Gideon Grey was sure he had misheard. Maybe it was the dull rumble of his van, or perhaps his mind had simply lost focus when he briefly looked to his right to see Belle Thumper edging her way over the middle of the front seat against the strain of her seatbelt, trying to listen in on his phone call.
"Could ya say that again? Sorry." His voice quavered a bit. "Didn't quite catch –"
"I said I could make it out tomorrow," came Judy Hopps' response on the other end of the phone conversation. "Like, back home. To Bunnyburrow."
"Wow! I, uh…"
"Biker up head yer about to hit," said Belle calmly. "Unless y'want them to end up like that fox cop fella that got hit a while back."
Gideon grimaced, gingerly steering his van around the biking rabbit who was in the right lane of the two-lane road on which he presently drove. "Thank ya, mind's a little – no, no, sorry, Judy, talkin' to Belle. Yeah, yep, she's here, too, helped me make the call to her sister's roommate. I'm, uh… wait, one sec."
They had made it back into downtown Bunnyburrow, Gideon finding a spot to park his truck just before the focal point of Main Street, where the mammals who enforced parking regulations – if there were even any out that day; the town's reliance on them was a bit of a crapshoot – would probably not bother him despite the length of his vehicle sticking ever so slightly over the white line. He was not in anyone's way, anyway. Someone could pull into the driveway he was partially blocking just fine. He hoped.
Belle seemed to be aware of their parking situation, but she suppressed a warning once Gideon started speaking again.
"OK, I parked, was gettin' distracted talkin' on the phone – yeah, yeah, Judy, I know y'don't like when folks talk on the phone while drivin'." He rolled his eyes and glanced over at Belle, shaking his head. "Uh huh, I'm sure someone got into an accident the other day over on Crevasse Street because they were on their phone. Yep, sounds like a real fender bender." The fox winced. "OK, too much detail now, I don't need to know th—goodness, you almost sound excited to explain this—"
Before he knew what was happening, his phone was ripped from his paw and placed by Belle on the cushion between them, the rabbit switching the phone onto speaker mode.
"Judy!" Belle shouted, probably a little too loudly given the echo of Gideon's van's interior, but the job was done, as the bunny on the other line stopped lecturing the fox on safe driving protocol. "Could ya get on with it maybe, hon?"
Both of them could hear Judy's audible sigh through the speaker. "Right, sorry. I was just telling Gideon that I could come in for maybe a day or so."
"That's what I thought ya said," responded the fox, folding his arms across his chest. "But, uh, I thought there was all these festivals all weekend in Zootopia. Ain't that what yer reasonin' was yesterday?"
"Let me guess," said Judy, "you're not getting the torrential downpour we've got right now."
"Er…" Gideon looked out the window to find just a few clouds in an otherwise spotless afternoon sky, "not especially, no."
"Consider yourselves lucky. It's practically a monsoon here, and someone didn't file the proper permit applications for an indoor show, so those festivals this weekend are mostly canceled and pushed to next week, 'cept for the mammals who couldn't change dates and can't get their deposits back. So, uh," she paused, "my week just sort of freed up. Had some spare PTO, and things have been a little easygoing around the precinct lately. Could use a chance to get the wheels turning."
Gideon shot a look at Belle, who returned it with a small jolt of excitement within her green eyes. He could not deny he shared the sentiment.
"What about Nick?" he asked, gaze returning to the phone receiver.
"Nick… wasn't so lucky. I think."
"Y'… think?" Gideon repeated.
"I dunno. Honestly, we haven't talked much lately. Something's on his mind, I think. But you know Nick. Not exactly a sharer."
"We'll talk more about it when I get there. In the meantime – what's up today? I saw your text last night about O'Hare and Bernice. So they were…"
"Dating," Belle finished Judy's sentence. "Apparently."
"From the sound of your voice, I'd say that came as a bit of a surprise to you, huh?"
Belle rolled her eyes. "Gee, what tipped ya off?"
"So," Gideon interjected, sending Belle a stern look, "we wanna talk to him more, but I guess he ain't awake yet from the whole, uh, tranq thing."
They heard Judy exhale deeply on the other line. "Cheese and crackers," she said. "That's some heavy duty stuff, then. Even ours usually wears off after a couple hours."
"Right. Almost like whoever darted him wasn't exactly interested in him wakin' back up."
