Monday, 9:15 AM Los Angeles International Airport
Hannah pulled out her change purse from her backpack, checked the fold where she placed her bills from low to high, and then unzipped to find three quarters, four dimes and one nickel. Hannah stepped up to the line extending out from The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, wishing the aroma of Earl Grey was as ever-present as coffee.
“Did you hear about that kidnapping?”
Just ahead of her in line a man about her age, say 52, nodded toward the TV screen in the adjacent lounge area. She craned her neck up to look at him, a motion that took away even the small social pleasure of conversation. And it was always quite small. Conversation had words, true, but it also had face to face people.
“I rarely watch television,” she said, momentarily looking that direction, seeing the news program format, with a banner running along the bottom, someone’s pretty head talking with serious expression. Never mind the news, she thought, always trouble there. Where was the hum, the layer of comfort that crowded out the overwhelming mix of daily noise? She had learned to cope by using the hum as her mediator to the world.
The man, though, was too close to ignore. He labored over his d’s and t’s, making them more important than they really were, and it annoyed her to have to notice.
Leave it, she told herself. Let him be as tall as he is and say all the collaborative sounds of his background and temperament. Forget him like you forgot the man with murder in his voice. Look up to the scaffolding, think about the shiny packet of Peet’s Earl Grey in your wallet.
“It’s been on radio, too.” He paused like he’d asked a question. She shook her head. His voice had the confident tone of a radio announcer, practiced and orderly, with traces of southern rural influence mostly edited out after years in a city. He wore a grey suit that looked smooth, and moved with him. “Maybe you follow the news tweets?”
“No,” she said.
“I’m a junkie. All news, all day.”
“Aspiring for a heart attack?” she asked, and after a moment’s pause, they laughed that tight, uncomfortable laugh of strangers. Feeling the stab of her comment, she made a conciliatory shrug. It wasn’t his fault she had lost the hum. She would find it again after her coffee. Or tea. “Where are you headed?” she asked.
“Chicago,” he said, then introduced himself, using careless tones and casual lies.
Hannah let her mind reduce his words to fuzzy sounds, like Charlie Brown’s teacher. A woman stepped back from a spot near the door to grab at an errant child, and Hannah listened for the child’s complaint, hoping for a lisp. A scraggly-haired college-looking youth, outfitted with long skinny jeans, a wrinkled tee-shirt, and a heavy canvas bag strapped across his chest joined them in line.
Radioman shined his smile over her head.
“News junkie?” asked Radioman to the youth.
“Primary sources only, man,” said the youth, rushing through his vowels like young people do.
The voices pressed up close to Hannah, challenging her indifference. She looked to the cavern, where the voices had swirled around her, words pulling her this way, then the other. And that one word. Back to the coffee aroma, she thought, let the dense smell distract you, then the whoosh of the steam. Almost a hum itself.
“Have you seen that story?” asked Radioman. “Looks like a middle-eastern type with some sort of kidnap victim. And us getting on a plane.”
“It’s quite a short flight to Chicago,” said Hannah.
“I’m continuing to D.C. At least we’re far away from the Middle East. I caught about ten seconds of the report on the radio. They said the kidnapper gave CNN a live feed. What I want to know is why there’s just that one picture. If there was a live feed, what happened to it?”
The woman pulled her children through the door. The line stepped forward. The younger man brought a thin, wide phone out of his pocket, splayed his hip to balance the bag, and tapped the screen with rapid authority. A technology geek, thought Hannah. She breathed deep, released the words. It wasn’t her business.
“Video feed, you think?” he asked. “Let’s find out.” The geek made sliding motions with a finger. “Hello YouTube. List recent. Nope, not there. How about Reddit? Guess not. Jockular? Ah. Here we go.”
The younger man tilted the phone, clicked on a thumbnail photo of the kidnapping, if that’s what it was. A gritty picture surfaced on the screen. The mother glanced back, gave that holier-than-your-mama look that Hannah had received too often in the classroom.
The young geek, still clicking and scrolling, adjusted the volume and size of the video. He kept his voice sleek, rolling the syllables together. Was there falsehood in his voice? Hannah thought so. That, and a good bit of trouble, cleverly hid behind fast words.
“Here we go. Primary sources. You gotta love them.”
With fractured sound and jerking video, the news-in-a-box photo began to move. A metallic sound cracked through the phone’s speakers. Two people, both masked with loose hoods, faced the camera in a badly-lit room that failed to show any detail that might distinguish them. One stood behind the other in a tight one-armed bear hug. He spoke.
“Spanish,” Hannah said, like a knee-jerk reaction.
She bit her lip, listened for a moment, hoping Geek would speak again in his easy lying voice. Around her, people focused on the kidnapper speaking to the camera. Hannah looked back to the cavern and silenced her own voice, but the screen pulled her attention. Even with the muffled sound, the words called to her. She weighed the temptations and her strength. Then Radioman looked up, and she was caught.
“Doesn’t sound Spanish,” he said. “Sounds Middle Eastern to me.” Hannah looked back to the video, where the man spoke words she knew in tones she had heard often. Radioman continued in that secure ‘knows what he’s talking about’ voice, stressing those d’s, making every other sound stop and pay attention. “Looks Middle-Eastern.”
The hooded man continued to address the video camera, and she knew what the words were, what they meant. The tone, the accent and the familiar sounds all drew her in. Where had she heard these words?
“There’s no doubt,” said Radioman. “Definitely one of those terrorist countries.”
“Terrorist country, you think?” asked Geek.
Radioman waved his hand toward some faraway place, tossing away the blame to another corner of the world. “Someplace in the Middle-East. Just look at their history.”
Falsehoods, all of it. And such ignorance. Then Hannah spoke, without planning, without counting the words or wondering the costs.
“It’s not any Middle-Eastern language,” Hannah said. “His voice is South American Spanish. I know these words. Don’t I know this accent.”
The kidnapper’s words continued, the intonation drawing her in, a pattern she recognized, but couldn’t yet name. Hannah stopped, listened, let her mind retreat ten years while LAX faded into the distant background and the voice from the screen filled her.
Monday, 9:20 AM Los Angeles International Airport
“Sandra, there’s a crowd sort of gathering around her,” said Cleo.
“Cherie, it’s nice that you are keeping me informed, but you really don’t need to call at every step along the way. Didn’t we just speak moments ago?”
“It’s just that it looks a bit intense to me. You said to follow her, but she looks sort of gummed up with people, and I know she won’t like that.”
“That’s quite sweet. You’ve gotten into her head with your research and writing. But now, please remember, you are just following. Watching. Don’t worry about anything else. I have another call, Cherie. I must go. It will all be just fine.”
“Fine?” said Cleo, but her boss was gone.