty-nine... sixty." Rets counted out his bits in a melancholy drone. "Tha's all I got. How 'bout you?"
"Uh, seventy-one, I think," Laichonious said with a shrug.
"Wait, why don't you have more? What about all of those makina sales, mate? Wasn't it just a couple days ago you were tellin' me how you were makin' bank on those?"
"Well, yeah, but the point of that is the bank, man. All of my money is in Canterlot. I have no idea if they have any kind of system for interbank loans. Even if they do, it could still take days, heck, maybe weeks, to get ahold of any money. What about you, money bags. Where's all your dough?" He leaned against the back of the bench, raising an eyebrow.
Rets snorted. "I was kinda livin' off the Palace dockett, if you will. I guess we're stuck." His stomach growled noisily in protest of the skipped breakfast.
"Good idea," Laich said, as Rets glanced at his own stomach. "Let's find some breakfast and think over our next move."
The two unicorns left the happy station through some very impressive, very tall, very copper-plated doors that were slightly offended that the two bronies didn’t even pause to admire the finely wrought detail of their glorious facades. As they left, the station could only say to itself, ‘Can’t please everypony’ and went back to its daily task.
A short meandering walk that felt like it spanned miles for the hungry, tired, and crestfallen stallions, took them to a shady bar, nestled in the shadow of a skyscraper. Unlike the train station, the skyscraper didn’t take notice of the depressed duo and conducted itself in an aloof fashion that more than hinted at condescension.
Laichonious wouldn’t quite describe the bar as a ‘seedy’ place, whatever that expression truly meant. Instead, he would likely call it ignored. The large buildings to either side probably had a lot to do with that. It was a quaint little place, almost more like a diner than a bar, but the sign said it was a bar and society never progressed if it didn’t pay attention to signs. So it was that the two unicorns breezed into the bar to find that it was far more suitable to their current mood than the annoyingly bright and cheerful station. The light within the space was timid in that it liked to hide behind the shadows that ran rampant across the wooden-walled booths and red, felt-covered chairs.
There were few patrons, and those few patrons paid little more attention to the newcomers than bits for the mugs of cheap apple cider they so jealously guarded. Little attention exchanged hooves in that bar, which was fine by the bronies and more than suited the bartender. Speaking of whom, the bartender, a light blue earth pony with a blonde-ish mane, called no greeting, neither did the two unicorns. Laich and Rets picked two seats at the end of the long counter of the bar and sat as if joining the many shadows that lingered there in a game of cards. Just like in a game of cards, the two unicorns softly tapped the counter, once each, ready to be dealt in. The bartender sniffed and filled two mugs with his best, not-so-fresh cider and slid them down the bar to the newcomers.
Now that they were in, it was time to place their bets.
"So, Laich..." Rets mumbled.
"Yeah?" Laich replied in the same depressed tone.
"Well, aren't you gonna tell me what you did to get the boot?"
"Oh, uh, sure...." Laich sighed. "I... um... well, I decided to... take a break."
Rets snorted. “Hookay... so why did that get you in trouble?”
Laichonious squirmed in his seat. “It-it’s... well, it’s not complicated really... it’s simple, but--”
Rets tapped the counter. “Just spill it already, Laich.”
The red unicorn grimaced at his friend. “I... made Twilight angry...” he finally mumbled out in a rush.
Laich squeezed his eyes shut as if the act might squeeze the memory from his brain. “I’m just hangin’ out here, y’know, ‘til tempers cool down and... and, well tempers cool down.”
The khaki unicorn pushed his mug of as of yet untouched cider in little circles on the counter. “So...--”
“I don’t want to talk about this right now.”
The runemaster heaved another depression-heavy sigh. “At least she didn’t file a restraining order against me.”
Rets took a drink, winced, then put the mug down and raised an eyebrow at him. “That you know of....”
Two unicorns walked out of a bar. It sounded like the world’s greatest joke, and in the case of these two, it might’ve been. One was the color of a pith helmet, and the other was the color of that ugly red you see on a Scotsman's kilt. Saddlebags, one black and made of nylon, and the other brown and made of a material that made ponies gag when they learned what it was, were equipped. They were one hundred percent unready to face the new day.
Ideas have been described as droplets, falling through reality and into ponies’ heads, but they’re actually far more complex. For instance, the seemingly arbitrary statement of “We need hats!” could be attributed to the fact that the pair had passed a hat shop on the way to the bar, but it was actually the end of a series of complicated events, starting with a sugar-filled foal screaming at some birds, and ending with one of the bird’s excretion missing the head of a tan pony. Only then did he think about the hat store; not to mention that a curious number of ponies around were wearing a varying array of head apparel, all of them fedoras.
“We need hats!” Retsamoreh said.
“No we don’t,” Laich replied without looking, in the same manner that suggested the same conversation had occurred before. “We really, really do not need hats.”
“Yea we do, mate!” Rets said, jabbing a hoof in the direction of another early-riser. “Look! Everypony we’ve seen is wearing a fedora. Black, brown, striped and plaid. They’re all fedoras, and trust me, we need a hat.”
“To fit in, right?”
“Because the opposite of fitting in is standing out, Laicho’, my friend, and if this place is anything like it’s pun counterpart, and especially since they’re all wearing fedoras, we definitely shouldn’t be standing out. ‘Cause when were fedoras popular back then?” Rets announced, leaning into the street just far enough to see the large hat shop sign. It was in the shape of a brown fedora.
“Rets... well, not everypony is wearing a fedora. We might send off the wrong vibes.”
“Darn the vibes! I love hats! You know, I left my hat collection to come with you guys? Couldn’t bring a single one, otherwise they’d get squashed. Well, I mean, I brought the tourist hat, but only because that’s for tourism, and, uh, I thought it was a good joke at the time. Y-Yup. But you had to go and set it on fire,” he grumbled, marching in the direction of the shop. Laichonious rolled his eyes, but fell in-step behind him nonetheless.
“Aw, man, I said I was sorry!”
“Hatty was my best friend!” Rets cried, raising one hoof to his suddenly teary eyes. “And you lit him on fire to prove a point about your dreadful makina. Now we’re here and you’re paying for your own hat!” He stopped, turning to grin and reveal that he had not, in fact, actually been crying real tears.
“Dude, we’re broke. Maybe when we get jobs we can get hats, alright?”
“We’re not going to get jobs without hats! I mean, what’s a good job without a hat, right? I mean, you’ve got cops, and, um... police... and... sheriffs... I’ll think of other jobs later. It’s basically a Catch Twenty-Two if we don’t buy a hat for ourselves. Both of ourselves, I mean. Not one hat for the two of us. Let’s just go,” Rets rattled off, yanking the shop door and trotting in. The overhead bell tinkled in greeting, and they entered the promised land for all hat-lovers.
Baseball caps, berets, bowlers, baker boys, fezzes, trappers, and top hats. They lined the walls in myriad colors, shapes, and sizes, from pink chef hats to white top hats, this store seemed to have everything and then some more stuck to the side like a tumor. A tinny, old voice from the back called out, “Welcome to Cavaneigh! I’ll be right with ‘ya!”
“You didn’t even check to see if it was open,” Laichonious grumbled, moving next to his companion. “Hooboy, that’s a lot of hats.”
“Infinite hats,” Rets breathed. “This is the best day ever. W-Well, when it comes to hats, not living... in, uh, in general because we got ousted from Canterlot and are, um, broke, but you know. When it comes to hats, this is the best.”
“Alright, alright. I get it, buddy, you like hats. Let’s just grab two of their cheapest fedoras and get to looking for a place to stay,” Laich replied, moving over to one of the hat racks. A pair of tiny hooves clip clopped their way over the pristine hardwood and stopped in front of Rets, who just gaped at the scenery.
“Welcome to the Cavaneigh! I’m Haber Dasher and it is an ab-so-lute pleasure to meet you gentlecolts!”
“Ohbloody’ell!” Rets sputtered, skittering back. He gasped, held it, and took the brief moment of respite to study the thin earth pony before him. Haber was true to his name, and looked something of a fabric-made accessory himself. Rolls of brown felt for legs, which stretched up to Ret’s barrel, all tied off at a wrinkled face with a short grey beard. Unicorn met earthpony, and unicorn gulped. “Mmrh. Sorry. Just startled me,” he said afterward.
“S’fine! Customers tell me I do that sometimes. Can’t ever help it.” Haber shuffled over to the left, heading for the front desk in a way that looked like he was ready to keel over before he arrived. “You two can have a look-see around! We’ve got just about every hat ever thought up by pony-kind, and a few other things tossed in the mix too! Ha ha heeee...”
“Um, yeah. Thanks, mate.” Quickly getting out of range, he shuffled away to the nearest aisle, and with trained precision, immediately pulled off a sole fedora. He twirled it in his levitation for a moment, studying the pristine brown felt and black band. Checking to see if anypony was looking, he carefully lifted up a hoof to stroke it. Then he put it on, and took a deep breath.
It is argued by some that Fate controls each and every life, and that there really is no free will. No matter what you do, if something is supposed to happen, it will happen, and there’s nothing you can do to change it despite madly scrambling and doing every possible thing to make it simply not occur. This theory isn’t necessarily true; Fate does meddle in pony lives, but only when they need a little extra push. Such a little push could be anything from stumbling into a mare, to just something telling a certain unicorn that he should buy a certain hat, even if it clashed with his coat. Something clicked.
“This’ll be it,” he whispered.
“Well-” Haber started inches away, adjusting a pair of ancient bifocals.
“-and you can just come down to the desk when you’re ready, hmmkay!”
Rets heaved, taking gulping breaths of air until his buddy came around the corner, eyebrow already raised. Eye twitching, he turned to Laichonious and frowned. “I am buying this hat and there’s nothing you can do about it. Shut up.”
“Didn’t say anything,” Laich tittered, walking right past him and into the other aisle. A second passed, and he peeked around once again. “Oh, and I haven’t spotted a fedora for myself. Nice call, dude. Couldn’t you have picked a fedora store?”
“Ah, shush. If you can’t find a fedora, buy something else, mate.”
“Okay, okay! You go ahead and buy that one. I’ll keep looking.”
“Mmmmmmheyup,” Rets slurred, cantering past Laich’s rolling eyes without a care in a^ world. He stopped at the ancient wooden desk, allowing a moment to scroll over its contents. A cash register, an older type, sat in the gleaming morning sunlight and stung his eyes the longer he looked at it. Otherwise there was a large assortment of pencils, business card holders, notepads, and all manner of things you’d probably expect to see at the front desk of a store. A particular black pen and brown notepad caught his eye, for reasons he couldn’t fathom. Fate was at work just as much as Haber Dasher was.
“Les’see here. If my memory is correct, that’s actually our last one. Hm... sixteen bits will probably be good.”
“Um... right,” Rets mumbled, whisking out his moneybag and keeping his eyes glued to the notepad and pen. Haber’s eyes followed his gaze, and chuckled when he noticed what they’d landed on. “Sorry for staring. I just... um, I know it’s not on sale, but how much for that note thingy and pen? I need one, and tho- well it’s a s-stupid excuse, sir, and-”
“Ha!” Haber interrupted, shoving the two toward him. “I’ve had these for a year, and I haven’t writ a thing in ‘em. Wasted my bits, I say. They’re on the house, lad.”
“Oh,” the unicorn said dumbly, whisking them into his pack and spilling the amount, plus two as a tip, of bits owed on the desk. Haber counted them, staring with narrowed eyes at each one as he put it into the register. A dismayed voice cried from the back of the store.
“Rets! There are no fedoras!”
“Just find one you like, then, I don’t care if it’s a wizard hat or something, just pick one out before rush-hour hits!”
Haber snorted loudly, causing Rets turn fast enough to get whiplash, and looked up with sparkling eyes. “Did you say wizard hat? I have actually got one of those.”
Air seemed to be sucked out of the room, and then it rushed back in full force when Laich peeked around the corner of an aisle, eyes wide. They looked past Rets, who wore the same expression of absolute disbelief, and straight into the smirking visage of the store owner. “You’re serious? Most ponies don’t even know what a wizard is. Cultural stuff relating to the bronies and all.”
“Heh heeeeesnrckh, well I only know what I read, and I’ve got a big ‘ol pointy blue and gold hat stored over there, I... eh, it was a gift from one of my old family members... Lola... Lulu... Star... something like that, anyway, nopony ever wants to buy it, so it’s on the cheap. Ten bits and it’s yours.”
“Yes,” Laichonious breathed, eyes glazed over even as Haber passed him.
“How’d you know it was a wizard hat, though?” Rets asked, following the old earth pony with a curious look. Laich shook his head, muttered something, and trotted after them. Here was where the store got darker, and cobwebs got a little braver. It was the far corner. Seven eyes watched.
And there it was. Large, pointed, navy blue, and laced with gold that sparkled even when light wasn’t touching it; embroidered on the front was a single bolded word. It was written in fancy, faded lettering that might’ve once been a bright industrial white, but now it was a dull grey and the threads were coming loose. The brim, as well as most of the other hats and surfaces around it, was covered in fine golden shinies that leaked off at the slightest touch. Murky light reflected the singular word off of Haber’s wide glasses, WIZZARD.
“No way,” they said in unison.
“She didn’t say much when she gave it to me. But she was family, and I’ve kept it ever since. Hhck, like I said, nopony ever wants-”
“We’ll take it,” Laich blurted out, already levitating the bits from his pack.
Saddlebags somewhat lighter and heads considerably heavier, the two unicorns and their newly acquired hats left the Cavaneigh. It could have been the hats, or it could have been the ponies, but Laichonious felt a little less anxious about the city. He probably should have felt more anxious with something as gaudy as that hat on his head, but it had the opposite effect. There might just be something to this hat idea. The reason for his decreased anxiety was in fact due to Fate being satisfied with its work; most ponies disregard the idea of Fate as a ponification, they view it more as a thing and, therefore, pay less attention to it. Fate, however, is a fastidious being and takes its job very seriously, regardless of the low wages in attention. As Fate moved off to meddle in other affairs, the two unicorns suddenly found themselves in need of a plan.
“Alright,” said Laichonious as they aimlessly walked down the street, “we have not very much money -- ninety-nine bits between us to be exact.”
Rets rolled his eyes. This was important to Fate, for it was this very moment It had been painstakingly preparing and meddling. Rets rolled his eyes and caught sight of something most peculiar. A group of ponies crowded around a very official-looking building that was giving off the air of a mare who had been rudely interrupted during her bath and subsequently had lard poured on top of her head. On top of all this, several of the ponies, pegasi to be exact, were hovering around snapping pictures of everything. Now it could be a point of debate if the building was indeed giving off that vibe, or Rets’ mind was just wired to lean in that direction. The true point is that pictures were being taken, and these ponyfolk didn’t take pictures of just any old thing.
“In any case,” Laich continued to ramble, oblivious to the pictures or the building, “we’re homeless and completely unprepared to have normal jobs. I mean, I could probably get us into a makina factory just with the rune designs but I don’t know if I’m actually allowed to do that yet. And of course, this would take time to find out.”
“Hey, Laich.” Rets slowed, his head pointing towards the enticing sound of cameras like iron filings to a lodestone.
“I’d have to send a letter to Princess Luna, or Princess Celestia, since I’m pretty sure that any letter I send to Twilight would get torn up and never read.” On he went, unaware of his friend’s sudden distraction. “That of course also takes money. Even though I’m pretty sure that Manehattan isn’t as rough as its counterpart in our world-”
“Laich,” persisted the tan unicorn.
“-I still don’t relish the act of sleeping outside. I’ve never really liked camping, y’know?”
“Laich.” Annoyance made its first appearance, much to the chagrin of the other emotions.
“But I guess I should get used to that, being a homeless equine and all -- hey, are they taking pictures over there?”
If Rets wasn’t currently using his legs to lean towards the building and the taking of pictures, he would have hit himself in the face, quite forcefully, with his own hoof. Which made no sense really.
“Yeah, they’re taking pictures! Landsakes, mate. I was only trying to tell you for the past minute.”
“Hm, oooookay. Where do you think we would find employment?”
Rets stared at his single-minded friend. “You don’t get it. We should go over there and check it out. Pictures -- more importantly, pictures taken by ponies -- are worth checking out.”
Laich turned and regarded the building, adjusting the square spectacles on his nose. “There seems to be more than pictures to check out over there,” he said, trotting past a nonplussed Rets.
“What?” Rets followed in the runemaster’s wake.
“That’s a library. I bet we could find some good information in there, y’know, like where to get jobs and someplace to crash.”
Again, had Rets not needed all four hooves to walk, one of them would have been in his face.
The library was just that, and a large one. The Municipal Library of Manehattan was home to the second most extensive collection of written literature in Equestria, and possibly all of Sebbia. It was only surpassed by the Royal Archives in Canterlot, a fact that the librarians in Manehattan tried to ignore and the librarians in Canterlot liked to tease them about at the yearly Conventions. Being the runner up for a prestigious superlative like ‘most’ was either a huge honor or you just didn’t mention it. In the case of the library here, it could care less, for it was still having pictures taken of it with that proverbial bucket of lard slowly melting down its head. The two unicorns enjoyed one of the few perks allowed to bronies almost immediately. Laich and Rets were at the back of the crowd but their unusually long legs let them see over most of the other ponies’ heads.
The subject of their attention was in fact several things and most of them made little sense. Laichonious could feel a little part of himself die at the sight. Papers, their edges torn and ragged, lay depressingly on the unforgiving stone steps leading up to the library. Books, their contents savagely ripped from their tables and strewn about, lay empty on the cold granite. Other tomes and volumes were scattered around, probably counting their pages and blessings, thankful that they had not ended up like their less fortunate peers. The red unicorn slowly wandered around the crowd, horrified by the scene. Laich was so taken with the books in distress that he didn’t notice the hard-eyed stallion marching up to him in a hard-pressed navy blue jacket and tie. The red unicorn gingerly picked up one of the violated volumes and listened for a tiny voice. He didn’t know he was listening, but that is something bibliophiles just do on instinct.
“Hey! What do you think yer doing?!” said the hard eyed stallion.
Laichonious sat back on his haunches and clutched the ruined book. “I-I, uh,--”
“This is a crime scene, buster. You went and messed it up. I’m gonna have to bring you in for questioning now.” The stallion was bearing down on the red unicorn, despite Laich’s height, which really didn’t make that much of a difference anyway.
“I was jus--” Another explanation was cut short by his getaway driver.
“Laich!” Rets galloped to his aid, apparently he had been writing something on his handy dandy notebook, for it floated next to his head in a cloud of azure magic. “Sorry officer, I didn’t realize he had gotten away from me.” He gave an apologetic smile to the police pony. “You see, he, uh, gets confused sometimes and, well, h-he loves books, so naturally seeing books like this makes him even more confused.”
The officer in the navy blue jacket looked about as befuddled as a pony could get. This was only a momentary state, because it so happens the police pony soon invented two numbers, let’s call them both the number two, and put them together. You can likely guess what he got. The first number two was made up of two elements, a khaki unicorn and an expensive-looking felt fedora. The second number two was also comprised of two elements, a red unicorn and a strange hat. The second element of the second number two was perhaps the most important. If Laichonious ever discovered how to directly tap into the Aether and set his consciousness in line with Harmony, he would have gotten a glimpse into the other pony’s mind. It’s a good thing he can’t, his ego would be unbearable, even to itself. The police officer said to himself, Either this geddy is crazy, or he’s a bang up mage. Nopony in their right mind would walk around in a hat like that. At that precise moment Laichonious had the good fortune to forget to be confused and instead scrutinized the book he held in his hooves. This was the keystroke for sums in the police pony’s brain and his newfound, invented, knowledge caused him to perk up.
“Hey! You’re the PI’s we sent for!” He heaved a sigh of relief. “I’m Sergeant Buckles. Sorry about the misunderstanding earlier, it’s just that we got quite the puzzle on our hooves here.”
“Mhumm, yeah so we’ll be out of your mane here in a qui--whawaszat?” Rets took his turn at confusion and almost got dizzy.
“I’d say you have a puzzle,” Laichonious mumbled. “There’s books all over the place, but only three that I can see that have been vandalized. When did this happen?” Being of a singular mind has its advantages, like the ability to forget that you don’t belong somewhere as soon as a puzzle presents itself.
“Ah, well, we got witnesses that say it was only about an hour ago when it started. Nopony got a good look at the perps though.”
Laich nodded, still studying the steps to the library and the one broken window to the left of the large wooden doors. “Did you get that Rets?”
“Huh?” The tan pony was still getting his money’s worth out of that oscillating ride of confusion, the sort one would find in front of a supermarket on Earth.
“Did you get that? You’re the one with the notepad, after all,” he said as if it were the most logical thing in the world.
“Right.” Rets was up on the game now, and he was more than happy to play. He swiftly brought the notebook up in front and flipped it open to a blank page. His preloaded quill scratched across the page. This further placated the venerable Buckles.
Laichonious almost reverently laid the empty bookcover down on the ground and paced back and forth, three steps each way. “This will be especially tough,” he said, little fine flakes of gold sparkling around him. “You’ve already started to clean things up, we’re missing out on valuable clues there, but there isn’t much we can do about that.”
Rets scratched away furiously at the page.
“There is a broken window, I saw, but the glass is strewn on the outside, so it must have been either an impromptu escape route or a result of librarian tempers going through the roof. You get that Rets?”
“...perturbed, pencil pushing ponies... broke the window with brandished books... Got it!”
Buckles grinned off to one side, observing his workload decrease dramatically. It wasn’t that he was lazy, The Mother knows, he worked as hard as anypony -- he had a wife and foals to feed. But it was indeed gratifying to see that no extra hours would be spent on this particular peculiar perpetration. “Well, there’s a lot more to be had down at the station. We already got a few of the librarians there and some witnesses still waiting to give their two bits. How’d you fine gentlecolts like to come with me? We can get you all squared away and up to speed on our procedures and stuff. Oh, and the paperwork.”
“Paperwork?” Laich asked, in much the same way a dog would ask about neutering.
“Well sure, gotta have the paperwork if we’re gonna be paying you fellas,” said Buckles in an obviously serious voice.
“Pa--ah sure!” Rets said, stowing the pen and notebook in his saddlebag. “Yeah, we’ll come on down with yah, Sarge. Won’t we Laich?”
“Yes, yes of course,” he mumbled.
Sgt. Buckles beamed at the bronies and turned to lead them to the headquarters. With Buckles’ back now turned to the two most lucky luckless ponies in the world, Rets took the opportunity to tap his hat with a hoof, a satisfied smile splayed across his face.
Laich could only roll his eyes and follow in his friend’s smug wake.
A golden spyglass retracted, multiple parts falling in on themselves in a complicated rhythm of gears and mechanics. Bloodshot eyes blinked slowly, as if their owner had forgotten how. Growling, choking sounds came from the pony’s throat, and he retracted into his brown trench coat, where sickly coughs took place. Behind him was a lavish study, with books lining the walls and scrolls strewn about on a nearby desk. Candle-light and shadows danced about, and if one were to come from the other room they’d be confused as to if this was the right penthouse or not. Here, the story focused itself.
