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Guardian Blue: Season 3

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Guardian Blue: Season Three

Episode 8:  Darkness

 

 

A great white wall towered over Judy literally to the low-wandering post rain shower clouds that buffeted up against it.  They were pushed off to the right as was typical for air flow at that point.  This iconic cliff was at the edge of what had been the original mountainside quarry used to build much of Zootopia itself.  The two officers had been dropped off by their Zuber driver outside a tunnel that lead into the mountain. To prevent the buildup of harmful gases, only electric vehicles were allowed to go inside.  This was the tunnel that provided access to one of the most unique parts of all of Zootopia.

 

This was the Nocturnal District.

 

The mammals who lived here took to a darker area to make it so that they did not upset their natural circadian rhythms while still interacting with the diurnal population of Zootopia.  There was a massive natural cave system that had been expanded, enlarged, and carefully reinforced to create an entire fairly large suburb of Zootopia just outside the city proper.  Judy had been here only once, during her original tour of the full city in her early days at the ZPD.  She never had cause to go back.  The mammals here often kept to themselves, really.  This was the only place Judy knew there to be bats in the city, so she was pretty sure that’s why she was there.

 

“Have you… been here much?” she pressed her partner as he led her over to the electric trolley stop just outside the tunnel.

 

“In my less ethical days, yes,” Nick replied, hooking his tail absent-mindedly behind Judy’s legs.  There was no one else there, so she didn’t bother chasing that fluffy appendage away.

 

“Should I even ask?” the bunny murmured cautiously.

 

“It was when I worked for Mr. Big,” he replied evenly.  Judy had suspected as much.  “Nothing that insidious, I promise.  I ran packages back and forth, and my excellent night vision and less… conspicuous… species made me a natural choice for the task.”

 

“What were you delivering?” Judy pried.  She was his wife.  She could ask these things now, right?  Was that okay?  It had to be okay.  She bet he’d tell his mom if Viv offered him the same question.

 

The fox answered casually enough.  “To my understanding, it was legitimate business, save for licensing restrictions.  Declared commerce, taxes, that sort of thing.  The things themselves were not supposed to be illegal, but it’s not like I helped myself to the contents of the boxes or anything, so I can’t make much of a promise there.”

 

“And this bat… Do you know her?” Judy further questioned.  She didn’t want to give the impression that she was judging his past deeds.  Those were in the past.  What they were doing now was much more important to her.

 

“Rosa McCloud,” Nick responded, paws in his pockets as they waited.  He flicked his ears.  It was getting windier again.  Some more rain might be moving in.  It wouldn’t affect the officers where they were going, however.

 

“You figured it out from… from just the description you got?” the doe inquired.

 

“Kris said she had her toenails painted her favorite color.  When we met that little otter, she had a flower brooch thing… it was pink.”  Judy tried to think back.  How could he remember that?  She seemed to recall she had something behind her ear.  Nick continued.  “I felt that was probably her favorite color, and I know exactly one bat, and that bat painted her toenails pink.  It’s really bright and eye-grabbing on a solid black mammal, I assure you.”

 

“Do you think she might be involved?” Judy verbally pondered.

 

“I hope not, because if she is, our coyote friend might also be involved, and he might be missing because he knows we’re on to him.  That won’t make him easy to find.”

 

“Well… heck…” Judy sighed.  “You know where to look for her?”

 

Nick responded, shrugging.  “Here, for one.  There’s not a lot of reasons for her to have been anywhere else unless she was involved at least indirectly.  She might have been a lookout, or she might have been there because of someone else.  But there’s only one way to find out.  And… so we are both prepared, she’s not the trusting sort when it comes to badges.  So this will be a rather tense reunion.”

 

“Were you… friends?” Judy pried gently.  She hadn’t discussed it much, but she was pretty sure her partner lost a few friendships moving to her side of the street.

 

“Acquaintances,” the fox responded, “I didn’t keep a lot of friends, Fluff.  Mammals in my line of work were not typically given to honest discourse, and a real friendship doesn’t function without honesty.  Business partners were bountiful, but friends were a rare commodity.”  Judy gazed down at her feet as she listened to her fox.  

 

She was sad that he didn’t have a lot of friends back then.  It was, in her opinion, when he probably needed them the most, but she could understand why it was better to keep ones distance if the folks he primarily dealt with were more likely to be untrustworthy.  One should be able to trust ones friends.  The soft dinging of the trolley caught the bunny’s ear and she looked up to see a bright green light in the tunnel on the left.  It would exit, turn across the road, and head back to pick them up and drop others off.

 

“Do you think she might be dangerous?” Judy asked.  She hadn’t given much thought to having to take down a bat suspect.  What could the bunny really do if Rosa fled?  Neither officer could fly.  A bat wasn’t much larger than Finnick, however, so she couldn’t imagine that she would prove too much of a struggle if they snagged her before she took flight.

 

“I promise you she can be.” Nick stated darkly.  “She usually has a pair of throwing knives and she’s never been afraid to use them.”

 

“Wait, really?” the bunny hissed, her ears popping up high.

