NOTE: THE TIMES LISTED BELOW ARE IMPORTANT.
12:45, Tuesday afternoon
Chief Bogo carefully squared away the paperwork on his otherwise spotless desk, except for a few reports placed in front of him. He then folded his hooves and stared down over his spectacles at Nick and Judy. The early afternoon sun slanted through the blinds of the one window, forming a warm and inviting patch on the rug in the corner of his office. As usual, Nick sat in his favorite spot by the filing cabinet, while Judy sat at attention in what the officers, out of earshot of their captain, privately called the “interrogation chair.” Small flakes of dried mud fluttered off her neoprene uniform and gathered into a small pile in front of her chair, sullying the otherwise pristine carpet.
“You requested an urgent meeting with me,” the buffalo said without preamble, apparently choosing to ignore the mud. “I was under the impression you’d received clear and precise instructions on how to wrap up this case, but apparently you think differently. You,” he turned to Judy, “basically forced Clawhauser to call up and check if I was free.” He raised his hooves. “As it so happens, I’m between two scheduled crises right now. Officer Hopps, make this meeting worth my time.”
Nick glanced sidelong at Judy, who sat ramrod straight and didn’t return his gaze at all. In fact, during the five minutes they’d waited outside, she’d stood apart from him politely but firmly, rebuffing any attempts to explain what she’d been up to this morning.
“Thank you for meeting us on such short notice, sir,” Judy said crisply. “Something’s come up that needs your involvement right away.”
Bogo’s ear merely flicked as he stared down toward Judy.
“I’ve become aware of a conflict of interest that may compromise the legal integrity of the case we’ve been working on.”
“The arson case.”
“Yes, sir. You see, it turns out that Officer Wilde was once married to an important person of interest in the case, but hasn’t previously disclosed this relationship.”
The temperature in the room fell a few degrees. Nick’s neutral smile turned wooden.
Bogo turned to his desktop computer, shoving his spectacles onto his forehead. After a few moments, he shot an intense stare at Nick. “What was the name of your ex-wife, and when were you married?” Nick, who had been watching Judy out of the corner of his eye, started at the cutting tone of his superior.
“Sagebrush Water, sir. She was the mother of the kit I, I mean, we, rescued from the recent apartment fire.” After a pause, he continued. “We were married for around a year and a half, and we ended it a little over a decade ago.”
Bogo’s stare remained pinned on Nick.
“Furthermore,” Judy cut in, and both fox and buffalo pivoted to face her. Clearing her throat, paws clasped together on her lap, she spoke a bit more strongly. “Furthermore, while he was married, Officer Wilde posed as a coyote in order to illegally obtain welfare benefits. If you review the attachment I just emailed you, you’ll see a photo on the original welfare application.”
Nick could no longer suppress his astonishment, and now stared openly at Judy, who resolutely refused to meet his earnest eyes. The Cape buffalo’s chair creaked as he pivoted again back to his screen. After a few more mouse clicks, the two partners both saw a crisp black and white ID photo of a cocky coyote. Bogo eyed the photo, critically, his brow gradually contracting, but otherwise did not make a sound for a long time.
“Munches on Blueberries,” he finally growled. He quickly swiped through several digital files.
“His pseudonym, yes,” Judy answered.
Bogo was busy at the computer again.
“I have your original ZPD application online here, Officer Wilde,” he grunted, “along with your pre-employment background investigation.” He frowned as he fast-forwarded through the pages. “I remember what a mess this thing was. It’d make a book if we ever printed it out.” He huffed. “Would be easy for me to overlook something like this. So are you claiming, Officer Hopps, that Officer Wilde never disclosed this information?”
Bogo looked askance at Wilde. “Do you, Officer Wilde, admit that you did not disclose this previous marriage, false identify, or welfare fraud during your background check?”
Nick struggled internally with himself for a second, then squared his shoulders. “No, I did not, sir,” he said curtly but calmly.
“What welfare benefits were claimed, and when?”
“If you look at the other attachments I sent, sir-” Judy began.
“I think I’m gonna want to hear this from Wilde’s muzzle directly,” interrupted Bogo. “Well?”
Licking his chops nervously, Nick replied, “It was kit support benefits, sir, to support an actual kit of Sagebrush Water.”
“Your wife at the time.”
“Yes. Sir.” Bogo waited, but Nick volunteered nothing else.
