Hilda stepped out of the blowing cold into the bar. The sign in the window boasted Deschutes beer on tap. She had fond memories of Bend, Oregon, a couple of months back, when she toured the brewery on her way across the High Desert. Chicago was a long way from Bend, but she was glad to visit the Windy City again. She paused at the door.
A long bar stretched in an L out the wall to the left and across the wall opposite the door. Tables in the space before her, mostly couples, some looked like dates, two looked like business meetings. Eight men at the bar, three women. The women were all unattached; that is, one gold digger on the end of the bar, and two probably married to the guys ignoring them to watch the game on the big screen TV. Four free stools, three tables. Back exit to the right where the restroom sign was.
Two bartenders, a white woman, late twenties, on the left, and a burly black man with salt-and-pepper hair opposite the door. He gave Hilda a steady appraisal, then suggested the stools to his left raising an eyebrow and cocking his head slightly. Hilda was already choosing that spot.
Hilda scanned the room in the mirror behind the bar, while the barman drew her pint of Jubelale. The man seated nearest the back exit (to her right) was checking her out in the mirror. Standing almost six feet tall, with high, angular cheekbones, a long black ponytail, and a slim muscular frame from living on her bicycle, Hilda was used to men staring. Her only dress (a black acrylic number that went to bars as easily as the opera) seemed as dark as her skin. She did not need high heels at her height, which was good, because the lightweight black shoes she carried in her pannier could go anywhere the dress could.
Hilda finished checking out the other customers at the bar. A large man with a florid face and a massive beer belly two stools to her left. Beyond him, four of his buddies were drinking cans of Budweiser. The rest of the customers were engrossed in each other, or the game.
She returned her gaze to the man staring at her. His head was the same distance from the stool as hers, with long black hair combed back, and touching his shirt collar. Dark skin, but Moorish rather than African or Indian. She had seen those features everywhere in Spain and among the old Spanish families of California. A small, aquiline nose, more like a hawk than an eagle, sat attractively under eyes that smiled when he grinned at her in the mirror. She smiled back briefly.
“He’s new, too,” the barman said, breaking the mirror contact to place her beer on the bar. “Don’t know a thing about him, but he only arrived 15 minutes ago.”
“No problem, sister.” He took out a cloth from his apron and moved away, wiping the bar as he went. Hilda felt safe in this place. It was a rare pleasure simply to walk around the corner from the hostel and find a place to enjoy a quiet beer knowing that the staff had her back. She had slept almost the entire way on the Southwest Chief from Kansas. Taking the train was a welcome break from riding US 50 from Sacramento. Hilda liked her own company, but riding “the Loneliest Road in America” had taken solitude to a whole new level. She had already ridden the cornfields and prairies. Except for the teenager with a twisted front wheel outside Newton, Kansas, she had not talked to a single human being from the Nevada-California line to the Amtrak Station last night.
In the mirror, she saw the large man to her left heave himself off his chair and start toward the restrooms, which took him past her stool. Instinctively she brought her elbows back to her side just before the big hand squeezed her left buttock as the man passed.
Hilda shoved the bar stool around on its bearings, pushing with her foot. Her left hand, bent in a karate chop, drove into his solar plexus, as she slid off the stool, landing squarely on his right foot. With the man pinned by her foot, she planted her right foot next to him, head-butted his nose, and then kneed him in the groin with her right leg. He went down in a heap.
Hilda looked at the four men still sitting, stunned, at the bar.
“Any other would-be Weinsteins here tonight?” They looked away. She reached down and pulled the dazed assailant up. “Go the john. Your pants are wet.”
She could feel the stares as she turned back to the mirror and sat down.
The man to her right had left his stool and was half-way to her place. The barman moved to the end near the restroom, his eyes on the large man, his hands gripping a long Louisville Slugger with the ease of a conductor’s baton. The large man stopped to turn around, saw the bat, and continued to the exit.
“Very impressive, madam.” His accent was Spanish, but clear. “I saw him touch you, and left my seat, but you dispatched him so quickly that my help was useless.”
