Judy hummed as she continued reading through the results pulled from the Interpol database. Sally and Angua had done their best in the short amount of time they had, but it was a frustratingly slow process. This was mainly due to the vague information they’d been able to get about their suspects. The security footage from the assault on Luther had been clear enough, but due to where the cameras had been located, they weren’t able to get a good angle for any facial recognition software.
However, the photographs taken by one of the rhino assault victims had given them a much clearer look at two of their suspects, if they were indeed the mammals they were looking for. She and Nick were now going through the database using the photos as reference, but trying to match the faces of the rhinos’ attackers was slow going. On the bright side, it had narrowed down things a little.
After some deliberation, the two detectives decided to focus their search on criminals in the database that originated from China and its territories, as it was unlikely they’d be from Korea or Japan. Judy brought up how racist that sounded, but Nick fired back that most giant pandas were born in China, and very few, relatively speaking, made their living in other parts of the world.
Judy pointed out there was a newscaster on ZNN who was a panda, but Nick simply asked her if she knew any others that weren’t the actor Jack Blackeye. Begrudgingly, she accepted the argument. Since pandas, in general, were a lot less numerous compared to the other mammals in the video, they focused their search in the database for pandas with known associates. Unfortunately, while pandas were relatively few in number in other parts of the world, Nick had correctly assumed that there would be plenty in China itself. Which meant there were quite a few to look into.
Judy took her eyes off the screen and glanced over at Nick, who was smiling serenely, yet still focused on the job. She rested her chin in her paw and watched him for a few minutes, a smile forming on her own face. After the news of his mother’s complete remission, Nick seemed a bit more relaxed and carefree. He had also been incredibly affectionate last night. Not that he wasn’t during their private time anyway, but there was a certain happiness that had been missing for a few months, and it had returned with vigour.
She looked around the MCU offices and surprisingly found it full. They had come in a little early to make up for getting the afternoon off to celebrate with Nick’s mother yesterday, and she’d been so engrossed in her work she hadn’t noticed anybody else come in. She checked the time and realised it was past noon already. As if on cue, her stomach made a tiny grumbling sound. Not many people would have been able to pick up on that, but Nick did, having become accustomed to the sound over the last year.
“Wanna head to lunch, Fluff?” he asked.
“I guess, but we got a lot of stuff to do.”
“How about I go grab us something so we can keep working?”
“Do you mind?” Judy asked, not wanting to force Nick to work through a break just because she wanted to get as much done as possible.
“Nah, I fancy a little walk anyway, if you can wait twenty minutes. Mind if I take a short one to the Snarlbucks a couple blocks over? Spinach, brie, and kale panini?” he asked, hopping off the desk.
“That’d hit the spot right now, yeah. Thanks, Slick,” she said, smiling all the while.
Nick gave her a quick peck on the cheek and headed for the door, holding it open for Detective Sally von Fledermaus, who struggled a little with doors due to her leathery wings. The bat hopped on over to Judy, a smile affixed to her face.
“Well now, you two seem to be in a very good mood today, especially Nick. Honestly Judy, I wish you’d introduce me to one of your brothers.”
“Why do you think every time Nick is in a good mood, it’s because of sex?” Judy rolled her eyes. She liked Sally, but the constant questions and jokes about her and Nick’s sex life got tiring after a while. Although in fairness, she did that with everybody, especially her partner Angua, a timber wolf who was in a long-term relationship with a highland bull, Detective Sergeant Carrot Ironpaw.
“Mainly cos it winds you up,” she admitted, grinning. If it had been anyone else, Judy would’ve considered kicking the grin off the offender’s face, but there was something just so personable and likeable about Sally. Aside from Nick, Judy found she got on with her the best in the whole department. Some of it might have been something to do with them being the two smallest mammals in the MCU, Nick being just a hair taller, so they faced a lot of similar hardships. Judy had been surprised at first that such a small mammal had been made part of the ZPD before her, as she had heard no mention of it while in training. Sally later revealed she had emigrated from Australia, her home country, only five years ago, and had already been a fully qualified detective. It seemed Zootopia was a smidge behind some other parts of the world in that regard.
“So, if not the obviously good times he shares with you at home, why are you both in such a good mood?” Sally asked.
“His mother got the all clear on her cancer.”
“Oh, now that is good news!” Sally said genuinely. “Is that why Vines let you guys have yesterday afternoon off?”
