Ambrosia, Vulcanopolis Style
written by Mooncurl and Tabby
Early spring in Vulcanopolis meant that the days were mild, and the two mares strolling down the sidewalk away from the airport were walking slowly to enjoy the soft, playful breeze that ruffled their hair ever so slightly. The white pony seemed a tad nervous while the watermelon pink one was obviously quite in her element; she kept up a constant stream of conversation accompanied with frequent flourishes of a hoof or foreleg as if pointing out sights of interest.
"The tall building off to your right is city hall; the Grecian looking set of buildings dead ahead is the university; and the brick structure over there is the home of Clare's Creations," said Angela briskly. "And the hotel you will be staying at is the pink stucco partially hidden by the trees in the park."
"So this is Vulcanopolis!" sighed Mooncurl, gazing about her in delight. "How I've dreamed of coming here, and now it's a reality!"
"It's not so different from Ponyland; you'll see. Ponies are ponies no matter where you go."
"But it is so romantic here," Mooncurl breathed, looking around her in awe, "and I'll be working for Clare."
Angela giggled. "Clare's just like any of the rest of us, except that things went right for her when she started Clare's Creations. You'll enjoy modeling for her designs."
When the two arrived at the main entrance of the impressive building that contained the corporate offices as well as the design studios and the actual manufacturing areas and storerooms of the business, they were met by a grey unicorn stallion whom Angela introduced to the new arrival. "Mooncurl, this is Clare's business manager as well as my brother. Pacificus, this is our premier model, Mooncurl."
"Very pleased to meet you," Mooncurl murmured, offering her hoof to the stallion.
"It's nice to meet you, Mooncurl. I've heard nothing but positive reviews of your success in Ponyland." Pacificus shook her hoof in a brief but sincere manner and found that he could not easily break contact.
"I'm excited to be working with a company that has the reputation that Clare's Creations has," Mooncurl said, her eyes holding Pacificus in their spell.
"You will be a benefit for our fashions," Pacificus stated rather nervously, casting an imploring glance at his sister. But before Angela could come to his rescue, another voice filtered through.
"Pacificus? Remember me?"
The stallion looked up abruptly to find Hydrangea on the scene and looking at him with a rather amused if not slightly agitated smile. He immediately removed his hoof from Mooncurl's possession, and explained, "I've been watching for you, Hydrangea. Are you ready for lunch?"
"Where are your manners, brother dear?" Angela asked. "Hydrangea, this is Mooncurl who will be modeling Clare's fashions for the new line; Mooncurl, this is Pacificus' fiancee, Hydrangea."
"Does every stallion I meet have to have a fiancee?" muttered Mooncurl, smiling briefly in Hydrangea's direction as Pacificus guided the blue pegasus away for their luncheon date.
"Van wasn't lying," he whispered in his sister's ear in passing.
Angela only smiled, and invited Mooncurl to Clare's office. As the two traveled across the reception area, all eyes focused on the white earth pony with pastel blue hair whose natural beauty enhanced by perfectly applied makeup was strikingly apparent. Angela rapped softly on the closed office door and opened it only when a melodic "Come in" was heard from inside.
The lavender owner of Clare's Creations stood up from behind her desk as the mares entered. Coming around to greet Mooncurl, Clare gave her a cursory inspection and was pleased with what she saw. "You had a pleasant flight, I hope?"
"Yes. Everything went smoothly. And except for feeling a little tired, I'm ready to get to work."
Clare laughed. "How about lunch first? I believe that Angela has made reservations for us at Agostino's."
"Yes, I have," concurred Angela. "They will be expecting you any time now."
* * *
"So, Mooncurl, you have an impressive resume and I can see why. You have the perfect look for a fashion model," Clare said as the two settled down with their lunch.
"Thank you. And I truly enjoy what I do."
"I understand that we have mutual friends back in Ponyland."
"Oh, yes, Van. He and I were, well, close... back in our senior year of high school."
"Did you meet his fiancee?"
"Yes, I did, briefly... Strawberry, wasn't it?"
