[tsat home] [#31] [stories]

by Phil Geusz
©2003 Phil Geusz -- all rights reserved

-= 1 =-

Some people believe that tea leaves hold the key to the future. But me, I knew that I was going to have a rough day just as soon as I realized that I'd drawn the rhinoceros cookie again. That was always a bad omen. Instead of eating the evil thing, I simply looked down at it glumly as Chief of Police Martin lifted the bag of animal crackers from my unresisting hand and passed it along, as required by tradition.

"...a major problem," Rich Saluto was saying from across the big breakfast table. We'd finished eating our meals; I'd enjoyed a wonderful plate of French toast, instead of my usual two eggs fried, over hard. It had seemed like such a promising beginning to a warm Spring day. Then I'd pulled out the rhinoceros, and sure enough things were turning ugly already. "The old people can deal with a lot, Harold. Hell, we've already dealt with a lot. And don't get me wrong; you furry people have been great neighbors for the most part. But... But..."

Pamela frowned. She was City Engineer, and therefore the supervisor of the fur in question. "So what's so objectionable about Max?" she demanded. "Is there a problem with how he does his work?"

"I honestly wouldn't know," Rich admitted, looking away. "I'm a mortician, not a highway engineer."

"Does he come to work on time?" Pam continued remorselessly. "Does he claim to be sick when he's not? In winter, does he volunteer for even more than his fair share of overtime, to help keep the streets clear of snow?"

"It's not like that," Rich said, now staring down into his plate. "I'm sure he's a very hard worker. In fact, I've never seen him goofing off, which is more than I can say of some folks that have been on the city payroll for far longer." He sighed. "It's... It's..."

It was clearly one of those issues, I could see. Rich Saluto was a very fine and tolerant man. However, even after all this time he still had trouble discussing furry-related matters. Which made it time for me to speak up. "Is it the spandex?" I asked bluntly. Max Waters wore a spandex fox suit twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, taking it off only to bathe. "He's hardly the only fur to do that, you know."

"No," the mortician replied firmly. "It's not the spandex. Or the tail or ears, either. You're right; we've got dozens of folks dressing like that, and once you get used to it you hardly even notice it anymore. He glanced over at our chief constable, who was wearing a pair of brown bear ears, then looked away. "It's... It's..."

"It's the pink hat and opera gloves, isn't it?" Barry Roberts demanded. "You could handle Max being a fox. But once zie decided that zie was a vixen..."

I blinked, twice. Then my mouth fell open. "Max Waters is a vixen now?" I asked, looking from face to face in disbelief. The Street Department worker stood almost seven feet tall, strongly resembled a silverback gorilla in physical build and general bearing, and was a good two hundred pounds overweight even taking his massive frame into consideration. "I don't... I can't..."

"You see the problem, then," Rich replied with a satisfied nod. "He's out on the city streets all day long, wearing that get-up with his City uniform. We can deal with the furry stuff, we old-timers. We can deal with all the tourists, too --"

"Hell, we're making a fortune off of them!" Clark Devries interrupted. He was the oldest of old-timers himself; on his mother's side he was directly descended from Ferdinand Pelton, town founder. Plus, he'd been an Alderman for over two decades. "As far as I'm concerned, if Max Waters wants to dress up as a vixen every single day of the week, then let him! Or her, whatever. Don't mean to be impolite." Clark absently adjusted his very realistic-looking mouse ears. Already, after only a few short months, they almost seemed part of him. "That'll draw another hundred tourists a day, once word gets out. Half will spend money while they're here. And of those..." He rubbed his hands together in mock glee. "And of those, half will buy souvenirs from my shop." The mouse-man turned to his fellow old-timer. "That's where city revenue comes from," he added needlessly, or at least needlessly to this crowd. We were civic leaders, all of us. In our own ways.

Me? I was the poor slob stuck being Mayor.

Rich pressed his lips together, then turned towards me. "Look," he began again. "We've been incredibly tolerant. Having you furries all come to live here saved this town, plumb saved it, and every single one of us knows it. Until you folks came, more than half of our citizens were on public assistance, the mines had just closed, and things were looking mighty bleak."

"They were indeed," Tabby Cat agreed pointedly. He held no official position in Pelton, any more than Rich Saluto or Barry Roberts did. However, before the Great Migration of furry fandom to Pelton, Tabby had been our number-one spokesman and was perhaps the best-known fur in the world. If Pelton's furries could be said to have a leader, it was Tabby. Though Barry Roberts wanted nothing more than to dethrone him, of course. I'd rarely encountered such an Alpha-drive in one so young. Suddenly I had the beginnings of a headache; my heavens, but it was difficult to keep track of both town and fannish politics at the same time!

"Things were looking so bleak," Tabby continued, lounging back in a very feline fashion and clasping a thin leg to his chest, "that when Ed Morrison came down here with a suitcase full of bearer-bonds and the clear, outspoken intention to buy a town for the Fandom, you folks were desperate enough to listen."

"We were!" Clark agreed, nodding furiously enough to make his false whiskers bobble ridiculously. "My little grocery store was going broke!"

"And even my funeral home wasn't in such healthy shape," Rich agreed, wrinkling his nose at the memory. He turned back towards me. "Mr. Mayor," he continued formally, "We're glad you're here; truly we are! You've been damned good neighbors, mostly. In fact, to be honest there's been a lot less trouble than most of us anticipated." He gestured out of the window of the All-Night Diner and across the town square, where already half a dozen ear-and-tail wearers were peacefully and pleasantly interacting with more ordinary folks. "Business is booming!" he declared. "There's two new software development centers, creating more jobs than the mines ever did. Plus the gengineering facility; that's bigger still! Furs need plumbers too, we've learned, and service stations and real estate and everything else."

"Plus some of us are blue-collar too," Barry Roberts stuck in energetically. "Some of my wolves work hard for their livings, you know!" BarryWolf was very big on making sure that blue collar-type furs weren't forgotten among the legions of techies.

"Of course," Rich agreed with a placating wave of his hand. "Not all of you furs are technicians, or even gengineers, though those two areas do more for the local economy than any others." He turned back to me. "Heck, aren't there even a couple furries farming the old Gilson place?"

I cocked my head to one side thoughtfully. "That would be Shep and Mutt. They're into organics." And also into other things that involved collars and leashes, I didn't add. Their business, no one else's.

"Er... Yes," the funeral home owner continued. "Anyway, we have a few furs attending our churches, there are the children of furs in our schools, and we welcome your company and your business at every level that we know how."

Tabby nodded and smiled. I watched in fascination as the feline's smart-suit hood read my friend's facial muscles and caused his cat-face to echo the human smile that had leapt into being underneath the flexible plastic. Max wasn't the only fur in town that lived full-time in costume; Tabby had been wearing his advanced cat-suit whenever out in public for almost as long as anyone could remember. Indeed, most of the fandom would not have recognized his naked face had they seen it; only a handful of us old-timers ever had. And even for us, it had been a very, very long time. "We realize this, sir. And we are grateful."

"I know, son," Rich agreed with a smile; the mortician was almost eighty, and therefore could get away with calling codgers like Tabby and me 'son'. "I know. This whole restructuring of Pelton has been an experiment in the better side of human nature on the part of both parties. And you know what? The good guys are winning! We're all getting along famously." Then he frowned and turned back to me. "I even gave up your office, Will. But there are limits to what is acceptable, Mr. Mayor. There are limits!"

I sighed and looked down at my coffee.

"Zie has a right to express zirself however zie wants to," Barry insisted, his eyes narrowing dangerously. His famous emotion-sensing tail lowered itself as well, the skin-sensors picking up on the hostility so clearly evident in the young man's face. Barry was a little inflexible about some things. Like not noticing that he'd never actually been invited to the informal Wednesday breakfast meetings that did so much to keep Pelton running smoothly. Or that his overbearing attitude made things harder on the rest of us, rather than easier. I was convinced that he had a good heart hidden down below the oversized ego, however. That was why I continued to tolerate his uninvited presence once a week. "On the job or off. So long as zie remains decent. That's why we came here. To be ourselves."

Chief Martin nodded slowly, fingering his bear ears. "That's how I figure it," he agreed.

I frowned, then turned to the funeral director. "Is it really that bad?" I asked. "I mean, honestly. Your people got used to the public petting and scritching and such."

"Yes, we did get used to it." Rich replied. "Homophobia is a part of the past, at least around here. But this is on another level entirely. Look, you've got other transgendered furs in town. Everyone knows it." He very carefully did not look at Pam. "Again, Mr. Morrison warned us of this before he bought up so much property here, and relocated his gengineering institute. We're tolerant folks, and there's never been complaint one about that kind of sexism, or at least not that I've ever heard about." He sighed. "But look, friends. We're on the television news what, maybe twice a month now?"

"More!" Clark agreed enthusiastically, his whiskers and mouse-ears bobbing happily again. "And every time, we get another burst of tourists. Isn't it wonderful?" He turned to Tabby. "I could hug each and every one of you lifestyle fursuiters! You're the greatest thing that's ever happened here!"

Tabby smiled, but did not spread his arms for an embrace as he usually so indiscriminately did. Instead he looked at me. "I'll admit that I've seen Max since he, er, she made the decision," he said slowly. "And I have to say, Will. It's an ugly sight. Mighty ugly."

"It's not just the hat," Rich added. "He's... She's wearing high-heeled work boots, too. And full makeup. It would also help a little if she shaved in the morning. Though probably not much." He looked down at his plate. "This isn't a matter of discrimination so much as a matter of taste. Or of aesthetics, even."

My cat friend sighed. "The man has a point, Will. I can just see the caption under Max's picture in the news magazines; 'The New Face of Pelton, Illinois'. Full-page spread, naturally, with the city logo on her work coveralls right out in front for everyone to stare at. You can hardly blame the old Peltoners for not wanting to be associated with that."

I winced. Rich was right, of course. It wasn't fair to the old-timers. But Barry was right too, for once. Even Pam appeared to be a little perturbed, I noticed. So I looked at her appealingly. "All right," she said at last with a sigh. "All right. I'll have a little talk with her, about grooming and tastefulness and such." Then her face went hard again. "But if she's really transgendered..."

I held up both of my hands appeasingly. "If Max is truly transgendered," I agreed, "then long-term accommodations will of course have to be made." I looked around the table, making sure to meet every single pair of eyes. "Accommodations that are satisfactory to all parties." Then I looked back at Pam. "In the meantime, I'm leaving this, er, situation in your capable hands, knowing that you'll handle it with the sensitivity and finesse that it deserves."

When Pam smiled back, her face was practically aglow. My City Engineer always looked like that when faced with the need to handle a particularly sticky problem, I'd noticed long since. Solving problems was what Pam lived for, whether they be engineering difficulties, traffic snarls, or people-issues. Our gain was Little Rock's loss; Pam was a skunk at heart, and had been a furry fan for very nearly as long as Tabby and I. Moving to Pelton to live among fen and be in charge of her own department had been well worth the pay cut to her, and her predecessor had been more relieved than saddened to step aside when she arrived, things had been in such bad shape from lack of revenue. "That's why you're such a good Mayor, Will," she observed. "You dump hot potatoes in other people's laps so smoothly, they don't even notice the blisters on their privates."

-= 2 =-

One of the great things about breakfast meetings on weekdays was that people needed to get to work, and so things didn't tend to drag on forever. Soon everyone was gone but Tabby and I; he was a software consultant, and therefore set his own hours, while I was Mayor and pretty much took my job with me wherever I went. "You got a few minutes, Will?" he asked.

"Always, for you." I smiled. "There's no place I really need to be until Claire Bernard's wake at noontime." I'd known Tabby online since he was just plain old Howard Easley, unofficial class nerd at East Bend High School in Ames, Iowa. I'd held his hand through the worst pangs of adolescence, listened patiently as he agonized over career choices, and had been the first to drink a toast to his new legal name on the day that he'd finally worked up the nerve to change it and become Tabby Cat forever, at the cost of being disowned by his parents. Not that they'd invested very much of their precious time in him to start with, once it became clear that he was going to grow up a little 'weird'. It was probably wrong of me, but I was more than a little proud of the kind of adult he'd grown up to become. "What's on your mind?"

"Let's take a walk," Tabs suggested, flowing effortlessly to his feet. It was impossible not to stare at Tabby when he moved; his fursuit was mostly fitted skin-tight, and the underlying motions were every bit as fluid and graceful as those of a real feline. "It's a beautiful day. The sun's already out, and it's not supposed to get too hot."

"Sure," I agreed with a nod. It took only a moment for us to pay for our meals, and then we were out strolling around the town square. It was indeed a pleasant day. Even though it was still very early, several furbuskers were already out plying their trade, and a few tourists looked ready to nibble at the bait. The MooseTaur was clopping slowly up and down in front of the war memorial, naked to the waist and hoping to attract a generous tourist into posing for a picture with him. Sleepydog was tagging along at his heels in one of the only fully quadrupedal fursuits I'd ever seen. Sleepydog was both a physically small enough man and such an ingenious 'suiter that he could actually pass for a large, shaggy dog, unless one looked very closely indeed. His strategy was to let other 'suiters attract an audience, then 'do tricks' in the back until someone found him out for what he really was and put money in the bucket he always carried in his mouth. The other 'suiters didn't seem to mind these tactics much; indeed, from what I'd gleaned of the furbusking business, the more characters you could concentrate in one place, the looser the tourists grew with their dollars. The cumulative effect, in other words, was greater than the sum of the efforts of a few individuals. In fact, we'd had to license the 'buskers just to avoid being overrun by them. Moose turned and waved at Tabby and I, and then Sleepy sort of bounced up on his hind legs for a few steps in greeting. I smiled and Tabby waved for us both.

"That must be a wonderful way to make a living," my friend observed as we rounded the corner and headed down Maple Street towards Tech Junction, where the software industry was mostly located. "Sometimes, I'm terribly envious."

My eyebrows rose. "So what's stopping you?" I asked. "Heck, you've got the best suits in town. Plus, you're a natural performer."

Tabby laughed. "The other day, I was walking up to see you at City Hall, and before I could stop him, a tourist gave me twenty bucks to pose with his wife and daughter. He claimed that I looked just like his family's cat back home. I took it, of course."

"Of course," I agreed. "I would have too, I suppose. So, why not do it for a living? Or at least a paying hobby?"

"No time," he answered with a sigh. "No time at all."

I nodded understandingly; Tabby was very gifted at what he did. He was in a position to pick and choose his projects in a way that most others in his profession could only dream of; this was in part why he'd been able to become a full-time 'suiter so young, in time to be one of the very first. And lately he'd been working very closely indeed with Ed Morrison, the gengineering king. Though I wasn't supposed to know that. "Big contract, eh?" I asked.

"Really big," he answered. Then he smiled again, and changed the subject. "How about you, Will?" he asked, jocularly elbowing me in the ribs. "Why don't you try furbusking for a living? I know for a fact that your suit is up to it."

I felt my cheeks coloring; the reason Tabby was so certain that my rabbit suit was up to the demands of 'busking was that he'd bought it for me as a birthday present a few months back. It was at least as good as his; probably better in some ways due to improvements in technology. An onboard computer, for example, interpreted my facial expression and body movements, then positioned my ears accordingly. They would even fold over in the middle and go half-limp when the machine decided that I was happy and relaxed. The thing was incredible, and worth more than I made in a year. "Too self-conscious, I suppose," I answered slowly. "I don't move as well as you do, Tabby."

"You don't practice enough, Will," Tabby replied soberly. "Here you are, Mayor of the furriest town there's ever been, and you put on a suit, what? Once every few months?" He smiled again. "I understand why you can't do the ears-and-tail thing on the job; you have to work with old-timers. But you could let it all hang out at least a little sometimes, couldn't you?" He pointed. "Like, have you ever been in there?"

I sighed. Tabby was pointing at one of Pelton's newest businesses, a big ex-family restaurant renamed 'Permacon'. It was a night club/internet cafe/whatever, catering entirely to the furry community and specializing in providing the same kinds of services for Pelton's furry citizens and furry visitors as a convention staff did for its attendees. The place never, ever closed. "On opening day, Tabs. I always try to be there when a new place opens."

"As Mayor you've been there," Tabby agreed, looking at me rather oddly. "But have you ever been there as a rabbit, I mean? In fur? At night, off-duty? It's a lot more fun, I promise you. People are beginning to wonder if you're really a fur or not anymore. You've even quit MUCKing."

I smiled, despite myself. I'd not MUCKed since I couldn't remember when. There was just no time! And yet Tabs had a point; the internet role-playing chatrooms were the very heart of furdom. "I'm sure that it would be a lot of fun," I agreed. "Maybe I'll drop in then, sometime soon." Then a new thought occurred to me. It had been a long, long time since Tabs and I had really tied one on together. He was a lot of fun to be with, and there was a hole in my schedule. "You and me sometime?" I asked hopefully. "I'm free tomorrow night?"

But Tabs shook his head and looked away. "Sorry, Will. I'm, ah... Going to be tied up for about a week or two. On a job."

I'd known Tabs for a very long time, and there was something I didn't like at all about his tone of voice. "Son," I asked after a moment or two had passed. "Is everything all right?"

The big cat sighed again, for maybe the third time that morning. "Yes," he answered. "And no. There's something I need to tell you, Will. But I'm having a hard time."

