Having Nick Wilde as a partner meant putting up with a stream of chatter and random observations as the fox's quick mind jumped from topic to topic, which was why Judy noticed the rare spells of silence. And many of those spells, she noted like the detective she aspired to be, came when they cruised down Walnut Boulevard past the sign that read, "Happytown."
That happened once every couple weeks; as the smallest officers in Precinct One, they were often sent to the small-predator neighborhood to assist the precinct there when needed. Which was a lot, because Precinct Four was understaffed and the requests for assistance had stacked up so much that Clawhauser kept one pinned up on the message board without a case number rather than put a new one up every day.
And the same thing happened when they made that turn from Magnolia Boulevard onto Walnut and drove the three blocks along the elevated line. Nick would be chatting about whatever donuts McHorn had left for them in the break room that morning, or about the criminal they'd collared the previous day, and then he'd trail off mid-sentence as though he'd forgotten what he was going to say.
The first few times, Judy prompted him and he picked up his train of conversation quickly. But if she didn't prompt him, he'd come back to himself a little while after they passed the sign, often with a remark like, "What was I saying?" or "Sorry, lost my train of thought there."
She knew that he'd grown up in Happytown, or at least she suspected it; he'd told her stories of his cubhood that lacked place names but fit with what she knew of Happytown. "The old abandoned factory we played in," or "hanging out on the streets with a couple foxes, possums, raccoons, whoever." She never pressed for details. Nick would tell her in his own time, and she knew only too well what it was like to have fond memories of the place you grew up and yet know for sure that you no longer belonged there. If her police duties took her into Bunnyburrow every couple weeks, she'd be delighted to see her parents, but it sure would be weird.
On this early spring day, Nick had his window down as she drove the cruiser down Walnut, and once they'd passed the sign, he said, "Hey, why doesn't Precinct Two get more of the support calls for Four?"
Walnut was the last street where Judy didn't have to pay close attention to maneuvering the bulky police cruiser down Happytown's narrow streets. "Why should they?"
"This is technically part of Savanna Square. We used to say, 'Savanna by day, Boneyard by night."
He grinned at her. "It's a predator thing. But Two handles Savanna Square, right?"
"They do. But Two is all big species. I didn't even meet any wolves at their cookout last week. Did you?"
Nick shook his head. "All the precincts are big species, though."
"So we get the support because we're more suited to it." She'd never asked for nor gotten an explanation, but that was how she'd worked it out in her head. "If you want to stop coming here, we can talk to Bogo."
"No. Just wondering." He shifted his muzzle so his nose was out the window.
Which was funny from the guy who put salt in someone's coffee if they made him file an unnecessary bit of paperwork, but Judy wasn't going to follow up on it, especially since she was turning onto Goldrush Street and the cruiser barely fit between the small parked cars and the faded dividing line in the street.
Nick switched to what kind of lunch they were going to grab after the interview while Judy navigated them to 114 Fox Avenue and parked as close as she could. The whole block was apartment buildings, four to five stories tall, red and yellow and square on both sides of the street. Graffiti tags marked many of the corners and two of the doors she passed, but the door of 114 was clean, painted solid maroon—recently but not professionally, she noted, running a finger along the brushstrokes as Nick pressed the buzzer for apartment 405.
A high, shaky voice answered, "Hello?"
"ZPD, ma'am," Judy said. "We're here to interview you about the break-in."
Static crackled in the speaker. "Oh, that was nothing," she said finally. "There's no need really."
In Happytown, Nick often had ideas about how to proceed, so Judy stepped back. He gave a foxy eye-roll as he approached the speaker. "Mrs. Bandit, this is Officer Wilde. You called the police and said someone broke into your apartment. We have to talk to you."
"I really don't," she said, and then stopped. "Did you say 'Wilde'?"
Nick glanced at Judy. "Yes, ma'am."
The intercom clicked, and then the door buzzed open.
The mechanical door gave way to a dark lobby that had once been elegant. Even to Judy, the room smelled gross, the residue of some harsh ammoniac cleaner unable to completely cover the aroma of day-old meat with a hint of rotting wood. The decayed banister to the staircase showed where the latter might be coming from, and she didn't want to think about the former. The only brightly lit part of the lobby was over by a wall of gleaming brass mailboxes, next to which an ancient elevator bore a nearly as ancient sign that read, "ELEVATOR WILL BE FIXED SOON." The floor had probably been a very nice tiled floor at one point, but now some of the tiles had been pulled up and the ones that remained were scratched and scarred, though at least mostly free of dirt.
