It was Nick's turn to drive so Judy settled back in the passenger seat, frowning thoughtfully out the window as he steered them out of town. After a few minutes of silence, she turned back to him. “Nick? I don't think he's going to use that nitrogen to break Bellwether out of prison, at least not the way you thought.”
He nodded. “I was thinking the same thing, Fluff. But if not, what's he up to then?”
She shook her head. “That's the million-dollar question, isn't it? Bellwether was the driving force behind their savage mammals’ deal because she wanted power, but Ramses was the brains that made it possible. What if he's finally come out of his sister's shadow and is striking out on his own for a change?”
Nick frowned. “If so, who knows what he's after? It could be anything.” He turned onto the bridge taking them across the water toward the diner. His frown deepened. “How much nitrogen did he take? Did we ever find out?”
Judy shook her head. “No, but we can ask.” She grabbed the mic. “Delta 9 to base, come in, base.”
Clawhauser answered after a brief pause. “Yeah, Delta 9?” He sounded like he was swallowing a bite of food.
She grinned briefly, then turned serious. “How much nitrogen did Ramses make off with from that company he robbed last week?”
“Hang on a minute,” he answered. In the background, she could hear him punching keys on his computer. “Found it. It says he made off with a tank with 400 gallons of liquid nitrogen in it.”
“Nitrogen has to be pressurized to remain a liquid,” she said. “Was it a steel tank? Single-hulled, double-hulled?”
“Uh . . .” Clawhauser fumbled a bit. “I don't know. It doesn't say.”
“And how did he move it?” Nick interjected as they left the bridge. “Was it on a trailer or in the back of a work truck or van?” Judy passed the questions on to the pudgy dispatcher.
“No info on either of those,” Clawhauser replied sheepishly.
“Have someone call the company and find out,” Judy instructed him gently, aware she was still a relative rookie at the ZPD despite her – temporary – status as a detective. “If it's a single-hulled steel tank our aerial units might be able to find it with thermal scans. It'd be cooler than anything around it.”
“Especially if it's on the back of a trailer or open-bed work truck,” Nick added. “It'd be more exposed.”
Judy nodded and passed it on to Clawhauser.
“Uh, wow. Okay then, I'll have someone check it out and get back to you,” the good-natured cheetah answered. He sounded suitably awed by their questions and explanations.
“The heavy hitters are at it again,” someone piped in over the radio without identifying themselves.
Nick winked at Judy then turned serious. “You know, I've been thinking about that address for the drop point, Bogo told us about. Isn't that near the ice cream shop where we first met?”
Judy shrugged, “I don't know.” She pulled out her phone and opened Zooglemaps. She punched a few keys. “It is!” she exclaimed excitedly. “It's right next door to it in fact.”
Nick nodded in satisfaction. “You know, right before I went into the ice cream shop a ram in a Fresh Doe panel truck pulled out of the alley next to it and nearly ran me over, even yelled at me to watch where I was going. I just caught a glimpse of him, but the more I think about it, the more I'm convinced it was ole Douggie himself.”
Judy's eyes sparkled and her ears shot straight up. “Maybe that isn’t a random address after all. Maybe he has a hideout there!”
“Or somewhere close by,” Nick agreed, his own excitement mirroring hers. “Wanna put lunch on hold and go check it out?”
“Of course!” she laughed excitedly. “Catching bad guys is our thrill of the hunt!”
“Then here we go!” Nick spun the wheel, tires squealing.
Judy grabbed the mic. “Delta 9, calling any car near the ice cream shop at . . .” she paused to read off the address.
Wolford answered right away. “Delta 9 this is 37, my 20 is about 2 blocks from there. What do you need?”
She gave him a quick rundown of their suspicions Ramses might have a place there and why. “But hang back,” she cautioned him. “We don't want him seeing a black-and-white with the lights going and get scared off. Park around the corner and be ready to back us up if we flush him out.”
“10-4!” Wolford enthused. “I was getting bored anyway.”
“Delta 9, this is 24,” Grizzoli interrupted them. “I'm close to that address too. Want some additional backup?”
