• Published 20th Aug 2015
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Pirene's Well: Three Nights in Manehattan - Ether Echoes



A noir tale of anxiety, pain, loss, and hope in Manehattan. Sequel to Through the Well of Pirene.

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The First Night - Part 3

The Wistful Heart

“You know, Tracy,” Lab Work says, sipping at the strawberry margarita some poor, besotted mare had bought her, “you’ve always been like this.”

“Uh huh,” I say as I scroll through her tablet, my own glass untouched. The dim little bar is quiet but for the hum of soft conversation and the occasional clack of a pool cue. It’s broken a moment later by a cheer from the crowd in the other room, watching the airball game. Truly, the last vestige of tribal identification left in our world. Just another low-rent bar full of low-rent ponies.

“‘Bluh, I’m Trace Prints, and I’m way too intense. Look at me as I solve school mysteries and brood about the meaning of the world.’”

“Mmhmm. Sure.”

“Would it kill you to take it easy for a day?” She brushes at her golden curls and smiles at a good-looking young stallion at one of the pool tables. He misses his shot by a mile and the barkeep chews him out for scratching the felt. “You do have vacation stored up, don’t you?”

“Mm.”

“Whatever happened to that nice stallion from Los Pegasus? He was cute. Totally into you, too. Did he just fall off the face of the planet after academy or something?”

“Ah.”

She scrunches her face up. “Are you listening at all?”

“Yeah, I’ve always been like this, I know I’m moody, it might kill me to take it easy, I do have vacation days stored up, you really ought to be more discreet with your flirting, he didn’t click, and no he moved back to Los Pegasus to get a job in traffic management,” I say without looking up. “I didn’t make detective by being oblivious.”

“It’s your main redeeming trait, really,” another mare says as she takes the stool on my other side. “You’re perceptive, Prints, I’ll give you that, but your people skills need a lot of work. Hey, Bar – make it a bloody mary, add a squirt of real red if you’ve got any.”

“Thank Celestia, Vi.” Lab Work rattles her glass and another margarita appears before her as if by magic. “Tracy here was killing the vibe. Going easy tonight?”

“Apparently, we’re still on duty,” Violet Rose says, shuffling her velvet wings across her back into a comfortable posture. The bartender slides a crimson drink in front of her on the notched varnish of the counter. She takes a deep sniff, and the hazel slits of her eyes dilate. “Lion seal, really? Wow. Where’d you dig this up?”

“Imports,” the bartender grunts. He starts cleaning a glass he’s already cleaned before. Quiet type, deep in thought. Probably doesn’t own the place, but he’s thinking about putting his own bar together. Things like that are easy to read if you follow someone’s eyes.

“And here I thought this was a dive. You’ve got your stuff together.” She takes a sip, letting it linger on her tongue, and sighs lustily. Blood’s a greater addiction than any product, to the right client. “You know I could be properly enjoying this drink if you’d call it a rest for tonight.”

“No one ever said you had to come,” I say.

Lab Work clears her throat. “I did.”

“No one who should have had a say said you had to come.”

Violet tosses back her mane, purple strands falling neatly into place along the back of her neck. More than a few heads turn, a few even stopping. Some mares, like Lab Work, need to work at being alluring. Some don’t. “I’ll take it all back if you actually have something, and you’re not just chasing shadows again.”

“Again? You wound me.”

She snorts. “Not that hard.”

I spin Lab’s tablet around to show her. “Take a look.”

Violet Rose looks over the images as she sips, using her hooftip to scroll up and down through captioned photos of museum pieces. “Fillydelphia PD. Vanhoover PD. Griffonstone Constabulary. Raiding the national database, huh? All stolen within the last month.” She examines the images more closely, her eyes narrowing. “They have a few things in common. They’re all containers, for one. All sealed with a similar mark.”

“Got your attention yet?”

“Consider it mildly piqued. Connected to tonight’s raid, I’d imagine.”

I light my horn and flip to the next page, showing the jar as it had last been seen, waiting at auction. Lab Work purses her lips, interested in spite of an earlier promise to put work aside for the day.

Violet Rose works a tooth around a fang. “Okay. So we have a series of antiquities thefts over several cities with a very specific genre of target. You question the smugglers, yet? If it wasn’t one of them, they’ll know who hired them.”

“Gerry’s got Stencil and Tape working on it. Early word is that they’re clamming, holding out for reduced sentencing.” I shrug. “Even if they do talk, though, I suspect we won’t learn anything new.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah.” I take her to the reports. “In the earliest job, the Vanhoover one, no suspect was identified. The jar was simply there one evening and gone the next morning. Still, I trawled through the security footage for the day anyway.”

“Luna’s shiny tail, did you stop to breathe at any point?”

“No. I ran it on thirty-two speed and kept my eyes open. At around three in the afternoon, this guy shows up.” I point to a scarred, older earth pony with a dark gold coat and a wide medallion hanging from his neck, the green jewel glittering even against the footage as he stares at the soon-to-be-stolen jar. “See that bling? Bronze with an emerald stone. There was a stallion with that exact same jewelry here at the docks earlier today.”

