Lancaster County, Pennsylvania
March 3, 2006
Ugh, damn nightmares. Strange premonitions of bad things haunted my sleep practically until around noon. Visions of Cardiff, my earliest fuzzy memories of the program at BioCon. The tour taken by shadowy men in suits when my fellow test subjects -- my friends -- and I were paraded around in front of them like show dogs. I never saw those men again after that day, never saw their faces. Except one. He was their leader as far as I could tell. Cardiff reported to him. What kind of leader though? I wished I knew. Green eyes. He had green eyes, dark hair slicked back, clean shaven. What year was it back then? We were never privy to that information.
Washington, D.C. I'd seen it in pictures. The White House, the Capitol Building. That big white obelisk dedicated to George Washington in front of a glorified swimming pool. The capital city of the United States. Home of the President, the man I wanted to find, my last hope for freedom. I had a vision of Diana, but she appeared so far away. She was running toward me, arms outstretched, but then she disappeared suddenly and was replaced by the green-eyed man in his black suit. He pointed a gun at me. I grimaced as I saw a bright flash and ...
I woke up panting hard. My skin was cold. The sun was shining brightly through a window where it had just poked through the steel-grey clouds. Was that the flash I saw? No one else was present in the room. I was still in my bed in the guest room at the Sadler home. Nothing had changed from yesterday. Breakfast was the first order of business. Perhaps a bath after that. My body didn't want to cooperate, and I rolled out of bed onto the hard wooden floor with a painful thud. What a lousy start for a day when I needed to be 100 percent.
The Sadlers were preparing for lunch when I stumbled out in my rumpled clothing and disheveled fur. I let out a long yawn that showed all my teeth, an event which scared Martha's baby out of her wits and caused her to shriek and cry. Human children can be cute, but ugh, they can be so annoying!
"Hello, Fox," said Ezekiel, who was sitting at the dining room table as Martha tended to the sobbing infant. "You awoke much later than usual. Is something wrong?"
I sighed. "Just … have a lot on my mind. I was planning to head out today and put some miles behind me before it gets dark."
"Head out?" Ezekiel said, raising an eyebrow, "You're leaving us? I thought your automobile was still disabled."
The aroma of food wafting out of the kitchen was starting to make my empty stomach growl quite loudly. "I fixed my car last night. That's one reason why I got to bed so late. Say, could I get something to eat, please? It was a rough night and I'm famished."
Martha managed to settle baby Jane down and strode into the kitchen with an efficiency one wouldn't have expected from a woman wearing such a long dress and apron. "I've made a beef stew," she announced. "Hopefully it will be to your liking."
As I sat down to eat my bowl of stew, which was excellent and very meaty, I thought about what to do. The Sadlers had come to treat me almost like a family member since I came into their home weeks before. I'd helped on the farm and helped J.T. accomplish a goal that was very dear to him. I couldn't just leave without at least saying a proper goodbye to them. Since it was a Friday, J.T. was still at school. I'd have to wait until he came home before I departed.
To pass the time while waiting, I packed the Subaru's trunk with all of my worldly possessions. All my extra clothing, my money, and my gun and ammo – which I had thankfully neglected to mention to anyone – were packed and ready to go. Martha prepared and packed some food for me, and Ezekiel gave me a parting gift of an Amish quilt decorated with zigzag patterns. "We Amish are simple people, but we are known for our elaborate quilts," he said, beaming. "They are a thing of great pride in the community." I thanked them for their kindness, happy to have another source of warmth for cold winter nights.
J.T. was in good spirits after school. That is, until I told him I was leaving. "Why do you have to go?" he asked. "Why can't you stay here? Didn't you say that it wasn't safe for you in other places?"
"I can't stay here," I replied. "I just can't. Every day I spend here is a day that puts your family in danger. People have gone to extreme lengths to try to kill me. Don't think they wouldn't harm you to get to me. This isn't my place to be. I'm sorry, but I have to go."
He looked up at me sadly, then came forward and hugged me tightly. I hugged him back. There wasn't much left to say and there wasn't much time left to say it. The daylight was already fading, the sun retreating behind grey clouds once more. "Thank you, Fox," J.T. said with a sniffle. "For everything. I'll never forget you."
"I'll never forget you either, J.T. You're a good kid." I turned to his parents. "I can't thank you enough for your hospitality," I said, shaking Ezekiel's rough hand and hugging Martha as gently as I could. "If there's some way I can repay you, please let me know."