 

“Really,” Nick informed.  “I don’t think she’d be dumb enough to attempt to attack a ZPD officer, but I have no idea what she’s into these days.  If she’s worried about going away for a while, she might get desperate.”  

 

“Thanks for the heads up,” the bunny offered anxiously.  Great.  A flying, knife-throwing suspect.  That got more serious than she had expected.  The trolley came back around finally and clanked to a stop.  The officers hopped on and remained standing, holding the railing along the side.  The trip itself was mostly quiet, aside from Nick pointing out a few key places.  The public service areas were right near the entrance, and that included their court building, assistance offices, and all of that.  It was a pretty narrow-looking tunnel with a single line of buildings on either side.

 

There were only two other mammals on that trolley when they got on, a pair of opossums, so they didn’t have to stop anywhere else as the vehicle lumbered with its soft pinging through the dark tunnel.  It was very much like night there, with street lamps and lights on everywhere.  The soft breeze pulled through the tunnel by massive ventilation fans made it feel more like it was just any other borough, just at night.

 

As they went past the public services section, they finally made it into the town proper.  It was a massive dome cut out of the mountain from what had been, even before that, an already huge and primarily dome-shaped cave.  Rows and rows of neatly arranged little houses lined the bottom of the hill the little trolley slowly descended.  This made it appear very much like a little suburb, and that was only accented further by the tiny lights in the ceiling of the cave that passed for stars.  The lights were even arranged like familiar constellations.  There was a projection of the moon high in the ‘sky’ as well.  A lot of care went to the comfort of their nocturnal neighbors here.

 

There were, of course, no natural trees, but Judy was happy to see many lovingly tended mushroom gardens.  Several glowing varieties were very popular.  It distracted from how otherwise barren the area might look.  Here and there, artificial trees had been placed which gave the streets a more natural feel.  One area, though Judy couldn’t see it well, featured a park that appeared to have many of those convincing trees and lovely pathways wandering through them.  The doe was sure that there were other artificial plants here and there, as needed for whatever beautification needs anyone had.

 

The trolley made it about a quarter of the way into the nearly three mile wide little suburb, just beyond an stereotypical little strip mall, before Nick pulled the little cord that let the driver of the trolley know that he wanted off.  This was just outside of a small apartment complex that was obviously made of the same stone that had been on the cliff face outside.  It was likely apart of the original accommodation in this place.  

 

As such, it was not particularly lovely.  It was run down and about as ‘rich’ as much of what she’d seen in Happy Town.  

 

“Do many foxes live here?” she asked her partner as he stepped off the trolley.

 

“A few, but while we might be fine for being out and about at night, we’re very highly adaptable and tend to like day time just fine if we have opportunities in the day,” he explained.  “Except mornings.  No sane mammal likes mornings,” he added.

 

“I love mornings,” Judy responded, ears falling.

 

“And here’s where I offer no retraction, Carrots,” her partner chuckled.  “Oh… speaking of foxes,” he whispered.

 

A lady red fox stepped past them down the sidewalk pushing a stroller.  Seeing her reminded Judy so much of the second time she saw Nick.  She was even wearing a green shirt, though it was just plain green.  The bunny was ready to write off the entire coincidence, but the vixen spoke up.

 

“Nicky?  Wait… Nicky?!” she gasped.  Judy’s partner grinned and flitted his tail side to side.  Judy stopped and gawked a moment.  Sometimes it seemed he really did know everybody.

 

“Hey, Maya.  Long time no see!” he chimed.

 

“You bet yer tail it’s been… what… Two years now?  More?” she qualified.

 

“Longer, I’d bet,” the fox corrected.

 

“Why you ain’t never came back?” she asked, leaning on the handle of her baby carriage.  Judy stepped closer, seeing that it contained one tiny red fox kit.  Probably a boy based on the blue mammoth print onesie.  This kit couldn’t be more than about eight months.

 

“I stopped working for the employer that had me down here,” Nick admitted.  “Looks like you finally found some good company though,” Nick nodded down to the kit.

 

“Coulda been you, if you’d have stuck around,” Maya teased.  Judy immediately tensed up.  She knew she had no reason for jealousy, but it was strange seeing someone openly flirt with her mate.

 

“A lofty advertisement, given we never dated,” Nick stated flatly, perhaps to immediately dispel any anxiousness in the bunny.  He sounded smug about it, however.  He didn’t mind being flirted with, at least.

 

“Because you couldn’t never see past your next job, Nicky,” she huffed.  “But no, I’m doin’ alright.  You here to see Erin?” she queried.  Judy’s ears dropped.  Who was Erin?  There was just so much she didn’t ask about when it came to his old life.

 

“Here on business, actually.  Gotta check out a lead on a case I’m working,” he explained.  Judy relaxed again.  That was an innocuous enough way to put it.

 

“You ain’t gonna find a lot of folks who wanna talk to you.  It’d’ve been one thing if you got the badge and was quiet about it, but I think you’d have to ‘ave been deeper underground than all this to miss what you been doin’ these past few months,” she snickered jovially.  “I don’t know whether to thump your ear for goin’ and becoming a cop or pester ya’ll for autographs!”

 

Judy laughed uncomfortably at that, and her husband changed the subject.  “What’s this little guy’s name?” he crooned, leaning down to see in the stroller.  Nick gave a big smile to greet the kit.

