Opening the shop the next morning, Hood busied himself with the mundane tasks of proprietorship. He had spent the earlier part of the day paying his personal bills, which always put him in a grumpy mood. He was wiping down the counter when Drumstick showed up.
“A little late, aren’t you?” Hood huffed.
“Sorry, boss,” Drumstick apologized, “but I had some paperwork to send in for college.”
Hood’s frown deepened. “Summer will be over in no time.”
“And I’m out of this one-horse town,” grinned Drumstick.
“Too bad we don’t have a local university,” Hood complained. “If we did, you could still work here between classes.”
“Does this mean you’re going to miss me?”
Hood glared at his assistant for a moment, then smiled. “You’ve been a big help, Drumstick. Yes, I’ll miss you.”
“Enough to give me a raise for the duration?”
“Dream on, boy!” Hood pitched the cleaning cloth at the yellow stallion, who ducked, allowing the wet cloth to continue sailing toward the door which opened to admit an attractive peach mare with orange mane accompanied by a white stallion. Hood watched in dread as the rag struck Dreamy in the face, and slipped with a sickening splosh to the floor.
Moving towards his first customers of the day, Hood apologized while offering a clean, dry towel. “Dreamy, I’m sorry.” Then, casting a disdainful look at Drumstick, he chided, “There will be no more of that kind of nonsense, young man.”
Drumstick played the part of a stricken schoolboy caught in the act of a mischievous misdemeanor while Hood ingratiatingly led Dreamy, followed by Marquee, to a table in front of the window.
Dreamy seemed more amused by the incident than Hood would have expected, but he realized that she always seemed to do the opposite of what he foresaw.
“Don’t be too hard on him, Hood,” she smiled. “It actually reminds me of something you would have done back in high school.”
“You two went to high school together?” Marquee asked in surprise. “Where was that?”
“In Grayton. We even rode the same school bus,” Dreamy smirked.
“That means you probably have some choice inside information on Hood here,” Marquee contemplated. “That might come in handy some day, especially for a reporter.”
With a sinking feeling, Hood realized the truth of Marquee’s barb. Dreamy knew every prank and escapade that Hood had been involved in during the four years of high school. He looked at Dreamy, who was staring at him as if remembering every mistake he’d ever made.
Luckily for Hood, Marquee changed the subject. “I told Dreamy you served the fastest lunch in town. Prove me right.”
“What would you like?”
The two ordered their sandwiches, and Hood hurried off to prepare them. He was annoyed to find himself glancing periodically at the table where Dreamy and Marquee sat, obviously enjoying each other’s company. “Marquee didn’t even know who Dreamy was yesterday,” Hood reflected. “Now they look like old friends.” Hood grimaced as he realized the irony of his thoughts... he and Dreamy were old friends, yet acted like strangers.
He commandeered Drumstick to serve the lunches to Dreamy and Marquee. “They should be big tippers,” he bribed.
“Speaking of which,” Drumstick cajoled, “now might be a good time to reconsider my raise... in the light of my taking the fall for your ill-timed fast ball.”
“Keep your mouth shut, and I’ll think about it,” was all Hood would commit to.
The shop was filling up with the luncheon crowd, and William appeared in his usual spot. “Good day, Hood.”
“No new developments overnight,” William intoned.
“Didn’t hear of any,” Hood admitted.
“Get me a caramel sundae,” ordered William.
“Yes, sir,” responded Hood.
As Hood fixed the sundae, William leaned across the counter and whispered conspiratorially, “That reporter’s here!”
Hood glanced up. “You mean that Free Lance guy?” he asked naively.
William chuckled. “He ain’t a guy. He’s a girl.”
Hood feigned surprise. “What are you saying, William?” he asked as he placed the nut-covered caramel sundae before the elderly stallion.
“That orangish mare by the window,” William hissed. “That’s Free Lance.”
Just then Marquee approached the counter to pay his tab while Dreamy chatted with another mare that Hood recognized as Flame from the Ponderings.
“Did the food and service meet Dreamy’s expectations?” queried Hood.
“Read about it in the paper,” grinned Marquee. Then, seeing the look of genuine horror that crossed Hood’s face, he added, “Just kidding, Hood. Lighten up!”
“Ha, ha; sure,” Hood tried to relax.
William watched the pair as they left the shop. “She’s awfully pretty,” he commented as he set about finishing off the sundae. “Too bad she’s so opinionated.”
Hood raised an eyebrow. “Opinionated, William? Weren’t you agreeing with her yesterday?”
“On the subject of the robberies, yes,” William conceded, “but not on her subject in today’s paper.”
“Which was?” prompted Hood.
“She says that Woodlawn is a ‘backwards hick town with no class,’ “ William spat the words like poison.
“Well, she does look like a classy lady,” Hood graciously admitted.
“But Woodlawn is just fine the way it is,” William argued. “We don’t need no stranger coming in and messing things up for us.”
Hood stopped to consider. He had left Grayton to escape the problems and hype of the big city, and he had found contentment in the slow-paced town of Woodlawn. He had to agree with William on this one. Yet he said, “She’s just one pony, William. I don’t think she’ll change Woodlawn too much.” But deep-down, Hood felt uneasy. From what he had seen of Dreamy, he knew that she was capable of accomplishing almost anything she set out to do. But he flashed a bright smile at William. “More coffee?”
“Don’t mind if I do,” William responded, his face becoming more cheerful.
