Hilda awoke with a start. Jack was hyperventilating, his body rigid and shaking, sweat starting to soak the sheets. He was sleeping, but not resting, that was for sure.
“Jack,” she said softly. “Jack, wake up.” She touched his head gingerly from the top. As she expected, Jack doubled upright suddenly, eyes wide in terror. She slid her arms gently around him. “Easy, soldier, you’re safe here.”
Jack’s body relaxed as he took in his surroundings. He turned to bury his head in Hilda’s long black hair. “Oh, God, I thought I was past that.” He hugged her as his trembling subsided. They fell back on the pillows. The alarm clock on the nightstand glowed “04:25” in red digits.
“I’m sorry about waking you,” he said.
“No problem there.” She stroked the side of his head. “It’s been a while. Did you have any episodes while I was riding up from LA?”
“No. I guess it’s been six months.” He took her hand and kissed her fingers. “I still hate putting you through my problem.”
“Our problem, Jack. We were taking turns when I came back and ran into you last year.”
“Yeah, I guess we were.” He smiled. “Does that make us compatible?”
“We have the same nightmares.” She turned toward him. “Do you want to try to go back to sleep?”
“I don’t know. I’m keyed up now. What I feel like doing is going online to find out more about the Forebears of the Mahdi. I want to see if there is anything else we can find out before you call Agent Norman, and I talk to Ted Tinsley.”
“That’s your friend who was at Central Command in Qatar when we were in Iraq?”
“Yes. He’s the Provost Marshal here now.”
“Let’s do it, then. I forgot to email Norman when we came back from dinner. I could do that now.”
Dressed in matching bathrobes and slippers that the Rathburns had left for them, they made their way downstairs. Jack made coffee in the kitchen, while Hilda opened her laptop on the table and composed an email to Special Agent Mike Norman in Chicago.
Jack came in while the coffee maker gurgled away. He booted up his machine and started with the obvious open sources: Google, Wikipedia, and a few major newspapers. Then he logged into his account at army.mil.
Hilda scooted over next to him. “Any luck?”
“Not much. In fact, only two hits before the scene in Chicago. They’re either a very new group, or smaller than we thought.”
“We’ll get an update from Norman.”
“I’ll check the NCIC before we go. There might be something.”
“You still have access?”
“Uh-huh.” Jack nodded, his face intent on the screen. Hilda looked at him with surprise.
“You’re still on active duty! Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You never asked.” Jack looked up and grinned. “I’ve been on medical leave. On paper, I’m assigned to the Provost Marshal at Walter Reed until my next checkup in March. I’m hoping to be certified as fully fit for duty.”
“I thought you had your 20 years in already.”
“Not quite. I can retire in May, so if it don’t pass the checkup, I’ll be retired medically anyway.”
“A man of dark secrets, Jack Rathburn.” Hilda rose and went to the kitchen. She came back with two mugs of black coffee. The darkness was weakening outside the living room window. They went back to their research, sitting side by side. Hilda surfed through German, English and Arabic websites. Jack set up a virtual private network and moved into the law enforcement databases.
“Here’s a piece on the fatwa,” said Hilda as she read the Arabic Al-Jazeera news. “It seems that the imam who issued it in Mosul last month has recanted it.”
“That’s good news.”
“Yes, but will the word get out to all the crazies before one of them finds me?”
“Good point. I hope it means that the Forebears can call off their teams.”
“They may have a personal grudge, you know. Even without a fatwa, they blame me for their six brothers getting arrested.”
When the sun began streaming into the living room, they shut down the computers, made breakfast, and went up to get dressed. Columbia® shirts and trekking trousers were the extent of their “street clothes”, but that seemed more appropriate than spandex bicycle kits for the offices they would visit that day.
They pushed their bikes up to the main house, their senses keen for movement or sounds on either side. Whoever had the flashlight the night before was either gone or well hidden.
Joe and Linda were finishing breakfast. Over coffee they reviewed the day ahead.