"You owe us nothing," Ezekiel said. "You've been our guest. And besides, you helped out on the farm and rebuilt that old automobile Jebediah brought home. Oh, and thank you for helping me to become less judgmental." He seemed to blush a little when he said that, as if he was embarrassed by his behavior on a number of occasions over the past few weeks.
My Subaru was waiting. "Maybe I'll see you guys again someday," I said, turning to walk down the front steps to my car. It was doubtful that we'd ever meet again, but you never know. "Goodbye!"
As I drove away I watched the family grow smaller and smaller in my rearview window until I turned a corner and they disappeared from sight. Lancaster County was soon behind me.
No sooner had I left Lancaster County than I began to develop that familiar feeling of dread that had gripped me for much of the past year. I was back out in the wild, so to speak. The FBI had probably triangulated and pinpointed my location by now. It wasn't like them to give up so easily. If anything, they'd probably be even more dogged in their search now that multiple agents had died trying to apprehend me. Get ahold of yourself, Fox. Just stay vigilant.
For the most part I tried to avoid major highways, criss-crossing various country roads in a general eastbound direction. As day faded into evening, I consulted a map that J.T. had purchased for me at the gas station mini-mart in Ephrata. The road I was on led straight back to the Pennsylvania Turnpike headed east toward Philadelphia. Was it worth the risk? Now that it was darker my chances of being spotted were less likely, although every toll plaza would be a challenge. Human toll takers and cameras would be problematic.
I covered as much of my orange-furred arms as possible with George Beauregarde's old leather jacket, leaving only the black paws visible. If I kept my face – and ears – hidden in shadow inside the car, a toll taker might mistake me for a person with really hairy hands or perhaps wearing black gloves. Against my better judgment I decided to go for it. The turnpike would allow for higher speeds and therefore more distance traveled during the night. I flipped on my turn signal and drove onto the turnpike entrance ramp.
Like every turnpike entrance and exit, this one was controlled by a toll plaza. And people. Oh joy. I rolled up to the gate slowly with my window down. The bored-looking attendant leaned out of her booth window, looking into my darkened car. "Where you headed?" she asked.
"Philadelphia," I responded, trying to stay in the shadows.
"Philly, eh? You a tourist?" She handed me my ticket. "That'll be $2.60; get off at the Valley Forge exit, take the Schuylkill Expressway south and it'll take you right into town."
I deposited several coins in the coin drop and began to pull forward. There was a split-second flash that could only be a camera taking a picture of my license plate. Dammit. The Feds had probably been scanning the tollbooth cameras for weeks just itching to catch this moment on film. I was back on the grid.
Cruising down the highway under the stars on that crisp, cold night, I couldn't help but look up through the sunroof and wonder how many of those stars might be satellites zeroing in on my position, reporting back to Farley's FBI people or Cardiff's goons. Maybe even to someone higher up, calling the shots. For all I knew, it could be the green-eyed man in the suit from my dream. No, he was more than a dream. He was a memory from my past. But why did I remember him as more than a faceless bureaucrat?
I tried to force the mental picture out of my mind and focus on the road ahead. My fingers searched the FM dial for some relaxing music. A smooth jazz station broadcast out of Philadelphia came in loud and clear. It put me at ease, both because the music had a calming effect, and because the fact its signal was strong meant I was getting closer to Philadelphia. The deejay was a laid-back type with a soothing voice, spinning hits from a bygone era.
My newly repaired Subaru ate up the miles, although it pulled to the right a little and required constant course correction. There was a small but noticeable wobble in the front wheels, probably from camber being knocked out of whack from the crash into the snow bank. Traffic was thinning on the road as night wore on. An overhead sign announced that I was approaching a town called King of Prussia, and the Valley Forge exit. That's what the toll taker had said, right? Yes. The Valley Forge exit was what I needed. An impatient driver in a Cadillac decided to ride my bumper, but with my fuel level running low, driving faster was not an option. He would just have to wait.
The Cadillac roared around me as I flipped on my blinker and moved over into the exit lane. Up ahead was another toll plaza lit up with fluorescent street lamps. Having paid for my journey at the first toll plaza, maybe they just wanted to see proof of payment. The Schuylkill Expressway was on the other side, my ticket to freedom.
Cameras seemed to focus on my car when I rolled up to the tollbooth. Maybe I was overly paranoid. Fatigue had certainly set in due to lack of sleep the night before. My tired eyes stared back at me in the rearview mirror. A striped toll gate lowered in front of my Subaru, forcing me to stop. The toll taker, a pale young man of college age, working the graveyard shift, peered out his window at me. "You got your proof of payment?" he said.
