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The Fire Triangle—A Zootopia Fanfiction
Chapter 7—Tying Up Loose Ends
Jack LaPeigne jotted a final notation on his tablet and then pressed the 'send' button.
"The contract is on its way to you now, along with my signature," he said, speaking into his headset, "mutatis mutandis; nothing major, only a few minor revisions, nothing I would think you'll find objectionable."
For a number of seconds, there was nothing in his ears but the soft rush of white noise, and then finally a Latin-flecked voice replied.
"Hmmm, I see nothing of a problem here," the animal on the other end informed him. A few seconds later the big bunny's tablet refreshed and the document re-appeared, this time bearing two signatures.
The big rabbit was both pleased and frustrated. He should have gotten this done yesterday—and he would have if it hadn't been for…easy, easy, what's done is done.
In actuality, Jack had made at least one alteration to the agreement that he knewAdrian Arboreas wouldn't care for—but then he also knew the Tayra would let it pass without any complaint. After all there was at least one clause that the head of PAD (Participacoes Amazona Desenvolvimento) had slipped into the contract that he hadn't liked, but had been willing to overlook.
"And THAT is the way business negotiations are supposed to work," the big bunny reflected, shutting down the connection, "at the end of the day neither side gets everything they want, but both parties end up with an arrangement they can live with."
And this was certainly an agreement Jack LaPeigne could live with. PAD had access to literally millions of acres of virgin rainforest—and now LPN Pharmaceuticals had access to it as well. So what if he'd had to give up a little more for it than he'd have liked? This agreement might end up being worth ten times the concessions he'd made in order to get it signed; who knew what sorts of potential miracle drugs might be lurking out there in that wilderness? Of course, the deal might turn out to be a total bust, but it was nothing LPN Pharma couldn't absorb, especially if the plan he was ready to implement paid off.
Wellll, maybe not quite ready; there was still one more hurdle to clear before he gave the order.
Jack allowed himself a contented groan, and then stretched and settled back in his seat, reaching for the decanter of his favorite single-crop carrot juice; at LAST he was caught up with his leftover work-load, and could move on to more important matters.
It had been inevitable that the extra half day he'd had to spend in Bunnyburrow, (answering questions for Sheriff Yay-hoo!) would generate a mountain of unattended business. And sure enough, by the time Jack had made it back to Zootopia, the pile of memos on his desk had been stacked up halfway to the ceiling…and that was only the paperwork; you didn't want to know about the unread e-mails and unanswered phone messages he'd found waiting to greet him upon his return.
Thank goodness for his fursonal assistant, Polly Walters, he reminded himself. That opossum was worth her weight in gold…no, make that platinum. Without her help, he'd still be trying to sort through the backlog.
"Blast that stinking Jerry Guilford—and all his family!" the big bunny hissed inwardly. He had already made up his mind that when the coyote finally received his sentence, by hook or by crook he was going to end up serving his time in an Aker Correctional Corporation facility. THEN maybe he'd see…
Jack cut himself off and put the thought away; there was no point dwelling on the Guilford family now.
He turned to look out at the passing scenery.
As a rule, Jack LaPeigne didn't care all that much for traveling by limousine, preferring instead to drive himself. "Mr. Control-Freak, that's me," he always said, and it was never said entirely in jest. Although he had learned to curb that impulse a few years back, it had never gone away entirely…and that was just how the big bunny liked it.
Unfortunately there were times when you simply had to let it go and leave the driving to someone else…and this was one of those instances. As much as Jack would have preferred to be behind the wheel himself right now, even he couldn't work and drive at the same time, especially not up a twisting mountain road like this one.
The limo rounded a curve and his destination became visible in the distance, a tall, imposing façade that Nick Wilde and Judy Hopps would have recognized immediately had they been here, the former Cliffside Sanitarium, now Aker Correctional Corporation's VIOMAX facility; (Violent and Incorrigible Offenders, MAXimum security.)
Nick and Judy would have recognized the place all right, but they'd have had to be blind not to notice the sea-change the one-time sanitarium and hospital had gone through since when they'd last been here.
