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
Chapter 9 –Fire And Mirrors
"Okay kid, first thing's first." Vernon J. Rodenberg, Attorney at Law, looked up at Conor Lewis, pen hovering expectantly over his note-pad, "The cops followed you into that alley because they thought you were transporting a payoff on behalf of The Phantom. Were you?"
The answer was not immediately forthcoming; for a long moment, his client just sat there, almost completely motionless, chewing his lower lip as if contemplating his response.
"Any time this year, kid," the grey rat prompted; he was there to defend his clients, not be their friend.
Conor took a short breath and then looked straight at him,
"Okay, yeah…I went into that locker to pick up a cash payment from Ian Shortal. But no, I wasn't working for The Phantom."
"All right," Rodenerg made a quick notation, "so you didn't know if you were making a pick up for that guy?"
The answer to this was an emphatic head-shake from the young silver fox, together with a slightly pained expression, "No…I mean I know it wasn't the Phantom; there IS no Phantom."
Rodenberg felt his whiskers bobbing again.
"Because I've been doing this for almost two years now," Conor told him, tight-lipped and steely-eyed, "since long before anyone ever even heard of that guy. Yeah there's someone I work with, but he's more of a partner than a boss. As for The Phantom, that's a name somebody in 'Tuffguy' Tufts' crew came up with. I have no idea why, but the next thing I knew, it wasn't just a name it was a stinkin' urban legend. And you know how urban legends go; pretty soon anytime somebody pulled off a computer hack in Zootopia …boom, the big, bad, Phantom's, back in town! Remember last year, when the all the traffic signals in Savanna Central went off line? Turned out to be a blown server, but everyone was sooo sure it was the Phantom who did it; they blame that dude for every stupid thing."
Rodenberg blinked, and jotted a few notes. Yes, he remembered that incident, how could forget? He'd missed a court date because of those traffic lights—and the Red Pig had nearly gone away on a five-to-ten year stretch.
"And I nearly took a one-way trip to the bottom of Zootopia Sound," the grey rat reminded himself with a shudder.
Could it be true? Was The Phantom…a phantom? There was certainly precedent for it. No one in Zoo York City had ever heard of 'The Westies' either…not until a ZYPD police detective mentioned it during an interview. It was only afterwards that the members of the gang started calling themselves by that name. John Catti hadn't invented HIS nickname, 'The Dapper Don' either.
(Conor's insistence also meshed with Albert Tufts' character in Rodenberg's opinion; just the sort to conjure up a bogey-mammal, in order to explain away his failures.)
It brought up a zillion new questions—but none of particular importance; as a matter of fact, there was only one question that mattered right now.
"I know you didn't touch the money." Rodenberg said, leaving the subject of The Phantom for the moment. He flipped the pad to another page. "According to the police report, you never even looked at it…that anyone saw. But what about while you were inside that locker with the door closed? Did you touch it then?"
Conor's answer to this was exactly what he was hoping for, the young fox's mouth stretched into a long flat line and he raised a paw in a ranger-scout salute. "Never went near it, I swear. If the cops got to that case before Mr. Shortal did, I didn't want them finding my scent on it."
"Ohhh-kay," Rodenberg made another notation, "So when did you first realize the ZPD had you under surveillance?"
"When I went back to the locker again, after that volleyball game," Conor answered him, pantomiming a serve to illustrate.
The grey rat's pen froze in mid-air.
"Hold on kid, you didn't look at the money the first time you went inside that locker. Why'd you do that if you didn't know the cops were onto you yet?"
"Oh, I never look anyway," the young fox responded, waving dismissive paw "just in case. And besides I knew it was there; Mr. Shortal's a weasel y'know; I could smell his musk all over that thing before even I popped the lock."
"Riiiight," Rodenberg smirked wryly as he made another note, and then he asked, "Any idea how the ZPD made you, kid?" He asked this as if expecting a negative response; the young fox didn't disappoint him.
"All right," Rodenberg skipped the notes this time, and leaned forward on his elbows. Here came the 64K question.
"And how'd you manage to figure out the ZPD was onto you?"
The next thing he said was "All right, mind letting me in on the joke?"
When the young fox told him, Rodenberg started laughing too—so hard, he nearly went tumbling out of his chair. When he finally recovered, he was shaking his head in disbelief.
