When Vercus finally fought off his attackers and raced out the lounge in pursuit of Benjamin, Judy had truly thought it was the end for her and Nick. They'd been surrounded and completely cut off from the exit, and they were both on their last dart. As the five hostiles stalked toward the cornered pair, Judy's gun arm had been shaking with terror. Her other arm had stretched out, searching for a broken plank, anything she could use to defend herself once her last shot was fired. Instead she had found Nick's paw, recognizable even through the gloves of their hazmat suits. She'd instinctively tightened her fingers around his thumb, and his larger fingers had enclosed around her paw. They'd locked eyes through their scratched and dirty visors. A silent message, a wish, a prayer, a farewell, had passed between them. Then they'd both aimed their weapons at the closest savages to begin their final stand.
Then there had been an earsplitting crash that even made the savages pause. The large windows had shattered inward, drawing their attention to the back of the armored van that had collided right into the side of the mansion. Before they could have even comprehended what the hell had just happened the doors had flown open and poured out three large mammals in black hazmat suits of their own. They'd made short work of the remaining savages in the room before turning their attention to Judy and Nick. They soon learned that two of their ominously dressed saviors were none other that Rhinowitz and Higgins, who were the only mammals who could fit into the hazmat suits they'd found in the guardhouse beside the gate. The rest had been explained in the Bullpen the next day; with the radio jammer destroyed they'd been able to contact Bogo and Yaxley to inform them of their very useful discovery. They'd immediately broke away from the fight and drove their van back to retrieve the two, and fit Bogo into the third suit.
When the three had identified themselves, Judy had turned away for a minute to face the corner, wishing she could have removed her mask to wipe the tears from her eyes.
When Bogo had demanded to know where Benjamin was and Judy told him he'd likely gone in search of Daybreak to cure his Nighthowler exposure, the buffalo had ordered the four of them to clear the mansion before taking off like a shot. For the next five minutes Judy and her comrades had done just that, sweeping through the lower floor and taking down anything that moved. At one point, Yaxley had radioed in to give the good news that the remaining Veltro members had finally been taken out. By the time they cleared the final room on this floor, Bogo returned, his visor broken, and a motionless Benjamin in his arms.
"Oh my gosh." Judy gasped when they all gathered in the entrance hall and she saw Bogo.
"He's asleep." Bogo said. He gave Benjamin a slight jostle, and the cheetah mumbled. "Daybreak worked, but it sedated him as well. If a helicopter's not here to get him to a hospital when I get out of here, there will be hell to pay."
"And Vercus?" Rhinowitz asked.
"In the lab downstairs, caged like the animal he is. We should wait until backup arrives with more hazmat suits before collecting him."
"What're those things Benji's holding?" Nick asked.
"Daybreak grenades. Ben released one in the lab to help subdue Vercus, and thank god he did. In case you haven't noticed my visor broke in the struggle."
"Is that why you're not going crazy right now? You breathed in Daybreak?" Nick pouted. "Darn, I've been hoping to have a good reason to shoot you."
"I ought to demote you for saying that, Wilde!"
"You know you love me."
"Can we please get out of here, sir?" Higgins asked before Bogo could retort.
Bogo kept his eyes on Nick. "Yes. You and Rhinowitz go upstairs and apprehend Fauna. Remember she's at the end of the east wing." The two officers immediately made their way upstairs. "The rest of you come with me."
They exited the way three of them had come in, through the lounge windows into the back of the armored van. Once the doors were shut, Yaxley drove them back across the snowy grounds until they were near the gates. Along the way the three of them removed their masks, allowing Judy see just how banged up they all were. Her cheek felt like it had a severe bruise, the corner of her mouth was smeared red and there was a cut above her brow. Nick had actually bloodied his nose at some point, and Bogo looked significantly beat up. The next time she called her parents she would have to avoid using muzzletime, lest she give them both a heart attack. Even Benjamin, with his face dirty but undamaged, wasn't much better off, what with a stab wound in his side that Bogo was applying pressure to as he continued to hold the unconscious feline. The buffalo had a dazed look from his own exposure to Daybreak, but there were something deeply heartwarming in the way Bogo looked down at Benjamin, and how peaceful Benjamin looked as he slept, even with his left side covered in blood. Judy was beginning to understand why Gazelle had wished them a happy Christmas with such a big smile before they'd parted ways.