At least one of the alterations was cosmetic; the edifice, which once been painted in the color of a nimbus cloud had been redone in an almost cheerful sandstone hue; a color scheme that highlighted the vine motif, threading its way up the front. Jack LaPeigne had always found that particular adornment to be a delicious paradox…especially considering the facility's new purpose. As the name implied, VIOMAX was where Zootopia incarcerated the worst of the worst, perpetrators who had either A. committed particularly heinous crimes, B. were considered beyond any hope of rehabilitation, C. had messed up everywhere else they'd been housed, or D. had been adjudicated as criminally insane. (There was an entire wing in the facility dedicated to just these felons.)
It was VIOMAX's new role that had brought about the other changes, the ones which were anything BUT superficial. First of all, the access bridge that led to the facility's front entrance was now a draw-bridge—and to reach it, you had to pass through not one but two steel gates topped with razor ribbon. Even to get that far you had to get through Checkpoint Alpha, the main gate, a mile down the hillside….now kept closed, and guarded 24/7. Everyone, even the correctional officers, had to submit to a thorough vehicle search in order to gain access to the entrance road; mirrors, sniffers, the whole shebang.
And then there was the prison itself. Impregnable didn't even begin to describe the-facility-formerly-known-as-Cliffside these days; there were searchlights on the roof; there were motion sensors in the halls, and also a state-of-the-art CCTV camera system; there was even a fleet of RC drones ready to be deployed in the event of an attempted escape.
Anyone trying to escape from VIOMAX could forget about flushing themselves, the way Nick and Judy had done to avoid being caught by Mayor Lionheart's wolf-guards. The drainage system was now two stage; all waste-water went into a holding tank before being discharged over the face of the cliff.
And then there were the guards…while many of the animals keeping watch over the VIOMAX Prison were still timberwolves—their keen sense of smell made them ideal for detecting intruders and/or escapees—no longer were ALL of the animals on guard duty here of lupine stock; no one was going to succeed at sneaking into (or out of) this place by way of starting a howl, not any more. And of course, there were many more officers on duty now than there had been two years ago. (Back then the number a guards protecting the place had barely amounted to a skeleton crew.)
The limo rounded another turn, and the prison disappeared from view again.
Jack felt no contempt for Leodore Lionheart's inadequate security arrangements. The big cat had been working on a shoestring after all; he'd had to fund the capture and incarceration of those 14 missing mammals while somehow keeping it off the City Ledger. At the end of the day, he'd done the best he could with what he'd had; it just hadn't been enough was all.
"Not enough to keep Judy Hopps out of there," the big bunny told himself with a mental note of admiration—conveniently forgetting the fox that had accompanied her on her foray inside the former psychiatric hospital..
They rounded another turn and the limo slowed as the first gate came in sight.
Sometime later, Jack was stepping on board an elevator, a drab, utilitarian box that might otherwise have been mistaken for a cargo lift.
It had taken the big bunny a good half-hour to get here. His limo had been searched at both gates, and he himself had been searched three times, the third time after passing through the entrance to the administration wing. The officers on duty had known exactly who he was, but had treated him no differently than any other visitor, subjecting him to a thorough wanding, sniffing, and pat-down at all three checkpoints. Even now, a scowling tiger with a nightstick was standing beside him, reading to spring into action at the first sign of trouble
Jack LaPeigne could not have been more pleased. Yes, this was the way to run a maximum-security prison; no exceptions for any visitors, not even for him. Everyone on duty here today would be getting a plus-mark in his or her jacket.
The door hummed open and he stepped out into a corridor that was only slightly less Spartan then the elevator. It was also deserted, except for the pair of wolverines pulling sentry duty in front of a set of double doors at the end of the hallway. Neither of these were correctional officers; instead they were part of the big bunny's fursonal security contingent.
The same factors that made this place impervious to both escapees and intruders also made it an ideal location to discuss matters of a particularly sensitive nature. The ambience was also more than a little bit intimidating, something else Jack found useful from time to time. Since the procurement of the facility by Aker Correctional Corporation a little more than eighteen months ago, the place had acquired a number of nicknames, The Castle in the Sky, Dragon's Lair, Castle Greyscale, The Fortress of Solitude. All of these had been discarded when the prison had received its official designation; not one of those aliases could compete with VIOMAX, a name that fairly screamed that it was NOT a place where you wanted to go…as an inmate or a visitor.
(Unless, of course, you were Jack LaPeigne, and had business to discuss that the other party might find less than palatable.)
At the double doorway, the wolverines subjected him to one final scrutiny before allowing him to pass through.
