It was Rainbow Dash who pointed out the obvious.
“Rarity,” she said, “it’s the middle of the summer, right?”
“Well... not the middle, per say,” Rarity replied. “But yes.”
Rainbow nodded, satisfied.
“So why is the ground covered in snow?”
Indeed, the town that sprawled out before them lay blanketed in white. The Copseville train station stood at the top of a hill, with the rest of the town sloping down away from them, and from their vantage point Rainbow and Rarity could see all the way to the frosted treeline that bordered the town’s edge. The glare of the sun off the snow was almost blinding.
One of the stationworkers took notice of their confusion.
“Oh, there was a little accident with our weather deliveries,” he said. “We were supposed to get a bunch of rainclouds for this week, but someone in Cloudsdale mixed us up for Corpseville, and we ended up getting a bunch of snow instead.”
Rainbow raised an eyebrow. “So your weather team just decided to dump them anyway?”
“Yep. Didn’t want it to go to waste,” he said. “Besides, the foals love it. A real Hearthswarming in July!”
“Rookies,” Rainbow muttered.
Rarity chuckled, and adjusted the collar of her trenchcoat. “At least this time, it seems, I have dressed appropriately for the weather.”
Copseville, as it turned out, had only been a three-hour train ride away. It wasn’t a small village, by any means (it was certainly larger than meager Ponyville), but it had an atmosphere of being a lot smaller and close-knit than it should have been.
The claustrophobia of being surrounded by thick forest on three sides likely had something to do with that. Confinement does a lot for bringing a community together.
“Alright, so here’s what I don’t get,” Rainbow said as they made their way down the main street. “This Mosey guy—”
“Moisi,” Rarity corrected.
“Whatever. This guy’s a big-wig artist type, right? What’s he doing way out here?”
“I’m quite curious about that myself,” Rarity said, “though I have my suspicions.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, Copseville is quite close to the other prominent artists’ workshop in Equestria,” Rarity said. “La Bottega di Piega. And if Moisi Râtelier is the primary suspect, then it’s a safe assumption that the victim will be its owner.”
“Why? Are they rivals or something?”
Rarity laughed. “You could say that, I suppose, although ‘bitter enemies’ might suit them better. Their mutual dislike of one another is legendary.”
“That’s not good.”
“Indeed.” Rarity drew to a stop. “Oh, but here’s the police station; we shall soon get some answers.”
The police station was an old, well-worn brick building. As Rainbow and Rarity stepped inside, they were greeted by a tall, thin-faced stallion in uniform sitting behind the reception desk. A tall stack of forms sat in front of him.
“Hello, ma’am. Ma’am,” he said. “Can I help you with anything today?”
“I believe you can,” Rarity said. “My name is Rarity; this is Rainbow Dash. We’re here at the behest of Mr. Râtelier.”
“Oh, you’re here about that business, then,” he said. “Nasty stuff.”
“Nasty stuff is our specialty,” Rainbow said.
“Er... in a manner of speaking,” Rarity said. “Could we perhaps pay Mr. Râtelier a visit?”
“If you must,” the policeman said. “Are you lawyers? You don’t look the legal type.”
“I will take that as a compliment,” Rarity said. “We’re detectives.”
Immediately, his demeanor soured.
“Detectives, right. Well, if you’re here to try and get him off, then you’re wasting your time.”
“And why is that?” Rarity asked.
“Because there is absolutely no doubt that he is the murderer.”
“Mademoiselle Rarity, I presume?”
“Monsieur Râtelier,” Rarity said, taking a seat on a stool that had been left against the wall. “I must say, it is an honor to make your acquaintance.”
“If only it could be under better circumstances,” said the stallion himself. Moisi Râtelier was quite tall and gaunt, even for a unicorn. His mane was well-coiffed, and he wore a frighteningly sharp moustache .
He was also, presently, behind bars. The sorry state of his right eye, puffy and swollen shut, did little to help matters.
“Well, that is why we’re here,” Rarity said. “Oh, and this is Rainbow Dash, my assistant and confidant. You may trust her as you may trust me.”
“Charmed to make your acquaintance,” he said, then frowned. “Have we perhaps met before? You seem oddly familiar.”
Rarity raised an eyebrow, but Rainbow was quick to deny. “Must have been someone else,” she said, adding an awkward laugh for good measure.
