The scents were suffocating and many, mingling within a shifting haze. This room, wherever he was, swam with an all too familiar miasma, a known mixing with a more potent unknown that turned his stomach.
A hard blink steadied the scene momentarily. His feet felt miles away from him as he willed them to step forward toward a dim light in the distance. Damp wood registered vaguely beneath his soles. Another blink and something else registered.
The most vibrant shade of red he'd ever seen.
"It's lovely, isn't it?"
The source of the sickly-sweet voice wasn't obvious to his tiny ears. It echoed, bouncing around him, as though coming from everywhere at once.
He opened his mouth to say something but no words would come out. They stuck to his tongue, to the roof of his parched mouth like it was lined with flypaper. He gulped back air; a metallic taste coated his throat. A broken picture came in flashes out of the low light in front of him. A slowly writhing mass of fur. A red river, and two golden stars, fading like candles. It was beautiful, and horrible. Tears trickled down his cheeks.
"Oh no, now, none of that. This is nothing to be sad over. We're making something exquisite today, you and I. That's what you always wanted, isn't it?" A looming shadow moved closer. "It's okay. I know it's scary, but change always is."
The river of red met a waterfall of liquid light and all the tears in his eyes evaporated in its radiance. He thought at first that everything had gone so wrong, but in the face of this brilliance he could only count himself so lucky. What had he done in his mess of a life to be worthy of witnessing such magnificence?
"You understand, don't you?" He gave a vigorous nod, understanding nothing and everything all at the same time. "Of course you do. You see what she is capable of becoming. Something once so beautiful, now just a plain, faded ornament for a drab, visionless critic. She'll become so much more. And so will you."
He nodded harder at the voice, reaching his paws out. Yes, let him become something beautiful, more than he is, was, could ever have been on his own. A hot, shining blade was thrust into his paws, scorched and bonded them together with a kind of heat he had never felt before, never wanted to be without again.
"Come here. Step lively, and give me your best warrior's face. You're about to become something amazing. By the time I'm done, you'll be a work of art."
There was a squeak, a momentary rush of cold before warmth surrounded the artiste. The palette squirmed, then thrashed as the creativity flowed out of it and onto the canvas. Slowly the palette stilled until the artiste could truly begin to revel in the joy of their art, the unbridled ecstasy of creation. With the utmost reverence, a new masterpiece was born in blood, as all great things should be.
"All I'm saying is you're completely, one hundred percent wrong."
Judy Hopps shot her partner a mean side-eye as she turned their police cruiser onto Palm Street. Nick Wilde was in rare form this morning and had dialed up the playful antagonism to an eight… maybe a nine. It was all she could do to keep her paws on the wheel and not sock him in the arm.
"And I'm saying you can't possibly know if I'm wrong until you've tried one." She slowed the cruiser to a stop just before the rest of the emergency vehicles. "We'll get back to the many ways you're wrong later. You get the kit from the back while I check in with the Sergeant."
Nick fired finger guns off at her, then unbuckled and hopped out the window of the cruiser rather than open the door. Judy rolled her eyes as she exited the car in the normal fashion. It was just going to be one of those days.
The Palm Hotel and Casino in Sahara Square was a popular local and tourist attraction, as casinos go. The property that the casino owned wasn't only relegated to the casino and hotel buildings themselves, but also the three acres surrounding it. This sprawling real estate held various fine dining restaurants, outlet shops, and chic outdoor areas that were meant to serve as picturesque places to sit and talk, take a selfie, or just pass a bit of time observing the pieces of art scattered here and there.
No one was enjoying the newest piece of "art" that one of the patrons had stumbled upon this morning. Tangled amongst the spirals of welded metal entitled Triumph, was the eviscerated and partially mummified form of a female caracal.
Judy and Nick approached the police tape that cordoned off the scene. They flashed their detectives' badges at the uniformed officer who was stationed there to keep unauthorized mammals out. The rhino nodded and stood aside as they walked past. Nick lifted the tape up for his partner as she walked straight under it without pause, eyes down and examining her notepad. He shook his head good-naturedly, and followed right behind.
Nick glanced back at the patrol mammal. "Can you tell us where the on-site commander is?"