When he stepped inside the conference room, the first thing the big bunny saw was Seth Whitepaugh, head of Aker Security field operations, seated near the end of a long, rectangular table. (The seat at the head was reserved for Jack, of course.)
Sitting beside the wolverine was Dr. Madge Honeybadger; the only animal here besides the big bunny and his senior operative who knew the purpose of today's meeting. As Jack moved towards his seat, he observed that her eyes were downcast and that she was fidgeting nervously. Hmm, well of course she was; the last time she'd been here, she'd ended up leaving a in police cruiser with her paws cuffed behind her back.
As for the other five occupants of the conference room, although they might not know for certain why they had been summoned here, they probably had at least a vague inkling.
First of all there was Stan Troupe, a ring-tailed lemur and Chief Counsel for The Aker Group. Stan had been with Jack for longer than anyone else here, and was loyal to a fault; there'd be no flak from him.
One space down was Dan Lingula, a carabao or water buffalo. The CEO of Aker Correctional Corporation, he had yet to question, much less overrule, even a single one of Jack LaPeigne's directives. Behind his back, he was known as 'the cowed bull'; the big bunny knew exactly what to expect from him; again, no worries.
To Lingula's right was Dr. Dorothy, 'Dotty' Tufts, an Abert's Squirrel and the head of LPN Pharma. Okay, now she was a different kettle of carrot-chips; she neither liked Jack La Peigne, nor was she particularly intimidated by him. And she was sharp; if she didn't already know about the deal Jack had concluded with PAD on the way up here, he'd eat his cell-phone. Dottie had also been wise enough to leave the discussions with Adrian Arborea to her superior; she knew how terrible she was when it came to negotiations. In short, she was the one animal in this room with both the brains and the chutzpah to block the big bunny's proposal, if the spirit moved her.
Except the spirit WASN'T going to move her—Jack's announcement would come as good news to the tassel-eared rodent; she'd been urging him to accelerate the timetable on the Fire Triangle project for some time now.
Chad Whittlesly, a grizzled badger, was the Aker Group's Chief Financial Officer and easily the oldest mammal present, only two years away from the firm's mandatory retirement age. He was also the biggest toady in the group, a surprising fact, considering his age. At least one wag had described his relationship with Jack LaPeigne as being not unlike the relationship between Jim Humpson and Kermit, the Frog. (Jack had later tracked down the would-be wit and had him fired.)
Last—and least—was Anton Cole, a black bear and also chief of Aker's Communications Division. While neither easily intimidated, nor a lackey by nature, Cole had his own sort of pressure-point; he was almost insatiably greedy. It was said that he would swim though broken glass—drenched in acid—if you stood at the end of the pool holding a large enough bankroll. (The originator of this bit of humor had NOT lost his job—for the simple reason it had been Jack LaPeigne himself.)
Wasting no time, the big bunny opened the proceedings even before he finished sitting down.
"Good morning, mammals, let's call this meeting to order. I know that none of you are particularly happy to be here—as am I—so I'll get right down to business. The purpose of this gathering is a proposal to move up the timetable on Project Fire Triangle and implement it immediately… At least wait until I make the motion, Dorothy!" he amended with an amused snicker; the Abert's squirrel's paw had already shot up.
But then the big bunny's smile quickly faded.
"Hmmm," he thought to himself, "I bet she thinks I'm making the proposal as a result of her nagging—excuse me, recommendations. Need to disabuse her of that little notion, chop-chop."
"This proposal is made in light of some new information recently unearthed by Mr. Whitepaugh over there," he went on, nodding in the wolverine's direction. (They had actually been his own discoveries, but he didn't want to come off as too much of an autocrat.)
He followed this up with a carefully redacted version of the new information, and then stood up, assuming a solemn visage.
"The proposal is made that we implement Project Fire Triangle immediately."
"Seconded!" Dan Lingula's hoof was aiming skyward; so was Dorothy Tuft's paw, but the carabao had beaten her to the punch. No surprise there; they had never much cared for each other, (even if they did work well together when the situation called for it.)
"All right then, any objections?" Jack queried, moving on quickly. There were none, (he had known there wouldn't be,) and he called immediately for a vote.
"All in favor?"
