Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Sixteen

Tuesday, 12:55 PM St. Louis, Missouri

The bus driver climbed the steps, reached over the seat and started the engine. The action needed no words to announce to the passengers their last call. Most were already in their seats. Hannah looked over her shoulder, adjusting her backpack strap, as she waited in the building’s shadow. She looked for the Ukrainian, whose name might be Anton, if Carlos was to be trusted.

The part of her mind devoted to languages reminded her there was so much more to know, and few people to teach her. Anton, though, could. If she stopped now, with such a learning experience right before her, she may never fill that gap between speaking this new language like a toddler and speaking as adults should. Three more hours in the bus, even that would get her to an acceptable level, not an educated speaker of Ukrainian, of course, but communicative.

The other part of her mind begged caution. That mental voice, refined by working for JSA for the better part of two decades, reminded her to listen to professional advice. When she had fled John Smith and his troupe, it had been to deal with the overwhelming hurt, not because they had failed in their jobs. Maybe she didn’t care to return to work, but she should certainly use their expertise to make her travels safe. If Carlos warned her about Anton, there must be a reason.

Carlos said Anton didn’t always tell the truth, but Anton’s voice so far, as much as she could tell, had been clean, without strong emotion, relaxed. Did Anton mean to cause Hannah harm? She tentatively touched the spot behind her ear. He’d have to talk to Hannah for that to matter, and so far, he hadn’t said a word directly to her. And if he did, would that be bad? Such a rich learning experience, but at what cost? In a public place, she could always just walk away if things got tense.

The engines revved. Hannah took one step toward the bus from under the waiting area awning. Three passengers ran from the station and boarded. But Anton did not appear. She looked toward the shops area, looked around the far side of the bus. No Anton. With just the one open door next to the driver, she could not have missed the Ukrainian.

What did Hannah want from this trip? To learn a new language or to ride a bus to Kansas City?

What compelled her to follow the Ukrainian inside the station? And why should she continue the search? Twenty years ago, she might have owed JSA enough to follow Anton, but now, it was about the language. Certainly, just the language. There weren’t that many major tongues in the world she hadn’t mastered and this one called to her like no other. She almost would describe it as irresistible.

Anton, though, was nowhere to be seen, so Hannah’s loyalties and her quest for one more language might not find a resolution. The bus driver leaned forward, pushed a button on the console, and the door gave a hiss.

Hannah simply watched the unrepentant action around her. The door closed. The bus eased out of the diagonal parking space. Hannah stood still. The driver hadn’t looked her direction. Her fellow passengers did not clamor at her absence. Maybe she did not matter to that incidental series of events in that moment when she was left behind.

But it did mean something to Hannah. It helped her decide.

She had her pack, with her ticket tucked in the pocket, and nothing to lose. She would find Anton and convince him to help her learn the language. A cup of tea together, a long walk inside the station. Hannah could learn much of what she needed in that amount of time. She took a step back toward the station, then stopped.

Anton Smirnov stood a few feet away in the shadows between her and the safety of the retail area. He looked directly at Hannah, blew a thin line of smoke from his mouth, and scowled.

“You missed the bus,” she said in English.

“You, also, missed bus.”

“I most certainly did.”

The man looked at Hannah with intensity, with something else she couldn’t name. Why was this man so intriguing? Was it the language, the accent? She calmed her breath, alerted her listening ear. This study of language was her a-b-c’s. If she could get him to converse, she could know every important detail.

“You little lady with language,” he said. “You know what people saying?”

Hannah wanted to object to the description, but forced herself instead to listen for the trill of the ‘r’ sound and the heaviness of ‘l’.

“Can you repeat that?” she said.

“You know what people saying. Is right?”

Hannah heard the grip of the ‘g’. She thought about the unnecessary force in his words, a cultural link into the sound of his primary language. What social fabric would give birth to such vocal posturing? Would she be able to hear violence in this voice, so different from her native tongue? Would she hear the lie, if it was present?

“Say to me ‘language’ in English and Ukrainian,” she said.

Anton gestured with impatience as he removed the cigarette, then spoke. “Movu. Movu. Language. I think you know this.”

The voice was riddled with defensiveness, but she could hear no violent intent in his words.

“Say to me ‘bus station’,” she said.

“Why this bus station, language? Are we children?” Anton placed the cigarette on his bottom lip, where it waggled as he spoke. “I have question.”

“Ah. That’s better. See how you relaxed? No tension.”

But could she reliably read violence in this new-to-her culture?

“I still have question.”

‘Please, ask whatever you like.”

“You come to Ukraine? I have job for you.”

“Of course not, not that,” said Hannah. “A walk while we talk, perhaps.”

“Is beautiful country. You hear language. You come?”

How did he know that would appeal to her? She was surprised at his words. Should she be frightened? How much did he know about her? And why?

“Why would you ask such a thing? I have no passport.”

She stopped the sentence short as she reminded herself she had no passport as Hannah Black. But, she did have a passport. How did this man know her? Finding out might take more than a walk.

“Maybe you come…”

His smile relaxed Hannah. He said the words with a rhythm, a sing-song. She had detected no threat in the voice, but was it because she simply couldn’t yet read the accent in his spoken English? In his native Ukrainian, his intentions would be evident, but Ukrainian was one language she didn’t know. Now that she herself might be the target, could she evaluate the threat?