“You were right, Eco. There are two of them, both unicorns; the ‘inventor’ and his useless assistant,” an intelligent voice, the kind that can pronounce semi-colons and over-enunciate any improper word into quotations, rumbled. A young, chiseled face retracted from the coat, and sniffed in a gurgling way, and he levitated the spyglass away. “They stumbled upon your little mess, too, but I don’t think they’ll do anything.”
“They won’t. Even the police are stumped. There isn’t an incriminating thing there that wouldn’t take years to dig up,” another voice replied. “Them discovering it... may be a problem, however.”
“Hhhhcchkk... snf. Why so, Eco? You assured me they wouldn’t ‘screw up’ our plans.”
Eco, whose presence could only be noticed if one were to stare too long at an odd looking shadow in the corner, shifted. “They may appear blundering and naive, sir, but they show signs of deeper intelligence... and I do not like to underestimate my enemies. We have the upper hoof for now, but if they begin to dig... and if she helps them, they may have a chance to strike.”
“Then get rid of ‘her’, Eco. I told you she would eventually try to seek out help.”
“I will, and I am sorry for doubting you, sir.”
“Yes, yes, yes, you are forgiven. Just make sure she isn’t able to ‘contact’ them, and all will be well. Judging from their past... they won’t pursue unless given incentive. We’ll need the inventor alive and cooperative if we want to include him, and his friend may make good, say, ‘fodder’. Go alert the rest of us.”
“Yes, sir,” Eco hissed, and where there was once a shadow, there was light. The last pony in the penthouse grunted, or rather coughed, and slipped down into his chair with an ease that suggested to him, this was merely business, and boring business at that.
“A hat named ‘Wizzard’,” the pony mumbled, gulping, “hah!”
Not all stories have to have a villain, but most of them need conflict. Solving crimes, while an interesting subject for historians to put into one of their books, does not make for an interesting story. It could, if one were to tell it properly, but it would be less effective than solving the crime; the single greatest one that would occur and cause deep scars in Equestrian history books, and the historians would love it.
There are antagonists, and then there are villains, and just like stories of heroes, a thousand evil laughs have burst forth from the darkness, a thousand goons have broken down the door, and a thousand betrayals have taken place at inopportune times. History wouldn’t report any of these, and that’s why we’re here.
We’re here for the story.
As far as police stations went, this one was strange. First of all, it didn’t look like one, but this wasn’t entirely its fault. The station itself could care less about the carelessness with which it was seemingly built; it didn’t know any better. It led quite a happy life, to be honest, and it just didn’t think much on its grotesque exterior. It was unfortunately a victim of necessity, and it knew this—acutely. The ground floor was normal enough, it even sported the fluted concrete columns common to this part of the city. On the columns that lined the outside of the octagonal* structure sat statues reminiscent of gargoyles, that is if gargoyles were small and relatively happy creatures that looked to be an amalgam of a pony and an angel—not necessarily in that order. They couldn’t be called pegasi, the statues were far too angular, and to call one such would be insulting to pegasus, statue and carver alike. Indeed, the main floor was right at home among the other slightly art-deco-esque buildings in the heart of Manehattan. It was only when one’s gaze traveled upward that it began to have problems.
A second floor housed offices of various officers and officiators of the law and even some secretaries. This floor was also mostly normal-ish, if one were to ignore what was—or more specifically wasn’t—above its marble and glass facade. The building abruptly stopped at that point, yielding to empty space that wasn’t actually empty. It was in fact filled with air, eight steel girders and a staircase, the arrangement of which would absolutely baffle a pony not in the know. The Municipal Police Headquarters of the City-State of Manehattan doubled as the city’s High-Security Holding, which is where the eight steel girders come into play. Each girder stood at every vertex of the building, supporting another octagonal shape above it; the holding cells. Inside this aloft section of the building were sixteen cells, each one also an octagon. The sixteen cells had on each of them eight locks that required the use of eight keys—different combinations for each—that used an ingenious system of eight-sided iron rods impressed with a honeycomb pattern consisting of eight octagons on each side. Depending on the depth of the octagons impressed in the keys, a series of sixty-four pins would slide into the key, allowing the lock to turn exactly eight degrees counterclockwise.
The specific reasons for this repetition are irrelevant when it comes down to it, especially where Laichonious was concerned, oblivious as he was and befuddled to say the least. As he entered the invitingly normal first floor of the building, he couldn’t help but wonder, why did the staircase have only nine steps? The question was soon wiped from his mind, however, for he suddenly felt the distinct absence of something very important. Both he and Rets stopped dead and gave an experimental sniff to the air. They couldn’t smell the difference, other than the heavy scent of ink and multi colored sprinkles, the sort one would find on a doughnut, between inside and outside. But something was very noticeably missing.
Sergeant Buckles paused and gave a chuckle, tossing his tawny, silver-streaked mane. “So, you geddys haven’t been in an octagon before have ya?”
“Nah,” breathed the red unicorn.
“Heh, well all you need to know is that octagons suppress Spectra. I don’t notice much of a difference m’self but I suppose to you, the difference is pretty big, mm?”
A shiver danced through Rets’ coat. “Feels too much like the Sickness to me... You remember that, Laich?”
“I try not to,” the runemaster replied flatly
While the two bronies were reminiscing and comparing, Buckles had exchanged a few words with the receptionist behind a handsomely made mahogany desk. It was startlingly red when taken into consideration with the rest of the room. The walls were painted a muted powder blue, so subtle that Laich almost mistook it for being off-white. The floors were tiled in alternating black and white octagons, which mildly upset the red unicorn. Everything else in the building was some shade of blue. So much blue in fact, that when a particularly colorful pony walked by, Laich had to blink twice in order to get over the sudden shock of color and subsequent rise and fall of Spectra as they passed.
Two manila folders appeared on the desk. Buckles picked them up with his teeth and mumbled a paper-inhibited, “Follow me.”
What Laich actually heard was “Fuhuh muh” but it was obvious what the stallion wanted. He swallowed hard and resolved to limit further exposure to the number eight in the future.
“And uh, wait just a moment and I’ll go grab the actual paperwork. I’ll just - there are your files, by the way. Just got them a week ago, from the, hm, mailpony I guess. I just remember I was the one who had to file everything away. I’ll be right back,” Sergeant Buckles rattled off in a vaguely New Yorker clip, walking into the adjacent room and leaving two neat folders labeled “Retsamoreh - U” and “Laichonious - U” on the lips. Placed exactly next to each other in the kind of neatness that just screamed to be messed with, they were mere inches away from the two chairbound unicorns.
“It’s going to be in there,” he muttered at the volume of a bumblebee’s sneeze. “They’re going to know Celestia has a restraining order against me for sitting in her bedroom and watching her sleep for like, two nights in a row. We’ll get booted and arrested for framing the Private Investigators.”
“Two nights?” Laich hissed back. “Holy cow, Rets, no wonder she-”
“The first was an accident!” Retsamoreh yelped, ears tipped like spears. “I swear! The second one was totally on purpose, though. I couldn’t help it. It was like... a game, to see if I could get past the guards. I tell you what, too, it was easy. I suck at stealth. I must see!” he hissed, leaning over the desk. Slowly, as if it was sure it was wrong, the folder with his name on it rose, and opened up.
“Oh, snap,” Laich said, reading the words immediately on the page out loud. “Urgent. Yadda yadda. Celestia recently filed a restraining order, etcetera. Jeez, Canterlot couriers work fast. Your name is probably in every police station in Equestria by now.”
Somewhere in Equestria, Retsamoreh could just imagine, a policepony was sniggering at the file as they spoke. He gulped, stared at the far wall with the eyes of a pony stepping up to the electric chair, and set the folder down without a moment to spare. His eyes had changed from manic to knowing in the time it took for the door to open, and Buckles reentered with two packets of stapled piles of paperwork between his teeth. Somehow, they stayed dry and were still pristine when he set them down on the desk. “Heh, now. I’ll just double-check your files while you two fill those out. Just, err, sign where it tells you to, and read the hours.” He flipped open Rets’s folder, smiling a big grin at the two. “Since you two technically are working with us, as well as the general public, we won’t be able to give you offices here, so you’ll be more like really important high-end consultants. So, oh, and on page twenty there’s the subject of your pay-”
“Oh my Celestia, what’s that!” Rets screamed, pointing a hoof at the far wall. Laichonious and the Sergeant spun around, eyes wide and muscles tensed for anything that dared come their way. A paper shuffled, and Buckles snorted.
“A spider?” he chuckled, stepping towards the harmless arachnid. It hung on a thread in the corner, spinning around and silently wondering why on earth everything was so much bigger than it, but silently appreciating it’s lot in life.
“Don’t touch it!” Rets yelled, rushing over to bar the cop’s path. “I’d recognize that kind of spider anywhere! It’s the deadly... uhm... spider. Thing. I’mnotgoodwithnames!”
“Looks like an orb weaver t’me. Kind of curious, I suppose, since I thought those were nocturnal-” he made a gurgling sound as Retsamoreh smashed it with a piece of paper and crumpled it up in one swift movement. “Err, you killed it,” he muttered, watching Retsamoreh’s smug smile as the paper coffin dropped into a wastebasket. “Could’ve just set it free, you know.”
“They’re deadly. I’ve done the world a favor and probably saved a life or two. What if, like, I had set it free and it bit somepony? Trust me, we had tons of poisonous spiders where I lived. Not as much as Australia, but, uh, um. I’ll sit down,” the tan, fedora-topped unicorn sputtered, his lips stretched across his face in a polite smile, even if the raised eyebrows and twitching of the left eye made it look more than a little awkward. “So pape-”
“Paperwork,” Buckles said.
“Uh... paperwork,” Laich repeated, levitating his own stack and a quill. Rets coughed, moving to snag his own while Buckles slowly moved the files towards him. “So, Sergeant,” the scholar started, “what perks does being a consultant detective entail? Are we allowed access to evidence or given the ability to, hm, question witnesses?”
“No, no, it’s mostly on your own,” Buckles replied, eyes flicking over one of the folder’s contents. “If one of our investigators hires you on a job, you’re allowed to ask for evidence, and they’re obliged to give you anything they can, just to make the case go smoother. Not like it matters, I think. We barely get cases like that. I... huh. You two are brownies.”
“Bronies,” Rets coughed, signing his name on the page with a flurry of quill movements. He didn’t even look up from the pages, but he suspected Buckles had a perturbed look on his face.
“That’s what, I, uh, said. Brow-nies.”
“No, no,” Retsamoreh grunted, lowering the papers to face him. “You’re pronouncing it wrong. It’s-”
“Give it a rest, Rets,” Laich warned, flipping another page. His tan companion grunted, and continued working. “Yes, officer, we’re bronies. Didn’t stay in Dreamvale, and didn’t stay in Canterlot, either. That’s, uh, one of the reasons we came as PIs.”
“Well then!” Buckled bellowed, churning together a plastic smile. “I’m, er, sorry for calling you geddys, then. Somepony told me you folks aren’t exactly fond of that. No offense meant.”
“None taken,” they replied in unison.
“But! Since you are bronies, and I’ve heard a bit about where you were from, specifically that there was quite a higher crime rate there, I’m happy to have you with us. I guess it’d be stupid to ask if you were acquainted with how crime-solving works, but you do, right? Our way might be a tad different than yours, is what I’m saying, but new insight is welcome. Especially more experienced insight.”
“We’ve had experience, yeah. Most of us bronies do, even if most didn’t pursue that line of work. It’s kind of a mandatory thing, knowing a bit about how crime solving works. A lot of our entertainment was, err, centered around the premise of crime-solving,” Laichonious said, peering over at the other unicorn. “No, no, Rets, you skipped one. Sign there.”
“So you two, I suppose, are our newest teammembers. I can introduce you to the leads of each division, small as they are. You can understand, right? There’s not much of a need for police officers roaming the city twenty-four-seven. Usually we’re just ‘just in case’, if you get my drift. Whole li-”
“Sorry, err, I sign with my full name here, right? Right here?”
“Yes. And like I was saying. After this, I’ll give you two the grand tour of the place. We’re pretty excited, having actual PI’s with us now. Definitely a morale boost, since, er, lately crimes have been springing up everywhere. We’re kind of at loss as to why, and could use all the help we can get.”
“We’re your stallions then,” Laichonious said, plopping the paperwork down on the table, letting them waft a pleasant fresh ink smell into the room. Rets snorted. “Pay is relevant to the importance of the case, correct? Is that how big the station considers it or how big the media considers it? Your paperwork didn’t exactly specify.”
“Heheh, both, really. Maybe not, but if the media latches onto a case and you still manage to solve it, you’ll probably get a bonus. There’s also hours, don’t forget that. Big bits just come from nailing down the big stuff, I suppose. Hey, friend, your quill’s drying out. I can hear it from all the way over here.”
“Yes, yes, I know! It’s been bloody forever and I still haven’t mastered using these sodding frigg’n blimey hayseed-”
“Cool your jets, bro,” Laich coughed, smirking. Paperwork flopped, finished and ready for acceptance, onto the table, and Retsamoreh stuck his tongue out at the crimson unicorn next to him. “Right then. We’re both done, officer. Anything else we need to seal the deal on this?”
“Do we have to sign a pentagram in blood?” Rets blurted out, grinning ear-to-ear. “That would be really awesome... or... not. Yeah. Equestrians never get the cool jokes.” His smile fell, and he slowly nudged the completed papers towards Buckles. “Th-eee-rr-eee you go, mate. Pleasure doing business with you.”
“Erm. Right,” Buckles muttered, rolling his eyes and opening up a file drawer labeled “Consultants”. In their files went, woefully without any friends amidst their newfound home; the entire drawer was empty, except for two file folders in the back. “Just one last thing. What, specifically, are your job titles? You’re still consultants, it’s just... for formality’s sake. Labels and such,” he finished, sitting back behind the desk. His gaze drifted between their two pieces of headware, and their eyes followed his.
An awkward silence came in, went to term, and had several little awkward moments before anypony said anything.
“Detective,” Retsamoreh said.
“Wizard,” Laichonious said.
Sergeant stared at detective and wizard for the briefest of awkward moments, and then his eyes swiveled to anything in the room that wasn’t them. “You two are pretty weird, but then again, this is Manehattan. We’ve had weirder. Welcome to the team, Mister Rets, and Mister Laich. I’ll-” he stopped, turning to look at the door. Whoever was behind it kindly responded with several more loud knocks.
“Yo Buckles, you done with the newbloods in there? The rest of us want to meet them already!” a gruff voice called from behind the office door. Sergeant Buckles snorted, and crawled out of the chair.
“Yeah, yeah. Door is unlocked, Ma’am,” he said, snagging the two stacks of paperwork in his mouth. “I’ff gh’t th’ gh’ pttht.” He walked across the room, opening the door with one hoof and revealing the mysterious cop. In she walked, strutting like a peacock. Literally. Her feathers were sticking out in a fashion that either meant she didn’t care for her appearance or was just too fashionable to care what other non-fashionable ponies thought; if you could call her red-tinged feathers a fashion choice. Pinpoint sharp eagle claws clacked on the tile floor, followed in tandem by lion paws.
Most - not all, but most, because she still radiated an attitude that implied if you messed with her, you’d be a little deader than you were the minute before - of her menace was lost when she came over to the two, and still managed to be almost a head shorter.
“Um,” Rets said as they slipped from their seats, smiling the same smile you would see on a dorky teenager meeting his girlfriend’s parents.
“Lieutenant Murphy, Head of Special Investigations, AKA any magic-related or centered incidents. One of you is a wizard**, and both of you are unicorns, so don’t doubt we’ll be getting to know each other well enough, soon enough.”
“This is the best day,” Rets breathed, looking between Laichonious and the cop. If Murphy heard him, nothing showed.
“I’m just going to take you down to Daisy’s office, where a couple of us are waiting to be introduced. You’re big news here, boys. Lap it up,” she continued.
“Wait,” Laich started, drawing her eye. “You’re the leading magical-incident investigator? But you’re not...”
“Not what?” the griffon asked, using a tone that implied the wrong answer was every answer.
“A... uni-ma- meurmrmrmrm...” jerked a hoof over to his side to brush away errant gold flecks from his constantly disintegrating hat.
“That’s what I thought you were going to say,” Murphy growled, marched back out of the room. A raised eyebrow was pointed at Laich, and he shrugged like a helpless schoolcolt showing his parents his report card. “Now come on, kids. We’ve got work to do.”
“You know, Laich. My life is really, really weird,” Retsamoreh said, following after. Assured his coat was gold-speck free, the red runologist snorted. “C’mon.”
“You’re one to talk.”
“And that’s why we call her ‘Chief Commissioner’ instead of ‘Chief of Police’ or just ‘Commissioner’,” Murphy finished. The two tailing her let loose a breath they hadn’t known they’d been holding.
“Wow. That story was... really amazing and inspirational,” the scholar said.
“Yeah. I mean, I’d ask to hear it again, but I think it would ruin it. That’s a story you can only tell or hear once in your entire lifetime, and... well, huh, I don’t think I’d ever do it justice,” the detective said. Murphy grunted, and kept her gaze locked on the tiled hallway ahead.
“It just kind of makes me want to think about things, you know? That story could change a pony’s life.”
“I’d have to agree, because... I really pity anypony who has never heard it before.”
“Well that’s a shame. She doesn’t like the story getting spread around, so you two are going to have to keep your mouths shut about it, m’kay?” Murphy said, coming up at a door smartly labeled as a meeting room.
“Em-kay,” they agreed in unison, just as Murphy opened the room with a talon.
Manehattan prided itself on being multicultural, and largely, that was true. There were no real barriers between ponies, griffons, goats, space bears, or anything that set foot, hoof, claw, or gelatinous mass inside their city boundaries. Ponies would share apartments with griffons, goats were paid the same amount as ponies, and so it went, rare as the other species were; but this was the The Municipal Police Headquarters of the City-State of Manehattan, it took any stereotypes and ground them into itty little bits that couldn’t be put together with the best magic or the most cunning repairpony. Granted, they were all still ponies besides Murphy, but they certainly looked weird. The table sat twelve, and six were occupied, crowding the mare at the end; she wore a stetson, the pony on her left wore a monocle, the pony on her right wore a light grey fedora. Everypony looked at them, and all the hats were different, one way or the other.
“Uh. Hi,” Laichonious said slowly, as Murphy took a seat by a pony with an eyepatch.
“Hello you two,” the cowpony announced, issuing forth a wave of assumed authority that subconsciously ordered the visitors to take a seat or get out. They obeyed, with Laich at the end seat and his friend to his left. “My name,” she continued, all eyes locked on them, “is Chief Commissioner Daisy Thorn, and I’m the one that runs this here hoe-down.”
“Pleasure t’meetcha,” Rets said, nodding with a smile that kindly asked not to have the body it was attached to eaten.
“Pleasure’s all mine, you two. We’ve been waiting ‘fer some assistance for a good... gee, two months, now. Only just got word that two PIs had picked up on our call and were headed this way. You know how hard it is to find a couple of PI’s in a country where crime basically does not happen? S’pretty darned hard,” she went on, in the same over-enunciated southern accent as before.
“These group of ponies are going to be your bosses when we need you, but Ah’m their boss, so I’m your boss no matter which one puts you on their team. Speaking of the team, I think it’s time for introductions. These two handsome pieces of stallion are the top ranks under me, Inspector?” she asked, looking towards the pony bearing a grey and black-striped fedora.
“Inspector Device, at your services, my friends.” She grinned a friendly smile. “I oversee the more complicated, large-scale investigations we have; some with my aid and Deputy-”
“Deputy Inspect’r Spot, m’lads. Fine day to do this kind of thing,” the other said in a posh accent they normally received from Canterlot nobles, removing his monocle and revealing a brown spot underneath. “Introductions, that is. Especially with that most puzzling scene of destruction you found us at. I look forward to working with you two.”
“Arr, as do I. And I be Captain Goodeye,” the gruff, yellowed pony with the eyepatch slurred, pointing at the pony across the table with a sexually ambiguous forearm. “This-here’s me mate, Cap’n Beaches.”
“Sandy, Beaches,” another pony said, this one orange-colored, obviously female, and wearing a pair of flat, wide sunglasses. “And we’re not the only captains, just like Murphy and Mr. Marshall over there aren’t the only lieutenants. We’re just the only ones who could make it to the meeting on such short notice. As for the mess you two bore witness to earlier, we’ve got it covered. Just... come in, when you’re ready to get your jobs.”
“Heh, don’t you fellas forget Old Marshall, here,” the last pony said, adjusting an old, light-grey hat that appeared to have been made over two hundred years ago. “Lieutenant, technically. But everypony calls me that, so I guess ‘yer free to as well.”
“And, and,” Daisy cut in, rolling her eyes, “these two are... Detective Retsamoreh of Canterlot and Wizard Laichonious of Canterlot, and they’re on call from now on. Do you two have anywhere to stay in the city?”
“No ma’am,” Laichonious said, glancing at Rets with a knowing look in his eyes. “We were looking for one when we came across you, actually.”
“Heh, well shucks. Old Marshall here knows the city like the back of his hoof, so I’m sure he’ll direct you to a cheap apartment after this. Now, evening is coming up, and I’m sure you two are going to want some food, ‘cause I’m hankering for some lunch right now as well.”
“We’d appreciate that, Chief Commissioner,” Retsamoreh said, grinning.
“Oi! Right, heh, I forgot. Here’s your fee for being on call ‘fer us,” Daisy said, motioning to a large sack behind her. Protruding from it were bit-shaped lumps that looked a lot like bits. “Three thousand or so bits. Should getcha started with ‘n apartment.”
“Oh,” they breathed. “Neat.”
The police ponies, and gryphon, were all very amicable. They all enjoyed some fresh daisy sandwiches, except for Murphy who contentedly munched on something crunchy and golden that looked suspiciously like chicken—this made Laich’s eye twitch with the feeling of a joke only half-remembered—and chatted pleasantly about the many cultures and ponies in the city. The Chief Commissioner watched them with a gaze that was not threatening yet carried a distinct feeling of observation, keen observation. As the sun began to sink towards the horizon, the heads of various departments found themselves needed elsewhere, whether they wanted to be or not, and soon it was only Buckles, Marshall, the bronies and the ever watchful Daisy in the meeting room. This made the room feel empty, and it hated that.
“Well, I gotta get home,” Buckles said with a glance out the window. “My shift’ll be up in a minute or two, an’ well, the Mrs. has somethin’ special planned for duh ev’nin’.” He got a twinkle in his eye that the red unicorn almost wanted to relieve him of—not the eye per se, but the twinkle annoyed him.
“Mm-hmm, yah don’t keep the likes of her waiting long, now do yah?” Marshall remarked with a chuckle.
“No sir.” Buckles smiled. “Not if I wanna sleep somewhere comftable anyway.” He turned to the door and gave a final wave before disappearing into the hall.
“I know a good place to set you boys up, I think.” Marshall rubbed his chin with a hoof and nodded. “Yeah, a good friend of mine, Squints, is landlord of a couple apartments not too far from here. Mind waitin’ here a sec for me to give him a call?”
“No prob, mate,” Rets quipped, eyeing the last daisy sandwich.
