At 10:00 o'clock sharp the two of them were waiting outside Mayor Lionheart's sumptuous office in City Hall, wearing their finest dress uniforms, hats tucked neatly under their arms. The longer they waited the more nervous Judy became. The last time she'd seen Lionheart had been when she was arresting him, just days after he'd been so proud of her for graduating from the Academy at the top of her class. She had no idea how he'd react to her this morning and her nervousness was infecting Nick.
He sniffed the air. “Knock it off, Carrots,” he whispered from the side of his mouth. “His nose isn't as good as mine but anyone can tell you're scared. Do multiplication tables in your head or something.”
It was probably a good idea but she wasn't given a chance to try it. His secretary, another ewe, Judy noted in passing, glanced at them over her spectacles. “Mayor Lionheart will see you now,” she said in a no nonsense, school marm voice.
They stood up in unison. Nick pushed open the door for Judy, then followed her in. Her heart warmed at his little gesture of gentlemanly concern, but it put her front and center in Lionheart's gaze as they approached his desk, the same desk where she'd once tried to resign. She marched in, doing her best to keep her emotions in check. They stopped at attention in front of his desk.
“Officer Hopps reporting,” she said stiffly.
“Office Wilde reporting,” Nick echoed her.
Lionheart nodded. “At ease, have a seat,” he said in his warm, movie star voice. They sat down and he fixed his eyes on Judy. “Officer Hopps, I understand why you did what you did, based on what you knew at the time, but since I've been reinstated and everything is back to normal, why don't we let bygones be bygones and start over?” He stuck a friendly paw over the desk to her.
Startled into complying she shook with him.
He sat back in his chair smiling widely. “I do have say though, I was fairly impressed at how quickly you found me, especially considering that Bogo had been looking for the missing mammals for nearly two weeks.”
“I had help, Mister Mayor,” she said, indicating Nick. “I'd never have made it if it wasn't for him.”
“So I've heard,” he rejoined. “In fact, it prompted me to keep tabs on his progress at the Academy, just to see if he was as good as the newspapers said he was.” Nick was startled. Lionheart nodded at him, “And it seems you are.” He picked up a folder on his desk and opened it. “Except for the names, this could be officer Hopps' file; top of your class, near perfect scores, everything.” He tossed it down. “So . . . if Bogo thinks I should talk to the two of you about these street racers,” he indicated another file on his crowded desk, “I listen to him.” He waved a paw at them. “Start talking.”
Nick took the lead, quickly going over their initial encounter with Flash and Lance, then their second encounter the very next day. He talked about Lance's thrill of the hunt idea and how it dovetailed with the report from Zootopia University's Department of Anthropology, minimizing the predator-prey aspects of the paper while emphasizing the asteroid-strike theory and it's application to the thrill of the hunt and their theory that it might even explain the night howler effect on mammals.
Lionheart leaned forward interestedly. “Bogo didn't mention the night howler part.”
“We haven't had time to tell him, sir,” Judy said, speaking for the first time since her initial exchange with him. “It's all happened pretty fast.” But his comment caused her to wonder just how closely Bogo and Lionheart worked together. He seemed to know everything Bogo did.
The mayor nodded, waving for them to continue. Nick plunged in again, explaining that if the theory was right, it meant the thrill of the hunt was genetic and wouldn't be going away anytime soon. Then he launched into his idea for a race track big enough for cars to drive on.
“How many cars?” Lionheart prompted him with a worried frown.
They both shrugged. “It's hard to say, sir,” Judy told him, “but from what Flash and Lance said, I got the impression there might be 20 or 30 of them.”
“20 or 30?” he roared in astonishment. “Do you have any idea how big a track would have to be for 20 or 30 cars? It'd have be huge!”
Judy nodded sympathetically. “That was my first reaction too.”
“And that's why Chief Bogo sent us to you,” Nick added quickly. “He said it was way too big for cops to put together. It'd have to be done by the city.”
