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 9 …There's Mirrors—(And Fire)
(Pt. 1)

Meerkat Market, Sahara Square Beach Promenade, Saturday, 07:51 ZST

"…and am I right in assuming you get the Glazed Carrot Macchiato, Hopps?" Officer Kii Catano's face crinkled mischievously as she asked the question; typical feline.

Judy accepted the cup without comment, remembering to sip carefully. Depending upon the vendor, Sahara Square coffee could be 'strong enough to run a triathlon,' as Nick Wilde liked to say.

That actually was fine with Judy, she could use a little boost right now; it had been well after midnight when they'd planted the surveillance cameras in the large-mammals locker room. Behind her, Catano took a short pull from her own cup, gazing over the bunny's shoulder at the trio of monitor screens. Looking downward for a second Judy noted that the tip of the cheetah-cop's tail was clocking back and forth across the floor; as with most open-air dwellers, she found close quarters to be confining and even claustrophobic.

Being a denning species and burrowing species a respectively, Nick and Judy didn't have that problem; as far as they were concerned the interior of the ZPD ComServ (Command and Surveillance) vehicle was not at all oppressive; to them it seemed almost cozy.

It was a considerably smaller ride than the produce truck the ZPD had employed for the Rafaj Brothers blood-diamond sting, a hi-cube van done up in the blue and white livery of the Zootopia Department of Water and Power, (a not uncommon sight in perpetually thirsty Sahara Square.)

Even so, the fox and bunny-cop couldn't help feeling a wee bit uncomfortable.

It had nothing to do with the size of the vehicle—or even the heat outside; in fact it was ten degrees cooler today than when he and Judy had located the Phantom's dead-drop, (and anyway, the van was fully air-conditioned.) This vehicle could have been as big as a balloon shed and it would still have felt prickly in here…and the explanation was psychological rather than a physical in nature.

One of the 'perks' of being in put command, (and one the fox and bunny hadn't considered before,) was that you had to stay out of sight and let someone else do the footwork…at least until the bust went down. It was an unhappy position for Nick and Judy both; they had always been paws-on types of officers, ever wanting to be out there in the thick of things.

Or that was how Judy felt; Nick seemed to be carrying far less than his usual zeal for getting his paws dirty. In fact, although the fox was keeping it safely hidden, his enthusiasm for today's shindig had cooled to lukewarm at best—and this, while also psychological in origin, was completely unrelated to the fact of him and Judy being forced to remain inside the ComSurv van.

No, Nick Wilde's case of creeping melancholia stemmed from a deeper source, a fundamental character difference between himself and his bunny-cop partner.

Though somewhat jaded by her experiences of the past two years, Judy Hopps was still an optimist at heart. In being given command of the operation to track the Phantom's mule, she had seen before her 'multitudinous opportunities'—both for herself and for Nick. This was the case that could make their careers; if they pulled this off, getting their detective shields would be a foregone conclusion.

(And, of course, they would be helping to make the world a better place, as the bunny-cop reminded herself for the nth time.)

Nick Wilde, a cynic from the age of nine, saw things quite differently. Why the heck had Chief Bogo tapped two officers of such a lowly rank to head up the team tasked with taking down the one and only Phantom? There was only one reason that he could think of, a rule of thumb he'd first heard nearly fifteen years before—when handing out an assignment with a high probability of failure, always give it to someone as far down the chain of command as possible. That way, if everything goes south, you'll be insulated from the inevitable recriminations. (This was how Mr. Big had always operated—and a major reason why the diminutive Tundratown Mob boss had never spent more than six months in jail.)

Nick would never say any of this to Judy of course, but still he had his doubts; there were just too many factors they hadn't considered when planning this operation, too many things they hadn't had time to consider.

Being the perverse little creatures they were, Nick's reservations had naturally declined to reveal themselves until AFTER he'd signed on to help ramrod this fox and bunny show.

His misgivings had first begun to sprout two days previously, while he'd been waiting in line outside of Sweeties Confectionary Shop, but they had really come into bloom shortly before 1:00 AM, when he, Judy and Swinton had arrived to place the surveillance cameras inside the large mammals' locker room. Coming down the steps, they'd found the solution to that ever-nagging question; how did the Phantom intended to keep someone else from grabbing locker LB6 before Ian Shortal could get to it?

The answer had come in the form of a cheap, rotary-dial lock securing the locker in question, one of those grade-school, three-number-combo models; the kind that wouldn't last two seconds against a determined thief.

Not that it mattered; there was nothing in locker LB6 worth stealing, not yet anyway; the Phantom would never allow his payment to be secured with something so easily broken—everyone had agree on that point—but it would be more than sufficient to keep any other possible users away.

And yet…

Nobody had said it, but they'd all been thinking the same thing: What if, when they'd come down here, they had chanced upon the Phantom's courier in the act of securing that locker? It was more than a slight possibility; the mysterious loanshark's mule would certainly have wanted to set that lock in place while the building was deserted, which meant either late into the night or in the wee hours of the morning; for all the three ZPD officers knew, they might have missed him by mere moments.

