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The Fire Triangle -- Part One: Fuel

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Disclaimer: Zootopia stories, characters, settings, and properties belong to the Walt Disney Co. This story is written under Fair Use Copyright laws.

The Fire Triangle—A Zootopia Fanfiction

Part One:


Chapter 9 – Fire And Mirrors
(Continued…Pt. 9)

Judy Hopps thumped her foot impatiently, scrutinizing her partner with a narrow, jaundiced eye. "Okay Nick, now are you ready to talk about it?"

After she and the fox had left Interrogation Room #1, Judy had waited until they were alone before asking him why Conor Lewis's scars had upset him so much. He'd immediately stonewalled her, insisting that she wait until they were outside Precinct-1 before talking about it.

And then he'd wanted to hold off until they were out of earshot of Precinct-1

And then he'd wanted to wait until they were able to find someplace 'private' for their discussion.

That meandering pathway had eventually led them to a table in front of the Savanna Central Pizzeria Pianeta. And even then the fox had refused to answer her questions until the waitress delivered their slices and left them alone.

When she'd finally departed, that was when Judy had (literally) put her foot down. Whatever was bothering Nick, it was a lot more serious—and there was a lot more going on here—than she'd initially surmised.

"Come on, Slick…out with it!"

He sucked at his lower lip for a second, as if trying to think up an excuse for dropping the subject altogether.

Finally, he said, "I think…I can't swear to this, Carrots, but I think Conor was wearing a muzzle when he got those injuries to his face."

"Ohhh-kay, what makes you say that Nick?" Judy tore open a packet of sugar and let it drizzle into her glass of iced-tea, watching him carefully. If a muzzle was part of the equation, it went a long way towards explaining her partner's reticence to talk about it.

By way of response, the fox laid a finger against one corner of his mouth. "Here's where those scars were, right? And it's exactly where the edge of a muzzle would go…or the juncture if it's a full-face model. That's the thing about muzzles a lot of animals don't realize; they leave your face more susceptible to injury than if you weren't wearing one. Keep in mind Carrots, muzzles aren't like face masks; nobody wears one for their own protection, they're put on to protect someone else from you."

"Mmmm," Judy sipped her tea, tasted it, and added another pinch of sugar. At the same time she felt her eyes drifting downward, towards the slices of Giardino Primo pizza laying on the table in front her. She was ravenously hungry, both of them were, but it would be several minutes at least before their lunch would be cool enough to enjoy.

On the face of it, Pizzeria Pianeta was not the best place for them to have this conversation, (which was why Judy thought Nick had chosen it; he was still trying to stall her—and oh NO, you don't!) The reason for this was simple; P-P was another favorite stopover for the officers of Precinct-1.

But…that was only after they had clocked out for the day, NEVER while they were still on duty. Although Chief Bogo hadn't specifically forbidden his officers to eat here, any Precinct-1 cop seen on these premises during working hours was likely to spend the next day writing parking tickets…or worse. (This all had to do with the persistent rumor that the real owner of the Pianeta Pizzerias was someone of whom the Chief was not particularly fond.) Nick and Judy had no such worries, they weren't on duty right now; Bogo had given them the afternoon off and all day tomorrow as well. "With your suspect safely in custody, I see no reason why you two shouldn't have some time to y'selves," he'd said, offering a small caveat before seeing them off, "barring any further developments, of course."

And so, this being right in the middle of the ZPD's day-shift, the fox and bunny had the place to themselves; not another cop in sight.

By now, the cool of the morning had given was to a sunny afternoon, warm, but not scorching, pleasant enough if you were able to find some shade, which Nick and Judy had managed with no difficulty, finding a table topped by a huge Bullegrino umbrella.

Judy set down her glass and looked at her partner. There was another reason why he'd been stalling her; she had seen him like this too many times not to know. He had something he desperately needed to tell her—but that he also didn't WANT to tell. And he would never volunteer the information right up front; she'd have to wait until he'd wound himself down a little. One thing she did know was this; Conor being muzzled when he'd gotten his face broken wasn't it; there was another, even more uncomfortable subject lurking in the shadows somewhere.

But since Conor's face was the current topic of discussion, Judy had something of her own to relate.

"I don't know if you noticed Nick, but did you see how much straighter that third scar was than the other two? And it also looked a lot more recent, to me anyway. That says the doctors didn't set that break correctly the first time; there had to be some corrective surgery later."

Nick made a tentative nip at his pizza and hurriedly set it down again; still too hot to eat.

"Which means…?" he prompted, raising an ear.

'Which means," Judy answered lifting both of hers, "Chief Bogo's first idea, that the Phantom's the one paying Mr. Rodenberg's fees, just got moved to the top of the list. That kind of doctoring doesn't come cheap." She took a short pull from her drink. "I should know; there isn't a family in Bunnyburrow that hasn't seen a broken bone in the past few years…it's the chance you take, working around heavy farm equipment."

"Hmmm," Nick was stroking his chin and looking thoughtful, "Nooo, corrective surgery doesn't come cheap, does it? And it would sure as heck explain why Conor was working as a loan-shark's runner." He raised a finger as if making a point. "You know, that's something we never considered Carrots; maybe HE'S the one who feels he owes a debt, not the other way around. In any case, I think it's very possible that he might be working for…ah, I'm just going to keep on calling him The Phantom; that the kid might be working for him un-willingly."

