The Winner Is...
If nothing else, Tiffany's flight to Italy brought notoriety to Toby in Dream Valley. Toby himself swore that patients were coming in just to see how he was handling the princess' dismissal, and more than one mare had made her availability obviously clear to the handsome stallion. He was fast becoming known as the most eligible bachelor in town, much to his embarrassment.
Sugarberry, worried about Clare's reaction to this development concerning Tiffany and Guido, had called Vanguard to warn him of Tiffany's invasion of Vulcanopolis; everyone who knew the princess was sure that she would take the city by storm. And with Guido's backing, nothing would stop her. She would dazzle and intimidate the citizens with her beauty and grandeur, and Guido would be a willing accomplice.
Dream Valley was abuzz with opinions on what the outcome of the princess' departure would be. Some bet that she would soon tire of the self-serving Guido, and come gratefully back to her abandoned life, and pick up the pieces with Toby once more at her side. A smaller group surmised that once a wealthier stallion came along, she would drop Guido like a hot potato. Still others opted for an elopement of the two star-struck jangle-seekers to some tropical paradise.
Only a rare few expected the announcement that appeared in the Dream Valley Gazette on the society page only a month after Tabby's wedding day: a formal proclamation announcing the engagement of Princess Tiffany of Dream Valley and Guido Casale of Vulcanopolis. No wedding date was published, however, causing much debate on an appropriate time and place for the grand occasion.
And it was only Sugarberry who wondered what effect this latest news would have on Clare, Guido's lifelong-- yet secret-- love.
* * *
"Vanguard, I want your help at deciding which hat Sugarberry would like best out of the stockroom. I've been wanting to send her something in thanks for her hospitality while I was in Dream Valley, but have been so busy with the new line of male fashions that I just haven't had the time." Clare's voice came over the telephone at Vanguard's office on campus. "Can you stop by my office in about an hour?"
Looking over berets and pillboxes was not what Vanguard wanted to do, but he was aware that Clare was becoming more and more disconsolate as Guido's month-long fascination with Tiffany dragged on. She needed her friends to buoy her up until Guido came to his senses, or until... Vanguard didn't want to face any other possibility.
"I'll be glad to come. I'll finish up with the papers on my desk, and head over your way."
"Thanks, Vanguard. See you later, then."
Hanging up the phone, Vanguard leaned back to consider the path Tiffany and Guido seemed to be on. Their picture appeared weekly in the newspaper in connection with some happening in the city. Vanguard himself had seen little of the affluent couple, and he knew for a fact that Clare, too, had been left on the sidelines. He felt sorry for the lavender mare who held on to her belief that Guido would never permanently leave her behind, and angry at Guido for not realizing Clare's complete trust in him. Finally settling down to the grading that awaited him, Vanguard was making good progress when a pony came to the office door.
"Could I talk to you about the test?" Marissa, one of his students, asked.
Glancing at the clock, Vanguard gestured toward a chair. "I have an appointment soon, but let's see how you did." He smiled at Marissa as she sat down, leaning her forelegs across the desk in front of her. She always had a cheery disposition and lots of questions. Locating her test in the stack, Vanguard pulled it out and frowned. "I remember now. You seem to have misinterpreted the use of the trigonometric functions." He placed the sheets on the desk in front of her.
"Egads!" she exclaimed. "I was afraid I'd goofed up a little, but not that drastically."
Vanguard looked at the clock again. If he was to get to Clare's office on time, he'd have to leave soon. "I'm sorry, but I just don't have the time now to go over this with you. Could you come in tomorrow afternoon?"
Marissa gave him a pouty look. "I've got time tonight to study, and I really don't want to get further behind."
"Review Chapter Four in the text," Vanguard advised, and then come in at two o'clock tomorrow if you still have questions."
"I studied out of the book for the test-- it obviously didn't help," she chided. "Couldn't you at least let me look over the solutions so I could see where I went wrong?"
Marissa had never struck Vanguard as being too conscientious about her grades, and was mildly surprised to find her this determined to improve her understanding of a math principle. "Easy enough," Vanguard responded, as this particular information was before him on the desk. "You look this over while I stash the rest of the tests." He gathered up the papers on his desk and put them into his briefcase, leaving it open until Marissa had finished her perusal of the sheets. Vanguard found himself tapping his hoof on the desk top.
Marissa looked up. "If you need to leave, I can just stick these in your desk when I'm done."
"The desk is locked," Vanguard remarked. "And I do need to be on my way."
Unwillingly, Marissa pushed the papers in Vanguard's direction. Standing, she said, "Tomorrow at two then?"
"That will be fine," Vanguard replied as he put the papers into his briefcase and locked it. He held the door for her as they left the office, and parted ways. Hurrying home, Vanguard deposited his case inside the front door, and quickly set off for Clare's office.
As he walked, he went over the meeting with Marissa. She was an upbeat, fun-loving student who appeared to befriend everyone in class. But her interest in the test seemed out of place; for one who did not seem to take her class work too seriously, she was showing an unusual amount of initiative to find the right answers. Chief Matteo had warned him of just such a tip-off as to the identification of those ponies on campus who were involved in Giorgio's cheating scam. Thinking back to her actions, it made sense that she could possibly be one of his accomplices.
Changing his plan slightly, Vanguard realized that he had to make contact with Matteo as soon as possible, and set his course to swing by the police station. Finding the chief at his desk, Vanguard was able to impart his information quickly, and continued on his way to meet Clare.