And…supposing they hadn't missed him? Not one, but three cops, showing up here, at this hour—equipped with surveillance cameras? One look and the Phantom's courier would have realized in a nanosecond that his cover was blown.

And Nick, Judy, and Swinton would have been powerless to act; there's no law says you can't reserve a beach locker, even at one o'clock in the morning. They'd have had no choice but to let the courier walk away Scot-free…and within minutes of his departure, The Phantom would have known that the ZPD was onto him.

It was a possibility that should have been considered back during the planning stages. Before anyone else had set foot in this building, Howell or one of the other wolves should have been tasked with making sure the coast was clear; one quick sniff at each entrance would have easily done the trick.

But nooooo, no one had thought about it until after they'd found the padlock…which meant the only reason they hadn't walked in on the courier had been sheer, dumb luck.

"And nobody gets that lucky every time," the red fox had reminded himself. Another such mistake and the entire operation could blow up right in their faces.

The lock itself had yielded no clues…except for a certainty that it was the courier who'd placed it there. Sniffing it over, (and being careful not to touch it,) Nick had detected only the faint aroma of latex and a possible a hint of biological deodorizer. The swipe of a UV light across the padlock had yielded no prints whatsoever, not even smudges. Whoever had secured locker LB6 had taken some serious steps to remain anonymous…and that, ironically enough, had pointed to only one possible culprit.

"Okay, I'm going to head back outside," Kii Catano took a final sip of her coffee and then reached for the door handle, nodding at Swinton and waiting for the all clear.

The pig-cop keyed her laptop and spoke into her headset. "Wolford, this is Swinton, is Officer Catano clear to exit ComSurv-1? Over…"

The reply was somewhat fuzzy but still easily understood.

"Uh, that's an affirmative ComSurv, she's good to go, over..."

The female cheetah nodded and ducked quickly out the door. The clearance ritual had been annoying but necessary. Kii Catano was clad this morning in jogging pants and a sports bra, (the same outfit she'd worn while targeting purse snatchers.) Seeing an animal dressed like that, exiting from a Zootopia DWP van might well have raised a few eyebrows…and also a few suspicions.

Judy's headset hissed and a voice spoke, "Overhead one toComSurv-1, any sign of our weasel yet, over?"

Before answering him, the bunny-cop shared pained look with her partner. The Meerkat Market wasn't due to open for business for at least another hour… and this was the sixth time Larry Bock had made that inquiry; Claire Swinton had been right, this animal was a griper par-excellence.

The only good thing about his attitude was that he'd refused point blank to serve his watch from inside the command-vehicle, instead insisting upon a location where he could have line-of-sight visuals on his drones. Nick and Judy had agreed at once; not only would it get the perpetually-complaining ibex at least partway off their backs, it also made good tactical sense. Accordingly, he was parked under an awning on a nearby rooftop.

"Overhead-1, that's a negative; no sign of him," Judy answered in the weary sing-song of a mother telling her child, 'No dear, we're not there yet.' "And please keep this channel clear; ComSurv out."

"What the heck does he need to know that for?" Nick Wilde asked, not a little irked himself, "We're not going to use drones to track Shortal, only the courier."

"He probably figures the sooner the money gets here, the sooner the Phantom's mule will get here…and the sooner HE can get back to the Tundratown Precinct," Swinton's eyes remained glued to her monitor as she spoke, "Anyway, don't say I didn't warn you."

"Don't look at us; it was The Chief's idea." Judy threw up her paws in a helpless gesture, grinning crookedly.

Nick Wilde was in no mood for any further discussion of Larry Bock and so he asked, "What's the wind doing out there?" When they'd arrived an hour earlier a breeze had had been blowing in off Zootopia Sound—steady, but not stiff. At the moment, it wasn't a problem, but if it kicked up to a serious blow, it could play havoc with any attempts to track the courier by way of his scent.

Judy scrolled and clicked on her police-issue laptop. "Still holding steady at 5." she said, and then look at Nick inquiringly. "How high does it have to get before you start having trouble tracking someone?" Being a species that depended more on sound than on odor for pinpointing someone she couldn't see, Judy Hopps knew little of the intricacies of following a scent trail.

"Right now, I'm good," the red fox told her, "anything over 10 miles an hour, that's when I start having trouble." He frowned slightly, as if remembering something. "That's the limit for a fox; I don't know what it is for a wolf." He keyed his headset, "Howell, this is Wilde, what's your species' wind velocity threshold for tracking a perp by scent? Over…"

The red wolf's answer came back as a text rather than a voice message.

Hwl: "15 mph…tho I wouldn't wnt to try it mre than 12."

Tad Howell was stationed at the east end of the locker room containing LB6, the leeward side where he could catch the breeze blowing through corridor. (That was one of the few good things about the wind; a single officer could cover the entire building.)