“Oh, you think?” the mayor snorted sarcastically. He stood up to pace back and forth before the window looking out over the city. “I've been following this asteroid-strike theory ever since it came out about ten years ago,” he told them, “which would be just a year or so before that paper was written, so I'm well aware of the implications of it, including the predator-prey stuff you skimmed over.” He shot a stern look at Nick, who had the grace to look abashed. “I'm not as squeamish as most mammals so you don't have to hide anything from me; my family is directly descended from Mars, the founder those researchers talked about. We know all about his little affair with Venus; the idiot kept a diary!” That last was delivered with a roar of frustration.
“Wait!” Judy interjected, “Mars had a diary?” She stared at him in shock, “And you've got it?”
“It's one of our bigger family secrets,” Lionheart retorted sharply. He paused, “And one we'd rather not have nosed about in public,” he added pointedly.
“But the University and the museum need those kinds of historical documents,” she protested. “It's too important for one family to keep all to themselves!”
“They've got a copy!” he roared at her. She shrank back. Nick instinctively sprang to his feet to defend her, then stopped and sat back down. Lionheart looked at him in confusion then ignored it. “My grandfather gave them a copy years ago for research, on the condition that it never, ever, see the light of day.”
“But . . . why?” she stuttered.
His shoulders slumped. “Because it's embarrassing,” he sighed. “Mars wrote down everything. In embarrassing detail.”
“Oh,” she said, then her eyes widened as his words sank in. “Oh!”
He favored her with a pained smile. “Oh, indeed.” He sat back down with a sigh. “We can't blame him too much, I guess. They were just starting out, didn't know what they were doing, didn't know how to be discreet.” He shrugged. “Mars was a product of his times. But this is today, and that diary will never be released to the public.” He fixed them with a hard look. “Understood?”
They both nodded. “Yes sir,” Judy added quietly.
“Good.” He paused to collect his thoughts. “The point I was getting at is; I've known about this asteroid-strike theory for a long time, and this research paper, plus this thrill of the hunt stuff, and your ideas about the night howlers all point in the same direction. Which means,” he sighed, “these street racers won't be stopped, can't be stopped, unless they're locked up like the savage mammals were, and that doesn't seem fair.” Judy felt a surge of excitement. Was he really heading where she thought he was? A quick look at Nick confirmed he was feeling it too. If Lionheart noticed their reactions, he hid it well. He made up his mind. “A race track for cars would be too big to put in the city; it'll have to be outside the city, in a farmer's field or something.” He paused for a moment, a twinkle in his eye. “And since the two of you brought all this up, you'll be the ones to scout out a location for it.”
“Uh . . .” For once Nick was speechless.
Judy wasn't though. “But sir! We have patrol duties, we're at work all day! When would we do it? You're not telling us to do it in our off time are you?” Panic seized her, “Are you?” When would she and Nick have any time for themselves?
The mayor laughed softly at her obvious distress. “Calm down, Hopps. It's nothing like that. I'll get Bogo to put you on temporary duty assignment so you can give it your full attention, during the day.” She and Nick left out huge sighs of relief. Lionheart paused for a moment, looking back and forth between them with a puzzled expression, then dismissed it and pressed the intercom. “Meredith, get Chief Bogo on the line for me.”
'Meredith', the sheep secretary probably, responded immediately, “Right away, Mister Mayor.”
Bogo must have been waiting for the call. Meredith came back on the intercom within seconds to tell him, “Chief Bogo is on line 2, sir.”
“Thanks.” He punched line 2, putting him on speaker phone. “Chief Bogo?”
“Yes, Mister Mayor?”
“Your problem children are here,” he gave them a conspiratorial wink, “and they've convinced me we need to build a race track for cars so these idiot racers don't kill themselves on the streets.”
“Or anyone else,” Bogo interrupted darkly. “We just had another incident, over in the Canal District; three cars. One of them went in the water; we're not sure about the other two, or if there are any casualties. Reports are still coming in.”
Lionheart growled deep in his chest. He stifled it by taking a deep breath. “Alright. That just means we have to get moving. This situation is too close to the 'savage mammal' kind of deal; we've got to nip it in the bud before it gets out of hand.”
“I agree,” Bogo affirmed. “What do you need from me?”
“I need Wilde and Hopps assigned to some kind of temporary duty assignment so they can be free to spend all their time looking for some place to put this race track of theirs.”
