Jack shouted, “let’s stop at the next place with some cover.” Hilda nodded and pointed to an abandoned gas station on the road running next to the bike trail. They pulled in and leaned their bikes against the columns holding up the roof.
Jack found a stick and cleaned the thickest mud out between his tires and the fenders. The rain was not particularly heavy, but after four hours, the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) Trail was becoming difficult.
“You know,” said Hilda, “this path is graded and groomed, so it is safe enough now, but if this rain continues, we’ll have to get back on the highway.”
“It turns back into asphalt in Maryland. We could reach Cumberland by tonight.”
“Good. I’m looking forward to a real bed and dry sheets.”
They sat on the platform where the fuel pumps had been and ate some nuts and dried fruit.
“You need the ATM yet?” asked Jack.
“Maybe, but we’ve done so well so far. With just the daily phone calls from landlines, I can’t imagine that the FBI has been able to interpolate our track yet. He keeps guessing, but the closest he has come is “somewhere in Indiana” the last time I used my cell phone.”
“That was brilliant, remembering your college friend on a farm outside Jackson. That was way off the grid. Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Dayton were fun.”
“Yeah, she was wonderful – especially driving us to Columbus in her truck. I enjoyed the ride to Pittsburgh from there.”
“You always did like the steep hills more than I.” Jack grinned. “But I like the view when you take off like that.”
Hilda gave him a friendly punch on the arm. “The view’s not bad when you’re pacing me on the flats, man.” She checked her watch. “Let’s check in with Norman for today. Then we can spend the night in a different state.” She powered up the phone. FBI Agent Mike Norman was at his desk. He brought her up to date on the search for them and for the Forebears of the Mahdi. She turned off her phone in less than a minute.
“He’s getting pretty good at that, isn’t he?” Jack said.
“He’s OK with it. Now that he knows I’ll check in every day, he seems to be happy that we are in fact under the radar. Besides, the office has so much else to do, that I don’t imagine that they think much of us between calls. They are probably more worried about more Forebears and possible future attacks.”
“You don’t have to hit the ATM in Cumberland if you want to keep riding. This trip isn’t costing much, and I’m OK paying for both of us.”
“I want to pay you back, so we have to do this some time, but let’s take it a day at a time. We’re far enough east now that we have lots of options for jumping on trains or buses and getting far from the ATM before the alarm bells go off.”
The rain was a noisome drizzle when they mounted up and rode back onto the trail. If anything, the cold was becoming more of a bother than the rain. An hour after passing through Meyersdale, Pennsylvania, they hit asphalt outside Frostburg, Maryland. The climb to the college town kept them both warm. It was downhill among the evergreens to Cumberland. The rain stopped on the way down. By sundown, they were checking into a cozy guest house in the city center, which catered to cyclists. They unpacked, showered, changed and washed out their kits from the muddy day’s ride. When the laundry was hung, they went out in search of supper. Their host recommended an Italian restaurant nearby, which did not disappoint.
As they sipped their wine between the pasta and the veal course, they both felt a warm sense of pleasure. Could there be anything better than being on the road with a friend, with good food and a cozy place to sleep? They spent a long time just looking at each other, smiling. Jack broke the trance.
“Thanksgiving is next week. We told Joe we would be there Tuesday, give or take a day.”
“It’s not supposed to rain for the rest of the week. I think we could ride the C&O Canal all the way to DC – it’s only three days, taking it easy. Then what?”
“If you want to hit an ATM in DC, we can do that one morning at Union Station and be at Joe’s house in Aberdeen by lunch time. If you still don’t want to risk detection, we can just ride the bike route up US 40 all the way to Joe’s house. We’d be there exactly on Tuesday.”
“Do you think we should brief him on our problem before we arrive?”
“Yes, but I don’t know how much.” He asked her opinion with raised eyebrows.
“He’s retired Army. He doesn’t need much. If you tell him that we need for no one to know that I am there, he probably won’t slip up. Promise to brief him when we get there.”
“That should do it. I’ll call after supper.”
The scaloppine alla marsala arrived. Conversation paused while they savoured the wine sauce and the soft white meat.