"So…you DO think that's what he was up to, back at the Beach Promenade?" Judy asked the question as cautiously as if she were handling a jar of nitroglycerine. It turned out to be a wise move, because after regarding her for few seconds, Nick flung his napkin on the table-top and looked hurriedly away, finding the passing automobile traffic to be of sudden and keen interest.

When he turned to face her again, Judy saw that one of his fangs was partially exposed.

"Yes," he breathed, sounding disgusted with himself, "Much as I hate to say it, I think Conor knows a lot more than he told us during that Q-and-A session. He may not know exactly who's been hacking into those banks' computer files and using the information to set up illegal loans, but he at least has some idea. Tufts and Gamsbart were dead right about that." He looked away again, sucking air between his teeth, "and that puts me in a bind, Carrots… a place where I really don't want to be."

Judy nodded slowly. Okay this was it; her partner had finally come around to the thing he'd wanted to tell her ever since they'd left the interrogation room, (but hadn't been able to.)

She told him gently, "Nick, I think I know what you're talking about, but I need to hear it from you."

He turned a weary face in her direction.

"It's just a good thing Gamsbart cut Vern Rodenberg off at the pass when he did—because honestly, I don't remember if I was able to catch Conor's scent when I pulled him off you; I was using my eyes, not my nose. And no…I don't think HE smelled me either; otherwise he'd have known I was there before I grabbed him. Heck, he didn't even hear me coming…and I wasn't exactly being stealthy about it; I didn't care about moving quietly, I just wanted to get that kid off of you right NOW"

"Do you…really think he would have hurt me, Nick?" Judy asked the question as delicately as she could.

He made a sound that fell somewhere between a growl and clearing his throat.

"That's how looked to me at the time, Carrots. Heck, you saw the footage from my body-cam; didn't it look that way to you? I know, I knowwww!" He threw up his paws, as if having anticipated her reaction to this, (and, in fact he had.) "This is Conor Lewis we're talking about, the same kid who helped your sister make the talent-show and then helped ME put a stop to the Guilford brothers' spray-bomb attack." His ears suddenly wilted and he looked around furtively; dumb fox, saying it right out in the open, where anyone could hear him. (Luckily, there was nobody else within hearing range.) Looking more than a little embarrassed, he turned to face Judy again, "But if you'd suggested to me, the day before yesterday, that this kid was capable of working for a Shylock I'd have told you to go find somewhere to sleep it off. By the time I caught up with you and him in that alleyway, I had no idea how far he might be willing to go to avoid capture…and I'll tell you something else."

He leaned towards her; tapping the table in a gesture remarkably similar to the one Rudy Gamsbart had made earlier.

"Don't ask me where I'm getting this Carrots, but I know—I just know that when Conor had his face broken, he gave as good as he got. That kid has some serious guts; he almost reminds me of D."

"The fox who ran the inmate crew when you were in Lemmingworth?" Judy cocked an ear, eyeing him closely.

"'Prisoners', not 'inmates'," the red fox corrected and then he said, "But yes, and you've heard what Conor keeps saying, Judy. 'Then that's what's going to happen.' And he means it, I can tell; he really doesn't care what happens to him. And last but not least," His face broke into a ragged smile as he held up his bandaged arm, "I don't know if he would have tried to hurt you Carrots, but he was sure as heck capable of hurting ME—even if he didn't mean to do it."

"But how does that put you in a bind, Nick?" she asked him, feeling her nose beginning to twitch. Yet again, she had already guessed his answer, but needed to hear him say it.

He made that grating, half-growling noise again.

"Because whether or not Conor ends up giving us anything useful about the Phantom, depends on whether or not he knew who I was when he bit me…or at least whether he knew that I was police officer. He looked straight at her, "And truth be told, Carrots, I think …heck, I'm almost SURE the kid didn't recognize me when I grabbed him. And if there's one attorney in this town who can get me to admit that on the witness stand it's Vernon J. Rodenberg. And what do you think Mr. Gamsbart will do if that happens? Who do you think he's going to blame if Conor strolls? Not him and certainly not his lawyer…so who does that leave? That's the bind I'm in, now do you understand?"

"Yes Nick, I do." Judy's nod was slow and sympathetic. Poor fox, he wasn't just caught between a rock and a hard place; try a hammer and an anvil. "So, how are you planning to handle this?" she asked him.

"I have no idea, Carrots," Nick slapped his paws against his knees, "I don't think I'm going to have too much to say about it anyway. From now on, Rudy Gamsbart's going to be calling the shots, and I can either dance when he pulls the strings or get chopped into firewood."

For the third time since taking her seat, Judy felt her nose starting to twitch again. After two years as Nick Wilde's partner, she had learned to tell when his words held a hidden meaning. Any time this fox started mixing his metaphors, that was the giveaway right there.

But…seriously now; Rudy Gamsbart might be a bit of hard-case and a little obsessive when it came to bringing down the animal known as The Phantom…but would he really go so far as to pressure Nick into tailoring his testimony—tell it our way or else?

No, of course not...and yet, like the grain of sand that eventually becomes a pearl, a tiny sliver of doubt had crept into the back of Judy's mind—and like that irritating little piece of grit, it refused to go away. All she could do was try to put it aside for the moment; that, and attempt to lighten the mood a little.