“It's not our race track,” Judy objected indignantly. “It's just our idea to . . .”
Lionheart waved her to silence as Bogo shouted over the phone, “Shut it!” She slumped back with a resentful glare at the mayor. “Send 'em back, Mister Mayor. I've got some new ID's ready and waiting for them.”
Lionheart arched an eyebrow at the phone. “You already had new ID's for them before I made my decision? I thought we were going to play it straight with each other from now on?”
Judy gave Nick a questioning peek, but he shook his head in confusion. “Beats me,” he whispered. This level of politics was over his head.
“I am playing it straight with you, Leodore,” the Chief answered slowly and distinctly after a brief pause, “I just knew there wasn't any other solution. I'm not the stick-in-the-mud you think I am. I can see where this is headed and I don't want to see the city to go through another big scare any more than you do.”
Lionheart nodded slowly, then realized Bogo couldn't see him. “Alright,” he rumbled. “I'm sending them back. Keep me posted.”
“Yes Sir, Mister Mayor,” Bogo replied smartly, like a cadet on the parade ground. He hung up.
Lionheart saw the questioning expression on their faces. “After the savage mammal incident was over and I was reinstated, Bogo and I came to an understanding of sorts. We hadn't been getting along for a while and that whole thing showed us we needed to.”
Nick held up a placating paw. “Say no more, Mister Mayor. This city needs both of you. Judy and I won't do anything to change it.”
“Officer Hopps, you mean,” Lionheart corrected him.
Nick was confused. “Hunh?”
“You called her Judy instead of Officer Hopps,” the mayor said kindly, as if talking to a child.
“Oh! Well, we're partners, you know. We're on a first name basis.”
“I see,” Lionheart nodded. “I just thought most officers usually called each other by their last names. My mistake,” he smiled grandly, ever the politician. He stood up in dismissal. “Go see Chief Bogo, get your new ID's and find me somewhere to put that race track of yours before mammals start getting killed out there.”
“Yes sir,” they said in unison. They turned and left. Judy managed to peek back at the mayor as they were exiting the door; he was staring at them with a strange, wondering expression. The moment they were out of earshot Nick let out a huge exhalation of air.
“That was the biggest, fakest smile I've ever seen!” he exclaimed. “My mistake,” he mimicked. He shook his head sorrowfully. “I'm sorry, Fluff, I gave us away for sure.”
She laid a gentle paw on his arm. “Don't bet on it, Nick. I caught a glimpse of him as we were leaving; he's curious, he's knows something is up but I don't think he knows what. Not yet at least.”
His ears were laying flat. “I hope you're right, Judy, I hope you're right.”
Seeing his obvious disappointment in himself, she glanced around quickly at the parking garage under City Hall where they'd parked their squad car. Seeing no obvious cameras, or anyone coming, she pulled him behind a concrete pillar and gave him a searing kiss. As always she felt it right down to her toes. It reached him too; she heard his heart start to race, thudding in his chest like a jack hammer. She smiled to herself; it was nice to know she could do that to him even when he was down and out. Her knees were weak and shaky when she pulled back from him; it was nice to know he could do that to her too.
“Better?” she asked teasingly, struggling to catch her breath.
His eyes were dancing. “I don't know, Fluff. I might need a second treatment,” he grinned rakishly, reaching for her.
She eeled away from his grasp. “Not now,” she squeaked. “I was trying to cheer you up, but let's not push our luck,” she said, looking around. Just then a car cruised slowly past, the driver looking for a parking spot. It brought them both back to earth.
“Alright,” he sighed regretfully. “But . . . thank you for uh, what was it you said? . . . cheering me up,” he winked.
She giggled and punched him. “Get in the car, silly.”
City Hall was so close to the station, on opposite sides of the watering hole, it almost would have been faster to walk. The moment they came in, Clawhauser began gesturing for them to get up to Bogo's office. “Where have you been?” he said frantically. “He keeps calling down ever minute wanting to know if you're here yet. Get in there before he burns my ears off.”
“Clawhauser! Where are they?” Bogo's voice echoed all over the reception area.