“For how long and for how much?”
“Um, I extracted benefits for four years, two years after my initial divorce, which would be about ten years ago. I can’t remember the exact amount off the top of my head, but I think it was a total of a few tens of thousands of dollars.”
The room fell gravely silent once more.
“You think,” deadpanned Bogo.
Judy took a deep breath. “Actually-”
Fox and buffalo turned again.
“Actually, that’s not true.”
A pregnant pause, and then Bogo’s chair creaked again as he swiveled back to Judy.
“This morning I learned that Officer Wilde has been receiving these benefits under his assumed name for over a decade, including up and through yesterday morning.” She paused. “So he’s been receiving benefits during the entire time he’s been enrolled as a ZPD officer.” There was no mistaking the brittleness in her voice.
Nick’s ears flagged upward, along with his tail. “Wait, what?”
Bogo removed the glasses from his forehead and squeezed his temples, looking suddenly quite tired.
“Officer Hopps, when did you first become aware of this situation? Was it this morning?”
“No, two days ago, sir.” She continued to sit ramrod straight, ears erect, attention focused squarely on Bogo, as if he were the only mammal in the room. “I first became aware of the existence of the marriage and fake identity while searching a database while on bed rest.” She hesitated, then spoke more carefully. “I confronted Officer Wilde last night with this information, and he verbally confirmed it, as well as revealed his welfare scheme…” She was silent for a moment, searching for the right words. “I made the judgment at the time not to report this information, as I was led to believe that the scheme had taken place long ago, before Officer Wilde had even met me or had even joined the ZPD. But this morning, Peter Hodges, my contact at the Hall of Records, provided additional files that indicated that the welfare scam and false identity had remained in place up through only yesterday, and so Officer Wilde had continued this scheme while a sworn officer of the ZPD”.
“That’s not true!” barked Nick.
“These are the files that I just emailed to you recently, that you’re looking at now,” Judy continued, as if Nick hadn’t spoken. “At that point, I felt that I had to report this information at the earliest possible moment. And so, here we are.”
“I’m not getting any benefits now!”
Bogo slammed a hoof onto his desk, silencing Wilde, but otherwise said nothing. He turned slowly to Nick.
“Wilde, do you admit that you did not report a previous marriage, false identity, and welfare fraud on your ZPD application?”
Nick hesitated as he worked his way through the grammar.
“Yes, but like I said, that was over a decade ago-”
“The ‘yes’ is all I need,” Bogo snapped, slicing Nick off. For a moment, the chief seemed at a loss for words. Then, he seemed to reach an internal decision. He pressed a button on his desk phone.
“Ben, I need you to patch me through to Robbins at District 4,” he grunted. “And send up two on-duty officers to my office,” he added, releasing the button before Clawhauser could reply.
Nick leaned urgently toward Judy.
“Judy, I swear, whatever that rabbit showed you, it’s gotta be fake. I told you everything last night-”
“I’ll need to relay this situation to District 4 right away,” broke in Bogo, as Judy sat stone-faced. “Since this case’s jurisdiction is transferring to them in just a few hours, they’ll have to make the final call as to whether this investigation has been fatally compromised.” He cleared his throat. “Officer Wilde, you are hereby suspended without pay from all forms of ZPD duty, pending further notice.”
There was a knock on the door, and McHorn and Delgato entered, the latter looking slightly nervous.
“Look, sir, if this is about that whoopie cushion in the coffee room-” the large cat began.
“Shut it,” grunted Bogo. “Officer Wilde, these two officers are to escort you to the temporary holding cells.” He turned to the startled officers. “Officer Wilde is going to be detained for at least 24 hours, so make sure he has adequate provisions and linens during that time.”
“Sir?” Delgato said, eyes widening as he looked at Nick.
“You heard me. I’m detaining Officer Wilde as part of a disciplinary and possibly criminal investigation, and I believe he represents a potential flight risk.” He turned to the fox. “I have the right to detain you for 24 hours, after which I will need to file formal charges. I hope for your sake, and for the reputation of foxes everywhere, that I don’t have to.”
“I’ve been framed,” Nick said steadily. Firmly.
“I don’t care,” said Bogo. “McHorn, after securing Wilde, I want you to locate and bring in this-” he glanced down at some notes, “-Peter Hodges, a rabbit working in the Hall of Records. Officer Hopps will be joining you shortly at the dispatch desk to assist you. Hopps, wait here for a moment. I need a word with you alone.”
