“I am so glad you agreed to stay through Christmas,” Linda Rathburn said, as Hilda handed her the angel topper for the Christmas tree. An early snowfall in mid-December had put everyone in a holiday mood. Linda climbed down and reached for her hot apple cider on the table.
“I have to admit, this has been a safer and friendlier place to wait than anywhere else. You and Joe have been wonderful.”
“The truth is, we’re a little selfish. It’s hard to get Jack to visit often, or to stay for more than a couple of days. Joe misses him a lot when he’s gone.”
“I noticed that they are closer than most brothers who aren’t twins.”
“They’re third generation Army. With all the moving and their father gone so much, they only had each other growing up.”
“I wish I had had a brother or a sister.”
“Where was your father stationed when you were young?”
“After Stuttgart, where he met my mother and I came along, we went to Fort Benning, Georgia, which I don’t remember. I do remember living in Argentina, then Kaiserslautern. We stayed there for two tours while he was in Afghanistan and Qatar, then moved to Hawaii. He took a twilight tour in Landstuhl, so he could retire to Kaiserslautern, my mother’s home town. I grew up there.”
Linda handed Hilda a box of tinsel, and they walked around the tree, putting on the final touch.
“I think what you’re doing yourself is simply brilliant,” Linda said. “I am happy not to be moving every three years, but your riding around between temp jobs in hospitals sounds like a lot of fun.”
“The nomadic lifestyle suits me. It’s not for everyone.”
“It seems to suit Jack, too.”
“Yes, it does. We both found out that it’s great to ride on your own, but it’s even better with a friend.”
“Well, you two are fantastic together. I hope you can keep it up.”
“As long as my health holds out, I can’t see why not.”
“And the Forebears stay off your case.”
“That, too. I hope the old saying ‘no news is good news’ continues to hold true.”
They heard Joe’s truck pulling into the garage. The two brothers came into the house laughing hysterically about some shared memory, which they got under control by the time they entered the living room. As Joe went over to hug his wife, Linda asked what was so funny.
“I told you the story of Jeb Moran in fourth grade, didn’t I?”
Linda smiled and chuckled. “Yes, that was funny.” She turned to Hilda. “I think you had to be there for it to be that funny.” Hilda grinned. Jack gave her a hug and a kiss.
Linda pointed to the tree and the decorations. “I hope you two are hungry, and that you did something about it. We have been too busy, as you can see.”
“Ten pounds of fresh fish for supper,” Joe said. “We even cleaned them at the pier and put them on ice.”
“We can make that work.”
Supper was a community affair, with everyone fitting into the Rathburn’s spacious kitchen. Conversation at dinner revolved around old memories and prospects for the future.
“What are you going to do after Hilda has to go to work in Charlottesville, Jack?” Linda asked.
“Probably ride back up to DC and check in with Gerry McQueen. I don’t have to be back for my final checkup until March, but I like to keep him up to speed on where I am, since I am officially still attached to the hospital there.”
“You can always stay here.”
“I know, and thanks.” He took another helping of new potatoes. “You two have been so generous with us.”
“You’re family,” Joe said. “Both of you.”
“Let us have you down to the guest house for dinner tomorrow or the next day,” said Hilda. That got a quick assent from all concerned.
After dinner, Hilda and Jack walked comfortably back to the guest house.
“Any idea where you want to ride next?” she asked.
“Not really. I’d rather be tracking down the Forebears or taking on another case.”
“You’re not going to handle retirement very well at this rate.” She squeezed his arm and smiled. “Do they have temp jobs for cops like they do nurses?”
“Not really. I could be a PI or a consultant, but that does not appeal to me right now. Maybe I will stay in Aberdeen for a while. Make myself useful with Ted Tinsley. Everyone’s understaffed everywhere. Let’s see what happens.”
“Yes, let’s see.”
The next morning, they rode into the Commissary together after agreeing on what they would fix for supper. It all fit in Hilda’s panniers, so Jack rode over to the Provost Marshall’s office to do some more research and find out the latest on threats to Hilda.
Hilda cranked up to 23 mph crossing the causeway on Spesutie Island Road. She blew past the gate, exhilarating in the smooth pavement and the westerly wind behind her. She gained speed and did not slow down for the gentle curve. Coming out on the straightaway, she caught a glint of light among the trees to her left. Before she was consciously aware of what was happening, she was braking and steeling herself to jump or drop the bike – just as she felt a powerful thump hit the left pannier. The bike began to swing out from under her. Instinctively, she corrected to the right, which took her flying into the grass toward a clump of trees. She heard the crack of the rifle as she leapt from the bike and rolled on the ground. She stayed down, rolled again to get behind a tree, then stopped. She heard a man shouting, “is’ad bil-balam, hasseh!!” then the sound of an outboard motor gunning. From the sounds, she guessed that the boat backed away from the shore and sped toward the open part of the bay. She waited in the silence, then moved from tree to tree to examine the line of trees on the shore across the road. She was alone. She moved back to the bicycle, pulling out her cell phone. She righted the bike and leaned it against a road sign. Orange juice and red wine was leaking from the bullet hole. She was sure that the eggs in the right pannier were well-scrambled.
“911. How can I help you?”
