Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Five

Monday, 9:40 AM Los Angeles International Airport

Hannah chose a seat close to the window in the waiting area, cleansed the armrests and fake leather with a handy-wipe, and waited for them to announce boarding. The flight, three hours and a half to Chicago, could not pass quickly enough.

The hum had not returned, but at least she had escaped the scene at the coffee house, slipping out of line and away from the commotion. She had learned that people often don’t question odd-looking women, and she had taken advantage of that to escape. Compared to the airport’s potent mix of verbiage, she hoped the flight might be calming.

As the hurt faded, a fragment of doubt began to edge its way into her awareness. She had made the correct identification, she was sure of that, but something was amiss. It’s not my business, she reminded herself. As soon as she was on the plane, she could pull her ear plugs out from the backpack, and seek the quiet, begin to forget. Failing that, she had her book, or earphones and music: several hours’ worth of distractions.

She was glad to be rid of Radioman and Geek. Hannah could have done nothing about the killing, so why had they become irritated with her? Maybe she knew the answer, but she’d ignored it for a long time. Ten years, in fact, and never a mistake like that one. But there was something more, something she was missing. She ran her fingers hard over her arms, rubbed the words away, tried to forget their goodness. She hadn’t really failed, or if she had, she’d caught herself in time.

Hannah’s carry-on backpack contained a thrifty five-day supply, to be laundered six times during her trip, deftly rolled to reduce wrinkles, or zipped into plastic bags for easy proof that she was not planning a criminal act. She certainly hadn’t planned to witness one.

In the front pocket of her document wallet she had a train ticket back to LA. Its goodness sent a stir of pleasure. She had no passport, and that pleased her, too. She had never needed a passport for Hannah Black. Think about the good things: free time, train travel, being alone. In four hours, she would be in Chicago and the pleasant journey would begin.

The seat next to hers was empty and with a settling-in of the passengers waiting to board, it might stay that way. Quiet. She bent down, reaching for her pack sitting squarely on the floor and felt for the train ticket again.

Finding the sharp corners in the open sleeve should have reassured her, but instead she recalled the knife wielded by the Pasquano. Had to be Pasqua, all that sibilance, all those pues’s. Had the city given in to violence? When Hannah knew the area, it had been a refuge of peace. Others had called the people reserved, but she had thought of them as refined. And the language? Poetic. Forget that, she reminded herself, leave the language. Four hours and then her reward would begin. Think about that. She forced a long slow breath, shook out a tissue and placed it on the seatback where her head might settle.

A woman who looked roughly 75 years old stopped at the empty seat next to Hannah. She wore an elegant green suit, matching fabric pumps, carried a briefcase-sized tapestry travel bag. She gave Hannah a frail smile as she settled into the chair. The lady bumped lightly around, making excusing sounds while Hannah turned to look out the window.

The woman’s high-toned sighs annoyed Hannah. Not words, the sounds still called for clarification and interpretation. Hannah simply wanted to sit in peace. She brought her book to her lap, opened to the marked page, and sought the hum.

“Did you hear of that killing?” Hannah heard the woman ask, but the voice seemed aimed away from her, so she kept her eyes on the page and waited. A woman two seats down answered in a strong voice with a Boston-area accent, maybe even from down-town.

“The one from yesterday?”

“Well, I wouldn’t know, I’m sure, but dead is dead, and that’s a shame. Take it out of God’s hands and only God knows what evil is loosed.”

The woman spoke like a Sunday school teacher in upper-middle class white America: suburban, educated, from the west but not California. Idaho, perhaps. Like most casual conversation, her words contained a careless quality, straddling honesty and a lie.

“I think you’re probably right,” said the woman from Boston.

“Well, dear, gives us more reason to be thankful, considering the way things are.”

“People in those countries, they must feel so unsure.”

“Of course, they do, dear. I used to live where the killing occurred. Beautiful little city, in spite of everything. Pasqua, Ecuador it’s called.”

Truth or lie? Hannah willed her lids not to budge, tucked her chin a fraction and kept listening. As much as she wanted, she could never shut down. But the woman from Boston murmured a commiseration, and the conversation lagged. Hannah noticed movement and saw the older lady’s hands come back into view, both of them, immobile on their shared armrest. The lady wore a large ring with a marquis-cut emerald circled by tiny clear emerald chips. Popping veins and age spots decorated her hands. Her brittle fingernails were lacquered in a clear coating.

The lady leaned forward, reaching for her travel bag with her right hand. Her left hand used the movement to hide the thin but hard rectangular blue booklet that she pulled out of her pocket. It was wider than the armrest, measurable but thin and about five inches long. Hannah instantly recognized it as a passport, and pressed her shoulders hard into the seatback.