"Do you want your award for Best Drama Queen now or later?' she said, raising a sardonic eyebrow..

Nick's response to this was not what she expected.

"Oh, you think I'm exaggerating? Take a look at this."

His paw appeared from under the table, holding his cell-phone. Laying it on the tabletop, he slid it in Judy's direction. When she picked it up she saw a text from Chief Bogo on the screen, short and to the point.

"Gamsbart wants you in court tomorrow for CL's arraignment.
09;30, BE there!"

Judy stared at him with her nose twitching, much faster than before…and now her ears were standing up as well.

"What now? What the heck is THATall about, Nick? You won't be called on to testify, you won't have anything to do but sit and watch. It's an arraignment for crying out loud; nothing major's going to happen."

That same crooked smile went scrolling across his muzzle.

"With Vernon J. Rodenberg for the defense, I wouldn't be so sure about that if I were you…but you're missing the point, Carrots." He reached over and tapped the cell-phone screen. "Did YOU get a message like that from Big Chief Buffalo Nickel? Bet you didn't."

Judy knew that she hadn't, but she also knew that her partner wouldn't leave it alone until she checked to make sure. She pulled out her own cell, tapped an icon, and scrolled for a minute; nope, nothing.

"All right Nick, I didn't," she said, "but what's your point here?"

His ears pulled halfway to the side and he leaned forward again, this time with an elbow on the table.

"The point is, can you see Bogo sending me a text like that on his own? Nope, he sent that message at Gamsbart's request. Heck, he even said so—and I also think that chamois doesn't want YOU anywhere near the Conor Lewis trial, Carrots. " He snatched the cell phone off the tabletop and put it away. "My guess is, he'll probably do everything he can to keep you off the witness stand—because he knows that if you testify, Vern Rodenberg's going to be all over you about how Conor saved your life. You watch; when the prosecution plays back your body-cam vid for the court, they'll start from the same place we just saw…after he made that flying tackle."

Judy tried to raise a protest, she really did; she gave it her very best effort. It was no use, the words just wouldn't come. Deep down, in her heart of hearts, she knew that he was right.

But even so…

"Fine…but then what's to stop Mr. Rodenberg from calling me as a witness? And can't he insist that the prosecution play back my body cam video in its entirety?"

"Points for the clever bunny," Nick told her, raising a finger "Sure he can…and he will. And when he does, you can bet the farm that the Zootopia Attorney General's Office will fight him every step of the way. That's why Gamsbart doesn't want you at the arraignment—because even without testifying, you're a visible reminder that the kid in the docket saved your life."

Judy felt her brows going rigid and her ears falling backwards, her spine becoming as rigid as a truss-tower. All right, now he was going too far.

"Got paranoia, Nick? Sweet cheez n' crackers, just because I wasn't invited to attend Conor's arraignment, that doesn't mean they want me to stay away. Otherwise, why didn't Mr. Gamsbart have Bogo send me a text, ordering me not to come?"

"For the same reason I wouldn't have sent you one," Nick's voice was a sharp as his expression, "it would have aroused your suspicions. I'm telling you Carrots, Gamsbart doesn't want you there."

Judy's ears went back even further and her nose began to crinkle. What, now? It sounded very much like he was talking down to her, something he hadn't done since all the way back when she'd caught him running that pawpsicle hustle.

"Oh really, Slick?" she said, jutting her chin and feeling her ears pull tight against the back of her neck, "Then how about putting your money where your mouth is?" She slapped a bill on the tabletop. "There! Twenty smackers says that if I show up at Conor's arraignment, nobody even notices me."

Nick shied away from the money as if it were booby-trapped.

"No bet…and please don't come to Conor's arraignment tomorrow." He couldn't have looked more pitiful if he'd been down on his knees with his paws clasped.

Instead of answering him, Judy reached for her slice of pizza and took a big bite, tearing it off in a sideways motion.

It was still a little too hot to eat, but she barely noticed.

Okay, so he hadn't been running the old reverse-psychology hustle just now; his horrified reaction had said that much if nothing else—but it also brought up a new and unsettling question. There'd been nothing cynical in her partner's diatribe, he'd believed every word that he said; so…could he possibly be right about Rudy Gamsbart? Would the chamois really try to keep her out of the loop?

Judy didn't think so, and yet…there was only one way she was going to find out.

"Okay, I think you've got it, kid."

Vern Rodenberg was talking privately with Conor Lewis again. This time they were holed up in one of the smaller interrogation rooms, where the two of them had spent the last couple of hours going over their plans for tomorrow.

Ironically enough, Conor's 'Usual Suspects' troll—which had so infuriated his lawyer the first time he'd heard about it—now fit in nicely with the grey rat's strategy.

In simple terms, what Rodenberg intended was a gambit, a sacrifice play—losing his initial clash with Rudy Gamsbart in order to secure a bigger victory later. His only worry had been that his client might object to this tactic, but once again, the kid had proven to be a trouper, agreeing at once to everything he proposed.

(A good thing, too; the grey rat had already begun to put his plan in motion; Nick Wilde had guessed right about all those barbs he'd planted during Conor Lewis's questioning; all of it had been intentional.)

