Say What?
written by Sugarberry and Tabby

Stretched out on the couch, Tabby sipped on her lemonade. "The last concert in New Pony was a big hit. All the proceeds were donated to the literacy foundation. I know it made a big difference."

"You're going to regret that in the future, dear," Agatha pointed out. "Someday you'll need that money."

"Oh, Mother, that's not true at all. I'm happy that the Bushwoolies and I were able to help the literacy foundation."

"You have put a lot of your earnings into charity since I bought you that music company," Hubert, her father, commented. "Don't you want to keep any for yourself?"

"I will, of course, always be grateful to you for helping me start my musical career," Tabby said graciously. "I'm just happy to have a family like you. I don't need material possessions."

"Your father's always given you everything you wanted," Agatha said. "You don't realize what it's like to be less fortunate."

"Well, I do appreciate your hospitality," Tabby said, draining her glass and setting it delicately on the table. "But I must dash and meet Cliff and the Bushwoolies now. I'll be back tonight. Tah-tah!" With that said, Tabby excused herself and was off from the sumptuous penthouse apartment where she stayed with her parents when she was in Dream Valley.

* * *

Peering out of her third-story office window, the stylish career pony carried on a phone conversation with her interior decorator. "Listen, Quarterback, I've told you the money is as good as in my hoof. The bank is just going through the formalities now."

"I've heard that before, Sugarberry, and look where your project stands now-- on hold and with no payback expected in the near future."

Sugarberry's mouth set grimly in a straight line, but she managed to keep her voice in check. "You know that the trouble has been resolved. Wigwam has assured me that there is no reason for the bank to withhold its financial backing now that things are straightened out." She spoke authoritatively, but she knew the stallion was grinning over her situation on the other end of the line.

"I put my trust in you six months ago, and I haven't seen a single jangle for my efforts. Before I take another step, I'm going to need some payment to make it worth my while."

"Just keep in mind, Quarterback, that once this building is ready for furnishing, I'll expect you to be prepared for your part. I can't afford any more delays."

"Exactly my point," the stallion replied and ended his connection with a poignant click.

Boiling with anger, Sugarberry slammed the receiver down and returned to stare out the window at the skeletal structure of her very modern office complex. The building, designed by Scoops, was replacing the old and outdated block of Dream Valley's main street. Gone were the repugnant structures that had once housed the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe and Fifi's Perm Shoppe, among others.

The foundation and basic lines of the soaring, sleek twelve-story edifice would become the new home of her thriving fashion magazine, as well as provide office space to rent to other companies. Dream Valley was booming, and Sugarberry wanted to take advantage of the possibilities while they were hot.

As she looked from her window, she was not seeing the cold, rugged steel that climbed to the sky or the piles of dirt that fringed the block with their black, weed-infested presence. She saw instead the looming glass structure that would flesh-out this skeleton and imaged herself presiding over her staff from the highest floor and receiving the praise of the inhabitants of Dream Valley for having the foresight to prepare them for the twenty-first century.

Sugarberry's daydream was interrupted by the entrance into her office of a short purple dragon carrying his electronic calendar and a handful of paperwork. "I've got those agreements prepared and ready for your signature," he stated, then added as an afterthought. "And I made your hair appointment for tomorrow at three."

"Spike, you know I can't be there before four-thirty," Sugarberry said as the dragon stopped for her approval.

"Chocolate Chip is going out of town to pick up merchandise for her stall at the convention and can only fit you in at three."

The white, strawberry-patterned earth pony frowned. "She's the only hair-dresser I trust, or I'd switch over to that new place at the mall. You'll have to reschedule my appointment with Elaine."

"Already taken care of. She'll be here at two-fifteen; you can finish in time."

"And on the schedule for today?"

"This morning you are to interview Tabby and the Bushwoolies, although Sparkler is perfectly capable of handling that for you." The dragon nailed her with a piercing glance.

"No, no. I'll take care of Tabby myself." Again her thoughts went elsewhere, reliving some of the animosity that had always existed between the two as they had competed with each other throughout their school years over grades, sports, and friends.

She came back to her senses to hear Spike say, "Dreamcatcher will meet you at one o'clock at the Inside Track for lunch."

"Do you have all the contracts organized for me?" Dreamcatcher was her attorney and handled all the legal work for her magazine.

"Yes. Everything is in this file." He laid the thick manila folder on her desk.

Tentatively drawing the file to her, Sugarberry mused out loud. "I expect her to get around our legal complications within the next twenty-four hours."

Spike continued with the agenda. "At two-thirty, Bungee and Jet will be here to discuss the final arrangements of the fashion convention."

A smile finally lit the mare's face. "This Fashion Extravaganza will be an enjoyable experience. I only wish the new complex had been finished to accommodate it." She sighed deeply.

"If you are ready, we should be leaving to get over to the warehouse where Tabby does her rehearsing; I told her ten o'clock."

The smile faded instantly. "Let her wait. I've got a phone call to make." Her look told Spike he was excused.

Punching in the numbers on her phone, Sugarberry drummed her hoof on the desk as she waited impatiently for the other party to pick up. When she heard the voice respond, she sat up straight. "Is the exchange set?" The answer she received seemed to please her. She leaned back in her chair and facets of light glittered in her eyes. "Great," she said. "I'll be anxious to hear the details."

* * *

In the old warehouse converted to a sound studio, a pink unicorn was singing into the microphone on a stage set off to one side of the roomy expanse converted into useable space, her bright red hair swinging with the motion of her body, her voice belting out the lyrics of a new song. As the last note rang through the air, the unicorn struck a dramatic pose and closed her eyes as the sound echoed off the rafters. When she opened them and bowed to receive the applause of her non-existent audience, she found Sugarberry standing in front of the stage with her private secretary and her photographer, who was busy snapping pictures.

"Well, I see you finally decided to show up," the unicorn stated. "That in itself is noteworthy." She swung herself off the stage in a fluid motion, landing next to the white mare who said nothing, yet watched the unicorn closely. "I see that your grand palace has come no closer to completion than when I was home last."

"That will all change in the near future, Tabby, but I came here to talk about you, not about me."

"As well we should," Tabby observed. "I'm the one that has the public's eye, after all." She flung her mane in a conceited manner and led her guests to an improvised office space off the right side of the stage.

"Where's your band?" Sugarberry's look encompassed the area. "I thought we were to see you in action."

"The Bushwoolies will be here shortly. We can talk first."

Tabby sat on an available director's chair and waved Sugarberry to another. At that moment, a stallion came on the scene. "Cliff!" said Tabby. "You weren't here to greet Sugarberry."

"I was just checking your schedule," the grey stallion replied. "We can't lose track of the time." The two shared a smile that spoke more between them than was necessary for words.

"Sugarberry," Tabby spoke to the mare without taking her eyes off the stallion. "This is Cliff, my stage manager."

Any further talk was negated as a group of Bushwoolies filed into the building. Friendly went straight to his set of drums, and Chumster tested the keyboard. Cheery and Hugster played out some random notes on their electric guitars. Streaky took the opportunity to get some candid shots as they approached.

"Hey, guys!" Tabby greeted them. "Awesome hair today." The backups in her group all sported trendy styles, ranging from mohawks to crazy arrangements of braids.

"Yeah. Totally. Cool, man!" came their replies.

"Cliff, go discuss the stage set-up with them," Tabby instructed briskly, nodding towards the platform. "I'll deal with Sugarberry." Cliff obediently went to do his bidding, leaving the two mares alone.

"We've both come a long way, haven't we?" Sugarberry said retrospectively.

"At least I'm still solvent," Tabby said coolly.

"Shall we begin the interview?"

Tabby made herself comfortable in the chair and looked at Sugarberry expectantly. "Ask away."

"When we were in high-school, you planned on becoming a veterinarian. What made you change your plans?" Sugarberry began.

"Well," Tabby thought, "a big part of it was when I first saw Shantina on stage. She completely inspired me to pursue a career in music."

"Is it true that your father purchased a music company to further your career goal?" Sugarberry prodded.

"Yes, my father did generously purchase my own music firm," Tabby acknowledged. "He's always supported me no matter what."

"How did the Bushwoolies become part of your entourage?"

"I first met them in New Pony where they were performing a street concert. I immediately recognized their talent, and invited them to join me."

"Who does the writing of your songs?"

"For the most part, Rosy takes care of that. She is unusually gifted for a Bushwoolie."

"Is there a certain set of ponies you try to reach with your music?"

"That's difficult to say. You see, I–"

The interview continued until Cliff reminded Tabby that she had an important engagement to prepare for. Sugarberry was growing tired of interviewing her rival anyway and was happy to take her leave. "Until the concert," she said simply before strolling away.

* * *

Sugarberry found herself humming Tabby's latest song as she waited for Dreamcatcher at a table away from prying ears at the Inside Track and promptly chided herself for falling under the singer's spell. She was relieved to finally catch sight of the orange unicorn coming her way.

"I just talked with Wigwam," Dreamcatcher said once she was seated and after she had looked carefully about her to make sure no one was paying them special attention.


"And he says there will be no problem with your loan this time; the construction crews can get back to work immediately."

"It's all final?" Sugarberry could not contain her excitement.

"All the papers are signed and sealed. Your copies are right here." She slid a heavy brown envelope across the table.

Sugarberry scanned the papers. "This is great! I can't thank you enough for handling this for me."

"Just one warning. If Wigwam ever wants you to sign another contract, don't do it. Everything is signed that needs signing. That stallion is devious; he should have been a lawyer himself." She grinned wryly.

"Don't worry about that. I know better than to trust him." Sugarberry returned the grin to the mare across the table, but her ear twitched once, twice, and then again. She heard her sister's voice from across the years when they were both in elementary school: "You're lying! You're lying! Your ear is twitching, and that means you are lying."

* * *

"The convention hall is ready; everything is in place, except the ponies themselves," said Bungee in her soft voice, her purple hair framing her face in soft, natural ringlets.

"The models went through rehearsal today so there should be no last minute emergencies," Jet added.

"And you have all the arrangements set up for the entertainment?" Tabby was to perform to close off the Fashion Extravaganza, and Sugarberry worried that the unicorn would sabotage her endeavor by not showing up.

"No problem. She's looking forward to it."

"I wish I shared your confidence."

"She'll show," Bungee verified. "She wouldn't miss a chance to show off."

"And the fashions you are supplying for her have proved to be irresistible," Jet chuckled. "She's hooked."

"Friday will be here before we know it." Sugarberry frowned slightly in concentration. "You're sure you haven't forgotten anything?"

"Positive," Jet answered firmly. "And, anyway, that's what Bungee and I are here for. If anything goes wrong, we'll handle it."

"I should certainly expect you to," Sugarberry replied and indicated with a wave of her hoof that the two were dismissed.