“So, this is not coincidence,” she said. “You know who I am?”

“You little language lady. Yes, I know. You have two Hannah names. You have passport. Passport no problem.”

“Why would you know that?”

Anton smiled as the nearly-spent cigarette arced upward.

He bent toward Hannah and said, “Our friend, Sandra, she tell me.”

“Why would your friend Sandra know about me and my vacation?”

“Sandra is John Smith and Associates,” said Anton.

“That means nothing to me.”

“You test me. You know language. You know what I say.”

He was asking the same question she had asked herself. Could she give herself a guarantee of safety, as she had thousands of clients before? As she waited, Anton spoke again.

“Am I friendly man?”

He put the cigarette out of its misery on the sidewall of the nearest column. He smiled and raised his eyes to Hannah, nudging out a response from her.

If Hannah judged the man on appearance, with his low-hanging and belted slacks, his raincoat with its many pockets, and his indeterminate middle-aged look with that smile that did not quite convince, she would never feel secure. But Hannah possessed a skill that she had avoided for years. She still believed it was valid. She was confident this man was no threat to her. He may be complex, yes, like most people. But there was no menace in his voice. And there was a pull in his language that tickled the back of her memory.

She breathed deep and gave herself the assessment she would have given Michael and Rico ten years before. No threat. She could sense no violence in this man’s words.

Cleo Sixteen

Tuesday, 1:05 PM St. Louis, Missouri

“No way in the seven heavenly virtues am I going to follow Anton Smirnov through St. Louis, a place I do not know, in a car I can barely drive. I don’t really have any gas left. None at all.”

“Can you get a quick photo and send? The two together if you can, but just him would be fine.”

“Sandra, I have not been trained in any sort of surveillance, to the extent that I don’t even have the vocabulary to tell you what I do not know. I can’t…”

“It’s a simple photo. Pretend it’s a selfie. Just tap reverse. Good God, you should know how to do that.”

“I’m not nearly close enough,” said Cleo. “It would look too suspicious. Oh for heaven’s sake, I am so sure Carlos is here. Can’t he…?”

“Oh. He just did, Cherie. I’m looking at a picture of the two of them now. Well, well. Yes, my dear, I think you’ll be following along. We can’t have my friend Anton traipsing around with Hannah all by himself. They make a truly odd couple, don’t they?”

“No, Sandra. I am done.”

“You can make a guess as to where they’re going, Miss Cleo. Now, this is all beginning to make some sense. I’m sure you’ve heard me mention Anton.”

“No.”

“Nearest international airport. Chicago will have flights to Ukraine. Just get yourself there, and we’ll figure out something on our end. Everything will be fine.”

“Not St. Louis. Never Chicago. Ukraine? Absolutely not.”

“Who would have guessed it’d be Anton?” said Sandra.

“You can’t just find people in O’Hare. It’s not that easy.”

“This may actually be a bit of genius.”

“No.”

“Good thing we always prepare for the possibilities. You’ll meet with someone in Chicago.”

“Hell, no.”

Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Fifteen

Tuesday, 12:40 PM St. Louis, Missouri

How could she prolong this lesson? As skilled as she was in hearing and translating languages, she was not at all skilled in speaking them. Most people – uninformed people -expected that speaking and understanding words were twins, born together and forever linked.

But it was not true. Learning to speak a new language, the ever-appealing verbal expression of the words that Hannah could hear and understand, took time and attention. Perhaps because the understanding of words she heard was a gift, something she could never explain nor teach to another person, the ability to speak held a value she admired. It was a product of some effort, related to Hannah’s language learning, but somehow an extension that tested her skills.

 Hannah yearned for the aptitude of the spoken word. Now that she had in her mind a fair vocabulary, how could she hurry the learning curve climb of speaking Ukrainian?

As the passengers exited the bus for the lunch stop in St. Louis, Hannah kept her eyes on the man with the Ukrainian words. It was tougher keeping track of him than it was to learn this new language.

She sidled toward the station, glancing at the series of spires and then the impossibly high tower, noticing the stained-glass roof line with metallic bracing that called to her in a way that the water towers hadn’t. Inside the building, past the sign designating the station as a historic landmark, she paused by a gift shop as the man stood outside Nestlé’s Tollhouse Café. He then turned abruptly and walked to a disused bank of credit card phones. Hannah’s hope rallied.

She coveted a phone conversation. But why would he be using a public telephone and not his cell phone? Using neither, the man turned quickly and headed toward the schedule board. Keeping her head down and her eyes averted, but still focused on the man, Hannah followed. If he met up with a companion, she could hear two versions of the same exotic language. He turned again, however, and without a companion, headed toward the Amtrak ticket counter.

She looked up at his movement and nearly felt their eyes connect, but forced hers to continue past, disinterested, scanning, neutral. She had a choice to make: vacation or new language? Hannah decided to follow him with more protection, pretending to study the timetables, while watching the man’s reflection in the glass overlay of the scheduling board.

But the man seemed undecided. He soon left the counter to wander to a display of best-sellers set out in front of Gateway News. Maybe she could begin a conversation. Even his accented English could teach her inflection and word preference, referring her back to his native language.

