"Resolve to be a master of change rather than a victim of change." - Brian Tracy
12:30 P.M ; Happytown, Savanna-Central...
Nick Wilde never imagined something as simple as a four word text could flip his world upside down.
The moment he saw it, his breath caught in his throat like a clamp had been fastened around his diaphragm. His senses seemed to dull as all of his focus pooled toward the screen in his paw. He hadn't even heard the dry croak of disbelief that had left his mouth, earning the attention of the other mammals with him in the ZPD's logistics tent.
"Is everything okay, Nick?" Judy asked, ears perking in his direction. The concern in her expression grew as she noticed the way her partner was clutching at his heart. "Nick?"
"What is it?" Chief Latran asked gruffly, not taking his eyes off the map of Happytown spread across the table before him.
For a few moments, the fox didn't answer, instead concentrating on his breathing as he attempted to calm himself down. The effects felt pitifully minimal. If anything, that clamp around his throat was only getting tighter. Nick stumbled outside in search of fresh air, barely noticing as his favorite sunglasses slipped off his snout and clattered to the grass at his feet as he fell to his paws and knees, panting heavily. Chief Latran raised his gaze from his map, and some passing officers glanced worriedly to the hyperventilating fox.
Judy rushed after him and knelt by his side. "Nick!" She exclaimed, both paws lightly gripping at his shoulder. "What's wrong?"
The fox tightened his paws, breaking blades of grass as his fingers balled into fists. "They took her." He finally muttered.
"Who? Took who, Nick?" Judy asked. Her partner grit his teeth, and slowly raised one arm to point at the phone laying face-up in the grass beside him.
Judy leaned in closer until she was able to discern the four simple words that glared on the screen beneath the contact of Olivia Wilde: Don't let her die.
"Oh, Nick," The rabbit murmured as she hugged her partner's shoulders. "I'm so sorry."
Some of the other officers were staring, but neither Nick nor Judy cared. After a few more seconds of steady breathing, the fox had managed to recuperate enough to rise to his feet and retrieve his dropped belongings. He looked down at the phone in his paw, and noticed that his wrist was shaking. He wasn't sure if it was from anger, fear, or both.
"Are... Are you sure it's real?" Judy inquired, ears flattening against the back of her head with sympathy.
"It is," Nick grimly assured. "I know it. Al's behind this."
Chief Latran removed his cigarette from his mouth and cleared his throat. "You mind sharin' what's chewin' ya, Wilde?"
The fox jogged forward. "Sir, we need to get some cops to the Shady Palms apartment complex, room two-thirteen, right now! I... I-I think my mom's been kidnapped."
Latran's yellow eyes narrowed behind his shades. "One moment," he requested as he pulled out his cell phone and quickly punched in a number. The device buzzed for a few seconds before the chief began to speak. "Yes, this is Chief Jesse Latran. Could you patch me in to Precinct One's Missing Mammals Department?" Another moment of silence followed. "I'm lookin' for any reports filed today on a missin' female fox, named... Uh," he trailed off as he glanced to Nick expectantly.
"Olivia. Olivia Wilde." He clarified, tapping a finger to the contact name on his phone.
"Olivia Wilde," Chief Latran repeated. He nodded as the mammal on the other side of the line continued to speak, his expression growing more grim as time went on. The coyote turned to Nick and Judy with a solemn stare. "I've got confirmation on a report made half an hour ago out of Happytown. It checks out."
Nick anxiously rubbed at his forehead. "I can't believe it," he muttered. "That nut-job actually took her. We can't let him get away with this."
"You think Al's behind this?" The coyote asked, to which Nick laughed mirthlessly.
"Who else could it be? That cat's been out for us since the start." He nodded with pursed lips as though he were silently reassuring himself of something dangerous that needed to be done. "Okay, okay. I need to get out there and find her." Nick began pacing toward the direction of their parked cruiser. "If that jaguar so much as lays a finger on-"
"Nick, please," Judy piped up, trailing behind him. "I know how you feel, but you can't just-"
"What, rush off on a whim, and get myself injured? Like you?" The fox rebuked.
Judy sighed with exasperation, seeing his point. She felt tempted to defend herself, but decided against it, knowing that it wouldn't get her anywhere. A small part of her wanted to be upset at Nick for throwing such an accusation at her at a moment like this, but she couldn't be mad at him. She knew that Nick was just stressed, and didn't mean it.
She grasped his paw. "Nick, please. We need to work together. We need evidence before we can make a move!"
"I'll find evidence!" Nick barked, training his eyes on the cruisers at the edge of the park with an incontestable resolve burning in his corneas.
"Stop right there, Wilde!" Chief Latran ordered. "If you take one more step, there'll be an insubordination report on Chief Bogo's desk within the hour!"
Nick halted in his tracks, stiffening like a board and clenching his paws with anger. He blew a stream of air through his nostrils as he glared at the coyote over his shoulder.
"Sir-" The fox started, but was cut off when the chief removed his cigarette and slammed his fist into the table with a startling metallic rattle.
"GET YOUR ACT TOGETHER, Wilde!" He shouted. "Don't you see what this is? Al's manipulatin' you! He took your ma for a reason: to sway us right into his filthy paws. Why do you think they sent you that message? He's tryin' to derail this WHOLE investigation, and he's usin' YOU as the weapon! Don't play into his game. We need to stay focused now more than ever." His expression softened ever so slightly. "But that doesn't mean we're gonna leave your ma to those ruffians. Absolutely not. We'll find her. I promise you."
Inhaling steadily, Nick glanced at his mate, who was still grasping one of his paws with her own. Her large purple eyes gazed back at him as if to assure him of that promise. He could see the anxious look in his face reflecting back at him through her irises. A pent-up sigh broke through his maw, and the fox's shoulders slumped with weariness.
"Okay," he said softly. "We'll find her... We'll find Al. And we'll do it together."
"Thank you, Nick." Judy cooed as she grasped him in a brief hug.
"I'm sorry I snapped at you, Judy," Nick murmured. "I didn't mean what I said."
"I know. You know I love you." She replied beneath her breath as she stepped back.
Nick allowed himself a smile, amused by the play on their common quote. Yes. Yes I do, he thought to himself before turning to the logistics tent. "Where do we start?"
