Friday evening, Hilda rode to Brandywine Drive. The flowers and bright green leaves were reaching their peak in the heat of the late spring. Soon, just crossing town like this would be a sweaty affair, even with the shady tree cover of the Greenbrier neighborhood.
Mark had fired up the grill. Dinner was set up outside on the deck. As she walked around with a glass of Riesling, Hilda noticed how private the yard was. A ravine ran between the houses to the rear, where the woods thrived in a small stream that led to the Meadow Brook. Emily and Katherine joined her.
“When do you want to leave, Hilda?” asked Katherine.
Hilda looked Emily. “That depends on my partner here.” She smiled. “By myself, I’d be gone already, but we want to make sure that Em is outfitted properly, don’t we?”
“Let’s go tomorrow!” said Emily. The two older women laughed.
“Sure, Em. Is your gear ready for inspection, like we talked about yesterday?”
Katherine looked surprised. “That sounds very Army, Major Paisley.”
“I have everything laid out on my bed,” said Emily. “Do I have to pack it?”
“Let’s have a look after supper. If it will fit, you could pack it up, but even if it won’t, the main thing tonight is to draw up a shopping list of what’s missing and pull out what won’t fit. I can come back each day to help.” She looked at Katherine. “Even with any shopping, we should be able to set out by next Friday, don’t you think?”
Katherine nodded. Just then, Mark called them to the grill to load their plates.
“What about your gear, Hilda?” asked Mark as he piled a steak and two baked potatoes on her plate.
“How long does it take you to get going in the morning?”
“About 20 minutes if the tent is dry.”
Emily sloshed her drink on her arm. “That fast?”
“I don’t expect that at first, but I’ll lay odds that one of us will usually be packed before the other after a while. When I’m riding with Jack, he’s the slow one.”
“That’s Jack, your Army friend?” Katherine asked. Hilda nodded.
“Will he be joining you?” Mark asked.
“I hope so. He’s at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds now and should be able to catch us in Delaware before we get to Lewes.”
“What’s he like?” Emily was wide-eyed, but her parents leaned in with a different kind of interest.
“You mean physically? I guess six-four. Sandy hair, still cut regulation style. Hazel eyes – and, of course, fit and hard.” She winked at Emily, who blushed. Katherine and Mark laughed.
“MOS?” Mark used the abbreviation for military specialization.
“Military Police. He’s a major, just retired. He’s working at Aberdeen with the Provost Marshal until he leaves to meet us.”
Mark leaned back. “So, we’re sending out little lamb into the world with a police escort and a rolling emergency medical department.”
“Something like that.” Hilda laughed.
“How much could go wrong with that?” Mark looked at Katherine, who looked relieved.
Hilda took a big bite of steak, while the others did the same. She thought during the silence as they chewed.
“Actually, Mark, I don’t want to deceive you. A lot could go wrong. But I try to be as ready as possible for it, and so far, it’s worked out. Broken chains, thunderstorms, crazy drivers and clueless pedestrians – they’re all part of the mix. I’ve watched Emily, and she can handle all that already.”
“Even pretzeled front wheels,” blurted out Emily. She clamped her mouth shut in shock.
Mark and Katherine looked at her quizzically.
“What’s that about?” asked her mother. Emily looked distressed. Hilda put her hand on Emily’s forearm.
“It’s how we met, Katherine. I gather you didn’t tell them, Em.”
“I wasn’t supposed to be out alone, but my two friends stood me up. I was afraid to tell Mom, so I just said I fell on some wet leaves, which was true.”
Hilda looked at Mark and Katherine. “She was walking home on the road from the abandoned base, with her bike over her shoulder. She would’ve made it home late for supper, but otherwise safe and sound – except for the bike, of course.”
“Hilda showed me how to snap the wheel back into shape using a spoke wrench. That’s when I decided to take Jake’s maintenance course.”
“I have to admit that you’re a decent wrench now, Emily,” said Mark.
Katherine sighed. “Probably not the first revelation we’ll have as we grow older.” She smiled. “That was before the win in Colorado, dear. Everything’s been different since I decided to let you follow your dreams.” She squeezed her daughter’s hand.
Over dessert, Mark asked about the attack at UVA earlier in the week. “I thought you worked in the ER there. Did you see anything?”
“No. I left two days earlier. I’d been temping for Suzie Bennett, the nurse who was wounded, while she was on maternity leave.”
“Lucky for you.”
“Yes, but Suzie’s a friend, and I’m still upset about it.”
“The police said it was a kid from Richmond. Some kind of disturbed loner who had applied for a job there some time ago.”
“I saw that report, too.” Hilda took a spoon of ice cream. Emily was staring at her. Hilda guessed what she was going to say and froze.
“Was he after you, Hilda?” (Damn, she’s too sharp, thought Hilda).