Someone spoke English directly behind her, and someone else Spanish to her left. Hannah, with effort, ignored those familiar, mundane utterances, and focused on the man. She wanted dearly to hear again that catch in the back of the throat, so similar to Russian, but with an easy-to-miss thinning-out of sound or intensity. Why didn’t he speak on his phone again?

As their eyes nearly met a second time, Hannah decided it best to keep her distance. Since the man was clearly by himself, and silent, she was risking nothing in terms of her language learning. Hannah looked at the large clock, evaluating the time left for the station break, and made her way to Einstein’s Bagels to replenish her food supplies.

Through the long and wide windows, she kept one eye on the Ukrainian while purchasing a vegetable juice, a bagel with cream cheese, and one hot tea. With that much to accomplish, other syllables and sounds became background noise, even a man next to her humming ‘Historia de un Amor‘.

She moved up in line, placing her order, then paying, and finally picking up her food. She balanced the food bag with the juice, still keeping tabs on the Ukrainian. When her tea was placed before her, Hannah paused for a split second, wondering how to best balance her purchases. A young hand reached to her tea, and an Alabama voice spoke.

“Allow me to help you, ma’am.”

The humming had stopped, and as Hannah looked up to protest another person taking her tea, she focused on a familiar face speaking in yet another accent.

“Why, Carlos, you continue to surprise.”

He had a red sports team watch cap that covered his hair, and sunglasses like every other tourist. He had changed from jeans and tee shirt to tan shorts with a pastel buttoned short sleeved shirt. Hannah would not have recognized him, perhaps, except for the smile and wink.

They walked together out the bagel shop door.

“I shall give you back your tea, if you let me give you some advice.” His newest accent carried the optimism of youth and a crisp humor, but in Carlos’ voice Hannah heard caution as well.

“You must already know I’m not always good at following advice.”

She had placed herself facing the Ukrainian man, who had strolled along the opposite line of shops, stopping occasionally. Hannah placed her bagel and juice into her backpack. Carlos held out her tea in an offering gesture, facing away from the other man’s sight. The slight nod Carlos made toward the Ukrainian seemed the movement of a polite young southern gentleman.

“His name is Anton Smirnov. He doesn’t always tell the truth.”

“You are very appealing, Carlos. But surely you know that, even if he is Anton Smirnov, if he doesn’t always tell the truth, he is like everyone else on earth.”

Hannah reached for the tea and turned away without asking how the young man had found her and why it was necessary he should. She took one last look at the sky-high stained-glass ceilings, for one more moment searched for the Ukrainian, then began to retrace her steps to the bus.

She had another piece of the puzzle. The Ukrainian was known to JSA. Was Hannah known to him?

Cleo Fifteen

Tuesday, 12:50 PM St. Louis, Missouri

What the hell was the weird woman doing? Cleo thumbed her phone, and hardly looking, placed a call to Sandra, who answered at the first tone. Cleo spoke over her boss’ opening words.

“Sandra, I can hardly explain what this odd, odd little woman is up to.”

“Where are you?”

“It just doesn’t seem possible, but I swear to God in Heaven, Hannah is absolutely, completely, without doubt zooming in on that man from Mendota, Illinois. Remember I mentioned him?”

“You’re still in Mendota?”

“No, St. Louis.”

“The man is there?”

“The one with the winter clothes. Not from around here. Not from anywhere close by.”

Her boss breathed in sharp, then held her breath momentarily. “Have you heard him speak? Did you ever meet Anton? I probably mentioned him.”

“Anton?”

“Never mind. I’m sure it’s perfectly fine.”

“And I think that Carlos is here. Looks different, but I say it’s Carlos. Did you know?”

“Dear lord. If Carlos is still there, then it probably is Anton. Did you get a good look at him?”

“At first she literally followed him from one place to another inside Union Station. He stands out, you know?”

“Carlos?”

“The man from Mendota. She pretended to ignore him every time he faced her direction. Then she stopped the full-on follow and is now doing this strange radar-like thing, looking everywhere but at him, yet still totally focused on where he is going.”

“Are you certain it is Anton?”

“You’re the one who said Anton. Five-eight or nine, white, sort of snarling lips, heavy but not truly overweight, nondescript hair color, not recently cut. Why is he wearing a raincoat? I’ve kept a good distance.”

“How close are you?”

“Wait. I take back the white thing. Maybe Asian.”

“Maybe or definitely?”

“No. Not Asian. Dark hair?”

“That’s Anton.”

“And here’s the strange thing. He knows she’s following him. I saw him trying not to look at her while she tried not to look at him as she traced his movement. It’s like they’re doing that dance where the partners step like crazy and never look at each other?”

“The tango?”

Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Fourteen

Tuesday, 11:05 AM southern Illinois, USA

A spoken word intruded. Vocal, exotic, melodic.

She did not know the meaning of the sound, and fully woke at the shock. Her earphones had slipped during her nap, and the sound had entered her consciousness. How long had it been since she had listened to a word, a complete identifiable word, but not understood something about it? She could not count the years. Even if she didn’t know an exact meaning, she could always make a good guess: French to Spanish, Italian to Romanian, Hindi to Sanskrit.

Again. Clearer this time, the spoken word shimmered from several rows ahead of hers in the bus. Hannah recognized the voice. The smear of sound was nearer now than in the handy-wipe store, and Hannah could distinguish phonemes and sound groups. But the language itself was elusive. Or was it familiar? She wanted to believe so, but that may just have been her vanity reacting to a new idiom.