"And… did he have family?"
"Naw, not 'round here. Least that's what Sharla said."
Belle nodded. "I reckon I remember seein' him around town during the holidays, so if he's got family somewhere, he ain't interested in traveling to see 'em."
"Shame," said Judy. "So not much to go on 'til he wakes up."
"If he wakes up," Belle added grimly.
"And when he does…" Gideon started, pausing thoughtfully before continuing, "Judy, what do ya think of him as a suspect? Given, y'know, what I told ya."
There were a few seconds of silence on the other line before Judy spoke. "It's… definitely a theory. Since you said Bernice's roommate thought she might be going to break up with him."
"Yes, yeah, that's right."
"Which would lend credence to the idea that someone from the Thumpers – or at least someone they hired – did this to O'Hare."
Belle said nothing, but Gideon could practically see her fur bristling from where he sat.
"Er, uh, maybe. But prob'ly not."
"I don't quite buy that whole theory anyway," Judy said, leading Belle's muscles to slacken a bit. "Because Bernice doing that in the middle of the night on public transport, and then having to rely on it all the way back to East Meadow probably that same night, would be strange. If Nick came out to break up with me, I'm not driving him back home after he does it."
"Y'don't have a car, Judy."
"…Gideon, you're missing the point."
"Sorry. Yer right." He swallowed. "So, er, anyway, we're fixin' to head up to town in a bit. Wanna talk to Brerington about maybe gettin' a look at the surveillance cameras above the antique store so we can see if we can find out who might've been in the car that shot at O'Hare. Meeting Sharla and Bobby up there, too."
"Oh, good. Shoot me a text when you're outta there. He'll be a big help, I bet."
"Nope. No can do."
Gideon blinked. "I, um, I… huh?"
Constable Danny Brerington peered at Gideon, and then at the other mammals who sat astride him, through the wisps of smoke that rose from the simmering cigarette in the ashtray on his desk. It was a wonder, Gideon briefly found himself thinking, that Bobby had not erupted in a fit of coughs, considering what had happened at the Icy Koala just days before.
"Said I can't do it, Mr. Grey," Brerington repeated, plucking the cigarette from the ashtray and taking another quick hit. "Not right now."
"And why not?" Belle demanded, sitting up in her chair that faced the constable's desk, leaning forward and staring daggers through the smoke.
"We're not necessarily asking about doing it ourselves," chimed in Sharla, leaning into the offer as though it was some act of great compromise. "We're… we're tipping you off, you know?"
Nodding, the rabbit that sat in front of him reclined in his cushioned black chair. "And I appreciate that," he said. "Really, I do. It's just that… look, I don't think I got the time right this second to march on over demandin' the tapes from Mr. and Mrs. Longfellow. Not right now."
After a pause, Gideon shook his head, "I'm sorry, Constable, but ain't that… sorta important, findin' out who darted Silver O'Hare?"
"Sure, but why not ask him myself instead?"
"W-what do you mean…?" started Belle.
"Got the call a few minutes before y'all came in." The rabbit pointed at his desk phone, still somehow a rotary after all this time. "Our boy's awake."
"O'Hare's come to?" Sharla asked.
"Mhm. And yours truly's got the first interview." He paused. "And, uh, a friend from the county's who's giving me a second opinion."
The ears of the four seated mammals whipped around as the fifth, Bobby, shifted against the back wall, nearly knocking over a hanged photo of a certificate of some sort. "Sorry, sorry," the cougar apologized, righting the photo against the wooden wall, "little cramped in here, couldn't quite sit." He looked down dolefully at the tiny chairs that even Gideon had the slightest of issues fitting into. "I was, uh, gonna say – Constable, if it pleases the court –"
"I ain't a judge, Bobby."
"—wouldn't it make more sense to catch the guys who shot O'Hare first, if we have a lead? Since they're still out there and all."
To his credit, Brerington seemed to consider the argument, if only because he seemed a bit timid in front of the towering cougar in front of him, perhaps; Gideon could not tell if that was the reason the constable's nose twitched ever so slightly.
"A fair point, Bobby, but I've actually got someone from the surrounding counties on that. Whether they turned onto County Line Road or stayed the course, eventually they gotta hit some other cameras, so some of my friends at the county and over in Podunk are lookin' into what they can see based on Gideon and Belle's description of the car." He grinned. "That's what we call multitaskin' in these parts."
