"The truest wisdom is a resolute determination." - Napoleon Bonaparte
8:00 A.M ; Zootopia General Hospital, Savanna-Central...
Finding herself at the hospital twice in one day was a new personal record for Judy Hopps. Only this time, she wished she were the one in the gown.
She had watched as the medevac team had hauled officer Delgado to safety, and the whole time she could only think about what would have happened had she been the one to have been shot rather than him. Judy wondered if she had seen the gun fast enough, would she have been able to disarm the assailant before he fired? Or perhaps take the bullet for Delgado? The worst part was, she knew it was pointless to ruminate on such impossibilities. But she couldn't help it. She wished for what she knew she couldn't have.
After arresting the mobsters captured during the raid on Al Catpone's compound, fully securing the building, and returning to Precinct Four to reequip their regular uniforms - all of which took hours of patient work - Nick joined Judy at the hospital to see Delgado. They could only view him through a tiny window in his door, watching as his life support staved away the finality of death. It served as a grim reminder that the stakes were always high for those that walked the thin blue line. The doctors had claimed that he was unconscious, but stable - That survival was likely, but uncertain. Even the mere possibility of losing their comrade weighed heavy on the hearts of both bunny and fox alike. They watched him in silence until a pair of echoing footsteps caught their attention. Chief Bogo and Chief Myreme had arrived.
The latter removed his red beret cap, holding it gingerly in his curved claws. He looked like he wanted to say something, but instead chose to remain silent as Bogo spoke.
"We won't let Al get away with this," he firmly began. "That cat may have given us the slip, but we know where he's hiding."
"Happytown." Nick deduced with a murmur, having come to the grim realization that his hometown was about to become a war zone.
Chief Bogo nodded. "That's right. Under my orders, Precincts One-through-Four have mobilized. Barriers and checkpoints have been deployed at all entrances. From this point forward, Al Catpone is no longer just a crime-lord - He's a narcoterrorist, and Zootopia's Public Enemy Number One. The ZPD will do whatever it takes to bring him to justice."
Judy pursed her lips with uncertainty. She had caught wind of rumors about the mass mobilization in the hours after the raid on Al's compound in the jungle, but hearing it confirmed directly from Chief Bogo made it seem all the more surreal. The rabbit glanced to the still silent Chief Myreme, recalling how he had advised Bogo against imposing such harsh restrictions on Happytown, fearing that they might help ignite the very socio-political tensions that Al sought to incite with his grand plan: protests strong enough to destabilize the city government. Everyone wanted Catpone caught, that much was certain, yet Judy couldn't help but wonder if this was the right way to do it.
Her inner thoughts and apprehensions left her as she continued listening to Chief Bogo's explanation.
"All the suspects that were apprehended in the raid are going through questioning, but so far none of them have given us anything worth building from. They're stubbornly loyal to Al. It goes to show how much they believe in his cause, being willing enough to let themselves rot in jail for it. We can't let a mammal with that kind of influence get away."
"So then what's the plan?" Nick asked. "There's not enough time to go door-to-door looking for the guy. Happytown is huge. We need something fast."
"That's what you two are going to figure out." Bogo stated. "Your time at Precinct Four is over. I'm sending you to Happytown to work with the task force tracking Al."
Judy straightened her spine with determination. "We won't let you down, sir," she promised with a steadfast salute. Her mind was already beginning to piece together possibilities for catching him. "We know that Al's plan is to introduce his Apex-Affluent drugs into Happytown's population to give them the power to stage violent protests against City-Hall. It's safe to assume that once Al is finished with Happytown, he'll go from district to district, spreading his product to as many mammals as possible."
"He's practically building an army," Nick muttered with disbelief. "And with the ZPD spread as thin as it is, if Al can convince enough politically disgruntled mammals that they have the means to overthrow the government, well, it might just work. It'll be chaos."
"Which is why we have to stop him before he flees to another district," Judy resumed. "We'll have to gather as many leads as we can to find him before that happens."
The fox sighed with exasperation. "It won't be easy. Happytown has more predators than anywhere else in the city. Al's going to have a lot of sympathizers there, on top of his own lackeys. They won't just stand by and let us capture him. And the slums stretch for miles. A crime-lord as powerful as him has probably got dozens of safehouses, and hundreds of other places to hide mammals and supplies. And that's just in Happytown."
"Then start by narrowing them down." Chief Bogo ordered. "We already know that Al owns several soup kitchens. Build off of that. Find him."
"Yes sir!" Nick and Judy promised in unison. They could tell that the chief was furious at Al's escape. Even Nick knew better than to tease him at such a time.
The cape buffalo snorted. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have a press conference to attend. The media's in a frenzy over this, and as much as I loathe to admit it, they deserve answers," he grumbled before glancing at Delgado through the hospital window. His anger faded in that moment, replaced by a sliver of bitterness, like a long suppressed sadness was trying to claw free from the blanket of stoicism that Bogo constantly smothered it with. He quickly recomposed himself. "I should be going."
At that, Chief Bogo lumbered down the hall, leaving Nick and Judy standing alongside Chief Myreme. A few seconds of silence passed, broken only when the anteater sighed softly through his long snout. His green eyes were focused on the unconscious form of Delgado, watching as the lion breathed flimsily through his life support.
