Move, move, move!" commanded a deep voice somewhere unseen in front of me. "Fox! Get your tail out of there, it's an ambush!" The smoke was thick and the acrid smell of burning foliage, burning cloth, burning everything assailed my nose. The village was on fire. Children screamed. Automatic weapons fire was going off, fired by hidden gunners holed up in the old brick and stone buildings. Their inaccurate Kalashnikovs scattered bullets all around us, but we knew all it took was one white-hot slug in the right place to turn us into a very expensive embarrassment for the U.S. government.
The smoke cleared just enough for me to get a glimpse of the black and tan-furred dog motioning to me to move forward. He was a tall shepherd who easily filled out his camo fatigues and body armor with muscle as he aimed his M16 at a small building and squeezed off a few rounds. Running point was the dark-furred wolf in similar uniform, a creature who knew virtually no fear and adopted a take-no-prisoners fighting style when necessary. He ran down the side of the narrow street, ducking behind a van as weapons fire tore into it with a metallic clunk and the shattering of glass. Wolf took aim and blasted the assailant with his rifle, killing the insurgent instantly. Another man came at him from behind with a long curved knife and Wolf turned around quickly, hackles raised and yellow eyes full of fire With a fluid motion he slashed deep gashes in the attacker's chest with his sharp claws. The attacker sank to the ground, gurgling as the life escaped his body.
And then there was me. I was the smallest and least intimidating. Brown grease paint was smeared into my orange and white fur, matting it down to disguise my bright coloration. I was shorter and leaner than my comrades - and I was scared. "Why are you hiding?" Wolf snarled into his field radio. "You're gonna get picked off! Move your ass!"
"Y-yes sir!" I grunted, forcing my shaking legs to move from the perceived safety of the thicket. Wolf and Shep were clearing the street ahead, but I knew snipers could still be lying in wait to trap me. I raised my rifle, glancing around for enemies or anything that looked like a threat. My trigger finger itched, seemingly unsure whether it could perform the task it had done thousands of times before. The whump-whump-whump of helicopter blades approached in the distance. Was it one of ours?
More gunfire was exchanged on both sides. Muffled shouts and an anguished scream told me my friends had done their job. Now I had to join them, and I wasn't doing a very good job of being their scout. Where the hell were we, anyway? I was so confused. The human commander had given us our assignment and supplies, sent us off in a chopper and told us we would be picked up when the mission was complete. The location was meaningless. The only importance was to serve our country and do what we were told without getting killed. I had prepared for this in training, but shooting targets is never the same as real warfare. There was no room for second thoughts on the battlefield.
My left ear suddenly perked, picking up the crunch of glass shards under a boot. Out of the corner of my eye, on the second floor of a storefront, a curtain fluttered. I swung my rifle around at the same moment a dark-haired, mustached man pushed the curtain aside and prepared to fire his AK-47 at me. In that instant as he pulled the trigger, I let loose. The M16 riddled the shooter with half a dozen rounds. I saw his face grimace in pain, mouth open in a silent scream as he fell forward out of the window, landing with a thud in a bloody, crumpled heap in front of me in the street. It was my first combat kill. It wouldn't be my last kill that day.
The Black Hawk chopper touched down in a field outside the village, its rotor wash flattening the grass and whipping leaves out of the trees. The human pilot shouted for us to get in. Shep climbed aboard first, with Wolf covering us. I was the last to reach the helicopter, having been the slowest to get through the town. Wolf climbed in after me and slid the side door shut, pounded on the inside the airframe to signal lift-off, and we took to the sky. I felt sick to my stomach. "Oh, oh, not in here," Shep groaned. Too late. My MREs came back up all over the steel floor of the chopper. I coughed, my throat burning. "First firefight is the worst," Wolf said, wiping the deep crimson blood off his handpaws. "But that was a pansy-ass shootout. I know the slop they feed us is bad, but it's not bad enough to waste like that. I'm guessing first time killing somebody?"
I nodded sheepishly. Shep was the first of us in the program, then Wolf came second. I was brought along third, and only saw combat after they did. We lived and trained together, though, outside of assignments. I saw them as my friends, my family.
Shep frowned at Wolf. "You aren't supposed to use your claws or teeth like that if you can help it," he said. "It makes it obvious that an animal did the killing. We're supposed to behave like human soldiers on the battlefield."
"If they wanted us to be like humans, why do we have such great natural weapons?" Wolf grinned, showing all his sharp teeth. He looked at me. "Oh, come on, Fox. Cheer up. You did good out there."
"Yeah, real good..." I muttered, and threw up again on the floor.
The chopper interior and my two friends faded away in a flash of white. I woke up suddenly, feeling strangely hot, my mouth dry and panting. My head pounded like someone had beaten me with a brick. I felt sick and rolled off of the mattress onto my handpaws and knees, vomiting on the living room carpet. That dream... was it real? It seemed real, more like a memory than a twisted figment of my imagination. It felt as though my existence before my escape from BioCon was an entirely different lifetime. The commander had been so proud, I thought. So proud that we killed all those people without even knowing why, because no one saw fit to help us really understand what they were doing. I killed in self-defense. That was the only way I could bear to do it.
I stumbled to the house's downstairs bathroom to relieve myself. There was no clean water with which to wash myself, so I rubbed my eyes with my handpaws until I was more awake. Ooooogh. Why couldn't it have been a damn restful night's sleep?
I heard an industrial-sounding beep-beep-beep noise and a diesel engine outside. What was somebody doing running construction equipment at this hour? But it wasn't construction equipment. I peeked out through a slit in the plywood boards over the broken window and saw a tow truck hooking up to my green Subaru. A Washington, D.C. police car was parked behind it with the roof lights flashing, a police officer walking around the car inspecting the license plates and the bullet hole in the rear window glass. "Unit 131 reporting, I have found a vehicle matching the description of that belonging to the terror suspect you guys are looking for. It's being picked up right now to take into impound. I am about to search the area in case he's still nearby."