"Oy, oy, oy…I knew that guy was a schmoe, but…does anybody else know about this besides…uh, what'd you call him again?
"Guildenkranz, I call him Guild for short, and the answer is no, I wouldn't blow something this wicked-good."
"Ehhh-xcellent," Rodenberg answered in his best Mr. Bearns, "and I take it Guildenkranz is not your online chum's real name?"
Conor fanned a pawlm, "Nah, that's just his screen name—though he probably changed it by now; I would for sure." He grew serious again, "And that's all I know about him, Mr. Rodenberg. If you want to know what city he lives in, what state, what country, his species, his age; don't ask me, I'm Cap'n Clueless here. Heck, I don't even know if Guild's a guy or a girl."
"But you think of him more as a guy," the rat noted, "and of course he knows which city YOU live in; what else does he know about you?"
"That's it, that's all," the young fox told him, "There was no way he could've helped me without that information. But I never told him my species, age, or anything else either." He flashed an ironic grin. "If Guild knew I was only fourteen, he'd prolly have bailed on me a long time ago. Uh, can I ask why you wanna know all this?"
Vern Rodenberg nodded, once again surprised and pleased. Any other kid would be demanding to know why he needed that information; not this one; he was asking almost politely.
"Right now kid, the ZPD isn't charging you with accessory to usury…uh, you know what that means, right? Okay, but that doesn't mean they won't later, if they manage to nail down some more evidence…like if they're able to lay their paws on your Guild guy, you get me?"
"I follow what you're bringing out," the young fox nodded gravely. "And honestly, I dunno WHAT Guild would do if the cops busted him; like I said, the only thing I know about him is his screen name. I can tell you this though; if I wanted to track him down, I couldn't do it—and I know he exists at least."
"Okay," Rodenberg jotted another note, nodding in satisfaction. It wasn't a perfect answer, but since when was there was any such thing in the legal profession anyway? And at least his client was being honest with him.
"Again, like no other kid I ever met," the grey rat marveled to himself, "not that I've had all that many as clients—and that's WHY I haven't. Oy, that one boy, The Mister's Nephew, Wesley-Something; what a meshuggeneh little shmendrik HE was."
He shook off the memory and moved on.
"Okay, let's get into some of your background, Conor. I know you're running on a fake ID, but right now that's not important. What do you do when you're not making drops and pickups down in Sahara Square?"
"You're trying to establish my character?" the young fox asked him.
Rodenberg felt his whiskers quivering; for the first time since his arrival at the precinct, his client was starting to irritate him.
He pointed with his pen
"I'll ask the questions, okay kid? What about it, what are your grades like, and where do you go to school?"
The answer he got nearly blew him off the table, briefcase, chair, and all.
"YOU go to ZAPA?" Rodenberg asked, staring goggle-eyed at his client. This street-wise silver-fox kid looked like he belonged in the Zootopia Academy of the Performing Arts about as much as that fat cheetah working the ZPD reception desk belonged in a spandex body-suit.
"Bring me a guitar and I'll prove it," the young fox told him, unable to resist a sly smile, "Oh and my GPA is 4.0. You can check for yourself."
"Believe me, I intend to," Rodenberg answered, writing it down. When he raised his eyes again, he saw an expression on his client's face that was all too familiar, the look of an animal just itching to tell him something. Normally, he ignored that look; 90% of the time it turned out to be something tangential at best and completely irrelevant at worst.
Not now, this was part of that other 10%, Rodenberg could feel it in his bones.
"What is it, kid?"
Conor chewed his lip for a second before answering.
"I'm pretty sure you weren't gonna ask me this, but it's something I think you'll want to hear. I know Nick and Judy—Officers Hopps and Wilde—from before they tailed me into that alleyway."
Rodenberg laid the pen aside and let out a rough-cut sigh; he'd been wrong, this was part of the 90% after all.
"Yeah yeah…I know all about that, kid. You bumped into 'em in Sahara Square, three nights before the drop went down."
Conor's paws shot up as if his lawyer had pulled a gun.
"NO…I know them from before that too. From the Carrot Days Festival, when I helped out Judy's sister. Talking about ZAPA's what made me think of it."
