Liv grimaced as she paused outside the rickety edifice with a shabby sign overhead that read Butch’s Oddities Shoppe. The establishment was a bit more ramshackle than Liv had been led to believe–at first glance, this was little more than a junkyard. But it was still better than the alternative waiting for them at home.
“Do you really think he’ll help us?” the blue mare at Liv’s side–her sister, Belen–said hesitantly.
“After the trouble he got us into, I don’t see that he has a choice,” Liv said, a frown marring her emerald green face. “He either helps us, or he goes down with us.”
“If only you hadn’t done business with Churro!” Belen sighed for the umpteenth time. “He’s ruthless–the last pony you’d want to get caught passing counterfeit money to.”
“I had it under control. It’s not my fault the caballo we were conning turned out to be a con artist himself,” Liv defended herself. This was an unpleasant wrinkle in their plans, but nothing the sisters couldn’t weather.
Out of the corner of her eye, Liv saw a blue stallion approach the door from the inside. He flipped the sign from OPEN to CLOSED. Seeing them, he gestured at the sign and shook his head emphatically. Liv, ignoring him, knocked insistently. He studied her face, then drew back in surprise. Something had finally clicked in his head.
“Liv?” he asked disbelievingly, opening the door.
“Yes, Butch, it’s me,” Liv said, smiling in a bemused manner. “Your fiance.” May as well make him squirm a bit, though she had no intention of binding herself to him.
Butch stood gaping, but quickly recovered, setting his mouth in a tense line. “I’m afraid I didn’t receive word that you were coming,” he said, looking back and forth between the sisters. “Not to mention that there were two of you.”
“Yes, this is my sister, Belen,” Liv briefly introduced them. “We were in a rush; circumstances were such that we had to leave in some haste.”
“Why don’t you come inside, and we’ll talk.” Butch held the door open as the mares filed in, then closed and locked it, peering out into the street suspiciously. Not speaking, he led them into the back room where they sat around a rickety table with a faded checkered tablecloth. They eyed each other warily.
“A friend of ours pointed out that the money you’ve been sending is fake,” Liv said, cutting straight to the chase.
“But it’s a good fake. You’ve gotten plenty of use out of it,” Butch protested, his tenseness letting up, a cheeky grin appearing.
“The authorities were after us,” Liv said with a pointed look. “And since you got us into this mess, you can sure as heck give us a hoof to get out of it.”
Butch rocked back in his chair. “I admit that this is a little inconvenient,” he admitted. “I’m going to level with you–you were never supposed to come here. I’m not in a position to marry you. Figured you were scamming me as much as I was scamming you.”
“Well, it’s on account of you that we had to leave our home,” Liv said with a scowl. “What is your game, anyway?”
“Uhhh, just helping out a compadre,” Butch said vaguely. “Shake up the economy a little.”
“Never mind; I don’t really need the details of your schemes,” Liv said, tossing her mane. “But the least you can do, since Azucar is no longer a comfortable place to live, is to assist us in getting settled.”
“Well, what do you expect me to do?” Butch asked, looking at her intently.
“Sponsor us for permanent visas,” Liv said in a wheedling tone.
“Not sure the feds will take any recommendations from me,” Butch said, raising his eyebrows. “We’ve had our share of… disagreements.”
“But you have resources that we don’t,” Liv argued.
“Look, you’re going to have to give me some time to look into things,” Butch said. “In the meantime, I guess I can try and find a place for you to stay the night.”
Liv inclined her head in acquiescence.
* * *
This was an unexpected wrinkle in his plans, Butch contemplated as he stepped over to his desk. None of his marks for unknowingly distributing counterfeit money were supposed to have actually taken him up on his offer of marriage. They were all con artists themselves, separating lonely stallions from their money.
This one, Liv, had been a bit more creative, crafting letters that were almost mistaken for being heartfelt and sincere. If he hadn’t been so world-wise, Butch might have fallen for it–as it was, she had made a pretty picture to keep on his desk. Was there a way to use this to his advantage? Butch tapped his hoof thoughtfully, then picked up his phone and dialed. “Hey, Sundance,” he said when the line was picked up. “I need your help.”