"I wish with all my heart that this tragedy could have been avoided." Roberto muttered for the first time since he arrived, his gaze not breaking from the window.
Judy's ears drooped against the back of her head with sympathy. "Don't worry, sir. Delgado's one of the toughest officers I know. He'll make it through this."
Chief Myreme swallowed hard. "I never get used to it... Seeing the mammals I command dying because I ordered them to," he murmured. "It... It always reminds me of my older brother. He was a police officer too. He was building a promising career before I had even joined the academy. And... He was killed for it... For investigating a jaguar that was just beginning to grow power in the Rainforest-District." A dry chuckle escaped the anteater's lips. "Here I am, still fighting his battle, all these years later. Still unable to stomach it, either."
Another moment of silence followed. Judy felt tempted to hug her superior. She had always viewed him as a clever, collected leader, and had never seen him so vulnerable. Roberto had stood up for her and Nick during the city-council meeting when so many others had wanted them fired, and never failed to appear both professional and passionate at the same time. She admired him because of it, viewing him as the kind of officer she strived to be. But even still, she remembered when he had first mentioned how he had lost family to Al Catpone, back when he was giving her and Nick a tour of Precinct Four. Evidently, even a mammal as coolheaded as Roberto couldn't stay composed forever.
That only made Judy admire him even more. The anteater sniffed hard before firmly fastening his beret back atop his head, and turning to Nick and Judy with a resolute gaze.
"Please," he implored softly. "End Al's reign of terror. Stop him before more innocents are hurt by his twisted ambitions. Finish what my brother started, and what I couldn't."
Judy had never felt as much resolve behind a salute as the one she gave then and there. "Yes sir!" She promised.
Nick nodded, giving his own salute. "Yes sir." He added in a softer voice, but one that was backed with just as much determination as his partner's.
Chief Myreme smiled. "It was a pleasure working with you both at Precinct Four. If the ZPD makes it out of this, feel free to stop by and visit sometime. I always have fresh coffee ready to brew, especially for the officers that saved my life." He waved at the bunny and fox as he turned tail and began to walk away. "You both are dismissed."
After the anteater excused himself, Nick and Judy turned to one another and locked eyes. "Let's finish this." The latter declared.
Nick perched his favorite pair of sunglasses over his eyes. "One hundred percent," he agreed. "Not-so Happytown, here we come."
8:30 A.M ; Happytown, Savanna-Central...
It didn't take long for Nick and Judy to encounter every driver's - and by extension, every police officer's - worst enemy: traffic.
Even with the aid of sirens, the more mammals there were on the road, the riskier it was for cops to make timely journeys. Happytown was normally a fairly short drive from the general hospital, but Chief Bogo's exclusion zone around the neighborhood made things difficult. It didn't help that it was also the morning rush-hour in Savanna-Central. Dozens of vehicles of varying sizes filled the streets, from ridiculously tall giraffe cars to trucks the size of toys shuttling packs of mice in the designated rodent lanes.
"Think our little mission qualifies as an emergency?" Nick mused, gesturing to the siren controls in their police cruiser. "I'd do anything to squeeze past this traffic."
Judy smirked, admittedly feeling tempted herself, especially since she was manning the wheel. "Patience is a virtue, you know," she replied as she opened the driver's side window and stared down the road. "Besides, I think I can see the checkpoint from here!"
After a few more minutes of inching through traffic, Judy was able to drive their cruiser right up to the entrance. She recognized several officers from a conglomeration of different precincts guarding the entrance to Happytown. True to Bogo's word, concrete barriers had been erected around the street, funneling any cars trying to enter or exit through a narrow gap where armed cops briefly examined the vehicle to check for any evidence of the Rainforest-Outfit or its members. Small crowds of onlookers from both inside and outside the exclusion zone curiously watched from a distance, and news vans were also parked outside, undoubtedly preparing to report on the commotion.
Judy maneuvered their cruiser through the barriers, stopping at the checkpoint and rolling down the driver's side window to flash her badge to the hyena guarding the entrance. A cactus symbol was stitched into his shoulder patch - the insignia of Sahara-Square's Precinct Three. The hyena's eyes widened at the sight of the bunny and fox before him.
"A-Are you really officer Hopps?" He then gestured to Nick. "And officer Wilde? I don't believe it."
"Some days I don't either." Nick jested, earning a prod from his partner's elbow.
"That's us! We're here to help."
"Well isn't that just lucky for us." A gruff voice added. Unfortunately, Judy recognized it.
She tried not to wince with painful recognition as a coyote in a cowboy's hat stepped forward and leaned into the window, taking the hyena's place. A green bullet vest wrapped snugly over his tan officer's uniform, and a district chief's row of quadruple stars glittered in the sunlight on his collar. A pair of shades not too different from Nick's own rested on his snout, turning his eyes into an emotionless black void, but Judy would never forget the chronically disapproving glare that sat just behind them.
"Chief Latran, sir!" Judy exclaimed. "What are you doing here?"
The coyote scoffed. "Isn't it obvious? Same as you: hunting that pompous pussycat, Al Catpone. I'm in charge of the task force trackin' him down."