* * *

Taking advantage of the first quiet moments of the day, Sugarberry walked across the room to a model of her soon to be realized dream building. Square and blocky, the shape of the structure was not impressive; but the smooth glass sides in all directions which reflected the gaze of the world made the edifice striking, like a glowing blue cube dominating the city.

Next to the miniature mock-up were Quarterback's sketches of the interior design of the offices which Sugarberry and her staff would occupy. Her own office, stark and simple, mirrored the blue sheen of the outside of the building. A detailed sketch showed the austerity broken only by luxuriant potted plants and the discreet placement of fashion plates on the walls. Sugarberry imagined herself in the picture but was brought back to reality when Spike notified her of a phone call on line one from the bank president.

"Good afternoon, Wigwam."

"How about dinner tonight at Red Cedars?"

"I have other plans."

"Then break them."

Sugarberry sighed. "Dreamcatcher said that our loan is final. We have nothing further to discuss."

A chuckle of the other end of the line caused Sugarberry to shiver. "The main deal is closed, but there are still a few bugs to work out of the... ah... less public transaction."

"I thought we had agreed on the terms."

"Just a few minor details, sweetheart. I'll pick you up at seven."

"I'll be busy with some other things until later, but I'll meet you there at seven-thirty." Sugarberry hung up the phone. She hated this clandestine dealing with Wigwam, but he was the only pony she knew who was willing to get her out of the financial difficulty that had nearly swallowed her and her magazine into its hungry maw.

Distinction had been Sugarberry's claim to fame when, after college graduation, she had managed the struggling publication; and when the chance came to buy into it, she had borrowed the money and taken the magazine to a place of honor in its field.

When her plan to build her grand office building had been approved by Wigwam and his board of directors at the bank, all seemed to be going well. Until, of course, she had been unable to meet the loan payments; and Wigwam had discovered that she had been less than honest about the previous loan. It had taken all of Dreamcatcher's ingenuity to bail her out of her precarious predicament, and it also had allowed Wigwam to hold certain business negotiations in reserve to force her hoof to improve his own financial horizon. That information even Dreamcatcher was unaware of.

* * *

The art gallery was a small but upscale business stuck between Salty's Jewelry Store and 4-Speed's Formal Wear for Stallions. Sugarberry found herself one of several customers checking out the eclectic collection of paintings, sculpture, and oddities on display.

The owner of the business was a purple pony with purple hair. He nodded at Sugarberry in passing, but waited on the other ponies' needs before coming to stand at her side in front of a modernistic painting done in vibrant blues and purples, the paint thick and globular.

"Do you like this one?" Clever Clover asked. "It's by a new artist, Frilly Flower, but I foresee her making a name for herself."

"It's striking," Sugarberry admitted, "but I think I'd better put my jangles into our previous agreement. You said on the phone that you'll have my piece within the next couple of weeks."

"Probably sooner. My contact is planning a trip south next week; if there are no complications, he will bring your art work back with him."

"Will he deliver it here?"

"To keep things confidential, that would probably be best. I can arrange to have it delivered to your apartment later, or it can stay here in storage until your new office is ready for it."

"Hmm... I'd like to have access to it as soon as possible; I'd like Quarterback to see it so he knows how to plan the rest of the decor around it." Sugarberry gently touched a gaudy, twisted vase made of unidentifiable materials; somehow it reminded her of her life at the present moment. "How much for this?" she asked.

Clever Clover snickered. "Take it," he said, lifting it off its stand. "It's one of my own projects that went awry. But if anyone comments on it, tell them it's a new technique I've developed." He grinned at the mare as he left to package it. When he returned with it carefully stowed in a handled tote, he relinquished it to her with a question. "You'll have the jangles for the other item when it's delivered?"

Sugarberry accepted the tote with a smile. "Why, of course, Clever Clover; the money is as good as in your bank account even now."

* * *

When Sugarberry arrived at Red Cedars, the maitre d' led her directly to Wigwam's table. The stallion helped her get seated, then made himself comfortable. The insolent smile he wore infuriated Sugarberry, but she reminded herself that for the success of her building, she needed his support. She returned a smile that was far from warm.

"What's so important that we had to meet tonight?"

"Maybe I just wanted to have dinner with a beautiful mare, sweetheart."

Sugarberry's smile turned downward; she did not appreciate the stallion's impertinence and she let him know it. "I'm here only because I want nothing to stand in the way of my business."

"My sentiments exactly!" grinned Wigwam. Their conversation was cut short while their orders were placed; but once left alone again, the stallion continued. "If we play our cards right, we will both come out on the winning side of this proposition."

"Do you foresee any problems?"

"Only if you don't make your payments on time."

"I'll make the payments. On the phone, you implied that some details still needed to be resolved."

Wigwam took a sip out of his water glass. "I realize that our... deal... is over and above all that which Dreamcatcher so thoroughly tied-up in legal mumbo-jumbo, but working with her this morning got me to thinking."

Sugarberry knew that if Wigwam had been thinking, it could only mean further trouble for her. She would give almost anything to be able to stand up right now and tell him to forget about their earlier agreements and call the entire affair quits, but the bottom line was that without his confidential financial backing, she would lose everything-- her position, her magazine, her building. She swallowed her pride and simply asked, "And?"

"We both realize that the arrangements between us that don't involve the bank itself are glaringly illegal."

"I understand that very well. You are willing to embezzle bank funds to loan to me at an inflated interest rate."

"I like the word 'appropriate' better than 'embezzle'. But, yes, that is how it stands. What I'm getting at is that if I get caught, I'm not going down alone."

"So don't get caught."

Wigwam laughed. "I don't intend to, but I have to consider all my options."


He leaned across the table and lowered his voice. "I've written up a contract of sorts that I'd like both of us to sign. It will benefit you as well as me. If you get in trouble, you'll have proof of my involvement, too. That way, we have to stay honest with each other."

Sugarberry grimaced. "'Honest' seems to be an inappropriate word to use, doesn't it?"

Wigwam made no response as their food was served. They ate in silence until Sugarberry asked, "Let me see the paper you want me to sign."

"Not here," Wigwam advised. "I'll walk you home after dinner, and we can sign it in the privacy of your apartment."

"I think not," Sugarberry responded briskly. She scanned the other occupants of the dining room and saw no faces that would have any interest in the goings on at their table. "Let me see it here and now; if it is acceptable, I'll sign before I leave."

"If that's the way you want it," the stallion shrugged after a pause. "Here it is." He, too, glanced about the room before setting the document on the table.

Sugarberry took her time reading the conditions of the contract so she would not have to talk to Wigwam. The wording was straight-forward, and she could see no problem with it, except that it would become ammunition for both of them to use against the other; but, she reasoned, if it gets to a point where one or the other of us renege on the deal, it is all over anyway.

Having picked at her food as she contemplated the paper, Sugarberry pushed the plate away from her. "Do you have a pen?" she asked.

"Two pens, and a second copy of the contract... one for each of us."

"Let me see that one."

"You don't trust me, sweetheart? Tsk, tsk. We're business partners here."

"Business partners, yes, but only out of necessity." She took the copy, read it, and compared it to the original. Finding everything in order, she said, "You sign this one," and she handed him a copy. "I'll sign this one. But let me ask the waiter for some neutral pens, just in case."

"You think mine have disappearing ink?"

"The thought crossed my mind."

With new pens in hoof, they each signed their name and date, then switched papers and kept a suspicious eye on one another as they each supplied the second signature which irrevocably entangled their cause.

"Great!" Wigwam stated as the job was completed. "Now, file that where Spike or no one else will ever find it accidentally."

"You can be sure of that," Sugarberry responded and pushed back her chair. "Thanks for dinner."

"What? No dessert?"

She looked at him with a withering glance. "Goodnight, Wigwam." And she walked away.

Sugarberry was nearly to the exit when she heard a voice call her name; she was approached by a bright blue stallion with purple hair. Seeing who it was brought a genuine smile to the mare's face. "Gauntlet. Good evening." She had been introduced to this stallion at a dinner party several weeks ago, and the two of them had found the encounter agreeable.

"I'm here with a client, so I don't have much time. I've tried calling you, but your secretary won't let my calls through; and your answering machine at home doesn't seem to work."

"It's set to take all calls immediately, and Spike reviews them via his hookup. Things are really busy with the convention in a few days, not to mention the normal magazine deadlines and the building project. It's been crazy... maybe in a couple of weeks things will settle down."

Gauntlet looked disappointed but acquiesced. "I'll contact you later then."

Sugarberry turned to go, but had taken only a few steps when she turned back. Gauntlet was still watching her. "Friday night," she said, "come to the convention center. We're having a concert and refreshments to end the Fashion Extravaganza. It will be hectic but entertaining."

"I'll be there," he grinned and went off to join the stallion with whom he was dining.

Sugarberry watched for a moment; then, as she turned to go, she caught sight of Wigwam standing in the doorway of the dining room, his gaze directed at her. For a second their eyes met, and Sugarberry felt a tremor run through her body. She hastened out the door, and didn't stop until she was safely home.

Throughout that evening, neither Sugarberry nor Wigwam had observed the diminutive purple dragon who dined alone in the back corner of the restaurant and now watched with obvious interest from the sidelines.

* * *

It was ten minutes past Elaine's scheduled time before the vivacious unicorn came into Sugarberry's office and plopped herself in a chair. Lean and fit, she radiated energy and good health even when she was completely motionless, which was not often.

Sugarberry grinned at the appearance of Distinction's spokespony. "You're workshop on fitness and fashion at the Fashion Extravaganza is booked solid, Elaine."

"It should be. Do you know how many overweight ponies there are in this town alone?" She stood up and began pacing as if she needed an outlet for her enthusiasm. "I'll tell them they have to exercise to stay in shape, and they'll smile and nod and go home to eat and watch television. It's exasperating!"

"Not everyone has your energy level."

"But they could if they'd eat right and exercise!"

"Did Jet and Bungee check with you on what supplies you'll need?"

"They've promised to take care of it all. There's only one problem. I'd like to demonstrate some of the extreme sports, but I can't do them indoors."

"Like what, for instance?" Sugarberry foresaw major revamping of already made plans.

"I'd like a chunk of the open area behind the convention center."

"Isn't that a park?"


"The city doesn't allow wheeled sports in there."

"So get them to make an exception. This affair is going to bring in enough jangles-spending ponies to offset the cost of replacing some grass."

"Isn't there a bike trail somewhere nearby?"

"There's one along the river, but that's too far away."

"I think you'll have to settle for a video of your feats, Elaine. This is a fashion event, not the Olympics."

"Then maybe you should find some prissy model to be your spokespony," Elaine griped as she prepared to leave.

