by Kyell Gold
©2009 Kyell Gold
|This is the fourth story in Kyell Golds League of Canids seriesand the first such story to not contain any sexually explicit material.
The first two LoC stories, Dont Blink and Third Date, were published by Sofawolf Press (in Heat #4 and #5, respectively);
the third, Modern History, can be read at Golds FurAffinity site.
If thats the way you feel, she began, but he didnt wait for her to finish. yoooooouuuuuuu Her words ground to a halt, the fire in her eyes as frozen as the rest of the room as he turned tail and ran.
I need an assignment, Crypto.
The Blackberry dripped sarcasm. Sure thing. Ill just get on the horn to Namasto and have him whip up an evil scheme for you to foil.
Whatever. Send me to pick up garbage in South Hasting or count all the turtles on Placido Beach.
Youre volunteering for a ComServ?
Ask me to pace your latest jet, then! He was aware that his voice was rising, but couldnt stop it. Just get me something to do.
Crypto was quiet for a moment. Want to come down from the mountain and talk?
Survey says ennnnh.
Go talk to Sarah about it at least.
Ive got an assignment for you: Mind your own fucking business.
Cryptos voice came back, neutral. Okay, here. You know where Inqavit is?
Send me a map.
Coming. On the screen, a little mail icon flashed. Talk to Janissa Ikuin. Shes the mayor. Theyre having some issues with white rabbits.
If Id meant snowshoe hares, I wouldve said snowshoe hares. I said white rabbits. Got your map?
Hang on. Red checked his mail, opened the map, and scanned it. Got it.
Good. Forwarding Janissas e-mail too. Check in when you get there.
Do I have to check in? Its rabbits, for Foxs sake! He stretched. Having a destination, a purpose, helped drive other thoughts away.
Its also S.O.P. You know that.
Yeah. Talk to you in ten minutes.
He grinned out at the empty desert air. Itll take me nine to get into uniform.
Theres a Red Lightning fan club. After Can you come to my town?, the next most frequently-asked question is Whats it like when you run? He never knows how to answer that. When he concentrates, its like time freezes. In tricky situations, in fights, he needs to focus, but his feet know how to run, how to avoid obstacles. So rather than focus on his movements all the way to the middle of the northern tundra, he let his body take care of the actual running while his conscious mind faded into the blur around it.
It also helped to have a good head for maps. Inqavit sat eighty miles north of the nearest airport. The mountains in the way werent bad, but the tundra beyond was so featureless that Red had to stop and check his GPS twice before he skidded to a halt in front of a two-story wooden building.
Im here, he said into his phone.
That was twelve minutes. Crypto sounded amused.
If youd build me that brain-to-GPS hookup
So you can shave two minutes off your time?
I hate having to stop and check my phone to figure out where I am.
Okay, Ill just drop the recoding of our security system and the daily intel review and the procedures report
and the kernel re-coding for our mainframe, and the recalibration of our surveillance and telco monitoring, and
Bye. He shut off the phone and slipped it into his pocket as he looked around. Having found Inqavit, there was no question which building was the town hall. Only two buildings rose higher than one story, and the other was surmounted by a steeple.
Steam rose from his body as the heat of his run dissipated. His ears folded down against the bite of cold in the air, but the insulation in his uniform would keep the rest of him pretty warm. In a minute, when he was no longer steaming, he walked into the lobby and asked for Janissa.
A short, stocky arctic fox in a smart business suit welcomed him into her office. Pleasure to meet you, she said. I read on the Internet that the League took weeks to respond.
I move fast, Red said. Whats the problem?
The League dealt with a wide range of problems. Of course, bigger crises took priority, but it wasnt every day that there was a plot to foil. Besides, Crypto caught most of them before they got far enough along to require more than local law enforcement. So many of the members responded to accidents and disasters, which happened often enough; Red was first response for obvious reasons. When there were no disasters, they handled what Crypto called nuisance complaints, and after that, community service requests.
This one was a nuisance complaint. Well, Janissa said, its these rabbits. Red settled back to listen, flicking on his phones room mike and recorder.
First thing we heard of it was out at Farsight Ranch. Kinner called up CauleyCauleys our sheriffand told him he needed a paw, wouldnt say what about. Cauley came back, just shut up bout the whole thing. Hes that kinda fella, though. Good wolf, though. Id trust him over just about anyone else in this town.
Red nodded politely, uncrossing his legs and crossing them the other way. One of the things Cryptod had to drill into him over and over again was to let people talk. It wasnt easy when there was a problem to be solved, but sooner or later, they got to the point. Usually later.
Then there was the whole mess out at the Dry Canyon acreage. She paused, looking out of her window.
Red wondered if she could see the Dry Canyon acreage from where she sat. He coughed after what seemed to him a courteous length of time. What mess was that?
The goats, she said, obliquely. Billie had raised them all by hand. She took it pretty hard. Okay, she was never quite right to begin with, but now she just sits round Sitqas place and drinks. He doesnt have the heart to charge her, and she doesnt drink much, but we all wish there was more we could do. She shook her head. The goats, she repeated.
Clearly, he was supposed to understand this reference. He shook his head. What goats?
The ones in the e-mail, she said.
Red stopped himself from rolling his eyes. They wanted a quick response and they also expected him to have read every little thing. Right, he said. Tell me again about them, though?
Well, they were all dead, she said. Every last one.
Red sat up straighter. I thought the trouble was with rabbits.
Thats the part we wanted your help with. Janissa leaned forward, her ears flicking and showing some exasperation herself.
Okay, so, goat-killing rabbits? Like, a gang moved up here from the city? He had no idea which city would be close enough to Inqavit and big enough to be the city.
Not just goats. She tapped a large map, spread out on her desk. Small blots of red dotted the periphery of a small collection of streets that constituted Inqavit. Janissa picked up a red Sharpie and tapped the dots without removing the cap. Here, two moose. Here, a stand of pines. Here, a house. Though that was burned, not eaten. Still, its gone.
Reds fur was prickling now. So its a gang of arsonist rabbits? He glanced at the dot that represented the moose. Hungry, arsonist, meat-eating rabbits?
Janissa set the pen down and stood up. Im going to take you to Cauley.
Red stood with her. The one who doesnt talk much?
Hell talk now. Janissa ushered him out of her office, stopping outside to tell her secretary where she was going and to ask her to cancel an afternoon appointment.
He thought theyd be leaving the building, but Janissa just took him down the stairs to the first floor, to the end of a long wooden hallway that smelled of musk, mildew and disinfectant. The name on the door read, C. Hakken, County Sheriff, and the wood frame exuded a strong lupine odor.
