Vanguard stood looking over the landscaped grounds that fell away from the
second-story terrace of the
town house that had become his home on arrival in Italy. As he stared out at the beauty of the
landscape, he shook his
head to clear it of some nagging thoughts.
"I still can't believe I'm here," he said to himself. "Vulcanopolis... half a world away
He rubbed a hoof across his forehead and closed his eyes. It had been several weeks since he'd
left Dream Valley, and
he still felt the pain of leaving... like a physical wound in his heart.
The ringing of the telephone escaped him until the fourth ring finally broke through his
hurried to pick-up the receiver, and mustered a relatively cheerful-sounding, "Hello?"
"Hey! How goes it?" The voice was that of Guido, a local stallion whom Vanguard
had met at a dinner
party that Agatha had held in his honor; that event had occurred the night before she received the
news of her husband's
return to Dream Valley. Agatha had returned to Ponyland, but the ponies she'd introduced
Vanguard to had aided in
making his adjustment to a new community so far from home as easy as possible under the
"Guido! Good to hear from you!"
"Have you eaten yet?" Guido asked. "I was thinking of dinner at Pasta Plaza and
thought you might like
to get out a bit."
"Sure. Why not?" Vanguard replied. "What time?"
"Make it half an hour," Guido advised. "I've got to check my stock options before I
As Vanguard hung up the phone, his eyes rested on the picture of Sugarberry and
himself that had found
a home on the desk. Clever Clover had snapped the pose last Christmas, and it was Vanguard's
favorite picture of
Sugarberry. He picked it up and stared at it, his mind wandering to events from years past before
he'd met the pony of
his dreams, back when he was still in college.
"Stupid!" he ranted out loud. "How could I have been so stupid as to get caught up in
such trouble? If
it weren't for a bad decision back then, I'd still be in Dream Valley."
He set the framed photo down, and darted down the stairs and out the door as if the
fresh air would help
him escape the memories that held him captive. He walked several blocks through the city before
the mild evening air
soothed his raw nerves, and he began to notice the beauty of this place which for the next seven
months he would call
The sound of foal's laughter in a nearby park danced along with the calming breeze, and
his discouraged mood slip away as he crossed an arched bridge over a slowly-flowing stream lined
with bushes, their
branches loaded with scarlet blossoms. It was a picture-perfect scene and he found himself
thinking, "I wish Sugarberry
was here to see this." He filed the scene in his mind to describe to her in his next long
Arriving at the cafe ahead of schedule, he sat on a bench in the busy piazza and
watched the ponies
pass by. Some were hurrying home from work, looking straight ahead. Others were walking in
the company of friends,
moving at a slower pace and discussing events of the day. "Ponies are pretty much the same here
as at home,"
Vanguard surmised as he continued his pony-watching pastime.
"Vanguard!" a voice called in surprise-- not a stallion's voice, but a lyrical mare's.
Turning his head to
see who had noticed him, he recognized another of Agatha's dinner guests.
"Clare?" he said hesitantly as he stood to greet her. "It's nice to see you again."
"Are you waiting for someone in particular, or are you free to join me for dinner?" the
Coming up from the other direction, Guido answered the question for him. "He's with
me, Clare, but
you're welcome to join us."
"Best offer I've had all day," she smiled. "It's been a dry day in the fashion
"Oh, come on, Clare!" Guido teased. "Every mare in Vulcanopolis is fighting to own
one of your
"If that's the case, why are my racks crowded with pieces, and my seamstresses idle at
Guido laughed. "I highly doubt that things are that bad. However, with Agatha out of
"Oh! I do miss her parties!" Clare pouted. "Vanguard, do you think she'll return
Vanguard waved a hoof in uncertainty. "I wouldn't want to venture a guess," pondered
stallion. "She and Hubert probably aren't even sure themselves at this point."
"At any rate," Clare prattled on as the threesome entered the restaurant and waited to be
her daughter's marriage coming up, I'd bet she'll stay in Dream Valley until that is finalized."
