Tuesday, 8:35 AM Mendota, Illinois
Never re-think a well-thought-out decision, she reminded herself as she walked toward the mini-mart; never make a decision based on emotion. Think an idea through, decide on a course of action, lay out detailed plans and follow them to their conclusion.
That lifestyle had served her well for ten years, until last night, when Hannah had changed her mind and decided to help the scoundrels. But there was something wrong with that, and Carlos and Cleo had told her so, not in the words she understood, but in the body language that at times confounded her. How could she reclaim her vacation? That was her plan: a slow train trip back to Los Angeles.
The train station was very close to the convenience store. It tempted Hannah. Neither Cleo nor Carlos had followed her. In fact, as she left the truck, they had seemed so blasé – Carlos with his smile and Cleo with her distraction. Hannah had almost wondered if she might be irrelevant.
Well, no, she thought. They wouldn’t have followed her from the airport if they hadn’t needed her. But something had changed, or some issue she did not understand had inserted itself into the landscape of her involvement with her former employer. She reached the mini-mart and picked up a basket as she entered.
JSA was not a government agency, though they had some contract work for various governments. The majority of their work came from international firms attempting to make security decisions regarding their employees. Could they live safely abroad? What should they do in the event of a kidnapping? And then, Hannah’s specialty: how could these firms work around the ever-present threat of terrorism?
Her affiliation was ten years past. Whatever pull the company had on Hannah came in the face Rico and the voice of Michael. She wouldn’t mind helping them, but she didn’t need a re-entrance into a complicated life.
Hannah had worked hard to achieve simplicity. Rico and Michael were not simple on their best days. And they were happy and healthy, as Hannah had heard in their voices when they talked on the train. Simple living: she needed to slip away from this situation and get back to her plan.
The larger economy pack of handy-wipes seemed a good idea. Hannah dropped one into the basket, considered the size and weight of her pack, then added two of the smaller travel-sized packets. Then she paused as a voice caught her attention; a man spoke in an undertone, perhaps into a cell phone.
The voice was so low as to blend in with the air conditioner and the whoosh of people in and out the door. It held an unusual slur in the syllables here, an unexpected stress in a phrase there. It was always like this for her. Hannah heard all the vocal sounds around her, but it took such effort to sort out the important ones from the ones that she could safely let go. Until, on rare occasions, the truly evil voice sounded. That voice was easy to identify; it also brought the intense pain of recognition. And so she had invented the hum.
The hum helped her function. She wouldn’t get distracted by each phoneme uttered by every individual. With the hum, she had a filter between herself and the ever-present drumming of syllabic patter; she had a shield between herself and trouble. But Hannah had lost the hum.
The man’s voice continued in a soft smear of sound that Hannah could not ignore. If she could get closer, she could distinguish the words and perhaps understand the meaning. What was in that voice? She walked to the end of the aisle, pulled a bottle of juice from the refrigerator.
If she had not met up with the team from JSA, would she be considering following a strange man in a convenience store just to hear him speak? She thought of her travel plans, so carefully laid, and kept the slur of sound behind her as she headed to the front of the store. Then she was at the check-out stand, with one person in front of her and other vocalizations became distinguishable.
“This be it for you today, Frank?” asked the clerk, friendly, relaxed.
“Yes, that’s about as much damage as the wallet allows,” said the local man.
Another customer came in the door. A woman joined the line behind Hannah. A man strolled among the few aisles of the mini-mart speaking to a young child. The door jingled again, then whooshed closed as two voices added to the mix already inside the store. The woman behind Hannah began to speak to her in lazy, untroubled fluff. The man in front concluded his transaction, the clerk spoke a greeting, and Hannah sought the hum. Where was it?
Sounds everywhere, with that unusual cadence pulling her attention, and the more immediate need to concentrate on the clerk’s words; it all added up to a cluster of utterances that required her attention, every one of them vital and demanding and timely.
Sounds had swirled around her since LAX without a moment’s peace. Even her sleep had been interrupted with a call to listen. Hannah breathed deep, tucked her chin, brought out her coin purse, offered a bill, clutched the handy-wipes and juice, and collected the change. She focused on the tile squares of the floor and wondered how she would ever call back the hum if she wasn’t able to do it at the handy-wipe store.
Quiet. She needed silence. She needed to be on a seat in one car of a long train heading west. The rhythmic clip of the train’s wheels against the track would be just distant enough to pretend to be a hum. She could be alone with her pack of necessities and her plans.
Without looking up, Hannah walked to the back of the store, through the small passageway and out the open rear door. She retraced the path she had taken the day before, heading for the train station.
The sad woman with the happy voice looked up when Hannah walked in.
“Connection west, please,” said Hannah. She lifted her bag to the counter and allowed her fingers to press behind her left ear.
“Good morning. I thought you’d be back today. Just passing through, right?”
“Next connection west?”
“Oh, it’s a long wait for your same train. Now, if you’d like, you can take the local bus to St. Louis or Kansas City – same as Amtrak, you know – and get a connection there. Lots of trains through Kansas City.”
“The bus? Well, it’s about ready to load up right out there in the back lot. Can I get you a ticket?”
“I’ll just need to validate it on your Amtrak pass. Easy as pie.”
At that remark, Hannah looked up. If there was one thing she knew about baking, it was that pies were never easy.
Tuesday, 8:40 AM Mendota, Illinois
“She thinks it’s only for a day, maybe just an hour or two,” said Cleo.
“Well, don’t tell her otherwise, Chérie.”
“Carlos says he saw someone following. I think I saw the same man. He didn’t seem to belong here.”
“Carlos has been helpful so far, but with the three of you together in a public place, that’s just too much exposure. If someone else is following her, then they will surely know about Carlos. He can’t be this visible from here out. It’s too much of a risk.”
“Carlos says she knows every word she hears. Every language.”
“Carlos says. Why are you so impressed with jeune Carlos? You’ve been doing as much as he has.”
“Is that a compliment? No, it’s not a compliment. You want me to stay in this and you are placating me. How do I convince Hannah to come with me without offering any details? She’s really smart, Sandra. Really, really odd, but really smart.”
“It wasn’t supposed to get this far.”
“And I can’t quite place her accent. Is that on purpose?”
“She shouldn’t have gotten past us at LAX.”
“And what about the guy following her?” asked Cleo.
“We were going to resolve all this in the airport, then at the station, then on the train. I’ve half a mind to just let her go, and she can deal with these people herself.”
“Who are these people? I was just supposed to follow her in the airport. And now look at me. Mendota, Illinois? Should I be concerned?”
“We’ll just have to pull you both in. Get her in the car, Cleo. It’s a short distance to Chicago. Call me back when you get to the airport there.”
“You say that like it’s a simple thing. ‘Get her in the car.’ I need to give her a reason, tell her something. Something convincing.”
“Well, Chérie, don’t tell her the Ukrainians want her. We don’t know how she will react. Perhaps she’d like the idea,” said her boss.
“Ukrainians? You never mentioned Ukrainians.”