Judy approached the table. "She had her cellphone on her when she was taken," she remarked, gesturing to the text on Nick's phone. "Assuming her captors haven't destroyed it yet, we can triangulate her location using data from nearby cell towers. As long as the phone has service, we can find her! Do you know what her cell carrier is?"
The fox stroked at his chin. "Z-Mobile, I think?"
"We'll look into it," Chief Latran promised. "I'll make sure some alerts are sent out to the public. Hopefully we can get a tip while we wait for the location to come in. As soon as we get one, I'll mobilize a team to find her. And before you ask, no, you will not be on the team, Wilde."
"Yeah, yeah, I get it. Conflict of interest." Nick grumbled, regretting having acted out earlier. "Just... Be careful, will you?"
"Of course." The coyote vowed with a nod. "We'll track Al through her, and with a little luck, we'll nab 'em both at once."
"Luck," Nick repeated beneath his breath before chuckling dryly. "We'll be needing as much of that as we can get."
As he glanced at Judy, her determined smile caused Nick to straighten his spine a little, rising to his full height. The thought of saving his mother while simultaneously stopping Al filled him with a newfound resolve. Even if Al wasn't there, all Nick cared about anymore was rescuing the vixen that had kept him alive in a town that chewed their kind up like gum. To him, that was all that truly mattered. But there was no mistaking the fact that Al's days on the run were numbered as well. Nick would be sure of that.
Another promise to his list.
Meanwhile, somewhere in Happytown...
The vixen squinted with discomfort as the bag was removed from her head, allowing light to reach her eyes for the first time in what felt like hours.
Even for as dim as it was, the light still pierced her pupils without mercy. It took a few moments for her vision to readjust to her environment. When the blurry spots faded from her sight, Olivia glanced around the room. It was small, grimy, and filled with gray piping like a plumbing room. Something told her that she was underground. Definitely someplace hidden, at least. She flexed against her restraints, feeling the rope as it dug into her skin, fastening her tighter against the metal chair that supported her. An oil lantern placed just tantalizingly out of reach provided a small aura of light that drove away the encompassing darkness. The room was chilly, and smelled as old as it looked.
It didn't take her long to notice the eyes - a pair of green orbs watching her from the shadows, only visible due to the reflection from the oil lamp, beaming at her like spotlights. Undoubtedly a cat of some kind. Olivia may have been old, but her night vision still worked as well as it always had. She used it to trace the form of a spotted jaguar in a hulking black overcoat. A white fedora topped his head, with a bundle of vines wrapped around its bowl like a ring. The jaguar stepped forward, fully revealing himself in the light.
"Hello Mrs. Wilde," Al greeted. "I apologize for the accommodations. But you don't have to worry. If all goes well, you'll be free by tomorrow morning."
Olivia gave an indignant huff. "Well isn't that just considerate!" She growled sarcastically. "And it's Miss Wilde to you!"
The jaguar chuckled dryly. "As you wish. I don't blame a mammal for not definin' themselves by a failed marriage. I speak from experience. I know you and John don't talk much no more. Not since Suitopia closed down." He said as he lit himself a cigar. "I always liked that place. Good tailor shop. Do you... Remember me, by any chance?"
"Oh, I remember you," Olivia claimed. "I remember how you tried coercing my ex-husband into joining your gang after we went out of business. That mammal was as opportunistic as they came, and even he had enough sense to turn you down. But just because I remember you doesn't mean you get to think you know me!"
Al drew a deep breath from his cigar, exhaling toward the ceiling with closed eyes as though he were trying to recall long forgotten memories. "Yeah. You're right. I don't know you, really. I only ever saw you in the back o' the shop, playin' with your son, stitchin' suits, cleanin' shelves. But I gotta admit, somethin' about you caught my attention."
"Oh really?" Olivia mused flatly. "And what's so special about me?" The vixen grumbled as she glanced to the side, like she doubted her own noteworthiness.
"I dunno," Al said with a shrug. "I think just seein' you back there, doin' all you could to help keep your business afloat - to provide for your family - stuck out to me. Happytown wasn't an easy place to live, far less grow a business. Still isn't. Yet you and John made the best suits in Zootopia. I'd drive all the way from the Rainforest-District, right into that disgusting hole of a town just to get first pick. It was somethin' else. I've still got all the clothing I bought." Al pulled back one of the lapels on his overcoat, revealing the word Suitopia stitched into the fabric. "It's a shame you went out of business. You'll trust me when I say my offer to help your family, at the time, was genuine."
Olivia sighed dejectedly. "What are you doing here? What do you want from me?"
A noticeable frown grew across the jaguar's snout. "Nothin'. I just... Thought you might enjoy some company. Someone to chat with, to pass the time."
The fox narrowed her eyes with suspicion. Years of living in Happytown had honed her ability to discern whether or not someone was lying to her. It had served her well avoiding con-artists and other tricksters. But she noticed no such deceit in Al's words or expression. For all she could tell, he spoke the truth. Olivia outwardly huffed, but on the inside, felt a pang of appreciation for the jaguar's consideration, even if he had ordered her kidnapped. It was hard for someone as compassionate as her to suppress her own heart.
Several seconds of uneasy silence filled the air, broken only when Al inhaled deep through his cigar once again before blowing the stream of smog out through his nostrils. He nodded to the cigar balanced between two of his meaty fingers. "You want some?"
Olivia scoffed. "That stuff will kill you, you know."
"I'm not hearin' a no." The jaguar remarked. A whimsical grin tugged at the edge of his lips.
The vixen chuckled mirthlessly, somewhat abashed that she was having this conversation. "I quit years ago. I'd rather not break my record."
Al smirked. "Fair enough. How long has it been?"
"Almost twenty years. I... Picked up the habit after Nicholas ran away. I stopped after a few years. Figured it would be better to do something with myself rather than destroy myself. That's partly why I got into volunteering."
"You're a good mammal, Olivia." Al stated. "I share your sympathy with the impoverished. That soup kitchen you volunteer at is actually one of my properties. I own several just like it, some for-profit, some completely charitable."