"Now, Elaine," comforted Sugarberry, standing. "I'm sure Jet and Bungee can come up with a solution. Let me check with Spike on their schedule."

"Not now, I'm afraid. I've got a race this afternoon. I'm out of here. Catch you later!" And the unicorn breezed out of the office.

* * *

The day of the Fashion Extravaganza had arrived. Sugarberry was confident of its flawless execution; she had hired the best organizers available. At the same time, she felt the nervousness of the unknown. When the last of the details at the office that needed attention had been resolved, she and Spike were ready to join the action at the convention center. They were on their way out when Wigwam walked in. "I was hoping you hadn't left yet."

"There's no problem with the loan is there?"

"Not at all; I was just passing by and thought I'd walk you over to your snazzy gala."

Scowling, Sugarberry asked, "Don't you have a bank to run?"

Wigwam laughed. "All work and no play..."

Sugarberry glanced up to see that Spike was discreetly occupied elsewhere and lowered her voice. "There was nothing in that contract I signed that made you my guardian."

"No. But I've got to protect my investments, don't I?" grinned the stallion.

Sugarberry tossed her head and called for Spike; all three set out for the convention together; once out in the open air, Sugarberry shed her irritation and made a commitment to herself to enjoy this day of days.

* * *

Poeticus leaned back in his chair with his front hooves tapping together as he contemplated what he had heard over the phone early this morning. An informant had suggested some illegal activity involving several of Dream Valley's prominent citizens, and the police chief was torn between dismissing it as a practical joke or diving into an investigation that could win him some Ponyland publicity.

As he sat considering his responsibilities in this situation, one of his deputies rapped on the door and looked in. "I'm on my way over to the convention center; any last minute instructions?"

"No, Mogul. I'll be over myself later in the day." Then he changed his mind. "Keep your eyes open for any suspicious activity concerning that magazine publisher, Sugarberry, or Wigwam, the banker."

"Anything in particular?"

"Just anything questionable or unusual."

"Sure thing, chief."

* * *

The building housing the Fashion Extravaganza was alive with activity when Spike, Sugarberry, and Wigwam arrived. "Looks like a success already," observed the stallion.

"I'll say," agreed Sugarberry, her attention fixed on a particular mare wearing thick glasses. "That's the owner of my biggest competitor over there-- Miss Hackney."

Wigwam followed her gaze. "That frumpy thing is a fashion guru?"

"She owns Raves, which has a circulation just under my Distinction. She's the one who forces me to keep sharp."

Bungee came to fill Sugarberry in on some notable arrivals who would appreciate a few words from the strawberry mare who had brought together this entire extravaganza, and Wigwam bid a farewell until later in the day. Spike kept his eyes and ears alert for any problem spots, maintaining a prudent but readily available distance from his boss, always available at a moment's notice.

The merchandise avenue seemed to be the mecca of the early arrivals, and the food court was humming with chatter as exhibitors took time out to get a bite to eat after setting up their displays. Several workshops were already in session, and Sugarberry stopped at Chocolate Chip's hair fashion seminar to listen in on the mare's pointers. She had a great deal of respect for the drably-colored pony whose poise and affability made her Sugarberry's favorite hair stylist. She not only did excellent work, but also offered herself as a compassionate and intelligent sounding board for ideas, problems, and dreams that Sugarberry hit her with during the times she sat under the total control of the mare's skilled hooves.

Catching sight of Sugarberry standing unobtrusively to the side, Chocolate Chip invited her over to model the hair design she had done for Sugarberry the previous day: Her bright red tresses were arranged in braids, interwoven with strings of pearls and caught-up in pearlized barrettes. The participants in the workshop were thrilled to have the owner of Distinction at their disposal; she was met with a bevy of questions, comments, and compliments concerning her magazine, although one mare thought the magazine was directed too much at the wealthy and not enough for the common pony. Sugarberry only smiled and said she would look into that.

Once free of her admiring subscribers, Sugarberry escaped to the back offices of Jet and Bungee, leaving Spike to cover for her on the main floor. She placed a call to Distinction's editor to share some of the insight she had already received by circulating with the ponies who were the ones who kept the magazine alive and on the cutting edge. "When you get here this afternoon," Sugarberry advised her, "make sure to mingle with the crowd to hear what is really on their minds."

She was still in the quiet confines of the office when Jet came trotting in, a look of genuine excitement on his face. "You'll never guess what I just heard," he said, quickly recovering from finding the mare in his domain.

"Good or bad?"

"Good. Very, very good, I would say."

"So tell me!"

"The star of the Wisconsin Smith flicks is filming his latest movie near here, and he is going to visit the extravaganza later today!"

"Vanguard is coming here?"

"I heard it from a very reliable source." Jet was pleased that he had been able to surprise the never-nonplused publisher with this piece of news. The look of astonishment on her face was worth remembering; but she was instantly in total control.

"He's an obnoxious, conceited jerk, if you want my honest opinion; but his appearance should generate good publicity, not to mention pleasing the masses of Vanguard-worshipers that exist in any given gathering of mares and fillies."

Jet only snickered. "He's got an ego that would make Narcissus look humble. But you're right in that the majority of movie goers idolize him. He'll be a hit even if he just walks in and out again."

"How can we capitalize on this?" pondered the ever-thinking mare. She looked at Jet just as the same idea popped into both their heads.


Sugarberry grinned. "He is glory-seeking enough that he would jump at the chance to appear on stage with a beauty like that." She stopped short. "Does he sing?"

An amused expression crossed Jet's face. "He got his start singing on Ponyland Pavilion. I'm surprised at you for not knowing that." He could not resist the opportunity to taunt her.

"My taste tends to Shakespearian plays rather that flash-in-the-pan action films," she defended herself and then got back on track. "Can you set something up for Vanguard and Tabby on such short notice?"

"If I play my cards right, Vanguard will be on stage with Tabby tonight-- and at no cost to you. I'll handle everything."

"That's what I'm paying you for, isn't it?" coolly smiled Sugarberry as she turned to leave; but she stopped at the door. "Thanks for the tip, Jet. If Vanguard's being here improves our success, there will be a bonus in it for you and Bungee."

Jet grinned. "It's a sure bet, boss."

* * *

It was early afternoon when the private luncheon in an upstairs dining room convened. Sugarberry presided over the gathered fashion designers like a queen over her subjects; she knew that they had the talent, but she had the business acumen to make those designs profitable.

Sugarberry looked over the varied group: Colette, who was a perfectly proportioned mare who carried herself with a certain haughty reserve; Digger, who looked like a brash college student in this group, but who knocked out fashions that were swept up by the most elite clients; Clare, poised and beautiful as any of the models who exhibited her designs; Snuzzle, who garnished her wearables with enough rhinestones and baubles to permanently disfigure the wearer from the sheer weight of the embellishments; Epona, the creator of outlandish but popular fashions, especially with the younger set; Melonball, a nondescript stallion who had a natural knack for pleasing the matrons of Ponyland; and Brightblade, who specialized in exclusive wedding apparel.

The congregated echelons of the fashion world enjoyed their meal and shared it amidst a congenial exchange of taunts and innuendos. It ended when Spike came in to remind everyone that the early fashion show was about to begin. When the room was nearly empty, the efficient dragon informed Sugarberry, "Miss Hackney would like a few words with you."

"Miss Hackney?" Sugarberry's eyebrows arched in anticipation. "I wonder what she's up to."

"She said she would only talk to you."

"Well, direct her here, Spike. No sense in putting her off."

The dragon left the room and came back almost immediately with the Raves owner at his heals.

"Good afternoon, Miss Hackney." Sugarberry approached her with an extended hoof and a welcoming smile.

"Good afternoon, Sugarberry. I'd like to talk to you in private." She cast a rejecting glance at Spike.

"Spike, would you be so kind as to check on the start of the fashion show? I'll be there soon." Sugarberry directed the mare to a chair, but Miss Hackney refused.

"What I have to say won't take long. I just wanted you to be aware that in lieu of your current financial problems, I'm ready and waiting to put an offer on your floundering publication."

Sugarberry smiled a sugar-sweet smile. "Why, Miss Hackney, where did you hear such disturbing news?"

"Don't act coy. Everyone knows you've bitten off more than you can chew with this ill-fated building project."

"If you care to visit the site, you'll see that the project is proceeding quite nicely."

"You're out of your league, and you know it. When this plan of yours fails, you're going to need someone to pick up the pieces. I'm jut letting you know, I'm ready to do just that." The mare turned and left Sugarberry standing alone.

"This plan isn't going to fail, Miss Hackney," Sugarberry said under her breath to the retreating figure. Her ear twitched slightly once, twice, then a third time.

* * *

The afternoon showing was aimed at those ponies who had no interest in the high-fashion styles that would dominate the evening affair. Sugarberry caught herself scanning the audience to see if the mare from the morning workshop was in attendance when she caught sight of one pony she had not expected to see here. She intercepted his path.

"Poeticus, I hope you don't have to interrupt our extravaganza to arrest a villain of some sort." She smiled at the police chief and took his foreleg to lead him to a relatively quiet corner of the convention hall.

"Nothing specific," the chief responded, his eyes still surveying the masses of ponies milling about the center. "But whenever you get this many ponies together in one spot, there could be trouble." Then he added, "Especially when you add a couple of celebrities like Tabby and Vanguard."

"You know for a fact that Vanguard will be here?"

"Someone from the movie company called to ask for some discreet security. You really should have notified us sooner."

"He is an unplanned guest; I didn't know myself that we would be honored with his presence."

Drawing up his shoulders, Poeticus said, "You can have him," and continued his perusal of the auditorium.

Catching sight of Jet, Sugarberry honed in on his location. "Poeticus says Vanguard's appearance is a sure thing!" she whispered in his ear.

"So that's why he's here. Bungee was afraid we hadn't filed all the proper permits with the city."

* * *

Sugarberry watched the end of the fashion show with interest. Foal fashions consisting of bibs, blankets, and booties always fascinated her; it was not that she had any interest in them herself. It was because of the reception of the onlookers that the foals themselves received. Sugarberry would never understand the mentality that turned normal adult ponies into cooing tender hearts over the innocent little darlings. In her experience, the foals were nothing but trouble.

Even as the thought crossed her mind, one of the two foals currently on the walkway suddenly balked at finishing the distance and responded to his accomplice's tugs and shoves with a loud and insistent wail for his mother. The crowd responded with sympathy and compassion, but Sugarberry only rolled her eyes and turned away to block the scene from her mind. "Imps!" she muttered, shaking her head.

* * *

"I see signs of life around your building site again... does that mean your creditors are willing to take another chance on you?" Quarterback asked as he walked through the convention center.

"I told you there would be no more delays... unless you are going to tell me you won't be ready."

