Foreign Nationals of Unusual Importance

by Dave Bryant


Investigation

“Thanks for the help, fellas. A little something extra for your trouble.” I handed out twenties to the coveralled crew. They mumbled or nodded thanks before shuffling out, leaving me to shut the door behind them.
Once I had, I leaned my back against it and blew out a breath. The much larger and brawnier professionals had done most of the literal heavy lifting, but I’d pitched in to some extent, along with directing their efforts. The latter turned out to be more work than I expected, though I tried not to micromanage. To them, a box was a solid object of varying size and weight, not a collection of cherished possessions, to be dropped off—or maybe just dropped—as quickly as possible, because time is money.
I stared down the short hallway at the visible slice of the main room. Packed neatly in a ULD, the boxes didn’t seem like much. Stacked on the floor and furniture like cardboard menhirs, they took up an astonishing amount of room. I rubbed my forehead and decided I was just too tired to tackle any of them right now. After a moment to gather a little energy, I wandered back to the couch and dropped onto it with another sigh.
In my case time might not be money, but it certainly was wasting. Both conscience and expectations from above demanded I start doing something constructive beyond my immediate needs, even if I arrived in town only yesterday. I tipped back my head and closed my eyes to consider a plan of action for the next few weeks.


The first order of business was to cross-check the curricula vitae provided with my briefing package against public records—births, school enrollments, and the like. I visited city hall, the county clerk, and a few other jurisdictions, just another anonymous citizen availing himself of the services and facilities built with his tax money.
As expected, Sunset Shimmer existed in the files of institutional memory as a mere wisp. Indeed, the real surprise was how much of a legal identity this obviously bright and capable young woman cobbled up after arriving just over three years ago, apparently as a freshman-age teen with few if any resources, from what I’d come to suspect was a pre-digital society. Still, while that identity had taken on a bit more color and dimension over the last few months, it remained barely sufficient to slide by if nobody looked too closely . . . as I was doing.
For her friends, on the other hand, the results proved as complete and ordinary as I anticipated, barring the occasional hiccup—a missing form here, a data-entry error there, the sort of mistake or inconsistency that’s plagued large-scale recordkeeping since time immemorial. Every one of them was an open book until those same last few months; even then anything outside the secrets I’d come to investigate still lay more or less in plain sight. They were, in short, the sort of good, pleasant girls any parents could be proud of.
From there I followed the threads to their families, friends, and other connections, gradually building a webwork of facts and figures. As the days piled up, I developed a steady routine. Every weekend I sent off a report to the home office, sometimes accompanied by specific queries. Sporadic updates and responses arrived in return; I was relieved to find no imperious demands for more rapid progress among them. So far, at least, Pin Stripes was living up to her tough-but-fair reputation, staying off my back and, I presumed, shielding it from others, so long as I could document genuine advancement. My putative spare time went to unpacking, stocking my abode with necessities, and learning my way around the city.
I wasn’t about to examine in detail all the myriad people whose lives intersected with the group at the center of my quest—that, after all, was part of the reason for my reports. Cursory checks on my part didn’t raise any red flags, and plenty of manpower was available elsewhere for that sort of toil. I’d be informed of anything pertinent, and anything that wasn’t I had no need to know, either as an individual or as a government employee. In the mean time I turned my attention from personal backgrounds to actions and events.
Work orders on file with the city for reconstructing Canterlot High School’s front façade and plaza, after their mysterious and dramatic destruction during an eventful dance the previous autumn, earned my amused admiration as bureaucratic masterpieces of obfuscation and double-talk. On the Web I teased out the occasional deleted social-media post or video, either through an “unavailable” notification or by visiting the Wayback Machine—it’s amazing how often people trying to clean up digital indiscretions overlook back-ups, archives, or metadata. Calling the affair a conspiracy of silence might be an overstatement, but I could discern real efforts, official and not, to keep the shenanigans as quiet as practicable.
Quite recently Crystal Preparatory Academy across town suddenly exhibited similar symptoms, albeit to a lesser degree, beginning with a competition between the two schools that took place, unusually, every four years rather than annually. This time around it seemingly ended as spectacularly as the CHS dance earlier in the school year, leading to comparably vague, subdued, and confused reports. The abrupt resignation afterward of Crystal Prep’s principal was typical; a single bald press statement explained nothing, not even whether she departed voluntarily or under pressure. The only addendum was the promotion of her successor from the position of dean.
To me, though, the consequence of immediate interest was the addition of one Ms. Twilight Sparkle to the coterie under my scrutiny, thanks to an astoundingly fast-tracked transfer from one school to the other on the heels of what I gathered was a central role in the competition’s colorful climax. The name caught my notice instantly. I already had uncovered, or been sent, tantalizing hints regarding the school dance that not only changed so many lives—including, indirectly, mine—but had brought the situation to the attention of those in power. One such tidbit was a name for Sunset Shimmer’s enigmatic pursuer: Twilight Sparkle.
The transfer student was every bit as easy to pin down as her newfound friends, which made short work of building a matching dossier and a complete alibi proving she hadn’t been anywhere near Canterlot High before or during the dance in the fall. Her Doppelgänger, on the other hand, didn’t exist at all in any official sources, including CHS enrollment. Combing social media turned up only a handful of passing references and a group photo, somehow missed in the efforts to sweep everything under the rug. Metadata on the photo indicated it had been taken during the so-called Battle of the Bands, the latest I could confirm a sighting.