"Do you know her?" Judy asked as the door clanged shut behind them.
Nick wrinkled his nose, but had a few weeks ago committed to trying to break his habit of commenting on every terrible smell they encountered. "I know everyone," he said. "But I haven't seen Mrs. Bandit in like twenty years. Wilde's a pretty common name here. Maybe she thinks she knows me."
They trudged up four flights of stairs to the fourth floor hallway, which like the lobby was swept clean and lit by only a couple working light bulbs. For predators, light wasn't a big issue, so Judy let Nick lead the way to the apartment they were looking for, which happened to be in one of the shadowy areas.
He knocked on the door. While they waited, the door across the hall opened a crack, and one luminous eye peered out at them. Judy waved, and the door slammed shut.
The door marked 405 finally opened. A raccoon with grey fur all along her muzzle peeked out through about six inches and then closed the door again. The rattle of a chain being slid back, and then the door opened all the way.
The raccoon stood shorter than Nick, looking up at him and rubbing her fingers along the wool shawl draped over the shoulders of her light blue dress. "Officer Wilde?"
"That's me." Nick flashed his badge. "And this is Officer Hopps."
He let Judy go in first, but even when she stepped in front of him, the raccoon looked over her head at Nick. So Judy sniffed and looked around the apartment.
A narrow window looked out onto Fox Avenue. The living room, neat and tidy, smelled of raccoon and flowers, probably the fresh purple peonies sitting on the windowsill. Lace cloths were draped over the backs of the two powder-blue armchairs and a knitted purple blanket lay in a pile near a depression in the cushions of the matching couch.
The old raccoon ignored Judy, staring up at Nick. "John Wilde? I taught you in tenth grade. So smart. I knew you'd do well. And a police officer!" She reached out to touch Nick's badge.
He stepped back. "No, I'm Nick. Can you please tell us what happened yesterday?"
"Nick?" She peered up at the fox. "Are you sure?"
Judy kept an eye on Nick, but he was handling it well. "I'm sure," he said. "I've been Nick my whole life. Now…what happened yesterday?"
She shook her head. "You look just like John."
Now his professional demeanor slipped just a bit, and the corners of his mouth twitched upward as his nostrils flared. "Well, we foxes all look pretty similar."
"Nick," Judy said, stepping up.
"I know, I know." The smile, what little of it there was, vanished.
"Ma'am," Judy said, turning to Mrs. Bandit. "Yesterday?"
The raccoon seemed to see her for the first time. "Oh, yesterday. Well, the school was closed, like today, and I guess he didn't know that. I came home from the store and I didn't think anything was wrong except I noticed that my crystal bowl was gone." She gestured toward the coffee table in front of the couch, which held a half-full cup of tea and a cloth mat with a large, elegant crystal bowl in the center whose facets sparkled with reflections of the outside sun. "I thought maybe I moved it to clean it and just forgot, so I went to the kitchen and that's when he jumped out of the closet."
"Who?" Nick asked. Judy went over to the closet in question and sniffed around, opening it with a pen to look inside.
"I didn't get a good look at him. He ran to the window and jumped out. I saw him climbing down and running away in the street."
"But at least you know what kind of animal he was?" Nick pressed.
"Oh." Mrs. Bandit pondered this. "I suppose he was a fox. Yes, I could see the tail as he ran away. But there are a lot of foxes around here. He could be anyone."
"Yes, he could." Nick made a few notes. "You didn't happen to notice his right paw, did you?"
"No." She responded very sharply. "I told you, I didn't get a good look at him."
Judy turned from the closet that smelled mostly of old cloth and cleaning supplies. "And you found your bowl in the closet?" The raccoon nodded. "Why do you think he would break in in broad daylight?"
"Oh, well, the school was closed…" She paused. "I mean, I don't think he knew the school was closed and I'd be home."
"School's closed again today?" Nick asked.
Mrs. Bandit nodded. "But Principal Jenny says we'll be open again next week, once the money comes through from the city budget."
"That's terrible," Judy said. "Though I bet the kids love it. This one year we had a lot of rain and the stream flooded the school. It took them a week to clean it up and all the kids had a party helping out."