“Never say ‘bling’ again, please.” Violet leans back, swirling the dregs of her bloody mary. “You report this yet? This isn’t enough for an arrest, but it’s more than sufficient for an APB, and if he has what he wants he might already have fled the city. Not to mention, this is a federal case, so we have to kick it up. You aren’t gunning for a promotion to the service, are you?”

“Just doing my job, and we can still investigate a local crime and save the poor special agents some time. Besides, I just now put it together. I’ll shoot my findings off to Gerry, but I have more work to do tonight.”

“What, more?” Lab Work groans. “Tracy, you’re murdering my buzz by proxy. And here, let me send it, you’ll mess something up.” She yanks the tablet from my grip.

“Or see your personal emails on a work device,” I say, reaching for my hat on the bar. “Actually, Violet Rose, now that I’m stuck with you again, I could use your help.”

“What are nocturnal friends for, Prints?” She drains the last of her beverage and pushes back, leaving a neat stack of bits on the bar. “Also, you’re stuck with me? As I recall, you’re the junior partner here, partner. What are you thinking?”

“The guy avoided directly exposing himself to security on the subsequent hits. Instead, it’s believed different groups of local crooks carried it out.” I say, tossing the bartender a few bits as I start out. “They caught one of them in Fillydelphia, but he didn’t know who the job was for. The group that hit Griffonstone were definitely griffons, and one of them was reportedly bragging about it yesterday.”

“So we’re dealing with proxies, not shapeshifters, meaning he wised up about potentially being caught.” She raises an eyebrow. “So why don’t you figure he’s skipped town already? I’m not sure what you hope to gain tonight.”

“The black vase here was the last of them, as far as the feds know. The first thing I want to know is what the symbol means, the second thing is who the last owners were and what they know about it, and the third thing is that I want to question around the underworld. The smugglers can’t be the only people he approached for the job. Someone is bound to have noticed him, and maybe had him followed.”

Lab Work glares down at the bar for a moment before giving a great huff, paying her tab, and racing after us. “This bar sucked anyway. Could one of you drop me off back home?”

“We should be able to detour,” Violet says, chuckling. She holds the door open, admitting us to the steamy air of a midsummer night near the docks. “You won’t be able to do the second thing tonight, Prints, unless you want a complaint filed. First one might be tricky, too.”

“Luckily,” I say, “the criminal element usually keeps hours similar to yours.”

“Oh? So it’s an all-nighter, huh?”

“What can I say?” I don my hat. “If the city never sleeps, why should I?”

The two of us take off at a walk, passing red and brown brick buildings that have stood on this ground for at least fifty years. A mare can’t swing a dead cat in this neighborhood without hitting a historical placard, and even as much of the rest of Manehattan morphs into its new, ultramodern vitalism, somehow I get the impression that this part of town will be just as bricked over as ever fifty years hence. Maybe there’ll be a new splash of paint here and there, or some moodier lighting, but ponies can be as nostalgic as they are creative with the right impulse.

At this hour, there’s the usual mishmash of goblin street vendors, tired ponies returning from work, the occasional griffon, and even a pair of startled buffalo. It’s ripe for a situation comedy, but I’m just passing through their picture.

In a way, that’s a succinct description of my life. When I show up, it’s to pass briefly through another person’s story. Back when I worked the crime scene unit, it’d usually be in the very worst moment of their lives, assuming there was anyone living to talk to at all. To the people of this city, I’m that cameo actor you always see in a film, but whose name never you never quite know. You may wonder who she is, and if she’s done anything else in her life, but your attention’s all on the main cast, and if you’re most people you won’t even give her a passing thought.

I glance up at the sky, glad to see the stars. It won’t be long until the marine layer moves in and darkens the sky completely. As we pass by an alley, though, I stop and rock back a couple paces to look up again at the stars. At first, I think it’s a plane, but as stationary as it is, it would have to be a blimp, yet I’ve never seen a navigation light with quite that piercing shade of green. Were it not for the color and hour, it could have been Venus, for it’s as bright as any planet.

As I watch, it twinkles.

“What’s up?” Violet Rose asks, walking back with a muttering Lab Work in tow..

“I dunno.” I turn and march down the alley. They glance at one another and follow. Together, we pass between the buildings over moldy newspapers to the street on the other side, and then a block further until a gunshot splits the night – then another – echoing from an alley directly beneath the star relative us. More follow swiftly, including the bark of an automatic.

“Got your sidearm?” I ask Violet, but she’s already clenching her hoof into the trigger guard from under her jacket and moving forward. I float my radio out and toss it to Lab Work. “Call it in.”

One has to give credit where it’s due. Lab Work’s a solid forensic investigator, and in spite of her hard drinking her voice is clear as she turns on the radio. “Trak, this is Lab Work. 10-71 in progress on West Bridleway and Reed. 11-99. Repeat, 11-99.”

Not waiting around to hear the rest, Violet Rose and I gallop forward. She takes to the air with a graceful beat of her wings while my horn lights with azure fire. Running behind a parked car, I find two brutish goblins slumped against a wall howling, one from what looks like a shattered arm and the other pressing meaty hands to a bullet wound in his side. A griffon and a pegasus in a black jacket come tumbling through the air, the former trying to rake the latter with her hind claws while the other holds a hoof tight against its gut to keep it at bay. “We’ve got him!” a weasel shouts, charging forward, only to slam back as I bring up a heavy blue bubble.

