For all the information Mare-Do-Well had managed to glean from the overzealous earth pony with the greasy mane, her inquiries in the following days had proved disappointingly fruitless. While she had managed to foil several crimes in the course of her nightly rounds, none of the pony perpetrators that she managed to question had been able to divulge any additional information regarding the identity, whereabouts, or even motivations of the mysterious “Collector.” A few of the thugs had heard the name, but they only spoke of him fearfully, as a nameless, faceless mastermind who lurked in the shadows and bore strange powers. Several stories managed to move beyond mere conjecture and into the realm of ridiculousness; no matter what was said, Mare-Do-Well refused to believe that anypony could “control your mind with just a look” or “kill you with a wave of his hoof.” No matter the validity of their statements, however, it was apparent that the mere mention of the Collector was enough to set even petty criminals on edge.
During those nights of interrogation, Mare-Do-Well had done her best to retain her composure, but two separate concerns had wormed their way into the back of her mind and lodged themselves firmly in her subconscious, creating an ever-present feeling of dread that she couldn't shake, no matter what she tried. The first issue that worried her had arisen after her “interview” with the greaser. His fear of the Collector was palpable, but what stuck in her mind most was how it appeared that the mysterious figure behind the Dockworks break-in was escalating his unsavory escapades. “Here lately, though, he's been setting up real specific work, giving us specific things to swipe, certain ponies to...teach a lesson to.” Based on that information, the theft of the artifact that night several weeks ago had been a targeted operation, and even though she knew very little about the actual piece, from her discussion with the dean, its value was likely significant, perhaps in more ways than one. The intent behind its pilfering, at least at this point, was unclear, but Mare-Do-Well was sure that it was only part of something bigger, something she couldn't put her hoof on at the moment.
Her second anxiety was something much more tangible. Desperate times had indeed led to desperate measures in the bar, and while her impromptu seduction of the randy stallion had proven useful, after her departure from his apartment, she realized that she had made one crucial error: her identity. Strained for time and out of ideas, she hadn't thought about the ramifications of being seen without her costume. Now, not only the greasy earth pony, but also the big Germane had seen her real self, and she was sure that the leather-clad pony's story of his unfortunate adventure with the hot but dangerous mare that knocked him silly had been shared amongst his colleagues, or at least with his sizable earth pony counterpart. Mare-Do-Well found some measure of comfort in the fact that while he knew what she looked like, the foolish stallion hadn't learned her real name, only her alter ego, and her appearance could be altered easily enough with dye and patience. In spite of those reassurances, however, the knowledge that she had suffered such an egregious lapse in judgment unnerved her greatly, and her sleep had been fitful the last few nights as she often found herself awakening from deep slumber with a start, her breathing heavy and strained and her brow wet with sweat, while the fleeting images of a dark and troublesome dream tumbled through her mind.
The lingering fears, however, didn't prevent her from maintaining her vigil over Manehattan. On the sixth morning after her run-in with the eager earth pony, Celestia's golden orb was hidden from view by a mass of thick gray clouds that had been gathered throughout the day by the city's weather pegasi in preparation for a round of rain, and a chilly, damp wind from the harbor flowed through the narrow streets, which were nearly devoid of life. Mare-Do-Well, clad in her purple disguise, strode easily across the rooftops, her cape billowing behind her as the wind whipped around the pony-made structures. She paused at the edge of one building and peered down into the shadowed avenue below, sweeping her vision left and right. The only sign of life was a pair of unfamiliar ponies galloping against the gusting gale, likely in search of shelter from the impending storm. Mare-Do-Well looked up at the gray sky and watched as the roiling clouds began to darken, any faint hint of sunlight almost entirely concealed behind a canopy of imposing thunderheads. In the distance, she could see that the downpour had already begun over the waters of the harbor, and in a matter of minutes, the sheets of rain would reach her current location. She quickly scanned the rooftop for cover, but saw nothing that could provide her entire body with shelter from the storm. A flash of lightning from the harbor grabbed her attention, and when the boom of the thunderclap assaulted her eardrums only seconds later, she was already climbing down the stairs of the fire escape as fast as her hooves could carry her.