Angela smiled warmly when she saw him arrive. "Clare left for the warehouse a few minutes ago; she asked me to show you the way."
"Sorry I'm late," Vanguard smiled in return. "I was detained by a student."
"No problem," Angela replied. But as they walked through the corridors, she confided to Vanguard. "I'm getting worried about Clare. She seems preoccupied with something, and her work is suffering. Do you have any idea what's bothering her?" She cast a sideways glance at her companion that told him that Angela knew only too well what Clare's distraction was.
"I would imagine that you know better than I do," he stated noncommittally. "Clare just wanted my help in picking out one of her creations for a mutual friend back in Dream Valley."
Angela pushed through the swinging doors that led to a large room lined with sturdy shelves that were partially loaded with boxes of fashions designed and fabricated at Clare's Creations. Vanguard followed her into the room, and as they caught sight of Clare at the far end of one of the aisles, Angela grinned and left him to his task. "Have fun!" she quipped as she disappeared back through the doors.
"Vanguard! You're here!" Clare's voice echoed through the huge space. "I thought maybe you chickened out!"
"No, Clare. I just had a couple of interruptions in my plans." As the mare approached Vanguard, he was pained to see the toll that her worrying over Guido had exacted from her. Her eyes were red and tired, her brow was furrowed, and her step was lackadaisical. "How are you doing?" he asked, leading her to a hard but suitable chair next to a work table pushed against the wall on which sat several boxes of varying size.
She sat down willingly, and gave Vanguard a sad little smile. "I'm doing okay... but what I want to know is, how is Tiffany doing?" She looked searchingly at Vanguard's face. "What do you think? When will Guido be done with this escapade?"
Unconsciously moving a tendril of mane back into place off Clare's forehead, Vanguard could offer no consolation. "I don't know what to say, Clare."
She sighed. "No, of course not. No one does." Standing, she tried to shake off her melancholy mood. "Besides, you are here to help me in more pleasant matters." She turned to the boxes on the table. "I've pulled off several styles that I think are appropriate for Sugarberry." She proceeded to open the first box which contained a wide-brimmed straw hat encircled with a gauzy material that complimented the color of Sugarberry's hair. It was adorned with a sprig of berries and leaves and flowers.
"That's pretty," Vanguard offered.
The second box when opened revealed a more elegant hat... "A cloche," Clare informed him as she put the face-fitting hat on her head to give him an idea of what it would look like when worn.
"Hmm... I don't know about that one," he confessed.
"Well, there are plenty more," Clare stated as she went off down the walkway. She soon returned with yet another box which she placed on the table. Then, turning her head to stare at a large, flat box which was nestled at the end of the nearest shelf, she became lost in thought. Eventually, she walked to the container that held her attention, and lifting it down, packed it to the table. Almost shyly, she glanced at Vanguard. "Could I share something with you?" she asked.
Vanguard looked from Clare to the box which he now noticed was marked with bright red labels stating, "Private." Moving his gaze back to Clare, he noticed that she was trembling. "What's the secret?" he asked.
Clare was like one in a dream as she slowly lifted the lid, revealing white tissue paper inside. Carefully, she turned back the tissue, uncovering a filmy vision of white lace, netting, beads, and flowers. A sad, tremulous smile lit her face for a second, then faded. She reached to extract the fragile piece from its lair, and lifted high a delicate wedding veil of exquisite design.
Vanguard watched as the mare fitted the headpiece over her mane, the gauzy substance cascading over her shoulders and down her back. She stood and sighed deeply, then suddenly removed the veil, letting it spill across the open box. Casting a self-conscious grin at Vanguard, she finally explained. "This, dear friend, is my wedding veil... a veil that I have designed to wear as I stand at Guido's side."
"You trust in his love for you very strongly," Vanguard offered. But Clare caught the taint of doubt that edged his words.
"Do you not believe that he and I will yet be married?" she asked. "I have been designing this veil since I was young-- I knew since the beginning that Guido and I would someday be married. I spent hours as a foal drawing my idea of the most gorgeous veil that I could imagine. And as I grew up, I constantly changed and perfected that design. When I opened this shop, I was finally able to add the finishing touches to the years of preparation, and this is the result. This veil is the ultimate wedding garment. Every part of it is calculated to the finest detail; every stitch, every pearl, every petal, every bit of lace is exact in its placement; there never has been nor will there ever be such a veil as this. And it was inspired by my love for Guido." Her hooves moved softly over the folds of the veil, lovingly caressing its surface. "I'll feel like a princess when I wear this up the aisle."
"It's a beautiful veil, Clare."
The door of the storeroom swung open as another figure strode into the room, his demeanor calling for attention. "I've been looking for you two," Guido called as he caught sight of his friends. "I've got some big news!" He playfully punched Vanguard in the shoulder and caught Clare up in a bone-breaking hug.
Clare giggled, her face alight at the sight of her stallion. Vanguard saw the tension and worry drain from her being, and hoped that Guido was observant of it, too. "It looks like you just signed your biggest deal yet!" Clare grinned.
Guido concurred. "It's the best deal I've made in my life."
"How much did it cost you?" Clare continued.
"That's the best part," Guido beamed. "It's a mutually beneficial undertaking with no cost up front."
Clare was ecstatic for her friend. "It sounds too good to be true!"
