But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean,
who is neither tarnished nor afraid.
The white unicorn stepped into my office at around eight o’clock in the morning. She shut the door nice and slow like a burglar would, tip-hoofed to my desk, and lowered herself onto the visitors’ chair, softly enough that the loose leg on it didn’t so much as squeak. She was light as a cloud, incognito, unseen. She wouldn’t be caught dead in this place and she wanted everypony to know it. She said: “Hello. You must be Ms. Bride.”
That was the name on the door, I told her.
She looked like fine china. Her coat had been groomed all over with brushes the size of thumbtacks and it shone pearl white around her blue diamond cutie mark. Her mane was royal purple. She wore a wide-brimmed, diamond-studded sun hat that matched her eyes and was just small enough to fit through a door frame. She was exactly the type of pony who wouldn’t have looked out of place smoking from a black cigarette holder shaped like a harvestman’s leg. Trouble was, no one smoked in this town.
I lit a cigarette and asked her what sort of job she needed.
The unicorn shifted, crossing her front legs. “Well, I need you to spy on somepony. It’s a spy job.”
“A spy job.”
The faulty ceiling fan spun slow circles in the smoke behind her. Bars of sunlight shining from the window shades stretched low and wide along the office floor. I blinked. I needed a cup of coffee. “You want me to tail somepony,” I said.
I dropped my cigarette on the ash tray’s edge and tapped it once with my hoof. “I can do that.” I brought the cigarette back up for a drag. “I’ll need to know who the somepony is and have some idea of what I’m digging up.”
The unicorn recoiled stiffly into the back of the visitors’ chair and drew one pearl white hoof up to her mouth. Her pupils shrank back into points. “Oh, my. It’s not quite like that. I’m not entirely sure there’s anything worth digging for. She is a friend of mine, you see.”
Nine times out of ten it was a friend. It was a spouse, a relative, a buddy. Sometimes it seemed like everypony would rather dig up dirt on a friend than out and talk to them about anything at all. Work was work, though, and I wasn’t in the business of selling wise words. I’d see it through.
I blew a puff of smoke at the unicorn across the desk. “Doesn’t much matter who she is. If there’s dirt to be found, I’ll find it.”
The unicorn smiled at me like a worried nutcracker might smile. “Good, yes, but it’s important that nopony finds out I’ve hired you. It’s a delicate situation, you see, and I —”
“You’re asking me to be quiet about it.”
When you walked into a groomer’s shop, you typically didn’t ask the pony in black if she’d ever handled a pair of scissors. The unicorn was either that naïve or she was trying to pressure me. I studied her hat for a moment and decided on the former.
“Quiet’s part of the job, ma’am,” I said.
She relaxed, somewhat. “Thank you. And please, call me Rarity.”
“Alright then, Ms. Rarity. Let’s get started. Who’s the job.”
“Her name is Pinkamena Diane Pie. Pinkie Pie, everyone calls her. She works at Sugarcube Corner. Have you heard of it?”
“Bakery, up near the square.”
Rarity nodded. “So you’re familiar.”
“Oh. Well, you can find Pinkie Pie there during the week. She is, shall we say, difficult to miss.”
“I’m guessing she’s pink.”
Rarity’s smile was a shade more genuine this time. “The pinkest thing you’ll ever see, darling, with a big, pink, puffy mane.”
I had seen a lot of pink, living in this town, and I wasn’t feeling all that enthused. “I’m going to need a talent.”
“Oh, right. That would be helpful. It’s three balloons: two blue, one yellow.” Rarity seemed to consider something for a moment. The way her face scrunched up during that moment told me she probably wasn’t paid to consider things. “Wait just a minute, dear,” she said. “Surely you’ve attended one of Pinkie Pie’s parties?”
I never was one for parties. What few I had turned out at were all on the job. When you were on the job, you weren’t partying, though if you did it right it must have looked that way. I was no less a stranger to parties than a surgeon was to knife fighting.
“Can’t say I have,” I said.
Rarity’s mouth went wide like she’d seen Nightmare Moon standing over my shoulder. “Oh, that’s simply awful! You mean to tell me you’ve never been to a single one of Pinkie Pie’s parties? How is that possible? I mean, she invites everypony in the entire town and —”
“Can we please stick to the job, Ms. Rarity.”
“Oh, yes, right. Sorry.”
I leaned forward onto the desk. “So. What is it I’m looking into, exactly?”
This made Rarity nervous. She started wringing her hooves together like a widow at a funeral, only empty-handed, no doubt because she couldn’t find a handkerchief to match her hat.
“A couple of things,” she said. “It might be nothing. I’m not sure. It’s probably nothing.” She hesitated. I took this to mean it was probably something. “About one month ago, when Celestia visited Ponyville, I attended her welcoming party. You remember, right?”
I didn’t. I nodded.
“During the party, I found myself intrigued by a certain colt whom I had never seen before. He was quite handsome, and I couldn’t help but notice that he spent the entire night with Pinkie Pie. I must admit, I felt rather jealous. After the party, I asked Pinkie who this mysterious stallion was. To my surprise, she became very defensive. She told me he was nopony important. I must say I had never seen Pinkie react with such hostility before. I dropped the subject.
“Anyway, about one week ago, myself and several of my friends, Pinkie Pie included, held a —” Rarity paused. “— friendly overnight social gathering at my boutique. The next morning, after everypony had left, I noticed a small leather-bound book lying on the floor. It was Pinkie’s diary. Curiosity overwhelmed me and I, well, looked inside. It was a terrible thing to do, I know.”
I shrugged. “Find your answers?”
Rarity’s expression fell. “On the contrary, Pinkie’s diary is precisely what convinced me to come to you. I would never hire somepony to spy on one of my friends because of simple jealousy — that would be simply monstrous!”
I had seated a good deal of monsters in my office over the years, were that the case. “Of course not,” I said.
Rarity continued: “I’m not quite sure you’ll understand what I’m about to tell you, darling. You would have to know Pinkie Pie like I do. She’s happy, the happiest pony I’ve ever met. Always laughing, Pinkie Pie. I can’t even remember the last time I saw her frown. Imagine my surprise, then, when I read her diary. It was… not what I expected.”
I sat and looked at her for a good, long while. “What are you suggesting?”
Rarity avoided my eyes. She took a sudden interest in the ash tray. “I’m suggesting that I’m worried about her.”
I almost told her to get out of my office. I had the cigarette out of my mouth, my elbow propped on the desk, and my other hoof all ready to point to the door. It was part of my job to work for bad ponies, gathering ammunition for their selfish wars. I was used to it. You could get used to the bad ponies. If I hated anything, it was running dirty work for the good ones.
Somehow, I caught myself. Business was slow. I needed the money. I sucked on the cigarette some more. “Do you have the diary with you?”
Rarity shook her head. “Oh no, darling, of course not. I returned it to Pinkie Pie. I told her I had read the first page, enough to know it was hers, nothing more.”
I nodded. “What was in it?”
“All sorts of things. There were a few pages addressed to the diary, and those were normal enough, I suppose. They, at least, sounded like Pinkie Pie.” Rarity brushed a purple curl of hair aside with her hoof. It fell back into the same position. “Others were more, well, odd. She had written a poem about a desert covered in rocks and skeletons, for instance. Another, about a river whose water had turned to sludge. Do you see what I mean?”
“Sounds like your friend’s an artist.”
Rarity glowered at me. “I wasn’t finished. There was one page describing a dead family of ponies laid out in a field, one about a world without happiness. Here and there she had scribbled entire pages in with black ink, or copied the same word over and over. There were also some... illustrations. Grotesque sketches of ponies with crosses in place of eyes, ponies screaming, sketches of knives, strange self-portraits, balloons with nooses tied at the end of the strings. I found one drawing that looked like a bleeding cake.” Rarity covered her eyes with her hooves. “Oh, it was simply awful!”
I gave her a minute to calm down. She didn’t calm down much. “Was there anything in the diary that might be of use to me?”
