Disclaimer: Zootopia stories, characters, settings, and properties belong to the Walt Disney Co. This story is written under Fair Use Copyright laws.


The Fire Triangle—A Zootopia Fanfiction


Part One:

Fuel


Chapter 8—Where There's Smoke…
(Pt. 1)

"A lot of the internet is positive for the most part, but…there are horrible things…"
—Phil Johnston, Co-Director Wreck-It Ralph 2


"You're not coming to work dressed like that are you?"

Judy Hopps stared at Nick Wilde with her nose twitching. The uniform he was wearing today looked like something he'd picked up at a Rescue Mission; the pant-cuffs were frayed, the knees were worn; the shirt was so badly faded that he could almost have been mistaken for a bus driver. The only good thing you could say about the red fox's ensemble was that at least it was clean.

They were ascending the front steps to Precinct-1 together, their standard morning ritual. As always, bunny-scout Judy had arrived first, and Nick had caught up with her a few minutes later, (yet another part of their daily routine.) What wasn't so customary was that Nick seemed to have designated today as his own, private, casual Friday. Judy hoped he had something nicer to wear in his locker, but suspected that wasn't the case

"Yes mom, I'm going to work like this, mom." the fox replied, pushing his sunglasses up the bridge of his muzzle and regarding her with a sullen eye. At first, Judy thought he was only being sarcastic, but then a thought came buzzing into her head.

"You…went to see your mother last night, is that it?' she asked.

Nick didn't answer her immediately, but the way he seemed to find the middle distance interesting told the bunny-cop everything she needed to know.

"No," he finally said, "I called her to try to set up a time for me to come and visit, but…" here he half growled, half sighed, "I never got around to asking her; mom had…'something else' on her mind."

It didn't take much of a leap for Judy to guess what that 'something else' was.

"Grandkids again?" she asked—and hit the target, dead center.

"From the minute she picked up the phone," Nick answered her, rolling his tongue as if something unpleasant had become lodged underneath it. When he stopped, it seemed to trigger an attack of the guilt bug…mea culpa; I've been a bad little fox-cub.

"I tried Carrots, I really tried," he told her, "But after five minutes of that, I just couldn't bring myself to ask if I could see her."

"Okay," Judy said to him quickly, having decided this was as far as she could push the fox. While she still didn't necessarily approve of him showing up for work in his 'grubs', at least he had a semi-decent reason for it.

But dangit, why today? They were supposed to be assisting a couple of deputies from the Burrow County Sheriff's Office this morning. What kind of an impression was Nick going to make, dressed like a low-rent security-guard?

That was when Judy's inner voice raised its paw.

"Uh, 'scuse me…Jude-the-dude? I-I don't anyone from BUNNYBURROW is going to care very much about what the fox that stopped the Jerry Guilford attack is wearing today."

It took a second or two for that thought to sink home. The result prompted Nick to turn and look at her with his ears pricked up

"What, Carrots?"

"Oh, nothing," Judy answered, still carrying the wry smile that had caught her partner's attention.

At the door to the precinct, she paused for a moment to square her shoulders and steel herself.

"Here it comes again," she thought, "'Hold my carrot juice.' Better get used to it, Judy."

She pushed through the door and into the lobby, with Nick Wilde right beside her.

No one said it; no one said much of anything as a matter of fact…to either one of them

Judy Hopps would later admit that it could have been a lot more dramatic. All talk in the precinct foyer didn't cease completely at their appearance, but the hubbub DID tone down to 'front pew level'. She had no idea what was going on, but just before someone hit the 'mute' button, she could have sworn she heard Francine Trunkaby saying something about a… hyrax? ("…he knows what he's talking about.")

And was it her imagination, or was everyone in the lobby trying to avoid looking at her and Nick—but at the same time watching them out of the corner of their eye? (Okay, it wasn't everyone, but there were more than enough animals pretending to avert their gaze for the effect to be easily noticeable. )

Well, Judy reasoned, there was one quick way to find out if she was right. And so, making a swift course-correction, she pivoted in the direction of the reception desk. She did not bother looking to see if Nick was with her; she knew that he would be.

It wasn't necessary for them to check in with Benjamin Clawhauser, each and every morning; it wasn't necessary for anybody in Precinct-1 to stop by the reception desk on their way to morning roll-call—but almost everybody did, at least once or twice a week; the plus-size cheetah was both popular and well liked.

That…and he was always up on the latest precinct scuttlebutt.

