"Some things are so unexpected that no one is prepared for them." - Leo Rosten
9:00 A.M ; Precinct Four, Rainforest-District...
After over four years of working at Precinct One, deep in the heart of Savanna-Central, Judy could appreciate the change of scenery that came with Precinct Four.
The building's lobby wasn't as smooth and glitzy as the ZPD headquarters, but with the flowering vines dangling from the ceiling up above, and the fruiting trees growing in neat little rows along the walls, it was just as, if not even more beautiful, in her eyes. It was like a part of the wild jungle sprawling just outside had been brought indoors and tamed. With her and Nick's latest investigation taking them to the Rainforest-District, Judy had anticipated a brief stop here at Precinct Four, under Chief Bogo's direct orders, but she hadn't imagined the place would be so appealing. Working so long at Precinct One had made her forget just how competent the other precincts could truly be.
Pacing past the receptionist's desk, Nick and Judy followed Chief Bogo's Precinct Four counterpart, the anteater Chief Myreme, as he led them to the building's archive, intent on giving them all of the information they would need about the foes they were soon to face. Both bunny and fox alike were anticipant of the adventures to come in the jungle.
After being led down a short hallway branching out from the lobby, the trio eventually reached the archive. Inside, shelves piled high with physical documents and other old paperwork filled the room. Vines crawled across the walls (Precinct Four seemed to have a serious vine problem), and dim yellow light beamed down from the spherical bulbs in the roof, like fireflies at dusk. The air was damp, but cool - A nice change from the thick and humid air outside.
"This is where all of our records are stored." The anteater announced. "You have my permission to use this room and all of its resources at your leisure."
"What's with the bags?" Judy asked, picking at a plastic bubble wrapped around a nearby file. She noticed that every bin in the room was sealed with waterproof plastic.
"To protect against moisture, of course." Chief Myreme replied, his exotic accent soothing on the ears. "The Rainforest-District is... Quite wet."
As the words left his elongated muzzle, the anteater then reached up to one of the shelves before carefully pulling out a tray filled with binders. He placed it on a nearby desk before opening the plastic seal, pulling out one of the binders - a thick green one - and then plopping it atop the surface of the table for Nick and Judy to see. The two officers reasoned this to be the evidence that they had come for. Chief Myreme momentarily stared down at the binder before speaking out, his voice taking on a serious tone.
"Before you are given permission to investigate, you must understand the enemy that you are about to face. You must understand the pain they have caused, and the danger they pose. And you must understand well. You are already aware that Al Catpone is one of Zootopia's five crime-lords, and that he is the leader of the Rainforest-Outfit, but what do you truly know of him and his organization? What do you know about their motives, their power, their hierarchy, and where and how they operate?"
Judy pursed her lips, admittedly unable to answer. Instead, she simply kept her long ears at attention and listened to what Chief Myreme had to say.
"I shall tell you. The Rainforest-Outfit has contributed more drugs to this city than any other organized crime group. Over fifty percent of Zootopia's illegal substances come out of this jungle. Like most organized crime groups, such as the Tundra-Town Mafia, and the Nocturnal-Mob, they try to silence all who dare to stand against them. I've lost many fine officers - Even family - To their wrath. They are a plague growing beneath Zootopia, disrupting the natural order, like blight on a sapling. And their source of power is here, in the Rainforest-District. Al Catpone has spent years building an empire of injustice in this district that I call home, and I have dedicated my life to destroying it."
The anteater flipped open the binder, revealing folders stuffed full of dusty documents ranging from old case files to interrogation reports.
"But the jungle is deceitful." He went on, each word that left his mouth as smooth and clear as water. "There are many places to hide, and a clever mammal can use this to their advantage. So far, the Rainforest-Outfit's top leadership has eluded us, and their most important hideaways remain undiscovered. But if your hypothesis about Al Catpone's soup kitchens serving as fronts for the storage of illicit materials is correct, then investigating them could give us the breakthrough we've been waiting for. Learning what we can from them is the first step in bringing down the foundation of the Rainforest-Outfit's hierarchy, but most importantly, finding out what sort of connection Al Catpone has, if any, to the incident at the academy, and putting a stop to any potential future operations he may be planning, assuming he is guilty of playing a part in this conspiracy."
Nick nodded, digesting all that information. The piece of info about the soup kitchens stood out to him. It was ironic to note that someone as dangerous as a crime-lord could have a soft spot for less fortunate mammals. Perhaps it was just his inner cynic. "Sounds like these guys make Iluka's gang look like a pack of schoolyard bullies." He muttered, thinking back to what Iluka himself had told him during their brief interview at the County Prison - How his own criminal organization had always been weak compared to the power of Mr. Big, Vladzotz, and Al Catpone. Whatever the case, it was clear that dealing with the Rainforest-Outfit wasn't exactly going to be a walk in the park.
Pulling out a single folder from the binder, Judy narrowed her eyes in thought as she scanned over the names and faces of the enemies she was determined to bring down.
"That's something we'll have to find out." She claimed in response to the Chief's statement. "Nick and I will do what we can."
A smile tugged at the anteater's long muzzle. "Excelente. I'm sure your efforts will bear fine fruit. Your track record speaks for itself, on that matter."
Nick allowed himself a smug grin. "You know, it's nice getting some recognition like that every once and a while. Between Chief Buffalo-Butt and the Cranky-Coyote, I was beginning to think Hopps and I were doomed to a career of minimal appreciation."
Chief Myreme shrugged. "I try to judge a mammal on the good in their hearts, rather than the mistakes they've made. I only wish my colleagues were so forgiving."
He sighed wistfully before shaking his head and then turning his attention toward the file in Judy's paws.
"But it takes a strong will to hunt mammals as dangerous as these, which is something my fellow precinct chiefs have in ample supply. If you two are going to be plunging headfirst into the jungle's underworld, then like them, you will need to keep your goals in sight, and your mind focused on those sights." He advised, tapping one of his curvy claws against his temple. The anteater's words were wise, but Nick understood the true message: Now is not the time for banter. We must focus on the case at hand. The fox admittedly admired the way that Chief Myreme was able to spin his words to be so endearing, while still pushing his intentions. He would have made a good con artist.
"Alright Chief, fill us in." Nick said, nodding at the file.
"Like a blueberry pastry!" The rabbit beside him added exuberantly.
With a slight smile (albeit paired alongside a raised eyebrow), Chief Myreme wordlessly began flipping through the folder on the table. The first page showed a profile for Al Catpone himself. It was a cropped photo of his face taken during what was likely a late-night stakeout. The lighting was a bit dark, but it failed to quell the bright anger in his eyes, and the color of the orange-and-black spots dotted along his yellow fur. Beside the picture, information ranging from Age to Known Associates were listed in columns.
"Al Catpone." Chief Myreme began. "Leader of the Rainforest-Outfit, also known as the Capo, meaning head. Nothing about him you don't already know."
The anteater turned to the next page. There was a tightness in his voice, almost as if he were eager to remove Catpone's visage from his sight. Judy saw another column labeled Family Members, along with a picture of a small jaguar cub, disappear as Roberto flipped the page. The bunny figured that there was more to know, and was about to pipe up in protest of his decision, but then remembered what he had mentioned earlier: How he had lost many officers, and even family, to Al Catpone. She chose to remain silent.
On the following page, Judy took notice of a picture depicting an odd, fat animal. It looked like a hairy pig with an elephant's trunk, and was dressed in a simple vest.
"This is Donnie, Al's right-hand-mammal. Surname unknown. He doesn't look like much, but because he manages the Rainforest-Outfit's money, he is a top priority for capture."
"Bagging him would definitely make an easy paper-trail for us to follow." Nick remarked, earning a simple "Indeed" from the chief as he flipped to the next page.
Meanwhile, Judy kept careful attention to all of the info that was being disclosed. She listened as Chief Myreme numbered off a few more mobsters and their roles. Pazzo - Head interrogator for the mob. Brutal and disorganized. Doctor Shwarz - Former doctor hired by the mob for currently unknown reasons. Described as cruel and calculating. Several other names and traits were listed, and although she paid attention, the rabbit couldn't help but imagine to herself just what sort of challenges awaited her and Nick on this investigation of theirs. Not only were all of these mobsters on the board as potential enemies, but ever since Judy had heard Eugene speak of the vampire bat that helped him drive that truck out to the academy, she'd been unable to shake the thought from her head, and had begun to grow suspicious that this plot was even more interconnected than it appeared - That the danger, perhaps, extended from beyond the jungle alone. If her old enemy was in on this too, then Judy was only even more determined to succeed.
Chief Bogo, Nick, her fellow officers at Precinct One, and all of the innocent recruits that were turned savage at the academy were counting on her to see this mission through to the end, and she had no intention on failing them, no matter the obstacle in her path.
It didn't take long for Chief Myreme to finish with his explanation on the Rainforest-Outfit's top players. As soon as he was done, he put the file away before pulling out a different one and dropping it onto the table in front of them. This file was a bit thicker than the last, Judy noted, and on its cover in big bold words was stamped, Illicit Activity. He opened the file, showing off detailed maps of the Rainforest-District's streets, sewer systems, and residential areas. Some spots were circled in bright red marker.
