Ginseng and Sassafras Tea: Chapter Six
written by Sugarberry

The ice cream shop was buzzing with voices of ponies enjoying a quick lunch break. Hood had a selective menu of hearty sandwiches offered from eleven in the morning until one-thirty in the afternoon which drew in the working crowd. He and Drumstick were kept busy while staying informed of local happenings.

William had come in early, filling his regular spot at the counter. He usually waited until the shop was quieter, thereby commanding more of Hood's attention to his stories and reminiscences. But on this day, the elderly stallion had almost appeared to be waiting for the shop to open when Hood showed up after his groceries had been stored away at home.

"What did you think of the headlines, Hood?" William's green eyes shone with excitement.

"What headlines, William? You know I avoid the newspaper as much as possible."

"This headline," William snapped open the fresh newsprint upon which ran the top news story: Police Chief Bungles Business. Hood stared at the words, then grabbed the paper from William's hooves and began reading.

Last evening, Police Chief Checker was as red in the face as the tomatoes missing from his garden. The Woodlawn Robber struck the chief's own crop in broad daylight, rifling several bushels of tomatoes from under the chief's nose. This reporter, in an interview with Deputy Sparky after the incident, learned that the department is sorely lacking in any clues, not to mention material evidence, that might lead to resolution of this conflict. Chief Checker himself refused comment.

And where was Chief Checker at the time of the crime? He was counseling juvenile offenders who were guilty of such offences as littering and painting graffiti. When will the police force realize that the real outrage has been several months of unsolved thefts that are increasing in scope and number? Is anyone safe from the grip of this menace that has snared Woodlawn? It is time for the citizens of Woodlawn to stand up against this evasive thief and step down on any further pillaging in this illustrious community.

Hood's anger rose higher and higher as he read through the scandalous article. The byline was credited to a reporter named Free Lance. In his present mood, Hood wanted to strangle him. He pounded his hoof on the counter so violently that even William was taken by surprise.

"This police chief is your brother-in-law, right?" William goaded.

"Yes, he is, and he is a mighty good one, too, on both counts. This Free Lance had no right to make him sound incompetent."

Realizing that every pony in the shop was looking at him, Hood lowered his voice. "What does he think Checker's to do, patrol every house every second of the day and night?"

"Well," the pony next to William joined in, "there has been plenty of opportunity to catch the perpetrator in the act." This dapper stallion was Marquee, the manager of Woodlawn's movie theater, and Hood silently vowed to never watch a show there again.

"Not one of the homeowners hit by this crook has ever seen anything," Hood defended. "If the ponies on the scene can't spot him, how are the police supposed to do it?"

"I'm only saying that if the force was doing its job, they'd have some evidence by now."

"If the culprit left any evidence, Checker would have found it," declared Hood emphatically. He abruptly turned his attention to a new customer who had just come in, and the diners returned to their lunches. But everyone was discussing the mystery, and it seemed an even split between those who thought the police were doing their best, and those who shared the reporter's doubts as to Checker's ability to protect the town.

Hood refused to be drawn into any more arguments with William or anyone else; but underneath, he was fuming. The nerve of that guy, making Checker out to be incompetent. The entire force had been on constant surveillance, yet the thief had never once been sighted; no sign of any evidence was ever left behind; hoofprints were always concealed or covered. Whoever was at the bottom of this robbery was a genius at subterfuge.

When business slowed down, Hood called to Drumstick, "You're in charge here. I'm going out for awhile."

"No problem," the competent helper replied. "Just see if you can come back in better humor."

"That all depends on if I find who I'm looking for." Hood strode determinedly from the shop.

Once on the street, he had to think for a second where the newspaper office was located. He realized he had never had any contact with the place since coming to Woodlawn, as Drumstick was in charge of advertising. "All I've done is sign the checks," he reflected.

Clouds were moving in from the west, he noted. "Good. We can use some rain." The day had gotten hot and humid, and the walk a long one. He contemplated what he'd say when he was face to face with the reporter. The further he walked, the harsher became his ideas.

The newspaper building was a sleek, modern-looking affair with the newspaper's name, Ponderings, in large dark blue letters on the front wall. As everywhere in Woodlawn, lavish flower beds blanketed the area between the sidewalk and the building. A sprinkler was shooting sprays of water over the blossoms, but Hood realized that some of the moisture was now coming out of the dark clouds that had slipped in overhead. He ducked in the doorway just as a heavy downpour let loose.

