"He's a chunky little fella, isn't he?" Wigwam asked, eying Coppice warily, then turning his attention to the smaller bundle in his own forelegs. Nestled cozily in his father's embrace, the two-week old Jackpot was sound asleep, and Wigwam smiled down at him with all the pride a new father had a right to feel.
"He's adorable!" Chocolate Chip exclaimed, scooping the chubby Coppice from his mother's care. "And since we haven't seen him for a month, of course, he's grown. And Banderol, too." Chocolate Chip flashed the foal a smile, and he grinned back before ducking behind his father.
Vanguard lifted the reticent colt. "Remember helping Chocolate Chip feed the swans on the casino's lake when we were home for Christmas?"
Banderol obviously did remember, because he giggled over the experience. The large birds had nearly overwhelmed him, but Chocolate Chip had protected him from their exuberant welcome and had shown him how to spread their food so that they were soon engrossed in filling their stomachs, allowing the colt to watch them without fear, so-much-so that the female had taken the liberty to nuzzle his ear with her beak- which tickled- causing Banderol to collapse in a heap of helpless laughter.
"I suppose you're so overprotective of your firstborn that you won't let me hold him," Sugarberry said to Wigwam, tugging at the blanket to get a better view of Jackpot's face. Butterscotch-colored, the foal had a shock of silky yellow mane falling over his forehead which Sugarberry brushed aside. The foal opened his eyes and yawned, then stared up at his father's face with such an intent expression that Sugarberry laughed. "He already thinks of you as his hero."
"As well he should," Wigwam quipped.
"Just let me hold him," Sugarberry begged.
"Only if you promise not to stick a bottle in his mouth."
"I can't help it if Coppice is always hungry!" Sugarberry said, accepting the infant from Wigwam. "How was your flight?" she asked of the parents as she snuggled the foal.
"Uneventful," Chocolate Chip replied, making herself comfortable in a chair so that she could more easily hold Coppice. "Jackpot and I both slept most of the way."
"And missed seeing the alien spacecraft fly by," teased Wigwam.
Chocolate Chip wrinkled her nose. "What I missed is dinner."
"Oh, my! Everything's ready and waiting. All I have to do is dish things up!" Sugarberry relinquished Jackpot to Vanguard, then scurried from the sitting room to the kitchen.
Wigwam chuckled. "Some things never change."
* * *
It was later that same evening that the telephone call came through. Chocolate Chip, Wigwam, and Jackpot had checked into their hotel room and called it an early night, with Chocolate Chip falling asleep instantly. Wigwam, on the other hoof, was not so sleepy; and he stood surveying the city of Vulcanopolis from the third floor height of their room. Street-lamps glinted off the wet pavement as a light but steady rain pattered down
Wigwam was remembering an earlier visit to the city when he had arrived to help trace down Calla and Banderol after their abduction by one of Giorgio, Sr's, political rivals. That episode had, thankfully, boasted a happy ending. This trip across the ocean had been much more relaxed. He had the company of his wife and son.
A smile spread across his face as the thought flitted across his mind. His son. How fortunate he was that Chocolate Chip had realized that their lives were meant to be united; and now, here they were, celebrating their first anniversary with a precious little one to make them a true family. He had waited a long time for this, and the reality was better than he had ever dreamed.
His thoughts were interrupted by the ringing of the telephone. Hurrying to answer it before it woke up Chocolate Chip and Jackpot, he croaked a breathless hello.
"Hope I haven't interrupted anything," a chuckling baritone voice boomed.
It took only a moment for Wigwam to place the voice. "Chief Matteo. How nice of you to call. Do you honor all your visitors with a personal welcome?" It would be wise to be on guard with the Vulcanopolis Chief of Police.
"Only those who've won my respect. I hear you're celebrating an anniversary."
"You're well informed."
"That's my job. And I hear congratulations are in order... a son, wasn't it? How's the casino business in Dream Valley?"
"Very profitable. Is your department in need of a donation?"
"You think I wouldn't call out of personal interest in your well-being?"
"In a word, no."
Matteo chuckled again. "I could use your advice."
"Advice?" Wigwam was suddenly attuned to every nuance in the police chief's voice. He stretched the phone cord around the corner into the bathroom and closed the door so that Chocolate Chip would not be disturbed. "What kind of advice?"
