Downtown – Tail Hollow Orphanage – Happytown District – Corner of Deluge Ave and 34th St.
Thursday – 12:11 PM – Sporadic Clouds / Moderate Winds w/Occasional Gusts
It was a complete mess. Steven had tried to forget his time living here in Happytown. Before Murana was a CEO of Lemming Bros. Bank, she had a small flat here in this derelict part of Zootopia. The steam plumes from various chimneys spired higher into the sky, giving the entire place a rancid odor that was stinging to the nose. The usual assortment of bums and hobos littered the streets as refuse was strewn about the walkways. It hadn't changed much in the years since he and Murana moved to central downtown.
They could see the disaster long before they reached it. There were multiple chunks of brick and mortar scattered across the road to the point that Anthony could drive no further and had to park a bit further out so they could all walk to the orphanage. They had to avoid taking shortcuts through the alleys to their destination. Even as a small group armed with guns, there were still places in Zootopia where it was not wise to tread through.
The sight of the building brought a small gasp from Ralph, who had been here recently. The entire upper floor and roof was completely blown off. Part of the first and second floors and all of the third was open to the elements. Sprawled out in front of the main entrance were piles of boards, broken bed mattresses and dresser frames. It seemed they were dumping all the unusable furniture and structure support out by the curb for Thursday trash pickup.
"This is plain awful." Ralph remarked, his mouth agape at the state of Tail Hollow. "I was just here on Monday and it was perfectly fine."
All were curious as to what happened here. Gingerly stepping over the debris, they proceeded through the front entrance, its door hanging half off its hinges. Inside wasn't much better. There were claw marks along various walls, floors and stair railings. Several blood stains marked the places where bodies were placed, all gone now, supposedly to the morgue. The biggest thing all noticed was the pervasive silence within the orphanage.
Anthony spotted a small red panda dressed up in a habit coming out of a side doorway, carrying what looked to be a garbage bag. She hadn't noticed them yet. "Excuse me, ma'am. Can you please tell me what happened here? I'm Officer Wolford from the ZPD." He flashed his badge just to make sure she understood his intentions.
The poor thing literally jumped out of her skin at his introduction, immediately dropping the bag. She looked ready to flee, but the sight of the bronze badge gave her pause. "Where were you…?" She warbled miserably, visibly shaking.
"Pardon?" Ralph was confused, and it seemed he wasn't alone.
"We were attacked by ruthless pirates. Where were you?!" The panda began at a fast clip, her voice getting faster and more pitched as she went along. "We tried to call you again and again, but we got nothing but a dead tone. They killed Matron…they killed many others. The children! They took the children!" She was near hysterical, as if reliving the events all over again.
"Pirates? What in blazes does that mean? You mean like looters?" Anthony offered.
Steven came up to the red panda and put an arm around her, her body reacting positively to his touch. She turned to look at him as he calmed her, "It's okay now, the police are here and we just want to know what happened." Seeing the panda nod her head, Steven took her to sit down on a nearby pile of boards that could best be used now as a bench. "So can you tell us what happened here?"
A bit more relaxed now that a smaller mammal was interrogating her, she began explaining, oblivious to the fact Steven had reached around into his backpack and flipped the record button on his camera.
"It was pirates. Predators like I've never seen around here before." She still had wide eyes as she was recounting.
"Excuse me, ma'am." Ralph put a hoof out to stop her. "Can you please tell us your name and what you do here?"
Staring up at the wildebeest in casual attire, the panda was a bit put off. The only one of the three who even remotely looked like a cop was the wolf and she was a bit spooked to be talking to him. "My name is Claire Fulgens. I used to work under the Matron here caring for the children before she…was killed."
"Were any of the children hurt?" Ralph inquired, feeling apprehensive about the answer.
"Did you get a good look at the killers?" Anthony grilled, eyes intense.
"Please guys, one at a time." Steven put out a paw to stop the two cops. He could see that Claire was getting agitated again by being questioned so quickly. It was clear that even over a day since the incident, she was still in shock. "Let her speak in her own time." He turned to her and gave a reassuring squeeze on the shoulder. "Can you please answer the questions as you feel you are able to?"
She nodded her head a bit more forcefully than intended, "A few were murdered on the spot! They rest were roughed up a bit, but it seemed like they were what they wanted."
"That's horrible!" Ralph gawked.
"I don't understand. What do you mean, what they wanted?" Anthony was flummoxed. He still didn't really have any idea what these creeps would want with an orphanage.
Her big eyes stared up at the larger wolf, her entire frame still shivering from the memory. "They only came for the children. They rounded them up, tied them together and lifted them into the sky into their demon ship. Any caretakers that got in their way were killed…like Matron." She began to sob, stuffing her paws into her face as she let it out.
"That's terrible." Steven's jaw dropped.
It was feeling all too eerie to him. He remembered when he was kidnapped, taken to a musk mill to be drained weekly and to be sold to the highest bidder. To rot in cages until the next time he was called to produce more musk. He wondered if the raccoon boy that Murana was looking to adopt was here and one of the ones that got taken away. What horrible fates were they experiencing right now?
"Did they take all the kids?" Steven asked, not even concerned about the story for ZNN anymore.
