Thomas patted the dog on the head and frowned as clouds of white powder billowed out from its coat and into the surrounding air. Closing the kennel door, he considered this substance reputed to have near-magical properties for flea control–diatomaceous earth. Tabby believed in it whole-heartedly, and now it was coating every surface in the clinic.
Not only was the pervasive powder personally annoying, but the cleaning crew was up-in-arms and ready to quit–the cleaning crew consisting of one small furry Bushwoolie named Friendly. The Bushwoolies were a small and generally agreeable species, but Friendly had been pushed to the brink of crabbiness. Thomas was going to have to tell Tabby that enough was enough.
The door flew open, and Tabby herself dashed in. “Good morning!” she said enthusiastically, tossing her purse on the countertop and unleashing another cloud of powder into the air.
“Hi, Tabby,” Thomas acknowledged. “Umm, about the diatomaceous earth–”
“Oh my gosh, I know, right?” Tabby interrupted. “That last batch is used up already!”
She was incorrigible! “No, I mean–”
“Don’t worry, I have more on order,” she assured him. “I paid for express shipping, so it will be here later today.”
“Oh… great.” Thomas sighed. This was going well. “But this is the last order,” he continued sternly. “We’re buried under it as it is, and I haven’t even seen any flea activity.”
“I have them on the run,” she affirmed, “but there’s a stubborn holdout in the break room. We can’t let our guard down now.”
“Where in the break room are you seeing them?” he asked, a suspicion forming.
“The sink. Why?” Tabby queried. “I could move on to Insect Growth Regulators, but Tiny said–”
“Tabby, you’re seeing coffee grounds,” Thomas protested.
She narrowed her eyes. “No, I don’t think so,” she said stubbornly.
“I do appreciate your diligent preventative measures,” he said carefully, “but I think I can safely say that the clinic is one hundred percent flea-free.”
“Well, don’t come crying to me when there’s a resurgence,” Tabby said crossly.
“I will hold my peace if that is the case. Are you ready for the 8:15 appointment?” Thomas asked with a glance at the clock.
“Yes, yes, I’m on it!” she said shrilly, darting out of the room.
“Not these guys again,” Tabby mumbled, checking the chart for the appointment. She opened the exam room door and waved in the yellow stallion who was in the waiting area.
“Hey, Tabby,” Tex said. “Emilio sure is happy to see you again!” Emilio, a rose-hair tarantula, was uncaged, simply riding on his owner’s back, as was his wont.
“What kitchen appliance was it this time?” was Tabby’s response as Tex set the arachnid on the table between them. Emilio, a free-ranging pet, was frequently at the clinic for health issues.
“Oh, he’s been staying out of the kitchen since the blender incident,” Tex assured her. “But he’s been rock climbing, and yesterday he took a tumble. One of his legs doesn’t look right.”
“Great,” Tabby said, wincing as she gave the tarantula a precursory glance and then turned away. “I will get the doctor.”
In the moments that followed, Thomas entered the room and confirmed Tex’s observation. “Yes, he does have a broken leg,” he said after conducting the exam. “It can be fixed with a minor procedure, but I would like to keep him for observation for the rest of the day.”
“I reckon that’s fine; I’ll come by around five,” Tex assented, and was on his way.
“There’s only one cure for being a tarantula, and that’s a flat, heavy object from above,” Tabby observed.
“You know that you do like the little guy, regardless of what you say,” Thomas chided.
“So, do you just glue him back together like last time?”
“That’s the plan,” Thomas said. “I do need you to hold these legs out of the way.”
She grimaced, but complied after handing over a bottle from the supply drawer. It would have been a lot easier to just use magic on the broken leg–and would involve less hooves-on contact. But Thomas set the rules here, and this sort of injury could literally be glued back together. It could theoretically cause an issue in the next molt, but Emilio lived a charmed life, and these sorts of things didn’t seem to trouble him.
“I don’t understand how you think crayfish are the greatest pet but can’t stand spiders. They’re practically the same.”
“Completely different!” she protested.
“Well, that about does it. He looks lively. That’s a good sign,” Thomas said.
“I’ll toss him in the storage closet… he likes it there!” Tabby clarified at a stern look from her boss.
Tabby found a small lidded container to contain the tarantula, and Thomas walked with her to the closet. As she was setting Emliio’s temporary home on the shelf, Thomas saw a cloaked bipedal figure with a toolbox sailing down the hallway toward him. It was the repairman who had arrived earlier that day.