"Yes. Tabby." Guido scowled as he remembered the vivacious, sharp-tongued unicorn
that had visited
Vulcanopolis last year. Agatha had thrown the two together with designs of a budding romance;
and for Guido, it had
worked. But Tabby had thwarted his efforts at every turn; her heart had already been claimed by
Thomas. "I would like
to meet this fiancé of hers, and see if he can give her more from life than I can!"
Clare laughed at his annoyance. "If Tabby is in love with this Thomas, you and your
would mean nothing to her!"
"She's right, Guido. Those two belong together," Vanguard interjected. "Be happy for
The head waiter came at that moment to escort the high-tipping stallion and his friends
to a choice table
with a view of Vesuvius in the distance. "Have you been to the ruins yet, Vanguard?" Clare asked
"No. I've been busy at the university, but once I get caught up in the routine of it all, I
plan to do some
"Great! We can plan a picnic! What do you think, Guido? Should we include Batista
or Emily in this
Guido was still sulking over his lost bid at Tabby's affection, but he shook off his
melancholy with a
grin. "Let Vanguard decide."
Vanguard raised his hooves in opposition. "Whoa! Don't match me up with anyone,
"Who is she?" Clare tormented him brazenly at this hint of a special someone in his life.
"Come on; do
tell!" she coaxed as Vanguard remained silent.
He took a deep breath before responding, but eventually decided that these new friends
know where he stood. "Her name is Sugarberry," was all he said, fidgeting with the silverware on
"Oh, what a sweet name!" Clare teased. "What's she like?"
"She's a writer and a receptionist," Vanguard hesitated in sharing too much.
"That's what she does, not what she's like," taunted Clare mercilessly.
guess." She eyed Vanguard mischievously. "She's kind and compassionate and soft-spoken and
very pretty. Am I
right?" she queried when Vanguard remained silent.
Guido huffed. "That would describe any mare to a stallion in love," he scoffed.
Clare flashed Guido a chilly look that shut him up temporarily at least. "Come on, Van,
"She's everything you said," Vanguard agreed simply.
"I knew it!" Clare beamed. "I have a knack for matching personalities up!" She sent a
cool glance in
Guido's direction once more, which Vanguard noticed with amusement. Did Clare have her sights
set on this wealthy
entrepreneur who only looked on her as a childhood buddy?
The evening passed in good camaraderie, and Vanguard felt more at ease in his
he had friends close by to turn to. As he unlocked the door of the pink stucco three-story town
house that was now his
home-- actually Giorgio's home-on-loan-- he heard the telephone ringing. But the flat dialtone
when he picked it up let
him know he was too late on this one.
He was tired anyway as the night was late; he walked across the lush white carpeting of
the living area
that bore out Giorgio's extravagant life-style, and checked the lock on the patio doors before
heading for the third-story
bedroom. The massive, solid wooden bedroom pieces caused him to chuckle. He never ceased to
Giorgio's reaction to Vanguard's sparse efficiency apartment had been.
No sooner had Vanguard dozed off when the reverberating shrillness of the phone
pierced through his
unconsciousness. He grabbed the bedside phone and mumbled "Hello" before he knew what he
"I tried earlier several times, but you weren't home," a jovial voice met his ear.
"Tawny?" Vanguard croaked as a vision of Dream Valley's illustrious police chief fought
"Yup. Just wanted to check on how things were going on your end."
Vanguard was fully awake now, and glad to have a chance to touch base with someone
back home. "It's
been quiet and uneventful here so far."
"Yeah. I figured as much. But you'll be interested to know that Giorgio has settled into
responsibilities at Pony Pride in an illustrious fashion," Tawny replied. "He hasn't made a move to
set up his operation
here yet as far as we can tell. But he's building a good rapport with your... his students; he will
decide on which one to
draw into his confidence soon enough, and then his scam will take off."
"Have you been in touch with Decagon?"
"Yes, and there was one interesting development in the investigation at Binks
"Which is?" Vanguard prompted.
