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 8—Where There's Smoke…
"Oh, come on Nick, it's not that bad; you haven't even broken a sweat."
"Of course…*puff!*… I'm not sweating, Fluff…*gasp!*…*wheeze!*…foxes don't perspire…*huff!*…they pant!...*wheeze!* (Sheesh, you'd think by now she'd remember that little factoid.)
When they'd exited the police cruiser a moment ago, it had been like opening the door of a blast furnace. And now, Nick felt as if his body was starting to shrivel and his eyeballs were turning to sand; he was breathing so rapidly, he thought he was going to hyperventilate.
And this was just getting from the curb to the door of the Meerkat Market's administrative offices, a stroll of no more than twenty-five feet.
"Whoa, I was SO right to wear my old uniform today," the red fox grumbled to himself. Sweat or no sweat, he felt as grimy as a doormat, "I'm just glad Finnick can't see me right now." (With his two built-in radiators in the form of those oversized ears, the little fennec fox was far more adept at dealing with heat than his former partner. Ohhh yes…Mini-Me would just have a ball with this.)
It had been a rocky road to get here…at first, anyway. Judy had encountered no difficulty in determining that Mr. Ian Shortal was A. a real animal, B. Duke Weaselton's brother-in-law, and C. the owner of a candy shop in Tundratown called Sweeties' Scots Confectionary.
But when it came to the question of whether or not he'd been rejected for a bank loan, that was when things got dicey; the first two institutions that Judy talked to had stiffly informed her, 'Sorry, but we cannot give out that information."—banker -speak for 'begone, peasant!' On her third try, Nick had suggested that she mention The Phantom and it had worked like a charm. When the manager of Lemming Brothers Bank heard that name, he'd been only too eager to perform his civic duty…and the next three places she'd contacted had been similarly cooperative.
Of those four, three had indeed received loan applications from a Mr. Ian James Shortal, (and promptly denied them.). That had been more than enough for Judy…and also for Deputy Prosecutor Rudy Gamsbart. On hearing the news, the chamois had at last signed off on Duke Weaselton's story...tentatively. His full approval remained contingent of the fox and bunny being able to locate the elusive drops site, LB6.
And that was the reason Nick Wilde was ready to kick himself from here to downtown Meowria. If he hadn't suggested dropping The Phantom's name, Judy would likely still be trying to pry that loan information out of Zootopia's banking community—from the insides of a nice, air-conditioned police-precinct. "Me and my big, fat, fox-trap! DUMB Nick…stupid, stupid, stooopid!"
When they completed the ten-mile hike to the office door—that was how it felt to Nick—he let Judy be the one to open it, even though reaching the handle required her to make a short jump. (She was the one who had gotten them into this after all.) Once inside though, he quickly felt better; the room was not only air conditioned but equipped with a ceiling fan. The animal behind the reception desk, a Nubian ibex helped even more by turning out to be both cheerful and eager to assist the two ZPD officers, ushering them straightaways into the presence of the Meerkat Market's Chief of Operations, an oryx by the name of Ali Al-Yaabis.
The name notwithstanding, Sahara Square was home to animals from many of the world's other desert regions as well. Ali for example was an Arabian oryx, a distant relation of the gemsbok—although he was far more gracious in outlook than Judy's neighbor, Pronk. No sooner had the bunny-cop and her partner taken their seats, than he insisted upon offering them something to drink.
"In Sahara Square, especially on a day like to today, it is always important to keep oneself well hydrated," he said, pressing a button on his office intercom.
Judy mercifully didn't decline the suggestion, and when the receptionist brought them a pitcher of strong sweet tea, cool but not cold, Nick downed his glass in a single gulp.
"So how may I be of assistance," the oryx inquired, settling back in his chair after taking only small sip of his own beverage.
It was Judy who answered him.
"Mr. Ali, if you please," he corrected her without reproach.
"Mr. Ali," Judy told him gravely, "we have reason to believe that some criminal activity is in the works for the Meerkat Market, this coming weekend."
He only smiled cynically. "Is there not always?" he asked, spreading his hooves and then becoming serious, "but may I presume this goes somewhat further than the usual pickpockets and automobile break-ins?"