“I suppose so,” he said, though he didn’t look like he believed it. He turned back to Rarity. “Did, erm… Did my niece come with you?”
“I’m afraid not.”
A pause in the conversation followed, but Rarity was quick to break it.
“Well then, Mr. Râtelier,” she said. “Let us get down to business. Could you describe to me, in as much detail as possible, the events leading up to your imprisonment here?”
“Of course,” he said. “It all began with the letter.
“Two nights ago, I received a letter from the Bottega, asking me to come to Copseville; the letter said that they had acquired something though they thought I would be interested in. It was signed by Prepuzio Piega.”
“Your supposed victim,” Rarity said. “You didn’t think that was strange at all, given your history?”
“We may have been rivals, but we’d done business before when our interests aligned,” he said. “Begrudgingly. And I knew they he had recently made a few new acquisitions. I didn’t think much of it.”
“You wouldn’t happen to still have this letter, would you? Or perhaps the police have it?”
“No, I’m afraid not. It was disposed of prior to coming here.”
Rarity nodded. “A shame. When did you arrive at the Bottega?”
“Yesterday morning,” he said. “I took the train from Oatland.”
“No, my secretary came along. I believe she is still at the Bottega, or at least she was when last I heard from him.”
“I see,” Rarity said. “And what happened after you arrived?”
“I was told Prepuzio was waiting to see me in his office. I instructed my assistant to wait for me in the foyer, while an employee of his saw me to his office.” Moisi sighed. “He was in high spirits, though that was not abnormal for him. He’d even gotten out a bottle of champagne for the occasion.”
“And what was the occasion?”
“As I said, he’d made a new acquisition. And I was very interested in it. We spent the next hour negotiating a price.”
“Could you say about when this occurred?”
“Oh, it must have been around ten o’clock in the morning, if I had to guess,” he said.
“I see,” Rarity said. “And then?”
His expression turned grim.
“We had just closed the deal,” he said, “when the unthinkable occurred.”
“Prepuzio was at his desk, drafting up the final terms of our arrangement, when suddenly there was a loud bang! The next thing I knew, he was face-down on his desk in a pool of his own blood.
“Horrified, I turned to the window, where the sound had come from. I caught a glimpse of someone moving—but in my state of shock, I could not make out who it was. I ran to get a better look, but then something was thrown through the window, and it distracted me. Without thinking, I picked it up to have a look at it.”
“And what was it, Mr. Râtelier?” Rarity asked.
“It was a revolver, Miss Rarity,” he said. “And it had just been fired.”
“Hang on,” Rainbow said. “A what?”
“A revolver,” Rarity explained. “It’s a firearm, a griffon invention—think of it like a cannon, only small enough to carry on your person. Recently, they’ve become the playthings of the noble class, though mostly just as a curiosity, or for target practice. Nothing like this.”
“Kind of dangerous for a toy,” Rainbow remarked.
“Says the mare with a sword hanging over her mantle.”
“So,” Rarity said, turning back to Mr. Râtelier. “I suppose that’s how they found you—holding the literal smoking gun.”
“Correct,” he said. “The police were called, and I was taken into custody without so much as a chance to explain myself.”
“And thus, the real killer gets away, and you are left to take the fall.”
“Well, Mr. Râtelier, I would very much like to take your case. There is, however, one small matter.”
She sat up.
“You see, Monsieur, I am only a detective when it suits me. And so, I must inquire about my payment.”
“As I said in the letter I sent to my niece, I am willing to pay any price in exchange for your services,” Râtelier said.
“Yes, but I would like to hear it from your own mouth,” Rarity said. “Are you, in fact, willing to part with anything—no matter how large or how small—that I may ask for as payment, should I succeed in uncovering the true killer?”
“Yes,” he said, now determined. “Name your fee.”
“I will do so,” she said, smiling, “after I am done.”
She stood up.
“Come along, Rainbow,” she said. “We have work to do.”
“What was that about him finding you familiar?” Rarity asked as they exited the jail area of the station. “It’s hard to imagine anyone could mistake meeting you.”
“It happens more often than you’d think,” Rainbow said, hurriedly. “Hey, random question: did Mr. Râtelier ever work at a museum?”