“I am glad that you were so slow. You might have been collateral damage.”
“This happens often?”
“No, but I have to treat all moving males as targets until the swinging stops.”
“I see. Like I said, very impressive. May I present myself? Diego Cortéz y Goméz.”
“Hilda Paisley. Encantada.”
“Just enough to order supper or get in trouble, lo siento.” Sorry.
“In any case, I already wanted an excuse to approach you before the encounter with that boor.”
“I had not planned on being the entertainment tonight.” She caught the eye of the barman, who smiled and nodded with a shrug. “Just happened to recognize the Deschutes label and felt like having a beer.”
“Then let me buy you another.”
“I haven’t finished this one. Let’s discuss it if I do. What brings you in here?”
“Almost the same. I wanted to sit in a corner with a beer and observe the people. You brew great beers in America, and people-watching is our national pastime.”
“With your name, please don’t be from California.”
Diego laughed. “No, Spain, but we were from California and Mexico also. My great-great grandfather returned to Medellin after we lost California to the US. We have relatives throughout the Southwest.”
“So why Chicago?”
“To meet a friend tomorrow. We are planning to ride US 66 to Los Angeles.”
“Ride? Bicycle or motorcycle?”
“What a coincidence. I rode that route last year. I hope you like riding on the shoulder of I-40, because much of US Bicycle Route 66 is actually on the Interstate. I did not find it very interesting, or scenic. If I want to ride with that many cars and trucks, I might as well ride around Los Angeles.”
“I am sorry to hear that, but amazed and pleased that you have ridden it. We have read so much about the new US Bicycle Route, that we thought it would be fun.”
“It might be with someone to share the trip, but I usually ride alone. And on that road, even I was wishing I had someone to complain to.”
Diego smiled and chuckled. “Please have lunch with us tomorrow. I will call Cristina and let her know. I am sure she will want to meet you.”
“I am free tomorrow. When and where?”
“Give me a moment.” Diego pulled out his cellphone and speed-dialed. Hilda could follow enough of the elegant Castilian to know that Cristina would be pleased, and that he suggested the restaurant at their hotel.
“She’s delighted. So, tomorrow at noon?”
“Sure, but which hotel is yours?”
Diego winked and smiled. “You understand more Spanish than you let on. The Sheraton.”
“That’s not far. I remember that they let me park my bike in the luggage room.”
“Are you from Chicago?”
“No, but I have been here often enough to have stayed in several places downtown.”
“I have never met someone else who rides a bicycle on long tours, but stays in hotels.”
“Believe me, I usually camp, and I prefer HI Hostels in big cities. That keeps the cash in the bank for the times when I feel like being pampered.”
“This is our first bicycle tour in America. We studied the accommodation situation, so we know that we will have to camp most nights. We have been doing that on short tours in Europe, but I know it will be different here.”
“It will be. Let’s chat about that, too. I have camped in Europe, so maybe I can help you avoid some disasters out West. In fact, I can show you my route, and let you know what I think of the places that I camped. It might suit your track in reverse.”
“That would be wonderful. Thank you so much.” Diego looked at his watch. “I need to go back and get ready. Cristina will arrive at O’Hare from Boston in the morning, and I want to be there early.”
“Remember, it will take her almost an hour to get out after the scheduled landing time.”
“Oh, yes. Thank you.” He waved to the barman for his bill, and pointed to Hilda’s glass.
“I’ll get my drink, Diego. Thanks. You’re buying lunch tomorrow, right?”
“Then don’t buy my beer tonight. See you at noon.” She extended her hand. Diego took it to his lips, then left a large tip on the counter before he left. Hilda could swear he was either skipping or dancing. The man was seriously delighted. It made her feel good.
