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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:

Fuel


Chapter 12 –The Best Laid Plans
(Continued…Pt. 4)

"Set us UP? Are you out of your… *Cuhf!*"

Judy's words ended in a choking cough as she frantically grabbed for a napkin. It turned out to be an unnecessary gesture; the lemonade retreated before it reached her nostrils.

Well, maybe so, but still…

Swallowing hard, she leaned across the table, staring into Nick's face—while down below, her right foot beat a tattoo against the ground, "What the heck do you mean, 'set us up?'"

They were seated at a picnic table in Food Cart Village, an enclave located in a small green-space, a block behind City Hall and two blocks to the right.

All around them stood a garland of brightly-painted food stalls, while overhead, an off-white awning tent rippled in the breeze. You could get eats from practically any ethnicity and/or species you could imagine here. And anyone who doubted it needed only to inhale and sample the myriad of food aromas wafting through the air.

Not in the mood for culinary adventure, Judy had settled on her old standby, a mixed veggie bento plate from the Usagi Grill. Nick, meanwhile, had opted for a food item that was rapidly becoming the rage among Zootopia's predator community, an Opossumble Burger.

Although made entirely out of vegetable products, Opposumble Meats supposedly looked, smelled, and—most importantly—tasted like the real thing. Judging by the way Nick had devoured most of his burger, (almost like a savage fox,) the resemblance was more than just passing.

Of course, neither he, nor any other living predator had any idea of what 'real meat' tasted like; at least Judy hoped they didn't.

But then, two bites from finishing, he'd looked up and said, "Pretty nasty trick, huh Carrots? Sending us into that park; I'd love to know who was really behind it."

Judy had felt an ear go up…along with a red flag.

"Trick? …Behind it? I don't…Ewww, don't lick your chops at the table, Nick; you know I hate it when you do that." That was when she'd realized just how off his mood was, (and why not, after what they'd both witnessed in the bullpen less than an hour ago.)

"Sorry…Mom." The fox had replied acerbically, reaching for a napkin instead, "but come on, you don't really think we ended up in the middle of THOSE kids by accident, do you?"

Judy had felt another flag go up and set down her fork, very carefully.

"Nick, I don't know exactly what it is you're trying to say here, but I'm not sure I like it." Her throat had felt suddenly parched right then and she'd reached for her strawberry lemonade.

In response, the fox's eyes screwed shut for half a second, and he'd let out a short growl.

"All right Fluff, if you want me to say it, I'll say it…we were set up!"

And Judy's drink had nearly come spurting out of her nostrils. Now she dabbed at her muzzle with a napkin, regarding the fox with a peevish eye.

"Okay Slick, now you're just being paranoid. Come on, a set-up…seriously?"

He got halfway out of his seat.

"No, you come on, Carrots; was Dr. Hind the ONLY animal who knew what those kids would have done if they'd recognized us? And what about what Bogo said, that he didn't give the order for us to be there; I'm telling you, we were sent to that park on a set up."

Judy thought for a second and nodded, slowly. "All right Nick, I'll admit you have a point." She sat back abruptly and folded her arms, patting her elbow with her free paw. "Ahhh, but I do have one question. When Clawhauser relayed the order, did he tell us, 'Bogo wants YOU to go help cover the park'…or did he say, 'Bogo wants every available officer' out there?"

Nick's ears wilted slightly, "Well yes, he did say…"

Judy cut him off before he could finish.

"And did Benjamin…or did he not, relay that same order to Officer Swinton, who was also there at the time?"

In response Nick's ears pulled swiftly backwards and his face turned sly and smug. "It wasn't Swinton, it was Kii Cata….Aggggh Grrrr." Too late, he realized he'd been played into admitting that she was right—and rewarded himself with a face pawlm.

But he wasn't quite ready to hang it up just yet.

"Okay, but then how do you explain Bogo telling Dr. Hind he never gave the order for us to be there?"

"That's true, he did," Judy conceded, coming as close to growl as was possible for a bunny, "I heard him say it too…only which order was he talking about? I seem to recall you saying to Dr. Hind, 'Bogo sent us,' as in us, specifically…and no, the Chief never gave THAT order."

"Then why…?" Nick started to ask.

"Oh sweet cheez n' crackers, even HE'S not all-knowing," Judy cut him off again, having anticipated his next argument, "How the heck could he have been aware that we were back at the precinct when he gave the order? Judging by what little I overheard of his conversation with Dr. Hind, he had no idea we were there. And we wouldn't have been there, if it hadn't been for that springhare we busted. Set-up, nothing…it was only a mix-up."

