The Trotford Husbands

by Gabriel LaVedier

The Investigation

Time: 0700

Place: Trotford, in the County of West Emery; Current Head: Lady Mayor Verdant Glade

Investigator Information: Agent 68, Penny Lane

Overview: A citizen of the town, named Wind Catcher, flew into Canterlot after flying all night. He was found to be suffering exhaustion, minor dehydration and his physical state indicated an extended period of great fear. He demanded law-enforcement personnel help him with a situation transpiring in his town, which appeared to be some sort of brainwashing or destruction of the personalities of male citizens.

The standard constables opted for emergency commitment, given the bodily state of Mr. Catcher. Following a night of rest and the balancing of fluid levels Mr. Catcher was more lucid but continued to speak of some conspiratorial collusion between brainwashed stallions and the town's mares. He continued to ask for some kind of law-enforcement intervention.

The Bureau of Equestrian Security and Investigation came into play because certain elements of the story, gleaned from the report, brought a certain recognition. There was not enough information to justify a full intervention but prompted the dispatching of Penny Lane, Agent 68. The report of Agent 68 will determine further action, if any.

Penny Lane snapped a photo of the fountain in the center of Trotford and looked around with a certain amount of delight. She was a copper-toned unicorn, with a brighter, brassy mane and tail combed into gentle waves. She was wearing a fairly stereotypical tourist outfit, with a loud tropical shirt, a straw hat, and a camera harness around her neck.

Penny strolled casually down the cobblestone streets of the little town, snapping quick shots of storefronts and homes, as well as citizens of the town. Everyone seemed to respond positively. The stallions posed and goofed around for her camera, by and large. The mares struck more sedate poses and smiled for the apparent tourist. Those married stallions and mares were a little more retiring, looking away or not fully engaging.

She purchased a quick snack at a small bakery, looking around at the occupants. It seemed to consist exclusively of married couples. They were sharing baked treats and milkshakes, regarding one another with loving looks. There was a sort of sameness to them all, with similar postures, similar gazes, and similar shared sips of milkshake. It seemed both wholesome and troublesome at the same moment.

Penny slipped up to one of the couples, an oatmeal-colored earth mare and a yellowish unicorn stallion. “So, uh, I'm new here, taking a little vacation. Can you tell me what there is to do around here that's fun?”

The stallion looked up with his huge smile and gave a shrug. “I don't know what a tourist might like. I like being with my wife, listening to records and reading.”

The mare nodded slowly, and gave Penny a fairly thorough going-over before speaking. “There's not much to do here, that's the point of a small town. It's good for relaxing. But it you have a deep need to do something wild, The Arcade Academy has video games and alcohol. It's a very popular hangout spot, mostly for stallions.”

Penny didn't miss the scrutiny. It didn't look like she was burned, but the mare was sensing something wasn't quite right. “That... sounds like it could be an interesting place. I hadn't even considered it.”

“It gets wild on the weekend, but it's much calmer on weekdays, especially during the day,” the mare said, still looking Penny over.

“It used to be my favorite place. But I have a much more interesting time now,” the stallion said, leaning in to nuzzle his wife.

“I guess I should have a look before it gets late and busy. I might just find it to my taste,” Penny said, slowly making her way out of the bakery, snapping a shot of the couple as she left. Something was familiar about them, from her briefing. She'd look into it later on.

She continued along through the town, aware that she was being watched by the mares of the places. The stallions noticed her, of course, and she got the occasional attempted pickup, but she was more keenly aware of the mares. They turned their heads quickly to regard her, or turned them away when she looked in their direction. The briefing had mentioned something about them having some secret.

There wasn't anything organized in their surveillance. She would have noted any use of coded message transmission or properly arranged tailing and reporting. It was oddly decentralized. They all seemed to be doing it but not at a central behest. Just by their own personal choice. They had taken it upon themselves to watch the new arrival.

She arrived at the brightly painted Arcade Academy and stepped within. It was somewhat dark, even at midday, with low artificial light providing the illumination. Neon signs announced the various areas of the place, and thick plush carpet muffled the sound of her hoofsteps, which only finished the job started by the cacophonous din of the extra-loud arcade machines.