I could hear the radio's response: "Suspect is armed and extremely dangerous, may use deadly force. Dispatching additional units. Homeland Security didn't tell us much about him except that, well, this is gonna sound crazy but he looks like some kind of fox person. They didn't say whether he's dressed like one or what."
Shit! They were on to me. I couldn't stay here. I scooted over to the mattress on the floor and started piling all my essential items onto the quilt. Then I wrapped the quilt up quickly into a bundle and stood up. A wood plank creaked in the old floor underneath the carpet as I walked toward the rear door. A flashlight beam suddenly shone through the gap in the plywood, illuminating my backside as I moved. "You there! Stop!" shouted the cop from outside the front of the house, "Unit 131, I see someone in a burned-out house near the vehicle, I'm going after them."
I didn't stop. I unbolted the rear door lock and ran out into the alley. A door slammed on the other side of the house, a V8 engine revving up with a squeal of tires as the squad car pulled a U-turn and barreled down the block and around the corner. The cop tried to head me off at the end of the alley, slamming on his brakes just in time for me to jump up and slide across his hood. Why did it have to be a foot chase? Why now? I felt like garbage and had no chance to plan my day yet. The cop thought I was a terrorist. Giving up didn't sound much better than any other option I could try.
I ran westward through light industrial complexes with their narrow alleys and chain-link fences. The cop had a Crown Victoria, a service pistol and probably a Remington 870 shotgun in the car. He could easily run me down or shoot me like a dog if I stuck to the street. I turned up a gravel service road that led up an embankment into a maintenance yard by the elevated railroad tracks. I tossed my quilted bundle over a tall fence and then clambered over it, dropping down into a gravel rail yard. The officer stopped his car and climbed out, training his weapon on me through the fence. "Freeze!" he commanded, "Surrender or I will shoot you!"
A sleek commuter express train was approaching northbound, accelerating quickly. I backed up slowly across the track, raising my handpaws in the air. "Keep your hands where I can see them!" the cop called out over the din of the train horn. "Don't move!"
I turned and broke into a sprint as the train roared by in front of me, forming a wall of metal between my body and the cop. I ran across four tracks to the fence on the other side. By the time the train passed by, I was out of range. Another squad car screeched to a stop on this other side of the tracks, now below my position. There was a Washington Metro subway station in front of me, an open-air platform with a glass and steel canopy serving as a roof. It was marked as NoMa/Gallaudet University Station. I hopped over the electrified third rail and pulled my body up onto the shiny brown tiles of the platform. A transit cop emerged from the top of the escalator and gave chase. There was a subway train in the station with its doors open; people flowed in and out of it. I made a run for it, not caring where it went. The doors began to close. I twisted my body sideways and slid through the doorway, tucking my tail between my legs to keep it from being crushed in the door. The train doors shut behind me, leaving the cop pounding fruitlessly on the side of the train as it accelerated out of the station in a southbound direction.
Panting heavily, I surveyed my surroundings. People stared all around me, some backing away to put space between themselves and me. Natural reaction, I thought unhappily. What else are you going to do when some nut gets on the train? I glanced up at the ceiling. The blinking red light of a security camera winked back.
A monotonous voice announced over the train intercom: "Next stop, Union Station." People eyed my bundle and me with distrust. Whispers went up among some of them about who I might be and what might be hidden inside the blanket. "Maybe it's one of those crazy animal rights activists?" "What if he has a bomb?" "Shh! Don't say that!"
I kept my mouth shut. My stomach was still hurting, legs sore from being forced to run without stretching. The train moved into a dark tunnel and then began to slow. Fluorescent lights passed by the windows until the tunnel opened into a brightly lit, grey vaulted concrete corridor full of people in business attire. Black square pillars lined the center of the platform. This was Union Station.
The doors opened and I rushed out against the flow of commuters into the station. Security cameras were everywhere. Guards were no doubt scattered throughout the station, likely notified by the police and now on high alert. I attempted to blend into the crowd of people moving toward the exit gates. It was a futile gesture; most who realized what was walking next to them moved away from me. A security guard began walking my way. I picked up the pace. "Marshall to control, I think I see the guy the cops are looking for," the man said into his walkie-talkie. "Sir, I need you to stop and show me your hands. Put the package down."
"Walk away," I said, not stopping. The exit gate was in sight now. Just a little further.
"Sir, I'm warning you. Cooperate or I will mace you!" The guard pulled out a small canister of pepper spray and sidestepped to keep up with my strides.
"I said, walk away," I told him. "Walk away!"
This was too much for the security guard. "Stop!" He grabbed for my shoulder. I halted abruptly, let go of my blanket bundle and whirled around, grabbed the guard's other arm holding the pepper spray and forced it suddenly back upward toward his face, making him spray himself in the eyes with the stinging liquid. "Aaaugh!" he screamed, bent over, clutching at his face as I scooped up my things and ran for the exit. I leapt over the exit turnstile and bounded up the escalator two stairs at a time. More guards ran to intercept me in the main concourse. I ducked as low as possible and sprinted for the doors. My footpaws squeaked on the marble floor, my claws clicking as I ran.