She stopped, waiting…giving the fox a chance to voice his objections before continuing.

He said nothing and that was her cue to deliver the clincher.

"And let me ask you this, Nick; if we were set up, then how come nobody pulled the lever? Why didn't anyone even try to let those kids know that we were the officers who arrested Conor? "

"It wouldn't have mattered, we already knew," a female voice interjected breezily, and Judy looked up startled to see Dana Alchesay the coyote-girl from the park…standing strategically downwind from both her and Nick. "At least some of us did," she added, hurriedly qualifying her statement.

Dana had removed her face-paint and was accompanied by Jason M'beke, the Afurican Wild Dog who'd been playing the drums, now clad in a tie-dyed Bob Margay tank-top. They had their arms around each other's waists, and were holding closely together; clearly these two were an item.

"You knew…but you didn't say anything?" Nick turned around skittishly, embarrassed that the two young canids had all but gotten the drop on them.

"No," Jason spoke in a firm southern Afurican accent, "Thet's anotha thing Connah wouldn't hev wanted."

"And we don't have problem with you arresting him," Dana added, "Some of the other kids might, but not us. The way we look at it, you were only doing your job."

"And Connah really bit you? I can't believe he did thet." Jason shook his head incredulously, as if only just hearing the news for the very first time.

"Me either," Dana sighed, and without warning, her ears turned backwards and her lip curled upwards, exposing her fangs, "But don't get us wrong. If that prosecutor—or especially that dirt-bag judge—had shown up while we were on stage, we'd have SO doxxed their tails to the crowd."

"Like thet!" her boyfriend concurred, snapping his fingers to demonstrate.

Nick looked at the two young canids, and then at Judy.

And then he pushed back his chair and stood up.

"Carrots…Jason, Dana; this probably doesn't mean much now, but I still want to say it. I've been thinking it over and I'm almost—no, scratch that, I AM sure that Conor didn't mean to bite me…and that he wouldn't have, if he'd known it was me who grabbed him." He looked directly at Judy, "If I'm ever called on to testify about it, that's what I'm going to tell the court…and if anyone has a problem with it, it's THEIR problem." ('Anyone ' meaning Zootopia Deputy Prosecutor Rudy Gamsbart.)

"A little late for that, isn't it?" Jason was regarding him with a face set in granite.

"Mmmnnn, I'm not so sure about that," Judy countered, coming swiftly to her partner's defense. (Dang this fox; who else could go from exasperating to making her proud of him in 2.5 seconds?) "Don't forget, it takes a judge's order to get a prisoner released. And do you honestly think THAT woodchuck would have turned Conor loose—for any reason?"

"And think about this Jason," Dana said, surprising them all by taking the doe-bunny's side. "Maybe, like you said, it's too little, too late, but whose fault is that? If Conor hadn't pulled that escape, he'd be as good as free right now, judge or no judge. "

"True for telling," Judy said, and it was—especially when you considered who the fugitive young silver-fox's lawyer had been. What the heck had ever possessed him to make run for it when he could have walked? Well, there was nothing she or Nick could do about it now; the investigation was out of their paws. Cybercrimes was handing it, while they had other…whoa, what time was it, a little after 7:30? They needed to get back to the precinct, and get saddled up for the night ahead.

"Whoops, sorry," she said, looking up at their visitors, (and casting a sidelong glance at Nick,) "Duty calls, and we need to get back to work."

"That time already, Carrots?" the red fox asked, taking the hint and rising from his seat. To the 'yote-girl and wild dog, he said, "Catch you later maybe?"

Jason flashed that big canine grin again.

"You goin' to de academy to watch your sistah's audition?" he asked, looking at Judy, "You see us then, maybe."

"Us and the other guys in the band all volunteered to help out," his girlfriend explained, "little extra credit."

Judy's ears shot up and her nose began to twitch; for a fraction of a second, she was too confused to speak. What the…? How the heck would these two know about Erin's…?

The answer came before she even finished the question.

"D'ohhhh, right… Conor  would have told them."

For moment, she was tempted to relate the story of how the young silver fox had helped foil the chemical attack on the Big Dance. But then she remembered; the Guilfords were the same species as Dana. That probably wouldn't be an issue with this coyote-girl, but why take chances?

And so Judy put the thought aside for later, (much later.)

"Yep, I'm going to be there," she said, "Erin made me promise; I'll be sure to look for you."