"The ZPD is unsure where Catpone's headquarters are located, but there are a number of locations around the Rainforest-District that we know are hotspots for criminal activity of the organized crime variety." Roberto stated, drumming his claws on the paper. "Many are constantly guarded, but also constantly under watch. Sadly, this strategy has accounted for little progress in our efforts to bring down Al and his mob. But these soup kitchens that were mentioned earlier could be an entirely new front to investigate!"
He then pulled a pen out from the breast pocket on his uniform, and began circling several different spots around the outskirts of the jungle.
"These are the locations of Al Catpone's three restaurants. I want you to stake them out, starting with this one," He tapped the tip of his pen atop one of the circles he had drawn on the map. Tiny black lines fashioned into the shape of a square made up the proportions of the building, and in it, the name Big Marco's Soup could be seen. "To see if you can gather any probable cause to deduce that criminal activity is under occurrence. The Rainforest-Outfit may be using the kitchens as fronts to store illegal weapons and contraband - Materials that would be needed to perform a high-stakes mission such as what took place at the academy. If you can find probable cause to search the building, then you can do so without a warrant, but otherwise, I would prefer we kept this stakeout as clean and quiet as possible, to avoid suspicion from both the mob, and the public."
"The public?" Judy repeated curiously, causing her superior to nod grimly.
"Sí." Roberto confirmed. "Word of what happened at the academy has already gotten out. The last thing the ZPD needs right now is another news-worthy incident."
The rabbit swallowed, nodding her head. "Understood."
"Clean and quiet as possible. Got it." Nick added before sighing. "What could possibly go wrong?"
9:20 A.M ; The Rainforest-District...
Nick didn't even bother seizing up as the stream of water poured atop his head and began dripping through his police uniform. Instead, he just sighed before swiftly shaking his upper body and tail from side to side, sending water droplets flying around him, and causing Judy to shield her face. The fox glared up at the jungle leaf up above that had overflowed with water and doused him like a shower.
"Insects, humidity, and water." He listed irritably as he began to wring out the moisture caught in the fur on his tail. "The Rainforest-District's trifecta of misery."
Judy snickered, thumping him in the ribs with an elbow. "What could possibly go wrong, huh?" She teased. The fox rolled his eyes.
"Yeah, yeah. I still stand by that. My only regret is not bringing an umbrella."
After the two officers had set out from Precinct Four, their journey to find Big Marco's soup kitchen brought them both deeper into the Rainforest-District than ever before. According to their coordinates, the restaurant was located in one of the district's poorer regions, close to the mountains to the north. Naturally, this meant lots of uneven ground in a district that was already famous for its layered levels. Their cruiser had driven along thin black roads twisting through the roots of massive trees, both artificial and natural, and crossed bridges suspended over streams of water flooding along the forest floor like blood vessels, all the while gradually ascending in height with each hill and overpass that brought them closer to the mountain border. Eventually they reached the subdivision where the restaurant was located, and decided to go by foot. Wooden boardwalks stretched over untamed patches of jungle flora guided the remainder of their journey, and unfortunately, this boardwalk was devoid of those colorful public umbrellas that the other parts of the district had, as Nick found out the hard way. It took a lot of willpower to ignore the stickiness of his clothing, and the humidity weighing down his fur.
Past the surprise bath, their short walk was enjoyably uneventful. The sunlight cut through the trees above, where apartments and metal overhangs could be seen glistening in the morning dew. The sound of running water and the chirping of insects and fruit bats was constant, and almost peaceful to listen to. Pedestrians smiled and nodded as the two officers passed them on the boardwalk, some recognizing them to be the famous fox and bunny duo from the ZPD. Nick was always happy to shoot a finger gun in response.
Eventually, they reached Big Marco's restaurant, where a crumbling parking lot positioned between two massive jungle trees supported the foundation of a cozy, but slightly grimy looking building coated in (to no one's surprise) vines and flowers. The restaurant itself was flat and fairly large, easily able to accommodate mammals up to the size of grizzly bears, though an asymmetrical second story allowed taller mammals to purchase soup, sort of like a drive-thru. A few cars of varying size were parked outside, and different jungle animals ranging from margays to forest elephants were milling about, some with bowls of soup clutched in their paws, or big plastic spoons wrapped between their trunks. Judy was content with staying back for a moment to scout the place out, but Nick strolled straight toward the establishment, causing Judy to perk up.
"Nick, what are you doing?" She called out. "This is a stakeout, we're not here to buy anything."
"You're kidding, right? We didn't even get the chance to eat breakfast this morning. I'm starving! I'm gonna go get some soup." The fox replied.
His words were true enough. The two of them had been all over the city that morning, from Zootopia Country Prison to Precinct Four, and they hadn't managed to sneak in even a single bite to eat. Nick figured that after fighting savage mammals in the middle of the night, and interviewing a crazy tasmanian-devil at dawn (he wasn't sure which was worse), that he deserved at least something to stave off the hunger. But that wasn't the only reason why Nick chose to approach the restaurant - He had a plan in the works.
"Besides," Nick added, staring up at the words Big Marco's Soup that were plastered in bold cutouts atop the building's roof. "I think I have an idea."
That earned Judy's attention. She dashed over to her husband's side, curiosity lacing her expression. "And what would that be?" She asked, causing Nick's grin to grow.
"You don't remember? Just yesterday evening, after the run back at the academy, Harlan told us about Big Marco! Said he used to work for him, that he was like a father."
"Oh, yeah, I remember now!" Judy exclaimed before trailing off with a chuckle. "That feels like so long ago. Hard to believe it was just yesterday."
Nick snorted. "I know, right? Can't blame ya for forgetting. I'll pass on calling you a dumb-bunny, this time. But anyways, I was thinking we could name-drop Harlan to Big Marco himself, and see if we can learn some info from there, maybe scope the place out, and build a profile... And eat some soup, too."
Judy nodded, smiling wide. "I like the way you think! Good plan." She said, lightly punching his forearm. "And I guess I could go for some food, anyways."
With their minds settled in agreement, the two officers promptly entered the restaurant. Inside, simple tables and booths propped in rows stretched into the dining hall, and the counter could be seen on the other side of the room. Behind it, an old, fat ocelot with graying whiskers and fur so thick around his lip it almost looked like a mustache was loudly arguing with an antelope. The ocelot, who must have been Big Marco himself, was dressed in a stained white cooking apron, and was angrily glaring at his customer.
"C'mon, you forgot my bread!" The antelope complained. "How am I supposed to eat this mulligatawny without the bread?"
Big Marco jabbed a soup ladle at his customer like a pointer. "Bread? That's two dollars extra." He demanded in a gruff, sleazy voice.
"But everyone in line before me got free bread! What's up with that?"
"You want bread then, wise guy?" The ocelot growled. "Three dollars! Take it or leave it!"
"What? No! I'm not paying for that! I'm just taking my bread and leaving!" The antelope announced as he reached for a few slices stacked on the counter.
Marco yanked the bag of soup out of his customer's hoofs before he could touch the loaf. "You stealin' my bread? No soup for you!"
The two mammals pulled on each other's food, glaring and growling, that was, before Judy approached the scene and cleared her throat loudly, causing them to look at her.
"Hi, officer Judy Hopps, ZPD. Is there a problem, here?" She started.
Scoffing beneath his breath, the antelope tossed the loaf of bread back on the counter and grabbed his bag of soup back. "No. I was just leaving."
"Get outta here!" Big Marco droned out, swiping his ladle through the air like a towel. "Come back in a year, then ya can get yer stupid bread!"
As the antelope vacated the restaurant, the ocelot's shoulders slumped with weariness, and he looked down at Nick and Judy through bright yellow eyes.
"Thank you." He sighed. "And sorry 'bout that. I gave that bread to those other customers for free cuz they actually clean up their leftover trash, unlike that guy."
Judy nodded, deciding to leave him a warning. "It's alright. Just don't be charging different mammals extra for the same product, even if you don't like them, alright?"
Big Marco grunted. "I hear ya." He claimed before raising his ladle. "Whaddya say I get ya some soup for breaking that scuffle up, on the house?"
Nick stepped forward. "Sounds like an offer! We accept. Happy to help drive off ungrateful customers." He quipped, putting on the charm. "You must suffer for your soup."
"Yeah, that's right." Marco agreed as he fetched a pair of styrofoam bowls. "Twelve-hour work days here helpin' serve mammals that can't serve themselves."
The fox nodded, the story coming back to him. He recalled how Harlan had mentioned working for this guy in his youth, but in Savanna-Central, not the rainforest.
"So, is this fine establishment new? It certainly looks the part." The fox began as he leaned over the countertop, hoping to earn an answer through sheer appeal.
Marco's yellow eyes seemed to shine a bit brighter. "It is! Used to be over in Savanna-Central, but we, uh, moved here."
Nick pursed his lips. He also recalled how Harlan had mentioned the old location had gotten shut down over a health code violation, though he seemed pretty adamant that it was unfair. Nick wondered what was true and what was potentially exaggerated, but right now, he needed to be on Marco's good side, and so, decided not to bring it up.
The ocelot placed two bowls of tomato bisque on the counter in front of Nick and Judy, and as he slid them over, he took note of their gleaming police badges.
"Wait... You called yourself officer Hopps, as in officer Hopps and Wilde, the first rabbit and fox cops?" He asked, pointing a clawed finger between the two of them.