Judy wasn't surprised. Chief Bogo had mentioned that the various precincts were working together on this, after all. Still, the thought of having to work beneath Chief Latran of all mammals didn't exactly sit well with her. She recalled quite well how that coyote had tried getting her and Nick fired on more than one occasion. At the very least, having someone as driven as him at the head of the task force wouldn't do any favors for Al and his gang. She only hoped that teaming up with him wouldn't be problematic.
"This should be fun." Nick grumbled, causing the coyote to exhale bitterly through his nostrils.
"Now I know the three of us ain't friends, but a rocky history means nothin' when the future is on the line," he said before removing his sunglasses and staring down the bunny and fox with a pair of stern yellow eyes. "And I need your help, officers. I fully admit that I regret the way I treated you two. Ya'll may be a pair of troublemakers, but you've done more for this city than any ten mammals wearin' the same badge. I was a fool for takin' so long to realize that. It'd be my honor to work with you on this task force."
The fox grinned, unable to resist the temptation to tease. "Aw, I guess you're not such a cranky coyote after all."
"Don't push it." Chief Latran growled as he propped his sunglasses back over his snout.
Judy hastily cleared her throat. "What my partner means to say, is that we're grateful for your support, sir."
Nodding his head, Chief Latran stepped away from the window. "Right. As much as I'd love to keep chattin' here, you're holdin' up the checkpoint. We've got some tents set up at the central park, about a mile down the road, that we're usin' for local logistics. I'll meet ya there, and fill ya in on the situation. Good hunting."
At that, the coyote backed away and allowed Nick and Judy to enter the exclusion zone. Judy spared a glance in her rearview mirror, watching as the chief entered a cruiser of his own and began to follow them. As they drove deeper into Happytown, Nick's eyes scanned over the town with disappointed recognition. Dilapidated, asymmetrical houses and apartment complexes of varying sizes stretched for miles, like a ghetto plateau, webbed together by crumbling streets and sidewalks tufted with unkempt grass. What wasn't covered in cracks was decorated with graffiti, giving a welcome splash of color. Towering jumbles of brick and sheet-metal slums rose up the hills to the north, closer to the inner city, built around channels of rotting power lines and muddy ditches.
Savanna trees sprouted from the occasional patch of nature, but garbage still littered the roads. Predators of all shape and size were out and about - some staring with confusion at the upped security, while others glared distrustfully from seedy alleyways and street corners. Dozens of police patrolled the streets, established perimeters around buildings, and drove by in armored cruisers. As if Happytown wasn't ironically depressing enough, the extra police presence made the place look like a war zone flimsily held together by martial law. With all the police milling around, it was easy to forget that it was still Al's town. The Rainforest-Outfit had a foothold in Happytown nearly as strong as the one in their home district. Nick had memories from his childhood of mobsters swaying local business owners under their thumbs, extorting mammals in debt to them, and generally being criminal jerks. Even as a young cub, Nick had a strong familiarity with criminal activity. It was just another part of growing up in a place like Happytown.
It may have been Al's town, but it was Nick's town as well, and he had no intention of letting that jaguar ruin it any more than the city government already had. Nick blinked.
Wow... That's a thought, He pondered to himself, shaking his head as he refocused on the mission at hand.
When their cruiser entered the central park, Nick couldn't resist staring over the infamous wooden billboard greeting WELCOME TO HAPPYTOWN in bold painted letters. The sign had been there for as long as he could remember, and it had never once been cleaned or replaced. Vandalism and other scrimshaw had practically destroyed the wood, and the paint was so worn out that the once colorful visuals could only barely be discerned. It was truly the world's most depressing welcome sign. As they drove by, Nick rolled down his window and casually spat at the billboard like a ritual that had been repeated and perfected dozens of times in the past. It didn't fail to catch Judy's eye.
"Old tradition, huh?" she remarked, recalling the story from her last visit to Happytown.
The fox nodded with a grin. "Never a proper homecoming without hawking a proper greeting to the ol' sign."
After parking and exiting their cruiser, Nick and Judy set out towards the cluster of logistics tents erected in the middle of the park. Officers armed with shields and riot gear kept a nearby pack of civilians from edging too close to the camp. Some of the civilians were shouting at the officers. It didn't look pretty, but Nick hoped that the peace would be maintained. Chief Latran's cruiser arrived moments later, with the coyote reconvening alongside the two officers and leading them to the main tent, where arrays of computers, files of paper, and racks filled with both real and tranquilizer guns made for cramped quarters. Jesse hovered over a table displaying a large map of Happytown. Dozens of red X marks were scratched into buildings throughout the town, but there were thousands still left to be explored, and that was just with warrants and probable cause alone.
"We're in a bit of a tight situation here," The coyote began. "We don't know where Al is, and if we want to put a stop to his plans, we've got 'till tomorrow to find him."
"Have you tried searching any of his soup kitchens?" Nick asked. "Chief Bogo seems to think they might give us something useful."
Chief Latran shook his head. "Nothin'. My officers finished searchin' the last of 'em about an hour ago. We've gotta think bigger."