 

“Nick,” the vixen answered, making the bunny tense up again.  “Hah!  No relation.  Tyr’s dad’s name is Nick, too.” she giggled, surely not missing Judy’s partner’s distressed expression at all.  

 

“Tyr… what, Devon’s brother?” the fox asked.  Judy pulled her ears in front of her tightly.  He came down here only a little while, how had he been so involved?

 

“The same.  I had surgery a while back and he helped me when I was laid up, so we got closer and… and we just never looked back!” she chirped.  

 

“Well, I’m glad to see you’re doing alright, and might catch you around.  I don’t get to come down here much, but I’ll check in and say hi if I am,” he nodded.  Judy nodded also, making sure that Nick knew that he was allowed to be social.  She worried that she crowded him sometimes.  She was a bunny.  Bunnies stay close.  She was aware that wasn’t as much a fox thing, though he’d told her more than once that he didn’t mind.

 

The vixen laughed, and then gasped, regarding the bunny she’d not said a word to. “I’m sorry, I didn’t even introduce myself, ‘cause I already know who you are!  Gracious me.”  She took Judy’s paw lightly and gave it a bounce.  “Maya, I knew Nicky when he was a delivery guy.”

 

“I’m Judy, his partner,” the bunny greeted.  She usually just left it at partner because it held plenty of double-meaning.

 

“I know.  Keep this fox out of trouble!” she demanded, and then giggled again, rolling her kit away.

 

“I honestly didn’t picture her doing the mom thing,” Nick explained.

 

“Why’s that?” Judy asked as she fell into step beside him as he entered the apartment complex.

 

“Well, if I know someone here, I can promise it wasn’t because they were squeaky clean and innocent,” Nick chuckled.  Judy frowned at that.  Maybe that vixen cleaned up though.  She seemed nice enough.  It was odd considering that perhaps he could have even dated her, or anyone, and maybe that would have changed his path completely.  Maybe he’d not have been there to help her with their first case together.  Things would have played out so differently.  She might not even be a cop.

 

She was pulled from her quiet contemplation as they approached a staircase that went to a second floor apartment.

 

Judy tapped on the door lightly.  She knew enough about bats to know that banging on their door loudly would not delight them at all.  There was a rustle inside.

 

“Fricken frick, just a moment!  Gah!  Always when I’m eating!”  The female voice did sound a bit muffled, as if by food.  Judy stood back as the door opened, and found a bat, upside down, up over her head in the doorway.  Nick stepped behind Judy to make it harder to just swoop out the door, if that was Rosa’s immediate intent.  Nick would easily be able to just grab her.

 

“What?  Oh.  What the heck do ya’ll want?” the bat grumbled with no real noticeable Interiors accent.  She didn’t sound worried like Judy was aware someone usually did if they had the cops at their door when they were doing something wrong.  She sounded much more like Judy and Nick being there was a colossal inconvenience to her.  

 

This mammal was about Finnick’s size, maybe just a little taller, but her ears were also pretty big.  She had a short little muzzle and dark, beady eyes.  She wore a black spandex-type shirt that tucked in to similar material pants.  Something like that was probably very useful for bats so it didn’t just fly up all over them while they were swooping about.  It made sense that they would wear something form-fitting and snug.  As advertised, her long, curved toenails were indeed bright pink.  Judy agreed that, particularly on black batty toes, it was nearly the pinkest thing she’d ever seen.  Of course Nick would have remembered that.  

 

“Remember me?” Nick grinned.  The fox was obviously trying to be non-threatening.

 

“Well, shit,” the lady bat swore.  “Yeah, but whaddaya want with me?  I’m busy.”

 

“We had a couple of questions to ask, if you would please,” Judy spoke softly.  She found that she got more cooperation if she didn’t make it seem forced.  The bat could help them with something, and maybe they could help the bat with something.  That’s how they got the best info, most of the time.

 

Rosa grumbled.  “I got nothing to talk about.  And whatever he thinks he knows about me, he don’t know nothin’.”  Judy’s nose wiggled.  A brick wall right off the starting line.

 

The fox spoke calmly.  “It’s just a moment of your time, and then we’ll head back to where we came from, but it’s really important.”

 

“It’s about the dumb gas station, ain’t it?” she sighed, closing her wings in front of her tighter.  The posture reminded Judy of the arms-crossed position mammals often took when they were hiding something.  Nick had taught her to watch for it.  Her response had also been immediately suspicious.

 

“Which gas station might you be referring to?” Judy returned.  Rosa volunteered that last bit and the bunny was quite surprised that she had.

 

Rosa wrapped her wings righter around herself.  Her arms were so slender, Judy observed.  It seemed as if she’d be very brittle in a fall or something.  Flying was terrifying to the bunny even with metal airplane wings.  The bat spoke in a softer tone.  “Yeah, I saw ya’ll show up after I left there the other day.  I ain’t got nothin’ to do with what’s goin’ on there, okay?  I don’t even know what’s there.  I was just outside, waitin’ on someone.  I ain’t involved, and you got no reason to implicate me for just hanging out near a place.  Outside the place ain’t doin’ whatever it was they was doin’ there so leave me out of it, fox.”  Judy dropped her ears, unable to mask her immediate irritation with the tone Rosa had used, suggesting ‘fox’ was some kind of dig.