"But it is. Listen to this. I proposed to Tiffany, and she said yes." Bursting with pride and self good will, Guido didn't notice the stunned expressions on the faces of both Vanguard and Clare. Vanguard extended a hoof to briefly touch Clare's shoulder in an attempt to offer his support to the distraught mare; he felt her tenseness. Neither pony said a word as Guido continued.
"The timing was perfect!" He began pacing in his excitement. "We had been shopping with Mom, and Tiffany saw a diamond and sapphire ring that really appealed to her. So I arranged a quiet romantic dinner at home, and surprised her with the ring... and a proposal. And she accepted!" His pacing stopped, and he faced Clare. Looking her in the eyes, he declared, "I'm going to marry a princess, Clare!" His glance fell to the white veil lying on the table. "And who better to design her wedding finery than you?" In a quick motion, Guido pushed the filmy mass to the floor saying, "None of this ordinary stuff for my bride, Clare! I want you to outdo anything you've ever designed in the past! This will have to be perfect!"
His glance once more settling on Clare's face, he finally came down to earth. Noticing her pale, stunned look that now centered on the crumpled veil lying in an abandoned heap on the floor, he completely misread the signs. "Don't worry, Clare. We haven't set a date, and have no immediate plans for a wedding. You'll have plenty of time to work on this special project. Just make it unique... the best there is."
It was with flashing eyes that Clare met Guido's smiling face, as the heat of anger flushed across her face. "You are marrying that... stranger? How dare you!" Clare's voice rose in fury.
It was Guido's turn to look shocked. He took a step backwards. "What's wrong, Clare?"
"What's wrong?" Clare echoed. "You have no idea?"
"No, I don't. I thought you'd be happy for me."
"Happy for you?" Clare almost screamed the words. "How can I be happy when you have chosen to cut me from your life?"
"I'm not doing that. I asked for your help with Tiffany's bridal wear, didn't I?"
Clare glared at Guido. "Are you so blind? Have you no feelings where I am concerned?"
Guido looked to Vanguard for help, but Clare continued. "You and I, Guido. That's what this is all about. We were practically raised together; haven't I meant anything to you all these years?"
"Why, of course, Clare. You've always been my confidant and support..."
Clare's face twisted in pain as she heard his words, and with a sob, she whispered, "How can you not know that I love you... that I've always loved you?"
"We were good friends, Clare. That's all."
"That's all? My life revolved around you!"
Guido looked at the lavender mare before him as if at a stranger. "We had a lot of good times, Clare, and we made a niche for ourselves in the world at each other's side, but we were only friends."
"Only friends?" Clare repeated weakly. "My love for you has grown and blossomed like a flower under the sun's rays; and you see only a friend?"
"I had no idea you felt this way."
The sting of his words could not have hurt Clare more if he had physically slapped her. She stared at him for a long moment. "What do you see in this Tiffany? At least tell me that much," she said in a more controlled voice.
"She's the classiest pony I've ever met. She appreciates what I can give her, and she will be an asset to my life as well. She's a princess, Clare!"
"That's all it is for you, Guido? The prestige? What about caring and sharing and loving?" She reached a hoof out to the yellow stallion, but he brushed it aside.
"Tiffany has accepted my offer of marriage. That's it."
"But, Guido, I love you!" Tears welled up in Clare's eyes.
"You've said enough, Clare. You don't have a place in my life anymore."
Clare's body shuddered as his words hit her, and with tears flowing freely down her face, she raced from the room. Guido glanced at Vanguard. "You knew about this?" he asked softly.
"It was obvious to everyone... but you, Guido."
"She's always been there for me over the years, but I never dreamt that she had plans for us to marry someday. I'm sorry if I hurt her, Vanguard. Will you tell her that for me, please?"
Shaking his head, Vanguard advised his friend. "No, Guido. That's up to you. Go to her now, and at least give her that small comfort."
Guido opened his mouth to plead for Vanguard's help, but seeing the look in Vanguard's eyes, he desisted. "Okay. I'll go to her myself."
As Guido left the storeroom, Angela and Pacificus pushed their way in. "What happened in here? What has upset Clare so?" Angela questioned.
"Guido and Tiffany are engaged," Vanguard explained bluntly.
"Oh, no!" Angela groaned. "Poor Clare!"
"She shouldn't be alone," Pacificus stated as he headed for the door, but Vanguard stopped him.
"Give Guido some time to offer what consolation he can at this point," he counseled. To Angela, he said, "Let's get this veil packed away safely."
Angela moved to the forsaken memento of a lost dream, and gingerly gathered it together. "I've caught Clare working on this piece, but she never explained who it was for. I guess it's obvious now."
Pacificus was slow to pick-up on the meaning. "It's a wedding veil. Who's getting married?"
His sister scowled at him. "Clare expected to wear it herself someday, I would imagine. And that bloke comes in here and tells her that he's going to marry Tiffany instead."
Pacificus touched the veil almost reverently. "She designed this for herself?"
"Yes," Vanguard verified. "She truly believed that Guido cared for her in the same way that she cared for him. But that conception was shattered today."
Angela covered the veil with the tissue, and nervously looked toward the door. "You guys finish up here; I'm going to see if Clare is alone now. She's going to need someone's shoulder to cry on."
