Hilda switched on Channel 29 News while the coffeemaker gurgled on the counter top. She didn’t watch much TV, but she would rather let Dave Rogers tell her what the weather would be than look it up on her computer. She assembled a three-egg omelette as the commercials droned on. She was not really paying attention, but she noticed that the commercial had been interrupted for breaking news.
“At the University Medical Center, shots were fired in the Emergency Room. UVA and Charlottesville Police were on the scene and report that the shooter has been stopped. We’ll update the story as events unfold. Here is Dave Rogers with the weather.”
She turned off the stove and sat down at the counter. She tried to picture who might have been in the ER at that moment, now that she no longer worked there. She got up to pour some coffee and almost spilled it on her hand when her cell phone rang. She put down the carafe and looked at the screen: “Greg Sprouse, FBI”. She took a deep breath and tapped the answer icon.
“Good morning, Greg.”
“Hello, Hilda. Did you hear the news?”
“Just a breaking news flash about a shooting at the ER. Was anyone hurt?”
“Suzie Bennett took a grazing shot on the arm. She’ll be fine. It was the shooter’s bad luck that Walt Johnson from CPD was there with his cousin Shariq from UVA Police. They put him down with a bullet each.”
“Where are you?”
“At the scene. We’re still working it, but I need to see you. There is already a plainclothes CPD officer on his way to your building to keep a lookout for anyone trying to get to you. We don’t want to tip off where you live, in case there are more behind this. Please don’t open to anyone before I get there.”
“OK. I hope you’ll have more details when you do.”
“I will.” Greg rang off.
The weather seemed irrelevant now, though Hilda noted from the graphic on the screen that it should be a beautiful day. The omelette had cooked itself in the hot pan. She wiped up the coffee she had spilled and put out another mug. She thought of changing out of her bicycle kit but decided to eat breakfast while she waited. She could change clothes or not depending on what the local FBI Agent had to say.
The news returned. A lone gunman had walked into the ambulance entrance of the Emergency Department with an assault rifle. As he raised his weapon to aim at the duty nurse, the two policemen by the water cooler to the left of the door both pulled their revolvers and fired. The attacker’s first rifle round grazed the left arm of the nurse. The next three rounds went into the floor in a line as the gunman fell to the right from the force of the two shots by the officers. “The gunman remains unidentified. Identity of the nurse is being withheld pending notification of next of kin, but she is not seriously injured.”
Hilda had just put the breakfast dishes in the dishwasher when the door bell rang. Greg Sprouse was outside, rocking back and forth on his feet. Hilda undid the chain and unbolted the door for him.
“Coffee? You take it black as I recall.”
Greg went to the kitchen with her.
“I’m glad Suzie is OK. I’m stewing here hoping that this doesn’t have to do with me.”
“I’m afraid it does, Hilda.” Greg sat at the table where she had put his coffee. He pulled out his notebook. “We identified the shooter right away, but don’t want to tell the media just yet.”
“Richard Lee of Richmond. He goes by the name Abu Sayed, which he made up himself. We had been keeping an eye on him, so when he left Richmond this morning, we passed him off to the State Police as he drove up I-64. They handed him off to CPD.
“Is that why Shariq and Walter were there?”
“Not really.” Greg grinned. “I don’t think that they knew that you left the other day.”
“Oh.” Hilda smiled. Shariq was cute, and Walter was drop-dead gorgeous, but neither seemed to notice that Hilda could have borne either one of them.
Greg continued. “Lee has a rap sheet as long as your arm, but the short of it is that he was a very disturbed young man, who was radicalized in our own penitentiary system. He started out as an angry white boy in high school and fancied himself a white nationalist when he was arrested for buying and selling firearms while underage.”
“He could do that?”
“In spite of recent changes, it’s still too easy in Virginia. Anyway, that’s what got him sent to jail the first time. He turned 18 in prison. He embraced Islam – I hesitate to call it conversion, considering what a hodgepodge his beliefs were – while there. He attracted the attention of the Bureau when he was recruited by a radical cell we know about in Richmond.”
“The connection to me?”
“What you might expect. We knew that he followed al-Jazeera in English and a few dark-web sites. He had downloaded the old fatwa on you and your picture from the Chicago newspaper last summer.”
“Didn’t you say, ‘white nationalist’?”
“I also said ‘very disturbed young man’. He may have conflated his devotion to Islam with his inner racism.”
“Yes. We have to investigate the case further, to determine if this was a hate crime or a terrorist act. We’re also making sure whether he was acting alone or not. Lee as a one-off hater doesn’t pose as much danger as a potential extension of the Forebears into Virginia.”
