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Sandcastles

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10:35 Monday morning in the Castle Rock College library.

Skye wondered yet again about what circulated in the heads of many of the mammals that made up society—or that might appear on the monitors of those few with her at the library computer kiosks. Obsession with obscure hobbies—and the resources devoted to them—never ceased to amaze her. She had to admit that RailLife was an unanticipated and well-laid out website that provided most of the information Nick Wilde had wanted. All publicly available, which precluded any intrusive search that might have exposed her activities to the agency conspirators twenty-five miles to the north. There were at least four similar enthusiast websites as well—but this one had the archival data they needed.

And lucky me, Skye thought, I get to spend my unexpected day of liberty condensing all of these lists of train movements into a tidy report that shows the frequency of freight deliveries to Junction City over the past two years. Her curiosity about the odd request was temporarily frustrated, Nick’s texts from Kristen’s phone had only stated that it was crucial she find and get this information to Jack and chief Bogo. He must have felt he was onto something too important for her to know about given her precarious freedom. That wasn’t very reassuring. Once she accessed the relevant freight manifests with the company password he’d somehow acquired, Skye hoped she might figure some of it out.

Her Cassie Neal alias—developed as personal security insurance at Jack’s suggestion—had again proved its worth. Skye had been initially skeptical of Jack’s infatuation with his secret agent persona and all their related spy games—until she’d seen how useful they were to conceal their relationship as it grew. She was now thankful for the care she’d put into a dormant student ID able to pass a basic background check. At least she still easily looked the part. She occasionally referred to a binder from her backpack, or flipped a couple of pages in the random textbook grabbed out of the stacks to help maintain her cover.

Although she was presently unconfined and productive, fear still prowled her innards. Days spent anticipating her arrest had so far come to nothing. This had to be a temporary reprieve. The conspirators here either wanted to save that for a more opportune time, or perversely wished to use her to further their ends as Tarija had. The only solace was that meant they were still unaware of any active resistance on her part. At least entering this data in a spreadsheet and trying various ways to graph it out was an effective distraction.

It was well past lunchtime before she had a reasonably coherent report prepared. Now she needed someplace to send it to. Skye flicked her ears in irritation—none of them had anticipated the need to exchange anything larger than brief text files when they’d set up their comms! The cheap burners weren’t good for anything more, and she had to assume all their normal means of contact were under general surveillance. That had to include Vivian and the ZPD—anyone associated with Kristen’s initial report. Her own damn program at headquarters was likely monitoring what she might try! She knew how good it was.

Skye pulled out her replacement burner phone to text Jack—four received messages awaited her, she must have turned down the volume too far when she’d entered the library. Two were brief replies from Kristen and Vivian for her new contact list; the last two were from Jack. The first was from a half-hour ago and simply showed: Martin cII. The last was just minutes old and was Martin cIII.

Abbreviated police response codes. He’d gone from urgent to emergency! She sent her reply and confirmation word—his next arrived almost immediately, although he forgot his own authentication this time.

Will call-2min.

This had to be serious if he’d risk a voice call while unaware of her situation. Skye brought up the background economics tutorial on the monitor to obscure her recent work and stood to look for a reasonably private spot—the ladies was closest and would have to do. It was thankfully empty once she padded over there. She sat in a stall, leaned over and used her tail as a muff over the phone. Her claw accepted the call at the first tone.

“Spica here,” Skye hushed into her phone, aware of the bathroom’s harsh acoustics.

“Sk…Estelle? Heard from your Uncle Jay back east, he sent an email to the wrong place again. Said he’s on his way there to visit you right now. Could you pick him up so he doesn’t…try to walk it and perish from the heat?” Jack spoke carefully but sounded stressed; plus, he’d almost used her name.

“Now? Are you sure?” Skye was incredulous. Jack’s well-crafted statement left no doubt that their missing biology professor had decided to willingly blunder into the heart of the conspiracy.

“Yes, right now—ETA four-thirty at Central. I finally looked at your…research! He’s—uh—got more vintage high proof stuff with him to crack open,” Jack said urgently.

Okay, that’s why, she thought with a sinking heart. She’d tried to trace Ulric’s whereabouts from the ZPD network, but had accessed little useful info other than the Prof.’s webmail inbox. She hadn’t had the time to go through all of it and had left it for Jack. Obviously, Ulric had more evidence to hide from his pursuers—the wolf must still think it was a local cover-up—and wanted his work safe in the paws of his previously contacted colleagues. Skye glanced at the computer clock—she had just over two hours to get back and find, then convince and hide the naïve prof. And send her report—somewhere!

“Marty? I’ve…uh finished your itinerary. Where do you want me to leave it?” Skye badly wished she could talk as plainly as Jack must have also wanted to.   

“With your sister, I’ll get it from her. Now get going! Ciao!” Jack disconnected and left her staring at her phone in sudden frustration.

Skye walked out of the bathroom thoroughly vexed at Jack’s assumption that she was a calm, collected, and clever fox at the moment. That might have been true two minutes ago, but certainly wasn’t now. This new crisis thrown on top of all the stressful days before Bellwether’s transfer, and the insecure ones afterwards, had finally breached her last emotional bulwark—a sudden fearful indecisiveness sapped her resolve as effectively as a police tranquilizer. Weak kneed and tail down, she wavered a step away from her seat at the computer, now able to fully empathize with their overwhelmed skunk paleontologist. Wherever she was now.

