"Loose lips sink ships." - American idiom.
12:30 P.M ; Finnick's Apartment, Rainforest-District...
It had been two days since Nick and Judy had settled into Finnick's apartment, and although it wasn't home sweet home, their adjustment was surprisingly speedy.
Nick had begun to hang his favorite ties over the heated pipes snaking through the drywall, and Finnick had begrudgingly allowed Judy to set up a string bulletin on one of the walls in his living room, with pictures and news articles connected by a spiderweb of multicolored yarn threads. The rabbit rarely averted her gaze from it, frequently thumping her foot as she contemplated potential leads. Nick sat in a chair close by, skimming through articles in the local newspaper to add to Judy's growing collection, all while Finnick sat in the living room watching a soccer game in his beanbag, soda in paw, occasionally cheering whenever an exciting move was played, or laughing whenever a player fell.
Ever since telling Chief Bogo of Nick's run-in with Al Catpone, the two officers had kept up their case on careful terms, doing their best to piece together what they could without drawing too much attention to themselves. Safety was a priority. That meant a lot of work done at home, or in this case, Finnick's apartment. At the very least, it gave Nick and Judy an excuse to question Finnick about his connections to the Rainforest-District's criminal underworld, however loose.
"So, tell me Fin, when was the last time you encountered anything around here worthy enough to raise an eyebrow?" Nick asked.
"What, you think I keep count, or somethin'?" Finnick growled. "This neighborhood ain't exactly Precinct One. Crime happens all the time 'round here."
"I'm just asking if you know anything that might be able to help. Hopps and I aren't here to arrest you." The red fox assured. Finnick just sighed deeply.
"Truth is, 'round these parts, you can't live on the street for so long without havin' at least a few run-ins with organized crime. Ever since Mr. Big, I try my best to stay away from that stuff, but there are still accidents. Ya know, by chance." He shifted his weight uncomfortably. "Just the other month, I was out, uh..." His voice trailed off as he spared a glance at Judy. "Searching for clients, and uh, I ran into a pair of jaguars - well dressed - off Acacia-Avenue, right where the jungle meets the savanna. They paid me good money to transport a few bags of luggage in my van to some bar deep in the rainforest, and drop it off in the back lot. But I can't remember what it's called!" He growled.
"Come on, Fin, think." Nick urged. "See if you can recall something for us."
"I'm trying!" The sand-fox snarled, massaging his temples with his thumbs. "T-The Red Hill Tavern? Gray... Mill... Something!"
Judy stepped forward. "Wait... You don't mean the Green Mill Bar, do you?"
"Yeah, that's it." Finnick confirmed. "Stupid name if you ask me. The place ain't even green."
"So, this Green Mill place," Nick started. "Why there?"
"I think I know why." Judy interjected, ears perking to the ceiling. "That bar is a notorious predator-leaning establishment. There have been reports to the ZPD about prey mammals being chased away from the entrance. Remember what Iluka told us when we interviewed him? How Al is a strong believer in predator-rights? If I were him, setting up shop at the Green Mill would be a great way to find like-minded individuals to hire. Something tells me he also uses it to launder money, just like he did with Big Marco's!"
"Yeah, it's comin' back to me." Finnick piped up, locking eyes with Judy. "I've heard things about the place. It's a real hotspot for organized crime 'round the Rainforest-District. Al uses it as a watering-hole to plan jobs." The sand-fox cleared his throat upon taking note of Judy's disapproving expression. "Or so I've heard." He repeated.
"Did you ever find out what you were shipping?" Nick asked, to which his ex-partner shrugged.
"I didn't ask questions. That's usually what gets you killed doin' jobs like that."
The red fox stroked his chin. He figured that if the past week's events had any patterns to go off of, then it was safe to assume that Finnick may have been unknowingly transporting some form of Night-Howlers, either the original kind or the strange new gas variant that had been popping up over the past few days. During Eugene's interrogation, Nick had managed to deduce what the gas was, but still had no idea how it worked, or more importantly, why Al was using it - Answers he hoped to learn soon.
"Well," Judy began as she opened up her laptop on a nearby table. "Since Big Marco didn't give us much info, this bar might be a good place to compensate."
"Pump the brakes there, Carrots, how are we supposed to even get this info? If this place is half as bad as Fin says, we can't just waltz in and ask nicely. Walking into a mobster den as police officers, especially well-known police officers after just destroying another criminal supply-depot, I might add, would practically be a death sentence."
"Easy solution, then." Judy countered, locking eyes with her partner. "We go undercover, and do a sting operation."
Nick let that statement sink in for a few brief seconds. "Hmm. Not a bad idea." He admitted. "If we were undercover, we could go in, ask around, listen and learn all we could. We haven't gone undercover since that white-collar investigation Downtown. I suppose it'd give me an excuse to break out the ol' gray dye, huh?"
Judy smirked. "No color-coding this time, Slick. Something tells me those thugs will be on the lookout for bunnies and foxes of any color. This time, we'll need a species swap."
"You mean I get to wear one of those ridiculous sheep costumes?" Nick chuckled. "Officer Wolford tells me they feel like being hugged by a cloud."
"Weren't you listenin'?" Finnick growled. "That joint's filled with pro-pred mobsters. If you go in as a sheep, they'll shave you with a switchblade."
"A wolf, then." Judy suggested. "You've got the right build for it."
"Yeah, but not the right height." Nick retorted.
"Just say you're a runt." Finnick joked. "You wouldn't even be lying!"
"Now that's just hurtful."
The bunny allowed herself a slight snicker. "Okay, a short wolf it is."