He gestured toward the open door and stared pointedly at McHorn, Delgato, and Wilde. “Go.”
Nick stood up. “Don’t believe this, Judy!” he hissed frantically, oblivious to the stares and glares from the other officers. “You gotta trust me-”
His partner roused herself from her self-absorption.
“I did,” she said tonelessly. “Twice. Strike three, Wilde.”
The trio trooped out the door, McHorn casting an uncertain glance at Judy before gently shutting the door behind them. Before the door completely closed, the rabbit gave a last parting look.
“I’m sorry I ever asked for your forgiveness on top of that bridge, long ago.” Nick’s eyes widened in shock, and then the door clicked shut.
Bogo and Judy were now alone in the office, the young rabbit staring glassy-eyed at the floor. She heaved what might have been a sigh, what might have been a sob.
The chief’s grim expression softened, and he rose, grabbed a box of tissues, and dropped them in the ample space of the enormous chair enveloping Judy. “Internal Affairs is going to have to conduct a review of your actions as well, Hopps. They’ll want to know why you waited nearly a day to report this, and even then, why you only reported it once it was clear that a civilian was going to report it anyway.” Judy didn’t look up or respond. “I have a feeling that it’s all going to be a formality. I know this must have been a difficult decision for you.”
“He was my friend,” she said quietly, “and he’s saved my life and career time and time again. But-”
“-but he was forcing you to choose between the ZPD and him. The law and him,” Bogo finished. He turned toward the window, hooves held behind his back. “It’s too bad. I was actually starting to build some immunity to him and his juvenile antics. And foxes in general.” He pursed his lips. “You know, I once had to make a decision like yours, when I was a young, bright-eyed cop. Between friendship and my commitment to the law.” He paused. “I won’t lie, it still hurts to think about it. But each year, it hurts a little less. And I have no regrets about my choice.” He looked over his shoulder. “I can look myself in the eye at a mirror and not feel guilt. Long-term, that’s worth it.”
He turned back. “You’re a good cop, Hopps, and it’d be a shame if this incident turned you into a cynic so early into your career. Time enough for that.” Judy looked up, faintly puzzled, wondering whether her superior had actually attempted a joke. A hoof gently pressed onto her shoulder.
“Sometimes mammals let you down, but you know, other times they can surprise you and exceed your expectations and prejudices. Don’t let this… tragedy… change who you are too much.”
He might have intended his words to be encouraging, but Judy only slumped further in her chair. Bogo studied her defeated form.
“You’re off duty until tomorrow. Go home, rest, or walk around in the sunshine, do whatever rabbits do to put things in perspective. Be back in the bullpen tomorrow.” He opened the door, and Judy trudged out, absently rubbing a small rubber wristband.
12:25, Tuesday afternoon, twenty minutes earlier
Nicholas P Wilde sauntered into the ZPD headquarters, feeling like a new fox. Well, at least like a slightly younger fox. True, his tail was still complaining about past ill-treatment, but still, it was remarkable what wonders a shower, a clean set of clothes, and three lattes could do on your outlook. To his surprise, their complicated plan seemed to be proceeding unusually smoothly. Back at the hospital, Fennel had returned to his bedside around an hour after Judy had left, spare uniform in one paw, and his charger in the other. While the phone had charged he had flirted, managing to text Judy the Photo (it seemed to deserve a capital letter at this point) without raising questions from the inquisitive (yet witty) vixen.
“Howdy, Hauser!” He leaned nonchalantly against Clawhauser’s station.
“Wilde! I thought you’d still be lying flat in a hospital bed!” grinned the portly cat.
“Too stupid to stay there. How’s things at the center of the universe?”
“Been hearing a lot about a real ugly flying fox underground.” He paused. “I never even thought it was possible to fly underground.” He turned his screen so Nick could see a now-familiar photo of him riding rodeo on a large bat, while Judy wrestled with its head. “Judy’s been giving you another workout, I see.” The dispatcher pointed to Nick’s shirtless torso. “At least it looks like it’s keeping you in shape,” he grinned, looking like an overfed Cheshire Cat. “The blogger certainly thinks so.”
“Is that Fennel’s Findings?”
“Yup. Looks like you got yourself a fan, Officer Wilde.”
