• Published 24th May 2018
  • 2,169 Views, 138 Comments

Pronoia/Paranoia - TooShyShy

Twilight Sparkle is transferred from Canterlot's elite police force to the boring town of Ponyville. She expects this to be the end of her detective work, but she couldn't be further from the truth.

  • ...

Chapter 6: Lunch

Regardless of what they were told during basic training, few rookies seemed to grasp that crime was a very basic business. There were categories, pre-established patterns, even something comparable to clairvoyance. It was all about the layers. No matter how much muck and mold developed over the course of the investigation, once it was wiped away there was usually an unremarkable explanation. Personal gain, jealousy, lust. It was all so simple and ultimately decipherable. Even when there was some big hidden agenda, it was always tied to something obvious.

Were there layers to this crime? Obviously. But was peeling away those layers going to reveal the same patterns and categories? Twilight had never struggled with the answer to that question before, but now she was unsure of everything. She was doubting the life she'd reluctantly made in this seemingly quiet little town. But everything couldn't be connected, right? There was no way everything was being dictated by some unseen force. But how long had this pony—or even ponies—been stalking her since she came to Ponyville? Had they been stalking her even before Ponyville?

Yes. She instantly knew the answer. This wasn't something that could have originated in Ponyville. It must have come from outside. A scrap of her old life that had followed her from the city. But which scrap and why?

Rarity's search for the “masked pony” came back negative. Nopony had seen or heard of anything. Given how absurdly obvious that would have been, Twilight hadn't really expected much. She wasn't dealing with some cult loon. Although if asked which she would have preferred, Twilight would have been split. She had to admit that this case interested her. It touched her life in a way she could have done without, but somehow that made the whole thing more enticing.


Her attention stolen from the papers on her desk, Twilight raised her head. Truth be told, she was relieved to be distracted from the pile of parking violations that somepony—probably Pinkie—had dumped on her desk. For some baffling reason, ponies seemed to love leaving their carts or carriages overnight in front of Sugarcube Corner. Numerous signs threatening explicit legal action and fines had done very little. Within a month of arriving in Ponyville, Twilight had taken it upon herself to crack down on violators. Years later and she'd barely made a dent in the problem.

Twilight realized that Lyra had been standing in the doorway and talking to her for at least five minutes. Celestia knows why her office door didn't have a lock. Well, she had a pretty good idea. She knew how much Ponyville loved social interaction—especially the forced kind, or so Twilight thought—and this unfortunately extended to law enforcement. If citizens couldn't just barge into Twilight's office and demand she do something about those “suspicious-looking colts” outside their house, could she really call herself a “public servant”? The answer to that question was no, because Twilight didn't like that term and she found this whole “accessibility” thing incredibly silly.

“It's too early for lunch,” she said.

Lyra gave Twilight a sheepish smile. She'd been on the force longer than almost anypony else. That might have meant something in Canterlot, but in Ponyville it was basically just a few numbers. Being one of the oldest hadn't done her much good, although maybe time took the edge off. Once the monotony became routine, it was probably easier to adjust while remaining ready for some actual criminal activity. From what Twilight knew, Lyra had only joined the force because she was in dire need of a “real job”.

“I meant later,” said Lyra. “Would you like to grab a bite with me and some of the other officers? We've all been working so hard and Rarity said she'd treat us.”

Twilight stared at Lyra for nearly a full minute, a slight smile on her face. But she wasn't smiling because of the offer. She was smiling because she realized that this hadn't been Lyra's intention. Lyra didn't want to invite her to lunch. She'd come into the station looking for Spike, hadn't found him, and had proceeded to barge into Twilight's office and give her the same offer in some clumsy attempt at friendship. It was so hopelessly transparent that Twilight almost thought she was over-analyzing again.

“No thank you,” said Twilight. “But if there's anything that's, for example, related to the murder...”

A look of confusion passed over Lyra's face, as if she'd completely forgotten that they were supposed to be investigating a murder. Forcing a smile on her face—Twilight suspected Lyra was subconsciously relieved—she shook her head, then hastily left the office. In Canterlot, Twilight hadn't tried to form any intimate bonds with her colleagues and they in exchange hadn't attempted to do the same with her. Professionalism and a basic understanding of each other was all they really needed to work together. If an officer had to jump ship because their spouse had come home after a long stay at the hospital, Twilight wasn't going to object. But she also wasn't going to use the information to strike up a conversation and the officer wasn't going to volunteer it for the sake of forming a bond.