"You may," Judy nodded, "We have information that an illegal exchange is scheduled to take place at The Market sometime Saturday morning."
Ali's ears flicked sideways and he made a sound as if clearing his throat.
"Ah, Bismillah…kat again?"
"No," the bunny-cop hastily assured him, "We're not at liberty to say exactly what's happening, but it has nothing to do with drugs."
"Well can you tell me this much at least," Ali asked her, his eyes were alert and his nose slightly elevated, as if he had scented something stalking him. "Has this anything to do with…" He looked around as if the walls might be listening and then leaned in close, lowering his voice, "Has it anything to do with…the Red Pig?"
Judy smiled and told him. "No sir. I can categorically assure you that Rocco Peccari is not involved in this."
Nick Wilde tried not to frown as he listened; Judy was stretching things a little. Probably the Sahara Square Mob wasn't in on it, but who could be sure? The Phantom WAS making his payment pickup on their turf after all.
"Good," Ali let out a long, slow breath and relaxed.
Though Nick still said nothing, he understood the oryx's apprehension. For as long as anyone could remember the Sahara Square Mob had adopted a 'hooves-off' policy when it came to the Meerkat Market, no shaking down of vendors, and no protection schemes. This was the supposed arrangement, but given the Red Pig's cavalier attitude towards gangland protocol, nobody knew for certain how much longer that policy was going to last. (Peccari's nonstop flouting of mob tradition was one of the major reasons why he was so despised by Mr. Big. "This porco di sporco ; he has NO respect for cosa nostra!" Nick had heard the arctic shrew saying that on more than one occasion.)
"The problem is, Mr. Ali," Judy was telling him, "we don't know the exact location of the exchange, only that it's supposed to happen somewhere in The Market …at a place with the designation, LB6. Does that combination mean anything to you sir; could it be the location of a vendor's stall perhaps?"
The oryx immediately frowned and shook his head
"No, it could not be that; the letter-codes on the vendor's booths go only as high as 'C' and they are all only single letters…A-12, C-26, and so on."
"Can you think of anything else that it might mean?" Judy asked him. The sinking quality of her voice told Nick that she was expecting a negative answer. Ali, however, stroked his chin thoughtfully. "Not immediately, but I wonder about something. Could the letter 'L' mean 'EL', E-L? There are many streets and establishments in Sahara Square with that prefix you know, especially around the Beach Promenade."
"Oh, right." Judy answered simply, but Nick saw her ears stiffen. They should have asked Duke Weaselton if 'L' meant 'El' when they'd talked to him earlier; now if they asked him, they'd probably get only a rude remark for their troubles. Still, it was something to work with.
"Thank you for your assistance, Mr. Ali" she said offering the oryx a business card, "If you happen to think of anything else, please give us a call."
"I shall, certainly," he replied, offering a slight bow as he took the card.
Something occurred to Nick just then.
"Before we forget," he asked, "would you happen to have a map of the Meerkat Market to spare?"
"Certainly, I shall print one up for you right now," the oryx replied. He moved and clicked his computer mouse a few times and then said, "You may pick it up at the reception desk on your way out. Oh, and you are aware that during the summer season, the Meerkat Market is relocated from the Great Souk to the Beach Promenade?"
"Yes, we knew, but thanks for reminding us." Judy answered him.
"Better for the tourists, right?" Nick queried with a sly grin.
"Quite so," Ali replied, and then returned the fox's grin, "And also, it is always a few degrees cooler down by the water than elsewhere in Sahara Square." His eyes darted to his wall clock and he flicked his ears again, "Ahhhh, I hope you will not think me rude, but I have a meeting scheduled with The Sahara Square Chamber of Commerce and I must not keep them waiting."
"No problem, I think we're done here," Judy answered, rising quickly from her chair and motioning for Nick to do the same. "Thank you for your assistance, Mr. Ali, you've been a big help."
"Always happy to be of service to the ZPD," the oryx responded with another slight bow, and then he raised a pair of fingers as if offering a benediction, "However, if I may be so bold, do not forget that in Sahara Square, it is always the desert that sets the pace."