Rodenberg snatched up the pen and rolled it in the air, "Whoa, okay…NOW we're getting into some virgin territory. Enlighten me Booby, spill…all the juicy details."
His client did just that—except for one juicy detail that he studiously omitted, the activities of a certain clan of rogue coyotes on the last night of the festival and everything he'd done to help thwart them. It hardly mattered; the rat was more than pleased with everything else he heard.
"So….when you made that little move in the alleyway that was the second time you did Officer Hopps a good turn? And Nick…ahhh, Officer Wilde, you got along okay with him, too?"
"Heck yeah," Conor told him, nodding earnestly, "I liked that guy even before I met him. The fennec-fox I told you about, Finnick? He was Nick's partner back in the day before we hooked up—told me all about how the big guy turned his life around; I always admired him for that."
"Yeah, I know," the grey rat told him with a short respectful nod, "about Finnick and Nick, I mean; they go WAY back." He flipped his note-pad to another page. "Okay, now let's move on to the important stuff. Starting with when you left home to go pick up the money, I want you to tell me everything that happened that day…and try not to include too many details. I'll stop you if I want to hear more."
For the first part of the narrative, Rodenberg only listened; it wasn't until Conor got to where he boarded the Metro Train that the rat began to ask questions.
"So your idea was to lure the cops away from that locker and keep them watching you until Shortal came and picked up the money again. That right?"
Conor flashed him a thumbs up.
"Yeah; once he snagged it back, I knew I'd be safe; the ZPD wouldn't have had diddly on me."
"All right and why did Nick…Ahhh, Officer Wilde thought you were heading for the Fruit Valley Metro Station, that so?"
Conor nodded immediately
"Yeah, that's right. Fruit Valley's right by the Peace Rock Guitar Co-Operative, I work there as an apprentice, part-time. If I'd shown up at Peace Rock on a Saturday afternoon, even with no warning nobody would've thought twice about it."
Rodenberg set down his pen again, "Ahhhh I get it, you were trying not to look suspicious, sticking to your normal routine."
"Right," Conor nodded again, this time vigorously, "that's exactly what I would have been doing if I HADN'T had a pick-up scheduled for that day."
"So, can I assume you weren't trying to double back, that those were the trains you'd have taken to get to that guitar co-op anyway?" Vernon J. Rodenberg was not unfamiliar with the habits of his client's species.
The grey rat jotted another note, and then looked up at Conor once more
"Uh-huh, but then it didn't quite work out the way you planned," he said, choosing his words carefully. The reaction was more than he bargained for. The young fox slammed his paw down on the tabletop, sending him flying over backwards in a sprawl of spilled papers.
Before Rodenberg could even try to get his bearings someone knocked on the door and an apprehensive voice came over the intercom speaker.
"Is everything all right in there?" It sounded like that pig cop, Swinton.
"Fine, we're fine!" he assured her, getting hastily to his feet and gathering up the documents from the tabletop, "And turn off those mikes, right now!"
"All right, all riiight," the voice answered tetchily and then the speaker abruptly fell silent.
The grey rat gave it a minute, just to be sure and turned to his client again. "Jeez, kid…" He stopped, when he saw that Conor was hugging himself and shivering.
"What it is, Booby?" he asked gingerly. It was nothing he hadn't seen before—when a client finally realized just how much trouble they were in.
That wasn't the case this time.
"I blew it, Counselor," the young fox groaned, looking away for a second with an agonized expression on his face, "I messed up sooo stinkin' bad."
"No worries kid, I'm all right," the rat assured him, spreading his arms to demonstrate. Conor screwed his eyes shut and waved as to ward off a curse.
"Noooo, I mean back at Flock Street; I never should have tried to duck through that alleyway." He raised his paw to pound the table again, but this time mercifully checked the move. "If I'd just kept moving with the crowd, I'd have probably made it out of there okay, but noooo, I had to…dumb, dumb, DUMB fox!"
Rodenberg got back in his chair again, "Okay kid, you wanna tell me why?" his voice was neither compassionate, nor insensitive. This was breaking more new ground; the police report had said nothing in regards to his client's reasons for taking that shortcut though the alley—beyond the simple conjecture that he'd been trying to lose his followers.
In response, Conor threw up his paws and fell back in his chair, for the first time in two days looking defeated.
