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."