“Yep, we bumped into her at the hospital when she got her results. I asked for an extended lunch and we got the rest of the afternoon off.”
“Which explains why you want to work through lunch,” Sally replied, chuckling. “Never has to guilt you guys into overtime, does he?”
“Like he does with anyone…well, maybe Fred and Dobby on occasion,” said Judy.
“I don’t have rabbit ears, but I can still hear you, Hopps,” Fred Porklon said.
“Must have time to listen rather than work, Fred,” Judy shot back, watching the pig roll his eyes while smiling. Chuckling to herself, Judy spent another few minutes making small talk with Sally before returning to her work. Some time passed as she continued reading the profiles of criminals on her screen when her cell phone rang. She didn’t recognise the number but answered it anyway. “Hopps here.”
“Hey there. Judy, is that you?” the familiar voice of Nick’s friend Harold Westwood answered.
“Oh yeah, Harry,” she greeted. “Everything OK? Do you need Nick?”
“Well, I tried calling him, but I didn’t get an answer,” Harry replied. Judy, a smidge concerned, wondered why Nick hadn’t answered. She looked over to his side of the desk and saw his phone on the table. She quickly checked it and saw that he had left it on silent mode and had a missed call.
“Yeah, he’s out at the moment and left his phone here. Did he give you my number?” she asked.
“Yeah, said if I couldn't get hold of him that I could call you instead.”
“How’s Luther?” she asked, genuinely wanting to know how Nick’s friend was doing while trying not to be too irritated at Nick for giving her number out without telling her.
“He’s doing better. They said he can probably go home in another day or two, but he wanted me to call you because he remembered something.”
“Anything he can give us would really help at this point,” Judy admitted, trying not to sound exasperated. The searching of the Interpol database was an extremely tedious process.
“He said he remembered one of the mammals who attacked him being called Dragon a couple of times. His head is still a little fuzzy, so he can’t remember who it was directed at. But he does remember it being said.”
“Hmm, that might be helpful. How come he remembered?”
“He said the movie we were watching jogged his memory.”
“Oh. What movie?”
“OK…how? Pretty sure there’s no dragons in that, just Prowl Julia eating the scenery.”
“I dunno, do I look like an expert on concussions?” Harry responded.
“Fair enough,” Judy said, letting the sarcasm lie. “Might help, thanks, Harry. I’ll let Nick know how Luther’s doing.” She ended the call and stared at her computer screen silently. Deciding to test out the name, she refined her search by adding the word ‘dragon’ along with the species description and the assumed country of nationality. She hit search again, and after a few seconds, the search results came back.
Judy was a little stunned. After searching through numerous panda criminals under her less specific searches, she was damn near jubilant to find that there were less than six results. After scrolling through them, she came across one very familiar-looking panda who had the name Dragon as an alias…but nothing under an actual name. Finding that odd, she looked through the list of known associates and found the majority of them were either in custody or dead. All except for six other mammals.
Six mammals that matched their suspects exactly.
“YES!” Judy exclaimed, literally bouncing in her seat and causing the rest of the detectives to jump in turn. “Sorry, sorry!” she said, trying to calm herself. “Just got a big break in the case!”
“Is that so, Hopps?” Captain Vines said, coming out of his office with a stack of files he handed off to Carrot. “Must be a big one to scare half my staff.”
“Sorry sir, but I think I just found our mammals,” she informed, turning her computer screen slightly so Vines could see easier. As the wolf walked up to her, the main door to the MCU opened up and Nick entered, carrying a paper Snarlbucks bag along with two cups of steaming coffee. “Nick, get over here!” Judy shouted to her partner. When he joined her, she explained the phone call from Harry to him and her boss and then showed them the profiles.
“Says here they were all part of a Triad organisation in Hong Kong, the Jade Triad to be precise, which according to these files was broken up a few months ago by the Hong Kong police. They’re the higher-ups, and they all managed to escape.”
“Guess we know where to,” Nick said, reading through the files.
“And that is going to make things difficult,” Vines said, crossing his arms. “If these are the guys who took out one of Big’s guys, this could only be the beginning.”
“What do you mean, sir?”
“Hmm. Wilde, you’re what? 33? 34? Do you remember the news from about 25 years ago?”
“I was more interested in comic books and video games than current events at that age, sir,” said Nick.
“God, you mammals make me feel old,” Vines said, cracking his back as he did so. “I was a rookie detective back then, but it was around that time when Big started consolidating power in the criminal underworld.”