"Well, Giorgio's got a better production going than we first thought. Besides his selling
of answer keys,
he's also getting kickback's from graduates who are afraid he will compromise their careers with
the truth about their
"Not a bad business for an exemplary teacher," Vanguard muttered disdainfully, getting
a better picture
of the means that a fellow teacher had access to by which he could live so luxuriously.
"This also means he probably has accomplices to help him take care of all his
bookkeeping and other
details. So don't trust anyone."
Not even Guido... and Clare? Vanguard wondered dismally.
When Vanguard remained silent, Tawny asked, "Did Chief Matteo brief you on what
has gone on over
"Nothing you hadn't already told me.. Giorgio is a renowned teacher at Leonardo
University. And his
father used to be the chancellor here. Several teachers suspect some impropriety in grading in
certain instances, but no
one seems to have any evidence to verify Decagon's accusation of deceitfulness on Giorgio's
"Which means we've gotten nowhere yet. But that's to be expected," Tawny remained
upbeat. "It will
take some time for all the players in this game to get set-up after the last-minute change in the
"Yeah!" agreed Vanguard. "Like my being here instead of Decagon, and Giorgio being
at Pony Pride
instead of Binks University."
"It will all work out," Tawny assured him. "When someone like Giorgio gets greedy,
he's bound to slip
up somewhere. And I'm sorry I woke you. I'll let you get back to sleep now."
"What is it?"
"How's Sugarberry? Have you seen her?"
"Shimmer had our daughter's rabbit in for a check-up just yesterday; she said Sugarberry
"Good," Vanguard responded. "I only wish I could have explained things to her."
"You realize the need for secrecy here, Van. We've got three communities at least
entangled in this, and
we can't have any more ponies involved than are vitally necessary."
"I told Wigwam to keep an eye on her for me, but I think he went a little overboard by
striking up that
author-authoress relationship with her before I even left Dream Valley. Now, from a different
perspective, I feel the
need to ask you to keep an eye on him."
Tawny laughed. "Wigwam's trustworthy. You can depend on him."
"That's what worries me," Vanguard confessed. "He's the kind Sugarberry could fall
for. When I left, I
thought I could let that happen; now I know I can't."
"Wigwam's on assignment with the force for this operation," Tawny rationalized. "He
won't let any
personal feelings get in the way of his professionalism."
"Yeah. I feel a lot better now," Vanguard cynically responded.
"If it makes you breath easier, I'll watch the situation," Tawny chuckled, finding
humorous. "I'm sure Shimmer will be glad to help, too. Now, don't worry, and get to
But sleep was the last thing on Vanguard's mind now. The conversation with Tawny
had set all the
wheels in motion to ensure a sleepless night.
"Decagon was my sanctuary when I needed one; now I've got to help him," the
mused. He remembered Decagon's family from the years Vanguard himself was a student in his
senior year at Binks
University: his wife Paisley Pinafore and the two children, Lighthouse and Rainbow. A chain of
events that his own
artlessness had entangled him in had now ensnared Lighthouse and reached out to engulf
Vanguard in a situation that he
thought had been resolved years ago.
It was Decagon who had alerted him to the ghost from the past. Vanguard had relived
daily since he'd received the call from Decagon near the end of April .
"Vanguard, I've got a problem here. I'm hoping you can help
"This sounds serious, Decagon. You know I'll help you in any way
(There follows a weighty pause as Decagon musters up the
courage to say what he has to reveal.) "Lighthouse has been implicated
in a major cheating scandal here at Binks."
"I'm sorry to hear that, Decagon."
"It gets worse. He has admitted that the pony that got him
involved is the teacher that I did an exchange with several years ago,
while you were in graduate school."
"A teacher's doing the selling of his own test solutions?"
"I'm afraid so. And Lighthouse fell for it big. He's been this creep's
right-hand-man for the last couple of years. Vanguard, my son has been
selling me out right under my nose."
(Vanguard's reply is slow in coming, a wave of forgiven-- but not
forgotten-- guilt flooding his soul.) "He must have his reasons, Decagon."