“For today. I’m sure I’ll screw up soon. If there’s anything the press loves more than a hero, it’s a fallen hero.” He pointed toward the frozen image of Judy, staring straight ahead. “Speaking of our little wrecking ball, she in yet?”
The chubby cheetah shook his head. “Nope, but wasn’t expecting her either. Wasn’t she in the hospital too?”
“Yeah, but you know her. Just keeps going and going. So she hasn’t called in either?”
“Not a peep on either phone or radio,” Clawhauser said, perking an eyebrow. “Something up?”
Nick didn’t let his façade slip, but he was getting a bit worried. After receiving a brief text acknowledging receipt of the Photo, he hadn’t heard back from his partner at all. He knew how self-sufficient and capable she was, but still… she was usually religious about updating him on work-related issues.
Fennel was the only one to receive a text message. About an hour into her second visit, she had glanced at her phone and excused herself. After she had squeezed his paw lightly in farewell, she had paused at the doorway, giving him an odd, scrutinizing look, as if trying to memorize the details of his face. She had then left, leaving Nick with an oddly forlorn feeling.
Feeling restless, Nick had then scrambled into his spare uniform, persuaded a skeptical doctor to release him, and hovered over his phone as he took the public transit route to ZPD headquarters. He’d checked in with Finnick, who had let him know that Fennel had been discouragingly efficient in gathering his stuff, and disappointingly polite in refraining from tossing his apartment.
“Got some nice shots of her, though, that you might want to keep,” the deep bass voice had snickered. “Just for your own personal use.” Nick had chewed him out half-heartedly, but he had signed Finnick off quickly, since he still hadn’t heard from his partner. His calls to her had been routed to an annoyingly cheerful and upbeat voicemail set to Gazelle music. And now, as Clawhauser stared at him curiously, the vague unease which had been rumbling on the horizon developed into a low-grade storm of worry.
“You worried about her, Nick? I mean, the case you two were secretly working on… it’s done with, right?” the rotund dispatcher timorously asked, tapping on the bat visible on his computer display. “The suspect’s now in custody and confessed… or so I hear.”
“Technically, maybe…” smiled Nick between tight teeth.
“Then it’s probably nothing to worry about.” The feline abruptly brightened, sitting up straight, whiskers standing at attention. “In fact, there she is now!”
Relieved, Nick turned and saw the familiar outline of his partner entering through the front glass doors. She was vigorously rubbing her face with a towel while holding an intense conversation with Officer McHorn, who was walking ridiculously contorted as he struggled to bend over far enough in order to hear the diminutive rabbit. Nick frowned. She looked agitated, with shoulders uncharacteristically slumped, rubbing her wrist bracelet with some agitation. Then there was the small matter that the normally spit-and-polish bunny looked like she had just crawled through a mud trench.
While cleaning out one ear with the towel, she turned and spotted him—
“Police! Police Rabbit! Path walker! Help me!”
Sage Water – Wiley’s sister, Laffin’s mother, Nick’s ex-wife and all-around pain in the butt – stumbled through the doorway several meters behind the pair of officers. She looked unhinged, even by her usual standards, her tongue actually lolling out the side of her muzzle, panting. Even as Judy turned back toward the door, Nick accelerated his stride toward them, and McHorn placed a protective hoof in front of Judy, blocking her from Sage’s deranged murmurs. Both coyote and fox converged on Judy at the same time, and the three ZPD officers stood in a semicircle around the winded and panicked coyote.
“They are gone!” she whimpered. “All gone, like all the others! Help me, please!” she beseeched, actually dropping to her knees while attempting to reach out and grab Judy. McHorn started to loom between the predator and rabbit, but Nick slipped in front of Judy first.
“Hold on there, Sage, slow down,” he said firmly. “Who’s missing?”
She turned toward Nick, and to his surprise and unease he saw no hatred or disdain in her eyes, only panic and pleading. “My mother! My son! Both sons! My little baby! They’ve got them! I was out and around, and when I got back to our hiding den they were gone! Door was broken open! They finally found us, and I think they found my brother”. She gripped his uniform hard, nearly yipping incomprehensibly.
“Who’s they?” Nick asked.
Sage pointed to Judy. “She knows! She saw them! The traps! The webs! When she traveled the Path like a true Person! Look at her! She knows I speak the Truth!”