"Have there been any arrests yet?" Judy inquired, earning a scoff from the chief.
"You mean for Al's flunkeys? I wish. We've only had two arrests so far, and those were just hooligans defacin' a cruiser. We know the Rainforest-Outfit has a presence here. We just haven't found it yet. Al's keepin' his cards close to his chest. His mob is hiding, blending in with civilians whenever they go out. Makes it hard to track any suspects. They're watchin', us too - Al's got spotters with radios on every other street corner, keepin' him updated on ZPD movements. We've already knocked down the doors in half a dozen houses today chasin' leads, and every one of 'em was picked clean, sometimes just minutes before we got there. He's three steps ahead of us. And I'm losin' my patience."
"You'd think that the mammals living here would notice a sudden surge in organized crime." Nick mused, thoughtfully stroking at his chin. "You try questioning the locals?"
The coyote's lips pulled back in a frustrated snarl. He jutted his chin toward the crowd of protestors outside. "You see that? That's the most they're willin' to give. They hate us. And why wouldn't they? We just rolled into their town and took it over like we owned the place. The mammals here have enough disdain for authority as is. Now we're just givin' 'em all the more reason to side with the bad guys."
Exhaling harshly with disgust, Chief Latran pulled out a spare cigarette from one of his pockets before lighting it and taking a deep draw. Judy wasn't sure how compatible that was with ZPD protocol, but something told her that Chief Latran had his own way of doing things, so she didn't object, even though she found the odor somewhat distracting. Nick, on the other hand, was unfazed by the action, and continued tapping at his chin as he weighed their options, which unfortunately weren't plentiful.
"Those spotters you mentioned, the ones doing reconnaissance for Al," he mused. "If we could capture one red-handed, we could chart a line straight to his doorstep."
Chief Latran hummed curiously beneath his breath. "It's possible, but not easy. They move quickly, watchin' from the shadows just long enough to update their boss before vanishing. And not all of 'em are criminal - Civilians loyal to his cause are helpin' too. Some of 'em are just kids. We'd have to be real lucky to nab one in the act of-"
"Sir!" A camel officer interrupted as they lunged into the tent. "The protestors are getting violent! One of them nearly set my hump on fire! We need backup!"
"I rest my heels for five minutes!" Chief Latran growled as he jogged outside, waving for Nick and Judy to join him. "C'mon! We've got trouble!"
Briefly locking eyes with concern, the bunny and fox then darted after the coyote, following him and the camel toward the edge of the park. As she ran, Judy tried to ignore the painful stinging in her ribs leftover from her time in the hospital. She really hoped that it wouldn't become burdensome during the hunt for Al. Upon reaching the park's edge, Nick and Judy stared out over the source of the commotion. The row of cops defending the camp stood as a bastion against a massive crowd of mammals congregating in the street. From the looks of it, the crowd of protestors had nearly doubled in size since Nick and Judy had first spotted them, likely as mammals that had just awoken came to realize that their neighborhood had been sectioned off from the rest of the district.
Tensions were high. Dozens of predators were shouting and launching objects at the officers, from tennis balls and shoes to more deadly items such as bricks and glass bottles, which shattered against the wall of shields, littering the street with jagged debris. Some of the protestors were throwing themselves against the shields, trying to punch or claw at the cops, who pushed them back, sometimes throwing a warning strike of their own with a baton or fist. At the back of the crowd, protestors obscuring their faces with bandanas and t-shirts were lighting molotov cocktails in preparation for more conflict. Canisters of teargas rolled across the pavement, filling the air with thick white clouds in an effort to disperse the mayhem. A boar in a trench coat was even handing out gas masks like a salesman at a sports game.
Nick and Judy had both witnessed protests before. The predator rights movements that followed the Nighthowler epidemic, the riots in the Nocturnal-District following Vladzotz's disappearance after the fall of Castle Fangpyre, and the anti inter-species rallies that the two of them had encountered on Outback-Island were all still fresh in their minds. But none of them held a candle to this. Judy had never seen such violence between police and civilians before. For all the chaos, she couldn't put blame on either side - the ZPD was just trying to do its job to stop Al before more mammals got hurt, and the residents of Happytown were angry that they had gotten caught in the middle of it.
"Get out of our town, flatfoots!" One of them shouted.
"We're policed enough!" Another yelled as they chucked a brick into the crowd, which broke against officer McHorn's shoulder, though the impact didn't even faze him.
"Who threw that?" The rhino bellowed, hefting his shield. "Get back!"
Staring over the commotion, Nick wasn't sure what to think. Is Al right? Are mammals here really angry enough to want to destabilize the city government? He pondered.
Meanwhile, Judy glanced to Chief Latran, noticing the paw that he hovered over the revolver holstered in his belt. "Tell them to back away!" She urged.
"It ain't workin'!" The coyote spat, to which the rabbit shook her head.
"No, not the protestors! The cops! We need to show them that we aren't a threat!" Judy gestured to the expanse of grass behind her. "We have all this space in the park! We can afford to draw back and give them some ground. If we try advancing, it's only going to get worse! You have to believe me! I've seen protests like this before!"
"I'd listen to her if I were you!" Nick added. "She tends to be right about these things!"