“Excuse me,” the dark figure said in a low voice, stopping when he reached the unicorns. “The fire damage in surgery has been repaired, and the fixtures have been upgraded to take those one hundred thousand lumen bulbs.”
“Great!” Tabby said, peering out from behind the closet door. “Though why they weren’t installed in the first place is beyond me! 50K isn’t really enough.”
“An oversight,” the cloak apologized.
“I think the original fixtures were fine,” Thomas said with a frown at Tabby. She was always pushing the capabilities of equipment. “But I appreciate your quick response. Hopefully we won’t need you out here again any time soon.”
“Do you need anything else? Are things satisfactory?” the human asked. “Any supplies, equipment, personnel?”
“No, we’re good,” Thomas assured him. “Do you have the bill for today’s work?”
“Not to worry,” the cloaked man said. “The Foundation takes care of everything.”
“They’ve been very understanding about the damages so far. Someday they will come to collect,” Thomas mused.
“The Foundation is looking forward to a long and productive alliance,” said the man. “Good day to you both.” He bowed his head before moving on.
“I still think that your Foundation friends are a front for something,” Tabby said in the repairman’s wake as she closed up the closet door. “Even if they do have cake.”
“Whatever they are, they probably didn’t anticipate quite this much… maintenance when they offered me the position,” Thomas said with a sideways glance at his assistant.
“Well, there’s no need to look at me like that!” she said, bristling.
“You are the direct cause of all the incidents,” he pointed out, reaching out on instinct to catch her as she started to trip over Friendly’s cleaning cart.
“The autoclave explosion could have happened to anyone,” Tabby protested. “As for the rest–”
“Well, regardless of responsibility, this is the third service call they’ve come for in the past month. The bills will start coming one day,” Thomas said prosaically.
Sugarberry was tidying up from a quiet lunch at her desk when Tabby popped in from the employee entrance to reception. “Sugarberry,” she said very quietly but with a wild gleam in her eyes, “I don’t want you to panic, BUT–there is a tarantula on the loose.”
“What!” Sugarberry gasped, leaping to her hooves. “You don’t mean–Emilio!” Though she had grown fond of the little creature and his frequent visits, she still had a fearful visceral reaction to a loose arachnid.
“Yes, Emilio!” Tabby wailed, making a mad dash through Sugarberry’s work space, whipping open and slamming shut desk drawers and file cabinets. “The latch felt funny, but I thought I figured it out, but I just checked on him and he’s gone. I don’t care what Tex thinks, but Thomas will never forgive me!” Before Sugarberry could respond, Tabby was gone to continue her search in other areas.
Thomas entered the room soon after. “Did I just hear Tabby…” he trailed off, noting Sugarberry’s troubled expression. Sighing, he asked, “What happened this time?”
“Emilio escaped and she’s searching for him,” Sugarberry explained. Tabby was a terrible actress and wouldn’t be able to conceal her distress, so it seemed just as well to be up front with Thomas.
“Why do these things always happen to her?” he asked, looking perturbed.
“I don’t know, but she does always land on her hooves.”
For a moment, they paused to appreciate the wild crashing noises heard coming from the back of the building, as doors and drawers were flung open and hastily searched, then slammed shut again.
The door swung open again and Tabby flew back into the room. “Sug, I just thought of this–what if he got into the diatomaceous earth–it will tear him open!” she exclaimed with rising terror, then noticed Thomas’ presence. “Oh!” she said, shutting her mouth.
“Is there something you’d like to tell me?” he asked dryly.
“It shouldn’t have happened!” she declared defiantly. “There’s no reason he should have gotten out!”
“Are you sure he’s not in the container under the rock?” Thomas asked, keeping a cool head. “They can be quite good at hiding.”
“Yes, I turned over everything, and I’ve looked everywhere!” Tabby declared, pacing in furious circles. “What if he crawled into someone else’s carrier?”
“I suppose that’s possible,” Thomas said, but looked skeptical. “I think we would have noticed, though.”
“You just said they’re good at hiding!” she wailed.
“What about Friendly’s cleaning cart?” Sugarberry interjected. “He was here all morning.”
“It was that repair guy’s fault. He distracted me when I was putting Emilio away,” Tabby recalled.