"Sugarberry," Clare corrected.
"Whatever," Mooncurl scowled for a second, then immediately brightened. "Anyway, when do we start the shoot?"
"You're anxious to get to work, I see." Clare set down her fork, and took a drink of her beverage. "I'll have Angela give you a tour of our complex when we are through with lunch, then I think you should go to your hotel and get some rest. We'll do some preliminary work with the photographer tomorrow morning."
"I don't want you to fall behind schedule on my account; I'm sure I could work just fine this afternoon."
"I admire your spirit, Mooncurl, but just relax. Our schedule is right on target, and we don't foresee any problems to interfere. Just get yourself settled and get a good night's sleep. Tomorrow will bring its own work."
* * *
It was mid-afternoon when Pacificus stopped at Clare's office for a chat. "Has Mooncurl met Giorgio yet?" he asked with a grin.
"No, and she's not about to," Clare replied, returning his grin. "Angela told me about your encounter."
"Just how do you intend to keep Giorgio out of her clutches?"
"He's busy with some of his community hours; he's overseeing the transfer of all the records at city hall into a new computer system. I don't even plan on seeing him myself until it's all completed and functioning properly which he says could take well over a week to accomplish."
"The timing is good, all things considered," commented Pacificus, remembering the charm that Mooncurl had exerted on him.
"What did Hydrangea have to say about our new model?"
Pacificus grimaced. "She said that she would be happy to put the prima donna on the next flight out for Timbuktu."
* * *
Mooncurl had unpacked her luggage and curled up on the bed for some sleep, but found herself wide-awake after only a couple of hours. The sounds of Vulcanopolis pulled at her to explore, and she was soon refreshed with a shower and a fresh application of makeup and fragrance. Her favorite scent, Ambrosia, stood near at hoof on the counter and she used it liberally.
Exploring the gracious accommodations of the hotel absorbed some time for the inquisitive mare, and she was thrilled with the Mediterranean atmosphere. She requested seating in the outdoor section of the dining area and was pleased to be situated in the soft glow of the lighting in such a way that her beauty was highlighted. The waiter was enthralled with this lovely creature and delivered optimum service, yet Mooncurl was not entirely happy because she sat alone.
* * *
It had been a long day. Things had not gone well with the computers, and Giorgio was not in the best of humor. His decision to stop by the hotel for a quiet supper was influenced by the fact that he knew that Clare, too, was planning on putting in long days with her supermodel from Ponyland; and she was probably just as tired and grumpy as he was. A second factor was that he had no food in his town house that was suitable for a quick supper; he, therefore, had come to the decision to splurge with an unplanned repast at the hotel.
After being seated, Giorgio took a deep breath and tried to relax. His mind was still sorting computer code in random array, and he shook his head as if to clear it of all the day's input. The ice water on the table looked refreshingly inviting; he drank his fill and sat back to take in the descent of darkness around the unlighted fringes of the cafe. It was then that he saw her.
* * *
Mooncurl had watched with interest the arrival of the dark green stallion with deep blue hair and was pleased to see him seated at the table next to hers. He had put in a trying day; she could tell by the worry lines across his forehead and the way he stared off into space. She wished that she could see him smile; she was sure that his sober face would be truly handsome if only he would lose the troubled look. She was wondering if it would be too forward of her to approach him at his table when his gaze found hers. They stared at each other for several seconds, and then, simultaneously, both smiled.
Her heart melting, Mooncurl was unable to breath as she found her assertion correct-- he was a very handsome stallion. He had looked away as soon as the moment passed, but Mooncurl was mesmerized. Catching the waiter's attention, she asked him to convey a message to the stallion at the neighboring table. She watched as the message was delivered, and her now functioning heart skipped a beat as the stallion stood up and walked to her side.
"I couldn't help but notice that you seemed rather forsaken," she smiled up at him. "Would you care to dine with me?"
"And you are...?"
"My name is Mooncurl. And yours is...?"
"Giorgio." The stallion sat down in the chair across from her.