Chief Latran grit his teeth, glancing between Judy and the writhing horde of mammals in front of them. Scoffing, he thumbed the radio on his shoulder.
"All units retreat thirty meters back, maintain position, and do not go on the offensive! If I see a single punch thrown this side of the line, your hide's writin' tickets 'till retirement! Out!"
Moistening his lips with anticipation, the chief kept his eyes on the crowd, watching as the officers gradually withdrew, giving the protestors more room to move. As the ZPD retreated, some of the more strife-hungry protestors tried following, but most stayed put, cheering as the violence began to dissipate. It took some time, but the mayhem subsided nearly as fast as it had started. Protestors began to step back, continuing their demonstrations and speeches from afar. Chief Latran grinned with approval.
"Well I'll be darned," he muttured. "You may be onto somethin', Hopps."
The fox beside him shrugged innocently. "I told you so."
Jesse's radio crackled to life. "Chief Latran!" Bogo's voice thundered through the speaker. "I've heard reports of a protest near logistics. What's your status?"
A grin spread across the coyote's muzzle. "You've heard right, but the show's over now, thanks to your little protégés. Officer Hopps and Wilde put a stop to it."
"Very good." Chief Bogo replied. "I'd expect nothing less. They're experienced officers. You should listen to them more often, you know."
"I told you so." Nick repeated, just to rub it in a bit more. Judy smiled, prodding him with her elbow as the chiefs continued their conversation.
"Yes, well, I think I've realized that now. I just needed to see it for myself to believe it." Chief Latran said.
"Your work is far from over. If you don't stop Al before it's too late, I fear the worse will be yet to come. Good luck. Bogo out."
"Copy. Out." Jesse said as he turned to face the two smaller officers. "You did good. But Thelonious is right. This is only the beginning."
Judy glanced back to the crowd at the park's edge. "To think that all that was just one protest. I don't want to see what would happen if Al's formula found its way into one."
"Me neither," Nick agreed. "A revolution would make traffic a nightmare."
Despite the bleakness of the situation, Nick's remark elicited a chuckle from Judy, and even a small smirk from Chief Latran. Something about finding humor in such dire circumstances felt important to keeping a cool head. The fox smiled as well, but deep down, couldn't shake his unease about the future. If Al's ambitions were correct, then this city was going to change forever, one way or another. Regardless of how right Al was, Nick knew that he couldn't let him win. If that jaguar got his way, Zootopia itself would destabilize to the brink of collapse. Change needed to come through order rather than chaos. Nick had realized that during the previous night's raid in the jungle. He only hoped that somewhere, somehow, Al could realize that too.
The voices around him seemed to evaporate as the fox sank deeper into his own thoughts. He looked to his left, gazing over a rusted playground that creaked in the warm savanna wind. His eyes glanced down to the dead grass at his feet, picking out the minuscule pieces of litter hidden within the dried blades. For a second, Nick wondered if he really grew up here. It all felt so long ago. He'd made it out at a young age, exploring the other districts during his life of crime and never once looking back. But now he was back, in the flesh, once again, and all he could feel was disappointment. Not just toward his own cruddy childhood, but to the city that had let his hometown turn to rot. There had to be a better way. Otherwise, mammals like Al would seek desperate means to accomplish the goals that so many wanted deep down, but too many were afraid to act on.
Nick thought back to the promise he had made himself during the raid - that he'd somehow find a way to make this city a better place for all predators. To turn Happytown and Zootopia as a whole into the paradise so many dreamed it could be. The fox raised his gaze with determination, and crossed the shape of an X over his heart. It reminded him a little too much of the Junior Ranger Scout pledge he had made so many years ago.
Only this time, Nick intended to keep his promise. He wouldn't just be brave, loyal, helpful, and trustworthy. Above all else, he'd be hopeful for a better future.
A grasp on his shoulder shook him from his daydreaming. "You okay?" Judy asked. "I can't imagine what you're going through. I mean, this is your home."
Nick looked to his partner with a smile, and pat the paw on his shoulder with his own. "Don't worry, Carrots. I'm not letting it get to me."
"Ever the sly fox, huh?" The rabbit remarked, releasing her hold on his shoulder. "That's what I like to hear. Now let's get to work. We've got a jaguar to catch."
10:00 A.M ; Somewhere in Happytown, Savanna-Central...
The previous 24 hours had been a day of goodbyes for Al Catpone.
He had grown his criminal empire for years from his seat of power in the Rainforest-District, attracting like-minded mammals to his cause and becoming one of the most powerful mammals in the city. But for all his time ruling as one of the five crime-lords of Zootopia, Al had never known loss as stark as this before. Over the course of the previous night, he had lost his headquarters, several of his top lieutenants, dozens of his minions, and a sizable chunk of his pride. Al wondered if this is what Vladzotz had felt like after losing Castle Fangpyre to that fire, that was, before he had recovered from his setback. But Al recognized that success couldn't come without its fair share of sacrifices. Allowing the ZPD to invade his compound in the jungle had cost him much, but it had also earned him the one thing that no amount of money in the world could buy: time.