“Major Paisley here. I am about 700 meters past the gate on Spesutie Island Road. Someone just took a shot at me with a rifle from the beach at Sand Cove. No injuries, and whoever shot at me seems to have escaped in an outboard boat with at least one accomplice.”
“A patrol car is on the way, Major. Are you OK?”
“I’m fine, and the pannier seems to have collected the bullet. I’ll wait here. Are you in the APG police station?”
“Good. Please let Major Rathburn know. He should be with Major Tinsley in the Provost Marshall’s office.”
“We’ll pass it on.”
Hilda rang off and called Jack’s number.
“Hey, beautiful. What’s up?”
“I’m a little less beautiful right now, Jack. I just got shot at from the beach. A patrol car is on the way, but if you want to join me, I’m about 700 meters past the Spesutie Island gate, near Sand Cove.”
“The messenger just walked in to brief Ted. We’re on our way.”
As Hilda rang off, she heard the sirens. Two cars showed up. Fifteen minutes later, a full crime scene investigation was underway, with MP’s combing the beach with dogs. Hilda’s panniers were taken into evidence, after the CSI team checked for trajectory from the bullet hole at the spot where the bike was struck. Peter Sayfield from the Baltimore Office of the FBI called Ted, who assured him that an emergency run was not needed, but he could see everything later that night when the FBI agent could get there from the scene he was working close to Washington.
After taking photos and measurements, the CSI techs let her take the bike. Joe showed up with his pickup truck. He insisted on taking Hilda to the Health Clinic so that they could document her scratches.
“I know you’re not hurt,” said Jack, “but Ted and the FBI will need to have the scratches documented by the Clinic. Besides, we’ll need to swing by the Commissary again now, won’t we?”
Karen Smythe was waiting for them and took her friend into the ER. They cleaned up the abrasions, took photos and promised to send the report to the Provost Marshal right away. Joe, Jack and Hilda swung by the Commissary to replace the food that had been impounded by the MP’s.
“Whatever is still edible after tomorrow, we can eat later. You and Linda are still coming to dinner, I hope.”
“Absolutely.” Joe smiled and backed the truck out.
“You know what’s missing?” Hilda said as they rode to the house.
“What?” The Rathburn brothers spoke as one.
“Reporters. In Chicago, it was a zoo. Here the MP’s could work unmolested by the press or the public.”
“They’ll be around,” said Joe, “but they won’t be snapping photos of you for Page One this time.”
“Thank God. That’s how I got into this mess.”
Dinner was delicious, but the atmosphere was more somber than the night before. Ted and his MP’s had determined that two men of about the same size had come ashore. One had set up the ambush, while the other smoked unfiltered cigarettes by the boat, which was a Boston Whaler type of fiberglass craft.
“My guess is the Forebears,” Jack said. “There are two unaccounted for, and a one-off fanatic would probably not be that organized.”
“Obviously, they have been watching us after all,” Hilda said, fiddling with her salad. “It was too good to last, wasn’t it?”
Jack nodded. The phone rang, and Joe got up to answer it. He came back in just a minute.
“That was Nate. You two are to transfer to the Visiting Officers’ Quarters on the main base tonight.” He looked at Hilda. “He’s not asking. He can only order Jack around, but he really means you.”
“It’s his base. He and Ted assured the FBI that we would be safe.” Hilda sighed. “Let’s finish dessert. Jack and I don’t need more than a half hour after the dishwasher starts to pack out.”
“Let Linda and me clean up. We’ll take the necessary libations to the VOQ with you and reconvene for post-prandial cordials there. OK?”
Hilda smiled. She got up and brought out the chocolate cake, while Jack poured some port. An hour later, they locked their bikes in the courtyard of the VOQ and carried their bags up to the suite that they had been assigned on the second floor. The Rathburns joined them in the dining area of the suite. Joe called the Base Commander to let him know that the two were safely in the VOQ.”
“Nate said that he would check on you tomorrow.”
Joe and Linda stayed for only one drink. In the silence after their departure, Hilda felt the day crashing in on her. She sat at the dining table.
“Suddenly, I’m exhausted.”
“This battle is over. Time to come down.” He massaged her shoulders as he talked. “I’m glad you took Joe up on his offer to drive you to Charlottesville in the truck.”
“You and your brother have done so much for me. I could never – “
“Don’t say it. You taught me the words ‘pay it forward’ when I started talking like that last year. You’ll get your chance. Besides, I owe my life to you already.”
Hilda got up, turned around, and hugged Jack. Then remained there immobile for a while, savoring the feeling of safety in each other’s arms.
After washing up the glasses, they retired to the bedroom and unpacked their panniers. Everything they had fit into one of the dressers.
An hour later, Hilda lay staring at the Venetian blinds leaking light into the room. Suddenly she began to shiver.
“I felt that.” Jack rolled over to face her back and put his arm over her. “Tell me.”
“Had I been riding any slower, he’d have hit me.”
“People make that mistake a lot with you, Wonder Woman. You ride faster than anyone expects.”
“It’s less than six inches from that pannier to the heel of my foot.”
Jack squeezed her and held her still. “Breathe and focus on something else. You dodged that bullet to fight another day, nurse.”
Hilda relaxed. She breathed deeply and slowly. She turned around and kissed her soldier fiercely, channeling all the fear into her passion…
Until next time
Smooth roads and tailwinds,