"Giorgio," she repeated. "That's so utterly Italian."
"I would hope so," he grinned. "You are not from Vulcanopolis?"
"Heavens, no. I'm from New Pony. This is my first visit to Italy."
"And how do you like it so far?"
"It's great! I could be very happy here."
Giorgio's order being delivered, the waiter asked if Mooncurl would like anything else. She declined with a wave of her hoof.
"All you're having is a salad?" Giorgio asked of her. "Wouldn't you like one of our local specialties?" He found it difficult to take his eyes off her face; her eyes seemed to draw him in.
"I'm fine," she replied. "And how about you? You looked exhausted when you first came in."
"But not now?"
"No. Now you look... animated."
"Must be the company." He smiled at her and she was enamored.
* * *
It was late when Giorgio headed home. He and Mooncurl had a leisurely supper and talked over coffee for hours. Giorgio found it liberating to talk with someone who did not know about his past; he had avoided mentioning anything that would open up all the old wounds. They had talked of many things but of nothing mundane and personal. He had parted from her with a promise to call her tomorrow.
* * *
Mooncurl floated to her room and went straight to bed to dream of this new stallion in her life, one who did not know that she had come from a mediocre background that still haunted her at times. With him she had felt intelligent and witty and logical, not just another pretty face. She had refrained from sharing with him her purpose for being in town for that reason. Tomorrow she would see him again.
* * *
"Did you see the article on the fashion page?" Pacificus asked of Angela as he came into the office.
At the same time, the door to Clare's private office flew open. "Did you see this?" she asked of the two ponies, waving the paper in front of them.
"I did," responded Pacificus.
"What is it?" asked Angela.
"Look for yourself!" scoffed Clare, throwing the paper down on the desk.
"Vulcanopolis' Newest Designer Instant Success," Angela read the headline, then frowned as she noticed the accompanying picture. "That looks like Gabriel."
"The same!" Clare paced the floor. "He quit his job here last year, and now he has the audacity to compete with me."
Angela and Pacificus exchanged a wary glance for it wasn't too long ago that they had tried something similar. But Clare had forgiven their feeble attempt to emulate her fashions and had actually hired Pacificus to replace the now errant Gabriel.
Clare continued to fume. "All the styles they picture are rip-offs of our designs from last season. All he has done is made slight modifications and put his name on the label. I wish I could get my hooves on that..."
"Hold on," interrupted Angela. "How in the world did he get enough money to start his own company, anyway?"
"The Lady Estelle is promoting him," Clare hissed. "Of all the affluent snobs in Vulcanopolis, he picked the most pretentious one of the bunch. The two deserve each other!"
"Was Gabriel talented enough to make a name for himself?" asked Pacificus, painfully aware that it had taken him too long to realize his own limitations.
"Only with a wealthy patron to sponsor him and his nerve to copy the original work of others."
"Then he can't get too far."
Clare rapped her hoof on the paper laid open on the desk. "This one article is too far for our little Gabriel. What I wouldn't do to get rid of the upstart!"
"It says here that he's seeing customers at his suite at the Hotel Italiano; nice set-up."
"Hmm..." thought Clare. "That's where Mooncurl is staying. Maybe I can have her do some undercover work to see what he is up to."
As if on cue, a knock sounded on the partially open door. "Excuse me," Mooncurl's voice sounded. "I'm not too early, am I?"
"Mooncurl, come on in; you're right on time," Clare invited. "Did you get your rest?"
"Yes, and I'm ready to start work." Mooncurl did indeed look relaxed and content; and she barely noticed Pacificus' presence in the room.
"Angela, take Mooncurl to Nello and they can get started. Mooncurl, I'd like you to join me for lunch when you are through." When the two mares had left the office, Clare said to Pacificus, "You can handle the appointment with the two reps from Mirabella's. I need to call Giorgio; I miss him." She smiled self-consciously.
"As well you should," responded Pacificus, leaving her to this pleasant task.