"It's gonna be none too easy on you kid," he cautioned,, "but it gives us a much better shot at coming out on top when we get to the main event."

"I get it," Conor answered simply. Rodenberg nodded back and pulled a new sheaf of papers from his briefcase,

"All right, now the next thing we need to deal with is the fact that you're under-age—something that's both good news and bad news. The good news is that The Mammals can't come down as hard on you for assaulting a police officer as they could if you were an adult. The bad news is that you have far less rights than an adult in a situation like this…especially considering your family history—or lack thereof, if you know what I mean. In the case of most juvenile offenders, those rights revert to a parent or legal guardian. But since you don't have either one that means you've been automatically remanded to the custody of the Attorney General's Office, in loco parentis."

Conor shot up out of his chair as if he'd accidentally sat on a joy-buzzer.

"Whoa, wait…Full! Stinkin'! Stop! Are you telling me that the animals trying to throw my tail in jail have legal custody of me?"

"Welcome to Wide World of Legalese, kid." Rodenberg fell back in his quad-chair, spreading his arms open, "the show where up is down, night is day, and everything you know is wrong. Yep, that's about the size of it…and now you know how Gamsbart was able to shove your case to the front of the docket tomorrow. If you were an adult, or if at least you had an adult guardian, he'd never have been able to pull that off. Either you could have objected, or your folks would have…and that would have been the end of it. Even Judge Schatten would have had no choice but to hold off on your arraignment."

"Except we don't care that Gamsbart moved up my arraignment, coz that'll give us some leverage later on." Conor repeated back what his lawyer had told him earlier. "Okay, I get that, but what is it you have in mind here?" (He thought he knew but wasn't completely sure.)

"It's this," the grey rat told him "What we need to do is get someone assigned to you as a temporary guardian." (Yep, just as he'd had thought.) "That'll put you out of Rudy Gamsbarts reach and he won't be able to pull another stunt like that. I'll file the petition by e-mail, soon as we're done here…but I need you to okay it first."

"Won't Judge Predd only toss your petition?" Conor asked him, ever the cynical young predator.

"Fair question," Rodenberg nodded, "But the answer is no, petitions to assign parental custody go through the Zootopia Department of Health and Mammalian Services, not through the court system, and especially not through the criminal courts."

"Okay," the young fox nodded again and then tilted his head sideways. "Who do you have in mind to be my guardian, or whatever? Not you I'm guessing, right?"

"Nope," the grey rat told him, shaking his head, "I couldn't if I wanted to, conflict of interest. No, I got someone else warming up in the bullpen. Ton Ruiter's his name."

Conor's head tilted even further to the right.

"'Kay, who's he?"

Rodenberg leaned back slightly in his chair.

"He's a P.I. that I work with sometimes, yellow mongoose. Really smart and knows his way around the streets like that." he snapped his fingers for emphasis.

Conor felt his ears starting to twist back and forth, "Ummm, okayyyy, but how's he gonna feel about this? I mean it's cool with ME, but…"

"He won't care as long as he doesn't have to take actual custody of you, kid," the grey rat answered with a laugh, "and there's a bonus over here; if Ton's your legal guardian, it means that Gamsbart can't deny him access to you...and he's going to need it, believe me."

"Works for me then," the young fox answered. He was still a mite skeptical and it must have shown on his face, because Rodenberg immediately waved a dismissive paw.

"Don't worry-y-y Booby, I'll check with Ton first before I file, I won't just drop this on him. I can't see him having problem with it though; we've done something similar several times before.'

"Hey, I said okay," Conor told him, beginning to sound peevish. Dangit how many times did have to tell this rat 'you're the boss?' Rodenberg meanwhile had pulled out a small voice recorder.

"Okay, state your name for the record….and then I need a statement to the effect that you agree to accept Ton Ruiter as your legal Guardian."

Conor sat up in his chair and leaned in closer.

"My name is Conor Severus Lewis. On the advice of my attorney, I hereby agree to accept Mr. Ton Ruiter as my temporary legal guardian. I make this agreement with full knowledge of the obligations and responsibilities expected of me." (He had already made several similar statements to this one.)

Looking at Rodenberg he mouthed, "Anything else?"

"Nope, that's perfect,' the grey rat said, putting the recorder away, and then he leaned forward in his chair, clapping his paws on his knees. "All right before I get on outta here, how are you doing upstairs, kid? Holding up all right, any problems, anything you need?"

Conor almost told him that everything was fine, but then he remembered—Vernon J. Rodenberg might be an attorney in a three-piece now…but he'd spent almost 15 years of his life wearing an orange jumpsuit; you'd better believe that HE would understand if the young fox told him about Craig.

He hunkered down in his seat, bringing his eyes were level with his attorney's, and at the same time lowering his voice.

"There is one thing; I got this other kid's been laying for me ever since I landed upstairs." He went on to give a brief account of his encounter with Craig Guilford. When he finished, Rodenberg's head was disappointedly yawing back and forth.

"Awww kid, NEVER stare at another prisoner like that."

"I wasn't staring!" the young fox protested, "I know better than that, Mr. Rodenberg…and that's not the real reason he's on my case anyway. I heard this morning that his girlfriend snitched him to the cops to save herself—and she's a fox, you follow what I'm bringing out?"