“They're on their way up right now!” Clawhauser yelled back. He shooed them away.
“Wilde! Hopps! Get in here! On the double!” the Chief roared. They broke into a run until they skidded to a halt in front of his desk. He shook a paw full of papers at them. “An antelope was hit by one of those racers in the Canal District. Her two fawns were scared half to death, and she's in the hospital with a broken leg. If she'd fallen in the water she might have drowned,” he growled in furious anger. “Now it's gonna be all over the news.” He threw some badges at them. “Both of you are temporarily promoted to Detective, effective immediately, and assigned to this case to the exclusion of all else! Understand?”
Nick caught the badges out of the air, examined them briefly then handed Judy hers. They nodded, awestruck by how fast everything was happening, but Bogo was still talking.
“You'll draw Detective's pay and have offices up here with the rest of the detectives, but don't let it go to your heads; the moment this thing is over, you go back on patrol. Got it?”
“Yes sir,” they both said.
“Good,” he grumbled. “Get out of those uniforms, put on some street clothes, and get out there and find me someplace for that race track before the city gets turned into a war zone!” He went over to the door and bellowed, “Tongas!”
A moment later a wolf, Captain Tongas showed up. “Yeah, Chief?”
“Show Wilde and Hopps where their office is and get 'em situated.” He turned and fixed them with a gimlet eye, “I don't want to see you two in there for long though; I want you out finding a place for that track.” He pushed them out of his office and slammed the door.
They stared at the door for a moment of stunned silence. Finally they turned and found Tongas watching them with amusement. “Don't you just love how sweet and wonderful he is?” Judy gasped with shock but Nick erupted in soft laughter. “Come on, I'll show your office, but it doesn't sound like you're going to get much use out of it.” He led them down a short hall to a set of double doors that simply said – Detectives. He pushed through them into a large square room filled with tables and chairs. Offices lined all the walls. He pointed off to the right, “Office 6N is yours, the 'n' is for north. Your computer logons have been upgraded to detective level, so you'll see some new options when you log on.” He pointed to another set of doors opposite the ones they'd come in through. “My office is down that hall at the end, but don't come down there unless the building is on fire. If you've got any questions, ask someone else.” He took off and left them standing there.
“Uh . . .” Judy stared after his retreating backside in surprise. Whatever she'd thought being a detective would be like, this wasn't it.
“My thoughts exactly,” Nick said in a bemused tone. He shrugged. “Come on, Fluff. Let's see what our office looks like.” He wove his way across the room and opened the door of 6N.
The office was 12x12, with two desks shoved together facing each other in the middle of the room, with chairs that had seen better days for each of them. There was a row of empty filing cabinets along the back wall. A phone sat on each desk, next to a flickering computer monitor displaying a logon screen. In the corner behind the door was a coat rack. Otherwise the room was achingly empty and bare. The walls were a drab, institutional green.
Judy shook her head in despair. “Oh joy,” she muttered. “Just what I always wanted.”
Nick had to agree. “Our cubicles downstairs are better than this.” He sighed, “Which desk do you want?”
“The one next to the door,” she said right away. “The way the door swings open doesn't leave much room. It'll be easier for me to get in and out than it will be for you.”
His eyebrows climbed. “Hadn't thought of that,” he admitted.
“Sly bunny, dumb fox,” she grinned, plopping down in her chair.
He closed the door with a laugh. Testing his chair he found he had to adjust the height and tilt somewhat to make it comfortable. Judy was already doing the same for hers. He opened the metal drawers one at a time – all empty except for the middle one, that had a few pencils and frayed rubber bands in it. “We'll need some office supplies,” he noted dryly. He looked around. “And a trash can,” he added sourly, reaching for the phone.
She stopped him quickly. “Don't bother. It'll probably take too long. Let's just get our own stuff at the store later today. It'll be quicker, and we'll get what we want without having to fill out a million requisition forms or something. Then we'll apply for a reimbursement.”
He sketched a salute. “Alrighty then, what's our first step?” he asked, leaning back in his creaking chair.