* * *
Clare and Mooncurl dined in the early afternoon at Fucciono's, a small diner that catered to the working crowd from the businesses that surrounded it. Both were rather withdrawn at the beginning of their luncheon as Clare was thinking about her absent Giorgio who, by the sounds of it, would be tied up with his work for an extended period; and Mooncurl was dreaming about last evening's chance rendezvous with the same stallion. Neither of them shared their thoughts with the other, however.
"There's a new designer staying at your hotel," Clare finally broke out of her self-pity and broached the subject that she wanted to discuss with Mooncurl. "He's trying to make a name for himself, and I'd like to find out more about his plans."
"A designer?" asked Mooncurl. "Who would that be?"
"A young stallion by the name of Gabriel. He's picked up a backer, one of the wealthy matrons of the city, and he seems to be flying high at the moment. I'd like to find out if he has what it takes to be serious competition for me."
"What does this have to do with me?" Mooncurl began to see that Clare was leading up to something.
"Since you are at the same hotel, I thought you might keep an eye out for this Gabriel and see what clients are coming to him; listen to any gossip that might be going around as well. I'd appreciate any insight into what his plans are."
"I can certainly give it a try, I guess," pondered Mooncurl. "I've never done any sleuthing before."
"Just keep your eyes and ears open when you are dining or in the hotel lobby; make note if you see either of these two, and let me know what they are up to." She slid the newspaper picture across the table.
"So the stallion is Gabriel; who is the mare?"
"That is the Lady Estelle; if you see her, try to talk with her and get her to open up about her plans for Gabriel."
"That should be easy enough."
"Good. I'll look forward to what you glean," said Clare. Then she added, "With any luck, I can have him out of my way in no time."
* * *
When Nello had completed the photo shoot for the day and Mooncurl had departed for her evening off, Clare and Angela couldn't refrain from teasing the photographer. "You survived your afternoon with Mooncurl, I see," Clare remarked.
"No problems," Nello said absently.
"Could she keep her hooves off of you?" asked Angela.
Nello shrugged. "She's a professional all the way... wonderful to work with."
Clare and Angela stared at one another and rolled their eyes. "Yeah, sure."
* * *
"I'm glad you didn't have to work too late tonight," Mooncurl said to the dark green stallion as they walked the sidewalks of the city. "I was looking forward to seeing you."
Giorgio smiled. "The place I'm taking you is not one of Vulcanopolis' best known restaurants, but it serves the best food; and it has a quiet atmosphere."
"How do you know about it?"
"My father owns a country home outside of town; and when we would stay there for the summer, it was the closest restaurant to get to. When my mother and I were at the house alone, she would often send me in to pick up supper for the two of us."
Giorgio explained the historical background of various places they passed on their walk and before they knew it, they were at the quaint and understated eating establishment. As on the previous night, they ate at their leisure and both seemed loath to end the evening. Yet Mooncurl did feel a certain amount of obligation toward Clare to at least make some attempt to get her the information she asked for, so she did not complain when they started back to the hotel. But she did agree to a cup of coffee in the lounge before separating; her spy work could be accomplished in Giorgio's company as well as alone.
But neither Gabriel or the Lady Estelle showed up and eventually Giorgio said his goodnight. Mooncurl lingered in the lounge, but found herself yawning uncontrollably. She stood up to make her way to her room and accessed the elevator; at the last moment before the door closed, a pompous mare came regally toward the lift. "Hold that!" she commanded.
Mooncurl put out her hoof to accommodate the mare. As the door closed behind her, the elegant pony observed Mooncurl closely. "You look familiar. Have we met before?"
"No, I don't think so," Mooncurl said hesitantly. Something about the mare set her ill at ease; she seemed to radiate nobility. It was only then that she realized who it was... the Lady Estelle. She looked much younger in reality than she had in the picture in the newspaper.
"Your picture was in the paper this morning!" she sputtered.
"You saw my young protégé then," the mare smiled warmly. "You would be a perfect subject for Gabriel to outfit." She looked over the perfect features and luminous eyes of the model before her.