I stopped dead in the middle of the sidewalk. "Is there anything you need? Ask, and it's yours. It's always been that way, and always will be."

Tabby looked away. His mask-eyes couldn't replicate tears, I knew, but I rather suspected that there was one running down a certain cheek. "There's been a breakthrough," he whispered at last. "A big one. Huge, even. Down at Morrison Gengineering. That's why they called me in."

I leaned forward, eyes suddenly wide. "Really?" I asked, my voice a whisper.

"Really," Tabs replied. "Like I said, it happened a few months back. But I couldn't tell you. It was secret. I'm really not supposed to be telling you even now. Some of the research is illegal."

"Then don't say another word," I urged him. "Not that I think the laws make any sense; you know better. But don't get yourself in any trouble. I don't need to know."

"But you do, Will," the big cat whispered. "You do. And even more, I need to tell you." His smile widened. "We're ready. Completely and totally ready. Starting tomorrow, we're going to transform someone. Make them a fur, for real."

For just a moment words failed me. Transformation? In my own lifetime? I'd given hope years back, and here came the good news right out of nowhere! "Who? I mean..."

Then I was in Tabby's arms, sharing a traditional furry hug and smiling wide. "This is wonderful news!" I declared, fighting the urge to raise my voice into a joyous shout. "Wonderful!"

Tabby nodded. "Absolutely fantastic!" he agreed. "Ed's really doing it right, Will. He's come a long way from Tank-growing cloned pigs and cows and such without brain tissue. His team has been a lot further along than anyone realized for years now. The idea is that when we make the very first transformation, it will be done right. That way, we hope, the public won't raise such a fuss. Nor will the District attorneys, if we present them with a fait accompli."

I nodded. In fact, I'd long suspected that Pelton itself existed solely to help society get used to the idea of people wanting to alter themselves to look like animals. I knew Ed Morrison fairly well, both from his online days and in real life. He was perfectly capable of spending a few tens of millions to such a purpose; indeed, I could easily imagine him laughing up his sleeve while the news media did the bulk of his work for him. While the man was certainly wealthy enough to be able to afford something like buying most of a small town merely in the interest of making his fellow furs happy, he was usually far more purposeful with his money. That was how he'd gotten so rich to start with, in fact. Careful investing, and his patented no-slaughter 'Humana-Meats'. "When?" I asked.

"Soon," Tabby answered, his face suddenly gone serious. "Very soon. That's why I'm telling you." He placed his hands on my shoulders and looked deep into my eyes. "As Mayor, you do need to know, or so I judge. Think about what it's really going to mean, Will. Think about it very hard, and be ready when all hell breaks loose. There's going to be more fallout than anyone can possibly imagine, and a good share of it is going to land right square on your shoulders."

-= 3 =-

I've always hated wakes and funerals more than any other human activity. Indeed, if it were not for the fact that my friends and family would probably fail to understand, I'd have long ago specified that in the event of my death I was to be cremated without any kind of ceremony at all. Funerals were for the living, I reminded myself as I parked my Volkswagen in the usual spot at Saluto's Funeral Home, and it was for the sake of the living that I made my official visits. I tried to make an appearance at the wakes of as many Pelton residents as I possibly could in any event. But Claire Bernard had been Mayor before Rich Saluto, and therefore it was only proper that the sitting Mayor should pay his respects at her passing. Besides, I'd met her a few times. There was absolutely no way out. I had to attend, even if Claire had been one of the vocal minority who had violently opposed everything furry at every turn, calling us deviants and shameless carpetbaggers right up until the day she'd suffered a fatal stroke at age ninety-eight.

It was far more difficult than anyone would ever know for me to climb out of my convertible, brush my hair into some kind of order in the rear-view mirror, and then try to mask my ecstatic grin behind a suitably somber expression of grief. But it was so very hard to go look at death, when the sun was shining and the top was down and transformation, real-life transformation, was going to be a reality at last! Why should I have to go pretend to be bereaved, when life was so filled with joy? I was Mayor, however. It was my job, and that was that.

Rich Saluto himself greeted me at the parlor door; in many ways, I realized, his position was even more awkward than my own. He too was a former Mayor in his own right, yet he was also Claire's funeral director. Plus, he'd known the woman all of his life and worked closely with her for years. I tried to smile extra-wide for him, and once I'd paid my respects to the mortal remains I joined his little group out in the lobby.

"...fought the bastards off as long and as hard as she could," a younger man I didn't know was saying, gesturing with a clenched fist. "How could you possibly have knuckled under to those... those freaks, Rich?" Then the speaker realized who I was, and looked away in embarrassment.

"Will!" Rich exclaimed with a smile as I approached the little coffee table. He was being diplomatic, pretending I hadn't heard what had gone before even though everyone present knew darned well that I had. "Have a seat!"

I played along and pretended too, of course. No one wanted to see a funeral ruined over politics. "Don't mind if I do," I replied amiably, making myself comfortable. Then I smiled at the young man and extended my right hand. "Will Peters," I said simply.

For a moment, I thought there was going to be a scene regardless of my good intentions. Then the young man pressed his lips together and accepted my hand into his. "Tim Bernard," he replied reluctantly. "A grandson."

"Ah," I replied, smile fading. "I'm very sorry."

"She lived a long and healthy life," Tim replied, looking down at the carpet respectfully. "Independent right up to the end, too. And her death came painlessly, without warning. Who could ask for more?"

"Indeed," Rich replied smoothly.

"You should be very proud of your grandmother," I said after another moment's respectful silence, trying to smooth things over as best I knew how. "She was one of the very first female mayors ever elected in downstate Illinois."

Tim nodded respectfully. "That's true."

"And it was under her leadership that we built and equipped the new firehouse," I continued. "That was very expensive; it took someone with real vision to see the need and grasp the nettle. She served five terms as Mayor, more than anyone else ever has. That means that the people were very happy with her leadership. Your grandmother also worked with Lance Wilburs on setting up a new playground in Freedom Park, and campaigned to raise the money for the War Memorial on the square."

The young man looked up at me quizzically. "How do you know about any of this?" he demanded. "You're from Denver. You've only lived here for three years. Heck, I didn't even know about the War Memorial myself!"

I shrugged my shoulders. "It only seemed right to look into the town's history," I answered. "Plus, I sat down with your grandmother at least a dozen times trying to work things out before we furs began to arrive in numbers. While we never reached a resolution, and she never accepted that Pelton was going to change, we at least became personal friends. And, I can tell you in truth that I respected the woman enormously. She must have been formidable indeed at her prime." Then I smiled again. "Your grandmother sure made a mean lemon sugar-cookie, didn't she?"

Tim's mouth fell open, then closed again. "I was raised on those cookies," he managed to say at last.

I nodded. "Lucky child. Tart, they were, but sweet as well. Rather like the woman herself."

Then the three of us were talking about first food, then Pelton's history, and then about love and family and the pleasant things that always bind good-hearted men together. "Grandma used to love live theater," Tim was explaining enthusiastically a little later. "She spent half her time on the trains running to and from Chicago."

"Right," I agreed, remembering how her apartment had been lined with playbills and posters.

"Anyway..." By now young Tim was stammering and blushing a little. "Anyway... Well, Pelton does have a lot more money flowing into it these days."

I nodded encouragingly.

"And... And... We ought to have a lot of influence with the County now, as well. What would you think... I mean, it's too big for just the City of Pelton, but... How about if we tried to put together a bond issue for a county community arts center? Where kids could learn to paint in summer, and people could put on local plays and stuff? We could build it in the park."

I blinked. That was an interesting idea indeed! "And maybe name it after your grandmother?" I asked.

Tim blushed, then nodded slightly.

"That sounds wonderful to me!" I answered with a smile. Perhaps something good could come of funerals after all! "I can't see how any reasonable person would oppose such a thing, with our city balance sheets looking as good as they are. Would you or another representative of your family be willing to come and address the Board of Aldermen to help get things started?"

It didn't take long at all for Tim and I to work out at a few details and at least the beginnings of a plan. Then we were shaking hands enthusiastically, and it was time to go. "I'm so glad to have met you, Mr. Peters! So very glad! I... I still don't approve of what you are; I'm a church-going man, after all, and my faith says that what you're doing is wrong. But still, I'm very glad indeed to have met you. You're not at all who I thought you were."

"I'm glad too, Tim!" I answered honestly. "Very glad." And then it was time to go. "My heavens!" I exclaimed, checking my pocket watch. "It's almost three! And I haven't even been to the office yet!"

"Of course," Tim agreed, smiling. "You have your official duties. I shouldn't have kept you so long. May I show you out?"

-= 4 =-

I was better than halfway to my Volkswagen when I heard Rich call out my name. "Will!" he cried. "Will! Hold up a minute, please? I need to talk to you." The funeral director was puffing a little by the time he caught up to me; I'd been moving fairly quickly in my eagerness to escape the wake. "You really are a rabbit," he muttered as he finally closed the gap.

My eyebrows rose; Rich practically never took outward notice of anyone's furriness, most especially mine. Mostly he took the approach that if something wasn't spoken of, then it didn't really exist and therefore didn't have to be dealt with. "What can I do for you, Rich?" I asked.

He smiled and mopped a little sweat off of his brow. "I'm getting old," he complained.

"Aren't we all?" I countered.

"Not like I am," Rich muttered as he carefully refolded the handkerchief and returned it to his tuxedo pocket. There wasn't much I could say to that, so instead I just waited politely for the elderly man to catch his breath. "Will," he said at length. "You just managed to impress me."

My eyebrows rose. "How so?"

"The way you handled Tim Bernard," he answered. "As if you didn't know."

I truly didn't know, as it happened. "His grandmother just died," I explained. "He's probably hurting inside, even given her age and such. And what he wanted wasn't any more than a five-term mayor deserves as a memorial. Especially a mayor as dynamic as she was."

Rich shook his head and sighed. "That's not what I meant, and you know it. What I mean is how you defused him. Now that he's working with you on something, he can't make you into a demon when he runs for office this September."

"He's running for something?" I asked.

This time it was Rich's eyebrows that rose. "Yes," he answered presently. "Alderman, on a militantly anti-fur platform in the seventh district. Or he was, at least. I can't see him doing it now."

I nodded slowly. The seventh was indeed made up mostly of old-timers. "I'll be damned."

"Not if you get in as many as three words with St. Peter first, you slick devil!" Rich grinned, and mock-punched my arm. "I can see why your people wanted you so badly for this job."

I shook my head. "Thanks, Rich. Really. But all I did was what I thought was right. All the man wanted to do was make the community a better place, and memorialize a particularly fine citizen. Why wouldn't we work together?"

"You're so naïve, sometimes," the former Mayor replied after a long pause. "He could have been a deadly enemy, Will. Now he's your friend. Or, at the very least, not nearly so deadly an enemy. You've not only defanged him, but you made him smile while you did it."

"I'm glad he's my friend," I answered, a little puzzled. "I'd still be glad to have him for a friend even if we were political enemies. Like his grandmother was."

Rich laughed out loud. "So innocent of small-town politics!" he declared to the spreading branches of the huge oak tree that shaded his funeral home's parking lot. "So innocent!" Then he turned back to me. "Will, you know full well that I didn't have to step down as Mayor when Pelton got bought up."

I nodded. "And you also didn't have to support me when I ran for the empty office. Nor did you have to take the time to help me out the way that you have ever since. I'm still very, very grateful to you."

"No," he answered, looking into my eyes. "I didn't have to do any of those things. Not a one of them. But I've never had cause to regret it."

I turned away. "You're a good man," I said quietly. "A damned good one. And a big unsung part of what's making all this work."

He shrugged. "My city's alive again, and full of happy, prosperous people for the first time since I was a child. Who am I to complain if some of them are a little strange, so long as everyone is happy?" He turned back towards his place of business. "A man sees enough of dying in my line of work. He shouldn't have to watch his home town die, too."

I nodded. "It won't," I promised.

"I agree, now," he answered, still looking towards the building. "You know," he said after a very long time, "there are other positions a man can run for hereabouts than just Mayor. And a guy like me, who's been around a long time and knows the right people, can do a lot to make it happen."

My eyes closed, as if of their own accord. "I'm not a career politician," I answered. "I'll do a term as Mayor, maybe two if the people will have me back, and then I'll be eligible for my former employer's pension plan." I turned to face Rich. "I'm honored sir. Truly. But what I really want is to be retired."

Rich shook his head. "You've got far too many years left in you for that, son," he declared. "Fishing gets old mighty fast; that's why I'm still working." His eyes narrowed. "My friends and I could get you elected State Representative in a heartbeat, furry or no. And I'd be damn grateful if you gave us the chance."

My mouth opened to object, but Rich was faster. "Now, now! Don't go contradicting me, son! You'd get every furry vote in Pelton, first thing. Is there any doubt at all in your mind of that?"

"All but a handful," I had to agree. Even furries who didn't like me personally would probably vote my way, just to see another fur move up in the world.

"All right, then!" Rich explained. "You're well on your way. A state rep's district isn't all that big, you know. Carrying a heavy vote in Pelton goes a good piece all by itself towards getting you elected. Especially if the turnout there is good." He paused. "And you'd get the old-timer vote too, with my help. Eighty percent, at least. The money you people have brought in, and the way you've comported yourselves, well... That helps people deal with the strangeness more than you'd think."

That was probably true, I had to admit. I'd done everything I knew how to do, even practically bent over backwards, to make sure the old-timers remained part of things.

"And that's a third of the district's voters, right there!" He smiled. "We'll get the rest when you knock on doors and smile that honest, naïve smile of yours into people's faces. Sure, you'll get turned away sometimes. You might even have a shotgun or two waggled at you by some of the more closed-minded types. Keep in mind, though, that a lot of folks will give you credit just for trying to win them over, and for simply being open and honest about who and what you are. You don't need a majority of the non-Pelton votes, what with you having this town so locked up. Just a fifth, maybe. And you know what?"

"What?" I asked reflexively.

"I'll bet you do get a majority, just because people know who you are and what you've accomplished here. Son, do a term or two in the State House, and we're talking State Senate. And then --"

"And then, nothing!" I interrupted my friend, placing a friendly hand on his arm so that he wouldn't take my words the wrong way. "Nothing! Because I'm not going to run."

"Jim Martin is retiring," Rich replied, not in the least bit fazed by my rejection. "He was already looking at you as a potential successor, even before I dropped my hint. And I wasn't nearly the first to do so, he told me." He paused and smiled slightly. "Lawmakers are who write the gengineering laws, you know."

"No," I replied, holding up my hands emphatically but also smiling to show that I was genuinely grateful. "No, Rich. I'm a fur. I could never, ever win. Nor would I really want to, though I'm more honored than you will ever know to have been asked by a man I respect as much as I do you. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart. But I really do have to get going."

"Heh!" Rich laughed as I walked briskly towards my car. "I'll be sure and tell Jim that you're not running then. I'll also remind him that more than half of our nation's presidents began their victorious election drives by announcing formally that they weren't running!"

-= 5 =-

I'd already had plenty enough and more happen to me for one day when I finally stopped in at my office about four. "Hi, Marge!" I greeted my receptionist; she was one of the old people, and very good indeed at her job.

"Hello, Will," she answered with a dazzling smile.

"How're the boys?" I asked politely. Marge was raising two grandkids, and it wasn't nice to ask about the boys' mother, I'd learned. My receptionist's only daughter had joined a religious cult based in Oregon. No one had heard from her in years.

"Doing just great!" Marge replied, her smile growing even larger. "Donnie's playing ball tonight, and Jessie's still out camping with the scouts." I smiled back; Marge's grandkids came by the office all of the time in the summer, brightening up City Hall with their happy faces and youthful enthusiasm for life in general. Jessie also was starting to wear fox ears and a tail sometimes, I couldn't help but notice, and even had them on in the picture that his Grandmother kept on her desk.

"Good for them," I replied sincerely. "Anything new come up this morning?"

"Not really," Marge answered, getting out my appointment book and handing it to me. "Mrs. Connetton called again about the streetlight in front of her house being out; I told her that parts are on order, but she didn't want to listen."

I nodded grimly; the city's streetlights were so archaic that certain parts had to be specially made for us; they were not catalogued any more. The whole city's infrastructure had been run down almost to the breaking point when we furs had started moving in. "We've got to replace that whole system," I pointed out for about the thousandth time. "But not yet. The new city wells come first. And repaving Main Street and the Square."

"Right," Marge agreed.

I pressed my lips together in thought. "I suppose I'll have to go see her," I said at last. "To try and explain in person."

"Two o'clock Friday," Marge answered simply, having anticipated my reaction and taken the initiative. This was part of what I loved about her. If you ever do run for state representative, a little voice whispered in the back of my mind, you'll have to find a way to bring Marge along with you. Then I frowned and looked out the window. I wasn't running for state representative, I reminded myself. Absolutely and positively, I was not.

"Anything else?" I asked.

"Just routine stuff that I pretty much handled," she replied smoothly, returning the big black book to its usual spot on her desk, where both she and I could find it easily. "Mr. Jenkins is unhappy about the way the traffic lights are timed. Bill Whitman wants a contract to take over garbage collection. The high school kids are parking all night in the mall lot and making too much noise, according to Mr. Wabash."

I nodded unhappily. "And?"

"I referred Mr. Whitman and Mr. Jenkins to Pam Mac Donald. And I had Mr. Wabash speak to Chief Martin."