My rough paw pad came in contact with his hand as I passed the yellow ticket to him. "Damn, dude," he blurted out, "get some lotion on those."
I said nothing in response. The toll taker raised the gate for me to pass, shaking his head. Did he notice that those rough hands had claws and black fur? I still had the unnerving feeling that every unblinking eye of a security camera was trained on my car. The low fuel light suddenly came on with a ding. No chases for me tonight; staying under the radar was all I could do. Gradual application of the throttle persuaded the Subaru to merge onto the mostly empty Schuylkill Expressway headed south toward Philadelphia.
My fuel gauge was clear down into "E". Trying to push the remaining twelve or so miles into the city might leave me stranded on the expressway. A sign on the side of the highway advertised a gas station in the nearby town of West Conshohocken. I noted the exit number and soon reached it, then left the highway and drove slowly into town.
Nearly every establishment was closed and dark except for a few bars and – hopefully – gas stations. Neon lights reflected dully off of my car's dirty hood. A white Crown Victoria pulled out of a dark parking lot and shadowed me, no doubt waiting for this out-of-towner with Ohio plates to make a mistake and help fulfill his ticket quota. The glint of a light bar on top of the cruiser was impossible to miss. The traffic light ahead turned yellow, and I had half a mind to speed up. It wasn't worth risking police action, though, so I came to a gradual stop as the light changed to red.
The next minute or two was uneasy, the stationary police car just behind my rear bumper. "Please let all of my lights be working properly," I muttered to myself.
The traffic signal turned green and I accelerated gently through the intersection. The bright lights of the service station were visible up ahead on the right. The police cruiser turned and continued on another path, evidently bored of following the law-abider. The cop must have been half asleep to have overlooked the bullet hole in my rear window, but I welcomed his neglect. My Legacy's suspension creaked like a tired old man when I pulled into the gas station and stopped.
I climbed out of the Subaru and looked at it under the fluorescent overhead lamps. Such a shame. Its metallic green body panels were filthy with road grime and dried mud, the paint raked with scratches. It had been through a lot in the past few weeks, and so had I. A good rest for both of us would be nice. My growling stomach told me a good meal was in order, as well.
Let me just say, I've always hated gas stations. They're public places. They have security cameras everywhere and are manned by people who won't hesitate to call the police if they feel threatened. I can't blame them. It's a tough job. The problem is getting across the fact that I'm just another customer…
The attendant, an older Indian man with a tight face and graying hair, peered skeptically out his window at me. Undeterred, I strode toward the door of the mini mart, two twenty-dollar bills grasped in my fist as a sign of goodwill. The door chimed upon entry, and I could see myself on a small, grainy television screen above the counter, which meant my movements were being recorded on camera and would probably be reported to the authorities soon. Wasting time was not an option here.
"What can I do for you?" said the attendant in a thick Indian accent, keeping his professionalism while at the same time eyeing me distrustfully.
I plunked the money down in front of him. "Twenty bucks on pump three." I then selected a water bottle, a can of Coke and two pre-packaged roast beef sandwiches from the refrigerated display. For dessert I chose a large bag of trail mix full of fruit and nuts, and also chose a box of energy bars for the road. All of these items were added to my total as I smiled pleasantly at the serious man. "Is that all, sir?" he said, raising an eyebrow at me.
"That's all," I replied, took my items, and padded quietly out to my car. While pumping several gallons of 87 octane unleaded into the Subaru, I looked up and saw the attendant still watching from inside the mini mart. He had the look of a man who had seen it all in his line of work, a man who had dealt with his share of crazies and strange-looking customers. Perhaps since I didn't rob or attack him, he would let me go in peace.
Soon it was time to leave. The pump clicked off, I put the nozzle back in place and took my receipt. Twenty dollars wasn't enough to fill the tank, but it would be enough to get me to Philadelphia and beyond. It was tempting to stay and eat the cold sandwiches in the car underneath the gas station awning. But alas, there were miles left to cover.
I got back onto the Schuylkill Expressway and continued southeast toward the city. The dashboard clock read 11:05 pm. While I drove, I munched on the roast beef sandwiches, which were bland but filling. For a gas station meal, dinner wasn't too bad. The inky night sky was clearly seen through the glass sunroof, stars twinkling while the car's heater stayed busy keeping out the cold air that funneled through the damaged rear window.