“This is the police! Throw down your weapons and put your hooves on the ground!” Violet Rose shouts from her rooftop perch.

A scattering of bullets hammers into my shield, the bullets embedding in the surface with little dimples to show for it. “Tch,” I grunt and my horn shines brighter. Takes more than a couple low-velocity rounds to threaten my spells. I fire stunning bolts into the alleyway, knocking aside a rhino-horned goblin and a grizzled pony, but then they start ricocheting off something big and heavy. An enormous ogre thumps out of the shadows, clutching a sledgehammer in one scaly hand.

“And that’ll do it,” I leap back as it swings, shattering the bubble into shards of blue glass that hiss and fade into mist, while the spent bullets clatter on the pavement.

Violet Rose takes the shot, plugging the big guy in the back, but if it even penetrated he doesn’t show it except to grunt and come at me harder. Thinking fast, I call up another shell, but this time leave its slick surface flat on the street. The oncoming goblin plants a hoof and slips, but rather than tumble he just dances on one foot, balance recovering as he comes on towards me. Just then, the pegasus completes a turn in midair, spinning fast enough that the heavier griffon loses control and is flung straight into the big goblin’s face. Overbalanced, he falls on his back thunderously, and to top that off for him the griffon claws at him in order to get back up and at the pegasus’s soft underbelly..

Before he can take to the air, I cast another spell and sling a blue chain at him, catching him off-guard and snapping it around his body so that he can’t take off, then I clamp more blue bands about his forelegs. For the ogre, I do the same, slamming his arms and legs down with four glowing bands. The magic of mechanical leverage keeps him down, though the strain of holding the two makes my head ache something fierce. Above, the pegasus dives and slams into the fleeing weasel before he can disappear, just as the sirens split the air.

Violet flaps down, hovering between us with her pistol held at the ready. “Freeze and drop it, pal! Hooves flat on the ground and wings tight!” The remaining goblins and ponies all plant their hands and hooves on the ground.

“Whoa, whoa. Take it easy,” the stallion says, dropping his own pistol and planting all four hooves where we can see them, then folding his wings across his back. Conveniently, he’s stomped on the weasel’s pants. “I’m a federal agent.”

“Yeah? What’s a federal agent doing shooting up a back alley?” I ask.

“Let’s see some ID. No sudden movements.”

“Well, one, they shot first, and two, I didn’t miss what I aimed at.” He raises a hoof and slowly puts it into his jacket.

With the cops showing up and taking up positions, Violet hovers close enough to take the offered badge. “Is that actually leather?” she asks. I sigh in relief as a burly unicorn and her earth pony partner take my two off my hooves.

“Got it a long time ago.”

Violet lands and looks over the identification in the strobing red and blue lights of the cop cars and gives a low whistle. “Well, well, ladies and gents. Looks like we have a celebrity here.” A few of them laugh grimly as they lower their weapons, moving to take the remaining assailants hostage. “Say hello to one Marcus Flores. What’s a Hippocrene ranger doing in our little neck of the woods, and a famous one at that?”

She passes the ID on to me and I flash it with a spell. Sure enough, it resonates with the proper magical signature. There’s two pictures of him side-by-side, one the dark-haired stallion before us and the other a dark-haired man.

He reaches down and picks up his pistol, then gives it a flick as he passes it behind his hoof, making it disappear without a sound. Identity verified or no, I watch him – shapeshifters have made the job a lot more paranoid than it used to be, at least until we can have a specialist vet him. “I’m here on behalf of my organization to track down a dangerous artifact and the kid that artifact is going to hurt.”

“What sort of artifact?” Violet Rose asks. If she were a pegasus, her feathers would be ruffled. She can be a mite territorial. “You’re required to report to local authorities while in Equestrian jurisdiction. We don’t appreciate people cowboying up in our town.”

“Relax, I followed channels. Or, more accurately, my organization did. I didn’t feel the need to stop by for coffee and donuts.” He glances up at the sky briefly. “My sources were pretty clear on time sensitivity. Speaking of sensitivity, might not be the best idea to discuss this in the open. I need to question tiny over there, so your place is as good as any.”

I don’t look up to follow his gaze. I don’t need to. “Let’s take him back to the station and hear what he has to say, Violet.” I step forward, stilling her with a hoof.

She purses her lips, having no doubt prepared a cutting attack on his jurisdictional authority, and nods. “All right. Let’s go, hero guy.”

Lab Work groans and slumps against a squad car. “Won’t somebody take me home, please?”

Instantly, ten hooves go up. Some of them in pairs.

* * *

Point in fact, our celebrity guest star does very little questioning. That’s the job of an interrogator trained specifically not to intimidate false stories out of people, essentially through a series of questions designed to pry apart prepared lies. He does sit in the room, though, which makes the seedy little goblin weasel decidedly nervous. The rodent’s going to ruin his tailored suit if he doesn’t calm down a notch. Marcus, for his part, just sits and waits with his jacket on his chair and his wings folded along his sides. They’re the only part of him that are immaculate, the rest could do with a brushup for sure.

“So, Prints,” Violet says as the two of us sit in the darkened observation room, watching them through the double-sided window, “what do you think?”

