As soon as the door was locked behind them, Alyssa directed the short cheetah to the bed in the middle of the room. "We should keep up the act, just in case anyone's watching us through the window."
Gabriel 'Gabe' Mossberg merely nodded and started to remove his dress shirt. His wardrobe tonight, the blue shirt and black slacks, was not the same as the hoodie and cargo pants that frequented the pictures Honey had given her, but given his circumstances he had good reason to change his look. Even his cross-shaped reddish pink scar had concealer on it, camouflaging the distinctive feature in his greyish cream fur.
The feline looked fine, but he didn't look fine. Months of hiding with Mr. Big's organization had turned him into spitting image of a mafia enforcer, but he didn't have the cold, dead eyes of one. Alone with one of the few mammals in the city who knew his true identity, Gabe's stoic expression gave way to tiredness and sorrow. Once his upper clothing was off, leaving only his black wrist guards, he practically collapsed onto the bed and put his face in the hole. Despite her growing excitement at finally getting some answers and her embarrassment at the prospect of touching a half naked male, Alyssa's heart felt a pang as she approached him and got to work. She didn't actually know anything about massaging, but she could still pretend. She gently gripped his shoulders and started circling her thumbs into his fur. She felt hard muscles underneath, and hoped her blush wouldn't stand out too much amid her white fur. It wasn't just his face. His entire body had a grey tint that was unusual for a cheetah. There was a second scar on his neck that looked like a burn.
"I was starting to think I'd have to find my way back alone." She heard him say meekly, and wondered what the hell had happened to him since he, his wife, and Cheryl Radames disappeared two years ago. "I can trust you, right?"
"If I couldn't be trusted, Honey wouldn't have led me to you." Alyssa replied, sensing that the mammal needed a comforting voice more than anything. "If we're going to hunt down Slothfeld and rescue Starlight and Cheryl, we have to work together. First of all, I need to know where he is."
There was a long, worrying pause. "I don't know."
Alyssa froze in the middle of moving her fingers down his back. "You don't know? How can you not know if you escaped?"
Gabe tensed beneath her. "Slothfeld did something to me. To all of us. My memory's like a paper target full of bullet holes right now. I still remember my past, and who I am, but a lot of my time in Slothfeld's facility is just a blur. I'm sorry."
Alyssa sighed in disappointment. "I'm sure it'll come back. Tell me what you do remember. Start with what happened when you got captured, then go on from there."
Gabe's ear twitched. "Did you hear something?"
Alyssa hesitated. "Must be the mammals next door."
"FUCKING SHIT ON A STICK!" Came a scream through the wall.
"Finnick?" Alyssa's heart skipped a beat when she heard the snarling of a wolf. Either Finnick had way too many knots in his back, or he was in trouble.
Gabe leapt from the bed and raced through the door, Alyssa following with her gun. The feline busted the other door open, and Alyssa nearly froze stiff when she saw Finnick on the floor, Nick Wilde in the grip of the pretty wolf in black, and the wolf about to chew his throat out.
Alyssa aimed her gun at the wolf's head, only for Gabe to suddenly block her view as he raced towards the two. He threw his fist out just as the wolf's jaws flew down towards Nick's neck, but Alyssa could see instantly he was going to miss. But he hadn't intended to punch the wolf. Instead he thrust his arm across Nick's neck and in between the sharp white teeth, and the wolf's jaws clamped down on his wrist guard. Before the wolf could respond he swung his arm, pulling her away from the fox. In two seconds he had her on the bed, her arms pinned behind her, and with his free arm he pointed to the bathrobes hanging on hooks on the door. "Skyefall! Get the belts!"
Alyssa could hear hurried footsteps approaching, so she tucked her gun back in the thigh holster beneath her dress before getting two belts. Gabe used one belt to tie the wolf's paws to the bedpost while the vixen bound her jaws together with the other. Just as they finished Mr. Big's polar bears burst into the room along with some staff and customers who had also heard the commotion.
"What the fuck is going on here?" The front most bear shouted. Then he saw the snarling wolf on the bed struggling against her bonds. "Aw shit! Not you too, Piper!"
Meanwhile, Nick and Finnick had backed into a corner, staring at the polar bears in pure terror. Honey had told Alyssa that Nick had been having trouble with Mr. Big's goons. So what the hell were he and the fennec doing here?
Before the bears could spot the foxes and make things worse, they all heard the sound of approaching sirens. "Shit, we gotta go! Gabe, come on!" Another bear shouted.
"Go on ahead!" Gabe shouted back. "I need to go underground for a bit. Tell Mr. Big I'll be back by midnight!"
He locked eyes with Alyssa, and she understood the hidden meaning behind his words. Honey's bunker. They would meet again there.
