Free Lance didn't waste any time after her arrival at Hood's Place. She slid into an empty chair and aimed her questions at Checker.
"Chief Checker, is it true that you allowed the elusive robber of Woodlawn to escape under the watchful eye of your police force?"
Taking a deep breath, Checker responded. "The alleged suspect seems to have left town."
"Did one of your officers question this suspect yesterday?"
"The officer sent to question the suspect was led to believe he had talked to him."
"Meaning your officer was incapable of seeing through an obvious deception?"
"Obvious to us in hindsight," agreed Checker. "But understandable considering the circumstances."
"What is your illustrious department doing about this development?" She glanced at the coffee mugs on the table disdainfully. "Other than drinking coffee," she amended.
"My officers are combing Woodlawn and the surrounding area for information concerning the stallion in question."
"And what is an exact description of this stallion?"
Checker wished he could hold back the details just to prevent Dreamy from getting her hooves on it, but he knew that having Victor's description printed in the paper would acquaint more ponies with the need for facts concerning the stallion. He grudgingly gave out the description. "The stallion we are searching for is young, probably nineteen or twenty. He's dark green with a purple mane and tail, and has a purple butterfly symbol."
Having what she wanted, Dreamy stood up. Hood and Checker did also, but refrained from saying anything. The reporter cast a cold gaze on the two of them, and she left them with a parting shot. "My article in tomorrow's paper will certainly accomplish what Woodlawn's finest have failed to do."
"That went well," Hood muttered under his breath as he watched Dreamy walk away. As she reached the door, it opened; and Buttercup, carrying the ever-smiling Sweety, held it ajar to let Dreamy pass.
"Your Hood may need a soft shoulder to cry on," Dreamy smiled disparagingly as she left the shop.
Buttercup, looking bewildered, came to Hood. "Since when are you 'my Hood', and who was that vixen?"
"It's kind of a long story," Hood sighed.
Buttercup sat herself down in the chair vacated by Dreamy. "I've got time."
Hood motioned to Drumstick to take Buttercup's order, then walked Checker to the door. "Don't let Dreamy get to you, Checker. Whatever she writes in the paper doesn't change the fact that you are doing all you can."
Checker smiled weakly. "Even I'm beginning to doubt that, Hood." He turned and forlornly left the shop.
Hood braced himself for a barrage of questions when he returned to Buttercup, but Patchwork Petal had come in for her shift and was talking baby talk to Sweetie as Buttercup looked proudly on. Hood took the opportunity to return to the counter, and the shop was soon crowded with ponies of all ages eager to escape the summer heat with a big serving of ice cream in the comfort of Hood's Place.
"Good evening, Hood." A light green stallion with a sky blue mane approached the counter, having arrived to meet his wife and daughter.
"Hi there, Homestead," Hood responded. "That's quite a pretty foal you and Buttercup have."
"Yeah. She's the greatest." Homestead looked devotedly in the direction of his family. The foal was the center of attention from the customers at the nearby tables, and Sweetie's cooing, gurgling, and assorted antics were a sure crowd pleaser. "But, anyway," Homestead went on, "Buttercup says she needs to talk with you. I'm going to take Sweetie home now, and maybe you can walk Buttercup home later?"
Hood was about to plead too much work when Rosy Bells came up behind him. "Of course Hood can go," she proclaimed. "I'm in charge now!"
"Good timing, Rosy Bells," Hood belied. To Homestead, he directed, "Sure, I'll get Buttercup home safely. I've just got to finish-up a few things in the office first."
"Okay, Hood," grinned Homestead. "And come in for a cold lemonade when you get there."
"Sure thing," Hood answered. As he trotted off to his office, he suddenly felt very, very weary.
He had no sooner gotten comfortable at his desk when Buttercup appeared in the doorway. "Mind if I come in?" she asked. Hood realized anew just how pretty she was. "Homestead's one lucky stallion," he said out loud.
Buttercup blushed slightly across her yellow cheeks. "Flattery will get you nowhere, Hood. I'm dying to know what was going on between you and that sassy-looking mare."
"Meddlesome by nature, are you, Buttercup?"
"Excuse me, but it was your lady friend who referred to you as 'my Hood'. That gives me certain rights." She winked coquettishly.
"It's just a misunderstanding. She saw us at the grocery yesterday and thought we made a lovely family."
Buttercup laughed merrily. "I thought she might be the same mare I saw you talking with at the market. I hope I didn't spoil your plans."
"Actually, you saved me from an evening of verbal torture," Hood admitted.
"Who is this mare, Hood?"
Hood disclosed his connection to Dreamy, alias Free Lance, holding the inquisitive Buttercup in rapt attention. "Rather waspish, isn't she?" Buttercup offered as Hood finished his story.
Hood grinned at the idea of Dreamy being compared to a wasp. "Yes, she always was irritating and annoying." But his mind moved back to the present moment. "And now, I think I better get you home to your family."
As they walked through the thickening dusk, they discussed the continuing saga of Woodlawn's woes. Buttercup was excited to find out that Checker now had a definite description of the burglar. "Green with purple mane?" she asked. "That doesn't ring any bells with me. What is his symbol?"
"A purple butterfly... an amethyst swallowtail, I think it was."
"An amethyst swallowtail?" murmured Buttercup. "Why does that sound familiar?"
"You've seen him?" Hood's voice rose in excitement.
"No... no, it's not that. But something... " Buttercup trailed off, and Hood remained silent to give her time to think. It wasn't until they reached Buttercup's house and had gone inside that she suddenly spoke-up. "I remember now! Mom said the midwife who helped with my birth had a number of amethyst swallowtails on her sides."
"Do you remember her name?" questioned Hood. "This could be important."