Twilight returned to the parking violations. She knew she could have passed this down to her fellow officers, but most of them were either busy scrounging up clues about the case—or at least she hoped that was what they were doing—or they were slacking off. Twilight had no reason to care about those slips of paper, but she knew it would bug her if she didn't finish going over them. It was always the little things that got to her.

Most of the violators were repeat-offenders who apparently hadn't tired of those ludicrous fines. City ponies would have called those fines “robbery”, but Ponyville citizens seemed more inclined to passively hand over the bits just so they could get away with ignoring a written sign. Twilight could guess the names based on the cart descriptions alone. Some unfortunate farmer had wracked up three violations in a single day, each one for a different cart. Why anypony needed to park three carts outside of Sugarcube Corner was beyond her. Were these minor offenders just messing with her at this point? Or had Twilight become so desensitized that she only now noticed these things?

Twilight frowned. A name she didn't recognize. That wasn't interesting in itself. Sometimes ponies were just passing through—lucky them—or trying to capture some of that “historic charm” Ponyville boasted. It wasn't common, but not very unusual. However, this time a single detail of the report struck a cord with Twilight. She followed the sound as it reverberated across her brain, leading her to a specific memory.

Tricky Eclipse. Didn't Twilight know a “Tricky Eclipse”? But that wasn't helpful. She knew a lot of ponies, most of them dangerous criminals. Yet as she probed the interior of her brain for some kind of reference, she realized that she wasn't searching her mental database for some reckless law-breaker. No, it was a much more mundane acquaintance. Somepony who'd gotten tangled up with the police force, but in a much less dire capacity. Tricky Eclipse. Who in Tartarus was “Tricky Eclipse”?

Twilight pressed her hoof against her forehead. Celestia-curse-it. Somehow she'd forgotten. No, she'd buried it. Buried it under piles and piles of cases that were far more interesting and less frustrating than the saga of Tricky Eclipse. As the name rolled across her mind, Twilight could feel the memory clawing its way back to the forefront. She wanted to leave it shackled in some dark basement of her mind, but it was too late. It was all coming to her, dragging its rotting body across the floor like a reanimated corpse. Tricky Eclipse. That was just one of her names. Twilight knew this pony's actual given name: Trixie Lulamoon.

Trixie Lulamoon was—and Twilight was being incredibly polite—a scourge upon Canterlot's police force. When she'd first rolled into the city, nopony had thought much of her. Just another traveling salespony peddling their snake oil and skirting the law. The force had little concern to spare for some charlatan preaching about the supposed medicinal benefits of “phoenix tears”. As long as she wasn't selling something blatantly illegal, the force was willing to leave her alone and focus on real crimes.

This strategy would have worked if it hadn't been for Trixie's business practices. To put it bluntly, she was far too good at breaking the law and getting away with it. Illegal fireworks, dangerous herbs and chemicals, etc. All purchased from Trixie's cart. Despite their best efforts, the police completely failed to actually apprehend her. They did eventually get a pretty good lead from one of her customers, but Trixie fled the city before she could be dragged in for questioning. Her disappearing act was pretty intimidating, but Twilight doubted Trixie was some kind of criminal mastermind. She was just a failed performer who'd amassed a considerable supply of dumb luck.

For the first time in years, Twilight was actually forced to revisit those trying few weeks. What were the chances that somepony like Trixie would reappear in Twilight's life? Slim. Fantasizing about Trixie being three thousand miles away from her was the only way Twilight was able to rest after the case was closed. For once in her life, she didn't care that she hadn't nabbed Canterlot's latest menace. Trixie wasn't the type of menace Twilight had signed up to chase.

Twilight pressed both hooves against her forehead and let out a groan. What were the chances that this mysterious murderer had bought dragon's weed from Trixie? High. Very high. Celestia-curse-it. But how clever to lead her down such an obvious road, to blind her with an obvious suspect—Zecora—and then throw another in her face after she'd wasted all that time. Granted, Twilight didn't know if she was right. But with how things were going, what were the chances she was mistaken? Slim.

“Fluttershy,” Twilight shouted.