“That the coffee is horrible. Whoever made it last should be prosecuted.” I take another sip and grimace, then dump more sugar in. Most people around the station assume that I take it black, but I’m not quite that bitter.

“I could have told you that the minute we walked in the door.” She snorts and leans over. “I mean our cowboy.”

“I seem to recall both that you don’t like him being here and that he so isn’t your type.” I take another sip and scrunch my face up. “This is really wretched. I don’t know why I keep drinking it.”

“Both true.” She swishes her tail. “I like ‘em pretty. Also young. And yes, I’m not fond of how he gets to waltz in here all over our turf, licensed agent or no. But that’s me – what do you think of him?”

“I think that he’s committed.”

Violet stares at him more closely, lips pursed in appraisal. “Ignoring how that was a complete evasion, how can you tell?”

Shrugging, I gesture towards him with the mug. “Vi, just as you can pick out a bad batch of coffee from twenty paces with a whiff, I can tell if someone’s in a committed, serious relationship at a glance.” It’s in the eyes. It’s always in the eyes.

“Well, don’t tell that to Lab Work. It’d only encourage her.”

I grin tightly. “Poor girl, she’s not even here and we’re ragging on her.”

“She brings it on herself most of the time, and dishes well enough.” She leans on the table loosening her wings. “Speaking of, she intimated to me that you absolutely have a thing for the roguish type.”

Marcus’ ear twitches, and he turns his head towards the window, as if he can tell he’s being discussed.

“Loose lips sink ships.” I glance at her. “Assuming for a moment that were true, he’s still not my type. He smiles too much. He’s playing the devil-may-care, and most people are buying. I don’t think I could stand that level of duplicity in a relationship, even if he weren’t ten years older.”

I reach back and brush my hair where it falls straight and dark along my chin, thinking.

Marcus does have the right combination of colors, with the tan coat and dark hair, but everything else is wrong. The jaw would need to be more square, and he’d need to be taller and not quite so skinny. His taste in clothing should run to longer jackets and a complementary hat, and his voice should be deeper, a voice people pay attention to. So, combine that with the demeanor, and even if he wasn’t taken Marcus is pretty much the exact opposite of the ideal stallion.

No one is, though. You don’t really find a guy like that in this life.

Violet waves a hoof in front of my face and I jerk up. “Dreaming already? I think you need to get to bed, Prints.”

“Gneh,” I protest, waving her off. Giving my mug a rueful glance, I slam down the remainder and beat my chest to make sure it stays down. “I’ll be fine. I’m still good for the night.”

“Uh huh. Well, since you were staring at the ceiling the entire time I suppose I can safely say that I misjudged your interest.” Watching me steadily, her pupils wide in the dim room, she smiles almost sadly. “You know, Prints, dreams don’t do people much good if you don’t chase them.”

“If you chase a dream, they stop being dreams.” I return my attention to Marcus. “My interest, Violet, and the reason I’m backing him over your initial objections, has nothing to do with him at all.”

I hadn’t mentioned the green star, and I didn’t intend to. If she’d wanted to reveal herself to everyone, she would have. Inside, he perks an ear suddenly.

Violet’s ear twitches, and she leans forward to press the microphone button. “Marcus? A word.” He lifts his head, nods, and grabs his jacket, going to the door.

“Did you hear something?” I ask.

She lifts a brow. “The amazing detective Trace Prints wasn’t listening? What happened to that display back at the bar?”

“She’s rebooting.”

Marcus steps into the observation room while Violet pulls up my report on the station computer. “Well, Mister Flores, I think you heard what I heard. Maybe now’s a good time to fill us in on the details.”

“The lazy man’s version, Purple,” he says as he flops into a chair, sprawling his legs, “is that I’m here trying to keep a little girl from coming to harm, while also hunting down a rogue alicorn amulet.”

“Luna!” Violet swears. “That certainly explains what his jewelry is. No wonder you didn’t want that spreading around – the last thing we need is for people to panic like in Los Pegasus.”

“Yeah. I was there.” He rubs at a chipped scar on his forehoof. “Not an experience I want to repeat. That marks the second time I had my–” he reconsiders his words “–rear handed to me in LP.”

Even my lips dry at the news. “Three new amulets in less than a decade, and only fifteen years after the first. That’s not coincidence.”

“No, that’s a new Age,” he nods over at the screen. The only real change is that the techies ran the images through processing, so the stallion’s grizzled face stands out clearer. With a dark gold coat marked with scars and a heavy, grizzled jaw and a nose that looks like it’s been broken a time or two, he isn’t exactly ugly, but he isn’t handsome either. “So, yeah. That guy you’re all chasing? He’s my quarry, and our little friend just confirmed what I thought. He and his friends jumped me because our friend here was forewarned about my coming. He saw the guy yesterday, and his boss directed him and his friends to wait for my arrival.”

“That could be a lot of things,” I muse. “Leak at the national enforcement offices. Radio intercept.”

“Rival diviners, so on.” Marcus grinds his teeth. “He’s backed up by something. I’ll bet gold bits to brass that it’s a titanspawn, and it’s the main reason I didn’t just show up at his doorstep with an engraved arrest warrant and a bouquet of firearms.”

I sway my tail. “She can’t see everything, huh?”