Street-bums being unwelcome on the Beach Promenade, he had exchanged his derelict's disguise from two weeks ago for something more suitable to the Meerkat Market…the ubiquitous tourist-with-a-laptop that seemed to be everywhere in Sahara Square on weekends; hence his response by text-message rather than voice. (Also, that way he couldn't be overheard by any passersby.)

It was no small source of amusement to Judy that the red wolf's ensemble was remarkably similar to the outfit Nick had worn, back when she'd first met him, chino-pants, aviator shades, and a gaudy Hawaiian shirt, (worn outside his pants,) topped off with a tie that reached almost to his knees. The only differences were the addition of a short-brimmed bucket hat, (and of course, that laptop computer.)

"Nick, you think the wind might really get that strong?" Judy asked the question with her nose twitching.

"I won't lie Carrots, it could," he admitted, but then hastily qualified his statement. "It usually doesn't pick up around here until late in the afternoon though. With a little luck our suspect will have grabbed up the money and am-scrayed long before then."

"We're not looking at a sandstorm are we? Over…" Larry Bock's voice cut in on the line again.

Nick almost answered in the affirmative—he wanted to teach this whiny idiot a lesson—and he would have too, if Judy hadn't looked at him and mouthed 'Don't you dare!' He mouthed back, 'Killjoy!' and responded to the ibex, all business.

"Nope, it's when the wind starts blowing out of the Canyonlands that you have to start worrying about a haboob. Anyway, it's the wrong time of year for…"

"Break! Break! Stoat approaching at 5 o'clock; might be our guy."

It was Officer Grizzoli, and the effect on the trio of animals inside the ComSurv van was like a double-jolt of caffeine. Nick, Judy, and Claire Swinton all stiffened for a second and then swung into action.

"Howell, this is Hopps did you copy that? Over…"

"That's an affirmative, Hopps. I can just barely see him, can't quite catch his scent yet, but it sure as heck looks like him, over…"

"10-4, notify command as soon as you get confirmation, Hopps out."

"Grizzoli, what is the subject's location, over…"

"Wilde, he's just now passing by the fishing pier entrance, headed eastbound, about ten feet away from a lemonade cart with an orange and yellow umbrella. He should reach it within five, over..."

"Overhead-1, I copy that, I'm launching now, over..."

Judy groaned and shook her head. "Dangit, I didn't give him the order to launch."

"Well he did, so we might as well take advantage," Claire Swinton pressed a button on her console, and the image on Nick's screen vanished, replaced by an overhead view of the beach promenade. For several seconds, it pitched up, down and sideways, making him feel slightly sea-sick. Then all at once, it steadied itself and zoomed in on a small, burly figure ambling along the sidewalk with a faux-canvas shopping bag swinging from his paw.

Nick Wilde had to marvel; at the end of the day Sergeant Larry Bock really WAS that good with a drone. Less than 30 seconds after getting it airborne, he'd spotted the target and tagged him. Hmmm, maybe his decision to launch on his own initiative had been the right one after all…because Nick recognized the animal on the drone-cam almost immediately.

He hurriedly keyed his mike, "Wilde to all units, Wilde to all units. I have visual confirmation on the approaching subject; I say again, I have visual confirmation. This is our weasel, over."

Before anyone would acknowledge, an excited voice broke it on the transmission.

"Command,, this is Howell. I have the approaching subject's scent and I concur with Officer Wilde's observation. It's Mr. Shortal; all right. I can not only smell his musk, he's got the aroma of that candy-shop all over him, too. Command, do you copy that? Over…"

"Howell, this is Hopps, that's a Roger, good job. Can you confirm that the subject is on course for the large-mammal's locker facility? Over…"

"Uhmmm…Hopps, I'd say that's about 75% affirmative. I'll know for sure in another minute, over…"

"All right, let us know as soon as you're certain. Bock; keep your eyes on that stoat until he enters the locker facility and then pull back; I want everyone else except for Howell to pull back right now. It's not Mr. Shortal we want; it's whoever shows up to collect the package he's delivering. All units please acknowledge, over."

From there, it all went so much like clockwork that what followed was practically an anticlimax…that is, until they saw Mr. Shortal reach for the lock securing LB6. Now they knew for certain that he was there to deliver the Phantom's money.

"Looks pretty happy for a guy in hock to a loan-shark," Claire Swinton observed as they watched him spinning the padlock dial back and forth. Indeed, the Scottish weasel appeared almost giddy with jubilation.

"That's because after today, he won't be," Judy Hopps informed her, remembering what Duke Weaselton had said; today's installment would be his brother-in-law's final payment to The Phantom. Once it was made, Sweeties would be his, free and clear.

Everything that happened next happened in less than ten seconds, and looked like nothing out of the ordinary. Shortal popped the lock attached to LB6, put a quarter in the coin slot to dislodge the key, and opened it. Next, he set down the shopping bag and took out a fat, black case, the size of a small sheet-cake.

"Zoom in and get a picture on that, Swinton" Judy told her. "It might be important later on."