The jacketed pony trotted from the room, the door shutting behind him with a soft click. This was the Chief Commissioner’s cue.
“Well,” she practically barked at them, Rets jerked away from the sandwich and Laich just about swallowed his throat. “It seems you two’ve hit it off with the others. That’s good.” She circled them, not unlike a predator. “Ah run a tight order here, fellas, and Ah’m not too keen on repeating m’self so listen up.” The epic content of the story behind her title summoned itself to Laich’s mind. He listened to her every word like a field mouse listens for the owl. “Ah’ve read yer files,” Rets stiffened at this, “an’ I know Princess Luna considers the bronies her young and all.” She paused. Did she look at them a little too long? “Ah respect the Princess, an’ I’ll keep that in mind, but don’t expect special treatment. If anythin’, Ah have even higher expectations for yah.”
The following stare was so perfect, so powerful, that even the room found it hard to stay the same size and shrunk. The door swung open once again and the world snapped back to normalcy like the presence of another pony broke whatever spell the Chief Commissioner laid on the place.
“Yup, you two’ll love Squints, he’s got a few open apartments, and at generous rates.” Marshall smiled, apparently oblivious to the atmosphere of only a moment before.
“Yer in good hooves then,” Daisy said, heading for the door. “If yah have any questions, any at all, y’all know you can come into my office anytahm. Follow ol’ Marshall, he’ll get you set up.” A final glance was the hammerstroke that drove home her earlier point. Laich could feel it hit his psyche with a resounding thud.
“Man, I don’t want to get on her bad side,” Rets breathed.
Marshall chuckled, “Hehe, good plan.”
A dashing young yellow unicorn trotted confidently down the paved sidewalk of 66th Street. The warm light of the setting sun glittered down the street, bouncing all around the tall buildings and their obscene amounts of glass, brass, and shiny metal in general, just having a grand old time. The unicorn with the yellow coat, green mane, blue eyes and white teeth was known as Quick Pick. His special talent wasn’t being the first or second pick in polo games, no, he was a professional lock-breaker. Pick was actually a pretty awkward foal, he never got picked very quickly for the schoolyard games of polo. It is an interesting fact to have in mind, especially while observing the confidence he now carried around with him in his saddlebags. Security, and money, can do wonders for the morale of a pony.
He was under the direct employ of the Locksmith’s Guild in Canterlot as a registered lock-breaker. Every bit he has ever gotten was minted in Canterlot, and he has received a great deal of bits from Canterlot. He could live wherever he chose and he was guaranteed employment. Manehattan was as good a place as any, he didn’t care much for where he was as long as he was with Dulce. She wanted to live here, relatively close to relatives, even though she was a pegasus and he a unicorn. It was all the same to him. The apartment he shared with Dulce, a small space that was made a home only by her presence, greeted him around the bend in the road. It had a warm, inviting look to it, for all that it was a concrete box with a few bangles on the outside. Whistling a wordless tune, Quick Pick entered the bright foyer. He nodded to the bell-hop, standing resplendent in a red jacket with gold buttons and flat-topped cylindrical hat, but elected to take the stairs. He had to keep exercising and build up his endurance, they had a foal on the way and he wanted to be ready for all of the fun they would have together.
Three floors up and six doors down, he couldn’t help but smile at the hoof-made welcome mat made from cumulostratus. His hooves sunk into it of course, but it was a uniquely soothing sensation, much like Dulce’s hugs. He whistled his happy tune, thinking about coming up with some lyrics perhaps—unicorns were supposed to be poetically inclined and he had always heard lullabies and limericks his own father would make up on the spot—and chuckled at his use of keys to open his door.
The interior was dark with dusk, but not unusually so. What made him pause was the unexpected shadow of a pegasus who most certainly was not his wife. “H-” was as far as he got before the stars came out early. A hoof connected with his face, dislodging his vision and shaking it around savagely. He fell to the floor with a gurgle, the long-buried memories of a less than benevolent foalhood bubbling to the surface of the murky mire that became his thoughts. A cold ring slid over the horn attached to his bewildered head. He groaned. There was no need to look at the ring around his horn, he knew it would have eight sides and each side would have an octagonal opal. He also knew that the ring was made of anacadium and that he had no magic so long as it was around his horn. It probably wouldn’t have mattered for a minute or two anyway, that pegasus had hit him hard enough he wouldn’t have been able to weave a spell if he tried.
A few light coughs made their way to his ringing ears. “I told you... to watch the door, Eco.” The voice was scratchy but the words well cultured and perfectly formed.
“Sorry, sir,” was the gruff reply from the shadowy pegasus standing over the yellow unicorn.
A polite and well-placed sniffle came and went, leaving a complimentary moment of silence behind. A throat cleared, and so did Pick’s head. “Hum-mm, well now that I have your attention, Mr. Pick...”
“Wh-whaddayawant?” Pick slurred. “It... itdoesn’t matterwhakinna money... I-I get paid more-huh- more thanyoukinpayme.” His head was clearer, but his tongue was rather cluttered.
“Hahehehe-hurck ack ack...” coughed the cultured captor. Pick laboriously focused on his unwelcome guest. The owner of the voice wore a dark cloak and hood, odd for this time of year. “So, you think I’m here to buy you?”
“Nughuh,” muttered Pick.
The stranger in the cloak tisked at him. “I’m almost insulted,” he coughed lightly into a hoof, “Mmm, you see, I wish to make a trade. I require some services...”
Quick Pick shook his head, the shadowy pegasus took a step forward. “I... I can take contracts outside of the Guild, why not just call?”
“Ah, now you see my predicament,” the stranger coughed some more, “I can’t have you reporting to the Guild for this job, my young friend.”
Pick tried to rise, but a hoof between his shoulders thrust him back down to the floor. “Ooof! Nng! No deal!”
A picture frame floated over to the stranger in a cloud of pink telekinesis, inhibited as he was, Pick couldn’t see the leylines used, or to whom the lines were attached. The stranger sniffed and studied the picture. “Everypony has his price. Yours just happens to be quite... high.” The picture rotated in mid air and gently sailed to the floor. It stood, propped up on its stand, in front of Pick’s face.
The unicorn’s heart stopped. It was a portrait of Dulce. “What... What have you done with Dulce?” he breathed, dreading the answer.
The stranger again cleared his throat, stepping over to the window. “Nothing,” he said in a bored tone. “I understand she is at the movies with some marefriends at the moment...” He tapped on the windowsill. “This can be a rough town, sometimes. I’d hate for anything, untoward, to happen to her.”
Pick growled in his throat. “I swear, if you’ve laid so much as a hoof on her I’ll-”
The pegasus shoved the unicorn’s face into the floor, his nose hitting the portrait and knocking it over. “Now, now,” the pegasus grated, “do try to be polite.”
“That is quite enough, Eco.” the stranger said coldly.
The hoof let up from behind his head, the unicorn licked his lips, tasting blood from a bit tongue.
“Mr. Pick,” sighed the stranger, “it is late so I will put this very plainly. You agree to sign on with me, abide by my terms and in return, your wife will find her way home tonight. How does that sound?”
Quick Pick glanced at the portrait of Dulce, its glass now cracked from its fall. “Deal,” he moaned.
“There’s a smart lad. Now, first rule: Not a word to anypony,” The stranger hacked into the side of his cloak, “HMM-mm, I will know if and when you talk and what you say, I know where you go and what you do, so don’t try to wiggle out of your contract or the consequences will be... unpleasant.”
All the yellow unicorn could do was moan his agreement.
It was a balmy and wet Kumula, the second Kumula of Alkrima to be exact, that found Retsamoreh and Laichonious in a slump. Whether or not that slump could be called creative or motivational was up for debate. So it was on this rainy day, in their new—and mostly empty—office apartment, that the two unicorns burned the daylight with menial tasks. Rets lay on their newly acquired couch, a rather sickly burgundy color, and contemplated the events that led to his lying on a sickly burgundy couch in an apartment in Manehattan on a balmy and precipitous early summer day. Laichonious busied himself with a new makina idea in the back room, producing odd noises from time to time. Those noises were too close to the mewling of a cat for Rets’ taste.
Cats. Strangely evil creatures.
The white, plastered ceiling provided a blank canvas for the tan detective’s bored imagination. Before him, he could see the events of the last week, none of them really worth remembering. They had been engaged in gathering information on the Library vandalization for all of one day before running into a steel-reinforced concrete wall with a sceptre-thick layer of mortar and brick. They had nothing. No leads, no clues, no case. The witness reports were garbage. Nopony knew what was going on. The ‘witnesses’ were no more than excited bystanders who had claimed to have seen something just to break the monotony of civil stability. The whole city practically hummed with the prospect of vandals loose on the metropolis.
Laich informed him, at length, that the city hadn’t dealt with this level of crime in nearly a hundred years. Apparently, the local press was having a heyday, publishing romanticised versions of the attack that painted the cops in a less-than-favorable light. Fortunately, they hadn’t caught wind of the ‘PIs’ attached to the case. Rets almost wished that they had. Maybe then, they wouldn’t be wasting their time saving cats from trees.
They hadn’t logged any hours with the police in several days; there was just nothing to do for the case. That meant they weren’t getting paid, so they had to take on other... cases.
Like finding cats.
They had a small circle of contacts—only most of them cat-lovers—who supplied them with minor mysteries and commonplace conundrums. He gave a burgundy-laden shrug, at least some cash flow was better than no cash flow. Letters had been sent to Canterlot. Really they could have sent just one but Laich felt the overwhelming need to explain things, so to save on postage, they split the report into several parts. It would have been both gratifying and bothersome to see how Laich would’ve reacted if he didn’t have the bits to send a short novel through the mail.
Another metallic mewl drifted from the back room which gave the perfect cover for a cynical smirk to creep onto Ret’s face. Why was he lying on this couch thinking of the most dull week to have transpired in recent months? It wasn’t like he needed to remember anything; he would just as soon forget it. The whole thing got off to a bad start, what with them being ousted from some quite comfortable circumstances. Though they met with some good fortune after whatever debacle Laich had caused at the castle—obviously, Laich had angered Twilight enough to annoy Celestia which is why she reacted so poorly to a midnight visitor; females seemed to share an unfortunate connection with one another—he would hardly call their situation ideal.
The apartment at least showed some promise. Laich, in his oddly latent paranoia, had run around the whole place the moment he walked in and started writing runes in every third corner, mumbling about eyes on his back. Soon after a quick run-through of the place, they went in search of furniture. By pure chance, or the twisted ways of some perverse and convoluted curse, they were saddled with this sickly burgundy couch. It was a great find at the time, he supposed. At least they didn’t pay money for it. They paid for it later, in cat scratches and blood.
Satisfied with furnishings, they returned to the Library that very afternoon but didn’t find much of use. That is if you don’t count seventeen different compliments for Laich’s hat and a flattened bit that bore a striking resemblance to Elvis on its dented gold face. Especially when twelve of those seventeen compliments came from the head librarian and the bit was too unique to actually spend. So indeed, nothing of use. This, of course, led to them returning to the apartment, empty-hoofed, so they were more than capable of taking an end table, desk, stand lamp, two chairs, one boxspring and mattress pair as well as two-and-a-half sets of leg warmers from the very generous, and very senile, Nanny Nack, from whom they had received the sickly burgundy couch earlier that same day. They had both learned that they were quite proficient at levitation without really realizing it. Juggling half of a dining set and boxspring mattress between them for a whole city block was all it took to awake their latent talent.
“Heh,” was all Rets had to say about that.
It was that very same Nanny Nack who asked them—the Favor. It was that kind of Favor, the type that demands capitalization. It was the Favor that could not be refused, for Nanny Nack was in fact a twisted succubus. That was the only explanation in Rets’ mind. She showered them with random furnishings that they needed and she didn’t want, for the express purpose of asking them this Favor. And she was a little old mare. Nopony with at least a quarter-sized beating heart could deny a favor for a little old mare. So naturally, Laich broke down and took the bait. The Favor was simple: find her cat.
It was a short, rapid, slippery descent into becoming the neighborhood pet retrievers. The only ones with a thirty day financing plan. It wasn’t just that they had a financing plan, that was something other dynamic domesticated domicile-dwelling animal allocators used. It was the fact that theirs was thirty days while the others used the standard one month financing plan. It didn’t matter that a month was exactly thirty days, every month, all the time, forever. It was the fact that they had the flexibility to count to thirty any time they wished rather than waiting for the month to end or begin.
Come to think of it, they seemed to get a lot of business on that alone. Ponies didn’t seem to relish the mandatory interest of at least a quarter of a percent on any financing plan and have to wait for the next month to haul itself around. Just once, Rets wistfully thought, a pony could come here, to their office, with something to do that wasn’t at all related to cutesy-wootsy cuddly-wuddly—knock, knock, said the door.
The tan detective sat bolt upright in the sickly burgundy couch, which coughed out a small plume of dust. Rets didn’t dare reply “who’s there.”
Knock, knock, persisted the door.
Laichonious poked his head out of the back room and stared at the door. “Nopony ever knocks,” he said in much the same way someone would say pigs don’t fly and that natural butter was yellow.
Knock, knock, the door said expectantly.
From behind the frosted glass window of the knobless door came a sudden and sodden sounding voice. “Oi! I know you two are in there, hurry up and open this thing, eh!”
The two private investigators shared a look. It had to be shared because it was one of those communal things, such as an elevator.
A thin tendril of ruby magic snaked its way over to the empty hole in the door where a deadbolt or knob or something would have been. There was a faint click and the door swung open to reveal a pastel electric-blue unicorn with heavy, dripping, nearly-neon green hair.
“Well, well, well! If it isn't Aramis.” The runemaster smirked.
The electric blue unicorn mocked an atrociously executed bow. He even tried to put a flourish on it with a hoof, twirling in front of him. The effect was somewhat diminished by the rainwater dripping down his face. “And if it isn’t Porthos. Say, has Porthos the Pirate been pilfering or plundering any particularly posh places, perchance?”
“Ah, I see that Aramis has alighted on acquired ancillary alliteration.”
“Shut up. I have to have it in writing to get it just right.”
“Whatever you say.”
The tan detective looked at both of his companions as if they were mad. “What are you two on? I’d say I want some but I don’t know if I’m equipped for the trip.”
“Don't worry, Athos,” the blue unicorn replied, “I’m sure we could use your quips for something other than a bad trip.”
Rets narrowed his eyes at the blue unicorn. “I don't know if you’re making fun of me or not.”
“Surely not making fun,” Laich said in an overly dramatic Shakespearean voice, “he doth troll, my dear friend.”
“Kaaay.... What’s with the names? Pissfer, you and Laich said you’d swear off the inside jokes unless I was in on ‘em.”
The blue unicorn, recently accused of being Pissfer, tossed his nearly-neon green hair in annoyance, further dampening the floor. “Really, Rets? We've been joking around with this for the past eight years, how can you possibly forget?”
“You do realize that I have never read that book and never will,” Rets droned, turning back to the sickly couch. He paused, then thought better of the idea of lying on it again. Despite everything they had tried, the couch still looked terrible and he didn’t feel like catching whatever it had.
“Well,” Pissfer ventured wetly, “It’s nice seeing you two again, and I would like to talk and stuff but... you wouldn’t happen to have a towel around, eh?”
“Nope,” Rets quipped automatically. “Welcome to the Office of Awesome, corner of Genius and Swag. No smoking, and no towels.”
“Why are you here?” Laichonious asked, taking a nonchalant sip of his hayshake. All around them, as they were situated in the outside dining area of a humble cafe who—despite their humility in size—had the self-declared best hayshakes in Manehattan. Laichonious was not about to argue that point as long as his cup was full, though. On the other side of their umbrella-equipped, round table, were the only two beings on the planet that would voluntarily have lunch with him.
“Hm?” Pissfer asked, busily doing nothing as he waited for his meal. Unlike the other two, he hadn’t sought out a hayshake, because he apparently valued his figure; whatever that figure was, Laichonious didn’t know. “I guess that question could be extended to, ‘Why are we here?’ The answer is kind of arguable, but it’s a good question, nonetheless.” Rets frowned, although by the twitching of his lips that seemed to want to spring upwards, it was forced. “Why are we here? I know the popular belief is that, well, first there was a whole lot of nothing, and then somebody, something, or a group of somethings or bodies, just were like, ‘Yo, this is a problem. We gotta do something ‘bout dis.’ Then, like, bam, then there was stuff.”
“What?” Laichonious muttered, shaking his head. “I meant why are you here, in this-”
“We are not doing this!” Rets exclaimed, slamming his shake onto the table with enough force to draw the eyes of his peers, a hummingbird, a spider, and a spyglass. “Seriously. Do you two do this stuff on purpose? It’s not cool.”
“Do what?” they asked in unison, and Laichonious rolled his eyes.
“Hey,” Pissfer said, pointing to their shakes with his horn. “Have you ever wondered why we drink hayshakes with a straw?” The two blinked at him, and the gentle whir of a hummingbird buzzed overhead, fading into the background shortly after. The entire world, in fact, gave off the sincere feeling of apathy. “Really? Oh mon Celestia, je suis entouré par des idiots...."
“Don’t speak foreign at us, Pissfer, especially when you forget to translate the insult,” Rets chided, turning to his other companion with a sly smile. “So, Laichonious, now that we’ve got our team complete, do you think he can help us out with the library case? I know it’s a dead end so far, but mate, we gotta push forward if we expect to get any good reputation points with the cops. We’re already in deep, lying about being the PIs they sent for.”
“Don’t remind me,” Laichonious grumbled, flicking his ears in annoyance. “If we get caught, it’s going to be worse than getting kicked out of Canterlot. It’s probably jail for like, forever, dude. We need to solve this case, and soon. Speaking of soon, what’s it take to get our meal around here?”
“Nah, we’ve got Pissfer now, and usually we can agree about him being smarter than the both of us combined. Plus, we’re not actual cops, just consultants, technically,” Rets said, looking out to the busy, carriage-choked streets beyond their small safe haven. “So that means we don’t need to work by their rules, generally. Not like, roughing up suspects to get information, but you know, thinking outside the box kind of stuff.”
“Well we all know you were dreadful at that, Rets,” Pissfer said, rapping his hooves on the metal grate table. “But yeah, where is the food, actually? I’m hungry.”
“Stop whining,” Rets retorted, sticking his tongue out. “Aren’t you supposed to be Canadian and have automatic immunity to hunger?”
“Is that even a stereotype?” Laich whispered into the air, leaning back in his seat. They were nearer to the middle of the city than they usually were—such was the price of finding a place to eat that didn’t give you disposable plates to eat on—and their area was just where the towering skyscrapers began and the stout apartments ended. Something, nevermind what because that’s not important yet, caught Laich’s eyes, which suddenly widened in a mixture of fear, awe, and surprise. “Uh,” he breathed out dumbly.
“No, it isn’t,” Pissfer grumbled, glaring at the tan unicorn sitting across from him. Rets just slurped on his shake, ears flicking at his Canadian companion. “I thought you got over making fun of me when I proved I don’t even have the accent.”
“Uh, guys,” Laichonious whispered, a bit more alarmingly. The unimportant thing he was staring at could be seen reflected in his glistening, absolutely stupid-big eyes at this point in time. Rets shushed him with a hoof.
“That’s not a reason to not make fun of a Canadian,” he said, narrowing his eyes and widening his smile in one move.
“Well, Americans are fat and lazy and dumb!”
“Dudes...” Laich said.
“Yes, they are, but I’m not American, I’m Equestrian,” Rets countered smugly, holding a hoof to his chest in pride, or perhaps arrogance. Laich was too busy to double check, and his mouth just moved up and down as the still unimportant thing grew larger along with his eyes.
“But that means I’m Equestrian too, not Canadian!” Pissfer exclaimed, glaring atom bombs at the other unicorn. “Your own logic refutes you!”
“Canadians are the exception to everything, Pissfer.”
“That’s Afghanistan, not Canada.”
“Ponies!” Laichonious shouted, eyes twitching. His arguing friends ceased, for just a moment, but long enough to follow his gaze and watch as a gargantuan shadow fell over their block of the city. When they looked up, all they got was an eyeful of tan balloon, with a smidgen of oak-colored cockpit and swirly cursive red lettering that spelled out “Red Herring”.
“When the heck did ponies build dirigibles?” Rets hissed, and all three strained their necks as the sky-whale swam its way through the mid-afternoon sky. It even passed over a nearby skyscraper, attesting to its magnitude in size when they realized the ship was a lot higher than they first perceived. “I love dirigibles.”
“Dunno, I prefer airships myself,” Laichonious whispered back, as if speaking any louder would cause the magnificent thing to disappear.
“Yeah, airships are always better, but I like dirigibles too. They’re so... oval-y....”
“Oval-y?” Pissfer grumbled. “You like them because they’re oval-y? That isn’t even a word!”
“Yes it is, it means ‘like an oval’. You’re supposed to be smart, Pissfer, you know, besides the fact that you chose one of the most exploitable names in pony history. Get back on topic, anyways. What’s a massive balloon like that doing over Manehattan?”
“Dunno, but at least it’s not called the Hindenpony or something,” Laichonious said, even as the beast of an airship gracefully sailed past them. It was like a veil had been lifted, and the “no talking” sign had been removed. Upon further examination from the scholar, everypony in their general vicinity had frozen on the spot to observe the strange event, and as soon as it was gone, they lurched back into motion. It was, he thought, a lot like those insane time-freeze flash mobs they always did in Grand Central Station.
“Or the Titanic,” Rets said, immediately earning a slap to the back of the head from Pissfer.
“The Titanic wasn’t a balloon, dummy.”
“Blue is a dumb color...” the sore unicorn grumbled, rubbing the back of his head.
“So is red,” the Canadian countered.
“Tan is the worst color, and that’s why you’re so grumpy all the time, Rets,” Laich said absently, looking back up to the retreating ship. “I really want to figure out what in Equestria a massive thing like that is doing flying over us. Griffons? No, probably not, they don’t have that technology yet. I don’t see ponies making a dirigible like that, they like their flowery, fancy airships too much. Maybe it’s another species we’ve yet to encounter at length. Oooh... Retsy, Pissfer-y, we’ve got to check that thing out.”
“Later, buddy. We don’t have enough time for that. We’ve still got to run by the library to have Pissfer take a look at it, and then maybe go to the hat store to get him one... because he needs one.”
“Do not,” Pissfer muttered, looking over at another table like a drowning sailor would look at a life raft.
“Yeh, you do, mate. How do you feel about a baker-boy’s cap? I think you’d look adorable.”
The pale blue unicorn snorted, and rolled his eyes. “Oh you guys... you never change, do you?”
“Never ever,” Laichonious said, standing up. “I seriously want to figure out where that thing’s going and why it’s here, dude. Something like that showing up in Equestria without previous knowledge could be a major event. It might be worth attending.”
“Unless it’s like,” Rets said, placing open hooves on the table in a conspiratory fashion, “a supervillain with a freeze-ray, and as soon as he steps out he’s going to start blasting ponies left and right. You sure you want to go follow it?” His voice trailed off into the breeze, which gradually had been growing in the airship’s absence.
“You dork, that won’t happen,” Pissfer snorted. “Oi, waiter,” he called out to a passing worker, who simply raised his eyebrows from under his paper hat. “When’s our food going to be done, do you think?”