“There were a few entries about myself, the rest of my friends, Mr. and Mrs. Cake, that sort of thing. I didn’t recognize most of the names, though I suppose Pinkie Pie knows almost everypony in Ponyville. There were a few recent entries about a stallion named Skives. Pinkie Pie seemed to be quite angry with him, but didn’t say why.”
I wrote the name down. “Do you know this Skives?”
“No,” Rarity said.
I sat and thought for a moment, weighing the cigarette on my hoof. It was an ugly job. I’d be using her if I took it, playing her like you would a foal. I didn’t like that. I should have told her to get lost, to talk to ponies up front before phoning in somepony like me. That would have been the decent thing to do. The decent and the free thing. I really needed the money.
“Alright. I’ll take it.” I stomped out my cigarette in the ash tray, removed a quill pen and paper from the drawer, set them on the desk, and dipped the quill tip into the ink pot. “You got an address for her?”
Rarity told me.
“And she works at Sugarcube.”
I stared at her across the desk. She was one big lip quiver beneath her hat. “Relax,” I said, the quill pen flapping from the corner of my mouth. “If there’s anything to find, I’ll find it. Like you said, it’s probably nothing.”
“It’s probably nothing,” she said.
I tore the piece of paper in half and folded it. “Alright, first things first. This is a cluttered town and a close job. You say this Pinkie Pie’s your friend, so you’ll probably be seeing me around. In that case, you don’t know me. You’ve never even met me. You only know me in this office, or on the phone. If I tell you my name’s Clarice, it’s Clarice. We clear on that?”
“Crystal,” Rarity said.
“Right then, let’s talk price. Since you’re not a firm, I charge flat. Four hundred up front, expense included, three hundred after it’s cleared. The end number’s liable to change, depending on how things play out.” I relaxed into my chair, let the words sit. She’d be expecting a steeper price, but I couldn’t risk losing her to a firm. They’d have eaten up a job like this one.
Rarity raised a hoof to her mouth, eyes widening. “Oh. Oh. Well then, your price seems, agreeable.” She smiled at me, happy with herself. “We have a deal, then?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’ll get started on it today.”
“Wonderful!” Rarity clapped her hooves together. She took this opportunity to glance down at her left foreleg. There was no watch around her wrist, but there didn’t need to be one, either. “Oh, dear,” she said, “would you look at the time. I really should be heading back to my boutique.”
“Just give Font your work and home number on the way out.”
Rarity stood up, adjusted her hat. “It has been a pleasure, Ms. Bride. I have the utmost confidence in your abilities.” She tried to smile but settled on a worried frown. “Do find out what’s bothering poor Pinkie Pie, will you?”
I nodded. “I’ll phone you if anything turns up.”
Rarity trotted out into the adjoining room and the door swung shut behind her, like magic. I heard her exchange a few words with Font, then she and her hat were gone.
For a while I sat in silence and smoked and looked about the room. It was as if she’d never stepped inside. My office had never seemed so immaculate. Something foreign had left and what had gone was by now farther away than it had been before. Everything was in its proper place.
I rose and went over to the window and stood watching the daylight congeal beyond the windowpanes, gray and half-chilled. I had landed my first job in four days. Four days was a long time to pass without work. You could get awful restless in that time, find yourself smoking a pack a day. You could find yourself checking under the tables and bookshelves for murder weapons. You could even find yourself walking down dark alleyways on your way to work, hoping to see a hoof crooked out from beneath the mounded trash. You might think that after four days of no work any job would seem like a good one, but you’d be wrong.
I stomped my cigarette into the ash tray and left.
by Mad Brochacho
Many thanks to:
EQD Steam group chat, for putting up with all my bullshit.
Raymond Chandler, for inspiring the whole damn story.
doop derp deep dap doo
Font was a pair of thick-rimmed librarian glasses on a tube of mangy, brown hair. His hooves were small, pointed, narrower than most, and hung from his wrists like sharpened spades. He was lanky and thin in a way that made him look like he’d spent most of his life sitting in an office chair. This was probably true. When your cutie mark was a typewriter, that sort of thing came with the territory.
A fat stack of paper with fine print scribbled all over it was growing next to him in the printer tray when I stepped out of my office. As I passed his desk, he stopped typing. His glasses looked up at me and his head followed. “Coffee over on the file cabinet,” he said.
The typing started again.
I walked over to the coat stand, pulled my coat down from its hook, slipped it around my waist and tied the straps tight. It was a gray cotton trench stitched around a leather saddle pad, and if you stood nice and straight it covered your cutie mark. In the pockets were a box of cigarettes, a notepad, a pencil, a flip lighter, my leather fold-out and a small flask of Scotch. The box and the flask were both half empty.
I reached up, bit down on the brim of my hat, lifted it from the coat stand and flipped it onto my head. It was a good hat, my favorite hat, a genuine Horsalino fedora shipped straight from Canterlot. Close-brimmed, pressed wool, matching gray. We had seen a lot together. I turned back to Font. “I’m going out for a walk,” I said.
Font’s typing slowed, but not by much. “That’s news. You headed up or down?”
“Up. Just pocket work, for now.”
“You won’t be needing your piece, then.”
I walked to the cabinet beside my office door. There was a thermos on top of the cabinet, next to a mug. I poured myself half a cup and stood with the mug balanced on my hoof, waiting for it to cool off some. I wasn’t much of a morning pony. I thought maybe if I stared hard enough into the cup the coffee would cool faster, but it never worked. I’d keep trying.
Font broke the silence: “That unicorn who trotted in earlier looked awful sharp.”
I smiled and turned to him. “She was dolled up something fierce. Accent on her, too. Think she was Canterlot people?”
He shrugged. “I figured as much. Turns out she’s local, born and raised.”
“Fancy thing like her?”
“Yep. Runs a boutique right here in Ponyville.”
“What do you know,” I said. I took a sip of coffee. It tasted right and black — Font hadn’t dumped any milk in this time. I downed the rest and raised the mug to him in a toast. “Good coffee. Anyway, I’m headed out. What are you up to?”
Font responded in the tone you’d use to talk about a cheating spouse. “Paperwork.”
I started for the door. “Sounds like a drag. Toss anything you think I can handle on my desk and I’ll get to it later.”
“Will do,” Font said.
Halfway out the door, I stopped. I looked back over my shoulder. “By the way, if you find time, do some diving on a joint called Sugarcube Corner. We’re digging for one Pinkamena Pie. Pinkie Pie for short.”
It took an awful lot to surprise Font. He was the stoic type. We got along well. He gave me a look I hadn’t seen since he caught me typing on his Model M. “Pinkie Pie?”
“Yeah, earth pony from up town. You know her?”
“Not really. She’s always dropping invitations on our doorstep. Twice a week, at the least. I’ve seen her a few times.” Font glanced away from the computer screen and made eye contact. “I figured the parties wouldn’t interest you.”
I smiled thinly at him. “Good stallion.”
He stopped typing long enough to wave goodbye. “I’ll let you know if I find anything.”
“Thanks,” I said. I stepped out into the hall. “See you in a while.”
“Be careful out there, Bride.”
I shut the door behind me. Always was.
I went down a story by stairs and passed into the lobby of the office building. The floor was carpeted in a silk rug of Zebrican make, thick pile, the kind that sucks at your hooves as you cross it. There were some electric candles stood on a lounge table with nothing to power them, a few thin antique chairs backed into the corner, some landscape paintings on the wall, a couch, a book stand, a not-bright lamp and no ashtray. The receptionist pony was asleep at the front desk, and didn’t wake up as I passed. I liked our office. Rent was cheap.
The lobby double doors opened onto a slim, two-lane paved boulevard which I followed north toward old town. Outside, the air smelled of smoke and straw. It always did. The smoke pumped out of stacks in the harbor district and the straw smell wafted down from the town center. You got used to the stench, after a while. Booker used to call it the industrial low tide. Booker had pretty words to say about a lot of a ugly things. He was that type of guy.
A couple blocks out from the office the streets started to cramp with stands pushing fruits, vegetables, t-shirts, counterfeit watches. The ponies attending the stands looked ready to steal the hat off your head and sell it back to you. They kept to themselves as I passed. You didn’t touch a graycoat’s hat.