The first to raise her paw was Dottie, with Dan Lingula right behind her, Stan Troupe took half a second longer and then it was Anton Cole's turn. The last to vote in favor was Chad Whittlesly, but his expression was one of boredom rather than reluctance. In that moment, he reminded Jack of a much younger animal. "Yeah, okay, whatever you say. NOW can I go hang with my buds?"
"All opposed?" Jack queried, looking around the table. It was a farcical question, given the fact that they had already voted in favor unanimously, but protocol was protocol; he needed to provide at least the appearance of giving them the opportunity to change their minds, (not that any of them would.)
"Very well," he said, "the motion is carried unanimously. This meeting is adjourned."
And that was that; the entire procedure had taken less time than the big bunny had needed to get through security.
An outsider watching the proceedings might have concluded that the whole thing was a joke. There had been no discussion of the proposal and no suggestions made. Except for LaPeigne's asking if there were any objections, there had been no chance whatsoever for anyone to offer feedback. And even then, no one had uttered a peep; by any other name this group was a rubberstamp committee—and also a complete waste of time. Why had the big bunny even bothered with this little charade? Why not just give the order and be done with it?
An outsider watching the proceedings might have concluded that the whole thing was a joke. There had been no discussion of the proposal and no suggestions made; except for LaPeigne's asking if there were any objections, there had been no opportunity whatsoever for anyone to offer feedback. And even then, no one had uttered a peep; by any other name this group was a rubberstamp committee—and also a complete waste of time. Why had the big bunny even bothered with this little charade? Why not just give the order and be done with it?
Jack LaPeigne could have explained why; every animal in attendance at the meeting had been part of a privileged elite; the select few who knew about Project Fire Triangle, (although none of them were aware of the full details of the project—collectively yes, but not individually.) Jack hadn't liked sharing the information with even a group this small but unfortunately, he'd had no choice; every single animal at the meeting was essential to carrying out the plan.
More to the point, now that the big bunny had put the project to a vote, none of his underlings could later claim that they'd been acting under duress, much less that they'd been ignorant of the plan. "You agreed to this willingly, you can't back out now." When things started to go south, (and when did things ever NOT begin to go south, even in the most successful operation?) it might be necessary to remind them of that—they had climbed on board the roller-coaster and now all they could do was hang on until the ride was over. And if any of them might later be tempted to blow the whistle in order save their own skin…well, that was why Seth Whitepaugh had been in attendance; an unsubtle reminder that no one trying to drop a dime on the big rabbit had ever gotten away with it. (The LAST animal foolhardy enough to make the attempt had been James 'The Mister' McCrodon, and how had that worked out for him?)
When Jack adjourned the meeting, most of his underlings quickly vacated their seats and headed for the door. The exception was Anton Cole, who had news to deliver.
"Mr. La Peigne, about…errrrr, that other matter, sir; everything is in place and ready to go, I just need your approval before we move forward."
"I'll get back to you on that shortly," Jack answered while managing a smile. Privately, he wanted to throw this mealy-mouthed idiot off the Cliffside drawbridge; over the black bear's shoulder, he could see Seth Whitepaugh cocking an eyebrow. Great! The big bunny had intended to discuss the 'other matter' privately with his senior operative as soon as the meeting broke up, but now the wolverine would think it was only because of what he'd just overheard. (Otherwise his boss would have told him nothing.)
"IDIOT hunny-grubbing, moron!" the big bunny raged inwardly at his communications chief, while somehow keeping his face straight.
When they were finally alone, he turned to speak to Seth Whitepaugh.
"The 'other matter' Cole was talking about is a fursonal project of mine, involving ZPD officers Judy Hopps and her partner, Nick Wilde. I wanted to discuss it with you first before giving the final go-ahead. If it might even possibly interfere with Project Fire Triangle, I'll nix the plan toute-suite."
"All right sir, then why don't we sit down first?" Whitepaugh answered, indicating a chair. Nothing showed on his face, but Jack was certain that the wolverine was still harboring doubts; he hadn't completely rejected the idea that this discussion was only happening because of Anton Cole's indiscretion.
When they took their seats, Jack once again dispensed with any preamble and explained what he had in mind. The whole time, Whitepaugh only sat there with an expression chiseled in granite.
Jack LaPeigne's proposal was essentially a black-propaganda operation, something with which both he and Seth Whitepaugh were more than passingly familiar; Zootopia City Council member Claudia Nizhang had been on the receiving end of an Aker Group disinformation campaign for more than a year now. Only after he had finished laying out the particulars did the big bunny offer any explanation as to his motives.