"No." She sniffled, trying to dry her eyes on her sleeve. "They left the older ones, those just hitting puberty. They only wanted the younger cubs. None of the adults were taken or killed if they stayed out of the way."
"Ma'am, can you tell us what they looked like?" Ralph pressed, a bit more gently than Anthony did earlier.
"Like pirates. Like the ones you used to see on those old television shows when we were kids. Dressed up to the nines with buttoned fronts and big brimmed hats, each carrying swords at their hips or muskets in their hands." Claire revealed.
All simply stared at her, it seemed a bit too outlandish of a story. "And these pirates…" Anthony was thinking it over as he spoke, "They did this to the roof of the place? How?" He pointed up at the open sky above.
Claire shivered and huddled close to the skunk, who only hugged her tighter. With a deep breath and more reassuring pats from Steven, she continued, "I don't know…there was a huge boom and the entire building shook hard. Then my fur began to stand on end as lightning blew the entire roof off. Then they descended and started grabbing the kids one by one. A wolf showed up soon after and tried to fight them, but was also taken."
"A wolf, you say?" Ralph was strongly attentive at this very moment.
"What did she look like?" Anthony barked, causing Claire to recoil a bit. He checked himself, "I'm sorry, did you get a look at what she was wearing?"
"All red…she had a mask on and was taking down pirates left and right, but was stopped by a fox." Her lower lip quivered, but her speech was steady now, as if she wanted to get this horrific experience out in the open and be done with it.
"The Dark Flame Wolf…" Ralph mused, rubbing his chin. Steven tensed up at this, but did nothing to betray his inner turmoil at knowing that his mom might have been kidnapped right alongside the children.
"You said a fox took her away? Why her and not any of the other adults when all they were after were the cubs?" Anthony was getting more frustrated by the minute. None of this was making any sense.
"I'm sorry, I really don't know. It seemed they knew each other and she just…gave up fighting and they took her away." She turned her head into Steven and just buried it into his chest, wanting nothing more than to just escape from it all. Steven just held her tight.
"I guess you won't mind if we look around." Anthony informed, sensing that they would get nothing further from the panda.
He and Ralph began rummaging around the place, lightly stepping over the shredded beams that fell from the ceiling, crushing the primary staircase up to the second floor. There were more blood stains here and there with scraps of torn clothing and what looked like some remnants of metal. Anthony whistled for Ralph to come over and take a look.
"Do you recognize any of this?" Anthony held up a small kunai and what looked to be a small grappling claw. He brought it close to sniff it, flinching back suddenly. "Ugh, smells like skunk and…" He grimaced, but brought his nose closer to take another whiff. "And…Murana?"
Steven was rooted to the spot, and not only because the red panda had fallen asleep on him from pure exhaustion. His ears flicked over to the conversation as Ralph expounded, "That…corroborates with the evidence I've gathered regarding the Dark Flame Wolf." Ralph paused briefly, unsure if he should press on with his final thought. "She is Murana Wolford." He said with some finality.
Anthony stayed kneeling on one knee as he held the cool metal in his paw. He didn't even bother to look up at the wildebeest standing right beside him. He was stock still for what seemed like hours. At length, he finally spoke in a whisper, "What is the meaning of this?"
"I don't understand." Ralph truly didn't. He took a step back at the menacing tone of Anthony.
The wolf rose up to come to eye level with the wildebeest. "Are you accusing my wife of being a mass murderer?" His grip was so tight on the kunai in his paws that a small trickle of blood began beading along the edge of it.
"You mean you didn't know?" Steven's insides went into a somersault as the words left his mouth almost unbidden. He needed to negate the situation now. Any further and he could see a fight erupting between the two cops. Both turned bewildered at Steven, who gulped heavily at their penetrating gazes, each demanding answers. "Yeah, my mom is the Dark Flame Wolf. What of it? I wasn't about to let you," He pointed at Anthony, "Arrest and lock away the one person in my entire life that means the world to me. She's done far more than you know."
"Is this a joke?" Anthony scoffed, looking incredulously at Steven. "Are you just agreeing with Grayz just to piss me off because you hate me?"
"I never really hated you." Steven's face drooped. "I just hated the fact you never liked me and convinced Murana to have me move out. I only wanted to stay with you guys and be a real family."
"And I wanted a son to call my own. A cub of my own blood." Anthony fired back.
"You did have a son to call your own, you just rejected him!" Steven gently set Claire down, who was now stirring from the altercation and stood up to Anthony. "Don't get angry at me because she's unable to have kids. Yeah, I knew that long before you did." He responded to a look from Anthony. "I knew a lot of things about her, because she loves and trusts me. She might love you, but it is quite clear she doesn't fully trust you. Would you trust your cop husband knowing you are a vigilante dealing lethal judgment on the streets?"
"And you condone this sort of behavior out of your mother?" Ralph stepped in. He was a bit confused as to where Steven stood with his mother.
"What?" He turned and raised his brow in surprise. "No! I only found out what she truly did about a week ago! Why would I be okay with my mom killing people? But it's not like I could stop her if I tried." He glanced back to Anthony, "You know how stubborn she is. It didn't really matter what I said to her, she continued to do what she wanted anyway. It was the reason I left her this week, I gave her an ultimatum to not kill another person and yet she went and did it regardless of my feelings. I am upset. I am hurt. But most of all, I am ashamed to say that the person I most love is the one who has killed so many."