His sister, who was surely accustomed to his antics by now, sighed. “What is it this time?”
“Got a couple friends visiting from out-of-town,” Butch said briefly. “Might they stay with you for a night or two?”
There was a significant pause. “What kind of friends?” Sundance asked at length.
“Nice, respectable girls,” Butch assured her. “They’re, uh, pen-pals up from Azucar.”
“Oh, don’t give me that! What have you gotten yourself into this time?” Sundance said in exasperation.
“Relax, it’s under control!” Butch insisted. “You’re in no danger. I’ll have them out of your hair in no time.”
“Well, what are you going to do with them?” Sundance demanded.
“It’s all honorable and above-board,” Butch said indignantly.
“Somehow I doubt that,” Sundance said, and he imagined that this was accompanied by an eye roll. “Fine. Bring them over, and we’ll talk.”
* * *
The door of the trim white cottage opened slowly. Belen observed a white mare with pink hair standing inside. “Hi,” the mare said simply.
“There she is! This is my sister, Sundance,” Butch said to the sisters. “Sundance, this is Liv and–er–this one.”
“Belen,” said the blue mare, taking no offense at the slight. This was Belen’s role, to sit in the background unnoticed and gather information, while her sister charmed.
“She doesn’t say much,” Butch said by way of explanation. “Anyway, here they are!” And Belen sensed his relief that his problem had been hoofed off to someone else. He was a scamp, certainly. But there was something about him, even in his letters, that had intrigued Belen.
“Well, come on in,” Sundance invited, opening the door wider. “Tell me about your situation.”
As they filed in and settled on the couch and easy chairs in Sundance’s tidy living room, Belen noted the admiring way Butch looked at her sister. Even if their relationship was a farce, Butch didn’t seem too inconvenienced by being around Liv. But Liv had her eyes on bigger and better things. She wouldn’t stick around with this yokel, even if he wanted her to. She would use him as long as necessary, then discard him without a backward glance. That was how the sisters lived, how their father had taught them.
“We intend to settle here,” Liv said bluntly.
“I see,” said Sundance, her emotion hard to read. “I assume that you’ve planned ahead and filed the correct paperwork?”
“Unfortunately, we were forced to leave our old home abruptly,” Liv said, throwing a significant look at Butch. “We only have our tourist visas.”
“You’ll need money,” Sundance said, leaning forward and frowning pensively. “And with that, a lawyer.”
“We can get jobs,” Belen piped-up. Her sister abhorred manual labor, and would take her time getting around to this consideration. “Perhaps you and Butch could stand as references?”
“Yes, I suppose that’s a start,” Sundance said. “What did you do for a living back in Azucar?”
“I’m a singer,” Liv said proudly.
“I don’t know that there’s many paid opportunities for the performing arts,” Sundance said, frowning, “but Pony-mart is always hiring. And we can check the help wanted ads in the paper.”
“Don’t you have performance venues?” Liv asked a little petulantly.
“There are occasional special events at the town center,” Sundance said slowly, thinking. “Karaoke night at the SSSS–the ice cream shop. And I guess there’s the salsa shop; Beauregard usually has some kind of music going on.”
“Well, then, I’ll start with those,” Liv said, sitting back and looking appeased.
“Belen, what’s your work background?” Sundance turned her attention to the younger mare.
“I waitressed at the cantina Liv performed at,” Belen said, “but I also volunteered at el centro médico.”
“Well, we have some health care facilities in town, but I think Pony-mart will be your best bet,” Sundance counseled. By this time, both the sisters were having a hard time hiding their yawns, travel fatigue catching up to them. “Butch, get out of here,” Sundance chided, ushering her brother to the door. “They need to rest.”
“Goodnight, ladies,” Butch said, looking back and tipping his hat. Belen saw his gaze rest a long moment on Liv.
“We’re very sorry for the imposition,” Belen, who was more in tune to social niceties than Liv, said to their hostess as Sundance showed them to her spare room. “I’m afraid I don’t know what the future holds for us.”
“Well, Butch always lands on his hooves, and he has honor after a sort,” Sundance said with a tight smile. “We’ll see that you get wherever it is you’re going.”