“Several, briefly, when he was much younger,” Rarity said. “Why do you ask?”
They rounded a corner, and found themselves back in the entrance to the police station. The officer that had greeted them earlier was still sitting at the desk. The stack of papers didn’t seem to have decreased in size since they’d left.
“So,” he said. “Do you agree with me now?”
“On the contrary,” Rarity replied. “I’ve taken his case.”
The officer let out a short, unpleasant burst of laughter.
“You cannot be serious, ma’am!” he said. “The stallion was found holding the murder weapon. This is the very definition of an open-and-shut case!”
“You will not mind, then, if we were to ask you some questions about your investigation, Mr. ...?”
“Picker,” he said, laying down his pen. “Lieutenant Picker.”
“Lieutenant Picker,” Rarity repeated. “By the way you speak of it, I presume you are familiar with the details of the case?”
“I was one of the officers who made the arrest, in fact.”
“Wonderful,” Rarity said. “When would you say you first received word of the murder?”
“Eleven twenty-three AM,” he said, with the conviction of someone who times their life down to the second. “It was the victim’s assistant who came calling.”
“And what did you find when you arrived at the Bottega?”
“Mr. Râtelier had been subdued by one of the residents,” he said. “And Mr. Piega had been shot.”
“And he was protesting his innocence, I presume?”
Picker snorted. “To anyone who would listen. Some ridiculous story about the weapon being thrown through the window. We ignored him, of course; a criminal will make up anything if he thinks it’ll keep him out of jail.”
“You didn’t feel it was necessary to investigate his claims any further, then.”
“Of course not,” he said. “We had eyewitness testimony placing him at the scene, and a clear-cut motive. Besides which, his story didn’t add up.”
“Oh?” Rarity said. “How so?”
“Well, I don’t suppose he would have told you this,” Lieutenant Picker said, obviously taking some satisfaction from it, “but the revolver that was used to kill Mr. Piega belonged to Mr. Piega—and it was kept in the same room in which he was murdered.”
“Ah,” Rarity said. “I see what you mean.”
Picker nodded. “I’m glad you agree.”
“I didn’t say I agreed,” Rarity replied. “Was there anything else of note?”
“Not that I could say.”
“Very well, then. We will be off to the Bottega.”
“Going to look at the crime scene?” Picker inquired.
“Yes, we are,” Rarity said. “Is there a problem?”
“Not with me,” he said, his smile an unpleasant one. “Good luck…”
“You’ve been awfully quiet, Rainbow. What do you make of all of this so far?” Rarity asked, as they made their way up the road to the Bottega. The building was situated just outside of Copseville, on the side of a hill, though not far enough away that it had been spared the anomalous summer snowfall.
Rainbow bit her lip.
“I think,” she said, after a time, “That you’d have to be pretty stupid to pick up a murder weapon if someone threw it at you through a window.”
Rarity let out a laugh. “I couldn’t agree more, darling! Of course, one makes strange decisions when one is in strange circumstances. And yet, it is awfully convenient for our murderer that he should make that particular decision, isn’t it?”
“So you think he’s lying?” Rainbow asked.
“Not for the moment,” Rarity replied. “One can never rule out stupidity. Besides which, we haven’t gathered all the details yet. The devil is in the details, darling, and in the details, we will find our devil! And speak of the devil, I think I can see the Bottega up ahead.”
From a distance, one might have thought that the Bottega was simply a large house, or perhaps a mansion (and certainly, at some point, it may have served that purpose). But as Rainbow and Rarity drew closer, signs of its true nature began to emerge. Sculptures and odd bits of metal littered the grounds, flanking the path on either side and casting long and strange shadows onto the snow. The path that ran through it curved past the entrance to the building and ended at a large loading door, which looked a lot newer than its surroundings. Someone had painted a mural of a bee and some flowers onto it, which seemed quite out of place in their wintery surroundings.
Of course, the biggest sign of all that this was their destination was the one above the door.
“La Bottega di Piega,” Rainbow read off, bungling the pronunciation in a way not fit to be reproduced here. “Artist’s residencies. Looks like we’re in the right place.”
“Strange,” Rarity said. “I would have expected to see at least some form of a police presence.”
“They must be pretty sure that Moisi’s their man.”