"Morning, Benjamin." Judy greeted the big cat cheerfully

"Morning, Clawhauser." Nick Wilde's salutation was a mite more perfunctory than hers.

Benjamin Clawhauser didn't answer them right away; his mouth was currently occupied with his new, favorite, morning treat, a cronut, (like the name implies an amalgam of a croissant and a doughnut.)

Even after he swallowed, the big cat needed two large swigs of Dr. Lepperd to get his voice back.

"Only THIS animal would wash down a doughnut with soda-pop," Nick Wilde observed to himself with a silent, amused head-shake. He wondered a moment if it was possible for a cheetah to contract diabetes.

When Clawhauser finally spoke, he was as always, the soul of conviviality.

"Annnnd good morning to you, Officer Wilde, Officer Hopps, gonna be a warm one out there, huh?"

That was putting it mildly, to say the least; Zootopia was looking at near-record heat for today, not such a bad thing for an animal who spent his work-day inside an air-conditioned lobby but pure purgatory for the officers on the street—and not just because of the uncomfortable working conditions. High temperatures also meant high tempers; the ZPD would be breaking up a lot of fights today.

Oh well, Judy figured, at least that gave her an opening.

"Yeah, well, speaking of warm," she said, choosing her words carefully and then nodding backwards, over her shoulder. "Is it me, or did there seem to be a just little chill in the air when Nick and I walked in here?"

"Oh, that!' Clawhauser clutched his ample belly and laughed, "Rock Hardesty was on a tear last night about 'public displays of affection' between predator and prey-species, 'unnatural', 'immoral,' you know what he's like when he gets rolling. Anyway, someone remembered that surveillance tape of you two in that jewelry store…the one where Nick…uh, you know…and so everyone's kind of, well…." he tugged at his collar for a second, "So, that's what going on." He seemed to take for granted that the fox and bunny would know which Rock Hardesty he was talking about.

Actually he was right, they did; the bunny more than with the fox. While Judy never tuned in to either of the hyrax's programs herself, her parents and many of her older siblings often did…and of course she'd seen those billboards plastered all over town. Love him or loathe him, there were very few citizens of Zootopia who were unaware of Hardesty's radio and TV talk-shows—including her partner, who let out a low, soft growl at the mention of his name.

Unfortunately for everyone, Benjamin Clawhauser seemed to find the whole thing highly amusing, not the best tack to take with Nick Wilde when he was already in a cranky mood. (A quick, sideways glance at the fox confirmed it.)

"Okay, thanks for the heads-up, Benjamin." Judy smiled and waved, looking for a fast, if not necessarily graceful exit. (Nick just mumbled something unintelligible.) "We'd better get along to roll call, talk to you later."

They were halfway to the bullpen door when a whistle from the reception desk drew their attention backwards. When she turned around, Judy saw the plus-sized cheetah grinning and cocking a finger at her.

"Hold my carrot juice!"

Judy grinned and aimed a finger back at him; she never thought she'd be glad to hear those words.

When they got inside the bullpen, she heard it several more times; it was as if the infection of the lobby had not quite spread this far.

And yet; and yet…

There they were again, those glances out of the corner of the eye, followed by a brisk turn of the head in another direction—from Officer Jackson, from Officer Rhinowitz, even from officer Fangmeier. The only one looking at them directly it seemed, was Officer Kii Catano, whose expression was completely unreadable. To Judy, it felt like the longest walk ever to their seats. When they finally sat down, she offered a sunny 'Good Morning' to Officer McHorn, who only grunted and barely looked at her.

Okay, okay…the big rhino was always this taciturn; the first time they'd met, he'd only snorted and rolled his eyes, but still—there was something different about it this time, an air of…Judy couldn't quite put her finger on it.

"Holy foxtrot…all this because of a crummy talk-show?" Nick Wilde whispered to her out of the corner of his mouth. Yes, he'd caught it, too.

When Francine Trunkaby came into the bullpen, the situation appeared to worsen. No, the glances being directed at her and Nick didn't ramp up into outright hostility, but it seemed—to Judy anyway—that the cow elephant was being greeted more than the usual measure of warmth.

And she had been there for the Rafaj Brothers raid, and seen what was on that surveillance camera, live and in real time. Could Francine be the 'someone' Benjamin Clawhauser had referred to a moment ago?

"Simmer down Judy," she told herself, glancing sideways as Nick again, "You're letting your imagination run away with you. G'ohhh, I really need to go make that appointment with Dr…."