 Her paw went to the back of the chair to steady herself, and the contact induced her to slowly turn it on its swivel and sit down. Skye took a deep but ragged breath. She stared at the monitor in a trance before her paw moved seemingly of its own volition, grabbed the computer mouse, and closed the background program.

What did he mean by my sister? That doesn’t make…Oh, he must mean Judy, I’d told him what she’d said. She went to open a browser and find if....  

“Looks like you’re struggling a bit with that my fetching fox! You’re in luck, I’m a comp sci major—be happy to help.” There was an all too familiar pick-up tone to the male voice right above and beside her.

Still too out of it for a proper startle reaction, Skye turned to look over her shoulder at—a Coyote! Her closest leg reacted first and caused her chair to tip precariously for a moment as she pushed away from him.

“Leave me alone! I’m fine,” Skye snapped and focused her concentration enough to give him a ‘get lost’ glare. The slender for his species and likely teenage Coyote took a hesitant step back. He wilted further as her expression firmed in rejection as she examined him.

“Just wanted to help, you looked a little lost,” he tried again far less assuredly.

“Sorry, don’t have the time,” Skye said more evenly, now aware that she’d hit the poor mammal with the full force of her defensive personality. She didn’t want to emotionally scar Mr. Inexperienced; he was just doing what young males often did around her. Unfortunately, his species and proximity had drawn her overreaction. She pointed at the wall clock above the reference desk. “I’m already late with this, just been at it too long.”

She didn’t watch his likely limp-tailed retreat, and concentrated on the monitor. Any use of Judy’s full name would be an obvious red flag…although…she and Jack were in Bunnyburrow. So he wanted the report sent there. Skye allowed a shake of her head to rearrange her muddled thoughts and entered ‘Hopps Farm’ in the browser—she got two pages of hits. The first was their business website—the intro confirmed that it was the right place. There was a ‘contact us’ link separate from their produce and order pages, so she used that—with ‘Attn. J the D’ as the header and her work as an attachment. That should be safe, Jack probably expected her to use that.

The clock seemed to accelerate as she waited for Jack’s receipt acknowledgement. Skye spent that time back on the still open railroad website to check the schedules and platform numbers. She was able to trace the pending four-thirty arrival back east all the way through a connection to Ulric’s hometown of Anniston—which helped verify that it was the right one. Jack’s confirmation finally came after five more minutes—he’d anticipated and likely quickly reviewed her report—but the slight delay was still excruciating.

One last task before she could leave; Skye inserted the thumb drive with her sweeper program and carefully wiped all traces of her activity from this computer. That would have to do, there wasn’t time to try to remove records of the email from servers elsewhere.

Her chaotic mind obsessed over that fairly low risk concern, along with fears about her immediate future, as the light rail made its way back to the Federal District. She didn’t remember this many intermediate stops on the way down, or how time accelerated when the train slowed! Her contrary inner voice decided to stoke the flames of paranoia even more.

You’re running out of time, have no plan, and couldn’t expose yourself more blatantly if you tried! There have to be agents of the conspiracy heading to Concordia Central Station to intercept that wolf just like you are! And unlike the movies, you won’t get adjacent cells.

Skye briefly considered contacting Kristen to see if she was in the area yet, but the skunk would certainly have a minder that she couldn’t shake. Wilde was out of the question. She had no close friends in town due to her furtive relationship and her own software would instantly flag any contact with a sympathetic coworker. Her eventual sacrifice was certain, so she still had to try—although that would get her a longer sentence. Her face sank into her paws; she hadn’t felt this helplessly alone since she’d gotten off the boat in Port Catskill.

Why go through with this? Go to ground and save yourself—you’ll also protect Jack and your friends in the resistance if the conspirators can’t interrogate you! They already know about Fairfield, would any more evidence matter?

Jack thought it would. Also, with the wolf and his evidence under their pads or hooves, and leaks like you and Kristen seemingly plugged, the conspiracy could twist and control it to serve their agenda. They could use our best evidence against us. My running would only alert them to our opposition; they already believe someone tipped Wilde about his warrant.

She had to somehow find and shelter Ulric without being arrested, but would he cooperate with a frantic stranger? How can you approa…

He’s a canid—you have a power! Use it! Her interior voice decided to be more helpful.

He’s insecure and on the run, why would he even listen, let alone trust in me?

What might gain his trust?
 
Skye’s eyes and mouth widened—oh you’re a crafty fox! She pulled out the binder and was about to rip off its cover when she realized the cardboard stiffener inside her pack was larger. A little work with a claw and she had a suitable signboard— even white on one side.

“Excuse me!” Skye raised her voice for the benefit of the whole car—her demeanor set on maximum charm. “Does anyone have a dark marker I could borrow?”

In less than a minute, a lady spotted hyena flipped one through the air to her and they exchanged smiles—and got a scowl from a disappointed gray fox further forward. Several non-canids rolled their eyes at the brief interplay.  Skye thought for a moment, then neatly lettered as large as would fit on her card.

Dr. R.  ALDER
  Z NatHisM

She hoped it would do, as the familiar skyline of the Federal Center of Concordia was already visible ahead. Skye stowed her card, returned the marker, and hurried to stand near the doors—she had at most a ten minute window to spot any opposition and position herself before Ulric’s train arrived on platform six. Unfortunately, she hadn’t been in the station recently and didn’t remember the interior details well enough for any advance planning. She’d have to adapt on the fly to circumstances.