Despite himself, Nick glimpsed back over his shoulder and did a double take. For just a second, Judy actually looked frightened, as if she’d seen a vengeful ghost rising from the grave. But with a move that could have been stolen from his own playbook, she clamped down her face and the calm, competent Judy he knew came forward.
“Hopps, you want help with this?” McHorn rumbled cautiously.
She patted his kneepad in reassurance. “Go ahead, John. We’re good here. And… thanks.” Some hidden meaning passed between the rhino and rabbit before the former lumbered away past Clawhauser, who was trying and failing to appear preoccupied with something else besides watching them. Judy walked around Nick and approached Sage.
“Sage, you need to calm down and take a breath. Let’s sit down over here and you tell us exactly what happened. But I need to tell you, we’re being transferred off the case-”
She laid a paw on the coyote’s wrist, and for a moment nothing happened. But then Nick saw Sage’s eyes widen in shock. She whisked away her arm from Judy like she’d been scalded.
“No! No! The webs have gotten you too! Oh no, no, no. Please not you. We have traveled the Path together, ‘shroom sister. Fight it. They’ve trapped you like they’ve trapped my family. Get away! Get away!”
As she spoke, the scrawny coyote backed away, bumping against the glass entry doors.
“Sage, no! Calm down!”
“I see the strings on you! I see the strings!” The panicked predator spun around and scrambled at the push bar, finally managing to bust open the door, fleeing and shouting down the sidewalk, attracting a forest of astonished faces from bemused mammals approaching or just walking by the ZPD.
Nick could only stare, dumbfounded, at the retreating figure. Even during her worst mushroom trips, his ex had never acted like this before. He headed toward the door, but then felt a firm grip on his arm. Flicking his gaze down, he saw Judy’s paw restraining him.
“Let’s give her some space. Um, if we try to follow her we may only panic her further. Anyway, we need to meet Bogo. Now.” She smiled slightly while saying the last word, but Nick recognized an order when he heard one.
“Bogo’s expecting us? Where have you been? I mean-” he looked at the dried mud flaking off her legs, “what have you been in? I was getting worried…”
“I’ll explain everything,” said Judy, marching briskly back toward Clawhauser’s desk. “Ben, we need to see the chief, urgently.”
“Um,” Clawhauser exchanged a confused look with Nick, then looked at his appointment calendar onscreen. “You know, I think he actually might be in. Let me call up.”
“Here, read this to him if he says he’s busy,” Judy said, scribbling something on a piece of paper and sliding it to the cheetah. The dispatcher’s eyes widened and nodded.
“C’mon Nick,” she said brusquely, marching ahead of Nick without a glance back. “I need to stop by the shower to clean up. You go on up and wait by Bogo’s office.”
“And then you’ll-”
“There’s quite a bit to say,” she interrupted, never breaking stride, “and it would be easiest if I only have to go through it once, in front of both you and Bogo.”
They were halfway up the stairs before Nick realized Judy hadn’t looked him in the eye once since her arrival at the ZPD.
11:25, Tuesday morning, one hour earlier
The mid-morning sun’s rays slanted gently through the branches of the elm tree that shaded the picnic table where Peter Hodges sat. Even from this distance, Judy could tell that his clothing taste hadn’t improved over the past week. She could also tell how nervous he was; she could see his black left ear twitching almost constantly in response to every shout or squeal from the young kits playing further away down the park. She wistfully watched a young antelope and leopard scrambling after a soccer ball. They were so carefree, unburdened by worry. What she would give to feel that again. Heck, to even feel like she had been just a few hours ago.
Peter was sitting on the picnic table, back to her, and despite the constant swiveling of his ears, she managed to walk up right behind him without him turning.
He actually squealed and leapt up, spun to face her, clutching his paw to his chest.
“Judy! I mean, Officer Hopps! You’re so quiet!” He attempted to smile, but the young ZPD officer noted his dilated eyes, shallow breathing, and bristling fur. This was not a nervous rabbit. This was a frightened rabbit. Why?
“I didn’t mean to startle you,” she replied soothingly. “And thanks for agreeing to meet me here.” She gestured to the ZPD headquarters visible on the other side of the Great Fountain. She could also see Nick’s favorite food cart, the giraffe-sized vehicle parked alongside the curb just as it had been a week ago, when they had first started this case.