The timid mare answered the summons within moments. She was actually a decent receptionist, or at least she seemed to know it was her job. Twilight could hardly give such a glowing endorsement to most of her fellow officers. Even the best ones—like Rarity—occasionally forgot that they were supposed to be cops. At least Fluttershy was a step up from Rainbow Dash when it came to work ethic. If it hadn't been for some obvious hurdles Twilight didn't want to face, she would have given Fluttershy a somewhat fitting promotion from desk worker to full-fledged officer of the law. She couldn't have been worse than Pinkie Pie.

“Yes?” said Fluttershy.

Twilight rattled off some instructions she'd never once dreamed of giving: Fluttershy was to locate the traveling salespony who'd illegally parked her cart in front of Sugarcube Corner. Not physically locate her, but track down her temporary place of residence. As much as Twilight dreaded it, she gave herself the actual legwork. She certainly didn't want to deal with Trixie again, but she knew nopony on the force could handle her. Those poor fools wouldn't know what they were getting into. Twilight wouldn't have even been comfortable sending Spike in her place. He was a little too trusting for his own good. Trixie would talk circles around him and be out of town before Spike realized what had happened.

While Fluttershy was combing their available resources—and there weren't many—Twilight grabbed her phone. She needed to talk to somepony who understood her plight. She still planned to confront Trixie herself, but it might be nice to have at least some semblance of back-up. Somepony to talk to. Twilight started to punch in Spike's number, smiling faintly as she imagined how he would react to her mention of Trixie.

But she stopped. Oh right. This was Spike's day off. Should she really be bothering him like this? Sure, he was the only one in Ponyville who could understand her current predicament. But Twilight already felt like a hypocrite just for thinking about him when he needed to rest. She couldn't do that to him. Not for the hundredth time since they'd met each other. With a sad little smile, Twilight put her phone back on the desk. Maybe tomorrow.

Fluttershy trotted back into the office, an apologetic smile on her face. Twilight knew that look, but she pretended it meant something other than what she thought it did.

“Did you find her?” she said.

Her heart sank when Fluttershy shook her head. Of course. In the eternal battle of Trixie vs. The Police Force, the latter always got the shit end of the stick. Why had Twilight thought it would be different just because they didn't have a whole city to search? Trixie's track record with the cops wasn't the best. Of course she was keeping away from the ponies in uniform. Trixie apparently knew how to hide when she caught a whiff of the police.

“None of the motels or inns have a record of her,” said Fluttershy. “No Trixie Lulamoon or Tricky Eclipse.”

Twilight put her hooves together and bowed her head, thinking. Those were Trixie's only names, or at least the only ones she'd ever used. Twilight doubted Trixie was clever enough to finally adopt a third persona. So where was she staying? With a friend? If so, why illegally park her cart in front of Sugarcube Corner? According to the report, she'd moved it sometime that morning, so she probably wasn't staying in the owners' spare room or anything. Was she living on the street with her cart? No, that would have been way too conspicuous.

Her phone rang. For a minute, Twilight thought it was Trixie. But that was absurd. Trixie—hopefully—didn't have her number and likely had no idea Twilight was even in Ponyville. If she had, she would have skipped town already.

“Ponyville Police Department,” said Twilight.

That usually dissuaded telemarketers. But it wasn't a cheerful voice imploring her subscription to another newsletter.

“You'll never guess who's in Ponyville.”

Twilight almost hung up. That was the last voice she'd expected—or wanted—to hear that day. In any other circumstance, she would have given an eager reply and started asking questions. But in this particular case, she had to shackle a groan. The worst part was that brief swell of happiness in her chest, a feeling she hastily snuffed out.

“It's supposed to be your day off,” she said.

She knew exactly what Spike had been thinking. He'd called her personal phone because he hoped it somehow wouldn't count as “work-related”. Unfortunately for him, his desperate attempt at skirting his own promise didn't go unnoticed. He was probably also counting on the fact that, despite her insistence to the contrary, Twilight wanted him to be working. She wanted him to be by her side, scouring archives and following leads. This alternate arrangement felt wrong to both of them, but they both knew it was ultimately for the best. It was hard for Twilight to avoid being selfish and it was hard for Spike to admit that he needed her to be selfish.

“I think you'll be interested in this,” said Spike.

He went on before Twilight could hang up or reluctantly tell him off.