"So she is a villain…" Ralph surmised.
"Don't talk about my wife like that!" Anthony snarled.
"You defend her? Despite all she's done?" Ralph accused.
"No! I'm no crooked cop!" Anthony swiped the air with his paw, furious at his integrity being called out by some greenhorn from the burrows. "This is a lot to process right now. I still don't believe she's the Dark Flame Wolf…I would have known or sensed it."
"Clearly you didn't." Ralph pointed out.
"So, what now?" Steven asked, quickly changing tack to avoid Anthony rounding on Ralph for that comment. He truly didn't know where they should go from here. He just knew he needed to calm down. Reaching into his pocket, he took out his inhaler and gave it a huge puff to clear his nerves and his lungs.
Anthony looked down at his paws, still holding the weapon evidence. "We take these back to the lab at ZPD and have them analyzed. We'll go from there depending on what we find." He seemed to be numb at this point, shutting off all emotion just to get the job done.
"Given what I did all yesterday, I'm a bit too invested to let this go. I'm coming with you." Ralph insisted.
"Fine, whatever. Just stay out of my way." Wolford really did not care for this newbie.
Steven knelt down next to Claire as the other two headed out back to the cruiser. "You stay safe. I got a few buddies I can call on to help clean up this mess. They should be here later today to help." He squeezed her shoulder one last time as she mouthed her thanks to him. With a beaming smile, he rose up and trailed after the other two.
Savannah Central – Zootopia Police Department – Off Freedom Circle Across from City Hall
Thursday – 3:03 PM – Sporadic Clouds / Variable Winds
"So you want me to distract Chief Buffalo Butt long enough for you to check in with the lab and investigate these weapons you found at some orphanage in the hopes they'll lead you to the Dark Flame Wolf? Am I getting it about right?" Nick clarified, arms crossed wearing a suspicious look aimed directly at Ralph.
"Please be more respectful of our chief!" Ralph gawked at the audacity of this fox.
"He is respectful." Anthony pointed out. "It's just Wilde's way."
Ralph stared at them for a few moments before explaining, "It's to help find Wolford's wife. We won't be too long."
Nick glanced over at Steven, who was standing close and a bit behind Anthony, looking around the ZPD. It was evident this was his first time being in the place. "He's actually not supposed to be in there with you two." He bowed his head in the direction of the skunk.
"Oh, now you're a stickler for protocol, Wilde?" Anthony snorted. "He's fine, I'll take responsibility for him. How goes the situation out in Sahara?"
"Well, we actually just got back about a few minutes ago. Oates had to go do something and Hopps is in her cubicle working on paperwork, or so she says. Precinct 3 showed up finally and they seem to be managing the entire crowd out there. It seems the situation has stabilized, but no one is any closer to figuring out what is going on out there." Nick sighed, it looked like he hadn't gotten a lot of sleep. With a sudden, new roommate like Anthony showing up at his doorstep, it was a lot harder to get a restful night.
"That's good to hear. Thanks for covering that." Anthony seemed genuinely grateful for Wilde assisting in covering for him.
"Guess it's my turn to cover for you." Nick yawned. "Fine, fine. I'll go distract the chief while you go figure out what any of this has to do with your wife. I'm too tired and confused to figure it out right now. Besides, anything that'll get you out of my home and back where you belong is fine by me." He added the last with a toothy grin and wink.
"You're a gentlemammal and a scholar!" Ralph whooped, moving forward to pat Wilde on the back.
Deftly dodging the gesture, he held a paw up to the wildebeest. "Easy with the compliments, you'll be stampeding all over me with them. I'm just helping out my friends. That's all." He motioned with his fingers between himself and Ralph, who seemed a bit miffed at Nick's response to his compliment. "I help you, you help me and I agree that I never saw you." He clicked his tongue like a trigger.
"Thanks again, Wilde." Anthony sagged, looking much relieved that Bogo wouldn't be breathing down his neck about any of this.
"No worries! Good luck finding your wife. Looking forward to hearing the whole story over a bug shake at Bugga Burger! Tomorrow at five, alright? It's a date then!" Finger-gunning as he left, he headed off towards the elevators to no doubt annoy Bogo about something frivolous.
"Remind me again why a fox is working at this department?" Ralph asked. It did seem odd that someone of his kind would be working here.
"He's a good cop and a great friend." Anthony admitted, looking after the swishing red tail disappear around the corner. "Hopps vouched for him and despite a lot of misgivings across the department, he has proven himself to be pretty reliable."
"He's a bit rough around the edges." Ralph observed.
"As most good cops are." Anthony defended. Waving a paw to follow him, "Come on, we don't have much time. Let's get to Raina down in the basement and get these two things looked at." His gaze passed over Steven, "You come too. Stay close and stay silent and…don't touch anything, please?"
"Yes, of course!" Steven fumbled at being addressed directly so suddenly.
Steven was a bit anxious, even though excitement was at the forefront of his mood. He had never been in the ZPD before. He never wanted to come here and most definitely never on the wrong side of the law. He was still a bit worried that Ralph or Anthony might connect him to the musk-scented weapons of Murana and declare him an accomplice and jail him for life as a result. Despite these fears, he was still curious about what went on behind closed doors where most civilians had no reason being.