She reached street level as the first drops began to pound the pavement around her. A few yards to her right, an awning flapping in the wind caught her attention, and she scurried underneath the flimsy cover as the rain intensified, the cacophony of the emptying clouds rattling through the abandoned boulevard. Her suit was waterproof to an extent, but in a deluge like this, there was no chance that she would stay dry if she lingered in the rainfall for more than a few seconds. The brim of her fedora flapped back, and she clutched the headgear with a hoof to prevent the wind from making off with it as she pressed herself against the side of the stone building, staying as far from the precipitation as possible. Despite the warmth of her skintight costume, she shivered as another strong gust of wind sent a chill through her body.
As she was contemplating where she could find better shelter, a noise from behind her that sounded like a voice stood out against the sound of the wind and rain, though if it was a voice, Mare-Do-Well couldn't make out any of the words. She turned around, still keeping her hat pinned tightly to her head, and saw a beige mare with a long black apron, diminutive glasses, and a white, close-cut mane standing half inside the building, the door held ajar by one of the mare's forehooves. The white-maned pony was looking at her, confusion evident in her eyes, and when she opened her mouth and spoke, Mare-Do-Well could barely make out the words. “What are you doing out here? Come inside!” A nod of the stranger's head made her intentions clear, and with only a moment's hesitation, Mare-Do-Well decided to accept the other pony's invitation.
Upon entering, Mare-Do-Well found herself inside a small restaurant. The first two things she noticed were the silence and the warmth, a stark contrast to the worsening storm of wind and rain that still raged on the other side of the door. Next, she began a swift surveillance of her new shelter. A line of booths encircled the perimeter, interrupted only by the front door and the double swinging doors that likely led to the kitchen, while a pattern of small square tables and two large circular ones filled out the center area of the establishment. Each table was illuminated by a flickering oil lamp covered by a red glass bulb, and the ceiling lights were widely spaced, giving the room a soft, almost romantic ambiance. As she scanned her surroundings, however, Mare-Do-Well realized the reason for the silence: Despite the charming atmosphere, all the booths and tables were empty, and the only visible ponies at the moment were herself and the beige mare, whom she now noticed was a unicorn. The white-maned mare spoke up, interrupting Mare-Do-Well's train of thought. “Are you okay?”
The voice surprised her; Mare-Do-Well had expected to be dealing with an older pony, but the mare's tone seemed to indicate that she was still a young adult. Mare-Do-Well shook the thought out of her head and responded, “Fine, thanks.” She cleared her throat and continued in a slightly lower pitch, “I appreciate you letting me in.”
“No prob,” the other mare said, though her face still registered concern. She looked her guest up and down, eyes wide and wondering.
After watching her host's eyes scan her body several times, Mare-Do-Well asked, “What?”
The beige unicorn pointed a hoof at her new guest and said, “What's with the get-up?”
Mare-Do-Well chuckled as she remembered how odd it must look to see a purple-costumed pony, complete with hat and cape, loitering outside a restaurant in the middle of a storm in downtown Manehattan. “Right, the outfit.” She paused for only a moment before continuing, “I was on my way to a costume party when the storm hit.”
“Costume party...right...” said the unicorn, one eyebrow raised. “Whatever you say. Anyway, it's nasty out there.” A rumble of thunder accentuated her point. “No sense standing out there soaking wet or freezing to death or whatever. You can stay in here until it's not so awful.”
“Again, thanks,” Mare-Do-Well responded. She gestured toward the middle of the restaurant. “So, nice place. Do you run it or...?”