Two guards were blocking the door I needed. I wasn't about to draw my gun in this place; too many civilians had already suffered for my mistakes. I kept my head low and barreled toward the men at full speed, ramming one of them in the gut with my skull and forcing him into the door, which swung outward into the bright daylight. Both guard and I fell down on the concrete steps. The other guard attempted to grab my waist and I kicked wildly, landing a lucky hit on his head that knocked him onto his back with a grunt. I scrambled back to my feet, the bag of snacks in my bundle ruptured and spilling mixed nuts all over the steps. A full plastic water bottle rolled away freely, sloshing as it bounced down the stairs. There was no time to collect it. I ran across the street, dodging traffic that whooshed past my body, drivers shouting curses and blaring their horns. Sirens wailed no more than two blocks away.
I was confused. Where the hell could I go? An alley full of dumpsters seemed like a viable option, if only because it opened out into another street on the other end. I went for it. People pointed and shouted behind me, sirens coming closer. I glanced furtively around my environment. Climb a fire escape? Hide in a dumpster? Duck inside a doorway someplace? A homeless person pushing a rattling shopping cart full of aluminum cans stared dumbfounded at me as I ran past.
The alley ended at another street. The traffic light at the intersection was red. A red and white GMC pickup truck sat waiting, its stereo blasting country music with the windows rolled down. Besides the sound of the tone-deaf driver's horrible attempt at singing along, my ears discerned the sirens as turning the corner just a block away. The traffic light turned green and the pickup began to move forward. I chased it, hopped up on the truck's rear bumper and climbed over the tailgate into the bed. With any luck, maybe the distracted driver wasn't watching his mirrors and would think the thud of my body falling into the truck bed was just a pothole. I lay flat on the cold corrugated steel, breathing hard. The now-familiar sounds of two Ford Police Interceptor engines at full throttle roared past, wailing multiple siren tones to warn traffic at the junction up ahead. Whew. Dodged that bullet.
But where was the truck going? My internal compass was all discombobulated and I had no chance to look at a proper map of Washington to find out where my destination was. I unfolded the quilt enough to extract the rumpled tourist map and opened it up. The truck bounced along, headed to God knows where. Following Highway 50 on the map into Washington with my finger, I could approximate where I was. Union Station was a tiny dot on the page. The main tourist destinations were picked out in green rectangles representing parks, in particular a very long park labeled as the National Mall. South of my current location was the Capitol Building; smack in the middle of the Mall was the Washington Monument and north of that was the White House. The road I drove into town on ran right past the place. I could have gone straight there last night and dispensed with all this stupidity! Angrily I pounded my fist on the steel truck bed floor. The driver glanced in his rearview mirror, doing a double take at the sight of yours truly lying in the back of his truck. Uh-oh.
"I'm, uh, doing a truck bed rust check," I fibbed with a forced smile, "Yours passes with flying colors!"
The driver slammed on the brakes and swerved over to the right side of the street. "You get the hell outta my truck!" he roared, flinging open his door. "What are you, weird or something? God-damned thief, get out before I beat you shitless!"
"Yes sir!" I answered quickly, hastily gathering up my stuff, and vacated the truck bed. A glass bottle sailed past my head and smashed against a building. Asshole.
By now the cops must have realized they'd been had. Sirens still sounded in the distance and my ears told me they were doubling back, with reinforcements. All I wanted to do was hide, my instincts told me to find shelter. But I had to press on. Traffic was heavy up ahead and I started jogging toward the long line of cars. A taxi cab. Perhaps a taxi would be a safe way to get across town. I pulled the smashed cowboy hat out of the blanket and placed it on my head, pulling the brim down low over my eyes to cover as much of my fox-ness as possible. The man from the pickup was shouting for police, pointing in my direction. I ran for the nearest empty cab stopped at the light.
I pulled the right rear passenger door handle of the yellow Dodge Caravan and it slid open on its track. I plopped heavily onto the gray vinyl seat and slid the door back shut. The cab reeked of cheap air freshener. A green paper pine tree swung lazily from the rearview mirror. The cab driver's photo ID card attached to the divider panel read 'Farouk al-Kesh'. "Just drive," I instructed. "I'll figure out where we're going in a moment."
The bearded cab driver glanced in his mirror at my reflection, his eyes studying me in the kind of way that indicated he was debating whether to trust me or bail out of the car and run. "You are the boss," he said in a thick Middle Eastern accent I couldn't place.
"For what it's worth, I've got ten dollars for you if you can get me as close to the White House as possible." I figured this was a common request since the President's house was surely one of the most popular tourist destinations in the city.
The driver accelerated away from the light gradually. "Why are you hiding your face from me?" he asked in a skeptical tone. "Ten dollars is not much of a reason for me to let you rob me or steal my cab. I work hard to earn my green card, what do you do?"
I sat back on the slightly sticky seat. "Promise you won't freak."
"I am not a freak," said the driver with palpable indignation. "How dare you call me that, look who is talking here. But what do I know, I am just a stupid Afghan cab driver in your country, isn't that right?"
"No, no, that's not what I meant at all," I said, smacking my face with my palm. "I didn't mean to insult you. And you're right. You're not the freak, I am." I pulled off the hat, my pointed fox ears popping back up vertically atop my head.
The cabbie nearly crashed the car. "Allah, forgive me!" he said. "What have I done to deserve this?"
He was just confusing me now. "Please don't panic, sir, I won't hurt you. All-of what forgive you? I don't understand."
The man looked at me like I had insulted him deeply. "No. Allah is my god," he said simply, as if it were a waste of his time to explain his faith to me further. "Back in my country I heard stories, terrible stories. My brother was mad. He thought he was honoring our family by joining the Taliban when your country declared war on us five years ago following the September 11th attacks. He told us of entire Al-Qaeda outposts destroyed, men ripped apart by vicious man-beasts. I left Afghanistan to make a new life in the United States. Instead of disowning my dog of a brother, my family regards me like an infidel."