"I'm sure that I could not afford his talent," Mooncurl replied demurely. The elevator stopped at Mooncurl's floor, and she began to exit.
"What's your name?" the Lady Estelle asked. "I would like for Gabriel to meet you."
"My name is Mooncurl. I'm in room 412."
"I'll be in touch," Estelle said, allowing the door to close on their conversation.
Mooncurl smiled. That was easy enough.
* * *
It was early in the morning when Mooncurl received a call from the Lady Estelle. "I talked with Gabriel, and he would be delighted to meet with you and discuss your personal fashion needs with you. When could you see him?"
"I'm not sure I can afford Gabriel's services," Mooncurl procrastinated, not wanted to sound too willing.
"Don't worry about the cost. If Gabriel finds you as perfect for his designs as I do, we will pay you for your cooperation."
"I don't understand."
"Gabriel is in need of a model, my dear... one who will do justice to the styles he fabricates. I think you would fit the bill quite nicely. When will you be free to meet with him?"
"My day is already planned, but I should be back at the hotel by three o'clock this afternoon."
"Three o'clock it is then. Come to Gabriel's suite on the top floor. He will be anxious to see you."
* * *
It was with childish delight that Mooncurl explained the events that led to her having a personal meeting scheduled with Gabriel for this very afternoon. Clare was delighted and made sure that Nello understood that Mooncurl was to be free to return to her hotel by three o'clock.
As it was, she was back at her room in plenty of time. She showered and primped over her hair; she took special care in applying her makeup; she sprayed on a generous amount of Ambrosia. And she took one final look in the mirror to make sure that everything was in order. Noticing a few stray hairs in her tail, she combed it out once more, then tied a vibrant blue bow around it. By now, the clock by her bed read two-fifty five. She had best be on her way.
She hesitated as she headed for the door. Had she remembered her perfume? Not sure either way, she grabbed the bottle and applied a second potent dose. "Better to be on the safe side," she mumbled and set off to be on time for her appointment.
Gabriel himself answered the door, and his eyes showed their approval of the Lady Estelle's choice. "Mooncurl? How fabulous of you to come!" He invited her into his suite, and looked her over as if she was a piece of expensive furniture. "Come and sit over here. I'll get us something to drink." He led her to an office space set apart from the rest of the room.
Mooncurl, in the meantime, was busy surveying Gabriel. He was easy on the eyes-- a beige stallion with soft green hair the color of new buds on springtime trees. She found herself looking forward to sharing fashion ideas with him.
"Some of our local grape juice," the stallion said as he poured her a drink and offered it to her.
"Thank you," she murmured, her eyes meeting his.
"That fragrance you're wearing is... tantalizing," he said, sitting on the settee next to her.
"So I've been told."
The stallion seemed to remember the reason for this meeting. "The Lady Estelle thinks it was fate that you and she ended up on the elevator at the same time. We had been considering who could best work with me for modeling purposes, and she knew the moment she saw you that you are the perfect choice. And on meeting you, I concur." Gabriel seemed a little flushed, and he ran his hoof over his face.
"What actually do you have planned?" Mooncurl asked, keeping Clare's needs in mind.
"I have some dramatic new... fashions that will be introduced at a special showing here... at the hotel next month; I will follow that up with a... dynamic ad campaign. You would, of course, be the featured... ah... model for the entire campaign." He drank his grape juice and the flush on his face seemed to be deepening. Mooncurl thought that he was having a hard time concentrating on the business at hoof.
"Could I see some of your work?"
"My work?" The stallion looked confused. "Oh... my... fashions. Yes... of course." He stood up as if to locate those fashions and in so doing his red face bleached white, and he staggered into the desk.
Mooncurl became alarmed. "Gabriel? Are you okay?"
The only response she received was the gradual slumping of Gabriel's body to the floor. She stared down at the inert lump of horse flesh and gasped. "Gabriel?" she asked tentatively. He was so quiet, so motionless. All of a sudden, Mooncurl was horrified. "My gosh! What has happened?" With that, she ran from the room.