"Oh, come on now." Nick grumbled, lifting his forearms with exasperation.
"It's a good idea." Judy insisted, still smiling a bit. "All we'll need is a wolf disguise from Precinct One. We can call up Chief Bogo. He can help."
Finnick scoffed. "S'long as you leave me out of it. I've gotta game to watch." He muttered, training his eyes toward the TV.
"I'm thinking we can sneak you in as a janitor, or better yet, a waiter." Judy mused, typing notes down on her computer. "Someone the customers at the bar would trust. Even if you were disguised as a wolf, if you just walk in and start asking questions, you'll stir up suspicion. Being a waiter would allow you to really chat it up with customers."
"A waiter, huh?" Nick repeated, creating a box with his fingers as if imagining it on his driver's license. "I can see it. That'd pair well with my undeniable charisma. Costume or not, though, how am I supposed to walk around undetected? The guy that owns the place might not recognize me as an employee. I'd need to have an actual job there."
"Well, it's a good thing they're hiring." Judy said as she turned her laptop towards her partner. An online document advertising open server positions at the Green Mill Bar shined across the screen. Finnick threw his head back and let out a harsh, wheezing laugh, causing Nick to shoot him a glare.
"Congratulations, Nick! You're movin' up in the world!" The smaller fox cackled.
Nick sighed. "This just keeps getting better and better."
"Undercover sting operations don't always go quickly." Judy continued. "If we'll want to sneak some info out of Al's henchmammals at this bar, then we're gonna need to be patient and resourceful. It says here that their first interviews will begin later today. With a little luck, you'll land the job, and then we can begin the mission and-"
Judy was cut off as her phone let off a loud buzz. Pulling it up, her eyes widened at a new message sent to her - A message from Fru-Fru, Mr. Big's daughter.
Meet me at daddy's cottage in Tundra-Town. You know the address. I have a tip that I think might help.
The bunny could barely believe her own eyes. Fru-Fru had information for her? This was unbelievably sudden. It had been months since Judy had last spoken with her. The two of them had kept a steady friendship over the years, ever since Judy had saved Fru-Fru's life from that giant donut in Little Rodentia, and frequently communicated via text, with Fru-Fru keeping Judy updated on her goddaughter's growth, among other things. Yet to see Fru-Fru send a text so serious - no emojis, slang, etc - was almost unnerving.
"You and Finnick keep planning." Judy started, not taking her eyes off her phone as she began walking toward the exit. "I'm going to Tundra-Town."
"What? Don't leave me alone with him!" Finnick complained, jabbing a finger at his ex-partner.
"Wait, you're leaving?" Nick asked. "Why?"
"I think I might have a new lead. I'll be back soon!" Judy called out as she ran out of the apartment, almost forgetting to close the door behind her.
1:10 P.M ; Tundra-Town, Big Family Residence...
Judy didn't exactly have fond memories of the last time she had visited the Big Family household.
As she recalled, her and Nick had let Mr. Big threaten to ice Duke Weaselton unless he had told them about the Night-Howlers back during their first case. It felt like so long ago, and wasn't Judy's proudest moment. She told herself many excuses, at the time - How she wasn't a cop, and that they needed to do whatever it took to get the info they needed to stop Bellwether and her goons - but no matter what reassurance she spun, Judy could never shake off the guilt of having collaborated with a notorious crime-lord to get what she wanted. Ever since, she had done her best to hold as straight-laced a record as possible, and had promised herself that she'd never set foot in that mob house again.
Yet she was, walking to its front door. Perhaps Ratsputin was right about her - Maybe she was a crooked cop after all.
Judy shook her head. No... Those were Ratsputin's words invading her mind. They were what Ratsputin had wanted her to believe about herself, to weaken her from the inside. That manipulative rat may have been dead, but the mark he had left on Judy's memories still seemed as fresh as ever. The bunny sighed and straightened out her spine. This time was different - She wasn't working with Mr. Big and his mob, but rather getting a simple tip from his far friendlier daughter. For this, Judy was in the right.
Upon knocking at the door, Judy was left waiting for a few short seconds before it swung open, causing a soft gust of frosty air to blow outside like a refrigerator door. A polar bear in a suit and tie glared down at her with a sour expression. The rabbit had strategically chosen to wear a brown windbreaker and jeans rather than her usual police attire, knowing that such an outfit likely would have resulted in shortening her lifespan by a few decades. Walking inside, Judy entered the archaically decorated cottage before the door was closed shut behind her. She saw Fru-Fru down the hall. The shrew was dressed in a small blue dress, and jumped with delight upon spotting her guest.
"Oh, I'm so glad you could make it! It's nice to see you again, Judy. Little Judy is taking a nap in the living room, and daddy's away on a business trip to the Marshlands, so we'll have the place to ourselves, if you don't count Kevin over there, but we should still talk in my room. It'd be better to talk about this... As privately as possible."
Fru-Fru scurried off deeper into the house. Tailing shortly behind, Judy was eventually led to a door at the end of a hallway about as small as her head. Evidently, despite living in a house frequented by polar bears, there were still sections that only smaller-sized mammals could access. Ducking down, Judy crawled through the doorframe. After squeezing in with a grunt, the bunny was forced to walk on her kneecaps. The room was small, at least compared to her, and filled with pillows and other frilly knick-knacks. What wasn't pink was coated in glitter, and the bed looked plush enough to suffocate in. Fru-Fru may have been a parent, but she was clearly still a daddy's girl at heart.
"Alright, Fru-Fru." Judy began. "I know you wouldn't have brought me here unless it was something very important. What did you want to tell me?"