“I vaguely remembered my mom saying she was worried about something,” said Nick, his brow curling in concentration. “Like, didn’t the ZPD find a body in the docks or something?”
“That would have been Meyer Lambskin. He ran the Flock syndicate back in the day, pretty much had all the prostitution and insurance rackets in Savannah Central under his thumb.”
“Wait, I think read about him during academy training,” Judy cut in. “Didn’t he have some sort of deal with a corrupt priest?”
“Yeah, the Flock ran all the prostitution, including the…the kid stuff,” Vines revealed, struggling to hold back a growl, as any new parent would. Judy and Nick, meanwhile, both wore horrified expressions. “We think that’s why he got such a bad ending.”
“What do you mean, sir?” asked Nick.
“The only reason he was found was because some poor bloody salvage diver was looking for a shipping crate that fell off a cargo ship. Found the bastard with his feet encased in concrete, chicken wire encompassing the…well, corpse doesn’t really say much considering there was barely any flesh left on him. But the best part was the scuba tank.”
“So he was thrown in to sleep with the fishes, all cliché style, and someone tried to save him?” asked Judy
“We think someone threw him in to drown, as per spec, and the chicken wire was to stop the corpse floating to the surface. The scuba tank was an added bit of evil.”
“I get it, sir,” Nick said, a small amount of dread in his voice. “Think about it, Fluff. A mammal will typically start drowning within, what? A minute or two tops? Giving someone an hour’s air supply to think about what’s gonna happen…”
“Oh wow, that’s nasty,” Judy said, shuddering at the thought.
“And typical of Big,” Vines cut in. “Not that we could ever prove it, but that bit of extra suffering is so very like him. Although in Lambsky’s case, I can’t say he didn’t have it coming.” He shrugged.
“I still have a hard time seeing Fru Fru’s dad as someone so cruel,” Judy admitted.
“That’s because you’re still thinking of him as Fru Fru’s dad, Fluff, not the hardened crime boss you know he truly is,” Nick said.
“Hopps, I need to remind you of the delicate balance we have to keep with you on the case. I know you haven’t had contact with the Big family in over a year, but I can’t have you going soft on Big because his granddaughter is named after you.”
“Sir, aren’t we investigating the death of one of Big’s employees? Not him?” asked Judy, not bothering to hide her annoyance.
Vines was silent for a few seconds. “Hmm, point taken, Detective. Even veterans like myself have a hard time being impartial sometimes,” he said with a smile. Judy got the distinct feeling that she’d just passed some sort of test. She looked over to Nick, who gave her a quick nod. “I know you’re working through your lunch to make up for yesterday, but go take your lunch hour properly. At least get some fresh air. The files you showed me will still be there when you get back.” He strode back to his office.
“He’s got a point, babe. C’mon, your food and coffee are getting cold,” Nick said, gesturing with the Snarlbucks bag he’d been holding during their entire conversation. Before she could object, he made his way out of the office, meaning she had to follow him if she wanted the food.
Sly fox, she thought as she headed after him. They made their way out of the MCU offices and through the foyer, waving greetings to Clawhauser on their way out. Nick sat on a medium mammal-sized bench on the sidewalk outside the Precinct One entrance. After placing the food down, he patted the empty space next to him, prompting Judy to sit as well.
They ate in content silence and mammal-watched for a while, enjoying the fresh air and each other’s company. Suddenly, the wail of several sirens startled them, and they turned to see several squad cars tear around the corner of the building and out into the streets.
“C’mon Nick!” Judy yelled, dumping the remains of her hastily finished lunch into a nearby trash bin.
“Um, Fluff, where are you going?”
“Judy, we’re detectives, not beat officers or first responders anymore,” Nick said but smiled as he did so. His fiancée couldn’t help herself sometimes. “This has got to be, like, the fifth time I’ve had to remind you.”
“Shut up,” Judy huffed, puffing out her cheeks in exasperation.
“Alright, alright,” Nick had a free paw up in mock surrender as he downed the last of his lunch with the other. “Let's get back to our job instead of wondering about those guys going out to do theirs. If you want, we’ll see if Clawhauser can tell us what's going on.”
“Yeah, OK,” Judy answered. “Still, must be something big if that many patrol cars were responding.” She looked down the street that the vehicles had sped down before following her fiancé into the building, mildly worried.
One hour earlier...