Judy nodded her head in confirmation. "That's us!"
"The one and only." Nick added.
Marco's expression seemed to be a mix of excitement and fear. It was an odd combination, but after a moment of uneasiness, he decided to stick with excitement.
"It's an honor!" The ocelot claimed, reaching out and grasping both their paws in his own before giving a single strong shake and releasing. "You two are an inspiration."
A warm smile grew on Judy's face. "It's our pleasure. Nice to meetcha!" She said, though couldn't stop wondering about that moment of fear Marco had displayed.
Nick picked up his bowl and took a deep whiff. "Mhm, now that smells delicious." He said. "Whaddya say we all sit down, and have a chat? We'd like to ask you a few questions, and I think you'll appreciate we've got to say. The restaurant's nearly empty, and I'm sure you can have one of your staff pick up the slack behind the counter, right?"
Biting his cheek, the ocelot spared a glance back at the kitchen before shrugging. "Alright, why not? I could use a break after that bread incident anyways."
Together, the trio seated themselves at a table in the middle of the diner, with the two officers on one side, and the ocelot on the other. The only other customers in the restaurant were two well-dressed panthers - one beige and one black - sitting quietly on the far side of the room with newspapers obscuring most of their faces. Big Marco sat down in his chair with a sigh, his eyes flickering back and forth between the two cops in front of him, and the two panthers behind him. He almost looked uncomfortable, but decided to let off some steam by lighting up a cigarette. Nick and Judy began digging into their meals, with the former planning his coming words carefully.
"Free bread for nice customers, free soup for helpful cops," The fox remarked. "You're a pretty generous mammal."
"And we are grateful for the free soup." Judy said, blowing softly on a spoonful of thick red liquid. "Vegetable bisque is my favorite."
Marco smirked. "It's nothin'. Consida' it my way of payin' ya back. Can't run a soup kitchen in a low-income neighborhood without bein' willin' to give every once and a while."
Memories of his own mother buying and feeding him soup bought from public kitchens briefly flashed in Nick's mind. He shook them away, maintaining his smile.
"That's the truth." Nick agreed before leaning forward with a smile. "Say though, you wouldn't happen to know a Harlan O'Conall, would you?"
"I do. Kid used to work 'ere before we moved." Marco said, his mood seeming to raise by the minute. "Hard worker. Great employee."
"He is a hard worker!" Judy agreed. "We've met him, actually. Nick and I were helping to train the next class of ZPD recruits at the academy, and Harlan was one of them."
"Oh, so that's what the kid's been up to." The ocelot guffawed. "Good for 'im, tryin' to make a difference in the world! With his strength, I'm sure he'd make a great cop."
Judy nodded, remembering her sparring match with him all those months ago. It had been a tough one, even for her. "I'm sure he would too."
"Sadly, his studies are on hold right now." Nick interjected, his voice taking on a more serious tone. "You hear about what happened at the academy?"
At that question, Judy noticed an immediate blur of movement in her peripheral vision. One of the panthers at the table behind Marco had raised his head from his newspaper, and was now eyeing them. The rabbit couldn't blame him, since the news of that incident was both widespread and attention-grabbing, but as she locked eyes with the panther, he turned his attention back to his paper. Judy then looked back to Big Marco, who was thoughtfully stroking his chin with a grim expression on his graying face.
"I have. Harlan was a good mammal. I hope he's okay."
Judy nodded her head with sympathy. Last she had heard, Harlan, along with all of the other savage academy recruits, were being treated at a hospital with an antidote.
"He's recovering. We all are." She said. "We're working on bringing whoever was responsible to justice."
Marco swallowed, as though he were uncomfortable with the topic. Nick seized the chance to lighten the mood while simultaneously continuing his unofficial questioning.
"Well, even cops have to eat, right? Can't make the world a better place on an empty stomach." He quipped with spread paws and a lopsided grin, as though he were asking I'm not wrong, am I? "In fact, when my partner and I first pulled in here, I actually thought I recognized the name. You used to be located in Happy-Town, right?"
The ocelot took in an exceptionally deep whiff of smoke from his cigar before exhaling through his nostrils, as though he were trying to blow away bitter old memories.
"Yeah, we were. It was a good gig for a while. Fed a lot of hungry mouths, made some less privileged mammals a bit happier. After City-Hall shut me down, I relocated here to the Rainforest-District on a loan..." He trailed off, his eyes momentarily flickering up to the panthers sitting behind Nick and Judy once more before glancing to the side.
"A loan, huh? My father scoured all across Zootopia trying to get loans from banks to open his tailor shop... Even took me on a few attempts. I can understand the struggle, but hey, from the looks of this place, I'd say you struck a good one!" Nick praised, gesturing to the walls around them. The place was a bit grungy, but by no means horrible.
"Heh, I guess I did." Marco chuckled, rubbing at the back of his neck. "Though I thankfully didn't have to worry about any bank bureaucracy."
"What do you mean by that?" The rabbit found herself asking. Marco swallowed hard, looking as though he regretted mentioning it.
He shifted his weight in his chair, chuckling lightly. "Ah, whaddya say I go get ya some bread, too? It's like that schmuck said, ya can't enjoy good soup without it."
Big Marco rose from the table before returning to the kitchen. Judy glanced curiously at Nick, and was about to inquire him over his thoughts before Marco returned with some bread slices in his paws. He handed one to each officer before sitting back down with a grunt. Judy broke a piece off before dipping it in her soup, which she had deemed too hot to drink directly for now. The bisque was warm and flavorful, and as Marco promised, paired well with the bread. But she wasn't about to give up on her questioning just yet.
"You mentioned getting a loan, but it wasn't from the bank, was it?" She deduced.
Marco swallowed hard, his cigarette trembling in his mouth. He tried masking it with a bashful tilt of the head. "Oh, well, I had a friend who wanted the business to go on."
"Must have been a wealthy friend." Nick said. "Who was he?"
The ocelot continued to shift his weight around uncomfortably in his chair. Behind him, both of the panthers raised themselves from their seats before approaching. Each one pulled back a lapel on their suit before reaching inside with a paw. Judy's instincts went on high alert. She realized then and there that they weren't here for the soup - It was a hit attempt. Time seemed to slow down as the black panther in the front pulled out a sleek pistol of identical color. The rabbit didn't have enough time or maneuverability to reach for her tranquilizer, and that was omitting whether or not she even landed a successful shot. And then there was the second panther that she had to deal with.
So Judy did the only thing that she could think of: Grab her bowl of soup, scuttle out of her chair as fast as she could, and throw it forward into the front panther's face.
As soon as the bisque made contact with the panther's face, he let out a shriek of pain. With steam curling from the tomato sauce clinging to his fur, he instinctively raised his paws to wipe it away, and backed into his partner, causing him to stumble over his tail and fall to the floor, both panthers now grounded atop the tile.
Judy looked back and saw Nick shoot to his feet, and Marco topple from his chair in surprise. "Get back! Nick, keep Marco safe! They're here to kill him!"
"What?" Was all the fox said before he pulled out his tranquilizer and began trying to pull Marco away, the ocelot still shifting around on the floor with fear.
"Gah! You talk too much, Marco!" The black panther growled, trying to wipe the cilantro out of his eyes with his sleeve.
He raised his gun and pointed it at the cook. Once again, Judy had only a split second to make a decision, and no time to pull her own weapon. With no other choice, she used her powerful legs to spring forward and collide with the panther's arm. Bang! His gunshot rang throughout the building, and ached Judy's sensitive ears, but she couldn't afford to worry about herself. Straddling the panther's chest, she wrestled with his arm, pushing it down and away from herself and Marco. Snarling loudly, the panther reeled back his other arm and threw a punch forward, but Judy was ready for that. She ducked, feeling the air from the force of his jab swish past her eyelashes, dodging the punch with ease.
With one arm pushed back and the other thrown forward, the panther left himself wide open for a kick straight to the face from one of Judy's feet, causing his eyes to roll up and his head to hit the floor. The whole incident had lasted no more than five seconds. Judy quickly looked up and locked eyes with the beige panther, who had just finished struggling to his feet. He jabbed his gun in her direction, but this time, Judy wasn't close enough to misdirect his shot. Launching off the black panther's body with her legs, she swiftly rolled to the side before kicking out a table's legs from below, causing it to fall over and make a barrier. She heard another gunshot ring out, and a soft metallic ping as the bullet bounced off the table's surface. It was a good thing all the restaurant's tables were made of metal. It wouldn't keep the hitmammal occupied for long, though.
Judy glanced back at Nick. "Watch my back, and don't let Marco out of your sights!" She ordered before pulling out her own tranquilizer.
Nick cursed. "Whatever you're thinking, Hopps, stop thinking-" His words were cut off as another gunshot ripped through the air, causing Marco to yelp with fear.
Seizing the chance to get the drop on her opponent, Judy darted out to the side of the table, rolling into a kneel and pointing her dartgun at the panther, but he was already gone, sprinting across the lobby and toward the kitchen, trying to get away now that his hit attempt had failed. But Judy wasn't about to let him off so easy. She readjusted her aim and then fired a dart at the panther, only to watch it bounce harmlessly off a large pot of soup atop the register's counter just as he ducked behind it. The rabbit sighed with exasperation, and took the time to reload her dart gun. The knocked-out panther beside her began to groan and raise his head. Without words, Judy immediately fired a dart into his chest, causing his head to clonk back down against the floor. One down for good, one more to go, and Judy had every intention on bringing him down too.