"I'll be there too…if I can," was all Nick said. (He wouldn't, Judy knew. Her parents were definitely coming to watch Erin's performance—and this particular fox was not one of their favorite mammals at the moment.)

Walking back to the precinct, the fox and bunny-cop were not alone; they had an elephant for company, an unseen, invisible elephant.

…An elephant named Francine Trunkaby.

Neither one of them had brought up the pachyderm's outburst, or even mentioned her name since leaving the precinct…but Francine had been with them every step of the way, hovering over their table as they ate, and now she was dogging them again.

Judy knew they couldn't avoid talking about her forever, but what could they say that wasn't painfully obvious already?

"I never thought she'd go that far." Wow, really?

"A lot of the other officers are going to blame us for what she did." Nooo kidding!

"Francine quitting was only the beginning of our problems." Ya think?

"You watch; Rock Hardesty will have her on as a guest next week." Well, du- uhhhh…uh, actually that one was something new under the sun.

But Judy still didn't want to talk about it

When they arrived back at Precinct-1, Clawhauser immediately directed them to the bullpen, 'for final instructions.' Though he said nothing about Fran Trunkaby, his downcast mood was impossible to miss; Judy hadn't seen him looking this unhappy since the Savage Predator crisis—when he'd been moved off the front desk and into Records Division, (The Dungeon, as it was unofficially known around the precinct.)

Entering the bullpen they found Bogo waiting for them, along with two of the other stake-out teams; Wolford and Grizzoli, and Higgins and Pennington. The other officers had not yet returned, and the moments that followed felt as chilly as a Tundratown cemetery and as long as the Dark Ages. No one, except for Bogo, gave them even a second glance.

Luckily, they didn't have long to wait; after five more minutes, Howell and Simmers came in and another minute later, Fangmeier and Swinton joined them.

As she passed them by, the pig cop offered Judy a pat on the shoulder and a sympathetic smile; not everyone in the precinct was down on her and Nick.

When everyone was seated, Bogo began to speak, dispensing, as always, with any sort of greetings or preamble.

"Are you all checked out the new-style tranquilizer dart-guns?" he said, and the officers raised their arms in unison—including Judy, who couldn't keep the wryness from her face.

It was an ironic legacy of the Savage Predator Plot. After Dawn Bellwether's arrest, ZPD Forensics had also made a couple of important discoveries.

1. The dart gun she and Doug had used turned out to have much greater range and accuracy than the standard police model, and was also easier to load—AND it had a bigger magazine capacity.

2. The darts it fired were a kind of modified paint-ball, containing Nighthowler serum suspended in a solution of Dimethyl Sulfoxide…a much more effective delivery system than the needle-nosed darts used by the ZPD. In order to be effective, a needle dart had to score a direct hit on a suspect; a DMSO pellet needed only to graze them.

That was it as far as Chief Bogo was concerned, and he'd immediately started lobbying for the ZPD to be equipped with the upgraded trank-dart weapons. City Hall being City Hall, his request hadn't even been taken under advisement for an entire year. (The approval might never have come at all but for the efforts of Zootopia City Council-Mammal Claudia Nizhang, herself a former police detective.)

"You'll be issued trank guns equipped with darts more than strong enough to put a polar bear to sleep," Bogo told them, and then raised a cautionary finger, "However, you are NOT to employ them unless you're forced to confront Mr. Big's enforcers without any extra back-up. And—I can't say this too many times—that happens only if there's no other way to protect either y'selves or the property you're assigned to. Am I clear on that?"

This time, he didn't need to ask twice.

"YES, SIR!"

"Very good," the big Cape buffalo nodded. "Now let's go over the call-codes for tonight." He picked up a document and snapped open his reading glasses. "In the event you spot any of Mr. Big's enforcers approachin', the call sign is Code White, repeated three times. If they're carrying arson tools, the call sign is Whitehot, also repeated three times. If you see them trying to break into your assigned property, the call sign is Whitepick; if you see them trying to set fire to the property, the call sign is Whitespark."

Bogo shut his eyes and took a breath, flexing his knuckles on the podium. Then he opened them again

"And if, God forbid, Mr. Big's soldiers should succeed in setting fire to your assigned property, the call sign is Whitefire...Erm, yes Howell?" The red wolf had actually had his paw up for a good thirty seconds.

"Sir, why can't we use the regular call signs?"

Judy Hopps knew why, but wisely chose to let Bogo answer the question.