The shrew bit her lip as though she were still considering telling Judy in the first place, but quickly broke down with a sigh, and then began her explanation.
"Just the other day, daddy had gone to this super sketchy meeting down in the Nocturnal-District with his big business friends - you know, that scary bat and nasty jaguar - and he came back, like, completely PO! He was yelling so loud! I haven't seen him that angry since your friend Nick tricked him with that skunk-butt-rug. And, well, it's not like I'm nosy or anything, but daddy was pretty upset, and a girl can't help but overhear things. He kept going on and on to Raymond and Kevin about how risky the jaguar's plan was, that scary new drug he's testing out! As if all that crazy business at the police academy weren't enough, now he's trying to mess with Happytown too!"
Judy furrowed her brow, digesting that information. "What does Al want with Happytown?"
"I'm not really sure. Daddy mentioned something about a power-play." Fru-Fru claimed.
"A power-play? What do you mean?"
"He... He said that the cat was crazy for thinking he could get predators to overthrow City-Hall by distributing his drug into Happytown. He called it a risky power-play."
"Of course." Judy murmured slowly, eyes widening with realization. "Al's going to use this new drug to entice predators to protest against the city government." She began, speaking faster as her excitement grew. "He wants the officials at City-Hall out of office, and he's going to try do it through violence! That's it! That's his plan!"
The rabbit was just about to lean forward and hug Fru-Fru, but stopped herself when she remembered the size difference. Instead she just carefully dipped a bit closer and took one of the shrew's tiny paws in between two of her fingers. It admittedly felt a bit refreshing for Judy to be able play the part of the larger mammal for once.
"Thank you!" She exclaimed. "This tip is a lifesaver! I don't know how I can thank you for this."
"You don't need to thank me. You've done so much for me already. It's the least I could do." The shrew said.
That notion put a thought in Judy's head. "Why are you telling me all this, anyways?" She asked softly. Fru-Fru looked to her feet a bit bashfully.
"Look, it's not like I'm trying to sell out Daddy or anything. I'm just trying to help out, you know? Make the world a better place instead of making it worse... Just this once. I've been wanting to help you out ever since you first saved my life from that giant donut. If it weren't for you, little Judy would have never been born. I never really got the chance to thank you for it. When I heard about what happened at the police academy, and when I heard what daddy said about his meeting, I knew I had to tell you."
Judy placed a paw over her heart. "Oh, Fru-Fru..." She trailed off, squeezing the shrew's tiny paw a bit before letting go. "Thank you."
The shrew just smiled. "Like I said, you don't need to thank me. I'm happy to help." From there, Fru-Fru began walking toward the door. "So, before you go, would you like to say hi to little Judy?" She asked. Judy nodded, remembering all-too well how Fru-Fru had decided to name her first child in her honor after saving her life.
"I'd be honored." The rabbit said.
Following Fru-Fru back into the living room (only after making another tight squeeze through her doorframe), Judy was led to the edge of a rodent-sized couch. On it, a young shrew no more than four years old with a frilly ribbon braided on its head lay napping among a pile of pillows. The bunny smiled at the scene, and quietly walked over to the couch before stroking the shrew's forehead, not wanting to wake her. Little Judy twitched in her sleep, and as bigger Judy turned to face Fru-Fru, she couldn't help but give a big thumbs-up. The two friends exchanged a somewhat awkward hug before Fru-Fru ordered Kevin to drive Judy back to the Rainforest-District in one of her father's limos.
As she watched the Big cottage disappear in the snowy wind through the back window, Judy felt a certain satisfaction that was hard to explain. Perhaps meeting with Fru-Fru once more had served as a reminder to her that good things could arise from bleak situations. Whatever the case, Judy was glad to have taken the time to meet with her. But now there was work to be done. While the limousine glided down the snowy streets of Tundra-Town, Judy pulled out her phone and immediately called her partner.
The device buzzed for a few moments before the fox answered. "What's up, fluff-butt? Ya got something for me?"
"Nick, I figured out what Al is after! He's planning to distribute a drug - the same kind that was encountered at the academy, the kind that doesn't fully turn mammals savage - into Happytown so that he can entice predators to radicalize and march against the city government. He wants to bring down City-Hall with violent protests!"
"Hm. Well, that matches with what he told me during that little surprise meeting at our apartment. Gees... Most protests can't escape a little violence as is, but a protest ran by a rioting horde of half-savage predators? Now that sounds like a recipe for disaster. And if enough of them marched, they could probably overcome riot police, too."
"That must be what Al's counting on." Judy hypothesized. "Getting predators angry enough at City-Hall to want to overthrow it. We need to stop him."
"We sure do. I'm at Precinct Four with Finnick and Chief Myreme right now. Chief Bogo just arrived, and we're about to start planning the sting operation."
"Good." Judy said. "We're gonna need to get you suited up for your interview tonight. Can't get far with the sting unless you land the job. I'll be there soon."
7:30 P.M ; Three days later, The Green Mill Bar, Rainforest-District...
"Permission to speak freely, sir?" Nick asked as he stepped out of the taxi and stared up at the front of the restaurant that was likely to be his deathplace.
"Why not?" Chief Bogo's voice grumbled through an earpiece. "Only death will shut you up."
"Just for the record, I love this idea, but I also think it's a terrible idea. Clever, but terrible."
"I didn't hear you object during the briefing back at headquarters." Bogo remarked, causing Nick to purse his lips.
"Yeah, well that was before you stuck me in this itchy costume for the second time in one week."
