City of Brotherly Love
March 4, 2006
My fists clenched with rage at the smarmy-looking politician in the picture. Archer, you bastard. The man must still have some influence if he was able to order the project killed twenty-six years after the fact. The order came from Congress, so someone had to know about me. Maybe not me, per se, but they surely knew about the program. No doubt Archer had spun it as wasteful spending to be eliminated. Congress wouldn't vote on a bill without reading it, would they?
Bitterly I closed the dossier and slid it back into the envelope. It was too bad Farley didn't leave me an untraceable cell phone or something. It was killing me that I couldn't hear Diana's voice, couldn't just call her and find out how she was doing, just to make sure she was safe. I'd used pay phones on occasion but only for very short, innocuous conversations like when I ordered parts for J.T. Sadler's truck. A call of a more personal nature could raise red flags and then the FBI would descend on me. I'd already been responsible for multiple agent deaths and God knows how many injuries. And for what? All because they ignored my plea to be left in peace. It was self-defense, but it weighed heavily on my conscience.
I packed up my meager belongings in my Subaru and cleaned out the van, rolling the window back up and locking the doors as a courtesy to the owner. Having pads on my hands like I do was useful, since they lack the characteristic fingerprints found on human hands. Only Farley would know I was ever there, and I wasn't sure he actually looked inside.
The whole situation began to gnaw at the back of my mind. Was I slipping? Had the effects of exhaustion really made me this paranoid and yet I slept through an FBI agent slipping sensitive documents into my own car mere feet away from me? Back in the old days, the slightest noise would have me snapped to attention in an instant. Had it not been Farley, I'd probably be dead from a bullet to the head and would never have seen it coming.
I climbed back into the driver seat of the green Legacy, depressed the clutch and turned the key. The battered but faithful car started up and settled into an idle, a slight rattle emanating from the exhaust system in the rear. I pulled out of the parking space and drove slowly through the parking structure, slumped low in my seat with a hat covering my large black-furred ears. Down one level, then two, then I was on the ground floor. Crap! It was daytime. Cars were entering and exiting the garage every ten seconds or so. The only bright side was that the exit gate was automated. It probably had a security camera though, to make sure no one cheated the system. As I came closer, my hunch proved true. The camera was hidden behind a round mirror above the exit gate.
It was at this point that I realized my ticket was supposed to be prepaid. There were payment kiosks in a lobby area by the street, but there were too many people. Sure, I could sneak out behind another car or ram the flimsy toll gate. Either action would be caught on camera and then the authorities would go after the green Subaru with Ohio plates and a weird orange fox person behind the wheel. With a heavy sigh I stopped the car near the lobby and got out with my ticket in hand. When the lobby was clear and the employee on duty was otherwise occupied with a magazine, I slunk in and inserted my ticket in the machine. A robotic voice announced, "Please deposit twenty-four dollars." Are you freaking kidding me? Twenty-four bucks just to park a damn car for the night? Angrily I pulled out a few bills and fed the machine, which spat out my ticket without so much as a robotic thank-you.
I cursed under my breath at the security camera in the corner of the lobby. Damn it all, I'd been seen! Maybe no one was paying attention, but it was still a foolish oversight. I strode back toward my car quickly as the lobby elevator doors opened and several people exited. I ducked around the corner of a concrete wall and hurried to the Subaru. There was a short line to exit, and the seconds ticked by while someone up ahead repeatedly tried to insert their ticket into the machine backwards. Finally they got it right and I was able to escape into the early afternoon sunlight.
Philadelphia was busy. It reminded me of San Francisco, but with fewer hills and just as many one-way streets. A tourist map would have helped a lot as I drove aimlessly through the city, burning precious fuel. Every city police car made me nervous, every siren I heard wailing in the distance caused my fur to stand on end. Eventually a sign announced that I was headed in the direction of a place called Independence Mall State Park. The name sounded promising.
I made a left turn and cruised slowly up Fifth Street. Abruptly the rows of tall buildings ended, replaced by a wide greenbelt lined with skeletal trees. At the near end of the long park was a two-story red brick building, the centerpiece of which was a tall white clocktower topped with a pointed steeple. Two smaller buildings sat one on each side of the main structure, connected by arched, covered walkways. At first it looked like a church, but it had to have more significance than that. Most churches didn't impress me. This structure had a certain gravitas to it that, despite its small size, commanded respect. It looked familiar somehow, too, but I couldn't quite place it.