Red followed Janissa through the doorway. The air inside fairly reeked of wolf, two different ones at least, plus a rather puzzling smell of fish. The first of the wolves, a young deputy with brown fur and nearly-black ears seated behind a large desk, had raised a paw when Janissa walked in. Both the paw and his smile froze when he glimpsed Red. His ears went straight up.
Hi, Vic. Im just here for Cauley. Janissa ignored the youngsters reaction to Red, if shed noticed it at all.
His attention snapped back to her. Sure, maam, he said. Hes in. His eyes slid back to Red, wide and bright as a cubs.
Red put on his meet-the-public smile and extended a paw. Red Lightning, at your service.
Vic shook, with a good, firm grip. Is WonderWolf here?
Red made sure to keep his sigh inward. Fraid not, he said. He had to fly off to the Zibula Nebula to fight an alien civilization.
Making up fictional assignments for WonderWolf, who was usually just working out at the gym, was the only liberty Red allowed himself. It made him feel a little better when people reacted as Vic did now, even when they were better at concealing their disappointment. Oh, sure, I understand, the deputy said. Zibula Nebula, huh? Sounds far away.
I dont even know where it is. Red followed Janissa into the inner office.
A large grey wolf stood behind his desk as if hed been waiting for them. He was almost as big as WonderWolf, Red thought; broad across the shoulders, with thick tree-trunk arms. But where Wonders eyes were clear blue, Cauleys were a dark, smoky grey. Jan, he said by way of greeting. His eyes flicked to Red.
Hi, Cauley. Look, the League sent someone to help us out. Janissa seated herself in one of the bare wooden chairs facing the desk, sweeping her fluffy tail to one side.
See that, Cauley said.
I thought if maybe we showed him one of the rabbits, itd be easier than trying to explain it. While she waited for Cauley to respond, Red looked around the wood-walled office. A map of Inqavit that looked like the same one Janissa had had took up most of one wall. Facing that wall, ten mounted fish stared blankly away from the door, like a school frozen in mid-swim. Which explained the fish smell, at least. Another door next to the fish stood slightly ajar, the opening away from Red. He couldnt smell anything from that door over the smell of wolf and fish.
Cauley remained silent. Janissa forged ahead. So, can we see the specimen?
Dont see the need, Cauley said. Vic and I got a handle on it.
Cauley. Janissas voice showed the first traces of steel. Red aimed his ears toward her, mildly surprised.
The sheriff stared at her for several seconds. I told you he began.
She didnt let him finish: And I heard you, she said. Ive taken your thoughts into account. And now I would like to show Red Lightning the specimen.
Red raised his eyebrows slightly, noticed Cauley looking at him, and resumed his professional demeanor. Cauley shrugged as if it were no big deal and crossed to the door beside the fish. He pulled it open without a word. Red was tempted to zip over, peek in, and zip back, but Cauley wasnt hiding anything and there was no reason to risk him or Janissa spotting the flicker of motion. He didnt always get back to exactly the same position.
The twitching urge to move grew the longer Cauley stayed in the closet, or adjacent room, but Janissa didnt seem too agitated, so Red kept still. Shed turned in her chair and waved him to the other seat, but he shook his head. I prefer to stand. Kinda jumpy.
Goes with the job, I guess, Janissa said. He liked her more in that moment, not just for the comment, but for the smile that went with it.
Cauley emerged after the sounds of cabinets and drawers sliding open and shut, a plastic-wrapped package in his arms the size of a loaf of bread. Reds ears went up. Thats all thats left of it? he said.
In a manner of speaking, Janissa said. Cauley said nothing. The smell of decay reached Red, faint at first, then in a powerful wave as Cauley opened the seal on the plastic. He couldnt resist hurrying just a little over to the desk to stand beside the package as the wrapping fell away.
He stared down, then looked at Janissa. This is your rabbit problem? She just looked back, gauging his reaction. You didnt say I thought they were people rabbits!
I stated in the e-mail
How did this thing burn down a house?
Welp, Cauley said, thats something wed be interested in knowing too.
Red took out his phone, snapping pictures of the lifeless white shape in the plastic. Most of its shoulder and side were gone, torn away by buckshot. What remained was undeniably a non-sapient rabbit, about the size of Reds head. He sent the pictures to Crypto, along with a quickly spoken description of the situation. As he was putting the phone away, Janissa came to his side.
Make sure you get this, she said. She reached down and turned the head, delicately pulling the jaw open to reveal a line of jagged, sharp teeth.
Red stared. What the
Aint seen that before, have ya? Cauley wore a slight smirk.
Have you? Red snapped photos from a few different angles.
The smirk vanished. Cauley looked out the window without answering.
Nobody has, Janissa said. The ones that breathe fire are worse.
You only sent one e-mail about this?
Janissas ears swiveled back, her eyes narrowing. We didnt know about the fire-breathing ones until last week.
Cauley had turned to stare at her, now. Red felt the temperature in the room drop. He checked his phone while the two of them held their icy stare-off, but Crypto hadnt answered. He tried not to look at the thing on the table, but his eyes were drawn to it. Hed seen dead animals before, and dead people, but the horrible teeth made the whole experience surreal. With the mouth closed, it was almost worse. His imagination made the teeth longer and more jagged, until he had to pull up the photo hed just taken to remind himself of what they really looked like. That didnt help ease his tension. He clicked the phone off and put it away.
Well, he said, looking up to find the mayor and sheriff still locked in some silent debate, reckon I should go take a look around.
Hed fallen into their speech pattern without realizing it. Cauleys ears flattened. Janissa, more diplomatic, didnt react as obviously, but her tone was so neutral it was almost dead. Cauley, where would be the best place for Red to go?
Welp, Cauley said with exaggerated folksiness, I reckon he can figger that out hisself.
Red composed himself. Sorry, he said. I didnt mean any disrespect. I just talk without thinking sometimes. You know, short circuit between brain and mouth. He tried a small grin, but Cauley didnt respond.
The last activity was out by the Felton Falls, Janissa said. Ill show you where that is.
Cauley wrapped up the grotesque corpse while Red and Janissa walked out. Do you have somewhere to stay in town? she asked, and then folded her ears down and looked away. Sorry, I guess you can just go home, eh?
Red didnt answer right away. As they passed Vic, the deputy got up. Scuse me, he said. I wonder if I mean, would ya
Red turned, putting on his public smile again. He knew what was coming.
Vic fidgeted. Could ya do something super-fast?
Janissa held up a paw. Red Lightning is here on important business
Its all right, Red said. Wont take but a second. He winked at Vic. Whatd ya have in mind?
Vic fidgeted, looking at Janissa and Red, then down at the ground. I seen this thing on the Internet, bout this little place in Pelagia, makes their own beer
Janissa put her paws on her hips. You want Red Lightning to get you a beer?