The fox scratched at his lower back, near the zipper of the wolf disguise wrapped tightly around his frame. On top of the costume and his own fur, the waiter's outfit that encompassed both made for a sweltering experience. Sporting so many layers, it took a surprising amount of effort to resist panting, and even more to resist scratching. The costume's muzzle was molded against Nick's own with a special glue, allowing him to talk freely. It was an admittedly convincing disguise, despite the discomfort.
Nick could practically hear Chief Bogo smiling from his side of the line. "For your information, that outfit was designed with state of the art fabrics and genuine wolf fur donated to the ZPD's undercover operations sector." The buffalo stated. "In other words, you're wearing officer Wolford's winter trimmings. Show some respect."
"You can tell Wolford he's itchy." Nick replied as he adjusted his collar and began walking toward the bar. "Honestly, how does he even stand this?"
"Enough complaining. You need to focus. You're to go in there, do both your jobs, and gather intel before leaving. You will not be performing any arrests."
"Yeah, yeah, I know. I heard you at the briefing. In-and-out mission. Got it." Nick said. "And just out of curiosity, what are the chances this mission goes south?"
"My sources say you have sixty-forty odds of walking out alive." Bogo stopped himself. "Wait, I meant forty-sixty. My mistake."
"Never took you for much of a joker, Chief, especially during high-risk undercover missions."
"I think we all should focus a bit more, yes?" Chief Myreme's accented voice interjected on the earpiece. "There is much work to do."
Chief Bogo cleared his throat, having forgotten their line also connected to Precinct Four, and resumed his normally stoic tone. "Right. Just remember to be careful."
"We have a team of fruit bats from Precinct Four's Aerial Unit keeping watch from above." Chief Myreme added. "They'll be your backup in case something happens."
"Glad to know we've got some eyes in the sky, at least." Nick quipped.
"You should be fine-" Chief Myreme began.
"So long as you don't do anything stupid." Chief Bogo finished, causing the fox to chuckle, but otherwise not respond.
Nick stared up at the front of the bar. It had a fairly glitzy, if not old-fashioned design to it, with bright neon lights over a black brick structure nestled between a few giant artificial trees, a bit farther away from the hustle and bustle of the Rainforest-District's main roads than other buildings. Definitely a shady looking place.
"Huh. Fin was right. It isn't green." Nick remarked.
"What?" Bogo grunted.
"Nothing. Just an offhand comment."
"Try not to make too many of those." Myreme pleaded. "Remember, you are playing a different mammal: You are Jeffrey Papadopoulos, a shorter-than-average timber wolf with a rich history of waiting tables, ready to continue your servicing legacy at the Green Mill Bar! You passed the interview with this persona, so you must maintain it for tonight."
"Don't remind me. Just one question." Nick said. "Who picked the name?"
"I did." Chief Bogo claimed.
"Of course you did." The fox grumbled before letting out a sigh. "Second question-"
"I thought you just had one question?"
"Where's Judy, anyways?" Nick asked, ignoring Bogo's remark.
He heard Chief Myreme clear his throat. "Because of the risk of being a prey mammal in a dangerous predator-only establishment, we have decided to put her to a different task for this mission. While you gather intelligence inside the bar, officer Hopps will engage in a discreet vehicular pursuit of a random customer upon leaving the bar."
"So she'll basically be tailing a mobster to see if they lead her anywhere special?"
"That's three questions." Bogo muttered.
"Basically." Myreme confirmed flatly.
Chief Bogo snorted harshly through his nostrils. "We've talked enough. Alright Wilde, it's time to earn your pay."
"If only my salary were enough compensation for this." The fox grumbled before clearing his throat and stepping into the bar.
The first thing Nick noticed was the smell: A strong odor of cigarette smoke just barely concealed by a sweet, lemony scent that must have been some sort of cleaning agent for the dozens of leathery velvet booths that stretched throughout the restaurant. The restaurant's interior was dimly lit, and gave off an almost dangerous aura of invitation, as though it were beckoning customers to come doze off in one the booths, only to never upon their eyes again, or to enjoy the sweet aroma of the gilded wood walls, only to choke on the residual smog lingering in the air. Nick recognized the smooth, confident singing voice of Frank Sinutria playing from a recording somewhere. Well-dressed mammals of medium sizes huddled together in booths, some more boisterous than others. The place was definitely old-fashioned, and reeked of sleaze and deceit. Nick figured that it was a kind of place mammals like Mr. Big, Vladzotz Fangpyre, and Al Catpone would like - Conservative, clean, and practically oozing illegality.
On the other side of the lobby, Nick spotted the bar, which had a smooth, silver counter to it. Behind it, he recognized the owner of the restaurant, and the mammal that had interviewed him three days ago - An elderly lion with a graying mane named Francesco, who had all the charm of a rotten stump of wood. He quickly spotted Nick.
"Ey! Get ova' here, Jeffrey, we need you servin' tables twenty through thirty, on the double!" The lion ordered, pointing to a nearby row of booths.
"You got it, boss!" Nick replied back. He almost shot the lion with a finger gun, but decided against it, remembering what Chief Myreme had said about playing a role.
Instead, the fox turned towards his assigned tables. A large pack of various jungle cats, from ocelots or margays, were laughing loudly around glasses of colorful alcohol. All of them were well-dressed, and Nick could tell from the bulges inside their suit chests that they were armed. They were more than likely members of Al's gang. Nick just tugged at his collar one last time, if only to make sure that his second layer of fur wasn't missing, before setting to work. He had a feeling it would be a long night.