"Especially on a day like today,' nodded Nick, who knew the expression well from his association with Finnick, "and thanks again."
As far as he was concerned, however, that warning about not moving too quickly in the desert heat did not apply to closing a car door and when the red fox yanked his shut again, he nearly cracked the window glass; (he wanted out of the convection oven right now.) "So, where to next, Carrots?" he asked, hoping she hadn't noticed.
Judy might have done, but shortly had other concerns.
She yanked her paws from the steering wheel, waving them frantically in the air; "Ow, ouch… hot, hot, hot!" In the time they'd been inside the office, the sun had heated it nearly to the temperature of a pancake griddle.
"You okay?" Nick asked his partner, a concerned expression on his face. (His irritation over her having landed them here had long since faded away.)
""Yeah, I'm all right," the bunny-cop answered, sucking at her fingertips one by one, and then offering him a wry smile, "It's just a good thing my species doesn't have paw pads. Pass me one of those towels and that water-bottle, 'kay?"
"Just a second," Nick answered, and reached behind his seat to grab the requested items.
"So, in answer to your question," Judy told him as she wetted down the steering wheel, "There's only one thing to do that I can think of—start pounding the pavement and see if we can spot anything that flips a switch."
Her plan, if you could call it that, wasn't actually as bad as it sounded; they did nearly all of their 'pounding' from inside the cruiser…with the A/C turned up to maximum.
The Beach Promenade area was a much different animal than the rest of Sahara Square; no sand or mud-colored buildings here; the entire neighborhood was as white as tumble of sugar cubes, with the doors, awnings, and window-shutters all painted a cheerful coral-blue.
It was also practically a ghost town; every door was closed, and every shutter bolted, with hardly a soul to be seen on the streets. There weren't even very many cars on the road.
None of this was surprising; the high afternoon was always Sahara Square's 'quiet time'. Even on a regular day, these were the hours when everybody kept inside and out of the heat, awaiting the cool of the evening. On an abnormally hot afternoon like this one, staying out of the midday sun was a no-brainer.
It didn't take long for the fox and bunny-cop's survey to become an exercise in frustration. Just as Ali al-Yaabis had suggested, there were plenty of streets near Beach Promenade with an 'El' prefix, El Veyrah, El Vis, El Merfudde, but nothing beginning with 'B'. The closest they came was the Rue El Kahbong, and none of the houses on that street had addresses with less than three digits. In fact, nowhere in the area of the Meerkat Market was there an address with less than two numerals. Whatever the combination LB6 meant, it wasn't a house or a shop.
Nor did it seem to be the number of a flat, every apartment house they visited had doors with either a number or a letter beside it; never a combination of both. Luckily, there were very few apartment buildings near the Beach Promenade; checking the numbers required either Nick or Judy to exit the police cruiser. (They took turns.)
Back and forth, zigging and zagging, up one street and down the other, studying the street signs, squinting at the numbers beside each door, and each time coming up dry.
"Hurry sundown," Nick thought to himself, as they cruised along the beach-walk for maybe the third or fourth time Sahara Square always cooled down quickly after twilight—but for now even the beach was mostly deserted, only few bathers out on the water and no sails visible anywhere. Not even the rooster-tail of a jet-ski could be seen, splitting the surface of Zootopia Sound; the water was as empty as it was glassy-smooth. And now they were once again coming up on the heart of the Beach Promenade, Yassmina Circle and its famous bandstand; a soaring, whitewashed gazebo, with Moorish arches and a blue-domed roof. (There was always live music at The Market) On any other day there'd be a flock of kids hanging here, but right now it was as empty as a bombed out pillbox.
That was what made it all the more surprising when on the sidewalk up ahead, they spotted the blue and white umbrella of a food-cart vendor.
At once Nick felt his stomach grumbling.
"Carrots, can we pull over and grab a quick bite? I haven't eaten since breakfast…and I skipped breakfast."
"Yup, I could go for something myself right about now," she agreed, easing the cruiser up to the curb.