"Got it," the pig-cop said, and the case enlarged and froze on her screen for half a second.

Judy started to say something else, but then her ears went up and turned sideways. "What is it, Nick?" The fox was growling under his breath.

"I…I don't know Carrots, " he said, squinting at the screen as if looking for hidden messages, "But there's something kind of familiar about that case." He looked closer, blinked and then sat back again, "but I'm hanged if I can figure out what it is."

On the screen, Ian Shortal was slipping the case onto a shelf inside the locker. And then, without any sort of ceremony, he stepped back and shut the door, returning the key to its slot and replacing the lock, (but not with the one he'd found on the locker when he arrived.) Then he turned and simply walked away, never once looking back. Almost immediately, they heard Wolford's voice on the radio. "ComSurv-1, he's coming out. Do you want me to follow? Over..."

Judy quickly keyed her headset.

"Wolford, this is Hopps, that's a negative, let him go. Do you copy? Let him go, over?"

"Let him go, I copy, Wolford out."

Wasting no time, Judy toggled the microphone controls to switch frequencies and spoke again.

"Attention all units, the package has been delivered. I say again, the package has been delivered. Everyone take your positions and stay alert. The next animal who opens that locker will be our suspect. All units please acknowledge, over."

While the others responded, Nick Wilde pulled out his cell-phone

"Okay, I'm notifying the Sahara Square precinct that the money's been dropped."

"10-4" Judy answered, and then started slightly when Swinton let out a low whistle.

"Whoa-ho, check out that new lock, why don't you."

Nick and Judy both looked and saw a padlock with a jet-black body and a glowing blue disc in the center. For some reason it reminded the bunny-cop of SAL, the rogue computer from the movie 2001.

"Smart padlock," the pig-cop explained, "it operates on a bluefang interface; you open it by keying in the code on your smartphone. It figures The Phantom would use something like this."

"Doesn't figure like that to me; those things are right fair easy to hack, over…" a new and perplexed voice had cut in on the frequency. It was Sarah Backabee, the pretty-faced wallaby on loan from ZPD Cybercrimes.

"Not this one, I bet," Claire Swinton disagreed, "It's probably been encrypted from here to Timbucktoo and back again. Oops, over…"

"Mmmm yeah, probably," the wallaby conceded after short pause, "I mean, that's the Phantom's style in' it? Summat that looks plain ordinary on the outside, but on the inside it's cutting edge. Over…"

"I-I-I don't suppose there's any way you can monitor when the courier keys in that code. Over..?" Judy asked the question only half-heartedly.

"Not without that Phantom bloke spotting us, I can't." Sarah Backabee answered with a slightly mournful note in her voice.

"Didn't think so, but I had to ask." Judy told her, "ComSurv out."

And with that everyone settled down to wait.

From there, time seemed to flow like molasses in February; no one moved, hardly anyone spoke. At one point Judy said to Nick, "You know something? I think I'm beginning to understand how it feels to be your buddy, Flash."

He didn't laugh.

9:00 passed; opening time…and then 9:30. It seemed to take a week. By now, even though the command car's A/C unit was blowing like sixty, everyone was pulling at their collars and mopping their faces; for creating a touchy atmosphere, heat has nothing on tension.

9:45…10:00…they had entered the time frame when the courier was expected to make his move. By now a steady stream of animals was passing though the large-mammals' locker room, occasionally blocking the view of one or more of the cameras…and just as Nick had conjectured, not all of them were larger species; Judy saw raccoons, woodchucks, a beaver, a mongoose, several bunnies, even another weasel among the visitors. And also as the fox had predicted, many of them were using the lockers as storage space for their purchases from the Meerkat Market; one or two were even using them as changing rooms.

"Those lockers are easy-peasy simple to open from the inside," Nick Wilde explained, wagging a finger, "and you shouldn't be surprised; if anyone ever does manage to get themselves locked inside of one of those things, how much you want to bet that the first thing they do when they get out is sue the city?"

"Save your money, I'm not taking that wager," Claire Swinton responded with a cynical smirk.

10:15….10;30….and then at 10:42. a small gathering of Wildebeest passed in front of locker LB6. It was nothing the three ZPD officers hadn't seen before, but this time, after the herd had gone….

"Hey, Heyyyy, looks like we've got a bite." Claire Swinton was halfway out of her seat. On all three cameras, a smallish figure was standing in front of locker LB6, leaning against a bicycle. For what seemed like a perpetual moment he just stood there…while Nick yipped softly and Judy murmured furtively under her breath.

The figure looked left…and then right, and then pulled out a cell-phone and keyed in a number.

And then he reached for a padlock and snapped it open.

Judy's paws went flying up to her mouth. "Oh no, please no!" her voice was nearly a wrenching sob.

Nick Wilde let out an anguished fox-scream and pounded his fist into the side of the command car, not caring if anyone on the outside heard him.

"Wha-what's wrong?" Clare Swinton was staring from the fox to the bunny-cop in complete, utter confusion.