I aint gonna drink it now! Vic protested. Im on duty. Its for later.
Red laughed. Whats the place called? The request was so normal that it allowed him to forget not just the thing in Cauleys closet, but the skeletons in his own.
Boomer Ale, Vic said.
Sure, I know the stuff, Red said. Vics muzzle opened, slowly, then froze altogether. Red made his way out of the building to the main road and then took off, south, at speed.
gone already? Vic said as Red slowed back to normal time. The wolf jumped, then registered the bottle Red was holding out to him. Whoa, awesome. Its cold and everything!
The place in Pelagia is actually just licensed to make it. The original brewery is in Bendigo Bay. He gestured to the bottle. Thought itd be a little more authentic.
Vics eyes were wide as saucers. You can run across water?
Its not that much less solid than land. Red grinned. I still know all the waypoints between here and there. Couple islands to give the paws a rest. Speaking of which, he held a purplish-white spiral shell with a gold interior out to Janissa. I picked this up on one of those islands. Thought you might like it.
She took it, giving him a funny sort of look. Immediately he realized how inappropriate it was, even though hed kept the prettier shell hed found for Sarah. Its just, uh, I pick things up sometimes, he said.
She slipped the shell into her suit pocket. Its lovely, she said. Thank you.
He followed her up to her office, not sure what to say. Janissa seemed equally preoccupied, or confused, so neither of them spoke until they were standing over the map on her desk again. She circled an area with one white finger. Heres the Felton Falls, she said, bringing her finger to rest on a red Sharpie dot. And this is where the last attack was reported, last night.
Red studied the map, fixing the location in his head. Attack on what?
Livestock. Janissa lifted her paw.
The attacks are usually at night?
Evening, it seems like. We could askI can check with Cauley. She dipped her muzzle. Im sorry about his attitude. Hes a good sheriff.
Red shrugged. Nothing I havent seen before. Lots of people are threatened by us, especially local law enforcement.
Not everyone, Janissa said.
No, Red said, it pretty much runs the gamut. Theres also plenty of people who like us way too much.
Like Vic? She smiled like an indulgent mother.
Even more than that. Red grinned. Dont ever visit Vicious Vixens fanpage, unless you want to read the adolescent sex fantasies of thousands of teenage boys.
Her smile dipped, strangely, then came back. Doesnt sound like a bad way to spend an evening, frankly, she said. But youre married, right?
Uh Thought of Sarah distracted him for a moment, the last frozen look hed seen on her face. Yeah. He held up the paw with his wedding ring.
She stared at it with an expression he couldnt quite decipher. One of her white paws moved to cover the other, but hed already seen the flash of gold. Her smile returned almost immediately, and when she said, Do you need anything else from me? her voice was normal.
You mentioned a place to stay, he said.
Her short ears perked. I assumed youd just go home.
He shrugged. Sometimes I like to stay near where Im working.
Oh. Well, theres a boarding-house down the street. She gestured to her right. We dont really get enough visitors up here to support a motel. Ill call Ferdie and have him make up a room for you.
Thanks. Im guessing I wont have any trouble finding it?
She laughed. If you get to the gravel pit at the end of Main Street, youve gone too far.
Got it. He looked at the map one more time. Okay, so Ill catch up with you tomorrow?
My mornings open. Ill be here.
He raised a paw and walked out onto the street. Late afternoon had warmed the air slightly, but it was still chillier than at Reds home just outside of Aventira. He took a moment to look around at the sky, the immense emptiness so much larger than most places he was used to. Far, far on the horizon to the west, he could see the faint trace of a mountain range. Clouds drifted overhead, puffy and grey, but not immediately threatening. The wind brought him the smell of the open tundra, cold earth and scrub pine, with livestock in the background. He fixed the map in his head. Down the street, a wolverine had just come out of a short one-story building. Red caught the multi-layered scent of dry goods as he froze the world and sped off to Felton Falls.
In early autumn, the Falls were not very spectacular. He skidded to a halt on a ridge overlooking the slow trickle of the stream down a dark grey rock face. Below him, the stream wound through dense scrub, but up on the ridge, the ground was bare. He knelt and fingered a plant that appeared to have been chewed off at the base. Livestock up here, then. As he rose, he caught the scent of goat or sheep, but it was old.
He loped around the area at normal speed, keeping an eye on the area below the falls. Times like these, he wished Scope was with him. He even fingered his phone, thinking about calling for her help, but the bat-eared fox wouldnt be sent out on a minor mission like this unless she was bored. Besides, he didnt want to deal with any of the rest of the League any more than he had to, not until he figured out that other thing
It took him half an hour of sniffing around before he caught the scent of burning, as old as the livestock scent. Once he did that, he traced it back to its source quickly.
He spotted the charcoal-black trees from a hundred feet away. Keeping his ears up and whiskers alert, he paced toward them. The smell of burning grew stronger, overwhelming any other trace scents in the area. He noticed that the trees were blackest around the base; it must have been a ground fire. Which figured, if it was rabbits. He wasted a couple minutes wondering how the rabbits held matches.
Searching around the area, he finally found the trail leading back, away from the burned ring of trees. But the trail got fainter a few hundred yards away, so he turned back to see if he could find where theyd gone after setting fire to the grove. He circled the trees carefully twice, but couldnt find any other trace. Up here at this time of year, he still had an hour or so of daylight left, enough for him to find what he was looking for on a more thorough examination of the charcoal trees: Two small, charred bodies, pressed into the hollow of a blackened tree. They had no scent except charcoal until you got real close. Easy to overlook if you werent too anxious to spend a lot of time looking or if you were looking for savage monsters, not scared animals.
In his inspection of the area, he found one other trail, a fainter one, but more recent. One rabbit, he thought. He paced along to where it ended, in a small stand of bushes. The light was fading, but he could still smell the rabbit, the smell of burning it had dragged along with it. It didnt appear to be moving at all, not that he could hear.
Cautiously, he pushed into the bushes, using his wrist-PDA for light to see by. The body was easy to locate: Cauley must just not have been looking too hard. Red reached out to gather it in his paws.
There were bad burns all along one side, the fur gone and the skin twisted and scarred. But the other side, too, was still warm. It must have died just recently. He held it for a moment, wondering whether the Leagues healer, Simpático, would have been able to help at all. Sometimes, when injuries were this bad, the zorro couldnt convince the body to repair itself. But it wouldve been worth a tryif only hed been a few hours earlier! He sat holding the body while the sun sank lower in the sky, and finally got to his feet.
It took less time to run back to the League for specimen bags than it would have for him to call Crypto, track down Blink, and have him make his way here via line-of-sight jumps. Red knew just where the bags were, anyway, so it was an easy matter to grab them and run back. He put the two charred rabbit corpses into a separate bag from the more recent one, ran back to HQ to drop them off, and came back to Inqavit.