"He did, but none of them noble. He did it for easy money, and
for an easy bid for the Dean's list. There were no extenuating circumstances
in this case, Vanguard".
"I'm head of the math department, Vanguard. My own son took
advantage of that fact to keep this duplicity going even with Giorgio back in
"Vulcanopolis? That's where your exchange took you? To Italy?"
"Yes. And I've talked with the school authorities over there and
although they suspect a cheating problem, too, they unequivocally refuse to
believe Giorgio is involved. He's very intelligent and comes from a rather
distinguished family from Vulcanopolis."
"I had no idea the problem had gotten this out-of-hoof since my days
in college at Binks. Pony Pride doesn't seem to have anything like that."
"Well, this brings us to the reason for my call. I had been scheduled
to do an exchange with Giorgio this summer and fall never suspecting a thing
out of line. With Lighthouse graduating, I guess he had to line up a new recruit.
It was just coincidence that Lighthouse got caught at this time. And you can
imagine how upset Paisley Pinafore is by all this; I can't leave her now,
"That's understandable." (Vanguard starts to get a sick feeling
in the pit of his stomach.)
"I suggested an idea to Binks officials, and they think it would be a
beneficial move in this case."
"And what's that?"
"Well, this is where you come in. I figure that if I confide to
Giorgio that family concerns obligate me to back out of our arranged
exchange, but that I know another qualified pony who could fill in for me, we
can get this menace into a trap-- based at your department at Pony Pride
while you do the same at Leonardo."
"You want me to go to Italy?"
"Yes. I figure that this conniving stallion will set-up a brand new
cheating scam once he's at Pony Pride, but with the proper authorities
watching discreetly over his shoulders."
"Won't Giorgio suspect something when he finds that his contact at
Binks is uncovered?"
"Only a very few ponies know all the facts of this case-- and it must
stay that way, Vanguard; not a word of this to anyone-- and Lighthouse
has promised to play along with our subterfuge. Giorgio only needs to
know that my son has been caught cheating, not that he's squealed on his
(Vanguard doesn't reply.)
"Vanguard, Lighthouse is the same age you were when I helped you
out of your dilemma. That aid was given freely, and I don't mean to put
a price on it now, but this cheating scam is too big a deal. We have a
chance to wipe it out. What do you say?"
(A pause...) "Of course I'll help you, Decagon. What do I have to do?"
"Right now, nothing. With your permission, I'll notify Giorgio of
my problem and see if he is willing to change his plans. If he is, we'll have
to run some paperwork through real fast to get the two of you set-up for
"When does it take place?"
"I was to arrive in Vulcanopolis on May 15."
(Another pause as Vanguard realizes just how soon that is.)
"Okay, Decagon; let me know what happens."
It was two days later when Vanguard got a second call from Decagon.
"It's all set Vanguard. Giorgio believed my story that Lighthouse
was only caught cheating. He doesn't suspect that anyone has knowledge
of his part in the operation, but I think I sensed some relief from him not
to be expected at Binks this year."
"Was he willing to come to Pony Pride?"
"Like a foal with a new stacking ring! I'm sure his eyes lit up at
the chance to infiltrate a whole new college community."
"So what comes next?"
"I'm sending you the forms you'll need to fill out, and I've arranged
for Giorgio to call you tomorrow. Just play it cool, and answer his questions
like you're looking forward to this exchange."
"I'll do my best."
"The president here at Binks will contact your president to
speed-up any necessary adjustments to your unscheduled departure."
"I appreciate that."
"Remember that no one is to be told about this. Only those directly
involved are to be trusted."
"I understand, Decagon."
"Thank you! Thank you from the bottom of my heart!"
Vanguard sat up in bed and admitted defeat to the harbingers of insomnia. He traipsed
down the two
flights of stairs to the kitchen, fixed a pot of strong black coffee, dimmed the lights, and sat
dejectedly at the kitchen
table. Only once before dawn did he interrupt his lonely vigil. Going to the desk in the
second-floor den, he picked-up
Sugarberry's picture; and returning to his chair, he set the picture in front of him on the table and
continued his desolate