With a smirk, the beige pony responded, “Nah, my dad owns this hole in the wall. He's back in the kitchen, probably cooking up his latest 'gourmet masterpiece.' I'm just working here for a little extra money, put myself through school, y'know. Name's Ivorymane.” The unicorn gasped, then said, “Omigosh, I totally didn't ask you; you want some food or a drink or something?” A pad and pen suspended in a light blue glow floated out of a pocket of the beige pony's apron. “Or maybe sit down somewhere? I'm sorry, I'm still kinda new at this.”
“It's all right,” said Mare-Do-Well with a concealed smile. “Lead the way.”
The waitress blinked twice, then exclaimed, “Oh! Yeah, follow me.” She trotted to the booth that was closest to the double doors, and Mare-Do-Well followed close behind, sliding into the padded seat after the beige unicorn pointed her hoof toward it. “So did you want a drink?” the white-maned mare asked, her pen suspended above the pad in anticipation.
Mare-Do-Well took a moment to settle into her seat, then answered, “Just a glass of water, if you wouldn't mind.”
In a gesture Mare-Do-Well thought entirely unnecessary, Ivorymane scribbled a note onto her paper, then looked up and said, “Anything else?”
The purple-clad pony looked at the unicorn, then down at her empty table, then back up to the unicorn. After another moment of awkward silence, a look of realization appeared on the server's face. “Menu!” she blurted out, before her cheeks reddened with a blush, and she added a small menu to the list of objects her horn was currently holding in place. With a muttered apology, she floated the simple menu over the table and placed it in front of Mare-Do-Well.
A quick flip through the menu revealed that this particular establishment seemed to specialize in multiple varieties of flower sandwiches, from the cheap and always tasty “Daffodil Daisy Delight” to more exotic and expensive fare like the “Rhododendron and Rose Open-Faced Extravaganza.” Mare-Do-Well also couldn't help but notice that the words “hay fries” appeared in nearly every entree's list of sides. She looked up from the selections to see Ivorymane still standing next to her booth, her writing implement at the ready. “Um...shouldn't you be getting my drink?”
Ivorymane let out a frustrated groan. “I'm so bad at this!” she shouted through gritted teeth. “I'll be right back, okay?” she said quickly before walking through the swinging doors, bumping them open with a loud bang.
With her hostess momentarily gone, Mare-Do-Well swept her gaze around the restaurant one more time to ensure that nopony else was inside. Satisfied that she was alone, she swiftly removed her costume, using her hat as a container to hold all the pieces of the uniform. She breathed a contented sigh when her body was finally free of the full-body outfit, the warmth of the restaurant's interior making it difficult to stay comfortable in the tight purple piece. A glance outside showed that the rain was still going strong, so she returned her attention to the open menu before her. The longer she looked at it, though, the less she felt inclined to order anything; she simply wasn't very hungry.
Mare-Do-Well flipped the menu closed just as Ivorymane emerged from behind the double doors, a full glass of ice water firmly in the grip of her magic. With great concentration, she placed the drink on the table in front of her customer, then extracted the pen and pad from her apron once more, asking, “You figure out what you want?”
“I'm afraid that nothing looks good right now,” said Mare-Do-Well with a sympathetic smile. “I kind of ate a big breakfast.” She slid the menu back toward the beige unicorn. “Sorry.”
“It's fine,” said Ivorymane with a sigh. She extended the grasp of her magic to grab the menu, then tucked all three items back into her pockets. “Didn't expect us to do much business today anyways.” Another well-timed peal of thunder rolled through the empty streets.
Mare-Do-Well eyed her water for several seconds. When she turned back to the beige pony, she was doing her best to stifle a chuckle. “Ivorymane?” The waitress gave a quizzical look. “I think you forgot something.”
After another blank stare, a beige forehoof swiftly made contact with a face that was the same color, save for the tinge of red around the cheeks. Without a word, the embarrassed unicorn's horn lit up once again, this time pulling a straw from the pockets of her simple adornment and placing it in Mare-Do-Well's open hoof. With a quick tear, the straw was free of its wrapper, and Mare-Do-Well slid it easily into her water glass, taking a small sip. Her need for hydration temporarily sated, she smiled and looked up at Ivorymane. “Thanks.”