Ferdies boarding house, the next-to-last at the end of the street, was as easy to find as Janissa had promised. There was a room waiting for him, small but clean. He sat on the neatly-made bed and tried to organize his thoughts.
The League had encountered experimentation on non-sapients before, and thats what this looked like. Nobody could seriously think that an army of carnivorous, fire-wielding rabbits was going to be able to accomplish much beyond terrorizing a few farmers. But for the experiments to be let out loose was unusual. What sort of person, he wondered, would just cast them out like that?
The genetic manipulation to make herbivores into carnivores was nothing special, but the fire indicated tampering with power structures, which were much less well understood. In fact, hed never seen a power-enhanced non-sapient. What monsters could be created if that power was fully harnessed, transferable to people? He shivered and got out his phone to call Sarah.
But he did not call her. He wasnt in a good frame of mind, thinking about monsters, and she would inevitably bring up that other subject again. That was going to have to be face to face.
He was just putting the phone away when someone knocked at his door. He inhaled, getting Janissas scent, as well as something that made his mouth water. Come in, he called.
She opened the door, carrying a small dish in front of her. Roast chicken, she said, setting it on the small table next to the bed. I thought you might be hungry.
I am now. He lifted his nose, detecting mushrooms and carrots in company with the delicious-smelling chicken.
I brought utensils, too. She dropped a place setting next to the dish with a clatter: Real metal. And napkins.
He sat on the bed by the table and motioned to the single chair. Join me?
Ive already eaten, but thank you. She sat anyway, resting her elbows on the table.
The chicken was excellent. He told her as much, after two bites. Did you make it?
Me? She laughed. I cant cook. Its from Pattys. Shes a wonder in the kitchen.
Does your husband do the cooking? At her stricken expression, Red sat upright. I saw the ring
She twisted it on her finger. Laqui was killed three months ago. Wild bear. He was hunting.
Im sorry. Red set his fork down.
Oh, you go on and eat, Janissa said. Its been a good while. Out here, it happens. The rest of us just have to keep on.
He picked up the utensils and set back to work on dinner, trying to think of questions that didnt relate to her husband. How many people live in Inqavit?
In the town? Fifty-two, but another hundred live on farms or ranches. Used to be more when the mines were open, but that was before my time. Back in the thirties.
Red chewed a bite of mushroom, fresh and earthy. What mines?
Copper. Tapped out in 37, but they kept everyone around til the war, hoping theyd find another vein. They didnt, and in 40 most of the miners went to enlist. Better pay in the army than sitting around here on half-salary, my grandpa said.
Did he enlist, too?
She nodded. He used to tell me about signing up to fight evil. Thats sort of why I ended up being mayor. That, and nobody else wants to do it. But I guess you know about fighting evil.
Red suspected she was simply being modest about her position. A lot of the time we just fight bad luck, he said. I help people recover from fires and storms, plane wrecks, factory disasters, and so on. Once in a while we fight villains, but not often.
I thought youd have lots of enemies, she said. Like Trapper, and Doctor Fiend.
He chuckled. Trappers just a comic book villain. We do have lots of enemies, but they arent usually super-villains. Youd be surprised how much money and planning it takes to be a super-villain, even if you have a power. Blink has a nemesis, an ex-girlfriend who figured out how to negate his power. Scope has a well, not so much a nemesis as a pest. Sonic powerscalls herself the Shrieker.
Ive never heard of her.
He finished the carrots and sat back. You wouldnt. She doesnt do much with her power except annoy people. Claws-on-a-chalkboard, wailing cub, that kind of stuff. Scopeyou know Scope, right? Super-sensitive hearing and smell? She cant function around Shrieker. Just gets splitting headaches. It felt good to be having this conversation, just a normal talk about nemeses and life.
I wouldnt mind having super-smell, Janissa said. You could figure out what people were doing even if they tried to mask it. Or from far away.
You wouldnt, though. Scope says she tries not to violate peoples reasonable expectation of privacy unless its related to a job.
How good is her smell?
Red grinned. From your office, in about an hour, she could still tell what I just ate.
Janissas eyes widened. Really?
Scopes super cool, Red said.
Is she your wife?
Red twisted the ring on his finger. No. Shes a bat-eared fox.
Pardon me, I didnt mean to intrude.
Red leaned back. Its okay. We arent allowed to talk about our spousesabout our families at all, actually. League policy. For their safety.
Janissa nodded. I understand.
Red stared at the opposite wall. Sometimes thats not enough, though. Someone really determined
She let him disappear into his reverie. He only realized hed been distracted when she got up. Oh, dont go, he said automatically.
I need to work in the morning. Busy day. She shook off her own distraction and grinned The sheep farmers have a two-hour meeting scheduled to talk about genetically modified corn. You can sit in if you have trouble sleeping tonight.
He laughed. Thanks. Im going to get an early start and head to Felton Falls again. There are a couple trails I can follow.
I dont mean to be rude, she said, one eyebrow raised, but I wouldnt think you could run out of time.
He shook his head. Tracking is harder, and the lights fading. He looked out the window to where the sky still glowed orange. Though its taking a while to get dark.
Always does this time of year. Janissa smiled, then flicked her ears. What is it like when you run?
The dinner was making him sleepy. Ill tell you tomorrow, he said.
He had no idea what time it was when he woke; the sun was up and bright, the air still slightly chilly. He checked his watch: Ten to nine. Not too late. The old arctic fox who owned the boarding house had set out toast and donuts for breakfast, so Red grabbed a glazed and a chocolate frosted and scarfed them on his way out the door, washing them down with a cup of the instant coffee that had been sitting next to them.
A blink of an eye later, he was standing beside the charred clearing again, pacing around it, searching for the scent he knew would be there. Clouds overhead threatened rain, but the ground was bone-dry and the scents should have held. A little rain might have saved these guys, he thought. For all their powers, it looked like they were no more than wild rabbits, unable to process what they were doing, panicked by the fire. What had triggered the conflagration? A fight? Surprise? Whatever it was, it had killed several, if not all of them.
There: A faint scent leading away from the clearingand better, a patch of browned grass. Visual markers were much easier for him to follow. Another patch of brown over there, from which he spotted a third, in an ambling progression from the clearing to the source he was looking for.
The trail ended at a very ordinary-looking rabbit hole. When he bent to sniff it, he caught the scent of machinery and antiseptic. Okay, that was anything but ordinary. He took a moment to mark the position on his GPS while surveying the landscape.
The hole was set in the side of a hill, bare of most vegetation. Pathetic-looking bushes clung to the grey soil, and patches of thin grass dotted the intervening spaces. Similar hills surrounded the area. The wind in his face brought trace smells of chemicals overlying the thin smell of grass and dirt.