"My plans have been waiting for weeks, Sugarberry. You know that. Everything is ready except for the main entry into your corporate offices. When do I get to see that artwork that you are supposed to be purchasing?"

"It will be here in the next couple of weeks; I haven't been given a definite date."

Quarterback raised an eyebrow. "Who are you getting it from? Any reputable dealer would give you a delivery date."

"I told you it's a company that makes replicas of antiquated art pieces. I've been assured that it will be a perfect copy. That's more important than knowing its exact arrival time."

"I can't wait to see it. It sounds too good to be true."

* * *

Sitting in the food court with an ice cold lemonade to drink and Dreamcatcher to visit with was a welcome relief for Sugarberry. She was tired of making decisions and bored with smiling and exchanging trite comments with the assorted attendees.

"Spike told me I should only show up for a short sojourn, but I wanted to see for myself how the day went. Now I'm wishing I'd listened to him." She cast a smile at the purple dragon who hovered nearby.

Dreamcatcher commiserated. "You can always sneak out; I'm sure Jet would cover for you."

"Not now. Elaine is scheduled for her extreme sports exhibition soon, after which she's conducting a sports and fashion workshop which has proven to be very popular."

"And just what is your fanatical young spokespony going to demonstrate?"

Just then the loudspeaker echoed throughout the building. "Ladies and gentleponies, we would like to direct your attention to the center of the convention hall where Distinction's premier spokespony is preparing to amaze you with her daring dive from the rafters high above. So look up, and let's hear a warm welcome for Elaine, the Xtreme Sports Pony!"

Sugarberry looked at Dreamcatcher's stupefied expression and grinned. "She's covered; Jet checked with our insurance agent early today."

"You gave me a fright!" exclaimed the lawyer. "You don't need a lawsuit on your hooves!"

"It was Elaine's idea, not mine. And she is not one to argue with. But she'll be safe; she knows how to handle these things."

At the highest point of the large room stood Elaine with a bungee cord attached to her, waving to the spectators down below. She checked all the latches and assured herself of the safety of the equipment. There was an attention grabbing drum roll that reverberated off the rafters, echoing in an endless refrain.

"This gives your extravaganza a circus feel, Sugarberry. Are you sure this is the impression you're hoping to convey?" Dreamcatcher asked with a worried look.

"The ponies love it!" Sugarberry assured the orange unicorn. "It will wake everyone up and rejuvenate them for the highlights coming. As Jet explained, 'It's showbiz!'"

All eyes were focused on Elaine as she played the audience, building up the suspense without losing their interest. When she finally leaped off the overhead platform, time seemed to stop. Sugarberry held her breath; when a high-pitched scream echoed across the room, Dreamcatcher jumped up. She glanced at Sugarberry sheepishly when Elaine reappeared, dangling from the bouncy cord, still smiling and waving her hoof. The audience broke out in wild applause, and Sugarberry was able to breathe again.

She and Dreamcatcher had left the food court and were strolling down the main aisle leading to the stage from which the formal fashion show would convene this evening, followed by Tabby's concert when Sugarberry stopped suddenly. "What's he doing her?"

"Who?" asked Dreamcatcher, looking across the sea of ponies.

"The white unicorn with brown hair and a cat symbol."

Locating the stallion in question, Dreamcatcher admitted she had never seen him before.

"Chocolate Chip told me he's a toy scalper. What's he doing at a fashion show?"

"Maybe he needs clothes for his fashion dolls," Dreamcatcher giggled and took her leave from Sugarberry.

Sugarberry watched the stallion melt into the crowd and was surprised to see him approach Elaine very briefly and exchange some words with her. Elaine's response was curt, but Sugarberry was mesmerized by something as the two unicorns stood in profile to her. "There's something very similar about those two," she murmured.

"Talking to yourself? That's not a good sign." Wigwam had returned. "You're working too hard. Come with me and we'll get something to eat."

"I just ate," complained Sugarberry, but Wigwam grabbed her hoof and pulled her along with him anyway, leaving Spike behind. Sugarberry looked back, still wondering about the toy collector and her spokespony; but the white stallion had disappeared and Elaine was talking with the enthusiastic sportsponies who surrounded her.

It was Jet who saved her from Wigwam's unwanted attention. He interrupted the intended tete-a-tete with an apology. "Excuse me, but Sugarberry is needed in my office... a crisis of sorts." He whisked her away so quickly there was no need for her to say anything herself.

When they got to the tranquil office, Jet grinned. "Vanguard will be here before the concert starts, and Tabby is thrilled to have the opportunity to share the stage with him."

Sugarberry rocked her eyes upward. "I imagine she has her sights set on Hollywood."

"It works for us," Jet reminded her.

"How can you be sure he will cooperate?"

"Tabby will take care of it. She knows how to handle stallions."

Bungee burst into the room. "The Bushwoolies just complained because their dressing room doesn't have any champagne and caviar. Was that part of their contract?"

"They're just messing with your mind, Bungee; but let's see what we can do for them. Are you coming, Sugarberry?" Jet turned to see what was her plan.

"No. I think I'll just hide in here for awhile. The silence is heavenly!"

"Don't fall asleep; you'll miss the big show!" Jet said as he closed the door behind him.

* * *

Sugarberry had made herself comfortable in a stuffed chair in the corner, and realized how tiring the day was becoming; and it still had a long way to go. "I shouldn't have sat down," she mused. "I will be asleep in no time."

Her mind wandered back to the white unicorn. He didn't seem like the type who would go for extreme sports. All things considered, he didn't seem like the cool, confident Elaine's-type at all. She visualized again the two of them face to face– nearly a mirror image.

It was a small world. That white unicorn stallion was Clever Clover's contact for her highly improper purchase of a protected Native Pony artifact. His cover was a collectable toy business. Now he seemed to be tied in with Elaine as well. And why had he shown up here?

There was a sharp rap at the door, and Sugarberry stood up as the door opened, revealing Wigwam. "Problem all solved?" he questioned, glancing around the deserted room.

"One was solved, and another came up."

"You don't look that busy."

"Bungee and Jet are checking on something."

"Sometimes I get the impression that you're trying to avoid me, sweetheart."

"I've got work to do, Wigwam."

"Is that a dismissal?"

"Read it however you want. I've got an extravaganza to see to." She brushed past him out of the office just as Jet and Bungee returned.

"Are the Bushwoolies pacified?" she asked.

"We made them an offer they couldn't refuse," Jet stated with a twinkle in his eyes.

Sugarberry arched an eyebrow. "Go on..."

"Pate, crackers, and white grape juice," Bungee answered.

"You look awfully cocky over such a simple solution."

"Cat food," Jet grinned. "The pate was cat food I keep on hoof for that stray that comes around sporadically."

"The Bushwoolies thought it was excellent," Bungee declared innocently.

"I don't want to know any more," Sugarberry said, waving a hoof in the air. She looked at Wigwam who was still standing in the office doorway. "Don't say a word of this to anyone!"

"Not a word," said the stallion, "on the condition that you accompany me back to the fashion show."

"I was just headed there myself," she responded flippantly. "You can walk with me if you want, but I'm going to be..."

"I know, I know. Busy."

* * *

The evening fashion show was aimed at resplendence and glitter; from the beginning moment when three models–Frostflake, Blade, and Springtime–pranced down the runway decked out in evening attire that sparkled, drifted, and cascaded, the fast-paced entrance of each new fashion kept the spectators in a constant flurry of visual stimulation while Brightblade and Epona shared the honors of announcing the pertinent information on each ensemble.

Hats with feathers, hats with flowers, hats with fruit and ribbons bobbed by: berets, pillboxes, bretons, cloches, toques, turbans. Boas, scarves, and mantillas flowed with the lissom pony bodies. Sequins and gold threads reflected star-flashes of light. Hair ornaments glittered; barrettes, ribbons, and bows ornamented the already glamorous ponies who strutted the runway. Purses and back packs decorated with pearls and lace, beads and braid, rhinestones and golden chains were swept along with the flow of bodies. Capes in silk and satin glided with whisper soft rustling.

Not to be left out, the stallion models commanded a fair amount of attention: 4-Speed in tie and trilby, Tawny in bandana and fedora, Wishbone in cravat and bowler.

It was near the end of the show when the bridal wear was in full swing with white, webby veils, black top hats, and floral headpieces dominating the styles when those patrons nearest the main entrance were lost to the low-key yet arresting entrance of a country blue stallion with sea green hair, his eyes hidden behind black sunglasses. A ripple of excitement began to move in concentric circles as word spread that Vanguard, the movie star and leading stallion, was on the premises.

Sugarberry was engrossed in the vibrant activity of the models (the ring bearer and flower girl, the only two foals in the evening show, had performed quite admirably) when Jet came to whisper something in her ear. The two of them slipped to the fringe of the crowd, Sugarberry noticing with satisfaction that Wigwam was riveted to Blue Belle at the moment.

"As Distinction's spokespony, Elaine has greeted Vanguard to Fashion Extravaganza and is making sure that he had a pleasant time meeting his fans."

"Will he stay long enough to get swept up in Tabby's concert?"

"Elaine's putting on the charm for our notable guest; he'll be here. His ego won't let him miss this."

Peering through the crowd to catch a glimpse of the handsome star, Sugarberry caught sight of the stallion at Elaine's side. He was good-looking; she had to admit that. However, his looks did not make up for his inflated ego. Yet Elaine seemed to be enjoying herself."

A light touch on her shoulder caused Sugarberry to look to her side, right into the eyes of Gauntlet. "Trying for his autograph?" he grinned while nodding in the direction of Vanguard.

Smiling sincerely, Sugarberry felt very happy to see this purple-haired stallion. "You made it!"

"You think I'd miss the chance to spend some time with the busiest mare in all of Ponyland? I would have been here sooner, but I was tied up with an appointment." They moved off together to find a less crowded spot.

"Are you hungry?" Sugarberry asked with a glimmer of mischief in her eyes. "Jet revealed a secret stash of pate he keeps in stock."

Gauntlet caught the prankish inflection in her voice. "Something tells me I don't want to go there." As Sugarberry shared the story with him, they maneuvered themselves to the food court which was nearly devoid of ponies due to Vanguard's arrival.

Convention personnel were preparing the stage for Tabby's performance later in the evening now that the fashion show had come to an end. Vendors were beginning to dismantle their booths to open up the space for the coming concert as well. Everything was gearing itself for the climatic event of the extravaganza. For the time being, Vanguard was the center of attention for much of the multitude.

With the coming of Gauntlet, the day became much brighter for Sugarberry. The aura of the convention center was more amicable, the colors were more intense, the sounds were sharper and clearer. If she had been able to see herself, she would have noticed a certain glow that radiated around her as well– her smile was quicker, her eyes more brilliant, her features softer. She could not view the change, but others could.