A few blocks farther, the pavement roughened and cracked until at points it was almost gravel. The stands thinned out and disappeared leaving nothing but empty streets and silence and ponies bundled up in rags next to stuffed shopping carts in the alleyways. This was the no pony’s land separating old town from the new. There were some wooden things slouched along the sides of the road, all chipped paint and broken windows. They might have even been houses.
If I caught a stare, I stared back, but mostly I walked. ‘Graycoat,’ everypony seemed to say. What faces I saw weren’t quite mean, only frustrated, desperate. I was an outsider. They didn’t want me on their turf. I could relate, because I didn’t want to be on it, either. I held a stiff pace toward old town. I was walking out of a bad area toward someplace else I didn’t want to be. Such was the job.
Slowly, the cement sidewalk turned to dirt, and the pavement gave way to gravel, then stone. I saw some ponies milling about in the distance, on the edge of the market. A gentle clop of hooves and the clatter of wooden cartwheels echoed down the rows of straw-roofed houses ahead of me. Old town. I hid beneath my hat and walked on.
The streets were slabbed stone, covered in straw and crowded with hooves. Ponyville market and I weren’t the best of friends, not at this time of day. The sun was too bright, the air too crisp, the chatter too loud. There were ponies walking everywhere, buying, selling, milling about, getting out of somepony’s way, stepping into somepony else’s way. Everything was too close to everything else. I was sick of the place already. I usually made it a point not to walk this stretch of town before noon. It was a recipe for a bad morning, and this one was no different. Every odd step somepony bumped into me. Some apologized, most didn’t. This was a herd for whom the phrase ‘excuse me’ was a myth and to whom a graycoat from downtown had little to say.
I trudged onward until I found enough room to breathe, then stopped. I drew the flask from my pocket, unscrewed the cap and swallowed down a hundredth of Scotch. That smoothed out my throat somewhat, but was little help for the headache. I took a smaller sip and tucked the flask back into my pocket and started along the road uphill to town square.
I already knew my first stop. The headache had made that decision for me.
Ponyville library was a thick and surprisingly alive oak tree standing in a field at the dead end of a sleepy cul de sac. About two years prior somepony had grafted a balcony, some windows and shutters onto the tree, strung some junk up in the branches, hollowed out the trunk, and called it a library. Not much controversy followed. Ponyville was a strange town, ponies had seen stranger things. Then some jaghead prodigy and her talking dragon moved in from Canterlot and called the tree home. That turned some heads. They didn’t stay turned for long.
The short acre of grassland that led to the trunk of the library was as non-threatening as the unicorn who lived inside. Thirty yards of nice, calm, suburban crawl partitioned in by rows of shrubs all clipped into perfect little boxes. Not an inch of concrete in sight. Everything carefully trimmed and cut back. There was a patch of wildflowers growing here and there, but not too wild. The number and placement of the flowers seemed like something somepony on city council had carefully considered. They came in two colors: purple and less purple. On the edge of one flower patch grew a troop of oddly luminescent mushrooms, also purple. I’d seen wild ones before, big fields of them glowing in Everfree. These ones glowed a bit less.
I stopped in front of the library door and glanced up at the snarl of branches above me and tried to think of other things to hang on them, but couldn’t. There wasn’t much space left to fit anything else. One branch sagged bow-like around a caricature of a beehive, one more held a lantern, another a dream catcher, two more a pair of Zebrican spirit masks. Swinging upside down from the branch cluster over my head was a whole colony of metal wind chimes, some heavy-looking, some the size of my foreleg. They looked about ready to fall.
I whopped my hoof three times on the door. A sharp, distracted voice greeted me from inside. “Come in,” it said. “We’re open.”
I went in and shut the door softly. I found myself standing on a navy blue mat with hard-cut edges laid out at the foot of the front door. ‘WELCOME,’ it said. Spilled out across the mat were about six volumes of an encyclopedia with gold-trimmed spines and hard, green covers floating on the blue spread of the mat like lily pads. I cleaned my hooves on the one free corner of the mat and stepped out of the entrance hall.
The main chamber of the library was circular and wide and curled around a Canterlotian warhorse bust, which was wooden, painted gold. The walls were a string of inlaid, polished oak bookshelves swirled around with twisting, pre-Trottingham patterns in dark red paint. The room smelled of age. There was enough dust on the air to choke a hydra. There was nowhere you could look without seeing an old book stacked haphazardly on the floor, slanted on a shelf, lying open on a table. They didn’t look like the sort of books anypony had ever checked out.
At a pedestal below the window stood something purple and dust-covered and pony-shaped. I almost hadn’t noticed her.
There was nothing sparkling about Twilight Sparkle save the big, star-circled urchin she wore for a talent. The unicorn looked like something she’d file away on the back shelf of her own library. Her lavender coat shone dull as old felt, her horn hadn’t seen a decent polish since Discord lost his throne, and her mane was cut straight as printer paper, brushed like she didn’t own a mirror. Twilight was as far from Rarity as a pony could get without rolling in mud.
She shined a hard smile, though, and had a sharp, honest set of eyes on her. They’d watch you, out from under her bangs, always learning. There was a warm sort of wonder in them. If she wasn’t reading a book, she was treating you like one, and what she learned she wasn’t known to forget. She struck me as somebody who had never played an angle in her life, and who would never need to. Not many ponies struck me like that. When they did, it felt awfully refreshing.
I threw on my oldest grin. It was a tired smile, past its years, worn down by strobing blue lights and body bags. I was about due for a replacement. “Hi, Twilight,” I said.
Twilight stopped levitating her quill, set it down on the pedestal and turned to me. Then she smiled. Twilight smiled better than I did. “Good morning, Ms. Bride. Are you here to check out a book, or —”
“Records, same as always.”
“Ah, of course. Would you like any help finding whatever you’re looking —”
“I can find my way,” I said. I spotted the records shelf across the room and started for it.
Twilight kicked at the floorboards with one hoof, her eyes downcast. “Right,” she said. “I knew that.”
The disappointment in her voice ran too thick for me to ignore. I stopped mid-step and shot her a quizzical look. “What?”
As if in response, Twilight’s head snapped back up and her smile widened. “Nothing! If you need my help with anything, I’ll be right over here.” Her lavender eyes flitted back and forth above her smile, which by now looked as subtle as a brick wall.
She must have felt nervous lying to a detective. I knew she wasn’t saying something, but I knew she wasn’t hiding anything, either. I also knew my head felt like somepony had bludgeoned it in with one of her dictionaries, so I didn’t press the issue. “Okay, thanks,” I said.
I started again across the library to the records shelf. I couldn’t go too fast. Someone should have told Twilight to clean the place up a bit, but on this morning, that someone wasn’t me. It was tough going, stepping over books and quill docks and empty pots of ink littered on the floor. I must have looked like a drunk, the way my hooves clattered against the glass pots. I frowned. There was one bad thought. Now I wanted a drink, too. Perfect.
I had halfway crossed the wreckage when Twilight spoke again.
“So, are you working on a new case? I haven’t seen you in here for over a week.”
It took me a moment to realize I should say something back. “Yeah,” I said. It seemed as good a word as any.
“Is everything alright with work?”
I thought I heard the sound of a quill dropping on wood.
“Oh,” Twilight said.
I turned and gave her a flat look. I didn’t know what she wanted me to say. What else was there to say? She must have wanted me to say something, because she wasn’t writing. She looked as nervous as a filly dipping her hoof into the shallow end of the pool.
“Work’s been slow this past week,” I offered, “but the drought ended this morning.” That made for about three full sentences more than we usually spoke to each other.
Twilight pounced on my words. “That’s odd. Shouldn’t there be plenty of work for a private investigator in lower Ponyville? I see cars pouring off the Fillydelphian parkway all day long.”
“Yeah, we’re up to our stifles in new faces these days, but not every one of them can afford a sleuth. Not in this economy. Tough to afford anything on a factory wage, I reckon.”