These thoughts were cut off as the front door banged open and Chief Bogo came into the briefing room.

"Right, quiet!' he blared, offering his usual greeting to his officers. Unnecessary today, Judy noted, no one was talking loudly—for once. (And when was the last time that had happened?)

"And notify the motor-pool, I want every vehicle topped off with coolant before they leave the precinct today," Bogo was speaking over his shoulder to someone out in the hall, "and have our tow-trucks prepped and on standby; best be prepared, just in case."

"Right Chief," the officer around the corner acknowledged. (It sounded like the hippo, Higgins.)

Bogo nodded his approval, and moved to the lectern, leaving the door open for someone else to close. (Officer Jackson) And then shuffling his papers and adjusting his spectacles, he took his usual place at the podium.

"Why he doesn't just get that thing enlarged?" Nick queried in a sideways sotto voce, referring to the doorway by which Bogo had entered the bullpen. (The Cape buffalo was always required to turn sideways and duck his head low in order to pass through it.) Judy had no idea…but thank goodness; her partner's jovial fursonality seemed at last to be on the comeback trail.

"Mornin' everyone," Bogo announced looking up from the documents, "Well, I don't think I need remind you that it's going to be hot one out there today," he peered over the rim of his spectacles. "But I will, because it's important. Everyone, be sure to keep well hydrated when you're out on the streets today, and keep an eye on y'selves, and on each other, for signs of heat exhaustion. If you start to feel goosebumps or dizzy, if you start to get muscle cramps, don't keep silent about it, tell your partner and notify dispatch; there's no shame in it."

He paused, sweeping his gaze over the bullpen to make sure his officers got the point, and then continued "Now, tempers will flare when it's hot outside, and that applies not just to the citizenry but to ourselves as well Keep that in mind, and keep yourselves under control…and again, keep an eye on each other. That's what your partner is there for, am I understood."

"Yes, sir!' the officers responded, with more enthusiasm than they probably felt. It was one thing to promise to keep your head here in the bullpen…and quite another to put it into practice when you had a pack of angry citizens in your face, offering graphic descriptions of what they'd like to do to your mother, (because you wouldn't let them open that fire hydrant.)

When the Chief called "Assignments," Nick and Judy both relaxed. They already had their task for the day, assisting the Burrow County Deputies with their questioning of Craig Guilford and his girlfriend, Amanda Hill, (indoor work, yay!)

The task assignments went pretty much as anyone might have expected, Bogo put the cold weather species in Tundratown and Old-Growth City, and consigned the animals from warmer climes to Sahara Square, Savanna Central, and the Rainforest District.

"Good thing it wasn't this hot yesterday," Judy observed to Nick, "it's probably going to be yucky up in the Meadowlands." Being a farm girl, she knew better than most the joys of working outside during a hot spell; carrot crops don't take 'mental health days.'

Bogo put extra officers on the roads leading into Tundratown from The Rainforest District and Sahara Square; there'd be more than a few mammals trying to find relief from the heat in Zootopia's arctic zone today, and the tunnels through the mountains and the Climate Wall could accommodate only so many vehicles at a time. Heavy traffic through a bottleneck like that inevitably led to fender-benders and on a day like this, to possible altercations.

Judy thought the Chief had finished passing out the assignments when, much to her surprise, his gaze fell on her and Nick.

"Hopps, Wilde…see me in my office after we're done here. I've got something else for you, when you've finished assisting the Burrow County deputies. Right then everyone; dismissed!"

The briefing broke up a lot more slowly than usual; no one was in a rush to hit the streets today.


"What do you suppose this is all about?" Nick asked Judy as they made their way up the concourse towards the Chief's office.

"Well, we're not in trouble or anything," she answered with a shrug and a twitch of her nose. For some reason, the fox's prickly outlook had given way to a mood of apprehension.

"Oh I know that," he answered, offering a shrug of his own. "I'm just worried that he's going to give us an assignment out there in the heat." He was nodding in the direction of the Precinct's front entrance.

"Well, we'll see," Judy answered, having nothing better available. Privately, she was thinking, "Hmmmph, City animals…!"

When they entered Bogo's office, they found not only the Chief, but also another familiar face, waiting to greet them.

"Mr. Gamsbart, well this is a surprise." Judy told him, reaching up to offer the chamois a paw. (She had to elbow Nick in the ribs to get him to follow suit.) "Nice to see you again," she said.