The building grew smaller in my rearview mirror as I drove along the park. It might be worth circling back around to check on again. A sign announced a parking garage for Independence Hall visitors. Was that what the building was called? I turned left at the end of the park and headed back down Sixth Street. The traffic light ahead turned yellow, then red. I stopped my car and suddenly got a brain wave. I reached into my pocket and pulled out my last crumpled $100 bill. On the reverse side of the bill was an engraving of a building. I held it up in front of my windshield and compared it to the actual structure that stood two blocks ahead of me. They were the same building. Independence Hall had to be important if it was on U.S. currency.
A loud beep from a taxi shook me out of my trance. The light was green. I accelerated down the street toward the red brick building and looked for a place to park. Across the street from Independence Hall was a long, modern-looking building with a glass-fronted room that made me curious. Against my better judgment I pulled up to a parking space on a quiet residential side street a couple of blocks away. I bundled up in my leather jacket and put on the longest pants I had in the hope that my fluffy tail would tuck down inside one of the legs, and put on my hat and scratched-up sunglasses. It was foolish to think I would blend in, but maybe, just maybe, people would be too busy to notice. Maybe.
I locked up the car and cut across a park that was thick with old-growth oak trees. Most of the snow had melted from the ground, allowing me to sneak across the frozen turf without leaving paw prints. Few people were braving the cold in this place and the going was easy. I scampered across the street when traffic cleared and found myself in another park which turned out to be a tree-lined courtyard behind Independence Hall. I gazed up at the regal old structure with its stark white steeple and bell tower and sighed as tourists ambled in and out of its doors. How nice it must be to be normal.
I continued on past the building and stood, as inconspicuously as possible, on the corner of Sixth and Chestnut waiting to cross. That glass-fronted building across the street piqued my curiosity. When the light changed and and the crossing signal began to chirp annoyingly I strode across the cold asphalt to the other side. A sign on the building read LIBERTY BELL CENTER. What the heck was so special about a bell that they gave it a whole building? I walked up to the massive glass window and stared inside. Spotlights shone down from the ceiling, illuminating a massive, dull brown brass bell which hung from an aged wooden yoke suspended above a pedestal. The bell had a massive crack in it that must have been an inch or two wide in places. I scoffed. What a useless piece of junk! But the bell had writing cast into its surface.
PROCLAIM LIBERTY THROUGHOUT ALL THE LAND UNTO ALL THE INHABITANTS THEREOF LEV. XXV. V X.
BY ORDER OF THE ASSEMBLY OF THE PROVINCE OF PENSYLVANIA FOR THE STATE HOUSE IN PHILADA
PASS AND STOW
Huh. The bell didn't look like much, but I liked what it said. Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof. Freedom for all. Shouldn't that include me?
A small child inside the bell viewing room tugged on her mother's jacket and pointed excitedly at the bundled up fox whose breath was fogging the glass. The mother pulled the little girl close and made a beeline for a security guard. Shit! Why did I let my guard down?!
A no-nonsense female voice piped up behind me, "Sir, I need you to step away from the window."
I turned my head slowly to see a compact, uniformed Park Service policewoman standing there. My heart sank when we made eye contact, as she saw that the weird-looking man ogling the bell on his tippy-toes wasn't a human at all. Instinctively the woman reached for a yellow and black object in a holster on her utility belt, which I recognized as a Taser.
"Ma'am, no, please don't do that," I said, my eyes darting past her toward Independence Hall and the park behind it. Maybe I could make a run for it. "I'll leave, I promise."
"What are you?" she mouthed, hand still on the Taser device, ready to zap me with several thousand volts if I bolted. My creators had trained me to withstand electric shock torture in case of capture and interrogation, but that was a long time ago and I didn't relish the thought of testing that training.
I raised my hands to show I was unarmed, having left my gun tucked under the seat in my car. "I'm just another American looking for freedom," I replied. "Please let me go."
Just when it looked like we were getting somewhere, the sound of boots on cold pavement came clamoring from around the corner of the building. Several Park Service Police officers had been dispatched to deal with me. "Hold it right there, buddy!" commanded the woman officer, pulling out her Taser and aiming it at my chest.
I exhaled a quick, unhappy sigh. "Ma'am, I'm sorry." I ducked to the side as the backup officers came into view. With a sweeping motion of my arm I smacked her aim off and the Taser barbs shot toward one of her fellow officers, who yelled sharply and fell to the pavement, writhing from the buzzing electric shock. I took off in a sprint toward Chestnut Street, ran across the path of a Philadelphia transit bus and made for the main entrance of Independence Hall. Little did I know that while tours are free, it takes a ticket to get in. I didn't wait, and pushed open the wooden doors, using my forward inertia to rush past two shocked Park Service employees. "Hey! You need a ticket!" shouted one as my pads and claws skidded across the polished brick inlaid floor of the central hall. A tour group on the other side of the building turned their heads to see what the commotion was about. I scampered off to my right into a large room painted creamy white with deep green window shutters, which vaguely resembled one of those courtrooms like you see on TV. I hid in a corner alcove out of view and prayed none of the tourists saw me enter. The officers ran into the front lobby and thundered past my hiding place, out the rear doors. From my cover I could hear the tour guide continue his lecture. "Well now, dunno what all that was about. We are standing in the assembly room where both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution were debated and ultimately signed by our nation's founding fathers." Aha! So that was why I felt a connection to this place.