"Really?" The vixen shook her head with a sigh. "Well that explains how you were able to find me so easily. I wish I'd known I was working for you the whole time, though."
"You weren't. You were ever only workin' for yourself. Whatever money that place makes goes right back to the hardworkin' mammals that run it day-to-day, like you. It's not a front. And I like to keep it that way." Al exhaled longingly through his nose, and leaned his shoulder against a wall. "I hope the ZPD doesn't shut it down. It's... Somethin' I'm proud of. Somethin' that helps other mammals. If there's one thing I want to leave behind after all this is over, it's that soup kitchen. I'm... Losin' just about everythin' else."
Al's eyes trailed to the floor with disappointment. His mind wandered to his ex-wife and son once again, reminiscing over what little happy memories he could pull from his subconscious. Raising a family with the kind of work Al did wasn't easy. From his experience, it had to take a criminal to have a happy, healthy relationship with another criminal. A mob boss like Al trying to maintain a marriage with a civilian like Mae had been impossible. Al thought of Vladzotz and Lucy, and how happy they seemed together. Those two bats had that rare, special privilege of combining love with their criminal lifestyles - something that Al had never been able to achieve with Mae, no matter how hard he tried. He wondered where they were, and what they were doing at that moment. He wondered where his own family was, and what they were doing at that moment.
Olivia took note of the jaguar's depressed attitude. "Well, if you let me go, I'll... I'll do what I can to keep the place running. I promise."
The crime-lord smiled. "There are no ifs here. I already told you, I'm plannin' on lettin' you go tomorrow, just as long as everythin' goes accordingly."
"That sounds like an if to me." Olivia pointed out.
For the first time since meeting her, Al felt at a genuine loss for words. He chuckled. "Okay, I'll give you that one." The jaguar admitted.
Olivia stifled a laugh of her own. Another moment of silence was quick to follow, though this time, the two mammals felt less uncomfortable being in the same confined, quiet room with each other. Despite the humor of the situation, Olivia could only wonder in silent dread what it would mean for her if Al's plan didn't go according to schedule.
"You're surprisingly humble," the vixen eventually remarked, trying to occupy her mind on a less morbid thought. "Not at all what I expected a crime-lord to be like."
Al's broad shoulders scrunched in a shrug. "If you limit yourself to your own expectations, you'll blind yourself to the possibilities," he mused as he took a draw from his cigar. "Besides, when you've got a goal in your mind - somethin' you're willin' to achieve no matter what it costs you - a mammal can't afford to get too... Attached to things."
"And is it worth it? Risking so much just for the chance to get what you want?"
The jaguar took a moment to respond to that. "Always." Was all he said before blowing a funnel of smoke from his lips.
"Whatever you say, Al." Olivia muttered, internally surprised that she'd called the mob boss by his first name. "My son will stop you, you know."
The crime-lord simply smiled. "Whatever you say, Olivia."
At that, Al turned around and lumbered toward a nearby door. He stopped just as he grabbed the handle, and glanced back to Olivia from beneath the brim of his hat.
"Did you mean what you said?" The jaguar asked softly. "You'll take care of the kitchen, after all this?"
Olivia gave a smile of her own. "I promise."
Al nodded wordlessly, refacing the door and exiting the room. As the crack of light from outside waned with the closing of the door, leaving Olivia trapped by herself in that closet once again, the vixen felt an odd twinge of hope blossom in her chest. It was more than just hope of being rescued, and getting out of this situation alive, but hope at upholding her own promise to Al. Not for him, but for the good of Zootopia and its hungry citizens. That simple thought kept her smiling through the closing shadows.
2:00 P.M ; Happytown, Savanna-Central...
Nick had lost count of how many times he had anxiously paced around the tent.
Lap after lap, he kept his gaze trained on the monitor connected to McHorn's shoulder camera. It had taken some time, but the ZPD had managed to pinpoint the location of his mother's phone. A team was on its way to save her within minutes of triangulating it. Nick wanted to feel relieved, but for some reason couldn't shake the dread that weighed over his shoulders. Maybe it was just nerves, or the circumstances of his mother's kidnapping, or both, but whatever it was, it scared him more than any savage jaguar could.
He watched as Judy appeared in the body-cam's grainy field of view, holding her tranquilizer up as she slipped through a large metal door, entering the festering warehouse at the edge of Happytown where the phone had registered. If there was one aspect to the operation that gave Nick more hope than fear, it was Judy's involvement. He could think of no one more competent to handle the extraction, though he did have to wonder if her ribs were still aching as badly as they were the day before. She could be as stubborn as she was brave, even if it meant risking her own well-being to help others. Nick had to admire her for that, but as a partner, husband, and mate, he worried just as much.
The camera bounced with the heavy footsteps of the rhino that carried it. Chief Latran stood by Nick, staring down the camera feed just as intently. Though the coyote didn't look very worried, Nick could tell how much the mission meant to him by his focused gaze, and the way that his fingers anxiously tapped at his belt buckle. Nick couldn't blame him - He probably wanted Catpone captured more than anyone, save perhaps Chief Bogo or Chief Myreme, and this mission was currently their best bet at accomplishing that.
Chief Latran's lips twitched like he was suppressing a snarl. "C'mon, c'mon," he slowly muttered beneath his breath. "Give me something."
"I don't like this. They haven't encountered any resistance yet," Nick remarked. "Do you think it could be a trap?"
"I don't know." The coyote admitted as he removed his sunglasses. "Just keep watching."
Nick did as he was told. The feed showed Judy, McHorn, and the other officers on the team traversing deeper into the building until they encountered another sliding metal door. A wolf cop opened it for the others to enter. After McHorn stepped inside, Nick and Chief Latran scanned over a massive abandoned storage bay. The officer's flashlights beamed into the vast darkness, but there was little more to see than a few piles of sheet metal and the occasional stray brick. Nick watched carefully, keeping an eye out for any signs of movement across the camera feed. The team picked their way across the detritus toward the middle of the warehouse.
Inside, Judy listened closely with her powerful ears, but heard nothing to suggest that there was any immediate danger. It did little to quell her caution, though. She knew they were being watched. It was only minutes ago, after all, that she'd spotted a raccoon in all black peeking at the raid team from behind a nearby street corner as they arrived at the warehouse. Likely one of Al's cronies. Judy wouldn't have been surprised if some sort of trap was about to be sprung. It didn't take her long to notice something out of place.