 

“Were you waiting on a coyote?” asked the fox patiently.

 

“Why?” she replied hastily.  “You find ‘im?”  She sounded suddenly anxious.  That distracted Judy from her irritation.

 

Nick stood quiet just a moment, observing Rosa.  Her eyes were very wide.  She sounded super intense suddenly. Even Judy could see her hug her wings around her ever tighter.

 

The ‘fox’ finally replied.  “No.  We haven’t. And I am honestly a little concerned about him.”

 

“What you care?” she pushed. “You left us dirty things in the dirt, and raised yourself up real high and mighty!”  She spread her wings out, which made her seem considerably larger for some reason.  “Taggin’ along with this bunny doing the do-gooder duty doo-dee-doo.”  She sneered, showing lots of very sharp little teeth.  When she spread her wings, Judy didn’t see any obvious knives.

 

Nick didn’t try to defend his choices, of course.  The few times it ever came up while doing arrests and the like, he never did.  He said it didn’t need defending.  He spoke calmly.  “I do care, actually.  See, Mike’s been helping a lady run a bakery and she’s worried about him too.  I don’t know what he has to do with the stuff going on there, if anything, but we’ve been trying to find him to make sure he’s okay because he’s up and disappeared on us.”

 

Judy crossed her own arms, considering Nick’s wording.  That was a far better angle to play.  If that bat was involved, she likely wouldn’t admit it.  But if Mike was in trouble, it might be something she’d be more willing to talk about, and Mike would be more in the know about that kind of case than most, and much more likely to cooperate.  Finding Mike was a better shot.

 

“I… Okay…”  Rosa sounded conflicted a moment.  “Okay, so… I don’t know if Mike’s got anything to do with that place, but I was there because I was concerned too.  Not about what he’s got going on.  That shit’s always lowbie bootleg and petty stuff, you know him.  You know him, Nick.  He ain’t no criminal mastermind.  He’s just… just…”  She was apparently at a loss for words, fidgeting.  

 

“Trying to get by,” Judy offered.  The bat tilted her head curiously, which appeared far weirder with her upside down.  Judy glanced in the apartment enough to see there were little rails on the ceiling everywhere.  She could just… step around upside down all over the apartment.  There were shelves hanging down from the ceiling with things in them, and a small hanging glass table that resembled something like a round, lightless chandelier.

 

“Yeah, I… I guess.  Yeah.  You get it.  So… I don’t want him thinkin’ I told you he was involved in anything, I just thought that was a good place to find him.  I needed to find him,” said Rosa cautiously.

 

Nick took a dep breath and then spoke slowly and clearly.  “Okay, so, listen… I have no evidence that puts you with anyone or anything inside that gas station, Rosa.  You don’t have to worry about that right now.  That is a separate investigation from our missing coyote.  If he’s involved in that, that’s his problem, but if he’s in trouble, I’ll bet it’s more than getting blamed for knowing about bootlegged goods,” the fox expressed.  “If you want to help him, talk to me about it.”

 

Rosa was for a moment hesitant, but finally spoke.

 

“Cherry,” she stated almost too soft to hear.

 

“What?” Nick asked.  Judy wasn’t sure if it was just because he hadn’t heard her, or if he didn’t understand.

 

“Cherry’s out,” the bat responded a little louder.

 

“Oh… Uh oh…”  Nick flattened his ears.  “And she… was looking for him?” qualified the fox.

 

“Oh yeah,” murmured Rosa darkly.

 

“Cherry… Why do I recognize that name?” Judy inquired, rubbing her chin.

 

“His ex-girlfriend,” Nick reminded.

 

“Oh!  That’s right!” Judy said, patting her paws together.  “Oh wait… She was the…”  The bunny halted.  She didn’t want to start a rumor or something.

 

“The ‘not stable’ one, yes,” Nick replied to confirm that the bat obviously already knew.

 

“And you think… he might be in trouble because she’s out?  Where was she?” pried the doe.

 

“Hospital.  Has been for over a year, but she slipped out during a fire drill,” explained Rosa.

 

The bunny cringed.  “Oh… that’s not good.  What would she… do… if she found him?” asked the smaller officer.

 

“I ain’t got the vocabulary to express what awful things that coyote’s gonna go through if she gets him,” the upside down lady bat stated with worry.

 

“Did he do something to upset her?” Judy inferred.

 

“Left her and their twin cubs.  She even says one of them died because of it,” the bat deadpanned.  Judy flinched hard.  Mike did what?!  He was irresponsible, but that… that…

 

“Oh my God, that’s terrible!” cried the bunny.  Judy was immediately uncomfortable even allowing him to make deliveries for Viv!

 

“Especially since she never even had cubs,” Nick explained in a measured tone.  “Not from Mike, or anyone else.”  Judy put her paws limply at her sides.

 

“What?” she took a turn at deadpanning.