“Guys! Guys! Master is awake!” Tran shouted, coming out of the open door to the Master’s bedroom. The rest of the group had been taking a break from discussing their next move by watching some terrible kung-fu movie on Petflix while Tran took watch. They all ran in a mad scramble to the Master’s room, the largest one in the penthouse. Dragon took the lead, causing Tran to fly upwards lest he get trampled by the squad of larger mammals, save Rogen, who was too small, and Tai, who took his time.
They all surrounded the huge bed that had been arranged for the Master. Indeed, the miniature panda was awake. He looked dishevelled and weak, but a small smile grew on his muzzle in reaction to seeing his loyal lieutenants around him. “Sorry to have worried you, my friends,” he croaked, his mouth dry and voice scratchy.
“Here, Master,” said Jo Li, bringing a glass of filtered water from the bedside to his lips. He nodded his thanks and took a few sips, waving a paw slowly when he had quenched his thirst.
“Thank you, Jo Li, always looking out for me as if you were my own dutiful daughter,” he wheezed. The way he spoke was tired, but she couldn’t help but detect something off about it.
“Still not dead then?” Tai asked, standing in the doorway with arms folded.
“Show some respect!” Dragon barked, turning on Tai, who to his dismay didn’t react.
“Leave him be, Dragon. My oldest lieutenant has earned himself some leeway. I may not always see eye to eye with him, but loyalty goes a long way where respect is due.”
Dragon stared at his Master agape. The amount of disrespect he was taking from Tai was ludicrous. Dragon turned back to Tai, expecting a look of smug satisfaction, but instead saw a look of suspicion on the leopard’s face.
The other members of the group fussed over the Master, who waved them away. “Thank you, my friends, your concern is appreciated. But please. I must discuss something with Dragon and Jo Li. Please leave us for a few minutes, will you?”
The various mammals exchanged odd looks. Dragon’s gaze fell on Tai again, who was looking straight at him. The leopard mouthed ‘good luck’ at him and left the room, shortly followed by Rogen, Tran, and Liu, who looked back at Jo Li with concern.
“Master?” Jo Li asked, edging closer to the bed once the door was closed.
“Both of you, please sit close to me. I fear my current condition has left me more tired than I thought,” the Master beckoned the lovers closer. They obliged, sitting on the bed together.
“I believe you two have something you need to tell me?” the Master asked, looking at both of them in turn. Dragon looked up at Jo Li, who shook her head. “Jo Li…” the Master said, a slight hint of menace in his voice. The tigress shuddered, something that Dragon had never seen her do before. True, he had not been with the Jade Triad as long as the others lieutenants, most of them having been street children taken in by the organisation at a young age. He was almost 18 when he came to their attention. However, that was almost a decade ago, and he had never seen Jo Li this…scared.
“Come now, child, I am not angry. Just disappointed that you thought you could hide it from me,” the Master chided, holding out his paw. Jo Li extended a finger as if she was poking a fire. When nothing happened other than a soft touch by the Master, she looked shocked, while Dragon…wasn’t sure what he had expected.
“It is only natural, after all. It has been a while since I last required your services. Or anyone for that matter.”
“What the fuck is going on?” Dragon finally said, not liking the words the old red panda had used at all.
“Ah yes, Dragon! My apologies, I forgot you were there for a moment,” the Master answered, releasing Jo Li’s fingers. “It is fine, you were not supposed to know.”
“Know what?” Dragon said, his voice turning harsh.
“Perhaps I should explain. You have not been with me for as long as the others, and you do not know my preferences. It’s something we share in common actually.”
“Will you just get to the point?” Dragon yelled, anger apparent in his voice. He knew he was being disrespectful, but he did not like the implications these words had. He was starting to feel he’d need to have a word with Tai and apologise to him very soon.
“Of course,” said the Master. “Jo Li is my child, you understand? Legally I mean. I adopted her and Tai when they were very young, trained them for this life. Why do you think that is?”
“I don’t know? Some sense of honour and charity?” Dragon guessed, not believing his own words. His head was throbbing, and he swore he heard Jo Li stifle a sob. He wished he could look up at her, but his attention had narrowed onto his Master.
“Hmm, there is some truth in what you say. But for all that, there was a cost. Food, clothing, education, it all adds up. I never asked for anything in return. of course. But, being such a dutiful pair, they did offer compensation for their father.”