"Wait, what's that?" She inquired, gesturing her tranquilizer toward a small black rectangle laying on the ground.
Chief Latran was quick to grab his radio. "Careful, it could be an IED!"
"I wouldn't put it past Al!" McHorn grunted as he hefted his shield. "Stand back!"
Judy had already picked it up, holding it for the others to see. "No, it's-"
"Her phone." Nick whispered with disbelief before leaning toward the chief's radio. "It's my mom's phone! It-" his breath caught in his throat. "It was a trick."
"A trick?" Jesse repeated, not taking his thumb off his radio, allowing the raiding party to hear the fox's words.
Nick sighed bitterly. "Yeah. We should've known the kidnappers would toss the phone as soon as they took her. Al's had us wasting our time chasing a false lead. It's just like you said: he only took her to manipulate us."
A blanket of disappointment settled over all the mammals involved. Latran broke the silence with a frustrated scoff. "All units, report back to camp. Show's over." The coyote leaned over the table that displayed the map of Happytown, hanging his head so low that his cowboy hat almost slipped off. "This is what he wants, isn't it? For us to throw away our time and resources like trash," he shook his head. "Well I don't care what Al wants. I'll bite as many hooks as it takes to find him," his eyes glanced to Nick. "And your ma."
The fox nodded. "Thank you, sir. I'm not ready to give up just yet," he looked to the monitor, watching as the team vacated the warehouse. "And I don't think they are either."
Meanwhile, upon exiting the warehouse, Judy was quick to spot a portly female raccoon loitering near the raid team's cruisers. She realized that it was the same raccoon that had been watching them earlier from the corner of the street. Her outfit had a punk style to it, with lots of raggedy black leather, rings, and spikes. Her ringed tail had a streak of blue dye in it. She was staring at the approaching officers as though she were expecting them, and quickly raised her paws to show that she wasn't a threat.
"Please step away from the vehicle!" McHorn ordered.
The raccoon did as she was told, and raised her paws a little higher as she spoke out. "I'm not looking for trouble! My name is Sam! You're with the task force, right?"
"Yes, we are," Judy confirmed, waving a paw at McHorn to signal him to relax. "Is there something we can help you with?"
"More like the opposite," the raccoon claimed as she lowered her arms. "I know you're looking for Al. I think I might be able to help you."
Judy glanced to the other officers before retraining her gaze to the raccoon. "Really? How?"
"There's a bar not too far from here, and lately it's been drawing lots of attention from these gangsters," Sam started. "They've been scaring away the locals, and threatening the owner. No one does anything because they're scared of getting hurt, but I'm tired of these jerks messing up our town! So when I saw your cars, I knew I had to tell you."
The bunny blinked with surprise. When she had first spotted this raccoon watching them from a distance, her first instinct had been to categorize them as one of Al's spotters. She had not been expecting the total opposite. It pleased her to know that not all of the residents in Happytown were on Al's side. Judy smiled, and thumbed down her radio.
"Are you hearing this, Nick?"
"Loud and clear!" The fox's voice responded. Judy could tell that he was grinning simply from the sound of it. "The camera's loving it."
"What's the name of this establishment?" Judy asked as she retrieved her pen and notepad from her utility belt.
"Chumley's. It's just a few blocks down the road. You won't have to wait long to see one of those gangsters. They've been showing up every day. You can arrest them, right? And find Olivia?"
"Wait, what?" Nick's voice piped up.
"You mean Olivia Wilde?" The rabbit inquired.
"Yeah!" Sam assured. "She's like, a local hero, feeding mammals at the soup kitchen, helping out with housework. Stuff like that. Word got out that they took her. I don't care how powerful they think they are, no one messes with our community like that! What kind of maniac kidnaps an innocent old vixen? That's just wrong."
Judy nodded, making sure to thumb down her radio so that Nick could hear her response even past the camera's recorder, just for good measure. "Don't worry. We'll find her."
Back in the logistics tent, Nick turned to Chief Latran. "Lucky break for us, huh?"
"I won't rest easy 'till that jaguar's behind bars where he belongs," the coyote grumbled as he tossed the radio to Nick and paced out of the tent. "You're with me, Wilde. Tell your partner to meet us at Chumley's and for the rest of the team to report back here and prepare to transport some arrests. I have a feelin' we'll be needin' the extra muscle."
Nick did as he was told before jogging after his superior, following him into his cruiser. Nick typed in the location for Chumley's while Jesse started the car and began to drive. The fox sat back in his seat and stared out the window at his hometown, trying to ignore the chief's muffled cursing as he swerved to avoid potholes in the road. Nick thought back to what Sam had mentioned about his mother. Did the mammals living here really view her that way? Like a local hero? It didn't surprise him when he thought about it. Olivia had always been the most pleasant mixture of affability and toughness in any mammal that he'd ever known. If anyone could win the hearts of mammals like the ones that lived in Happytown, it was her. And to know that their appreciation for her could overpower their fear of Al and his minions was a comforting thought.
But would that appreciation be enough to help the ZPD win the day? Nick could only hope. He had promises to keep, after all.
Eventually, the cruiser came to a stop down the street from their destination. Judy's vehicle pulled in beside them a few minutes later, and all three mammals stepped out onto the pavement before making their way toward the bar. Chumley's was a small gray-bricked building surrounded by alleyways that stretched deep into the ghettos behind it. Seedy-looking packs of predators loitered around the entrance. A group of leopards dressed in suits walked inside, rowdily laughing and hissing. The place definitely seemed popular with the local thugs, and the Rainforest-Outfit had a clear presence there as well. Something told Judy that this place was hiding the break the ZPD was looking for.
"We're running out of time," Judy muttered, glancing to her partner. "If we don't find anything here, then I don't know what we'll do. But we won't give up no matter what."
"Well said. I couldn't agree more," Nick added. "Once we get inside, I'll schmooze up to the barkeep and-"
"Wait," the bunny interjected, long ears on the swivel. "Do you hear that?"