"We know that kid," Judy sniffled, pointing a shaky finger towards her monitor screen…and the young silver fox just now opening the door to locker LB6. "His name is Conor, Conor Lewis…"


Flock Street, Savanna Central, Saturday, 08:53 ZST

The van drove in a pattern known to the underworld as a 'rectangle'—four right turns in quick succession to ensure that nobody was following. Almost certainly nobody was—this was to be the very first action; no reason for anyone to anticipate trouble—but given who they were dealing with, their controller had wanted to take no chances.

Likewise, they didn't want to arouse the suspicions of any law enforcement types who might be cruising nearby…and so the driver maintained a steady speed as he circled the block, slowing only slightly as he passed by the front of Tux-On Tuxedo shop. Despite the fact that June was their second busiest time of year, (the busiest was prom season,) the establishment was dark and shuttered; the doors weren't scheduled to open for another hour yet, (and in fact, after today, they would never open again.)

Satisfied with what he'd seen, the leader flashed a quick paw-signal, and the driver dutifully eased the van into the alleyway behind the tuxedo shop.

No logo adorned the side of the vehicle; its bright, yellow color would be more than enough to give it an aura of legitimacy, (although anyone looking closely might wave wondered at the armored door-locks.) For several moments, nothing happened…or that was how it would have appeared to anyone watching the van from the outside. In actual fact, the interior was a flurry of activity, the trio of occupants methodically checking and rechecking their gear. Satisfied at last, the leader gave another signal and then he and his operatives donned latex rubber masks, lifelike and very distinctive, and then slipped on pairs of equally authentic (and singular) pairs of latex gloves. The remainder of their disguise was provided by the padding beneath their off-white coveralls.

Then the leader spoke into his headset, a high tech model that was almost invisible against his face mask. "Control, do you copy? We are in position at the target's rear door. "

The answer came back as clearly as if the other animal was right there in the van with him.

"Team one; that is an affirmative, you are clear to move in."

All three animals exited the van, moving smoothly and silently.

No one spoke; all of them knew their assigned tasks. While the number three operative kept watch on the alleyway entrance, the other two quickly unloaded the van. There wasn't really all that much to unpack; three small backpacks and a sextet of five gallon PVC buckets, of the type favored by food and janitorial services, which they stacked on a pair of dollies. The logo on the sides read 'Spark-L-Lion All Purpose Cleanser.'

An interloper observing the scene might have wondered what a mid-size tuxedo shop would want with THAT much cleaner—but there was nobody else within a hundred yards; the operatives had the alleyway completely to themselves. Meanwhile, the team leader was extracting a rectangular plastic card from his upper-right side pocket, and examining it closely… memorizing the four digit code printed in the lower left corner. He read it three times and then gave another signal; the others quickly acknowledged, and they all began moving quietly towards the rear door of Tux-On.

Nestled beside the entrance, under a weathered, Plexiglas hood, was a small plastic square, about the side of a CD case—a card-reader. Flipping the covering upwards, the leader swiped his card across the dull-gray surface. There was a buzz, a click, and then the led light above the reader shifted to from red to green.

The leader opened the door and all three operatives ducked swiftly through the opening, bringing the buckets and packs with them. They were greeted at once by a repetitive, high-pitched peeping sound. Ignoring it, the leader turned to a small console beside the door where an LCD display was flashing the word 'system' over and over. Moving quickly, he pressed the button marked 'arm/disarm', entered the four-digit code, and punched 'enter'. The peeping ceased at once and the display changed to 'system disarmed'. A chirring noise a second later confirmed that the alarm was indeed deactivated.

"That's what you get for employing a second-rate security outfit." The leader smiled, noting the embossed letters 'ZEU' printed on the console.

Then his mind retuned swiftly to the task at paw.

"Did you get the security cameras?" he asked, speaking to his number two. The animal only nodded, and then pointed to the camera aimed at the door. The light beneath the lens was a dull, brown dot; it was turned off. To an outsider, it might have seemed unbelievably careless of the trio not to have deactivated the security cams before entering the premises.

Not quite; that, in fact, had been part of the plan.

The leader nodded back and then all three operatives donned their packs and moved quickly into the front of the store.

As with Rafaj Brothers Jewelers, the front windows of Tux-On were secured by a row of heavy, steel shutters. Seeing them, the leader had to smile again. A passerby on the street outside would have no idea as to what was going on in here; in trying to protect his business, the owner had instead rendered it that much more vulnerable to what was about to happen.

Reaching for the light-switch beside the front counter, (he knew exactly where it was,) the lead animal snapped it on and waited exactly fifteen seconds for his and his operatives' eyes to adjust to the change.

As the team leader's vision began to crystallize, his first impression was one of wood, blond oak paneling on the walls, rich black walnut for the shelves, and a virtual kaleidoscope of different woods making up the parquet flooring. Even the phalanx of tailor's dummies facing outward from each wall was hewn from dark ebony wood, large mammals on the right, medium and smaller mammals on the left. (There was no section for rodents; any mice, rats, hamsters, etc. wanting a tux from Tux-On were obliged to take their business to the Little Rodentia branch.)