Rushing down the restaurant's lobby, she followed the trail of the panther into the kitchen, and spotted him deeper inside, pushing his way past several frightened cooks. With speed and agility on her side, the rabbit darted forward and slid straight beneath the raised counter, right under the register and into the kitchen. The floor was smooth beneath her feet, and the smell of assorted vegetables and fresh fish lingered in the air. She raised her tranquilizer and rushed deeper inside, searching for the assassin.
Judy weaved between the legs of a few pigs dressed like chefs. "Go, get out of here! It's dangerous!"
Turning back toward where she had last seen the panther, Judy's eyes widened, and she ducked down just in time to dodge a large pot of soup as it flew over her head, barely scraping against the tips of her ears. She didn't bother looking back as the metal pot clanged loudly behind her, instead focusing her attention on the panther in front of her. His beige suit matched well with his identically colored fur, though she couldn't call his expression appealing with those snarling, angry eyes.
"Why dont'cha try the soup o' the day, copper?!" The panther taunted.
He quickly picked up another pot of soup before tossing it forward, causing a waterfall of steaming hot chowder to rush straight toward Judy. The rabbit knew that if it enveloped her, she'd be fully incapacitated from the scalding liquid, and easy prey for a shot to the head. She had to avoid it at all costs. With a stove and a cart of seasoning boxing her in, and not enough time to backtrack, there was nowhere to go but up. Judy leapt into the air, and planted both her feet on the oven door before launching off from it.
In mid-air, Judy aimed her next dart at the panther. Time seemed to slow down once again. She could practically make out every last drop in the river of soup as it rushed below her, and the look of shock laced across the assassin's face, likely spawned from her impressive acrobatics. Judy pulled the trigger and watched as her dart sailed across the room, only for the panther to block it with his now empty pot of soup. Landing expertly atop one of the tables, Judy stared down her foe as he heaved the pot over his head and chucked it straight at her. The bunny easily sidestepped it, but ended up tripping over a nearby stack of carrots and falling onto a (thankfully unlit) stovetop.
Pushing the ironic obstacle out of her way and getting to her feet, Judy gasped as she watched the panther reach back into his belt and retrieve his gun. Once again, the bunny was found in a situation with only seconds to react. She knew her dartgun still needed to be reloaded, but there wasn't enough time to do so, far less make use of it. Instead, she opted to grab the nearest throwable item she could find - an onion at least a quarter the size of her head - and chuck it at the panther's face like a fastball. The smelly bulb beaned him in an eye, causing him to yowl and fire a careless shot that sailed past Judy's head. The rabbit sprinted forward at full speed before leaping from the edge of the stove and tackling the panther to the ground, both mammals rolling onto the floor into a position with Judy on top. The panther's onion-struck eye was red and watery, but his other one was still bright with anger. He swiped out with one of his claws, forcing the bunny to duck, and then pointed his gun at her once more before firing another shot.
Judy rolled off just in time, with the bullet nearly grazing her side. She got to her feet before kicking the panther's gun directly out of his claws, causing it to sail across the room before landing in a nearby pot of soup. While he was distracted, the rabbit pulled out her tranquilizer, successfully reloaded it, and was just moments way from darting him in the shoulder when he swept out with one of his arms, knocking her legs out from below and causing her to fall to the floor for what must have been the tenth time that day. Her tranquilizer slipped from her grasp and skidded down the floor a few feet to the right. The panther growled as he reached out and tried grabbing at Judy's throat.
"You're a jumpy one!" He snarled moments before Judy jumped out of his path again, this time leaping across his body and grabbing his opposing arm. "What the?"
Twisting onto her back, Judy wrapped her legs around the panther's neck and pulled on his wrist with all her might, locking him into a sturdy armbar. "Give up!"
"Argh! Let go!" The panther shrieked as his elbow began to pop.
Judy held her grip on him as hard as she could, but it didn't take long for the panther to remember the size difference between the two of them. Using his superior strength, he lifted Judy's full body - still clinging to his arm like a stubborn child - into the air before striking her against the side of an oven door. A surge of pain flooded the bunny's lumbar and cranium, but she still held fast. The panther then threw his arm back above his head, slamming Judy hard into the floor and at last dislodging her from his arm.
Dropping to the ground with a cough, Judy tried sitting up, but her vision was blurred from hitting her head on that oven. All she could see was the bright green body of her tranquilizer lying just a few inches away. She reached out for it, but the panther, who must have gotten to his feet, kicked the gun down the corridor, far out of her grasp. He wrapped his paws around her neck and began to squeeze. Judy was just about to kick at his face when she heard a slight thwip noise pierce the air, and saw a bright green dart suddenly sprout from the panther's neck. The big-cat let out a weary gurgle before falling to the side and beginning to snore. The fight was over at last.
Clutching tenderly at her head, Judy sat up and locked eyes with Nick, standing a few yards away with his empty tranquilizer pointed at the dozing panther. The fox let out a sigh of relief, and holstered his firearm back onto his utility belt. Big Marco peered over from behind him, jaw dropping at the sight of his ransacked kitchen.
"That was one heck of a show you put on, Carrots." Nick muttered, nudging a pile of actual carrots away from his foot. He stepped forward and helped her to her feet.
"Yeah... Thanks for keeping Marco safe, though I do appreciate the last-minute save." She said with a smile, causing Nick to chuckle slightly.
"Well, I couldn't let you have all the fun, now could I?"
Judy allowed her grin to grow, but as another twinge of pain shot through her skull, she was reminded of her duties as a police officer. "Did you-"
"I called the local precinct, they're already on their way, don't worry." Nick finished for her. "And I got the other cooks to safety. We're in the clear."
A sigh of relief escaped Judy's mouth. "Thank you, Nick. You did a good job."
Her partner smirked. "And you did too. Clean, perhaps, like the Chief wanted, though quiet could use a bit of work, don't you think?" He teased her.
"We'll worry about making it quiet next time we don't have to deal with real guns." Judy retorted.
At the thought of the criminal cats, Judy turned her attention to Marco, and crossed her arms against her breastplate. "Start talking." She ordered.
Marco's shoulders slumped. "You... You saved my life. Thank you. I'll tell you everything. I don't care if there are consequences. I just can't keep goin' on like this." He said before letting out weary sigh. "That was Tommy Tight-Lips and Timmy Two-Time. They were... Assigned to watch me by the Capo... By Al Catpone."
Not very surprising. "But why?" Judy asked.
"I... I made a deal with him. After my shop in Happy-Town got shut down, I-I went to Al. I'd heard that guys like him were the kinda mammals you went to... To negotiate with. He... He gave me the loan I needed to reopen my restaurant - to continue my dream - and in return... I let him use it to hide weapons and drugs, and launder money. I've been under the thumb of the Rainforest-Outfit ever since. He assigned Tommy and Timmy to watch over me, an' make sure I don't talk. I... Guess I crossed a line."
Judy's ears dipped, thinking back to how her and Nick had been grilling Marco for answers in front of those assassins, trying to see what he would say. She realized that it was partially their fault that Marco had nearly lost his life. He may have been in association with the mob, but she didn't have it in her to see him as anything but a victim.
"Don't worry, we'll make sure you're put in a protection program, in return for all this info." Judy assured. "I can't promise that you won't get jail time, but since you were being threatened, as long as you comply and help the ZPD bring those responsible to justice, you should get off easier." Marco nodded, his expression more relieved than anything.
"I'll do whatever I have to!" He stammered. "I'm just glad to finally be safe! Those two numbskulls have been breathin' down my neck for the past two years!"
The bunny's gaze flicked back to the panther snoozing on the ground behind her. The two assassins had been keeping an eye on Marco when her and Nick had entered the restaurant and started questioning him, and they must have acted on the belief that Marco was giving out too much info for their liking, and that they could kill all three of them, Nick and Judy included, to cut the rose at the bud, as it were. Ironically enough, if it weren't for Marco's not-so-world-famous soup, they likely would have gotten their wish.
Judy locked eyes with Marco. "Alright. Show us where you're keeping that contraband."
Without hesitation, the ocelot led his two guests down to the building's basement. Inside, there was a plethora of illegal paraphernalia: Racks of firearms fastened to the walls, oil drums filled with plastic bags of assorted drugs, sacks stuffed to the brim with money, and enough soup ladles to supply a small army. Nick stared around the room.
"Looks like your hunch was right." He remarked, nudging Judy with an elbow. Digging in one of the oil drums, the rabbit pulled out a bag of dark blue flowers.
"These aren't just any drugs," She announced. "These are Night-Howlers!"
"Talk about a blast from the past." Her foxy partner muttered. "And what are these? Gas-masks?" He muttered, reaching over and pulling a rubbery veil off the wall.
Judy set down the bag of flowers before turning her attention toward a large crate in the back of the room. She broke it open and looked inside. Within the box, there were hundreds of small plastic bags filled with dark purple gas. Her mind immediately recalled something that Chief Myreme had mentioned earlier - That there was a recruit at the academy who had inhaled dark purple gas, and suffered all the traits of savagery without actually going savage. She backed away from the box, recognizing it as important evidence. The last thing she wanted was to contaminate it, or worse: Accidentally break open one of the bags and inhale the stuff. Whatever it was, it was dangerous.