Blue Belle and Wigwam appeared out of nowhere, and Blue Belle was ecstatic because she had held Vanguard's hoof for a brief moment. She swooned against Wigwam, totally awe-struck. Wigwam good-naturedly played along, but the look on his face was taut and he seemed tense. "Gauntlet, how's the investment business going?" he asked.

"Great. Times are good in Dream Valley, as I'm sure you know."

As the two stallions continued to discuss money and finance, Blue Belle asked Sugarberry if the rumor that Vanguard and Tabby were going to sing a duet together was true. Sugarberry assured her that Vanguard was simply here to have some fun and had in no way been invited for the purpose of performing– which was the truth, as far as it went.

As the time for the opening of the musical entertainment drew near, Blue Belle urged Wigwam to accompany her to a spot close to the stage so she would have a good view of all that was going on. "If Vanguard does perform, I want to be right there! Come on, Wigwam!"

The stallion tried to extricate himself from her claim on his attention, but Blue Belle was adamant. "Even if Vanguard doesn't participate, Tabby and the Bushwoolies is the greatest group around. You don't want to miss 'em!" The mare succeeded in coaxing the stallion to go with her, but he was not pleased. He shot a glance back at Sugarberry and Gauntlet as he departed; they were already engrossed in some private conversation of their own. The sight of that caused a flicker of anger to play over Wigwam's face, only to be replaced by a deeper, deadlier mask of pure hatred as he turned and followed Blue Belle through the crowd.

Before Sugarberry and Gauntlet went to find themselves a spot from which to watch the concert, Sugarberry had a word with Spike. "Enjoy the show, Spike. Unless something terribly important comes up, you're off duty from this point."

The dragon seemed to appreciate being discharged from his duties. "Thanks, Sugarberry; but I'll keep my equipment with me just in case." The purple dragon wandered off with his assorted electronic aids.

* * *

Meanwhile, Cliff was puttering around with the stage effects for Tabby's concert when he noticed another pony had somehow snuck backstage and was poking around, while holding a stack of brightly-colored boxes in his hooves. Cliff drew himself up and addressed the white stallion. "Hey, what are you doing here?"

The other stallion whirled around, obviously not realizing anyone else was in the area. "I'm a big fan of Tabby and the Bushwoolies," he replied smoothly. "I was wondering if I could get a few autographs for my collection."

"Tabby's not to be bothered before the concert," Cliff snapped.

"I'm sure she wouldn't mind one interruption."

"No exceptions," Cliff said firmly. "What do you have there, anyway?" he demanded, pointing at the boxes in the stallion's hooves.

"It's a complete series of the Tabby and the Bushwoolies fashion dolls. I really wanted to get Tabby herself to sign them."

"The complete series?" Cliff's ears perked. "Do you have me?"

"Of course. It is the complete series," the stallion said loftily.

"Ooh! I could autograph him for you," Cliff said excitedly. "Can I?"

It might be an interesting touch, Thomas thought, grinning to himself. "What a great idea!" he exclaimed aloud.

"Okay." Cliff held a pen over the box of his figure. "By the way, what's your name?"

"Thomas," the stallion replied.

"Cool," Cliff mumbled as he scribbled out a quick note on the box. "There you are."

"But what about Tabby?" Thomas peered around Cliff. "I really wanted her autographs, too, for the others." They won't be worth near as much with just her stage manager's scribblings, he thought in annoyance.

"Oh, yeah," Cliff recalled. "Well, uh..."

"Cliff, what's going on out here?" Tabby, obviously alerted to the situation, suddenly appeared out of the shadow. "Who is this stallion?"

"Finally," Thomas said under his breath, pushing past Cliff. "Would you mind signing some of these Tabby and the Bushwoolies fashion dolls for my collection?"

"I'd be happy to," Tabby smiled, taking one of the boxes. "Who should I address it to?"

After Thomas had his complete set of autographed dolls, he thanked the two of them profusely and was quickly on his way. I'll make a fortune selling these on eBay, he grinned evilly to himself as he strolled off.

Tabby watched him go with a thoughtful expression on her face. "In another time, another world, as different ponies, we may have been very good friends," she sighed.

"What are you talking about?" Cliff demanded.

"What?" Tabby blinked rapidly. "Nothing. Oh, but I did want to talk to you about the stage lights. I think maybe they'd be better..."

* * *

Towards the back of the entertainment area was an alcove which Jet had advised Sugarberry would make an excellent spot for her to watch Tabby's performance as it was slightly elevated and would keep her from the crowding mass of fans who swarmed over the arena like bees in a hive. Gauntlet and Sugarberry were on their way there when their path accidentally crossed with that of Vanguard and his guardian angel, Elaine.

"Vanguard," Elaine cooed. "This is the owner of Distinction and the mastermind behind the Fashion Extravaganza, Sugarberry. Sugarberry, you know who this is, of course."

"Pleased to meet you," vacantly mumbled Sugarberry as she shook hooves with the celebrated stallion. "And this is a friend of mine, Gauntlet." She indicated her escort with a wave of her hoof, but her eyes were locked on the confident and proud stallion before her. She experienced a weird sensation as if...

The movie idol held the hoof of the white strawberry-patterned mare for an extended time, his face, too, momentarily puzzled. But the spell passed. "I'm looking forward to Tabby's appearance tonight. I find new talent so... fresh, so naive. But they must start somewhere."

"How true," Sugarberry mumbled as the stallion continued on his way in Elaine's company.

"Are you okay?" Gauntlet asked, studying her sharply.

"It's nothing," Sugarberry shook her head. "It was just a strange sensation." She grinned at the purple-haired stallion who seemed uneasy on her account. "Come on. Weren't we going to enjoy this evening together?"

The worry faded from Gauntlet's face as he grinned back at the mare. "That was the idea."

"Then let's get to our choice spot, or someone else will have claimed it."

Several other ponies had already found the alcove as a suitable post from which to watch the goings-on, but there was plenty of space to accommodate more. As Sugarberry stepped up on the slightly elevated platform, she recognized one as Mogul who was certainly here under Poeticus' orders in case any disorder or uncontained tumult resulted from the excited crowd.

The other two looked vaguely familiar, and it was with a sudden flash that she knew who they were. "Agatha. Hubert," she said civilly. "Here to watch your daughter's performance?" She eyed the stallion and his wife with a certain amount of misgiving. They were both aware of the rivalry that had– and still– existed between Tabby and herself.

"Sugarberry," Agatha coolly remarked. "Tabby's show tonight will be the highlight of your little pageant."

Sensing an undercurrent of animosity, Gauntlet attempted to smooth over the ripples of dissension. "Good evening, Agatha... Hubert." He shook their hooves in turn. "Everyone is looking forward to hearing Tabby's singing top off an already fabulous extravaganza; and how have you been?"

Agatha huffed and refused to comment, but Hubert opened up to the stallion. "If you have a mind to interest me in some of your money markets, we should meet for lunch one of these days. Are you free Monday?"

"Certainly." Gauntlet was not about to let this chance escape him. Hubert was probably the wealthiest stallion in Dream Valley, even if it was unclear how he had amassed his jangles. "Would twelve-thirty work for you?"

"If you can make it to The Timberland; we'll meet in the lounge." Hubert's gaze moved to Sugarberry. "How are your financial problem's faring?" he asked with a hint of censure.

"Everything is moving along quite well," she responded, here voice smooth and imperious.

Fortunately, all attention was directed to the entertainment at hoof as the lights went out for a brief moment to get everyone's attention; the following strobe of light that hit center stage was intense. The ensuing silence was palpable as the onlookers caught their first glance of Tabby, bowed and completely motionless under the spotlight.

The breathless moment ended with a crash of the drums and the addition of a rainbow of light beams crisscrossing the stage; the Bushwoolies were revealed, and their wild music began. More electrifying than any of that, however, was Tabby's instantaneous coming to life in a crescendo of song that reached as high as the rafters and as deep as the soul.

Sugarberry had steeled herself to deny any merit to Tabby's talent, but she could not deny the music. It was uplifting and stimulating; it worked its way into a pony's very being. As the songs continued, she looked sideways at Gauntlet and saw that he was reacting to the strong beat, the harmonic patterns, and the intense voice as well. He caught her glance and winked. "Come on!" he said, taking her hoof and towing her behind him.

"What are you doing?" she asked, but the question was lost to the sound of the music. Soon enough, Sugarberry found out what was up. Those spectators at the edge of the assemblage had begun dancing, the open space allowing for such movement. Gauntlet was making the most of the spontaneous and festive happening.

Sugarberry slipped into the rhythm of the pulsing resonance that rolled from the speakers and fell under the spell of the moment. Gauntlet was a good dancer, and Sugarberry found herself responding to his lead with confidence and enjoyment for song after song.

During one pause, Tabby's speaking voice filled the auditorium. She had everyone's attention in a heartbeat. "Mares and stallions," she began, "thank you for your outstanding reception." Applause rolled like thunder and only ended when Tabby raised a hoof. "I see we have a very special guest in the audience tonight." She paused theatrically. "Star of stage and screen, Vanguard!" Another roaring volley of applause echoed sonorously as Tabby motioned for the yet invisible visitor to join her on the stage.

Elaine escorted the celebrity to Tabby and discreetly moved backstage. Sugarberry held her breath. This was the moment of truth. Would Tabby use this juncture to embarrass the extravaganza by some public humiliation of the star to get back at Sugarberry, or would she make the most of the occasion to ingratiate herself with the eminent figure who could draw her along in his star-trail? Sugarberry found herself reaching for Gauntlet's hoof for a reassuring squeeze.

Leaning over to speak in Vanguard's ear, Tabby had made her decision. Receiving an affirmative nod from the stallion, Tabby signaled to the Bushwoolie band and the romantic strains of one of Vanguard's early love songs that had topped the charts in its day drifted through the speakers. Sugarberry whispered a prayer of thanks; Tabby was making the most of the opportunity for both of them.

Gauntlet reacted with an invitation. "May I have this dance?" He formally bowed to the mare who held out her hoof in acceptance. As he drew her in, he said softly, "A slow dance especially for the two of us." Sugarberry's response was to smile at him with her eyes sparkling with on inner radiance, and they were lost to the magic.

The younger groupies moved back to give the couple room, and soon a second set joined in– Agatha and Hubert. Slowly, more dancers took part, and all were disappointed when the song came to its emotional ending.

As Tabby and Vanguard took their bows to the accompaniment of a roar of approval, Sugarberry and Gauntlet returned to the shelter of the alcove which was deserted now except for Mogul. He ignored them with professional reserve.