Nick was giving her one of those looks and a half-smile that usually went along with one of his "what a sheltered life you've lived" comments, but he kept quiet. Mrs. Bandit didn't notice the look. "Oh, this isn't so bad," she said. "Last year we were closed a month and the year before that it was almost two months."
"Do you mind if I take some fur samples from the closet?" Judy asked. "They might help identify your intruder."
Mrs. Bandit dithered for a moment and then said, "I suppose that would be all right." She turned to Nick. "Do you think they'll find him?"
"I'd like to tell you we will, but the truth is we probably won't," he said.
"Nick!" Judy got out her fur-swabbing kit and prepared to collect from the closet floor. "There's a chance."
"I don't want to lie to Mrs. Bandit," he said, and his voice had a tone that made her stop, perk her ears, and think. That was his "I know what I'm doing" voice, and it meant there was something going on that he couldn't talk about until they were in private.
Judy hated that tone because it made her feel stupid, but at the same time she respected it and she reminded herself that it usually wasn't that she was being stupid. Nonetheless, she reviewed everything she'd done and said. It was all by the book. So there was something to do with this being Nick's neighborhood, something she couldn't be expected to know. She kept quiet and took her fur samples, and then took another from the windowsill just to be sure, though most of that fur was probably Mrs. Bandit's.
When they'd left their cards behind and bid Mrs. Bandit good day, they walked down the four floors to the lobby in silence. "Well," Nick said as they emerged onto the street by their car, "the car's still here. That's a good sign." He flashed Judy a smile. "Want to look for expired parking meters before we go?"
"Gosh, that one never gets old." She unlocked the car and climbed in the driver's side. "So what was going on up there?"
Nick got in and closed his door and sat there for a moment. "Clearly she recognized the guy who broke in. You got that, right?"
"Oh, yeah, sure," Judy said. She pulled out the keys and slid them into the ignition, but didn't start the car yet.
He gave her a short, "Heh," and then went on. "Like how she knew he was a he even though she didn't get a good look at him? And how she knew he would know about school being closed?"
"And," Judy remembered, "she got really snippy when you asked about his paw. Is that why you asked?"
"Partly," Nick said. "And partly because I recognized his scent."
"Sure." He winked at her. "I told you, I know everybody."
"Nick, this is great! Who is it?"
He leaned back in the seat. "His name is Five-Fingers Rousseau. He's the son of Kevin Rousseau, guy I used to…pal around with, back in the day."
"Five Fingers? That's his real name?" Judy started the car and checked traffic.
"I think his real name is Freddy, but," Nick held up his right paw and wiggled his three fingers and thumb, "he's got an extra finger on his right paw. So everyone calls him Five-Fingers. Also because he steals stuff."
Judy pulled out into traffic. "This is great. We've got fur samples and you've got his scent. We'll go to Four and put out an alert for him."
Nick laced his paws together. "You've been a cop longer than me, so I'm not gonna tell you how to do our job, but that won't do any good."
"Don't be that way. The system works."
He grabbed at the door to brace himself as Judy swung around a corner. "The system works, sure. But in this case, all we can prove is that he was in her apartment sometime. She'll just say she invited him over for tea and cookies. Without her testifying that he broke in, he'll go free."
Judy didn't slow down, though her enthusiasm did. "Why wouldn't she testify?"
"Because she's protecting him. Kevin was a popular kid in the neighborhood, and Freddie probably is too."
"Then why did she call the police?" Judy asked triumphantly.
"I don't know, maybe she called before she knew it was him and he came out and talked to her, something like that. Listen, Carrots, we used to use this all the time: They can prove where you were but not when, not without an eyewitness. So the most we're gonna be able to do is hold him on suspicion and then release him."
"Hmph." She careened around another corner, grinning as the fox slid across the seat that was made to hold a rhino or bear. There were days when she'd let Nick's cynicism pass, but this wasn't one of them. She'd liked old Mrs. Bandit and wanted to help her out. "Wanna bet?"
Arms splayed across the seat and door, Nick got that half-lidded smile on his face. "What are we betting?"
"That we'll get an arrest if we put his warrant out at Four."
"You're on," he said. "The usual?"
That was a blueberry pie from Gideon Grey if he won, and a carrot cake from Judy's favorite bakery if she won. "The usual," she said.
"All right." Nick straightened up in his seat and adjusted his hat. "I haven't had a good pie since the last bet I won from you. Let's go to Four."