"So the other officers—and dispatch—will know it's not just a regular arson call, but OUR firebugs at work."

"Ah, I see sir." Howell nodded and sat down again.

"If we hear any of those call signs from another location, how do you want us to proceed?" This time it was Fangmeier.

"Unless it's Code Whitefire, you're to remain where you are," Bogo informed her, speaking very firmly. "Likewise—I will say it again—you are not to confront Mr. Big's enforcers without backup on anything less than a Code Whitespark."

"And…if we do hear a Code Whitefire, Chief?" the tiger-cop prompted.

Bogo's face twitched and then hardened.

"Then all bets are off, and you're to respond immediately." He seemed to find the question irritating. "In the event we're unable to prevent the next arson attack our next priority will be apprehending the suspects."

He whipped off his spectacles and leaned over the lectern. "However, I'm counting on all of YOU to make sure that it doesn't come to that; are we clear?"

"YES SIR!"

The next stop for Nick and Judy was the police armory, where they picked up their weapons and other gear for the stakeout, night-vision goggles, extra binoculars, communication headsets, portable surveillance cameras, and a parabolic microphone…much of which was at least one size too big for a fox and/or bunny.

…and, of course, their trank-dart weapons

Sergeant Travers, the red kangaroo in charge of dispensing the equipment seemed amiable enough…but Judy couldn't help noticing how he pushed their gear through the cage-window and then hastily pulled his paws back. It was if he didn't want to touch any of it at the same time as them.

When they got to the motor pool Nick and Judy found an old friend waiting, the midnight-blue, unmarked police cruiser that the fox had affectionately christened Old Reliable. It was a vehicle they'd employed on many a prior occasion, and as the nickname implied, it had never once let them down.

"She's all gassed up; new belts and hoses," Joe 'Sockets' Moloso, the Mexican black bear in charge of the motor pool told them. And Judy couldn't help smiling; now HERE was a mammal that took pride in his work.

The extra attention to Old Reliable was hardly necessary though; the Savanna Central Pizzeria Pianeta was barely more than a stone's throw the precinct—and it was extremely unlikely that they'd be involved in a pursuit tonight.

But when they got to their assigned property…Ohhhh, Judy had been expecting an unforeseen difficulty or two, but before the stakeout even started? The worst part was, dangit she should have seen this coming; Officer Grizzoli had warned everybody that Pizzeria Pianeta always drew a big crowd on Saturdays. And tonight was no exception; the line of animals waiting for a table extended halfway up the block.

By rights, it shouldn't have mattered much; she and Nick weren't planning to go inside the place after all—except it also meant that every parking space within a two-block radius of the restaurant was already taken.

"Dangit Nick," Judy pounded the steering in frustration after their third fruitless circuit of the pizzeria, "how the heck are we supposed to keep a watch on this place if we can't even find a place to park?"

He responded by pointing across the street.

"Pull in over there, Carrots."

Judy looked…and felt her nose begin to twitch. What the…?

"Nick, we can't park in that space; look, there's a fire hydrant."

"So?" he asked, shrugging and sounding like his old self for the first time today, "is this not an official vehicle—and are we not here to prevent a fire?"

"Yesss Nick," Judy answered, beginning to sound irritated, "but if we park over there, everyone's going to KNOW this is an official vehicle."

"Not necessarily, bunny-lady." He was lifting a finger as if making a point. "Trust me, I got this; pull in and pop the trunk."

She regarded him dubiously for a second and then let out a rough-cut sigh "Okayyyy, if you say so."

She swung the cruiser in a slow U-Turn.

"Won't be a minute," Nick cracked the door as soon as the tires touched the curb, but then his ears turned forward and Judy saw him rummaging in the vehicle's center console. "Dangit, have we got any blank citation envelopes in here?"

Judy lifted a brow and pointed. "There should be some right there, but why…?"

But he was already out the door.

A second later she heard him closing the trunk and then a clanking sound that she couldn't identify, coming from the cruiser's left-rear side. Something moved around the perimeter, and she saw a dark-furred paw tuck something under the driver's side windshield wiper, a narrow, buff-colored envelope. A heartbeat later, her partner was back, throwing open his door and practically sailing into the passenger-seat.

"There we go," he said, slapping his paws against each other in brisk satisfaction.

Judy looked at him with a twitching nose.

"All right, what did you do?"

He poked a thumb at cruiser's left, rear quadrant. "Booted a wheel," he said, and her ears shot up like geysers.

"You did…WHAT?"