The second impression was of soft, amber light, courtesy of a constellation of track-mounted LED lamps. The air inside the shop smelled faintly of rich cloth and dry-cleaning fluid; the only noises to be heard were the squeak of the intruders' feet against the floor.

One thing was clear to all of them; this was not an establishment aimed at the regular folks. Tux-On was obviously way above the pay grade of say, a dentist's kid, renting a tux for his first prom. No, this was where the upper-crust of Zootopia came to shop for their male's formal-wear. (Mayor Lionheart had been a semi-regular patron here before he went to jail.)

"All right, let's move," the leader said, tapping a gloved finger against his watch, "we have exactly five minutes."

Working swiftly, he removed a nail gun from his backpack, while the other two operatives popped the lids on the PVC buckets. Inside each was a coil of thick, cotton rope of the type used for stage decorations, all of them suspended in a liquid the color and consistency of raspberry syrup, smelling faintly of paraffin-wax. Donning a second pair of rubber gloves, the number two animal removed one of the ropes, hauling it out of the bucket like a snake from a basket and pressing it into the molding where the wall met the ceiling. Immediately, the leader stepped up from behind him and secured the rope in place with the nail gun.

For the next few minutes, they repeated this process until nearly the entire front of the store was covered. At the same time, the third animal in the group was pasting a lattice-work of duck-tape over the tuxedo shop's three smoke detectors, making sure that all of them were sealed airtight.

When the process was complete, it appeared as if the intruders had once more made a grievous error; all six of the ropes were far too long for their own good, the ends dangling all the way to the floor.

This too was by design.

With the smoke detectors handled, and the last coil of rope in place, the trio proceeded to empty the remains of the first three buckets over the tuxedo shop's merchandise, splashing the liquid over the shelves, dumping it over the display mannequins, and paying particular attention to the counter and the cash-register. (Not one of them thought for a minute about pilfering the contents.)

The remaining three buckets were dumped on the floor behind the trio as they retreated to the store's rear-entrance. At the threshold, the leader once again pressed the arm/disarm button on the console and entered the code. While this was happening, his second removed a lighter and a tin the size of a tuna can from his pack. Protruding through the lid was something resembling a stiff candle wick.

He looked at his leader, waiting.

"On three," the lead animal told him, and then began to recite, "One…"

On the final count, two things happened at once, the leader pressed the alarm-console's 'enter' button, initiating the re-arming process. At the same time, his number two touched the lighter's flame to the 'candle-wick'…which immediately commenced to sputter, hiss, and sparkle. Rearing back slightly, he pitched the can in a fast, hard underpaw, whipping it down the passageway and into the front of the store. A split second later, all three team members were back in the alleyway again. A couple of seconds after that, they were inside the van and once more on their way. Three more seconds and the van was back on Flock Street and moving away from the scene, the driver making certain to stick to the speed-limit. Only then did the team-leader dare to venture a look at his watch. 4 minutes and 38 seconds—they had pulled it off with time to spare.

Behind them, there was no explosion when the fuse burned down to the 'tuna-can'. Tux-On's doors did not blow out, the store's foundation did not shake; the steel shutters did not rattle. In fact, there was hardly any sound at all from within the shop, only a muffled 'whoomf', a noise not unlike a mattress being dropped on the floor—inaudible to anyone but a fennec or a rabbit more than 10 feet away from the shutters. (At that moment, there was nobody within fifty yards of the tuxedo shop.)

For the next twenty minutes, no one passing the front of the store, heard, saw, or smelled anything out of the ordinary. Even when the first few wisps of smoke began to seep around the edges of the shutters, none of the passersby took notice. It was only when smoke began pouring up and out through the second story windows and roofing vents that somebody finally called 9-1-1.

By then, it was already far too late.


Meerkat Market, Sahara Square, Beach Promenade, 10:43 ZST

Nick Wilde stared dumbly at the monitor screen, his jaw hanging halfway to the floor; he could almost have been a primitive fox, transported here from the stone-age, trying to make sense of the strange object before him.

This wasn't happening, it couldn't be. Any second now, the buzzing of the bedside alarm would jar him out of his sleep, and he'd find himself laying on his mattress with the covers on the floor and barely enough time to get ready for work, (and for once, he'd be grateful.)

"What the heck's that kid doing?" Claire Swinton was staring curiously at her display screen. Conor Lewis wasn't even LOOKING at the shelf where Ian Shortal had stashed the money; it was as if he had no idea it was even there.

A quick second later, the question answered itself when the young silver fox wheeled his bike inside the locker and closed the door behind him.

Swinton and Judy were instantly talking at once.

"Wha…What the heck?"

"What'd he do that for?"

"I have no idea."

"Maybe he…"

"This is nuts."