7:40 P.M ; Outside The Green Mill Bar, Rainforest-District...
As if her first memory of visiting the Big Family household was bad, Judy's memory of her last undercover vehicular tailing mission was just as chaotic.
She remembered it well. Back in the Nocturnal-District, over half a year ago, when her and Nick had been tailing that quiet badger, Russel, who had been named a prime suspect in the murder of an investigative reporter that had been found with his blood completely drained from his body, only to get kidnapped by said badger and his raccoon friend before being brought to the mammal that had actually committed the crime, the dreaded crime-lord of the Nocturnal-District. As she recalled, Vladzotz Fangpyre had orchestrated that scheme in an effort to lure Nick into his clutches for his revenge plot, and it had worked. Least to say, it wasn't her fondest memory. The pain from being knocked out, the isolation from being unable to see in the dark, and the confusion and fear upon first meeting Vladzotz had left Judy with little positive thoughts to think back on for that whole adventure. This time, she only hoped that her target wouldn't lead to her into another trap.
Thumbing the wheel on her car, Judy kept her eyes trained on the rearview mirror, watching the front entrance of the Green Mill Bar as she waited for a mammal of criminal likeness to walk out. The bunny wished she could have gone undercover alongside Nick, but knew that there were no disguises that'd be able to sufficiently alter her species, save wearing a sheep suit, and so accepted her tailing duty without complaint. Still, she could only wonder what Nick was being forced to deal with in there.
Judy stared down the entrance for a few more minutes before several nicely-dressed big-cats stumbled out of the bar, laughing loudly and generally being a nuisance. She watched as they all piled into a limousine that had been parked on the curb before driving off. They had looked like mobsters to her. The rabbit waited a few seconds before turning on the ignition of her own car, pulling out of the parking lot, and beginning her pursuit. Her vehicle was about as plain as plain could get, with an unremarkable shape and a gray paint job. It didn't have the same kick as her favorite police cruiser, but it was still better than the nefarious three-wheeled joke mobile that had haunted her early days as a police officer. Precinct One had assigned this undercover car to her to blend in with the traffic, and be able to discreetly follow her target. So far so good. She made sure to keep the limo as far from her as possible, yet still within a range that could be detected. There were a few times where Judy just barely managed to see which turn the limo made. It was tedious work, driving through the jungle, trying to remain unseen. She wished that Nick were there to lighten the mood.
The pursuit led her deeper into the jungle, where the artificial tree-like skyscrapers stood taller, the vegetation grew denser, and the evening shadows seemed darker. The light from the rising moon could barely be seen peeking through the foliage in the canopy. The only light down here was the eye-straining neon glow of billboards and street-lamps, and even those were in short supply. Seedy-looking mammals prowled the streets, and litter floated across the pavement, catching on vines as thick as elephant trunks. Judy knew that she was in the heart of the Rainforest-District. Following the limo, her car glided over several overpasses that led from one layer of the jungle to the next, passing from forest floor to understory with each bridge. Judy sighed as she stole a glance outside, taking note of the environment around her. This place wasn't too far off from where one of the rodent homicides had been reported. And if her hunch was right, then that bat thief, Lucy Sang, was most likely the one behind it - Feeding on rodents during her time in the Rainforest-District, working for Al. Judy intended on telling Nick and the Chief about her research on that topic later tonight, but for now, she had a job to do.
Eventually, the limo stopped in front of a massive artificial tree. Judy halted her own car a safe distance away and promptly turned off all the lights. She silently watched as the pack of big-cats exited the limo, chatting loudly as they walked up to the tree's front entrance. One of them was flicking a switchblade over the fingers in his paw like a coin. Whoever they were, they definitely weren't ordinary businessmammals back from a dinner break. They were definitely criminals, and this building was definitely some sort of base of theirs. Judy saw other limousines parked nearby, and armed mammals patrolling steel balconies jutting out from the trunk of the building hundreds of feet in the air. Judy desperately wanted to follow her targets to see what was inside the building, but knew that would only get her killed, especially without backup. Her only mission was to follow, learn, and leave. With the first two accomplished, all that was left was the easy part. Turning her car back on, Judy hastily drove away, though not before taking a single photo of the mysterious building.
"Clawhauser, it's me." Judy spoke into her radio. "Get the chief. I think I just found Al Catpone's headquarters."
8:00 P.M ; The Green Mill Bar, Rainforest-District...
As it turned out, serving tables wasn't all that bad. Nick had always liked being able to make good use of his social-skills, and getting the chance to chat it up with customers at a restaurant, even if they were all more than likely criminals, was more fun than he could have hoped. He got to make quips, charm his customers, and most importantly, reuse jokes that the officers at Precinct One had heard many times over. He even made a few generous tips along the way Nick waltzed around tables, pouring drinks and delivering trays of food from the kitchen, all the while careful not to step on his fake wolf's tail. Even grumpy old Francesco had started to warm up to him, ordering him to stack glasses with only slightly less hate in his voice. Perhaps it was all a bit more fox-like than wolf-like, but Nick just simply couldn't resist.
Time seemed to pass surprisingly quickly, too, moving around in such a fast-paced environment. But as each minute passed, the purpose of Nick's mission seemed to grow more heavy on his shoulders. He still had to overhear important info relating to Al and his plans, yet so far, all his eavesdropping was treated to were stories of sports, politics, and divorce. It wasn't until he encountered a booth full of rowdy cougars that he at last got the break he was looking for.
"Wow, you're short for a wolf." One of the mobsters noted, sizing his waiter up while his drink was poured.