Sacrificing so much had won Al a sufficient distraction to occupy his pursuers, and all the room he needed to migrate his operations to Happytown for the final stage of his plan. Pacing atop the catwalk suspended above the large depository, Al stared down at the fruit of his labor: half a dozen giant silver brewing vats propped on metal stilts, bubbling with enough Nighthowler froth to drown a herd of elephants. Plastic tubes ran from the vats to workstations piled with chemistry equipment, where dozens of minions ran amok, synthesizing the mixture into the Apex-Affluent gas. Tiny plastic pellets and larger bags filled with the final product were piled into the backs of eighteen-wheelers parked through the shuttered storage doors that separated Al's new hideout from the outside world. Soon, his fleet of semis would go forth to spread his drugs throughout the city.
Al smiled. This was the reward he had earned for his sacrifices: a new throne from which to rule. But Al knew that his enemies wouldn't be far behind. Time was of the essence. As such, the jaguar knew that his success wasn't guaranteed. It made him realize that there was still one more thing that he needed to do before his fate was decided.
The jaguar retreated to his private office, where he could relax among his collection of potted plants and expensive paintings. Upon closing the door behind him, he sat down at his desk with a sigh, his bulk causing the chair beneath him to creak with strain. Moments like these were when Al felt most tempted to light himself up a cigar, but the jaguar had other plans in mind. Al reached into one of the pockets on his overcoat and pulled out a cheap disposable flip-phone. Powering it on, Al's fingers hovered over the lone contact blinking across the screen, hesitating as his breath caught in his chest. Exhaling his reluctance away, he pressed the contact and then brought the phone to his ear.
It rang for a few seconds before silencing as his call was answered. A shaky breath emanated from the other side of the line.
"Alphonse... Is that you?" The voice asked in a quiet, feminine tone.
"It's me," Al confirmed before swallowing hard. "How are you?"
The voice scoffed. "Me? Alphonse, what have you done? The entire city is looking for you! I just saw the chief of police give a news conference declaring you Public Enemy Number One! He said you were responsible for the Nighthowler attacks at the police academy, and that you were the target of a citywide mammalhunt!"
Al sat in silence, letting her vent at him until her voice cracked with sorrow. "Mae," Al began softly. "It's okay. I'm okay."
"No, Alphonse, it's not okay! You're not okay!" Mae rebuked, sniffling hard, as though she were suppressing the urge to cry. "It was hard enough being your wife when you were just a crime-lord. How do you think I feel seeing you on the news like this? You threw away your family for your work, and now you've thrown away your work for your pride."
To his surprise, Al didn't feel any anger at his ex-wife's accusations. Instead, he felt a bleak sense of contentment, like a mammal accepting their own death. "You're right," he agreed. "I couldn't be the husband you wanted me to be... Couldn't be the father Albert needed." Al muttered beneath his breath before his expression hardened with resolve. "But this is bigger than us. It's certainly bigger than me! I'm doin' this for Zootopia, Mae! For all the predators out there that this city walks over like trash! For Albert!"
Mae gave a catlike hiss. "Don't you dare bring up Albert," she warned. "He's seven, and he's going to have to grow up watching his father rot behind bars... Or worse."
"I'm not gonna let those hypocrites at the ZPD put me away," Al declared. "I'm leavin' the city after my work is done. They'll never find me again."
"So you're just going to be on the run for the rest of your life? You gave up your family to rule your little syndicate. Don't tell me you're going to give that up too."
Al grit his teeth, doing his best to stave off his temper. Mae was right - fleeing Zootopia would cost Al whatever power and status he had left as a crime-lord. Even if he could somehow direct the remnants of his criminal empire from so far away, his life would be reduced to working on a farm somewhere, or hiding wherever the ZPD wasn't looking. But to Al, if that was the cost of realizing his dream - his vision of a better tomorrow for all predators in Zootopia - then it was worth it. It didn't take him long to find his words.
"It's not about the money, Mae. If that were the case, I would have lain low and kept business runnin' as usual, like the other crime-lords." Al said, his rage only growing as he continued to speak. "But I'm not like the others. I'm not fueled by vengeance, or money, or power. I have a dream - a dream to see this city be what it can truly be! What it should be: A haven for predators and prey alike! I want a Zootopia where my own son can go to school without being bullied for the SHAPE OF HIS TEETH! That's all I want!"
Choked sobs emanated from the other side of the line as Mae broke down in tears. "You can't... N-Not like this. You're going to destroy yourself along with this city."
"Change NEVER comes from peace!" Al shouted into his phone. "If it did, none of this would be necessary. But that's not how the world works. If it takes destruction to see my dream come true, then so be it. I've seen how this city functions firsthand. I know things that you don't! If I stand by and do nothin', predators will never, EVER be ANYTHING more than second-class citizens! There are mammals at City-Hall that will keep us subjugated forever! They need to be stopped. This city needs a fresh start. It needs me."
Mae was quiet for some time, wordlessly crying as Al huffed with frustration, trying to slow his breathing. "Albert needs you." Was all she said when she finally spoke again.
Al swallowed hard, nodding his head as he tried to prevent tears of his own from beginning to form. "Then let me speak to him. That's why I called. I want to... Say goodbye."