Bobby softened a bit against the back wall, folding his arms across his chest and taking care to not brush up against anything else hanging there. "Ah. Well, that's… good."
Gideon glanced at Belle to his left; she seemed somewhat pacified with the explanation as well.
"Besides," continued Brerington, setting down his cigarette again, though his face still remained somewhat concealed by the smoke it emitted, "store's closed today. Always is. And the owners go a little off the grid on their off-day, as you can probably imagine. Gave 'em a call this mornin', no reply."
"Can we at least come with you, then?" Belle asked, leaning forward so far she was practically about to begin standing instead. "To General?"
"To see O'Hare? Nah, sorry, sweetheart, don't think that's gonna be possible." He sniffed once. "For all we know, we're still treating O'Hare as a suspect in Bernice's death right now, and it won't be a good look for me to bring in a few, well, non-law enforcement types in with me. Doubt the hospital'd even let ya through unless ya happened to be on his guestlist somehow."
He stood, brushing off what appeared to be a few errant crumbs on his blue checkered flannel. "And with that in mind, I'd better get goin'. General isn't a long drive, but I don't wanna leave the town for too long. Parsley fundraiser tonight, y'know." He frowned a bit. "They requested some police presence, given the… well, you're aware."
After a beat, Gideon stood to meet Brerington, and Sharla followed suit shortly after. Belle was the slowest to rise, as well as the last to offer her paw to shake the constable's.
"We do appreciate the time, though," the fox offered, adding a meek smile for good measure. "Hope it helped."
Brerington nodded, grabbing Gideon's paw again. "Anything does, especially with the size of the outfit we're running around here."
"I hear that. Hey," Gideon's eyes lit up suddenly, remembering one final thing he had meant to ask, "one more thing. Y'… I mean, uh, have y'happened to hear of anyone slinkin' around in a tan trenchcoat in town? Maybe last night, 'bout, shoot, during the debate or somethin'?"
Pausing at the door, Brerington looked at the ground momentarily and then shook his head, his eyes meeting Gideon's. "Nah," he said. "Didn't see anything on my end, and you're the first to mention it. Any other features you can remember?"
"Uh… taller than you 'n' I, but not much taller than me. Didn't get a great look, but I think I saw a red fox's tail under the coat."
"And this character was acting shady?"
"If you call hangin' out in the broom closet of a public bathroom shady."
"Reckon so." With a turn of the doorknob and a slight push of his right paw, the door opened onto Main Street, the day's waning sunlight flooding the room. "Take care, now."
Before he had barely been able to register what had happened, Gideon was out the door, along with his friends, the door shut in their face.
"Can one, just one of the oafs who takes over our police department here actually be good at their job for once?" Belle huffed.
Gideon cocked an eye as he glanced at the rabbit, who reclined in the grass next to him. Belle's statement came after a few minutes of silence from the bunny, who had remained mute throughout the entirety of their group's brief walk across Main Street to Riverside Park, save for her quick nod of affirmation when Gideon asked if she wanted to join them in the park.
"Didn't you, uh, supp—"
"I swear to the gods, Gideon, if you mention one more time my family's support of Skip Clover, I'm gonna sock ya."
"R-right, my bad," the fox offered meekly.
"I get what you're saying, Belle," Sharla said. She was the only one of the four mammals not lying in the grass, instead sitting with her legs pulled up close to her body, elbows resting upon them. "I get Brerington asking for help from the surrounding areas' departments – he's pretty much all we've got here in town, since his other volunteers pretty much work during the day. But I don't know if I'd've gone about it in the same way."
Belle offered a thumbs up to the sheep, though her eyes remained trained on the sky. "Appreciate the vote of confidence."
"I don't condone punching Gid in the face, though."
"You're no fun."
"At the risk of undergoing bodily harm," said Bobby, a little louder than the others as he tried to project his voice over the sound of the rushing river to which he was closest, "isn't he just doing the best he can do? Especially since it looks like O'Hare might've had something to do with all this."
Gideon shook his head. "I dunno, Bobby. The way those rabbits were talkin' in the bathroom last night, from what I could hear, they were tryin' to get O'Hare outta the picture. That don't sound like he's a culprit to me. Especially since they were dating. Which, shoot, forgot to tell Brerington." The fox cursed his oversight there internally, though he balanced his mind with the realization that O'Hare would likely tell Brerington about their relationship anyway.