Exiting the vehicle, they quickly discovered that Ali al-Yabbis had been exactly right about at least one thing; it was a few degrees cooler, down by the water than elsewhere in Sahara Square, (which, on a day like today, was kind of like saying a tarantula bite doesn't hurt as much as a scorpion-sting.)
The vendor turned out to be a Ruppell's fox, smaller than a red fox but larger than a fennec. He had a perpetual grin plastered on his muzzle, and barely spoke the local language…but he was as clever as befit a fellow member of Nick Wilde's species; he had surrounded his cart with wicker mats, so that his customers wouldn't burn their feet on the sidewalk.
And posted beside the cart was a signboard, showing pictures of all the items he sold; his patrons could order what they wanted simply by pointing.
Nick selected a foot-long wurmwurst while Judy opted for a carrot-dog with everything.
"I-I-I wouldn't do that if I were you, Carrots." Nick pointed to the spoonful of neon-red she was about to slather over her sandwich, "That's harissa sauce; really spicy, you'll burn your tongue off."
"Ohhh, thanks Nick," she said, hastily returning the spoon to its tub.
"No sweat," the red fox answered, a rueful smile spreading along his muzzle as he recalled his own first encounter with the fiery condiment. Ohhhh, Finnick had gotten a HUGE laugh out of that one…
Wait a minute...Finnick?
Nick lifted his nose and sniffed. Judy noticed him immediately
"What…What is it?"
"Finnick's around here somewhere," the red fox answered, scenting the air again, "And Conor Lewis is with him." A third sniff, and then a head-shake, "Ahhh, I can't quite get the direction, but they're here all right, not too far away either."
At first, Judy thought he was just making small talk. But when they got back inside the police cruiser, the red fox had a suggestion for her.
"Carrots, there's nobody who knows Sahara Square like Finnick. I bet he might have some idea about where to find this LB6."
Judy's left ear pulled backwards and her nose began to twitch.
"Mmmm, I-I don't know, Nick. We need to keep this under wraps and no offense, but Finnick's not exactly the soul of discretion."
"To put it mildly," the red fox agreed, nodding over an ironic expression, "but he's not especially nosy either; he won't ask for any details. And he'll keep quiet if we ask him to."
"Mmmnnnn, oh-kay," Judy agreed reluctantly, while wiping her paws on the napkin she'd brought. (Nick, typically, wiped his on the leg of his uniform pants.) "So, where is he again?"
By way of response, Nick rolled down his window and sniffed again; then he waved a paw, vaguely, off to the left. "Over there somewhere."
Those rudimentary directions turned out to be more than sufficient for their purposes; the next time he lowered the window, Nick was able to get an almost precise fix on the location of his former partner, "Second street ahead and turn right." he said, pointing ahead, through the windshield.
"You nose told you that?" Judy couldn't help marveling. How the heck could even a fox's sense of smell be so pinpoint accurate?
"My nose and my magnetic sense," Nick tapped the side of his head as if that explained everything.
When he cracked the window a third time, Judy no longer needed his assistance to determine Finnick's location, she could hear the little desert fox for herself.
As matter of fact they could probably hear him in Bunnyburrow. "Whatchoo you think you doin'? Dangit, we ain't got TIME for this!"
"Well, at least we caught him in good mood," Nick Wilde observed sardonically as he rolled up the window again, "They're in that alley, up ahead on the left."
As soon as they made the turn, it became instantly clear what all the fuss was about.
Finnick's van was pulled up in the center of the alleyway, shaded by the surrounding buildings, with a bucket and soapy rag planted on the roof. Yep, that made sense, getting it cleaned up on a hot day like today, when does anyone ever wash their car without getting wet themselves—either by accident or design?
As for the fennec himself, there he was, perched on top of a packing crate with a long-handled brush in his paws—raging impotently at the pair of young mammals that were apparently supposed to be helping him.
The first, a young black rat of Asian heritage was standing atop a thick sponge, balancing precariously on the rim of the van's windshield. Down below, a more familiar animal, a young silver-fox was sitting hunkered against the front grille. Held high in his paws was a curved piece of sheet metal, with the edge pushed up against the hood to create a makeshift ski-jump.