“Food?” he asked, looking over us with an incredulous glare. “You guys just ordered the hayshakes. Not any food. It’s noon, folks, wake up already. Order some coffee, and maybe get inside. Storm’s scheduled for today.”
“Not a big fan of coffee,” Rets grumbled. “But thanks for the offer.”
“What an intelligent young lad,” Laichonious quipped as the disgruntled worker trotted off. “He must be a professional surgeon or something.”
“That joke only works if the pony in question actually had their hoof in their mouth, Laicho,” Pissfer said, exiting his seat and stretching his back. “In this case, it’s just a pony who has probably had a bad day. You two are a lot grumpier than when we last met, you know?”
“We’re kind’a in exile, posing as private investigators, in a city we’d never even seen a picture of but know simply because it’s a ripoff of a city we’re used to, and our lives depend on solving a case that, up until you arriving and giving us a smidgen of hope, was a complete dead end. What makes you say we’re grumpy?”
“Well, for one, you used sarcasm in a completely unfunny manner just now, and Laich is burying his face in the table,” Pissfer answered, and the two looked at the only sitting pony in the group, whose face was indeed buried in the metal grate of the table.
“We are going to jail forever and ever,” he muttered into the table, as if it would care. “All I want to do is go see the big balloon, and you won’t even let me have that.” Rets and Pissfer sighed in tandem, and nodded to each other solemnly.
“We’ll go see the balloon, now come on, big boy. I’ll even buy you some cotton candy,” Retsamoreh said, smiling softly. The red unicorn snorted in reply, but peeked out from under his self-induced awkward position.
“Really? Cotton candy?”
“No, because cotton candy doesn’t exist anymore, because I say so. Come on, already, the clouds are moving in and I want to get back to the ‘Corner of Awesome and Swag’ before the storm hits. I... huh, there’s that reporter over there. Remember her, the one that interviewed us about the library thing back when the media was eating it up, even if the story never aired for some reason. What was her name?” he asked, looking to the street. Prowling the road, right in the direction of the Red Herring had gone, was a pegasus of soft, dusty rose, flittering about as his soft eyes and clutching a pad and quill in his hooves. When he passed, they caught sight of a white pilcrow where his cutie mark would be.
“Tab Lloyd!” Laichonious called, immediately perking up. The pegasus on the sidewalk balked, adjusted his black fedora, and grinned at them from across the small stone wall that acted as the barrier between the cafe territory and the street. “What’s up!”
“Ah, if it isn’t my good pals Laicho and Retsy. Pleasures t’the both ‘a yeh,” the pony bellowed, tipping his hat and grinning boisterously. “Sorry if’n I gotta make it short. Big news waits ‘fer nopony, and I cain’t fly since they’re rallying up a big ‘ol storm for the evening. But, er, where’re my manners? Innerduce me t’yer friend, here, pals.”
“Oh, right Pissfer, meet Tab Lloyd,” Rets said, nodding between the two. “He interviewed us a couple of days ago. Really swell bloke.”
“It’s a pleasure,” Pissfer said, nodding.
“Heh, likewise, buddy.”
“Speaking of the interview, we never saw that in the paper. What happened?” Laichonious asked, tilting his head. Tab shrugged, hoof held to his chin in thought, even as more clouds gathered overhead to block the sun. In glancing at them, Retsamoreh might’ve personified them, as if they had a mind of their own, but that wouldn’t work because pegasus ponies, he knew, were up there, driving the clouds around like big fluffy barges.
“Err, right. Sorry about that, fellas. Boss nixed the article for some hotshot reporter. Big Scoop, I think. He did a huge piece on some ‘ol Wonderbolt revealing ‘is secrets. Buncha trash, I read it. Anyhow if that’s all ‘ya wanted, I’ve gotta jet. Big news don’t wait ‘fer nopony, ‘n stuff.”
“Well, wait just a moment,” Rets interrupted, holding a hoof up to stop him - even though they were several lengths apart. “We actually wanted to know if you knew anything about that thing. The Red Herring, right? What’s the deets?”
“Hrm, well, the deets is that it’s some fancy inventor-y fella, we know, just finished build’n his pride and joy which was that glorious munster, and- oh, dangit!” He dropped to the ground, the notebook and quill zipping under his wings, and from out underneath the other one came a thick black umbrella, which snapped open before it had cleared his head. “Look’n what happened now,” he grumbled, just as the rain began mercilessly pounding on the black canvas. The entire street had gone from cheery to outright depressing in under a minute, which, though Retsamoreh and the three strained to clear space under their table’s umbrella, was well done on the weather team’s part. “I cain’t fly in this weather... eh, but that thing won’t be landing, either, so I’d say I’m good for now. I’ll see ‘ya later, pals.”
“B-bye, Tab,” Retsamoreh stuttered, shoving his discarded fedora onto his head in a poor attempt to garner any sort of warmth. With the reporter already cantering off into the gloom, the three looked at each other. “W-well I guess that answer t-that question, Laichonious.”
“Mrr, I’m still curious,” the scholar hissed. “But now we can’t go anywhere. You think the cafe would mind if we borrowed this umbrella? Er, nevermind, that was a joke in poor taste.”
“I love the rain, under most circumstances,” Rets muttered, trying not to break his hat on his horn, “but Manehattan rain just feels like it’s out of a bad noir movie. Let’s go home, guys.”
The sun had set, and the storm was still raging when we got back to the office. Gas lamps, out on the street, burned like angry fireflies in a big jar. We didn’t have much to say, Rets, Pissfer and I. Being a Private Eye, well, it’s tough. Tougher than I thought it would be. But like they say, you either rise to a challenge, or you get crushed by it. So there I was, my aching hooves propped on the desk, thinking about a particular mare I’d left behind. Maybe for good. Maybe for worse.
Rets and Pissfer left me to think. I almost wished they started talking, then maybe I wouldn’t be thinking. Fractured light from the gas lamps outside painted black stripes on the desk and floor, like those antiquated jail-jumpers they put on inmates in the old days. It fit. My heart was in a cage, and it wasn’t just my ribs. I thought about my life, how I got there, what I’d done to get where I am. Not all of it was pretty. It was right about then, I wished I had a good mug of Apple Family cider to take my mind off the past. It was all behind me, but I guess that’s what running gets you. The rain played a quick but lazy staccato on the glass, like a drummer’s brush sticks on a snare. I looked at the shadow cast by my hat, and thought about what it meant to be a wizard. At least, that’s what the hat said I was, and the plaque outside our door.
A soft tap came at that door, it had the ring of destiny about it. The frosted glass gave me a fuzzy shadow to look at. I couldn’t believe my eyes, it had the outline of one familiar stetson I never thought I’d see again. The others were engrossed in their conversation and hadn’t heard the soft knock. Another knock at the door shook me out of my stupor, just like how an earthquake can wake up a building and make it dance. It was the way she knocked, I guess, that made me leap to my hooves. It was the sort of knock that said she was tired, and not just from lack of sleep.
The magic for the lock I had made practically summoned itself to open the door. She stood in the doorway like she owned it, and she very well may have. Coat a stunning tangerine and mane a golden straw, she was tough but kind. The sort of kind that would kick you in the face for a trespass, but apologize for the pain and forget the incident like it never happened. Applejack, a name and face I knew even before I met her, dripped with rainwater, her hat drooping like her tired green eyes. She strolled in like a farmpony set on getting what she wanted.
“Y’all know you’re mighty hard to get a hoof on?” she asked with a smile.
I had to swallow. Her pleasant twang brought up so many happy memories, I could almost forget the last few days. “I’m sorry to hear that, Miss Applejack,” I managed to reply. “I didn’t know we were a commodity of sorts.”
“Heh, Ah think I remember yah... Lichen was it?” It was like I was a long lost relative, having a pleasant run-in with a cousin.
“Oh, uh, I hope you remember... good things. And it’s Laichonious, or Laich for short,” I tried to smile, if for her sake.
“Oh, don’t you fret any, sugarcube, Ah remember you helped us out quite a bit. Weren’t you workin’ with Twilight? Ah didn’t think Ah’d see you ‘round here, a detective an’ all.”
I looked at the floor sheepishly. “Uh, yeah.... We’re trying out some new things, er, well, I am at least. But we aren’t here to talk about me. What can we help you with, Miss Applejack?”
It almost hurt to watch her slouch, like a weight had dropped onto her back. “Well, Ah was out lookin’ for a detective. Like Ah said, y’all are mighty hard to find, I’ve been all over this here city lookin’ but they were all gone. Heh, like some sort a’ detective holiday was goin’ on.” She gave a half-hearted chuckle. “Ah’m in town tah see my Aunt and Uncle Orange....” Applejack, the most loyal of friends and most dependable of ponies, Element of Honesty, a strong pony in her own right, sat down on my floor with more than rain water streaming down her face. “Somepony’s done somethin’,” she mumbled with what could have been a desperate sob. She looked up at me with those kind, emerald eyes, confused, hurt, angry, and pleading. “They’re gone. And nopony knows where they went. Ah... Ah think they’ve been pony-napped, Laich.”
“Could you repeat that again... slowly?” Rets muttered, blinking like a brain-dead deer caught in the headlights.
“Er,” Applejack said, turning to the tan unicorn. “Who are y’all supposed to be?”
“Retsamoreh, ma’am. And, well, I’m the reason we’re called Private Investigators,” Rets groused, rolling his eyes, “and not showponies. No offense, Merlin.”
“None taken, Scooby,” the second unicorn replied, straightening his pointed hat and trying to ignore the sprinkle of golden dust that came off it. Applejack looked between the two of them, brow raised in the classic facial expression of somepony unable to tell the difference between an in-joke and common stupidity and always guessing the former. “But he does have a point, we need more information than just ‘you think they were ponynapped’, no matter how little.”
“Pissfer!” Rets called back, and the third and final unicorn looked up from his spot on the couch. “Toss me that notebook, would you?” He looked frantically around the seat, before magically flinging the thick pad at its owner, whom it immediately hit the face of and hit the floor with an unimaginative plopping noise.
“Merlin?” Applejack mouthed, scrunching her nose up at Laichonious.
“Nice catch,” Pissfer said, one corner of his mouth pulling up into a slight smirk.
“Thank you,” grumbled Rets, rubbing the bridge of his snout. He lifted up the pad with his own pale-blue aura, staring intently at the farm mare. “Now, Laich, if you can go pack up the rest of the crime-scene investigation kit I scrounged up, that would be great.”
“Ah, well, the name Merlin actually is a latinization of a Gaelic name, originally ‘Merlyn’ with a y instead of an i,” Laichonious said, eyes closed blissfully.
“Laicho,” Rets said, narrowing his eyes.
“It was changed mostly due to meddling Romans, as a matter of fact. His full name was Myriddin Emrys, but apparently the first name sounded a bit too much like Latin for ‘dung heap’, so they changed it to preserve the stature of the wizard. It’s also a type of hawk in the Scottish Highlands.”
“Oi, Mr. Dung Heap, the things, will you?” Rets asked, prodding his friend with a hoof. Laich’s eyes glowered, but he nonetheless trotted off, all scholarly pride vanishing in one pathetic instant. “Right then. Let’s do this.”
“Scooby?” Applejack chortled dryly.
“It’s a famous dog in my culture, and it’s not a nickname you’re allowed to use, alright?” the detective ordered, flipping to a blank page and steadying the pen. “Now, start from the beginning. Why are you visiting your aunt and uncle Orange at this time of year?”
“Well, er,” Applejack started, eyes glued on Laichonious as he rifled through a cabinet in the background. “As a matter a fact, I ain’t out here specifically for them. Princess Celestia invited Twilight and her best friends out to some fancy-hooplah concert happening sometime soon, and I figured I’d just head out early to spend some time with my aunt.”
“How many evidence bags do I take again?” Laich called from the other room.
“Take like twenty, I don’t know. And make sure they’re the labeled ones and not just random baggies from the kitchen. Actually, take two or three of the regular baggies too. In case it’s another repeat of the Mrs. Salt case.” He looked to Applejack, shaking his head solemnly. “Nasty mess of a scene, that one was. Cat... er, stuff, everywhere. Long story. So that’s the ‘why’, now for the ‘why not’. As in, ma’am, why didn’t you go to the police?”
“I thought I said I did,” she replied, returning her attention to the interrogation. “I went down to the station and there wasn’t a single pony there ‘sides some overly polite pegasus receptionist fella. Said the whole force cleared out to stop some kinda riot down by the docks.”
“Riot?” Pissfer asked softly, ears swiveling to the two. If they heard him, they didn’t reply.
“And?” Rets asked, pen moving like lightning on the pad; Applejack had to raise her voice over the constant scratching noise.
“Then he told me I’d best go here, since y’all two are capable of handling it for them. When can we get a move on this hay-wagon? I wanna know if they’re okay or not,” she asked, looking anxiously at the door. Retsamoreh frowned.
“Afraid not. There’s still info I need and Laicho’s not done packing. How did you come by the knowledge that they were missing?”
“Well, for one, they weren’t answering their apartment door, even though I know they’ve always got some sorta note on it, letting their friends know where they are, and I know they knew I was coming straight there - told ‘em so in my letter. Reckoned maybe they’d gone out and just forgot, so I asked around. Nopony’s seen a lick of them all day, and maybe there’s nothing to worry about and they’re just out at a party, but I ain’t gonna sit around if they might be hurt.”
“Right, one last question. Why in Celestia’s wonderfully scrumptious name did you come to us?”
“Err,” Applejack muttered, glancing sheepishly from side to side. “Cause you folks were the only ones the receptionist gave me directions to? Why?”
“We find cats. That is literally all we do.”
“Well cat’s can’t be too different from ponies, right? ‘Sides the obvious, I reckon.”
“Uh, fine. Good point, I guess. Now, they’re in sort of a penthouse, right? The apartment on Horsey Street?”
“Yup. How’d you know?”
“Cats,” Rets said quickly, flipping to a new page. He peeked over the notepad to catch Applejack’s deadpan expression, and chuckled like a foal with his hoof caught in the cookie jar. “I just told you that’s what we’ve been doing for the last couple weeks, alright? Focus on the now, ma’am, please. Also, we charge by the hour-” he said, interrupted by his own strangled yelp as a heavy pair of saddlebags landed on him.
“We are not charging her for this,” Laich grunted, fastening his own pair with some magic. “Done packing, by the way.”
“That’s nice,” Rets hissed, “but we kind of desperately need money right now. And holy Celestia what did you put in this bag? Bricks?”
“Yup. I thought it would be fun payback for the dung heap comment,” Laichonious replied dully, moving to face Applejack. “You don’t have to pay if you don’t want to, Miss Applejack. We’re a business, sure, but this one’s on us. Feel free to lead the way. Pissfer, you coming?”
“To see you guys investigate a crime scene?” the light blue unicorn asked, slowly raising his eyebrows. “Why not? It’ll be just like that one thing three years ago, except probably worse now that you have magic. I’ll have to pick up the-”
“We don’t talk about that day, Pissfer,” Rets blurted out, eye twitching. “Ever. You signed a contract.”
“Er, I can pay. I run a business too, you know,” Applejack said bluntly, looking awkwardly at the three. “I can pay, no hard feelings, either, and I reckon my aunt and uncle would be a’might pleased if’n they were ponynapped. I’m sure they’d give you some form of reward. Now can we get a move on?”
“Right. Right. Lives may hang in the balance and all that jazz. Did you say reward?” Retsamoreh asked, eyes widening. “Well then, not that that fact changes anything... I’m sorry, we’re just in a tight spot, financially. We’re going to do what we can to help. Laich, mate, lemme double check your pack. Read off your list, will ‘ya?” He turned toward his friend and lifted open both saddlebag clasps with his magic, peering deep inside.
“Chalk, gouger, and wood sticks?” he asked, procuring a small list that looked like it had been ripped painfully from the notepad some time earlier.
“String, mirror, experimental makina?”
“Check, check, and what? Is that the sort of cube thing that looks like an insane chinese puzzle box, and, er it’s got a compass on top?” the detective asked, prodding something in the pack. Laich huffed, frowning and glaring at his companion.
“Yup. It’s a delicate instrument and no touchy. And no, you don’t get to know what it does, dude.”
“Neener neener. Check.”
“And the last two: rune tiles, towel.”
“Check and again, what? We’re not hitchhikers, and it hardly makes sense edgewise.”
“Hey... towels are useful.”
Rets gaped, eye twitching as he observed further. “Did you bring that thing all the way from Canterlot, too? I recognize the design,” Retsamoreh asked, leaning back, shaking his head. Laich didn’t answer, shuffling his hooves awkwardly and instead staring at the ground. “Nevermind, just do mine now.” Agreeing, the red unicorn opened his friend’s pack while the latter summoned his own list, floating precariously in the air as Applejack watched on, both her and Pissfer wearing tired scowls. “First off. Our licenses ‘re’-printed and given to us by the ever generous Manehattan Police Department?”
“Check. It’d be pretty awesome if we got badges too, dude.”
“When we have the money, maybe. Dusting kit, measuring tape, scissors?”
“Check, yes, got it. Why don’t you bring a towel too?”
“Shush. Small paper baggies, large envelopes, black marker?”
“All there, can we go now? I don’t want to leave Applejack and Pissfer waiting.”
“Sunglasses and flashlights?”
“Yes, yes, now let’s...” Laichonious stopped, taking a look around the room that currently contained only him and Retsamoreh. Eyes wide, the two immediately scanned all four corners, desperately spinning in circles until their eyes spun in their heads. The door was open, though, and two voices drifted down the hall and into their discombobulated ears.
“No offense, Pissfer, but it seems a mite rude to leave your friends like that.”
“Oh, trust me. They’ll catch up. They always do.”
Melancholy Manehattan rain poured lazily from the dark clouds overhead, underlit by the city itself. Applejack and Pissfer walked, rather cozily in Laich’s opinion, under their only umbrella a few sections of concrete ahead of him and Rets. The red unicorn didn’t quite understand why Rets thought the rain was from a bad noir movie. It would only be bad if there weren’t any rain in it, ever. The point was, and not the one protruding from his forehead--that it should be mentioned still gave him little thrills to see even after over a year as a pony--that rain, no matter what movie it was from, was wet. At the moment, he held a simple telekinesis spell over him and the tan detective. The only thing harder than keeping it up was convincing Rets to share the load.
“C’mon, it’ll be fun, just a trade-off alright?” The red unicorn put on what he thought was his best puppy-dog face.
Rets paid it no mind. “Nah, dude. I’ll bungle it. It’ll slip and then explode or something,” he said in much the same way that a train car detached from the rest of the train, slowly and with no feeling.
The runemaster sighed. “You seriously aren’t going to make me do all the work are you? I mean, we only have one umbrella and Applejack is using it.”
“Pissfer too...” Rets mumbled.
“Nevermind him,” Laich said waving a hoof, which was a mistake, as he just about acquainted himself with the sidewalk. The red unicorn recovered from his lapse in judgement with as much poise as he could. “Look, I can help you get better. Hm? Doesn’t that sound nice? Who knows, this could be the first step down the road that will lead you to your cutie mark.” He waited expectantly for the indignant reply that almost always followed any mention of cutie marks.
The tan pony shrugged under his brown felt fedora.
Fine, if that’s how he wanted to play. Laichonious delved into his quickly diminishing stack of tricks. Perhaps a simple plea. “I’m not gonna hold up the sky all the way to the Orange’s suite, dude. I’ll pass out by the time we make it to the high rises.”
“Listen, Laich, if it’s really that hard, just let it go. We can take a little rain. ‘Sides, I’m not that great with magic, you know that.” Rets’ attention wasn’t on the conversation. Laich would like to say that he knew this because he could read the tone of the tan detective’s voice or that it was denoted by the lack of a biting or sarcastic remark. In reality, it was because he was staring awfully hard at the tangerine mare ahead of them.
The runemaster thought for a second. “Y’know, the amount of energy expended in an average rain storm is a hundred times that of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.”
Rets’ head whipped around to the red unicorn so fast, he almost left the fedora behind. “What does that have to do with the sodding tea in China?”
“You mean the cup or the country? Danget Rets, this is why we can’t have nice things.”
The nearly cross-eyed expression on his friend’s face was almost worth derailing his argument to get the detective’s attention.
“Look, telekinesis requires you do mental work to influence physical things right? This type of shield spell is simple and not powerful enough to stop anything more forceful than a dime-sized hail stone, but it takes a lot of concentration because there is nothing specific I can concentrate on, ya follow?”
“Are you still going on about your magic umbrella?” The other unicorn snorted and shook his head, returning to his study of Applejack or his glower of Pissfer.
“Yes, I’m still going on about it. This is the perfect opportunity to practice magic, Rets. You’ll never get better if you don’t push yourself, or practice at all. This is just the sort of thing that would help you too. I seem to remember that the only kind of magic you are really good at is Holding anyway so why not give it a try?”
“You think she’s telling the truth?” Rets muttered.
“Do you think she’s telling the truth?”
“You are not allowed to change the subject,” the red unicorn mumbled as he adjusted the shape of his shield.
“You just changed it a second ago, it’s my turn. Seriously though, do you think she’s telling the truth?”
Laich tossed his head in slight annoyance, showering the wet sidewalk with golden flakes from his hat that glittered in the light of the gas street lamps. “Rets, she’s Applejack. She doesn’t lie. If she told me pigs were flying, I would take her word on it and then hide.”
“Huh? Why would you hide? I’d want to see the pigs fly, personally.”
“‘Cuz that would mean Discord was back. Spit it out, dude. Why do yah think she’s fibbing?”
The tan unicorn shrugged. “I dunno, it just that this whole thing seems real fishy. I mean... I heard, well read, that they’re still lookin’ for changelings hiding out in Equestria. What if she’s one of them...”
Laichonious strangled a sigh that tried to escape from his throat and instead took a deep breath. “Let’s think about this logically, okay? What do you feel when she talks to you? What do you see when you look into her eyes?”
“That it’s too good to be true.”
It was the red unicorn’s turn to shrug. “A side-effect of being in the land of your dreams. But seriously, she just feels... right. C’mon you gotta agree with that.”
“You know I’m not all in tune with your touchy-feely magic, Laicho,” the detective droned.
“Okay, but the show--”
“Was a show, man. How much can we place on a TV show made in another world--”
“It’s here isn’t it?”
“Well yeah but--”
“The show was spot on. Applejack is Applejack, I’m a unicorn and rain is wet.”
“Why do you say it like that?” the other pony asked, furrowing his brow at the runemaster.
“Because it’s all true. Don’t worry about it,” Laich quipped. “Moreover, what would a changeling get out of leading us on a wild goose chase anyway?”
Ret’s glared at Laich from the corner of his eye. “A lot,” he forced the two words through his lips with a heaping helping of sarcasm, mysticism and perhaps ten other words that use ism as a suffix.