"Oh, whoa…say no more, I get it, kid" The grey rat was making stopping motions with his paws, "He's really mad at HER—but she's out of his reach, so he decided to take it out on the first other fox that came along."

"Yeah!" Conor nodded enthusiastically, pleased that his attorney had gotten it without any further explanation. And why not, this rodent probably witnessed the same scenario a hundred times while serving his own sentence. That's what the slam did to some guys, made 'em want to vent on whoever was handy. Conor had seen for himself in The Point—a lot more times than he cared to think about.

But then he noticed Rodenberg was forming a steeple with his fingers.

"Hmmmm, but his girlfriend sold him out did you say…and she's a fox? Ah, you wouldn't be talking Craig Guilford would you, Booby?" (Conor hadn't mentioned the rogue coyote by name.)

"Yep, that's him," he answered, looking pained, "And I'm in a real bind with this guy. If he straight-up challenges me, I'm gonna have to fight him; you know how things work on the inside." He turned and spat in the corner. "But if I DO fight him, that's a gift wrapped present for Mr. Gamsbart." He got up from the table, gesturing at an invisible judge's bench and speaking in a reasonable facsimile of the chamois prosecutor's voicer, "'See, Your Honor, didn't I TELL you that this fox kid was incorrigible? He wants to attack everybody!'"

"Whoa you got that right kid," Vern Rodenberg was nearly applauding—but at the same time, he was wary. Yesterday had NOT been this fox-kid's first check-in at the graybar hotel, he was sure of that now—and when you thought about it, it made a lot of other things fall into place.

But never mind; right now, his client needed his help…and the best he could offer at the moment was some sage advice.

"Okay, you hooked up with anyone yet?"

"I got some friends," Conor answered, knowing exactly what the rodent had meant by that question—but then he added a qualifier, "'Cept I already told 'em that if that crazy coyote makes a move on me, I've gotta handle him myself."

Anyone else at this point might have informed the young fox that he was crazy, or at least asked him if he thought he COULD handle Craig Guilford by himself. Not Vern Rodenberg; he did know how it was in the slam, a place where you either stood up for yourself or got walked on by everybody else. In jail, the wisest course of action wasn't always an option.

"Yeah, but CRAIG doesn't know that, kid," the grey rat said, "If you can make it look like those other guys have your back, he'll probably leave you alone. Remember, he's a half-crazy country boy from way out in the boonies; no one's going to have his back in a fight. Stay as close to those other guys as much as you can…and try to get the word out that if any of them need help YOU'LL be right there. From what I've heard of that Guilford kid, he's none too bright with it, but even he oughta know how to add two and two."

"Right, thanks," Conor nodded briskly. He'd been so right to confide in his attorney about Craig; this was some seriously useful advice.

"No charge, Booby," Rodenberg said, and then got up from his quad chair, "All right, I think we're done for now, unless you have something else?"

Conor scratched at an ear with a hind-leg; dang this place and its stinking fleas.

"Ahhhh, this is prolly a long shot Mr. Rodenberg, but this Judge Schatten dude, he's a woodchuck, right?"

"Yes, that right," the grey rat answered, clasping his paws and sniffing, whiskers twitching like antennae; his species' equivalent of tilting his head sideways. "Why?" he asked.

"I think I may have met him once," the young fox told him, "On the plane that brought me to Zootopia." He went on to describe the groundhog that had refused to sit next to him after he boarded.

Rodenberg laughed but then shook his head.

"Yeah, that sounds like him all right…but unless we can back it up, it's nothing we can use in court." He shrugged, "Too bad really, if we could prove it, I could file a petition with the Zootopia Supreme Court, demanding that they recuse Judge Schatten on the grounds of judicial bias." His eyebrows arched unexpectedly and he gave Conor a penetrating look. Uh, ohhhh… something was coming that he wasn't going to like.

"So you're originally from out of town, huh kid? And since you flew in instead of taking the train, I'm guessing that it's not from anywhere close to Zootopia."

Conor could have bitten his own tongue off. Dangit, now there'd be some questions that he really didn't want to answer. "What the foxtrot made me tell him THAT?" he raged inwardly.

But Rodenberg only cocked a finger.

"And that's why you need to keep your mouth shut when we get to court tomorrow, Booby. If I can figure that out, so can Rudy Gamsbart. Sorry, but I can't say it too many times; do NOT underestimate this guy."

"I won't," the young fox promised, secretly relieved that his attorney wasn't going to press this any further. Or…would he? Heck yes, he would; by now Conor had taken enough measure of the rat to know that a follow-up inquiry was coming.

And sure enough…"There is one thing I'd like to know kid. How the heck did you ever find me? That number for my answering service is not exactly common knowledge."

Conor thought hard for a second, and then decided on a gambit of his own. What was it his attorney had said to Nick Wilde earlier?

"I'll tell you that, if you'll tell me something, Counselor. Why the HECK did you agree to represent me, a kid you know practically nothing about? Especially since most of what you think you know is bogus, Heck, you don't even my birth name…but you still showed up and agreed to take my case; why?"

Rodenberg let out a slow, hissing breath.

"Touché, kid…but sooner or later you're going to have to come clean with me about your background…and skip the 'later', I need to find that out before Rudy Gamsbart does. Otherwise, you might as well have stuck with a Public Defender, because unless I get there ahead of that chamois, my chances of mounting an effective defense are somewhere between 'forget it' and 'I don't THINK so.'"