“Why would he be?” asked her mother.
Emily looked from Hilda to Katherine and froze. She felt like she had spoken out of turn in class. Her face blushed deeply.
“Go ahead, Em. I think I know what you’re thinking.” Hilda urged her on with a gesture.
“Chicago?” Mark and Katherine said together.
Hilda sighed, more with relief than worry. “Chicago last summer. Emily is referring to my picture on the front page of the Chicago Tribune. Right, Em?”
Emily nodded. Hilda put down her spoon.
“I was wondering all day how to bring this up, because you need to know. Do you remember the incident she’s referring to?”
Mark shook his head. Katherine thought for a moment, then said, “You were the nurse at the Sheraton who fingered the attackers.”
“Well, not that dramatic, but, yes, I was there. The ATF and FBI agents asked me a bunch of questions, and the answers helped them narrow their investigation.”
Mark’s expression brightened as he recalled the incident, “They made arrests just two days later. Is there a revenge thing going here?”
“We don’t know, but Chicago is the reason that the FBI and the police kept a close watch on me after I started working at UVA. They have been keeping me informed. For example, the fatwa to kill me was recalled, but not before the social media echo chamber started going. What I am about to tell you is still confidential. Richard Lee, the shooter in the ER, was already on the FBI and local police watch lists. They have determined for sure that he was acting alone, because he had no connection the Forebears of the Mahdi, who orchestrated the attack in Chicago. Lee applied for jobs at UVA, Martha Jefferson and VCU in Richmond. He had that Chicago photo of me in a folder with his job applications, photos of teachers he hated in high school, and the Krispy Kreme doughnut shop where he was fired last month. Was he disgruntled about UVA or gunning for me?” She raised her hands, palm up.
Katherine was stunned. “You’re not seriously planning on taking my daughter into this, are you?”
Mark put his hand on her arm. Katherine took a deep breath. Emily was looking wide-eyed at all three of them. “This worries me, too,” he said. “Hilda?”
“I won’t sugar-coat this, but I will tell you what has happened so far, and let you check some things out yourselves to reassure yourselves – or not.”
“It was so long ago,” Emily said. Hilda smiled.
“I remember when time ran as slowly as it does for you, Em. Actually, it hasn’t been a year yet, has it? You know what happened in Chicago. I was there to meet Jack. We rode through Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland. Three months later, we arrived at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, where we had planned to visit Jack’s brother for Thanksgiving. We stayed below the radar until we got there. We figured that an Army base would be about as safe a place as we could find.”
“You mean you dodged a nationwide search by a global terrorist organization?” Mark was impressed.
“Something like that. We were mainly trying to avoid the FBI, because I didn’t trust our location not to leak if they found us.”
“The FBI is looking for you?” asked Katherine.
“No, not now. I called the Chicago Field Office every day along the way, so they’d know that I wasn’t hiding. But they never figured out who was with me or our whereabouts until the day we left DC to ride to Aberdeen.”
“How did you manage to do that for three months?” Mark asked. Hilda looked at Emily, who was bursting.
“Easy,” said Emily. “They were on bicycles!”
Hilda let that sink in. Katherine seemed to struggle to recover some normalcy.
“Coffee?” she asked. Everyone nodded, and Emily got up.
“I’ll make it, Mom.” She left the door to the deck open, so she could hear.
Mark and Katherine sat in stunned silence for a while. Katherine closed her eyes, leaned back, focusing her thoughts and feelings. She sighed deeply, opened her eyes and sat back up.
“This makes a pretzelled front wheel look lame.” She took another breath. “You and Emily knew about this all along?”
“No, Katherine. I never talked about it. But Emily kept that photo from the paper. She mentioned it in the hospital after her crash.”
Mark spoke, “You were in the ER when she arrived on the helo, weren’t you?”
“Yes, I was. She recognized me before falling asleep again.”
Katherine stood up and said to Mark, “Are we sending Emily out to be hunted by terrorists?” He rose and put his arms around her.
“No, we’re not. But we haven’t heard the rest of the story.” He looked at Hilda. “You were saying that you ‘try to be as ready as possible for it, and so far, it’s worked out.’ What’s your plan for this?”
“The fact is, the Forebears themselves are not the major threat. Jack has been assigned full-time to a multinational police operation on this case. There are only two Forebears left. They tried to get me at Aberdeen before Christmas. As of last week, they thought that I was still there. Jack and the Maryland police almost caught them. They managed to flee to Canada. The Canadian police will pick them up. Their American contacts are accounted for and being watched. Jack knows them all, practically by name.
“The problem is loners like Lee. But someone like that has to be lucky enough to see me, recognize me, and mount an attack on short notice.”
“You do stand out in a crowd, Hilda,” Mark said.
