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Chapter 13

Hoof & Claw

Judy and Nick had made as quick an escape from Huffer's office as they'd been able to without being obvious about it, but evading their feelings of dread hadn't been so easy. The rest of the day they'd gone from one plot of land to another, looking for somewhere to put the race track, using the busy work to keep from being drowned by the sense of racing against a biological time bomb.

By the end of the day, they'd eliminated four more sites, narrowing their list of possibilities down to three. They went home, picked at their food, and tried to talk. When that didn't lighten the mood they kissed and hugged, but this time it seemed they were doing it more for comfort than passion. They fell asleep on Judy's couch until almost midnight before she nudged him out the door, shrugged off her clothes and fell into bed.

After a morning shower and change of clothes, she went up to Nick's apartment. He was dressed but just sitting down to breakfast when she knocked. “It's open,” he called.

She went and poured herself a cup of coffee. “Want some company?” she asked over her shoulder, spooning liberal helpings of sugar into her cup.

“Only if it's you,” he replied as lightheartedly as he could, but it felt forced.

She sat down stirring her coffee while he picked at his scrambled eggs, pretending to eat. “Even if we find the perfect spot for the race track and it solves the street racer problem once and for all, it still doesn't help with the bigger problem,” she said without preamble. He nodded desultorily. “We can't fight our own biology,” she added, still stirring her coffee absentmindedly.

“I've been thinking the same thing,” he agreed, “but there has to be an answer!”

“But what?” she asked, trying not to sound hopeless.

He tossed his fork down with a clatter. “I don't know,” he admitted, “but there has to be.”

She smiled sympathetically. “Wanting there to be doesn't mean there will be,” she told him quietly, wishing she had something better for him.

He looked up with a flash of anger, the first real show of emotion either of them had displayed since leaving Huffer's office. “Everyone at the station is calling us heavy hitters because they think we're these big brains that can figure out anything,” he snapped, jumping to his feet. “We should at least try to live up to that billing.”

The slow thump-thump of his heart was speeding up as he talked and paced the room. Judy perked up watching him. “You think we can solve something like this?”

“Who knows unless we try?” he said, answering her question with his own.

She quit stirring her coffee and set her spoon down. “We've got a solution to the street racer problem – if we can find somewhere to put it, but then what? We don't even know what the next problem will be, or the next, or the next, or the next.”

“Whoa, slow down, Judy. How do you eat a watermelon?” he asked rhetorically.

She blinked at the inanity of his sudden descent to childhood questions. “One bite at a time. So what?”

He sat down and took her paws in his. “So, maybe we don't have to do it all at once. Maybe we can solve one problem at a time as they come up, just like eating a watermelon.”

“One bite at a time, hunh?” She felt a genuine smile steal across her face.

“Yep!” The old gleam was back in his eyes.

She could hear his heart returning to its usual quick rhythm as his mood brightened. “Sly fox,” she said admiringly. He grinned ear-to-ear. “And for that, you get a reward.” She leaned across the table and kissed him. Their passion flared as his heart jumped into a gallop.

He eased back, smelling her arousal. “A reward for me or a reward for you?” he teased.

She teased right back, “Yes.”

They laughed together then turned to their breakfast with renewed vigor. Suddenly they were famished. After several minutes of inhaling their food, they began to slow down. “So what's next on the list,” Judy asked, warming up her coffee. She held up the pot to ask if he wanted some. He nodded and she poured it for him.

He pulled out the list the clerk had given them. “The next two are practically side-by-side,” he said. “They're in the farmland south of the city, on the other side of the lake. The railroad is pretty much the dividing line between them,” he added, referring to the rail line Judy had ridden during her initial trip to Zootopia to begin her first assignment as a cop.

She nodded. “The bridge is just a mile or to the west of the railroad.” She looked around. “Have you got a map?”

He nodded and went to the bookcase to pull out one of the books everyone received while they were at the Police Academy. He thumbed through it until he found the insert. “Here it is.” He spread it out on the table as she shoved their breakfast dishes out of the way. “Here's the railroad,” he said, pointing to it. “And the land on either side must be the plots on our list.”

Judy nodded absently, trying to find the best way from the bridge over to the area he was indicating. “This looks like the shortest route,” she announced. “We can probably be there in about . . . I don't know, twenty minutes or so?”