"Right," I agreed. "Check back with them in three days and see if they're satisfied. If not, put it back on my desk."

Marge nodded; this was standard procedure for routine complaints. "And," she added. "You had a personal call. From Ed Morrison."

My eyebrows rose; I'd known Ed online for many years through the furMUCKs, but it was very rare indeed for him to initiate contact, especially offline. "Indeed?"

"He wants to have dinner with you," she continued. "He suggested The Warren, tomorrow night at seven. At his private table."

I nodded. The Warren was Ed's favorite restaurant, in the sense that he ever left his mansion or office at all; only rarely did he ever come to town. Not only was he a rabbit like me, he also was a very serious vegetarian. The Warren specialized in meatless meals, and there was a special table in back where our rich patron sometimes entertained a very, very select few guests.

"Attire is formal fur," Marge added.

Once again I nodded. The Warren insisted on dignified attire, and Ed never appeared in public in his naked skin. As a fellow fur, it would only be polite of me to dress to match. "Of course," I answered.

"That's about it, then," Marge said with a smile. "If you need help getting dressed..."

I grinned back, a little sheepishly. Marge just loved it when I fursuited. "My new suit is pretty easy to get into," I replied, looking away. "But thank you." Then I smiled again, and stepped towards my office door...

...only to hear the clomp-clomp-clomping of truly colossal feet tramping down the corridor. I stopped where I was, and met Marge's eye. She shrugged; clearly she didn't know what all the racket was about either. The she stood up and together we stepped over and looked down the hall. Max Waters was walking directly towards us, clearly on his way to report to Pam as I'd requested earlier in the day. And, sure enough, he or she was wearing enormous high-heeled work boots and pink opera gloves, topped off by a frilly pink sun hat with a floppy brim that bounced up and down with each step.

The thing looked terribly out of place over Max's coarsely-chiseled and clumsily made-up features.

"Oh, my!" Marge whispered. "Oh my heavens!"

I nodded grimly, then pulled the door closed as Max clomped by, his or her four-hundred or more pounds of mostly-muscle causing the floor to tremble noticeably at the point of closest approach.

"Oh, my!" Marge whispered again, this time looking clearly distressed.

"I know," I answered. "It's not a pretty sight."

"Nor will it ever be!" Marge answered, peering at me through concerned eyes. She understood furs, all right. "Will, I..."

"I know," I repeated, trying to keep my tones calm.

"I mean... Will... I..."

"Right," I agreed emphatically. "Precisely. My feelings exactly." Then I looked down at the floor and sighed. "I presume he's here to see Pam; I asked her to look into this matter at breakfast. Pam is, ah... Better equipped to handle this issue than I am."

"True," Marge agreed, understanding my meaning.

"But still," I added, pressing my lips together in distaste once more. "Still, perhaps I failed to fully appreciate the true scope of the problem. I'll give them a few minutes alone, and then go knock on Pam's door. She may need some help."

-= 6 =-

Sure enough, it did indeed sound as if our City Engineer might require assistance when I sidled quietly up outside her office door. Normally I'm not one to violate people's privacy, but I could quite clearly hear Max sobbing on the other side. For a little while I just stood and listened, then I knocked firmly. "Hello!" I called out in my most official-sounding voice. "Anyone home?"

There was a rustling sound, and then something that might have been a whisper. "Come on in," Pam replied after a moment, and rather reluctantly I opened up her door and stuck just my head through.

Max and Pam were snuggling on the other side of the desk, and smiling. "Hello, Will!" the oversized road worker said with a smile. Despite the happy expression, however, a single tear was still inching its way down Max's cheek. Then the big city laborer wriggled in a very feminine fashion. "Pam and I are just having a little girl talk."

"Right," I agreed, suddenly feeling very much adrift. Perhaps Pam had been handling the sticky issue more adroitly than I'd imagined?

"Come on in, and close the door behind you," Pam encouraged me, her smile widening.

"Right," I repeated awkwardly, almost tripping over my own feet as I crossed the portal.

"Pam's been hooking me up with support groups," Max explained, squeezing her boss tighter up against, well, her, I decided. Pam was perhaps a third of Max's size. "Her transition was in Arkansas, but there's a very active TG community right here in town."

"I... See," I replied simply.

Pam giggled. "We're going to see that Maxine gets all the help that she needs. Including make-up and wardrobe advice." She dimpled and lifted both of her feet up off of the floor playfully. "Her insurance covers a lot more than she realized."

I nodded. One of the very first things that the City of Pelton had done with its newfound riches was improve the healthcare policies of the municipal employees. I hadn't realized that the new policies were that good, though. Not that I begrudged Maxine anything; far from it. If this was how she chose to lead her life, who was I to complain? So I smiled, and nodded as politely to Maxine as I would have to any other lady. "I'm very glad that things are working out for you, then."

"We're going to put Maxine to work on painting the inside of the city parking garage," Pam continued, still smiling and hugging her new sister. "Until she feels more comfortable out in public."

A small knot unwound itself deep in my stomach. "Are you happy with that, Maxine?" I asked formally.

"Oh, yes!" she replied, head bobbing up and down. "The springtime sun is just terrible on my skin!"

"Of course," I agreed. "Well, then. If everyone's happy..."

"Wait!" Maxine declared, springing to her feet. "Wait right there!" The huge man-woman moved surprisingly quickly; before I could take a single step in retreat I was wrapped up like a little doll in her massively-muscled arms. "Mmmm-wah!" she said aloud as she kissed me on the right cheek, hard. Then she turned me a little and did it again, this time on the left. "Mmmm-wah!"

"Wha..." I tried to say, instinctively pulling back a little. "I mean..."

"That's for caring so much about me, Mr. Mayor!" Maxine declared, looking deep into my eyes and smiling. "That's for caring so much about us all." Then the giantess waggled her fingers in a very feminine wave to her boss. "Bye-bye, Sis!"

"Bye-bye!" Pam responded, waving in a like fashion and smiling a big, big smile of her own. And then Maxine's was clumping down the hallway, head high and seemingly aglow with happiness.

Still feeling a little bewildered, I turned to Pam. She shrugged. "You asked me to take care of it," she reminded me.

"Uh-huh," I agreed.

"Getting her through transition is going to be, well... Something. I don't think I'd care to try it anywhere but here. I've suggested a good doc, though. And the local support group really is first rate."

I nodded again. "Forgive me for saying so, but that support group had better be."

Pam rolled her eyes theatrically, then sighed. "Look, Will. Just between you and me, I think that most likely Maxine will be off of this kick in two or three months at most. I'm no doctor, but I've spent a lot of time around a lot of transgendered people." She sighed bitterly and smoothed her skirts. "As almost everyone seems to notice."

"Pam," I said softly, seeking the right words as best I knew how, and coming out shorter than I would have liked. "Pam, you're as much a woman as anyone in this town."

She nodded sadly. "To most people, yes. You among them, sir, I'll add. Thank you for that, by the way."

"There's nothing to thank me for," I answered truthfully. "Though I'll admit that I'm glad that I'm not in your shoes. It must be so very hard, sometimes."

"It is," Pam answered grimly. "And it'll be far worse for Maxine, if she decides to make a lifestyle change."

"There's already new tech," I pointed out. "Even since you went through transition. Some of the 'suiters are already using it to narrow their shoulders and such."

"I know," Pam answered slowly, eyes downcast. "And don't think that I'm not tempted sometimes." Then she looked up and met my eyes. "But why, Will? Why is it that even here in Pelton, where tolerance is practically worshipped like a god, so many people have trouble simply accepting me as I am?"

-= 7 =-

It had definitely been a rhinoceros day, I decided as I turned onto the street where my little bungalow was located in the quietest part of town. The cookie was never wrong. I'd been entrusted with a great secret, offered a chance to run for higher office, surmounted a mini-crisis, and ended up things with iron-nerved Pam Mac Donald, of all people, crying her heart out onto my shoulder. All in all it had been terribly stressful, and I was looking forward to a nice, quiet dinner alone, followed perhaps by a little yard work before bed if the daylight held. I swung wide to pull into my driveway...

...and almost hit Barry Roberts, who was waiting in ambush.

I sighed and clenched my right fist repeatedly under the dashboard where no one could see it as Barry came running up after my car. I frankly didn't enjoy being around Barry; wasn't it bad enough that he horned in on my private breakfast meetings? Couldn't he leave me alone at home, when I desperately needed to unwind? But no, he had to push, push, push himself and his simplistic, black-and-white thought processes on everyone around him, all day every day. Would he never grow up?

Apparently not, I decided as he came dashing up, breath coming in gasps. "Mr. Mayor!" he said formally. "Could I have a moment of your time?"

My eyes narrowed involuntarily, then I got a grip on myself. He hadn't even let me get out of my convertible! "What do you need, Barry?" I asked in tones that were far calmer than I felt.

Barry thrust his hands in his pockets and kicked at my blacktop with his sneaker before answering. "It's Max," he said at last.

"What about her?" I asked.

"I hear you've got her hidden away, working in the parking garage from now on," he said, staring down at the ground and not meeting my eye. "Like you're ashamed of her, or something."

My eyes narrowed again, and this time I let them stay narrow. "That's a private, internal matter," I replied formally. "Between Pam Mac Donald, Max Waters, and myself. However, I can firmly assure you that everyone involved is pleased with the arrangement."

"A lot of furs aren't pleased," Barry replied, looking up and meeting my eyes for the first time. "An awful lot of us. You ought to hear what's being said in the chatrooms! We think you're caving to the old people. As usual."

I shrugged. "That's too bad," I answered, my patience finally failing. "The important thing is that Max, Pam and I are all satisfied. And of the three of us, Max's satisfaction is the most important." I cocked my head slightly to one side. "What's all this really about, anyway?"

Barry turned away and pressed his lips together for a moment, then clearly reached a decision. "A lot of us think you're not much of a fur anymore, Mayor Peters. A lot of us think that you were never much of a fur to start with, the way you've refused to help a lot of fen who don't happen to be lucky enough to have the money to relocate here, where they can be happy. A lot of us think you enjoy being around the old people more than you like hanging around with us. In fact, a lot of us think that you're really ashamed of us, and are letting it show in places like how you're dealing with Max."

My face went very hard. "I was a fur before you whelped, you..." Then I gritted my teeth together and looked away. "Everyone in Pelton has rights," I began. "Including --"

"-- including only the rich and the attractive and the old people!" Barry literally shrieked with rage. "You squeeze everyone else out! You and the other big guys suck up all the air and make it impossible for anyone else to get ahead!"

I glanced down at Barry's emotion-sensitive tail; it was pressed down hard against the backs of his legs. What had ignited this sudden storm, I wondered? Barry was indeed a leader of sorts in the furry community, I reminded myself, a leader of the youngest and brashest and most radical sort of fur. Though he was also a leader of far less of the community than he imagined himself to be, I reckoned. Even more to the point, he was leader of far less of the community than he himself imagined that he deserved to lead. So, I gritted my teeth one last time and tried an appeal to reason. "Barry," I said quietly. "Calm down. Please."

He nodded slightly, and put his hands back in his pockets. "All right," he acknowledged. "I blew my top. I admit it."

"Yes," I replied evenly. "You did. Though I'll forgive you for that."

The young man nodded in acknowledgement, then cocked his to one side and looked me in the eyes. "Thank you. But you're still no fur."

There it was, then. This conversation was over, at least in any meaningful sense of the word. I didn't have to listen to insults from anyone, least of all Barry Rogers. "Maybe I'm not, by your standards," I answered stiffly. "But the fact is that your standards simply do not matter to me. I couldn't care less about what you think, young man. I didn't yesterday, don't today, and probably won't tomorrow either at the rate you're going."

Barry's face contorted with rage. "You're a damn mundane in a fursuit, is all," he declared, stepping backwards. "You don't give a damn about the fandom! Or about the little-guy furs! All you care about is your fancy title and big office and having people bow and scrape to you wherever you go!"

"Get off of my property," I growled, cracking open the door of my Volkswagen as if to chase him off. "Get off of it now. And don't show your face in my company again until you're ready to behave like a civilized human being, instead of some kind of raving lunatic!"

-= 8 =-

The next morning, I woke up with a headache from having spent all night dreaming about Barry and the state House of Representatives, as well as of growing real fur and spending the rest of my days living in a little cage as Maxine's playtoy. "Mmm-wah!" she had been going over and over again as I woke up in a cold sweat. "Mmmmmmmm-wah!"

The headache wasn't anything that a couple of aspirin and a shower couldn't fix, however. Indeed, by the time I was done laying out my fursuit and packing it up (it would be quicker to change at the office than to drive back home) I found myself smiling and whistling a little. For many years, packing up a fursuit had meant that I was going to a furry convention, an activity that had marked the very best days of my life. Part of me still associated the activity with the warm, happy memories. By the time I had everything loaded up in the convertible, I felt ten years younger. Even the weather was wonderful and full of promise, I decided as I rolled quietly through the various neighborhoods, top down and lungs filled to capacity with fresh green-scented air. It had been an unusually warm spring, and even though it was really a bit too nippy to be out with the top down, I didn't particularly care. The sun was shining, the flowers were in bloom, and even over the merry murmur of my little engine I could hear a bird beginning to sing.

Wait a minute, I said to myself. That's no bird; that's my phone! Fortunately I was passing the city elementary school; I ducked into the parking lot, then stabbed at the answer button. "Hello?"

"Silly WillyBunny!" a familiar voice answered. It was Fred, an old friend who I'd once been in a local furgroup with. Only he ever called me that. "I didn't ring you up too early, did I?"

"Fredhawk!" I replied enthusiastically. "No, it's never too early to hear from you. What's happening?"

"Not much," he answered, and we spent a couple minutes catching up with each other's lives. Then my friend got to the point. "Have you been on the MUCKs in the last twelve hours or so, Will?"

"No," I answered, already knowing what was coming next.

"It's that BarryWolf," Fred explained. "Him and his little clique. Mostly him, though. He's trying to roast you alive."

"I see," I replied.

"Not that they're having much success, mind you. Or any, even, to speak of. On most of the channels the fen are sick of hearing about Pelton to start with. They're mostly either already here, or jealous of the ones who are. On the rest of the channels, most of them are even sicker of hearing from Barry. I think he's on more 'ignore' lists than any other active fur."

"Probably," I agreed. "He's certainly talented at bringing out the worst in people."

"Anyway," Fred continued, "his crowd is claiming that you're persecuting a fellow fur named Maxine to make the old people happy. They also say that you refuse to help any more furs move in unless they have jobs already set up, and pockets full of gold."

I shrugged. "I don't think it's the city's duty to help anyone move in, job or no. And Maxine's situation... Well, I honestly believe that it's being handled well."

"It probably is, knowing you," Fred agreed, his voice taking on a soothing tone. The hawk had known me for a very long time, and could tell that I was more irritated than I was letting on. "Will, most everyone is laughing at Barry, just like always. This time, in fact, they're being even more open about it than usual. Which really lit Barry up."

Being ridiculed would have exactly that effect on him, I reasoned. "What happened?"

"He got all mad, not just on 'Furbold', but also on 'Pelton Place', 'The Lair', and 'Anthro World'. Not just angry, Will. Enraged. Incandescent."

My eyes closed slowly, then opened. "Look," I asked. "What's causing all of this? Really, I mean. It's not about Maxine, and it's not about poverty-stricken furs. He's too wound up for that. There's something more going on here. There has to be. Otherwise, this is all out of proportion."

Fred sighed loudly enough that I could hear it over the cellphone. "I don't know, Will. I don't think anyone knows, in fact. Except maybe Barry, and he's not likely to talk about it." There was a long pause. "He claims that he's going to start circulating a recall petition on you today."

My mouth opened, then closed. "A... A..."

"A recall petition," Fred repeated. "He's gone nuts."

"I'd say so!" I agreed. "For one thing, there is no recall provision under Pelton city law. If I commit a felony, I can be impeached. Otherwise..."

"Really?" Fred sounded cheerful, suddenly. "I can't wait to see the look on that little toad's face when--"

"Be nice!" I interrupted my friend. "Show a little pity. He's going to be totally humiliated."

"He already is, Will," Fred answered me. "Don't you get it? You're damnably popular, and everyone with any sense knows that you're doing your best in a situation so full of difficulties that it staggers the imagination. You're a good Mayor, Will; even the old people know it. Even when you're wrong, people are willing to forgive you because the job is so impossible and you're so clearly trying your hardest. Your little friend took you on last night, and without your even being there he got laughed off of the four biggest channels in fandom. How much worse can it get for him?"

How much worse indeed, I asked myself over and over as I finished my brief commute to work. For most furries, one's standing in the channels was slightly more than a life-or-death matter; I was one of the few who didn't spend hour upon hour interacting electronically with my fellow fen. Not that I didn't enjoy MUCKing, not at all! But there just wasn't any time! And now Barry's reputation there, already questionable, had crashed and burned like a penny stock during a bear market. Part of me felt a savage sense of satisfaction at this; I was honest enough with myself to admit it. The rest of me, however, felt a mixture of pity and restless unease. From there, where would the ego-wounded cub go next?

I didn't have time to give the matter any more consideration, however, as the City parking garage was looming up on my left. I made my turn, and then stopped and blinked a little in the darkness as my eyes adjusted.