He snaps his head up, looking at me more closely, then smiles tightly. “No, but she tries.”

“She who?” Violet groans. “I take it back, you two were clearly meant for each other.”

“Huh?” Marcus blinks.

“So,” she says, clicking through menus until she locates a map of the lower west side, “I am reluctantly forced to work with you on this. Our next logical step is to question Ferro Quicklime, which will be… fun.”

“I’m told he’s something of a kingpin,” Marcus says, spinning his chair slowly.

I roll my eyes. “Nothing so grandiose. He’s a mid-level pusher, fence, and broker. Runs a racket on some of the low-level dealers. We’re building a case on him so we can convince him to turn states’ evidence and crack his operation. He’s been pretty good at not crossing the lines we don’t like crossed.”

“That doesn’t normally include sending gangs to beat up folk,” Violet mutters.

Shrugging, I waggle my hoof. “It’d still be premature to serve him. Even if he gave the order personally, he might have been pressured, and that’ll give the feds more heat. All we want is information, so it’d be best if we didn’t go in with our big guns. Of course, by the same token, the feds won’t appreciate us meddling with their case.”

She brightens. “How convenient that we have a fed with us here right now.”

“So your brilliant plan is to get me in trouble with an entirely different branch of law enforcement?” Marcus grins. “I like your style, Purple. Unless the two of you have pressing engagements, I see no reason not to go knock on his door. Can you pull him up on a minor charge, something we can ‘neglect’ if he’s willing to spill.”

“I’m sure there’s a judge who’s still out drinking at this hour.” I nod my head towards the screen. “One last thing before I pester Gerry: do you recognize the symbols on those vases?”

Violet obligingly brings up the enhanced photos, revealing a series of curious stars inscribed with odd writing. He cocks his head thoughtfully. “Looks almost Jewish, like a Star of David I guess? I don’t think that’s quite right, though. It’s all complicated and weird. Shoot an email to the ranger’s office in Ponyville, we have a fairly crack team of scholars.” He chuckles. “You won’t believe how much of our job involves cracking open ancient tombs.”

“I can imagine,” Violet says, getting to her feet. I join her, donning my hat and coat, and together the three of us step into the station.

It is among my top five disappointments in life that there is nothing really classic about my precinct. There are stations around the city that were built decades ago that look perfect, with just the right level of old-fashioned atmosphere to belong in a period piece. Heck, there’s a precinct out by Grand Central that was converted out of an old library after a fire, leaving all the original limestone in place. The only movies they film at our station are depressingly modern or, worse, science fiction, with its sleek lines, full-flat-screens, and decent lighting.

Gerry’s as sour as ever as Violet and I file into his office and present our case. He looks up at us with his beady eyes narrowed over his beak. He’s only got one shadow tonight, which is fitting because after a long day, a fellow like Gerry needs a few stiff drinks. “You know, if it weren’t for the star-crossed miracle which is you two showing up in my office without bickering, I’d wonder if this ain’t a prank. As it is, I think you’re both insane.”

“Come now,” I say, “we’re not that bad, LT. Why, we’re practically sisters.”

“Damned right you are. My sisters spent half their lives trying to claw each others’ eyes out.”

“Did they ever grow out of it?”

“Grow out of it?” He barks a laugh. “They grew into it. And quit trying to change the subject, kid. I’m not letting you spin me around this time. If there’s an alicorn amulet on the loose, the very last thing I want is for you to go poking anthills. I’ll need everyone on the force to deal with the fallout, and I’m sure the Captain – not to mention the Commissioner and, stars forbid, the Mayor – will agree.”

Violet pressed forward, putting her hooves on his desk. “We’re not crazy, Gerry, and this isn’t stupid. If we can crack Ferro, he could lead us right to the amulet’s bearer.”

“It’s the ‘if’ that bothers me. You and what army, that cowboy back there? If you’re not going to bust him with a full squad and helicopter backup, what do you hope to do?”

I shrug. “I was thinking we’d try talking to him and see where that gets us.”

Gerry fumes, but Violet jumps in and derails him. “If we’re bunkering down, Ger, the two of us won’t be missed. We could gain a lot, and all Prints and I have to lose are our dignity. Me? I have a damned good feeling about this.”

“Or your hides.” He shakes his head and heaves a long-suffering sigh. “Violet Rose, if it weren’t for you, I’d not be in this chair. If your instincts are telling you to go for it, fine. I’ll have the warrant sent to your phone within the hour.” He points a claw at me. “You ditch her, kid, and I’m busting you back to the academy. You left too soon and it shows.”

“I’ve always wanted to graduate twice.” Still, I tip my hat. “You have my word, LT.”

“And watch the cowboy!” he shouts after us as we leave. “The last thing I want is some famous twerp going rogue on the streets!”

Marcus stretches his wings languidly, meeting us in the hall. “Always glad to meet fans. Did he want an autograph?”

“Oh yeah. Wants you to come to his hatchling’s birthday party and everything,” I say on our way to the door. I watch his cadence for a while, noting the tension in his feet as his hooves strike the floor. “So, you know you don’t have to be a pegasus for our sake, right? It isn’t a crime, and if you’re not comfortable. The only reason we prefer humans come as ponies is because we don’t really have the facilities set up for it and want to help them integrate.”