Twilight frowned. I wondered briefly if she’d ever stepped inside of a factory. She was Canterlot people, after all.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” she said. “Is your business holding up alright?”
“We’ll manage.” I shrugged. Then I stopped. Something wasn’t right with all this. I hadn’t come to the library to chat, I had work to do. “What’s it to you?” I asked, slipping some suspicion into my voice. I might have sounded a rung more hostile than I intended.
Twilight bit her lip, then spoke. “I was only curious. I’ve heard the expansion area is going through some difficult times, and since you’re from new town, I thought I’d check to see how you’re holding up.” She smiled a smile so forced it could have made a grocery store cashier blush. Her teeth were big and straight and shining like the title of the newest picture on the posters outside the movie theatre. Then she said something very strange: “That’s what friends are for, right?”
“Friends,” I said. That was all I could manage for a good few seconds. The word tasted funny. It felt like something I wasn’t meant to say.
What friends did I have in Ponyville? I didn’t consider Twilight or anypony else in old town a friend. In new town, I had Font and there was Nighters. That made two friends. Booker was a friend, too. A good friend. An old friend. We got along. Problem was that Booker was dead.
My voice crawled slower than I’d have liked as I responded. “Don’t worry about us, Twilight,” I said. “The city’s never short of someone looking for a graycoat, even if they sometimes forget it.”
This seemed to please Twilight. If she’d caught my lapse in concentration, she didn’t make a fuss of it. She smiled. It was a real smile, this time, like before. “That’s good to hear. I should probably finish this letter. If you need help finding anything in the archives, feel free to ask. Okay?”
“Okay,” I said.
Twilight turned back to her pedestal and levitated the quill from its dock and resumed writing. My headache was gone, now. I stood watching her. She had a bad habit of talking herself through the letter as she wrote, and she wasn’t quiet about it, either. A pony could let out a lot of secrets like that.
I turned and slogged the rest of the way to the records shelf. The archive text itself was thick and green and bigger than any book had a right to be. It was the sort of book only a unicorn would read, because only a unicorn could lift the damn thing. I threw open the cover with some effort and started diving through the town archives, searching for a list of parties held within the past two years. It was pointless busy work. Font would probably have the same list of dates pulled up on his computer screen when I got back to the office.
While I searched, Twilight’s voice prattled on over my shoulder. I wouldn’t have been much of a private eye without an ear for gossip, so I listened.
Dear Princess Celestia. That was how she started the letter. She was writing to the damn sun and I couldn’t find an ounce of hesitation or nervousness in her voice. Most ponies would have been scared to pick up the quill. I was in the same boat, anyway. Nighters once told me if I ever spoke to Princess Celestia she’d banish me for insurrection. He probably wasn’t far off the mark.
Twilight droned on, her letter building toward some hackneyed moral about respecting others, I could tell. I started to tune her out. I just wanted to find the records and leave and get on with this sludge job. You could pay me to work a mule’s job but you couldn’t pay me to like it. I was ready to drop all thought of friendship and walk on home to my single apartment, my reheated dinner, my full-sized bed and a bottle of rye. I’d read finance clippings, maybe play through a chess problem or two. It’d be nice. It was about ten in the morning and I was already set to sleep. Some days were like that.
Then Twilight said something. It came out quick and I almost didn’t hear it. It was two words:
I flicked an ear back in her direction. Twilight continued talking to the piece of parchment in what a deaf pony might consider an indoor voice. Something about a party, a prank, a lesson she and her friends had learned. Nothing of interest, but not useless. Twilight knew Pinkie Pie. She sounded close, too. I thought back to Rarity’s words, that Pinkie Pie knew everypony. This would either make the job a cinch, or incredibly difficult. Time would tell.
When I looked down at the reference book I was copying from I saw a pencil clipped to my hoof and a list of dates and times scribbled on my notepad. I didn’t remember writing any of it. Maybe that was how Font felt at the end of the day. I tucked the notepad into my coat, unclipped the pencil from my hoof, swung shut the cover of the archive text and left the book where it lay.
Twilight stopped writing as I crossed the minefield of books toward the door. She turned to me. I caught her wearing that same nervous expression out of the corner of my eye.
“Find everything you were looking for, Ms. Bride?”
“Yeah,” I said. But I wasn’t walking anymore. I was turning back toward her and I wasn’t leaving and I didn’t know why. We faced each other across the room. My face was blank but I felt like frowning. Friendly chat among friends, fine. I could handle that. She wanted to talk, I’d talk. “Who were you writing to?” I asked.
Twilight waved the question off. “Princess Celestia, my mentor.”
“You’re writing a letter to Princess Celestia about some prank one friend pulled on another?”
Her mouth slanted into an indecisive frown. “You overheard?”
“I tried not to, honest, but if you’re worried about secrets getting out, I’d think about installing some thicker windows.”
Twilight’s face reddened. “Oops. I should work on that, shouldn’t I. Anyway, to answer your question, I was reporting on my latest discovery. I moved to Ponyville so I could study friendship, after all.”
I blinked. “I thought you studied magic.”
“Well, yes. Friendship is magic.”
I felt a sudden rush of nausea coming on, and it wasn’t because of the cigarette I hadn’t smoked. “Never thought I’d see somepony say that with a straight face,” I said.
That ruffled her mane some. She frowned. “Everypony needs friends, Ms. Bride. I’ve seen friendship save lives in the last two years. It’s not something to ignore.” Twilight lifted one hoof skyward, closed her eyes, smiled softly. “In fact, I would even say that friendship is what holds this town together.”
I stared at her and stared hard. There was a silence. The library felt stuffy all of a sudden, like somebody had vacuumed out all the air and pumped in something that tasted and smelled like air, but wasn’t. At that point I should have chosen my words carefully. Instead, I said something stupid.
“Look, maybe old town’s glued together with friendship and love. Maybe that’s what trims the hedges. Maybe that’s what keeps all your apple trees and gardens growing nice and pretty. What do I know? I’m just some dick from south of the line. But Ponyville won’t be a town much longer, Twilight. Soon it’ll be a city proper, and there ain’t much that can hold a city together but guns and sirens and squad cars.”
The slight hint of a frown on Twilight’s face grew into a full-sized horseshoe. She looked disappointed enough to write a letter about it. Maybe she would. I’d gone from being a friend to a mere acquaintance, and because of that the town must have held together a bit worse in her eyes.
I wasn’t thinking straight. It was no use scaring off Twilight. She was the closest thing I had to a contact in old town, and the city’s librarian to boot. I looked down. It was where my head wanted me to look at that particular moment. There was a thick, hardcover novel lying at my hooves on the floor. I gave it a soft kick to the spine. The book slid forward a couple inches, stopped, and left a book-shaped outline lying in the dust where it had been.
“Spike out of town?” I asked.
Twilight grabbed the thin string of conversation and ran with it. “Yes. He’s in Canterlot for the week, on his yearly checkup.”
“Dracologists collecting data, checking to make sure he’s healthy, that sort of thing.”
“Oh,” I said. There was another silence, a gap in conversation too wide for comfort. I wasn’t sure how to fill it.
Twilight coughed into her hoof. “So! Anyway. Are you excited for Pinkie Pie’s party tomorrow? I mean, if you’re going, that is.”
I stared blankly through the other pony, not quite looking at her. It sure would have been nice of Font to tell me that my target was hosting a big one the next day. A detail like that could have saved me some time. Parties were gold mines to a sleuth. Too many ponies talking, too much gossip, too many ways to not mind your own business. “What’s the occasion?” I asked.
Twilight smirked. “It’s been about two weeks since the last one. Pinkie Pie never let an occasion get in the way of a good party.”
For some reason, I smiled. It was a wan smile, but a warm smile, the kind I caught myself using around Font. The kind I remembered smiling as a kid. It just came out of nowhere and it didn’t feel tired or forced or past its years. I felt a shred silly wearing it but I couldn’t stop. I didn’t know what to think about this.
“So, you’re coming? Or you’re not coming?” Twilight’s voice smacked me out of my stupor. It didn’t quite knock the smile from my face, though.