I sat quietly in my seat as I digested this information. "Did these attacks suddenly stop a little over a year ago?" I asked softly.
Farouk nodded. "My brother reported no more man-beast sightings in the last year."
I knew the reason for that. It made me wonder how many enemies of the United States, past or present, knew more about the highly classified project than the American citizens whom soldiers like myself were intended to protect. "You've probably been thinking it," I said, "but I was once one of those man-beasts. I was acting under orders then. I won't hurt you. I'm in trouble myself now, and all I ask is for a ride to safety."
Farouk continued driving westward. "Do you want the scenic route?"
I shook my head. "All I want is to stay away from--" A siren wailed past. "--cops." The D.C. cruiser that zoomed by the taxi suddenly dove sharply in front as the driver applied the brakes hard. I ducked my head down low in my seat, but it was of little use in the minivan with its large glass area. I unbuckled my seat belt and dropped down onto the dirty floor. "Can't you step on it?" I asked.
Another squad car dropped in behind the van, its lights off. They were playing with us, waiting to see if this was the cab with the fox in it. They could pounce whenever I surfaced, either to look out the window or to exit the vehicle. And all the while, the meter was running. Farouk refused to speed up. Doing so would draw suspicion, so I had to admit he was right. I spent interminable minutes on the floor of that taxi with the police cars shadowing us. The only bright side was that it gave me more time to consult my map and plan what to do next.
One of the police vehicles backed off to allow an unmarked black Tahoe to move alongside. The taller vehicle gave its occupants a better view into the van's cabin. The people in the SUV wore dark bulletproof vests with the letters FBI on them. Not good.
To average traffic and bystanders, Farouk's minivan appeared to be a typical empty cab driving down the street. The problem was, the taxi light on the roof showed he was on duty, and the dashboard meter with its red digital numbers was still counting up my fare. I think he noticed it, too. A woman hustled out of a building and raised her hand to hail the cab, waving to catch his attention. "I am sorry, my friend, but I am afraid this is the end of the road for you," said Farouk. He slowed down and started to pull over at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and 4th Street.
The FBI and police vehicles also slowed. I gathered up my things with a long sigh and placed the ten-dollar bill on the van's front arm rest. "Keep the change," I said, "and don't let them give you a hard time."
The woman reached for the door handle and I prepared to spring. The door slid open and I leapt out, the woman screaming shrilly when I darted past her. I didn't stick around long enough to say something snarky. The police vehicles flipped on their lights at the sound of the panicked woman, blipping their sirens to warn me to stop. I didn't.
I broke into a run down the sidewalk. Washington, D.C. in March was warmer than the regions further north, but clad only in the zipped leather jacket and my shorts, the wind chill was a challenge even for my fur. A crowd of people at a bus stop turned to stare as I bolted by them. The cops and FBI agents had apparently chosen not to hassle the cab driver and had instead decided to pursue me directly. Two Crown Victorias and the FBI Tahoe were now closing the gap. One police car zoomed ahead, ready to swerve and block my path when I went to cross the next street. I feinted left as if I were going to run out into the street behind the car, then cut to my right through the doors of a hotel. Tires screeched outside and through the closing doors I could hear doors slamming. My eyes quickly assessed the situation, searching for a back exit in the plush, warm, red-carpeted hotel lobby. Around the corner from the reception desk were the elevators and a door marked STAIRS. I ignored the scattered group of shocked hotel guests and made for the stairwell. The lobby doors burst open behind me, shouts of "Freeze! FBI!" falling on deaf ears. Four agents with shotguns and two D.C. patrolmen were on my tail.
I climbed the carpeted stairs as quickly as my legs could carry me. They were sore, my belly was nauseated and empty and all I wanted was to curl up and go to sleep. At the top of the third-floor flight of stairs I smashed the glass panel covering a fire extinguisher. A dozen footfalls two flights below were muffled by the soft carpet but it was obvious my pursuers were still on my tail. I read the extinguisher's instruction panel quickly and yanked out the ring pin, spraying a thick white cloud into the stairwell. An agent rounded the corner and I heaved the steel extinguisher at him. It struck the man with enough force that it made him fall, tripping the agent behind him. It slowed them down just enough for me to make it through the door into the third-floor hallway.
There was nothing with which to block the door so I kept running at full speed down the hall. It would be a suicidal move for me if they managed to reach the hallway and one of them was a good enough shot to hit me from that far away. Ahead I spied a housekeeping cart full of towels and toilet paper rolls. I shoved the cart over, spilling its load across the hallway in the hope of delaying my foes. A lighted green EXIT sign at the end of the hall pointed to another stairwell. The agents had cleared the other stairwell and were now running down the hall. I turned at the exit sign and started heading down the stairs. I prayed this side would be close to the rear of the hotel. I hopped down the steps two and three at a time, each landing putting strain on my legs. At the lobby level I pushed the door open as a diversion, then continued down to the basement to a door marked STAFF ONLY. The continued footfalls, shouting and cussing told me they didn't fall for it. The door opened into a hallway that led to the hotel's laundry, boiler room and kitchen. I didn't care where I went as long as it got me a way out. I chose the laundry room and went in.
The laundry turned out to be an outsourcing operation. The hotel sent much of their dirty linen and towel load to an outside company that would wash and return it. There was an open loading dock with a white van backed up to it. Instantly I ruled out stealing the van. Likewise I didn't want to hide in the van or in a cart full of laundry because that could cause its own set of problems. I ran across the large room's concrete floor and dropped off the loading dock into the sunken ramp where the van was parked. The dock faced up to a narrow street lined with parked cars. I had my exit.