They rode down to the bottom floor in silence, being ushered out by Anthony as they paced the austere corridors lined with inlaid cone sconces that tried to give a sense of décor to an otherwise bland look. Both followed the wolf, since he knew where he was going. They turned a few corners and entered a swinging door that led to a haphazard mess of examination tables, evidence bins stacked high on several counters and a lone sloth sitting in the middle of it all, squinting at the computer monitor in front of her.
The sloth had been there longer than most could remember, and many in the station relied on her methodical expertise to get the job done. The initial shock of seeing a sloth in such a pivotal role in the ZPD wore off for many once they realized the general pace of Zootopia was a lot slower than one would expect. Cases would not be solved within a day and paperwork could take weeks to get approved and finalized before being filed away. So her speed was perfectly on par with the operations tempo of the police department.
"Afternoon, Raina." Anthony greeted, not giving her much notice. "We'll just be a few moments with one of the computers. We'll be out of your fur shortly."
If she had heard him, she gave no indication. Not looking for permission, Anthony settled into one of the chairs lining the side wall with multiple, small cubicle booths with a lab computer at each one. Alongside each workstation were several devices where one could scan in evidence on the tray beneath the iris and pull up a 3D model of it in the computer, complete with density and material make-up details of the object in question.
Setting the kunai and torn cloth underneath the scanner, he yelled back, "Just sit over there along the wall, Steven, and don't touch anything." After a moment's thought, he added, "And don't report on anything you see here either. Don't make me regret allowing you in here."
Seeing that this might take a while and neither Raina nor Ralph would be much company, Steven shuffled over to the spare seats that seemed to be for much larger mammals. Heaving himself up onto one, he flopped down properly and began swinging his legs beneath the chair since they dangled well above the ground. He only stopped when the wildebeest decided to sit right next to him with a grunt. What did he want now?
"You two seem a bit tense around each other." Ralph commented without looking at the skunk.
"Thank you, Captain Obvious." Steven snarked, not really wanting to converse with Ralph right now. "I don't think you need me to recap why we're at odds with each other."
"No, I can gather enough to piece together the whole picture here." Ralph's analytical mind was going into overdrive. "You and Murana had a good thing going as a family unit. Suddenly this wolf comes in, sweeps your mom off her feet, and then decides he wants you moved out because he hates you."
Steven looked up at Ralph before returning to observe Anthony doing his research, "I wouldn't say he hated me either actually. I don't think Mom would have tolerated him much if he outright hated me."
"Well, they did have that fight this week as he said." Ralph mentioned.
Pondering that for a moment, Steven added, "It might have something to do with me. I don't know. I mean, I don't dislike the guy. He seems like a swell wolf. Got a good job and all. When he first got married to Mom, I did try my best to welcome him and treat him like a dad."
"I gather he didn't want someone like you?" Ralph probed, trying to better gauge Steven's emotions so as to not have the skunk close him off like he did before.
"I don't even know why. You'd think as a potential suitor to a female, you'd want to accept everything about them, right? To include their existing kids? Why bother entering into the relationship at all then? I mean, there was that other fox who loved me. He was fantastic and I would have loved him to be my dad." Steven bemoaned.
"Other…fox?" Ralph was inquisitive now. This mysterious figure of Murana, who was almost assuredly the Dark Flame Wolf, was starting to be quite the complex figure now. There seemed to be more to her than he had first assumed.
"If you two are done talking about my personal life, get over here and look over this with me." Anthony grumbled as he took the evidence gathered from the orphanage, bagged them up and marked them appropriately for later investigation.
Steven noticed the 3D scans of the kunai being represented on the screen. "Did you figure out who manufactured them?"
"That's the thing." Anthony tapped his chin, stuck in thought. "These are not commercially sold weapons, nor are they black market dealings either. I cross referenced all such instances of these weapon types among the entire database of recovered evidence in the ZPD vault and turned up with nothing. I even looked into cases involving known weapons dealers that we are keeping tabs on to see what they supply, but that didn't provide anything useful."
"You don't arrest these known illegal sellers?" Ralph was stunned.
Anthony gave an irritated look at the rookie, "Of course not. We at least know where they are and what they are capable of proliferating in Zootopia. We use them to get to the bigger fry that are far more dangerous. You snipe one of them out and the real threats will go further underground and be that much harder to rat out."
"Smart." Steven marveled. That was indeed a very ingenious way of keeping track of all the local thugs and where they get their armament. Only when the purchase history goes outside the expected norm would you go in and investigate the cause, which could lead to the wanted buyer. "So if it isn't either of those two things, where did these come from?" He looked over at the bagged metal blades.
"This looks like a custom job. Made specifically for whoever used this." Anthony replied promptly.
"For the Dark Flame Wolf. Your wife." Ralph stated bluntly.
Anthony growled. "I still refuse to believe that, so lay off."
"But didn't you smell her on that fabric, and your own son said she was-" Ralph began.
"I said lay off!" The wolf snarled, causing Steven and Ralph to draw back and even caused Raina to slowly glance up from her monitor and realize there were others in the room. "She could have just been at the wrong place at the wrong time. Possibly doing what she said she was going to do and adopt that raccoon or whatever and just got caught in whatever crossfire happened at the orphanage."