She stepped over to the dining area of the place, and sat down at one of the square tables, near one occupied by two stallions. The men, both pegasi, turned to her immediately and tried to strike the most attractive poses. “Well hi there. Just passing through?”

“Oh yes, I'm here for a little vacation,” Penny answered, turning slowly to regard them. She picked up the menu on the table with her magic and gave it a quick glance, to maintain her charade as a normal customer. “I like these little out-of-the-way spots.”

“It's not as much fun as you might think,” the second stallion said, looking around at the empty place. “If it wasn't for this place there'd really be nothing for a stallion here in town.”

“And there barely is if you happen to have a day off during the week or you don't want to wait for the evening,” the first said.

“Well, I can see that,” Penny said with a nod. “I'm amazed. I thought there would be more mares in here. We like to have fun too.”

“Yeah, but the mares in this town are... different,” the second pegasus said. “They're all stuffy and boring.”

“Not really boring...” the first said, noticing that the waitress was approaching. “They just have different kinds of fun.”

“Whatever. It's not really all that fun if all they want to do is talk and listen to music,” the second said.

“What can I get you?” The unicorn waitress asked of Penny, levitating up a pad and a pencil.

“I'll just have a salad with dressing on the side, hay nibblets and a plate of potato skins, sour cream and cheese, hold the peppers,” Penny responded.

“Gotcha,” the mare said, writing down the order and tearing the paper out. She turned to the two pegasi and gave a wink to the one that had defended the mares in town.

“Hah! There's always a good reason to stand up for mares,” the pegasus said to his companion.

“Whatever dude, it's not like she'll get with you,” the other one said with a huff. “They just don't give it up. They want to get all committed and stuff first.”

“Well, it's sounding like a good idea,” the first one grumbled.

Penny turned away from the stallions and waited for her meal. The mares were the key. The original report from the stallion that escaped and the observation of the mares, it was all pulling into something significant. That may have been why the BESI sent a mare. She could go among them, and discover what was going on.

After a rather delicious lunch, Penny went back into standard tourist mode, and sought out the groups of mares that were not occupied with work. There were a few around, mostly clustered around market stalls, talking and laughing and seeming to be having a good time.

“Hello there, ladies! Don't mind me, just here for a visit,” Penny said, snapping a photo of the group and sidling up to them.

“Oh. Yes, a tourist. Welcome to Trotford!” One of the mares chirped, putting on a huge smile and glancing quickly to the others in the group. They all repeated the greeting.

“Is there anything important going on here soon? I love visiting local festivals and celebrations. There's always something happening...” Penny said, with some significance, leaning in as though asking to be let in on a secret.

The small knot of mares traded glances again, but tried to look casual about it. “Festival? Celebration? No, no, nothing like that here. We just celebrate the standard Equestrian holidays. Nothing special going on here. Truth to tell, you picked a rather quiet town. Good for a relaxing vacation but... you may as well have left your camera at home,” the lead mare said.

“Oh I don't know... there's always something to see in little towns like this,” Penny said, keeping her smile up but slowly pulling her head back to a normal posture. They knew. Somehow they knew she was digging for information.

“I don't meant to sound like I'm running down my town, but... there's really nothing of that nature here,” the mare said, the others quickly nodding in agreement.

Penny stepped away slowly, snapping another picture. “Well... maybe it's a waste of film, but I like taking pictures. I like to have a lot of memories of the places and folks I see when I travel. I think I'll see what else is happening...”

The rest of the day was spent fruitlessly attempting to question anyone that seemed like they might have an answer. No one had anything useful to say, and the mares that didn't simply wander away gave evasive answers and looked with some suspicion on Penny.

She ended her day in the small room he had rented at a bed and breakfast. There was no real inn, in a proper sense, in the small town. Some houses simply had rooms available for tourists. She steeped a teabag and rested on a soft pillow as she considered what she had found. Nothing of any substance, but a lot of small implications that meant something strange was happening.

Smiling husbands, commitment-averse single stallions, and mares that had a secret and knew she was trying to find out what it was. She couldn't have been betrayed. They must have just been expecting it, which made the secret's resolution all the more pressing. They knew they were due for investigation, likely thanks to the departure of Wind, and would likely do everything they could to remove traces of the conspiracy.