Both Nick and Chief Latran had to focus, but they managed to hone in on the source of Judy's concern.
"Sounds like a scuffle. It's comin' from the right alley," Latran noted as he pulled out his revolver. "Let's check it out."
Nick and Judy unholstered their tranquilizers and jogged into the grimy corridor to the side of the building, directing their footfalls around piles of wet garbage. With Judy at the front, she led the others around a few corners before stopping at the sight of a lynx dressed in slacks and suspenders kicking at the prone body of a terrified groundhog backed up against a pile of trash cans.
"Know-your-place!" The lynx growled with each strike.
"ZPD! Stop right there!" Judy shouted as she raised her tranquilizer at the assailant. "Put your paws on your head and get down on your knees!"
The lynx looked up with a gasp, giving the groundhog his chance to scamper away to safety.
"Wait, come back!" Nick called after him, but he had already darted around a corner and fled. The fox sighed, instead focusing his attention on the lynx as he kneeled down.
"You have the right to-" Judy started, but was cut off when Chief Latran cleared his throat and stepped forward.
"I'll handle this, Hopps," he assured. "You keep watch. Make sure none of his buddies come crawling."
The rabbit lowered her dart gun. "Yes sir."
Jesse ambled up to the lynx and pushed him against the wall with a bit more force than necessary, causing him to fall to the ground. Judy glanced over with concern.
"I'll cut to the chase," the coyote said. "Where's your boss? I can tell by that fancy outfit that you're one o' Al's flunkeys. Mind tellin' us where he is?"
"I'll never rat on the Capo," the mobster claimed. "I'd die for him!"
"Is that so?" Chief Latran growled before raising his revolver, setting the hammer with one thumb, and pressing the muzzle against the lynx's forehead.
"Gah! N-No, please, stop!" He squealed.
"Not unless you tell me what I wanna know." Jesse stated. "No amount of loyalty to your boss'll save your sorry hide."
"O-Okay, okay! I'll talk! I'll talk!" The lynx promised. "I-I don't know much! I'm new! I-I don't know where the Capo is hiding. But I heard a rumor! Yes! I was told he might be at the abandoned brewery! There's supposedly a whole new lab set up there! That's all I know!"
"That's plenty." Jesse muttered. "Thank you." He lowered his revolver and holstered it back on his hip.
"Sir... T-That was-" Judy stammered, trailing off as the coyote shot her a harsh glare.
"We're on the clock, and runnin' out of time," Chief Latran reminded them. "You said it yourself, Hopps. And we don't got enough of it to ask nicely. As a cop, doing things the right way only gets you so far. Sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures." He jutted his chin to the sniveling lynx. "Now cuff this guy. We've got leads to follow."
While Nick latched a pair of pawcuffs on the lynx and recited his rights to him, Judy stood back and silently watched, tapping one of her long feet anxiously. She didn't like Chief Latran's methods, but couldn't deny that he had a point. She of all mammals understood how desperation could lead to risky actions, recalling her use of Mr. Big's help getting answers out of Duke Weaselton during the Nighthowler case. At the time, it had been necessary to stopping Bellwether, but it was still a memory that never failed to haunt her all these years later, even despite the fact that she was off the force when it happened. A part of her admittedly thought that made it even worse. Perhaps in this instance, however, the ZPD could afford to act without any red tape. After all, no one had gotten hurt, at least, and the mobster's information could help him with prison time as well.
Judy wondered if an abuse complaint could be filed against a police chief. Her train of thought was derailed when Nick helped the lynx to his feet, causing his cuffs to rattle.
"No honor among thieves, huh?" He remarked.
"Never is." Chief Latran agreed. "I hope you two are ready for what's comin'. We're about to take the fight to Al."
Nick smirked. "And here I thought we'd done that back in the Rainforest-District."
4:00 P.M ; Happytown, Savanna-Central...
The next hour passed with a blur as Nick, Judy, and Chief Latran prepared for the battle to come. After dropping the suspect off at Precinct One, the trio returned to their base camp in Happytown and broke the news about the brewery to the other officers. An undercover cop was sent to scout the premises, and upon their return, dozens of officers had already been recalled to the camp for debriefing. Nick and Judy watched from the crowd as Chief Bogo joined Chief Latran atop a hill in the middle of the park. For Chief Bogo himself to make an appearance just to give a rousing speech spoke to how confident the ZPD was in its newly acquired information. Nick found it somewhat amusing, if not a tad bit inspiring. Then again, mammals being sent on dangerous missions often found odd ways to cope with the stress, and humor had always come easy to the fox.
"Listen up!" The cape buffalo thundered, earning the crowd's attention. "We have intel that Catpone is currently hiding in the abandoned brewery. I want you to do what you can to capture him alive. Do you understand? That crime-lord must stand trial before the citizens of Zootopia to answer for the crimes he's committed against this great city."
"Intel - and basic common sense - suggests that the building will be defended," Chief Latran added. "Expect enemy resistance."
"Chief Latran will be taking part in the raid. Look to him for orders. Keep your radios close, and watch your hides in there."
The speech went on for a few more minutes as the chiefs explained the plan for the raid. It was nothing any of the officers hadn't heard before. But as he scanned over the faces in the crowd, ranging from flabby hippos to muscular bears, Nick could tell that something was different this time. He wasn't sure if it was just in his head or not, but Nick felt like this raid was to be one of the most important moments in his career as a police officer. Stopping Al was only part of it. Nick was more concerned with getting his mother home safely. Even if they were to capture Al, if something happened to her, then Nick would never be able to forgive himself. He only hoped it wouldn't come to that.
Before long, the chief's speech had run its course, and the time for action had arrived. A small fleet of cruisers escorted half a dozen armored vans filled with cops to the rendezvous point at the brewery. In one of them, Nick sat next to Judy, both boxed between beefy wolves and tigers. They were easily the smallest mammals on the raiding party, but no one doubted their efficiency. Their track record spoke for itself. As the van rattled down Happytown's decaying roads, Judy worriedly glanced to her partner.
"Nick," she began, speaking only loud enough for him to hear. "You saw what Chief Latran did to that suspect. It... Wasn't right. Yeah, the jerk had it coming, but..." her voice frayed a bit as she trailed off. Judy had to swallow and steel herself to continue. "If we, as cops, can't follow the rules to beat the bad guys... Are we any better than them?"