The masculine voice spoke into a phone, or at least spoke without a vocal partner that Hannah could hear.

One person speaking sounds just outside her grasp – it pulled Hannah’s attention and challenged her. There was an entwined quality to the words. She had difficulty deciding where one word ended and another began. It was a puzzle to distinguish, this slur of sounds. She needed to give meaning to this voice.

The excitement from the other passengers had receded since their last station stop. Things in the bus had quieted. Hannah could concentrate on just this one-sided conversation. How long would it take her to study the cadence of these words? The speaker used low tones and whispered his thoughts. The lure of the speech pulled at her. She sat up and leaned forward.

He used his throat as he spoke. Hannah heard the tightening of his larynx as if he was wringing out his epiglottis from a good washing. Similar to Russian, she thought, but not quite. Hannah had never bothered to become proficient in Russian since so many others had tackled that perplexing tongue. She enjoyed a challenge, but couldn’t see the advantage to learn the language, even one so appealing. Then, with the fall of the Soviet Union, the array of Eastern European languages had called to her but she had been concentrating on Hebrew, Arabic and Sanskrit at the time.

The speaker’s words shushed and coughed. Where had she heard those sounds?

She listened to the soft patter of connected syllables, curiously foreign, tentatively familiar. Hannah lusted after every word. Each syllable begged her attention, pled with her to listen and learn the unaccustomed sounds, so exotic to her English-worn ears. Where had she heard the spoken partners to these sounds? Besides the handy-wipe store, where was home for this conversation?

It was a place more western than Russia, she thought. Its language had changed, leaning toward Europe, when Russian had stayed stubbornly apart. A place Americans don’t often think about, but one that pays close attention to Europeans and Western life. Hannah heard some of that in the voice, she was sure. This language’s home was a place not so much forgotten by Westerners, but one that had yet to be discovered by them. A complex language, sounds from a completely divergent phonetic ancestry than American English.

Hannah sat straight, breathed in sharp excitement. She knew. She was certain. She had figured out the birthplace of the voice.

“He’s Ukrainian,” she said.

Then she smiled in congratulations and began to listen for the meaning behind the words. It was all theoretical. But Hannah knew so many connections between languages, even if she had never been to the country, she could link the usage of sound, and trace it back to places she had never been. She hadn’t used this skill in years and was excited she still possessed it.

By the time the bus entered the outskirts of St. Louis, the other passengers had roused themselves, and Hannah had learned seven hundred and forty-eight words in the exotic Ukrainian language.

Cleo Fourteen

Tuesday, 12:05 PM maybe Missouri, USA

The intensity of the headache surprised her. Perhaps it was the dust in the Midwest air; perhaps the lack of sleep. Cleo didn’t want to think that it might be a stress headache.

What if, instead of just a lack of experience, what if she simply couldn’t do this work? What if, after investing five years in John Smith and Associates, she would never become an associate? Cleo would remain a side-show, never able to do anything but write reports about what other people did.

A stress headache – that would be the likely result of this type of thinking. What if she just didn’t have what it took? Cleo had been able to ignore this part of the work until now, when she realized that even Hannah, odd little Hannah, had what it took.

She had been trying to get a phone call through to Sandra for hours. No-coverage zones seemed to find Cleo every time she reached for her cell phone. Finally, Sandra answered her call.

“She took the bus,” Cleo said, then waited, as she knew that Sandra would not scream or shout. Sandra would collect herself, then relay instructions in tight well-chosen words, without the usual banter, because her boss, like Hannah, had skills that Cleo did not.

“Hhhnnmmm,” said Sandra.

If she couldn’t see her boss’ physical reaction, Cleo wished Sandra’s response had been in a more reliable word form.

“Good God, Sandra. I haven’t been trained for this. Follow Hannah Antrim. That was my only instruction. And now I am lost in god-only-knows where Missouri.”

“I had thought that the scoundrels were our safeties.”

“Maybe not even Missouri. I’ve been following Ms. Antrim’s bus for hours. What do you want me to do?” asked Cleo.

“Destination?”

“The bus? West on the Amtrak connection. Maybe St. Louis?”

“The microchip still working?”

“Yes. I need to stop for gas.”

“We’re in this far, I’m sure John Smith will have us continue,” said Sandra.

“What if she gets off again in the middle of nowhere? I couldn’t find a public gas station at the last stop,” said Cleo.

“What the hell do I know about the middle of nowhere?”

“I’ve been to St. Louis. If she gets that far, I assume it’s a long break there at Union Station.”

“What the hell do I know about Union Station, St Louis? If she’s still working off her Amtrak ticket, we can only hope she’ll follow their route. Call back when you get there. I’ll have your instructions.”

“What about Carlos? He drove off in that beat-up truck like he knew where he was going. What does he know that I don’t?”

“Don’t worry about Carlos.”

“I’m not worried about him. But shouldn’t we have stuck together? He didn’t seem to think so.”

“He has a different concern than we do.”

“What about the Ukrainians you failed to mention before I left for LA?”

Cleo tested the heat on her forehead with the back of her hand.

“No worries there,” said Sandra. “I’ve got them under control. They’ll be fine. It will all be fine.”

