West Main Street

2018-I-81 in snowTwo weeks after the ambush at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Joe, Jack and Hilda were driving slowly south on Interstate 81 down the Shenandoah Valley. The winter storm pounding the East Coast was less severe west of the Blue Ridge, so Joe decided to head west above Baltimore to Hagerstown and down the Shenandoah Valley. From the radio reports, they knew that the main I-95 corridor from Aberdeen south was impassable. At least the convoys of long-haul trucks on the “New England Expressway” between Atlanta and Boston helped the snowplows stay ahead of the falling snow.
2018-truck in snowstorm“Aren’t you glad you didn’t try to ride this now?” said Joe.
“You won that argument before Christmas, Joe,” said Hilda. “I would have holed up somewhere and had to make my way to the train. Still doable, but this is better.”
Joe grinned and took the ramp to Waynesboro and Charlottesville. Half an hour later, they could not see past the taillights of the truck ahead of them. They monitored the GPS on the dash to know when to expect bends in the highway, turns, or other events invisible in the whiteness. Interstate 64 led them past Waynesboro and up the side of the Blue Ridge. Fog lights embedded in the pavement kept them on course, albeit at a crawl.
They knew they had topped the Blue Ridge when the GPS showed the Parkway crossing overhead, and the highway dipped downhill. It took an hour to cover the 23 miles to the Renaissance Inn in downtown Charlottesville. Hilda had chosen a suite instead of one of the hotels closer to the hospital, in case she had trouble finding an apartment quickly. She booked and paid for a room for Joe, too, insisting that he have a place to park his truck out of the storm. It was late at night by the time they pulled into the garage. The storm stopped as they were moving into the adjoining suites.
2018-emergency snow routeThe next morning, Hilda walked down West Main Street to check out three of the available apartments that she had found on the Internet. She selected a flat in a brand-new building just three blocks from the emergency room where she would be working. By the time she got back to the Renaissance Inn, Joe and Jack had returned from Wegman’s south of town and stocked the room. They were sitting in the living area of her suite, with a hockey match on the large-screen TV.
“You guys look at home,” she said. They raised their coffee mugs in greeting as she moved to the kitchenette to pour a mug for herself. “I have a place on the other side of the tracks just west of here. It wasn’t that much more to get two bedrooms, so we can all stay there tonight.”
“We bought staples and at least three days of food,” said Jack. “We’ll help you move it.”
Hilda checked out of the Renaissance Inn while the men loaded the truck.
By mid-afternoon, they had Hilda moved into her new flat, which was on the third floor. There was bicycle parking in the garage in the basement, but the elevator was big enough for her to roll her bike to the apartment if she wanted.
2018-downtown mall snowThey took a walk to the Downtown Mall, a pedestrian area which had been swept clear by the time they arrived. Movie theatre, upscale restaurants, boutiques, City Hall: everything seemed to be conveniently located.
After dinner at Himalayan Fusion, they walked back to the flat. Joe retired early to call Linda from the guest bedroom. Jack and Hilda went online to check news stories about the attack in Aberdeen. The mainstream media had fallen quiet after a week, but every other day or so, some one posted an “update” on the story.
“Oh-oh. This doesn’t look good.” Hilda swung her computer around, so Jack could see the full-screen picture of her, cropped from the Chicago Tribune picture that had started it all. The caption in all capitals blared out the intention of the Forebears of the Mahdi to have revenge. A reward of $10000 was offered for her death. “It’s been shared on Facebook and Twitter. So far, I’ve only found it on Arabic sites, but if it keeps going, it will be viral soon. That’s a lot of money.”
“Doesn’t say how to collect the money, does it?”
“No, but that won’t slow down the excitement.” Hilda slumped her shoulders. “This gets me down sometimes.”
Jack moved his chair next to hers. “Let me see.” He took her computer and surfed some of the leads from the post. “Correct me if I’m wrong but does that say that Abu Namr has called for your execution?”
“Yes, Abu Namr himself. I thought he was dead.”
“No. He moved to Mosul when we were in Baghdad. He must still be the leader.”
“Of an army of two.”
“It might not be he. They might just be using his name.” Jack saw her put her head in her hands, elbows on the table. He put his arm around her shoulders. “And you are not alone in this. Special Agent Sprouse told us in Aberdeen that he would check in on you as soon as you got here. We’ll call him before Joe and I leave tomorrow. We’ll get an update on Abu Namr. He might be one of the ones in jail, for all we know.”
“I never thought to ask about any names.”
“Neither did I. But I’ll be working on this full-time from Aberdeen. I’ll keep you informed.” Jack’s gaze went to the screen. “Does that say what I think it does?”
Hilda read the new post. “I am supposed to be hiding on the Army base at Aberdeen. It calls for helpers to keep me from escaping.”
“They have no reason to expect you to read Arabic, so it is probably not misinformation intended for you.”
“They’ll find me soon enough.”
“But not before we can talk to Greg Sprouse and organize something ourselves.”
They shut down their computers and went into the bedroom. Hilda’s mood was torn: sadness that Jack was leaving in the morning; anger to have to worry about the Forebears and wannabe bounty-hunters; excitement about the new job; fear that she might be attracting violence to her new co-workers.
“You’ve been through worse, Hilda. How did you handle it?”
“That was there. It’s not normal here.”
“What if this is the new normal? What are we to do?”