The next day brought a bright sun, moderate temperatures, and a gentle breeze. Hilda had breakfast in the cafeteria of the hostel, sharing a table with a couple who had come to the city for a conference of Emergency Medical Technicians and a scholar researching immigrant histories. Her mind invigorated by the interesting conversation, she took her bike out for a fast ride to the south end of the Lake Shore bike path. The south wind blew her back in plenty of time to shower and change into a blouse and skirt. She decided to walk to the Sheraton. Along the way, she noted that the Fine Arts Museum had a special exhibit on Native American artists. She might try to catch that after her friend arrived tomorrow afternoon.
Entering the restaurant, she paused out of habit to scan the crowd and note the exits. She spotted Diego by the window with a poster model for Scandinavian Airlines: tall, slim, blonde, blue eyes. She wore a blue skirt and white blouse, with a blue scarf that brought out her eyes.
Diego rose as Hilda approached the table. He kissed her hand again, and turned to introduce his friend.
Cristina Halvorsen’s handshake was stronger than Hilda expected. Her smiling eyes were at a height with Hilda’s own. Her English carried that clean, clear enunciation of a Continental European who spends more time speaking English than her native language. As they sat and took up their menus, Hilda learned that Cristina’s father was Danish, her mother Spanish. She worked in Boston and Frankfurt as a financial analyst. She met Diego while riding the Camino de Santiago last summer.
“So how do you keep up your bicycling during the year?” Hilda asked after the waiter took their orders.
“Besides commuting to the office,” said Diego, “I ride with a club on the weekends.” He looked at Cristina.
“I keep a bike in Boston and in Frankfurt, so I don’t need a car when I am in either place. I take short tours on the weekends, like along the Main and the Rhein. On a long weekend, I might take a train to Trier and ride down the Mosel River.”
“And I go up to Santander when she comes home to see her parents.”
“There is lots of good cycling on Europe, I know,” said Hilda. “Has either of you ridden in the US much?”
“Just around Boston,” said Cristina, “and as far as Kittery, Maine, using the MTA to Newburyport.”
“Nothing yet,” said Diego.
“Anything as hilly as the Camino?” Hilda asked. Cristina shook her head.
“The Estremadura around Medellin is more challenging than the Camino,” said Diego, “but none of the climbs are as high as the mountains here.”
“Well, going west from here, you’ll cross the Rockies and the Sierras, but you will find that the gradients are easy compared to the Camino. Never more than seven percent. Just uphill all day.”
Just then, Hilda heard a familiar popping sound outside the restaurant, coming from the hotel entrance lobby. She rose to her feet, and pulled the table away from Cristina and Diego just as the glass doors of the restaurant shattered in. As the first screams reached her ears, she reached for Diego’s right shoulder; Cristina caught her eye and reached for his left. Before the glass finished hitting the floor both women were down on top of him.
Hilda swung around to free the couple.
“That way.” She nodded to the kitchen, which was the closest door to them. “Now!”
They ran crouching to the doors, pushing them open as they heard shots coming from the lobby and zinging into the restaurant. With Hilda in the lead, they raced to the back of the kitchen, past the stunned staff to the back doors. These led to the service passageway, which Hilda recognized as connecting with the emergency exits from the stairwells. She stopped at the emergency exit, and opened it carefully. An alarm began to sound, but by then, there were alarms pealing everywhere. The driveway to the parking garage seemed clear. Diego and Cristina followed her toward the street, at the corner, she looked left and saw smoke coming from the hotel entrance. Several people were lying immobile on the street outside and one car was a melted hunk. The first sirens could be heard coming from Columbus Drive.
“This way,” she suggested. “Let’s go where it’s safe.” They ran down Water, past New Street, and turned the corner at McClurg. There they stopped to catch their breath.
“Shouldn’t we go back and help?” asked Cristina.
“Not now. You heard the sirens. With an active shooter, the first thing to do is to flee.”
“That doesn’t seem right, running away,” said Diego.
“We’re not running. We’re surviving the shooting phase. We’ll have more than we can handle after that stops.”
By the time the first police cars arrived, the smoke had blown away, but there were still occasional pops of gunfire. A SWAT team arrived, and ran into the building. Suddenly, it was quiet, except for the moans of the wounded.