Nick couldn't help laughing and neither could Judy; kid will be kids. He opened his door just in to hear the young rodent saying, "…little bit lower, Conor."
Finnick meanwhile continued to rant, "Will you stoppit with that stuff, and get back to...?"
Both boys ignored him.
"Okay, that's good," the young rat squeaked.
"Go for it Mike!" Conor Lewis fox-screamed, and the rodent pushed off from the roof of the van, surfing his way down the windshield with his arms angled backwards in the classic 'cowabunga' pose.
He gathered speed rapidly as he left the glass for the metal hood, and then he was up the ramp and airborne, performing a neat, triple-twist, somersault in the air, and coming in for a perfect landing on a nearby upturned barrel, facing backwards in the direction he had come..
Conor whooped, Judy applauded and Nick Wilde groused silently, "Aggggh, grrrr…the things you see when you don't have your phone-cam out." (If THAT hadn't been Fuzztube material, such a thing did not exist.) Even Finnick seemed impressed, if still disgruntled. The young rat meanwhile was raising his arms in a 'V' for Victory.
"And once again, young Master Daehan proves that there is more to this rat than just his mad music skills."
"Yeah, well how you gonna get down from there, O great one?" Finnick demanded, with his arms on his hips, "That drum's too dang high for either me or Conor to reach up top."
Yes it was, but not for Nick and he almost went over to help. No need; the young rat had his own solution to the problem. He simply heaved the sponge off the side of the barrel and jumped off after it, employing it as makeshift trampoline and bouncing once, twice…and then coming down again in a perfect three-point stance.
"NEVER question the young master's abilities." He informed Finnick, straightening up again.
In response, the fennec's eyes narrowed wickedly, an expression Nick Wilde knew all too well.
"Uh-huh? Well, it ain't ME gonna be asking the questions, boy." He pointed the new arrivals, "Now you done it, the cops are here."
The black rat squeaked in terror and turned to scurry for cover.
"Wait Mike, it's cool." Conor Lewis hurried over, throwing an icy look at Finnick on the way, "You're a creep sometimes, ya know that DF? Mike, hold up…that's the fox and bunny I was telling you about earlier. Hey Nick, hey Judy."
"Hey yourself Conor, who's this?" Judy dropped down into a bunny-crouch. The rat responded by squealing again and attempting hide himself behind one of the young fox's legs.
"Ease up, big guy, I told you they're my friends." Conor looked down at the rodent for a second and then at Nick and Judy. "You'll have to excuse him, guys. Before Mike and his family moved to Zootopia, they lived in a place where…ahhh, where the cops didn't cut rats a whole lot of slack, if you follow what I'm bringing out—especially if they were immigrants."
"We understand," Judy nodded and so did Nick. Just because the ZPD had an enlightened attitude about different species, that didn't mean it was the case with every law enforcement agency.
She hunkered down a little bit more.
"It's okay Mike, uhhh…" she looked up at Conor for assistance.
"Mike Daehan," the young fox filled in the blank, "Friend of mine from the Academy and one killer keyboard player." He knelt and laid the flat of his pawlm on the ground. Mike hesitated for a second and then climbed cautiously aboard.
"Can you hurry it up over there?" Finnick smoldered from somewhere in the background. The others all pretended not to notice him.
"It's okay Mike," Judy said again, as Conor lifted him up until they were eye-to-eye, "You're in Zootopia now, where anyone can be anything." By now, that slogan had started to feel tired and a little corny—even to her, Nick Wilde knew, but in this case it seemed to be appropriate. And then she said, "I bet you never saw a fox and bunny cop, back where you used to live."
"N-No," the young rat admitted, skittishly but he was finally starting to relax.
Conor promptly eased the tension even further by telling him, "Judy here is the big sis of that bunny-girl plays bass I was telling you about, Erin Hopps."
That was what finally broke away the last of the ice…though Mike's wing-fox soon had reason to wish otherwise.
"Wow yeah, can't wait to see her at the ZAPA auditions," the young rat said. "Conor tells me she's one…she's got one hot, smokin' voice."