The stallions sealed the box and moved it to its home on the shelf. Then, feeling out of place, they walked back to the reception area of Clare's office. Vanguard poured himself a cup of coffee while Pacificus paced the floor; both of them kept an eye on the office door. It seemed like an eternity of time before Angela let herself out, closing the door quickly behind her.
"Clare doesn't want to see anyone right now," she informed them. "I'll take her home and stay with her until she's calmed down. You two go on your way; you can see her tomorrow."
"You're sure she will be alright?" Vanguard asked.
"In time," Angela responded, and turning, went back into the office.
"The nerve of that stallion," Pacificus hissed. "How could he be so cruel to someone as sweet as Clare?"
"He never understood," Vanguard answered reflectively. "He was blind to all the signs. He hurt her without even knowing he was doing it."
The two ponies left the building and went their separate ways homeward. Vanguard took his time walking through the city streets; he wanted to clear his mind of Clare's grief. He recalled that Sugarberry had said that Toby had taken Tiffany's leaving well, so this engagement would not be a jolt to him. Tiffany and Guido would be lost in their own happiness with little thought of anyone else. Vanguard even tried to lose himself to his own problem of being isolated from Sugarberry. But every path his mind wandered brought him back to the gentle mare who had befriended him on his arrival in Vulcanopolis. Of all the players involved, she was the one who suffered the most.
* * *
Approaching his home on the early autumn Thursday afternoon, Vanguard was surprised to see an elderly pink mare with lavender mane sitting on the wooden bench that nestled between the flowerpots outside his door. As he came nearer, he realized that it was Prisca, the pony who did the weekly cleaning of the town house which Vanguard was inhabiting during his stay in Vulcanopolis. He hurried his steps, and greeted the tired-looking pony. "Good afternoon, Prisca. Did you have problems with the cleaning today?"
Prisca smiled as she caught sight of the stallion. "Mr. Vanguard, I'm so glad to see you. Our paths haven't crossed since the day you were packin' up to go visitin' back home."
"You're right, Prisca." Vanguard had returned to the town house early that Thursday before Tabby's wedding to pack for his flight to Dream Valley, and had found the pony that was behind the cleaning that usually occurred during his absence.
"Your trip was a pleasant one, I hope," she remarked inquisitively.
"Very much so," Vanguard replied, wondering at the friendliness of the mare.
Prisca seemed to notice his perplexity, and exclaimed. "Oh! And here I am forgettin' why I'm here. The fragrance of the flowers was makin' me a bit sleepy." She stood up hastily. "Let me explain my predicament."
"Would you like to step inside?" asked Vanguard as he unlocked the door. Opening it, the lemon-fresh aroma of recently polished furniture reached his nose; he opened the window of the sitting room to alleviate some of the smell which he always found slightly sickening.
Chuckling, Prisca commented, "I could have used my own key to accomplish my errand, but I felt guilty returning to your home once the cleanin' was done. You're goin' to think I've gone and lost my mind when I tell you what's happened."
"And what exactly is that?" prodded Vanguard, offering Prisca a seat.
"Well, remember when you told me you were going to be gone a few days? I figured that would be a good time to do a more thorough cleaning so the place would be sparklin' when you returned."
"That sounds like a wise plan."
"I came on Monday morning to wash the windows, and when I got to the spare bedroom on the top floor, I found this book on the floor." She leaned to rummage through her cleaning satchel, and retrieved a thin, red tract. Vanguard caught his breath as he recognized the volume: Poems of Life and Love. He had not given it a thought since he had found the photo of Strawberry Shortcake and Giorgio, Sr. in it. Once that picture was uncovered and subsequently destroyed, there was no more reason to think about the book. But here it was again.
Reaching out, he took the book from Prisca and stared at it as she continued. "Now, Mr. Vanguard, you must understand that I don't snoop in the places I clean, and I did pick-up the book to put it away on the shelf, but it looked so invitin' and because I was plum wore out, I sat down to read a bit."
"That's understandable," Vanguard acknowledged.
"Well, by then I was realizin' that time was a flyin', so I finished the last window in the place and because the poems sort of touched my heart and I figured it wouldn't hurt none, I stuck the book into my satchel to take home with me, to read in my spare time. I fully intended to return it on my next regular cleaning day."
"But you didn't."
"No, sir. I plum forgot. You see, one of my daughters-- her name's Gemma and she's a dear one-- took a bad fall and broke her leg. I had my hooves full takin' care of her and the younguns and Juniper. I did the cookin' and cleanin' and laundry at their place, plus keepin' up with my own business."
"And your daughter-- how is she now?"
Prisca broke out in a wide grin. "She's up and around again, not as nimble with the cast and all, but able to do most of her chores. So when I was able to catch up on my own housework, I found the pretty little red book buried on the kitchen table under heaps of junk mail. I brought it back today. But, wouldn't you know it, I forgot all about it when I was here cleanin' this morning. I jumped like there was a snake in my cleaning bag when I reached in it at my next job, and there was that bright red book yet, just sittin' there like it was makin' fun of me. So I had to come back when I was finished there, and like I said before, I just didn't feel right about entering your place without your permission, like. I'm awful sorry if it inconvenienced you in any way." She ended her long discourse, and waited for Vanguard's reply.
Sorting through the facts he'd heard, Vanguard was struck by only one thing-- that Prisca had found this particular book on the floor. Why this book? It was the one he himself had picked up off the floor the day of his outing with Clare and Guido, which led to his finding the picture of Sugarberry's mom. That could be attributed to pure chance.