"Tony, he's in the street behind the hotel, stop him!" I heard one agent shout into his radio behind me. A roaring black SUV swerved around the corner, rocketing up the street. The truck was dead-center in the narrow corridor and it would be suicide to try to get around the speeding vehicle to the side. Running away from it was also stupid. It looked like the only way to go was up. I ran straight for the approaching Tahoe.
The agent must not have been expecting the suspect to play chicken on foot with a car. The Tahoe braked hard and I leapt, scrunching up in the air. The SUV's tall hood caught my body and rolled my torso into its windshield with a crack of spiderwebbing laminated glass that deformed around me. Oof! I flopped back onto the truck's hood, cut in several places by glass but not seriously hurt. If anything I had just made it more difficult for the driver to see. I caught my breath and scrambled up over the roof of the Tahoe, using its roof rails as hand holds, and dropped to the ground behind it. The agent shifted the vehicle into reverse and I ran for my life. He lost several precious seconds kicking out the broken windshield, seconds I used to my advantage.
Police vehicles were coming to rejoin the chase. I skittered off into a narrow alley between two buildings searching for my next course of action. Two of the agents had returned to their Tahoe, while two others kept after me on foot. I left them gifts of upturned trash cans and anything else I could scatter in their path. The next alley was wider and contained a small repair shop with its front garage doors open. Maybe I could source a vehicle or something there, but I had to lose my two foes first. The lead agent was closing in. I slowed to let him catch up to me, then stopped suddenly and ducked, throwing the man over my back onto the ground. His gun clattered to the pavement and I kicked it underneath a dumpster. The man got up onto his hands and knees. He was ready to fight me and I wasn't in the mood. Before he could stand up, I grabbed his necktie in my fist and rammed his head forcefully into the unforgiving steel dumpster with a dull thud. He went limp, apparently out cold.
The second agent reached me. Oh hell. She was a woman. "I don't hit women," I said, panting and breathing heavily.
"Good," she said, approaching with her gun leveled at me. "Now get on the ground, you're under arrest."
"Sorry lady, no can do," I replied. "If you touch me I'll have to revise my policies." I watched her warily as she came closer, removing a pair of shiny steel handcuffs from her Kevlar vest.
"I'm warning you," the woman said. "Don't move!"
"And I'm warning you!" I shouted.
She picked up her radio to call Tony, the driver. The moment of distraction was all I needed. I inched closer, closer... now! I swung my leg up and kicked the gun out of the agent's hand. It sailed out of reach and the woman recovered surprisingly quickly, shaking her stinging hand briefly before taking a martial arts ready position. "You should have gone quietly," she said.
"You should have gone away," I retorted, holding my fists in front of my chest, ready to block a jab.
She came at me, nimble and light on her feet. I blocked her first punch, but the second came below the cover of my arm and socked me in the gut. Not fair! She hadn't vomited up everything from the day before and been hit by a car! I backed away, bent over to catch my breath. The crazy lady swung at me again, aiming low for my kidneys to subdue me. I latched onto her arm and twisted it, just shy of breaking something, and knocked her off her feet with my leg. The agent tried to hang on to me as she went down, yanking on my fur painfully and raking my skin with her fingernails. I went for the handcuffs, wrestling them from her. She fought against my heavier mass but her larger male cohort was still unconscious on the ground. I clicked one of the cuffs around her hand and the other around a solid steel drain pipe attached to a brick building. "Next time learn to play nice," I growled, taking her radio and removing the magazines from both agents' guns.
"You have no idea how much trouble you're in," the woman spat. "You're so far up shit creek you'll never get the smell out."
"Yeah, maybe," I said, walking away.
The auto shop was just around the corner. A man in greasy blue coveralls was working under the hood of a car in the garage bay. "Excuse me," I said. "I'm in a big hurry and I need a vehicle. Got anything that runs that you don't care about? It's a matter of life and death."
The mechanic looked up from the distributor he was repairing. He actually hit his head on the car's hood doing a double take at the one asking the question. "Dammit," he swore under his breath, rubbing his head. "What kind of fool do you think I am?"
It was time for money to talk. I pulled out the one-hundred-dollar bill and flashed it in the man's face. "This is every last dime I have in this world and I may only have minutes to live. Are you going to help me out or not? Anything, I don't care how shitty it is."
The guy must have thought I was a crazy person, but he wasn't stupid. He grabbed the slightly wrinkled bill in his oily hand and marched to a lock box on the wall. He opened it and tossed me a small key ring with a pair of keys on it. "Maroon Cutlass outside. Tags are expired, has an exhaust leak. Reverse don't work too well. Customer didn't pay for work done so I kept the car."
I actually hugged him. "You're a lifesaver, Bill," I said after reading the name embroidered on his coveralls.
"Don't mention it," Bill said, looking uncomfortable. "I don't want to know what trouble you're in and I don't wanna see that P.O.S. again. Now get outta here."
I was only too happy to oblige.
The vehicle turned out to be a late-eighties Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera station wagon with sun-baked maroon paint and red velour seats that stank of tobacco. The sides were adorned with faded plastic paneling meant to simulate wood, and the whitewall tires were brown with dirt. One lone wire hubcap clung stubbornly to its wheel. This hunk of crap was what $100 had just bought me. Please, God, let it start.
The starter motor cranked over once, twice, three times, then the tired engine coughed to life. A puff of blue smoke belched from the rear of the car. Yes! I clunked the dog-leg column shift lever down into reverse and revved up the rapping V6. The car shuddered like mad, backing up slowly as the stench of unburned hydrocarbons filled the interior. Screw the FBI, I'd be lucky if this damned car didn't asphyxiate me first. I glanced out the dusty rear glass, only to see two agents in suits running toward the repair shop from the alley, and a black Tahoe with the windshield kicked out. The latter was coming at me fast, and the former were drawing their guns. I rammed the shift lever into drive. All right, you piece of junk, show me what you can do.