"You're familiar with Ambrogino's, I assume?"
"I've heard of it. Didn't have the chance to stop in on my last visit. Read about it often enough... the highest stakes in all of Ponyland are won and lost there."
"You haven't met Monte Medora then?"
"Only heard of him. He runs a smooth operation. I wouldn't mind getting just one night's share of his receipts."
"I might be able to arrange that."
There was a pause before Wigwam responded. "I'm listening."
Chief Matteo went on to explain the problem. Monte had come to him for help when one patron of the stylish casino had begun to win against the odds with unseemly consistency. Try as they might, Monte and his associates had not been able to pinpoint any irregularity in the pony's method, but they also knew that no one could have such a string of good luck. Ambrogino's was beginning to feel the crunch of such an auspicious player, especially when other patrons were increasingly more likely to watch the charmed gambler win than to join in the games of chance themselves.
"What's the name of this gamester?"
"It's not a he we're dealing with, Wigwam... pardon the pun. It's a mare. She's lavender with long turquoise hair... very striking. Her credentials give her home address as New Pony, and her story for those who ask is that she's a school teacher on an extended vacation. I, for one, would like to take one of her classes!"
"You've run a check on her, Matteo. What's the reality?"
"Everything to date has been verified. She really is an educator from the big city. According to the superintendent, she asked for some time off because of health reasons. And she's smart... too smart."
"Where do I come in?"
"You're here on a pleasure trip; you're a casino owner; no one would suspect your interest in the gaming tables at Ambrogino's. You can watch this Riley surreptitiously to discover something that would point us in the right direction. Monte can't very well throw her out without some evidence that verifies the fact that she's cheating the system."
"The key here, Matteo, is that this is a pleasure trip. My wife and I are celebrating our first anniversary, not to mention the recent birth of our son. That doesn't include working for you, even if it means haunting the luxurious halls of Ambrogino's."
"What better place to wine and dine your wife? And what better cover than to bring... let's say, Vanguard and Sugarberry... along. No one would suspect that you're nothing more than a tourist caught up in the polite gambling world that Monte so graciously provides. Riley wouldn't give you a second thought."
"Thanks, Matteo," Wigwam said sarcastically, "but I'll have to give this some thought and talk it over with Chocolate Chip."
"I don't think that'd be wise. One slip of the tongue and your cover would be blown before you even start."
"My wife can be trusted to be discreet."
"Okay, so she might not say anything out of line. But she'd be watching Riley, just out of curiosity. And that might be enough to tip Riley off."
"From what you said earlier, everyone's been watching Riley. We'd stick out more if we didn't become part of her fan club."
"I'll trust your judgement. After all, I'm only asking that you observe Riley's actions. There's no need for heroics. The main thing is to find out her trick and put an end to her winning."
"Maybe she was born under a lucky star."
"Humph!" Matteo scoffed. "You've become a romantic, Wigwam; don't let that interfere with your investigation."
"Investigation? That sounds official."
"You'll be on Monte's payroll, not mine."
"You can tell Monte that I'll keep my eyes open."
* * *
That evening brought together not only Wigwam and Chocolate Chip and Vanguard and Sugarberry, but also Giorgio and Clare and Hydrangea and Pacificus who had learned of the plans of the visiting couple to try their hooves at beating the odds at Monte's elite gambling casino. Jackpot, Coppice, and Banderol were at home in the Vulcanopolis town house under the care of Hydrangea's brother, Solidago, while Hydrangea's own sons and Calla were with their grandparents. All four couples were in good spirits and anticipating a lucrative flow of jangles... hopefully for their benefit, not Monte's. Only Sugarberry was dragging her hooves.
"No, I'm not going to play," Sugarberry said, accepting a drink from a passing waiter while shaking her head at Pacificus. "I don't want to waste my jangles."
"But these slot machines are low-stake," Pacificus urged. "You'll have fun, even if you do end up broke. You don't think I'd risk my hard-earned jangles otherwise, do you?"
"We'll see," Sugarberry said, taking a small sip of her beverage.
Clare had already introduced Vanguard to a one-armed bandit while Chocolate Chip and Hydrangea were losing no time in dropping jangles into theirs. Wigwam and Giorgio watched benignly, preferring to wait to try their luck at the blackjack tables.