“Have you talked to Jack?”
Greg nodded. “He’s checking the whereabouts of the various Forebear contacts that we’ve been watching in this case.”
At that moment, Hilda’s phone rang.
“Hi, Jack. Greg Sprouse is here, and he’s briefing me.”
“Hi, lovely. That saves me a phone call. Can we go to speaker?”
Hilda put the phone between Greg and herself and tapped the speaker icon.
“Hi, Jack,” said Greg. “Any news?”
“Pete Sayfield has a total of 15 people that Hassan and Abdul met with in Maryland and DC, and all are accounted for. Very quiet here.”
“OK, then. We’re checking Lee’s contacts from this end.”
Hilda spoke up. “Speaking of Abdul and Hassan, anything from the Canadians?”
“I was going to call you this morning, but this came up first. The RCMP confirmed that they came over the border in Vermont in a rental car, which they dropped at the airport in Montréal. The credit card they used was stolen in Havre de Grace, near here. They may have been trying to get a flight out, but they slipped off the radar after being filmed walking around in the ticketing area for a while. Facial recognition was overloaded and picked them out only as they walked out the sliding doors. That was the day before yesterday.”
“Thanks, Jack,” said Greg. “Pete knows this?”
“Pete is the go-between with the Canadians. Almost all our info comes through his office in Baltimore.
“How are you doing, Hilda?”
“More than a little shocked. The injured nurse was the one I was spelling. I only left the other day, you know.” She looked up at Greg with a smile. “Greg has me under house arrest with all the exits blocked.”
She heard Jack laugh. “Good. What’s the plan, Greg?”
“We just want to make sure that Lee is a loner. If the media continue to speculate about disturbed young men randomly running around with assault rifles, we may be able to avoid the ramifications of either another hate crime in Charlottesville or a perceived terrorist event. Of course, the connection to Hilda may leak out at some point, which would change the game completely.”
“How long to figure it out, one way or the other?” Hilda asked.
“Not long. Fortunately, we know Lee and his contacts. I’ll let you know as soon as I can.”
Jack spoke up. “Hilda, when were you planning to leave town?” Greg raised his eyes in surprise.
“I was thinking as early as the end of next week. Emily is still talking to her parents, and I’m having dinner at their house on Friday.” She looked at Greg. “I was planning to tour on my bicycle this summer.”
“I heard from Pete about your under-the-radar bicycling.” He looked relieved. “Depending on what we learn between now and then, that actually might be perfect.”
“We’ll be keeping in touch this time, unless it looks like our communications have been compromised.” Greg smiled. The months-long search for Hilda after Chicago had become an FBI legend already. They rang off after agreeing to touch base again the next day, or if the connection to Hilda leaked to the media.
Meanwhile, west of town, Katherine and Emily were riding toward the Blue Ridge at an steady 30 km/hr working up a sweat and not talking much. As the sun climbed behind them, they geared down for the hills beyond Crozet, turning around about halfway up Afton Mountain. Traffic was almost non-existent on the country roads now that the residents had all gone to work.
After they had sped down the mountain and reached the rolling landscape on the TransAmerica Trail, Katherine slowed to a conversational 20 km/hr.
“How are you feeling, Emily?”
“Good, Mom, why?”
“Your training rides are going well. Clearly, you can already outrun me any time you want. I appreciate the fact that you don’t.”
“Dr. Morgan doesn’t want me competing. You know that.”
“What I mean is that you have been talking about touring with Hilda. I have been thinking a lot about that.”
“Well, I just worry. That’s all.”
“Oh, Mom.” Emily rolled her eyes. “You’re supposed to worry. It’s your job.”
Katherine laughed lightly. “I know. Still I wonder whether I need to worry about keeping up with you all summer or take up chewing my fingernails while you’re gone. We’ve never been apart as long as this tour would be.”
“You don’t think I haven’t thought about that?” Emily’s speed crept up and her expression became grim. Katherine was about to call out, when her daughter slowed and rejoined her. “Sorry, Mom. That was kind of short.”
“No problem. At least I know it’s bugging us both. Given that, how are you feeling about touring or racing now?”
“I can’t settle on it quite yet. I keep putting off a firm decision.”
“Want to talk about it? I’ve tried to keep out of it, but I can see that you are torn.”
“Let me think on the way home.”
They sped back up and soon were pushing their bikes into the basement bike shop/storage on Brandywine Drive. After stretching and showers, they met in the kitchen with a bowl of fruit and a pair of protein shakes between them. They stared at each other in silence as Emily pulled an orange from the bowl. Katherine chose a banana. Emily finally blinked.