"Same here," the Zootopia Deputy Prosecutor offered, shaking hooves with each of them.

"So, is this about the Rafaj Brothers?" Nick Wilde asked. He sounded like a teenage fox, insisting for the twentieth time, 'Yeah, I got my homework done'. Rudy Gamsbart either didn't catch his tone of his voice, or else he wasn't interested.

Neither, apparently, was Chief Bogo.

"No, it's not about that," he said, motioning for his officers to take a seat. "It's….Mmmmm, best wait until everyone's here." He reached over and keyed his desk intercom, "Clawhauser, where the devil is…?"

As if in answer to the Chief's inquiry, someone rapped at his door just then, (down low, Judy noted with her ears up and her nose twitching.)

"Hopps, get that will you?" the chief asked her.

Opening the door to Chief Bogo's office required a little finesse on Judy's part; she had to leap up, catch hold of the door handle and then use gravity to help her turn it downwards. She had it pretty much dialed in by now, but still… Why hadn't Chief Bogo simply told the new arrival, 'Come' as was his usual habit?

She got her answer when the door cracked open. For the first time since joining the ZPD, Judy Hopps found herself in the presence of an officer who was actually smaller than herself, a tassel-eared Kaibab squirrel to be precise.

Although they had never met, Judy had heard about Lieutenant Albert Tufts; the head of the ZPD Cybercrimes unit; he had a reputation out of all proportion to his size—and not necessarily a good one. Whenever she mentioned to another officer that she'd never actually encountered him, the response was invariably something along the lines of 'lucky you!'

Albert Tufts, was the quintessential cyber-genius; arrogant, abrasive, and condescending to everyone in his immediate vicinity. Certainly he looked the part on this hot, Zootopia morning, dressed in stained, urban-camo bush-shorts and a black tank-top, worn beneath an open, tie-dye shirt…so loud, that Judy couldn't decide which was more appropriate, sunglasses or shooter's muffs. The final touch was his police badge, dangling from a gold rope-chain around his neck. Any other member of the ZPD showing for work dressed like that would be written up in heartbeat, unless they were working undercover—and Al Tufts had never played that game in his life.

"Well, are you just going to stand there or what, bunny?" he demanded, folding his arms by way of greeting.

Judy dutifully moved aside and without another word—or an invitation from Chief Bogo—Tufts scooted across the floor and shot up one leg of the Cape buffalo's desk, pulling up a paperweight to use as a makeshift chair and planting himself squarely in the center of the desk blotter, as if claiming it for himself.

"Nice of you to make it, this morning," Bogo informed him sardonically. He looked halfway ready to sweep the bushy-tailed rodent straight into his wastebasket.

"Ahhh no problem, Chief dude." Tufts responded, flipping a pawlm back and forth.

He could get away with such frivolities for two main reasons. First, Lieutenant Albert Tufts, ZPD, was good at his job; even his biggest detractors had to give him that much. Only two months previously his Cybercrimes Unit had made the biggest ransomware bust in the last ten years, only one of a war-bonnet's worth of feathers in the Kaibab squirrel's cap.

But the main reason Tufts could get away with talking to Bogo like that was because he knew—and so did everyone else—that if the Chief ever did fire him, he'd find a dozen offers from the private sector waiting in his mailbox when he arrived home…at three times his current salary, minimum.

And so Bogo just gritted his teeth and let the remark pass.

"Right," he said, ignoring the squirrel for the moment and focusing his attention on Nick and Judy, "The reason you're here Hopps…Wilde, is that we may have finally got a lead on the Phantom… Yes Hopps, what is it?"

Judy's was waving her paw in the air.

"Sir, I know that name," she said, "But that's pretty much all I know. Who is 'the Phantom' exactly?"

"Well, he's…" Al Tufts started to answer, but his time the Chief was quicker, nodding in deference to the bunny-cop's partner.

"Wilde?"

It was the right call to make; Nick Wilde, former a-level street-hustler, knew exactly to whom the Chief was referring.

"He's a shylock Carrots, a loanshark…practically a legend on the street." The red fox warmed quickly to the subject as he went on. "No one's ever met him; no one's ever seen him. Heck, nobody even knows what species he is. The ZPD's been trying to bust him for…ohhh, going on three years now."

Judy's ears stood up and reached up for the ceiling. And then she turned to speak to Bogo again.