“Twenty, twenty-five,” he agreed. “What are we waiting for then?”

“I guess I was waiting for Bogo to dismiss us from the bullpen,” Judy admitted, realizing the truth of it only as she said it. “It becomes a habit after a while. This detective stuff takes some getting used to.”

“It does feel a little weird doesn't it?” he agreed, grabbing the keys to their sedan. As detectives they had an assigned car that stayed with them, so they could drive it home at night if they wanted to. They had decided to take turns doing the driving; today was his turn. “Come on, angel face, let's roll.”

She loved the little endearments he'd been coming up with. “Lead the way,” she sang gaily.

But an hour later she was feeling as sour as the gruff old beaver who'd all but thrown them off his land. The two parcels weren't two different plots after all; they were one piece of land bisected by a railroad right-of-way the city had strong-armed the beaver into selling from his ancestral family farm, threatening to condemn the whole thing if he didn't assent to parting with a thin slice of it.

Needless to say, it left a bad taste in his mouth and he was more than happy to exact a measure of revenge by refusing to help them with a “city problem” as he put it. The fact he was technically within the city limits meant nothing to him. He'd even threatened to put them under citizens arrest for trespassing if they didn't leave. Not wishing to test how that would play out, they'd grudgingly left, to his evident delight.

“Well there's a candidate for citizen of the year,” Nick grumbled sarcastically. For once Judy didn't upbraid him for his sarcasm. If anything, she agreed with him. The old farmer had all the charm of a moldy onion. Before she could say anything though he suddenly changed the subject. “Hey, you feel stopping for a quick bite?” he asked.

She started to protest it was only mid-morning but her stomach rumbled, reminding her they hadn't eaten much at breakfast. “I guess so, but where?”

“I noticed a little roadside diner just this side of the bridge before we turned off on this road,” he said. “It was the Toe-and-something I think.”

Judy shrugged. “Sure, why not?

It turned out to be called the Hoof & Claw, a small, two-story building about ½ mile from the bridge, set back from the road by a gravel parking lot and a row of scrawny pine trees. There were two gas pumps outside and part of the diner seemed to be given over to small grocery store. “Sort of an all-purpose general store,” Judy observed as Nick pulled in.

“Looks like it,” he nodded, sniffing the breeze. “Oh yeah, fried fish patties,” he exclaimed.

The weather-beaten front of the store offered a shaded wooden porch with a scattering of old rocking chairs and a screen door whose hinges creaked as they opened it and went in. A group of beavers, badgers, and gophers, all wearing overalls and Hoof Locker baseball caps were gathered at a round table, their dirty dishes pushed back from them as they sat drinking coffee and comparing notes. They glanced up as Nick and Judy came in then went back to their discussion.

A doe wearing a standard waitress uniform bustled over to them. Her name tag said, Linda. “Sit anywhere you like, folks,” she invited them in a pleasant country voice. “The breakfast rush is over and lunch hasn't started yet so you've got your choice.” Aside from the farmers, they were the only other customers.

Nick led them over to a table away from the farmers. He held a chair for Judy as she sat down. “I smelled fish patties when we pulled into the parking lot,” he told the waitress. “Any chance we can get some?” He looked at Judy and she nodded. Fish patties sounded good to her too.

Linda smiled at them. “Fish patties are one of Robert's specialties. I'm sure he'd be happy to whip up a batch for you.”

“Thank you,” Judy said.

“Anything to drink?” Linda asked as she pulled out her pad.

“Water for me,” Judy said. “Nick?” He was gazing off in the distance, seemingly distracted.

“Make it two,” he nodded abruptly.

Judy could tell he didn't have the slightest idea what he'd just ordered. She waited until Linda disappeared behind the counter into the kitchen. “Hey! Earth to Nick.”

He blinked, then suddenly he was back from wherever he'd been. “Didn't Huffer and Fürlong mention a predator-prey couple named Robert and Linda who ran a diner outside of town?” he asked in a low voice.

Judy started in surprise. “Yes!” She glanced toward the kitchen. She couldn't see the cook from this angle. “A cougar and a doe. You think this is them?”

“I don’t know. It would be a pretty big coincidence running into them like this,” he shrugged, trying to see into the kitchen without being obvious about it.

