Monday, 5 PM Southwest Chief Amtrak Train, Chicago
The best thing about the United States is choice. Hannah had a train ticket in her bag and chose to use it. She had survived the flight, calling up her defense system, beginning with the hum.
Hannah did not have to be a part of JSA’s foolishness. It wasn’t her concern. She wasn’t a machine, forced into action with every voice. She now sat in the view car of the train, as she’d planned, watching the city lights of Chicago announce twilight in retreat. Certainly, a 75-year-old woman in pumps was not going to detain her.
On her lap lay the perfectly arranged backpack, reminding Hannah of earlier that morning when she had efficiently layered each item into a tight fit. Everything had been planned. She’d accounted for any possibility that her last ten years could have foretold. Now, all she needed to do was allow that vacation to unfold, just like the next day’s clothes.
Hannah had purchased items for dinner in the train station: a small container of Dijon mustard, sliced sharp cheddar, a sourdough baguette, a Gala apple. She had placed the bag into the top compartment of the outside pocket of the pack. She had filled her thermos with hot water, which waited for the tea bag from Peet’s. She now clutched at her dinner bag and figuratively raced after her travel plans.
For ten years, she had focused on the new life she had created. Hannah had made herself become someone who successfully forgot. She wanted to be that person again: controlled, predictable Hannah Black. But that Hannah would already have dug into the dinner, according to plan. The one with the new passport still simply held on to the bag.
The scene with the older woman at the waiting area lounge, a perfectly executed John Smith and Associate skit, wouldn’t leave her mind, despite her attempts to bury herself in the hum. The woman had gathered her belongings and walked away, leaving Hannah alone with a new old identity. Hannah gripped her pack tighter, tried to forget that she had taken possession of the new passport without a second thought.
“Hello, Ms. Antrim,” a voice pulled her attention, anxiety laced with extreme reserve. “May I have a seat?”
Hannah held back her exasperation and looked the speaker over. She matched her voice: a mid-30’s professional woman trying carefully to appear calmer than she felt. Her inflection was tightly controlled to sound like an American accent from everywhere or nowhere in particular. She continued.
“I apologize for upsetting your day, but you must have guessed that you are very much needed right now. Otherwise, JSA would not have gone to such extremes to get your new passport to you.” She held her words until she was sure of them, making her voice strain over each first sound in a word. Hannah knew how to use silence. She sat still and waited. She also listened very carefully as the younger woman spoke on.
“My name is Cleo. You may have guessed that I’ve been sent to bring you back. Your old friends miss you.” Cleo emitted a sound that should have accompanied a smile, but both the sound and the smile failed. “And, of course, the talents you offer. You must understand how very much you are needed.”
Now Cleo was repeating herself, obviously relying on a hastily-improvised script, and very nervous to get it right. Repetitions, however, were Hannah’s stock and trade. Hannah let her lips turn with the slight smile that might encourage young Cleo as she continued.
“You’ve kept yourself well-hidden these past several years.” Interesting word choice, something of her own, not in the script, Hannah guessed. Archaic, almost. And the double time she allowed in the ‘a’ sound of past. Hannah listened to the voice.
“People still speak about your work. How proud a person might be to have such a skill as yours.” Hannah listened to the use of the passive voice, the indefinite tense. “One hears about how very talented you were. Are. How talented you are. As was demonstrated today.”
This one was very nervous. But she spoke only truth. Hannah released her grasp on dinner, lay her back pack to the side seat, stood, poked her finger in Cleo’s direction and spoke.
“Grew up with old folk, didn’t you? Had to always be polite, hold your tongue. But you didn’t like it. Maybe you’ve spent some time in your job now, and don’t always have to be so polite, but old habits die hard. You disguise your voice well, Missy, so I can’t yet guess the region, but I can hear every resentful syllable you speak.”
Cleo kept her hands resting on the satchel in her lap. Hannah could see the effort involved, but waited only for the words, the pieces of language that would tell her more.
“You are analyzing me, and doing a good job of it,” Cleo looked miserable, her words a self-inflicted injury, “but I am not important right now.”
“That I understand so very well, Missy, you cannot imagine how well I understand. But just because you ask for my help isn’t reason for me to comply.”
“You must have guessed the situation. You took the passport.”
“A document with my photo on it? Why wouldn’t I take possession of something like that? Surely it does not belong to you.”
“And the video you witnessed this afternoon?” said Cleo. “Your help is so badly needed. No one else could make that identification.”
“No one should, young lady. That’s what you needed to say, ‘no one should’.”
“What you did today was extraordinary.”
“That I can do it does not mean it should be done,” said Hannah, feeling the pain momentarily resurface.
“But can’t you see that your ability to identify that man would help find him?”
“Why should I help anyone find him? Perhaps the other man deserved what he got. Should I give aid to that person’s enemy? And if my actions lead then to more violence, how have I helped?”
“I know it’s a lot to ask. But you are needed at JSA. Desperately needed.”
More repetition. And even if young Cleo’s voice wavered with indecision, she believed what she said. Hannah didn’t mention the lack of violent intent in the other voices, nor her growing uncertainties. Cleo let out a strong sigh. It was in the sigh, that unintentional piece of information, that spontaneous utterance, that Hannah sorted it all out.
Monday, 6:15 PM Southwest Chief Amtrak Train, Chicago
Why was this woman so irritating?
With her stubby pants and her too-short haircut, Cleo should be towering over her in self-confidence. But the woman standing in front of Cleo had a sense of position that Cleo herself never had outside her office. If only this exchange could happen there, in her safe zone, Cleo was sure she could exert influence, win her cause. Here, she hardly even knew what was her cause.
Still, the odd woman kept talking at Cleo with an exaggerated knowledgeable manner. When would she, Cleo, ever become that confident, that self-assured? If she couldn’t do it by 35 years old, she may never do it at all.
This woman – Hannah – was nearly 20 years older, and if there was one thing that Cleo did know, it was that Hannah had possessed this type of confidence for uncounted decades.