Penny sipped slowly on her tea and smiled. She wished she had saved the pastry from earlier, it would have gone perfectly with the cuppa. She started thinking about it. Small towns tended to shut down early in the evening, roll up the streets and put all the citizens to bed except those in the bars. She parted the curtain and peered out to see if the bakery was lit up.

The town was silent and still, as was usual for a small town in evening. The firefly lanterns were glowing, adding to the natural glow of the moonlight. It cast a warm light across the scene, but it made the shadows seem all the darker, and cast those shadows out at odd angles.

There were still a few lights on, but in the private homes, not the businesses. She was about to close the curtain when a minor motion caught her eye. There was someone walking the streets, almost seeming to glide over the cobblestones without clopping their hooves too loudly. They were pony in shape and size, but covered in a large, black cloak. With them was a clearly identifiable pony, the golden stallion that Penny had seen in the bakery.

The two slunk around down the street, being joined by further robed figures and other stallions. Just from the small bit of data and few inferences she had she guessed that they were the mares and the married stallions. She didn't hesitate to rush out of the room, through the house and out onto the darkened streets.

Penny's passion was suppressed when she got out the door, smothered by her BESI training and intellectual understanding that she had to be sneaky in order to find the truth. She went down as low as she could manage and hugged the walls of the house, eyes casting around to pick out any details in the darkness, in case there were any others following or looking for snoopers. It seemed safe enough, so she pulled herself along close to the stone street, and walked with as soft a step as she could manage.

The shadows that swallowed Trotford seemed to grow and expand as she peered around the corner, the firefly lanterns dimming and the house lights snuffed out one by one. The bright glow of the moon did nothing to bring any brightness to the proceedings, leaving her flicking her eyes over to any little motion that seemed larger than an errant fly or skittering leaf. Her night vision was usually better, but coming straight from a bright room was not good for that.

She snuck out through the streets, still using her softest tread to work along the stones, pushed against a house as her training required. She had been, perhaps, overcautious, and let the procession get ahead of her, with time enough to cover their tracks. It was doubtless they had her number. They knew she was a spook. Or at least that she was an interloper.

One citizen flees the place, and then in short order a stranger comes to town, asking questions. All the tourist trappings in the world couldn't have hidden her purpose. She might as well have stapled her badge to her horn. The element of surprise was lost, but her mission was far from burned. In fact, it suited her purposes to be discovered.

The conspiracy seemed to thrive on secrecy, rather than making ponies vanish. They seemed to do everything towards the end of keeping the secret. She was now aware there really was something to hide. She could move forward and present a report to that effect. But there was still the matter of following the secret-keepers. She wouldn't give up until dawn.

Penny's slow sneaking and careful observation finally yielded results. Right around the city hall she found a freshly kicked cobblestone, and saw one of the trailing robes vanish into a small door. It looked like cellar access into the hall, but had considerably more iron bracing and far more locks than were normally found on simple access doors. One way in, possibly one way out. But even so, she went down. She had to learn all she could.

The way was dark, light ending at the doorway. No one had thought to install electric lights or even put up luminescent fungi. The steps were at least well-constructed, with grip tape on the edges, and all in a good state of repair. She pressed against the right wall, which had been polished smooth by bodies passing down the steps regularly. There was an odd scent in the air, which grew thicker as she went along. It was vaguely flowery, but sweet, like an odd perfume or perhaps raw honey.

The corridor continued on at the bottom of the steps. She remained against the right wall, but reached out on occasion to touch the left wall. The passage was narrow enough that she could do it with a very casual reach. There were no side-tunnels that she could feel, unless they were above where she touched or far narrower than even the close passage down which she slowly moved.

At last the darkness was pierced by a weak light, around a dogleg in the near distance. The light illuminated the way and washed it in a weak, green-tinted light. Her step got even slower and she licked her dry lips. Equestria was too peaceful for this, too calm and sedate for her to have been in the situation. This was the kind of thing in spy novels, not what happened to real spies. It was happening to her all the same. She was living out a strange happening.