"Hello, Mr. Mayor!" a voice like two millstones grinding upon each other called out. I still could not see well enough to make out Maxine, but I homed in upon the sound as best as I could and smiled.

"Hi, Maxine!" I greeted the vixen. "How are you this fine morning?"

"Fresh as a daisy!" she declared, and as my eyes adjusted I was just able to make out her wide-armed gesture. "I made a lot of phone calls last night; Pam's people are going to be able to help me bunches."

"Good!" I answered, meaning it. Then I cocked my head to one side as the rest of the picture slowly came into focus; Maxine was still wearing her opera gloves and hat, I noted; to a furry, they would not seem out of place on a vixen. But her hair was puffed up in a style-job now, and her makeup was much better. "You're looking very nice today."

"I feel very nice," Maxine answered, beaming. "You know, I really needed to be out of the spotlight for a little while. People were looking at me... Well, sort of funny. With everything changing so much, it helps to be able to work alone."

I nodded, then looked down at the ground. "Did you do any MUCKing last night?" I asked.

"No," the oversized woman replied. "I was too busy getting my hair done. Do you like it?"

"It was the first thing I noticed," I replied sincerely. "Very nice indeed." Then I returned to the more serious subject. "There was a lot of talk there about you. Or so I've been told; I wasn't there myself."

"Really?" Maxine asked, eyes widening in genuine amazement. "They were talking about little old me?"

"And me," I answered truthfully. "Apparently, a lot of furs think that I'm trying to hide you away down here, Maxine. That I've put you to work in the garage because I'm ashamed to let you be seen in public."

Maxine's eyes narrowed, and for a moment she reverted to masculinity. "Who?" she demanded, huge fists balling. "Who says that?"

"Now, now!" I replied, holding my hands up placatingly. "There's no need to get upset." I looked down at the ground again. "To a degree it's true, I suppose. I'm not ashamed of you; that part's completely wrong. But some people did feel that you were a bit of a spectacle, looking like you did. I agreed to try and do something about it."

She nodded. "You helped me find help. Pam told me that. And then you agreed to let me do my job here, where I can work on being feminine without people staring. Like I said, I was getting funny looks. And that's not a happy thing for anyone." Maxine smiled. "I'm glad that you put me down here, Mr. Mayor! It's exactly what I needed. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. And... And I'll get on the MUCKs tonight myself and say so." She pointed her index finger at me and spoke as if to a child. "I don't want people thinking or saying bad things about my cute little Mayor, now do I?"

Once again, I felt a little knot of tension relieve itself deep in my belly. Just because I had good intentions didn't make me right all of the time, any more than it made anyone else who had good intentions right. And how well I knew it! "You're a wonderful person, Maxine," I said, speaking from the heart. "I don't deserve to have such a good --"

Then my words were cut off by two huge arms wrapping themselves around me once more. "Mwaah!" Maxine said as she kissed me over and over again. "M-waaah! M-waaah! Mmmmmm-waaah!"

-= 9 =-

Fred might think that being Mayor was hard, and so might an awful lot of other people. In point of fact, however, the actual work involved in mayoring in the narrow sense of the word was quite minimal. I had to keep up to date on matters like zoning and budget issues, attend certain meetings, and from time to time make a hard decision or two. In theory, it was also my job to take charge of coordinating things in the event of a tornado or something. However, this was only enough work to take up, say, an eight-hour day or so a week. The rest of my job was politics, pure and simple. It was my function to listen to all sides, give certain people nudges in the right direction, and serve as the ceremonial face of the city. Who I talked to was far more important to both my personal success and that of the town than reading a thousand reports; indeed, the biggest secret of surviving as Mayor was knowing who held what strings, and what they were capable of doing with them. Thus it was that after spending an hour or two fussing ineffectually with this and that at my desk, I decided to go out and do my real job. Decisively, I closed the cover on the minutes of the last Planning Commission meeting, then stood up and walked to my office door. "I don't have any more meetings scheduled for today, do I Marge?"

My personal secretary double-checked my book, even though she must certainly have known the answer. She was a cautious one, was Marge, when it came to things that might make either of us look bad. "Not a one, Will," she answered. "Not until dinner tonight, at least. Are you thinking about going out for a walk?"

I nodded firmly. "There's something bothering me on the furry side of things, something that I can't quite get a grip on. I need to look into it." Then I smiled. "Besides, it's been a long time since I just walked the town."

"That's true enough," Marge agreed. Then she smiled, too. "I see that you've got your suit in your office."

I nodded. "For dinner tonight."

Her smile grew wider. "So, why not go 'suiting? It'll take you an hour or so to get ready anyway; why not get dressed now and enjoy the day?"

"I don't know," I answered slowly. "As a rule, I don't suit up during working hours."

"Which means you don't suit up half often enough," Marge countered. "Besides, you said that your business is among the new people?"

I nodded. "Yes."

Marge hesitated, then spoke her mind. "Eleanor Abercrombie called me up about an hour back. She says that there's some furry kid down at the mall with a recall petition. I suppose you already know about it?"

My eyes closed. "Yes," I repeated. "I've heard."

"Well... I'm your secretary, not a political advisor. But don't you think that it might be smart to cultivate the fen a little, every now and then? And besides, you smile for a week after going out 'suiting. Sometimes I wonder why you don't just wear the darned thing in to work every day like some other furs I know and be happy!"

It felt very strange to walk boldly out onto the Square in my white bunny suit, though it took me a few minutes to really understand why. After all, I'd suited in public many times before over the years, often in places far more in the public eye than our small town center, the dozens of tourists and their ever-snapping cameras notwithstanding. Everyone knew that I suited; all of my friends, all of my family, all of my enemies. It wasn't like I had anything to hide. Yet, this was the first time that I'd ever suited on city time, the first time that I'd ever tried being Mayor while also being a rabbit. It felt wrong, at a very deep level. But then, it also felt very right. The total effect was horridly disorienting.

Having a top quality suit helped a lot, I judged as I made my way gingerly down the City Hall steps with oversized rabbit feet. If a grown man dressed up as a rabbit wanted to be taken seriously, I'd learned long since, then he had to look very, very good doing it. Fortunately, thanks to Tabs' gift I looked very presentable indeed. We furs had pushed the art of costuming far and fast during the past couple of decades; my rabbit face was at least as emotive and expressive as the natural one beneath, the suit's air conditioning was functioning so well that I was more comfortable than I would have been in my own skin, and I had enough spare power units in my tuxedo jacket pockets to last for many hours.

Heads turned and shutters snapped as I stepped out onto the square; I raised my lapine-headed walking stick in acknowledgement. Then Sleepydog came bounding up in an incredibly realistic gallop and jumped up on me, miming at licking my face.

"Hiya, Sleeps!" I replied, laughing and reflexively pulling my face away from the dog's mouth. Then I scratched his ears and grinned. "Good boy!"

"Woof!" he answered, doggy-smiling and wagging his tail enthusiastically. Then he stuck his mouth up by my ear. "Looking good, Mr. Mayor!" he whispered. "Wish you'd come out more often!"

"Me too!" I heard myself saying. Then I raised my voice a little for the crowd. "What? No license? I'm going to have call animal control!"

Suddenly Sleeps went stiff. Then his tail drooped ridiculously.

"Anyone have a cell phone?" I asked aloud, even though my own unit was in my pocket. "Anyone? I need to make an urgent call." Then Sleeps was bounding away, looking worriedly over his shoulder as the crowd laughed and applauded.

I was smiling too as MooseTaur and Duckwing and the rest of the furbuskers saluted me in various ways as I passed regally among them, trying to keep my head high and my steps long in fitting with my dignified persona. Then I was out of the street once more and inside Clark Devries' little grocery-store-turned-into-souvenir-shop. "Mr. Mayor!" he gushed, smiling so wide that I thought his ridiculous little pasted-on nose-and-whiskers was going to pop off under the strain. "Mr. Mayor! What a pleasure to see you! And in fur, at that!" He looked out into the square, where a fresh batch of tourists were pointing to where I'd gone. Presently some of them began walking our way, cameras at the ready. Clark's smile widened.

I grinned back at him; at heart, Clark was basically a very decent man. His affected furriness might all be in pursuit of the almighty dollar, but at least he was open and honest about it. Besides, I decided, feeling very generous just at the moment, he looked pretty darned good in his mouse ears and muzzle. The species suited him perfectly. "Hello, Clark!" I answered him. "I'm just walking the town a little today and seeing which way the wind blows." I paused. "You wouldn't happen to have a nice carnation in stock, would you?"

Several of the town's furbuskers wore fresh flowers as part of their getup; in summertime they had to be replaced several times a day, and it was Clark who supplied them. "I most certainly do!" he declared enthusiastically as the first group of customers whom I'd attracted stepped through the front door. "A nice pink one, to match your nose." He reached down into a little refrigerated case and pulled out a perfect little gem of a flower. "Here," the little man exclaimed. "Let me put it your lapel for you."

"Thank you," I answered. You could do almost anything in a suit as good as mine; eat, sleep, drive, even do heavy labor. But furred gloves were still furred gloves, and it was always nice when someone offered to take care of the fine work. "How much do I owe you?"

"Not one thin dime!" Clark declared as he finished up, making a sweeping gesture with both hands. "I won't take a cent! Not from a friend, certainly." He paused, then looked significantly out at the suddenly-crowded store, where all of his clerks were busily ringing up merchandise. "Seriously, Will. I wish you'd suit up more often."

I shrugged. "It's not dignified."

"Not dignified!" Clark snorted. "Not dignified, he says! For heaven's sake, Will, this is Pelton, Illinois! Not some normal mundane town! People expect the Mayor to be a fur!" He grinned. "Besides, you're wearing a nice jacket. I think you look very dignified. For Pelton, that is. Maybe not for anywhere else, granted. And maybe not at a funeral, or something like that. But for Pelton, everyday, you're fine. That's kind of the point of this whole thing, isn't it?"

I pressed my lips together, feeling the face of my suit wrinkling a little as it interpreted the expression for me. "Do you really think l look all right?" I asked.

"Hell, yes!" he declared, slapping me on the back heartily. "You actually look more like yourself this way, if you didn't realize it. More comfortable in your own skin. Honestly, this is the real you."

Then a little boy came up and tugged at my coattails. "Excuse me, Mr. Rabbit," he said.

I turned and looked down. "Yes, sonny?"

"Are you really and truly the Mayor?"

I nodded seriously. "Yes, I am."

Suddenly the boy's face lit up in joy. "That is so cool!" he declared. "My dad was wrong; I'm gonna go tell him! Thank you!" And then he was off.

"See?" Clark replied. "It's no problem at all. Not here! Thank god for furs!" And then he was off among his customers, smiling and directing them to the more expensive anthropomorphic statuettes on the upper shelves.

-= 10 =-

I really hadn't intended to spend several hours on the square, but spend them there I did. Every single tourist wanted to talk to me, it seemed, and ask about what it meant to be a fur. I might even have made a couple of converts. Two wandering reporters also horned in on the act; one of them asked me as a joke if I planned to run for higher office, and I rather surprised myself by remaining noncommittal. I must have posed for a hundred photographs, a surprising proportion of them with Pelton's own residents, and must have shaken a thousand hands. It was just as well that the suit Tabs had bought me shed dirt and grime and skin oils like water off of Duckwing's back, or else otherwise I'd soon have been transformed from being pure white into a grubby gray rabbit indeed.

Finally, though, I managed to separate myself from the crowds and make my way towards the place where I'd meant to head all along.

Pelton had its neighborhoods just like any other small town; there were richer areas, poorer areas, areas dominated by the adherents of one religious faith or another. Pelton went a little further, however, in that we furs had to a degree divvied ourselves up by species of choice as well. I lived in a very quiet and green part of town with most of the other rabbits, for example, as well as the cervids and the like, while Tabs resided in a more ostentatious, high-status area with a large concentration of felines. The voluntary segregation was not perfect, by any means; one of the houses next to mine was occupied by a cougar-and-tiger couple, for example. Yet the phenomenon was real enough that new names were beginning to spring up for various areas. I was walking towards Dogtown, a neighborhood which previously had been pretty much known as 'the wrong side of the tracks'. Dogtown lay snuggled in close to the downtown business district; it was the oldest residential part of Pelton, and had not aged well. The houses were largely run down, the streets were in worse shape than anywhere else, and what little crime problem Pelton had was concentrated there. In the case of Dogtown, the epithet 'wrong side of the tracks' was meant literally; I had to stand and wait for a freight train to pass before entering the neighborhood. The engineer and his crew all waved at me merrily, however, and blew the locomotive's big air horn. That made me grin; no engineer had done that for me since I was perhaps seven.

For the life of me, I didn't know what the canines saw in Dogtown. Sure, the housing was cheaper there, and not all furs were successful software engineers. But housing was cheap everywhere in Pelton by comparison to most places. A lot of canines whom I knew for certain could easily afford to live elsewhere had bought in Dogtown, and many of them were working, well, like dogs to bring their decrepit properties up to snuff with the addition of modern amenities such as air conditioning and garages. As Mayor I had to applaud this effort, but as a homeowner I had to wonder they didn't just buy elsewhere and save themselves the trouble. Pack instinct, I supposed.

"Heya, Mr. Mayor!" an older man on the other side of street greeted me as I walked by; it was Father Kent from the Church of the Assumption.

"Hi, Father!" I replied with a wave, stepping across the little lane to chat. "How's business? I'm surprised you recognized me like this!"

The priest rolled his eyes and smiled. "Business is good. And I'd know that getup anywhere; it's simply unforgettable. You wore it on Easter at the Church, without the jacket. Remember?"

I blinked, and the lids of my big blue rabbit eyes on the outside clicked slightly as they replicated the motion. What a wonderful suit! "Of course," I recalled. The Assumption had been one of several Easter stops.

Father Kent laughed and placed his hand on my shoulder. "You make a fine rabbit, Mr. Mayor. It's good to see you out having fun."

I smiled. "I'll admit that it's fun, yes. But I'm here on business. Frankly, I'm glad I ran into you."

The priest's eyebrows rose. "Indeed?"

"Do you by chance know Barry Rogers? He's a canine, and lives around here."

Father Kent's forehead wrinkled. "The name does ring a bell," he allowed after a moment. Then his eyes lit up. "Oh, yes!" he answered. "The Kennel."

The Kennel? I'd heard of it online, though I'd thought it was just a chatroom. I tilted my head to one side inquiringly, and an ear motor purred slightly. It must have done something very expressive indeed, because Father Kent had to look away to avoid laughing in delight. "Yes," he answered once he'd gotten himself back under control. "That's what his group has renamed the old Robison Apartments."

I blinked again. "Really?"

The priest scowled and nodded. "Look," he said slowly. "I don't want to seem to be critical here. You furs are darned good people, as a group. I even think you've done wonderful things for the city. But some individuals..." His voice trailed off.

I nodded in agreement. "Yes, there are indeed bad apples among furs. And they need to be dealt with just like any other bad apples. Are you saying that The Kennel attracts more than its share?"

Father Kent nodded emphatically. "Maybe. I can't say much for obvious reasons, but I've heard bad things about that place. It's a commune, really; everyone is supposed to pay what rent they can, and do the chores when they need doing. Everyone is responsible for everything."

"Which means that no one is actually responsible for anything," I answered, understanding perfectly.

"Plus..." Once more Father Kent hesitated. "Well, it is no secret that many furs are very odd people. Odd in many ways."

I closed my eyes and sighed. "Let's cut through the smoke, Father. Someone confessed to you that there's things going on there that the Church might not approve of. Sex games, probably. And maybe drugs."

The priest frowned for a second, then looked away. "You may assume that if you choose."

That was the closest his faith allowed him to come to confirming my suspicions, I knew, and even at that he was placing an enormous amount of trust in me. "Thank you," I replied sincerely.

"You're welcome," he replied with a sigh. "It's a very bad setup, Mr. Mayor. I don't know officially that anything dangerous or illegal is going on, and it's none of my business if the rent is paid or not. I can say, however, that there are three windows boarded up that didn't used to be, the grass has not been cut, and I've not seen any lights on for the past three nights. There's loud music at all hours; it wouldn't surprise me at all if your police have received many calls."

"Right," I agreed. "Maybe I ought to take a little walk by there."

"Maybe you should," Father Kent agreed with a smile. "Maybe you should. This whole Pelton experiment is doing too much good for too many people to allow it to be threatened by a few bad apples."

The Robison Apartments had been on the verge of abandonment before we furs had moved in; the little complex of buildings was almost a hundred years old, and had originally been built to house coal miners during Pelton's first big boom period. It hadn't been long before the miners had moved out, however, as their wages climbed above bare subsistence level, and generally rising prosperity levels had favored single-family homes. The end result was that the Robison had ended up as the lowest of low-rent facilities; not quite a flophouse, but definitely the kind of place where the landlord demanded his rent weekly.

It was a three-block walk from where I'd met Father Kent to The Kennel, and I frankly enjoyed it. One nice thing about this being the older part of town was that the trees had grown tall and glorious along the sidewalks and in the yards; they supported a large population of squirrels which chattered continually among themselves as they bickered and squabbled over acorns and hazelnuts. There were also plenty of rabbits to be seen in the yards, most of them lingering fearfully near the shrubs that grew around the bases of virtually every house. I wondered what they would have made of me, had they been possessed of the courage to approach closer. Probably nothing, I figured; after all, I smelled more like advanced synthetic fibers and plastics than a real rabbit. Which was just as well, as I saw things. There were plenty of dogs and cats in the neighborhood. As much as I enjoyed playing at being a lapine, I had no desire whatsoever to be mauled by a pack of predators.