“I want to go with Hilda.”
“OK. Just to be sure, what’s your rationale?”
“I can’t race all my life. Even if I can come back to racing next fall, how old will I be when I have to retire? Thirty?”
“You could tour then.”
“Sure, but what are my chances of doing my first tour with a teacher as awesome as Hilda? She’s not just an expert at bicycle touring, she’s a combat-trained nurse. There’s just about nothing that can go seriously wrong. I feel so comfortable with her.”
“I have to admit that knowing that you would be with her does ease my Mommy-willies a little. What about the muscles, slow-fast, and all that?”
“I will just have to find out. For one thing, I already have the power muscles for climbing hills, and Hilda does not ride slowly. I have a hunch that I would not get that far behind with just one tour.”
Katherine took a swig of her protein shake. She looked at Emily, then out the window, where the back yard was bright with yellow forsythia and bright green trees. She looked back.
“Now that you have decided, I’d like to run this by Mark – no faces, Emily. I’m OK with your choice. He is a smart guy, though. He might have some ideas.”
“He already said he would support me either way. He even offered to drive to REI in Richmond if there is anything I need that we can’t find here.”
“I know. Hilda is coming to dinner Friday night. We can all agree on the details and get ready.”
Katherine’s phone rang. It was Mark.
“Hi, dear, what’s up?”
“Have you seen the news today?”
“Uh. No. We just got back from a ride.” She motioned to Emily to turn on the TV. “What’s happening?”
“A shooter at the UVA Hospital ER. I was hoping you had more details. Isn’t Hilda there?”
“No. She left the day before yesterday. Mrs. Bennett came back to work.”
“Oh, good. I was worried. Anyway, Charlottesville is back in the news again. Not many details, but apparently no one was hurt seriously, except the gunman.”
“That’s a relief. We’ll check on it. You’ll be home tonight.”
“Sure. Maybe even a little early. See you then.”
“Drive safely, honey. I love you.” They rang off.
Katherine and Emily waited for the news at the top of the hour. The nurse, Suzie Bennett, was only lightly grazed. The shooter was dead, and police were investigating his identity and the motivations for the attack.
“Would this have anything to do with Hilda?” Emily asked.
“I can’t see why? She wasn’t even there, but we can ask her. By then, maybe the police will know more.”
“I’m going to call her, just to be sure she’s OK.”
“Fair enough. Just don’t take too long. She’d be too nice to tell you if you are interrupting something.”
After washing out their blender bottles, Katherine went shopping at Whole Foods, while Emily went to her room to call Hilda.
“Hi, Em. Nice to hear from you.”
“I just saw the news. Are you OK?”
Hilda laughed. “I’m fine. I haven’t even been out of the house. Thanks for your concern. Maybe I should have called you.”
“We just got back from a ride. If Mark hadn’t called us, we would not have thought to turn on the news.”
“I’ve got the TV on, too. Terrible, isn’t it?”
“I know you’re not there any more, but you were the first person we thought of when we saw the bulletin.”
“My lucky day, I guess, although Suzie Bennett is a friend, and I am really bummed about her getting shot at. As soon as the police clear the scene, I hope that I can see her.”
“Is she still at work?”
“For a little while longer. I called her husband Marcus. He says that they’re going to give her the rest of the day off. She should be home soon.”
“I’m glad you’re OK.”
“Thanks. I’m glad, too. Are we still on to ride Thursday?”
“Sure. Then Friday you’re coming to dinner.”
“Absolutely. How are you coming deciding on the tour?”
“I’ve made up my mind. I want to come with you. Mom wants to see if Mark has any ideas, but he’s already agreed either way.”
“OK, then, I’ll come prepared to discuss it in detail with them. This will be fun.”
Thursday, Emily and Hilda rode a fast 100-km circuit north parallel to US 29 into Orange County, east to Gordonsville, then back to Charlottesville along Highway 231 and US 250. Not much conversation, as the older tourist worked to keep up with the teenager on her Bianchi. Now that Emily had decided to tour, she chose to ride the Bianchi, for its extra weight, and its handling on bad road surfaces and in traffic. She was good about not letting the distance grow between them, which kept her from inadvertently overextending herself. The Dempsey’s were both out when they returned to the house on Brandywine Drive. Hilda waved goodbye and rode home. Emily let herself in and went to her room. After a shower and her stretching, she began laying out the things she planned to take on the tour. Hilda would be back the next day to review them with her.
Until next time
Smooth roads and tailwinds,