Furtively she looked through the corner of her eye at Nick. The fox was holding a piece of torn fabric to his bloody nose, and the rabbit had to fight the urge to touch him. He'd had her back throughout the entire ordeal, refusing to leave her side even when the battle in the lounge had looked hopeless. He'd held her paw when she'd thought she was going to die. That kind of friendship and loyalty was priceless. She turned her eyes again at Bogo and Benjamin and wondered if maybe, just maybe, she and Nick could have that kind of relationship someday.
The van came to a stop. Judy heard the sound of approaching helicopters before the others, and when they opened the doors she saw two coming to land. Bogo stepped out with Benjamin still in his arms. He strode over to the first helicopter that landed. Judy watched him go, tears close to beading in her eyes now that Benjamin was finally safe, before Nick tapped her on the shoulder.
"Heck of a Christmas, huh, Carrots?"
Judy chuckled. "Tell me about it. Still doesn't beat Christmas in Bunnyburrow."
"I'll have to see that to believe it." Nick winked.
Judy beamed, getting the hint. "I'll call my parents when we get home. They would be happy to have you even if you hadn't helped save their lives."
Nick stuck his paws in his pockets. "You know, while we're on the subject of Christmas, I still haven't fulfilled that promise I made to you if we survived the Greener Grass Mall."
Judy giggled. "My choice is still Snow White."
"Darn." Nick never stopped smiling. "Carrots, when the paperwork's done, how about we go out for dinner first? Big fat Christmas dinner with turkey and trimmings. I'll spare no expense at-"
"We've got another patient!"
A second armored van pulled up, and out came Higgins and Rhinowitz, carrying a pale Arianna Fauna with them. She looked unconscious, and there were letters carved into her cheeks and forehead. They carried her to the second helicopter and explained the situation; internal bleeding from a car exploding beside her. It was unclear if she would make it to hospital.
Judy and Nick turned away, embittered by the reminder. There was still one last loose end to tie up.
"Nishimura's probably long gone by now." Judy said.
"Along with one of the deadliest chemical weapons ever built." Nick added.
"You're not helping."
They sat down in the armored van, legs dangling over the edge, and watched silently as the cavalry came in to finish cleaning up Nishimura's mess. They heard snippets here and there, such as Vercus being out cold from Daybreak by the time the reinforcements had gone to arrest him, and finding the remains of his campsite. A couple of blocks of unarmed explosives, a mask and a mallet had been the only items to survive intact. A phone had been found on Vercus's person, but the battery had died.
They should be happier, they knew that. Veltro had been taken down, Vercus had been stopped, and Benjamin and the Casel Family were safe. But with Nishimura getting away scot-free their victory felt too bittersweet for them to enjoy.
Yaxley stepped out of the driver's seat and approached the two. "Where's Bogo? We need to talk!"
Bogo returned at that very moment, without Benjamin. The helicopter with him inside was already taking off. Judy sent a small prayer after it. "What's going on, Yaxley?"
"We need to go! Now!" Yaxley snapped.
"I said what's going on?"
"When my people at the hospital told Gruff what had happened here, he finally talked. It seems that every single one of us have been played for fools."
"What're you talking about?" Judy, Nick and Bogo followed Yaxley towards one of the squad cars.
"Nishimura. He's not Japanese. He's not even dead!"
"What?!" Nick stared at Yaxley like he'd lost his senses.
"God damn it!" Yaxley clenched and unclenched his fists as he walked. "He was right under our noses this entire time! The blood was a match, but I should have figured something was up when we didn't find the body!"
"Are you saying that…" Bogo trailed off.
As for Judy, she was thinking hard about the letters she'd seen carved into Fauna's face, no doubt inflicted by that evil elk-deer. A V in her forehead. An S in her right cheek. An O in her left.
It hit her like a giant snowball.
It must have hit Nick at the same time, for his jaw dropped. Even Bogo was speechless.
They entered the car with Bogo and the wheel and sped off, Yaxley shouting into his radio for every available mammal to search the city and surrounding areas. Nick sat silently next to Judy, deep in thought, until he asked Yaxley to call the ZBI mammals protecting Lake Casel. He didn't explain it yet, but Lake may be just the mammal to help them catch the scumbag in time.
All the while Judy didn't stop thinking about the letters.
V for Vercus and his sadistic message.