“Ah… I know.” He shifts his wings, glancing at me curiously. “I’m fine. Hell, I’ve gotten pretty used to hooves over the years.”

“Really? Because you’re still doing the ‘uh oh, my bare hands are touching the ground’ thing that new folk do.”

He glances down at his feet. “Tch. Yeah, well. I suppose I was thinking about when I first came here again.”

“To Equestria?” Velvet asks as she holds the door open.

“Yeah.” He looks up at the sky. The marine layer has turned it as black as pitch and right on schedule, but he seems hopeful regardless. Maybe he’ll radio someone to clear a patch of cloud if he needs guidance. “Seems the only times I get to really get around these days is when there’s trouble.”

When we pile into her car and he sprawls out in the back, I regard him through the mirror. His demeanor hasn’t changed one iota, but as he watches out the window, it’s as if the mask has slipped just a bit. His smile is as carefree as ever, but his eyes are worn, and tired.

* * *

We pull up a couple blocks away. If we need a quick getaway, we’re already in deep trouble, and this part of town is just seedy enough that we can’t be sure what’ll happen to it when the locals find out we’re cops.

Now, Ferro Quicklime knows just the right aesthetic to please me. His headquarters is a converted warehouse down a grimy street. He’s cleared the area of vendors, and its pristine walls are a challenge to graffiti artists. The minute a splash of paint touches it, I’ll know he’s lost his touch. Out in front is a club, with teenage ponies trying not to giggle too much at the traditional experience of slumming. Actually, now that I see the posters on the entryway, it seems there’s actually a decent band tonight.

“Prints?” Violet calls, tugging me forward with her voice. “Remember, your word. No running off on your own.”

“Yes, Sis,” I say, trotting back over. “Just absorbing details.”

“You know, it’s funny, everyone seemed to think you two hated each others’ guts at the station,” Marcus says as he brings up the rear. “You two seem to have decent chemistry, honestly.”

“Professional pride, cowboy,” Violet says, “so much it threatens to overbalance her head.”

“Pot, this is kettle.” I take out my radio, not turning it on and adding a crackle of my own. “We’ve got a 245 on 10th and Greenvale. Some overweening busybody is bludgeoning me with irony.”

She rolls her eyes. “We work together fine, when we do. We like to fight over what we’re doing, though, and have trouble taking no for an answer, so Prints will ditch me to get her way.”

I crackle again. “Yes, confirmed, largest stick of irony I ever saw.”

Marcus flicks his tail, looking at us wryly. “Why don’t you just swap partners with someone more compatible?”

“Gerry and the Captain want all of critical sass in one area, where it can be conveniently disposed of.” I surmount the steps around back, then pause to regard a nearby wall. Someone’s tagged it in three places with crosses.

Taking her phone out and loading the search warrant, Violet takes a deep breath. She bangs on the door with her hoof at the top of the stairs. “Hey! Open up!”

Silence.

“This is the police!” She bangs again. “Open the door!”

“Violet?” I say. “Does anything seem odd, beyond the silence?”

She frowns and considers. Her tongue comes out, tasting the air. She nods to me, and I light up the faint glimmers of a shield for the three of us. Then she turns, bucks the door, and comes back up with her pistol in its hoof harness.

We needn’t have bothered, really. There isn’t much left on the other side. Still, I keep the barrier ready; you never know when someone may have left a present.

Marcus trots in after Violet and before me, taking the overturned and smashed furniture in. He pauses as he notices the red seeping into the wall and floor. “Eugh. Someone was thorough.”

We pick our way past the broken bodies of several ponies and goblins to reach an elevated office overlooking the club through its shades. A huge, iron-horned ram goblin lies face down on the desk – said face having been buried several inches into the wood.

“And so passes Ferro Quicklime,” I intone.

“We hardly knew ye.” Marcus puts a hoof to his chest and bows his head.

Violet Rose rolls her eyes so hard they threaten to move to the cloud suburbs. “And here I thought I was the thestral. No, it’s okay, you two chuckleheads can laugh at some nine dead people.”

I reach into my coat for my radio. “Laughter is the spice of life, or something.”

“And here I thought it was an Element of Harmony,” Marcus riffs.

“Just get out of the way,” she says, and then sets her hooves wide apart. Taking deep breaths of the blood and worse, until her breathing becomes deep and steady, her long tail still. If I were to touch her chest, I’d barely feel her heart. When she opens her eyes, they’re fully dilated. She takes long, slow whiffs of the room, and then begins to pick her way across it. Little evidence bags and a tweezer come out of her coat, and she starts labeling bits and pieces all around. It’s like an elegant little dance. Maybe my intuition and powers of perception are a little keener than her, but no one is more methodical. No one lives a scene like she does.

“Trak, this is Prints,” I say into the radio, for real this time. “Multiple 187s on 10th and Greenvale, looks like red-on-red. Rose is on forensics already, but send a team down ASAP.”

“Roger Prints,” Trak replies. “Van is on route. Need backup?”

“Doesn’t look like it, but send a squad car down anyway. We’re going to need to clear the area.”

Marcus gestures with a hoof. “You guys are qualified to do this? I thought you did high profile theft and the like.”

