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Chapter 27


Early Returns


It had been a crazy week, Judy reflected as she let Nick unpack their dinner, fresh from the Hoof & Claw. Robert and Linda had ruthlessly closed the diner early tonight since Sunday was guaranteed to be a madhouse tomorrow. But they'd been kind enough to bring enough food for a small army.

Once again they were gathered in Tyrone and Gazelle's sumptuous apartment in the Horn Spire building. Judy's nose twitched as she smelled fresh pecan pie being unpacked. “Ooh, I want dessert first,” she purred, stretching her tired, aching back.

Tyrone laughed gently at her. “There is the sound of a tired mammal wanting comfort food,” he observed. She nodded as he continued, “Well I for one am in perfect agreement. I love Gazelle with all my heart, but when we're practicing for a concert she's practically a slave driver.” He windmilled his arms. “Every muscle in my body is sore.”

“Bogo told us you loved dancing,” Nick quipped, balancing two plates loaded with food. He carefully gave one to Judy before sitting down beside her.

“Ole sourpuss better keep his opinions to himself,” Tyrone returned darkly. “Dancing for fun is one thing; dancing for a living is work!

“If you've been on your feet as much as I have this week then I sympathize with you,” Linda said, tucking her’s under her as she sat down next to Robert. “I'm glad for the extra money we're making but my feet are killing me.”

“It's been a crazy week for all of us,” Lawrence added around a huge mouthful of an FLT sandwich he was making short work of. “Thanks to Gazelle the press has been hounding Shelly and me non-stop for interviews about future biological problems.” He shook his head at her.

Gazelle had the grace to look embarrassed. “It was not my intention to do that to you,” she assured them. “After all we've been through with the press I would never sic them on someone else – not on purpose.”

“I believe you,” Shelly assured her gently, “but it’s been crazy. I don't know how you've put up with them all these years.”

Gazelle snuggled up in Tyrone's arms, her plate held daintily before her. “It hasn't been easy,” she answered seriously. “I wanted to succeed in this business, and you hear all the stories about what the press is like if you make it and you think you can handle it, but actually experiencing it is still something of a shock.”

“Speaking of the Fourth Estate, what's with all the stuff in the papers about Lionheart?” Robert interjected. “Where'd all that come from all of the sudden?”

“He brought most of it on himself,” Judy responded primly. Earlier in the week, they'd told everyone about Lionheart's inattentiveness to business, allowing Bellwether to run roughshod over the city. “He's finally starting to act like the Mayor and all those bureaucrats don't like it. They had a good thing going with Bellwether; cushy jobs, easy money, and no one to answer to. He's trying to change all that so naturally they're fighting back.”

“But is it true?” Linda wondered. “I mean, some of the things they're saying about him . . .” She trailed off uncertainly.

Judy shrugged. “Probably not but I don't care. He's getting what he deserves for letting Bellwether run loose for so long. Being Mayor is his job, it's time he started doing it.”

“Has anyone ever told you you sound like Bogo?” Tyrone asked her.

She and Nick both chuckled. “Oh, just a time or two,” he joked. “And Bogo thinks it's a compliment!”

Tyrone nodded in amusement. “He would.”

Lawrence cleared his throat. “And speaking of the Chief, is he ready for tomorrow?” The room grew quiet. “Performing a wedding for three predator-prey couples is definitely going to put him on some mammal's hit list, you know. If they don't like us getting married they're not going to like him for agreeing to do it.”

“There's still a lot of prejudice out there,” Robert agreed. “We closed early tonight because our business dried up after the press ran that story about us this morning.” There was quiet anger in his voice. The newspaper and all the television stations had headlined a story about Robert and Linda's relationship, quoting sources from Garlic and Clove Trucking as well as local farmers who frequented their diner. The reporters acted like it was the juiciest story of all time, using lurid prose better suited to checkout counter magazines touting three-headed babies than serious reporting.

Judy heard Nick's heart skip a beat as the deadline for their own “outing” in the form of their marriage now loomed huge and immense before them, barely twelve hours away. Her ears flattened against her head and she saw the others having similar reactions.

“Fear will keep us trapped forever,” Nick said, for once being dead serious without any hint of sarcasm or joking. “No offense to you guys,” he nodded at Tyrone and Gazelle, “but I don't want to spend the next 20 years hiding how much I love Judy.” His paws balled up into fists. “And if the world doesn't like it, bring 'em on!” he finished with a snarl.

“Nick.” Judy touched his arm gently.

He relaxed a bit. “Sorry, Angel Face, I can't help the way I feel.”

She smiled up at him. “I know, and you wouldn't be you if you didn't, but let's not pick a fight unless we don't have a choice.”

“And speaking of choices, how's it coming with our escape hatch choice?” Lawrence put in, trying to ease the tension. By common consent, they'd begun calling Nick's plan to divide the money from the ticket sales and concession stand revenue among them, their “escape hatch” if the public turned against them.

Nick perked up. Talking about money always excited him. “Better than I expected,” he exclaimed brightly, glad for the change in topic. “Just on what we've got so far, we'll be able to live without needing any income – at all – for nearly two years. And the concession stands tomorrow should bring in even more.”

Everyone was surprised. Tyrone and Gazelle didn't need any money from their project. They already had enough to last the rest of their lives so they'd offered their share back to the other three couples. It made for quite the nest egg for them.

“By the way,” Nick continued, “that two years is after paying taxes! Someone once told me not paying your taxes is a felony.” He added, with a sly sideways look at Judy. She smothered a giggle with her paws. The rest, sensing some kind of private joke, just shrugged.

Lawrence was thoughtful. “So if we get fired – or go out of business . . .” he inclined his head at Robert and Linda, “. . . we'll be in good shape for at least two years?”