"I was the runt of the litter." Nick replied easily. "Both parents were tall, but alas, I was the only pup that didn't share that trait. I blame my lactose intolerance."
"No need to oversell it." Bogo's voice grumbled in his ear as he walked away. "Just serve their drinks and move on. Too much talking might loosen the costume's muzzle."
"But chief, running my mouth is the one thing I'm good it." The fox joked before chuckling lightly. "Don't worry, I'll keep the talking to a minimum." He promised.
"Good. The last thing we'll need is a wardrobe malfunction in the middle of a mobster den."
Nick was about to go pick up the empty plates on another nearby table when his ears pricked at the sound of a conversation behind him, at the table he'd just served.
"So when is the boss gonna make his next move? It's nearly been a week since the play on the academy." One of the panthers muttered softly.
"He wants the next step ready to go in three days." Another claimed. "Production time for the drug has kept things slow. I think that ram's been stalling."
"A'course things have been slow." A third chimed in. "Boss needs a lotta product if he's gonna hit Happytown. Can't just produce it all overnight. Stuff takes time."
"Yeah, well I heard the boss was gonna whack the ram, anyways."
"Don't believe that gossip Margaret's been feedin' you. Made-mammal or not, she's always been a troublemaker."
The conversation quickly devolved into petty arguing, but Nick had heard all he needed to hear. The attack on the academy really was just the beginning, and Al was planning something in Happytown next. The tip that Judy had gotten from Fru-Fru three days ago was right, after all. As Nick recalled, Judy had told the two chiefs about the 'anonymous' tip she had received, but they hadn't chosen to act on any of its info yet, over a lack of trust in the source. This would confirm confirm it for them now.
Nick smirked, thankful to have overheard such vital information. He may not have had the ears of a bunny, but his own sense of sound was still pretty acute, even with his real ears stuffed inside a pair of fake wolf ones. He wasn't sure who this aforementioned ram was, but something about it seemed to tug at a memory somewhere in his brain. He had a feeling he'd find out sooner or later. The fox was pleased with himself until a new thought reached him: His mother lived in Happytown. He swallowed hard, hoping that whatever Al had planned could be stopped before it happened, and that his mother wouldn't be effected by it. Nick paced away from the panther's table and began carefully listening in on other booths as well, if only to get his mind off the idea of his mother being in danger. Unfortunately, the panthers were the only mammals that seemed to have lips loose enough to acquire any useful info from. The fox went about his work, pouring drinks for a few more minutes before things took a turn for the worse.
"Ey, waiter!" A strong, sleazy voice called out, causing Nick to freeze in his tracts. "What's a pred gotta do to get some water 'round 'ere?"
Unfortunately, Nick recognized the voice. Slowly turning toward the source, he locked eyes with Al Catpone as he sat in a larger-mammal's booth to his right, impatiently tapping his claws atop the table's surface. The jaguar's intense green eyes stared him down from beneath the rim of his vine-wrapped fedora. Sitting beside him was a tapir that Nick recognized as the money-handler from the briefing at Precinct Four a few days ago. Swallowing hard, the fox tugged at his collar, hoping that his disguise wasn't malfunctioning, and then slowly approached the table. It was a bit of a reach, thanks to the height difference, but he managed to pluck Catpone's empty glass off the tabletop before filling it with water from his pitcher. Nick hurriedly slid the glass back onto the table before beginning to pace off, intent on getting as far away from Al as possible.
Just as Nick thought he was safe, he heard Al pipe out from behind. "What, are you rationin', or somethin'?" The jaguar grumbled. "To the top, please."
The fox stopped once again, and looked back to the table. Al was holding out his glass, which was only half-filled. Nick mentally cursed himself for moving too quickly in an effort to flee, only to perform sloppy work. Chuckling nervously, he returned to the table and filled Al's drink to the top. The crime-lord hefted his glass with a smile.
"Much better." He said before taking a sip and letting out a contented sigh. "Nothing better after a long day of work than a nice cold drink."
Nick just nodded his head, all the while running plans on potential escape routes. "Yeah, heh, nothing better." He timidly agreed.
Al's gaze flicked back down to Nick. His eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Your voice sounds familiar. Do I know you?" Catpone asked slowly.
Nick felt his heart skip a bit. All the best undercover tech in the world, and he hadn't even thought of changing his voice. It was just his luck that someone recognized it, and that that someone happened to be the crime-lord of the Rainforest-District. The fox began to panic. What would an actual wolf do in a situation like this? What would Jeffrey Papadopoulos, waiter extraordinaire, do in his shoes? He was just about to settle on more nervous chuckling when a new thought reached his head - What would a fox do in his situation? What would he do? With that in mind, Nick's eyes darted from side to side, analyzing his surroundings. He caught site of an otter waiter carrying a tray of drinks quickly approaching from the left in his peripheral vision. Nick knew what he had to do. Just as the waiter passed behind him, he stuck his ankle back and tripped him, causing the otter to topple over and crash beverages all over the carpet. Just as Nick intended, Al shifted back from surprise, his attention now on the otter.
"Oh no, I am so sorry!" Nick feigned sorrow, putting in some extra effort to distort his voice a bit this time. "It's my first day, and there's just so much going on, and-"
"It's my mistake, please!" The otter insisted, picking himself off the ground. Nick was glad he was okay, but right now had bigger problems to worry about.
"Great, now we need a cleanup!" Nick announced, throwing in as many random words as he could to ensure that Al had no time to question him. "Cleanup on isle, uh, here. Near table forty-seven! Let's go get some brooms, we're gonna need some brooms! I'll go remake those drinks, and you take care of that mess. Again, so sorry!"