The neighborhood degraded rapidly as I approached the Robison complex, to the point that there was a noticeable difference even in the last block. Suddenly the cars had flat tires, the houses needed paint, and the yards were unkempt. It was amazing, what even a hundred yards could do to property values. I'd seen it before, of course, but only from a car window. Actually walking the neighborhood, descending step by step into what could only be called a developing slum, carried a far greater impact. Especially when I reached the epicenter of local urban decay.

Someone had indeed changed the name of the Robison Apartments to "The Kennel", I could see. They'd done so via the crude expedient of leaning a slab of plywood with the new name on it up against the old masonry-and-brass nameplate. The letters were hand-painted in day-glo colors without the benefit of either stencil or much in the way of artistic skill, I noted, though the accompanying sketch of a happy wag-tail beagle was not without a certain crude appeal. Or would not have been, rather, had not a second 'artist' come and drawn another beagle below the first, in the act of fellatio.

The grounds were in as bad a shape as the sign, or perhaps even worse. The grass had not been mown in weeks, and whoever had last performed the chore had not troubled themselves to do any trimming. Nor had they bothered to move the lawn furniture; there was higher grass around each of several lawn chairs. But at least the unmown grass had the effect of obscuring much of the trash that the apartment grounds had accumulated, I noted glumly. There were not only large numbers of beverage containers, mostly beer cans, lying about, but the back of each building was festooned with large plastic trash bags, stuffed full. This last was inexcusable in my view; not only did such poor sanitation promote rats, but the city provided free trash pickup to anyone with enough gumption to carry their refuse as far as the nearest curb.

Clearly the residents of The Kennel simply did not care.

I didn't want to seem to be standing around staring, even though in essence that's exactly what I was doing. However, the Robison buildings extended around a corner, so I crossed to the Kennel side of the street and walked steadily along just a few feet from the old buildings themselves, keeping my eyes and ears open and wishing that I could keep my nostrils closed.

The entire place stank. In fact, it stank badly.

Just as I passed the complex's midpoint, a teen-aged girl came dancing up. Dancing in the literal sense of the word, though I did not recognize the step. She bounced up and down, spun and kicked. "Bunny rabbit!" she squealed in delight, pointing at me. "Such a wonderful bunny rabbit!"

The girl was smiling and looked very happy about something, so I grinned back automatically. "Thank you!"

"Bunnybunnybunny!" she declared again, and it wasn't until then that I realized that her eyes were glassy, that her skin was pale, and that her happiness had probably come from something illegal. There wasn't much to be done about it right then, though, so I just smiled again and walked on by, leaving her to dance on in silence to the tune of whatever chemical melody was playing away inside of her.

"Hey!" a gruff voice called out a moment later. I turned towards the sound; a youth was sitting on the porch wearing a blue rag on his head. "You!" he called out again. "The rabbit."

I tilted my head slightly to one side, listening to the faint hum of the ear-motors. "Yes?"

The young man hopped easily over the porch rail, and a second materialized out of nowhere behind him. He was wearing a blue rag, too. "Nice suit," the first youth observed. "I bet it set you back a bundle."

"It was a gift," I replied evasively, still walking slowly away and gripping my walking stick tightly. "From a friend."

"Ah!" the first young man said to the second. Now one of them was walking close on each side of me. "It was a gift." He smiled nastily. "From a very special friend, one would assume. So the bunny rabbit has a special friend!"

Just then I rounded the corner, and to my relief spotted a police car moving slowly my way. The youths saw it, too; in an instant both had backed away from me and drawn shutters over their faces.

I didn't have to move a muscle; the police cruiser swerved silently over to my side of the road, and the driver's window opened slightly. "Mr. Mayor!" a pleasant male voice called out. "Is everything all right?"

One of the youths inhaled sharply. Clearly, they had not known who I was. If they had, I reasoned, they probably would have left me alone, and picked on someone less likely to bring down retribution. "Yes!" I answered cheerfully, even though my heart was sick at what had happened to this small corner of Pelton in the few short weeks that had passed since I'd last visited. How could this have come to pass without my knowledge, I asked myself. It was my job to know about things like this! "I'm fine. These young men were just asking me about my fursuit."

"Ah," the officer within replied, a knowing tone in his voice. Then the policeman finally emerged from the car. It was Deputy Arnie Cohen, who MUCKed as Krill Tigress. He was wearing striped ears, I could see, but no tail. Cops didn't wear tails; they offered bad guys an extra limb to grab onto when things got rough. "Such nice boys they are, too!" Arnie wasn't much older then either of my two near-assailants, yet somehow it didn't seem strange at all for him to refer to the two young toughs as "boys". "I've got a feeling that I'll be getting to know these two quite well."

"Maybe," I agreed with a sigh, tiring of the game. And, suddenly, I was tired of walking as well. "You wouldn't by chance be heading back downtown, would you?"

"I would indeed," he answered, smiling again. "Shift change. Tired bunny?"

"Sore bunny, too," I agreed. "Haven't walked this far in much too long."

"Hop in, then. I'll take you back home."

"So," I asked a few minutes later as Arnie and I waited out my second long freight train of the day. "What were you doing back in Dogtown?"

The young cop scowled. "That's my regular beat," he answered. "And I don't like the looks of The Kennel, not at all. So I cruise by fairly often." Then he turned to face me. "If you'll excuse me for saying so, Mr. Mayor, you had no business being back there all by yourself, especially in suit. Not after all the nastiness on the MUCKs last night."

I sighed and let my head fall back on the police cruiser's seat. "This is supposed to be a good town," I answered after a long moment. "A safe town, even for fursuiters. It's my job to make it that way. Where did I go wrong?"

Arnie scowled. "Things weren't that bad, even a few weeks back," he replied. "To tell you the truth, I haven't even really spoken to Chief Martin about this yet. All I've got are a bunch of nasty suspicions, and that's not enough."

"Consider your suspicions confirmed," I replied sadly. "They were about to mug me. In broad daylight, even. Thank you for coming by when you did."

The young officer shrugged. "That's my job. It looks really, really bad on your resume when the mayor gets mugged on your beat. And believe me, a policeman needs that resume if he lets that happen."

I snorted a single syllable of laughter. "I suppose so."

"Chief Martin would have killed me if I'd let those two harm a single hair on your head." He paused and smiled. "Nice suit, by the way. You ought to take it out more often. I wouldn't have known you, if I hadn't seen you on the square earlier and asked MooseTaur who you were."

"It is a nice suit," I agreed. "In fact, you can almost forget you've got it on. I've never felt anything more natural." Then I returned to the subject at hand. "So, have you got any idea of what's going wrong back at The Kennel?"

"Just what's obvious on the surface," he answered glumly, dropping his prowl car into gear and accelerating us gently away as the last car of the train sped by. "There's gang-bangers living there; did you notice the tagging on the backs of the stop signs?"

"No," I admitted. "I didn't."

"It's spread out for several blocks in every direction. And I've seen a couple of what looked like drug deals going down, though I never got enough probable cause to make a bust."

"Did you see the dancing girl out front?" I asked. "She's high as a kite."

"Figures," he answered. "She usually is, but again I can't get enough cause to bust her. That's Anne. She's very friendly, even with me. Have you ever seen her in a bikini?"

I pressed my lips together disapprovingly. We were talking business, not about half-naked women. "No, though I suspect she would be rather attractive."

Clearly I'd misunderstood; Arnie shook his head energetically. "No, Mr. Mayor. It's not like that. I was just wondering if you noticed the fresh cigarette burns on her arms? And the whip scars on her back?"

-= 11 =-

Whip scars on her back? I was still asking myself as I parked my little convertible outside The Warren restaurant for my dinner with Ed. She had seemed so sweet, despite the drugs...

I had to admit that I was a little nervous; Ed was after all the source of all the funding that made the 'Pelton Project', as we called it sometimes, possible. He was easily the richest fur in the world, and well up the list of richest people, period. Like Tabby, I'd known him while he was still very young. We'd chatted about this and that over the years, and I'd been present at the head table to propose a toast to Ed on the day that his patent for Humana-Meats had gone through. However, I could not claim to know Ed well. No one could. He was very secretive, and actually much more rabbity in some ways than I was. Though he lurked frequently on the MUCKs and was well-beloved by all of fandom, almost no one ever seemed to actually talk to Ed.

Frankly, when I'd first met him as a youth he'd struck me as one of the loneliest kids I'd ever met. And now, he was one of the loneliest adults. Some things never changed.

The Mâitre de was expecting me; she smiled dazzlingly at my approach. "Mith-ter Peterth!" she lisped past her big false incisors -- or maybe they were permanent caps? Who could know, in Pelton? Nothing surprised me anymore. "How are you tonight? Mith-ter Morrithon ith thettling in right now. Go on back, if you like; do you know where the thpethial door ith?"

I couldn't help but smile; it might or might not have been the oversized teeth, but this woman had the accent down perfectly. Such dedication! "Of course," I replied with a courtly little bow. "I know the way. Thank you so very much!"

The Warren was packed, it being a Friday night. I tried to ease my way inconspicuously down an aisle near a wall, but I still found myself smiling and waving at half of the patrons I encountered. Eating out in fur was a new fad among Peltonites, and everyone seemed to be present, giving it a try. Or at least all the herbivores were, the Warren being a vegetarian eatery. "Hello, James!" I greeted a camel in full double-humped splendor; my, but that suit looked uncomfortable to wear in a normal chair! "Hi, Charlie! Good evening, Flyspeck! What's up, Hammagirl?" Finally I passed a large corner table where two equine types were enjoying some sort of oat-based dish together. "Hello, Eric! How's the Packard running, Bob?" And then I was smiling and waving goodbye, and free to edge off down the little hallway that led back to Ed's inner sanctum. There were two guards standing by the last doorway; the one wearing a raccoon tail smiled at me, while the other simply nodded in acknowledgement of who I was. Then I was past them, and standing across the room from Ed.

"Will!" he declared, throwing his arms open for a furry-hug. "Will! It's so good to see you!"

"And I'm damn glad to be here!" I answered, throwing myself into my fellow lapine's arms and squeezing him tight. Hugs were a tradition among the fandom, and Ed was one of the most huggable furs I'd ever met. The billionaire was small and slight of build, and often favored long-furred angora-rabbit-based suits of various colors; he never seemed to be able to settle down on any one look for very long. Today his pelt was a rich, deep gold, and his ears were lopped. We held each other for a bit longer than was needful, us being old friends and both rabbits together, and then Ed broke the embrace.

"You look wonderful in that suit!" he declared, looking me up and down. "I don't believe I've ever seen you in it before. It's so you!"

I smiled. "Tabs bought it for my birthday. It was incredibly generous of him."

"Generous indeed! But even more, well judged. It's you. Definitely you."

Ed didn't like to talk business while eating, I knew, so we gossiped about old times and the conventions of yore while we sampled avocado hearts and stewed nuts with a papaya glaze and a dozen other delicacies I could never afford on my own. No wonder he was a successful vegetarian where I had tried and failed so many times, I told myself. Who would miss meat with such an exotic and spectacular array of treats to choose from? Perhaps my problem was simply that I could not afford to be a vegetarian? Dessert was a dish based on real, honest-to-god sweet clover; Ed and I shared a special rabbity moment as we nibbled delicately at it. Then the dishes were gone, the waiters vanished, and all that was left in the room was Ed, me, and two bottles of a superb after-dinner wine.

"...remember that time at RubiCon where EasySheep put on a toga over his fursuit and stood by the water fountain orating in high Latin?" I asked, smiling. "Half the con didn't get it."

"He'd had too much to drink," Ed agreed, grinning with me. "Now me, I like to remember the time that the Cedar Rapid Mutts showed up in fur at the door of Tabby's room in the middle of the night, and he ran for it."

I laughed aloud. "The whole hotel was in an uproar! I think they hit every floor."

"They did!" Ed agreed.

"Then Tabby got stuck out on that ledge," I continued. "That was back before there were modern fursuits; he couldn't see well enough to get down..."

"...and then instead of helping him out, some wiseacre called the fire department to free a stuck cat!" Ed continued, nearly doubling over and slapping the table in delight.

"That was the incident that made Tabs famous in the fandom," I agreed. "When they finally got him down, he just dusted himself off and strode away as if nothing at all had happened."

"The perfect feline," Ed agreed happily. "Perfect." His smile lingered for a few seconds, then he took a sip of wine. "Actually," he said after swallowing, "Our friend Tabby Cat is the reason I invited you here tonight. Among other things."

"Indeed?" I asked, taking a sip myself. It was so delicious!

The lop reached beneath the table and pulled out a briefcase. "Forgive me," he murmured. "But there are some legal issues involved."

Legal issues? What on Earth? Then I was distracted by my suit; even though I hadn't moved a muscle, I heard both of my ear motors whirr, and felt an odd pressure as the tail rose slightly in apprehension as well. Goodness! The suit was actually psychic!

"...find the right document," Ed was saying as he ruffled through page after page. "Ah!" he said at last, pulling out a single scribbled sheet. "Here it is."

The handwriting was Tabby's, I could see right away. "Will," the letter said. "Are you sitting down? I sure hope so, because I have some wonderful news for you.

"I'm going to be the very first real furry!"

My mouth dropped open, and my eyes rose to meet Ed's. He simply nodded in confirmation, and then I continued my reading.

"I've every confidence in Ed's team, though there have been certain complications due to legal issues. Much of the new body was pre-grown; this has been in the works for well over a year. Therefore, I hope not to be out of circulation for more than a week or two. Ed has tested this on animal after animal, and many of the subprocedures on humans as well. Again, I've got every confidence in him. However, Will, as you know things can go wrong. There is a certain element of risk involved, as with all new things, and I've had to name a next of kin. That's you, if you haven't figured it out yet; I trust your judgment fully. If things do go wrong, you're the guy I want making the really critical decisions for me. No one else. I'm sorry that I couldn't ask you ahead of time, but I'm sure you understand.

"Ed promised me that he would give you this note in person, to help cushion the shock. When I see you next, the gods of the laboratory willing, I'll have retractable claws, a tail that I can feel, and my true face in flesh and blood instead of mere flexible plastic. I'll be me, in short, me all the way to the bone. And I can't wait!

"I've always been more grateful to you than you'll ever know, Will. Thank you for all you've done. I've never had such a good friend. Sincerely, Tabs"

When I was done reading the note I immediately lifted my gaze to the top and read it again; though I probably should have guessed what was going on, I'd been too busy Mayoring to see the true lay of things.

"We're taking good care of Tabs," Ed assured me as soon as I was finished. "The best we know how."

"Of course," I agreed. "No one wants to lose him. No one."

"And we won't!" Ed declared flatly, reaching out and taking the paper back. "We won't! Or else I'd never have started this whole project. He was right about the animals and such. And the patient's doing well so far, though things are just beginning." Then he produced another paper from the case. It was a confidentiality agreement. "Sign this," he directed me, "and I'll set you up with a connection to Tabs' medical monitors. That way, you can check up on him minute to minute if you wish. I'll also give you a phone number that I can guarantee will be answered within three rings, day or night, by a real human being. It's the same line that I use."

I nodded and signed on the dotted line, then Ed gave me a phone number and URL to memorize, as promised. "I hate it that we've got to be so secretive," he explained. "But the plain fact of the matter is that we've had to do a legal shuffle that you would not believe to make this happen. Part of the research was done in Colombia, part in the Netherlands, part in the New Persian Republic of all places; they haven't gotten around to passing a lot of gene-cutting laws yet. Some was even done aboard ships in international waters. For that matter, bits and pieces of the new Tabs are coming from all of those places, as well." He grinned. "There's gonna be a courtroom tap dance over this the like of which has never been seen before. Brain transplants aren't illegal, you see, not in this state. It's going to cost me half of everything I've got, or more. But, easy come, easy go. The stakes are much larger than that, after all. I'm so diversified that I don't think anyone will be able to stop me. Or, rather, it will take so long with all the various jurisdictions that by the time they can stop me, the effort will be meaningless." His face brightened. "I can always shuffle things around to comply with new local laws. Again and again and again. Whee!"

I pressed my lips together thoughtfully, then took another sip of wine. "What exactly are the stakes?" I asked at last. "Look, I know that you've been trying to set this up for a long, long time, Ed. And I've been playing along. You majored in gengineering, focused in mammals, made a huge commercial breakthrough..." My eyes narrowed. "But your heart isn't in anything commercial, is it?"

"I'm a fur," he agreed softly.

"And more," I continued. "You made Pelton possible. Everyone knows that. We couldn't survive without the jobs your Institute brought."

"There's the tourism!" Ed contradicted me, though he was smiling slightly. "And the software companies."

"The tourism helps, yes. It helps a lot. But... By chance, do you perhaps own major blocks of stock in Fuzzy Bunny Micronics? And maybe also in PeterWolf Enterprises?"

"You can't prove it," the little lop replied with a smile that gave away all. "No one can, without doing the kind of digging that only a warrant would allow. And guess what? Owning those particular stocks isn't even illegal."

"Heh!" I answered, smiling back. "Are they profitable?"