“I’ll be there,” I said.
“Great!” Her face brightened like she’d accomplished something. It occurred to me that I might have been one of her friendship experiments. I wasn’t sure how to feel about that, either. “I can’t recall seeing you at one of Pinkie’s parties,” she said.
“You probably haven’t. Afraid I miss out on the lot of them. Work keeps me busy, most of the time, and I’m a lousy drunk.” I cringed. Always back to the damn bottle. “Can’t say I have an excuse, now.”
There was that odd silence again. I poked at the brim of my hat and searched along the floor for another book to kick.
“I should get back to work,” Twilight said.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, then?”
“Okay. It was nice seeing you again, Ms. Bride.”
I was already back in the entrance hall on the blue mat with the lily pads. I glanced over my shoulder at Twilight. “Right back at you. ‘Bride’ is fine, by the way. ‘Anna’ works, too.”
“Alright then, Anna,” Twilight said. She smiled. I smiled back. We were all smiles, good and happy. It felt nice to be in old town. Ponies were happy, here.
I said goodbye and went outside and stood on Twilight’s front walk. There was a stiff breeze blowing in now from the east that howled through the branches of the library, and the sun was shining hard enough to make me squint. I pulled the flask from my coat and took a swig. Then I felt around inside my pocket for the pack of cigarettes, fished out a smoke, lit it, and left a trail of ash running away from the base of the tree and out the cul de sac. I wasn’t smiling.
What did some Canterlot jaghead know about friendship, anyway? I had friends. I had three pressed suits. I had a lighter. I had rolled up friends in a little box. I had Booker’s GI flask in the coat pocket over my heart. I had a coat, a hat, a gun. I had work, I had the city.
There wasn’t much else to have.
by Mad Brochacho
Many thanks to:
Raymond Chandler, for telling me some of the truest lies I’ve ever heard.
Sugarcube Corner was a giant cupcake built smack in the center of town, coated with sprinkles, candles and sequins. It had a pink mailbox, pink-tinted windows, pink flowers, a pink door and a pink sign hanging above the door with a pink cupcake painted in the center. I felt my insulin level rise just looking at the place. Somewhere out past Everfree a dragon sat on a mountaintop and stared down at the bakery, wondering whose birthday it was.
There were bushes the color of brownies planted on either side of the front steps, and the entrance to the bakery was flanked by two pink and white swirling pillars that might have been made from actual candy cane. Above the front door hung a cast iron horseshoe on a nail hammered not quite straight into the wooden frame. The horseshoe looked fit for an alicorn and the nail was about as long as the ones used to seal coffins.
No bell rang as I entered through the front door. I stepped inside and looked around. I was the only customer. The bakery interior was a stack of cupcakes, a series of frosting swirls, some candy canes in a box and a counter. Everything in sight looked edible. I felt like I was in a gingerbread house. Maybe I was.
I tipped my hat back and crossed the store to the counter. On the counter top sat a laminate price list and a desk bell. Behind the counter was an oak staircase climbing to the second floor, and the wall behind that opened into a small kitchen housing a fat, round baker’s oven. In a door frame opposite the staircase hung a pair of swing doors and from beyond them came the sound of somepony rummaging through the inventory. The somepony was humming.
I turned away from the counter and tiphoofed over to an end table that was backed against a sidewall of the room and had a gallery of photos stood on it. The photos were nice, family photos. Two candy-colored bakers, two newborns whose genes didn’t quite match up and one older pink mare who didn’t quite fit the picture, either. Strange family businesses were more than often run by strange families, no surprise there. It was the normal ones you had to watch out for.
I slid my hoof under the stand of the pink mare’s picture frame and lifted it. The photo inside spoke of a high grade lens and looked recent enough. She was posing with the two newborns at her forelegs and waggling her tongue at the camera. Not the type I’d peg as withdrawn and sad. I scoped her cutie mark, saw three balloons, two blue, one yellow, and set the picture frame back down on the table.
Beside the end table were some party favors and streamers and snakes of tissue paper piled in a bin on the floor. No cups or utensils that I could see. Some party I was in for tomorrow. Where did they keep the wine in a place like this?
I turned back to the center of the shop and stared. There were no strange smells, no bodies on the floor, no blood trails crawling down the woodwork. Just an empty bakery, same as any other, with a no smoking sign hung on the wall and a fine dusting of confectioner’s sugar spread over the floorboards.
In the absence of a headache it occurred to me I had accepted a job that was not only a job I would never accept, but was also one that I could not complete. What exactly did Rarity hire me to do? Keep an eye on Pinkie Pie, who was her friend, whatever that was supposed to mean. I wondered what Twilight would have had to say about that one. So a baker wrote some weird things in her diary, big whoop. What else were diaries for?
The only thing that made this mess a job was the money I was being paid to do it. It wasn’t a smear job, because Rarity evidently didn’t want to see her pink friend harmed. Not that I was complaining. On the other hoof, Rarity hadn’t asked me to look for anything in particular. I was to call her if anything turned up, but nothing would turn up. She had already found Pinkie Pie’s diary. What the hell else was there to find?
Maybe there was something to what Twilight had said. It didn’t take much to realize what made a good friend. A good friend wouldn’t hire a gumhoof to spy on another.
The whole thing left a sour taste in my mouth. Come to think of it, I couldn’t be sure that Rarity was even telling me the truth. Who was to say she wasn’t some big shot fashionista looking to trash a middle class pony who had the gall to insult her hat? She could have cooked up the whole diary story to set me on the trail of somepony who didn’t deserve it. In that case, she was using me right fine. I’d have to look into it further. Further than not at all.
I crossed the bakery floor to the counter and rang the desk bell and waited.
There was a crash, some stacked boxes falling in the storage room. A pointed voice sounded from nowhere: “Be with you in just a teensy-weensy minute!” The voice spoke with more energy than ought to have been allowed on a workday.
I looked down at a price laminate taped to the counter. Cupcakes were two bits a piece. Twenty bits would buy you a cake. Thirty, if it was dressed nice enough.
When I looked up from the list there was a charged ball of pink standing on the other side of the counter. She was candy-colored, soft-looking and round, like something the bakery might sell, and she wore a smile slightly dimmer than a lens flare. Her coat was vibrant pink and her mane was something you’d hack through with a machete. She was staring at me with the happiest thousand-yard stare I’d ever seen.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hi! I know I said I would be a minute and that was only, like, five or ten seconds but it’s okay because I didn’t want to keep you waiting and I came out here and you were reading and I thought, ‘Why not let her read?’ So I did. Anyway, hi! I’ve never seen you in here before! Wait a minute, I’ve never seen you anywhere before! My name’s Pinkie Pie! What’s your name?”
I couldn’t tell if she was just excited or getting ready to tackle me. “Anna,” I said. “Anna Bride.”
Pinkie Pie giggled sharply. “Anna? That’s a silly name.”
“My parents had a strange sense of humor.”
She shut her eyes and giggled again. “Better than no sense at all, right?” I caught a glimpse of something dark, distant hiding in her eyes when they reopened. She blinked once and it was gone.
“Right,” I said.
“Anyway, new friend! You know what this calls for?”
I shook my head.
“A party!” Pinkie Pie jumped onto her back hooves and raised her forelegs to the ceiling. There was a burst of confetti from nowhere. She smiled at me.
“Cute trick, kid. I’ll pass.”
Pinkie Pie held the pose, huffing with excitement. “No party?”
“Not the party type,” I said.
Pinkie dropped to her hooves and smiled a bit less. I guessed that was her way of frowning. “Oh well, it can wait,” she said. “So! Are you gonna buy something? Hah! What a silly question, of course you want to buy something, I mean you walked through the front door and all.”
“Yeah. I think I’ll try —”
“A cake? A candy cane? No wait, a cupcake!”
I lifted my hat, ran a hoof through my mane, and sat it back on my head. “Sure, why not. One cupcake, please.”