"I panicked, that's what. I went fight-or-flight…without the fight. When I got off that train, there was no cell-phone service, no voice, no text, or anything…and no wi-fi either; I couldn't get hold of Guild to save my life. That meant no access to the traffic-cams, the police-band, or anything; I was flying blind and it scared the livin' snot out of me. I couldn't smell anything either, thanks to all that smoke in the air; I had no idea if that wolf who'd been tailing me…"
"Hold up, so you made the scent of the cops following you?" It was a bad time to interrupt, but Rodenberg felt he had no choice; this hadn't been in the police report either.
"Only one, this red-wolf guy" the young fox answered, nodding, "though I'm pretty sure there had to be at least one more."
"Yep, you're right, there was," The grey rat told him, "that cheetah cop who ended up cuffing you. Okay, what else?"
It was a vague prompt at best, but it did the job.
"When I came outta that station, there were cops everywhere." The young fox explained, "I knew they were there coz of that fire and not me, but one word about me on the police band and I'd have been fox-toast; no way could I have gotten away from that many officers." He let out a small, disgusted yip. "And then oh joy, here was this alley with nobody watching it…and…and that's when I blew it."
Rodenberg debated with himself for a moment, trying to decide where to go next. The kid was badly shaken, surprisingly so, considering how well he'd held up so far.
"Ahhhh, the heck with it…"
"According to the police report, an officer saw you ducking into that alley and ordered you to stop." He deliberately omitted the fact that McHorn had later said didn't think the kid had heard him. Had he?
"Maybe there was but I sure as heck didn't see him," Conor answered, "and for sure I couldn't have heard him, I had my earbuds in."
Rodenberg nearly dropped the pen again, "You were listening to music…?"
"Not music; my cell-phone," the young fox hastily explained, "I wanted to keep monitoring in case I got the service back."
"Oop, okay." the grey rat stopped in mid tirade. All right, that made sense…and now so did something else. "Ahhh, so THAT'S why you didn't break that phone," More and more pieces of the puzzle were falling into place.
"Yeah," Conor told him, "and as soon as I got around the corner, I got on my bike and took off, fast."
Rodenberg made a short note and then spoke carefully again.
"Okay, one more thing, did you pick that particular alleyway only because it was unguarded—or was there some other reason?"
"Little bit of both," the young fox admitted, "I thought I remembered a bus stop on the street at the other end. I wasn't sure and I didn't know which route or anything, but with no one watching that alley, I just went for it."
"And I'm guessing you didn't care where that bus went: you just wanted to get your tail as far away from Flock Street as possible?"
His client's look became mortified once again.
"Yeah, that's it—except that I was dead, stinkin' wrong about where that alley went; it was like was like one of those MC Fisher drawings back there, goin' every which way and back again. Even without all the smoke and stuff, I prolly would have gotten lost."
He went on to explain how he'd spent the next half hour wandering aimlessly through the tangle of alleyways…until he'd come around a corner and found himself a stone's throw away from Judy Hopps.
"If she had been looking at where I was instead of at this store display, she'd have had me for a snack," he said. "I was walking my bike right then; there was all kinds of junk and stuff in that part of the alley. No way could I have gotten back on and gotten any speed up before she grabbed me. She had her ears up too—which meant if I even so much as shuffled my feet a little, she'd have heard me. The only thing I could do was hunker down and hope she'd go away. Then I heard a splash and saw that she was like almost ankle deep in water. I wondered 'where the heck did that come from?' Yeah, I know from the firehoses, figured that out later. Anyway, then I heard this kind of big, popping noise, and saw a power pole up the alley starting to fall over; I could see it, but Judy couldn't. I can't explain what happened next, but everything seemed to go into slo-mo right then. Don't ask me how, but somehow I knew those wires weren't gonna hold…and Judy was standing in all that water, just about right under 'em. So, I ran and made a flying tackle, and…and…well, you already know what happened next."
"Yes, but I still want to hear you tell it," Rodenberg said, flipping the note pad to another page.
"How come you use that thing instead of a recorder?" Conor asked him, pointing with a pair of fingers.