 

“They were plush toys,” Rosa sighed sadly.  “No one’s got the guts to say otherwise to Cherry, of course.  She’s hopelessly violent and a behemoth of a wolf-girl to boot.  I was her roommate when she started that stuff with the cubs.  I think she was tryin’ to keep other girls away from her ‘yote, but he found out she was tellin’ all kinds of mammals they had cubs and he bolted.  I don’t know what happened to the yellow plush that went ‘missing’, but I feel dang sorry for it.  Cherry went into a full on rage.  Wrecked the place she was stayin’ with Mike.”

 

“I wasn’t aware that Cherry had been committed,” Nick stated in a worried tone.

 

“Yeah, she got hauled in because she attacked an orderly at the hospital ‘cause she said her friend Jules told her Mike was hidin’ out there.  He hurt his back runnin’ from the cops or somethin’.  She got darted like… four times, I heard.”

 

“That would be unsafe,” Judy clarified.

 

“But I bet it would still have been necessary,” Nick reaffirmed.  Judy’s nose went for a wiggle.  How big a wolf was this actually supposed to be?

 

“So… do you think she actually went after him when she got out?” Judy pressed.  

 

“I know she did.  She kicked my door in looking for him last week,” Rosa explained anxiously.  She pointed out the fresh carpentry in her doorframe as evidence.  Judy cringed.  This was a very troubling development.  She assumed that the coyote might have been hiding because he knew he was in legal trouble, or the folks that were running that cheese operation were mad at him when it got seized.  If there was a psychotic wolf out there that thought Mike was even indirectly responsible for the death of her cub, real or not, his life could actually be in danger.

 

“Do you know where Mike might be living right now?” Nick inquired quietly.  “I’m a lot more concerned about that coyote with this new bit of info.”  Rosa gazed down, which was actually up, ears twitching all around, as if trying to figure out if anyone else was in ear-shot.  

 

“Yeah,” she finally answered.  “You can’t tell him I told you, but I would be more comfortable… knowing someone’s looking after him.  I… We ain’t been great friends, you know, but if she gets to him before you guys do, she’s gonna probably get more than a hospital stay this time.  She’s not so bad when she’s getting help… Cherry I mean.  She’s not.  But she won’t listen to anyone, and now… I’m scared of her.  Please don’t let her know I had anything to do with you guys.”  

 

“Mum’s the word,” Nick stated calmly. “So where can we find the coyote?”

 

The bat thought quietly just slightly longer, and finally answered.  “I checked there last week and also yesterday… and I didn’t see him, but I know he’s been staying at the Grand Pangolin Arms Apartments… I don’t know what actual apartment.”

 

“Those apartments were condemned,” Judy responded in an anxious tone.  Were they being lied to?  She had a reason to know that no one lived there anymore, but if she had not been a tenant, she might otherwise have had no idea.

 

“No one’s supposed to live there, no,” the bat replied.

 

“Ah… I gotcha,” Judy returned.  He was squatting.  That was pretty common when places got closed down, but that would have been a pretty short squat.  Those apartments were scheduled to be torn down in a few months.

 

The fox nodded to Judy, implying that he believed her.  “Alright, thank you for your help.  As discussed, your involvement will be off the radar,” Nick promised.  

 

“Be careful, you two,” Rosa replied, appearing anxious.  “Even Koslov is terrified of Cherry.”  Fox and bunny both cringed and nodded.

 

“Duly noted,” Nick sighed.

 

With that, they left the eternal night time apartment of Rosa the bat, and walked back over to where the trolley met them on its return trip only a few minutes later.  During the ride back, Nick had a report sent to him on his ZPD Comms app on his phone.  He reviewed the case history for Cherry, and sounded surprised at some of the things she was supposed to have done, much of it even before he’d met her.

 

“I had no idea she was this…” he started.

 

“Dangerous?” the bunny offered.

 

“No,” he replied.  “I was unaware that she was this far separated from reality.  She pretended to be a firefighter a couple of years ago and rescued six children from a burning building.”  He spoke softly as he scrolled down.  There were a couple of raccoons and another opossum on the trolley near the front.

 

“That sounds… Well, that actually sounds redeeming, Nick,” the bunny commented.

 

“Ask me if there was actually a fire, Carrots,” Nick pressed.

 

“Oh… Sweet cheese and crackers,” the bunny pulled her ears back.

 

“There was not a fire,” Nick offered despite Judy not even needing to ask.

 

He looked through a few other incidents involving Cherry, and found one that involved Rosa as well.  The bat had been present when she tackled a jogging deer and told him he was ‘it’.  The bat apologized to him and gave him five bucks not to say anything about it.  He reported it anyway.  The impression that Nick got from this was that Rosa was trying to help Cherry while they were associated and kept her out of trouble.  It was likely why the wolf was off their radar until Mike left her.  The image in her file made it clear that Rosa had not been kidding.  She was a massive white wolf with bright gold eyes, but her build could be best described as ‘above ground storm shelter’.  The bunny hoped that they did not have to deal with her.

 

While nick was looking at the data on their possible suspect for the missing coyote, the bunny called to set up their Zuber.  They didn’t really have time to waste.  Judy looked forward to getting their patrol car back.  Eventually, they were back outside by that massive white cliff, and still had to wait for just a little while.  Back outside, it was easy to remember why nocturnal mammals were nocturnal. The sun had come out and it was uncomfortably hot again.  She didn’t even want to think of what kind of day it likely was in Sahara Square.