Hilda sat up and thought. Staring at the wall still empty of decoration, she remembered the protocols that became reality: bombs in Baghdad and Kabul; terrorists in Chicago; snipers in Somalia. Then she remembered the children in the streets near the base in Baghdad, the families gathered in the waiting area when she came out of the ER in Baghdad, Sacramento, and a dozen places around the world. She remembered Jack’s smile as he slipped into unconsciousness in the Humvee bouncing to the base.
“Been there. Done that.” She turned to Jack. “Mission accomplished, Major. I can handle this.”
“I thought so.” He laughed when she leapt on him from her seated position…
Jack and Joe left in the morning. Hilda walked to the Medical Center. She knew the first day or two would be paperwork, interviews and meetings, so she chose a light tan pantsuit with a white shell, which she had bought at the PX at Aberdeen. Personnel, newcomer orientation, an interview with the Director of Nursing and the Chief of Emergency Medicine. She found out where ER was, but never got there. She came home with three sets of hospital scrubs, fixed supper, and went online. Nothing new, but Jack called her on Skype when they got into Aberdeen. She slept soundly.
2018-Emergency-Department-EntranceThe next morning, Suzie Bennett looked up from the nurse’s station as the tall nurse with a pony tail walked in. She stood and smiled.
“You must be Hilda.”
“Right.” Hilda smiled. She nodded at the nurse’s very large abdomen. “And you must be Suzie.”
“Any day now.”
“I’m glad I could get here in time.” Hilda reached for her pony tail. “I picked up scrubs yesterday, but I was hoping we had bonnets here.”
Suzie came around and showed her where the supplies were. They toured the ER and walked through the procedures for incoming flights by the Pegasus helicopter. It was a mercifully quiet day, after the dozen flights that they had handled in the aftermath of the blizzard.
2018 PegasusTurnover went more quickly than expected. Fortunately, the ER Department was well-organized, and Suzie had prepared an extensive binder of information for Hilda. Young Antoine Bennett arrived only two days after Hilda: Suzie went into labor at work.
“How are you holding up?” Jack asked on Skype in her apartment, the day after Suzie was wheeled from ER to delivery. “You look good.”
“OK, I guess. Suzie went into labor, so I’m it now. You know it’s a part-time position, but I’ll be working every day for the first two weeks, to get up to speed. Then Monday, Wednesday and Friday, in case you want to know when my phone will be off. Day shift for the first three weeks, then we’ll see.” She paused. “Any news?”
“It turns out that Abu Namr is in custody. He was one of the original six. I told Pete Sayfield about the reward, and the FBI tracked it down to a leak in the jail. Abu Namr is in solitary now. The bureau has a couple of Middle East specialists working the case now, so they are monitoring the Arabic sites – and writing posts to contradict the reward scam and the fatwa that was recalled.”
“I saw some of that. Nicely done. I could not tell that it was the FBI, but it sure has the chat rooms confused now.”
“I can’t say that you are safe from the one-off nut case, but we have solid evidence that there are only two Forebears at large – the two that took a shot at you. We almost caught them in Havre de Grace, so it seems that they were still convinced that you were on base at least as of yesterday.”
“We?” Hilda watched him smile.
“I’m TDY to Ted Tinsley’s office in Aberdeen. He put me on the case, working with Pete and the local enforcement officers. It frees up his people to focus on their normal duties. I knew Pete’s name was familiar. He was stationed at Camp Ederle in Vicenza when I was in Livorno.”
“Sounds like you’re having fun.”
“I wouldn’t call it that. Not until we catch the last two. But it beats wandering around Walter Reed Medical Center without a job.”
“Meanwhile, ER here looks like a break room for the FBI and the local police. I think they make up excuses to hang around after bringing in the usual crash and shooting victims.”
Jack laughed. “They probably want to watch the beautiful new nurse at work.”
“Stop it, Jack, I can’t punch you through the screen.” Hilda grinned. “Besides, half of them are women.”
“Any cyclists?”
“Four of them ride bicycle patrol when the streets are clear. I wouldn’t try to beat any of them in a sprint.”
“So, you are meeting people?”
“Of course. I’m already a regular at the Starbucks on the Corner, which is like another PD and Hospital break room.”
“After just two days?”
“Great staff. They knew my name and my drink the second time I showed up.”
“You are memorable, Hilda. I’m glad you’re settling in.”
“Beats wandering around UVA Medical Center without a job.”
Jack smiled and slapped both hands to his chest. “Got me!”
They signed off, both feeling better.
2018-pegasus_takeoff_crptHilda got into a routine that she learned working in combat zones, which was not to be routine. She had several different routes to the ER from home, and sometimes she would ride instead of walk. With her UVA ID card, she could also use the City or University bus systems to get around. She never arrived at work at the same time twice in a row. Sometimes she worked out at the gym downtown, but sometimes she went to the one north of town. She enjoyed variety, so mixing up her movements became normal for her.
When the yellow forsythia bloomed in March, Hilda was an old hand around the hospital. Only rarely would anyone recognize her from the Chicago picture. It was normal for law enforcement to be in and out of ER, so the frequent visits by the Charlottesville and UVA police, and Greg Sprouse, the FBI Resident Agent, did not attract notice. It would have been different had she taken an assignment in OB-GYN or Pediatrics, she often thought.
Until next time,
Smooth roads and tailwinds,

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