"I don't," the grey rat answered, opening his suit jacket to reveal a digital voice recorder. Letting it fall shut again, he held up the notepad like a trophy. "This is where I put down my thoughts. And I'm the one asking the questions, remember, Booby? So quit trying to stall me. I know you don't want to think about this part of what happened, but I need to know how it went down from P.O.V. So c'mon, let's have it."
"Okay," the young fox said, and went on to tell Rodenberg how when they'd hit the pavement, Judy had been knocked cold. "That scared me more than anything; I thought maybe she was hurt after all. Heh, dumb fox kid and a HALF"
Rodenberg brushed his muzzle with the back of his paw and rolled his incisors for a moment. Should he hit the kid hard with the next one, or bring him in for a soft landing?
He decided to split the difference.
"Okay, now brace yourself kid, because the next one's another toughie…and I need a straight answer. Why'd you do it, why'd you throw away your one shot at getting away from the cops—and risk getting fried yourself—to go and help Officer Hopps?"
"Wha…?" Conor was staring at him as if he'd suddenly started drooling and spouting gibberish. "What the heck else was I supposed to do? Stand there and let her get turned into bunny fritters? She wouldn't have been in that alley in the first place if it hadn't been for me…"
The rest of his words were cut off instantaneously as the grey rat placed two fingers in his mouth and let out a piercing whistle. Uh-huh, just as he'd suspected…a guilt trip.
"Okay kid, now you listen to me, and listen good." He pointed with his pen again, this time as if it were a wizard's wand. "That's the LAST time you're going to say that—to me, to anyone else, even to yourself; I don't want you even thinking it. Because if Rudy Gamsbart ever gets wind of what you just told me, there's your tail, all nice and gift-wrapped, and presented to him on a silver platter, you understand?"
Conor only nodded and swallowed hard.
The next topic should by rights have been the hardest one of all for him to discuss…the source of all his current troubles, the bite he'd given Nick.
In fact, the young fox needed barely any prompting at all…which was an especially good thing, because here was where Rodenberg really started probing, making him tell the story over and over and over again, repeatedly hitting the pause button while he verified certain details. "Are you sure that's the order in which it happened?" "Where exactly did he grab you?" What about this? What about that? Etc. Three times in succession, he attempted to trip up Conor's claim that he didn't remember biting the older fox and hadn't known he'd done it until afterwards. And in all three instances, the young silver fox held fast to his story. When the grey rat asked him to explain why he'd bitten the older fox, this time he got an immediate answer complete with a little graphic evidence to back it up.
Another surprise awaited Vern Rodenberg when they finished. Most kids Conor Lewis's age would have assumed that they were done by now. Not this one; he took in stride having to recall everything else that had followed, from the moment of his arrest until the rat-attorney's arrival at the interrogation room. The majority of it, they just breezed through. (The ZPD had handled the young fox's arrest properly and by the book.) It wasn't until they got to the Q-and-A with Gamsbart and Tufts that Rodenberg began asking questions again, most of them centering around one, single topic
"Okay, when did Mr. Gamsbart first make the suggestion that you'd be better off without a lawyer? All right, and at any point did he ever put forth the idea that you were not entitled to counsel? Didn't think so, but how many times did he say it, can you recall? And what, exactly, did he say would be the consequences if you retained an attorney against his advice?"
All through their exchange, much to the grey rat's surprise (again!), his client's ears remained upright and turned forward. Or maybe it wasn't so surprising; Gamsbart's suggestion that Conor waive his right to counsel had been the thing that prompted his Usual Suspects troll. Rodenberg was sorely tempted to tell the young silver fox just how right he was…but not to the point of actually telling him.
What Conor had to say next made the grey rat have to step on his own tail to keep from laughing; ('As far as I'm concerned, you're both jerks,' Bahahahaha!)
What he said after that brought a swift change of expression to Vern Rodenberg's face; all right, no more Mr. Nice Guy.
"Okay, now listen to this, Conor—and listen close. That whole thing about having Mr. Shortal in the next room was a head-fake. Gamsbart knew all along that shtick wasn't going to fool you…and that's exactly what he wanted, for you to think he's dumber than he looks. I've seen him pull that routine more than once on a suspect, give 'em enough rope and then yank it tight when they least expect it. He especially likes to run that hustle on juvenile offenders."
"Right I gotcha," Conor nodded, but the grey rat wasn't quite sure that he had. He decided he'd better drive the point home, just to make certain.
