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The Fire Triangle—A Zootopia Fanfiction
Chapter 8—Where There's Smoke…
"All right, then…are we all in agreement?"
No one spoke, but everyone nodded. After looking them over for what seemed like half a century, Chief Bogo nodded back; there could be no mistaking anyone's opinion here. "Very well then , I'm giving the order; the operation is…yes, what is it Wilde?"
Nick lowered his paw and took a deep breath—slowly, so that the others wouldn't notice his apprehension—and then stood up. He hadn't changed his mind, but 'yes' wasn't necessarily an unqualified yes. Looking around the room, he felt like a fly under a magnifying glass; every eye was watching him closely, (especially those belonging to a certain bunny cop. She was looking at him as if he'd just let out a belch in the midst of a moment of silence.)
Welllll, let her stare at him that way if it suited her; what he had to say right now was much too important to put aside for later—never mind if it spoiled a dramatic moment.
"Chief, before we go any further, I want to return to something I talked about last time we were here; whoever it is that picks up the money from the dead-drop, it won't be The Phantom. The courier probably won't be even know who they're really working for, much less his real name, or how to find him."
"And…" Chief Bogo prompted, one eyebrow higher than the other.
Nick sucked at his lower lip for a second. The Big Chief wasn't going to like this, none of them would; but sorry Jack, facts is facts, (as he used to say to Finnick back in the day.)
He took another breath and plunged ahead.
"And…that means even if we nail that courier red-pawed, it'll probably be just another dead end—or worse. The minute that mule gets busted, the Phantom's going to know we're on to him; don't think for a minute he won't be watching or that he isn't prepared for just such an emergency. We've all seen how thorough he is—and how good he is at covering his tracks."
A chorus of groans and grumbles followed and then a chittering voice sneered upwards from the top of Bogo's desk. "So, what do you want us to do fox, just let him walk?"
Nick ignored the dig; Lieutenant Albert Tufts had been out of sorts ever since his arrival here; probably as a result of the tongue lashing Bogo had given him for not answering his pages the previous evening. (Not exactly a big secret, every cop in the precinct had heard him …all the way down to the officers working the records room, in the basement, by the boiler.)
Choosing his words carefully, the red fox pressed onward.
"So, what I'm proposing is this, instead of busting the Phantom's courier, we tail him to his next drop—like I said. I'm sure he has one—and then we grab whoever makes THAT pick-up; there's the animal that might be able to lead us to the Phantom, with a little luck, it might even be The Phantom himself."
He said this while looking directly at Albert Tufts, who flapped his tail and said nothing.
Chief Bogo, on the other paw, had plenty to say on the subject.
"Chancy proposition that, Wilde. As you y'self just pointed out, The Phantom will certainly be keeping a close eye on his courier, and he's nothing if not thoroughgoing. What that says to me is that if he even suspects for a moment someone's following his go-between, he'll abort the second drop straight away. Not only that, he'll certainly have some way to signal the courier that he's being shadowed…and then if he gives us the slip, we'll be right back where we started."
"Even worse than where we started," Albert Tufts interjected, seizing on Nick's own words, "If that happens, The Phantom'll probably change his entire modus operandi and we'll have to begin again from scratch."
Nick refused to be put off.
"So what? He probably does that anyway every once in a while. If I were him, I'd have different animals for delivering the loans and picking up the payments and I'd never use the same drop twice."
The Kaibab Squirrel only stared moodily, but Chief Bogo made a small rumbling noise and swiveled his chair in the direction of the chamois seated on the far left side of the room. "Thoughts, Mr. Gamsbart?"
The deputy prosecutor had plenty of them.
"I'm with Officer Wilde on this one, Chief. Some big fish are just too well insulated to get to by way of their small fish. Look at Mister Big; we've been trying take him down by busting his soldiers for what, almost six years now…and how has THAT worked out? The little jerk's still out on the street, scarfing cannoli and thumbing his nose at us. The way I see it, it's the same thing with The Phantom; the only way we'll put an end to his racket is with a shot right to the head. So I say, let's take the risk."
"Do I need to remind you that we'd be risking EVERYTHING?" Albert Tufts wasn't about to give it up either. Nick started to respond but felt Judy grab his arm.