The fox lowered his gaze with thought. What a tough question. He of all mammals knew how often morally gray or self-preserving decisions could come when working for the ZPD. It was far from the perfect institution, and its employees were far from perfect mammals. Chief Bogo himself had swept knowledge of ex-mayor Bellwether's shock-collar blueprints under the rug after her defeat, all those years ago. The Nocturnal-District's Precinct Six was as corrupt as police forces could get. Even Nick and Judy weren't completely without their secrets, having kept Nick's past life as a mobster beneath Mr. Big under wraps from the rest of the ZPD.
Everyone did what they thought was right, even if it came with consequences. Bogo had hid those documents to prevent mass insurgency. Precinct Six was so corrupt because trying to be a hero in a place as crime-riddled as the Nocturnal-District meant almost certain death. And both Nick and Judy refused to let past mistakes prevent Nick from doing what he could to make up for them. Sometimes tough decisions had to be made for the sake of keeping peace. The real question was at what point such decisions went too far.
"I guess... I don't think the world is so clear-cut, Carrots," the fox began. "It's full of good guys and bad guys, that do good things and bad things, but... There's no such thing as pure good or pure evil. We all just do what we can to survive. If Chief Latran hadn't done what he did, we'd still be looking for leads. He made a tough choice, and because of it, we have the chance to stop Al, to prevent more mammals from getting hurt. Do you think that's a fair trade? I do. I don't like to admit it, but I do. You're right: it was wrong of him. A cop shouldn't act that way. But it was what we needed."
Judy sighed. "I know, I just... Feel like there should have been a better way."
"Sometimes the best arbiters of the law know when not to enforce it. You could have sent me straight to jail for tax fraud the day you roped me into the Nighthowler case, but instead you deputized me, and the next thing I knew I was riding with you in your cute little clown car. You showed mercy in your own way, but you were still just using me to help your case, right? It's not so different." A whimsical grin spread across the fox's muzzle. "And hey, if you hadn't showed mercy to me that day, I wouldn't be here now, doing my part to make Zootopia a better place. You showed me that this city can change for the better - that I can change for the better - and I'm going to do everything I can to prove it. I promise you."
Judy couldn't help but smile. "You're such a smooth-talker," she said with a giggle, feeling better already in no small part due to Nick's reassurance. "You should be a politician."
The fox shrugged. "Maybe. I don't know if I'd care much for such a scrutinizing spotlight, though." He smiled and pat her shoulder affectionately. "Besides, I prefer being out in the field with you more than sitting behind a desk, signing papers all day long. That undercover assignment we did Downtown had plenty enough desk work for one lifetime."
"Like being a cop doesn't come with mountains of paperwork," Judy countered jokingly. She squeezed one of his paws. "Thank you, Nick. You always know what to say."
"What kind of husband would I be if I didn't?" He raised her paw with his own and planted a brief smooch on her wrist. "Stay safe out there, Judy."
The bunny smiled, trying to ignore the momentary fluttering of her heart in her chest. As always, whenever Nick used her true name, Judy could tell that he was sincere.
"I will," she promised. "You be safe too."
Moments later, the vans came to a halt. The officers inside rose to their feet and quickly filed through the doors as they opened. Nick and Judy hurried to avoid being trampled by their fellow officers. Nick stared up at the sun as it beamed down at them, his eyes still adjusting to the sudden change in lighting. His body armor was light, but he still sweltered in the savanna heat. He wasn't used to wearing tactical armor, but figured it would be worth the drawbacks if it helped keep him alive. A raid like this was do or die.
At the thought of the raid, the fox turned to face its battleground. The brewery was massive, and looked as abandoned as the lynx had promised, with boarded windows and faded bricks. As with many buildings in Happytown, graffiti was scrawled across wherever anyone with a spray can could reach. Several towering smokestacks rose from the roof, hinting at a history that extended far past the building's use as a brewery. Abandoned it may have been, faint lights could be seen through the cracks in the windows.
"Someone's home all right," Chief Latran remarked as he stepped beside Nick, patting down his bullet vest. "Looks like our intel checks out after all."
"Time to finish this." Judy stated with vigor. "Let's go!"
Nick nodded, and jogged after his partner with Chief Latran following shortly behind. The raiding party split into multiple teams, each one taking a different direction around the perimeter of the warehouse. As Judy recalled from the briefing, a helicopter was supposed to arrive soon as well to help keep watch for anyone trying to escape the property. The ZPD would be needing all the help it could get to make sure that Al had nowhere left to run. Nothing was certain, but she was determined to end this here once and for all.
Judy's group, which consisted of her, Nick, Wolford, Chief Latran, and a few others from various precincts, entered the premises through an unlocked gate, hugging the base of the building until they encountered their first guard near the base of a rusted fire escape that ascended up the building's four floors. Wolford darted the ocelot in the neck, allowing the group to maneuver around his snoring body. They hastily climbed the fire escape to the second floor where their breaching point waited behind an emergency exit.
Chief Bogo's voice flickered to life in their earpieces. "I don't need to remind you all how important this operation is. Find Al, save the hostage, and neutralize any resistance you encounter. Be brave."
Easy to say when you're comfortably watching from a distance, Nick thought to himself as he hefted his tranquilizer.
The only part of Bogo's reminder that mattered to him was saving the hostage. Nick frowned. He hated thinking of his mother in that light. She had always seemed so strong, self-reliant, and competent to him, having powered through her husband's absence, and Nick's abandonment that followed, living for years on her own in such a desolate neighborhood. To think that anyone could take her hostage felt impossible to Nick. But unfortunately, this was as real as ever. Nick swore that when he rescued her from that jaguar's conniving claws, that he'd never abandon her again. And it all started with this. When the other teams got into position, the call was given to initiate the breach.