After dinner, they took a walk to a café on the Potomac River, then back to the guest house.
The next day dawned with the promise of brilliant sunshine, and unseasonably warm temperatures, which in November meant comfortable. The hosts fixed a big breakfast and sent them on their way by nine o’clock. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath was familiar to both of them from past rides before they met. The surface was still muddy from the day before, especially in the shade, but they were able to maintain a decent pace all day. They camped at Fort Frederick the first night and near Harper’s Ferry the second night. Both of them had visited the attractions before (John Brown’s house, the Armory, the 1756 Fort Frederick), so they packed up each morning and hit the road. Hilda called Agent Norman from a pay phone each afternoon. They were checking into the HI Washington Hostel by sundown on the third day.
Over breakfast in the hostel dining room, Hilda considered that to do next.
“I don’t think I’ll hit the ATM unless Norman figures out where we are, or at least guesses that we’re biking. Then they’ll have something to go on. Or, of course, if we get suspicious about our surroundings. I don’t feel comfortable in this city anyway. It’s a magnet for the people we are dodging.”
“I agree. Let’s set out for Aberdeen today. Once we get there, we can make a better plan.”
“For starters, my old CO is at the Proving Grounds there. Maybe Agent Norman would appreciate a long conversation on a secure phone.”
“Great idea. Let’s start out today.”
They packed after breakfast and soon were riding to Baltimore. Most of the roads had bike lanes, and there were long stretches of separate bike paths. They were past Baltimore by early afternoon. They ate lunch at a picnic table near Herring Run. Hilda decided to call Norman just before leaving Baltimore.
Jack watched as Hilda expression darkened.
“You’re partly right, Mike. I am with friends, but no, I’m not telling who. I’ll call later.” She powered down the phone and looked up at Jack.
“Bad news. They finally thought to check the HI Hostel in Chicago, and found out that I had a bicycle there. So Mike figures that I am hiding somewhere nearby, because I can’t go far on a bike.”
“But we ‘re a long way from Chicago.”
“That was the good news. The bad news is that they also thought to check who else had a bicycle and there were only four cyclists. Bicycling is not so popular in November, y’know.”
“So as soon as they figure out that you did not leave alone –”
“He said that they did not know if I left alone or with a friend, but that they would find out.” She paused and took a breath to calm herself. “If they figure out that I was with you, it would only be a matter of hours before they establish your credit card trail from Chicago.”
“Well, we made it this far. The last data point was the Washington Hostel, and we can make it to Aberdeen before they find us. Let’s ride. If it takes too long, I’ll call Joe to come get us on US 40. If they know I’m the one, they’ll find out that I have a brother. I’d like to be there when they do.”
Hilda felt the dread returning. If the FBI figured out where they were, the Forebears of Mahdi would probably know very soon, too. They pedalled with a renewed sense of purpose, covering the last 35 miles in only two and a half hours. Joe and his wife Linda came out as they rolled up the driveway; obviously, someone had a watch at the window. Jack and Hilda briefed them on the situation as they walked the bikes to the guest house.
Jack’s brother lived on three acres on an island in the Chesapeake Bay, just outside the Aberdeen Proving Grounds. The guest house was by the dock, where a trim inboard-outboard boat was tied.
“Ready for a getaway by land or by sea,” Joe quipped.
Joseph Rathburn had been Jack’s hero growing up, which was probably why Jack followed him into the Army. Joe went to the Military Academy at West Point, but Jack had developed a liking for police work as a teenager, so he has gone into Criminal Justice and ROTC at the University of Illinois. While Jack was in Iraq and Afghanistan, Joe was doing his last two tours at the Proving Grounds. Having only retired the year before, the older brother still had most of his friends among the personnel there. Indeed, the only road access to the island passed through the Army base, so it felt as if they had not left.
“Check out this view,” Jack said, standing in front of the window as he buttoned his shirt. The fall leaves had not all dropped on the opposite shore. The confluence of the Susquehanna River into the Chesapeake Bay provided a panorama of nature and human activity.
The guest house had an upstairs bedroom with a bathroom. Hilda was drying her hair, something that took rather longer than Jack’s quick towelling.