“'at's 'ight,” Nick mumbled around a mouthful of fish, lettuce, and tomato sandwich. He swallowed. “Of course, that doesn't help with the attitudes we might encounter, but at least we won't starve.”

Judy glanced at the clock. “Tomorrow's going to be a busy day, we all ought to get to bed,” she advised like a spinster schoolmarm.

Tyrone shook his head. “You sound way too much like ole sourpuss,” he growled without realizing how much of a sourpuss he sounded like when he said it. Everyone burst out laughing. “What?” He looked around in confusion, which only made them laugh harder. “What?!”

Gazelle stroked his ears softly. “I'll explain it to you later, babe,” she teased.

“One last thing before we go,” Lawrence interjected. The ones who'd started getting up sat back down. “It's been a week-and-a-half since Dr. Hippocore and I got the meteor from Buck and he's been running test after test on it. He's in hog heaven,” he chuckled. “And he's come up with something.”

Their ears perked up.

“As far as he can tell, every test he's run, all point to the same conclusion . . .” He paused dramatically, scanning their faces as they leaned forward expectantly. “It is the meteor that crashed here 2000 years ago!”

They exploded in a hubbub.

“Oh my goodness!”

“Sweet cheese and crackers!”

“That's amazing!”

“But HOW?” Nick yelled over them. They quieted down a bit. “How can he tell for sure?”

All eyes turned to Lawrence. “I don't have time to go into all the details of the tests but rest assured, they're very rigorous. But the main one, the real turning point was his discovery of copious quantities of the unusual trace minerals found all over the world in the layer that's 2000 years old. He found enough to allow him to run some tests on them as well, and it turns out they have mutagenic properties.”

“Ah, muta-what properties?” Linda asked in puzzlement.

“Mutagenic,” Sally answered softly. “It means they cause mutations in developing embryos.”

There was a collective gasp in the room.

Gazelle sat bolt upright. “Mutations that could have changed us?” she pressed, asking the question that was on everyone's mind.

Shelly and Lawrence nodded in tandem. “More than enough,” he answered gravely. “Now mind you,” he said, holding up a restraining paw, “all this still has to be verified at other labs in the country before we're sure, but as it stands right now, it looks like we've found the source of our change from wild savages to the walking, talking, civilized mammals we've become.”

“And . . .” Shelly added before they could all start talking at once, “Gerald, Doctor Hippocore, sent the samples out to four different universities earlier this week. We should have confirmation very soon.”

“Would it also confirm Lance's thrill of the hunt theory?” Nick asked quickly.

Shelly and Lawrence exchanged a worried look. “It doesn't confirm it biologically,” she replied slowly in a professor's careful wording, “but logically speaking, yes, it would lend considerable weight to it. If we're the result of recent, induced mutations, it stands to reason our instincts haven't changed all that much.” She worried her bottom lip. “We’re basically the same animals our ancestors were but with intelligence added on top.”

“Which would render us susceptible to becoming addicted to adrenaline producing activities,” Lawrence continued for her. “Adrenaline produces the old fight-or-flight reflex in us and any kind of thrill-seeking activity like racing . . . or chasing suspects,” he nodded at cops in the room, “would produce lots of it.”

“And our predator-prey relationships?” Judy asked cautiously.

“Definitely,” Shelly nodded. “A common mutagen would tend to produce the same results in everyone exposed to it. That's why our diets are all essentially the same now, and why predators, without exception, report revulsion akin to cannibalism at the thought of eating prey mammals. A common mutagen would produce common DNA in all the subjects, hence the feelings of cannibalism.”

“That's fine,” Robert told her, “but it doesn't answer Judy's question.”

“Not directly,” she admitted, “but it does indirectly.”

“How so?” Judy wondered curiously.

Shelly was in total “professor” mode, pacing slowly back and forth as she spoke. “Common changes in DNA, intelligence, and diet, coupled with feelings of revulsion at eating each other don't lead to predator-prey romances, but they leave the door to it wide open by removing all the old barriers against it. With those obstacles gone, it's just a matter of time until it happens.”

“Like playing the odds?” Tyrone asked.

“Crude, but accurate,” she conceded. “The right mammals meet at the right time and boom!” She threw her arms wide. “It happens.”

“So why all the life-and-death stuff?” Gazelle wanted to know. “Why did we have to go through that?” The rest of them nodded.

Shelly shrugged. “We don't know.”

“We're still working on that aspect of it,” Lawrence added. “We know what, we just don't know why. Physical changes are relatively easy to track but mental and emotional ones are a lot harder. It can get pretty murky,” he finished.

There was more discussion along the same lines which went nowhere so very soon they were filing out the door, hugging each other as they went. Nick and Judy spent a few extra minutes in the tunnel with Robert and Linda, comforting them over their early outing by the press, then left for their apartments.

Nick paused at Judy's door. “It doesn't seem fair to you not to get a honeymoon,” he told her after a spine-tingling kiss. Bogo had advised them that until they were able to judge the public's reaction to their marriage it would probably be safest for them to go to work every day for a while. Once they knew which way the wind was blowing they'd be able to decide whether or not to take some time off for an official honeymoon. “Every bride should have a honeymoon in some exotic place.”

Judy caressed the side of his face. “A tin shack would be exotic if it was with you,” she whispered against his lips. She gave him another lingering kiss that sent shivers down her spine and made his heart race like a sports car. His fur stood up and laid down in ripples across his body. “I'll see you at the altar,” she said, slipping through the door.

He shook himself back to reality. “See you,” he grinned. “Don't forget to set your alarm clock!”

She waved him. “Now who sounds like Bogo?” she taunted as she closed the door.

But it was a good reminder. They had to get up earlier than normal to get everything done. Tomorrow was going to be a busy day.

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