"Suit yourself!" The polar bears took off, leaving the staff and customers to stare in horror as the feral wolf as she continued to flail madly. The sirens had stopped, but Alyssa could see blue and red flashes of light from the window.
"I need to go before the police show up!" Gabe said. "You get these two out of here and we'll talk later!"
Nick looked between the two. "What exactly is going on he-"
Gabe cut him off with a glare. "You two have gotten yourselves in enough trouble! Go with Skyefall, go home and pretend this never happened. Got that?"
He pushed past the patrons and out the door, presumably to retrieve his clothes and leave via the window. Alyssa rushed to the two foxes and grabbed them by the shoulders. "Come on. Fire escape. We're leaving. Now."
They could hear the ZPD making their big entrance as they left the room and climbed through the window onto the fire escape. They climbed down and raced through the alley, getting as far away from the flashing lights as possible. It wasn't until they had reached Finnick's van five blocks away that Alyssa decided it was safe to stop. Outside a gun shop on an empty street corner, the vixen put her paws on her hips and glared at the two males panting on the bench.
"Alyssa…" Nick spoke between gasps. "Thanks."
"Never mind gratitude!" She snapped. "What were you and Finnick doing there? You know Mr. Big's boys frequent that place!"
The two foxes avoided her gaze. "Look, we…"
"Were spying on us, weren't you? How did you know where we'd be meeting?" She scowled as she remembered her meeting with Honey in the office. That was the only time they'd spoken of the meeting place. They must have been eavesdropped. "What were you thinking?"
Nick wrung his paws. "I was worried you were a spy for Mr. Big."
"Well, I'm not! What I'm doing here has nothing to do with him, and it has nothing to do with you!" She paced in front of them in agitation. "You two put yourselves in danger tonight, in more ways than one. I want you to go home right now and never interfere with my business again! Is that clear?"
"Yes, ma'am." Nick and Finnick mumbled. "But can't you at least tell us what you're really doing?"
"No. I can't. Now sling your hook!"
The two foxes hung their heads, shaken and embarrassed, and drove off. Alyssa dropped down onto the bench herself, feeling suddenly weary as she watched them go. As angry as she was at them, she couldn't help but wonder how much of this was her own fault for going to Wilde Times in the first place. She leaned back, taking deep breaths of cool night air. She needed to rest so she'd have a clear head when she spoke with Gabe again.
"You're soft." A voice beside her and something hard pressing into the back of her head chilled her blood. "I would have threatened to kill them."
Alyssa had heard that voice before. She swore under her breath. "Would you have followed through?"
"Maybe. Put your paws where I can see them or I'll follow through with the threat I'm giving you now."
She put her paws up. "Is this any way to treat a lady?"
"Female abusers of men use a similar defense, so don't pull that with me. Move yourself to the armrest."
Alyssa pushed herself into the armrest and felt the gun disappear from her head. She turned her head, seized her chance and pulled out her own gun when she saw the striped rabbit lounging on the other armrest. Dressed in a dark blue suit and thick coat, Alyssa would have thought Jack Savage had merely been taking a leisurely evening stroll if he wasn't still pointing his silenced weapon at her.
"How long have you been following me?!" She demanded.
"Don't flatter yourself. I followed the police so I could see one of these savage attacks for myself. I spotted you three leaving through the fire escape and, well, here I am." He gestured to himself with a sardonic smile and slid down onto the seat. "You and I have unfinished business."
Oh shit, this was bad. Alyssa's finger slid over the trigger. "Look if this is about before, it's not what you think."
"I know we're on the same side, ZI6." Jack holstered his gun, stunning her. "And that's the only reason you don't still have a gun in your face. Speaking of which, do you mind?"
Alyssa slowly lowered her weapon but didn't put it away. There was still no telling how upset he was about her deception. "What do you want, Agent Savage? Do you want to know my mission? It's the same as yours."
"I already know you're after Slothfeld."
"Then what is it? Is it about the mammal I was meeting?"
"You mean the hybrid? I found your hotel room and helped myself to your laptop. You stole my intel, and now I've stolen yours."
Alyssa blinked. "You looked in my laptop? He's a hybrid?"
"His father's a fox, but his mother was a cheetah."
She shook her head in disbelief. "How?"
"Heck if I know. Your intel only told me so much."
By now she was sorely tempted to put a gun in his face again. As a secret agent, she felt violated. "For god's sake will you just tell me what you want?!"
"I want to get something straight." Jack stopped smiling. His blue eyes grew colder. "We may technically be on the same side, but you deliberately spied on me and stole my intel without my knowledge, and I do not like being made to look a fool, Miss Skyefall. I can find Dr. Slothfeld on my own, so you can just stay out of my way. Don't be fooled by your success during our last encounter. You're green and you got lucky. Try to pull the wool over my eyes one more time, and you'll meet with trouble. Got that?"