“You remember Trixie, right?” he said. “The traveling salespony? Well, I've been doing some research into her whereabouts ever since you mentioned dragon's weed. I know you gave up on tracking her a long time ago, but I believe she's in Ponyville right now.”

Twilight let out a heavy sigh. So he hadn't been resting. Celestia-curse-it. Why hadn't she followed him back home and made sure he went to bed? Better yet, she could have slipped some sleeping potion into his tea or something. A bit unethical, but she did have some—it helped her get to sleep on those particularly bad nights—and it would have done the trick. But Twilight knew she wasn't in charge of him. He was his own dragon. A stubborn dragon who'd been infected by her workaholic sickness a long time ago.

“She's got her caravan parked on the edge of the Everfree Forest,” said Spike. “I gave Fluttershy a call and she said it wasn't any of her business, but I think...”

But Twilight's attention suddenly lapsed as she was assaulted by a memory. That fucking caravan. Of course she remembered what it looked like. Every detail of that accursed thing was scorched into her retinas. It was so garish and narcissistic, perfectly in line with Trixie's personality. How she'd managed to keep the thing hidden was one of Equestria's greatest mysteries. It had her Cutie Mark splashed across the side, for Celestia's sake. The force should have apprehended her within moments of putting up posters, even if all they had was a crude artist's rendition. But much like Trixie herself, the caravan—as well as the cart and anything else related to her—had somehow just slipped through the cracks. Every trace of her evaporated into the thick city air like steam from a fresh cup of coffee. Except unlike coffee, there was nothing refreshing or inviting about Trixie Lulamoon.

“You need to...,” Twilight started.

She stopped herself, leaving the unspoken order hanging in the air. Could she really finish that sentence? Could she utter those fatal words, like a machine programmed to give but never to feel? No, she couldn't. Long ago, Twilight had been that machine. In many ways, she remained the collection of gears and pulleys that wore a pony's face. But she'd changed. Spike had helped her change, with his laughter and bringing her coffee when she was working late. As easy and painless as it would have been, Twilight couldn't condemn Spike the way she'd condemned herself.

“....get some rest,” she finished.

Spike was immediately defensive, like he'd been caught lying.

“I did rest,” he said. “But your book about poisons was open and I thought...”

Twilight interrupted him. She knew he didn't like any of this. It wasn't just the frustration of being kept away from the action. However short of a dry spell it ended up being, Twilight could accomplish a lot without his help and Spike was well aware of this. But there was something lurking behind this case, something immense and unknowable. If either of them were tasked to describe it, they would have both used the word “ghost”. Ghosts—as Twilight had learned a while ago—weren't ethereal manifestations of the dearly-departed. Ghosts were feelings, ideas, dreams. Things without bodies, but with enough energy and shape to appear physical. An angry thought lurking behind a cheerful greeting, the flicker of a lie in the eyes of an unfaithful partner. Those were the type of ghosts that Twilight and Spike believed in.

There was a great truth to be found. Twilight could feel it. But just sensing this truth as it manifested in the background of her life wasn't enough. It was basically just a hunch. Twilight couldn't interrogate a hunch.

“Don't call me again,” she said. “Drink some of that expensive imported cocoa. Get some sleep.”

Not interested in hearing another round of protests, Twilight hung up. She thought of blocking his number, but she decided against it. Twilight trusted that the hardness in her voice was enough to get her message across. No need to shut him out completely. Plus—and she felt guilty even admitting this to herself—if he did stumble across another bit of pertinent information, she wanted to know about it. Any port in a storm.

There was no point in putting it off. The longer Twilight waited, the more likely her lead would escape. Maybe she'd get lucky. Maybe she'd arrive to find that Trixie had fled town a while ago, leaving behind a crate filled with all the evidence Twilight needed. She could only hope.

Charlatans and con artists weren't uncommon in Canterlot. In fact, Twilight speculated that a number of Canterlot's finest—the socialites and ladder-climbers—had been charlatans and con artists at one point. Most citizens would have claimed the city had been built on a solid foundation of magic and progress directed by the princesses themselves. There was some truth to this, but the princesses' influence didn't extend to the roots. The city's heart was no longer healthy and vibrant, pumping red blood through the veins of a thriving community. It had become withered, a dry husk sending spurts of dark muck through the pipes. The citizens continued on with their lives, oblivious to the sludge churning right underneath their hooves. It was ponies like Twilight who had to wade through this sludge almost every day, recovering the remains of yet another petty theft or grisly murder. But when the bones were cleaned and put back in their proper place, Twilight had to admit that the city's cheerful facade seemed just a little more real.