“Grandma said that even though that decision probably prevented a massacre, after that no one trusted foxes ever again, neither predator nor prey.”
It all seemed like a century ago.
“As I said on the phone, I’m afraid I’m in a real hurry to get to the ZPD,” she continued. “And wouldn’t you know it? My phone died right after talking with you.” She pulled out her phone and frowned at the black screen. “Could’ve sworn the darn thing had at least a half charge left. Anyway, I did manage to contact headquarters from my car.” Peter sat silently. His clothes, if possible, seemed even more rumpled than previously.
“I think we’ve had a major breakthrough in this coyote case you’ve been assisting me on, but time may be important here. Did you also manage to contact the ZPD for me?”
His green eyes blinked. “Huh? Oh, yeah, yeah I did. Can’t remember the name, but they said that they’d look into sending an evidence team or something like that.”
“Great,” she said briskly. “Well, I really need to report in and join them, as well as call Nick-” she stopped and blanched.
“I… know this must be hard for you,” Peter said, eyeing her abrupt silence. “I had a hard time believing it myself, that your partner—Officer Wilde—could have been milking kit support benefits for over a decade. It was so blatant, kinda in-your-face. It was almost like he was asking to be caught-”
“Let’s just see what you have.” Anger, mixed with confusion, had been fighting for dominance in her heart over the last hour as she had walked back from the Vision Casino to the gondola. The mixture of horror, betrayal, and puzzlement had continued to consume her thoughts as she had driven to this rendezvous point. Even the thrill of possibly breaking open this Wiley case was now just an afterthought. Despite the urgency of these recent discoveries, she felt an overpowering desire, no, need, to see Peter’s records with her own eyes, even if just for a moment. The records rabbit had refused to email her digital copies, citing concerns about “preserving the admissibility of potential legal evidence.” But he had agreed to meet her here on the way to ZPD. And now here he was, handing her a PawPad. And here was the familiar photo of Munches. And here was the reimbursement form, dated yesterday, made out to “Munches on Blueberries.” And here was a tax form with her partner’s name typed in. She compared account numbers between the reimbursement and tax forms. Perfect match. Nick had even scrawled a big loopy “Nicholas P Wilde” across the signature line of the tax form. The bold, even proud, signature stared up at her mockingly.
She felt a dull ache in her chest that she supposed to be betrayal or heartbreak. Nick had told her that he’d ended this long ago. Sworn that he’d told her everything relevant. But now—she felt no emotion at all, just a frigid numbness spreading from her body core to her head and limbs. Mechanically, she handed the PawPad back to Peter.
“Yeah, I see what you mean, but…” she trailed off.
“But?” he prompted.
“It just seems so… sloppy. I’ve seen his… former… scams firsthand, when I first met him, and he had every possible legal form on him, i’s dotted and t’s crossed perfectly.” She motioned toward the PawPad. “This is careless by comparison.”
She was tired. So very, very tired. It dawned on her that she had had hardly any sleep since before the Last Dance nightclub visit. The Last Dance. How could Nick have lied to her face there, and then risk his life to help her? Come to think of it, Nick had never actually lied outright to her during the entire time she’d known him. True, he sometimes would omit things, and had let her jump to own conclusions. But lying? Her mind kept chasing itself in circles, but deep down, her gut had already made a decision.
“I don’t think Nick did this.” She couldn’t muster the energy to justify her thoughts further to the skeptical expression facing her. And still she had to march over to the ZPD, which now seemed so far away…
Her brow wrinkled, puzzled.
Peter raised an eyebrow, then followed her gaze and spotted a large, bulky animal in a ZPD uniform trudging toward them from the direction of the headquarters.
“McHorn?” Judy said, jumping up. Without a second thought she was off, with Peter scrambling to follow her. Within moments she was by the fountain, standing next to her fellow officer, craning her neck up toward the enormous rhino’s dead stare. “What’s going on? Why didn’t you just raise me on the radio?” Remembering Peter, she turned to him. “Officer McHorn was the one who took my radio messages when I was driving over here.” She turned back to stare at the rhino. “Did you relay my message to Forensics? If you have a name I can contact…” she trailed off as she watched her colleague fidget, clearly discomfited. The rhino had tiny eyes, but even from her distant vantage point by his knee, she could see the redness rimming them. The normally stoic officer was either exhausted or… close to tears? The dumbfounded rabbit considered such a thing as likely as Clawhauser going on a donut diet. And yet-
McHorn stood smiling politely, but somewhat stiffly and distractedly. “Gotta go; see ya later partner,” he said abruptly, “keep it up, Hopps.” He then wandered toward the exit, absently scratching a spot on the base of his neck. Judy watched him leave, feeling her ears rise up in curiosity.