"Nick, I think I found what the Chief was worried about." She called out to her partner, who trotted over before peering inside the box.
Marco cleared his throat. "I don't know what they wanted to use this stuff for." He claimed. "I was never let in on the details - I was just told to watch over whatever they dumped here. Most of this stuff has been here for years, but that box came in just yesterday. Somethin' tells me it's related to what happened at the academy."
"You're right. It is." Judy confirmed. "Thank you for showing us this. We'll be sure to take care of it all."
The ocelot laughed, almost nervously. "It seems like you've got your work cut out for you." He said. A scoff slipped from Nick's fangs.
"That's for sure. It'll take hours to catalogue all this stuff." He grumbled before clasping his paws together. "Whelp, in for a penny, in for a pound. Let's get started."
9:30 P.M ; Savanna-Central...
It didn't take long for the ZPD to remove all the evidence from that basement. As it turned out, a pack of highly motivated wolf officers could clear out just about anything, with how well they worked as a team. Nick and Judy placed Big Marco under arrest, and brought him back to Precinct Four, where they spent the next several hours assisting in the sorting of the department's latest treasure trove of evidence. Despite his insistence on doing things as clean and quiet as possible, Chief Myreme seemed pleased that they had managed to thwart an assassination attempt. With all the evidence gathered from the soup kitchen, and Big Marco intending on giving a testimony in court about the shady doings of the Rainforest-Outfit, it seemed that the ZPD was one step closer to bringing down Al and his mob, though Nick and Judy knew there was still more to do.
After a long day of work, Nick was at last ready to return home, though. He had tried convincing Judy to join him, but she had insisted on staying behind.
"You can go ahead and head home, Nick. Get some rest." She had offered. "I'm gonna stay just a bit longer. I've got some research to do."
That caught Nick's attention. "What kind of research?" He asked with raised eyebrows.
Judy exhaled softly through her nostrils, thinking back to that file about Al Catpone and his mob that Chief Myreme had showed them earlier.
"Just a few missing links that I think might tie things together." The bunny claimed. Her mind also flashed back to that one brief remark that Eugene had made during his interrogation about the vampire bat that had assisted in his nefarious efforts at the academy. "Among other things." She added, determined to learn what she could.
Nick didn't bother protesting. When Judy wanted to do overtime, there was no stopping her. Wishing her luck with a quick, but no less loving kiss on the cheek, he left Precinct Four, and the Rainforest-District entirely, eventually returning to their apartment complex back in Savanna-Central. After a day filled with savage mammals, prison interviews, and soup-kitchen scuffles, Nick was more than ready to get a good night's rest, even if it meant knowing that more potentially dangerous adventure was to come tomorrow.
Having taken the public monorail home, Nick had been given a good view of the city's beautiful skyline at night, with its lights driving away the darkness, rivaling the natural luminescence of the stars suspended in the sky. Once he reached Grand Central Station, the fox promptly walked back to his apartment, knowing it not to be too far away. Besides, he had always enjoyed the city's night-life, even if it came with its fair share of dangers. The walk was slow and uneventful, but still nice, as such things often were. Eventually, he reached the block that held his apartment complex. On his way across the sidewalk, he noticed a sleek black limousine waiting in the shadows down the street, its engine humming softly. Their neighborhood was far from impoverished, but was still a fairly lower-middle-class complex, given the salary of a police officer, and Nick thought it odd that such a nice vehicle would be loitering around in such a bleakly average place.
He didn't think much of it, though, once he reached his room on the apartment's second floor. He was simply too tired. The door swung open a bit easier than usual, which momentarily caught the fox's attention, but he simply waved it off before closing it shut and wiping at his muzzle. He unbuckled his utility belt before tossing it atop a nearby wooden drawer. Nick was about to retreat to the bedroom when a peculiar scent registered in his nose, causing him to stop in his tracks. It almost smelled like the Rainforest-District, but why would it smell that way all the way here in Savanna-Central? There was another aroma to the scent... Something foreign... Almost predatory. A chill settled down Nick's spine in that moment. All the pieces fell together - The limousine parked outside, the slightly hampered door, the alien smell in the air. Something was wrong.
A brief flicker of movement in the fox's peripheral vision caused his heart to skip a beat, confirming his worst fear: Someone was in the flat with him.
Nick slowly turned his gaze towards the source of the movement. In the corner of the room, a spotted yellow tail lay curling in the soft moonlight shining in from a nearby window. Tracing the tail up to its owner, Nick's vision outlined the form of a silent mammal looming from the shadows. The figure was a leopard, or jaguar, judging by the tail, and was seated in a large, padded arm chair, his face fully obscured in the blackness of the room. He was dressed nicely, with a pristine black vest wrapped around his chest and a pair of identically colored slacks encompassing his lower-body. A thick overcoat of the same shade obscured the majority of the mammal's torso, and on its left breast, a single purple pin in the shape of a flower stood out amongst the sea of clothed darkness. It was an odd, almost out-of-place splash of color for a wardrobe so dreary.
Worst of all, perhaps, was how Nick noticed that the very chair that the intruder now rested upon, which was large enough to comfortably accommodate a bunny and fox at the same time, was the very same chair where he and Judy would sit reading together on rainy nights. But now, it belonged to whoever had forced their way into their home. Choosing not to dwell on that realization, Nick kept his attention focused on the intruder. Clearly a male, judging by the height and build. The fox scanned him even closer. The mystery mammal had one ankle propped up on the kneecap of the opposing leg. One arm was draped lazily over the back of the chair he sat in. The elbow of the other rested on the chair's corresponding arm, pointing towards the ceiling. In it gripped a sleek black pistol, complete with an elongated silencer fastened to the end of the muzzle.
For the second time that night, the fox's heart skipped a beat. He could only hope that the firearm was a fake.
But Nick knew better. It was a real-life weapon, designed to kill. Such tools could only be found in reserved gun-shops, or bought off of the black-market. Even the ZPD itself rarely used real firearms in their operations. Recognizing the deadly potential of the weapon, Nick stilled himself to deter the intruder from sensing any need for it to be used.
Sparing a brief glance back towards the wooden drawer where he had tossed his tranquilizer gun just seconds earlier, Nick wondered if he had enough time to break for it.
The fox carefully shifted a few inches towards it before a deep voice, sleazy voice insisted, "I wouldn't do that."
Nick's eyes flicked back to the shadowy figure from which the voice had emanated. He watched as the figure in the shadows pointed his gun towards Nick with about as much thought as pointing a remote at a television screen. The fox was very tempted to duck down and hide, but somehow, he knew that it was just a warning: That the dark figure didn't truly intend on shooting him, that was, unless he was given a reason to. Deciding to play it safe, Nick simply held himself as still as he could before clearing his throat.
"Who are you?" Nick asked briskly, hoping to get some info to work on.
"You're a smart mammal." The figure calmly stated. "Haven't you figured that out on your own, yet?"
Nick swallowed hard, and put the pieces together himself. Truth be told, he had had a feeling that he would have met this guy sooner or later. "Al Catpone." He deduced.
From the shadows, the mammal sat forward in his chair, allowing the dim light from outside to illuminate his facial features. A yellow-spotted jaguar stared Nick down with intense green eyes, dark as jungle foliage. A snow-white cap with vines wrapped around its bowl was perched on his head. Catpone's bulk filled the chair - Broad shoulders and strong arms contrasting with a bit of a gut pushing over his belt. Nick recognized this as the same crime-lord from the pictures that Major Friedkin had shown at the academy during that one criminology lesson. Though now, Al was no longer just some blurry centerpiece of a poorly snapped photograph. The mammal that sat before Nick was very real, and the threat that he posed seemed far more personal than anything a photo could recreate. Al radiated danger, but in a different way than the other crime-lords Nick had met - Mr. Big had a calm, cultured menace to him, Vladzotz had emitted a sort of dark, cruel authority, Shahaz let off a rustic, brutal vibe, and Iluka was practically a walking stick of dynamite, yet Al seemed coldly focused. His dark green eyes were trained on Nick, studying him as though he were prey. It wasn't a feeling Nick was used to. The fox breathed in steadily, trying to refrain from doing anything that might be seen as rash.
"Sit." Catpone urged, beckoning towards a nearby chair with the end of his gun.
It wasn't exactly a negotiable request. Sensing his options to be rather limited, the fox calmly raised his paws into the air as a sign of submission, and then backed away from the tranquilizer before slowly making his way over to the chair that Catpone had gestured to. He sat down in it carefully, as though worried a bomb might have been placed beneath it. Nonetheless, the only noise that came from it was the sound of the plush seating being pushed down beneath the fox's weight. He settled into it without a word.
"That's good." The jaguar muttered, all the while rolling the wrist of the paw that clutched his gun, as though working out a muscle cramp. "I'd hate to have to use this."
He chuckled to himself. "Then again, as I've always said, you can get much farther with a kind word and a gun than with a kind word alone."
The fox had heard stories of Catpone's pacifist nature. He recalled criminal profiling lessons at the ZPD making mention of it, such as when Major Friedkin had made the long speech about the crime-lords some few weeks past, and even Iluka Rombahe's own statement on that particular regard, as well. Everyone seemed to see Catpone as the most peaceful of the various crime-lords. Nick could understand why, but had a feeling that the jaguar wouldn't be opposed to using his deadly weapon if he felt obligated to.