 

They soon caught their Zuber and headed out to the edge of Savana Central, the site of the bunny’s former apartments.  She gazed up at the much sadder, dirtier-looking building.  Many of the lower floor windows were boarded up, and there was a heavy iron gate on the front door.  There were signs posted to warn away trespassers.  Judy recalled how much her life changed when these apartments were condemned.  She ended up living with Nick, and being so close to him made it far easier to realize that she’d fallen in love.  

 

“The gate’s locked… so I don’t know how anyone would be getting in to squat,” the bunny mentioned, pulling at the chained gate.  The heavy padlock was still very much intact.

 

Nick grinned.  “If I were a mammal accustomed to not having a permanent address, which I no longer am, I would suggest checking the fire escape on the west side of the building.”  Judy glanced in that direction, then out at the road.  The placement of cross traffic at the corner the building sat on made it so the east side was visible to approaching cars, but the nearby adjacent apartment on the other side obscured the west alleyway pretty securely.  Even though she’d gained a great deal of experience with her partner, it felt like she learned something new each and every day.  

 

Nodding, Judy followed him, and they walked to the alleyway quickly, not wanting to give a lot of time for anyone who might be inside to be tipped off and flee.

 

Judy scanned the fire escape and saw that all of them were pulled up.  “You know, we should have asked if your bat friend actually told Cherry where Mike was when she kicked her door in...”

 

“I get the feeling that Rosa would have felt like she were directly murdering him, honestly,” Nick responded.  “She’d not have been looking for Mike yesterday if she told Cherry where he was last week.”  

 

Judy gave a sizable hop from the alleyway to the top of a dumpster, and an impressive leap from there to the retracted ladder of the fire escape.  And then she just dangled there.  The bunny sighed softly and glanced down to her partner who just stood there innocently looking up at her, tail swinging slowly side to side in that resting fox mode fashion.  Judy glared.

 

“Do I really have to ask?” she huffed.  Nick scrambled up onto the dumpster with a grin and just swung around to hold the other side of the ladder and climb up a few rungs so she was kind of out of the way.  Nick gave a decent enough leap himself, showing his leg was doing just fine, and caught the bottom rung. It clanked slowly down as it was designed to do.  Nick grinned as he pulled Judy down to his level, as she was higher on the ladder and leaned in between the rungs and kissed her grumpy little bunny nose.

 

Well, a coyote could have gotten up the same way, Judy felt.  That wasn’t an impossibility.

 

Judy and Nick both went up the fire escape and tested one window after the next, trying to find one that seemed like it had been broken.  Nick tested them to see if any of them opened.  While he did that, Judy called in their location and their disposition.  If there were alarms in the building, they might end up setting them off inadvertently, and they wanted to make sure that it was known they were attempting to enter the building.

 

“This one.  This is it,” Nick stated in a hushed tone.  

 

“It’s still locked,” Judy observed, pointing at the latch inside the window.  

 

“There’s no dust and debris on the sill,” Nick pointed out.  He pulled the window open, despite the latch being engaged.

 

“Oh…  It looked locked,” the bunny noted.

 

“It’s been broken.  It might have been locked, but it’s able to be opened now,” the fox pointed out quietly.  “It’s probably gonna be dark in the halls, so you know the drill,” he said with a smug grin.

 

“That I do,” Judy laughed.  He hopped into the empty room, his paws making a slightly echoing thump as he stood beside a cold radiator.  The little apartment was almost exactly like Judy’s, the same paw-print motif on the walls and everything.  There was even a bed, though a mattress was not present.

 

They went over to the door to the apartment and left it, heading into the hall.  Judy did as Nick had implied.  She slipped her paw into the plush joy that was his tail and held it so that, at least until her eyes adjusted more, she could be led through the dark hallway.  

 

“Listen for movement,” the fox whispered.  “I don’t see any doors open. Gonna be a pain to search this place top to bottom.”

 

“There’s a lot of rooms in this place.” Judy explained.

 

“Where are the most expensive ones?” the fox queried.  

 

“The penthouse, obviously,” the doe replied.

 

“That’s where we’re going.  You know how Mike is.  He’ll pretend he owns the place,” the vulpine officer suggested. Judy nodded in the dark hallway.  

 

“That would make sense, yes.”

 

“Claw marks,” Nick observed as he reached the door to the stairwell.  Judy paused, but couldn’t see them.  Her eyes were still adjusting.

 

“Coyote, maybe?” she asked.

 

“That would be a big coyote paw,” Nick said darkly.  Judy switched paws, holding Nick’s tail with her left hand and her tranquilizer pistol with her other.  She gave the fox’s tail a tug to let him know she was ready, considering again that it would have been outrageous for her to do this if they were not mates.

 

Nick carefully opened the door to the stairwell, and slowly they ascended the stairs.  The knowledge that a large mammal had clawed the door did not put the bunny at ease, and the darkness in the stairwell was so black that even Nick had to resort to taking his phone out and using the flashlight on it.  It might spoil their element of surprise, but both officers were aware that if Mike were scared of someone coming to get him, he might very well have put booby traps in the stairwells.

