MV Cape Henlopen eased into the mooring at Cape May with only a slight bump. Emily, Hilda and Jack wheeled their bicycles down the ramp and soon were riding up Route 9. Between the commercial centers, the land was mostly sand and pine trees, with stretches of wetlands among the neighborhoods.
“This is a pretty town,” said Emily as they turned north off the causeway to ride through Stone Harbor.
“But I’m not sure I would want to live here permanently,” said Hilda.
“Looks like a lot of people agree with you,” said Jack “if the out-of-state plates parked in the driveways are any indication.”
“How are you doing, Em?” asked Hilda.
“Great. You were right. It’s been easy riding since Charlottesville.”
“The tailwind helped. This area gets north-easterly winds often, then it’s like climbing a single hill all day.”
They fell into single file as the road narrowed leaving Avalon and they lost the shoulder. Only 22 km from Stone Harbor, they picked up bike lanes in Ocean City after riding along the beach. They stopped for lunch at Berenato’s Corner Deli downtown before taking the bridge and the bike-laned coast road into Atlantic City. By 3 pm, they were checking into the motel. Emily’s single room had more floor space than Jack and Hilda’s room, so Hilda put her bike in with Emily’s.
“Now you get to wear those street shoes, Em,” Hilda said as she left Emily’s room. “See you at five?”
“I don’t need that long to shower and change.”
“I don’t know about you, but Jack and I need to make some phone calls, and I might lie down for a while. If you want to go out, just stop by our room to let us know.”
“OK. But I might call Mom and some friends, too.”
Jack was on the phone to Ted Tinsley, the Provost Marshal at Aberdeen Proving Grounds. He hung up as Hilda sat on the bed. She raised her eyebrows to signal him to talk.
“Ted says that four of Abdul and Hassan’s friends left town today, heading north on I-95. Pete Sayfield notified Homeland Security. They were tracked through the toll plazas all the way to the Holland Tunnel, so they do not appear to be coming at us. They might be headed to rendezvous with Abdul and Hassan farther north.”
“JFK or La Guardia?”
“Homeland Security already put a notice out to the airports and train stations. My guess is that they will drive secondary roads after losing any tail in the city.”
“Do we know whether Abdul and Hassan have crossed the border?”
“The Canadians and the Border Patrol are both on alert, but a little cross-country walk might get them in anyway.”
“This doesn’t look good, Jack.”
“I know. But I have an idea.”
“If they are still at large by, say, the time we get to Vermont, why don’t we take a detour?”
“Either west to Niagara Falls or east to New Brunswick. We could still double back to Montréal and see some neat stuff along the way.”
“Well, we were going to visit Ottawa and Quebec City as well as Montréal. We could just change the order.” Hilda pondered silently.
“It would also give more time to flush out Abdul and Hassan.”
“And they would have even less idea about which way we are going. I like it, Jack. Any preference for east or west?”
“No, and we don’t have to choose now. I say make our way through Connecticut and Massachusetts and see what develops.”
“OK. Let’s stay alert. And brief Emily.”
“Of course, honey. In fact, I think she should make the choice if we decide to divert. You and I have both seen Niagara and New Brunswick.”
“Good idea. Let’s get showered and whatever. I told Emily five o’clock.”
“That’s time for plenty of whatever.” Jack grinned. Hilda punched him gently on the arm and started to stretch…
At quarter to five, the phone in the room rang. Hilda and Jack looked at the phone and each other. Jack picked it up like a live bomb.
“Jack. It’s Emily. Can I come over now? I’m ready, but I didn’t want to barge in early.”
“Sure, Em. But why are you calling us on the house phone?”
“I forgot to plug mine in. It’s almost dead.”
“Come on over. We’re almost ready ourselves.”
Hilda disappeared into the bathroom for a last-minute check of her lipstick and her hair. When she came out, Emily was sitting at the table with a glass of orange juice. She stood and looked at Hilda with admiration.
“Hilda, you look fabulous! How do you do that with just two panniers?”
“It’s my do-it-all dress and a pair of flat pumps. I can get away with low shoes.”
“You told me about that, but I never understood how it could look. I feel dowdy with a blouse and skirt.”
“You look fine. Blue is a great color on you, and by matching them, it steps it up a notch, like a dress.” Hilda looked over to where Jack was rinsing glasses and back to Emily. “You know, this would be a good place to start looking for a black dress for you.”