"I'll tell you soon enough," Conor answered, instantly hating himself. 'Never lie to your attorney'—that was another little homily Danny Tipperin had drilled into his head…and he had just told Vern Rodenberg a stinking whopper! It was a shame really, but the way the young fox looked at it, he really had no choice. The Zootopia Attorney General's Office WAS going to run a DNA match on him…and when they got back the results, a whole stinkin' army of Vernon J. Rodenbergs wouldn't be enough to save him.

"This won't be the errr, standard arrangement Your Honor. We won't be sending the kid straight off to Hornburg following his arraignment; he has information that we want—very badly. For that same reason, we don't want to rush him straight to trial following his arraignment; let him stew for a bit first."

Rudy Gamsbart was strolling about his office, talking on the phone via Alpaxa. He had always been at his most articulate while moving about. The standard joke around the Zootopia Attorney General's office was that he could walk off ten pounds while summing up a case. Gamsbart didn't care; they might have a laugh on HIM every now and then…but nobody laughed at his conviction rate.

"Hmmm yes, but what about after he talks?' the voice on the other end was both sullen and impatient; the Honorable Judge George L. Schatten simply loathed being bothered on a Sunday. "It would seem to me this boy's a prime candidate for the program; no parents, no family to speak of…and he's a fox. Even I know how valuable they are."

Gamsbart felt his ears go back. He knew, of course, what the woodchuck was actually driving at.

"Greedy little so-and-so… Gad, I wish they'd dump him and find someone else. Okay, Okay, be diplomatic."

"I wish we could be certain of that, Your Honor.," he said, "but I must remind you that this kid has been living under a false identity for nearly three years now…and nobody had a clue about it until he bit a police officer. For all we know he could be some uber-rich runaway from a family with plenty of cash—and influence." He made a fist and coughed into it. Considering Conor Lewis's species, that was highly unlikely; he hurriedly qualified his statement. "Probably the kid doesn't have any folks, but until either fesses up or we get those DNA test results back, we dare not make any assumptions. If it does turn out that he's on his own though, I'm sure our friends will be more than happy to work something out."

"So you say, Mr. Gamsbart," the Judge responded archly, "but you should know that they've been getting more and more dictatorial in their demands of late. Last week I got memo from them ordering me…ORDERING me to avoid all contact with Zootopia City Councilmember Sven Kristofferson until further notice. No explanation given and no compensation offered, just shut up and do it."

Gamsbart felt his ears pull back and made a whistling noise through his nostrils; all right, this was something he could agree with…at least partially. Their 'friends' really HAD been getting more and more peremptory in their demands of late. Something big was in the works, the chamois could feel it…but then again, he also knew when not to ask any questions—and now was definitely one of those times. He said, "The point is Your Honor, we want this Conor Lewis kid held for trial under the harshest possible measures and also for as long as possible. After that," he felt a wicked grin crease his face, "Well, I may have promised to recommend leniency if he co-operates…but that doesn't mean YOU have to take my advice."

A small noise that was half a bark and half a chitter came bubbling over the connection, the sound of a woodchuck laughing. But then, just as quickly, His Honor became peeved all over again.

"All right, fine…but why are you even asking me to do this? I would have put that kid in restrictive lockdown anyway; violent offender, assaulted a police officer, and then there's that little Usual Suspects prank he pulled. Honestly, why did you feel the need to bother me about this NOW?"

Gamsbart crossed his fingers and took in long, slow breath, inhaling through both his mouth and his nostrils. Okay, here we go.

"Because something new has been added to the mix Your Honor; guess who walked in out of the blue this morning and offered to represent the kid? Everyone's favorite criminal defense attorney, Vernon J. Rodenberg."

"Vermin Rodenberg!" the woodchuck spat, using the nickname for the rat that was never spoken in public, "What the heck is that little jerk doing, representing a juvenile offender? It's like sending Derek Cheetah to pinch-hit in a T-ball game!"

"I know, right?" Gamsbart sighed, "But it is what it is, Your Honor. And let's not avoid the larger issue here; if Rodenberg's involved in this, then we have to assume that yes, that nosey, little sneak IS beginning to get suspicious."

"Oh come on, Gamsbart," The judge's protest came over the line as a fuzzy burst of static. "He could have involved himself for any one of a dozen different reasons; who know what that cheese-eating troublemaker is thinking?"

"No one," the chamois conceded…but then he said, "However, during the Conor Lewis Q-and-A, he seemed particularly intrigued by the fact that during the previous session, I had advised , not once but several times, to waive his right to counsel." He paused to let the woodchuck digest this and then delivered the clincher. "Look at it this way Your Honor, which is worse? If we proceed under the notion that Rodenberg is beginning to suspect what's happening…and he isn't, or if we ignore that possibility and it turns out that he IS trying to get a lead on Kits for Cash?"

"Eeeep! Don't use that name over the phone!" the woodchuck squealed, arrogant to paranoid in 2.5 seconds. "All right Counselor, I see your point, but what do you want me to do about it?"