"My feelings on predator/prey relationships are a matter of record, Whitepaugh, as you well know. And I'm far from the only animal who feels this way. Judy Hopps might very well end up destroying her career by getting in too deep with Nick Wilde. Normally, I wouldn't care, except that she happens to be the first bunny police officer in the history of not only the ZPD, but law enforcement, period. If she goes down…my God, I can hear it already, 'See, didn't I SAY that a bunny can't make it as a cop?' As a matter of fact, I happen to know that the ZPD academy has received applications from at least three other bunnies hoping to follow in Hopps' footsteps. What will they say if she loses her job because of that fox?" He allowed his expression to become suitably humble. "And I'll admit it; Judy Hopps is not only a member of my species, but also hails from my hometown of Bunnyburrow. Hmmmm, what is that expression the kids like to use? Oh yes, she's my 'homegirl', you might say."
He paused, waiting for a reaction from Whitepaugh, but the wolverine only nodded impassively. Jack nodded back and then got up and turned around with his paws behind his back, something he often did before delivering his peroration.
"But as I said before, I will not give the green light on this if there's even the smallest possibility that it might interfere with Project Fire Triangle. That operation takes full precedence over everything else—period." He looked over his shoulder at the wolverine. "That's why I'm speaking to you in private, Whitepaugh. You remember what I said, shortly after I brought you on board, 'I need at least one animal around me that isn't afraid to tell me what I don't want to hear.' So tell me what you think, could what I have just proposed possibly jeopardize the Fire Triangle, even to the smallest degree?"
Seth Whitepaugh frowned for a moment before answering.
On the one paw, Jack LaPeigne wasn't fooling anybody with his pretensions of a brotherly concern for Judy Hopps. The big rabbit had a crush on her, Whitepaugh had suspected it ever since their meeting at the Bunnyburrow hospital; now, he was certain of it.
But on the other paw, LaPeigne hadn't been trying to deceive anyone with that song and dance, least of all himself. He knew what his real motivations were…and he also knew that Whitepaugh knew.
THAT was why he had asked for the wolverine's private opinion, because was furthermore aware that he was acting on emotion rather than reason. Animals in that state of mind tended to see only what they wanted to see, sometimes even when the truth was staring them right in the face. Seth Whitepaugh wouldn't miss any such details, and he if he spotted a problem with 'the other matter' he'd say so immediately.
Only…would Jack LaPeigne's little side-project have any possible impact on the Fire Triangle project? Whitepaugh was tempted to say 'yes' just on principal; the big rabbit's scheme was downright petty, beneath the efforts of a mammal of such high stature. It was also overkill, like using an air-tanker to put out a campfire. Yet try as he might, the wolverine could think of no possible way in which the two operations might interfere with one another, at least not in their initial stages. And so he mulled the problem for moment before answering; he might have had the big rabbit's blessing to tell him an unpleasant truth…but only if it WAS the truth.
"Can you stop this once it starts?" he finally asked. "I can't see it causing any trouble for the Fire Triangle project now, but you know as well as I do how circumstances can change without warning."
"Absolutely," LaPeigne reassured him, "I'd have rejected it myself already, if it didn't come equipped with a 'dead-mammal's switch'. Unless Anton Cole gets a memo from me at the end of each week, he's under orders to shut down the operation. That's the set-up."
The corners of Whitepaugh's mouth turned upwards into a neutral position, (if not a smile,) but his eyes remained dubious.
"Then I honestly can't see any reason not to go ahead," he told the big rabbit cautiously, "but only if you give me the authority to abort this 'other' operation of yours any time I see fit. Is that acceptable to you, Mr. LaPeigne?"
"Accepted," the big rabbit replied, with an odd look of relief on his face; it was almost as if he'd been hoping for this. No, strike the 'almost', Whitepaugh decided, this was exactly what Jack LaPeigne had wanted.
As if to prove it, the big bunny already had his cell-phone out and was punching speed-dial.
"Cole? This is LaPeigne. The word is given; I want you to move forward with that 'other matter' at once. Yes, that's right." His eyes shifted in the direction of his senior operative. "And I also want you to keep Seth Whitepaugh apprised of any and all developments; if he gives the order to shut it down, you're to treat it as a direct order from me, is that understood? Very well, Cole…get moving on this."