"But…how, sir? Not getting caught is one thing, but three years and we don't even know his species? How…how does he DO it?" She found this news almost impossible to believe.

Reluctantly, (very reluctantly,) Bogo yielded the floor to Albert Tufts.

"By keeping his distance," the squirrel told her, (after favoring Nick with an annoyed look,) "he only communicates with his 'clients' via the net and even then only by text-message or e-mail, no voice, no webcam. We know of at least one instance where he broke off a deal after his 'client' insisted on hearing him speak. He's one seriously paranoid cyber-dude."

"Well, you know what they say," Rudy Gamsbart observed with a smirk, joining the discussion for the first time, "Just because you're paranoid, it doesn't mean they're NOT out to get you,"

That was good for a snicker from the Chief, Nick, and Judy…and an even more vexed look Lieutenant Tufts.

"Maybe so, but he's not the only one. Even AFTER the Phantom shined on that dude, he still wouldn't talk to us."

"Why was that?" Nick Wilde asked, intrigued. This part of the story appeared to be news even to him.

"Because the Phantom isn't just a shylock, fox-dude; he's also a hacker," Tufts answered him with his tail flipping, a sign of wariness in a squirrel, "The best I ever came up against; we're talking almost Druid-level abilites here. ZPD Cybercrimes hasn't even been able to track down his servers…much less crack his encryption code." And then to Nick's amazement, (and also Judy's,) his tone became one of grudging admiration. "Whit his kind of mad computer skillz, the Phantom is exactly the kind of dude you don't want torqued at you if you're dependent on computer tech for a living…or even at home."

"And by necessity, every single one of the Phantom's 'Clients' is just that," Gamsbart concurred, and then nodded at the squirrel, "Tufts, tell 'em how he got his name."

The Kaibab squirrel bristled at the question but answered it anyway…if you wanted to call that kind of babble an answer

"I forget who first came up with it, but back when the dude first showed up on our radar, we used to call him the Phantom Blot…coz the closer we got to him, the more he was like, there's no 'there' there. It was like he didn't even exist, and we'd dreamed the whole thing. Every time we thought we were closing in on him…it was like 'zap!' and every trace of him was gone. After a while, he started getting primo at concealing his presence online. Eventually, we dropped the Blot part, and just started calling him The Phantom."

Relating the story seemed to depress Tufts, typical of what happens when an online warrior finds himself overmatched. That prompted Rudy Gamsbart to throw him a lifeline.

"ZPD Cybercrimes might never have spotted him again, except for another case they were working. Someone was hacking into the databases of some of the big Zootopia banks and finance companies. At first, the two cases seemed to have no connection, but then a pattern started to emerge." He nodded towards the Chief, who in turn passed the ball back to Tufts.

"And where did it go from there, Lieutenant?"

The tassel eared squirrel took the ball and ran with it. "I noticed that this hacker, or hackers, whoever they were always went straight into the same file-folders whenever they hit one of the bank's databases, the lists of loan applicants who'd been rejected as bad risks, for whatever reason. I began to wonder about that; most loanshark customers are animals that got shined on for a bank-loan. And so I ran a comparison and yep, it was the Phantom…still no way to trace him, but it was him all right, the exact same security measures." He sounded frustrated, rather than heartened by the memory of his coup.

"And THAT'S why we want him so badly," Rudy Gamsbart said, picking up the thread again, "As loan-sharks go, the Phantom is pretty much a small timer. At least that we know of," he hurriedly qualified his statement, "The thing that's really serious is the way he keeps hacking into the bank's databases and getting away with it."

"Right and it's driving the Zootopia banking community half barmy," Chief Bogo put in, "What was it the President of Lemming Brothers said to me the other day? Oh yes, 'This animal's worse than bedbugs; just when you think you've got rid of him, he's back again.' Yes Wilde?" Now Nick was the one with his paw in the air, (and his head tilted sideways.)

"Excuse me sir, but that sounds like some pretty odd behavior for a loan-shark. Hacking into a bank's data-base to find customers? That's not right; in my experience, shylocks always let animals come to THEM."

"True, that." The Chief was nodding, "But what we think is happening is, he does it to verify his clients' stories. 'You say you've come to me because the banks won't lend you any money? Well, let's just see about it, then.'"

"Oh yes, of course sir," Nick was nodding, but to Judy Hopps' ears, he sounded singularly UN-convinced.