"Give it a shot, Sugarberry," Giorgio added his entreaty. "Here, I'll even fund your first efforts." He held out a hoof-full of jangles.
"I'm having more fun just watching ponies," Sugarberry responded, ignoring his money. "For instance, look at that stallion over there." She nodded toward the end of the line of slot machines. "What a hairstyle!"
"It's popular among the young and wealthy trendsetters," explained Giorgio, referring to the spiky, heavily-gelled tresses.
"And look at that couple." Sugarberry indicated a middle-aged pair of ponies, one dropping in coins while the other scratched numbers down on a pad of paper, doing complicated mathematical calculations.
"Maybe someday he'll stumble on a surefire way to beat the odds," Wigwam noted, sending a hooded glance around the room to see if he could spot a certain lavender mare.
Sugarberry giggled. "That mare closest to the door reminds me of Miss Hackney. She seems out of place."
Wigwam's gaze took in the nondescript pony. At first glance, she did seem misplaced, but the eyes of the pale face behind the glasses were shrewd; and her concentration was intense. He was not surprised when the machine she was playing showered her with a win, the bright lights and sirens catching everyone's attention for a time.
The mare seemed discomposed by the regard of the other patrons, nervously fumbling with the fringe of a black crocheted shawl that she wore over her shoulders, and allowed the crowd to swallow her up after collecting her modest winnings.
A squeal from Chocolate Chip next caught Wigwam's attention as his wife, too, brought in a winning combination. She showered some of her good fortune on Sugarberry. "You've got to try this!"
"Yes, Sugarberry," Wigwam agreed. "You take Chocolate Chip's place; I'd like to introduce my providential wife to some higher stakes." He held out his hoof to the brown mare who smilingly accepted his escort, with Clare and Giorgio joining the couple as they moved more deeply into the gaming casino.
* * *
"So, what do you think?" Chief Matteo asked of Wigwam the next day. His call had caught the stallion before he and Chocolate Chip set out on a day of sightseeing.
"Riley certainly knows how to play the cards, but I didn't note anything irregular. Maybe it's luck, pure and simple."
"Not according to Monte. Her wins are too calculated."
"Too costly for Monte, anyway," Wigwam chuckled.
"Would you want to have her playing your casino?"
"Not for any length of time."
"Then you see why Monte is concerned. Her winning streak seems to be unstoppable."
"I haven't given up yet, Matteo. As a matter of fact, Giorgio and I are going back to Ambrogino's tonight, just the two of us."
"Your lovely wife is going to let you out of her sight?"
"She's going to spend the evening with Sugarberry and Vanguard at their place. She and Sugarberry have a lot to catch up on."
"Babies, recipes, and gossip," Matteo said.
"And a good share of reminiscing, I'm sure," Wigwam added.
* * *
"This is getting personal," Wigwam muttered to Giorgio as both stallions watched their chips being awarded to Riley. "No one can be that lucky." He glared across the table at the attractive mare who accepted the winnings as her due.
"I'm cleaned out. How about we eat something?" Giorgio suggested. "If we're to go home empty-hooved, we can at least make the most of Monte's buffet."
"You go ahead," Wigwam growled. "I'm staying right here. She's bound to slip up sooner or later."
"Have it your way, my friend," smiled Giorgio. "I'll check in on you later."
Wigwam only grunted, his eyes never leaving the lavender face of the mare who was making a fortune... with him unable to stop her.
* * *
Riley made her way alone through the quiet streets of Vulcanopolis, by-passing the ritzy hotels that rose from the heart of the city and heading toward a more neglected part of town that buffered the noise and smells of the fishing docks from the cleaner, quieter realm of the wealthy. Only when she came to a once noble but now rundown edifice of red brick did her pace slow; she walked through the front door of the establishment and made her way stealthily to an upper floor. Looking behind her furtively but finding herself alone, she softly knocked twice, then stepped back to wait. It was only a moment or two before the door creaked open and Riley darted inside. Slumping onto a hard, wooden chair near the doorway, she watched as the only other occupant of the room closed the door upon the world.
The sole source of light in the cramped hotel room came from a weak light bulb in the ceiling fixture, creating darting shadows that scuttled from the moving figure who came to stand next to Riley. Riley looked up at the pony draped in a heavy black shawl that accented the whiteness of the worried face. "Well?" Riley asked.