"Relax Carrots, I didn't lock it." He was holding up his paws in a calming gesture, "I can pull it right back off again if I need to."

Judy's ears dropped down, but her nose kept up with its movements.

"Okayyyy, may I assume there's a point to all this?"

"You may," Nick replied, waving a paw at the 'ticket' under the windshield wiper, "Animals tend to keep their distance from a car that's been booted and ticketed. Don't ask me why, but they do; we won't get any looky-loos tonight." He winked and his face split open in a mischievous foxy grin. "And no one will report us to the cops either—because, obviously, they know already." His grin widened, "and obviously, THIS is no cop car."

His smile was infectious and she quickly caught it herself.

"Clever fox," she said. Darn, it was good to see him like this again. Just the same she made sure to notify dispatch of the plan.

No sooner did she hang up the mike, than he turned serious again.

"Hold on, I just thought of something else; pop the trunk again."

Judy did, but not without a grumble; their cruiser might be a 'plain wrapper,' but as per the Chief's instructions, both she and Nick were in uniform. The more time he spent outside on the street, the better the chances were of someone realizing a stakeout was in progress.

"Well hurry up whatever it is," she called looking for him in the rear-view mirror and seeing nothing. She was still looking when he reappeared at the passenger door with a golf-ball sized object in his paws; one of the remote surveillance cameras they'd been issued.

"I'm going to go put this on the rear door, Carrots; I know it's risky but…"

"No, no…you're right, go…GO!" Judy answered quickly, making shooing motions with her paws.

"Won't be minute," he assured her, and then swiftly departed, leaving her alone with her thoughts. Absolutely they should have a survey cam watching the pizzeria's service door; what rule was there that said the arsonists HAD to go in through the front? As a matter of fact, the more she thought about it… The animals who'd set fire to Tux-On had gained access through the shop's rear entrance. And what was it that both Nick and Chief Bogo had said about Mr. Big? Old school Cosa Nostra, an eye for an eye, etc. Hmmm, when the restaurant closed its doors for the evening, she and the fox might have to split up so they could cover the back and front with 'actual eyes'. For the moment, however, a camera would suffice; she would have to remember to patch it into the network though, so they could also see the camera's POV back at the precinct…

"Okay, done," Nick appeared at the side door like an apparition and slipped back in into his seat as the two of them settled down to wait.

And wait…

And wait…

And wait…

Fortunately, the fox and bunny-cop were veterans of many another stakeout by now—and so they accepted the slow passage of time as matter of course.

By 10:00, the line outside the door of Pizzeria Pianeta had finally begun to shorten; by 10:30, it had vanished. By 10:45 the only animals entering the restaurant, were emerging after only a moment or two with take-out boxes in their paws.

At no point did anyone come over to check out their cruiser; Nick had called that one right down the line, animals were avoiding it like The Unclean.

The frustrating part was that they must have seen a dozen individuals—ranging in size from a caribou to a tundra vole that could have been Mr. Big's recon-mammal—but never could they be certain. What they didn't see was a patron entering through the front door of the pizzeria and leaving through the back; a red-flag, if not a dead giveaway.

Finally at 23:03 the closed sign went up and the lights went out; a moment after that, the last employees finally departed for home.

Judy watched as they disappeared around a corner. For a moment she considered having Nick pull the boot of the wheel and then moving to a legal parking space. She swiftly rejected that idea. An arsonist wasn't likely to think that a booted and ticketed vehicle was a police stake-out either.

Dangit, but sometimes when Nick got clever…he really got clever.

She flexed her fingers on the steering wheel.

"Okay, here comes the critical time."

Nick hunkered down in his seat and sniffed.

"Mmmm, not quite yet Carrots; if you remember, Tux-On was burned down during daylight hours."

"How could I forget; I almost died," Judy shivered again at the memory. Would there ever be a time when it wouldn't provoke that reaction? To shake it off, she moved on quickly, "But I see what you mean Nick, more of that 'eye-for-an-eye' business, am I right?"

"That's pretty much it," he said, laying an elbow on the windowsill and gazing up the street, "If anything's going to happen here, I think it'll happen between sun-up and when they open for business again."

Judy frowned and felt her nose beginning to twitch; there was something about his tone of voice…

"You…don't think anything's going to happen here, do you?"

Nick exhaled slowly and she saw shoulders rise and then fall again.

"Yes…No…I mean…" He let out a short growl. "Yes, I think this could be a possible target; I just don't think it's quite as high up on the list as Big Chief Buffalo Nickel thinks it is.