Buttercup accepted a glass of ice-cold lemonade from her husband and concentrated hard. "Nope, but Mom will surely know!" She crossed to the telephone and placed the call while Hood paced the floor and Homestead checked on the sleeping foal.
"Hello, Mom?" It's me... Yes, Sweety is fine... Of course I'll give her a hug and kiss for you..." Hood nervously tapped a hoof on the kitchen counter, his impatience building; he wanted a definite name to go on.
"No, I'm just calling to get some information... What was the name of the midwife who helped deliver me?" Buttercup held the receiver away from her ear as her mother's squeal of delight came so loudly through the line that even Hood could hear it some distance away. "No, Mom, I'm not going to have another foal, just yet. The reason I'm asking is that it's important for an investigation here in Woodlawn."
"Yes, that's it. So it was in the Scoopville paper, too?... Do you remember her name?" Buttercup grabbed a pencil and jotted a name on the pad by the telephone. Hood watched over her shoulder as she added "moved" and "died" to the note.
"Okay, thanks. I've got to go now... Love you, too!" As she hung up the receiver, Buttercup beamed. "Her name was Sassafras and she married a farmer sometime after I was born, and they had a place east of town, but Mom never saw much of her although she heard bits and pieces about them from time to time."
"Such as... " prompted Hood.
Taking a deep breath, Buttercup continued. "She had several foals, Mom thinks, and they lived an isolated life on that farm until their finances ran out. I guess they moved to the city then-- Mom didn't know where-- and she later heard that Sassafras had died." She stopped talking and looked at Hood and Homestead in turn. "What do you think?"
"I think Checker needs to hear this as soon as possible," urged Hood. "Do I have your permission to call him?"
"Sure," agreed Homestead. "If this news will help in some way, go right ahead."
Punching out Checker's home number on the touch tone phone, Hood prayed that Moonglow wouldn't be the one to answer and question his reason for calling. On the second ring, however, Checker's voice came over the line.
"Chief Checker here."
"Checker, it's Hood. I ran into some information that you might be interested in... I'm at Buttercup and Homestead's home... Yes, they said it's okay for you to come now... Right." Hood set down the receiver. "He's on his way."
Homestead tried to get Hood to sit down, but the potential of a clue to this ongoing mystery of thievery and deceit was too invigorating to allow him to be still. He crossed and recrossed the kitchen as Buttercup chattered about local gossip and household problems. Homestead listened to his wife, making the appropriate monosyllable reply when necessary, while watching Hood's growing excitement.
Checker made record time in crossing town, and arrived at the front door ready to listen. Homestead brought him into the kitchen where the four ponies seated themselves around the table, and Checker kept quiet while Buttercup repeated her data.
Taking down notes as he listened, Checker's demeanor became noticeably more buoyant. This was a lead that gave him something concrete to go on. When Buttercup had shared all the pieces of the puzzle that she could recall, Checker thanked her with a smile on his face. Haven't seen that for awhile, thought Hood to himself.
"I'll have to talk to your mother personally tomorrow morning on the chance that she might have remembered something else that would be useful to us," he informed Buttercup.
"She'll be pleased to help," Buttercup responded, showing Checker and Hood to the door. Homestead was busy calming Sweety after she had awakened from her sleep, begging for a warm bottle and a dry diaper.
Upon opening the door for her guests, Buttercup, along with Hood and Checker, came face-to-face with Dreamy, her hoof raised to knock. "Well, well," she clucked. "Look what we have here."
While Buttercup wickedly wrapped her foreleg around Hood, flashing him a wink as he turned his head in surprise, Checker responded to the reporter. "What are you doing here, Free Lance?"
"I have my sources, and they spotted you on what appeared to be an important errand." She surveyed the homey-looking trio, and continued. "Or did you just need another mug of coffee?"
"Oh, we had lemonade!" replied Buttercup as she snuggled closer against Hood's side." "Would you care for some, Miss...?"
Dreamy looked as if she wanted to say something, but held her tongue. Instead, she directed a question at Checker. "Have you identified the stallion who is suspected of the crimes of the past few months?"
"No, I haven't." Checker replied truthfully. "Now if you'll excuse me..." He left the sentence unfinished while motioning Dreamy to be on her way. Her eyes shot sparks, but she turned and left the premises.
When she was out of range, Hood unwrapped himself from Buttercup's embrace. "You little snip!" he chastised her but could not refrain from chuckling over the incident.
Homestead came into the room from the nursery. "What's so funny?" he asked, an eyebrow raised questioningly.
"I think Buttercup better explain," suggested Hood. " Checker and I need to be on our way." With that, they left Buttercup to account for her mischievous behavior to her husband, and headed to Hood's nearby house where they could talk in private. Once inside and seated comfortably in Hood's study, the two stallions compared notes. "What do you make of it, Checker?"
Checker took a deep breath. "It could be coincidence, of course, with two ponies having a similar symbol without being related."
"On the other hoof?" Hood pressed.
"If this Sassafras lost her farm because of financial difficulties, and if she passed her discouragement on to her offspring..."
"The modus operandi would fit your conjecture-- someone with a chip on his or her shoulder trying to get back at Woodlawn because of a perceived injustice," interrupted Hood.
"We've got no proof yet, but it's a starting point," Checker stood up and prepared to leave. "Looks like I'll be spending the night at City Hall digging through records for this Sassafras."
"Will Moonglow be okay alone with the foals?" worried Hood.
"Stardrift was with her when I left and will stay until morning, if needed," assured Checker. At the door, he turned back to Hood. "I forgot to thank you for uncovering this opening for us. With something solid to go on, we'll be able to make some headway."
"Just find what you need in those files," retorted Hood. "That's all the thanks I need!"