Alyssa clenched her fist. Before she could respond, Jack Savage hopped off the bench and vanished in the darkness beyond the street lamps. The vixen holstered her weapon, stood up and strode in the opposite direction.
Screw that rabbit. If he could find the sloth on his own, so could she.
It was nearly midnight when she made it to the Rainforest District and knocked on the door to Honey's house. The door unlocked, and she walked in just in time to see Gabe lowering the bulky metal hatch.
"Bye, bye, Gabe!" Piped a voice that wasn't Honey's just before the hatch was sealed.
"Was that a child?" Alyssa asked. Since when did Honey keep kids in her bunker?
Gabe gave her the side eye. "What's it to you?"
"Honey's my friend too, so I'll find out eventually."
The cheetah, the hybrid, sighed and stood up. "Her name is Sherry. That sick bastard decided he wanted to start testing on kids, so he had her abducted. I managed to intercept her on the road while I was escaping, but now she's seen too much. Slothfeld and Swinton's people will kill her if they find her, so I've kept her hidden even since."
Alyssa nodded, feeling the second inkling of respect for the mammal she'd felt this evening. "You're a good mammal, Mossberg."
Gabe shocked her by slamming the trapdoor with a loud bang. "Good mammal?! If I was that good, I'd have rescued my wife by now!" He turned away from the trapdoor and breathed deeply. "I'm sorry. Between my crap memory and my only ally until now having no combat experience, I've felt so helpless! How can I help Starlight and Cheryl if I can't even remember where they're being held?"
"Well I'm here, now." Alyssa stepped up to Gabe's back and put a paw on his shoulder. "And I have a stake in this, too. Cheryl taught me everything I know. I accepted this mission so I could find out what happened to her. Help me find Cheryl, and I'll help you find Starlight."
When she looked round, she saw that Gabe was staring and fiddling with the ring again. Eventually he put it away and walked up to the kitchen area. He opened a cupboard that had seen better days and pulled out a bottle. "Do you like lemonade?" Sherry nodded, and he filled two mugs and handed one to her. "We'll talk up here, because I don't want Sherry hearing any of this. I'll have to go back to Mr. Big soon, so let's make this quick."
"I understand." Alyssa pulled out a recorder. "I'm going to record this for my report to HQ. Just start from the beginning."
Gabe nodded, and began the instant she pressed the red button.
"It started when Cheryl approached us for help in investigating the death of an engineer called Cogsworth. He'd been killed in a car accident almost two years ago, but ZI6 suspected foul play. Sure enough, we discovered that before he died, he'd been working with Dawn Bellwether on a collar that could theoretically replace the shock collar and eliminate the risk factor that's currently got the government contemplating their abolishment. It was supposed to be her Ace in the Hole for her mayoral campaign, but Slothfeld saw how the collar could be applied to his own research, had Cogsworth killed, and stole the data. Cheryl tried to handle the rest on her own for our safety, but she disappeared."
"You mean you weren't captured the same time as Cheryl?" Alyssa asked. "When were you captured, then?"
"We tracked them down to Zootopia, but we were ambushed in our hideout." Gabe paused. "We should have been able to take them, but something was wrong with Starlight. She'd thrown up that morning, and she became dizzy during the fight. That was about nine months ago, unless my memory fucked up my sense of time as well."
Alyssa nodded in sympathy. "What can you remember of your time in captivity?"
"The next thing I knew, I was in this cell. I remember just being kept in there for the first week, with Starlight in a cell across from me. There were other cells, but they were all empty. For the first few days some lemming shrink came round and asked both of us a load of weird questions. On the seventh day, the last day before the experiments started, I was taken to this examination room for a physical. I was given a clean bill of health, obviously, but they must have discovered something wrong with Starlight because after her physical they removed her from her cell. I never saw her again."
"… I'm sorry, Gabe."
Gabe took a long drink from his mug, his eyes burning. "I'll tell you something, Skyefall. I'm holding out hope that Starlight is alive, but if she isn't… good fucking luck getting that sloth back in one piece." He drank again. "After that I officially became a test subject, but that's the part I remember least of all. It might be because I spent most of my time in there, but I do remember being moved to another set of cells, ones with thick glass doors. Most of them were full. I think there were about twelve different mammals, all predators. Cheryl was there, and there were at least three wolves from what I could see, a panther, a couple of lions, a bunch of rodents and this big fucking grizzly bear." Gabe paused again, his gaze darkening. "I remember something seriously wrong with them. They were all different species of predator, but all of them had one thing in common. They were batshit crazy. I don't mean feral crazy, but some of them were close to it. It was like being trapped in an asylum for the criminally insane. Someone, I don't know if it was a researcher, a guard, or Slothfeld himself, called it the Twilight Phenomenon. I don't remember exactly when, or what happened when I got experimented on myself."
