Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Ten

Tuesday, 7:55 AM Mendota, Illinois

Hannah woke and packed. She checked out of her room at the main desk, inquired about hot water for her tea and was directed to the near-by sideboard. She viewed the complimentary continental breakfast. What this nation knew about continental could fit onto the tiny napkin she picked up. Hannah pocketed an apple, an orange, a peanut butter tub-ette, crackers and three tea bags.

The summertime crush of tourists had not found their way to Mendota, Illinois. The beginning of humidity had. As Hannah walked through the motel’s parking lot, she glanced at the cars, noting the absence of visitors, the three white or near-white American-made compacts, and the one beat-up truck whose driver wore a cone-shaped woven straw hat. A Mendota statement of style? She looked onto the street, counting five vehicles within sight, figuring that five was exactly one car more than the usual count.

Cleo’s ride she spotted immediately: the nondescript vehicle rented purposefully to blend-in on any middle-class American curb. Cleo had parked her compact across the street from the motel, far enough away that she might have been attempting to disguise herself, but close enough to be friendly. Smart move on Young Cleo’s part. Now they were playing a game.

With John Smith and Associates, it was always a game, and this one Hannah knew. Moreover, they knew she knew. Certain she was meant to see the car, and certain they did not know what her reaction would be – flight or fight or surrender – she paused. Did they have a counter-offer, an anticipated outcome, a reaction if Hannah could manage to evade them? She evidently had not put them off after her departure from the train, so she discounted that option as wasted time.

Hannah walked toward Cleo’s car, beginning to reconcile some elements of her past into the present. She ignored her curiosity to question why they were seeking her. The fact that JSA was expending this effort explained every necessary detail. They needed her, simple as that.

Who would ever know a firm called ‘John Smith and Associates’ dealt largely in international threat assessment? Perhaps the name was meant to be discrete, but Hannah would have preferred a more direct nomenclature. Why not ‘International Threat Assessment’? Descriptive, honest. Even the abbreviation, JSA, had always seemed a bit of a waste. It meant nothing about their work.

When she’d first been hired, she had felt lost in the world, and stunned that any profitable firm would want her talents. She had thought that her constant scrutiny of language was a secret to be hidden, an infinite flaw. John Smith saw it as an asset.

Hannah could easily identify lies, threatening tones and regional accents in eight languages. She had felt less at ease listening to voices on the streets, but she was just as effective. In fact, there was something about the immediacy of the street voices that percolated her interest.

Eventually, she had become comfortable in her office in Panamá City, Panamá, listening to voices that the scoundrels had procured. Were the offices still in the same place? Was that why they had arranged the current passport? Ten years had passed, and if the pain had faded, it was hard to tell. Still, she decided she could do one small favor for the scoundrels here in Mendota. She would help her young former companions, then go on her way.

As Hannah approached the car, Cleo smiled and rolled down her window. Cooled air seeped out.

“I deliberated,” said Hannah, “and, in a spirit of cooperation, decided to help. I’m sure I’ll see you soon.”

Before Cleo could respond, Hannah turned around and began walking back across the street. Each step took her farther out of reach of Cleo’s repetitive Iowa voice calling out her plea.

Cleo Ten

Tuesday, 8:20 AM Mendota, Illinois

Her finger poised over the phone.

She did not want to call Sandra, did not want to ask again for guidance, but what else could she do?

Cleo did not have a clue how to deal with this difficult woman, Hannah. True, she had written about her, analyzed her, researched her, but somehow, with this woman, the sum of the parts on paper was so much less than the reality. Hannah was like no one Cleo had ever come across.

She pressed ‘call’. Then waited and waited. Sandra did not answer.

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