Pulling open the door to the apartment, Mooncurl dashed directly into the Lady Estelle. "What's this?" asked Estelle, as she regained her balance.
"Gabriel!" was all Mooncurl could say, her dismayed countenance speaking volumes, and she ran to the elevator, disappearing downward as quickly as possible.
The Lady Estelle brushed herself off and huffed. "Silly mare!" She entered Gabriel's room with an angry stride. "Gabriel! What is the meaning of this nonsense?" On receiving no reply, Estelle walked through the suite, ending up at the office space. "Gabriel?" she called one last time and nearly fainted when she saw his seemingly lifeless body lying on the floor.
She recovered quickly, comprehending the need for someone who could help the poor stallion. She dialed the emergency number and called the front desk for immediate help. She bathed Gabriel's face with a cool washcloth until the medical volunteers arrived, and she hovered nearby as they examined him. Everyone worked with efficiency.
One of the officers who had accompanied the paramedics picked up the empty glass with the aid of a cloth and took into possession the second glass of unfinished grape juice. Estelle asked him what his interest in those items was.
It was one of the paramedics who spoke up, and he was only voicing his thoughts out loud. "This looks like a case of poisoning to me."
The Lady Estelle gasped and her eyes grew enormous. "Poisoned?" she whispered in a state of shock. "Who would..." She stopped short, and felt for a chair to sit on. "Mooncurl..."
* * *
Mooncurl huddled in a corner of the sofa in her room and wept until she couldn't cry any more. She had never seen anyone collapse before, and she had been terrified. Gabriel had been so vital and princely one minute and so completely devoid of either of those qualities in the next that Mooncurl had been overcome with helplessness. As her tears slowed to a trickle, she could only think back in thankfulness that the Lady Estelle had showed up when she did; she would know what to do.
"If only I could call Giorgio," she lamented. She not only did not have his number, she did not know where he worked; they had never discussed the ordinary circumstances of everyday life with each other. She needed someone to talk to, however, and was just about to pick up the phone when the instrument began ringing.
"Mooncurl! I didn't think I'd find you home, but I'm glad I did. I'm getting off work earlier than I thought and was wondering..."
"Oh, Giorgio!" she sobbed. "Can you come straight here?"
"What's the matter?"
"Just come. Please!"
"I'll be right there! Give me five minutes!"
Mooncurl washed her face of the smeared mascara and rouge and waited impatiently; she felt so totally at a lose for what to do. Should she go to see how Gabriel was faring, or wait until Estelle should send her word? She remembered how lifeless Gabriel had appeared and began crying all over again.
Giorgio's knock sent her flying to the door, and she fell into his forelegs as soon as he was within her room. He held her as the tears flowed and only guided her to the couch when she could contain them. "What is this all about?" he asked gently.
"Gabriel... I went to see him... he collapsed..." Her eyes were huge in her pale, white face. "I don't know if..." The tears started afresh.
Smoothing back her pale blue mane from her face, Giorgio tried to sooth the distressed mare. He had not proved very successful when a knock sounded at the door. "I'll get that," he told Mooncurl.
It was a shock for Giorgio when he opened the door, for it was Chief Matteo who stood there. Giorgio's experience in the past with Vulcanopolis' police chief had been precipitated by his own actions of which he was not particularly proud; and under the circumstances, Chief Matteo had been scrupulously civil with him. However, Giorgio saw no reason for the chief to be entering his life again and felt cautiously alert.
Matteo checked the room number on the door once more as if not believing what he was seeing. "I didn't expect to find you here." He eyed the stallion sharply, then looked beyond him to the mare inside. "May I come in?"
Giorgio moved back to let the chief pass, and Matteo went straight to the red-eyed mare. "Mooncurl?" he asked.
"Y...yes..." she replied and stood unsteadily. Giorgio rushed to her side to support her.
"Were you in Gabriel's suite earlier this afternoon?"
"Yes. Is he okay?"
"You had a drink with him?"