"Shhh, let Gamsbart handle him."
It was sound advice. "Yes, and we also stand to GAIN everything," the chamois countered, "And if we go the other way and just take down the courier, then what? Even if we win, we lose, just like Officer Wilde told us. I'll take long odds on the whole enchilada over a sure thing on a Pyrrhic victory any day of the week.
Nick stifled a snicker, talk about mixing your metaphors! Glancing sideways, he saw Judy trying not to do the same. Good; at the mention of Mr. Big's name a moment ago, she' d looked as if another yellowjacket had tagged her.
"Whoa, I just hope he never talks like that in court," he murmured, keeping it under his breath. "The judge'd cite him for contempt, just on principal."
Before Judy could answer him, Chief Bogo's gaze fell in her direction.
"Hopps, what's your opinion?"
Nick worried for a second that that his partner might be caught off guard, but it took her all of half an instant to answer the Chief's query.
"I say we go for the second drop, sir. Duke Weaselton finding out about that first one was just pure, dumb luck, the kind of break that only comes once in a blue moon; if this is the only chance we're going to get at busting the Phantom, then I think we should take it all the way."
"Right, I concur," Bogo rapped his desk with his knuckles, "When the Phantom's courier shows up to collect the money, we follow him to his next stop and then we make our move."
Nick sat back in his chair, bathed in equal parts relief and satisfaction. A split second later, he was bolt upright; Chief Bogo had just dropped a nuclear bombshell.
"Hopps…Wilde? You've been in on this from the start, so I'm putting you charge of this operation; any objections?" The question was meant for Gamsbart and Tufts, not for them.
"None here," the chamois said, nodding his approval at the fox and bunny.
"Well I object to the whole thing." Albert Tufts' tail was curled up like fist, "We should bust that courier, not try to ail him…but if this is how you wan to play it Chief, then yeah, Hopps and Wilde are okay by me to run it."
Nick turned towards the squirrel, poker faced; even thoroughly bemused, he couldn't resist such a juicy opening.
"You ever thought about a second career as a motivational speaker, Lieutenant?"
"Shut your mouth, Wilde!" Bogo's bellow was loud enough to rattle the door frame—but everyone in the office could see that he was trying not to laugh. Finally, he cleared his throat. "Right, who d'you want on your team, then?"
Taken by surprise, Nick had no answer; he and Judy had participated in many a police operation, but never before had they been put in charge of one. It was like a pair of common sea-mammals being promoted to command of a battleship—or that was how it felt to him; he had no idea where to go with the Chief's question.
Luckily for him, his partner did.
"I'd like to have Officer Swinton on the surveillance cameras, Chief. She did a great job on the Rafaj Brothers blood-diamond sting."
"And she also didn't have a problem with me kissing you," Nick thought but did not say.
"You're got her Hopps," the Chief said, jotting down the name. "Who else?"
The question seemed to snap Nick out of his confusion, and he spoke up quickly. "I'd like to have Grizzoli, Wolford, and Howell on the team, sir."
"Yes, good thought.' Bogo jotted their names down as well. In a crowded environment like the Meerkat Market, it might become necessary to track their quarry by scent rather sight…and there was always the possibility that the courier might himself be an animal with a keen sense of smell; a wolf would know instinctively to keep downwind from such an individual.
"Sir," Judy spoke up again, "We need to plan for all contingencies; in the event that the courier spots us and tries to make a run for it, I'd like to have Officer Catano along." It was an excellent suggestion, and the Chief Bogo agreed to it at once. The cheetah-cop was not only the fastest runner on the force, but she'd worked the Meerkat Market several times before, busting purse-snatchers and grab-and-run thieves. That gave Nick another idea.
"Yeah, and we'd better bring along a heavyweight with us, just in case the courier decides to fight it out instead of giving it up or trying to bolt." He looked directly at Bogo," I don't think that's going to happen Chief, but like Officer Hopps said, we better not take any chances," Not wanting to upstage his partner, he quickly deferred to her, "Any ideas, Carrots?"
"How about Officer Fangmeier?" she said. It was a good choice, but Bogo quickly vetoed it.
"Sorry, Fangmeier's on another assignment this Saturday. But you're thinking big cat, Hopps?"