“Great! What flavor do you want? We’ve got vanilla, strawberry, chocolate, milk chocolate, dark chocolate, darker chocolate, banana cream, coffee, apple, cherry, blueberry, maple syrup, cookie dough, marshmallow, red velvet, blue velvet, rainbow and friendship!”
“What’s in a friendship cupcake?”
Pinkie Pie giggled. “It’s my own special recipe. Wanna try one?”
“Okie-dokie lokey.” She skipped over to the biggest oven on the rear wall and threw open the hatch. A powerful sugar smell rushed into the room, sweet as molasses and no less thick. Pinkie Pie slid a tray of cupcakes out, tossed one of them in a paper bag, shut the oven door, and bounced back to the counter with the bag held in her teeth. She slid the bag across to me and smiled. “There you go!”
I pressed two bits down onto the counter top and thanked her. There was nothing for me here. Not until I talked to Rarity.
As I turned to leave, Pinkie Pie called after me: “Uh, wait! One more thing.”
I looked over my shoulder. “What?”
She had moved out from behind the counter and was shining a straight grin at me. Her blue eyes wide and nervous. I saw that same speck of darkness floating again in her bubbly stare. It was right below the surface, a hint of ash, a fleck of something pained. You learned to notice these things.
“Remember to come tell me if you change your mind about the party,” Pinkie Pie said. “It’s never too late for a new friend party!”
Another spray of confetti burst out from nowhere and showered to the floor. I searched along her pink coat while she posed but found nothing. No saddlebag, no pouch on her flank, nowhere to hide all that confetti. I wasn’t sure how she did it. I didn’t like that. “Good to know,” I said. “I’ll see you around.”
Pinkie Pie waved at me. “Come again!”
I walked out the door.
On my way down the front steps of Sugarcube Corner I bumped sidelong into something light blue and fire-maned and slim. I heard a short squawk of pain, and a cyan wing snapped upward and smacked me in the chin and knocked my hat clean off. It was a harder punch than anything feathered had a right to throw.
We both untangled. I stepped back and blinked a few times and glanced over the pony I’d walked into. It was a mare. She had rainbows streaked on her mane, rainbows trailing behind her, rainbow bangs, a rainbow smile, rainbows where the sun didn’t shine. Her dark amethyst eyes were set hard and wanting in her head like they missed the other colors of the spectrum, staring at me. I was damn near blinded by the all color.
“Sorry,” I said. “Wasn’t watching where I was going.”
Dangerous mistake, that, mule’s job or not. One blind step might see you slapped in the face with an athlete’s wing, might earn you a soft bump on the snout, might get you good and dead and full of holes to prove it. I’d seen it happen.
The pegasus shook her head and gave her wing a few testing flaps. She smiled at me, a jockish sort of smile, one that wanted very much to become a smirk, but wasn’t. “Yeah, yeah, don’t sweat it,” she said. “My wing’s fine.”
I crouched down, bit the brim of my fedora, whopped the hat against my coat to clear off any dirt and flipped it onto my head. The rainbow mare gave me a look that said, ‘Cool.’ For a moment, I felt cool. We were both cool. Her wing was fine, my hat was fine, no broken bones, everypony was fine.
“Don’t believe we’ve met,” I said, extending a hoof to her. “The name’s Bride.”
She grabbed my hoof and shook it like a tornado flings matchsticks. This sort of thing hurts once you’ve passed thirty-five. “Rainbow Dash, the one and only,” she said, smiling.
“The one and only?”
“No time to talk, sorry! I was supposed to meet Pinkie here, like, fifteen minutes ago. Sure hope those new cupcakes are still warm. See you around!”
“Alright then. Good—”
But she was already gone, up the steps and into the bakery and with the pink door shut behind her. Some ponies lived too fast for conversation. They had their things to do and you had yours and unless you wanted to talk business nopony could spare you the time of day. Or maybe I was just getting old.
I picked up my paper bag from the ground and set off toward the park district, near town hall. With the job falling through the floor like a sack of rocks and nothing to keep me busy, I started to feel a little out of place. I didn’t really belong in old town. It reminded me nothing of home. The roads were curvy and old-fashioned, and even when I knew exactly where I was the silly names written on the street signs made me feel lost. There wasn’t a bit of concrete in sight. Instead, there was color smeared everywhere, all over the houses and in the trees and on the streets. I got lucky that day, though. I hadn’t gone all that far down the road from Sugarcube Corner when I saw something that fit in even worse than I did: a car.
It was a flat black, open-topped ‘53 Koltswagen cabriolet with four shining hubcaps and two leather seats. The car was dark as obsidian and parked on the side of the street near a bright pink house, with one hubcap backed too close to the curbstone and the cover rolled down. Nopony around. It stood out like a pistol in a pile of plush toys. Ahead of me, a small group of ponies passed by and gave the car a curious side-look. Then a suspicious side-look. Then they walked on. It didn’t matter how suspicious the car looked, it was nopony’s business. But I had never learned to mind my own business. Still haven’t.
I crossed the street toward the car and stopped at its left front fender and memorized the plate number without thinking. Then I craned over the driver’s door and checked the interior. Empty as you’d expect. I stepped back and circled around the car. The windshield was spotless along with the mirrors and trim, which were freshly polished, and the tires had hardly a speck of dirt on them. The rear plate matched numbers with the front and checked out as valid, Ponyville-issue.
It was just a car. Nothing suspicious. No more suspicious than I was, anyway. I felt an odd sense of camaraderie with the thing. Hell, we were sisters, the two of us. Black and gray pilgrims lost on technicolor sands. I felt a bit silly for nosing around. I probably looked a bit silly, too. Carrying a paper bag in my mouth didn’t help.
Before I could leave, I heard hooves clopping over the stone behind me. Hard, heavy hoofsteps. They slowed as I turned and stopped about five yards from where I stood. It was a stallion. He wore a black jacket over his broad brown shoulders and let his greasy mane hang in strands about his face. He had cheekbones sharp enough to cut glass and a mugger’s smile.
“Afternoon, graycoat,” he said. There was a whole box of nails rattling in his voice box. “Something I can help you with? Or were you hoping to find a body in the passenger seat.”
I confess, I got a little angry at that. You couldn’t knock me for poking around a car that looked straight off the mob’s payroll, not in this part of town. If the stallion wanted lip, he’d get it.
“Mmphn owph ampho,” I said. That would tell him.
It took me a moment to realize why my mouth wasn’t working. I spat the bag with the cupcake onto the ground and shook my head no more than a millimeter to either side. Not my finest hour.
Tall, dark and handsome just smirked at me. “Y’aint too quick to the punch, for a graycoat. Sad sight.”
I eyed the stallion’s jacket, which was black and long but not quite a trench coat. You could have fit a sawed-off underneath it and still had the body hang loose enough to move. The jacket sleeves ran clear down to the stallion’s yellowed, scuffed hooves, which were bent and curved and looked as if they’d met with a few faces in their time. You learned to size ponies up in my line of work. You weren’t always right but at the very least you could tell when being late to the punch wasn’t such a bad thing.
I ignored him and threw a hoof over my shoulder at the Koltswagen. “Fine car you’ve got here. Older model, restored, looks like. Bet that cost a fortune. Think I saw her this morning, parked in the lot at Sellem’s.”
“You’re funny. Want to see the registration?”
“No thanks. Not a cop.” From his expression, I’d say he thought the alternative was worse. “You leave your midlife crisis parked outside these funhouses often? You don’t look the type. No offense.”
He snorted. “Reckon that’s none of your business, gumhoof.”
I gave him a candid shrug and stepped back a pace. “Hey, I was only curious. Us southers ought to stick together. This part of town can grate on the nerves, sometimes.” I peered past him to the bright pink house, staring. It wasn’t all that pink. I’d seen pinker. “So what, your beau live around here?”
The stallion was too busy chuckling to notice, at first. He was feeling pretty confident in himself. Big men often are. “Souther? Listen here, ain’t no damn graycoat gonna act like —” He stopped. His smirk twisted a little and he shot me a prying look. He wasn’t sure how I meant it.