The booklet lay beneath the lady’s hand on the armrest for only a moment. With a veiled flick, the older woman sent it onto Hannah’s lap, where it opened as if by old habit to the picture page.

Her travel plans, the video in the airport, the lady from Pasqua: too many coincidences. They must have been searching. And now they had found her.

Hannah looked at the two-by-two-inch color photo of herself, a mostly brown-haired woman of 53, using short bangs to hide the worry lines on her forehead, clear eyes focused directly on the camera. She wore today’s long-sleeved white shirt, but the picture was labeled with a name she hadn’t used in ten years.

“Welcome back, Ms. Antrim. John Smith sends his regards,” said the older lady in a nubby soft whisper using her Idaho voice and speaking the truth.

The heat of intense feelings burst behind Hannah’s eyes and her chest hurt with the strain of keeping calm. Hannah told herself to breathe, breathe again. But all she felt was the anger racing up her chest and into her throat, hot anger seeking escape. People understood her passport outbursts less than her interest in voices. She had struggled to learn control over the language and over her listening, but passports were a completely different trigger and the reaction pulled away from her with a life all its own, sliding out as sharp as the knife against the poor man’s throat.

“I don’t need passports ever again,” she said.

And then the thought that had been hanging back burst into her awareness. She realized what had been tugging at her mind, the trouble she had ignored while trying to find the hum. In all the tonal variations and vocal expressions coming from Geek’s phone screen, she had heard lies, but nothing had been said in a killing voice.

Cleo Five

Monday, 9:45 AM Los Angeles International Airport

Cleo tapped the video call icon on her phone connecting her with her boss. She needed to see Sandra, watch her facial reaction. She needed more than remote words.

“Let’s make this simple, Sandra. You asked me to follow. I followed.”

“Another phone call, Cherie?”

“Hannah Black or Antrim, or whatever name she uses, it doesn’t matter now. I must be done, right? Cash-in the ticket, next flight back to the office?”

“You may say it’s different with video, but it’s really just a phone call with faces.”

“Did you hear me? Back to Panamá, where I can really help? There’s nothing more simple than that.”

Her boss looked at her from the screen of Cleo’s phone with her serene face – African and French at the same time – and a practiced smile that told anyone close by that she would laugh about this one tonight over her glass of Chablis. Or Champagne with cranberry.

“You’re the only one through security who can take the flight. You’ll be fine,” said Sandra, sitting comfortably in her office, probably with an ice-filled crystal glass of sparkling water off screen.

“Flight?”

“The ticket’s in your app. The difficult part hasn’t even begun. You won’t be there for that. You’ll be safe back at the office writing the summary when the real challenges arise.”

“I was safe back at the office writing the analysis on Hannah Antrim last week. And by the way, no one said anything about a plan to contact her. No one said anything about anything. And nothing about a flight,” Cleo said.

“You’ll be fine. Just follow along. It’s not like she won’t figure things out. It’s been ten years or so, not a lifetime. She’ll remember her past. She might even miss it.”

“After keeping herself hidden for all that time?”

“Just do what you’re told and don’t worry about the rest.”

“I’m not worried. You keep telling me I’ll be fine.”

“You will. Of course, there’s always the scoundrels. They could help smooth out the contact.”

Cleo thought there was a subtle test here. Should she use the help or not? Would it be a good idea or bad? Rico and Michael, the scoundrels, were infamous, not famous. Carlos, maybe, was a hidden talent, but the scoundrels’ edgy shenanigans were well-known in the agency.

“No,” said Cleo. “I don’t need them. I won’t be here long, right?”

“They offered.”

“You’re making that up.”

“They offered to help.”

“No,” said Cleo. “If I don’t do it on my own, John Smith might make me repeat the field work. And you can put that smile away right now.”

“You didn’t feel that way about Carlos’ help. A man you’ve never met – someone who is mostly myth.” Sandra’s smile turned into a laugh. “You’ll be fine. Not even the hard work yet. Just remember, Michael and Rico can help you be convincing, and they did offer. JS doesn’t need to know. You’ll be fine.”

Cleo scruffed out a growl at the face on the screen. “Says the one who will be drinking Chablis in an hour. I want your life.”

Sandra brought on-screen her fancy glass of sparkling water and raised it to Cleo.

Mai non, Chérie. I shall be drinking iced cocoa, made with bitter dark chocolate and xylitol.”

“And I have met Carlos. I have. So I know all about his skill set,” said Cleo to her boss’ shaking head.

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