If Catpone were here to kill him, Nick figured that he would have done so already. The gun was mostly for intimidation. Still, that didn't exactly make the fox feel any better. Backed into his own flat by a crime-lord, again. It was almost ironic that such a high-profile criminal could make such an endeavor, and to a police officer's home, at that. The last time, as he recalled, Vladzotz Fangpyre himself had broken into his home and torn up the furniture before having Nick kidnapped by his cronies. That whole situation had been a real mess. And so, the fox had no intentions on leaving anything to chance with this new meeting between him and Al Catpone. He had to keep it cool, and collected.
Now, it was just a matter of keeping things uneventful, if only to keep things from getting out of hand. The fox had no intentions on repeating any of his past mistakes. Using his wits, Nick deemed the best next step of his to take would be to inquire his captor as to why he was here. To get some fresh information out of him, for what it was worth.
Breathing in slowly, the fox steeled himself for what was to come.
"How did you find out where I live?" Nick calmly questioned his captor, who simply chuckled with amusement.
"Please. The ZPA isn't the only organization that the Rainforest-Outfit has planted spies into. Findin' your home address was simple." He replied.
"Did you know I'd be here alone?"
"I may have mentioned the spies." Catpone said. "I've been waitin' for an opportunity to talk to you for a while - Just the two of us - And now, we finally can."
Nick narrowed his eyes. Evidently, there were even more moles at the ZPD than he first realized. Alongside that, with Catpone having found out where he and Judy lived, it was clear that they needed to find a new home as soon as possible. An idea tugged at the edge of his mind, but he ignored it, focusing on the present. Matters to resolve later.
"So you really were the guy behind that figurative and literal mole at the academy, huh?" The fox grumbled. "Figures. Should I take this as your confession, then?"
Catpone laughed. "I've heard stories of your sense of humor. It says a lot about you - Takin' pride in makin' others laugh, even if you yourself are hurtin' on the inside."
Nick was tempted to retort, but instead chose to maintain his poker-face. "What do you want?" The fox asked in a firm voice, showing no signs of weakness nor aggression.
The jaguar exhaled. "Truth is, I caught word that you and your lil' rabbit squeeze were huntin' me down. I thought I'd save us all the trouble and come to you myself."
Nick gripped the armrests of his chair. So Catpone knew about the investigation. Another matter to resolve later.
"You'll have to pardon my mood. I usually don't entertain mob bosses, especially after they send hitmammals out to kill me." The fox grumbled.
"You mean Tim and Tom? I... Apologize for them. I gave 'em permission to whack anyone that threatened to interfere with our plans, and I guess they thought they'd seize the opportunity, eh? But I can promise you that you and your wife weren't any kind of premeditated target." Al said before sneering. "Marco just has loose lips."
"Seems kind of reckless, don't ya think?" The fox pressed. "A hit attempt is one thing, but you, breaking and entering into a police officer's flat like this-"
"Bold, maybe, but I prefer to think of it more as a necessity." Catpone interrupted. "This won't get me in any trouble, because I'm a... Resourceful mammal, so to say, and it won't have to end in trouble for you if you simply sit right there and talk to me. Besides, I've always wanted to meet you personally... And privately. You'll have to forgive the forced entrance. I reasoned this would be the only place we could talk in peace. And that's all I'm here for: Just to talk with you."
"Should I be flattered?" Nick grumbled, enticing a chuckle from his captor.
"If you want. Truth be told, I'm the one who's flattered. Being a predator, especially one of my position, has exposed me to many, uh... Opposing points of view, to say the least. Not all of them have been friendly. However, you and your wife have made some truly incredible contributions to improve the lives of predators around the city. And for that, I am grateful. Things are better because of you. A part of me came here tonight ready to thank you for all that you've done. However... I'm afraid it's too little too late."
"And what makes you say that?" Nick asked. He wasn't exactly keen on getting Catpone to monologue, but he couldn't deny that he was curious as to what he truly meant.
The fox noticed that Al Catpone actually lowered his gun when he asked that. Nick could tell that whatever he was about to say meant a lot to him.
"Society... Is what makes me say that. Your work for predator reformation has been a blessing, but I believe that it's time for some more direct action. Our kind isn't treated right, Nick. Not even after all you've pushed for. I've seen the squalor that predators are forced to endure in places like Happy-Town - We both have! I grew up in the heart of the Rainforest-District, but even I've always known that the system has been rigged against us from the start. What if I told you that there was a way to change all that?"
"I was in the con business, pal." The fox pointed out. "I know a castle in the sky when I see one, and right now, you're sounding like an infomercial host."
The jaguar nodded sympathetically.
"There you are again: Using humor to hide what you truly think. You make a joke out of what I have to say, but the fact that you see my words as a false hope still means that you see hope in them. We both know you're smarter than the average mammal. I consider myself somethin' similar, so let's talk without the chewin' gum, shall we?"
Nick sighed. Al was more deductive than he looked. "Whatever. Just tell me what it is you want."
Catpone shifted his weight in his chair, and finally lowered his gun, though still kept it pointed in Nick's general direction.
"I just want to talk." He claimed. "Predator to predator." The jaguar let those words sink in before slowly explaining;
"I know how you feel, Nick... Like nothin' could ever change. You work for the ZPD, championin' their breed of hope and opportunity, strivin' to make the world a better place for everyone, predators especially... But you're still pessimistic. I can understand why: You've seen the city's prioritization policy firsthand, you've witnessed the attempts of those in power to sacrifice others for their own selfish gains, like Ratsputin, the mayors, and even your dear Chief Bogo, too. And in your attempts to create a more perfect world, you've subsequently exposed all the grime that grows beneath our society's foundation, and because of that, you're cynical. Does that sound about right?"
Nick didn't respond. He didn't want to give this criminal any leverage against him. But still, he couldn't deny that Catpone had a point. In all the years that Nick had been serving on the ZPD, it seemed that relatively little progress had been made in terms of how the city treated predators. In comparison to the days before the Night-Howler epidemic, there were huge leaps forward on that topic, and other things like it such as inter-species relationships, but past it all, there was still a very deep divide within.
And with that, the fox had been wondering for a long time if things were ever going to get any better. His mother still lived in deplorable conditions, his own distrust of the city government was as strong as ever after the excursion with Ratsputin and the shock-collar conspiracy, and there still seemed to be that sense of animosity hanging in the air between some predators and some prey species. Things had gotten much better since the Night-Howler days, yes, but even Nick himself, being at the very forefront of the movement to improve the lives of predators along with Judy, recognized that there was still a long way to go. He remembered the protests that he and Judy had encountered during their trip to Outback-Island, and all the biting remarks he had received just for being a predator. The fox looked up and locked eyes with the jaguar before him.
"You aren't alone, though." Catpone muttered, his voice impossibly soft. "I'm cynical too."
Al then leaned forward in his chair once more, allowing the moonlight streaming into the living room from outside the window to once again illuminate his facial features.
"But I came to realize that I don't have to be. Instead of sittin' on my tail, waitin' for some hoity-toity politician to make things better, I could seize the means to make things better for myself. Organized crime has always been the magnum opus of mammals, predators especially, who feel as though they could do more to effect the world around them: To make a stable living, and a better, more impactful life for themselves. My friend, Vladzotz Fangpyre, knows this especially well. Have you heard of his story?"
"Old Flappy-Bat?" Nick asked. "Never bothered. Usually, he's been too busy trying to kill me than to spout his tragic backstory."
In all honesty, Nick had done some digging on his vampiric nemesis in the past, but being able to hear it from the mouth of one of his associates admittedly peaked his interest, though he didn't show it. Besides, he figured that it was better to humor this jaguar while he still could than risk ticking him off and getting a bullet in the chest.
The jaguar furrowed his brow in thought. He then explained;
"His family owned that manor of his for generations, up until it was destroyed, but it wasn't always the seat of his criminal empire. It used to be a simple home, like this one."
Catpone waved his gun around in a circle, gesturing to the painted walls of the apartment. He continued;
"However, Vlad's father, Vladzotz the second, started using the place as a den for organized crime after his business sank into debt. He was in finances, you see, but his market wasn't doin' too well. He wanted to make more money to support his family, even if it led him down the path of crime. That was the birth of the Nocturnal-Mob. When he died, his son, the Vlad we know took control, and continued the process, eventually makin' a bigger name for himself and turnin' the Nocturnal-Mob into what it is today."
Eyeing Nick almost sympathetically, Catpone halted his explanation for a few brief moments to let his previous statement sink in.
"Good for him." The fox groused sarcastically. "But what's the point? Of all this?" He asked, to which the jaguar exhaled from his nostrils in a bitter sort of manner.
"The lesson of the story, is that sometimes, crime is the only path to take if it means protecting yourself and the ones you love." He finalized.
Catpone then leaned back into his chair, letting the shadows encase his face once again. His words echoed out from the darkness of the corner;
"This is a problem that only predators have. This is a problem that you had - You were a made-mammal in Big's syndicate for a while, weren't you? In your darkest days, the Big family took you in, and turned you into somethin' even greater than you were before. And of course, this is also a problem that I've had, as well. We've all faced some amount of discrimination and prejudice, Nick. We've all gone to drastic lengths to make a stable livin' for ourselves, and to protect our loved ones. We're alike, you and I."