"She's the Dark Flame Wolf." Steven insisted. Either Anthony was being incredibly dense, which was probably not the case, or he was struggling to find ways to believe that his wife was not some mass-murdering vigilante. "Why won't you just admit it to yourself that this is reality?"
"I'll be the judge of that!" Anthony barked. Frustrated that things were not shaping up to be a very good day, he just turned back to the screen and stared glumly at the search results. It was clear he was simply shutting down, exhaustion, fatigue and more was getting to him.
Thinking about it a bit more, Steven posed the question, "So, would any of these black market dealers have the capability to make such custom-made orders like this?"
The wolf's eyes lit up with inspiration. "Yeah…a few of them!" He began typing in a few more parameters and a very short list popped up on the screen. "Well, we can rule Mr. Big and his mafia out." He clucked, scrolling through. "Huh…there is this 'Jack' here."
"Jack? Any other names, last names, aliases?" Ralph leaned in further.
"No…just Jack." It was such an odd way of cataloguing this supplier. You'd think whoever inputted it would be a bit more thorough.
"Where is he located?" Steven offered an avenue of searching.
A few key presses later, Anthony tapped the screen. "He's been logged in a few locations throughout Zootopia, but only one I recognize."
"How so? You been there?" Steven was confused. Unless Anthony was part of a sting, he was unclear why the wolf knew one of the places of businesses Jack operated at.
"Because I know the fox who owns the place. AJ." Anthony grit his teeth, almost grinding them with anger. "Didn't the panda at Tail Hollow mention she was kidnapped by a fox?"
Steven's heart sank. He knew AJ. He was the former lover of his mom and the fox who he wanted to be his dad during the time they were dating. It didn't work out and Murana left AJ. It wouldn't make sense nearly a decade later that AJ would come back and kidnap her, let alone destroy the orphanage in the process. Heck, he wasn't even a pirate as was described by Claire! However, he could easily see Anthony working himself up into a fervor that AJ was the culprit responsible for all of this.
"Maybe it wasn't AJ. Maybe it was a different fox?" Steven meeped, trying to placate Anthony's rising anger.
"Let's go. We're paying a visit to the Fox Den." He jabbed a claw at Ralph. "Get yourself a firearm. Where we're going, folks aren't exactly friendly to us cops. Best we be packing to protect ourselves." He gathered up his things and began to clear out his browsing history as he tossed the bagged evidence in the inbox bins for Raina to catalogue later.
"Don't go looking for a fight!" Steven began to breathe heavy again, his lungs contracting in another panic attack at the thought that Anthony might not be able to control himself around AJ.
The wolf paused and regarded the heaving skunk, frantically thrusting his paws into his pockets for his inhaler. "It's probably best you stay behind, Steven. It probably will not be a safe place for you."
"Thanks for your help, Mr. Stinkman." Ralph bowed his head slightly.
He felt incredibly sympathetic to the skunk. If it was true beyond a shadow of a doubt his mom was the Dark Flame Wolf and this so-called AJ had abducted her, things would not end well for anyone. The fact that Steven was a partial accomplice to her dealings seemed to have fallen by the wayside to the greater need of just simply finding Murana instead. It seemed she was the key to all the strange happenings going on right now in Zootopia. Ralph couldn't quite figure out how, but he knew he'd get to the bottom of it.
"Go home and stay safe, Steven." Anthony instructed, the first hint of concern on his face for his son-in-law. "We'll handle it from here. We'll get Murana back."
Steven barely had time to speak out to stop them as he took a second puff on his inhaler, letting the medicine get into his lungs to hold it there before breathing out. Within moments, they were gone, leaving without so much as a trace of their passing. Raina was already reaching out after them, her arm outstretched in an almost comical gesture of trying to delay their exit.
"Wait…Officer…Grayz…Your…request…for…evidence…retrieval…was…denied…by…Chief…Bogo." She called out after them fruitlessly.
Savannah Central – The Fox Den on Roaring St. – Against the Tundratown Border Wall
Thursday – 5:21 PM – Clear Skies with Scattered Clouds / Gusty Winds
Steven shivered a bit, taking a small puff of air to calm himself as he peeked around the corner at the squat, brick and mortar building just down the street. Butted up against the imposing barrier wall to the chilly Tundratown district, it certainly gave off an air of imposing menace even though it was a rather small structure. He had never been to the Fox Den before, although he had known AJ for a good while during his time with Murana. He should technically be among friends there, right?
Steeling his nerves, Steven tried to stand up tall as he stepped out from behind the corner. Trying to appear bold, he strode down the sidewalk, acting as if the lounging predators on their apartment steps weren't terrifying the heck out of him with their leering stares. Stifling a cry as one barked loudly in what turned out to be a cough, he picked up the pace and was nearly opposite the entrance to the Fox Den. There was already a line forming for its opening at six.
He yelped, drawing a few looks from the growing line, as a voice behind him hissed, "What are you doing here, Steven?!" Anthony was glaring at him from behind a parked car alongside Ralph.
"W-what are you doing here?" Steven shot back, still recovering from the scare.
Anthony yanked him by the arm to squat next to the two of them behind the car. "We've been casing the joint to see if we could spot AJ. We didn't see him go in, but it is clear they are getting ready to open for business within the hour."
"Why don't we wait in line with everyone?" Steven suggested.
"What?" Anthony stared blankly.