“Oh well, I tried miss.”

Skye turned to find the gray Todd seated a few feet away, a pen held up in his paw. He wasn’t too many years older, and had a small hopeful smile on his muzzle. He tilted his head slightly at her change of expression upon realizing the opportunity he provided.

“I do appreciate you looking for that, but you could still help me. Do you know this station at all well?” Skye continued at his nod. “I’ve only got a few minutes to find platform six and would really appreciate it if you could walk me in the right direction.” A camera ready smile and wave of her tail sealed the deal. Being in his company could hopefully allay suspicions from any conspirators that might otherwise recognize her. She might even be able to meet Ulric before her actions betrayed her.

Skye felt guilty for lying her way through her escort’s polite questions as he took her all the way onto the platform and paused there for more pleasantries before he finally gave up and left. During that conversation, she was able to spot two likely agents behind him—a ram and a bull—at the bottom of a set of stairs that lead up to a mezzanine overlooking the main hall. The enclosed office above probably had another one up there conducting surveillance. They’d detailed plenty enough muscle to bring in a lone wolf if he balked.

She slowly wandered over to loiter by a roof pillar on the platform that provided her with some cover from them. Once there, she worried that she’d gone too far along it if Ulric got off near the front of the train, but really didn’t want to move back closer to the agents. It was too late now anyway, she saw the train as it approached from outside—a couple of minutes early. Skye stayed where she was as it switched onto the track for her platform and eased to a stop. She held her sign up high as a flood of passengers exited and engulfed her.

Skye felt a distinct tap on her placard as she watched over a shoulder at the passengers leaving the forward car. A middle-aged wolf stood close by with a quizzical expression.

“I know this name; who are you and why are you here with it?” His voice was curious and higher pitched than one would expect for his size.

“Professor Ulric?” His widened eyes as he slightly drew back confirmed that for her. She leaned in, up on her toes, muzzle towards his ear. “I’m ZBI, and know all about the Fairfield meat farm discovery and the cover-up of your investigation into it. There’s a broader conspiracy to make all evidence of that disappear, and you are walking into a trap here. We need to find someplace safe so I can explain more of this to you.”

Ulric stared open mouthed at her for several seconds without comment, as the flow of mammals around them started to thin. Thankfully, this train had been filled to capacity and there was another within the station that added to the throng of mammals.

“We need to move now so we can use the crowd for cover,” Skye said more urgently as she stowed her sign and tugged at his arm. “There’s a bull and a ram at the base of the stairs ahead waiting to meet you and take you into custody once they get you someplace less public. I can’t explain further if we’re both caught and thrown in jail!”   

He moved at her urging, muzzle still agape. “Take my arm professor, and stay close to that pair of horses! We’ll go left when we get to the concourse.” She raised and slid her arm within his, which seemed to stir him a little. Her initial relief over their easy contact, since he’d seen and approached her first, was tempered by the realization that they were still a long way from safety. “Give me that specimen case, and block their view of me! Keep your big one. Come on! I’m not going to steal it; you have my arm. And don’t look at them!”

They made the turn, and several paces more before there was an abrupt commotion behind them—Skye looked—they’d been spotted and the bull plowed through the throng towards them amid shouts and thumps as he shoved mammals aside. She let go of a now motivated Professor Ulric and they broke and ran. A meaty thud and grunt from behind might have been helpful, but she didn’t turn to see. They wove through the congestion and dashed down the passage that led back to the regional transit station.

“They’re running—going for the local platform!” a deep voice bellowed above the general uproar. “Get the car over there!” Skye glanced about as they sprinted and suddenly spotted an emergency exit halfway along—she pointed and nudged Ulric towards it.

“This way everybody!” Skye shouted as loudly as she could over the clamor of voices, “Clear the area!” The wolf slowed and used both paws to shove his suitcase up into the bar for the largest door—he ignored the inset smaller one. He shouldered it open and set off its alarm. “Follow us, get outside!” Ulric barked out as he grasped her intent.

“To this exit! Clear the area!” Skye cried again and looked back to see that several mammals had followed behind them—and hoped they would be enough to impede their pursuers. They ran down a short lane between the stations to the street and turned onto the sidewalk, the alarm clearly audible behind them. “Some kind of big fight in the station back there! Rampaging bull!” she told the startled mammals outside as they slowed to a trot.

“We need to keep moving professor, Cherry Creek Mall’s about a mile and a half away and the food court should be noisy enough for privacy,” Skye said as soon as they had some space around them. “We have some decisions to make.” She hoped the various witnesses would take her words to heart and pin the blame for the commotion on the agents—she’d just committed one felony for the cause; there’d be more if anyone had gotten hurt.

They jogged across the light rail tracks and looked back, several dozen mammals stood or milled about in front of the main station as others still exited. Well behind, an unmarked car first honked, then flipped on a siren to work its way through the crowd, so she pulled Ulric off the sidewalk to use the landscaping for cover. They crossed the first major street mid block through a gap in traffic and turned down to the next to get out of sight faster. They rounded that corner before she brought them to a stop.