Six sections of concrete ahead of the brewing conspiracy theories under Laich’s rain shield, Pissfer tried his best to act as casually as he could in the immediate presence of Applejack. They were already a block away from the office apartment and he hadn’t figured out a way to strike up a conversation with her. Rain undulated in the halos of the street lamps, shifting on the slight breeze. He made sure to glance behind every once-in-a-while, keeping tabs on his friends. A sniff brought his attention back to the tangerine mare walking next to him. It was strange to think that Applejack ever cried. Though it was understandable to react emotionally to something as sudden and traumatic as having relatives ponynapped. If he remembered correctly, and he usually did, the first forty-eight hours after a ‘napping were the most crucial. If they were to get any vital information or help from Applejack, he had to keep her calm somehow.
“Umm,” he began, then rolled his eyes at himself. Great way to start a soothing conversation. “So, Miss Applejack, how have things been at Sweet Apple Acres?” It took every shred of his self control to not hit himself in the face. Sure, create a soothing conversation by doing two of the top things on the list of what not to do: 1. Mention work 2. Talk about home, from which she was very far away, and family to boot.
Despite his apparent lack of picking a good topic, Applejack perked up immediately. “Oh, things have been gettin’ along just fine. I don’t think Ah’ve ever seen the farm so productive.” The transformation from slumped and worried to chipper and happy was pretty alarming.
“Ah, well... that’s good to hear. Have you been getting a lot of help from relatives and the like?” A list of potential conversation sustaining questions and topics started scrolling through his brain. Maybe just keeping her from dwelling on the unknown status of her aunt and uncle would be enough to keep her spirits up.
The farm filly shook her head. “Nope, we’ve been employin’ some of yer kin, actually.”
“You mean other bronies?”
“The very same. It took some gettin’ used to, but once yah overlook their quirks, they’re right nice ponies. Very helpful.”
“You don’t say,” Pissfer said with a knowing smile.
“Hehe, well, they were just so happy ta be workin’ on a farm, or more specifically my farm, that I was a little weirded out at first. I mean, they would do any little thing Ah asked ‘em to and they were overjoyed ta be doin’ it. They’ve mellowed out some since then, a’course, but they’re still silly from time to time. Oh my, yah wouldn’t believe the ruckus Apple Bloom caused when she came back for summer break!” She shook her head with a rueful but hearty laugh. “Took ‘em three days ta calm down. ‘Course, by then Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo showed up and nothin’ else got done for the rest of the week.” She whistled softly, a short, rapidly descending tone that made Pissfer’s ears twitch and a smile break on his face.
“Haha, well it’s good to hear about some bronies finding a place to settle down.” He said it with a glance at her, trying to convey it as more of a question that needed elaborating.
If Applejack ever picked up on his intentions, he would never know, but she took the cue and nodded. “Eeyup, everypony has a right ta belong someplace. I’m happy ta be part of what makes so many o’them fellas happy. Truth be told, Ah’m out here ‘cuz of them. They’ve been managin’ the farm so well with Big Mac that they decided Ah needed a vacation!” She chortled in her throat. “I never would’a thought it, me, takin’ a vacation. Adventurin’ doesn’t count, y’know....” AJ slipped into silence.
Pissfer tried to read her face to see if she needed, or rather wanted, any help out of it. She saved him from admitting defeat in that endeavor by turning to him with an open expression.
“I s’pose this could be an adventure type thing now too, huh?” she asked, a weak smile on her face.
The powder-electric blue unicorn tried to give her a stronger one in return. By the stretching in his cheeks, he figured it could have lifted at least five pounds. “Don’t worry, Miss Applejack. We dealt with kidnappings all the time on Earth. Your aunt and uncle are fine. We’ll find them.” He hoped he wasn’t lying.
“Blimey. This entire place sounds abandoned,” Retsamoreh whispered, his voice echoing down the lonely stairwell. The only other sounds resounding in the building were the labored breaths of all but Applejack. “And... elevator didn’t work, of course. I wish we could’ve just skipped the stairs and teleported or something. You can do that, right?”
The faux detective spun around, observing what he could see with careful, exhausted scrutiny. On the outside, the apartment building that contained the Orange’s penthouse suite looked just like the other buildings, but on the inside it looked as if somepony had switched out the regular interior with a five-star Grand Hotel. Everything was fabulous, and usually tinted orange; everything except, the group noted, the stairwell hidden so far in the back that an errant bellcolt had to lead them there upon request.
“I’m not that good, and neither is Laichonious, unfortunately. Levitation or bust, with me,” the light blue unicorn said. He cocked his head. “I’ve been focusing on Blinking and Folding recently, but at the moment, Levitation is the only spell I’ve gotten really good at.” The khaki unicorn huffed, pushing his fedora further onto his head.
“We need the exercise, dude,” Laichonious said, bending down into a stretch. The obnoxious pointed hat on his head tilted dangerously to the side, spilling gold dust onto the concrete floor. Sighing, he looked at the only unphased pony in the group, Applejack, who continued to taunt them by not being exhausted. “Well, most of us.”
“Y’all stopped for breaks like five times. Ain’t my fault.” The farm mare shrugged, adjusting her own hat.
“Country ponies,” Rets groused.
“City ponies,” Applejack chuckled, nodding at the door. “This is the floor, fellas. I’ve made this trip three times today, so I know it by heart, I reckon.” She stepped lightly to the door, hooves clipping the ground in rebounding retorts that circled the group.
“Was the place this empty when you checked on the Oranges earlier?” Rets asked, moving toward the door first. The rest of the group rallied behind Applejack, who let him pass. “Because other than the staff, I didn’t see a single pony.”
“Just coincidence? I mean, it could be, since it’s night-time after all.” Laichonious offered.
“I don’t believe in coincidences. Not after I became a unicorn and then went to a universe that wasn’t supposed to exist. I... oh, wait, it is night, isn’t it? That explains that.” He huffed, and pushed open the door with a rusty, whiny squeal and revealed the penthouse hallway. “What number are they, again? I’m terrible with numbers,” he asked, looking back to Applejack.
“Err, Rets,” Pissfer whispered.
“Well I’m sorry, but I have to write things down a bunch to memorize them properly,” Rets retorted, scrunching up his face.
“There’s one door, sugarcube.” Applejack grinned, leaving the self-proclaimed detective in the metaphorical dust as she trotted past him and down the hall. Pissfer followed, a smug grin flashing across his face for the slightest of seconds.
“You tried, dude,” the scholar said, patting the stunned unicorn on the back as he passed.
Wordlessly, the group crossed the long hallway. It was filled unashamedly with mirrors that had orange frames. Each one they passed gave them just a small view into an infinity of possibilities that all contained orange mirror frames and orange wallpaper. Where there weren’t mirrors, there hung a painting of an orange - or something at least tangentially related to the fruit or color.
“I bloody hate oranges,” Retsamoreh suddenly said. “I mean, not usually, but I can’t imagine living here. Sodding eyesore.”
“Door’s locked,” Pissfer said, his magical aura disspating from the handle. “I am not kicking it down.”
“Can’t say I want to either,” Rets added, sighing. He stepped up to the door, holding a forehoof to it and smacking it in a frantic beat. “This is Investigator Retsamoreh, I’m with the Manehattan Police Department. It’s been reported that the occupants of this apartment are missing. If you’re not, uh, come to the door, please. We’ll be forced to enter if you don’t.”
The red unicorn stepped forward, stretching his back legs out one at a time. “I’ll do it.”
“Or,” Rets muttered, looking at the fourth member of their party, “we can enter with style.”
All over Equestria, also known as any place an Apple family member is, there are ponies who have mastered the art of apple bucking. Typical of their kin, the strongest among them fully well knew that if they wanted to, they could buck a tree straight in half. A wall, even a fancy one, wouldn’t be any match for them. A door would be a joke, and not even the good kind. The key, every Apple knew, was not to go for brute strength, but in delicacy; it was to buck the tree just so that it sustained no damage, and all of the kinetic energy whatsits were transferred up the trunk, through the branches, and into the apple stems. Said apples would fall harmlessly down, and the tree wouldn’t even know it happened.
A loud thump resounded from the door leading to the inside of the apartment. The undeniably fancy and expensive paintings on the orange wallpaper didn’t budge, and the hanging wire-lamp that appeared to cost more than all of the paintings combined refused to sway.
The door clicked.
“Well?” a muffled voice asked from the other side.
“You didn’t really kick it down,” another added.
“Course I didn’t. I ain’t gonna damage my auntie and uncle’s door, even if they’re in danger. When we find ‘em I think they’d like to know everything was as normal as it ever was.”
“So how are we going to get in?”
“Err, y’all could try opening the door.”
“It’s...” The handle on the door turned, slowly, and a second later the door was thrown back with alarming force. Three stunned ponies and one smug mare were behind it. “It is.”
“I don’t think I’m going to question this,” Retsamoreh muttered, sticking his head through the doorway. “Right. Lights are off. Nopony go in just yet.”
“Why not? It looks perfectly safe. Unless there’s a high-tier magical booby-trap,” Pissfer asked.
“In that case, I’ll go first. You poor fellas seem a lot more fragile than I am.”
“No, because it’s illegal. Or at least it usually is. We have to secure the perimeter first.”
“The perimeter is a doorway. Just lock it behind us,” Laich deadpanned, trotting past the fedora-topped unicorn and into the dim apartment. “See? No booby trap. Now let’s get looking for clues.”
“It shouldn’t work like this,” Rets hissed, nevertheless leading the rest of their ragtag CSI team into the room. “Just. Don’t touch anything. There’s a specific way to do a crime scene sweep. We have to work from the outside, that’s nearest to the walls, to the middle of the room. First, let’s turn on the lights. Pissfer?”
“On it,” the unicorn said, searching for the light switch. A moment later and the decorative apartment was awash in the glow of the overhead lamps. With the dark evening sky behind the windows, it gave off an eerie feeling. Worse, the place was in a state of disarray that could only be accurately described as “trashed”. Shadows of torn apart chairs danced across the wall as one of the lamps swung, and a shattered glass table sparkled in the light.
“I think there was a fight,” Rets announced.
“Gee,” Laich said. “I wonder how you came to that conclusion.” He chuckled, stepping over to one of the broken chairs. Leaning down to stare at it inquisitively, he poked at it with a hoof. “This place is tot-”
“No! No no no no!” Rets shouted, smacking his arm away. “What did I say about touching the crime scene just like, ten seconds ago? Just be quiet for a minute and let me try and deduce what happened here. Pissfer, stand guard at the door. We can’t allow anyone else in here. Now... to think.” He shooed the other unicorn to the other side of the room, taking a long look at destruction spread out before them.
The rooms, which consisted of the kitchen and den, were separated only by a thin open counter, and the majority of the damage was contained beyond the kitchen. The center of the scene was the broken glass table, two overturned chairs on one side, and two upright on the opposite end. Rets leaned in, eyes narrowing at the broken table until he felt satisfied it had been scrutinized properly.
Stepping lightly around gleaming shards of thick glass, the fedora-topped unicorn made his way to the hallway door, where two paintings had been knocked off the wall and splintered across the floor. He sighed, looking at the door for a long while, and turned to the others with a deep frown on his face.
“I know what happened,” he said simply. “They were pony-napped, alright. Two earth ponies and one pegasus did it, and all of them were ponies the Oranges knew and trusted. Chances are they were pretty surprised, too. I doubt the fight lasted longer than a minute.”
“And, er, how exactly can you tell all that? Ya just looked around for a couple a seconds,” Applejack said, raising an eyebrow and standing next to him.
“Yeah, I’m with her. That sounds a bit far-fetched,” Pissfer called from the front door, rubbing his forehead. “How does that logic even work?”
“Simple.” Rets walked over to the smashed table and chairs, gesturing to the two upturned chairs. “That’s where the oranges were sitting. All of this happened pretty late at night, and their guests were obviously good friends, so they set up some glasses of... looks like white wine, couple chairs, and partook in a discussion they probably didn’t think would last very long. In the middle of it, they were betrayed. I could still be wrong about the unicorn thing.”
“Whoa, wait. How do you know what types of ponies were there and whether or not they were drinking wine?” Laich asked, standing next to Applejack and shaking his head.
“There’s five wine glasses smashed to bits in the middle of that table, and wine-smelling stains to boot. Three are on the side with the upright chairs, and two are on the other side. There’s a green feather over there,” Rets replied, pointing to the door. “As for the other two possible suspects, I’m just guessing on their race. I don’t have a spell to detect magic, but I know at least one of them was probably an earth pony, judging from the holes punched in those paintings, and the wall. One of the Oranges wasn’t captured in the initial attack, so they tried to run into the hallway. Why they didn’t run for the front door is beyond me, though. The earth pony in the group charged him or her and bucked the wall twice, missing the intended target, possibly, meaning there might be some prints we can get. I’m guessing it was Mrs. Orange, went for the door here but got caught before she could open it.” He stopped, nodding at the door and looking at the indentions in the carpet.
“Then she was dragged across the floor, to the middle of the room. They restrained her there, probably tied her up, and left. This might be just a guess, but I’m thinking they took the service stairs and snuck around back. Were the Oranges fond of throwing late-night parties, Applejack?” he asked, looking up from his daze to the farm mare.
“Heh, yeah. They threw ‘em all the time back when I was a little filly. I always had to go bed early, ‘fore they ended, though.”
“Did they have any servants you know of?”
“They mostly just hired caterers, but there was one stallion that they said they always hired for these kinds of things. ‘Twas a long time ago, though, so I can’t say I remember his name or if he even works for ‘em anymore.” Sighing deeply, she turned to look at the carnage. “All of this breaks my heart. What kinda pony just ups and takes another from their home like this? I’ve seen lots of crazy stuff, lots of bad stuff, but nothing just as outright deplorable as this here scene.”
“Lucky for you, we’re used to it. We’ll find the Oranges, Miss Applejack. We already know we’re looking for a green pegasus, with two mystery suspects. If we hurry back to the police station and whatever was up with those riots is over, we can get them to properly analyze the scene and take over. As much as I want to dig around, actually, this is a job for real police, not consultants like us. We can do some digging of our own, looking for suspects and leads, but otherwise it’ll be up to them. Our standard hourly fee is-”
“What did I say about asking her to pay, Rets?” Laich snapped, leaning against the kitchen counter with a scowl on his face. “We’re not, and we’re going to do everything in our power to help her. Pissfer, you in?”
“I guess so. The mare’s the honorary D’Artagnan?”
“What,” Applejack and Rets said at the same time, flicking their ears down and cocking their heads. Freezing, the others stared with blank expressions.
“I can understand AJ not getting it, but we literally just explained it to you today, Rets,” Laich grumbled, shaking his head. “Anyways, I actually do have something that can speed up the process. Remember the cube makina I brought?”
“Um... the rubik’s puzzle with the compass?” Rets asked, raising an eyebrow.
“The one and only!” He yanked the makina device out of his saddlebag and presented it to them with a levitation spell. It spun in a circle, the top needle dragging along the surface as the gravity shifted under it. “It’s a residual magic detector of my own design and creation. I call it...” he took a deep breath, holding it up to the light. “Laich’s Spectro-Sneak!”
“Uh,” Pissfer said, scratching the back of his neck with a forehoof.
“No, no- wait, that sucks. I call it... Laich’s Spectrograph!”
“Spectrographs are already a thing,” Pissfer deadpanned.
“Can you just tell us how the stupid rubik’s cube works and name it after yourself another day?” Rets groaned, nodding to the mess of broken wood and glass a few feet away. “We still have a crime to solve and I’d appreciate it if we did it as fast as possible.” A light blue magic aura snatched the object from the air and levitated it over to the unicorn, who narrowed his eyes. “Just tell me what it does and how it works.”
“Right, well,” Laich said, puffing up his chest, and grinning broadly. “Just set it on the ground there - good. See, dude, what it does is detect magic residue. It’s sort of like a metal-detector, but with traces of magic. All we need to do is push it over to where that fight happened and it can give us a rough estimation of when the last spell was cast in that area. If it doesn’t work, then we can rule out any unicorns. Just, turn it on like so...”
Laichonious leaned over and pointed his horn at the makina, part of his wizard hat tilting to the side and spilling gold dust over the ground. His horn lit up, and a small ring on the side of the cube began to turn. “You give this thing here a quarter-turn to the right. It’s the setting for what it’s going to detect, and it’s not the only setting.”
The ring stopped, but his horn continued to glow; this time a small band of magic formed between his horn and the box, lighting up the runes etched into the sides. “And now comes the fun part! I just open up four leylines into it for power, and bang!” Laich beamed, taking a deep breath and closing his eyes. A small tick could be heard from the box. “Hear that, that’s the sound of success.”
“Or the sound of stupid. The needle just hit the other side, Laicho,” Rets said, frowning.
“W-what, why?” the unicorn sputtered, leaning down to stare at the object from a distance - a distance of half a centimeter. “It shouldn’t be doing that!”
“Maybe it’s ‘cause you built a magic-detectin’ device that ran on magic?” Applejack asked, raising an eyebrow. “I ain’t gonna claim to be an expert on magic, but even I know that ain’t right. Hay, it’s still a fancy-lookin’ paperweight, though.”
“It’s only use would be to chuck it at your head. You’re supposed to be a genius or something. How did you not get it right?”
“Dunno,” Laich whispered, his magic stopping. He had reverted to staring blankly at the makina, refusing to break eye contact incase it mocked him further while he wasn’t looking.
“Whatever. I’m going to go check in the other rooms in case pony-napping wasn’t all they were up to. Pissfer, stand guard. Applejack, if you could come with me, I’d prefer some help. Laich... try not to break you face on a wall or something while we’re gone.”
“Hey, I resemble that statement,” Laich said absentmindedly, along the same line of reaction as a rubber hammer to the knee.
Applejack threw a raised eyebrow at Rets, who caught it and shrugged his shoulders instead of returning an answer.
“Er, no offense, but I don’t think Applejack knows what to look for in these types of scenarios. I watched just as many crime-dramas as you have,” Pissfer said, pursing his lips and nodding at Applejack apologetically. “Wouldn’t it be better to have her stand guard?”
Retsamoreh looked between the two with a critical eye, settling on Pissfer. “That’s a stallion’s job, mate. You’re pretty tough.”
“Applejack could literally take on us three and not break a sweat, Rets” Pissfer deadpanned, rolling his eyes.
“Yeah, don’t be racist,” Laich helpfully added, now lying on his belly and fiddling with the makina cube with his hooves. Everypony glared at him.
“What’s-” Applejack started.
“Just don’t even ask, please?” Rets asked, smiling apologetically. “Pissfer does have a point, despite his lack of a hat. Don’t make a joke about horns, Laich. I can see your stupid face grinning down there.”
“Wasn’t gonna say anything,” the unicorn mumbled, holding the cube up to his face. “I swear to Celestia.”
“Y’all know what? Fine. I’ll stand guard, consarn it all,” Applejack snapped, marching over to the door. “Whatever speeds this here ‘investigating’ up. I swear to Celestia. My aunt and uncle have been missing for a whole day, and I’ve gotten nowhere closer to finding them!”
The three remaining unicorns looked at each other, and Laichonious’ magical glow retracted from the dysfunctional makina. Pissfer approached the middle of the room, leaving Rets to stand by the hallway door. “She’s right,” Pissfer said, scrunching his muzzle up in defeat. “I know you’re at least trying, Rets, but we really need to get our act together. I’d... personally like to take responsibility for all the goofing off. We used to be sort of a group, hence all of the injokes - we were for years, and then after we all came to Equestria... well I think we drifted apart further than normal. Rets is reverting to his old cynical goofy self, even if he never changed, and Laich is... Laich, and here I am playing peacekeeper slash neutral force. But I can tell you right now that even when goofing off we have a tendency of getting things done the right way, the first time. All I’m asking is that you trust us.”
Applejack sighed, shaking her head wistfully at the tan carpet. “Aw, hayfeathers, y’all remind of back when the girls and I used to have crazy adventures all over Equestria. I guess I can’t really blame you for being a bit silly. Pinkie was worse than all y’all combined. We haven’t even been here ten minutes and you’ve already figured a couple of things out.”
“And for free, apparently,” Rets added, sniffing and waving Pissfer over. “Now if you’ll excuse me. Pissfer, let’s get a move on. Any minute we waste is a minute when the Oranges could be put in danger. We’ll be right back. Laich?”
“Remember? Face. Wall. No.”
“Uh-huh,” Laichonious muttered, turning back to the task at hand: dismantling his invention with only his eyes. He twirled it around in the air, eyeing each carved rune carefully. Blinking from his trance when the door shut and the departing hoofbeats of his companions faded away, he sighed.
“They seem to treat you a bit like a dull knife, you know,” Applejack said, leaning against the wall and crossing her forehooves. Emerald eyes slowly scanned over the destruction in the room, stopping only at the foreboding overturned chairs.
“Dull knives cut the worst, you know,” he deadpanned, frowning. The makina fell to the floor.
“Pardon?” She turned to face him, brow raised. “Pretty sure that was the point, sugarcube.”
“Nevermind. I know that this whole makina thing must make me look like a complete fool, just remember, I basically invented the things, or at least I rediscovered the art and handed it off to ponies like Princess Luna and Twilight Sparkle so they could make all of the impressive stuff. I, uh, don’t really mind it, Rets and Pissfer keep me humble and I keep them entertained--it’s a win-win thing.”
“Sounds like you’re a bit out of your element out here solving crimes.”
“Ah, um... sort of. It’s a long story, why we’re out here ‘solving crimes,’” he muttered, walking over to place the cube on top of the kitchen countertop. “As for solving crimes, it’s definitely not sitting in a library carving up runes, but believe it or not, crime-solving was considered highly entertaining where I come from. Doesn’t Equestria have fictional crime dramas?”
“Course it does,” AJ replied, walking over to the kitchen counter. “But they ain’t as popular as you might think. Fictional ponies getting hurt and robbed just plain isn’t what real ponies want to read, I guess, even if things turn out alright in the end.”
“Yeah, see, that’s what I’ve always thought about crime dramas on Earth. Y’know, we had plenty of stories that were all too real to go around making up more, in my opinion,” Laich said, levitating the pointed monstrosity atop his head over to the countertop, leaving a pool of gold flecks at the area it rested upon. “That’s why a lot of people became interested in becoming detectives, or CSI dudes, though. Even Rets thought about becoming a forensics something-or-other before we came here.”
“And that’s why he became an investigator out here?” Applejack asked, studying the wizard hat for a moment before turning back to the scholar. “Seems kind of odd, trying to fight crime in a world where there’s barely any - but I s’pose I can’t say that anymore with a straight face, heh. Protecting ponies and dishing out heaping piles of justice sounds like a good enough reason for him, but what’s yours? Why’d you join up with him?”
“Pretty much the same reason,” Laich said instantly, breaking eye contact to look at his hat. “Sort of, I guess. I... yeah... protecting ponies and justice, alright.”
“Something on your mind there, sugarcube?” Applejack asked, tilting her head.
“Nah, it’s nothing, I-” Thump. She and Laichonious looked at the wall where the noise had come from, ears swiveling and stances so alert a startled antelope would be proud. “What was that?”
“Nothing good,” Applejack muttered, straightening her hat and galloping toward the door as more muffled crashes met their ears.
Pissfer groaned, discarded books falling off of his body as he rolled over. He didn’t hear his friend’s hissed pleas to get up and move and run and flee and be anywhere but there. There were too many noises in his head at the moment to listen. Another hoof impacted his side and sent him sliding into the oak desk that was in the middle of the study.