Judy nodded at once, "Yes sir, big cats are powerful but they can also play it stealthy when the situation calls for it."
Bogo nodded back and checked his desk computer.
"Right then, let's see who…you can have either Johnson or Delgato."
"We'll take Delgato sir," Judy answered immediately. (It was no contest; Officer Johnson was a charter member of the Francine Trunkaby clique.)
Her next request was directed at Lieutenant Tufts, "And I'd like to have someone on board from ZPD Cybercrimes, too...someone who, errr…speaks the Phantom's language, if you know what I mean."
"Okay," the Kaibab squirrel said simply, but Chief Bogo raised a quizzical eyebrow.
"Huh, what d'you need a computer expert for, then? You're monitoring a dead-drop, not a website."
"Honestly Chief, I don't know, " Judy admitted, "except I've got a hunch we're going to run up against a few things we didn't plan for on this op. We've only got a few days to put it together, after all."
"Concur," Albert Tufts said, flipping his tail a couple of times "If there's one thing we've learned about dealing with The Phantom down in Cybercrimes, it's to expect the unexpected. That animal's got more curveballs than a platoon of major league pitchers."
Bogo's head bobbed once, but only once; he still wasn't completely convinced.
"Fine, but how's a hacker s'posed to involve himself in a dead-drop pick-up ? Meself, I can't imagine anything more low-tech."
Judy nodded the question over to AlbertTufts, who responded by showing his incisors in a wicked, toothy grin. "Only in about a hundred ways, Chief; for sure he'll use the City Traffic Cams to track his courier's progress; that system's so vulnerable, a middle-school kid could hack it." He fired a sharp look at Nick and Judy, "And that's why we can't use the traffic cams to follow the Phantom's courier; if we do, it'll take him all of two seconds to spot us and then it's goodnight kiddies, the arcade's closed!"
Nick Wilde felt his head tilting sideways. Tufts had said 'We', not 'You'. He might not care for the idea of tracking the Phantom's mule instead of busting him…but that didn't mean he wasn't going to try and help out in any way he could. Nick found himself starting to respect the Lieutenant, (even if he still didn't like the bushytailed, little cyber-snob.)
Then Bogo spoke up once more.
"In that case, Hopps, you and Wilde will want Sergeant Larry Bock along as part of your team."
Nick blinked and tilted his head even further to the right; when he did, he saw that Judy's nose was twitching.
"Who's that sir?" she asked, "I'm not familiar with the name."
It was Rudy Gamsbart who answered her.
"He's a drone jockey out of the Tundratown Precinct—best on the force, the AG's office has worked with him a few times before." He turned a sardonic grin on Bogo. "He's going to throw a wall-eyed fit when he finds out you're sending him to Sahara Square, Chief."
The Cape buffalo only snorted indifferently.
"Bock knew the job was dangerous when he took it."
"And the Chief's right, we're going to need a good drone pilot if we can't use the traffic cams," Judy Hopps pointed out—unnecessarily, Nick Wilde thought; no one was disputing Bogo's order.
"Right then, who else?" he asked, pen hovering over his notepad.
Nick raised three fingers in Judy's direction, a signal for her to let him take this one.
"Chief there's always a decent sized police presence anyway at the Saturday Meerkat Market, I'd sooner just alert them that their assistance might be needed in tracking a suspect rather than bring in any more officers."
"You're worried that too many extra cops around might tip off the courier?" Rudy Gamsbart was leaning forward on an elbow.
"More like the Phantom himself," the red fox answered, "Forgive me if I keep repeating myself, but everything I've heard about this animal tells me that he'll bail if he senses anything out of the ordinary." He swiveled his gaze in Albert Tufts' direction. "And if he can use the Jam Cams to track his money Lieutenant, it's a slam dunk that he'll be using them to keep an eye on the Market, too."
"True enough," the Kaibab squirrel shrugged and turned his pawlms upwards, "In fact, he'd be a fool not to."
"Right, I'll alert the Sahara Square precinct," Bogo scribbled quick note but then stopped and looked up with his mouth creased into a sardonic smirk, "But not quite yet, let's not give them too much time to talk about it amongst themselves, eh? If I were The Phantom, I shouldn't just keep my eyes open, I'd keep an ear to the ground as well. So let's keep it dark for as long as possible."