 “See if you can squeeze this into my backpack. I want it out of sight,” Skye insisted. His damn case actually had ‘Piedmont University Biology Dept.’ printed on it! She held it out and turned away from him a bit. “Glad I found you first professor, you can call me Stella for now,” she said before Ulric restrained her with a firm paw on her shoulder. He set down his luggage with the other and took back the specimen case.

“Whoever you actually are Stella, I need some assurance of your own motives before I go any further with you! What do you want and what do you know about those individuals who chased us.” Ulric’s paw shifted to grab hold of one of her backpack straps as he carefully looked around the street. “How did you know I was coming!”

“Emails. I also saw the package you sent to Doctor Alder,” Skye said distinctly. “He briefed me thoroughly on its significance. I used his name on my sign instead of yours to avoid attracting unwanted attention! Your other package went to the National Museum. One of your colleagues there—we don’t know which one—alerted those trying to gather and suppress all this information. I was assigned as part of that effort and realized it was a more organized continuation of last year’s anti predator conspiracy. I among others are working to expose this corruption in our own agency!” She retrieved her badgeholder to show him.

Ulric’s expression and released grip showed his acceptance. He stuffed the case in her pack before she pointed him to the other side of the street. “Follow me from over there so no one else sees us together. We’ll take it slowly and casually from now on.” He crossed over and they resumed meandering along the busiest streets they could lose themselves on.

Once in the mall, Skye sought out the bathrooms so they could alter their appearance in case a description of them had been released to the district police. She simply removed a light top layer worn for that purpose and went right back out. Ulric took awhile longer and had utilized his suitcase to change his whole outfit. She was pleased how seriously he took their situation as they headed for the food court escalator.

Skye finished off her dessert smoothie while Jarvis, as he’d finally been able to introduce himself, bused the small table and disposed of the trash. It might look like he was being overly fastidious, but the wolf professor seemed to need the calming effect of routine activities. He’d only asked occasional questions while she had filled in details about the conspiracy and why he’d been targeted. Her binder and a regular pen were out, and she’d jotted aimlessly at those times to give the impression of business being conducted. As usual, the many mammals around them had ignored her and her ‘client’.  

Now she had to get him to the address she assumed was Nick Wilde’s new lodgings. Jack had replied with that as soon as she’d sent out her ‘success’ and ‘safe’ codes once they’d arrived here. Her mate had obviously worked with Kristen to swiftly back her up and find Nick—and Ulric—a hopefully safe bolthole.

A forty-minute bus ride would put them under the cloak of night when she dropped the professor and his evidence off at an unobtrusive stop. Ulric would walk the last several blocks alone with only her directions in paw. Once there, Wilde would assume the responsibility to get him to a safer place—he’d said he wanted to be useful! She presumed sending him on to Zootopia would be best—but of course they’d continue to keep her in the dark about developments.

Because the conspirators would be out for blood after today’s botched operation, and hers would at least partially slake their thirst. After all, the station had security cameras, and they had certainly recorded a suspiciously familiar vixen who’d conveniently wandered in at just the right time. So Skye, if you thought you’d been set up for a fall before…

Their whole resistance effort had been put at risk by her actions today. There was no plausible way she could have known about Ulric’s arrival on her own—say—by emails found on Dr. Alder’s computer. So they would all be suspect now. Had Jack realized any of this when he’d called? Right, her phone, Skye realized. She composed a message to their scattered group that basically said ‘Delivery soon, I’m screwed, going silent’ then deleted everything but Wilde’s contact and presented it to her fellow fugitive.

“Give this to Officer Wilde when you get there, I won’t need it anymore. He’s a red fox made up to look older than he is and will be staying there under the name Holcroft.

“May your pack always run strong Professor Ulric.” He smiled at her use of the wolf honorific, and offered her his paw as they got up. He followed her at a distance to the bus stop, where she relinquished his case before they boarded. They’d ride separately until she’d yawn to signal his exit. She planned to remain onboard for awhile after that.

They’d be waiting for her at the condominium tonight. Best to stay away, then maybe go out in public tomorrow and hope for the dubious protection of a more visible arrest.




10:54 Tuesday morning at the Waterford Park archery range in Happytown.

Not as bad as I’d feared Vivian thought, as she sat high in the stands and watched the competitors and referees finish preparations for the day’s tryouts. Everything had changed enough to blunt some of the resurgent memories. She was also with three neighbors she knew, and two other’s she couldn’t place—they’d all noticed her when they’d arrived and had come up to sit with her.

She’d last been here with John—almost thirty years ago now—it was for the fall tournament, he’d almost made it past the fourth round then. She smiled slightly—his tailor’s fingers were as deft with a bowstring as they were in the shop.

Hers weren’t bad, although she’d missed qualifying both times she tried. No shame there—only those already in the advanced category could attempt to. When John had first reached that level himself, which allowed him to offer instruction to novices like her, it hadn’t taken long to notice the particular interest he’d taken in one student. Private coaching soon followed, then time together away from the range—their bond was an inevitable one and her acceptance of him and the Wilde name came swiftly.

 Nicholas had fidgeted his way through the first and only tournament they’d taken him to. They hadn’t been the only set of parents to alternate minding their progeny with straddling the line, since other than lightweight toys, fox kits couldn’t participate in serious archery until after age ten. That was to ensure that the repetitive strain from regular use of a bow wouldn’t interfere with their proper growth.