Without another breath to spare, Nick quickly paced away from the scene as quickly as he could before holing up in male's restroom and locking himself in a stall.
"Buffalo-Butt! Mission abort!" He hissed at his earpiece. "Al's here! He nearly recognized me!"
There was a bit of a static crackle as Bogo replied, as though he had hurriedly picked up his microphone. "What? Are you sure?"
"Yes! I locked eyes with the guy! If I walk back out there, he's gonna be watching me the whole time."
A displeased snort echoed from Bogo's nostrils. "Of all the possibilities." He grumbled. "Alright. Mission abort. It's too risky. Get out of there."
"And, eh, I recommend leaving through the back exit." Chief Myreme piped up. "An undercover vehicle will be waiting to pick you up."
"That reminds me," Nick muttered. "Is Judy alright?"
"She's fine, currently on her way back here to Precinct Four. Rendezvous with us, and we shall discuss what we have learned, and what it means for our investigation."
"Both of you keep me posted." Bogo ordered. "I have no intentions on sitting out this case."
"Yeah, sure." Nick panted, undoing his tie as he hauled himself out of the stall. "I'm just ready to get out of this thing. I'm done crying wolf for one night."
9:00 P.M ; Somewhere in the Rainforest-District...
Al Catpone had had his fill of company for one evening. All that talk at the Green Mill had been tiring enough, but after hearing that one waiter speak in a familiar voice, only to vanish for the rest of the evening, Al was ready to call it quits for the day. Perhaps working so many hours was causing him to hear things. A good night's rest was needed. Upon returning to his mob's headquarters deep in the jungle, it didn't take long for Al to cross paths with his favorite hostage, Doug. Al had just entered the compound when he had noticed the ram standing near the entrance, dressed up in his yellow hazmat suit and tapping his hoof impatiently. It wasn't hard to guess that he had been waiting for Al's return. An armed mobster stood guarding the entrance nearby, and was likely the only thing reason Doug hadn't tried walking out during his time waiting.
"Hey boss." Doug began. "There's some progress on the formula downstairs that I thought you might wanna see."
Al glanced at his hostage. He was pleased that Doug was willing to work for the betterment of their organization despite technically being its captive. "Good. Show me."
Following the ram, Al trudged deeper into the fortress that he had come to call home. His mob's compound was built into a massive artificial tree, with offices in the branches, workrooms in the trunk, and underground rooms and passages buried amongst the roots, with some pathways connected to the district's sewers. With the laboratories where the mob's drugs were being tested located deep in the basement, Doug and Al were forced to silently descend down many flights of grimy concrete stairs.
"So," Doug started, breaking the silence. "I heard some of the others complaining about that bat you hired. Why are you working with someone as volatile as her?"
The jaguar scoffed. "Volatile schmolatile. I hired her because she gets things done, and I like that. Doesn't matter how violent or unpredictable she may be, so long as she does her job. I gave her a new one just a few days ago. She's been a good supplier for those mushrooms of yours, but I figured her skillset could play double-duty."
"Hm." Doug grunted, briefly stopping at the bottom of the final flight of stairs. "Some of the others seem to think she's using you to get what she wants."
"Who doesn't use others to get what they want?" Al countered. "I have my own agenda, and she has hers, and where they meet in the middle is where we're at now, workin' together. I couldn't care less if she thinks she's playin' me. As long as my plans come to fruition, then the ends will justify the means."
"Whatever you say." The ram muttered. "So, this new mission you sent her on... What was it?"
"Enough." Al growled. "You don't need to know that. Just show me what you wanted to show me. Then I'm going to sleep. It's been a long day."
Doug lazily shrugged his shoulders before turning to the iron door behind him and forcing it open. The two mammals entered into the lab, where test-tubes filled with blue liquid steamed from worktables, and oil-drums stuffed full of enough Night-Howlers to create an army of savages were stacked in rows along the walls. Various mammals scrambled around the room pouring beakers, siphoning gas through tubes, and slicing Night-Howler petals into smaller chunks, all wearing hazmat suits just like Doug.
"Looks like this place is really bustlin'." Al remarked, scratching at his chin.
"Yeah." The ram agreed. "It's a bit tedious getting the Night-Howlers to react with the counteragents in those mushrooms, but it's been working. I've had to train these lackeys of yours how to make the Apex-Affluent formula from scratch, and they've caught on pretty well. Now you've got a whole team able to create it, instead of just me."
The jaguar nodded. "I've got a whole team now, instead of just you, huh?" He repeated. "Good. I've gotta hand it to ya, Doug. You've done a fine job."
Doug pretended that the compliment meant nothing to him. "Yeah, whatever. I'm just doin' what I'm told. I'll celebrate once I'm finally outta here."
Al pursed his lips, letting that thought sink in. "You know what, Doug, that's a good idea." He said. "I think it's finally time you got a lil' taste a' fresh air."
"You... You really mean it?"
"A'course I do. I'm a mammal of my word." Catpone assured. "C'mon, I'll take ya outside, show ya 'round."
The jaguar lumbered away from the lab with Doug following shortly behind. On his way out, Al caught sight of Pazzo watching silently from a dark hallway nearby. Al jutted his chin up toward the roof. Pazzo got the message, and slinked off into the darkness. Ascending over a dozen flights of stairs, Al led Doug to an exit from his compound that opened up into a grimy back alley on the forest floor. Doug looked up and took in the outside world for the first time in weeks. He breathed in deep and let out a slow, contented sigh. The sound of trickling water filled his ears, and thick green vines grew in tangled heaps around the pavement and red brick walls boxing them in.