He disconnected without saying anything further, and turned back to the wolverine.
"All now that's settled for the moment, let's move on to more important matters. Now that we have the votes, is everything in place to initiate Project Fire Triangle?"
"The balloon goes up Saturday," Whitepaugh replied, almost smiling again. He had anticipated the meeting's outcome—and then, having also anticipated his employer's next question, he added, "As you know sir, we need to ensure that no innocent animal gets hurt, at least not the first time we strike. We want to make our principals angry, not the public, not yet at least; the last thing we need is a repeat of what happened in the wake of the Finagle's raid."
"That was different Whitepaugh." The big rabbit regarded his nails for a moment, "The Mister had a gun to our heads; we either moved right then, or else it would have been too late."
"Oh I agree Mr. La Peigne, we had no choice," the wolverine answered, making a throwaway gesture with his paw, "but this time we DO have a choice; this time we're not under the sword of Ramocles, and we can afford to take it step by step."
"Very well then, proceed." the big bunny answered, not entirely satisfied, but wise enough to defer to his senior operative in matters such as this. That was why Seth Whitepaugh had always respected Jack LaPeigne, even if he didn't especially like him. His employer had never been one of those rich jerks who insisted on having everything HIS way, never mind the facts. (Had he wanted, he could have ordered the 'other project' to go ahead without even telling the wolverine about it.) Unlike a few of his contemporaries that the Whitepaugh could name, Jack LaPeigne had always understood that you can't buy reality. On top of that, he was capable of not only admitting to his mistakes but of learning from them. True, he was sometimes prone to acting with astonishing rashness, but he never tried to deny it afterwards.
"That's what makes him so dangerous," the wolverine concluded, mentally folding his arms, "He not only knows his own weaknesses, he's willing to accept them. It's why he's never really been beaten; I can't even begin to count the number of times he lost a battle, and then came back to win the war."
"The initial operation won't require the use of any of our 'enhanced' operatives," He said, "if they're not in a position to pull it off quickly and without being detected, we abort. The name of the game this first time is, get in, get done, get out."
"Leaving behind the appropriate clues, of course," La Peigne reminded him, arching an eyebrow.
"Of course," The wolverine answered with a rough smile, and then explained the details. "Just enough, but not too much," he concluded and the big bunny nodded in approval.
"All right then, I leave it your capable paws," he said, not bothering to tell the wolverine to keep him informed of the operation's progress; some things went without saying.
He stood up again and turned towards the door…but then he paused with an ironic smile crossing his face.
"Before we leave Whitepaugh, I think I'll pay a courtesy call on our 'special guest'; only appropriate considering the occasion, wouldn't you say?"
Without waiting to hear what his senor operative might have to say on the matter, he turned and reached for the door. Had he still been looking, he would have observed Seth Whitepaugh's ebony eyes rolling upwards at the ceiling; bunnies will be bunnies.
On the way downstairs in the elevator, La Peigne seemed to remember something and abruptly snapped his fingers.
"Oh, I almost forgot to ask, what is the status of our operative who was injured at the Carrot Days festival, Ms. …uh, what was her name again?"
"Clawson, sir…Laura Clawson," Whitepaugh answered, his voice, and his face, betraying none of the wariness he was feeling. "She's expected to make a full recovery, only a minor concussion and some bruising, however…"
"Yes?" LaPeigne was lifting an ear.
"However," the wolverine sighed, "She's officially tendered her resignation from ASM, and won't be persuaded to change her mind; getting trounced by a bunny, even a bunny gone savage was too much for her, apparently."
"Ahh what a pity," LaPeigne answered, looking equally resigned while shaking his head, "I'll be sorry to lose her, Whitepaugh. That one had…potential." It was said in a tone of genuine regret, but the wolverine couldn't help noticing the narrowing of his employer's eyes.
"Yes, well the good news sir, is that she poses no security risk." Whitepaugh said this while taking care not to rush his words, "Ms. Clawson knows it was you who ordered her to put that Nighthowler pellet in with the fox's blueberries, but she has no idea that it WAS Nighthowler; she thinks it was some kind of tracking device. Furthermore she missed seeing the bunny that went savage filching some of those berries from the fox's basket; she never even saw the two of them together. Like everyone else who was there, she believes that the savage rabbit simply had a flashback to the Nighthowler exposure he suffered as a kit."