He dashed over one of the hills, then another, and found what he was looking for behind a rough mass of dead bushes that moved aside easily. Behind it stretched a long, dark tunnel. Villains always tried the most clumsy things to hide their lairs, as if they secretly wanted to be found.
The chemical smell wasnt as strong as he would have expected, and a moment later he found out why: He turned a corner in the dark mine and found himself face to face with a brand-new metal doorframe. Set in the frame was a high-security portal, its steel fittings gleaming in the dim light. Red sniffed the air and shone his light around before approaching it. His phone included a sensor for high-frequency electronics typically used in security systems, and it wasnt going off. So whoever lived here was okay just locking the door.
He was prepared for that, too. Most locks were easy enough to get through with Cryptos magnetic decoupler. For safety, he attached the scanner to the door first and dashed back to his room while it worked. He got a drink and then checked the results on his phone.
It showed nothing out of the ordinary, but Crypto was asking him to wait while he checked the results again. Red paced for three or four seconds and then dashed to the mayors office.
Janissa was on the phone, but broke off the call when she saw him. Did you find something?
The smile, the expectant gleam in her eye and the perk of her ears made him swell with pride. In an abandoned mine, he said, and described to her where hed found it.
That sounds like the West Chartrain development. She beckoned him out to the large map of the county in the outer office. Standing next to her, he couldnt help breathing in her wild musk and feminine scent. His heart constricted, thinking of Sarah.
Here? Janissa pointed a stubby white finger at a series of small circular marks on the map.
Red brought himself back to the present.That looks about right.
Thats right close by. Nobodys been there in ages. She rubbed her muzzle. Something came up in paperwork about that. Three years ago? Four? Ill have to check the records. You need backup out there?
His phone beeped right then. I think Ill be okay, he said. It looks like nobodys there any more. Least, thats what Crypto says. He scrolled down to read the rest of the message. And it looks like Wonders gonna drop off Histy.
Vic poked his long muzzle into the room. WonderWolf? the deputy said. Hes back from the Zibula Nebula?
Uh, yeah, Red said. Its a short trip. And hes fast.
Is he coming by here?
Red shook his head. Hes just dropping off HistyHistory Channel.
Oh. Vic stepped back into the hallway, his muzzle disappearing.
Vic, Janissa called. The young wolf reappeared. Get a car ready, would you?
Yesm, he said, and vanished again.
What does Histy do? Janissa asked, a smile lingering on her muzzle.
Investigation, Red said. He senses the history of an object when he touches it. Makes first dates interesting, he says.
Janissa laughed. He liked her laugh; it was surprised and sincere. He doesnt get comics written about him, though.
He does, actually, Red said. Down Under, hes huge. Just not in this country. Or ours.
Bring him by here, if you can, Janissa said.
Sure, Red said. Hell be happy to help do our final report.
Itll be great to meet him, she said.
Red checked his phone. Im gonna clear my stuff out of my room, then head back over there and wait for them. We should be done in about two hours, and then Ill come back here and report.
Janissa glanced at the clock. Maybe you and Histy can stay for dinner.
Sure. The thoughts of Sarah had reminded him that he wasnt ready to go back yet. Thatd be great.
Because it was a nice day, he walked rather than dashed. Ferdie ran the League credit card and wished him a pleasant day without any sign that he knew who Red was, even though Red was in uniform. You up from the States? he said as he took the card.
Red nodded. Port City, which is where the League headquarters were.
The caribou nodded, handing the card back and peering over his small wire spectacles. Have a nice run, he said.
Outside, Red fingered his frictionless suit and grinned. His phone told him that WonderWolf and Histy were nearing the site. He strolled to the edge of town, waiting for the indicator that they were almost there, when it would be a challenge. Then he took off.
He reached the mine entrance just in time to see Wonder and his motorcycle floating to earth, with a tall, rangy dingo sitting behind him. As they touched down, the dingo let go of what looked like a death grip on the brawny wolfs midsection, adjusted his pith helmet, and jumped to the ground.
Gday! he called cheerfully to Red, then waved up to Wonder. Thanks for the skatey, matey.
Wonder grinned. Anytime. Hey, Red. How you doing?
The solicitous tone told him Cryptod been talking to Wonder. Fine, he said. Stick around to help clean up?
Wonder shook his head. Not if you dont need me. I got a date
Oh ho, Histy said. Reckon theres a certain Malakorian gonna have a naughty tonight, oi?
Wonder rolled his eyes; Red had to grin. Nah, he said. Its deserted. We got it.
Cool. See you guys. Be careful. Wonder lifted off and soared away.
Red watched the shrinking figure until Histy punched his arm. Wheres this cactus cubby, eh?
Red shook his head. No civvies around.
The dingos wide grin relaxed, and his thick accent all but disappeared. Thank Dog, he said. Thought there might be some in the hole. Old lab, eh?
Yup. Havent been inside yet, but Crypto didnt catch anything out of the ordinary. Just have a look around and see what you can find out.
Righto. Lets get it over with. He pulled a small metal box the size of a dinner roll out of his shoulder sling bag. Crypto said this should take care of the door.
Red led Histy down the old tunnel to the new door, which shuddered and swung open just five seconds after Histy held his device up to it.
They werent prepared for the stench that billowed from the doorway. Both canids covered their noses and turned away from the dim red hellish light, coughing. For the love of Saint Mike! Histy said. What died in there?
Rabbits, Red said. You got any cloths?
Yeah. Histy dug into his bag.
White handkerchiefs wrapped around their noses, they ventured into the front room of the lab. The red emergency lighting was enough to reveal the file cabinets standing open on one side of the room, but that was not what drew their attention: Four rabbit carcasses lay scattered over the tile floor; two partly eaten, one half-burned, the last without any visible marks, though its ribs showed clearly through its fur.
Merciful Maker, Histy said.
Even though Red had been prepared for it, the sight turned his stomach. He looked away, to the swinging windowed door through which he could see two long workbenches, broken glass sparkling with red reflections. They were bare of any instruments or paper.
This cabinet was made in a factory near Millenport. Histys voice had gone distant. Red looked up to see the dingo with one paw on the file cabinet. I can see the road sign on the highway. It was shipped to a warehouse in Ollingsford. Its big and dark. It was there for three weeks and then it was put in a freight cube. Unloaded at looks like Gateway. Train station. Transferred there to a truck. Arrived here about three years ago.
While he was talking, Red opened the door, looking cautiously into the next room. Angling his head in the other direction, he saw a row of about fifty cages, some with the doors hanging open. Behind the wire grille of the closed doors lay rabbit after rabbit, most with their paws thrust into the small holes in the grille, all of them staring blankly forward. In the red light, they all looked drenched in blood.