The clock in the center of the maroon dashboard was broken, its hands frozen in place. I pulled the pink cell phone out of my pocket and pushed the power button. The phone greeted me with a cutesy twinkling sound as it started up and an image of kittens came onscreen. What I wanted was to know the time. A set of digital numbers displayed in the top corner of the screen. 9:11 AM. Fitting. I pushed the dirty accelerator pedal down and the station wagon lurched forward.
The black Tahoe stopped just long enough for one of the two agents on foot to climb in; the remaining man stayed behind to check on his defeated cohorts. I wasted little time in wheeling the Oldsmobile around the repair shop and down an alley bordering an empty parking lot lined with a chain link fence. I could hear the husky roar of the SUV's big V8 as the driver sought to close the widening gap between vehicles. More sirens wailed in the distance. Great! The more, the merrier, I growled to myself. The authorities were probably getting ready to lock the city down. I would have have to outfox them, one way or another.
I pulled out into the road with the creaky swaying of old shock absorbers once tuned for comfortable cruising. The Cutlass did what I told it to do, more or less. My eyes flitted from mirror to mirror, expecting a fleet of squad cars to materialize at any second. A sudden movement behind me was the pursuing FBI Tahoe launching out of the alley and bouncing heavily over the curb into the street before it straightened out. The power difference between our vehicles was staggering. The truck must have had the benefit of some two hundred more horsepower than my geriatric wagon, its bumper looming closer and closer in my mirror with alarming speed. I stared past my mirror out the windshield, looking up just in time to see the traffic light at I Street and Massachusetts Avenue turn yellow. Too late, I was going through. My footpaw stomped the gas to the floor as the amber light blinked out and changed to red. I palmed the horn button and sailed through the red light just as cross traffic was beginning to roll forward. The black Tahoe followed.
Traffic was getting heavier and I noticed I was heading into the city center. Signs on the side of the road listed various tourist attractions and government buildings, with arrows and distances to some of them. A white D.C. Metro Police Crown Victoria came flying out of a side street to my right and dove to a stop directly in my path. I jerked the smooth plastic steering wheel hard left, the softly-sprung wagon leaning sharply. I then corrected and maneuvered around the stopped cruiser, leaving a weak trail of bluish smoke in my wake. It was going to be hard to blend in with Washington traffic in this car. I might as well have sourced a pink polka-dotted Ferrari!
To make matters worse, as I passed Mount Vernon Square and the green-roofed Historical Society building toward New York Avenue, the phone suddenly began to vibrate on the passenger seat. What the hell was this? Did it have a tracking device or a bomb or something? I glanced down at it and damn near rear-ended somebody. The screen showed an animated ringing phone icon and the message, 'Incoming call: Brad'. I picked up the phone and pushed the talk button. "What do you want?" I hissed. "I'm busy."
"You are in SO much trouble!" came a deep voice with a New Jersey accent, who must have been this Brad person. "You stole my wife's phone and she says you tried to carjack and rape her! You're friggin' dead, you hear me?"
By now the police sirens following my car were surely audible on Brad's end. "Trouble, Brad? You have no idea. And your wife's a damned liar. I asked to borrow her phone and she freaked out like I was an axe murderer with smallpox." It was getting tiresome trying to steer with just one paw while holding the phone with my other, and the blustering Jerseyite was only serving to aggravate me further.
Brad was livid. "I'm reporting you to the God-damned FBI!"
I was about to come back with a retort about the irony of his statement when a hard jolt threw my head back into the velour-upholstered headrest with a smashing of glass and metal-on-metal contact. It took me a few seconds to realize what had happened, the phone conversation having taken too much of my concentration. My rear window was gone. The cargo area's side windows were gone, tiny crumbs of glass still clinging to the frames. The black Tahoe dropped back momentarily and prepared to ram me again from behind. Brad was still on the line, ranting in colorful terms about what a horrible monster I was. A foolish plan began to form, one that just might be crazy enough to even the odds a bit.
I gave the car full throttle. A sign pointed an arrow to the left for the White House, meaning I needed to go south. My speedometer needle crept higher and I maintained a straight path down the avenue, luring the black truck into a second ram attempt. The Cutlass was front-wheel-drive and should be able to survive a rear-end collision. When the Tahoe gunned its engine and the driver made his move, I made mine. I pushed both feet down solidly, my right footpaw on the brake pedal and my left footpaw on the parking brake. The rear wheels locked suddenly, the front end diving several inches toward the pavement. My brake lights lit up for the last time, and all hell broke loose. WHAM! The rear body of the station wagon behind the doors kinked downward from a solid hit that forced my body backward into the soft, couchlike bench seat, then threw my head forward from the sudden stop until the seatbelt locked and held my chest upright. Glass shards flew past my head. Then everything was quiet except the idling of my engine and the hiss of someone's broken radiator.
My rearview mirror was knocked off its mount in the crash. I turned my head over my shoulder and saw two inflated white pillows behind the Tahoe's crumpled black hood. Ha! I popped their airbags! I pulled the emergency brake release lever under the dashboard and tried a bit of light throttle. With a grinding screech the Cutlass Ciera rolled forward. The rear hatch tailgate clanged down on its damaged hinges, its latch broken and the mangled hatch hanging down at an unnatural angle, revealing a mortally wounded Tahoe leaking coolant all over the ground behind me. A loud scratchy sound under my car gave me the impression I was now dragging my exhaust system on the pavement.
Brad was still making all manner of threats and demanding to know what all the noise was. "Oh, you're still there?" I said. "Sorry, I'm busy outrunning the police right now. I just had a little accident. Oh yes, lots of cops. You'd love it."