"You'll hear it for yourself, kid." Nick Wilde grinned…more at Conor and Judy's discomfort than in any appreciation for her sister's vocal talents. 'Hot smokin'' was not exactly an appropriate way for a young fox to describe a young bunny, even if he was only talking about her voice, and especially not in front of a family member. Judy seemed to be trying desperately not to thump her foot, while Conor's expression fairly screamed, "I could have kept my muzzle shut, but nooooooo!"
Nick decided to give them both a little break.
"I don't know if you heard yet Conor, but Judy and I busted Craig Guilford up in the Meadowlands yesterday afternoon."
"Yeah, I read about that online," the young fox answered, setting Mike down on his shoulder. And then his ears began to pivot and his head tilted sideways. "Did that moron REALLY try to rip off an airplane?"
"Yep, that's right," Judy answered quickly. She was obviously hoping that the conversation wouldn't progress from there to the method by which she had brought down the young coyote.
It might have, but then Mike Daehan piped up, "What'd Dana say when she found out, Conor?"
"Dunno," the young fox shrugged with his free shoulder, "I haven't talked to her since I got back from Bunnyburrow." And to Nick and Judy he explained. "He's talking about another friend of ours from ZAPA, Dana Alchesay, plays fiddle and native flute. She's a coyote herself and doesn't like it very much when another 'yote drags their species' rep through the sewer."
He said this last while looking at Nick, who nodded his understanding at once. That was how HE felt about renegade foxes like the young coyote's girlfriend, Amanda Hill—and he knew Conor also held that attitude.
Then Finnick cleared his throat again, and the red fox decided it was time to get down to business.
"If you don't mind Conor, we need to borrow DF for minute." He pointed in the desert fox's direction, and then at the police cruiser
"Ohhh, NOW what?" Finnick grabbed the brush, threw it down and then jumped off the crate. Nick thought he looked like a kid who's just been called to the principal's office even though he hasn't done anything. "And can you two get back to work now?" the fennec-fox growled; this was meant for Conor and Mike.
Judy insisted on pulling the car around the corner before explaining why they were here. Nick might have been able to talk her into soliciting his former partner for advice…but NOT with a couple of kids listening in; they were risking a rocket from the Chief as it was.
She needn't have worried. Nick Wilde was no fool and didn't even broach the subject of LB6 right away.
"What was with all the rush back there Finnick? " he said, poking his thumb in the direction of the cruiser's rear window, "Your van's not going to disappear if you don't get it cleaned up right NOW."
The fennec-fox narrowed his eyes, and then his mouth crinkled. "That's what I'm TRYING to get it to do; got a buyer coming by, later this evening."
Nick's response to this was wholly predictable; his ears shot up and then his jaw dropped all the way open. "What you're selling it?"
"Yup," Finnick folded his arms, smiling for the first time since the ZPD officers' arrival, "She's been a good ride to me, but it's time to trade up; got my eye on this used Springhare van that Conor found on Stagslist. I can close on it, soon as I got mine sold, but I got to get it done real quick."
"Oh," Nick Wilde let out a big breath of air. Oh-kayyy, Finnick didn't need to sell his van because he was broke, just the opposite; he had enough to be able to afford something better; everything was good now. "When then we won't keep you too long," he said "but Carrots and I need some help."
"We can't give out any details," Judy told him, taking over, "but there's a location Nick and I are trying to find, here in Sahara Square, and we're not having any luck. Do you happen to know where LB6 is? It's supposed to be somewhere in the Meerkat Market."
Finnick's mouth stretched backwards in a fox-grimace and he beetled his brows for a moment. "Mmmmm, that ain't no place I know of. You tried that new parking garage yet?"
Nick and Judy looked at each other and then at the fennec fox.
"Parking garage?" Judy finally said.
"Yeah, they only opened it up a coupla weeks ago," the desert fox told them, "it ain't even on Zoogle maps yet." He looked thoroughly pleased with himself, no surprise to Nick. His old partner had always liked nothing better than one-upping somebody. To prove it, he fell instantly silent, offering nothing more.
"All right then where IS this new garage?" Judy asked him, exasperated. She was in no mood for games right now.