Rets shouted, “Whoa! No, that’s too far, buddy. It’s one thing to just skip the introduction and obligatory one-liner, but it’s another to kick a pony while he’s down. Put your hooves over your head, mate, ‘cause you’re under arrest.”
The mysterious pony looked up, one hoof hovering over Pissfer’s prone form. A white hood covered his face, but there was a sincerely disturbing implication that under that hood was a grin. “You do not have any authority here, friend, so I do not think I will comply with your request. You are, in fact, outnumbered.”
“What?” Rets asked, taking two side-steps over to a fancy carved cane rack. Panicked shouts slipped under the doorway, and the rapid thumping of hoofsteps reached his ears. A blue glow slipped over one of the canes, a fancy black one with an orange-colored diamond pommel, and brandished it in front of him. “I don’t think so.”
“What I meant to imply-” The figure charged forward, crashing into the faux-investigator and ramming them both into a bookcase. Multiple books fell on top of them, but the attacker didn’t even flinch as they hit his back. Gloved hooves pinned him to the shelf with precise ferocity. The cane rolled uselessly away. “-was that you are utterly and completely outmatched by me and should simply walk away while you can.”
“While ponies like you still... uh, dang, I forgot what I was- gah!” Tossed away like a ragdoll, he flew threw the air and collided against the side of the oak desk with a sickening thud. Wasting no time, the cloaked pony reached around the bookshelf and shoved it over to the door, loosing a strained grunt as he got it into place.
“That should take care of them,” he muttered, turning to Rets, who was only beginning to struggle to his hooves. Pissfer stood up with him, horn aglow. “It’s a shame you chose this time to investigate. I would’ve prefered a bit of privacy.”
“At least you’re stereotypical. That makes me feel a bit better,” Rets groaned, lifting his half-crushed fedora back to his head and readying the cane. “Why are you here? Were you one of the ponies that kidnapped the oranges?”
“Hang in there, Rets! Applejack, buck this thing down!” Laichonious called from behind the blocked door.
“Yes. Yes I was. Now if you would please go away and let me do my job, I would be very thankful for it,” he said in a curt voice, approaching Rets carefully. Pissfer leapt in to tackle the pony, but as soon as he moved, so did his target. The cloak fluttered about in the dim room, snapping taut when he bucked Pissfer in the chest and sent him into the same bookshelf as the first time.
Retsamoreh sucked in a lungful of air, taking the momentary switching of focus to lunge at the intruder, cane swinging wildly. It was parried with a simple stroke of the hoof, sending the cane bouncing off the orange wallpaper. Narrowing his eyes, the levitated weapon came back up front, taking another sideways swing at the pony; he caught it with his mouth, and yanked hard.
“Guh,” Rets gasped, his horn shining even brighter as he poured magic into his spell. “H-how... do... you...” He stumbled, the cane ripped from his magical grip, and fell to the floor, panting.
Stepping past him, the criminal grunted, and the cane closed in on the unicorn’s forehead with a terrific cracking noise. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you, gentlecolts.” He walked behind the desk, opening a drawer with one hoof and rummaging through it with the other. “But I’ll just come and take what I came here for.” Deftly sticking something into a pocket in his cloak, he slammed the drawer shut and approached the waiting window.
The door shattered, and the bookshelf exploded outward in several pieces that clattered against the orange-tinted hardwood floors. Sliding across the ground, the largest, most intact part crunched to a halt before the desk, and then tilted forward and proceeded to fall upon Rets with a tremendous crash.
“Oops,” Laich said from the doorway, brandishing an umbrella. Applejack rolled her eyes beside him. “Sorry, dude.”
Pissfer scrambled to his hooves, scanning the messy desktop for anything he could use. His eyes lit up, and so did his horn.
“You are all very bad at this, and I must say. I expected more,” the voice said from behind the white cloak, chuckling on the window ledge. He looked down to the black ground far below, and the eerie implication that he was smiling returned. “But thank you for the fun, even though I must be- GUH!” Pissfer rushed forward, a gleaming letter opener streaking forward and pinning the cloak to the wood. A line of ripped fabric tore through the white fabric, sending the attacker in a panicked tumble over the edge.
Pissfer grunted as the cloak exploded outward, two long strips fluttering out into the wind. A moment later, he approached the window and looked down. “Well he was definitely a pegasus, and I’ll bet to anything he was green.” The blue unicorn sighed, his horn lighting up as something floating through the air caught his eye.
Adjusting his wizard hat in the process, Laichonious’s horn lit up with a levitation spell, and the remains of the bookshelf politely removed themselves from his partner.
“Bluh,” Rets muttered, blinking a few times in the dim lighting. He struggled to his hooves, haphazardly placing the hat back on his head when he was sure he wasn’t going to fall over. “Bloody ‘ell, I can’t feel my... face, or- guh..”
“What happened?” Laich asked.
“Hayfeathers! Y’all three tore the place up pretty darn near to pieces,” Applejack muttered, observing the wreckage. Two bookshelves had been toppled, the books themselves were splayed around in such a way that would probably made any libraries within a mile suddenly get chills, though one nearby understood the pain. Even the desk had a deep crack running across the top.
“We were ambushed as soon as we walked in the room. Pissfer tried to use some sort of spell on him, but... gosh, he was on us in seconds. Pissfer, are you okay? He got you pretty good there.”
“Not entirely,” Pissfer muttered, whatever he was looking at vanishing in a burst of Folding magic. “I feel like I was hit by a train. Don’t think anything was broken, though.”
“One....” Rets trailed off, blinking and then shaking his head confusedly. “One thing, though. We definitely need to contact the po... the police guys, about this. That pony was good, and like... what? Do all pegasi have military training or something?”
“Probably not,” Pissfer said, rubbing his barrel with one hoof. “Youch, he packed a punch and a half.”
“If I ever see that guld-dern varmint again, he’s gonna get nice introduction to Bucks McGee,” Applejack said, cantering over to the open window. She huffed, eyes narrowed at the night sky like it was the one at fault for everything.
A loud guffaw erupted from Rets’ throat, and he leaned haphazardly against the desk, grinning wistfully. “That sounded really funny... hah. Oh Celestia my poor head feels like it’s caved in.”
“You should probably have it checked for a concussion,” Pissfer said, surveying the scene one last time. “I think we should put up some sort of warning sign and close this place off, then go alert the police. Until then, I think we can sleep soundly now that we have a better idea of what we’re up against.”
“Yeah, looks like some sort of crazy assassin pegasus. We’ll last real long against them,” Laich scoffed, sniffing haughtily. “I, for one, am tired, and I just want to go home.”
“You didn’t even do anything,” Rets muttered, rolling his eyes. He looked down, glowering at the cane that had caused him so much trouble, and picked it up with a flickering levitation spell. One hoof steadying himself against the desk, he grunted, and made way for the door with Pissfer in pursuit. “But I really just want to do anything that makes my head stop hurting.”
“And tell the police, of course,” Pissfer said, disappearing into the hallway. Laichonious and Applejack shared a last glance at each other and the half-destroyed study, frowning, and then they left.
The rag-tag investigation team wearily plodded from the high-class apartment building. The rain had stopped, right on schedule, and some of the city’s night ponies were abroad, on their way to the many lively nightclubs Manehattan had to offer. The tall buildings looming over the tired group of pony sleuths didn’t look very generous, however. Laich studied the cane Rets had become acquainted with, trying to ignore the condescending leer of the buildings. It wasn’t really a cane to him, it looked more like a traditional shillelagh which filled him with a deep and distracting sense of curiosity. The shillelagh felt strange to him, so he suspected leylines at work. Regardless of what he thought of the strangely-out-of-place weapon, having it made him feel better and Rets didn’t seem to mind his borrowing of it.
The red unicorn noticed several things as he walked ahead of his friends, despite his outward appearance of being absorbed in the stick he floated before him. The traffic on the sidewalk seemed decidedly thin compared to his other experiences walking the city at night with Rets in pursuit of feline fugitives. Rain usually wasn’t a factor in those sorts of things; after all, it was scheduled. In the silly interpretation of thoughts, he filed the fact away in a squeaky cabinet in the back of his mind, making sure to remember the squeak, he should fix that. In addition to the lack of citizens, there was a lack of police ponies. This observation caused him to pause momentarily, at least mentally. There should have been an officer around somewhere; they made it a point to give the illusion of a large police force and they did this by putting an officer at key intersections, but the group of tired ponies had passed several major streets, not spying even a single cop. Though he was looking for them, that didn’t mean he always saw them and Laich doubted any of the ponies behind him noticed or even cared at the moment.
Among the trivial things he noticed, like the sign in his favorite stationery store announcing a sale on all things ink or the occasional whisper of a niyega passing overhead, he saw that the light traffic was mostly headed in one direction, north. As far as he had seen, the only ponies that headed north at this time of night were the ones getting off of their shifts in the manufacturing district and they almost never came to this part of town. The runemaster slowed his steps to let his friends catch up to him.
“Hey,” he said distractedly “would you say this is a pretty rich part of town?” The question was for nopony in particular so he shouldn’t have been annoyed at how nopony in particular answered his question, chiefly, with silence. He sighed. “Applejack?”
“Hm? Oh, sorry, what was that sugarcube?” She blinked at him, very slowly.
“You’ve been around the city right?” the red unicorn asked gently.
The farm filly gave him a strange look for the tone of his voice but nonetheless answered his query. “Yeah, I reckon I’ve been most everywhere ‘round here. How come?”
“Well I was just wondering if this would be what you consider to be a rich part of the city.”
“Erm, well...” she fished around for words. Nothing was biting tonight.
“That is,” Rets butted in, “as opposed to less desirable places, y’know, where lowlifes like to hang out.”
“Less desirable?” AJ furrowed her brow at the two unicorns. “Ah think Manehattan is a right nice place ta live. I wouldn’t live here m’self, understand, but Ah don’t think there’s any place like that...”
“Uh, what about, um...” Laich screwed up his eyes, searching for the right words, how anypony could find anything with eyes going two directions is anypony’s guess. “Oh! Like a part of town where most of the working ponies live, like the ones who do... menial labor?” he said, trying to emulate an innocent expression that only made him look more guilty.
The tired farmer didn’t take much notice of Laich’s apparent guilt. “Oh,” she said soflty. “Well I s’pose there’s a burrow out yonder,” she jerked her head to the general north-east, “called Moot Point. It’s where lots of the dock workers and factory workers live. Could be what yer lookin’ for, sugarcube.... Why’re yall smilin’ like that?”
Laich and Pissfer attempted to smooth out the grins on their faces. “Smiling like what?” Laich asked with the same innocent-yet-guilty face trying to cohabitate with the grin. It wasn’t working out.
Rets only scowled, then winced at his headache. “I wouldn’t worry about them, Applejack,” he said in a low tone. He glanced around, his scowling wince transferring its focus to their surroundings. “This doesn’t look like the way to the police station...” he mumbled.
“That’s ‘cuz it isn’t,” Laich responded with surprise.
“What?” Pissfer finally said. “Why did you take us back here? We have important stuff to repor--” a massive yawn savagely broke into his sentence, ruffed up the furniture, ate all the food in the fridge, made a general nuisance of itself and finally left as suddenly as it came, “--ooort. Blegh. Maybe that’s why.”
“Why didn’t you tell me I was walking back to the office?” Laich managed to ask before the same yawn decided to hit him.
“I was just follow--” Rets wasn’t so lucky. The yawn hightailed it over to him making sure to take an extra long time rearranging the furniture. “--wing you!”
“Look, fellas Ah do--” Even Applejack wasn’t safe from the yawn as it barreled into her with what could have been a gleeful cackle. “--on’t think the police are even gonna be there. Seems like that riot thing had them pretty well occupied.”
“But we sti--” The yawn was having the time of its life ruthlessly interrupting their sentences and causing mayhem with creaking jaws. “--iil have to report...”
Laich waved a hoof at his powder-electric blue friend, mouth agape with the presence of the yawn as it happily forced his jaw farther apart. “Gahh! Look, I think Applejack is right th--” Apparently the yawn wasn’t finished. “--eehhh, geeze, police aren’t going to be there.”
“How can ya--” Rets tried to say, but the yawn was having so much fun, it must have called in backup. Both he and Pissfer had their mouths open, tongues lolling out to the side. Rets finally fought off his yawn and shook his head, then instantly regretted it. “Ugh, How can you say that?” He held one hoof up to his head, swaying where he stood like long grass in a gale.
Laich heard once that if you didn’t look at somepony who was yawning, the yawn wouldn’t come after you. Whoever said that was a dirty liar. Despite staring fixedly at their office building’s door, he could feel a yawn tugging at him. “Can I ju--” The inevitable took him.
“Consarnit! Would ya--” Applejack staggered under that particular yawn assault.
“--ust... just tell you tomorrow?” Laich asked wiping at his face with a foreleg.
Rets would have liked to say no but the yawns had him pinned down and wide open.
“aaahhooioui... would y’all quit doin’ that?” Applejack slouched forward, beating down another yawn as soon as she finished talking.
A coordinated attack left them all with their mouths open and making odd noises in front of the building, earning them a confused look from a few passing ponies. After what felt like thirty minutes, the yawns retreated, no doubt to regroup and launch another debilitating assault.
Laich took the opportunity in the momentary lull to make a suggestion. “Look, we’re already here and Rets, you should probably lie down or something. Applejack has had a tough day and we can barely see straight. We can do all the reporting we need to do in the mor--” The first wave of new attacks took him by surprise.
“Alright, alright!” Rets said as he staggered to the door. “Let’s get some rest. My jaw is going to fall off.”
The yawns celebrated yet another victory by pestering their victims further until they finally settled down to sleep. Laichonious gave his bed to Applejack, claiming he was always more comfortable on a couch and mumbling something about getting used to it. Pissfer pulled out the bedroll he had packed in his saddlebags and claimed a corner of the front room for the night. Rets barely remembered tripping into his bed and cursing that green pegasus with his last coherent thought.
Morning. There was something insidious about the word as it drifted through Laichonious’ sleep-deprived brain. It kept to itself mostly, slinking around the filing cabinets and pedestrian thoughts. It leered at the happy Dreams that played their pageant on the main stage of the Subconscious district, entertaining some of the events of the previous day. If it had a face, the word would have had a slimy smile spread across it. A red tinge started to invade the space of the sleeping brain, and Morning knew that the time was soon... well, at hoof, it supposed. No matter how many times it did this despicable deed, Morning got a chuckle every time. The Dreams didn’t get to put on their pageants very often and Morning took particular pleasure in ruining the performance so utterly, that the Subconscious didn’t deliver the memories to the Conscious out of sheer embarrassment.
From the shrinking shadows, Morning got ready to spring the daily trap and see what havoc could be wrought. At the crescendo of the Dreams’ play, Morning sprang out and shouted the hated words, “RISE AND SHINE!!”
And then Laich exploded.
He exploded so forcefully that he almost cured the sickly burgundy couch of whatever ailed it, even as he thrashed his way out of the small mountain of blankets he had conjured the night before. Like a red, groggy avalanche of pony and fabric, he thunked onto the floor and then did his best impression of a beetle that had fallen on its back. It should be noted that the flailing and intermittent grunts are not at all under his direct control, in fact, Laich hasn’t even woken up yet. His Subconscious was still trying to apprehend Morning so that it could finally explain the years of undelivered dream memories to the Conscious.
The flailings soon ran their prescribed course and the red unicorn managed to stand up. His hooves were vaguely aware of having something important to do, now that the fun of sailing through the air with no regard to safety or reason was over, so they took Laichonious on a circuitous route to one of his favorite places: the kitchen. Hair tousled and eyes still better off closed, the runemaster bumped into his desk only twice, and the doorframe once, before he was able to successfully enter the kitchen. It was no mistake that he was in the kitchen; there was no physical way for anypony* to make such a cacophony without being mostly asleep in a kitchen filled with more pots and pans than it had a legal reason for having.
Laich’s aural re-enactment of a medieval battle ended with a celebratory and sleepy cheer as he found his specially-made toaster makina. It should be noted, again, that he was still asleep in most senses of the concept. He grabbed the makina from its hiding place with his hooves and put it on the counter with the sound of breakfast. Two slices of bread floated in a cloud of red magic over from the pantry and into the waiting maw of the arcane device. Magic continued to gather around Laich’s horn as he pushed the lever down on the side of the makina that ultimately sealed the fate of the bread. Then, he stared at it.
“So he does this every time?” asked a blue voice that drifted into Laich’s sleepy ear.
“Nah,” replied a tan voice, “only when he wants toast.”
“No.” The blue voice sighed, making a noise that was surprisingly close to the sound of powdered electricity escaping a bottle. “I meant the staring. Does he always stare at it?”
“Yeah,” confessed the tan voice. “I’ve watched him do this a few times, y’know, back in Canterlot. I used to think it was because he was looking for anything wrong, as it was working, but now I think he watches it ‘cuz he’s afraid it’ll kill him before he gets any toast.”
“Right,” sneered the blue voice, “ever think he might be counting?”
“He hasn’t even had firsts yet. Why would he be counting on seconds already?”
Powdered electricity escaped that bottle again. “No, dude, time. He’s counting for how long he wants the bread down.”
“Pppphff,” scoffed the tan voice. “It does it automatically, spring-loaded and stuff. It scares him every time, therefore, he’s afraid it’s going to kill him one day.”
“Maybe he’s counting so that when it does pop, it doesn’t scare him.”
“Stop being so logical,” grumbled the tan voice.
“Wait, didn’t he make this one?” asked the blue voice uncertainly.
Laich’s ear twitched slightly, annoyed that the Conscious hadn’t taken over management yet. It thought that this conversation might be somewhat important and therefore, Laich needed to pay attention.
“Yeah. Every toaster in Equestria was made by him. He made this one a few days ago, left probably twenty in Canterlot.”
“Why did he make so many?”
“Well, they weren’t all the same. He made some prototypes, kept complaining ‘it just wasn’t right’.” The tan voice sniggered. “Heh, I remember he told me one went totally wrong. It transmuted the bread into something else.”
“What was it?”
“He never said. All he told me was that it definitely was not toast.”
“Hmm,” mused the blue voice, “well I guess your explanation could work, but... why doesn’t he just make them without springs if they scare him?”
“Beats me,” shrugged the tan voice.
It was around this point that Laich’s ear managed to get his attention so he was vaguely aware that two ponies were talking about him. This unfortunately broke his concentration, such as it was, and the toaster decided that the bread was now toast.
And then Laich exploded for the second time.
Up came the toast quite suddenly, though not unexpected, with its menacing click-scritch of springs uncoiling and metal pieces sliding against one another. With a surprised yelp, Laich’s Consciousness fell into power, tripping over the “fight or flight” switch, which wasn’t so much a switch as it was a weighted coin that always fell on one side. The runemaster disappeared in a flash of red magic and reappeared behind Pissfer and Rets, who were in fact the blue and tan voices that had been watching the mostly-asleep wizard.
“It almost got me that time...” Laich rasped darkly, glaring at the contraption.
Rets glanced at him, then threw a meaningful one at Pissfer.
The blue unicorn shrugged off the glancing impact with a shake of his head.
Laichonious looked at Rets and Pissfer and quickly ran through everything that he remembered of the morning up to that point. It seemed to him that an awful lot happened in a very short amount of time and, more annoyingly, couldn’t recall any of it with anything bordering on clarity. So he decided that he would act as if nothing were amiss and butter the toast before it got cold. He got out of his crouch as casually as he could and stepped around Pissfer. “Mornin’,” he mumbled.
“Yup,” said Pissfer.
“No arguing there,” replied Rets.
A few awkward moments realized they had been discovered and tried to leave the space between the three bronies as surreptitiously as possible. It took them a while to clear out so the whole room had to endure the equally awkward sounds of Laich buttering the toast. Pissfer wasn’t as affected by the passage of the silent moments as the other two and obliviously got out a soft brush to finish his meticulous daily grooming.
Rets got up and took a few steps away from the blue unicorn before sitting down with a sniff. “Alright then,” Rets said, breaking the silence with as much finesse as a wrecking ball to the side of a building. “We should probably report that whole mess over at the Oranges, hum?”
“Um-hum,” agreed Pissfer.
“Yup.” Laich’s assent crumbled out of his mouth with a few tiny pieces of toast.
“Yeaaah... we should probably get some officers to go with us, back to the penthouse... to make it official,” Rets said, narrowing his eyes at the other two.
“Certainly,” came another crumbly word.
“Of course,” was Pissfer’s perfectly neutral agreement.
“This has absolutely nothing to do with the prospect of that one green pegasus being there. Not one bit.”
“Never would have thought about it,” said Pissfer, stretching his neck out to brush his coat.
“What green pegasus?” asked a toast-filled Laich.
Rets’ ear twitched in an attempt to catch any scoff in their replies but couldn’t find any. “Okay then...”
“Um-hum,” said Pissfer with his eyes closed, still brushing his coat.
“I guess that settles it,” said Laich with his eyes regarding the toaster again.
Rets tried to not grind his teeth but that was like throwing a boulder into a lake and trying to not make it splash. “So who should we take?”
“Who’s ‘we’?” asked a tail-combing Pissfer.
“Y’know, you, me, Laich, AJ, all of us.”
“Don’t know if that’s such a good idea,” Pissfer siad, wincing at a snag in his tail.
“Hum? Why? I think I can keep a close eye on it this time,” the toast-craving wizard replied from the kitchen.
Rets smacked himself in the face with a hoof. “No, Laich, not the toast. Us. Going to report stuff, to the police, together.” He turned back to the physicist with an annoyed shake of his head. “How do you figure us going together is a bad idea?”
“Well, Applejack isn’t awake, first of all,” the blue unicorn stated mater-of-factly.
“Hooookaaay...” Rets said, making a silly expression that resembled a boxer enjoying a wicked left hook to the face.
“She’s a farmer, Rets.” Pissfer blatantly missed Rets’ expression of ‘why don’t you tell me something I didn’t already know’. “She would have gotten up before all of us, if she was feeling all right. She had a rough day yesterday and is obviously tired. She’s not used to dealing with this kind of emotional stress.” He said it like it was the most obvious thing in the world, while calmly moving on to combing out his mane.
To Rets’ general annoyance, it was obvious once he thought about it. “Fine then. You, me and La--”
“No... I think I’ll stick around here, y’know so that she doesn’t wake up to everypony being gone.” The words again were delivered like letters by the mailmare.
“Because they don’t know me at the police station. That would be sort of weird don’t you think?”
Rets glared at the grooming pony, silently daring him to interrupt again. “Whatever,” he finally grumbled. “You done over there, Laich?”
“Uh, sure, but aren’t you gonna eat something?”
“I’ll grab something-or-other on the way,” the detective said while levitating his saddlebags onto his back. “I want to get to the bottom of this case, and I think I have a pretty good plan for that. Let’s go.”
“You think she’ll go for that though?” Laichonious asked as he and Rets walked down the wide hall to Daisy’s office.
“Well, we have a double ponynapping, one assault, a riot, and a vandalization of a public building and they are all connected, I just know it.” Rets nodded his head for emphasis.