Twilight knocked on the door of Trixie's caravan. She'd come alone, despite a deluge of inner protests. Although she was confident in her decision, she regretted how casual she was being. If things had been different, Twilight would have enjoyed pounding her hoof against the door and shouting “Police!”. She would have taken great pleasure in hearing Trixie scrambling around like a cornered animal. Maybe that was needlessly cruel, but Twilight needed to feel like she was winning.

The door swung open almost instantly, forcing Twilight to take a step back.

There she was, in all her fake showmare glory. She still had the cape, although she lacked the familiar matching hat. But even without the hat, her choice of attire made it clear that Trixie was trying too hard. She looked like she belonged in Las Pegasus, impressing gullible tourists with her fictional exploits and sleight of hoof tricks. That's where she should have been, under the bright lights and dazzling signs. But somehow she'd ended up in places she didn't belong, mainly Twilight's life for the second time.

“The Great and Powerful Trixie will not be signing autographs,” said Trixie.

She squinted at Twilight, either oblivious to the status indicated by Twilight's uniform or having blissfully forgotten her previous run-ins with the police. She reeked of apple cider, but she seemed too alert to be suffering from a hangover. Annoyance flashed across her face, yet there wasn't so much as a subtle glimmer of recognition. From Trixie's point of view, she'd simply had the ill fortune to be jolted from a sound sleep by some inconsiderate super-fan. She clearly appreciated the dedication, but even the Great and Powerful Trixie needed her beauty sleep.

“I need to ask you some questions,” said Twilight.

There it was, like a flash of light at the end of a dark tunnel. Twilight could almost see the fireworks going off behind Trixie's eyes, tiny sparks raining down over the dry fields. In an instant, each spark ignited, setting the field on fire. Trixie's poker face was immediately consumed by the flames, leaving her with a gaping mouth and disbelieving eyes. Twilight Sparkle. She almost said the name out loud, but she instead just mouthed it.

“Of course the Great and Powerful Trixie will answer any..,” Trixie started.

She tried to slam the door, but found Twilight's hoof in the way. She gazed helplessly into Twilight's eyes, her own panicked gaze meeting the other mare's impassive expression.

Twilight was used to dealing with uncooperative suspects. The city was filled with those who'd done no wrong—at least not recently—yet were wary of even opening the door for an officer. The trick was to maintain serenity. When faced with somepony who wasn't taking any bullshit, even the least compliant suspects eventually crumpled. Keeping oneself together was an almost surefire way to break down a suspect's walls.

Sure enough, Trixie fell apart like a cheap model train.

“The Great and Powerful Trixie has done nothing wrong,” she said.

She'd spoken those words so many times that she actually managed to sound convincing. Trixie was used to this. Due to her trade, she'd actually developed the elusive skill of being an excellent liar. It was all in the delivery. If she pulled off the act, she avoided a long stay in a small cell. So it was imperative that she believe her own lies, believe them to the point that every detective itching to slap some cuffs on her would start to doubt their own evidence.

“I'd just like a word with you,” said Twilight.

She spoke in that false pleasant tone she used to warn criminals that she was authorized to use force. Even if she hadn't been, Twilight would have broken protocol if it meant getting answers out of Trixie. Some almost primal part of her—some part that ached for revenge—wanted to envelop Trixie in a field of magic and drag her down to the station. Her willingness to make a spectacle out of Trixie's arrest would have sent a very clear message to whatever sick individual seemed to be coming after her.

But Trixie stepped aside to let Twilight in, suddenly the very example of confidence. She knew the game. She'd memorized the rules and probably rigged the playing field. Despite what everypony on the Canterlot police force thought of her, Trixie was clever. She was clever in a way that even she herself didn't recognize.

Twilight entered the caravan, wrinkling her muzzle at the scent of apple cider. Had Trixie been going through crates? Or had she just doused all of her belongings in it for some unknowable reason? Twilight had never taken Trixie for a drunk. Then again, they weren't on intimate terms.

“Have a seat,” said Trixie.