When he was done thinking and ready to talk back, I spoke instead. They didn’t like it when you did that. “I’m sure she’s nice. Probably a real looker. That is, unless —” I pretended to size him up, dragging my eyes from his thick brown forelegs to his thin, bony face. “— nah. Forget I mentioned it, slick. Hell, with manners like yours I bet you get all the mares. Why else would you buy such a shiny car?”
The smirk he’d worn since I fumbled the paper bag slipped off his face and swirled down the storm drain between us. His front pasterns flicked upward at me in annoyance. A bruiser’s gesture. He was a real souther, alright. “You got a lot of nerve, talking to me like that.”
I rolled the paper bag upright at my feet with one hoof. “Yeah, what do I know. I’m just a tired old mare. I’m all rusted up. Now, if you don’t mind, I’ll be on my way and out of your mane. Nice chatting with you.”
I crouched down and picked up the paper bag and started back across the street. As I walked, I felt the stallion’s eyes center in on the back of my foreleg. He called after me in a low voice, all trace of humor gone.
“Scarred up, too. No surprise there. Happens to nosy ponies who don’t know how to keep their mouths shut.”
I stopped in the middle of the road. A weak chill ran down my spine. Hadn’t felt that in a couple of weeks. I looked slowly over my shoulder and saw standing beside the car not some punk from new town, but a threat. A pony who’d carry a gun in his pocket. A pony who had scarred.
“Nasty one,” the stallion said, grinning. “Bet that hurt.”
“Iph ghid,” I said. I stared blankly at him for a moment then turned away and crossed the rest of the street and walked on, making a point not to look over my shoulder. After a few seconds, I hadn’t been shot yet, which was always a good sign. Thirty paces along the sidewalk, I heard the engine catch behind me and the black body of the car went hurtling down the road and out of view.
Old towners could paint their straw shacks yellow and pink and talk about friendship all they wanted, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference. That stallion was exactly where Ponyville was headed, the same low place to which every city eventually sunk. I wondered what Twilight would have said to him. He probably just needed some good, bright-colored friends and a hug. It was a cute dream, but nothing a short trip down fourth avenue couldn’t cure.
I walked the rest of the way to town hall and circled around the courtyard until I found an unoccupied bench. I set the cupcake bag down on the bench and sat down on the gumless side and reached into my pocket. There were six cigarettes left in the pack. I cut that number down to five and got lost in my own happy place for six or seven minutes. By now, the hard breeze from earlier had stiffened into plain old wind and my bangs were whipping around my head. This made smoking a little difficult. I had to balance the cigarette on one hoof, shield it from the wind with another and keep my head turned downwind. I got a lot of strange looks. Nopony smoked anymore. Not anywhere, especially not in old town. I reckon I stood out worse than the cabriolet.
One blank-flanked, burgundy filly stopped and looked at me like I was a museum exhibit. What was that mare doing, mommy?
The filly’s mother pulled her along, down the street. It wasn’t nice to stare.
I couldn’t blame her. I had been trying to quit for ages, but every time I cut down I’d end up drinking more instead. Then Font would jump on my case, and to cope I’d go right back to smoking. If anypony asked, which they did, I was quitting. They only had to know you were quitting and they’d leave you alone. Even if you were still quitting when the topic came up again six months later, that was enough.
The smoke burned out a full three minutes before I was ready to let it go. Every burnt stub was a small tragedy. I stomped the cigarette out, opened the top of Pinkie Pie’s paper bag, took one sniff of the cupcake inside and dove in with my snout.
Say one thing for Pinkamena Diane Pie, say she could bake. The chocolate frosting was whipped from distilled cocoa pods and the whole cupcake sat better than a five course meal at Savor’s. It was the best damn cupcake anypony had ever tasted. It finished sooner than I’d have liked. I’d have liked if it never finished at all.
I sat for a while on the bench next to the crumpled up paper bag and ponywatched. A couple trotters passed by, Walkstallions clipped to their flanks. Some weatherponies flew overhead. A pink mare with a flower tucked behind her ear looked to be returning from the market. Beyond her, a trio of fillies stood in a circle, giggling. There was a loose mess of suburban types heading north with ‘none of your business’ written on their faces. I wondered how they got that look down so perfect. A ways down the street they passed an odd pony sat straight up against the back of a bench without so much as a second glance. The things you see.
I made a mental note to never accept another job while hung over. The problem with smear jobs was you spent all your time eating cupcakes and sitting on benches instead of working. It was bad for the figure. Besides, I didn’t take smear jobs. Not unless the pony seemed worth smearing.
It wasn’t just that dirty work gave us a bad reputation. These sorts of jobs were downright boring. Nothing but a big, long streams of hearsay. This pony said that, this mare knew another mare who said this, this stallion needed to pay. What all this amounted to was a lot of flank-kissing and walking around. You could feel your eyelids sinking by the hour. You wanted work, real work. You really longed for a car to come tearing down the road with some well-toned stallion leaned out the passenger window and firing a Thompson from the hip at six hundred rounds per minute, of which six would hit the target. You’ll never catch me, coppers.
That sort of thing never happened. Real trouble wasn’t funny business. We all got into the job knowing it would kill us, someday. There wasn’t no way around it. Badge or no badge, it was the least we could do to make sure we spent our time searching out real jobs instead of running wish-wash surveillance for ponies with big hats.
“Ms. Bride, is that you? What a surprise, meeting you here.”
Speaking of big hats.
“Afternoon, stranger. Out for a stroll?”
“Yes, actually,” Rarity said, stepping farther along the sidewalk and into view. A sunbeam arched off one of the many diamonds sewn around her hat and sawed into my eye. I wasn’t sure how I’d missed her, wearing that thing. You could probably see it from orbit.
I squinted, trying to angle my head away from the glare. “Awful convenient running into you here. I was just thinking of calling you.”
Rarity eyed the unoccupied flat of the bench. Some wads of gum stuck on the boards convinced her not to take a seat. “Oh dear. Did you find something?”
“No. I have some questions for you. Questions that need answering.”
“But we just spoke a few hours ago.”
“Yeah, well, my head don’t work so good in the wee small hours. I’ll take a job I don’t particularly like if it means I won’t get evicted from my apartment, but I’m not in the habit of taking jobs that go nowhere. So, we have a problem.”
Rarity pursed her lips together. “Whatever do you mean?”
I shifted on the bench and reached into my coat and pushed the flip lighter around in my pocket. “I’ll tell you what I should have told you this morning. This is a ridiculous job, either way you cut it. You say Pinkie Pie’s your friend. If that’s the case, then you should think about talking to her yourself. Hiring somepony like me to tail her is just begging to be found out, and once that happens, she won’t be your friend much longer. Unless, of course, you’re lying, and you really just want to see Pinkie Pie take a fall. In that case, you can go ahead and throw your money someplace else. A firm would be more than welcome to help you.”
I settled onto the bench and waited for the unicorn to get angry. She didn’t get half as angry as I expected.
“I am not lying. Pinkie Pie is a dear friend to me, to all of us. I have no desire to see her harmed in all of this. I would approach her with my other friends. I know, I should. I’m just rather... confused, is all.”
“About what you found in the diary.”
Rarity nodded. “It’s as I said before. You would need to know Pinkie Pie like I do.”
“Look, I just met her twenty minutes ago. I see what you mean. She’s pink, she’s bubbly. A real happy mare. I get it. But what Pinkie Pie wrote was private. It was meant to stay private. So, what, you think because your friend wrote some odd things in her diary that makes her a serial killer?”
Now, Rarity was already whiter than the polished mammoth skeleton propped up inside the Canterlot Museum of Equestrian Natural History, so there wasn’t much color left in her face to drain. I waited for the unicorn to say something. About ten seconds passed and she was still staring at me with look of cold shock written on her face. She was hollow and shivering. All the blood had drained from her cheeks.
I rolled my eyes, planted a hoof in the center of my forehead and shook my head. This time it wasn't a millimeter-wide shake, it was a good old-fashioned shake, side to side so everypony could see it. You shook your head like that just in case somepony decided to eavesdrop on your conversation. That way, if the third party happened to overhear what the other pony had said, they would realize instantly that you knew it was the dumbest thing anypony had ever said. There could be no doubt. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry.
