Chapter 20: Working In Shadow
In the high throne room, mostly empty except for a few of the Night Guard, Luna sat on the regal seat of power, going through some documents. An important one was the matter of Swift Paws. The Diamond Dog had proved to be an invaluable asset, but now she was applying for full membership in the RSTG. Normally, Luna wouldn't fret over such a thing, Commander Sparks and his admin personnel would take care of admissions, but this was different given that as a Diamond Dog, Swift Paws was not exactly an Equestrian citizen.
Plus, she would still have to go through the training everypony else did and pass before she could actually be considered as a member of the elite group. Luna rolled the idea around in her head, weighing the pros and cons. Eventually, she decided to approve, scribbling her signature on the parchment and allowing the Dog to participate in the program. Now she just needed to draw up citizenship papers for her.
Luna was about to move on to her next task when dark green smoke roiled into the room from a slightly opened window down a ways from her seat. It sped to her, collecting into a tempuous ball before transforming itself with a flash of emerald into a rolled up parchment with the familiar seal of her informant.
Giddy with excitement, Luna snatched it from the air and opened it. Eagerly she read, her expression growing with surprise and wonder as she continued down the page , her eyes zipping back and forth between the edges. Once done, she rolled it back up and called one of her guards over.
"Yes, your Highness, how may I help you?" He said.
"I have an important matter that I must take care of at the moment and will be leaving my post for a brief moment. Ensure that your watch does not lose diligence, I shall return shortly." She ordered.
The guard bowed, "Your grace."
Hopping up from the throne, Luna quickly put away her papers, except from the scroll, and dashed down to the floor and out the hall's grand door. With a clacking of hooves against the rich marble floor, she galloped up to the wing that held the royal quarters and where her sister slept. Arriving at her door, the guards stepped aside to allow her admittance to her sleeping sister's chambers.
Luna entered silently, her heart still pumping furiously from her mad run through the corridors. With care, she quietly walked up to the edge of her sister's bed and gently tried to rouse her. It took some effort, but finally Celestia returned from the realm of dreams.
"Huh? Uh, what. . . Luna? What is it Lulu, I'm tired." She said, rolling back over.
"Tia! I just got the message! They found him!" Luna whispered loudly.
Celestia sat up, having suddenly found her energy and grabbed the parchment Luna held out in front of her with her magic, unrolling it and reading it urgently.
"What should we do, should we go for a visit?" Luna asked.
"Has anypony else seen this paper?"
Celestia sat, pondering for a moment. Then, to Luna's surprise and confusion, the parchment abruptly burst into flames, the ashes swiftly dissolving in the air and flying away as Celestia dismissed them from her chamber.
"T- Tia! Why?"
"Tell your contact not to move and await further instruction. We must handle this delicately, and the initial contact may have already been enough. If we're lucky, he may not even be needed."
"So what should we do then?"
"We'll wait. Ad use the skill of the humans we already have to our advantage." Celestia sat pensively, pondering something in her mind. "I have an idea." She said. "Remember when James put together the first team?"
"Yes, it was quite the success, even if he picked a few. . . unsavory characters."
"If it worked before, why shouldn't it again? Allow the Chief Jackson to construct his own team suited for the unconventional. He may choose whom ever he wishes, so long as they possess the required qualifications."
"As you wish, sister. What of Lieutenant Commander Flash?"
"Tell him that we thank him for his assistance in this matter, but his services are no longer required and he may resume training the next group of leadership candidates."
"Very well, I shall see to it that it gets done. Oh, and Tia, Howitzer has been asking some very strange questions about our guests. Sometimes, it seems he's alluding to something to do with our 'permanent' resident." Luna said.
Celestia blinked, "Are you asking what you should do about it?" Luna nodded. "He's your agent, and a very good one at that. Take the course of action that you deem most appropriate." Celestia said while stifling a yawn.
"Ok, I'll just leave you to your sleep then."
Celestia laid back down and tried to get comfortable, "Please do, I'll have a lot of work to do in the morning besides the usual routine."
Luna left her sibling alone then, quietly exiting the room. Once the door closed behind her, she galloped back down to the throne room, ideas burning in her mind. She would send a message to Flash at once and then she needed to call Howitzer back in. Not only to have a talk, but also to check on his progress. It shouldn't take long, he was due to arrive soon.
In her haste, she nearly bowled over a unicorn exiting the library. The frightened pony jumped out of the way just in time, but dropped all of his books in the process. A feeling of guilt crept up and Luna stopped to help pick them up, "I'm terribly sorry." she said as she levitated the books into the air. She noticed that a few of them happened to be of a military nature.
"Not at all your Majesty, the fault was all mine!" The unicorn spit out in a panic, swiping the books from the air and quickly shoving them into a bag. "Please forgive me, but I must go." He galloped off in a hurry.
Luna watched him flee down the corridor. She thought it odd that anypony would be in the library during this hour, except of course for Ms. Sparkle. Odder still, was the fact that she recognized him as one of her nephew's personal guards. Even so, she had work to do and pushed the incident from her mind, it was going to be a busy night.