S. O. for… for…
"It can't be..." She whispered softly.
"Yes, it's me."
Simon Ombidia identified himself as soon as he confirmed the identity of the mammal who had come into contact with him almost immediately after he'd left the city limits.
He hadn't expected to find a buyer so quickly, especially one so close to the only daughter of that narrow minded old dolt. Yes, Elgen Casel was a dolt. So much of this was his doing. If he were here, Ombidia would have thanked him for being so stupid as to cast out his oldest and most unstable son. He'd practically handed Ombidia's biggest asset on a silver platter.
"I admit, you are the last mammal I expected to hear from, Miss Leogard, especially so soon. I suppose you must have gotten your intel from your girlfriend…. Excuse me, ex-girlfriend."
He listened to the female on the other end. Apparently Lisa Leogard had doubts as to Lake Casel's commitment to her and their shared goal of taking down the Casel Corporation. It seemed that despite their respective founders claiming the contrary, Veltro and Neo Veltro were not so different.
"You don't say." He said. "Well, you won't have to worry about being powerless anymore. When the sun rises tomorrow, you will be the only organization in possession of Nightfall and Daybreak. There will be no greater advantage in negotiating Elgen Casel's ultimate downfall. I hope you understand that the cost of such power will be quite significant."
The winter breeze made the thick hair around his head shake as he clicked open his briefcase. He smiled at the fruits of his labor safely tucked inside. There was the DVD of every news report of every savage attack Dawn Bellwether had instigated. It was a pity Vercus and Veltro had failed to kill her. If he hadn't been certain that she did not know his true identity, he would have taken steps to have her finished off. There was also the small laptop containing the last remaining data for the development of both Nightfall and Daybreak. The rest he'd ensured destroyed in the old Fauna estate.
As for Nightfall and Daybreak, he had samples of both nestled beneath the laptop. The grenades and launcher were currently in the trunk of the car he was leaning against.
"Don't you worry, Miss Leogard. Everything has been taken care of. All that's left is the meeting place. There's an old warehouse just outside of Bunnyburrow. Zoocell formerly used it before the corporation expanded, so it will be completely empty. We will meet there two weeks from now at three. Will that suffice?"
It would certainly suffice for him. Two weeks was more than enough time for him to do some research, and to figure out if this was a trap. He had yet to figure out how Lisa Leogard had managed to get his number when he'd destroyed his other phone, but at the same time he was reluctant to turn down a potentially legitimate customer. Not at the price she was offering.
"Good, good. Don't forget, there will be extra payment required for the launcher and grenades. They're the only ones of their kind in the entire world."
That may not be entirely true if the bombs he'd planted in the laboratory and the semis that were intended to smuggle the lab equipment out of the city did do as much damage as intended, but Leogard didn't need to know that. If it did turn out that Nightfall or Daybreak had survived the explosions, he could always find some other organization with scientists who could do some tweaking, and make any antidote that may have survived useless to the mammals at the ZBI. He would have to then destroy their data afterward of course. Ombidia would have to be very thorough if it came to that, but he was confident he could pull it off.
"The old Zoocell warehouse outside of Bunnyburrow. Three pm. Two weeks from now. I'll see you there." Ombidia paused.
He hung up, pocketed the phone, and locked the case shut.
At last, he thought. Five years of hard work, right under Gazelle's slender nose. He'd been accompanying her on a tour in France when he'd met Vercus Casel, a mammal in exile, who would do anything to take revenge on the mammals responsible and the city that had seemingly forgotten all about him. He'd already amassed a small organization of prey supremacists by the time the bison had run into him, putting up an act of despising all predators when in truth it was prey that was his true enemy. Ombidia had been only too happy to assist, for he too had a need. He had a pretty little blue flower with incredible potential, and Veltro were the perfect mammals to help him realize it.