"Listen kid, I mean it. Do NOT underestimate that guy. I've faced him in court plenty of times, and I lost at least as many cases as I won."
"How many of those cases did you lose coz your client refused to listen to you?" the young fox queried, folding his arms, "Because I won't; I already promised you, what you say goes, period, story over."
Rodenberg laughed and pointed with the pen again; he had gotten through to this fox-kid after all. "Okay Conor, now let's talk about what happened when Officers Wilde and Hopps came in to talk to you; what'd they have say?"
Listening to the story, Rodenberg almost had to feel sorry for the fox and bunny-cop. Dangit they had meant so well.
"Anyway, they didn't ask any more questions" the young fox was saying, "just kind of laid a sermon on me. 'You're a good kid, Conor; even good kids can make bad mistakes…"
Rodenberg only nodded…and sighed. Deep down he agreed with Nick and Judy's assessment of his client; he was a good kid. So how the heck had he gotten himself into THIS? Okay, it was time for one more inconvenient truth.
"Alllll right Booby, I think I've heard enough…for now." He flipped the notebook shut and nodded in the direction of the door, "But before we face the inquisitors, there's one more thing you need know. Gamsbart wasn't bluffing with his threat about a tough judge. I know exactly who he was talking about; this guy's a real piece of work."
Conor screwed his eyes shut for a second and grimaced. "Aggggh, grrrr…don't tell me, lemme guess; Judge Predd, right?"
"Yes, that's right, the honorable George Schatten himself," the grey rat flashed a grin that exposed nearly the full length of his incisors, "and I use the term 'honorable' VERY loosely." A moment ago, it would have surprised the heck out of him to learn that his client knew not only the woodchuck magistrate's reputation, but also his nickname. But that was a moment ago, and this was now.
"Is it true he hates foxes?" Conor asked, his voice indicating that he expected a response in the affirmative.
"Don't know," Rodenberg admitted fanning a paw, "But he sure as heck doesn't care much for MY species, I can give you that much without asking for change. I have yet to face that groundhog where he didn't at least threaten me with a contempt citation. I remember one time I said to him, 'Your Honor, speaking as one rodent to another…' and oy, I thought he was going to throw his gavel at me. How DARE I make such a suggestion, that our species were even distantly related…yadda, yadda, yadda."
"And what did you say?" Conor asked him; he was eager to hear but at the same time, trying not to show it.
Rodenberg sat back in his chair and folded his paws, his face devoid of any expression.
"What I said was "My apologies Your Honor I intended no offense "; what I WANTED to say was, 'Then I guess this means I can't marry your daughter?'"
Now it was Conor's turn to nearly fall from his chair laughing. Vern Rodenberg didn't join him, he only watched from the sidelines with that same implacable expression, waiting for the mirth to subside.
And then he said. "That was what I wanted to tell him at the time, kid, but it's not what I WISH I'd said. Right now, I'm glad I kept that to myself." He pointed again, this time with a single finger, "And when we go into court tomorrow, you're gonna have to curb your enthusiasm, too. Think you can do that?"
The young fox raised his paw in scout-salute again. "Like I said before, no more stupid stuff, what you say, goes."
"And I'm gonna keep reminding you of that, so get used to it," Rodenberg nodded and got up from his chair.
"All right, think you're ready to face the music?"
"Ready as I'll ever be," Conor told him, his long, bushy tail shivering a little.
"All righty then,' the rat said, pointing to his client's right paw "Then give me boost up to your shoulder and I'll show you how this is gonna work/"
Conor laid his paw on the table and the grey rat climbed on board. When he climbed off onto the young fox's shoulder, the first thing he did was press down with his foot.
"There, d'ja feel that?" he asked.
"Right, until you feel it again, you let me do that talking…and I'm gonna do most of it to start off with. After that, if you feel me pressing down with my foot, it's your turn to speak, and if you feel it again you stop. And if you feel me pressing down twice, that means you shut it right NOW. Got that?"
"Five by five, and loud and clear," the young fox answered, flipping a mock salute. He wasn't copping an attitude; he just wanted to get this show on the road.
"Okay," Rodenberg told him, getting out his cell phone. He punched in a number and then placed it up against his cheek, "Awright Gamsbart, we're ready in here."