“I know. Not always a good thing. Anyway, only the police and the FBI know that he had my photo. The other potential targets are coming out from the people who knew him. That is why the ‘disturbed young man’ story continues to get play in the media. The gun-control issue is dominating the news, and the police are not going to volunteer the fact that he had my photo.”
Emily came out with a tray with the coffee carafe, sugar and creamer. Mark moved mugs from the picnic table near the grill to the dinner table. They sat down.
“Go on, Hilda,” he said.
“It’s like lightning. The chance of being hit is never zero, but there are things one can do to reduce the odds. The safest place for me is on the road, and the bicycle has proven itself to be incredibly low-profile. People in North America simply don’t think of it. I won’t be so bold as to say that Emily would be safer with me, but I want you to consider the incremental risk among all the risks you were already willing for her to take: crashes, illness, rednecks throwing beer bottles, potholes, drainage grates, drunk drivers – and even lightning. You should talk to Special Agent Greg Sprouse, the FBI Resident Agent here in Charlottesville. He can give you background, which I’m not allowed to divulge. Jack and I promised not to keep the FBI blind again, so Greg’ll also almost always know where Emily is all summer.”
“You mean the FBI will be following you?”
“Not quite, but almost. Greg can explain how it works.”
“Do they let you know what’s going on as you travel?”
“When we check in, yes. Jack has all the necessary clearances to work with any law enforcement agency, so they’re completely open with us. In fact, he’s something of a legend now.”
“Is he armed?” Katherine asked.
“If you mean a gun, I don’t think he rides with one. It’s heavy and bulky, and I would’ve noticed. But don’t let the man anywhere near you if you don’t have good intentions. In Iraq, I saw him take down three armed soldiers with his bare hands.”
Katherine shook her head. “I don’t know. This scares me.”
“Mom, it’s my trip. I’m not scared. I trust Hilda.”
Katherine hugged her daughter. “I know, dear. And I know the thrill of doing something risky and stupid. In fact, on a scale of risk, I’ve done stupider things than what you and Hilda are proposing. But I wasn’t a mother then.”
“Katherine,” said Hilda, “we don’t need to make a firm choice now. You and Mark need to discuss this with Emily. You need to talk to Greg, and maybe Jack in Aberdeen. If that isn’t enough, Pete Sayfield, the Special Agent in Charge of the Baltimore Field Office, can put in his two cents’ worth. Jack, Greg or I can give you the contact information. Even if Emily does not go, let’s look at her gear to see what she needs. She could tour locally if she doesn’t go with me.”
They finished their coffee in safer conversation. Hilda was a frequent guest, so cleaning up was a team effort that took no time with everyone pitching in. Mark had the grill scrubbed and covered before the dishwasher was loaded.
They retired to Emily’s room. Posters of Megan Guarnier, Dalia Muccioli, Laura Trott, Annemiek van Vleuten and Lizzie Armitstead covered the walls. A drone shot of a peloton racing down the Passo dello Stelvio in the Alps was taped to the ceiling over the bed. Hilda was used to Emily’s tidiness, so the pile of clothes, camping gear and bike accessories on the bed made her laugh.
“Where are the panniers, Em?”
“I only have my book-panniers, so I haven’t bought those yet. I thought you could help me figure out what I need to carry all this.”
She messed Emily’s hair and laughed. “To carry all this, young lady, you will need a pickup truck, not panniers. Let’s see what you have…”
An hour later, Emily had put away a week’s worth of underwear, cotton blouses, skirts and shoes. She kept three bike jerseys and a Marmot rain jacket. The bike accessories were reduced to a spare inner tube. The camp stove and cooking kit were put away, because they would be able to shop for food each day. The tent from Girl Scouts was too big and heavy, but her sleeping bag would be adequate for the summer and early fall. A new tent went on the list; Mark had also written down panniers, collapsible bowl and cup, air mattress, touring shorts, gel liners, titanium eating utensils, and bicycle touring shoes with SPD clips.
Hilda pointed at the bed. “OK, Em. Put all that in a pillowcase.” Emily began filling the case.
“I can’t get the sleeping bag all the way in.”
“That’s OK. You will have two panniers. Now you know that between the two, you can pack everything here and on the shopping list. The tent can go on the rack.”
Mark tapped his pencil on the clipboard. “That’s amazing. You crossed the country with just two pillow cases – I mean panniers.”
“Basically. Along the coasts or in Europe, just two panniers. When I have to carry food and cook, I add two front panniers.”
With the pillowcase filled, Emily’s room was as tidy as usual. Hilda bade them goodnight and rode back to her apartment. They would meet again the next day. This time next week, Hilda would be riding under the radar again. Would she have Emily’s irrepressible enthusiasm with her or not?
Until next time,
Smooth roads and tailwinds,