"Yeah, unless it was revenge. Er –" the cougar added when he received an icy stare from Belle, "maybe. I'm not sayin' that was what happened, just – gods, Belle, can you stop with the evil eye?! I didn't mean it."
Bobby's gaze then shifted to Gideon, who had sat up and was looking past him toward the road. "Hey, uh, Gid? Appreciate you blocking Belle from view, but… what's up?"
"Shh," the fox raised a paw to his mouth. "One second. Don't turn around, either, none'ya."
While the other mammals kept their heads down, Bobby returning his line of sight to the magnolia tree above them and Sharla to the floor (Gideon could not be sure if Belle had listened, but he certainly hoped so), Gideon trained his eyes on Danny Brerington, who after letting them out of his office and running back inside to retrieve something he had forgotten, was climbing into his car.
He watched as the rabbit drove away a few moments later, the car rolling through the T-shaped intersection and off toward the hospital.
"OK, yer good."
"The heck was that about?" Bobby asked, whipping his head around and sitting up as though it had taken him a great deal of patience to not follow Gideon's gaze.
"We're not waitin' for him to get inside the antique store. We're doin' it ourselves."
In an instant, the other three mammals stood around him, and suddenly there were multiple voices being thrown at him from every direction – some admonishing, others not so much.
"Didn't you hear—"
"C'mon, don't get reckless."
"I knew not all foxes were bad."
He heard Belle last, and he turned to her, dusting grass off his back as he hoisted himself off the ground.
"I knew the second he said somethin' about the owners. Dunno if y'all caught their name."
Sharla scratched at her chin. "No. To be honest, I've never known who owned that place."
"Longfellows. Ring a bell?"
Belle's eyes lit up. "Oh, like Aaron Longfellow? Judy's old flame?"
"And my business partner right now, but sure, that too."
Not that he saw Aaron too much in recent weeks; the rabbit was mostly a partner of Gideon's baking shop in a financial sense, ever since the events of the previous year's Fall Harvest Festival when he practically demanded to let Gideon throw money at him. Most of his exploits remained focused on a farm his parents owned, but the rabbit still popped in from time to time, and they certainly held a running text chain, one Gideon had used just minutes before.
"I figured that name ain't too common 'round here, so chances were Aaron was related to 'em somehow," continued Gideon, stepping forward and turning around so he was facing the other three mammals rather than just Belle. "They're his great aunt and uncle, turns out, has a cousin who helps out in the store when they can't lift some of their heavier stuff. Point is, has a key to the place."
"Whoa, thinking on the fly there," Bobby said, a hint of amusement in his voice.
"And Aaron's cousin's just gonna let us into the place?" Sharla's eyes narrowed, clearly unsure about the plan.
Shaking his head, Gideon said, "Nah, Aaron is. He's on his way with the key from his cousin right now. Somethin' 'bout a favor."
"OK, but why's Aaron in on this?"
"Because I told him Judy's coming into town and that it'd help her. Police business and all that."
Belle expelled a bark of laughter, while Sharla frowned even more prominently, crossing her arms and glowering at the fox. "Gid, stop gettin' his hopes up, that was years ago they dated."
"Oh, no, he's doing it as a friend."
"Uh huh. Sure."
"He even know her and Nick are dating?" questioned Bobby thoughtfully.
"For the sake of comedy, I hope not," Belle said with another laugh. "So when's he here?"
Ignoring Sharla's continued protests, Gideon glanced down at his phone to check the time. But the clock of his phone was not the first thing that caught his eye.
"Uh… Gideon?" asked the rabbit, waving her paw in front of his face. "Bunnyburrow to Gideon. You just need to check the time."
"I-I'm sorry, I—"
"What's wrong?" Sharla's features softened finally. "Is everything OK? Is it about O'Hare? Bernice?"
"I, uh… I don't think so."
Bobby threw his paws in the air. "OK, dude, cut the suspense, what's up?!"
Turning his phone over in his paw and gripping it tightly, Gideon showed his phone screen to the three mammals. A single missed call, one that had somehow come in undetected, probably while they had been discussing their plan at the antique shop, had popped up on the screen. "I didn't have it in my phone 'cause I never thought I'd need it again, but I know this number…" Gideon trailed off.
"Whose is it?"