With chin on palm I studied the two photographs on my laptop monitor. To one side, a poorly lit, slightly blurry, and greatly magnified crop presented a young woman standing on stage, curled fists drawn up under her chin, singing into a microphone on a stand. To the other, a studio portrait depicted a diffident girl peering through squarish horn-rim eyeglasses, dressed and coiffed formally and rather severely, though a few unruly hairs had escaped their prison. What I really needed was a photo-analyst, but I didn’t have the authority to read anyone else into the Eloptic Machine compartment, so for now I’d have to rely on my own eye and reason.
Allowing for the differences in lighting, coloration did look the same for both—mostly shades of purple, with a hint of pink in the long, straight hair. I couldn’t tell for sure, but there seemed to be a little more of the pink on the transfer student. What I could see of their faces and physiques also seemed to match at least as closely as healthy identical twins.
Everything else diverged wildly. The singer’s simple but attractive blouse and skirt and her loose, free-swinging hair suggested a less withdrawn, more confident personality. Of course, the student wore a school uniform, which included provisions for acceptable hairstyles, but what I’d dug up on Crystal Prep’s dress code allowed a fair amount of leeway in exactly how one could wear the uniform, especially for female students. Even so, this Twilight Sparkle adhered fairly rigidly to the letter of the code, more than many of her now-former classmates. I sat up again to type notes in yet a third window. This topic alone demanded its own report.
The existence of two Twilight Sparkles, so alike yet so different, raised profound and disturbing questions about the nature of the portal and the two worlds it connected. The evident lack of a second Sunset Shimmer simply added to them; the only other individuals by that name I’d found bore no real resemblance to my quarry in looks or discernable personality.


Having established biographies and connections, I moved on to habits and activities, movements and stamping grounds. An animal shelter. An amphitheater. A boutique. A bookstore. . . . I visited them all, and other places besides, choosing off hours to minimize the chance of premature contact with the now-seven young women. I made casual-seeming conversation with staffers and managers and where possible wandered idly through the premises, noting details.
I needed to confront all seven at once, on neutral ground—public enough to forestall precipitous action on their part, private enough to discuss matters everyone involved considered sensitive. I had to question a secondary circle of witnesses in advance, but shortly enough beforehand to avoid giving warning; some or all of them might agree to hold our meetings in confidence, but I couldn’t count on that.
Narrowing down the possibilities left me with a rough timeline and a list of locations along with the roll of witnesses. A tentative plan started to take shape in my mind, but I’d need help to refine it and carry it out. That request went out with my next report.


“Mister Gray?”
I looked up from my laptop sitting on the generic peninsula desk. “Mister Brown, I presume. Please come in.”
The tall, well-muscled man, whom I judged to be within a few years of my own age, stepped into the small, mostly bare office. His business suit was inexpensive but well tailored, which looked far better than the reverse and said interesting things about the person wearing it. Without bothering to ask he shut the door behind him. “They told me you need assistance with an operation, and you’d provide the brief.”
“Yes indeed. Get comfortable; it’ll take a little while, and afterward I’ll want your help to plan out the particulars.”
Mister Brown, whatever his real name, was everything a special agent of the Diplomatic Security Service should be. He grasped immediately what I had in mind and seemed to take a sort of intellectual delight in the challenge. His questions and suggestions were concise and to the point—and, even better, scrupulously avoided anything he didn’t need to know.
“The bookstore’s our best bet, I think.” He rubbed his chin with a fingertip, then brought it down to tap the entry on the handwritten list in front of him. “Can you show me the diagrams again?”
I called them up and turned around the laptop for him to look over. I had them more or less memorized, along with several other locations frequented by the girls singly or together, so I simply waited patiently as he leaned forward to gaze narrow-eyed at the screen.
After a couple of minutes examining the floor and lot plans and occasionally asking for clarification on one point or another, he sat back and met my eye again. “The front room’s too public, but the back patio’s perfect—better’n just about anyplace else you showed me. So we need to find out when all of ’em are going there at once, make sure they can’t use the front room, but without driving ’em off someplace else, and get you in through the back way to talk with ’em.”
I nodded. “Sounds simple enough, but the devil is in the details.”
A small smile quirked one side of his mouth. “Yeah, well, that’s why I’m here. Tell you what: I’ll start rounding up some assets and do a little more thinking, then meet you back here in, say, a week. How does that sound, Mister Gray?”
I grinned back. “It sounds just fine, Mister Brown.”


Celestia, Luna, Abacus Cinch, Mi Amoré Cadenza. Anyone else of interest could wait until after my initial contact, but I had a hunch talking to those four women beforehand could prove useful. I sat back on my couch, arms folded, and gazed unseeing across the room. On more mature consideration, I decided to leave Cinch out of it for now. By all accounts she was a . . . difficult personality, and likely would be even more prickly on that particular subject. Anything she knew I probably could get from the other three.
I suspected Mister Brown had his hands full putting the finishing touches on our little plan, but he’d expressed enough confidence at our last meeting to hazard a time window for execution, and the clock was ticking. My part was pretty much set in stone—I just needed to follow his lead as we discussed—which left me free to pursue other avenues. I slid my phone from a pocket and called up the contact list. Time to see if my silver tongue and lucky stars could pull off this feat of scheduling.