“Mm. We shall see about that.”
The first thing to greet them as they entered was the acrid stench of acetone and oil paint, slamming into their nostrils with the force of a small truck.
The second thing to greet them was a small, elderly unicorn, who was quick to apologize for the first.
“Occupational hazard of housing artists,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of painters this season. But you’ll get used to it quickly, I promise!”
“I, ahem, certainly hope so,” Rarity said, trying to disguise a cough as a polite one and failing quite spectacularly.
“How can I help you, dears?” the mare asked.
“We’re here to assist in the investigation into Mr. Prepuzio Piega’s death,” Rarity said. “My name is Rarity; this is my assistant, Rainbow Dash. And you are?”
“Wilted Willow,” she said. “I’m Mr. Piega’s caretaker—or, well, I was. Oh, but it’s just horrible, what happened, isn’t it? I’m so glad they were able to put his killer behind bars so quickly.”
“Erm, yes, well,” Rarity said. “You’re the caretaker of this place? Then you must have been here when the murder occurred.”
“Oh, a bit more than that, dearie,” Willow said. “I was about thirty seconds shy of being a witness! I was the first one to the scene!”
Rarity smiled. “Would you mind if we asked you some questions, then? It could be vital to our investigation.”
“Oh, certainly, dear,” Wilted Willow said. “But you’ll want to look at the scene of the crime as well, won’t you? Why don’t I take you there, and you can ask me your questions on the way.”
They set off.
“So, how did you discover the murder?” Rarity asked.
“Well, I was cleaning one of the offices down the hall,” she said. “Mr. Books’s room, our accountant—oh, he does like to make a mess, that one. He’s on vacation right now, though. Most of the staff is.”
“I heard a loud bang,” she said. “Like an explosion! It nearly scared the life out of me. Well, of course I ran to see what had happened. I checked in the other rooms first, as I passed, but they were all empty, have been for months. And then when I got to Mr. Piega’s room—well, you can imagine.”
“I can imagine,” Rarity said. “But could you describe it anyway?”
“Well, when I opened the door—”
“The door was closed when you arrived?”
“Yes, Mr. Piega always closed it when he was in a meeting,” Willow said. “He kept it unlocked, though, so I had no troubles getting in. And I have a key, anywho.”
“And once you’d opened the door, you saw...?”
“Well, the first thing I saw was that dastardly Mr. Râtelier, with that horrible weapon floating next to him. And then I noticed Mr. Piega’s body, and—ooh, I nearly fainted at the sight of it! If Palette Knife hadn’t come running, I very well might have, and then who knows what that fiend might have done to me!”
“Who’s Palette Knife?” Rainbow asked.
“Oh, he’s one of our artists-in-residence,” Willow explained. “He’s been with us on and off for a few years, now. A good stallion, he is. Put me back on my feet and immediately set about restraining the criminal while I sent Thimble to fetch the police.” She nodded. “Why, I might owe him my life!”
“Well, we’ll have to have a chat with him later,” Rarity said. “Tell me, Willow, did you notice anything out of place in the office when you arrived? Anything at all?”
“Well, I’d have thought a dead body would be plenty out of place already!”
The mare thought for a moment.
“Well, there was one thing,” she said. “The window was open.”
“What’s so strange about that?” Rainbow asked.
“Well, because I’d closed it earlier in the morning,” she said. “What with the snow and all. Of course, it had already stopped by then, but it was still quite chilly out. I can’t think what would have possessed Mr. Piega to open it.”
The painter’s miasma seemed to fade the closer they got to the office portion of the building, and by the time they’d reached them, it had all but disappeared.
Standing in front of one of the doors was a stallion that seemed the opposite of the one they’d met at the station: short and round, perennially red in the face, and with a few stray strands of a combover poking out from under his cap. He stood up straighter as they approached.
“Well, here we are,” Willow said, gesturing towards him, and to the door behind him. “Lieutenant Stickler, I trust you’re doing well?”
“Just fine, ma’am,” he said, though perhaps it would be more accurate to say he sputtered; every utterance that came from his mouth was strained, as if the stallion’s uniform were cutting off his airways. Which perhaps it was, considering it had been buttoned up to the collar. “Is everything alright?”
“Oh, just fine,” Willow said. “I was just bringing these two to meet you. They’d like a look at the crime scene.”