"Ahhh, well that's one piece of good news," La Peigne nodded, facing the front of the car again, unawares that his chief operative hadn't quite told him everything. That was what Laura Clawson had SAID she'd seen, (or rather hadn't seen,) but Whitepaugh had yet to confirm it. Had she been telling the truth? He thought so, but wasn't 100% sure. What he WAS certain of was that Laura Clawson was a fellow wolverine…and he was equally certain of what Jack La Peigne would do if he decided that she was a security risk after all. That was why he was keeping certain details to himself; his employer wasn't the only animal in this elevator for whom loyalty to one's own species trumped nearly all other considerations.
The car slowed, and then stopped.
They got off at the main rotunda, and took the left side hallway to what had once been the examination theater. Taking a sharp right, they found themselves in front a three-inch thick, jet-black, polycarbonate door, guarded by a bighorn sheep. After examining their ID badges, the ram saluted and spoke into his radio.
"This is Crags, open up 2-B."
"Opening 2-B," a tinny voice answered, and the door slid sideways with a low hiss.
Beyond the doorway was another sight that would have been familiar to Nick Wilde and Judy Hopps had they been present this morning, a long, sterile hallway, lined with rows of winking red lights, the place where they had found the 14 (actually 15) missing mammals two years previously. The cells were more-or-less unchanged since then, but with two notable differences, the alterations in the plumbing arrangements and the fact that only half of the cubicles were occupied.
And there was one other difference, not with the cells but rather with their occupants. As La Peigne and Whitepaugh made their way down the corridor, none of the inmates leaped at the glass, ready to tear the interlopers to shreds, as the predators darted by Doug would have done. Just the opposite in fact; at the sight of the wolverine and the big bunny, most of them retreated even further into the depths of their cells. One of them, a huge rhino with legs like basalt pillars even cringed in a corner as they passed.
The two visitors ignored them all, there was only one animal in here of any interest—to Jack LaPeigne if not to Seth Whitepaugh, the occupant of the last cell on the left.
Anyone familiar with this animal would have wondered what they were doing here, especially in such company. This particular part of the VIOMAX facility was known unofficially as the 'Basket-Case Block', the dumping ground for prisoners with no idea as to what planet they were on. The animal occupying that last cell was by contrast nothing if not self-aware—clever, even calculating, in fact.
That is…whenever they were allowed that privilege, (which wasn't often.)
And then, of course, there was the size difference. Except for the animal Jack LaPeigne had come to see, every denizen of this wing was a member of a larger species, and most of them were predators—whereas the animal in cell 17 was both a prey species and smaller than he was; no bigger than the average bunny, in fact. But if this animal wasn't especially violent in her own right, she was certainly capable of ordering it…or rather she HAD been so inclined, once upon a time.
That, however, was not the reason that this particular inmate had been transferred to the Basket-Case Wing of the most secure prison in the Zootopia Penal System. It was for a reason Jack LaPeigne was only just now going to reveal.
"Hello there," he said, offering his most ironic smile
At first glance, he appeared to be talking to an empty cell…until you noticed the pair of eyes peeking out from under the bed.
The big bunny turned and signaled to Seth Whitepaugh.
"Bring her out of it; I don't want to talk to her like this."
The wolverine nodded and stepped forward, drawing a plastic rectangle from his breast pocket, swiping it across the card-reader and then putting it back while entering a security code with his other paw. As the door slid open, he reached into his jacket and drew out a pneumatic dart gun, taking aim at the cell's occupant. There was less than five inches of door space open at this point and seeing what was happening, the target had secreted herself even further under the bed.
Even so, when Whitepaugh pulled the trigger, a low grunt from within the shadows told LaPeigne that his senior operative had scored a direct hit. Sliding the pistol back in its holster, the wolverine punched the control panel a second time. At once, the cell-door did an about face and glided shut again. The entire action had been conducted in a single, fluid move that had required all of fifteen seconds to complete; one might almost have called it graceful.
It took a moment, but then a wan, orange-clad figure emerged from beneath the bed, crawling on all fours and then getting shakily to her feet.
"Hello Ms. Bellwether," LaPeigne repeated. This time his smile was almost beatific.