Ombidia stepped away from the car and leaned on the sturdy wooden railing of Zootopia Overlook. Past the pine trees, pure black at night, stood the sparkling skyscrapers of the city. He wasn't sure whether he would ever see Zootopia again, or if he could ever come back at all. He'd decided the time had come to cast off his day job as Gazelle's manager when Fauna had called him in his office a week before the Greener Grass Mall incident. Daybreak was ready, and Ombidia had the other half of his set. Vercus had been the only one to know of his plan to fake his death, and had been to one to help hide the bags containing Ombidia's blood until the time was right. Ombidia had been impressed and relieved when, despite his already volatile personality and Nighthowler induced insanity, Vercus had followed through with the plan to prepare a makeshift torture chamber and paint it in Ombidia's blood. Then he'd handed the rucksack of supplies over to Ombidia for the hike back to Zootopia, leaving his car in the forest road to make the ZPD think he'd been kidnapped and murdered, as had also been planned. Ombidia had almost regretted planting a bomb at the elk-deer's campsite, but it was for the best. If Vercus had been given an antidote, with his unique state of mind, there was no guarantee it would be fully effective. Vercus had been very useful but he still had to be put down, just like the rest of Veltro.
Ombidia checked his watch. It was six am, but the sky was still dark. He needed to get into his car and put as much distance between himself and Zootopia as possible before the sun came up. He'd put a lot of work and literal blood into his faked death, but the ZBI may suspect that something is up if they don't find his body soon. Better to get out while he still could. The bison pulled his sleeve pack over his watch, turned his back on the city he was leaving behind, and started back towards his car. Just as he put his hoof on the handle, a blue car drove to a stop in the middle of the road. It stopped diagonally, blocking both lanes.
Bison grimaced at the driver's drunken stupidity as they and their companion stepped out. "Do you mind?! You're blocking the road!"
"We just wanted to meet the cause of our misery." Spoke the driver.
He saw in the headlights that said driver was a rabbit.
Ombidia glanced at the passenger. It was a fox.
Ombidia froze in blank shock for two seconds before he drew out his handgun and aimed it at the pair as they approached, their own weapons pointed right back at him. They both looked beat up, probably from storming the Fauna estate.
This was bad. This was very, very bad! How? How?! He'd thought of everything!
"Hopps! Wilde! It's not what you think!" Ombidia quickly realized the foolishness of what he said, what with his gun already out and the safety off, not to mention the incriminating case on the hood of his car.
"You're right. It wasn't." Hopps said as she and Wilde came to a stop. "I admit, that bloody torture chamber had us convinced."
"And we would have stayed convinced if it wasn't for Billy Goat Gruff." Wilde added. "You weren't as careful as you thought you were, 'Nishimura.' Gruff figured out who you really were during the Nighthowler incident, but Bellwether got put in jail before he could tell her. He'd kept his mouth shut since then to protect Veltro, but when he found out what you did to Fauna he sang like a canary."
Ombidia quickly grabbed the case and flung open the car door to give himself a shield, but he wasn't sure he could get inside without getting darted. He needed a way to distract them somehow.
"How did you find me?"
"You'll love this!" Wilde said. "Vercus survived your backstabbing, enabling us to finally capture him, and guess what was on his person at the time? Yeah, a phone with your number on it!"
Ombidia felt his heart sink. "Leogard."
Judy nodded, looking as smug as her partner. "Yes. Neo Veltro are nothing like their terrorist counterparts, but their co-leader was only too happy to put on an act to help us catch you. We got a trace on your signal almost the minute you picked up the phone, but she kept you talking just long enough for us to catch up."
Ombidia held up the case and pressed the gun to it. A bluff was his only chance. "I'm warning you! One bullet through this case and you'll lose all the data on Daybreak! You two can appreciate its value I'm sure, what with your own experiences with Nighthowlers! Now I am going to get into this car and-"
"No, you're not." Came the voice of Chief Bogo, and the sensation of a gun barrel pressing into Ombidia's back.
Ombidia almost wet his pants, but kept his trembling gun on his case. His years of planning couldn't end like this. "I… I'm warning you, Bogo… This is all that's left of Daybreak…"
"Wrong. Ben, do you remember Ben? He cured himself with Daybreak and saved every other sample that survived your bomb. We don't need what's in that case."
The bison knew then that it was over. Wilde was right. He hadn't been careful enough. Feeling like the most miserable mammal in the world, he dropped his gun at the buffalo's command. He felt the case being wrenched from his grip before Bogo ordered him on his knees. Hopps and Wilde lowered their guns and approached, followed by several other officers that had stayed hidden in the shadows until now. As Ombidia's arms were forced behind him and he felt the cold metal of cuffs being clamped around his wrists, he heard Bogo whisper into his ear with pure violent hatred.
"Oh, and one more thing before I hand you over to Yaxley… a very Merry Christmas to you."