Alyssa looked him up and down. "Then why aren't you crazy?"
"It's a long story, but I have this thing where I can go into berserk mode. It's the best way I can describe it, and I don't know you enough to explain any more. In any case, it must have helped me to resist the madness until I could remember myself again. I remember I was placed in this maze and ordered to do all kinds of stuff. At some point I got the bright idea to just play possum. It took everything I had to keep up the act while they looked me over, and eventually I got a booting down the waste disposal chute, presumed brain dead."
"Some kind of behavioral experiment, then?" Alyssa remembered the report mentioning that Slothfled was a neurobiologist.
"That's one way of putting it." Gabe emptied his mug and placed it on the counter. "And there's something else I do remember. Some of the commands they gave me were stuff I would never do normally, but while I was wearing the collar they put on me I felt like there was nothing I wouldn't do. There's no way to properly describe it, but… but it was like the collar was sapping away my free will."
"You mean Slothfeld's testing some kind of mind controlling technology?" Now that was worrying. "Is that what's making the predators go savage?"
"No, that's something else, something that's just a blur to me." Gabe said. "But I do know this. Slothfeld may be working for Swinton, but he's got his own agenda. He gives the results Swinton wants, and keeps the real results for himself. That's it. That's all I remember for now."
Alyssa switched off the recorder, drained her mug, and slammed it down, her gut churning with unease. "This is worse than we thought. Way worse. You remember anything else that could help us, you call me as soon possible."
"I will." Gabe said on his way to the door. "On the condition that when we figure out Slothfeld's location, we go together."
Alyssa nodded with an assuring smile. "Deal."
Gabe nodded and left.
Alyssa leaned against the counter beside the two mugs, contemplating her next move. Her thoughts turned to the lemming Gabe had mentioned. She had a good idea as to the identity of that rodent. In the intercepted email sent by Slothfeld, he'd complained about the biased psychiatric reports from one Dr. Lemming. They had to be the same rodent. She needed to find him and force Slothfeld's whereabouts from him.
She scowled, annoyed with herself. One way or another, that would just alert Slotheld that someone was on to him. She could try searching Dr. Lemming's office and resident for clues before doing something so drastic.
Yes, she could do that. In fact, that should have been the first strategy that popped into her head. Maybe that rabbit was right. Maybe she was still green.
Alyssa considered entering through the hatch, but decided calling Honey would be quicker. It turned out that Dr. Lemming's office and residence were in the same place; a small building across the street from the border of Little Rodentia. She made it there before two am, and decided to avoid the jam cams by entering through the back door. When she tried to use her lock pick, she was surprised to find that the door was already unlocked. Pulling out her pistol in case she needed to hold anyone at gunpoint, Alyssa eased the door open and slipped inside.
She was on edge the second she entered the small hallway connecting all the rooms of the bottom floor. Blood. A lot of blood. She couldn't see it in the unlit room, but she could smell it as strongly as if she were sniffing her own perfume. She jumped and nearly fired her weapon when someone emerged from the room on the left.
It was Jack, who seemed to be doing his best not to look nauseated. His gaze became stone when he saw her. "You catch up quick. I've already searched the building. There's nothing here to lead us to Slothfeld."
"What happened here?" Alyssa whispered.
Jack gestured to the doorway he'd come from. "Your guess is as good as mine. You can try asking the Lemming back in the kitchen, but I doubt he'll have much to say."
He strode past her and out the door without another word. Alyssa didn't watch him go. Her gaze was fixed on the doorway. Gripping the gun tightly with both paws, she crept through the darkness until she was standing in the doorway.
The ochre glow of a street lamp streamed through the only window in the little kitchen area, partially illuminating the little shape on the counter. Alyssa edged closer. The light wasn't fully showing what she was looking at, so she pulled out her little flashlight.
Her eyes slowly widened as the narrow white beam hovered over an empty tub for cocktail sticks, a tiny brown furry hemisphere lying in a pool of blood and the still form of Dr. Lemming, propped in a sitting position against the large coffee jar he was strapped to. Her first thought was that the top half of his head had been shaved, but it quickly dawned on her that it wasn't just his fur that was gone.
The scalp was gone. The bone was gone. The eyes were gone. Everything above Dr. Lemming's nose and ears was gone. All that was left up top was his bloody brain, and the cocktail sticks stuck in so deep they poked back out through his abdomen and between his legs.
Jack was right. She was still green.
That was Alyssa's only thought before she dropped her flashlight and rushed to the kitchen sink.