Tuesday, 8:23 AM Mendota, Illinois
When Hannah reached the beat-up truck, she tapped on the passenger’s door. It was opened from the inside. Hannah reached up to the handle and pulled herself into the seat, ignoring the fact that her legs dangled and that her supply of handy-wipes was quite low. She turned to the driver, whose straw hat covered his head of youthful geek-like hair.
“You didn’t have permission to take my photograph,” Hannah said.
The geek didn’t smile. He grinned. From ear to ear, he grinned a smile of youth, delight and competitiveness with a bit of wicked thrown in. He took off the hat and shook out his hair.
“Didn’t even have a ghost of suspicion at the airport, did you?”
“Not for a minute,” said Hannah.
“And the truck.” He patted the dashboard. “Better than Cleo’s, right? It belongs here.”
“Hers belongs anywhere, but you’re right. Yours belongs here, in Mendota. Still, I picked you out.”
“I hear you already met up with the stars of the video?”
She was hungry for his voice, the very slight Spanish influence teasing her. More south than Mexico, she thought. But what was that extra trill in his ‘L’ sound?
He had used a well-done cover voice in the airport. Clever. He spoke with the sharp precision of someone versed in languages, Spanish and English in this young man’s case, with some close neighbors as well: Italian, French and possibly German, Hannah guessed. His skin glowed with a deep golden tone, but Hannah had learned not to rely on such superficial clues for nationality. That information was always in the voice, the spoken word.
“I have been hearing about your adventures for a while now. I am a fan, believe me. My name is Carlos, Ms. Antrim. Ms. Black? Meeting you is an honor.”
“Pleasure is mine. Please call me Hannah.”
“Hannah it is.”
“You study languages, don’t you, Carlos?”
“I am most definitely not in your league with the languages, but I hear some call me the Phantom, so I guess I have my place.” He continued his sideways smile. Carlos was going to be fun. He looked past Hannah through the rear window. “Maybe we’ll have time for stories later on.”
Cleo appeared at the window. Hannah rolled it down.
“That was fast, Young Cleo,” she said.
“Next to you, Ms. Antrim, no one can call me fast.”
“Feeling a bit fish-out-of-water?”
Carlos lifted his hands from the wheel, and in a replay of his airport voice, said, “I’ll just stay out of this.” He had his smile under control, but barely, as he glanced at each rear-view mirror in turn.
“Dear girl,” said Hannah. “I’ve already agreed to help. Just tell me what I need to do. And remember, I have a 30-day Amtrak pass, so the sooner we get this done, the better. My vacation won’t wait long. The passport was a nice idea, but unnecessary. John Smith has always been presumptuous about travel. I assume the scoundrels have gotten themselves into a dubious spot and need some help.”
Hannah looked hard at the young woman. Carlos tapped his fingers on the steering wheel. Cleo kneaded her lip and thrummed. Hannah preferred to interpret voices and intonation, even word choice. At times, especially word choice. This exchange was filled with unspoken words. Hannah used her best strategy for classic non-verbal communication: she waited.
“I am very glad you decided to talk,” said Cleo. Hannah waited as Young Cleo glanced nervously at Carlos. “A conversation will clear all this up. Please believe me.”
It had all been script, up to the last phrase. There had been a plea in that last phrase that startled Hannah. Why would Cleo feel it necessary to plead with her? Why did she continue to look at Carlos, then quickly away? She let the younger woman continue.
“Perhaps we can go back to my car and talk.”
“Car?” said Hannah. “Why should we need a car? Aren’t you going to use one of your gadgets and let me speak with the boys?”
“Of course, of course, we may do that. But first we should set up a game plan.”
“A game plan. Young Cleo, just remember that I worked the same business you are working, and I know when you are giving me a story line instead of the truth. Which is not a surprise to me, just an irritation. You are more convincing when you don’t lie. May I have the truth, please?”
“It’s really all for your benefit. If you will just come with me, I can explain better.”
“Without dear Carlos? Why isn’t he included?”
She looked to the geek.
“Best leave me out,” he said. “It’s my usual state.”
Neither of her new companions was making eye contact, with each other or with Hannah herself. Suddenly, simple Mendota had their full attention. Hannah may have been readjusting to skills she had forgotten she knew, but the effort of all the back-and-forth began suddenly to wear upon her. Such double-talk. Such subterfuge. Even seventh grade hadn’t been so full of deception.
“Rico and Michael looked quite well last night. What could be wrong? What help do they need?” asked Hannah.
“Truly, we intend to be a help to you.” Cleo looked to the geek. “Isn’t that right, Carlos?”
Carlos nodded, but kept his various accents to himself as he scanned the landscape of Mendota, Illinois.
Hannah couldn’t put the puzzle of the two of them, her former employer, and the scoundrels together. It simply did not fit, and something unsaid began troubling her. She had offered her assistance. She hadn’t offered to enter into a game plan, whatever that might be. And she certainly wasn’t going to use any passport, even her own. Where had her planned vacation gone?
“Well,” Hannah said, “you two can get your stories together while I replenish my travel supplies.”
Hannah opened the truck door, stepped down onto the asphalt, and let Cleo stare after her for the second time in ten minutes. This time the Iowa voice was silent. What were they going to do? Take her into custody? John Smith and his associates’ authority did not extend that far, as Hannah well understood.
Tuesday, 8:32 AM Mendota, Illinois
Cleo had first noticed the strange man as she spoke to Hannah at her car across the street. He stood out simply because he made no attempt to blend in. Mendota, Illinois could identify outsiders just as easily as Marion, Iowa.
“Do you think she saw him, Carlos? You’ve been watching him this entire time.”
“Hard not to. He must be the one.”
“But do you think she saw him?”
“Hard to know. She was pretty much focused on you and me.”
“Don’t you think we should just deal with the man? He can’t be as difficult as Hannah. What’s he going to do to us out in the open like this? Can’t we just talk to him?”
“Not my call.”
“Not your call. Not Sandra’s call. And where, may I ask, is John Smith? Not here, evidently. You’d think that if the man over there was going to do anything immediately dangerous, he would have done it already.”
“Let’s wait for Hannah to get her things. When she comes out, we’ll explain.”
“Explain what? She doesn’t want to come with me. And that’s all I know to do. I say we talk to the guy. JSA doesn’t deal in real danger, just the threat of danger. Oh, dear Jesus, I am so out of my comfort zone.”
“Sounds like someone didn’t get her usual good night’s sleep.”
“How would you know what my usual night’s sleep is? We’ve never met before.”
“You’re that Cleo chick.”
“Oh. Comment about my name, just go right ahead. But if you really want a laugh, look at yourself with that cornfield hat, Maynard.”
“Cleo’s a good name, just curious…”
“And now I’m feeling guilty because everyone I know named Maynard has been a really decent guy.”
“And I’m not?”
Cleo took a step back, glanced over the hood of the truck, searching again for the man.
“I’m not trained for this. Following her in the airport for a short time is one thing. A lurking man dressed in winter clothes in the humid Midwest summer? What am I supposed to do about that? How long is this escapade going to last? I keep hoping someone will tell me it’s all a set-up to shame me for never doing any street-work.”
“I hear you like your writing,” said Carlos. “In your clean office.”
“Let’s call Sandra. She can decide.”
“Sounds like plan.”
“The airport was all a set-up,” said Cleo. “This could be, too.”
“I wouldn’t get your hopes up.”
“Wait. I don’t see him. Where’d he go?”