"Oh no, I think…"

The last speaker was Nick Wilde; the cacophony seemed to have roused him from his trance-state…but only temporarily because right then the door to the locker opened and Conor re-emerged into the corridor. He had shed his street clothes for swim trunks and a red tank-top emblazoned with the visage of Che Capybara. A pair of mirrored Gargoyles sunglasses dangled from a neoprene lanyard around his neck.

"What is it, Nick?" Judy asked him, but he only sighed and waved a paw. The younger fox's reappearance seemed to have taken the wind out of his sails all over again.

"Nothing Carrots." He answered lamely.

"What, is he going swimming?" Claire Swinton was squinting at the screen again.

"Nope," Judy pointed, "Look, see? No towel…and you can't wear sunglasses in the water."

"Well whatever he's up to, he's one brazen little so-and-so," The pig cop noted, annotating her words with a baffled head-shake. She had a few more things to say on the subject, but cut herself short when Judy hurriedly keyed her headset.

"All units…all units; the courier is on site. I say again the courier is on site, but he has not yet collected the money; I repeat, he does NOT yet have the money. He's a silver fox kit, approximately 14 years old, wearing mirrored sunglasses, dark blue Hawaiian swim trunks and a red Che Capybara tank top." She debated for a moment whether or not to give them his name, and then quickly decided against it. That information wouldn't help them keep track of the kid…but it would prompt a lot of questions that she didn't have time to answer, not yet anyway. "All units please respond…over."

All of them did, and predictably, even without hearing Conor's name, Larry Bock had a question…a snarky one.

"If he didn't take the money, how do you know it's him? Over…" His voice was half haughty and half peevish...and something about his tone snapped Nick Wilde out of his funk, once and for all.

"Because we just saw him go inside of locker LB6, got that Overhead-1? Now get that drone on him ASAP, do you copy? ASAP! Over..."

"All right, all right I'm on it." The ibex sounded like an unhappy teen that had just been ordered to clean his room. Attitude or not, it took less him than ten seconds to find and zero in on the young silver fox. "There, is that him? Over..."

"That's an affirmative, Overhead-One, keep on him." Judy answered while offering her partner an approving thumbs-up. For moment there, she hadn't been certain if he was ever going to return to the land of the living. "All other units…try to get a visual on the suspect if possible, but keep down wind and keep your distance. Like we figured, he's a species with a keen sense of smell." She thought for a second and then added, "Be advised, he left his backpack in the locker, so he'll have to go back and grab it before he leaves. That's when he'll probably go for the money." That last sentence was mostly for Bock's benefit.

For the next few minutes they watched as Conor made his way towards the beach, with the occasional officer coming on the air to make a comment.

"Control One, this is Grizzoli. Be advised, I have a positive mark on the suspect's scent, over..." A moment later, Wolford came on to tell them the same thing. (Howell, positioned outside the locker-room entrance had gotten line on the young fox's scent as soon as he'd entered the enclosure.)

"Looks like he's heading for the volleyball courts," Kii Catano offered. A moment later, Bock's drone-cam confirmed the cheetah-cop's speculation.

For another few seconds, no one spoke…and then Judy touched her finger to the display screen, tracing a rough outline of their suspect's path so far.

Their suspect…

Conor Lewis, a felony suspect; the thought made her bile want to rise. She forced it back down again and tapped the monitor screen.

"Look there," she said, "That's no random route he's taking, it's almost like a beeline; this kid knows exactly where he's going."

A short moment later she was proven right when the young fox arrived at his destination, one of the small-mammal volleyball courts, where a gaggle of other young animals was waiting for him. Judy recognized two of them at once, the coyote-girl and the sand-cat from the evening when she and Nick had located locker LB6. (Sweet cheez n' crackers, there was another bullet they'd dodged; Conor had been practically within spitting distance of the large mammals' locker-facility the whole time they'd been in there.)

Down by the volleyball court, the young fox was eagerly exchanging high-fives and fist-bumps with the others. Yep, they'd been expecting him all right.

"Well anyway, that explains why he didn't just take the money and run." Judy pointed at the screen again. "Those other kids would have wondered where he was if he hadn't shown up just now."

At this, Claire Swinton pursed her lips and nodded, but Nick Wilde's wavering ears showed that he wasn't quite buying it.

And to be perfectly honest, Judy wasn't buying it either, not completely; it was one of those explanations that sounded just a little bit too neat for its own good.

Claire Swinton meanwhile was also pointing at her monitor, moving her finger in a random, staccato pattern, as it making a call on an invisible pay-phone. Then Judy heard the pig-cop muttering under her breath.

"…5…6…7…Hmmm yeah, I thought so, they're still short a player."

"Here comes someone now…I think," Kii Catano had been monitoring the exchange, "Ringtail-cat kid, do you see him Command? Errrr, over…"

"Yep," Swinton nodded at the screen as she answered, "Looks like he's joining the game all right. Thanks Catano, Command out."

On the screen, the kids divided themselves into two groups of four, one on either side of the net. A few seconds later, the ball was put in play and the game was on.