The former Mayor of Zootopia did not respond at first, instead dabbing at the spot on her cheek where Whitepaugh had tagged her with the pellet dart. Her fingers came away stained with a dark blue color she knew all too well. She did not panic or show any fear, not like the first time the wolverine had done this; she knew by now that she wouldn't go savage, the Nighthowler she'd been given would serve only as a counter-agent, nothing more.
She glared balefully through the Plexiglas at her visitors.
"You have no right to keep me here, LaPeigne, I'm not dangerous and you know it."
If Judy Hopps could have seen her former nemesis, she would have found the sheep's appearance disturbing if not shocking; Dawn Bellwether's stint behind bars did not seemed to have aged her significantly, but on the other paw, two years ago she would never have hidden herself under a bed at the approach of a visitor. Even more striking was the fact that her prison coveralls were hanging off her like clothes on a line; she appeared to have shed thirty pounds at least since her encounter with Nick and Judy in the Natural History Museum.
In fact, she was slightly heavier now than she'd been back then; her scrawny appearance came as a consequence of having been shorn of all her wool.
Instead of responding to her, the big bunny turned and nudged his companion in the elbow, (something the wolverine seemed to find quietly irritating.)
"Two years behind bars, and still showing some spirit; I have to say Whitepaugh, I'm impressed." Now the big bunny turned to face the former mayor, his face morphing into the trademark oily leer that all who served him had come to dread, narrow, burning, merry eyes above a mouth stretched wide in a feral smirk, the incisors prominently on display. It was a sight calculated to make the big bunny's enemies draw back in fear, and it had precisely that effect on Ex-Mayor Bellwether; she backed away from the door so swiftly, she nearly tripped over her own feet.
On the other side of the Plexiglas, Jack LaPeigne winked and raised a finger
"Wrong Bellbottom; in case you've forgotten, the Zootopia Penal System is now under the auspices of the Aker Correctional Corporation. And you should remember; you were the one who first signed off on the proposal, after all." His smirk widened as he savored the irony. "Suffice it to say we can do whatever we want with you: 'In me power', nyah-ha-haaa, and all that."
"You didn't have to take my wool," Bellwether sniffed, looking away with a hurt expression. Jack LaPeigne remained unmoved.
"Oh stop your bleating, that's nothing special; every sheep held in one of our institutions gets the same treatment. Wool's a very nice place to hide contraband after all—including weapons." He let out a short, harsh guffaw. "Seriously, you should see what we found in your little chums Jesse and Woolter's fleece when they went under the shears."
"What do you want, cute bunny?" Bellwether demanded, folding her arms; she had assumed her defiant stance again.
But LaPeigne only threw back his head and laughed.
"Oh goodness me, someone called me cute, I'm sooooo hurt."
When he looked at her again, his face became almost an olive branch.
"Well since you asked Bellwether, I just happened to be in the neighborhood so I thought I'd drop in to explain something. The reason you're here, instead of one of our other facilities is that you not only had the nerve to steal fire from the gods, you tried to use it to light a birthday candle—and if there's anything I can't stand it's a piker."
Bellwether blinked, and then stared as if Cliffside was still an insane asylum, and SHE was the animal on the outside looking in.
"I don't know what you're talking about, bunny."
His expression remained coy. "No Lambchop, you don't…but you'll understand soon enough, and so will everyone else." He was about to say more when a reproachful look from Whitepaugh caught his eye.
The big bunny quickly changed his tack, "Darting predators to divide the city and keep yourself in power! A more frivolous waste of a precious resource, I can't possibly imagine, Bellbottom." He abruptly turned to the wolverine standing next to him. "Whitepaugh, put her under again, I've had enough of this."
Dawn Bellwether bleated in terror and dived for the underside of the bunk bed. She only made it halfway there before the second dart-pellet caught her in the nape of her neck. Unlike the first dart, this one was not blue but a deep, iridescent red.
LaPeigne waited until it had begun to take effect and then turned and walked away, signaling for Whitepaugh to accompany him
"Feel better now?" the wolverine asked him a moment later, as they waited for the guard to open the door again.
La Peigne just shrugged. "What can I tell you? I needed to get that out my system. If I hadn't paid former Mayor Bellwether a visit while I was here, I'd have spent the rest of the day wishing that I had." He turned to look at Whitepaugh. "And today especially, I need to stay focused—because from this point onward, there's no going back. Alea iacta est!"
The door slid open and the two of them stepped through the opening.