“Rarity and Rainbow Dash, of Carousel Investigations,” Rarity supplied. “We’re here on the behalf of—”
She cast a sideways glance at their escort.
“—well, it isn’t important,” she finished. “We’re looking into the murder of Mr. Prepuzio Piega.”
“I see,” he sputtered. “Very commendable of you!”
“Yes, well,” Rarity said. “As you can understand, we’d quite like to look at the crime scene...”
“I understand completely!”
He didn’t move.
Rarity stared at him blankly for a few moments. He continued to block the door.
“So if you could...” she waved her hoof in the direction of the door.
“Could what, ma’am?”
“Let us in to the crime scene!” Rainbow said, growing a touch red in the face herself.
“Ah!” he said. “I can’t do that.”
“I cannot let civilians into an active crime scene,” he said. His cheeks grew an even brighter red with every word he spoke. “It’s against regulations!”
“He wouldn’t let me in to clean up this morning, either,” Willow added. “Oh, the master wouldn’t have been happy!”
“But surely it’s not still an active crime scene,” Rarity offered. “After all, you’ve already made an arrest.”
Stickler shook his head. “No ma’am! I’m not authorized to release the crime scene to the public until the requisite paperwork is filed by my partner down at the station!”
“But we aren’t the public,” Rainbow said. “We’re private detectives! It even has ‘private’ in the name!”
“How long will it take to get the paperwork done?” Rarity asked.
“Anywhere from four to six hours by my estimate, ma’am!”
Rainbow groaned. “Really?”
“Very sorry, ma’am,” Stickler said. “But it’s—”
“Against regulations, you’ve said as much,” Rarity interrupted. “Very well; we shall just have to come back later.”
She spun about, the tails of her coat swinging around as well, and began to walk back the way they’d come. Rainbow, agape, stared after her for a moment, then flew after her.
“Rares, you can’t be serious!” Rainbow said, once she’d caught up. “We can’t do anything without looking at the scene of the crime! You’re just going to let him keep us out?”
“Well, it’s painfully obvious the lieutenant won’t be budging, physically or metaphorically,” Rarity said. “I’m afraid there’s not much else we can do.”
“Well, can’t you, I dunno, bribe him or something?”
“Rainbow Dash!” Rarity gasped. “I cannot believe you would suggest such a thing. Bribing a police officer, why, it’s simply deplorable! You should be ashamed of yourself! Besides, I don’t think our Lieutenant Stickler is the type to take bribes, anyway.”
“Well, what’s your plan, then?”
“To break in through the window, of course.”
The snow crunched under Rarity’s hooves as they made their way around the side of the Bottega. She had taken the lead; Rainbow had elected to hover just overhead.
“It shouldn’t be too much farther,” Rarity said.
“This can’t be legal,” Rainbow Dash said.
“What, having an innocent walk around the grounds of a building we’ve already been invited into?” Rarity asked, a smile on her face. “I see nothing criminal about that.”
Rainbow crossed her hooves. “You know what I’m talking about.”
“Well, I won’t tell if you don’t.”
They rounded the corner of the building. Suddenly, Rarity gasped, drawing to a halt.
“Look,” she said. “Under the windowsill!”
Rainbow looked, and immediately spotted what Rarity had noticed: the snow under the windowsill had been disturbed.
Rarity ran over to the errant patch of snow, Rainbow flying along after her. She knelt down to take a closer look.
“Any hoofprints?” Rainbow asked.
“Not as such, no,” Rarity replied, as she continued to scan the ground. “But someone clearly stood here. The snow hasn’t been crushed evenly, and—ah, here, look.”
She pointed to a circular impression in the snow, about the diameter of a hoof, but smooth on the bottom.
“Whoever it was may have been wearing boots of some sort,” she said, but she was frowning. “Though I can’t say I’ve ever heard of a boot that didn’t have a pattern on its sole...”
Rainbow glanced up at the window they were huddled under.
“Is that the...?”
“The window to Mr. Piega’s office? I believe so,” Rarity said. “This certainly lends some credence to Mr. Râtelier’s story, doesn’t it?”
She stood up, and took another look at the scene at large.
“Rainbow,” she asked. “Do you notice anything odd about the snow around here?”
