ARC IV - CHARLIE FOXTROT
Three days later
Major Sharp, CO of the Fillydelphia Guard Division and chief of the city's policing matters, sat in silence, staring at the Equestrian Domestic Security agent who sat across the desk from him. Every so often he expected her to speak, but she kept scribbling across a piece of thick, EDSO-headed parchment. She'd been writing since before he'd even been shown into the cramped, cluttered office, packed tightly into a private carriage on a private train, and aside from a perfunctory glance upwards as the door had opened and closed for him, she'd barely seemed to acknowledge his presence. A pale glow surrounded her veritable lance of a horn, and the quill made little scratches as it left its black, shining tracks across the smooth page.
Sharp was a distinguished looking unicorn of just over 50, his black mane fighting running retreat against the grey that spread a little further along it with each passing year, his dark and plain coat a perfect match to his plain and uncomplicated stance on life and the force under his command. He was a veteran of a guard formation where skill and integrity actually meant something, where he could be expected to provide a meaningful service to the society he was charged to protect. Unlike the ceremonial and utterly ineffective - or, as some less charitable minds might think, incompetent - toy soldiers of the capital. And yet he sat there, his ceremonial helmet resting on his lap, like some misbehaving schoolcolt waiting for the inevitable attentions of a schoolmistress.
The mare was at least a decade his junior, and technically a civilian who lay outside the Guard's chain of command, but she carried the tokens and badges that allowed her to demand his presence, and that of his Guardsponies. She had no influence beyond that, but it was enough to put his hackles up.
At last she set the pen aside, leant down to purse her lips and cast a gentle stream of air across the drying ink, and looked up at Sharp.
"This is a mess," she said. Her voice was flat,words tainted only a hint of dryness that spoke of the emotions running under the mask of civility.
"I find myself forced to agree," replied Sharp, and he meant every word; he would have liked nothing more than to deny any wrongdoing, to claim that the escaped prisoners had been small pickings not worth the bother, that losing them was little more than an inconvenience. But the facts were facts, and so he acknowledged the lies in those desires. Even ignoring the EDSO's involvement, the prisoners had been supremely talented - and dangerous - individuals, and there was no telling just what mayhem they could cause. Mayhem both subtle and gross.
It was a mercy that the four guards who had escorted the wagon were even still alive. Two counts of concussion, a fractured rib and the corporal in charge on traumatic leave, but alive nonetheless.
"I take it you've gathered all the information you intend?" he asked into the silence.
"I've interviewed your officers and I've come to the conclusion that two of the individuals formerly in your custody are central to our ongoing investigations. The ponies operating under the aliases of Apple Orchard and Open Skies. The testimony of one Corporal Stalwart proved particularly enlightening." She glanced down at her notes but Sharp was more than certain that it was a charade, that she could already recite the inked words verbatim. The Office tended to recruit those with that sort of brain. "We were perhaps a week or two from making the connection ourselves, of course. I admit that I wish you hadn't gone in and messed up the operation with your arrests, but..."
There was a brief exhalation. It was obvious that the following words came with no small measure of reluctance. "I can't fault you for moving on the information you were given. Even if I disagree with the lenience you offered in return."
Sharp blinked and sat up a little straighter, but the mare was still speaking.
"Don't bother protesting, Major, we knew about your deal. Just as we know that you didn't personally authorise it, though I suspect you would have made the same deal had you been present. And as much as I disagree with it I can understand why you might feel yourself forced to compromise. But my concern is not with the way your unit deals with criminal organisations, my concern is with the prisoners that were in your custody, and that you nevertheless allowed to escape. With no trace."
She was looking at him, unblinking and stoic. Even her voice, as much as the words conveyed her irritation, was even and matter-of-fact.
And yet they infuriated the Major. Hooves clenched tight around his helmet and he had to force himself to relax his jaw enough to speak without his voice trembling.
"I appreciate your understanding, but I don't appreciate the implications. My guards acted as best as they could with the information they had. If you're looking to pass responsibility onto me and mine then I can advise you to forget it."
He'd spoken with too much heat and he knew it, but the idea of being judged by this mare for things that hadn't been his fault was enough to make even the most level-headed commander defensive. He forced himself not to follow through, to raise his voice and start throwing veiled accusations at her, but nor did he apologise or retract his words. He was committed now, and he was braced for the replying salvo.
But the mare merely raised an eyebrow at him. Her hooves clicked together with gentle, hollow sounds and a single ear gave a minute twitch.