The rhino hesitated for a moment, then responded without looking at Nick. "Sergeant Asstor should be with the technicians by the victim." He pointed towards a collection of portable flood lamps.
Nick nodded and continued in the direction that the rhino indicated.
From the state of the body, it was clear that the victim had been killed elsewhere and moved. There was a distinct lack of blood; even the scent of blood was faint. What gore was there had been mixed with some sort of plastic resin that had been hardened and shaped in such a way as to simulate an outward bursting of red from her open chest cavity. The sculpture that the body was positioned around stretched above this bright red explosion. It gave the appearance that the metal spiral had burst up through her. Her face had been left mostly unmolested, frozen in an open-mouthed silent scream, eyes wide in an expression of terror. They were striking, her eyes, vividly colorful for a corpse. They might have been made of glass for how glossy and bright they were.
An African wild ass with Sergeant stripes turned as Nick shuffled across some of the gravel near the walkway. "Ah, the P-1 celebrity detectives have arrived."
Judy's ears twitched at the slight condescension in his voice, but she decided to ignore it… for now. "Good morning Sergeant," she said evenly and started donning her latex gloves. "What can you tell us about the scene, beyond the obvious?"
The jack snorted at the clear challenge in her tone. "Nothing beyond the obvious; at least not until the mammals from forensics come back with something like a time of death, or cause. No clothes or identification on the victim, so we don't even know yet who she is."
"Her name is Bridget Carcallie." Everyone looked as Nick began taking his own pictures of the scene. "She was a 'Ring Cat' for 'Big-Time Modeling Agency'. She worked the Iceberg Amphitheater for about ten years before she rolled her ankle in a Rhinoman-Tuskerson fight." He pointed to the cat's left ankle.
Judy had to rein in the secondhand smug that threatened to take over her face. The Sergeant's long ears swung back and he lifted his head to glare along his snout at the pair.
"Well, looks like you already have the case in the feed-bag, then," he said snidely. "What do you need the rest of us for?"
"Now, Sergeant, don't put yourself down so harshly." Judy smiled a sweet smile at him. "I'm sure an able-bodied ass like yourself wouldn't mind running some social media and maybe vehicle registration on our victim for us, would you?"
Sergeant Asstor glared back and forth between the rabbit and fox detectives, though Nick was entirely focused on talking to the various technicians. Judy tilted her head as she looked at the sergeant expectantly. "Something else on your mind about this case, sir?"
He snorted. "I was just expecting more of a show." He thrust his chin towards Nick. "Either way, the case and the site are yours." He spun on his hoof and marched off. "Don't expect your famous good luck to carry you through this one."
Judy's eyes followed after his retreating figure with an intensity that could put holes in steel before she turned and crouched down next to her partner at last to get to work. He chuckled softly as she joined him.
"I can't believe you called the old work-horse an ass."
"What? That's what he is, isn't it?" Judy shot him the most wide-eyed, innocent face and his laughter deepened. She didn't join him in his levity, but huffed instead. "Just tired of that crap, is all. It's been two years. We're detectives now, positions that were earned, not lucked into. How long until we can stop proving ourselves?"
"It's just not enough for some mammals. Lucky for us, their opinions are worth less than nothing. You heard Bogo this morning in the bullpen. 'A case he wouldn't put in any other paws but ours,' right?"
Her ears perked. "You're right." She looked sidelong at him. "Don't let it go to your head."
"Now do I look like the kind of guy that would…?" Judy gave him the most expressionless face possible. "Yeah, okay, don't answer that."
She turned to face Bridget's corpse. "So, you knew her?"
"Only by reputation." Nick tapped an otter tech on the shoulder, sending the mammal off. "She worked for one of Mr. Big's more-or-less legitimate front companies." He pointedly ignored the concerned look on Judy's muzzle. "Big-Time handled a lot of low-level modeling work: looking pretty next to new automobiles, smiling in front of some art gallery or another, that sort of thing." He sat back on his haunches and looked at his partner. "Bridget was a favorite as a card-cat for Prize-Fights, but she wanted something more... legitimate than swishing her tail in a bikini for the crowds."
"Did she quit, then? And if she did, was it on… amicable terms?"
