“Jeez, Hilda, what’s the rush?”
“I want to be in deep in Indiana before Detective Hanson or his sidekick wish they could ask me something else.”
“Says the MP investigator who never needed additional information to clarify something that came up.”
“Oh, I see what you mean.”
“Besides, it’s a Federal case, and the FBI and ATF can talk to me anywhere along the route they want to. They have my phone number and email address.”
Jack rose and cleared his place. They did the dishes in silence then took the elevator up to the mixed dorm room that they had been assigned. Twenty minutes later, they turned in their keys and went to the bicycle and luggage room. Ten minutes after that, they were speeding down Lake Shore Drive. The wind had come around to the north and pushed them to the Chicago-New York bicycle route (www.adventurecycling.org) at a brisk 20 mph. The air was cooler. Fall was definitely on its way. Hilda was glad that they were headed generally southeast; two years before, she had ridden directly into a blizzard here on Halloween.
At 9:30 they crossed the Indiana line in Calumet City. They stopped for lunch in Crown Point, at a picnic bench in Sauerman Woods Park.
Jack speared an olive from the Tupperware container. “You never told me how it went at Police Headquarters. How were your new friends, Diego and Cristina?”
“OK, I guess.” Hilda looked pensive as she took a bite of her sandwich (prosciutto and gruyère on a baguette), and chewed slowly. Jack was a patient listener, by disposition and training. “Cristina had never been to a police station before, and both of them were more than a little apprehensive. I’m glad I went over early and escorted them.”
“All they know is the Spanish police. No one wants to have a conversation with the Guardia Civil.”
“You got the picture. Anyway, the two Chicago detectives were very gentle with them, and backed up my reassurance that they were not suspects. Frankly, Hanson and the other guy – “
“You said Schmidt yesterday.”
“Right, Schmidt. Anyway, by the time we arrived, the media had made heroes of both of them for coming back to help after getting away safely. Apparently, no one else got out of the restaurant unharmed. We recounted all the information we could, and they let us go.”
“But the Feds –”
“Were waiting for us. They wanted their own interview, but after having Diego and Cristina repeat everything, they were satisfied that they could not add anything to the investigation. An agent took the two of them back in one of their black sedans and let them go.”
“Why did they keep you all day?”
“Why do you think? Combat Army; triage nurse. The ATF guys almost peed their pants when I could confirm the order in which the gunfire and the explosion occurred, and the distinctive sound of the bomb. Apparently, they could not have made sense of the unfolding of the attack so quickly otherwise. The car bomb was the most powerful any of them had ever seen, but it was about like the IED’s you and I saw in Baghdad. That apparently gave them a lead that they went off on.”
“Brava. I’m surprised you were let go at all.”
“They really didn’t have any reason to hold me. I made Hanson test my cell number right there in the office, so they could be sure that they could reach me if anything came up.”
“You’ll have to go back if they ever catch anyone to try.”
“Yeah, but by then, I’ll be retired – again.”
Jack laughed. “So what’s this gig in Virginia?”
“A hospital in Charlottesville likes my resume. They got a pending maternity leave in the ER. Right down my alley. The city has two top-100 hospitals, so I can stay as long as I want.”
“I’ve been there. Nice place. Have you?”
“I passed through when I rode the TransAmerica Trail two years ago. Very pretty. Seems a peaceful place, too.”
“When do you have to be there?”
“Not till after the New Year, so there is plenty of time for us to ride there – if you want to come along, that is.”
“Sure. Any plans for Thanksgiving or Christmas?”
“Not yet. You?”
“Well, since we’re heading that way, I was thinking of dropping in on my brother Bob and his family in Baltimore. They have a big place on the Chesapeake Bay, with a guest house. They’ve been bugging me forever to come stay for a while. Interested?”
“Are they cool with me?”
“Absolutely. Bob’s quite taken with you, you know. He’s wanted to meet you ever since I told him about meeting you in Iraq.”
“And his wife. Annie, is it? I remember you’re saying she’s British.”
“Yes, but the family is originally from Egypt. She’s a dual citizen and grew up in Kenya of all places.”
“Sounds interesting. If they still want to see us, let’s do it. We can get there by Thanksgiving, even stopping in Indianapolis and Columbus.”
“And Pittsburgh. You said you want to ride the Great Allegheny Passage.”
Jack composed an email to his brother, while Hilda collected their trash and put it in the recycle bins.
If ever there was a place for smooth roads and tailwinds, it was Indiana with a northwesterly breeze (if you were heading southeast). Long, straight, lightly travelled roads saw them speeding through the cornfields and soybeans. Although the autumn air was cool, they both were sweating by the time they stopped at a farmhouse on the Kankakee River near Wilders. Hilda had made arrangements to stay with a Warmshowers host (www.warmshowers.org), who, luckily, was flexible about arrival changes when she was detained in Chicago. They had a shower, and joined their host, Frederick, in the kitchen to prepare supper. Fred was in his fifties, lean and wiry, and tanned. A man who had led an active life, much of it outdoors. A pair of reading glasses stuck out of the pocket of his flannel shirt.
As often is the case with Warmshowers, it was a simple meal. They could smell a multitude of spices in the humid air. Fred motioned to a cutting board with a knife, and a bowl with a grater on the kitchen counter.
“We’re having what I was planning to make for myself,” said Jim. “Today is chili day. I make it up in the Crock-pot and freeze containers for future meals, so having guests tonight is no problem. All you have to do is grate the cheese and chop some parsley, while I set the table.”