“Poor guy,” Francine whispered to the two remaining mammals. For an elephant, a “whisper” created enough of a breeze to ruffle Judy’s fur. “He just learned today that his brother-in-law passed away.”
“Oh no! Sickness?”
“No, actually, some kind of auto or traffic accident, I think.”
Was he grieving over his relative?
“McHorn? What’s wrong?” A horrid thought hit her. “Has someone been hurt?” McHorn steadfastly refused to meet her eyes. “Tell me! Is it Francine?” She knew the two partners were close. “Nick?” The word surfaced unbidden from her mouth.
The sharp, high pitch of her voice seemed to rouse the rhino. “No, Judy,” he rumbled tonelessly. He angled his head to peer down at her from one of his eyes. “I’m here to keep you from pulling your gun.” He sighed at her flummoxed expression. “Whoever shows up and whatever they say, you have to keep your weapon holstered. You understand?”
“What in the world-”
But McHorn merely nodded toward something over her shoulder. She whipped around, hand automatically on her holster, disregarding the officer’s warning.
“Hello,” said Fennel. The drifting spray from the great fountain cast a rainbow sheen over her head. “You actually came to meet Peter. I wasn’t sure you would.” Her smile was wide, too wide, and both smile and voice were brittle. “This is going to make things a lot easier on all of us. It would have been a lot more—complicated—if you had decided to go straight to ZPD.”
A bolt of comprehension flashed across the bunny’s mind, followed shortly by a crashing wave of existential fear. Fennel. She felt a brief stab of self-satisfaction. The nosy vixen was mixed up in this after all. But Peter? Was he? How could he?
Her radio was already in hand, but McHorn, standing behind her, knocked it out of her hand, showing surprising dexterity for such a large mammal. She stared up at him, mouth open, and then pulled out her phone.
“You know it’s dead,” said Fennel, not unkindly.
“How did you know-” Judy saw Fennel glance askance at Peter, who somehow seemed to have shrunken a foot. “Peter killed it, didn’t he?” The dominoes fell fast. “It’s bugged, isn’t it? My phone’s been bugged.” Violet eyes widened with dawning but reluctant understanding. “The app. The database app.” She whirled toward Peter. “It had a virus-”
“Technically, a worm that took complete control of your phone. I’m so sorry, Officer Hopps,” the rabbit said limply, a far cry from the buoyant personality Judy had first encountered at the Hall of Records just days ago. How could she have been so blind? She had even allowed herself a guilty daydream or two about him…
No self-pity. Clamp down. The truth. Find the truth.
Under the watchful stare of McHorn and Hodges, she turned to Fennel, the two females coolly appraising each other.
“Quite the acting job, Fennel. Is that your real name?”
“Actually, most of it wasn’t a performance. And yes, my name is really Fennel. You already did a background search on me.”
So she had. “But I’m starting to doubt anything involving records at this point,” Judy said, taking petty pleasure with a cheap dig at Peter. “I knew there was something off about you.”
“You’ve made that abundantly clear many times,” Fennel said frostily. “Not that any of that matters now. We’re past the point of no return.” She paused, staring into the fountain, as if trying to listen to a distant voice embedded in bubbling water. Judy glanced around. Their small coterie was at least 100 meters from anyone else, and the fountain noise would mask any conversation, even shouting. Peter seemed unarmed, but McHorn-
“No gun, Judy,” repeated McHorn wearily. He gave a surly look to Fennel. “Just spit it out before things get out of control.”
“Yes,” said Fennel. “Judy Hopps, you are going to drop the arson and Wiley investigation. Specifically, you are going to forget everything you saw this morning in the Nocturnal District, file a report that excludes this morning, and let the case be transferred smoothly over to District 4.” She paused. “So you actually don’t have to do anything. Just let standard police procedure play out.”
The vixen then seemed to steel herself for her next words. When she next spoke, her voice was much harsher.