He seemed taken aback slightly, pausing for a second. "...They responded already?"
"They sure did," I told him. "All thanks to you. They even knew which state I was in and everything. They're so good, they got here before you called them. You deserve a medal for being such a model citizen yourself."
"Damn right," Brad said. I could just imagine the grin on his face from my sarcastic appeal to his ego.
Now that the Tahoe was out of the way, two city police cars flanked me on both sides. A National Park Police vehicle joined the pursuit and pulled in behind me. I needed to concentrate. I'd airbagged one vehicle, but my car had suffered badly from the impact. It probably wouldn't survive brake-checking another pursuer.
I was spending too much time staring at my side mirrors and not looking ahead. I was too far north. I needed to go south. New York Avenue was planted with tall hedges in the central median, making every junction a blind corner. I was lost in a sea of nondescript high-rise buildings. At the next intersection, 12th Street, I shoved the small parking brake pedal down, and threw the wheel over to the left. The mangled Oldsmobile kicked its rear end out, wrenching loose the muffler which skittered haphazardly across the pavement. I steered right to correct the skid, released the brake and gunned it. Only one siren kept pace behind me; had the other two units overshot the turn?
I turned my head back forward and soon had my answer. Sweet baby Jesus, this was a one-way street! Cars came at me from four different lanes; many had nowhere to go and simply blared their horns, braked hard and tried to miss me. Some drivers shouted obscenities or screamed as I rumbled past them, the Cutlass's engine emitting a deep roar through open exhaust. Two cars sideswiped each other; another scraped noisily down the passenger side of my car, taking with it my right side mirror and some chrome fender trim. This wasn't working!
"You still there, freak?" Brad sneered into the phone.
"Yeah," I said testily, gritting my teeth as another car swerved out of my path. "What, haven't they put this on TV yet?"
Brad laughed. "I wish! I love watching punks like you get shackled. That shit is gold."
I'd had enough of him. "Hey Brad, the cops want to talk to you." I flung the pink cell phone out the open driver's side window at the pursuing city police cruiser. It arced through the cold March air and smashed with a satisfying plastic crunch against the Crown Victoria's windshield. It was time to get off of this street.
At the next light I braked hard and cranked the wheel over, executing a right turn onto G Street passing a massive department store. The police car carried too much speed and overshot slightly, ending up in the far lane, and nearly collided with the curb. Morning shoppers scattered on the sidewalk. Within a block I heard an unmistakable flup-flup-flup sound and the rear of the car begain to shake. I was losing air in one tire; it felt like the left rear. Any second now the ruined rubber might shred off the rim. Maybe left turns would minimize stress on the flapping tire. Thirteenth was coming up and I didn't have the time to speculate whether or not it was unlucky. The battered station wagon creaked under the strain of being thrown into another hard turn, the worn front tires understeering. The last stubborn hubcap separated from its rim and rolled away, clanking into a glass storefront window.
The Police Interceptor quickly regained its composure and closed its following distance on the six-lane avenue. Hobbled by the flat tire, I reduced my speed slightly. This concerned me, as my one unbroken mirror revealed the cruiser pulling up to my rear corner. It was a textbook police move, one that had been tried on me before. He was going to try to spin me, and if that didn't work he had the Remington 870. I could probably wreck him out into a row of parked cars- No. Not an option. Keep going, Fox. Keep this car going and focus--
THUD-SCREEEEEEECH. I was focusing so hard I zoned out and holy shit the world was spinning outside my windshield! Suddenly the car was facing the wrong way and through that windshield I spotted the two other backup units that had re-routed to 13th Street following my ill-advised trip down the one-way Twelfth. They had built up a pretty good head of steam and were coming in for the kill. The engine was still running, that was good. I stuffed the balky column shifter up from Drive to Reverse and prayed it would engage. A loud clunk of gears under the hood told me all I needed to know, and I stomped on the accelerator. The vehicle shuddered violently but propelled itself backward. With one hand I palmed the steering wheel around to one side, let off the throttle and as it spun back around facing forwards I pulled the shift lever back down to Drive. How about that, Fox, you just did a Rockford turn.
God, my destination had to be close. Damn the tires, I had somewhere to go! The deflated rear tire finally gave out under the abuse and shredded itself off the steel rim. A trail of sparks now followed my car as if someone lit a Roman candle under it, and the rim dug deep grooves in the pavement as I drove. Up ahead was a street whose name I recognized: Pennsylvania Avenue! I remembered it as the road the White House was on. If they knew where I was headed they would probably start shooting, and I'd be fooling myself if I thought the place would just let me in at the gate. Still, my chances were zero unless I at least tried.
The car rounded the corner onto Pennsylvania and behind the roofs of some local government buildings I saw the top of the white marble obelisk of the Washington Monument. Almost there! It would be nearly a straight shot now. Two more blocks.
I was greeted by a whole lot more police vehicles that had been lying in wait in the parking lot of a post office. They swerved to block me; some made contact with my car. I pressed on. The lead unit accelerated until it was even with my passenger side door. The driver's partner leaned out his window and leveled a shotgun at my head. Out of the corner of my eye, one block ahead, a small, bright yellow Ford Escape SUV flashed its high beams three times. What the hell?
Wait. Escape? Yellow? Was that some kind of clue? And trying to get my attention with high beams? I quickly neared the small SUV and glimpsed a brunette woman behind the wheel. Closer... closer... Whoa! The Escape abruptly launched out of the roadside parking area, right into the path of the lead cruiser. There was no time to react. The D.C. police car smashed into the SUV, whirling it around in a citrus-colored circle as the airbags deployed and wreckage flew. The cop's shotgun sailed out of his hands. Other police vehicles, bunched up tightly around me, collided with one another. My one fleeting glimpse of the driver of that Escape looked an awful lot like Diana Foxworthy.