“Look I believe you, but just your gut feeling might not be enough to convince the Chief Commissioner to let us start using police assets. On top of that we--”
“Shh,” Rets said, holding up a hoof to stop the other unicorn. “Hear that?” he whispered.
Voices drifted from behind the Commissioner’s door. Laich nodded. Both he and Rets crept forward soundlessly, wincing at every loud scritch and scratch of their hoof-falls which seemed to conjure every speck of grit or dust that ever existed and put it all under their unshod hooves. In spite of the awful racket, they managed to get close enough to press the sides of their heads up to the door without detection. Two voices muffled by the door carried on a strange conversation.
One voice, that was obviously male, was saying, “...and these are the last of the instructions.”
A soft shuffle of paper proceeded a quiet gasp. “Are you sure these will be necessary?” a female voice with a slight twang, that had to be the Commissioner herself, asked with reservation.
“If everything goes according to plan, those measures won’t be needed. But it is good to have a backup plan, no matter how unpleasant,” the male voice answered.
“Well, there’s no mistaking that seal... I never would have given this a second thought if not for that, you know.” Daisy said evenly.
“Be that as it may, you and I both have oaths to honor,” the male voice said with a healthy dose of solemnity.
“Yes, I reckon so. Don’t worry, I’ll do my part.” Daisy paused. It was the sort of pause that likes to happen just before a rattlesnake takes out a mouse.
Rets lifted an eyebrow at Laich, mouthing the word ‘oaths?’.
The runemaster shook his head slightly in the way that everypony knows on instinct that says ‘I have no idea but if we keep listening, I bet we’ll find out and be quiet about how you mouth words and things, we’re trying not to get caught’.
“What should I do about... well, them?” Daisy asked, tapping her hoof on something.
“Humor them for now, give them some wiggle room. Everything is well in hoof. I will be back later to check up on the implementation of those measures, Chief Commissioner,” the male voice said with finality.
The familiar tingle of magic being used in close proximity danced along Laich’s back and they heard the ripping, popping and hissing of a unicorn teleporting on the other side of the door. Just before he took his ear away from the dark wood, Laich heard the Commissioner sigh, “How did I get roped into this?”
Rets straightened and took a few steps back from the door, jerking his head in the direction they came like he had a leash in his teeth that could tug the runemaster away from the door.
“What was that all about?” Rets whispered when Laich joined him a few sceptres down the hall.
Laich shook his head, eyeing the door. It shrugged off his scrutiny and stubbornly refused to give anything up. “I have no idea,” he whispered back, “there’s more to Daisy Thorn than meets the eye, apparently.”
Rets rubbed his chin, frowning at his thoughts. They weren’t giving him much to work with. “We’ll have to keep a close eye on her then,” he muttered, “just in case...”
Laich waited for the qualifier, that never came. “Just in case what?” he hazarded.
“You know,” Rets rasped like a conspiracy peddler from the Cold War, “if we have to make a case, against her. We don’t know who this mystery unicorn is...” He paused and considered that last sentence, then dismissed it with a muttered “Hurrdurr,” then continued in his conspiratorial whisper. “He’s got some sort of leverage over Daisy, or they are part of some secret society with all this talk of oaths. Secret societies almost never mean good things.” He finished, glaring at the silent door.
Laichonious thought for a moment. “What about the Cutie Mark Crusaders? They were relatively harmless.”
Rets shook his head, making his fedora wobble on his head. He trotted past the runemaster mumbling in a nasally voice under his breath, “What about the Cutie Mark Crusaders? Had a secret society they told everypony about...”
Laich snorted at his friend’s antics and followed him back to the office door that so innocently hid possibly-nefarious things behind its richly stained planks. It innocently intimidated the two bronies as well, casually blocking their way and their ability to stay skeptical of the towering personality that resided in the space beyond the unassuming portal. After a few more moments of mental preparation, Rets lifted his hoof like a pony taking the first step to the gallows and knocked. The sound of his hoof against the door did not sound like a knock; it was more like the sound of a lead brick hitting the lid of a sarcophagus, heavy and foreboding.
“Come in!” barked the Chief Commissioner.
Laich’s heart involuntarily skipped a beat and immediately started racing to make up for the lapse. The door eased open with a push from Rets’ magic, revealing... not exactly what the runemaster had expected.
Walking into the office of the Chief Commissioner was like walking into a miniature representation of every Wild West cliché ever graced by the boots of Clint Eastwood. The floor was untreated hardwood, the sort of grey old-even-though-it’s-new kind. The walls were normal enough if you disregarded a number of things about them. One of those things to ignore could be the Minotaur horns mounted on the wall behind her desk. Random bits of tack also adorned the wall that suddenly took on a new meaning once Laich realized that it could be used on him, now that he was a pony. A decorative saddle that had no pommel or back, was lined with green sequins along the outside and fringy frilly tassels that he couldn’t imagine the Chief wearing. Her desk was a massive affair that likely required the lives of four trees to make. It dominated most of the room with its carved corners and dark, high-gloss finish. It had nothing on the presence of its occupant, however. Daisy Thorn, Chief Commissioner of the Manehattan Police, calmly slid a manilla folder underneath a stack of identical folders to her right and regarded the two bronies over steepled hooves. A pleasant smile graced her face, the same sort of smile you could find on an eagle, or lion, or wolf, or all three combined.
Laich found himself seriously doubting his conviction to suspect her of anything. In fact, he bravely put such thoughts out of his head, on the off chance that the Commissioner could smell fear, or suspicion. In a strange moment of surrealism, he noticed and was fascinated by the carving on her desk of vines, bearing wicked, hooked thorns amid detailed daisy blossoms. Scrolls of vines and thorns branched off of the corners in majestic, sweeping patterns, kissed with just a hint of gold leaf. A whisper of paper caught his ear and took his eyes along for the ride.
“I reckon you colts are here to talk about this,” Daisy tapped a new folder with a red stripe around it. “Been a long while since we’ve had to deal with a ponnynapping.” She pinned them to the floor with her cyan gaze, daring either one to press his luck and make a quip about a sleeping pony.
Rets shook of the effects of her stare before Laich even started to budge it. “How... did you get that so fast? We only just filed it downstairs a few minutes ago.”
The predatory smile deepened. “Fellas, you’re hot gossip around these parts. There’s little Ah don’t know about what you’ve been up to.” Another of those pauses dropped in to hint at their imminent demise. Rets’ ears laid back of their own accord and held tight to his head like shipwrecked sailors clinging to a rock in a raging sea. “Miss File is pretty good about sending important files to me right quick.” The Chief sat back in her chair with the faintest of sighs. “So, now that you’ve got your report in, I s’pose you’re here to ask me a favor or two? Been a few days since you two have been around. I thought you’d have shown up sooner.”
Rets glanced at Laich to see if he caught the same tone in Daisy’s voice that he had. Laich unfortunately had gone out to an early lunch but forgot to take his body with him, based on the terrified rictus on the runemaster’s face and the blank stare aimed at the Chief Commissioner. The tan detective cleared his throat, forcing his ears to return to their normal, alert positions, which only made his hat scoot forward on his head. “We, erm, would have been here sooner but uh...” Daisy cocked her head to the side, looking at him like a lone wolf deciding if he would be a tasty snack. Rets only quailed slightly. They say that everypony has this point where he flips a crazy switch. The pressure of Daisy’s presence, coupled with the stress of enduring what was possibly the worst week of his life, seemed to be the Point of Restamoreh, for in his brain that switch flipped, sending a cascade of neurons lighting up like the Big Bang through all the events of the past few minutes that revealed to him in a moment of blinding epiphany that there was a way out of his predicament. “...um, we thought your were busy with somepony so we didn’t want to intrude. Isn’t that right, Laich?”
“Humwah?” His ears tried to shoot up but were hindered by the pointy hat. He stood up straight in a way that somehow made him look like he was about to go airborne. “Ah, yah... Didn’t want to accuse somepo--intrude!... on anypony, if you were busy that is--which is to say that I didn’t know if you were or not... uh, busy...” Beads of sweat appeared on the wizard’s forehead--sparkling with the seemingly endless showers of gold specks from his hat--big enough to convince an Indian to trade whole countries for them. “Uh, heheheh... did you know that bats always turn left when they exit a cave?”
The room became awfully crowded with silent moments after Laich finished his utterance. A small cough from the red unicorn snapped Rets out of his stupor of disbelief. The tan detective turned back to Daisy only to find her staring at Laich with a mixture of awe, pitty, comprehension and consternation. Or it could have been indigestion.
“Ahem,” Rets said politely, just to give the moments a cue to leave with as much grace as they could muster.
Daisy’s stunning cyan eyes snapped to Rets’ own blue as if wondering why he was still there. But they remembered quickly enough. “Oh, Ah wasn’t busy at all, Detective. What makes you think that?”
“Well,” Rets ventured boldly, like small yappy dog sniffing the air before he attempts to leave the safety of his master’s home, “we heard somepony teleporting from this room, and voices.”
The Chief Commissioner blinked at him in a practiced, slow, shutting and closing of her eyes that made him instantly regret opening his dumb mouth. “Mr. Retsamoreh, what you heard was the folder arriving from Miss File and any ‘voices’ was me reading out loud to m’self. I tend to do that a lot. You were more than welcome to come in at any time.” The smaller sister of that predatory smile appeared on her lips.
Rets narrowed his eyes slightly, not willing to give away more than an unspoken ‘touché’. Outmaneuvered this time, the detective rallied his daring and decided to launch into his proposal. “Well, it’s rather nice of you to hear us out anyway. I know we haven’t been very, productive, lately but we hit a wall in the case. Yesterday, we found the first crack in that wall, and we are close to catching our first break on it. I know it.”
Daisy flipped open the folder and scanned down the page, then looked over the top of it to him. “Yes... according to your,” she raised an eyebrow at the two bronies, “initial assessment of the Orange’s penthouse, you believe that there was a struggle, that they were taken against their will and by ponies they trusted.” She glanced at Laich, who had the blessed horse sense to nod confidently. “This is a mite hard to take in all at once. ‘Specially considering you were only there for,” she consulted the report, “...‘long enough to know what happened and to get jumped by some pegasus creep’ was your exact wording there. You know I can’t credit this report without some form of confirmation.” A few locks of her dirty-blonde mane drifted in front of her face, fixing Rets with a one-eyed stare that was disconcertingly like the cold, ruthless gaze of an eagle.
“There wasn’t another form to fill out, was there?” Laich asked, accidentally bursting the bubble of intensity that had been laboriously inflating itself around the Commissioner and the tan detective.
Daisy seemed to be on the verge of answering his question with some complimentary venom before Rets barreled on with his pitch. “Which is exactly why we’re here, Chief. We need a few officers to come with us to the scene of the crime so that we can do a thorough sweep, check and scrutiny of all the evidence. We’ll need cameras as well. For proper documentation.”
Daisy closed the report, not exactly glaring at Retsamoreh. “One camera,” she said, holding up a hoof. The look on the detective’s face must have been something, for her gaze softened a trifle. “Who would you like to take with you? I can only spare two officers right now. We’ve got our hooves full cleaning up that riot from last night.” The Chief sighed, slouching in her chair. She suddenly looked more tired than a three-legged dog after a triathlon.
Laich and Rets shared another glance. “If it helps at all, Chief,” Rets said, taking a step forward, “I think that the riot, the library and this ponnynapping are all related.”
Daisy laughed ruefully, putting a hoof over her face. “I don’t see how that would help anything, Restamoreh, but I appreciate the gesture.” She set the file folder on top of the tall stack to her right. “You should get a move-on to that scene. Sounds like you fellas have a lot of work ahead of you. Just make sure to leave a note or something with Miss File at the front desk, let me know who you take with yah and when you plan to be back.”
“Sure thing, Chief.” Rets said with a tip of his hat. Laich followed after him, and a trail of gold followed the red unicorn. As soon as the door was shut, and they were safely six sceptres down the hall, Rets stomped a hoof and shook his head. “I don’t like it, not one bit.”
“What’s not to like?” the runemaster quipped. “You got what you came for.”
“Yeah, but it was too easy.”
Laich raised an eyebrow at his friend. “You feelin’ alright, Rets?”
“Well, it’s just that usually you complain about things being too hard and--”
“Yeah well this time it’s different. Besides, what’s up with you anyway?”
“What was all that stuff about bats, back there?”
“Oh,” Laich shrugged. “I’m just not feeling myself today. But that isn’t important. Who are we taking with us?”
Rets snorted as they descended the stairs to the more populated first floor. “Y’know, I didn’t think that far.”
“You’ve done that five times now,” Rets announced to every cop in the room.
Sandy frowned, taking her aviator sunglasses off and putting them back in her uniform pocket. “Excuse me?” she asked, ruffling her wings.
“Taking your sunglasses off and then putting them back on. Why do you keep doing that?”
“Bad habits die hard, kid.” She shook her head, dropping another bit of broken wine glass into a thick paper baggy; it was only one of many that a spindly green unicorn officer was levitating. He floated it back, quickly penning a number on it before putting it with the others. Lieutenant Beaches frowned even deeper, if it were possible, and stared at the remains of what was probably an obscenely expensive glass table at some point.
“We’ll send these in for inspection, as usual.”
“For DNA testing?” Rets ventured, raising his brow in surprise.
“Nevermind,” he said instantly, awkwardly turning to the side. The few other investigators - all of them top-notch, according to Ms. Thorn - who had been allowed to gather evidence in the crime scene milled about anxiously, now that most everything had been taken care of and placed into little baggies with numbers. Two of them sat in the open kitchen, leaning on the table and fervently talking things over. The pseudo-detective grimaced, muttering, “it’s like the dark ages. I’m going to go insane here.”
“Can’t say I don’t agree with you, my boy,” a stuffy, whimsical voice said from behind. Rets blinked extra slowly and turned around to face the obnoxious hat addressing him. “Of course, I can’t say I fully agree with you, either. I suppose I could mostly not really possibly agree as well, but- oho, that’s a completely different animal altogether!”
“A puma, perhaps, inspector?” Rets replied flatly. “And I’m not that young...” he muttered in afterthought.
“Yes, see, that’s why I like you!” Spot announced with joy, hugging the unicorn’s neck. “Knowledge of pumas existing is sparse in the ranks of common ponies, but it’s something you and I share. I read your report, too. Well, the second one. Not the one penned by that buffoonish wizard. Very good for somepony like you.”
“Thank you, I think.”
“Especially the play-by-play of the crime. Not many would be able to do that like you did just then. Ah, but it wasn’t perfect. Coming along was a brilliant idea on my part-”
“My part, but I’m regretting it,” Retsamoreh said to himself, drowned out by the inspector.
“-because you would’ve missed several impeccably important details that, I assure you, will prove most valuable. If you would please follow me,” said Spot, meandering past the remnants of the team to the two holes in the wall.
Lagging behind with a kind of subtle displeasing glare a detective** can master, Rets took a deep breath and cautiously - his pride at risk - followed.
“You did nothing I couldn’t have done myself, unfortunately, but you put on a good show for the others and, better yet, everything you said was spot-on. I merely feel it wise to tell you what else I’ve deduced, going from what you’ve said. Observe, the holes in the wall. From an earth pony, correct? No other pony would have instinctively used their hind legs in a direct attack. What you didn’t see, however, were the tiny shards of metal it left behind. Ah, here. Some got left behind. Look.”
He moved aside to let the unicorn lean in, narrowing his eyes. Sure enough, in the dim afternoon lightning, tiny specks of reflective light were buried in the ruined part of the wall. They both chuffed amiably at it, one impressed and the other very secure in his own pride.
“Horseshoes, as you know, are constructed with the sole purpose of being long-lasting and resisting wear-and-tear. There is, however, one exception to that. Aluminum. It is just our luck that one of the factories in the Diamond District, recently the victim of some rather nasty worker-led riots, happens to make such a horseshoe.” He straightened up, and the two wandered in the direction of the broken table.
“So he lives near the Diamond District, then?” Rets asked, the microchips in his head suddenly finding themselves at odds with the gears in Spot’s.
“No, he works at the factory. Probably on the main floor with the rest of the mooks. The reason, simply, is because aluminum horseshoes are a favorite of the nobility and socialites of the city. That includes rich businessponies.”
“Wait, what? That doesn’t fit. He - or she, I guess, would have to be like the owner, right? The Oranges would know him through business and all, invite them over for wine to discuss things, and find themselves betrayed and kidnapped.”
“Not at all, detective. Firstly, workers at the factories all get discounts. Secondly, wouldn’t the Oranges serve their high-class guests equally high-class beverages? Most regular higher class ponies like the Oranges would, but the wine served here was dirt cheap. Grocery store type. I wouldn’t even present it to you and be able to keep a straight face!”
“I don’t drink wine. How do you even know it was cheap; did you... taste it?”
“That wasn’t the point, and no, of course I didn’t. The bottle was on the counter. It cost fifteen bits and was berry flavored.”
“Presumably, a good lot of them are berry flavored,” Rets rattled off, desperately trying to say something smart. It didn’t work.
Inspector Spot smirked, and they both fixed their hats in unison. “Have you ever tried coconut wine, Detective Rets? Or banana? How about daisy? There’s quite a few non-berry drinks out there if you look closely enough. Try not to assume too many things.”
“I just told you, I don’t drink wine.”
A perturbed cough interrupted them, and they turned to see the ever-grimacing Sandy Beaches grimacing slightly more than usual at them. “You were just getting to the good part, too. Try to keep on subject, boys.”
“Right, right. I do all of the dirty work and can’t have any shred of enjoyment from anything ever,” Spot groaned, rolling his eyes. “As I was saying, we’ve severely narrowed down our suspects from an earth pony and a pegasus down to an earth pony who works at an aluminum horseshoe factory and presumably a pegasus who shares the station. The likeliness they both work at the same place, however, is less than desirable. If the pegasus was the same one that assaulted you and your friend, then I fear he may be a different breed of dangerous altogether. Very few ponies are specifically trained in combat, especially against unicorns trained in the art of the law.”
“Err, right. Did you really read my report?” Rets asked, his face flat.
“Of course I did. You were taken by surprise, and that gives you something of a free-pass. How you described the pony is what truly caught me for a whirl, though. A specialized cloak-and-dagger type of attire, if you were correct. But not for stealth, no; it was flashy and donned purely to disguise the wearer. If this is true and you weren’t just seeing colors from being bonked on the head so many times, Detective, then we may very well be dealing with a certain kind of superstitiously inclined group of ponies who, until now, have operated in complete secrecy.”
“A cult?” Rets offered, warily, since his pride was already in tatters all over the ground as it were.
“Sort of. It’s definitely something to keep on the table. I was thinking more along the lines of a group of ponies that believe in something silly enough to break the law for it. Either way, we know at least one of them works at the factory and knows the Oranges well enough for them to meet in private. Why they knew each other might be a whole different story. Our best bet, I believe, would be starting from the top.”
“I know what horseshoe factory you’re talking about. Owner’s a bigshot named Quick Rich. Best thing is, he’s an earth pony, from what I remember. Ran into him a couple of times a few years back, when the corruption scandal was going on,” Sandy said.
“He was innocent?” the unicorn asked.
“It wasn’t against him. He was just a witness for the defense. It might be a good idea to call him in for questioning, either way. It’ll be a good source of information.” She paused, fishing in her jacket for something. “On the note of information, we managed to catch one of the caterers that worked with the Oranges enough to be mistaken for a butler. He’s at the station waiting for questioning. You want to come along and see what we can get? According to how our PI system works, you’re with us on this case for as long as Applejack’s willing to pay you.”
“We’re doing it for free, actually.”
“Oh? Well in that case...” she said, pulling out her sunglasses and placing them over her face in one swift movement. Rets gaped. “It looks like-”
“Really, only one caterer?” Rets interrupted. Sandy’s mouth hung open, and then worked open and shut like she was trying to say something but couldn’t find the words. “If they had a party the night before, or had any parties at all, it’d be best to gather as many of them as we can for questioning. Does that sound about right, Inspector?”
“Quite right, my boy. Excellent observation. We do actually have one of the party-goers at the moment, and we’re currently doing our best to round up the others. He and the caterer are at the station, if you’d like to go talk to them now.”
“Sounds good. I think Applejack could provide some useful information as well, but she’s at our apartment sleeping.”
Sandy wobbled, one eye twitching.
“A lady, staying at your apartment? Especially Applejack. Scandalous!”
“Well, when you put it that way, yeah, but she just didn’t want to pay for a hotel. She had been planning to stay with her aunt and uncle, after all. You wanna come get her with me?”
The two walked off toward the door and out of the crime scene. Sandy’s eye stopped twitching, she took a deep breath, and finished her sentence. Nopony listened, though, and wasn’t likely important.
“So who’s the perp?” Laichonious asked, practicing his levitation by simultaneously floating fifteen toothpicks in a very specifically erratic patterns that only meant something to him.
Everypony had left; Lieutenant Murphy was the only one to ignore her paranoia and desire to keep her eyeballs inside her own skull, or at least non-punctured. She narrowed her eyes at the offending unicorn, for both protection and to express her grudging amusement at his antics.
“Sorry, buddy, but he hasn’t done anything wrong... yet. We’re just waiting for your partner and the Inspector to show up and tell us what they figured out. You really should know this, though,” she said, turning to look through the one-way window into a brightly lit room usually intended for interrogations. Two expensive*** couches laid peacefully on either side of a wooden coffee table, where fresh tea had been set ten minutes earlier and had stopped being fresh five after that. A stallion sat on the left couch, shakily drinking from a pink teacup.
“Why’s that?” Laichonious asked, peering suspiciously at the gryphon.
“You’ve got a copy of his file sitting right in front of you,” she deadpanned, not moving her literally hawk-like glare from the pony.
Laich’s head jerked down to look at the open folder sitting on the table. Three toothpicks embedded themselves into the wood; Murphy flinched. “Oh. So I do. Why’s that?”
The gryphon groaned, frowning deeply in the creepy way that gryphons could somehow do. She finally tore her gaze away from the unfortunate pony in the room and turned to Laich. “Because that Applejack filly-”
“Don’t interrupt me,” she growled. “She hired you two to solve this case, and since you also work with us as consultants, we’re working together in the name of cooperation. If we wanted to, we could just deny you the information we have and leave you alone, but there’s good reasons the Chief Commissioner sent for some PIs. You aren’t as clogged up by other jobs as we are. Just be patient, okay? They’ll be finishing up at the crime scene soon and be back to talk to this geddy.”
“Hm...” the runemaster mused. “Unicorn. Waiter. Ewe Dewing.” He blinked, briefly staring through the window. “What kind of dumb name is that?”
“The name of one of the best caterers in all of Equestria. Give the bloke some respect, because he apparently worked for years to earn that title. His business has catered to every single rich and influential pony from this city to Canterlot, and it just so happens he was good enough friends with the Oranges for them to personally hire him on multiple occasions. He was also nice enough to agree to answer a few questions about the Oranges.” She shrugged, turning to another table to grip lazily at a cup of what was probably coffee.
“He must’ve known a lot about them. As good a pony to interrogate as anypony, I suppose,” Laichonious said, scratching his chin with a hoof. “Do you all still have that makina prototype I lent you?”