But this second occurrence with Prisca finding it once more off its shelf was just too odd. Vanguard looked from the book to Prisca, and asked, "You're sure you found it on the Monday that I was gone?"
"Yes, sir, definite about that I am."
"And it wasn't off the shelf on Thursday when you were here, and I was packing?"
"No, sir, I had cleaned that room like always and everything was in place."
"So how did the book end up on the floor again?" wondered Vanguard out loud.
Prisca was beginning to become worried. "Did I do something wrong?" she asked, her anxious eyes searching Vanguard's face.
"No, certainly not," he assured her. "I was just curious as to how the book could end up on the floor when no one was here."
"Mr. Giorgio wasn't in town himself maybe?" Prisca considered.
"No. He was in Dream Valley. I talked with him there."
"Then it's a mystery, I'm sure," Prisca declared. "And I don't know the answer to it." Rising to leave, Prisca set her hoof on the red-covered tome in Vanguard's hooves. "It's a lovely little collection of fancy words. I hope it's not bringing you trouble."
Vanguard looked at her sharply. Trouble? he muttered to himself. This entire Vulcanopolis experience is nothing but trouble. But to Prisca he said, "Thanks for returning the book, and for waiting here to tell your story."
"Sure thing, Mr. Vanguard," she replied, gathering her satchel to her. "I'll be on my way now."
Holding the door for her, Vanguard watched as she walked down the sidewalk and got underway. He found himself doubting everything she had told him; after all, he was to trust no one. And here was a mare who had free access to the town house because of her employment, and she also carried a bag that would make any theft easy to conceal.
It was only after she disappeared around the corner that Vanguard looked around him and noticed Ivetta watering the potted plants. "Hi," he called. But Ivetta, seeming not to notice, turned away with her watering can and went into her house.
Vanguard closed the door as if shutting out disturbing thoughts, but the red book still in his hooves called for an explanation. Why was this book, of all those in Giorgio's case upstairs, the one that seemed to be singled out for some purpose?
Heading straight for the spare room, Vanguard found everything in order. The thin gap on the shelf between volumes stared at him unrelentingly, however, as if trying to fill in the missing information. Vanguard slipped the book into its place, hoping that would quiet the sense of foreboding that was beginning to permeate this room. The thought that most bothered him was the fact that this book had held the picture of Sugarberry's family. Was it the book or the picture that was important to someone?
"What am I thinking?" Vanguard muttered. "No one has been here. It's all just coincidence." He turned to leave; but, as if the bookcase somehow called to him, he came back and stood before it. "I wonder if any of the other books hold anything of interest?" he pondered. Then, one by one, he began a search of the volumes much as Iveta had done some days before.
However, Vanguard took the time to read the newspaper articles that acted as bookmarks in a number of them, and he found one disturbing point that tied them all together: Each article was about a former student at Leonardo University; and each of these ponies had gone on to a successful career. That fit the information Tawny had given him concerning Giorgio's blackmailing of former students who had benefitted from his "service".
Vanguard got a piece of paper, and began recording names and dates to pass on to Chief Matteo locally. Sitting on the bed, he found himself staring at the bookcase. "Somehow, it holds the key to this whole mystery," he said out loud. But the ringing of the telephone interrupted his thoughts.
Picking up the call on his bedside phone, Vanguard was pleasantly surprised to hear Clare's voice.
"How are you doing?" he asked her sincerely.
"Unexpectedly-- from my pont of view-- I'm still alive," the mare responded, and Vanguard envisioned the smirk that surely played over her face.
"I'm thankful for that," Vanguard imparted.
"I'm also starving," Clare admitted. "Could you meet me at that little diner near my office for dinner?"
"Fucciono's?" Vanguard asked, visualizing the eating establishment tucked between the businesses on that street.
"Yes. How soon can you be there?"
"Give me half an hour. I've got some loose ends to tie up first."
"Okay! I'll see you soon."
Putting down the receiver, Vanguard again picked up the sheet listing the ponies' names he had gotten off the clippings in Giorgio's books. "The sooner I get this information to Matteo, the better," he observed quietly. "And a book that recurrently ends up on the floor... is that noteworthy in a cop's eyes? Or would they consider me looney? I guess I'll decide that when I get there."
So Vanguard once more made the detour past Matteo's office on his way to meet Clare, and he shared the information he had gleaned from his foray through the books. The chief merely grunted when Vanguard handed him the list of names, so Vanguard chose not to confide the situation concerning the red publication that was proving to be a thorn in his side. The picture can't mean anything to this cheating scam anyway, he theorized as he left the police station. But the nagging voice of his conscience gave him no rest. It involves Sugarberry, and her premonition of danger wasn't unfounded, the voice chided him.
Vanguard turned back to the chief's office, and nearly bumped into him as Matteo came out the door. "Did you forget something?" Matteo asked gruffly.
"There's something I'd like you to be aware of," Vanguard admitted. Matteo gestured him back inside the office, and waited for Vanguard to begin.
"This may sound trivial, but twice now a book has been found on the floor at Giorgio's place after my absence from the building." Vanguard stopped, waiting for some indication from Matteo.
"Go on," Matteo invited.