"On paper," he answered with a shrug. "In reality, they're weak investments at best. If I wanted to get rich, I'd hire Chinese."

"But rich isn't what you're after," I answered. "You want to create a world where people can actually be foxes and dogs and cats and squirrels. That's why you bought Pelton, and that's why you keep it booming no matter what." I sighed and leaned back in my chair. "Let's cut to the chase. You're the real reason I'm Mayor. Not only that, you're the reason people think I'm a good Mayor. After all, it's damnably hard to be a bad one when money is falling from the skies like a monsoon after a long, long drought, and when more than half of your citizens have immigrated in search of a place where they can be themselves and are free to live the kind of lives that they choose to live. How can everyone not be ecstatically happy with me, short of my going out and molesting young children or something? I feel like a fake, Ed. I've never told anyone until now. But I do. Heck, we've even got a slum starting over in Dogtown; I just found out about it today. With all this going for me, I'm still finding ways to screw up."

Ed's glass was empty; he reached out and poured himself some more wine, then stood up and topped off my own glass as well. "Drink up," he encouraged. "This vintage doesn't hold up well once uncorked. Might as well enjoy it while it's still sweet and wonderful."

I nodded and took another long swig. It was good, so good!

"I am a furry," Ed replied after a long moment of consideration. "And I maybe I am something more. You're right, you know. Pelton was indeed meant to set the stage for what's happening to Tabs as we sit here and talk. I keep this town prosperous, because I want the world to see the new Tabs set against a happy, peaceful, well-adjusted backdrop. I chose you as Mayor, and pulled strings to make it happen. I admit it freely. Heck, the hardest part was to get you to actually take the job once the skids were greased."

I snorted, and sipped at my wine again. It was true enough; I'd not even planned to move to Pelton, much less be Mayor, until the MUCKs had gone to work on me. Peer pressure could be absolute hell.

"I'm a fur, yes," Ed continued. "In every way, I'm a major-league fur. But I'm also a genius. Granted?"

I nodded. "Major-league genius, too," I agreed. "They don't give out Nobels to men who are already filthy rich all that often."

"Nor to scientists who do commercially successful work. And especially they don't give Nobel Prizes to scientists who insist on receiving them in bunny suits," he agreed with a smile. "That was really fun!"

I laughed, remembering the stink. The Nobel Committee had finally decided it fell under freedom of religion, and gone through with it.

"Anyway," Ed continued, waving away the distraction, "Please, Will, don't underestimate what we're doing here. There's a lot more involved than just fur." He leaned forward and looked intensely into my eyes. "Someday soon, we're not going to just be putting pelts on people. We're not just going to be growing parts of animals instead of whole living creatures to kill at need for food. If we can just get the public to accept that there's nothing inherently wrong with shuffling genes, there's literally no limit to where we can go and what we can become. We can expand our intellects, purify our souls, redefine who and what we are at the most basic of levels. We can take control of our future, of our very identities. For the very first time, we need not be subject to blind evolution. There are no limits and no boundaries to who and what we can be through gengineering, Will. No limits at all!"

"Except the limits of fear," I observed.

"Exactly!" Ed agreed, pounding the table with a soft-furred hand for emphasis. "Exactly! The path Tabs is walking leads ultimately to godhood, I tell you, virtual godhood in every meaningful sense of the word! And yet society is terribly, terribly afraid."

"I see," I said at last.

"You're part of it, Will," Ed continued, leaning forward and looking up at me again. "Don't you see that? A big, big part of it, and your role is surely one to be proud of. You just claimed that I'd set you up so well as Mayor that you could not possibly fail; that's baloney, and you know it. Sometimes I absolutely shudder at the difficulties you're out there facing every day. I MUCK too, you know. Don't think I haven't heard about Maxine."

Despite myself, I winced. "Please," I begged. "Don't bring up that issue tonight."

"But I have to!" the little lop continued, his brown eyes going large and soft. "I have to, because this whole thing is just beginning. You've done even better in your job than I expected; someone from the Jaycees was talking to my comptroller three or four days back about running you for State Representative. There's more smoke than just that out there, too; I've sent out feelers. Hell, Will! These are old people we're talking about here. They want you to run! Sure, the money explains some of it. But not all of it, Will; not even most. If you were even remotely an asshole, the old people would accept you to your face while running you down behind your back. But they don't; despite the handicap of your being one of those weird furs who came out of nowhere to take over their town." He paused for effect. "Will, they like you!"

I sighed and shifted uncomfortably in my seat. "I went out in public in fur today," I admitted. "For the first time ever, on duty."

"And how did it go?" Ed asked with a knowing grin.

"Splendidly, for the most part. Most of the people wanted to know why I hadn't done it sooner."

Ed's grin widened. "I'da tolt you, if youda ast," he replied in his usual on-line overdone country drawl. The billionaire was so good at impersonating a hick that on those rare occasions when he MUCKed in public forums, a lot of newbies who did not recognize the character thought he was genuinely a near-illiterate.

I threw my hands up. "I don't know," I said slowly. "I do my best, I suppose. But I don't want this job forever, or any other political job for that matter. No one in their right mind would! Someday, I'm going to go retire and spend the rest of my life fishing every single day. I've got a little boat all picked out, even. One more term, or two at most. That's it!"

There was another long silence while Ed sipped at his wine. "You're older than me," he answered slowly. "You're a father figure to half of furrydom, whether you believe it or not. Among them, me." The brown lop met my eyes again. "You've also proven yourself to be a far more than merely acceptable leader to the mundane world, and 'acceptable' was the best I ever dared hope for any fur. You've also got a fair brain, my friend. Now, look at things from my point of view. Will, what do I want you to do, and what am I willing to do to make it happen?"

My eyes widened. "You can't make me run for State Rep," I replied. "You simply cannot. Forgive me for putting it so bluntly, but I honestly don't need your damned money. I don't have all that much of my own, but it's enough."

"You don't need my money," Ed agreed. "You wouldn't take it if I offered you millions. Frankly, that's one of your most appealing virtues, at least to me. But I'm not offering money. Nor am I offering any other sort of bribe; I respect you too much for that. You will either run or not run for the Statehouse based on your own convictions, and your own sense of honor and duty. I wouldn't have it any other way. Honestly."

I stood up to leave; somehow this conversation had wandered into areas that I was not at all comfortable with. "Then I'm not running," I replied shortly, "and that's that."

"Of course you're not," Ed agreed, his whiskers bristling as his dark nose wriggled. He made no move to stand up with me, no move at all. "Of course you're not. If you don't feel obliged to run for the good of the people, it would be ethically wrong for you to even try and get elected. No one can decide that for you; that's not what this is about at all." He paused and smiled teasingly. "You still haven't asked me what I am offering you, no strings attached. None. My word of honor."

I tilted my head to one side, and the little motors went crazy as my suit tried to interpolate my rigid, overstressed muscles and conflicting emotions into some sort of coherent ear-pose. "What?" I asked, half-guessing the truth already. "What are you offering me, Ed? Quit playing games. They're not any fun at all."

"You, in a Tank," Ed answered slowly. "After we check Tabs over, of course, and make sure there's nothing seriously wrong. You, a white rabbit for real; no suit and no masks and no damn question at all anymore about who you are and what you stand for." He shrugged. "After that, the rest is up to you. We'd be done in plenty of time for the campaign, no sweat. Run for office or not, as you choose. But just remember one thing." He sipped at his wine before speaking again. "In the end, it's the lawmakers who will decide the future of gengineering. And therefore the destiny of the human race. Not we scientists."

For a long, long moment I just stood there. Part of me wanted to run screaming out of the room, out of the restaurant, out of Pelton and away forever to somewhere I could fish and MUCK in peace, away from decisions and demands and angry young wolves and seven-foot vixens with sloppy kissing habits. Then my eyes fell on the two wine bottles.

One of them was still unopened, and the other had been so very, very delicious...

"Sit down, Will," Ed urged me in a very low tone. "Sit down. We have a lot to talk about, you and I, and we are both of us very busy men." His eyebrows rose. "Please?"

The day had been so beautiful, I reminded myself. Especially the second part, with the suit. I'd drunk deeply of the passing hours for the first time in far, far too long. The furbuskers had been so full of life and fun, Clark had been so pleased to see me in fur, it had felt so easy and natural to meet and greet my fellow citizens as a lapine...

"Yes, Ed," I agreed as I slid back into my seat. "We do have rather a lot to discuss, I think."

-= 12 =-

The art of politics is largely the art of managing people and their problems. It can be very rewarding indeed when you do a good job, yet even a small-town politician plays for the highest stakes of all. Failure can mean not only the ruination of human lives, but the discrediting of high ideals. Politics is never, ever just a game. It is unwise in the extreme for a politician to forget that he or she, by the act of seeking and winning office, becomes responsible for far more than his or her own life. The problems of constituents should become as important to the officeholder as his or her own difficulties. No politician worth his salt can ever afford to forget about little things like nascent slums while dealing with larger issues, like the possible future gengineering of the entire human race.

I had a bit of a headache when I arrived at the office on Saturday; in truth I was getting a little long in the tooth to be drinking so much wine and then getting up early. Plus, my chat with Ed had been far too exciting to allow for much in the way of sleep. I'd not given him a definite answer, but had promised him one by Monday. No one else was at work, which was just as well. I needed a little privacy for what I had to do next.

The Mayor's office in Pelton had not had any internet access at all when we furs had first moved in; now, courtesy of our two high-tech firms, my office was hooked up to enough bandwidth to download Bolivia. It was a terrible waste of capacity, in my view. I rarely used the 'net for anything that a much slower connection could not handle. Our local computer industry, however, seemed to consider it a matter of civic pride that the Mayor should have instant access to however many jillion gigs of capacity that the thick black cables connected to my little desktop machine provided. Instantly after I clicked on the white rabbit icon, I was logged into the 'Pelton Place' MUCK and playing my character.

"Mr. Mayor!" everyone at once seemed to be greeting me. "Mr. Mayor! Good to see you! It's been too long!"

I smiled and waved to everyone, while at the same time opening a browser and bringing up Tabs' online medical data. I tried to check in on him every hour or two. There was nothing on the feline's page that was remarkable enough to attract unwelcome attention; just basic data on blood pressure, hemocrit and the like. Fortunately everything was marked with a green zone, so that I could see that all was well. His blood sugar was down a little below normal, but it was still clearly out of the red. Even I knew enough about medicine to realize that this was no big deal.

"Hi!" I typed into the MUCK, once everything had settled down. "Has anyone seen BarryWolf?"

"You gonna ream him a new asshole, after what he said about you?" DannyPup asked. He was a teenager from Omaha who planned to move to Pelton and live with his brother as soon as he turned eighteen. "He deserves it, sure enough."

"Damn straight he does!" Major Mynah added. "But I haven't seen him here since that night when he blew up. Awk!"

"Ashamed to show his face, the dirty coward!" EagleHawk added.

"He's been up at Pelton Mall collecting recall signatures," DannyPup added. "Or so people say. Is it true that you can't be recalled, Mr. Mayor? God, is he stupid!"

I explained the recall situation to everyone, carefully not commenting on Barry's character or intellect. Then I went wolf-hunting.

The MUCKs are and always have been the real heart of furry fandom. While not quite every single last fur MUCKs, it's impossible to be a part of things without at least knowing multiple people who do in fact enjoy on-line roleplay. Thus, you could find out what anyone was up to, via MUCK. When I'd first heard The Kennel mentioned by Father Kent during my walk, I'd associated the name with an on-line chatroom rather than the old Robison apartments. And, sure enough, my memory had been correct. There the chatroom was, right in the 'Pelton Place' directory.

"Hello?" I asked when I opened up the appropriate window. There were only two other roleplayers present, and one of these had 'idle' by her name. "Anyone here?"

"Hi, WillyBunny!" the sole fur present replied. His name was Mutthead. "Good to see you! We don't get many rabbits here. Did you come to be chased? Grrr!"

"Whoa!" I answered playfully. "Bad dog! Maybe another time. I just came by looking for some people."

"Heh!" Mutt replied. "Not many people here, I'm afraid. There hasn't been for days. I've been getting really lonely."

"I bet," I replied sympathetically.

"Have you seen BarryWolf?" Mutt asked. "He never comes by and plays any more. I miss him so much! He's the only one that ever has time for me."

"Not today," I answered diplomatically. "Have you been coming here long?"

"For a few months," Mutt replied cheerfully. "After school, mostly. When I graduate next year, I want to come and live with BarryWolf."

"Really?" I asked.

"Uh-huh!" Mutt replied. "I admire Barry so much! He's making a real-life commune work! No one pays more than they can afford, no one has to do more than their share of the work, he's going to build a windmill for power... I can't wait! His plans are all so exciting."

I nodded again.

"Barry has got to be the coolest canine ever!" the boy on the other end of my connection continued. "He wants us all to be pack brothers together, like *REAL* furs. Not like that nasty Mayor, who just wants people who can pay for things to come. He thinks that money is everything."

"Mutt," I asked after thinking things over for a minute. "Do your parents know you want to move to Pelton?"

"Who cares about them?" Mutt asked, his icon's tail lowering and ceasing to wag. "They don't care about me. They think that furs are weird. I'd be in trouble right now if they knew I was logged in."

"Right," I agreed. "And I suppose they want you to go to college, too?"

"That or trade school," Mutt agreed. "But the real future is in the Pack, I think. People need to be more like wolves, in their packs. Or else like rabbits in their mobs," he added charitably. "It's really the same thing. They need to bond tight, and care about each other. Those who have too much should share with those who have too little. We can learn a lot from nature."

I sighed -- in real life, not online. "Have you actually studied how wolfpacks work?" I asked. "Or, for that matter, rabbit mobs?"

"Sure!" Mutt replied. "The animals let the smartest and best-liked member of the group become Alpha, and make decisions for the rest. That way, everyone gets along. Barry explained it to me. That's the natural way of things."

"Right," I agreed sadly. Poor Barry! Was he the victim of a politically-correct educational system, or of mere self-delusion? At any rate, I let Mutt chatter on happily for some time, nodding and smiling in the appropriate places while thinking things through. Then I finally said goodbye, logged out of the MUCK, and began making phone calls.

The first was to the power company; it took some doing to get the security guard to look up the file for me, but being Mayor did have its perks. Sure enough, the power to the Robison complex had indeed been billed to one Bartholomew W. Rogers, Jr., and the account was two months delinquent. The electricity and water both had been shut off the very day that Barry had waylaid me at my house. Which neatly explained why he wasn't online anymore. And why he was so upset.

Then I called Pelton Mall. Yes, a crowd of youths had indeed been passing around some kind of political petition, the young lady who answered the phone informed me. Most of them had been wearing tails or ears, so the management had decided to let them stay even though they hadn't asked permission first. "After all," she explained, "the furry kids are usually so nice." Then, however, they'd begun actively pestering shoppers to sign, sometimes growing very insistent. And, some of the merchants believed they were shoplifting. "So we finally had to evict them," the woman explained sadly. "We were really sorry; furs buy so much here! But we had to! I sure hope we didn't do anything wrong!" I reassured her that she'd done absolutely the right thing, that wearing ears and a tail gave no one any special rights whatsoever. Then, when she'd finally finished apologizing and hung up, I sat and stared at my desk for a long, long moment.

There was no doubt that I had it within my power to shut the Kennel down literally overnight. Barry's pack was in clear violation of multiple city ordinances in regard to sanitation alone, and I rather suspected that Chief Martin could add a few dozen criminal charges to the list, if he could but establish enough probable cause to enter the building. Even if he couldn't, the ugly truth of the matter was that the mere filing of charges would be enough to do in Barry's small-scale experiment in communism. The charges didn't need to be good enough to hold up in court. If Chief Martin discovered stolen property and drugs inside, as I was by now quite certain that he would, that would be all she wrote for The Kennel. Barry couldn't afford legal problems; he couldn't even afford to keep his lights on. All we'd have to do is offer to drop charges in exchange for the whole lot of them leaving town, and they'd accept the offer in a New York minute. It was what most Mayors would do in my shoes, I knew. The plan was practical, effective, and probably not wholly unjust. No one in the furry community would blame me; Barry had committed the fandom's version of suicide when he'd lost his temper so spectacularly and wrong-headedly in so many places. There didn't seem to be any downside at all.

Still, I didn't like it. Barry might be into taking drugs, I reckoned; a lot of kids went through that stage, and I'd even tried them myself. He might also be into violent S&M games, though in truth I rather doubted it. He wasn't the type at all. But Barry most certainly was not a petty thief or thug, as my two near-assailants had been. He was an intelligent, well-meaning soul who'd gotten himself in too deep. That was all. I just knew it. He had it in him to grow, despite all appearances.

So, how could I clear things up at the Robison Complex while doing Barry and the other decent furs I knew to be living there the absolute least possible amount of harm?

That was easy enough, once I'd finally figured out how to properly formulate the question. I picked up my phone again and dialed Saluto's Funeral Home. "Rich Saluto, please," I asked the bereaved-sounding secretary.

"Hello?" my friend answered a few moments later, his own voice low and mournful.

"Hiya, Rich!" I answered. "This is Will Peters. I need a favor, if you can help me."

"Anything, anytime!" the former mayor replied, brightening up instantly. "What's up?"