"Grape juice. Why...?"
Matteo cut her short. "What happened to Gabriel, Mooncurl?"
"I... I don't know." She darted a look at Giorgio. "He... he... just slumped over. I don't know why."
"You didn't notice anything unusual?"
"No." Mooncurl's perception was starting to come back. She was becoming aggravated by these senseless questions. She pushed Giorgio's foreleg away and faced Matteo with eyes that were showing defiance.
"Nothing strange about the grape juice?"
"No!" Mooncurl was vehement. "We were just talking about his new fashion line and he became incoherent and fell to the floor."
"You are a friend or co-worker?"
"Not really... I..." She shut her mouth as if to refuse to say more.
"Why the questions, Matteo?" Giorgio asked in the ensuing silence.
Matteo looked at Giorgio with an almost sympathetic expression. "We think Gabriel was poisoned."
"Poisoned!" gasped Mooncurl. "Who would do such a horrible thing?" She searched out Giorgio's hoof and clung to it tightly.
"That's what I'm trying to find out," Matteo stated.
Mooncurl's mouth dropped open and she stared wide-eyed at the chief. "You think I poisoned him?"
"The Lady Estelle saw you run from his suite just before she found the stallion unconscious."
"He had collapsed and I panicked. But I didn't poison him!"
Matteo motioned to the deputy at the door and said to Mooncurl, "I'd like to take you down to the office."
"Is that really necessary?" asked Giorgio.
"A pony's life is at stake here, Giorgio. Yes, it really is necessary."
* * *
Once situated in Matteo's office, the questions continued. "How long have you known Gabriel?"
"I just met him when I went to his suite at three o' clock."
"How did you come about being there?"
"The Lady Estelle wanted me to meet him."
Matteo arched his eyebrows and frowned. "For what purpose?"
"She thought I'd make a good model," Mooncurl snapped. "She saw me last night and wanted me to talk with Gabriel. And I did this afternoon. And he collapsed. That's all there is!"
"You are not from Vulcanopolis, are you, Mooncurl?"
"No. I'm from New Pony in Ponyland."
"What brought you to Vulcanopolis?"
"A modeling job with Clare's Creations."
It was Giorgio's turn to look startled. "You're here to work with Clare?" he asked, paying no attention to Matteo."
"Yes. And Clare wanted me to check out this Gabriel to see how big a threat he was to her."
"A threat, you say?" Matteo perked up.
"Well, professionally speaking. She wanted to see if he could really design well enough to outsell her."
"So that was your real purpose in going to Gabriel's suite today?"
Matteo walked across the room to speak to the officer by the door. "Go over to Clare's Creations and see if you can find the owner. I'd like to talk with her here."
Giorgio felt himself die a little bit inside. Clare was getting dragged into this tangled web, and she didn't even know about his friendship with Mooncurl. What was he supposed to do now?
* * *
Clare, Pacificus, and Angela were finishing some paperwork when several of Matteo's officers appeared at the door. "Which of you is Clare?" the senior officer asked.
"I am," Clare stated, setting down the file she was holding. "How may I help you?"
"Chief Matteo would like to talk with you down at the station."
"Concerning what?" asked Clare.
"Chief Matteo will explain it all to you."
"All right," Clare said slowly with a glance at Angela. "We're about finished up here anyway."
Pacificus stepped forward. "I think Clare has the right to know what this involves."
"Chief Matteo has some questions concerning a model that's working here by the name of Mooncurl."
"Mooncurl?" the three ponies said together.
"What does Matteo want with Mooncurl?" Clare demanded.
"Come with us, and you'll find out." The officer indicated the doorway.
"Angela, call Giorgio and ask him to meet me at the police station."
"He's already there, ma'am."
"Already there?" Clare repeated, looking worried. But then she remembered. "Of course, he's working at city hall this week." She glanced at Pacificus. "Get Justina. We may need her legal advice before the night is through." And she left in the company of the two officers.
Pacificus and Angela located Justina as quickly as possible and hurried after her.