He jumped back, startling Histy, who turned and stared at him. What?
Red shook his head. Just looks He trailed off. The nearest sink in the workbench was dripping, each drop catching the red gleam as it fell. But there was no sound of hitting the sink. And hed just seen a flicker of movement in it Reluctantly, he stepped into the next room.
The smell in the inside lab was, if anything, worse. The foetor of the dead rabbits, combined with an overwhelming combination of formaldehyde, acetone, and the reek of hydrochloric acid, made Red hold the cloth closer to his nose. The rooms floor was tacky; his feet made a sucking noise with every step Red took. He tried not to think about what fluid might be causing that as he made his way to the sink and looked down into it from a couple feet away.
Inside, a rabbit lay on its side. A drop of water fell on its mouth. Red was reminded of the rabbit hed found in the bush, until the rabbits pink tongue pushed out slowly, trying to reach the water. Holding his breath, Red pulled his feet free of the sticky floor and moved closer.
Sensing him, the rabbits paw twitched, and then it unmistakably tried to lift its head. Smoke trickled from one nostril, but Red couldnt even smell it in the stench of the rest of the room. Merciful Maker, Histy said, coming up next to Red. Its alive.
Looks like it. The rabbit followed him with its eyes but made no other motion. He could now see the vibration under its fur, the quick shiver of life barely hanging on. Not for long, though. Poor thing.
Whats on this floor? Histy murmured.
Take your gloves off and check, Red said. He reached into the sink gingerly, watching for any sign of aggression from the rabbit.
Thanks, but no. Having my paws in it is bad enough.
The rabbit was lighter than the corpses Red had handled at the clearing. Its starved. Dont know how much longer it can hold out. He cradled it against him. Im going to get it back to base.
Time slowed, but he didnt go anywhere. His feet wouldnt lift from the floor, and his perception snapped back to normal. What the hell?
Histy blinked at him. I thought you were going to leave it at base?
I didnt go anywhere. Red tried to lift his feet again, and again failed. Whatevers on the floor, its an adhesive.
Mother of Christ, Histy said. I cant move, either.
They looked at each other. Well, Red said, Janissa was going to come out here, so well be okay once she comes.
Ill call Duba-Dubya. Histy tapped at his wrist-PDA. Itll be fasterthe hell?
Red lifted his. It was blank, and none of the buttons he pushed brought it back to life.
Im afraid those wont quite work in this room, said a suave voice from the doorway. They looked up to see a bobcat in a white lab coat, with black goggles shielding his eyes, holding a gun on them. Red made a move toward him out of reflex, but almost overbalanced when his stuck feet refused to cooperate.
Shielded from electronic and satellite signals, you see. The bobcat walked into the room, but his feet made no noise. Red saw that they seemed to be hovering an inch over the ground. And you will find your feet quite immobile now. If only you had a nice pair of magnetic boots! But it seems I got the last one.
Crackin luck, Histy said, slipping back into his accent. Another bloody villain with a poncy sense of drama.
The rabbit twitched in Reds paws. He felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility. The rabbit might be a monster, but not through any fault of its own. It had been locked in here with no food, left to die like the dozens of others, but by a miracle, it had survived. Please, he said, holding it up. Hes going to die.
The bobcat glanced at it and then down to the corpses on the floor. Do I look like I care?
You dont look like you care about much of anything, mate, Histy said. They sell actual regulah clothes people can wear now, ave ya heard? Its bonzo, seriously. Ya dont have to dress like a wotzer.
Amusing. Hed slid around the workbench and fished a syringe out of his pocket. I believe Ill put you to sleep first.
Whoa theah! Histy windmilled his arms, falling backwardpretending to, at least. Red knew the dingo well enough to recognize a fake fall when he saw one. Histys bare fingers splayed across the tacky chemical floor, and Red saw the flicker in his eyes that said he was reading it. Then he reached up and grabbed the bobcat by the arm, pulling himself up, and his eyes flickered again.
The bobcat shook him off: Get off of me, you spaz!
Oy, too right, Histy said cheerfully. Say, mate, mind if I get a cuppa billy before ya sing me a lullabaloo? Ahm parched, ah am. His paw tapped the workbench in a quick two-short pattern that Red recognized as important, pay attention. And one single finger was extended toward the sink.
Red set the rabbit down in the sink, out of the flow of the water, and reached to turn it on. Hey! the bobcat said.
Hes thirsty, Red snapped back, and turned on the water before the scientist could do anything. The rabbit is, I mean.
You sanctimonious heroes. Fine. He turned to Histy. You put him under first.
Blimey, Histy said, dunno as you can trust a bumblepaws like me with that crystal sharpy, oi?
Youd better do it, the bobcat said, because if you dont get him sleeping with that syringe, Im going to have to shoot him. I dont want a dead test subject, but its better than none.
Yever try decaf? Histy picked up the syringe. Oi dunno, though. Whatd old Doc Bremer say bout ethics of science?
The bobcats tone rose sharply. How did you know Bremer?
Red tried focusing his mind and body, so that he could move just his upper body. He was so used to running in frozen time that he wasnt sure he could do that as easily. Fortunately, the bobcat didnt notice, as Histy was chatting about this old doctor, segueing into some remarks about the bobcats mother. So Red tried pumping his legs up and down as if running in place.
That did the trick: Time slowed, the bobcat with his mouth open and Histy with the deceptively foolish grin on his muzzle, but Red couldnt freeze it all the way, or the water would take too long to flow. He cupped water in his paws, dumped it around his feet. Nothing happened right away, so he tried it again, allowing the flowing water time to collect in his cupped paws. Yes he felt a little more give as he ran in place. The edges of his feet seemed to be coming loose. But the bobcat was turning his head and bringing the gun up.
Red prayed for the water to run faster. He could turn the knob again, but it wouldnt take effect soon enough. He got another pawful and splashed it around his feet, keeping an eye on the bobcat. Even in slow time, the scientist was turning, bringing the gun up past Histys knees. Another few seconds and it would be squarely aimed at the dingos heart. His mouth was open, but any words he was saying were lost to the frozen time.
Reds feet were starting to come loose, but not quickly enough. One more pawful might be all he had time for, at the rate the water was coming down. The scientists paw crept upward, past Histys waist now. Red saw the tension in the bobcats finger on the trigger, and realized he had to use whatever water he had in his paws now. It splashed around his feet. He worked them back and forth, feeling them come loose. His left came up with a sticking sound, but his right remained firmly attached to the floor.