 

Fortunately, that did not appear to be the case, but there were two more locations along the walls where there were obvious deep claw marks.  It was so ominous.  It reminded the doe of her first case with Nick, not knowing if there was a savage mammal lurking in the shadows.  This place was nearly as scary as that hospital, and had that ancient, forbidden feel to it even though the bunny used to actually live in this place.  It was populated with plenty of mammals less than a year before.

 

Nick broke the painful silence.  “This is as high as the stairwell goes, I guess… and more claw marks,” the fox pointed out.  Judy felt a wave of anxiousness.  

 

“They look fresh,” she mentioned.

 

“This reminds me… so much…” Nick began softly,

 

“The hospital, yeah…”

 

“Just waiting for a crazed tiger to scare me outta my fur again,” Nick huffed, shaking his head.  

 

“We left that back in Bogo’s old office,” Judy returned with a grin.  She was trying to steel her nerves with a smattering of humor.  It honestly wasn’t helping.  

 

Nick opened the door and the fox and bunny found themselves entering a much wider hall.  There was a very tall and ornate window at each end and two sets of double doors separated at a considerable distance by one single door.

 

Judy whispered, “The one at the end there used to be the apartment office.  Then there’s a storage area there between them.”  Nick nodded and the pair of officers walked together to the room at the end of the hall.  It was light enough in this area that Judy did not need to hold her partner’s tail anymore, but she was reluctant to let it go all the same.  She sub-consciously moved her paw right to her muzzle.  It was a guilty pleasure, and she was glad Nick ignored her as she savored the wildflower scent and then moved over beside him.

 

“Broken,” Nick said under his breath.

 

“Maybe that’s how he got in?” the doe responded just as quietly, hoping.

 

“He could have slipped this lock,” Nick pointed out.

 

Judy checked the loadout of her dart gun.  The tuft of red on the dart she had loaded was sufficient to take out a large mammal.  Wolves usually got yellow, but she wasn’t taking chances.  Not with this one.

 

Nick drew his own tranq pistol as well and stood off to the side of the door.  He nodded to his bunny.  He was ready.  Judy pushed the door with her foot and stepped to the side.  If someone dove out of the room to tackle them, they’d have to make a 90 degree turn before they could, and one officer or the other would drop them if that happened.

 

No one pounced.

 

There was no sound.

 

Judy and Nick entered the apartment cautiously.  It was well lit since there were plenty of windows, and it was still pretty highly furnished.

 

“Clear up front,” Judy whispered, able to see the kitchen and dining area.

 

The officers moved together down the hallway inside the apartment itself, and a long trail of claw marks all the way down the distance of the hallway in the blue version of Judy’s familiar wallpaper.

 

“Mike did not do this,” Nick warned.  “… annnnd I smell blood.”  Nick’s ears pinned back tightly.

 

“Oh God, we’re gonna find a body, aren’t we?” Judy murmured anxiously.

 

“No, that would certainly have more of a scent,” her partner answered, “But I do smell blood.”  Judy tensed up more, her nose very much on the wiggle.  They were too late.  Whatever happened, they were clearly too late.  These claw marks, long and deep in the drywall, were proof of that.

 

“Sound?” Nick barely whispered.

 

“No,” Judy replied, but put her ear up against the bedroom door all the same.  This yielded no additional noise.  She finally nodded to Nick, and the fox opened the door.

 

Two things were immediately obvious about the bedroom.  First, it had been lived in.  

 

Second… it had probably been died in.  

 

Nick cupped his muzzle.  The room was kind of weird to begin with because there were mattresses all over the floor, two deep.  It was like the bedroom had been converted into a makeshift bounce-house or something.  Judy might have laughed at the obvious insinuation if it were not for the wide splash of blood on the wall, a large hole in the wall with more blood, and plenty of blood on the mattresses themselves.

 

“I’ll… I’ll call it in,” the fox stated in a grave tone.  Judy winced at that.  While Nick wasn’t exactly friends with Mike, he did know the guy.  And Vivienne, oh poor Viv!  She worked with him.  Mike did do occasional deliveries for her.  She’d be so unhappy to know something this terrible happened to him.

 

Nick provided dispatch with their location so that Pawlander could bring a team.  It was a grim task to be done here, and it honestly reminded the doe of the hotel room that Ukweli had been in.  It wasn’t quite as bad, but it was certainly sufficient to believe that they would not be arresting Mike at the end of all this.  

 

Judy carefully moved about the room, trying not to step on any blood or anything else that might be important evidence.  The blood was still red, and still appeared somewhat wet.  It had not been long ago that everything went wrong for the hiding coyote.  She knew what she was trying to find.  A fight like what would do that much damage to a room did not happen without leaving evidence.

 

“I think this is what you’re looking for,” Nick mentioned, pointing out a tuft of white fluff on the edge of one skewed mattress.

 

Cherry had white fur.  Mike did not.

 

“Crap,” sighed Judy.  That was a terrible sign.

 

“What’s this?”  Nick pushed his foot on the mattress he was standing on a bit more, testing it, then knelt down and pulled a cell phone out from under it.