"Who owns the Robison block?" I asked. "I need to see if I can very quietly persuade them to evict their current tenants, just as soon as possible. It certainly looks to me like the tenants in question are in clear violation of just about every rental contract that I've ever seen..."

-= 13 =-

An eviction order takes time to process. This is because there are well-intentioned laws on the books designed to prevent the sudden de-housing of legitimate, well-meaning renters who have temporarily fallen upon hard times. However, the eviction order aimed at The Kennel absolutely sailed through the legal system. This was because the Widow Beardsley, who was ninety-two and owned the place, was deeply shocked and offended the very second she laid eyes on what had become of her property. "I'll have them out of there in no time flat!" she'd called me at home to say. "And the day they're gone, I'll have the exterminators in! What a mess! Thank you so much for letting me know what was going on!" Since the Widow had indeed collected her rent on a weekly basis, as I'd suspected, and since BarryWolf also hadn't inspected his lease agreement very closely before signing on the dotted line, he was under a court order to be out by a week from Friday.

Besides, he was already a week's payment behind, and had been for some time.

This was just as well; Tabs was scheduled to be out of his Tank by that Wednesday, and if all went well he was supposed to appear before the news cameras on the same day that Barry was being evicted. The big media event was scheduled to take place right on the Pelton town square, and Chief Martin had emphasized to me that he would need every single officer on the force for traffic control alone, and more besides. Ed Morrison was going absolutely nuts, calling in media from as far away as Bangkok and Melbourne; already there wasn't a motel room to be had for tens of miles around. So, working closely with the Widow Beardsley and Judge Thomas, we scheduled the actual eviction for ten in the morning, so that there would be plenty of time to get things squared away before the news conference at three. In the meantime, I signed an overtime authorization for patrols to be doubled and tripled in that part of town. There was, after all, no need for any other fursuiters to be harassed. Or anyone else, for that matter.

I continued to check on in Tabs' vitals every couple of hours; once when I looked in they suddenly went crazy right before my eyes. Instantly I was on the phone to find out what was wrong. It turned out that someone had accidentally spilled a container of some kind of sticky liquid onto the unconscious Tabs. The icky stuff had soaked deeply into his newly-grown fur, causing a massive biosensor malfunction. The staff was already cleaning things up; everything was under perfect control. I was much relieved to hear this; it was just one of those unforeseen things, was all. Next time, they'd use veterinary sensors. This untidy little incident excepted, Tabs' transformation was going perfectly, so far as his doctors could see. Everything was right on schedule.

And, the doctors informed me, they'd begun the process of force-growing rabbit parts.

The news sent a little shiver of anticipation up and down my spine, even though it was expected. I was wearing my suit to work every day now, and had even cut the grass in it over the weekend. It was the real me, I'd decided, and sure enough Tabs had been right. The more I wore the suit, the more natural it became for me to act like who I really was. The more I acted that way, the happier I was with myself. Then, in turn, other people seemed even happier with me and the world became a happier place for everyone.

Why hadn't I figured this out a long time ago?

As time passed, word inevitably leaked out about the big announcement coming up. The cannier furs, who'd been following the research and who knew Ed a little, came perilously close to guessing the truth. In fact, I truly believe that some of them actually did guess, but were kind enough to keep their mouths shut. Once of the canniest of all asked around on-channel one night exactly where Tabby Cat had been lately. I answered back hastily that he was off working on a contract. "I bet the contract's with Ed Morrison," the fur had replied. "In one of his most secret labs. I just bet. Can't wait to find out if I'm right." But, at least, he'd been discreet enough to say no more.

My next two Wednesday breakfast meetings went well enough; I didn't draw the rhinoceros cookie again at either one. Whether out of decency or frustration BarryWolf didn't show, and we actually got quite a bit of work done. It was agreed that having Maxine paint the inside of the garage was working out well for everyone including her, and since the job would take at least three months for a single worker we tabled further discussion of the issue for the time being. We also discussed and formally agreed to my solution of the Kennel problem, Chief Martin pointing out that the new crime statistics were just now revealing a major spike in that neighborhood over the past few weeks. We'd actually reacted to the problem quicker than the data could be compiled, it seemed. Everyone was quite pleased about this, and once again Rich Saluto brought up the idea of my running for the Statehouse. This time, however, he quite deliberately brought it up in front of my informal little staff. They actually stood up and applauded the idea right in the middle of the diner while I looked away, embarrassed.

I looked away, yes. But I very carefully didn't say that I wouldn't run. Ed was right, in his way. It would be politicians who made the important decisions about gengineering laws, and what better way to open their eyes than to make them work alongside a gengineered person every day? Besides, months would pass before the election, and a lot was going to happen in that time. When my rabbit persona wasn't just a suit anymore, would Rich and the rest of the Pelton political old-timers still want me to run? Would Rich still believe that the farmers outside of town and in the small hamlets thought well of me? On the face of it, the very idea of getting elected as a real anthropomorphic rabbit was insane. But the existence and success of Pelton had made a difference in attitudes, I was forced to admit to myself. A major difference indeed. What had once been insane was now commonplace, at least around this part of the country.

And what a step forward for gengineering if I succeeded!

-= 14 =-

I was sitting in the room waiting when Tabs finally woke up; the doctors had told me they expected him to regain consciousness within about five hours after being decanted, and in point of fact it took just four. "Unh?" my friend had asked, turning his head side-to-side slowly. "Unh?"

"Shh!" I answered, leaping forward and grasping the feline's restrained hand tightly. I was out of my suit now, showing the world my naked face for Tabs' sake. After all, this was how he was accustomed to seeing me. "It's okay, Tabby. Everything went perfectly, just perfectly!"

Suddenly there was a crowd of doctors and nurses standing behind me; in point of fact, even though we had determined that my friend's new body was functioning exactly as designed, we wouldn't really know how things had gone until we determined if the patient was sane and mentally whole. "Uhnn!" he said again, opening and closing his eyes. "Uhn!"

"It's okay, Tabs," I repeated. "You probably won't be able to talk for a few hours at least; you've got new teeth, you know. Plus a new mouth. And a bit of a muzzle."

Tabs' big green vertically-slitted eyes crossed comically as he focused on his new nose. The sight was ridiculous; staring down at one's new muzzle was the very first thing that all transformees did in the cheesiest of transformation stories, to the point where the act of doing so had become something of a cliché. "Uhn!" he groaned again, eyes widening in wonder. "Uhn!"

"Are you in any pain, Tabs?" a doctor asked over my shoulder. "Any discomfort at all?"

The big cat, for that's what he now truly was, shook his head slightly, then smiled faintly at the sensation as he let his new head fall back on the pillow. "Uhn!" The corners of his mouth turned up; Tabby's new smile, I noted, was far superior to that of his old mask. "Uhhn!" He squeezed my hand heartily.

I squeezed back, which made Tabby smile again. Then, on an impulse I reached down and stroked my friend gently behind the left ear. His eyes rolled in pleasure, and then a new sound emerged from his throat. "Rrrrrrrr!" he purred. "Rrrrrrrr!"

And it was then that I knew in my heart that my friend Tabs was going to be just fine. Better, in fact, than he had ever been before.

-= 15 =-

Tabs was walking unassisted on Thursday morning, and speaking at least semi-clearly by evening-time. I'd taken the whole end of the week off to be with my friend when he needed me, and had left my cell-phone quite deliberately back in my convertible. Only Chief Martin knew the number of my brand-new pager, and he was wise enough not to ring me up for anything less than Gabriel's trump. Which, fortunately, was not blown during Tabby's recovery.

There was quite a lot for Tabby to have to deal with all at once. At first his claws had kept sliding in and out incessantly, which he claimed tickled something fierce. And on a more embarrassing note, for some unknown reason he'd been unable to control his bowels or bladder until rather late in the adaptation process. Everyone understood perfectly, of course, though it was terribly distressing for the normally so-cool and collected Tabs. Somewhere along the way my friend found out that I was scheduled to be next, and suddenly at one point the big housecat, overcome with joy, grabbed me and smacked me heartily on the cheek, just like Maxine had been doing. "Mwwwaaah!" he said aloud. "Mwaaah! Mwaaah! I can't wait to help you like you're helping me!" Furries had always been more physical than most folks, granted. It was part of the grand tradition. But this was getting ridiculous! Was there no escaping from the orally-fixated types these days?

By the time the big press conference rolled around, Tabby was not only up and around, but frankly more lithe and agile than ever. Except for a tendency to enjoy grooming himself a little too much, and a certain difficulty in speaking some words, Tabs was pretty much fully recovered. And, he was deliriously happy. "This is wonderrrful, Will," he declared as we rode together to the town square in the back of Ed Morrison's personal limo. There were crowds everywhere; we could see people pointing at us through our heavily-mirrored windows. If the Chief hadn't taken pains to keep the route clear in advance, we could never have made it downtown. Apparently word was leaking out at last. "Wonderrrful!"

"Wonderful indeed," Ed agreed. He'd chosen to wear his blue-fox bunny suit today, the same one he'd accepted the Nobel Prize in. It was stunning, absolutely stunning.

Ed spoke to the crowd first, laying the groundwork for what was coming and speaking at length about the importance of gengineering to the future of humanity. "We humans are taking control of life itself," he explained in his rather nasal public-speaking voice. "We humans are taking charge of our own destiny at long, long last. On behalf of my hard-working, dedicated staff, I am proud to present you with a new miracle, ladies and gentlemen of the press, a new step forward down the path to our true destiny." He beckoned with his arm. "Allow me to present you with... Tabby Cat!"

There was a very, very long moment of silence as Tabs stepped out onto the little platform we'd erected for the occasion, wearing nothing but a pair of shorts and his own richly striped fur. "Oh my God!" someone whispered from the front row; I could hear them clearly from my own seat backstage. "Oh my God! That's no fursuit!"

"No," Tabs replied in his new, richly-resonating voice, still speaking very slowly so as not to stumble in public. "It's not."

Then the real pandemonium broke out; reporters were pushing and shoving and yelling out questions as flashes fired by the thousands and Tabs grinned and waved. I smiled and held my ground backstage, watching all the chaos as it were happening a thousand miles away, instead of right on my office doorstep. My heavens, but Ed had kicked over a beehive! He'd certainly come a long way from being the scrawny college kid with big ideas I'd once chatted with online from time to time!

"That's illegal!" a red-faced reporter cried out.

"Maybe," Ed answered. "And maybe not. We'll let the lawyers work it out. It shouldn't take more than twenty years or so. For your information, there's a lot of jurisdictions involved. A whole lot of them."

"It's a crime against humanity!" another declared.

"It's the most wonderrrrful thing that's everrrr happened to me!" Tabs replied, smiling beatifically. "Rrrrrreeally! The trrrrue crrrrime would be if we didn't do it again!"

And that was my cue, I suddenly realized as Ed stared me in the eye. Then I was out in the middle of things, being introduced and stating for the record that not only was I a volunteer, but that I wanted nothing in the world more than to have my body altered into something resembling my fursuit. Then there was cheering all around the outside of the Square, as the furs went nuts and drowned out the reporters entirely. "Free-dom!" they chanted. "Free-dom! Free-dom!"

"Freedom of form," Ed agreed with a smile, using his powerful microphone to make himself heard where the reporters could not. "That's what this is all about, and what it's always been about. Freedom of form. Freedom of choice. Freedom to make one's own destiny." Then he lowered his gaze to the reporters below him. "Mr. Cat is still a Clinic patient," he explained. "And he's only been as you see him for a very few days. He's not very strong yet, and therefore we'll be fielding no further questions. There will be handouts for everyone, and of course more press conferences in the days to come. Good day, and thank you all very much!"

-= 16 =-

From that point on, I spent the rest of the afternoon hiding in my office from the barrage of reporters waiting to assault me at every turn. My phones were swamped, City Hall was swamped... It seemed that every news organization in the world wanted an interview with me nearly as badly as they coveted time with Tabs and Ed. Rich Saluto was intelligent enough to come by in person to congratulate me and shake my hand; though he looked at me rather oddly I knew that the sentiments were genuine. "Who'd have thought that the future of Mankind would reveal itself in tired old Pelton, Illinois?" he asked with a sad smile as we sat alone my office, Marge bravely holding the newsies at bay.

I smiled sadly. "It's an odd thing that we furs crave," I admitted.

"On the surface, maybe," Rich countered. "But don't forget what I do for a living, Will. You wouldn't believe the things I see. One lady had diamonds set in her molars. Another customer had over three hundred body piercings. I've embalmed corpses with tattoos that you would not think any sane person would tolerate. And the special requests! I had a guy once who wanted to be buried in a Nazi SS officer's uniform. That one had to go somewhere else, of course. I don't do business with his kind." He looked at me closely. "If someone ever wanted to be buried in a bunny suit, now, that I'd do in a minute. Even before you furs moved into town, I'd probably have done it. Nowadays, well..." He looked away. "I've buried three men in fur. And I didn't laugh at any of them. None of us back at the shop did. Honestly. We've come to understand, at least a little."

I nodded slowly. Ed was right; we were making progress in Pelton. Real progress.

"I've seen more human innards than most surgeons, because of what I do for a living. And I've also learned more about the inside of human heads than most shrinks, or so I flatter myself. Funerals bring out the inner truth of people in a way that nothing else can. The fact is, I don't think that you furs are half as strange as you think you are. You've been wearing that suit to work for what? Two weeks now?"

"About," I agreed.

"And it's been good for you. You couldn't hide it if you tried. So, if you want to be a rabbit for real, who am I to deny you the chance?" Rich shook his head sadly. "I think the laws restricting human gengineering are a crock. Nor are they enforceable. Even before I worked with you I had my doubts, though I admit I hadn't thought about the subject very much. It didn't seem very important. But now, well..." He paused and smiled. "I can't wait to meet Tabs up close and personal. He's free now, in a way that I'll probably never live to be. Who'd have ever thought that it would happen first in tired old Pelton, Illinois? Who'd have thought it?"

Ed scheduled a second press conference at six in the evening with him alone on the hot seat. Practically all of the newsies left my office door to go attend, and with Chief Martin's help I was able to escape out a side exit. Maxine, god bless her, delivered my old Volkswagen to me, and once I got the seats and mirrors readjusted from her giant frame and had wiped her purple lipstick off of both of my cheeks I was able to drive home in relative peace. I left the top up, though; there was no point in inviting trouble. Eventually I'd have to do a series of interviews. Possibly even more of them than Tabby before all was said and done. There was, however, no reason that I could see why I had to do them all today.

I'd been half afraid that I'd find a bunch of reporters camped out on my front lawn, but fortunately I'd been granted my privacy. This was probably more due to a bit of well-intentioned pre-emptive hacking that Ed had undertaken on my behalf than anything else; his software people, in cooperation with the Recorder of Deeds and others, had temporarily changed my internet address of record to a house number that did not exist on a remote street that dead-ended three blocks short of where said number should have been located. Indeed, my 'house' was an abandoned mineshaft. Eventually the reporters would actually get out and hustle a little, of course. Surely there were at least a few veterans among them who had acquired their reporting skills in the days before computers had made things so easy; eventually, said veterans would think to ask questions of living human beings. In the meantime, however, I had a little peace and quiet to look forward to. If a crowd developed, Chief Martin was fully prepared to deal with it for me.

I yawned wide and hard as I rolled up into my garage, parked my car with extra care due to fatigue, and then hit the button again to close the door behind me. Once the motor was shut off I stretched and yawned again luxuriously, wriggling inside my very comfortable fursuit and listening contentedly to the ear-motors stretch my aural appendages for me as well, just to keep things authentic. Soon, I told myself, smiling wide. Very soon now. Just as soon as they get Tabs thoroughly checked out...

Then I froze. Something had moved inside the garage; I was sure of it! But where? All I'd caught was a flash of motion somewhere. Suddenly I was very wide awake indeed.

"Hello?" I asked nervously. But there was no answer.

"Hello!" I repeated, more certainly this time. By God, I was sure I'd seen something! "Come out, whoever you are. There's no sense in hiding. I'm not doing any more interviews today, and certainly I'm not giving one to a trespasser. Show yourself, and I'll not file charges. You'll be able to walk away, and this whole affair will be forgotten."

There was more silence, and I began to feel a little silly. Maybe I'd been mistaken, after all? Then I caught another flash of motion; it was the rear view mirror! Someone was behind me, and they'd forgotten about the mirrors!

Enough was enough; I reached into my jacket pocket to pull out my cell phone...

...and then a low, growling voice spoke. "Don't do that!" The words as much a plea as an order. "Please, Will! Don't do it!" I turned to my left, where the sound was coming from.

BarryWolf was standing there, just outside my car door. With a rather large and heavy revolver in his hand.

-= 17 =-

It took me several tries to find the right words, or even to speak at all. Barry's weapon wasn't pointed quite at me, granted. But it also wasn't pointed away. Not quite. "Son," I said very slowly. "There's no need for this."

The wolf laughed bitterly. "Oh yes, there is. Absolutely there's a need."

"No," I contradicted him firmly, "There is not."

Barry laughed again, the notes sounding false and strained. "You're still fighting with me," he declared, shaking his head in wonderment. "Even now, after I've lost everything worth having. After you took away my dream, you're still trying to mess with my life!" He shook his head again. "What a total bastard you are! You just had to arrange for my final humiliation to happen on the day of your own greatest triumph. Don't you see? This is all I have left," he explained, brandishing the gun. "This is it. Out of everything." Then he looked me in the eyes. "I've lost it all, you bastard. My old man left me ten thousand bucks when he died. I used it to try and make my dream come true. And you made yours come true instead. I've lost my job, lost my home, everyone hates me on-line --"

"No. Not everyone," I countered. "I met a kid called Mutthead the other night who seemed to think mighty well of you."