"That's rich," I said.
"No, that's really rich. And ponies call me paranoid.”
"I don't find it funny at all.”
I lifted my head from my hoof and stared at her with the flattest expression I could muster. "You've got a wild imagination, I’ll give you that. Been reading a lot of pulp stories lately?"
"I never said a thing."
"No, but you wanted to."
Rarity said nothing.
I scratched beneath my hat, trying to think of what to tell her. What the hell were you supposed to say something like this? "Okay, listen,” I said. “I know a thing or two about murder. It comes with the badge. Your so-called friend up there in Sugarcube Corner? She ain't a murderer. I won't say she's alright in the head, or even that her whole spiel isn't just an act. I don't know that. But unless you’ve got some more evidence to show me, I can’t go along with this.”
"I’m not looking for a police investigation, though. That’s exactly why I came to you. Please, I don’t mean to suggest that Pinkie Pie is...”
“I would appreciate if you don’t talk about my friend like that.”
I sighed. “Fine. You don’t mean to suggest that she’s a criminal.”
“Not in the least. Only now I’m not sure what do. After all, how can I be sure? Plenty of ponies hide things, right?”
"Not ‘plenty’. Everypony hides things. That doesn't mean your friend is a closet psycho, nor does it give anypony the right to run around pointing hooves without solid grounds for suspicion.”
Rarity glared at me. "Stop calling her that.”
I held up my front hooves. "Hey, you're the one who hired me. Not interested in straight talk? Fine. Kindly take your money and walk away. As it stands, you're not giving me any reason to believe Pinkie Pie is really your friend. Call me crazy, but if one of my friends thought I was moonlighting as a sicko, I'd reconsider calling that pony a friend. So tell me, other than the diary, what reason do you have to believe this crazy story?"
Rarity stomped a hoof on the ground. "I never said Pinkie was a psychopath, stop putting words in my mouth!"
"Either you’re afraid to confront her for that reason, wasting your money on a sleuth, or you're a liar. Take your pick."
"Excuse me for me feeling the slightest bit worried when I find out that one of my friends, one of my best friends, whom I can always trust to put a smile on everypony's face, might be lying to me! Might be lying to everypony! Do you know how that feels? I mean, what if it's all an act? What if the only reason Pinkie Pie acts that way is so nopony suspects that she..."
"That she what,” I said.
I shifted positions on the bench, crossing my forehooves and facing her. I took a deep breath. "Rarity, I've seen this sort of thing before and I know what you're talking about. That guy who always smiles at you on the way in to work. You know, the quiet one, with the briefcase. He minds his own business. He’s friends with everypony at the office. Then one day you see his face in the paper. I get it. But that's not Pinkie Pie. Ponies with something big to hide tend to be recluses. They don't host weekly parties and surround themselves with friends.
"So, yeah, I want the job. I really do. Celestia knows Font and I need the money. But, to put it bluntly, I think you're lying. Hell, even if you’re not, which I doubt, I can’t help you. Skulking around like this is just going to get somepony hurt. I think that's what you want.”
Rarity stared points into the ground for a while before raising her head. Her bottom lip looked to be quivering. She nodded at me, sucked in some air and started to speak. She was cut off when something crashed into the back of the park bench.
Big tufts of cotton candy hair shot out through the gaps between the wooden backboards. “Whoopsies!” Pinkie Pie stepped back and shook her head, her big mane flapping around like fields of cotton in a thunderstorm. She looked at me and smiled sheepishly. Then she looked at Rarity's hat. Then she looked at Rarity. "Oh, hi Rarity!"
"Uhm, hello, Pinkie Pie,” Rarity said.
I raised an eyebrow. This changed things. Part of me had hoped Rarity was lying, that she was looking to trash on the poor baker. It would have all gone much easier, that way. I could have just said no.
I scooted down the bench away from Pinkie Pie, whose puffy-maned head was hovering over the back of the bench and by extension my shoulder. "You two know each other?"
Pinkie Pie whipped her head up and down. "Yesseree! Rarity's one of my best friends. Ooh, are you her friend, too? This is great!"
I glanced over to Rarity, who looked mortified, and was trying very hard not to seem mortified. I looked back to Pinkie Pie. "No, we just met. I flicked a cigarette right as Ms. Rarity here walked by. She decided to do her duty as a Ponyville citizen and tell me that I ought to dispose of my cigarette in the proper receptacle. How nice of her."
"Oh," Pinkie Pie said.
Rarity let out an audible sigh of relief. I threw her a mean glare from out the corner of my eye.
"Well, ha ha, would you look at the time,” Rarity said. She really was none too good at this. “It was nice chatting with you, Ms. Bride, but I really should be getting back to my —"
Before Rarity could finish her sentence, something crashed into Pinkie Pie's flanks and sent her flying over the back of the bench. She landed with a small bounce as if the ground were a trampoline, sat up, shook her head, looked over my shoulder and smiled. "Hiya Dashie!" She giggled. “That was fun.”
I glanced over the back of the bench. Pinkie Pie’s puffy mane had been replaced with a layered, rainbow one. Its owner stood up slowly, rubbing the side of her snout. Her eyes were reeling in their sockets. I swear I saw doves flying a halo around her head.
"Jeez, Pinkie, at least tell me where you’re going before you take off like that,” Rainbow Dash said.
"Whoops, sorry Dashie, but it really was an emergency!”
"What the hay could be so important?"
"I forgot to invite Anna Bride to my party tomorrow!"
Rainbow Dash slapped a hoof against her forehead. "Ugh. Seriously, Pinkie Pie?"
"Super seriously!" Pinkie Pie spun to face me and clasped her forehooves together. "Okay I know you don't want me to throw you a new friend party but maybe just maybe you could try going to my first-party-in-two-weeks party tomorrow? I promise it will be fun and nopony will bother you and even if you don't like it you can leave that's okay I won’t mind but I know you'll just love it if you give it a try and —"
"Okay, sounds good," I said.
“— if even you don’t that’s, wait. YES!” Pinkie Pie swept me up in a one-sided hug.
“Hey, take it easy, kid.” I shrugged out of the embrace. I’d be picking pink hairs out of my mane for weeks. “I’ll show. I’m sure it’ll be a great party.”
Pinkie Pie straight blinded me with her teeth. I took a good look at her eyes and couldn't find anything wrong with them. She seemed about as happy as she ever was. You learned to size ponies up in my line of work. You weren’t always right, but you could tell when somepony was smiling daggers at you. Pinkie Pie wasn’t.
“Oh thank you thank you I’m sure you’ll have lots of fun!”
Rarity cleared her throat. “Yes, well, it was lovely seeing you girls, but I’m afraid I’m terribly busy at the moment and I really should be getting back to my boutique. I have an —” She looked directly at me. “— important phone call with a customer, later. Yes, that. I suppose I’ll see you all at the party tomorrow night.”
I estimated that Rarity couldn’t have acted more suspicious if she tried. It was her job to ruin, though. More power to her.
We all three said goodbye and watched the unicorn’s hat bob away down the road. Rainbow Dash seemed a bit vexed by her friend’s behavior, but otherwise said nothing. They both invited me back to the bakery to try out some new cupcakes. Caramel Supremes, they were called. I told them I was busy.
“I’ve got a lot of work get through, down at the office.”
Pinkie Pie deflated. “Oh, okay. Maybe some other time?”
“Sure, when I’m not busy,” I said. But I would always be busy, even as the eviction crew hauled me out of my apartment. There were plenty of ways for me to spend an afternoon, and eating cupcakes with strangers wasn’t one of them.
As I walked off toward new town, Pinkie Pie waved after me. “Bye, new friend!”
I kept walking. I shook my head once I had turned a corner out of town square. Friendship was real cheap in old town. Cheap as glue.
by Mad Brochacho
Many thanks to:
Chandler, for his pipe and his glasses and his pen.