Finnick pointed off to the right, "Entrance is over that way, corner of Ghibli and Camel's Thorn.
"Wha…? That's nowhere near the Meerkat Market." Now Nick was beginning to lose patience with his former partner too. Ghibli and Camel's Thorn was at least two blocks away from the Beach Promenade.
"I said that's where the entrance is," The little desert fox looked almost smug, "But the garage is right underneath Yassmina Circle. An' yeah, you can get to the Meerkat Market easy from there. They got stairs, they got escalators, even a freight elevator; Conor and me saw a couple of guys fighting over it, that time when we sold the first batch of Gazelle Tour Shirts here."
Once more Nick and Judy looked at each other; the red fox could almost feel her thoughts. 'How come YOU didn't know about that parking garage, Mr. Street-Smart, I-Know-Everybody?'
Nick didn't know whether to thank Finnick or choke him out; he finally settled on the former.
"Okay, thanks for the information little Toot-Toot," (The fennec-fox wasn't getting off that easy.)
"What can I say, you're welcome," Finnick responded—in the tone most animals usually reserve for someone who just cut them off in traffic, "I only hope them kids didn't wreck my van while we been talking."
When they returned to the alleyway they found that the desert fox's van was not only still intact; it was clean as the proverbial whistle. Heck, even that was an inadequate description; Finnick's ride looked almost as if it had been detailed; the windows were spotless, the flanks had been polished to a high gloss, even the tires were gleaming. And there was Conor, sitting on the packing crate with Mike Daehan beside him, in the midst of a cell-phone conversation. When Finnick tried to get his attention, the young fox waved him away as if he was being pestered for spare change.
"Yeah Saad, we're done here." He was speaking to the animal on the other end of the line. "Any sign of 'em, yet? Nahhh, didn't think so, it's still too early. Lemme know as soon as…what's that? No worries, I talked to Treo and he's down with us, gonna come by with his crew. Yeah, Jason's still good…yes, he's bringing his brothers with him; will you quit it already? I told you before, we got this. What? No don't thank me yet, wait'll it's done. See ya in a bit, okay? Later cat…bye-bye."
By the time he got the phone put away Finnick was nearly fit to be tied.
"What, you finished ALREADY?"
Conor looked at him with pitying eyes.
"Yeah DF, it's amazing what you can accomplish when no one's leaning over your shoulder, bugging you."
No way was Nick Wilde going to resist an opening that juicy. He leaned in close to his former partner's ear.
"Now, now Mini-Me…Conor and Mike just did you a big favor. What can you say, but 'you're welcome?"
What Finnick did say made Judy want to clamp her paws over her ears.
Nick's breezy mood was destined to be short lived, however. When they found the parking garage, they discovered that the different levels were color rather than letter-coded…and the blue (b) level was reserve for rodents; you weren't going to move briefcase full of cash through that part of the garage.
"Maybe…LB6 stands for Loading Bay Number 6?" Judy offered hopefully. But even she seemed to know that she was grasping at straws. And yes, the loading dock turned out to have only three spaces.
When they emerged from the parking garage a few minutes later, their only compensation was that the sun was finally setting and the heat of the day was at last loosening its grip.
Unable to think of anything else, they returned to the beach-walk, pulling into a space marked 'Police Vehicles Only' and then sitting there in a brooding silence. Predictably, it was Nick who broke it.
"Okay Carrots, I admit it, I'm out of ideas," he said, throwing up his paws in frustration…and banging his knuckles on the roof of the cruiser, "Ow!"
Fortunately, Judy Hopps was too frustrated to be amused.
"I know Nick, I know," she said, "I feel the same as you. And the worst part is, I just can't shake the idea that the answer is almost right there in front of us…Nick!"
Her partner's head had snapped around, focusing on a shapely corsac-fox vixen in a string bikini, just then passing by his window…and no, Judy was NOT jealous!
"Nick!" she started to say again…but then he turned to her quickly with his ears pricked up.
"Carrots, start the car!'
Her nose began to rapidly twitch. "Wha…? You want us follow her?"