“Did you say something?” she asked as she came out. Her hair fell behind her, shining. She was wearing a white bathrobe.
“I was admiring the view from the window, but you are a far more beautiful sight.”
Hilda smiled and stepped to the window.
“Gerrit Dou would have loved to paint that,” she said. “Have you seen his work?”
“There was a special exhibit at the National Gallery of Art a while back. I saw it there, so I know what you mean. The Dutch Masters loved landscape, and he was one of the best.”
Hilda dressed quickly, into her all-purpose black dress. They walked downstairs and up to the main house. Dinner was a simple affair, but it was in the dining room, rather than the kitchen, and Joe had dug out a 2015 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo to go with the meal.
“I called the base CO and the Commander of the Kirk Clinic – your old CO,” he said, nodding to Hilda. “They both want to help, and Lieutenant Colonel Smythe especially wants to spend some time with you, Hilda.”
“She was more than a CO.” Hilda looked at Joe over her glass of wine. “She became a good friend, too.” She put down her glass. “She’s also the main reason you still have a brother.”
Jack put down his knife and fork. “I only remember you pulling me into your HumVee and messing around with my guts before I blacked out.”
“Karen Smythe was the surgeon in triage when we got you back to the base. I could not have patched you up for evacuation to Germany in the truck, Jack.”
After a somber moment, Joe continued. “Anyway, my friend, Col. Harper, would be happy to let you call the SAC in Chicago on a secure line. He’ll set it up in the morning.”
“I’ll email Agent Norman tonight, so he can be prepared for a long conversation. I don’t know how this will go down.”
“Well, if it’s any help, Nate Harper said that they could put you two up in the Visiting Officers Quarters on base if you need better security. I don’t expect that the Forebears will be able to get to you, not without some careful and time-consuming preparations.”
“It’s a big base,” said Jack, “but I don’t relish the idea of staying there for a long time.”
“We’ll know more in the morning, Jack” Hilda said. “Being able to talk for a while will allow us to find out just how big the threat is. By now, the Bureau should know more about the Forebears, especially how many more there are and who is unaccounted for.”
“Good point. I feel pretty safe right now, especially with the base between here and the mainland. But we need to find out more about them if we ever hope to stop running.”
“It’s agreed, then,” said Joe. He looked at Linda. “Shall we take this conversation – and the rest of the Montepulciano – to the living room?”
“Sure. I’ll clean up.”
“No, you won’t. You show Hilda your pictures, and Jack and I will clear the table.”
The evening was spent catching up, laughing over past misadventures, and generally enjoying family and friendship. About ten, the yawning began, so Jack and Hilda bade the others good night and started back to the guest house. They were holding hands walking down the path, something new for them, because usually they were pushing their bikes when walking.
Halfway back, Jack said, “Don’t look now, but I think I saw a flashlight moving through the trees to the left.”
“I saw it, too.”
“That is supposed to be undeveloped wetlands. There shouldn’t be anyone there at night.” They gently increased their pace and quickly reached the guesthouse. Jack checked the door and the soft earth around the house before they let themselves in. The only tracks were their own. Hilda locked the door and the windows, while Jack made a careful search for signs that anyone had been in the house.
“Are we being paranoid?” Hilda asked as they went upstairs.
“I don’t think so. I would not come to the house the first day either, but I would set up surveillance as soon as possible. I would want to know the regular movements of the inhabitants before going into the house.”
“Probably safe for tonight then?”
“Probably. But let’s keep alert when we go out tomorrow.”
As Hilda drew the drapes on the big window, she considered the beautiful landscape at night. Ships were plying the waters of the bay, their running lights passing in front of the Elk Neck State Park like fairies in the darkness. Havre de Grace and the traffic crossing the Susquehanna looked like a distant light show. She shivered.
“Now that view scares me a little.”
“Me, too. I’m glad we’re here and not in a tent tonight.”
There was an urgency to their lovemaking that night, because neither was quite ready for sleep. But they slept at last, overcome by the exhaustion of the day, the emotions of their situation, and the warm comfort of the bed.
Until next time,
Smooth roads and tailwinds,