Once he’d reached that age, the bows had already been packed away for years, and he’d shown little interest in any more organized activities after his futile attempt to join the Ranger Scouts.  She’d been selfishly thankful for that; it would have been difficult to return here with just him then.

I would never have considered it now, but for all those messages yesterday.

It had started with a coded one from the chief of police last Saturday morning, shortly after the news of Nicholas’s criminal charges and fugitive status had been made public. It simply stated; Stay in place—do nothing. She’d endured three days of lies and speculation all across the media, along with aggressive interview attempts at her very door. She would have been devastated if not for her prior knowledge of the conspiracy and their resistance.

A substantial reward is offered for information leading to the arrest…

 The official accusations and innuendo—had not only implicated her son and maligned everything he’d worked so hard to achieve, but had also tried to smear other officers at the ZPD by association. It had to have been a well-orchestrated public relations effort by the conspirators, set-up before their failed attempt to arrest Nicholas.

His freedom was only a small victory, since she was again separated from her son and he from his new mate, with a significant chance that it would be a lengthy, or permanent one. Skye, Jack, and Kristen had also left her as the lone…active subversive in the city. Her new family member, and sudden but real friendships, all had been taken away again.

Throughout yesterday, there had been occasional brief texts between them—there had to be more that didn’t include her—that had brought on hours of overwrought imaginings about what had transpired so far away.

Don’t reply Vivian, she’d decided, events have to be too serious for you to distract them right now.

Skye’s final message late that afternoon—from a younger vixen she’d felt an almost immediate connection with—had brought home for all of them the personal cost that activities over the past few days had mostly kept at bay. The night had been a horrible, fitful one—she knew she couldn’t bear to be alone any longer and had left the house at daybreak.

She’d wandered her immediate neighborhood and wondered whom she might bother at that hour for the company she needed. It was too early to head for the diner—she’d been given the week off anyway considering the circumstances—then she’d remembered their window flyer for the spring tournament this week. The walk there would fill in the time.

Vivian knew a significant percentage of the community would come even for the first day of tryouts; the tournaments were not only important to their fox culture, but they were the most prominent of the few positive attributes Happytown could put on display for the rest of Zootopia.

The work done over her long absence to upgrade the park and range seemed to have succeeded. In the past she remembered; only some other canids and a few big cats had joined the preponderance of foxes on the line. Now the event seemed larger, with several more species participating.

To her surprise, they ranged in size from a large weasel or mongoose, up through a skunk, wolverine, and several raccoons, all the way to an antelope and a kudu. There was no doubt, the bovines carried custom bows, and one appeared to have a string release mechanism for their hoof. Nimble fingers no longer seemed to be a requirement for what many mammals had long regarded as an exclusive sport for reclusive foxes.

Still, it was a good sign for the future that the rules had been relaxed to be more inclusive. They needed as much of the broader community’s support as they could get here. It was just frustrating that for every slow improvement in larger society, there seemed to be these periodic stampedes in the other direction.

Vivian’s phone blipped as the first arrows were loosed. She pulled it out; it was from the chief and the text consisted of the words ‘Come prepared’. It seemed that the tournament and police officials were equally punctual this morning.

“I’m sorry, I was expecting this,” she told her supporters. “Police interview about Nicholas, I knew they’d have questions.” Vivian stood amid words of sympathy, “Don’t worry, they’re not the ones after him, the news said that other officers are under suspicion too!”  She lifted her eyes from them, spotted a brown-furred hare on the field by the corner of the stands and sat back down.

“He is though,” she pointed out the plainclothes hare as he carefully scanned between the latest arrivals and the seated crowd. “I’ve seen him watching my house for the past few days! I think I must have slipped him this morning and he’s trying to find me again.” Her irrepressible smile was reciprocated.

“Want us to run interference so you can leave?” said the Todd from the middle-aged couple she didn’t recall.

“He looks kinda pervy,” said her younger neighbor Catherine. “I can go report him.”

“Oh yeah, he’s got a camera. Better see what’s on it!” said Renae—Vanya’s daughter.

“Yes, go with that, he certainly won’t want anyone to check it!” Vivian added. Nods were soberly exchanged, and the two younger vixens rose and worked their way down the stands. The couple followed a minute later and she went shortly after. That hare was a problem and he was about to be hit with a five fox—no six fox, as she was followed down—solution.

Renae briefly stopped to speak with a seventh, who joined their team of character assassins, then went straight to the biggest yellow vest wearing staff-mammal she could find—a wolf. Vivian had worried about keeping her grin under control, but not any more—she now felt slightly sorry for her watchful hare. She stepped down to ground level and slowed her approach to watch and listen to the initial skirmish.

“That’s him, he just stared at me real creepy as I went up the steps! And he kept doing it over and over to other vixens!” Renae started as she walked up with the wolf.

“Me too! He keeps looking at us in the seats. I think he took a picture of my tail when I walked by.” That was Catherine with a vest and frown equipped Todd in tow.

“I’ve done no such thing! I just got here and I’m waiting for my friend,” the hare stated.

“Yes you have! You keep watching the stands through that thing! You’ve never even looked toward the archers!” their last recruit chimed in.

He must have been using its zoom lens to search for her, Vivian thought. Bad move on the hare’s part—it only helped justify their impromptu retribution. Did he really think he could pick me out from all the other vixens—there were several here around her age, and the hare certainly hadn’t gotten that good a look at her before.