She peered around the corner and saw a door which was just slightly ajar. It was another iron-banded door well-supplied with locks. She could hear soft speech from within, primarily female voices. The only male voices she heard were even lower, barely able to be discerned.

There was no time for subtlety, or hesitation. The consequences were less important than letting them know that they were caught. Even if it cost her dearly, Penny had to let them know they would been under scrutiny. She burst through the open door and pulled her hidden badge from inside the tacky tourist shirt, waving it for all to see. “BESI! This is an official investigation, and I think there's something here to investigate!”

The response was immediately. The mares, in dark robes with the hoods pulled back, screamed loudly and ran towards the other side of the room, though one had the foresight to shut the door and pull a bar which sealed in place with a spring-driven lock. The stallions, who had been gathered together and speaking quietly to one another, galloped forward and spread themselves out, forming a protective ring around the group of mares.

No one spoke, they barely moved. Penny retained her stern look and serious demeanor, still holding her golden badge high. Finally, one of the earth mares stepped forward, whispering to a stallion who allowed her to pass. Her cloak obscured most of her particulars, but she was a mature mare, not old but no filly. Her coat was a hunter green color, while her mane was an aquamarine shade. From what Penny remembered from the briefing that was the mayor. “I suspected. But I wasn't certain you were something so official. I had hoped you were just a curious outsider, or at worst a private investigator.”

“This is the real deal. Investigating Agent Penny Lane, Canterlot branch. They sent the best, just to see if there was anything to see. Looks like there is. And don't think that holding me captive makes this go away. If anything it makes it worse. If I don't check in they send in royal guards with the next agent, and they won't be disguised as a tourist,” Penny noted sternly.

Verdant sighed, shaking her head slowly and looking sadly back at the mares and stallions. “I always knew it would happen. I thought it would be some other cause. But I always had that doubt in the back of my mind. I was happy with how it worked out, but we should have expected this to have happened.

“We gave it our best shot, and that was very important. What really makes me sad is... we couldn't finish what we started. The process was so slow. Too slow. Necessarily slow, but that always made me uncomfortable and upset. We had things to do, but we played the waiting game, we made ourselves drag it out, setting up all the pieces. I wish it hadn't been so, not for my own reasons, but for... well, it doesn't matter now, does it?

“I guess we're at your mercy now, Agent Lane. We won't restrain you, or fight you. We don't have it in us, not us or... we're surrendering, in a sense. You can leave, we'll unlock the door and let you out, to contact Canterlot and do what you need to do.” Verdant looked to the gathered figures. Mares and stallions alike were looking to the ground, sniffling softly. “I'm most sorry for you. We had this arranged perfectly. Maybe we can do something. But we need a unanimous vote. We can beg Agent Lane for mercy, and show her what it is we have here. Maybe... she'll be lenient. So... please raise your hooves if you want to show her.”

Stallions and mares looked to one another, the married couples to each other and the single ones to each other. Almost in one motion their hooves went up.

Verdant nodded and motioned towards the far side of the room. There was a small set of sliding doors, looking like the entrance to a storage area. The unicorns in the room lit their horns and slowly pulled back the doors. “You wished to know. Very well, then. Now you will know.”

As the door opened the sweet smell grew stronger. It was powerful, almost cloying. It wasn't bad, but it was a lot, and it was a kind of scent Penny had never smelled before. A hoof came up over her snout as it washed over her. The hoof fell as she saw what was in the room.

It was indeed a kind of storeroom, but expanded into the bedrock below town, outfitted with vents to provide fresh air, fungi for light, as well as food, and lots of furniture. The whole space was covered in a hardened green substance, emanating the sweet fragrance. Also within, huddled together and trembling, Changelings, a small army of them.

The stallions in the room proper flashed with green fire, their pony skin replaced with hole-filled black chitin and green membranes. The mares that had been identified as their wives leaped onto them and held tightly to them. They nuzzled the smooth and flexible material, and placed tearful kisses on their fanged mouths, the Changelings returning the kisses with equal passion.

Verdant dropped her head, looking defeated. “There you are, Agent Lane. What you came for. The Second Masquerade Siege Division, minus half their number. Drones. Changeling drones flung from Canterlot. And, to us.”