“OK, now we can help. How’s your first aid?”
Diego said, “Some training in the Army, but I never had to use it.”
“I can help get things. What about you?”
“Army nurse. Not my first combat scene. Let’s go.”
They jogged over to the hotel entrance. The police cordon immediately closed ranks, but when Hilda explained that she was a triage nurse and that her companions could help, they let her in.
The rest of the day unfolded in a familiar fog, which was recorded on the world media. The lobby was a melted, twisted mess from the car bomb, which had been detonated two seconds before a band of four men ran into the hotel with automatic assault weapons. By the time the SWAT team had gunned down all four, they had killed about three dozen people and wounded maybe fifty more. Being lunchtime, the restaurant and the coffee shop were full, and a tour was assembling to go out on the blackened bus sitting next to the bombed car.
Hilda and her little team made their way through the lobby, checking for survivors among the bodies. They found six, but two were too badly hurt to be moved. By the time the paramedics arrived, Hilda and a doctor who had come down from his hotel room had organized a makeshift triage station in the coffee shop. They pointed out the wounded to the ambulance crews in order. Diego and Cristina found themselves in the strange position of calming irate hotel guests who could not understand why they were not being transported first. Half of the wounded were not English-speaking; it was good that they could handle most European languages between them.
Suddenly, they found themselves sitting on a blackened bench in the coffee shop, watching the crime scene technicians work. All the wounded were gone, and the dead were being photographed, outlined in chalk, and bagged to be carried out. Hilda checked her watch. It was four p.m. Had they really been there that long?
The familiar exhaustion after the adrenaline rush overtook them just as a pair of Chicago Police Department detectives approached. Hilda rose and met them. After introductions, they answered questions, and promised to come by the Precinct at 10 a.m. the next day for detailed witness statements. The two detectives were interrupted by a team of FBI agents. The law enforcement types ignored the trio as they huddled.
“I think we can go. Quick, let’s see if your room is habitable. I want to go back to the hostel, but not until I’m sure you’re OK.”
“Why so fast?” asked Diego.
“Because when they stop chatting about who is in charge, one of them will remember that they have not taken your passports. But by tomorrow, you will have proven that you are not flight risks.”
Diego nodded his understanding and led them up to his room. The elevators were not working, but the lights came on as they climbed to the fifth floor. The key worked, and the door opened. Inside, they turned their attention to their cell phones, which they had turned off when the constant dinging started. Each had hundreds of messages, so they used Facebook to let most of their contacts know that they were safe, and sent quick emails to their respective parents. That done, Hilda suggested that they wait until most of the police cars left out front (which they could see from the balcony), before venturing out for supper. Obviously, the hotel would not be serving regular meals that night, with investigators combing the coffee shop and restaurant.
They made a date for nine the next morning, and Hilda took her leave. She made her way down the stairs, not being sure that the elevators would be reliable, and used a side entrance to Columbus Drive.
As she fixed her supper in the hostel kitchen, she realized that they had never had a chance to talk about their bikes. She had no idea when the police (and maybe the FBI and ATF) would finish with them. She pulled out her cellphone and hit speed-dial.
“Jack, are you still planning on arriving tomorrow?”
“Sure, but it will be evening, I think. This south wind slowed me down and I’m only in Milwaukee. I plan to leave before dawn tomorrow. There are some monster hills south of Milwaukee.”
“Tell you what. Take it easy. Stop in Kenosha or Waukegan, and come in the next day. I’ll be busy all day tomorrow.”
“Sure, but I’m a witness to the Sheraton attack, so the police want to interview me. I’m staying at the HI Hostel, and I’ll keep you informed.” She heard the silence as Jack digested the news.
“How close a witness?”
“Close enough. I’ll tell you all about it when I see you the day after tomorrow.”
“OK. Be safe.”
“You, too. It’s dangerous out there.” She ended the call, and turned her attention to the pasta sauce.
Until next time,
Smooth roads and tailwinds,