"I don't think the bouncer would let us in." Ralph explained. "We're not exactly on the guest list and this place doesn't look friendly to cops." He looked up over the car at the large lion that was guarding the entrance with a rather stylish set of shades.
"It's alright." Steven patted Anthony on the shoulder, feeling a bit more confident now about the whole situation. "AJ and I are actually great pals."
"Your favored dad?" Anthony spat. He wasn't exceptionally happy that this fox had the favor of Murana at one point and still had the adoration of her son.
"Well, you certainly are doing yourself no favors by being mean and insulting to me." Steven put his hands on his hips, his own eyes bearing down onto Anthony's, who was still kneeling to be at eye level. "If you had just made an attempt, any attempt, at trying to get to know me rather than write me off the moment you met me, things might have turned out different for all of us. Who knows? Murana may not be in whatever situation she's in now if we had just been together as a family!"
Looking at the heaving skunk before him, diminutive, but still very brave, Anthony had no rebuttal to give. The skunk might even be right. "Fine. We'll do it your way. Let's get to the back of the line and when we get to the door, you get us in. If that doesn't work, things might get…ugly."
"Let's hope they don't." Ralph murmured, drawing a nod of agreement from Steven.
Acting casual, they circled the block again and wound up back at the Fox Den. Not exactly looking like the other patrons of the establishment, they did stand out like a sore thumb. A few mammals gave them some cursory glances, but most were more interested in getting into the club and raving the night away. The doors opened and the bodies started filing in, some being turned away by the bouncer, but more getting in without a hitch.
"Hold it, squirt!" The lion held out a paw, big enough to crush Steven's skull in it. "Where do you and your friends think you're going?"
"Inside?" Steven said meekly, his faith in the plan faltering.
"Nope, take a hike." The bouncer growled, jabbing a finger to hit the road.
"Look, can you tell AJ that Steven Stinkman is here with him?" Steven blurted, trying to stall the inevitable.
The lion tipped the shades down to look at the small skunk a bit more directly. "You know AJ?" After a nod. "One moment please." He brought out a walkie talkie and spoke into it, "Hey AJ, we got a skunk out here saying he knows you. Goes by Stinkman."
A surprisingly deep voice for a fox boomed through the mic, "Oh, wow! Yeah, of course. Hold him right there, I'm coming right up!"
The lion clicked off and saddled the device back into its holster on his hip. "You three stand over to the side here while I let the rest of the line through." He roughly pulled them aside while resuming his duty as door guard.
After a few minutes, a rather large fox with a muscular build came out. His trademark brown fur markings identified him to Steven unmistakably. His happy demeanor faltered a bit when he saw Anthony and Ralph, but he cheered up some when he saw Steven. Rushing forward to pick the skunk up in a bear hug, he nuzzled into Steven's neck.
"Stinkbug! How you been, buddy?!" He laughed as he squeezed the skunk.
"Fine!" Steven squeaked, gasping for air.
"So what brings you here to my humble place of business?" He chuckled jovially as he set the skunk back down.
"We're actually looking for Murana. I believe you know her?" Anthony jumped in, doing his best to suppress a growl. He couldn't believe this fox had it good with his wife before they got married. There didn't seem to be anything special about him.
AJ's expression turned cold as he regarded the wolf and wildebeest. "Who's your friends?"
"This is my 'dad.' Murana's husband." Steven clarified. He motioned over to Ralph, "And a friend who is helping us find her. She went missing about a day ago and no one has seen her or been able to contact her since."
"So why come to me? What makes you think I know where she is?" AJ hadn't taken his eyes off Anthony since discovering he was Murana's current husband.
"How about we come in, get comfortable and we can talk all about it?" Steven moved to diffuse the situation. It seemed all he was trying to do today was resolve problems and hold people back from doing something worse. "It's been a long time and I'd love to catch up with on how you've been doing!" He added sincerely.
Distracted from his gaze on Anthony, AJ turned to look at the skunk before motioning them to come in. "Of course, come in and we'll get ourselves a drink." After one last glower at the wolf, AJ slipped into the darkness of the mood-lit club.
Steven and the rest followed suit, bypassing the gruff lion, giving them a watchful eye as they entered. Inside the club, things were already starting to get heated. The heavy bass was reverberating off the walls and shaking their very bones at the sick beat that was blaring out of the multitude of speakers at the far end of the dance floor up by the DJ, a rather eccentric-looking leopard with extreme amounts of bling adorning his ears and neck.
AJ pointed towards a side booth at the edge of the wall near the end of a row of circular booths with covering sheets to prevent onlookers from seeing what went on at the tables. Steven scooted in around to the back of the table while Anthony and Ralph squeezed in as much as they could. It was very loud, and they could barely hear each other speak, but it was still a far cry better than out on the main floor despite having to shout.
At length, AJ came back with four drinks expertly positioned between his fingers. Setting them down and pushing them off to their recipients, he lounged down opposite Ralph, sitting close to Steven. "So, Stinkbug, what you been up to these days? How is the old girl doing?" He smiled as he took a good chug of his liquor.
"You mean Mom? She's…not been well as of late. Last time I saw her, she and I got into a bit of a fight." Steven looked down at his untouched drink in shame. He had a small ball of anxiety in the pit of his stomach that made him believe he was at fault for her disappearance.