Barry smiled wanly, though his features remained pasty. "He would," the wolf agreed. "What a dumb little kid! I don't deserve him."

"He may be dumb," I replied, shrugging slightly. "But he likes you. Where there's one, there's others. Not that you couldn't start over again with a new nick, mind you. Or start a new life here in Pelton. A lot of others have done it." I looked meaningfully at the revolver. "You'd have to put that away first, you know. In fact, I can't imagine a better first step."

"Heh!" Barry replied with a weak smile, shaking the gun for emphasis. "Aren't you a slick one, Mr. Willybunny? You're fuller of shit than my grandma's outhouse! No wonder no one's ever taken you down; you're much too wily for that. Wily Willybunny; that's you!"

I closed my eyes and sighed. "Barry..."

"No!" the young man answered, raising the weapon and pointing it directly at me for the first time. "Don't do it! Don't 'Barry' me! You froze me out, you bastard! You resented my having any followers whatsoever; you had to have them all! You persecuted my commune, you got me fired from my job, and then you had me thrown out of my home, with all of my friends! Did you know that none of us have anywhere but the streets to sleep tonight, because of you?"

I closed my eyes. "There's the Animal Shelter," I pointed out, referring to a charitable outfit for furs down on their luck. "There's the Salvation Army shelter up the road in Martensburgh. There's probably dozens of individual --"

"Shut up!" Barry screamed, an ugly hysterical note creeping into his voice. Now the gun was aimed at my head; despite the fact that Barry was using both hands, the muzzle was trembling noticeably. Had I been more than five feet away, he couldn't have hit me if he tried. "Shut up, you coldhearted sellout bastard! I could have made this a real furry town, could have built it on sharing and caring and making everyone leave who didn't help out others. That's the real furry way! But you, you, you..." His words degenerated into a low growl.

I sighed again, and looked down. So this was it; I was to be killed by an ungrateful young whelp of a fur who was both too stupid to figure out the way the world really worked and too impatient to let anyone else teach him. Well, everyone died eventually; I'd accepted that long since. "I didn't get you fired," I pointed out honestly. "If you're going to murder me, at least murder me for the right reasons. I don't even know where you worked."

"You set Mr. Haber against me!" Barry screamed shrilly. "It had to be that way! I should have been promoted for figuring out better ways to do my job, not fired! It was all your behind-the-scenes manipulation! That, and they were too stupid to appreciate me! And it was you that got Jimmy Neilson to beat me up when I tried to make the others do their chores! I was right, and he was wrong; it was the natural order of things. It was you that ruined everything! I was Alpha, and then they cast me down! And Anne, she laughed at me. Laughed at me, the bubble-head!"

By now the tears were streaming down Barry's face. He was weeping like a child, and I'd never seen his tail hanging so low. The poor thing was growing quite old and ragged, I could see; its steel armature was glinting through the gray fur in places. "Barry," I said at last. "Killing me isn't going to help a thing, you know. You'll do hard time; there's no way you can get away with this. I'll be dead, yes. But you'll spend the rest of your life in prison. You only get to live one life, son. Is that the one you really want?"

For just a moment Barry's eyes narrowed, and then he laughed again. "Kill you?" he asked. "Kill you? I'm not going to kill you, you evil son of a bitch! That would be too easy! Instead, I'm going to give you what you wanted all along, and you're going to watch." He stood up straight and began to raise the muzzle to his temple. "I'm no murderer, Will. But you are! You've killed me! You win, Will! I give up! Fucking enjoy --"

For over a minute, my left hand had been waiting on the Volkswagen's inner door handle. Just as the gun's barrel swung away from my cranium and long before Barry could get the heavy thing re-aimed towards his own, I flung the door open with all of my might...

...and the outer handle struck Barry right in the testicles.

"Oof!" he cried out, doubling over. A single shot rang out, striking home I didn't know where. And then I was on top of Barry, wrestling with him and tearing at the gun.

"God damn you!" I shouted as we fought, patience exhausted at long last. "God damn you for an arrogant little snot!"

"Fuck you, old man!" Barry answered. "Fuck you!" He was the younger of the two of us by far, and the larger and stronger by a considerable margin as well. Finally he managed to wrest the weapon from my furgloved grasp, and went rolling away.

"God damn you!" I declared again, leaping to my feet once more. There was a shovel hanging on the wall; I seized it and swung the business end hard, catching Barry's gun hand on the flat of the metal blade. Bones crunched under the blow, but he did not release the gun. Instead, he tried to move it to his other hand. So I swung again, and this time the blow landed on the wolf's shoulder, where it made little impact, and recoiled high. The gun rose once more...

...and savagely I reversed my weapon and thrust the tool's pole-handle down hard into Barry's soft, exposed gut. "Damn you!" I cursed as he doubled over once more. Then I repeated the blow again and again, repeating the epithet each time. "Damn you! Damn you! Damn you! Damn you!"

After five vicious handle-thrusts, Barry was in a pretty sad state. He was doubled over tighter than ever, and didn't seem to really know where he was. But, he still held the revolver in his good hand. I raised the shovel again so as to be ready to strike once again with the blade, but Barry didn't move at all.

"Son," I said gently, speaking between pants. I was indeed too old for this kind of thing. "Where there's life, there's hope. Even now, there's hope for you. You're much too young to be a total failure; it takes decades of hard work to fail in a truly thorough way. You've made a fairly complete ass out of yourself, yes. But you're smart and young and there's hope. I promise you, there's hope."

"No there's not." Barry's voice was terribly strained, but I could make out the words.

"Yes there is," I answered. "Be honest with yourself, son. That's the first step. Who's got a better track record on this sort of thing, you or me? I promise you, give you my word of honor, that I'll try and help you out of this scrape if you'll let me. But the first step is giving me that gun."

Barry tried to laugh, then winced in pain. He didn't look good at all; perhaps those handle-thrusts had done more damage than I'd imagined? "I want to die!" he howled. "Please, let me have that much!"

"No," I answered. "You so much as move that gun-hand a single inch, and I'll beat the living hell out of you." I waggled my weapon threateningly. "Want some more of this? Want to die painfully? I'll stand here and beat you to death, if need be. It's not nearly so pleasant as a gunshot."

Barry coughed, and winced. Then he shook his head as if to clear it. "Shit," he murmured. "I don't believe it. This is the worst of all." He looked up at me. "I'm going to set the gun down, okay? Don't hit me again. Please."

"Okay," I growled, readying myself for a trick.

"Here I go." The gun clattered down to the roughly-finished cement of my garage floor.

"Now move away from it," I demanded.

"I'm not sure I can," the wolf replied, probably honestly. Somehow, though, with me still standing over him, he managed to drag himself several feet along the wall. "I don't believe this!"

"What don't you believe?" I growled, not letting my guard down a bit. For all I knew Barry had another weapon on him. It would be just like him.

"I can't believe that I got the crap kicked out of me by a decrepit old rabbit!" he wailed, beginning to cry once more. He lifted his fist as if to pound it on the cement floor, then winced and abandoned the effort. "Some kind of wolf I was, huh?" Angrily he reached around and yanked the precious trademark tail off of his rump, then threw it across my garage. "I can't get anything right! Not anything at all!"

-= 18 =-
Fourteen years later

It was a truly beautiful day, I thought to myself approvingly as I floated along in Ed's limousine. Granted, riding in the limo wasn't nearly as nice as riding in my old Volkswagen had been, with my ears flapping merrily in the breeze. I remembered my old car quite fondly; Barry's single shot had gone right through the poor thing's engine block, and even though I'd had a new motor installed, it had never run right again. But what was gone was gone, and there wasn't any sense getting all morbid over it. I'd never found a car since that suited me so well, granted. But then again, it didn't seem that I'd be doing much of my own driving anytime soon anyway. For the time being, Ed Morrison had offered me use of his extra personal car, plus a driver. I'd accepted, very gratefully.

"I feel good about this, Will," Rich Saluto said from his usual seat directly across from me. "I feel very good indeed. You're in."

I nodded wordlessly and looked out the window, wriggling my nose nervously and adjusting a stray whisker. We were almost to the Square, and once more a big crowd was forming there. Most of them wore ears-and-tail; a substantial percentage of the rest no longer needed to. That so very many people had been Tanked already always surprised me, every time I saw it. But yet, there it was. The people of Pelton, at least, were taking full advantage of their new freedoms. "The poll numbers look good," I agreed.

Rich snorted. He looked pretty good himself these days; Ed Morrison's patented geriatric treatments had him appearing younger than he had on the day I'd first met him. They'd also provided him with enough vigor to become a damn fine campaign chairman. The ex-mortician was a much cannier politician than I'd ever be, despite my meteoric success. In fact, said success was due largely to him, and we both knew it. We made a fine team, he and I, a very fine team indeed. "Good, hell!" he continued with a mischievous grin. "The polls look terrific! If I were your opponent, I don't know where I'd have found the energy to keep on campaigning. Sometimes I think that if it hadn't been for the religious angle, no one would have bothered running against you. What a waste of time and money!"

I shook my head sadly. Would I never be able to win over the deeply religious folks? Possibly not, but I swore to myself that I'd never give up trying. Then, quite suddenly we were at the Square and Ed's chauffeur was opening my door. "Thanks, Mike," I muttered as I got out. "Thanks for everything during a long, hard campaign."

"It was nothing, sir," the professional driver and bodyguard replied. He wore an equine's straggly tail, and a zebra-striped suit. "You've been a wonderful client. Best of luck! You can count on my vote tomorrow, come hell or high water."

I nodded and smiled, then climbed the steps up to the top of the little temporary podium that my successor as Mayor had arranged for me. It was the very same podium that Tabs and Ed and I had stood on, so many years before, on the day that the new Tabby Cat had first been revealed to the world. It was even set up in exactly the same place, just as I'd requested. The crowd roared at the sight of me, but after a single friendly wave I sat down quietly in the back. It wasn't time yet, not quite time.

And besides, we were missing someone very important. Two someones, in fact.

"Ed's running a little late," State Representative Eichelberger whispered in my ear. Charlie Eichelberger was an old friend, and a gnu-morph. "They got caught up in traffic out at the new airport. Highway construction never keeps up with growth, it seems. Even the cops can't move them along any faster. The Mayor's with him."

I nodded. "Can't be helped, I suppose." Bored, I peered out over the crowd, trying to spot familiar faces. I had both started and finished every political campaign of my career in Pelton, Illinois, and I lived here as much as I could, still in my same old bungalow. Why not? I liked it very much. Finally, I caught sight of a face I knew, two rows back in the VIP section. It was Clark Devries, by god, the ex-grocer from my old breakfast-table cabinet. "Clark!" I hollered at the top of my lungs, waving like an idiot and not caring what the cameras saw. I was home, and among fen! If others didn't understand, tough!

"Will!" Clark replied, bouncing up and down excitedly. Clark had proven to be more of a fur than I'd ever given him credit for; he was every bit as much a mouse nowadays as I was a rabbit. Which was rather a lot, to be quite honest. "Will! Go get 'em WillBunny!"

I chuckled and waved again, making a mental note to stop in and see my old friend on the way back from voting tomorrow. Surely Marge could free up ten minutes in my schedule for chatting with an old friend?

Then Ed's limo came oozing up to the base of the podium, and presently two more figures, one a rabbit and the other a bison, ascended the rude wooden steps to join the rest of us. "I'm late!" the first fumed, rolling his big lapine eyes theatrically. I had always wondered what kind of rabbit Ed would choose to become, once he got his new body and would no longer be able to change varieties every day simply by swapping suits. Sure enough, he'd chosen the blue-fox look, just as I would have predicted. It suited him very, very well.

The second figure was a little more enigmatic than even Ed. The newest Mayor of Pelton had never failed to be gracious and polite to me in his official capacity, but he had also avoided my company for many years now whenever it was at all practicable. He was doing quite well for himself, the new Mayor was; he'd made his pile rehabbing old homes in Dogtown before going into politics, starting with fixing up the old Robison complex. The buffalo-man waved to the band as he climbed the last step up to the top of the rostrum, then he smiled at me and stepped over to shake my hand as the local high school kids broke into Here Comes Peter Cottontail in my honor. It had been my campaign theme song for many elections now.

"Congressman!" the Mayor greeted me, his words cool but correct. "It's a great honor to have you here in Pelton, especially today of all days."

I smiled and stood up, offering my hand. "It's damn good to be here, Bart, as always. This is home, after all." Then the bovine stepped over to the microphone.

"Ladies and Gentlemen!" the Mayor addressed the cheering multitudes. "Furs and norms! Cybers and non-cybers!" Slowly the noise level fell away, as people finished up their conversations and began to pay attention to the speaker.

"You are about to see something that happens only very rarely in the world of politics," Bart continued, the sun glinting prettily off of his well-buffed horns whenever the angle was right. "You are about to see a loyal and dedicated member of one political party openly endorse and otherwise back the Gubernatorial candidate of the opposition party."

My mouth dropped open, but the Mayor went on before I could react. "I've known Will Peters since long before most of you might imagine," he continued. "He was a fine Mayor during a very difficult era, as some of you longer-time residents might recall. He went on to become a fine state legislator, and has been a fine United States Congressman as well. Despite our partisan differences, I've also supported many bills that Will Peters sponsored, especially those that unchained the gengineers and have led to such a revolutionary period of growth and prosperity for mankind in general. It is not too much to say that Will Peters has been as much a pioneer in gengineering and cybering and whatever else lies beyond as Ed Morrison himself."

I looked over at Ed, and shrugged helplessly. He merely cocked an ear and turned away, looking slightly vexed. Ed was a wee bit vain about some things, and clearly he thought that it was too much to say. It didn't matter to me, really; in my book he was entitled to be a little vain. Besides, I agreed with my brother rabbit. Ed Morrison had truly made me what I was, in more ways than one. His truly was the mind that had redefined humanity, more than any other.

"This, however, is not why I'm standing here not only politely introducing Will Peters, as my official position would call for in any event, but actively encouraging you to vote for him against the interests of my own party. I'm not endorsing Will because of what he's done, but rather because of who he is."

I leaned forward, my ears pricking up.

"The real measure of a man," Bart continued, his words coming more slowly now, "is not how he handles his public life, but rather what he does behind the scenes. Once upon a time, while Mayor of Pelton, Will Peters was forced to deal with the most arrogant, ignorant, obnoxious little creep that you've ever met in your life. He wasn't just forced to deal with this miserable being in his official capacity, oh no. He was forced to deal with him in his private capacity as well, at a time when due to the pressure of other demands he could deal with it least." For just a moment the buffalo looked downwards. "That little monster was me. Barry Rogers."

There was a murmur out in the crowd. "I'm deeply ashamed of who I once was," the Mayor continued. "But I'm still around to be ashamed solely due to the efforts of Will Peters. He not only failed to crush me like a bug when he could and maybe even should have, but got me the help I needed to grow up in ways I desperately needed to grow. He spent time finding a place for me to stay, when he had little time to spare. He believed in me, when even my own friends and family had given up hope. When I myself had given up hope. And yet, I once saw him as my deadly enemy. What a fool I was!"

The buffalo turned to face me then, and I saw that he was weeping openly. "Even now," he continued, "even after all of these years, it is very difficult for me to look Will Peters in the eye, for when I do I become once more in my own mind the filthy-mouthed know-it-all I once truly was. It is for this reason, and this reason alone, that until this very moment I have not even tried to thank this great man for all that he did for me, even at mortal peril to his own life. It was he who gave me a second chance; it was he who granted me the opportunity to reinvent myself. I owe him literally everything."

Another rumble went through the crowd. I'd never told anyone about what had gone between BarryWolf and I in my garage, not even the police. After all, I'd given my word of honor to try and help. And I really hadn't done all that much. Most of it was simple self-defense.

"And so," Bart continued, his voice breaking with almost every syllable, "Thank you, Will Peters, for everything. Thank you for my life."

It took Bart a moment to collect himself before going on. "Ladies and gentlemen, it truly is with great pleasure that I present you with Pelton's most famous living son. Let us hope that he, like another famous son of downstate Illinois, will continue to help to free men and women from bondage, this time from the bonds imposed by Mother Nature herself. It is my privilege and undying honor, ladies and gentlemen of Pelton, to present you with the next Governor of the State of Illinois!"

The crowd went nuts then, and before I knew it Barry was crying in my arms and Chief Martin was pounding me on the back and even dignified old Rich Saluto was jumping up and down in glee. The applause went on for long minutes before I finally gave my speech, which was a pale and insignificant little thing compared to the Mayor's fine words.

And then I was presented with the keys to the city and a great big bouquet of flowers by the shapeliest little vixen I'd ever seen. "Mmwwaaaaah!" Maxine said as she smacked me on the cheek and hugged me painfully tight. "You were such a nice little Mayor," she declared. "I'm sure you'll make a wonderful little Governor, too. Thanks for everything, Mr. Mayor! Mmmmwaaah! Mmwwaaaah! Mmmmmmmwwwwwaaaaaaaah!"

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