“Now for the hard part. After our little chat, you are going to march back to the ZPD with McHorn and report directly to Chief Bogo about the fraud being committed by your partner. Using the evidence that Peter is going to provide, you will be prepared to testify against him and ensure…” her voice caught, “…and ensure that he is relieved of his duties and imprisoned as soon as possible. Shouldn’t be too hard,” she quickly snarled, “since I’m sure the ZPD was expecting a sneaky fox to try and pull off such a stunt eventually anyway.”
Judy felt nothing, her mind working too fast, her emotions now a mere bystander at this chess match.
“He’s innocent,” she responded grimly. She pointed to Peter. “That… rabbit’s so-called evidence is fake, forged-”
“Of course it is,” Fennel snapped. “Congratulations, genius. But it’s sufficient for your Internal Affairs to suspend him immediately and likely detain him without bail for a day or two.”
“And what makes you think I’m going to be your little puppet?” Judy asked, prominently flashing her buck teeth.
Fennel nodded at Peter, who reached into his pocket. Judy heard a beep from her belt as her phone reactivated.
“Well, for starters, during the next 24 hours you’ll be keeping your phone with you and charged at all times,” Fennel said. “That includes sleeping, eating, and peeing. You are going to put this band-” Peter pulled out a small rubber bracelet, “-around your wrist. It will monitor your pulse and use Shrewtooth to sync with your phone. If you remove the band or move further than 6 meters away from your phone, the phone will report it and there will be… consequences. Finally-” she paused as Peter pulled out yet another small object-” you will wear this small videocamera on your lapel at all times.” Judy automatically took the bracelet and small camera from Peter, and stared at them. The camera looked like a simple insignia pin that would clip unobtrusively on a uniform collar. “That camera is going to be monitored, in case you’re thinking about writing or typing a distress call to your partner or anyone else. You can try to write a note behind your back, but it’s been tried—ask McHorn.”
“Let me guess,” Judy frowned, staring at the items as if she were handling a dead cockroach. “If I don’t do as you say, or the phone or video loses track of me, you’ll kill me or Nick?”
Fennel broke into a small, nervous smile.
“We both know how cautious you are with your own life, so no.” Her eyes defocused, her voice distant. “If you violate the terms of this arrangement, they will kill McHorn’s wife, just like they killed his brother-in-law.”
Judy looked up at McHorn in horror. Fennel swallowed and trembled.
“And then they will kill your parents-”
Fennel’s voice broke.
“-and then they will kill my sister.”
Given the crickets chirping in terms of reviews, I’m concluding that many of you were a little disappointed in the cliché ending last chapter, which looked like yet another round of Nick lying to Judy. WTF? I imagined more than one person thinking, before deciding to follow their mother’s advice about “If you can’t say something nice, …”
The weakness of episodic fanfiction (if it is a weakness) is that it’s hard to execute dramatic plot twists (or extended plot payoffs) without first earning the trust of your readers, particularly if the twist or payoff extends for a few chapters. I learned this the hard way when I was writing my first extended fanfiction for Futurama (Don't Let Go is my third fanfiction, and only Zootopia story). At first blush the story looked like it was slipping into a standard clichéd shippy romance fic. I then had a plot twist that revealed something much deeper and sinister was going on, but the twist was too large and too early in the story, and I lost half my readership before the twist was revealed.
So this time around, I’ve waited a bit longer to try a dramatic plot twist, figuring at this point that if you’ve sunk your time reading this 100K fic so far, you’d keep going even if you were disappointed in the conclusion of the last chapter. I also wrote the last chapter and this one at the same time, so I could release them relatively close to each other. When you have a plot twist, particularly involving OOC behavior, you need to resolve it quickly before readers resent you.
So I hope you are still here. If you are, thanks for both your patience and your trust. I believe I am four large chapters away (or five small chapters) from the end, and those of you drenched in TV tropes should have a reasonable chance in figuring out the trajectory of the story from this point.
Unfortunately, I will be out of internet contact from Friday through the rest of this month, but I’m bringing a notebook with me to keep writing. I’ve discovered that I write this story faster if I write by hand, then transcribe to the computer. I guess writing on a keyboard is too much like “work,” while writing out by hand is different enough from my other activities that somehow my brain perceives it as a “treat”.
As always, feel free to “treat” my brain with reviews!
And thanks again to TinBuzzard and MaxDrummer64 for previewing these past three chapters!