"Implications? There are no implications here, Major, merely inferences on your part, I fear. I'm just stating facts. The prisoners escaped from your custody en route to Canterlot, and unless my reports are out of date you currently have no leads as to their whereabouts. Is this incorrect?"
That eyebrow remained arched as she cast a questioning look at him, clearly waiting for some kind of response, so he shook his head. Satisfied, she continued. "Now, I can overlook your refusal of my initial request for a transfer of custody, but would you tell me why you felt it necessary to continue to insist that your division to escort them to Canterlot in the face of a rogue snowstorm, when we could have held them in the secure carriage of this very train until such a time as the rail line was reopened?"
Sharp drew himself up, finding this the most legitimate avenue for defence that he could foresee.
"The Fillydelphia Guard prefers to see things through to the end. Yes, you convinced me that a transfer to the capital was the best course of action, but considering the number and nature of crimes they'd committed within my city I felt it best that Fillydelphians should ensure they were safely in custody.
"You're saying that you didn't trust the EDSO to do so?"
He smirked at that.
"I made no such implication." It was a small victory, that gained him nothing more than the petty satisfaction of catching her little hypocrisy, but it made him feel better. Even if she showed no sign of displeasure or contrition. "Regardless, we took all the necessary precautions. If you had made it clearer that we were dealing with more than just a griffon, an earth pony and two pegasi..."
"You'll forgive me, Major, if I feel that we gave you ample warning. The true nature of the two ponies that hold our interest is not something that the EDSO feels comfortable becoming common knowledge, but we were sure to alert you that these were not the average pony. It was recommended that you double the usual escort and take counter-magic precautions. You chose to send a four-pony escort in a standard armoured cart, with no air cover. I understand that the FGD is a unicorn-only division, but would it really have hurt your pride so to request a pegasus or two from another unit? We would have obliged."
She finished with another questioning look, one eyebrow raised a fraction of an inch. Sharp, on the other hoof, found himself scrabbling for something to say. For she was entirely right, he had ignored the warnings, thinking them little more than scaremongering and fearful exaggeration. And because of that decision four prisoners, four members of the organisation that was the bane of every guardspony's existence in Fillydelphia, were missing.
So he found himself unable to speak in his defence, for all that he had been willing to say was already said. Oh, he could repeat his platitude about 'necessary precautions', but it obvious that such a course would do nothing to improve his standing in the eyes of the mare.
Not that he needed her approval! He shook himself, from within the comfort and privacy of his own mind, and scowled. She was his junior, his subordinate, and while she might make veiled threats and insinuations he was under no obligation to accept them.
"Well that would have been generous of you, I'm sure. Now, is there any purpose to this meeting? Because I do have work to be getting on with."
"Yes, as a matter of fact, there is," she said with a nod. "Firstly, I mean to inform you that I'll be registering an official complaint on my return to Canterlot, what all the good it's likely to do. Secondly, I am obliged to make you aware of the dispatch I received earlier today."
She pulled a scroll from the pile to her side and held it out to the scowling unicorn with her magic. "Orders from Commander Brazen Brass of the Royal Guard, approved and countersigned by Celestia herself."
That would have been enough to make him sit up even more sharply, if he hadn't already been as straight as he could be. Despite his low opinion of the Royal Guard, Sharp was technically obliged to follow the orders of their CO, as was every independent Guard division in Equestria. That the Princess herself had even personally approved the orders, much less signed them...
"The Fillydelphia Guard is officially removed from any investigations and subsequent actions involving Open Skies and Apple Orchard, also known by the aliases Rising Sun and Evening Breeze. On the occasion that you should come into any information regarding them, you are to pass it onto the EDSO and watch from the sidelines."
There were no words. Sharp could say nothing, could only slump down in his seat and stare across the table with a blank expression. The mare glared back, and for the first time he saw real emotion on her face, a cold disappointment.
"You can take some comfort, I hope, in the knowledge that the EDSO is following its own leads, without your assistance. Therefore the incompetence of your unit has not irrevocably ruined things. Now, I need not detain you any longer, Major. By all means, return to your work."
TRACKING TWO SUSPECTS
LAST KNOWN LOCATION - CONFIRMED
CURRENT LOCATION - UNKNOWN
CURRENT OBJECTIVE - UNKNOWN
LOCATION PRIORITY - HIGHEST
CAPTURE PRIORITY - HIGHEST