Histys paws were rising, and though Red couldnt see his expression, he could see the dingos flattening ears. If the scientist chose to shoot him in the stomach, Red might not be able to save him. The water was still oozing from the faucet down to the sink. He shoved his paws under it, and waited impatiently for them to fill, keeping his left foot pounding up and down so it wouldnt get stuck again, watching the gun intently. It didnt stop at Histys stomach. The bobcat brought it up level with Histys chest, just a foot and a half away from the wide-eyed dingo.
Red got his paws full of water just as he saw the scientists finger tighten on the trigger. He covered his right foot and worked it as fast as he could. His whiskers tingled, feeling the initial shockwaves of a gunshot. He saw the bullet at the mouth of the gun just as his right foot tore free. It brought some of his pawpad with it, but he ignored the shock of pain. The bullet floated through the air, a third of the way to Histys chest already.
Red had outrun bullets many times for charity events. It was halfway to Histy and still moving. He would have one chance, just one. If he missed the tiny piece of metal, it would bury itself in the dingos chest. He leapt forward, slowing time further, and stretched out his paw, inches from Histys shirt. His fingers closed around the hot piece of metal.
He threw it across the lab, where it hung in mid-air. Hopping on his left foot, he swiped at the gun, wresting it from the bobcat and probably breaking his trigger finger in the process. As he drew back his fist to deck the bobcat, he landed on his sore right foot for balance. The sticky floor and the stab of pain disrupted his concentration. Time jerked back to normal as he fell to the floor.
nothin rash, Histy was saying.
The bobcat took a moment to grasp the situation, staring first at his paw, then at Red picking himself up off the floor. He turned without another word and ran for the other side of the lab.
Oy, Red, get him! Histy gestured.
Trying! Red pulled himself up off the floor, but its tackiness kept him from running at full speed. The bobcat was out the other side of the lab before hed gotten halfway across it. He heard Histy splashing water on his feet behind him as he struggled across the floor as well as he could. From ahead of him, he heard the roar of a motorcycle, and he felt a surge of confidence. Even with that head start, he could catch a motorcycle on this terrain.
But when he got to the other end of the lab, he walked out into a garage. Three motorbikes and space for more were arrayed in front of him. To the right stood a long workbench with piles of what looked like electronic debris. Opposite him, the large door of the garage was wide open, and beyond it, a tunnel that was nicely paved. He could barely hear the motorcycle now, and by the time hed dashed to the end of the tunnel and found himself blinking in the light at a small dirt path down to a highway, it was no longer in sight.
He could track it down, but he glanced back over his shoulder. The rabbit was still back there, almost dead. The poor thing needed help, and who knew how long it would take to find the bobcat? He turned around.
He got on a bike, he told Histy, who was just getting his paws free. Theres a bunch more in there, all the same make. Call Crypto with their specs. Maybe we can still find him.
Right, Histy said, While youre going to be..?
Running an errand. He picked up the rabbit from the sink and hurried out to the mine entrance, where his wrist-PDA flared to life.
Crypto, get Sim ready. Incoming subject in need of urgent care and study.
He held the rabbit against him and ran.
Simpático brushed his fingers across the rabbits fur. Dios mio, he muttered. Hes starving. And theyve
Crypto and Red stood in the hospital wing, watching the small grey zorros intensity. At least, Red was watching; Crypto was tapping on the mini-notebook hed set down on the table, the machine Red had never seen him without. The gleaming chrome case hid more than just a standard-issue computer chip and motherboard; WonderWolf had told him once that hed helped Crypto scavenge pieces of alien technology for it. But when Red had asked what, Wonderd said he didnt really know.
Is he going to survive? Red said.
Espero que si, Sim said. If I have the power in me to make it so.
Im going to head back then. Red checked his watch. Can you get Wonder off his date to pick up Histy?
If hes got his pager on, Crypto said.
Red rolled his eyes. Hes always got his pager on. You know what, theres no hurry. Let him have a night off.
V-V might be available. Ill see if she can swing by. Cryptos paws flew across the keyboard. Those radio-blockers are getting annoying. You didnt happen to find the mech, did you?
Histys back there looking right now. There were a bunch of things all busted up in the garage.
Bring some of em back if you can. The fox was talking absently, no doubt doing ten other things at the same time.
Histy cant sense anything about them when theyre broken apart like that.
Histys not the only one can figure things out from equipment. And why are you so interested in this thing?
Red looked at the other fox. Crypto was peering at him from under his unkempt head fur, and he had that serious, focused expression that meant he was gathering information. For such a short fox, he sure knew how to look down on a guy. Its just more valuable to us alive. Right, Sim?
Mm. The rustling of Sims white robe made almost more noise than he did in response.
Sure. Crypto returned to his keyboard. Well, you wanna get back there and clean up? V-V will swing by in about an hour.
Will do. The world froze, and Red ran.
Janissa and Vic had arrived at the entrance to the cave when he returned. Vic was just jogging back with a first aid kit when Red skidded to a halt in front of them. The young wolfs muzzle split in a smile. Hi, Mister Lightning! he said. Just cleaning up here. You were gone a while.
Histys in there examining the equipment still. Hows the rabbit? Janissa said.
Red blinked. She was smiling at him. Uh, gonna survive. We hope. He looked up at the sky. Vicious Vixens going to come by to collect Histy in about an hour.
Janissa spoke up. Do we have to wait here?
He shook his head. Shell find us. But I should wait til Histys done.
Oy, mates! The dingo emerged from the cave, blinking. Roight! Fancy thatll give us some bangin crackle to golly ovah.
Got what you need? Red had to bite his lip to keep from laughing.
Crikey! The dingo struck a dramatic pose for the benefit of Janissa and Vic, who were staring at him. And how! Them Brians there got that lot all from the same tucker!
Ill get the info from Crypto later, Red said, coughing into his paw. Histy winked at him when the other two werent looking. Say, Janissas invited us to stay for dinner. You hungry?
Ah, mate, I could fancy I could polish off one o them big-horned fellahs ya got here! Histy rubbed his stomach.
So hungry he could eat a moose, Red translated for the bewildered wolf and fox.
Janissa brightened. Oh, well, well have a big ol feast, then. She glanced at Red. Do you think you and I could finish up the report while these two wait for Vicious Vixen?
Red nodded. You have the paperwork in the car?
No, its in my office. Ioh, how will they get back if we take the car?
V-V could drop them off, he said, but he knew as he said it that that wasnt the answer she was hoping for. Or I could carry you.
Would that be all right?
Histy was watching them, eyebrows raised, grinning. Yeah, Red said. Thatd be fine.
She was heavier than hed have thought, more solid, like the earth below his paws as he ran. Of course, she didnt experience any of what he did; she would just feel the blur of motion and then the skid of arrival. Thats what Sarah always said, anyway. Thats probably why Janissa looked disappointed, her little muzzle quirked downward into a slight frown as Red deposited her gently on her office floor.