"The book had held a picture of some friends of mine back in Ponyland... they and Giorgio, Sr." he continued after a pause. "I don't see how it would have anything to do with the problem you're chasing down, but it does seem to bridge an occurrence in the past with this present mess." He went on to explain the history of the photo, and the fear that Sugarberry had felt upon meeting Giorgio.
True to his nature, Matteo said little. After several clarifying questions, he dismissed Vanguard with a wave of his hoof. "We'll be in touch."
Continuing on to his meeting with Clare, Vanguard tried to sort through the facts he was aware of. Giorgio was selling test answers for jangles, and he had a network of helpers. Giorgio's father had once met Strawberry Shortcake, and had a picture taken to verify it. Other than the families involved, there seemed to be no connection between the incidents. But yet, Vanguard couldn't shake the feeling that he was missing something, just as Giorgio had given him the impression that he, too, was searching for some intangible piece to a perplexing problem.
He was relieved to finally reach the restaurant where Clare awaited him; it gave him a chance to set his own problems aside for the moment. He found the yellow-maned mare already at a corner booth, her eyes red and sleep-deprived.
"Hi, Clare," he smiled as he slipped in across from her.
He was glad to see her return a smile, although it was forced and brief. "Hi," she managed to say.
A waiter came at that time to fill their water glasses and give them each a menu. As they skimmed over the offerings, Clare said, "Order something expensive. I'm treating tonight."
"That's very thoughtful of you, but I'm not very hungry," Vanguard admitted as he set down the menu.
"I thought I was; but now that I'm here, I don't think I can face food." She deposited her menu with Vanguard's.
Vanguard searched her face, observing the worry and exhaustion that lingered there. "You need to eat," he apprized. Foreseeing that an onslaught of tears was inevitable, Vanguard was proven correct as Clare's face began to dissolve in a cascade of salty rivulets. He took one of her hooves in both of his and offered what consolation he could; he didn't say a word until the shower ended as quickly as it had begun.
Clare pulled her hoof away from his and dug a tissue out of her purse. "Sorry about that." She tried to sound normal, but her voice cracked. "I thought I was over that part of my rebuff."
The waiter had returned to the table, and Vanguard told him, "Two bowls of soup, whatever you have," and motioned him to be on his way. To Clare, he made the observation, "A lifetime of years spent in loving someone is not so easily dismissed."
"You're telling me."
"You've got to give yourself time to grieve, Clare. Don't expect things to go back to normal right away."
"So what makes you the expert?"
"Common sense, I guess."
"What would you be doing if it had been Sugarberry who had sent you packing?"
"I don't even want to think about it, Clare."
The mare sat in silence for a few moments, but finally returned to the conversation. "Guido followed me to my office after I broke down, and told me he was sorry."
"For that small bit of kindness, I am grateful."
"You were behind it, weren't you?" A smile that wasn't forced finally lit her face for an instant.
"I made a suggestion, and Guido acted on it," Vanguard enlightened. "But, to his credit, he was concerned about you."
"Oh, Vanguard, I really thought I was going to die when I realized that Guido doesn't love me, that he really loves Tiffany instead!" She buried her face in her hooves.
"But life goes on, Clare."
Raising her head, she asked, "How does one pick up the pieces? Everything is shattered!"
"You just glue them back together, one by one," offered Vanguard, reflecting on his foalhood experience with the broken vase.
"Where do I start?" she asked, just as the food was delivered to the table. The steaming hot soup smelled delicious, and the accompanying rolls were fresh from the oven. The coffee was black and vitalizing.
"I'd begin with the soup," Vanguard quipped, and was pleased to see a genuine grin cross Clare's face. They ate in silence; and for both of them, the sustenance did as much for their mental dispositions as for their physical well-being.
"Guido's mother didn't waste any time getting the engagement ball invitations out, did she?" Clare observed. "You did receive one, didn't you?" She looked questioningly at Vanguard.
"Yes, I did." Vanguard weighed the wisdom of asking about Clare's reaction to the ball, but the mare continued without prompting.
"I ripped mine to shreds," she admitted ruefully. "Then, after thinking about it, I decided that I should attend." She paused and frowned. "Of course, I've changed my mind about a hundred times since then."
"It isn't happening for another week and a half, so you have plenty of time to deliberate over the decision."
"It will be a gala affair," Clare mused. "Vincentia and Pietro will not spare any expense to make this the highlight of the year for Vulcanopolis' elite."
"That settles it for me, then," Vanguard speculated. "Sounds too formal for my taste."
Clare dreamily anticipated the event. "It will be held at Guido's villa with his parents hosting it. There will be a celebrated orchestra, and romantic dancing, and extravagant food, and everyone who is anything will be there..." Clare came back to reality, and her eyes sparkled. "I should be there, Van! I've made my decision! I'm going to attend Guido and Tiffany's engagement party!"
Vanguard suspected some sort of conniving plan forming in Clare's mind. "You wouldn't have an ulterior motive, would you?"
"Oh, don't worry. I'm not going to do anything foolish. Guido made it perfectly clear to me that I'm out of the picture. But I want to make it perfectly clear to him that I'm not down as well."
Shaking his head, Vanguard doubted the sensibility of Clare's trying to impress Guido one last time. "You are just asking for trouble."
"Why, Vanguard, with you as my escort, what could go wrong?"
"Me???" The stallion raised his hooves in protest.
"You'll do it for me, won't you?" the mare coyly asked. "You'll just have to accompany me to the ball and dance a few times and then we'll leave. I only need to make an appearance."