Business was slowing down with just the occasional shopper or traveler coming in for ice cream and a soda. Hood’s mind became preoccupied once again with the rash of robberies in Woodlawn. He thought back over the heists as they had occurred. If Checker was right and the culprit was trying to settle a score with someone in Woodlawn, then the supposed incident had to be known to at least one person. It might even be a matter of public record. But yet again, it might have been a private score.
“William!” Hood resumed their conversation. “You must know all the goings-on in town. Do you remember any arguments or confrontations that might have left someone seeking revenge?”
“Even in a friendly place like Woodlawn, I’m afraid you’d find more of that than you’d care to.”
“Well, give me some examples.”
William sat in thought while Hood refilled his coffee cup. “There was the incident with remodeling city hall. The local architect, Tribute, lost the bid to one of those big city guys.”
“Is Tribute still around?”
“Oh, certainly. He designed the newspaper building and the bank over on Stable Street.”
“So this stallion didn’t let his losing out on the one job get to him?”
“Guess not,” William lapsed into silence for several minutes. “The Loper family had a spat with the school board when their son was expelled during his senior year.”
“And what became of it?” Hood eagerly asked. Here was a possibility-- a young trouble-maker who would be angry at a system which cost him his degree.
“Last I heard,” William brought Hood back to earth, “young Loper got himself accepted at Crossroads University and is an honor student all the way.”
“Crossroads, you say? That’s where Drumstick is going at the end of the summer.”
“It’s a good school,” William affirmed.
“Too far from Woodlawn, if you ask me,” Hood lamented, wondering who would replace his efficient hireling. Patchwork Petal was still in high school, so when classes started, she wouldn’t be available during the lunch rush. Rosy Bells homeschooled Dewdrop, so she was only free later in the day.
“The cart is unloaded,” Drumstick broke into Hood’s worries. “We were short two containers of ice cream, though.”
“What?” Hood complained. “The temperatures are supposed to stay in the nineties for the next few days, and we’re going to be short of ice cream?”
“Swan says he’ll make an emergency delivery again tomorrow,” Drumstick offered.
“I should hope so,” Hood growled.
William was just leaving when Checker entered the shop. Hood’s curiosity over the police chief’s interview with the suspect could now be appeased.
“Good afternoon, Checker. What can I get you?”
“Just coffee,” Checker replied tiredly.
Hood poured two black coffees into the rustic brown mugs bearing the “Hood’s Place” signature in bold black letters. He and Checker made themselves comfortable at a table while Drumstick took care of the slow but steady flow of customers.
“What did you find out, Checker?”
“Hood, you would never guess!”
“Tell me, then.”
“The stallion has vanished.”
Hood leaned back in his chair in consternation. “Wait until Dreamy hears about this,” he said without thinking. Then seeing the agitated look on Checker’s face, he continued hurriedly, “Who is the mystery stallion anyway?”
Checker took a sip of the strong, hot coffee before responding. “No one seems to know.”
“Not a local pony then?”
“Cutter, the owner of the lawn service, hired him last week. He worked Saturday and Monday, but didn’t come in Tuesday.”
“What was his name?”
Checker grimaced. “The name he gave Cutter was ‘Victor.’ He’s a dark green stallion-- young-- with purple mane and tail.”
“You think it’s an alias?”
“If he is smart, and I’m sure he is after all this time without slipping up, he would certainly not compromise his situation at this point by using his real name.”
Hood thought awhile. “The name ‘Victor.’ Is this his way of rubbing salt in the wound, so to speak?”
“If he thinks he’s victorious, he’s got another think a-coming.” scowled Checker. “We’ve got his description now; it’s only a matter of time.”
“Didn’t Sparky suspect anything when he talked to this Victor after your tomatoes had disappeared?” Hood wondered.
Checker hesitated in answering; and when he did, his reply caused Hood to gasp.
“Sparky never talked to him.”
“But you said...”
Checker interrupted. “Sparky talked to a stallion whom he thought was this Victor fellow. It seems that when Victor finished at Rosy Bell’s place, he returned the mower to Cutter, then took another worker aside and asked him to cover for him.”
“You’re saying Sparky questioned the wrong pony?” Hood signaled Drumstick to refill their coffee cups.
“He actually talked to Pretzel, another of Cutter’s employees. Victor told him that if anyone asked for him, to just make things easy by pretending to be him.”
“And Pretzel didn’t get suspicious?” He knew this stallion from his frequent stops at the shop for chocolate ice cream.
“Victor told him that he’d finished his scheduled jobs and needed to leave town for an emergency in the family, and he didn’t want any delays. Pretzel thought he was doing the stallion a simple favor.”
Contemplating this information, Hood shook his head disbelievingly. “Seeing a cop asking the questions should have tipped him off.”
Checker stirred his coffee absentmindedly. “Before you moved here, Pretzel had some rough times. I imagine he felt obliged to help out someone whom he saw as another down-and-out victim of the system.”
Hood refrained from prying into Pretzel’s history. He could sympathize with his effort to protect a supposed friend. “This won’t go bad with Pretzel, will it?” he asked his brother-in-law.
“No. He didn’t know about the crime involved at the time. Sparky was just verifying the information Rosy Bells gave him.”
The conversation came to an abrupt halt as the door of Hood’s Place burst open. For the second time that day, a peach-colored pony with orange curls entered the shop. But this time it wasn’t the classy, soft-voiced Dreamy. It was the brazen, loud-mouthed Free Lance who approached their table.
Hood and Checker both groaned, and braced themselves for the onslaught.