Nick and Judy exchanged grins at Grizzoli's obvious plea to be included in the excitement. “Sure,” she answered. “You and 37 can flank him east and west. How's that?”
“10-4,” Grizzoli responded quickly. “Best thing I've heard all morning.”
“Everyone needs a little thrill of the hunt sometimes,” Judy giggled, tossing down the mic.
Nick gave her a quick wink. “Maybe we should get Lawrence and Shelly to do a ride-along with some cops for a while and see it first hand. It might give them some more ideas for their theories.”
Judy gave him an admiring look. “Pretty slick idea, mammal O' mine.”
“There's Wolford,” he said as they pulled up beside a parked police car.
Judy rolled down her window. “Ready to rip and run?” she asked him.
“You know it,” he answered with a toothy grin.
Both their radios crackled as Grizzoli called in he was 10-23, on scene. Judy answered with a quick 10-4, and they pulled around the corner. The ice cream shop was there with the ally right beside it. “Is that the one?” she asked.
Nick nodded as he parked across the street. “Look,” he pointed. A white panel truck with a red cab was parked back in the alley, nearly out of sight in the shadows. “Can you see what's written on the side?”
She shook her head. “It looks like there might be a logo but we'll have to get closer to tell for sure.” They got out and sauntered across the street as if they hadn't a care in the world. As they walked Judy continued in a casual, conversational tone of voice, “I was right, it is a logo of some kind.”
Nick tried not to peer too anxiously at it. “I think you're right. It definitely looks like the same truck.” He glanced around with a bored attitude; no one was paying any attention to them. He slipped into the alley with Judy close on his heels. After a few feet, they both said it at the same time, “Fresh Doe!” when they saw the logo.
Nick tried the cab door but it was locked. He climbed up to look inside. Judy explored a few feet further into the shadowy alley. “Nick!” she hissed to get his attention.
He jumped down and hurried over. “What?” He kept his voice down to match hers.
She pointed at a door opposite the ice cream shop. “That's the only door.” A brick wall cut the alleyway in half so there was only one way in or out. “If this is Ramses' truck, he has to be in there.” For the only the second time since she'd become a cop, she pulled out her sidearm.
Nick followed suit. “Be careful, Judy,” he whispered seriously. “I don't want to lose you.”
She smiled brilliantly at him for a moment, then added. “I don't want to lose you either.” She eased toward the door, pistol at the ready in both paws. A reflected bit of light on the ground caught her eye. Puzzled, she looked around until she saw it; a security camera mounted above the door, reflecting the lone beam of sunlight penetrating the steep sides of the alley. “Uh oh.”
A moment later Nick saw it too but before they could react, the door burst open and Doug Ramses charged out, flanked by two goats, all with their horns lowered in a mad rush at them. Judy yelped and bounded out of the way, bouncing off the side of the panel truck to land behind them. Nick dove under the truck, rolling quickly to his feet on the other side.
Judy was screaming into her radio, “It's Ramses and two goats! They're trying to get away in a Fresh Doe panel truck! Stop 'em, stop 'em!”
Through the window, Nick saw Ramses throw open the door and scramble in with the goats right behind him. The truck started with a roar that was nearly deafening in the close confines of the alley. He bared his teeth and fired-point blank through the window of the passenger door.
The glass starred from the impact but the bullet ricocheted, kicking up dust where it hit the brick wall of the ice cream shop, barely two inches from Nick's head. He grabbed his radio. “Bulletproof glass,” he yelled, “bulletproof glass!”
Ramses gave him an evil grin through the window as he slammed the truck into gear and took off, his spinning tires throwing bits of debris all over them. Judy growled in frustration and bounded after them, making a beeline for their car. “24! He's headed your way!”
“10-4, I see him,” Grizzoli answered. His car swung into the street, slewing sideways to block both lanes.
Ramses didn't even slow down; his truck rammed the rear end of Grizzoli's car, spinning it around in circles until it slammed into a parked car on the side of the road. It rocked on its wheels before settling to a stop.
Judy changed course in an instant. She got to Grizzoli just was he was forcing the door open. “Are you alright?” she asked quickly. Behind her, she heard Nick starting their car just as Wolford went tearing past in his black-and-white, sirens blaring.
