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.”

Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Six

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.

Cleo Six

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.

Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Five

Monday, 9:40 AM Los Angeles International Airport

Hannah chose a seat close to the window in the waiting area, cleansed the armrests and fake leather with a handy-wipe, and waited for them to announce boarding. The flight, three hours and a half to Chicago, could not pass quickly enough.

The hum had not returned, but at least she had escaped the scene at the coffee house, slipping out of line and away from the commotion. She had learned that people often don’t question odd-looking women, and she had taken advantage of that to escape. Compared to the airport’s potent mix of verbiage, she hoped the flight might be calming.

As the hurt faded, a fragment of doubt began to edge its way into her awareness. She had made the correct identification, she was sure of that, but something was amiss. It’s not my business, she reminded herself. As soon as she was on the plane, she could pull her ear plugs out from the backpack, and seek the quiet, begin to forget. Failing that, she had her book, or earphones and music: several hours’ worth of distractions.

She was glad to be rid of Radioman and Geek. Hannah could have done nothing about the killing, so why had they become irritated with her? Maybe she knew the answer, but she’d ignored it for a long time. Ten years, in fact, and never a mistake like that one. But there was something more, something she was missing. She ran her fingers hard over her arms, rubbed the words away, tried to forget their goodness. She hadn’t really failed, or if she had, she’d caught herself in time.

Hannah’s carry-on backpack contained a thrifty five-day supply, to be laundered six times during her trip, deftly rolled to reduce wrinkles, or zipped into plastic bags for easy proof that she was not planning a criminal act. She certainly hadn’t planned to witness one.

In the front pocket of her document wallet she had a train ticket back to LA. Its goodness sent a stir of pleasure. She had no passport, and that pleased her, too. She had never needed a passport for Hannah Black. Think about the good things: free time, train travel, being alone. In four hours, she would be in Chicago and the pleasant journey would begin.

The seat next to hers was empty and with a settling-in of the passengers waiting to board, it might stay that way. Quiet. She bent down, reaching for her pack sitting squarely on the floor and felt for the train ticket again.

Finding the sharp corners in the open sleeve should have reassured her, but instead she recalled the knife wielded by the Pasquano. Had to be Pasqua, all that sibilance, all those pues’s. Had the city given in to violence? When Hannah knew the area, it had been a refuge of peace. Others had called the people reserved, but she had thought of them as refined. And the language? Poetic. Forget that, she reminded herself, leave the language. Four hours and then her reward would begin. Think about that. She forced a long slow breath, shook out a tissue and placed it on the seatback where her head might settle.

A woman who looked roughly 75 years old stopped at the empty seat next to Hannah. She wore an elegant green suit, matching fabric pumps, carried a briefcase-sized tapestry travel bag. She gave Hannah a frail smile as she settled into the chair. The lady bumped lightly around, making excusing sounds while Hannah turned to look out the window.

The woman’s high-toned sighs annoyed Hannah. Not words, the sounds still called for clarification and interpretation. Hannah simply wanted to sit in peace. She brought her book to her lap, opened to the marked page, and sought the hum.

“Did you hear of that killing?” Hannah heard the woman ask, but the voice seemed aimed away from her, so she kept her eyes on the page and waited. A woman two seats down answered in a strong voice with a Boston-area accent, maybe even from down-town.

“The one from yesterday?”

“Well, I wouldn’t know, I’m sure, but dead is dead, and that’s a shame. Take it out of God’s hands and only God knows what evil is loosed.”

The woman spoke like a Sunday school teacher in upper-middle class white America: suburban, educated, from the west but not California. Idaho, perhaps. Like most casual conversation, her words contained a careless quality, straddling honesty and a lie.

“I think you’re probably right,” said the woman from Boston.

“Well, dear, gives us more reason to be thankful, considering the way things are.”

“People in those countries, they must feel so unsure.”

“Of course, they do, dear. I used to live where the killing occurred. Beautiful little city, in spite of everything. Pasqua, Ecuador it’s called.”

Truth or lie? Hannah willed her lids not to budge, tucked her chin a fraction and kept listening. As much as she wanted, she could never shut down. But the woman from Boston murmured a commiseration, and the conversation lagged. Hannah noticed movement and saw the older lady’s hands come back into view, both of them, immobile on their shared armrest. The lady wore a large ring with a marquis-cut emerald circled by tiny clear emerald chips. Popping veins and age spots decorated her hands. Her brittle fingernails were lacquered in a clear coating.