The reception area of the Ponderings was immaculate in blue and white decor. Comfortable seating was available; potted plants lent a homey atmosphere. As Hood approached the front desk, a tremendous burst of lightening and the accompanying crash of thunder caused the lights to flicker.

The receptionist looked up with a bright smile. "Oh, dear. The paper forecast a sunny day today. We'll get lots of complaints over that."

The unsmiling face of the stallion before her caused her to take a more professional approach. "How may I help you, sir?"

"I'd like to speak with one of your reporters-- the one called Free Lance."

"I'm sorry, but Free Lance is in a meeting right now. It should be over shortly, if you'd like to wait." She gestured to the sofa and an array of glossy magazines.

"I'll wait," Hood stated, and went to stare out the window at the pouring rain. Several ponies had come into the building simply to find shelter from the downpour. They stood gossiping inside the front door.

Hood watched the raindrops cascade down the window for several minutes. Then, as quickly as it had begun, the storm moved on. The black clouds continued their journey eastward, swept away by the advancing blue sky. Before long, the sun was blazing again.

Watching the sparkle of the raindrops on the flower petals soothed Hood's raw nerves, and he slowly began to relax. He thought of his encounter with Dreamy, and remembered that she had told him she worked for the newspaper. There were two in town; she hadn't mentioned which one. Hood wondered what her position was; recalling her charm and poise, he imagined her setting up the fashion page.

His reflections were interrupted by the voice of the receptionist. Flame, the nameplate on the desk said, Hood noticed.

"Free Lance is available now, sir. I'll show you the way."

Hood followed Flame to the rear of the reception area and down a corridor lined with office doors. At number three, she stopped and rapped gently at the open door. "Gentleman to see you."

Flame slipped away quietly, and Hood entered the office. The anger he felt toward Free Lance turned to surprise, then to utter consternation. "Dreamy? What are you doing here?"

"I could ask you the same thing." The mare stayed seated in her office chair behind the desk.

"I asked to see Free Lance."

"That's my pen name," Dreamy explained, tossing her orange curls back from her face. "What did you want to see me about? It's obviously not about dinner since you seemed taken aback to see me here. By the way, how's the baby?"

Hood ignored her remark. Noticing a copy of the newspaper on her desk, he placed his hoof on the headline. "This is what I'm here about."

"Is this a confession, or what?" Dreamy leaned back in her chair and rested her elbows on the arms of it as if she was in for a long disclosure.

"What gives you the right to trash the reputations of the members of the police force in this town?"

"It's called freedom of the press, Hood. Read the constitution."

"What about responsibility and accountability..."

Dreamy interrupted. "You could ask that question of Chief Checker."

"You haven't lived here long enough to know the characters of the ponies involved.. of their dedication and commitment to Woodlawn."

"Why are you so upset over this? You'd think it was a personal..." Dreamy suddenly sat upright. "That's it! The police chief's wife! I thought I should have known her from somewhere! She's your sister, isn't she?"

"Yes, Moonglow is Checker's wife; so, of course, I take this attack personally. But you've got to admit, Dreamy, that your article went beyond unbiased reporting."

Dreamy laughed. "I was hired by Ponderings to increase circulation... at any cost."

"At any cost? That sounds cold and calculating."

"I'm good at what I do. That's why I got the job." Dreamy smugly leaned back into her chair again. "Anything else I can do for you, Hood?"

Feeling like he'd just run headfirst into a brick wall, Hood refrained from continuing the conversation. "No, Dreamy, you see it your way; I see it mine."

Standing now, Dreamy extended her hoof. "Come again some time."

Hood wanted to lash out at this emotionless mare, but he held his temper and briefly exchanged a hoofshake. He turned to go, but at the door turned back. Dreamy had already begun keying on her computer. "You were right about one thing this morning, Dreamy. Some things never change."

As Hood passed through the reception area, he saw Marquee sitting comfortably in the waiting area thumbing through a finance magazine. He threw it down when he noticed Hood. "Let me guess. You just gave this Free Lance guy a piece of your mind."

"You might say that."

"Well, buddy, I'm going to tell him to keep up the good work."

Flame approached Marquee at that moment. "Free Lance can see you now." As she led Marquee away, Flame turned and flashed Hood a dazzling smile. "Have a nice day!"

Hood politely refused comment.

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