Fred called himself a “retired Federal worker,” but it was clear from the conversation over dinner that he had worked all over the world. Jack had to ask them to slow down when Hilda and Fred got into an excited exchange in German.
“He lived two blocks from our house in Kaiserslautern!” Hilda told him.
“Yeah, but about ten years earlier,” said Fred. “That was before the posting to Bahrain.”
“Then you probably speak Arabic, too,” said Jack.
“It’s a little rusty, considering where I live now.” Then he switched to Arabic to tell them where he lived in Manama.
“This is so cool, to stay with someone who knows places I’ve been,” said Hilda. “What brought you here?”
“My wife was from Wilders, so when I retired, we came here. Her parents were getting on – mine were gone already – and, after all, she had followed me all over the world for 30 years, so it seemed fair. After they died, Margie and I did a lot of travelling, so living here did not drive us nuts. And we enjoyed being Warmshowers hosts; the company is always different and interesting.”
“Well, she died only last year, so it’s too early for me to make any major changes. I really enjoy having bicyclists like you coming through, so I am inclined to stay here, but I am still trying to discern what I should do.”
There was a pause, which Jack ended. “Sorry about your wife.”
“Thanks. We had time to grieve together before she died, and it was very peaceful at the end. Considering that we all have to go some day, we should pray to be so lucky as to go the way she did.” He smiled and reached for the chili pot. “Seconds? I know you burned off more than one bowl riding all the way from Chicago.”
They all dug into another helping of the spicy chili.
Fred had WiFi throughout the house, and a private guest quarters upstairs. It was as cozy and luxurious as either of them had ever seen.
“How did you luck into this?” Jack asked.
“Luck of the draw. I remember one couple in Gary, who were renovating their house, and everything was stored in the second bedroom. I slept on the floor with scrap lumber and boxes of belongings teetering over me.”
“I camp in people’s backyards mostly with Warmshowers. I think I’ve been indoors maybe twice.”
“Yeah, this is nice.” Hilda pulled her small tablet computer from her pannier.
Jack had one, too. “Let’s check on the world while we have a connection.”
Both devices began dinging furiously when they booted up. Mostly news feeds about the events in Chicago.
“Omigod!” Hilda exclaimed. “The FBI has arrested a half-dozen people already. No one had even claimed responsibility before the first two were caught.”
“That is very fast work. But it figures. Only a handful of groups could have assembled a bomb like that and coordinated it with an assault. Any names yet?”
“No – wait! Here’s an article about Abu Namr and the Forebears of the Mahdi.”
“Oh-oh. I ran across that group in Iraq. Nasty bunch.”
“They must have been working on this for years. It’s not easy for a radical group to organize in the US like that. One-off converts, yes, but assemble, plan, and recruit and train a team?”
“Well, I am glad we are past that.” Jack opened his email, deleted most of them, and went back to the Chicago Tribune website. “Looks like you’re famous, Hilda.” His face was serious. He swung the screen around to show her a full picture of her coming out of FBI headquarters. “Some anonymous source credits you with the information that led to the speedy arrests.”
“Oh, shit. That’s just what I don’t need! I might as well ride with a target on my back.”
“’No good deed goes unpunished.’ On one hand, we know that the Forebears will certainly be looking for you. On the other hand, there is no mention of where you are, or how you get around. It will take them a while to find us. You can drop off the internet and set up a new identity while we ride east. I will do all the bookings and other contacts, because it seems that they don’t know about me yet.”
Hilda’s shoulders slumped. “This is a nightmare. I spent years looking over my shoulder in Afghanistan and Iraq. I should not have to live like this here.”
Jack took her hand, and held it silently for a while.
“Well, for starters, let me see what they can find out easily.” He started by Googling her name, checking on Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social media. He searched on various military and public databases. “You keep a pretty low profile, Hilda. Only a Facebook account, and nothing in Google. I see that you don’t post anything either; it’s all stuff from friends on your timeline.”
“It’s been like that for years. I got tired of the weirdos and stalkers.”
“Good, you don’t have much of a profile, either. That’s good. No hometown, no relatives, no photos. Just a dozen friends.”
“I’ll unfriend them all right now, and hope that the bad guys have not made the connections to them already.” She began tapping on her keyboard, surfing through her contacts. “Done.”
“Cancelled the account?”
“Here, use my computer to email each of them about the situation, and to be wary of anyone trying to ask about your whereabouts, even people you both know. Make sure that they don’t give out that you ride a bicycle, or where you have been. If any of them knows that you are going to Charlottesville, tell them that the job fell through, and that you’ll let them know where you end up next.”
A half-hour later, Hilda and Jack had done all they reasonably could to erase Hilda’s presence on the Internet. They knew it was only a matter of time before the Forebears accessed her service record (knowing that she had been an Army nurse), and tracked her down to the hospitals where she had worked. Her last hospital knew about Charlottesville. Hopefully, they could ride under the radar long enough to come up with a better plan.
Sleep was a long time coming, in spite of the long ride that day. Jack did not talk, but she knew that he was thinking far ahead as they lay there. His strong, hard body was a comfort, but, more than that, she knew that together, they had a good chance of out-thinking whoever might come after them. And, barring that, maybe outfight them. This time, she was glad not to be riding alone.
Slowly, she relaxed with her back up against him. They drifted off to sleep at about the same time.
Until next time,
Smooth roads and tailwinds,