“No prob,” responded the still-blushing unicorn. The beige pony turned back toward the double doors, but then paused. With a look back at her guest, she said, “Hey, do you mind if I sit down for a while? Dad's kind of in a mood right now; I think he's trying to find the perfect sauce to make lilies mix with chrysanthemums or something, and he's not much fun to talk to when he's like that.” A loud boom indicated that the storm showed no signs of stopping. “Besides, I don't think I'll have to wait on anypony else for a little bit.
“Sure,” said Mare-Do-Well, gesturing her hoof toward the empty seat on the other side of the booth. While she normally wasn't one for company, she felt pangs of sympathy for this young, inexperienced waitress. As the unicorn shifted around to find a comfortable spot, Mare-Do-Well quickly hearkened back to their prior dialogue to find some appropriate fuel for small talk. A satisfactory subject came to mind. “So, you're in school, are you?”
“Yep,” said Ivorymane, her face lighting up slightly. “Manehattan University. This is my first year.”
“What course of study?” Mare-Do-Well leaned down and began slurping her water through the straw.
“I actually just decided on my major just before second semester started,” the unicorn said. “It took a while, but I'm studying History, specifically Archeology.”
Mare-Do-Well nearly spit her water all over the young waitress, but managed to swallow quickly, which resulted in a quick sequence of hacking coughs. As she blinked and attempted to clear her head, she heard Ivorymane ask, “Whoa, you gonna be okay there?”
With one last gasp, Mare-Do-Well nodded her head and said, “Just went down the wrong tube.” She swallowed again, then said, “Archeology, huh? I'm...surprised.”
Ivorymane gave a little laugh. “Most ponies are.” She ran a hoof through her mane as she continued, an air of confidence rising in her voice as she spoke about a familiar subject. “I know I come off as kind of an airhead, and most of the time I am, but for some reason, ever since I was little, I've always loved going to museums and learning about all these old artifacts and things that ponies have found on digs all over the world. They've fascinated me for as long as I remember, but I wasn't real sure about college. Sure, I'd love studying about that stuff, but all those other subjects would give me lots of trouble. Dad was insistent, though, so I pushed myself real hard and got good enough grades to get accepted.”
“So that's your passion, then? Archeology?”
“To be honest, I didn't know which program I needed to join at first; my adviser was pretty much a waste of space, so I just took a bunch of gen-eds, basic stuff, to get me started. I was barely passing those classes as it was, but I had no idea where to go from there. Then, near the end of my first semester, I saw something about a special lecture that the History Department was having, and I didn't have anything else to do, so I went. That's when I heard Daring Do speak.” Ivorymane's eyes got a far-off look, and she fell silent for several moments.
Mare-Do-Well broke the silence. “Daring Do?” The name almost sounded familiar, but no face came to mind.
Ivorymane snapped out of her trance. “Yeah, Daring Do.” She looked at Mare-Do-Well, who was doing her best to portray a completely blank face. “You've never heard of her?” Mare-Do-Well shook her head slowly, which prompted Ivorymane to say, “She's only one of the best archaeologists in the business! They've got a museum on campus full of stuff, and probably half of it came from her digs.” She idly waved a hoof. “Okay, maybe that's pushing it a little, but still.”
Mare-Do-Well tried to get back on track. “You said she gave a lecture?”
The beige pony nodded. “It was for ponies who were still on the fence about majors or specific courses, so I felt like I needed to go to it. She talked for an hour about one of her recent trips, telling us about every little detail of being an archaeologist like her. I couldn't believe it; it sounded perfect for me! After the lecture was over, I went up to her and started asking all kinds of questions, and she answered every single one of them. I found out what I needed to do to get into the Archeology program, how I could get tutoring or other help for my other classes, and all kinds of stuff. I felt like the door really opened for me after I talked with her, and the very next day, I dropped my old adviser and asked for her.”