Twilight refused the offer. She knew what Trixie was doing. It was a technique she'd seen many times on the field: “I've invited you into my home. Clearly I have nothing to hide.” On one specific occasion, an accused murderer had invited the entire police force—including Twilight and Spike—to a lavish dinner party. It was only much later that the bodies were discovered, the dismembered remains buried less than four feet away from where several officers had been dancing and getting shit-faced. Subtle, calculated, cunning. Almost as good as an alibi.

Trixie poured herself a glass of iced tea. She didn't offer Twilight one. Obviously she didn't want to be too hospitable. It was a balancing act.

“You look good,” said Trixie. “Did you do something new with your mane?”

She flashed Twilight a flirtatious smile, the kind she probably used to get out of paying fines. It most likely never worked, but she kept trying. There had to be at least one officer who'd fall for it, right? One officer who'd melt into a submissive puddle when Trixie slipped a hoof under their chin and told them they were way too handsome and/or beautiful to be a cop.

Twilight cocked an eyebrow. Spike might have been weak to that sort of thing, but Twilight certainly wasn't. Even Spike would have snapped out of it within seconds if it had been Trixie. He might have been a sucker for a pretty face, but he was fully aware that Trixie had no intention of parking herself in his stable. Not that he would have wanted her to.

“What are you doing here?” said Twilight.

Trixie winked.

“Enjoying the view,” she said.

Twilight gritted her teeth. “Oh, it wasn't my fault,” she imagined herself saying. “I have no idea how Trixie managed to erase herself from existence. What a shame.”

“What are you doing in Ponyville?” she said.

Trixie flopped down on the sofa, iced tea hovering a few inches away from her head. She brought the glass to her mouth and took a very long sip, slurping loudly from an S-shaped straw. She seemed to be gathering her thoughts, as if she was about to reveal the details of an intricate covert mission. When she spoke at last, she sounded amused.

“What are you doing in Ponyville?” she said. “Don't tell me you asked to be transferred here.”

Twilight was about to ask how Trixie knew she'd been transferred, but the answer was obvious. Why else would somepony like Twilight be in Ponyville?

“If you don't want to answer my questions here, I could book you an all-night stay at the station,” said Twilight.

Trixie smirked at the threat, yet it had obviously shaken her. She tried to hide it with another lengthy sip of iced tea, but her expression broke halfway through her theatric display. She put the almost-empty glass aside, a bitter smile on her face. Trixie was no stranger to a night in jail, but she hadn't come to enjoy it.

“If you must know, the Great and Powerful Trixie was just passing through,” she said.

She pressed a hoof to her chest and closed her eyes.

“You see, I've become an honest mare,” she said. “It took me a long time, but I finally realized what was missing from my life: permanence. I've given up my life of trickery. I am now merely a humble traveling showmare, renting my talents to various venues across this great land of Equestria.”

It was an admirable performance, but Twilight didn't believe a word of it. It wasn't that she just didn't believe ponies could change. She'd seen dangerous criminals spend half their lives in prison, only to emerge as beacons of philanthropy. Self-reflection could do wonders for the criminal mind, especially with all of those rehabilitation programs Princess Luna herself had instituted. But as Twilight assessed the extravagant interior of the caravan, she found it hard to believe that Trixie had put in any of the required effort.

“Honest mare, huh?” said Twilight.

She gestured towards an open crate filled with various bottles. She couldn't see the labels, but the liquid inside was a murky green that reminded her of pond scum. Trixie was smart enough to leave her name off of the “miracle cures” she sold. If somepony lost their mane or went half-blind from drinking her patented snake oil, it would be near-impossible for them to prove that they hadn't just mixed up the concoction themselves or bought it from another unscrupulous seller.

Trixie faltered, her confidence failing for a moment.

“Remnants of my old life,” she said.

Although Twilight would have loved to write up a long list of charges, this wasn't really about Trixie selling her homemade baldness cures to some gullible idiot. This was about a murder investigation.

“Have you been selling dragon's weed?” said Twilight.

Trixie's gaze flickered to a box at the other side of the room, then back to Twilight. Given the guilt in her eyes, the glance had clearly been somewhat involuntary. But Twilight had seen it. The box had seemed of no consequence when Twilight first walked in, yet its contents became obvious with just that one fateful glance. Receipts. Trixie did have some business sense, although maybe not the sense needed for her specific type of business. Of course she'd keep records, just to make sure she wasn't being stiffed.