Directly ahead were the east side gates to the White House. I headed straight for them. There was a guard shack and some concrete planter boxes that probably were a whole lot stronger than they looked. The guards on duty snapped to attention and raised their rifles. This was going to get ugly fast.
I scrunched down behind the wheel, just enough of my head above the dash to see out. Undoubtedly the planter boxes would stop the car if I rammed them. But maybe there was enough room on either side... There was no time for fancy planning. I aimed for the curb on the left side of the entrance and held the throttle wide open. The black steel gates were closing.
Pop. Pop. Pop. Chunk-chunk-crack. I was taking fire. Bullets tore into the front end, the hood, the windshield, the seats. I ducked down as far as I could and held down the horn button. White smoke billowed into the glass-filled cockpit. The dashboard idiot lights lit up like Christmas and the temperature gauge spiked hot. The Cutlass Ciera Cruiser was traveling about fifty miles per hour when it reached the entrance gate and its left front wheel hurtled over the curb, bouncing the left side of the car into the air just enough to clear one of the planters while scraping past another. Guards dove for their lives as the two-wheeling car glanced off of a parked Department of Homeland Security cruiser and righted itself. The steel gates were open only to about the width of my car and that gap was narrowing by the second. My car shot through the gap with a cringe-inducing scrape that left behind much of the fake wood side paneling, rub strips and the rear bumper.
I was in! There it was off to my right, the neoclassical Executive Mansion with its rounded rear portico. Gunfire punched holes in the rear of my car as I steered the dying Cutlass onto the South Lawn and left muddy tire tracks in my wake. My adrenaline was pumping like it never had before, and I barely noticed the numerous cuts and bruises from flying glass and getting beaten up. There was also something warm, a burning sensation in my side. I tried to ignore it, though the realization there was some lead in my body was hard to put off. My destination was not the White House but rather the West Wing. I'd seen the building on TV before, a political drama that Diana liked but I never understood. The President's office was a distinctive oval shape that jutted out of the otherwise rectangular building like an architectural pimple.
The thermostat was pegged in the red, the engine was overheating badly and cutting out, shot full of holes and leaking fluids. It was in its death throes. I kept the mangled chrome hood ornament pointed toward the Oval Office and the gas pedal buried in the floorboards.
The Cutlass Ciera bumped noisily over the uneven ground. Within a minute I'd covered all the ground I could and applied the now near-futile brakes. The car buried its nose into some rose bushes and came to a stop directly below a window outside the Oval Office. I threw open the driver door and, miraculously, the door ajar chime began to sound -- ding... ding... ding. I hoisted my tired, broken and bleeding body up onto the hood, breathing heavily. I could already see agents and guards closing in from the east and west gates, the White House and the other side of the West Wing. Summoning what strength I had left, I rapped my knuckles on the window. On the other side of the glass, a middle-aged man in a dark blue suit jacket with a red silk necktie, sitting at a heavy oak desk, turned around in his leather-trimmed swivel chair. His eyes registered pure shock and as he stood up I saw his mouth form the words "What the..."
I was face to face with the President of the United States.
"Please..." I cried out. "Mr. President, I need your help! You're the only one who can save me."
President George W. Bush stood there watching me through the glass. I placed my handpaw against the window, the pain from the gunshot wound suddenly catching up with me. I winced, whining sharply. "They're going... to kill me."
"Freeze!" commanded a black-suited Secret Service agent armed with a pistol. The agent was soon joined by more agents, as well as Marine guards armed with rifles. Another group of agents burst into the Oval Office to protect the President. "Mr. President, you're not safe here!" shouted the leader of those men.
I raised my handpaws in the air and gave the President a weak gesture, the universal two-fingered peace sign. "I beg of you, sir... sanctuary." God, had I really come this far only to be defeated by one pane of glass?
The President waved off his Secret Service agents and continued to watch this strange creature outside his window. "Who are you?" he said.
"My name is Fox. ...Fox Tayle," I answered cautiously, knowing that one false move would surely be my last. "I'm a goverment experiment and I just want to live in peace."
The President's blue eyes studied the strange, borderline-indecent bipedal animal standing before him on the crumpled hood of a smoking Oldsmobile, arms raised in surrender. "Mr. President, you must evacuate," pleaded the lead Secret Service agent in the Oval Office. "That man is a terror suspect and could have a bomb."
The President looked at the agent and gestured to my rather thinly-clad body. "Does that guy look like he's hiding anything?" He turned to me. "Where do you come from, Mr. Tayle?"
"Project Plume, sir," I replied uneasily, glancing at the plethora of gun barrels pointed at me. "A genetic engineering project begun in 1978 by BioCon Corporation under government contract to create soldiers from certain animal species, with the intent to save American soldiers' lives by replacing them with more expendable animals. It was spearheaded by Congressman Jack Killian Archer." The burning sensation in my side was intensifying, dark red blood dripping down and staining my clothes and fur. It was making me feel woozy. My body was beaten and spent, my knees weak and shaking, and this face time with the leader of the free world was all I could do to force myself to remain standing. Still, I put on a brave face. "I read somewhere that all men are created equal in this country. I was born here, I fought enemies in the name of this country. Tell me, Mr. President, how equal am I?"
President Bush was about to answer when the station wagon's idling engine finally ran out of coolant and seized up. A tremendous sharp bang went off under my feet, knocking me off the hood and surrounding my body with hot smoke. Unclear what just happened, the ring of Secret Service agents and Marine guards moved in, a mass of humanity piling onto me as one. I saw a maroon fender racing up to meet my face and then nothing.