* * *
When Belen woke in the morning, Liv had already gone out job-hunting, Sundance relayed as she offered Belen a cup of coffee.
“She should have woken me up,” Belen said, dismayed at being asleep so long. She accepted the drink and took a seat at the kitchen table.
“She said to let you sleep,” Sundance said, calmly sipping her drink.
“So, Pony-mart? Whereabouts is it?” Belen asked, not wanting to be a burden on this mare any longer than necessary.
“Let me draw you a map,” Sundance offered, grabbing a scrap of paper from the counter.
Thus equipped, Belen went out to face what was in store for her. The morning rush seemed to be over, but she was met with a few ponies and unidentified fluffy creatures, and they all greeted her with a smile. It seemed like a friendly community. Belen wondered how she and Liv would repay their trust.
The route took Belen past Butch’s shop, and something made her go inside.
“Hey, Belen. I’m glad you’re here,” the stallion said, brightening as he saw her, and Belen’s heart lifted. “Got a supplier with a load of salvage, but I gotta move quick. How would you like to watch the shop this afternoon?”
So that’s why he was glad to see her. Best not to get any ideas, Belen warned herself. “Oh… sure,” she said. “What do I need to do?”
Butch gave her a crash course in checkout procedures. At least this way, she could legitimately claim to have retail experience when she applied at Pony-mart, Belen considered.
“Oh, and Quackers’ll need feeding, if you could take care of that,” Butch added on his way out the door.
“Oh, Quackers, el pato!” Belen said, grinning. “I, ah, read some of Liv’s letters where you mentioned him.”
“Yup, he’s a spunky feller,” Butch said with obvious pride, slinging a satchel across his back. “Still don’t know how he broke free of that riptide he got caught in. Pen’s out back; one cupful of feed. Remember to latch the gate behind you; he’s a wily one!”
“Okay,” Belen said. That sounded simple enough. “I’m sure we’ll get along just fine.”
“Alright. Thanks, Belen.” And then Butch was off.
* * *
Liv smirked to herself as she walked away from Pony-mart. Though an unpleasant prospect, she knew she’d need something steady to replenish their coffers until a better gig came along. The manager who had interviewed Liv had predictably fallen under her spell–all it needed was her tragic tale of being an orphan and raising her little sister, with only a few embellishments needed from reality–and had hired her on the spot. She would start next week.
And if the immigration paperwork didn’t work, there was Calimidad Island, just a ferry ride away, and they didn’t put much stock in legalities. If the sisters had to, they would head there; but given the option, Liv preferred a more refined society than pirates.
Liv’s attention was caught by a storefront topped with a garish red chili pepper, and she realized she was looking at the salsa shop that Sundance had mentioned. She may as well check it out. Entering, she grimaced. The chili peppers and cowboy hats were tacky and over the top. But, she was starting from the bottom in this new environment. She strode toward the counter in back. It was quiet at this mid-morning hour, with no one else in the store.
“Howdy!” said the yellow stallion behind the counter, arranging jars on a shelf. “Got some new extra spicy. Care for a sample?”
“Hola,” said Liv, putting her hoof on the counter. “I’m here on business. I hear you have live shows here?”
“Sure do!” he said, straightening up. “You looking for a spot?”
“I’m looking for a headline act,” Liv said boldly.
He looked at her assessingly. “What do you play?”
“Why don’t you show me what you’ve got?” The stallion gestured at the stage.
So Liv took up the microphone and sang in her native tongue about lost love, her voice low and sultry.
“Not bad, not bad at all,” he said, clapping as she came down off the stage. “Why haven’t I seen you here before?”
“Just got into town,” she said succinctly. “Name’s Liv.”
“Nice to meet you, Liv. I’m Beauregard,” the stallion said, shaking her hoof. “That accent–Azucar?” he asked.
“Yes, that’s right,” she said with a warm smile. This one was almost too easy to bring around to her side.
“Passed through there a time or two,” Beauregard said. “How long are you here for?”
“I go where the music takes me,” Liv said.
“Good answer, good answer.” Beauregard grinned. “Let’s just take a look at the schedule.”
