by Susan Vasquez
© 2019 by Susan Vasquez
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from Susan Vasquez. Reviewers are welcome, of course, to quote brief passages.
Ten Years ago, Panamá City, Panamá
Trouble. She heard every bit of trouble. Hannah was the magnet; ominous voices were her metallic bits of bother. For decades, these spoken sounds had added their burden, burying her in pain. She waved the heat away from her face with a paper fan. She placed two fingertips on the bone at the back of her left ear. Whenever she heard trouble, Hannah felt the pain.
She stood with Michael and Rico on the curb 30 feet away from their client and the man he was meeting. Michael aimed the antenna from his cell phone toward the conversation. All three listened through wireless earplugs.
“Call it, Hannah,” said Rico. “Threat or no threat? Do your thing.”
“Come on, Hannah Banana, what do the voices tell you?” asked Michael. “Is this guy serious?”
“Let it out, Hanny. Turn us loose.”
“You two are livelier than the poor coffee salesman, and he thinks he has something to worry about,” said Hannah. “Why did we have to come here? Did his company receive a threat?” Michael shook his head. “Just a suspicion?” Rico gave a shrugging nod. “It must have been a well-paying client. Have they been here long?”
A passing bus broadcast vivid, beating sounds from a local radio station and gave Rico an excuse – not that he ever needed one – to dance a side step of the cumbia. With the motion, he turned his back toward the restaurant, giving Hannah a better view. The steam of downtown Panamá City, Panamá rose from the metal awning of the restaurant where the two conversing men sat.
But Hannah already knew her job was done. This meeting was motivated by ambition with a touch of jealousy, not violence. She heard all the detail in the one man’s voice. They watched from outside the patio restaurant as the last part of the conversation played out – intense, but not alarming, perhaps a financial concern. She didn’t even detect a spoken lie. Hannah could sign off on the threat assessment. This time, someone else could deal with the trouble and she could try to let the sounds fade away.
She breathed deep, hoping for relief, wishing things would change. But even this quick resolution of her assignment hadn’t stopped the spears of pain running from that tender spot in back of her ear to clash behind her eyes. How could she get rid of the pain?
Slowly Hannah shook her head and glanced up at Rico and Michael.
“No threat,” she said.
The animation drained from their faces.
“We came all this way? Come on, Hanny,” said Rico, “give us something to do. Please.”
“There’s nothing to fix here,” said Hannah.
“Then make something up.”
“Go home,” she said.
“Please. Something small.” As Rico spoke, Michael put a hand on his arm, nodding his head toward the side street, a retreat. But Rico continued, with a laughing plea. “Hannah. You’re the One. You don’t even have to explain yourself to the Boss. You always get it right. Like a machine. No one will notice a tiny favor. Just give us one little thing. Follow them for a day? Please?”
Hannah watched as Michael became more successful in distracting Rico. He put his cell phone in his pocket, turned his baseball cap forward, nodded at Hannah, took a step away. Working with these two young men the past three years had nearly made Hannah’s pain go away. She touched the bone behind her left ear. She was sure she was right. There was distress, but nothing more in the voices, no true malice, no violent backstory sound. No threat. No falsehood. She had hoped the piercing throb would retreat with the absence of a killing intent. But it hadn’t. And it wasn’t because Rico had compared her to a machine. She wasn’t a machine. It was time for Hannah to follow through with her decision.
“See you two later,” she said.
Hannah walked away from them, like it was just a normal day, knowing they would never hear the lie in her own voice.
Ten Years Ago, Marion, Iowa
The salad lay before her on the white hexagonal tiles of her mother’s kitchen in Marion, Iowa. Only the cucumbers waited to be sliced, then placed on top, in a crisscross pattern, like always. Is this why Cleo had graduated college? So she could come back home, make the Saturday afternoon salad and sit for two hours listening to her mother and aunt talk about Harry’s receding hairline and Vera’s trips to the fat farm?
“Did you put just a spritz of Tabasco in the French dressing?”
“Yes, Auntie,” said Cleo.
She scored the cucumbers, releasing the fresh scent that always relaxed her. Maybe things would work out. Perhaps IBM International would hire her, and maybe then she could work her way to one of the smaller, elite consultancy firms: John Smith and Associates, giving advice to businesses engaged in international trade.
“How are things coming along, Cleo? For heaven’s sake, you do love to dally.”
“Just fine, Mother. Almost done.”
She breathed in again. Maybe all that could happen. Cleo picked up the salad from the aged tiles. This had been her Great Grandmother Cleola’s house, then her grandmother’s house, now her mother’s. How did she get all the way to her goals from this kitchen in Marion, when each female forebear of her family had stayed, alone?