"Yes sir!' Nick and Judy responded with gusto. If this operation went belly-up by way of some idle gossip it wouldn't be the first time.
It took another hour and a half to details hammered out…and even then they didn't come close to getting everything covered. (Nick would have liked another hour at least, but Chief Bogo had a meeting with the police board that he couldn't put off.)
"Okay," Judy said as she stood up. "I think our first order of business to get Officer Swinton down to Sahara Square for a look-see at that locker room."
"Can you handle that on your own Carrots?" Nick asked, surprising both her and the Chief, "I have something else I want to take care of. I want head on up to Tundratown and see if I can get a scent-mark on Mr. Shortal. "
"On who?" Albert Tufts' tail was flapping again.
"The Phantom's customer; the one who's paying him the money," Judy spoke to him with exaggerated patience, and a caustic smirk. You would think that such a grand genius as Lieutenant Albert Tufts, cyber-cop extraordinaire, would already be aware of that fact, but nooooooo….
The squirrel only shrugged, "Oh, right."
"Bring Howell along with you, then." Chief Bogo said to Nick "he's rather fond of that candy shop, as I understand it; might even be able to point that stoat out for you."
"Does he have Shortal's scent memorized?" the red fox queried, canting his head sideways again; if that was the case, it would save them all some time, a rather precious commodity in the present circumstances.
Bogo frowned and regarded the wall for a second. "Mmmm…you'd have to ask him, but whether he does or he doesn't, I want at least one other member of your team to have that weasel's scent locked in."
"Gotcha," Nick cocked a finger at the Chief. Yes, it would be good to have second nose familiar with Scottish weasel's scent on board; they'd want to watch Mr. Ian Shortal very closely—from the moment he arrived at the Meerkat Market until the moment when he dropped off the 'package'. Only then would the ZPD would have probable cause to move on him. As Bob Woodchuck would have put it, the only way they were going to take down The Phantom would be to, 'follow the money.' Unless and until his courier had the actual cash in his possession, they'd have no justification to arrest him, much less the elusive hacker-cum-shylock himself.
"And The Phantom has to know that, too," the red fox said to himself as he stood up and turned to follow Judy out the door.
Judy filled in Officer Swinton on the op while they drove to the Beach Promenade. When the pig-cop learned of their destination, she was every bit as unhappy about it as Nick Wilde had been the day before—albeit for an entirely different reason.
"It's not the heat, it's the sun," she explained. "When your species has pink skin and almost no body hair, it's not just your nose that gets sunburned...and I mean seriously sunburned. That's why I never left the command truck the whole time we were running that sting on the Rafaj Brothers. "
Judy took the hint and pulled into a convenience store. A few moments later they were back on the road again, equipped with a tube of industrial-strength sunblock. (even though they'd probably be spending the next hour or so indoors and out of the sunlight.) As soon they were back in the cruiser, she resumed the impromptu briefing, telling Officer Swinton what she and Nick had found in the locker room and what they had planned for that coming Saturday. When she finished explaining, the sow had several questions for her.
"What kind of lighting do they have in that locker room, do you know?"
Judy looked at her with a raised ear.
"What kind of…lighting…?"
"Yes, you know," the pig cop prompted, "Florescent, LED, incandescent—it'll make a difference in what kind of camera to use."
"I-I honestly don't know," Judy admitted, and then quickly covered herself. "Once we found where LB6 was, we didn't want to hang around any longer than necessary."
"Right, right…" Swinton pursed her lips and nodded dryly. She understood; wouldn't it have been just their luck to have run into The Phantom or his courier right then?
"Well, we'll find out when we get there," she said, "but do you have any ideas about when the Phantom…excuse me, when his courier is likely to be making that pick-up?"
THAT one, Judy had an answer for…
"We figure he'll probably go for it sometime between 10 and 12, when the Meerkat Market starts to empty out before the afternoon heat comes on. That way he can blend in with the rest of the crowd as they're leaving.
"Don't think he'll wait until evening?" Swinton was glancing sideways with a skeptical expression. "That's the Meerkat Market's busiest time, and he'll have the cover of darkness too."
Judy shook her head, frowning slightly.