Like a good tourist I followed the signs for Philadelphia. Soon enough, I rounded a curve and saw the city's skyline lit up against the dark night. Traffic was heavier here, due to the large local population. I chose to exit the highway and then cruised surface streets until I happened upon an automated 24-hour parking garage. I took a ticket at the entrance gate and drove inside. The fourth floor yielded a nice dark corner where I parked next to a dusty old van that looked abandoned. The garage was cold but not frigid. Leaving the car idling all night to run the heater would burn too much fuel and would attract attention. I shut the car off, bundled myself up in George's leather jacket, reclined the seat and draped Martha Sadler's beautiful quilt over my body. And I slept.
March 4, 2006
A car passed through the second level pounding heavy bass from its speakers. Its driver saw fit to blast rap music with the windows down, inside what was effectively a concrete echo chamber. Once the sedan had moved on to another level of the garage, the dimly lit corridor again became quiet but for the buzzing of a worn-out overhead fluorescent light. The damage was already done, though, and I was awake.
It was still early in the morning. My body protested painfully against being forced to sleep in the driver seat overnight, my spine and legs cramped and sore. Cold had not been an issue thanks to my warm clothing and thick Amish quilt. But far worse than the physical pain I felt was the mental stress of being haunted by nightmares again. This time the dream was a series of flashbacks of my original escape from BioCon. The panic I felt, almost exactly one year ago, seemed so foreign. God, how much I changed in one year. Wanda…
Poor Wanda. She was a wonderful human being. Wanda was my first friend, and she was a casualty of a battle that was not hers to fight. How many more innocents would die before this ended? A nagging thought lingered in the back of my mind. You were never meant to still be alive, Fox. You signed Wanda Myers's death warrant when you followed her home. You killed her. If Diana Foxworthy dies it will be because of you.
No, God damn it. No. There would be hell to pay if any harm ever came to my Diana. I would make sure of that.
The row of parked cars was devoid of activity, indicating that it was safe to get out. I exited the Subaru slowly, my legs rubbery at first as I stretched my muscles and paced around. Perhaps most painful was my bladder. The parking structure had no public restroom. I won't bore you with the details, but let's just say I hope no one found that bottle in the trash can.
My stomach felt a bit uneasy from last night's sandwiches, but it was hungry. Breakfast was in order. The last morsels of trail mix and an energy bar weren't enough to satiate it. As my belly rumbled, though, my mind was elsewhere. I wanted nothing more than to find a phone and call Diana. Anything to know that she was all right. At this point, money meant little to me. I hated having to conserve it so obsessively lest I run out of it and be unable to appeal to human greed to get what I needed. That's one of the important things I've learned in life, that money talks louder than begging someone to do something out of the goodness of their heart. Those pieces of green cotton paper with pictures of dead presidents on them could ultimately hold the key to my survival, and maybe that of Diana as well. My heart sank at the thought of having to steal again after all those vehicles, weapons, supplies - and yes, money - that I previously took in the interest of staying alive.
I retrieved the pistol from under the seat, cradling the cold steel handgun in my paws. It was what I was supposed to be: an efficient killing machine that only did what it was made to do. I double-checked the magazine as if doing so would cause the gun to conjure more bullets out of thin air. With a depressed exhalation I clicked the magazine back into the gun's grip and clicked the safety on. Emergencies only.
The level was clear. The only sound of tires chirping on rough concrete came from two or more floors down. I climbed out of the car again and stretched my aching muscles for a few minutes.
I peeked through the dusty window glass of the van parked beside my Subaru. It was empty except for a thick layer of tacky shag-pile carpet in the rear cargo area. Compared to my car, the big 1970s-era Dodge Tradesman looked quite comfortable inside. Would anyone mind if I snuck in? It appeared abandoned. If anything it would be a good place to catch a little rest to make up for the rude awakening. One window was cracked open slightly. Maybe I could find a length of wire and slip it down through that narrow slit, into the van's cabin and loop it around the door lock or window crank. Breaking into vehicles was never my strong suit and I hated doing it unless I needed to. Right now my legs were killing me and I just wanted to stretch out on something soft. If the owner showed up, maybe I could bribe him or something. I doubted anyone would come.