The female jaguar drew a shaky breath. "Okay," she relented. "I'll give the phone to Albert. But as soon as you hang up, I never want to hear from you again. Ever."
"You won't," Al assured. "Now let me talk to 'em."
A few seconds of silence passed, during which Al took the time to remove his vine-wrapped hat and wipe his forehead with a handkerchief. Eventually, a new voice appeared.
"Hello?" It called out in a young, timid voice. "Daddy?"
"Yeah, it's me, kid," Al greeted, smiling happily, though the wetness in his eyes betrayed his true emotions. "Daddy's here."
"Where are you?" Albert asked curiously. "Mommy is worried about you."
"I know. I can't tell you where I am. You're... Probably not gonna be able to see daddy for a long time."
"Why not? Why can't I see you?" The cub cried.
Al bit his fist so hard that his teeth nearly broke through the skin beneath his spotted fur, all to suppress a sob that had been building in his throat since the start of the call. "Because daddy has work to do," He managed to say through trembling breaths. Tears began to stream down his cheeks. "Lots of work. This will be the last time we can talk for a while. So I need you to be strong for me, okay? Take care of your mother while I'm gone. Be the mammal of the house. Can you do that for me, Albert?"
Even though they couldn't see each other, Al could tell that his son was picking up on his distress. "Okay," he replied, concern lacing his voice. "I'll be strong for you, daddy."
The older jaguar chuckled past his sobs. He fondly recalled Albert saying that exact sentence last time they had met, in the back of Al's limousine. "That's my boy. You're strong. Stronger than me. My little apex predator." Al murmured, rubbing at one of his eyes as he forced himself to quell his emotions. "Tell me somethin', did you ever deal with that bully like I told you to? That mean rhino calf that was givin' you trouble at school? You told me about him last time we talked."
"Yeah!" Albert exclaimed. "I scratched back at him with my claws, and he stopped hitting me, just like you said!"
Al laughed again, both at his son's gusto and his ex-wife's audible exclamation of shock in the background. Something told the crime-lord that his son hadn't told any of this to her. And that thought - the idea of father and son sharing a secret that bonded them - made Al proud. He wiped at his eyes with the sleeve of his large black overcoat.
"Good job, kid," Al praised with joy. "I'm proud of ya. If that bully ever tries hurtin' you again, don't be afraid to show 'em your claws again. You got it?"
"Okay, daddy. I won't let him push me around anymore!"
"See?" Al chuckled softly. "You're stronger than me. You always have been. Never forget that."
"I won't. I promise."
Al nodded his head with approval. "Good. Promises should always be kept... That's why I'm sorry to tell you that I can't keep mine. I won't be able to see you at your mother's wedding. I'm so, so sorry. There's nothin' I wouldn't do to be there for you. To watch you give her that ring and play the piano. You'll have to manage without me."
Albert purred with disappointment. "Oh... It's okay, daddy. Your work is important."
"Yes... Yes it is." The crime-lord agreed. Another moment of silence ensued, broken only by Albert's curious purring.
"You can make me another promise, though." The cub said, causing his father to perk with interest.
"What is it?"
"Promise me that you'll be safe."
If Al had been a few dozen pounds heavier, he probably would have had a heart attack right then and there. He sighed with exasperation, saying the only thing that he could.
"I'll be safe. I promise."
"Please don't break this one." Albert added, causing Al to chuckle.
"I won't. I promise I won't break it. That's two promises, makin' it twice as strong." The crime-lord joked, earning some giggles from his son. "You know, you can make a promise to me too. Don't tell your mother this, but I'm gonna be sendin' you some packages. There's money inside. It's gonna help you. Promise not to tell?"
"Okay. I promise."
"Good," Al muttered, only hoping that his ex-wife hadn't heard him over the phone. "I have to go now, Albert. Remember everything I told you. Be strong."
"And you be safe!" The younger jaguar retorted.
"I will. I promised twice, remember?" Al said with a dry chuckle. "Goodbye, Albert. Daddy loves you."
The crime-lord ended the call with a bitter sigh. Closing his eyes, he snapped the phone in half before tossing it in the nearest trashcan and then leaning back in his chair. Al stared at the ceiling for a long time - so long that he was practically asleep when the knock at his door roused him from his rest. The jaguar glanced irritably at the door.
"Come in." Al loudly grumbled, watching as a bobcat in a hazmat suit stepped inside his office. "What is it?"
"Sir, our scouts have reported that officer Hopps and Wilde have entered the district. They're working with the task force to find you."
Al stretched in his chair, throwing off the weight of his weariness as he rose to his imposing height. "Good to know. Everythin' is accordin' to schedule."
"Do you have a plan for dealing with the ZPD, sir?"
"Yeah, I do," Al replied. "I just need more time - enough to shore up our defenses and ship out all the product - and I think I know how to get some."
"How?" The bobcat inquired.
The crime-lord grinned with malicious anticipation. "Why do you think I let Nick Wilde live, after I visited him? He doesn't know it, but he's the key to our success."
Al Catpone stared through the window in his office, gazing over the crumbling cityscape of Happytown with a mixture of distaste and hope. The jaguar knew not if he would make it out of this alive, but he had no intentions on letting his promise be so easily broken. Not this time. Not when his plans for victory were just getting started.