"Noooo…I mean, it's possible but we doubt it, he'll want it crowded, but not too crowded. And also, don't forget, evening is the favorite time for pickpockets and purse snatchers….which means not only the risk of having the money stolen, but also that there'll be a lot more cops on duty. We're not completely discounting the idea of an evening pick up, we just think morning's a lot more likely. " Sensing something, she looked at Swinton in the rear-view mirror. Did the pig-cop really think an evening pick up was more likely…or was that what she was hoping for, that things wouldn't start moving after the sun went down?
Judy said to her, "anyway, since the only thing we know for certain about the pick up is that it's set for this Saturday, we're going to have to get on it bright and early."
"Okay," Swinton responded making a mental note. "But I have to say Hopps, there's one thing I still don't understand. If some tourist or whoever snags that locker before Mr. Shortal can get to it, then what? What does the Phantom do then?"
Judy felt her throat tighten, and countered it by releasing a ragged breath. Trust Swinton to ask the Final Jeopardy question—the one for which no one had an answer, not her, not Nick, not Bogo not anybody.
"Honestly, I don't know," she conceded, "no one's been able to figure that one out…except that the Phantom is nobody's fool; no way did he not think of it either."
The pig-cop let out a small grunt.
"Everybody seems to be assuming that this character is some kind of genius." She folded her arms, gazing fixedly through the windshield, "but let me tell you something, Hopps. I saw more than my share of cyber-crooks, back when I was working in corrections; they might have been wizards with a lap-top, but when it came to living in the real world, these geeks couldn't buy a ten-cent clue for a million dollars."
"That may be true," Judy changed lanes and touched up on the accelerator, "But it's better to assume the Phantom is smart and be wrong about it, than to go the other way and be wrong."
"Just be careful you don't outsmart yourself," Swinton's eyes were dark with caution. "A Lieutenant of mine made that mistake once a few years ago…and the result was him getting taken hostage and nearly killed."
Judy felt her ears pulling backwards. Much as she respected Officer Swinton's experience and knowledge of surveillance, that didn't mean she was going to put up with a lecture from her.
Except…what if she was right? What if they were overthinking this? Albert Tufts, another supposed computer wizard, hadn't even recognized Ian Shortal's name when he'd heard it. Might The Phantom have a gap or two like that in his thought process? Well. she could worry about that later, because here was the parking lot and the half-sunken cluster of locker and changing rooms—including the one housing locker LB-6.
Just to play it safe, Judy had Swinton wait in the cruiser while she went downstairs to reconnoiter the premises. It turned out to be an unnecessary precaution; she encountered only one other animal, an impala who was just leaving anyway.
When the pig cop finally got a look at the place, it took her less than half a minute to reach a verdict.
"Not too bad," she said, studying the passageway with her hooves on her hips, "Could be better, but it could be worse, a lot worse."
"For us, or for The Phantom?" Judy asked her; she wasn't making a joke, she honestly didn't know. Swinton's non-committal assessment would have done a politician proud,
"All of the above," the pig cop answered, pointing one way and then the other. "There's good lighting in here and plenty of open space, too. I can get cameras on that locker from three different angles; left, right, and directly behind." The corners of her mouth dipped earthward and she swabbed at the air with a hoof, as if wiping away the condensation from an invisible windshield.
"The bad news is that except for the lockers, there's nothing else in here except bare floors, bare walls, and a bare ceiling—and the lighting fixtures are all recessed; it's going be harder than heck, finding a place to put the cameras where they won't be seen—by the Phantom's messenger-boy or anyone else."
Judy stopped in her tracks, feeling the stuttering sensation that came with a twitching nose. She hadn't thought of that; they'd need to keep the surveillance cameras hidden not only from the Phantom's mule, but from everyone who came in here. Otherwise, animals would talk, the word would get around…and then the courier wouldn't come within a hundred miles of this place.
If only they had more time to set things up…two days just wasn't enough. A thought occurred to the bunny-cop then. Duke Weaselton had been busted up in Tundratown the previous Saturday…but only yesterday had he come forward with what he knew about that dead-drop. Had he possibly done that on purpose, in the hope of sabotaging the investigation?
Noooo, she quickly decided, The Duke of Bootleg might be that devious, but he could never be that subtle.
