Monday, August 17, 2015
The Fast and the Furious
It usually starts in a bar. Somebody has one drink too many, he makes a boast, somebody else calls him on it, and the next thing you know five shifters are lining up at the track behind the Talbot’s Peak High School. The patrons who had followed them from Rattigan’s took seats in the bleachers.
“Here’s how it’s going down,” Gil said. Inside, he was thinking, Figures. They always have to get rowdy while I’m behind the bar. As Mayor, Gil didn’t have to work at Rattigan’s any more. He did so because Louie was his friend. He wasn’t always so wild about the drinking crowd.
At least this particular bet could be easily settled without violence. “When I say go, you run around the track. The winner’s species gets declared fastest animal alive. Everybody good with that?”
“Why even bother?” Barry said. “Everybody knows the cheetah is the fastest beast on earth.”
“Yeah?” Jay the antelope smirked. “Then why is it you guys can’t catch us guys half the time?”
“We’re running on a track? No fair.” Pietro jabbed his finger at Wally and Bart. “The horse and the greyhound have the advantage.”
Bart smirked. “I thought bunnies always ran in circles.”
“Hare. It’s hare, you anorexic mutt!”
“Okay,” Gil said. “We’ll do it this way. Winner gets a free lunch buffet. Eddie eats the losers.”
“Fine. Wait, what?”
“He’s joking,” Wally said. He looked uncertain. “Aren’tcha, Gil?”
Gil smiled thinly. “Depends on whether or not the whining stops.”
Wally, Pietro and Jay cast nervous glances toward the bleachers, where Eddie the Komodo dragon shifter lounged among the onlookers. Eddie grinned, flicked his tongue at them and waved.
“I’m good with a track,” Pietro said. The others nodded.
“All right, then,” Gil said, “if everyone’s ready … ”
“I will be,” Barry said, “just as soon as Santa’s Little Helper here quits sniffing my ass.”
Bart bristled. “Well, if you’d quit farting—”
“You know, Eddie eats predators. It’s all meat to him.” The words cut off in mid-snipe.
“Now then.” Gil stepped to the starting line. “You’re all sprinters, so one lap around the track should be enough. Agreed?”
Jay raised his hand. “How do we determine start positions?”
“Uh … do we have straws, or sticks, or—”
“I got some straw.” Wally dug into his pocket and came up with a handful. “What? I like to snack.”
“No more outside food in Rattigan’s. I don’t want to have to institute searches.”
Wally muttered, but handed over the straw. Gil selected five long stalks. He snapped off bits until he had different lengths. The contestants drew their lots. Wally neighed when he got the long straw. He popped it into his mouth.
“Can he do that?” Bart asked.
“You all can, once you know your positions.” Gil tried not to groan. Bart frowned at his stubby straw and passed it over to Wally. The others did the same.
The contestants shed their clothes and took their lanes: Thoroughbred, cheetah, greyhound, antelope, hare. “See you at the finish line,” Barry said.
Jay made a face at him. “Bite me.”
“Well, we know where you’re ending up,” Pietro sneered over at Bart. “Behind me. Just like in every dog race ever.”
“Hump my leg, bunny boy.”
“Assume your shapes,” Gil called out. The racers shifted. Five disparate animals glared at each other. “On your mark … get set … go!”
And they were off. Wally bolted into the lead, only to be passed by Barry. Barry held the lead all the way to the second turn, where his speed started to flag. Jay bounded past him. Bringing up the rear came Pietro, who had succumbed to instinct and was zigzagging all over the track, and Bart, who seemed to have forgotten about the race and instead pursued the hare. Up in the bleachers, Eddie watched these two especially. He leaned forward, licking his lips.
By the third turn, it looked like the race had come down to Jay and Wally. Jay might be inherently faster, but Wally was used to track racing and knew how to pace himself. Barry had dragged himself over to the side and lay in the grass, panting. Meanwhile, Pietro was cutting across the field with Bart right behind him. Gil clapped a hand to his forehead. Why didn’t I bring my gun?
Suddenly someone blew past him from out of the bleachers. The new racer blazed down the middle lane, kicking up a cloud of gravel and dust. He streaked around the turns and hit the home stretch at the same time as Wally and Jay. They might as well have been statues. The latecomer breezed by them and crossed the finish line in a flash of brown fur and a whiplike, hairless tail.
Gil couldn’t even make out his species until he finally slowed, out beyond the first turn. He got up on his hind legs and strolled back toward Gil with a huge, crap-eating grin on his pointy muzzle.
A mouse. A five-foot mouse.
By the time he returned to the finish line and shifted, Gil had guessed his identity. “Gonzalez?”
“Hola. I wasn’t part of that crowd, so I didn’t hear about the race until late. Naturally I couldn’t let it pass.”
Gil lowered his voice. “It was supposed to be for Earth shifters. Blade Runner’s going to be ticked when he hears you’ve been violating the Prime Directive again.”
Gonzalez shrugged. “If it stops these yoyos from beating on each other, it’s all good, eh?”
“Can’t argue there.” Gil raised Gonzalez’s hand. “We have a winner.”
Naturally the others weren’t happy, but what could they do? The mouse had outrun them fair and square, and with a late start, yet. “Due to the circumstances,” Gil announced, “nobody’s getting eaten. Sorry, Eddie.” Eddie pouted, but took it in stride. “The next round’s on the house. Oh hell. Where are Pietro and Bart?”
Barry pointed to the other side of the track, and the frantic hare dodging the determined greyhound. Gil swore. “Somebody want to—”
“I’m on it.” Gonzalez took off like a shot.
Gil relaxed. Knowing a rat with connections, including otherworldly connections, sure did come in handy sometimes.
Special bonus trivia question: what’s the significance of the racers’ names? Hint: “Barry” and “Pietro” are the giveaways.