"All right," Judy asked him quietly, "Why not?"

Nick glanced at her sideways for a second, but otherwise kept his eyes on the street.

"Remember when Grizzoli said how much he loves Pianeta Pizza—and you said 'as if that means anything.'"

"And you said it might," she answered him. (Those had not been her exact words but she let it pass.)

"That's right," he said, finally turning to look at her, "and he's not the only cop in Precinct-1 who feels that way." He poked as thumb over his shoulder, in the direction of the now darkened restaurant. "If this place burns, a lot of ZPD Officers are going to take it fursonally; I might myself."

Judy lifted an ear and an eyebrow. She had a vague idea of what he was getting at, but needed to hear it from him. "And…?" she asked.

"And," he said, looking quietly grim, "There's a rule I remember that Mr. Big always used to pound into everybody that worked for him—never, Never, NEVER go out of your way to antagonize law enforcement. Don't tease, don't taunt, and don't TRY to get under their skin. I remember once when Kevin got rousted during a card game and mouthed off to the cops. When the Big Shrew heard out it, whoa, was he mad; he called Kevin into his office and ran him up one side and down the other." He cleared his throat and his voice rose into the bad impression of the Tundratown crime boss he'd used before. "How many times must I say this to you? We get enough heat from the police without provoking them. It is good that you didn't cooperate, but there was no need for you to show such an attitude. The next time you're pulled in, you be polite with the officers and show some respect. I do NOT want to have this conversation again, capisce?"

Judy pondered for a second and then nodded, slowly. Right again; why burn down a business that the cops all loved—and risk incurring their wrath—when there were plenty of other targets available that carried no such liability?

"All right, but …Nick, why didn't you say anything about this at the briefing?"

She jumped as he snarled and pounded the windowsill.

"Because I don't have the slightest idea where else Mr. Big may strike tonight." He threw up his paws as if surrendering to the inevitable. "I just don't know enough to make that call. And like I said," He corked a thumb through the window again, "This may not be as likely a target as Bogo thinks, but that doesn't mean we can write it off completely. If Mr. Big burns down a Pizzeria Pianeta tonight—especially this one—it would tell the Sahara Square mob, once and for all, that he's prepared to go the distance with them."

He hunkered down in his seat again, emitting a sound that might have been either a growl or a grunt.

"I don't know, Carrots, I just…don't…"

"Car!"

At once, the fox was instantly alert…and so was she

The vehicle easing up to the curb in front of Pizzeria Pianeta was long, low, slinky, and painted obsidian black, with nothing visible through the tinted windows. It couldn't have looked more like a mob-mobile if had been sporting a vanity plate reading OMERTA! At once, Judy grabbed for her binoculars, while Nick snatched up the two-way microphone, his thumb poised over the button.

"Not yet," she told him.

"I know," he answered.

For a long moment, the car across the street just sat there, as if trying to make up its mind. They heard the faint crump of a door opening and saw the vehicle rise by inches as the occupant exited. The next thing they saw was the top half of a large mammal, looming above the vehicle's rooftop—big, wide, and bulky, the right size and shape for a polar bear.

"Not yet," Judy cautioned a second time, "I can't make out his fur color." There was some white visible, but only a little; it looked like he was wearing an overcoat, (…in the summertime? She felt another flag go up.)

But then she saw his shoulders wilt.

"Yeah, they're closed," the interloper sighed, and was immediately answered by a female voice from inside the car.

"I TOLD you!"

"Yeah, okay…don't start," her companion said, turning to get back inside. And now Nick and Judy could see that he was a panda, not a polar bear.

A moment later, with a screech of tires, the car shot away from the curb and was gone.

Judy called it in immediately, (ever the bunny-scout,) but made pains to stress that this was not their suspected arsonist.

Then she and Nick settled down to wait some more.

The next few hours passed uneventfully, with hardly another vehicle on the street. The few that they did see had good reason to be there; a street-cleaner, a sanitation truck, at one point an ambulance went flashing past, making sounds more appropriate to a video game than a first responder's vehicle.

After that, there was nothing for what seemed like an eternity.

And still Nick and Judy kept the pizzeria in their sights, front and back, never allowing their gaze to waver, the monotony broken only by their hourly check-in with dispatch.

The doe-bunny had just completed another one when she noticed that the boundary where the sky met the skyline had lightened from black to denim-blue.