"Look, it doesn't matter why he's doing it, as long as he's doing it." Al Tufts broke in with his long, bushy tail flipping again, this time in exasperation, "So far, the Phantom has only run what I call a stage-one hack on the banks' databases…but that could change in a heartbeat."

Judy felt her ears go up again, and then her paw lifted upwards as well. "Eh, excuse me Lieutenant, um…a stage one hack?"

The Kaibab squirrel looked at her as if she were drooling and spouting gibberish. She could almost hear him thinking, 'Dumb bunny…!'

Finally, he said, "A stage one hack; going into a database to steal data. Not nice, but it doesn't cause any damage, at least not in the short term if you don't make any changes to the files you're copying."

"Which is why that kind of hack is also the hardest one to spot," Rudy Gamsbart observed from the sidelines.

Tufts simply continued as if the chamois wasn't there. "A stage-two hack is where you go into a database to manipulate the data—but not necessarily with malicious intent. Maybe you have a traffic ticket you'd like stricken off your record, maybe you'd like to improve your credit score; there are individuals out there who can do that for a price. A stage three hack is a cybercrime with larcenous intent, infecting someone's computer with ransomware, or hijacking it to use as a coin mine."

"Wait, what?" Rudy Gamsbart was staring at Tufts—exactly as the tassel-eared squirrel had planned it, Judy suspected.

"Oh yes, that's the big new trend in cybercrime these days," the squirrel responded with an almost triumphant smirk on his face, "And it can happen without you even realizing it. The only sign the virus is on your computer is if it starts to run hot for no good reason. That's why 'bit-jackers', that's what I call them, like to target online gamers, the average gaming computer has a heavy duty cooling system and it's built handle large amounts of data in a short space of time. You know those online games where you compete for money, like Stalker Race? You wanna stay the heck away from those bad boys; they're the bit-jackers' happy hunting ground."

"And…a stage-four hack?" Nick Wilde asked him. He didn't even know if there WAS such a thing, but he wanted to shut this know-it-all squirrel down before he really got going on the subject of coin mining. (So did Chief Bogo, judging by the approving nod he was directing the red fox's way.)

Tufts' tail ceased its movements and his features turned ice-cold and grim.

"A cyberattack," was all he said. Nick's query had done the job.

"And although the Phantom is still at…stage one as Lieutenant Tufts put it," the Chief rumbled, "he's been deep enough inside the banks' servers to have gone all the way to that fourth stage, had he chosen to do so."

"Not only that," it was Rudy Gamsbart again, "he's also been deep enough inside some of the local banks to steal tens of millions of dollars if he felt like it; he could have skimmed the dormant accounts, set himself up for a loan and then erased it once he had the money, even put himself on the payroll for a six-figure salary. So far, he's done nothing of the kind…but how many times can you put that kind of temptation in front of somebody before they finally give in to it?"

Nick didn't reply to this and neither did Judy; after two years with the ZPD, they both knew the answer to the chamois' question. Dawn Bellwether had once told them, 'fear always wins.' She'd been wrong about that one; fear doesn't always win—but try greed.

"I see," the bunny finally said, "but what has that got do with Officer Wilde and me?"

Bogo leaned across his desk with a frosty smile.

"Ah yes, the $64.000 dollar question."

"The 64…WHAT?" Albert Tufts' tail was flipping again.

"Never mind,' Rudy Gamsbart waved a hoof, and then to Nick and Judy he said, "It's because of the method the Phantom uses to pay out and collect his money. He absolutely refuses to deal in any kind of online monetary transaction, cash or cyber-currency.

"Just goes to show how smart he is." Tufts interjected, refusing to be brushed aside, "Like I already said," (he hadn't) "crypto-currency transactions are risky little stinkers. Just last February, Zoo York City indicted a guy who ripped off nearly a million smackers in cryptocurrency by accessing his victims' cell phones. And that's not even mentioning the Bitecoin collapse from a couple of years ago."

"All right, fine, "Nick was scratching at an ear. "I get why The Phantom doesn't like cryptocurrency, but why no online money transfers, period?"

"That, we don't know," the chamois started to say before Tufts cut him off again.

"Who CARES why; it works for him, doesn't it?"

"Maybe not quite as well as you think, Lieutenant," Chief Bogo rumbled, freezing the squirrel in his patented 'not-ONE-more-word' look, enough to silence even him. He held Tufts in that gaze for an extra two seconds and then shifted his attention to Rudy Gamsbart.