"This may seem like a silly question, but have we got a warrant?" Swinton's query instantly roused Judy from her reverie.
"Not yet, but we'll have one by Saturday," she said. Yes, it was a silly question—but also a necessary one, they had better NOT put cameras in here without first obtaining a surveillance warrant. Fortunately, they had an inside track on that necessity. "Rudy Gamsbart, our liaison with the Attorney General's office is taking care of it,"
"Okay, good," the pig cop looked satisfied. "All right, now give me little space here." She pulled out a flashlight and commenced to stroll slowly along the corridor, playing the beam over the walls and ceiling like an archeologist, searching for hieroglyphics.
Then abruptly the circle of light froze in place. "Bingo!"
Judy hurried over, "What? What is it?"
"Well, I hope you'll pardon the pun, but…" Swinton's words trailed off into an odd expression, a half sheepish and half sardonic grin.
When Judy looked past her to where the beam was focused, she immediately understood why. Pinned in the light, right at the juncture where the wall and ceiling met was roundish splatter of dirty grey cobwebs…
…a dust bunny.
"I'm just glad Nick isn't here," Judy groaned, mostly to herself; he'd dine out on this for a week.
But then she noticed something else. "I don't see too many more of those…things in here."
"No problem, I can make more," the pig cop assured her, snapping off the flashlight, "I've got some plastic spray-foam, back at the precinct, makes great dust bunnies…and that one looks like it's been here for weeks. No one's going to notice a few more." Her mouth angled downwards once again. "Just the same, we shouldn't install the cameras until late Friday night, as close to zero hour as we can get; the longer they're in place, the better the chances are that they'll be spotted before the money-drop goes down."
"We can't place them anyway until we have our warrant," Judy reminded her, and the scratched thoughtfully at her chin. "Hmmmm, what about putting a camera inside of locker LB6?"
Swinton frowned again, even more deeply than before.
"I-I-I can do that if you want, but I'd recommend against it. We don't know what size animal this courier is, and if he opens the door and the camera is looking straight at him, well…." She let her voice trail off again, allowing Judy to figure it out for herself, and then she added, "And it won't show us anything more than the other cameras anyway. We…"
"Okay, scratch that idea," Judy answered, quickly. She was a little bit annoyed by the pig cop's assumption that she'd need to be talked out of the idea. But then she scratched that notion as well, Swinton couldn't really help it Swinton couldn't really help it; according to the Precinct-1 grapevine, her last boss in Zootopia Corrections had been one of those 'my-way-or-the-highway' types, the kind of animal who thinks independence is synonymous with insubordination. That reminded Judy of something else. "Oh, and before I forget, are you familiar with an officer named Sergeant Larry Bock? He's going to be handling the drone cams."
"I only met him once," Swinton rubbed at the back of her head, "though I've heard about him here and there; a little whiny for my taste, but I think we can get along."
"Good," said Judy, "I'd like you and him to get together sometime between now and Saturday to compare notes."
The corners of Swinton's mouth went in two different directions.
"Do yourself a favor Hopps, and ask the Chief to set it up; Bock'll complain a lot less if the order comes from above."
Judy's ears went up.
"Why would he complain about…?"
"Oh, he complains about everything—or so I've heard," Swinton told her, "No problem if sees you as an equal or a subordinate, but if you're his boss, then it's bleat, bleat, and more bleat, all the livelong day."
"Duly noted," Judy answered, trying not to bite her lip. Oh, this ibex sounded like he was going to be just a barrel of fun to work with. She sniffed and swore quietly to herself. "He'd just BETTER be as good as Gamsbart says he is,"
"Mmmm," was the pig cop's only response. She went over and stood in front of the locker LB6, facing back the way they'd come and taking out her cell-phone camera. Turning slowly to the left, like a wind up ballerina, she stopped every couple of seconds, snapping off a shot of where the opposite wall met the ceiling. It took her perhaps 30 seconds to complete the full turn of 180 degree, (although to Judy it seemed to take much longer. )
"All righty, I think I've got what I need," Swinton put the camera away and looked at Judy."Anything else, or can we head on back to the precinct?" The needful tone in the sow's voice was not lost on her partner—and she didn't' disagree with it. Today wasn't quite as hot as yesterday but it was still no picnic in paradise.