Jack turned from the sink. “Hey, Em, isn’t this your real birthday?”
“Yes. You noticed?”
“I did, and I’m the only one who didn’t get you a present yet. Let me get the dress.”
“Watch out, Jack,” Hilda said with a grin. “We’re talking two women in the Casino shopping mall.”
“So? What else have I had to spend my money on, living with my brother on an Army base?”
“Jack, that would be wonderful.” Emily ran over and hugged him.
“And if we don’t find the perfect dress here, we’ll check along the way. If Hilda can’t pick it out, it hasn’t been made yet.” He winked at Hilda.
They gave the room a once-over and walked out. The sun was still high in the sky and it was warm as they walked to the Tropicana. The wind began picking up and backing to the east.
Inside, Emily was impressed by the opulence of the place, but also something else.
“Everything is so big and glitzy, it strikes me as just a little cheesy. Does that make sense?”
“My feelings exactly, Em,” said Hilda. “But I don’t think the tourists and gamblers notice. They are drinking and flowing to the slots and games.”
They walked up the stairs and paused at the entrance to the casino’s main room. Emily looked at Hilda and saw how she scanned the room. Then she noticed how Jack was doing the same thing. She tried to look carefully around, but there were so many people and so much movement, she realized that she could never pick out anything. After just a moment Jack and Hilda flanked her and they walked in.
“I can’t gamble here, can I?”
“No, Em,” said Jack. “We’re allowed to walk across the game room on our way to the shops and restaurants, but we can’t stop. Under 21, you’re not even allowed to watch us play a slot machine.”
“That’s a bummer for you.”
“Not for me,” said Hilda. “I come into these places with a single roll of quarters – that’s ten bucks – and I make myself leave when it’s gone. I’m not very exciting to watch.”
“How about you, Jack?”
“I’ve only come to a casino either to arrest someone or undercover spending your tax dollars to build a case. The house had to give the money back if I didn’t win, but if I won, the government kept the money.”
“Egad. That’s worse.” The two grown-ups laughed. “Why is there a disco ball here? There’s nowhere to dance.”
“Those are the security cameras.”
“Oh.” Emily gave a wave to the disco ball as they moved on past the slot machines to the entrance to the mall.
“That felt weird.”
“You two kept scanning the crowd even after we walked in. It felt like having bodyguards.”
“Well, you do. We’re not letting anything happen to our precious charge, are we, Jack?”
“No way. Besides, Em. It’s habit for us now. Noisy, crowded places just put us on alert. Nothing personal.”
“I tried looking around like you do, but I don’t know what I’m looking for.”
“We’ll talk about that,” said Hilda. “We’re not actually looking at anything or anyone. Just trying to notice anything out of place at first – in addition to noticing where the men are.”
“And, of course, I notice where all the good-looking women are.”
“You would.” Hilda gave him a gentle slap on the back of the head. Emily giggled.
The mall was not as big as some of the bigger shopping malls, but the major upscale brands were represented. In a boutique of designer fashions, a sales clerk in stiletto heels approached them as they walked in. Emily wondered how she walked in those shoes for a whole shift. She wore a grey and black suit with a pencil skirt and a cream-coloured shell.
“Can I help you find something?” She had a very slight accent, which made her sound precise and professional.
“Yes, something quite specific for my friend here,” said Hilda, pointing to her own dress. “Like this: simple, black, fully crushable and washable so that it comes out of the bag or off the line ready to wear. It needs to be versatile, from afternoon tea or a lunch meeting to a gala event. She can accessorize to make the difference.”
“And one other thing,” said Emily. The clerk and Hilda both turned to her. “It can’t look just like hers. We’re together, but not sisters.” They laughed.
“Of course, miss. Come this way. Many of our customers have those same requirements.”
The clerk led them to the back of the store and brought out a half-dozen dresses in a variety of fabrics. Jack opined that they all looked good on Emily’s figure. Hilda had her raise her knees, spread her legs forward and sideways to test for full movement.
Hilda looked at the pile of discarded dresses, then at the clerk and Emily. The clerk remained pleasant and professional, while Emily suddenly understood what Hilda was trying to find for her.