Before she could answer the door swung open and Tongas tossed a set of keys on her desk. “You can't drive a squad car here. We all have sedans. Yours is Delta 9. Be sure to fill it up at the same stations you used for your squad car.” He shut the door again before they could say anything.
“Well, that answers a question I hadn't even thought to ask,” Judy snorted, twirling the keys. She looked at Nick. “I guess we need a list of parcels of land big enough to hold a race track.”
He nodded. “Which means back to City Hall.”
“After we change clothes,” she reminded him.
“Ah, that I don't mind,” he smiled. “I like the uniform, but I like my own clothes better.”
Half an hour later they met in the elevator at their apartment building. He was dressed once more pretty much as he always was, but she'd chosen some comfortable jeans, a casual top and a light summer jacket. “You're looking good today, Detective Hopps,” he said, giving her a quick kiss as they rode the elevator down to the lobby.
As always his kisses took her breath away. “Why thank you, Detective Wilde,” she whispered against his lips. “You're not looking too bad yourself.” The elevator chimed and they stepped away from each other before the door opened.
Forcing herself to focus on the task at hand instead of her handsome partner, she mused aloud, “So exactly how big a parcel are we looking for? We haven't sat down to figure out how big the track should be.”
“I've been thinking about it,” he smirked, “and I'd say the track itself needs to be at least a mile long with turns at either end that are around half to three quarters of a mile long, and wide enough for 8-10 cars to drive abreast all the way around.” Her eyes widened. He nodded but kept going, “So a parcel big enough to hold that, with room left over for unforeseen needs should probably be at least two miles long and a mile-and-a-half wide.”
“You don't think small, do you?” She shook her head in bemusement.
“You saw Flash and Lance's cars, how fast they are. If they can't really open them up on the track, they'll go back to the streets. It's got to be big enough so they can go all out,” he countered reasonably. He opened the passenger door of their new car and got in. The “sedan” as Tongas referred to it was simply a black, unmarked squad car. Aside from not having a partition between the front and back seats, it had everything a regular squad car did. They had magnetic lights they could put on the roof during a chase, and the siren was hidden behind the front grill, but otherwise it was identical to the cars the patrol officers used.
“I guess,” Judy answered uncertainly, “but it's going to narrow down our options. There aren't many parcels that big.”
Her prediction was born out two hours later when the officious clerk at City Hall finally handed them a printout of land parcels in the area matching their needs; it was distressingly short. “That's it?” Judy exclaimed. “Only 8?”
The aging badger behind the desk shrugged unconcernedly. “City jurisdiction only goes so far. After that you'll need to see the county commissioners.”
Judy wanted to wring his furry neck but she turned and walked out, clenching her teeth. “Of all the hide-bound,bureaucratic idiots in town, we had to get stuck with him,” she gritted. “We ought to shoot him out a cannon.”
Nick laughed softly. “You take life too seriously, sweetheart. Loosen up before life takes you seriously. Besides,” he reached over her head to pluck the list out of her paw, “one these will be fun to investigate no matter what.”
“Because,” he answered smoothly, “it belongs to Zootopia University, where that paper was written.”
Her head whipped around so fast he was afraid she was going to break her neck. “What?!?!” She snatched the paper out of his paw and ran her eyes down the list. “Sweet cheese and crackers! I've been wanting to talk to those researchers –”
“– and now we can without taking any time away from our street racer case,” he finished for her. “Or very much time anyway.”
She jumped up and down. “Yes! Nick, you're a genius!”
“Well, above average maybe,” he smiled indulgently.
“Nope! Loving you makes me a smart bunny, remember? And I'm smart enough to declare you a genius, so there!” she giggled, nearly giddy with delight at the prospect of getting to interview the people who'd wrote the paper that turned her life upside-down.
“Well, who am I to argue with that kind of logic?” he drawled. He waved her ahead of him out the door. “After you milady.”