"Now, let's continue across the hall to the first United States Supreme Court chambers." Oh crap. Staying low almost to the point of getting down on all fours, I snuck from my corner past the spectators' benches, up a small flight of stairs and took cover behind the wall of the witness stand. A large number of rubber-soled footfalls came closer, transitioning from wood to brick to the carpet of the courtroom. I crouched uncomfortably in my dubious shelter and tried to breathe as slowly and evenly as possible until the guide finished his spiel about the early days of the Supreme Court. I never thought I'd be in the witness stand of the nation's highest court, fighting for my freedom! Yeah, it wasn't the "real" Supreme Court, but it sure made me feel like a real defendant. As the guide finished and told the group to head upstairs, I scooted up under the judges' bench until the people were all out of the room and funneling toward the stairwell. Then, being the sneaky fox I am, I followed them in the hopes of melting into the crowd. Ugh, the pant leg was chafing the hell out of my tail! But that was the least of my worries as I glanced out the window and saw the officers returning to the building after searching the grounds.
I ran up the wooden stairs to the second floor. The first-floor doors creaked open and footsteps spread out to look throughout the building. The tour group was beginning to spread out as well, mostly congregating in a long, open gallery containing several brass chandeliers, some banquet tables and benches. At the far end sat a grand piano, and the walls were lined with old framed portraits and maps. "Shit," I muttered to myself, not knowing where to go now. Someone looked over at me, froze, and stared.
"Freeze!" shouted a male voice from the stairwell. Mistake. I darted out into the long gallery, my cover blown all to hell, and ducked between shocked and frightened tourists. The Park Police officer was hot on my heels. My footpaws struggled to find traction on the smoothly worn yellow pine floor, claws clicking frantically on the surface. I overturned a couple of two-hundred-year-old benches to slow down my pursuer, then grabbed a corner of a doorway and leapt over a low wrought-iron gate into another room. This one looked like a formal dining room with a big wooden table surrounded by ornate high-backed chairs and a tall hutch against the wall. There were two closets at one end, one on either side of a fireplace. Little did I know at the time, that it was the governor's council chamber where Benjamin Franklin once sat as governor of Pennsylvania. All I cared about was playing a shell game with the two closets. I slammed the main room's door and clicked the lock, then ran to one of the closet doors. It was unlocked. I heard pounding on the door I had locked; there was only a span of seconds to make a decision. I opened both closet doors, left one slightly ajar and hid inside the other one, shutting the door completely. Soon after, I heard the squeak of hinges through the old wooden closet door. Someone must have gotten the door unlocked. A pair of boots clomped into the room and went straight for the door I had left open slightly. While the officer searched the storage room, I carefully opened my closet door and crept over to his. The man had his back to me. I lifted up a chair from the meeting table and slammed the closet door shut, jamming the chair under the doorknob and trapping him inside. The door was next to a window. Could I escape? Peeking through the curtains at the concrete a good twenty feet below, that thought disappeared. Blast, I was too high up to jump from here safely. I bounded over the iron gate out into the long room, which was nearly empty now from panicked tourists getting the hell out of there. I hung a right turn into the stairwell and faced the large arched window of the second-floor landing. It was several feet lower than the other windows and would put me on the south side of the building closer to my car.
My ears picked up sirens approaching. Downstairs, I could hear staff and Park Service police doing crowd control with dozens of people all trying to get out at once. With only two exits it would be difficult to sneak out a door, even with the crowd. How stupid I was to come here! I reached for the window latch and unlocked it, then pulled the wood-framed window upward in its tracks. A blast of cold outside air hit me in the face. Now or never, Fox. Looking down I saw the stone awning that extended over the south entrance. I climbed out over the window sill and dropped onto the awning, then grabbed the edge with my handpaws and swung down over the side to the pavement twelve feet below. My usually springy footpaws hit the ground painfully hard and buckled under my weight, causing me to fall on my ass on the stone landing. A sharp pain shot up my spine as my two-hundred-pound body landed on top of my already cramped tail, splitting the pant leg up the seam. I grunted, gritting my teeth, not having time to sit there and cuss out the desperate idea. The doors burst open behind me as I got to my feet and ran across the courtyard. Every footfall sent pains up my legs but stopping was not an option. I cut left behind a thick tree and sprinted into the street.