“I get the feeling that there is something that you need, but you are not seeing,” said the clerk.
Emily held up a hand as Hilda was about to speak. “If I had to run for my life, what dress should I be wearing?”
Hilda smiled and nodded. The clerk hid her surprise quickly. “Look at this,” she said as she picked up a catalog, and flipped to a Michael Kors dress. Simple, black, washable, crushable for travel. An apron top from the neck, sleeveless, flared from the hips but hemmed above the knee.
“I like it. Hilda?”
“I like it, too.” She looked up at the clerk.
“We don’t have this dress, and the nearest place to buy it is at Nordstrom’s in Philadelphia or New York.” She looked around quickly, then lowered her voice. “But I can point you to a store that might have something like this.”
“That’s very kind of you,” said Jack.
“Even with the employee discount, I can’t buy the dresses here, so I shop at the Tanger Outlet.” She turned to Emily. “You are rather tall and athletic. Your size often ends up at the outlets. I think you could start at Charlotte Russe.”
“Brilliant. Thanks,” said Emily. Jack and Hilda added their thanks.
“Will you be here until closing?” Jack asked. Hilda looked surprised, then winked at him. The clerk hesitated then nodded. “OK, Anya,” he pointed at her name tag. “I’ll be back before that.”
They walked to the Tanger Outlet Mall, which was less than 800 yards from the Tropicana. Anya was right. They found the dress at Charlotte Russe, steeply discounted. It was in a synthetic fabric like their other technical clothing, so washing and drying would be easy. This dress came with a light-weight jacket in the same material, which made it even more versatile.
Jack beamed as Emily modeled the dress. He bought a $50 gift certificate when he paid for the dress. “For Anya. It’s the least we can do,” he said. “Happy birthday, Em.”
Emily gave him another hug, and they left the store. They decided on supper at a Greek restaurant a few doors down from the motel. Coming out, Jack turned left to run back to the Casino to deliver Anya’s gift card. Emily and Hilda walked slowly together back to the motel.
As they passed a bar halfway back to the motel, they heard a commotion inside. Hilda took Emily’s wrist and pulled her aside. Suddenly, four men pitched into the street, the last one pushed off the step by the burly waiter inside. “When the man says no more, he means ‘no more’. Go home and sober up!”
Hilda and Emily waited while the last drunk got up. Then the four men noticed the two women.
“Hellooo, ladies,” said the first of the men to come out of the bar. “We’re looking for a good time. Would you care to join us?” He was about Emily’s height, with a beer belly and two day’s beard that was not attractive to look at.
“No,” said Hilda. Emily saw the anger flash in her blue eyes. “And you’re blocking the sidewalk. Would you excuse us please?”
“Certainly, madam,” leader backed up with a satirical bow. “After you.”
Hilda pushed Emily gently in front of her as the two walked past the foursome. Hilda knew instinctively when the leader would put out his hand. She was already turning when she felt it on her buttock. She grabbed his wrist, pulled him forward into her raised knee, and head-butted his nose. Then she ran her free hand into his solar plexus. He crumpled to the ground. The other three stood still, not sure what to do.
“Look. Don’t touch,” she said. “Now do what the man said. Take him home and sober up.” They hastily grabbed their leader’s wrists and hauled him to their shoulders. Then they staggered away in the direction of the Tropicana.
“Let’s go, Em. Walk smartly. Don’t look back.”
“But, what if – “
“If they come this way, we’ll see them in that store window across the street.”
Emily straightened a little more and walked proudly back to the motel.
They were just opening the door when Jack appeared.
“Saw three drunk guys hauling a fourth and bitching about some black Amazon back there,” he said. “Was that your work?”
Emily blurted, “She was awesome! She – “
“Em. Please.” Emily clamped her mouth shut as Hilda finished opening the door. “We’ll discuss it inside. Come in.” They all filed in and she shut the door.
“Yes, Jack. The waiter threw those four in the street just in front of us and told them to go sober up. The leader invited us to go have a good time, then broke the rule. I convinced them to take him home and heed the waiter’s advice.”
Jack grinned. “You never give me a chance to help, do you?”
Emily asked, “What’s ‘the rule’?”
Hilda arched an eyebrow and waited, then said. “What were my first three words to them?”
Emily thought back. “Oh. ‘Look, don’t touch.’”