"One more night," a tired voice sighed. "One more night... if things go as well as they did this time out." The pony under the shawl seemed to brighten momentarily, making her look years younger. "Soon, we'll have Robby... " Her voice broke.
Riley grasped the older pony's hoof in hers and smiled. "One more night... then our family will be complete again, Mother."
* * *
"I'm not comfortable in these surroundings," Vanguard complained, looking around Ambrogino's with distaste. He had consented to accompany Wigwam and Giorgio on their latest outing only because Wigwam's obsession with the casino was beginning to worry him.
"Van, I've explained the situation to you. I need you and Giorgio as cover for my being here. I think I'm on to Riley's method, but I need to verify a few things. And you needn't gamble, if that's what's bothering you. I just need to blend in like I'm here with a couple of friends for a good time."
"Let the good times roll," quipped Giorgio, stopping a waiter and snaring a drink for each of them.
The three stallions worked their way casually around the various gaming tables set up in the elegant surroundings of Ambrogino's, finally coming to the entourage that encircled the table where Riley sat, her winnings already piling up before her. Wigwam spared the mare only a momentary glance before his gaze took in the rest of the spectators. It did not take him long to find what he was looking for... what he had expected to find.
One of the ponies in the group that had become nightly onlookers of Riley's success was the matronly mare with the black shawl. While Vanguard and Giorgio settled their attention on Riley, Wigwam discreetly watched the pony who had reminded Sugarberry of Miss Hackney. She was old enough to be retired, Wigwam surmised, but he had to agree with Sugarberry's assumption that she was- or had been- a school teacher. And the lovely Miss Riley was a teacher as well.
The pony under surveillance must have felt Wigwam's steady regard, for she looked up in his direction, pulling the black shawl more closely around her. Wigwam quickly looked toward Riley, his face assuming an avid interest in the proceedings under way as Riley seemed to hesitate over her bet. Her hoof wavered over the chips for a moment as if undecided; then, with a return of her confident demeanor, she moved a pile of chips forward.
Monte hovered at the edge of the onlookers trying not to let his concern show but failing at the attempt.. With set lips, he watched the game play out and scowled heavily when the cards favored Riley.
Wigwam, however, smiled. Knowing which pony to watch, he now had a fair understanding of what was playing out. With that in mind, he caught Monte Medora's surly gaze and nodded for him to meet him at the edge of the room.
* * *
Something was not right. The black-shawled mare could feel it like a tangible threat. Someone was watching her. She looked up, but could see no one focused on her. Everyone was concentrating on Riley. Good, thought the mare. I must have been imaging things.
Very discreetly, her hoof found the signal button and she relayed the necessary information to a slightly disconcerted Riley; and as the older mare had anticipated, the younger one reaped the rewards.
Finally! the mare whispered under her breath. We've done it!
* * *
"That granny is the brains?" asked a bewildered Monte.
"I guarantee that she's hiding something under that shawl," Wigwam observed. "I imagine it's some sort of computer that's calculating the odds for her."
"I don't believe it! And even if you're right, how is she relaying the information to Riley?"
"Some sort of ear phone, I'd imagine."
"It makes sense," grudgingly agreed Monte. "But I want to see them at work for myself... now that I know what to look for."
"You might not have the chance," said Wigwam, watching the table at which Riley sat. The mare in the shawl had already moved across the room and was now heading for the entrance. Riley gathered together her winnings and made to leave as well.
"They can't leave the premises!" muttered Monte in agitation.
"You keep an eye on Riley and inform your staff what's going on. I'll stall granny." Wigwam moved purposefully in the direction that the pony had taken while Monte barked orders into his walkie-talkie.
* * *
"Excuse me, ma'am, but you dropped this." Wigwam approached the mare in the black shawl, his hoof extended with a jangle resting on it. His smile was warm and friendly, his manner at its best.
"You must be mistaken," the mare answered, watching Wigwam warily. "My jangles are safely here, in my purse." She revealed a crocheted bag that was dangling from her foreleg, then clutched it to her as she turned to leave.
"And a lovely purse it is," complimented Wigwam, trailing after the mare. "Did you make it? My mother takes great pride in her own crocheting. Your shawl has an interesting pattern to it. I'll bet you designed it yourself."