“Fine. It’s all fine.”

“And, Chérie, not everyone starts with difficulties in the field, but they always come along from time to time.” 

Relief from her boss’s comment welled in Cleo’s chest, and she held herself tight so that it would not pour out in the form of a sigh, or more likely, a sob. “Thank you for saying that, Sandra.”

“Then let me say this also. You need to find a way in with this woman, a way to make yourself important or necessary. The scoundrels did it over time, but time is something you don’t have.”

Just as Cleo began to feel the headache lift, it crashed right back down.

Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Thirteen

Tuesday, 8:50 AM outside Mendota, Illinois

Riding a bus to Kansas City certainly seemed as American as a vacation could be. As American as apple pie? As long as it wasn’t called easy, Hannah could concede that over-used expression. She sat toward the back of the bus, hoping to have the double seat to herself. The idling engines geared up, the driver closed the door and the extra seat was hers – at least for the first leg of the trip.

She pulled out the schedule and followed the route with her finger. There would be frequent stops, one a lunch break in St. Louis. The clerk at the train station hadn’t mentioned the longer route, but immediate escape was what Hannah had needed and the bus had provided. With ten hours ahead of her, Hannah settled in.

She cleansed the armrest, the neck rest, the window ledge, her hands. She pulled her pack onto the aisle seat next to her, unzipped the top compartment, reached for her lunch bag with the American idea of a continental breakfast. She spread a napkin on her lap, uncapped her thermos and gave thanks that she had steeped the bag for only two minutes in the hotel while checking out. Hannah breathed in pungent bergamot. The tea was hot and calming.

The other passengers seemed in a quiet mood. The tall modern seat backs maintained a sense of privacy that Hannah appreciated. Perhaps people conversed somewhere in the bus, but if Hannah couldn’t hear over the sounds of the engine, she didn’t have to care. Just to ensure this wonderful peacefulness, she fished out her ear plugs and enjoyed her solitude and her orange.

The Midwest landscape filled her window and Hannah settled into her vacation. This was what she had planned. Simple food, simple sights, silence.

Outside of Mendota, Hannah noticed the grasslands laying themselves over acres of flat land, hundreds of acres, with no break except for a barn every now and again. Three types of barns were framed by her window: the busy, functioning barn, the newly-empty and sad-looking barn, and the long-unused barn with its beams ready to fall and the roof sagging at various angles. Hannah preferred the latter.

The first break came in an unnamed town. Of course, the place had a name, but since Hannah was enjoying her repose, she stayed in her seat, kept her earplugs in place, sipped the last of her tea, and never even thought to reach her toe down to the floor for leverage to stretch up and read the name off the station greeting sign.

As the passengers returned to the bus, they seemed to Hannah more boisterous. Through her earplugs she could hear syllables of excitement, words and parts of sentences and those provocative Midwest sounds for the letter ‘a’.

She heard someone talking about food in Spanish, then another asking about the bus route in the Arabic of Mediterranean North Africa. But more than any other, she heard spoken English – Midwestern English, English with a western twang, proper and improper English. In the space of a few minutes, through the filter of her earplugs, she could feel her tranquil mood begin to dissipate.

She traded her earplugs for the noise-canceling headphones and let music fill the space in her mind where sound always lay. She would have a choice over what she heard, and allow the tranquility of her day to continue. She touched the sensitive place behind her ear as the Gypsy Mandolin gave a perfect scratching of the clearest note she’d ever heard.

Out the window, Hannah noticed the water towers that punctuated every new town they passed by. People seemed proud of them. Some were decorated with the area’s crop: corn, wheat, soy. Or the town’s mascot, a whimsical representation of a pirate or a bird of prey, presumably borrowed from their high school or middle school. Every one of the towers announced the name of their town: Peru, Oglesby, Wenona.

Hannah pictured herself climbing up the painted metal ladder to the scaffolded walkway that surrounded the bulb of the tower. She thought of the view from that vantage point, how the land would lose even the slight variation that could be seen from the roadway. The sprawl of the plain would be a mirage of flat earth; the crevice of the ditches and small creeks would appear like a slight change in color, the mound of a small hill might become altogether invisible. Up high on the water tower, surrounded by metal and wood, she could escape from the noise of people speaking to each other, and therefore, from her own need to respond.

At Normal, Illinois, Hannah left the bus for a break to stretch her legs and use the restroom. She purchased a pack of Cheez-its and a club soda. She kept her headphones on, pretending to listen to the music, but in reality, she was using them as the hum she had not yet reclaimed. She could keep inside her cocoon of peace, and no one could interrupt her. As they turned from heading south on Route 39 to heading west on 70, their last leg toward St. Louis, Hannah allowed her eyes to close as she gave in to the ultimate consequence of quiet: sleep.

Cleo Thirteen

Tuesday, 9:10 AM Mendota, Illinois

Where was Hannah? Carlos and Cleo had waited for her to reappear through the front doors of the mini-mart. Certainly, she would have to come out that way. But she hadn’t.

Carlos had gone searching for her and Cleo had stayed by his truck and fretted. She had not even been away from home for two full days, but she felt strung out and trampled. She hadn’t packed for this kind of trip. She did not have her personal computer with its stored bookmarks and passwords. She did not have enough balm for her hair. She did not have her journal or her hand cream or her cucumber eye gel.