Vanguard stared at Clare, but didn't say a word.
"Please?" she reached across the table and touched his hoof. "For me?"
Bracing himself against her marely wiles, Vanguard retorted, "Surely there are any number of stallions in this city that would gladly accompany you."
"But, Van, you understand my situation better than any of them," she sulked. "You're not going to desert me, too, are you?"
The downcast demeanor of the mare was too much for Vanguard. "Okay... if it means that much to you, I'll go." As Clare's face lighted with a self-satisfied smile, he added, "But I'm not going to like it."
"You won't have any regrets," replied Clare smugly, leaning back in her chair with a contented expression on her face. "No regrets at all." She sat lost in thought, until she finally affirmed, "That will be the first piece glued back in."
"What are you talking about?" Vanguard asked.
"What you said about gluing the pieces of my life back together. The ball will be the starting point. And the line of men's hats is progressing quite nicely," Clare stated. "I think if I put my entire heart and soul into that venture, I'll come out of this okay."
"Just don't get so involved with designing that you lose track of your life as a whole," philosophized Vanguard. "Too much of anything isn't good."
"Then I'll alternate between that project and the new sales market in Dream Valley," the mare continued. "Lemon Treats has already invited me back for the first release of Clare's Creations," she finished with a flourish.
"Sounds awesome," concurred the stallion.
"Don't you just wish you could go back with me?" Clare teased. "Your Sugarberry would be delighted... if the homecoming I witnessed in August was any indication."
It already seemed like an eternity ago that he had been a part of Sugarberry's life over the wedding weekend; the months ahead loomed over him like an engulfing wave. "There won't be any trips back for me until the semester is completed," reflected Vanguard. "The schedule is full at the university; and even if I could go home, I wouldn't be able to afford both it and the..."
He didn't complete the sentence, but Clare jumped on the finishing word like a cat on a mouse. "You're finally getting her a ring, aren't you? A Christmas engagement! How traditional! And then a summer wedding, I suppose? Oh, this is so delightful!"
Vanguard sat in a daze. He had not meant to mention his intentions to anyone, and now Clare had uncovered the entire course of his life in one slip of the tongue. He glared at her for an instant until he realized how upbeat her mood had become, and calculated that the expense to his feelings was worth any price to see Clare excited about someone else's plans. But he did voice his reticence over revealing too much to her. "I didn't say anything, Clare. This is all supposition on your part."
"Supposition, my hoof!" Clare taunted him with a sly smile on her face. The waiter returned to clear the table, and to ask the two ponies about dessert. Vanguard ordered a piece of peach pie, and Clare was in such good humor by this point that she ordered a calorie-laden chocolate concoction that was smothered in whipped cream. When the victuals were before them and their coffee cups refilled, Clare continued her harassment of the stallion who accompanied her. "My only question is why you haven't asked her sooner."
"I wanted everything to be just right," he admitted. "And things just kept getting in the way." He wished he didn't have to keep giving that stupid excuse.
"Do you have any competition back in Dream Valley?" she brazenly asked.
"You know a mare's whims better than I do. You tell me."
Studying him intently, Clare refrained from answering immediately. "Hmmm..." she finally voiced her thoughts on the subject. "From what I saw from my limited time among the stallions of Dream Valley, I would warn you against two, maybe three, possible trouble spots."
"Oh, great," sighed Vanguard. "The most I had foreseen were two: Wigwam and Quarterback."
"Really? Then make it five."
"What do you mean by that?"
"Well, I could be wrong, of course. But I'd keep an eye on Toby, Jet, and Driftwood."
Vanguard laughed, and shook his head. "No. You're all wrong on this one, Clare."
"You think so, do you? Let's start with Toby. He's an attractive stallion with a good job, and he pays attention to the gals-- always chivalrous, of course. And now that he's free, so to speak, I'd say your problems are multiplied."
"I'm not worried."
"Okay, then we have Jet. Now, granted, he doesn't appear to be Sugarberry's type at first glance, but I did have some conversation with him..."
"More than 'Dude'?" Vanguard interrupted.
Clare ignored the cut. "...and he is interested in birds and animals just like Sugarberry is. If they ever got the chance to sit down and talk, I'm sure they'd hit it off wonderfully."
"I'm still not worried."
"Driftwood... he may be a source of real concern. Sugarberry did seek him out several times during the course of the reception and dance, and the two of them did seem to be hitting it off rather well."
"Driftwood is an aspiring writer like half of Dream Valley; of course Sugarberry would be helpful to him if he asked her advice," Vanguard countered.
"Is that all?" Clare prodded. "Wasn't there something about this Driftwood that would set him apart in Sugarberry's eyes?"
"No," disagreed Vanguard, becoming genuinely annoyed at Clare's innuendos. Driftwood was the owner of the Estate Manor and he had a passion for cooking; and, yes, his name had come up several times in Sugarberry's conversation while Vanguard was in Dream Valley. But it was not cause for concern, Vanguard rationalized to himself as he glowered at the mare across the table.
The waiter came with the check, setting it next to Vanguard, but Clare deftly retrieved it and settled the bill. "I hope you enjoyed the evening as much as I did," she stated, preparing to leave. "And I'm sorry if I upset you," she added as an afterthought.
"It's not your fault," Vanguard assured her. "I can come up with just as many wild scenarios as you did all on my own."