Is that what it feels like to you? she said, closing the door and walking back to her desk. Just a little disorienting and then youre there?
He shook his head, starting to pace. Its more like the whole world freezes. Like Im the only one who can do anything, and I have all the time in the world. But I cant take the time to stop and think. I cant stop moving.
She regarded him for a moment, and then pulled some papers to the front of her desk. I think I know what you mean.
They filled out the final report together, adding Reds description of the burned-out clearing and the cave to the previous incident reports. Red described for her the bobcat-scientist, adding that they would let her know what the League discovered about him, even though he knew they probably wouldnt. Then Histy touched the floor and saw that the stuff was soluble in waterthats probably how it was appliedand so I got free while he distracted the scientist. He didnt mention how Histy had distracted the scientist. The dingos ability to pick up peoples histories as well as that of inanimate objects was not something the League made public.
What about the rabbit? she asked, when hed stepped away from the desk, thinking they were done.
His ears flicked back toward her. Which?
The one you took back to your office.
Oh. He scratched his neck fur. Um, one experimental animal found alive, conveyed to League of Canids Headquarters for care and study.
Huh. Her pen scratched across the paper.
He turned toward her, back to her window, then to her again. Huh, what?
Oh, she said, its just that care and study sounds cold, is all. You saved its life.
He shrugged. I couldnt let it die.
No, she said. Thats what heroes do.
Out on the street below, a pair of bears trundled along, pulling a small cart. Husband and wife, he thought, the way they were arguing animatedly. It wasnt heroic, he said. It just had to be done.
Nothin to be ashamed of, she said. We may live a bit rougher up here, but that doesnt mean we dont respect life.
He turned away from the window, leaning one shoulder against it. I just thought wed be better off with a live specimen.
She met his eyes. It was pretty horrible in there, wasnt it? All those dead ones.
His tail curled back around his legs. Theyre villains, he muttered. Of course theyd just leave them to die.
And youre a hero. You had to save the last one.
He kicked the wall, with a force that rattled the window. They just brought these things into the worldgave them no survival skills, made them monsters, and left them to die. Time slowed around him; with an effort, he controlled himself and came back to normal speed. They made them a target, took a prey animal that everyone was going to be hunting anyway, and made it a monster. So even the ones who are supposed to protect them, even us, we were hunting them, too. If itd been healthy, it wouldve breathed fire at me and Id probably have killed it. He kicked the wall again, viciously.
I dont have much of a budget for window fixin, Janissa said mildly.
Sorry. He went back to pacing the office. They just never had a chance.
Sure they did, Janissa said. They had the same chance any of us had.
The same chance Laqui had? Her ears folded back. He took a step toward her. Im sorry.
Dont be. She waved a paw. Yes, the same chance he had. But more luck, for that last one.
Luck? He snorted.
If youd been around when the wild bear attacked, Laquid be alive today, she said. You were there for that rabbit.
But I cant always be there! he howled. The world ground to a halt, his feet a blur back and forth, window to door, window to door. He clenched his fists and brought himself back, on the other side of the room. Janissa turned her head to follow him. No matter how fast I run.
She rested her paw on a photo frame on her desk. Do I wish Laqui hadnt been killed? Hell, yes. Do I wish hed never been born?
He paced around behind the desk to look at the photo that was holding her gaze. In it, a burly male arctic fox grinned at the camera, his arm around a younger Janissa. Never, she said. I hurt now, but he did a lot of good in the world, you know? And we had a good life together. I wouldnt give that up, not for anything. She looked up at him. Its a rough world, but theres beauty in it too, huh?
She was beaming in the photo as hed never seen her smile in the two days hed known her. Behind the couple, clouds burned orange with the light of a wilderness sunset. He looks like a great guy, he said. He gripped the edge of the desk. Something in his heart untwisted, the weight it had been carrying for two days gone as if burned clean.
He was. She leaned her head against his side. He reached down and rested a paw between her ears. The gesture felt natural, comforting, not flirtatious. I miss him every day.
Youll find someone else, he said. She stirred. Im sorry, he said. I know everyone mustits a stupid thing to say.
No, she said. I appreciate it. But in a small town like this, you pretty much know your prospects, though. And less I want to hook up with one of the Outek twins out Kilimuk way, well, Im gonna be lonely for a while.
The Outek twins dont sound so bad, he said. At least youve got a choice, right?
She turned her head, looking up. Theyre kind of a package deal, she said. I dont know as Im ready for that. Rather not be a third wheel in my own marriage.
He laughed, and was pleased to see her smile in return. Come to Port City sometime, he said. well set you up with some nice arctic fox.
Janissa straightened in her chair, removing her head from his side. You and your wife? He nodded. Whats her name?
Cant tell you that. The response came automatically.
Right. Safety reasons.
Yeah. He sighed.
Janissas tail swung from side to side as she rubbed her whiskers. Must be tough, bein the wife of a superhero. Youre lucky.
I know, he said. Sometimes I dont realize how much.
Things not so good right now? She said it softly, sympathetically.
He shrugged. My fault, I think. I like to make decisions quickly, and some things need time to be thought out. It took me these few days to figure out this one.
She smiled. Maybe you shouldnt stay for dinner.
His fingers brushed her shoulder, but she didnt react. I told you I would.
Bring her, then. If thats okay.
Ill ask. He walked to the door. Thanks.
Oh, shes welcome. After this, neither of you will be able to buy a drink round here. Whenever you want to visit, that is.
I mean He rested a paw on the doorknob. For dinner. For talking.
My pleasure, she said. Yknow, Im half-thinkin I should hire a villain to terrorize us just to get you to come back.
Red laughed. You couldnt afford most villains. Just send an e-mail to the League and put my name on it. Ill see it.
You take care, Red Lightning, she said.
Mike, he wanted to tell her. My names Mike. But the secrecy was so ingrained that he couldnt make his mouth form the words. And that, he realized, walking down the hall, was as it should be. That was a protection, his first line of defense against the rough and beautiful world.
She was sitting in the living room, one paw resting on her stomach, the TV off. He came to a stop outside the door, and the world began to turn again. When he knocked, her smile was tentative, wary, but she got up and opened the door.
He held out the shell hed picked up. I got you this.
You dont have to knock, she said, not taking it.
He put it down and took her paws in his. Im sorry, he said, and brought all four of their paws to her stomach. You were right.
Her eyes softened. You mean it, Mike?
Yeah. He smiled. I been thinking about it pretty hard. Lets start a family.
Editors note: For the benefit of those readers who are new to the League of Canids setting, were providing a map showing the locations of many of the places named in this story. Excelsior!