He scratched the underside of his chin. "I wasn't kidding about her rolling her ankle. She couldn't very well walk in circles inside a ring wearing an air-cast. I'd heard her contract was bought out right afterwards, but that was right around my infamous carpet deal, so I can't really say how Mr. Big took it." He frowned and looked up at Bridget's glassy eyes. "It's a few years too late for grudges, but you've seen how he is about those."
Judy chewed her lip. "We'll have to pursue it."
He nodded. "He's not gonna like getting grilled, but it's better than having someone like the good Sergeant trying to make points with the Commissioner's office."
"Agreed." Judy rose to her feet and walked a complete circle around the sculpture until she was back where she started. "It seems a bit… flashy for a mob hit, you have to admit."
"True, but Big has a stake in the Palms, and this," he gestured to the scene, "has exactly the right level of flashy for a mob message."
He stood up. "You're the senior partner," Judy rolled her eyes, "but I don't know that we can get anything out of this that the techs couldn't without us in their way. Shall we head back and fill the Boss in on what we have?"
"What we think we have, junior detective." She put her notebook away as Nick packed up their evidence kit. He hesitated, gave the technicians one last look, then followed behind Judy back to their cruiser.
Judy waited in the driver's seat until Nick was buckled in. "Alright, spill." He looked at her oddly. "I've seen the 'biting my tongue' face on you enough by now. What piece of your mind were you just dying to give them?"
His ears perked up. "What? Oh, the Sergeant? Nothing that I haven't said a thousand times at this point. I'm not wasting any more breath on the whole 'surprise! I'm not actually a dimwit at my job' spiel."
Judy put the car in gear and pulled out into the road. "Okay… good, I guess? But there's still something rolling around in there."
Nick gave one last look at the crime scene. "As strange as that scene was…" He shuddered. "...and boy, strange hardly does it justice… I can't help but feel like I've seen that image somewhere before."
Jiro kept his camera tracking the famous duo of Wilde and Hopps as they left the scene.
Put the bunny and fox on this case, did they? he thought as they left his line of sight. This is going to be a scorching hot story before long, that's for sure.
The racoon-dog lamented not having a parabolic mic; he'd have loved to know what was said to send the equine sergeant off in such a huff. Ultimately, he wasn't there to record conversations. He was there to take the first pictures of the crime scene, before the police sanitized it for the public.
And what a scene it was. It was so sensational all on its own Jiro doubted that the graphic designers would need to photoshop barely any of it. It was front page worthy just as it was. The editor-in-chief was going to be ecstatic.
Thank heaven for solid anonymous tips. They were hit or miss, but when they hit, OH BOY, did it sail clear out of the park. He didn't know how his contact knew where this was going to happen, and to be frank he didn't care. Some rich, snobby mammal bit the proverbial big one, and he got the chance to show the world just how common the 'high and mighty' were.
He snapped a few more, but it was clear that his window of opportunity for any more stellar shots like the ones he'd snagged earlier was quickly closing. Foot traffic was increasing, more and more pedestrians getting in the way, and then the cordon around the scene was shielded from prying eyes further with a forensic tent.
With one last satisfied look at the better of the photographs, Jiro shut the tablet down and started packing up the telephoto camera. He was ever thankful that digital photography had come as far as it had; he could carry an entire field camera and development studio in his backpack. That was especially important as he generally wasn't welcome by the subjects of his work.
He casually stepped out from the small service alley he'd set up in and strolled in the opposite direction, back toward his car he parked among the many other vehicles in the casino parking garage. Not out of place there, in a building that never closed with mammals that were up and active at literally every hour of the day and night.
Jiro slung his bag carefully into the passenger seat, started the ignition, and drove out of the lot and onto the main drag. The sun wasn't even at its peak yet for the day, but he'd already put in better than a day's work. If he hurried, he might even be able to make the submission deadline for tomorrow's edition. He'd get one hell of a bonus for that.
Nick and Judy split as soon as they entered the precinct house: he coordinated with the Criminalistics department, and she went to Bogo's office. It had begun as smoothing things over due to Nick's and Bogo's often clashing personalities, but after more than a year on the beat and then as a Detective, there was no denying Nick's professionalism when it came to the job any more than denying Judy's competence and skill. Now, it was simply tradition: Nick schmoozed and networked with the technical departments to get their cases (and those of fellow officers when the need arose) fast-tracked, while Judy provided the cadre with a familiar and photogenic face.