“He’s probably somewhere in the closet,” Thomas said.
“We’ll work together calling everyone who’s been here today,” Sugarberry said soothingly to her friend. “We’ll find the little guy, don’t you worry.”
Friendly at Home
Friendly had just arrived back home, a literal hole in the ground (the traditional Bushwoolie home), after a morning of cleaning the vet clinic. He had a couple of hours to kill before his shift at his other job, so sat down in front of his computer to kill some time.
His second shift job was at Bushwoolie Bargain Books, a business at the mall which was a communal venture among members of the Bushwoolie colony of Dream Valley. The profits were enough to cover basic needs for the Bushwoolie community, which was located on a reserved patch of park land in the city. But costs were rising, and Friendly had started taking on odd jobs to help supplement the Bushwoolies’ financial account.
Suddenly, Friendly realized he was not alone. There was a small, leggy creature climbing up the side of his monitor.
“A friend!” Friendly brightened, waving at the pinkish hairy creature. The tarantula waved back with several legs, one looking a bit stiff.
Friendly held out his hand and allowed the arachnid to climb onto it, up his arm, and onto his head, then headed to the kitchen corner of the hole to fix lunch. Friendly hummed to himself, glad for the company.
Emilio curiously crawled around the countertop, inspecting a jar of tomato sauce, and inadvertently tipping it over and spilling the contents; and in the frenzy of clean-up, Friendly’s phone was knocked off the hook.
Some time later, Friendly left his hole for the bookstore, with Emilio in tow.
Baratta took the call that came in on the switchboard. “The Old Milk House Foundation, how can I direct your call?”
“Um… yes, hello, I’m looking for the repairperson that was at the vet clinic this morning,” said a voice close to hysterics.
Frowning and sitting up straight in his chair, Baratta gestured for his partner to listen in. “How can we assist?” he asked the caller.
“Well, we’re short one tarantula, and I was wondering if he might have hitched a ride with you.”
“Please hold,” Baratta said smoothly, pressing the appropriate button.
Zort was already beating out his cloak. “I can check my tool box, but I don’t think it’s on my person,” he said, shaking his head at Baratta.
“Captain Ravenwood,” Baratta said, raising his voice and addressing the woman seated at a desk at the head of the room, “that was Ms. Fershund–there’s trouble at the clinic.”
“What sort of trouble?” Captain Ravenwood asked, slamming shut the book that had been open on the desk in front of her.
“Missing patient,” Baratta said succinctly. “A tarantula.”
“Well, what are we waiting for? Prepare to move out!” she barked the order, and her team jumped into action. “We’ve got to find it!”
“Well, we’ve talked to everyone,” Sugarberry sighed, replacing the phone receiver in its cradle. “Except for Friendly; the line has been busy the whole time.”
“Yeah, and the Foundation never took me off hold,” Tabby said, frowning at the receiver that was still in her hoof.
The door opened. A group of humans in dark cloaks burst into the clinic, gathering around Sugarberry’s desk.
“And here they are!” Tabby exclaimed. “Uh, well, I’m just gonna hang up now.” The receiver was set down.
“Hi, can we help you?” Sugarberry asked, looking at them curiously.
“We received Ms. Fershund’s call and were apprised of the tarantula situation,” said the leader, whose cloak was a different shade of gray. Tabby thought it was the same one who had headed operations at the open house, Captain Ravencroft or something. “Where do we stand?”
“I didn’t know you were… assisting in this endeavor,” Thomas said, frowning at Tabby.
“I didn’t tell them to come out here!” Tabby said indignantly. “This is entirely on them.”
“We are here to serve,” said the captain. “We need a list of everyone who’s been in and out all day–clients, contractors, vendors, deliveries, what-have-you.”
“We’ve already called everyone,” Sugarberry squeaked, putting her hoof over the list she had compiled for their own use.
“And you believed them? Someone’s hiding something,” Captain what’s-her-name maintained, grabbing the list from Sugarberry. “Gordan, Klatoo, you two search the clinic. Sugarberry, get addresses that go with these phone numbers. Ming, Troz, Glarb, Vorton–you will visit the addresses, and question and search as necessary. Baratta, you’re with me; we’ll stay here and coordinate,” she briskly ordered.
The crowd quickly dispersed from Sugarberry’s desk on their respective missions, with the captain and Baratta settling in across the room in the client waiting area.