"Nope, I think we're good to go." she answered, nodding towards the stairs.
"Want me to drive?" Swinton asked her as they ascended back up and into the daylight.
Judy felt her mouth crinkling into a rueful jagged line
"Yeah, but be sure and wet down that steering wheel first."
Sweetie's Scottish Confectionary Shop-Tundratown
"Yip! Whoa, I want to live here!"
The amalgam of delectable aromas hit Nick Wilde square in the nasal passages as soon as he stepped through the door; it was like walking into a wall of bliss; he smelled mint, vanilla, caramel, cherry, coconut, sugar, toffee, strawberry, cinnamon, butterscotch, chocolate…and blueberries, don't forget the blueberries.
When he'd caught up with Officer Tad Howell in the Precinct-1parking lot, Nick had discovered that the red wolf had never actually visited Sweetie's Scots Confectionary Shop. "Someone sent me a box of their fudge as a get well present when I was in the hospital," he'd said…or more properly, drooled at the memory. Initially amused by his fellow officer's lip-smacking reminiscence the red fox now was ready to completely revise that opinion. If this place didn't smell like heaven, it was because heaven was running a distant second.
In retrospect, Nick should have seen it coming. When he and Howell had first arrived here, they'd found a line out the door, stretching halfway to the corner. It meant at least one of the things Duke Weaselton had said about his place was true, it really was that popular…and now the fox finally understood why.
He also understood that he had come here to do a job, not ogle the merchandise, And so, shaking off his desire, (along with the dusting of snow on his jacket,) he made quick survey of the premises.
Except for the chequered floor, Sweetie's was done up in typical candy-shop white, glossy but not gleaming, with a huge St. Andrew's banner posted proudly on the wall behind the front counter Most of the confections in the display cases were familiar items, toffee, liquorice. caramels, fudge—there was huge selection of fudge—and various types of chocolates. But also, just as Duke Weaselton had said, many of the sweets carried names that were obscure and in one or two instances, downright bizarre; butter tabs, sugar mice, Bearwick cockles…and what the heck were soor plooms? The candy known as Edinburrow Rock looked like pieces of colored school-chalk.
And there, behind the counter, in the center of it all, were a pair of weasels, both of them dressed in immaculate white, with matching, dark-red aprons. The hob was a burley fellow, especially for a mustelid, nearly unrecognizable as a member of his species. Unsurprisingly, his stoat-brown fur was streaked here and there with slashes of ermine white; Tundratown was the district of perpetual winter after all. The jill weasel beside him was much smaller in size and also somewhat plumpish, but there was no mistaking the facial resemblance; this was Grace Shortal, (nee Weaselton,) the Dukester's semi-estranged sister.
"There," Nick tugged on Howell's sleeve. "Those two over there, see 'em?"
"Yeah, I see them," the red wolf whispered out the side of his mouth, "I'll need to get closer to get their scent though, what with all these other aromas. Uhhh, you sure that's him?" He was aiming his muzzle in the direction of the hob.
"Yep, that's him." the red fox answered softly. Actually, he wasn't 100% certain, but who else could it be? How many other barrel-chested weasels were working in here? It was a small gamble but it quickly paid off; by the time it was his and Howell's turn at the counter, they had heard the couple addressing each other as 'Ian' and 'Grace' not once but several times.
"So, what will you have, sir?" the jill weasel asked Nick brightly as he stepped up to the counter. He would have preferred to have her husband waiting on him, although it really didn't matter; being mustelids the Shortals had strong scent markers and he picked them up at once.
"I'll have a tin of blueberry fudge and half tin of carrot-cake fudge," the fox told her. (He had to buy something while they were in here, needed to make it look authentic so as not to arouse any suspicion and all that. Besides, how could he leave without getting anything for Judy? Yeahhhhh, THAT was the ticket!)
"Very good sir; and will there be anything else?" Grace's pen remained poised over her order pad; Nick noted that she seemed to have picked up a trace of her husband's burr over the course of their marriage.
She had also picked up on the fact that he hadn't quite yet finished ordering
Nick knew he shouldn't; he'd be setting himself up like a bowling pin. It was no use; the foxy side of him just wouldn't let it lie. "Yes, a dozen sugar mice please," That was good for a snicker from the wolf standing behind him. Back in the pre-evolutionary days, mice had been a favorite fox-nosh.