My best hope was to lose my pursuers in the park. I dodged a couple of passing cars, one of which braked sharply and honked, then I continued into the park. One of my pursuers slipped and fell on the mushy grass, but there were still three more behind me. One fired his Taser. The barbs dug into the back of my thick leather jacket, diffusing the shock but jolting my torso enough to make me stumble. I shook it off, forcing my body to keep moving even though it hurt. Eyes darting back and forth for a place to hide, I abruptly changed directions, latching onto the corner of a statue's marble plinth and using it to hang a right turn quickly. I nearly ran over a lady walking a small wiry-haired terrier on a leash, crossing the brick path between two park benches, and swiftly leapt over a wrought iron fence. The sharp points on top of the fence cut into my hand pad as I vaulted over, drawing blood. The little dog yapped ferociously at the sudden disturbance of the monster that almost punted him like a tether ball. My shortcut gave me a lead on the cops but not enough to get away cleanly. I made a beeline across another narrow street and saw a low brick wall with more sharp-tipped wrought iron fencing. On the right side was a black iron gate, which was open. I flung it closed behind me and raced into a shady courtyard between two tall buildings. The snow hadn't been cleaned off the grass here, so I kept to the paths and ducked behind the first cover that presented itself. I stayed out of the line of sight of my pursuers, hoping they hadn't told reinforcements in squad cars to head me off around the block.
Analyzing my surroundings quickly, I darted to the left through some trees, climbed over a brick wall and dropped over the other side into a narrow alley between a multi-story house and a small parking lot. A civilian car drove past on the one-way street at the end of the alley. Faint sirens sounded but not on this block. That was good. More red-brick walls, more gates. Most were closed and locked. Old-style houses faced up to the sidewalk with locked iron basement doors and coal chutes sticking out of the concrete. A little to my right was an open gate between two brick columns which opened out into another tiny walled park next to a school. Should I hide here? No, I couldn't. Already panting hard from exertion, my stomach growled. I couldn't keep this up much longer without some food.
I pushed on, closing the park gate, and gave myself a running start before I jumped the wall on the far side. I soon found myself in a cemetery full of moldering old headstones and crypts. Not much cover in here. A siren approached closer. Shit! I made a break for the opposite side of the old graveyard. There was a long brown building with a small parking lot just on the other side of the cemetery. I ducked between two parked cars and hid until the siren passed by, it sounded like only half a block away and the cop was on the gas pretty hard. Fox, you damned fool. You were fine until you let your curiosity get the better of you. Now you're cowering next to a car hiding from police.
The parking lot entrance was in another narrow paved alley. This one was quiet. Being Saturday, the large maintenance building was closed up. I took a short breather and then walked down the alley toward a road I recognized as Fifth Street. My car was parked just a block or two away. I headed across Fifth and down an even narrower alley labeled as Manning Walk, which was lined with houses on one side and a wall bordering a parking garage driveway on the other. I hoped that I wouldn't meet anyone in those close quarters. The Subaru was parked on Spruce Street just across from Holy Trinity Church. Please God, let it be undisturbed. If worse came to worst, maybe I could hide in the church sanctuary. I peeked around the corner of the oddly-shaped church building. The car was sitting quietly in a row of parked cars, so I decided to go for it. I pulled my keys out of my pocket and waited to make sure no one was watching, then crossed the street and got in. Whew, too close. I started the engine and pulled out into the road as nonchalantly as possible, then got the hell out of the neighborhood.
Annoyingly, heading back to the nearest highway required driving past Independence Hall again. I soon saw why the response to my being there was so heavy-handed. Within a couple of blocks of the national historic landmark there were a federal courthouse, federal reserve bank, a U.S. Mint and the Philadelphia city offices, as well as a number of museums and hotels. Oh yeah, and a Secret Service office. Lovely. Knowing full well that I was a wanted fox I drove very cautiously up Fifth Street. Well, not cautiously enough to stop at yellow lights, but I didn't run any red ones. The New Jersey border was just on the other side of the Ben Franklin Bridge. As I merged into traffic on the highway and crossed the light blue suspension span heading east I felt a weight lift off my shoulders and my heart rate settled into a slower, more regular rhythm. An overhead sign that said "3 LANES TO N.J. - NO TOLL THIS DIRECTION" was perhaps the most welcome sight all day. Within minutes I was across the state line and entering the city of Camden.