The Bushwoolies struck up a lively beat, and Tabby and Vanguard performed a second duet that pleased the fans immensely. The clapping went on forever, fueled when Vanguard took Tabby into his forelegs and kissed her. Sugarberry shook her head. Even from this distance, it was obvious that Tabby had enjoyed it.

At that moment, Cliff, eyes burning with jealously, barreled out onto the stage from where he had been behind the curtain. "Hey, jerk!" he said angrily, pushing himself between Tabby and Vanguard. "Just what do you think you're doing with my girlfriend?"

"Cliff!" Tabby gasped, shocked.

Vanguard looked upon the intruder with disdain. "Where's security? Take this ruffian away!"

"I'm not going anywhere!!" Cliff shouted.

"Calm down, Cliff!" Tabby pleaded. "We can talk about this after the concert..."

"I can't believe you sometimes, Tabby," Cliff shook his head in disgust. "Leading me on like that! Forget it, Tabby. I'm gone!" And he quickly jumped down off the stage and stomped off through the crowd.

"Sorry about that," Tabby apologized to Vanguard. "I hope he didn't offend you overmuch. Shall we get on with the concert?" Tabby made some quick calculations in her head; Cliff should have calmed down and forgiven her in a few weeks.

Vanguard joined Tabby for one more number; before leaving, he said a word of thanks and hinted at the possibility of more collaboration between the two of them in the future. Amidst a final tumultuous outpouring of audience support, Elaine accompanied him offstage. The music revved-up once more as Tabby began her final set of songs with no decrease of vitalness or effervescence.

When the last note had been sung and the last bar played, the audience went wild in their enthusiastic assent to the performance. Mogul increased his vigilance and checked in with the other plainclothes officers on the premises via his walkie-talkie, but there was no cause for alarm. The exuberance of the multitude was spirited, yet amicable-- unlike Cliff.

The convention center soon began to clear out as the last event of the day was now only a memory. Sugarberry sighed.

"Was that a happy sigh or a sad one?" Gauntlet asked, finding her face hard to read.

"I'm not sure," Sugarberry reflected. "I'm happy that it was successful and everyone seemed to enjoy it, but I think I'm going to miss the planning and anticipation of it."

"Maybe you just need to get away from it all. Let me walk you home."

"Soon, Gauntlet. First I have to touch base with Jet and Bungee. They've worked harder than anyone to pull this thing off."

They inadvertently met once more with Blue Belle and Wigwam; Blue Belle was as high-flying as before the concert. "This was fabulous, Sugarberry! Tabby has never sung better, and Vanguard was super! Your publicity over this event should be a tremendous boost for your magazine."

"Well, we had one satisfied customer anyway," Sugarberry quipped as an aside to Gauntlet.

Wigwam remained rather aloof; and it was only when Blue Belle and Gauntlet got caught up in a discussion over which Bushwoolie was which ("Friendly was the blue one on drums, or was that Chumster?" "No, Chumster's one of the backup singers." "Well, maybe he plays drums, too.") that he moved to Sugarberry's side.

"This turn-out should guarantee my first loan payment on time," he smirked.

"I think that is a safe assumption."

Wigwam had more on his mind than finances, however. "Your dancing in the aisles wasn't very professional of you. I would have thought you'd want to maintain your dignity as corporate head."

Sugarberry didn't respond with anything more than a scorching glance which only seemed to aggravate the banker. He grabbed Sugarberry's foreleg roughly. "Don't get too friendly with that stallion; he's not good for your image."

"You're in a position to choose my friends for me?"

Wigwam let go of her as Gauntlet returned his attention to Sugarberry, but he got in the last word. "Anything for the good of your company, sweetheart." He glared at Gauntlet and left with Blue Belle.

"What was that about?" Gauntlet queried.

"Nothing much. Wigwam wants to make sure the bank gets its jangles."

Catching sight of Jet, Sugarberry waved a hoof to get his attention. As he passed a young stallion who was still high on Tabby's music, the colt greeted Jet with a cheerful, "Dude!"

Jet stopped and looked disdainfully at the retreating pony. "Dude, indeed!" he muttered, brushing his foreleg as if an invisible contamination lurked there.

"Satisfied with your day's work?" Sugarberry asked Jet.

"Tired, but happy. Bungee, Elaine, and I saw Vanguard off; and once this place empties out, we're locking it up until tomorrow. Clean-up begins at five in the morning."

"That's not far off. You might as well sleep here."

"No, thanks. Oh, by the way, Tabby says you should let loose like you did tonight more often." He winked at Gauntlet. "She says you two were dancing like a couple of school kids. Sorry I missed it."

"Wigwam says it was in bad taste."

"He's only jealous because you weren't dancing with him," Bungee offered. She had been listening in on the conversation.

"Don't even think that," Sugarberry frowned and shuddered.

Gauntlet saw the reaction. "Jet... Bungee... is it necessary for the boss to hang around, or can she be excused for the night?"

"She does look a little tired. She'd better get her beauty sleep," Jet concurred.

Sugarberry, however, had just noticed Clever Clover watching her, and he signaled his intent to speak with her. "I see someone with whom I have to talk privately," she told Gauntlet. "If the food court has anything left, get us a beverage." She left to meet up with the purple art dealer.

"Your art work is at my gallery," he confided.

"Already?" This was unexpected but welcome news.

"Thomas made an unplanned trip south. He unloaded it late last night."

"Have you checked it for authenticity?"

Clever Clover looked around to make sure no one was in the vicinity. "I uncovered a corner of it; it's Native Pony all right. You're going to get your money's worth from this purchase."

"When can you bring it over to my apartment... later tonight when things are quiet?"

"It might be better to deliver it in broad daylight. A big parcel coming in the middle of the night would create more suspicion than bringing it up in front of everyone like we've got nothing to hide."

"That makes sense, I guess," Sugarberry agreed. "Will tomorrow work for you?"

"Saturday? Sure. It's as good a time as any, and I need the jangles."

"Until tomorrow then. And, Clever Clover, is there a connection between this Thomas of yours and my spokespony, Elaine?"

Clever Clover grinned. "Didn't you know? They're brother and sister."

* * *

Meanwhile, lurking behind a nearby pillar and greenery, Tabby was listening in on their supposedly secret conversation. "Hmm, this sounds interesting," she said. "Could Sugarberry be involved in some shady activities? Not that it would surprise me, but... I wonder what's really going on? I wonder of the Bushwoolies would be willing to do some spy work for me..."

* * *

Sugarberry parted from the stallion and rejoined Gauntlet who had a lemon drink for both of them. They sat down and watched the stragglers who were still not ready to end the day. "It reminded me of a county fair," Gauntlet said, referring to the Fashion Extravaganza that was now history. "Only more refined," he added as Sugarberry arched an eyebrow.

"And where was this quaint little fair?" the mare asked.

"In a town you've probably never even heard of."

"You might be surprised."

"Okay, then. Kendall."

Sugarberry grinned. "It's in Ponyland, right?"

"I told you that you wouldn't know it."

"If Spike was here, he'd be able to tell us exactly how many Distinction subscribers live there."

"That doesn't count." He took her empty drink container and threw it in the garbage receptacle along with his own. "Ready to say goodby to your extravaganza?"

"Now is the time, I guess." Her gaze swept the hall, now nearly deserted. "Until next year..."

* *

"... so biology class was just before lunch; and the day we had dissected a frog, Tabby walked behind where I was sitting in the lunchroom and 'accidentally' spilled a glass of milk down my back. When I came back from cleaning that mess out of my hair and sat down to finish eating, I found she'd put frog parts on my plate. Do you know how well they blend in with chili con carne? It was very, very disgusting."

Gauntlet laughed. "And now you have probably handed her a movie contract simply by having her in the right place at the right time."

"Where's the justice?" She smiled at the stallion as they reached her apartment door. "But I'm too pleased with the way things are going for me right now to condemn her success."

"You are beautiful, Sugarberry."

"Where did that come from?"

"From my heart."

"Flattery will get you nowhere; it's been a long, long day."

"Then when can I see you again? That dragon of a secretary you have won't allow my calls through for anything as irrelevant as a date, and your home phone only takes messages. And no one responds to any that I leave." He looked at her accusingly but with a twinkle in his eye.

"I'm sorry, but Spike automatically controls my messages and deletes any that he thinks are unnecessary."

"And what about you? Do you think I'm unnecessary?"

She pondered that question only briefly. "I know for a fact that Tuesday evening is free. Pick me up at the office after work."

"I'll make reservations for dinner and dancing, preferably slow songs."

"Can't wait."

"You're telling me!" He kissed her on the strawberry symbol on her forehead and said goodnight.

* * *

It was mid-morning on Saturday when Clever Clover arrived at Sugarberry's door with an awkward and heavy delivery. After getting it inside, he sent his helpers away– one of whom was a bright yellow Bushwoolie who had toned down his appearance from a punk rocker to a regular hole-dwelling creature– and pried open the wooden crate that encased the long-awaited artwork. When it was finally revealed, Sugarberry gasped in delight. "It's fabulous," she cooed. "Utterly fabulous." Unnoticed by either of them, the yellow ball of fur had cleverly snuck back into the apartment after supposedly leaving. He hid himself in an alcove and observed carefully everything that occurred.

Before Sugarberry stood a relatively thin four-by-four section of carved stone that resembled a building block, for that is what it originally was. The Native Ponies to the south had built much grander edifices than those who had lived around Dream Valley where wigwams and tepees were the extent of Native Pony constructions.

On the face of the block were intricate carvings depicting a mare of obvious royal blood being attended by her ponies-in-waiting. The central figure was wearing a once gold band across her forehead which was adorned with polished stones of various hues. Clusters of feathers hanging from her mane dangled about her face. Around her neck and over her shoulders was a crimson cape, and plaited bracelets adorned her forelegs. In her hooves was a golden scepter.

Her retinue was more plainly attired with bead necklaces and beads worked into their braided hair. They served the queenly pony with trays of food and drink, fanned her, sang for her, and ran her errands. The colors that had decorated the carvings in their day were faded now and weather-worn, but the traces that still lingered spoke of a richness of dyes that must have been brilliant when the artist who made the mural first applied the various shades.

"It's fabulous," Sugarberry said once more.

"I take it you like it then?"

"It's so much better than I ever imagined. It will be the perfect convergence point for the reception area of the Distinction offices. I can't wait until Quarterback sees it."

"Just remember that if anyone questions you, this is a reproduction, not the real thing."

"I understand. But cue me in on what to say in response to any nosey inquiries."

"Just say it would be illegal to sell a Native Pony artifact. If that doesn't shut them up, point out that it is way too thin to have ever been part of a building."

Sugarberry looked at the back side of the hoof-carved stone. "It's amazing they could split it the way they did, to remove the front section."