"Ah, this is nice." Doug said softly. "Being locked up in that dirty lab for all this time has made me forget how nice it is to just... Be outside, sometimes."
"Yeah, it's nice." Catpone agreed, shoving his paws into his overcoat's pockets. "You've earned your reward."
Doug looked to his captor with awe. "Wait, you mean...?" He trailed off. Doug noticed that the jaguar seemed to be staring into the shadows of the corner behind him, as if he were expecting something. Something about it was unnerving, but if Catpone meant what he said, then Doug had no reason to complain. His freedom was in reach.
"It's been a pleasure working with you, Doug." Al began. "I wish I could keep you forever... But a promise is a promise. You're free to go now."
Catpone then nodded toward the corner. Pazzo stepped forward from the shadows with a toothy smile. The tayra pulled out a small pistol before firing it into the ram's ankle. Doug cried out in pain before falling over, landing on the ground with a heavy thud. He writhed around in the filth, overcome with agony and confusion.
"Argh!" Doug groaned. "W-What are you doing?!"
"Tying up loose ends." Catpone answered darkly, stepping forward and staring down at Doug.
"B-But we had a deal!" The ram cried out. "You p-promised me my freedom! You shook on it!"
"That you are correct." Al muttered. "However, I only promised that I would let you go... I never said anything about what came after."
"You liar! No... N-No!"
"Sorry, Doug, but we can't have you snitchin' on us to the police, now that you know what we're tryin' to do here. It's nothin' personal."
"N-No, you can't!" The ram sputtered, trying to devise an excuse to save himself. "You... You still need me to improve the formula! Please! It isn't finished yet!" Doug groaned in pain as he clutched his injured leg with his hooves. "You can't do it without me!" His words were filled with desperation, but they fell upon uncaring ears.
"We can now, actually." The crime-lord mused, scratching at his chin. "We don't need you anymore, Doug. You're dead weight."
Doug's rectangular pupils shrank in fear. "I helped create that formula! What do you mean?!" He demanded to know, to which the jaguar shrugged.
"We needed your help makin' the formula, and then improvin' it from there, true, but now, thanks to what you've showed us, we can continue producin' Apex-Affluent on our own, and use it to our heart's content. We have everything we need to continue our work, and I regret to inform you that you are no longer a part of that equation anymore."
"You can't k-kill me!" Doug spat with rage. "Not after everything I've done for you!"
The ram shifted forward and tried grabbing at Catpone's ankles, but he simply stepped back out of reach.
"You've been a tremendous help to the Rainforest-Outfit, Doug, but you've always been a liability, never truly loyal to our cause. We kidnapped you, shaved you, and forced you to help us. Be honest; If I let you leave, the first thing you'll do is go to the police. If you woulda just done your work, no questions asked, then we wouldn't be here. You could have even been a part of our family, Doug! A true member of Cosa Nostra! But no! Your hatred for predators made that impossible, and after all you've seen, you cannot be allowed to live. With you gone, and the Rainforest-Outfit havin' all the power over both Night-Howlers and Apex-Affluent, no one will be able to challenge us."
Cursing with anguish, the ram spat at the ground near Catpone's toes. Being a member of the criminal underworld himself, Doug knew the true weight laden behind the jaguar's words. Before he had shown the Rainforest-Outfit how to make Night-Howlers, and helped them create their own new gas variant, Doug had been the only mammal in Zootopia with the knowledge on how to do so. But having divulged all his secrets and expertise to Al and his mob, they now had all the power over his work.
And with him gone, they would be completely uncontested. It was the perfect power-play.
"You lying chomper!" Doug roared, trying in vain to strike at Al Catpone's clawed feet. "You can't do this... You can't."
Coughing with pain, the ram tried to stand up, but fell back to the ground, his leg unable to support his weight. Pazzo laughed at his misfortune, though when Doug glared at the crime-lord himself, he took note of the jaguar's steely expression, and lack of amusement. He didn't take pleasure in his suffering. But still, past the jaguar's sympathy was a cold exterior that knew nothing but merciless business. Doug's jaw slackened as he realized that Catpone's cold green eyes would be the last thing he ever saw.
"I'm sorry, Doug." Al spoke softly. "But when our work is done, and this world is a better place, I promise you that your part in all this won't be forgotten. Now rest."
Catpone nodded to Pazzo one final time, who returned the gesture before aiming down and pulling the trigger on his gun once more, silencing the ram's cries for good.
I'm sorry that it took a bit longer than usual to get this chapter out. My motivation to write was more or less totally crushed earlier this month. I'm back now though, and with other things that had been weighing me down before out of the way, I'll be able to finish up this story, and give you loyal readers the ending you deserve. I know I've been saying the next chapter will come quicker for a while now, but this time I'm confident that it truly will. I have the next few chapters completely planned out, and am certain they will come quickly!
There's a new poll at the top of my account asking whether or not I should combine/delete some of WIF's older, shorter, not-so well-written (yuck) and admittedly-unnecessary-to-the-plot chapters. It might very well happen once WIF is complete, and with only 3-5 chapters left to go, that could be quite soon. So feel free to drop your input there in that poll, please! I could use all the input I could get. There's also some cool new fan-art on my tumblr/DeviantArt accounts, so feel free to check those out, if you'd like. Regardless, I thank you all for reading this latest chapter, and hope you stay tuned for the remaining ones! They're gonna be awesome, with some epic action scenes and a grand finale to wrap up three years of storytelling. You won't want to miss it!
'Till next time...