The lady leaned forward, reaching for her travel bag with her right hand. Her left hand used the movement to hide the thin but hard rectangular blue booklet that she pulled out of her pocket. It was wider than the armrest, measurable but thin and about five inches long. Hannah instantly recognized it as a passport, and pressed her shoulders hard into the seatback.

The booklet lay beneath the lady’s hand on the armrest for only a moment. With a veiled flick, the older woman sent it onto Hannah’s lap, where it opened as if by old habit to the picture page.

Her travel plans, the video in the airport, the lady from Pasqua: too many coincidences. They must have been searching. And now they had found her.

Hannah looked at the two-by-two-inch color photo of herself, a mostly brown-haired woman of 53, using short bangs to hide the worry lines on her forehead, clear eyes focused directly on the camera. She wore today’s long-sleeved white shirt, but the picture was labeled with a name she hadn’t used in ten years.

“Welcome back, Ms. Antrim. John Smith sends his regards,” said the older lady in a nubby soft whisper using her Idaho voice and speaking the truth.

The heat of intense feelings burst behind Hannah’s eyes and her chest hurt with the strain of keeping calm. Hannah told herself to breathe, breathe again. But all she felt was the anger racing up her chest and into her throat, hot anger seeking escape. People understood her passport outbursts less than her interest in voices. She had struggled to learn control over the language and over her listening, but passports were a completely different trigger and the reaction pulled away from her with a life all its own, sliding out as sharp as the knife against the poor man’s throat.

“I don’t need passports ever again,” she said.

And then the thought that had been hanging back burst into her awareness. She realized what had been tugging at her mind, the trouble she had ignored while trying to find the hum. In all the tonal variations and vocal expressions coming from Geek’s phone screen, she had heard lies, but nothing had been said in a killing voice.

Cleo Five

Monday, 9:45 AM Los Angeles International Airport

Cleo tapped the video call icon on her phone connecting her with her boss. She needed to see Sandra, watch her facial reaction. She needed more than remote words.

“Let’s make this simple, Sandra. You asked me to follow. I followed.”

“Another phone call, Cherie?”

“Hannah Black or Antrim, or whatever name she uses, it doesn’t matter now. I must be done, right? Cash-in the ticket, next flight back to the office?”

“You may say it’s different with video, but it’s really just a phone call with faces.”

“Did you hear me? Back to Panamá, where I can really help? There’s nothing more simple than that.”

Her boss looked at her from the screen of Cleo’s phone with her serene face – African and French at the same time – and a practiced smile that told anyone close by that she would laugh about this one tonight over her glass of Chablis. Or Champagne with cranberry.

“You’re the only one through security who can take the flight. You’ll be fine,” said Sandra, sitting comfortably in her office, probably with an ice-filled crystal glass of sparkling water off screen.

“Flight?”

“The ticket’s in your app. The difficult part hasn’t even begun. You won’t be there for that. You’ll be safe back at the office writing the summary when the real challenges arise.”

“I was safe back at the office writing the analysis on Hannah Antrim last week. And by the way, no one said anything about a plan to contact her. No one said anything about anything. And nothing about a flight,” Cleo said.

“You’ll be fine. Just follow along. It’s not like she won’t figure things out. It’s been ten years or so, not a lifetime. She’ll remember her past. She might even miss it.”

“After keeping herself hidden for all that time?”

“Just do what you’re told and don’t worry about the rest.”

“I’m not worried. You keep telling me I’ll be fine.”

“You will. Of course, there’s always the scoundrels. They could help smooth out the contact.”

Cleo thought there was a subtle test here. Should she use the help or not? Would it be a good idea or bad? Rico and Michael, the scoundrels, were infamous, not famous. Carlos, maybe, was a hidden talent, but the scoundrels’ edgy shenanigans were well-known in the agency.

“No,” said Cleo. “I don’t need them. I won’t be here long, right?”

“They offered.”

“You’re making that up.”

“They offered to help.”

“No,” said Cleo. “If I don’t do it on my own, John Smith might make me repeat the field work. And you can put that smile away right now.”

“You didn’t feel that way about Carlos’ help. A man you’ve never met – someone who is mostly myth.” Sandra’s smile turned into a laugh. “You’ll be fine. Not even the hard work yet. Just remember, Michael and Rico can help you be convincing, and they did offer. JS doesn’t need to know. You’ll be fine.”

Cleo scruffed out a growl at the face on the screen. “Says the one who will be drinking Chablis in an hour. I want your life.”

Sandra brought on-screen her fancy glass of sparkling water and raised it to Cleo.

Mai non, Chérie. I shall be drinking iced cocoa, made with bitter dark chocolate and xylitol.”