“You don’t need your bikes, Jack.” Joe said. “I can shuttle you around.”
“Actually, Joe, I don’t mind if we take your truck to meet Colonel Harper, but we have separate places to go after that. Let’s throw them in the back so you won’t have to stick with us all day.”
“Makes sense.” Joe looked at his wife. “Need any last-minute things from the Commissary, hon?”
“Thanksgiving’s all stocked up, but what about some things for Jack and Hilda?”
“That’s OK, Linda,” said Hilda. “We can shop for ourselves. Just having a fully equipped house is wonderful. Jack and I can meet at the Commissary to get groceries before we come back. By then, we’ll have an idea how long we’ll be here.”
At nine AM, Jack, Hilda and Joe walked into the Commanding Officer’s office. Nate Harper was a big man, with no fat on his frame.
“I am honored to meet you, Major,” he said, extending a hand to Hilda. His handshake was firm, but Hilda knew that he could probably crush her fingers if he wanted to. “We had already heard about you when Major Tinsley told me about what you did in Iraq, but the Chicago stories have made a real hero of you.”
“It’s all a little embarrassing, sir. I just did what I was trained to do.
“But Chicago is not Baghdad,” said Joe.
Nate Harper nodded at Joe, then looked at Hilda. “We will do anything we can to protect you. Has Joe shown you around yet?”
“Yes, sir. We got the windshield tour on the way here. We can find all the places we need to visit today.”
“Good.” Col. Harper looked at Jack and Hilda. “We thought it might be handy to call Chicago from the Provost Marshal’s office, because Major Tinsley will be able to make whatever arrangements are needed as soon as you hang up.”
Outside the headquarters building, Jack and Hilda donned their insulated jackets and took the bikes from the truck.
“Linda hopes you’ll be back for supper,” said Joe, standing by the door to the truck. “Just let us know either way, we know you both have friends on base who are anxious to see you.”
“That’s true,” said Hilda. “We’ll let you know.” Joe climbed into the truck and drove off.
“Ted’s office is on that next block.” Jack pointed across the street. “Let’s walk over.” They pushed their bikes to the unremarkable brick building and locked them outside.
The reception area resembled a police station in any town, with its collection of wanted posters, hard plastic chairs for waiting, and an MP in desert utilities behind the glass at the reception desk. He smiled at them in a professional manner.
“Good morning, sir, ma’am. Can I help you?”
“Good morning, sergeant. Major Rathburn and Major Paisley here to see Major Tinsley.”
The desk sergeant straightened even more. “Yes, sir! We’ve been expecting you.” He pushed a button on the intercom, which brought out another MP in a green service uniform. She approached them quickly and saluted Jack.
“Major Tinsley said to bring you in right away, sir. You, too, ma’am. I’m Sergeant Jones.”
She led them to an office just behind the reception area, motioned them in, and closed the door behind them. The office was as unremarkable as the building, with a minimum of furniture, and a large, desk with only a few files on it. A short man with powerful shoulders and arms stood facing the large window that gave out on the parade ground. He turned around, and Hilda noticed that his brown eyes twinkled with humor from an otherwise stern face. The face melted into a grin when he saw Jack.
“Rathburn, you old reprobate! I was afraid I’d seen the last of you when the report came in from Baghdad.” They stood a moment clasping each other’s arms, speechless with emotion, then gave each other a hug. Hilda felt a lump in her throat, knowing how much healing an old friendship could carry. Jack turned their attention to her.
“Ted, this is Hilda Paisley.” Ted’s grip was strong in her hand.
“I’ve heard about you, even before Jack told me that you two had met again. It’s an honor to meet you, Hilda.”
“Likewise, Ted. Thank you for offering to help us out.”
“The least we could do. Want some coffee?”
They assented, and Ted called Sergeant Jones in.
“Sergeant, could we have some coffee, and could you check on the secure phone setup?”