* * *
Inconsolable, Mooncurl had sunk into her own private shell. Even Giorgio's presence no longer offered her respite from the ugly accusation made against her. The stallion left her side to speak with Matteo. "Chief, when Clare gets here, let me talk to her alone before you bring her into this mess."
Shaking his head, Matteo said, "No."
Giorgio tossed his mane and took a deep breath. "Okay then, let me talk to her in front of you but away from..." He glanced at Mooncurl who appeared to be unaware of her surroundings "...everyone else."
"You're asking for a lot, Giorgio." He thought deeply, then gruffly acquiesced. "I'll let you see her for a minute in my company."
Giorgio returned to Mooncurl's side, but he was not a happy stallion. How was he going to tell Clare that he had spent the last two evenings with her gorgeous model and still come out in her good graces? If he had not realized how much Clare meant to him before, he surely did now.
* * *
Clare's arrival did not allow room for either Matteo or Giorgio to have any say in the action. She charged into the room and was relieved to see Giorgio there; but she went straight to Mooncurl for it took only one look to see the wreck the mare had become.
Clare draped a foreleg protectively around Mooncurl and faced the chief. "What is the meaning of this circus, Matteo?" Giorgio tried to calm Clare, but she silenced him with a look. "What can you possibly have against this visitor to our city?"
The air was charged in the ensuing silence before Matteo spoke. "Attempted murder, for starters."
"This is some kind of joke, right?"
"I wish it were, but Mooncurl was with Gabriel this afternoon when he collapsed; the medical experts say he was poisoned..." One of the officers handed Matteo a paper, which he read and then added, "...but it wasn't in the grape juice."
For the first time, Mooncurl looked up. "You see... I didn't do anything. He just fell over," she succeeded in saying.
Matteo ignored her. "Mooncurl is working for you; is that right, Clare?"
"And what is your association with Gabriel?"
"None at the moment. He used to be the business manager at Clare's Creations."
"Why did he leave?"
"He turned in a resignation because he had found a new job."
"And there were no hard feelings?"
Clare began to see where the questions were leading. "None. He had done excellent work for my company."
"And how did you feel about him now that he was offering you some competition?"
"I was... disappointed."
"I said I was disappointed."
Matteo looked at Mooncurl. "Did Clare ever give you any indication that she was upset with Gabriel?"
Mooncurl glanced at Clare, but said nothing.
"Your answer, please," Matteo insisted.
"I told you she wanted to learn more about his new business."
"So you never heard her threaten Gabriel in any form?"
"No... not really."
" 'Not really', Mooncurl? What does that mean exactly?"
Closing her eyes, Mooncurl said so softly that it sounded like a breath on the wind, "She said that if she was lucky, she would have him out of her way in no time."
No one said a word. Clare's hoof dropped off of Mooncurl's shoulder. The motion was imperceptible, yet Mooncurl felt it like a punch in the gut. She turned to Giorgio with a little sob that was nearly unintelligible yet definitely was his name, and buried her face in his shoulder. He had no choice but to respond and, as his foreleg slipped around Mooncurl, he looked at Clare.
The earlier mention of attempted murder had simply fortified Clare's fighting spirit, but this subtle revelation of something she didn't fully comprehend flustered her immeasurably. She stared at Giorgio, and if she couldn't read all the facts from his face, she read enough to shake her faith in him to the very foundations.
Matteo wasn't blind, nor was he heartless. He, too, felt an underlying current of something beyond his scope, and he responded wisely. He came across to Mooncurl and gently urged her to come with him to take a break under the watchful eye of one of his underlings. He escorted her from the room, leaving Clare and Giorgio alone.
"Clare, I wanted to talk with you before you got involved with this, but everything moved too fast."
"Too fast?" She laughed with no mirth. "Mooncurl's been in town three days, and she has you in her control?" She made a beeline for the door, but Giorgio intercepted her.
"I went to the hotel to eat alone because I knew you were busy, and Mooncurl was dining alone, too. "We talked... that's all."