“Yea, it’s in the break room. And just for future reference, we aren’t interrogating him,” she sighed, taking a long sip. A moment later, eyes twitching, she turned to see he wasn’t there any longer, and the door was still swinging from his quick exit.
“Unicorns are so weird,” she said. “And I can never tell if it’s the stupid kind of weird, or the smart kind.”
Dewing, who had indeed worked extremely hard for the respect ponies gave him, was highly uncomfortable as it was. Granted, he was used to being treated as unimportant background pony existing only to pop into existence to refill drinks or serve a steaming platter of whatever the chef gave him, but they still respected him for being the best at it.
Most respected him quite a lot, actually. Some went out of their way to hire him specifically. The Oranges, for instance, often employed his services, and he never denied them. They, although coming from a completely different social class, had all been friends at one time, and the last thing he’d ever expected to see was them getting their selves up and nabbed and him getting questioned for it.
Laichonious glared at Ewe from behind the door. There wasn’t a window, but that didn’t stop him. He could imagine the prim blue-mane that shone and sparkled no matter what lighting there was - even complete darkness. The pale tan unicorn would be sitting in the most uncomfortable looking polite position, sipping away at tea designed for criminals to drink. On his flank, especially polished like it was something to be proud of, would be a cutie mark depicting a covered silver platter. There was probably a bomb under it, Laich thought, wielding the makina behind himself in a field of levitation, along with several leftover toothpicks.
They were leftover because there were only five left. All of the others were embedded in various walls, doors, or tables, and in one case the hoof of a pony in the small cafeteria he had visited.
For the longest, briefest, and possibly the most awkward and serious moment in his entire life, Laich’s hoof hovered next to the door, ready to knock. He lowered it, blinking and staring straight ahead as if it’d never happened, and walked through.
“Special Investigator, Consultant, Wizard and Runemaster Laichonious, but mostly wizard and leastly Raposo. I understand you came here willingly, is that correct?” He asked, the makina safely tucked out of view and promptly moved behind the couch opposite of Ewe before it could be noticed.
“Zis ees correct. I was a good friend of ze Oranges, ever s-”
“Occupation and name?” Laich interrupted, taking a seat on the couch. Gold particles fell all around him, and some roll of the dice determined his serious-business face didn’t crack from the glee underneath his mask.
“Err, waiter, Ewe Dewing,” the unicorn replied bluntly, eyebrows raised.
“Well, waiter, Ewe Dewing...” the other unicorn started, staying casual.
“Sitting here, patiently. Please, may we begin ze meeting?”
“Of course, of course,” Laichonious said, the frenzied toothpicks slowing to a crawl. “Now, I was just going to go ahead and do this as quickly as possible, since it’s all just regular questioning.We’ll start off easy: how did you meet the Oranges?”
“Ah, yes, zat is an easy one. Zee Oranges grew up in very privileged families - far more zan my own, but zey could not afford a tutor, so zey were forced to attend ze local private school. My own parents sent me zere as well, and ze three of us became fast friends against all ze odds. We grew up togezzer, we played, fought, danced and lived. We lost eachozzers contact sometime, but, ‘ow do you say, true friendship can never be broken? Zey were good times, but ended when zey took control over zeir rightful company and I created mine from ze dust.”
“Mhm,” Laich said, nodding in the way that you always see and can never decipher if the person is actually listening or not. “Okay, go on.”
“Well, zat is nearly it. We encountered eachozzer afterward, and zey were very surprised to see I was a rising name in ze catering business, and I was surprised to see zey were at ze top of ze social ladder! I have kept in touch with zem often after zat, and vice-versa, as you would say.”
“How often, and how much did you know about their personal lives? We need to know exactly who they were friends with, enemies with, or otherwise. Would anyone want them gone?” Laichonious asked, silently proud of himself while simultaneously looking as smug as a pony could be. Ewe didn’t notice, though, and focused on his story.
“What? Barely anypony would have a vendetta against ze Orange familiy! Zey are ze most charitable, kind ponies in the city. Zey kept well away from ze corporate and noble drama zat I always see in ze catering business, and in zat, zey are smart. Sure, zere were ponies zey kept well away from, but only because zey did not agree with zeir business or social practices. Zey refused to tolerate it, eizer; one instance, zey kicked out a pony attending one of zeir parties who was being rambunctious in... well, ze way ze rich ponies can be. It was quite ze show and talk of ze city for a few weeks.”
Laich’s ears perked up, and he rattled off the first two questions to enter his mind, and not the third, because that had to do with food. “How long ago was this, and who was the pony?”
“Ah,” Ewe starting, brow furrowing in concentration on the memory. “She was... ah, bank director or somezing. Metallurgist’s, I believe. ‘er name is on ze tip of mah tongue.”
“When you remember it, you can tell me. Do you think this pony would have something against them? Did they have any other bad blood between them?”
“Ah, well, zere were a lot of problems, I suppose, between zem and ze Metallurgist’s Bank, but zey were petty disputes. Ze Director was always a tad sleazy, if you get my meaning.”
“I don’t think there’s any other meaning for the word ‘sleazy’****, but go on,” Laichonious said, leaning forward. Ewe nodded, his own expression far off as his inner mind brought forth more memories.
“Ozzer zan zat, ze Oranges were ze most inoffensive ponies in ze ‘igher class. Bit Balance.”
“Huh?” Laich’s attention refocused on Ewe, who had brightened up considerably.
“I ‘ave just remembered: ze Bank Director’s name, it is Bit Balance. She and ze mayor work closely together, if I remember correctly. Sleazy, talkative, razzer obnoxious and, er, slimy. Not very good company for parties, but everypony invites ‘er anyways. If it ‘elps, she attended ze party the Oranges hosted before zeir... disappearance, but zen again, a lot of ze ponies did. Come to zink of it, she was acting razzer out-of-character at ze party... far too friendly toward ‘er ‘osts. Could zat help, maybe?”
“Loads, once I get that info to my partner. Anything else happen of interest at the party.... And when exactly was this? The Oranges were taken yesterday morning or late-night Matrida-”
“Matrida. It was Matrida night.... lots of ponies were zere, since zey were having some sort of pre-celebration for ze grand opening of ze Red ‘Erring.”
“The what?” Laich’s ears perked up, and his eyes widened. Visions of giant balloons with swirling letters printed on its sides blotting out the dreary sky flew across his eyes, and a little spark ignited. The spark of adventure. There was possibly only one other pony who loved balloons more than himself, the unicorn figured, and he would be telling that pony as soon as he could.
Rets would love it.
“Ze Red ‘Erring, designed by ze mastermind inventor Big Shot. ‘E attended ze party and gave out several of ze invitations face-to-face. Everypony zere received one. Ze Oranges already knew about it, of course, but zey were so proud of ze spectacular cards zat zey put ze card on ze counter for all to see. Even ze more rambunctious members of ze party were a tad... ah, in awe at it. For ze Oranges, it meant a lot more than a simple invitation to a party. It was... well, zey invested quite a few bits into ze inventor and his cause. Ze Red ‘Erring was as much zeir legacy as it was his.”
“His ‘cause’? What exactly is his ‘cause’?” Laich questioned, leaning closer.
“Aha! Well, it is always explained better by him, but ze points are always ze same. ‘E will not stop until every earth pony can do magic, and every unicorn may fly, and so on. All with ‘is inane contraptions. Ze Red ‘Erring is... I suppose, a proof-of-concept. Ze Oranges helped fund its construction.”
“Really. That’s... interesting. Where do you get all of this information, anyways? Just from overhearing things?” the runemaster asked, sitting back. “You probably overhear a lot, being a waiter and all.”
“Caterer,” the waiter corrected, wrinkling his nose. Laich shrugged, and didn’t notice the brief panicked expression that crossed the other unicorn’s face. Somebody behind the wall that wasn’t really a wall, however, did. “I am afraid zat I do not reveal information gathered from ze client events. I share it wiz ze police because ze Oranges were my good friends, and I would despair if anyzing were to ‘appen to them. If you zink it will ‘elp you in your investigation, I will answer.”
Laich stared blankly for a moment, having delved so deep into what he presumed was probably Rets’ typical train of thought that he could be called a hijacker. In front of him laid a mental transcript of what Ewe had just said, except one by one all of the other words fell away until only one remained.
After a few seconds filled to bursting with awkward and silence, he asked, “Did you say gathered?”
“Uh,” Ewe replied hollowly, and then the gates of Tartarus opened up a sliver.
“YOU DID WHAT WITH THE TOASTER?!” Rets screamed, his two forehooves trying to pull his hat down over his head while simultaneously trying to bury his face in the wooden desk.
“It didn’t hurt him.” Laich stared through the false-window, wearing the expression of someone proud of themselves and not understanding why everyone else was so mean about it.
“Much,” Murphy said amidst several chuckles. Hooves slammed on the table in the interrogation room. “It was actually pretty genius, for what it was. Making toast for a pony being interrogated doesn’t technically count as psychological torture. Even if he tries some sort of legal action in the case to delegitimize the event, we’ll be safe in the eyes of the law.”
“Yeah, so?” Rets grumbled into the desk.
“Don’t forget the good-cop, bad-cop routine I did,” Laich said proudly, beaming at his friend.
Rets burrowed deeper into the desk. “I don’t even want to know how you did that... by yourself.”
“Once-in-a-lifetime performance, kiddo,” Murphy snorted, wiping her eyes with a talon. “I swear, that had to be the most clever and entirely legal way I’ve seen a criminal get questioned.”
“He got lucky,” Rets groused, lifting up his head. “Extremely lucky. Laich, you really should’ve waited for me.”
The runemaster pursed his lips for a moment, and then decided to frown. “I’m a consultant too. I didn’t have to wait for you just because you think you’re better at detective-ing.”
“But I am better,” Retsamoreh retorted. “You took a serious risk that could have jeopardized the whole case, all on a whim. Justice isn’t some kind of thing you do on a whim; it has to be done by the books.” He leaned in closer, glaring at the pointy-hat wearing unicorn across the table. Laich mirrored the stance, narrowing his eyes and flicking his ears.
Two talons cut through the tension between them like sour butter. Murphy’s voice beat down the silence. “Whoa, whoa! You two whiny mares need to stay cool while you’re here, got it? If you’re going to fight, do it elsewhere, but not here. Yes, it was a dumb risk and I regret not stopping you when I should’ve, Mister Pointy Hat Wizard or whatever you call yourself, but I saw it was working, and it worked. Detective Rets, calm down before you pop your horn off. It’s over. It’s done. And your buddy here just managed to solve probably the largest corporate espionage case in Equestria. We’d caught wind of it before, but the trail was cold before we even started looking. The facts are-”
“I knew I shouldn’t have stopped at the apartment fo-”
It takes a certain kind of predatory glare to silence a pony like Rets. They’re very rare, and Murphy gave one of them.
“The facts are...” she growled, “that it’s over and done with. The end. Rets, we still need you to help question another pony we’ve brought in... uh, Quick Rich. Affiliate of the Oranges and former business partner, from what Ewe’s been spouting at us. Pretends to like them, really doesn’t. Apparently ‘avoiding drama’ really just means having less of it. Laichonious?”
“Yeah?” the unicorn replied sullenly. Murphy rolled her eyes.
“Go home and get some rest. You’re a mage, not a detective, and any more of this is going to wear you out.”
“Righto... I did have something I wanted to do,” Laich said, a hint of a smile returning to his face. He pushed his chair up, and making sure to look anywhere else in the room that wasn’t Rets, casually walked out. The remaining pony slumped his shoulders and laid his head on the desk once more.
“Sometimes I wish he’d be serious for once.”
“Sometimes you just need to lighten up,” Murphy replied curtly, looking back to the interrogation room. China crunched. Rets flinched, but not at the broken porcelain.
“You think Laich wrote the notes I asked him to take during the interrogation?” Rets mused to nopony in particular.
Pissfer replied with a non-committal grunt.
Applejack tossed her head. “Yah say it like you think he hasn’t,” she said, smiling. “‘Sides, didn’t you already get the whole shebang at the precinct?”
Rets gave her a sidelong look. “Well, don’t get me wrong, Laich does plenty of... things.They just aren’t usually the things good for me. I got Murphy’s side of it, but I’d like to have his perspective too...” His ear swiveled to the door of the apartment as they approached, a tired frown tugging at the corner of his mouth. “Hear for yourself, I don’t think that’s the sound of notes being copied into a form that I can read easily.” He moved to the side to let Pissfer and AJ listen at the knobless door.
Tinny bell-like tones tolled behind the door, picking out a soft melody.
“Sounds like he’s messing with his makina again,” mumbled Pissfer.
“That’s comin’ from his little magic machines?” AJ asked incredulously.
“Well sure,” Rets replied, “he’s been trying to do something for like a week, making all sorts of noises back there.”
“Hmm,” AJ paused again at the door as the sounds started to multiply. “Open it,” she said.
“What?” Pissfer and Rets said in unison.
“Open the door, I wanna hear what he’s doing. Sounds like music ta me.”
Rets tilted his head to the side, listening more intently. “Huh, I guess it sort of does...” Cerulean magic gathered around his horn and snaked over to the magic lock, opening the door with the faintest click.
The three ponies entered the front room of the office bathed in a two-part harmony played with what sounded like those little music boxes you could wind up and stare at for hours, never mind the music that floated eerily from them. Pissfer shut the door silently, joining an entranced orange mare and frowning tan stallion.
“I guess it’s pretty at least,” Rets said under his breath. “Just as long as he doesn’t start singing.”
Before he even finished voicing his disparaging remark, a low voice timidly began to sing along with the mechanical instruments.It was nearly bowled over by their assertive dinging, but the words managed to slip out to the other side of the door where there wasn’t as much competition.
Are you going to Canterlot Faire?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Remember me to one who lives there
For she is a true love of mine
“Mmmyeah, I’m stopping this,” Rets started for the door to the back room but Applejack held out a foreleg, barring his way. He pushed against the orange appendage but it didn’t budge any more than an iron bar would. He gave her a look of consternation, only to see she wasn’t even looking at him.
“Shh! I wanna listen,” she said in a low, distracted voice.
Rets sighed and held his peace, or rather, his annoyance.
Tell her I’m walking on clover hooves
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
A thousand miles my love to prove
For she is a true love of mine
Tell her I’m bringing an honest heart
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
To keep it whole or rend it apart
For she is a true love of mine
Tell her I’ll catch her an errant moon beam
Parsley, sage rosemary and thyme
And make her a cloak without a seam
For she is a true love of mine
Tell her that even if I grow old
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Through the years, I’ll never be cold
For she is a true love of mine
Are you going to Canterlot Faire?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Remember me to one who lives there
For she is a true love of mine
The last notes of the simple song lingered as if they weren’t sure where to go, but finally they left the three ponies in a strange silence that certainly had never been there before. A few clicks and bangs littered the silence from behind the door, followed by a few more clicks before Laich opened the door. He didn’t notice his friends standing in the room with varying degrees of astonishment and, in one case, grudging respect. A parchment floated in front of his face, a quill scratching across its surface as he hummed the tune of the song he just sang supposedly to himself. He even went around the couch to his desk to set the paper with others in a neat stack in the corner. The three ponies turned to follow his progress through the front room, none of them saying a word.
The runemaster finally looked up from his desk, another stanza of the song freezing in his throat. He stared wide-eyed at them like a rabbit that had just caught whiff of a wolf. Tiny gold flecks falling to the desk from his hat were the only things moving in the room for a solid two seconds.
“How long have you been here?” Laich asked, barely moving his lips.
“Long enough,” Rets responded in like manner.
The loud thud of Laich’s face hitting the desk startled all of them out of their stupor.
“H-hey, sugarcube,” Applejack trotted over to the red unicorn, “That was... well it was right beautiful I think. Ah didn’t understand any of them words you said, but I really liked it. Um...” she turned to Pissfer and Rets with a pleading expression.
Pissfer was biting his lip and Rets had a hoof in his face.
“Ah... Ah understand if it’s embarrassin’ but... hoo boy that was pretty. Was that the language y’all spoke before you came here?” She shot another ineffectual glance at the two other bronies who were still not lending a word to help. “I’m glad Ah got to hear it, even if I didn’t understand the words... Um...” Applejack was thinking fast, something that she was very good at. She also has an uncanny ability to notice things about ponies, things that took others a lot longer to notice. See, Applejack was perhaps one of the most pure of heart in all of Equestira. Her unusually keen sense of honesty and fervent goodwill made her the perfect vessel of the Element of Harmony, and as such, she was entitled to brief insights into the ponies she got to meet. In a flash of thought, she enjoyed one such insight, and she smiled at the the red unicorn. “Did you write that song?”
Finally the wizard stirred. “No,” he mumbled into the desk, “it’s a very old song. So old in fact, we aren’t even sure how old it is. The melody itself has roots going back nearly five hundred years.” He picked his head up from the wood and slouched into the desk, letting his chin hang over the far edge. “The original words to the song have never been found, as far as we know, but a particular form of verse has become the generally accepted as being the original.” His head went up and down as he rattled off the information. Applejack was genuinely interested, but she was more pleased with how his attitude changed with her careful prodding.
“What was that? If yah don’t mind me askin’, a’course.”
“No, no, that’s fine... I could recite the words, but I don’t think you would understand them. It seems that song and poetry is far too structured to allow the magic of Harmony to convey the right meaning.” The runemaster sighed, pointedly ignoring the purposefully disinterested shufflings of his old friends. “The original song was a duet, written like a series of messages sent via travelers to an important event known as the Scarborough Faire, one that is held to this day, I think. Anyway, the two people who sent the messages were estranged lovers who set out a list of impossible-to-attain criteria that would allow the other to get back into their good graces and thus become a true love again. The commentary is intriguing to me because it seems like the original author was trying to illustrate that love won’t work if it’s based on material things.” The wizard started getting into the swing of his impromptu lecture, sitting up straighter and engaging Applejack fully. “I’ve always liked the tune, especially a version done by a famous duo of our time, but I’ve always thought that the song was too hopeless and melancholy for being so beautiful. So I made new lyrics for it, keeping to the same structure but changing the mood. I wanted it to be brighter, more hopeful.”
Clearly, Laich was building up steam and getting ready to roll for quite a while. Rets fortunately saw the impending rant and unceremoniously threw a wrench into the red unicorn’s wheels. “We have two new leads in the case now.”
The runemaster’s eyes jerked to his tan friend, mouth open and words crashing into each other in a spectacular pileup that could only be achieved by the successful derailing of a train of thought at full speed.
“Oh,” he said.
Rets grinned inwardly at his perfect timing, smoothly rising above the rubble and carnage of Laich’s unfinished lecture on medieval song. “Turns out that waiter had some dirty dishes he was trying to hide under the table.”
Applejack gave the tan unicorn a reproachful look, motioning with her hooves like she wanted him to slow down.
Rets, for all his powers of deduction and observation missed out on the farm filly’s suggestion. “He had some tasty leftovers and tantalizing tidbits about the Director of the Metallurgist Guild Bank and her connection with the Mayor. It seems to me that all this stuff, the petty crimes, the weird vandalization and the Oranges’ ponynapping have their head somewhere in the upper echelons of Manehattan high society,” he said with a smug grin.
The runemaster furrowed his brow, studying his desk and shuffling a few papers around. A quill, inkwell, and fresh parchment floated to the center of the desk. Words and symbols started to scritch their way out of the quill. Laich muttered to himself as the quill flew across the page, to the inkwell and back to the page.
Pissfer joined the other ponies at the desk as Rets deflated from his speech, to watch the runemaster curiously. The page he was writing on soon became soggy with lines and words.
The quill suddenly flew back to the inkwell, spinning from the force of its flight. A small canvas bag seemingly appeared from thin air, rattling with the many hardwood tiles inside. A cloud of red magic accumulated over the paper then pressed itself into the limp fibers. The canvas bag upended over the page as soon as the magic dissipated, spilling forty-eight polished tiles onto the page. On each one, a deep carving of one rune occupied both sides. On one side, the carving was filled in with a pearlescent enamel and on the other, a blood red resin. Not a sound could be heard except the clacking of the tiles as they fell and finally settled on the page. Everypony in the room unconsciously leaden toward the desk, inspecting the spread of tiles. Of course, only one of them knew what any of it meant.
“Interesting,” breathed the wizard.
That one word seemed to break the spell the ponies had fallen under.
“What... did you do?” Applejack took her hat from her head, looking sidelong at the pile of tiles.
“I threw tiles,” the red unicorn replied simply.
Pissfer snorted. “I think it would help if you explained why the tiles help us, Laich.”
“Oh, right. Well, I drew a simple diagram on the page, assigned each one of our “suspects” an alias and detailed some of the things we wanted to know about them here,” he gestured with a hoof to the outside of the subdivided circle where several lines of runes branched off of symbols tucked into each corner of the page.
“Wait, wait, wait,” Rets interrupted, almost crossing his eyes and dotting his T’s. “How the bloody ‘ell do you know what their aliases are, let alone who all the suspects are?”
Laich set a level and long-suffering look on his friend. “In this context an alias is just a runic indicator. And I’ve been paying attention, despite what you seem to think.”
Rets very nearly spoiled every ounce of his professional decorum by sticking his tongue out at the wizard.
The red unicorn ignored it, thus saving some decorum for later. “It sounded like we had enough of them to narrow down what the crimes were for, like, why anypony would do them.” He tapped his chin, squinting at the tiles. “But now, I’m not too sure. This is very chaotic, and it doesn’t tell me much besides the fact that there is still a big piece missing. But, I think Rets is right. All of these ponies are involved somehow and these events are definitely linked...” He touched one of the tiles that strayed from the page lightly with a hoof. The hoof jerked back from the tile as if burned. The runemaster’s head snapped up, icy blue eyes shooting an intense look at Rets
He jerked back from the other unicorn reflexively. “What?” The detective cleared his throat from the squeak. “Ah, I mean... What?”
“Something important is going to happen and soon, maybe two days from now. If we’re there when this thing happens, we’ll find the last piece,” Laich said quietly.
“Man,” Rets breathed, “you can’t do that to me, nearly gave me a heart attack.”
“Hm,” mused a quiet Pissfer, “well, I suppose there was a reason why these caught my eye.” Two bright yellow slips of paper unfolded into existence in front of the blue unicorn.
“Hey,” Rets spat, narrowing his eyes. “Did you filch those from the crime scene?!”
“What if I did?”
The detective spluttered but ultimately gave up on turning over a rebuttal.
“Well, I didn’t.” Pissfer smiled at Rets’ deflating rage. “I picked them up after that pegasus jumped the window. They fell out of his cloak and looked rather important, so I went ahead and pocketed them.” His smile turned into a more sheepish rendition. “Though, I have to admit, I forgot I had them until now.”
Shining golden in the afternoon light, the slips of paper floated to the tiles, resting gently on their dark faces. In large, bold, High Equestrian script, the papers declared themselves admittance to “THE EIGHTH ANNUAL CHARITABLE MASQUERADE BALL” hosted on the newly constructed airship The Red Herring. “Admit one and guest,” Laich read aloud. “Well,” he said, bemused, “that worked out nicely, didn’t it?”