The couple arrived as reinforcements. “Check his camera! I think he upskirted my mate!”

“If he got me I want it deleted!” Catherine immediately tossed into the mix as she recorded the confrontation with her smartphone—to the hare’s dismay.

“Who knows what else he’s got in there. Jeez, what a perv, you think a rabbit could get some from his own!” came from the first row in the stands. There were a few snickers from the now mostly silent crowd. “He’s short enough to sneak those kinda shots!” added Renae.

“Back off now!” the hare shouted and slapped a foot, set off by the insults, “I’m engaged in legitimate law enforcement activity and you all could be arrested for interference!”

A gift from above—Vivian couldn’t resist as she paused near the gaggle. “I thought you had gray fur Officer Hopps,” she said as soon as he was faced away—to more laughter.

“You’d better have some ID and a warrant if you’re looking for someone,” stated the wolf firmly as he reached out. “Or I call the ZPD right now!”

“I’m a Federal Officer and touching me’s a felony assault!” the brown hare’s voice had a note of fear to it as his ears dropped—his loose circle of accusers hadn’t contracted, but did slowly fill in with more foxes. He hastily dug a badge out and started to show it around before he was completely blocked from her sight.

Vivian turned and walked calmly away from the now hemmed in hare—for the second time you cheeky fox! It had taken little effort, that inept lesser had mostly exposed himself, along with his ZBI, to the community. They’d be on watch from now on so she should feel more secure at home. Her mood lifted, she sent an acknowledgement to the chief as she walked to the nearest transit station—just two stops from Savanna Central.

Five ‘til noon—she walked toward the massive façade of the police station as two news crews came the other way; likely thwarted given their glum expressions. One consisted of the gray rabbit correspondent she’d seen on one of the independent stations, along with her antelope camera mammal. The other was unfortunately that bellicose sheep reporter from channel nine and his crew. She walked rapidly past them, ears up and muzzle forward to avoid eye contact. Come prepared indeed. She’d watched more than enough news recently!

“Excuse me Ma’am!” the rabbit said from behind in a quavering tone that meant pursuit. “Are you a relation of Officer Wilde’s? Do you have any knowledge of his disappearance?”

Vivian made it to the doors first, only to find a now all too familiar ZNN field crew still inside the lobby. Their porcine reporter was talking with the portly cheetah that was her first point of contact. No choice; she walked over as that sheep closed in and bawled after her.

“Are you Mrs. Wilde? Are you here to give the police information on his whereabouts?” That instantly attracted the attention of the ZNN crew, who all turned towards her.   

She went right up to the reception desk as the ZNN crew backed away—to presumably frame her without having their rivals in the shot. The reporter turned away to look into his camera as the other crews hastily prepped.

“This is Al Grunley at the ZPD’s precinct one where Mrs. Vivian Wilde has just arrived unescorted…”

He seemed certain about her, so at least they’d done their background work. Vivian used Grunley’s transient focus away from her to look at the officer Nicholas called Ben. The big cat now leaned forward to see her with both paws pressed on the desktop. He flicked his eyes from her down to them and slid one aside a little to reveal a sticky note stuck to the surface just behind it. A couple of seconds later the note vanished as he straightened up and collected himself. “Can I he…” he started.

“I want to see your chief! Right now!” she shouted at him and banged balled paws on the desk. “I’ve called and called and kept being cut off or given the run-around!” She ignored the reporter’s shouts and waved a finger at his muzzle. “I’m here now and I’m going to find out what happened to my son!” Vivian took the note’s words to heart—make a scene.

“Please calm down Ma’am, I can contact our public affairs officer to help answer…”

“I want to speak with someone in authority! Now! I won’t let you hide what’s happened to my only family!” She leapt onto his desk without breaking eye contact, then took another step to force the dismayed Cheetah back against the pillar with its ZPD emblem. “Who’s taken Nicholas and where is he? He’s not a criminal and he wouldn’t run like they’re all saying!” She waved a paw behind her as a boom microphone was shoved over her head.

“I’m sorry, we’re not handling this case, you’ll have to contact…”

“Mrs. Wilde, please, when did you last see Officer Wilde? Has he contacted you?”

Within twenty seconds her arms were firmly pinioned by an elephant trunk which lifted her off the desk and deposited her back onto the floor. The officer’s bulk shielded her from the cameras as she was taken into custody and led deeper into the station. She was grateful that at least the conclusion of this episode wouldn’t make the evening news.

Their first stop was surprisingly the precinct’s break room, where it was suggested she get some lunch from the vending machines. The elephant chose a sheaf from the largest one.

“Glad you jumped up on the desk; made it look more reasonable for me to arrest you. Who suggested that?” the officer—Pennington, by her uniform tag—said conversationally.

“That was me. I assume all this was to keep them from asking too many questions?”

“Absolutely Mrs. Wilde, not the first time I’ve been called in to…interpose with the press. We’ll need to wait a few minutes, so go ahead and get something—it’s on us.”

She did, as she’d skipped breakfast earlier. It was good to have exposed the ZBI hare at the range; so she didn’t find this latest charade that much of a surprise. Even so, her apprehension about her imminent meeting remained—the chief’s public reputation alone justified that; let alone Nicholas’s comments about him.