 

“Maybe it’s got call records or something that could help?” Judy offered.

 

“Probably,” Nick replied. “It’s still got juice.”  He held it up to show that it was on.

 

“Forensics can probably unlock it,” the bunny added.

 

“No need,” her fox replied. He turned the phone sideways and drew an ‘M’ on the screen.  It unlocked.

 

“Really?” Judy dropped blankly.

 

“Some guys are just easy to read,” the vulpine explained.

 

“Or you just watched him enter it once and have a habit of memorizing various mammals’ unlock patterns,” his doe accused.

 

“That too,” he responded with a smug grin.  So often his normal habits were pure gold during an investigation.

 

“See anything?” the bunny asked, nose still twitching as she went up on her toes to try to peer up at the phone where her mate was holding it in front of his face.

 

“He’s gotten calls from this number here… woah…”  He scrolled down slowly.  “They called him yesterday 170 times.”

 

“Okay, that’s gotta be it,” Judy assured. That was definitely the mark of an obsessed wolf.  She messaged Clawhauser to see if he could get a trace on the number.  

 

“I have a bunch of text messages from it too, oh yeah, that’s our girl,” Nick indicated.

 

As he scrolled, Judy read a few of them.

 

How could you?

 

You weren’t there for them.

 

They needed  you

 

Where did you think you could go?

 

I know where you are.

 

I’m coming for you.

 

You can babysit them soon.

 

I’m gonna let you starve like you let them starve.

 

How long can you last?

 

Soon

 

Hear that, Mike?

 

Can you hear it?

 

The messages sped up the wiggling of bunny nose tenfold and she had to shake her head.  That was not evidence of a mentally stable lupine.

 

Nick spoke up, finally.  “The last message was at like… three this morning.  I bet he was sleeping when she got here… Damn…”  Nick rubbed the back of his neck.  Judy felt helpless.  They could have helped him if he’d come to them.  They would have helped him.

 

“Wait, so… this message…” Judy pointed to it. “She’s … She said she was gonna starve him.  Do you think maybe she took him somewhere?  To do that?”  She didn’t want to just give up on him.  She wasn’t good at giving up.  That had been made clear many times over.

 

“Huh… Provided whatever made this mess didn’t kill him.”  Nick put his paws in his pockets, tail drooped low.  He did not seem to believe that had a lot of chance.

 

Judy jumped as her phone rang, and she answered immediately.

 

“Hey, Mizzus Officer Wilde!” came the bubbly tone of their cheetah dispatcher.

 

“Hey, Clawhauser.  Any luck?” the doe questioned.

 

“Yeah, actually.  It’s a land-line, so it’s a solid lead!” he expressed exuberantly.  

 

“Wait, really?” Judy asked.  Her fox perked up, making it clear he’d heard the cheetah.  Ben wasn’t exactly soft-spoken so it wasn’t a surprise.

 

“It’s a residence on an island off the coast at the edge of the canal district,” he explained.  “I looked it up.  The place is tiny… has only one house.  Supposed to belong to a Meeka Garou.”

 

“That’s a wolf name,” Nick interrupted.  Judy’s heart hammered.

 

“Thanks Clawhauser.  Can you shoot the address to me in a text message?  Also, update Pawlander and dispatch Pennington.  We may need a little extra mass.”  

 

Nick and Judy both left the apartment in a hurry.  They headed for the window and went immediately out onto the fire escape, not hazarding the dark stairwell again.  There was no need to hide their presence by that point.

 

“Nick,” Judy puffed, going down a ladder.

 

“Way ahead of you.  I’ve got our Zuber inbound.”

 

Judy tried to take longer drops down each ladder.  “We might not have much time!  We don’t know how bad he’s hurt, if he even made it,” the bunny panted, hopping down to the next fire escape platform.  Vivienne would be so upset.  Judy just couldn’t let that happen.  Not if she could help it.  Nick jumped down after her.

 

“Hopefully… we’ll get someone who… isn’t afraid to put the pedal to the metal,” her partner grunted.  Coming down was certainly way faster than going up, and they soon hopped down to the top of the closed dumpster again.  They darted from the alleyway and waited anxiously outside Judy’s old apartment building.  In the meantime, Nick made arrangements for a speedboat at the dock at the edge of the canal district.  Their ride would be from the coastal clean-up department, to meet them when they arrived there.  The two boats for the ZPD were on calls in the canal areas themselves and would take much longer to get there.

 

“I think that’s us,” Judy said, ear-perking at the sound of an engine.  She turned to look in that direction.

 

“Huh… That’s promising…” the bunny stated.  It was a sports car.  That was better than being picked up in an anemic little compact, at least.

 

“How right you are, Fluff,” her fox replied, wringing his paws together, grinning like an idiot.  Judy stepped back as the red and white vehicle pulled up.  She felt like she’d seen it somewhere before.

 

As the muscle car pulled in front of the Grand Pangolin Arms with a shuddering rumble of its engine, the window hummed softly as is lowered.  Judy’s eyes went wide.  The sloth in the driver’s seat slowly grinned.

 

“Niiiiiiiiiiiiiiick.”