Most of all, she did not have control. There was no schedule to follow, no rules to learn. She didn’t know enough about this part of the job to ask intelligent questions and no one, aside from the inscrutable Carlos, to ask them to. Who had control over this venture? Not Cleo herself, not Carlos, certainly. Not Sandra, nor, it seemed, The Man himself. JS did not even seem to be giving any direction. Cleo was on her own in a place far from her comfortable life.

Could she just walk away? Was it time? Could she leave this muddle and walk back into her old life in Marion? Did she want to retreat?

She saw Carlos coming back from the far side of the mini-mart. He walked, but not rapidly, not as if there was any reason to hurry, not as if there was any good news. Maybe not any news at all. He stopped at the drivers’ side of the truck, stuck his happy face through the open window.

“She got on the bus,” he said, almost smiling, almost hopeful at the thought of Hannah resuming her journey. Almost ready to follow her anywhere.

Cleo held the bridge of her nose, pressed against the pressure point of her third eye. Unbelievable. Hannah had slipped through her fingers again.

Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Twelve

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.”

“When?”

“The bus? Well, it’s about ready to load up right out there in the back lot. Can I get you a ticket?”

“Yes, please.”

“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.

Cleo Twelve

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.”

Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Eleven

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?”

“Old friends.”

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.

Cleo Eleven

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?”

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.

Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Nine

Monday, 11:50 PM Mendota, Illinois

“Oh, hell, no,” said a male voice, loud, so loud that Hannah woke, confused by sleep.

She heard a rustling and some grumbles from her neighbors, and remembered where she was; but the loud voice, a new one, continued from outside in the corridor along to the opposite room.

“Well, I know, babe, I just don’t see a way for it to work.”

Hannah heard the murmured response of a soft voice, but she could not distinguish the words. The large man’s voice continued, as loud as if the world needed to hear.

“Just how do they expect a big galloot like me to fit this tiny little card into the smallest slot ever made?”

Another murmur.

“No, babe, you’re right. You’re right. I’ll try it the other which way.” Hannah heard some fumbling. A door rattled. “Oh, hell, no.”

The murmur soothed, again, and Hannah wished she could hear that second voice. Hannah sat up, bringing her sheet with her against the headrest. She listened to the man.

“Well, isn’t there a light should go on? I’ll try’er again.”

“Texas,” Hannah said, as if giving an answer in a game show, then continued listening to the big man with the bellowing voice.

“Well, hell, darlin’, they make ‘em bigger where we’re from, I know they do.” A murmur. “No, babe, it ain’t because it’s late and I’m tired.”

Hannah pulled her knees to her chest, continuing her game. “More west than central, he’s got that loopy twang, clobbers those endings. College or not, there is no way to tell with Texans.”

The murmur made a plea, then the man responded. “Yes, Ma’am, I expect you’re right. You give’er a try.”

“Not a Mexican accent,” said Hannah, “not even several generations past. Big, blustering, and full of the truth.”

Hannah heard a booming cheer from the corridor, a door opening, and the man again. 

“Just like a princess makin’ a wish, and every door up and opens.”

The murmur responded. Then the man from West Texas again.

“And, darlin’, it’s not that late and I’m not that tired.”

“Fort Stockton,” said Hannah, as the couple used the walls to balance their entry into the hotel room next door.

Hannah folded back the bed sheets, crawled the length of the bed, pulled her earphones and nearly-ancient MP3 player from her pack, reversed her movements and listened to Elton John’s Aida while she waited for sleep. She thought there was one thing missing from her sleuthing out the loud voice. Before Sting finished his version of ‘Another Pyramid’, she knew what it was.

Now that she had once again let the voices in, she had no one to tell her successes to. She didn’t have the companionship of the scoundrels, Michael and Rico. Or anyone else.

Cleo Nine

Tuesday, 7:50 AM Princeton near Mendota, Illinois

“Listen, Clyde. I hardly slept. I’m not in the right time zone. I haven’t had breakfast because renting a car is supposed to be easy, and there should have been time to eat after. But because it hasn’t been easy, Clyde, now I won’t have time to eat. I can’t find cell-phone reception in this town, a fact I know because I believe I’ve walked every inch of it. I don’t want an upgrade. I don’t want a red Mustang with a moon roof. I want a non-descript compact. One with as many miles on the odometer as possible.”

“I can do that,” said Clyde. “But the upgrade is free, and the Mustang is only $50.00 more, mileage included.”

Good God, the clerk was more irritating than the odd-fitting change of clothing that Cleo had purchased at Max’s General Store.

“Here is my charge card, here is my license. Give me a basic car now. No upgrade. No Mustang.”

Cleo left the building assured that car #67893220 was directly behind in the lot. She could only hope that the map Clyde had promised would be in the glove, because in Princeton, Illinois, one did not count on the availability of cell towers. Maybe not for 100 miles in any direction.

Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Eight

Monday, 6:35 PM Mendota, Illinois

The worst thing about the United States is choice, and the responsibility of choosing. Hannah had looked at the computer display, with those lovable heads talking at her. She had even responded to them. But when the two scoundrels, the young fellows who had been her work companions ten years back, started telling her what to do, she made the choice to do what she wanted.