"It would be too heavy for your purposes if my suppliers hadn't trimmed it down. And speaking of extra weight, do you have some jangles I could take off your hooves for you?" The purple stallion grinned, rubbing his own hooves together in anticipation.

"I've got the money. Would you like some coffee while I get it?"

"A soda would go good about now."

While Sugarberry left the room to get the payment, Clever Clover enjoyed his soda while taking in Sugarberry's decor. The floor of inset pieces of wood, the leather sofas, the sleek lamps all spoke of affluent living. The block of stone from centuries past should have struck a discordant note in the harmony of textures, but it stood as an ageless reminder of artistic genius.

When the mare returned, Clever Clover expressed his thoughts. "You are going to become so attached to this piece that you won't want it to leave here."

"No. I want it to embody Distinction. It belongs in the new office complex where it can be seen and admired." She held out the jangles. "I'd appreciate a receipt."

"I've got it right here." He counted out the jangles and marked the bill paid in full. "And I must admit that it was good doing business with you. If you ever are in need of further artifacts, let me know."

"I will certainly keep that in mind."

Clever Clover looked over the room one last time and commented, "Where's the vase I gave you?"

"It's at the office, on my desk with a single white calla lily in it. Everyone who sees it thinks it is quite chic."

"Well, be sure to send them my way."

"Assuredly, Clever Clover."

Having a full report to deliver, the Bushwoolie made sure the coast was clear and then scampered off.

* * *

In one of the offices of the Royal Paradise from which King Toby and Queen Serena ruled, their two most trusted advisors discussed affairs of the kingdom, among other things.

The tall, well-groomed Bigfoot glanced over his appointment calender. "Are we still on for rachet ball this Wednesday?" he asked of his partner.

"Of course, good chap, wouldn't miss it," the dark blue stallion said in his striking British accent. "Three o' clock, that was?"

"Yes," Tiny the Bigfoot concurred. "Oh, and what do you make of this report we received from the police concerning embezzled funds from the bank?"

Barnacle frowned thoughtfully. "A most interesting affair, but unfortunately we haven't many facts yet except for that anonymous tip they received. I suggest we put the FPI on this Sugarberry."

"Shall we delegate Tex and Butch to this assignment?" Tiny said, making another note. "They've done excellent work together in the past. This case seems to be right up their alley."

"I was just going to suggest that myself..." Barnacle began, but was cut off by a rapping on the door.

"Whoever could that be?" Tiny wondered, standing up to answer the door. "I thought I requested the guards to admit no one this afternoon."

The open door revealed a breathless Tabby standing there. "Thank goodness I was able to find you!" she exclaimed.

"Were you authorized to report to us?" Barnacle interrupted her.

"Well– no– but I've uncovered something very interesting that I think you should know about."

"I'm afraid we'll have to ask you to leave, miss," Tiny said briskly. "I would suggest taking your comments to the police to handle."

"But it's about Sugarberry, the magazine publisher," Tabby protested, keeping her hoof in the doorway.

"Sugarberry?" Barnacle's ears perked.

"Yes," Tabby said eagerly. "I have proof that she's purchased an illegal Native Pony artifact! You see–"

Barnacle and Tiny exchanged a quick glance before Tiny replied, "Have a seat. Tell us what you know."

Tabby's eyes gleamed as she made herself comfortable and spilled out her tale...

* * *

"Everyone is still talking about the Fashion Extravaganza," Raspberry informed her sister as the two mares got together Monday evening to work out some details on an ad campaign that Raspberry was working on for Distinction. "The only problem I foresee is how you're going to top it next year."

"That's what I pay my advisors for. And I must say that your plans look excellent. We'll hit hard while the mood is upbeat and take advantage of the positive momentum we have going for us now."

"Your financial set-back is behind you, Sugarberry. Don't think of anything but success from here on in." The ringing of the doorbell caused the mare to eye her sister curiously. "Were you expecting someone?"

"It should be Quarterback; he hasn't seen the artwork that goes into the new office yet." Sugarberry crossed to the door to admit the stallion.

"Good evening, Sugarberry. And Raspberry, too." His eyes roved over them as if assessing their Twice-As-Fancy patterns as too gaudy for the understated elegance of the room. "You both look cheerful enough; business must be booming."

"And why shouldn't it be?" Raspberry responded pertly. "We are the number one fashion magazine in Ponyland after all."

"Just so you stay there until my bill is paid," Quarterback retorted.

Raspberry grinned. "Can I get you some coffee while Sugarberry unveils that hunk of rock she's so proud of?"

"No coffee, thanks. I've got a dinner date later."

"In that case, I'm out of here." The raspberry bespeckled pony gathered her paperwork into her attache and proceeded to the door. "Good night, Sugarberry. See you tomorrow. 'Night, Quarterback."

Sugarberry smiled. Raspberry had a crush on Quarterback since high school, but he had never reciprocated the feeling. "Remember to bring the copy for the lay-ups before my one o'clock board meeting."

"As if there's anything else of importance to fill my mind," she grumbled under her breath with a quick but wretched look in Quarterback's direction. "Goodnight, sis."

As Sugarberry closed the door behind Raspberry, she turned to Quarterback who had already gone to the shrouded shape that stood against the far wall. She watched as he lifted the white folds of cloth that hid the carved stone, and waited for his reaction.

"Impressive." He reached out a hoof to touch the faded colors and follow the artisans carvings. "This is very authentic looking," he mused, stepping back to get an overall view of the scene so well represented.

"I've been looking through books on Native Pony culture, and it seems to be an excellent reproduction. Do you think you can incorporate it into an appropriate setting?"

Quarterback said nothing. He approached the square-shaped stone once more and rubbed his hoof over the edges of it and peered around its sides to see what he could of the back. "I'm not an expert on Native Pony artifacts, but this looks genuine to me."

"I told you the company that makes these copies is unsurpassed for their workmanship."

"This is real stone, not lightweight resin."

"That's what makes it so extraordinary-- it not only looks real, it feels real, too."

"It's heavy then, as well?"


"I don't know, Sugarberry. If you somehow got your hooves on an authentic piece, you could be in for some serious legal entanglements. There are laws against this sort of thing being sold." He looked at her closely.

Sugarberry grinned. "I don't think I'd be so fortunate as to stumble onto a valuable and rare artifact in lieu of a cheap imitation, especially at the price I paid... it was quite reasonable." Her ear twitched imperceptibly. "As much as my pride would like, I could not afford the real thing under my present circumstances."

"Of that, I'm sure," Quarterback agreed, and it seemed to set his mind at ease. "Let me get some measurements and a photo, and I'll begin work on creating a focal point for that office of yours tomorrow."

"Great!" Sugarberry said, and she hoped the stallion did not see the look of relief that crossed her face as he finally accepted her word on the matter.

* * *

Tuesday had been an hectic day with appointments, meetings, and a luncheon speech, but Sugarberry breezed through it in anticipation of Gauntlet's date with her in the evening. Spike had already gone home, leaving the publisher with some time to herself and her thoughts. The mare gravitated from the window overlooking the rising of her monument in the form of her office building to the miniature model of the completed construction on its shrine at the side of the room.

She was so absorbed in her dreams of the new structure that she jumped when a hoof-fall was heard in the doorway of her office. She looked up with a welcoming smile that instantly turned to an unwelcome frown. "What are you doing here, Wigwam?"

The stallion came into the room to stand by her desk. "I was finishing with an appointment downstairs when I saw Spike scurry by. I thought it would be a good opportunity to talk with you alone."

"Why? We have everything settled."

"Maybe not everything, sweetheart."

"What do you mean by that?"

"The business end of our dealings are accounted for but..."

"What else is there?" Sugarberry interrupted tartly.

"I'd like for the two of us to see each other on a personal basis."

The words hung heavy on the air until Sugarberry responded with venom in her voice. "On a personal basis, I don't like you, Wigwam."

"Yet you're willing to take my money illicitly gotten?"

"And pay your exorbitant interest rates."

Wigwam remained silent, but he picked up Clever Clover's now empty vase from the desk and came to Sugarberry by the model building. He looked at her intensely as he said, "We wouldn't want anything to go wrong on your precious construction now, would we? Something like some serious vandalism?" He held the tortured vase over the building and dropped it forcibly, crushing one corner.

Sugarberry's anger was profound. Her eyes shooting sparks, she ordered, "Get out of here before I call security!"

The stallion only grinned. "Think about it, sweetheart. I'll be in touch."

As Wigwam turned to leave, both ponies saw that Gauntlet was standing in the doorway. Wigwam said goodnight as if nothing unusual had transpired and whisked past Gauntlet who was regarding Sugarberry with concern, sensing her consternation.

"You're upset. What did Wigwam say?"

Sugarberry crossed to Gauntlet, wanting to avoid explaining too much. "That stallion is insufferable! His business methods always tend to rattle me."

"Why don't you take your business elsewhere?"

"I need his bank's support."

"There are other banks."

Sugarberry had no reply. How could she admit that there were no other bankers who would bend the rules as Wigwam did to get her the extra jangles she needed. No, she did not want Wigwam's friendship, but his money was essential. "No business talk for the rest of the evening, please. I just need to get away from here."

"You're sure?" He had never seen her so anxious as she appeared to be now.

Shaking off the contention with Wigwam so as not to allow it to mar her plans with Gauntlet, Sugarberry smiled. "Dining and dancing... that's all I want. Promise me that nothing will spoil that." Her eyes pleaded with him and tore at his heart.

"We have reservations at Quicksilver. We can eat leisurely and dance the night away."

"Then let's get started."

* * *

"It was several days later when Sugarberry received a call from Wigwam. "One advantage to being your banker is that Spike can't afford to hold back my calls. How are you doing, sweetheart?" His voice was lighthearted, but Sugarberry could hear an undercurrent of antagonism.

"I am doing fine, but I'm on a tight schedule today."

"I'll make this short then. There's a play about King Henry VIII over at Pony Pride tonight; it's the last performance. It's got corruption, greed, and power politics-- sound familiar? I could pick you up at seven, and we could have a late dinner afterwards."

"I've been hearing great reviews about the play, but I have plans already to attend with someone else."

There was a pause. "Just remember what I said the other night." And he hung up. Sugarberry tossed her mane, ignoring the shiver that ran down her spine.

* * *

The next morning, Sugarberry was at breakfast reflecting on her date with Gauntlet the night before. They had gone to a coffee shop after the play and talked for hours, neither of them wanting their time together to end. Her reverie was interrupted when a call came in on her private line from Spike. "Slugger just called from the construction site. He found a mess when he got there this morning."

Sugarberry was instantly alert. "What kind of a mess, Spike?" she asked, her heart pounding.

"Some of the scaffolding came down during the night. Slugger says he doesn't know how it happened. Everything was secure when he left after work."

"Was anyone hurt?"