Twilight immediately trotted to the other side of the room. Most ponies who sold illegal or somewhat illegal goods kept records of some kind, but they usually opted for something discree. This was one of those fancy decorative boxes, the kind with ornate designs all over its exterior.

“Hey, that's private property!” said Trixie. “You don't have a warrant.”

But Twilight was already playing with the latch. She didn't even need to. The latch seemed to be decorative, existing merely to give the box the illusion of being even fancier than it already looked. Up close, it was obvious that it wasn't. It was some cheap thing Trixie had probably bought at a discount from some old mare in a caravan much like her own.

The lid popped open like the mouth of a snake. There were some torn slips of paper with numbers and letters scrawled on them, along with a small leather-bound book that bore Trixie's Cutie Mark.

“I'll be taking this,” said Twilight.

Trixie jumped from her seat, too outraged to attempt her usual flirting routine.

“The Great and Powerful Trixie demands compensation,” she said. “That box cost thirty...I mean, one hundred bits. If it's damaged in any way, you owe Trixie two hundred bits.”

Twilight closed the box and slipped it into her saddlebag, only half-listening to Trixie.

“I'll see that none of your possessions come to harm,” she said. “However, you will have to remain in Ponyville for the duration of my investigation. That won't be a problem, will it?”

Trixie's gaze focused on Twilight's saddlebag. She was trapped and she knew it. Sure, she could have fled the town right under Twilight's muzzle. She'd done it before and she was arrogant enough to believe she could do it again. But there was no way Trixie could go anywhere without her precious box. There were ponies who still owed her, ponies she wouldn't be able to track down without her records. Trixie couldn't even be sure that Twilight would give them back or that she would actually escape prosecution by being cooperative. But what choice did she have?

“Three hundred bits,” said Trixie.

Twilight left. Now that she had what she'd been after, she wanted to get as far away from Trixie as equinely possible. But given what was now in her saddlebag, this wasn't going to be the last time they crossed paths. Another conversation with the Great and Powerful Trixie was in Twilight's near future.

The slips of paper were of varying sizes and origins. Some of them had been torn from notebooks, while others were revealed to be the remains of parking tickets and written citations. It seemed that Trixie had just used whatever was at hoof, be it part of a menu or a flier for a local wine tasting. But the information itself did not vary. These were clearly records of various transactions between Trixie and her customers. Exactly what Twilight had been looking for. Unfortunately, she ran into a little snag that dulled any sense of triumph.

Honey, Vinegar, Cinnamon. Owl feathers.

All the receipts were like that. Twilight went through the entire stack and couldn't find a single one that wasn't written in the same bizarre manner. A code. An ingenious one, Twilight had to admit. If she hadn't known what she was looking at, she would have assumed it was just a shopping list. She would have tossed it back into the box, frustrated at the dead end she'd reached. But Twilight wasn't naive. She'd seen codes like this before. Those who moved in the darkest depths of the criminal underworld seemed to love secret codes. Unfortunately, they rarely left the tools to break them in plain sight.

The book didn't offer much help. It was a little more blatant with the intentions of its author, but it was written in a similarly vague sort of way.

Eleven pots of honey to Star Twinkle. Four bottles of red wine to Cotton Crisp.

The names looked real at first glance, but they were just a little off. The simplicity of the ruse was almost genius. To the gullible, Trixie was simply a humble purveyor of various goods. Illegal goods? No, that was preposterous. There was nothing illegal about pots of honey and bottles of wine. If Helpful Hoof wanted to purchase forty cans of tomato sauce, what right did the police have to question the mare who sold it to him? If the officers actually doubted any of it, they need only take a look at the numerous crates of jam, soup, and other such wares that Trixie was perfectly willing to share. Wares she'd obtained through completely legal means and was intending to sell for a reasonable price. In fact, she was sure one of those lovely officers would be interested in a sample of that wine she was selling. On the house of course. A thank-you gift for those hardworking ponies in uniform.

Twilight massaged her forehead. Okay, there was no need to panic. She could just drag Trixie to the station and demand the key. But there probably wasn't an actual physical key, was there? No, Trixie was getting all of this second-hoof. She was borrowing tactics from ponies far more intelligent than her. Trixie wasn't going to just tell Twilight. That went completely against whatever loyalty existed between her and her customers. Fantastic.