“Maybe not,” Judy argued. “What if there's some kind of connection that draws us to others like us?”

“What if frogs had wings?” he smirked. “Come on, Fluff, you're really stretching there.”

She was indignant. “I am not.”

They fell silent as Linda returned with two glasses of water. “Robert will have those fish patties done in a jiffy,” she said brightly. Before they could answer or say anything she hurried away to the cash register where the farmers were preparing to leave. It took several noisy minutes before they'd all paid their bill and left, the last one grabbing a toothpick on his way out the door.

The swinging doors to the kitchen swung open and a cougar wearing a chef's apron over jeans and a T-shirt came out carrying two steaming plates of freshly cooked fish patties. Nick's eyes lit up as he sniffed the air. “Those smell delicious!” he exclaimed as the cook set them down.

Judy's nose wasn't as sharp as Nick's but she agreed, they smelled wonderful. “Thank you . . .” she said, pausing to let him fill in the blank.

“Robert,” he said, wiping his paws on his apron before shaking. “Or Rob or Bob; I answer to any of them.”

“Judy Hopps,” she replied, “and this is my partner, Nick Wilde.”

“Partner?” Linda inquired, coming up behind Robert.

“We're detectives with the ZPD,” Judy answered for both of them, watching with some amusement as Nick busied himself shoving fish patties in his mouth like he was starving. “We're trying to find a place to put a race track for some street racers that have been causing problems in the city.”

Robert frowned. “You mean a race track for cars? It'd have to be gigantic!” Linda's eyes were wide with astonishment.

“Why does everyone keep telling us that like we've never thought of it before?” Nick wondered sarcastically, trying to smother a satisfied burp.

“Nick,” Judy remonstrated with him gently.

“Old habits,” he smiled apologetically, “sorry, angel face.”

Judy froze with a bite of fish halfway to her mouth. As much as she loved his little endearments, hearing him use them in front of someone else terrified her. But a sideways glance showed Robert and Linda were also frozen in place, staring at them in confusion, poised in a “fight or flight” mode. She set her fork down, and taking a chance, reached across the table to take Nick's paw in hers.

“You're one of the couples Huffer and Fürlong interviewed, aren't you?” she asked softly, trying not to alarm them.

They looked at each other with one of the looks old married couples share, exchanging volumes of information unintelligible to outsiders in a single moment. Nick and Judy watched this little byplay with interest; it confirmed they were indeed the couple Huffer and Fürlong had told them about.

Robert and Linda slid their arms around each other’s waist. “Yes,” Linda answered in the same quiet voice. “And you're those cops that solved the savage mammals’ case several months ago, aren't you?”

“That's when we fell for each other,” Nick replied, trying to set them at ease.

Robert nodded absently. “You know, it's been so long since Huffer and Fürlong interviewed us, I'd almost forgotten about it,” he mused. “Did you talk to them about us?”

Nick gestured for them to pull up a couple of chairs. “A little, but mainly we went to see them about us and the street racers.”

Linda cocked her head to the side. “You say that like they're connected.”

“We think they are,” Judy said, launching into a lengthy explanation of the street racers, Lance's thrill of the hunt theory and the details of the paper Huffer and Fürlong had written. She concluded with Huffer's off-the-cuff comments about technology giving mammals time enough to be bored, thus setting up their quest for some excitement leading to outrageous behavior and the thrill of the hunt adrenaline rush that accompanied it.

“Linda and I met at work,” Robert told them. “I was working my way through college as a truck driver while I majored in philosophy. I never finished my graduate studies but from what I know, everything you're saying makes sense.”

“Maybe you should finish them,” Linda prodded him. “How many times have I told you?”

Robert was embarrassed. “Linda thinks some of my ideas are so good I should finish my degree and write a book.”

“Well, we always want our males to do good,” Judy said, sharing a conspiratorial look with Linda. “To be the best of the best.” Nick and Robert rolled their eyes helplessly as the ladies burst out laughing at them.

“So who owned this place when you met?” Judy asked when their laughter died down.

Linda shook her head. “Oh, we didn't meet here. I was a dispatcher at Garlic & Clove Trucking Company when Robert started driving . . .”

“Wait a minute!” Nick interrupted her abruptly. “You worked at Garlic & Clove? My mother works there!”