Not that Howell would get a chance to razz him about it; when HIS turn came, he practically bought out the store, an order so big, Nick was unable to keep track of it all. Seriously, he wondered how they were going to fit everything the wolf had just purchased in the back of the police cruiser.
It dawned on the red fox then that this was the first time he'd paired up with an officer other than Judy Hopps—and he wasn't quite sure how he felt about it. Oh Howell was good cop and all that, friendly, able, and willing; (and he apparently couldn't have cared less about that kiss,) but it just wasn't the same. And for the life of him, Nick couldn't fathom why.
"You're going to end up in a sugar coma," he teased as they trudged their way back to the car, Howell tottering every step of the way beneath his soaring load. (No, he wasn't going to help the poor wolf carry that weight.)
"It's not all for me," Howell protested, stepping clumsily around a patch of hard slush. Nick didn't believe him, but he wasn't about to argue such a trivial point. (That…and he didn't want to give him an excuse to tell Judy about the sugar mice; he'd never hear the end of it. 'What, aren't you going to pounce on it first?')
"Did you get a good scent on those weasels?" he asked.
"Uh, yeah… can you hold on for second?" They had reached the police cruisier. Nick set down his purchases on top of the cab and then popped the trunk. It was only after (by some minor miracle) they got everything stashed, that Howell picked up where he'd left off.
"Yeah, I got markers on both of them. You really think that hob, what's his name…you really think he'll make the delivery fursonally?"
This time, Nick was completely certain of his answer.
"Ian," he said, " his name's Ian…and yes I'm sure; there's no way that he can trust a third party with an important delivery like that one—I sure wouldn't—so that leaves either him or his wife."
"Or his kits," the red wolf pointed out, and then immediately seemed to realized what he'd said, adding hastily, "But who'd bring a cub into something like this? I don't think so."
"Exactly," Nick agreed, letting the gaffe pass. There, that was the difference between Howell and Judy he decided; she would have known that Ian was going to make the drop himself without needing to ask about it.
He opened the door and hefted himself inside the cruiser; Tad Howell quickly joined him.
"I have to tell you Wilde," he said, rubbing his paw-pads together to warm them, "I am NOT looking forward to having to work undercover in Sahara Square again; if that courier turns out to be another hippo, I quit!"
Nick doubted that would be the case. but laughed just the same.
"I wouldn't think so, Howell. A hippo picking up a package dropped by a stoat is going to look a little strange to anyone who sees it; and attracting attention is the last thing The Phantom wants. If I had to make book on his courier, I'd bet on some kind of hot weather species of approximately the same size as a stoat, and also an animal that can move quickly if they need to, a mongoose, or maybe a desert jackrabbit."
"Maybe a fennec-fox?" the wolf suggested, drawing a jaundiced look from Nick. It passed quickly when he realized that Howell wasn't trying to needle him, and slowly shook his head.
"No, a fennec couldn't reach the door latch on that locker…not without help anyway; too small." He stroked his chin, thinking aloud. "A steppe fox though, that'd work. Rough guess, I'd say an animal somewhere in between a swift-fox and a lynx is what we're looking for."
"Well, we'll find out, come Saturday," the red wolf fell back in his seat, also looking thoughtful. His assessment, though cautious on the surface had been spoken in a voice chock-full of confidence. He was all but certain that the upcoming operation was going to lead them straight to The Phantom.
"I wish I was that sure of success," Nick glanced at Howell sideways for just the barest of seconds. There were only about a hundred ways that the plan to take down the Phantom—HIS plan—could go sideways. Look at the Rafaj Brothers sting, the ZPD had had months to put that operation together…and even then the bust had come within a hairsbreadth of failure, all because of one careless word; a word that had led Nick Wilde to an act of desperation—with repercussions that were only just now starting to become apparent.
And here he was, about enter upon an operation at least as complicated…except with only two days to get it up and running, and good, bad, or ugly, it was all on him and Judy. Only now was Nick Wilde starting to realize what they'd gotten themselves into…a place way over their heads.
Ohhhh, where was Carrots when he needed her?