“This response does seem a little over the top,” Thomas admitted to Tabby.
“I told you!” said Tabby, turning to the spare computer at reception that she used for… work things. “There’s something going on with these guys,” she muttered, clattering away at the keyboard. “Just let me check. Ah-hah,” she said quietly, craning her neck to view the cloaks’ position in the waiting area. ”See–the domain registration for The Old Milk House Foundation website,” she continued, pointing at the screen, “says it is owned by the Royal Order of Krulotin.”
“Do you know them?” asked Thomas.
“Know them! They’re only the royal guard of Atlantis!” she replied, scandalized at his lack of knowledge.
“They’re not doing a very good job,” Thomas observed. “The Atlantean empire collapsed thousands of years ago.”
“Well, there’s presumably still descendants of the royal family that need guarding. I guess,” Tabby said.
“What need would they have to fund small businesses in Dream Valley?” Thomas asked skeptically.
“Not small businesses in general; this clinic is the only thing they’re funding, according to what I can find,” Tabby said with a significant look. “Almost as if it was their job to watch out for your particular interests.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Thomas scoffed.
“What do you know about your family?” Tabby demanded.
“I know that they’re not Atlantean royalty,” Thomas said bluntly.
“Are you sure?” she asked disbelievingly. “I traced my tree back to the housekeeper of a third cousin twice removed of King Melakos VI’s wife’s mom’s second cousin,” she said with great pride. “So that’s my connection to the royal family. I’ll build your tree for you–I bet there’s something.” She navigated to Equicestry.com.
“Even if…” Thomas shook his head. “No, it’s absurd. The Atlantean empire is long gone. Why would this secret society still exist? Someone just liked the name and re-used it.”
“They’re needed to safeguard Atlantean magic, of course!” Tabby insisted. Honestly, he had no imagination. “Keep it from falling under the influence of enemy hooves… or hands.”
“Well, they’re not going to get much out of me,” Thomas said shortly. “Unfortunately, I think the Foundation… Krulotin… may be our best bet for finding Emilio at this point.”
The Krulotin had been to the maze of holes that Friendly’s address had led them to. Some residents in various pastel hues had obligingly–naively–given up the location of their comrade, working a shift at a store called Bushwoolie Bargain Books.
“He’s fled,” Ming said, shaking his head.
“Sure enough, he’s the one we want,” Troz agreed.
“Glarb, call this in to Captain Ravenwood,” Ming instructed.
“To the mall!” said Vorton.
Humans weren’t too common in Dream Valley, but they were around, so it didn’t cause much fuss when the group of men showed up at the strip mall and clustered outside the bookstore. Ming, using hand gestures, wordlessly issued directions to the others, who spread out throughout the bookstore.
Ming approached the checkout counter. “We are looking for the one called Friendly!” he declared. “He is wanted for crimes against Atlantis!”
The pink Bushwoolie at the counter shrieked and ran away through a doorway. Some moments later, a blue Bushwoolie appeared.
“What?” he asked crossly.
“Are you Friendly?”
“You’ve taken something from the vet clinic,” Ming accused.
“Didn’t steal.” Friendly stood his ground.
“Then what–is this?” Ming pointed at the Bushwoolie’s hat, that was actually a tarantula.
“My friend!” said Friendly staunchly.
“Likely story!” Ming scoffed, and motioned for his team to move in. “Take him into custody!”
“Who are you guys?” one of the pony patrons asked. “Are you really authorized to do that?”
“This blade is all the authorization I need,” Ming said, drawing his sword.
“Fair enough,” said the pony, backing off.
“To the clinic!” Ming shouted, and the Krulotin were on their way.
Even with all the excitement around them, there was still the normal day’s work to be done. Tabby and Thomas checked in eagerly with Sugarberry between appointments, hoping for updates, but were always met with no news. Now the day was winding down, approaching five o’ clock.
The door opened. The ponies looked up in anticipation, and Captain Ravenwood entered with a flourish. Two of her men followed her.
“The patient is secured,” Captain Ravenwood said, putting her hand down on Sugarberry’s desk and allowing Emilio to climb down from his perch on her shoulder. “And the perpetrator is in our custody awaiting your judgement.” She pointed behind her, where it was observed that her men were grasping a small blue furry thing between them.
“Pray you are granted mercy!” said one of the cloaks, jabbing Friendly roughly in the side.