"Mr. Prosecutor? I believe this is where the Attorney General's office comes into it."

Gamsbart nodded and turned to Nick and Judy.

"As I said, we've known for a long time that The Phantom doesn't use the net for money transfers; what we didn't know was how he WAS conducting them." His mouth cocked upwards into a droll expression, "That is, not until recently. Now, we're fairly certain that he uses a dead-drop for his exchanges, cash only."

It was here that Chief's silent warning to Albert Tufts finally wore off.

"A dead-drop, that's…" he started to say, and Nick Wilde swiftly interrupted

"I know what a dead-drop is, Lieutenant," he said, laying his ears backwards. He had clearly had enough of this officious little jerk, "Pre-arranged location, one animal leaves the money, another one picks it up and they never see each other."

"That way if either bag-mammal gets caught he can't give the other one away, even if he wants to." Judy Hopps also had an edge to her voice. Even a rookie police-officer knew what a dead-drop was; sweet cheez n' crackers, just who did this arrogant so-sand-so think he was? It was one thing for him to lecture her and Nick on computer science, but the street was her turf (and the fox's even more.)

Rudy Gamsbart just continued as if there'd been no interruptions. He hadn't lasted this long in the Zootopia AG's office without knowing when to ignore someone.

"And that's why you're here, Officer Hopps, Officer Wilde. Three nights ago in Tundratown, one of our Confidential Informants was arrested while attempting to burglarize a cold-storage warehouse."

That prompted a derisive yip from Nick.

"Heh, he's just lucky it was the ZPD who caught him. Mr. Big doesn't LIKE it when street criminals try to operate inside his territory."

Judy expected another angry stare from Bogo for this, but the Cape buffalo only nodded ironically.

"You're quite right about that, Wilde." He said, capping the line with a dark chortle, "'Bad for business', as Mr. Big himself might put it. However in this case, it may be ourselves who've been smiled upon by the goddess of good fortune. Our C.I. claims to know the location of a cash pick-up the Phantom is making this coming Saturday. He says he'll give it to us in exchange for dropping the burglary charges."

"Just…let him walk?" Judy's nose was twitching in disbelief.

"Out of the question," Rudy Gamsbart answered flatly. "The Attorney General's Office is prepared to reduce the charge from burglary to possession of stolen property…IF our informant's information is valid, but that's it, that's all he's getting." He looked at the floor and then up again; something Judy had seen many times before…ironically, when a suspect ran out of excuses and was finally ready to admit to his crime.

"The problem is," the chamois said, "This particular informant sold us a bill of goods on at least one prior occasion. A year ago, he was caught lying on the witness stand and nearly cost us a case we'd been building for more than a year. Frankly, if it was anyone less than The Phantom he's offering, I'd tell him to go peddle his papers elsewhere."

Judy felt her throat tighten and from the corner of her eye, she saw Nick Wilde trying not to grimace. This conversation had just taken a turn that neither one of them liked very much. A suspect, caught lying under oath? Didn't they know someone who fit that description?

Once again, Rudy Gamsbart either didn't catch the changes of expression or else, much more likely, he didn't care.

Ditto for Chief Bogo.

"Now, it so happens, you've had dealings with this informant before," he told his officers. "You know him and you know how he thinks. When you've done assisting the Burrow County Deputies with the Guilford interrogation, I want you to go and have a similar chat with our CI. Find out what he knows, try to determine whether or not his information is valid…and then report directly to me. I'll make a determination as to whether or not we pursue this any further."

Someone had to ask it and that someone turned out to be Judy Hopps.

"Sir, with all due respect, why are we even pursuing it this far, if our informant has already proven himself to be unreliable?"

The answer she got was not a friendly one. Rudy Gamsbart stiffened.

"Officer Hopps, I believe I already told you that…"

"Because, quite simply, we've everything to gain and nothing to lose," Chief Bogo interjected, moving quickly to give his officer some cover. "If our informant's lying to us, it won't help with our investigation into The Phantom's activities…but it won't hinder us either." He lifted his hooves in a cynical gesture. "And then what does HE get out of it? The judge throws the book at him and the ZPD never trusts him again. That's why we've decided to move forward on this information."