Hilda nodded and smiled. “What did you learn tonight?”
“I’m not sure. It was all so fast.”
“Then ask me questions and let’s pick it apart.”
“Why didn’t we just go the other way?”
“I never backtrack. On foot or on my bike.”
“You would not have had to hurt that guy.”
“Who made the bad decision to make a pass. Him or me?”
“Right. So, isn’t it better to give him a chance to make the right decision than to make my own wrong decision by running away? He hadn’t done anything to me yet.”
“But there were four of them.”
“Did you check them out when they stumbled onto the street? Tell me about them.”
“Well, the last one fell when the waiter pushed him. He wobbled trying to get up.”
“Yes, and what about the others?”
“I didn’t notice them until the one guy said ‘Helloooo ladies’.”
“But I did look at them. The leader was looking critically at the other three, and the two in the middle were almost not there. They were waiting for him to tell them what to do.”
“Oh, that’s why you called him the leader.”
Hilda nodded. “I knew he would be the only one to do anything, and the others would not move unless he told them to. So, when I pushed you in front of me and out of the way, how many people was I really dealing with?”
“One.” Emily saw that Jack was leaning against the table, smiling at the lesson. “You figured all that out in the time it took for him to say something?” Hilda nodded again.
“I didn’t really ‘figure it out’, Em. I recognized the types from all the room-scoping and previous encounters. After a while, you don’t have to think about it. You know who will do what and who won’t act.”
“Gosh. I can’t do that.”
“Yes, you can. Starting now. What will you do the next time a group of men is in front of you?”
Emily shrugged, and gave Hilda a helpless look.
“Let me rephrase that. Which ones will you look at?”
Emily thought. “All of them”
“Right. And where will you look if one of them is doing something, like falling down or crying or puking?”
“Tonight, I looked at the guy falling, but I should have looked at the others.”
“Right again. Starting with whom?”
Emily looked confused. Jack shoved himself off the table.
“A hint, Em. The leader is usually the one farthest from the action. Someone standing where he can see the others.”
“Oh, so I scan from the farthest guy out.”
“It’s a good start,” said Hilda. “Just don’t take too long, and don’t make too much of it. Get your impressions, then follow your instincts.”
“But I don’t have instincts for this.”
“No, but you already have eyes in the back of your head. I saw the videos of you racing. You can sense someone coming up behind you without looking, can’t you?”
“Well, yeah. But that’s different.”
“Not as different as you think” Jack said. “When you are racing, you seem focused on the road, but I know that you are keenly aware of all the other riders — and other vehicles, too. You don’t even think about it.”
“The new instincts will come with time,” said Hilda. “We’ll quiz you on what you observe along the way, and you’ll get better at noticing your surroundings as we travel. Then you’ll be able to make faster and safer decisions if you’re on your own.”
“And I thought the scenery would be the main point of the tour.”
“Oh, we’ll see that, too, Em. And the best scenery is where you don’t have one heartbeat to evaluate dangerous people.”
Emily thought quietly for a while. Jack and Hilda stood silently. Then Emily brightened and said, “It was still pretty awesome, Hilda!” They laughed.
“We have to roll in the morning,” said Jack. He reached in the refrigerator and pulled out the orange juice. “Nightcap anyone?” They nodded, and he grabbed three glasses from the drain board.
“Did you give Anya the card?” Hilda asked.
“She was still manning the door, so I was only there long enough to thank her again. She turned away as I left. I think she was going to cry.”
“Good move, Jack.”
“Hey, she saved me a bundle on Emily’s birthday dress.”
“I know you better than that. She gave up her commission to give Emily that advice, and you knew it.”
Emily put down her glass suddenly. “How did you two know that?”
“If you have ever worked retail, you never forget what a hell it is,” Jack said. “And if you just watch how other people treat waiters, sales clerks and baristas, you’ll know what I mean.”
Emily pondered that, “I see. I just never looked at it.”
“Part of the change, Em,” said Hilda. “You’re learning to look and see. And with your natural ability to see the good in people, you’ll learn to empathize, too.”
“Wow, that’s a lot to learn in one night.”
“It is,” said Hilda. “Let’s call it a day and get some sleep.”
Jack added, “and remember to plug in our phones tonight.”
Until next time,
Smooth roads and tailwinds,