“Ready when you are, sir. We tested it with the FBI Office in Chicago to make sure the call would go through when they arrived.” She nodded at the visitors.
Ted winked at Jack. “As usual, the sergeants stay ahead of us. Thank you, Jones. What time did you give them?”
“Ten-hundred. Twenty minutes from now, sir.”
“Good. Would you join us with the coffee? I don’t want to repeat the whole meeting, and you and I may have to take care of some of the details personally.”
When Sergeant Jones came back, Jack and Hilda briefed them both on the entire story from when each of them arrived in Chicago. Ted asked enough questions to make sure he understood everything in each of Hilda’s phone calls to Agent Norman.
“So they don’t actually know about Jack?” he asked at the end.
“As of yesterday morning, they had guessed that I had left with one of the other three cyclists who were checked into the hostel. They must have figured out who it was by now.”
“But I have not used a card since then,” said Jack, “so they will know only that we were in DC yesterday. Since I am officially stationed there, they may be contacting Gerry McQueen at Walter Reed today.”
“Does Gerry know about this?”
“No.” Jack looked at the two MPs. “Until we got here, only Agent Mike Norman knew anything, and never our location. We’ve told Joe and Linda, and Colonel Harper, of course.”
“Good. Depending on what the FBI will accept, we can probably offer you as secure a place to hide as anywhere right now.”
“It’s 09:55, sir,” said Sergeant Jones. They all stood, and Ted led them to the communications room. They waited around a console while the MP called Chicago and set up the secure connection.
“I have Special Agent Norman on the line, sir,” she said to her CO. Ted nodded to Hilda, who took the phone.
“Hello, Mike. It’s Hilda, checking in.” She grinned at Jack. She could hear the smile on the FBI agent’s face.
“Good morning, Hilda. I hope you won’t hang up on me today.”
“Not today. I take it you know where we are this time.”
“Yes, and I guess Major Rathburn is with you.”
“Indeed. Mike, I have the Provost Marshal, Major Tinsley, his assistant Sergeant Jones, and Jack Rathburn here. May I put this on speaker?”
“Sure. I have Agent Louis Jefferson, our Special Agent in Charge, here.”
The communications technician flipped a switch to turn on the speakerphone. Ted gestured for her to wait outside by the door. She picked up a handheld radio that was squawking with police traffic, and closed the door. Ted motioned for everyone pull up a chair near Hilda.
“Who goes first, Mike?”
“I think you should, especially after all the suspense I have had to put up with. Do you know that you have almost everyone in the bureau pissed at you?”
“I’m sorry about that, Mike, but we made it here safely, didn’t we?” She went on to brief the two FBI agents about their ride across the eastern half of the country. Agent Norman and his boss occasionally asked for details, obviously so they could check out the story at each of their stops. Finally, Hilda wrapped it up and asked, “what do you want from me now?”
The SAC answered. “We still want you in witness protection until the trial of the six suspects. Things got interesting after you left. We had two attempted jail breaks, so now we have ten Forebears in custody. The US Attorney is sure that he can get convictions on all ten, because the actions by the two follow-on pairs to break out their brothers helps make the case against all of them.”
“From what we could learn, it’s not a big group. Have you any idea how many more of them are out there?”
“Can’t be more than a half-dozen left,” said Jefferson. “It was a very exclusive group, maybe three dozen in Raqqa and a dozen in Mosul. The Mosul crowd was from Baghdad originally. The Raqqa group was killed or captured. We accounted for all of them. According to the sources, the Baghdad/Mosul unit had been planning to come to the US for a long time. That means there can’t be more than two of them unaccounted for now.”
“And the fatwa? We learned that it was recanted. Can you confirm that?”
“Yes, we can. I’m surprised that you knew about that.”
“Al-Jazeera. It was on the internet.”
“The latest we had from Al-Jazeera was the announcement last month. The cancellation came to us from classified sources.” Agent Jefferson did not sound happy.