So much for your long quiet life Vivian—what Vanya liked to call our halcyon days; and you, your lonely ones. It became so much better last year when Nicholas came home, his life turned around; you were finally content…a small but happy family again after so long. Good comes to those who wait, and it was worth it. You knew Judy would soon become a part of it and she was welcome—you would each be stronger together.

Perhaps I should start a diary for us. Dear diary: first entry, Tuesday, April twenty-fifth. I’m sitting in the police station having just been arrested for disorderly conduct and threatening an officer. My only son Nicholas has lost his first decent job and fled the city, a fugitive from the ZBI accused of drug trafficking. His new mate has left and returned to her family far away where she must keep her perverted relationship with him secret. Oh, and two family friends are under surveillance by government agents because we are all conspiring against it to protect society from collapse!

Quite a lot had changed in just a week.

The breakneck pace of recent events and urgent tasks had not allowed her to fully absorb the serious turn all of their lives had taken. It had finally caught up with her last night and nearly crushed her in the false security of her own home. She’d had no choice but to leave and continue her run down this trail—to preserve her sanity and fight for their well beings. She looked up to find Officer Pennington awaiting her notice.

“I need to deliver a brief statement to the press about you Mrs. Wilde, then I will be back to take you downstairs.” She was left alone to wonder what the various officers in the station might know about the conspiracy. For them it might be no more than a vague sense of unease that society was about to go off the rails again. Vivian wondered if any of them suspected the depth of Nicholas’s or even her involvement.

She was taken down past several holding cells—the smell of alcohol and feline revealed that at least one was occupied—and left in a room at the end that had a stepped table and a range of reasonably comfortable chairs on either side. All were bolted to the floor.

It wasn’t long before the secure door clicked open again and the chief entered. Nicholas hadn’t exaggerated, chief Bogo was an imposing mammal—each of his arms was as big as she was and one carried two thick large format books that she might find rather difficult to lift.

He took the largest seat on his side with a slight metallic groan of protest, and set the books in front of him. They watched each other critically across the wider end of the table for over a minute before he deigned to speak.

“This room provides for Attorney Client privilege, so we may speak freely here Mrs. Wilde.” His voice was as full-bodied as he was, with a noticeable accent. He pushed one of the books closer to her and turned it so she could read the title.

 ‘Department of Justice—Court Reference Series Vol. Nine: Interspecies Case Law’.

“This one is representative,” the Cape buffalo continued in a manner that disallowed interruption. “I have found within these pages at least four separate reasons why I should have you arrested and placed in one of our cells.” His flint-hard hoof pushed the other forward.

City of Zootopia—Police Standards and Practices’.

“This one contains five reasons why I should be in my own along with you.” Chief Bogo pulled the books back, stacked them, and folded his massive arms on top. It appeared he was going to rest his chin on them, but he caught himself and continued to watch her.

“I took an oath to serve and protect all the citizens of Zootopia. I have decided that supercedes these. Our other four sworn officers and agents have made that same choice. That leaves Dr. Soren and you as the untrained civilians caught up in this mess that I must still rely on. Your performance in the lobby with Officer Clawhauser has helped relieve my concerns about you—that was well-done. I believe you have adequately convinced the media that you have not been in contact with your son, which should take most of their pressure off you.” The formidable presence across from her managed to give her a sympathetic look.

“Unfortunately, recent circumstances require me to reimpose that pressure. Your role is now as important as any of ours if we are to succeed. Can you deal with that Mrs. Wilde?”

Nick had warned her that the chief was a blunt speaker. She was being evaluated and should speak carefully. “Other mammals treat us rather unfairly, but they do mostly allow foxes to live our lives among them,” Vivian said as she watched for his reaction. “We both know society has problems chief, but my working with you to try and preserve it is the only way for me to protect my son and his…partners, since they’ve left.” Oh cuss! He noticed that!  “So yes, what must I do now?”

“Savage said he’d fully briefed you last Thursday; much has happened since then. I assume you saw some of our com traffic yesterday? Good. He found that the investigator of Fairfield—a Dr. Ulric—was about to unwittingly give himself up to the conspirators. Agent Winter successfully intercepted and delivered him to Officer Wilde who is now with him in a secure location. In doing so, she exposed herself to an immediate mammalhunt; and has unintentionally revealed our organized opposition to them. Which of us will be suspected and confronted first I don’t know. However, all of this remains a secondary concern due to your son’s discovery of this early Sunday morning.”

Chief Bogo took the police manual, removed a thin folder from under its cover, and slid it over. Inside were a few poor nighttime photo enlargements, a page of text, and a map.  

“This package was paw-delivered to Officer Clawhauser as soon as he came on duty this morning—by a pair of young rabbit bucks. Agent Savage wisely assumed that all my electronic communications are insecure now and recruited those members of officer Hopps’ family as couriers. I am grateful for his and Wilde’s haste and care getting this to me, as it’s the most crucial and horrifying intelligence I have ever received. With this, they have given us a fighting chance to overcome the conspiracy we face.”

Vivian looked at the photos—she didn’t find them either clear or shocking. There appeared to be a large facility under construction that contained many similar warehouse buildings. She started to read the page—and ultimately couldn’t finish Nicholas’ report.

“This isn’t new, they planned this for us all along…I mean us,” she said weakly and patted herself high on her chest. The chief acknowledged the divide she’d alluded to.