“Friendly!” Tabby exclaimed, sounding horrified. She was buying into these absurd theatrics that the Foundation had adopted. “What have you done?”
“Accident! Didn’t know! Sorry!” Friendly yelped, flailing around ineffectively.
“Hmm, that’s just what a kidnapper would say,” Tabby said, frowning.
“Obviously, there’s been a misunderstanding,” Thomas protested. “Let him go.”
“As you wish.” At a signal from Captain Ravenwood, the Bushwoolie was dropped unceremoniously to the ground.
“Need to get back to work!” Friendly said urgently, running for the door. “New employees, not trained, don’t know what they’re doing!”
“Perhaps you could lend him a hand?” Thomas suggested.
Captain Ravenwood sighed. “Ming, see that he gets back to his shop.”
“Who are you guys, really?” Thomas challenged. “You’re not really a non-profit for economic development.”
“Who told you that?” Captain Ravenwood looked up sharply.
“Nobody–it’s on the internet,” Tabby said.
The woman muttered something unintelligible under her breath.
The clinic door swung open again, and a yellow stallion walked in. A hushed silence fell over those gathered at Sugarberry’s desk, as everyone tried to wrap their heads around what had just happened.
“Don’t stop the party on my account,” Tex said jovially, and then spotted his tarantula. “Oh, I see you have Emilio all set to go.”
Mutely, Tabby handed Emilio over to his owner.
Tex beamed, taking Emilio into his outstretched hoof. “Hope he didn’t cause any trouble,” he said, eyeing the gathering curiously.
“Not a bit,” Tabby said quickly.
Tex looked speculatively at the pink unicorn. “Hey, Tabby, you wanna go out–”
“You’re done here,” Captain Ravenwood barked, cutting him off. “Toss him out.”
Obligingly, two officers flanked Tex and ushered him out of the building. “Bye!” the stallion shouted over his shoulder.
“Well, that’s service,” Tabby said with relish.
“We will be here if there is ever need,” Captain Ravenwood said with a bow. “We are always watching. Good day.” And then she, too, along with her men, were gone out the door.
“Cult,” said Tabby under her breath.
“That’s somewhat… unsettling,” Thomas admitted.
“I told you, you’re some kind of Atlantean royalty,” Tabby said, staunchly holding to her pet theory.
“I don’t know what to make of them,” Thomas said, perplexed.
The door opened again, and Thomas held back an exasperated sigh–they would have to get that locked for the day if they ever got a chance. It was a white stallion with red and white striped hair. He was with the police; Thomas had the vague notion that his name was Candy Cane, which was the kind of whimsical name ponies in these parts would come up with for a pony of that coloring.
A gray mare followed him in. Yes, these were definitely the two detectives who had been at the open house.
“Hi!” Gracie said enthusiastically. “How are you guys today?”
“Fine,” said Thomas cautiously, stepping forward as spokespony.
“We’re not here on a social call,” said Candy Cane gruffly. “Heard you had some visitors. You know anything about this attempted kidnapping of Friendly the Bushwoolie?”
“It was a misunderstanding,” Thomas explained. “They returned him.”
“So he told me,” said Candy Cane with a frown. “Still, they can’t take the law into their own… hands like that. What business did they have with you?”
“They volunteered to help us find a lost pet.”
“You’re friends, then?” Candy Cane looked up sharply.
“They have a financial stake in the business… no one here condoned their actions today,” Thomas added hastily.
“Friendly says he won’t press charges, so it doesn’t really matter,” Gracie interjected helpfully.
“Well, if these humans try to get you involved in any more… questionable activity, give us a call,” Candy Cane said, frowning at his partner.
“Great! Now, can we go grab something to eat? I’m starving!” Gracie said.
Thomas ushered the two detectives out the door, which was summarily locked behind them.
“Well, that was fun,” Tabby said.
“I guess we didn’t come out of this too badly,” Thomas said.
What if there was something to what Tabby said, and this had all been set up specifically for him? Were there mysterious forces working to his benefit? Had he not accomplished any of this on his own merits?
No, this was a ridiculous line of thinking. All they really knew was the funding organization was named after an obscure historical reference, and they were very hands-on with their projects. Tabby could say what she wanted, chalk it up to conspiracies–but the truth was, there were no secret societies acting in the shadows and directing his life.