She left. Got up from the seat, turned back to the aisle, walked from the coach and exited the train when it stopped at a station a few minutes later. She hadn’t said a word to Young Cleo and had no regrets about that. She also hadn’t answered the plea from the scoundrels, but those two stayed on her mind.

Mendota, Illinois. She hated giving up one of her stops for this place but knew it couldn’t have been avoided. She’d have to confirm a new ticket for tomorrow and find a hotel room. Hannah stepped into the train station, where a sign greeted her stating that Mendota was ‘The Best Little City in the USA’. She rubbed her neck right behind her left ear, trying to ease the pain.

“Is there a hotel close by?” Hannah asked to the back of a woman sorting papers along the counter opposite the ticket booth. The woman turned around, adjusted her vision downward, then stepped to the booth, resting her arms on its top and smiling wide. She accepted Hannah’s Amtrak voucher as she spoke, stamped a portion and passed it back.

“Welcome to Mendota. How are you this evening?”

“Well,” said Hannah. “Is there a hotel close by?”

“Why, sure. We have a Comfort Inn and the Super 8 just down the street. And, of course, we have the very best little Bed and Breakfast just up town. Everyone loves the place.”

The woman at the counter sang her words, letting the vowels swell and the consonants blend. Hannah noticed the urgent superficial happiness of the voice that hid a deep well of pain. Why did she have to know that about a woman she would likely never again see?

“Thank you,” Hannah said.

She picked up the voucher, then turned to the door, hurrying the sundown and the hunger. The ticket, she could figure out later.

“You’re very welcome,” said the woman, “hope you enjoy your stay.”

Hannah heard the last words in tandem with the click of the heavy wooden door. The hotel signs were lighting up as she reached the street, and Hannah began the short walk. A mini-mart pulled her attention. Hannah decided to go inside to purchase an extra pack of handy-wipes. Or two.

At the hotel and well into the second pack of wipes, Hannah continued her housekeeping by sponging down the bottom of her travel bag and placing it on top of the now-clean luggage bench in Room 136 of the Comfort Inn. She brought out her dinner and spread it onto the towel she had placed over the other half of the bench. She pulled the chair over to her meal, placed a hand towel on the seat, inverted each disposable glove off her fingers, dropped them into the waste basket, and fidgeted up onto the seat in front of her food. She pulled her thermos from the side pocket and unscrewed the top, extracted a tea packet from the dinner bag, broke it open and let the tea steep.

Hannah heard a bump in the corridor, and the door of the next room open and close. Someone laughed and another giggled, an interior door banged shut, and she heard water from the tap. A voice spoke. Tight consonants, long on vowels sounds, the voice might have been male or female and the words were not discernible. Hannah listened carefully, enjoying the challenge.

Where had she heard those sounds? The lilt at the end of the sentence, the ever-present question. A young voice, she decided. Nearly teen aged male, like her students, but more polite.

From the bathroom, the water ceased and a woman’s voice made a request. The voices wap-wapped back and forth while Hannah let the sounds grow fuzzy. A rap against the neighbors’ door drew several voices at once, the third voice an adult male. The door opened and shut, then Hannah heard paper bags crackle and cans pop open.

She looked back to her tea with a start, grabbing at it, slipping the bag to the top and squeezing the excess, dropping it into the trash container. She tasted. Bitter. It had steeped too long.

She began her dinner, accompanied by sounds next door. There were the rounded sounds of words being said during a meal, with gulps and smacks that littered the speaking. Hannah heard the inflection of confident English, the casual use of television language, the contraction of words and the interruption of one voice by another. The messy, messy language of family.

Finished with her meal, Hannah folded and stored her dinner bag and took her unfinished tea and the dinner containers to the bathroom along with the toiletries from her bag. She washed the utensils, then showered and dressed for bed. She arranged the clean containers to dry atop a bathroom hand towel, brushed her teeth, washed and rinsed her white shirt and underwear and set them out to dry.

Hannah took the dry face cloth from the bathroom and with it guarding her fingers, carefully folded the bedspread back. She took a folded twin bed sheet from her pack, placed it over the hotel’s bed sheet and pillow, shook off her slippers, peeled back the top layer and lay down, covering herself with her clean sheet before pulling the hotel bedding back on. She folded the cloth and put it on the bedside stand, then turned off the light. Her fingers went to the spot behind her left ear. The sound from the neighbors had been soothed by a television on their opposing wall, and Hannah closed her eyes for sleep.

Cleo Eight

Monday, 8:20 PM Mendota, Illinois

This was a bed-and-breakfast inn? Cleo had felt a bit of self-congratulating relief when Hannah had walked to the Comfort Inn, leaving Cleo the area’s only ‘B&B’ for her night’s rest.

Now, settling into her room, ‘Anabelle’s Blue Heaven’ she wished for the drab, steady, predictable scene of an American budget motel.

This room had competing air freshener scents coming off the light blue flowered pillow shams, the dark blue flowered bed spread, the cornflower blue canopy, the turquoise flowered curtain and the multi-hued carpet. Carpet? Cleo had never given a thought to paisley in a hotel room carpet and wondered how many stains it hid.

She raised her eyes to study the one window’s curtain. Plural, she decided: curtains. There was a ruffled outer sash and a ruffled inner sash. There was a chintz panel and a sheer panel and behind all that, Cleo found a blue patterned shade, pulled down.