Fishing around in a garbage can near the stairwell yielded a length of twine. I tied a slip knot around the end and fed the line through the van's window until it reached the window crank handle. A light tug tightened the knot around the handle, then I pulled upward slowly. Lo and behold, the window glass began to crank down, just enough for me to reach in with my arm and unlock the door. Bingo. I tried the chrome exterior handle and the door creaked open, its hinges dry from lack of lubrication. Smiling at my small triumph, I picked up a few essentials from the green Subaru and crawled into the large carpeted cargo area. It felt so good to recline after yesterday's long drive and last night's cramped sleep. Perhaps best of all, the van offered privacy. I took a long drink of bottled water, pulled the quilt over my body and closed my eyes for a nap.
Sleep was no more pleasant this time than it was before. My subconscious was gripped by memories, intertwined with strange fantasies and events that couldn't possibly be real. Could they? I must have died six or seven times in as many ways before I woke up. I should have purchased a box of sleep aids at that gas station. Diana sometimes used those. She was in one of my dreams again; so was the mysterious green-eyed man. God damn it. That strike on Wanda's trailer again. The poor woman died in my arms. How many more times would my stupid brain force me to relive that? Were it not for my survival instinct I might have ended it all long ago, or let the green-eyed man kill me. I could have taken Cardiff's offer to let me live in peace with those feral foxes he claimed were related to me. Ugh. Screw being someone's pet, living a lie. Least of all Cardiff, that deluded lab rat. And to think he had the gall to say I was like a son to him!
I tossed. I turned. I woke up with a bruise on my head from banging it into the steel side of the van during a particularly graphic nightmare. As I rubbed my throbbing head, I glanced over at the van's analog dashboard clock. It read 7:39. The hands hadn't moved at all. The van must have had a dead battery. Who knew how much time had passed in the vacuum of that dark parking garage; I certainly didn't know. My body felt better but my head hurt as I straightened up and opened the door.
...The hell? Sitting on the driver seat of my Subaru was a thick, sealed manila envelope with a sticky note attached. I picked up the note.
You really should take better care of your stuff.
B.F.? I puzzled over the initials for a moment while my mind cleared. Aha! Bob Farley, you sly devil. What had the asthmatic FBI agent left me this time? With a claw I ripped open the large envelope's flap and pulled out a familiar-looking folder. "Heh," I said to myself. It was my test subject dossier, the same one Farley had left for me in Canada. He must have gotten ahold of it again after I was caught and taken to the BioCon facility in Michigan.
I settled back down on the shag carpet in the van, using the folded up quilt as a backrest against the metal side, and idly flipped through the dossier's pages. There they were, the reports and observations on my progress. Photos of me before and during the program. God, how did I start out so cute and fluffy and innocent and get so ugly? The early stage photos depicted a strange beast that wouldn't look out of place on the left half of a Darwinian evolution chart. Was that really me?
Some of the files were out of order, and there were photos interspersed among them. Yes, there they were, my fellow animal soldiers. They photographed us together at attention when we were younger, the wolf and the German Shepherd and me. We must have been about high school age then, or whatever the equivalent was. I turned over the photograph. It was date stamped 09-10-1992. This was the first real clue I'd ever seen as to how old I was. No wonder why the project was closed down, it took far too long to produce combat-ready fighters. Any war would be long over before the soldiers were ever ready for battle.
I kept turning pages and skimming over the black and white text, noting that some of it was old dot-matrix style printing and some was crisp inkjet print on bright white paper from a more modern time. Several pages were stamped in serious-looking red ink relating to their secretive nature. I hoped that Farley wouldn't end up dead for playing double agent in all this. Wait. Wait just a minute. The light inside the van was dim but something looked familiar on one page. A name. It was a Congressional order to shut down BioCon's defense contract. A memo was attached, instructing that all evidence of Project Plume be destroyed. It was signed with the name Archer.
I flipped back through the file to the oldest page. The typewritten letterhead was yellowing slightly but the text was clear as day. This page was the order that authorized the project and allocated the funds to research and develop controlled biological weapons that would help save American soldiers' lives. What it really meant was that the "biological weapons" were to be animal soldiers like me. The contract was sponsored by Michigan Congressman J. Killian Archer.
Behind the page was a photograph of several people. I recognized one of them; a much younger looking Dr. Theodore Cardiff was shaking hands with an equally young-looking man dressed in a brown suit with a pistachio-colored necktie. I didn't know who he was, but his face... those eyes. It was a bit small and slightly desaturated, but this was the man from my nightmares, the green-eyed man. On the back side of the photograph was written "Dedication of new BioCon facility, Dearborn, MI. 6-6-78. Dr. Ted Cardiff & Congressman Jack Archer". I felt a chill run down my spine.
So that was it, then. Cardiff made me, but Archer started it all and I was the mess he failed to clean up.