“Yes, an enormous prison for predators built in secret by vengeful prey mammals that have carefully seized positions of power,” chief Bogo confirmed. “They will also rely on the passive support of many other citizens that will allow this without protest. This conspiracy grows more involved as we uncover it—there are many questions about logistics, finances, and the depth of government involvement that need to be answered before we can know the full extent of their plans.” Like you, I already fear the worst for most predators, many my own officers, if we can’t stop this.”  

Her lunch was now a bilious lump. Would individuals be targeted first, or did they intend to go after whole species—either singly, or in related groups? Based on their own species, prey motivations could be simply to free themselves from ancient fears, contain those they felt were present threats, or be a malignant desire for retribution against all of us. Vivian wondered if the different species of conspirators ever argued among themselves about which ones of us they wanted removed first.

They couldn’t possibly confine all of us; we’re a minority within the total population, but still number in the millions across the country. Would that mean they’d…?

“We no longer have the luxury of time,” Bogo said—and mercifully cut her thought short. “The conspirators are aware of us, but thankfully not about all we know. The ZBI has already substantially reduced my freedom to act through surveillance of and frequent visits to this station and possibly others. Several of my officers have endured reopened investigations and interrogations based on previously resolved citizen complaints. For the benefit of public perception, a few prey officers were included in their sweep as window dressing; they have been cleared. As the largest non-federal law enforcement agency that could oppose them, they have considerable incentive to hobble my ZPD.

“I must maintain my place and visibility here to protect my officers from these accusations and push back where I can, so I will give you several assignments to perform in my stead. Use your own initiative and coordinate with the rest of the team as best you can—we cannot meet here again—deputy officer Wilde.”

Vivian didn’t let Bogo’s serious manner faze her. Something in his voice betrayed a hint of fear over his inability to control events. She’d been told about the chief’s commanding manner and earlier distrust of foxes; and now he had been forced to put his full faith in not only her, but Skye, Nicholas, and even his little co-hustler Finnick. His almost ridiculous attempt to convey the gravity of their situation with that rank he’d laid on her showed the extent of his uncertainty and worries.

“I’ll get it done chief, I already took care of the ZBI hare that was tailing me,” Vivian said evenly to help soothe his anxiety. “What do I need to do for you first?”

“A ZBI agent had you under observation and you took care of him?” Bogo loudly recognized her mistake and shoved a hoof at her. “Tell me exactly what you did!” She shied back and waved her paws at his outburst.

“We didn’t hurt him, we were out in public! He’d lost sight of me earlier and was trying to find me among the spectators at the spring tournament. Tryouts are today and most of the community was there. After I spotted him, several of us went down separately and complained to the staff that he was harassing vixens and taking pictures of them. They forced him to show his ID. Now everybody in my neighborhood will know who he is and what he was doing to me.”

“Just to be clear Mrs. Wilde. You publicly exposed a non-Savage ZBI hare as a sexual deviant with a vixen fetish? A hint of a smile struggled onto the chief’s broad muzzle. “Great Spirit, please let there be some mammal with a video of that!”

“Definitely not Jack Savage—this one’s brown furred.” Did the chief suspect Jack and Skye? “My friend’s daughter has it all on her cellphone! I’m sure she’d be willing to help.”

“Excellent! If we could review that first, then have her release it to the media, perhaps with appropriate statements from her friends; it would fit well with this.” He passed her another paper. “Agent Winter discovered that Ex Mayor Lionheart has also been transferred—perhaps illegally and unknown to the media—into federal custody. Fabienne Growley would be grateful if you were to pass this scoop on to her. Today ideally—we need to buy time, and these events might help to discredit and distract our ZBI conspirators.”  

Chief Bogo drew her back to the prison photos. “Our top priority. This evidence isn’t good enough to go public with. We need convincing proof that can’t be explained away as these could be. High quality aerial images would be a good start. Infiltration on the ground would be better, although that may no longer be possible now that they have been alerted—we were fortunate your son got away with what he did.”

“Wouldn’t agent Savage be the best one to contact for this?” Vivian asked, aware she’d be involved regardless.

“Of course, I would expect him to equip and fly on the mission. But it needs to be arranged in advance, which neither he nor I can afford to do. It will be your task to meet with and convince Derreck Growley to not only assist us by providing his aircraft, but to keep this operation and the existence of the prison secret from his nosy mate Fabienne. We cannot succeed Mrs. Wilde, unless we maintain control over the release of our evidence!

“The timing of all this will be critical. All meetings and trips need to be done in secret and kept brief.” Savage must remain visibly engaged with his ZBI cohorts in Bunnyburrow, and you must remain frequently visible within your own community here to avoid suspicion. If you come under surveillance again and need to evade it, make it appear unintentional! Otherwise, pay no further attention to it.”  Bogo glanced at the clock behind her, as he’d been doing for the past fifteen minutes.

“It’s almost one and I must appear back on duty. Your performance has likely made the broadcast news by now, which means that I can expect another visit from Chief Tarija. Wait. Someone will escort you out once it is clear.” Chief Bogo hefted his books, put a hoof on the door handle and turned to her.

“One last thing Mrs. Wilde, how many foxes have I found myself relying on lately?”

Vivian let several seconds drag by. She looked up at the chief and couldn’t resist a slow wave of her tail. “I believe eleven so far.” The door clicked shut behind him.