She opened the book again. Every code was breakable. No matter how cryptic, in the end it was just simple equuish. Distorted and twisted equuish, but the origin remained the same. This wasn't even the hardest code Twilight had been forced to break.

“Owl feathers”. Who was “Owl Feathers”? These names—they had to be names--must have been chosen for a reason. Some physical or mental characteristic that had stuck out to Trixie. But what kinds of physical or mental characteristics would have stuck out to a pony like Trixie? The Cutie Mark of course, but that was a little too easy. Everypony noticed Cutie Marks. They were the first thing a pony took note of when meeting somepony new. Trixie was hardly an exception, but there had to be something else. Something that Trixie in particular would have noticed.

“Owl Feathers”. A pony who wore glasses. A theatric nickname based on something rather mundane. That was Trixie's style. But what did that tell Twilight? If she was right, she now had valuable insight into how Trixie chose nicknames for her customers. But how did that help? It wasn't as if she knew what the killer looked like. But maybe it was important, even if Twilight couldn't immediately see it.

Twilight started sorting through the receipts. The ones on the top had to be the most recent, at least judging by the amount of wear. But which one was about dragon's weed, if any of them were? Twilight hadn't considered that she might have embarked on a fool's errand. Maybe Trixie had nothing to do with this. But no, that couldn't be the case. Trixie had to have something to do with it. Why else would she have reappeared in Twilight's life?

She flipped over one of the receipts. There wasn't anything special on the back. It was just half of a parking ticket. It seemed Trixie had a habit of illegally parking her cart.

If only Spike was there to help her. She'd gotten tired of lamenting his absence, but it just kept creeping up on her. After all, many hooves make light work. Or in this case, two hooves and two claws would have made light work of this box. Twilight would have had her coffee and Spike would gave grabbed a bottle of cider. They could have made an all-nighter out of it.

Cider. Of course the only way to get through a day in Ponyville was to get boozed up. That must have been why the ponies in town loved their cider so much. But it wasn't just cider. Quite a few of the residents partook in pretty much any kind of alcoholic drink they could get their hooves on. Wine was also quite popular. In fact, there was even an annual wine-tasting or something at Sugarcube Corner.

Wine-tasting. Why did the word keep ringing in Twilight's head, as if it was important?

She grabbed one of the more recent receipts. Wine-tasting. It wasn't an uncommon event in Canterlot. It was pretty popular in Manehatten as well. Even a small town like Ponyville was eager to get in on the action. It just sounded so sophisticated and sometimes it was. Wine-tasting.

Twilight turned the receipt over. It was part of a flier for a wine-tasting event. The date was familiar to her. She usually didn't pay attention to local town events, but she was sure Spike had said something about that particular date, something to do with wine. Some crude joke about booze loosening a dragon's tongue or something. He'd laughed heartily, while Twilight just waved a hoof at him and said he could do whatever he wanted.

Rhubarb, horseradish. Fox fur.

“Fox Fur”? Fox. Foxes. There was something about foxes. It was circling the edges of her brain, teasing her. But she couldn't lay a hoof on it. Something to do with foxes. Not the animal, but something else.

Hadn't Dinky said something about a fox mask? Yes, she'd claimed that the pony who kidnapped her had worn a fox mask. “Fox Fur”. Could it be related? Well, since coincidences didn't exist, Twilight had a hunch that it was. Plus “horseradish”. That sounded like a pretty good code name for dragon's weed.

There was a big difference between the receipts and the book, something other than the obvious. The receipts were written in haste, most likely seconds after or during the actual transaction. They were last minute, abrupt. Transactions Trixie didn't plan out beforehand. They just happened, probably because somepony sought Trixie out and specifically requested something. So she grabbed whatever paper was within hoof's reach and wrote out a hasty receipt. Fox Fur had known about Trixie beforehand.

But if Fox Fur really had purchased the dragon's weed, they'd also bought something else. Something Trixie referred to as “rhubarb”. What exactly was it and what was this mysterious pony planning to do with it?

Twilight carefully placed the receipts back into the box. She wouldn't be returning that box to Trixie anytime soon. But she would be having another conversation with Trixie a lot sooner than she'd expected.