The mare hesitated. The warning that had set her on edge earlier returned. Why was this stallion so interested in her all of a sudden? For all his politeness, there was no reason for him to be showering his attention on her, unless...
"I really must be going." She shot a glance back toward the gaming room to ascertain where Riley was and was relieved to see that the young mare was not far behind. "Take the jangle yourself and plug it into one of the machines. I wish you the best of luck."
She was almost out the door when a body materialized in front of her; one of Monte's henchmen blocked her path. "Mr. Medora would like a word with you."
* * *
Riley, seeing that her mother's secret was in jeopardy, had to make a quick decision. She could stand by her mother's side, in which case not only would the secret of their success be discovered, but also their accumulated jangles would be forfeit. Her other choice was to slip from the casino with the winnings and disappear into the night; that would best serve her brother, Robby, who needed the jangles to pay off his creditor. Her ear phone still in place, Riley heard her mother's electronic command: Go!
Knowing that she did not have a chance at the main entrance, Riley made her move toward an emergency exit set back and to the side of the imposing facade of the building. There were enough casino patrons standing about chatting that she was able to gain access to the alcove in which the door was located without calling undue attention to her movements.
The door was heavy and stiff, but she succeeded in pushing it open far enough to slip outside. The night air felt cool and refreshing; and for a moment she rejoiced over her freedom. But only for a moment.
"That's far enough," a harsh voice whispered from the shadows, and Riley turned her head in that direction. "Payment's due now." She caught the flash of metal and then knew only darkness.
* * *
"Where's Riley?" Wigwam shouted at Monte as the proprietor bore down on the hapless mare being held by his guard.
Monte, his attention solely on the mare who had fleeced him of so many jangles, looked at Wigwam quizzically. "Riley? She's right over..." Pointing to his right, Monte realized that the lavender mare with turquoise hair was no longer there. "Where'd she go?"
"Keep an eye on this one," Wigwam barked, assessing the area and sprinting for the emergency door. "I'll find Riley."
And find her he did, stumbling over her body as he rushed through the door. He dropped to her side and heard her take a jagged breath. "Wh... what happened?" she managed to say, her hoof going to her head where a sizeable lump now sprouted.
"It would appear you were attacked," said Wigwam, brushing the mare's mane from her face to assess the extent of the wound. "You did have a sizeable amount of money on you, didn't you?"
"My jangles!" Riley tried to sit up, but sagged under the pain it caused her pounding head. She felt for the over-the-shoulder bag she carried and cried out, "They're gone!"
At that moment, the door opened again, nearly knocking Wigwam to the ground. "What the..." he began, then stopped as Vanguard and Giorgio came through the opening.
"It's about time you two showed up!" Wigwam growled. He then asked of Riley, "Do you know who would have done this?"
"I didn't see who did it," the young mare stammered.
"But you did see something," Wigwam urged.
Realizing that she and her mother had lost control of the situation, Riley sighed. "It was something he said... Payment's due now. It could only have been Stormburst from New Pony. He must have followed my mother and me here."
"Your mother? The mare in the black shawl?"
"Yes. We were trying to win enough jangles to pay back a loan my brother had gotten from Stormburst. He wasn't satisfied with Robby's weekly payments any longer and wanted it paid off in one lump sum. Robby didn't have the money, and Stormburst came down hard on him." Riley gingerly touched the lump on her head. "That's when Mom and I decided we'd.... take care of things ourselves."
"What's this Stormburst look like?"
"Grey with white hair and a lightning bolt symbol."
"Where is Robby now?"
"He's in the hospital in New Pony... recuperating from Stormburst's last... pep talk."
"Where are you staying here?"
"At the La Casa Rossa, down close to the wharf... Room 21."
"I know the place," Giorgio said.
Wigwam withdrew a flashlight from his own backpack and began to survey the surrounding area for hoof-prints. The recent rains had softened the soil, revealing a set of tracks leading diagonally across the sodded area, then disappearing on the paved path.
"It's the right direction for their lodgings," Giorgio noted.
"Vanguard, inform Chief Matteo where we're headed and tell Monte the money's gone. And take care of Riley," Wigwam instructed. "Giorgio, you and I have a scoundrel to catch!"
The two stallions took off at a run.
* * *
"There it is... just ahead," Giorgio huffed as he and Wigwam sprinted down the street.