* * *
Belen smiled indulgently as the handsome green-headed duck snapped up the scattered feed, quacking smugly all the while.
“Such a charming caballero,” Belen cooed as she fiddled with the latch. “But you’re staying out of trouble these days, aren’t you? No more picking fights with coyotes?” The latch was more complex than Belen had anticipated, but she thought she had figured it out–then she heard the bell ring on the front door, and she ran back into the building in time to help a customer.
When the coast was clear, she returned to Quackers’ pen to refresh his water supply, and found the gate hanging wide open. “Quackers!” Belen wailed. “No! What will Butch think! This is terrible! I must get him back!”
In a panic, Belen locked up the shop–she knew she was abandoning her post, but Quackers’ safety was of paramount importance. She anxiously followed the faint muddy track of webbed feet leading into the forest.
* * *
Tamara, entering the salsa shop to meet her sweetheart for a lunch date, found him with an unfamiliar mare at the counter, their heads bent conspiratorially together.
“Hello,” Tamara said, a bit coolly, positioning herself next to the green mare.
Beauregard looked up. “Hey, Tamara!” he said boisterously, with no evidence of shame, Tamara noted. “Glad you’re here. I bet you’ll be able to help. This is Liv; she’s new in town. Liv, this is Tamara, my girlfriend.”
“Tu enamorada?” Liv said, mockingly it seemed, a slight smile on her lips. “Hi.”
“Hi,” said Tamara tersely.
“Liv’s going to be performing for us on Friday night,” Beauregard explained, “but she’s looking for an apartment for her and her little sister. Maybe you could take her over to Moonglow’s office, see if she knows of anything?”
Tamara pouted. Who did this Liv think she was, to merit all Beauregard’s consideration? “What about lunch?” she asked, turning from Liv.
“Cloverleaf called in sick, so I’ve got to cover until Sassafras gets in,” Beauregard said apologetically. “Sorry, sweetheart. But I know I can entrust Liv to your care.” Patting Tamara’s hoof, he went to assist a waiting customer.
Well, Tamara fumed as she turned back to Liv. As unpleasant as the prospect was, she may as well use the opportunity to see how this interloper measured up. The two mares eyed each other. “I seem to be out a lunch companion, if you wanted to join me,” Tamara said coolly.
“I’d be delighted,” Liv said, equally frigid. This mare would be doing her own measuring, Tamara was sure, and kept her guard up.
* * *
“You’ve been with Beauregard for how long?” Liv asked conversationally as the two mares settled at a table in the SSSS.
“Friday is our five-month anniversary,” Tamara said, as if that was such a notable event.
“How wonderful,” Liv murmured. The salsa shop proprietor, with his naive and trusting nature, might prove to be an interesting diversion, but Liv was still getting the lay of the land. “And what do you do for a living, Tamara?”
“You must not be subbed to my channel,” Tamara with an irritated edge to her voice. “I’m a SnapTube star.”
Liv immediately perked up, suddenly seeing potential in this mare to help her. “You have lots of subscribers?” she asked eagerly.
“I’m on my way to three million,” Tamara said smugly.
Liv’s viewpoint on this mare thoroughly changed. “Tell me more,” she purred, leaning forward.
* * *
“Please, you must help this duck!” Belen announced breathlessly upon bursting into the vet clinic. She held a small feathered body in her forelegs.
The mare at the reception desk, looking alarmed, shouted into the back; and, momentarily, a pink unicorn appeared on the scene, ushering Belen into the exam room. “A duck, huh?” she said, looking incredulous.
“You have to save him!” Belen reiterated, pushing a strand of hair out of her face–she was quite bedraggled after her jaunt in the woods, she was sure, but what mattered was getting Quackers the help he needed. “Butch left him in my care!”
“Butch? You mean this is his duck?” the unicorn echoed.
“Yes! You can help him, can’t you?” Tears streamed down Belen’s face as profound guilt overcame her.
“Well, let’s see what we have,” the unicorn said, keeping her calm. She inspected the injury site on the chest as Quackers quacked angrily at the indignity.