She looked at her watch; it was 04:31. She looked at Nick, and saw that he was fully alert. They were in the wolflight; the period between first light and dawn when foxes are most active.

They were also entering the real critical period.

"Okay," she said, "one of us needs to go out and get on the back of that place." She pulled out a coin and placed it over a cocked thumb. "Call it, Nick."

He responded by cracking the door again.

"No need Carrots, I'll go."


In another part of Zootopia, Officer Pete Barrow, ZPD was in an elevator, on his way down to the lower deck of a parking garage. He could only hope that this was the right place; he not been permitted to write down the address or even the space number, and had been strictly forbidden to use GPS in locating the rendezvous point.

How they'd find out if he chose to disobey that order, the polar-bear had no idea, but he'd nonetheless followed his instructions to the letter. They'd know if he failed to do as he was told, they always knew.

Also as instructed, he had left his own car in another garage, two blocks away, and walked the remaining distance. There was no doubt in his mind that he'd had eyes on him every step of the way, but by now, he was used to it. In fact, he rather appreciated it; in the event of trouble, he'd have both ample warning and help available.

When the door to the elevator opened, he found himself face-to-face, (chest to face actually,) with a wolverine. Forcing himself not to shudder, he was unable to keep his eyes from straying to the big mustelid's lower right side.

His right paw was the color of a soiled, white rag; it was that wolverine, the one whose anger you didn't EVER want to arouse.

"You're early," he said, speaking without preamble.

Barrow somehow managed to keep his spine straight. THIS he didn't have to take, not even from Mr. Whitepaw; would this animal rather he'd shown up late?

"I wanted to give myself some extra time to find this place, in case…"

"I wasn't criticizing, merely making an observation," Seth Whitepaugh responded flatly, and then turned on his heel, beckoning with two fingers for the polar bear to follow him. At the same time, another wolverine moved briskly to a position beside the elevator, taking up a sentry stance. One thing you had to give this outfit, they knew how to run a tight ship.

At the far end of the garage, a big, blocky vehicle stood surrounded by a cordon of three more wolverines, all of them with weapons at the ready. Barrow recognized it instantly for what it was, but was surprised when he got closer and saw the MINKS logo, stenciled on the side. Had they stolen this ride or was it a generic armored car in disguise? In any event the bear now understood why HE had drawn this assignment. As a member of ZPD SWAT, he had several times found himself at the wheel of one of the department's armored vehicles; he knew how to handle these big boys, (and how NOT to handle them.)

Then the armored van's rear-door swung open and another polar-bear exited. Barrow recognized him at once; he was the animal who'd led the arson attack on the Interspecies Recycling plant. Other than that, he knew practically nothing about the other animal, not even his real name. (On that prior occasion, he had been addressed simply as 'One'.)

He was outfitted in what looked like a tailor-perfect rendition of a Minks security officer's uniform. That wasn't a particularly unforeseen development; what was surprising was that he seemed to be alone.

"Well-l-l-l, I DID get here early," Barrow reasoned —but just the same…

"Anyone else coming, or is it just the two of us?" he asked, trying to sound unconcerned.

"Just you and me tonight," One answered, also attempting an air of insouciance—but Barrow could tell that HE wasn't entirely comfortable with the situation either.

"Minks officers always operate in pairs." It was the white-pawed wolverine again, "At least on the regular routes. Anything else might arouse suspicion. Also this is a somewhat smaller target than the last one; more than two bodies should not be necessary."

In spite of who was addressing him, Barrow was unable to keep from frowning. There was the 'S-word', should. In his experience any time something SHOULD happen, it actually meant that it might happen.

…Or not

His change of expression did not go unnoticed by the wolverine.

"We'll have back-up close by just in case," he said, and then changed the subject. "How is your infusion reservoir?"

Barrow pulled out his cell-phone and entered a code, studied the screen for a second and then looked up

"It could stand topping off, but I'm good," he said.

Whitepaugh turned and spoke over his shoulder, "See to it, will you Doctor?" he said, and Dr. Honeybadger shuffled forward.

"This way, over here," she said.

The rest of the preparations took surprising little time; everything else had been laid out well in advance; they had a Minks uniform ready, in just his size, together with all the proper gear and the appropriate sidearm. The armored car was fueled and fully stocked; it was even warmed up.

What took the longest was the final briefing. Even though by now Barrow could have recited the plan in his sleep, Whitepaugh insisted on going over it again, two more times…capping each briefing with what he called a lightning round. What do you do if you see a police car following you? What do you do if the ZPD shows up before you're finished?