“I started in the crime scene unit out of the academy, but they transferred me out after a year.” I start my own breakdown of the scene. “I requested a transfer. Was getting to be a bit much. Rose, now, well – people say I have talent, but she’s got the experience to back it. Spent six years there, taught courses on forensics at the academy, and word is she was up for promotion to the national service.”

“What changed?”

“She requested a transfer, too.” I shrug. “I’m good at reading people, but she keeps that one close to the chest.”

He looks down at the dead ram, one of the horns half-broken, with the spare piece lying next to him. “Hope this doesn’t bring back bad memories for either of you.”

Floating the pusher’s cell phone up, I click my tongue. “You know, we’ve always had stuff like this in Equestria, much as some folks want to pretend that we don’t. It’s different than where you’re from, sure, and not as frequent or intense, but every society has its ailments. Used to be the newspapers wouldn’t even mention it, but they’re starting to bow to consumer whims, but still most ponies have no idea. Me, I’ve always known.” I start scrolling through his recent calls and jotting the numbers down. “My parents served on the force for decades before they had me, and I’d read through all of their magazines. They even let me help with their paperwork.”

That done, I return it to its place and start sweeping my eyes over the room. “Coming out of the academy as a fresh-faced kid, I thought I could handle anything. I graduated second in my class, solid recommendations. I was partnered with a legendary homicide detective.”

He purses his lips.

“He didn’t die or anything. He retired, actually.” I shake my head. “I couldn’t take it. I thought I was all that, but seeing that sort of misery…” I pause near the window and bend down. Grains of sand have been ground into the cheap carpet. I pluck a few up and bag them.

“You seem to be handling it all right.” He keeps a weather eye out, ready in case someone tries to get the drop on us.

“Yeah, well, maybe I’ve grown up. Or maybe I’m just jaded.” I head for the front with Marcus, joining Rose in the main room. “What’s the word?”

“They started the fight,” she indicates the torn flooring near the door, and a pair of bulky, lumpy goblins in tight suits. They’ve been driven into the wall so hard it splintered. “He got about five feet in before these two guys came in and started bludgeoning him.”

“How can you tell they started it?” Marcus asks, tilting his head.

“Injuries are consistent with a strike from a rear hoof of an adult male earth pony, one apiece, so he bucked them as they came up from behind. Completely caved their chests in, they likely died within seconds. Further, there’s hairs caught in their clubs, so they got some hits in first.”

He grits his teeth, then rubs his jaw and relaxes it. “I shouldn’t be surprised he killed them in one blow. That mare in Los Pegasus threatened to sink the whole damned town into the sea.”

“Gunfire here, here, and here,” she says, indicating flash burns and discarded shells behind a sofa cracked in half. “The gunmen were, ah, disposed of over there,” she points to a corner, where three battered bodies, two female goblins and a stallion, have been dumped. Spent bullets litter the floor.

“Great. Why is it they’re always immune to standard ammunition?” He groans. “Please tell me I won’t need tungsten rounds.”

“Let’s try to avoid that in general,” I say, “but noted. What then?”

Violet Rose purses her lips. “Obviously, he plowed through the door…” She walks past the empty frame with its torn hinges, nodding towards an iron door that had once been covered in a wood facade.

“Ferro Quicklime kept his seat,” I go on as we join her in the office again. “He could have gone for the shotty under his desk, but he could see there was no point then. I noticed he dialed a number and left it on for about twenty minutes before the other side hung up.”

“So, that one was pretty much in cold blood.” Marcus regards the dead man quietly. “Who did he call?”

“He didn’t label.” I shrug. “We’ll find out. My hunch says it’s his boss, and right now our friend has one hell of a hit on him right now.”

“Aside from learning that he’s not shy about putting people in the grave, did we learn anything of value here?” He asks, agitated with the world. I can sympathize.

“The hairs will let us identify him if he shows up somewhere else,” Violet says. “The phone records might pop something up. We know he’s wanted by the mob, now, so we can put eyes on the street and follow them.”

He grunts. “In short, a dead end for tonight.” Marcus lifts a hoof, like he might strike something in rage, and slowly lets his breath out. “Look, starting right away tomorrow morning, I need to find my other target. Thanks for bailing me out of that jam earlier, and keep me apprised of future developments.” He reaches into a jacket pocket and takes out a slim cellphone.

“So long as it’s vice versa,” I say, tapping it to mine to share contacts.

“Can do.” He inclines his head, turns, and leaves, taking off as soon as he’s out the door. The coroner isn’t long after him, and soon the place fills up with white-bagged ponies.

“It’s not–” I yawn into a hoof “–quite a dead end. You see the sand?”

Violet twitches an ear and glances over. “In a few places. Why?”

“I didn’t want to mention it to Marcus, since it’s not even a hunch, but would you say our friend brought it in?”

“I’d need to check all the bodies again, but…” She nods towards one of the fallen goblins. “She had some sand on her.”

Stepping over, I check her shoes and sure enough, white grains cling between the soles. Poor girl, must have liked the beaches up around Coneigh Island. I lift the evidence bag and check. “Yellow.”

“Yellow?” Rose lays her ears back. “There’s no yellow beaches for miles. Everything around here is white.”