"And as I said earlier, this is the Phantom we're trying to catch," Rudy Gamsbart said, calmer now, "Given the potential damage he could cause, The Attorney General's office is prepared to hold its nose and play ball with this informant, regardless of any past issues." A lopsided smile crossed the chamois' face, "If you'll pardon the quote, we need to nip this in the bud. That cybercurrency hijacker Lieutenant Tufts mentioned earlier? A rank amateur compared to our little troublemaker. When the police raided Mr. coin-Bandit's house, they found a laptop containing a folder labeled 'Hacker Stuff' and another one marked 'Finished Targets.' You'll never see The Phantom making such a brazen mistake; if he was even half that careless, we'd have caught him a long time ago."

Lieutenant Tufts' response to this was a pained look, directed at Chief Bogo.

"Sir, if you're done with me here, can I go now?" To Judy, he sounded like a kit who wanted to get back to his cartoons.

"Hang on just a second, we're almost finished." The Chief told him.

"One thing I need to emphasize." Rudy Gamsbart said, ignoring both the Kaibab squirrel and the Chief, "The most the AG's office is prepared to offer our CI is that reduction to possession of stolen property charge…and he's lucky to be getting THAT much after the way he embarrassed us last time."

"How much jail-time are we talking here, Mr. Gamsbart?" It was Nick again, "he's going to ask, and we'll need an answer."

"Tell him that's going to be up to the judge," the chamois responded with a nod, "But you can also inform him that if his information pans out, he'll serve his time in City Jail not the Zootopia Penitentiary."

"Yep, that'll make a difference," the fox responded. "Especially if that CI is who I think it is," he added quietly, to himself.

Just then, the intercom rasped on Chief Bogo's desk.

"Yes, Clawhauser, what is it?"

"Chief, the deputies from Burrow County are here."

Bogo rolled his wrist and checked his watch.

"Right on time…Right then, Hopps, Wilde, off you go."

It wasn't until they were well away from the Chief's office that Judy turned to her partner.

"Is it my imagination Nick, or is there something the 'squirrel-dude' said in there that's bothering you?"

"No, it wasn't your imagination, Carrots," the fox answered her at once. He chewed his lip for a second, mulling his next words. Then he said, "Only it wasn't just him, it was Chief Bogo too…what he said about The Phantom cracking those bank files to do background checks on his customers." He stopped walking and turned to face her, "That doesn't make any sense, Judy. A loanshark doesn't need to hack into your bank account to know you got turned down for a loan…and isn't just 'most customers', like Lieutenant Tufts said; nobody goes to a shylock unless they can't get money from a bank. And a shark wouldn't care about that anyway. The only thing that matters to him is getting paid. If the Phantom was hacking into those bank files looking for leverage—something he could use to blackmail his customers if they don't pay up—then yes, I could see it, but being turned down for a loan is hardly extortion level info." He pressed his paws to his cheeks in a faux-rendition of Benjamin Clawhauser, "O-M Goodness, the bank won't loan me any money, woe is me; my reputation is toast."

Judy's ears turned backwards and her mouth hardened into a scowl. "Not funny, Nick."

Actually, it would have been funny if Nick's joke hadn't been at the corpulent cheetah's expense. Sweet Cheez, his mother must have really given him a hard time on the phone last night. Still…everything he'd just told her made perfect sense.

"And HE should know about shylocks, after all the times his father got turned down for a bank-loan." She reminded herself.

"So why DO you think the Phantom keeps hacking into those bank records?" She asked him.

Nick looked away for a second, and then looked straight at her.

"I think it's exactly what I said earlier, Carrots. I think that's how he finds his clients… Yes, I know." He could see her nose twitching again, "I know what I said, loan-sharks don't go looking for customers; they let mammals come to them—only not this time, Carrots….not this time."

"All right Nick," Judy spoke slowly and cautiously, "But why are you so certain that's the case?"

"If you want the truth, I'm not," the red fox admitted. He tapped his head and then patted his midsection, "It's not something I think, only something I feel. But the last time my gut talked to me this way was when it told me to go check out a certain hilltop, overlooking the Big Dance."

At that instant, as if triggered by the red fox's reference to the Carrot Days Festival, a familiar voice hailed them from beside the reception desk.

"Hey Nick, Judy…over here."


Author's Note:

Some parts of this episode are based in actual fact.

'Bit-jacking', as Lieutenant Tufts called it, is a very real phenomenon. Likewise Prosecutor Gamsbart's 'coin Bandit' is based on an actual person, The discovery by the police of those folders on his laptop is also a real event.

The different levels of hacking described in the story are real as well, (although the terms, Stage 1, 2, 3, etc were my own create for the sake of brevity.)