"Walk me home then?" she asked.
It was a quiet walk through the cooling evening breeze; both ponies were intent on their own private thoughts. Arriving at Clare's front door, however, brought their retrospection to an end. "I knew you would be good for me tonight," Clare told the country blue stallion.
"I saw you smile, so I guess it was a success."
"Sugarberry's a very fortunate mare," Clare returned, giving Vanguard a little peck on the cheek. "If I didn't consider her a friend..." She left the statement unfinished, and let herself into the house.
Vanguard stared at the closing door, and shook his head. "Mares!" he grumbled, as he turned down the path toward home. He concentrated on the ridiculous conversation that he and Clare had over eligible stallions in Dream Valley as he crossed the city to his town house. He found Clare's reasoning faulty, to say the least, but she had succeeded in planting the seeds of doubt in his mind.
Back at the town house, Vanguard realized that he still had paperwork to deal with, so he went straight to the den and buckled down to the task. When he had gone over the last assignment, he pushed back from the desk and stood up, stretching his legs. He prepared for bed and was turning out the lights when he made one last check of the spare room.
The light from the hallway made a ghostly glow in the room, the luminosity flirting with the shadows. He switched on the bedside lamp to dispel the gloom and checked on the position of the red-backed book. It was still there, nestled between the thicker volumes that hemmed it in.
Just to verify their existence, Vanguard pulled out one of the books that contained a newspaper clipping within it. He flipped through the pages once, then twice, and finally swung the book upside-down. Nothing was contained between the pages, nothing dropped to the floor.
In consternation, he searched the titles that he could readily recall holding the articles-- but to no avail. All the books were now empty.
This is crazy, Vanguard said to himself, puzzling over the disappearance of what had been there just earlier this evening. Who could have been here while I was gone? He inadvertently shuddered as the realization hit him as to just how vulnerable his position was; unknown ponies were accessing his home at their own discretion and helping themselves to whatever information they had been sent to find. That Giorgio was behind this was no secret, yet Vanguard found it disarming to realize just how far the stallion would go to get what he wanted.
Making another check of the house on each of its levels, Vanguard grew tense when he heard a sound outside. But peering cautiously from the window, he saw that Giles was just returning home from a late night at the office, fumbling with the key in the lock.
How many ponies have one of Giorgio's keys to this place? Vanguard pondered in the darkness. He envisioned some pony stealthily approaching the town house, furtively looking to the right and to the left before inserting the key that would allow him or her entrance into the building, and quickly slipping through the door and disappearing into the privacy of whatever confidential errand needed attention.
* * *
Little did Vanguard know that it was Ivetta who earlier that evening had gained access simply by maneuvering the secret entrance that existed between the two joined houses. She was grateful that Giles had been caught up in critical work downtown so that she could carry out her clandestine operation without interference. She was under enough pressure from Giorgio to locate that picture, for whatever reason.
When she had sent him word-- after seeing Prisca and Vanguard and the elusive red book-- that the cleaning mare, of all ponies, had accessed the book in question, Giorgio had responded immediately with special instructions: Remove all papers from the other books on that bookshelf as soon as possible. Fate was with her, for Vanguard had left the premises shortly after Giorgio's latest command had been issued, and she had been able to carry it out without a problem. She had even had time to scan copies of the articles into the computer before destroying the originals, as Giorgio had requested.
Ivetta was satisfied with her accomplishment of the evening, and curled up on the sofa to await Giles; she was exhausted from the mental stress that her surreptitious sally for Giorgio put her under. Her thoughts became disconnected as sleep overtook her, yet something kept nagging at her mind. With a bolt back to reality, Ivetta remembered what was bothering her conscience; it was something Giorgio had said after she had related the meeting between Prisca and Vanguard. The words leapt back at her now in stark clarity: I'll see to her indiscretion, Giorgio had voiced in anger. I'll take care of Prisca myself.
* * *
There was a hint of cooler weather in the air when Vanguard opened the door to retrieve the Saturday issue of the newspaper that lay on his front step. Ivetta was outside her domain, too, completely absorbed in reading the front page. "Good morning, neighbor," Vanguard called to her.
Ivetta looked up from the newsprint with a dismayed look on her face. "Did you see this?" she asked.
Glancing down at the paper in his hoof, Vanguard saw the headlines, General Council Agrees to Additional Funding. "So, what's the big deal?" he questioned.
Tossing her mane back in impatience, Ivetta crossed the space between the two ponies and held up her copy of the paper, pointing to a small block in the lower corner. "Read this!" she ordered.
Accepting her copy, Vanguard read the smaller heading, "Home Ransacked Last Night". He scanned the short article about a home being entered by two unknown stallions late in the evening, and the scuffle that ensured between the homeowner, Donato, and the miscreants. Although the stallion and his wife, Prisca...
"Prisca?" Vanguard looked at Ivetta in surprise. "This happened to Prisca?"
She nodded her head in the affirmative.
He continued reading the news release. Donato and Prisca had been tied up by the two burglars, and their home ransacked. A daughter had found them early this morning. Police found no evidence of a theft having occurred, although extensive searching had obviously been employed. Donato was treated and released for cuts and bruises. No clue as to the identity of the perpetrators was available.
Looking up, he found Ivetta staring at him. "Why would anyone want something from Prisca?" he queried. "She obviously isn't that well-off, so what would anyone hope to gain?"