"No, all the crew was gone when it occurred; but Slugger said if it had happened when the workers were there, it could have proven fatal."

Sugarberry ran a hoof through her mane and closed her eyes. "Wigwam!" she muttered under her breath.

"What was that?" Spike queried.

"Nothing. I'm at a loss for what to say. I'm gratified that no one was injured, but how much will this delay construction?"

"Slugger's getting everything back in order, so the delay should be minimal."

"Okay. Tell him to keep us informed. And thanks for letting me know so soon."

Unable to eat after hearing this news, Sugarberry tossed out her breakfast and prepared to leave early. She had to find out for herself what kind of damage had occurred. Was it something Wigwam could have pulled off, or was it just coincidence? She had to find out.

She found Slugger conferring with his foreman, but he came to her as soon as he saw her. "Spike told you what happened?"

"Yes. I'm glad it was no worse than scaffolding coming down. Have you been able to determine the cause?"

Slugger scratched his head. "There was no reason for it; everything was properly anchored and was stable yesterday. When I got here this morning, it was like some giant had collapsed it in a heap."

"Any sign of who did it?"

"Nothing I could see. If it was a prank, it was a mighty labor-intensive one."

"A rival construction crew?"

Slugger raised an eyebrow. "Ask any of my company. There's not a one of them who would spend his free time doing what was done here last night, and I'm guessing the same goes for any other laborers in this town. My personal opinion is that it was those high school colts. Ask 'em to take out the garbage, and it's too much work. But get a bunch of them together, and vandalizing someone else's property seems like a lark."

"Did you report it to Poeticus?"

"Sure I did; but there wasn't anything to go on."

"Irregardless, it may be beneficial to have it on file with the police," Sugarberry considered. "Just keep a close eye on things."

"Sure enough, Sugarberry." He tipped his hard hat to her as she turned to go. But she turned back with one more thought. "Maybe you should post a guard at night, just in case. I'll cover the expense."

* * *

By the time she got to her office and faced the day's engagements, Sugarberry was beginning to feel foolish in suspecting Wigwam of such a dirty trick. By the time she had completed perusing the company report, she dismissed it as too radical even for him. But when Spike unexpectedly admitted the stallion into the office, she knew by one look at him that her suspicions had been right all along.

Wigwam leaned over her desk, his hooves planted on the papers she was reviewing. "How did you like my calling card last night, sweetheart?"

"You are unconscionable," she spat.

"My terms are to see you on a regular and friendly basis. Have dinner with me tonight."


"The next time there is an accident, sweetheart, someone's going to get hurt. But, hey, I'm a nice guy. I'll give you one more chance. Expect my call." And with that he was gone.

* * *

The call came that evening, just after Sugarberry got home from a late business meeting.

"There's to be a fundraiser dance at the country club tomorrow night. All the best ponies will be there; I think it would be a good time for us to be seen together."

Sugarberry had been preparing for this moment. She could not allow anyone's life to be jeopardized because of her unfortunate problem with Wigwam, which meant she would have to consent to his invitations if only occasionally. And as the dance would be a very public and well attended affair, she need not feel threatened by his attention. "What time?"

"I'll pick you up at seven-thirty."

"Until then."

"Goodnight, sweetheart."

Sugarberry put the receiver down and felt sick to her stomach. She groaned and slumped to the floor as if her world had shattered.

* * *

The evening of the dance found Sugarberry at home in the company of Raspberry and her date for the country club party, Ledger, an accountant of Distinction. Ledger and Raspberry chattered over local gossip while Sugarberry paced the floor. When the door bell sounded, she jumped even though it was what she was expecting.

"Good evening," she said formally to Wigwam who smiled and presented her with a corsage of red roses for her to wear to the dance.

"This is for you, sweetheart."

"The flowers are lovely." She watched as he fastened the corsage to her foreleg. It was only then that the stallion noticed they were not alone.

"Raspberry. Ledger. Nice to see you." The sound of his voice belied his words.

"Hi, Wigwam," Raspberry said. "Ledger and I figured we'd walk to the club with you and Sugarberry. There's never enough time for she and I to talk."

"We're all here, so let's go," Ledger suggested.

The four ponies left for the dance and Raspberry made sure to continue her airy chatter, helping Sugarberry to cope with her unwelcome situation. Wigwam remained withdrawn while Ledger prattled with the mares.

Once at the country club, the party atmosphere was hard to resist, and Sugarberry found herself having a good time in spite of the circumstances. The attendees were, as Wigwam had foreseen, the movers and shakers of Dream Valley. It was refreshing to mingle with the affluent ponies while being under no obligation as the owner of Distinction.

She had even danced several dances with Wigwam without feeling particularly ill at ease, although her thoughts swept her back to other dances with Gauntlet; and it was his face she saw and his touch she felt as she and Wigwam swirled across the floor.

Sugarberry had just finished a dance with Clever Clover when Wigwam reclaimed her attention, steering her in the direction of the buffet where they followed in line behind Poeticus and his wife. As they filled their plates, Wigwam informed Sugarberry of his plans for the night. "After the dance, I want to show you the entertainment room I've added to my place; its got a sunken area with an overstuffed leather sofa and chairs and a large mahogany coffee table; the entire room in paneled in mahogany. It's got a full-wall built in entertainment system with stereo and tuner with surround sound speakers hidden inside wall panels and a seventy-two inch flat-panel high-definition LCD built right in. I also added large floor to ceiling windows overlooking my private pond, plus I've got a big aquarium full of exotic fish tucked away on one wall."

Sugarberry listened in dismay, but kept a mask of sociable interest on her face. There was no way she was going to allow him to isolate her from this crowd of ponies. She permitted him to lead her to a table where they could sit and watch the action for awhile and talk small-talk while her mind worked out a feasible plan.

Catching sight of Blue Belle coming in their direction proved to be a catalyst for an idea. "Wigwam, one of my hair ornaments is coming loose so I have to go fix it; maybe you could dance with Blue Belle while I'm taking care of it." She was even able to allow herself to give him a flattering smile and a gentle pat on his hoof as she stood to leave. "Blue Belle, do me a favor and entertain this stallion for a few minutes." She flashed another smile at Wigwam and slipped away.

* * *

Barnacle and Tiny exited the late night meeting with King Toby and Queen Serena, looking somewhat haggard. "Prosecute her to the full extent of the law," Barnacle said grimly.

* * *

Sugarberry had almost reached the doorway which led either to the restrooms down a hallway on the right or to the exit on the left when her focus fell on the pony standing just inside the columned entrance. "Gauntlet!" she exclaimed, a smile lighting her haunted face.

The stallion did not return the smile. "When you canceled our date because of an emergency meeting with Wigwam tonight, I assumed it was for a business conference in some stuffy old office."

"Any time I spend with Wigwam is business. And right now, I'm not feeling well. Could you accompany me home?"

The stallion saw once again the anxiety in her eyes that he had noticed when he came across her and Wigwam together in her office, but this time it went deeper. He saw her fear. There was no way he could back away from that. "Of course I'll walk you home."

Sugarberry's sigh of relief was audible. "Just let me leave a message; wait here." She turned and saw Ledger heading past and nearly ran to him. "Ledger, if you see Wigwam, tell him I wasn't feeling well--something I ate off the buffet table didn't agree with me."

"Are you sure you should go alone?"

"I'll be fine; this has happened before--something must have had mushrooms in it." She left him and went to the exit and out the door without looking back. Her last action was to tear off the corsage and throw it onto the ground. Gauntlet had to hurry to catch up with her; he was so concerned about Sugarberry that he never noticed the two stallions-- Tex and Butch-- who were following them at a discreet distance.

"Something's going on here that I don't understand, Sugarberry. Can't you fill me in on whatever it is?"

Sugarberry shook her head. "Not now."

"It's Wigwam, isn't it? You're afraid of him. Why?"

"Bungee was right; he's jealous of my spending time with you." She refused to say more. Her thoughts had turned inward. She had presumed she could manage Wigwam as a business partner; she had not planned on anything else. The threats against her building were more than she had bargained for, especially when he had proven his serious intent. Now she felt totally vulnerable. She was beginning to realize that even though she would have lost everything if Wigwam had not baled her out financially, she had lost everything anyway--her independence, her authority, her very happiness.

There was the contract, the one that only he and she knew about. If he used it against her as leverage and she refused to be intimidated, he could not force her hoof or he would bring about his own downfall. But she was learning that there were things more important than prestige and power. Was it worth being hounded by Wigwam to preserve her hold on Distinction and the yet unfinished office building? Even her treasured twelve-story construction did not seem so very important right now. The situation was all so complex and bewildering that it sent a tormented shudder through her body.

Gauntlet felt the tremor from the mare at his side as they neared her apartment building. What, he wondered, was agonizing her so?

* * *

Back at the country club, Wigwam found himself trapped into spending more time with the overbearing Blue Belle than he wanted to, and he began watching for Sugarberry to return in between his monosyllabic responses to the mare. When he was able to pawn her off to Quarterback for a dance, Wigwam went off in search of his elusive date.

He had covered the entire club short of entering the mare's restroom before he ran into Ledger. "Have you seen Sugarberry?"

"Oh, that's right. She told me to tell you the hors d'oeuvres made her sick; she went home."



"Are you sure?"

"Well, come to think of it, Gauntlet left right after she did."

"Gauntlet!" Wigwam spit the name like a curse. His face flushed red, and his eyes turned black as coal. "They'll regret this," he fumed. "They'll regret this big time."

* * *

It was only after Gauntlet and Sugarberry had reached the confines of her apartment that Sugarberry spoke. "Gauntlet, would you still be my friend if you found out I had done something horrid?"

The stallion reached to hug her to him, but she stopped him with her hoof. "And if I lost Distinction and all that goes with it, what would you think of me then?"

"Sugarberry, why are you doing this to yourself?" The pain in her eyes was more than he could take. "You know I care about you deeply. Nothing you've done can change that. And as for losing Distinction, that would only mean there would be more time for the two of us. I don't see that as a negative." He tried to coax a smile from her, but failed miserably. "Just tell me what's wrong; maybe it wouldn't seem so awful if you shared it."

Sugarberry shook her head once more. "It's... it's only a premonition that something terrible..." She stopped as a sharp rap sounded on the door. Her eyes grew huge as she stared at Gauntlet; neither of them made a move to answer the summons. But the knock came again, more insistent this time.

************HAPPY APRIL FOOL'S DAY!************

We hope you enjoyed our story to celebrate this odd day. As it is a tale out of place and out of time, it has no ending. Who was at the door? What became of Sugarberry? Who was the informant? Would Tabby become a famous movie star? Was Spike a loyal employee? Oh, the possibilities! But whatever happened, Happy April Fool's Day to one and all!

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