“Well, it’s public information in the Middle East. Not everything Al-Jazeera broadcasts gets translated. Which makes me worry that some one in North America may still be trying to earn a ticket to heaven.”
“That’s why we want you in witness protection.”
Ted spoke up. “Agent Jefferson, Major Paisley is on a high-security Army base now. It will be very hard for a lone actor or an outside organization to target her.” Hilda frowned and shrugged her shoulders. There was a pause on the line.
“I see your point, Major Tinsley. Tell you what. Now that Ms. Paisley has checked in and we know where she is, I can pass this case to the SAC in Baltimore, and you can work it out with him.” Hilda started to talk, but Ted motioned her to be calm.
“That sounds like a plan for now. We have a good working relationship with Pete Sayfield and his team.”
“Works for me, Major. I will brief Washington on this, then call Baltimore. Do you think she will be safe over the holiday?”
“She is staying with the Rathburns on base. Imagine our embarrassment if anyone tried to breach security here. From what you say, there are only two Forebears left. They or any freelancers probably could not organize an infiltration that quickly.”
“OK, then. Special Agent Sayfield will probably contact you on Monday.”
“And Mike, thanks for everything,” Hilda said. “I know I was not easy with you.”
“Forgiven, Hilda. By the third call, I knew that you would be OK.”
The two FBI agents rang off. Ted hung up the phone, while Sergeant Jones called the communications MP back in to take over the console.
Back in Ted’s office, he motioned for the three of them to sit.
“I’m surprised that the Bureau didn’t just drop you into our custody, Hilda. They usually pass the buck easily.”
“My guess is that this is a high-profile case, and they want control,” said Jack.
“It does not look good from where I sit,” said Hilda. “I’ll go stir-crazy trying to ride around the base. I don’t care how big it is.”
“Relax, Hilda,” said Ted. “You were going to be here through the Thanksgiving weekend anyway, right?” Hilda nodded. Ted continued.
“Pete Sayfield is one of the good guys. He’s a former MP himself, but, better than that, he does not have the CYA attitude of so many of his colleagues. You’ll like him. Trust me.”
“So, do you want us to do anything in particular?” asked Jack.
Ted looked at Sergeant Jones and thought for a short while.
“With the holiday, I don’t want to increase patrols. Seems like a waste of effort. There’s just one thing that bothers me.” He looked at Jones.
“An attack from the Bay,” she said.
“She has been bugging me about that since I got here, and she’s right. The islands have more coastline than we can patrol, so our effective perimeter is around the mainland part of the base.
Hilda frowned again. “I have a job to report to in January.”
“Let’s see what happens over the weekend, then work up a plan with Pete Sayfield next week. I’ll call him today. I will also call the Maryland State Police and local law enforcement to tell them that there may be intruders trying to use the islands. It’s way off-season for tourists, so any boats will attract attention.”
“We saw a flashlight in the trees last night,” Hilda asked. “Isn’t that undeveloped wetland?”
Ted looked at the big map of the base on the wall. “Yes, it is. But it’s also a favorite haunt for nighttime poachers. I’ll send a detail around to check for tracks. They should still be there if anyone was moving around. That should tell us if they were hunting you or the local critters.”
They rose. Jones went to make phone calls, and Ted walked them back to the entrance.
“How about lunch at the O-Club?” Ted said. “It’s a very nice, regular restaurant now, overlooking the Bay. On me.”
Hilda shook her head. “Why don’t you and Jack do that. You two have catching up to do. I’d like to visit Karen Smythe. We may see you there if she doesn’t take me home.”
Ted smiled. “She has quarters on-base, but don’t go to Havre de Grace for lunch.”
“Promise. On base.” She looked at Jack. “Meet you at the Commissary at two?”
“Sure. Let’s text if either is delayed.”
Ted shook hands with Hilda. He and Jack went inside. Hilda unlocked her bicycle and rode to the Kirk Army Health clinic.
Until next time,
Smooth roads and tailwinds,