“As you can see, there’s a transverse cut across the anterior pectoralis,” Belen said through sniffles. “He’s bleeding out!”
“You have some medical training,” the unicorn observed, irrigating the wound.
“Oh–well–just a few things I picked up,” Belen hastily said. “I don’t have formal training.”
“Neither do I,” the unicorn confessed, continuing her work. “Hey, you’re not Butch’s fiance from Azucar, are you?”
“Oh, no,” said Belen. “That’s my sister.” She thought she would stick with the cover story for now.
“I thought for sure he was being scammed,” Tabby said cheerfully, going about her work. Belen kept her peace.
“Tabby, what are you doing?” a unicorn stallion complained, entering the room. “You’re not supposed to start a treatment regimen until I say so.”
“I forgot,” the unicorn said in an unapologetic manner.
The stallion shook his head, but didn’t seem genuinely irate. “Miss,” he said, looking at Belen, “if you’d like to go back to the waiting area…”
“Oh, I’ll watch, if you don’t mind,” Belen said, hovering about.
“How did this happen?” the doctor asked as he inspected the injury.
“He escaped from his pen–my fault–and I found him tangled in a barbed wire fence!” A fresh wave of tears overtook Belen as she remembered the sight.
“This isn’t really as bad as it looks,” the doctor announced, looking up. “Some stitches and he’ll be fine.”
“He hasn’t lost too much blood?” Belen asked anxiously.
“He’ll need to rest, and drink plenty of fluids, but he’ll bounce back,” the doctor assured her. “Bring him back in a week to have the stitches removed.”
“I’m sorry,” Belen said, feeling mortified as the practical thought of payment came to mind, “but I’m afraid I have no money–”
“Don’t worry, I know where to find Butch,” the assistant assured her with no great concern.
* * *
“Thank you so much,” said Belen with genuine gratitude as she adjusted Quackers’ position in the cloth carrier that Tabby had pulled out of some cabinet to aid with transportation.
“Well, it’s what we’re here for,” Tabby casually uttered the trite expression.
Belen’s eyes lit upon a Now Accepting Applications sign posted at the front counter. “Oh–you’re hiring?” she burst out without thinking.
“Yes.” Tabby looked at her curiously. “Do you want an application?”
“Oh, no, I shouldn’t have said anything,” Belen said, embarrassed. “I don’t have the experience–I’m sure you have better applicants.” Liv wouldn’t let something like lack of experience get in her way, but Belen was less comfortable misrepresenting herself.
“You never know. Why don’t you fill it out,” Tabby said, offering her the form.
* * *
“Liv, that’s too funny!” Tabby heard her sister laughing as she opened the door to her house after work. She found Tamara and an unfamiliar mare sprawled out in the living room, eating ice cream, with an open laptop on the coffee table. “Oh, hello, Tabitha,” Tamara acknowledged her sister without looking up from the computer screen.
“Hello…” said Tabby slowly, looking around at the array of ribbons, makeup, and jewelry strewn around. This whirlwind of debris always seemed to accompany her sister’s entertaining of guests. “Did you leave any ice cream for me?”
“Yeah, it’s on the counter. Hey, so this is Liv,” Tamara said, gesturing at the green mare. “She’s new in town. I’m helping her set up her SnapTube channel.”
“You’re really identical,” said Liv wonderingly, looking back and forth between the twins.
“Well, yeah,” said Tabby, frowning at the mostly-melted carton of ice cream on the counter. “Hey, you’re Belen’s sister, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” Liv said cautiously. “How do you know my sister?”
“She was just at the clinic,” Tabby said casually, grabbing a cookie instead.
“She’s injured?” Liv sat bolt upright.
“Vet clinic, sorry,” Tabby clarified. “It was a duck that was injured.”
“Butch’s duck? How did that happen? I left her with Sundance,” said Liv, perplexed.
Tabby shrugged. “I dunno, but she said she had to get back to Butch’s shop.”
“I better go check in with her,” Liv said reluctantly.
“Come over tomorrow and I’ll get my photographer to take some promo shots,” Tamara chattered excitedly, getting up to walk Liv to the door.
“Sure,” Liv readily agreed.