"The question being, is Stormburst inside?" Wigwam puffed, coming to a stop in a shadowed doorway opposite La Casa Rossa. "I'm assuming he followed Riley to Vulcanopolis and kept an eye on what she and her mother were doing."
"And made his move when he saw that Monte was wise to their strategy."
"He knows he has to beat the police to the room Riley rented. He's gotta be here." Wigwam ran a hoof through his mane. "You watch the front; I'm going around to the back." He took off without waiting for Giorgio's response.
"Wigwam!" Giorgio hissed but to no avail. The orange stallion had already disappeared around the corner of the brick building.
* * *
"Watch the front," Giorgio muttered, living through every second as if it were a minute and wondering what Wigwam was up to.
There was nothing to watch... just a tired old building with a weary light over the front door. It was no place for Riley and her mother to be staying, that was for sure. As far as it went, it was no place for him and Wigwam, either. Not on a cold, dark night like this with a light rain beginning to fall. Giorgio shivered as the raindrops splashed around the doorframe beneath which he was sheltered.
What's Wigwam up to? Giorgio himself was itching for action and knew that Wigwam would not be satisfied to simply stand by and wait for something to happen. Having been in La Casa Rossa a time or two, Giorgio knew the general location of Room 21 but he could not be certain which window went with which room. He strained his eyes, trying to ascertain if anything unusual was occurring... anything that might give him a hint as to where Stormburst and Wigwam were at this moment.
Giorgio sank more deeply into the shadows as he heard the sound of uneven hoof-steps coming in his direction. Carefully peeking around the edge of the doorway, he saw a lone pony crossing the street toward the hotel... a pony with a pronounced limp. Reaching the steps leading to the front door, the pony's colors were revealed by the lamplight. Giorgio could not believe his eyes, for the lavender body and turquoise hair were identical to that of Riley. But that was impossible; she was injured and back at the casino. Or was she?
This flurry of thought ended when Giorgio noted the size of the pony. This was not the svelte Riley. This was a stockier, larger pony, definitely a stallion. Could it be the brother, Robby, who was supposedly recuperating back in New Pony?
Giorgio took a step forward to prevent the stallion from walking into... whatever it was that might be transpiring in Room 21. He had no sooner broken cover when he was pushed back against the doorframe.
"Quiet!" a hushed voice commanded, and Giorgio recognized Chief Matteo at his side. "What have I missed?"
"Wigwam went around back, and this guy going up the steps I take to be Riley's brother."
"A little late to protect his mother and sister, isn't he?" Matteo signaled to one of his officers who had materialized at the corner of the hotel who, in turn, moved to intercept the newcomer before he could enter the building. Officer Vito nodded toward Matteo's position, and accompanied the stallion across the street before moving off to resume his watch.
"You're name?" Matteo asked, keeping his voice low.
"Robby Lamb," the stallion responded impatiently. "If you're aware there's a problem, I think you should be protecting my mother and my sister, not importuning me."
"And just what do you know about your relatives' actions here in Vulcanopolis?'
"I've only just arrived, but I can put two and two together, and I don't like the answer I'm getting. Mom and Riley left New Pony, telling me that Riley was too distraught over my... accident... to stay in town and that she needed a change of scenery. I was unable to stop them at the time." He looked down at the ragged scar on his leg. "When a... friend... came be to tell me Stormburst had harried off to Vulcanopolis after finding out that Mom and Riley had headed there, I knew I had to do something." He rubbed his leg. "I only wish they'd have confided in me up front."
"So you know what they've been up to?"
"I can guess." Robby sighed. "They've been hitting the gaming tables, haven't they? And winning?"
"Winning big. And Stormburst made his move tonight."
"Mom and Riley... they weren't hurt... were they?"
"Riley took a hard hit, but she'll be..."
The three stallions' attention was caught by the shattering sound of glass as some violent movement occurred in Room 21, causing the window glass to break and fall outward onto the pavement. As there was no light in the room, it was impossible to determine who was involved, but Giorgio knew without a doubt that Wigwam had made entrance.
"I've got to help him," Giorgio declared, setting off across the street.
Matteo pulled him back roughly. "Don't complicate things. Privato and Franco are already up there." The stallions listened to the thuds and sound of furniture toppling as lights came on in the adjoining rooms of the hotel. In a matter of moments, it was over; and Chief Matteo's walkie-talkie crackled to life.