“Huh?” She glanced around. “I don’t see anything.”
“Precisely, darling,” Rarity said. “Other than mine, there are no other hoofprints to be found anywhere. The snow is undisturbed everywhere except for this one spot.”
Rainbow took another look. “Hey, yeah, you’re right!” she said. “So that means that whoever was standing here was a—”
“Let us not jump to conclusions,” Rarity said, but her eyes were sparkling. From the patch of disturbed snow, one would have a direct line-of-sight through the window—and into the office, where part of a desk was visible.
With the obvious taken care of, Rarity turned her attention to the window itself. It was located about a meter and a half off the ground, and presently closed; Rarity tried to pull it open with her magic, but to no avail.
“Guess we won’t be breaking in after all,” Rainbow said.
“I don’t think that would have been a possibility even if it were open,” Rarity replied. “It’s too thin for either of us to fit through.”
Rainbow sized it up. “I dunno,” she said. “I’m pretty flexible.”
Rarity raised an eyebrow. “Darling, really. Need I remind you what happened the last time you attempted to force your way through a window?”
“I said I was sorry!”
“You still owe me the money for the windowsill, darling.”
“I told you, I’m waiting for my royalties to come in.”
“And I’m waiting for a new windowsill.”
“Alright!” Rainbow snapped. “I get it. No reverse defenestration today.”
“Good,” Rarity said. “Now, be a dear and tell me what you can see from up there. The view from the ground is less than stellar.”
Grumbling, Rainbow flew over to the window. She raised a forelimb over her eyes and peered inside.
“What do you see?” Rarity hissed.
“Let me look first!” Rainbow hissed back. “Alright, there’s a painting on an easel in the middle of the room. Looks like a landscape. Most of it’s covered by a sheet, though.”
“But you can see some of it?”
“Yeah. The sheet’s not on straight. It’s not very clean, either.”
“Noted,” Rarity said. “What else is there?”
Rainbow craned her neck to the left.
“There’s a weird metal thingy on the left wall,” she said.
“A ‘weird metal thingy’,” Rarity repeated, dryly.
“Well, I don’t know what else to call it,” Rainbow said. “It’s weird, it’s metal, and it’s a thingy. Weird metal thingy.”
“Could you perhaps attempt to describe this ‘weird metal thingy’?”
“Fine,” Rainbow said, rolling her eyes. “Don’t get your trenchcoat in a bunch. It’s like a metal tube, attached to a bigger tube, with more metal bits sticking out of the top and bottom of it. There’s a... I guess it’s a handle? A handle sticking out of the back.”
Rarity thought for a moment—and then her eyes widened.
“Rainbow!” she exclaimed “I think you’ve just described the murder weapon!”
“What, really? That’s what you were talking about?”
Rainbow peered at it.
“That’s the thing that killed Mr. Piega? It’s so small!”
“Well, it’s not the size that matters,” Rarity said. “But it may not be the same one that was used in Mr. Piega’s execution—I doubt they would put it back on its mountings if it were. Tell me, is there a hook or something similar beside the one on the wall?”
“Looks like it, yeah.”
“Then it may be one in a pair,” Rarity said. “In which case, it’s probably the other revolver that killed Mr. Piega. Can you see it anywhere?”
Rainbow scanned the room again, then shook her head. “No sign of it. The police must have taken it already.”
“Not much chance of us getting a look at it, then.” Rarity sighed. “At least, not if our friend in there has anything to say about it. Anything else catch that eagle eye of yours?”
“There’s a desk—”
“What’s on the desk?”
“There’s a bucket... it’s got a bottle in it, and something else, but I can’t tell what it is.”
“That’ll be the bottle of champagne Mr. Râtelier mentioned,” Rarity said. “It’s a wonder no one’s taken it yet. What else?”
“Some papers, some pens, a typewriter, a paperweight—you know, normal boring desk stuff.” She swallowed. “And blood. Lots and lots of blood.”
“What about his body?” Rarity asked. “It should still be behind the desk, yes?”
“Uh... Rares?” she said. “There’s no body in there.”
“Of course there’s nobody in there,” Rarity said. “That policeman won’t let anyone in the room.”
Rainbow shook her head.
“No, Rares, I mean Mr. Piega’s body—it’s gone!”