Zootopia University was just ten minutes away from Downtown. It was located on the northwestern edge of Savanna Central, just off the Zootopia Loop Subway line. The loop went all the way around Zootopia, north through the Rainforest District, across the water into the Canal District, then east into Tundratown before turning south to Sahara Square, then west through Savanna Central. But just as it turned north again it split into a smaller, secondary loop that swung out over the water to the southern part of the Canal District. When it looped back to rejoin the main line, the University was just west of the juncture, north of the secondary loop. There, a small finger of Savanna Central land stuck up north until it met the Rainforest District to the north, and the Canal District to the west. According to the listing the clerk gave them, the parcel they were interested in was part of the school's athletic fields, right on the waters edge.
Rather than wading through the bureaucracy at the Administration Building, they decided to walk over and examine the area first, then if it looked good they could talk to the Dean. It turned out to be a much quicker method; they only had to flash their badges once when a coach challenged them, wanting to know what they were doing out behind the Track and Field buildings.
It was a good thing they took the “short cut” as Nick referred to it, because when they stopped at the low fence, separating them from their destination, they stared at it in dismay. “That's not land,” Judy protested bitterly.
“Well, it's not exactly water either,” Nick noted philosophically, “so I guess they can call it whichever one they want and still be at least a little bit right.” He pulled out their list and drew a line through that one. “On the bright side; one down, only seven to go.”
“I call it a swamp,” she sniffed in disgust, eyeing the marshy expanse with distaste. “A stinky one,” she added, wrinkling her nose.
Nick was way ahead of her on that one. He'd smelled it before it came into sight. “Come on, Fluff, we couldn't expect to strike pay dirt on the first one,” he said, trying to console her. He nuzzled her neck to take her mind off the boggy mess before them.
She shivered as chills ran down her spine. “Mister Wilde, I'll give you exactly three hours to stop that,” she mock threatened him. He nuzzled her again. “Well, maybe four hours.” She spun around to throw her arms around his neck. “If you keep this up we'll never have time to talk to those researchers,” she whispered against his mouth.
“What researchers?” he teased, nibbling at her lower lip.
She beat on his chest – a futile gesture – without really trying to get away. “Oh, sweet cheese and crackers, what you do to me!” She arched head back to look at him, “But why now?”
“Trying to cheer you up, angel face. You looked down in the dumps about this place,” he indicated the soggy land around them.
“Of course I'm down in the dumps, because this place is a dump,” she giggled brightly. She forced herself to pull out of his embrace. “Nick! Stop it! I really want to talk to those researchers. There'll be time enough for this tonight.”
He sighed deeply. “Alright, Carrots. I want to talk to them too, but it's hard when you're around and we're alone and you're so beautiful.” All the teasing was gone from his voice; he meant every word.
She laid a tender paw on his face. “I know,” she whispered. She broke away and headed back before she could sink any further into his eyes.
They trudged silently back to the main campus, then had to ask several different mammals before they could find one that knew the way to the Anthropology Department. It was an impressive building, 7 stories high, of white washed stone, balconies and sparkling windows. The main entrance hall was a vast echoing space, with semi-circular stairs on either side of the room heading up to the second floor balcony. The receptionist graciously told them where to find Dr.'s Huffer and Fürlong in their 7th floor offices. She advised them to take the elevator while there was still time; classes were about to let out and the halls were going to become very crowded with students heading out for lunch. It would probably take Huffer and Fürlong several minutes to get up there, depending on how long their students wanted to stay and talk after class.
They took her advice and were glad they did. The bell went off as they were riding up. When they exited the elevator they could hear the noise of hundreds of feet echoing up the stairwells from the lower floors, along with a hubbub of voices, laughter and shouts. From the elevators they turned left to offices 714 and 716, side-by-side, halfway down the hall. Both doors were locked and no one answered when they knocked. “I guess we wait,” Nick shrugged.
Judy nodded at a padded bench just down the hall. “At least we can get comfortable.”
It was a good thing the bench was padded; it was nearly half-an-hour before Huffer finally showed up. He was a mid-sized polar bear, somewhat scruffy in appearance, wearing a tweed jacket over an open necked shirt. He had a huge briefcase tucked under his arm, papers bulging out of it as he fumbled with the key to his office.
Nick bounced over to grab it as it started to slip. “Here, let me help you with that,” he said in his best eager-beaver voice.