Judy entered at Bogo's usual gruff acknowledgement. "What do you and Wilde know so far?"
She stood at parade rest. "Precinct 3 is on a fast track for an Equal Opportunity lawsuit, sir."
Bogo gave her a level stare for a few seconds. "What do you and Wilde know so far that I don't?" He pointed to the large chair across from him.
Judy hopped up, putting the two much closer to eye level. "Nick's tentatively ID'd the victim as Bridget Carcallie, a former employee of one of Mr. Big's, ah-businesses." She flicked an ear at the Chief's pained expression. "We're waiting on Forensics and the Coroner to confirm the identity, but there seems to be a lot of overlap. We wanted to warn you before anyone had to be sent to the Big Estate."
The cape buffalo huffed. "I'll take what I can when it comes to that family. You know you can't pursue that angle personally, correct?" He quirked a grin at Judy's almost mockingly scandalized look. This was also more tradition between them; she knew full well her relation to the Big family precluded her directly investigating them, and he fully trusted her and Nick not to cross that line. "Once you have confirmation of the vic's ID, you and Wilde will run down her timeline. I'll have Higgins and the Organized Crime Taskforce look directly at the Big Cartel."
"Yes, sir. We'll get right on it once we have more from Forensics."
He nodded in satisfaction, then leaned forward. "Now, your impressions of the scene itself?"
Judy started and stopped for a few seconds, then seemed to sag. "One of my sisters got into the art scene about eight years ago, specifically the 'Grotesque Surrealism' movement. It reminded me of that, sir."
Bogo gave a harsh snort through flared nostrils at the description and shook his head. "The last thing this city needs is for murderers to start getting creative. Give this case top priority; feel free to delegate any administrative tasks off your plate. Anyone has a problem with that, they know where I am."
Judy hopped back down and shot the Chief a salute before heading out. She'd long since learned when Bogo needed formal protocol to be followed, and when he just needed his officers to get to it. She arrived at her cubicle just in time to see a black and red tail slip inside.
"Made the rounds even more quickly than usual, didn't you, Slick?" she said as she sat in her chair and twirled it about to face him.
He glanced over at his partner with the relaxed but sad face he always wore around any case involving a death. "Not much to do until the Techs and Coroners get done with Bridget. We do have that much, though." He tapped a few keys on his computer. "Turns out her tumble in the ring was worse than anyone let on, and she ended up with a plate screwed into the bone to keep it stable while it healed. It had a serial number, simple to cross reference."
Judy nodded solemnly. "Does she have family in the city, or a point-of-contact on file?"
Another few taps on the keyboard brought up a legal document. "Her emergency contact is... well, that's gonna be awkward."
Judy moved to look over his shoulder. "Who's Jamal Shabal?"
He snorted. "Only the most notorious art critic in the city. His recommendations on a piece or a venue can make or break careers."
Judy squinted. "Does he have any mob ties of his own?"
Nick leaned back in his office chair. "Not that I know of, but there's always a chance he's on someone's payroll."
Judy pushed away from Nick's desk and grimaced. "Well, we have a coroner ID, and he is listed as her emergency contact."
Nick nodded reluctantly. "Let me get changed into my duty uniform. I really hate giving these notifications. He'd be difficult to interview under the best circumstances, but after this..."
He let his sentence trail off and made an especially sour face. Judy nodded and picked up her notepad once more. "Always the possibility he already knows?"
"An art critic trying his paw at some art of his own?" Nick bristled at the thought.
"Most likely to be killed by someone you know, right?"
He snorted an almost Bogo-esque snort and shook his head. "Let's get our facts before we build any more theories. He's a suspect by proximity, not evidence."
Judy refrained from rolling her eyes. "I know that, but we also need to come at this impartially, not get caught up in any tear-jerking sob stories like-"
"Like a father whose son just wants to be an elephant?" Nick walked beside her as they headed towards the locker rooms.
"Exactly." She gave a curt nod. "He could be a very sneaky, if articulate, fella. We both know how falling for that sort can go." She gave him a hip bump before heading in the females' locker.
Nick gave a fading grin as he pushed open the males' room door. "Yeah, or a sheep that just wants the city to be safer for the little guys."