“And I have met Carlos. I have. So I know all about his skill set,” said Cleo to her boss’ shaking head.

Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Four

Monday, 9:23 AM Los Angeles International Airport

The snick sound of a blade preceded a metallic gleam and the kidnapper pulled a knife to the other man’s throat.

“Not from the large cities, though,” she said aloud, feeling the old intense pull of the words, a puzzle to figure out. “It’s a voice from western South America. Spanish, but with that Andean influence. Can you hear it? That sibilant double L sound. Floats over those hard consonants.”

“If this video is real,” said Radioman, “maybe we shouldn’t watch.”

The young geek’s fingers lay still, framing the phone. The held-man’s hood glistened wet beneath the kidnapper’s hand as he continued to speak in those sounds that Hannah knew. The video was indistinct, in gray tones, and the words were less than clear. Hannah concentrated. She felt herself let go, wrapped in the words like old friends.

“Ecuador,” she said, “but the northern part. Citified, but with an overwhelming influence from the campo. College voice, though, definitely college. But with that unnecessary use of ‘pues’, multiple times. Did you notice?”  

Radioman took the breath of a long response, but the kidnapper stopped speaking, pulling attention back to the screen. Quickly he brought his fisted knife across the other man’s throat, cutting roughly through the fabric of the hood. An immediate wet rupture drenched the kidnapper’s arm. The held man slumped.

Radioman said “Oh my God,” then turned away, holding the crease between his eyes.

“I can’t believe this,” said Geek. “An execution? Wouldn’t they screen it?”

The kidnapper spoke again, the words like pure oxygen renewing Hannah. She felt the lift in her spirits as the familiar sounds settled into known patterns and the syllabic puzzle pieces fell into place.

“Yes, I do know that inflection,” she said. “That high mountain aspiration. The soft r’s and the nuance around that third syllable. It grabs you, that speech pattern, doesn’t it? Not exactly coffee region. But definitely a city in Northern Ecuador. There aren’t that many.”

“Can you stop the video, please?” asked Radioman, but the young geek seemed frozen. The held man bled and the kidnapper again spoke.

“Maybe Tulcan,” Hannah continued. “But listen to him. What about all that aspirated consonant? Has to be farther south and there isn’t much around. Pasqua: small city in the campo, high Andean region. Barrio Luche, I think, west part of the city. More or less Avenida 24 or 25. That’s where the college population resides.” She listened. “Yes. Definitely Barrio Luche, Pasqua, Ecuador. I’d swear to it.”

Hannah looked away from the screen, triumphant, only to see Radioman glaring at her as if she should be the one holding the knife. Young Geek, who had started it all, finally clicked out of the video and closed the screen. Radioman voiced his opinion in clipped judgmental tones.

“Swear to it? As if the language is important,” he said. “Didn’t you even see the killing?”

She tried to ignore him, aiming her face downward, breathing in the coffee, letting go the words. In her exhilaration, she had forgotten what came next.

The hurt pressed upon her, more real than the violence on the screen. She could trap the language again, reactivate the hum. But now, having let the syllables lay soft against her mind so that she might track their origin, right to the very street this time, Hannah realized how much she had missed it. There was the pleasure of the language, then the pain in success.

The hum would drown out the voices, once she brought it back to mind. But first, she had to remember how to get rid of the crushing hurt.

Cleo Four

Monday, 9:30 AM Los Angeles International Airport

Her pocket buzzed and Cleo wondered why she ever put the phone away. Despite Sandra’s rebuke, frequent calls littered Cleo’s working days and they usually came from her boss.

She slid out the phone, still watching the scene in front of her unfold, expecting to hear from Sandra, expecting to have to describe Hannah’s odd reaction and the woman’s inability to control herself. Cleo hadn’t been close enough to see what everyone was looking at or to hear the talking. But she had seen the physical responses and the body language. Disturbing.

Before Cleo could bring the phone up close, the crisp, slightly upper-class voice of the big boss spoke into her ear bud.

The surprise caught her off-guard, and for a moment Cleo wondered if this was a personal conversation, from JS to Cleo. But John Smith and Associates – JSA – did not function on such a short leash. She reminded herself there were three other people linked. And possibly more she did not know about.

“John Smith speaking,” he said. “Follow through according to plan. She still has her skill – most of it, and we need to get to it before they do.”

They?

Cleo risked a call to Sandra.

“You forgot to tell me something, didn’t you?”

Cherie, there are always things we don’t know. Remember that.”

“So I’m done here, right? I don’t know a thing about any plan.”

“Done? Not exactly, Cherie.”

My God, living in the first person was more exhausting than a thousand re-writes.