AJ's ears fell. Placing a paw on the skunk's shoulder and squeezing it slightly, he consoled, "I'm sure she'll turn up soon. You know how she is." He gave Steven a small wink where Ralph and Anthony would not be privy to. "I'd say give her another few days to turn up, and if she doesn't turn up by then, I'd go call the cops to put out an alert." He chortled. "Besides, I just realized, you're an adult now! Got any ladies in your life yet? Gotten laid yet?" He elbowed Steven in the ribs at this.
"No! I've had enough today! In fact, I've had enough females for a month!" Steven yelled, not wanting to be ensnared yet again in the coils of another girl after his goods.
Giving a low whistle, AJ gave a small slap to Steven's back. "You sly skunk! And here I thought you were the innocent flower! Well, if commitment isn't quite your thing, I have a few lovely pred ladies I can introduce you to who are all action and no chain. Just say the word, little buddy!"
"N-no…I'll be fine." Steven declined meekly.
AJ took a swig of his drink being leaning in closer to the skunk, "You sure? Because I have it on good authority that some of them are exquisitely skilled with their toes." He winked knowingly.
"…I'm listening." Steven said with rising interest.
"What? Are you doing prostitution on the side here too alongside kidnapping, AJ?" Anthony accused, putting his entire arm in front of Steven's face and gently pushing him back.
"Excuse me?" The hairs on AJ's neck were ruffled. "I'll have you know that I run a reputable establishment here and I do not have sex for hire on the menu, let alone kidnapping. I'm insulted. What business is it of yours what two consenting adults do anyway in the privacy of my booths or rooms? What are you, cops?" He said in jest, his laidback mood returning.
"Actually, we are." Ralph spoke, right before Anthony clapped a paw over his mouth to shut him up. Even Steven winced as the fact was revealed. Either not realizing or caring about what he said, the gnu took a huge sip of his drink after sniffing it a few times.
AJ's disposition soured immediately. "Oh…that is a pity. Well, I hate to disappoint you three, especially you, Steven, but I don't know where she is, and frankly I'd wager she is in a far safer place now than with you." He took another swig of his drink, keeping a close eye on the wolf.
Anthony slammed a fist onto the table, causing Steven to jump and a tiger bodyguard nearby to take notice and start inching closer. "Look, fox." This drew an instinctual flick of AJ's ear. "We found some discarded weapons at the scene of a crime where Murana was last seen by eyewitness accounts. Weapons that were tracked to one mammal named: 'Jack.' One of his storehouses has been marked to be here, at your club. Either you tell us about this Jack or you will be arrested as an accomplice in the kidnapping of Murana Wolford."
"That is quite the allegation." AJ seemed relaxed now, slowly drinking the remainder of his booze. Setting the mug softly down to the table, the silence between them was thick, even though music was pounding through their skulls. "Think you got it all figured out, do you? If you were fully certain I was the criminal here and somehow Murana is here with this 'Jack' character, I would have thought you'd call for backup. Wouldn't this be a sting? Why is it just you two? Steven, why have you thrown your lot in with these fools?"
"AJ…please don't. I'm just here to find Mom." Steven pleaded.
AJ summarily ignored him as he leaned forward on the table. "Here's my thought…Mr. Wolford." He sneered as he said the wolf's proper title. "I'm thinking you aren't really supposed to be here and are doing this off the books for reasons that might get you or your wife in trouble. Am I right? In which case, it would be well within my rights to throw you off my property since you do not have a warrant to be here, but not without beating up on you since I did not see your badges and I mistook you for common trespassers."
"Are you actually threatening a cop?" Ralph balked, the gall of this fox astounding him.
"I'm threatening two idiots who have no business or legal right to be here, disrupting my place of work for a case I'd wager is something they also have no business sticking their noses into!" AJ finished with a satisfied smirk.
Anthony growled, "My wife's missing and her life could be on the line!"
"Doesn't seem like you're a good husband if you can't keep track of your own wife." AJ just could not contain his mirth at aggravating the wolf.
"At least she's mine and not yours!" Anthony roared, gathering the attention of another bouncer.
"Funny, if you were that good a husband, I wonder why she crawled back to me this Tuesday for some fun? Guess she knew who the better lover was." AJ gave a meaningful look.
That teared it. Steven dove for the seat as Anthony surged across the table and began choking AJ. Ralph brayed angrily as he stood, shocked at his colleague completely losing his cool and harming a civilian. On one hand, the fox certainly deserved the ass-whupping and his prejudice against foxes was helping that notion, but he was also a fellow cop and shouldn't be acting this way.
The decision was suddenly made for him when he felt two rough hands grapple him from behind and literally lift him off the floor and fling him to the dance room floor. Steven screamed as Anthony was forcibly torn from AJ and slammed to the floor by a rather large buffalo. AJ hacked and coughed a few times, rubbing his tender neck at the brutal strangling.
"AJ, stop! Just let them go! We'll just leave peaceably!" Steven parleyed.
"Do you even like your Dad?" Anthony fired back, getting up out of the booth. "He seems like kind of an asshole."
"No, well…yeah, not entirely!" Steven was struggling to find the right words.