Jackson sat on a bench in a park nearby, absentmindedly tapping a pencil against his notepad on his lap. Next to it was a list of names he was supposed to choose from. It had been a few days since finding Kaughn and almost immediately after he'd gotten back, he'd received a letter from Sparks telling him to pick operatives from a list for a special program.
The whole thing was stressing him out. Picking teammates from a selection of individuals he didn't know was not an ideal situation. But he got to thinking; he was told they just needed the requisite quals, it didn't specifically mean he needed to choose from the pool he was given. A few names came to mind.
"Hey, whatcha doin' grumpy face?" An energetic voice said over his shoulder.
Jackson jumped a little in his seat. It was pretty hard to sneak up on him so he was surprised when some one managed to do it. He looked over to his left to see Pinkie propped up on the back of the bench with her forelegs, peering nosily at the papers in his lap. Mechanically, he covered them up.
"Nothing really," he said, "just doing some paperwork."
"That doesn't sound very fun. Especially out here in the park on a be-a-u-tiful day like this!"
"Yeah, I know, but I gotta do it. And you're right, it is getting me kinda stressed."
"Stressed? Well don't you know that stressed is just desserts spelled backwards?" She exclaimed, producing a cupcake out of nowhere and placing it on his notepad before he could object. "Eat up, I promise you'll feel better." She told him with her trademark smile.
Jackson didn't hesitate. By now, he knew just how good a cook she was and unsurprisingly, the cupcake was absolutely delicious. "Thanks, what I owe ya?"
"The first taste's always free. You know where to come to get more." She whispered playfully.
Jackson couldn't help but chuckle a bit at her joke, "Thanks Pinkie, I'm sure I'll stop by later. How's Flash doin'?"
"He's fine. Oh! He also told me to tell you he might have found a place for you guys in town. Rent isn't all that cheap, but it shouldn't be a problem with your salary. Oh oh! Best of all, it's close to Sugarcube Corner!" She shouted ecstatically.
"That's always a plus. Topher know yet?"
"Yeah," Pinkie said, "I let him know about an hour ago. Why're you guys moving out anyway?"
Jackson exhaled, "Well, Flash's boss said he didn't need to watch us anymore, so I guess they trust us now. That and he's got his own job to worry about. Plus, we're gettin' paid, so it seemed like the natural thing to do."
"Aww~ but then our house will be empty again!" Pinkie almost whined.
"Don't worry, I'll visit every now and then if you want. You do throw some good parties." He smiled.
"Pinkie Promise!" She demanded.
"Uh, wh- Pink. . . Huh?" Jackson's mouth stumbled with confusion.
"It's easy, just cross your heart." Jackson mimicked her movements, "Hope to fly, stick a cupcake in your eye. There!"
"Ok, a Pinkie Promise. Gotta remember that one."
"Just remember this; nopony breaks a Pinkie Promise." She warned, "Nopony."
"Uh. . . All right. I'll remember that too. . ."
"Ok!" Pinkie said happily. "Well, I gotta get back to work now. So see ya later alligator!" She bounced off back into town, merrily humming along the way.
As soon as she was gone, Jackson uncovered his papers and began writing a few names down. A few weren't even on the list, but he was sure there shouldn't be much of a problem. If there was, he would handle it. All he needed to do now was to pull his picks from whatever they were doing and sit down for a little interview, he was sure he would have to go to Canterlot for that.
He would have to take the first train out in the morning. For now though, he would take care of his own business. Gathering up his papers and placing them carefully in a small satchel, he stood up and began walking into town. First he'd hit up the house his hyperactive friend had told him about and check it out.
The walk wasn't far and soon he'd made it to Sugarcube Corner. As usual it was always busy, with a variety of ponies entering empty hoofed and exiting with bags of goodies. Spotting the place he was looking for wasn't difficult either. Just a few blocks down, sequestered away near a few shabby store houses off the main road was a small two-story with a 'For Rent' sign out in front.
Like most of the dwellings in town, it closely resembled a big house shaped tree, with few square windows and leafy branches that acted as shades for the openings. Jackson wondered how they pulled architecture like that off, he'd have to ask Twilight some time if he ever got the chance.
Still, while it was appealing to look at on the outside, he still wanted to see the interior before making any decisions. So he strode up to one of the big windows near the ground to peer inside and saw something he didn't expect. Mayfield was already in there talking with the landlord, they were walking to the door. The door opened and they both came out laughing at some unknown joke before Mayfield shook the mare's hoof and she walked away. She went by the sign with a pep in her step and slapped a 'Sold' sticker on it's surface which Jackson found odd.
"Hey, what just happened?" He asked the smiling Englishman.
Mayfield turned to him with a triumphant grin, "We now posses a flat of our very own!"
"What, you rented it?"
"Nope, we own it, all paid for, full stop!"