The big grizzly staggered a bit as he emerged, blood trickling down one side of his head. “I'm fine,” he slurred. “Just get that snake in the grass!” Nick screeched up beside them and Grizzoli shoved her toward the car. “Go!”
“Right!” She ran and slid across the hood of their car then jumped inside. Nick peeled out before she even had the door closed. She grabbed the mic off the dash. “Officer down!” she called. “Car 24 was hit and Grizzoli is conscious but bleeding from a head wound.” The radio was alive with officers as Wolford called for backup and a blockade, but Clawhauser heard her and radioed a quick 10-4 and added he'd send an ambulance.
Ahead of them, they saw a row of pipes sticking out from under the back bumper of Ramses' truck. Judy frowned. “What are those?”
Nick shook his head slightly, concentrating on driving. “I was wondering the same thing.”
A moment later they got an answer. Clear liquid, bubbling and steaming sprayed out of them, covering the whole road. Wolford drove through it; instantly his tires froze then shattered into a million pieces. His car dropped to the ground, slewing out of control until he ran into a light pole.
“NICK!” Judy screamed.
He whipped the wheel over, sending them bouncing violently as he drove over the curb up onto the sidewalk. A lone rhino, talking on his phone as he stumped slowly along, roared in surprise, barely managing to roll up on the hood of a parked car to avoid being hit. They passed the spilled liquid and Nick steered them back onto the road, bouncing them around again as they dropped off the curb. Sparks flew as they bottomed out for a moment.
Judy grabbed frantically for the mic as she saw Wolford getting ready to get out of his ruined car. “Wolford! Don't! It's liquid nitrogen! If you step in it your feet will freeze solid and have to be amputated! Stay in your car!” He must have heard her because he stopped trying to get out and waved acknowledgment.
Nick growled angrily, teeth bared in the kind of snarl she hadn't seen on him since he pretended to go savage in the museum. This time though she knew in her heart he was her savage predator. “Get us some aerial support,” he barked harshly, “we'll never catch him like this!”
She nodded, turning to the mic. “Delta 9 to base and all cars. Ramses is spraying liquid nitrogen all over the streets. If anyone drives through it their tires freeze and shatter, disabling them. Hang back and be careful. Clawhauser! We need helicopters to track him.”
A chorus of 10-4's blacked out his reply for a minute then the chubby cheetah came through in the clear. “Negative on the helicopters. They're all having engine trouble this morning and maintenance is short-handed because some of the mechanics didn't come into work.”
Nick and Judy glanced at each other. “ALL of them are having engine problems?” Judy asked.
“Sorry,” Clawhauser responded. “It's just bad timing.”
“Or good planning,” Nick grunted as he fought the steering wheel, trying to keep Ramses in view while staying far enough back to be able to avoid any nitrogen spills he might unleash on them. “I wonder if it was the missing mechanics who sabotaged them?”
“And where did the mechanics come from in the first place?” Judy added. She relayed their questions and concerns to Clawhauser.
He gulped in dismay as the import of them became apparent. “I'll check into it,” he stuttered.
Ahead a black-and-white swung in directly behind Ramses' truck. “35, I'm 10-80 behind red and white panel truck,” McHorn radioed in.
“49 en route, ETA, 1 minute,” another officer answered. 49 was Fangmeyer but it didn't sound like him.
Judy frowned at the radio. “Did that sound like Tyrone?” she asked Nick.
“Sounded like it to me,” he answered, still concentrating on Ramses, “but you better tell McHorn to back off before he gets . . .”
Before he could finish getting the words out, liquid sprayed from the back of Ramses' truck, McHorn ran into it and all his tires froze then exploded like a machine gun going off. His car dropped to the ground, sliding across the street in a shower of sparks until he careened into a row of bushes.
Judy pounded the dash with her fist in anger then had to grab on for dear life as Nick was forced to brake and fishtail around the dangerous pool of freezing nitrogen. They lost more ground on their quarry. “Get some backup!” Nick yelled, “we're losing him!”