She paused, thinking. “I don’t . . . wait!” Her expression gave way to startled recognition. “You mean, Faye Wilde? Faye is your mother?” Her eyes widened in shock. “Oh my goodness! She was the only one there who didn't condemn Robert and me when the truth came out about us.”

Nick was stunned. He looked at Judy, thinking about their discussion of how their parents would react to their relationship. It looked like he had just gotten his answer. He could tell she was thinking the same thing.

“What happened with you two?” Judy asked gently.

Linda looked at Robert, inclining her head for him to tell the tale. He shrugged and proceeded. “From the day we met there was something going on between us. We wound up spending a lot of time together at lunch and on breaks, just talking and having fun together. After a while, things seemed to settle down a bit and it might not have gone anywhere until we were out in the warehouse one day going over some manifests. A forklift backed into one the tall metal shelves that had all these heavy pallets on it and knocked it right over on top of us.”

Judy gasped in horror.

He nodded at her reaction. “It nearly got us. To this day I'm still not sure how we made it out in one piece. I remember pulling her out of the way of a pallet, then she pushed me out of the way of another one. It happened so fast all I can remember is bits and pieces but after that, I don't know,” he reached over to take her hoof in his paw, “I kept thinking she could have gotten out without me, but she stayed right beside me the whole time. I saw how brave and beautiful she is and . . .” he shrugged, “. . . well, there was just no going back.”

They smiled fondly at each other.

“But we got careless.” His smile dimmed. “A supervisor caught us kissing out behind the maintenance shed one day and that was all she wrote.”

“Faye was the payroll clerk who cut our final checks,” Linda added, “and she put a little something extra in both checks for us. She said it wasn't right for mammals to be so close-minded.”

“It was quite a bit extra really,” Robert took over. “By combining both our checks we bought this place, refurbished it, and opened for business. If it wasn't for her I don't know what we'd have done.”

“Where do you live?” Nick asked curiously.

“Upstairs,” Linda answered. “There's a little apartment up there.”

“Don't your customers ever wonder what's going on with you two?” Judy wondered.

Robert made a see-sawing motion in the air with his paw. “We get some odd looks now and then, but as long as we don't rub it in anyone's faces they really don't care. Country folks are a little more forgiving than city folk sometimes.”

“Not all the time,” Nick snorted indignantly. “You should have seen that farmer we talked to before we came here.” He explained they'd talked to him about using his land for their race track idea.

“Ian McDonald? He's the sourpuss of the county,” Linda laughed, “but he comes by it honestly. He really did get the short end of the stick on that railroad deal. Mayor Bogo treated him like dirt.”

Mayor Bogo?” Nick and Judy exclaimed in disbelief.

“I guess you don't pay much attention to city politics,” Robert told them. “Chief Bogo's father was the mayor before Lionheart ran against him and beat the pants off him. Now the Chief and the Mayor can't stand each other because of it. There's all kinds of bad blood between them.”

“That explains a lot,” Nick said to Judy.

“Does it ever!” she replied.

Nick saw them watching them and waved it off. “Long story,” he said dismissively. He glanced at the clock. “We'd better get going to that last piece of property,” he told Judy. She nodded, finishing the last of her fish patties. They really were excellent.

They all stood up and moved toward the cash register. “Where is it?” Robert asked casually as Linda rang up their bill. Judy showed him their map and he shook his head immediately. “They won't sell,” he told her adamantly. “I grew up in that neighborhood. All the land belongs to the home owner's association. They sell it off one lot at a time as new houses are built and make a killing from it. No way they'll let any of it go.”

Nick and Judy were dismayed. “But that's the last plot on our list,” Judy objected helplessly. “There's nothing else big enough.”

Robert and Linda exchanged one of their “married couple” looks and apparently came to an agreement. “Does it have to be one large piece of land,” Robert asked, “or can it be several smaller ones right next to each other?”

Nick and Judy echoed them by exchanging one of their own looks. “Either way, I guess,” he said, “but it means we'll have to persuade that many more mammals. It makes it that much harder.” Judy nodded in agreement. It multiplied the difficulty of an already impossible task.

“Not if they're all owned by the same mammal,” Linda told them gently.

Judy's ears perked up. “Really?”

Robert’s face creased into a confident smile. “Come outside a minute,” he said and headed for the door.

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