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 mainline, 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 water’s 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 at the main desk 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 several 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 leaped 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 by 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 way outside of town. The other couple was very old and frail; a wolf and a sheep. They 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 will 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 agree slowly, “really bad.”