12:00 P.M ; Happytown, Savanna-Central...
For as long as Olivia Wilde had resided in Happytown, she had done her best to not only make it her home, but make her home a better place for others.
Her life was not a glamorous one. Living in a place like Happytown meant finding enjoyment from the simplest of pleasures - a skill that she had honed over her years in solitude. Before he had ran away, her life's purpose had been her son. Now that Nick was all grown up, Olivia devoted much of her free time to volunteering around the city, mostly in the local neighborhoods that made Happytown what it was. Finding a purpose when one lived in a place so destitute wasn't easy, and many failed to find one - often resorting to crime instead - but Olivia had found hers in the form of altruism.
Working at the local soup kitchen was all the fulfillment she needed to claim that she had a purpose in life. It may have been a simple purpose, but it was enough for her. Seeing the faces of hungry mammals living on the streets light up with joy and gratitude whenever she handed them a bowl of warm soup never failed to bring a smile to her face. Many of them reminded her of Nick, back when he had been homeless before he started hanging around those mysterious polar bears from Tundratown - mammals doing whatever they could to survive. Perhaps volunteering was her way of helping others the way she couldn't help her son, during those dark years, but in the end it didn't matter.
Washing her paws in the kitchen's sink, Olivia waved goodbye to a fellow volunteer as they came to replace her shift. "Thanks for coming, Pauline! I'll see you tomorrow!"
"Stay safe!" A female muskrat replied as she scampered past the older vixen's legs. "It's a battleground out there! The police searched the whole restaurant this morning."
"I've heard the news. It's so sad. My son works for the ZPD, you know. I wonder if he's here, trying to bring order to this whole mess." Olivia murmured.
Pauline shrugged. "The chief of police said that a quarter of the city's precincts are working together to find that jaguar. Maybe your kid's among them!"
A concerned sigh slipped through Olivia's nostrils. "I honestly hope he isn't... It seems really dangerous."
"The ZPD can handle it, right? I don't care what the protestors are saying about them. They're heroes!"
"Yes," The vixen mused quietly, lost in thought. "He is." She shook her head, cleared her throat, and then added more volume to her next statement. "Yes, they are."
After gathering her belongings, Olivia exited the soup kitchen through the back exit, scanning for her car amidst the dilapidated parking lot. She quickly caught sight of a large black van parked a few dozen yards down an adjacent street. It was considerably well-kept compared to most of the vehicles in this part of the city. The vixen glanced away as she approached her car, writing it off as as new batch of supplies for the restaurant she'd just left, not noticing the van as it started its engine and began to inch closer. Upon reaching her vehicle, the van had pulled up directly behind her. It was only when the back door opened with a loud, metallic clunk, and three wolves in all-black with bandanas around their faces jumped out did Olivia direct her attention back to the car, but by then it was too late. The wolves rushed her, grabbing her arms and legs before she had the chance to reach for the pepper-spray in her purse. Three fully grown wolves against an aging vixen wasn't much of a fight. It didn't take long before she was overwhelmed.
"Get off me! No! Help! Someone-" Her cries were silenced as one of the wolves clamped their paws around her muzzle.
The wolves dragged Olivia back toward the van as she tried writhing free, screaming as loud as she could past the paws of her captors. Hauling the vixen inside, they slammed the doors shut before the van hastily drove off, leaving only a streak of grimy tire marks on the pavement in its wake. Moments later, Pauline exited the back of the kitchen.
"Hello? Olivia?" She called out, concern lacing her voice. The muskrat could have sworn she had heard screaming.
She narrowed her eyes. Olivia was nowhere in sight, yet her car was still there. Pauline quickly scanned the horizon, catching sight of a large black van as it fled the vicinity, disappearing around a corner and vanishing for good. The muskrat swallowed hard, trying not to panic. She retrieved her cell phone and dialed 911 as quickly as she could.
When the operator answered, she didn't even hesitate to shriek over them. "I just witnessed a kidnapping! Get me the ZPD!"
Welcome the finale of the seventh arc, and When Instinct Falls as a whole! I cannot emphasize enough how excited I am for what's to come. I've gone through tons of rough patches over the years, with my joys for writing waning and waxing like the moon, but I can promise you that I haven't been this excited in a long time! I'm eager to wrap up this story and move onto the next, and I am quite proud of the plot and other developments that I have in store, both for the ending of WIF and the start of what comes next. I can promise you that it will be unlike anything you've seen from me before. You won't want to miss it! I hope you stay tuned for the dramatic conclusion of this years-long project, and regardless, hope that you enjoyed what this latest chapter had to offer.
What do you think of what transpired in this chapter? Did you like Al's talk with his family, Nick and Judy's return to Happytown, and that climactic ending scene? I'd adore knowing your thoughts in the form of a review, so feel free to leave one, if you'd like. I'm eager to know how you all are enjoying this finale!
'Till next time...
PS: To clarify, I also wanted to say that this chapter and the plot of the finale has no connection to the recent protests and social movements that have been making the rounds lately. This plot was developed quite a long time ago, as was the draft for this chapter, and the timing of release is purely coincidental.