It was only when the wolverine had satisfactory answers to all his questions, that he finally said the magic words, "All right, it's a go. Good luck out there."

When Barrow pulled up the armored car up the exit ramp and out into the daylight, he was surprised to see that…well, that it was daylight. He looked at his watch, a little after 8:00. The briefing had taken longer than he'd thought.

"Right on time," said voice from the next seat over, and he glanced sideways to see One also examining his watch.

The drive to the target was slow, although not agonizingly slow; an armored van isn't built for speed, after all. Luckily the target was a relatively short distance from the garage, although they were obliged to make a slight detour to get there; (taking the direct route was not an option, since it ran straight through the middle of Little Rodentia.)

It wasn't until they were getting close to their destination, that Barrow began to appreciate the wisdom of their choice of livery. No one sees anything odd about an armored car cruising slowly down the street at an early hour, nor do they try to approach it, lest the occupants mistake them for thieves. And if an armored-security guard is seen walking around with a weapon on his belt, yeah…so?

The target was located approximately four spaces down from an intersection. It was almost ridiculously easy to spot; whereas every other business on the street was fronted in terra-cotta stucco, this one featured a pair of large, bay windows with dark green, wooden trim.

Nonetheless Barrow made certain to confirm the address as well as the nearby landmarks. There they were; the Savage Beastro, the Frozen Yakeurt place, the movie theater at the end of the street, and most importantly, the curlicue street lamp to the right of the front door…the one mounted with a security camera.

This was it.

There were plenty of empty parking spots out front of their destination, but all were fitted with parking meters. That eliminated those spaces right there; Zootopia had recently begun using 'smart meters', capable of recording the exact time when money was deposited. And forget about NOT paying your parking fee, they could also tell when a vehicle was parked next to them—and if it sat for more than five minutes without money being deposited, they would summon a meter maid by wi-fi.

In any event, it didn't jive with their instructions.

"Minks armored does pick-ups on that street on a bi-weekly basis," Whitepaugh had said, "never on Sunday though, but no one's likely to notice. The thing to remember is that they always park in the commercial loading zone around the corner, and enter through the front, not the rear. Also, there's that security camera out front; we need to make sure we leave a clue for the ZPD."

Barrow hadn't been certain he liked that part…but he liked even less the thought of what would happen if he were caught disobeying orders. In any event, it was a moot point, since he was only assisting in the operation. The polar bear known as One was the animal in charge; what he said, went.

Another thing he found curious was the target's relatively small size; the plans he'd studied had given the impression of a much bigger establishment than the one he was looking at now. At least it made some sense of the decision to send in only two operatives; it wouldn't take a full crew to send this place up in smoke, and too many large mammals inside would only get in each other's way.

Still…how was burning down a tiny place like this supposed to get the Red Pig's attention, especially when compared to their last target? Oh well, Barrow reasoned, his not to question why…

There was no one on the street when they exited the armored car…which was highly fortuitous. A passing mammal might have found it at least slightly odd that two guards were needed to service such a small establishment…and what were those heavy looking buckets for, the ones on the dollies they were wheeling? (It was the only tricky part of the op.)

When they got to the front door, nothing was visible inside, every window—and the front door—was covered by a roll-down steel shutter. No problem; they had come equipped with both a key-card and the access-code; a quick swipe, six digits entered, and the door shutter began to rise slowly upwards. Barrow reached for his keychain, but then remembered, and looked up briefly in the direction of the security camera before turning quickly away. The idea was to let it catch a glimpse of him, but not to get a good look…enough to identify his species, but not him. He opened the door and stepped inside, holding it open while One brought in the dollies with the accelerant and the infernal devices.

As soon as the other bear was inside, Barrow turned to re-lock the door again.

Before he could even insert the key, the shutter slammed back down again, falling with an ugly clunking sound and the decisive finality of a headsmammal's axe.

From behind, he heard One's angry snarl.

"Wha…? What'd you do THAT for?"

"I didn't…" Barrow protested, turning around…and at that instant, a beam of light shot out of the darkness and into his eyes, bleach-white, and harsh as ammonia.

Another beam followed, and another and another…until both bears were pinned in a blinding crossfire of illumination, unable to see anything behind a phalanx of LED lights. They heard the sound of safeties being snapped off, of rounds being jacked into chambers.

And then a voice called out from behind the glare; half a snort and half a squeal, dark, throaty, and rich with jolly menace.

"Surprise! Surprise!"