"Is that how you see it?" The fox asked pointedly. "That we're alike? I get where you're coming from, buddy, but I really don't see how any of this concerns me." Nick scoffed. "And who do you think you are, talking like you know all about the greater good? You're a stinking crime-lord, Spots! Who do you have to protect other than yourself?"
His words hung in the air for a few moments of tense silence. The fox had admittedly became irritated with how Catpone had started to drone on about love and opportunity.
"My son, Albert." The jaguar finally replied in a soft voice. "I want nothing more than to give him the best chance at havin' a good life... A life better than mine, at least."
Glancing away and towards the floor, Nick took note of Catpone's lax body position. He was in a moment of weakness. It didn't last, however. Quickly recomposing himself, Al straightened out his backbone before breathing in deeply, and then slowly letting out a steady sigh of content. His forest-green eyes seemed to be shining a tiny bit brighter.
"That is why I do this. For Albert." The jaguar stated firmly. "But not just for him and him alone - For the good of all predators, as well. I have big plans in the making."
"Lemme guess, it has something to do with that weird gas you released at the academy, doesn't it?" Nick interjected.
"The only thing you need to know right now is that soon - real soon - things are going to be changing. I'm going to be givin' our kind, all predators, the chance to become somethin' even greater: To give them the power to throw off the chains that bind them, and allow them all to make things better for themselves, just like I have. I want them to finally make the changes that this city has failed to do. Sure, the plan's biggest facet is the money it's gonna make us, but organized crime has always been about money. That's nothing special. The byproduct of the plan - all my hopes for predators and the future of this city - is a big gamble, but a personal goal I aim to achieve, even if it costs me. Businessmammals have to take gambles, eh? Before any of that, though, I want a little somethin' else... Right now, I want you, Nick Wilde. We could help eachother."
"So that's what you're here for... What all this talk has been leading to." The fox mumbled before letting out a dry chuckle. "You're seriously here to try and recruit me?"
Catpone nodded, the shadows around his head bending with its movement.
"Aren't you sick of it? Seeing your fellow predators treated like second class citizens? Entire generations being raised in the same ghetto that you were raised in? Standin' by and watchin' as mammals repeat the same mistakes again and again? I know that you hate it. You hate how despite workin' for the ZPD and campaigning to make things better for your kind, that the city's prioritization policy has left little room to change. You hate how your family had been forced to live in a place like Happy-Town. You always have. And most of all, you hate Happy-Town not just because of what it is, but because of what it means to you: Lost hopes and broken dreams... Just like your old family."
Nick stared into the shadowy recesses of Catpone's face. "What do you know about my family? And how?" He asked firmly and without hesitation.
"Because I knew them personally." The jaguar claimed. "Your father, to be specific."
Al lifted his free paw to his chest, and then pulled back the folds of his big overcoat, exposing the inside. Laced on one of the pocket's interiors was a logo. Nick recognized it.
"No way." He stifled. "You... And dad..."
The jaguar nodded, grinning as he looked down at the business logo etched into the breast pocket on his overcoat: The individual word Suitopia stitched into the black fabric.
"Pretty neat, eh?" Catpone mused. "I bought this from his tailor shop nearly twenty years ago. It's still in amazin' condition."
Nick felt as though he had just been slapped in the face - In a bit of pain, but mostly in awe from sheer amounts of shock. His father had owned a tailor shop in Happy-Town for many years, and Nick had plenty of memories of his dad staying late to run the place, while leaving his family alone at home. Sure, Nick may have despised his dad for most of his adult life due to his cowardice and prejudice, but he still had pleasant thoughts of better times with him during his childhood - He had some rather fond memories of being shown around the place, and helping his father make new suits. Nick's father considered himself an artist, but from what a young Nick had gathered, he had always thought tailoring to be one of the finest types of art - Intricately weaving every little thread together, slowly creating something beautiful, substantial, and valuable over time.
Nick never could have imagined, though, that his father's work would have struck an appeal with someone like an inner-city crime-lord.
The fox swallowed. "You... Knew him?" He asked, to which the jaguar shrugged.
"Not very well. I bought all my favorite suits from your father. Occasionally he'd fill me in on his family life. I picked up pretty quickly that although he enjoyed it, and loved both you and your mother, there were still parts of it he didn't like. He wasn't satisfied with livin' in Happy-Town, and had ambitions of one day movin' you all out to the Rainforest-District. Those dreams never came true. Sometimes when I came in, he'd looked as though he'd just spent the past few days up in a rut, without any sleep. He was stressed, and when Suitopia finally shut down for good, I came to him one last time. He told me of the fight he had with your mother, and how it pushed him over the edge, causin' him to leave her, and abandon you. He never really wanted to leave you, though, but still felt that you would be in better paws with your mother than himself."
Catpone fingered the logo on the inside of his overcoat one last time before releasing his hold on the flap, and closing his suit up once again.
"Your father seemed a good mammal, from what I knew about him. After Suitopia closed down, I visited him one last time, like I said, and once he explained his predicament with your mother, well... I took pity on him. I offered him the chance to join the Rainforest-Outfit as a way to continue making a livin' for himself. To keep his family afloat, like Vlad. My mob has always been keen on extending a paw to those in need - Loans, soup kitchens, opportunities, take your pick. However, your father declined my generous offer, not wanting to get his paws dirty with crime work. It was a shame. He would'a made an excellent addition to the family."
Leaning out from the shadows once more, Catpone placed his elbows on his knee-caps, and held up the weight of his upper-body. He stared down Nick with a slight fatherly sort of expression laced across his countenance - Almost as though he were proud of him for all that he had done, but even more anticipant of what he could do in the future.
"But you don't share his reluctance to seize an opportunity, do you? That's why you joined Mr. Big! That's why even after you left his syndicate, you became a common street grifter, conning other mammals. It's all because you have the stomach to do what you think is necessary to make a future for yourself, even if it hurts others along the way. You may be a cop now, but you still have that particular aspect to your character. I can see it in you: The potential to make real change. You and I are practically one and the same, Nick - We both hate this world that has taken so much from us, and want to see it reformed. Want to see it changed. That's why you became a cop, and that's why I came to you tonight. I see somethin' in you that so few others do - Somethin' that you take pride in. Like me, you're born for big things! It's in your blood. I want you to help me."
The jaguar placed his weapon on the arm of his chair, and then reached out with his paw, as though beckoning Nick to shake. His coming words were firm and unrelenting;
"Become a part of Cosa Nostra, the Rainforest-Outfit, and indirectly work with us - with me - to give future generations of predators the chance to live in a better world. Together, we can work to show the city government and the ZPD what it truly means to be a predator, and how all of us can do our part to make this world a better place."
Silence encompassed the room. For once in his life, Nick didn't know what to say. This was an offer unlike anything he had been presented with before. He had to admit that deep down, it was an appealing one, but he knew that it wasn't meant to be. He couldn't just abandon Judy and all of his friends at the ZPD just to buddy up with Al Catpone, even if it was for well-intentioned reasons. Well-intentioned they may have been, they were still villainous, extreme, and against most of what the ZPD stood for.
Make this world a better place, he had said. Catpone's words seemed genuine, but his snarling grin indicated something more sinister.
Nick could tell that he wasn't doing all this just for that single claim. There was a darker reason underlying beneath it - Something that Catpone didn't want to admit. Whatever it was, it was unnerving. Nick thought back to how Chief Myreme had described Al and his mob as a blight on Zootopia, and how this same jaguar had manipulated Big Marco into a life of crime. It wasn't right. But the more Nick thought about Al's offer, the more he realized just how manipulative this cat really was. Al's ploy to turn Nick was a risky one, but the fox figured that this crime-lord knew it wouldn't be so easy to turn him. Because of that fact, he could tell that Catpone didn't really want him to join his mob, as that would have just been completely improbable. Instead, Nick came to the realization that Al wanted him to do something more specific to help him.
"You sir, make a compelling argument." Nick started. "I mean, that rolled off your tongue real easy. In fact, that was downright slick. You must have been practicing that line. But let's be honest, here - You don't really want me to buddy up with your gang, do you? It's possible, but improbable. You're just here to coax me into doing something else for you. So cut the emotional manipulation - all this stuff about my pops, and predator rights - and just get to the point." He said. Nick noticed a smile grow on Al's face.
"You got me." The cat admitted, rubbing at the back of his neck. "I suppose I can be straight with a mammal as deductive as you."
"Indeed you can." Nick confirmed, crossing his arms. "So, if I were to accept this offer to help you out, what would you have me do?"
"That's simple - Nothing direct. Mislead the investigation. Make evidence disappear. Take your pick. I would have my other spies do it, but none of them are on the investigation like you are." The jaguar replied. Nick took a moment to ponder over his offer.
The idea of Al trying to convince Nick to help him wasn't all that surprising to him, when he thought about it. It made perfect sense for Catpone to want to target and manipulate someone with bias. The fox also recalled how during his time in the Deciduous-District, Iluka Rombahe, the tasmanian-devil crime-lord of Outback-Island, had once told him something similar: How he would have made a good addition to his crime gang. Clearly, Nick possessed something that made some of the crime-lords see him as valuable.