"What!?" Jackson cried in surprise. "We don't exactly have the money for that!"
"No, we're good. Dunno how long we're here for and I've always wanted to actually have a house for myself. So, I wrote a little letter up to the Crown and that charming Princess we have for a boss agreed to help out with no strings." He said.
"Well you coulda at least talked to me first. I don't even know how the place looks yet." Jackson complained.
Mayfield smirked, "What are you, my wife?"
Jackson just huffed and shook his head, "Whatever. Do we at least have separate rooms?"
"'Course, come on in." Mayfield stepped aside and allowed Jackson to enter.
The interior wasn't all that bad. The front door opened up into a cozy living room with ample space for a couch, table and anything else they might want to throw in there. There was a medium sized kitchen towards the back with a small backdoor leading into a cramped yard of hard packed dirt, surrounded on three sides by the store houses.
Jackson was also surprised to find a door by the kitchen that led down to a small basement, a little dusty, but useful. Then, where the bathroom would have been at Flash's house, there was a iron wrought spiral stair that deposited them both into a short hall with two doors, each opening to a comfortably sized bedroom with windows high enough to look out over the rest of the town. The real kicker was that each room had it's own bathroom attached. All in all, Jackson thought it was a pretty good deal.
"Ah, see, look at that." Mayfield said. "No more fightin' over the loo."
"Yeah, definitely a keeper." Jackson nodded. "What are we gonna do about furnishings?"
"Took care of that too!" Mayfield said enthusiastically. "Ran into Quick Fix, that bird that been sweet on you not too long ago. Turns out she's got a whole mizer's mess of rubbish that just needs a bit of a polish. Said she'd sell it to us at discount."
"Sounds good." There was suddenly a rapid knocking down at the front door. Jackson slid down the stair and ran up to it, pulling it open only to get a face full of confetti.
"Surprise!" Some one shouted, followed by a giggle. Jackson batted the confetti out of the air and from his face to reveal Pinkie sitting there with a joyous expression. "Saw you went and got the place already!" She said.
"So are you gonna have some kind of house warming. . . Hm, what am I thinking of?" She scratched her head, looking pensively into the sky. "Celebration, festival, soiree, uh. . ."
Pinkie lit up, "Party? Great idea! I'll go get my stuff, be ready in five hours!"
Before Jackson could object or say another word, she bolted down the street. Jackson wondered what the hell he'd just gotten into. If any of the stories he'd heard were to go by, they were in for something crazy.
"Who was it?" Mayfield shouted from the second floor.
"It was Pinkie." Jackson shouted back.
"Oh yeah, what'd she want?"
"We might want to get that furniture now. We got an event to attend in five hours."
Howitzer glanced at his watch. He was waiting on a pier down in Los Pegasus again, the stallion he was waiting for was late again. He couldn't exactly blame him. What they were doing was dangerous and it wouldn't do to just let somepony follow him there. Still, it soon became annoying.
Finally, he heard hooves clomping on the wood behind him. Howitzer turned, tense, but relaxed when he saw it was Blackjack, another folder of papers poking out from his bag. Wordlessly, they completed yet another exchange, Blackjack slid the papers over followed by Howitzer tossing the earth stallion a bag of currency.
The exchange completed, Blackjack moved to the rail, a curious expression on his face, "So tell me. After all the little secret drops we made, why are we now meetin' face to face? I'm bein' followed sometimes, y'know."
"I know, it's risky, but I got a job for you."
"A job, huh?" Blackjack said suspiciously. "What sorta job we talkin' bout?"
"There're some weird things going on with my chain of command. I tried looking into it personally, but it drew too much attention and I was shut down." Howitzer explained as vaguely as he could.
"And what? You want me to go gallivantin' around up there in Canterlot? Sorry hoss, that ain't exactly my deal."
Howitzer smiled, "No you won't be going there. I had a more. . . rural area in mind."
"Yeah, where's that? Dodge, Appaloosa?"
"Not quite. You ever been to Ponyville?"
Blackjack thought for a moment, going through all the jobs he'd done in the past, "Mmm, I think once. But only fer about a day. Why, what's goin' on there?"
"First I need to know if you'll take the job or not."
"Depends, how much it worth?"
"You'll get six thousand, plus expenses. The job is only as long as it takes for you to get what I want." The liquid black pegasus explained.
"Alright, deal. So what is it that you want? We smugglin' goods, maybe a little moonshine?"
Howitzer grinned, pulling out a folder of his own, "No, nothing material. This is more of an asset acquisition." He passed the documents on to the earth stallion, "In here are the files on two humans that have arrived here and are helping the Princesses, along with any ponies that might associate with them. I want you to get close to them and report any information you gather about a possible third."
Blackjack took the papers and began reading through them, studying all the faces in the photos. "What's so important 'bout this?" He asked. "Couple 'a big hairless apes and a few 'o the townsfolk, what they got that you want?"
Howitzer just stared blankly into the air, "Hopefully, a solution."