“Why thank you, young sir,” Huffer rumbled from deep in his chest. “That's very kind of you, very kind indeed.” He got the door open and led them into a fair sized office. It was a typical professor's office; bookshelves lining the walls, several sagging chairs sat facing a massive desk, and a number of low tables overloaded with books, papers and charts were scattered about haphazardly. The desk was also piled high, nearly to the point being completely buried. An ashtray with several pipes in it sat precariously on top of a stack of papers, threatening to fall over at any second. Huffer took the briefcase from Nick and dumped it unceremoniously in one of the chairs. He peered at them curiously. “What class are you in? I don't recognize you.”
“No, I know,” Judy said quickly. “We're not students.” She flashed her badge, “Detective Judy Hopps, ZPD, and my partner, Detective Nick Wilde. We're looking for an expert witness to help us with a case and you and your associate, professor Fürlong, may be just what we're looking for.”
He blinked and sat down. “Really? I can't imagine how but I'll certainly do whatever I can. What do you need?”
Nick fished out a printed copy of the paper they'd written and passed to him. “Do you remember this research paper you and Fürlong published several years ago?”
Huffer's attitude underwent a subtle, but significant shift. He no longer appeared to be an affable, lovable old professor. Caution covered his face. “I remember,” he said shortly. Even his voice was different, no longer as friendly.
Nick hesitated, wondering at his sudden change, then plunged into a quick description of their problems with the street racers, Lance's thrill of the hunt theory and the tie-in with their paper on predator-prey romance, all due to a hypothetical asteroid or meteor strike 2000 years ago, leading to a sudden massive change in mammals that wasn't due to evolution as was popularly supposed.
“It's been almost 9 years since you and professor Fürlong published your findings,” Judy added. “We were wondering if you'd come up with anything new since then? Or maybe there was something you left out of your original work that might help us.” She paused, “And well, it also might help us if we could interview the three predator-prey couples you said were currently alive; if we could talk to –”
“NO!” Huffer thundered. “That is absolutely out of the question!”
Judy was shocked at his vehemence. “But if we could jus –”
Huffer slammed his fist on the desk as he surged to his feet, baring his teeth in a savage growl. “I said, NO!” he roared, shaking the room.
Judy squeaked in fear, skittering away from him. Nick leapt to protect her, his own teeth gleaming white as he growled and prepared for battle against his larger opponent. “Touch her and you're dead!” he snarled defiantly.
The two predators faced off against each other for a moment longer before a look of surprised realization dawned on Huffer's face, draining all the fight out of him in a single moment. He fell back into his chair with a muffled thump, looking back-and-forth at them. “Shards of ice,” he muttered in disbelief, “you're another couple! Aren't you?”
Judy felt her face congeal, Nick looked the same, stiff and blank. “What are you talking about?” she said woodenly. She didn't sound convincing, even to herself.
Huffer waved a hand as if trying to sweep away an invisible fog. “Don't play games,” he growled irritably, “you're a couple just like me and Shelly.”
“Shelly?” Nick asked slowly. “Wait, you mean your associate, Dr. Shelly Fürlong?”
“What about me?” a new voice asked. Nick and Judy turned to the door. A slender caribou, large but dainty looking in comparison to Huffer, had entered the room through a side door leading to an adjacent office. A puzzled expression covered her face as she took in the tense tableau in the room, “What's going on?”
“Dr. Huffer said you two were a couple,” Judy explained shortly, watching her closely, “a romantic, predator-prey couple.”
Her eyes widened in fear. “Larry!” she gasped.
He rose quickly to wrap his arms around her. “It's alright, baby,” he soothed her. “They are too.”
Her head swiveled like a top. “What!?”
He nodded. “We just realized it about each other when you walked in.” He paused uncertainly. “Right?”
Nick and Judy nodded together. He moved over to drape a protective arm around her shoulders. “And your paper on the subject described us to a T,” he told them. “When a case came up that gave us a legitimate excuse for talking to you, well, we jumped at it.”
Shelly pushed herself away from Larry. “Case? What case?”