"Then you wouldn't mind if we have a little fun with them then!" He whooped as he bounded up to the DJ turnstiles, taking the headphones from the leopard as he spoke into the microphone, his voice echoing throughout the club. "Who here wants to see a good fight?" The dancing crowd roared back in unison, some completely high out of their minds by now. "Mosh pit in the center! Battle music coming right up! Have at it!" He barked happily.
Jarring techno music flashed through the room as the crowd was worked up to pandemonium. Anthony and Ralph were pushed back by the bouncers into the center of the dance floor, each being jostled and rammed by mammals too drunk or gone to even care who they were. Ralph ducked under a punch, sidestepping a lunge before thrusting an elbow into the back of a cheetah, pounding him to the floor with the force of the blow. Anthony was faring little better, being besieged by both the buffalo and tiger.
"This wasn't exactly what I signed up for when I came to join you!" Ralph admitted, getting punched in the jaw and winding up on the floor. He had to roll to the side as he narrowly avoided a few hooves coming to crush his head from various dancing revelers.
"Just work your way to the exit! This is a bust! We need to-" Anthony was cut off as the buffalo barreled into him horns first, lifting him up and over him. Flying through the air, the crowd parted for his descent, cheering as he crumpled to the ground with a crunch. They all swooped in on him like savages and began pounding and beating on his body.
Steven saw Ralph disappear into the crowd as the bouncers worked their way through the blitzed dancers to finish the job. He knew he needed to stop this madness now. Surely AJ would listen to some reason and their previous relationship should amount to something! Darting past several drunks tripping over themselves in their stupor, he leapt up to the podium and tugged on AJ's sleeve.
Distracted, he looked down at Steven, "What is it, Stinkbug? Enjoying the show? Murana would have loved it!"
"No! I'm not! Please stop this! You can't kill them!" He tugged harder.
AJ sighed, putting the headphones around his neck, "Look, Steven. I like you, but our past friendship will only take you so far. I love you like a son just like Murana does, but this isn't your affair. Relax, I don't want cop blood on my hands anyhow, not good for business, you know. I'll be sure to stop it before it gets out of hand." Satisfied with this answer, AJ put back on the headphones and swapped up tunes to match the ensuing battle.
Steven frantically looked back to the dance floor and saw Anthony and Ralph with various cuts and bleeding lesions. Ralph looked like he was holding a broken arm, cringing hard as he tried to hold it tight against his side. They may not die tonight, but they'd certainly be hospitalized before it was all over.
Seeing as AJ was no help, Steven began scurrying around the club. He ducked into side hallways, sniffing around the private rooms, trying to figure out if there was something he could use to stop the insanity. Then suddenly, he smelled her. It was as clear as the night he earned his freedom at the musk mill. The smell of his Mom, Murana.
Getting low to the ground, it was still hard to decipher out her smell from the menagerie of scents permeating the entire place. The roar of the crowd grew fierce as it seemed something bad had happened out there. Heart pounding faster, he continued to track the scent until it landed him back into the club floor proper. The pulsating lights were flashing faster as it seemed the din was building to a crescendo, the floor rumbling with hoofs and paws stomping.
The smell was the strongest just behind the bar counter. Steven couldn't mistake her scent. It was partly his as well, given how long he had been with her and how many times she sprayed herself with his musk. The bartender was completely oblivious and was focused too much on the fight. Unfurling the standing mat, he saw a trap door in the floor. Curious, he opened it up and descended down the ladder into the darkness.
The dark tunnel opened up into a calcified cavern with a ship moored to a makeshift dock bordering a shack. Instantly, Steven knew this was the place. This was where this 'Jack' character was hiding out. Was Anthony right? Was Jack or AJ responsible for kidnapping Murana? He didn't know what to believe at this point. He just wanted Mom back.
He was sniffing around the boat emblazoned with the name, Foxglove III, when a calm voice caused his to shriek, a little musk escaping from him as he whipped around to see a white fox in a bowler cap regarding him with extreme interest. "Who are you and what are you doing here?"
"Are…are you Jack?" Steven asked nervously, backing up until his tail thumped against the ship siding.
Raising an eyebrow, the fox smiled a toothy grin. "I guess you could call that my callsign. My name is actually Billy Silva. And who might you be, little skunk?"
This was a very fun chapter to write. With the three 'investigators' tracking down Murana's trail, I wanted to ensure that each player had a part in helping with the case. Ralph brought them to the orphanage. Anthony pinpointed a potential lead at AJ's club. Steven was the glue that held the tenuous relationship together and helped get them into the club proper. Each character had a role and made them uniquely important during this chapter, something I wanted to emphasize. The first third was interesting and the hardest to pin down how exactly they were going to get from the orphanage to the club with AJ. Once I figured out there would be pieces left behind by Murana, either purposefully or not, it was an easy matter of sifting in a middle section at the ZPD that I could use to expand upon the relationship between Anthony and Steven with regard to Murana. It was fun to revisit AJ again, but in a far different capacity than before. Gone is the friendly fox we met in Day 2 with Murana and we now get to see another side to him we weren't privy to before. It's always good to add extra, unexpected layers to characters to flesh them out as fully 3-dimensional people. I was unsure of where to cut the chapter, seeing as the entire scene wasn't fully done yet, but since it was getting a bit long, I felt it right to stop right when Steven met Billy - another meeting of supposed chance that could possibly be important later.