"We've got him."
"Is Wigwam okay?" queried a worried Giorgio.
Franco chuckled. "There's some blood and bruises, but he'll wash up good."
Giorgio rolled his eyes. "I wonder how Chocolate Chip will react?"
* * *
Chocolate Chip responded well, considering the circumstances. When her bedraggled husband and the others arrived back at Clare's house where Chocolate Chip, Sugarberry, and Clare were pacing the floor after first worrying themselves sick as to where their husbands had disappeared to for such a length of time and so late; and then, receiving a call from Chief Matteo that the stallions were fine but detained because of some police business at the casino, they continued their pacing, wondering what had taken place.
Wigwam, Vanguard, and Giorgio were completely soaked from the rain when they walked in and Wigwam's black eye was partially hidden behind his sodden mane; but the scratch running along his right cheek was an obvious sign that he had been involved in a ruckus, and Chocolate Chip immediately demanded an explanation, then before receiving one, began coddling him like a baby. While Chocolate Chip was tending to Wigwam, the three stallions told of their respective experiences, and the mares soon learned of what their husbands had been through... as well as the rest of the story.
Riley and Robby's mother, Maggie, had always been a whiz at math and had embraced the computer age with relish; she had avidly studied computers, learning what made them work as well as how to program and build them and shared her expertise through evening classes for interested ponies.
For her own enjoyment, Maggie had used her knowledge of mathematical statistics and computers to research the probability of winning at gambling, for she had always harbored a secret desire to try her luck at the gaming tables. She had never done more than dabble at her sport in the real casinos; but her infrequent jaunts to the tables were very rewarding, and she continued to fine-tune her methods.
However, when Robby had become entangled with the unethical Stormburst, Maggie had thrown caution to the winds and had set off for Vulcanopolis to win the jangles that would appease the brute. And win she did... or Riley did. So much so that word trickled back to Stormburst; and the description of the lucky player told its own story, for Robby and Riley were fraternal twins. Stormburst had seen his chance to not only regain his loan- plus a hefty interest- from Robby but also to obtain the family's secret at how to beat the cards. That had brought him to Vulcanopolis in a hurry. Fortunately for all involved- except Stormburst, of course- he was now behind bars under Chief Matteo's care.
"What of Riley and her family?" a concerned Sugarberry asked.
"You needn't worry, Sugarberry," Giorgio assured her. "Monte has a heart and he understands the pressure Maggie was under." He chuckled. "He's also very interested in her gambling methods... to protect his casino, you understand." Giorgio winked at Sugarberry. "Monte finds the lady, a widow, very intriguing... now that he knows her history."
* * *
"Remember, Tabby's birthday is the sixth. Make sure she gets her present on time," Sugarberry admonished Chocolate Chip as she, Vanguard, and the boys were seeing the Vulcanopolis visitors off on their return trip. Sugarberry was sending Tabby's gift home with them.
"Yes, Sugarberry," Chocolate Chip assured the mare. "We have something for her as well. We're all going to meet at the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe."
"What with all the little ones, Scoops is going to have to build on!"
"The ice cream shop is where you first befriended me, Sugarberry, and took me under your care. Now look where I am... with a grand home of my own and a wonderful husband and a beautiful baby boy."
"All of which you richly deserve."
"Your flight is boarding now," Vanguard observed. He was holding Jackpot while Banderol and Coppice entertained the foal with their antics.
"Oh, Chocolate Chip, our time together has been such fun! But now I'm going to miss you all over again!" Sugarberry hugged the brown pony tightly.
"What about me?" asked Wigwam, waiting his turn.
"You have to learn to stay away from trouble," Sugarberry sniffed, frowning at his bruised face.
"I don't look for trouble... it finds me," the stallion defended himself.
"Giorgio said Stormburst was in far worse shape than you."
Wigwam shrugged. "I did what I had to do." Then he grinned. "And admit it, Sug; your romantic heart can't fault the fact that Maggie seems as taken with Monte as he with her."
Sugarberry could not help but smile. "Okay, so it ended well."
"Now, about that hug."
Sugarberry rolled her eyes. "Well, if you insist." She gave the stallion a gentle embrace.
"We're better friends than that!" Wigwam insisted, drawing her close and planting a big kiss on her cheek.