Gamsbart smiled; the mention of Kits for Cash had done the trick—just as he'd known it would; the thought of that 'program' being exposed to public scrutiny never failed to turn Judge George Schatten into a quivering bowl of mush

He told the groundhog, "First, keep the theatrics to a minimum, no lectures, no pontificating, and PLEASE don't threaten to cite Vern Rodenberg for contempt over some silly issue…again! When you throw the book at the kid, throw it gently…more in sorrow than in anger, 'I hate to have to do this son, but given the nature of your offense and your cavalier attitude…' I think you understand what I mean. The thing that we especially don't want is for it to look as if you're allowing either of their species to influence your decisions."

"Right, I get it," the woodchuck responded, beginning to sound moody again, "You want me to walk hard on the kid…but not talk hard. Okay, I can do that…" There was silence in the air for few seconds. "But what if Vermin Rodenberg really IS beginning to get suspicious, what then?"

"Then that brings our friends into it," Gamsbart responded grimly, unconsciously clenching and unclenching his hooves, "and just between you and me Judge, I almost hope that's what happens."

Conor had wanted to heed this attorney's advice, he really and truly did…but he simply didn't have time. No sooner had the atlas bear that brought him back to his cell gone away, than a familiar and unpleasant aroma began to infiltrate his nostrils; Craig Guilford was somewhere right outside the door. Aggggh, grrrr, for a supposedly none-too-bright animal, this 'yote sure knew how to pick his moments; the young fox was completely alone, with no one to guard his back.

He looked hastily around the cell, seeing nothing he could use as a weapon; he could wrap the towel around his forearm to protect himself from bites, but…too late, Craig was already standing in the doorway.

"Hey fox."

Conor rose up on the balls of his feet, at the same time letting his arms drop to his sides the way Kieran had taught him. "Ye want to be ready, but not LOOK like yer ready, boy."

"You know what I heard?" Craig asked rhetorically, taking a step in his direction. The young fox said nothing only, focused on his opponent's midsection. If he stepped across the threshold and into the cell that would be it; never mind the consequences, Conor would go after him.

But then, to his utter astonishment, the young coyote stopped, smiled, and stuck out a paw.

"I heard you're in here for biting that jerk, Nick Wilde...the same dude who got my dad busted. Whoa, I only wish that could have been me, fox."

Conor reached for the offered paw but carefully, at the same time slipping his other paw behind his back and unsheathing his claws. He knew the trick, every kid who'd ever done time in juvie did. Offer to shake with someone, and when they take your paw, you pull them in close and let them have it. (Back in Granite Point, a variation on that ploy had been a favorite tactic of Crazy Wez.)

No need for caution as it turned out; when Craig took hold of his paw, he only shook it once and then offered a fist-bump, which Conor quickly returned. Quietly sizing things up, he decided to further defuse the situation and tilted his head a few degrees to the right.

"He busted your dad?" (Not quite accurate Conor knew, but that was how you made your words seem genuine.) "So you're that Craig, huh? The one from Bunnyburrow…? Dang, I knew I'd seen your face on the net somewhere." He stepped back, motioning for the coyote to come and step inside his cell.

"Ohhh, so that's why you were checkin' me out back there in the mess hall," Craig took the cue and stepped over the threshold. He sounded almost apologetic…almost. That gave Conor the idea that now might be a most excellent time to run a verbal diagnostic on his 'guest'. He plopped himself down on the edge his bunk, gazing upwards with deliberately widened eyes.

"Did you really try to steal an airplane, dude? Whoa, that was some sick stuff." (He actually thought the coyote's plan had been brain-dead stupid.)

"I would of got away with it too, except for that dumb bunny, Judy Hopps." Craig snarled and showed his fangs…and then sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose, "if I could of dumped her off the wing and gotten airborne, the ZPD would NEVER have caught me."

"Like heck they wouldn't," the young fox thought, remembering Crazy Wez's ill-fated, airborne escape from the Zoo Jersey State Police. The delinquent sea-mink had been as good as caught from the moment he'd lifted off the runway, even HE had admitted it, later on.

That, Conor reflected, was the difference between his former crew-chief in The Point and Craig Guilford. Wez might have more than lived up to his nickname of Crazy, but stupid he was NOT. Craig, on the other paw, was a little of the former and whole lot of the latter.

Needless to say, the young fox wasn't telling him that. "Awesome!" he said, reaching up to offer his guest a high-five. Privately, his red flags were going up; this coyote kid seemed just a mite TOO eager to talk about his crimes…especially with someone he didn't even know. That made the young fox's nose begin to wrinkle; was it his imagination, or had someone left a dead fish in here?

As it turned out, Conor's mental sense of smell had not betrayed him. The next thing Craig said was, "What about you…uhhh Conner, right? Were you really working for that Phantom guy?"

Conor continued to smile…while mentally picturing Craig Guilford being pitched tail-over-teakettle off the top tier of the jail, (the stock method of dealing with snitches in Granite Point.) He wondered for a second who was the bigger dimwit, this coyote or Rudy Gamsbart.

But then again, nooo…on reflection, the Zootopia Deputy Prosecutor probably hadn't put Craig up to this; he was most likely free-lancing on his own, hoping to dig up something he could offer in trade when HIS trial-date came up.

Whatever the case…as IF a yokel from the sticks would have any interest in an urban loan-shark, (outside of what was in it for him, if he could help bust the guy.)