"No," the red fox's tail was frizzed and shivering with excitement, "No Carrots, I want you to follow back the way she came from….oh, foxtrot, why didn't I think of this….c'mon, go!"
Judy stared at him again for a second and then she turned the key.
They retraced the corsac vixen's path to a mostly empty parking lot, just off the beach. Planted between the sand and the parking area was a cluster of buildings, resembling half-buried Quonset huts, constructed in whitewashed stucco.
"Pull into that space over there," the red fox said to her, indicating the one closest to the entrance walk. Judy dutifully eased the cruiser in the place where he was pointing and then killed the motor.
"All right Nick, now do you want to tell me…?"
But the red fox was already out the door.
She found him standing at the head of the walkway, pointing to carved, wooden sign with blue painted letters, "Carrots, look."
Judy looked…and didn't get it. The sign read simply
Lockers, Showers, Changing Rooms
But then she saw what was printed underneath, an arrow pointing to the left with the caption,
Building R – Rodents
Building S – Small Mammals
…and beneath that one, another arrow, pointing to the right with the title,
Building M – Mid-Sized Mammals
Building L – Large Mammals
"Come on," Nick said, hurrying down the path in the direction of the Building L and beckoning for Judy to follow him. This time, she didn't need to be told twice.
What they found inside of building L was almost an anti-climax. Down a short flight of stairs and around the first bend they came a upon a long bank of lockers, two rows, one on top of the other, top row, A and bottom row, B…and six spaces to the right on the lower tier…bingo, there it was, locker LB6.
Judy whooped and threw her arms around her partner
"Whoo-hoo, Nick, you found it, you FOUND it…clever fox!"
Caught by surprise, he nearly toppled over backwards, but then almost as quickly he was hugging her back. After a long, hot, frustrating afternoon, and just when they'd been about to throw in the towel for the day, they'd….
"Eeyeesh! Hey fox…bunny do that gross stuff somewhere else, right?"
Ten feet away, a late-teens fossa in head-banger clothing was looking as if he was about to lose his lunch all over the locker-room floor. (Nick almost felt like doing the same; the interloper smelled as if he'd just taken a bath in clove-oil. Kids today…)
"What the heck are you guys even doing in the large mammal's building, anyway?" the fossa demanded, speaking as if he owned the place.
That broke the spell and broke it quick. Nick let go of Judy and turned to let Mr. Snarky see his badge and uniform.
"I could ask YOU that same question, kid," he said. (A fossa isn't much all that much bigger than a red fox.)
He was rewarded with a loud screech and the fossa nearly dropping his guitar case, followed by a mumbled apology and a fast sprint for the stairs.
"That kid's up to something, Carrots," Nick observed, but she quickly waved him off.
"Never mind that fox, listen."
He cocked an ear…and instantly got the point; the sound of the fossa's footsteps on the stairs was as loud as a snare-drum solo. And if the acoustics in here made it easy enough to hear someone leaving, well then, it went without saying that it would be equally simple to hear someone approaching.
This HAD to be the place they were looking for; Judy certainly seemed to think so. She already had her phone-camera out and was snapping pictures of the locker. (The fossa's appearance hadn't fazed her at all, and wasn't that just like this bunny?)
But then she stopped and pointed, frowning. "Uhmmm, I-I-I don't know, Nick."
The set up here was more or less the same as the lockers in the Savanna Central train station, coin in the slot, turn the key, pull it out and then the door locks automatically when you close it.
"I would have expected the Phantom to use something a little more secure." She said. "These lockers are the easiest thing in the world to break into.
Nick had to agree with her there, the lockers in Zootopia Central were pilfered on an almost daily basis. However, here there was a small but significant difference.
"True Carrots, but see those rings there?" he pointed, "You can add you own padlock for extra security if you want. Look, there's one on that other locker there."
"Oooo, yes," Judy grimaced as if she'd just stepped in something, "I hadn't noticed that Nick, you're right; this has to be it."
She snapped two more pictures and then switched her phone's function from camera to speed-dial.
"Hello, Clawhauser? This is Officer Judy Hopps; I need to speak to Chief Bogo, ASAP."