“Jo Li?” Dragon asked, turning to his girlfriend. She looked away, ashamed. “What did you do to her and Tai?”
“I did nothing. She gave freely, as she did to you.”
“What are you...” Dragon started to say but stopped himself. He knew exactly what he was talking about.
“Indeed. I say this not to hurt you, Dragon, but to let you know that she is mine first, yours second.”
A beat of silence.
“...She was a cub,” said Dragon, the words coming out through gritted teeth.
“We all have our preferences. I am a big fan of felines, but alas, most are far too large for me to enjoy sexually. Children, on the other hand…”
“Why on Earth are you telling me this?” Dragon asked, his rage temporarily overwritten by confusion.
“So that you know where your place is, whelp,” the Master scolded. “I would not have minded if you had told me your feelings, and I would have given you my blessing if you were honest. However, you hid this from me. Perhaps in my younger days, I would have simply thrashed you stupid for doing me such a disservice. You and her. However, knowing that I had her first will do more to remind you of where your place is than any kind of beating.”
Dragon turned back to Jo Li, who had finally looked back at him. Her eyes were wet from silent tears, sadness and anger leaving their mark in them. He’d seen that she’d been hurt, and knew that she was incredibly loyal to her Master. He thought it was due to the hard life she had lived. And it was true, yet in a way, he couldn’t have imagined.
His mind turned back to their meeting with the shrew mob boss, Big. Only the Master had met with him, and when both exited the room, they were both furious. Quietly so, but the look on their faces was unmistakable. The Master had said it was because they had come to a ludicrous impasse. He’d gone on and on for days about how ‘Big was letting outdated morals get in the way of a profitable business. Transport cost and the risk were high, but the profit was enormous for such young cargo, and it would see the Jade Triad back to its original financial stability within months if handled properly.’
Young cargo. He’d thought the way the Master had put it was odd at the time, but Dragon didn’t question it. He’d assumed they were working out some sort of drug deal with some of the few contacts they had back home. And perhaps that was right. Hong Kong was practically littered with unwanted children in some parts of the city, but he’d never seen the Master or the Jade Triad take part in such a business…at least, in the relatively short years he’d been with them. Obviously, the risk had outpaced the reward by then.
“I see that this has come as something of a revelation to you,” the Master said, bringing Dragon out of his dark thoughts. “Go. Take Jo Li with my blessing. Consider her a gift.”
That tore it for Dragon. The thought of this cub-fucker treating her like some sort of reward? Like some payment for services rendered? That destroyed the last vestiges of respect he had for the Master in him. He wanted to break something, throw up, and cry at the same time.
The first option won out.
Faster than he realised, he thrust out a huge paw and grabbed the smaller panda’s neck. He felt so much smaller than he had imagined. For years, he had seen the Master as some sort of indestructible force, but he was so light. And brittle.
The Master tried to say something. Dragon barely heard a “What do you think yo…” before increasing the pressure on his neck. Dragon brought his other paw down on the Master’s head, gripping it so hard it caused the old mammal to cry out. In one quick motion, Dragon pulled and twisted.
The sound of the Master’s neck snapping was barely perceptible.
Dragon let go of the body and it flopped to one side. The pounding in his head was gone, but it was replaced by a pounding in his chest as his heart beat faster than he had ever felt it before. As it slowed, he finally remembered that he wasn't alone in the room and turned to the woman he loved. He was very conscious that he’d just killed the closest thing she had to a father in her life. Fully prepared to have his eyes clawed out at the very least, he looked at her.
So when she planted a passionate kiss on his lips, he was very surprised.
After what seemed like minutes, she relented and looked him in the eyes. There was sadness there, yes, but the majority of his vision was filled with eyes of pure love. She laughed a little, obviously enjoying his confusion, but she stopped and just stared with a relieved smile on her face. More minutes passed as they gazed at each other. It was like two teenagers who had just shared their first kiss, if not for the corpse between them.
Jo Li cleared her throat and nodded to the body. “I guess we should tell…” she started to say. Before she could finish, there was a huge roar from the other side of the door, followed by two loud booms and the sound of breaking wood. Alarmed, they both launched out of the room just in time to see the rest of their group scrambling out of their seats, all of them looking at where the entrance to the penthouse used to be.
Standing there, holding a huge shotgun and flanked by four white hares holding pistols, stood a very angry polar bear.
“THIS IS FOR MY BROTHER YOU BASTARDS!” Raymond yelled before opening fire.