Fortunately Conor had a ready-made answer for his guest's inquiry, the same one he'd given to Rudy Gamsbart, (with one or two minor embellishments.)

"The Phantom? The Phantom!" the young fox yipped and then laughed, "Awwww, c'mon dude…that guy's fake news. Yeah, I know…the cops think he's real; just goes to show how dumb they are. Heck I didn't even know HE was the reason they'd been tailing me…not until after I got busted."

Craig's ears began turning in several different directions and then his head tilted sideways.

"But…if you weren't working The Phantom, what'd you go and bite that other fox for?"

Conor was barely able to keep his eyes from rolling. Holy snap, Craig Guilford really wasn't the sharpest tool in the shed; he seemed completely unable to wrap his head around the idea that an innocent animal would assault a police officer. Either that or he was fishing for more tidbits again…and that made Conor decide to put the brakes on this jerk, right here and right NOW.

"Tell me about it." He sighed, looking depressed and pretending to misinterpret the coyote's question. "They got me on camera from two different angles, biting him. Not so easy to get out of that kinda stuff."

He looked away and pretended to spit, but inwardly he was smiling. With a little luck, that revelation would put nice, fat curb on Mister Nosey-Coyote's curiosity. If the ZPD already had Conor for biting Nick Wilde, then what did they need Craig's help for? It was Danny Tipperin who'd said it best, (although he'd been speaking to someone else at the time.) 'How you gonna sell a guy out to the cops when they already got him for NOTHIN', stupid?'

The young fox would never know for certain if his ploy had worked, because at that moment, two new voices spoke up.

"Yo, fox."

"Heyyyy, what you doin' in here, eh coyote?"

Conor looked and saw that the two hyenas Miles and Shem were standing in the doorway of his cell, the latter regarding Craig Guilford with bared fangs and a baleful eye.

He quickly raised his paws. "Hey, no problemo guys, he's here to make peace."

"I-I was just leaving anyway," Craig said, "Later, dude." He ducked hurriedly past the two hyenas and was gone. Shem followed him with his gaze for moment and turned back to Conor.

"You don't trust dat yob, I hope."

"About as far as I can throw five elephants," the you silver fox assured him, motioning for the two hyenas come and join him inside the cell. And then he grinned, "But there's no reason HE needs to know that, right?"

His two visitors grinned back and then Miles asked, "How'd it go with the prosecutah then?"

"Went okay," Conor tolding them, know they would accept this answer. Unlike Craig Guilford these two animals understood, (and respected,) jailhouse protocol.

Or…that was what he thought until Shem said, "Conah, hope you don't mind my askin'…but everybody been wonderin'. You really got Vern Rodenberg representin' you?"

"The gangstah lawyah?" Miles added, trying not to stare in disbelief.

Conor sighed and then growled in his throat. You'd think by now he'd know how quickly gossip spreads in the joint, but nooooo…!

"Yeah," he admitted, throwing up his paws in a bewildered shrug, "I dunno why he made that offer or where the heck he came from…and I'm not asking either. I'm just glad I got him in my corner, know what I mean?"

"I heard that!" Shem answered, not a little bit wistfully. It made the young fox wondered what he had done to end up here. The spotted hyena had never said, and Conor would never ask him. That was another unspoken rule of The Joint, if someone doesn't want to talk about their case, you let it slide.

"Anyway, Conah," Miles leaned back against the wall and folded his arms, "You given any thought maybe, 'bout a message you'd like me to delivah when I go?"

"Yeah," the young fox answered, nodding, "And thanks for bringing that up. First things first, tho'. What time you getting out?" From experience he knew that Miles might be released at almost any time, from when the courts first opened the next morning until midnight, when it officially became the next day.

"Mornin' first t'ing" the striped hyena said…and Conor almost whooped. Yes, perfect! He'd been racking his brain ever since he'd left the interrogation room, trying to figure out how he was going to get word to Guild…and then whaddaya know? The solution had walked right into his cell, all by itself.

"Great," he said, "can I get you to send an e-mail for me?"

"Sure, no problem," Miles said, offering him a high-five

"Okay," the young fox answered accepting it, and then he asked, "Okay, got anything to write with? The addy's kind of complicated?"

Miles didn't, but Shem had the sub of a grease pencil on him, which he used to transcribe the e-mail address Conor gave him onto a sheet of toilet paper. It was a painstaking process; the address contained no letters, only numerals, (which, unknown to the two hyenas, meant that it was a dark web addy.)

As for the text that followed, it was banal to the point of being nearly anticlimactic.

"For the subject line, just put in, 'Re: that thing we discussed earlier.'" Conor told him, "and then just say that my lawyer got me assigned a temporary guardian. His name's Ton Ruiter—that's Ton with an 'N', and the last name spelled like 'fruit'—he's a yellow mongoose who works part time as Mr. Rodenberg's Private Eye. That means he should be listed somewhere online, or that's what I'm guessing anyway. And finally say, 'try and see what you can do with this before tonight…and thanks again.'" He sat back and slapped his paws together, "annnnd, that aughta do it."

At this point, both hyenas were practically bursting with curiosity…but at the same time Conor knew that neither one of them would ask what that e-mail was all about. It was a good thing too, because Miles and Shem were shortly going to need some deniability…even though the both of them were completely unaware of it at the moment.