For some reason, he found that that amusing.
He stifled a chuckle. Within a few seconds, he couldn't hold it back anymore - He threw his head back and laughed, his chortles filling the silence of the room. Wiping at his eye, Nick spared a glance back at Al Catpone, who was still sitting there with one of his meaty arms stretched out towards him in a gesture of cooperation. The expression on his face was that of bewilderment. He probably hadn't been expecting such a weird reaction from his foxy hostage.
Smiling and fueled by an outburst of confidence, Nick decided to finally break the ice that had formed after Catpone's last statement.
"Honestly, you crime-lords must be a desperate bunch if you think you can try to turn me." Nick stated firmly. "Hate to break it to ya, Al, but I'm not helping. Now or ever."
Narrowing his green eyes, Catpone slowly lowered his paw and then picked up the firearm that he had set down earlier. He gripped it as he let his wrist dangle from his knee.
All the while, the fox continued his rant;
"I mean, sure, I can understand why you'd want me on your side, not even counting all that 'predator brotherhood' stuff you brought up: It's cuz I'm a smart cookie! I mean, who wouldn't want me helping them out? Sorry, though - This fox isn't up for sale. You may have known my dad back in the day, but that does not mean you know me."
The jaguar's jaw tightened in frustration. "You don't know what you're talkin' about. This isn't somethin' you want to miss out on." He claimed.
"Oh, but I think it is. Unlike you, I recognize that the world isn't just a bunch of pre-defined roles. We can make our own paths. Unlike you, I'm a predator actually working for the betterment of the city. You say I'm meant to be a criminal? Maybe I am, but lemme let you in on a little secret: I chose this life. Not the other way around. I'm no longer the fox I once was. I'm a police officer, and as soon as you leave my flat, I'm gonna get every precinct from here over to Bunny-Burrow to place a search warrant out for you."
Catpone remained silent as Nick finalized his previous statement with vigor, but true pride most of all;
"We will stop you, just like we stopped Iluka!"
Catpone's eyes narrowed as he let loose a guttural snarl from the depths of his throat. He clearly took offense to what he had just heard. Now, he was no longer playing nice.
"Iluka? Don't compare me to him! That angry devil was all style and no substance. He thought that he could get away with nearly destroyin' the Deciduous-District... And for what? Another rusty old toy to add to his collection? What a joke. I'm trying to make real change! When my work is done, this city will be a different place - A better place!"
Nick had to resist the urge to gag. Hearing Al Catpone talk like Judy was almost sickening to listen to. "I'm not sure what you're planning, but I can tell it involves predators. If it succeeds, it'll only paint us in an even worse light, I'm telling you. If you want change, you should seek it through peaceful ways. That's what I did! I took up a badge and became a cop. Sure, you probably can't pass the application process, but you can still use your influence for good."
"There's never only one path to change." Al said. "Soup kitchens only go so far. City-Hall has had its chance again and again. I'm gonna help it make up its mind for good."
Nick sighed. "You can think what you want, Spots, but when this is all over, and you're sitting pretty in a jail cell, you're gonna regret ever having messed with the ZPD."
The jaguar smiled ever so slightly - A minuscule tug at the corner of his mouth, pulling at his lips as though he had just heard an amusing joke.
"I know you, Nick - You're a coward, and cowards bluff. I think that when this is all over... Things will be better for the both of us... With or without your help."
Al raised his arm and pointed his gun at Nick. The fox didn't even flinch. He stopped himself from saying any more, but somehow knew that it was just a ploy. Al saw Nick's expression, and came to the same conclusion himself. He then dropped his arm and stood up from his chair, rising to his full height; barely reaching the room's ceiling.
"But I'm not here to kill you... I never was. Perhaps I was mistaken, in thinkin' that you'd be so easy to turn to our side. That's on me."
Al's voice trailed off with disappointment, that was, before he quickly recomposed himself and stared down at the fox sitting before him.
"But this isn't over, Nick. I have a feelin' that we'll be meetin' again sometime here real soon, likely under less pleasant circumstances. I still see you as a potential ally, in all this, but make no mistake: Next time we meet, I won't be so hospitable. If you won't join me in my work now, then consider this meetin' a warning, and a demonstration of Cosa Nostra's power. I have no reason to stay now, and so, I'll be takin' my leave."
"Took you long enough." The fox grumbled.
"When I walk out that door, you forget any of this happened." Catpone ordered. "I was never here. We never talked. You were asleep in your bed this whole time."
The jaguar's expression became as hard and unforgiving as stone. He concluded his statement with an ominous warning;
"I like you Nick, but don't you ever interfere with my business again. Because if you do, I will kill you, and everyone you love, if I have to. I'll kill you dead, fox. Capisce?"
Nick was silent to the count of five. "Do you understand?" Al repeated, this time with even more force to his words.
"Yes." The fox claimed swiftly and quietly, not breaking eye contact with his captor all the while. "I do."
Al nodded in approval. "Then my work here is done." He said before walking over to the dresser where Nick had placed his tranquilizer gun. "Oh, and I'll be takin' this."
At that, the jaguar then plucked the dart gun off of the dresser's surface before slipping it into one of the pockets on his overcoat, likely in an effort to prevent Nick from using it on him as he vacated the premises. Nick hated to see it go, as it was the very first dart gun that he had been assigned upon joining the ZPD, but otherwise sat still.
"Now get out of my house." The fox ordered before finishing off with a slight growl of his own.
Sneering one last time, the jaguar then walked out the front door, pacing down the length of the building's balcony before disappearing from sight. Nick figured that that limo he had seen earlier was there to pick Al up and drive him back to the Rainforest-District, and so, didn't bother trying to give chase. It didn't exactly help that he didn't have any real weapons to fight back with, either. Instead, the fox just chose to kick back in his chair, and let out a discontented sigh of relief. That had been a stressful situation. He only wished that he had had Judy's famous carrot pen, but sadly, it was still with her back at Precinct Four.
But now, there was the matter of dealing with the aftermath of it.
Nick had long since learned by now that sometimes, keeping things bottled up wasn't the best route to go - His altercation with Ratsputin at city-hall, and how the fox had tried to keep it to himself for so long was one of the reasons that had ultimately resulted in him and Judy getting sent to the Deciduous-District as punishment by Chief Bogo. That rat had manipulated him into thinking it best to keep his thoughts to himself, rather than tell anyone else what had happened. His pride paired along with his fears had managed to turn a bad situation even worse, and create a major setback for the Zootopia Police Department. This time, though, Nick was done with hiding. No more secrets.
He needed to call Judy right away.
For starters, I wanted to apologize for how long it took to get this chapter out. I know I promised it would be quicker than the last one, but some unexpected things came up in real life that were very pressing, and took away a lot of time, but at least it's out now (and a long one, at that), and with things looking bright in the future and with more free time to come, I'll be sure to get the remaining chapters out quicker! That I promise. I'm working on releasing them sooner than usual, to get you all the ending you deserve by this summer. Anyhow, that was a pretty tense final scene, wasn't it? It was actually inspired by that one cut scene from the movie's original plot, where the wolf darts Nick after breaking into his office. I enjoyed writing it, mostly because we got to see both the similarities and differences of Nick and Catpone during their conversation, alongside learning some more about the latter's motivation and history, and how it even ties into Nick's. From the beginning, I wanted Catpone to have some sort of connection to Nick, if only to further drive home the comparison between the two. You'll be seeing this comparison further explored in later chapters, and how it helps to develop the two characters in question.
So, what did ya think of this latest chapter, especially in regards to the meeting scene between Nick and Al? Feel free to leave a review detailing your thoughts! I like those a lot. Alongside that, if you haven't done so already, you're welcome to Favorite/Follow the story too, if you'd like. That stuff really helps me out, and I appreciate all support, regardless!
Anyhow, that's just about all that I have to say for now. Thanks a million for reading this latest new chapter, and do please stay tuned for the next one! In it, you'll get to see Judy's research, the aftermath of Nick's talk with Al, another scene from the villain's side of things, and even the return of Finnick the fennec, who we haven't seen in the flesh in nearly 100 chapters! He'll be playing a minor role in the remaining chapters, and I think you'll like how it turns out. Old plot lines with old characters and other plot-points will be wrapped up, and then some! Stay tuned for the final stretch of When Instinct Falls! Only a few more chapters (4-6) left to go!
'Till next time...
PS: One thing I've been working on is trying to show things more than tell, and I think you'll see that trait displayed well as I cover the backstories and deeper motivations of Al Catpone in the coming chapters, along with Lucy Sang, who has been a bit mysterious when it comes to her past, throughout this story, save for a few snippets of info here and there, mostly in 'Bad Romance - Part Two'. Point is, you'll be learning some more about them both very soon, in the next chapter and beyond! When I designed Iluka, the last big arc villain in the story, his appeal was supposed to come more from his personalty and concept than his backstory and motivation, but with Al, I intend on doing it different, and better for this final arc of his, as I have with previous villains such as Vladzotz. You'll see very soon!
PPS: There is some absolutely fantastic new fan-art of Vladzotz and Lucy on my tumblr and DeviantArt accounts, including another made by skeletons-and-ragdolls - They're all so awesome that I had to let you know. Feel free to check them out, if you'd like!