Present Day, Monday, 9 AM Los Angeles International Airport
Endless pieces of language filled the airport waiting area. Hannah heard them all. She instantly translated eleven Mandarin words as one family passed by. How long had it been? Thirteen years since she had worked in that tongue. And the tonal emotion of the language: love, concern, need, humor, spoken so casually by the throngs gave her intimate knowledge of each talker who passed by.
Not the airport chill, not the slap-slap of a thousand haphazard foot falls, not even the loudspeaker spewing unintelligible sounds could drown out the nearby spoken words. She had hoped that her time spent away from work would dull her skills. She should have known better. Words continued to be everlasting trouble. Even so, just one truly held her attention.
“Don’t,” the man had said into a cell phone. There it was again, forceful, dynamic. Trouble of the worse kind. Among the countless syllables floating around, it pulled at her. “Don’t,” he had said in a killing voice.
Hannah tucked her chin, aimed her head down, and tried to make the words retreat. Especially that one word, spoken in a voice she always understood. The lies people told were sometimes harmless, but the violence, the true heartfelt threat, that understanding brought intense pain. It wasn’t a fair exchange, the pain for the violent truth. But it wasn’t her business any longer and hadn’t been for ten years.
During that intervening decade, she had tolerated occasional bouts of substitute teaching, saving up for this trip, a small excursion after so many years of traveling the world for work. She had trained herself to be careful, to remain hidden. Today, the voices surrounded her, echoing into the cavern of the waiting area gates, and called for her attention. Would that one word send her fleeing back home, hiding in her made-up life for another decade until she could venture out again? She didn’t have that many decades left.
If only she could observe from a distance, like she used to, pulling sounds as she saw fit and taking her time to study the tone, syllabication, context and connection to the speaker. Or she could let the hum take over, the only time she could ever have peace. It had taken her years to perfect the hum that covered up all the other sounds.
A nearby aroma caught Hannah’s attention. She needed a distraction, and paused by The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, resenting the bully scent of coffee over the delicate subtlety of tea. But here, she could withdraw from the chaotic vocal crowd. She took a breath, stepped toward the café.
Hannah had exact plans; she had only to put one foot in front of the other and push the languages into the background.
Present Day, Monday, 9:10 AM Los Angeles International Airport
“P-l-z,” Cleo tapped into her phone for the fourth time.
“N-o-n,” her boss sent the instant response.
Cleo wondered why Sandra sent messages in French. It only complicated things. And Cleo didn’t need more complications this morning. The early flight from Panamá City, Panamá had been enough.
“E-x-t-r-e-m-e-l-y O-d-d L-t-l W-o-m-a-n,” she sent.
Cleo continued to follow the woman through the waiting area of LAX Terminal Six. She worked her thumb against the phone until Hannah Prudence Antrim’s photo appeared. The woman didn’t look ten years older than the photo, just ten years weirder, and she’d had a head start on weird. Cleo wished again for her office at John Smith and Associates: uncluttered, infused with cucumber seed essential oil, a safe place where she could reveal her clients in written form. Writing, the thing she did best, in a climate-controlled office using other written information to validate her own. She had her reputation to look after, built on writing, not foot-work.
Cleo took a deep breath, felt the tightness of her hand around the silent phone, and consciously relaxed the tension. Observe the client, she told herself. That’s what Carlos would do. Responsible, steady, talented Carlos. And young, the other employees said. When would she meet him in person? Maybe that would be the pay-back from this absurd task. They had nicknamed him Phantom. He could be anywhere and look like anyone. Observe Hannah. Her agency wasn’t a policing group, did not enter dangerous situations. She could observe this woman and safely survive this test. Maybe even meet Carlos.
Hannah wore loose khaki pocket pants with a three-inch wide belt, a heavy white over-shirt ironed to a spray-starched sheen and carried a filled back pack. She had hair so short it was probably called a boy’s cut. Cleo tried to name the hair color. Maybe fading taupe. From across the crowded airport waiting room, her middle-aged Anglo face had that no-makeup look. She was so short she could get lost in a crowd, but would never blend in.
The woman had supported her thrifty lifestyle by substitute-teaching as Hannah Black for the past nine years. The people who knew her before said she knew languages like no one else on earth. John Smith and Associates had paid well for her expertise until she had run away. They’d never been able to replace her. Weird she was, but also brilliant. Now, those one-of-a-kind skills had pulled attention back to her. That, and the airplane ticket.
“J-o-b f-o-r C-a-r-l-o-s, t-h-i-s,” Cleo tapped into her phone.
“C-a-l-l m-e,” came the response from Sandra, the one who usually reached out.
Cleo did not call; her boss could wait. She pocketed the phone, aware that the earpiece was still an open line of communication. Cleo knew that she had neglected this part of the job for too long. Neglected, talked her way out of, made deals to avoid. She let LAX fully reassert itself. Cleo had written the official update to Hannah’s file, so she knew the verbal soup of the airport would threaten the other woman’s calm.
Hannah would search for a place to get a cup of hot water, nothing else, just hot water, into which she would place a sterile tea bag of Peet’s Earl Grey. She would count out two minutes, dip the bag four times, squeeze out the remains, and find a trash receptacle, regretting the need for a bag in place of loose tea leaf. Hannah would stand to drink the brew, but she would not lean against the dirty walls in public places. Soon she would begin to show signs of irritation: too much noise, too many people moving around.
Cleo glanced to the crowd, noticing the swarm of humankind. It took effort, almost break-a-sweat effort, to keep track of Hannah. She would never be like most people, but she could hide behind almost anyone, and a family of four or five gave her more than enough cover. Sandra had assured Cleo this was a simple morning’s walk through an airport following an eccentric woman. No big deal. The others would be close by to do what they do; her part was to follow. Nothing more than simple observation.
Cleo tapped her earpiece, placed the call to Sandra.
“I am so good at writing reports. People love my reports. I can’t write them when I’m in an airport following odd folk,” Cleo said.
If only she could survive this one street-level contact, Cleo might be able to stay in her clean office and her dream job. Let Carlos have the street-work. He was probably a slob with a dirty half-grown beard.