Wolford took charge, kicking open the door to make way for his comrades, who rushed inside after him. The door opened onto a balcony overlooking the depository. A pair of cheetah guards several meters away trained their weapons on the ZPD, but were quick to fall in a flurry of darts, thankfully not even being able to fire a single bullet. As the group fanned out, Nick and Judy stared down over the edge of the balcony, gazing over the room. Rows of tables piled with chemistry equipment webbed between massive metal vats bubbling with Nighthowler froth. Various mammals in hazmat suits worked in the shadows of the vats, carrying boxes of contraband and sacks filled with violet petals.
None of them seemed to notice that the ZPD had found them until the ground-floor team busted down the front door. Officer McHorn led the assault with his shield at the ready.
"ZPD! STAND DOWN!" He thundered, earning the attention of just about everyone in the building.
Total chaos broke out. The unarmed hazmat workers scrambled beneath any cover they could find while the guards ran forward and began to fire at the ZPD. The officers fired back with their darts, felling many assailants, but more kept coming, rushing out of the basement in droves. An ibex cop was knocked back by a bullet to the chest. A panther with an assault rifle fired wildly from behind patches of Nighthowlers growing in rows beneath pink LED lamps, sending dirt and clumps of plant material flying. Bullets punctured holes in the sides of a few vats, causing streams of dark blue foam to leak across the floor. Mobsters slipped as they tried to escape, and even a few cops fell victim to the soapy obstacle.
But the real problems arose when several criminals in hazmat suits threw beakers filled with thick blue liquid at the advancing officers. While most shattered against the bastion of shields and body armor, a few hit their targets - breaking against a helmet and dripping the fluid into the mouths and eyes of unsuspecting cops, or blowing up across a shield and spraying droplets into their faces. Watching from the balcony, Judy already knew what was about to happen, but it was too late to stop it. She could only watch in horror as the infected cops began to writhe with agony and drop to all fours. Snarling furiously, a savage tiger that only could have been officer Fangmeyer lunged against one of his fellow officers and began to beat them with paws tipped by unsheathed claws. A reindeer from Precinct Two started to buck wildly, clocking a goat officer in the head with one of their hooves and knocking them out cold. A pair of savage wolves clawed at McHorn's shield. The ZPD was turning against itself, and the distraction gave the retreating mobsters all the leeway they needed to regroup and counterattack. More cops fell, and those that remained had to flee behind cover to avoid being shot or injured by their own comrades.
"What in tarnation is going on down there?!" Chief Latran yelled over the mayhem as he darted a savage bear from over the balcony and then reloaded his tranquilizer.
"They're fighting back with Nighthowlers!" Nick shouted, ducking down as a slew of bullets rang overhead. "This takes me back to the academy, and NOT in a good way!"
"We need to shut this thing down, quick," Judy stated in a deadly firm voice. "If those drugs make it out of this building, then horrible, horrible things will happen!"
Down below, one of the semi-trucks backed into the supply depot started its engine and took off, fleeing the warehouse with a half-filled cargo bay of synthesized Apex-Affluent.
"Looks like we're a little late for that," Nick said. "But don't worry about it! We need to focus on finding Al! That's our job!"
"Right!" Judy reaffirmed with a determined nod.
"I'll see if I can track his scent. Follow me!"
While officer Wolford held point, Nick, Judy, and Chief Latran traversed deeper into the second floor, which the Rainforest-Outfit seemed to have modified into a storage area piled high with wooden crates and burlap sacks stuffed with all manner of illegal items, from firearms to Nighthowlers. Graffiti lined the dark corridors. Gunshots, darts whistling through the air, and the bellows of savage mammals could be heard from down below. Nick wasn't sure where his mother was in all this chaos. He had been assigned to track down Al while a different team was tasked with finding her, to prevent any potential emotion from interfering with her rescue. He only hoped that they could safely get her out of this mess.
A few daring mobsters tried ambushing them from behind shelves of canned goods, but Nick was quick to notice them with his keen sense of smell, and darted them whenever they jumped out. But as the smell of the canned food and the spilled Nighthowlers downstairs began to overpower his nostrils, he was left on the same playing field as everyone else. Nick tried remembering Al's scent from the time he had first met him at his apartment - that earthy, mist-like jungle smell mixed with a hint of jaguar musk - and caught a brief twinge of it lingering somewhere close by, but was unable to trace it to its source.
A sharp gasp broke his concentration. Nick turned just in time to watch a drowsy-looking jackal fall to his feet with a dart in his neck, revealing Judy standing behind him.
"You keep leaving your back wide open." Judy advised as she reloaded her tranquilizer.
Nick smirked. "Well, I've gotta give you something to do."
"Save it, lovebirds!" Chief Latran barked. "Have you tracked down Al yet?"
The fox shook his head. "I keep losing his scent! We'll have to do this the hard way."
Hefting his tranquilizer, Nick hopped over the dozing jackal's body, jogging deeper into the building. Judy and Chief Latran followed shortly behind, watching behind them as well to the sides to prevent another ambush. They encountered several more criminals as they continued, darting each one without trouble.
"I'm nearly out of darts," the coyote growled. "I'd rather not have to resort to usin' my revolver."
"I'm almost out too, but I've still got enough to share. Take some of mine." Judy insisted, handing the chief two of her four remaining darts.
"Hey, do you hear that?" Nick asked, coming to a halt and holding up his fist.
Judy swiveled her ears in the direction Nick was facing. She hadn't noticed at first, being too busy tending to their ammunition problem, but once she focused, she heard an unmistakable voice. It was deep and sleazy, with a slight accent, and seemed to be emanating from just beyond a corner a few yards away.
"No, no NO," the voice ranted. "This is impossible. Impossible!"
A few gunshots followed. The voice broke into heavy panting accompanied by hurried footfalls against metal. A large black and yellow mass rushed into view, tripping around the corner and collapsing to the catwalk. Al Catpone rolled to his feet with a grunt, clutching a sleek black pistol in his right paw, and lifted his head only to lock eyes with the trio of mammals staring him down from the far side of the hall. Al's jaw gaped with shock, causing his cigar to drop from his mouth. The look on his face was priceless to Nick. He would have snapped a picture if he had a camera.
"FREEZE!" Chief Latran yelled, immediately pointing his tranquilizer at Al. "DROP THE WEAPON!"