So many layers to keep all those germs inside the room. Cleo looked unhappily at her insufficient overnight bag and wondered where was the nearest Nuxe toiletries store. Probably Chicago. Maybe not even there.

Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Seven

Monday, 6:16 PM Southwest Chief Amtrak Train, Chicago

“Iowa,” Hannah said. “You’re from Iowa. Not the bigger cities, if you can call them big. The kind of place that hides emotion for everyone’s comfort. Polite, loves those two-syllabic vowels. You’re from Iowa, Missy. Somewhere like Marion.”

Acceptance appeared in the younger woman’s eyes. Not necessarily that Hannah was correct, but that she was not easily controlled, and Hannah liked that recognition. Cleo appeared to gather herself, pulling her responses back inside, putting up her guard.

“It’s my job to persuade you to come back,” said Cleo.

“Pity.”

“It would be fun to see your old friends.”

“There is simply no way for you to know that,” Hannah said.

“What if I told you it was for your own good?”

“Hah. You have no idea why John Smith wants to bring me in, do you?”

Hannah waited as Cleo pushed out a long sustained breath.

“Not a clue,” Cleo said. Hannah met her gaze with silence.

“Please,” said the younger woman, but Hannah did not respond. Cleo looked away, tapped her toe, then pulled herself tall and opened her satchel. “I’d been told that you might need some further convincing. So I was given this for possible communication.”

Cleo brought out a small notebook computer, flipped open the cover and tapped commands. She offered the screen to Hannah with a brusque movement, suddenly agitated.

“I’ve no use for that,” said Hannah. “And although I appreciate the honesty in your voice, I haven’t any use for you, either.”

“Ms. Antrim, your help is desperately needed.” Now the anxious voice, sticking to a careful script.

“Young lady, you don’t even know the reason John Smith is looking for me. Not the real reason.”

Cleo tapped a few icons and brought a link to full screen. Hannah turned away, put her arm through the strap on her pack, and stepped into the aisle.

“Please, Hannah, talk to them.”

Cleo held the notebook in front of Hannah, keeping pace with her movements. Hannah hefted her pack fully onto her back, took a step along the aisle. Then stopped.

On the computer screen was the hooded kidnap victim from today’s killing. Hannah’s pulse throbbed as she held her breath. The man was moving and speaking. And looking directly at Hannah.

She did not want to lose control of this interaction, but she felt a slide into the unknowable. The person on the screen was familiar, shrouded by a fabric veil, but almost recognizable. And very much alive. He removed the hood that had hidden his face. Hannah faltered, stepped back, and sat down.

“Michael,” she said.

“Hey there, Hannah Banana,” he said through the screen, easily, just as Hannah remembered him.

“It was you. But I didn’t know,” Hannah said.

“Stayed inside my hood and didn’t say a word. Here’s someone else you’ll want to say hi to.”

Michael looked to his right, and made room for the second hooded man, the suspected terrorist. That man pushed away the dark fabric covering his face, revealing first an arresting smile and then a head of wild black hair. Hannah leaned toward the screen.

“Rico,” she said.

“So, are you ready to come back to us now, Hanny?” asked Rico.

“The last time anyone called me that,” Hannah said, “I hid myself away for ten years.”

“No need to apologize. We never took it personally. You were just overdue for some R&R,” said Rico.

“I taught seventh grade. It was not relaxing.”

“So, now it’s time to come back and play,” said Michael.

The two jostled on the screen, lively, laughing.

“Maybe I didn’t know it was you scoundrels, but I did know something.”

“What did you know, Hannah Banana?” asked Michael.

“I knew you weren’t killed. Rico can’t speak violence in any language.”

Cleo Seven

Monday, 6:25 PM Southwest Chief Amtrak Train, Chicago

“She’s getting off. Should I follow? Not that I know anything about following people.”

“Did you place the microchip?” asked Sandra.

“It’s on her backpack strap. You said it’s good for 24 hours, right? Follow or not?” Cleo stood at the open door of the train, watching Hannah and regretting the fact that it was too late for Cleo to take the whine out of her speech.

“Did she talk to Michael and Rico?”

Cleo grumbled, and that probably answered the question. “I told you I wasn’t a good fit for this. She’s off the train. Follow or not. I need to know.”

“Alright,” said Sandra. “So not even the terrible twosome could get her back. Get off the train. But try not to let her see. It’s late. Let’s give her some space and the night, if we can. She’ll go to a hotel, think things over. Jesus, she is one bitter pill. We should have had her at LAX.”

Cleo glanced out to the station, stepping out as the doors began to close.

“Maybe the fake execution was a bit of over-kill?”

“Much like the pun, Cherie?”

“John Smith shouldn’t have let them go that far.”

“Water under the bridge.”

“Shouldn’t we just tell her the truth?” asked Cleo.

“The truth? Whatever for?”

“Can’t someone just grab her? Wouldn’t that be better than all this…whatever this is?”

“You’d have to ask John Smith,” said Sandra.

“And there’s something in her voice I can’t figure out.”

“You’re doing voices now?”

Cleo watched as Hannah, with her precision pack, her hemmed pants and her downward gaze, walked into the station. Cleo held back, feeling uncertain. 

“We’re just going to leave her alone in Mendota, Illinois?”

“You’re sounding maternal, Chérie.”