“Nearest one is over on the mainland, yeah. Worth putting a patrol out, but nothing to get excited about yet.” I yawn so loudly the stallion scraping samples off the couch looks at me funny.

Rolling her eyes, Violet nudges me along towards the door with her snout. “All right, day pony, you’re going to bed.”

“Vi-i-i, there’s tons more perps to question. I have to shake down Quicklime’s dealers.”

“The night shift can handle it. Besides, most of them are collapsing into bed soon, anyway.” She pushes me out the door and catches me before I can stumble. “I’ll be up at the station all night, so I’ll catch anything that comes through. Now, let me take you home, or I’ll have these fine gentlecolts bring you in, cuff you in the mares’ locker room, and make sure you sleep that way.”

“Eugh,” I shiver. “The floors are as grimy as the city’s writhing underbelly. The stains are silent witnesses, the only ones remaining to the acts of filth and depravity–”

“Shut the hell up.” She grins and props me with her shoulder. I grumble, but walk off.

I’m a little more mobile by the time we end up at my apartment, enough that I can slide the keycard into the slot and push the door open. “You want, like, a coffee or anything?” I ask.

“Only if you go right to bed.” She steps inside, and I flick on a lamp. She wriggles her nose a bit as she takes it in. “An Eiffel Tower lamp, really?”

“You can jump right out the window if you’re going to be snide.” I head into the kitchen and slide a cup into the coffee maker, then pour in some beans. It clicks, whirrs, hums, and then dispenses sweet, cinnamon-flavored joy. It’s so good I nearly take it, but reluctantly I have the wisdom to acknowledge that it’ll just keep me up.

“No, no. It just seemed a little, uh, kitschy for your tastes.” While she starts sipping, I check the messages on my phone. I don’t even turn my personal smartphone on until the work day is done. Dad’s sent a message congratulating me on my bust, and Mom a series of photos of their vacation on the sunny Searstone Islands. One of the few places in Equestria that has exactly two seasons: dry and wet.

“Mom got it for me when I was sixteen.” I open the door just enough to toss the phone into my bedroom. “It’s nice to have in the living area. Makes it feel a little more like home.” I shut it quickly, nervous that her keen eyes will see what lies beyond.

“All right. and, hey?”

I glance up at her.

She finishes her coffee and steps over, takes my hat, tosses it off to the rack, and brushes at my mussed mane to settle it. “You did good tonight, kid. I know you don’t hear enough.” She smiles warmly. “We really were partners back there.”

My mouth works uselessly a bit, and I shuffle my hooves. I try to speak, but my tightening throat betrays me.

With that, she leaves, closing the door behind her. A moment later, I find the wherewithal to turn off the light in the front room, open my door, and turn on its own light.

On the other side, Paris greets me – or, at least, the still photo blown up against my far wall. A night photo, naturally, it was taken from the balcony of a ritzy hotel. Once I saw it, I knew it was perfect. It overlooks the entire inner city, from the cathedral to the tower and everything along the Seine in between, all of it aglow in a river of pearls and stars.

I kick my coat off, tossing it on the couch outside, then unclip my badge from my shirt. I look at it for a while, running a hoof across the star and shield of Manehattan’s finest, before sighing and tossing that as well, and step into my cloister. The baroque lamps cast just the right amount of warm light, and the only concessions to the modernity of the last hundred years are a flat-screen TV propped up by the bed and my phone, the latter a sad necessity in my line of work. Nothing else from my life outside is allowed in.

It’d have been mortifying if Violet Rose had caught so much of a whiff of this room. I can be as tough as I like out on the streets, I can take a bullet I still carry the scar for, I can weather Gerry’s abuse and the fury of a burgeoning criminal element, but a remark here would have cut deep. Not even my mother could understand why, exactly, and maybe I don’t, either. It’s not like the rest of my life, it’s not something rational that I picked and decided. There’s no way Violet Rose, knowing the mare who works outside these walls, understand what goes on inside them.

Yet, she was so kind in those last moments…

I shake my head and climb onto my bed, settling my long tail across the down-filled comforter. Rose was right about the lamp, it doesn’t quite fit the decor. With a flick of my horn, I turn the TV on, playing from where I left off. I’ve considered saving up for a flat-screen so I can animate, but, really, the still is fine for my needs. Greater verisimilitude would only be torture.

“If you chase a dream…” I whisper, but find I can’t finish.

Settling the headphones over my ears, I prop my chin on a pillow and turn the volume way down, until it’s just enough to filter in – an old French romance about four guys chasing a chilly woman. It gets me every time. I watch the skyline, and in my mind’s eye it shifts and changes, almost as if it really were a wall-screen, or, perhaps, a balcony on another world.

As I drift to sleep, lulled by the music and liquid tones, I could swear I see a green star picked out among the others on my wall, bidding me good night.

* * * * * * *

Author's Note:

Phew, that was a long one - at least as far as this novel is concerned. You people all read Pirene, right? I'm sure slightly extended normal chapters won't bother you in the slightest :pinkiehappy:

I almost don't want to say anything more. I know I tend to hammer in things like character and exposition, so I think I'll just let this one breathe a while.

In the comments, let me know your thoughts about the issues you're seeing in Marcus and the issues Trace is dealing with here - and whatever else you'd like!