Snarling, the jaguar pointed his gun forward. Jesse reacted quickly, shooting at the first sign of aggression and sending a dart flying in Al's direction. But Al was just as fast - crouching low to dodge the projectile just in time to pull his own trigger. The chief was hit square in the chest with a single bullet, falling to the catwalk with a pained groan.
"Chief Latran!" Judy shouted as she turned to face him.
Al took advantage of the distraction to flee, disappearing behind the corner as he ran farther down the catwalk.
"Hey!" Nick shouted, glancing back and forth between the wounded chief and the fleeing jaguar.
The coyote tried to sit up, clutching at his sternum. His green bullet vest had a noticeable hole in it, but no blood leaked from the opening. His vest had saved his life.
"Just some broken ribs," he growled harshly. "I'll be fine! Leave me here. Stop Catpone! GO!"
Judy locked eyes with her partner. Without words, they knew what they had to do. Together, they left the chief behind to give chase to Al. Running across the catwalk the jaguar had fled down, Nick and Judy spotted him as he reared another corner on the far side of the platform, clutching at his hat with one paw to keep it from falling off his head. His large overcoat billowed behind him, and he nearly tripped a few times as he stumbled over his own panicked feet. Al briefly stopped as he noticed the two cops on his tail, and pointed his gun at them, firing a few shots in their direction. Both Nick and Judy ducked down, but there wasn't much cover on the catwalk. All they could do was press on.
The catwalk ascended to the upper levels of the brewery, winding between glistening metal pipes and concrete columns that made for surprisingly close quarters. Nick and Judy had no choice but to follow Al deeper into the building. Glimpses of his yellow-spotted fur flashed through the cracks between the pipes as he fled, betraying his presence. Another few gunshots echoed through the tight space, and with a high-pitched hiss, torrents of steam erupted from holes in some of the pipes, clouding the officer's vision.
Nick coughed through the hot vapor, squinting hard as he tried to see his way through. Taking hold of his paw, Judy ran straight into the clouds, leading him through at the guidance of her ears. She honed in on the sound of Catpone's footfalls against the catwalk, and how they echoed around the space between the pipes and columns, charting her a crude path to follow. Emerging on the other side of the gas, Nick and Judy watched as Al rushed into a windowed office built into the concrete walls and slammed the door shut behind him, locking it for good measure. The jaguar stepped back, panting heavily as he stared down his pursuers through the window. He raised his arms with exasperation.
"Why? Why do you fight on behalf of the ZPD?" Al spat, his voice muffled past the glass. "You owe them nothing! You especially, Nick! You should be with US!"
"Actually, I owe them everything!" Nick retorted. "Sorry Spots, but I've chosen my side! I thought I made that much clear during our last chat. Trouble taking no for an answer?"
"You are everything that's wrong with this city!" The jaguar growled, his temper seeping into his normally collected demeanor.
"Funny, I was going to say the same to you!"
Al snarled through his teeth. "I thought I had you figured out, Nick. I thought you could see reason, see WHY this city has to change! But you're just as blind as everyone else."
"There's one thing we agree on," Nick shouted back. "This city can be good to predators! We all can make a difference for the greater good! That Zootopia can be a paradise! But this isn't the way! You need to put an end to this before it's too late! Zootopia should be a paradise for all mammals, but we, as a society, will create it, not you!"
"Don't you see? Society has tried again and again and AGAIN!" Al roared. "And we're forever surprised when those in power kick us back into the dirt! Well no more."
The jaguar approached his desk, setting his gun atop it as he opened a drawer and reached inside. Nick and Judy pointed their tranquilizers at him despite knowing they couldn't shoot through the glass. They could only stare from afar as Al retracted a plastic bag from the drawer. The bag was filled with blue vapor, and attached to a small gas mask.
"I'll rip out this city's rotten core one corrupted brick at a time," Al snarled harshly in a not-so-sane tone, slowly raising the mask to his face. "Starting with you."
"No," The rabbit stifled. "No, he wouldn't!"
Nick and Judy watched in horror as the jaguar smushed the mask against his muzzle, smiling as he inhaled a single deep breath, consuming all of the gas within.
The drug's physical effects took hold instantly. Al's green eyes rolled up into the back of his head, and he let out a feral snarl as he tore the mask from his face and collapsed to the ground, writhing and beginning to foam at the mouth. His large claws raked at the carpeting, and his muscles trembled and flexed so violently that they almost appeared as though they were growing in size. Veins bulged through the thinner parts of his fur. His claws grew even longer as they sprouted out from their sheathes. The jaguar tore wildly at his clothing, stripping away his overcoat and leaving his vest and undershirt in ragged tatters that displayed the spotted fur on his abdomen.
Finally, Al planted his paws on the ground, and stilled himself. Heaving breaths pierced through the otherwise silent air. He slowly lifted his trembling head. When the jaguar opened his eyes again, they were different - Bloodied veins pushed deep into the whites of his sclera, and his pupils had shrunk into minute slits of darkness. His eyes were strained with pain, but glared directly at Nick and Judy with only the most direct of intentions. Al smiled, some spittle still dribbling from the corner of his mouth.
Nick and Judy both backed away slowly, keeping their eyes on the beast before them, watching as he raised his body on all fours and glared at them with triumph.
"Oh goody," Nick whimpered. "Another savage jaguar."
Al guffawed. "Ohoho, I am SO much more than savage," His black lips pulled back in a malicious grin. "I'm gonna show you what it means to be an APEX PREDATOR!"
He let loose his deepest, most primal growl - the kind of splitting, guttural feline thrum that stopped prey's hearts in the dead of night - and then lept through the window in an explosion of glass.
Welcome to the second part of the finale of When Instinct Falls! I believe the next chapter ("The Promise - Part Three") will be the last, if not the epilogue. I know I said two chapters ago that there would be two more chapters, but I realized there was no way I could effectively wrap up all the plot points, tie all loose strings, etc, in that amount, particularly for a story so large and old, so I split the finale into three parts. I'm making sure I end this massive project with as much quality as I can muster, and I am confident that the coming chapters - and the (much shorter) sequel beyond - will be among my best writing yet.
I hope you enjoyed this latest chapter, though! Do please feel free to let me know what you think of it! I'd adore knowing your thoughts on the finale so far. :)
'Till next time...