“I bet she's been great,” said Mare-Do-Well, a soft smile on her face. For the first time in as long as she could remember, she was having a normal, everyday conversation with another pony, and she did feel a slight swelling of joy as the unicorn recounted her journey or discovery. On the other hoof, in light of recent events, the mention of the university's History Department had perked her ears up, and she felt a strong urge in her heart to continue speaking with the eager young waitress.
Ivorymane sighed. “Actually, at first, she couldn't fill that position. Some big discovery in...Zebrabwe, I think; she volunteered to be on that team and had to leave Equestria for a while. I got stuck with somepony else, but thanks to my talk with Daring Do, I knew what I needed to do. I started my second semester classes last month, and so far, it's looking good.” She waved her hoof toward the empty restaurant. “Just need to keep earning bits, y'know? Gotta pay tuition.”
“I understand,” said Mare-Do-Well. She took another short drink. “So when Daring Do gets back, will she become your adviser then?”
A frown fell over the unicorn's face. “Actually, that's the weird thing. She got back about a week ago, but I haven't seen her hardly at all. The one time I even got to talk to her, she was...different.”
Mare-Do-Well's countenance portrayed her confusion. “How so?”
“Didn't seem happy,” answered Ivorymane. “More...distracted, I thought. I asked her about it, but she said it wasn't anything to worry about. I didn't believe her, of course, but she insisted. Then, she told me something very...strange. She said she and Professor Annals found-”
“She and who?”
“Oh! Sorry. Professor Annals: he's like one of her best friends and partners, an older history professor, kinda quirky but really knows his stuff. Anyways, she and him apparently found something really amazing on their trip, but she wouldn't tell me any more than that, just that it was a secret right now, and they wouldn't show it until they could run a bunch of tests on it. It was pretty weird.”
Mare-Do-Well nodded in silence, but her brain immediately latched onto this new information and began to process her thoughts. Dr. Brier showed me the photo of that earth pony figurine; it arrived here, but got stolen before he could pick it up. If Daring Do and Professor Annals found something 'amazing' like Ivorymane says, Brier would be sure to keep it safe after that, especially if the thieves are targeting artifacts specifically. But if it's really 'amazing,' the Collector and his cronies would probably try to swipe it anyway. Would they go so far as to go after the ponies who found the thing in the first place, to try to get to it through them? An image popped into her mind: The imposing Germane pony was raising up a hoof to strike her as she lay prone on the warehouse floor. Likely.
Ivorymane's voice cut off her internal monologue. “You okay?”
Mare-Do-Well cleared her head and looked at the beige unicorn. “Hmm? Oh, yes, just fine.” She swung her head around to look out the front window; mercifully, the rain had lessened as the two mares had talked, and now it was no more than a light drizzle. Mare-Do-Well quickly snatched up her purple bundle and slid out of the cushioned booth seat, mumbling, “Excuse me,” as she began to move towards the door.
“You heading out?” the waitress asked, confusion etched onto her face.
Mare-Do-Well turned back to face her. “Yes, I really need to get going. Don't want to be late for the party. Don't worry, it's not far.” She began to spin around again, but stopped short and swiveled back to look at Ivorymane once again. “Best of luck with your studies,” she said, then added as she looked around the vacant eatery, “and your work.”
The perplexity on Ivorymane's face lessened a bit, and she said, “Thanks.” With a glance back to the previously occupied booth, she added, “What about your water?”
Mare-Do-Well smiled and answered, “You can have the rest.” Without awaiting a response, she swiftly exited the restaurant and returned to the cold sidewalk, trotting quickly through the calmer rain before ducking into the nearest alley. After making sure nopony else was around, she donned her costume, once again relishing the warmth it provided against the chilly wind and the showers that dropped from the gray, overcast sky. Once her body was thoroughly covered, she found the nearest fire escape and began her ascent to the rooftops again. She raced through the humid air, her body soon soaked by the soft but steady rainfall; a sense of urgency drove her hooves. Looks like I have two ponies to find.