It was a lively contest to say the least…and while Conor was by no means the best player out there, no one could fault him for his enthusiasm. Every time the ball came his way, he went after it as though the future of civilization depended on his efforts. One time, he got a face-full of sand while diving unsuccessfully for a save, (much to the delight of the opposing players.)

He immediately jumped to his feet, ready to go again.

It was then that Nick Wilde saw something; perhaps he'd noticed it before—likely he had—but it hadn't really registered until now. Conor Lewis was one very fit young fox; for all the effort he was making out there, he wasn't even breathing hard. And now that Nick was seeing him in shorts and a tank top—well, you couldn't call the kid buffed, (not like say that young water buffalo on the opposite side of the net,) but still, this youngster had the build of a budding UFC fighter...and he moved like one too. Come to think of it, hadn't he and Judy caught up with Conor in the midst of a workout with a makeshift punching bag, sometime during the Carrot-Days Festival?

The Carrot Days Festival…

"How could he DO it?" Nick felt his ears wilt, and then lay back in anger; he knew Judy was looking at him, but right now, he couldn't have cared less. "You stupid, stupid fox-kid; you had everything going for you!"

There was no way Judy could have missed her partner's abrupt change of expression…not that it surprised her. Of course Nick felt hurt and angry, Conor Lewis was a member of his species after all, different color phase perhaps, but a red fox all the same. She was just about to say something when she felt a buzzing at her hip.

Judy almost put the call on hold when she saw the name on the caller ID display, but then her curiosity got the better of her. What the heck was HE calling for?

"This is Hopps," she answered in a clipped, formal tone. Somehow she sensed that this call was not going to be a good one.

Her instincts were swiftly proven correct; the caller responded by putting two extra tablespoons of emphasis on his rank.

"Hopps, this is Lieutenant Tufts. What's this I'm hearing, that you and Officer Wilde know the Phantom's courier?"

Judy should have been bewildered that he'd found out so quickly—or at all. No one had mentioned that fact on the air. So how had…? Whoa, wait a minute…Officer Backabee, their liaison for ZPD Cybercrimes. No one had said anything about that smart padlock on the radio either…and yet she'd known all about it without being told.

It was enough to make the bunny-cop want kicked herself clear back to the Burrow; why hadn't she noticed it at the time? The pretty-face wallaby had probably been listening in on the command truck ever since their arrival at the Beach Promenade, most likely at her (sneaking little) boss's instigation. Okay, now Judy wasn't flummoxed, she was furious.

Biting her lip, she forced herself to respond in a civil tone.

"Yes, that's right Lieutenant," she said, and went on to tell the story of how she and Nick had met the young silver fox. She knew that Tufts wouldn't much care for the part about how Conor Lewis had helped her sister get back into the Carrot Days talent show…but tough hazelnuts, things were what they were.

As Judy continued to recount the tale, she noticed Claire Swinton off to the side, listening intently, (even though her eyes never left her monitor screen.) Come to think of it, the pig-cop hadn't been given the full story either, and now the more she heard, the more sympathetic her expression became.

Not so, Albert Tufts.

"So The Phantom's mule, Connor…Lewis is it? So he knows you and Officer Wilde by sight and by scent?"

"Yes, he does," Judy answered with an inward wince. She had just realized where the ZPD Cybercrimes chief was going with this; now she and Nick didn't dare set foot outside the command-car. If they did and Conor got a whiff of them…no way would he chock it up as a mere coincidence, not after their encounter in this very place only couple of nights before. Their having to hang back was going to put a crimp in the operation, no getting around that fact, but it wasn't anything they couldn't handle. None of the other team members were known to the young silver fox, not by sight, scent, or otherwise. This little bushytailed jerk from Cybercrimes wasn't being fair with them; how were she and Nick supposed to have known that Conor Lewis, of all mammals, was the Phantom's go-between? The Lieutenant seemed to think that they should have, as evidenced by his next question.

"And you never suspected anything, the first time you met him?"

Judy felt her ears lay back. What the heck…? On her far left, Nick Wilde was listening with an unsurprised expression on his face. Though she had no way of knowing it, the head of ZPD Cybercrimes was rapidly confirming his earlier suspicions—namely that he and his partner had been given command of this operation in order to shield their superiors from any responsibility, in case it all went south. After all, hadn't Tufts been dead set against tracking the Phantom's courier instead of busting him, right from the get go? In Nick Wilde's mind there was no doubt whatsoever; the real purpose of this phone call was the squirrel trying to cover his tail.

Judy Hopps seemed to have picked up on it as well.

"No Lieutenant," her answer was a crisp as a pawful of dead leaves, "Why would we have suspected anything? I'd never even heard of The Phantom until the day before yesterday."

Her answer was correct, but it only seemed to stoke the Kaibab squirrel's boiler even further.

"Listen very carefully Hopps…and you too, Wilde. That kid had better NOT get away from you—or else heads are going to roll, and I think you can guess whose heads. Do I make myself clear?"

He rang off without waiting for an answer.