They took turns bringing her up to speed then Judy finished, “We think you're really on to something, and we think it ties into our case. Or our case ties into it. Whichever,” she shrugged. Larry sat back down in his chair, pulling Shelly into his lap; she wound her arms around his neck in what was obviously an oft practiced gesture. Judy was fascinated watching them. “Aren't you self-conscious doing that in front of others?” she wondered.
Shelly smiled indulgently. “A little,” she admitted, “but it helped gain the confidence of the other two couples we interviewed for our paper, and . . . it's actually a relief not to have to hide.”
“Two couples?” Nick questioned her. “Your paper said there were three couples.” Shelly lifted one eyebrow at him, patiently waiting for the truth to reveal itself to him. For a long moment he was perplexed then it hit him. “Oh.” He frowned, “You interviewed yourselves?”
“I wouldn't say we interviewed ourselves so much as we compared our personal history with what we learned from the others,” Larry countered pedantically.
“Who were they?” Judy asked softly.
Larry and Shelly looked silently at each other. She shrugged infinitesimally. “One couple was a cougar and a doe, Robert Padfoot and Linda Stepps.” he answered. “They run a diner a little ways outside of town. The other couple were very old and frail; a wolf and a sheep. They'd had a really bad experience when they were young, so they were terribly frightened; never told us their real names, where they lived or any identifying information.” He made a face. “Can't really blame them, I suppose.”
Judy twined her arms around Nick's waist and leaned her head on his chest, her heart pounding momentarily from anticipatory fear. When Larry and Shelly just smiled at her she relaxed a bit and enjoyed the sensation of being able to show her true feelings for Nick in front of someone else for a change. His arms wound around her while his heart pounded in exhilaration in her ears. “This is nice,” she half-whispered to him.
“It is, Fluff, it is.” He glanced at their companions behind the desk. “Sorry,” he muttered, “but this is still new to us.”
Shelly nodded sympathetically. “No need to apologize,” she smiled. “We've 'been there, done that,' as they say.”
He laughed nervously, “I guess you have.” Judy heard his heart change it's rhythm as he determinedly changed the subject. “What about this thrill of the hunt thing our friend Lance came up with? Do you think it has any connection to your research? To the asteroid thing? To any of it?”
The mood in the room changed. Shelly pursed her lips and suddenly she was Dr. Fürlong again. “We'd have to conduct some extensive interviews with these street racers to know for sure, but at first glance it certainly seems to all be cut from the same cloth. It's a fascinating idea.”
“But why haven't we had problems like this before?” Judy asked, leaning forward. “Why is it happening now? All at once?”
“I can't give you a definitive answer right now,” Dr. Huffer said, “but off the top of my head I can give you one good reason for it; technological advancement.” He saw their puzzled expressions and hurried to explain. “Up until our grandparent's day, mammals spent most of their waking hours working to survive; planting crops, chopping wood, washing clothes by hand, building our own houses, doing all our own repair work on our tools, and so on and so forth. It was a full-time job just staying alive. There wasn't time for the thrill of the hunt for them. And by the time the day was over, they were so tired they fell into bed and went right to sleep. Then the next morning they got up and did it all over again.”
“But with all the technological advancements of the past 70-90 years, suddenly we have all these labor saving devices,” Dr. Fürlong chimed in, “and our full-time job of survival became a part-time one, even less. For the first time in history we have the time and energy to indulge ourselves in frivolous pursuits, we have the time to get swept up in this thrill of the hunt thing of yours.” Huffer nodded his agreement. “It makes perfect sense if you think about it,” she concluded.
Judy felt a frisson of fear tickle her spine. From the reaction of Nick's heart she could tell he was feeling the same thing. “But that means this is just the beginning,” she protested. “There'll be more incidents like this, more mammals finding ways to trigger that feeling, more accidents when things go wrong, more . . .”
“. . . more chaos,” Nick finished for her. Clearly he was as worried as she was. “There aren't enough cops to handle something like that. Too many mammals doing this could tear our city apart, tear our whole civilization apart!”
Huffer blinked ponderously. “I hadn't thought of that, but I suppose you're right,” he agreed slowly. He looked at Fürlong and she nodded reluctantly. She stood up.
“This could be bad,” she told them, “really bad.”